Bad Boy Bakers 0 (Prequel): Rescued By a Bad Boy
Bad Boy Bakers 0 (Prequel): Rescued By a Bad Boy
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What's a little marriage between friends?
Mia has been Braxton's best friend for years. Even when they no longer lived in the same foster family, even after he'd aged out of the system, he'd continued look out for the one person who got under his skin and made him care.
For the last six years, Mia's been keeping her head down, putting one foot in front of the other, unable to trust anyone with her secrets—including the foster brother who's been the one bright spot in her life, as well as her secret crush.
Just one more day until Mia turns eighteen—a legal adult. Brax doesn't trust her foster father and wants her out of that house. Is proposing a marriage of convenience to your best friend a little drastic? Maybe so. But what Brax feels is so far beyond friendship. Is it possible Mia feels it, too?
Mia Torres snapped from sleep to wakefulness in a heartbeat, ears straining to analyze for threat before she opened her eyes or moved a muscle. A faint scritch scritch sounded at the window as the overgrown black hawthorn bush outside nodded in the wind. The clatter of breakfast dishes sounded from elsewhere in the house, but there was no squeak of floorboards, no sense of movement nearby. She cracked her eyes open and spotted her desk chair still wedged under the doorknob, exactly where she’d left it last night. Her paltry wooden sentry had done its job. Beneath the pillow, her hand relaxed, releasing the scissors she slept with. Flexing stiff fingers, she sat up and stretched. Her spine and shoulders popped.
One more day.
Less than twenty-four hours until she turned eighteen. They couldn’t hold her after today. In truth, she really needed to make it through the end of the semester until graduation, but if worse came to worst and she ever had to use those scissors, she could leave tomorrow. The idea of it terrified her, but she’d figure it out. She was so over the foster system. It was supposed to keep her safe. For nearly six years, she’d bought into that, done everything she was told, kept her head down, stayed invisible. She was very, very good at being invisible. But this last placement had her questioning all the well-meaning adults who’d put her in this position, claiming it was for the best.
It hadn’t been so bad when Lainey and Max had been here. But Lainey had been busted for drugs at Halloween, and Max was doing a stint in juvie for boosting some rich guy’s sports car for a joy ride. For the past two months, it had been only Mia. Her foster mom, Darlene, wasn’t so bad. She wasn’t a warm woman, but she appreciated hard work and manners, something Mia’s real mother had drilled into her from a young age. She’d held onto them after her mom died, feeling like it was a small way to honor her. But Darlene’s husband, Wayne, made Mia nervous. He hadn’t ever laid a hand on her, hadn’t said anything outright threatening. He just watched her. Long, assessing gazes with those flat, watery blue eyes that Mia wasn’t sure how to read. She didn’t know if he’d stay content with only looking, and she wasn’t taking any chances.
The oversized flannel shirt she dragged on over her henley hid the shape of her body. It was probably poor camouflage for the curves that had sprung up against all her hopes two years ago, but it made her feel more at ease. She’d use whatever flimsy armor she could manage. Working her long, thick sable hair into a braid, she peeked out the window at the gray January day. Freezing and gross but not actively snowing. It was as much of a win as she could expect in this part of Washington. She’d take it.
A glance at the clock told her she needed to get a move on, or she’d be late for school. The lace-up boots she’d found at a second-hand store for ten bucks would do good to make it the rest of the winter. Maybe she could shore up the inside seams with duct tape. Later. She added a second pair of socks before slipping them on and shrugging into her coat. Out of long-ingrained habit, she hauled the duffel bag out from under the bed and did a quick inventory of its contents. A few changes of clothes. Basic toiletries. The little Lego knight she’d been gifted in her first foster home by the boy who’d become her best friend. The sketch pad where she captured the dreams she didn’t dare tell anyone about. A picture of her mother. The things she couldn’t live without if she had to run. Satisfied all was as it should be, she shoved the go bag back in place and stuffed the last of her schoolbooks in her backpack. There’d be a quiz in U.S. Government today, and she’d been up too late preparing. Quick and quiet, she removed the chair from beneath the knob, sliding it back in place beneath the boards laid over two battered file cabinets that served as her desk. One last look to make sure everything was in place.
The scissors. Pulling them out from beneath the pillow, she hid them under the mattress.
Time to go.
Wayne was at the kitchen table, lingering over a cup of coffee. A too large figure in a quilted flannel jacket, he seemed to take up half the room just by breathing. Mia’s step hitched a fraction of a second at the sight of him. He’d normally be gone to his job at the steel mill by now. Ducking her head to avoid eye contact, she made a beeline for the cabinet to grab a pack of Pop Tarts for the walk to school.
