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Well Built by Carly Phillips, Erika Wilde (1)

Chapter Eight

Kyle picked up his fork and dug into the breakfast that his mother set in front of him. The plate was loaded with scrambled eggs, a few of her homemade biscuits, and chicken-fried steak smothered in country gravy that she’d made from scratch that morning. Kyle wasn’t shy about inhaling the savory feast, because his mother was a freaking amazing cook and he certainly didn’t eat like this all the time in the city.

He’d long ago realized that his mother equated good, delicious food with making people feel loved and cared for—and that’s exactly how he felt when he ate her cooking. Whether it was feeding the customers at the diner or preparing special meals for the family they’d once been, it made Patricia Coleman happy to fill their bellies with down-home country recipes and baked goods.

Now that Kyle’s dad was gone and Todd was in prison, he knew that his mother looked forward to spending time in the kitchen when he came to visit—which was evidenced not only by his gigantic breakfast but by the peach cobbler she’d made yesterday afternoon so he could have a bowlful of the dessert with vanilla ice cream when he’d arrived from the city last night.

Thank God today was all about physical labor so he could work off the calories consumed during this delicious meal. Hauling trash out of the Piedmont building and gutting the place would undoubtedly burn the extra calories he’d consumed in just a twelve-hour period. He was meeting the guys at the property in an hour—Wes, Max, Connor, and half a dozen laborers who worked for the company were giving up their Saturday to lend a hand with the cleanup and heavy lifting, and he was grateful for their help since he only had his weekends free to work on the renovations, and he wanted the place cleared out as much as possible today.

He felt his belly get fuller with every bite he took. “You really didn’t have to make such a huge breakfast for me, Mom,” he said, even knowing she’d enjoyed doing so. “I would have been fine with a bowl of cereal.”

She scoffed at him from where she stood at the counter, though she was smiling as she piled shaved ham and cheese onto the fresh-sliced sourdough bread she’d made first thing this morning. “You’re a grown man and you need to start the day with a full stomach. You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you, and I don’t want you getting hungry in a few hours.”

There was no chance of that, especially since she was also providing a hearty lunch for everyone. “And you also didn’t have to make sandwiches and potato salad for all my guys. We could have gone to the diner or had something delivered.”

“It’s already done, honey,” she said, happy as a clam as she packed the meals into a cooler, along with a container of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. “This way you all can eat when you want. It’s all right here.”

With his plate emptied—how in the world had he eaten everything?—he leaned back in his chair to let the food digest for a few minutes. “Thank you. I really do appreciate it.”

“I know you do.” With a gentle, motherly smile, she picked up his plate and took it to the sink to rinse it off. “It’s the very least I can do considering everything you’ve done for me.”

They’d had this conversation many times before—her genuine gratitude for taking care of her over the years. It didn’t matter that Kyle insisted he’d always be there for her—something his verbally abusive, alcoholic father never had been—she was always grateful and told him so, while he knew he wouldn’t be the man he was today if it hadn’t been for her love and guidance.

Somehow, he’d turned out the opposite of Todd, probably because he’d always been keenly aware of how much his father’s actions, and Todd’s, had hurt his mother. That emotional pain was something he never wanted to put her through, so he’d always been on his best behavior. He strove to be the kind of man who would make her proud, and he’d like to think he’d accomplished that goal.

“Before I head out for the day, there’s a few things I’d like to talk to you about,” he said, not sure how she was going to take this next conversation that was going to shake up the normal routine she’d been used to for the past thirty years.

“Okay,” she said, sitting across the table from him. “And I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something, too. But you go ahead first.”

His curiosity was definitely piqued. It wasn’t often his mother had something important she wanted to say. But they needed to discuss the Piedmont building and what it was going to entail for him to get it renovated into an event center and bakery in the time frame he’d allotted.

“So, the next couple of months are going to move fast with the remodeling, and I’m going to need your help with quite a few things to get the place done and open by the two-and-a-half-month deadline I’ve set for the project.”

He knew it was a tight period of time, but he’d already worked out an estimate, and it was definitely doable as long as he didn’t have any major problems along the way. He had a crew with a trusted foreman scheduled to implement the work Kyle needed done during the week while he handled business in Chicago, and he’d spend the weekends in Woodmont making sure everything was up to code and precisely how it needed to be.

“You won’t have to worry about any of the physical stuff, but this business is yours, and I want you to make it everything you’ve ever wanted,” he continued. “That means, while my crew and I are doing the interior and exterior construction and build-outs and putting everything in that’s required for a working bakery and venue business, you’re going to need to be in charge of the design and decorating of both places and hiring the people you trust to work for you.”

