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All of Me

A Journey's End Novel

May 20, 2019

Journey’s End, Book 6

Five sexy brothers. One small town. Journey's End.

 

Genius tech millionaire Isaiah Harper, better known as “Crazy Isaiah,” alienates everyone he encounters with his abrasive personality. Not that he cares. Until he meets his match during a run-in with the feisty server at his family’s restaurant in small-town Journey’s End.

 

Alyssa Banks knows she needs to make some life changes and stop acting like a doormat. But she never expected her big moment to come while nose-to-nose with intriguing Isaiah Harper, who doesn’t strike her as crazy. At all…

 

If you love steamy contemporary romance and enemies-to-lovers storylines, grab All of Me today!

 

“Ann Christopher gets it right every time. Emotional, page-turning reads and characters that stay with you long after you close the book.”

—Lori Foster, New York Times Bestselling Author

 

“Ann Christopher’s gift with words will leave you captivated and breathless.”

—Brenda Jackson, New York Times & USA TODAY  Bestselling Author

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Several months into her unlikely tenure as a server at Harper Rose Bistro, one of Journey’s End’s finest dining establishments, Alyssa Banks thought she knew something about difficult customers. There’d been the clueless couple who brought their toddler into the white tablecloth restaurant and proceeded to let the budding monster run screeching through the aisles prior to throwing most of his juicy spaghetti on the floor and at Alyssa. The grandmotherly type who’d stolen a server’s tip from another table right before Alyssa’s disbelieving eyes. The man who’d eaten every last bite of a $70 steak and all but licked the plate clean before complaining that it was overcooked and demanding a refund.

Difficult customers were one thing. She was prepared for them.

But Isaiah Harper, one of the five sons of the bistro-owning Harpers, who’d come in every night that week?

No possible way to prepare for his misery-inducing presence.

Was serving other persnickety customers good practice for dealing with Isaiah Harper? Yeah, sure. The same way watching a couple of Scooby-Doo episodes was good practice for dealing with a rabid pit bull headed your way.

Isaiah Harper had, in the last forty minutes on this chilly October night, sat at his usual booth in the back and complained about the dirtiness level of his dirty martini, the selection of rolls in his bread basket, the windiness of the overhead vent, the weakness of the restaurant’s Wi-Fi and Alyssa’s temerity in telling him about the daily specials when he hadn’t asked about the daily specials. And he’d done all of that while tapping away on his laptop (he evidently saw nothing wrong with treating the restaurant like the corner Starbucks during business hours) and never making eye contact with her.

Not once.

Luckily, she had a long and impressive history of dialing back her anger and frustration when dealing with difficult people. She was used to keeping her mouth shut, her head down and her feelings suppressed. To being ignored and feeling insignificant.

To being a doormat for anyone with muddy shoes.

But this was the first time she’d ever felt invisible.

The power imbalance (who did you complain to when your boss’s son acted like a dick?) and unfairness of his treatment were seriously starting to piss her off. 

It wasn’t that Alyssa thought she was the world’s greatest server—she snorted back a laugh at that improbable image—but she was competent. Besides. She couldn’t control half the stuff he’d complained about. Could she snap her fingers and make their temperamental chef cook faster? No. Could she wave a magic wand to speed up the Internet? Hell, no.

But Isaiah Harper didn’t care about any of that, did he?

Isaiah Freaking Harper. 

What an unmitigated jerk.

Even his family disliked him. She’d seen enough of the Harper clan coming and going through the restaurant during the time she’d worked there to notice the way they all stiffened up like Madame Tussaud’s wax figures when Isaiah walked through the door. She’d heard the whispers about Crazy Isaiah and my crazy brother Isaiah.

So it wasn’t her. It was him.

Tonight wasn’t the night for that shit. Not with adrenaline already buzzing through her veins and her late mother’s disapproving face lingering in her mind’s eye. 

Tonight, Alyssa felt exceptionally edgy.

Why? Well, for one thing, her precious baby, a contemporary romance manuscript into which she’d poured her heart and soul, had earlier been rejected by yet another agent. Which meant that basically every worthwhile agent in New York City agreed that her book sucked. 

And for another thing, bad memories kept crowding into her mind, demanding the answer to one perplexing question:

What was the proper way to observe the first post-death birthday of your recently deceased and unlamented mother, whose tiny urn you carried around in your oversized purse? 

A few solemn words followed by a moment of silence? 

Cocktail party with champagne and confetti?

Alyssa had no idea.

Then there was the whole letter situation, namely that Alyssa hadn’t yet opened the one that her mother left for her along with her will. Why? Extreme cowardice, probably. God knew what kind of additional nastiness her mother could generate from beyond the grave.

But now wasn’t the time for moody memories about Mommy Dearest, she thought as she waited in the kitchen for Isaiah’s plate while idly fiddling with her mother’s heavy gold charm bracelet. Alyssa had taken it off her wrist immediately after her death and worn it ever since. All the mama drama would keep until her shift ended later. Now was the time for taking care of the one thing she could control: serving Isaiah Harper’s dinner to him while it was still hot and thereby soothing the savage and hangry beast.

