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ABOUT THE GINGERBREAD CAFE:
Miranda’s family thinks she’s crazy. Not only did she just buy a hockey team—which made her a tiny bit famous—but she also moved into a small house out in the country. And, to their chagrin, she’s still single.
Not like she could ever find a man to understand her…
Unless she shed her true identity and pretended to an average gal…
It seems to be working because she just met Dak—a down-to-earth coffee shop owner who seems to understand her without explanation. Not only is he handsome, he makes her laugh.
Dak understands Miranda—of course he does. He’s former NHL…
And her team is currently trying to recruit him to work with her rookies.
Which means that at some point he’s going to have to burst their happy, romantic bubble and tell her exactly who he is.
SNEAK PEEK from The Gingerbread Cafe
Miranda wondered if coming here was self-protection or self-sabotage. Either way, it was clear she wasn’t ready to date again.
She’d come to a cute sports café her colleague Daisy-Mae Ray had told her about, thinking she might find a man who liked similar things.
But it was Wednesday.
Two o’clock, to be specific. That was hardly prime man-finding time if you were on the prowl.
She sighed and took a stool at the café’s back bar. The sports-themed sitting area was empty with the exception of one balding man dunking a well-decorated gingerbread man into his beer. Miranda cringed to think what that might taste like.
The Gingerbread Café had a unique vibe. Part sports pub, part coffee shop. A few antique coffee grinders sat on shelves hung between screens set to sports channels, and the chalkboard menus offered everything from fancy lattes to local brews. The long wood slab that served as a back bar had a covered cake platter to her right, loaded with stacks of beautifully decorated cookies.
Beyond that was a basket with bags of flavored bar nuts. Hickory, hot and spicy, smoked mustard…
The building, however, smelled like a heavenly bakery. A mix of gingerbread, roasted coffee beans, baked sugar, and butter.
A great place for coffee on a Wednesday. Or an early afternoon beer while you waited for the evening’s local band to play on the mini stage set in the corner, as advertised by the poster on the door.
Not such a great place to pick up a “sports-minded” man unless you were looking for a day-drinker.
This wasn’t where she’d find the kind of man she could take to her parents’ Sunday dinners in their ten-bedroom mansion. Not that she often went to those dinners. But still. She should at least try, right?
She took in the wall to her left. A weathered wooden sign that said beer would be free tomorrow, and beside it hung a shadow box holding a signed hockey puck.
She’d never noticed how ever-present the sport was until she’d bought herself an NHL team several months ago.
She smoothed her hands over the long, smooth maple coffee bar. The tree must have been close to one hundred years old before it had been turned into a bar here in San Antonio.
She craned her neck, on the lookout for the barista/bartender.
Maybe all of this was a sign she should go back to the office.
Except she’d actually tried today. Tried to do to the “normal” thing in hopes of snagging interest from a regular, come-as-you-are kind of man. She’d forgone her usual jewelry and perfect makeup that went with the slays-all-day-as-some-big-boss-woman-you-should-be-afraid-of wardrobe she donned in order to be taken seriously in the very male-dominated world of hockey. By all appearances, this afternoon, she was just a normal woman in an old sweatshirt from Brown, jeans from the department store, her beautifully cut black hair tucked in a ponytail, and barely there makeup. In other words, Weekend Miranda.
She didn’t look like a woman who owned an NHL team.
She winced and peered at the large TV in the corner. At least she wasn’t on the screen at the moment, being raked over the coals by a sportscaster. The instant the station started talking about the start of the hockey season, though, she’d be up there in her Slays All Day getup, and her cover as a normal person would be completely blown.
The networks loved to predict her downfall and spent hours analyzing how she worked with her managers to run the team, her input on player trading decisions, her involvement with the players—not romantically, but of course plenty of speculation there. They seemed to assume that any less-than-predictable business moves made by her were mistakes, not that she had a multi-year strategy in mind and was working toward building a legacy for her late grandfather, who’d once played in the league.
The sports networks expected her to bat her lashes, giggle, and throw money at her team’s problems. She didn’t do the first two, but she was a tad guilty of the third. Buying an expansion team that was ready to fold in its second season came with a lot of financial issues. She’d known that going in but had hoped to turn things around a bit faster and for nobody to notice her work.
Then again, marching into interviews to defend her team’s captain, Maverick Blades, as the press continued to slam him with some pretty nasty speculation about what happened on his last team, had maybe brought a little extra attention her way.
