Read an Excerpt
Shortly after Rue Harris opened her custom bakery shop, she realized that she was going to need a lot more dough.
Though her profits from the morning pastry sales were decent, the real money came from providing designer cakes for big events. She had to publicize, to build her reputation. Which was why she had agreed to provide two free cakes for a political event on a Thursday, one week after Thanksgiving.
The purpose of this midafternoon party was to thank those who had contributed to the campaign of Danny Mason, the newly elected mayor of Denver. Danny was Rue's former stepfather. One of several. Her mother had been married five times.
Though it was early for Christmas, that was today's theme. The huge ballroom in a foothills mansion was festooned with wreaths and red velvet bows. A fifteen-foot-tall Christmas tree stood in the cathedral-style window, and the caterer's staff wore Santa hats and holly pins. A very tall Santa Claus in full beard and suit meandered through the crowd making ho-ho-ho noises.
Rue reached up to tuck a wisp of brown hair into her high ponytail, then adjusted the shoulder strap of her burgundy chef's apron so her white embroidered logoRuth Ann's Cakeswould be visible. Nervously, she shuffled her weight from one foot to the other. Come on, Rue. Mingle. Her main reason for being here was to make contacts, and it wasn't doing her any good to be a wallflower. She needed to meet people.
Her gaze skimmed the ballroom. Danny had once been a cop, and she spotted a couple of navy blue police uniforms in the crowd. Some of these people she'd met before but most were friends of Bob Lindahl, the owner of this mansion. Lindahl was a building contractor with a shady reputation that made her wonder how many of these guestscops or otherwisewere carrying guns.
None of my business. If she happened to pick up a few new clients who were criminals, so be it. She'd run a special on cakes with files baked insidethe perfect surprise for a jailed felon.
She launched herself into the crowd, prepared to mingle, mingle, mingle. She said a couple of hellos, introduced herself to strangers, checked out the baubles on the Christmas tree and bobbed her head in time to the music from the jazz combo playing Christmas tunes.
When she glanced back toward the serving line, the caterer seemed to be almost ready for her. The red-draped table on the far right end was saved for her cakes. Time to bring them in from the van, but first she needed to wash her hands.
She slipped through a door at the edge of the ballroom, hoping it was a bathroom.
And she was not alone.
The tall Santa stood in the center of an oriental rug in a study. He was unbuttoning his red jacket.
"Sorry," she said as she reached for the door handle. "I was looking for a quiet space."
"Me, too," he said. "Peace and quiet and cool air. I've been wearing this suit for an hour, and it's hot."
"Not like the North Pole, huh?"
He stuck out his hand. "I'm Cody Berringer." Peering over his fluffy white beard, he stared at her chest and read the embroidery. "You must be Ruth Ann's Cakes."
"That's me," she said as she shook his hand. "I'm Rue Harris, and I make custom cakes for any occasion."
"Are you getting married?"
"Not me," he said with the shudder of a confirmed bachelor. "The cake would be for my little sister."
He peeled off the Santa jacket. Underneath he wore a sleeveless T-shirt and a giant pillow stuck into fuzzy red trousers that were held up by suspenders. She noticed a suit and shirt tossed over the back of the sofa. Surely, he didn't intend to change clothes right in front of her.
He asked, "What else should I know about you, Rue Harris? Have you been naughty or nice?"
In usual circumstances, she would have made a hasty retreat before the Santa Claus striptease went any farther, but she was here to mingle and he'd already mentioned a wedding cake. Cody Berringer was a potential customer.
"Naughty or nice," she mused. "Shouldn't I be sitting on your lap when you ask that question?"
"That sounds a little bit naughty."
"You're kind of a bad Santa, aren't you?"
When he pulled out the pillow, his costume deflated. He had muscular shoulders and long, lean arms. His height was impressive, well over six feet. He towered over her. A dominating presence.
Mesmerized, she watched as he yanked off his fur-trimmed red hat and ran his fingers through his thick black hair.
Then he removed the beard.
Rue felt her eyes widen. She pressed her lips together to keep from gaping like the village idiot. Cody Berringer was gorgeous. Square jaw. Full lips. And the sexiest blue eyes she'd ever seen.
He sat on a white leather sofa and started digging through his Santa bag. "I'm not much of a Santa. Wasn't giving anything away. I was collecting donations for Hathaway House, a homeless shelter."
"You're an idealist." Gorgeous and sensitive? "Not a chance." He chucklednot with a ho-hoho but a real laugh. "I'm a lawyer."
"Which doesn't necessarily mean that you're a shark. Lots of lawyers are idealistic."
"Good for them," he said as he stacked the checks and pledge cards from his Santa bag.
She really hoped he wasn't a sleaze. "Do you work for Bob Lindahl?"
