Want to be reckless?


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Hailey's mother abandoned her at a young age, and she feels a connection with Ryan's son, Corey. She wants to help him, but at the same time, she feels an undeniable attraction to his father. Can she resist him, or will she give in and be reckless?


Chapter Three

Hailey

Later that afternoon, I stopped at Java Coffee for a pick-me-up. When I caught the owner and my friend, Brooke’s, gaze, she smiled. “Hey, Hailey. Your usual?”


I nodded. “Please.”


Brooke moved around the shop, preparing a caramel latte. “Are you working today?”

“I was at Nana’s this morning. I’m going to drop into the shop this afternoon to make sure everything’s running smoothly.”


“Is Anne helping you out?”


“It’s nice to have the help, but she’s a little flakey.” When I first started at the shop, Nana and I split the hours. Now that she retired, I’d hired Anne to give me some time off.


I thought Nana would be more involved, but she seemed to enjoy her retirement. I didn’t want her to worry, and I didn’t want her to think she left the shop in the wrong hands.


“You okay?” Brooke asked, wiping her hands on a nearby cloth.


“Eh.” Nana’s determination to go through her things had thrown me off center, and I couldn’t hide my mood from my closest friend.


“Suzie, can you handle the front for a few minutes?” Brooke said over her shoulder to the other barista.


Suzie smiled wide, her red curls bouncing as she moved to help the next customer in line. “Of course.”


Brooke led the way to the back of the store, past the shelves of books and games customers could borrow while they were drinking their coffee.


I sank into the leather couch, grateful for my friend.


Brooke sat in the chair across from me, cradling a mug in her hands. “What’s going on?”


“Besides business being slow?” She already knew about the store’s financial struggles. It was located off the tourist area of Main and Dock Street. Foot traffic was sparse, even though Nana had somehow made it work.


“There’s something else?” Her forehead wrinkled.


I sipped my latte, savoring the caramel flavor. “Nana wants to go through her things. She’s thinking of moving out. Selling the house.”


Brooke reached over to briefly touch my arm. “I’m sorry.”


I soaked in her sympathy. I kept most things from Jake, not wanting him to worry, but with Brooke, I could tell her everything I was thinking, even if it was crazy. “Am I overreacting?”


“Why don’t you tell her you want the house?”


“I will. It’s just—I don’t want to pressure her if she needs to sell it for some reason.”


“You need to talk to her,” Brooke said pointedly.


“You’re right.” I just hated talking about my weaknesses, and there was no bigger one than family and that house. The only one that ever felt like a home.


Nana had pushed me to move out when I was twenty-two, telling me I’d never find a husband if I were living at home. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t looking for a husband. As much as I wanted a family, I was scared it would be taken from me, too.

Good things didn’t last.


“She said it will force me to get closure on my past. She has Jake and me going through the boxes in the attic.”


“She might be right,” Brooke said, sympathy filling her eyes.


“What closure is there to get? My mom will show up or she won’t. I’m not going to get any answers from her. Not ones I want to hear. The reality is that something was always more important than me and Jake.”


Brooke sighed. “I don’t think that’s what she’s talking about.”


I leaned forward, elbows on my knees. “Then what was she getting at?”


She winced. “Probably the fact that you end up dating these losers. Ones there’s no future with and who you’ll never really commit to.”


Was that true? I thought about my ex who’d spent more time playing video games on my couch than searching for a job. He’d asked if he could stay with me temporarily, but then I realized he’d never be responsible if he was mooching off me. I’d finally had to kick him out. “PJ was nice.”


Brooke leaned forward, her gaze locked on mine. “He had free room and board. He wouldn’t have left you.”


“I kicked him out.” Telling him to leave wasn’t enough; I’d packed his things and changed the locks.


Brooke rolled her eyes. “Then there was that guy who didn’t even have his driver’s license.”


I didn’t respond because she was right on the facts. I wasn’t so sure why I was drawn to these guys. “I know. I know. I need to make some changes in my dating life.”


She tipped her head. “Maybe you should look at why you’re dating these guys.”


I chewed my lip. “Maybe I see them as safe because they have no ambition.”


Brooke nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s hard to see when you’re living it, but it seems pretty obvious from where I’m sitting.”


