Standing in the center of the space she'd leased on Fourth Street for her espresso bar and bakery, Bread and Bean, Thea Clark imagined how her shop would look two months from now when it opened, how it would smell with coffee brewing, and bread and pastries baking.
How it would sound with customers oohing and aahing over flaky croissants, and delicate baklava, and sweet strudel. How the artisanal loaves would look in their baskets with their unique rustic shapes, their crusts beautifully browned around their airy, flavorful crumb.
Her shop. The words gave her such immense pleasure. Even with all the work to be done, she felt like she could float. At the moment, the shop resembled an abandoned storefront, but even that made her smile. This was her blank canvas, her bolt of fabric, her empty page to fill with words, and she was so very good at silk purses. Oh, how far she'd come.
A year ago she never would've dreamed she'd be weeks away from throwing wide the doors to a business of her own, one that would benefit many, and allow her to pay forward as well as pay back.
Then again, dreaming was one of the first things she'd dumped from her arsenal of survival tricks. It hadn't made much sense for her to think of anything beyond the day-to-day when Todd was always ready to cut her off at the knees for wasting time, to pull the rug out from under her for being so bold, to send her crashing to the ground. Literally.
But all of that was behind her now, and would stay behind her forever. Her future was in bread. And in beans. Soup beans and coffee beans. The former sold in bulk. The latter ground and brewed into espresso shots downed straight, or used in cappuccinos and lattes.
One of the things she was most excited about was seeing customer reactions to the latte art, even if Thea herself was a complete failure at drawing anything but leaves. Other patterns required a wrist action she'd never mastered; according to Todd, her wrist action hadn't been good for much of anything ever.
That was why she'd be putting Becca York to work in the espresso bar instead of in the kitchen where the rest of Bread and Bean's magic happened. Becca had once drawn swimming fish in one cup, and a foam cat in a second as if ready to leap. As much as Thea hated the reason Becca had come to live with her, and work with her, she loved having her in the fold.
Flipping on the lights, she crossed from the kitchen door to the table she was using as a desk. There, she dropped her keys into her purse and dug out her phone.
Her contractor was due shortly to go over some changes to the build-out specs, and she wanted to look at the plans one last time. Bread and Bean was her baby. She would be the one dotting her i's and crossing every last one of her t's. The women she lived and worked with, Becca and the others, called her a control freak. She laughed at that; she owned the trait gladly.
She'd ordered the shutters for the bottom half of the front windows from Angelo Caffey. He was local and did amazing woodwork. The café curtains that would cover the upper portions were being sewn even now by the very capable Frannie Charles. The fabric Thea—with Ellie Brass's input—had chosen, was a beautiful combination of browns, rusts, and greens. It was earthy and warm, with less a feel of autumn than that of a desert in bloom.
The latte mugs would be arriving soon. Those Thea had commissioned from a potter near Bandera. One of the women there threw the most gorgeous designs, and the art Thea had requested would match the curtains. The hook rugs to go beneath the shop's small café tables, and in front of the groupings of cushy club chairs, would be longer in coming. They were being made to order and would go perfectly with the mugs.
Yesterday, the baskets for the bread had shipped from a market in Arizona. The owner sold only handmade items, and funneled the proceeds back to the women who couldn't risk putting their name on their work. It was the same with the mugs, and the rugs, and the curtains. And while the shutters would bear Angelo Caffey's logo, the label on the fabric above would say Dragon Fire Hill. No one would ever know they'd been sewn by Frannie Charles.
Now fingers crossed that pulling the trigger and opening the shop in Hope Springs instead of Austin—which was overrun with bakeries and coffee shops—or Round Rock—which Thea wasn't yet brave enough to return to—would end up being one of the few right decisions she'd made. Staying with Todd for so long sure hadn't been, though leaving had probably saved her life. She felt similarly about buying the house on Dragon Fire Hill.
There never had been a dragon, of course. There had been trash barrels or burning tires or illegal bonfires and campsites. The hill was out of the way, and the house on top, abandoned for a very long time, worth little until Thea had saved it, and the land used—and misused—accordingly by vagrants and drifters and criminal types.
