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"Marry me," Gunnery Sergeant Mac said as he took the small box filled with four of her signature chocolate "sin" cupcakes. They were her number-one seller in the bakeshop, Sweet Dreams.
"I can't, Mac, you only love me for my cupcakes," Alysse Dresden replied. The uniformed Marine came in here once a week and every time asked her the same mock question.
"We can work around that, I can come to love you for your other assets," he said as he headed toward the door.
Alysse laughed as the soldier left and she turned to her next customer. Sweet Dreams was the culmination of four years of hard work. She got at least two marriage proposals a day at her bakery and usually a few professions of undying love. Her mother hadn't been wrong when she said the way to a man's heart was through his stomach.
If only her mother had told her how to keep a man once she got his attention with food. Alas, she hadn't, and Alysse had one failed marriage behind her. But that disaster wasn't one that should be dwelt on.
"You should take him up on his offer," Staci Rowland said as she came in from the back with a tray of red velvet cupcakes.
"Mac?" Alysse asked. She wasn't about to marry a man she barely knew. She'd been there, done that and had burned the T-shirt.
"Yes, or any of the other guys who come through here," Staci said as she placed the tray in the display counter.
Staci was her business partner and the cocreator of Sweet Dreams. They'd met almost four years ago in a local baking competition. They'd competed with each other for a few years trying to outsell and out-create each other around town before they'd decided to work together and open the bakery. The rest, as they say, was history.
"They aren't serious. They just like my cakes," Alysse said, knowing what she said was true. Though she wished sometimes that some of the men were at least interested in a few casual dates, they never were.
"Of course they do, but unless you go out with one of them you're never going to find the one guy who wants more than baked goods from you," Staci said.
Staci was five foot four and had short black hair that she wore in a pixie cut. She was petite but had more curves than Alysse, who was tall with a more athletic build. Where Alysse overanalyzed every action before she took it, Staci tended to jump and then hope a net would appear. They were opposites in everything except their desire to make Sweet Dreams a success.
"That guy was pretty hot, you should have—"
"Ugh!" Alysse said to Staci. "Besides, hot doesn't mean he's the right guy for me."
She was living proof of that. Damn. Why was she dwelling on her ex today? She wanted to pretend she didn't really know, but this week it was the four-year anniversary of her waking up alone in the honeymoon suite of the Golden Dream Hotel in Vegas.
"It doesn't mean he's the wrong guy for you, either," Staci chastised. "You have a thing against men in uniform. Why?"
"They're cocky and they really can't commit to a woman. And for the record, it's not like I don't go on dates," Alysse said. She'd never talked about her brief marriage.
"You've given the usual dating websites a try and I'll admit they aren't exactly gleaming with amazing guys, but I think you don't want to find a man."
"Do you?" Alysse asked. To be honest, there were times when she was lonely, but the risk of falling for the wrong guy was too high for her to take the chance. She didn't ever again want to feel the way she had when Jay had walked away. Ever.
"No, but I at least enjoy being single," Staci said. "Going out to clubs. And you don't."
"I'm sorry I couldn't go with you last night. I had already promised my brother that I'd hang out with him."
"Well, I'm surprised you went since it was just your brother and about fifteen hot guys."
Alysse shook her head. "Toby's friends are my friends. We grew up surfing together and playing beach volleyball. Going out with them it's fun."
"It's safe," Staci said. "There's no risk for you. Why do you do that?"
Alysse shrugged. It was safe going out with them because Toby's friends treated her like their little sister. And when she was out on the waves, surfing with them they treated her like an anonymous person—just another surfer.
"Most people don't want to risk their hearts," Alysse answered.
Staci came over and gave her a hug. From the beginning, Staci's caring heart had surprised Alysse, because her friend looked tough. Her hair was cut in a trendy fashion but she presented herself to the world as if she were a badass.
"Honey, safe isn't doing it for you. Something is missing in your life. I just want you to be happy," Staci said.
"Me, too." Alysse really craved happiness but had no idea how to get it. She'd thought that the bakery was the solution but the longer they worked at it and the more success and accolades she achieved at Sweet Dreams, the bigger that longing inside of her grew.
