About the Author
Carla Laureano is the RITA® Award-winning author of contemporary inspirational romance and Celtic fantasy (as C.E. Laureano). A graduate of Pepperdine University, she worked as a sales and marketing executive for nearly a decade before leaving corporate life behind to write fiction full-time. She currently lives in Denver with her husband and two sons, where she writes during the day and cooks things at night. Connect with Carla online at her website (www.carlalaureano.com) or on any of these social media platforms: Facebook.com/CarlaLaureanoAuthor Twitter.com/carlalaureano Instagram.com/carlalaureanoauthor Pinterest.com/laureano_carla
Read an Excerpt
Once upon a time, Melody Johansson had believed in happily ever afters.
To be truthful, she still believed in them, but with her thirtieth birthday in the rearview mirror, the fairy-tale ending had turned away from meeting a handsome prince to owning a little patisserie in Paris. Even if sometimes, as she toiled away in her own version of Cinderella's attic, both fantasies seemed equally far-fetched.
Melody brushed past the ovens in the bakery's kitchen, giving the loaves inside a cursory glance, then dragged a rolling rack of rectangular tubs from the back wall. Customers no doubt had romantic ideals of what it meant to be a baker, picturing quaintly dressed European peasants kneading loaves by hand and shoving them into ovens on long-handled peels, but the American commercial bakery had far more in common with an assembly line than a charming country boulangerie.
Still, there were worse places to spend the dark, still hours of the night than surrounded by loaves of bread, their deep-brown, crackling exteriors fragrant with wheat and caramel and yeast. But Melody was closing on the end of a twelve-hour shift alone, and the only drifts she wanted to be enveloped in were the fluffy plumes of the down duvet on her antique bed. Not the hard, wet snow that coated the city like a sprinkling of demerara sugar on a freshly baked pastry. It looked beautiful, but the peaceful surface concealed treacherous sheets of ice, courtesy of Denver's mercurial warm-then-snowy March weather. Every time spring looked to be on the horizon, winter yanked it back for one last hurrah.
Melody muscled a forty-pound tub of dough to the benchtop and overturned it in one swift movement. She'd done this enough in her career to judge two-pound portions by eye, but she still put each piece on the scale after she cut it from the mass with her steel-bladed bench knife. Unconsciously, she matched the cadence of her movements to the music softly pouring from the speakers. Cut, weigh, set aside. Cut, weigh, set aside. Then came the more complex rhythm of shaping each loaf. A dusting of flour, push away, quarter turn. Each stroke of the scraper beneath the loaf rolled the dough inward on itself, creating the surface tension that transformed the loose, wet lump into a taut, perfectly formed round. Then the loaf went into the cloth-lined proofing basket to rise before she went on to the next one. Twenty times per tub, multiplied by the number of tubs on the rack. She was going to be here for a while.
Baking wasn't usually such solitary work. A second baker normally worked the weekend shifts to make up for the café's increased traffic on Saturday and Sunday, but he lived south of the city, just past the point where they had closed the interstate. It shouldn't have been a surprise — practically every storm closed Monument Pass. Had it been Melody, she would have driven up earlier on Friday morning to make sure she was able to make her shift on time. But then, she'd worked her entire adult life in restaurants and bakeries, where the first rule was: always show up.
That meant her usual eight-hour shift had morphed into twelve.
She muffled a yawn with the back of her arm. "Get it together, Melody. Only two more hours." Assuming the morning staff got here on time to put the proofed loaves into the oven.
Maybe it was time to cut this job loose. She'd been here for six months, which, with the exception of a single fine-dining gig, was the longest she'd been in one place in her life. She needed variety. She could churn out someone else's mediocre recipes for only so long before she felt like she'd sold out.
She'd been wanting to go back to Europe. She'd been away from Paris for eight years, and even then she'd been so busy as a baking apprentice that she'd never had the chance to explore France beyond the capital. A few months to travel sounded like heaven.
Melody sighed. That was as much a work of fiction as any book in her extensive library. Based on the current state of her savings account, she could barely fund a trip to the airport, let alone any points beyond.
She was heading back for a fourth tub when she heard a tapping from the front of the store. She frowned, cocking her head in that direction. Probably just the snow or the wind rattling the plate-glass windows. This strip mall was old, and every storm shook something new loose.
No, there it was again. She wiped her hands on her apron and slowly poked her head out of the kitchen toward the front entrance.
