--RT Book Reviews on ALWAYS AND FOREVER
Forever's Promise (Harlequin Kimani Romance Series #374)by Farrah Rochon
It all begins with a kiss
After tragedy brings her home to Louisiana, all Shayla Kirkland wants is to reconnect with her family. Between helping care for her nieces and running her recently opened coffee shop, there's no time for romance. Until the workaholic entrepreneur meets Xavier Wright, the hunky E.R. doctor who has the local females waiting/p>… See more details below
It all begins with a kiss
After tragedy brings her home to Louisiana, all Shayla Kirkland wants is to reconnect with her family. Between helping care for her nieces and running her recently opened coffee shop, there's no time for romance. Until the workaholic entrepreneur meets Xavier Wright, the hunky E.R. doctor who has the local females waiting in line.
The sleepy town is the perfect transition place for Xavier to heal others while trying to mend his own heart. Falling for the owner of Gauthier's hottest new hangout isn't part of his short-term goalseven if the passion Shayla's arousing in him is impossible to resist. But how will Xavier offer her forever, if he plans to leave as soon as his work is done?
--RT Book Reviews on ALWAYS AND FOREVER
Read an Excerpt
Shayla Kirkland swirled the cappuccino's foamy topping into the shape of an apple before handing the mug to her former tenth-grade Free Enterprise teacher.
"Here you go, Mr. Peterson. One nonfat cappuccino with extra foam."
"Well, look at that. Quite a fancy trick you've got there, Shayla," he said, taking a sip as he cast an appraising glance around the spacious coffeehouse. "It's nice to see that someone paid attention in class. We could use more homegrown businesses here in Gauthier."
"Of course I paid attention. Your class was one of my favorites."
"I'll bet you tell that to all your old teachers." He winked as he handed her a five-dollar bill.
Shayla dropped the change he waved off into the tip jar before wiping down the counter, then turned to the service window that led to the kitchen of The Jazzy Bean.
"Hey, Lucinda, are those salads ready?"
Lucinda Sullivan, who had been Shayla's late mother's best friend and had given Shayla her first sip of beer when she was twelve years old, placed two square salad bowls on the ledge of the little cutaway window.
When she'd made the spur-of-the-moment decision to open a coffeehouse in her hometown of Gauthier, Louisiana, Shayla hadn't given much thought to her plan-wholly uncharacteristic for her usually methodical self. The one thing she did know was that she wanted to include a café. After much begging and shameless pleading, Lucinda had mercifully accepted the job as cook. Shayla knew coffee. Her other culinary skills left much to be desired.
"I changed Harold's order to a grilled chicken salad instead of fried," Lucinda told her.
"Good woman," Shayla said.
She loaded the salads onto a tray, along with two glasses of sweet tea and mismatched cutlery she'd salvaged from the remnants of Armant's Antique Shop, which had occupied this building on downtown Gauth-ier's Main Street for decades before Shayla bought it.
As owner, her day was usually spent making sure the coffee shop was running smoothly, and maybe delivering the occasional order when things got busy during the lunch rush. But with two of her employees out sick today, Shayla found herself utilizing those skills she'd learned as a barista while putting herself through college.
She took the salads to the table where two of her regulars, Harold Porter and Nathan Robottom, sat engaged in a serious game of cards.
She placed their salads in front of them. "You gentlemen mind taking a short intermission?"
"Hey, what's this?" Harold asked. "I ordered a fried chicken salad."
Shayla crossed her arms and challenged him with her stare. She worked hard to keep a grin from emerging.
"Aw, c'mon," Harold groused. "It's bad enough you got me eating salads. Now I can't even get it with the chicken cooked the way I like?"
"The grilled tastes even better than the fried," Shayla said. "Trust me. If you don't think so, your salad is on the house."
Harold's lips pinched in a frown and he muttered something unintelligible, but Shayla caught the telling crinkle at the corners of his eyes.
"You'd better be happy you're pretty," he said. "I wouldn't give up fried chicken for no ugly woman."
She laughed, giving him a good-natured pat on the back before leaving the men to their meal.
When she'd settled on the concept for The Jazzy Bean she decided her coffeehouse would not contribute to the failing health of any patrons with known medical conditions. Harold was just one of several customers who suffered from high blood pressure. If he wanted to dine on oily, fatty, heart-attack-inducing food, he would have to go elsewhere.
Shayla came upon a table of teachers from the local high school. They routinely dropped in on Monday evenings for conversation and coffee.
"How's it going, ladies? Is that car still giving you trouble, Denise?"
Denise Lewis, who graduated from Gauthier High with her brother, Braylon, waved off her concern. "My car is fine." With a sly grin, she added, "Although I do feel a little tummy ache coming on. I think I need a trip to the emergency room."
The table of women burst into laughter.
Shayla's brow dipped in a curious frown as she eyed the boisterous crew. "Okay, what am I missing?"
"Oh, don't mind her." Bianca Charles, who'd served on the student council with her back when Shayla was in the tenth grade, motioned toward Denise. "She's just trying to come up with a reason to see that fine new E.R. doctor over at Maplesville General."
