Excerpt: Small-Town Fireman | Gordon Falls | Author Allie Pleiter

Excerpt: Small-Town Fireman

Book 6: Gordon Falls

Coffee, doughnut. Coffee, doughnut. Coffee, Danish. Tea, toast. Exile.

Karla Kennedy ignored the ache of longing in her gut as she passed by the unused espresso machine to fill yet another basket of everyday coffee grounds for the ordinary brewer. Bringing an espresso machine to Gordon Falls even the spectacular one Grandpa Karl had bought her as a graduation present was an exercise in futility. Since her arrival last week, she'd only used the machine for one customer other than herself: a teenager who wouldn't know a well-pulled latte from a diner milk shake. Everybody else seemed to find the drinks overpriced and unnecessary, preferring the regular brew in Karl's clunky white mugs.

No one seemed willing to even try something new and refined pure exile indeed for a foodie like herself. She might as well just give up and start subsisting on potato chips and Pop-Tarts.

A customer was here. All through culinary school, Karla knew she possessed the intuition Grandpa had told her about the sixth sense that let her know a customer had come up to the counter needing something. "Shop eyes," Grandpa called it. Sliding the basket of coffee grounds into its place for the hundredth time on the commercial coffee machine, Karla turned and forced the weariness out of her voice before asking, "What'll it be?"

"Well, what do you recommend?" If his cobalt-blue eyes weren't enough to startle her, his question did the rest.

She couldn't help herself. "A trip back down the interstate toward civilization?" Feeling guilty, she amended to "Or the Tuesday special coffee and–"

"Two doughnuts," the guy finished for her. "Pretty popular, I see."

"A Karl's Koffee Klassic." Some days Grandpa's fondness for K-based alliteration was a bit hard to take. She wanted to love the hokey charm of this place as much as everyone else seemed to, but it just wasn't coming.

"Myself, I've never been one for what everyone else is having." Mr. Blue Eyes leaned against the counter, swiping off a baseball cap to reveal a mess of reddish-brown hair. Karla was pretty sure he was one of the firefighters from across the street who made up the shop's regular customer base, but without the usual Gordon Falls Volunteer Fire Department blue T-shirt, she couldn't be sure.

So he didn't want what everyone else was having? The espresso machine practically called to Karla from behind the counter. She felt a smile light up her eyes. If she could win over just one of those guys "Well, you know, we're trying out some espresso drinks if you're interested in something different."

He looked intrigued, peering behind her at the mass of spouts and knobs. "Fancy. Karl's moving up in the world. How is the poor guy anyway? A broken hip takes a long comeback, I hear."

"Grandpa's doing okay." Karla wiped her hands on a dish towel and reached for one of the new cups and saucers she'd brought to the shop out of sheer desperate optimism last week. The standard-issue stoneware mugs everyone used for coffee in this place had to be twenty years old by her guess. "Three more weeks of physical therapy and he ought to be out and about."

"You're Karla," the man said, a disarming smile brightening his features. "Karl said he was getting you to take over while he was laid up." He slid onto the counter seat with an athletic grace. "Karla with a K, has to be."

It was a phrase Karla said over and over whenever giving her name to anyone. "That's me." Some days the K spelling was unique and helped people remember her. Other days it confused clerks and was just plain annoying. Another K- based alliteration; Grandpa Karl, Dad Kurt, daughter Karla. Sure, it proved useful for identifying junk mail and making small talk with bank tellers, but outside of Karl's Koffee it didn't hold much weight.

The customer unzipped his sweatshirt and stuffed the cap into the back pocket of his jeans. The open sweatshirt revealed a well-worn fire department T-shirt stretched across a broad muscular chest. The scent of early morning and river wafted across the counter, a wet, woodsy smell that never ceased to remind Karla of childhood fishing trips. Whoever this guy was, when he wasn't a fireman he was outdoors and active. He rubbed his hands together as if he found the coffee prospect as exciting as she did. "Okay, Karla with a K, what should I have this morning?"

Finally, a tiny bit of creative license! It was like opening a window to clear a stale room. Karla carefully set the cup and saucer on the table between them. This was what she did best, what got her up in the morning. What filled the margins of her culinary school textbooks with ideas for adventurous menus and exotic flavor combinations. What made her similar to Grandpa but altogether different from him, as well. "Tell me your three favorite foods."

He raised his eyebrows, then steepled his hands together in thought. Karla's spine began to hum and tingle. The three other times she'd tried this favorite strategy to create the right coffee drink for someone, they'd huffed as if she'd handed them a final exam, and then ordered plain java. But here was a guy who got what she was trying to do. Who looked as if he found the process intriguing. After an electric moment of deep consideration, he replied, "Your grandfather's apple pie, a perfect steak and Dellio's fries."

The local diner's legendary fries didn't provide much of a clue, nor did the steak, except that he was a standard-issue Midwestern malebut the apple pie offered up a hint. "Cinnamon latte with an apple Danish."

She waited for his nose to turn up. For a fancy-schmancy coffee wisecrack to come. Instead, he smiled. "I'm game. I've always liked my coffee strong and sweet anyways, and I am partial to a good Danish."

"Great." Karla grinned in victory, pulling the milk out of the small fridge below the counter. She launched into small talk while she worked the machine, just the way she'd been trained at the coffee shop back in Chicago where she'd worked her way through culinary school. Where she'd been one of the shop's best baristas. Where she'd solidified her calling to give interesting people exceptional coffee. "What's your name?"

"Dylan McDonald."

