Homeboy has ten seconds to divert his eyes from my ass before I lose it.
Ten . . . nine . . .
I face the pastry case filled with freshly baked donuts and scones, frowning at the reflection of the man behind me. I say homeboy, but in reality, he looks old enough to be my granddad, with his full gray mustache and a pair of reading glasses perched atop his shiny head. Like most patrons flooding Moon Bean this early, he wears a business suit with wide tan slacks and a black blazer that lends no credibility to his character. Not when he's eyeing my backside like it's one of the butter croissants on display.
"This is my first time here. What do you suggest I get, sugar?" he says, close enough for his Brut aftershave to wrap me in a choke hold.
Nope. We are not playing this game. Not today, when I'm already on edge, anticipating the meeting that will help launch my new beginning-or see it fail at groundbreaking speed.
I whip my head around and glare, reaching deep into that ancestral pool of fortitude handed down from generations of resilient women who perfected the mess with me and die look. In two seconds he slides back to a respectable distance and raises his phone to his nose.
That's more like it. Satisfied, I pivot to face the front of the line once more, but it isn't long before another glance toward the glass case tells me he's back to ogling.
As the person in front of me moves up, I'm distracted when my phone buzzes. It's my best friend, Gina, texting that she's leaving her apartment. I let her know I'm already in line so she can grab us a table when she gets here.
Gina rarely makes the three-minute walk it takes to get from our respective apartments to the coffee shop more than twice a week, and when she does, I can always count on her to be at least ten minutes late. The conversion from central standard time to Gina time works in my favor today. No doubt, if she'd witnessed the exchange between Pops and me just now, she'd be harping on me for not entertaining his nonsense and applauding his willingness to risk it all for someone half his age, all the while laughing her ass off.
"I can help the next person in line," a barista with a hot-pink face mask says, and I move forward, dismissing the man behind me from my mind.
After ordering our drinks, I don't dare approach the pickup counter yet. Against the burr of multiple grinders and blenders going at once, a blockade of thirsty patrons watch the baristas furiously topping off drinks with pumps of syrup or oat milk, silently praying their hit of caffeine comes next. The only other time you see a crowd this anxious to get their hands around something hot is when it involves turkey legs at the rodeo. You can never know what someone is liable to do when deprived of coffee or poultry, so I keep looking around the shop until I spot Gina.
She waves at me from a table by a large window decorated with hand-drawn candy canes and Christmas ornaments, and I head that way.
The heavy green chair scrapes against the floor as I pull it out and sit across from her. "Hey."
"Good morning," she sings, and it's hard to believe she likely hopped out of bed five minutes before texting me.
Gina is one of those unnatural people who wake up with a good stretch and wide smile, ready to face the day. Not a drop of coffee in her system and she's brighter than a ray of sunshine in her long-sleeve white shirt and knitted yellow scarf.
Technically, I'm a morning person too. After years spent waking up before the sun to prepare for large-scale events, my internal alarm rarely allows me to sleep past six in the morning. But it takes me a nice long walk, usually around the golf course behind my apartment complex, and a cup of coffee before I'm ready for human interaction. Add in a couple of slices of bacon, and it's on.
"So, what's on the agenda for today?" I ask, keeping an ear out for my name to be called.
"I'm going to Sugar Land for a bridal party," Gina says. "The bride is seriously the sweetest. She's getting an updo, and I'm doing blowouts for the bridesmaids."
As Gina effortlessly uses the green silk scrunchie around her wrist to pull her curls into a low ponytail, I inwardly pout. My hair never goes up that easily. Certainly not without me feeling like I've just finished a full upper-body workout at the gym. I guess it's one of the perks of her being a hairstylist.
I try not to visibly shudder at the thought of brides and weddings. If I never have to attend another wedding in my life, I'll be just fine.
Gina's eyes widen. "Oh, I almost forgot. Don't you have that quinceañera consultation this morning? Look at my girl. Ready to take on her first client. How exciting! I take it after we're done here, you'll rush home to get camera-ready." She gives my hairline a pointed glance.
Since all I did was throw on a headband to liven up my worn bun, I'm not offended by Gina's blatant dig at my hair or at the concern evident in her brown eyes. I can't blame her when it's been only two months since I managed to claw my way out of a downward spiral that began when I almost lost my mom and worsened when my employer of eight years tossed me out like hot garbage. But being broken up with by my boyfriend was the exact push I needed to snap out of my despair and right my upended life. So I called Gina and told her I was going to start my own business.
Ever the queen to my bee, she didn't question if I was having a midlife crisis at the age of twenty-eight. She was at my door within minutes to congratulate me, then said I couldn't even think of starting a business until I'd swapped my sweat-stained sheets for new ones.
This morning I awoke to the sweet scent of lavender fields, knowing today was the day when, once and for all, I took control of my life. So, despite my current appearance, I'm ready.
"Don't look at me like that," I tell Gina. "When we're done here, I'm marching to my apartment-and yes, fixing my hair-then sealing the deal with my first client."
"You've got this, Mimi. And here's some extra good luck coming your way." Gina mimes throwing balls of glitter at me, and I indulge her by closing my eyes and basking in it.
"Medium roast and caramel latte for Amerie!" is shouted from the pickup counter, and I get up.
I maneuver around tables and furniture easily enough, but have to fight my way through two particular people who have zeroed in on the workers like their unmovable focus will make the baristas move any faster than they already are. It's a miracle more elbows aren't thrown in every coffee shop across America in the time between when customers place their orders and have to fight the masses to actually get them.
Relief comes when I finally reach our drinks, grab two cup sleeves, and turn to head back, feeling sorry for (and a tiny bit better than) everyone still waiting.