The phone rang before Staci could respond and Alysse reached around her to answer it. The phone was an old-fashioned wall-mounted unit that had come with the bakery when they'd bought the property.
"Sweet Dreams Bakery, home of the incredible red velvet dream cupcakes."
"Hello," the caller said. His voice was deep and raspy, vaguely familiar, but then she talked to men on the phone all the time.
Staci just mouthed over to her that the discussion wasn't over and went to help a customer who had entered the shop. Alysse leaned back against the wall and twirled the phone cord around her finger.
"What can I do for you today?" she asked.
"I have a dessert emergency," he said.
"An emergency? Well, we will be happy to help you out," she said. She liked creating desserts that were unique to the person who would eat them. It wasn't always easy to do, but she'd done it more than once with a lot of success. In fact, she'd been featured in a regional magazine after she'd made an anniversary cake for the deputy mayor of San Diego.
"I was hoping you'd say that," he said.
His voice was perfect, she thought. She closed her eyes and just let the sound of it wash over her. This was what was wrong with her, she thought, snapping her eyes open and staring at the photo of cupcakes mounted on the wall behind the phone. She was afraid of a man who walked into her bakery but one she could flirt with on the phone, one who was safely isolated, she could handle.
"What can I get for you?" she asked. She pulled a prestamped notepad closer and got ready to jot down the details. She and Staci had made these forms up after they'd botched an order writing it down on napkins. That had been a long time ago, but they still wrote everything down on the notepad.
"I need something different. I made some mistakes where my lady is concerned and I want to make it up to her," he said, his voice low yet sincere.
Alysse knew she was a softy when it came to men making big romantic gestures. One time she'd stayed up all night making an anniversary cake for a man who'd forgotten to order it in advance and needed it first thing in the morning. She'd charged him double to justify staying overnight to bake it, but in her heart she liked that he'd realized he'd screwed up and tried to make up for it.
"Then this is going to have to be a really special cupcake or maybe a cookie. Tell me about her," Alysse invited.
Sweet Dreams had cultivated a reputation in San Diego of being the place for one-of-a-kind desserts, mainly because she and Staci both believed that making something special was more than worth their time. People would pay for good food and that was what they delivered.
"Hmm that's not easy. She's kind of elusive and hard to figure out."
It was always interesting to her the way men described the women they loved. She and Staci had an annual Valentine's Day contest where couples competed to come up with the perfect treat for each other by describing what the other person was like. The winners were chosen from those who described their mate and picked the perfect dessert.
"That's probably why you like her," Alysse said. "Men like a mystery."
He sighed and she thought she heard a honking horn behind him. "That we do. But I'm used to solving them."
She jotted down mysterious on the order form. Every guy thought women were hard to figure out, but if they just paid attention, she thought, it would be mystery solved. She'd never known a woman yet who didn't in her own way tell a man exactly what she wanted.
"What else can you tell me about her?" Alysse asked.
"She's feisty and spicy in bed," he said. "She knows how to both satisfy a man and leave him wanting more."
She made a few more notes and then put her pen down. Well, it sounded as though he had found him a woman who met all of Alysse's own perceptions of what the male fantasy was.
"Is she sweet?" Alysse asked.
"Semisweet," he said. "She's got a kind of gentleness to her that is at odds with that fiery temper of hers."
She turned to look at the stainless-steel counters of the kitchen area of the bakery.
"Okay, I think I've got it. Do you want a small cake or a cupcake?" she asked. She already had an idea in mind for the batter—a kind of a riff on her Redemption Cake. She made it often enough out of a basic chocolate cake recipe and added special ingredients to make it personal to the couple.
"Surprise me," he said.
"I will. When do you need it?" she asked. She figured she'd work on the recipe overnight and try a couple of variations so that she got the perfect recipe for this guy. She was going to be charging him a high price for this unique cake and she wanted to ensure he got his money's worth.
