Copyright © 2017 Lacy Williams
With a sigh, Wes Scheffield signed off from the online dating website and closed his laptop on the coffeeshop table.
Six months ago, his brother had fallen in love with Angela. Even though Drew hadn’t been the one on the dating site, Wes figured if someone like Angela was using them, he could find a match for himself.
So far, three weeks of effort were a bust. Every profile he read had at least one red flag. The two girls he’d dared to message had been clingy from the first connection.
After Winnie and the number his ex-girlfriend had done on him, Wes was looking for someone more independent.
Today’s depressing messages left a bad taste in his mouth. Or maybe it was the dregs of the espresso shot he’d downed. He tucked his laptop into the messenger bag looped over the back of his chair and buckled it closed. Owners didn’t get scheduled breaks, but after a crazy-busy morning in the Cup, his coffee shop, he’d given himself ten-minutes before the after-lunch-pick-me-up crowd hit. He nodded to Carly, one of his two assistant managers and the employee who’d been with him the longest, where she waited on a customer from behind the coffee bar.
He pushed through the employee-only door to the kitchen, where a wave of steamy air hit him in the face. A load of mugs and pastry plates had just gone through the industrial dishwasher.
The employee breakroom was no bigger than a closet—and not a walk-in—which was why he’d chosen to take his break in the dining area. But now he stashed his computer bag in the breakroom and grabbed his red apron from the hook.
He was still tying it off when Deedee came through the rear entrance. She was a college student and his newest barista.
“Hey, boss,” she said cheerfully.
He shot an obvious glance at his watch. “Cutting it close, aren’t you?”
Deedee had only worked for him for a month, and he’d already had to put her on probation for being late. He had a business to run and couldn’t afford for his employees to slack off. He had three simple rules, and everyone knew them.
- The customer comes first.
- Do your job.
- Don’t mess with the other employees.
Deedee blew off his words with a breezy shrug. “Two minutes to spare.”
He let it go as she chucked her purse in the breakroom and grabbed an extra apron. Help was hard to find in the small town of Ross, Oklahoma, and she hadn’t technically been late. Barely.
And maybe he was still edgy from his disappointment over his online dating prospects—or lack thereof.
“Why don’t you give Carly a break from the register?” He phrased it as a question, but it wasn’t.
He grabbed a clean towel and started unloading the dishwasher.
The rhythm of drying the mugs and stacking them in their rack was so ingrained, he could’ve done it in his sleep. He’d put himself through three semesters of college as a barista. He’d been promoted to shift manager about the time he’d realized college wasn’t for him. He’d begged, cajoled, and even written up a business plan before his dad had fronted him a massive loan to start the Cup ‘O Joe.
He’d paid it back in two years.
But lately he was starting to wonder if he’d quit college too soon. It wasn’t that he wasn’t smart enough. He’d had to figure out accounting and payroll and food costs and margins, and learning all of that hadn’t been easy.
It was the routine of college that had killed him. Same class, same day of the week. Boring.
Plus, he hated sitting.
The Cup kept him on his toes. Every day brought different challenges.
But lately, discontentment had settled over his life.
Maybe it was seeing his twin find his happily-ever-after.
Maybe it was the way things had ended with Winnie.
Maybe he needed a vacation.
He tried to clear his thoughts and let the swish-swish-thump of unloading soothe him. It was kind of like meditation, right?
Carly came through the door that separated the cafe. Her dark-brown hair just brushed her collar, and her bangs were held back from her face with a clip. Her light blue eyes met his briefly, and she snatched another towel and started unloading pastry plates. “I was planning to get to these as soon as Deedee got settled in.”
He smiled at her. “Four hands make the work go by quicker.”
Why couldn’t more of his employees be like Carly? She was a go-getter. A self-starter. He never had to ask her to do the work. By the time he realized a task needed to be started, she’d usually already completed it.
And she was never late, not once in the almost five years she’d worked for him.
