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It could have been the perfect meet-cute.
If she were in a movie, Mia Russo was positive this afternoon would have been the romantic turning point in her life. All of the obvious clichéd beats were there inside the small-town coffee shop. She was a down-on-her-luck, twenty-five-year-old single gal. He was…well, all she knew about him was the fact he was handsome enough to inspire the chiseling of a marble statue or two. If Mia took a wild stab at a board of stereotypical occupations, she would guess…lumberjack? He wore a red-and-black plaid shirt on his healthy, broad physique, reminding her of the hunky mascot on Brawny paper towels.
At this moment, she could use a good, two-ply paper towel to soak up the lusty drool threatening to escape her mouth. Drooling over a customer would not make the best impression during her interview. It was too bad Brawny’s beautiful form had to be directly in her line of sight. Did she need one more challenge in her life? This was, no doubt, the gods testing her mental fortitude.
Always-at-the-top-of-her-class Mia never pictured herself walking into Pony Expresso and asking for a job. Then again, she never imagined she’d be back in her small Northern California hometown of Placerville. A city given the nickname “Old Hangtown” when it was part of gold rush history.
Life had a funny way of slapping one across the ass when it was least expected. This exact line of thought must have passed through the minds of several ghostly occupants. In particular, those who contributed to its morbid nickname. In her situation, the trajectory of Mia’s life had been wobbling on the edge for some time.
Her interviewer was a woman who looked as if she ran triathlons once a month and was around the same age as Mia—or possibly younger. God, she better not be younger. The thought of her future manager being younger was one more jab to Mia’s already wounded ego. Plus, Natalie Gonzalez-Torres, with her wavy chestnut-colored hair and soft brown skin, looked to be one hundred percent Latina and a goddess. Mia was half Latina, half white, and neither half was close to the level of goddess. All she could do was stand awkwardly between worlds, and she was pretty sure goddesses were never awkward. Everything about this interview was unfair.
With a flip of her shiny, dark locks, Natalie perused the application in her hands, even though there wasn’t much to study. Mia had spent the majority of her energy on her education. Her work resume was slim, almost to the point of nonexistent.
A month ago, when she first started looking for a job, Mia applied elsewhere, places with less of a part-time college student feel to them. But, as the rejections built, the lower and lower Mia’s bar dropped. As good as her imagination was, she never expected she’d end up at a tiny coffee shop. In these positions, her education was not a benefit, more of a hindrance, but she was running out of options.
“Do you know how to run an espresso machine?” Natalie asked, giving a good impression of a sincere interview despite Mia’s lack of qualifications.
“Truthfully, no,” Mia responded. “But I’m a quick learner.” She had always been a quick study. All she needed to do was convince Natalie of this. Her response was paired with a bright smile in the hopes it conveyed a higher level of confidence. She considered adding that if Brawny was a regular customer to Pony Expresso, she’d take all night to memorize the coffee menu.
Natalie suddenly brightened. “Oh, you went to El Dorado High? Me, too.”
Mia was prepared to learn they were in the same class or Natalie graduated after. She did her best to keep her expression neutral. “Oh, yeah? Did we graduate the same year? You don’t look familiar.”
“I was a few years ahead of you,” Natalie said as she turned the application over.
Thank god for that. The age difference shouldn’t matter but it did, and these days Mia would take what she could get.
“I’m afraid the pay would only be minimum wage, but we do share tips. And it’s a fun place to work. The owner of the shop is my Uncle Enrique, but he’s pretty laid-back.” Natalie shared this information cheerfully as though tone alone could improve the financial situation.
A sigh swept through Mia. The wage amount wasn’t unexpected, but she couldn’t deny the disappointment which came along with it. At least her father wasn’t charging her rent while she was living at home again. Nothing said sad more than being a grown woman sleeping on a twin-size bed with a stuffed bear, and across from a wall dotted with old framed awards for excellence. Mia would rather avoid her childhood bedroom as much as she could and make some extra money.
“Every little bit helps,” Mia replied with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.
“And we’re looking for someone who can work the busy, early morning shift,” Natalie told her.
“I’ll work whenever you need me.” Mia hoped her smile didn’t appear to be a permanent fixture on her face, but she couldn’t stop. Natalie may soon be under the impression she was interviewing a clown in disguise. Maybe she should see if there was a traveling circus hiring nearby. If she couldn’t be a goddess, then clown would have to do.
“What’s your favorite coffee or tea? What do you like to drink?”
