Single mom Valentina wants to provide a good life for her son, starting with the perfect home. When the deal on her dream house falls through, rather than move back in with her parents and disappoint them and her son once again, she accepts the help of the intimidating-as-hell stranger she’s admired from her coffee shop seat for the last six months. She's afraid to fall for the wrong guy again, so she makes Cole promise to keep their relationship strictly professional.
Following his failed marriage, Cole can’t find a reason to care about anything or anyone. Saving his company from his ex-wife is the only thing that has kept him afloat for the past six months. As loneliness sets in and he begins to lose the fight over his company, Valentina becomes his lifeline. Cole wants to be more than her landlord, and he has a plan to get her to release him from his promise.
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Mr. Quad Americano rounded the corner across the street at a trot. When he reached the curb, he tapped his watch and wiped sweat off his face with the hem of his T-shirt.
"Thank you." I let out a quiet sigh and sipped my nonfat latte.
Every morning before E-Commerce class, I sat by the bay window at Cafe Triste and waited for him. The man never disappointed. Always on time. Always incredibly gorgeous — mesmerizing in the way he sauntered toward the coffee shop as if he had nowhere else to be but here with me. The familiar adrenaline rush and hot blood pulsing in my ears kicked in a second before he glanced in my direction. I didn't flinch or anything. I simply darted my gaze to my laptop screen and typed gibberish on the keyboard.
I'd been doing this for a while. Ever since he first barged into Cafe Triste six months ago. That day the man had been out running in the pouring rain. He changed direction midstride and stood at the intersection across the way, jaw clenched, hands fisted at his sides, and looking as intimidating as all hell. But when his blue eyes met mine, he relaxed his stance. In the end, a flash of lightning ripping across the sky followed by a particularly loud thunderclap made him rush into the coffee shop.
Rainwater dripped down his face and arms as he shuffled to the counter, ordered a quad americano coffee and an iced water, and plopped himself at the table next to mine. Holy shit, the man radiated pure testosterone, and all I could do was sit there and stare. Like an avalanche, out of nowhere, a hum in my chest spread and filled me with a kind of desire I'd never felt in my life. The kind I'd never thought could be for me.
The next day he'd come back, and then the next, and the next. Same time. Same order. Same table.
True to form, he was back this morning. Across the street, Quad Americano placed both hands on his slim hips, where his black sweats hung low and sexy. His gray T-shirt bunched up under his long fingers, exposing a bit of skin. I'd bet it was smooth and warm. No one ever looked this good in workout clothes, certainly not me. My guess was he'd spent hours at the uber-fancy gym a couple blocks away at the edge of campus. Or maybe this was his usual look, ripped and sweaty.
The traffic light turned green, and he sprinted straight toward the entrance, where the barista stood at attention as soon as he crossed the threshold. A little too eager in my opinion. Wait. Was that what I looked like ogling the guy? Shit. I darted my gaze away from him and back to my screen.
"How're you doing this morning?" he drawled in a deep voice that carried through the small restaurant.
I had no idea where he was from, but an accent like that stood out in a college town like Tucson. Deep South was my guess. All smiles and blushing cheeks, the barista asked for his order.
"Quad americano coffee, please ..."
And an iced water, I mouthed along with him. The breakfast of champions.
Blowing out air, he sat at his usual table, his over-six-foot frame turned toward me, elbows braced on his knees. I slunk in my seat to hide behind the laptop screen. Not that it mattered. He never saw me. Too busy looking at the world outside the window. But I didn't care. This was my favorite part of the morning — when we got to share a bit of peace.
I peeked over my computer again, clicking at random stuff on my friend's blog, mesmerized by the biceps stretching the sleeves on his T-shirt from the small effort of removing the lid from his cup of water. He downed half of it in one go. A slow smile formed on his lips before he caught a chip of ice between his teeth and bit on it hard.
Jeez, Valentina. Do the decent thing and look away.
Easier said than done, especially when the slanting sunrays skimming his profile invited me to stare. Sometimes he came in clean shaven, but today he had stubble that glinted a mix of light and dark brown on his cheeks. Same color as the hair dusting his chest. That T-shirt of his left nothing to the imagination. Not that I needed help in that department. This guy had my mind dreaming up things I was pretty sure were physically impossible.
His phone rang, and he stared at it for several rings before sending the call away. He rubbed a hand over his face and into his hair. The strand trapped between his fingers caught the sunlight and gleamed like gold. An all- American boy, if I ever saw one. Two seconds later, his phone rang again. This time he sent the call away with a quick tap, brows furrowed, lips pursed. Whoever had called was definitely on his shit list. He slumped in his seat, and I had a strong urge to scoot two chairs over and asked him if he was all right. Okay, no. I had to get out of here. I shook my head to clear my thoughts. Mommy time was over.
Focus. Get your shit together and get your ass to class. Like right now.
With a sigh, I checked the time on my laptop. Yep, time to go. I downed the rest of my latte, drumming the bottom of the cup to get the foam to slide into my mouth, slurping a little when the froth slithered slowly and touched my lips. The first and last sips were always the best.