At least for a few minutes. 

“Here you go,” Chef said, glaring at her as he finished plating the food, as though he couldn’t believe her temerity in asking him to do his job and actually cook dinner for the restaurant’s customers. “One Isaiah Harper special.”

“Thanks,” she said cheerily, determined to stay upbeat and professional despite the lengthy delay for this one simple salmon dinner.

“Better late than never,” said Nigel Harper, one of the restaurant’s co-owners, shooting a glower in Chef’s direction. 

Chef stiffened as he slung a towel over his shoulder and widened his feet into a fighting stance, giving the distinct impression that he longed to take a swing at his boss. 

“You want to start in on me tonight?” he asked Nigel.

“Not at all,” Nigel said placidly, jotting a note on his clipboard. “I just thought it was worth mentioning that if you were any slower, it would be yesterday.”

“You want to go there?” Chef said aggressively. “That’s what you—”

Oh, for God’s sake.

Alyssa rolled her eyes and turned her back on the combatants, annoyed and determined to make her escape before the situation devolved into Chef’s nightly quitting/firing. She grabbed the food from the warming table and hurried from the kitchen to the far corner of the elegant dining room, where Isaiah and his laptop sat with his brother Daniel, one of the four nice Harper siblings, arriving in time to hear a grim-faced Daniel tell Isaiah the following:

“Every now and then I forget why it’s so hard to like you. Thanks for the reminder.”

Alyssa hesitated, lingering out of their line of sight.

Ouch.

There went a sharp slice right across Isaiah’s heart. Assuming he had a heart, that was. Probably well earned on Isaiah’s part, but still. That comment was going to scar.

Sure enough, Isaiah’s gaze flickered with unmistakable hurt, quickly subdued. “I am who I am. I won’t apologize for it.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” Daniel said. Isaiah opened his mouth, looking outraged, but Alyssa slid into her lifelong role as peacemaker before the brothers could resort to blows. 

She knew she was doing it. Hated herself for it but couldn’t stop to save her life. If there was a family in turmoil somewhere in her little corner of the world? She was the one to try to smooth things over. She hated conflict. Hated ugly words and hurt feelings, even if they had nothing to do with her. 

“Here we are,” she said crisply, startling them as she reached across the table to set down a new bread basket. “Fresh bread.”

Daniel turned away from Isaiah’s lingering glare, grabbed his wine and drank as if his life depended on it. With that, the brothers eased back and the tension broke with a snap that was almost audible.

Much to her relief. She took a deep breath and focused on placing Isaiah’s food a safe distance from his precious laptop lest she give him something else to complain about. Then she placed the loaded plate to the side of Isaiah’s computer and stepped back with grim satisfaction. “Steamed trout with lemon juice. No butter. Smashed potatoes with plain yogurt, also with no butter. Broccolini sautéed in olive oil and truffle oil. No butter.”

There, she thought, resisting the urge to grin and whoop with triumph. Nailed it.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.

Isaiah gave the food a quick and dismissive once-over that made her heart sink.

“I don’t see my drink,” he said, referencing the refill he’d ordered on his dirty martini, which was ready over at the bar but which she hadn’t brought just now because, unlike an octopus, she only had two arms to carry things. He rummaged through the bread basket, rejecting several rolls before selecting one that seemed to meet his exacting standards. “That puts you down at around a twelve percent tip. If the service doesn’t get any better, you’re looking at nothing. Which would make it a tough night for you, I’m guessing, because there’re no other customers. So you might want to step up your game. Just FYI.”

He delivered the entire speech with the monotonous, brisk and soulless efficiency of Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.

And all without looking her in the face.

If Miranda Priestly was the devil, then Isaiah Harper was the devil’s brother for sure.

Alyssa stood there while his words settled, stunned stupid. She felt furious at him, yeah, but she was mostly pissed at herself. She was the fool who’d thought that anything she could ever say or do would stop this known SOB from showing his true colors. 

Please.

As if you could stop a black panther from showing his carnivorous side if you bleached it white and offered it a salad.

“Isaiah.” Daniel shot Alyssa an apologetic look. “I’m so sorry—” 

There was probably more from Daniel but she held up a hand to stop him, all her growing fury irrevocably centered on his jackass of a brother. 

Why?

Because Daniel wasn’t the one who owed her an apology. Because Isaiah’s words finally sank all the way in, causing a surge of white-hot anger across her face and making listening impossible. And because she ran, suddenly and irrevocably, into her limit.

Her limit of what?

Of peacemakers like Daniel and herself, those hapless folks who thought that if they intervened with a diplomatic comment or two, they could divert attention from the dysfunctional among them and eradicate all unpleasantness from the world.

She ran into her limit of feeling powerless and marginalized.

Most of all, she ran into her lifetime limit of bullies.

Seething, she wheeled around and walked off without a word, determined not to lunge for Isaiah Harper’s throat or otherwise lose her damn mind.

Count to ten, girl, she told herself, her hands itching to reach for the nearby shelf full of clean plates and smash a few on the floor. Do not rock the boat. Count to ten.