“Oh. Um.” Not having an answer ready put an instant ball of anxiety inside Mia’s gut. She kicked herself for not being prepared. Of course, they would expect her to have a favorite drink. She was about to flub the most important question of all, and she tried not to flail by grabbing the first item she could read on the chalkboard menu. If she did that, an answer like Almond Raspberry Muffin would have burst from her mouth. It happened to be today’s chalkboard suggestion, but she was almost certain this was the wrong answer.
Mia went with honesty. “I’m trying to figure that out. I haven’t spent a lot of time just relaxing in a cute coffee shop like this one, and I look forward to trying new things. As well as giving your customers the same opportunity.”
“I love helping people figure out their favorite drink. My uncle says I have a freaky gift where I can sometimes tell just by looking at a person.” Natalie gave Mia a careful study as if she could determine her drink of choice by reading facial features like tea leaves. But after a few seconds, she cocked her head. “Hmm. Actually, nothing is really popping out at me. But I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually.”
Mia didn’t fault her for this failed attempt at beverage matching. It could have been her questionable goddess status causing a drink-prediction block. With Mia’s tanned skin and golden brown hair, Natalie wasn’t the first person to be stumped when looking at her.
“I think that’s it on my end. We’ll give you a call in a few days after we make a decision.” The (definitely older) manager shook Mia’s hand, and the interview came to its conclusion when Natalie answered her ringing cell, replying in Spanish to the person on the other end as she returned to the counter.
Was she really going to do this? Work in a coffee shop? It didn’t seem to fit anywhere in her plans when she considered her life goals. This morning, when Mia mentioned to her father where she was interviewing, he shook his head and laughed as if it was a ridiculous joke, which it was. One big, ridiculous, dark roasted joke.
How many times had she heard her father say, You better stick with the books, Mia, unless you want to be flipping burgers or making coffee. She did stick with books and yet, here she was. Apparently, it wasn’t a joke as much as it was a possible premonition.
Mia had a plan. Well, she had a new plan. Her education was extensive, first with a bachelor’s in political science and then a master’s in the same. After being encouraged by a favorite teacher, who praised her government studies and her involvement in Model UN, Mia’s original goal was getting into politics and becoming a big-shot political manager or advisor. Add to this the countless hours she’d spent proudly helping her dad put up re-election signs, even though he often ran unopposed for Judge, and it all felt like destiny.
Since the original plan had not worked out, it was back to the drawing board. The new and improved plan was to get her PhD in political science. She’d become a brilliant, in high-demand doctor/professor, make tenure in less than ten years, and write a best-selling book or two. Mia would then end up as an expert contributor on CNN while touring the country to give TED talks. Okay, that last part might be nothing more than a wishful cherry on her career sundae, but the other things were sure to happen. For someone who was used to rising to the top, her plan didn’t appear to be an insurmountable sundae.
Except for one problem.
Mia hated being in politics.
Being an active, informed voter? Yes, she was a big proponent of this. Being directly inside the beast? Disappointedly, it wasn’t as great of a fit as she had hoped.
Her father wanted her to follow in his footsteps and practice law. He did not make his preference a secret, pushing down on the scale in hopes of convincing her of the correct path. In a single act of rebellion, completely out of character for her, Mia stuck to her guns and went against her father’s wishes. The family already had a brilliant lawyer-turned-judge. Wouldn’t a genius political advisor expand the family’s impressive portfolio to a new arena? Unfortunately, she hadn’t known then how it was all going to turn out. Perhaps if she had listened to him, there would be a timeline where she was a customer of Pony Expresso instead of a prospective employee.
This might have been her first mistake.
Her one big venture into the job world, the one listed on her thin resume, was working for a third-party mayoral campaign in Sacramento as a social media manager. The guy was an ass, and his knowledge in regards to civic duty was close to nothing.
Taking a job, any political job, might have been her second mistake.
As everyone predicted, the underdog candidate failed to win enough votes, despite his wealth and high level of arrogance, and, on election night, Mia found herself unemployed and disenchanted.
Her hopeful and expected love affair with the political world never came because it had never existed in the first place. (She came to suspect that her AP government teacher was so good, she confused enjoying his class for real interest in the subject.) In fact, Mia hated every minute of campaign work. It wasn’t anything like she imagined. Her job scratched the outer surface of her shiny dream and revealed nothing but dull reality underneath. She had thought she’d be accomplishing things, helping her community, getting great people, like her father, into positions where they could do a lot. Instead, all she did was beef up the asshole’s image and help scrounge the depths of people’s pockets for campaign funds, which in turn were used for more publicity and more campaign money-making opportunities. Her skills and ambition meant nothing if they were only being used to help the wrong people.
