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Hard To Leave (The Hard Series Book 3) by S. Jones (1)

Chapter 1

Chloe

“Sweetie, table five is up,” Ree called from across the counter. My manager and her husband Dave owned the Seaside Café in Folly Beach, where I currently worked waiting tables. While we weren’t exactly right next to the sea as the name implied, the place was full of local character and served great food.

I had stumbled across this little-hidden gem seven months ago when I strolled through town on a random little trip meandering down the coastline. The second I walked through the doors of this charming, small-town diner, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for.

If you were to tell me ten years ago that this would be my life, I would never have believed you. I had goals and dreams just like every other teenage girl. I was going to attend college, become a nurse, and save the world. But getting knocked up at age twenty by my college sweetheart forced me to change direction. The idea of being a single mom and working as a waitress in a small town was never a part of my plan. But things happened that were beyond my control, and here I was, slinging hash and waiting tables. This may not have been what I set out to do, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I had my son, and that’s all that mattered.

The bells chimed over the café door as a couple more customers passed through. The lunch crowd was growing, and I couldn’t wait for this day to be over because my feet were already killing me.

I grabbed Mr. Johnson’s meal that just came out of the kitchen and delivered it to his table. He was one of our many regulars who came in every Wednesday at the same time. He sat at the same booth and ordered the same thing—bacon double cheeseburger, cooked well-done, with fries and a large Coke.

“Here you go, Mr. Johnson.” I smiled, placing the plate in front of him.

He set his newspaper down and reached up to remove his reading glasses. “Please, Chloe, call me Kevin. Mr. Johnson is my father, and I’d like to think I’m much better looking than him.” He had a deep southern drawl that I loved and a wedding band on his left finger that he liked to ignore. He was a columnist for a local newspaper who thought he was much more attractive than he actually was.

His lingering stare and obvious flirtation every time I waited on him suggested that he would like to do more than chat about his menu options. But there was nothing about his sweater vests or offers for weekly newspaper subscriptions that were only read by people over the age of sixty-five in this town that had me taking him seriously. Not to mention he was married.

“I’m sorry, Mr. John…I mean, Kevin,” I said, correcting my mistake and giving him a tip-worthy smile. I still had bills to pay and an extra mouth to feed. “Can I get you anything else?”

He broke out with a smile that was so wide, I could see the fillings on the bottom left side of his mouth. “No, that’s all for now. Thank you, beautiful.”

I gave him a polite grin, then made my way back over to the counter.

Kristen, the other waitress on duty, poked me on the side. “Holy shit…don’t be obvious,” she whispered into my ear. “There’s a hottie alert at table ten by the window.” I lifted my head, pretending to scan the restaurant for any customers needing a coffee refill. My eyes landed on a man about my age with dark blond hair that was practically hidden under a baseball cap. The lid was down so low that it was hard to see his face.

He was wearing a pair of gray sweatpants with a simple worn blue Oakley T-shirt, which was a dead giveaway that he was from up north. It was the end of February, still very much winter in South Carolina, and the weather called for a high of fifty degrees today. Anyone who was a local was wearing a long sleeve or a light jacket.

I peeled my eyes from the table and swung them back to Kristen. “Don’t get too excited; he’s probably just passing through town. The hot ones never stay for very long.”

We were only five miles off the main highway and halfway between Charleston and Hilton Head. The Seaside got a lot of travelers who would stop, especially during peak season, which was a couple months away.

“Nope. Not passing through.” She swung her head sideways. “He owns a house here. His daddy just passed away last week. Poor thing.”

“How do you know all this, detective?”

“It’s a small town, and unlike you, I keep up on all the gossip. It’s good for tips. Plus, have you seen that man? He’s hot.”

I looked over again and squinted my eyes, trying to see his face, but his ball cap was pulled too low, making it impossible to get a good look.

“I guess I’ll take your word for it.”

