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Keep reading for a small sneek peak of Owen and Sophie…
When I approach Neutral Grounds, the coffee shop Owen suggested we meet at, I stop to peek inside to see if he’s already here, while trying not to be obvious. Most of the tables are empty, except for a few up toward the front. Those are occupied by what looks like students who’ve met up for study sessions.
Pulling the door open, I step inside and approach the counter.
A familiar face turns to greet me.
“Well, hey there,” the owner, CeCe, says as she adjusts her apron. “Not used to seeing you this time of day.”
Smiling, I tilt my head. “Yeah, I’m meeting someone here. But I definitely need some coffee.”
“Long day?” she asks.
“The longest,” I say with an exaggerated sigh. “I’ve been corralling nineteen preschoolers for the last seven hours.” After my assignment with Molly’s class was over, I was sent to a preschool class in the same school.
CeCe’s eyes go wide. “Whoa, too bad I don’t sell alcohol… which I should, because this is New Orleans.”
“You totally should,” I agree. “I’d be your most loyal customer, especially after the day I had today… or week, really.”
“I can only imagine.” She shakes her head, leaning against the glass case that houses all of their amazing baked goods. “My friends all have kids, but they’re still small and there’s not nineteen of them… and it still takes our entire village.”
We’re laughing again when I hear the chime of the door opening. Without even turning around, I know it’s Owen. I’m not sure how I know, but I do.
The atmosphere shifted.
Or maybe it was the energy in the room.
Trying to play it cool, I quickly point to the last remaining chocolate croissant. “I’ll take that and an iced mocha.”
“Good choice,” CeCe says, glancing past me, over my shoulder, as she calls out a greeting. “Welcome to Neutral Grounds. I’ll be right with you.”
“Take your time,” his deep baritone voice comes from behind me, making my breath hitch.
“Hello, Sophie… or should I call you Miss Callahan?”
Letting out what I hope is a casual chuckle, I pivot to face him, hands clasped in front of me to keep from fidgeting. “Sophie, please. Only my students call me Miss Callahan.”
“Thanks for meeting me today,” he says, his piercing eyes somewhat shadowed due to the ball cap he has pulled low. A pair of sunglasses hang from the collar of his t-shirt that clings perfectly to the muscles beneath, completing an aloof vibe I wasn’t prepared for.
Fighting back a blush, I clear my throat and reply quickly to cover any awkwardness I’m feeling. “No problem, but it would’ve been nice to know in advance what I was in for.”
It’s supposed to be a joke, but there’s enough double entendre there that I have to turn away from him so he doesn’t see me roll my eyes at myself.
Get it together, Sophie.
“One chocolate croissant and an iced mocha,” CeCe says cheerfully, her eyes darting from me to Owen and back to me with a slight raise of her brows—conveying a variety of questions in this simple gesture.
Is this who you’re meeting?
Is it a date?
You should definitely make it one if it’s not.
Oh, God. Please don’t say anything, I silently beg with a smile that probably looks like it belongs to a serial killer. Faster than you can say Sebastian Stan—who Owen actually resembles, except Owen is a little taller and has brown eyes—I pay her, mumbling a thank you as I stuff an extra tip in her jar for not outing me to the Adonis behind me.
“I’ll grab us a table,” I say to Owen as I pass him without a glance.
I hear him place his order as I sit at one of the tables by the window.
I read an article once that said a person’s coffee order can say a lot about their personality. Take me for instance, I’m a mocha drinker, preferably iced, and according to the article it means I’m sophisticated and bold. I like that.
Black coffee drinkers? They’re supposed to like simplicity, be efficient, and can often be set in their ways.
“You’re right, I should’ve told you a little bit about why I wanted to meet you,” Owen says, interrupting my thoughts and making me jump. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s fine,” I say with a scoff, waving a hand in the air. “I was just thinking … about how amazing this mocha is and wondering why I don’t walk over here more often.”
“Is this close to where you live?” he asks, pulling out the chair across from me and lowering his tall frame into it.
God, he’s so tall.
And those jeans definitely draw attention to his muscular legs.
I bet his ass looks great in baseball pants.
Which reminds me, I should consider being more supportive of our local sports teams, namely baseball. I’ve never been to a game. What kind of New Orleanian am I?
When Owen clears his throat, I realize he’s still waiting on me to answer his question.
“Oh, yeah, uh, not far from here.”
As he takes a tentative sip of his coffee and then lowers the mug to the table, I try not to notice how big his hands look wrapped around the ceramic. Resting his elbows on the weathered wood, he glances out the window beside us, watching people for a moment before bringing his eyes back to mine.
“I didn’t mention why I wanted to meet you because I was afraid you’d turn me down before I got the chance to really talk to you about it. So I’ll cut to the chase. Remember what Molly said that day in the ice cream shop?” he asks, pausing.
My mind immediately goes back to that day and begins flipping through the moments like snapshots.
Running after Molly because she forgot her favorite jean jacket.
Noticing Owen before he even had a chance to turn around.
Watching him with his children at the ice cream shop.
“She mentioned wanting you to be her nanny,” he offers.
My eyes widen.
She did say that.
When I don’t respond, he continues. “I know you already have a job,” he says, leveling me with those brown eyes that are still hidden under the brim of his nondescript black ball cap. I guess it’d be a bit too telling to wear a New Orleans Revelers hat. Now that I think about it, the hat and sunglasses are probably his way of walking around incognito.
I hate to tell him, there’s no covering up everything he’s got going on and the fact that he’s somebody.
There’s just something about the way he carries himself.
I guarantee he can’t walk down the sidewalk and not get at least a few people to do a double take, thinking to themselves he looks familiar. They may not be able to place him, but he definitely makes them stop and notice.
“And I’m not trying to take you away from something you love, but to be honest, I’m desperate.”
Inhaling deeply, my shoulders rise and then fall as I exhale. “You want me to be your nanny?”
**END OF SNEEK PEEK**
The Setup and The Substitute will be available on Amazon and in Kindle Unlimited on Thursday, September 16, 2021!