"I'm not one of Bob's boys," he said with a sneer.
"My expertise is corporate lawtake-overs and mergers. Using your shark analogy, I think of myself as a great white. Not a bottom feeder."
"I'll take your word for it." She gave him a smile. He didn't smile back. "You like to think the best of people, don't you?"
His cynical tone made optimism sound like a negative trait. "I'm not naive."
"Sure, you are. Sweet and sunny."
She adjusted her opinion of him, adding arrogant to the list. "For your information, I can be very bitter. Like dark chocolate."
His intensely blue eyes focused sharply. "Have we met before, Rue?"
"I don't think so." With her snub nose and muddy gray eyes, she had the kind of face that reminded people of someone else. Her only remarkable feature was her long, thick, chestnut hair which she usually kept pulled up in a ponytail. "But I've lived in Denver most of my life so we might have run into each other somewhere along the line."
"There's something familiar about you." When he stood and came toward her, her senses prickled. He was dangerously sexy, radiating masculine energy. It took all her willpower not to step back as he approached. He leaned closer, inches away from her cheek. "You smell great. Like butter and vanilla."
"A cake-baker's perfume."
"How are you connected to the campaign?" His tone was confrontational, as if she were a witness on the stand. "What's your opinion of our new mayor?"
"He's my former stepfather." Explaining her family history was always complicated. "He was my mother's second husband."
"Then, you're not such an innocent. You grew up in a family of sharks."
"Danny's a good guy," she said defensively. He filled the fatherhood role far better than the man who was named on her birth certificate. "He coached my Little League team and taught me to swim."
"Is that when he was a police officer?"
"One of Denver's finest."
"My dad knew him back then."
She sensed an undercurrent of tensionsomething in the way he said "my dad." This casual conversation had taken on an air of importance.
"My father's name," he said, "was Ted Berringer. He was an assistant district attorney. They called him Lucky Ted. Did you know him?"
Her mind flashed back twenty years to when she was six years old. Lucky Ted Berringer? She remembered Danny and her mother talking about him in one of those grown-up dinner-table discussions that got her banished from the room. The nameLucky Tedstuck in her mind because he didn't sound lucky at all. "Your father was killed."
The glow from his eyes sharpened to blue laser pinpoints, boring into her skull with such intensity that he must be reading her mind. Not that he'd find anything terribly interesting. Her life was simple, and she worked hard to keep it that way. Calm. Stable. Steady.
She suspected that Cody was the one with secrets. There was something dark and troubled about him. Something that warned her to keep her distance.
"My father's murder," he said, "was never solved."
"You would have approved of him. He was an idealist."
Ending his scrutiny, Cody stepped away from her and went to the sofa where he picked up a white tailored shirt and shook the wrinkles from it. "I'd like to see you again, Rue."
From the pocket of her apron, she produced a business card which she placed on the coffee table beside the pile of checks and pledges. "About the cake for your sister's wedding?"
"We'll discuss the cake over dinner. Saturday night."
"Sure, you can call it a date."
She was shocked. Guys like him didn't date women like her. Hotshot corporate lawyers went for more flashy partnerssexy blondes in low-cut gowns, reeking of expensive perfume.
Even if Cody actually was interested in her, why would he assume she was free? That she didn't have a current boyfriend? "After I check my schedule, I can"
"I'll call you with the time."
He turned away from her.
Apparently, she was being dismissed. That was his last word. Could he possibly be more egotistical? She had half a mind to tell him that she wouldn't be home when he called. No matter how handsome he was. No matter how many cakes he might order.
Calmly, he slipped off one of his suspenders. The red trousers sagged. Rue didn't want to stay for the rest of the Santa striptease; she'd seen quite enough of Cody Berringer for one day. She pivoted quickly and left.
As soon as she entered the ballroom, Bob Lindahl came bustling toward her on his short, stubby legs. He looked like a cartoon character with his red-and-green plaid trousers and Santa Claus suspenders stretched tightly over his beer belly.Years ago, he'd been a police officer with Danny, and she'd known Bob since she was a little girl. He rested his hand on her shoulder and said, "It's time for you to bring out the cakes, Rue."
"Sir?" His heavy eyebrows lifted. "You used to call me Uncle Bob when me and Danny would take you to the park. Don't you remember the Tickle Monster?"
"Oh, yes." Moisture from his sweaty palm soaked through her white cotton shirt. The way he leered made her glad that she was wearing loose-fitting black slacks and a long apron that disguised her figure.
He chuckled. "I used to tickle you until you screamed for me to stop."
A memory she didn't want to dwell on. When she was a kid, she'd sensed that Bob was a jerk. As an adult, she was sure of it.
Stepping away from his grasp, she said, "I'll get the cakes."
"Need some help?"