She took a deep breath, her cheeks still on fire.

One…

Two…

“You fucking jackass!” Daniel cried behind her. “That poor woman—”

Poor woman?!

“—is doing the best she can, and you have no right to treat her like that! She’s shy! Now she’s probably crying her eyes out in the bathroom—”

Crying. Her. Eyes. Out.

The assessment infuriated her as much as Isaiah’s harangue. As if she was some melty little snowflake whose delicate crystals disintegrated when a bully looked in her direction.

Actually…You know what? Maybe that was exactly who she used to be.

But that damn sure wasn’t who she was anymore.

Maybe Isaiah Harper was the devil’s brother, but she was about to impersonate Satan’s sister up in here. 

Propelled by forces beyond her control, she grabbed a heavy silver pitcher of ice water from the side cart and took it back to the table. 

Where she unceremoniously dumped the entire contents on Isaiah Harper’s lap.

He yelped with surprise. Roared with outrage. Surged to his feet and got in her face.

Directly looked at her for the first time all night. Possibly ever.

Saw her.

“What the hell?” he shouted, towering over her five-five from his wiry height of six-one or so, his brown-skinned face a satisfyingly vivid shade of red. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Don’t you know who I am?”

Everyone in town knew who he was thanks to his recent cover spread in Time magazine. He was a thirty-seven-year-old tech millionaire who’d done something revolutionary with algorithms and recently sold his second company for a ridiculous amount of money. He now lived in Seattle but had come home for his brother James’s wedding the other day and was the one outlying jackass member of the lovely Harper family. 

What else…what else?

Well, he’d gone off to MIT as a sixteen-year-old child prodigy and earned advanced math and computer science degrees. He’d also earned the distinction of being a ridiculously demanding boss because of his uncompromising perfectionism. The article overflowed with accounts from tearful and fearful current and former employee victims of his reign of terror, including one memorable anecdote about him firing his entire marketing department when they couldn’t get the ads right a couple of days ahead of a product launch. 

Isaiah freaking Harper. She’d seen this routine before. She knew exactly the sort of person who engineered this type of turmoil and anxiety.

Just like that, all her anger evaporated. Funny how that worked now that she finally had his attention. A perverse feeling of righteous calm settled over her, letting her words flow and her voice ring out nice and strong.

“I know exactly who you are. You’re a bully.”

“A bully—?” he said, yanking a napkin off the table and using it to wipe his crotch.

Daniel, meanwhile, settled in to watch them with the gleeful interest of a Star Wars fan hearing the theme song come up on opening night of the latest installment.

But she didn’t have time for Daniel right now.

Right now was about balancing out the scales between her and yet another person in her life who didn’t want to act right.

“A bully,” Alyssa said. “It doesn’t matter if you went to MIT. I don’t care if you were just in Time magazine for selling your company for twenty-five million. All that means is that you’re a millionaire bully with a high-priced degree.”

Isaiah went very still, eyes flashing behind his black-rimmed glasses.

That was about the time that Ada Harper hurried out from the kitchen. She was Isaiah’s mother, Nigel’s wife and most importantly, one of the co-owners of Harper Rose Bistro. Which made her Alyssa’s boss. Alyssa felt a passing stab of guilt but, hey, at least she’d go out with a bang when she inevitably got fired tonight.

“What the heck is going on out here?” Mrs. Harper cried, surveying the mess, the adversaries and Isaiah’s wet crotch. “What happened?”

Isaiah seemed not to hear the interruption, instead taking an aggressive step toward Alyssa as he looked her up and down, nostrils flaring. Alyssa stood her ground, tipped up her chin and stared him in the face, feeling a wild surge of satisfaction now that she was no longer invisible. She also felt the telltale tightening in her lungs that told her an asthma attack might be in her near future if she kept up like this, but a wheezing fit and perhaps a trip to the ER were prices she was willing to pay for this one moment of glory.

“Who are you to call me a bully?” he said.

Alyssa barked out a humorless laugh. Was that the best he could do? This big, bad bully who suddenly wasn’t so big or bad when someone stood up to him and called him on his shit?

“I’m a human being. That makes me entitled to respect,” she said. “Oh, and by the way? I have an Ivy League degree, which means I’m smart just like you are.”

That shut him up in a hurry. The freaking snob.

“And just so you know?” Alyssa continued, determined to get it all out there for once in her shy and peacekeeping life because she was done cowering. Done hanging her head and trying to blend in with the furniture. “My mother was a bully who makes you look like a toddler with a saggy diaper—”

Daniel and Ada gasped.

Isaiah gaped at Alyssa, his lower jaw on the floor and his skin now mottled with red blotches of anger.

“—and when she died, I made up my mind. I’m not putting up with any more bullies in my life. So you can go straight to hell with your twelve percent tip.”

She finally ran out of steam, leaving a ringing silence and three wide-eyed and speechless Harpers in her wake.

That was when it hit her.

She’d just lost her damn mind at work and assaulted someone. Only with water, true, but assault was assault.

