Link Whitman has settled into the role of bachelor without ever intending to. Now he’s stuck in a dead-end job and, as the next Whitman wedding fast approaches, he is the last one standing. The pressure from his sisters’ efforts to play matchmaker is getting hard to bear as Link pulls extra shifts at work, and helps his parents at the Chicory Inn.
All her life, Shayla Michaels has felt as if she straddled two worlds. Her mother's white family labeled her African American father with names Shayla didn't repeat in polite––well, in any company. Her father’s family disapproved as well, though they eventually embraced Shayla as their own. After the death of her mother, and her brother Jerry’s incarceration, life has left Shayla's father bitter, her niece, Portia, an orphan, and Shayla responsible for them all. She knows God loves them all, but why couldn't people accept each other for what was on the inside? For their hearts?
Everything changes one icy morning when a child runs into the street and Link nearly hits her with his pickup. Soon he is falling in love with the little girl’s aunt, Shayla, the beautiful woman who runs Coffee’s On, the bakery in Langhorne. Can Shayla and Link overcome society’s view of their differences and find true love? Is there hope of changing the sometimes-ugly world around them into something better for them all?
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Home at Last
By Deborah Raney
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Deborah Raney
All rights reserved.
A thin layer of snow and ice covered the narrowing road, and Link Whitman tapped the brakes to slow his pickup. Police in the little berg of Langhorne, Missouri, were famous for doling out speeding tickets, and Link already had two on his record — which gave new meaning to the premium in insurance premiums.
Running his fingers through unruly curls that could stand a good cut, he leaned to check his reflection in the truck's rearview mirror. His sisters would have given him a hard time if they'd seen.
Who you primping for, Linkie? Must be a girl!
He grinned to himself, hearing their high-pitched voices as clearly as if his sisters were in the seat behind him.
He loved his sisters, but they could annoy the tar out of him too. And ever since Bree had gotten engaged, the Whitman women had upped the ante bigtime. After Bree and Drew's wedding next month, he'd be the last Whitman standing, and the pressure was on. All his siblings had kids too, and no doubt Bree would want to start a family right away. Yep, he was a slacker, and his sisters would remind him at every opportunity. Mom would do worse. She'd already tried to set him up with some great-niece of a friend of a friend of a friend.
No thank you. He could find his own woman. And he'd do it when he was good and ready.
He gave a little snort. Who was he kidding? He'd been good and ready for a long time. But he wasn't going to settle for the first pretty thing that came along. He had standards. Standards too high, according to his sisters.
Well, they'd be happy to know he was on a mission today. A mission involving a woman. He didn't think Mom suspected anything when he'd jumped at the chance to make a bakery run for her this morning. But a certain girl who worked there had caught his eye.
He'd actually met Shayla first at the homeless shelter in Cape Girardeau. He and some buddies from work had done a couple of volunteer projects there last summer, getting the shelter's Internet and office computers set up. He'd pulled into the parking lot at the same time as Shayla and had helped her carry in a stack of boxes from the bakery.
Listening to her snarky banter with the other volunteers and a crazy client they were dealing with, he'd fallen in love with her a little bit that day. Then more than a little, once he got up the courage to talk to her the following week. And the week after that. And the one after that. The shelter's computers had never run so seamlessly. And since he was volunteering his time, he felt only slightly guilty for making excuses to keep "tweaking" their system on the days he knew Shayla would be delivering. And he had made things work better each time he was there. But if someone — say his sisters, or Shayla — wanted to make a case against him for stalking her, they wouldn't have to look too far for evidence.
He didn't care. The more he'd gotten to know Shayla, the more he liked what he saw. Not that she was making it easy. Over bad coffee, compliments of the shelter, they'd practically solved the problems of homelessness, world hunger, and the recent city council elections. They'd also agreed on best doughnut — sour cream cruller — and which houseplants were the easiest to kill — maidenhair fern and fiddle-leaf fig, which Shayla knew from experience and Link could discuss semi-intelligently thanks to his sisters. But he had yet to learn anything really personal about the mysterious Shayla. Unless you counted that she hated her hair — thick, wild curls that weren't quite an Afro, but close ... and cute as all get out, in his opinion. Which she hadn't asked for and he hadn't given.
He'd flirted with her the last couple of times he'd been in the bakery. And if he knew anything at all about women, it seemed the feeling might be mutual. Shayla. He was still working on getting her last name. His mission today: get that name and talk her into a real date. Just coffee. He didn't want to scare her off.
His cell phone chirped from his pocket, and he fished it out. Mom. He tapped the brakes again and answered. "Hey, Mom. What's up?"
"Have you already left the bakery?"
"Nope. Just got into town."
"Oh, good." She breathed a relieved sigh into the phone. "Could you also see if they have any cinnamon rolls? Or maybe a coffee cake? Anything that would feed four guests in the morning? We got a last-minute reservation and I have too many other irons in the fire to be baking."
"Sure. But don't you feel guilty putting the Chicory Inn's reputation on the line like that?" he teased.
"Not one bit. And don't you go trying to change things."
"Don't worry, I'll bail you out. It'll cost you though."
