Now serving second chances.
Jenna Reid purchased the Stonehill Café to prove to herself that her ex-husband was wrong…that she could make her dreams come true. Three years later, all she has is a crumbling building, no social life, and her bruised pride.
Pride is something Colonel Daniel Maguire lost long ago and isn’t likely to find living in the alley behind the café. He just needs a little time to get on his feet. In the interim, keeping an eye on the overworked café owner gives him a sense of purpose. He has no intentions of making his presence known until he hears the woman screaming late one night.
He rushes into the café but instead of finding her in dire straits, he finds a broken pipe and Jenna—soaking wet and holding a wrench. With her last bit of hope fading, Jenna accepts Daniel’s help to fix up her building, but it doesn’t take long for them to start trying to fix each other.
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Jenna jumped back as water shot straight out of the pipe leading to her kitchen sink. She screamed and dropped the wrench as an ice-cold deluge soaked every inch of her body. Crammed under the industrial-sized sink, she covered the open joint with her hands, but, like a fire hydrant struck by a wayward car, the stream was too powerful to be contained. No matter how hard she squeezed or how she placed her hands, water squirted through her fingers, drenching her face.
She could have sworn she’d shut off the water, but apparently, she could add the valve to the list of things that didn’t work in the broken-down kitchen of her broken-down diner. Holding her breath and turning her face away from the frigid spray, she assessed her options, determined not to let panic set in.
She had to figure out why the valve hadn’t turned the water off. If she didn’t, she’d have to sit there holding the pipe and getting shot in the face until someone—likely her brother Marcus—came to her rescue.
She was done letting other people save her. She was an adult. A full-grown woman, damn it. She could do this. She could fix this.
Pulling herself up, she shrieked when her tennis shoes skated across the wet cement flooring. She rushed toward the shut off valve on the far end of the wide sink. After dropping to her knees, she turned the handle as hard as she could. The valve was in the off position, but the water didn’t stop gushing. She tried turning the wheel the opposite way.
The water continued flooding the floor.
“No,” she begged. “No, no, no. Goddamn it!”
The valve clearly wasn’t working.
Rushing back to the pipes, she slid to where she’d loosened the joint and fumbled with the pipe wrench. If she got the…thingie-ma-jig…tightened, maybe the water would quit spraying the entire room and she could clean up and pretend this never happened.
Then Marcus could fix it—like he told her he would. She could be grateful and pay him with dinner for him and his wife—like she told him she would. Just like they’d planned before she decided watching a video on YouTube qualified her to be her own plumber.
The only problem—okay, not the only problem, but the biggest problem—was the water pressure seemed to have increased after she monkeyed with the valve. The water was shooting faster. And she was certain the temperature was even colder than before. Whatever she’d done seemed to have made things worse.
A scream of frustration ripped from her as the frigid torrent made it even more difficult for her fingers to operate. Her heart pounded in her ears, nearly obscuring the constant whishing of water coming from the pipe. Her eyes blurred, but she wasn’t sure if tears of defeat had filled them or if water had drained from her hair into her eyes. Both were very real possibilities.
She fumbled with the pipe wrench, trying to redo what she’d undone when she decided to replace the section of leaking pipe, saying words that she was sure would shock most people who knew her. Jenna tended toward the innocent side of things, but she certainly had it in her to drop an f-bomb or two if the occasion called for it.
And that occasion was now, as she sat saturated on the kitchen floor of the diner that was falling down around her faster than she and her brother could duct tape it back together. She was about to let another of those curse words rip when, without warning, the geyser turned to a trickle, then just a single droplet fell.
Her kitchen was silent save for her desperate panting and the annoying ping-ping-ping that had started this entire fiasco.
That non-stop drip had been going for days. Marcus had told her what he needed to do to fix it; he’d even bought a new section of pipe and fittings. He just hadn’t had the time to devote to her plumbing. Tired of hearing the sound of droplets clinking in the metal bowl she’d put under the sink, she decided to be her own hero.
“Way to go, genius,” she muttered.
Wiping her forehead—which was pointless since her hands were as soaked as her face and the strands of dark hair sticking to it—she sat back on her heels and choked down the sob that was threatening to erupt.
