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The Baker's Beauty

Coming Autumn 2018

After tragedy struck, Sean Amory left life as a record executive in L.A. to go back to his roots. He’s come home to River Hill to work in his family’s bakery while he decides what to do with his life. Somehow, the warm ovens and fresh dough are soothing to his raw edges—and the gorgeous woman he sees jogging past every morning as he opens up the shop has another effect entirely.

Jessica Casillas-Moore’s former life as a beauty queen led to her current gig as a lifestyle consultant for a dozen local TV stations, but it also means she hasn’t eaten carbs since she was fourteen. But smellingthem won’t ruin her career, so she makes a point to route her morning run past The Breadery, River Hill’s most delicious site. When she meets the handsome baker, sparks fly and cupcakes get … frosted.

Opposites really do attract, and it turns out that Jess and Sean just might be made for each other. But when his past rears its ugly head and her future comes calling, they’ll have to work out just how much they’re ready to give in order to get what their hearts most desire.


Copyright © 2018 by Rebecca Norinne and Jamaila Brinkley. 
All rights reserved.

Chapter One

“I don’t know much about interventions, but I think you’re doing it wrong.” Sean Amory peered over the rim of his glass at his friends. “For starters, I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to do it at a bar.”

Max Vergaras rested his elbow on the sticky surface of The Hut’s bar top, making a face as his shirt moved in a different direction than his skin. “It’s the only place we can find you these days.”

“It’s here or work,” Noah Bradstone added, taking a seat on the other side of Sean as Iain Brennan nodded in agreement from behind him.

“So?” Sean sipped his whiskey, ignoring the concern written all over their faces—except for one. “Disappointed I’m not drinking yours?” He aimed the barb at Iain.

“We don’t distribute here. Just Frankie’s,” the Irishman answered with an easy shrug. 

“I don’t drink at Frankie’s.”

“Not anymore, you don’t,” Max said. He owned Frankie’s, and when he wasn’t in the kitchen, he was behind the bar. He had a fair idea of how much his customers drank on any given night, which was exactly why Sean had stopped drinking there.

“I didn’t know you were hurting for business.”

Max rolled his eyes but didn’t bother to respond. Frankie’s—and many of the other businesses that rounded out River Hill’s ridiculously charming downtown—had never been better. Some recent high-profile publicity for the town had brought the tourists in droves, and everyone appreciated the extra income, if not the actual vacationers.

Noah leaned in. “Sean, you know why we’re here.”

“Slumming?” Noah’s highbrow wine labels weren’t available at The Hut any more than Iain’s fancy whiskey was.

“You need help.” Noah’s thick eyebrows snapped down into a frown. “Seriously.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re drinking too much.”

“Maybe you’re not drinking enough.” These men had been his friends for years. Iain was new to the pack, having moved to River Hill to cohabit with the notoriously prickly Naomi Klein last year, but the others knew him well. Right now, Sean wished he’d never met any of them.

“Listen.” Noah was taking the lead again. Sean briefly imagined slamming his friend’s head into the ancient bar top in front of them, then shook his head slightly to clear it. Violence wasn’t his style. Maybe the guys had a point. He transferred his glare from the group to the glass in front of him as Noah continued speaking. “My therapist is always saying to think about what it would look like if you confronted the things you’re running from, if your worst fears actually came true. Then—”

Sean snorted a bitter laugh. “That’s the last thing I need to imagine.” 

He knew exactly what it would look like. Cal Grissom’s too-pale face, slack in death, had been floating into his vision every time he closed his eyes for the last year and a half. Drinking was the only thing that blurred the grisly image, the only thing that stopped him waking up in the middle of the night reaching helplessly toward the kid’s hand, dangling loosely over the side of the perfectly made-up hotel room bed, still clutching the pill bottle that had killed him. Rigor mortis had made his fingers curve exactly to the shape of the bottle even after they’d pried it out, a detail Sean wished every single day he could forget.