Which meant both that her ass was out of a job and that she’d disappointed Mrs. Harper, her late mother’s friend from church and the one person who’d believed in Alyssa for the last several months, if not years.

The guilt returned. Kicked in with a vengeance.

Alyssa ducked her head and turned to her boss. Former boss. Who had been far kinder to her than her own mother had ever been.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Harper. I don’t know what just happened. I’ll…I’ll turn in my apron. Thanks for taking a chance on me.”

With a heavy heart, she handed the empty pitcher to Mrs. Harper, gave her a peck on the cheek and headed for the kitchen. 

Halfway there, she pulled an inhaler from her pants pocket and took a hit from it (more from habit than anything else, because her breathing was fine now) as she examined the detonated fragments of her life. She’d really enjoyed this little job, which had gotten her out of the empty house. Now, thanks to her newly discovered hot-tempered streak, she had nowhere to go on all these long and cold winter evenings.

What now, genius? 

Well, she could apply down the street at Java Nectar, the coffeehouse. She could look into online tutoring and make use of her English Lit knowledge, but that wouldn’t get her out of the house. She could—

“You’ll do no such thing, dear,” Mrs. Harper called after her. “Take the rest of the night off. You’ve earned it. And I’ll see you back here for tomorrow’s shift.”

Alyssa spun back around and returned to the table on a wave of utter astonishment, afraid to breathe. Afraid to hope. 

“Really?”

“Absolutely.” Mrs. Harper beamed at her, regarding Alyssa as though she’d just awarded Harper Rose Bistro a handful of Michelin Stars. “Isaiah still needs to get schooled sometimes. Even if he does have those mathematics with computer science degrees from MIT.”

Isaiah, who was now dabbing his crotch with his napkin, a useless exercise that did nothing to mitigate the illusion that he’d had a huge pee in his pants, scowled.

“Thanks, Mrs. Harper.” Alyssa gratefully took Ada’s hand between both of hers. “It won’t happen again. I usually never lose my temper.”

“No worries, dear.”

Alyssa headed for the kitchen again with a song in her heart and a bounce in her step, categorically unable to believe her good fortune. She’d knocked the bully down to size and she got to keep her job? She’d always know that Mrs. Harper was a sweetheart, but— 

“What’s your name?” a male voice called behind her. 

She stiffened and turned back.

It was Isaiah Harper.

He cleared his throat. “I want to make sure I get it right when I leave a scathing online review.”

Alyssa stared at the devil’s brother, her shoulders automatically squaring up and her facial features involuntarily resuming frown position. Her strong inclination was to test his mother’s goodwill by telling him to kiss her ass, but it turned out that her newfound hotheadedness only went so far.

And then a memory shook loose from her brain. 

Just a little while ago, she’d overheard Isaiah saying that he planned to start some sort of a foundation with the multimillion-dollar proceeds from the sale of his second software company, the deal that had landed him on the cover of Time.

A foundation.

An image of her recently deceased mother crept into her thoughts. Mama had been so decimated with her disease that there’d been precious little left to embalm and place into her pitifully small urn. 

“If you’re looking for ideas for your foundation, you might want to consider something for lung cancer,” she told Isaiah. “It’s the leading cancer killer for men and women. By far.”

Then she went into the kitchen to grab some dinner, letting the door flap shut on Isaiah’s inscrutable gaze as it followed her.

 

Chapter 2

The fun continued a few minutes later, when Alyssa emerged from the kitchen and discovered Isaiah standing by the bar retrieving his martini and holding a glass of wine in his other hand. A quick glance around revealed no sign of the bartender. Only Isaiah’s penetrating stare, his eyes moody over the rim of his glass as he took a sip.

Though she felt she’d done an admirable job of cooling down since Water Pitcher-Gate, the sight of him again so soon rubbed her the wrong way. She mentally weaponed up, noting that Daniel, another gentleman she didn’t know and Journey’s End’s favorite real estate agent, Raymond Martin, were the only other diners present and they were too far away to do her any good if something else popped off with Isaiah.

Isaiah opened his mouth, gearing up to say something.

“I know, I know,” she said without breaking stride, determined to head him off at the pass. “You’ve decided not to leave me any tip at all since you had to get up and walk all the way over here to get your own drink. Darn. There goes that yacht down payment. No worries, though. I will soldier on through the heartbreak somehow.”

A strange sound erupted behind her, an odd little noise of disbelief from Isaiah. But it might also have been a distant cousin of a laugh. The bewildering idea that this guy could produce anything related to fun or joy made her stop and turn back around.

She should have known better.

His stern face, all sharp angles and edges topped by forbidding brows and a lush black Afro that could use some fluffing on one side, slid into incredulity but did not produce a smile. He seemed wary, the way a vacationer on safari in Kenya might regard a pride of lionesses that emerged from the tall grass and ambled across the road in front of his vehicle:

He wanted to see all the action, but he damn sure didn’t want to get too close.

“You’ll say anything, won’t you?”

She thought of her long and pathetic history of ducking her head and trying to keep the peace when she dared to open her mouth at all. 

“Not usually, no,” she admitted.

