The Heiress Takes A Husband
The Heiress Takes A Husband
How humiliating to be subjected to her first blind date at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.
But then again, this was Miracle Harbor, Brittany thought. What if it was him at the door? The one. Her own Prince Charming to escort her to the ball, and through life ever after.
She opened the door, her breath stopping in her throat at the man who stood there. “You.”
Was he going to show up every single time she contemplated wedded bliss? Did that mean something?
He looked down at her, and for a moment she was so mesmerized by his eyes that she was frozen. They were a shade of blue that reminded her of a sleepy ocean on a hot day.
“I’m Mitch Hamilton,” he said, in that voice.
A voice that could make a perfectly proper girl like her think very naughty thoughts of what exactly it meant being married…
Cara Colter shares ten acres in the wild Kootenay region of British Columbia with the man of her dreams, three children, two horses, a cat with no tail and a golden retriever who answers best to ‘bad dog’. She loves reading, writing and the woods in winter (no bears). She says life’s delights include an automatic garage door opener and the skylight over the bed that allows her to see the stars at night.
She also says, ‘I have not lived a neat and tidy life, and used to envy those who did. Now I see my struggles as having given me a deep appreciation of life, and of love, that I hope I succeed in passing on through the stories that I tell.’
The Heiress Takes a Husband Cara Colter
Brittany Patterson, who considered herself to be unshockable, was in shock.
It was everything she could do to keep her hands calmly folded on her lap, instead of wrapping her arms around herself and hugging, hard and long. It was everything she could do to keep the hot tears that smoldered behind her eyes from falling.
She, who had always been alone, was no longer alone.
Brittany wanted to scoff at her own sentiment. She hadn’t been alone, precisely. She’d had her adoptive parents. Friends.
And yet when she glanced again at the faces of her sisters, so eerily similar to her own, she felt as if she had been lonely all her life, her heart waiting for something it knew.
Not just sisters. But triplets. Brittany Patterson had just found out she was one of triplets. She wanted to gaze at them, drink in their features, marvel at the quirk of Abby’s mouth, Corrine’s toss of her hair, mannerisms she possessed herself.
Instead, she forced herself to listen to the silver-haired Jordan Hamilton, hoping the lawyer would say something that would unravel the mystery of why they had not always been together.
Instead the mystery deepened.
He did not know why they had grown up apart, each unaware of the existence of the others. He knew only that they had been reunited, here, in his office by a person he would not name. And that same person had bestowed a gift on each of them.
Vaguely she registered her sister, Abby, had received a house. Vaguely she registered conditions. And then her own name penetrated the warm, misty fog of her brain, and she listened, some part of her alert, while the other still swam in the warmth of her discovery. Sisters.
“…the gift of the Main Street Bakery, 207 Main Street, Miracle Harbor, Oregon, on the condition that Miss Patterson reside in Miracle Harbor for a period of one year, and that she marry within that time period.”
Brittany drew in her breath sharply, landed solidly on Planet Earth, and eyed the distinguished, silver-haired lawyer, waiting for him to laugh.
But he wasn’t laughing.
“Mr. Hamilton, my parents are behind this, aren’t they?” she said. She supposed they were regretting that they had taken such a firm stand after her car accident. They probably had found out, somehow, she had sold the beautiful Fabergé tennis bracelet just last week. In a way, their plot was brilliant.
“Your parents?” Jordan Hamilton asked. He seemed genuinely astonished.
“You know,” she said, “buy me a career and get me married off in one fell swoop.” She said this lightly, as if it didn’t matter one little bit to her that her parents did not think she was capable of looking after herself. Not that that assessment would be completely unfair.
Six months had passed since they had cut the purse strings, right after she had wrecked her beautiful apple-red Corvette and wound up in the hospital. Their terms were brutally simple. No allowance, no loans, no credit cards, no access to the bank account. They had told her they were not going to pay for her to kill herself, that it was time for her to join the real world, learn to be a responsible adult, make her contribution to the human race.
Six months, and Brittany had yet to find a job. Even though she was trying so hard.
“But what about us?” one of her sisters, Corrine, asked. “How could your parents manufacture us?”
“Why would your adoptive parents give me a house?” Abby chimed in.
Brittany started, and looked again at the other two women in the room. It was the strangest and somehow the loveliest feeling she had ever had.
She smiled, amazed at how much relief she felt that her adoptive parents weren’t behind the fact she was sitting in this lawyer’s office. Couldn’t possibly be behind it.
“I guess,” she said thoughtfully, “not even Mr. and Mrs. Conroy Patterson are rich enough to clone people. Not that I think they’d want to clone me.”
“Why not?” Abby, the one in the navy blue dress that looked like something a nun would choose, asked with mild indignation.
So, Brittany thought, and nestled deeper into the warmth creeping through her, this is what it meant to have a sister. Abby didn’t even know her, and it was evident she chose to believe the best of her, anyway.
But about getting married—
The door to the lawyer’s office whispered open behind her. Brit glanced over her shoulder, and felt her eyes widen.
If that’s what appeared when you even thought about getting married in a place called Miracle Harbor, then she was all for it, after all.
He was gorgeous. The proverbial tall—at least six feet of him—dark—crisp black hair and olive-tinted skin—and handsome—slanting brows, straight nose, sensual lips and strong chin. Add to that the fact that his conservative clothing did nothing to hide a lean body that rippled with easy male strength.
Then she noticed his eyes and felt her heart would tumble from her chest. They glittered wickedly, an impossible shade of blue, almost aquamarine, framed in a sooty abundance of spiky lashes.
Those eyes met hers, and held, coolly professional, and yet just beneath that look lurked something else. Something wildly intriguing…a hint of the untamed, a suggestion of potent male strength, a shadow of leashed sensuality.
In fact, despite the impeccable cut of the white linen shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, the silk tie, loosened slightly, she thought he’d look very at home with those long, muscled legs wrapped around a big black, silver-chromed engine-growling motorcycle, or a plunging wild-eyed stallion or—
She felt the heat rising in her cheeks, and looked swiftly away from him.
“My son,” Jordan Hamilton murmured by way of introduction, “Mitch.”
“Dad, I just have the Phillips’ contract I need your signature on.”
His voice was like raw silk caressing heated skin, and Brit shivered as if he had touched her. She felt almost panicked by the attraction she felt to him, curbed her urge to drink him in, and studied her fingernails instead until he had left the room.