“Are you okay?”
The unexpected male voice caused her to jolt. A squeal eeked out of her as she lurched back. She wobbled for a moment before landing on her ass in the pool that had formed behind her. She scurried back at the sight of a man coming from the shadows on the other side of her kitchen. Her heart seemed to stop beating as she reached for something, anything, to protect herself.
Bowls crashed around her as she grasped a firm handle and held up…a colander. She would have laughed if it weren’t for the fact that she had no other weapon within reach. Instead, she lifted the perforated bowl in warning—if he didn’t back off she’d…strain him. “Who—who are you?”
“I was outside. Heard you scream. Thought there might be trouble.” He lifted his hands as if to prove he meant no harm. “You turned off the wrong valve.”
She swallowed. He spoke slowly in a deep voice with a hint of an accent. Though it seemed faded, his drawn-out vowels hinted to a childhood spent on the east coast. He wasn’t from Stonehill. Just about everyone knew everyone in this small town, and she didn’t know him.
His skin, what she could see around the dark shaggy hair, was tan from too much sun. Like he’d worked outside most of his life. The question where he was from formed in her mind but stuck in her throat. That didn’t really matter at this point in time, did it? She sat there, letting ice-cold water soak into her jeans and numb her skin as she threatened him with fine mesh.
“You turned off the valve to the faucet, but you should have turned off the main valve,” he explained. “Rookie mistake.”
As he came into the light, she could see that his clothes were dingy and worn. His full beard hadn’t been trimmed lately, and his hair shone as if he had gone too long between washing the strands that hung over his ears.
She couldn’t determine if he was homeless or just too old to pull off hipster. Either way, he’d somehow appeared in her kitchen without her noticing, and that unsettled her.
She lifted the colander when he took a full step toward her. “This may not look deadly, but I could still put your eye out with it.”
He lifted his hands, again showing his innocence, and she was certain he smirked behind his facial hair.
“I have no doubt that you could. But I can help. If you want. Or you can try again now that the water’s off. Whichever works for you. And you might want to get out of that puddle and into dry clothes. Your lips are turning blue.”
Jenna finally inhaled and looked at the clothes clinging to her. If it weren’t for the vintage print of Barry Manilow’s face clinging to her chest, she’d swear she’d just auditioned for a wet T-shirt contest. While holding a flimsy bit of steel to save herself.
What the hell was she doing? What in the actual hell did she think she was doing?
She wasn’t a plumber any more than she was a business owner.
She’d been winging it for almost three years now, but she was tired. Exhausted.
And she sure as hell wasn’t capable of assaulting a grown man with a strainer. If he wanted to slit her throat and rob her, she could do little to stop him.
Marcus had told her a hundred times to lock the kitchen door even when she was cleaning up. He’d told her a hundred times to carry the pepper spray he’d bought for her. He’d told her a hundred times to take basic self-defense classes.
She’d done none of those.
Not only was she ill equipped to fix her plumbing, run a business, or protect herself, she was also freezing. A shiver ran through her as she realized just how much water her clothing and hair had absorbed.
She laughed to stop herself from crying.
When she looked up again, the stranger was standing over her. He held out a hand to help her up, and she noticed the dirt caked under his nails and in his knuckles.
But his gray eyes were kind. Concerned. Nothing about him felt threatening or intimidating, though Jenna was certain she should be terrified. She swallowed before accepting his help, letting him pull her to her feet, all the while hoping it wasn’t a ruse to grab her and drag her off.
He eased her up and immediately released his hold, taking a step back rather than running off in the night with her.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
He gestured to the pipes. “May I?”
“Please. You certainly can’t do any worse than I did.”
The man stepped over the puddle and kneeled to assess the mess she’d made. “I’ll have this fixed before you finish mopping,” he said without looking at her.
Mopping? Oh. Right. Her tennis shoes sloshed as she moved her feet. She sighed as water seeped through the dingy cloth. After setting the strainer aside, she grabbed the rag mop and bright yellow bucket on rollers. She watched him from the corner of her eye as she started cleaning the floor, not letting her guard down, but also fully aware that if the man decided to attack her, there wasn’t much she could do about it.
