Book 2 The Bakery Sisters Series
Nicole Keyes had always believed that when life gives you lemons, stick them in a bowl on the counter, then go get a Danish and a coffee to get you through to better times. Which explained why the time cards were sticky and she had a very effective caffeine buzz going on.
She eyed the display case, where a cherry cheese Danish softly whispered her name over and over again, then glanced down at the brace on her knee and cane by her side. She was still healing from her recent surgery, which meant not a whole lot of physical activity. If she didn't want to risk making her jeans even tighter, she was going to have pass on that second Danish.
"Better to be tempted by a pastry than man," she reminded herself. Baked goods could make a woman fat, but a man could rip out her heart and leave her broken and bleeding. While the cure for the former—diet and exercise—wasn't pleasant, it was something she could handle. But a cure for the latter was iffy at best. Distance, distractions, great sex. At present, she didn't have any of those in her life.
The front door to the bakery opened, causing the bell above it to tinkle. Nicole barely glanced up as some high school kid walked to the case and asked for five dozen donuts. She licked her fingers, wiped them on a paper napkin, then began initialing the time cards so they could be dropped off at her accountant's that afternoon.
Maggie, working behind the display case, put three big boxes on the counter, then started to ring up the order. Just then, the phone rang. Maggie turned to get it.
Nicole couldn't say what it was that made her look up at that moment. A sixth sense? Luck? The way the teenager's fidgeting caught her attention?
She saw the kid stick a cell phone back into his shorts' front pocket, grab the boxes of donuts and head for the door. Without paying.
Nicole accepted that she was, by nature, a crabby person. She rarely saw the bright side of any situation and she was known to over react, from time to time. But nothing, absolutely nothing, pissed her off more than someone playing her for a fool. She'd had a lot of that in her life lately, and there was no way this kid was going to add himself to the list.
Without really planning her actions, she stuck out her cane, tripped him, then shoved the cane in the center of his back.
"I don't think so," she told him. "Maggie, call the cops."
She half expected the kid to jump up and run away. She couldn't have stopped him, but he didn't move. Five minutes later the door opened again, but instead of one of Seattle's finest walking in, she looked up and saw someone who could easily pass for a underwear model/action hero.
The guy was tall, tanned and serious about working out. She could tell about the working out bit because he wore red shorts and a gray T-shirt from Pacific High School ripped off just above his waistband. Muscles she hadn't even known existed on the human body twisted and bunched as he moved.
Reflective sunglasses covered his eyes. He looked down at the kid still held in place with her crutch, the donuts scattered across the floor, then whipped off the glasses and smiled at her.
She'd seen that smile before.
Oh, not from him specifically. It was the one Pierce Brosnon, playing James Bond, used to get information from of slightly-out-of-breath secretaries. It was the one her ex-husband had used, more than once, to get out of trouble. Nicole couldn't be more immune if she'd invented the vaccine herself.
"Hi," the guy said. "I'm Eric Hawkins. You can call me Hawk."
"How delightful for me. I'm Nicole Keyes. You can call me Ms. Keyes. Are you with the police?" She looked him over, trying not to be impressed by so much male perfection in such a tiny space. "Is your uniform is at the dry cleaners?"
His smile widened. "I'm the football coach at Pacific High School. One of my buddies took the call and phoned me."
People thought of Seattle as a big city, but it was made up of a lot of small neighborhoods. Mostly Nicole liked that about her home town. Just not today.
Disgusted, Nicole looked at the woman behind the counter. "Maggie, would you call the police again?"
"Maggie, hold that thought," Hawk said. He nudged Nicole's crutch aside so the kid could scramble to his feet. "Raoul, are you okay?"
Nicole rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. What could possibly have happened to him?"
"He's my star quarterback. I'm not taking any chances. Raoul?"
The kid shuffled and ducked his head. "I'm good, Coach."
Hawk took the kid aside and had a whispered conversation with him. Nicole watched warily.
Washington State might not be Texas, but high school football was still a big deal here. Being the winning quarterback of a high school team was nearly as good as being Paris Hilton. Hawk probably expected her to succumb to his questionable charm and let the kid off with nothing more than a shrug over the misunderstanding. Which was so not happening.
"Look," she said, her voice as stern as she could make it. "He stole five dozen donuts. In your world, that might be perfectly fine, but it's not okay to me. I'm calling the police."