“I think you should call a therapist. If not mine, then a different one.” Noah reached out and plucked the half-empty glass from Sean’s loose grip. “This isn’t cutting it, my friend.” He sniffed the glass. “I’m pretty sure Johnnie Walker’s degree is strictly honorary.”

“Fuck you.” He’d meant for the insult to be biting, but it just came out sounding tired. He didn’t try to get the glass back.

Max sighed. “Whether you decide to call a shrink or not, brother, this phase is over. We’re calling it.”

“What are you talking about?”

The chef exchanged a nod with the bartender, who shot Sean a guilty glance. “Sorry, Sean. Big Mitch called a few minutes ago. You’re cut off.”

“What?” This was the last thing he’d expected. Nagging him to get help he could deal with. Bringing Big Mitch into the picture was a little extreme. The head of River Hill’s resident biker gang was a silent owner of The Hut, a fact not many people knew. Except the other small business owners of River Hill, of course. “What the hell did you do?” he said, turning on Max.

Iain laid a hand on Sean’s back, warm through the fabric of his vintage tee. “Sorry, lad. It’s done. I’m afraid you won’t be served at any bar in town.”

“You …” Sean seethed. He couldn’t even get words out.

“It’s for your own good,” Max said. “You’ll thank us later. Maybe.”

“I don’t give a shit whether you thank us or not,” Noah added. “I just want you upright and alive by the end of the year, and this is the only way we could see to make that happen.”

“I’ll just go out of town to drink, then.” Sean rolled his eyes. “Your perfect plan has some pretty big holes in it, guys.”

“Well, that’s your choice,” Noah said. “But I have to tell you this particular plan was Plan B.”

“What was Plan A?”

Did he even want to know?

Noah sighed. “Angelica just got a seat on the tourism board. With your mom.” Noah’s girlfriend was a former actress who’d opened up a bed and breakfast in River Hill last year, leveraging her former career to get a deal with a TV network to film the renovation. The show had brought a lot of good publicity to River Hill, and pretty much everybody adored her these days. Including Sean’s mother, who owned the family bakery. Where he now worked. 

The only thing he did these days besides drink - and the only thing that had given him a lifeline when it had felt like his entire world had spun out of control - was head to the bakery. He’d come home to River Hill to work, hoping the familiar actions of kneading, cutting, and baking would soothe his bruised soul after what had happened in L.A. 

But his mother didn’t know about the drinking part, as far as he knew.

“I hate your girlfriend,” he told Noah. “And you can tell her I said so.”

“You can tell her yourself, if you do it sober,” Noah said. “She told me to tell you that.”

* * *

Sean shook the bleariness of sobriety out of his eyes as he bent over a sheet of scone dough. His head was aching more than it usually did on the days he was hungover. 

He sliced mechanically through the thick dough on a diagonal with his bench scraper, the movement economical as only years of practice could make it. He might have spent the last ten years in L.A. working his way up the ladder as a record producer, but he’d grown up doing this. Baking was in his bones. The Amory family had owned The Breadery since River Hill had been founded. 

He slid the scones onto a waiting sheet pan and popped them into the huge oven, pulling out two oversized muffin tins before he closed the door. He prodded the muffins with a finger, then spun the tins onto the counter to cool enough that he could turn out the goodies inside and put them into the display case before opening. Which he wasn’t looking forward to.

It was the quiet mornings alone in the bakery that had brought him back here. Sometimes, he thought the bakery had actually saved his life. He’d been shell-shocked, shattered after finding his protégé dead. Producing records had suddenly seemed like an incredible waste of time. A week after he’d buried the kid, Sean had returned to the one thing he knew he could do productively: feeding people. When he’d asked for the opening shift, the bakery’s other employees had practically thrown him a party. His mother hadn’t asked any questions either. She’d simply handed over the keys and a couple of quick instructions he hadn’t really needed.