“Oh.” She blinked at him, her expression suddenly overwhelmed by it all. “Well, I’m not sure where to begin.”

He smiled, because he’d already handled that aspect of things. “First, you need a name for the place.”

“That I’ve had for years.” Her green eyes sparkled with a glimmer of excitement that warmed Kyle’s heart. “I’d like to call it Celebrations Bakery and Events.”

“I love it.” He sat up and folded his hands on the table. “I’ll get all the business paperwork, permits, and licenses started for you, and we’ll get a custom sign made for the place that is exactly how you’d like it to be.”

A slight frown pulled between her eyes. “I really don’t know much about design and decorating. I do have a few ideas, but I’m not sure where to even begin to make it all happen.”

The last thing Kyle wanted was his mother being stressed over this new venture. “I’ve already hired a design consultant, a woman I’ve known for a while who works with restaurants, hotels, and other businesses to assist with concepts, themes, furnishings. She’ll help you envision what you want both places to look like.”

“Okay,” she said with a nod. “I really can’t believe this is happening, and so fast.”

“It really is,” he agreed. Ten weeks would go by in a snap. “There’s one more thing I need you to do.” And he knew this wouldn’t be an easy request for her to accept.

“What is it?” she asked.

He drew a deep breath. “Quit your job at the diner so you can focus your time on the new business.”

Her eyes opened wide in surprise and her lips pursed ever so slightly, that rare stubborn side of hers making an appearance. “I don’t see why I can’t keep working while you’re doing the renovations.”

“Mom,” he said, addressing her gently but firmly, trying to be sympathetic to the fact that the diner was all she’d known since getting married, that it had been the one steady, consistent thing in her life, and it was difficult for her to walk away from it after all these years. “This is why I bought the building for you, so you don’t have to work at the diner anymore. So you can do what you want to do, not what you think you have to do. You’re going to have to quit the diner at some point, and quite frankly, I can’t do this all on my own. I’m going to need you to be my eyes and ears during the week when I can’t be here, and you’ve got decisions to make about the venue and bakery that are going to need your attention.”

He watched her take a deep, fortifying breath. “You’re right. I just . . . ”

“I know, Mom,” he said softly, because he didn’t need her to explain what he already understood. “You’ve got this. And if there’s anything that seems too overwhelming for you, we’ll figure it out together.”

“Okay. I’ll do it.” She sat up straighter in her chair, her green eyes turning more serious than he’d anticipated. “But there’s something I need to ask you to do for me.”

“Anything. You know that.”

His mother hesitated a moment, then said, “It has to do with Ella.”

Just the mention of her name made Kyle’s chest hurt, because ever since they’d gone their separate ways last weekend, as fucking friends, he’d felt as though someone had carved out a piece of his heart that was now missing. One night with Ella, and she’d made an indelible mark on him once again, forcing him to remember all the reasons he’d fallen in love with her all those years ago. Because she was sweet and kind and selfless. She made him laugh and feel happier than he had in a long time. He wanted to protect her, care for her, and be the guy she turned to when she needed someone to lean on. Even in their short time together, she made him want to be a better man for her.

And she’d insisted they be nothing more than fucking friends. Yeah, he was still more than a little peeved about her ultimatum, because when she’d issued her “friends or nothing” deal, there was no way in hell he would have chosen nothing. Having Ella in his life, even as a fucking friend, was better than not having her at all.

He knew the odds were stacked against them. That the smart thing to do was to be friends as she’d requested and let the idea of them go. But what he’d realized this past week was that he’d never let her go in the first place. Not in his mind and not in his heart. For ten years, he’d lived with the pain and regret of losing her, of wishing that things had ended differently, of comparing every woman he’d been with to her, only to find each and every one lacking.

He might have tried to bury the heartache as deep as possible so he could get on with his life, but after last weekend with her, there was no doubt in his mind that Ella was the one and always would be. He just had no idea what he was going to do about them when she was so adamant that any kind of future between them was impossible—for valid reasons. And right now, he was stuck in the fucking friend zone anyway, he thought grumpily.

“Kyle Coleman, wipe that scowl off your face,” his mother chastised, misconstruing his emotions and whatever expression he was currently wearing as a result of his frustrating thoughts. “That girl has been through a lot in the past ten years, and there is one thing I know that she’s always wanted . . . that she no longer believes is possible . . . ”

“The building,” he murmured, already knowing what his mother was referring to.