"Uh I'm not sure I can do that. We close at six," she said. She could also spend the afternoon in the kitchen working on this special order instead of helping customers and listening to Staci tell her she didn't date the right guys, which—she wasn't going to lie—sounded ideal. But this guy was asking for the moon.
"Perfect. I'll pay you to deliver it to the Hotel Del Coronado—the Beach Villas."
"Um we don't usually do that."
"Please," he said, his sexy voice dropping a bit to become even deeper. "I won't ask again."
A shiver spread down her arms and across her chest. There was something familiar about that low tone but then she always associated sexy with Jay Michener, her ex-husband. And Jay was the last man who'd be pulling out all the stops to win back a woman. That wasn't his style. No. Walking away without looking back was his style, and she needed to remember that.
"I think you might be my only chance," he said.
Alysse shook her head at her own weakness for romance. What was her deal?
"Okay. I'll do it," she said. "Should I leave it at the desk?"
"No, I'm having a dinner catered for us on the beach. Can you bring it down there?"
She should say no, but this man who was going to such lengths to win back his lady intrigued her. "I'll do it. What's your name?"
"Just ask for the Marine," he said.
"Okay. I'll need your credit-card information," she said. She wasn't about to do all that work without being paid.
"I'll pay when you get here."
He hung up before she could get any more details. She turned around to see that the shop was empty again and Staci was watching her.
"Order?" she asked.
"A mystery order from a sexy-voiced guy," Alysse said, trying to sound light. But this Marine and his order was affecting her and making her think of things that she usually kept tucked away. She decided to trust that he could pay her; he was staying at the Coronado and it wasn't exactly cheap.
"Tell me more."
She shrugged. How could she describe what he wanted her to do without letting Staci know that her hard heart was melting? "He wants something special to try to win back his girl."
"What are you going to make?" Staci asked, focusing on the food like a good baker.
"I don't know. I was going to go and pull ingredients that fit his description of her." She liked this part of the process. Baking was as easy to her as breathing. She knew the recipes and then just changed up the ingredients until she had something unique.
"And that would be?" Staci asked. "Let me guess, sexy?"
Alysse laughed because so many guys said that when they were asked about their women. But once the probing went a little deeper the answers started to vary.
"More specifically, spicy, unpredictable and semi-sweet," she said.
"Sounds like a challenge. When do you need it?" Staci asked, wiping down the counter.
"Tonight. I told him I'd deliver it to the Hotel Del Coronado."
"Why are you delivering it?" Staci asked. "Girl, be serious here. We don't do this kind of thing."
"He had a really sexy voice and he said please," Alysse said. It sounded lame as a reason even to her.
"He's taken," Staci said, shaking her head as she walked across the room. "He wants a dessert for his lady."
"I know. I just It's romantic, isn't it? That he'd go to that much trouble to get her back," Alysse said.
"He must have really made a mess of their relationship," Staci, ever the realist, said.
Big-time, Alysse agreed. But that didn't change the fact that he was trying to make up for it. That earned him major points in her book.
"Probably. Would you take a guy back if he planned a dinner for you at the Coronado on the beach?" Alysse asked her friend.
"Not sure. I guess it would depend on the guy," she said with a shrug. "I'm not much on forgiving."
"Me, neither," Alysse said.
Maybe that was why she had said yes to delivering the dessert. She wanted this couple to have a second chance at love. A second chance at making their relationship work—because her own lover had never even tried for a second chance.
Even if he had she would have said no, she thought. She left the store area and went back into the kitchen. It was time for her to do the one thing that she was genuinely good at—taking ingredients and mixing them into something edible, something mouthwatering and delicious. It wasn't lost on her that she used her baking to escape from the real world. In here she was in charge and if anything went wrong she could toss it out and start over.
She weighed and measured the cocoa and the flour and sifted them together, taking a kind of comfort from the mixing. She tried to keep the image of Jay from her mind but she couldn't. The memory of the tough-as-Pittsburgh-steel Marine Corps sniper was hard to ignore. She knew that was why she'd failed at blind dates and speed-dating. She measured every man she met by the yardstick that was Jay, or by what she'd thought Jay was when she'd married him, and no one, not even Jay, would ever measure up.
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