A Chester Farms Novella
Excerpt | Reviews…coming soon
She could still leave, right now, if she wanted to. Put a stop to this, keep her good, well-behaved, wait-a-month-into-the-relationship panties on and leave. Dear God, the very idea of walking out of here was downright laughable.
Tasha Parks dropped out of college, cashed in her savings and opened an ice cream store. All her energy should be going into that store. There’s just one problem. Patrick Abington. Handsome, sweet and oh so shy, all Tasha wants for Christmas is him.
Patrick has had his eye on Tasha since she moved to town and opened the only ice cream store for miles. Being flat broke has kept him from asking her out. When a friend gets them in the same room, he can’t back away. Desperate not to let her go, it’s time to think out of the box for ways he can win her heart.
Patrick Abington checked his email and text messages for an update every other second and got nothing. Again. Sit in a parking lot looking like a creeper? That could be checked off the bucket list that never existed. It was either that, or go inside the ice cream shop and wait.
Where he’d have to talk…to her.
His throat tightened at just the idea of carrying on actual conversation beyond asking for two scoops of ice cream. Nerves chewed up his gut and spit it out like a chump. He readjusted in his truck seat and refreshed his phone because going inside alone—not happening. If he just tended to his phone and sent messages to his friend who was late, he wouldn’t look as crazy. Every time he stared at the bright screen stating no new messages though, his head was all but pulled against his will to lift so he could look through the store front windows to see her again.
Her hair was as dark as the waffle cone she held in her hand and lips matched the cherries decorating the walls. While he didn’t know for sure, he was positive her skin was sweet like the chocolate chip cookie dough he occasionally ordered. It just had to be. Creamy, white skin with a light dusting of freckles over her nose seemed like the perfect fit. Then there was her voice. Sweet and so soft. Just wrapped a hug around a man and sucked him in. Forget the cherry topping off his order, when she handed his ice cream across the counter with that smile beaming from her eyes, he turned into a stumbling idiot trying to walk out of there.
A shiver went through him and he returned to refreshing his texts once again to see where in the hell Whitney had gotten off to. She was supposed to meet him here half an hour ago and the ice cream shop was closing in five minutes. Knowing Whitney, she could be distracted by a marathon of trashy TV or playing games on the computer.
He leaned back in his seat for a look down the road to see if there were any headlights, but he got nothing. He shot off another text to her, and her brother this time, and waited.
Time ticked over for another five minutes.
Nothing. Unable to help himself, he glanced back to those store windows to see Tasha by the front wiping down a table and putting chairs on top of the white, shiny surfaces. There had to be a dozen tables in there with four or more chairs at each one. She was in there all by herself, doing that all alone.
While he sat out here. Doing nothing but staring. Hell. He shut off his truck and stepped out.
As often as a fool this one woman made him feel, he couldn’t just sit in his truck while she was doing all that heavy lifting. All those chairs. Not that she couldn’t handle them, but if he sat in his truck, then he became a creeper and a lazy son of a gun. The latter just wasn’t going to happen.
The metal bar of the front door was blessedly cold against his sweaty palms as he pushed it open. The bell dinged a familiar welcome as he stepped into the much needed air conditioning.
Not that it was hot outside. It was November and in the sixties. Problem was, it heated about a thousand degrees under his skin at the sight of her polka-dotted apron strings dangling over the sweet curves of her ass. He made a point to clear his throat so not to have a repeat of that one time his voice cracked when he tried talking to her. “Hi, Tasha.”
She glanced over her shoulder and that beautiful smile lifted her lips, puffed her cheeks and squinted the corners of her eyes. “Hey Patrick. You’re just in time, I was about to lock down.”
Somehow that one grin spun his brain around like a dropped jar of screws. “Yeah, I was—”
Sitting in his truck watching her? Good answer. He cleared his throat. “Whitney is supposed to meet me here.”
Tasha frowned. “Me too. She told me she might be a little late.”