Kristen reached into her purse behind the counter and pulled out a tube of red lipstick. Just as she was about to apply it to her full bottom lip, her cell phone buzzed, alerting her to an incoming text. “Shit, I gotta take this. Looks like today is your lucky day,” she said with a tone of disappointment and shoved me toward Mr. Hottie’s table. “I’m taking my break. Be back in fifteen.”

She slid past me and rushed toward the exit.

I ran my hand down my apron as I approached the back booth. The stranger didn’t even look up. His nose was buried deep in his phone, and he was oblivious to the world around him.

“Hi, my name is Chloe,” I introduced myself loudly enough to get his attention. “I’ll be your server today. Can I start you off with something to drink while you look through the menu?”

His fingers continued to fly across his phone, feverishly texting without giving me an upward glance. “I’ll take a black coffee.”

His voice dipped in a way that I felt it all the way to my stomach.

Maybe it was because he lacked a smile; maybe it was because he looked so lost, or maybe I just felt sorry for him because I knew his father just passed away, but it was enough for me to take notice. I could almost feel his pain. His jaw clenched and moved in a way that further confirmed my suspicion.

I was obviously giving this way too much thought and probably making him feel uncomfortable, so I forced myself to walk away and retrieve his coffee.

As I poured the steamy caffeine into the cup, Ree slithered up behind me. “I see you met Jack.”

“I guess,” I mumbled out, still confused by my reaction to him.

“Such a shame about his daddy passing away, isn’t it? By the looks of it, he’s not handling it very well.” She shook her head while securing a loose strand of her bleached blonde hair into a bobby pin.

“That’s right, Kristen had mentioned that,” I told her, feeling sorry for him. I noticed he was no longer on his phone, but staring out the big picture window with a distant look on his face.

“Jack’s a good boy. Just keep that in mind if he flirts with you.”

I laughed a little. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. He’s not exactly my type.”

“Oh, trust me, sweetheart, he’s everybody’s type. He may not look like it now, but that boy is so charming, he could convince a horse to stop eating hay.”

“I’ll keep that in mind if I ever own a horse,” I called over my shoulder while carrying the steaming cup of coffee over to his table.

“Thanks,” he said, finally lifting his head to look at me. When he reached up to remove his baseball cap, I could fully study his profile and see everything. I get it now, I thought to myself even though I normally wasn’t attracted to blonds. It was obvious by his dark blond hair, broad chest and strong jawline that he was all man. He was so gorgeous it was hard to look away.

His lips twitched. “Would you like to take my order now?” he asked like I was a confused waitress who didn’t know what to do next.

I slid my pen out of my apron and fought the urge to roll my eyes at his sarcastic remark. “Of course, sir, what can I get for you?”

“I’ll have a turkey club, and instead of the fries, I’d like a cup of French onion soup, please,” he said, closing his menu and handing it back to me.

“Sure, I’ll put your order in. Let me know if you need anything else.” I smiled, suddenly eager to get away.

He held out his hand. “Actually,” he leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “There is one more thing. How about your number? It’s Chloe, right?”

I was impressed that he remembered my name until I followed his gaze to the name tag that was pinned to my uniform. Clever.

He gave me a once-over, making it clear he liked what he saw. His reaction puzzled me because my outfit was nothing special. It was just a light blue polo with the Seaside Café embroidered on the chest. The thin material was sticking to my skin, and I was sure I looked like a hot mess thanks to standing over the grease fryer waiting for a batch of onion rings to come up. Yet, for some reason, it felt hotter under his intense gaze than it did moments ago back in that kitchen.

“Sorry, but my number isn’t on the menu,” I said, forcing a smile while trying to ignore a trickle of perspiration that was rolling down the back of my neck.

He raised his eyebrow, seeming to enjoy how uncomfortable he was making me. “That’s a shame. Most of the best things I’ve had weren’t ordered off a menu.”

I tried to keep my head down and eyes on my notepad so he wouldn’t notice the pink growing on my cheeks as he continued. “You must be new because I would have remembered you.”

“Been here for six months. I understand you own a vacation home here in town.” I purposely left out the fact that he just lost his father. You just never knew how grief could affect people and I wasn’t sure he would want to talk about it.

