Fiona MacLeod slid the graduation cake in the fridge just as the sleigh bells over the door signalled the arrival of a customer. She pushed through the swing door into the seating area of Love Sprinkles – her bakery, her life.
“Good morning, what can I get you?”
Besides worship at your feet and have your babies.
Holy wow, the man was cute. Tall and blond, he was real Viking material. The reddish scruff on his chin added to the image of sexy plunderer of damsels.
Plunder me. Please.
He glanced up from studying the array of cupcakes, cookie bars, and other sweets in the glass-fronted display case. “Hey, I guess you don’t have coffee.”
Even his voice, all deep and gruff, aroused morning-after-the-night-before fantasies.
“Sorry, no. Sunny Springs Cafe is a block down on Main Street. I’ve got chilled drinks.” She pointed to the cooler filled with flavoured waters and fruit juices.
“That’ll work for me. I’m kind of over-caffeinated right now anyway.”
His broad shoulders and rippling back muscles under a close-fitting t-shirt as he perused the selection of beverages were as riveting as puppies and kittens frolicking in a garden, though way less G-rated. She silently approved his choice of organic lemonade.
Heavens to Betsy, his coming into her bakery would be the highlight of her day, maybe the highlight of her week.
Heck, who was she kidding? He was the best thing to happen to her in three years, seven months, and nine days.
“Will that be everything?” She stared into his blue eyes and sucked in her stomach She wished like heck she’d worn makeup and had her highlights touched up.
“It’s been a while since I last ate, so…” He checked out the cakes and cookies again. She checked out his sculpted chest and flat stomach. Again.
“You’ve travelled far this morning?” He wasn’t from Willow Springs. No way could someone as yummy as this live in her town and not be noticed.
“On the road all night. Covered about three hundred miles.”
“Sheesh, that’s quite a haul. You must be exhausted.”
“I’m used to keeping long hours. Do my best work when the world is quiet.”
“What work do you do?”
“Photojournalist.” He pointed at one of the trays filled with bar cookies. “What’s that?”
“Apple cinnamon bars.”
“I’ll take one—make that two, please.”
He winked. She felt that wink everywhere, particularly the bits covered by her pink bra and matching panties. She plucked a box off the shelf next to the cash register.
“A bag is good. They won’t last long enough to dirty a box.” His grin matched his wink on the sexiness scale, in the red zone approaching nuclear.
“Sure, no problem.” She opened a bag and slid in two of the bars. “Where are you headed? Or have you arrived?”
Say you’re moving here. Go on, I dare you.
Too bad lack of wedding ring didn’t guarantee relationship status, but a girl could dream.
He handed over his credit card. “I wish. I’ve got a couple more days of travel. Heading to Nova Scotia.”
She froze in returning his card. “For real? That’s where I’m from.”
“No kidding. You’ve probably heard of MacLeod’s—”
“Cove? Are you serious? Wait—” She squinted at the name on the credit card. Wait just a minute. No. No, no, no. Her mouth felt like it was filled with cotton wool. Not him, anybody but him. “Raynor Elliot.”
He smiled. “Now I’m embarrassed because I don’t recognize you.”
“MacLeod. Dang, you’ve changed, and may I say for the better?”
“Smooth.” She forced a laugh through her dry throat. This had become the day she wished had never happened. Pretend like this means nothing, like he means nothing. “My teen years were not kind.”
She got her braces off, finally, during her freshman year at college, and she’d let her hair go back to its natural colour. That Goth period she’d gone through in grade twelve, an attempt to be cool, had made her a pudgy caricature of a wicked witch. And she’d lost a few pounds that unfortunately were creeping back on.
“How long have you lived in the States?” He slipped an apple square from the bag and took a bite. “Whoa, this is delicious.”
“Thank you. I’ve been in Vermont eight years, almost nine.”
“Where were you before that?”
“We moved around. California, Oregon, New Jersey.”
“We?” He pulled a napkin from the dispenser and wiped his lips. Lovely lips. Off-limits lips.
“My husband—well, ex-husband and I. He’s American. Were you here on vacation?”
