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Publisher TLB Publishing
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Nikki Graham’s career revolved around computers, which was great since she considered herself an introvert. The loner trait was not because she had social anxieties, but because of the things she saw as a child made her fearful of relationships.
Logan Sloan, a chef and own a restaurant. To complete his dream, it meant he had to give up a chunk of his private life to manage his restaurant. That was until the day his computer died, and he texted a message to the wrong number.
Logan dreamed of doing this forever. The first year of running the restaurant flew by in a blur. He worked long hours six days a week. The one day the restaurant closed for business was when the cleaning company came in and gave everything a deep cleaning. He’d restock the inventory then as well. The new computer and software were supposed to make some tasks easier and quicker, but that was not the case tonight.
The thousands of dollars spent for the equipment sat on a desk in his office with a black screen. No F keys or letters he pushed restored the blue screen. At least the blue screen gave him hope the system was not totally dead, but the screen was black with no indication it had life.
Logan leaned his hands on the cool tile of the shower wall as steam rose up around him. He inhaled deeply through his nose, letting the pounding heat of the water hit his tense shoulders and back. Rolling his neck from side to side, he tried his best to relax and get the voice out of his head. The soft way his name rolled off her tongue was sexy as hell.
He wondered if she was pretty. Probably not—people who worked with computers had a tendency to be nerdy, withdrawn from the real world, and used computers to hide their social awkwardness. He bet Ms. Graham had messy hair, wore big glasses, and dressed liked the computer whiz portrayed on Criminal Minds. He soaped his body thinking he’d dodged a bullet and was grateful she’d declined his offer to have dinner.
Dipping his head once more under the warm stream, Logan reached down and turned the knob, shutting off the shower. He wrung the excess water from his hair and stepped out of the walk-in shower to grab the towel hanging on the rack.
As he dried off, he heard his phone buzzing in the bedroom. Grabbing his robe, he went into the bedroom and swiped the screen on his iPhone. He had two missed calls and one voicemail. He listened to the voicemail from Bargain Buy instructing him how to return the computer for repair.
Logan sighed. “Like I still have the original packaging.” He tossed the phone back on his bed.
The restaurant business seemed to run smoothly watching his parents do it as a kid. They would smile and greet each customer who walked through the door with warmth and love. After closing, they cleaned and dismissed the staff for the night and they were still smiling.
Once the family-owned restaurant became successful, his parents hired professional chefs, and his love of cooking landed him in the kitchen learning from those chefs. After high school, Logan trained as a chef at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, in Philadelphia. At the tender age of thirty-three, he opened his first restaurant. He planned to model his business practices after his father, but by today’s standards, his way was outdated.
Logan admired how his parents managed to run the day-to-day operations without the use of computers, fax machines, and all the technology businesses needed today. All his dad used was a phone, and he made face-to-face contact with vendors who supplied the restaurant with quality products. He remembers his parents waking up at the crack of dawn and coming home so late at night that the babysitter had a bedroom of her own.
Growing up with parents who put all the passion and energy they had into what they loved doing was hard for Logan and his brother Axl. The boys didn’t see much of them, but when they did, it was rewarded with vacations that were fun-filled and adventurous. Hotels were five-star, and it was fine dining and first-class all the way.
That memory was eons ago. He and Axl were grown men living separate lives in different states. Logan scrubbed the towel through his wet hair again and tossed it on a pile of dirty laundry. He sat on the unmade bed too exhausted to crawl under the cover. The best part about doing long hours at the restaurant is that he lived upstairs in a spacious loft.
When he left Pittsburgh to open a restaurant in Cleveland, he chose a building big enough to have an upper floor available to convert into a living space to prevent commuting around the city.
He picked up the phone and scrolled through the text messages between him and Ms. Graham. He created an image of her the way he felt she should look. He closed his eyes concentrating when she appeared before him. What he saw made him smile. Ms. Graham, the help desk technician, was a bodacious woman standing five foot five, with long blonde hair, crystal blue eyes, and curves he dared to keep his hands from touching. When he looked at her, and she smiled, he saw his angel.
Logan opened his eyes and scoffed at himself. It had been too long since he’d entertained a woman, his reason for the prompt invitation to Ms. Graham. Work consumed every bit of him, and when he had a chance to take a breath, he tried to have a little social life, exercise, and sleep.
Logan went to the dresser, took out a pair of boxers and slipped them on, and went into the living room to get his iPad. He knew sleep would elude him tonight. The damn computer blowing up created major problems he didn’t need or want to deal with tonight. Inventory would have to be done by hand. The staff would get overtime pay for helping with the inventory in the kitchen and the bar.
If he couldn’t get a new computer system up and running soon, the servers would have to rely on manual order taking instead of using the computer to place orders with the kitchen. That would also interfere with take-out and the catering services.
