Ellie awoke the next morning at four thirty a.m., tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth.
For some reason she thought it would be a good idea to get wine drunk and pass out last night, even though she had to be up at the butt crack of dawn. She blamed part of it on Danny. He’d shown up at her casual meet-up with friends at the bar, completely butting in like they’d never broken up, acting cloying, making obscure references to their “someday house.”
She fumbled around for leggings and flats, then felt her way to the small bathroom attached to her bedroom. Usually she’d flip on all the lights and start her day with a little stretching and humming, but today she didn’t feel like herself.
In the bathroom, she shut the door quietly, staring at her reflection in the mirror as she brushed her teeth, last night still burning at the forefront of her mind. Danny was one thing. But getting that drunk on a work night was another.
What the hell is your problem?
She knew well enough the reason. Fucking Zach Carter was her problem, would always be her problem no matter how mature and resolved she thought herself to be. And how lame was that? Thirty years old and still flapping her wings over her old best friend and first love.
But it was more than that. She opened her mouth, angrily scraping the back of her tongue. Seeing him again after so long felt like a betrayal, as if he’d violated the unspoken agreement to pretend like he’d never existed.
She spit out the toothpaste and splashed water on her face. Another day at the shop, another day meeting cool people, another day sipping espresso and decorating cakes and listening to amazing music.
Living the dream—for real. So why was Zach here messing things up?
Ellie sighed and sat down to pee, propping chin on palm. Her and Zach’s heated encounter the evening before had practically charred the edges of her café table, and God help her if their conversation didn’t play on repeat in the back of her mind despite practically anything and everything to distract herself.
She tossed a tank top over her head and slipped back into her bedroom. Danny’s thinly veiled rejection steamed off him when she’d drawn the line last night after his attempted kiss. Maybe he’d wake up regretting it. Or maybe he’d take it as another sign to try harder.
Maybe you should just like him.
The two of them together would be so quaint—the baker and the lawyer. Two golden children, moving and shaking in downtown Portville. But it had never been palatable to her, no matter how many times she’d tried to swallow it.
Only one other alternative seemed palatable, arriving like an explosion during a gas leak: the baker and the rock star.
She rustled together the few scattered items she needed for her workday and slung her purse over her shoulder. The empty wine bottle by the fridge reminded her of her overindulgence, and she let herself out of her apartment with a grimace.
The four-block walk to work at dawn was one of her favorite parts of each day. Portville’s recent beautification efforts had proven successful: new edged landscaping dotted the sidewalks, downtown roads had been converted to their late-1800s cobblestone, and some of the abandoned buildings were slowly but surely being restored by investors. Every morning served as a reminder of where her city was going and a reminder of how much she wanted to work for its future.
Ellie rolled into the shop at five a.m. to get the ovens heated and the coffee brewing. By six thirty a.m. she was open and receiving clients, and by nine a.m. the morning rush was winding down. As she sat down with a newspaper and a shot of espresso for her midday break once the shop had cleared, the bell rang, signaling a new client coming in.
She peered over the top of the newspaper. Zach Carter stared back at her, filling the doorway with his frame, his dark eyes commanding her attention.
She continued reading the paper, seeing the words without really digesting them. She sensed him approach, and after a minute had passed without any talk, she folded the newspaper.
“Can I help you?”
“Just wanted a coffee.”
She frowned and tossed the paper down, moving toward the counters on the far wall. “Why don’t you say ‘hello’ when you enter? Like normal people.”
“Well, you didn’t either. I’ve been gone for so long, I don’t know how people do things around here anymore. I’m just feeling it out. Maybe you could educate me.” He lifted a brow.
She frowned, snatching a mug and placing it under the carafe spout. “Did you ever know how people do things around here?”
There was a strange silence, one she struggled to ignore. The image of herself impulse purchasing a bottle of cheap Moscato on her way home flashed through her mind. She was not as sound of mind as she tried to pretend. And the longer this guy stood in her presence, the more he reminded her of this.
“Do you want any creamer, milk, or soy?”
“All of them, please.”
She lifted a brow and turned to look at him. “Don’t play. I’ll do it.”
He cracked a grin. “Just soy.”
She opened her mouth to respond but clamped it shut. Did you get that beefy drinking soy milk?
had been on the tip of her tongue. Better not to reference his physical appearance, lest it cloud her rational mind more.
Reaching for the soy milk in the fridge, she kept the door propped open with her hip. She poured a bit into his mug and then replaced the jug. When she turned to hand him his coffee, she found his gaze lingering on her hips.
“Here.” She averted her eyes as quickly as she could, both embarrassment and something else flaring to life inside her. It wasn’t all bad either. Excitement rang inside her like a warning bell.
