Main Fairy Misguided

Fairy Misguided

Silence is golden. Honesty … not so much. Gwen Palmer’s saucy mouth gets in the way of her heart’s desire. All thanks to her fairy godmother’s mixup. Ethan isn’t immune to Gwen’s loose lips. Nor her quirkiness. Even after their first awkward encounter. Looking up, his brown eyes locked with hers. A half smile caused a dimple to appear on his cheek—it also caused a flutter deep in Gwen’s belly. In a friendly voice, he said, “Good morning.” “Good morning,” Gwen replied, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Would you like to lick my cupcake?” Oh God. She did not just say that out loud. Did she? “I mean, would you like to bite my muffin?” Her mouth fell open before she quickly clamped it shut. Oh no. Her filter. Where was her damn filter? “Oh my!” Mrs. Haverty exclaimed. “Uh.” The guy just stood there. His eyes shifted from Stephanie to Gwen to Mrs. Haverty and back to Gwen. A regular customer leaned around the man and raised his hand. “I would.” “Not a chance, Stan,” Gwen said, scowling. Stan needed to worry about his own muffin top. Now why could she keep that comment in? A couple of giggles arose in the now growing crowd of customers. Morning rush. Great, an audience for her stupidity. All she needed for this sideshow was Jerry Springer. Think before you speak. “What I meant to say is…” She took a deep breath, focusing on the correct words. “Would you like to nibble my…”

Year: 2020
Language: english
ISBN: B082QTHVJ4
File: EPUB, 207 KB
Download (epub, 207 KB)
 
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Fairy Misguided


Tipsy Fairy Godmother Chronicles Book 1





Elena Gray





Fairy Misguided © 2019 Elena Gray





All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.





Cover Artist: Luminescence Covers





Contents




Prologue



Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Chapter 10





Other Books By Elena Gray



About the Author





Prologue





A gust of wind whipped up the street, propelling Eliza Haverty forward. She was far from home, but she needed a gift for her friend, Gwen, and there was only one place where she would find it.

She slapped her hand on top of her head to keep her hat from being whisked away. Oh, how she hated the frigid temperatures. She’d thought she would at least get to escape the cold for the few days she was in Savannah. No such luck for her. A cold front had swept up the coast just as she’d stepped off the plane. She would much rather be sitting on the deck of a Caribbean cruise ship than freezing her fanny off.

If she wasn’t in search of the perfect birthday present for Gwen, she wouldn’t be outside at all. And a perfect present was absolutely necessary after last year’s disastrous gift.

Blowing out a breath, she gripped the opening of her wool coat in her free hand, pulling it tight under her chin. Yes. As soon as she made things right with Gwen, she would be on her way to warmer weather.

When she rounded the corner, she saw the wooden sign she’d been looking for—Mystique Antiques. Her lips curled in a half-smile and she forgot about her frozen derriere at the thought of seeing her old friend, Twila. If anyone could assist her in procuring the perfect gift, it would be Twila.

The brass knob twisted in her hand and a faint tinkling chimed overhead, announcing her arrival. Pushing the door closed behind her, Eliza squinted to let her eyes adjust to the dimly lit interior. The scents of leather and vintage wood filled her senses. Scanning the room, she searched for her friend's familiar face.

Footsteps sounded from the back of the store. A woman with brown hair tucked into a loose bun strode out of the back room, her face beaming. Her ankle-length black skirt swished with each step. With arms outstretched, she gripped Eliza's hands in her own.

“Eliza, darlin'! It's so good to see you again!”

Eliza leaned forward, air kissing each cheek. “It's good to see you, too. Thank you so much for helping me on such short notice.”

“I have to admit, I was surprised when you called. I expected you to be sipping umbrella drinks somewhere far, far away. This gift must be very important.”

“Oh, Twila, you have no idea. It's been haunting me like a bad ghost.”

“Well, I'm flattered you thought of me. I set aside a few items that match your friend's style. Why don't you take a look around the store while I go in the back and fetch them.”

Tugging her leather gloves off, Eliza flexed her fingers. Her nerve endings hummed from the energy pulsing through the room. So much history in such a small place. She wished she had the time to inspect each piece and hear its story. To know its magic. But that would have to wait for another day. Right now, she needed to remain focused on Gwen before things between them got worse than they already were.

Catching her reflection in a Victorian mirror, she gasped. Her hat clung to her curls by a single bobby pin. What must Twila think? A chuckle slipped past her lips. Oh well. Twila was probably used to Eliza getting scattered. Plucking the bobby pin away, she stuffed the hat into her purse, then ran her fingertips through her hair, fluffing the wayward curls.

With Twila, Eliza was able to look like her true self and not the elderly woman that Gwen knew her as. Being a fairy gave Eliza the ability to glamour herself into whoever she wanted to be. For Gwen, she chose to look like a sweet old lady. Haverty wasn’t even her real last name. It was just another part of her glamoured persona.

Twila re-entered the room, with a tray balanced in her hands. A porcelain cake stand and a hand-painted floral teapot with matching cups rested on top. Eliza approached the glass display case as Twila set the tray down.

Eliza reached out to touch the teapot, but unconsciously settled on the cake stand. Lifting it in both hands, she trailed her fingers across the intricate scrolling around the base.

“That was my first choice.” Twila placed her hands on the counter, leaning forward.

“It's lovely.”

“It holds quite a story, dating all the way back to the Civil War. On the eve of their wedding, the groom was called to war. He swore he would come back for his bride. After kissing him farewell, the bride gazed upon her wedding cake with tear-filled eyes, vowing that she would wait for her groom.” Twila's hand stretched toward the heirloom. “In such difficult times, this single piece was the only representation of her wedding. She prayed and longed for the day they could one day have a home to place it in.”

The white porcelain warmed under Eliza's fingertips with each word. An image of a young woman dressed in lace flitted across her vision. “What happened to the groom?”

“That's the tragedy. I don't know if he ever made his way back to her.” Twila tipped her head as she studied Eliza. “If only they’d had a fairy godmother like you.”

Tears burned Eliza's eyes. Her heart ached for the bride and groom who may never have had their happily ever after. “That's so sad.”

“This piece has been searching for love ever since.”

Could this be the one to help Gwen find true love? To undo Eliza's botched attempts at matchmaking?

The bell chimed over the door and Twila excused herself to tend to her new customer. Eliza placed the cake stand on the counter. Her fingers twitched at the loss of contact. Ignoring the pull of the porcelain piece, she turned her attention to the teapot and the silver tray. She needed to be positive before she made a decision. This wasn't something to be taken lightly.

Cradling the delicate cup in her hand, she smoothed her thumb over the pale pink rose painted on the side. This would be a perfect addition to Gwen's already expanding collection. She refused to give her customers disposable cups in her bakery, reserving them for to-go orders only. It added to the 'at home' atmosphere that was the heart of her business.

Eliza glanced down at the silver tray. She couldn't deny the beauty of the piece. The rim of the oval tray featured ornate flowers etched into a scalloped border. It was polished to a high shine, which made it look as if it were only days old instead of centuries. But it didn't seem like the right fit for Gwen.

“Remember, Eliza,” Twila said, resuming her position behind the counter. “You don't choose the piece; the piece chooses you.”

The cup felt cold against Eliza's palm. She rotated it in her hand, listening for a sign. But none came.

Her eyes fell to the cake stand, Twila's story on replay in her mind. If only Gwen could have her happily ever after.

Setting the teacup on the counter, Eliza closed her eyes before finally pointing her finger at the cake stand. “I guess this is the one that chose Gwen.”

“Wonderful!” Twila exclaimed. “I’ll wrap it up for you.”





Chapter One





The comforting scent of cinnamon and apples warmed Gwen Palmer’s heart, bringing to mind childhood memories of baking apple tarts with her grandmother on lazy Saturday afternoons in her sunlit kitchen, elbow-deep in flour.

Taking over her grandmother's bakery allowed her memory to live on. At least others would have comfort foods to turn to when their lives, well, sucked.

Like Gwen’s.

Gwen pressed the last pink heart onto the frosted glass of the front window. “The Flaky Tart” now stood surrounded in Valentine's Day décor. She stepped down from the stool and surveyed the room. Each table hosted an original handcrafted heart from a local preschool. White and pink satin bows draped the backs of wrought iron chairs. Hot pink cellophane bags of sugar cookies lined the counter, ready for purchase.

An icy blast of air hit Gwen in the back as the front door opened. She tugged her sleeves down, then rubbed her arms. A heavier sweater might have been a smarter choice today. In about a half hour, the door would pretty much remain open as a steady stream of customers filed through.

She turned to find Mrs. Haverty crossing the threshold, a box wrapped with creamy paper and a purple satin bow clutched in her arms. The 'closed' sign behind her fluttered until it finally settled into the 'open' position. Gwen smiled as she shot a glance to the clock on the wall. Right on time.

Bundled in an oversized faux fur coat, hat askew, Mrs. Haverty balanced the package on her hip and wiggled her fingers hello. She bustled to the counter where her usual steaming latte waited for her.

Inhaling the steam, the older woman released a sigh. “Good morning, dear.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Haverty.” Stepping behind the counter, Gwen lifted a freshly baked muffin out of the display case and set it on a brightly colored plate. “I added something extra to the banana nut muffins. Let me know what you think.”

Winking, Mrs. Haverty placed her package on an empty table before shrugging out of her coat. As she crossed the room toward the coat tree, she glanced over her shoulder. “Could that extra special something take the bite off this cold winter morning?”

Gwen gave a knowing smile. Mrs. Haverty probably hoped for something of the fermented variety. Gwen wouldn't be surprised if Mrs. Haverty spiked her coffee with more than just creamer.

Picking up her plate and latte, Mrs. Haverty transferred them to her table before settling into her chair. She patted the seat next to her. “Come sit for a minute, Gwen. I have something for you.”

Gwen stepped around the counter and dropped onto the cushioned chair.

Mrs. Haverty nudged the package in front of her.

Gwen looked to the older woman with a questioning gaze. “What's this for?”

“Why, your birthday, of course.”

“But my birthday isn't for another month.”

“I know dear,” Mrs. Haverty said, patting Gwen's arm. “My vacation is fast approaching and I wanted to give this to you before I left.”

The older woman may have her quirks, but she was a sweetheart to the core. As the closest thing Gwen had to a grandmother nowadays, Gwen looked forward to Mrs. Haverty’s daily visits. The bakery just wasn't the same when Mrs. Haverty went on her tropical excursions.

Lifting the purple ribbon, Gwen tugged until the bow released and fell against the table. She slid her finger under the paper flap, plucking the tape away. The lid tumbled to the side as she dug through the tissue paper.

“Oh, Mrs. Haverty!” she exclaimed as she examined the treasure. Delicate filigree scrolls wrapped around the edge of a beautiful cake stand. What a perfect piece to display her cupcakes. “It's beautiful!”

Gwen closed her fingers around the smooth porcelain, pulling it free from the box. She turned it in her hands. This must have cost a fortune. Her fingers tingled as warmth pulsed against her skin. How odd. The package must have been left next to the car's heater. Moisture rimmed her eyes as she lifted her gaze to the older woman.

“Mrs. Haverty, you shouldn't have.” Leaning in, she pressed her lips to the woman's cheek. “Thank you.”

