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Jake Hamilton left the gym and ducked into Starbucks with one pressing question on his mind: Did they have any pumpkin scones left?
Having begun this fine September Saturday morning by working his butt off lifting weights, and then playing a squash match (he won, 3-0, thank you very much), he figured he was entitled to one of his favorite treats, even if he was a little fragrant at the moment. Skirting the people in line, he peered into the glass display case, his hopes high.
Yes, he had a sweet tooth. He had about thirty-two of them, to be honest.
So, let's see. They have quite the selection this morning, don't they? Muffins apple fritters the usual assortment of cake slicesiced gingerbread, iced lemon and chocolatebut no pumpkin scones, damn it.
He scowled and made his way to the end of the line, his morning ruined. Well, not entirely ruined, because he could still get a gallon-sized cup of coffee, but it just wouldn't be the same.
"Morning, Jake." The last of the customers in front of him got their drinks and moved aside, revealing the pretty barista behind the counter. She'd been making eyes at him the last several times he was there, and he felt terrible for not knowing her name by now. Trying to be discreet, he checked her badge. Ashley, it said. "I saved the last one for you. I figured you'd be needing it." She held up a pumpkin scone on a plate.
Torn, Jake worked up a grin that he hoped wasn't too enthusiastic. On the one hand, thank God he'd get his scone. On the other hand, Ashley was now giving him a quick once-over that stripped away the shorts and T-shirt he was wearing and, while it was always flattering to be noticed, he had no desire to be noticed by Ashley.
Or by most of the females he encountered these days, come to think of it, which was strange. He'd gotten to the unfamiliar point in his life where he preferred to sit quietly and alone in his house, watching ESPN and prepping for his latest trial, instead of hanging out with his brothers and catching the panties women threw their way. The whole club scene had started to exhaust him. The drinks. The dancing. The hookups. The aftermath, which was always awkward to one degree or another.
When had he lost his taste for women who were young, beautiful and eager?
Why would he rather go sit at a table and organize his thoughts for the staff barbecue he was hosting at his house in a few weeks than stand here and flirt with Ashley?
Something was wrong with him, clearly.
But that was no reason to be rude.
"Thanks, Ashley." Extending his hand across the counter to accept the scone on its plate, he pretended he didn't feel the lingering brush of her fingers against his. "You just kept my day from turning into a disaster."
"Well." She preened as she fixed his coffee, tossing her shiny brown hair over one shoulder and giving him a smile that promised the sun, moon, stars and a ham sandwich if he crooked his little finger at her. "You owe me, don't you?"
"Absolutely," he told her, keeping his expression pleasant but distant and his little finger uncrooked. He reached into his pocket, grabbed a billit was a ten, alas, but oh, well; he'd chalk it up to money well spentand handed it to her. "Thanks. Keep the change."
He turned away, aware of her faltering grin, and headed for a table in the most distant corner available, close to the window. He'd just set down his breakfast and was about to pull out a chair and sit, when it hit him: he'd forgotten to pick up copies of The New York Times and the Philadelphia Daily News while he was up at the counter.
He'd have to go back.
He wheeled around, determined to make it quick, while Ashley was restocking the cream and whatnot andShit.
He plowed straight into someone.
That someone hit the floor with a nasty thud.
Books went flying. A cappuccino mug and saucer shattered with a wet splatter, sending hot coffee in all directions. A slice of lemon cake skittered across the tiles and came to a stop beneath his table. Every head in the place swiveled in their direction.
"Sorry," he began automatically, his cheeks ablaze with embarrassment. Way to go, Hamilton. Why not just drive a backhoe through the plate-glass window and be done with it? Dropping to a squat, he started to help the personit was a woman, he realizedgather her things. "I didn't mean to"
An irritated and striking gazenot quite gray, but not quite green, either, rimmed by a thick fan of black lashesflicked up at him, emptying his brain of all rational thought.
"Hey!" Her husky murmur of a voice slid right under his skin, making nerve endings tighten all up and down his bare arms. "Watch where you're go."
The end of her sentence trailed off as she got a good look at him. Her eyes widened with what he assumed was feminine appreciation.