"Ha ha." She tried to sound irked, but Link heard the smile beneath her tone.
"I'm here now," he said as the Coffee's On Bakery came into view. "See you in about twenty minutes."
"You'd better not show up here in twenty minutes. There is no way you can do all that and get back here in twenty minutes, and I happen to know you don't need another speeding ticket."
"What? How did you find —"
Something — a dog? a coyote? — darted into the street in front of him, a blur of brown against the dirty snow paving the street.
He slammed on the brakes, spewing a word his mom would not appreciate.
"Link? What happened? Link?"
His brakes squealed as the pickup skidded, and he held his breath as two tons of steel careened directly toward the anim — Wait! That wasn't a dog. It was a kid!
The brake pedal was already pressed to the floor, but he pushed harder then gave the pedal a frantic pump, his pulse screaming in his ears. Please, God! No!
Somehow his cell phone had ended up in the passenger seat, and he could hear his mother's distant frantic cries. But he had bigger things to worry about. The kid stood frozen in the middle of the street staring up at him through the windshield, mouth agape, her wild curly hair blowing in the wind. She needed to move! Now!
The pickup was in a slow-motion, sideways skid now. There was no time to lose! Adrenaline gushing, he slammed the gearshift into park, threw open his door, and half ran, half slid toward the girl. He scooped her to his chest and rolled with her out of the path of the front fender.
Heart slamming, he watched the truck come to a full stop, tires grinding against the curb. When he could finally catch a breath, he scrambled to his feet with the girl in his arms. She scarcely weighed more than a feather, but she started screaming like a banshee, kicking at his knees with her little brown boots. Sharp-toed boots. Ouch! And while she might be a featherweight, fear had given her the strength of a cornered doe.
"Oww!" He grabbed her legs with his free hand and tried to hold them still while also remaining upright — no easy feat considering the ice.
About that time, a woman came flying out of the bakery, wailing. She stepped off the curb — and instantly bit the dust. Link watched, open-mouthed, as she rolled over and scrambled on all fours on the icy street, looking frantically to where Link was trying to stay on his own feet on a thin sheet of sleet and ice. With this little spitfire still flailing in his arms.
"Stay there!" he yelled, his breath forming puffs of steam in the cold November air. The next vehicle to come by might not see her, and she definitely wasn't taking time to look both ways before crossing the street.
"Portia! Baby? Are you okay?"
He knew that voice. It was Shayla! Her gaze didn't leave the child in Link's arms.
He shifted the little girl to face outward so Shayla could see she was in one piece — despite the blood-curdling screams pouring from the tiny creature. Tucking the girl under one arm like a football — or more like one of those crazy bouncy balls his nephews had — he half skated across the street.
He helped her to her feet with his free hand and started to transfer the little girl to her arms when Shayla began pounding her fists on his chest.
"You could have killed her! You could have killed her!"
He stumbled backward, trying to fend off the mama bear's blows while baby bear continued to thrash in his arms. "Hey, stop! She's okay. She's going to be okay!"
Seeming oblivious to the fact that he held the little girl, Shayla continued screaming at him, then, without warning, she wilted into a puddle at his feet.
He didn't think she'd recognized him yet. She was, understandably, a little out of her mind. It seemed a petty thought considering what had just happened, but he hadn't known she had a kid. Did that change things? Not that it mattered now. Nearly running over a woman's daughter probably wasn't his best pick-up line.
Shayla wept gulping sobs that might have scared him a little more if he hadn't been raised with three drama queens for sisters. Not that Shayla didn't have cause to be upset, but her little girl was obviously fine.
He set the child down on the sidewalk next to her, keeping tight hold on the fur collar of the kid's coat so she didn't escape again. "Hey?" He knelt beside Shayla. "You okay?"
Without looking up, she waved him away, then pulled the little girl onto her lap.
"It's cold out here," Link said. She was in shirtsleeves except for the bib apron that bore the Coffee's On logo. "And that sidewalk is a sheet of ice. Why don't we get you both inside?" He offered his hand.
But she batted it away. "I can get myself inside. I think you've helped enough for one day." She sniffed and looked up at him, topaz-colored eyes blazing. Slowly, recognition dawned in them. "It ... it's you." Her creamy brown complexion went rosy.
"Yes. It's Link." He offered his hand again.
But she ignored it. "Go on about your business. We're fine." She pushed the little girl's corkscrew curls off her forehead and inspected her for injury. The child's hair and skin were a paler shade of brown than Shayla's — almost a muddy blonde — and her eyes were a striking blue-gray. Even so, she was the spitting image of Shayla. The little girl whimpered, but she didn't appear to be bleeding or otherwise harmed. A miracle.
Watching them together, the sequence of events replayed in his mind, and he shuddered, feeling a little weak in the knees himself. "That was a close one."
Shayla pierced him with a look. "Yeah, well ... You might want to think about slowing down next time. You could have killed her."
"So you said." About fifteen times. He narrowed his eyes. "And you might want to think about watching your kid closer next time." He turned toward the street, half wishing he'd held his tongue. But seriously? She was going to blame him? He'd quite possibly saved the kid's life. She should be thanking him.