“Nope, working. Heading home now that I’m out of work.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“I’d been with a small city paper in Ohio, but it got bought by a larger one, like a lot of small-town papers. I was made redundant, as they say.” He shrugged and that sexy grin appeared on his handsome face again. “I might have to resort to web-based journalism.”
“Is that not any good?” Too bad she couldn’t tell him about the job opening at the local paper. Well, she could tell him, in theory, but she didn’t want to because he’d get the job and, boy, that would be disastrous.
“I like interacting with people face-to-face, bouncing ideas around. It might work out. We’ll see.”
His eyes were pale blue, paler than the sky. Ice blue and penetrating, they’d been one of the things she’d loved about him all those years ago. One of the many things. He studied her now like he could see into her soul, uncover her desires, read her thoughts, and expose her biggest secret.
She averted her gaze. That couldn’t happen, otherwise she’d need to travel to the highest mountain in Tibet and become a hermit. She doubted they had chocolate on top of that mountain, or cupcakes with sprinkles.
Then there was the whole baking at high altitude problem, so better not go, which meant keeping her secret a secret no matter what.
The bells over the door jangled again, heralding the arrival of another customer.
“Excuse me. Nice to see you again.” Fiona smiled before turning away, and wished like heck she didn’t need to hope she’d never see him again.
Ray settled at one of the small, mismatched wooden tables arranged near the front of the bakery. Whoa, talk about a blast from the past, a reminder of the good old days when his only worry was keeping his wheels polished and his girlfriend happy. He hadn’t seen Fiona since—hell, he couldn’t remember. Must have been at high school graduation, because he left town the following day.
Fiona had been on the periphery of his crowd, known to him only because she a friend of his girlfriend. Well, until Ashley dumped his ass the day before senior prom, after accusing him of messing around with someone else, for fuck’s sake. Everyone believed the lie and his circle of friends shrank, not exactly the good old days after that.
That whole shit show sure had opened his eyes, though. You couldn’t trust anyone, and a real friend was a rare and beautiful thing.
He pulled the other apple cinnamon thing from the bag. He might buy a couple more to take back to his room at the inn for a late-night snack while he searched online for a job. The nice severance package had given him a few months of security, so he wasn’t desperate. Not yet anyway.
The front windows were framed with white frilly curtains and looked out onto one of the main streets in town. A steady stream of little kids wandered by, heading for the elementary school on the opposite corner. According to the sign in front of the school, summer vacation would start in a couple hours, after a final assembly and ice cream party. No wonder the kids and the crossing guard were exchanging high fives.
A nice-looking bicycle sat propped against the railing edging the bakery steps. The woman who’d walked in paid for her order and turned to leave. He caught her eye. “Nice-looking wheels.”
“Did my outfit give me away?” She raised the bike helmet in her hand.
“Nah, I used my journalistic skills to ferret out the truth.”
“Oh, yeah? You with a paper?”
“In between assignments.” Code for out of work but it sounded better, like he controlled the situation.
She stuck out her hand. “Paige Norman, managing editor of the Willow Springs Gazette. Too bad I filled the vacant position at my paper. I just told Fiona to stop spreading the word I was hiring.”
He stood and clasped her hand before glancing at Fiona. Strange she hadn’t mentioned the job. Though maybe not strange given their history. “Win some, lose some.”
“If you’re settling in the area, I know Maple Rock Living is looking for a columnist and a photographer. It’s a lifestyle magazine covering Vermont, mostly.” She shook her bakery bag. “Thanks, Fiona, I earned my reward this week.” She paused at the door. “Let me give you the contact info for the editor. I’ve known Del Bushell for years. He’s a great guy.”
“Cool.” Ray snagged a pen from the counter along with a clean napkin. “Shoot.”
“Del at maple rock dot com. Mention my name and if he hires you and it works out, he’ll owe me.” She winked and stepped out into the morning sunshine.
Damn, talk about easy. No guarantee he’d get the job, but if he did, he wouldn’t have to return to MacLeod’s Cove and answer questions about why a good-looking guy like him hadn’t settled down, married, and produced two-point-five children.
He watched her mount her cycle--must be a few grand’s worth of carbon fiber there-- before turning back to Fiona, pink-cheeked and unable to meet his gaze.