“This is a special piece chosen just for you. It's meant to help bring you luck—”

Gwen waited for Mrs. Haverty to continue, but the older woman's eyes shifted toward the kitchen as Stephanie Davis, Gwen’s friend and co-worker, shouldered through the door carrying two mugs of coffee. She blew blond bangs out of her eyes as she set the cups on the counter. Snatching a still warm cinnamon roll, she bit into it with a moan, then waved. “Good morning, Mrs. Haverty.”

“Try to save some for the customers,” Gwen joked as she stepped behind the counter.

“You know two is my limit,” Stephanie said. “Wow, Gwen! That's amazing!” She gestured toward the cake stand Gwen had just positioned on the counter.

“That's exactly what I said. It's from Mrs. Haverty. An early birthday present.”

“You have excellent taste, Mrs. Haverty.”

“Well, I wish I could take all of the credit for it, but it chose Gwen.”

Stephanie paused, her cinnamon roll halfway to her mouth. “Excuse me?”

“I purchased it at a dear friend's antique store. Each piece has its own story. That particular one,” Mrs. Haverty said as she extended her arm toward the cake stand, “was meant for a wedding cake during the Civil War. The groom was called to war on the eve of their wedding and the bride refused to have any other cake touch it until he returned and they were married.” Taking a sip from her latte she continued, “Imagine waiting and waiting for your groom to return. Months, possibly years going by…”

“Did he return?” Always a sucker for a good romance, Stephanie was completely entranced by Mrs. Haverty's story.

“I don't know. Unfortunately that's where the tale ends.”

“Mrs. Haverty, that's like finishing a novel and finding out there's a sequel. Except this time there is no sequel.” Stephanie turned to Gwen, setting her uneaten cinnamon roll on a plate. “Maybe you can write a new story for it, Gwen. One day it will hold your wedding cake and your love story will be handed down through your family.”

The thought of a wedding cake made her stomach flip. She was supposed to have been married to Tom by now. Might even have been pregnant. She buried him in the back of her mind, not wanting to dredge up those painful memories. If the luck Mrs. Haverty referred to was love, then this cake stand would have to work overtime. “Don't hold out hope for me. With my track record this past year, it might be another century before another wedding cake touches it.”

Stephanie's eyes lit up. “Hey. Speaking of dates, how did it go with Rob last night?”

Gwen forced a light tone. “It went great.” Yeah, that sounded convincing. Avoiding eye contact, she transferred cupcakes from the display to her new cake stand, praying Stephanie would accept her answer and drop it.

“Really, dear?” Mrs. Haverty pursed her lips, her brow lifted. “Because I'm betting the check was dutch and you left in separate cars.”

Shoot. Gwen forgot about Mrs. Haverty and her singularly annoying sixth sense. She must have a crystal ball at home.

“It wasn’t that bad.” She'd burn in hell for that lie. Lifting her mug to her lips, she mumbled over the rim. “Just an average date.”

“You’ll feel better talking about it,” Stephanie reassured her, picking up her forgotten cinnamon roll and taking a bite. Her tongue darted out, capturing a stray crumb dangling from her lip.

Great. Now they were tag teaming her. Let the interrogation begin. Gwen sighed. “I shouldn’t have said yes. I don’t know why I let you talk me into another date.”

Stephanie set her roll down and reached for Gwen’s hand. “Honey, it had been six weeks since you last went on a date. You’re too young to be sitting home alone.”

Sure. Easy for Stephanie to say. She was married to her high school sweetheart and had never experienced a date from hell. Middle school didn't count.

Gwen knew they wouldn’t let up until she spilled the dreadful details.

Blowing out a breath, she braced her arms on the counter. “Everything seemed to be going well until the salads came.” They made it through the appetizer without any slip-ups. Which reminded her, she needed to see if she could duplicate that recipe. “He started talking about his air guitar collection.”

“What’s an air guitar?” Mrs. Haverty asked.

Stephanie waved a hand at Mrs. Haverty. “I’ll explain later. Go ahead, Gwen.”

“Do you know how many air guitars he has?” Both women shook their head. “One thousand two hundred and fourteen.”

Her date had been so self-absorbed in his own dialogue, he didn’t notice her head bobbing over her mashed potatoes as he described each figment of his imagination in excruciating detail.

“So I felt the buzzing in my ears and knew something was about to pop out. I tried to leave. But before I could stop myself, I said….” Gwen bit her lip not wanting to continue, but Mrs. Haverty’s nod of encouragement nudged it out. “I said, ‘maybe you could serenade me now. With silence.’”

Mrs. Haverty and Stephanie both sucked in a breath.

Seeming to school her features, Stephanie reassured, “Um. That’s not so bad. I probably would have said that too.”

“No.” Gwen caught Stephanie’s eye. “No, you wouldn’t. Admit it.”

“Well, I would have.” Mrs. Haverty’s hat bobbed on her head. Her gray curls underneath matched the rhythm.

“Yes,” Gwen said with a chuckle. “I’m sure you would.”

Gwen arranged a layer of chocolate cupcakes on the stand. Wrapping her fingers around the base, she slid it back into the center of the case. Mrs. Haverty said a lot of unexpected things for a woman her age. She said them in such a fashion that you sometimes didn’t catch the sly insult. If only Gwen had her talent.

“Why can’t I just have one date where the filter on my mouth actually worked?” Gwen sighed.

Stephanie patted Gwen on the back. “Not all of your dates have been horrible. Right, Mrs. Haverty? What about Phil?”

“Ugh. Can we please not bring up Phil?” Gwen’s face burned at the memory.

“Why? He was really nice,” the older woman commented.

Granted his receding hairline had disappeared, but did she have to blurt out how nice it looked? You’re supposed to quietly appreciate that kind of transformation. Not shout it out across a crowded restaurant.

Telling him she was glad he went with the hair plugs and not that spray stuff wasn't exactly a compliment he appreciated.

Gwen closed her eyes. Then opened them when the memory of Phil’s mortified face appeared. He'd uttered two words the rest of the night and kept touching his hair self-consciously.

Wiping a cloth across the counter, Gwen shook her head at the thought. “I’m cursed to be single and alone. I might as well start adopting cats and wearing housecoats.”

“Maybe it’s just the universe’s way of telling you those men aren’t right for you,” Mrs. Haverty said.

Gwen snorted. “Well, the universe has a sick sense of humor.”

The timer dinged in the kitchen. Stephanie gave Gwen a sympathetic smile before running to the back.

“You know what?” Gwen said. “I’m just going to go on a dating sabbatical, or better yet, maybe I'll make a career change. I hear there’s a shortage of nuns.”

“Gwen, you don’t want to become a nun. Hiding your beautiful hair under a habit. No. No. That would be a sin.”

“A sin is the socially unacceptable things that spill from my mouth.”

Mrs. Haverty sipped her latte, eyeing Gwen over the rim. “If you stop dating, how will you meet the one?”

Gwen appreciated Mrs. Haverty’s good intentions, but she needed a dose of reality. Gwen had been on enough first dates over the past year to accept that there would never be a second. Since her birthday last year, all of her dates had been disasters. Maybe her heart wasn't ready to move on after Tom. Maybe she just wasn't ready to trust again.

Another gush of cold air streamed through the door as several customers filed in. Stephanie stepped out of the kitchen a few seconds later, cradling a tray of boxed cherry danishes. After stacking them on the counter, she greeted the first woman in line.

A man stepped up to Gwen, eyeing the rows of pastries. The collar of his charcoal gray pea coat tugged high against cheeks pink from the cold. His wavy brown hair was mussed like he had run his fingers through it one too many times. She resisted the urge to lean over and smooth the errant strands.

Looking up, his brown eyes locked with hers. A half smile caused a dimple to appear on his cheek—it also caused a flutter deep in Gwen’s belly. In a friendly voice, he said, “Good morning.”

Something about him seemed familiar. Did she know him from somewhere? Not from high school, that was for sure. She would remember someone as hot as him.

“Good morning,” she replied, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Would you like to lick my cupcake?”

Oh God. She did not just say that out loud. Did she?

The guy’s brows shot to the ceiling, while his smile took a nosedive to the floor. Yep, she’d said it out loud.

“I mean, would you like to bite my muffin?” Her mouth fell open before she quickly clamped it shut. Oh no. Her filter. Where was her damn filter?

“Oh my!” Mrs. Haverty exclaimed.

“Uh.” The guy just stood there. His eyes shifted from Stephanie to Gwen to Mrs. Haverty and back to Gwen.

A regular customer leaned around the man and raised his hand. “I would.”

“Not a chance, Stan,” Gwen said, scowling. Stan needed to worry about his own muffin top. Now why could she keep that comment in?

A couple of giggles arose in the now growing crowd of customers. Morning rush. Great, an audience for her stupidity. All she needed for this sideshow was Jerry Springer.

Think before you speak. “What I meant to say is…” She took a deep breath, focusing on the correct words. “Would you like to nibble my…”

The man stepped back, holding his hands in front of him. His eyes narrowed, darting around the room, then lifted to the ceiling.

What could he possibly be looking for? An escape route? Divine intervention? Well, he wouldn't find divine intervention here. Trust her. She should know.

His gaze fell back on Gwen. He studied her as if she’d just escaped from an asylum. Without a word, he spun on his heel and elbowed his way through the laughing line to the door.

Before Gwen could clap her hand over her mouth, she cried, “Come again.”

He picked up the pace and yanked the door open. After he stepped out, it slammed behind him.

“That went well,” Mrs. Haverty said cheerfully.

Well? She’d just told a complete stranger to lick her cupcake in front of a room full of customers.

“Didn’t you recognize him?” Stephanie asked.

Gwen searched her mind coming up blank. “Uh. No.”

A woman at the counter said, “That was Ethan Reynolds, from the Inspired Chef cooking show.”

Gwen’s legs grew weak. She held onto the counter so that her head wouldn't hit the floor. The Ethan Reynolds had stood in her bakery? No, she hadn't recognized him. Celebrities didn't pop in for her cakes. And he certainly looked different in person. Even better, in fact. He'd wanted to try her food. And she'd chased him right out the door with her big mouth.

Yeah. That whole nun thing wasn't sounding so bad after all.





Chapter Two





Ethan barreled through his producer's office door. Damn Michael. He didn't deserve the formality of a knock.

In the middle of making a phone call, Michael dropped the phone back into the cradle, his eyes widening from what Ethan decided was a guilty conscience.

“Nice prank you pulled today. Which network is going to run it?” Ethan growled.

Michael frowned, showing the deep forehead lines he complained about almost as much as his lack of time to hit the gym. His chair creaked as he leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.

“And what prank exactly am I being accused of?”

“Don't play dumb. This has Michael Foster written all over it. No one else would do something this crude.” Why else would there be so many people crammed into a bakery he'd never even heard of?

The corner of Michael's mouth lifted. Uncrossing his arms, he leaned forward and rested them on his desk. “Crude, huh? Now this I've got to hear.”

Ethan studied his producer's eager expression. They'd been friends long before they began working together. They knew more about each other than either probably cared to admit. And right now, he knew Michael had no clue what he was talking about.

“Lick my cupcake?”

