© Copyright 2017-2018 Cate Tayler. All Rights Reserved.
Calista Markatos didn't ask for much, only health and happiness. And never to hear the words, "I'd hit that," come out of the mouth of a woman old enough to be her mom.
Two out of three ain't bad. "Debbie, please, I just ate," she groaned.
"That is one yummy dish sitting over there." Debbie Brands tilted her frosted-blonde coif at the well-dressed man sitting at the end of the counter. "If I were ten years younger--"
"You'd still be too old," Calista teased.
She looked up from the stack of menus she'd been wiping to peer at the object of Debbie's curiosity, a businessman who was oblivious to their attention as he sipped his coffee and read the paper. She couldn't quite see his face, but she did notice the tailored gray suit that hung perfectly over his lean form and his short, stylish light-brown hair. His feet rested on the bottom rungs of the stool, encased in a pair of black Italian leather loafers--the expensive, custom-made kind. She might not be as sophisticated as some of her friends, but she could tell the difference between custom Ferragamos and off-the-rack from J.C. Penney, even if she couldn't afford the former. Or the latter. Enough with the self-pity. She turned back to cleaning the menus. It was a tedious task, but it kept her mind off how dire Athena's future looked.
"He looks like every other elitist that comes in here," Calista said, casually dismissing the customer. "He only thinks he's special."
The man in question was the archetype of the temporary residents and travelers that came through her sleepy little hometown, tossing a few dollars to the locals and leaving higher property values and taxes in their wake. Mystic Point's four-digit population had whittled away to three digits over the past decade, as many long-time residents escaped the seaside town for one of the more affordable surrounding cities. It rankled Calista to see her hometown turning into another tourist trap instead of a nice place to raise a family.
"Why don't you see if he wants another cup, maybe upsell him on a piece of pie? I think he can swing the four ninety-five and we could use the sale," she suggested, wincing at the involuntary sneer in her voice. She hadn't always been so judgy. She was a damn nice person, even. But lately, it had become too much. The other day, she overheard a wealthy couple, New Yorkers judging by their accent, going on about the "quaint little town" and wishing their lives could be "simple" like the people here. Yeah. So simple. Her parents slaved to try to save the diner, while she put everything in her life on hold to help them.
"Oh, I'll upsell him, all right." Debbie patted her sprayed hair and adjusted her apron. Though her leathery skin made it obvious the older woman spent too many hours in the sun, and her raspy voice betrayed her two-pack-a-day habit, the patrons of the diner seemed to respond to her flirtatious and friendly ways. What she lacked in beauty she more than made up for in charm.
Calista shook her head as she watched Debbie sashay toward the man, grabbing a fresh pot of coffee on the way. She had never sashayed in her life, at least not intentionally. Maybe if she had, men would be more apt to notice her, at least one man in particular.
Her eyes stole to the clock on the wall. 10:30 a.m. Her parents had been gone for more than an hour. How long did it take to apply for a bank loan? Calista worried the end of a pen as she stared at the blue plastic tarp and caution tape blocking off a large section of the restaurant. The summer squall in August had produced what the meteorologists called a downburst. Calista called it a disaster; her dad, Dan, called it something much worse--in Greek. And the insurance companies--well, they referred to it as "an uncovered act of God." It had blown out the windows on the side of the diner that housed the Party Room, leaving the area vulnerable to the ensuing downpour and resulting in damaged booths and flooring. It was going to take several thousand dollars to do the repairs, money they didn't have. Renting out the Party Room for events brought in just enough income to help Athena's survive each month, and without it, they could barely cover their normal expenses. If they couldn't get the Party Room usable again, they'd probably have to close the entire diner down. For good.
Calista looked around the mostly empty dining room and continued gnawing on the pen. Someday, this would be hers, passed down just as her grandfather had done for her father, if they could keep the place open. Not that she wanted it; her dream was to someday run her own art gallery. But this diner was part of her heritage and it was important to her parents, and Calista was nothing if not loyal to the ones she loved.
She sighed once more, then bent to retrieve a clean rag and another set of menus from behind the counter. With the line cooks running the kitchen and Debbie deftly tending to the few customers they had, Calista had to do something to keep from clock-watching. Might as well clean some more menus.
As she stood, she felt a presence at her elbow. "He wants to speak to the owner," Debbie informed her, moving to take two of the menus from the stack Calista just replaced. "You're the closest thing since Lori and Dan aren't here."
Calista's brows pinched together. "Who?"
Calista glanced toward where the hunk sat, still reading his paper and sipping his coffee. A bowl of cereal now sat in front of him, and she was surprised to see it held Froot Loops. Men like him usually preferred Grape Nuts. "Why does he want to speak to an owner?"
Debbie shrugged. "I don't know, hon. Couldn't be the service," she said, chuckling. "I was bewitching and beguiling."
Calista rolled her eyes. "All right, I'll go see what he wants." She tucked an annoying curl that had come loose from her up-do behind her ear and walked over to see what the man wanted.
"I'm Calista Markatos," she introduced herself. "Is there something I can help you with?"
The man looked up and Calista gasped. His piercing amber eyes took her by surprise, and as her gaze roamed over his square jaw and full lips, she understood why Debbie was so taken by him.
Holy hotness, Batman!
His mouth turned up slowly, revealing a dimple deep enough to drown in. A heated flush crept up her neck as she realized he'd caught her checking him out. "Are you the owner?" he asked in an amused voice revealing his Boston origin.
"My parents are the owners," she explained, fighting to stay cool. Her hand twitched as she stopped herself from fanning her face. Yeah, that would have been really smooth. She cleared her throat and continued. "But they aren't available right now. Is there something I can help you with? Are your Froot Loops not to your liking?"
