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 unseasonably warm fall 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.
On Sunday night, I ate dinner with my family. It was hard for us to find time since my sister, Abby, and I both owned businesses, but every few months, we made it a priority.
“Did I hear from your mother that you went to the grand opening of the garage?” Dad asked as he passed the salad bowl to me.
“I went to support my Shops on Main friends.” The group started as a way to network, but we’d become close and always showed up to support each other.
“The garage isn’t on Main,” Mom observed.
I hummed in agreement as I scooped the salad onto my plate before passing it to Abby. “We’ve expanded to include any shop owners in the historic district who want to join.”
“Gia asked me to stop by to take some photos to submit to the paper,” Abby said.
I tensed, wondering if she saw Ben. She’d always teased me about him when we were kids. She was convinced he was into me. “You were there?”
“I took pictures from the outside. The paper will want the renovation featured.” Abby plucked a piece of crusty garlic bread from her son, Hunter’s, plate. “That’s enough bread for you. Eat your dinner.”
Hunter screwed his face up in a scowl, but he picked up his fork and cut a tiny piece of pasta, popping it into his mouth.
The original garage had closed and sat empty for years. Jake and Ryan had done a good job renovating the place to protect the aesthetics while making it theirs.
“You only went to support your fellow Shops on Main friends?” Abby asked, her gaze carefully assessing me. It was Abby’s way of asking if I was seeing anyone.
“I wanted to support Hailey. She’s dating Ryan, one of the owners.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Abby said, and we ate quietly for a few seconds.
I hoped they’d move on to a different topic, one that wasn’t so centered on me.
“The other owner seemed attractive enough,” Abby finally said.
My face heated when I remembered what I’d said to Hailey last night. I’d been teasing. “He is, but I’m not interested.”
“Why not? Don’t you think it’s time to start dating again?” Mom asked as she took a bite of lasagna.
“I haven’t met anyone I’m interested in.” My family worried about me, especially after how I was when I moved home after my divorce.
“You have to put yourself out there,” Dad said gruffly as he exchanged a look with Mom.
My stomach dipped painfully at the idea of making myself vulnerable. I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be.
“If it’s time for me to start dating again, then it’s definitely time for Abby.” Her ex left shortly after she had Hunter.
“Not cool,” Abby mouthed across the table from me.
I grinned, not feeling bad in the least. I didn’t want the spotlight on me.
Mom nodded at her grandson. “Hunter is seven now.”
Abby winced. “I’m not talking about this in front of him.”
Hunter was too busy hiding his peas under the placemat to pay attention to our conversation.
Mom shot us both a disappointed look. “I’m not getting any younger. I’d like to see you girls settled.”
What did that even mean? Abby owned a home and had a child. We both owned businesses. We were adults. Why did we have to settle down with someone to ease our parents’ minds? “Abby’s not ready, and neither am I.”
Abby didn’t quite meet my gaze when I looked to her for support, and I wasn’t sure what that meant.
“When was the last time you went out?” Mom asked.
After the grand opening of the garage, most of the shop owners celebrated the new addition to our Shops on Main group at Max’s Bar & Grille, but I didn’t join them.
Mom pointed her fork at me. “You can’t even remember.”
I opened my mouth to defend myself, intending to mention those dates I’d gone on from the online app Abby talked me into trying, but those were years ago. Whenever I thought a man was flirting with me, whether it was at the grocery store or the front counter of my coffee shop, I shut it down fast. It was a defense mechanism to protect myself.
Abby took pity on me and changed the subject. “Hunter’s working on his science project for the fair.”
“Oh, yeah?” Dad asked. “What’s your project this year?”
Hunter immediately perked up and went into his plans for his project.
I couldn’t shake off Mom’s words. Many of the shop owners had begun pairing off recently. I still held myself slightly apart from them. I was a business owner and had every right to be there, but trust was hard for me. It wasn't easy to believe that a relationship was genuine. That I could trust anyone’s motives. I only had my ex to blame for that.
It only takes one person to throw you off your axis, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever regain my balance.
The Madison Ridge Series is an emotional, page turning series featuring swoony, cinnamon roll heroes and smart, courageous heroines. Steamy, sweet, and captivating, the Madison Ridge series features reader favorite tropes such as workplace lovers, second chances, grumpy sunshine, friends to lovers, and more.
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