“Well…” He crumpled his bakery bag and tossed it into the trash. The evidence appeared to confirm that she’d chosen to not tell him about the job. It seemed he was still a pariah. He headed for the door.
“You’re holding a grudge after all these years.” He stood with a hand on the doorknob. Why did he care, besides wanting to understand what made people do the things they did, hence his career in ferreting out the truth?
“I didn’t tell you about the job opening at first—”
“Without knowing the whole story.” He assumed she didn’t know the whole high school breakup story otherwise she would have said something by now. Hell, who would have thought messy teenage drama would rear its head after all these years?
“And then I was too embarrassed.” She studied her hands like the answers to all of the universe’s greatest questions were written on her palms.
“Looks like you’re still embarrassed.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“I guess I need to get an email to Del.”
“You mean that?”
“If I get the job, I might be hanging around Willow Springs.”
“We might run into each other. Having the world’s greatest hound dog living in the same town won’t bother you?” Nah, no way could she hold the non-existent cheating incident against him. No one was that petty.
She laughed, but it was as phony as a plastic flower. “Look, we all did stuff when we were young we’re not proud of.”
Sure, and some of us didn’t do a damn thing to be ashamed of and were still blamed. “You still in contact with Ashley?”
Fiona shrugged. “I ran into her last year when I was home.”
“She back in MacLeod’s Cove?”
“Yup, in her parent’s house. Her mum goes to Florida for half the year and lives in the guesthouse the other half.”
Yeah, Miss Ashley Crouse, belle of the ball and spoiled rich kid, none of which he’d thought back then. She’d been the love of his life, the only girl for him, perfection in designer clothes. Her hints about wanting to see other people when they went to college, should have been a clue. He’d been too blinded by hormones to read the signs. In retrospect, she took that rumour as a convenient excuse to break up. “I guess she didn’t tell you what really happened.”
“What do you mean?” Her flushed cheeks drained of colour and she leaned against the counter like she needed to, or risk collapsing.
“First thing you learn in journalism school - every story has at least two angles.”
He raised his bottle of lemonade in a mock toast and let the door bang shut before heading toward the town square.
Even one person thinking he’d cheated on a woman burned his ass.
Ancient history and not important. What Fiona thought didn’t matter because he wasn’t in the market, remember? He’d sworn off romance for six months. The most beautiful supermodel could beg at his feet, and he’d turn her down.
Maybe he should look for a self-help book. Someone somewhere must have advice on how to find a mate without becoming a lovestruck idiot blind to clues so obvious they’d be visible from outer space.
Good thing it didn’t matter what Fiona thought. She’d been one of the kids who hadn’t believed his professions of innocence back then. Yeah, she didn’t matter. But he’d like to see her smile again.
Ray parked his butt on a bench next to the gazebo in the town square and pulled out his phone. No job offers since the last time he’d checked. Looking into the job opening at the magazine might be the perfect solution. He spent about an hour reading emails, enjoying the warmth of the sun, and catching up on the news of the world. Damned depressing. He glanced at the mature trees in full leaf, the red and yellow flowers at the base of the gazebo, the birds hopping around gobbling insects, and was thankful for this apparent pocket of sanity.
A young kid, aged ten or so, rode his bike along the sidewalk. At no time did his training wheels touch down. It might be time to let the kid graduate to a bigger bike, and lose the elbow and knee pads, too. The woman who’d stopped to talk to another woman fifty feet back, and who never took her eyes from the kid must be his mom. Wasn’t he old enough to be on his own, especially in this quaint town that could be a model for a Norman Rockwell painting? Although, times had changed since Ray had been that age, a quarter century ago.
Well, shit. Now it sounded like he had one foot in the grave. He drained his lemonade and screwed on the cap.
Should he walk back to the inn for his laptop? Nah, he had everything he needed in his smart phone. A few taps on the screen updated his most recent cover letter, including a mention of Ms. Gorman, and he sent it and a copy of his resume to good ole’ Delbert.
