Tori was deep into the design of her client’s new website, working from her favorite table in the back of Doghouse Cafe in Santa Monica, when someone cleared his throat to her left.
Pulled from her oblivious-to-the-outside-world zone, she looked up and blinked. A man stood next to her, glittery hearts circling his head. It took her a second to realize the hearts weren’t in her mind, but were part of the Valentine’s Day vomit that covered the walls and hung from the ceiling of the cafe.
“Hey,” the guy said, giving her a hesitant smile that showed off his adorably crooked second tooth. Was he worried about interrupting her, or wondering why she was still staring at him in silence?
Why was she still staring at him in silence? Speak, Tori! “Hi.”
Brilliant. But really, who could blame her? He was H-O-T. She was N-E-R-D.
Pretty enough—her sister claimed men found Tori intimidating—but not the type to attract a straight-laced guy like him. A guy who put generous amounts of cash in the tip jar, stepped outside to take phone calls, and always held the door for the person behind him without making a big show of it.
She’d had plenty of time to catalog the many elements of his allure in the year since he started frequenting her favorite place to work away from home. Doghouse was cozy, with shelves of used books, local art for sale on the walls, and plush armchairs scattered around. It also had good coffee and pastries, but mostly she liked it for the surplus of electrical outlets, not-too-loud music, and stellar WiFi.
And she’d added this guy—Matt, unless he’d been lying to the barista—to the benefits column once he started to show up regularly.
He came in two or three afternoons a week for several hours, sometimes to meet people—presumably clients, since he always wore a suit on those days—and she had his order memorized. An Americano and an almond croissant.
She wasn’t a creeper, just observant when she wanted to be.
Prior to this moment, they’d worked their way up to the vague I-recognize-you nod/half-smile but had never spoken. That didn’t mean she hadn’t imagined a thousand different versions of their meet cute. A run-in that spilled coffee on his shirt, requiring immediate removal of said clothing item. A blizzard that trapped them inside alone, leading to much sharing of body heat.
Hey, climate change was real. It could happen.
“Sorry to bother you,” his rich voice rumbled. “This is kind of a weird request, but I was wondering if I could borrow your computer charger. Just for a bit.” He pointed to his Mac, which had the same connector as hers. “I left mine at home, my power’s at five percent, and I need to get a contract sent out in the next ten minutes.”
Oh. Oh. Right. He needed a favor. Of course. If the hearts swirling overhead had been in her mind, they’d be dissolving into a puff of pink dust about now. “Um, sure. I’m at seventy percent, so I probably won’t even need it today.” She found the cord in her bag and handed it over.
“Thank you.” He graced her with his full-watt grin and the heart in her chest just flopped over dead. “You’re a lifesaver.”
Returning to his favorite table in the other corner away from the door, he plugged in and got back to work.
She took a quick bathroom break, switched her drink to herbal tea so she’d be able to sleep that night, and began setting up her client’s online store.
Some time later she became aware of Matt’s subtle cologne and looked up to find him standing next to her again. According to the clock on her screen it had been over an hour since his first visit. Maybe her sister was right that her tendency to hyper focus made her vulnerable. Tori hadn’t seen him coming either time.
“I’m back.” He huffed out a laugh and shook his head. “Obviously.” He placed the charging cord on the table. “Thank you again. You saved my ass.”
“Sure. Glad I could help.”
He waited a beat as if expecting her to say more. “I’m Mattias, by the way.”
Mattias. She rolled the name around in her mind, enjoying it’s sharp edges and smooth curves. It fit him far better than just Matt. “Tori.”
“As long as we’ve both been coming here, it feels weird that we haven’t officially met before.” He shifted his weight to one leg and put his hands in the front pockets of his khakis. His shirt was a plain green polo that made his hazel eyes glow, his version of casual dress. No meetings today.
“Yeah, for sure.” Oh, the wit, the charm. Wasn’t she amazing? Why was he still standing here? She rooted around in her brain for something to say. “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer. Mostly small business contracts and advising. Nothing too exciting.” He leaned against the wall to his right, looking down at her with a faint smile like a model for…anything. “You?”
