Everyone's counting on him
With the sudden death of his father, Jack Hamilton finds himself running the family amusement park, Starlight Point. His first job? Balance the books, and that means raising the rent for vendors like baker Augusta Murphy.
Gus won't accept the new contract not without a fight. She rallies the other vendors and sets out to negotiate with Jack. At least, she tries. How do you play hardball with a man who's charming and kind and still grieving? Gus needs to figure it out fast, because the closer she gets to Jack, the more she risks losing everything.
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Gus backed her van down the narrow kitchen driveway at Bay Pavilion Banquet Hall. She was blocking an older SUV parked illegally along the waterfront, but she didn't have time to feel guilty about it. The wedding reception was two hours away, just enough time to stack the cake and pipe it to perfection.
She pulled on her apron, an embroidered cake with a glossy bride and groom covering the top half. Two small bells stitched to the upper straps jingled when she walked.
The early-evening sun slanted off her van's elaborate paint job. Every square inch was pink. Aunt Augusta's Bakery swirled in gold metallic lettering across an ornate wedding cake. When she'd pulled in with the new van a few weeks ago, her employees had raised their eyebrows and clamped their mouths shut. All except her aunt Augusta. She had snapped a picture with her cell phone and beamed it to her entire list of contacts.
Gus loaded three round cakes on a steel cart, propped open the double side doors to the reception room with her foot and rolled through. When she hurried back for the other two layers, a long shadow darkened the blacktop on the other side of the open van door.
"Cake coming through," she called out. "Make way or suffer the consequences."
She expected to see a catering staffer as she folded the door shut and swung around the side of the van. Instead, a tall man wearing a half wet-suit stood there dripping onto the asphalt. He clutched an oar as if he were preparing to vanquish the mighty pink van.
Gus looked him over from head to toe. Dark brown hair shoved back from his face. Deep brown eyes. High forehead. An amazing four inches taller than her five foot eleven. Slim, athletic build. Huge ticked-off frown.
She stopped the cart, stepped in front of it and grabbed a rubber spatula from her apron pocket. Holding the cooking utensil in front of her, she spread her feet and locked eyes with the wet-suit man.
His lips twitched and his shoulders relaxed.
"I'm pretty good with this spatula," Gus said, her small grin matching his. "You should save yourself and run while you have the chance."
"I'm thinking," he said.
"About putting down the oar and holding those kitchen doors for me?"
"Nope. About the last time I ran away from a woman wielding a spoon."
"It's not a spoon," she said, twirling the spatula in a figure eight.
"My mother's was," he said, stepping back a few inches but still clutching his oar. "A wooden spoon. And she was looking to teach me a lesson with it."
He laughed. "I wish. My mother can't cook. It was more of a manners lesson. I'd made fun of my grandmother's ugly couch, and my mother made sure I couldn't sit on it for a week."
"I like your mother already," Gus said, "and I'm sure you have excellent manners as a result of her instruction." She tucked the spatula back in her pocket, and the movement made the wedding bells on her apron jingle. "Does this mean you plan to hold the doors for me?"
He eyed the cake painted on the side of the van and then his gaze swung to the cart behind her.
"Does it come with free cake?"
"Sorry. This one's for the bride and groom."
"Will helping make you get your van out of my way faster?"
"Am I in your way?"
"You're taking up the whole driveway," he said. "I'd like to load my kayak and get out of here before sundown."
"I might have a wooden spoon in the van," she said.
He exhaled loudly. "Fine. I'll get the doors."
Gus rolled the cart behind the man in the wet suit. Attractive, she thought. Nice hint of a smile. But he appeared to be on a mission.
She was on a tight schedule, too. The wedding reception was now one hour and forty-five minutes away. If everything went as planned, she'd be fine. But handsome strangers were not part of the plan.
Inside, she placed the largest round layer in the center of the cake table, which was decorated with a pristine tablecloth and a gleaming silver knife. She picked up the next layer, carefully turning it so the design would match the bottom layer, and eased it onto the anchor cake. Stacking a wedding cake was in her blood, a skill she'd inherited from her aunt Augusta and hoped to build a business on. If only running a business were as easy as running a perfect line of piped frosting.
Several servers dressed in classic black and white milled around fussing with tablecloths. They placed silverware on other tables in the elegant reception room and glanced pointedly at her, eyeing the space she was taking up with her cart and cake tools. Apparently everyone was in a hurry.
"Do you plan to stand there and watch me?" she asked the stranger. She wondered if he was hoping for a handout. Maybe he'd never seen Martha Stewart on TV and was enthralled watching Gus create a wedding cake.
"I'm waiting for you to move your van." He rolled his shoulders and stretched.
Oh. So much for enthralled.
"It'll be a minute. I have to get the three top layers off the side table. The servers want to set that table and they don't like waiting."
"Neither do I," he said.
Gus picked up the middle cake, its small pink flowers arranged in a crosshatch design. She held it over the layer below as she gauged the perfect placement.
"If you don't want to be inconvenienced, you should be more careful where you park," she said. "You're stopped in the access road for the kitchen."
"No one ever complained before."
Gus took her eyes off the cake and gave him a tight smile. She was trying to practice restraint. He was attractive but appeared uncomfortable, his wet suit making a funny contrast with the formal linens. He resembled an oak tree accidentally planted among fussy flowering shrubs.
The stranger planted one end of his oar on the carpet and leaned on it. Gus lowered the fourth layer into place. She had to focus on the wedding cake that would bring over a thousand bucks into her shop's cash drawer. A drawer that barely had change for a fifty.
"If you give me your keys, I'll move your van myself," he offered.
Gus stepped back to survey the cake. She grabbed a chair from a nearby table and stepped onto it to look down at the four layers she'd stacked so far.