"I went with the cappuccino," Pops says from beside me, and I almost drop the drinks.
I knew he wouldn't be discouraged for long. These old-school dudes are a different breed of tenacious, but I've got no patience to deal with his foolishness today. I grit my teeth as I turn away from him without making eye contact.
I'm halfway to Gina when I realize I forgot to add cinnamon to my coffee. That won't do. I abruptly turn around, only to have my right elbow connect with something warm and solid, accompanied by a man's surprised grunt.
After catching my footing, I'm grateful the lids have held and neither of the cups in my hands spilled. As good as the coffee is, some of the baristas are notoriously awful at putting the lids on, so I always make sure to snap mine tightly before grabbing them. Foresight and planning for the win.
I'm ready to lay into Pops for his stalkerish tendencies when I look up and realize not only did I not collide with Pops, but the man I did bump into didn't fare as well as I did.
Coffee blots what I'm sure was once a pristinely pressed white shirt like paintball splatters, while dark spots coating the zipper of fitted navy slacks make it look like he had a suspicious accident in the restroom. The coffee stops mid-torso, so I let my eyes travel up to a wide chest and broad shoulders, then momentarily lose my breath once I reach my victim's face.
He's tall, standing a good head above me, with skin that's a rich, warm brown. He's clean-shaven, with the barest hint of a five-o'clock shadow, and gorgeous full lips that stand out in perfect proportion to a cut jaw. His eyes are a beautiful golden brown, like topaz. You'd think he'd once been foolish enough to stare into the sun long enough to capture its beams. I don't know how else someone would get eyes that brilliant. As our gazes hold, the ground begins to feel unsteady, like the earth might collapse right out from under me, and for a second, I wish I'd worn something more stylish than leggings and an old U of H hoodie. I tear my focus away from his face and focus on his shirt.
I blink, back on solid ground, then grimace at the mess covering his lower half. "Sorry about that."
In the silence that follows, I wait for him to say something like, It's okay or Oh no, it was actually my fault for walking right on your heels. But he says nothing, and I look up to find his eyes still rooted to my face. Though his stare appears a little dazed, my neck begins to prickle. What is it with people today? All I want to do is enjoy my morning cup of coffee. Not get hit on by old men who should know better, and definitely not bump into handsome strangers.
Under his piercing gaze, my annoyance hedges toward guilt, and I try to swallow my annoyance. I am the one who turned around without being aware of my surroundings and should probably offer more than an apology.
"I can pay for your shirt to get cleaned," I say grudgingly. I hate the thought of adding a stranger's dry-cleaning bill to my already tight budget, but it is my fault he'll likely go around smelling like stale coffee grounds all day. "There's a dry cleaners just a few stores down."
"Dry cleaning?" he finally says, and wow. That voice. It's as rich and smooth as my favorite brew. And judging by his slow response, he probably needed every drip of the coffee that just spilled.
"Yes. For your shirt."
He looks down, and I think he's finally snapped out of whatever trance he was in. Thick eyebrows shoot up as his eyes land on the white cup with a black lid that now sits askew and then his shirt cuff that's soaking wet.
His eyebrows draw together as he looks back at me, seemingly stunned. "You bumped into me."
I might've clapped if my hands weren't full. I settle for a nod instead. "I know. That's what I'm apologizing for." I sigh and look around, noticing how Gina has switched to the opposite side of the table and now has a straight line of sight to this spectacle. Great, she'll be talking about this for weeks.
That's it, dry cleaning is officially off the table.
"How about you let me buy you another coffee?" I offer instead.
He frowns. "But I don't have time to get a cup with you."
Something isn't clicking here, and I am holding on to my last shreds of patience with everything in me. "What is your name?" I ask slowly.
"Vincent. And you are?"
"Don't worry about that. Look, Vincent, I was offering to replace the coffee I spilled, not whatever it is you're thinking."
My answer amuses him for some reason, as he tilts his head to the side with half a smile. "'Don't worry about that' is an interesting name."
So he's got jokes. Not funny, and definitely not appreciated. But jokes.
"Do you want coffee or not?" I demand.
His eyes light up even more as he chuckles, and I roll my shoulders to deflect the pleasant sensation the sound tries to elicit. I am not about to be seduced by a nice laugh.
Tearing his gaze from me, he quickly sobers when he checks his watch, which, luckily for him, is still dry. "I better hurry home and change before I'm late for the Monday meeting," he mutters, then sighs and looks at me. "Maybe you can make up for the coffee another time."
My eyes bug out at his words. I am too stunned to speak. And before I can think of a good comeback, he's out the door.
"You can buy me another coffee if you want." Pops steps close and eyes me as he raises his cup to his mouth. "I know how you independent women these days like to pay for everything, so you can take me to breakfast too."
Heaven help me.
I look at the ground, where two drops of coffee lie on the light wooden floor. "Watch your step. Don't want to have you fall and break a hip."
Walking away, I shake my head. My mom would tear me a new one for not respecting my elders, even if he did deserve it.
Back at the table, I set our cups down and regard Gina sternly. "Do. Not. Even."
"What?" Her eyes are all rounded innocence. She takes a small sip of her latte, but I can see she's ready to burst.
I may as well have her get it out of her system now instead of badgering me later. With a sigh, I fold my arms across my chest and wait for her to crack.
It doesn't take long. She leans forward on the table and covers one side of her mouth like she's telling me a big secret. "Okay, but did you see how fine he was?"
"He's still here if you want me to get his number for you."
"What?" Her eyebrows knit before she scowls. "Don't play. You know I'm not talking about Grandpa. I'm referring to Hottie with the Body."
Copyright © 2024 by Etta Easton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.