"It's not his fault," Hawk told her. "It's mine."
She was sorry she'd rolled her eyes before—it meant she couldn't do it now. "Because you told him to steal?"
"Raoul, wait for me in my truck," Hawk said.
"Raoul, don't even think about moving," Nicole snapped.
She watched as Hawk's good humor faded. He pulled up a chair next to hers, sat down and leaned toward her.
He was one of those guys who took up too much space, she thought, fighting the need to scoot back. Still, she held her ground, even though he was so close, she could see the various shades of brown, green and gold that made up his irises.
"You don't understand," he said, his voice low. His breath smelled minty. "Raoul is co-captain. Every Friday the captains bring in donuts for the guys."
His hands were massive, she thought, distracted by their size. Big and strong-looking.
She forced her attention back on the conversation. "Then he should have paid for them."
"He can't," Hawk told her, still speaking softly. "Raoul's a good kid. He lives in foster care. Normally he holds down a job, but during training, he can't. Our deal is I give him a few bucks for the donuts, but I forgot yesterday and he was too proud to ask. It's Friday. He had to provide donuts. He made a bad choice. Haven't you ever made a mistake, Nicole?"
He'd almost had her. The sad story of poor Raoul had actually touched her cynical heart. Then Hawk had dropped his voice to an intimate tone and drawn out her name in a way that really annoyed her.
"Don't play me," she snapped.
"And don't treat me like I'm stupid."
Hawk held up both hands. "I'm not—"
She cut him off with a glare.
She could just bet he was used to getting his way, especially with women. One flick of that killer smile and anyone with an XY set of chromosomes melted like butter in the sun. Well, not her.
She stood, then grabbed her cane to support herself. "That kid is going down."
Hawk sprang to his feet. "Dammit, that's not fair."
She pointed to the donuts still scattered all over the floor. "Tell it to the judge."
Hawk moved toward her, but Raoul stepped between them. "Coach, it's okay. I was wrong. I knew it was wrong to steal and I did it anyway. You're always saying we have to learn to accept the consequences of our actions. This is one of them."
The kid turned to her, then dropped his gaze to the floor. "Not having the money isn't an excuse. I shouldn' t have done it. I was afraid of being embarrassed in front of the team." He shrugged. "I'm sorry, Ms. Keyes."
Nicole hated that she wanted to believe him. There was something so defeated about Raoul's posture. She told herself he could be playing her, too, that the two of them made a real great team, but somehow she sensed the kid was telling the truth. He had been embarrassed and he was sorry.
She debated what to do. While stealing was wrong, she didn't want to punish Raoul just to get back at Mr. High and Mighty. The fact that his coach was a womanizer/possible former underwear model/jock/who-knew-what wasn't Raoul's fault.
Knowing she was going to be hating herself come morning when the kid didn't show up, she said, "I'll make you a deal. You can work off what you stole. Be here at six tomorrow morning."
For the first time since she'd tripped him, Raoul looked at her. Something very much like hope brightened his dark eyes. "For real?"
"Yes. But if you don't show up, I'll hunt you down like a dog and make you regret the day you were born. Do we have a deal?"
Raoul grinned. She sighed. Give it a couple more years and he would be just as deadly as his coach. How fair was that?
"I'll be here," he promised. "I'll be early."
Hawk turned to her. "Now can he wait for me in the truck?"
"Sure." Although if it were up to her, Coach Hawkins could go, too. They had nothing to say to each other.
She looked at him then wanted to rub her eyes. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, but she would swear he'd just gotten better looking. Talk about annoying.
Hawk glanced over the woman glaring at him. She reminded him of a stray cat his daughter had brought home years ago. All spit and attitude.
Nicole was sensible. He could tell from her exactly to-the-knee skirt in dark denim, her plain T-shirt, the lack of make-up and the way she hadn't bothered to do more with her long blond hair but pull it back in a ponytail. She wasn't the kind of woman who impressed easily. Not that he was worried.
"Thanks," he said. "You didn't have to do that."
"You're right. I didn't. I also know I'm going to regret letting him off like that."
There was temper in her blue eyes. She looked like she wanted to hit someone. He thought about offering—it wasn't as if she could hurt him—but sensed she would think he was mocking her. Which he was...a little.
"You won't. He's a good kid. He has a lot of talent—he can go all the way."
