Start reading this book:
“Good morning.” Harley waved at Mr. Krieger and stepped aside, holding open the door of Corner Brew and Bakery. Cobie, her sister’s large black Lab, sat patiently at her side. “How are you this morning, Mr. Krieger? Don’t you just love the crisp fall air?”
“Makes my joints ache,” Mr. Krieger answered, his mouth set in an ever-present downward slant.
“Sorry to hear that.” Harley followed him inside, shortening the length of Cobie’s leash. “We’re all looking forward to coming to the farm to choose our pumpkins this year.”
He made a garbled sound that might have been an ‘I bet’ though she wasn’t one hundred percent certain. But there was no misunderstanding the way Mr. Krieger eyed her sister’s dog with disapproval.
Harley knew Autumn’s dog had better manners than most people, but Harley wasn’t willing to take a chance—not after the look Mr. Krieger had shot their way. “Be a good girl, Cobie.”
Cobie’s ears perked up and her tail wagged, those big golden-brown eyes meeting Harley’s.
“I know, I know. You’re always a good girl,” Harley added, feeling a need to apologize. She patted the dog on the head. Besides, Mr. Krieger was always grumpy.
“Harley,” Georgia Lane called from her place behind the whitewashed counter. “What a nice surprise.”
Normally, Autumn made their morning coffee run. Her sister was a morning person—spreading happiness wherever she went. “Autumn was running behind so I’m on coffee detail this morning.” She smiled down at the dog. “Cobie offered to come with me, of course.”
“It’s nice to see you.” Georgia smiled back. “You and Cobie are all bundled up. Is it that cold out there?”
“The wind has a bite to it.” Harley glanced down at Cobie and grinned at the sweet black Lab. Autumn’s beau, though, had the cutest little sweater-wearing dog in all of Crossvine Creek, Texas. She was pretty sure the only reason Cobie was wearing a sweater was so she and Baxter could match. Because that was the way Harley’s sister thought.
“I don’t know what smells better—the coffee or whatever it is that you’re baking.” Harley crossed the wide plank floor to the bakery case. The scent of freshly roasted coffee beans, pumpkin scones, and a hint of maple had Harley’s stomach groaning, loudly.
Georgia’s brows rose high. “Was that your stomach, child? You sound like you haven’t eaten in a month.”
“Maybe it’s just how delicious everything smells,” Harley countered, peering into the illuminated bakery case. Cupcake towers were stacked high with freshly glazed donuts, cinnamon rolls, and bear claws. Platters full of sugar crystal-dusted pumpkin muffins, cream cheese-frosted pumpkin scones, and maple and apple fritters were packed tight. “I was just going to get coffee for me and Autumn but now…”
“Not with your stomach growling like that, you’re not,” Georgia argued. “Arnie, make up a box of treats for Harley to take to the studio this morning. Make it a big box in case Noah stops by later—that boy can eat.”
“Thank you.” Harley smiled at Arnie Lane, Georgia’s husband and co-owner of the busiest shop on Main Street. “I’m sure Noah will appreciate it.” Her sister’s boyfriend did stop by the art studio she and her sister owned most mornings.
“I’ll get you set up.” Arnie started assembling a cardboard pastry box.
“You want two coffees? Black?” Georgia asked.
“On a morning like this, I’m tempted to be extra daring. Two pumpkin lattes, please. With whipped cream.” Might as well go all in. She tucked a strand of her long dark blond hair behind her ear and pulled her slim leather billfold from her matching Kate Spade purse. The duo was one of the few things she’d held on to from her New York days. For the most part, she’d been happy to leave any and all reminders of that time behind.
But this billfold had been the first thing she’d purchased after Global International Bank had commissioned a statue for their impressive all-glass foyer. It had been a turning point in her sculpture career. At least, that’s what she’d thought at the time. With Grant, her childhood friend and another Crossvine Creek transplant, she’d explored the Big Apple and spent way too much money on her Kate Spade duo. She’d been so happy that day—but that had been before her big-city adventure had lost its sparkle.
