Story of Us (Love Unexpected)(4)

By: Jody Holford

“I know. I’m back home to stay, Dec. I need a job. Marcus was talking about how serious you guys are about brewing your own beer, not just for your businesses, but others in the area. He said you were looking for someone to hold down the fort here and he was trying to find a way to break it to my dad. I came here first. I don’t want to show up at my parents’ house and tell them that I lost my fiancé and my job in one day. Or that I didn’t notice said fiancé was stealing money from me, so I’m basically starting over. Or that they were right and running off wasn’t the way to prove I’d grown up.”

Her voice cracked, and his heart joined in. Shit. Anger coursed through him at the thought of some jackass hurting her or using her. Unsure how to comfort her without touching her, he put an arm around her shoulder, telling himself side-hugs were totally within boundaries. But it felt awkward since everything inside of him ached to wrap her in his arms. For comfort. Just like I would for any other woman I care for platonically. Except he didn’t feel lust or attraction when he gave his buddy’s wife or her best friend a hug. Nope. When he hugged them, his heart beat normally. Not like the rapid-fire rate it was doing now. Shit.

Whatever rules Declan had would be ruthlessly tested if she talked him into hiring her. On the other hand, he couldn’t stand the thought that she’d finally come home and felt like she couldn’t go home.

“Don’t cry, Sophia.” He ran a hand down her hair, wanting to tangle his fingers in it. Think of her like a sister. Tears usually scared him a little, but with her, he just wanted to make her feel better. No matter what it took. Because you’ve known her for her whole life.

She sniffled and pulled back. “Sorry. This is completely unprofessional.”

Declan tugged a lock of her hair. “Good thing it’s not a job interview. Just two friends catching up.”

Like she’d infused steel into her spine, she stiffened and folded her hands in her lap. “As much as I could use a friend, I didn’t come to catch up. Was Marcus correct when he said you were hiring?”

Declan nodded. “I’m trying to spend less of my life in this bar. Things are good. Better than good. Your brother and I have been working on this recipe for the better part of a year. We’ve got it now, and we’re ready to test it out.” It was just one of the ways he’d embraced looking forward. It kept his thoughts from circling over the fact that he’d bought a house by the ocean, hoping that would soothe the unfamiliar emptiness that had recently taken up residence in his chest. “I’m looking for more than a manager.”

What he really wanted was someone who could take on a management role when he wasn’t around, take over the office tasks even when he was around, and help him expand his business. On Dec was his pride and joy. But it wasn’t like he’d gone to business school. He knew he could use some help in the publicity department. Particularly since Brockton Point was not the tiny town it once was.

Sophia grinned, all traces of the unsure woman he’d just glimpsed gone. “I can do more than manage. I have a double degree in marketing and business management. I’m better than any candidate you’ll interview, and you know you can trust me. I have insight into how to help with marketing, promotion, and building your business. On top of that, I come from a large Italian family, so wrangling your tipsy patrons will be a piece of cake.”

Declan laughed, charmed by her enthusiasm. While a minute ago he was cursing fate for bringing this woman to him when he was looking for the perfect partner, maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe Sophia was exactly what he needed. What your bar needs. Not you.

He’d been encouraging Marcus to grow a pair and talk to his old man about the beer since they wanted to do a tasting before bringing it into the pub and Pop’s place. He’d used the fact that he was looking to bring in a manager as leverage—proof he was serious. Now it was time to take it to the next level. Declan didn’t think his friend was going to be real pleased if he hired his baby sister, but on the other hand, if Sophia was looking for work anyway, wasn’t it better that she was here where someone the Strombi family trusted could keep an eye on her? As long as you keep your eyes and not your hands on her.

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