But having her there interrupted his unloading routine. Their hands bumped. He bobbled a mug, almost dropped it.
He scowled down at his hands.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
He glanced at her, not sure what the undertone in her voice was. Her gaze danced away from his, almost as if she were… nervous?
“You seem a little tired. Or… stressed?” Her voice squeaked on the last. It struck him as cute, but in a I’m-not-a-sleazy-boss kind of way.
He was always careful not to make any overtures toward his staff. It was an unwritten rule. Or maybe it was written, a subset of don’t mess with employees.
Somehow she’d caught on to his bad attitude today. Nice of her to notice. “I’m fine.”
“I thought you were heading home…?”
He couldn’t help smiling a little. She had the schedule memorized. Good girl.
“Hudson called in sick. His cough sounded pretty bad.” And no one wanted a barista coughing and sneezing while pulling their beverages.
“Oh. I could stay. If you want. Work a double.”
Now he was sure something was going on. Carly was usually quiet. He would’ve said studious, if she’d been a little younger. Like him, she was past the college days. Mid-twenties, if he had to guess.
She never rambled and rarely made more than polite conversation.
“You had the late shift last night,” he reminded her. Their once-a-month superhero night was a big hit with the locals but required long hours and late cleanup.
She shrugged, eyes downcast as she reached for the last two plates. “I don’t mind.” Was she blushing? Maybe the steamy air was making her warm.
“Maybe next time.” He hated asking his best employees for too much. Happy employees equaled more productive employees, which then equaled a happy boss.
She set the last plate in its place. Then straightened, twisting the towel nervously between her hands. “Hey. Um. I have some tickets to a Kings game next week.”
“Nice.” The triple-A baseball team played home games in Oklahoma City, about an hour’s drive from here.
“I was thinking. If you wanted to go…” Carly stammered, paused, swallowed. “The shop’s closed on weeknights, and—”
She lit up.
“I bet the rest of the crew would love that. I’ll spread the word. A Cup O’ Joe team-building outing might be just what we need.”
It wasn’t a date, but at least it might be a distraction.
I have two tickets. Two.
Carly Peterson silently berated herself as she stepped out of the minivan Deedee had borrowed from her parents. Wes’s truck pulled in three spaces over in the ball field parking lot, and Wes and his nephew-to-be piled out of the truck. Deedee and Jimmy had been the only other employees to express interest in the baseball game, so Drew had invited the kid.
Because apparently she’d been channeling her inner Rachel Green of Friends fame when she’d issued her invitation.
And now the inner Joey Tribbiani wouldn’t shut up. I have two tickets to the game. In the sitcom episode, Joey had coached Rachel on how to ask out a guy she had a crush on.
And Carly had made the same mistake with words that Rachel had.
She was such a loser. She’d been in love with Wes almost since she’d started working for him. And when she’d inadvertently seen his laptop screen while he’d had it open to a dating site in the coffee shop, she’d foolishly thought this was her chance. A chance for her to let Wes know she was available.
That had been three weeks ago.
He hadn’t noticed her new haircut, and he hadn’t noticed when she’d changed her makeup to a smokier style.
She’d finagled an accidental run-in at the grocery store, but he’d barely said hello.
And then she’d screwed up her courage earlier in the week to ask him out, and he’d misunderstood.
Maybe it was her.
She’d never had a real boyfriend. No offense to Richie from seventh grade, but he didn’t count.
She was too nice. Too much the little-sister or girl-next-door type for guys to notice.
Thus, the makeover and messed-up invitation.
This was a disaster.
She shouldn’t have come. But then what would Wes have thought?
He probably already thought she was the biggest dork in Ross. She gazed at the Oklahoma City skyline. She was probably the biggest dork here, too.
She pushed her phone into the back pocket of her skinny jeans. No doubt tonight’s scoop-necked T-shirt and sneakers were going to perpetuate the girl-next-door image, but after ninety minutes in front of her full-length mirror, she’d found nothing better to wear. No hint of sexy. No come-hither clothes, whatever those would look like. She was not going to catch Wes’s eye tonight.