"You see yourself in him, don't you?"
Hawk grinned. "Yeah."
"That is just so typical." She glanced at her watch. "Don't you have to be somewhere?"
"Practice. The guys are waiting." He pulled out his wallet. "How much do I owe you for the donuts?"
She frowned. "Weren't you listening? Raoul is going to pay them off with hard labor. At least that's my fantasy."
"Then I still need five dozen for the team."
Nicole looked at the women behind the counter. "Maggie, would you get the coach his donuts so he can get out of here."
Hawk bent down and picked up the donuts on the floor. "You're trying to get rid of me."
"But I'm the best part of your day."
"Maybe I'll get a splinter later and that can be my highlight."
He laughed. "You're not easy."
"That's the first smart thing you've said."
He put the crumpled boxes and donuts on one of the tables. "I'm plenty smart, Nicole."
"Keep telling yourself that and one day it might be true."
He stared at her, his gaze steady, until she began to squirm. "Why are you trying so hard not to like me?" he asked. "Do I intimidate you?"
"I... You... Just go away."
With that, she braced herself on her cane and moved toward the back of the bakery.
"No snarky come- back?" he called after her. "Does that mean I win?"
She turned and glared at him. "Not everything in life is about winning and losing."
"Sure it is."
Her jaw clenched. "Go away."
"I will because I have guys waiting. But I'll be back."
"It's not a bother. It'll be fun."
He left the bakery, whistling as he walked to his truck parked out in front.
Hawk could tell Nicole disliked not having the last word. She was obviously used to being in control and getting her way. Football had taught him a whole lot about life. Sometime teams got too cocky about being really good at one thing. If you could take that away from them, they were left scrambling. The same with women. Especially women.
It was going to be a good day, he thought as he handed Raoul the donuts and started the engine. Suddenly there were a whole lot of possibilities.
"What do you think?" Claire asked.
Nicole continued to flip through the shirts on the rack. "No."
"Come on. It's pink."
"You're not even looking."
Nicole held in a smile. "I don't have to look. No. It doesn't fit."
"How do you know?"
"Because you're maybe three months pregnant and you've gained all of five pounds. You don't need maternity clothes."
"But I want to buy something."
"Get a receiving blanket."
"I want something I can wear."
Nicole glanced up and groaned as she saw her sister standing in front of a mirror wearing a bright pink T-shirt with a sequined arrow pointing toward her stomach and the word "baby," in case anyone was confused.
"You're kidding," Nicole muttered.
"Maybe not this one, but I want people to know I'm pregnant."
"Have cards printed. You could hand them out to everyone you see."
"You're not helping."
"You don't need help being insane. You do great all on your own."
Claire flipped her long blond hair over her shoulder. "You're not a very good sister."
Nicole smiled. "I'm the best sister you have and your favorite twin."
"My only twin and I haven't decided if you're my favorite sister. Maybe one with ducks?"
"The baby is the size of a pencil eraser, Claire. Maybe a grape. You don't need special clothes because you're carrying a grape."
"But I'm pregnant."
"In a couple of months, when you've gained all of eight pounds, we'll talk. Until then, wearing anything maternity is going make you look like you're in a potato sack."
"But I'm excited."
"I know, and you should be. This is very cool news."
Nicole considered her own genuine excitement at her sister's pregnancy a testament to her good character. She could find happiness for Claire even knowing the odds of her ever having a kid of her own were as great as her winning the lotto...not that she ever bought a ticket. Pregnancy, unless one wanted to get science involved, generally meant having a man around. She'd given up on men. Permanently.
"Are you okay?" Claire asked. "You're thinking of Drew, aren't you?"
Nicole flinched and leaned more weight on her cane. "How do you do that? Know what I'm thinking?"
"Still. I know you."
It was borderline creepy, Nicole thought. And annoying. She didn't know what Claire was thinking all the time.
"I'm not thinking of Drew," Nicole told her. She refused to waste any mental time or energy on her soon-to-be ex-husband. "I was thinking about men in general."
"You'll find someone," Claire promised, sounding irritatingly pitying.
"I don't want anyone. I'm barely separated and I'm perfectly content to be on my own." Or she would be if everyone in her life stopped assuming she was crumbling from the emotional devastation of walking in on her baby sister in bed with her husband.
