December 2018
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Chapter One

Alexa twisted the martini glass in her hand, not even bothering to take a sip. She needed to be sober to have this conversation, but it would probably go better if she waited until Peyton had a couple of drinks in her. But if she waited too long, Peyton might be too drunk to give good parenting advice and then…

“I think Brendan’s been surfing porn,” Alexa blurted out. So much for waiting. She wanted to bury her face in her hands at the admission. Normally, the only person she had trouble holding her tongue around was Marshall, the guy who ran her favorite coffee shop. That particular insanity was something she didn’t care to analyze, especially since she had bigger worries right now. But if those slip-ups were progressing to other people as well, she was in big trouble.

Ever the best of best friends, Peyton took the announcement in stride with little more than a flip of blond hair over her shoulder. “And why do we think that?”

Never me. Never you. With Peyton, when things got rough, it was always we. Alexa loved that. It made her feel less alone, and infinitely less pathetic for not having answers. Maybe it was better they weren’t really into the drinking portion of the evening yet, but she wasn’t all that comfortable with the details of what she’d found. “He’s been wiping the search history on his computer every night.”

“That could be a lot of things.”

“Like?”

“Planning to overthrow the government. How to build a nuclear bomb. What is this weird rash?”

Alexa gave her head a frantic shake. “You are not helping! And I know it’s porn.”

“Okay, if he’s deleting, how do you know?”

“Because he didn’t delete his history last night.”

“Okay, but seriously, porn isn’t that big of a deal.” Peyton laughed and picked up her martini glass, swirling it slightly before taking a sip. “He’s thirteen, Alex. I’m going to guess it’s pretty normal for boys to look at that age.”

Normal?

“What the hell is normal about Princess Leia and Jabba the Hutt tentacle porn? Because that really doesn’t strike me as normal. Like is it in the movies somewhere that he has tentacles? And if it is, how did that make it into those movies?”

Martini sprayed as Peyton laughed into her drink. “Are you kidding? No, of course you aren’t.”

“No, I’m not. It was seriously disturbing. You’re so lucky you have girls.” Three boys, and Brendan was just the first of them. She loved her sons, but being a single parent was emotionally draining. And that was before this weirdness. “How am I supposed to navigate things like this? Is this a kink? A phase? I mean, I didn’t know porn existed until college.”

“First, take a breath, woman. It’s the internet age, and the internet has rules. For instance, rule number thirty-four basically says the internet is the place to find all the porn, and most of it is free for the taking.” Peyton leaned back on the couch, propping her feet on the glass coffee table covered with smeared little-girl fingerprints that nearly concealed the piles of toys lying underneath. “Believe me, I’ve taken advantage of the abundance on more than one occasion.”

So had Alexa. Well, maybe she had. There was a decent chance the videos she watched wouldn’t constitute pornography in Peyton’s mind—or her son’s. “Okay, but what do I do? Put filters on all his electronics and not mention my suspicions? Say something and hope he tells me the truth?”

Peyton shrugged and took a long drink—too long of a drink for Alexa’s liking—then set her glass down with a sigh. “I have to be honest, it sounds like you’re hoping for him to give up porn and masturbation and all those hormonal urges to go back to being adorable little Brendan who slept with a teddy bear until he turned eleven.” Maybe. But what was wrong with that? She didn’t have to ask, because her best friend told her. “He’s past a point of no return. He’s going through puberty, and that’s going to require you to have some uncomfortable talks with him.”

The talk? With her sons? “That should have been Chris’s job.”

“Maybe, but Chris is hardly ever around—when was the last time he staged one of his surprise appearances? Eighteen months ago? You need to step up.”

As much as Alexa liked not having to give up every other weekend and several weeks a year so her sons could spend time with their father, and as much as she appreciated how religiously Chris made his support payments, she often wished he were around more. Though the boys never complained, they missed him. And it would have been handy if he’d been here to deal with this. “I already do all the things. I do bake sales and conferences and sports and doctor appointments. Can I not do this one thing? What am I supposed to say? Tell them stories about when I got my period?”

“Dear God, no. You’re supposed to be you, Number Woman. Tell them the stats on masturbation and erectile dysfunction. All the data on excessive pornography consumption and its impact on relationships. Give them numbers that help them figure it out and deal.” She picked up her glass again and pressed it to her lips, but before taking a drink, added, “But having a guy around certainly wouldn’t hurt.”

“Sure. Great answer. I just need to find one.” Like she hadn’t tried. She’d tried plenty.

“When’s the last time you logged into your CupidConnection account?” Peyton stood and strolled over to the makeshift minibar she had set up on her mantel and started mixing a fresh drink.