But this was all the experience Mia had. And in a small, sleepy place like Old Hangtown, there weren’t many paid opportunities for an expert in political science or a social media manager. Regardless, her father was sure she’d be able to land a position with a law firm as a clerk or legal assistant. Mia was more than confident she’d be able to land a job as well. But, for whatever reason, it didn’t happen, not even for the position of receptionist or file clerk.
Overestimating her perceived workplace value based on education alone might have been her latest mistake.
This was how she ended up at Pony Expresso, a place chosen over the other, bigger chain coffee shop in town because it was her mother’s favorite. She was now vying for the coveted position of an early morning, minimum-wage-making barista who shared her tips. Even after the interview was finished, she remained at the table on the off-chance Natalie might find herself inspired and offer her a job. This and perhaps she could bask in the presence of Brawny’s handsomeness for a few minutes longer until he noticed her.
And notice her he did, because this was, after all, their destined meet-cute moment and Mia couldn’t be wasting all this time and energy for nothing. Perhaps being a down-on-her-luck, future-coffee-slinging barista wasn’t such a bad thing if it meant meeting her potential soulmate. Especially when the soulmate came inside a package featuring a chiseled jawline, stormy gray eyes, arms the size of tree trunks, and—
Okay. Stop. Get a hold of yourself, Mia, before figurative drool turned into literal gross, dribbling saliva.
The point was, perhaps all this job searching and bar lowering would be worth it in the end.
With their eye contact made, he smiled and leaned toward her. “Hi. I didn’t mean to listen in, but I was curious what drink she was going to pick for you. It’s a little disappointing she didn’t come up with anything. But you did really well in your interview. I hope you get it.”
She released a warm smile at his words of encouragement. “Thank you. I hope she gets back to me. I could really use the money.”
Brawny shifted in his chair before his gray eyes flitted away in apparent shyness. “I know this is weird, but would you mind doing me a huge favor? I could pay you”—he made a quick survey of the contents inside his bifold leather wallet—“twenty-seven dollars.” His scent wafted in her direction. It was a delicious mixture of leather wallet and pine trees. No doubt, it was the same trees he felled with the help of his massive biceps and plaid shirt.
“I guess it depends on the favor. It’s the only way to determine if twenty-seven dollars is too much or too little.”
“The perfect amount isn’t an option?” He grinned a winning smile with dazzling, flawless teeth, and her stomach flopped around like a caught fish.
Mia attempted to play it cool, at least as much as her stomach fish would allow. She pulled a strand of hair behind her right ear, sliding her hand down her jawline in a single, graceful motion. “You might be able to convince me that perfection is indeed a possibility.”
No one was more eager than Mia to hear Brawny’s exciting scheme. Her imagination whispered in her brain the various impossible, romantic situations which could occur in the near future and were inspired by too many Hallmark movies. The one she hoped for was the favor where it would be necessary to portray herself as the loving and lovable fiancée to his family, friends…or ex-girlfriend. The same ex-girlfriend, who was, of course, getting married. And his name would be Ethan or Cody or Jack. Although her nickname for him would be Brawny, of course. The daydream ended with him presenting her with a ring he purchased for twenty-seven dollars. She’d continue to wear it for sentimental reasons even after getting a major glittering upgrade.
“Great,” he replied, “it’s actually very simple. You see, I wanted to buy my girlfriend a special gift, but I’m not good at making decisions and the guys in the office aren’t exactly helpful second opinions. It wouldn’t take very long, and the jewelry store is just next door.”
“Oh.” If her smile faltered at all, he didn’t seem to notice. Okay, well, there’s a girlfriend. Of course, there’s a girlfriend. But the Hallmark fueled imagination whirred around in her brain once again. This meet-cute could still happen. Maybe Brawny was the put-upon, lovelorn boyfriend with a materialistic, snobbish girlfriend unworthy of his affection. Later, when Bethany or Michelle or Tonya acknowledged his gift with a dismissive wave, his mind would click to the funny, delightful woman he met at Pony Expresso. Brawny would become determined to do whatever it took to find Mia again. It could happen.
“Don’t you think your girlfriend would appreciate any gift regardless? I know I would if someone was nice enough to buy me jewelry.”
His lips pressed together in thought. “Maybe. I would feel better having a woman’s opinion at least.” Okay, he said, maybe. Mia’s impression of Tonya and her dismissive hand waving could be right on the money…maybe.
