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Dan backed his brand-new white Explorer into a tight spot on Main Street. The California sun blazed down, bronzed people in shorts and T-shirts whizzed by him on rollerblades or simply took it easy at sidewalk cafes, and the parking meter still had half an hour left on it. It was early April and he'd seen the weather back east on TV: they'd just had another two inches of snow. Feeling that life wasn't too bad after all, he strolled into Ellie's Place.
The red-haired young woman behind the coffee machine gave him a dazzling smile of welcome that seemed to spread from one pretty diamond-studded ear to the other.
"Be right with you," she called. "The coffee machine's acting up again though, so if it's caffeine you're after, you might want to try Starbucks. It's on the next block."
"Juice is fine. It's eggs I really want, scrambled with a toasted bagel."
"Okay." She wrote the order and headed toward the kitchen in the back.
It was just a tiny storefront cafe done out like a Parisian bistro. The mirrors covering the walls were old and foggy, the bronze sconces were verdigrised, the tables were marble and the chairs cane. A scattering of fresh sawdust covered the tile floor and lace curtains hung from a brass rail halfway up the window, on which the name Ellie's Place was inscribed in green shadowed with gold.
Cute, he thought. Like the waitress. She came back carrying cutlery, napkins and a basket of fresh bread covered with a green-checked cloth, and he quickly amended that statement. You could never call a woman as tall as she was "cute." And she was no cookie-cutter California girl either.
She gave him another glancing smile as she set the bread in front of him and he noticed a smudge of flour on her cheek. Her eyes were the pale bluish-gray of opals, her nose was freckled and her red hair was bunched through a black baseball cap in a long curly ponytail. It was odd, but he felt he'd seen her somewhere before. He guessed it was because she looked a bit like Julia Roberts.
"Out here on vacation?" She arranged the tablemat and cutlery and folded the green-checkered napkin. Her voice was deep and soft as melted chocolate.
"How do you know I don't live here?"
She put her hands on her hips, regarding him. "It's that East Coast pallor. It's a dead giveaway. Most people out here have a tan, even if it's fake."
Dan laughed. "You mean I'll have to apply bronzer in order to qualify as a native?"
Her long legs covered the distance to the counter in three strides. She picked up the glass of juice and brought it to him. "Oh, a couple of days at the beach and you'll be fine. Better watch it though. I know it's only April, but the sun is strong."
He watched her walk back to the kitchen to get the eggs. "How come you're so pale then?"
"That's my grandmother's doing. She always made me wear a hat when I was a kid, never let me sunbathe. She said with my red hair and freckles it would be like frying myself. And you know what? She was right. Now I'm older and wiser, I thank her every time I look in the mirror. No lines, no sunspots. I'm a lucky woman."
Ellie smiled at him again as she put the plate of eggs in front of him. Back behind the counter, she cast him a speculative glance.
Cute, she thought, if you could call a guy that rugged "cute." Deep blue eyes that looked as though they had seen it all; thick dark hair, a hawkish nose and blue-stubbled jaw. Lean, broad-shouldered, muscular.
She shrugged regretfully. She didn't have time for men anyway. A career girl was what she was now, and forever would be. She was determined to make her way in the world. Ellie's Place was only her first venture into the restaurant trade; she already had steps two and three planned.
Dan finished his eggs in record time. He glanced at his watch, then went to pay his check. "Thanks," he said with a smile, "I enjoyed it."
"Enjoy your vacation," she called as he strode to the door.
He stood on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, taking in the street scene before getting into the white Explorer. Ellie thought he surely had a great walk, confident, sexy.
Putting the thought of sex determinedly from her mind, she concentrated on the problem of the coffee machine. She had already been on the phone twice yesterday, this would make the third call. Maybe today they would send someone out to fix it.
When Jake arrived, she had to dash to Kinko's with the menu. Then she had to go over the week's orders, find out why there was so much waste in the fresh produce. Then there would be the busy lunch trade. After that she would set up the tables for dinner and check with Chan to make sure he was coming in. She would help with the preparations, take a half-hour break for coffee and a muffin, go home, shower, change, and be back at five for the evening stint as waitress, wine steward, dish stacker, and any other job that nobody else wanted.
Sometimes she wondered if she was in the right business. Then when she'd had a good week, or even a good day, she knew she was. And every night when she fell into bed, exhaustedand aloneshe told herself it would all be worth it and that, one day, she would be the owner and proprietor of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
So there was absolutely no time, or room, in her life for a cute, blue-eyed rugged guy just passing through on vacation. Or anyone else for that matter. She had her grandmother to take care of and she definitely didn't need a man to complicate her life.