Let it go. New York. Being a professional sculptor. Her doomed relationship with Oliver. That was a lifetime ago. One she didn’t miss.
“All set?” Arnie asked.
“I think so.” With her pastry box in a bag and her coffees in a drink carrier, she paid and tucked her wallet away, then thanked the Lanes and headed toward the door—moving quickly to step aside when the door swung open. Only when she sidestepped, she tripped over Cobie’s leash and—teetering on her heels—fell forward just enough to lose her drink carrier. Or rather, to launch the drink carrier into the air before making direct impact with the chest of the man who’d pushed the door open.
“I am so sorry,” she gasped, staring at the man in horror—while Cobie began cleanup duty, wrapping her leash around Harley’s legs. Harley looked up into the man’s red, scowling face. “Oh. Oh no. I’m so sorry. Really.” She took the napkins Arnie was offering and began blotting the man’s broad chest—and his chin too. The guy was dripping. Hair, eyelashes, nose, chin… His shirt was damp and sticky beneath her hands. “I am truly sorry.”
The man took a napkin from Arnie and wiped off his face, his bright blue eyes narrowing and his jaw muscle clenched tight. Even dripping coffee, this man looked good. Really, really good.
“She must have walked around when I was ordering.” Harley kept blotting with one hand while trying to disentangle herself from Cobie and the leash with the other. Cobie, of course, was too busy lapping up the cream on the floor to pay much attention to her efforts. “Cobie,” she urged, her anxiety growing the longer the man glared at her. His size, redness, and explosive sigh gave off a volcano soon-to-erupt vibe. Cobie looked up at her and sat, pulling the leash just tight enough to send Harley teetering forward again.
The man steadied her…right about the time a large dollop of whipped cream fell from his hair and landed on the tip of his nose—cinnamon and sugar crystals catching the light. And, much to her absolute mortification, she found herself giggling. With the man’s glare, the helicopter sound of Cobie’s nose searching the wood plank floor, and her mounting nerves…she just couldn’t stop giggling. But she tried. She cleared her throat. “Really…I’m so…so sorry.” She swallowed, but another giggle escaped.
The man swiped the cream from his nose, put the wadded napkins in the paper bag Arnie was holding out, and slid some bills across the counter.
“Oh no, please let me,” Harley offered, finally leading Cobie in a circle and untangling the leash. “It’s the least I can do.”
“I’ve got it.” The man’s voice was low and gruff and dripping impatience.
“Here you go.” Arnie handed over three donut boxes stacked high and a cup of coffee. “See you later.”
The man tilted his head toward Arnie, shot her a final disgusted look, then headed across the floor and out the bakery door.
Harley drew in a wavering breath. “Well, that’s one way to start a Monday,” she murmured. “I feel terrible.”
“It’s just a little coffee, Harley.” Georgia waved her fears aside, chuckling. “No worries.”
“Does he come often?” She stared after the man, his long stride carrying him down the sidewalk and away from the shop.
Arnie nodded. “Every Monday.”
“Oh good.” She slid her credit card across the counter. “Can you charge me for the next three Mondays please? I do feel really bad about the coffee—and the laughing.”
Arnie shook his head, smiling. “You sure?”
“I’m sure.” She glanced at the floor. “Cobie cleaned pretty thoroughly but the floor’s probably going to be sticky.” She frowned. “I can—”
“I’ll mop it up, Harley, don’t you worry,” Arnie said. “Don’t you let this ruin your morning. Especially on a Monday. You hear?”
“I do. You’re right. I’ll try.” It would be easier if the man had accepted her apology—or had stopped glaring at her. He had to know it was all an unfortunate accident. She took her bag, two new coffees, and waved her good-byes.
By the time she’d made the walk from the bakery to Welsh Studios, she was second-guessing her decision to pay for his Monday indulgences. Maybe she should do something more immediate, to show how terrible she really felt? Because she did.
“Why are you frowning?” her sister, Autumn, asked as Harley closed the door behind her. “And why do you have a huge pastry box?”
“Georgia figured Noah might be stopping by later on,” Harley said, sliding the box onto the counter.