“Now,” the elder Mr. Hamilton said apologetically, “about the bakery…”
She tried to keep her mind from wandering out of the room with the intriguing younger Mr. Hamilton. Frankly a bakery wasn’t even remotely close to what Brittany was looking for. Something in public relations had seemed more her line, or marketing. Or being the buyer for a posh clothing store. Something like that. A fun job where she had an expense account and a clothing allowance and flew to Paris and Milan on a regular basis.
But since not one of the companies where she had applied for such positions had even had the courtesy to call her back, she’d have to use a dumb bakery to show everyone just what she could do, to live up to the faith in her that she saw shining in her sisters’ eyes.
An hour later, she was walking arm and arm with her sisters, reveling in the looks of delighted surprise they attracted from the citizens of Miracle Harbor as they sashayed down the main street.
A main street out of a picture book. White-capped waves crashing against a sandy shore on one side of the street, lovely old brick buildings, with colorful awnings lining the other.
“This won’t be such a terrible place to spend a year,” she decided, out loud. “It’s cute and quaint. Perfectly adorable. And being here with you, with my sisters, and getting a chance to know you…” she sighed happily without finishing the sentence.
“You seem to be forgetting the husband part,” Corrine pointed out, sourly. Corrine was dressed in blue jeans with a rip in the knee and a denim jacket faded nearly white.
“Oh, pooh, people get married all the time for less than romantic reasons. I doubt any of the couples my parents know got married because they loved each other. Certainly my parents didn’t.” Nothing in her tone of voice revealed a little girl who had ached for authentic love, the only gift her wealthy parents had seemed incapable of giving.
“I think that’s sad,” Abby said softly, just as if she had glimpsed that little girl despite Brittany’s carefully measured tone.
“It’s realistic,” Brittany said quickly, and added with a devilish wink, “If I like my bakery, I’ll put an ad in the paper—Husband Wanted. Must be tall, dark and handsome. Something like that gorgeous lawyer who came into the office to get something signed. What was his name?”
As if she would ever forget. But if Brit had a talent it was for not letting people know exactly what she really felt, a talent for never being too vulnerable. It seemed to her it might be unnecessary to protect herself from her sisters, but on the other hand, old habits died hard, and in this one area she always chose to err on the side of caution.
“I think it was Mike,” Corrine said.
“No, it wasn’t,” Abby corrected her. “Mark.”
“Well, definitely an M,” Brit said, secretly delighted that neither of her sisters had apparently seen him as a prospect.
“I’ll move here for a year to get to know both of you,” Corrine said, “but I can’t just drop everything and come. It will be at least May before I can get here. And I’m not getting married because someone tells me I have to. Forget it.”
“I’ll help you find a husband you like,” Brittany said cheerfully, “but first we’ll have to lose the jeans. You’d look wonderful in Ralph Lauren because,” she giggled, “I do.”
And then she laughed at Corrine’s dark expression. She squeezed her hand, and was rewarded with a small smile that allowed her to glimpse the sweetness of her sister Corrine’s spirit.
It seemed to Brittany that Abby and Corrine’s love was wrapping around her, an unconditional gift she had done nothing to earn, and it was as soft as the fragrant mist off the sea.
She felt she had never been so happy, so full of hope, so excited about life and all its wonderful possibilities.
She looked up at the bronze numbers over the businesses, and felt herself holding her breath. 201, 203, 205…
Then, she saw the bakery. Her bakery.
Two months later…
“Just a minute,” Brittany called, when the knock came on her apartment door, again. She looked in the full-length mirror in her bedroom, oblivious to the unmade bed, the scattered clothing, the open makeup pots.
“I look awful,” she wailed. “Awful.”
The knock came again, firm, unrelenting. She ignored it.
It was hopeless. The bridesmaid’s dress was peach chiffon. Sleeveless, it fit her like a dream, swirled around her trim figure, showed off the slender length of her legs, the swell of her bosom, the curve of sun-kissed shoulders. The dress was perfect.
And her makeup was perfect, too. Her high cheekbones accentuated, the blue-gold of her eyes shown off, her lips looking dewy and wet, her skin golden peach.
Her long hair, expertly highlighted so that it glittered with threads of gold and wheat and honey, was piled up on top of her head, just the odd wild tendril allowed to escape.
She looked absolutely stunning, in every way, and it was spoiled, totally ruined by one disastrous detail. Paint.
A thick stripe of it ran through the gold strands of her hair, and speckles of the same shade were scattered over her bare arms from wrists to shoulders. Nothing would convince it to go. And she knew, because she had tried everything from paint thinner to nail polish remover.
It was the result of repainting the interior of her bakery, without question the most grueling labor she had ever done. She had chosen an absolutely posh shade of pink. Okay, after four whole days of doing nothing but working with it, it was not nearly as appealing as she found it at first, but that was perfectly understandable.
And she really didn’t care for it as a fashion accessory, but she reminded herself firmly, no sacrifice was too great to make for her bakery, and for her successful entrance into the Miracle Harbor business community. She had been given a brand-new chance. A brand-new life, really, and what was a little pink paint in the face of that?
Bang, bang, bang.
If whoever that was didn’t quit knocking on the door, she was going to scream. Except maybe successful business people weren’t allowed to scream.
She’d settle for leveling them with a look, whoever was at her door, impertinently ignoring her request for just a little more time. No doubt it was the escort, rounded up for her by her sister, Abby. With the bakery reopening next week, Brit simply never had enough time anymore for anything.
So, how had Abby found time between her seamstress job, and raising a baby, and getting married to find a date for her sister for the wedding?
Given Abby’s schedule, Brit thought it would be unreasonable on her part to expect much for an escort. How humiliating, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, being subjected to her first blind date. How dreadful that for her first Miracle Harbor social outing her companion for the evening might be less than stellar. Old. Ugly. What if he was wrinkled?
On the other hand, this was Miracle Harbor.
Look what had happened to Abby.
What if the very same thing happened to her? What if, within a week of arriving here, Brit met him. The one. Her very own Prince Charming to escort her to the ball, and through life ever after.
With one last resigned glance in the mirror, and one more sigh about the paint, she whirled and moved determinedly in the direction of her front door. She tried not to notice how humble the furnishings of her apartment were, tried not to see them through the eyes of her escort. Her place was an apartment above the bakery and it had come furnished. On her best days she could see that as a blessing, on her worst she hated to think about the rump that had left that worn dent on the fading sofa.
“Oh,” she muttered to herself, “he’ll probably be too decrepit and wrinkled to even notice anything beyond me.” And my pink paint, she added wryly to herself.
He banged again. The click of her high heels might have conveyed just a touch of her impatience, but she pasted a cool smile on her face before she flung open her front door.
