Playing at Love
Playing at Love
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- Friends to Lovers
- Childhood Friends
- Best Friend's Brother
Kate Reynolds has two loves in her life—her daughter and her coffee shop—and that's all she wants or needs. She's learned the hard way that you can't rely on a man to be there when it counts, and she's determined to do it all on her own. But when her lifelong friend, rugged crooner Mackenzie Winters, agrees to be the music act for her grand opening, the last thing she expects is for feelings she's denied her whole life to resurface.
Mack is on the fast-track to seeing his dreams come true. With a growing audience and demos out to record labels, he knows he can make it big—if he can just stay focused. Experience has taught him that to get what he wants he has to keep his eye on the prize. Trouble is, his eyes keep wandering to the one woman he needs to avoid at all costs. He's been in love with Kate as long as he can remember, but the last thing he wants to do is hurt her.
The more time they spend together, the harder it is to fight their feelings. They both know they can't give the other what they need. Their paths are just too different. But the longer they keep playing at love, the worse it will hurt when the game is over.
Read Chapter One
Read Chapter One
Fiddling with the freezer case yet again, Kate Reynolds sat back on her heels and bit out a groan of frustration. She crossed her arms over her knees and dropped her head on them.
"This can't be happening."
"Again?" Lanie Winters, problem-solver and best friend extraordinaire, dropped the grand opening banner she was hanging and came over.
"How is this going to work if I can't even keep the ice cream cold?" Her voice was muffled by her arms. "I'll be finished before I even get started."
"Kate," Lanie gasped, "the ice cream is starting to melt."
She jerked her head up and pinned her friend with a death glare. "Tell me something I don't know. Maybe, like, how to fix it?" She let herself fall back with a thump and lay on the floor, staring blankly at the ceiling. "Or better yet, work your magic and make this thing start running again."
The entire week leading up to the grand opening of Kate's new coffeehouse slash ice cream shop had been a disaster. If that was any indication of the success of this new venture, she might as well give up now.
"What am I going to do?" she wailed.
Lanie came to stand over her, hands on her hips. "Well, first of all, you're going to get up off the floor and pull yourself together. Then you're going to go find my friend Kate and get her ass in gear. Because this, girlfriend," she gestured at Kate's body lying helplessly on the floor behind the counter, "is not her. Where is the woman who knows no fear? Who will take on the world and make lesser mortals tremble with her tenacity?"
Kate pressed her lips together in a grimace. "I think she disappeared in a sticky puddle of melted cream and sugar."
Lanie was trying to make her feel better, but she didn't know if her friend realized just how much was on the line with this. How terrifying it was to give up everything she knew to chase her own dream. Her old diner in Willow Valley was practically an institution. She and her daughter Clara could have lived comfortably for the rest of their lives knowing it would provide for them.
But no, she just had to go and start a new venture. One that threw disaster after uncontrollable disaster her way every time she turned around. She swallowed hard, struggling to pull herself together. Lanie was right. She didn't have the luxury of lying around feeling sorry for herself. She had to make Sugar ‘n’ Cream a success. As the sole provider for her young daughter, anything less than that wasn't an option.
She hadn't sold her legacy—the diner her mother had worked hard to build into what it was—to just roll over and accept defeat. Pushing herself up, she dug deep for the resolve and grit that hadn't failed her yet.
Lanie smiled triumphantly. "There she is. Now come on. Let's get these tubs into the big freezer before any real damage is done."
Kate jumped up and got to work, hauling the giant tubs of ice cream from the freezer case into the industrial freezer in the back of the shop. At least she was getting in some daily exercise. It made up for her ritual end-of-day love affair with Mocha Almond Fudge.
They had just finished getting all the ice cream moved, Lanie returning to hanging the grand opening banner, when the bell on the front door chimed. Kate looked up from where she was working to pull the panel off the freezer to check the wiring, and stared as Mackenzie Winters walked through the door. She was certain her heavy breathing had everything to do with the exertion of carrying all those tubs of ice cream and nothing to do with the way his shirt clung to some crazy impressive biceps.
"Hey, Sugar," he said with an easy smile, his twinkling eyes locking on hers.
Grinning at the nickname he'd given her years ago to tease her about her excessive love for ice cream, she waved him over. "Hey yourself. Come put those guns to use before you set up, will you? I need to get a look inside the freezer and this panel is stuck."
"Hi to you, too," Lanie called out from the ladder she was perched on. "And when you're done over there, come help me with this banner."