I should be looking at guys who were the exact opposite to what I’d dated before. But the only guy I was interested in was Ryan. He owned the garage with my brother, but he had a track record of picking up and moving. He wasn’t a good bet no matter how attracted I was to him.


Unfortunately, I’d be seeing a lot of him. “Corey starts tomorrow.”


Brooke’s eyes widened at my sudden change in subject. “And you’re worried about him?”


“No.” It was his father I was worried about.


“Do you—” Brooke sucked in a breath as if she’d just remembered something. “Do you still like Ryan?”


I rolled my eyes. “That was a stupid childhood crush.”


It was short-lived because he got a girl pregnant at eighteen and left town with her. It was the best thing that could have happened. I got over him pretty quickly, especially since he was so much older, and Jake would have never let anything happen between us.


“It’s just I’ll be seeing him since Corey is volunteering to help me around the apartment and store.”


“And?” Brooke gestured for me to continue.


“He’s attractive.” That was an understatement. Not only had he filled out since high school, but he was a motorcycle-riding mechanic. He was the epitome of my sexy bad-boy dreams. “But I’m looking for something different this time.”


“I’m not sure you can compare PJ to Ryan. First of all, he still goes by that silly childhood nickname, and he thought playing video games on the couch all day was productive. He may have been twenty-six, but he was a child in all the ways that matter.”


“From what I can see, Ryan’s a good dad. He’s responsible.”


“Well, yeah, he moved with the mom, right? Even though they weren’t together, he wanted to be close to his son.”


That thought never failed to melt my heart even more. From what Jake said, Ryan and Tiffany never wanted to make a go of their relationship. They were committed to co-parenting.


“It sounds like he’s really trying to be a good dad.” Even though I got the impression he didn’t think he was.


Brooke tipped her head to the side, an amused expression on her face.


I held up my hands as if to ward her off, knowing she was reading more into the situation than I wanted her to. “I feel for their situation. Corey’s mother didn’t leave him like mine did, but she sent him away. I know what that feels like.”


Brooke nodded. “You think you can help Ryan with Corey?”


I shook my head, trying to sort out the confusing feelings in my head. “It’s Corey I want to help. I know it’s naïve to think I have anything in common with a twelve-year-old boy, but I can sympathize with how he must feel.”


She gave me a pointed look. “Just be careful. At the end of the day, Corey is Ryan and Tiffany’s son.”


“He’s not my responsibility, but if I can be one more person he can come to, then I’d like to do that for him.” I knew nothing about kids, other than what it was like to be one. I wasn’t ready to admit it to Brooke yet, but focusing on Corey allowed me to ignore my confusing feelings for Ryan.


Admitting his worries about his son only made him more attractive. But that might have been because my mother didn’t worry about me the same way. It was only natural I’d be attracted to someone who was a good parent. He was trying. That was more than my mother had ever done.


Her lips pursed. “Just be careful. Corey broke into your store.”


“I will. Besides, Jake will be keeping a close eye on the situation.”


She smiled knowingly. “And Ryan.”


“Remember, I’m supposed to be turning over a new leaf and dating a different kind of guy.”


“And what, Ryan’s not a good bet because he drives a motorcycle and got into some trouble when he was a teenager?”


“He used to be a bad boy. I’m not so sure he is anymore.” But I wanted to find out.

***


When the bell over the door dinged at four, Corey walked in. He looked as uncomfortable as I felt. “Where do you want me to put my stuff?”


I was nervous about working with a twelve-year-old. I told myself it had nothing to do with who his father was, and the fact that I’d be seeing him soon.


“Follow me. I’ll show you the breakroom.” I led him down the narrow hallway to the small break room with enough room for a two-person table and a mini fridge. “I don’t have any cubbies, but you can put your bag on the table. It’s just you and me here today.”


He dropped the bag on the chair, then stuffed his hands in his pockets.


“I was hoping you could get started on cleaning the upstairs apartment. Washing the walls and painting.” I thought it was best to give him some space to work at first. He was probably nervous about interacting with customers or me asking him questions. I wanted him to feel safe here.


He shrugged. “Whatever you need.”


I smiled to put him at ease. “I really appreciate you offering to help out.”