He got that a lot. Women found him attractive, and he knew it. No big deal.
Usually, though, it didn't make him feel hot and flustered, a feeling he best remembered from sixth grade, when Yvette Connor passed him a note after English class.
He and the woman stared at each other for an electric moment.
Mid-twenties, he decided. She wasn't wearing makeup and didn't need it, not with those eyes, that smooth olive skin and that pouty berry mouth. Her hair swung in sleek black curtains, and her tank top dipped in front as she looked away and scurried to pick up her books, revealing a hint of cleavage that would be right at home in a Playboy centerfold.
Her scent was sweet and muskyvanilla tinged with sensual woman, two of his favorite things in the world.
His brain was slow to return, but eventually it slammed back into his body and got to work again.
"Sorry," he said. "Usually I'm much more graceful than that. The Dance Theatre keeps begging me to join, but I don't want to make the other dancers look bad." He shrugged. "You know how it is."
Lips curling, she eyed his table, where the scone waited for him. "That explains the power breakfast."
He grinned. She grinned back, and that dimpled flash of white dazzled him like a pound of diamonds glittering in the sun.
But before he lapsed into more staring, he gave himself a swift mental kick along with a reminder to get his head back in the game.
"You're not injured, are you?"
"Too soon to tell." At this point, she had all her books and there was no reason for them to remain crouched on the floor. "You could help me up."
If that meant he could touch her? Hell to the yeah. "My pleasure."
He surged to his feet and extended his hand. She took it. And as her warm palm slid across his, he felt the charge all through his body. Awareness. Electricity. Chemistry.
With a gentle tug, he pulled her up and then, suddenly, they were face-to-face, with only her books between them.
Dropping her gaze and her hand, she backed away first. "Thanks."
"So." He tried not to check her out, but it was hard because he was a man and she was smokin'. About a head shorter than he was, she had the toned arms and shoulders of someone who took care of herself in the gym khaki cargo pants manicured toes in flat sandals no wedding ring. There was no unobtrusive way to lean around her and check out her ass, but he wanted to and bookmarked the idea in his mind, not that there was any chance of forgetting. "Let me replace your breakfast. Least I can do."
"That would be great." She kept her gaze lowered, which really wasn't working for him, because he was getting the distinct impression she didn't want to send him any "I'm available" vibes. Was she here with someone, then? Was the lucky punk in the john washing his hands at this very second? Or had Jake mistaken the look she'd just given him? "Thanks."
"Cappuccino, right? Lots of that frothy stuff?"
She dimpled and flashed him a quick look. "That would be milk. Whole milk."
"Well, it's up to you how you ruin your coffee. And lemon cake?"
"Excuse me," Ashley the barista said sourly, edging between them with a broom, dustpan and mop. "I better clean this up."
"Thanks, Ashley," he said.
Ashley, who'd apparently undergone an attitude transplant in the past couple minutes, split her assessing gaze between the two of them before she worked on the mess. If her thinning lips were any indication, she didn't like what she sawnot the flirting or the splatter zone.
"Yeah," the woman told him. "Lemon cake."
"I'll be right back."
He hurried over to the counter and ordered, his mind full of how he and Gorgeous could eat and sip their coffee together, and then maybe grab lunch. Well, no, not lunch, obviously, right after eating breakfast, and he still needed to go home and shower because he probably smelled like the inside of his gym bag. But he'd get her number, and they could meet up later, maybe for drinks, but preferably for dinner, and then
He swung back around, her cappuccino and cake in hand, and faltered.
She was sitting at the table in front of his, spreading out her books and opening her laptop, and didn't look like she was in the market for a session of getting to know you with him.
Well, shit, he thought, deflating. That wasn't the body language he'd been hoping for.
Still, there was nothing a trial lawyer liked better than a challenge, right?
He strode to her table and plunked her items in front of her. She'd put on a pair of sleek black-rimmed glasses and was all business now as she glanced up and gave him a quick nod of thanks.
"I appreciate it."
Opening a notebook, she flipped a couple pages and started tapping on her computer, dismissing him.