She’d traded up from a strainer to a mop handle, but she wouldn’t know how to use that either.
Less than twenty minutes later, the man silently rose and turned on the valve at the back of the kitchen, then went back to the sink. He used his sleeve to wipe the pipe dry, and watched, as if he were waiting for something amazing to happen.
And it did. Or didn’t, depending on how Jenna decided to look at it.
The incessant drip that had been making her crazy for days didn’t start. The water didn’t slowly leak from the joint and form a dewdrop that would plop and echo around the room.
The man turned the valve that Jenna had tightened in her attempt to stop the water, then tested the faucet. It worked. And the dripping still didn’t start.
She set the mop aside and hesitated before joining him in observing the now-dry pipe.
“This turns off the faucet,” he said. “That,” he pointed to the other valve, “turns off the water to the faucet.”
“Got it. Thanks.”
He nodded. “You’re welcome.”
She looked him over as he dragged his hands down his dirty jeans. Just like her denim, his had absorbed a fair share of freezing water. “You’re soaked.”
“I’m okay. I can change.”
“Where?” she asked, surprising even herself. “I mean…where were you headed?”
He didn’t answer.
She gnawed her lip for a moment before voicing her concern. “For the last few weeks, whenever I’ve gone out to the alley, I felt like I was being watched.”
“Is that why your brother put on that deadbolt that you still don’t use?”
Wow. He sounded just like her brother.
“Yeah. That’s why.” Her amusement faded, and she furrowed her brow at him. “How did you know my brother did that?”
His only response was, “You should use it.”
“Maybe I’ll start.” She tilted her head. “So you’re…hanging out in the alley?”
“You shouldn’t have any more problems with that pipe.” He glanced toward the sink then started for the door.
That was it? He sneaked in, saved the day, and now he was sneaking back out. That didn’t seem right. She owed him something for his plumbing services.
“Would you like some coffee?”
He stopped. “No thanks. I’d be up all night.”
“Maybe something to eat? Something…warm?”
Facing her, he took a moment to look her over. “Your lips are purple now. Go warm up before you get sick.”
Jenna opened her mouth, but he disappeared through the door leading to the alley. Glancing around the kitchen, she decided she’d mopped up enough of the flood she’d caused and pushed the bucket to the back door. She paid more attention to the shadows, looking for the stranger, than dumping the water. Her pulse quickened as she began to wonder if she was right—was there a homeless man living in her alley? The thought put her on edge, even if he had swooped in to save her.
Going back into the kitchen, she started to lock the door but realized that would be the same as telling him she didn’t trust him now that she knew he was there. That would be a bit rude, wouldn’t it? After he’d helped her the way he had.
She hesitated one more moment before turning the recently installed deadbolt that he’d mentioned. Manners be damned, he’d scared the hell out of her. She didn’t want him or anyone else just wandering into her kitchen at will. Gathering up the tools, she set them on the shelf where Marcus liked to keep them.
Keys in hand, she turned off the lights and headed for the back door. Her heart rate upticked again. He was probably out there. Watching her. The voyeuristic homeless plumber. Going into the dimly lit alley made her uneasy, and not for the first time. If her sixth sense was correct, he’d been living out there for about five weeks now. Or at least that’s when she first started wondering if she were being watched as she headed up the metal stairs that led to her still-under-construction second-floor apartment.
She’d tolerated the feeling for a week before mentioning it to Marcus. He’d looked around but hadn’t found anything suspicious. No cardboard houses or piles of clothes, nothing to indicate someone was living in her alley. But she was certain now that there was.
Jenna couldn’t imagine not having a home. As soon as she’d worked up the courage to leave the fancy San Francisco loft where Peter liked to keep her, she’d never worried about not having any place to go. She’d come back to Stonehill with nothing but the clothes she could fit in a suitcase—and she was lucky to have those by the time Peter’s lawyer got done with her.
Her big brother had been determined to help her start her life over. And as Jenna tended to do, she let someone else take control. She always let someone else determine what she needed and how she’d get it. And even though she wasn’t prepared—emotionally or financially—she let Marcus convince her she was ready to tackle her starry-eyed dream of owning a restaurant. Peter had promised her that, as well, but she’d never quite managed to jump through all the hoops he required for her to get there. He had a chain of fancy restaurants in the city. The kind that served two olives and a crouton as a meal.