A man stood at the front door, hand raised to knock on the glass.
Melody hesitated. What on earth was anyone doing out in this storm at 4 a.m.? Even worse, what was she supposed to do? It didn't bother her to be here alone, but she kept everything securely locked until the morning staff arrived to welcome customers.
"Hello?" His muffled voice sounded hopeful. Didn't sound like someone who was planning on murdering her. But what did a murderer sound like anyway?
She approached the window cautiously. "Can I help you?"
He exhaled, his breath crystallizing around him in a cloud. "My car got stuck down the street. Can I use your phone? Mine's dead, and I forgot my charger in the hotel." He pulled out a cell phone and pressed it against the wet window. Evidence, apparently.
Melody wavered. From what she could tell through the snow-crusted window, he was nicely dressed. Didn't sound crazy. And sure enough, when she peered down the street, she could see a car cockeyed against the curb with its emergency flashers on.
"Listen, I don't blame you for being cautious. I'm a pilot, see?" He opened his overcoat to show a navy-blue uniform and then pulled out a badge clip holding two unreadable cards. "These are my airport credentials. Homeland Security and my employer trust me with a thirteen-million-dollar plane. I promise, I just need a phone."
A gust of wind hit him full force, the smattering of snow crackling against the window. He turned up his collar and hugged his arms to himself, waiting for her response.
Melody sighed and pulled a key ring from her belt loop. She couldn't leave the poor guy outside to freeze, and she knew there wasn't likely to be another place open for miles. She just prayed that her compassion wasn't going to backfire on her. The lock clicked open, and she pulled the door inward.
He rushed in, rubbing his hands together. "Thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate this."
"Sure. The phone's over there by the register." Melody pointed him in the direction of the counter.
He nodded, turned toward the phone, then hesitated and stuck out his hand. "I'm Justin Keller."
As his cold fingers closed on her warm hand, she looked up and found herself frozen by brilliant blue eyes. "Melody Johansson."
He smiled, causing her heart to give a little hiccup, and released her before moving toward the phone. She watched as he dug a roadside assistance card from his wallet and dialed.
The stranger she'd rescued was handsome. Almost unfairly so. Hair that vacillated between blond and brown, cut short and a little spiky. Those arresting blue eyes. And a crooked leading-man smile that must routinely melt women into puddles at his feet. No, not leading man ... fairy-tale prince. Why was it that pilots seemed to dominate the good-looking end of the gene pool? Was it a prerequisite for the job?
Justin was talking in a low voice — a sexy voice, she had to admit, just deep enough to balance the boyish charm — and she realized she should probably get back to work before he caught her staring. But he turned to her and cradled the handset against his shoulder. "They said it's going to take a while. Is it okay if I wait here?"
"Sure." She might have been reluctant to let him in, but her answer now was a little too enthusiastic. From the slight glimmer of a smile he threw back to her, he'd probably heard it too.
Well, a guy like that had to be aware of the effect he had on women. She had just never thought of herself as predictable.
He hung up the phone. "They say two hours, but they also said that there are people stranded all over Denver right now. I have no idea how long it will be. Are you sure it's okay? I don't want you to get in trouble for letting me in."
"It's no trouble." Especially since the opening manager was a single woman. She'd take one look at him and understand Melody's decision. "I've got to get back to work, though. Do you want some coffee?"
"I'd kill for some coffee."
"I'm not sure I like the choice of words, but I understand the sentiment." Melody smiled at the flash of embarrassment that crossed his face. "Have a seat and I'll get you a cup. One of the perks of the night shift — unlimited caffeine."
"Sounds like more of a requirement than a perk."
"Sometimes." She found a ceramic mug under the counter and then went to the vacuum carafe that held the coffee she'd made a few hours earlier. She pushed the plunger to dispense a cup and set it on the counter. "Cream and sugar are over there."
"I take mine black." He retrieved the mug and warmed his hand around it for a moment before he took a sip. "It's good.
"Sure." She'd said she needed to get back to work, but now she found herself hovering awkwardly behind the counter. It seemed weird to leave a stranger out here by himself — even weirder that she was reluctant to walk away.
He was looking around the bakery. "So, you're the only one here?"
Now Melody took an involuntary step back, red flags waving wildly in the periphery of her mind.
