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Lisa Kincaid specialized in three things: shortbread, scones and sleep deprivation. She preferred the first two over the third, but as a bakery/coffeehouse owner and single mom of a four-year-old, lack of sleep came with the territory.
"Are you ready?" she called to her son, Jamie, who sat at one of Shortbread Cottage's café tables polishing off his last bits of breakfast. "Miss Courtney's going to think we slept in."
"Ready," he said.
Lisa came around the display counter and checked out his half-finished cup of orange juice. "Almost ready."
He grinned, picked up the cup, and then chugged its contents in championship style. When he was done, instead of using the napkin that still rested neatly folded to his left, he wiped his mouth with his hand.
Lisa ruefully shook her head. "Manners, mister."
He pushed away from the table. "Gotta go see Miss Courtney. It's build-a-castle day."
She pointed toward the entry to the bakery's kitchen. "You know where the dishes go."
From her spot at the coffee bar, down at the far end of the counter, Suzanne Jacobs, Lisa's sole employee and all-around lifesaver, said, "I'll take care of it."
Generally, Lisa considered it her duty to womankind to raise a son who could find and use a dishwasher. Today, though, she was willing to cave. It was nearly time for Kevin Decker to arrive for his morning scone and coffee.
Kevin was one of her best customers. Smart man. Great sense of humor. Hardworking. Kind to children and stray dogs… all that good stuff. There were countless reasons why a woman might want to be in his company, but lately he'd begun to makeher feel edgy. Of course it wasn't his fault; Kevin was the same as ever. This was her weird issue. All the same, she needed a fortifying dose of Iowa autumn sunshine before seeing him.
She took Jamie's hand. "Thanks, Suz. I'll be right back."
"No hurry," Suzanne called over the slow, waking hiss of the espresso maker.
Lisa might have agreed, but Jamie had other plans. As they exited the rambling old clapboard house that served both as bakery and their home, he tugged on her hand.
She smiled as she looked down at her son, who so resembled James, her late husband. Jamie had been not quite a year old when his father had died in an accident.
James never had the chance to see that when his son left infancy, he'd grow to look all Scot, like Aberdeen-born James. Jamie had wild, sandy-brown hair and pale skin prone to freckles. Already, his build was beginning to echo his father's—sturdy and athletic. But her son also possessed her push-on-though determination, as he was displaying right now, practically dragging her down Shortbread Cottage's winding brick pathway in his rush to get to Miss Courtney's Day Care, where he spent weekday mornings.
Three afternoons a week he attended preschool at the rather posh Hillside Academy, courtesy of her parents. It had been a gift Lisa couldn't refuse, much as it had nicked at her pride and independence. But part of being a mom was basing her decisions on Jamie's well-being, not her ego. She could do it, despite the occasional twinge.
When Lisa had become pregnant with Jamie at the age of twenty-one, she'd been shocked and totally unprepared, yet now she couldn't imagine life without him. No longer could she imagine a life away from Davenport's east village, either. Lisa loved the business she'd built for herself in this little wedge of Iowa history overlooking the Mississippi River. Funny, because when she'd been in high school, all she'd wanted was to get the heck out of here. Now she understood that quaint did not necessarily equal boring.
Jamie let go of her hand and began skipping down the sidewalk in front of her. It was the sort of day that made Lisa want to skip, too. Though it was late September, the air still held the humid perfume of summer and the low, lazy song of a tugboat horn as the vessel pushed its barges fat with newly harvested grain. If she had the luxury of a day off, she'd sit in the park overlooking the river and do absolutely nothing but catch the sun. Okay, not really. Actually, she'd catch up on their endless laundry pile, but a woman should be entitled to her dreams.
"Wait up," she called to Jamie, who was ready to round the corner into the neighborhood that sat behind her home/business.
Jamie danced with impatience, but did as requested.
"So it's build-a-castle day?" she asked once she'd taken his hand again.
Jamie nodded. "Mr. Kevin's bringing over big boxes and we're gonna make a castle."
Lisa slowed. In addition to all the other good stuff about Kevin Decker, he was also her best friend Courtney's oldest brother. Co-owner of a construction company, Kevin had overseen the renovations to the almost crazy-big Victorian that Courtney had inherited from their great-grandmother, making the main floor into the perfect day care center.
"Sounds great," she enthused for her son's sake. For her own sake, she hoped that the build-a-castle plans were slated for later in the day and that she had a few more Kevin-free moments.
No such luck. As they rounded the block, Lisa saw a shiny red pickup parked in Courtney's drive. She didn't need to look any closer to know that Decker Construction was emblazoned on the truck's doors. It was as familiar to her as the white gingerbread trim that Kevin had designed, hand-cut and added to Shortbread Cottage's slate-blue facade last summer.
Kevin's truck bed was already empty of the boxes so there was a good chance he was out back in the play area. Maybe she could escape without seeing him. She felt like a rat for even having these avoidance thoughts.
Jamie chugged up the broad steps to Miss Courtney's covered front porch and then slipped inside without a backward glance at his mother. Lisa followed. As always, Courtney was in the entry hall to greet the children and then send them on to the playroom, where her assistant waited.
Courtney gave Jamie his morning welcome. Lisa was impressed he managed to toss a distracted "Bye, Mommy" in her direction before heading back to the playroom.
"So, what's up?" Courtney asked Lisa. "You two are usually the last in the door."
"I thought I'd shake up my schedule. You know… add a little excitement to my life," she replied while pulling the antique oak front door partway closed behind her.
Laughing, Courtney shook her head, sending her corkscrew blond curls bouncing. "What scares me is that there's a good possibility you're serious. You really are in a rut, you know."