Yes, it had been horrible and degrading and maybe even heart-breaking. But she was dealing.
"I need to get used to being alone," Nicole said.
"Why? You were alone before, when you were married to Drew."
Claire sighed. "Sorry. I didn't mean for that to come out that way."
"It's fine." Nicole wouldn't show heartache. Not even to her sister.
Claire gave her an gentle smile. One that spoke about compassion and an internal decision to bring this up later. When Claire felt Nicole was stronger, emotionally.
Oh, great. Now she could read her twin's mind? How delightful.
Nicole glanced at her watch. "We need to go meet Wyatt."
"Oh! The time. I'll hurry."
Claire darted back into the dressing room. Nicole wondered if she should scold herself for tricking her sister into forgetting to talk about Nicole's tragic life, but then decided she'd earned the reprieve. After all here it was, a Friday night and she was at the mall, an obvious extra party in what should have been a twosome. But they'd asked and she hadn't wanted to spend the evening by herself.
"I'll meet you out front," Nicole called toward the dressing room.
"I'll just be a sec," Claire promised.
Nicole walked out of the maternity store and found Wyatt waiting by the front window display. He looked uncomfortable as he studied an obviously pregnant mannequin.
"Hey," she said. "You owe me. I just kept your fiancée from buying something hideous."
"You did it for yourself," Wyatt told her. "You'd care more than I would."
Nicole knew that was true, so she ignored the statement. She glanced at the bag in Wyatt's hand. It was from the bookstore.
"Another instruction manual on pregnancy," she teased. "Is there one left you don't have already?"
"We want to do it right," Wyatt told her. "Like you'd be any different."
Nicole knew she wouldn't, but that wasn't the point. She was about to suggest they take in a movie when Wyatt said, "How are you doing?"
She blinked at him. "Excuse me?"
"We haven't talked in a while. You okay? You know. With stuff?"
"Stuff" being man-talk for anything emotional.
Wyatt had been her friend and brother-in-law long before he'd fallen for Claire. He knew way too many of her secrets. He'd offered to beat the crap out of Drew when he'd learned about the cheating. She loved him like a brother—except for right now when she wanted to slap him upside the head.
"Have you and Claire been talking about me?" she demanded. "Am I the subject of one of those horrible 'what are we going to do about poor Nicole' conversations? Because if I have, you need to stop right now. I don't need help from either of you. I'm fine. Better than fine."
Wyatt was unimpressed by her outburst. "You're mostly staying home, you're not seeing anyone. You're crabbier than usually, which is a trick."
"I'm not in the mood to date. I know that's a surprise, but there we are."
"Don't judge everyone by Drew, okay? There are great guys out there. You need to get back on the horse again."
"Tell me you didn't just say that. Back on the horse? I didn't fall off my bike. My husband cheated on me with my little sister. In my house. That is not a 'back on the horse' moment. It's the kind of thing that makes someone rethink her sexual preference, okay?"
Her chest felt tight. Was it just her, or was it hot in here? "Look, I have to go. Thanks for letting me tag along for dinner. I'll talk to you later."
She turned and moved away.
She kept walking. When she saw the sign, she hurried toward the parking structure, incredibly grateful she'd met them at the mall. At least she had her own car.
Thirty minutes later she was home where it was quiet and familiar and there was no one to ask her stupid questions or feel sorry for her. There were also too many memories and an emptiness that made her flip channels until she found a sitcom. She stared at the screen and vowed she wouldn't cry over Drew. Not now and not ever again.
The Bakery Sisters, Book No. 2
August 2008/August 2018 reissue
If only her life was more sinful than sweet…
â€śResponsibilityâ€ť should be Nicole Keyesâ€™s middle name.Â After all, not many people would sacrifice their lives to run the family bakery and raise a younger sibling.Â But with Nicoleâ€™s twin sister now blissfully married and her younger sis turning out more femme fatale than girl next door, superreliable Nicole is getting sick of putting everyone elseâ€™s needs first!
Enter Hawk.Â The deliciously sexy former NFL player offers Nicole a taste of the freedom she craves.Â Hawk may know the way, blindfolded, to her sweet spot, but Nicoleâ€™s not about to let him get close enough to break her heart.Â Of course, she might not have a choice in the matter if Hawkâ€™s past keeps getting in the way of their presentâ€¦
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SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.