THE BAKER’S BEAUTY EPILOGUE

TBBepiloguecover.jpg

“An eco resort?” Sean protested as he was led toward the front desk. “Come on, Jess, do I seem like an eco kind of guy to you?”

His girlfriend grinned. "All natural, all the way, baby."

He snorted, but let her tug him to the desk to check in. 

“Casillas-Moore,” Jess said to the girl behind the desk. 

The girl typed the name in without looking at the keyboard, then paused, her eyes widening as she looked at the screen. “Jessica Casillas-Moore?” When Jess nodded, the girl beamed at her. “I love your show. I stream it every week.”

“No cable here?” Sean asked as his eyes bounced around the rustic lobby.

The girl shook her head. “We do have high-speed internet and complimentary WiFi, though. Some people find that their best wellness comes from disconnecting—at least a little bit.”

“They can't stop checking their email in between smoothies?” Sean asked. He’d known people like that back in L.A. They preached about living their best lives or being in touch with nature, but their phones were practically glued to their fingers like an extension of their bodies. Hell, he’d been one of them. But unlike him, they’d also carried around their yoga mats like security blankets. Strangely enough, most of their “wellness” routines had been a combination of starvation, nicotine, or cocaine while their Instagram feeds showed a life others tried to emulate. He’d pass. 

Jess elbowed him. “Behave,” she whispered under her breath.

“Sorry,” he said to the girl.

She lifted her shoulders in a small shrug. “You’re not entirely wrong.” She passed Jess their keys. “Anyway. Welcome to Costa Rica. Since you haven’t stayed with us before, let me give you an overview.” She pointed, bracelets jangling. “Sauna is over there, and the fitness center is behind it. You've got the therapy pool next to the salt cave, and the leisure pool overlooks the beach.” She glanced at the screen. “You’re in cabin fourteen, on the beach. Head down the path behind this building to get there. This is an all-inclusive resort, so all of your meals on the property are included. Since this is an alcohol-free resort, all our fresh juices, coffees, and flavored waters are also included.”

When the last part of her statement registered, Sean’s jaw dropped. He transferred his shocked gaze to Jess, who simply smiled at him. He was pretty sure he could see an actual halo gleaming over her head. “I love you. You know that, right?” He pulled her towards him and kissed her thoroughly. Nobody would be asking him if he wanted a drink. Nobody would be partying a little too hard. Nobody would be setting his nerves on edge with drunken laughter. He felt his entire body relaxing. “Hot damn, now this is a vacation.”

The front desk attendant smiled at him. “Some guests have the opposite reaction.”

“They're probably not recovering alcoholics,” he said blandly as he took the keys out of her hand and set a palm to the small of Jess's back to escort her to their cabin.

Spending New Year’s Eve at a luxury resort— alcohol-free!—was definitely one of Jess’s better ideas, he decided later as he relaxed in the huge bed while she showered. They’d been together for a few months now, and they’d managed to navigate the fraught possibilities of the holidays with their respective families, as well as their friends. 

They’d all bundled into Jess’s grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving, where Sean had sustained glares from her two brothers and a lot of eye-rolling from her sister. The food had been amazing, though. 

At Christmas, they’d agreed to spend the holiday itself apart. Jess had delivered a mountain of gifts to her nephews, some of which he’d helped her pick out. After all, he had a lot of experience being a twelve-year-old boy. Her, not so much. He’d enjoyed the day with his mother, who’d taught him to cook a few of the recipes she’d made for their family on special occasions when he was a kid.

Sean and Jess had spent Christmas Eve together, though, just the two of them. If Santa had come down the chimney at Jess’s house that night, he would have been awfully surprised at what was going on under the tree.

The day after Christmas, Noah and Angelica had hosted what Sean suspected was going to become an annual tradition—a lazy afternoon and dinner at The Oakwell Inn, Angelica’s B&B. Noah had supplied the wine (for everyone but Sean and Jess, of course), and Max had supplied the food, courtesy of his restaurant, Frankie’s.  Sean, of course, had brought dessert—he’d worked with Iain and Maeve Brennan, the Irish siblings who owned the local distillery, to make a special whiskey glaze for the cake he’d baked with spices he’d borrowed from Jess’s abuela’s kitchen. It had been a glorious afternoon. And at the end of it, Jess had surprised him with tickets to this fancy resort in Costa Rica.