"Hey, Sis." He glanced at Lanie as if he just realized she was there. Ambling over, Mack glanced into the freezer case and frowned. "Where's the ice cream?"
Kate blew some stray strands of dark hair out of her eyes. "Refreezing in the back. I just hope we got it moved in time. I don't know how long it sat melting in here—I just now noticed it wasn't working." She jerked her thumb toward the renegade freezer and sighed, trying to keep her frustration at bay.
Mack arched a brow. "Rough day?"
"Only if you consider the fact that the grand opening is only three hours away and we may not have ice cream." The thought nearly sent her into a panic. Her one-of-a-kind, over-the-top ice cream concoctions were what she was known for. What the diner had been known for. It was what she was banking on to make the new shop a success.
"Let me see what I can do." With a quick wink, Mack bent down and pried the panel off the freezer almost effortlessly. She bit her lip as his biceps rippled with the movement. Must be nice to have the strength of a demigod.
He squatted down and peered into the inner workings of the freezer case, jiggling some wires. "It's pretty dirty under here. You have some compressed air?"
She wanted to smack herself. Of course that's what it was. She hadn't cleaned the freezer after moving it from the diner, and it had probably been a good while before that since she gave the inner workings a good cleaning. She knew better. All this could have been avoided if she'd taken proper measures. She'd just been so busy with everything it slipped her mind. That didn't make it any less frustrating that if the ice creamed was ruined, it was all her fault.
"Thanks," she said with a tight smile. "I do. I can take it from here."
"No problem." Mack stood and regarded her for a minute. "It's going to be fine, you know. You've got this."
"That's what I keep telling her," Lanie said, rattling the banner. "Now get over here and help me out, will you?"
Mack grinned and went to help his sister, and Kate found a can of compressed air from the back and started blowing the dust and grime from the inside of the freezer. Sure enough, once it was cleaned up, it didn't take long for it start cooling down. She'd give it a bit before moving the ice cream back out, just to be sure.
"You need to use and abuse this body any more before I start setting up?" Mack shot her a teasing smile.
Kate's eyes wandered over his body before she could stop herself. It really wasn't fair for anyone to look that good. Light brown hair that she knew showed flecks of copper in the sun, trademark Winters emerald eyes, and muscles that looked like they belonged on an underwear model. She shook her head, trying to focus on what he'd asked.
"I'm good." Though the somersaults in her stomach told a different story. "You go ahead and get set up."
Mack and his band had agreed to be the musical act for her grand opening. One of her favorite parts about the new coffeehouse (slash ice cream shop) was the little stage at the end of the room. Perfect for live music. He flashed her another quick grin and headed back outside to start unloading equipment.
Grabbing a coffee, Kate sat at one of the bistro tables and looked over her checklist. Almost everything was done now that the freezer debacle had been avoided—as long as the ice cream was still good. She took a minute to look around the shop and allowed herself a satisfied smile. She'd put blood, sweat and tears into making this a reality, and it looked like it just might come together.
The grays, tans, and browns gave it a clean, modern feel, with the exposed ceiling and distressed brick wall along the back giving it a bit of an industrial edge. The counter was made of wide birch wood planks, and the smooth concrete floor was stained a light gray with a glossy finish.
Kate wanted to feature local artwork, and was pleased with what she'd found so far. As a whole, it was fresh and inviting, and she hoped it would be the new hot spot in town. It didn't hurt that Lanie had helped her secure a rarely available and highly sought-after town square location.
Just as she homed in on her checklist again, the front door jingled and everything was forgotten as the most precious sound in the world reached her ears.
Jumping from her stool, Kate caught six-year-old Clara as she hurtled toward her and spun her around in her arms. She set her back on her feet and squatted down to Clara's level, folding her into a tight hug.
"Hey, baby. What are you doing here?" Kate brushed the dark hair back from Clara's face and planted a soft kiss on her forehead.
"Gram wanted to surprise you. Are you surprised?" Her dark eyes, so like Kate's, sparkled as she bounced on her toes.
"Very. It's a wonderful surprise." Glancing up as her mother walked through the door, she shot her a grateful look and mouthed, "Thank you."
Not only had Mrs. Reynolds been pulling double duty watching Clara after school and on the weekends, she'd made sure to bring her by plenty of times over the last few weeks. It had been tough for Kate to spend so much time away from her daughter—even more than usual. She always felt the guilt of not spending enough time with her little girl, the hardest part of being a single working mother. But since she'd been working on opening the coffeehouse, she'd spent more time away from home than she ever remembered.
