Lindi Carson steered her bicycle off the lake road and into the parking lot of the BeeHive Café.
Gravel crunched under her tires as she coasted toward the small, white building hunched in the early morning shade of the mountain. Her breath steamed in the chilly air.
She scanned the evergreens on the far edge of the lot and then sighed with relief, her tight shoulders relaxing.
No beefed-up vintage Chevy Blazer idled in the shadows this morning. And if Darrell wasn’t here by now, he was off somewhere on business.
Which meant that for once she could begin her day without her creepy nemesis glowering at her from the corner table, freaking her out and making her so nervous she sometimes forgot parts of breakfast orders and nearly burned others, thereby threatening the burgeoning reputation of the BeeHive Café for serving the best breakfasts on the north shore of Coeur d’Alene Lake.
After wheeling around to the back of the café, Lindi switched off her bike safety lights and leaned it against the cinderblock wall behind the dumpster.
She fished the keys from her pocket, unlocked the back door and stepped into the warm quiet of the tiny back hallway, lit by an emergency nightlight high on the wall.
She inhaled the familiar odors of cooking and cleaner as she stripped off her gloves and flexed her cold fingers. Riding a bicycle at dawn in early April could be a chilly endeavor.
An unseasonably warm spell had melted the remains of a late snow off the North Idaho roads, and the weather report called for a warm afternoon, but this morning the thermometer on her kitchen window had read only forty-seven degrees. And just looking at the snowbanks still lying in the shadows of the evergreens along the lake road had made her feel colder as she pedaled.
Cycling was great exercise, she reminded herself.
Since deciding to walk or ride her bike whenever she could instead of driving her ailing Caprice, she’d lost nearly five pounds.
She’d hoped to lose more, but evidently she’d have to give up eating for that to happen. She enjoyed food way too much to do that. She also ate when stressed, and lately her life qualified as stressful with a capital ‘S’.
Luckily, she enjoyed feeding other people even more. Loved watching their faces light up when they saw her offerings, loved watching them take that first bite and then close their eyes in bliss. And not in some fancy cordon bleu restaurant, but right here.
Anticipation fired with each one of the bank of lights she stopped to flick on. First the kitchen, merciless fluorescent that showed every flaw and crumb, then the warmer yellow lights in the café proper.
Unzipping her windbreaker and the fleece jacket underneath, she tossed them onto her office chair as she passed the tiny cubicle that held a desk and file cabinet opposite the big upright freezer. Her bicycle helmet joined the jacket.
In the narrow galley kitchen, she pulled a clean, black apron from the pantry and tied it on over her white tee and black yoga pants. With black trainers, this comprised her work uniform.
Next, she uncovered the fryers, checked the oil levels and then powered them up along with the grill. She set the two ovens to warm, made sure the smoke detectors were working, and hurried around the other side of the high service counter to get the first pots of coffee going.
Since she left the coffee machine set up every afternoon before she went home, all she had to do now was power it on. She waited to hear the familiar sounds of hot water burbling through the pipes, then reached up to flip the boombox on to a local country station. As Blake Shelton crooned about riding in his pickup truck, she turned to survey her domain.
The BeeHive’s signature yellow Formica counters gleamed. Six matching tables lined the front window and arced around the corner toward the restroom.
Outside, the spring dawn lightened the eastern sky over the mountains and the parking lot in a wash of cool green and gray. She glanced at the clock on the wall over the glassed-in front door. Five minutes to six o’clock.
Just time to step into the bathroom for a quick glance in the mirror over the sink. Her face was still pink from the chill, but that would soon be replaced by the flush of heat from the grill. Mascara and a dusting of taupe shadow emphasized her brown eyes. Peach lip gloss moistened her lips. Blusher defined the underside of her cheekbones in her rounded face.
She bundled her shoulder-length dark blonde hair up on the back of her head and pulled a black scrunchie from her pocket to hold it in a ponytail, then fluffed her long bangs. Thank goodness her hair was wavy and full of body, so she didn’t have to do much with it on these early mornings. It needed highlights, but not happening on her current budget.
She tugged her tee down over her rounded hips, with a last look in the mirror to confirm that the snug black yoga pants looked at least okay on her round ass. Fortunately she had long legs to balance the extra weight she carried. And her boobs were nice.
As an older customer had once told her with a twinkle in his eyes, a well-padded cook was a sign of good cooking.
Anyhoo, time to get to work. With a bounce in her step, Lindi hurried back to the hallway, and snapped another switch. Outside, the neon sign flickered to life, the yellow arcs of an old-fashioned beehive framed by the words BeeHive Café. That done, she crossed to the front door and unlocked it.
A single headlight appeared as if summoned around the curve in the narrow, winding road along the lake. A big, gleaming black and silver Harley rolled into the parking lot and pulled to a stop before the café.
