Penny bags up the healthy options and tells me to hurry back.

When I head outside, I’m already feeling the right amount of distance from Mr. Hockey Is Awesome and So Am I.

The walk to Dad’s covers some of my other favorite spots.

There’s the bookshop where, years ago, Dad bought me a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, after I’d read the first book from the library. Where just last week, I picked up a new Silicon Valley exposé of a high-flying start-up. (Who can resist the fall of an upstart that gets too big for its boots?)

Up the street, I pass the park where I used to play rugby with my mates after school.

Next is the secondhand furniture store that my friend Taron runs, a place where I like to hunt around for old nightstands and tables to refurbish.

The walk settles me, and by the time I’ve climbed the flight of stairs to the place I used to live, my mind’s completely clear of distractions.

“Tell me you didn’t do it!” Dad says as he opens the door. His eyes go straight to the bag in my hand. “You did it,” he says with a frown.

“Did what?” I ask ever so innocently.

He glowers at me. “Brought me Greek yogurt or a chia seed walnut salad with blueberries and quinoa that is going to make me twenty-five years younger.”

“What did blueberries ever do to you?” I ask as I hand him the chia seed pudding and morning oats.

He eyes them skeptically. “What is this?”

I grin. “Breakfast. Sit. Eat. It’s healthy.”

“It’s weird.”

“Yes, but that’s how we’re doing it these days. Keep up with me, old man.”

He rolls his eyes. “So much cheek.”

“I wonder where I learned it from.”

“It’s a mystery to me too.”

We sit at the table, where I dive into the chia seed pudding while Dad takes the morning oats.

He dips his spoon into the oats, looking at me like I’ve told him we have to remove his kidney. “Is it so hard to buy a scone?”

“It’s not hard to buy a scone. It’s quite easy. You take out the money, and you get the scone. But see, I can’t eat scones for every meal. And you can’t either. You need to look sharp for the ladies.”

“And you need to look sharp for the lads. Speaking of—anyone catching your eye these days? Seems like it’s been forever since that last guy. What was his name? Damian?”

I wave a hand. “Dylan, and that was ages ago.”

Before Maeve and I bought The Magpie and made the pact, we were both just bartenders in our twenties. And, frankly, bartenders in their twenties—especially attractive bartenders—can get plenty of action.

Like when I worked at The Olde Shoe, and in walked Dylan, five years younger, clever and confident. He’d come by, flirt with me all night, and then we’d wind up going out to a club.

Then to my place, since he had twenty roommates or so.

Let’s keep this simple, I’d said. Just keep it fun.

Of course, he’d said.

Soon it became more regular. He’d invite himself over to cook dinner. He’d stay the night, and he’d want to make breakfast, spend the day together.

Suddenly, Dylan wasn’t just making dirty talk with me at the bar.

He was starting to hint at other things.

Other levels.

Levels like love.

That set off my get-the-hell-out-of-there radar.

I wasn’t in love with him. Hadn’t been with anyone, for that matter. All the guys seemed to want more than I was willing to give.

I cut things off with Dylan. And when Maeve and I bought The Magpie a few months later, she’d just come out of a bad relationship that had rattled her, so we’d decided on a pact to eliminate distractions.

The number one rule is don’t mix business with pleasure. You can’t run the risk of falling for a customer who might come back too often, show up at the wrong times, or leave a terrible review. Best to keep those worlds separate.

So we set our rules and our goals—focus on the bar and add in some friendly stakes to keep things interesting.

It’s not like I’m celibate. A hookup here or there is just what the doctor ordered some nights. But I’m thirty-one now, and I steer clear of the younger guys who see a future in me that I’m not ready to share—they see someone steady, stable, with a business and a flat he owns and doesn’t share with three, or twenty, of his mates.

It’s a life I’ve worked hard for. One I’ve sought out. One I’m having at last, and I don’t want to chance losing.

I take a bite of my breakfast as Dad continues on with his matchmaker routine. “Fine, not Dylan. But there are plenty of other men out there. A whole city full of fascinating people. That is, if you leave the bar.”

Tags: Lauren Blakely Romance