The mystery woman was back.
Zach Garrett poured the steamed milk into the coffee mixture, creating his signature swirl pattern with the froth—all the while keeping tabs on the female customer who’d paused inside the door of The Perfect Blend, dripping umbrella in hand.
As she had on her first visit two days ago, the lady appeared to be debating whether to stay or bolt.
Wiping the nozzle on the espresso machine, he assessed her. Early to midthirties, near as he could tell—though the oversize dark sunglasses hid most of her features. A curious wardrobe addition, given the unseasonably heavy rain that had been drenching Hope Harbor for the past seventy-two hours.
He handed the latte to the waiting customer and angled toward his Monday/Wednesday/Friday assistant barista. “Bren, you waited on her Monday, didn’t you?” He indicated the slender woman with the dark, shoulder-length blunt-cut hair who continued to hover near the threshold.
Bren spared her a quick once-over as she finished grinding another batch of the top-quality Arabica beans he sourced from a fair-trade roaster in Portland. “Yeah.”
“Do you remember what she ordered?”
“Small skinny vanilla latte.”
“Did you get a name?”
“Nope. I asked, but she said she’d wait for her order at the pickup counter.”
In other words, the woman wanted to remain anonymous.
While it was possible she was one of the many visitors who dropped into their picturesque town for a few days during the summer months, his gut said otherwise.
And since his people instincts had served him well in his previous profession, there was no reason to discount them now.
So who was she—and what was she doing in Hope Harbor?
Only one way to find out.
“I’ll take care of her.”
“That works. I’ve already got customers.” Bren inclined her head toward the couple waiting for their pound of ground coffee.
Zach called up his friendliest smile and ambled down to the end of the serving counter. “Let me guess—a small skinny vanilla latte.”
The woman did a double take . . . took a step back . . . and gave the shop a quick, nervous scan. As if she was scoping out potential threats.
No worries on that score. There was nothing in The Perfect Blend to raise alarm bells. While several of the tables tucked against the walls and cozied up around the freestanding fireplace in the center were occupied, no one was paying any attention to the new arrival. The customers were all reading newspapers, absorbed in books, or chatting as they enjoyed their drinks and pastries in the Wi-Fi-free environment.
The door behind the woman opened again, nudging her aside.
Charley Lopez entered, his trademark Ducks cap secured beneath the hood of a dripping slicker.
“Sorry, ma’am.” He flashed her a smile as he touched the brim of the cap, pushed the hood back to reveal his gray ponytail . . . and gave her an intent look. “I didn’t mean to bump you.”
“No problem.” She dipped her chin and moved aside, putting distance between them. As if his perusal had spiked her nerves.
“Are you coming in or going out?” Charley maintained his hold on the half-open door.
“Coming in.” Zach answered for her. “I’m betting she’s in the mood for a skinny vanilla latte.”
“Excellent choice.” Charley closed the door.
“Bren will handle your order as soon as she finishes with her customers, Charley.” Zach kept his attention on the stranger.
“No hurry.” The taco-making artist who’d called Hope Harbor home for as long as anyone could remember moseyed toward the counter. “I doubt I’ll have much business at the stand, thanks to our odd weather. August is usually one of the driest months on the Oregon coast.”
“Any day is a perfect day for a Charley’s fish taco.”
“I may steal that line. It would be a great marketing slogan.”
“As if you need one. Your long lines are proof that word of mouth generates a ton of business.”
“That it does.” He winked, then directed his next comment to the woman. “If you haven’t visited my truck yet, it’s on the wharf. Next to the gazebo.”
“I may stop by.”
“Please do. First order for newcomers is always on the house.” He continued toward Bren.
Zach frowned after him. Everyone in town knew about Charley’s welcome gift of a free lunch for new residents . . . but this woman hadn’t moved to Hope Harbor.
What did Charley know that he didn’t?
She edged toward the exit, and Zach shifted gears. He could pick the town sage’s brain later. In the meantime, why not try to ferret out a few facts himself?
Unless his skittish customer disappeared out the door first.
He hiked up the corners of his mouth again. “My assistant barista told me you ordered a small skinny vanilla latte on your last visit—but I’ll be happy to make a different drink for you today.”
Hesitating, she gave the room one more survey . . . then slid her umbrella into the stand by the door. “No. That’s fine.”
She was staying.
First hurdle cleared.
“Can I have a name for the order?” He picked up a cup and a pen.
He arched his eyebrows at her.
She extracted a five-dollar bill and set it on the counter. “Keep the change. And it’s Kat. With a K.” She eased away.
Second hurdle cleared.
“Got it.” He jotted the name. “I’ll have this ready in a couple of minutes.”
She nodded and escaped toward a deserted table in the far corner—out of conversation range.
Thwarted at the third hurdle.
He wasn’t going to find out anything else about her.
But what did it matter? Just because he was beginning to crave feminine companionship—and the pool of eligible women in town was limited—didn’t mean he should get any ideas about the first single, attractive female who walked in.
Yeah, yeah, he’d noticed the empty fourth finger on her left hand.
He mixed the espresso and vanilla syrup together, positioned the steam nozzle below the surface of the milk until the liquid bubbled, then dipped deeper to create a whirlpool motion.
Charley wandered over while Bren prepared his café de olla, watching as Zach poured the milk into the espresso mixture, holding back the foam with a spoon to create a stylized K on top of the drink. “Beautiful. You have an artistic touch.”
