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It really didn't matter that the day was sure to be hot enough to melt asphalt; coffee was a necessity if she was expected to work all day at the library and not maim anyone.
Public safety was important, after all. That and her terrible addiction to things that were bad for her like caffeine and sugary baked goods.
Common Grounds was a daily stop on her way to work or other errands in town.
Bobbi was behind the counter, and when she caught sight of Natalie coming through the doors, she grinned. "Morning!" So. Perky.
Perky was not in Natalie's wheelhouse, so she aimed for amiable because Bobbi the barista was Natalie's pimp. "Morning. Hit me with something awesome."
Another luminous smile from Natalie's favorite barista as she got to work. "I have a new something to try. Are you game?"
"My vices are few, so I like to enjoy what I've got." She looked over the stuff in the case. There were no doughnuts, sadly, so a scone would have to do. "I'd like to enter into a relationship with that cinnamon scone there to go with my something new."
"It's early for you, isn't it? I thought the library didn't open until ten today?"
"It doesn't, but I'm doing story time for some preschoolers."
"Aw, that's nice of you."
Natalie had the financial ability to volunteer in her free time and a strong commitment to giving back, so reading to preschoolers once or twice a week was pretty fun as such things went.
Bobbi handed over the bag with the scone and her drink. "Latte with orange essence and a little shaved chocolate. Tell me what you think."
"Sounds fantastic." As for nice for reading books to kids? "It's a good thing when children like to read. Plus, they're adorable when they're three and four. They blurt out the best stuff. Usually shit about their parents. Last week, right as I finished up Fancy Nancy, one of them pipes up and says, 'my dad doesn't wear pants on weekends.' It was awesome."
Bobbi laughed. "My nephew's like that. My sister says she and her husband have to be careful about stuff they say now because he told his kindergarten class that he walked in on mom and dad naked wrestling."
That made Natalie guffaw. "It's pretty hilarious when it's other people's kids ratting them out."
"Yeah. Our time will
my." Bobbi's gaze seemed to blur as she gaped in the direction of the front door, and that was when Natalie heard his voice.
Not for the first time.
"Care to help out a man in dire need of some caffeine?"
She couldn't help it. Natalie turned to take in the ridiculous male glory that was Paddy Hurley. In jeans and a T-shirt, he still looked like a rock star. Though she'd seen him naked, and he looked like a rock star then, too.
His dark brown hair had lightened up, probably from being out in the sunshine. He'd put his sunglasses on top of his head, so those big hazel eyes fringed by gorgeous, thick sooty lashes had extra impact.
Impact that made Natalie's heart beat faster and her face warm as she remembered some of the things they'd done together. To each other. Dirty, filthy, naked things. Really good things the mere memory of had her libido sitting up and panting over.
Bobbi was entranced by him as she stood at the counter, blinking slowly, clearly caught up in her admiration. He kept smiling, as if he was totally used to that sort of attention. Of course he was.
"Can I get an iced coffee and a slice of that blueberry loaf for here?" He changed his tone a little from that flirty drawl to something more direct, and it seemed to do the trick.
Bobbi stood a little taller and cleared her throat. "Uh. Yeah. Sorry. Yes, of course."
"Thanks." He grinned, all white teeth and work-in-the-sun glow. Good God, he was beautiful.
"I'll bring it out when I'm done." Bobbi got to work but waggled her brows at Natalie, mouthing holy shit, it's Paddy Hurley.
Natalie tried to turn quickly and make an exit, but he'd caught the direction of Bobbi's look, and she saw the moment he recognized her, too.
"Hey, there. Wow." He searched for her name, which was what allowed her to pull her mask on and pretend she had no idea who he was.
"Hello." She turned to Bobbi. "See you tomorrow!" Natalie put the lid back on her cup and gathered her things, but Paddy stepped closer.
"Natalie, right? You worked at that dive bar attached to the bowling alley near Portland." A lifetime before.
"Sorry?" She cocked her head as if she had no idea he was talking about the two weeks they'd spent nailing each other as though sex was going to be outlawed any moment.
"It's Paddy Hurley. I'd know that mouth anywhere." He said it quietly. Enough that she appreciated his discretion.
That Natalie stayed in the dive bar. The Natalie she was now had risen from the ashes while she was in college, and she rarely looked back if she could help it. Paddy Hurley and those two weeks they'd shared were a great memory, especially the naked part. But she'd spent too many years and a whole lot of effort to be more and had no desire to go digging up that lifetime again.