“She is the sweetest.” Autumn opened the box. “Oh, yum.”
“That’s what I thought, too.” Harley picked up a maple-glazed croissant.
“And the frowning?” Autumn selected a pumpkin scone and closed the baker’s box lid. “I know you’re not a morning person but you’re usually not quite this grumpy.”
“This is the second round of pumpkin lattes… Because I doused a perfect stranger with the first batch,” Harley admitted, her nose wrinkling. “Like, I soaked his shirt and laughed when I saw whipped cream hanging off his nose. And he was so angry. Red-faced, ready-to-blow angry.”
“You bought us pumpkin lattes?” Autumn asked, opening her to-go coffee cup. “I’m so excited.”
Harley smiled, shaking her head. “Autumn…”
“Did you intentionally throw the lattes on him?” Autumn asked, sipping her coffee.
“No.” She sighed. “I sort of tripped over Cobie and—”
“It was an accident?” She waited for Harley’s nod. “And, knowing you, you apologized?”
“Several times, but—”
“And he was still angry with you? Irritated, sure. But, come on, it was an accident,” Autumn said, on the verge of frowning herself.
“Yes, he was… But then again, I did giggle—a lot—when the whipped cream splattered on his nose.” She wrinkled her nose. “I couldn’t seem to stop.”
“Oh.” Autumn shook her head, taking a sip of her latte. “Still, it’s not like he was the victim of some aggressive latte-drenching. Is aggressive latte-drenching a crime?” She paused, shrugged, and kept going. “So what if he has to walk around smelling this good all day? I’m pretty sure this smells better than most aftershave and cologne. And it’s seasonal—so he’s being festive. He’ll get over it and, probably wind up delighted he smells so yummy.”
Only Autumn would come up with a scenario where the man would be grateful for what had happened. That was why she adored her big sister so much. She was, and always had been, one of a kind. “I don’t think aggressive latte-drenching is a thing.” Harley sipped her coffee. “If it is, I’m confident it’s not a crime.”
Autumn rolled her eyes. “Cobie, was there a mean man picking on your auntie Harley?”
Cobie sat, her tail wagging.
“Was he horribly mean and ugly?” Autumn asked.
Cobie’s tail wagged faster.
“He wasn’t ugly.” Harley sighed, slipping her apron on. Before he’d had whipped cream on his nose, she’d noticed just how deep blue his eyes were… If he hadn’t been glaring at her, she’d might have marveled over the spectrum of blue in his gaze. After all, she was an artist. Color was something she noticed. And the depth of blue in his eyes had been impressive. “And he wasn’t mean. In fact, I don’t think he said five words. He was just…irritated over the unintentional latte-drenching.” She sipped her coffee, noticing her sister’s curious expression. “What?”
“Nothing,” Autumn said, nibbling at her scone. “So, who was this not ugly, irritated man you made smell delicious?”
“I don’t know.” Harley shrugged. “And since he’s not here and we have a school bus arriving in, oh, fifteen minutes, I need to let it go. Besides, I told Arnie to charge me for his Monday order for the rest of the month. I mean, I do feel bad.”
“Oh? So, he’s a regular at the bakery?” Autumn asked. “That’s very nice of you. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it and forgive you for this rather unfortunate latte incident.”
Harley went from desk to desk to lay out today’s project supplies. There’d be no more worrying over pumpkin-latte man. Right this moment, there wasn’t a thing she could do. Hopefully, the niggling guilt would ease over the course of the morning. But, guilty or not, the image of that dollop of whipped cream hanging off the man’s nose still managed to make her smile.
The first words out of his assistant coach’s mouth were, “What’s that smell?”
Josh didn’t bother looking up from his notes. “Me.” Lucky for him, he had a bunch of Crossvine Creek High School Football shirts to choose from. But there was nothing he could do about his splattered khakis.
“Any left?” Bernie asked, eyeing the donuts Josh had picked up earlier that morning.
Josh pushed the box across the top of his metal-topped desk. “There might be one.”