"Rut's too negative. I prefer to think of it as my beloved routine." Lisa was well aware that she never took time for herself, but she was okay with that. She had to be. Jamie and her business came first.
"Call it what you want, but it's time to give yourself a break. I have an idea…"
Lisa wasn't crazy about the way her friend's voice had taken on the same sort of singsong quality her mother's did when yet another futile dating fix-up was in the offing.
"Ideas are good," she replied in a neutral tone.
Just then another mom and child came in, and Lisa turned to slip out before Courtney pressured her into something she didn't want to do.
"Stay," Courtney commanded.
"I'd rather fetch," Lisa replied, earning a giggle from the little girl Courtney had just greeted.
Courtney gave Lisa a pointed look. "Let's work on stay."
Resigned to her fate, she waited while Courtney chatted with the mom for a second.
After the mom departed, a speculative light returned to Courtney's blue eyes. "Tonight, Kevin, Scott and I—"
Lisa held out her hand like a backup singer. "Stop there. Anything involving three Deckers isn't good… it's dangerous."
"Come on, we're not dangerous."
Lisa thought but knew better than to say One of you is... to me, at least, aloud.
"Okay, maybe not dangerous, but definitely a little crazy," she replied instead.
Courtney shrugged. "Guilty as charged, but the least you can do is hear me out."
"If it were another night, I would, for sure," Lisa fibbed. "But Wednesday is Inquisition Night, remember? I have dinner with Mom and Dad."
"That's one heck of a family tradition," a deep voice said from behind her. "What's Thursday, Guilt and Self-recrimination Day?"
Lisa swallowed the panicky feeling that Kevin Decker seemed to bring to the surface in her, then turned to greet him.
He ambled through the front door at the same easy pace he always took, even when at Shortbread Cottage juggling a business meeting over coffee, an incessantly ringing cell phone, and Jamie edging closer to hang out with his favorite customer. While she often had to fake being calm and collected, Kevin appeared to be the real deal.
"Good to see you, Lisa."
She might not want to see him, but she had to admit he was fun to look at, with his tall frame, well muscled from the years he'd spent doing construction work, and the chiseled features of his face, saved from being harsh by an almost incongruous dimple that appeared when he smiled.
"Good to see you, too," she replied, settling on yet another half truth.
He gave her a smile that didn't quite match up with the awareness of her evasion she sensed in his gray eyes. Or maybe she was just projecting her own uneasiness on him. He had this way of making her feel emotionally naked.
Hot color painted its way across her face as that word invited all sorts of other long-repressed thoughts about literal nakedness to come out and play. And since once freed, they didn't seem to want to leave, she would. Lisa feigned a glance at her watch.
"Well, it's time for me to get back to work," she said.
"I could use my morning coffee. Hang on a second, and I'll walk with you," Kevin offered.
Her gaze was drawn to his long, blue jeans-clad legs and his worn, tan work boots. Feet. She could safely focus on feet, right? Except she'd feel like an idiot, conversing with the man's boots.
"Thanks, but no," she replied. "I really have to run." Which was no lie, even if the motivation for running was messier and more personal than just getting back to Shortbread Cottage.
"Okay, so maybe we can all do something on Friday?" Courtney asked as Lisa was attempting to slip past Kevin and out the door.
She stopped in what was a bad spot—just close enough to catch the clean scent of Kevin's skin and imagine that she could feel the warmth emanating from him. Heaven knew she missed being close to a man, but in her experience, the cost for that comfort was more than she was willing to pay.
"Really, Court, I'm too busy," she said to her friend. "Just have some extra fun for me, okay?"
And then she left before she might recall in any more detail exactly what fun was.
"Not a word about Lisa," Kevin warned his sister after the woman in question had bolted.
Courtney had on her best innocent face, one that he'd stopped buying back when she was sixteen and had "borrowed" his car to take a pack of her girlfriends to a concert in Chicago. Of course, he should have known better than to provide her with a set of keys for emergencies, but that was part of the duties he felt were his as the eldest Decker offspring.
"Why should I say anything?" she asked. "Just because you like her?"
This wasn't a conversation he ever planned to have with Courtney. "Sure, I like Lisa. Who in this town doesn't?"
"No, I mean like…like. As in 'Kevin and Lisa sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.'"
He laughed in spite of himself. "You've been hanging around the preschool set too much."
His baby sister stuck her tongue out at him. "Says who?"
"Funny, but here's what I'm saying… Don't push things, okay? I'm capable of taking care of my own life."
"You should be," she said. "Except you're too busy acting like you need to take care of me and Scott and even Mike, who's what…all of two years younger than you? If you were taking care of your own life, you'd have at least asked Lisa out for dinner by now, after all the time you've spent worshipping at her coffee counter."
"Worshipping? It's breakfast."
Courtney took a peek into the doorway to the playroom, probably doing a head count of her charges already there for the day.
"Sure, breakfast at the exact same place every day you're in town," she said as she returned to her spot at the front door.
"She's a friend. That's it. And when it comes to women, I haven't exactly been suffering," he pointed out.
And that was the truth. He dated whenever he wanted to. So what if he'd called a first-date moratorium a few months back? Or was it more like six months ago? Not that it mattered, and not that it was any of his little sister's business.
"You'd be better off looking after your own social life, don't you think, kid?" he suggested.
As soon as he'd said the words, he wished he could yank them back. It had only been six months since she'd broken it off with her fiancé for cheating on her, and rejected the Decker brothers' collective offer to ship him in a storage container to the desolate wasteland of her choice.