“My boss gave me a bit of a bonus," she’d said. "Apparently, advertising on the show is selling exceptionally well. It turns out high-end beauty brands will pay through the nose to reach our audience.” She’d beamed at him, pride over her success suffusing her features. 

Of course, Sean knew much of the show’s success was down to Jess herself, but she’d never say it. She might have won more pageants than he could count and have millions of followers on her popular beauty blog, but there wasn’t an arrogant bone in her body. 

“I guess this means you’re not coming to the New Year’s Eve party at Frankie’s," Max had said. 

“It’s not like I would have been drinking the champagne," Sean told him pointedly. While he was a lot more open about his struggle with alcohol, thanks in no small part to nearly four months of therapy, he knew parties weren’t a great scene for him these days. So did Jess. Which was why she’d come up with a different plan.

Naomi Klein had looked at the brochure Jess had passed around and nodded. "I know this place. They bought one of my pieces at Z Gallery.”

"Not the one—” Iain started, but Naomi held up her hand.

"No, not that one. I told you, that one won’t ever be up for sale." The artist and the distiller exchanged a private, heated smile.

"Well, I think it sounds great," Angelica said. She paused, looking thoughtful. "I wonder if they’ve done any renovations lately. We haven’t filmed any resorts yet." The former actress shared an agent with Jess, and her popular show on RenoTV featured interesting renovations similar to the one she’d done on her own B&B a couple of years before.

Jess laughed. "I think they’re past the point of being filmed, but if I see any improvements they could make, I’ll be sure to pass along your info."

Noah snorted. "That’s one filming trip I’ll be coming along on."

"You could even have a destination wedding there," Naomi teased. Noah and Angelica’s long-delayed wedding was fast becoming a local legend.

The room broke into laughter, and Sean sat back to enjoy the warmth of friendship surrounding him.

Four days later, they’d touched down in Costa Rica, and Sean discovered the true lengths Jess had gone to book the perfect vacation. Now, he peeked at the clock and saw that he had just enough time before dinner to join her in the shower. And if they missed dinner, well, there was always room service.

* * *

The next evening, the resort hosted a New Year’s Eve celebration where guests mingled among trays of hors d’oeuvres topped by house-grown microgreens—plus at least twelve different juice concoctions that Sean could spot. He tasted as many as he could. 

"We should get a juicer," he said to Jess. He’d finally moved in to her house last month. He liked to joke that it was her kitchen that had won him over; getting to see her every day  was just a bonus. The truth was, living in Jess’s adorable cottage was a far cry from his bachelor apartment over his mother’s garage … or his high-rise condo back in Beverly Hills. His vintage truck, Bessie Blue, made an idyllic picture parked in front of the sparkling white front porch that she decorated with flower boxes and glass wind chimes. Inside, Jess’s taste meshed with his own so well that virtually all he’d brought with him was his beloved mixer. Now they had two. He used both frequently to test new recipes for the bakery.

“Which one do you like the best?” Jess asked. “This carrot and lime one with turmeric is really good.”

“This one that looks like a tequila sunrise but is actually beet juice with orange and ginger.” He handed her the little shooter glass. 

She took a sip and nodded. “We need the recipe.”

He chuckled. “Let’s see if we can charm it out of somebody.”

They wended their way through the crowd hand-in-hand, exchanging greetings with a few couples they’d met at dinner last night and by the pool earlier in the day. Most of the staff they encountered were waiters, passing trays of appetizers and drinks. One of them pointed out the lady in charge, and Sean towed Jess over so they could introduce themselves.

As it happened, not only was Myra Cortone a fan of Jess’s show, she’d also heard of River Hill. “I love Angelica Travis,” she exclaimed. “Don’t tell me you know her!” 