“I said just a min—” her voice stopped in her throat. “You.”
Was he going to show up every single time she contemplated wedded bliss? Did that mean something?
It meant the pink paint, and the furniture mattered.
She stepped out onto the narrow wooden landing with the delightful view of Main Street’s back alley, and pulled the door mostly closed behind her.
He looked down at her, and for a moment she was so mesmerized by his eyes that she was frozen. They were a shade of blue that reminded her of a sleepy ocean on a hot day.
“I’m Mitch Hamilton,” he said, in that voice, a voice that could make a perfectly proper girl like her think very naughty thoughts of exactly what being married meant.
It meant his lips and his hands claiming her, holding her, owning her. It meant that deep voice in her ear growling incredible endearments. It meant waking up to his face every single morning, the sharp hollows of his cheeks shadowed with whiskers.
“Mitch Hamilton,” he said again, faintly bemused.
She drew herself up short, stunned at where her thoughts had gone, stunned by the force of the attraction, stunned to see nothing reciprocated in those ocean eyes.
Miracle Harbor or not, she decided, she was not making a fool of herself over any man.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said formally, diamond-edged ice in her voice.
Still, despite the small victory over her voice, she could not look away. It wasn’t just that he was compellingly handsome, or that he, of course, looked unnervingly perfect, in a navy blue suit with a fine pinstripe. Custom tailored, she guessed, to encompass the immense broadness of those shoulders. He had on a crisp white silk shirt, that made his skin look bronze and sun-warmed, a dark tie, the knot perfect and square. His legs were long, the slacks just hinted at the ridged cut of a very muscular thigh.
He looked every inch the successful man. Still, for all that sophistication, for all the obvious expense of the suit, she still saw it there. A glint in those amazing eyes that hinted at a part of him untamed. Perhaps even untamable?
Inwardly, she wondered how Abby could do this to her. She suddenly found herself wishing for what had moments ago seemed like it would be her worst nightmare. Someone old and wrinkled and ugly.
A man she could handle with one arm tied behind her back, and several gallons of paint splashed over herself.
But this man…he was a man out of a dream. Handsome. Well-made. Oozing male confidence and subtle sensuality. He was the kind of man who simply took a woman’s breath away, made her go weak with strange and forbidden longings.
And she had pink paint in her hair, and reptilian spots all over her arms. Which, to give her credit, Abby didn’t know about.
“How could she do this to me?” she murmured, to herself, but out loud this time. She gave her head a rueful shake, hoping to clear the spell she was floundering under and become herself. Cosmopolitan. Sophisticated. Witty. In control.
“Pardon?” He took a step back and glanced hopefully for an apartment number, as if he were suddenly wishing he was in the wrong place.
There was no number. Hers was just one set of stairs in a long line of them that came up from the back lane to the stuffy little apartments located over the main street businesses.
“Are you Brittany? Brittany Patterson?”
“I’m sorry. Who did what to you?” He cocked an eyebrow at her, tilted his head.
“My sister. You.”
“My father, Jordan Hamilton, asked me if I would escort you to your sister’s wedding,” he said with a certain stiff dignity.
She realized he had been roped into the task of escorting her to Abby’s wedding. And that he obviously was not nearly as swayed by her, as she was by him.
Adjectives kept running through her head, as she gazed helplessly at him. Gorgeous. Stunning. Dazzling.
Because she wanted more than anything else for him to want to take her to her sister’s wedding. And because that made her feel weak and silly, and the way she least liked to feel—vulnerable—she said, “I’m sure everyone’s intentions were great, but I certainly don’t need an escort. I’m quite happy to go by myself.”
His eyes narrowed and she felt a funny shiver go down her spine as she recognized that his will was at least as strong as hers. Perhaps, heaven forbid, stronger.
“My orders are to get you to the church on time.” He slid back an impeccable sleeve and glanced at a watch. A Rolex watch. “Which means we have to leave. Now.”
She noticed again his voice, deep-timbred, even more sensual with that note of implacable sternness in it. But for all the smooth confidence of his voice that same hint of something wild ran at the edges of it.
Of course, the autocratic note she could do without.
With incredible effort she pulled herself together. That would be the day when she ever let a man like this get the upper hand, let him think she would allow herself to be bossed around like an errant child!
“Well, we can’t leave right now,” she said firmly. “I can’t. I’m not ready.”
This invited his inspection. He looked at her closely, his gaze suddenly uncomfortably intense, nothing in it suggesting he was coming up with a lovely list of adjectives to describe her.
“You look fine to me.”
“Except you seem to have,” he reached out a tentative hand, and touched, “something in your hair. Bubble gum?”
She jerked away from his hand, appalled by the ridiculous sensation that electricity had shot from his fingertips.
“Paint! It’s on my arms, too. This is unbelievable.” That she was standing here talking to this ravishing man about this. “It will not come off. How can they manufacture something like that? Aren’t there laws?”
“I’m afraid laws concerning paint products are not my specialty.” His amusement was reluctant.
“What am I going to do?” she asked, more to herself than him.
“Hope for dim lighting,” he suggested, without an appropriate amount of sympathy. “We have to go now.”
“I can’t. You don’t understand.” He really didn’t understand, how important it was that today, of all days, she be absolutely faultless. And not for herself and not so he could see her at her ravishing best, though certainly that would have been a bonus.
“It’s Abby’s day,” she whispered, “and it needs to be perfect. I’m a bridesmaid. I’ll be in all the pictures. I can’t wreck her pictures.”
She had the funniest feeling that she had just revealed something more of herself than she was prepared to have rejected by his Royal Handsomeness, because he was looking at her closely as if he was seeing something he hadn’t seen before.
“The pictures will probably be in that horrible little paper,” she said swiftly. “I can’t be seen like this.”
His eyes became impatient, but his voice did not. “It doesn’t look that bad. Bubble gum is obviously not your shade, but I really don’t think it’s that noticeable. Not like, say, neon green.”
“Please stop calling it bubble gum. It’s frosted dawn,” she informed him regally.
“And how did, er, frosted dawn, end up on bleached blond?”
Bleached blond? She wasn’t even going to dignify that by responding to it. This man knew how to make an enemy.
“I happen to be painting,” she informed him in a chilled tone.
“An artist,” he said, as if that explained all kinds of eccentricities. “The last show the museum brought in was done by a dog. Seriously. He had had his tail dipped in paint, and wagged it over the canvas.”
The most handsome man she had ever, ever laid eyes on, had casually grouped her, the bleached blonde, in the same category as a dog that painted with its tail.
