Kit Howard was having a shitty Saturday. Which, when she stopped to think about it, wasn’t surprising. The week leading up to it could best be described as ‘hellish’, so why should today be any different?
It had started out fine—hopeful, even. She’d slept late, a rare treat, and by the time she’d arrived at her favorite coffee shop, the morning rush had ended. She’d snagged the best booth by the window, and with a mocha latte and a cinnamon roll dripping with icing, had settled in to work.
Updating her résumé hadn’t taken long—she’d distilled the last two years of ten-hour days and ‘other duties as needed’ into one short paragraph and a handful of bullet points designed to entice future employers into hiring her. She had an enthusiastic, if somewhat floridly worded, recommendation from her previous boss, which would normally give her a solid leg up in her quest for fresh employment. But since he’d dictated the recommendation to his lawyer from the jail cell where he sat awaiting arraignment on twenty-three counts of embezzlement, tax fraud, and insider trading, she wasn’t counting on it.
Still, since it was his fault she was out of a job, it was the least he could do.
The investigators who had descended on the office on Monday morning had confiscated her phone, laptop, and everything in her desk drawer—ignoring her protest that her favorite lipstick and her extra pair of stockings were unrelated to illegal stock tips. Human resources had handed out pink slips to all staff members who had reported directly to the soon to be indicted CFO before the end of the day, cleaning house in an effort to prove to their stockholders that they were on top of the situation, and she’d spent the rest of the week with investigators, answering questions about her boss, his habits, and every single person she’d ever seen go into his office.
They’d done it partly to be thorough—they must have put every piece of paper, email, and financial transaction from the last ten years in front of her over the course of those five days—and partially as cover. None of her co-workers knew she was the one who’d blown the whistle on Arthur and his felonious activities, and she was keen to keep it that way. It would come out eventually, but hopefully by then the world would have moved on to bigger, uglier scandals.
After a week of sitting in a windowless room with investigators and her older brother the lawyer, whose pugnacious and confrontational nature was finally doing her some good, they’d thanked her for her help and returned her lipstick and stockings. Her phone and her laptop were still considered evidence, since she’d used both for work, so she was using her mom’s old phone and her sister’s old laptop until she could buy new ones.
She could only be grateful that she’d had the forethought to restrict her porn consumption to her personal tablet.
Still, she needed both a phone and a computer, and wouldn’t be able to afford to replace either until she got a new job.
She’d worked her way through a half dozen listings—all of them below her previous salary—when she realized she was out of coffee. She glanced up to hail a server and noticed with dismay that the café had filled up. She waited, hopeful one of the two servers bustling about would see her raised hand, but when neither of them acknowledged her after a few minutes, she scooped up her empty cup. Despite the crowd, there was only one person waiting at the takeout counter, so she draped her coat over her laptop and slid out of the booth.
She stood in line, shivering a little when the door opened behind her with a jangle of bells and a gust of frigid air. The café was loud, canned holiday music mixing with the hum of conversation and the clatter of dishes, so when she stepped up to the counter, she had to raise her voice to give her order. She stepped aside to make room for the person behind her, and let her mind wander while she waited.
She needed a new job, and fast. After years of saving up for a down payment, she’d bought a house last summer, and what had seemed like a perfectly reasonable monthly mortgage in July suddenly felt much less comfortable. Even Greta moving out at Thanksgiving hadn’t worried her—though she was definitely keeping the thermostat set lower now that her lover’s perpetually cold feet were no longer a factor. She’d known that Greta might not always be there to split the costs, and had been careful to only take on as much mortgage as she could afford on her own. But she’d also counted on having a job, and finding out her boss was committing securities fraud only weeks after she’d moved in was a curve ball she hadn’t anticipated.
She’d gone over and over her bank accounts this week, and no matter how she crunched the numbers, she only had enough money in her savings to cover a few months of mortgage payments. Thankfully her car was paid off, but she still needed to pay for insurance, and when she added in utilities and the pesky need to eat every day, she calculated her savings would last her less than two months. She could dip into her retirement account, but by the time taxes were taken out and fees were assessed, that would really only buy her another month or two.
She raised her head as her name was called, and took the mug the barista handed her with a smile, well aware that unless her luck changed, this was the last mocha latte she’d be having for a while. She called out a “thank you”, tucked a couple of bucks into the tip jar, and turned carefully away from the counter. The foam was right up to the top, and she was concentrating so hard on not spilling any of it on the way back to her booth that she didn’t see the man standing in her way until it was too late.
She squeaked and tried to stop, her feet stuttering to a halt on the cement floor only inches before they collided with the boots in her path. But while her body ground to a halt in time to avoid a collision, the liquid in her cup followed the laws of physics and kept going. She watched with helpless horror as coffee gysered up out of the oversized mug to splash across what seemed like an acre of camel-colored wool.
“Oh, damn,” she moaned, her heart sinking as her drink—coffee and chocolate syrup, for double the staining power—immediately began to soak into the expensive fabric.
“What the fuck?” a deep voice boomed, and a hush fell over the café as every head turned toward them.
