The Dating Game
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A Harbor Falls Romance: Sweet Hart Inn, Book 7
Suzie Matthews is earning quite the reputation as a matchmaking chef in the small town of Harbor Falls, North Carolina.
When puppy nanny, Lyssa Larkin, tells her friends she has given up on dating and is devoting her life to dogs, Suzie realizes it’s time to take matters in her own hands. She sets up a series of speed dating lunches for Lyssa at Sweet Hart Inn, designed to help the former Harbor Falls High Homecoming Queen meet as many men as possible in a short period of time. Suzie knows Lyssa needs a push and some confidence—but soon realizes she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Lyssa inspects and rejects her dates in two bites and sends them on their way. Suzie wonders if Lyssa really wants to date or just eat double lunchs, and worries that soon Lyssa’s hips won’t fit onto Suzie’s dainty chairs.
That is, until Suzie is approached by a potential suitor who is falling for Lyssa hard and fast—one who isn’t on Suzie’s original radar screen—and can’t help working her matchmaking magic behind the speed dating scene....
“I give up. To hell with men. I’ll just stick with dogs from now on.”
Sydney Hart watched Lyssa Larkin daub at the sugar rim gracing her upper lip and then dip a cinnamon-powdered doughnut into her heavily creamed coffee, and frown. Lyssa dunk-dunk-dunked the thing, leaning over the coffee cup. Her long, brunette ponytail slid over her shoulder while she stuffed the rest of the doughnut into her mouth.
Sydney handed Lyssa a napkin. “Your chin,” she said.
Lyssa nodded and swiped again.
“So you’re giving up on men.” Sydney stated.
Lyssa rolled her big brown eyes. “I’m an old maid, Sydney. No one wants an old maid. Men expect a thirty-six-year-old woman has had some experience with men. Most men assume that you’ve already been married and divorced by my age. Had kids even. Me? I’ve only had sex with two men and have never been married, no kids, and no stinking divorce! Men just don’t understand that. They wonder what is wrong with me. I’m an anomaly.”
“There is nothing wrong with you, Lyssa. You’re beautiful, smart, and a catch.”
Sydney cleared her throat. “Well, you’re working on that, right? I mean, with all of the dog-walking…” Sydney wasn’t sure she wanted to go there.
Lyssa peered. “Yes. I guess I am. I’ve just been in a funk lately.”
Sydney waved her off. “Like I said, you’re beautiful just the way you are, Lyssa. My goodness, you were Homecoming Queen!”
“Tell that to the guys who look at you cross-eyed when you say you’ve never been married. Besides, Homecoming Queen was fifteen years ago. No one remembers that.”
Except you keep reminding us. “That’s ridiculous. Women older than you marry for the first time all the time.”
“Maybe in the big cities but Sydney, this is Harbor Falls. Population 6,232. Small, southern, Bible belt and all that. It’s weird here.”
“So now you get it?”
Leaning in, Sydney looked into Lyssa’s eyes. “How old am I?”
Lyssa blinked. “Um, you’re thirty-two, I think.”
She nodded. “That’s right. Do you see me going off the deep end because I don’t have a man in my life right now?”
“But you date.”
“But you’re married to your business.”
“And that gets damned old. Don’t you think I don’t want a man? I’m human, Lyssa, just like you but I don’t go around moping about it all the time.”
“Well, I’m four years older than you. Wait until you are thirty-six.”
Rolling her eyes, Sydney said, “Let me get this straight.” She braced herself against the counter, her palms flat on the Formica top. “You’re forgetting men and throwing your life to the dogs.”
“Why not?” Lyssa shrugged and reached for another sugared treat. “Dogs love me. Mostly. I mean, I’m still learning but I get along with dogs. And they can be so cuddly and warm, and their love—” Lyssa lifted another sweet treat toward her mouth “—their love is unconditional. I’ve never had unconditional love from any man.”
Sydney put her palm over Lyssa’s hand. “Lyssa. That’s three. Don’t you think…?”
Lyssa’s baby browns narrowed and she glared. Sydney jerked her hand back.
“Listen to what I am saying, Sydney,” Lyssa bit out, “I don’t have sex. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke pot or do drugs. I don’t even drink diet soda much, although some might say that I should. So let me have the damned doughnut, you hear me?”
Sydney nodded. She would give her that.
The bell over the bakery door tinkled. Sydney glanced away from the sugarcoated disaster. Sighing, she moved around the counter and rushed to take a box from the woman struggling with the door.
“Give me that.”
Suzie Hart Matthews stepped inside the bakery and blew out a breath. “Thank you!” A breeze whipped in behind them and slapped the door flat open against the wall. “Oh!”
Sydney angled the box on the counter and raced to the door before the wind caught it again and broke the old glass windowpane insets.
“A bit brisk,” Suzie said, straightening her jacket about her.
Sydney firmly shut the door. “You can say that again. It’s April, for sure. Thunderstorm coming, I think.” Turning, she glanced toward her cousin, Suzie, and then at Lyssa, who was daubing off another round of powdered sugar on her Dusky Pink-lined lips and staring into her empty cup.
Lyssa glanced up. “Mind if I refill my coffee, Syd?”
“Have at it.”
Both Sydney and Suzie watched as Lyssa slid off the counter bar stool and waddled in her black stretch pants around the counter and toward the Bunn coffeemaker. Suzie sidled closer to Sydney and whispered. “Put on a tad bit of weight lately, huh?”
In a low voice, Sydney replied, “She’s depressed. Is throwing her life to the dogs.”
