Dirty Stranger (The Dirty Suburbs Book 3)
Author: Cassie-Ann L. Miller
Release date: February 22nd, 2017
I'm paying alimony to my idiot ex-husband, my business hardly makes enough to keep the lights on and I'm literally holding my car together with duct tape.
Scratch that, I'm holding my life together with duct tape.
So I won't go on a date with the mysterious, new-in-town barista who makes my morning soy hazelnut latte just the way I like it.
He'd better stop trying to hypnotize me with those honey eyes and those bulging shoulders that stretch the jersey of his coffee shop uniform, because I have enough on my plate and the last thing I need is yet another liability.
The cinnamon-haired yoga chick who orders the soy hazelnut latte every morning won't give me a shot. She thinks I'm just some college boy with student loans trying to get in her pants.
Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions...
Well, she's right about one thing. From the moment she first sauntered into this coffee shop with her long legs and her sad eyes, I've wanted to toss her onto the polished wooden counter and show her just how much of a man I am. There's so much more to me than meets the eye.
I'm just trying to make her fall for me before my secrets make it to town.
"Dirty Stranger" is book three in the "Dirty Suburbs", a series of full-length, stand-alone romantic comedies about the residents of small town Illinois.
"Hello Reuben." I stand immobilized in the doorframe as I watch him snatch two paper cups from the small wooden table next to him.
He straightens and faces me, looking like he just finished a photo shoot for Levi's in his classic-cut dark jeans cuffed over beat-up brown oxfords, tanned leather jacket open down the front to reveal the distressed zip-up hoodie beneath and that casual swagger of a man who's used to getting anything he wants.
He moves toward me with panther-like grace, stretching one of the cups to me. "Medium hazelnut soy latte with two sugars on the side...and a dash of cinnamon, of course." Looking exceedingly proud of himself, he places two brown sugar packets with a stir stick on top of the plastic lid and winks.
I take the coffee, forcing back a smile. Why does he have to be so charming? "Thank you."
He walks right past me into the empty yoga studio where a couple of candles are still burning bright from the class that just ended. I watch silently as he goes to examine the Hindu deity statutes lining the windowsill. "How's your day going, Isla?" He focuses his intense, brown-eyed gaze on me and my nerve endings prickle with awareness.
Turning away to maintain my composure, I glance out at the heavy rainclouds. "I'm trying to keep an optimistic outlook. All things considered." I sit my latte on the ledge of the window and lift the lid off the cup, emptying the sugar packets inside.
"That's a good philosophy." He takes a long, purposeful sip of his own coffee.
A heavy silence fills the air and I watch the motion of his Adam's apple as he swallows. What a beautiful man. So chiselled and strong yet polished and sophisticated. And his confidence makes my heart race in a deliriously excited way. And don't get me started about his hands, those fingers that danced rhythmically inside of m—
"Aren't you going to ask how my day's going?"
I smirk, shaking my head determinedly. "Nope."
He laughs. "Well, that's just bad manners."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm fully invested in preserving your mystique."
"My mystique?" he questions with a hitched brow, his thumbnail rubbing along his dimpled chin.
"Yes, you're the handsome, enigmatic stranger who seduced me in my moment of vulnerability and gifted me with countless orgasms from which I have yet to recover," I muse in a playful but regally dignified tone. I take a sip of my latte. "Damn, this is good." Hot and sweet with just enough foam, the addictive taste of caffeine and the heavenly fragrance of hazelnut. This coffee boy's got skills. I lift the cup in salute to him.
He laughs again. God, I love the sound. "Y'know, I wouldn't be such an enigma if you'd just go on a damn date with me."
I shake my head, lust burning a path up my chest. "I'm sorry, Reuben. I just...can't."
His face steels with determination. He's not about to give up just yet. "You said it yourself; I'm handsome as fuck and the sex blew your mind. Plus, I make your froufrou coffee just the way you like it," he says smugly, "So what's the problem?"
My attraction to him definitely isn't the problem. He's gorgeous. Plus, he's funny and being around him just generally makes me feel good on the inside. But now isn't a great time for me to be jumping into a new relationship.
