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Hot buttered rum standal.., p.20
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       Hot Buttered Rum: Standalone Romance (Silk Stocking Inn Book 4), p.20

           Tess Oliver

  I looked up at the man, who was a good head taller and so darn big and brooding looking I should have been terrified. “Exactly where did you come from? I couldn’t see much through my windshield.”

  He pulled off his helmet and scrubbed his short brown hair into spikes on the top of his head. He had a sizable silver plug in each ear. “I was on the motorcycle you just missed hitting.”

  I lifted my chin defensively. “You mean you just missed hitting my car. Guess it’s a good thing I have quick reflexes.”

  The smallest hint of a smile kicked up one side of his moustache as he inclined his head to get a better look at my flat tire. “Too bad those lightning reflexes took you right off the edge of a pothole. If you’ve got a spare, I can put it on for you.”

  I pursed my lips and stared, needlessly, down at the shredded tire.

  “You don’t have a spare, do you?” he said.

  “Technically, I do.”

  “Great. Let’s pull it out. It’s Saturday night and that club across the street has a beer mug with my name on it.”

  “I see. I do have a spare, but technically, it’s not a spare because it’s acting like a real tire on the back right wheel. But you go enjoy your beer. I’m going to call the tow truck.” I reached for my phone in my pocket, remembering too late that it had bounced beneath the car. “Oh, that’s right. The phone took a detour.” I swept my hand in front of my dress to show I wasn’t dressed for crawling on the asphalt. “If you wouldn’t mind retrieving my phone before you ride off to your beer, I would really appreciate it. Especially because I dropped it when you came looming up over me like some mystical giant appearing through the fog.”

  “Since I’ve never been called mystical before, I’ll get your phone.” He put his helmet on top of my car and crouched down next to it. His face was directly across from my waist. He stared at me long enough to make me step back.

  “Easy, sweetheart. Wasn’t going to bite ya.” He leaned down. His long arm reached under the car and came back with the phone. He stared at the small flip phone on his palm before handing it back to me. “Nice flip phone. Haven’t seen one of these since I was up visiting my grandmother.”

  “Yes, well mine is broken. I borrowed this from . . . from my mom’s kitchen junk drawer.”

  He rose back up to standing, and a breath caught in my throat. Somehow, he looked even taller. He looked pointedly at my dress and my sensible shoes, shoes that were hardly flattering but were quiet and comfortable in the library.

  “Exactly what decade did you just pop out of?”

  I straightened my shoulders in a huff. “My wardrobe is not out of style. It’s sensible and professional. I’m a librarian.”

  His deep laugh was annoyingly appealing. Damn if the whole man wasn’t annoyingly appealing. “That explains it then.”

  I stretched up a little higher as if it would make any difference. I was still barely reaching his alarmingly big shoulders. “Explains what?”

  His gaze drifted down the length of me to my boring shoes. I self consciously shuffled my feet as if that might make the shoes disappear.

  His dark brown eyes lifted to my face. “Why someone with a hot body like yours would cover it with a dress like that.”

  Despite the chill in the night air, my cheeks felt warm. I wrapped my arms around myself, more to cover the frumpy dress than to hide my body. “I don’t see how my body or my dress are any of your concern.”

  “No? Too bad.” He motioned to my phone. “Are you going to call the tow truck on that relic or what?”

  “I am. I was just waiting for you to leave.”

  He stared down at me with just enough heat in his dark brown eyes to make me take another step back. “See you later then, library lady.” He picked up his helmet, pulled it on and walked back to his bike.

  I waited for him to start it up and ride off before dialing. As expected, the motorcycle was loud enough to rattle the windshield on my car. He gazed at me as he rode past. Then he twisted the throttle and the bike roared as he pulled out onto the road and disappeared around the bend.

  I dialed information but there was nothing. I pulled the phone from my ear and looked at it. No bars. I must have been in a zone where there was no cell phone reception. I glanced around. My car was on a quiet section of road with no traffic. And, because of my big motorcycle nemesis, I’d driven it off the side enough to be out of the way.