But dragons had teeth. Dragons had scales. Dragons didn't let anyone close. She liked the idea of living—metaphorically—where the mythical beasts were known to tread. Of being able to see anyone approach. Of having heavy doors with heavier locks and ballistic-resistant windows. It had taken a lot of money to outfit the house, but no one uninvited would ever get in, and Todd would never miss the cash.
The renovations made her feel safe, and better able to keep the women who counted on her safe, too. Because that was all that mattered. Seeing that not a one of them ever faced another fist or belt, or the base of a blender, or the wrong end of a shotgun, or a knife blade, or even the sting of hurtful words. That none of them ever had to visit an emergency room again for any preventable reason: to get stitches, to require pain meds, to be questioned and made to feel at fault for suspicious injuries.
Pushing aside the unsettling thoughts, Thea closed her eyes to center herself and listened. The traffic on the street outside was minimal, though she knew from talking to Callum Drake next door, and to Peggy Butters, whose Butters' Bakery sat on the other side of Bliss, Callum's confectionery, that weekends were madhouse crazy.
She liked that a lot. Being too busy with work to think of anything else. Everything was coming together beautifully. Her well-laid plans had unfolded exactly as she'd intended them to. She was where she was supposed to be. Finally.
The only thing left to do, she mused, as she unrolled the shop's blueprint across the floor and dropped to sit, was hope none of her secrets decided to rear their ugly heads, and pray no one ever found out what had happened to Todd.
There were more things Dakota Keller had forgotten about his teenage years spent in Texas than he would ever remember. Self-preservation was like that, and he couldn't regret what he couldn't recall.
But one thing he would never forget was the top of Thea Clark's head. The way she'd sat on his bedroom floor in a complete split, leaning forward, textbooks spread out in front of her. She would flex her feet, her toes pointed like a ballerina's, as if the motion helped her think, and she'd hold them there like that, scribbling furiously on her homework, then relaxing them at the same time as she lifted her pencil from the page.
The woman sitting similarly in front of him now was doing the same thing while running a finger over a blueprint. Her hair, now streaked or highlighted or whatever the process was women paid too much money for, wasn't quite as dark as it had been in high school; Dakota had looked down at it often enough to know. Sometimes when she was studying, the tousled mess sticking this way and that, a cigarette or a joint tucked behind her ear. Other times when she'd been on her knees in front of him, though probably best he not go there, he mused, clearing his throat.
"One sec," she said, thumbing out a note on her phone, then sitting straight, swinging her legs inward, ankles crossed, and scissoring up to stand. It really was something to see, all that flexing, even if the khaki knee shorts she was wearing hid the best parts of her legs, and her toes were covered by black ankle socks and black canvas sneakers.
Her black tank top was just as concealing, not tight or clingy, but almost burlap-sack baggy, and she wore a black sports bra beneath. Thinking of Thea in a bra took his mind back to times and places that were going to make this job hell if he didn't get a grip. Past might be prologue, but this was a new chapter and… He dropped the analogy because it wasn't going anywhere.
Also because Thea was looking at him now, and he was punched in the gut by her eyes.
He watched her throat work as she swallowed. Watched her blink as if doing so would clear him from her vision. "You were probably expecting Tennessee."
"Yeah. I was." Her voice was rough and gravelly. "What are you doing here?"
When did you get back? Where have you been?
Those were the questions he'd been asked repeatedly since he'd returned to Texas and found himself in Hope Springs. Thea's question was a lot simpler to answer. "I'm here about your build-out."
"No, I mean, what are you doing in Hope Springs?"
Huh. Seemed he was wrong. He thought everyone in town knew he was back. And why. The P.I. his sister, Indiana, had hired hunting him down. His arriving at the hospital in time to say hello to his new baby niece only hours after Georgia May had arrived in his brother's life.
"Working with Tennessee," was his answer.
She reached up a hand, rubbed the backs of her fingers under her chin. Beneath her wrist, her pulse beat at the base of her throat. "So Keller Brothers Construction is finally a thing?"
He wasn't ready to go into any of that, even if he'd been back a year. "It's still Keller Construction. I'm just hired help."