“Oh, she didn’t mention that.” Because he wouldn’t have gotten here until late if so. Then he could have avoided the miserable last half hour of look but don’t touch.
“You’re welcome to stay inside until she gets here.” She leaned on her broom. Her fingers wrapped around the handle, face pressed to the long rod and she looked like a pretty, blue-eyed, brown-haired Cinderella waiting to be rescued.
Not that he was a prince or could do anything besides apparently stare back. Was it getting hot in here? He pointed at the room as a drop of sweat eased down the back of his neck. “Do you need any help?”
Her brows lifted as if in surprise. “Only if you know how to sweep.”
“I can do that,” he nodded. He’d done it a couple times. Sweeping metal scrapings around the shop couldn’t be that different from a little dust on the floor. Not that it mattered, she could ask him to paint her fingernails and he’d dumbly nod along with a mumble.
The corner of her lips turned up all over again and he could just fall into that smile. She handed him the broom. “You don’t mind sweeping? How do I get you in here every night?”
A chuckle moved up his throat that sounded a lot like his little sister’s giggles over a puppy when she was six. Awesome. Any cool points he might have gained by sheer luck just crashed and burned.
“I’d rather do anything besides sweep.” She pointed at the corner across the room. “I usually start over there and move all the dirt this way. Puts me closer to the trash can. I’ll lift the chairs out of the way for you.”
Her bending and lifting and moving all around him? No thanks. He’d like to keep the most amount of blood in his head that was possible. “I’ll get them.”
She stopped and blinked at him. “Well, all right. I’ll let you.”
Too fast. He responded too fast and sounded eager. Nobody was eager to clean. He bit off a curse. “Just if you have something else you need to do.”
“Sure, I can get everything else wiped down and be finished earlier.”
He nodded, grateful that didn’t require a vocal response. He moved along the windows, stacking chairs first and going back with the broom. Words moved in his voice box, but lodged there like a beaver dam had taken up residence.
“Do you like music?”
Drawn to her voice like the sap he was, he looked up and her apron was gone. And his mouth dried. Her perfect curves the polka-dotted thing usually hid were outlined by her tight shirt and jeans. Her breasts were there. Just right there, lifted and cupped in her shirt and looked about right for his hands.
The broom slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor. He shot off the ground by the noise, nearly coming out of his skin. Son of a bitch. He fumbled for the handle and straightened, but decided against looking at her so as not to do something stupid. Again. “Sure.”
Some irritating pop music stuff hummed out and then she was back. So close to him again with a definite sway in her hips that matched the beat of the music. He didn’t know what this song was, but he loved it.
She sprayed a window. “Do you know what Whitney wanted?”
“No idea.” His breath was short and his heart pounded to the beat she subtly rocked her hips to. Between the movement of her hips and the vanilla that seemed to come off her skin, it wouldn’t be the broom hitting floor, but him.
Whitney. He cleared his throat. Right. “I didn’t get her text until I got off work.”
“Work, huh? I’ve never seen you in quite so much…dirt.” She tucked hair behind her ear and no, no.
Hair shouldn’t be shoved behind the ear like that. It was bad enough it was crammed back in that knot on her head. There were only a few little hairs touching her cheek like he wanted his fingers to. She kept staring at him and he was sure he must have missed a question. Panic swelled into a tight knot in his gut and he knew the only answer he could ever give her. “Yes.”
“Where do you work?”
He looked down and noticed how filthy his jeans and boots were. Shit. He should have thought. He was probably making a bigger mess just being in the room and there was no way chocolate and vanilla smells could overpower the funky shit he’d been in today. “Harmon Lyons Construction. Sorry. I should have realized I was filthy before coming in.”
“You’re fine. You’re always so clean when I see you. I thought you worked in an office or something.” Again, she stuffed those few pieces of hair behind her ear.
He gripped the broom stick to prevent him from crossing the room and freeing them. “I wouldn’t survive in an office.”