Michael chuckled. “Uh, no thanks. And I swear on fifteen years of friendship, not it. I have to tell you you're giving me some great ideas for shows, though.”

If it wasn't Michael pranking him for ratings…

Rubbing the back of his neck, Ethan stepped to the window. High-rise buildings jabbed the skyline in front of him. Below, the city was alive with activity as people rushed to their destinations. “I stopped at a bakery this morning. Maddie wanted me to pick up some cupcakes for our parents' anniversary. I figured she told you and then you set the whole prank up. What better opportunity to expose the fact that my sister, would rather have a stranger make the dessert than her brother?” Turning, he touched his fist to the glass. “Anyway, I go up to place my order and the woman behind the counter asked if I wanted to 'lick her cupcake.'”

Michael's laughter stopped Ethan from continuing. He finally calmed down enough to ask, “Was she hot?”

“Laugh it up. The entire place was in hysterics. As if they knew something I didn't.” Like maybe there was a hidden camera in the room.

“You didn't answer my question. Was she hot?”

Ethan replayed the scene in his mind, on mute. Her blond hair was pulled back from her face, revealing the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. Either she really was a good actress, or she was mortified to have spoken the lewd comments. Any other time he might have found it cute, if they were alone, without an audience.

“Yes, she was attractive. But that's beside the point. I don't need this kind of publicity.” Not after his very public breakup with Rachel. Every tabloid and entertainment channel had a field day exposing one very humiliating heartbreak. He was done dating. At least until the media cooled their attention on his love life. He'd be damned if he'd let them plug him as a player. Any woman he was seen with was classified as his current conquest. One was his publicist, another his sister, and another a random woman on the street who happened to be walking next to him. His lawyers were still dealing with that woman over the false claim.

“Any publicity is good publicity,” Michael reassured. “Don't worry about it. I doubt anyone recognized you, anyway. And what are the odds a photographer was in there getting a donut at the same time.”

“Yeah, because no one has a cell phone that takes pictures and can be posted to the internet in seconds,” Ethan replied sarcastically.

“If it becomes a problem, I'll handle it.”

“Why does that not ease my mind?” Ethan held up his hand. “Just leave it alone, Michael. I'll deal with whatever is thrown at me.” Really, what were the odds? He'd have to chalk it up to a fan getting a little nutty.

“What was the name of this bakery?”

“The Flaky Tart.”

Michael sat up in his chair as his fingers tapped on the keyboard.

“What's wrong?” Ethan uncrossed his arms. In two strides he stood at the front of his friend's desk.

“That name sounds familiar. Give me a sec.” Michael's eyes scanned his computer screen, while he continued to type. “Got it,” he said, glancing up. “Remember when Katie toured the city, looking for hidden gems? She found the pirate's treasure at The Flaky Tart.” He lifted the pen off his desk, rolling it between his fingers. “We've been trying to get the owner to do a segment on the show. Her name is Gwen Palmer. Each time we've asked, she's refused.”

“It’s possible the woman who waited on me is the owner.” Maybe that was the reason she’d humiliated him. Because she thought he was there to recruit her for the show. Now it all made sense.

“We could really use her,” Michael said.

Something wasn’t right about the whole situation. Either the woman was annoyed with the network, or his sister set him up. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“Go back there and work your magic. Convince her to come on the show. Maybe even ask her on a date.” Michael's expression turned sympathetic. “It's been too long, Ethan. You need to quit worrying about what the media thinks. Rachel was a bitch. You can't judge all women by her actions.”

Easy for Michael to say. He wasn't the one nursing a broken heart. “If you want her so bad, why don't you do it?”

“Because this girl obviously likes you. Maybe if you lick her cupcake, she'll agree.”

“You really are a pig.” Ethan spun on his heel, walking toward the door.

As he was about to cross the threshold, Michael got his last dig in. “Yeah, and this pig is going to get you another Daytime Emmy.”





Ethan balanced a box of cupcakes in his hand as he pressed the doorbell to his sister Maddie’s apartment. Dance music pulsed behind her door, then faded as she turned it down. While he waited, he continued to make a mental list of ways to torture her.

As she pulled the door open, her shoulders still swayed to the beat. She wore her standard college attire, black yoga pants and a hoodie. Didn't she own any other clothes? Her face lit up, then fell when she saw his scowling one. “What's wrong?”

He fisted his hand at his side. “What's wrong is that your little prank didn't work.”

She scrunched her face in confusion. “What prank?”

In typical Maddie fashion, she always denied. Even when the evidence was written all over his face in black marker. His crew had laughed for days at his expense. Maddie always took her pranks too far and with the backlash from Rachel, her timing with that last one had sucked.

Leaning his shoulder against the doorframe, he shook his head. “Come on, Maddie. You've been busted. Game over.”

“Okay, I have no idea what you're talking about.” Her eyes dropped to the cupcakes. Pursing her lips, she asked, pointing, “What is that?”

He kneaded the bunched muscles in his neck. “Don't try and change the subject.”

She blew out a breath, rolling her eyes. “Will you stop talking in riddles? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

A door opened and closed down the hall. Two college-aged guys in baseball caps approached. Their footsteps were muffled on the carpeted floor. When they spotted him, one shouted, “Hey, Ethan, how's it going?”

Ethan nodded as they passed. It was difficult going unnoticed around town. Thus the reason he was here confronting his sister.

Once they disappeared around the corner, his accusation continued. “The setup at The Flaky Tart.” When she didn't so much as smirk, he pressed, “The hidden camera show? The producers must have called you after I left.”

“What hidden camera show?” She leaned in, her eyes sparking with excitement. “You were on another show and you didn't call me?”

Maybe it wasn't a reality show, but she was the one that encouraged him to go to that particular bakery. Since Michael wasn’t responsible, it had to be her. “So what did you do? Call ahead and tell the woman to mess with me? Not cool, Maddie. Someone could have caught it with their cell phone. This is my career you're messing with.”

“I honestly don't know what you're talking about.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, her lips curling downward. “What's going on? You know I’d never do anything to jeopardize your career. I know how important it is to you.”

He studied his sister. No way she faked ignorance that well. She really didn't know. Then why the dramatic display at the bakery? Maybe his previous theory about her being annoyed with the network was correct.

“Never mind.” Not wanting to stand in the hallway any longer, he shoved the plastic container at her. “Here are the cupcakes.”

“No,” she said crossing her arms over her chest. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. “Those are store-bought cupcakes.”

How could she tell these weren’t the right ones? He was the master chef, not her. She couldn’t tell the difference between a cupcake and a petit four. “No, they're not.”

“Ethan,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “The box says Shopper’s World.”

Looking down at the box, he silently cursed. The store’s name was plainly etched into the plastic. How did he miss that? It couldn't have anything to do with the fact that Michael hadn't stopped calling his cell since he’d left his office. The man was relentless. Ethan didn't care. There were plenty of other bakeries he could book. If Michael wanted it to be that one, he'd have to send someone else.

Maddie placed her hand on her hip, drawing his attention back to her. “I told you to get the lemon cream. These aren’t even lemon cream. They're chocolate.” If her glare were any hotter, his clothes would catch fire. He loved his baby sis and he would normally do anything for her, but this was one time she wasn't going to get her way.

Did she have any idea the willpower it took to even buy the counterfeit cupcakes? His ego still stung that his culinary skills weren’t requested for dessert. He could pull off a lemon cream cupcake with his eyes closed. “Look, we wouldn’t have this problem if you let me make them myself.”

She rolled her eyes. “This is mom and dad's anniversary. Dad specifically said he wanted those cupcakes, from The Flaky Tart, for mom.”

Now she was going to play the guilt card. He shot a glance up and down the vacant hallway. Shifting from one foot to the other, he held the box out. “Are you going to take the cupcakes or make me stand here holding them all day?”

She shoved them back. Her face flushed with anger, the color blending with her hot pink sweatshirt. “I’m not accepting these. You’re going back to the bakery and you're going to get the lemon cream cupcakes.”

“Why are those cupcakes so important? Mom loves chocolate.” He lifted the box under her nose. “Look, they even have tiny hearts on them.”

“Ethan.”

He felt his resolve crumbling to the floor. “I don’t have time today. Why can’t you get them?” He wasn't stepping foot in that place again. While the idea of nibbling any part of her body was enticing, in the middle of a bakery, not so much.

“Ethan. I asked you to do one thing.” She held up her finger. “One thing. I took care of everything else. Dinner, the decorations, and the gift. You can do this one thing for dad.”

He lifted his shoulders. “Um…since I’m cooking dinner and paid for the gift, that doesn’t count.”

“You're never too busy for family. What's going on?”

“If you want to know the truth, the chick behind the counter came on a little strong.”

“So she’s probably a fan. It is a bakery. Maybe you’ll get a discount.”

He leaned against the wall, threading his fingers through his hair. At the moment, he didn't know what to believe. Was she a fan? Fed up with his show hounding her? Or just plain out there? The latter seemed more likely. “She asked me to lick her cupcake and bite her muffin.”

Maddie lifted a brow. “That explains The Flaky Tart name. Listen, for a guy with such a dry spell, you shouldn’t pass it up.”

“Nice,” he said, frowning. A dry spell? His sex life definitely didn’t fall into the Sahara Desert category. With all the stamps in his passport over the past three months, he didn’t exactly have time for dating. And did she forget about Rachel? Public humiliation had a way of tamping down a guy's enthusiasm when it came to the opposite sex.

She shook her finger at him. “Remember when you were six and you had to have the superhero cake? With all of the superheroes? Marvel and DC?”

He tipped his head back, squeezing his eyes shut. Uh oh. Here we go. He wished he could pull up a chair, because this could take a while.

Without so much as taking a breath, his sister barreled on. “Mom had to drive all over the state trying to find the Green Lantern. And how about your eighth birthday? You wanted it in the shape of a baseball.” She flung her hands in the air. “But not just any baseball. It had to be a three dimensional one.”

“Okay. Okay.” He held up his hand, as if that alone could stop his sister’s tirade. She was right. Maybe he was making too big a deal out of the licking comments. Plus, if there was a show, they wouldn't still be there. And he could just flat out ask the clerk about it. Maybe she'd been talking to guys like that all day and he happened to be the next target. “I’ll go get the cupcakes.”

“You better come back with the right ones, or I’ll dump salt in your sauce tonight. Remember. Lemon cream with cream cheese frosting.”

He nodded. He’d been bulldozed by his sister yet again.

With a satisfied grin, Maddie blew him a kiss before stepping inside her apartment. She shut the door in his face and then just as quickly opened it back up.

He glanced up in hope. Maybe she'd changed her mind.

“Oh, and while you’re there get me a triple chocolate cookie.” She started to close the door, then stopped. “Make that two.”





Chapter Three





Gwen swiped the bead of sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. Stray curls popped out of her bun, clinging to her cheeks and the back of her neck. The kitchen was as hot as the oven baking her chocolate cookies. She had been running non-stop since five this morning and she still wasn't caught up with her orders.

The door swung open and Stephanie stuck her head inside. “Gwen, I need some help out here. The line is to the door.”

Gwen froze. After yesterday's drama, she’d kept to the kitchen, worried her mouth would run wild again. She had no idea what came over her. Maybe she needed to see a doctor. Get a brain scan. They say tumors make you act strangely. This was the worst thing she had ever done. Why did she have to say those things to Ethan Reynolds?