"Nice to meet you, Paddy. I enjoy your music. I need to be on my way." She reached for the door, and he searched her features and shook his head as if he couldn't believe what was happening. Which was sort of charming, and she had to remind her hormones sternly to back off and let her brain do the work.
But he rallied. "I know it's you. Stay and have coffee with me so we can catch up."
"I have to get to work." She opened the door, nudging him out of the way a little as she did. The heat of the day greeted her, and she stepped out, covered her eyes with her shades and walked away.
The past was the past. She had a life now. One she'd spent a lot of time and energy building, and she needed to keep the door on who she'd once been firmly closed.
Even if it left a tasty bit like Paddy Hurley on the other side.
Paddy watched her retreat down the sidewalk, the hem of her skirt swishing back and forth, exposing the backs of her thighs. Thighs that had been wrapped around his hips more than once.
She had tattoos, matching ones, at the top of each thigh, right under each ass cheek. Pretty red bows like at the top of stockings. He smiled at that memory.
"Her name is Natalie, right?" he asked the barista when she brought him the coffee and pastry.
"Yeah. You know her?"
"She lives here in town?" He sipped his drink. He and his brothers had gone out for an early ride so he was hot and a little sleepy. The iced coffee helped with both.
"Sure. Works at the library. Comes in every morning before work to get coffee. Well, except Monday because the library is closed on Mondays. She's single. You know, if you were asking because you thought she was pretty."
He gave the barista a smile. He did indeed think Natalie was pretty. Her hair was short now where it had been long years before. He normally loved a woman with long hair, but on her that pixie thing worked. She had a great neck.
A great everything. She'd kept up with him on every level. They partied hard, fucked hard, worked hard. He and the band his brothers had formed, Sweet Hollow Ranch, had had a series of gigs at dives all over Portland and Southwest Washington. They'd managed to get two crappy hotel rooms included as part of their pay.
The motel had been right behind a bowling alley and the shithole of a bar attached to it. Natalie had been a waitress there, slinging drinks and dodging overeager hands when he'd met her.
It had been a matter of hours after meetingthe chemistry so instant and thick between themuntil they'd stumbled into her studio apartment and into her bed.
She'd been underage, as had he, but they'd spent the next two weeks together around her shifts at the bar and his gigs.
And then he'd gone on the road, and she'd gone off to college. He'd thought of her over the years. One of their songs, "Dive Bar," had been about her and those two weeks.
Turns out she lived in the same town. Which meant it was fate. He continued to smile after he'd thanked the barista.
Why she'd pretended not to know him was the question. She had her reasons, and he aimed to know them, too. The woman behind the counter said Natalie was single, so it wasn't a boyfriend.
Paddy hadn't achieved the success he had because he gave up when things got hard.
He'd simply keep at it.
He leaned back in his chair and watched the street outside as he drank his coffee. A new challenge was always fun. Especially when it concerned a pretty blonde with long legs and a smile that invited a man to sin and not repent.
* * *
"You remember that shithole of a bar we hung out in just outside Portland?" Paddy handed a coil of rope to his oldest brother, Ezra.
"Dude, you've got to be more specific than that. There are dozens upon dozens of shithole bars I remember. More I don't." Ezra snorted as he hung the rope up on a hook just inside the stable door.
Paddy laughed. It had been fifteen years since they'd started out, and that particular shithole bar had been at least a dozen years before. "Back at the beginning. Right before we headed to L.A. and made the first record with the label. The bar was next to a bowling alley. We had two rooms in that rattrap of a motel that was behind it."
"Ah! Yes, I do remember that one. Damien got his ass jumped by those cowboys who heckled us and waited for him after the show."
"Then we all jumped in, and you got arrested."
"Wasn't the last time."
"And now you have pigs and dogs, and you only beat on your brothers."
"I'm too old to beat up anyone but you people. Plus, I have great hands. Why you taking me down memory lane?"
"There was a girl."
Ezra barked a laugh. "Yeah, well, you'll have to be more specific with that, too. Even more of them than shithole dive bars."
"Natalie. Long blond hair. Big blue eyes. Dimples. Juicy mouth. She worked in the bar. We had a thing. Hot, hard, fast, for two weeks before we left for L.A."