She sighed. She had looked forward to this day with eagerness and delight. It was the day of her sister’s wedding, a day that confirmed miracles really did happen to the most ordinary of people, a day that celebrated love. A day that filled her with this wistful, secret hope that maybe one day, in the not too distant future, she too would be a bride.
Now, she could tell things were just not going to go exactly as per her plan. Anything close to her plan. For today. And that probably included the rest of her life, too.
“I’m not an artist!” she told him coldly. “I’m painting the walls. In my business.”
He looked at the shade in her hair incredulously. “Really?”
“This shade looks much better on the walls.”
“Really?” he said again. A slow smile was spreading across those firm lips, slow and warm and sexy.
How could Abby do this to her?
“It’s not funny,” she told him desperately.
“Of course not,” he said, in a voice that could easily have tacked “Your Honor” on the end of his response. The smile disappeared. “But do you know what really wouldn’t be amusing? Being late for the wedding. That could spoil the occasion. This, on the other hand,” he gestured at her hair, “will probably be a source of great amusement every time everyone looks at the pictures for years to come.”
“A source of amusement,” she muttered unhappily. “For years to come.”
Still she looked at her watch, and with a little cry of dismay knew he was right. She had to leave.
Apparently with him.
Giving him a look of regal dislike, as if he were responsible for the fact she had paint on her head, she swept by him and down her creaky steps.
“Why do I have the awful feeling this is going to be the worst evening of my life?” she murmured as he had to reach out and grab her elbow when her ankle turned on the step.
“Ditto,” he responded dryly, letting go of her arm with extreme and unnecessary haste.
She let him open the car door for her, a jet-black Mercedes 600SL, a car she had personally always considered more conceited than sporty.
He slid into his seat, and started the powerful engine, looking straight ahead, not even attempting conversation.
A soldier carrying out orders.
“You didn’t want to do this, did you?”
He glanced at her, looked ahead again, and did not look the least uncomfortable. “I did it as a favor to my father.”
“You must care a great deal about your father since its obvious you’d rather be eating raw jalapeño peppers chased down with chili sauce.”
He smiled slightly. “I have great respect for my father, but it’s true that given an option, I wouldn’t exactly jump at an opportunity to spend an awkward evening with a total stranger.”
“It seems to me it could have been much worse,” she snapped.
“I could have been old. And wrinkled. And ugly.”
He didn’t say anything, his silence far more insulting than if he had responded.
“And you did have an option. I told you I was capable of going by myself.”
“I didn’t have an option,” he said grimly. “I told my father I’d take you. And I will.”
“I suspect you have hopelessly old-fashioned notions about honor and integrity,” she said as if that were a bad thing.
When really it seemed to her she had discovered the most amazing of men.
Wasn’t it just her luck that he was a man who had no intention of being “discovered”? Or at least not on a blind date, by a woman with pink hair, who lived at the top of a flight of rickety stairs. If only she could have made that all-important first impression count.
Brittany decided life was unbearably cruel.
Despite the melodrama of that thought, she found the wedding was beautiful once she got there, even with the paint in her hair, which nobody noticed, and the unwilling escort at her side, whom everybody did. Abby and Shane looked gloriously happy as they exchanged vows.
But the rest of the evening lived up to her dismal expectations.
Throughout dinner, Mitch Hamilton was a disapproving, humorless presence who defied her every effort to ignore him. She could still feel the sting of his disapproval over the story with which she’d entertained the other guests at their table.
A really funny story, about the one hundred and thirty-two packages of red food color she had put in her parents’ pool at their home in Highwoods in California when she was a kid.
Mr. High-and-Mighty hadn’t even laughed. He’d looked bored and then looked at his watch as if counting the minutes he’d have to put up with her.
Still, he had a certain physical allure—that same almost electrical sensation she had felt when he touched her hair—exuding from him, that made it impossible to pretend he did not exist.
Not that he was ever going to know it from her.
Now, the dance had started, and Brittany focused more intently on the couple who held center stage. Brittany was not sure she had ever seen such a beautiful sight.
Her sister, Abby, the train of her long ivory wedding dress held up from sweeping the floor by a lace loop attached to her wrist, was dancing her first dance as Mrs. McCall. She and her husband, Shane, moved around the room with the grace of two people who had been born to dance together.
There was something in the way they were looking at each other that made Brit want to believe all over again in possibility. Fairy tales. Happy endings. True love.
Her sister and her new husband danced as if they were alone in the room. The light that shone from their eyes combined wonder and tenderness and passion to such a degree it made a lump rise in Brittany’s throat.
Be happy, she ordered herself sternly, taking another quick, soothing gulp of the champagne, especially when it felt like the tears pricking at the back of her eyes were going to fall. As if she’d ever cry in front of him.
“Did you want another glass of champagne?” His voice was ice and steel, tinged with an underlying disapproval, as if she were drinking too much.
Brit noticed, with some surprise, that her champagne glass was empty.
“Why not?” she said.
Her escort looked like he was debating giving her a few reasons why not, then with a shrug snagged her a drink off a passing tray. None for him, though, Mr. Control.
“Loosen up,” she told him. “Be happy. It’s a wedding.”
He studied her for a moment. “You don’t look that happy.”
“I am so,” she said, taking another swig, recognizing just a touch of defiance in the gesture. Her sincerest wish was to be happy for her sister, but the truth was she felt envious.
It just wasn’t fair. Her sister had been given a house. With a man in it. A gorgeous man, who had fallen hopelessly and helplessly in love with Abby in the space of weeks.
It just wasn’t fair. Her sisters were the ones who had been appalled at the prospect of having to get married to retain their gifts.
Brittany had been the realistic one! Marriages were about gaining security or prestige or power. Love?
Abby had all the luck.
And I got a bakery.
“How is the bakery?” he asked.
She realized she had spoken out loud, and that maybe she should take it easy on the champagne. Having made that decision, she took another swig.
“Fine,” she said, smiling with fake brightness. He had asked only to meet the minimum requirement for politeness. He didn’t want to know the truth—that the bakery was a disaster. A little hole in the wall on main street, with aging equipment, horrible decor and no guy, unless she counted Luigi, the grouchy, middle-aged man who did the baking.
Still, in her better moments, she clung to its potential, was nearly dazzled with all the possibilities. Outdoor tables facing the ocean, a fuller menu, a French chef, famous artists vying for space on her walls…
His voice cut through her daydreams. “Did I notice it was closed last week?”
“I officially took over last week, and closed for a few days,” she said. “I’m redecorating for the grand reopening on Monday.”
