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His homecoming is bittersweet
for both of them
Café owner Maddie Strong is finally ready to take her burgeoning cupcake business to the next level. With the help of handsome businessman Alex Perkins, her future's all mapped out. Until her first love comes home.
At seventeen, Maddie adored Nate Barzonni with her whole heart and soul. But when he asked her to elope, she'd said noshe couldn't let him throw away his dream of becoming a doctor. Then he vanished from her life for eleven years. Now the cardiac surgeon has returned to Indian Lake asking for a second chance, and Maddie has to choose between her new life and the man she never stopped loving.
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The February fog rolled across the frozen flats of Indian Lake and curled long, diaphanous fingers around the pines and maples at the water's edge. Canadian geese flew in V-formations across the slate sky above, honking at no particular inhabitants below. There was no wind to rattle the winter-bare branches of the shrubs and neglected rosebushes around the Pine Tree Lodges of Indian Lake, and few tourists were out and about in the dark predawn hours.
Inside Cupcakes and Coffee Cafe, strings of red Valentine lights and glittering silver beads hugged the ceiling in a mock drape, reflecting happy red light into every cranny. Aromas of sugar, butter and freshly ground coffee beans mingled with the clanging of dozens of baking trays being tossed in and out of ovens.
Maddie Strong shouted instructions to her staff of one, twenty-one-year-old Chloe Knowland. Three of Maddie's closest friends were also on board to help with her Valentine's Day cupcake orders.
"Next year, I'll know better than to agree to this insane torture," Sarah Jensen said, laughing as she slung back the last smidge of Maddie's special-brew latte. She hoisted two full trays of iced cupcakes onto an empty table marked New Buffalo, then reached for a yellow legal pad to record the details of the order. She counted twenty-four double-chocolate cupcakes with pink peppermint icing, forty-eight vanilla cupcakes with white whipped-cream icing, each topped with a red marzipan heart, and thirty-six red velvet cupcakes with white cooked-flour frosting. Sarah marked off the inventory and looked around for some bakery boxes.
"Torture is a bit strong, don't you think, sweetie?" Maddie retorted, winking at her best friend. She yanked a very full pastry bag from a stainless-steel rack and placed a fine-point pipe on the end and secured it. The bag was filled with her new recipe for vanilla-bean whipped-buttercream filling. She stuck the pipe into the centers of several double-fudge cupcakes, which she had previously cored out, and squeezed the bag.
"It would be fine if I didn't have to get up at 4:00 a.m.!" Sarah shouted above the latest cacophony as Isabelle Hawks dropped a stack of aluminum muffin tins on the floor.
"Sorry," Isabelle said, whisking her dark hair away from her startlingly pretty face. She quickly gathered the muffin tins. "I'm just all thumbs today. Not enough sleep," she said, endorsing Sarah's comment.
"Maddie, you do know we make these sacrifices for you because we love you," Sarah said, flashing a grin at Isabelle.
"It's either that or you're expecting a free cupcake out of the deal," Maddie replied, keeping a critical eye on her work.
"I'll take the free cupcake," Liz Crenshaw said offhandedly as she stuck bottles of her grandfather's new white-grape ice wine into Valentine's baskets that already contained cupcakes and bags of Maddie's blend of Colombian and Middle Eastern coffee beans.
Sarah tapped her cheek with her finger. "In that case, I need at least a half a dozen cupcakes. There's Luke, Annie, Timmy, Mrs. Beabots, me and Beau, of course "
Maddie froze and shot her best friend a horrified look. "Beau? No way your dog gets one of my gourmet creations!"
"He loves them!" Sarah grinned, keeping her eyes on Maddie's piping bag. "Squirt a little extra cream into Beau's cupcake. He adores that stuff."
In mock horror, Maddie shook the piping bag at Sarah. "That dog has excellent taste. He gets a double blast."
Sarah carefully arranged a grouping of pineapple-and-coconut cupcakes with coconut-cream frosting onto a round tray and marked it for delivery to the Pine Tree Lodges of Indian Lake. She looked quizzically at Isabelle, who had just been promoted to assistant director at the lodges. "Edgar only wants two dozen cupcakes? I would think the lodges would be booked up for months for Valentine's dinner."
"We are," Isabelle answered confidently and in a somewhat smug tone. "Edgar didn't like the idea of opening the lodges just for one night when we're normally closed all winter. But thanks to my online winter ad campaign and the raffle for a free weekend at the lodges, even the cabins are completely booked. Truth is, I took an entire vanful of cupcakes out there last night."