"Are you kidding?" she asked. "How do I know you don't plan to steal it?"
His half laugh turned into a cough. "No risk of that. It's too "
"You know," he said, gesturing as though he could catch the appropriate words.
"Too pretty?" she asked. "Too large? Too powerful for you to handle?"
He cracked his knuckles. "Lady, I'm cold and tired. I'd like to get home."
Gus stepped down from the chair and faced him. "Keys are in the van."
He shot her an unreadable look. Without a word, he turned and strode through the door.
Gus placed the top layer and piped neat borders around the bottoms of each circle, meshing the layers together and bringing the whole cake into focus. Small spring flowers dotted the snowy landscape of white icing and piped designs. Pink rosebuds, yellow daffodils and purple sweet peas trailed over the sides. Perfect for a wedding on the first weekend of May. She dug a camera out of her plastic toolbox and took careful pictures from several angles. It would make a nice addition to her catalog of cakes. Maybe even a portrait for the wall of her bakery.
She rolled her aching shoulders and realized she was mimicking the tall stranger with the wet suit. He was probably long gone by now. She just hoped he hadn't decided her new vanalthough pinkwas nicer than his old SUV. Just her luck, he was on the highway right now with his kayak bumping around in the back of her bakery truck.
When she left the kitchen, the first thing she noticed was her pink van glowing in the early-evening light. It was parked in almost the same location. But the other vehicle was not. The owner had managed to extricate the ugly brown-and-tan SUV, and it now sat at the top of the access road.
Blocking her van.
The tall man leaned on an old wooden railing along the bay. His trim frame was silhouetted against the sunset and the lights of the amusement park across the water.
Gus stowed her cake tools and slammed the back doors of the van, hoping the noise would inspire the kayaker to leave. She wanted to unload the van, clean her pastry bags and get to bed before midnight for the first time this week. Gus took off her apron and tossed it on the passenger seat near a small box of cookies. Her shop was testing new recipes for sugar cookies, and she'd brought home three different kinds for the weekend.
She took a second look at the white bakery box on the front seat. One corner was open.
She scrutinized the contents.
Cookies were definitely missing.
Jack tried to think of something clever to say as the owner of the pink van approached. There was no good reason for hanging around. He'd pulled off his wet suit and slipped into worn jeans and an old Starlight Point sweatshirt. The ragged gray shirt had a stretched-out collar and frayed cuffs. The skyline of the amusement park was barely visible after dozens of washings. But it was his favorite sweatshirt, and he felt more comfortable in his own skin when he had it on.
She stopped and leaned on the rail next to him. Without the pink apron, her graceful curves caught his attention and his breath. She was unusually tall, probably just shy of six feet. And although his world was definitely upside down these days, he was sure of one thing. He'd never seen her before.
She looked him right in the eye, a quizzical grin lifting the corners of her mouth.
"Are you Aunt Augusta?" he finally asked.
Probably a few years younger than he was, she wasn't anything like his matronly aunts he saw twice a year at family parties. Her long brown hair was pulled back, revealing her whole face. Fair skin, delicately arched eyebrows. Her eyes were shadowed by the late-afternoon sun behind her, but he remembered their color. Green.
"Which one did you eat?" she asked.
"Which one what?"
"Don't deny it. You've got cookie crumbs on your face."
"The carousel horse."
"Ah," she said. "That's a good design. Only three colors, but the Florentine pattern on the saddle really makes it."
"It reminds me of something."
She glanced at his sweatshirt. "Ever been to Starlight Point?" she asked.
He coughed. "Quite a few times." Like, every day of his life for almost twenty-seven years. He glanced across the bay. The lights were coming on at the amusement park. Starlight Point occupied the entire peninsula separating the bay from the larger lake. Although the park wouldn't open for another two weeks, the lights on the roller coasters glittered in anticipation.
"The carousel-horse cookie is patterned after a horse on the midway carousel."
"Nice idea," he said.
"Thanks. I love that place."
Everybody loved Starlight Point, Jack thought. Especially when roads got paved and taxes poured into Bayside's city coffers from the largest tourist draw in the area.
"How about the cookie's flavor? The frosting?" she asked.
"Loved them both. Very sweet," he said, turning back to look at her and moving closer.
"I was planning to see if the perfection would last, see how it would taste tomorrow at this time. Longevity is a serious bakery issue. Have to keep it fresh or people won't want it."
"Lucky for you I didn't eat them all," he said.
"Lucky for you I'm more flattered than angry."
"So," she said. "I thought you were in a big hurry. Didn't you have someplace to be?"
Jack propped a foot on the rail and gazed at the amusement-park lights. The lights on the rides he now owned. Two weeks ago, his father's sudden death stunned his family. Jack's steady orbit around his father had been brought to an agonizing halt. Every day since had sped up like a scrambler ride and Jack wished he could just get off.
He shoved away from the rail. "There's a thousand places I need to be right now," he said, reaching in his pocket for keys.
Maybe tonight was the night to crack open the good bottle of whiskey a friend had given him after his father's funeral. He wanted to run for the safety of his twelve-year-old car.
"Good night," he said abruptly. He walked straight to his SUV, got in the driver's seat and shoved his keys in the ignition. They didn't fit. What the heck? He flipped on the interior light. In his hand was a key attached to a pink-and-gold ceramic wedding cake.
Her door slammed. In two seconds, she'd be at his window.
"First my cookie, now my keys?" She leaned in his open window and grinned. "Next you'll be stealing my heart."
She grabbed her keys, spun and disappeared. He dug deep in his pocket for his own set, waited a second until he heard her engine start, then rolled over his ignition and headed home.