Ella wiped down the stainless-steel counters in the small kitchen in the café for what would be the very last time. She smiled as she did it.
“I’m going to miss this,” she said to Erin, who sat nearby drinking tea and eating almond cookies Elise’s mother Martine had brought by sometime earlier. Her OB had told her she needed to spend more time off her feet and resting. “Well, not the cleaning up part. I’m just fine to hand that off to one of the others. But I suppose, feeling a part of this place, like it was mine too.”
“If you make me cry, I’m going to pinch you.” Erin winked, her eyes already shining with tears. “This is an awesome time in your life, Ella. Celebrate it. All the best parts of your past will still be here without the crappy pay and having to wipe stuff down.”
That was true. “Pay wasn’t so crappy because my boss was a soft-hearted wench. This café was my safe place for several years. It’ll be hard to lose that.”
“We’re your safe place, El. Me and Elise. The guys. We’re your family. You don’t need to pull lattes. You have your degree, you have a great job and you’ll take the crappy part of your past and use that to help people get to the good part of their future.”
“Now you’re going to make me cry, and I can’t pinch you because you’re pregnant.” Ella sighed and hopped up to sit on the counter. “I feel like it’s graduation day in a sense, you know? I’m scared. Not that I can’t handle my new job. I love that job, and I think I’m a good fit for it. But you know, the other things in my life that are all changing all at once. It’s exciting and scary.”
“The dating stuff?”
“That and having a social life. I feel . . . exposed maybe? I didn’t do so well the last time I tried this. What if …”
“What if it’s you? What if you’re just a horrible judge of character, and you’ll attract some guy who’ll do to you what Bill did?” Her tone told Ella that Erin thought it was all bunk.
Damn. Well, she supposed that’s what you got when you had real friends who understood you, warts and all.
“Yeah, I guess so. Am I so obvious?”
“Here’s how I know. I rolled out of a self-induced haze of self-loathing and fear to see Todd. Could I actually have something with this man who had gone from my life years before? Could I, totally messed up and broken, risk opening up to anyone new? And then there was Ben.” Erin laughed. “Just when I’d figured out how to be with Todd, here comes another man into our life. I took chances, and yeah, I was afraid.”
Ella grabbed a cookie. “But look at you now.”
Erin rubbed her hands over her belly. “Yeah, look at me. Happy. In love. Loved like I’d never imagined before. It’s not easy. It hasn’t been easy. I hate that Ben and his father have this huge gulf between them. I hate that two of Todd’s siblings won’t even speak to him. I brought that into their lives, and I regret it.”
“That’s not your fault.”
“It’s totally my fault, El. But that’s all right. Because in the end, all that’s anyone else’s business is that everyone in our relationship is treated with dignity, respect and trust. We have that. It’s not traditional. It’s not what anyone’s mom and dad would have planned for, but other than the basics, it’s none of their fucking business. I’m not giving in because some jerk can’t deal with something that isn’t his to be worried over. What’s it to Billy Copeland that Ben is in love with two people? How is that any of his business? It makes Ben so sad, and that’s what bothers me.”
“I’m sorry about all that. And you’re right, it’s not their business, and it’s not their choice.”
“And there’s not some flaw inside you to blame for Bill. You broke up with him. You got a protection order. You did everything right, Ella. He’s the one who was wrong. He’s the one who hurt you. Andrew Copeland is a lot of things, but he’s no thug. He’s gone over you. I’ve never seen that before. And you are blossoming at this new stage in your life. Your eyes are clear, there’s a bounce in your step and you will make this work. Because you’re you.”
“I invited Bill in.” She hopped down from the counter and began to put things away. Hanging the spoons, tucking clean linens back into drawers. “I brought him into my life. I chose him. I loved him at one time.”
“It’s not as if you didn’t pay for that. An awfully big price for such a stupid mistake. So you liked the wrong dude. You had kicked him out and had moved on nearly a year before the attack. You made the right choice, Ella.”
Ella didn’t know about that. Sure, she wore scars that reminded her every day of the cost she’d taken on for knowing Bill. He’d hurt her. But she’d allowed him to. What did that say about her? She heard the bells above the door chime. “Duty calls.”
