In the Mood for Love
A Cupcake Lovers Novel
By Beth Ciotta
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Beth Ciotta
All rights reserved.
Marriage is a dinner that begins with dessert.
The Kelly twins.
Double your pleasure, double your fun.
The lyrics of a gum commercial ran through Sam McCloud's head alongside several racy thoughts.
Two women at once.
Every man's dream.
Sam could live out that fantasy. All he had to do was take Krissy up on the offer she'd whispered in his ear. Or was it Katie? He'd never been able to tell them apart. They were in their mid-twenties. Blond, spray-tanned Barbies who dressed alike, talked alike, and even wore their hair and makeup exactly the same. Which struck Sam as odd. Just one of the reasons he'd declined their tempting offer. They also giggled too much and were intellectual pinheads. Not that that had bothered Sam's cousin Nash Bentley — who walked up to the bar just as Sam sent the girls away.
"You don't know what you're missing," Krissy (or Katie) said to Sam.
"Tell him, Nash," Katie (or Krissy) said with a wink and a giggle.
"Never kiss and tell," Nash said as he perched on the stool next to Sam. But he did smile — the smile of a man who'd had the ride of his life. Considering Nash, a charter pilot and hot-air-balloon operator, drank thrills with his morning coffee, a tumble with the Kellys must've been a mind-bending rush.
Sam focused on his beer, not wanting to give the twins a reason to double back and double their efforts. If they were seriously on the prowl then pickings were slim. The Sugar Shack, owned by another cousin, Luke Monroe, was sparsely occupied. Not unusual given it was a weeknight and shoulder season for their small tourist town, but unlucky for Sam who wanted to be left alone. "Are they gone?"
"Slipped into the john." Nash motioned to the new hire, Joelle Jenner — a personable, crackerjack bartender, who didn't mind the late shift since Luke had mostly switched to days. Joey (as her nametag read) nodded and nabbed a chilled beer while sliding another customer a bowl of mixed nuts. Her counterpart, Decker, who pulled double duty as bouncer, hovered at the opposite end of the bar manning the TV remote and surfing stations. "Swear to God, the dude's got ADD," Nash said.
Sam was still thinking about the Kellys. "Don't you think it's strange that the twins do everything together?"
"Chicks always go to the head in packs."
"It didn't bother you?"
Nash grinned. "Oh, I was bothered."
"I mean that they're sisters."
"Which is —"
"Like you've never fantasized."
Sam didn't answer.
Nash took a pull off his longneck then laughed when he caught Sam glancing toward the ladies' facility. "Having second thoughts?"
"So much for being a monk."
"Who said —"
"Laura Payne. Two dates and you didn't kiss her once."
"That makes me chaste?"
"You didn't make a move on Alana Foster or Kady Bridges, either."
Sam glanced at Joey who was mixing a drink and suppressing a smile while stealing looks over the thick black frames of her glasses. The twenty-something heartland transplant was also the newest member of the Cupcake Lovers, the town's longtime social and baking club. A club devoted to supporting soldiers and various charities. Sam, who enjoyed baking as well as the camaraderie, was also a member of that club. He didn't know Joey well enough to know if she was a gossip, but he wasn't keen on this convo getting back to the CLs ... or anyone else for that matter. He nabbed his mug then nudged Nash. "I see an empty table."
There were lots of empty tables. Sam chose one by the cobblestone hearth, far from the action of pool sharks or barflies or bartending eavesdroppers. Sugar Creek, Vermont, thrived on gossip. As a widowed father of two young children, Sam flew under the radar as best he could. Another reason he'd turned down a dose of double delight. Like he needed that kind of news getting back to his kids. Explaining the meaning of threesome or ménage à trois to Ben and Mina was not on his agenda anytime soon. Never suited even better.
Toting three cold ones, Nash set a bottle in front of Sam then settled in with the other two. "Women talk, cuz."
As someone who juggled female friends the way Sam juggled playdates for his daughter, Nash had no doubt gotten an earful from the eligible women Sam had crossed off his "wife" list. "What are they saying?"
"You don't want to know."
Sam countered with one of his death stares. Most people crumbled after five seconds. Nash broke after one sip.
"There's a pool," he said, while picking at the bottle's label.
"A betting pool?" There'd been a lot of those lately. The biggest being based on the gender and birthdate of another cousin's first baby.
"When you ask a woman out she assumes you're attracted. Sexually," Nash emphasized as if Sam needed clarification. "Touching. Kissing. Trying to get in her pants. Granted, not every woman's going to tweak your pole, but you've been out with how many women in the past month and a half?"
Thanks to Sam's matchmaking family and friends, and especially the Cupcake Lovers, a lot.
"And how many have you seduced?" Nash asked even though Sam hadn't answered his first question. His Casanova cousin curled his fingers in the shape of a zero. "At first Laura blamed herself, questioning her weight, but then she got talking to Kady, who'd already spoken to Alana, who'd overheard, well, you get the picture. I heard it from Viv Underwood."
Sam's most disastrous date.
"So now the general consensus is, it's not them, it's you."
