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Worth the Risk (Pine Valley Book 1) by Heather B. Moore (1)

 

Alicia Waters hid a grimace as she looked up to greet the next patrons walking into the Alpine Lodge restaurant. She’d just read the most recent text from her mom: You’d better bring home some of that gourmet seafood tonight, and not that soup crap again.

Her mom was becoming more demanding by the day, it seemed. She hadn’t left the house in over two months, and her hoarding had become even worse once she signed up for Amazon Prime. She hadn’t even let Alicia throw away the Amazon boxes from all of her online purchases.

“Good evening,” Alicia said to the older couple who’d just entered. “Welcome to the Alpine Lodge. Do you have a reservation?” Even though their website and the sign near the doors said Reservations Required, it was amazing how many people ignored it.

The man raised his brows, but his brown eyes were warm and friendly. “We don’t have reservations, but we’re willing to wait.” He looked at the woman in a dark purple coat next to him, who must be his wife. “Is that all right, dear?”

“Of course,” the woman said, smiling up at her husband.

Alicia liked the couple immediately. They were well dressed, obviously wealthy—as most of the restaurant patrons were at the Alpine Lodge. But unlike so many of the patrons, this couple was friendly.

She hated to disappoint them. “I’m sorry, but we’re booked because of the holiday weekend.” More specifically, Valentine’s Day. She didn’t add that the restaurant was usually booked well in advance between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s—prime ski vacation season.

“Oh,” the woman said, her smile faltering. “I suppose it is Valentine’s Day for everyone else.”

This comment made Alicia curious.

The husband jumped in to explain. “It’s our anniversary, and every year, we try a different restaurant.” He wrapped his arm about his wife’s shoulder. “But I should have called in advance. Knowing this is a small resort town, I guess I didn’t think it would be as crowded.”

The wife shook her head, but there was a patient smile on her face. “I keep telling him we should just go to lunch, but he’s kind of old-fashioned.”

The husband chuckled. “No worries. Is there a café in town?”

Alicia blinked and looked from the man to his wife. Instead of becoming upset, they’d been charming. “Let me see what I can do about squeezing you in here,” she said. She stepped away from the hostess stand and moved into the restaurant portion to survey the tables.

Just as she remembered, one of the reservations had been changed. A table for six only had four people on it. She signaled Gwen, one of the waitresses, and quickly whispered her idea. Gwen nodded in agreement as she smoothed a strand of her blonde hair that had escaped her messy bun. Alicia and Gwen had struck up a friendship over the past few months, and now more than ever Alicia was grateful. Moments later, she returned to her hostess stand. By now, another couple had entered and was waiting behind the first couple.

“You’re in luck.” She smiled at the older couple. “We’re going to rearrange a couple of things and get you a table ready. It will be about ten minutes. Can I get you anything while you wait?”

The husband grinned, and the wife did a little clap. They really were a sweet couple.

“Thank you, miss,” the husband said. “Can we give you a tip?”

“Oh, no,” Alicia said with a small laugh, appreciating being called ‘miss’ instead of ‘ma’am’. At the age of twenty-eight, she was well used to the ‘ma’am’ title. “I’m happy to help, and I hope you have a wonderful anniversary.”

Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket, and without looking she knew it was her mom texting again with additional requests.

“Have a seat,” she said, waving them toward a long, elegant couch. “I’ll let you know when your table is ready.” The couple thanked her profusely. But in truth, Alicia was happy to help. She loved the thrill of maneuvering things around and making customers happy. A smile went a long way in her world. She came to work, and people were grateful for her help. She went home, and she could do nothing right.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Alicia began to say as the next couple walked forward. Her traditional welcome statement stuck in her throat when she saw who had been waiting.

Jeff Finch.

The guy she’d made a huge fool of herself over in high school. The guy who’d burned her in the worst way possible. The guy who’d once been the center of her world. She hadn’t seen him face-to-face in more than ten years.

Of all the men to come tonight, when she was working on Valentine’s no less, what were the chances?

He was taller than she remembered, but his eyes were the same icy blue. His gaze seemed to bore right into her, and her heart felt like it stopped for a half-second. When it started beating again, it drummed twice as fast. Jeff’s hair was also shorter than in high school, and the untamed black curls were mostly disciplined by some type of gel. She didn’t remember his shoulders being as broad, but Jeff was a man now, and that probably explained a few things.

She half expected him to say “hi” to her—after all, they’d been neighbors and friends their entire childhood before their fall-out.

But all he said was, “We have a reservation.”