“Go home early to get ready.” Erin came out right behind her. “You’ve done your job here.” Erin took her hands. “You helped me through some rough times. Just your staying here through school while I got my life in order and through the pregnancy this far has been so important. Thank you.”
Tears sprang up, and she couldn’t stop them. She hugged her friend. “You saved me, Erin. You went to court for me, with me, you stood up for me when I couldn’t be there, even though you had bad memories. You gave me more responsibilities and a decent paycheck here so I could be independent and finish school. You have always been my friend. I’d never in a million years be able to repay you for your myriad kindnesses.”
“Aw man, you two.”
They broke off the weepy hug to face Adrian, who stood at the counter, grinning.
“No tears. This is a happy day.” He winked at Ella, reaching out to thumb away a tear on her cheek.
Ella liked looking at Adrian Brown. His was a face that called out to be looked at. But it was his voice that always made her pay attention. He had a very specific sort of cadence to his voice. Not an accent, but he held on to the words as if he tasted them. Listening to him speak was like lying in a hammock, rocking slowly, the breeze caressing your skin. He had this way about him, honey-slow and sweet.
He had a stunning amount of charisma, the sort of man who could make just about anyone feel special just by being near. It was all part of a whole package that was only enhanced by the fact that he was an extremely nice man.
“It is. I know it is, thanks to you both.” She mopped at her eyes like a doofus and sniffled her tears away.
Erin looked back toward the kitchen and then to Ella again. “I forgot to grab my schedule book. Ella, hon, can you go and get it for me? It’s on the desk in the back.”
Ella nodded. “Lock up, will you, Adrian? It’s officially after closing,” she called over her shoulder as she went into the back to grab Erin’s book.
She should have expected it, but it was still a surprise when she came back out and saw all her friends had gathered with food, smiles and even balloons.
“Surprise!” Elise bounded up and hurtled Ella into a hug. “You’re now living your new life. How totally awesome is that?”
Tears gone, Ella just grinned at the assembled group. Brody, Elise, Todd, Ben, Erin, Adrian, Rennie. Cope. He looked at her then, and there wouldn’t have been a way to tear herself from that gaze, even if she had wanted to.
Truly, what a gorgeous sight he made in nothing more complicated than jeans and a sweater. The toes of the boots peeking from the jeans and the way he stood telegraphed that he was way more than just a pretty face. Mmm, he totally pushed every button she had.
Talking went on all around her, but her attention was snagged on Cope. He walked toward her until he was right in front of her, stealing the air from her lungs. He leaned down and kissed her, right on the mouth, right in front of everyone else.
At first she was startled, but then she sank into it, letting him take, giving back in full measure, and Lord above, she liked it. Just two or three months before, even the thought of kissing someone would have given her some serious sweats. Any reaction other than pleasure seemed silly just then; the glory of the way he tasted sang through her system.
It was him, Cope, the way he was with her, the fact that she knew him and trusted him. That made her open, comfortable to be titillated and seduced.
It wasn’t a long, sloppy kiss, but it wasn’t the way you’d kiss your friend either. She resisted the urge to slide her fingers over lips that still tingled when he pulled away slowly, his body heat still against her, his scent wrapping about her senses.
“Congratulations, Ella Tipton.”
She swallowed hard and looked up into his face, loving the details of him. “Thank you, Andrew Copeland. I can’t believe you’re all here.” She should have looked around at the assembled crowd who laughed and talked, filling the space with their own brand of boisterous noise. Should have, but made no move to do so and look away from that mouth.
“Christ, Ella, when you look at my mouth like that, it’s all I can do not to snatch you up and get us both out of here and behind a locked door.” His voice was low. Intimate. Tense with desire, and she felt it to her toes.
She made a man like Cope feel that way? Just by looking at his mouth? Power unfurled in her belly, warm and pleasant. Who knew?
“I kind of like that, Andrew. I must say.” She knew she blushed, but it felt too good to hold back.
Startled, he laughed and kissed her again, keeping an arm around her waist as he broke from their embrace and they turned to talk to their friends.