  I walked out onto the road and looked around. The fog was gone now, and only a starry black sky remained. The old house across the street had a light on. An extremely tasty aroma was drifting out the window, across the front yard and right to my nose. My mouth watered and my stomach growled, reminding me of just how hungry I was. I headed across the street hoping I could borrow a phone.

  Chapter 4

  As I climbed the long driveway to the house, I came upon a sign. It had black and white letters that read ‘Welcome to the Silk Stocking Inn’. It took me a few seconds to remember where I’d heard that name before. When it came to me, I stumbled back and fell to my bottom on the grassy front lawn.

  Moisture from the grass seeped quickly through the fabric, and I pushed back to my feet. “Subliminal advertising at its finest,” I muttered to myself. The only rational explanation for what was happening. Clearly, I’d seen this house, without actually realizing it. Of course, that still left little explanation for the interactive website with the same picture.

  I continued up to the house. From a distance, it had looked worn and uninviting, almost sinister, as if the dormers and crumbling turret were parts of a haunted house. But on closer inspection, there was something welcoming about the shabby facade, almost as if the house was saying come on inside and warm your hands around a cup of coffee. The rich buttery fragrance seeping beneath the front door might have been playing a big part in that perception.

  I climbed the rickety steps past the wood columns supporting the shoddy porch roof. Dead vines were clinging to the columns with plants that looked as if they’d lost their will to thrive long ago. Rose vines, it seemed. That conclusion led me back to the website. It had been nearly a week since those unexplained few moments on the computer, but I distinctly remembered a picture of an old house covered with vibrant roses. It must have been an old stock photo of the home. From the looks of it, the house had been there for well over a century.

  I knocked and the door pushed open as if it hadn’t been latched shut. I poked my head inside but kept my feet planted firmly on the welcome mat. “Hello,” I called into the cavernous entryway. The richly wallpapered and painted interior was in stark contrast to the sadly neglected exterior. “I just need to borrow a phone if you have one.” My voice echoed back to me. It was followed by a cheery woman’s voice.

  “Just down the hall and to your left,” she called back.

  Cautiously, I opened the door, almost as if I expected those ghosts I’d considered earlier to come swooping down the staircase. But there were no ghosts, and the inside of the house looked anything but sinister or haunted. I followed the woman’s directions, and my nose, down the hallway and made a left when the scent of brown sugar became so intense I could taste it.

  I entered a big, high ceilinged room that had been arranged like a bakery or coffee shop. Small, cloth covered tables were surrounded by quaint antique chairs. The glass counter at the front of the room was brimming with baked goods, including cupcakes overflowing with swirls of buttercream.

  A woman, slightly hunched from age and wearing a floppy brown felt hat that shaded her face, came through the doorway holding a tray of cupcakes. She seemed to be struggling with the weight of the tray.

  “Let me help you with that.” I took several steps toward her.

  “No need.” Her face lifted. Instead of the older face I’d expected, a vibrant young woman with emerald green eyes was smili
ng out from beneath the wide brim of the hat. The vintage hat, adorned with a boldly printed hat band, looked like something out of the sixties. Something my mom would have worn with pride. In fact, seeing it made me feel a little homesick. I quickly reminded myself that I should call my mom the second I got back home.

  The woman lowered the tray of cupcakes onto the counter. The icing was a rich brown color, and each cake was topped with a caramel swirl and sparkling white crystals of salt.

  “Salted caramel,” I muttered to myself and then nearly fell back on my bottom again.

  “Watch your step.” The baker glanced over the counter at my shoes. For the second time in one night, someone showed an obvious distaste for my fashion selection. I’d apparently landed myself in a judgmental town of fashionistas.

  The woman picked up a cupcake and held it out to me. “Salted caramel, Emmie?”

  This time, I did fall back, but on my descent, a chair scraped the floor. My butt landed hard on the seat. The complete stranger knowing my name and my cupcake preference wasn’t nearly as perplexing as the movement of a chair, with no person around to push it.

