Avery Cahill loves You've Got Mail. So when a match from an online dating site asks to meet for real in a local coffee shop with a flower and a book, she thinks she's hit the jackpot. Dillon Lange wants just one thing: peace and quiet. His project partner left him holding the bag, and he's under serious deadline to knock out their group project for his MBA. Holing up in a small town coffee shop, he thinks he's got it made, until a beautiful stranger sits down at his booth. She obviously thinks he's someone else, and he knows he ought to come clean, but he can't resist that gorgeous smile or witty conversation. How long can he keep up the act? And what's going to happen when her real date shows up?
Professor Hendricks was a certifiable asshole. As Dillon Lange climbed the stairs to his second floor apartment, he ran through a number of other less than flattering descriptions for the man who didn't give a damn that Dillon's project partner had a ruptured appendix, thus blowing their chances of finishing the midterm project on time. At least if they expected to finish it together.
"You should've planned for this," Hendricks had said when Dillon met with him to plead for leniency since Noelle was still in the hospital.
Right, because a ruptured organ was so easy to predict. Noelle felt awful about leaving him in the lurch, but she was so doped up on medication, she could barely stay awake, let alone string a coherent sentence together. During his brief conversation with her about it, she'd fallen asleep twice and woken up with a lurch, shouting "Save the crazy cat lady!" Totally not the frame of mind they needed for a project on macroeconomics. Because Dillon wasn't an asshole himself, he'd said he'd take care of the project and that she should focus on getting well.
God, he missed undergrad when he could still live from class to nap to party.
The thump of machine gun fire greeted Dillon before he even got the door open.
Half crouched on the futon, half standing, his roommate Owen clutched the Xbox controller with all the intensity of a drone pilot on a mission as war raged on the flat screen TV. "Come on, dude! You've gotta close in on the flank, I'm getting slaughtered here!"
Battlefield? Titanfall? Hell if Dillon knew. He hadn't had time for video games since he started his MBA at the University of Mississippi. He was at least two editions of Assassin's Creed behind.
Owen grunted as Dillon shut the door. "Hey man. How'd it go?"
"Lousy." Dillon dumped his keys in the Cool Whip bowl that served as a catch all by the door. "No extension."
"That bites. No, no not you," he spoke into the headset perched in his shaggy dark hair. "Well, yeah, getting ambushed at the spawning point bites, too. I'm comin' to you. Hang on."
"Are you gonna be at this a while? Because I've got a crapton of work to do on this project if I'm going to make the deadline."
"Huh? Oh, well we're in the early stage of this campaign. I can't walk away right now."
Of course, he couldn't.
Heaving a put upon sigh that was completely lost on his roommate, Dillon made a beeline for his room. No way could he work here with all this noise. Loading up his laptop and all the books he'd need for this project, he retrieved his keys and headed downtown to hole up at his favorite coffee shop.
There was, predictably, no parking on the Square. Not a shock. The weather was gorgeous and sunny, and everybody in Oxford was out enjoying it. Couples and groups teemed like ants along the sidewalks. None of them had an epic midterm deadline hanging over their head. As he drove past Uptown Coffee, he saw patrons spilling out the doors, effectively squashing that plan. Hooking a left back toward campus, Dillon considered camping out at the library, but he needed caffeine to get through this. Gallons of it. He didn't want to have to pack up and relocate once he got set up.
This called for drastic measures.
Forty-five minutes later, Dillon rolled into the sleepy little town of Wishful. He'd stumbled upon this little jewel on one of his rambles in undergrad. Boasting a population of only 5,000, it reminded Dillon of his hometown in Texas. Friendly, quirky, and, most importantly, quiet, it made Oxford look positively metropolitan in contrast.
As he pulled into a parking space in front of Lickety Split Ice Cream, a family of five wandered by, talking and laughing as they did their best to catch drips from their ice cream cones. Dillon gave fleeting thought to ice cream.
A reward when I finish, he decided. That presupposed it would be open when he finished. If that wasn't optimism, he didn't know what was.
Gathering his gear, Dillon walked the short distance to his actual destination. The Daily Grind was cool and dark and blessedly empty but for a pair of old guys playing checkers in the corner. Somebody was moving around in the kitchen at the end of the counter, so Dillon took the time to peruse the menu tacked up to the pallet board wall.
"Welcome to The Daily Grind. What can I get you?" The barista, a college-age guy with spiked, frosted blond hair, offered a flirty smile. The name tag pinned to his purple apron read Daniel.
"Whatever you've got that will get me through an epic midterm deadline."
Daniel nodded soberly. "You want the zombie killer. Would you like anything to go with that? A muffin? Scone? Blueberry crumble bar?"
"Am I going to have any stomach lining left after drinking it if I don't?"
"Iffy. I'd soak some up with carbs."
"Then I'll have a slice of that friendship bread."
The barista rang up his order. "Did you drive over from the university?"
"Yeah. Needed to get out of town to get some quiet so I could finish a project," said Dillon.
"You'll certainly get that here. I suggest you set up upstairs. You'll miss the afternoon rush that way."
"Is there much of a rush here?" Dillon couldn't imagine that in a town this size.
"Honey, you do not want to get between some of these soccer moms and their afternoon caffeine fix."
"Noted," Dillon chuckled.
"You go on up. I'll bring this when it's ready."
