Nothing about working with his former high school crush, Stephanie Stephens, is ideal. Still, if Aaron Caruthers intends to save his grandmother's bakery, he must. Good thing he has a lot of ideas he can't wait to implement. He never imagines Stephanie would have her own ideas for the business. Or that they would clash with his!
It doesn't take working with her long for Aaron to realize his impression of Stephanie as a helpless ex-cheerleader is way off. And the more of her kindness and strength he sees, the more attracted he is! Now to convince her
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Two months ago
No one was eating her goodies.
Stephanie racked her brain trying to figure out why. She'd baked all the treats herself, tailoring each recipe to meet her friends' varied preferences and dietary restrictions: gluten-free chocolate cupcakes and dairy-free carrot muffins; nut-free cookies, a plate of soy-free bite-size brownies and three different pies because Lilian didn't like lemon meringue, Susan loathed pecan and Karen thought apple was "boring."
The last time she'd seen all her high school girlfriends together had been Christmas four years ago. Yet, instead of being excited, a weird sense of disappointment had dogged her all evening. While everyone else was busy chatting, talking over each other like a gaggle of geese, she got the feeling that if she waded into the fray, she'd be nibbled and pecked to death.
But she had volunteered to host this holiday shindig, so she couldn't hide behind the food forever. Steph brightened her smile and picked up a plate of sugar cookies, painstakingly frosted in B. H. Everett High's blue and gold. Brandishing the treats and armed with good cheer, she circulated. She might not be the best convocation conservation talker, but she was a damned good baker.
"Well, it's not like I don't want to come back to Everville," she heard Janny say wistfully. "But Mark's job is in Cleveland, and my business is flourishing. I wouldn't have clients here."
"Yes, nice as it is to come home, I'd never move back," Cristina proclaimed. "Rumor is the property values in town are taking a dive. I'm not sure about the new mayor, eitherI mean, I wasn't the biggest fan of Bob Fordingham, but at least we knew what to expect from him."
"Cookie?" Steph thrust the plate out. Janny and Cristina each politely took one.
"Steph, we were just talking about the new mayor," Cristina said. "Cheyenne Welks, right?
What's she like?"
She shrugged. "What's to tell? She comes to Georgette's every day at eight for a large black coffee and usually gets a plain croissant."
"But I mean what are her policies like?" Cristina clarified. "I've heard that she's been spending a lot on infrastructurelike that big water main project."
"Oh, I don't really follow politics," she said. She'd noticed all the construction in town, of course, but she didn't have to drive through it on her way to work so she didn't pay it much attention. "But she's really nice."
Cristina touched her arm. "Thanks for hosting, by the way. It's nice of your parents to let us hang out here, considering all the times we've trashed their home."
"As long as we don't throw up in the pool again," Janny added jokingly.
"Like old times, eh? Glad to know some things'll never change." Steph found herself inexplicably irritated as Cristina bit into her cookie. "Mmm. This is good. Catered?"
Steph perked up. "I baked them."
"Oh." Her long lashes flickered. "Still working at Georgette's then?"
Silence dropped between them as heavily as an anchor. "She's still around?"
"Oh, yeah. I don't know anyone who's as energetic as she is at her age. She'll outlive us all." She laughed a little too loudly. This was the third time she'd answered this question today. In fact, if her friends' queries were any indication, her life could be summed up in three statements.
I work at Georgette's.
I've been there five years now.
Yes, Georgette's still alive.
"So, what are you guys up to?" she asked to relieve the silence that stretched between them like yeasty dough.
Cristina launched into the story of her lifecollege, husband, career in interior design, a vacation in Hawaii, plans for kids. Janny's story was nearly as glamoroustwo daughters, a house and a massage therapy practice in Cleveland.
Steph took it all in with a smile, clutching the plate of cookies as she suppressed her envy. Years ago she would've lightly punched her friends in the arm and exclaimed, "So jealous!" It was hard to joke about it now.
As she moved off, she reminded herself it'd been her choice to stay in Everville, that her family was here and that she loved the town and working for Georgette. Okay, so she wasn't living in the big corner house on King Street that Mr. Merkl owned, the way she'd always dreamed, with three kids, a dog, a cat and a swing set. But it hadn't been her fault that Dale hadn't kept his promise to marry her after college. Still, everything she needed was right here in her hometown. She should be happy.
She was happy.
"I'm catching the red-eye back to LA," she overheard Cindy say as she approached. "With the wedding coming, my condo renos and my practice on the go, I've got way too much happening to stick around here."
"You're going to have a heart attack if you keep up this pace," Teri warned.
Cindy snickered. "I live for interesting times. I can sleep when I'm dead."
"I don't know how you do it," Steph interjected, passing the cookies around. "I like my sleep way too much."