She’d resolved to get through the game with as little fuss as possible and go home to lick her wounds.
Inside the stadium, she ended up wedged between Wes’s eight-year-old nephew Thad and Deedee. Wes on Thad’s opposite side and Jimmy next to Deedee. The tiny stadium seats would’ve made it a thrill to be wedged in next to Wes. But now all she felt was disappointment.
Maybe she should give up.
“Thanks again for inviting us,” Wes said.
She realized she had a clear view of Wes over Thad’s head. At least that was something.
“Oh. Sure. Don’t mention it.” Dork. Dorkity dork dork.
“Yeah, thanks,” Deedee murmured.
Carly glanced at her coworker. Deedee wore an enigmatic smile. Did she suspect Carly’s feelings for Wes? Surely not. Carly did everything possible to hide them.
Maybe she was too good at keeping it a secret.
“This is really cool,” Thad said as the players were announced.
“My brother is the radio announcer for the Kings,” she said. “He’s how I scored tickets.”
And he’d given her a really hard time about it. Teasing her relentlessly about whether she had a date or not.
“I didn’t know that,” Wes said. “Is he your only brother?”
“Yeah, but I have two older sisters. They’re married,” she added quickly, just in case he got any ideas. She didn’t need any additional competition, thank you very much.
“Are you an aunt?” Thad asked curiously.
“Yeah. My niece is three months old. Want to see a picture?” She dug her phone out of her pocket and pulled up a photo of Heidi. She showed it to Thad and Wes, then swiped to another, because she couldn’t resist. Her niece was the sweetest thing she’d ever seen.
Her birth had set off major chimes from Carly’s biological clock.
Wes was looking at her funny, his brows slightly wrinkled, as if she were a puzzle. Self-conscious, she powered down the phone and put it back in her pocket. “Sorry. I get a little carried away. She’s the first baby in the next generation.”
When she glanced back up, Wes’s puzzled look had disappeared, though she caught him looking at her. Unusual, since he rarely gave her a second glance.
“I guess… I haven’t been paying enough attention at the shop,” Wes said slowly. “I didn’t know either of those things about you.”
The moment of connection seemed to lengthen, and a slow flush crept into her cheeks.
The crowd stood, and Carly realized the national anthem was playing.
She stared at the field with unfocused eyes, the singer’s voice flowing through her ears, but she didn’t really hear it.
She’d been on the verge of giving up, and now… Had she imagined the moment of connection?
The team took the field. Thad shifted excitedly in his seat between them. But when the first pitch flew and the bat cracked, Thad’s face creased with confusion.
“What happened?” the boy asked.
“Foul ball,” both Carly and Wes said at the same time.
And Carly’s stomach did a slow somersault.
No, she wasn’t getting over Wes any time soon.
They hadn’t even reached the end of the first half inning when Deedee leaned over. “Jimmy says he’s sick.”
Among a crowd of cheerful fans, Wes walked next to Thad through the parking lot. The sun had set an hour before, but the streetlights made it seem almost like daytime.
Carly had her nose in her phone but looked up as they neared the truck.
“Deedee texted a while ago,” she said, “but I didn’t hear it. She got Jimmy home and said he thinks he caught the stomach bug from his roommate. He won’t be in tomorrow.”
Wes used his key fob to disengage the truck’s alarm system. “I’ll call Terri-Ann and see if she can fill in.” Deedee’s kind gesture hadn’t gone unnoticed. Carly had offered to ride with them, make sure Jimmy got settled at home, but Deedee had shrugged her off with a weird wink. He didn’t know what was going on, and Thad had been a distraction. Wes had just been glad to have it taken care of.
“I’ll do it,” Carly said. “You’re driving.”
She looked up at him shyly, and he felt the same punch in the gut he’d gotten every time their eyes had met tonight.
He’d felt the first bolt of attraction when she’d started showing off pictures of her infant niece. Her face had lit with joy, and her shining eyes and the slight flush in her cheeks had packed a punch.