“Yes,” she confirmed with a nod. “I’ve gone into the market over the years and she’s been nothing but sweet and kind to me, while her father won’t even sit in my section at the diner. Not that I care, because I did nothing wrong that night . . . and neither did you.”

Her tone was adamant, and a bit angry, too—not that he could blame her.

He had no idea how their discussion had veered off track to that night, but he attempted to steer it back in place because, for one, he didn’t want to talk about the past, and two, he needed to leave in ten minutes to go and meet his guys to get started gutting the building.

“Mom, what did you need to ask me?” And more importantly, what did it have to do with Ella?

She patted her graying brown hair a bit nervously. “I want you to make a section of Celebrations that’s closest to the market a storefront for Ella, so she can have a place to sell those handcrafted items that people in town are trying to make a living on. Think of it as a service to the community and helping those small businesses to grow.”

His mom, always thinking about someone else. Someone in need, in this case Ella. And the little guy, like the vendors who would benefit from Ella carrying and distributing their goods and getting their items into the hands of customers. This past week, the same thought had crossed Kyle’s mind, but he wasn’t sure how to make it happen. The building could be compartmentalized by storefronts, but since it was all one property, there wasn’t any way to sell off a section to Ella, even if he wanted to.

“It’s one piece of property,” he tried to explain to his mother. “I can’t sell just a portion of it to her, and she’s not going to just take it.” No, his Ella was too proud, obstinate, and independent for that. She’d want to earn it and know that it was hers without owing anything to anyone.

His mother merely smiled, seemingly unconcerned as she stood up, grabbed the cooler filled with food, and handed it to him. “You’re a smart man, Kyle,” she said, giving his cheek a gentle, loving pat. “I know you’ll figure something out.”

He hadn’t agreed but his mother didn’t seem to care about that. She trusted him not only to do what she’d asked but to make it work despite the obstacles. He let out a low groan, wishing that Ella, the other woman in his life, had the same faith in his abilities to fix things that were wrong and reshape the future.

*     *     *

“Damn, how in the world are we supposed to get any work done with those gorgeous, hot, sweaty, and supremely muscular men distracting us next door?”

Ella laughed at Claire’s comment because it was the truth. Ever since Kyle had arrived with his crew of men to start hauling junk out of the Piedmont building, it had been difficult not to glance out the store’s front windows—okay, stare in blatant appreciation was a more accurate description—when one or more of them were lifting heavy items out to the dumpsters they’d rented for the day. There was a crew of about eight guys, but the only one who captured Ella’s attention was Kyle. He was wearing a pair of old, faded jeans and a plain white T-shirt, but she’d come to the conclusion that nothing could detract from his perfectly sculpted body and those biceps and forearms that flexed as he effortlessly carried old furniture and boxes of stuff out of the building.

She and Kyle might have agreed to remain friends, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t look and enjoy what great eye candy he was. She just wished it didn’t make her feel so hot and bothered . . . and too damn wistful.

“Break time is over,” Ella said, injecting humor into her tone as she forced herself to walk away from the window to get back to work. “I’m not paying you to ogle the studs next door. Besides, I don’t think Nolan would approve of you drooling over those guys, either.”

Claire made a dismissive pfft sound as she reluctantly turned her back on the exceptional view outside. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking over the menu somewhere else, so long as I eat at home.”

Ella shook her head at her friend’s amusing quip. It had only been a week since Nolan and Claire had gone out on their first date, and things between them were already hot and heavy. They weren’t dating exclusively yet, but in a small town like Woodmont, where single, intelligent, and good-looking men were limited, Claire had decided that Nolan would do just fine. Which meant she was getting laid on a regular basis and quite happy about it since, according to her, Nolan wasn’t a slouch in the bedroom. Lucky her.

Ella was both happy for and envious of her friend because after one extremely hot and erotic night with Kyle last weekend, her battery-operated boyfriend didn’t even come close to satisfying the ache that pulsed between her legs when she thought of Kyle’s talented hands and mouth on her body and all the decadent ways he’d made her come. Her bed was cold and lonely, and unfortunately, that wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

With a sigh, Ella finished clearing off a row of shelves near one of the cash registers in her mission to make room where she could to carry a few select specialty items for now. She was forced to be extra discerning about what products to offer at the market, and she hated that she had to pick and choose from the great list of local artisans, when she’d thought she’d have space galore to showcase all the different and unique goods she knew her customers would enjoy.