  “Oh my, you need some milk too. You look positively white as a sheet.” The woman hurried to a small refrigerator and took out an individual carton of milk. She hurried back, grabbed a cupcake and pulled up a chair at my table. She set the cupcake and milk down in front of me. For a brief second, I was looking at an elderly woman with an array of lines that showed wisdom and the stress of a good, long life. I blinked my eyes shut and opened them. Again, the cupcake baker appeared as a beautiful, young woman, no older than thirty.

  “Eat and drink. You’ll feel better. Low blood sugar can come on suddenly. It’s nothing a bite of the perfect confection can’t cure.”

  My hands were shaky. Perhaps she was right. I was, after all, hungry, and my head was feeling as if it was filled with helium. I peeled down the paper wrapper and took a bite. It was a symphony of brown sugar and butter and something else, some magical ingredient I couldn’t put my finger on. My eyes watered along with my taste buds as the cake and buttercream melted across my tongue and down my throat.

  “Wow, I’ve never tasted anything like this. This is what love would taste like if it were baked into a cupcake wrapper.”

  Her laugh was almost like music. “What a wonderful description. Maybe I should use that quote on my bakery advertisement flyers. I’m Coco, by the way. Welcome to the Silk Stocking Inn.”

  Feeling slightly revived by the cake and milk, I relaxed back. “I have a lot of questions. So many, I can’t seem to formulate a solid one in my muddled head.”

  “Then don’t. Well formulated questions don’t really go with salted caramel cupcakes. They tend to leave a bitter aftertaste.”

  “But how did I end up here?”

  “I’m not completely sure, but I imagine it has something to do with that car and its sad flat tire across the road. I have a friend who can tow it to the mechanic’s shop for you.”

  “Wonderful. I couldn’t get any reception on my phone. That’s why I came here, to make a call.”

  “Well then, see. That question has been answered.” The gleam in her sparkling green eyes looked almost ethereal as she smiled at me. “The guest room is ready for you upstairs.”

  I nodded as I took another bite of the exquisite cupcake. Then her words took hold in my mind. “Wait, what do you mean? I’m not here to stay at the inn. I just need a new tire.”

  “Well, you won’t get one around here. It’s Saturday night, and Mitch, the mechanic, doesn’t open his shop again until Monday. He’s already gone off fishing for the weekend.”

  “There must be someplace else I can have it towed to.”

  “Not within fifty miles of here.”

  “But that’s impossible. I only pulled off a few miles ahead of my usual off ramp. It can’t be. None of this can be real.”

  Coco tilted her head and grinned. “Sometimes, Emmie, there’s a fine line between reality and fantasy and all it takes is the right amount of desire to cross that line. Being a librarian, the keeper of stories, you should know that better than anyone.”

  “But I can’t stay.” I crumpled the cupcake wrapper and stood up. “I’ll just clean up my mess and pay you for the cupcake.”

  “No need. The cupcake is free. I’m a little disappointed though. I pegged you for the adventurous type. I’ll call my friend with the tow truck. But I must warn you, he only takes cash, and if he has to go fifty miles, it will be costly.”

  “But I don’t carry that kind of cash. Is there a bank nearby?”

  “Yes, but—”

  “But it doesn’t open again until Monday.”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  I blew a puff of frustrated air from my mouth. “I suppose I could stay one night. I’ll call a friend in the morning to pick me up.”

  “Wonderful. I’ll show you upstairs to your room.”

  I followed her to the stairs. “I am the adventurous type, by the way.” Then I thought about that statement as I climbed behind her in my sensible shoes, shoes that suddenly reminded me of my grandmother’s black church shoes. “Or at least I used to be.”

  Coco winked at me over her shoulder. The faintest row of crow’s feet appeared with the gesture. Otherwise, her olive complexion was as smooth and wrinkle free as pressed silk. “Let’s see if a night at the Silk Stocking Inn can help you rekindle that adventurer’s spirit.”

