Wrapped Up In You
No, she would not stay down. Mostly because Ivy Snow didn’t know the meaning of the words. Not once in her hard-knock, scrappy life had she ever ‘stayed down.’ So she popped back up, using a spin and a roundhouse kick to level her opponent.
Her kickboxing partner and friend hit the mat and grinned from flat on her back. “That’s gotta be worth at least a donut. You’re buying.”
“Can’t,” Ivy said, eyeing the time. “I’ve gotta get to work.”
“Well, damn.” Sadie sat up and yawned. “I’ve still got a whole hour and a half before I have to do the same, which means I’m going back to bed. And if I’m lucky, Caleb’ll still be in it.”
Caleb was Sadie’s fiancé. Ignoring the little spurt of envy at the thought of having someone waiting in bed for her, Ivy hit the locker room to shower and change.
Fifteen minutes later, suitably beaten up by their four times a week kickboxing session, she left the gym. It was six a.m., her very least favorite time of the day, and she shivered unhappily. It was two weeks before Christmas, which for San Francisco meant it could be any weather at all. Today it was forty-five degrees and she’d forgotten her jacket. She was on a budget, a tight one, but it wasn’t worth freezing to death for a couple of bucks so she decided to forgo walking and hopped on a bus rather than turn into a human popsicle.
A guy in a suit, sneakers, and holding a huge energy drink took the seat next to her, giving her a not-so-discreet onceover. “’Morning,” he said with a charming smile.
And yes, she’d just felt a little wistful about not having anyone waiting for her in her bed, but that was fantasy, and Ivy was nothing if not grounded in reality. These days she prided herself on her sharply honed survivor skills, but in the past, she’d definitely failed herself in the man department. This was in good part thanks to a wanderlust lifestyle and a weakness for sexy grins that promised – and usually delivered – trouble.
Like this guy’s.
But that was all behind her now. She’d promised herself. So she gave him a vague, not-interested smile and turned away to look out the window. Rude? Probably. But she was calloused, and -- as every guy she’d ever let in too close had complained -- a tough nut to crack. The words cold and scary had also been thrown around.
She didn’t mind. She actually liked it, even if the image went completely against her Disney princess-like moniker, Ivy Snow. Maybe especially because it did. Her name had been a bone of contention for a long time, but it wasn’t like she’d named herself. Her mother had done that, reportedly on some good prescription meds at the time.
At her stop, she exited the bus and walked the last two blocks to work, getting a little happier with each step because one, exercise was over for the day, and two, she loved her job.
For as long as she could remember, her entire life had been transient. This was mostly thanks to a dad who’d taken off and a lounge singer mom who changed jobs like other women changed nail polish. As a result, Ivy had gone to a bunch of different schools, managing to slip through a whole bunch of cracks while she was at it. Luckily, she had been insanely curious and loved reading, and had taught herself most of the time. As a result, she was a pro chameleon and excelled at temporary. Temporary friends, temporary jobs, temporary life. It had suited her for a long time.
Until it hadn’t.
She’d woken up one day about a year ago and had realized she’d changed. Moving around no longer suited her and she was over living out of a backpack. So at the dubiously mature age of twenty-eight, she was trying a new lane. She’d settled in the Cow Hollow District of San Francisco, running a thing called The Taco Truck and living in an apartment that had her name on the lease.
Roots. After a lifetime of running, being invisible, and just barely getting by, she was growing roots. She was going for a life that until now had only existed for her on TV and in the movies, meaning friends and family, real family who’d stick with her through thick and thin. And maybe … maybe even someone to love.
Unnerving that she was actively working towards the very things that had terrified her for most of her life, but she’d decided she’d rather be scared shitless than live with regrets. So she’d learned to put a smile on her face, because everyone knew you had to fake it to make it, right?
The Taco Truck was parked in the alley of the Pacific Pier Building. She kept it there at night thanks to the fact that the owner of the building, Spence Baldwin, loved her food. And his grandpa, Old Man Eddie, who lived in the alley – by choice -- had spent most of last year acting as a guard dog for her.
But just before winter had hit this year, Spence had finally talked his grandpa into taking an apartment in the building, so he no longer had eyes on her truck. Still, it felt safe here, and she trusted the space.