“So, I was thinking,” Claire said as she dusted off the shelves with a rag. “It’s been a while since you and I have had some girl time, and you’ve been a little, okay, a lot down in the dumps after everything that happened with Kyle last weekend, so what do you say we head over to the Roadhouse after work tonight? Have a few drinks and dance and just have a good time?”

The Roadhouse was on the outskirts of town and was a known pickup joint. It had been years since Ella had been there, but their only other option would be going to the movies at their one and only theater that was currently showing an outdated action-adventure flick or spending a few hours at the small bowling alley.

“What about Nolan?” Ella asked as she opened up a box containing jars of the most delicious handcrafted strawberry-rhubarb jam that she’d ever tasted, which Marylou Weber made from the fruits she grew in her own garden. “It’s Saturday night, which is prime time for hooking up. Hard to imagine you giving up the opportunity to get laid.”

“Meh, Nolan will survive without me for the evening.” Claire thought about that for a moment, then grinned. “Or I can always make a booty call when you and I are done having our girls’ night.” She waggled her brows.

Great. So Claire would finish the night with a few orgasms, and she’d go home and . . . Ella shook her head of the depressing thought. She didn’t even want to think about how pathetically her evening would end.

The last thing she wanted to do was go to the local bar, but staying at home and wallowing over things she couldn’t change wasn’t helping her mood any, either. At the very least, a drink or two would help her fall asleep easier when she finally fell into bed—by herself.

“Okay, I’ll give Betsy a call and see if she can stay a few extra hours tonight with my dad.” Which was never a problem. Ella honestly believed that the two of them, despite their occasional squabbles or disagreements, actually enjoyed each other’s company.

For the next few hours, Ella worked on product placement at the front of the store. She added jars of raw honey from a local gentleman who raised honeybees on his farm. Her two favorite flavors were the lavender and orange blossom honeys, and she’d promised the older man that she’d carry more of a variety if they sold well.

After a while, she noticed that everything next door had grown quiet. No more jarring sounds of thumping and banging and clattering coming through the adjoining wall as they knocked down partitions and old beams and dragged debris out of the building. Claire had gone back to the office to work on payroll, and Ella cast a curious glance back out the front windows and saw that the guys had stopped working to eat lunch. Four of the men were sitting beneath a shade tree on the grass, while four other guys, including Kyle, were hanging out at the tailgate of his truck.

It was a warm day out, and as Claire had mentioned earlier, the men were hot and sweaty. They were drinking from water bottles as they ate what looked like sandwiches that someone had made and packed for them, while talking and laughing and relaxing for a short bit before they got back to work.

When Kyle had arrived early this morning, she’d been outside the store watering the pots of flowers on the sidewalk. He hadn’t come over, had just given a quick wave in her direction to acknowledge her before getting to work with his crew. Unlike Ella, who’d stolen surreptitious glances at Kyle through the window as the hours passed, not once had she caught him looking over at the store for her. And as stupid as it was, she was ridiculously annoyed by the ease with which he seemed to be able to avoid her. Then again, what did she expect after insisting they be just friends?

She wasn’t spontaneous by nature, but in that moment, she decided to do something impulsive. Heading to the coolers where the drinks were kept to chill, she grabbed two six-packs of butterscotch beer, a non-alcoholic soda handcrafted by a guy the next town over. It was one of the market’s bestsellers, along with the delicious cream soda he made.

She grabbed a few of the guy’s business cards and slipped them into her back pocket, then walked out of the store with her peace offering and headed toward Kyle’s truck. As she neared, Kyle and the three other men glanced in her direction, and she put on a nice, hospitable, welcoming smile.

“Hey, Ella,” Kyle said, his tone polite but irritatingly reserved—and she hated that he was being so cordial. As if he hadn’t seen her naked or spent hours touching every single inch of her body or heard her shamelessly scream his name when she’d climaxed from the most exquisite pleasure she’d ever experienced.

She exhaled and reminded herself that Kyle’s lack of enthusiasm was her own doing. That he was merely abiding by the friendship rules she’d established between them before leaving the city a week ago. It was difficult to fault him for that, yet she couldn’t deny that it made her feel more than a little disheartened.

“Hey, guys. Thought you’d like something other than water to drink with your lunch.” She lifted up the two six-packs and explained what the bottles of soda were and set the two cartons down on the tailgate next to where Kyle was sitting, then added the business cards from her pocket. “And just in case you like it, here’s the vendor’s information. He makes weekly deliveries into the city.”

