Former marine Alec Caldwell is happy to return home alive. The scars he carriesinside and outare a burden he plans to face alone. All he wants is a quiet life devoted to helping wounded veterans. That is, until he meets pastry chef Marla Hamiltonwho's just too sweet to resist. But the single mother is fighting her own battles. The last man in Marla's life hurt her and put her daughter in danger, leaving the child frightened of strangers. Alec seems like the thrill-seeking men Marla avoids. But can becoming a family give these wounded hearts a chance to heal?
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Alec Caldwell stared at the remains of a wedding cake.
He also took his time studying the pretty woman who'd just burst through the door with the big round platter of the leftover cake.
She had hair the color of sun on wheat, reddish and golden all at the same time. And green eyes that sparkled brighter than the fake diamonds on that fancy cake.
Alec wanted to help her but he didn't want to scare her. He'd been waiting for the valet to bring his car when the side door from what he figured to be the kitchen entrance of the Alvanetti mansion burst open and he came face-to-face with the bottom layer of the massive white wedding cake that glimmered with what looked like pearls and diamonds.
Alec had only been back in Northwest Florida for a few months now. Did they put jewelry on wedding cakes these days?
"Whoa," he said while stepping back against the warm stucco of the towering beige mansion, his hands going up to stop the woman who carried the cake in a wobbly hurry.
A face peeked around the big chunky cake. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't see you" Her eyes hit on the curving scar moving down his left jaw.
"I was about to leave," he said before she could turn away. But she didn't turn away. She just stood there, smiling across that white sea of sweetness, her expression bordering on shocked before she smoothed it into a sparkling blankness that rivaled the cake.
"Do you need help with that?" Alec asked, his manners kicking in. If he kept his face turned away into the late afternoon light maybe she wouldn't stare at his scar again.
She shook her head and laughed. "No, I'm used to this. Do you need help finding the valet?"
Offended in the highest sense, Alec frowned and then mimicked a laugh. "No. I mean, I see him coming now, but thank you."
Seriously? Had he been away at war for so long he'd forgotten how to carry on a conversation with a pretty woman? He hadn't forgotten, but he sure didn't like this feeling of being trapped. Or the way his heart seemed to skip a beat or two when she smiled.
He offered again. "While I wait, I can help you."
"I've got this," she said as she skirted around him. "Just part of the job." She motioned to a big open van. "It's going in there."
"I can see that," he replied, grinning. But he took the round platter full of cake anyway. Holding it against his chest, he took a tentative step toward the van.
Lord, don't let me fall on my face with this cake.
The woman shook her head and all that rusty hair tumbled in layers around her freckled face. "Be careful or you'll have wedding cake in your face."
"Okay." He wondered if she was as worried about his limp as he was, so he hurried ahead of her to a bright yellow-and-white van with the words Maria's Marvelous Desserts painted across the doors. Underneath that bold title, a depiction of luscious cakes, cupcakes, cookies and pies in all colors tempted Alec's empty stomach. In smaller black print, another proclamation: We Cater Big Events, Too!
"What do you do with leftover cake?" he asked, curiosity and hunger getting the best of him after he'd placed the partially cut cake inside the van. He hadn't eaten much at the reception and now he wasn't in such a hurry to leave after all.
She settled the cake into a waiting box and turned back to him. "What do you do with any leftovers? You eat them or share them with family or friends. Or strangers, if they ask politely."
He had to laugh at her teasing tone. "That's a nice thought."
She fluffed her hair and smiled. "I'll take this back to the shop and either cut it and wrap it up for the family or probably throw it away." She glanced back at the house. "They don't stay around enough to eat cake and they don't care what I do with the leftovers."
"Oh, right." He understood that comment about the people who lived here. Ultrarich and always on the go. Jet-setters.
Alec had decided earlier that he'd been polite enough for one day so he'd turned away from the few stragglers still out in the garden and kept walking toward the big six-car garage of the Alvanetti estate, the slight limp in his left leg causing his steps to sound off with a now-familiar cadence. He'd driven out here on a cool April afternoon and attended this wedding in an effort to finally win over the eccentric and oh-so-rich Sonia Alvanetti. Mrs. A, as everyone called her, had agreed to write a big check for the Caldwell Foundation's Caldwell Canines Service Dog Association.
Alec would be forever grateful for that, at least.