“I would die behind a desk.” She sprayed the front glass curves of the coolers and wiped them over with a little rag, erasing a day’s worth of kid-sized hand prints. “I know I would.”
Work. That was a good topic. The grip on his chest eased up a bit. He worked his whole life. He could talk about that. “I never had to find out what that would be like. Always worked outside.”
“I did find out what it was like.” She tipped her head. “Well, sort of. At school. It’s the same principle. I hate being pinned to a corner in an uncomfortable chair when all I want to do is get up. I can’t even imagine the nightmare of one of those little cubicles.” A shake wiggled through her shoulders and all the way down to her knees.
He looked away with an image of her chest moving with that shiver plastered on his brain. “Guess this ice cream store works for you then. No sitting.”
“I hope so,” she whispered. “Winter’s coming and it’s slowed down since Fall.”
He lifted a shoulder and swept across the center of the room. “You opened at the end of summer, but it doesn’t get cold here for long. It’ll be hot again before you know it. And people eat ice cream all year.”
She nodded. “True.”
“It’s cool that you have this. Owning your own business seems…” he shook his head, “crazy to think about. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“College taught me a little.”
“Managed to pick up a few things while pinned to that hard chair?”
She smiled. Yes. Smooth, finally.
She continued cleaning, unaware of the fist pumping happening in his head. “Yeah, a little. Maybe some patience and learning to wait for what I want. My Freshman year I got a job at a specialty clothing store and the elderly couple who owned it taught me a lot more than any school book and a classroom would. They retired and closed, but after that, I worked in a restaurant. Now that was a job. Hard, but I loved it. Whitney’s been a big help too. She’s learning the books on the farm, so she’s given me some tips to make a few things easier.”
“Whitney would give you the shirt off her back.” Usually. Not today since she’d stood him up.
“What about you? College?”
“No.” He stroked over his face with a chuckle. The day he got out of high school was the day he’d told himself he was done sitting for most of his life. Sitting at school. Sitting at his mom’s house. Too much damn sitting. It was time for living. He was ready for the big truck and the boat behind it. His own four-wheeler for the deer woods and for damn sure his own house with a big screen TV so he could watch all the football he wanted. A pretty girl with him completed the dream. Couldn’t have none of that without a job. “I got hired by Harmon Lyons at eighteen and they teach on the job for advancement.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh nice. I’m jealous. So you’ve been there two years? Three?”
“Two and half years.” Two and a half long, long years. He took the job with the promise of advancement and good paychecks. The kind of paychecks to live good on and have those dreams. So far he had the house with a small TV and a pickup—though not the lift kit, roll bar or accessories. They were coming. He glanced to Tasha and turned away nearly as fast. One day.
He breathed deep. It was going on three years now of waiting on those big checks. Sometimes it seemed like they’d never happen, then again, it was like the good life he’d been dreaming of was right there. Tasha stared after him and he picked up his sweeping. He wasn’t going to get into his problems with a woman he didn’t know. Hell, he didn’t get into it with people he did know. “What did you get a degree in?”
“I didn’t.” She bit her lower lip. “I had a full paid ride to college.” She lifted a shoulder. “Scholarships. I still worked every chance I got when I wasn’t stuck in class. Sometimes I had two jobs and was able to put all my paychecks back. I dropped out and opened this place.”
“Two jobs and school? You’re serious about not sitting still.”
A little chuckle left her. “I get too restless and it worked out. I never thought I could own a business this fast, but halfway through my freshmen year of college, I did some figuring on paper to see what I needed. I knew what I wanted and went for it.”
“That older couple you worked for must have really been an inspiration.”
Her brows lifted, almost like she was surprised, but he didn’t know why. “They were. I could tell them everything about what I wanted to do. They helped me see it was possible when most of my life I was taught it wasn’t.”
She winced. “I hope so. I’m out of options if it doesn’t work out.”