On work days, she pulled the truck out to the street at the entrance to the courtyard, always a gamble because her city permit hadn’t yet come through. Permits were incredibly difficult to come by, but she’d been told she was finally going to get one, and hopefully that was true.
Just looking at the truck had put a smile on her face – a real one. She moved the truck and had just parked for the day when her day’s deliveries arrived. She received her pre-ordered inventory and eyed the time. Six thirty. She opened at seven sharp, so she got started chopping ingredients, frying up meats, arranging the makings for the day’s menu. Her menu. She liked the work. Actually, she loved the work, and her boss wasn’t bad either. She smiled at that as she worked because she was the boss. She owned the truck.
Okay, so she was making payments on it, but she was actually in the black these days. Everything about that thought improved her day on the spot. Today she wasn’t going to worry about bills or permits. She was going to enjoy herself, her food, and her new goals.
She was comfortable here in her small but mighty space of seventy-five square feet, working her magic, making what she liked to think were the most delicious tacos in the bay area. It wasn’t an easy job. She spent just as much time prepping and being a mechanic as she did being a chef. And then there was the ordering and buying of all the necessary supplies, not to mention the bookkeeping, which often kept her up late into the night.
Her work was never done, but she was good with that. Hell, she was great with that. After spending most of her life at the mercy of others, she thrived on being independent and having no one tell her what to do or when to do it.
She was still prepping when she heard voices outside. She handled breakfast and lunch on her own, her two biggest meals. After that, her part time helper Jenny came in the afternoons to handle the much thinner dinner crowd and closing. For now, Ivy still had her CLOSED sign up, but the voices stopped right outside her truck. Men, at least two of them, possibly three. With a sigh, she opened the serving window and stuck her head out.
A trio of extremely hot guys dressed in running gear and looking hungry as hell glanced up from the menu board posted on the side of her truck. Ivy knew two of them, Caleb and Jake, both currently off the market, so she felt free to give them her flirtiest smile. “Sorry, guys, not open for another twenty minutes.”
Jake returned her flirty smile from his wheelchair while upping it another factor, which she knew was just a ploy to get his way.
“But you make the best food in the city,” he said sweetly, as if Ivy could be swayed by sweet. “And we’ve all gotta be at work by seven.”
Caleb stood at his side, and was a friend of Ivy’s, and also a savior as he’d helped her navigate the purchase of her truck when dealing with the previous owner had gotten tricky. “I’m pretty sure you said you owed me a favor,” he reminded her, always the negotiator.
Knowing the venture capitalist could talk anyone into just about anything, she laughed and gave in. “Fine. Figure out what you want and make it quick. But then we’re even, Caleb.”
They weren’t even. She owed him much more than an early breakfast, and they both knew it. But having gotten his way as he always did, he smiled. “The usual for me.”
“Me too,” Jake said.
Ivy nodded and turned her attention to the third man.
She’d never seen him before, she most certainly would have remembered. Like the others, he was in running gear that fit his leanly muscled bod, which he held in a way that suggested military or cop. And just like that, the always-on-alert scared little kid she’d once been sent an automatic danger warning to her brain.
But she was no longer helpless, she reminded herself. She no longer had to pretend to be tough and brave. She was tough and brave. So she kept her smile in place, forcing herself to relax. She had nothing to hide. Everything she did these days was on the up and up, she’d made sure of it.
And it wasn’t exactly a hardship to look at him. His smile certainly was heart-stopping as he added his charm to both Caleb and Jake’s. And there was considerable charm. He had dark eyes and dark hair cut short, and in spite of his smile, when those eyes met hers, they gave away nothing of his thoughts.
Yep. Cop, she thought, which was a damn shame.
Kel O’Donnell stood there in front of The Taco Truck, starving and aching like a son-of-a-bitch. Pushing his body on a five mile full out run hadn’t been the smartest of ideas after what he’d been through. But his more immediate problem was that if he didn’t get food and fast, his stomach was going to eat itself.
The woman inside the truck looked to him for his order. “And you?” she asked, her voice slightly amused, as if life wasn’t to be taken too seriously, especially while ordering tacos.
But he was taking this very seriously, as his hunger felt soul deep. “What do you suggest?”