He powered on the iPad hoping a backup copy of the database from last week’s inventory was saved somewhere. Logan considered himself organized but slipped at times because he’d get too busy to remember to document everything.
Thunder rattled the windows and rain pounded on the skylights above. The storm came suddenly and without warning. The day had been warm and sunny. Perfect weather brought customers to his restaurant. Still relatively new to the area, Logan had made the local news and had been interviewed by food critics, who gave rave reviews about his food and the atmosphere the restaurant created. He’d made friends with a few people who lived downtown and had gained loyal customers through them. He’d hate to lose any of them due to a failed computer system.
Logan logged off the iPad, realizing he didn’t backup of the database since the system was Windows-based. He dropped his head in his hands and released a defeated sigh. Getting up from the desk, he shut the lights off as he headed to bed. He’d wing it until he hired a geek to put the system back together again.
Nikki smashed the pillow over her head, pressing it hard against her ear. It was too early for people to be calling on a Saturday. And she wasn’t on the weekend schedule. She was not obligated to answer any incoming calls from Brand.
“Stop ringing!” Her voice was muffled by the pillow covering her head. As if by magic, the phone stopped ringing.
Putting the pillow under her head, she stayed put, willing herself to fall back asleep and restart the sexy dream where she’d left off. The rough part about being alone was sleeping alone. With the storm raging last night, she laid in bed listening to the rain and watching the lightning flash weird patterns across the dark room. It was the perfect night to cuddle with that special someone. There would be soft music playing, a bottle of wine to be shared and then nature would take its course. A course that hadn’t been driven on her body for so long that weeds were growing where there shouldn’t be.
She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. Such a dream wouldn’t have happened had she not talked to the man with the sexy voice—he had invaded the sexual part of her mind. The phone started ringing again. Nikki kicked her feet and pounded her fists on the mattress like a six-year-old when told to pick up his favorite toys.
It was evident the ringing wasn’t going to stop. Whoever was calling had an urgent need to speak to her. She rolled over on her stomach and snatched up the receiver on the nightstand. She still used a landline by a real telephone company. It came in handy when she built computers from scratch.
“Hello,” she said in a dry tone. She didn’t bother to hide she was agitated since it was Gayle.
“What took you so long to answer, Nikki? I’ve been calling you since seven.” Gayle didn’t bother to hide the agitation in her voice either.
“Did it occur to you that I might be asleep? What do you want? It’s too early to talk.”
“Mom and I are going to breakfast and then to get our nails and hair done. We want you to come with us.”
She cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder, letting her arm hang off the side of the bed. “No thanks. But have fun.”
“Come on, Nikki. What do you have planned for today? And don’t say laundry or cleaning. We both know you don’t clean and only do laundry when you’re down to the granny panties and sweat pants.”
She smacked her lips. She hated Gayle sometimes. The woman knew her too well. “I’m not in the mood to be the third wheel, Gayle. Thanks for inviting me, but spend the day with your mom and have fun.”
“She’s sitting right here.”
“Oh no,” she groaned. “I had a long night and just want to sleep a few more hours.”
The excitement in Gayle’s voice spiked. “Did you have a date?”
“Has hell frozen over? You know I didn’t have a date or anything resembling one.”
“You could if you didn’t live behind a computer. Look, get off your lazy butt, put on some clothes, and meet us downtown in thirty minutes. There is this restaurant Mom swears serves the best breakfast in town.”
“I have food here.”
“When was the last time you checked the date on any of it? Get up, shower, comb that pretty hair of yours, and meet me downtown. Oh, and don’t wear those bright green sweats with the words ‘juicy’ printed on the ass, either.”
Nikki rolled over on her back, laughing. “My ass is juicy. Don’t hate because your ass is lumpy.”
It was the last word Nikki heard before Gayle hung up the phone. They teased that way all the time, and neither took anything personally. Gayle was on the thick side, but she had a man who loved her curves and accepted her natural beauty. Mike had no problem with the women going on a cruise alone; their love was rock solid and unbreakable. Nikki wished she had a man who accepted her unconditionally. Heck, she didn’t have a mother who accepted her unconditionally.
Nikki dragged her body out of bed. “I don’t have to go anywhere if I don’t wanna.” She walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. “I have food to eat,” she said sarcastically. The cold and from the fridge smacked her in the face since there wasn’t any food occupying the shelves. She twisted her lips. “Maybe I don’t. Guess, I’ll take a shower and get dressed.”
The music blaring from the radio helped Nikki wake up as she drove along the highway. Saturday morning traffic was light compared to the weekday rush hour headaches. A twenty-minute commute downtown could be an hour or more with a simple fender-bender.