Lindi tensed, but when the lone rider was not followed by others, she relaxed. Not a rowdy crowd of Spokane or Silver Valley bikers coming back from a night’s revelry and mayhem. Just one man.
He kicked down the stand of his big bike and lifted one long leg over it, rolling to his feet with easy grace. In his leather jacket, faded jeans and boots, he was an imposing figure. He pulled off his dark stocking hat and stuffed it in a pocket, then raised one gloved hand to push back his sandy blond hair.
Lindi sighed. With those broad shoulders and cocky stance, and that sexy-messy hair, he could model for Harley cycles or men’s cologne
Their eyes met through the glass door. Slowly, his square face crinkled in a smile, his white teeth gleaming.
Realizing she was gawking from a lighted window, Lindi stepped back abruptly, her face flaming. She was a business owner, not a star-struck teenager. Time to act like it.
By the time the biker pushed the door open and walked in, bringing with him a waft of cool, piney morning air, Lindi was behind the counter, busying herself with the coffee service.
“Morning,” she called over her shoulder. “Coffee to start your day?”
When he didn’t answer immediately, she turned. Standing just inside the door, her customer stood, booted feet apart, slowly stripping off his gloves as he cast an encompassing look around the small space and back at her. He stuffed the gloves in a pocket of his black leather jacket. Only then did he move forward the few steps to the seat nearest the open end of the counter.
He straddled the stool and sat, gaze intent on her in a way that made her feel as if the two bees embroidered on her apron had escaped and were buzzing around in her middle, a sensation that wavered between delicious and unnerving.
His eyes were light hazel under thick lashes and heavy brows a few shades darker than his hair. His skin was tanned, with creases that said he smiled or squinted into the sun a lot. His wide jaw and the pugnacious set of his mouth said he was not a man to be messed with.
Finally, he lifted his chin in acknowledgement, his gaze never leaving her face.
“Yeah, coffee sounds good.” His voice was deep and rough in a way that sent pleasure prickling along her nerve endings. Darn, was there anything about the man that wasn’t sexy?
“Right,” she chirped. “Coffee, comin’ up.”
She filled one of her sturdy mugs and set it before him with a napkin and a spoon. She turned, squatted to pull a saucer of cream packets from the small refrigerator under the back counter—because bending over just emphasized her big ass—and set it near his place setting.
Not like he was here to look at her, anyway. She moved a few steps away, pulled the tray of plastic honey bears that were a signature of the BeeHive from a lower shelf and began to set them out along the counter, one for every two places.
“Need a menu?” she asked.
He picked up one of the creamer pods and flicked it open with a thumbnail. His hands were as big as the rest of him, and calloused but clean.
“You give good breakfast?” he asked.
Lindi met his gaze, her cheeks warm. He’d managed to invest the question with a nearly sexual innuendo. And his sparkling eyes seemed to miss nothing, including her reaction. Well, it took more than a mouthy biker to rattle her.
“The best you ever ate,” she retorted.
His wide mouth twitched in the hint of a smile as he stirred the cream into his mug. “Just coffee for now, Lindi.”
He knew her name? Duh, right. Her name was spelled out in yellow thread, with the bees buzzing around it, on her black apron. “That’s me. And you are?”
He tilted his head in the ghost of a courtly bow. “I’m Jack.”
Her cheeks heated even more. “Okay, Jack. You, um, let me know if you want anything to eat.” And anything else, like maybe picking her up and pulling her right over the counter for a long, hot kiss.
The plastic bear in her hand spurted honey. No wonder, she’d been squeezing it. As honey dripped over her fingers, Jack’s grin widened, his eyes twinkling. God, she was such a dork. Lindi grabbed the tray of bears and turned away to dip her hand and the sticky bear under a stream of warm water, carefully avoiding that knowing gaze.
“You get many customers out here?” he asked.
“I do,” she answered with satisfaction. “The warm weekend we just had brought lots of cyclists and walkers out to the trail along the lake. Also, wild turkey season just opened, so I expect a lot of turkey hunters to make it a three-day weekend. And there’ll be fishermen headed out onto Coeur d’Alene Lake for spring kokanee.”
“Sounds good for business.”
“Uh-huh, sure is.”
As she set the rest of the bears out on the tables, a pickup truck with two men swung into the lot outside, followed by a red Honda SUV. Lindi breathed a sigh of relief. Her day was about to get busy. That was excellent—money in the till and no time to continue this semi-flirtation or whatever it was.
Anyway, Jack probably flirted this way with every woman he met. And they would certainly flirt back—he was a lot of man, and he had a way of focusing on a woman that made her feel special—not threatened in a nasty way, like that creep Darrell.