Jess smiled. “We do, actually. She’s a friend of ours.”

“Oh! I wish her show had been around when we did the renovations on this place,” Myra remarked.

“Funny that. She said something similar when we told her we were coming here,” Jess murmured as Sean suppressed laughter. Clearly Angelica had a kindred spirit in Costa Rica. He looked forward to telling Noah all about it.

“These drinks are so delicious,” he told Myra. “Any chance we could get the recipe for a few of them?” He lowered his voice as he asked, in case it wasn’t allowed.

She chuckled. “No need to be furtive! We have recipe cards available to all of the guests so that you can make our mocktails at home. We welcome you to take one so that you can transition your organic experience here back into your own lifestyle.” She pointed to a little wooden podium nearby. “There’s a few baskets of them in the pulpit, if you want to snag them early. They’ll be handed out at the door after midnight as part of the thank-you gift for coming, though.”

“Pulpit?” Sean’s curiosity got the better of him.

“Yes, we frequently host weddings and other private events. We even have a judge on call to conduct ceremonies.” She gave them a twinkling smile. “He’s also doubles as our tennis instructor.”

They laughed, and she bid them farewell to circulate among the other guests. Sean found himself staring at the little podium tucked away at the side of the open-air room, unused for the evening. He let himself picture standing in front of it with Jess, holding hands. Then he pictured waking up next to her the following morning, and every morning after that. He wanted it, with every fiber of his being. He glanced at Jess, who was smiling as she watched another couple whirl by in time with the music. He reached out to take her hand, letting his fingers slide along her smooth skin before intertwining them with hers. She looked up at him, and suddenly, everything crystallized.

Sean felt the words rising up in him, and paused only a brief moment to analyze whether he wanted to say them now, or later. No, definitely now. They felt good. It felt right. “Jess. Will you marry me? Here? Tomorrow?”

* * *

Jess stared up at Sean, her jaw slack. Had she heard correctly? He wanted to marry her? And he wanted it to happen tomorrow?

“Jess?”

“Yeah?” she whispered weakly. Frankly, she was dumbstruck. It was a miracle she could speak at all.

“Did you hear what I asked?”

Jess nodded mutely.

“And?” The look of hope, love, and contentedness in his eyes was the most profoundly beautiful thing Jess had ever witnessed. Especially considering that the first time she’d seen him all those months ago, his gaze had been hollow and broken. That man was a pale shadow of the one standing before her now.

She stepped close and laid her palm against Sean’s cheek. He nuzzled into it, his whiskers bristling against her skin. As part of his recovery—he was getting ongoing treatment for both his drinking and the PTSD he’d suffered at finding Cal Grissom’s dead body—he’d taken to shaving every morning. It was one small thing, his therapist had explained, that he could do at the start of each day to feel more in control of the world. 

Over the holidays, however, he’d relaxed his fastidious grooming habits. The short beard he’d grown was a choice; not something that had sprouted up on his face because he couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. They both knew he wasn’t one hundred percent healed, but this Sean was miles from the man she’d first met.

She loved him. With every fiber of her being, she cherished him. 

Jess wanted to be his wife. And she wanted to spend the rest of her days showing him just how far that love extended. If that meant marrying him tomorrow, then that was what she was going to do. 

“Yes, I’ll marry you!” A surge of happiness so strong and so powerful that it nearly burst right out of her chest welled within her. She laughed, her whole body suffused with joy, and threw her arms around his neck. She jumped into his arms, winding her legs around his waist. He caught her effortlessly, his strong hands molded to her curves. “Yes, yes, yes.” She kissed him between each declaration. 

Dimly, she became aware they had an audience who were clapping and cheering in the background.

She didn’t care. She kept on kissing him all the way back to their cabin.

* * *

“Your family is going to kill me,” Sean mused, his fingers tracing a lazy path over her bare skin. 

“Mmm-hmm.” It was no use pretending otherwise. Her brothers were going to be pissed, and Marisol, no doubt, was going to throw a fit. She just hoped her grandparents would forgive her for eloping. 