It turned out baking was like riding a bike. You never really forgot how, especially when every turn of the dough, every shake of the sifter, and every sprinkle of cinnamon brought color back into your pale, dry life. 

But he still hadn’t been able to shake the nightmares. So he’d been drinking. Maybe his friends were right, though, and it was too much.

Today was the first morning in ages he hadn’t simply gone through the motions of mixing, scooping, rolling, and flipping. The line of pastries already in the display case shone softly in the light, sugar crystals winking slightly. Sean sighed, and rested his head against the side of the huge refrigerator. 

Sobriety might be healthy, but it was hard as shit. He wanted a drink.

Instead, he swept the used parchment paper and crumbs lining the countertop into a trash bag and spun it swiftly to bring the ends together. He tied a knot in the top and hooked a finger through it, lifting the bag and taking it to the back door toward the dumpster that was cleverly disguised behind a faux picket fence. Because this was River Hill, and everything was relentlessly pretty here. Even the dumpsters.

Sean heaved the bag over the edge of the fence, then paused to admire the sunrise for a brief moment before going back inside to start on his next batch of danishes. Picket fences, window boxes full to bursting with color, and delicate filigree gazebos were one thing; this was real beauty. 

The Breadery opened at seven in the morning for folks who wanted a quick breakfast pastry to go with their coffee from the Hollow Bean across the town square. That meant he arrived no later than four to prepare the morning’s offerings. A few doughs got made by whoever closed the night before—usually his mom and one of the other employees—but the quick breads and all the decorative work had to get done before the sun came up.

He stretched, feeling his back crack, then paused as he heard an unexpected sound. Was that somebody running? His body came alert without conscious thought, years of living in L.A. taking his mind into danger mode immediately. He wasn’t about to deal with another tragedy, especially not here on his home turf. Just the thought of seeing another dead body here, in his safe haven, made his blood boil. He turned, ready to do something—although he wasn’t entirely sure what—and saw the source of the footsteps.

It was only a jogger. His body sagged, then straightened as he got a closer look. She was toned and lean, but with just enough curves in all the right places. Tanned skin wrapped in black compression leggings and a purple tank that left the lines of her shoulders bare to the thin morning light. Long dark hair, swept back into a thick ponytail, swung with every rhythmic step. She slowed as she came closer to the bakery, and he stepped back, not wanting to get in her way. His back hit the doorframe and he watched, enraptured, as she slowed to a walk. The woman took deep breaths, lifting her head and closing her eyes. It seemed almost like she was sniffing the air. Then again, maybe she was. He was mostly used to it, but the heady scents coming from the ovens were strongest at this time of day.

His foot scuffed the ground, and her eyes flew open. When she saw him staring, he felt himself blushing like a teenager. It was like she’d caught him peeping. He raised a hand awkwardly and she smiled at him, then sped past without a word. A few long steps later, she was gone, jogging around the corner and into the growing foot traffic of a River Hill morning.

Sean let out a breath he hadn’t noticed he was holding. Well, that was something new. If he was going to see beauty like that every time he took a break in the morning, he’d come out to admire the sunrise a hell of a lot more often.

As it was, this was the first morning he’d taken a moment out of the simple routine he’d clung to as a lifeline. And to be honest, it was the first morning in months he’d been sober enough to appreciate anything anyhow. Had the mystery woman been there all along? 

What else had he been missing?

Chapter Two

Jessica Casillas-Moore sagged through her front door. Bent over at the waist, she took a few deep breaths before straightening. She raised her arm and tapped the screen on her digital watch to gauge her progress. Three miles. Not bad. Not great either, but some days getting out of bed for a pre-dawn run was harder than others. If she were being honest with herself, she could admit that was the case more often than not these days.

