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Read an Excerpt
Kissing Her Crush
A Sugar City Novel
By Ophelia London, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Ophelia London
All rights reserved.
Natalie lowered her cell and stared bug-eyed in shock across the lab. Happy shock. "We ..." She blinked a few times, then slid her safety glasses on top of her head. "We got it."
Ivy lowered the test tube in her hand. "What'd we get?"
"The foundation's endorsement. The lab space for our pilot trial. The grant."
"Stop — shut up." Test tubes clinked together when Ivy dropped the whole tray onto her workstation and held up one latex-gloved hand. "Since when?"
"Since ten seconds ago." Natalie displayed her phone, feeling the rush of endorphins the good news was bringing on. "I didn't want to say anything until it was officially happening. And now it's ..."
They gazed at each other for a silent second, then they both exploded in cheers that rattled the glass partitions of the lab.
"Buckle up, baby," Natalie said. "Starting Monday, for the next three weeks, you and I are heading the newest pro-tem research team at Penn State Medical Center." She smoothed down the front of her white lab coat, running her fingers over the Hershey logo.
"That's amazing!" Ivy's red ponytail bounced as she jumped up and down. "We need something to toast with, but not this stuff." She pushed aside a tray of caramel-colored blobs. "Not quite edible."
"Those'll do," Natalie said, gesturing to the row of brown squares on the counter. "Toss me one."
Ivy lobbed over one of their newest experiments: Peanut butter and honey-soaked wafers between shaves of coconut, covered in one layer of milk chocolate and one of Hershey's Special Dark. It would never make it past the test kitchen, but one of the best perks of being research and development food chemists in the "Sweets and Refreshments" lab was creating new products, no matter how unconventional.
"Cheers." Ivy lifted a square of chocolate.
"To us!" Natalie air-clinked their bars. "Mmm, man," she moaned, as velvety-smooth cocoa melted down her throat. "Whoever says chocolate doesn't stimulate positive brain function is high on cray-cray."
"Agreed. And that's the whole basis of your research project's theory," Ivy replied with a full mouth. "You gotta tell the rest of the team the news, and your family. Your mom will freak."
"I know — it's huge." Natalie couldn't stop beaming, due to the combination of succulent chocolate and the exhilarating, validating turn of events.
"This calls for a special celebration." Ivy twirled the end of her ponytail while finishing her candy. "I'm thinking never-ending tapas at the Lounge. Drinks on me!"
Natalie felt an even bigger smile about to break, but a second later, it dropped. "I can't. There's so much to do before Monday. I have to gather the data, store the files, order the base supplies — most have to be FedExed from Brazil —"
"Nat, chill. There'll be time for that. Right now, you need to stand still, breathe, think about chocolate, and be happy."
Natalie obeyed and took a deep breath. Happy, yes. Chocolate, yesss.
Not only was Ivy her best friend and R&D lab partner, she also had a knack for talking Natalie down when she was about to board the train bound for Stressville.
But she couldn't help it. She'd been submitting for pilot seed grants for two years, needing major coinage to fund the first phase of her research project on the rare Amazonian root that, when mixed with cocoa found in the same region, had been shown to safely elevate serotonin levels in adolescents.
Of course the theory that chocolate equals happiness wasn't anything new; women had been singing that song for decades. But this study was unique.
And for Natalie, very close to home.
Ivy opened her arms wide. "Congrats, superstar," she said, giving her a big hug.
"Thanks, seriously. I know it's going to take up a lot of time and you're only doing it to get your research hours in, but I really appreciate it."
"Nat." Ivy frowned. "I believe in your theory just as passionately as you do. You know that."
Natalie felt another surge of gratitude for her best friend.
Ivy stepped back and gave Natalie the old up-down. "No-no, you're not going out like this."
Natalie glanced at her outfit. Nothing unusual. Hershey-issued white lab coat covered in chocolate smears and spatters, jeans, and hot pink trainers.
"Since you're a big-shot medical researcher for the next three weeks," Ivy said, "we gotta make you presentable. These go." She removed Natalie's plastic goggles and tossed them on the table. "Pull your hair out of ... Is this a scrunchy?"
"Who cares what I look like at work?" Natalie defended, just as she caught her reflection in the glass partition behind her microscope. Egads. Out of its updo, her blonde-streaked hair was wilder than usual. She combed her fingers through the ends, but taming it at this point was impossible. She might as well go for the purposeful lion's mane/1980 rock star's girlfriend look.
"Don't walk out in your uniform," Ivy added. "Even though it's super-fashionable."
Natalie laughed and slid out of her lab coat. "You coming now?"
"I'll meet you there in a few." She walked a tray of used measuring cups to the sink. "Um, I'm making a quick stop first."
Natalie cut between Ivy and the sink. "No. No, you're not."
"Not what?" Ivy asked, giving her the innocent eyes. But that hadn't worked in years.