"Huh." It was all she said, and he let it lay. At least until she continued to rub at her chin, to look him over, to do nothing about her eyes and all the things she was thinking. He needed distance from her mind, and the way she saw too much of the world around her.
Seems that was one of the things about her he hadn't remembered, and it was dangerous.
"This is going to be something," he said, walking further into the space. It reminded him a lot of a shop in Idaho where he'd worked as a barista for a year. "Though I still find it hard to believe what people will pay for coffee."
"It's not just coffee," she said from close behind him when he hadn't heard her move. "It's the ambiance. The lighting and the music. The smells. The beans being ground. The chocolate and the vanilla and the caramel."
"So I can't get just a plain cup of coffee?" he asked as he turned. She was close enough that he could've reached for her easily. Close enough to count the freckles on her nose.
"Of course you can get just a plain cup of coffee," she said, crossing her arms, cocking her head. "Though I still find it hard to believe what people will drink when they have so many exotic choices."
"Exotic." It was a loaded word. "Because exotic is better than plain?"
"Isn't it?" she asked, causing him to wonder again what she was doing in Hope Springs. Besides brewing coffee. And making him think about the past he'd spent ten years working to forget. He looked over her shoulder to the long folding table set up against the wall, nodding toward the big silver machine with all the levers and dials sitting there.
Pretty penny of an investment. "That thing work?"
She glanced behind her. "The espresso machine? Sure. You want me to make you a drink? Latte? Mocha? Cappuccino?"
But not just a plain cup of coffee. "A latte would be great."
"Oh good. I can practice my leaf drawing."
Yeah, he should probably tell her he knew a little bit about latte art. "A leaf."
"Yep. Pull the espresso shot and pour the steamed milk beneath the crema." She used her hands to talk, another thing he remembered, though she was definitely more expressive now than she'd been then. "You have to heat the milk to just the right temperature, without all the foam you want in a cappuccino. Then it's all about the wrist. And the imagination. I have the second, but not the first, so I can draw you a beautiful leaf. Or if you're lucky, a heart."
"Is that what you mean by exotic?"
"Don't poop on my parade, Dakota Keller," she said with a pout. "I'm trying to have fun here."
He could think of better ways to have fun, but her animation intrigued him; she seemed almost nervous when she had no reason to be. Or at least not because he was here. "Then by all means. Draw me a leaf. Or a heart. Or a stick-figure pony. Though I'd still be happy with a plain cup—"
"Hey, Thea. You'll never guess—"
That was all Dakota heard before the woman to whom the voice belonged rushed the width of the room like a runaway train. She shoved her way between him and Thea, then backed him into the wall with her elbow against his throat. She wasn't but maybe five-foot-four, five-foot-five, but she felt like a Mack Truck.
"I don't know who you are, Jack—"
"Down Becca," Thea said, moving just as swiftly to his side. The other woman held Dakota's gaze with fierce golden brown eyes, eyes as frosty as they were sizzling, and he didn't even think about looking away. "I'm good, sweetie." Thea patted Becca's lead pipe of a forearm. "I'm fine. This is Dakota Keller. He's here to do the build-out of the shop. And he's an old friend."
Becca didn't appear convinced; her chest rose and fell, up and down, up and down, her pulse thudding at her temple beneath the curls of her loose Afro. Finally, she moved her arm. "Personal space, man. Learn it. Use it."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, because there wasn't any need to argue about what she'd seen. He understood damage. A thought that had him wondering what this one was doing with Thea.
"Okay then," Thea said, brushing at her bangs as if doing so helped further diffuse the situation. "What did you want me to guess?"
But Becca shook her head. "I'll tell you later." Then she turned for the kitchen, the soles of her Converse hi-tops squeaking on the concrete floor. Moments later, the back door opened and closed.
Only then did Dakota's breathing return to normal. "You want to explain that?"
Thea sighed. "It's a long story."
"I'm in no hurry." Though his interest wasn't so much in the woman who'd left the room as what she meant to the one beside him.
The reaction Thea offered was less of a laugh than it was a bitter sounding snort. "You got a lifetime?"
Funny she should ask. "Actually, I do."