Coming to this café to find true love before her ovaries turned to dust was a mistake. She couldn’t pretend to be someone else in here. She needed a Plan B. Maybe she could convince some nice man online that she was just an average gal with an average office job. Then once they had fallen in love, she could reveal who she really was. It worked in the movies. Why not in real life?
“Sorry, I didn’t realize you’d come in,” a barista said, coming from the direction of the restrooms, carting a mop. He was about her age, approaching his mid-thirties, and wore a backward ball cap. He looked rugged, handsome, strong and sporty, despite the crisp white dress shirt that somehow accommodated his broad shoulders. A bit of stubble like he hadn’t shaved for a day and a half darkened his jaw, and his eyes were dark, with lashes long enough they ought to be a crime on anyone who didn’t care about mascara.
He leaned the mop against the wall before moving behind the bar. “What can I get you?”
His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, displaying cords of muscles. He placed his hands on the bar, his index finger finding the slight indent from one of the old tree’s knots, like an unconscious habit. He had wide hands. The kind that would leave you feeling safe and protected with just a simple touch to your lower back while guiding you through crowds, ensuring you didn’t get separated. He seemed like the type of guy who’d do that. Even though he knew you could take care of yourself. He’d act like you were a team, in it together.
His skin was bronzed, and he probably always looked good, healthy. Even in the dead of winter.
“Don’t worry, I washed them.”
“What’s that?” she asked, glancing up at him. My, he was handsome.
“My hands.” He lifted them, showing her. A ring on his left. Of course. She nearly slouched again.
No, that was her left, his right. The ring was big, manly, and it looked like it might be a championship ring of some sort. Before she could determine what it was, he tucked his hands in his jeans pockets. He was built like an athlete. All muscles and completely hot.
He wasn’t out of place here. In fact, the antique coffee grinder and beautiful gingerbread cookies were out of place. Never him.
“I like your bar topper. Maple?” She ran her hands down the flat expanse of cool wood.
“I had it shipped down from my parents’ maple syrup farm in Quebec.”
“Quebec? I don’t hear a French accent.”
“Yeah, no? You don’t hear it, eh?” he said, putting on a thick accent.
“I do now for some reason.”
That earned her a grin that made her stomach flip.
She hooked her feet on the stool’s rail and pushed herself up, leaning over the edge of the bar. She’d noticed on the chalkboard menu above her that the café was licensed, and it felt like it might be five o’clock somewhere in the world.
“Can I get…?” She eyed his stock of drink garnishes. It was impressive, and it tipped her decision firmly away from one of the warm pumpkin spice drinks listed on the specials board. “Something with a wedge of orange and a cherry?”
“Missed lunch? Our gingerbread banana bread is to die for.”
She shook her head. She would never miss a meal. But a drink with a side of snack sounded delicious.
The bartender was studying her, his arms braced on the bar. Those wide shoulders of his. He looked like a defenseman for one of the N and Ls of the sporting world. NHL or NFL. Too bad she didn’t date players.
Although both sports were in-season, meaning there was no way the man would have the time—or the inclination—to work what was likely a minimum wage food service job.
“Because if you like snacks with your drinks, my Caesars are a meal as well as a work of art. Pickle, bacon, cherry tomato, deep fried onion, and a tiny square of focaccia.”
“A bartender never jokes about his drinks.”
“I thought you were a barista.”
“What matters is that I make the best Caesar in town.” He pointed to a plaque hanging near the cash register. She was too far away to read it but guessed it was evidence of his claim.
“Sure, I’ll give it a try.”
“You won’t be disappointed.”
“Can I make it a virgin?” She might still try to squeeze some work in later tonight, and she wanted to be clear-headed.
The bartender looked slightly pained by her request, but nodded.
“And not too spicy, thanks.”
“Trust me,” he said, not too patiently, “and let me make the drink.”
A competitive, all-for-the-art barista/bartender who looked like he could prevent a professional athlete from getting past him.
Yeah, she was intrigued.
And not just because she was tired of the personality-contorting silver spoon types she’d grown up around—and her mother kept trying to match her with. She simply wanted someone genuine. Someone who paused to feel things. Someone who would consider her, who wouldn’t shush her or treat her like an ornament. Someone who would be home to feed the cat for her.
Not that she had a cat. But with the right man, she could have one without worrying about it starving.
She moved her hands over the glossy-coated maple. “That must’ve been expensive, having this shipped all the way to San Antonio.”
