Warm winds blow through downtown, kicking up the first falling leaves and bringing the smell of fall. I breathe deep, pausing on Main Street to enjoy the calm moment. Fall has just begun, but the warm weather of summer and the tourists seem to be heading north.
Early on a Monday morning—well, early for me—I'm headed to the courthouse to file some paperwork for my restaurant. It’s been almost a year since I opened my own specialty diner and business is booming. It’s going so good I'm filing requests to expand my hours and the shop itself.
Harmony Hollow feels like home now. I grew up two miles away in Crystal Cove but I’ve grown to love it here. Growing up in the Cove, we often came here to escape the small-town trappings there. In the past few years, Crystal Cove has become a bustling metropolis with new shops, expanding businesses, and rejuvenated homes.
Meanwhile it seems Harmony Hollow has been forgotten.
Main Street is full of boarded up shops and empty stores. People always flocked to both Crystal Cove and Harmony Hollow as both towns get all four seasons and life is truly celebrated around here. Tourists flood the streets during peak seasons when Christmas lights the town up for weeks at a time or fireworks fill the skies for days.
It seems these days those tourists pass right on by Harmony Hollow.
My best friend’s husband is doing something about that. The nearest airport is over fifty miles away, so now he’s building one here. With my restaurant and her bakery—both of which he bankrolled—and that airport, it seems slowly but surely Harmony Hollow is coming back to life.
“Morning Ms. Bartlett,” Imelda, the front desk clerk at City Hall, greets me with her usual smile. “What can we do for you today?”
It’s chilly in the office and my thin dress and lack of bra show it. I cross my arms and shoot back a smile, crossing the foyer towards her. Before I make it there or even answer her, a huge brute of a man bustles past me, whistling as if he didn’t just mow me over. He calls to Imelda and I swear she bats her lashes at him behind her cat-eye frames.
“Mornin’ sugar, you are a sight today. Look, I need to ask about those permits,” his voice booms in the small space, the twang in it letting me know he’s not local.
Huffing loudly behind him to make my irritation known, I take a moment to give him a once over. I mind that he cut me off, that he is playing cute with Imelda, and how his filthy boots leave tracks I have to dodge. What I do not mind is the view he gives me.
Tall and solid, with wide shoulders and thick thighs, he is a huge piece of man. His highlighter yellow shirt, muddy pants, and rugged look clues me in that he’s a contractor. My eyes trail from his shoulders to his backside which is round and toned in his worn jeans. I linger a few steps behind, just barely catching that he’s here about building permits for a location near my shop.
“Marshall will let you know, but we do have a previous permit request that would contest yours, Keegan.” Imelda’s eyes fly past the rude hunk to me to pin me with blame.
I smirk when construction babe turns towards me, as if to challenge me. Good luck. I love a challenge and I put in a request to expand my shop two weeks ago. Beat you to it, hot stuff.
Cobalt eyes swing my way, his dark shaggy hair bouncing as he turns to fully face me. I thought I was ready—I was wrong. He is beautiful. I mean, I've seen some beautiful men, but he makes the word seem not enough. It feels as if a fist wraps tight in my chest as I go hot between my legs.
Thick tattooed arms cross at that massive chest, his brow quirking up as he looks me over. It’s got a scar in it and I want to ask where it came from. I want to ask where he came from. His full mouth looks sinfully sweet and his nose is slightly crooked, but on him, it works.
Slowly he smirks and the heat flickering at my core becomes scorching. My thighs tingle as I move forward, head up, to pretend I have my shit together. Let me clarify: I do not. I’m not a woman easily shaken by a pretty face. But he’s done a number on me and my usual wit is nowhere to be found.
“You own Bite, then?” He narrows his eyes at me, smirking.
“I do indeed,” I reply as I take another step towards him.
He too comes closer, towering over me despite my high heels, his eyes skimming over me. He smells like earth, pine air, and the cinnamon gum he’s chewing. Flashing me a dazzling smile, he cocks his head as I give him my own once-over look. I like what I see but I sense a gauntlet being thrown, so I can’t show him that.
“Business has been good to you.” He says it like a question, but I feel like he’s flirting. “I suppose that’s why you want my space.”
My eyes narrow as I take another step, our bodies brushing now. My head tips back so I can meet his steady gaze. Something swirls in the air between us, but I can’t admit to that either. That space is not his—not as of two weeks ago, at least—and I'm not giving it up. I need it so whatever he’s building can move. It’s not as if Main Street doesn’t have enough empty spaces.
“As of two weeks ago, honey, that became my space. I would have finalized the permit papers about two minutes ago had you not blown in here and almost ran me down. I’ll excuse your bad manners. Now, excuse me while I take what you thought was yours.” I wet my lips as he gazes at my mouth, relishing the upper hand.
“I might like watching you try, honey.” He winks at me as he combs his fingers through his thick hair.
“Might enjoy this then,” I grin at him as I breeze past, sliding my paperwork across the counter, “final paperwork with expansion of hours and square footage. With a money order covering all costs. Thanks Imelda, appreciate your time! See you next time!” I smile at her and turn to head out.
I make it to the short set of steps leading from City Hall when I feel him behind me. Turning, I watch him rush down the stairs, looking as if he did not enjoy that the way I hoped he might. His loss. His blue eyes are lit with fire and I wish it were because he’s savoring the view the way I am, but I doubt it.
“Afraid to tell you, that permit won’t be getting approved. With or without your sugar daddy’s money,” he says it with that sexy smirk, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.
That heat racing through me turns to ice. I know just who he means, and I take great offense to the assumption. Not just because he’s talking about my best friend’s husband, but also because he doesn’t know the man to be able to talk about him that way. If not for Baker Elliot, I would still be in San Francisco, missing home, my best friend, unsure about my choices and my life.
“Sugar daddy,” I chuckle but there’s zero humor in it, “you can’t know this but your attempt to shame me is laughable. Sure, sure, I have a sugar daddy. A man who treats me so good he paid for me to bust my ass on the daily, pour my heart and soul into a joint in a dying town, hope my meals are good enough to keep tourists fed and talking about them so I can keep my doors open.”
Something akin to realization or remorse flashes on his face, but it’s too late for that. I turn on my heel and stride away, ignoring how much it bothers me to do so. I don’t even know this man, so of course it doesn’t faze me. It doesn’t.
If anything irritates me, it's that I'm sure other people think the same thing. Last fall, after Chantel met Baker and fell hopelessly in love, we decided to come back home. She found a good man and he adores her—so much so that my happiness as her best friend matters to him. So, when she took the leap to open her bakery, he gave me the same chance to open my place.
“Wait, hey I didn’t mean that,” his voice calls after me, twangy and cute but I try to ignore that, “even if he is your sugar daddy, that ain’t my business. I’m just sour I gotta explain my mess-up to my partner. Would you wait?” he calls louder as I storm away, trying to salvage some self-respect.
“Why? You sort of apologized. Good for you. Have yourself a good one, honey,” I snap this over my shoulder as I stalk away.
“Dammit. I didn’t mean it, I do apologize. I will be seeing you again, firecracker!”
I grin as he shouts this after me, almost promising me another run-in. I don’t like that he assumed the worst about me, but I suppose some people do. They believe Baker is fucking me and Chantel and paying us good for it. It doesn’t seem to matter that she wears his ring and took his last name. I can’t convince them otherwise, so I stopped trying. I don’t care.
At least, I thought I didn’t care—until this cobalt-eyed pretty boy made me feel as if I should.