I brush tendrils of hair out of my face, exhaling roughly. "My divorce is messy. And my business is in trouble," I admit. "I really just need to focus on fixing everything that's broken in my life."
He seems to interpret that as a challenge. His shoulders straighten and arrogance lights up his eyes. "Maybe I can help you, Isla." Then he lowers his voice. "...I want to be friends...with benefits that aren't purely sexual."
My blood heats in my veins. "What does that mean?"
"I want to fuck you some more," he says easily, "but I also enjoy your company. I want more of that, too."
I tap the blunt heel of my snow-crusted boot anxiously against the cracked concrete floor and stare blankly at the chalkboard menu looming above the cash register even though I already know what I'm going to order. Soy hazelnut latte with two packets of cane sugar on the side. It's the same thing I've ordered every morning, Monday through Saturday since I opened up my yoga studio next door two and a half years ago.
Still, my eyes linger absentmindedly on the chalkboard a while longer because I need something to fill my mind as I stand in the extremely slow-moving line. This trendy little health food cafe is a bit out of place in a small town like Reyfield. Most of the locals would rather load up on greasy bacon, syrup-drenched pancakes and butter-soaked toast at the old-fashioned diner just off of Centennial. But I try to be conscientious about what I eat. Even when I have no control over the anxiety pulsing through my mind, at least I can decide what goes into my body.
I tuck a lock of hair behind my ear and glance around the place. It’s a really cute little hole-in-the-wall with its charming, rustic design and jazzy tunes playing quietly in the background. Rumor has it that a group of investors from the city purchased it a few weeks ago and that they’ll begin upgrading it soon. I really hope they don’t change too much because it’s so hard to find a cozy eatery with healthy options around here.
I crane my neck around the woman in front of me for a peek at the cash register. There are only two people ahead of me this morning. I don’t understand why it’s taking so long, and I chuff impatiently.
Deep breaths, Isla. Slow, deep breaths.
I'm not usually this irritable. But jeez, I always get so wound up whenever I come from my lawyer's office. The man has a talent for taking bad news and showing me that it’s exponentially worse than I initially realized. Every time I go to see him, I leave his office an hour older, $250 poorer and 1000 miles further away from my happy place.
I make eye contact with Tina, the regular cashier. She gives me a quick apologetic smile and discreetly gestures toward the fumbling new employee hunched over the espresso machine. Great, just my luck! She's training a new worker on the one morning that I’m pissed off and running late.
I glance up at the clock on the exposed brick wall. It’s 8:41. My Wednesday morning hatha class starts in nineteen minutes. The line is moving at a snail’s pace but I quickly decide that I need my daily dose of caffeine more than I need to be at work on time. Depriving myself of coffee would be cruel and unusual punishment, especially on a shitty morning like this. I pull in a lungful of purifying air, muttering a calming affirmation under my breath.
All is well in my world. I give no power to the problems I perceive in my experience.
God—right now that affirmation sounds like a load of crap.
As the owner of Prasanna Light Oneness Studio (and Reyfield’s unofficial beacon of positivity), I take my self-imposed commitment to remaining Zen and optimistic very seriously. I do my best to practice what I preach. But on mornings like this, when my lawyer has just explained to me that yesterday Judge Tucker rendered a decision ordering me to pay alimony to my ex, I’m struggling with my Zen. I thought I had put that cheating asshole behind me, but now it looks like I’ll be paying for the mistake of marrying him for the foreseeable future.
The groan of the front door as it swings open snaps me back to the present. Nancy and Delores, Reyfield’s very own Golden Girls duo, amble inside, bickering all the way.
“Good morning, Isla,” Delores says with a cheeky grin. Nancy lingers behind her, a frown etched on her deep brown face.
“Good morning, ladies,” I say cheerily, pushing down my worries and forcing my trademark happy-go-lucky smile to my lips. I turn my focus to Nancy. “What’s got you so upset today?”
She huffs, adjusting the wool scarf around her neck with elegant fingers. “Delores is an absolute whore,” she accuses shooting her friend a glare. “That’s what the problem is.”
My eyes bulge in shock. These two are so damn unpredictable. You never know what will spill past their lips. “Wh-what’s that all about?” I sputter, trying not to laugh outright.