By ten-fifteen, the breakfast rush at the BeeHive was over. The last vehicle of outdoor sports enthusiasts had rolled out of her parking area, leaving Lindi with a comfortably full till, a dishwasher and sink loaded with dirty dishes … and Jack.
He’d remained, drinking coffee and watching her cook and carry out platter after platter of pancakes, cinnamon rolls, eggs, bacon, sausage and hash-browns, along with a few orders of granola and one bowl of oatmeal.
Finally at eight o’clock he’d ordered the Fisherman’s Special—three whole-grain huckleberry pancakes, two eggs and a rasher of crisp bacon. She’d watched with satisfaction as he ate with relish, noting that he was a honey man—he drizzled that over his pancakes instead of the maple syrup favored by many. Having put away every bite, he thanked her with a nod of appreciation and resumed drinking coffee.
She’d nibbled a few bites here and there herself between customers—a broken fried egg, a piece of bacon and a ruined pancake with honey and huckleberry syrup. She’d love to chow down big plates of food like her customers, but she was already self-conscious about her weight, so she tried to watch her intake. Dave had loved her breasts and her ass, calling it heart-shaped and perfect for a man to get a good grip on, but for herself, she’d love to be a couple of sizes smaller.
Nevertheless, cooking and waitressing was hard work. She’d take time for a solitary lunch before she rode her bike back to her apartment in the older part of downtown Coeur d’Alene.
Now Lindi watched the last SUV full of satisfied customers disappear up the road, and looked at Jack over her soapy cleaning rag. Why was he still here? Unless he wanted to ask her out, and didn’t want an audience. Right—like this man would mind onlookers. He’d expect success. Still, a thrill of heat ran through her at the possibility.
“You waiting for someone?” she asked, wiping syrup and coffee off the far end of the counter. “Because I close at eleven. I’m not open for lunch on weekdays.” She’d like to be, but only the weekends and holidays brought enough mid-day traffic out here along the lake. Someday she intended to be a destination worth driving a little extra for, but that hadn’t happened yet.
Jack took a last drink of coffee and set his mug down. He turned, his torso twisting as he surveyed the empty café and parking lot. He’d taken off his jacket at some point and tossed it across the stool next to him. His snug white tee shirt bore the logo of a California brewery. The thin knit lovingly outlined the heavy muscle in his shoulders, torso and upper arms. A leather belt adorned his waist, with a Harley buckle and sheath holding a large folding knife.
“You could say that,” he said, turning back to her.
Lindi paused, wet rag poised between counter and sink, a rivulet of warm, soapy water trickling down her forearm and splatting on the floor. For the first time since he’d rolled into her parking lot, a frisson of alarm ghosted over her skin. The way he watched her now, those light eyes like a hawk’s watching his prey, did nothing to allay her wariness.
God, she hoped he wasn’t some crooked associate of Darrell’s. He could be a hit man or a serial killer for all she knew. Just because he was hot didn’t mean anything. Look at Ted Bundy—he’d gotten all his victims to go with him willingly.
“Well,” she said, “hope they get here soon. I’ll, um, I’ll just be in the back if you want anything else.”
Her mother had always told her and Cissie to obey their instincts, saying God gave women an extra dose for good reason. And belatedly, Lindi’s instincts drowned out her hormones, screaming danger!
Dropping the rag in the sink, she wiped her wet hands on her apron as she strolled back through the short hallway to her office. She palmed her cellphone from her desk, thumbed the button to bring it to life, then gave a huff of nervous disgust. No service, as usual. Something about the cinderblocks used in the café’s construction blocked most calls, unless one stood just by the plate glass windows up front.
And she could hardly dial 911 in front of the man of whom she was suspicious, now could she? There were no other phone numbers that required only three digits, and he seemed to notice everything she did.
Keeping her back to the café area, Lindi slipped from the open office door and then glided the several steps to the back door. It opened with a squeak, and she winced. Nothing like advertising her getaway.
Inspired, she shoved her phone into her pocket and hurried back to the trash can just inside the kitchen. Without looking at Jack, she yanked the bag shut and pulled it up out of the barrel.
She turned to carry it along the passageway to the back door, and stopped with gasp as a large body blocked the light. Jack loomed at the corner of the counter. His gaze flicked from the garbage bag to her face.
“You usually take out the trash before you finish scraping dishes?” he asked.
Her heart pounding, Lindi shrugged. Darn, he really did notice everything. She backed up, keeping the garbage between them like a shield.
“Sometimes,” she said, her gaze locked on him as he moved forward. “Wh-what’s it to you?”
“Put it down, honey,” he ordered, taking another step toward her with the smooth, prowling gait of a predator.
Lindi’s heart stopped. Oh, God. She’d been right. He was here for a lot more than breakfast.
As he moved closer, Lindi heaved the trash bag at him, whirled and dashed for the back door.
She nearly made it.