The magic of the Christmas season can heal all wounds, big and small.
Sophie Edward’s café glowed brighter than a Folger’s commercial during the Christmas holidays, looked as festive as any Hallmark Christmas movie set, and smelled like a cross between coffee grounds and cinnamon. Frank Sinatra was singing directly to her, telling her to let her heart be light. That by next year, all her troubles would be out of sight.
But what did he know? He was dead.
Tomorrow was the first of December, and though battery-operated candles were aglow on the reclaimed-wood mantle above the fireplace, and the hot cocoa she’d made as a celebratory drink had warmed her chest, she wasn’t finding the happiness that the holidays seemed to bring others. Not that anyone would look at her and think she was sad. No. Not Sophie Edwards.
Sophie was the saint of Pine Grove. She always smiled and was cordial to everyone who crossed her path, even when she wanted to roll her eyes until they resembled the lines of a Vegas slot machine. Basically, she could put up a damn good front, no matter the mood she was in. The holidays, though? They’d been testing her limits. Hitting her hard lately.
An achy, hollow sensation always managed to hit her this time of the year. Never failed. Even with her café decorated with festive garland and lights, and her small kitchen in the back filling the space with the scents of vanilla and cinnamon and homemade pies, loneliness crept in and set up tent in the middle of her chest. Like it was settling in to stay awhile. Like it had a right to.
The Richardson’s weren’t helping.
Janice, a slim seventy-something with short white hair, smiled up at her husband. The adoration apparent in her gaze made Sophie’s throat tighten. “Fifty-one years today. I can’t believe it’s been that long.”
Sophie, a small tea towel thrown over her shoulder, politely smiled as she leaned across a table next to them to clean it off. She took her time checking the napkin dispenser and condiment container, feeling as though she were eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. She wasn’t. She’d been amicably carrying on a conversation with Bob and Janice since they’d walked into the café over a half an hour ago. She’d known them all her life.
It was the intimate looks they shared that made Sophie feel as though she shouldn’t be part of the conversation. If anything, they kept pulling her into their reminiscent little chat.
She cast another glance at them, more in awe than jealous of the life they’d lived.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. If Napkins could suck up emotions like they did liquid, the napkins she was stacking would be Luck of the Irish green. The color of money. Grinch green.
Oh yes. Grinch green.
Bob and Janice had gotten married right out of high school and they’d raised six children. All throughout their children’s schooling they’d volunteered as coaches for various sports teams, attended church, helped with the high school band and attended every fundraiser given in the town of Pine Grove. Sophie had never heard a bad thing said about either of them, and she doubted she ever would.
“And I’d marry you again tomorrow,” Bob said, taking a sip of his coffee and winking at his wife.
They were Sophie’s last customers of the day, and by far the most awe-inspiring. As her daughter would say: couple goals. Pushing her inner Grinch aside, she said, “I bet you get asked this a million times, but I’ll go ahead and ask anyway. What’s your secret?”
Bob was quick to answer. “She’s always right.”
Janice was a little slower to offer up her secret, but when she did, her faded blue eyes lit up. “Great sex.”
“That, too,” Bob added with a laugh.
Sophie offered up a small laugh, and while doing so, died a little on the inside. Those seventy-year-olds have a better sex life than I do. Hell, she didn’t know what good sex was anymore. She’d have to read a book on it to refresh her memory.
She’d been single for so long, she wouldn’t know what to do with a man even if he showed up on her doorstep with flowers and an invite to dinner. And that hadn’t bothered her, until recently. To be fair, she’d been asked out on plenty of dates since her divorce, but she’d usually turned them down. She liked men—but she didn’t.
The ridiculous conundrum forced her single status.
The holidays amplified that status.
For the last few years, the hollow feeling of being alone didn’t go away when her four grown children arrived on her doorstep during the holidays and stomped the snow off their boots to come inside, their own immediate families with them. The Ghost of Christmas Presently Single never left her alone—even when she baked for her grandchildren and read them Christmas stories at bedtime.
Hell, maybe that’s why it hurt more this time of year.
Because when the company and laughter ended, and everyone went back to their respective homes, the silence in her large ranch house was ten times more deafening than it had been before. And the stillness only served to tell Sophie Edwards that she was alone and had been for most of her adult life.
So, she avoided being home and she worked.
The Ghost of Christmas Presently Single had a hard time showing her all her failings when she was busy at her café.
She got to her coffee shop, Espresso Café, earlier than anyone else, and left long after the streetlamps on Main Street flickered on. Mainly because she loved the aroma, textures and conversations that her café brought her. She was always busy, whether it be with customers or with decorating. She had a grand total of two employees. One for the deep cleaning after-hours, and another who worked the day shift during the week and sometimes the weekends, depending on Sophie’s needs.
She didn’t have many needs.
But Christmas was right around the corner. As a business owner, she’d been forced to work some extra hours and drag out her red bins of Christmas decorations. And like clockwork, her mood had deflated with every white light she’d hung on the various Christmas trees throughout the café. Decorating had to be done. Just because Christmas depressed her didn’t give her the right to take away the warm feeling from others when they walked into her café.
Basically, she really was the Grinch.
A grinch who was terrorized by the Ghost of Christmas Presently Single.
Or was it permanently single?
Did the specifics really matter?
And to top it all off, today she’d found out that a new café was opening next door to her own. She served muffins and sweets with her coffee. The new, as-of-yet named café next door was going to have bacon and all the fixings of a hot breakfast.
How could she compete with bacon?
Especially if it was on a steaming stainless-steel buffet with pancakes, Belgian waffles and eggs?
She’d yet to meet the new business owner, but Christian as she was, she found it hard to like them already. They were going to take some of her business, and in a town this small, any amount of loss would be significant.