Delores leans on her walking stick and rolls her eyes behind her thick-rimmed glasses. “Nancy, you’re way too old to be such a prude,” she admonishes before turning her gaze to me. “Edward Nickels has been courting her for nearly three weeks and they still haven’t done the dirty.”
Here we go…Conversations with these two tend to go off the rails quick-fast.
“I don’t see what the rush is,” Nancy says, standing her ground, her frown deepening ever so slightly.
Delores clucks her tongue against her dentures so hard that they almost fall out. “You don’t see what the rush is? You old coots could both drop dead next week. That’s what the rush is; you’re old.”
“I’m not going to ‘put out’ just for the heck of it,” Nancy sighs. “I may not be too old to have relations but I am too old to get my heart broken.”
My lips twist into a grimace. “Sorry, D. I’ve gotta side with Nancy on this one. Getting your heart broken is definitely not something worth repeating over and over.”
On hearing my melancholy tone, Delores turns and observes me with her sharp, shrewd gaze. “What has you so ruffled this morning? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so frowny before, dear.”
I force a smile as best I can. “Just feeling a little…” I search from the most accurate descriptor. “…off-center this morning. That's all.”
She tips her head thoughtfully. “Hmm, when was the last time you did the dirty?”
“Delores!” Nancy scolds, eyes wide in horror. Did she really just ask me that?
She holds up a hand in surrender. “Okay, I won’t pry. But, as my Nana Jean used to say, 'a little morning wood makes the morning good!' Wise woman, she was." She crosses herself and bows her head solemnly. "May she rest in peace.”
Nancy rolls her eyes, shooing Delores away. “Never mind her, dear.” She purses her lips momentarily. “Mmm. I heard that Judge Tucker just ordered you to pay alimony to that no-good ex-husband of yours.” I cringe on the inside. It looks like the news has already begun to make its way around town.
An indignant scowl comes over Delores’ features. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I turn back toward the chalkboard so that they don’t see the pain in my eyes. “How is it that the two of you are always up to date on local gossip?” I tuck that stubborn piece of my red hair behind my ear again. Every girl has that rebellious lock of hair that just refuses to stay in her ponytail.
Nancy shrugs a narrow shoulder. “Court judgments are a matter of public record, dear. My granddaughter, Nadia, is a big shot lawyer at a law firm in New York City. She told me that.”
“Anyway, that’s just terrible,” Delores huffs, smacking her cane against the floor. “You never should have married that boy.”
I know that now.
“My lawyer is looking into it.” I swallow a deep, centering breath. “I’m just hoping there’s a way to get the judgment overturned.”
“Oh, that no-good piece of shit,” Delores grumbles referring to my ex-husband. “I hope his cheating ass gets chlamydia and his penis shrivels off.”
That makes me laugh. "I don't need revenge. I leave it all to a higher power. I trust the universe to take care of justice. That's not my job."
Even as I repeat the well-practiced words that I’ve said so often over the past few months, I’m not quite convinced how much I really mean them. I always make a conscious effort to see the world in a positive way, to see the best in people. Even when it's hard. Especially when it's hard. It's an important part of my yoga practice. But I'm human, and this morning in the shower, I may or may not have allowed myself to indulge in a fantasy about pushing Zayn in front of a speeding diesel truck and throwing a lit match at him, only to watch him blow up with Oscar-worthy cinematics.
Nancy reaches out and taps me on the hand.
“Oh darling, you’ll certainly have the last laugh.” Her voice is comforting and though I don’t like to revel in the notion of revenge, I welcome the idea that life will stop sucking sooner or later.
The hairs on the back of my neck bristle at the deep baritone pronouncing the word. In my peripheral vision, I see the woman who was ahead of me trudging toward the door with her green smoothie and small, white paper bag in hand.
I step forward and look up to find the most stunning pair of honey-brown eyes waiting patiently for me from under the bill of a black Herbivore Eatery cap. I gasp hard enough to pull in half the air in the room.
God, he’s breathtaking.
And it’s not just his eyes. It’s the chiseled structure of his face, the fullness of his lips, the very pronounced dimple nestled on his smooth-shaven chin.
"Good morning." His deep voice rings out again.