One of his heavy brows rose. “So I bring out this aggressive side of you.”

No point to denying the obvious. “Evidently.”

“Interesting.” He sipped again. Gave her a narrowed look. “I thought you were leaving. Wasn’t that your reward for assaulting me?” 

“Nope,” she said crisply, eyeballing the wet spot on the front of his pants with relish. “My reward for that was the gleeful looks on the faces of your mother and your brother. And the personal satisfaction of a job well done. Excuse me.”

She started to walk off for the second time, but there was that sound again. Something between a choked cough and a laugh coming from the general direction of Isaiah’s still unsmiling (but now dimpled) mouth. 

She hesitated a second time, unwillingly intrigued by the possibility that she might somehow get a positive reaction out of him.

He glanced at her plate. “I see that you’re stealing food from the kitchen. I’ll have to add that to the water incident when I leave the scathing online review and try to get you fired.”

He actually had a nice voice, she noticed for the first time, deep but mellow. That and the unmistakable glimmer of amusement in his eyes really threw her for a loop.

Really made her blood simmer, although whether it was from lingering anger or something else entirely, she couldn’t quite tell.

Worse, these interactions with him, even if they ultimately culminated in one of them throttling the other, made her feel alive in a way she hadn’t in a long time. Certainly since well before she came back to town to nurse her dying mother about a year ago.

“This will come as a huge shock to you since you seem to think you know everything about everything,” she said crisply, “but your mother is a great boss who lets her employees eat a meal when they’re here. And I’m meeting someone.”

Those dimples disappeared. “Boyfriend?”

The B-word hit her hard. As someone who’d been a longtime slave to her schooling and then a slave to her mother’s declining health, Alyssa had precious little experience with boyfriends and didn’t even want to think about how long it’d been since she’d had anything other than solo sex.

“Wow,” she said, incredulous. “You’re nosy on top of everything else. You’re like a royal flush of negativity, aren’t you?”

That did it.

To her utter astonishment, he let out a single sharp bark of laughter that fully activated those dimples, flashed straight white teeth and made his eyes sparkle as they turned up at the corners. 

He was, suddenly, an entirely different person. 

Just a guy in a restaurant. Not a forbidding tech millionaire. Not a bully.

Matter of fact, he was a handsome guy.

She took a closer look, feeling a bit off-kilter.

He was broad-shouldered and lean in his skull T-shirt, jeans and motorcycle boots. He had great brown eyes, the chiseled bone structure of someone you’d want modeling in your art class, gleaming brown skin and lush lips surrounded by facial hair that couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted to organize into a goatee or not. Matter of fact, his smile was so wide and disarming that it was as though it took a sledgehammer to that glowering Isaiah, demolishing those features and leaving behind someone potentially interesting.

This Isaiah had a sexy and mischievous Lenny Kravitz vibe going on. He made her skin tighten and something flutter to life in her belly.

Arrested, she stared at him and tried to decide which was a bigger threat to her equilibrium:

Hateful Isaiah or laughing Isaiah.

“What’s all this?” said a bemused new female voice.

Startled and grateful for the interruption, Alyssa looked around in time to see the final approach of her former sister-in-law, Reeve Banks, one of Alyssa’s close high-school friends and the widow of her brother Adam, who’d been killed in action four years ago in Afghanistan. 

The timely arrival stopped Alyssa from regarding Isaiah in this troublesome new light. She breathed a quick sigh of relief to be freed from the spell cast by that dazzling smile, but her reprieve was short-lived. 

Isaiah, to her further astonishment, quickly put down his drinks, turned to Reeve, smiled even more broadly and pulled her in for a bear hug and kiss on the cheek.

Alyssa’s lower jaw clanged to the floor and stayed there while she came to terms with what she’d just witnessed: 

Isaiah. Harper. Displayed. Human. Warmth.

“How’re you doing, Little Doc?” he asked Reeve, who was a pediatric resident at the medical center.

“Can’t complain.” Reeve beamed up at him. “You haven’t hooked up with any new poker partners, have you?”

“Wouldn’t do that to you,” Isaiah said, pressing a hand to his heart in a solemn vow.

“We played the other night after the football game,” Reeve told Alyssa when she turned to hug her and saw the look on Alyssa’s face. “I pretty much hid his laptop to get him to partner up with me, but I wanted him because I’d heard so much about his competitive streak. And I was right, wasn’t I, Isaiah? What does everyone owe us at this point? Three mil?”

“Sounds about right,” Isaiah said, fist-bumping her.

Alyssa resisted the urge to check her ears and blink and rub her eyes to make sure she wasn’t hearing and seeing things. But of course it made sense that Reeve, who’d fallen for Isaiah’s younger brother Edward, would spend time at the Harper homestead and get to know his brothers.

Alyssa gave Mr. Full of Surprises a dubious sidelong look, held her plate aside and returned Reeve’s hug. “So good to see you.”

“You, too,” Reeve said, kissing her cheek and pulling back to look at Isaiah again. “I’m starving. Isaiah, what’s going on in your crotch area? Don’t mean to get too personal, but…”

“Your girl here dumped a pitcher of water in my lap,” he said, reverting to his glower. “On purpose.”