He raised his brows.


I sighed. “I know you didn’t exactly offer. It’s supposed to be good for your case, but you’re really helping me out. I can’t work in the shop and paint upstairs.”


“It’s not a problem.” His voice was soft.


“I’ll show you the apartment.” We had to walk outside to get access to the door.


Upstairs, I showed him where everything was that he needed to get started. “If you have any questions, you can text me or come downstairs.”


“You’re going to just leave me here?” he asked.


“Yeah, I have to get back to the counter in case a customer comes in.” He was perfectly safe up here, and I’d discussed it with Ryan.


“Let me know if you need anything.” I left him alone in the apartment.


I suspected he was worried I’d treat him differently, like I didn’t trust him, but I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to show him that I trusted him.


It wasn’t exactly the truth, but I was hoping he’d earn it. I flipped the sign from Be back in 15 minutes to Open and went back to bagging spices.


Nana opened the Spice & Tea Shoppe with my grandfather, but he’d died before I was born. The teas were Nana’s, but he’d created the various spice combinations. My job was to continue what they’d already started.


That was probably why I wasn’t feeling motivated. There wasn’t anything challenging about the store other than how to increase my customer base, which dwindled more each year.


Nana said when Grandpa was alive, he had a group of regular customers who’d come in to talk to him and order spices for themselves and various teas for their wives. Those customers had dried up as they’d gotten older and less mobile.


When it was just Nana, she wasn’t able to create new spices, so we were stuck with what we had. The business didn’t have anything new to offer, but I also couldn’t contribute. Tea leaves and spices weren’t my forte, but then, I didn’t know what was.


I craved stability and security, and the store had given me both for a long time. I knew where I belonged, but lately, I’d been restless, wondering if this was it.


I felt stagnant. Even the worries about the store’s diminishing profit didn’t feel like a challenge to me. It was more like an insurmountable mountain. When Remi or Brooke talked about their businesses, they were passionate about what they sold. It was their dream to be a business owner.


I had no idea what I wanted besides a home and people around me who loved me. Though I had an inkling there was something else out there for me, I just wasn’t sure what.


I carefully measured the different spices, sifting them into bags and labeling them to put on the shelves. Even this part of the job had diminished lately since the products weren’t moving as quickly.


A few customers straggled in, mainly tourists who’d been walking the streets, admiring the architecture of the houses. I explained the history of the store, the spices, and teas, but no one was interested in purchasing anything. They smiled politely, walked around the store briefly, and left.


I checked in on Corey a few times, and each time, he seemed to be working diligently. Ryan mentioned that Corey had worked with one of his mother’s boyfriends fixing up his house. He assured me Corey knew what he was doing. First, he washed the walls, spackled the holes, and finally, taped the floorboards and the ceiling. The last time I’d popped in, he’d begun painting one of the larger walls.


I was impressed he’d kept with it. I offered him snacks and a drink, but he just shook his head.


By the time Ryan was due to show up, I was ready to close the shop and head home. The stress of what to do about the store weighed on me. The smart thing to do would be to close this location and move to Main Street, but Nana owned this building. She’d have to sell and then rent a space on Main. Those came up infrequently, and I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about moving. Especially when it had always been in this spot.


The bell over the door tinkled a few minutes before closing time. The store was empty of customers, but Ryan stood there, looking large and out of place. It struck me then, he’d never been inside the store.


“It smells amazing in here.”


I flushed with pleasure at his compliment, even though I wasn’t responsible for the scents.


He moved closer to the spice side, turning the labels so he could read them, picking up one of the larger jars to open and sniff them. “You have so many options.”


I stood next to him. “My grandfather came up with the spices.”


Ryan glanced at me. “Impressive. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”


Pleasure shot through me at his admiration, even though it wasn’t for me. “Me either. He died before I was born, so he couldn’t teach me, and Nana said she was hopeless when he showed her.”


He set the jar down, taking in the store: the wooden shelves and jars of spices on one side and the teas and teakettles on the other. “It’s a sweet shop.”


“Thank you, although I can’t really take credit for it. It’s all my grandparents.”


His gaze traveled the room before resting lightly on me. “You’ve been running it for a while?”


