After swapping livesand coffee shopswith her twin sister, Chris Meyer is certain her New Yorker uptightness has melted in the hot California sunshine. But finding inner peace is tough with four guys vying for her attention. Including the one who turns her mellow zen into a way-too-sexy zing
Zac Arnette doesn't mind a little competition, because he knows the attraction he and Chris share is smoking hot! They agree to a friends-with-benefits flingwhich fits in with Chris's new laid-back style. But she might not want to give up her favorite new indulgence when it's time to return to NYC
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Chris Meyer sat on a cliff near Aura Beach in her adopted town of Carmia on the Central California coast. She was meditating, in a deep trance, aware only of the breeze on her face, the sounds of the ocean waves rolling in and the slow pattern of her breathing.
If anyone had told her a little over five months ago when she and Eva, her sister and fellow coffee-shop owner, had first cooked up the idea of temporarily switching lives, that she would someday practice meditation, she would have laughed and assumed the person had confused her, a typical type A New Yorker, with her laid-back California-girl twin.
However, in the past five months Chris had undergone a total personality transformation, thanks to her daily meditation and yoga classes at the Peace, Love and Joy Center on the outskirts of town. Gone were her uptight, neurotic and anal-retentive tendencies; she was now relaxed, carefree and brimming with California sunshine and roses.
Most of the time.
Back in October, if someone had suggested she sit on a cliff for half an hour doing absolutely nothing, she would have scoffed. What could possibly be considered productive about that?
She'd learned so much living here. And with Eva's serious boyfriend, Ames Cooke, so far unsuccessful at finding the perfect sales-manager job with a vineyard or distributor here in Central California, Chris wouldn't be switching back to the hectic pace of New York anytime soon.
That was good. She wanted to stay here until this change went much deeper than her surroundings. Much deeper than her new casual wardrobe, her new crazy hairstyles Well actually, they were wigs and temporary hair dyes she'd been experimenting with, but that counted as change, right? Deeper than her new phoenix tattoo, which, admittedly, was tiny and hidden on her rib cage under her arm. And deeper than the row of earrings she'd taken to wearing down the shell of her ear. Although, truth be told, they were cuffs. She didn't want any more holes in her ears. But this was a true transformation. Really. She was going for total calm, ready to say goodbye to the high-strung, anxious, quick-to-judge side of her personality. She was also working on freeing her spontaneous, live-in-the-moment self from a lifetime spent planning, organizing and following routines, which she'd learned from her parents. When she and Eva had been infants, their parents had put them on strict feeding schedules. As girls, they'd been taught the importance of doing their chores and getting a full eight hours of sleep. For whatever reason their parents' devotion to work before play had not remotely rubbed off on her free-spirited twin, but Chris had bought into it 100 percent.
The ringing of her cell phone wrenched her from her trance. She'd forgotten to put the pesky device on mute.
If she could, she'd leave the phone at home when she meditated, but she was responsible for anything that happened at Slow Pour, her sister's coffee shop, which Chris had been managing over the fall and now into winter.
Winter ha! Californians shouldn't be allowed to use the term.
The call was from Eva. Chris answered eagerly, not having spoken to her sister in a while, unusual for them. "Hey, twin, what's going on? How are you liking February?"
Eva groaned. "Given that it's the first of the month, about as much as I loved January."
"Yeah, it's bitter here, too. Brr. I think it might have dipped below sixty."
"Do not even tell me."
"You're a traitor to your Wisconsin roots." Chris smiled, knowing better than to push further, since she'd been on the receiving end of this same teasing from Eva for years. "How's my baby doing?"
"Good! You might not know it, but NYEspresso is hosting a fabulous Valentine's event in two weeks. You're having a pastry chef in for the day to give lessons on making heart-shaped meringues and those hot chocolate cakes with the gooey centers."
"Ooh, yum. I am truly brilliant."
"What am I doing at Slow Pour to celebrate the beautiful day of lovers?"
"Oh, I ordered some heart-shaped vegan whole-grain cookies."
"That's it right now." She felt vaguely guilty, since her sister loved the holiday that Chris found forced and silly. Her two previous serious boyfriends had felt the same way, so she'd gotten used to ignoring it. But maybe as part of her new persona, she should be more open to Valentine's Day, even if it was a manufactured occasion designed to profit florists, jewelers, restaurants and chocolate makers. "I might offer a special flavored cocoa drink or something."
"Are you okay? You don't sound happy, Chris."
"What?" Her sister's comment surprised her, and then she realized Eva still couldn't understand her recent vow to be single and work on her inner self for a change. "No, I'm happy. Deeply happy, as a matter of fact."