Exiting the highway at Ninth Street, she turned on Prospect to look for a place to park on the street. She’d walk the few blocks to Fourth Street to meet Gayle. Nikki found a spot to park and fed the meter enough quarters for the maximum time allotted. Putting on her sunglasses, she walked through a parking structure that served as a shortcut to Euclid Avenue.
The hot sun added to her misery of being out of the house early on a Saturday morning. Besides sulking in bed about her pitiful life, she had to work on the software she hoped to develop and market under her own brand. With her talent, the thought of working for Brand forever was not on her agenda. Gayle wasn’t as enthusiastic about the project anymore since the cruise was nearing and her focus was primarily on planning the itinerary.
She entered Neeò scanning for Gayle and Mimi before approaching the hostess. The restaurant wasn’t packed, but a nice crowd had gathered for breakfast. Nikki was impressed with the décor. Brown and beige muted tones warmed the open space, and bright light streamed through the large picture window. An enormous bar with plenty of seating and a raised platform stage was located at the back of the restaurant. She had passed this restaurant along with others on Fourth Street because they were out of her range for spending on restaurant food.
“Nikki, over here.”
Her attention went to the voice calling her from across the room. She walked past the hostess, pointing in Gayle’s direction. “My friends are over there.”
Gayle pushed a chair out with her foot. “It’s about time you got here; we’re starving.”
Nikki sat down, draping the strap of her purse over the chair. “Sorry. I don’t roll out of bed dressed and ready to go like you. Good morning, Mom, you look beautiful as always.” She addressed Mimi as ‘Mom’ because Mimi treated her like a daughter.
“Good morning, Nikki. I’m sorry Gayle dragged you out of bed too. The girl has no sense of time anymore,” Mimi said as she pushed a menu toward Nikki.
Some expected Mimi to be a middle-aged, heavyset woman with graying hair, glasses, and frumpy clothes, but that was not the case. She was neither gray-haired, heavy-set, nor frumpy. She was stylish, with short black hair, slim, and today, she wore a feminine sundress that fell within her age limit.
“I know! When is Mike coming back? We need a break from her,” Nikki teased.
“Hey! I’m sitting right here,” Gayle snorted. “This is the thanks I get for getting you people up and moving instead of wasting away in bed? You got a lot of nerve giving me grief.”
“Yes, sounds about right,” Nikki said as she opened the menu and scanned it over. It was filled with choices for breakfast; some parings she would never think to eat together. “Since I have to defend myself, I worked late at the office last night, then when I got home, I worked on our project. You remember? The one you decided is no longer important to you.”
“And, I was sound asleep when you called,” Mimi interjected.
Gayle rolled her eyes. “All right, put me in front of the firing squad, geez. For your information, Nikki, I have not forgotten about the project. I’m almost done configuring the app. It should be ready for beta testing when we get back from the cruise.”
“I won’t be done with the software by then, Gayle. The bugs are popping up, and it’s taking me forever to debug them one at a time. I could use your help.”
“Look, why don’t we put the whole thing on hold until we’re back and can devote our full attention to it. A couple of months is not going to make a difference, Nikki.”
Nikki sat back in the chair and crossed her arms. “Seriously, Gayle?”
Mimi butted in and said, “Girls, stop it right now. I did not leave my husband alone in bed this morning to come here and listen to you two talk about computers. Do that on your time, not mine.”
“Sorry, Mom,” Gayle said lowly.
The waitress came to the table, interrupting them. “Good morning and welcome to Neeò. Are you ready to order?”
Too many choices and not enough time to pick the menu apart, Nikki chose pancakes and hand-sliced bacon with a side of fruit and coffee. She should be dieting to make sure the swimming suit she purchased would still fit two months from now. She had never battled a weight problem, but with a planned event in the books, just smelling food could cause her to put on pounds.
She sighed. “I should have ordered something light. My bathing suit has to fit since it can’t be returned.”
“Just get a sari or a large shirt to cover it,” Gayle suggested. “That’s what Mom and I got.”
“Neither of you need to attract a man. I have to look my best on the boat, which means sleek and slim.”
Mimi patted the back of Nikki’s hand, reassuring her. “Honey, you’re beautiful the way you are. Don’t change for a man or anyone.”
Nikki smiled. “Thank you, Mom.” She pushed her chair from the table. “I’m going to wash my hands before the food comes.”
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Toye Lawson Brown lives in Cleveland, Ohio. She is an Amazon bestselling author of romance that includes interracial romance, romantic suspense, and multicultural novels. And recently nominated by the B.R.A.B Book Club for Breakout Author of the Year 2014. Each novel is a journey into the lives of strong characters with normal backgrounds. Always a sucker for a happy ending, Toye Lawson Brown strives to lure readers from the present and into her fictional world.