Second in the Calypso Falls series.
Jenna Elias was always the life of the party, coasting on her charm and beauty, hiding the shame of the scandal surrounding her absentee father, a corrupt politician. But the party ended all too soon with an injury that left her partially paralyzed and a husband who simply left her. Now, at age thirty, she’s back in Calypso Falls. She leads a simple existence working in her sister’s coffee shop, but Jenna misses the joy she once had in her life. Then Cole Morrissey walks into the coffee shop.
As idealistic as he is sexy, the local lawyer is running for mayor of Calypso Falls. Drawn to Jenna’s quick wit and radiance, he asks her to volunteer for his campaign. As the two start working together, there’s no denying the powerful attraction they feel for each other. A desktop makeout session leads to much more. But when Jenna’s dad returns to Calypso Falls and wants to be a part of her life again, the association could spell political suicide for Cole—and the end of a once-in-a-lifetime chance at true love.
LIFE OF THE PARTY is available from these fine online stores:
Jenna Elias Stirling Elias—now Jenna Carpenter, thanks to her legal name change finally having been approved—gave an experimental lift to the tray of assorted coffees, lattes, cappuccinos, and one lone plain hot tea. Too heavy. Her arms could handle it but her stupid damned leg would give out on her and she would end up sprawled on the floor. Loudly. Messily.
Not the best course for someone whose mantra was nothing to see here.
She removed the mug with the tea bag and the silver pot of hot water before trying again. Better, but not quite. Off went the nonfat latte. Ah. That was better. Two trips were a pain, especially when the Brews and Blues coffeehouse was hopping, as it was this on this early June afternoon. But a pain in the ass was infinitely better than making a spectacle of herself.
Aunt Margie would disagree, of course. But she wasn’t the one hauling overloaded trays through a swarm of folks all focused on their phones, their companions, or their conversations—anywhere but their surroundings. Those who did notice Jenna usually fell into two camps: those who frowned at her for blocking their way, or those who moved aside with an apologetic grin before patting her ass. She would never have suspected that merely crossing a room could be the modern-day equivalent of running the gauntlet, but hey. She had never suspected that she would find herself doing the broke student-waitress
thing at her age, either.
Soon, she reminded herself. She had her new name. Her degree was one semester from completion. In a few months she would be far away from Calypso Falls. And memories. And history.
Meanwhile, there was coffee to deliver.
Jenna ducked and dodged her way to table six, the big one in the farthest corner (of course), with no real trouble. The people seated around the table—four men, three women—barely paused in their conversation as she delivered drinks to their recipients. Good. She hated when people came to an abrupt halt at her approach. For one thing, she always felt like she was interrupting something crucial. For another, a part of her always wanted to check her smile and her walk to make sure that both of them were still working properly.
“I’ll be right back with the rest,” she said to anyone who might be listening as she picked up her empty tray.
The woman who seemed to be running this show glanced up from the sea of notepads, tablets, and phones filling the table. “My latte?”
“On its way.”
“In that case, could I get a fruit cup, too, please? Yogurt. No granola.”
Jenna moved back behind the counter, grabbed a fruit cup, and added it to the tray with the remainder of the drinks. She turned to the register and was modifying the receipt when a deep voice from across the counter commanded her attention.
She glanced toward the speaker. Her usual smile—the one her ex had paid so much money to repair— slipped a bit as she took in the man who waited patiently beneath the Order Here sign.
He was . . . well, it was odd. There was really nothing extraordinary about him. He was dressed well but not flashy, his gray pinstripe suit and muted blue tie obviously good quality but not obnoxiously so. His dark brown hair had the slightest wave at the front, spoiling the otherwise neat lines of his short cut. Everyday, ordinary brown eyes watched her with the mildest interest. They certainly weren’t smoldering, or evasive, or hypnotic.
Yet she couldn’t quite stop staring at him.
Her rational brain ticked through the points—attractive guy, my age, waiting politely—while something within her urged her to look harder. Deeper. Before she missed something vital. Then he raised his eyebrows and tipped his head, and she caught it. The flash of humor. The air of expectancy. The feeling that, in this moment, she was the only thing that mattered to him.
“Could I get a coffee, please?”
Hello, reality, you cruel bitch.
“Um . . . sure. Sorry. I’ll be right with you.”
Okay. So his desperate focus had been not on her, but the caffeine she represented. Nothing wrong with that. Better, even, than the possibilities being offered up by her imagination.
She returned to the register and focused on the order she needed to modify. It would be a lot easier if she wasn’t certain that he was following her every move, watching her hands glide across the keyboard like they held Harry Potter’s wand. Or maybe he was the one with the magic. It certainly took all of her resolve to stay on task when she had this sense that she was being compelled to turn back to him.
Lucky for her, learning to walk again had taught her a few things about determination.