Now the river scents made sense. "The fishing guy?" Grandpa had mentioned that someone with that last name had started running fishing charters up the Gordon River for the tourist season.

"That's me. I've been up since fourth is better have a good kick to it."

The day was looking up. "Kick starts with a K." Maybe there was a little more of Grandpa in her than she was ready to admit.

"Ha, that's a good one. You're a natural. How long are you in from the city?"

Karla tamped the finely ground coffee into the special container and slid it into the machine. "Shows that much, huh?"

"Well, the crack about the interstate was a dead giveaway. That and the fancy apron."

Karla smoothed a hand over the vintage apron that had been a graduation gift from her roommate. She'd started a collection during her last year of school while the dreams of opening her own shop started to really take shape. Wearing the distinct aprons to work in Karl's had been her declaration of sortsno matter how many broad hints Grandpa dropped that this stint was just temporary, not a gateway to joining the family business. "Oh. Well, I'm here until August or until Grandpa's back on his feet, whichever comes first." It wasn't that she didn't love her grandfather; it had been an easy decision to shelve her professional plans for a few months while he recuperated. It was just that no one seemed to realize she didn't belong here in Gordon Falls.

She certainly couldn't leave running Karl's to Dad. The "shop eyes" had skipped a generation in her family, Mom and Dad weren't up to running the coffee shop even if they did come in from two towns over to help out with Grandpa's recuperation. When the woman who rented the furnished apartment upstairs, where Grandpa and Grandma had lived back when they first opened Karl's, was leaving for three months, it seemed as if God was ironing out all the details. The flat gave her a place to live above the coffee shop and not be holed up at home with her parents and grandfather. She had big plans to finalize, a girl needed her space, and Grandpa could be a handful.

"He's a good guy, your grandfather. He's been nice to everyone at the fire department for that matter. We all wish him well, you tell him that."

That confirmed Dylan was a fireman. The department was so close that those guys made up a huge portion of Grandpa's business. If she could sway even one of them toward an espresso drink, others would surely follow. The only trouble was that Grandpa was in the habit of plying the department with free coffee and doughnuts. Karla had taken enough restaurant management classes to know she ought not to be giving away free lattes and scones.

Only, that's how Grandpa conducted business. He seemed to always be giving away a lot of food. People loved him; could she really fault him for that? The shop was always packed with customers, and he took a personal interest in each one of them. "I'll tell him you sent good wishes. Here." She placed the latte in front of him. "Tell me what you think."

Watching customers eat – or drink – something she made was one of Karla's greatest pleasures. Urbanites took their coffee beverages very seriously; it was a badge of honor when she got it right. People remembered and came back when she was on shift, so she learned the preferences of the "regulars." Here in Gordon Falls, however, folks didn't seem to be nearly so picky. Coffee was just that hot stuff that went with pie and – heaven help her – doughnuts. Needing a bit of an ego boost, and yes, not feeling it too much of a sacrifice to stare at the fireman's handsome face, Karla leaned on the counter and waited.

Dylan inhaled the aroma, catching the tang of cinnamon that now hung in the air. He wasn't going to gulp it down like so many of the Karl's Koffee customers, or "Klientele," as Grandpa liked to joke. He was going to enjoy it. Karla hadn't realized how much she missed genuine caffeinated appreciation until she watched Dylan's eyes warm with approval on the first taste.

"Good call." He nodded, indulging in a second sip. "I really like this. Not too sweet, but good and strong. Just waiting for a Danish."

"Oh, the Danish!" Karla had completely – and uncharacteristically – forgotten about the Danish. She hurried to lift the lid on the footed display plate so much that the glass clattered and a dozen people looked up from their ordinary breakfasts. "Gimme a sec to heat that up." She willed a flush to stay off her cheeks in the twenty seconds it took the microwave to warm the pastry.

"I got time," Dylan offered, a bit of latte foam lingering on the sandy stubble at the corner of his mouth. "Boat's back in and I don't have a shift at the firehouse for another six hours. All I have ahead of me is a lot of tiresome cleaning and advertising."

He said the last word as if it were a scourge. Marketing had been one of her favorite classes in school. She cocked her head to one side as she set the pastry in front of Dylan. "Advertising?"

He sighed. "I'm a great fisherman, but I'm no hotshot at publicity. I'm meeting with somebody from the state tourism board in an hour to see how Gordon River Fishing Charters can" he made irritated quotation marks in the air with his fingers "reel in a few more customers."

"You need to find a boatload of novice fishermen with deep pockets, huh?"

He narrowed one eye. "You say that like it's fun!"

Wasn't it? She had a whole binder of marketing ideas upstairs on her kitchen table. Her shop would have great publicity. "PR's like fishing. You have to go where the fish are and offer the right bait. You should be good at it."

He took a bite of the pastry, momentarily closing his eyes to savor the Danish. Grandpa got his baked goods from a little German farm woman just down the river, who delivered fresh every morning. Karla was having trouble keeping her jeans from getting too tight given the quality of the goodies, even if she did prefer scones to doughnuts.

"I'd rather gut fish than advertise," Dylan admitted. "And I don't enjoy gutting fish."

"Yeah, but it's part of the job if you want to grow your business, right?"

"I prefer the term necessary evil!''

Like coffee and doughnuts, Karla thought. Just to prove her point, two men at the corner table held their mugs aloft to cue her for a refill. "Be right back," she sighed, lifting the pair of glass carafes from their perches on the brewer and preparing for another tour around the tables.

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