This caused twin groans from his cousin Caleb and their longtime friend Jake, which Kel ignored.
Not his server though. She quirked a single brow, the small gesture making him feel more than he had in months. Certainly since his life had detonated several months ago when he’d chased after a suspect on foot, only to be hit by the getaway car, getting himself punted a good fifteen feet into the air. That had hurt. But what had hurt more was his perp turning out to be a dirty cop. And not any dirty cop, but a long time friend, which had nearly cost him life and career.
But hell, at least neither were on the line this time. It was just a pretty woman giving him some cute, sexy ‘tude while waiting on him to decide between an avocado and bacon tacos, or spicy green eggs and ham tacos.
“You’re going to have to excuse my dumbass cousin, Ivy,” Caleb said. “Kel hasn’t lived in San Francisco for a long time and doesn’t know that you’ve got the best food truck in all of Cow Hollow. Hell, in the whole bay area.”
“It’s true,” Jake said and nudged Kel, and with Jake in the wheelchair, he got the nudge right in the back of the knee and just about went down.
“Everything on the menu,” Jake said, “and I do mean everything is gold. Trust me, it’ll melt in your mouth and make you want to drop to your knees and beg Ivy here to marry you.”
Ivy sent Jake the sweetest smile Kel had ever seen. Then those compelling eyes were back on him, the sweet completely gone. She leaned out her serving window a little bit, bracing her weight on her elbows. Her hair was the color of fire, a stunning pile of red held back by an elf headband, which left a few strands falling around her face, framing it. Her apron read: I don’t wanna taco ‘bout it. “What do I suggest?” she repeated.
“Yeah.” Just looking at her, he could feel himself relax for the first time in … way too long. Something about her did that to him. Instant chemistry. He hadn’t felt it often in his life and it always ended up a train wreck, so why the hell he felt relaxed, he had no idea. But it had him flashing another smile. “How about you pick for me.”
Her lips quirked at that. “Fair warning -- I like things hot.”
“I love things hot,” he said.
Jake just grinned. “Aw man, she’s gonna eat you up and spit you out. I’m so happy.”
“Shh,” Caleb said. “I don’t want to miss him getting his ass handed to him.”
Ivy just cocked her head at Kel. “Think you can handle the heat?”
“Five minutes.” And she shut the window on them.
They moved to one of the two picnic tables at the entrance to the courtyard in front of them, where they sat to wait for their food. Caleb looked at Kel and shook his head. “Man, as much as I enjoy seeing you get your ego squashed, I feel duty bound to warn you. Whatever’s making you smile, it’s never going to happen. Ivy’s not the girl you have fun with and walk away from. And plus, she hates cops.”
“Agreed,” Jake said. “You’ve got a better shot at stealing Sadie away from Caleb. And good luck with that. Your cousin’s woman is batshit crazy over him, God knows why.”
Caleb just smiled, apparently not feeling the need to defend his relationship.
Kel was happy for him. Very happy. Caleb hadn’t given his heart away … ever. And for good reasons, which Kel had hated for him. “About time you found someone who deserves you.”
Caleb was quiet a moment. “I like having you here,” he said, kind enough to leave out the tone of recrimination. It’d been a long time, too long, which had been all Kel’s doing. He’d spent the first ten years of his life here in the city, he and his sister and his parents. They’d lived next door to his aunt and her kids, including Caleb. Kel hadn’t realized at the time, but they’d all been poor as dirt, even though his parents had always managed to make it seem like they’d had everything they’d needed.
Then his mom had destroyed that happy illusion with a single, shattering mistake, creating a huge rift none of them had recovered from. Two years later had come yet another blow. His dad had died, and Kel and his older sister Remy had gone to Idaho to be raised by their grandparents.
“You see Remy yet?” Caleb asked.
Kel’s sister had moved back here to San Francisco after getting married last year. And no, he hadn’t seen her yet. And yes, he was stalling.
“Okay … how about your mom?” Caleb asked.
Kel slid him a look.
Caleb raised his hands. “Hey, just asking.”
“Uh huh. Do you ask all your employees such personal questions?”
“No, just my brother.”
“I’m your cousin.”
“You’re my brother,” Caleb said with meaning.