"Hmm, sounds familiar, but, Paddy, you have a thing for blondes. There are stories like that from coast to coast and across Europe. They all run together after a time."
"I do have a really fucking awesome life."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Does this story have a point?"
"She's here. In town, I mean. This morning after our ride, I went down to get some coffee. She was there. At the counter. Hair is short now, but it exposes her neck."
Ezra hummed his approval as he put things away.
"She's a librarian."
Ezra's brows rose appreciatively. "Well, now."
"Right? But she pretended she didn't remember me."
Ezra turned and then laughed so hard he had to brace his hands on his knees. "Man, I wish I'd have seen your face when that happened," Ezra choked out in between fits of laughter. "I love how your ego paints it like she pretended not to know you instead of her just not remembering."
"Har har. She remembered me. There's no way she forgot it. It wasn't a night or two. It was two really intense weeks. Plus, asshole, I'm unforgettable. Anyway, she didn't deny knowing me. She just stepped around admitting knowing me. I know the difference."
Ezra stood up, wiping his eyes and settling down a little. "Thanks for that. Totally made my day."
"I'm asking you for advice. You give Damien advice all the time."
"He's an idiot. He needs it more than you do," Ezra said, referring to one of their brothers, the drummer of Sweet Hollow Ranch.
"Yeah, there is that."
"Okay, so hit me. What advice do you want? How to deal with the blow to your ego? Suck it up and move on. So what? There have to be dozens upon dozens of women who feel the same way about you, Paddy. You dumped her, and she does not have fond memories. You're lucky she didn't knee you in the gooch."
"I didn't dump her! It was fall, she was heading off to college and we were on the road. It was fine. No tears. No drama." He ran a hand through his hair. "I liked her. I liked her then, and I want to know if I'd like her now."
Ezra looked him over carefully as they left the stables. "So you want to what? Be this woman's friend? See if she wants another turn in the sheets with you? This is your hometown, Paddy. Don't shit where you sleep. If you charm her out of her panties and then it goes bad, then what? Do you really want some pissed-off ex-girlfriend who knows where you live?"
Paddy made a face. "It's not like that. I can't believe I haven't bumped into her before now. It's not like Hood River is a bustling metropolis."
"Yeah, well, you've been out on multiple tours in a row and traveling in between."
"True. Anyway, I don't just want to nail her, though she's gorgeous and all. Like I said, I want to see if we still click."
"Cut the shit. You're into it because it's a challenge."
Paddy sucked in a breath. "Okay, so maybe that's part of it. But not all of it."
"For whatever reason, you have an unhealthy level of self-confidence. You're okay-looking and all. Chicks dig you, and you hate to lose. So go for it, but don't be a dick."
Which, come to think of it, was pretty good advice.
Natalie walked into Common Grounds with a spring in her step. She'd had a really great dinner with her housemate and best friend the night before. They'd watched a movie, and she'd gotten eight solid hours of really good sleep.
It was sunny, a breeze came in off the Columbia and she was well and truly prepared for an excellent Friday.
She waved a hello at Bobbi. "Good morning! I think I'd like an Americano today with lots of room. What sorts of delicious, calorie-packed goodness do you have left in the case?"
Bobbi looked over to her left. "See, like clockwork."
Natalie followed her gaze and nearly jumped when she saw Paddy Hurley sitting there with a grin on his face. The muted sunlight from the window he sat next to danced over his skin. Jesus H, he looked fantastic, his long legs stretched out, the denim straining at the thighs and over his crotch.
He packed quite a treat behind his zipper. Her belly and regions south tightened at that memory.
She snapped her gaze from his cock and tried not to blush.
"Have a seat." He pushed the chair across from him away from the table with one booted foot. Not cowboy boots, worn work boots she figured cost more than she made in a month.
She wanted to go over and sit. Wanted to flirt and chat and let it lead right back to her place. Something about the man had gotten under her skin right from go. He was dangerous. Wanting too much was dangerous.
"I have to go to work." With sheer force of will, Natalie turned her attention back to the bakery case.
Bobbi gave her a single raised brow but then got started on the Americano. The sounds and scent of the coffee-laden steam settled Natalie a little. "Ooh, I want one of those banana chocolate chip muffin things."
"Here's the thing, Natalie." Suddenly, Paddy was standing very close. How had he done that? "That muffin is on hold. I'm a nice guy, though, so I'll happily let you have it if you'll sit and have coffee with me while we catch up."