Alexa had barely touched her martini. “A couple of months ago. I told you, online dating just doesn’t work for me.”

Giving an exaggerated roll of her head that ended with her chin against her chest, Peyton sighed. “It doesn’t work because you’re too damn picky. You’re on the hunt for perfection.”

“What’s wrong with that?” But Alexa knew the answer. For every factor she insisted upon, her viable dating pool got smaller and smaller. If she narrowed it down enough, she’d find her perfect man—and he’d likely be recently engaged to an equally perfect woman somewhere in the South Pacific.

Peyton didn’t bother with the numbers, though. She went straight to the heart of things. “For starters, perfection doesn’t exist. You need to give more guys a chance. It’s the only way you might find one worth keeping.” She added extra olives to her drink and came back to the couch with it and a full bowl of pretzels.

She made dating sound easy, not to mention fun, and for Peyton it seemed to be. The woman’s social calendar was so full on the weekends her kids spent with their grandmother that Alexa generally had to schedule a girls’ night at least a month in advance. Sometimes more. In the last two years of online dating, Alexa had had a total of three dates she considered successes by the very basic definition of her willingness to see the men again. They hadn’t reciprocated her interest. “I’ve done the math. I know what I need in a man, and I just don’t see many of the guys who talk to me working out.”

With how hard Peyton rolled her eyes, she was either about to pass out or really wanted to bang her head against something. Alexa doubted it was the former considering they were only one drink into the evening. “You know how you’ve always said that you can tell within twenty minutes of meeting a guy if he’s someone worth pursuing?”

Reading people was a gift Alexa had valued since childhood—one of the few woo-woo things about herself she’d never questioned, even after the divorce. “Yes, and I give them way more than twenty minutes’ worth of conversation before ever deciding to meet. The men on that site are like…” She tried and failed to think of a politic description. “They’ve forgotten the art of conversation.”

“More like they don’t live up to what you expect. But the problem is, people aren’t always the same online as they are in person. Lord knows, I’m not.” It was true. Peyton ran a parenting blog that supplemented her income nicely, but she came across as the type of woman who would live in House Beautiful rather than one who thrived in the barely contained chaos created by two little girls and two very large dogs.

“But that’s you, and you’re…you.”

“It could be the guys, too. Otherwise, every single date you’ve had would have been successful on some level. The way you’ve tried to game the system with your weird algorithm would have assured it.” She set her drink down— which was never a good sign. Peyton was about to get far too serious for Alexa’s liking. “And the entire path of this conversation proves you don’t read my blog, or you’d already know where it was headed.”

She wanted to deny it, say she was an avid reader, but much of what Peyton posted dealt with stages of single motherhood that Alexa had passed years ago. “Okay. You caught me.”

“I’m not mad.” Peyton let out a throaty laugh. “Earlier this year, after so many single moms contacted me about dating woes, we decided to put your twenty-minute theory to the test. Within a month, five of the six women found the man they ended up in a committed relationship with. One didn’t work out long term, but two of the others are already engaged.”

That was great for those women, but she didn’t really see the point. “Okay?”

After a deep sigh, Peyton took Alexa’s glass and set it on the table as well. This didn’t bode well at all for a carefree girls’ night. “Alex, within two years of your divorce, you went from being a stay-at-home mom to being one of the most successful and sought after actuarial consultants in the metro area. You’re only forty-two. You’re smart. You’re gorgeous. You have your shit together on a level most people only dream of. Guys should be falling at your feet, but you don’t give them the opportunity.”

“Because they aren’t good fits.”

“Which you can’t be sure of since you never get to meeting them in person. So, stop fucking around with the endless online chatting and start meeting more of the men. You’re raking in enough cash at this point that you could easily cut down a couple of clients and spend your free time having multiple twenty-minute dates a day until you find the right guy. You don’t have to devote a whole night to each and every one. Grant them a cup of coffee and the twenty minutes you need to make a decision.”

Twenty minutes. Before outright rejecting it, Alexa rolled the idea around in her brain. Quick coffee meet and greets. Nothing more complicated. And it would free her from wasting hours and hours chatting online. Free her from having to get ready for a date every time. Cut through the mess immediately. With some minimal filters in place, the odds seemed to be tipping drastically in favor of her managing to find a good man who would also be an amazing male role model for the boys—which was all she really needed. “That might be the best idea you’ve ever had. But if you’re right about it only taking a month or two, I don’t need to cut back on contracts. I can shift things around and make it work.”