Kel sighed and looked over at Jake.
Jake shrugged. “He likes to adjust facts to suit him. But you knew that already.”
Ivy came out of the truck with three baskets. She served Jake first, then Caleb, and finally Kel. She handed him his basket and stood there at his side, a tiny pixie of a woman in that sassy apron, elf headband, and painted on jeans faded to a buttery softness. Her boots were serious and kickass, and because he was a very sick man, they turned him on.
Since she was clearly going nowhere until he tried her food, he took a bite of what looked like the most amazing breakfast taco he’d ever seen and … almost died. Spicy was an understatement. Holy hell hot was an understatement. But it was also the best thing he’d ever tasted, even if his tongue was numb.
Ivy smiled at him. “Still think you can handle the heat?”
Jake and Caleb were doubled over laughing, the asses. “I’m not a cop,” he managed to wheeze, holding her gaze while he took another bite. And another. No doubt, he was going to eat her food the entire three weeks he was here. If he lived that long.
“He’s a sheriff and ranch owner in Idaho,” Caleb said. “So … kind of a cop.”
“Also kind of a cowboy,” Jake added ever so helpfully.
Kel rolled his still watering eyes. His grandparents had left him and Remy their ranch, which he oversaw, but had employees handling the day to day operations since his day job was more like a 24/7 job. “I’m just a guy on vacay,” he croaked out. The more accurate term would have been assigned slash medical leave, but hell if he was going to share that. Or the fact that his still healing broken ribs ached like a bitch, as did the deep bone bruising he’d suffered down the entire right side of his body from being pitched into the air by a moving vehicle.
Caleb snorted. “You don’t do vacay. As evidenced by the fact you agreed to work for me for the entire two weeks you’re here. I needed him,” he said to Ivy. “He’s got serious skills. He’s going to manage security on several large projects, including my most recently acquired building, the one being renovated into condos.” He looked at Kel. “Ivy’s going to buy one with her brother, who’s an antiquities specialist. It’s a great investment,” he said like a proud parent, even though at thirty-two, he couldn’t have been more than five years or so older than Ivy.
“Actually, it might just be me investing,” Ivy said. “Brandon just got into a deal on the east coast I was telling you about.”
“The auction house job.”
“Yes, and it’s going to keep him busy for a while, so…” She shrugged. “I told him I’d go after this myself.”
“That’s too bad,” Caleb said. “Was looking forward to meeting him.”
Kel stopped chewing because something in Ivy’s tone had just set off his bullshit radar. She was either lying or stretching the truth, but his eyes were still watering and his throat was burning or he might’ve joined the conversation.
Ivy reached out as if to take away his basket, but he held firm to it and kept eating. He was starting to sweat and he couldn’t feel his lips, but he also couldn’t get enough.
“Okay, Cowboy, it’s your funeral,” she said, and he couldn’t tell if she was impressed or horrified.
A few more people were milling around her truck now, and she eyed her watch.
“They start lining up earlier every day,” Caleb said.
“Hey, Ivy,” one of the guys who was waiting called out. “The fuzz! They’re coming around the corner!”
“Crap!” Ivy ran towards her truck, yelling to the people standing in line, “I’ll be back in ten minutes. If you wait and save my spot, I’ll give you a discount!” And then she slapped the window and door closed and roared off down the street.
A minute later a cop drove by slowly, but didn’t stop. When he was gone, the group of people who’d been lining up for tacos stepped into the empty parking spot Ivy had left.
Not ten seconds later, a car came along and honked at the people standing in the spot. “Get out of my way,” the driver yelled.
No one budged.
The car window lowered and a hand emerged, flipping everyone the bird.
This didn’t make anyone move either, and finally the guy swore and drove off in a huff.
“What the hell?” Kel asked.
“She’s not supposed to be on the street before seven,” Jake said.
“I’m working on getting her a city permit,” Caleb said. “They’re extremely hard to get.”
Kel was boggled. “But … those people are blocking the street. They could get a ticket.”
“Thought you weren’t a cop,” Caleb said, looking amused.
Kel shook his head and went back to his tacos, and for a guy who believed in the law, when the incredible burst of flavors once again hit his tongue, he thought maybe he could understand the flagrant disregard of it in this one case.