At last the receipt was modified. She braced herself and returned to Mr. Compelling with the practiced smile she kept in her pocket for any situation requiring tact and/or faking.
“Sorry for the delay. One coffee, right?”
“Right. Milk, no sugar.”
“Let me deliver these and I’ll get right on that.”
She reached for the tray, but he placed a hand across it.
“Hang on,” he said.
Well, hell. There was nothing like watching a guy turn into an entitled, demanding jerk to crash through the Hormone Net.
“I’ll be right back.” She said it firmly, resisting the urge to explain playground rules about taking turns to him.
“That’s going to the table in the corner, right? The loud group?” At her nod, he added, “I’m with them. Add my coffee to the bill, let me pay up, and I’ll do the delivery myself.”
Her first thought was that Aunt Margie had got things seriously wrong when she said that all men were shortsighted asses who couldn’t see beyond the ends of their peckers.
Her second was that he’d caught her limping and felt sorry for her.
She straightened her shoulders, her backbone, her hips. “Thanks, but I can manage.”
“Sure you can. But I’m heading that way anyway.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I’ve kept them waiting long enough.”
“Yeah, well, I kept them waiting longer. If I come bearing gifts, they might be more forgiving.” The grin flashed again. “In fact, why don’t you toss a few of those muffins on the tray, too. I have a lot of groveling ahead. It might go better if I feed the beasts before I throw myself on their mercy.”
How was a girl supposed to resist that?
Jenna laughed before she knew what she was doing, loosening the knot that had tightened her insides.
Not every man was her ex. Not every man was her father.
“Okay. The customer is always right, and all that jazz.” She drew his coffee and added half-and-half. “But don’t tell the boss, okay? Can’t let her think I’m slacking off.”
So what that the boss was her sister, who would be far too delighted that Jenna had talked to a man— a good-looking one, to boot—to worry about who carried a tray to the table.
“My lips are sealed.”
Jenna had to check. Not only were they sealed, they were also curved in a secret smile. And utterly enticing.
Not now, Jenna.
“That’ll be a dollar ninety-eight, please.”
Up went the eyebrows again. “For everything?”
“I’m sorry, did you mean you are—”
“Taking care of the bill for the whole table. Right.” He extended a credit card. “Unless that
complicates things too much.”
“No, it’s fine. I just forgot.”
Because she had. She’d forgotten that he had said he would do it. Forgotten that there were still men who did what they had said they would do.
Of course, she hadn’t forgotten that when most people did something nice, there was usually an ulterior motive at play. That was undoubtedly the case with this guy.
Pity. He had seemed so nice.
“In that case,” she said, “give me a second and I’ll give you the grand total. Unless you think there will be more.”
“Now is good.”
She turned back to the register and compiled the bill, presenting him with the new total.
“Great,” he said with a nod. “And by the way, the coffee is perfect.”
She heard that every day. But no one had ever said it with quite that same fervor. Nor had anyone else ever followed it up with, “A cup of this is just what I need to face the lions.”
It was his nod toward the table that got to her—the way he pulled her into his corner, building a bond of You and Me Against the World. There was nothing she could do but grin.
Grin, and check out his name as she ran his card.
Why did that sound so familiar?
“Here you go.” She handed over the slip for his signature, peeking as he signed. She had a thing about handwriting. Not that she thought it revealed everything that the handwriting “experts” at the state fair would want folks to believe, but she was pretty sure there was a correlation between a strong, confident signature and a person’s integrity.
Her ex had always signed with a hurried scrawl of his initials. Nothing more. His signature had practically screamed I am far too busy and important to waste time on such trivial matters.
Cole Dekker’s name was easy to read. All the letters in the right place. It filled the space perfectly, not so long that it had to be squeezed into place, not so short that it looked lost and unfinished on the line.
“Here you go.” He pushed the pen and slip back toward her, flashing that grin once again. God. Hadn’t anyone ever explained the concept of overkill to him? Because really, this guy was too much.
Not that she was complaining. Not really. It was kind of nice to look at a guy and be impressed again. That hadn’t happened in ages.
But there was something about him that made his actions feel like . . . not a show, precisely. But almost. Like he knew people were watching, not because he was vain but just because that was what always happened, and he wanted to be sure he left them with a good impression.
There was something oddly comforting about that. No, not comforting. Familiar? Maybe. Unsettling?
“Thanks again.” He pulled the loaded tray from her reach and was on his way with a speed and grace that would never be hers again. She didn’t want to stare, but it was like she had no choice. And neither was she the only one. He left a path of turned heads and lingering glances in his wake. Only some of them were of the curious or predatory variety. The bulk of them were from folks who simply seemed . . . interested. As if they expected him to burst forth with something witty and insightful and important at any moment.
What was it about Cole Dekker?