She hadn’t been one of those little girls who’d spent countless hours dreaming up the perfect wedding. She’d worn plenty of big, poofy dresses and tiaras over the years, but she’d never really thought of them in terms of being a bride.

She had always assumed, however, that if and when she got married, her grandfather would give her away. Instead, she’d given herself away, meeting Sean halfway down the aisle where they’d walked hand-in-hand to the lush circle of flowers set out on the sandy beach for their ceremony. She’d missed her papa, but it had felt so right to stand tall and meet Sean on her own terms.

That had been three hours ago.

She was a married woman now. In the back of her mind, she tried her new name on for size. Jessica Amory. Mrs. Sean Amory. Okay, so it wasn’t her name yet. If she wanted to take Sean’s last name—and the jury was still out on that, at least professionally—then she’d have a mountain of paperwork to fill out when they got back to the U.S. Otherwise, everything else about their wedding had been pretty straightforward. Easy and breezy (literally), but no less special for its suddenness. 

“Is your mom going to be mad?” she asked, pushing up onto her elbows and staring down into his smiling face. They were discussing the possibility of familial rifts they might never recover from, but neither of them could wipe the look of pure and unadulterated happiness from their faces.

Sean shook his head, his smile lazy and warm. “No. She’ll be happy for us. You’re the daughter she never had. You should prepare yourself to eat a whole lot of cake. ” He playfully swatted her naked rear, a little bit softer and rounder than it’d been a few months ago. 

Sean wasn’t the only one who’d changed. While Jess still exercised several times a week, she wasn’t quite as religious about it as she’d once been. These days, if she saw something she wanted to eat, she ate it—including helping Sean taste-test new recipes he was developing for the bakery. A whole new world had opened up to her, but it hadn’t been easy.

As part of Sean’s therapy program, they’d had a few sessions together. Jess had been surprised when his therapist had requested she join one of their appointments, but within minutes, she’d understood why. By the time she and Sean had walked out an hour later, Jess had the card for a therapist of her own. Jess’s sessions weren’t scheduled as regularly as Sean’s were, but they’d done wonders in helping her come to grips with some very real—and very ugly—truths about her relationship with food and how she used exercise as a coping mechanism. She wouldn’t go so far as to say she’d had an eating disorder, but the truth was, she hadn’t been far off. 

A topic she’d chosen to discuss publicly on her show. The leverage her personal brand afforded her had made it easy for the producers to support her desires. Much like on that long-ago morning show segment with Sylvia Barrows, opening up about the reality of her world and how women were pressured to be perfect—perfect girlfriends, perfect employees, perfect moms—had earned Jess high praise. Not to mention an influx of new viewers. Naturally, the network had been thrilled. 

Not so thrilling, however, was donating her old clothes when she’d grown out of them.  And she couldn’t lie; she’d been worried about how Sean would react to the changes in her body. 

Oh, he’d reacted all right. 

He couldn’t seem to keep his hands off her—not that he’d ever been shy in that regard. But there was something extra about the way he loved her these days. He seemed particularly fond of her breasts as they filled up his entire palm. 

She dropped a quick kiss onto his nose. “As long as you’re prepared for my brothers to behave like assholes, then we’re golden.”

Sean raised an eyebrow. 

“Okay, behave even more like assholes.” 

She giggled, and he pulled her down for a long, slow drugging kiss. “No more talk of your brothers.”

* * *

“You didn’t!” Angelica gaped at the diamond sparkling atop Jess’s left ring finger. 

“We did,” Sean said with an enormous grin as he tucked Jess into his side. 

They were standing in Noah and Angelica’s foyer, the last to arrive for their welcome home dinner. They would have been there sooner, but when Sean had added the beautiful Amory family heirloom to the simple platinum bands they’d exchanged in Costa Rica, the time had gotten away from them. The only reason they’d remembered dinner at all was the constant buzzing from the text messages their friends had sent wanting to know where they were. 