The wood bar looked like it ran, unbroken, for a full twenty feet.
The bartender remained quiet as he fixed her drink. His moves were efficient, methodical. Soon he set the drink in front of her.
“Wow. This is a masterpiece.” The stick of speared snacks was artfully arranged. And the glass had been flawlessly rimmed with pepper. She pulled out her phone and took a photo.
“Instagram worthy?” he asked.
“No, I have to send this to my sister. She always finds the prettiest drinks in town. It’ll kill her not knowing where I had this.”
“Ah, sibling rivalry. It’s not just for kids anymore.”
“I have to take the wins where I can with my family.”
He chuckled but didn’t ask. She liked him all the more for it. Especially since she felt guilty. Her sister Deanna was the only one in the family that seemed to half-understand her, and she’d spent a lot of her own social currency defending Miranda and her life choices lately.
He waited for her to remove the stick of garnishes and take a sip. “Well?” He crossed his arms, his grin confident as she savored the flavor. “It’s the best, right?”
It was. Not too spicy and definitely delicious. She gave an indifferent lift of her shoulder. “Looks better than it tastes.”
He huffed in disbelief. “You’re a liar. This is the best Caesar you’ve ever had.”
She gasped. “I can’t believe you call your customers liars!”
He shrugged. Casual, confident, comfortable. But not too cocky or arrogant. He knew exactly where he stood in the world, and he owned it. This man tickled her insides.
She took another sip, unable to resist the drink. It was shocking the café wasn’t filled to the rafters with customers if his other drinks were as good as this one. The room was scented with wonderful baking, too. Scents didn’t lie.
“It kills you to admit that this is the best Caesar you’ve ever tasted, doesn’t it?” He was leaning on the bar, his voice low. She had a feeling that this man, with the dark, dark eyes, enjoyed being right and winning as much as she did.
She took another sip, half of the drink already gone. “More than I’ll ever admit.”
“I’ll take that as a win.” He slid her a napkin for the stick of snacks she was still holding, and she set down the garnishes. Maybe it was the tabasco from the Caesar warming her stomach, but it felt good flirting with him.
He ran a hand over the wood that separated them. “My brother was coming down for a visit, and he threw this on top of his holiday trailer. The whole counter cost me nothing more than a couple of drinks and filling his hollow leg for a few days.”
“Sounds worth it.”
He gave the room thoughtful consideration. His expression suggested he felt as though the café should mean something more. Kind of like when she’d been granted access to her trust account years ago. It meant nothing to her until she found something meaningful to put it toward—the team and her grandfather’s memory. She was fulfilling a dream he’d never been able to fulfill for himself.
“What made you move so far away from your family?” she asked.
“Work. Then when I was changing careers, a buddy found this space, and it was perfect. Great location. Decent price. And I like San Antonio. So I stayed.”
She nodded, thinking. He was a long way from his family. While she didn’t mind a little distance between her and the overbearing ways of her parents, she was still only across the city. Not in a whole different country.
“Big family?” she asked.
“A brother and a sister. You?”
“Two sisters. Are you French Catholic?” Now that he’d pointed out where he was from, she could hear a hint of a Canadian French accent, particularly when he spoke of his family.
He smiled. “Somewhere back in the family tree. We haven’t been practicing for a generation or two. Are you?”
“Catholic? No. My family believes and worships—” She caught herself before the adage slipped off her tongue. Her family believed and worshipped money. All hail the mighty dollar. It was the most important thing. That and image. They were competitive, but loathe to admit it, and would frequently shame her when she was too blatantly competitive. Apparently, it wasn’t ladylike, and she’d never find a man acting like that.
So far, it appeared to be true.
“They worship work?” the bartender prompted.
She shook her head. She wasn’t going there. She pulled a piece of bacon off the garnish stick and mindlessly chewed it. Yeah, it would add to her curves—she’d long ago forfeited a spot in the skinniest woman at the country club competition. Quite happily.
Life was for enjoying.
And anyway, she looked good. She liked her generous, plush curves and believed she looked as a woman should.
“Too soon to tell me your deep, dark family secrets?” His eyes danced as he leaned against the counter that separated them.
She flashed a smile. “We don’t even know each other’s names. Of course it’s too soon.”
“Bartender confidentiality applies here. But if it makes you feel better…” He reached out a hand for her to shake. “My friends call me Dak.”
Copyright © 2022, Jean Oram
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