Suzie slanted a gaze her way. “You don’t say.”
“Yeah. Well, she’s sworn off men and is devoting herself to a life of puppy nannyism. Or so she says. I think she’s also worshipping at the sugar altar.”
One corner of Suzie’s mouth drew up. “You’re right. She’s definitely depressed. That girl will eat her way into the next size up in no time.”
Lyssa shouted out from across the room. “I took the last of it, Syd. Should I make a new pot?”
“Sure thing, hon. Go for it.”
They watched her twiddle with the carafe and the filter and the basket, punching buttons and watching the first drips hiss against the bottom of the glass carafe.
“So, what do you think?” Sydney prodded.
“What do you mean?”
“Can you fix her up with someone? I mean, your luck lately is pretty much spot-on lately. Can you take on Lyssa?”
“No.” Suzie turned to face Sydney. “I’m not getting caught up in this. I’m exhausted after that last bout with Chris and Katie.”
“But that worked out fine. Heck, they are on their honeymoon already. Right? And Mary and Nash are into their married lives. Not to mention how you got Shelley and Matt back together. You’re good, Suzie. You can do this for Lyssa.”
“I know. But she’s, well….”
“I get it. But maybe you can turn things around for her.”
Suzie shook her head. “I dunno. This will require…” She glanced again at Lyssa, who was waiting for the carafe to fill while inspecting her teeth in the wall mirror behind the counter. “Oh hell, face it Syd, Lyssa is just different.”
“But she’s a good person. Truly. Just a little high maintenance, is all.”
“C’mon, Suze. You were never one to hold back on a challenge. Besides, I’ll help if you. Promise.”
“What I really need is to get started on preparations for that party tonight.”
“So say you’ll give it a thought and then we’ll get busy.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Suzie forced a thin breath through her lips. “All right. I can find her a man but she’s got to stop eating. Those stretch pants are going pop if she looks at another doughnut.”
Sydney snickered. “I’ll get her off the sugar. You get her a man. Deal?”
Suzie gave her a crooked grin. “Deal.”
“What’s in the box, Suzie?”
Both women turned to find Lyssa headed their way again, cradling a mug of coffee in both hands. She sniffed the brew in her cup, settled back on her stool, glanced to the edge of the counter and with a forefinger, attempted to lift the lid on the large pastry box
Sydney placed a gentle finger on the lid, preventing it from opening.
Lyssa shot her a glance.
Suzie said, “Key lime tarts, blueberry scones, and my famous Cinna-Mocha Brownie Fudge Cupcakes.”
Lyssa’s smile widened and her eyebrows popped wider. “Oh?” She stood and leaned toward the box.
This time, Suzie laid a firm hand on the lid. “They are for a party we’re catering this evening, Lyssa.” Then turning to Sydney, she said, “Did Shelley get to Asheville to get that dipping chocolate? I can’t make my dipped fruit without it.”
Nodding, Sydney reached for the box. “Yes. She called and is on her way. I’d say she’ll be here about three. In the meantime…” She stopped. “Lyssa? What are you doing tonight? We could use another hand at the Talbert reception later. It’s at the Lodge.”
Lyssa stared at her. “You mean. Work? Me?”
Suzie closed her eyes.
Sydney shook her head.
“Excuse me, Lyssa.” Sydney’s sarcasm was thick. “We totally forgot that ex-Homecoming Queens with trust funds do not work. How dare us?”
Lyssa stood, obviously flustered. “I do too work! I have a job and you know it! I am the best damned puppy nanny in Harbor Falls!”
“You’re the only puppy nanny in Harbor Falls,” Suzie quipped. “And of course we know you work. We see you walking—and losing—those dogs every morning. I just thought maybe you’d like to pick up some extra cash and we could talk about your, um, man problem.”
“Man problem?” Lyssa’s voice rose an octave. “Sydney, you told her?”
All at once, Lyssa plopped back on her stool and the tears spilled. “Damn you. Damn both of you. Will you never let me forget that queen thing? The old maid thing? The trust fund thing? Can I help it if my grandmother left me with a house and a little extra cash? And while we’re at it, can we also put a halt on the Lyssa-is-too-fat-and-will-never-find-a-man thing?”
“That last one is all in your head, Lyssa Larkin, and you know it.” Sydney crossed her arms over her chest and looked down at her.
Lyssa snorted a sob and powdered sugar flew.
“Oh hell.” Suzie parked her firsts on her hips. “Lyssa Larkin, what the peach cobbler is wrong with you? You are making no sense. All we wondered is if you wanted to make a little cash. Your choice. Thought maybe you’d quit moping around and get out and have some social interaction. I’d forgotten about the Homecoming thing years ago, even if you did beat me out and you were only a sophomore. Still, all you ever had to do was bat those big brown eyes of yours and every teacher in the school and every boy on the football team came running to do your bidding. So, what’s the deal here, huh? Get out of this funk, forget the past, and if you know what’s good for you, quit eating those damned doughnuts!”
All that said really didn’t make a difference because Lyssa took one more long look between the cousins and burst into tears again. This time, full throttle.
“Shit.” Sydney’s hands fluttered into the air and she headed toward the back room. She heard Suzie talking some nonsense to Lyssa as she exited. Something about drying her tears and meeting her at the inn tomorrow to figure things out.
Lyssa whined something about having to pick up a dog in the morning from a client. Their voices faded and Sydney heard the familiar tinkle of the bell over the door.
“Thank God,” she muttered. “Get her out of my bakery before she eats me out of house and business!”
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