Sam couldn't argue. He'd said as much when any of his mismatched dates had noted his distant manner.
"There's speculation," Nash said.
"Hence the betting pool." Sam glanced at his watch. "Speed it up, flyboy. Only booked the sitter till eleven."
Looking uncomfortable now, Nash leaned forward and lowered his voice. "For what it's worth, no one thinks you're gay. Given your history, the kids ..." He cleared his throat. "Some of the girls are betting you can't get it up. A war injury."
Sam arched a brow.
"Others think you're crippled emotionally because of Paula."
Not long ago, that conjecture would have been dead on. Sam's heart had iced over after losing his beloved wife to cancer, but then last year he'd met Rae, who was now Luke's wife. Though Rae had never returned Sam's tender regard, she had sparked his numb spirit back to life. A few months after, he'd met Harper Day, a self-absorbed celebrity publicist who'd torched his senses with a sporadic, kinky affair. No one knew about that affair, so of course everyone assumed Sam hadn't been laid in close to three years. All Sam had to do was tell Nash about Harper and all bets would be off — his reputation as a sane, virile man intact.
But Sam didn't screw and tell, either.
"You asked," Nash said, mistaking Sam's silence for anger.
Sam wasn't pissed. He was restless.
Just then the Brody brothers — Adam and Kane — strolled in. Adam was a freelance sports instructor. Kane, a local logger. Both single. Both fixtures at the Shack. Instead of taking their usual seats at the bar, they joined Sam and Nash.
"Nothing against Joey and Decker," Adam said as he dropped into a chair, "but they're not Luke."
"Luke's not Luke," Kane said. "Not as we knew him. Not that I'm jealous of the time he spends with his wife —"
"Yes you are," Adam said. "Rae gained a husband and the Shack lost its greatest host. Even when Luke's here his mind is somewhere else."
Adam and Kane, especially Adam, went way back with Luke. Sam didn't take offense to their comments. But he did feel compelled to defend his younger cousin. Something he might not have done six months ago when they'd been at war regarding Rae. "Luke didn't desert the Shack. He stepped up his game. New wife. Soon-to-be dad. Coaching the kids at Rae's school."
"As for the slump," Nash put in, "business is down everywhere."
"Luke's late-night presence wouldn't ensure bigger crowds," Sam said.
"Yeah. But we'd have more fun," Kane said. "Decker messes with our feng shui."
"Don't ask," Adam said.
"Speaking of out of place," Kane said. "Surprised to see you hanging at the Shack on a weeknight, McCloud."
"Hanging" at any bar hadn't meshed with Sam's lifestyle in years. He spent most of his nights at home with the kids. That's not to say he was a hermit. His carpentry work kept him out and about, and he spent plenty of time with the Cupcake Lovers. The club gathered every Thursday and participated in several annual events. They'd recently published a recipe book that had led to even more activity. Sam was tired of the growing attention and they had Harper to thank for the budding media frenzy. Not that Sam had seen the bicoastal publicist in weeks.
"Wait a minute," Nash said. "Why are you here?" He angled his head, frowned. "Tell me you had a date tonight and blew her off."
Sam shrugged. "We had dinner."
"Who was the girl?" Kane asked.
Sam polished off his beer, bracing for the men's reaction. After all, tonight's match-up had been with one of Sugar Creek's hottest and smartest women. "Jane Dunlap."
Adam whistled low. "And you're here drinking suds with Bentley instead of playing doctor with Nurse Dunlap?"
"If you think that's something," Nash said, "guess who else he shot down tonight? The Kelly twins."
"Oh, man." Adam dragged a hand down his face, stifling a laugh.
"Damn, McCloud," Kane said, looking half shocked, half amused. "You do know they're selective, right? And you passed? No wonder there's a bet —"
Adam nudged his brother.
"Sam knows about the pool," Nash said.
"Not that we're part of it," Kane said. "Although maybe the twins are."
Adam shifted. "If you want my advice —"
"Pass." Sam straightened as Willa, the only waitress on duty tonight, approached their table. She smiled. He tensed. He knew that look and he wasn't interested. She was pretty and sweet, but he didn't feel a flicker of heat. Instead, he had a vision of Harper, posing in a red silk bra and panties, seductively sucking cupcake icing from her thumb.
Quick on the uptake, Willa flushed and turned her attention to Adam and Kane. "The usual?"
"As usual," Adam said, returning the smile Sam had withheld.
"Do you miss Luke?" Kane asked, stealing Willa's attention.
"I do. Then again, I mostly work nights and he mostly works days. He comes in awfully early," she said, "and he pores over the books and inventory, plus tending bar and hosting happy hour. Luke may have cut back on his overall hours but he works even harder than before. All for his wife and baby." Willa hugged her order pad to her chest and heaved a dreamy sigh. "Oh, to be in love."
Everyone at the table liked Willa so they bit their tongues. Everyone at the table liked Rae and had been friends with Luke forever. Wisecracks were definitely out. Luke, the town's former number one Romeo, was a lucky son of a bitch and they all knew it.