The woman standing next to him, who was incidentally holding his hand, looked like she was one of those stock photo models who’d been photoshopped and over-filtered. Perfect makeup, perfect features, perfect hair. The woman’s blonde wavy hair was opposite of Alicia’s stick-straight brunette hair. And even though Alicia’s hostess dress was classy V-neck black, the blonde woman’s silver dress seemed to put everyone and everything to shame.

Alicia tore her gaze from the woman and looked back at Jeff. There was no acknowledgment in his eyes, no amusement, and no friendliness.

He didn’t recognize her.

Numbness took over Alicia’s brain. He had to recognize her; he was just choosing not to. She’d thought she’d put the past behind her, but the hurt was back, and the sharp pain of embarrassment and rejection knotted her stomach. Alicia forced herself to look down at the registrar; she could play his game. “Name, please?”

“Finch,” he said. “Jeff Finch. Reservation for two.”

The woman said something, but the sound of her voice was merely a blend of sounds compared to the sharp daggers of Jeff’s voice.

Alicia blinked, her eyes stinging. Table fifteen. There was the name of Jeff Finch right next to it. How did she not see it before now?

Feeling robotic, she grabbed two menus. “This way, please.” She turned before she could look into Jeff’s eyes again and walked to table fifteen.

She imagined him watching her walk, and she suddenly felt self-conscious in her fitted dress and high heels. But when she stopped at the table and turned, Jeff wasn’t looking at her at all. He was checking his phone, his jaw set tightly.

She handed over the menus and told them that their waitress would be with them shortly. Somehow she managed to speak proper English and not stutter. As she walked back to the hostess stand, she wondered why she’d have such a hard time with Jeff Finch, after so long. She should have expected to run into him at some point and was surprised it hadn’t been sooner. The thing with small towns is that everyone might move away after high school for a few years, but they usually managed to return.

She should have guessed that Jeff Finch would eventually show up at Alpine Lodge during one of her shifts. He was probably making a lot of money as a realtor in Pine Valley. At least it seemed like it when she’d Googled him from time to time. It wasn’t something she was proud of, but during her low moments, she’d Google high school friends to see what was going on in their lives.

Jeff Finch was a realtor in Pine Valley, and with the value of real estate and property sky rocketing the past couple of years, Alicia wouldn’t doubt that the suit Jeff wore tonight was quite expensive. The woman at his side was certainly high maintenance.

Gwen showed up. “The table is ready.”

“Great, I owe you one,” Alicia said.

Gwen smiled. “No problem.”

See, everyone is nice to me here, Alicia thought. This was normal. Home was not normal.

Alicia led the older couple to their table and in the process discovered that it was their thirty-eighth anniversary. Once she saw them settled, she couldn’t help but glance over at table fifteen.

Her heart about stopped when her gaze connected with Jeff Finch’s. He looked away immediately, before she could decide if he was actually watching her, or if it had all been an awkward coincidence. Regardless, heat spread from her neck to her face. She turned and walked briskly to the hostess stand.

Why was she reacting like this? It had been ten years, for heaven’s sake. Alicia couldn’t technically count Jeff as an ex-boyfriend just because she’d had a huge crush on him their senior year. They’d gone to prom together, and Alicia had obviously read way too much into the invitation. She’d hoped it meant that Jeff liked her as much as she liked him. But all night, he’d had his attention on the new girl in school named Shannon, who was only a junior.

Halfway through the night, Alicia had found them kissing in the hallway when she’d thought he’d taken a bathroom break. She’d been shocked, to say the least.

She hadn’t said a word but had called another friend who hadn’t gone to prom to come and get her. Jeff could figure out what happened to her on his own. Once at home, she watched out of her window to see him get dropped off after one in the morning by a car she didn’t recognize.

By the time school started the next Monday, everyone knew that Jeff and Shannon had hooked up at prom, and they were now an item. Alicia had never talked to Jeff again. Since she knew everything about his schedule and habits and hangouts, it was easy to avoid running into him.

Until now… ten years later.

Alicia exhaled and stared at the list of reservations without reading a word. Why couldn’t she forget Jeff and that terrible night? Now, knowing he was somewhere in the restaurant, at table fifteen to be exact, she couldn’t seem to slow her drumming pulse no matter how many times she exhaled. Jeff had once been her best friend as well. He wasn’t just a random teenage crush. She had allowed herself to hope for so much more.

Alicia blinked back the burning in her eyes as the restaurant doors opened. She greeted the next couple, found their reservation, and led them to their table. This time, she refused to look in the direction of table fifteen.

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