His lips kicked up into a full-blown grin. “Aww, you were asking people about me. How sweet.”

“Actually, I didn’t ask. Kristen mentioned it when you walked in.” I jerked my hand in her direction as she strolled across the restaurant. The smell of Marlboro Lights followed her across the diner. She told me she was trying to quit, but it didn’t smell like she had been trying very hard. Jack never even looked in her direction; he kept his gaze on me. “She’s the fan. I’m sure she would be happy to give you her number even though it’s not on the menu.”

He seemed amused by me. “Is that so?”

“Yep,” I replied, feeling my hands go clammy.

Rubbing his hand along his jaw, he grinned. “I’m not interested in her number. I have someone else’s digits in mind.”

“You haven’t even looked at her.”

“Don’t need to. I know what I like, and it’s standing right in front of me.” My cheeks heated as he casually leaned back into his seat. He traced his hand along his perfectly shaped jaw. “So, Chloe, tell me…where are you from?”

“Not far.”

“You’re not going to make this easy on a fella, are you?” He laughed and then kicked his long legs out in front of him. “How do you like the area so far? I could give you a tour around town sometime if you’d like.”

“No need. The town is only four blocks big, and I’ve pretty much done it all.” I was acting cold but running warm. This man was no good; I could feel it in my bones. So why the hell was I letting him get me so flustered?

“I think you would be pretty surprised by a few things you may have missed. Let me know when you’re free, and I’ll make myself available.”

“This seems a little backward to me. Shouldn’t I be the one offering to show you around considering I’m the local and you’re the tourist?”

He laughed. “My family has owned a vacation home here for as far back as I can remember. I may spend the majority of my time in Manhattan, but I consider this my second home. Maybe you can come over sometime and see my place. You know, and make sure that my drapes match the couch.”

His level of confidence matched an entire frat house full of football players and then some. His cheesy lines shouldn’t have turned me on as much as they did. Which was why I needed to get back to work before I said or did something stupid.

It was obvious that we were from two different worlds and this man seemed to have nothing more to offer than just a moment of fun. And fun was something I couldn’t afford at this point in my life. At least, not with a random stranger.

My head tilted toward the kitchen. “As tempting as that offer is, I’ve got another table I need to go take care of.” He was a customer after all, and I didn’t want to offend him. I needed this job. The pay was good and the hours were flexible. I couldn’t afford to screw it up.

Once I was back in the safety of the kitchen, my body sagged with relief. It was clear that he knew how irresistible he was to the female population and that was a problem. If he was this forward and this confident in a pair of sweats, I could only imagine how dangerous he was when he was all cleaned up.

I heard Kristen chuckling behind me. “I tried to warn you.”

“I’m not interested. He’s got an ego the size of Texas,” I told her, reaching for Kevin’s dessert. He was a huge fan of Ree’s key lime pie and always brought a slice back to the office with him.

“I think you need a pair of glasses then.” She laughed in a way that said she knew I was full of shit. It was clear she wasn’t putting much stock into my denial. I’ve only worked here for six months, and the last thing I needed was to be the center of the town gossip. As excited as I was at the prospect of him flirting with me, it wasn’t worth the risk. Because I was sure with a man like Jack, it would bring plenty of attention.

I ignored her comment and whisked off to the dining room to bring Kevin his dessert to go.

“I put some extra whipped cream on that pie for you. I hope you enjoy it.” I handed him his receipt, and he caught my hand.

“What’s it going to take to get you to go out with me sometime?”

Jack was seated in the booth behind me. I could feel his eyes searing into me. “Kevin,” I said gently, “I don’t think your wife would appreciate that very much.”

“Oh, come one, we’ve been through this before. I got access to a nice little condo in Hilton Head that belongs to my in-laws that we could use. My wife would never know.”

I wanted to laugh, but it really wasn’t funny. I felt sorry for his wife. “Maybe you should use that condo and spend some quality time with your wife. I’m sure she would like that.”

