Story of Us (Love Unexpected)By: Jody Holford
Making resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise, was not Sophia Strombi’s typical operating procedure. She was more of a flee-the-town-she-was-born-in-and-gobble-life-up-whole girl. Now, at twenty-eight, she was back in her hometown, terrified to go to her parents’ house and tell them that they’d been right.
“They weren’t right. Not about everything,” she reminded herself. She closed her eyes and breathed in, filling her lungs with Maine’s frigid winter air. It was a shock to the system after being in Arizona for the last several years.
You’re stalling. Staring at the back door of On Dec, a popular Brockton Point pub, she willed herself to knock. She was back, but knocking on this door was the first step to making it real.
“I’m trying really hard to let you wrestle with whatever decision it is wrapping you in knots, but I’m freezing my ass off, and I really need to get inside my bar,” a deep, sexy, somewhat gravelly voice said behind Sophia.
She whipped around and came face to face with the past. Not her past. As if she’d ever been that lucky. Declan James stood on the stairs leading up the back of the two-story building, his thick, tattooed biceps folded over his chest. He wore a black T-shirt and dark jeans that fit him like they’d been designed to mold around his long, thick thighs. If you drool right now, it’s cold enough to freeze.
“Make a decision, lady. You need something?” He came down the steps until he was standing in front of her. She had to tip her head back to reach his gaze.
When she met it, his dark eyes widened, and he whispered, “No way.”
She smiled and nodded.
“Jesus Christ. Sophia?”
She nodded again. The smile that transformed his face sucked the air from her lungs. It also chased away some of the panic whirling like a helicopter in her stomach.
Before she could rethink it, she threw her arms around him and held on tight. It wasn’t until his strong arms folded around her that she realized how much she’d needed a hug. And there was nothing quite like a Declan James hug. Being held close by him made her feel like she’d fallen into an alternate universe where everything negative simply fell away. It was a strange combination of safe and sexy and completely overwhelming.
Before she could do something embarrassing, like burst into tears for no reason, she pulled back. She hated how close to the surface her emotions were.
Declan dropped his hands as if her skin were on fire. He shoved them in his pockets and frowned. “What are you doing here? I thought you were out west living with some guy?”
Awesome. Bet my parents told that story with pride. She shivered, and Declan pulled a key out of his pocket, unlocked the heavy metal door, and motioned for her to get inside.
It took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Declan touched the small of her back in that way guys did—it meant nothing, she knew—but it warmed her immediately.
“There was more to it than some guy,” she said, trying not to sound defensive. They walked past bathrooms and two rooms that read EMPLOYEES ONLY.
“Right. Marc said you were doing marketing or something,” he added.
The mention of her brother notched up her guilt, but it slipped away when they stepped out of the hallway. To her right was a gorgeous long wood-paneled bar that shone like the sun on ice. Sophia stilled, her breath trapped in her lungs. Could a pub be beautiful? She turned her head to see the black padded leather booths, the dark wood tables in a mix of rectangles, squares, and circles. The tables had high-backed chairs, and the benches sported plush black cushions. A brick facade behind the bar gave the pub a unique charm, and the far end of the pub had a small stage and what was likely a dance floor. It smelled like polish and something sweet.
To the left, a rectangular pass peeked into the kitchen, a swinging door beside it. She wondered how many wait and kitchen staff he had. Enough to need a manager and someone to offset his workload, according to her brother.
“You going to say anything?”
When Sophia turned to face him, she wasn’t positive, but she thought she caught a hint of uncertainty in his tone.
“Declan, this is incredible. Marcus said you’d opened up a neighborhood pub, but this”—she said, gesturing with her hand and ungluing her feet from the spot where she still stood—“this is beautiful. It’s elegant but homey. Friendly and welcoming.” She already had a dozen ideas swimming in her marketing brain. One step at a time. Most days, Sophia didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere, but when it came to promotions and marketing, her confidence soared.