His grin broadened and he set the paper down, never releasing his gaze. "They're magically delicious, but I have some business I need to discuss with the owners."
"Wrong cereal but you get an A for effort," Calista answered, prickliness beginning to edge out her attraction. "And as I said, they aren't available right now." She leaned against the counter and immediately regretted the mistake. Her position now put her close enough to breathe in his scent that was like leather and bourbon, what she imagined one of those Ivy League "Ol' Boys Clubs" smelled like. Old money. Steve had smelled a little like that, and it was all the reminder she needed to come back to herself.
"I handle almost all of the business affairs with regards to the diner, so if there is something you need to discuss, then I'm your woman." Her cheeks warmed as soon as the words left her lips.
He let out a small chuckle, then offered her his hand. "All right, Ms. Markatos. My name is Miles Gardner."
She grasped his hand in politeness, but then his name registered in her mind and she quickly dropped it. Not soon enough--the warmth from his touch sent a tingle up her arm and straight down to her toes. Her eyes narrowed and instinctively she took a step backward.
"Miles Gardner? As in Gardner and Bayer?"
"You're familiar with my firm, then?" The man looked pleased.
She folded her arms and jutted her chin. "Yes, Mr. Gardner," she said, the words covered in ice. "I'm quite familiar with you and your firm. You're the one who wants to own all of Mystic Point."
His smile slipped as he straightened up, but he maintained an amused twinkle in his eyes. "Not all of the Point," he replied. "Merely those areas available for improvement."
She scoffed. "Mystic Point was fine as it was. Maybe not as glamorous as Boston, but it had heart."
He raised his eyebrows. "And you don't think it has heart anymore? This is a lovely town, but it needed a little help. My firm brought in new business, which has helped this town survive--even thrive--during the last few years."
"At the expense of what made this place special," she said, gesturing out the window with her hands. "You bought the whole east side of the Point, knocked down the beautiful old Victorians and cottages, and put up those modern monstrosities no one but your upper-class friends could buy. Mystic Point used to be a place for families, but what normal family could afford to stay here now?"
"No family would have been staying in any of those houses in just a few years. Those beautiful old Victorians were rotted down to the beams and most of the cottages were growing science experiments from flooding. They had to be demolished."
"Right. How convenient for you, Mr. Gardner."
The man grunted and reached into the inside pocket of his suit to retrieve his wallet. "Maybe I should wait to speak with your parents. Something tells me you might not be receptive to what I have to say. When do you expect them back?" He pulled a twenty from the wallet and placed it on the counter, then tucked his billfold back into his pocket as he stood.
"Sorry to disappoint you," she snapped, tilting her head back to keep eye contact. "But they may not be back today at all. So if it isn't something you wish to discuss with me, then I guess you'll have to wait until tomorrow to discuss it with them."
He smiled, making her frown deepen. "I'm not sure exactly what I did to offend you, but what if I make it up to you with dinner? I'd be happy to discuss my proposal with you. Among other things." The glint in his eyes told her exactly what other things he wished to discuss.
She wanted to retort with something clever, but she was rendered mute, her cheeks blooming in color. "Um, I don't think--that wouldn't be a good idea," she stammered. She was embarrassed by her reaction to this man. This over-privileged, arrogant, cocky--and incredibly sexy--man. She smoothed down the front of her apron, forcing herself to maintain eye contact with him and praying he couldn't tell how much he affected her.
Miles tilted his head. He was enjoying how uncomfortable he was making the pretty woman in front of him. No--pretty wasn't the word for her. Enchanting was closer to the truth, with those golden brown eyes he had to fight from getting lost in and curves he wanted to spend a year exploring. "I promise I don't bite, Ms. Markatos," he said, leaning on the counter. "Not unless you ask nicely," he added in a low, husky voice.
She swallowed, her eyes flicking to his lips briefly, and moved back a step. "Mr. Gardner--"
"Miles," he corrected her.
"Mr. Gardner," she insisted. "I think you should--"
Her gaze darted over Miles's shoulder at the sound of the front door opening. Her tension appeared to fade into relief. He turned his head to see what had captured her interest and saw a tall, broad-shouldered blond man raise his hand in greeting. He turned back to her with a lopsided grin.
"Ah, I see. Well, here's my card. If you change your mind about dinner, let me know. Otherwise, please have your parents get in touch with me. I promise, I'm not out to swindle them." He held the business card out to her. When she hesitated, he said, "Or I could just come back..."
As she grabbed it, her fingertips brushed his. The momentary touch ignited an uncomfortable awareness and a look fraught with desire passed between them. He slowly withdrew his hand. She quickly tucked the card in the pocket of her apron and cleared her throat.
"You won't have to come back. I'll make sure they get it," she said, moving away from the counter.
Miles watched her walk over to the blond guy he assumed was her boyfriend. Instead of the customary kiss hello between lovers, she stopped just shy of the man, brushing a loose curl off her face as she smiled up at him. His hands were casually stuffed in the pockets of his blue jeans and he looked at ease as he smiled and spoke with her. Calista, on the other hand, kept smoothing down the front of her apron and even from where he stood, Miles could see the adorable blush on her face.
Maybe I misunderstood. Looks like the Greek goddess may be unattached after all. Miles passed by Calista and her male friend on his way toward the exit, throwing her a wink as he caught her eye. She quickly averted her gaze, but Miles could see the catch in her breath in that instant. Oh no, he wouldn't let her get away that easy.
"Excuse me," he said, putting a hand on the man's shoulder. "I just wanted to recommend the Froot Loops today. They were absolutely divine." He flashed Calista one last smile before leaving.He laughed at how cute her bewilderment was as he walked back to his car. I'll definitely be back.