“I started working here when I was in high school, and I stayed.” I loved working side-by-side with Nana. Her passion for the business was infectious, but it was different by myself.


“It’s cute. Homey. I can see why people like it.”


I hummed in agreement.


He continued to the other side, picking up a tea kettle, examining it, and then placing it back down.


“We don’t get as much foot traffic anymore. The loyal customers from back when my grandparents ran the store are dwindling, either dying or unable to travel to get here. I’m not able to bring people in. I can’t talk about how I came up with a particular flavor of tea or combination of spices because I wasn’t the one to create them.”


Customers’ excitement dissipated when they realized the person who came up with the cool new flavor wasn’t here and never would be.


He looked out the store window. “You’re pretty far away from Main Street, too.”


“Yeah, we put a sign on the alley near Max’s, and that helps.” But it didn’t seem to attract serious buyers. Maybe tourists just weren’t into tea leaves and local spices anymore.


Ryan wandered back over to the spices, picking up one of the labeled bottles, and tipped it toward me. “What’s this one?”


I moved closer to read it, noticing Ryan’s sandalwood scent despite the strong smell of spices surrounding us. I wanted to sink into that smell and lean against his hard body. I mentally shook my head. “It’s Pirate’s Booty. My grandfather said it was the most popular spice. A new take on salt and pepper.”


Ryan turned the bottle, carefully reading the bottle. “I’ll take both.”


I shook my head and took a step back. “You don’t have to do that—”


He picked up the second bottle. “I want to try them.”


“If you’re sure.” I scanned his face but didn’t sense any insincerity. Instead, his gaze was warm.


I wrapped them and placed them in a paper bag that proudly displayed the store’s name, Spice & Tea Shoppe.


When I rang him up, he said, “If you want to talk about the business side of things, I’m happy to help. Not that I have a degree in business or anything, but Jake said I’m good with ideas.”


“You’re the ideas guy, huh?” I smiled, loving this new glimpse into him.


“Yeah, I’m pretty good at coming up with ideas, and Jake helps implement them.”


“I’m so proud of you guys for pursuing your dreams.” Opening a new business was a risk, especially a small garage in the historic tourist area, but they’d done it and seemed to be thriving.


He flushed, his expression vulnerable.


Was he not used to compliments? I’d never had a reason to pay him one before. He’d left when I was so young, and we’d never had any opportunity to discuss the future or dreams.


Ryan gestured around us at the store. “Is this your dream?”


I shook my head decisively. “Definitely not.”


“Then why do you stay?”


“I was so grateful to Nana for taking us in, I wanted to help. I begged her to let me work here, and I was eager to learn everything.” My heart ached for the little girl I’d been. Displaced and hurting but desperate to belong.


“And now?”


I shrugged, the familiar melancholy wrapping around me like a well-worn coat. “I don’t know.”


“Life’s too short not to pursue your dreams.”


I handed him the bag of spices and walked around the counter, suddenly uncomfortable with the topic. “We’d better get Corey. It’s a school night.”


Ryan followed me while I closed and locked the store and headed to the apartment. “Trust me. He doesn’t mind being out late.”


“Still, I don’t want to be the reason he’s tired in school tomorrow or doesn’t finish his homework.”


“He stays after school in a program where they help him get it finished.”


“That’s good, right?” I glanced over at him as I pushed the door to the apartment open, following the smell of paint up the steps.


He chuckled. “He doesn’t think so.”


I laughed, remembering how I would have felt if I’d had to stay after school. “I suppose that’s normal.”


We stood just inside the door, neither one of us moving up the stairs. I heard music playing. Corey must have used his phone because there wasn’t a radio in the apartment.

Ryan lowered his head. The light was dim in the small space, and he seemed so tall standing in front of me. “Don’t tell him,”—I leaned in closer to hear what he had to say—“but I would have hated it.”


We both laughed then, and joy filled my chest. It felt good to share this moment with him. “Me too.” I smiled up at him, happy to be with him and sharing a secret.


I heard footsteps moving closer, so I turned away to hurry up the stairs. The last thing I needed was for Corey to see me flirting with his father. I wanted him to trust me, and if he thought I was using him to come on to his father, it would ruin everything.

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