Her dates were usually the ones on the receiving end of her loose tongue—not her customers. Had it been his deep brown eyes, or that dimple in his cheek that had thrown her off guard? Either way, she’d insulted her idol.

Patting her hair in place, she exhaled. It was a fluke. A one-time mishap. What were the odds of it happening again? Wiping her hands on a towel, dampness still lingered as she shouldered her way through the door.

Stephanie hadn’t been kidding. People crowded into the seating area, the cold temperatures forcing them to huddle inside the door.

As she waited on the next customer, Gwen boxed up three-dozen cookies for Mr. Blake’s English class.

“Thank you, Mr. Blake. I hope the kids enjoy them,” she said, grateful that her filter remained locked in place.

“Oh, they will. This is their reward for finishing their writing assignments on time.”

The teacher stepped aside, making room for the next customer.

“Hi, Mrs. Oliver. Have the doctors released your husband yet?”

A relieved smile spread across the woman’s face. “I’m on my way to pick him up now. I was hoping to get some of your pear and almond cake as a welcome home gift. You know how much he loves it.”

Gwen reached for a box under the counter and walked the length of the display case. She noticed the basket of chocolate-dipped fruits needed filling. She made a mental note to grab more out of the cooler. Lifting the cake off its pedestal, she set it in the box, folding the lid closed. She glanced up as the door chimed. More customers filed into the already crowded interior. There was no way that she would be able to hide in the kitchen now.

“Here you go, Mrs. Oliver,” Gwen said, placing the box into the woman's outstretched hands. Grabbing a bag of cookies, she set them on top of the box. “A little something extra for Mr. Oliver. I hope he feels better soon.”

“Thank you so much, Gwen. Bob is going to be so pleased.”

As Mrs. Oliver turned to leave, Gwen's eyes drifted past her, settling on the man behind her. He literally stole her breath. Ethan Reynolds. Could the man possibly be any sexier? His intense eyes caused her stomach to drop. The sea of faces behind him blurred as the room tilted.

“Um. Excuse me.” Like a cat with its tail on fire, Gwen bolted to the kitchen. The door creaked on its hinges as it swung back and forth. She plastered her back to the wall, her breath trapped in her lungs. Why did he come back? He looked just as good as he did yesterday, this time in a navy button up shirt that stretched across his broad shoulders.

She heard Stephanie take his order. With her ear pressed to the door, she struggled to hear his response.

“I’ll take six lemon cream cupcakes with cream cheese frosting.”

Oh. He had come back to finish his order. Maybe things weren't as bad as she feared.

Her eyes shot to the door at the sound of breaking glass. Ethan completely forgotten, she shoved open the door. On the other side of the counter a crowd formed a semi-circle around Mrs. Haverty, who stood with her hand resting on her temple.

Worry hit her in the chest as she elbowed her way through the crowd. One of her regular customers, Dennis, stepped in front of her, blocking her path. “Stan said I should come in and get one of your muffins.”

Gwen groaned, pushing him aside. Of course Stan would blab about her slip-up with Ethan. Stan might find a little cayenne pepper in his coffee tomorrow. Was that her curse? To be the topic of conversation around town? Whatever happened to people just coming in to try her apple tarts?

Reaching Mrs. Haverty, she found her staring down at a broken teacup that lay in pieces at her feet.

Gwen looked the older woman up and down, worried that she might be having a stroke. “Mrs. Haverty, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, dear. I can’t say the same for your lovely teacup.”

Gripping Mrs. Haverty's arm, Gwen guided her to a chair. She eased her down onto the padded seat. “It's just a cup. It can be replaced, but you can't.”

Mrs. Haverty patted Gwen's hand. A soft smile played across her lips. “I'm fine, really, just a little dizzy. It's passing, dear.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Gwen wrapped her arm around the woman's shoulder. “Let me get you a glass of water.”

As if reading her mind, Stephanie approached, placing a glass of water in front of the older woman. “Here you go, Mrs. Haverty.”

Stephanie squeezed Mrs. Haverty’s shoulder before returning to her position behind the counter.

The chatter picked up in the room as customers stepped forward to place their orders. Gwen gave Mrs. Haverty one last glance, assuring herself that the woman was indeed fine. Then balancing on one knee, she worked in a circle, picking up the chunks of porcelain. She cupped the jagged pieces in the palm of her hand, thankful there weren't many.

Someone crouched down next to her.

“Thank you for your help, but I have it.” Gwen glanced over to see Ethan’s lopsided smile as their hands reached for the same piece of porcelain. A spark shot through her fingertips as her skin connected with his. She cradled her hand to her chest. The broken pieces pierced her skin, but she barely felt them. All she could feel was the spark from his contact. What the hell was that?

Eyes as dark as chocolate swung toward Gwen. As her chest tightened, her pulse hammered in her ears, muffling the sound of chairs scraping across the floor.

Awkward silence stretched between them like a rubber band ready to snap. The frustrated murmurs of people waiting in line added to the tension.

Pushing herself off the floor, Gwen smacked her head against the counter. A surge of icy pain shot across her skull, sending a billion stars dancing before her eyes. Just how much of an ass could she make of herself in front of this man?

The counter hugged her back as she fought to collect herself. Ethan must think she was a hot mess. What a lasting impression. One she didn't want to make, but couldn't seem to avoid. Closing her eyes, she rubbed the top of her head, feeling the lump that had already begun to form.

Warm fingers wrapped around her arm, sending another spark spiraling through her body. Her eyes flew open in time to see Ethan's gaze dropping to where his hand met her arm. Had he felt that spark, too?

He cleared his throat and released her.

“You're Ethan Reynolds,” she mumbled, gripping the counter behind her. The Ethan Reynolds. She loved his show. She even recorded them when she didn’t have time to watch. He was a genius in the kitchen, and she applied many of his lessons in her own cooking. What a fangirl moment. How long before she botched this up, too? “Your technique for whipping egg whites put my store on the map. I would love to see you in action.”

And there it was. God, no. It was happening again. Think Gwen. “Um, what I mean is, I would love to see you cook. I have so many questions.”

Stephanie leaned over the counter, a box of cupcakes extended in her hand. “Here you go, Mr. Reynolds. Do you need anything else?”

“No,” Ethan replied, looking over Gwen’s shoulder. “Thanks.”

Directing his attention back to Gwen, he lifted his shoulders. “I’m glad my technique worked for you.”

His mouth opened then closed as he dug his fingers through his hair. He took a step toward the door then stopped.

“Was there something else you needed?” Gwen asked. Like her number.

“It was nice to meet you.”

Her stomach dropped faster than an express elevator.

“You, too,” she replied, trying to hide her disappointment. Why did his response sound like all of her other dates?

Her eyes trailed after Ethan as he exited the bakery. When he crossed in front of the window, he turned his head. His eyes locked with hers. His lips lifted, followed by his hand.

She felt her lips curl in response. On his show he was hot, but in person… She took one last breath of his lingering cologne. The amber scented air wove a spell over her, soothing the ache that his departure left. She didn't understand the pull she felt for him. Didn't understand how she could—

“Gwen,” Stephanie called, dragging her back to the hubbub of the bakery.

Turning, she brushed the teacup’s porcelain fragments into the garbage. She needed to push Ethan from her mind. Far from her mind. He would never be back. But her business was still here and she needed to serve the impatient customers surrounding her.

Mrs. Haverty squeezed Gwen's hand as she walked by, giving her a reassuring smile.

As she approached the counter, Gwen paused at the dismayed look on Stephanie’s face.

“Uh oh,” Stephanie said.

Those words tumbling off Stephanie's lips meant trouble. And on a day like today, they couldn't afford any mistakes. Sidestepping the customers, Gwen joined her friend behind the counter.

“What's wrong?”

“Please remember to breathe.” Stephanie pressed two coffees into a cardboard carrier and slid it toward her customer.

“Spit it out, Steph.” Gwen sniffed the air. Nothing was burning in the kitchen, so that was a good sign. The last time Stephanie said 'uh oh,' Gwen couldn't get the smell of burnt almonds out of the bakery for weeks.

Her friend scrunched her nose up before responding, “I gave Ethan the wrong cupcakes.”

A tidal wave of warmth flooded Gwen's head. She gripped the counter, bowing her head. Ethan would never set foot in her bakery again. Why would he? She had embarrassed him in front of a crowd of people. By some miracle he'd come back, but now they'd mixed up his order. He could make her a laughing stock with one mention of his experience on his show.

When her head finally cleared, Gwen glanced up. “Please tell me you didn't.”

“It was during the commotion with Mrs. Haverty.” Stephanie paused as she helped the next customer. Turning to the display case behind her, she continued, “I boxed his lemon cream cupcakes just as Mrs. Haverty dropped her cup. Ethan stepped away to help, so I pushed them to the side and waited on the next customer. She wanted the raspberry swirl cupcakes. The only ones we had were on there.”

As Stephanie pointed behind her, Gwen gazed at the cake stand. “The ones I just placed there this morning?”

Stephanie nodded. “I boxed them up and gave them to the customer. I left to get Mrs. Haverty a glass of water and when I came back, there was only one box left. If the customer hadn’t tried to eat one in the car, I wouldn't have known. I honestly have no idea how they got switched.”

This could not be happening. To screw up once was one thing, but to screw up twice…and of all people, it had to be Ethan Reynolds? Wasn't that cake stand supposed to bring her luck? Maybe she should have asked Mrs. Haverty to clarify.

She didn’t realize that Dennis was still there until he stepped up to the counter. Gwen held up her hand. “I'll be with you in just a second.”

Grabbing Stephanie by the elbow, she ushered her over to the coffee pot. “We have to make this right,” she said, doing her best to keep her voice low.

“Okay,” Stephanie said. “How?”

Gwen smoothed her hair away from her face, then took deep breaths. Exactly how they could make this right, she didn't know. She thought of a couple of different scenarios as she drummed her fingers on the counter. Contacting him would be the biggest hurdle. She could call the studio, but they wouldn't put her through to him. Or she could go over there with the correct cupcakes and explain about the mix-up. Wait. She had a contact there. What was the name of the person who wanted her to do the show? Mark? Matt? Michael. She had his number saved in her phone. Maybe he would help her.

Dennis cleared his throat behind them. Oops. She forgot about him. “I would really like to try one of your muffins.”

Jerking open a bag, she dropped a couple of cranberry muffins inside. She looked at Stephanie, who still had distress clearly written all over her face. “Don't worry, Steph. I'll fix this.”

“No. You don't have to. It's my fault. I should be the one to do it.”

“Listen. I humiliated him the first time he came in. Then, I didn't even apologize when I had the chance.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” The lie tumbled off her lips. She wasn't sure, and she would much rather have Stephanie take her place. But this was her business and she still owed him an apology—for her behavior yesterday, and now for the mix-up today.

Forcing a smile across her lips, she nodded toward the customers still waiting for service. “Let's clear out this crowd, then I'll take care of Mr. Reynolds.”

She didn't give Stephanie a chance to argue. Turning to the next customer, she tried to ignore the butterflies fluttering in her stomach.





Chapter Four





Ethan leaned his elbows on the table after Maddie cleared the last of the dinner plates. She carried them to the kitchen, her soft voice crooning a duet with Michael Bublé.