Taken aback by the sudden assault of shimmering, white teeth as his lips split in a heart-stoppingly handsome (but somewhat controlled) smile, I stutter. “G-good morning…”
His gaze surveys every inch of my face before slipping down over the front of my slim-fitting jacket and settling on my chest for an instant. By the time his eyes return to my face, my cheeks are burning at his blatant scrutiny.
Satisfaction twinkles in his eyes. If I’m honest, I think he likes what he sees.
High five, Isla!
“Welcome to Herbivore Café. What can I get you?” His tongue darts out and glides over his full lips in a leisurely sweep.
My mind goes blank as I follow the path of his tongue. “Uh…I, uh…” I continue to fumble as my eyes tip up at the chalkboard in search of a prompt to help jog my memory.
Tina gives me a knowing smile from the other side of the counter. “She’ll have a medium soy hazelnut latte.”
I smile thankfully at her. “With two brown sugars on the side, please.” But, I’ve got to downsize because with the current state of my finances, every penny counts. “Actually, can you make that a small?”
All the top debt repair gurus would agree that I should sacrifice my morning latte in order to fix my financial problems, but to me, caffeine isn’t a luxury. It’s a basic human right, one I won’t be deprived of.
If getting my daily coffee fix is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
“Small soy hazelnut latte with two brown sugars on the side,” the new barista calls over his shoulder to Tina. His eyes stay on me, intimately examining me all over again.
And on second thought, ‘stunning’ is too mild an adjective to describe those eyes. They’re dazzling, magnetic, powerful. They’re sharp with intelligence while maintaining a playful twinkle that forces my lips to curl into an undefeatable smile. And he’s intense. Definitely a creature who lives in his third chakra, his solar plexus.
Tina shakes her head wearing an apologetic look as if she’s just remembered something important. “Oh, I’m sorry, hun. We just switched up our menu,” she says pointing up at the chalkboard. “We don’t serve hazelnut drinks anymore.”
My spirits sink to my toes. “Really?” The disappointment is clear in my voice.
“Not enough demand for it. You’re practically the only person who orders it.” She shrugs helplessly.
But her new coworker speaks up in that deep, smooth cadence of his. “No, Tina. We’ll make an exception for our friend—” He pauses and looks at me.
It takes a beat to realize that he’s waiting for my name. “Isla,” I supply in a thick voice, eyes locked on his tempting mouth.
“Isla.” His lips part and he breathes my name reverently, like it’s a sacred thing.
Tina’s voice breaks my trance. “But it’s off the menu,” she protests. “I programmed it out of the cash register—”
He speaks firm and steady without breaking my gaze. “Tina, we’ll make an exception for Isla,” he declares sternly.
By now, my heart is flitting like crazy and I feel warm to my bones. The new guy’s bossy. For some reason, I like that.
“Fine,” she says begrudgingly as she marches into the back room and returns a second later with a bottle of hazelnut syrup. He tosses me a wink before he and Tina turn to the back counter where the espresso machine sits next to a bunch of blenders and dispensers and other coffee-making contraptions. She stands by, arms folded tightly across her chest as she instructs her co-worker on how to prepare my beverage.
As he works, I watch his muscular back ripple and undulate under the thin, white jersey of his T-shirt. He’s confident in a natural, easy way. His body speaks that language fluently. And though he’s wearing a coffee shop uniform, he makes it look important, dignified even, with those thick shoulders and sinewy forearms.
I search through my purse for my wallet to pay for the drink and count out my money. The sexy barista turns back to me with a small paper cup of caffeine goodness. That’s when I notice his hands. They’re big and tanned, with a light sprinkling of dark hair. An image of myself licking coffee foam off each of those fingers in turn while looking into those honey eyes flashes through my mind. I shake my head to clear the inappropriate visual.
I smile, trying not to look too affected by him. “Can I have a dash of cinnamon, please?”
“Of course you can.” He licks his lips, leaning over the counter and sliding that wayward lock of red hair over my shoulder. His voice drops to a growl that only he and I can hear. “Now, the question is, can I get a dash of cinnamon?”