Fanning the long, chocolate brown hair off the back of her neck as she made her way to the bathroom at the back of her tiny cottage, Jess wondered if it was time to reconsider her priorities in life. She’d won a few pageants when she was younger, and she’d managed to leverage her so-called ‘beauty queen’ status into both a successful beauty blog and, most recently, a job as a lifestyle ‘guru’ for a few local TV stations. But she couldn’t remember the last time she’d enjoyed a meal with friends or family without counting the calories of everything she consumed. She had friends who swore by skinny margaritas and oven-baked tortilla chips, but as far as Jess was concerned, she’d rather have the real thing or nothing at all.

Which brought to mind the route she’d traversed this morning. After attending her niece’s birthday party a handful of weeks ago and not eating any of the prettily-decorated cupcakes or cookies from The Breadery, River Hill’s best bakery, she’d taken to running past there every morning instead. If she couldn’t eat any of their baked goods, Jess reasoned inhaling the sweet, buttery scent was close to the next best thing. Although after the handsome—if slightly bleary-eyed—baker had caught her sniffing the air this morning, she might have to reconsider that plan.

Now, Jess peeled the sweaty athletic gear from her body and stood naked in front of the mirror on her closet door, turning this way and that to inspect her reflection. Even with constant diet and exercise, some of her natural curves were a bit softer than they’d once been, and her breasts didn’t sit quite so high up as they did even a year ago. She cupped them and then pulled her hands away, watching the weighty flesh bounce and then settle back into place.

She’d always heard a woman’s body changed drastically once she hit thirty, and with that date looming in the not-too-distant future, Jess wondered what other changes she could expect. She turned and stared back over her shoulder at her ass, surveying it for any new signs of cellulite. Between the fifteen miles she ran each week and the squats and lunges her personal trainer made her do three times a week, it was arguably her best feature. Even so, as someone whose professional longevity was tied to the beauty industry, she knew all too well that age and gravity waited for no woman.

With a weary sigh, she turned on the hot water and waited for the bathroom to steam up. Grabbing a new razor from a basket under the sink, she stepped into the shower while giving herself a pep talk. It was no use getting depressed before brunch with her family. Her two older brothers—with their constant nagging about when she was finally going to settle down and start having babies—could be counted on to darken her mood all by themselves.

***

“Eat up, mija.” Celia Casillas, Jessica’s abuela, patted her shoulder as she made her way to the stove. “You’re too skinny. Men like a woman with meat on her bones.”

“If I eat any of this,” Jess said, gesturing to the chips, salsa, and guacamole spread out on the kitchen table in front of her, “I won’t have room for your albondigas or papa’s tri-tip.”

“And we know how much Jessie likes her balls,” her sister Marisol cackled as she grabbed three Coronas from the refrigerator on her way through the kitchen to join their brothers Robert and Manuel in the backyard.

“Not as much as you love your meat,” Jess replied through a pasted-on grin as the screen door clanged shut. She loved her siblings, but as the youngest of four, she’d been the butt of their jokes her whole damn life. As a kid she’d assumed they’d all grow out of it, but she hadn’t been that lucky. Now their barbs and jabs were often of a sexual nature—even around their grandparents.

Jess’s grandmother set a beer down in front of her. “Ignore her. She’s just trying to get under your skin.”

“Well, she’s doing a pretty good job of it. She knows it’s inappropriate to talk like that in front of you. Heck, in front of anyone.”  

“You know your sister. She likes to shock people.” Her grandma settled into the chair across from Jess and loaded a tortilla chip up with homemade salsa. She brought it to her mouth, but halted just before taking a bite. “She’s jealous of you, you know?”

Jess snorted and shook her head. “No way. She thinks I’m pathetic.” That was one of the things that hurt the most about her relationship with her siblings. Jess had worked hard for years to get where she was—first with beauty pageants, and then with building her own consulting business, and now her YouTube channel, blog, and stint as a lifestyle expert on local news and radio shows. She’d worked full time while putting herself through school, and while she might not have a life that mirrored the rest of her family’s, she’d built something to be proud of. She had made a name for herself, but lately it seemed like the only time anyone cared was when she could leverage that name to get them free stuff. Otherwise, all they ever did was tease her about her diet, her makeup, or the lack of a man in her life.