Now it was Reeve’s turn to look astonished. “Alyssa?”

“Alyssa,” he said with a poorly concealed glimmer of triumph in Alyssa’s direction. “I’m just about to call the police and report her for assault.”

“You do that,” Alyssa said, linking her free arm through Reeve’s and steering her toward a table in the back. “Don’t let us keep you. Buh-bye.”

Reeve locked her knees in place and regarded Alyssa as though she’d put a bare foot up on one of the tables and begun clipping her toenails. 

“I was going to ask Isaiah if he wanted to join us,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder at him.

“He doesn’t,” Alyssa said quickly. 

“Actually, I’d love to,” he said with a pointed look in Alyssa’s direction as he picked up his drinks again, “but I’m meeting with Raymond Martin to see if I can find a house.”

“Isaiah’s moving back to Journey’s End,” Reeve told Alyssa brightly, blithely unaware of how this unwanted information made Alyssa’s heart thump. “Actually, you’re probably selling your house and Isaiah wants to buy. Maybe you two are a match.”

“I seriously doubt that,” Alyssa said.

“You never know,” Isaiah said, a silky note in his voice. “I’d love to check it out.”

“Not in this lifetime,” Alyssa muttered, dropping Reeve’s arm and walking off without her because she showed every sign of lingering and Alyssa had had more than enough of Isaiah Harper for one night. She felt the weight of their nonplussed gazes following her, but she didn’t let that slow her down. 

By the time Reeve joined her in a back booth, Alyssa’s pulse rate had slowed down into the non-heart attack range and she’d even managed a bite or two of her pasta.

Reeve dropped into the seat across from Alyssa, looking scandalized. “What was all that about?”

Alyssa tried to look innocent and bewildered. “What are you talking about?”

“That whole thing with you and Isaiah, obviously,” Reeve said. “Since when do you dump water on people’s laps?”

“Since people show up my table and act like they’re the king of the universe when I’m trying to serve them.” Alyssa’s blood began another slow boil as she remembered the way Isaiah had spoken to her. “I’m surprised someone as lovely as Ada Harper could produce such an SOB as a son. Seems like her body would have rejected him in the womb or something. And when did you become such a big fan of the devil’s brother? I thought you were a better judge of character than that.”

Reeve laughed. “Since I spent time with him on Sunday. He’s actually a great guy. Very funny. Crazy smart. You just have to pry his laptop out of his hands and get him to engage. And look past his crazy Afro.” She frowned and adopted a conspiratorial tone. “And Edward told me that Isaiah came down to breakfast the other day with only his boxers on, so you have to ignore his partial nudity, too. And the fact that he evidently brought home a woman from the wedding and hooked up with her in his childhood bedroom at his parents’ house. That went over well at breakfast, especially when he and the woman didn’t even know each other’s names.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes and tried not to feel a nasty twinge of something unwelcome in the vicinity of her chest at the thought of Isaiah having sex with some faceless woman. 

“Unbelievable. And yet I’m not surprised at all. That’s exactly the kind of behavior I would expect from the devil’s brother.”

More laughter from Reeve. “Stop calling him that.”

“No.” Alyssa’s stubborn streak kicked in, demanding that she keep Isaiah in the box into which she’d thrown him. Isaiah Harper was a jerk and no more needed to be said about it. The end. “It’s appropriate. And you do realize that what you just said makes zero sense, right? That’s like saying what a great rattlesnake it is as long as you take away the scales, the rattle, the fangs and the poison.”

Reeve’s gaze turned narrowed and speculative, much to Alyssa’s dismay.

“This is a lot of discussion about Isaiah Harper,” Reeve said. “I thought I detected a little chemistry between the two of you when I walked up.”

Alyssa froze, locking down her muscles to make sure she didn’t fidget under all this unwelcome scrutiny. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Methinks she doth protest too much. Or something like that.” Reeve all but levitated with delight over her sad attempt at humor. “See what I did there? You’re a Shakespeare scholar and I threw a little Shakespeare at you.”

“Yeah, I saw,” Alyssa said, folding her arms and trying not to smile. “Don’t hurt yourself. A few months with Edward and now you’re seeing hearts and rainbows in every direction. Why don’t you go work for the Lifetime Channel if you’re so determined to spin all these love stories?”

“Oh, whatever,” Reeve said, flapping a hand in a transparent attempt to distract from her tinkling laughter and vivid blush. “I decided to enjoy myself a little bit. You can’t blame me for that.”

“No, I cannot,” Alyssa said fondly, recalling the way Reeve had confided about her battle with depression and guilt following Adam’s death. If anyone deserved incandescent romantic happiness, it was Reeve. “Which is why I’ve decided to ignore all the girlish giggling and blushing.”

“Appreciate that.”

They grinned at each other. 

“So things are going well on that front?” Alyssa asked.

“Things are going great on that front. I’ve been spending more time with Ella,” Reeve said, referencing Edward’s toddler daughter. “I can’t wait for you to meet her.”