Okay, then. He faltered again, deflating a little more. Another minute with this one and he'd be flatter than a sheet of tracing paper.
With nothing else to do, he took a chair at his table so that they were sitting back-to-back, sipped his coffee in a moody silence and remembered, too late, that he'd forgotten his newspapers again. He could go up and get them, of course, but a third trip to the counter in three minutes would just be pathetic.
He sat. Sipped. Took a bite of scone and chewed it, tasting nothing.
Behind him, he heard relentless typing. She was working, then. Good for her. He should be working, too.
And he would leave her alone. It would be rude to disturb someone who was clearly so busy.
Screw it. He twisted at the waist and squinted at her book. "Civil procedure, eh?"
"Uh-huh," she murmured without looking up. "That makes you a law student."
"It does indeed. Part-time."
"Where do you go?"
"It better be, because it's getting all my pennies these days."
Well, she wasn't looking at him, but she hadn't ordered him to shut the hell up, either, so he chose to believe he was making progress.
"Part-time's a rough way to go, though. It'll take you forever instead of just three years, right?"
She shrugged. "Well, you know. Full-time job and all that. Someone's got to pay for bills and tuition, so what can I do?"
He felt a wave of sympathy, because that was a back-breaking load for anyone. Yet, he felt a stronger wave of admiration, because one look at this woman's squared shoulders and firm chin told him that she was the determined type, and nothing was going to slow her down.
"What about student loans?"
"No loans for me. If I graduate with all kinds of debt, I'll have to take a job at a huge firm to pay for it. And then I won't be able to work with Legal Aid or the government if I want to. I want to keep my options open, you know?"
Another swell of appreciation hit him. "I do know. So are you enjoying it?"
"As much as anyone enjoys law school, I guess."
He cocked his head, remembering. "I enjoyed law school."
"Ah, but were you working full-time when you went?"
"I was not," he conceded. "Props to you."
Her lips turned up in the beginnings of a smile.
"Why, thank you."
He sipped again. She flipped a page in her book.
He gave up on being subtle, although, to be fair, that horse had galloped out of the barn a while back when he'd first laid eyes on her.
"I notice you have one, two, three empty chairs at your table."
That got a laugh out of her. "You didn't mention you were a math whiz."
"And I have one, two, three empty chairs at my table. It seems like a waste of resources, don't you think?"
She heaved a long-suffering sigh, but he could hear the amusement in her voice. "You do see that I'm trying to study, right?"
"What a nice offer." Without giving her the chance to object, he gathered up his cup and plate and slid around to one of the empty chairs at her table. "I'd love to join you. I hate to eat alone. And I can help you study."
She sat back, shifting slightly to sling one of her arms over the back of her chair, and narrowed her eyes at him. "Subtle, much?"
"Wow." Her grin was wry. "That explains a lot."
"Subtlety is overrated. Everyone says so."
"Well, if you're going to help me study, here's what I need." She held up her hands and started counting on her fingers. "Number one. Read these thirty pages for me." She pointed to her red textbook which, he knew from personal experience, weighed approximately five pounds. "Number two. Summarize it for me in basic terms. None of that legal mumbo jumbo. And none of that res ipsa nonsense."
Oh, she was funny. "Anything else?"
"Number three. Type up my outline for me. Number four. Take the final for me. It's in December. Thanks ever so much. I'm going for a massage."
" So you want to get through your class with no reading or studying, no Latin and no exam. Does that about cover it?"
"You're the one who offered to help."
"True. I'd better keep my strength up, eh?"
His appetite restored, he took a big bite of pumpkin scone. Delicious.
Frowning down at her lemon cake, she tapped her pen on the table.
"I think I ordered the wrong thing," she said. "What is that, anyway?"
"It's my fantastic pumpkin scone. They're out of them, but since you're sharing your table with me, I can share this with you. Fair is fair."
"Oh, no, I"
He broke the scone in half and gave her a piece. His reward? A gleeful smile that made something tighten low in his belly. Taking a bite, she made a soft sound of pleasure that rippled over his skin like warm bathwater.