The first two she could handle. Jess knew she’d chosen a career path that some might consider shallow, but the constant jibes about her thinking she was too good for any of the men they introduced her to were low blows. She wasn’t conceited or stuck-up; she was discerning. Why that was a bad thing, she didn’t know. With the divorce rate so high in her family, she would have thought they’d applaud her for not settling for less than she deserved. Instead, her brothers and sister used her single status to mock her. It wasn’t like she liked going home to an empty house each night.

Chewing around her food, her grandma said, “No, mija. She spends her days carting the boys  to and from school, and then going to PTA meetings and practices, and now she wishes she’d made different choices when she was younger. I love Marisol—and I would kill for my grandbabies—but she should have waited to have those kids. She wasn’t ready, and neither was that no-good Jason.”

Jess had always considered Marisol, five years her senior, the beauty of their family. In fact, Marisol was the reason Jess had gotten involved in pageants to begin with—she’d wanted to be just like her big sister when she grew up. Back then, Marisol had it all … or so Jess had thought. But then when Marisol was twenty, she’d gotten knocked up by her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Jason. Their “off again” periods usually came about when he’d get caught cheating on her, but for some inexplicable reason, Marisol always took him back. When she’d gotten pregnant with Jason Junior, she’d dropped out of college and she and Jay got married. Two years later and pregnant with their second kid, she found out he’d been cheating on her again. They’d gotten divorced before Jessica’s second nephew was even born.

Marisol was a good mother to her boys, but it hadn’t always been easy on her. Jess knew that. They all knew it. That’s why she,  Robert, and Manny took the opportunity to help out as often as they could. That was just how their family worked. They’d grown up with a single mother themselves, and they all knew how hard it was. But while Marisol had grown closer to their brothers as her sons had grown up, she and Jess had somehow drifted further apart.

Never once in all these years had Jess considered her sister could be envious of her; she’d just assumed she’d done something to anger Marisol, but couldn’t figure out what it might have been. Now, hearing her abuela’s theory, Jess wondered if the older woman wasn’t on to something.

“I don’t know, maybe.” She shrugged, and nibbled on a chip. She loved her grandma’s guacamole, but the fats from the avocado did better things for her hair than they did for her stomach and hips. She’d just as soon go home and apply it as a conditioning mask than she would fill her belly with it.

“There’s no maybe about it,” her grandmother said as she headed back to the stove. “Now go tell your sister and those boys to help your abuelo bring in the meat and we can finally eat. I’m starving.”

Jess rose, but before stepping outside to gather her siblings, she planted a kiss on her grandmother’s cheek. “You’re the best.”

The other woman pretended to wave away the praise, but then smiled. “I really am.”

***

Jess stepped outside, the warm evening breeze a welcome respite from the delicious fragrance of her grandmother’s cooking. A woman on a life-long diet could only be surrounded by the succulent smell of onions, garlic, and tomatoes for so long without pushing everyone to the side and shoving her head inside the pot.

At least out here, she could stand down-wind from the grill. And honestly, except for her grandmother’s meatballs, Jess wasn’t really a beef girl anyway. Just another way she differed from everyone else in her family. While her brothers could put away literal pounds of carne asada and her sister had never met a tri-tip she didn’t like, Jess stuck to the grilled zucchini her grandfather always made specially for her instead.

“Hey, you guys,” Jess said as she came up alongside her siblings, “Soup’s almost ready so Abuela wants everyone to head inside.”

Manny finished typing something on his phone, and then shoved the device into his back pocket. “That was Rosalie. She needs me to pick up Abigail.”