“Speaking of meeting, have you met Edward’s baby mama yet?”

Reeve grimaced. “I haven’t. I’m a little nervous about that.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Alyssa said with a breezy flap of her hand. “I’m sure it’ll be just like Modern Family.”

They laughed. Then Reeve had to go and ruin it by giving Alyssa that penetrating look of concern that Alyssa had grown to dread since her mother’s death.

Alyssa braced herself and held up a hand to ward her off. “Don’t start.”

“Don’t get mad at me, honey. Your mother died a few months ago and I have to ask how you’re doing. It’s in my job contract.”

“I’m fine.”

Reeve waited, one brow slowly creeping higher.

Alyssa scowled, thinking of the huge and creaky old house she now owned courtesy of her mother’s will. Thought about how she was the sole surviving member of her nuclear family. Thought about how the ghosts of her mother, father and brother crept up on her from every room, corner and picture in the house. Hell, even the plates in the kitchen and the towels in the linen cabinet sparked memories of someone who was no longer there. Another few months rattling around by herself in that lonely house and she would implode into nothingness.

Which was why she was so determined to sell the house and equally determined to spend as little time there as possible in the meantime. 

Hence her part-time job here at Harper Rose Bistro while she figured out what to do with her life.

“I’m working on being fine,” she conceded. “Some days it’s easier than others.”

“Yeah, I get that.” Reeve’s voice turned husky, causing her to clear her throat. “I had a lot of ups and downs when Adam died. You’re allowed. Is there anything in particular on your mind?”

Alyssa picked up her fork and swirled it in her pasta, her appetite gone.

“I keep thinking about my mother. She was horrible to me the whole time I took care of her. Cranky. Demanding. Ungrateful. And I kept telling myself it was because she was sick. She had so much pain. She was only fifty-seven. She wasn’t ready to die. And I put up with it because I’d always put up with it. And it was my job to help her with her transition, right?”

Reeve reached across the table to squeeze her hand. “You did an amazing job with her, honey. So loving. You were a much better daughter than she ever deserved. I hope you know that.”

Alyssa couldn’t stop a wry smile. 

“That’s the thing. When she died, I remembered that she was always horrible to me. It was always about my father and Adam with her. Always about my father’s career as a judge. Always about her little cocktail parties and schmoozing with people who could help his career. And then he died when we were teenagers, and it became all about Adam. Adam’s football games and basketball games. Adam’s car, Adam’s grades. What Adam wanted for dinner or dessert. But I got good grades. I got scholarships. I went to good schools. I was a nice person. But nothing was ever about me unless it was time to talk about whose room wasn’t neat enough, or whose skin wasn’t light enough or whose hair wasn’t straight enough.”

Reeve grimaced. “I’m sorry.”

Alyssa tried for another wry smile, but she just couldn’t generate the energy. It hurt too much. “And then you and I started hanging out, and she was horrible to you because, I don’t know, your family wasn’t rich enough. Then you had the nerve to start dating Adam and her head damn near exploded off her shoulders. And when Adam got killed overseas, she really had a reason to be miserable to everyone, didn’t she?”

“Yep,” Reeve said, not bothering to hide her bitterness.

“I don’t know. Maybe we both should’ve been born with penises.” Alyssa took a deep breath and geared up to express the painful idea for the first time in her life. “Or maybe my mother was just a horrible person.”

“Watch it,” Reeve said with a glimmer of amusement. “You’re coming dangerously close to speaking ill of the dead.”

“Yeah. And maybe the dead was a horrible person. Maybe I gave my best to a horrible person who made me feel bad about myself every day of my life.” Alyssa blinked back the burning tears, sheer stubbornness requiring that she not shed another one for her mother. When had her mother ever shed a tear over her? When had she ever spent one moment wondering about her forgotten daughter’s needs? “Maybe I gave up my career and came back here and let myself go for a horrible person.” She swept a hand down her body, encompassing her bushy and overgrown hair, which she’d swept back in her perma-ponytail, her overgrown unibrow and her weight loss, which was highlighted by her baggy server’s uniform of a white oxford and black dress pants. “Maybe I hoped, right up to the very last second, that the horrible person would say one nice thing to me before she died. Maybe I hoped that a horrible person would, I don’t know, hug me or pat my face or squeeze my hand.” She shook her head, disgusted with herself. “So I guess that means that my mother was a horrible person, but I’m a stupid person.”

“Needing your mother doesn’t make you stupid, honey,” Reeve said with a quick swipe of her eyes. “It just makes you human.”

“Maybe it makes me a stupid human.”

“Stop saying that,” Reeve said. They both laughed, dissipating some of the gloom that had settled over the table. “I’m not going to sit here and let you bash yourself.”

“Isn’t it sad, though?” Alyssa said as their laughter died off. “My mother spent most of her life being horrible, and now she’s dead. Mrs. Harper was pretty much her only friend. Church was her only activity once she retired. Seems like a big waste of a life to me.”