Eva gasped. "Really? Does this have to do with the regulars you've met at the shop? Has Gus grown up and gotten smart enough to take you on a decent date instead of out to watch him surf? Has Bodie stopped admiring his hot self long enough to come in and say hello again? Have you started something with my best friend, Zac? Or is there someone new now?"
"No, nothing like that." Chris cringed at the verbal onslaught. Her sister could use a few sessions at the Peace, Love and Joy Center. Chris's four weeks there had changed her life. "Can't I be happy without a man?"
"Of course you can! But who isn't happier with one?"
Chris stretched her arm up toward the sun. Her sister was so blissfully in love with Ames that she couldn't see past coupledom as the source of true contentment, while Chris had discovered that true contentment could only come from within. "I'm not focusing on that part of my life right now."
"What? I thought you were going to have a wild fling while you're in California."
"I was. I still might. But I'm not going to force it. If it happens, it happens. Right now I'm working on just being."
"Just being what?"
"Just being, Eva."
"What the" Her twin made a sound of exasperation. "Has someone been feeding you funny-tasting brownies?"
"No! I mean, if the perfect guy comes around and my inner voice tells me to go for it, I'll go for it. But I'm not looking. I'm trying to live in the moment, to be at peace with myself."
"Uh-huh. Hey, listen, can you put my sister on the phone, please? Chris Meyer? Type A, from New York?"
"Ha-ha. You've always let life take you where it wanted, Eva. And look how happy you are. Now I'm trying it."
"But that's who I am, Chris. And when it comes to men, hell, I've always gone after them with everything I have. Poor Ames didn't stand a chance."
"If I meet someone that wonderful, I might do that. Right now, though, sex is not on my mind. Besides, Gus and Bodie have been away forever at surfing events all over the country."
"And Zac disappeared. I told you about that. His younger brother got into some trouble."
"I'm not interested in Zac."
"So you keep saying."
Ordinarily Chris would have gone nuts over Eva's stubborn insistence on believing what she wanted to be true, instead of what was. She would have argued and protested, trying in vain to use logic and common sense to counteract Eva's crazy assumptions. But now "Okay, whatever, Eva."
"Listen, I wanted to tell you that it looks like a sales-manager job is opening up at Great Grapes Wine Distributors."
A tiny shiver of dread mixed with Chris's pleasure at hearing her sister's news. If Ames got the job, she'd have to go back to New York before she was ready. She wasn't quite sure what being ready entailed, but she knew if she had to leave soon, something would be left undone here. Going back now would prevent her from achieving the depth of meaning or happiness that she was meant to find or figure out in California.
"That would be perfect for Ames. It's only a half hour from here."
"I know!" Eva squealed. "Shh, don't jinx it. But it would be awesome."
"It would." Chris took a deep breath. Her old self would have panicked immediately. Now she gently told herself that many things would have to happen before Ames and Eva actually moved back here and she had to return to New York. Thinking about it nowworrying and working herself up into an awful state of what-if served no useful purpose.
But up here on the cliff, overlooking the ocean that stretched to eternity, she didn't feel quite one with the universe anymore. Which was fine. She'd go back to Slow Pour a little early and give Summer, the shop's other barista, a shortened shift. Summer worked hard; she deserved an extralong afternoon off, especially since Maureen, their usual weekend barista, had flown out of state to attend a family funeral.
Back at Slow Pour there was a decent crowd for early afternoon on a weekend. Chris would like to think the small changes she'd made to the shopwith Eva's permission, of coursehad helped business. She'd drastically reduced the number of non-food-related items for sale, retaining only those with local ties or that sported the shop's logo. In addition, she'd toned down the decor, removing some of the more brightly colored art pieces and several photos of her and Eva as kids at coffee plantations they'd visited with their coffee-scientist father. The result was a classier feel with better feng shui and more room for tables, as well as improved curb appeal to lure in people who were just driving through town.
Of course, she'd left the surfboard menu hanging over the counter. Chris wasn't going to mess with something so sacred.
"You're here early." Summer beamed at Chris, looking radiant as usual, her teeth stunningly white, skin flawless and golden-blond hair a wavy mane she wore pulled back into a ponytailthe quintessential California girl. She was also, as Chris had found out, extremely smart and totally reliable. Plus she pulled one hell of a shot of espresso.
"I know." Chris went behind the counter and headed toward the back office. "I thought I'd give you a whole two hours of paid vacation this afternoon."
"Wow, really?" Summer's light brown eyes lit up. "That would be great."