A tickle skitters down my spine. I open and close my mouth but nothing comes out. He flashes a quick, subtle smile before he grabs the cinnamon shaker and adds a light dusting to my drink. Steam billows from the tiny hole in the plastic lid that he snaps onto the cup. "You’re…delightful, Isla,” he says almost to himself.
I’m still frazzled as I take the coffee and stretch the money out to him. He reaches across the counter and taps my hand to stop me. “I can’t charge you for something that isn’t even on the menu, Isla.”
God, my name just rolls off his tongue. Say it again…
I narrow my eyes at him. “You can’t do that. I have to pay. You have to charge me,” I insist. My eyes shoot over to Tina but she gives me an impassive shrug.
He follows the path of my stare. “Yes, I can do that,” he smirks. “Right, Tina?”
She nods uninterestedly. “Yup, he can do that, I guess,” she says in a listless tone.
What the hell is going on here today? The last time I was a dime short, Tina made me swear that I’d give her the money the next day. And now, here she is, practically letting the new guy steal right in front of her.
“I’m not walking out of here with a free drink,” I say, sliding a handful of carefully counted change across the counter.
“Well, I’m not taking your money,” he shoots, folding a pair of bulging arms across his wide chest, “and I’ll be here all day so you might as well get comfortable if you’re gonna stay.” He nods over at the grouping of shabby chic, overstuffed sofas facing the window.
He’s annoying. Truly.
So, why do I find myself smiling?
“Take the damn coffee,” Delores says impatiently tapping her stick on the floor. “Just let somebody do something nice for you for once.” She eyes the barista. “This girl is Reyfield’s resident Ms. Altruistic. Always taking care of everybody but she won’t let anybody do anything nice for her.” Nancy nods along.
Mr. Bossy evaluates me again, hitching an eyebrow this time. “Is that so?”
“Yup,” Nancy says, “She volunteered to go grocery shopping for me when my arthritis was acting up a few weeks ago even though that dinky station wagon of hers can barely keep up with this cold weather.”
“She came to my house with some weird, hippy essential oil concoction when I had pneumonia last winter,” Delores adds. “It worked wonders.”
A grin threatens to spill onto Mr. Bossy’s face as he opens the bakery display case and grabs a pair of metal tongs. “Well, in that case, I’m going to have to throw in a giant coconut cookie.” He slides the crumbly sweetness into a small, white paper bag and hands it my way.
“You really don’t have to do this.” I hesitate to take it from him.
“A sweet treat for a sweet girl,” he says in an easy voice.
I feel a blush coloring my cheeks and my heart is picking up speed. “If you gave treats to all the sweet girls in this town, you’d be out of business before sundown.”
I’m subject to that honey-brown stare again. “I doubt that the others are sweet like you.” He licks his lips. “Lightning rarely strikes the same small town twice.”
This guy…He knows very well the type of effect he has on a woman and he’s not above using it to get what he wants. He exudes the confident magnetism usually possessed by charming politicians, hot-shot lawyers or powerful CEOs. And here he is, manning the espresso machine at a small-town coffee shop.
That’s when realization hits me. He’s not just some barista. He must be a student working here as a part-time gig while he pursues his studies at the local community college. He’s probably studying Business Administration. Or Economics. Something brainy like that.
While I stand there silently writing the unofficial biography of the gorgeous and domineering man I literally just met, my phone begins to ring in the pocket of my jacket and reality slams back into me. Here I am flirting with some college boy at a coffee shop when my whole life is falling apart around me.
Way to prioritize, Isla.
I glance down at my phone and see my best friend, Sammie’s, number. Excitement flutters in my stomach. This call could change things for the better. She told me yesterday that she could potentially help me get an investment for my yoga studio.
I scoop my money off of the counter. “I’ve got to take this,” I say, waving the phone in the air.
Mr. Bossy nods as I take my coffee and cookie, pivoting toward the door. “Have a nice day, Isla.“
I can’t help but smile as I drop my fistful of coins into Tina’s tip jar. I hear him call after me but I wave quickly at Nancy and Delores and hurry out the door.
Cassie-Ann L. Miller writes steamy contemporary romance with a dash of angst and a sprinkle of humor. And if her toddler weren't rebelling against his bedtime right now, she'd have a minute to write her author biography, too ;)
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