The second floor of the coffeeshop was empty. Dillon picked a booth by a window and spread out his stuff. By the time Daniel brought his order, Dillon was already up to his eyeballs in Noelle's notes on her portion of the presentation. It was gonna be a long day.
Avery Cahill parked her faithful Toyota beside the town green and resisted the urge to wipe her damp palms on the legs of her capris. Stupid to be nervous, she thought. It was just coffee. And a more or less blind date with a guy she'd been matched up with on Perfect Chemistry. A guy with no profile picture.
He'd said he was camera shy--which could mean...anything. Actually shy. Physically deformed. Homely. Axe murderer. Her friends hadn't even thought she should talk to a guy not willing to put his picture up, but he'd seemed nice in their admittedly non-personal conversations. Respectful, which was something in astoundingly short supply in online dating. The things some guys thought they could get away with--insults, asking directly for booty calls, texting naked pictures of themselves--it had almost made her give up on online dating entirely.
But Ross had done none of those things. He'd been friendly and made no assumptions. They'd talked movies and TV and SEC football, steering clear of pretty much all things personal and identifying owing to that whole could-be-an-axe-murderer thing. She could get over the fact that he was a lifelong Bulldog fan. Probably. He was an architecture grad student at Mississippi State, after all. She could get through a conversation with a guy who thought "Hail State!" was a more inventive battle cry than "Hotty Toddy!" It was worth a try, anyway. It wasn't as if the post-college dating scene in Wishful was exactly jumping. So when he'd said he was coming to town for the afternoon and suggested they meet for coffee, she'd said yes. Public place. Daytime. She'd get a better feel for him in person than from online anyway.
It wasn't a big deal.
So she'd changed her outfit. Twice. And gnawed off her lipstick and had to reapply. Avery had known that if she stayed home and thought about it any more, she'd end up over thinking and canceling on him. Or worse, standing him up because he'd already left Starkville and didn't get the message. So, she'd arrived early and decided to walk to The Daily Grind so there'd be time to get her nerves under control.
Sunlight filtered through the enormous oak trees that peppered the green, dappling the spotty grass. Summer had baked the ground in places, and the green hadn't quite recovered. In another month or two, the leaves would turn brown and fall--Mississippi rarely saw much in the way of autumn color--but for now, the green was as she liked it best. Bright and breezy.
Out of long ingrained habit, Avery stopped by the huge central fountain that dated back to the town's founding, just after the Civil War. She was pretty sure it hadn't run since she was little bitty, but her granddaddy had trained her to make a wish every time she walked by, and today was no exception. Clutching a coin in her hand, she thought, I wish for this date to be something special. Then she tossed it into the basin, where it plunked into the few inches of rainwater that hadn't evaporated over the summer. It was both tradition and comfort, and Avery felt some of the nerves smooth out.
Thus fortified by local ritual, Avery strode purposefully to The Grind. The date might be a disaster, but at least if the whole thing tanked, she'd have an entertaining story to tell around the water cooler at City Hall when she got to work on Monday.
"Well hey there, Sugarplum!"
The tension in Avery's shoulders immediately bled out at Daniel's cheery greeting.
"You're dressed up awful cute for an afternoon read-a-thon," he remarked, already turning to put together her current favorite Black Irish mocha.
"What?" She glanced down at the novel sticking out of her purse. "Oh...no. Actually, I'm here to meet somebody." She pulled out the book and the Gerbera daisy, clutching both to her chest.
Daniel arched both perfectly manicured brows. "Oh!" He drew the exclamation out to three syllables. "You're pulling a You've Got Mail. That's just adorable. Anybody I know?"
"Nobody I know. We got matched up on Perfect Chemistry. He's a grad student at the university."
Daniel brightened. "He's already here! Upstairs." He dropped his voice and leaned across the counter, offering her Black Irish. "A real hottie, too."
"Thank goodness," Avery sighed. "He didn't have a picture on his profile. Jessie was positive he had a third ear or weird mole or something. And Brooke was convinced he was a creeper."
"No strange growths or creepy vibes. Scout's honor," Daniel swore. "He's been working on a midterm project of some kind for a while now. Could probably do with a refill on his coffee. You want to take one up?"
"Sure." It would be a nice ice breaker.
Daniel made it up and handed over the second cup. "Good luck, cupcake. If he turns out to be a stinker, just text me an SOS and I'll create a diversion to get you loose."
"You're an angel."
Avery took the stairs slowly. With her luck, she'd step wrong in her wedge sandals and slosh coffee on her pale khaki capri pants in a highly embarrassing location. But she made it to the top with her outfit unmarred.
He was the only patron up here. Hunched over a laptop, with a stack of books and notes scattered on the table around him, she could just make out the strong edge of his jaw and the serious set to his mouth. Maybe he'd come early planning to get some homework out of the way before their date? Avery considered turning around and going back downstairs until the appointed time, just to give him a chance to finish what he was working on. Then he looked up and she almost bobbled the coffee.
Daniel hadn't exaggerated. This guy was a certifiable hottie with all that dark hair mussed by frustrated or nervous hands and those clear gray eyes that seemed to pierce her from across the room. His brows winged up in question.
Aware she was staring, Avery mustered a smile and crossed over, setting the cup of coffee in the few inches of free space beside the empty cup already there. "Daniel said you could do with a refill." She slid into the booth across from him and laid her book and flower next to her own coffee. "It's so nice to finally meet you."