One more reason she had to make it a success. It couldn't be all for nothing.
Her mother walked over to where they stood. "I thought you might want a few minutes with Clara. I know it will be a late night for you."
In truth, Kate would be surprised if she got to see Clara much at all over the weekend. After tonight's grand opening, she was opening the shop early Saturday morning, staying open all day, then doing it again on Sunday. She might be able to sneak away at some point, but she wanted to be on site pretty much all the time during the first few weeks to make sure there were no snags.
"I made you a picture in art class today," Clara said proudly, digging in her backpack and producing a bright painting of a dish of ice cream. It had about ten scoops, each one a different color, with "toppings" made of dried macaroni, glitter and beads glued on. Sugar ‘n’ Cream was written at the top in huge, messy first-grader print.
"It's beautiful." Kate beamed. "I know just the place for it." Running into the storage room, she found a frame and stuck the picture inside. She grabbed an adhesive hook and attached it to the brick wall behind the counter, just next to the menu.
Clara clapped, jumping up and down. "Yay! Can I have some ice cream now?"
Kate pursed her lips. Normally she wouldn't want to spoil her dinner, but it was a special occasion. She nodded. "Why not?"
Heading to the back freezer, she was relieved to find the ice cream had refrozen nicely. It must have just started melting when she discovered the problem. She hauled out a tub of Clara's favorite, Pink Bubblegum, and put it in the freezer case.
Lanie had come over to talk to Mrs. Reynolds, and Kate smiled as they discussed how they knew tonight would be a huge success. Scooping a single serving into a sugar cone for Clara, she leaned over the counter to hand it to her, but she wasn't there.
"Over here, Mommy." Clara was sitting on the stage, Mack's guitar in her lap as she plucked at the strings.
"Clara, no," she gasped, rushing over just as Mack came back through the door with an amp in his arms. She turned to him. "I'm so sorry."
He shot her a funny look as he set the amp down on the side of the stage. "It's no problem." He turned his attention to Clara and sat down next in front of her, folding his long legs up like hers, like they were having circle time at school. "Do you like to play music?"
She bobbed her head up and down excitedly. "It's my favorite class. Well, after art class."
He smiled. "Here, let me show you a few things."
Kate stood, as frozen in place as her now solidified tubs of ice cream, and watched as Mack showed her daughter how to place her fingers on the guitar frets to make a simple chord, then strum her fingers over the strings. She felt an unfamiliar tightening in her chest as Clara followed his instructions, her face lighting up with delight as the guitar reverberated with the perfectly tuned notes. Clara glanced up at Mack and grinned, the smile he gave her in turn just as pleased and genuine.
"Looks like she's a natural," Mack said, reaching out to ruffle Clara's hair, his gaze lifting to Kate's.
She nodded, unable to form words. Seeing Clara interact with a man wasn't something she was used to, and it stirred up a storm of conflicting emotions. The ever-present guilt that she didn't have a father figure in her life. The longing to have a complete family. The out-of-nowhere appeal of seeing Mack with Clara.
But most of all—and what won out—the unease that settled over her.
There was no room in her life for a man; she never even let the thought take root, always tearing it from the soil and tossing it aside when it popped up. She had enough on her plate with running a business and being a single mother. Even more importantly, though, was the vow she made to never put her daughter in the position she'd been in one too many times—heartbroken by a man that didn't stick around.
It's why she didn't date. Why she worked so hard to be enough for Clara. A mother and a father. She couldn't afford to entertain thoughts about how precious it was to see Mack with Clara. Nope.
"Come on, Clara," she said abruptly, reaching out a hand. "Better eat your ice cream before it melts."
Carefully avoiding Mack's eyes, she took Clara's hand and guided her back toward her mother. "Thanks for bringing her by, Mom. I've got to get back to work now, though." She planted a quick kiss atop Clara's head. "Love you, baby doll. Have a fun night with Gram."
They left, and Kate made her way back to the freezer to begin carting out the other tubs of ice cream. She tried not to notice Mack as he finished setting up the sound equipment, but she felt his eyes on her more than once. Again, she attributed her quickened heart rate to hauling the heavy tubs, and the flutter in her stomach to nerves about the opening. But it was hard to deny that her suddenly sweaty palms and inability to breathe were caused by anything but him when he strolled over and leaned across the counter with a crooked smile.
"Hey, Sugar, think you can spare a minute for me?"