“Please, the only thing my wife likes is the jewelry I give her and the vacations I take her on.”

“Now that’s just sad because there is so much more to life than just material things. And although I’m flattered that you find me attractive, I don’t date married men, and you’ve been coming in here long enough to know there is nothing you can say or do to change my mind. Now it sounds like you and your wife have some issues to work through. Maybe you should spend more time thinking about that and coming up with ways to fix your marriage. If it doesn’t work out, at least you tried.”

He stared down at his pie, looking like someone just spit in it. I took his credit card and patted his hand gently. “Don’t give up just yet, and stop wasting your time trying to pick up other women. You’re better than that.”

“You’re a hidden gem in this ugly world, you know that? Somewhere out there is a lucky bastard just waiting to find you.”

“Well, I’m not ready to be found yet, so he’s going to be waiting a while.” I turned on my heels. “Let me run this through the machine, and I’ll be right back.” On my way to the register, I could see Jack out of the corner of my eye. His lips were turned down, and he studied me so hard I had difficulty walking straight.

After making sure Kevin was all set, I took a couple more orders and headed over to the soda fountain to refill a couple Cokes that I noticed were running low at one of my other tables.

I heard a yelp behind me and turned to see a young toddler had spilled her chocolate milk all over the table. The poor thing looked like she was on the verge of tears. I quickly walked over and helped the mom clean up.

“I’m so sorry,” the mom said, seeming embarrassed.

“It’s fine.” I shrugged and noticed the little girl’s bottom lip was trembling. There was a stain starting to settle on her dress, and her stuffed dog looked like he was going to need a bath later. “You know what,” I said in a soothing voice. “I have some wipes in my purse. Let me go grab them from the back so we can get that pretty dress all cleaned up, okay?”

Her big blue eyes brightened up at that.

“Thank you.” The young mom sighed with relief. I quickly walked through the double doors to get my purse. I always kept a few Shout wipes on hand in my bag in case of emergencies.

On my way back out, I grabbed an extra set of crayons and a coloring book that I thought the little girl would like.

The mom looked grateful when she saw what I had in my hand. “You’re a lifesaver.”

“I’m glad I could help out.” I winked and walked back into the kitchen for a two-minute break and a cup of water.

Resting my hands on the silver metal table by the sink, I snuck a quick glance at my reflection in the mirror and blanched when I noticed how tired and run down I looked. Once I noticed that Jack’s order was ready, I was sweating with nerves and feeling a little eager to get out there. My reaction to the man made no sense.

“Enjoy your lunch,” I said, placing his soup and sandwich down in front of him. “I’ll check back with you in a few minutes to see how everything tastes. Can I get you another coffee?”

He looked up at me with a serious expression, as if he were trying to figure me out. “Just water, please.”

I met his eyes head-on and did my best to seem cool and collected. His mood seemed somber suddenly, and it threw me off. “Sure thing.”

I brushed past him, unsuccessfully ignoring the whiff of his cologne that crossed my nose. It must have been a slow day at the Seaside because half the staff was staring at me. They really needed to get a life.

I pushed open the double doors to the kitchen and nudged my way through as Ree and Kristen shared a laugh at my expense.

“What?” I snapped, reaching over and grabbing a glass off the shelf.

“He’s not so bad once you really stop and take notice, huh?” Kristen teased while I set the glass under the ice dispenser.

“Kristen!” I huffed. “Would you knock it off.” She gave me a grin while straitening the collar of her shirt. I pointed to the row of plates that were lining the counter. “Don’t you have customers to serve?”

“Whatever you say, boss,” she replied sarcastically. I wasn’t Kristen’s boss. Far from it. She was normally a good waitress and got the job done, even though her back had given her problems lately. She never complained about being on her feet all day, but I could see that she was in pain. She took the job for benefits and picked up extra shifts for cash. I overheard her talking to the cook the other day about needing $1000 for a back injection. That might explain the increase in chain smoking lately, although, at $13 a pack, she wouldn’t have to give up too many cigarettes to put toward the injection, but who was I to judge.