His mother reached across the table, her hand sheltering his. “Dinner was wonderful, Ethan. Thank you.”

“Don't thank me, Mom. Thank Dad. It was his idea.” If Ethan had control over tonight's menu, he would have made something other than chicken parmesan, a dish his mother could easily make on her own.

She studied him for a moment, before turning her gaze to his father. “Did your dad tell you why he requested that specific dish?”

Ethan shook his head. He should have known he couldn't hide his disappointment from his mother. She knew cooking was in his blood.

Lifting her glass, she took a sip of wine. “Your dad was stationed at the air base and he would come in to your grandparents' restaurant once a week for lunch. He ordered chicken parmesan every time.”

Oh. So that explained the connection. How many hours had Ethan spent in that same restaurant? Too many to count.

A wistful smile spread across her face as she drifted back in time.

“He was so handsome in his uniform. And every week, I waited for him to ask me out.” She shook her head, laughing. “But your father was so sweet and nervous, always stumbling over his words.”

Ethan had a hard time imagining his confident father with nerves of steel turning into a bumbling fool around his mother. He had flown an F-15 under heavy fire in Desert Storm; surely he could ask his mom on a date.

Clearing his throat, Ethan’s father cut in. “I don't quite remember it that way.”

His mom waved off the interruption. “One day I got tired of waiting and asked him to go to the movies.” A soft laugh left her lips. “He turned all shades of red. He was so shocked that he could only nod in acceptance.”

“I think I was the one who asked you out,” his father corrected.

Ethan's eyes drifted over his mother's shoulder to the pictures lining the buffet. A picture of his parents on a cruise last summer stood out. His father's arm was draped over his mother's shoulders. Her head rested on his chest. His parents looked just as much in love as they did in the photo of their wedding next to it.

Maddie paused at the threshold, the box of cupcakes resting on her palm. She looked from Ethan to their father. “What did I miss?”

She placed the box in the center of the table, then plopped into the vacant chair next to their mother.

Their mom spoke. “I was talking about the first time I met Daddy.”

Maddie slipped her arm through her mother’s and placed her head on her shoulder. “I love that story.”

A twinge of envy licked at Ethan’s heart. Maddie knew this story? Maybe he needed to spend more time with his parents. Isn't this a story that he should know? Something he could pass down to his own children someday?

“Mom, wait until you see the cupcakes we got.” Maddie leaned forward, her fingers curled under the lid of the box. With a flourish, she lifted it up. She plucked a white frosted cupcake with a pink rose from its interior and set it on a plate in front of their mother.

“Oh! Are these from The Flaky Tart? Your father used to bring me a lemon cream cupcake from there every Friday. When the owner died, her granddaughter inherited it. I heard she uses the same recipes.”

Their mother bit into the cupcake and her eyes drifted closed. “I think these are better than her grandmother’s.”

“Whipped egg whites,” Ethan said under his breath, his eyes falling to the container of perfectly formed cupcakes.

“What did you say?” his mother asked.

“Nothing. I was just thinking out loud.”

Maybe his technique had helped the owner. Ethan grabbed a cupcake and turned it in his hand. A pink rose? The lemon cream had a lemon candy wedge on top. Lifting it to his lips, he took a bite. Wow. The moist cake sent an overload of flavors across his tongue, followed by an image of the shop’s owner lying underneath him while his lips trailed over her—Whoa. Wait a minute. Where the hell did that come from?

“Ethan, this isn't lemon. It's raspberry,” Maddie said as she licked a glob of frosting off her thumb.

Pushing the lustful images of a certain blond out of his mind, he hoped his voice didn't reveal any hint of the craving he had for more than cupcakes. “I asked for lemon cream. There was a bit of a commotion at the counter when I placed my order. They must have mixed up the boxes.”

Or he'd been so distracted by his reaction to the owner that he'd grabbed someone else's order.

“Commotion, huh? What was it this time? Did she ask you to squeeze her buns?”

The doorbell chimed, saving his sister from his bitter retort. His mother began to rise and he lifted his hand, signaling her to stay seated. “I'll get it, Mom.”

He would do anything to avoid this conversation.

Ethan tucked the last bite of cupcake into his mouth on his way to the door. Raspberry sweetness burst over his tongue. As much as he hated to admit it, this was the best cupcake he'd ever tasted. No wonder his dad ordered out instead of adding to Ethan's menu. It also explained Michael's eagerness to get the owner on their show. He wondered if The Flaky Tart's other recipes were just as flavorful.

Ethan moved across the room to the entry. Pulling the door open, he found himself face to face with the very topic of their dining room conversation. Not to mention, the subject of one very effective fantasy filling his head as he took in her appearance. Her charcoal coat skimmed the top of her knee-high boots. Downy flakes of snow clung to her knit hat, where wisps of golden hair peeked out, framing her pink stained cheeks.

Her eyes connected with his. The blue depths dragged him under. Time stood still as a vision of her lips moving against his pulled him deeper. He wondered if she tasted as sweet as her frosting.

Ethan massaged the back of his neck. What was happening to him? Since he'd met her, nothing seemed quite right. Unwelcome fantasies, defensiveness with his family and friends. Maybe Michael was right. Maybe the past was getting to him and impacting the present.

“Can I help you?” Shaking off his trance, Ethan crossed his arms waiting for her to speak. An eternity seemed to pass before she finally opened her mouth.

“Hi. I'm Gwen. The flaky tart.” Her eyes widened, then dropped to the box clutched in her hands. “I mean I'm from The Flaky Tart. I'm here to run my fingers through your hair.” She closed her eyes, her mouth moving silently as if she was praying.

He resisted the urge to laugh. She was actually adorable when she was flustered. How had he not noticed before? Oh, that's right, he'd been too busy mentally undressing her.

Blowing out a breath, she continued, “Obviously, I don't want to run my fingers through your hair. I'm here to bring you the cupcakes you ordered. We accidentally gave you the wrong ones. Your producer, Michael, told me where to find you.”

He didn't know whether to thank Michael or punch him in the face. He should have called Ethan before giving out personal information. Especially his address. If this was all part of his plan to get Gwen on the show, he was going to have to convince her himself.

“You didn't have to come all the way here to do that.” Behind Gwen, the snow settled on the ground in a thick blanket. Why would she risk driving on a night like tonight for cupcakes? When even a dusting of snow fell, the whole city shut down. A phone call apologizing for the mix-up would have been sufficient. Was it possible she wanted an excuse to see him again?

He liked that idea far too much.

“When Michael said it was your parents' anniversary, I felt horrible. I had to come.” She wound and unwound the tip of her scarf. “And I wanted to apologize for my behavior when you first came in the bakery and for the mix-up today.”

He specifically avoided addressing her inappropriate comments. He could tell it bothered her, so why make her feel any worse than she already did. “No apology necessary. Things got a little crazy in there. It was an easy mistake. How is the woman feeling? Is she okay?'

“Mrs. Haverty?” Gwen's eyes warmed as she spoke the woman's name. She obviously cared a great deal for her. “She's fine. Thank you for asking.”

The wood under Gwen's feet creaked as she adjusted the box in her hands. Her teeth began to chatter. She tucked her chin, burrowing into the dark stripes of her scarf.

Here he stood in the warmth of the house while he left her freezing on the porch. Where were his manners?

He stepped to the side, hitching his thumb over his shoulder. “Would you like to come in? We just sat down to dessert. You can meet my parents.”

Gwen’s eyes widened in surprise.

He rushed to clarify. “Your cupcakes are famous with them.”

“Oh, that's nice of you to say, but no. No, thank you.” She held the box out. “I have to get back to the bakery. I have a huge order to get out tomorrow and no staff to help.”

“Are you sure? My mother would seriously love to meet you.”

“I wish I could, but I really have a lot to do tonight. How about I wake you up with breakfast?”

“Excuse me?” He hoped he'd heard right, because waking up to her sounded perfect.

“I'm sorry. I meant I'd like to have you for breakfast. Oh my God.” She pressed her fingers to her forehead. “I'm screwing this up. What I'm trying to say is why don't you come in to the bakery for breakfast tomorrow? On the house. For the mix-up.”

“Sounds great.” Lifting the box, he said, “And thanks again for bringing the cupcakes.”

Gwen waved, then turned and followed the path to the driveway. She shot a quick glance over the top of the car before she hopped in. Ethan waited to close the door until she pulled onto the street.

He couldn't figure her out. Was she just nervous around him? Or a star-struck fan, like Maddie suggested? There was no room in his life for another Rachel. A bakery owner would definitely benefit in knowing him, given his success. Rachel had used him up and spit him out once her modeling career had taken off, thanks to his connections.

Moving back to the dining room, he stopped in his tracks as all eyes swung to him.

“Who was that?” his sister asked.

Setting the box on the table, he touched the edge where the label sealed it shut. “That was Gwen. From The Flaky Tart.”

Maddie's smile turned mischievous. “The one who wanted you to bite her muffin? She must really like you if she came all the way over here to deliver some cupcakes.”

“No. It's not like that. She realized the mix-up after I left. Michael told her where to find me.”

His mother looked from Maddie to Ethan. “She asked you to what?”

“Bite her muffin,” his father supplied.

His sister giggled. “And what else? To lick her cupcake?”

Ethan shot her a warning look. She was thoroughly enjoying herself at his expense. And the thought of anyone laughing at Gwen sent a surge of anger through him.

“Oh my,” his mom interjected. “Well, maybe she likes you? Your father used to trip all over his words. Half the time he wouldn't say anything. He would just nod his head in fear that he would say something embarrassing.”

“Just think, Mom,” said Maddie. “We'll have two chefs in the family.”

“Hey now,” Ethan said, not missing the squeal in Maddie's voice. She'd tried everything to get close to Rachel, but his ex had never been the 'family' type. Career type was more like it. “I haven't even considered going on a date with her or anyone and you already have us married?”

His sister shrugged, dipping her finger into the icing on her cupcake. “Like Mom said. Maybe it's fate. Or these delicious cupcakes.” She stuck her finger in her mouth to lick it clean. Smacking her lips, she nodded her head. “Kinda glad she messed up the order. I'm taking some of these babies home.”

As Maddie dragged one of the boxes across the table, Ethan leaned back in his chair. Maybe he should ask Gwen out. Who knew? She might even be able to have a normal conversation once she felt more comfortable around him. “Mom? Dad? Do you mind if I head out early?”

“That depends. This wouldn't have anything to do with the girl at the door, would it?” his father asked, crossing his arms across his chest.

“Yes and no. Michael's been trying to get her on the show. I thought maybe I should stop by and see if I can convince her to finally do it.” The lie slipped off his tongue easily enough.

“If you're going to The Flaky Tart, will you grab me my cookie?” Maddie asked as she bit into one of the lemon cream cupcakes.

Damn. His sister could eat. “Do you really need a cookie? You're taking home a dozen cupcakes.”

“Not to worry.” She shimmied her shoulders. “Zumba burns a lot of calories.”

Ethan pushed his chair back. Patting his father on the shoulder, he moved around the table to his mother and bent, placing a kiss on her cheek.