“Thanks.” Bernie Ulrich opened the box.
Considering his assistant coach’s health, one was more than he needed. Josh was thankful the school nurse had told him about Bernie’s previous heart attack and his high blood pressure—now he knew to keep an eye on his coworker.
Since Josh had accepted the head football coach position here at Crossvine Creek High School, he’d begun the slow process of getting to know the close-knit community. He was an outsider—meaning folk were kind, but wary. It would take time to make real friends and convince everyone he was here for the long haul.
“The team looks good. Strong. Ready for this weekend,” Bernie said, sitting in the chair across from the desk, donut in hand. “If I were a betting man, I’d say our odds for Friday night’s game look pretty good.”
Josh placed his clipboard on the desk and sat back, running a hand along the back of his neck. “They do.” The Crossvine Creek Wild Cats should win Friday—not that he’d jinx their chances by saying so out loud. Josh had come from a college campus, so he hadn’t had much in the way of expectations. But the young men who made up the varsity football team had been a pleasant surprise. They had the drive to win, putting in the long hours they needed to hone their skills and strengthen their team as a whole.
“You’re in for a treat. This is a grudge match—the Crossvine Creek Wild Cats versus the River Bend Bobcats. The whole town will turn out for this one. You’ll see,” Bernie added, finishing off his donut and glancing at the clock on his wall. “You headed out soon?”
Josh glanced at the clock, instantly panicking. “Yeah.” He stood. “I should have left already.”
Bernie winked. “You go on. I’ll close up shop.”
“You sure?” He grabbed his duffel bag, the pumpkin-scented shirt inside perforating the canvas fabric. Great.
“I’m sure.” Bernie waved. “You tell little Nadia I said hello.”
Josh smiled. “Will do.”
It didn’t take long to reach his house—nothing was too far apart in Crossvine Creek. He left the high school, headed down Main Street, took a left on Maple Lane, and a right on Ash Drive. His house, 431 Ash Drive, sat smack in the middle of the block. When he pulled into the driveway of his craftsman cottage, he braced himself. Next door, rocking away in her wicker rocking chair, was Bev Washington. She was a nice lady but she tended to be a little overly neighborly—full of questions and curiosity about him and his family.
“Evening, Coach,” she called as soon as he opened the door on his Jeep. “How’d practice go? We sure are excited about the game this Friday.”
“Me too, Mrs. Washington,” he said, heading around to the front porch.
“You go on and call me Bev, Coach.” She waved. “Give your little miss a smile for me.”
“Will do.” Josh waved back, his step quickening as he ran up the porch steps, opened the front door, then quickly shut it behind him, breathing a sigh of relief. “I’m home,” he called out, grinning at the rapid footsteps coming down the stairs and straight for him. “Hey, darlin’.” He held his arms wide, scooping up his daughter and hugging her close. “How’re you this evening?”
Nadia wrapped her arms around his neck. “Good.” She sniffed. “You smell funny, Daddy.”
“Don’t I know it.” He kissed her cheek. “Some lady poured her coffee all over me.”
Nadia’s eyes went round. “Why?”
He shrugged. “She was all tangled up in her dog’s leash and fell over.” Good thing he’d steadied her. As twisted up as she was, she could have taken a hard fall. Not that she’d have noticed. She’d been too busy laughing at him.
“Poor lady.” Nadia patted him. “Poor Daddy.”
“Poor Daddy, is right.” He carried her down the hall and into the family room.
“Evening, Coach McBride,” Bertha Reed said, as she stirred a pot on the stove. “I made a pot of chili and there’s some corn bread muffins in the oven. Also, little Nadia has a reminder note from her teacher about her art show tomorrow night.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Reed.” Josh didn’t know what he’d do without the woman. She’d retired from the high school just last year and had been looking for part-time work about the same time he and his family had moved to town. Not only did she pick up Nadia from kindergarten, she made dinner, and offered to grocery shop now and then. “I’ve got it on the calendar and programmed it into my phone. I wouldn’t miss it.” Since they’d moved, art was about the only thing Nadia was interested in. According to her teacher, his little girl was awkward and shy at school—making it hard for his five-year-old daughter to make friends in their new hometown.
