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Holly Santos set her chin in her palm, gazed around the Tea Leaf Café, and breathed a satisfied sigh. It was small and, okay, maybe the wide-plank wood floor needed a refinish and the tin ceiling could use a new coat of paint, but it was all hers… or it would be in—she glanced at the screen of the laptop sitting on the table in front of her—another two hundred and thirty-one months. Her teeth worried her lower lip. The ceiling would probably be okay for another year; so would the floor, but the bigger concerns were the two old industrial refrigerators back in the kitchen. It was a coin toss which one would go first.
However, this morning, she could breathe, and stretching, she gave the little computer a thumbs-up. Finally, the ledger was starting to hold its own—no profit yet, but the fall tourist rush had pushed her a little ahead, just as Aunt Susan had predicted when she’d sold Holly the Tea Leaf Café on contract back in December. River’s Edge, Indiana’s economy depended on tourism and the autumn weather had been particularly beautiful this first year of being a merchant.
The opportunity to buy the tearoom in her hometown had come at moment in her life when she’d been at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to stay in River’s Edge or move back to Cincinnati. Her dad’s sister had tossed the idea out one night over a family supper and Holly’s widowed mom had literally squealed with delight.
“Do it, sweets!” Melinda Peterson’s face had lit up for the first time in nearly two years—since Holly’s dad had died.
Holly had thought long and hard for a solid week, alternating between terror and possibility. Two years earlier, Clive Peterson’s cancer diagnosis had brought her back home with her tween son, Mateo, but the chasm between her and her father had barely begun to narrow before the cancer stole him away. One big reason she’d accepted Aunt Susan’s proposition had been Matty, who’d fallen in love with his grandparents, the mighty Ohio River, and all things River’s Edge. She’d never seen him so happy and that alone had been enough for her to take the plunge.
The Tea Leaf was already a thriving endeavor when Holly took over. For years, Aunt Susan’s business acumen had kept the little shop a charming place for tourists and townspeople alike to relax and unwind, but she was ready to retire. Holly’s associate’s degree in restaurant management provided lots of ideas for updating, such as putting the whole business online with a point-of-sale cash register and a new app that made inventory a snap. She’d added a new line of herbal teas, increased the lunch menu to include more vegetarian selections, and haunted auctions and estate sales all along the river to find a variety of china teacups, saucers, and plates to add a little color to the plain white bone china Aunt Susan had always used.
She glanced up, frowned at a cobweb that had formed overnight in the wide bay window, and made a mental note to get it with the duster before she opened at ten. The sun hadn’t begun to lighten the sky yet, but it was October and mornings stayed dark longer. The only other place with lights on was Mac Mackenzie’s Riverside Diner. Like Mac, Holly arrived at four thirty to start her day. The rich scents of cinnamon and butter wafted from the kitchen in the rear of the café, just as Alexa reminded her that her rolls were ready to come out of the oven.
“Alexa, stop.” The chiming shut off as she closed out the ledger and thrust her fingers through her hair. Pulling the weight of it up into a messy bun, she secured it with the elastic she invariably had around her wrist before adding call Callie for a trim to the to-do list on her phone and hurrying back to the kitchen.
Aidan Flaherty peered at the clock on the dashboard of his jaunty little MG—six fifteen. Too early for Mac’s. Besides, he wasn’t looking for breakfast anyway, or even a cup of coffee. He wanted tea—strong hot tea. Lapsang souchong, to be exact, and even as gourmet as Mac Mackenzie was, Aidan was pretty certain he wouldn’t find that particular variety of tea at the Riverside Diner. He drove a little farther up Main Street, past dark and shuttered shops, stopping in front of the Tea Leaf Café. When he’d been in River’s Edge a couple of months ago for Sean and Meg’s wedding, Conor’s wife, Sam, mentioned that she’d found his favorite tea at this frilly little place.
There was probably no point in checking, but he pulled into an angled parking space in front of the Tea Leaf anyway. Peering out the windshield at the café tucked cozily between Noah Barker’s Hardware store and The Bookmark bookstore, he couldn’t help smiling. The café had been there forever, with gingham curtains at the front bay window and an attractive display of tea tins, squat teapots, and thin china cups and saucers.
Wait. Is that a light on in the back?
Looking around, he didn’t see any other cars parked nearby, but there was a lot behind the row of buildings that served several businesses as well as public parking. He got out of the car, closing the door quietly behind him. Yes, there was a light on in the back. Face pressed against the glass door, he tried to see if anyone was moving around in the space behind the high-ceilinged public area of the café. Yup, someone was there. He could see a slim shadow on the louvered doors that separated the public and private spaces. The posted hours said the place opened at ten, but if someone was inside, maybe he could convince them to make him a cup of tea or at least sell him a tin of lapsang souchong that he could take with him to Conor and Sam’s.
He raised his hand to knock, but then hesitated. Was it rude and arrogant to assume he might get the proprietor of the shop to open up at six fifteen in the morning just because he wanted tea? Probably. Aidan had become too aware of the whole celebrity entitlement thing ever since he’d read an article online several years ago about famous people making unreasonable demands. But he wasn’t asking anyone to sort all the yellow M&M’s out of his candy dish or drive fifty miles to find exactly the right brand of Tahitian bottled water; he just wanted, no, needed, tea.