“There’s always something.” That’s what his momma always said about everything. He found the house here in Bella Warren. Low rent, big enough for him. Close enough to his family, but far enough away and down the road from his best friends. It was a couple months to skimp by on little money until he was able to practice enough to pass a welding test. Then a big job came through at work and there wasn’t any extra time for teaching. A year later and he was still skimping. There’s always something. This hurdle was just another something that would soon be over with.
“No, you don’t understand, it has to work.” She cleaned another window and stopped. “Can I tell you a secret?”
She could tell him all her secrets. “Sure.”
She put the rag and bottle down and faced him. She took a breath and brought her hands up to her mouth. “My parents don’t know I’m here. They think I’m in my third year of school at Magnolia, and it’s going to flip their lids when they find out.”
Not what he thought. He told his parents some things, didn’t others. So long as he wasn’t in jail, wasn’t doing drugs or whatever, he had his freedom and their support. “When are you going to tell them?”
A dreamy expression crossed her face as she walked around the shop and glanced around. “I don’t know.”
“I’m sure your parents will understand.” They were parents. That’s what they did.
“I doubt it.” She looked to the floor and shook her head. “The plan said I was supposed to get a real job doing something sensible, but God, just the idea of sitting at a desk for the rest of my life?” She shook her head. “No way. I had enough of that in Kindergarten to last me a lifetime. So here I am scooping ice cream.”
Ah. The parents must be the source of telling her she couldn’t. What kind of dickheaded parents would do that? “They’re parents. They might get mad for a little bit, then be fine.”
“Ha!” She shook her head. “My brother didn’t follow the plan either. That was four or five years ago. They still haven’t forgiven him.”
“Damn.” He cleared his throat. Shit. Don’t cuss in front of women. His momma made that clear, too. “I mean, that sucks.”
“We used to do stuff together as a family until he left and they didn’t let him back. When I was in high school, it didn’t bother me too much. I had friends and I was busy and the family thing was one less thing to do. It really didn’t hit me until a year ago when my grandma died. I was at the funeral trying to remember the last time we were all together, and I had to really think about it. It wasn’t all because Tom was gone, but it was like, one more piece of the puzzle was missing from the whole picture, you know?” She rubbed her hands down her hips and grabbed her rag and spray bottle. “So anyway. That’s my dirty secret. Do you want something to eat? It’s on me. Least I can do for your help.”
He shook his head. Not because he didn’t want to stay, but he wasn’t here to bum food. “That’s okay.”
“Come on.” She gestured with a tip of her head. “Let me fix you up with a sundae.”
He looked up from the floor, planning to tell her no. It was right there on the tip of his tongue, but she just had these eyes that made it seem like his feet weren’t on the floor. “Okay. I just need to do something with the pile I swept.”
“Dust pan is over here.” She hurried to the front, turned the locks on the door and shut off the front lights, plunging them into a low glow because of the bulbs in the refrigerators over the ice cream. Just enough light gleamed across the room, it was like moonlight over a pond. With just the two of them. And she stood close enough to touch.
The counter was always between them, forcing a distance. Another step and she could be tucked in under his chin. He swallowed as she handed him the dustpan. Thoughts and ideas ran all over his mind and he should really leave before saying something stupid. He was surely due for something dumb to come out. “I can get this and go. You’re probably tired and I’m not sure where Whitney ended up.”
That smile he tripped into continued on. “Not until you’ve had your sundae. I insist. And it’ll give Whitney a little more time.”
The urge to get out of there and grab some fresh air was strong, but yeah okay, if she insisted. He bent and swept up the pile. She directed him behind the counter and he tapped the dust off in the trash can. Behind the counter wasn’t all that different than in front of it. Doors to access the ice cream, and shelves. Sprinkles, flavorings, and several other bottles were neatly in a line on one shelf. Another shelf held rags and another was trays of scoops.
He followed her to the big, open doorway leading to the back and she stopped. She tucked that hair back behind her ear again and slowly turned around. “I forgot you were going to see my other dirty secret.”
“More than dropping out of college?”
“More…embarrassing.” She turned and put her hands up facing him. “Wait here.”