It had shocked him.
Was he going crazy? He must be putting in too many hours. He’d worked with Carly for almost half a decade and never reacted to her like he had tonight.
And that attraction had only been the first. Her concern for Jimmy had been real, and that had touched him, too.
After Deedee and Jimmy had gone, Carly had leaned in to Thad, and they’d talked stats and plays until the seventh inning stretch. At that point, she’d taken a break and returned with hotdogs and ice cream for the three of them.
Wes needed to get home. Get some rest. Figure out how to un-feel the attraction that zinged through him even now.
“Can you scoot into the middle, buddy?” he asked Thad.
Thad frowned. “But you promised I could sit shotgun.”
He had promised that.
But he hadn’t counted on having another passenger.
“Please, Wes. You promised.”
Carly’s head was down, so he couldn’t see her expression when she said, “I don’t mind. I can sit in the middle. Or call an Uber.”
She didn’t mind. But he did. Sitting that close to her would do nothing to stem his reaction to her.
“Don’t call an Uber,” he said grudgingly. It would be expensive for the hour-long trek home. And unnecessary, since he had enough seats in his truck.
When they got into the car, her thigh was pressed against his. When she clicked her seatbelt into place, her hand brushed his side and sent a pulse of heat straight through him. When he reached to turn the radio down, his hand bumped her knee.
Having her close threw off his rhythm, the same way it had when she’d helped him unload the dishes earlier in the week.
How was he supposed to turn off this crazy attraction when she was right there?
Thad seemed oblivious as Wes pulled the car onto the city streets and turned toward the highway that would take them back to Ross.
Was Carly oblivious, too? Or embarrassed to realize how he was affected by her?
He needed a distraction, pronto.
“I’ve been thinking about taking some college classes,” he blurted.
He took the on ramp to the interstate, felt his face flush. It was dark inside the car. Maybe she wouldn’t notice.
What did that mean?
“Just for fun, or…?” She left the question hanging.
“It’s been on my mind,” he said. “I never finished my degree.”
When he’d walked away from college, it hadn’t bothered him, but maybe it was part of the unidentifiable itch he felt lately.
She was looking straight out the windshield, but her face turned slightly toward him. “Do you think you’d be able to apply your learning to running the shop? Or did you want to take special interest classes? Or… are you tired of running the Cup?”
He shrugged. A bad move because his shoulder bumped hers. “I don’t know. I’ve just felt restless lately and thought maybe the unfinished degree might be contributing.”
He hadn’t really talked to anyone about it. Not even Drew. His twin was wrapped up in a new relationship and lost in the glow of love.
Speaking of… but when he glanced over, Thad was asleep, leaning on the passenger door.
“I never finished my degree either,” Carly said softly. “Ran out of scholarships, and then I started working for you. And I just never went back.”
He could still hear Winnie’s voice in his memories. I don’t want to work. I just want to get married. Be a wife.
His hands tightened on the wheel. “Did you—do you plan on getting married?”
This time, she turned her face away from him. “Someday.”
“I know some girls just want to get married and have babies,” he said. Why had he said that? It was like Winnie was still stuck in his head.
But Carly shrugged. “I mean, I want to have kids. Someday,” she repeated. “But that’s not the only reason to get married.”
He didn’t want to think about why her soft statement made his heart soar.
“There’s ‘buttoning each other’s hard to reach buttons.’” She let out a soft laugh. “That’s a line from one of my favorite movies.”
“Sabrina. It’s a—”
“Chick flick.” He should have guessed.
The moment lengthened until she continued. “I’d like to have someone to go on adventures with,” she said. “Someone’s hand to hold at the movies. Someone to make toast for in the morning.”
He had to clear his throat and his mind of the images she painted. “Yeah.”
Her phone dinged, a welcome distraction. “It’s Terri-Ann. Hang on.”