“What about you, Sophie? How come you never settled down?”
Sophie opened the dishwasher and started putting away the last of the dishes. “Oh, I wouldn’t say I never settled down. I tried matrimony once.” Twice, actually, but no one in town—especially her immediate family—knew about her first marriage. “But that just didn’t work out.”
If her parents hadn’t intervened, her first marriage might have looked something like the Richardson’s. Maybe that thought was the lingering wishful thinking of a seventeen-year-old who had loved as only a teenager could. Romeo and Juliet. Bella and Edward. Sophie and Noah.
“I can’t even recall you dating anyone since your divorce,” Janice persisted.
Older people were like that in small towns. They spit out truths you didn’t want to claim, and they asked questions you weren’t always comfortable answering. “I’ve gone out with a few guys here and there, but nothing serious. Not since my divorce,” she said, walking behind the counter they were sitting at and putting a few more mugs into the dishwasher.
“Well, you certainly are a striking woman. Even at your age I think you can still find the right one.”
Sophie, her back to Bob and Janice, went still at those words. Even at your age…
Time wasn’t very kind to women. Women tended to look tired as they aged. Wrinkled. They flocked to the beauty aisle to buy the latest creams, serums, and any moisturizer that promised to give them younger-looking skin.
When middle age came creeping up, the average woman went to war.
They’d circle plastic surgeon’s offices like scavenger hawks above a dead carcass. They plumped their lips, their cheeks, and their foreheads with fillers. The plumper the better. And if the fat the doctor injected into their lips was from their ass, well…no harm, no foul. As long as they looked like a Kardashian. They attacked both their broken blood vessels and their fine lines with lasers, in the hopes they’d disappear forever. They bought extensions to make their hair look fuller and longer, as though looking like a mermaid who’d washed up on a sandy beach was the only path to beauty.
Apparently, the new thing women were raving about—according to Mel, Sophie’s daughter—was getting your eyebrows microbladed. Basically, a tattoo on your face to make your eyebrows look fuller.
There was no way in hell Sophie was doing that shit to her face.
Sophie used a basic cream and prayed a lot. That was her beauty regimen.
Men? Those bastards looked better weathered. Like they’d been around the block a time or two and knew how to handle a situation. Older men were superior to their younger counterparts, who usually wore skinny jeans and didn’t have any meat on them. A fifty-three-year-old man could grow a beard and throw a hat on their head and instantly knock off ten years. Maybe more.
Even at your age…
Well, at her age, she’d accomplished her life’s goal—and that was opening and maintaining her own business. She owned her own house and ranch, which ran with the help of her children and a hired hand. She had a beautiful family, and two out of four of her children had beautiful families of their own. She didn’t need a man—
The chime above her door announced another customer, so she put a smile on her face and turned around, a greeting pulling at her non-plumped lips, the words on the tip of her tongue. But when she caught sight of the tall, broad-shouldered customer, the greeting squealed, withered and died a horrible death.
Standing well above six feet tall, wearing a dark brown jacket and flannel underneath, it took her brain less than zero point five seconds to recognize him. Even with the scruff of a beard that he hadn’t had when he’d been a teenager. And that weathered look…
With only one booted step across the café’s threshold, he’d proven all those things she’d just thought about.
She couldn’t believe that, of all people, he’d just walked into her café after all these years.
He must have mistaken her shocked expression, because he stopped on a dime, his hand still on the knob of the open door. “Are you still open? I’m sorry. I saw lights and—”
“Yes. We’re open. Until nine.” For several seconds she just stared at him. She was positive it was Noah, because the man was the size of a grizzly, and though he hadn’t had that deep, rumbling voice back in his teen years, she couldn’t not recognize him.
“Noah?” Why did you pose his name as a question? You damn well know who it is.
He lifted his ball cap a few inches and settled it down again. “Sophie.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Bob and Janice glancing back and forth between the two of them. Sophie cleared her throat and tried to act nonchalant, even though her chest literally hurt and she felt like she’d run a mile. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“Pleasure to see you, too.”
Instead of standing there fidgeting and looking like an idiot, she turned and ran a few fingers through her shoulder-length hair. Of course Noah would saunter into her café at the ass-end of her day, instead of in the morning when her makeup and hairspray were doing their job. Awesome timing on his part. Her foundation had likely caked itself into every fine line currently ravaging her face.
Suddenly getting fat from her ass injected into her face didn’t seem that gross at all. She should have done it years ago. Lord knew there was plenty of it back there. “Let me know when you’re ready to order. Take your time.”
His boots were heavy against the laminate wood floor, and she held her breath as though she were under water. She was acting silly for someone her age, and yet she couldn’t help her reaction to him. Maybe because the last time she’d seen the man they’d both been seventeen, immature and impetuous.
“I think I’ll take a large black coffee and whatever’s in this little glass container here.”
She slid a to-go cup off a stack and got to work, setting the cup down and pouring his coffee quickly. She didn’t look up at him, feeling as though he didn’t want light conversation, and frankly, feeling as though she couldn’t give it.
The Richardson’s were eerily silent for once.
“Creamer and sugar are right over here.” She flung a hand in the general direction of her condiments and proceeded to grab a cookie out of the glass viewer, slipping it into a small, white baggie. She put his coffee and the bagged sugar cookie onto the counter by the register and rang him up faster than a Target employee on Black Friday. “That’ll be four dollars and ninety-six cents.”
She belatedly wondered if she should have charged him at all. After all, he was once the love of her life. The man she thought she’d grow old with. The ex-husband no one knew about.
He tossed a five and a one-dollar bill onto the counter. “Thank you, Sophie.”
Without another word Noah Garcia left the café, leaving her feeling something she was heartbreakingly familiar with.
Frazzled and lonely.