He picked up on her tension and held up one hand. "Forget I said that. It sounded less creepy in my head. I just meant, are you the one responsible for all that bread? It seems like a lot of work for one person." He gestured to the metal bins behind the counter, still awaiting their bounty for the day's customers.
"Usually I have an assistant on the weekend, but yeah. It's mostly me."
"Impressive." His nod made her think he meant it.
"Not really. This isn't baking."
"What is it then?"
Melody shrugged. "Assembling, maybe? But it's a job, and working with bread all day beats sitting behind a desk in an office."
He saluted her with a coffee cup. "I hear that. Exactly why I went into aviation."
A little smile formed on her lips. She'd expected a guy that good-looking to be arrogant, but his relaxed, comfortable attitude suggested the opposite. "I'm not supposed to let anyone back here, but if you want to keep me company ..."
He straightened from his perch by the counter. "If I wouldn't be bothering you. Normally I'd stream a video or put on a pod-cast, but ..."
"Dead phone. Right." She moved back to the kitchen, aware of him following behind. She nodded toward a stool by the door. "You can sit there if you like."
He shrugged off his wet overcoat and hung it on the hook by the door, then perched on the stool. She couldn't resist giving him a subtle once-over from the corner of her eye. Seemed like in addition to being unfairly good-looking, he had the physique to match — tall, lean, broad-shouldered. From the way his slim-cut white uniform shirt skimmed his torso, she would not at all be surprised if it were hiding six-pack abs.
She could tell already that this guy wasn't the type to let himself go soft from too much sitting and bad airport food. He probably had a gym membership or a personal trainer or something to stay in that kind of shape.
She shook herself before she could become another pilot groupie. Focus, Melody.
Starting on the next tub of dough gave her something to think about other than the man sitting a mere five feet away from her. She started cutting and weighing the dough. "So what kind of planes do you fly? 747s or something like that?"
"No. Not anymore. Light business jets."
"Like for executives?"
"Executives, politicians, athletes, celebrities. I work for a fractional, so it's different people all the time. You know, they buy a share of a particular plane so they can travel whenever they want without having to pay for the whole thing and the cost of having a crew on standby."
"Do you enjoy it?"
Melody cast a look his direction. "That didn't sound very convincing."
Justin chuckled and rubbed a hand through his hair. "Had you not asked me at the end of a seven-day, twenty-five-leg tour — followed by being stranded in the snow — I probably would have said yes, absolutely."
"Okay, I guess I can give you that one. You said, 'Not anymore.' You used to be an airline pilot?"
"Do you always ask so many questions?"
"By my count, that's only three."
"Five." He ticked off on his fingers. "What kind of planes? 747s? Executives? Do I enjoy it? And did I used to be an airline pilot?"
Melody rolled her eyes, but she laughed. "You must be fun at parties. Answer the question."
"I flew for a regional 121 operator out of Texas for a while ... one of the smaller companies that code-shares with the majors."
"And you left because ..."
He shook his head, like he realized he wasn't going to get out of the conversation. "The pay wasn't great and the schedule sucked. I flew twenty-four days out of the month, which meant I usually stayed in hotels twenty of those. Now I work eighteen days a month for more money, and even though there's a lot of waiting around for passengers, I actually get to fly instead of babysit autopilot."
"You seem pretty young to be a pilot."
"You seem pretty young to be a baker."
"How old should a baker be?"
"I don't know. But they shouldn't be young and stunning."
Heat rose to Melody's cheeks before she could control it. "Are you hitting on me?"
"If I were trying to hit on you, you wouldn't have to ask." He caught her gaze, his expression dead serious. Just when she feared she wouldn't be able to breathe again, his mouth widened into a grin.
The flush eased when she realized he was just teasing her. "You're terrible."
"I'm honest." He hopped off the stool. "Is it okay if I get more coffee?"
"Help yourself." She let out a long exhale when he left the room. That guy was dangerous. He was gorgeous and he knew it. He had a sexy job and he knew it ... even if he pretended to be blasé about it.
Pretty much the sort of guy she was always attracted to and lived to regret. In fact, the more attracted to a man she was, the worse off she knew she'd be at the end when the relationship imploded like a popped soufflé.
Judging from the little quivers she felt in his presence, a mere twenty minutes after their first meeting, this one was a heartbreaker.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Brunch at Bittersweet Café"
Copyright © 2019 Carla Laureano.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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