"Yeah?" Chris grabbed her blue-and-white Slow Pour apron from the row of hooks outside her office. "You have fun plans?"
"Oh, no, not really. It's just nice to get extra time off."
Chris nodded, wondering why such a pleasant and attractive woman seemed to have no social lifeat least, none she ever spoke of. Chris should give her time off more often. It was such a small thing, and spreading happiness and good vibes was rewarding for all concerned. "You're welcome. Enjoy the time."
A few customers came in as Summer was leaving, which kept Chris busy for a while, after which she had time to stand back and soak in the atmosphere. Old Chris would have been studying sales reports, worrying about how to improve business, brainstorming new blends, drinks and special bakery items. Now she just wanted to reflect on what she and her sister had created here, and bask in how the café was bringing so much pleasure to its customers and to the community.
A familiar figure caught her eye, winding through the outside tables, heading for the shop's front door.
Chris's heart sped up and her breath hitched. Immediately she relaxed her shoulders and closed her eyes as she took a long, healing breath. Zac had been away for a long time and now he was back. There was no reason for her to be anxious.
Zac was one of Eva's best friendsin fact, they'd had a half-serious pact to get married if neither of them found anyone else by the time they turned thirtybut she personally found him overbearing and bossy and, at times, infuriatingly smug. He'd get an amused look on his face, as if he loved that she was struggling, loved that he'd gotten to her. It made her so
Not to be blaming him for who he was, of course. She accepted that. She accepted her physical reaction to him, didn't fight it, didn't blame herself for it, even though she didn't really understand why she reacted the way she did.
"Hello." She smiled peacefully, aware of a few butterflies still trying to wreak havoc in her belly.
"Hello, Chris." His blue eyes were warm and the butterflies started fluttering harder. Which was perfectly natural. Zac was a very handsome man. Too surfer blond for her tasteshe liked dark East Coast guys with high energy and sharp edgesbut yes, very handsome. He looked a little like the guy who played Thor in the movies, but more real, less model perfect. Very, very handsome.
"You've been away awhile." To her surprise, her tone was tinged with bitterness. Immediately she smiled more brilliantly to take away any impression that she cared that he'd disappeared for months without saying a word to her, although he'd filled Eva in extensively and often on the reason for and progress of his trip.
Which was fine. This wasn't a competition. He had every right to do whatever he wanted. Chris accepted that.
"Family stuff." He came right up to the counter. She'd forgotten how big he was. In her mind, Zac had shrunk to a size that wasn't quite so intimidating. Her lungs were having a little trouble working again, and her heart refused to conform to the peaceful pace she strove to maintain.
Argh! Why did he have to
No, wait, she accepted her own part in this.
"My younger brother, Luke, got into some trouble. I flew east to help him out and brought him back home with me for a while. Why, did you miss me?"
"Oh. No. I don't" She felt her face flaming. Her jaw clenched. She wanted to smack him. Three months of inner peace shot to hell in two minutes. Thanks, Zac.
No, no, no. She wouldn't assign blame. Inner peace was her own responsibility. "I noticed you were gone. Does that count?"
"Sure." He looked smug. Smug! She knew he would. And it made her want to smack him harder. "You changed your hair."
"I did." That morning she'd put on a short asymmetrical wig, which she particularly loved because it took her out of her comfort zone, made her look a bit wilder and more unpredictable and helped make her feel that way, too. But with Zac looking at her much too carefully, she only felt exposed as a fake.
So? She wasn't one. Just a beginner at unearthing new feelings and new parts of herself. This was all part of her transformation, freeing herself to explore new potentials. She'd spent too long watching other people really live while she stood sensibly on the sidelines, held there by the weight of her parents' values and expectations.
She refused to care whether Zac liked the new look or not. In fact, she'd let him think it was permanent.
"Nice," spoken with no enthusiasm, still studying her. "Something else has changed about"
"What can I get you?" She wanted to remind him that their relationship was customer and barista, and he had no place giving opinions on her appearance.
No, wait. He did. He had that right, and she accepted it.
Oh, man. She needed to get back to her cliff.
"How about a tall French roast and." His blue gaze faltered, then focused on her with renewed intensity, unsettling her further. "And the chance to spend time catching up with you."
Chris blinked. Blinked again. She should be taking cleansing and healing breaths right now.
She wasn't breathing at all.
Was Zac asking her out? No, no, he couldn't be. He hadn't mentioned a place or event. He just wanted to find out what she'd been doing while he was gone. Probably just being polite.
"Well." She turned away to pour his coffee, finding it much easier not to look at him. "It's not busy here now.
We can talk."