"You are not going to see Jake." Natalie put her hands on her hips. "The guy's trouble. If I have to spend all night talking you out of it again, I will." Just a few days ago, she'd spent three hours saving Ivy from making a similarly huge relationship mistake. If Natalie wasn't around to police her, who knew what kind of trouble Ivy would get into?
"Fine," Ivy said after a dramatic exhale. "I'll stay strong, like you said."
"Good." Natalie stuffed her uniform down the laundry chute, grabbed her purse, and wound her long, cottony-soft scarf around her neck. "So you'll meet me at the Lounge later? Alone?"
Ivy rolled her eyes, making Natalie laugh.
She didn't mind if her best friend thought she was a pain in the derrière.
Solving Ivy's love life woes helped Natalie keep her mind off her own relationship issues.
"I promise," Ivy finally said, begrudgingly. Then her face brightened. "Now, call your parents and tell them the news!"
Natalie joined Ivy in one more celebratory squeal, then left the lab, the place she'd called her work home for five delicious years — fifty more years, if she had her way.
At every red light as she cruised up Chocolate Avenue, she called a different number. Not surprisingly, neither her mother nor her father picked up. She left voicemails everywhere, telling them she had big news and to meet at their regular table at the Lounge ASAP.
No shock they weren't there by the time she arrived. She scanned the room, picking out familiar faces of the locals she'd known her whole life among the tourists that hit spots like the Hershey Lounge on their way through "The Sweetest Place on Earth."
A tall guy stood alone at the bar. He faced the other way, so Natalie allowed her dude-starved eyes a little stare, to pass the time, admire beauty in the world. He had waves of dark hair cut short; nice, broad shoulders; a very nice ... um ... posterior inside dark wash jeans that fit him like an Armani model.
When it was clear her quick glance had turned into a full-on ogle, she slid her gaze in the other direction. The decision she'd made to stay away from men was what made her resort to extended ogles.
She was about to call her mom's cell again when the guy turned and leaned an elbow on the bar. He looked at her briefly, looked away, then did a double-take. Natalie swallowed, not used to getting double-takes from men in Armani jeans. Maybe she should bend her own rule for once, saunter over, and ...
Or maybe she'd been sampling too much product at work and was having a sugar hallucination, because she could've sworn she was staring into the blue eyes of —
"Luke?" Her diaphragm pushed the single syllable up her throat and out her mouth without too much of a choke.
"Natalie," she corrected ... then wanted to go play in busy traffic.
Luke Elliott. It had been six years since she'd seen him. What had been the occasion? Ah, yes. His engagement party. Awesome. She hadn't said one word to him that day, tried to not even look at him. Ever since one night when they were thirteen, Luke brought out every possible insecurity her teenaged self-esteem could handle, and some she couldn't. During the few times she'd seen him since graduating high school, those insecurities always came back.
Why she let someone who didn't even know her name have any kind of power over her was a mystery. A mystery she did not want to solve.
"Sorry — Natalie, of course. Hi." Luke slid his cell into his pocket and strolled over. "It's good to see you."
She felt the ridiculous impulse to greet him with a hug. But that was nothing more than a silly urge brought on by how damn good looking he was. All the Elliott offspring came from a moving assembly line of perfect hotness. Luke was the oldest, and in Natalie's life-long opinion, the most perfect.
"Good to see you, too." She was about to fold her arms but stopped halfway, unsure what do to with her hands.
Back in high school when they'd run in the same far-reaching social circle, she and Luke had never been even relatively close; for sure not close enough to hug each other now. Although the nicely fitting blue cashmere sweater he was rocking looked temptingly huggable.
No hugging, Nat.
For all she knew, he was still married.
The Hershey grapevine was notoriously unreliable. Just because she'd heard Luke got divorced two years ago didn't mean it was true. Still, she couldn't help but notice the way his sweater stretched across his chest, and how the color caught the deep-blueness of his eyes.
In case of another impulse, Natalie gripped her purse with both hands. After all, it had been a similar impulse that had made her humiliate herself in front of the guy when they were thirteen.
"It's been a while," Luke said.
"Six years," she replied, then mentally thwapped herself on the forehead. Did she think she'd wow him with her memory? Or was she going for the whole stalker vibe?
He rubbed his square jaw that had a rugged five o'clock shadow going. "I think you're right."
"Six years," she repeated. What kind of small talk was called for when you practically grew up with someone who seldom gave you the time of day ... until one stupid party and one "seven minutes in heaven" dare?
Polite small talk, Nat. That's what kind.
"So, what brings you to the Lounge?"
"Buddy of mine works the bar. Or used to." He ran a hand through his dark hair. "A lot's changed since the last time I actually spent more than a weekend in town."
Natalie had to laugh. "Nothing ever changes in Hershey!"
Luke smiled. The fact that it still made her stomach turn a cartwheel certainly hadn't changed. She was supposed to have gotten over her one-sided infatuation the day they'd graduated and he'd left for the big city.