He’d done a guest lecture at the culinary institute where she’d studied, and she’d been awestruck by him. When he offered to take her under his wing and give her hands-on training, she transitioned to mesmerized. By the time he convinced her to drop out of school and become his glorified secretary—or as she liked to call herself, his wife—she was in over her head.
Several years passed before she started to realize her dreams were fading away because she spent all her time focusing on his. Whenever she reminded him that she had ambitions, too, he’d remind her that there was no room in San Francisco for the kind of home-style cooking she loved. The kind he said was the reason she had to lose twenty pounds before he’d agreed to a wedding date.
Apparently, city folk didn’t need real food. Apparently, they needed more carrot roulades and toasted brioche with goat cheese on fancy platters with upmarket names only the most elite could pronounce.
And Peter needed a thinner, more contemporary version of Jenna than the one he’d asked to marry him. True to Jenna’s style, she complied. She’d bent and wavered and lost herself in his life until she couldn’t bend and waver any longer.
She’d had her own dreams. Ones Peter had promised to help her fulfill. Dreams that were forever just out of reach because his restaurants always came first. His career always came first.
Marcus, however, delivered as soon as she moved back to Stonehill. One night they sipped wine at his house, complaining about how their lives hadn’t quite gone as planned. Marcus had fallen head over heels for his boss, Annie, and knew she’d never return his affections as long as he worked for her, but he couldn’t imagine not working for her. Jenna told him how she’d been an afterthought even before she and Peter had exchanged vows. She’d feared that she would never own a restaurant since she had dropped out of culinary school and spent the last ten years building Peter. She’d given him everything and received nothing.
Marcus had asked if she still wanted to open a restaurant. She’d smiled and said she would love to own a little diner, just a little place to dish up some home-style meals. The next day, he walked her through the old Stonehill Café and convinced her they could fix it up.
Sure, it sounded good. It sounded great. The fantasy played out well. The reality sucked.
She had needed Marcus much more than either had anticipated when he’d handed her the keys. He fixed things almost every time he came to visit. He and his wife ate at the diner and tipped far more than they should. He’d even helped her keep her budget on track since she no longer had Peter’s accountants to do that for her.
Marcus hadn’t minded. He said helping her made him feel useful. And one day, he let her know he’d finally accepted her advice and gotten a new job. Annie was furious, but came around quickly. They were headed for a much deserved happily ever after. Then tragedy struck and Annie nearly lost her life.
Marcus spent all of his time helping her recover and, once they were married, building a life together. Jenna didn’t begrudge that. That’s how marriage should be—not like hers where she was treated as a burden instead of an equal. She was truly happy for her brother. But, with Marcus focused on Annie, Jenna suddenly realized how ill-equipped she was to be an adult all on her own.
She owned a business. But only because Marcus had backed her.
She owned this run-down building. But only because Marcus had helped her buy it.
And she had big plans to fix it up and make it amazing. But only because Marcus had the skills to help her.
Now he was helping Annie, and Jenna was proving on a regular basis how right her husband had been about her incompetence.
Jenna sniffed and shook the echo of Peter’s voice from her mind.
No. She could do this. She could definitely do this.
And that cocky bastard was her ex-husband.
Peter didn’t have a bit of control over her anymore. She needed to stop letting him do it from inside her own mind. She had to focus on the here and now.
And right now, she needed to take that strange man’s advice and get out of the cold, wet clothes that clung to her like a second skin. A warm shower would get the chill from her bones, and a good night’s sleep would help her wake up with a fresh outlook.
As she stepped out into the alley and locked the door behind her, she glanced around. Not out of fear this time, but guilt. She’d been cursing her luck over a leaking pipe, and the man who helped her didn’t even own a box to sleep in.
You are so selfish, Jen.
Or so Peter had told her countless times.
“Get out of my head,” she muttered as she started up the stairs.