Angelica’s eyes flicked back to Jess’s, and if she wasn’t mistaken, her friend’s gaze turned longing. In a flash though, it was gone. “I’m so happy for you guys.” 

“Thanks,” Jess said with a beaming smile that she was sure matched her husband’s.

Her husband. 

She’d never get tired of saying that. She still couldn’t believe it was true. 

Neither could her family. 

She and Sean had returned two days ago, and as predicted, things had not gone well when they’d shared news of their surprise wedding. 

For all of his machismo, she’d never seen her brother Robert lift a hand against anyone, but the second he’d spied the ring on Jess’s finger, he’d taken a swing at her new husband. Sean, thankfully, had dodged the flying fist. It turned out his exercise of choice these days was sparring. After forcefully restraining him, Manny and her grandfather had dragged Robert from the room, her two brothers cursing the entire way. With a parting glare, Manny had said that she’d made the biggest mistake of her life. While her grandfather and middle brother were busy dealing with Robert, Marisol had begun to sob noisily. When their abuela had asked why she was crying, Marisol had accused Jess of stealing her thunder. It turned out that she was pregnant again, and had planned on announcing it that night. 

Marisol had been easily soothed by the promise of being a consultant for pregnancy-related beauty tips on Jess’s show in the spring, something she’d wanted to ask her sister to do anyway. Robert and Manny were less bribe-able, and both left without speaking another word to the newlyweds.

Once all of her siblings had gone home, she and Sean had sat down to a tense dinner with her grandparents. They’d said all the right things, but Jess could tell they remained concerned. By the end of the meal, Sean had managed to charm them at least a little bit—they’d parted with what seemed like genuine smiles and well-wishes, though their moods remained subdued. Jess hoped they would come around..

At least her friends were excited, though.

“I wanna see,” Naomi said, hip-checking Angelica out of the way and grabbing hold of Jess’s hand. Lifting it to the light for closer inspection, she hummed out her approval. “Mmm, very nice.” 

Noah chuckled and clapped Sean on the shoulder. To Naomi, he said, “For someone who claims she’ll never get married, you sound awfully covetous of a wedding ring.”

Iain snorted, and when Naomi glared at him, he covered his mouth and turned his head away. Unfortunately, that did nothing to disguise shoulders shaking with laughter.  

Naomi rolled her eyes. “There is no claiming. We aren’t getting married. Such a shame too, since I do love the jewelry.”

Iain wrapped his arm around her shoulder and kissed her cheek. “I could buy you a ring,” he remarked offhandedly, and all eyes swung his way. 

Naomi turned to Iain, her face a mask of surprised wonder mixed with faint suspicion. “You could?” Her throat visibly bobbed as she swallowed deeply. 

Iain took hold of Naomi’s hand and rubbed the pad of his thumbs lazily over her knuckles. “Sure, I could. It’ll be a ‘we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together living in sin’ ring. I hear they’re all the rage.” He smirked, and Naomi beamed at him. 

After a few seconds, she glanced down at Jess’s ring.  “I do love diamonds.” She paused. “Emeralds, too. And sapphires.” Her voice had become dreamy.

Iain chuckled and lifted his chin toward Noah. “I’m gonna need the name of your jeweler. This one isn’t lying when she says she loves diamonds. She wouldn’t stop talking about Angelica’s ring when you proposed.”

Noah’s eyes found Angelica, who was standing across the circle from him. “How about I take you there myself?” He was speaking to Iain, but his eyes never strayed from his fiancee. “Maybe I’ll pick out some wedding rings while I’m at it.”

Much as they’d done with Iain’s pronouncement, all eyes swung to Noah. 

And then to Angelica. For a few brief seconds, she didn’t react. But then her gaze grew misty and she nodded. “Yeah, I think it’s time we make this official.” 

By the time Noah broke out a couple of bottles of sparkling grape juice—something he’d been working on in secret for when Sean and Jess came over—there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And if anyone else noticed Max and Maeve’s heads bent together, no one said a word.

**************************************

Keep your eyes peeled for pre-order links for The Barista’s Beloved, coming June 19.