“Great.” Peyton picked up the remote, turned on her TV, and cued up Thor. “Now that we have your love life in order, can we get to the movie? I need my Hemmy fix, and trust me, the look-alike porn doesn’t come close to the real deal.”

It didn’t matter what was on, though. Alexa spent the rest of the night running numbers in her head and figuring out a plan of action. By the time she headed home, she knew exactly how to make this work. The odds of failure were so small, she fell asleep with a genuine smile on her face for the first time in ages.

Marshall wiped sweat from his brow as he steamed extra milk for the large order his barista was busy filling. Something was wrong with the damn steamer. It never used to do this, but he really didn’t have the budget to fix it—much less get a new one. They’d just have to baby the damn thing for a few more months and hope business picked up soon.

“You have to admit, it’s the perfect solution,” Alexa said as she and her friend—Peyton? Yeah, Peyton—got in line. The blonde had been coming in with his favorite customer off and on for the last year. Marshall really should’ve been able to remember her name by now. But when Alexa walked through the door, he had a bad tendency to lose interest in anything but her. Not only was the woman drop-dead gorgeous, but she never came off as easy. And damned if he didn’t like a challenge. Plus, she had the most ridiculously adorable habit of saying things and then trying to pull back like she hadn’t meant them. He was just waiting for the day she inadvertently made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Because he wouldn’t. At all.

“This is so not what I meant when I suggested the twenty-minute thing. And what about your job? I thought you said you didn’t want to cut back on contracts?”

“If I do it this way, it’s more efficient. At the rate I’m anticipating, I can’t imagine this will take more than a few weeks. I’ll just shift my normal afternoon work routine to the evenings for the short term. The boys are at an age where they mostly do their own thing after dinner anyway.”

“I know I said our testers did this for a month, but after five years of dating, do you seriously think you can figure this out in a few weeks? Are you nuts?”

Alexa shrugged out of her jacket, revealing beautifully muscled shoulders that Marshall had thought about kissing more than once. Of course, she’d never indicated her shoulders were available for anything other than holding up her clothes—a position he wished they would surrender, because he was really curious what she looked like naked. “By scheduling the dates at half-hour intervals, it gives me my twenty minutes plus a ten-minute cushion on either end. I can have anywhere between two and six dates every afternoon, depending on my workload.” Two to six datesevery day? What the hell? “And the Bean Counter is the perfect place. I can bring my tablet and work in case of no- shows, and I work here practically every afternoon anyway.”

That last bit was said the moment they reached the register. He had to have heard her wrong. Because if she was going to date anyone here, he damn well wanted it to be him. “You plan on using my coffee shop for some personal speed dating?”

“Is that a problem? Fifty-two percent of women prefer coffee for a first date. I can’t be the only one who arranges to meet men here.” She smiled at him. Mouth closed. Not her happy smile. “Also, I’ll take a jumbo double-double with a lemon poppy seed muffin.”

“Only Canadians order their coffee like that,” he said as he punched her order in. “And you aren’t talking one date. You’re talking about a revolving door of men. I’m not okay with you taking up one of my best tables for some sort of social experiment.”

“It’s efficient—both the phrase and my plan. Are you saying you have a problem with efficiency?” She tipped her head toward Claudette, his head barista who tended to be a bit of a perfectionist with her coffee art. But he didn’t care about the jab. He’d take beauty over speed any day of the week, thank you very damn much—which was one reason he’d rather hold out hope where Alexa was concerned than take up any of the offers normally thrown his way.

“I have a problem with you assuming a table and free refills all afternoon.” Especially if it meant her not being open to conversation. Not that they ever had much of that. A little bit of banter over the course of the two years and change she’d been coming in, but nothing deeper. He’d tried to open the door once by asking if she was using his free wifi to hack a bank or something. Her only response had been to inform him that 90 percent of companies weren’t protected against hackers, and there was no thrill in accomplishing something so decidedly easy—oh, and could she have a refill, please. It had been one more of those times when it seemed words just fell out of her without a thought.

“You never had a problem with me using a table all afternoon before, and I’d be bringing in new customers every half hour this way.”

Damn her logic.

Peyton piped up. “Hey, I don’t mind watching this adorable banter and all, but in case we eventually get coffee, I’ll just take a jumbo black with a shot of espresso.”

Marshall jabbed the register. “This isn’t banter. This is me saying no in every language you can think of. I’m running a coffee shop, not the local midlife hookup joint. So, no. Nyet. Nein. Non. Qo’.”

The glare Alexa shot him was fiery in a way he wouldn’t mind seeing in her eyes in another, more private context. “Did you just call me old?”