She answered the text, and his mind raced ahead. He’d let things get way too personal. Even if Carly didn’t feel uncomfortable, he did.
He didn’t want to fall for his employee. It would be crossing a line.
It would put pressure on her, because of their working relationship. And he didn’t know what he’d do if he lost Carly. He’d come to depend on her—strictly as an employee.
He couldn’t do this to himself.
They arrived at Carly’s tiny apartment in Ross far too quickly.
Once she’d gotten over her initial bout of nerves at being so close to Wes in the truck, he’d been easy to talk to. After Terri-Ann, the other assistant manager, had called, they’d fallen into a long discussion about local baseball and basketball teams.
And now the night was ending. It’d hadn’t been a real date like she’d hoped, but it had still been magical.
“My apartment’s upstairs,” she said quietly. Thad had stirred once, but been slept the whole way home.
Wes pulled into a spot near the outside staircase. The only apartment complex in tiny Ross boasted a whole two stories.
He turned off the truck and popped the door open, sliding out so that she could follow.
She hesitated on the sidewalk, expecting him to get back in the truck, but he shut the door quietly. “I’ll walk you up.”
Her nerves came back with a rush. Especially when she felt the heat of him close behind her.
“I’ve never had someone walk me up,” she babbled.
“No boyfriend?” Was he fishing? Or just curious?
“No.” She paused on the upstairs landing, one hand on the railing. He stood with her, closer than he ever had before.
“Am I working you too hard?” he asked. “No time for dating?”
“No, it’s not that.” She ducked her head, suddenly afraid he’d be able to read her feelings in her face. She hadn’t dated because she’d been comparing everyone to him.
He leaned against the railing, his hands resting lightly atop it on both sides of his hips. “I haven’t dated since Winnie. I’m trying to jump back into it.”
“Yeah?” she half-whispered, half-gulped. Dork. She didn’t want him to know she’d discovered his online dating profile.
He glanced over his shoulder, probably checking on Thad in the truck. He raised one hand to push through his hair. “Winnie really messed me up. Our breakup was… ugly.”
She could hear the rough emotion in his voice. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. Sighed. “My fault. I let her hang on for too long when it should’ve been a clean break. And… I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
She smiled and hoped he couldn’t tell how it trembled. “I’d like to think we’re friends.”
He grunted, his gaze narrowing on her. Straightened, which put him even closer, nearly into her personal space. “No boyfriend? Really?”
Throat suddenly tight, she shook her head.
He reached up, his thumb just brushing the curve of her jaw. She couldn’t help tilting her head toward him.
He moved toward her minutely.
“What are all the guys thinking, letting you stay single?”
Was he going to kiss her? If she raised up on tiptoe, their lips would brush…
“What am I thinking?” he murmured. With a start, he moved back. His hand fell away. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I gotta go. Goodnight.”
And he made tracks down the stairs.
Disappointment slithered down her spine. What had just happened? She’d been sure he was going to kiss her.
But as she let herself into her apartment, hope rose.
He’d finally seen her as a woman, not just an employee.
But would it matter?
I’m sorry to do it like this. Writing you through the online dating site seems silly, but I can’t think of any other way to do this and preserve at least a hint of my pride.
I’ve kept my feelings a secret for a long time, but I can’t do it anymore.
I’m in love with you. I have been for almost four years now. You probably don’t remember this, but my mom was diagnosed with a tumor. At first, she didn’t know whether it was benign or malignant, and I really freaked out. I was so scared I was going to lose her. You saw something was wrong, and that Wednesday night when I broke down, you sat with me for hours on the tailgate of your pickup truck. Just listening. I was hoarse by the time I was done talking and crying. You made me feel important. Valued.
I never forgot it.
And that was just the beginning. I see when you gift muffins to the homeless guy when he comes to the shop. You spent all last summer building a house for that needy family from church. You gave Deedee one last chance when you could’ve fired her.
You’re a good guy.
And those are just some of the many reasons I love you.