When he turned to walk away, his mom grasped his arm. “You know, they're not all going to be like Rachel. Not that you're not doing just fine. But don't let her hurting you change your ability to find happiness.”

The knot that had taken up residence in his stomach, since his breakup, began to loosen. His mom was right. If he let Rachel ruin him for other women, then in the end she would win.

His mom released his arm and gave him a knowing look. “I'm just saying, there's nothing wrong with having a cup of coffee with someone.”

His lips brushed her cheek again. “Stop worrying, Mom. When the right girl comes along, I promise I won't let her get away.” Gwen would be a great place to start. But, he reminded himself, he did owe Michael a little help after unloading on him the other day.

Feeling decided, he grabbed his coat out of the hall closet when one very unwelcome question made him doubt his great idea.

If just seeing his face got Gwen tongue-tied, what would a good, long, hard kiss do to her?





Chapter Five





After she finished wiping tiny lip and handprints off the display glass, Gwen turned at the sound of Stephanie's voice.

“Night, Gwen.” Her friend tipped her hand side-to-side imitating a perfect pageant wave before the door clicked shut behind her. The soft hum of the cooler was the only sound left in the room.

Her second favorite time of the day. Closing time.

She swept her hand over the light switches, extinguishing all but one at the back of the store. The faint glow illuminated the empty cases. Even the bran muffins had sold out. From the corner of her eye, she spotted a lone cookie resting on the cake stand. Smudges of chocolate stained the white surface. She needed to avoid it at all costs. How many donuts had she consumed throughout the day because she’d been too busy to eat a decent lunch?

She slowly walked to the kitchen door, but the pull of that cookie stopped her. Cursing her weakness for all things sweet, she spun, allowing her feet to guide her to the tasty morsel.

Plucking the cookie from the stand, she was surprised to find it was warm. When she tapped the ceramic surface, a spark zapped her. Jerking her finger away, she sucked on the tip.

What the hell was that?

How could a piece of glass shock her? More like cut her, but upon examining her finger, there was no break in the skin. Could it be that the stand…?

She didn't really believe in the hocus pocus Mrs. Haverty was feeding her, about the piece choosing her. She'd chalked it up to the fancies of an eccentric woman. But now she began to question it.

Maybe she could call the store where Mrs. Haverty had purchased the cake stand and dig a little deeper into the story surrounding it. Who knows? Someone else might have had a similar experience.

Letting her teeth sink into the chewy cookie, she closed her eyes as the chocolate melted in her mouth. When a flash of Ethan licking chocolate off her stomach appeared, her eyes flew back open. But the vision didn't dissipate. It sharpened focus, right down to each sweep of his tongue leaving her squirming beneath him.

A siren passing outside broke the spell, snapping her back to reality.

Hell no!

The last person she would ever go to bed with was Ethan Reynolds. Even if he was remotely interested in such a thing, she knew she wasn’t his type. His last girlfriend was a damn model. Ethan was definitely way out of her league. And even if she was his type, she didn’t want to end up being fodder for the tabloids. She may long for someone to warm her sheets, but she wasn't stupid.

Maybe Mrs. Haverty could get a refund, because this stand had to be broken if it thought Ethan was her perfect match.

Moving into the kitchen, she cursed herself for allowing the unnerving fantasy into her mind. As Gram used to say, 'too much thinking means the biscuits are burning.' Gwen had a business to run. She didn't have time to worry about Ethan or her enchanted cake stand.

Gwen plugged her phone into a speaker and her favorite Carrie Underwood song drifted through the bakery. She crossed the room, grabbing her measuring cups while moving to the saucy beat. While she didn't make it a habit, preferring to open instead, she couldn't deny she loved being in the bakery after hours. Especially, when she had some good music to accompany her while she worked.

Blame it on Carrie, but a glass of Riesling sounded divine. Gwen dug in the back of the refrigerator. If she remembered correctly, there was an unopened bottle left from the Christmas party. Yep.

She pulled it from the fridge. “Score!”

Swaying her hips to the steady bass, she lifted her glass of wine. The tart liquid slid down her throat, making her cheeks flush and she welcomed the sensation. For the first time in days, her stress began to fade. The latest bad date, the whole Ethan debacle, the struggle over avoiding a television appearance that could make or break the shop's success. Maybe she should drink more often, or at least until she could control her mouth.

The wine glass clinked against the counter as she danced her way over to the mound of dough waiting to be rolled. When the chorus kicked in, she matched the pitch, belting out the song word for word. Her hands slid down her body as she swiveled her hips.

Good thing she was alone. She hadn't danced or felt so seductive in years. It had to be the wine. Yup, she definitely needed to drink more often.

A sound drew her attention. Glancing over her shoulder, she found Ethan standing in the doorway, smiling. Her heart crashed to her stomach.

“Oh my God!” Her hand flew to her chest. “How did you get in here?”

“I knocked, but you didn't hear me.” His grin made her heart pound even harder. Thank God he couldn't hear it. “I tried the door and it was unlocked. I hope it's okay that I let myself in.”

Heat flooded her cheeks. What was she supposed to say? No. We're closed. Get out? Yeah, right.

“It's okay. You just took me by surprise.” She smoothed her hair back from her face. “Were the cupcakes okay?”

He stepped deeper into the room. Stopping in front of her, he leaned his hip against the counter. “Were they okay? No.”

She tried to hide her disappointment. He was here to ask for a refund. She sank further into the depths of her humiliation.

“Okay is for movies and hotel service,” he said. “Your cupcakes were amazing. The raspberry flavor floored me. Did you add a hint of chocolate liqueur in them?

“Yes.” Wow. He was good. That was her secret ingredient. No one had been able to figure it out until now.

He jammed his hands in his pockets, then rocked back on his heels. “So, what happened to your staff tonight?”

Did he have to remind her that they were alone? At night. No one to save her when she inevitably ran off at the mouth. Well, no one except for Mr. Riesling. Leaning over, she lifted her glass, downing the golden liquid in one swallow. Warmth swirled through her veins as her anxiety seeped away. “Stephanie had her daughter's dance recital, Debbie is on vacation, and Renee called in sick.”

Ethan's eyes flashed with amusement as he looked at her empty glass. On top of being a flake, he probably thought she was an alcoholic too. Great.

“And what exactly are you making tonight?” he asked.

“Sugar cookies. Every year we have a preschool class that comes in and decorates cookies for Valentine's Day.”

“A room full of four-year-olds? In here? Wow. You're brave.”

“They have so much fun. We make a huge mess, and it's totally worth it.”

He studied her for a moment, then rolled up his shirt sleeves, revealing tanned muscular arms. “How can I help?”

“Why would you want to help me? Not that I don't want your body.” Oh, dear God. “Help, I mean. Not that I don't want your help.” Wouldn't it be better if she didn't speak at all?

Something flashed in his eyes, but it was gone before she could decipher what it was. Standing next to her at the counter, his arm pressed against hers. “I have to admit, I have an ulterior motive.”

That chocolate sauce scene flashed back into her mind. Now was not the time to dive back into that fantasy. Ignoring the heat snaking through her arm from his touch, she resisted the urge to pull away. He was probably here to get her on his show, not take her up on her offer to nibble her cookie. Why else would he come back and be tortured by her loose tongue? He probably thought she was a hot mess.

“I want to sample some more of your recipes. You teased me with the lemon cream and raspberry cupcakes.” His voice was a delicious deep timbre, that stirred butterflies in her stomach. “I need more.”

“Oh.” For once she was at a loss for words. But not for sensation. Tingles seemed to be dancing all over her skin. Maybe the wine hadn’t been such a grand idea after all.

“So,” he began, clearing his throat, “where do you want me?”

“How about on the counter?” Yup. Here we go. “In the dough. Cutting shapes into the dough.”

Maybe he hadn’t noticed her slip-up. But the crinkle at the corner of his eyes indicated he had. This was going to be a long night.

She should make an excuse and ask him to leave.

Except she didn't want him to. Beyond the embarrassment, the risks to her career, and the tingles, lay something else.

Curiosity.

Yep. She was flat out curious about Ethan.

Now, where had that come from?

A few minutes of help couldn't hurt more than she'd already hurt herself with her previous blunders, right? She directed him to the counter where she already had dough rolled out, waiting to be cut. Grabbing another mound, she dropped it on the counter in front of her and began to roll it out.

They worked in silence as they cut out heart shaped cookies. Gwen should have enjoyed the lull in conversation, but as usual, her tongue had a mind of its own.

“You know, I'm usually not this forward.” She blew out a breath. Might as well clear the air now. At this point, what did she have to lose? Her dignity was already long gone. “I have this problem where things I don't mean to say just blurt out before I can filter them.” She dragged her gaze to his. “If I offend you, let me apologize ahead of time.”

He studied her through lowered eyes and incredibly long lashes. Her pulse kicked up a notch at the sincerity in his eyes. “I told you earlier. You don't have to apologize. You actually took me off guard. I hate to admit it, but I thought my sister or my producer set me up on one of those celebrity prank shows.”

Maybe it was a mistake to let him stay. Clearing the air had seemed like a good idea a moment ago. Hearing he thought she was the product of a reality show left her stomach in knots. “I'm sorry.”

Shaking his head, he chuckled then went to the sink and started washing his hands. “Really. It wasn't that bad. I overreacted. I'm actually flattered.”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I wish other guys could be so understanding.”

“What do you mean?”

She focused her attention on transferring the cookie dough to a pan. “You don't want to know.”

“Hey.” He finished drying his hands on a towel and crossed his arms over his chest. “We're going to be here all night. Humor me. It can't be as bad as you imagine.”

“I went out with this guy to the movies. He came on really strong. When he would talk to me, he would get really close.” She held her hand an inch from her nose. “Like this close. His breath was hot on my face. I tried to contain it by cramming a handful of popcorn in my mouth but the words sprang out anyway.”

The wine must have clouded her brain. She had never discussed her disaster dates with anyone other than Stephanie. Or Mrs. Haverty, but that was only because she generally guessed about them anyhow.

“And…?” Ethan prodded.

Was she really going to tell him what she blurted out? What she had hoped would stay locked behind her lips? Why of all the horrible dates she had this past year did she pick that one? Glancing up, she lost all conscious thought when his dimple winked back at her. “I asked him if he had sushi for dinner because he smelled like he had just licked a cat bowl.”

The boom of his laughter filled the room. It took him a moment before he could catch his breath to speak. “Gwen, that is the funniest thing I've ever heard.”

Excellent, now he was making fun of her. She turned her back on him and continued peeling cookies off the counter and placing them on the pan.

“Wait, you've misunderstood me again,” he said. “Looks like you're not the only one who puts their foot in their mouth. What I meant to say is, I wish I had the courage to be so honest with people. You don't know how many times I've offered a guest a breath mint and they refused. I've wanted to tell them, no really, do us all a favor and suck on a few.”

She picked up the pans of cut-out cookie dough and crossed the room to the oven. Opening the door, she slid them onto the rack. He admired her honesty? No one ever said they admired her for her honesty. And that honesty wasn't intentional to begin with. Could she take credit for a medical condition?

While the batch in the oven baked, she grabbed a tray of heart-shaped cupcakes off the shelf and swiped a tube of frosting from the island.

Ethan grabbed another tube and began to swirl frosting on the cupcakes. “So, rumor has it that this used to be your grandmother's bakery?”