Her friend, on the other hand, snorted. “More importantly, did you just refuse her in Klingon?” At his shrug, she laughed even louder. “All those years of Star Trek paid off. Alex, why don’t you just date Marshall? He’s funny and charming, besides you’re here all the damn time anyway.”

Yeah. Why not?

She shot her friend a glare that seemed chock-full of meaning, but one Marshall didn’t quite grasp. “Because I already have three kids. They need a man in their lives, not another child who will quote Star Wars at them and probably shares Brendan’s taste in short films.”

“Ouch.”

Her eyes went wide, and she started sputtering. “I meant if I’m old like you said, that means you’re young. Not…”

He punched the register a few more times and gave their total. “I’m thirty-two and own my own business. I’m hardly a kid. And for the record, I don’t think you’re old.”

With her credit card handed over, Alexa stared down at the floor, unwilling to meet his eyes now. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it came out. You’re just quite a bit younger than me, and you have a different worldview than the people I date.”

“How’s that?”

“For starters, you wear purple Converse and, like I said, you quote Star Wars at every turn. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t see how we’d ever be compatible.”

Marshall forced a smile, reminding himself she didn’t really know anything about him, and handed over her receipt. “The shoes are for the Colorado Rockies. And a lot of people quote Star Wars since it’s an infinitely quotable movie, but if you’re going to give me a hard time about that, you should probably know I also quote Harry PotterLord of the Rings, the Die Hard franchise, and pretty much anything that seems to fit a given conversation.”

“I stand corrected. You quote widely from movies enjoyed by teenage boys.” She sucked in a breath and gave him that damned close-lipped smile again. “I’m sorry— again. You know I think you’re a great guy. The two of us together sounds a lot like oil and water, though. Pretty in the right light, but not a great mix.” She scrawled on the receipt and handed it back to him. “If you really don’t want me utilizing the Bean Counter for my dates, I suppose I can relocate to Starbucks. It’s less convenient and frankly, overpriced, but I don’t want to impose.”

Shit. That wasn’t what he wanted, either. “Just enjoy your coffee. We’ll talk after.”

As she and Peyton proceeded down the counter toward Claudette, he put the receipt in the register, but not before he noticed she’d added a ten dollar tip to the order. Damn it. Whether he liked to admit it or not, Alexa was one of his best customers. Always tipped—insanely well on occasion— never complained, and always cleared out if it was obvious they needed her table. It wasn’t her fault he had some attraction to her that he barely understood himself.

And did he really want to lose her to the monster that was Starbucks?

The Bean Counter wasn’t failing, but it wasn’t exactly raking in cash, either. He tried to tell himself she was only one person, but she was one person who came in almost every day with her tablet and paperwork. One person who brought friends like Peyton—or her upcoming dates—who also spent money. He needed her loyalty.

And if he were honest, he wanted her here. Even though she treated him like a child half the time and blurted out the craziest shit all the time, she was…refreshing in some way he was sure she would manage to boil down to math if he gave her a chance to explain it.

He was actually a little curious—maybe even jealous— about her experiment. It was batshit crazy with a side of fucking nuts, but he wanted to see what kind of man actually managed to break through her oh-so-serious shell. He wanted to see her laugh again.

It had only happened once. Her kids had been with her—school delay so they’d come for muffins—and one of them had made her crack up. The joy transformed her face from the beauty of carved marble to something truly stunning, something so alive it seemed almost impossible.

That day, her smile had been wide and toothy and full of the kind of happiness most people only wished for.

He wanted to see it again, if only to know it hadn’t been a fluke.

Damn it. He was totally caving.

Marshall busied himself with orders and cleaning, waiting until Peyton left before he approached Alexa to refill her coffee one last time before she would inevitably leave, too. “Here’s the deal. When you come here to do your work, you usually buy lunch or something, which basically pays for your hours of using the table. I’m worried that for dating purposes, you aren’t going to do that. Run some numbers— as long as you and your dates’ orders are covering the cost of the table, I guess I’m okay with you bringing your particular brand of crazy here on a daily basis. Deal?”

She looked up and gave him her usual, close-lipped smile. “Perfect. I’ll have numbers for you before I leave.”

So that was that. He stalked back behind the counter as the door chimed. Fuck. Three o’clock. High school rush hour. He didn’t have time to figure out why the agreement made him feel prickly again. He was getting paid. She’d hopefully get laid. It was a win-win. But one last glance at her table had him feeling like he’d somehow lost out in the deal.

Read the rest November 12! Available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, KoboiTunes, and other online retailers!