That damn nickname again. Except when he said it, it both made her knees weak and whacked her over the head with thoughts of the past, hard as a hammer. She flitted back toward the newspaper on the table and concentrated on removing the warmth from her cheeks.
Zach joined her at the table, crossing a leg over his knee as he sipped the coffee. She glanced at him over the top of the paper as she pretended to reimmerse herself in the news. She had a list of thirty questions she could ask him now, was dying
to ask him now, but knew doing so would give away how much she’d missed him.
He sipped quietly at his coffee for a while, and Ellie managed to digest at least a fraction of the article in front of her.
Finally he said, “I remember you being a bit more talkative.”
She slammed the paper down. “You’re remembering a different person.”
The words had flown out of her mouth without warning, without even wanting them out. She bit her lip, eyes rounded as she saw her surprise reflected in Zach’s face. She snapped the paper up again, a barrier between them, waiting for the burn to disappear from her cheeks.
Zach sighed from behind the wall of the newspaper fortress. He slurped at his coffee, which irritated her even more.
“We’re all different people now.” His words rang rich and resonant through the air between them. “Different from last year, different from ten years ago, different from six minutes ago. Shit, every seven years you shed enough skin cells to be technically a new human being.”
She lowered the paper enough to peek over the edge at him. “So you’ll understand if I don’t really want to talk.”
“Well, it woulda been cool to catch up with my old friend Ellie MacGregor, but if she’s not in the mood, I get it.”
Her nostrils flared as his words settled inside her. Not in the mood? Like you weren’t in the mood to continue our friendship once you left town?
She steeled her jaw and didn’t respond.
“Or maybe you shed enough skin cells that you changed into somebody else.” He lifted a brow. “Is there anything I should know about?”
She fought a grin. Fuck this guy and his smooth humor. He could make her laugh even on her darkest days. Exactly why they’d grown so close, why he’d become her only remaining rock in life. He’d always known how to get under her skin and make a nest there.
He slurped at his coffee some more, then said, “Hey, you know of any places in town renting to musicians?”
She let a corner of the newspaper flop down so she could see him. His wide brown eyes waited for hers, lips full, eyebrows raised inquisitively.
“Like to practice?”
“Talk to Phillip in the realty office. It’s three doors down from here. He’s the best person for rentals and all that. He’ll hook you up.”
He nodded again, downing the last of his coffee. “Thanks, Elle.”
“You guys are gonna be around for a while, huh?”
He stood up. “Things aren’t looking good with my parents, so…yeah.”
Sadness wrenched through her again. His parents had always been so kind to her, so welcoming. And though they’d lost contact over the years, it hadn’t been due to hard feelings. They had been as confused as anybody about their sons’ disappearances, wondering about the severed friendships and lost ties. As the years wore on, the Carter parents stopped participating in the city center so much. And by Ellie’s count, it had been several years since she’d last run into them.
“Tell them I said hi.” She reached for his arm as he turned. Warmth shot through her, igniting her.
His eyebrows shot up. “Why don’t you tell them yourself?”
“I never see them. I don’t even know—”
“Come to my house. Say hi to them. My mom, at least.”
The suggestion stole her breath. She loosened her grip on his arm. “Uh…seriously?”
“Yeah. Besides, my brothers want to see you. It’d be nice.” He paused. “I want to spend time with you.”
Oh God. Oh God. The brothers.
The past grappled with her, tugging her into a wormhole, and she couldn’t even stop herself. Her mouth hung open; she waited for a response to fill it, but none came. Spending time with him didn’t seem wise.
“Sometime,” he added. “You know, whenever you can.” He waved. “See ya, Ellie.”
Zach left the shop, and somehow the air felt spent, like the saggy skin of a deflated balloon. She wanted him back, no matter how much she pretended as if she didn’t. With him in the same room, talking to her, looking at her, things just felt right. On a molecular level.
And none of it made any damn sense. She slammed the paper down, eager to find a suitable distraction—one that didn’t involve talking about these pesky feelings. He’d disappeared ten years ago; she was strong enough to handle his reappearance. God forbid if life hadn’t beaten some strength into her. Which meant she should be able to avoid telling anyone about…Zach.
Besides, nobody in town knew about her history with the brothers. Most of her best friends from college lived far-flung around the country. And the tiny handful of friends from high school who actually knew the brothers lived in neighboring cities and weren’t found in town except for holidays and deaths.
She had a small crew of friends in Portville now, none of whom were native to the city. She liked the relative anonymity it provided, a way for her to live in her hometown without being shackled to the past. Plus, as a bona fide orphan, she didn’t have the relatives to crop up at inopportune times either.
So really what she needed was a way to let off some steam. Zach showing up kicked up a lot of dust. Stuff she’d settled in her early twenties now flared up like a lingering cough she thought had gone away.
Except Zach Carter was more than a lingering cough. He was fucking tuberculosis.