“Really? I could probably use your services. My site is long overdue for a refresh.”
“Sure. Just let me know.” Just kill me now.
“If you ever need legal services, we could do a trade.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Her client contract might need an overhaul. She gave him a polite smile, but he didn’t leave. He just stood there, scrambling her brain.
“You have any big plans for Valentine’s Day?” he asked.
If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was fishing to see if she had a boyfriend. “I don’t think so. When is it?”
He lifted a single brow in way she’d never been able to master, giving her a look that questioned her sanity. “The fourteenth.”
She rolled her eyes. “Smart ass.”
“Often.” He freaking winked at her. “It’s Monday. Today’s Friday.”
Wow, was it really the weekend already? “No plans except work,” she said, closing her laptop. No way was she getting more done this afternoon. “You?” She slid the computer into her bag, along with the charging cord, and checked that she had all of her things packed up.
“I’m getting the sense that you’re not interested, but I promised myself I’d ask. Would you have dinner with me?”
Her head snapped up. He was messing with her, right? “For Valentine’s Day?”
“Why?” She couldn’t keep the suspicion out of her voice.
He laughed outright. “Well, obviously, I think you’re pretty.” His ears turned bright pink and he crossed his arms. “But also, you’re always nice to the baristas. You sneak treats to the dogs people leave sitting outside. I like your colorful hair and snarky T-shirts and those dragon earrings you sometimes wear…” He blew out a shaky breath.
Oh. Oh. All this time he’d been watching her too. Her insides turned to absolute goo, and her heart gave a heavy thud. “I don’t know if Valentine’s Day is a good idea.”
“Ah.” Mattias frowned. “Okay, sorr—”
“A holiday like that is a lot of pressure for a first date,” she said, cutting him off as she pushed back her chair to stand so she could look him in the eye. Almost. Maybe if she wore her Dr. Martens. “Could we start with something a little more casual?”
His handsome face lit up. “Like takeout ramen on the beach?”
“Yes, exactly like that.” She smiled, hoping like hell she wasn’t actually snoring on her keyboard, dreaming this whole thing.
He skimmed his hand down her arm, raising goosebumps on her skin before taking her hand. “Are you free tonight?”
An hour later, they sat on the dry sand, slurping noodles off chopsticks as the sun dove toward the horizon. They talked and laughed and walked along the beach holding hands until long after sunset.
When she shivered, he wrapped his arms around her, using his body to block the wind. “I shouldn’t have waited so long to ask you out,” he said.
“Why did you?”
He pulled back enough to look down at her, his eyes warm in the sparkling lights coming off the pier. “Honestly, you’re a little bit intimidating.”
She laughed. Maybe her sister was more intuitive than Tori wanted to admit.
“You’re smart and pretty, and so focused all the time.” His fingers made little circles on her back, sensitizing her entire body to his touch. “And I thought you’d find me…boring.”
“Not a chance.” With a deep breath for courage, she gave him a cheeky smile and said, “The only thing boring about you is that you’re not kissing me right now.”
“That I can fix.”
His mouth brushed hers softly and she melted into his arms, savoring the feel of his warm body pressed to hers, the gentle nip of his teeth on her lower lip, the rough slide of his tongue. Holy hell, the man could kiss.
“So not boring,” she said when they eventually pulled apart, breathless.
He laughed lightly and kissed her again.
She ran her hands through his short hair. “You know… If we really apply ourselves, by Valentine’s Day we could be on our fourth date. So much less pressure.”
“You’re forgetting about breakfast and lunch.” He did that thing with his eyebrow again. “By my count, if things work out, we could be on our tenth date. Definitely a milestone worth celebrating.”
Her stomach fluttered. “Leave it to the lawyer to find a loophole.”
“But if things really work out,” she said, suddenly feeling bold, “we could still be on our first date.”
Ten Years Later…Things really, really worked out, and one kid, a condo, and two rescue dogs later, Tori and Mattias were still on their first date.