He was still debating when a face suddenly appeared in the glass. A damn pretty face with peachy cheeks and huge eyes under a fringe of dark bangs.
“We’re closed,” the woman mouthed and pointed to the hours list painted on the door between them. “Come back at ten.”
Aidan debated for a few more seconds, then pulled out his phone and typed I’m desperate for tea. Can you open the door? into his Notes app and held it up for her to read. Okay, so he was arrogant, but she was here and he had to have some fortification before he faced his family.
She gazed back at him, eyes narrowing. Hating himself, he turned on the Aidan Flaherty celebrity grin and waited. In LA, that smile usually got him more than he ever asked for, but it didn’t seem to be cutting much ice with Miss Tea Leaf.
“Please?” he mouthed and held up one finger. “I just need one tin of tea.” Shoving his signature narrow-brim black fedora back off his face, he offered another boyish grin. In for a penny, in for a pound as Da used to say. And now it wasn’t just about the tea. He was curious about the petite proprietor whose expression was softening just a touch. She looked ever-so-vaguely familiar.
After another moment, she reached up and slipped the lock, then bent down and released the foot latch at the bottom of the door. “You can turn off the charm, Flaherty,” she said as she yanked the door open. “The only reason I’m doing this is because your sister-in-law buys tea here and she’s a nice woman and our mayor.”
Ha! She recognized him. Aidan couldn’t help the little victory smile that crossed his lips, although he gave it his best try. Thank you, Meg! He came in and stood aside as she relocked the door. The scent of cinnamon and something else heavenly wafted toward him from the kitchen, and his stomach growled, reminding him that the last food he’d eaten had been fries from a fast-food drive-through somewhere in Missouri. “Harney lapsang souchong, if you have it, please.”
“I’ve got it.” The woman, who was small but shapely as any Hollywood actress he’d ever seen, bustled over to the counter. When he started to follow her, she held one hand out behind her. “Stay put. I’ll get it for you.”
“Thanks so much.” Aidan wiped the smile off his face. She wasn’t giving him an ounce of quarter, which was fair, given the imposition he was presenting. “I really appreciate you doing this. Normally, I don’t ask someone to make special accommodations for me, but—”
She gave him a deprecating glance. “Sure you don’t, rock star.” Her tone chilled him to the bone, which he was sure was her intention.
Chastened, he took one step into the shop, scanning the dim room. “This is nice. Are you the new owner? What happened to Suz?”
“She retired.” She hit a switch under the wood counter next to the baked goods case and a series of can lights turned on overhead. Then she tapped on the screen of an electronic point-of-sale register that sat on the counter. “Loose or sachet?”
Aidan hated tea bags. “Loose and a tea ball if you have one, please.”
She gave him another raised brow. “It’s a tea shop, so that’s a safe bet, now, isn’t it? Stainless or mesh?”
“Mesh is fine, thanks.” In spite of her chilly demeanor, he gave the cordialities another try. “I haven’t been in here in ages, but when I’m home I don’t get out much. When did Suz retire?”
She snapped open a brown paper bag, preparing to drop a tea infuser on a card and the tin of tea into it as she waited for the register to boot up. “About ten months ago. I took over on New Year’s Eve.” She drummed her fingers on the wooden surface of the counter, keeping her eyes focused on the register screen.
“How did I miss that?” Aidan tried the celebrity smile again to no avail.
The woman smirked. “You’re a busy guy. I’m sure the goings-on of a tiny tearoom are pretty far off your radar, even if it is in your hometown.” When she finally met his gaze, he realized her eyes were violet—like Elizabeth Taylor violet. They were amazing and sensual and…
“You have beautiful eyes.” Oh, good God. The words were out before he could stop them. Immediately, he backpedaled. “I’m not coming on to you, I swear, it’s just this is the first time I’ve actually seen someone with violet eyes. I-I mean… in person.” Heat rose in his cheeks. Blushing! Holy crap. He didn’t blush anymore—hadn’t in years.
She scanned in his purchases. “Come on, rock star. All those Hollywood starlets and groupies and not a single one had eyes the same color as mine?” Her voice dripped sarcasm as she held out her hand for his credit card. “It’s thirteen sixty with tax.”
He fumbled in his wallet for his Amex Black Card. “Why do you keep calling me that? I’m an actor, not a rock star.”
“I’m using it generically.” She passed the card back to him with another eye roll. “We don’t take Amex. What else have you got?”
Biting his lip to keep from expelling a frustrated breath, he handed over his VISA, the one where two percent of the money he spent went to save the redwoods. If it impressed her at all, she hid it well as she tapped the card on the screen, thrust it back at him, and turned the screen around so he could sign it with his finger. He hated doing that. His signature always ended up looking like his six-year-old niece, Ali, had written it. “Thanks so much for opening up for me.”
“Don’t expect me to do it again.” She walked swiftly around the counter to the door, twisted the key in the lock, opened it, then stood glaring at him, one hand on her slim hip.
In that moment, Aidan could have sworn they’d met before. “You look really familiar. Do I know you?”
End of Excerpt