I grabbed my bag and stuffed my laptop in the front panel. My gaze darted toward the hot stranger sitting next to me. On round three, my phone buzzed for a second before it blared out the song "Titanium." It might as well have been an electric shock the way my body jerked in response. Why did I get so jumpy when he was around? I wasn't doing anything wrong. He was way over there, and I was way over here in my own world, doing the right thing, even though I'd spent the last ten minutes thinking about all the wrong things.
Heart beating fast, I fumbled through my bag, trying to kill the ringer, while making a mental note to switch it to a normal ringtone — and change the passcode so Mom wouldn't mess with my phone. Again.
"Hi, Mom," I answered.
"Oh, thank God, Valentina. I caught you before class."
"Barely. If I don't leave now, I'll be late." When Mom cleared her throat, my mommy instincts kicked in immediately. "What's wrong? Is Max okay?"
Mom never called during the week. Not if she could help it. She wanted my attention on school. That was the deal I'd made with my parents, or rather the deal they talked me into making with them — my son, Max, would stay with them until I finished college. If she was calling, something happened. I leaned forward, pushing my bag to make room on the table. My empty cup fell to the floor, but I didn't bother to pick it up. I gripped my phone, mouth dry. If anything happened to Max, it'd be my fault. He needed to be with me all the time, not just on weekends.
Quad Americano picked up the cup and offered it to me. "You finished?"
I waved him away, nodding.
"Valentina. Relax. He's okay." Another pause. A long string of static hummed in my ear before mom spoke again. "I'm sorry, honey. But your rental application was denied. The owner of the house called. Sounded like your credit is questionable? He went with the next applicant on the list."
"What? Why didn't he call me?" I ran my cold fingertips across my forehead. I'd spent months looking for a rental house I could afford. Tucson wasn't an expensive town, but finding a decent and affordable rental had been a real challenge, even after taking into account the job I had waiting for me after graduation. This place had been a true miracle to find. It was in the right school zone, close to my new job, cutest yard, and more importantly within budget.
"He did. But you didn't pick up."
Right. I'd been too busy being selfish, ogling a hot stranger. "Don't tell Max. Okay? I'll call the owner back and find out what the problem is."
"Oh, honey, do that ... I'm sorry, sweetie. Take care."
I ended the call, scrounged through my bag, and pulled out my to-do list from a year ago. The one I made when Max had asked me why all the other kids in his preschool class lived with their moms. Why he had to live with grandma while I was away all week. My answer that day had been a promise to bring him home. I promised him it'd be just the two of us after graduation.
With a tightness in my chest, I glared at the list. Find a house was already crossed out. I took a deep, calming breath, tapped on the Recents icon, and immediately spotted the house owner's number. Dammit. He had called me first. I hit his name on the screen and waited for him to answer.
"Hi, Mr. Mendez. This is Valentina."
"You got my message," he said, his voice a monotone. He didn't want to deal with me.
Hell if I cared. "I did. I thought the rental agreement had been settled. What changed?"
Tears stung my eyes. I blinked and wiped my cheeks while a lump churned in my stomach. I couldn't lose this house. Maybe if he knew why I had such a huge debt, he'd understand. People in the coffee shop shot furtive glances my way, at the girl in the corner having a moment. Two chairs down, Quad Americano gazed out the window — the only one in the restaurant who didn't notice me. I turned in my chair to face away from him and switched to Spanish. I had Mr. Mendez's attention for thirty seconds, tops. I had to make it count.
I squeezed my hand into a fist, crumpled my to-do list, and buried it in the folds of my skirt. I had to ask a complete stranger for a break, a favor. I squared my shoulders and swallowed my damn pride. "Listen, my five-year- old son had a fall last year. He's fine now, but his leg surgery wasn't cheap. I promise you the medical bills are the only debt I have, and I've never been late on payments."
"I didn't know. I already moved on," he said curtly.
"Please," I begged.
"Lady, don't make this difficult. Not my fault." He hung up.
A sound between a whimper and a hiccup escaped my lips. I pressed my face against the soft flannel lining of my messenger bag the moment the first tear trickled down my cheek. Crying in public was embarrassing, but at this point I didn't care. I had failed Max. My stomach rolled at the thought. How could I tell him he had to stay with grandma until I could either fix my credit or get a raise? An image of his big brown eyes fluttered in my mind, trusting and caring.
No. I made him a promise. I couldn't let him down.
God, an apartment didn't sound half-bad now. But if Mr. Mendez, a regular homeowner, had a problem with my credit, I was sure an apartment complex would be the same. If not worse. Eyes itchy and probably already puffy from crying, I ripped the old list into tiny pieces, took out my notebook, and wrote at the top of the page in all caps, going over the letters three times to make them stand out.
1. Get through finals week.
2. Make a list of new rental prospects. Two-bedroom unit, with a yard. Stay north of Speedway, if possible. Ask for a raise?