Mrs. Alvanetti had money to spare and Alec had time to spare. So when she'd seen some flyers regarding Caldwell Canines at a recent art fair, she'd called Alec and asked him about the foundation he'd recently inherited from his deceased mother. Apparently his mother, Vivian Caldwell, had been friends with Sonia Alvanetti. Another surprise, but then, his formidable mother had always been full of surprises. Alec hated surprises, and he'd resented his unpredictable mother's eclectic friends. But this one would certainly help his cause.
Mrs. Alvanetti was in her late sixties and a tad forgetful. She'd invited him to the wedding and had insisted he should attend, but he'd had to remind her about the promised contribution to his foundation.
"Oh, silly me," she'd said with a wave of her bejew-eled hand. "You know, Alec, there are a lot of eligible young ladies here."
"I'm too busy for a relationship," he'd politely told her.
Soon, she was back to asking all about Caldwell Canines and then she was off on another tangent. But she at least summoned someone who brought her a check already made out to Caldwell Canines Service Dog Associationthe official title.
With a flourish, Mrs. A had put her sprawling signature on the check and smiled up at Alec. "Use this wisely, you hear?"
He'd heard, loud and clear. Mrs. Alvanetti would expect a full report.
"Mrs. A is certainly an interesting woman," he said now, grasping for some conversation.
The woman looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I don't normally gossip about people who employ me. I'm only here to supply the wedding cake and take back the leftovers."
"I understand," he responded, still holding the open van door. "I have to admit, I don't usually attend big functions but it's hard to say no to Mrs. A."
The woman gave him a sympathetic stare. "She does command respect, but she's a sweet person."
Alec could agree with that. "Yes sweet but determined and always on her way out the door to somewhere else."
Which was probably where he should be going right now.
The woman let out another wind-chimes kind of laugh. "She has a lot going on. Too many plates in the air."
Alec interpreted that to mean the lovely older lady was a bit scatterbrained, but in an I've-got-money-so-I-can-afford-to-be-eccentric kind of way.
"Yeah. I get that."
The pretty woman turned to go but then whirled back around. "I'm Marla Hamilton, by the way."
She pointed to the van. "Just in case you ever need a special dessert, say for a big party." Then she gave him a conspiring glance. "I can cut you a piece of this cake if you'd like."
"Really?" Alec grinned. "I didn't get any earlier, so how can I refuse that offer now that I've met the woman who baked it?"
"Okay, then." Grabbing a big white bag, she pulled out a plastic plate and knife and proceeded to cut a huge slab of the sugary white cake. "Here. On the house."
She layered a paper napkin over it, handed him the plate of cake, then winked and smiled up at the imposing Alvanetti house.
He shook his head, held to the van's open door like a lifeline while he accepted the cake with his other hand. "I guess I'll have a nice midnight snack later. Thank you."
Her smile brightened. "Hey, I never got your name. I mean, if you want to order cupcakes or cookies or even a wedding cake. Not that I need your name for thatnot yet anyway."
Liking the way she blushed, he reached out a hand. "I'm Alec Caldwell. No wedding cake in my future, but I do love cupcakes."
She gave him a puzzled stare. "Nice to meet you, Alec Caldwell."
That halfhearted cliché didn't seem like she was really glad to meet him. Was it the scar? Or the limp? Or his name?
"You, too." He glanced at the address on the van. "So you're a local caterer?"
She went about shutting the van door. "Yes. I live right here in Millbrook. No sand or sea around but we do have Millbrook Lake and the river, of course."
He nodded. "Yeah, I kind of grew up on that lake. Love it here."
"So you're one of the Caldwells?"
Adjusting to her almost-condemning tone, Alec nodded. "The only one now."
The soft sheen of another blush colored her pretty freckles. "I'm sorry. Your mother was Vivian Caldwell?"
"I'm really sorry. She uh was one of my favorite clients."
"She was my favorite mother."
Marla's freckles grew more pronounced. And more adorable. "I'm truly sorry for your loss."
Alec smiled. "Yeah, me, too. Thanks." He changed the subject. "Millbrook is a special place. Not that far off from the coast but just far enough inland to be in another world. I got back a few months ago so I'm still trying to get into a new routine."
"I just moved back about a year ago," she said. "But you're right about Millbrook. It's home."