  There were only two other doors at the top of the stairs. “I’ve got one other guest staying this weekend, a regular who stays whenever he’s in town. He’ll be out late tonight. If you need anything, I’ll be downstairs.”

  Chapter 5

  I stepped out of the shower, a marvelously modern glass and tile fixture that stood in the corner of a giant luxury bathroom. The bedroom suite was cozy and beautiful, a magazine quality picture of comfort. Even though the outside of the inn lacked some charm, the inside was a wonderful example of an inviting bed and breakfast, with the added bonus of an incredible bakery on the bottom floor.

  The hot shower had taken away some of my earlier apprehension, and I’d resigned myself to having a nice night away from home. My only regret was that I had only my workday dress to climb back into after the exhilarating shower.

  Wrapped in the plushest white towel on earth, I stepped into the bedroom just as Coco knocked on the door.

  “Come in,” I called.

  She’d taken off the floppy hat, and a heavy set of auburn waves curled down around her head and shoulders. Again, on first glance, she appeared older than she actually was. It had to be a trick of the lights. All the fixtures were of stained glass and ornate iron, typical for a Victorian interior, but they provided shadowy light at best.

  A delicious aroma and even more delectable plate of food entered the room with my gracious hostess. Strange as all the circumstances of the night had been, there was no denying that Coco was amazing.

  “I placed some clothes on the dresser. No sense in staying in your work clothes when the work day is over. And”—She beamed at the plate she was holding—“my best frittata yet, I think.” She walked over and set the plate down on the small table sitting in front of the upholstered window seat. “One can’t live on cupcakes alone. Although, one might certainly give it her best effort,” she finished with her lyrical laugh.

  “Thank you so much. Should I give you my credit card information for my bill?”

  “What bill? No, Emmie, you are my guest. Now hurry and get dressed and eat. I’ll be heading down the street to the Hanky Dory.”

  “Excuse me? Did you say the Hanky Dory?”

  “I love the name, don’t you? It’s a rather dark and dingy pool hall, but the beer is great and the patrons are a unique, diverse bunch. Some professionals from the city go there to, as they say,
‘let their hair, or more accurately, their collar stays down’. Somehow, it’s easier to let yourself step out of your usual boundaries when a place is shadowy and off the beaten path. Which brings me to the less savory side of the patron list, bikers, gamblers and people out just to have a good time. But they’re all decent folk. Besides, no one bothers to make trouble. The place is run by a friend of mine. Hank, like the name of the bar, is as big as he is strong. No one steps out of line in the Hanky Dory unless they want to leave on a stretcher.”

  “All right,” I said, feeling a little less enthusiastic about the night away from home. “Are you sure you should be going there?” I sat down to the plate of food. Bacon and onion wafted up from the frittata, and my stomach grumbled with hunger.

  Coco waved off the question. “It’s a great place to hang out on a Saturday night. But I’m going there just to deliver a batch of cupcakes to Hank. They’re for his daughter’s birthday party. I’ll have one glass of wine, maybe two. But you really must tag along. I think you’ll have fun.”

  “I don’t know, Coco. A nice quiet evening here in this beautiful bedroom with the wrought iron antique bed sounds pretty inviting. It’s been a long week.”

  She cleared her throat. “Thus proving my assumption about your lack of adventure.”

  “Jeez, you’re right. It’s as if I’m trying to fade away like the pages of an old book. I’m just coming out of a relationship, and I don’t have my land legs back yet. In fact, David might just be the reason I lost my sense of adventure. I was sure he was exactly what I was looking for, but he turned out to be just what I thought I was looking for. I had this list of traits for my perfect match, and they turned out to be all wrong.” I wasn’t sure if it was the way Coco had of looking at me as if she was listening raptly to every word or if it was because she reminded me some of my mom when she was younger. She had never been like the other moms. She never cared what others thought, and I’d always loved that about her. Somehow though, I’d strayed away from that carefree, non-conforming lifestyle. I’d gone a more traditional path in my career, and David had fit that mold. Now I badly wanted to break that mold.

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