Kyle passed out the bottles of butterscotch beer to each of his friends. “Ella, these three guys are my business partners,” he said, surprising her with the introduction. “Wes, Max, and Connor,” he added, pointing at each man as he said their name.

She smiled at each of them while trying not to think about how hot and sexy Kyle looked wearing a leather tool belt around his waist. “It’s nice to meet you all.”

“Ahhh, the mysterious Ella Fisher,” the good-looking guy named Wes drawled as he twisted the cap off the bottle before taking a long drink.

She lifted a curious brow, somehow suspecting that Wes was somewhat of an instigator, even though he wore a charming grin. “Mysterious?”

His eyes flashed with a wicked sense of humor. “As in, we finally meet the woman responsible for Kyle’s shitty mood this past week.”

Kyle glared at his friend. “Shut up, Wes.”

Wes merely laughed. “It’s the fucking truth.”

“Totally the truth,” Max added with a nod, then tipped the bottle of soda to his lips to hide his own grin.

Ella could only imagine what Kyle had said about her after the way things had ended between them, and honestly, she wasn’t upset. He had the right to confide in his guy friends, just like she did with Claire—and clearly, the one named Wes obviously liked to give Kyle a hard time.

Ella glanced at the last guy Kyle had introduced, Connor, recognizing him from her impromptu visit to Premier Realty over a week ago. “I believe we kind of met at your office,” she said to him, because in actuality, they hadn’t said a word to one another. He’d merely given her a curt nod she’d found strange, then quickly dodged around her and left.

He cringed in embarrassment. “I’m really sorry about that day. I didn’t mean to be rude . . . ”

She waved away his apology. “Please, don’t worry about it. It was an odd day the whole way around.”

“Damn, this is good stuff,” Max said, checking out the label wrapped around the amber-hued bottle. “I might have to order a case of it.”

“I hope you do,” she encouraged with a smile. “You’d be supporting the local merchants who are trying to make a living selling their handcrafted wares.”

“Ahh, a couple of cases, then,” he added with a friendly wink before finishing off what was left in his bottle.

She returned her attention to Kyle, determined to break the ice between them. “So, how’s it going in there?” she asked, nodding toward the building.

“Good.” He pushed his fingers through his dark hair, the ends around his neck damp with sweat. “It’s going quicker than we anticipated, so we should be done with the cleanup in a few hours. I hope we weren’t being too loud and bothersome.”

“It’s fine.” She smiled at him, but his expression was unreadable. “I know it has to be done, and I know it can’t be an easy task. Old Man Piedmont was the worst kind of hoarder.”

“Yeah, he was,” he answered without any inflection in his tone.

Could things be any more awkward between the two of them? She shifted on her feet and decided that she wasn’t going to force Kyle to talk to her or try to make more small talk, because that’s how it was beginning to feel, like even a basic conversation with her was much too burdensome for him.

She glanced back at his friends, who at least had been far more friendly and talkative. “Well, I’ll let you guys finish up your lunch so you can get back to work.”

The three guys thanked her for the soda she’d brought out, and Kyle remained silent. But as she started back toward the market, she heard one of the guys say, “Jesus, Coleman, could you be any more of a dick to her?”

Kyle muttered a reply she couldn’t hear, which was probably for the best. Hell, maybe it was even for the best that they kept their distance and pretended to be friends. He’d been less than happy when she’d suggested the arrangement last week, and clearly time apart hadn’t changed his attitude about it. She didn’t like it either, but what choice did they have?

For the next few hours into the afternoon, Ella kept herself busy—and away from the front window—helping William sort through and arrange the produce bins, cycling out the old and bringing in fresh fruits and vegetables. Just as they finished and everything looked neat and tidy, two women she didn’t recognize walked into the store. Since Fisher’s Grocery was the main grocery in town, Ella pretty much knew everyone in Woodmont, though they did have occasional people who passed through.

Judging by the chic way they were both dressed—one in a pretty spring dress and the other in a fashionable capri-and-blouse outfit—she assumed they’d come from the city. They glanced around the store, looking a little lost and out of their element.

Ella approached them with an amicable smile. “Can I help you find something?”

The curvier woman with the long, wavy blonde hair turned around, her blue eyes sparkling cheerfully. “Actually, yes you can. My husband sent me over here to order some of the butterscotch beer that you sell.”

Ella took a wild guess as to who her significant other was, based on his reaction to enjoying the soda. “Max?”

She nodded. “Yes, he’s mine,” she said, happily claiming him before introducing herself. “I’m Hailey Ellison-Sterling.”