"Could we get an order of Nachos Grande with those beers?" Kane asked.
"Sure thing," Willa said with a bright smile. "Four plates?"
"Not for me," Sam said.
Nash flashed three fingers.
Willa peeled away and Kane leaned in. "What is it with this town lately? It's like everyone's been shot by cupid and bitten by the baby bug."
Nash nodded. "Dev and Chloe, Luke and Rae, Jayce and Rocky ... although Rocky isn't pregnant. Yet."
"Yeah, but Monica and Leo are having twins," Kane said. "All I can say is, I'll be doubling up on condoms."
"That's if you ever get laid again," Adam said with a ribbing glance toward Sam. "Now that he's back in the game, all the women have their sights set on McCloud."
"And he's casting them off like flies," Kane said. "All I need to do is stick close and pick up the broken pieces of their pretty shattered hearts."
Sam gave him the finger.
Adam glanced at the plasmas hanging over the bar. "If Luke were here, we'd be watching ESPN."
"At least it's not a shopping network," Kane said. "Although what is it?"
"The Travel Channel. No, wait. He's switching. The weather." Nash finished one beer and started on the other. "We need to find a new hang. Not all the time, just once in a while. Something to shake up the monotony."
"Have you checked out the new bowling alley?" Adam asked.
"Rock 'n' Roll Lanes," Kane said. "How cheesy can you get?"
"I don't know," Nash said. "Music, bowling, and beer. What's not to like?"
"Took Ben and Mina on opening day," Sam said, happy to talk about anything other than his train-wreck dating spree. "They're especially kid friendly Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Nice atmosphere. Decent staff. Heard they cater mostly to adults after eight."
"Come summer," Adam said, "that place will be jammed with tourists."
"So maybe we should feel it out now," Nash said. "During slow season. Bowling night. Once a week. A couple of hours of sports and beer."
"What the hell," Kane said. "I'm in."
"I'll bite," Adam said. "What about you, Sam?"
"At the rate you're going," Nash teased, "it's not like you're going to hook up with Mrs. Right any time soon."
"We'll try not to corrupt you," Kane ribbed.
Someone beat you to it, Sam thought. If they only knew about his racy fling with Harper. But he wouldn't tell. Hell, he was trying to forget. Maybe he needed to shake things up, hang with the guys. Between his five-year-old daughter's obsession with tiaras, boas, and Miss Kitty, coupled with all the recent baby talk, matchmaking efforts, and additional baking tasks within the Cupcakes Lovers, Sam was OD'ing on women. And not in a good way. "Yeah, sure. Pick a night."
"Any night but Thursday," Nash said as Willa served up spicy nachos and cold brews. "That's Sam's night with the Cupcake Lovers."
Whereas Sam used to take solace in the camaraderie of the club, lately he'd been feeling like a fifth wheel. Not to mention, even though Harper didn't live in Sugar Creek full-time, she'd become the Cupcake Lovers' official publicist. Even though they'd cooled their secret affair, Sam still burned for that irritating woman. Which had pretty much crippled his efforts to find new love and the best mother for his kids.
"Actually," Sam said, suddenly desperate to escape all things cupcake, "Thursdays are perfect."
Harper Day greeted the morning with an obstinate smile and an optimistic attitude. Wednesday had sucked, almost as bad as Tuesday and twice as bad as Monday. She didn't even want to think about Sunday. But today, Thursday, would be the flip side of suckville.
This morning, she would conquer her anxiety enough to walk across her massive backyard to the edge of the small pond. She'd sit on the pier and dangle her toes in the water. She'd breathe in the fresh mountain air. Later, she'd venture to her rented car and drive to the end of the lane. Surely she could make it that far without freaking. She'd idle and breathe and think good thoughts. Maybe she'd conduct business via texts and e-mail. A phone call or two. Anything to detour morbid thoughts.
If that went well (and it would), she'd drive a little farther. She'd think happy thoughts, tune in to a sugary pop station and crank the volume. She would not obsess on the numerous possibilities of a horrible violent end while driving her car into town. Chances of being rammed by a suicidal driver or blown to bits by some terrorist missile were slim to none. She would not obsess on that "slim" percentage.
Harper stared up at the ceiling of her almost-but-not-quite-wholly-renovated getaway, garnering the courage to roll out of bed and seize the day, still smiling even though her optimism had slipped a notch. She wasn't alone in her misery.
Local legend Mary Rothwell, a long-ago previous owner of this house and an original Cupcake Lover, had stared up at this ceiling hundreds of times. Granted, that had been back in the 1940s, but this was the same ceiling and this had been Mary's bedroom. Even though Harper had never seen the ghost of the woman who supposedly haunted this house, she definitely felt Mary. Or at least, commiserated with her restless soul. That's why Harper had specifically bought this farm. To fill a void in Mary's life, to connect with a kindred spirit. Harper had a lot in common with Mary. She would not, however, meet the same end. Harper was made of sterner stuff. She'd get through this rough patch and get on with life. (Continues...)
Excerpted from In the Mood for Love by Beth Ciotta. Copyright © 2014 Beth Ciotta. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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