Cindy tipped her head side to side, declining a cookie. "You have to keep moving if you want to stay on top. LA's not like Everville."
Steph quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, c'mon. You've been all over the place. You know that small-town upper New York State isn't exactly a busy cultural and business hub. Frankly, I'd go nuts if I had to come back here permanently. I mean, everything here opens at ten and closes at six."
"I'm up at four every morning to bake," Steph said stiffly, belatedly realizing her schedule had nothing to do with the rest of the town's business hours.
Cindy's smile was toothy and unflinching.
"Good for you."
It was her tone that had grated on her, Steph concluded much later, after everyone had gone home and she was left to clean up the half-empty wineglasses and leftovers. Everyone had con condo condensation.
Given me that pitying attitude, she huffed. They'd all used that tone that said, "You poor thing, working like a dog, stuck in Everville and not even married!"
It was ridiculous, she knew, to even think any of her friends thought that about her. She couldn't know for sure what any of them felt.
And she hadn't expected those strange, sorry looks. The girls of the cheerleading squad whom she'd once considered sisters had all grown up, branched out and moved on. They'd changed, and they saw her as still living in the past. She'd always thought she was a good judge of character, but she didn't know them anymore, and they didn't know her. Why had she insisted on this reunion? Nostalgia? Loneliness?
"Leave those." Helen Stephens nodded at the empty glasses in her hand. "I'll call Lucena and have her clean up."
"I can do it, Mom." Stephanie loaded the stemware into the dishwasher. "I'm not dragging Lucena in on her day off. I had the party here, so I'll be the one to clean."
Helen's brow furrowed as if she was worried her only daughter might trip and fall on a wineglass. "I just don't want you to wear yourself out." Her expression eased as she beamed around the house. "You did such a lovely job with all the decorations and food" she gestured toward the console table in the foyer "but you forgot to hand out your treat bags."
Steph sucked in her lower lip. As everyone was leaving, there'd been so much chaos as her friends scrambled for their coats and purses that Steph had nearly forgotten all about her take-home party favors. Many of her friends had refused anyway because they were on diets or "couldn't have those around the house." The statement baffled her. Who couldn't have cookies around the house? But she didn't press the matter. She wasn't about to admit she'd taken their rejection personally, either.
"I'll bring them to the seniors' home tomorrow," Steph said. Then she pictured the residents reaching for the plates only to remember their blood pressure, their sugar intake, their weak stomachs and numerous food allergies. The nurses probably would have to throw out the treats to ensure no one tried their luck.
Steph had spent three whole days baking twelve dozen cookies, all of them her original recipes.
They were her life's workand they'd been rejected. Dismissed.
"Sweetheart, what's wrong?" Helen laid a hand on her daughter's arm, and Steph snapped out of her haze.
"Nothing." She looked away to hide her sudden tears. "Maybe I am a little tired."
Helen drew her away from the table. "Then leave this all for tomorrow. Lucena can take care of itthat's what we pay her for." She urged Steph toward the stairs. "Go take a nice hot shower and get some rest. You don't want bags under your eyes."
"But, Mom " She nearly tripped as her mother hustled her along.
"Go on, baby." She stopped abruptly and cupped Steph's cheek, an almost manic look of love shining in her face. "As long as you live under this roof, you don't have to worry about a thing." The words were uttered in a low coo, but Steph felt something more behind them this time, as if her mother knew exactly what was wrong and would fix everything.
That's what she did. She fixed everything.
Helen shooed her up the stairs the same way she had throughout Steph's high school years. As fast as Steph climbed, though, she felt as though she were sinking deeper into the rut of her life. In the seven-hundred-square-foot suite that was her bedroom, she shut the door behind her and leaned against the door frame.
Cold winter light gleamed off all the surfaces. Her mom had filled the suite with mirrored furniture, saying how she loved the way it made her daughter look like a queen standing in her diamond palace. Steph had loved it, too, but right now she thought the room looked sterile, the light casting weird shadows across the walls and distorting her image in every reflection.
It used to be easy to simply go to her room and whittle away her worries with a manicure while watching a DVD, followed by a shopping trip into town. That's what she'd done since she was a teen.
But she wasn't a teen anymore. She was thirty and still living at home with a closet full of designer clothes, the latest in home fashions and anything else she could ever want or ask for. She had a job to give her days meaning and show the world she wasn't just a princess waiting for her prince to sweep her away. She volunteered at the old folks' home and at many charity events her parents supported. She had a well-padded bank account, a pretty nice car, a loving family and not a care in the world.
But it wasn't enough.
Something had to change.