“Yep. I used to love cooking with her. I always felt at home here.”

“My grandparents owned a restaurant. I practically lived there. I used to experiment in their kitchen.” His hands stilled as he stared straight ahead, lost in the memory. “I would always try to sneak one of my creations out to their customers.”

Shifting her body toward him, she folded her arms. For the first time since he’d walked through her door, she felt completely at ease. “Why didn't you take over your grandparent's restaurant?”

“They closed it before I was out of high school. It became too much for them and my parents weren't interested in running it.” The regret in his voice didn't go unnoticed.

He’d lost the place where all of his dreams were built.

Her eyes swept the room. While the appliances had been updated, everything else remained the same. She couldn't imagine not having this bakery.

“Did you ever think about opening your own restaurant?” she asked.

“I thought about it, but then Michael approached me about this new cooking show that they were holding auditions for. I went to the auditions, waited for a callback, and the job was mine.” He turned his head, his eyes meeting hers. “So I got the best of both worlds. I get to do what I love, without having the grueling hours of running a restaurant.”

“I know what you mean.” She loved this bakery. More than anything. But when holidays approached, like now, sleep became a luxury that she couldn't afford.

Ethan rolled out some more dough. “Back when your grandmother owned this place, my dad used to come here every week to buy lemon cream cupcakes for my mother.”

She sucked in a breath and her stomach plummeted. That’s why he came to her for the dessert. “Really? And I screwed up your surprise for their anniversary.”

“No. You didn't. I'm actually glad I got the wrong order.” He peeled a cut-out shape off the counter and transferred it to the pan in front of him. Flour coated his knuckles. “Otherwise, I would never have been able to try the raspberry.” He glanced at her, then continued to press the cutter into the dough. “Or see you again.”

“Oh.” She couldn't tear her eyes from him. He’d just admitted that he wanted to see her. Not her food, but her. The urge to speak burned her tongue. Focusing on the frosting she swirled around the cupcake, she thought of everything but him. Unicorns, rainbows, gummy bears. Not his very kissable lips. Nope. She was not going to think about those.

Speaking of kisses. Where did she leave that bag of chocolate?

A quick scan of the counter and she found them next to Ethan. Smoothing pink frosting over her heart shaped cupcake, she asked him, “Will you grab me and kiss me?”

Ethan turned in surprise, his heated gaze completely focused on her.

Gwen bit down on her lip, but not fast enough to keep, “Please kiss me,” from spilling out.

She closed her eyes in mortification. What the hell? Why did all of her comments to him have to be sexual? Probably because he was perfect and she couldn't find one single flaw on him. And the truth was, she wanted him to kiss her.

What must he be thinking?

She didn't dare look up to find out. She could feel the heat of his stare burning through her. Fixing her eyes on the bag of pink chocolate kisses, she clamped her lips shut and reached across him. Her fingers closed around the plastic bag and when she pulled back, the scent of his cologne sent a surge of fire coiling in her belly. She dragged her eyes up his chest and her gaze collided with his. She almost forgot to breathe when his head dipped lower.

His hand slipped behind her head and he drew her to him.

He brushed her mouth with his. Gwen's lips tingled at the contact. Ethan pulled away, his eyes questioning. Had he felt that tingling feeling, too? He didn't give her time to ask as he pulled her mouth back to his. She parted her lips, letting his tongue sweep inside.

Her fingers gripped his shirt to keep from falling. Lava flowed through her veins when his tongue grazed hers. His hands drifted down her sides until they settled on her hips, pressing them against his.

His mouth left hers, burning a trail of kisses down her neck and back up again.

“Do you smell that?” His warm breath tickled her ear.

“Smell what?”

“It smells like something's burning.”

“I think it's my panties.” Liquid fire burned inside her. At any moment she would burst into flames.

But Ethan held too still. Opening her eyes, she sniffed the air. Something was burning.

Pushing him away, she ran to the oven where smoke flowed out of the vent. She grabbed two potholders and flung the door open. Smoke stung her eyes and scorched her lungs. Coughing, she waved her hand in front of her face. Gripping both pans, she pulled them out and dropped them on the counter. The cookies had burned beyond recognition.

Ethan stepped behind her and rested his chin on her shoulder. “Looks like it wasn't your panties after all.”

Gwen burst out laughing. “I was so sure, too.” She shrugged one shoulder, thinking whatever had come over them must have passed. “Told you. Me and my mouth. We're hard to miss.”

“I’m missing your mouth already.” He closed the space between them, backing her up against the counter.

Her breath caught in her throat. “We'll see how long that lasts.”

His eyes went to her mouth. “I've got hours. How about you?”

What felt like a dare hung in the air between them. How far should she take this? Gwen's logic, and probably her heart, too, put on the brakes. Hard.

She licked her lips, wanting more of what he'd already given her, but she couldn't put so much on the line. Not with a guy like him. “Actually, I'm exhausted. I'm going to wrap it up here and head home.”

Ethan's eyes shuttered. The fire in them receded. “What about the cookies?”

Gwen pursed her lips and nodded. “I'll, uh, come back in the morning and get them done. Better than burning them all because I'm distracted.”

He put his flour-caked hands in his pockets. “Got it.”

She walked him out with a stiff goodbye and had to wonder, did he get it? Did he understand what sort of heartbreak a guy like him presented to a girl like her?





Chapter Six





Ethan drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Staring through his windshield, he watched Gwen laughing with a group of preschoolers. Her hair was pulled back in her signature ponytail, and he wondered what it would look like flowing around her shoulders.

Last night, he’d begun to find her slip-ups endearing. To be honest, he was flattered by her praise. Usually when a woman told him he was hot, it was because of his celebrity status and all of the perks that came with it. For once, he would like to be able to trust a woman to not sell him out for their fifteen seconds of fame and a few dollars in their pocket.

A young boy ran up to Gwen and gave her a bear hug. She squeezed him back, placing a kiss on the top of his head. Could this possibly be the same girl who’d told him her panties were on fire last night? She looked like a librarian, yet she had the mouth of a drunken sailor. The two didn't mesh.

After how cold she went only moments after their kiss, he found himself wondering why he'd come back. And he wasn’t just puzzled over his presence here because of her reaction last night, either. The complication of another relationship was the last thing he needed. Especially with a woman he hadn't quite been able to figure out.

Except he couldn't get that kiss out of his mind.

That spark he'd felt when his lips touched hers. Fire had raged through his veins with each dip of his tongue. It sent an electric current through him, just like the day before when he’d grabbed her arm. He guessed he could rule out static in the air. This wasn't a fluke of nature. This was something different.

He should just slip away now. No one had noticed him in the parking lot. So why wasn't his hand moving the gear into reverse?

Because he wanted her. Bad. More than he had wanted any other woman. But could he afford to trust another woman with his heart?

A loud knock bounced off his window. Jumping in his seat, he turned to see the elderly woman from the bakery staring back at him. He pressed the button to lower the window, shivering as a chill of winter air rushed into the car.

“Hi,” he said, hoping she didn’t know he was watching Gwen in the bakery. “Mrs. Haverty, right?”

“Well hello, handsome. Are you going to sit in the car all day, or are you going to escort an old lady inside?”

Wow. She was a feisty one. He bit back a smile, imagining his grandmother flirting with a younger man. On second thought…scratch that image.

Ethan cast a glance back to the bakery window where Gwen moved from table to table, scooping cookies off a platter and onto plates. Curiosity tempted him. She spoke her mind one minute, saying outrageous, shocking things, then spent the next morning decorating cookies with a group of four-year-olds.

“Uh. Yes. I mean no.” He wanted to go in. He wanted to get to know her better. So why was he so afraid of going in? “I was just getting ready to leave. I forgot I have an appointment.”

“Nonsense,” she replied, pulling open his door. “Poor Gwen has been thrown to the wolves with all of those children. I'm sure she would love your help today.”

Mrs. Haverty was a shrewd woman. Did she know kids were Ethan’s weakness? Not only that, they were also the perfect excuse to see Gwen again. He could gauge her temperature after last night. Part of him worried he'd taken advantage of her outspoken remarks when she might not have intended them to be taken seriously.

Before the older woman yanked him out of his seat, Ethan pulled his key from the ignition and unlatched his seat belt. When he stepped out of the car, she laced her arm through his, guiding him toward the entrance.

The chime of the bell caused Gwen to turn. But as soon as she met Ethan’s gaze, her smile froze in place. After a moment of composure, she lifted her hand in acknowledgment. Was she upset that he came? Did she have regrets about last night?

Guilt bubbled in his chest. How did he make it right?

Clapping her hands, Mrs. Haverty announced, “Children, I have a surprise for you.” A hush fell over the room as all eyes turned to Ethan expectantly. “This is Ethan Reynolds. For those that don’t know, he has his very own cooking show on TV. He's here to help Miss Gwen.”

An audible gasp spread through the room, mainly from the adults waiting in line. The children clearly didn't have a clue who he was and went back to decorating their cookies.

A boy with spiked brown hair stepped forward. A smudge of pink frosting lined his lip. He looked from Gwen to Ethan. “Your boyfriend is Ethan Reynolds?”

Gwen’s mouth pressed into a thin line and she shook her head. As she turned away, Ethan swore he heard her whisper under her breath, “I wish.”





Gwen folded her arms over her chest, tapping her elbow with her hand. Her eyes narrowed on Mrs. Haverty. Had the older woman really just winked at her? What was she up to now? Mrs. Haverty really needed to work on her wing-man technique, or else Gwen would crash and burn.

After blundering her goodbye last night, Gwen didn't expect to see Ethan ever again. What must he think of her?

While his kiss did leave her smoldering, she was afraid to let herself get close to him. He was Ethan Reynolds, cook extraordinaire and top American bachelor. He could have any woman he wanted. She'd been burned before, and with the heat that his kiss packed, she would definitely end up singed.

He had surprised her last night by showing up and staying to help. Cutting out cookies for a kids' party didn't seem like something a celebrity chef would do in his downtime. If the kitchen hadn't almost caught fire, she didn't know how far she would have let it go. Would she have let him take her in between the flour and the sugar? Let him lick chocolate off her like in her fantasy?

Hadn't she just said that she would never sleep with him, moments before he walked through the door? Hadn't she just recalled all the reasons why being attracted to him was a very bad idea?

Now, here Ethan was in this room full of kids, and she had no idea why.

Today should prove to be interesting. It only took five minutes with Ethan for her to blurt out her fantasies. Controlling herself in a room full of four-year-olds who asked embarrassing questions would be impossible.

Maybe she could get him to leave.

Sophie, in her precious pink skirt and matching tights with hearts, approached Ethan, tugging on his sleeve. “Would you like to decorate Valentine cookies?”

Bending over, he gave her a lopsided smile. “I would love to.”

He shrugged out of his coat before draping it over the back of a chair. And just as he went to step away, he clasped Sophie’s hand.

Gwen’s heart sang at Ethan’s kindness. If she weren't such a hot mess, he would be the perfect guy for her. But who was she kidding? He could never fall for a girl like her, not with the shock value of her mouth. He had a career to protect and he'd been in a scandal already. She remembered the tabloids.

“What do you say we help these kids before they redecorate your shop?” he asked with a conspiratorial gleam in his eye.