The sudden absence of chatter made the canned music seem unnaturally loud, and it jolted her into action. She turned to the counter, the remaining liquid in her mug—not much of it, thank God—splashing across the surface as she reached for the pile of napkins at the edge. A wad of them in hand, she spun back to her latest catastrophe.
“I am so sorry,” she babbled, swiping at the growing stain in an attempt to minimize the damage. Maybe if she could keep it from spreading, it could be dry cleaned, and she wouldn’t have to stretch her already groaning bank account to replace the coat. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you.”
“You should watch where you’re going,” the voice growled, and she winced at the sharp censure.
“I know, I know,” she said, still focused on the stain. It wasn’t spreading any more, giving her a glimmer of hope. “But my mug was so full, and I was concentrating on not spilling it.”
“Nice job,” he said sarcastically, and the apology she’d been about to offer—again—died on her lips.
She dropped her hand, the wad of wet napkins clenched in her fist. The sharp retort she’d been about to spit out died as she looked up into the most handsome face she’d ever seen. Because that was just the kind of luck she was having this week.
He was tall, with tawny blond hair and pale skin, his cheeks and nose red from the cold. The elegant coat she’d just ruined was draped over shoulders that seemed impossibly broad, the collar turned up to brush the curling ends of his hair. A thick scruff of beard covered his jaw, his generous mouth was currently twisted in annoyance, and she was sure his crystal-blue eyes would be pretty if he wasn’t glaring at her like she’d just taken a crap on his shoe.
Sure, because a handsome asshole is just what I needed. Thanks a lot, universe.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her tone considerably less conciliatory than it had been. “It was an accident.”
He looked down at the stain on his coat, glaring so hard that half his forehead disappeared. “Do you have any idea how much this coat cost?”
She was very much afraid she did. If she had to replace it, she’d be eating ramen and canned tuna fish at every meal for months. “I’ll pay for the dry cleaning, of course.”
He went from glaring at the coat to glaring at her while the noise level around them returned to normal. “Forget it.”
“I insist,” she countered, and crossed her fingers over the wet napkins that the stain would come out. “I’ll give you my contact information so you can send me the bill.”
He shook his head, and she tried not to notice how his hair glinted in the overhead lights like burnished gold. “I don’t have time to get it dry cleaned, and I don’t want your contact information.”
He was being a dick, and her remorse was fading fast, so she took a deep breath and slipped into executive assistant mode. “If you don’t have time, you can leave it with me and I’ll have it cleaned for you.”
He shot her an incredulous look. “You want me to leave my coat?”
“I know an excellent twenty-four-hour dry cleaner. You’ll have it back before you know it.”
“It’s Saturday. And the day before Christmas Eve,” he pointed out.
Shit, she thought, and pulled her phone out of her pocket and began scrolling through her contacts. “I’ll call the cleaner now, see if they can do a rush job.”
“Lady, you’re not listening,” he muttered, and she paused. “I don’t need you to clean the coat.”
“I’m the one who soiled it,” she pointed out, reaching for reason and calm so she wouldn’t start crying, or worse, punch him in his handsome, jerky face. “It’s only right that I take care of the cleaning.”
“It was an accident,” he said, forcing the words through clenched teeth.
“Yes, it was,” she said with a broad smile, and thought she saw his cheeks pinken further. “Regardless, I don’t feel right about not taking care of it.”
“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
She should, she realized. He didn’t seem to care, and heaven knew she couldn’t spare the money. But something about his attitude had her digging in her heels. “No, I’m not.”
“Fine.” He shrugged out of the coat and held it out. “Here.”
“Thank you,” she said, holding on to her smile with an effort. He was wearing a white fisherman’s sweater that made his shoulders look even broader, and worn jeans that clung to thick, sturdy thighs. There was a rip right over the left knee, and for some reason, that little slash of skin was fascinating. “I’m sure I’ll be able to get it back by the day after Christmas, at the latest.”
“Whatever,” he muttered, and turned toward the door. He’d taken two steps before she realized he was actually leaving.
“Wait!” She had to raise her voice over the din. “You didn’t give me your name!”
“I know,” he called without looking back, and with a jangle of bells, walked of out the door.
Dismayed, she watched him go. It had started to snow, and by the time he disappeared around the corner, his gilded hair was covered with a thin layer of white. “Well, shit,” she muttered, and looked down at the pile of camel-colored wool in her arms.
“Coffee for Nate,” the barista called out behind her.
She looked around. Nobody was approaching the counter. “Um, I’m sorry. Was Nate a tall, blond, white guy wearing this coat?”
The barista, whose name tag read Gem, blinked. “Yeah.”
“He, um, left.”
Gem continued to look confused. “Without his coat? It’s snowing.”
“It’s a long story,” Kit said, figuring it sounded better than he was so desperate to get away from me he walked coatless—and without his coffee—into a snowstorm.
“Right.” Gem stared at her for another moment, then down at the coffee. “Since he’s gone, do you want his coffee?”
“Oh. Um.” She eyed the cup. On one hand, it felt weird to take someone else’s drink. On the other, hers was currently soaking into the pile of cashmere in her arms, and the someone else was kind of a dick. “Sure, I guess. What is it?”
“Mocha latte,” Gem said, holding it out.
It figured that when something finally went her way, it was a measly cup of coffee.