“I figured.” Mrs. Reed smiled. “Well now. I’ll head home to my Fred, then.”
“Night, Mrs. Reed,” he said.
“Night, Mrs. Reed,” Nadia said, waving.
“Night, sweet girl.” Mrs. Reed hung the apron she’d been wearing on the side of the refrigerator. “Night, Tucker. Sorry I wasn’t more help with your homework. Now, if it was history, we’d be fine.”
“Thanks anyway, Mrs. Reed. I appreciate the offer.” His ten-year-old son, Tucker, had homework spread out on the kitchen table.
With another nod and wave, Mrs. Reed left.
“How’s it going?” Josh asked his son.
“This experimental method thing makes my head hurt.” Tucker tapped his pencil eraser against the stack of papers.
He ruffled his son’s hair. “You’ll figure it out. You always do. But I’m happy to help, if you need it?”
“Thanks, Dad.” Tucker sat back in the cane kitchen chair and stared up at him. “What’s with the new cologne?”
“It’s not cologne.” He chuckled, setting Nadia in the chair beside her big brother. “It’s coffee.”
“A poor lady fell on Daddy and spilled her coffee on him,” Nadia explained.
“Yup.” Josh headed into the kitchen for a glass of water. “How about I take a shower, get these clothes in the washing machine, and then we’ll eat some dinner?”
Nadia gave him a thumbs-up.
“We’ll set the table,” Tucker offered. “Won’t we, Squirt?”
“Sounds like a plan,” he said, smiling. There were times he’d love to just stand still and look at them. Like now. Not too long—or they’d notice and worry. But long enough to ground him. “When I get back, I won’t smell like—”
“A pumpkin pie?” Nadia asked.
He chuckled again and headed up the stairs to his room. After a shower, he dressed and carried his clothes into the laundry room. Mrs. Reed had washed, folded, and piled up the kids’ clothes on the counter. He’d told her she didn’t need to do that, but she’d waved his protests aside and promised she’d leave his clothes alone. Once Mrs. Reed had found out he was a widower, she’d given him a look of motherly sympathy. He’d tried to assure her he’d been taking care of things for four years now but she wasn’t listening.
In retrospect, he appreciated the extra work she did. Most nights, he came home so tired, he was in no shape to cook, let alone make sure the kids’ clothes were clean and folded. Things would slow down when football season was over. But, for now, it was early mornings and long afternoon practices. He didn’t know what he’d do without Mrs. Reed.
He turned on the washing machine, added soap, and tossed his dirty clothes inside. The pumpkin smell was downright overpowering.
All day long, he’d been reminded of the woman he’d been so rude to. It had been an accident. He knew that. The look of horror and surprise on her face reflected all the things he was feeling—plus the sting of hot coffee. She’d apologized over and over and what had he done? Nothing. Well, something. He’d snapped at her.
Could he blame her for laughing? The whole whipped cream thing had been kind of funny. He should have laughed. But he’d always had a hard time laughing at himself…
His mood had nothing to do with the coffee and everything to do with how rough his morning had already been up to that point. Nadia had been crying when he’d dropped her off at kindergarten, begging him to stay with her, or asking to go back home—to their real home. He’d reminded her that this was home now—it had been for five months. Since they’d moved over the summer, Josh had hoped Nadia would settle in once the school year had started. Instead, she’d become clingier than ever. He’d been tempted to keep her with him. Unwinding her little arms from his neck had ripped at his heart. Even after he’d left, after he’d driven to the bakery, he’d still felt her arms around him and heard her sobs in his ears. And then—well, then he’d been wearing coffee and holding on to a stranger.
A stranger with light brown eyes, curly hair, rosy cheeks, and a husky laugh that had caught his full attention. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t laughed. It’d been so long since he’d felt even a hint of interest in a woman, he’d been rattled. And, pumpkin latte scent aside, he couldn’t deny there was a hint of interest.
End of Excerpt