"Yeah." He dipped his chin. "This town is pretty sleepy and slow. I haven't forgotten that." When he looked up again, his smile had vanished, and his sky-blue eyes looked a little cloudy.
She wondered about his subtle mood swing. She also wondered what he was doing in Hershey. The other four Elliott kids didn't live at home, either, but they came to visit all the time. Maybe it was someone's important birthday that finally brought Luke back.
"Anyway." He glanced behind her. "Are you meeting someone?"
"My parents and brother. They're not here yet. Are you alone?" He took a beat before nodding. "For over two years now."
"I didn't mean ..." She bit her lip. "I heard about the divorce."
"I'm sure everyone in Hershey's heard about it." He chuckled, but with no bitterness. "I'll wait with you until your family shows up."
She fidgeted, tugging at her sleeves, feeling like her awkward, tongue-tied teenage self.
"You don't have to. I'm sure you have better things to do."
Luke flashed a smile. "A lady should never wait alone."
Damn. He was charming, too. She'd sensed that about him when they were kids but hadn't been around him enough to know for sure. Totally unfair to be blessed with money, a perfect family, and perfect manners to go with that perfect face. Not that being hot and charming equaled a nice guy. In fact, in Natalie's most recent experiences, it meant anything but.
"That's very nice of you. Thanks," she said, holding up her end of the good-manners game.
"Family dinner on a Thursday. What's the occasion?"
"We're celebrating. I got a pretty big break at work. Not work-work at my day job but a new thing I'll be doing over at the med center for a few weeks."
Luke lifted his eyebrows. "Sounds impressive. Let me help you celebrate." He waved at the bar. "At least start it off."
"No, no, that's okay. They should be here any minute. Um, I think." She flipped her phone in her hands. "I haven't been able to get a hold of anyone."
"Then how do you know they're coming?"
She sighed. "I guess I don't."
"Well, then." He gestured toward the dining room. "After you."
Dang his good manners and smile. She was not about to get all weak-kneed over Luke Elliott again — the first time had been disastrous enough. And especially not now, when she was about to start on the most important project in her career. She didn't need the distraction, no matter how blue the eyes or huggable the sweater.
"We'll sit there," he said to the approaching hostess, pointing to a table next to the windows.
Looks, manners, and a dash of bossiness. Natalie thanked her lucky, chocolate-covered stars that the newly single Luke Elliott didn't live in Hershey anymore.
When they got to the table, he pulled out her chair. "Thanks," she said, unwinding her scarf and wishing she was more dressed up. No one else at the Lounge would care that she was in a plain white, long-sleeved T-shirt and hot pink Nikes, but they didn't go with Luke's cashmere polished manners.
Water and a basket of bread appeared at their table. "Thanks, Roy," she said.
"You must come here a lot," Luke observed.
"But you didn't grow up here. Or you didn't go to Hershey High, right?"
"Right." She opened her menu, although she'd had it memorized forever. "I'm from Inter —" As usual, she choked halfway through the word. "Intercourse."
Luke lowered his menu and eyed her across the table.
She tried not to feel the embarrassment she'd felt as a kid. She might have grown up in a tiny Pennsylvania non-town with the most mortifying name on the planet, but she'd had her own apartment in Hershey for years. The town was small, but at least it had its own post office.
"Ahh, that's right." Luke nodded. "Your father ran a farmers market in Lancaster County."
"One of them." She glanced across the dining room, hoping the subject would die.
What was it about being around Luke — or any of the Elliotts — that made Natalie feel like a barefoot hillbilly? Was it that big house on the hill where he'd grown up, while she'd been raised forty miles away in the sticks, surrounded by Amish dairy farms?
Or was it because she always seemed to be sporting exceptionally unruly, lion's-mane hair and jeans and Barbie-pink sneakers whenever she happened to see him?
Maybe it was all of the above, plus the fact that she'd had a crush on him since birth.
"Does he still have a farmers market?" he asked.
"It's smaller and only one weekend a month. But there're plenty of others in Lancaster."
"But yours had the apple cider."
Natalie couldn't help smiling. "You remember that?"
"Are you kidding?" He rested his forearms on the table. "We had that stuff year-round. Holden Apple Farms. I can picture the label."
So could Natalie — way too vividly. "I haven't had any in ages."
She gave him a long look. "I had to pick those apples instead of going to parties."
His grinning eyes crinkled at the edges. "I hear ya."
While he went back to studying his menu, Natalie stopped to think how, in the last ten minutes, they'd exchanged more words than they ever had. Definitely more than during those dimly-lit moments inside the boathouse. The memory made the hair at the back of her neck stand up.
"Does your entrée page have a comic section mine doesn't?" she asked.
"I forgot how huge bologna is around here. I know it's an Amish thing, but I never liked it, even as a kid."
Natalie crinkled her nose. "Me neither, but the tourists expect it. That and chocolate-covered everything."
Excerpted from Kissing Her Crush by Ophelia London, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2015 Ophelia London. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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