Pete Maddock hoisted a tray of fried eggs, butter-slathered toast, and steaming hash browns and staggered over to the table in the corner. Morning had dawned grey and chilly over Hope Harbor, and customers crowded Riptide Café in search of hot coffee, homestyle omelets, and blueberry pancakes. Pete had been running orders back and forth almost since dawn, and sheer exhaustion was making it harder and harder to balance the plates. Yet he knew if he dropped an order on the floor, he’d get even further behind.
“Well, it’s about time,” his friend Sparrow teased, tapping his silverware handles-down on the gray Formica table top. “Drake and I are turning into skeletons over here.”
“Running slow this morning, I guess.” Pete slid two plates in front of them. Normally, he would have stopped and made some wise-ass remark about Sparrow sustaining himself by holding onto his midriff love handles, but his mind was too wiped to come up with anything clever. Instead, he retrieved the coffee pot and refilled Sparrow and Drake’s cups. “Sorry you had to wait.”
“I’ve never seen this place so packed after Labor Day,” Drake marveled. “You haven’t been here long enough to know what it’s usually like after the tourist season ends, but let’s just say there are no shortage of tables.”
“That was before Harlan came along,” Sparrow reminded him.
Pete nodded. Harlan Temple, the new short order cook, had started work in the summer, just before Pete had arrived. Town gossip had already revealed that he was the long-lost first cousin of the café’s owner Orville, better known to the locals as Orry. They’d grown up together right in this town, people said, but some kind of falling out had sent Harlan running and kept them apart since the early 1990s. Now the rest of the family was gone and the two were trying to make amends. Since they shared the same last name, argued vociferously at the drop of a fork, and both seemed to be in their middle forties, Pete supposed the story checked out well enough. Besides, no one but family or someone as desperate for cash as Pete himself would have agreed to work at the pitiful rates Orry offered.
“Mmmm, that hits the spot,” Sparrow said after swallowing a huge bite of eggs and potatoes. “Perfection.”
“And there’s the spot, if I’m not mistaken,” Drake teased, poking Sparrow in the abdomen.
“Nothing wrong with being well-nourished,” Sparrow reminded him.
“I can wait for the food, but I have to admit my eyes were closing without my morning caffeine.” Drake grinned, downed most of his coffee at once, and held out the cup for Pete to top off.
“Well, I can suggest an alternative for keeping them open,” Sparrow said. He turned to Pete. “I suppose you noticed what just showed up at the end of the counter?”
“No. What are you talking about?” Pete asked. He looked over at the counter, where a row of older men in fishing and boating attire sat stuffing their grizzled faces. None commanded any special interest except for the new customer who had just planted himself in the last available seat.
“Wow.” Pete almost dropped the coffee pot.
“My thoughts exactly,” Sparrow confirmed.
The new guy had turned in profile so he could study the specials on the chalkboard above the grill. His powerful jaw was peppered with dark stubble, while his clipped black hair rose in jagged spikes, reminding Pete of the rocks that edged the nearby sea. A few strands curled over his shell-perfect ears. Under his faded blue denim jacket, his back and shoulders rippled with pure muscle.
Sparrow nudged Pete’s side, and Pete realized he had been standing and gaping with the coffeepot getting cold in his hand. “Better go. I have a feeling he needs coffee even worse than we do.”
“He sure looks like he does,” Drake agreed. The two of them shared a knowing smile.
Pete’s knees felt numb as he crossed the room. His hand grew sweaty around the coffee pot handle, and his mouth was so dry he wondered if he’d be able to speak once he got to the guy’s spot.
Luckily, when he got to the end of the counter, he encountered a wide, white-toothed smile, which struck him as nothing less than dazzling.