"I'm seventeen minutes away," Aaron Caruthers declared over the hands-free cell phone, keeping the rumbling U-Haul truck at a steady forty-five miles per hour along the gray, slush-slickened road. His life's possessions rattled around the interior, and he winced every time he hit a pothole. He hoped he'd used enough bubble wrap.
"Oh, Aaron, you didn't need to call me to tell me that. I'd rather you have all your focus on the road." Georgette Caruthers's tone held a note of anxiety only her grandson could detect above her voice's buttery warmth.
"I didn't want you worrying. Traffic was heavier than expected out of Boston, and I stopped to help a lady change her tire just outside the city."
"Well, aren't you the superhero?" His grandmother chuckled, each word curling with the slight English inflection she'd never shaken. "Was she pretty? Did you get a phone number?"
He laughed. "She was married and very pregnant. I actually stopped because her baby bump flagged me down."
"You're a good boy, Aaron. Thanks for calling. I'll have a nice cup of coffee and your favorite bran muffin waiting."
"You're the best, Gran. See you soon." He hung up and focused on driving, knuckles white as he gripped the steering wheel.
Even though the road here had been paved and widened, with additional barriers, signs and reflective markers delineating the solid cliff face rising up on the turn, Aaron always took this particular stretch slowly. He never took chances hereor anywhere, for that matter. He brought the truck down to thirty, leaned on his horn as he made the turn to alert any oncoming drivers, then sped up once more as he caromed around the corner.
His shoulders gradually slackened, the tension draining away as he moved past the spot where his parents had been killed in a car accident. He hated that stretch of the highway. He could've taken the long route to avoid it, but frankly, that road wasn't any safer. At least he knew exactly what to expect on this route to Everville and how to deal with any emergency that might crop up.
Fourteen minutes later, the truck rumbled past a new hand-painted sign that said Welcome to Everville: The Town That Endures. He slowed as downtown hove into view. The buildings were painted blue-gray by the early evening light, prettily framed between wrought iron latticework streetlamps and small piles of flecked snow. As he pulled onto Main Street, the pavement gave way to gray-brown mud and gravel that splashed and scattered beneath his tires. Bright orange pylons and construction signs jutted from the ground like oversize, mutated flowers in a post-apocalyptic small-town Americana landscape. His gran had said the town was undergoing a massive renovation as the old sewer mains and pipes were replaced. It was a good thing his grandmother's bakery was on the road outside town; he couldn't imagine how this construction affected businesses in the area.
Change is good, he reminded himself. Even if it was a little scary.
Gran's house was just off Main Street. He pulled the truck onto the curb as Georgette opened the door to the bungalow. Warm light spilled into the street. He hopped out of the cab.
"It's so good to see you and all in one piece." She opened her arms.
"You shouldn't be out in the cold in your condition," he said, hugging her.
"Pshaw. I'm not that frail, Aaron. Come inside. There's plenty of time to unpack later. I asked some friends to come help."
"You didn't have to do that." Since Gran was in no shape to carry anything heavier than a plate of biscuits, he was grateful for assistance, even if he wasn't wild about near-strangers poking into his personal belongings. Pretty soon, everyone would know he was back. It'd been a while since he'd been home. The fishbowl of small-town living was something he'd have to get used to all over again.
The bungalow Aaron had grown up in hadn't changed since he'd first moved in when he was barely eight years old. The immaculate carpets were still that odd shade of pink-gray, which went with the floral wallpaper and powder-white floral-themed light fixtures throughout the house. The place had always reminded him of a wedding cake. Gran still had the same furniture, too, meticulously kept despite those years of having a school-age boy living under the same roof. Then again, Aaron had always been a neat freak. He hated messes.
Georgette slipped off her shawl, and Aaron flinched. Gran had always been dancer thin, but seeing how her clothes hung off her now shocked him. And she moved so much more slowly. He followed her into the kitchen, insisting on getting his own coffee though she fussed over it. Nothing in here had changed, either, from the glass-fronted cabinets to the chintz-pattern china. The aroma of coffee and baking permeated the air.
Aaron made her sit while he took out the cream and sugar. Everything was exactly where it had been all those years ago. Muscle memory took control as he poured coffee into the mugs he'd always thought of as his and Gran's. The promised muffins were warming in the oven, and he put two on chipped saucers for each of them.
"How are you feeling?" he asked as he sat.
"Tired. I've got a headache most days. Nothing serious."
"Of course it's serious." He took her hands. "You've probably already heard this enough from everyone else, but I'm going to say it again. There's nothing minor about a minor stroke." She wouldn't quite meet his eye, which made him worry. "Are you having any loss of sensation still?"
"In my left hand." She flexed it, just barely, and he frowned. "The physical therapist will decide whether or not I need to work on it."
"Of course you need to work on it. I'll make sure they give you something."