“And I’m Natalie Sinclair,” the gorgeous, dark-brown-haired woman said with a smile. “And Wes, the smartass of the group if you haven’t already met him, is my husband.”

Ella laughed at the apt description of Wes. “Yes, I did meet both of them, and Connor, as well.”

“I’m afraid I have to claim him, too,” Natalie said in a humorous tone. “He’s my brother.”

“Well, it’s very nice to meet both of you.” Ella tipped her head kindly at Hailey. “So, how much of the butterscotch beer would Max like to order?”

“Two cases, if that’s okay.”

“Absolutely.” Ella was thrilled that more of the soda was going to find its way into the city. “Why don’t you follow me, and I’ll take down your order and delivery information to pass on to the supplier.”

While Natalie casually browsed the store, Hailey accompanied her to the far-end register that wasn’t currently being used. Ella retrieved an invoice pad and wrote down the order while the other woman gave her the home address where Max wanted the cases of soda shipped to. Hailey handed over a credit card for payment, and when they were done, they joined Natalie, where she was trying various samples of shea body butters that were on a small display.

“Oh, my God, this stuff is amazing,” Natalie said, her eyes round with both surprise and pleasure as she rubbed a dollop of the lemon-grass-scented lotion onto the back of her hand. “I’ve been looking for something that doesn’t leave a greasy residue, and this cream is so soft and silky on my skin. You have to try it, Hailey.”

Her friend applied a small amount to her hand, as well, and they both went on about how amazing the product was.

“It’s made with all-natural, organic ingredients and essential oils,” she told the women. “It’s terrific for hydrating your skin.”

“I’m going to take one of each scent,” Natalie said, picking up jars of the three fragrances on the shelf, and Hailey did the same.

Ella took them back to the register to ring up their purchases. “So, what made you come into Woodmont today?” she asked, trying to make conversation—because the two women certainly weren’t dressed to do physical labor next door.

“We wanted to give the guys some moral support and see where Kyle used to live since we’ve never been here before.” Natalie tilted her head to the side, her gaze inquisitive. “Did you know Kyle growing up?”

“You could say that,” Ella replied with a small laugh as she wrapped up the jars of body butter. “We dated in high school.”

“Oh!” Hailey looked at Ella through new eyes. “You must be Ella!”

The blonde woman’s reaction momentarily perplexed Ella, until she realized that, while the two women had introduced themselves just a while ago, Ella hadn’t mentioned her name at all. “Yes, I am. How did you know?”

“Because our guys gripe and grumble worse than women,” Natalie said with a roll of her eyes. “Wes kept complaining all week about what an awful mood Kyle was in, all because of some old girlfriend named Ella who lived in his hometown who’d put him in the friend zone when that’s the last place he wants to be.” Natalie raised her eyebrows, as if looking for more information on the subject from Ella.

Horrified that she’d been the topic of gossip and these two women knew more of her private life than she would have liked, Ella buried her blushing face in her hands and groaned in dismay. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“I’m sorry, Ella,” Natalie said, touching her arm compassionately and pulling her hands away until they were looking at each other again. “We’re not the kind of girls who judge, and trust me when I say we get it. Making things work with our guys wasn’t easy, either. Wes and I were frenemies for years before I realized he was definitely a jerk, but he was my jerk,” she joked.

“That’s so true. Not easy at all,” Hailey jumped in before Ella could say that there was no making things work between her and Kyle. “I staged a fake engagement with Max that he didn’t have any clue he was a part of until I was caught in the lie. Luckily, he agreed to pose as my fiancé, but considering I’m a matchmaker by trade, it was all a bit embarrassing, and it took me a while to realize that Max wasn’t faking his feelings for me at all.”

Their stories made Ella smile, even if she knew a happy ending like that wasn’t in the cards for her and Kyle. Resolving her father’s dislike of the Coleman family after all these years was nearly impossible, not to mention that Kyle was content with his life in the city, and Ella could never be happy there. She had a market to run for her father, which was their livelihood, and responsibilities in Woodmont she could never shirk like her sister so easily had.

She finished the women’s transactions and gave them each their bags with their items after tossing in a few samples of some homemade caramels from another artisan. “It was really nice to meet both of you,” Ella said, meaning it. At a different time, or in another place, she could easily imagine these two women as her friends.

“It was a real pleasure meeting you, too. We hope we see you again sometime soon,” Natalie said meaningfully.

Ella couldn’t deny the pang of sadness that tightened in her chest. Unfortunately, unless they came back to Woodmont for another visit, she knew she’d probably never see them again.