Nervous now, he prattled on. "It's different inland. More like farmland. Lots of ranches, horse farms and green pastures."
Her eyes held a forlorn longing. "Yes. My daddy owned some of that farmland until he retired near the other end of Millbrook Lake. My parents love the new retirement community out there."
Alec felt an instant connection that worked right along with the instant attraction. "I grew up here but left for college and didn't get back much after that. Had to come home after I got wounded and made it here a few weeks before my mother died. Retired from the marines. A captain."
Her left eyebrow lifted. "Oh, so you're a soldier?"
"I was. Went through two deployments overseas. Retired and home for good now." He shrugged. "And trying my hand at something different."
She gave him an appreciative smile but stepped back, her eyes going a cool green. "Okay, then. I'd better get back in there and finish cleaning up."
He bobbed his head and wondered what he'd said or done to bring about this sudden chill. "Sorry, didn't mean to hold you up."
She turned and said over her shoulder, "No problem. I think the wedding is winding down so I have to get back to the bakery and unload my things."
Alec didn't like people staring at his scar or watching him walk with this aggravating limp. And Marla Hamilton had obviously decided she didn't like him or his wounds or his name, either. For the best, he figured. She was interesting and cute but she was probably also happily married. Even if she was available, he didn't want any entanglements right now.
Calling after her, he said, "Nice meeting you, Wedding Cake Girl."
She stopped at the back door and shot him one last skeptical glance. "Nice meeting you, too, Soldier Boy."
Then she was gone about as fast as the glimmering sunset winking at him through the live oaks and palm trees.
Marla maneuvered her minivan through late afternoon traffic, her mind whirling with vivid thoughts of Soldier Boy.
Alec Caldwell. A marine. Former marine. The Alec Caldwell. Not someone who'd traveled in the same circles as she had, growing up. He was a few years older than her but she recognized the name immediately. Private schools and big boats out on the lake, lots of society events. So not her type.
But Marla was surprised that such a privileged man had gone off to become a marine. And that he'd come back to Millbrook at all.
He fought for our country and that counts for something, she reminded herself as she turned past the old courthouse that now housed antiques and collectibles and was aptly named Courthouse Collectibles. The stately building drew tourists who bought her standingorder confections from the cute little Courthouse Café. The café was one of her regular customers, not only for the tourists but for everyone who worked and shopped in the building.
She pulled the van up to the front door of her shop, her gaze hitting on the blue Victorian storefront facade that housed her bakery on the bottom level and a two-bedroom apartment upstairs, where she lived with her preschool-aged daughter, Gabby. After parking, she sat there for a minute trying to gather her thoughts. She was almost happy again. Almost.
After she'd become a widow a year ago, she'd moved from Tallahassee back to the tiny Florida town of Millbrook. She'd needed the quietness and the quaintness of the place where she'd grown up.
And she's needed her parents nearby to help with Gabby. A daughter who had dark hair and eyes like her daddy. But Gabby would never know her daddy. Charlie Hamilton had been killed in a shootout during an armed robbery at his family's jewelry store. Gabby had witnessed most of the whole horrible scene when she and Charlie had walked in on it.
Charlie had died too young, working at a job he hated. But family had to come first. Duty had to come first. Because he felt trapped, Charlie had turned mean and angry and moody, so much so that Marla felt as if she'd let him down in some way. The harder she tried to please him, the worse things had become. That had made her angry and miserable in return. They had not been in a good place when he died.
Her husband, ever the macho thrill seeker, had started hanging out with a lot of questionable people, and one of them had turned on him and had planned an elaborate robbery at the store. Charlie had walked in after picking up Gabby at day care, had seen what was happening and shoved Gabby toward the terrified female sales associate who was being held at gunpoint. He'd turned the attention on himself and saved the woman and Gabby, but he'd gotten himself shot. In the crossfire, the sales associate and Gabby had crawled behind one of the counters and hit the alarm. Hearing sirens, the robbers had grabbed what they could from a smashed glass display case and fled.
Charlie had performed a heroic last deed. He'd died on the stretcher a few minutes after Marla had arrived at the scene. She'd been five minutes too late.
Five minutes. She often thought if she'd just been there sooner, Gabby would have been with her and on the way home.
Or, as her parents had stated, always trying to reassure her, she could have walked in on the whole thing and Gabby could have lost both her parents.