Writing might seem like the coward’s way out, but I don’t think I can bear to see your face when you find out. Will you laugh at me? Feel sorry for me?
Now the ball is in your court. If you feel the same way, call me. We can meet and talk things out. If you don’t call, then at least I’ll know. I hope we can still be friends, no matter what.
Carly was a no-show.
It was thirty minutes into her shift, and Wes was getting worried. She’d never been even five minutes late before.
And he had a hunch it was his fault.
He’d received her message from the online dating site late last night. He hadn’t logged on in three days, because he couldn’t stop thinking about Carly.
And when he’d finally opened his email to see the message, he’d been stunned.
She was in love with him.
Was it possible to fall for someone in only a week’s time? Every time he’d worked with her in the two weeks since the baseball game, he’d been unable to douse his awareness of her. Her kindness when she delivered customers’ pastries. Her laugh when one of the baristas told a lame joke. And, if he wasn’t mistaken, that secret smile she seemed to reserve for only him.
He’d sat there, staring at the computer screen and overthinking for way too long.
Her message had been timestamped the day before yesterday. Last night it had been way too late for him to call. And this morning, she was supposed to work the mid-morning shift. He’d planned to talk to her in person.
Obviously, he’d miscalculated.
For the first time in a long time, the coffee shop wasn’t his top priority. When she didn’t respond to an Are you okay? text message, he called his twin to take an emergency shift and was out the door the moment Drew crossed the threshold.
He drove to her apartment and found her car parked in front. But she didn’t answer his knock.
He waited and knocked again. Leaned his head close to the door. Somebody was moving around inside.
“Carly?” he called through the door. “Are you in there? Are you okay?”
There was a long pause. Then more movement, as if she was sidling up to the door.
But the wobble in her voice said otherwise.
“I’m s-sorry about missing my sh-shift.”
Was she crying?
“I th-thought I could pull myself together, b-but—”
He thought he heard a hiccup. Agitation surged. He pressed both palms against both sides of the doorframe.
“Carly, can you open the door? Please.”
A loud sniffle.
And then the lock clicked.
She was dressed for work in black slacks and a white shirt. But her feet were bare.
And she had been crying. Her lashes were matted with tears, and the tip of her adorable nose was bright pink.
She darted a look at him and then averted her eyes again. “I guess you read my message.”
Her shoulders rose and fell on a breath. She kept her eyes downcast. “I’ll be all right. But I might need to take a few days off.”
He couldn’t stand it. He stepped across the threshold and reached for her. Her face turned up, her expressive eyes wide. He slid his fingers gently across her jaw, and she nestled her cheek into his palm. A tear slipped from the corner of her eye, and he dared to brush it away with a kiss.
“Will you really be all right?” he asked. “Because I don’t think I will.”
Her eyes filled with hope and tears. The tears fell, and this time he swept them away with his thumb.
“I didn’t get your message until late last night,” he said. “I was offline, because I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
A smile trembled on her lips. “Really?”
“I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out. You were right here all along. Everything I was looking for. And more.”
More tears slipped free, though she was smiling.
He couldn’t help returning the expression. “I’ve never seen you cry before.”
Her nose wrinkled, and she tried to turn her face into his hand but he wasn’t having it.
“It’s cute. You’re cute. Can I please kiss you now?”
Her soft hum of agreement was all he needed. He let his hand slip behind her head into the softness of her hair. He met her lips softly, wanting to prolong this moment. Their first kiss.
She tasted both sweet and hot, like cinnamon gum and… Carly.
Her arms came around his waist, her palms pressing into his back.
He never wanted to let her go.
But eventually they had to come up for air.
He leaned his forehead against hers. “I’m falling for you. And I don’t want to stop.”
Her cheeks turned pink to match her nose, but her eyes were shining. “I was almost ready to give up hope.”
He kissed one corner of her lips because he couldn’t resist. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
With Carly in his arms, the restlessness he’d felt was gone. She was what he’d missing all this time.
And now that he’d found her, he was never letting her go.