I scratched that last part. Who asks for a raise before starting a new job?
3. Find more rental money in the budget.
Maybe if I offered to pay two or three months in advance, my credit wouldn't be an issue.
4. Find out how much I'm spending on lattes. How much to brew at home?
5. Research schools in other areas.
6. Schedule tours for late early next week.
I called Mom back to give her an update.
Max answered. "Hi, Mom." A few weeks ago, I was Mommy. Max was growing fast, and I was missing it.
"Hey, buddy. What are you doing?"
"Packing," he said, his mouth full of food. "I have seventeen days before I can come live with you. No, wait. Sixteen days. Today doesn't count."
My lip quivered. Placing a hand over my mouth, I swallowed my tears. "You're going to love our new house." I closed my eyes and pictured the house I'd lost just ten minutes ago. Holding on to that image made the lie feel a little true. I still had time to turn this around and start making up for lost time and all the mistakes I'd made. Max would be proud of me this time.
"It's going to be epic. 'Kay, here's Grandma. Love you, Mom."
"I love you too," I said, but he was gone.
"You got it taken care of?" Mom asked with real glee in her voice.
I shook my head, chest tight. "No. Please don't tell Max."
"Oh, honey, you know I won't. But I have to say it breaks my heart to see him packing for a move that may not happen." She paused for a moment while I sniffled. "Don't be so hard on yourself. You know you can always come stay with us. Just until you find another place."
"Thanks. But I can handle it, Mom. Really."
"Would you at least let us help you pack up your dorm?"
"I'm fine." I forced a laugh. "Don't worry. I still have two weeks before I need to move out. Plenty of time to find a new rental." That last bit came out way too bubbly, a big fat lie. But Mom didn't push it anymore. She knew that if I failed, I'd wind up in her house. Again.
"Okay, honey. I'll see you Friday."
I ended the call, tears blurring my vision. Mom would never say it, but she'd been silently hoping Max and I would come live with her and Dad in a more permanent capacity after graduation. Her dream was my nightmare. I was twenty-four years old. Moving in with my parents would be a major step back. I'd be stuck in Casa Grande, a town where I'd always be the girl who got knocked up her first week in college. My muscles tightened as I pictured their looks full of pity and disappointment, as I remembered all those months I spent hiding in my room.
Moving in with my parents wasn't an option. I had to keep moving forward. Even if that meant lowering my standards a bit. Okay, maybe a whole lot. I regarded my list and added a comment to item two.
2. Make a list of new rental prospects. Include apartment complexes.
Then I added a final item in huge letters.
7. Pick a home for Max.
We Were Strangers
I rubbed my hand against the front of my T-shirt, fighting the urge to walk over to the woman sitting in the corner of the coffee shop. That long dark hair of hers spread on the table, a thick curl touching her bare knee. What'd happened to make her cry like this? No, I couldn't care about that. Today's not the day my resolve to stay away from her crumbles.
"Would you like another water?" the barista asked, standing next to me.
"Sure. Thanks." I handed her my cup and followed her back to the register. I needed to get out of here before I did anything stupid like talk to Valentina — the name embroidered on her laptop bag. The name suited her. Crossing my arms, I leaned on the counter, stealing another glance at her.
She'd found her composure and played with a long tress as she wrote in her notebook, her pretty brown eyes still wet, high cheekbones red and blotchy. To my disappointment, the dimple that'd appeared when she was on the phone was gone. When she let go of the strand of hair, it bounced and wrapped itself around the swell of her breast. My nerve endings stirred, and my pulse beat hard. I stepped toward her.
"Here you go." The barista touched my arm, something between a pat and a caress. I turned to face her as she offered me the water.
"Thanks." I took the cup from her and headed for the door. I had to get out of here. The last thing I needed right now was more female problems. Was she making a list?
Don't get involved.
Wasn't curiosity the thing that killed the cat? Great. Now I was comparing myself to a damn cat. Pirate would appreciate that. Useless cat. Valentina could deal with her own goddamn problems. I had my own. Plenty of them. I blew out air and dashed out of the coffee shop. I was an asshole for not offering her a bit of kindness, but letting her be was the right thing to do.
Lately, everything I touch turns to shit.
When I reached my car at the end of the block, I stuffed my hand in my pants. "Fuck my life," I said through gritted teeth. My key was gone. I punched the entry code in the car keypad and climbed in. I looked everywhere for the damn thing, in between and underneath the seats, and even in the trunk. Nothing. I made a mental list of where I'd been since I parked. There were only two places.
The fancy by-invitation-only gym I'd joined last year stood at the end of the parking lot. With a bit of luck, not that I'd had much of it lately, I'd dropped the key there and not back at Cafe Triste. I let my head fall back and took a deep breath just as my phone rang for the tenth time this morning. I answered it without looking at the screen. "What?"
" 'Bout damn time you answered, man," Dom, my lawyer and best friend, said.
"I was busy."
Excerpted from "Love Over Lattes"
Copyright © 2018 Diana A. Hicks.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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