Daniel didn’t take kindly to charity. Never had. But when he woke up with a to-go cup of coffee and a Styrofoam container sitting by the dumpster with Thank you! scribbled across the top, he didn’t turn away from the gift. Sinking down in the shadows, he looked at the café door and lifted the top off the cup. Sipping the hot brew, he closed his eyes and silently thanked the woman he assumed was responsible.
She didn’t wear a nametag, but he’d heard people call her Jenna. He had started to call her that last night when he’d heard her screams and immediately assumed the worst. He had barged in through the back door to find her on her knees wrestling with a pipe and immediately knew she’d turned off the wrong valve.
He grinned as he remembered the curses spewing from her as she did her best to stop the water from drenching her. He’d probably scared a dozen or so years off her life in the process of turning off the correct valve and offering his assistance. He would have apologized, but in doing so, he started to say her name and stopped himself. She seemed startled enough without worrying that he was stalking her.
He was in a sense. He knew her schedule. But only because he’d moved into her alley weeks before. He knew when to expect food to be dumped there. And what. Today was Tuesday. The special would be meatloaf. He really liked Jenna’s meatloaf. She didn’t fill it with chunks of bread that soaked up the grease and turned gummy. She used breadcrumbs. Like his mom used to do when he was a kid.
Daniel opened the container and found fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast. He hadn’t had a real breakfast for a while now. He smiled as his stomach also thanked Jenna. After scarfing down the hot meal, he gathered his sleeping bag into his go-bag and left the alley.
If today was Jenna’s meatloaf day, it was also open-door day at the community center.
They welcomed anyone local, and Daniel took advantage of that. Per his routine, he signed into the center with a fake address and headed right for the showers. After washing away several days’ worth of grime, he put on shorts and a T-shirt and headed to the workout room.
As he gripped the pull-up bar, he again replayed the night before through his mind. He’d been watching Jenna from the shadows for weeks, but last night was the first time he’d seen her up close. Her brown eyes had widened when she’d looked up at him and she’d fallen back. Dark hair clung to her pale skin as her full lips parted. And her T-shirt…
Daniel chuckled at the image of a shaggy-haired Barry Manilow clinging to her ample chest and slight pooch of a stomach.
She’d sat there, staring up at him, and it’d taken all he had to look her in the eye. She was beautiful, and he wanted to memorize every inch of her. But he didn’t have to think too much about how intimidating he’d been standing over her. If he’d given in to the urge to stare at her 70s-pop-star-clad breasts, she probably would have screamed for an entirely different reason than having a face full of water.
He pushed through his workout, one that he determined was considerably easier thanks to the hearty breakfast he’d eaten, then showered again and put on what was left of his clean clothes and headed to the room where the center offered free juice and donuts.
All of this was management’s attempt at bringing in new paying clients, but Daniel had yet to be told he wasn’t welcome, so he showed up every Tuesday and went through the same shower-workout-shower-eat routine.
Today, however, thanks to the breakfast Jenna had left for him, he’d wrap his donut in a napkin to save for later. His stomach was full enough for now. He did drink down a cup of cold apple juice, though. Hiking his pack high on his back, he smiled and thanked the clerk, who surely knew by now that he’d never sign up for a membership, and headed to the library.
Inside the cool silence, he sat at a table and looked through the help wanted ads. He wouldn’t apply for a job, but he liked to pretend that he would.
The first—and second and third—job he’d had since coming home from Afghanistan hadn’t gone well.
Sadly, spending years in a warzone had left him with a few issues that made keeping a job difficult. Which made it impossible to keep his apartment. He’d get back on his feet. Somehow. Someday. He just had to get his head together first. Maybe hiding in an alley and digging in the local café’s dumpster wasn’t the best way to go about that, but it was what he had and he wasn’t going to complain. A lot of guys who came out of the military had it a lot worse.
A sense of defeat washed over him, and he folded the paper. Instead of staying at the library most of the day, as he usually did on Tuesday, Daniel headed to the laundromat. He’d found enough coins over the weekend to wash his clothes. He needed to clean the jeans he’d gotten wet and dirty while fixing Jenna’s pipes.
Laundry was usually his Wednesday routine, but what the hell did routine matter when the only thing he had to answer to was a dumpster in an alley?
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