“Nothing like yours.” He set the empty frothing pitcher aside and reached for a lid as he signaled to the woman in the corner. “I wish my coffee sold for a fraction of what your paintings bring in.”
“Life shouldn’t be all about making money. My stand isn’t a gold mine, but I enjoy creating tacos as much as I enjoy painting. Customers for both can feel the love I put into my work. Like they can feel the love you have for this shop. It seeps into your pores the instant you cross the threshold. A person would have to be über stressed not to find peace and relaxation here.”
The very ambiance he’d hoped to create when he’d opened a year and a half ago.
“You just made my day.”
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Charley motioned toward the foam art. “Why don’t you show that to your customer? Brighten her day.”
Not a bad idea. Perhaps it would elicit a few words from her—or initiate a conversation.
He set the cup on the counter as she approached and offered her his most engaging grin. The one that usually turned female heads. “Your personalized skinny vanilla latte.”
Lips flat, she gave his handiwork no more than a fleeting perusal. “Thanks.”
Not only was the lady immune to his charm, she had no interest in extending their conversation.
Fighting back an irrational surge of disappointment, Zach put a lid on the drink. “Enjoy.”
“Thanks.” She hurried toward the door, pulled her umbrella out of the stand, and disappeared into the gray shroud hanging over the town.
“I think my attempt to brighten her day was a bust.” He folded his arms as the rain pummeled the picture window.
“Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes the simplest gestures of kindness can touch a heart in unseen ways.”
Zach didn’t try to hide his skepticism. “Assuming she’s willing to let her heart be touched. The lady didn’t exude much warmth.”
“She may be hiding it behind a protective wall. Could be she’s dealing with a boatload of heavy stuff. That can dampen a person’s sociability.”
Zach’s antennas perked up. “You know anything about her?”
“Nothing much—though she seems familiar.” He squinted after her. Shook his head. “It’ll come to me. Anyway, I spotted her on the wharf Monday, sipping a brew from your fine establishment. She was sitting alone on a bench during one of the few monsoon-free interludes we’ve had this week. I got gloomy vibes. Like she was troubled—and could use a friend.”
Zach wasn’t about to question the veracity of Charley’s intuition. The man was legendary in these parts for his uncanny insights and his ability to discern more than people willingly divulged.
Present company included.
How Charley had realized there was an unresolved issue in his past was beyond him. He’d never talked about it to anyone. But the man’s astute comments, while generic, were too relevant to be random. As a result, on more than one occasion he’d been tempted to get Charley’s take on his situation.
Yet as far as he could see, there was no solution to the impasse short of returning to his former world and toeing the line—and that wasn’t happening. The new life he’d built these past two and a half years suited him, and now that he was settled in Hope Harbor, he was more convinced than ever his decision to walk away had been the right one.
“You still with me, Zach?” Charley’s lips tipped up.
“Yeah.” He refocused. “You think she’s a visitor?”
“I’d classify her more as a seeker.”
What did that mean?
Before he could ask, Bren appeared at his elbow. “Here you go, Charley.” She popped a cinnamon stick into his drink, snapped on a lid, and handed the cup over the counter.
“Thanks. It’s a treat to have authentic Mexican coffee available here in our little town.”
“We aim to please.” The door opened again to admit what appeared to be a family of tourists, and Zach lifted his hand in welcome. “Everyone must be in the mood for coffee today.”
“Count your blessings.” Charley raised his cup in salute. “I’m off to the taco stand.”
“I’ll try to send a few customers your direction.”
“Always appreciated. Maybe Kat will stop by.”
“You know her last name?” He kept an eye on the newcomers as they perused his menu board and examined the offerings in the pastry case.
“No. But I may find out if she visits my truck. Or she might come back here again and you can take another crack at breaching that wall she’s put up. See you soon.” He strolled toward the door.
The new customers began to pepper him with questions about the pastry selection, but as he answered, the image of the mystery woman sitting alone on a bench at the wharf—and Charley’s comment that she could use a friend—remained front and center in his mind.
If she was dealing with a bunch of garbage, he ought to cut her some slack for her lack of sociability today. Been there, done that—and it was a bad place to be.
Yet thanks to grit, determination . . . and the kind people of Hope Harbor, who’d welcomed him into the community he now called home . . . he’d survived.
Hard to say if the woman hiding behind the dark shades had similar fortitude . . . and if she was merely passing through, he’d never find out.
But if she stuck around awhile, perhaps in Hope Harbor she’d discover an answer to the worrisome situation Charley thought she might be wrestling with.
Taken from Blackberry Beach by Irene Hannon. Copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.
About the Author:
Irene Hannon is the bestselling author of more than fifty novels, including One Perfect Spring, Hope Harbor, Sea Rose Lane, Sandpiper Cove, and Pelican Point, as well as Dangerous Illusions and the Private Justice and Men of Valor suspense series. Her books have been honored with three coveted RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America, and she is a member of that organization’s elite Hall of Fame. Her many other awards include National Readers’ Choice, Daphne du Maurier, Retailers’ Choice, Booksellers’ Best, Carols, and Reviewers’ Choice from RT Book Reviews magazine, which also honored her with a Career Achievement award for her entire body of work. In addition, she is a two-time Christy Award finalist.
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