"Yeah," Maddie said, waving her piping bag triumphantly. "We just had to make the coconut cupcakes at the last minute so they stay very fresh. I grated the coconut just an hour ago. Nothing but the best for our Isabelle. Aaaannnd," Maddie said dramatically, piping a huge swirl of peony-pink icing onto an oversize strawberry cupcake. "Edgar Clayton is probably my most loyal customer ever." She finished the cupcake with a flourish, then licked an errant glob of icing off her wrist.
"Having worked for Edgar for seven years," Isabelle said, "I have to say that 'loyal' defines him quite well. He's always been diligent about distributing Maddie's business cards to tourists."
"Word of mouth. My kind of magic." Maddie said, never taking her eyes off the pearlized sugar spray she used to decorate the next order. "That, and unique product ideas," she added.
Sarah finished her inventory and handed the list to Maddie. "Just how many recipes have you patented now?"
"Twenty. And at two grand a pop for legal fees, I haven't been able to go shopping or on vacation for three years. But, it's all been worth it."
Maddie looked just past Sarah. Next to the register was a three-foot-high, perilously thin, black glass vase. Streaming out of the top of the vase were jungle-red anthurium flowers, green palms and white orchids. They were from Alex Perkins, of Chicago's esteemed investment firm Ashton and Marsh. Sarah's uncle, George Regeski, had helped Maddie prepare a business plan for franchising her "made-on-the-spot cupcakes and Italian café" concept last year. George had scoured his network of investment firms and had finally found some interest at Ashton and Marsh. Their initial response was lukewarm, but they were willing to "take a meeting," Uncle George had told Maddie last November.
Since then, Maddie's nerves had been on overload. She had worked ceaselessly since high school graduation for this one opportunity to prove to herself that she was accomplished. This was her blue ribbon; her Oscar.
Because Maddie was the only child of a single mother, Babs Strong, who worked in a bread-manufacturing plant, Maddie hadn't had the money or means to go to college. But no one was more passionate about acquiring a business degree than Maddie.
Maddie had learned accounting and business management by copying the reading lists of the required classes her wealthier friends took in college. She read all the same materials and texts they did. It was her bet that on any given day, she was on an even par with the best of them.
It was Sarah's mother, Ann Marie, who'd seen Maddie's business potential and believed in her café-and-cupcake vision right from its conception. Ann Marie had gone to Austin Carlson McCreary, by far the wealthiest man in town, and asked him to be an "angel investor" in Maddie's café. Austin, twenty-eight years old at the time and a near recluse, agreed to put up a small amount of working capital for Maddie, but only because he respected Ann Marie and her judgment.
Maddie's café was a hit from the day the doors first opened. She worked fourteen hours a day and repaid the twenty-five thousand Austin had loaned her in less than three years. Because Austin never asked for interest or a dividend, Maddie was only too happy to fulfill his one eccentric request. Every Friday at eight in the morning, Maddie was to hand-deliver a box of seven assorted cupcakes to Austin's front door. Maddie never missed a Friday.
After ten years in business, Maddie was about to take her first step toward her ultimate goal. She was working with Alex Perkins on franchising her café. There were hundreds of ifs between this moment and the actuality of a dozen Cupcakes and Coffee Cafés opening across the Midwest. Maddie had always believed in her dream. If she didn't dream it, it would never happen. And she intended to make all her dreams come true.
Maddie stared at the expensive bouquet, which Alex had sent several days ago, and which she'd almost been too busy to notice, though Chloe and her girlfriends certainly had. Gazing at the spectacular flowers, she wondered why Alex would send her such an ostentatious gift. They were only business associates. She was his client, that was all. Wasn't it?
"Are you listening to me, Maddie?" Sarah asked.
"Sorry," Maddie said, wiping her hand on her bright red-and-white-striped apron. "Could you repeat that?"
Sarah's eyebrow cocked inquisitively. "I said that Chicago investment firms certainly treat their clients well. That's some pretty good PR."
"Yeah." Maddie smoothed her short, highlighted blond hair around her ears with her palm. "It makes me nervous," she admitted. "Why?"
"Is Alex sending me these flowers because he's found an investor and he knows something I don't, or because he can't find anyone for my franchise? Or is it because he likes me more than he's letting on?"
Shrugging her shoulders, Sarah asked, "Either one sounds like a winner to me. Doesn't it to you?"
"Sure. I guess," Maddie said. She whirled to look at the clock over the counter. "I gotta get. So do you," she told Sarah.
"Right. I still have to run home and take Beau out for one last potty break before my big presentation for Charmaine." She picked up two boxes of cupcakes. "I'll put these in your car for you, Maddie. Are you taking them up to New Buffalo right away?"
"It's first on my delivery list," Maddie said. "You guys have been a great help to me today. I can't thank you enough."
"I was just teasing about the torture," Sarah said, going to Maddie and kissing her cheek. "Keys, please."