When she had first sat in her bakery, with her sisters, at one of the six tiny little card tables, it had been so easy to dream. New floors, cute tablecloths, fresh flowers, pink paint, wallpaper. She hadn’t really realized how hard it was to turn a simple dream into a tangible reality. But still, in a few days, the hard part would be over. And it would be worth it.
“Ah, the paint,” he said. “What made you decide to tackle painting?”
Money seemed like too crass an answer, so she shrugged.
“You don’t exactly seem like the handy type. Rollers and overalls, paint thinners. A hat.”
She had never wanted to be the handy type, so why did it annoy her so much that he could see she wasn’t? The hat was an unnecessary dig. She had thought of a hat, but didn’t like the way hats flattened her hair.
“So what type do I look like?” she asked, tilting her chin up proudly.
“The Yellow Pages type.”
Why did she feel so aggravated that he was seeing her so accurately? The truth was that’s exactly what she would have been if she’d had the money to indulge herself. But when she’d phoned several painting companies, she’d been appalled at what they wanted to paint one little room. Her budget for the redecorating was a thousand dollars, the price she had gotten for her last piece of jewelry, a pair of beautiful emerald earrings set in platinum. There was no more jewelry to sell, which had been just about the most frightening feeling of her entire life.
If she didn’t count that bottom-falling-out-of-her-world feeling she was getting every time she took another sip of champagne and looked more deeply into his eyes.
She hadn’t figured painting would be hard work. She’d actually entertained the notion it would be fun. It had been fun. For the first fifteen minutes.
“What made you choose bubble gum pink?” he asked.
“Frosted dawn!” she snapped, though the awful truth was that was exactly what the inside of her shop looked like—a bubble of gum that someone had exploded all over her walls. Between her inexpertise and the old surfaces of the walls, the paint had not taken evenly. In some places, where she had impatiently put the paint on too thick there were ghastly dribbles, teardrop shaped, down the walls. In others, where she had tried to do a second coat before the first one was dry enough, the paint looked rough and angry.
“Did you get any on the walls?” he asked.
She tilted her chin a little more, and wondered, just a little fuzzily, if he was laughing at her. “As a matter of fact, the walls look great.” This was a lie. But she knew they would look great once she covered the worst of the mess with wallpaper and posters. Which meant tomorrow, Sunday, when the rest of the world would be sleeping in and frolicking on the beach with their families, she would be working. And it was darned hard work, especially for a girl who had never even cleaned her own bathroom.
“Well,” he said, “just be thankful you didn’t try wallpapering. An amateur can make a real mess of that.”
“Really?” she said, and successfully hid her panic by taking another slug of champagne.
“What made you want to repaint? I thought it looked fine. My Dad and I go there for morning coffee most weekdays.”
It occurred to her he was actually making conversation, probably only in an attempt to slow down her champagne consumption, which was really none of his business. Still, this was an improvement over icy, disapproving silence.
That little Cinderella hope inside her flared to life.
“The paint reflects a change in mood,” she told him earnestly. His Dad and he came to the bakery. Why would she care that it wasn’t one of the secretaries, that he wasn’t meeting his girlfriend there?
“A moody bakery,” he said, the finest edge of mockery in his voice.
“You’d be amazed what I’m planning on doing with that place.”
His expression made her want to convince him, and the champagne loosened her tongue.
“I’m renaming it for starters. The Main Street Bakery. What does that say?”
“That it’s on Main Street? That it’s a bakery?”
“It says no imagination. Dull, dull, dull, is what it says. The new name is Heavenly Treats. Don’t you think that plays well on the miracle part? Of Miracle Harbor?”
“I guess,” he said doubtfully. “Though I’m not sure that’s what people go to the bakery for. Miracles. I think they just want a loaf of bread, or a doughnut and coffee.”
She ignored his pragmatism. What place did that have in the spinning of dreams? “I’m introducing specialty coffees, and some European-style treats. Doughnuts and coffee are so passé.”
“Passé,” he agreed. There was really no doubting the mocking edge to his voice now.
“There’s a place in Los Angeles called The Chocolate Bar that sells specialty desserts for five dollars a pop!”
He still looked unimpressed.
“And of course, I’m going to get some little café-style tables, and put them outside, facing the beach. Red-checked tablecloths.”
“That sounds interesting,” he said, as if it sounded anything but.
“You don’t think I’m going to be able to pull this off.” She realized this suddenly, and felt deflated, and then annoyed with herself for caring what he thought.
“I never said that.”
“I can tell what you’re thinking.”
“In that case, you might want to offer a little mind-reading business on the side. Madam Brittany. Do you do palms?”
“You’re making fun of me.” What was it with her? Did she have a big sign on her head that invited people not to take her seriously? Is that why she’d had no response to her job applications?
She’d show them all. Heavenly Treats was going to be a huge success. The painting might not be going as planned, but that was a minor glitch. The real job began when the bakery reopened on Monday.
She could already see herself, standing there in the nice little Caroline Herrera sundress with the keyhole neckline. She had decided ages ago it would be perfect for this occasion. She could picture herself greeting customers, telling them about the day’s specialties, going from table to table at her outdoor café refilling cappuccino cups and taking orders for more slices of five-dollar tortes.
She could picture herself being admired for her panache, and her imaginative approach to business and her delightful light touches.
Not one single person would know she was scared to death.
“Are you scared?” he asked her, suddenly, regarding her with unsettling intensity.
“Scared?” She laughed. “Now who’s playing at mind reader? You don’t know the first thing about Brit Patterson, do you? And if anybody, including you, thinks I’m going to put my heart and soul into Heavenly Treats, and then lose it over a little detail like the fact I’m not married, they can think again.”
The speech, she realized would have been more effective without the embarrassing hiccup in the middle of it.
She managed to restrain herself from blurting out the rest of her plan. After all the hard work she’d already invested in the place, her ad was going in the paper next week. Husband Wanted.
“I think it’s our turn.”
His voice was deep and sexy and full of authority. He was standing, his hand held out to her. He was such a commanding figure. He had loosened his tie, and she could see the strong column of his throat, the beginning of springy, dark hairs on his chest.
It would be nice if he was asking her to dance out of anything but a sense of duty, but of course that wasn’t the case. The rest of the wedding party was joining the bride and groom on the dance floor.
Brittany put her hand in Mitch’s.
Another shock of awareness shivered through her as his hand, warm and dry and infinitely strong, closed around hers.
A moment later they were on the dance floor. The band was playing a waltz.