Denise flattened her palm against her chest. "I don't need to fake being sick. I damn near have a heart attack whenever I see him."
Shayla rolled her eyes. "Let me know if you ladies need anything else. More coffee, scones, CPR?"
They erupted in more laughter.
"I'll take another cup of coffee," Denise said, scooting off her stool and following Shayla to the counter.
"I'll take one, too," her best friend, Paxton Jones, called from the table she'd commandeered over in the corner.
"Still not talking to you," Shayla said.
"Why aren't you talking to Paxton?" Denise asked. "You two were joined at the hip in high school."
"Because I took a job in Little Rock," Paxton explained as she walked over to the counter and held out her coffee cup. "You'd think my dearest friend in the world would be happy for me."
"Not gonna happen," Shayla said, reluctantly refilling the mug with the medium roast she'd recently brewed.
Paxton took a sip before she said, "Someone here seems to forget that she left me first, and she went all the way to the West Coast. You didn't see me getting all surly."
"Big difference. I didn't have a choice. I had a scholarship and then an internship that led to a job. This isn't even a promotion for you. It's a lateral move. You don't have to leave if you don't want to."
Paxton came around the counter and pinched her cheek. "I still love you, Shayla. Despite the fact that you're acting like a big, curly-haired baby."
She knew she was being a baby. Petty and selfish, too. But she'd learned of her best friend's impending move only a few hours ago. Shayla figured she deserved at least another day to wallow and complain before congratulating her.
"You still coming over tonight?" Shayla asked.
"Can I take a rain check?" Paxton motioned to the table, scattered with spreadsheets and forms and other reminders of the hectic corporate lifestyle Shayla had once lived.
She tried to suppress the surge of envy that gripped her. That fast-paced, cutthroat world was no longer a part of her existence. The Jazzy Bean, her nieces-they were her life now.
"It's probably better we meet tomorrow," Shayla said. "My neighbor is babysitting for me. I need to pick the girls up and get them ready for bed."
"When does Leslie get back?"
"Tomorrow night. She decided to stay an extra day in Houston to spend time with her extended family."
"Good. It gives you more time with the girls," Pax-ton said.
"Except I've had to spend all my extra time here in the coffee shop," Shayla pointed out. "And you know I can use all the extra bonding time I can get, especially with Cassidy."
Paxton frowned and patted Shayla's arm. "It'll get better. Just give it time."
"Yeah, that's what I keep telling myself," Shayla said.
By the time Lucinda turned the Open sign to Closed, just after 6:00 p.m., Shayla was ready to dive headfirst into bed.
"Get out of here and get some rest," Lucinda said. "I'll close up."
"If I had enough energy I would kiss you," Shayla told her. She'd worked on the corporate side of the coffee business for so long she'd forgotten just how exhausting the day-to-day operations of a coffee shop could be.
The rest she so desperately craved would have to wait, because for the first time in nearly two decades, she was responsible for someone other than herself. After months of campaigning, she'd finally convinced her sister-in-law, Leslie, to leave her two nieces, eight-year-old Cassidy and three-year-old Kristi, in her care while Leslie attended her cousin's wedding in Houston this past weekend.
Reconnecting with her family and getting to know her sister-in-law and nieces better was the chief impetus behind Shayla's impulsive move back to Louisiana following her younger brother's premature death. Over the past eight months, she had discovered that their frayed family fabric was not as easily mended as she'd hoped, especially when she'd played such a huge part in tearing said family fabric.
But things were slowly getting better. The fact that Leslie had entrusted Shayla with Kristi and Cassidy- even if it was just for four days-spoke volumes about how much their relationship had improved.
Shayla bade Lucinda good-night before leaving her to lock up. She headed left on Main Street's newly refurbished brick-laid sidewalk-just one of the outcomes of the downtown area's recent restoration projects. Her house, which she'd purchased in a package deal when she'd bought the building that housed The Jazzy Bean, was located in the residential neighborhood adjacent to Main Street.
On the short five-minute walk home, Shayla took in the sweet smell of the night jasmine that grew in the window boxes outside Lizzie's Consignment Shop. The balmy summer night was so different from what she'd become accustomed to in the Pacific Northwest, but she embraced it.
It was strange-after living on the West Coast for nearly twenty years she'd anticipated bouts of homesickness after packing up her condo in Seattle, but they'd never materialized. Instead, Shayla had been overwhelmed by the sense of peace and belonging she'd experienced when she'd returned to Gauthier.
She'd lived in Seattle for much of her adult life, but this was home.
She walked past her house and went next door. Her neighbor Gayle Martin had offered to babysit her nieces so they wouldn't be stuck in the back room at The Jazzy Bean after they got home from school today. Shayla had had every intention of meeting them at the bus stop and spending quality time with the girls, but her busy workday couldn't be helped, not with both Erin, the college student she'd hired a couple of months ago, and her manager, Desiree, calling in sick.
