I sipped champagne, content to spend time with my friends, even if it was at the grand opening of a garage. We stood in the open bay, enjoying the warm weather while music played softly over the speakers. I’d drunk enough of the alcohol to have that floaty feeling, like nothing could bring me down.
I wanted to support the owners, especially since Ryan was the boyfriend of my best friend, Hailey.
Ryan was currently under the hood of a vehicle, demonstrating something to a guest, while Jake stood nearby with his arms crossed over his chest.
“I almost wish I was having car trouble right now.” I wasn’t interested in anything long-term, but a one-night stand wouldn’t be out of the question. I needed to release some of the tension caught between my shoulder blades.
Hailey gave me a pointed look. “You cannot hit on my brother.”
“I would never.” The truth was that I’d never been attracted to Jake. As hot as mechanics were, I’d always gone for men in suits.
A sleek sports car pulled up, and Jake stepped toward the vehicle just as the driver’s side door opened.
A man unfolded from the low seat, straightening to his full height. I loved tall men, and that one exuded power from his expensive shoes to the black button-down shirt that fell open at the neck.
I gulped the bubbly liquid, wanting but failing to soothe my suddenly dry throat.
“We’re not open for repairs tonight,” Jake said by way of greeting.
My gaze swept over his face, admiring his neatly trimmed beard and the arch of his lips. But as I got to his eyes, I felt there was something familiar about them. They held a challenge as if he was used to getting his way.
It couldn’t be Bentley Monroe. The boy who’d moved onto my street at age seven and challenged me at every turn. I hadn’t seen my childhood nemesis in ten years. Not since we’d graduated from high school as co-valedictorians. Right before my speech, he’d leaned over to whisper in my ear that he was the real valedictorian, but the principal felt sorry for me. I hadn’t believed him—not really—but the familiar anger burned in my gut as I watched him extend his hand to Jake.
I wanted him to get back in his car and leave, but a bigger part of me wanted to know what he was doing there. I moved closer to hear their conversation.
His gaze snagged on mine, and I sucked in a breath. It was him.
“Bentley Monroe?” There was a buzzing in my ears that grew louder by the second.
“I go by Ben now.” His eyes narrowed on mine. “Brooke Langley?”
I’d teased him for his pretentious name in school, so it wasn’t a surprise that he’d shortened it.
“What are you doing here?” Maybe he was just visiting his parents and would be gone in a couple of days. My heart beat slower as I waited for his response.
Bentley—no, Ben, now—looked from me to Jake. “I’m dropping my car off for service. I left a message earlier.”
Jake gestured behind him at the crowd of people. “Sorry, man. We had our grand opening party tonight. I haven’t been checking messages.”
Hailey grasped my elbow and hissed into my ear, “Wait, is this the Bentley? The lemonade stand kid?”
I nodded; my gaze locked on Ben.
But he wasn’t a kid anymore. He was polished and put together. He had a presence that had nothing to do with expensive clothes or his fancy car.
“I heard you do good work,” Bentley said to Jake.
Jake nodded. “What seems to be the problem?”
Ben stepped to the side of the vehicle, gesturing underneath. “I hit something on the drive here from Philadelphia.”
“There’s an issue with the undercarriage?” Jake asked.
Ben nodded. “I think so, but I’m not a mechanic.”
The guys chuckled as if sharing a secret, and my fingers curled into fists. Even though he hadn’t even said anything offensive, being around Ben never failed to set me off.
“We can squeeze you in tomorrow,” Ryan said from behind the counter, where he was looking at a pad of paper, probably the schedule.
Ben pulled a phone from his pocket. “That works. I’ll let you get back to your party.”
“Are you in town to visit your family?” Though he’d mentioned a move, I hoped he meant a temporary one.
Ben lifted his gaze. “I’m opening a store in town.”
My heart began beating so loudly that I could barely hear his next words.
I owned the only coffee shop in town. Which meant my childhood nemesis just became my competition. He’d been the perfect motivator to get good grades in school, but I didn’t want that same dynamic now.
“Why?” I finally bit out. Why was he ruining my dream? In high school, it seemed like he was always two steps ahead, taunting me. I could never measure up when all I wanted to do was beat him. My stomach rolled and dipped like I was on a roller coaster instead of standing on even ground.
Ben shrugged like he didn’t have a care in the world. “I wanted to open a business, and this seemed as good a place as any.”
“I own Java Coffee. We don’t need two coffee shops in town.” I crossed my arms over my chest, positive he knew this information and didn’t care. It was just like him to be cocky, to think he’d make it when no one else did.
He smirked. “It’ll be just like old times, then.”
My cheeks heated. I could feel my friends watching us, wondering how we knew each other and what the deal was. “So, you’re back, like, permanently?”
It came out sounding bitchier than I intended. I couldn’t let him get to me. If he saw a weakness, he’d hone in on it and take advantage any way he could. It was his superpower.
“Looks that way.” Ben’s attention returned to his phone as he moved away.
The fact that he could dismiss me so easily was even more infuriating. Nothing had changed. He was still the same cocky guy he was in high school. He didn’t think he had anything to worry about, but I’d show him he was wrong. I wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Hailey guided me to the hallway out of view of our friends. “Are you okay?”
Her voice was filled with concern.
“I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting that.” I gestured toward the garage. What I hadn’t expected was him.
“It will be okay.” What I hadn’t told my friends was that I’d always liked Ben. I was attracted to his sharp wit and intelligence. Though, I’d never admit it to him. Our relationship didn’t allow for weaknesses.
Ben was just the start of the boys, and later, men, who were intimidated by my intelligence and success. I’d thought my ex-husband was different. He was sweet and supportive until he got what he wanted, and it wasn’t me. When he said he wanted a divorce, it was a surprise. Ever since then, I’d surrounded myself with a tough outer shell that no one could penetrate.
I let the shock of seeing Ben walk back into my life wash over me. I wouldn’t let him best me again. The logical part of me recognized it would be better not to let him get to me, but I wasn’t strong enough for that today. Tomorrow I’d do better.
“You got this.”
I’d focus on my business and on drawing customers away from him.
“He doesn’t matter.” My mind was still running through the reel of our childhood, one confrontation after another.
Hailey’s brows furrowed.
I scrambled to make up for the revealing comment. “I mean—I won’t let his business ruin mine.”
“That’s my girl,” Hailey assured me as she hugged me. “It’s going to be okay.”
Except I wasn’t sure that it was. Just like the first time Ben moved to town, nothing would be the same. I just had no way of knowing what the impact would be.