He danced very properly. No pulling too tight and groping for him. A good-sized gorilla could have inserted itself in the space between them. She glanced up at his face. Remote. Nothing in it to suggest he shared her feeling of wanting to move a little closer, hold a little harder.
She decided, just a touch fuzzily, that it should be a criminal offense to be as good-looking as he was.
She would have to tell Abby, at some more opportune occasion, that this was the kind of surprise she did not need in a life that was already thoroughly and not always pleasantly surprising. Still, she supposed it was the kind of thing sisters did, and she knew Abby had meant well setting her up. But then who could have guessed he was such a grouch?
Mitch danced flawlessly, which did not surprise her. Everything about him would be flawless. He probably ironed his underwear.
Suddenly, she had to be looking anywhere but at him. What if he looked in her face and saw how hopelessly chaotic he made her thoughts? What if he saw that as effortlessly as he had seen she was scared?
“Lucky guess,” she muttered.
“Lucky dress,” she said. “The one my sister Corrine is wearing. She told me.”
He looked like he thought she was drunk, which she wasn’t. She was only the tiniest bit tipsy. He was the one making her act impaired. His presence, his hand intertwined with hers, the aroma coming off him of soap, and aftershave.
The attraction felt like a beast within her, leaping, hurling itself against a chain-link fence, frothing at the mouth, completely ignoring her feeble commands to get in control.
By now, if Mitch had an ounce of good old hot, red blood flowing in his veins, he really should have noticed how terrific she looked beyond the paint.
She decided, abruptly, that she had had it with Mitch Hamilton and his indifference to her considerable charms.
She felt cut to the quick, hurt beyond reason.
She wanted to tear herself away from him, run and hide in the bathroom. And then after everyone was gone, she could come out and limp home in her high-heeled shoes in the darkness.
Pathetic, she told herself. She would not be pathetic. Besides, if she did that, if she ran away and hid, he would know he could affect her. And she wasn’t going to let him know that.
She knew she had to do the exact opposite of running away. Her life depended on it. Her whole sense of her self.
She closed the distance between them, pressed herself into the long length of his body. Remain indifferent to that, she challenged him silently.
At first he went very still, and then his hand found the small of her naked back and pressed her into him, yet closer. His body was somehow more than she had expected. Harder. She could feel the ridges of his muscles against her own softness.
She hadn’t really expected this. To feel as if she had been born to dance with him as surely as Abby had been born to dance with Shane. She hadn’t expected to feel powerless instead of powerful.
Stunned by the feelings shooting through her, and by how vulnerable and needy they made her feel, she committed more deeply and more desperately to convincing him the exact opposite was true.
She kissed him.
At first his lips, tasting of raindrops and honey, were motionless, absolutely still, beneath hers. She registered, in slow motion, how soft they felt, when they looked so hard.
Have some pride, she ordered herself, pull away.
But her lips mutinied and did exactly as they pleased. The beast howled happily within her. She wanted to taste Mitch, could not get enough of the taste of him, would forgo champagne forever in favor of this much headier blend. Her lips nudged his, slid across them, coerced, begged.
And when his lips answered, her world exploded, was annihilated. Her whole world became sensation, the touch of his lips on hers. Everything and everyone else faded.
They were alone, their world only this.
The kiss was like a rocket ignited, that soared heavenward and exploded into tiny fragments of delight. She could feel the fragments of that kiss float through her, until not one part of her was left untingling. Her whole body seemed to shake and shimmer, to take on an almost iridescent quality.
He pulled away first, and she stared up at him, dazed, shell-shocked from the abrupt transition from one world to the other. His blue eyes were dark and unreadable, but she could feel the faintest tremor, desire leashed, where his hand rested on the small of her back.
She laughed, shakily. She’d blown it. How could he remain unaware that he affected her after that?
He did not return her smile.
Lightly, she said, “How much do you know about the gifts my sisters and I are receiving?”
You’re playing with fire, her mind warned her, but the champagne kept her going.
Why not him? She needed a husband, and he could kiss like a house on fire. That could certainly make up for his lack of a sense of humor. She could ask carelessly, she could appear not to be the least concerned about his answer.
“You might want to think about the conditions of my receiving my gift.”
“Conditions?” he asked, his voice smooth and unperturbed, those ocean foam eyes unsettling in their steadiness on her face.
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“Living in Miracle Harbor for a year?”
“No,” she said.
“Oh, the other condition.”
She inclined her head slightly, waited.
He smiled, so slow and sexy it felt like it could make her bones melt. He leaned close to her.
And said, quietly, his breath tickling the nape of her neck, “Not if you were the last woman on earth.”
For a moment, Mitch thought he’d gone too far.
His “not if you were the last woman on earth” hung in the sudden silence between them.
For a moment, she didn’t seem like some glorious goddess of light and fire and passion. But then all that confidence seemed to crumple, as if it had been an illusion.
In the blink of an eye, she looked young and vulnerable, and like a child who had had her hand slapped for reaching for the candy. Him. Candy?
He must have been kidding himself, because the look left her eyes almost instantly, if it had been there at all.
Then she smiled brilliantly, and said, “Isn’t it a good thing for me, I have a Plan B?”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
She tossed her hair and leaned toward him. “I’m putting an ad in the newspaper.”
“For a husband?” Too late he realized she wanted to shock him.
She nodded cheerfully.
“I don’t think that’s a very wise thing to do.” It wasn’t what he wanted to say. He wanted to take her by her slender shoulders, give her a shake and tell her not to be so bloody stupid.
But he didn’t want to touch her again. Her skin had been like silk under his fingertips, and touching her had made him feel a helpless and nameless longing. It had made him feel weak, almost defenseless against her, and he hated that feeling enough that he intended to fight it with everything he had. And that was before she had kissed him.
Which is why he had told her he wouldn’t marry her if she was the last woman on earth. He wasn’t surrendering to her power. No doubt every man she had ever met had capitulated to her potent brand of charm, but he wasn’t going to.
He should mind his own business about her ad, too. He didn’t want to look like he cared about what foolishness she got into. Dammit. He did not care.
How could he care? He knew nothing about her beyond the few details in her case file. The adopted only child of Mr. and Mrs. Conroy Patterson, aging California jet-setters. Brit Patterson up close and personal appeared to be all that the file had implied: a spoiled, self-centered rich girl who was getting an unwelcome taste of real life.
Okay, so she happened to be so beautiful he felt like he couldn’t breathe around her.
And she happened to pack a kiss with more punch than a trainload full of TNT.
He felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned to see Farley Houser, another lawyer from his firm, cutting in. Cutting in. Mitch didn’t even know that happened in real life. He thought it only happened in movies, which probably said all that needed saying about his social life.
Why did he feel so annoyed? He should be glad to be out of her clutches.
He stood there for a moment, watching her laugh up into Farley’s handsome, if somewhat sun-damaged face. What if she thought wrinkles were distinguished?
What did he care what she thought? Farley, who seemed to work for amusement and not because he needed money, would probably be a perfect match for her. Meeting him here could save her some money on her newspaper ad. Farley loved getting married. That’s why he had done it three times.
Still, Mitch had to ask himself if he sincerely wished Brit and Farley well, why was he gauging how Farley held her, ready to intervene in an instant if the space between their bodies closed, as if he were a chaperone at the high school dance?
Mitch joined his father and Angela Pondergrove at their table. But if he had hoped his father would talk business with him, and therefore take his mind off the intoxicating kiss he had just shared with Brittany Patterson, he was wrong.
Jordan Hamilton was embarrassingly enamored with the aging Angela. He spared Mitch only a few words before he turned his full attention back to his companion. When he leaned close and called her “Angel,” Mitch had no choice but to find something else to do with his eyes. He watched with relief as the music changed tempo from a waltz to some rock tune he recognized only vaguely.
He glanced around. Every male eye was on Brittany. His relief died. The girl could dance. She moved with grace and a subtle promise of sensuality. Her laughter floated on the air, like the tinkling of fairy bells. Farley, Mitch noted glumly, was an exceptional dancer, as well. The music died, and Farley, regret all over his face, gave her up to the Higgins boy who roasted hotdogs at the Piggy-in-A-Blanket stand during the day, and looked surprisingly like John Travolta by night.
After several dances it occurred to Mitch she was not going to return to their table. The local guys were around her three thick, like bees around honey.
What now? Could he go home? He didn’t think Jordan would approve of him abandoning his duties as her escort. The truth was Jordan didn’t ask many favors of him. And yet Mitch owed this man everything. Maybe he could look at sitting here at this dance, steam threatening to come out his ears, as part of his repayment to a man who had taken a wild, angry boy off the streets and given him a home, a life, a career.
So, he sat there, his mood getting darker and darker, as he watched the endless whirl of activity around her. It didn’t even seem to put a dent in her energy.
It was two in the morning before she made her way back to him. Angela and Jordan had long since departed. Brit’s face was glowing with laughter, looking as good as she had looked the moment he had first seen her. Better. Flushed. Exhilarated. Her bosom heaving delicately under the clinging fabric of that dress. She was absolutely at home with being the center of male attention and the belle of the ball.
“Mitch, there you are!”
He had barely changed position all evening, except to shed his jacket and tie, and roll up his sleeves against the insufferable heat in the room.
“I hope you weren’t waiting for me,” she said breathlessly. “Farley has offered to take me home.” She leaned confidentially closer to him. “He thinks the pink stripe in my hair is so cute. He said I could start a trend.”
“I don’t think so,” Mitch said, standing up. Brittany was a little bit tipsy. Several more strands of her piled-up hair had escaped and now curled wildly around her face. A bead of sweat rolled down between her collarbone, making its way straight for the vee in her dress between her luscious breasts.
He forced himself not to follow its progress.
“He probably doesn’t really think so, either,” she said, annoyed. “He was flattering me. That’s what men do when they find a woman attractive.”
She said this as if Mitch needed a few lessons in how to treat a woman, which he would be the first to admit he needed.
“I wasn’t referring to the pink stripe in your hair,” he informed her levelly. “You’re not going home with him.”
She looked at least as astonished as he felt that those words had come out of his mouth.
“When you’re ready to go, I’ll take you home,” he said, his voice deliberately quiet.
“But I told Farley—”
“You came with me,” he snapped. “It’s my responsibility to see you safely home.”
“Oh. Your responsibility.”
She glared at him. “I’m not six and I already told Farley—”
“I don’t give a damn what you told him.”
“What are you going to do? You can’t make me go with you instead of him.”
“Yes, I can.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. It occurred to him eyes like that, such a multitude of confusing colors, should be declared illegal.
“And how can you do that?” she asked defiantly. “Frankly, you don’t seem like the type to make a scene.”
“Frankly, you don’t know the first thing about me,” he told her quietly.
“I know you are not the type to toss a girl over your shoulder and storm out of the room like some Neanderthal fresh from the cave.”
The picture that flashed through his mind was not at all unappealing. “Don’t tempt me,” he warned her.
“Mitch Hamilton, I am twenty-seven years old, and you are not going to tell me what to do.”
“Why is it I have this feeling no one has ever succeeded in telling you what to do?”
“That’s correct,” she said with satisfaction.
Here’s what she didn’t know. He dealt with some of this community’s toughest kids on a regular basis. He had a knack—a furrow of brow, a deepening of voice, a flex of muscle—that encouraged them to see things his way. Still, facing a drug-crazed kid with a knife had nothing on facing her, not that he was going to let that show.
“Maybe it’s about time someone did,” he said, his voice deliberately calm, level. “Your friend who wants to drive you home is forty-seven years old. He’s been married three times. He brags about his conquests over morning coffee.”
And if she became one of them, Mitch had the awful feeling he’d fly across the coffee table and have old Farley up against the wall, his shirt wrapped in his fists, in the blink of an eye.
A bit of the street fighter was still in him, the rebel, the bad boy was not completely banished as he had thought.
Farley was coming toward them now, and Mitch saw with some satisfaction her eyes were fastened on his own taut biceps, before they flickered, full of doubt, to Farley.
Mitch stepped in front of Brittany, folded his arms over his chest, and placed his feet astride. “She came with me. I’m going to take her home.”
He waited for Brittany to leap from behind him and protest, and was amazed by her meek silence.
“She came with you? I had no idea,” Farley said, all smooth charm, completely unruffled.
“He’s got some old-fashioned notion that he needs to take me home,” Brittany said from behind Mitch. “But you can call me, Farley.”
She said Farley’s name with enough sugar in it that she could have been trying out for the part of Scarlett at the ball.
Mitch saw Farley glance at his face, and knew he saw there what Mitch managed to keep hidden most of the time, a wild place that would never be quite tamed. Mitch knew, with a sensation of satisfaction he did not want to investigate, that Farley would not be calling Brittany anytime soon.
Mitch turned to her. “Let’s go.”
“Humph,” she said, tilting her nose in the air.
She stumbled on the stair out, and he took her elbow. Her skin was warm beneath his fingertips, and soft. He actually regretted that he had not overcome his pride and danced with her one more time.