“You guys are all so awesome. Thank you. Really.” It had been a few years since anyone had thrown her a party of any kind. The last one had been a subdued one when she’d been released from physical therapy. This was way better.
Elise hugged her again. “Did you think we’d let your last day go by without cake? Hello, we’re an any celebration is good enough for cake crowd, after all.”
“I figured we’d have cake tonight.”
“Um, duh. But that’s pineapple upside-down cake.” Erin shrugged and then handed Ella a giant slice of double chocolate mocha cake. “This is chocolate death. Two very different, albeit necessary, flavors when it’s a party for Ella.”
Ella had been notorious for her love of cake, and over the years, it had become their little social thing. Her way of being part of the group, even when she didn’t do much socially with them. They’d celebrate things large and small over cake and have an excuse to just hang out and enjoy each other.
She took a bite and had to close her eyes to have a private moment with her taste buds. “This is a whole lot of yum on one fork, I gotta say.”
“You like? Karen said to let her know what you thought. She was thinking of calling it the Ella.” Adrian put a second slice on his plate.
“Karen, huh? You still seeing her?” Karen was the owner of a bakery in West Seattle. Adrian had met her when they were planning Elise and Brody’s wedding, and they’d gone out here and there.
As he’d spoken, Cope had moved so that he rested behind her, her body leaning against his, his arm wrapped around her waist.
“I like her. She likes me. She’s not looking for more than dinner now and again, and I’m too busy to be looking for anything else right now.” Adrian shrugged.
“She makes a mean chocolate cake.” Elise refilled Rennie’s milk as she spoke, and Ella found herself charmed by the routine of mother and daughter.
“She totally does.” Adrian agreed quite cheerfully and went back to his.
Ella snorted a laugh and absently began to straighten things up until the café’s new manager sent her the stink eye. “Nope. Not your job anymore. Sit and eat cake. I can wipe a counter down.”
So she sat eating cake, drinking coffee and just hanging out, feeling freer than she had in a very long time.
“So I have a question.”
Ella looked back to Cope and wanted to sigh wistfully at how pretty he was. “What’s that?”
“Clearly you’re Irish. If the red hair and freckles hadn’t been a clue, you having a brother named Mick would do it. But Tipton?”
She laughed and turned up her Irish. “Ah, ’tis a complicated tale, that. Mick’s given name is Michael, but everyone calls him Mick. For my uncle on my dad’s side and my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. His father came from Ireland. He was a laborer when he arrived and eventually settled in New York. Then my grandfather was out here when he was in the navy, and he came back after the war and got a job at Boeing. His daughter, my mom, Moira, met James Tipton while they were juniors in high school. James comes from a family where his grandmother came from Ireland to work at her uncle’s clothing shop in Rhode Island. Now, here’s the great shame.” Ella shook her head mock-sadly. “The man who won the lovely Rose Byrne’s heart and who became James’s grandfather was himself an immigrant from England. William Tipton. We forgive him, though, because he let his children be raised up as they should be: Irish and Catholic.”
Cope studied her a moment before deciding it was all right to laugh. “I can’t believe I never heard that story before.”
“My grandmother used to say that my grandfather was just as Irish as his children and wife were. My family sort of takes their Irish seriously, but not so much it’s not a laugh.”
“All right then. Now I know what not to bring up when I see them next.”
“Just keep an eye on the nearest exit. They do like to talk about it. A lot. You should see holidays when we’re all together, generations of us. It’s loads of gingers with freckles. We do have some goth ones in the generation just younger than mine. Take a moment to imagine Hot Topic black hair dye on someone with my complexion.”
Cope choked on his cake, and she patted his back. “I can’t believe you just called yourself a ginger. I mean, you totally are.”
“I wasn’t aware it was a secret.”
He looked up, his mirth gone, the intensity back again. “Some people get offended by the term. God, do I love red hair.”
Oh, the stuff he said! She took a deep breath, simply enjoying the back-and-forth with him. “Well, it’s a good thing for me, huh?”
“I plan to make it so, yes.”
“Whooo. You’re really good with all this. I feel like a total amateur by comparison.”
He kissed her fingertips. “You do just fine.”