He turned back at the strident chord in her voice, preparing to get chewed out again.
But she only said, "You're coming for the order for the B&B, right? The Chicory Inn?"
He eyed her. "Yes." Wanna make something of it?
"Your order's ready." She pointed a thumb over her shoulder. "Inside."
"Oh." He curbed the urge to roll his eyes. "Thanks. My mom would've killed me if I forgot." He winced inwardly. Nice choice of words, Whitman. Way to remind her you nearly ran over her daughter and that you're running errands for your mommy.
Shayla struggled to her feet, testing the sidewalk beneath her before lifting the girl into her arms. "Come on in. I'll ring you up."
Did he hear a hint of truce in her tone? "You're sure I'm allowed in your store? After all, I did almost kill your daughter." He couldn't help it. The sarcasm came second nature.
She opened her mouth to say something, but instead, hitched her daughter higher on one hip and opened the door to the bakery.
Shaking his head, Link followed her inside.
The heady scents of coffee, warm cinnamon rolls, and maple icing wafted over them, and Link couldn't keep from inhaling deeply. The mingling of aromas had a calming effect on him.
Shayla set the little girl down at a child's table near the cash register. The stack of coloring books and buckets of crayons and markers on the table looked like a scene from one of his sisters' homes, and the little girl was instantly distracted.
Flecks of ice sparkled in Shayla's wild Afro. She looked gorgeous as ever, even if her complexion now seemed more gray than the creamy mahogany shade he remembered. Behind the counter, she consulted an order pad. "You had two dozen Parker House and a loaf of rye, right?"
"Yes. I guess. Whatever Mom ordered." He didn't have a clue and couldn't remember right now if his life depended on it. No doubt, his mother — He took in a sharp breath. Mom! He'd left her on the phone thinking he'd been in an accident. She'd be frantic.
He reached into his pocket then remembered his cell was still in the truck. At least he hoped it was. "Hang on a sec, would you? My phone ... Be right back."
She barely nodded and went on wrapping the bread.
He risked ruffling the little girl's hair as he went by. She flinched at his touch, but at least she didn't start screaming. Shoot, his ears were still ringing.
He jogged out to the pickup and did a quick walk around, inspecting it much the way Shayla had inspected her daughter. The truck was caked with dirty slush and mud, and the back right tire was scuffed where it had met the curb, but otherwise, no worse for the wear. He considered reparking since the truck had parallel parked itself across two angled parking spaces, but there were plenty of open spots on the street, and he didn't want Shayla to think he was leaving.
After calling his mother and giving her a carefully edited version of the morning's events, he tucked his cell in his pocket and trotted back into the shop.
A white bag with the bakery's logo stamped on the side sat waiting on the counter, a receipt stapled to the side.
He looked at it. It seemed a little high, but he retrieved his wallet from his back pocket and extracted a twenty-dollar bill.
She made change and handed it to him without a word, seeming a little dazed. Well, he was too. He bent to peer into her eyes. "You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine." She wiped her hands on her apron and came around the counter, peeking at the table where her little girl was bent over a coloring book.
He held up the bag of rolls. "Thanks." He almost felt like he should apologize, even though he'd done nothing wrong, but under the circumstances, he decided it would be best not to press the issue. No sense getting her riled all over again.
He headed out the front door, but halfway to the truck, he remembered the extra cinnamon rolls his mom had requested before all the excitement. Or was it coffee cake? He hurried back inside. "Sorry, I almost forgot! My mom wanted —"
Behind the counter, Shayla stood with her face buried in the skirt of her flour-dusted apron, her shoulders heaving.
Link's heart stopped for the second time that day. "What's wrong?" He looked around for the little girl. She was still coloring, seeming perfectly fine and oblivious to her mother's tears.
Shayla quickly turned away, dabbing at her face with the hem of the apron. But not before Link saw the tears blazing shiny trails down her smooth cheeks. When she faced him again, her forehead and cheeks were smudged with flour. "What do you need?"
"Are you sure? Is everything okay?"
"It's fine." Her lips firmed. "What else do you need?"
Her tears rattled him now, and he stuttered. "My mom ... um ... she wanted something to serve for breakfast at the inn. She mentioned coffee cake, I think."
Shayla walked to the end of the pastry case and pointed to a ring-shaped confection with crumbly stuff on top. "We have this one. Or a pumpkin loaf."
"Okay. I'll take two of those rings." He hesitated, watching her closely. "You sure you're okay?"
She ignored his question and went to work boxing the coffee cakes. "That'll be sixteen forty-seven."
"Um ..." He waited for her to look up from the register. "You have flour" — he smiled and brushed his own cheek — "on your face. From your apron, I think."
She wheeled away, rubbing at her cheeks as if they were on fire.
He laughed. "At least you've got some color in your cheeks now." Stupid thing to say. "You were looking pretty pale — earlier, I mean." Stupider thing to say. "You got it." He pointed to her face. "It's all off now. I just thought you'd want to know. Before your next customer comes in."
Excerpted from Home at Last by Deborah Raney. Copyright © 2016 Deborah Raney. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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