He was not a man accustomed to regrets.
“Is it necessary for you to make me feel like a prisoner under escort?” she asked.
He ignored her, and did not release her elbow. When they got to his car, he opened the passenger side door and shoved her inside. When he went around to the driver’s side, she had her face turned out her window and she kept it that way.
They drove to her place in silence. He got out and went around to her door, which she allowed him to open for her, but she jerked away from his steadying hand this time, and went up the lane and the stairs to her door in front of him. He walked her to the door not because he was foolish enough to expect—or want—a repeat of that kiss, but because the alleyway did not look like a safe place for a woman at this time of night.
“Good night, Mitch,” she said coolly at the top of her steps.
“Brittany,” he returned, just as coolly. He waited to hear the bolt slide shut on her door before he walked away. He walked down the stairs, thinking, with relief and regret mingled in equal parts. It’s over.
His obligation to Jordan was fulfilled.
“Mitch, it’s coffee time.”
Mitch glanced up at his office door. His adoptive father, Jordan, stood there. He debated telling him he couldn’t go today.
But they went for coffee every morning together. Had been doing so since Mitch joined the firm six years ago.
Unfortunately, they usually went just down the street to the Main Street Bakery, and he had not forgotten Brittany telling him her grand reopening was today.
Mitch took his jacket off the back of his chair, stood up and shrugged into it. Using the mirror on the back of a closet door, he straightened his tie. His eyes had dark crescents under them.
“You look tired, Mitch. Is everything all right?” Jordan asked.
“Sure,” he said.
But the truth was, it wasn’t. He felt like he hadn’t slept a wink since Saturday night. Haunted by the taste of her lips, the fire in her eyes, the toss of her head. Haunted by his own behavior.
The last thing he needed to do was go to her bakery and see how she was blundering along, her idealistic dreams on an inevitable collision course with cold, hard reality.
And he doubted if he could make himself stay away. He’d been tempted to drop in all morning. It was an unsettling feeling for a man as accustomed to control as he was, to be so tempted, to feel so pulled to the very thing that most threatened his control.
“Did you enjoy yourself Saturday night?” Jordan asked him, as they strolled down the street.
Mitch slid him a look. “It was okay,” he said noncommittally.
“Those triplets are beautiful, every one of them, but Brittany seems to have an extra—” He paused looking for words.
“Spark?” Mitch suggested drily.
“That’s it! She seems on fire with life.”
“You didn’t like her?” Jordan asked. “She seems like such a nice girl.”
“Dad, you aren’t matchmaking are you?”
“Of course not.” This said too quickly.
“Because it would be beneath you. I think Mrs. Pondergrove is a bad influence on you. That’s the type of thing I can see her doing.”
“Angela only wants people to be happy.”
“I’m happy just the way I am. You can pass that on to Angela, if you happen to see her.”
“Mitch, to be frank, you don’t seem to have much of a life. Work. Those kids at the community center where you volunteer. A man needs more than that.”
“Well, not this man.”
“Monica made you bitter,” Jordan decided.
Being jilted at the altar had a tendency to do that. Mitch said nothing.
“Why don’t you just get to know the Patterson girl a bit? What would it hurt?”
“She’s looking—with a frightening single-minded purpose—for something quite different than me.”
“Happiness?” Jordan suggested.
“Marriage!” he replied, as if this answer should have been obvious to his father.
“She’s a lonely kid in a strange town taking on a whole new set of circumstances. She’ll need a friend.”
“Fine, send old Angela over to visit her.”
“I don’t like it when you refer to Angela in that tone of voice. She’s a good woman with a kind heart.”
“Sorry, Dad.” A good woman with a kind heart, and a meddlesome way.
“Would you look at that?” Jordan said with amazement as they approached the bakery. “Is that a lineup?”
It was a lineup, going right outside the door, and curving in front of the newly lettered front window. Heavenly Treats.
“It’s good to see her doing so well,” Jordan said.
But Mitch, not blessed with the same spirit of undaunted optimism as his father, quickly realized the line wasn’t moving forward. Several people left in disgust. He suspected, not that she was doing well, but that she wasn’t coping with even the normal crowd.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” Mitch said.
“Slip in there and see what’s going on,” Jordan said. “Maybe you can help her out.”
Mitch shot his father a look that Jordan ignored.
“How could I help her out? I don’t know anything about bakeries.”
“Neither does she.”
Mitch saw the set of his father’s chin, and drew in a deep breath. There were some occasions when you didn’t argue with Jordan Hamilton.
“Excuse me,” he said. Drawing in a deep breath, he shoved his way through the little bottleneck in the doorway, ignoring the irritated looks he got.
Inside, the smell of fresh paint overpowered the smell of baking.
The paint job was probably the worst he’d ever seen. The wallpaper was on crooked, the patterns unmatched. Black and white posters of Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean had been hung at random, he suspected over the worst of the paint job. He thought she’d achieved a kind of wartime café ambience, as if everything was a little shaken because of the last bombing, but they were bravely open for business anyway. He somehow doubted that was the atmosphere she’d been aiming for.
The few little tables were already covered with dishes that had not been cleared away.
The brand-new tablecloths, pink with an overlay of lace, had coffee stains and crumbs on them. The fresh flowers, stems of daisies, drooped.
The customers were cranky.
And there she was, behind her counter, a white apron, with spilt coffee on it over a dress that looked like it was meant to be worn at a summer church picnic—on second glance, he realized it might be just a touch too sexy for the church picnic—her hair falling out of its neat ponytail, her mascara smudged, a look of determined cheer on her face that was faltering.
“What do you mean you’re out of doughnuts?” the man was blustering at her. “I’ve had a doughnut in here every day for fifteen years.”
Mitch glanced at her display cases. On the shelf that usually overflowed with honey-glazed and chocolate and sugar doughnuts, were lacy little pastries and several large, round chocolate cakes. Not a single slice was missing from the cakes. Hand lettered signs, an awful imitation of calligraphy, announced the cakes were Chocolate Mocha Torte and Carmel Fudge Delight.
“We’re branching off from doughnuts,” she told the man with determined pluck. “Wouldn’t you like to try some chocolate mocha torte?”
“No,” the man snapped at her. “I wouldn’t. Just give me a coffee.”
“Irish Cream Cappuccino or French Vanilla?” she asked.
Leave, Mitch ordered himself. He’d seen enough and there was nothing he could do. Not that he was sure his father would see things quite the same way. Damn. From the very beginning Jordan had forced him to be a better person than Mitch believed he really was.
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