Crossing his arms, he relaxed on the bench to wait for a reply and to let his gaze wander. Willow Springs was a classic small town with a central square, century-old buildings, and large trees lining the streets with lots of foot traffic in and out of the shops. It wasn’t what he’d been used to since leaving home for the big city. His last gig in Akron had been all about local politics and the crime beat, sometimes conveniently found in the same story. Before that, he’d been in Chicago, bright lights and big city politics. Before that, he’d been overseas covering corruption in the former Soviet Union, taking photos while keeping his head down. History seemed to be repeating itself in that part of the world.
His jobs were getting smaller, as were the locations.
You’re not following the plan, Mr. Elliot. Reporting on a new store opening in Podunk, USA is not the path to a Pulitzer.
His phone buzzed. A reply from Delbert? Nope, it was a text from Anna, asking when he planned to arrive. His big sister had always been the family organizer. No birthday passed without cake, balloons, and games. She wore herself out at Christmas making sure they followed every tradition, right down to braving a blizzard to sing carols at the neighbour’s house.
She wouldn’t be too disappointed at his delay. Managing two kids, a husband, and her large circle of friends kept her occupied. His last trip home two years ago had been non-stop cocktail parties, dinner parties, and beach picnics. You’d think he was a celebrity or something. He sent a brief reply outlining his need to stay put for a possible job prospect.
His phone buzzed again. Things were looking up. Del was in Willow Springs. Could Ray meet him at the inn in an hour? Hell, yeah. He sent a confirmation. The office for the magazine must be in another town, which meant he wouldn’t need to settle in Fiona’s backyard, so to speak, which was a relief. Yup, he wouldn’t be running into her all the time. Hell, he might not see her again for months and that was…great.
The kid on the bike rode past for the third or fourth time. Ray raised a hand in greeting and the kid slammed on his brakes. “Who’re you?”
“Ray. Who’re you?”
“Stevie. Whatcha doin’ here?”
“Just chillin’. I’m waiting for an appointment later.”
“Doctor?” Stevie frowned. His only experiences with the medical profession were probably needles, pain, and fear.
Ray smiled. “No, worse, a job interview.” Shit, he shouldn’t say stuff like that to an impressionable kid. It might put him off finding a job, he’d be homeless, and it would be Ray’s fault.
“Nothin’ worse than the doctor ‘cept maybe the dentist. Where’s the job at?”
“A magazine.” He should do a web search for an office address. The “about” page might give him pointers on how to handle the job interview and what to expect from his co-workers, provided he got offered the job.
“My Aunt Paige works at the newspaper.”
“I met her this morning.”
“She’s crazy about her bikes.”
“I saw her bike at the bakery. Nice wheels.”
Stevie rolled his eyes and blew out a breath as if to say you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. “That’s only one of them. She’s got a garage-full.”
“That who taught you how to ride?”
His mom glided to a stop, the brake pads squealing against the tire. She put a hand on Stevie’s shoulder before giving Ray a once-over as if memorizing his features in case she had to report him to the police. “I haven’t seen you before.”
“I arrived in town this morning. I’ve got a job interview with someone that Stevie’s Aunt Paige knows.” Mentioning a local connection should set her mind at ease.
The woman relaxed and her face softened with a smile. “Paige is actually an old friend. Stevie calls lots of grownups aunt and uncle since he doesn’t have real ones.”
“Is Delbert Bushell one of his uncles?”
“We don’t really know him though I know who he is.”
Ray shrugged, so much for inside information. “He’s the editor of the magazine I’m hoping to work for. Maple Rock Living.”
“Oh, I love their local stories. Good luck with your interview.” She scooted onto on her bike seat. “Come on, Stevie. We’ve got work to do.”
“Aww…” Stevie stuck out his lower lip. “Stupid weeds.” He pedalled away, his legs churning like pistons.
His mom grinned. “He earns his allowance by helping around the house, and not every chore is fun.”
Ray returned her smile. “A taste of adulting.”
She laughed. “Adulting sucks sometimes.” She took off after her son.
He should have asked her name, but he bet he’d find out soon enough. He’d know everyone’s name in no time if he was offered the job, and if he took it. Magazine writing would stretch his writing muscles, which might be a good thing.
He crossed the street to Barrett’s Books & Antiquities and bought a copy of the magazine. Let’s see what I’m dealing with.