Before Gwen could respond, Stephanie elbowed her in the back. “I don’t know what’s yummier, your cinnamon rolls or that guy. Mm-hmm.”

Hushing Stephanie, Gwen followed Ethan to the tables scattered with golden sugar cookies. Tiny hands reached into silicone bowls filled with red, pink, white and silver sprinkles. Plump tubes of frosting lay discarded, their containers oozing pink and white puddles on the table.

Sophie placed a heart shaped cookie in front of Ethan. Pushing up the sleeves on his navy-blue sweater, Ethan reached across the table. With hands twice the size of Gwen's, he fumbled with the small bowls, showering the table with sprinkles.

His throaty laughter filled the room, weaving a spell over her heart and sending chills skittering across her skin.

A cute redhead drew Gwen’s attention away from Ethan. She gestured for Gwen to bend down. Cupping her hand around Gwen’s ear, she said in a loud whisper, “You might want to check yourself in the mirror. You have flour on your face and frosting in your hair.”

Horrified, Gwen stood, swiping the sleeve of her sweater across her cheek. She groaned at the offensive powder staining it.

“Thought you should know.” Flipping her hair over her shoulder, the girl went back to chatting with her friend next to her.

Continuing to decorate his cookie, Ethan sent a quick glance over to Gwen and choked back a laugh. Well, he must be enjoying her embarrassment. Now Gwen knew what it felt like to be on the receiving end of total honesty.

“Aw, it’s not so bad,” he said with a chuckle. “Pink looks good on you.”

“And you don’t look so bad yourself.” She bit down on her lip, but not fast enough to keep herself from adding, “Especially in that sweater.”

Why couldn't she keep her mouth shut? The hole she dug for herself kept getting deeper. For a girl trying to distance herself, she wasn't doing a very good job.

Her eyes drifted to his stomach.

Don't go there Gwen. Don't think about how much you want to touch him.

Lifting her head, she saw his eyes darken with emotion. Oh no. Did she say that out loud?

She scanned the room. Stephanie’s mouth formed a silent, ‘Oh,’ while Mrs. Haverty looked like she’d just won Publisher’s Clearing House. Yup. Gwen had definitely said the words out loud.

Plucking at the frosting in her hair, Gwen muttered, “I'm scheduling a CAT-scan tomorrow.”

“Is something wrong?” Ethan asked.

The tone of his voice drew her attention. “What do you mean?”

Worry shone in his eyes. Worry for her?

“You just said you needed a CAT-scan,” he replied.

Waving off his question, she replied, “No. Everything's fine. I just figured it must be a tumor or a short circuit in my brain.”

She needed something to explain why she continued to make a complete fool of herself. Something to make her feel normal.

“So you didn’t mean the part about me not looking so bad?”

“No. I meant that.” Why didn't she just ask him to jump her right here on the table? Could she be any more obvious? Circling the table, she tugged the towel from the waist of her apron and swept up stray sprinkles and chocolate bits. She’d do anything to avoid further conversation with Ethan.

“Mr. Reynolds?” Sophie tugged on his sleeve again, leaving a pink smear of frosting. “My mom likes your show.”

“She does?”

“Yeah.” She rubbed the back of her hand against her nose. “Don't you have air conditioning in your kitchen?”

“Yes. Why?” He picked up a plain cookie and bit into it.

“Cause my mom is always saying how hot you look.”

Gwen couldn't contain her laughter over Sophie's comment. She laughed harder when Ethan choked on his cookie. One of the boys handed him a juice box and proceeded to pound him on the back.

Sophie's mom was right. He was hot. Even when his face was flushed with embarrassment.

He seemed to be having fun with the children, commenting on their designs and sampling their creations. Curiosity wiggled its way through her. Did he really come here to lend a hand? Or had he used it as an excuse to come back and see her?

Could it be remotely possible to not have scared him off?

She waited until his eyes met hers again, which didn't take long. Then she asked, “So what made you come back again?”

Placing his palms on the table, he leaned close to her. “Well, if you must know, it wasn’t for the cupcakes.”

Brutal honesty. Yeah, she definitely didn't like it, but whatever. He was probably in town for something else and Mrs. Haverty had dragged the poor guy in. Gwen fisted her hands on her hips and waited for him to continue.

“I guess I like how straightforward you are.” He looked down at the table, expelling a breath. All sound in the room faded away as he lifted warm brown eyes to hers. “In my profession, people tell me what they think I want to hear.” His eyes drifted over her body. “You weren’t afraid to say how you actually felt.”

She had to remind herself to breathe before her legs failed her. Could Mrs. Haverty have been right? Were the universe’s plans for her to find love through honesty?

Sophie’s sweet voice interrupted her thoughts as she tugged on Ethan's sleeve. “Are you going to kiss her?”





Chapter Seven





Gwen made a quick scan of the room, worrying she'd forgotten something in her car. She had one more tray to set out, and she would be finished. Then she could relax and maybe have time to watch the hockey game.

Pushing a game program aside, she set an assortment of bite-sized cheesecakes on the center of a glass coffee table. A few people had drifted in and out of the suite while she was setting up, but at the moment she had it to herself.

She still couldn't believe she was catering a private suite at an actual NHL game. It was unheard of for anyone to supply food other than the arena's preferred vendor. Could Ethan be the reason she’d gotten this gig? She hadn't seen him since the day at the bakery with the kids and she’d only thought of him every other minute since.

Sophie's innocent question about a kiss had been like a splash of cold water in her face. Her mind pulled her in one direction while her heart dragged her in another. That day, her mind won the battle.

So they had shared a kiss that night in the kitchen. Big deal. It wasn't going to happen again. Even if a part of her wanted it to.

She tugged her lip between her teeth at the memory. Who was she kidding? That wasn't just a kiss. That was a 'take me now and to hell with the consequences' kiss.

Leaving the warm interior of the suite behind, Gwen stepped out onto the balcony that overlooked the arena. She hoped to deep freeze the heat flooding her body. Why couldn't she get Ethan Reynolds out of her mind? He even invaded her dreams. Last night he'd starred in a dream about fishing. She'd never fished a day in her life! Not to mention, fishing wasn't exactly the kind of dream she would expect to have about him.

Music pumped through the speakers as the players circled the ice. There was only one place she'd rather be than her bakery, and that was at a hockey game. Her toe tapped a beat against the concrete. She searched the ice below for one familiar player's jersey, then caught herself scanning for another set of shoulders, hoping to find Ethan.

The door opened and closed behind her, making her belly flip. Turning her head, she saw it was Michael, Ethan’s producer. She masked her disappointment with a smile.

“All finished?” Michael asked as she stepped back into the room.

“Yes. I left an extra tray of éclairs in the fridge, too.”

His gaze shifted left then right as he perused her layout. “Everything looks perfect. Thanks for doing this on such short notice.”

“I'm flattered you thought of me, but frankly I'm surprised. How did you manage to get approval for an outside caterer?”

“Let's just say if I told you, I'd have to kill you.”

She chuckled. He was probably telling the truth.

He snagged a bottle of water from the counter. After twisting the cap, he took a swig. “Would you like to stay and watch the game from here?”

She shook her head. Staying there was tempting. She might even get the chance to see Ethan again. But the suite was too far from the action. The beat of the music called to her. Each thump filled her body with excitement. “I appreciate the offer, but I already have a ticket.”

“I was hoping to get the chance to talk to you about being a guest on the show.”

Her eyes lifted to the jumbotron. Less than one minute until the game started. “How about I think about it?”

Yeah, right. Her mind was made up the first time the show had called her, but at this moment, putting it off was the best thing she could come up with. Anything to avoid having to explain why she'd never, ever be on that show.

“Why don't I have my assistant contact you to set up a meeting?” he asked.

“That sounds great.” It was a lot easier to dodge a secretary over the phone than a face-to-face interaction with the boss man.

A horn blared behind her. Time was up. If she hurried, she might have time to grab a beer.





Ethan hesitated before letting his boot hit the top step. One pivot of his foot would send him back to the suite. Back to his empty life.

A few feet away sat the one woman who fascinated him with each syllable she uttered. The first woman who made him forget he was in the spotlight. The first person for as long as he could remember who put him at ease.

His phone vibrated against his leg. Tucking the cup of beer under his arm, he dug his phone out of his pocket.

Michael.

Swiping his finger across the screen, he read the text message. “Are you going to stand there all day looking like an idiot? You already wasted half the game drooling over her.”

Leaning forward, he angled his head until he spotted Michael standing outside their suite. Ethan could think of several ways to wipe that smirk off his face.

For the record, he wasn't drooling over her. He just wanted to tell her what a success her food was. He only watched her from the suite to make sure a date didn't show.

Jamming his phone into his pocket, he wrapped his fingers around the cup, careful not to spill the one he held in his other hand. As he dislodged it from his arm, drops of golden liquid splashed to the cement floor. Better there than on his jeans.

He'd stay a few minutes and find an excuse to leave; he wouldn't want it to be misconstrued as a date. Descending the stairs, he stopped at her row, where the aisle seat next to her remained empty. Not that he really noticed the seat when his eyes couldn't stay off her. A black down vest hugged the deep purple sweater hiding underneath. It accentuated her pink stained cheeks and blond hair, making her more beautiful—if that was possible.

She glanced up. Surprise registered in her eyes, followed by a flash of white teeth. “Ethan.”

“Hey, Gwen. Mind if I sit here?”

She gestured toward the vacant seat. “No. Not at all.”

“I hope you like light beer.” Passing her one of the plastic cups, he sat down. “Michael said I just missed you in the suite.”

“I would have waited, but I didn't want to miss the game.” Her eyes darted toward the ice before swinging back to him.

A surge of heat twisted in his gut. He needed to keep this casual, but every time he met her gaze made it that much harder. “You know, it's probably better that you stayed down here.”

“Why?”

He couldn't tell if it was curiosity or worry that caused her to tug on her lip. Either way, it was sexy as hell. She was making this impossible for him.

“There was almost a catfight over your cupcakes. I barely made it out with my skin intact.” He pretended to shiver. “There was only one chocolate cupcake with a string of pearls and one with a chocolate covered strawberry. Four hands dove in at the same time and it was utter chaos.”

She studied him for a moment before her hand swatted his arm. “You're crazy. You had me going for a minute.”

“You underestimate your talent.”

Two players crashed against the glass, rattling it in its frame. Fans pounded on it, cheering for the players.

She jabbed her finger toward the ice. “Watch number fifty-two. He'll circle the net, taking it slow and easy before gently sliding it in.”

Only Gwen could make something as masculine as hockey sound so sexual. Eyes glued to the game, she sprang to her feet as the puck slid between the goalie's legs into the net. Arms thrown over her head, she pressed her teeth over her bottom lip and let out a shrill whistle.

What a complex creature. She had so many layers and the one thought in his mind was peeling each one away…along with a few articles of clothing.

As number fifty-two skated off the ice, he pumped his fist in their direction. Ethan noticed Gwen lift her hand in return.

No way. Was she dating Chris Simms? That would explain her sitting alone. And her cold reaction to Ethan’s kiss, too. Damn. Her date was on the ice. He should have known a beautiful woman like her wouldn't come to a game alone.

“You know Chris Simms?