She went around to the back door of Gayle's woodframed creole cottage, which was almost an exact replica of hers. The only difference was the color. Shayla had painted her house a deep brick-red and added stark-white shutters. It stood out from the white and pastel homes in the neighborhood.
She rapped twice on the door before going inside. "Knock, knock," she called. "Anybody home?"
Gayle came into the kitchen, Shayla's nieces trailing behind.
"Hey, Aunt Shayla," Kristi greeted with an excited wave. Her hands were stained myriad colors.
"What happened here? Did a rainbow try to eat your fingers?" She playfully tugged Kristi's ponytail.
"More like the Easter Bunny," Gayle said. "We've been dyeing eggs."
"Ah, that also explains the wardrobe change." Shayla gestured to the oversize Jimi Hendrix T-shirts both girls wore.
"I didn't want them staining their school uniforms, so I drafted a couple of my son's old shirts."
"Yikes. I hope they weren't his favorites."
Gayle gave a halfhearted shrug. "Serves him right for leaving them here. I've been telling him to come get his stuff for ten years."
Gathering the girls' backpacks and neatly folded school uniforms from the table, Shayla said, "Thanks again for watching them on such short notice." She waved goodbye as she ushered the kids out the back door.
They were halfway across the yard when Gayle called to them. "Wait a minute." She came over, carrying a slim cardboard package and a carton of eggs. "Here's the second dye kit and the rest of the eggs.
They're already boiled. I told the girls that maybe you'd dye a few with them tonight."
Shayla managed a weak smile, squelching a groan at Kristi's excited expression. She was having a hard enough time handling basic child care; she could not pull off arts and crafts, especially after the day she'd endured.
"Maybe later." Like when her sister-in-law came home tomorrow.
They continued across the side lawn between her house and Gayle's. She made a mental note to call the high school kid she'd hired to cut her lawn. The clover patches were ankle-deep. Then again, maybe she should leave the grass uncut and hold an Easter-egg hunt for the girls. That should score her some points in the cool aunt department, right?
"So, did you two have fun?" Shayla asked.
Kristi's ponytail bounced up and down with her enthusiastic head nod, but Cassidy barely responded.
Shayla curbed the sigh that nearly escaped. In the eight months since she'd returned to Gauthier her chief goal had been to form a relationship with her nieces. To her utter disappointment, things were not going as planned. Kristi had warmed up to her after the first time Shayla had taken them out for ice cream, but it would take far more than a double scoop of chocolate-chip-cookie dough to break down Cassidy's walls.
Her reluctance had only prodded Shayla to try harder. She would win Cassidy over. She owed it to her baby brother to forge a relationship with the family he'd left behind.
Shayla suffered through the familiar ache that struck her chest whenever she thought about Braylon. She pulled in a deep breath and slowly let it out, willing the threatening tears to remain at bay. She knew better than to let her mind wander there, especially when she was so drained. She would not lose it in front of the girls.
Shayla unlocked the door to the quaint, two-bedroom cottage, which surprisingly suited her just as much as her condo in a high-rise building in downtown Seattle had. She let the girls enter ahead of her, then locked the door behind them.
She nearly stumbled at the sound of Cassidy's soft voice. Another thing she could count on one hand was the number of times her eldest niece had addressed her directly.
Shayla walked over and ran a tentative hand along Cassidy's bouncy curls that were so much like her own.
"Can we dye the rest of the eggs?"
Shayla's shoulders fell. Why, of all things, did she have to ask that?
"Oh, honey, I've been up since 4:00 a.m. I'm too tired to dye eggs right now." She lifted a curl. "I'll tell you what. If you and your sister watch one of your DVDs while I take a nap, we'll dye the eggs a bit later. Is that okay?"
Cassidy nodded, but Shayla caught the disappointment in her eyes.
Great. The one time her niece asks for something, and she comes off feeling like the auntie from hell. But if she tried dyeing Easter eggs right now they would all end up looking like Kristi's fingers.
She allowed the girls to pick a movie out of the collection of DVDs her sister-in-law had left for them. Once they were both settled on the rug in front of the television, she went into her bedroom, kicked off her tennis shoes, and crashed face-first on top of the stillmade bed.
She wasn't sure how much time had passed when she heard a faint voice call, "Aunt Shayla?"
She stirred, turning over and curling into a fetal position.
"Aunt Shayla, something's wrong with Kristi."
"What is it, baby?" she murmured. "Kristi's sick. She's throwing up. And it looks funny."
Shayla blinked. Cassidy's words registered and she jerked up, hopping off the bed.
"Where is she?"
Cassidy pointed. "In the bathroom."
Shayla ran to the bathroom, her heart jumping to her throat when she came upon her three-year-old niece. Kristi's shirt and the bathroom floor were covered in yellowishorange vomit, and she was coughing, her thin frame jerking in violent fits and spurts.
"Oh, my God! What happened?"
Cassidy hunched her shoulders, her bottom lip trembling.
Was that bile? Was Kristi throwing up buckets of bile?
She finally got the chance to look after the girls, and this happened? She'd be lucky if Leslie let her anywhere near them again.
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