She smiled. “I think I can handle that for twenty-seven dollars.”
“Great! I’m Bob, by the way.”
Mia and Bob left the shop, their destination: El Dorado Jewelry.
The store was located on old-timey Main Street and surrounded by other Western-style, brick and plaster shop fronts. It was one of those places she had passed by enough times for it to be a familiar memory, like a sepia-colored photograph in her mind. But Mia was also surprised the store was still around. She didn’t know anyone who shopped there, so it was easy to assume it never had any customers, except for the occasional tourist escaping the summer heat.
Bob opened the door for her, and Mia smiled her thanks in response. As soon as she stepped through the threshold, a wire-haired, one-eyed dog with fur the color of old snow greeted her. He appeared to be a cross between some kind of terrier and a dust bunny. His stumpy tail wagged in wild, erratic motions. It wasn’t until the dog propped on her shin that she noticed he was missing one front leg. She reached to stroke the top of his bony head with a “Hello there, little guy,” because that’s what a Hallmark protagonist would do.
Not counting the chummy dog, the inside of the store conveyed as much personality as the straightforward name displayed on the faded, hunter green awning outside. It was filled with several glass cases, as one would expect. Still, it had nothing on its walls, nor were there fancy, glittering displays of gold and silver outside of the cases. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn the store hadn’t seen a gold rush of customers in some time.
“Can I help you?” she heard the single employee ask. Bob abandoned Mia’s side for the man at the far end of the store, and she glanced at the nearest glass case.
The jewelry, presented on simple, black velvet display holders, took her breath away. Mia never would have imagined a boring looking store with a dull-sounding name would have such beautiful, unique pieces inside. Her favorites were the rings. Different precious metals were formed into bands, shaped to make them look like delicate twigs forged by forest nymphs. In the center were vibrant, raw gemstones.
Compared to the precision-cut gems she was used to seeing, the rawness of these stones appeared as though they were excavated straight from a mine, and placed inside a ring setting after washing away the dirt. There were several she wouldn’t mind owning herself, but she wouldn’t dare to dream about it on a pending Pony Expresso barista’s salary plus tips.
“Mia,” Bob called.
She flashed a smile and joined him. The jeweler pulled out two sets of earrings from the case and laid them on a square of black velvet fabric.
“Oh, how lovely,” she sighed. One pair was silver with twig-like pendants and rose gold leaves. The other set was a pair of shiny, gold stud earrings featuring small pinecones. They were so detailed, Mia was sure the maker had gone out into the surrounding forest, found the most perfect, miniature pinecones and dipped them into gold.
In turn, she lifted and judged each set with careful consideration. Mia figured if Tonya didn’t like them, maybe they would someday find their way to her. Returning the jewelry to the velvet, she smiled and pointed to the pinecone earrings. “I like these best.”
“Great! I’ll get them,” Bob responded, pulling out a credit card while brandishing a handsome, relieved smile.
As Bob paid for Tonya’s gift, Mia knelt and gave the dog an extended petting, running her fingers through his curls and offering praise on what a good boy he was.
After the transaction was complete, she followed Bob out of the store.
“Thanks again. I really do appreciate your help.” He dug into the folds of his wallet.
“No, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I’ve decided that twenty-seven dollars is too much when I give my opinion for free all the time. You don’t owe me anything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I hope your girlfriend loves her earrings.”
“I’m sure she will. I wanted to get something nice because she’s pregnant with our first kid.”
“Aw, that’s nice.” She forced the words with as much cheer as she could. An unexpected stab of jealousy struck through her. Tonya clearly had a life with forward motion while Mia struggled to adjust to the backward movement in hers. She worried her life would never get started, and she’d be stuck in limbo forever. “Well, it was very nice to meet you, Bob, and congratulations. If you ever need jewelry advice again, hopefully, you’ll find me making coffee at Pony Expresso.”
With this, Bob walked away without a second glance back, and the meet-cute moment was not to be. Its birth and death were in the same hour, its whole existence sprung from nothing more than her imagination. Oh, well. Hallmark romances were unrealistic anyway. Mia kicked an abandoned Pony Expresso coffee cup on the sidewalk. In a moment of annoyance, she considered leaving it and stomping away. Then her better self took over, and she plucked the paper cup from the ground and tossed it into a nearby bin.
It was at this moment the sign in the jewelry store’s window caught her attention. The only thing missing was sunlight breaking through the clouds and gracing it with a divine spotlight.
Perhaps the fates weren’t done with her after all.
End of Excerpt