Jack looked comfortable as he sat in the back booth, one long arm hanging along the cushion. He was facing the window, silently watching the light rain streak the glass. He rubbed his free hand along his bottom lip, drawing attention to it as I set down his drink.

“How is everything so far? Bread toasted enough for you?” I asked, tilting my head to his plate.

His smile stretched wide. I guess his playful side was back. “It would be better if you were sitting across from me.”

Instead of looking away like I wanted to, my eyes stayed locked on his. It was hard to concentrate on anything else but those blazing blue eyes that stared back at me. I didn’t want to feed into his interest, so I dropped my gaze to the floor and studied the pattern of the triangle shaped tile underneath my feet. As much as I wanted to give in, I just couldn’t.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

Thrown off by his question, I let out a nervous laugh. “I’m not sure what that has to do with the French onion soup?”

“Actually, I would be able to enjoy it better if you were to tell me you were single.”

Sweet Jesus. He was relentless.

“Is there anything else I can get for you?”

He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. “Yes, there is. How about you answer my question?”

I blinked. I would be lying if I said his flirting didn’t excite something inside of me. It was actually quite flattering.

“No, I don’t have a boyfriend. You should also know I’m not looking for one either.”

He smirked. “I kind of got that when you turned down sleazy Mr. Rogers over there.”

I knew he heard that exchange. “He’s harmless.”

“He may be, but I’m not. Besides, I think you really like me.”

I blew a piece of hair out of my face, trying to seem unaffected. “What gives you that idea?”

His lips tugged to the side. “I’m good at reading people. Plus, the way you blush every time I look at you and the way your breathing picks up is a dead giveaway.”

I needed to pull myself together. Although he was charming and drop-dead gorgeous underneath all that stubble, I was not looking for a relationship of any kind. Not even a one-night stand. My life was put on hold, and my focus was raising my seven-year-old son. I’ve turned down many opportunities, and Jack would be no different. There was nothing special about him. He was just a guy.

Kristen walked up behind me and whispered in my ear. “Table six is waiting for their check.”

I was thankful for the reprieve.

“I’d love to stay here and chat with you, but duty calls,” I said and walked away to take care of my other customers. I’d never been more appreciative of a distraction in my life. He had me keyed up and acting foolish, and there was no reason to be because this conversation was a dead end. It wouldn’t lead to anywhere.

After a few more minutes of hustling around the diner and chatting with a few regulars, I glanced over and noticed Jack’s plate was almost empty. I couldn’t keep avoiding him.

He was finishing up a call when I approached his booth. “Can I get you anything else?”

He placed his hand over the receiver. “No, I’m good.” He winked. “Just the check, please.”

“Of course.” I found myself nodding through disappointment. It was probably for the best that he was leaving. Shooting down the offers from a few of the hot locals was easy; turning him down would be almost impossible.

I handed him his receipt, drawing a smiley face on his check like I did with all my customers.

He wiped his mouth off on the napkin, threw it on his plate, and reached for his wallet. He placed a $50 bill on the table. “I’ll get your change and be right back,” I said and started to turn away.

“No need, I’m all set. The rest is yours.”

My footsteps paused. “I can’t take this. This is too much.”

His lunch was only fifteen dollars.

He rose from the booth and took a couple strides, landing right in front of me. I could smell the light hint of his cologne. It wasn’t strong; it was just enough to want to make me inch closer and sniff it off him.

“Keep the change, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart? I ignored the way that endearment made me feel.

I held up the fifty-dollar bill. “I can’t accept this,” I said, standing taller, trying to match his tall frame. He was well over six feet, with wide shoulders that looked like he spent countless hours at the gym. I was a mere five foot four inches and twenty pounds overweight. I had a mom body, and he looked like he just stepped out of Muscle magazine.

His mouth curved into a smile. “Don’t worry about it. Besides, you made me smile for the first time in weeks. I would say you’ve earned it.” And with that, he turned around and walked out of the café.