KATE RILEY PULLED up in front of Scalia’s Bistro, ready to go in and beg for a job she didn’t want; her cut-off jeans and faded tank top made that clear. The tire of her Jeep bumped over the curb, and a hubcap clanged onto the sidewalk. She groaned. One of these days, it’s gotta get better, right?
Main Street was usually quiet in the middle of the afternoon, but a horn blared as she backed up to fix her lousy parking job. She gave the driver a friendly wave instead of the not-so-friendly finger itching to pop up. Gotta be careful in a small town like this—it was probably someone she knew. Easing back into the spot, her gas gauge lit up.
“Perfect.” She turned off the engine and slumped in her seat. Nope, this wasn’t gonna be the day a sack of cash fell from the sky. Attached to Mr. Right. Although, she’d given up on meeting him after Mr. So Very, Very Wrong kicked a hole in her heart.
Not everyone’s meant for love, sugar. That’s what Mama always said about her own sorry marriage. Kate must’ve inherited that gene—along with hips that didn’t quit.
“Thanks for the ride to work,” her stepsister, Dina, said from the passenger seat. “Except for almost running down the pedestrians.” She rolled her eyes, hopped out, and nearly tumbled over from the weight of her baby belly—not quite ready to pop, but getting there. “I’ll find a lift home, really.”
Kate leaned across the console and forced a smile. “Maybe the baby’s daddy could give you a ride home? Ready to tell us who that is?”
Dina crossed her skinny arms and tipped up her chin. “I’m not talking to or about the baby’s daddy.”
Kate let out a sigh she knew was too long and exhausted for someone her age. She sounded like Pansy Parker down at the Jelly Jar diner when they ran out of sweet potato pie. “Dina, if the cancer hadn’t killed my mama, this would have.”
Dina’s eyes narrowed, framed by eyebrows plucked pencil-thin and highlighted with too much pink eye shadow. “Well, it did, and that doesn’t suddenly make you my parent. I’m eighteen.” She rubbed her belly. “Me and the baby will be fine.”
Kate swallowed the angry knot in her throat along with the snotty comeback. “Someone’s gotta be your parent now, Dina. George may be your father, but he sure doesn’t act like it. He forgot to drive you to work today. You think he’s going to help with a baby?” She shook her head. “Any idea where he is this time? Maybe out getting a job?”
Dina shrugged. “Doubt it.” Then her lips quivered and her big blue eyes watered up. “He’s not going to jail, is he?” The kid could go from surly to sad in two seconds flat. Amazing.
“No. They won’t arrest him. They’d just take the house. But don’t worry, I’ll fix it.” She wasn’t going to let her stepfather lose her mama’s house because he was too irresponsible to pay the property taxes. If only her job as a nurse at the junior high paid more. If only she had a brother or sister to help shoulder the burden. Or a husband. Scratch that. A husband seemed like a good idea until you got one. At least that’s how it’d been for her mama. “I’ll get the money for the taxes.” Because that’s what Kate did—she fixed things, whether it was a bandage on a boo-boo or finding a stack of cash to save her house. Kate always did what she had to do, and she was proud of that.
Dina put her hand on her hip. “Then you better get inside and ask about that waitress position, or it’s gonna be filled.” And her mood snapped back, just like that, the manipulative little... “Bye,” she fluttered her fingers at Kate and lumbered into Scalia’s Bistro, her dark ponytail swinging in time with her hips.
Working with her stepsister and a bunch of surly teens at Scalia’s was going to make for a hellish summer. Plus, Kate had already worked there when she was a teenager. Not mortifying at all to come back at age twenty-six. Things definitely were not getting better, not this day, anyway.
She rested her head back on the seat and re-did the mental math. Again. She needed more than an extra ten-thousand dollars by summer’s end to pay off the taxes and fines, or the folks at the town hall were putting a lien on the house. A waitressing job wouldn’t pull that in. Double shifts, maybe—with a really tight uniform. What would that cost her pride? Plenty. Just one more reason for the chatterboxes in Willowdale, North Carolina, to talk about poor, poor Kate Riley. Being gossip fodder had never been on any bucket list of hers, yet here she was keeping the blue-hairs still chatting.
Kate looked up and down Main Street, empty of any other help-wanted signs. She’d had no luck at the hospital over in Whitesville or the residential-care facility in town. Wasn’t much available in Willowdale besides this position, unless she learned how to change oil down at the Jiffy Lube or roll perms at Tonya’s Curl E.Q. Salon. Her pal Jeanne had tried that once and had nearly run Tonya’s business into the ground. Dot Klein’s hair was just growing back after Jeanne forgot to wash out her perm.
So, Scalia’s was it.
She got out of the car, grabbed the hubcap and tossed it in her backseat. Lingering in front of the town’s fanciest restaurant, she was just putting off the inevitable. The garlicky smell of the early-bird special made her stomach curl. The smell of defeat, sister. She leaned against her car and wilted in the steamy afternoon, all sticky and warm like a long, hot yawn.
Pushing away from the car, ready to go inside—if only for the air conditioning—she spotted a man hurrying toward her: tall, drop-jaw handsome, and totally out of place with his new leather shoes, dark jeans and white linen shirt. He didn’t belong here, yet he did look familiar. You’d remember a guy like him. Hell, you’d dream about a guy like him. Without thinking, she sucked in her cheeks and her stomach and took a deep breath. Hot. Damn.
The man glanced over his shoulder then approached her. He lifted his sunglasses, cocked an eyebrow and grinned. “Can you give me a ride?”
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