“Agreed. So what are you going to do with yourself now to make sure you don’t repeat her pattern? Your mom’s been dead for a few months, so you’ve had a little time to regroup. You can sell the house, grab the life insurance money and your inheritance and go wherever you want to go to do whatever you want to do. Do you want to teach? Publish?”

“Actually, I had another idea. Don’t laugh. I’m making a bucket list.” She gestured to her legal pad, which she’d put on the table before she grabbed her dinner. The top page contained only one bucket-able item thus far. With her inheritance now in hand, no responsibilities, no career and unlimited free time, at least until the money ran out, she’d had vague ideas about fulfilling a few of her lifelong dreams. Like, say, scuba diving off the Australian coast, visiting Machu Picchu and sky diving. But now that the moment had come to make her wishes tangible and therefore official by writing them down, she’d discovered that her innate wallflower tendencies only allowed her to commit to one item. “I want to write fiction. I’ve already written a contemporary romance novel, as a matter of fact. When my mother was sick and I spent so much time sitting around with nothing else to do. I’ve queried a bunch of agents, so we’ll see.”

Reeve’s face lit up. “That sounds amazing. That’s perfect for you!”

“From your lips to God’s ears–oh, hi, Raymond. How are you?”

They looked around in time to see Raymond Martin’s final approach to their table. As always, the fair-skinned silver fox looked quite handsome in his Brooks Brothers-esque suit. 

“Hello, ladies,” he said, distributing kisses on both sides of the table. “I’m on my way out, but I just wanted to stop by and say hi.”

“Can’t you stay for a quick drink?” Alyssa asked. If recent history was any guide, Reeve would also leave soon, compelled by her complete inability to spend more than two hours away from Edward these days. And the last thing that Alyssa wanted was to go home at—she took a quick peek at her watch—eight o’clock to spend a full night wandering around that lonely house by herself.

“I wish I could, but Fisher will be looking for me. He said something about making chili tonight. That’s going to be a nightmare. You mark my words. He never follows a recipe from beginning to end. He likes to get fancy and doctor things up. He’ll probably put something like raisins or almonds in it,” he concluded darkly. “I just wanted a quick word with you about listing your house, Alyssa.”

Sure enough, Reeve took this as her cue to hop up and grab her purse. “Time for me to go, too, kids.”

“Go on home to your man.” Alyssa sighed, resigned. “I guess I’m lucky you came out at all.”

“You are indeed.” Reeve waved goodbye. “See you soon, Lyss. Bye, Raymond.”

“Bye, Reeve,” they said.

“I really do wish I could stay. I feel like I need an additional libation after the meeting I just had,” Raymond said in a dire undertone, dropping into the seat Reeve had just vacated. “You know how I always complain about my dog Bobsy being a nightmare? Well, let me tell you. I’ll take a Jack Russell terrier who knows how to open drawers with his paw any day over another meeting with Isaiah Harper. He’s a nightmare.”

“Oh yeah?” Alyssa’s ears perked up at the Isaiah bashing, although she felt she did an admirable job with her nonchalant act. “What happened?”

“Well, I just showed him most of the houses for sale in the area and he didn’t like any of them,” he said, hunkering over the table and keeping his voice down. “He’s full of questions about asbestos and geothermal energy and solar panels and architectural design and you name it. I know my stuff, but I feel like I need to take a Percocet and lie down after that.”

“So does he want to see any of the houses?” Alyssa asked, unwillingly intrigued.

“Yeah, actually. He asked about your house.”

“Oh, he did, did he?” Alyssa asked, her mood soured by the way this information made her heart rate speed up as much as by the fact that the devil’s brother seemed determined to run roughshod over her feelings. “Well, too bad it’s not on the market yet. And I don’t think it’s the right house for him, anyway.”

Raymond’s lower jaw hit the table. “Not the right house for him? It’s the right house for any multimillionaire who’s willing to make a cash offer, isn’t it? We can make it the right house, as far as I’m concerned. He said he passes it all the time. Seems to like it.”

“You and I both know that the efforts of us mere mortals will never make him happy. The best thing would probably be if he built his own damn house.” 

“Truer words were never—uh-oh. Let’s bookmark this discussion for later,” Raymond said, distracted by his buzzing phone. He pulled it out of his back pocket and frowned down at it. “Oh, Lord. Fisher wants me to come home. Bobsy’s driving him crazy making a racket. He discovered that he can hop up on the stool and play the piano. He does it whenever he gets bored. He seems to be partial to the black keys, but I can’t prove it. He can also use his paw to lift the cover to the keys when Fisher tries to shut him up. It’s a nightmare. Let’s plan on touching base next week. We need to talk about staging the house.”

“You got it.” 

He walked off, leaving her alone with her cold pasta. Sighing, she started to get up and make a quick run for the microwave back in the kitchen.

Until she noticed the shadow looming over her table.

She looked up, her heart jackhammering with a disconcerting combination of dread and anticipation, to discover a stony-faced Isaiah watching her with a cryptic gleam in his dark eyes.

Alyssa froze and mentally prepared herself for Round 3 as she waited to see what he wanted…

Excerpt (C) 2019 by Sally Young Moore

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED