That kid that put gum in your hair? He liked you.


Has anyone ever said to you that the boy who teased you, who pulled your pigtails, and put gum in your hair actually liked you?


From the moment Ben set up his lemonade stand in front of his house at age eight, he'd been at war with Brooke. She wasn't happy to have competition on her street back then, and she wasn't going to be happy that he was invading her town again to open a competing coffee shop. It didn't matter that he wanted their relationship to be different. Once the tone was set, that was it. There was no going back.


I pulled open the heavy glass door to Java Coffee.


It was in a good location, drawing tourists from the harbor. My business was farther north, catching the people on State Circle and St. John’s College.


I wasn’t sure what I hoped to learn other than what made her business successful so that I could compete.


The bell over the door rang, signaling my arrival. It was a little late for the morning rush, so only a few people stood at the counter. Brooke was at the counter taking orders, her blonde hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail, her lips were pink and inviting. Unlike her barista, who wore a black shirt and blue apron, Brooke wore a white blouse and black dress pants. I didn’t have to look at her feet to know she was wearing heels. She’d want to look professional despite any discomfort. We were similar like that.


I wore business attire even though Christopher assured me no one expected the owner of a coffee shop to wear a suit. I wanted to look the part of a successful business owner even if I wasn’t one yet.


I took the time to observe Brooke in her element as I pursued the shelves of books for sale. She even had games available for patrons to play.


Brooke was quick with a smile, and I noticed she had a personal anecdote for each customer. How’s your granddaughter? Did you check out the new flower shop on Main? She took the time to get to know her customers. She probably didn’t spend much time in the office when the shop was open.


I’d wanted to taste test her coffee, but not with her at the counter. I also didn’t want to alert her to my presence. Instead, I picked up a book and mindlessly thumbed through it. Could I leave without her noticing me?


Before I could come up with a viable solution, a familiar voice asked, “Can I help you?”


I shelved the book, not even looking where I stashed it, as I turned to face her.


Her expression was amused and maybe a tiny bit gleeful.


It reminded me so much of our high school interactions that my heart stuttered and I muttered, “I’m fine.”


“Would you like to try the coffee?”


My words got caught in my throat because she was beautiful up close. At the baseball field, I’d carefully kept my gaze adverted.


“Isn’t that what you’re here to do? Scope out the competition?” She smiled wider at my discomfort, clearly enjoying herself.


I rolled my shoulders back and straightened to my full height. “It’s what any good business owner would do.”


“I expected nothing less.” A teasing smile played on her lips.


Was she expecting me? Had she been hoping I’d show up? I had to remember she was my competition, not a potential love interest. I’d shot that idea down a long time ago. There was no way Brooke Langley would ever go for me. We were too similar. And I couldn’t forget I never measured up.


I suddenly realized we were very much alone, tucked in between two stacks of shelves hidden from the front counter and seating area.


My jaw tightened. “I need my business to be successful.”


“Don’t we all,” she said dryly.


I fell back on my old standby, a well-placed challenge. She always reacted beautifully to those. “You should have known this would happen. You weren’t going to be the only coffee shop forever.”


Her cheeks turned pink as her eyes flashed with irritation. “And yet it had to be you.”

“I saw an opportunity, and I took it.” It was the truth, and I’d felt good about it until I stood before her.


She nodded, not confirming or denying my assertion. That burned in my gut. I wanted her to challenge me, to fight back. I needed her to be that feisty girl from high school. The one who taunted and teased me. The only thing was—it got my blood pumping for a different reason now.


“The offer for a coffee still stands.” She turned as if she were going to walk away.

I studied her expression, trying to figure out what she was thinking. Coming away stumped, I said, “I’ll take it.”


I’d prolong my time with her to figure out what she was thinking and what her plan was. Surely, she had one.


I followed her through the maze of bookshelves to the counter. Her round ass perfectly encased in her black slacks. Her scent—maybe honeysuckle—reminded me of running through neighborhood backyards to sneak up on her lemonade stand. Everything about her pulled me in.


I shook off the feelings of desire as she rounded the counter. My visit was about assessing the competition, not sleeping with the owner.


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