“I thought it was her weekend,” Marisol sneered, hefting one of the platters and turning toward the house. There was no love lost between Marisol and Rosie, whose sister was one of the girls Jason had cheated on her with. Marisol still couldn’t believe her brother would betray her like that, while he failed to understand how Rosalie was responsible for her sister’s behavior. It was an argument Jess could practically recite by heart.

“It is, but something came up.”

Robert rolled his eyes. “That seems to happen a lot lately.” He wasn’t a fan of Rosalie either, but that stemmed more from the fact that when she had come into the picture, Manny hadn’t been able to act as his wing man anymore. At thirty-five, Robert Casillas-Moore was the biggest ladies man Jess knew.

“It is what it is.” Manny sighed and grabbed the other platter, while Jess picked up the small plate of vegetables and raced to catch up with her siblings.

“It doesn’t have to be,” Robert said, as Jess fell into step next to them.

“He’s right. You should talk with your lawyer again about the custody arrangement.” She knew her advice wasn’t wanted, but she couldn’t help it.

Manny shot her an angry look as Robert jogged ahead to hold the door open for them all. “And do what—ask for full time custody? You know I can’t do that.”

“Why?” Jess honestly didn’t get it. Manny was a talented animator who worked from home so he had plenty of time for his daughter. And his house, while small like hers, was a much better environment for his daughter than his ex-wife’s place in what real estate agents liked to call a “transitional neighborhood.” The real issue, she suspected, was that Manny’s new girlfriend Camila didn’t want his young daughter around. The woman was smart and beautiful, but she also had a jealous streak a mile wide and a foot deep. The fact that Jess’s brother had been married before did not sit well with her.

Frankly, Jess didn’t see their relationship working out in the long run, but what did she know about things like that? She hadn’t been on a real date in almost six months, and hadn’t had someone she could call her boyfriend in way longer than that.

Which her brother, of course, was quick to point out. He pushed his way through the door with a huff. “Honestly, Jess. You are so naive sometimes. ”

“Manuel Joseph Casillas Moore! You be nice to your sister.” With a look that told Manny she meant business, their grandma set a big, steaming bowl of soup in the middle of the table.

Manny’s jaw ticked, and Jess knew he was biting back a smart-ass reply. Obviously thinking better of it, he shook his head and joined Marisol on the opposite side of the room. Setting his platter down next to hers on the antique oak sideboard, he turned and crossed his arms over his chest. “Someday you’re going to have to grow up and join the rest of us adults in the real world. Maybe then you’ll understand.”

Marisol snorted and rolled her eyes. “Not likely. Jess is waiting for Prince Charming to come along and sweep her off her feet. Everything will be sunshine and roses and they’ll spend all their time riding around on unicorns and living in their made-up fairytale world.”

Jess felt tears springing into her eyes at the attack. She breathed deeply and stared hard at her siblings, wondering when they’d become so bitter. Wondering what she’d ever done to deserve this treatment. They stared back, the look on each of their faces defiant and stubborn.

She looked away first. She didn’t have the energy for this today. “I’m sorry, abuela, but I’m not hungry anymore. If you’ll excuse me …” She darted across the room and grabbed her purse, rushing out the front door before anybody could say anything. She cried the entire fifteen minute journey back to her house.

When she pulled into the driveway, her stomach rumbled loudly. Of course.

Jess slammed her palm against the steering wheel. She let out a frustrated growl and pushed herself out of the car. Stalking angrily up the walk, she unlocked her front door and stepped over the threshold, tossing her purse on the table to her right. At least now she wouldn’t have to work off her grandmother’s meal by adding an extra mile to tomorrow’s run.

Unbidden, her thoughts flashed to the man standing outside The Breadery. The one with dark, haunted eyes and overgrown scruff. The one who’d set her heart racing even more than it already had been. The one who’d stared at her and who she’d stared right back at. Briefly, Jess wondered what had made his eyes so sad, and what he saw when he’d looked at her. She wondered if he’d seen her own sadness reflected back at him.

Hmm. Maybe she’d keep that extra mile after all.