Maddie dug around in her jeans pocket and pulled out her car keys. "Pop the side doors in back and put the cupcakes on the driver's side. I'll bring out the rest of the order. Good luck with Charmaine."
Isabelle gazed at Sarah with what looked like hero worship in her eyes. "Is it wonderful, Sarah? Your new project?"
"More than wonderful. I can't tell you about it. Not yet, anyway. The owner wants everything kept under wraps until we get a go from the city council. But it's exciting."
Maddie withdrew another bakery box of cupcakes from under the counter and held them out for Sarah. "I put this together last night when Isabelle and I were working. I made Luke's favorite lemon cake with lemon-flavored cooked icing. Dutch chocolate for Annie. Double devil's food for Timmy. Carrot cake and cream-cheese icing for you, and of course, Beau's cream-filled vanilla cupcake."
Sarah smiled broadly. "This is very sweet of you."
"Hey, you're the generous one, giving me your time and energy when I know you probably should have been putting the final touches on your drawings."
Sarah looked at Maddie with genuine gratitude and an air of conviction that Maddie had always admired in her friend, even when they were in high school. For a while last year, after Sarah's mother died, that conviction, the abundant, sparkling hopefulness that Sarah shared with everyone in town, had faded under the storm of grief and loss. To lose one's mother was always difficult, but to lose a person like Ann Marie Jensen, whose kindness was nearly legendary and whose lifelong dedication to the town had left not just a mark, but a swath of beautification, creativity and civic improvement, was almost insurmountable.
But since Sarah's engagement to Luke Bos-worth, she had come back to life, and her effervescent spirit was bubbling over with enthusiasm.
"This time my drawings are nearly perfect," Sarah reassured her. "I'm totally confident about this presentation."
Maddie beamed. "That's great to hear, Sarah." This was her friend's first project since her boss, interior designer Charmaine Chalmers, had laid her off a year ago.
"I'm in such a different place than I was last year at this time. When I look back at the work I did then, I don't blame Charmaine for kicking me to the curb. Thank goodness it was only temporary."
Maddie followed Sarah to the door. "You had lost both your parents in a very short period of time. You left Indianapolis and that great architecture job. It was a lot of change. Too much change in a couple short years. Then taking care of your mother before she died. That's heartbreaking and physically exhausting. But you're an inspiration to us all. Like the 'comeback kid,' Sarah. I'm so happy for you."
The two women walked over to Maddie's black Yukon, which served as her delivery van. Maddie had emblazoned both sides of her SUV with her phone number, website, email, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts in gold lettering. Sarah put the boxes in the back end of the SUV. "Speaking of mothers," she said. "How is your mom?"
"We don't speak. You know that. She lives her life with her cigarettes and television reruns and I push for my dreams. Two different universes." Maddie shrugged her shoulders flippantly. "Doesn't matter."
"It's just sad, is all," Sarah said.
"Not really. Your mother was more of a real mother to me than Babs, whose biggest regret is that she gave birth to me. Babs will be bitter till the day she dies because my father had already picked out a new girlfriend before she even told him she was pregnant. She blames him and me for the fact that she never finished high school. She should have stuck to cheerleading and she knows it."
Sarah squinted accusingly at Maddie. "The real truth is that your mother has been jealous of you since you were in a training bra."
"Check." Maddie nodded. "She thinks I'm too entrepreneurial, not that she could spell or define it. And the she hates the fact that I'm perfectly happy without a rich husband who would pay her bills so she could sit around and smoke more cigarettes and watch more innocuous television."
"I guess it really is best you don't see her much."
"It took me a long time to face the fact that my mother just doesn't like me. Enlightenment is knowing when to let go. I let go of her a long time ago, Sarah." Maddie hugged Sarah quickly. "Beat it, or you'll be late."
"Deal," Sarah said and rushed off to her car. "Don't forget, we're meeting at four-thirty at Bride's Corner to choose my wedding dress!"
"It's burned into my brain!" Maddie waved as Sarah got into her Envoy and drove off.
Maddie turned her attention to the red sandstone of the clock tower on the county courthouse as the dawn rays struck the beveled-glass windows.
"Valentine's Day," Maddie whispered. "A moneymaker day." She smiled, then felt her smile drop off her face like icing off a cake when it's been sitting in the sun too long. For the first time in over a decade, Maddie remembered that Valentine's Day was a day for love.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reading Heart's Desire brought back wonderful memories of young love, decisions of the heart and sacrifices people will go through for true love. I loved the characters. They were completely believable and I was able to relate to their situations. Their lives were real, their struggles with love and desire were powerful. I loved every emotion whether it be disappointment or desire. It was truly a love story that I will read again and again. Anyone who has loved and lost or been the victor will appreciate this book. Man or woman...This is a terrific read. I loved it.