Before she could make an idiot out of herself, Rennie bounded over and pulled up a chair. “I have a school fund-raiser coming up. Can I put you down for a box of these fine chocolate treats?” She thrust a paper at them.
“I most definitely would. How about I take five boxes? That way I can give some to my mom. She likes fine chocolate treats too.” Cope pulled money from his wallet as Rennie flirted with him. The little girl was as bold as Erin but graceful like her mother.
“I’ll take three. I’ll give some to my mother too. I’ll be sure to tell her it’s from you.” Ella grinned.
Rennie neatly printed Ella’s and Cope’s names before getting down to the business of some good school gossip. Ella was not only charmed by Rennie but by the way Cope was with her. So gentle and silly. It was funny how all the men she saw on a regular basis were scary on the outside, big and braw, but gentle, truly kind and careful with the people they loved. It was disarming, Andrew Copeland’s sweetness made her gooey and witless in a most delicious way.
“Do you need a ride home?” Cope asked her later as they left the café, full of cake and coffee.
Her smile was pretty much the same one she’d had on her face all afternoon. “No, but thanks. I’ve got my car here. I had to run some stuff by my parents’ house for Mick. My mother is doing a big care package for him. And you don’t care.” She laughed.
“If it concerns you, I care.”
They paused at her car once she’d unlocked the door. “He’s in Central America, out in a lot of really far-flung and rural places, so he’ll be thrilled to get magazines, his favorite cookies, that sort of thing.” She snorted. “Do you need a ride?”
“I’m tempted to lie just to get some more time with you, but no, I’m just up the block too.” He slid a knuckle up her throat. “I’ll see you in a few hours then.”
She nodded and fell into the soft kiss he gave her before stepping back to let her into the car.
Holy smokes. Ella licked her lips as she drove away, not allowing herself a look into the mirror to see him again. She’d get into an accident if she caught sight of those legs, those thick, hard thighs, that butt, oh that butt.
She sighed happily and settled into the seat. She had a date. With Andrew Copeland.
It was that happy thought that guided her to Café Diva to grab some beans. She was dangerously close to being out of coffee. In the old days, as in until that moment, she’d have grabbed some from the back of the café and buy them wholesale.
Erin used to get pissy when she tried to pay, but she’d understood the whys of it and respected Ella’s need to do things that kept her independent and in control of her life.
But it wasn’t the old days. And today would be the day she bought her coffee from the same place the café did. Like an adult. She might have told Cope about it, had thought of it, but maybe she just wasn’t ready to say it out loud yet and own how lame it was.
So she parked her car, only a lucky four blocks down. The area was thick with businesses, and parking was at a premium. Having lived in Seattle her entire life, she thanked her parallel parking skills after only two tries.
The sidewalks were crowded with people out for the afternoon. Cafés were full as the shoppers went from the metaphysical bookstore to one of the last indie record stores in town. Fabric from the clothing shops brightened a day mostly made gray by the lack of leaves and the cloud cover.
Diva loomed just ahead, fairy lights strung in the window. The scent of freshly made donuts reminded her to grab some of the spice ones her father liked so much. She smiled, thinking of how pleased he’d be when she dropped them off when she delivered the other stuff for Mick.
At the crosswalk, traffic had bottled up, jostling everyone waiting. Someone bumped into her. She lost her footing on the slick sidewalk, and a hand caught her upper arm, hauling her upright.
Panic began to boil up, and she began to argue with herself furiously to calm down and handle it. There was talking. To her as they asked her things. She managed to respond as she nearly gagged on the fear and then the shame.
She got across the street, sweating despite the cold. Pushing it back, pushing it back even as her muscles jumped and her head hurt.
Each step got her closer to the doors. Luckily for her, the woman behind the counter recognized Ella and waved, beckoning her deeper into the dimly lit coffeehouse. Normally, Ella loved the feeling of the place. Big comfortable chairs and couches littered the room. The newsstand just out front provided plenty of material to while away a few hours drinking coffee and munching on their ridiculously good donut holes.
Right then it felt claustrophobic and overstuffed.
She managed to get a bag of coffee and to get back to her car. Once the door closed and locked behind her, she gave in and let the tears come.