“No greeting this morning?” His voice held a smoker’s rasp and something slick and oily in the tone that automatically put her back up.
Smoothing her features, Mia turned in his direction and muttered, “Morning.” Then she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Aren’t you late?” She regretted the words as soon as they were out. They opened the door for conversation, which was the last thing she wanted.
“It’s a service day. Line’s down for repair.”
She grunted an acknowledgment and headed for the door.
“In a hurry?”
Without looking back, she reached for the door. “I have a test this morning.”
“Have a good day at school.”
Uncertain what to do with that, she just kept going, straight out into the cold. The whip of winter wind helped clear her head. Her boots crunched on old snow as she strode down the driveway to the sidewalk. A figure melted out of the trees up near the corner. Stubble darkened the cheeks of the tall, rangy boy who was well on his way to manhood. At the sight of him, Mia felt the tension in her shoulders dissolve and her heart kick into high gear.
Braxton Whitmore was her lifeline. A former foster sibling, he’d made the past six years tolerable. He’d befriended her when she’d had no one. Taught her how to fight, what to watch for. Kept her safe. And even though he’d aged out of the system last year, he was still looking out for her.
Was it any wonder she was in love with him?
Determined not to betray herself, Mia worked to control her features and hurried to meet him.
* * *
Brax hunched into the shearling-lined denim of his jacket, keeping his eyes on the house instead of the girl who’d done everything in her limited power to hide the fact that she was a woman. He’d had a lot of practice at trying not to notice those failed efforts. The baggy, shapeless clothes couldn’t fully conceal that hourglass figure his fingers itched to touch. The total lack of makeup only served to draw attention to those striking, long-lashed coffee-colored eyes he wanted to drown in. As she neared, those unpainted lips curved into one of the hard-won smiles that fueled his days.
“Morning.” Her breath puffed out in a cloud with the greeting.
Brax grunted an acknowledgement, his gaze shifting back to the single-story ranch where the blinds in one of the front windows twitched, as if someone were watching her. His eyes narrowed. “Wayne still home?”
“The line is down for repair, apparently.”
This close, Brax could see the faint shadows beneath her eyes. “You didn’t sleep well. Problem?” His gut tightened at the thought of everything that could happen to her in the night without him being there to stop it. He’d done his best to prepare her, but nothing changed the fact that she was small, and her foster father was a big son of a bitch, who could’ve played defensive line for the Seahawks.
Her shoulders jerked in a shrug, but she didn’t avoid eye contact. “No more than usual. I’m just edgy.”
So was Brax. “You’re taking precautions?”
Satisfied with her answer, he let the tension release and fell into step beside her for the trek to school, as he did every day, come rain, snow, or shine, before he went to the first of two jobs. What would she say if she knew he organized his entire work schedule around being able to see her to and from school? She’d probably be horrified by how many decisions he’d made with her in mind. He hadn’t planned it that way. For so long, his focus had been on his own survival.
He’d been on the streets for nearly a year after his mother had ODed. A skinny, half-starved ten-year-old, who’d had more in common with the stray mongrels he’d sometimes emulated than the kids his age he’d seen in public. The restaurant owner who’d caught him foraging in the trash for food had lured him in with a hot meal while he called the cops who’d ultimately connected Brax with social services. It hadn’t taken them long to figure out that he had no family and dumped him into the system. That had just been trading one kind of survival for another. He’d trusted no one and bounced through so many placements by the time he was thirteen, he’d earned the “problem child” label. He’d still been one step from feral when he’d landed in Mia’s first foster home.
She’d been shell-shocked and so damned scared. When he’d heard her crying that first night, he’d sneaked into her room and curled up on the floor by her bed, close enough to reach up and brush her hand. It had been the first deliberate human contact he’d attempted. When she’d latched on, that little hand squeezing his, he hadn’t pulled away. Thus had begun their unlikely friendship.
In her, he’d sensed the kind of gentleness that would get slaughtered by the harsh realities of the world they lived in. Some instinct he hadn’t recognized had driven him to protect her. Maybe because he’d seen too much goodness broken to be able to stand by and watch as it happened to her. So he’d shaped up, because he’d known they’d ship him off somewhere else if he didn’t. The social worker had been so impressed with his turnaround, she’d made sure he and Mia stayed together. At least until he’d aged out a little over a year ago. It was a minor miracle. The only good thing either of them had gotten out of foster care.
“You’re thinking deep thoughts this morning.” Her voice brought him back from his musings.
“Just thinking about tomorrow. It’s the big one-eight.”
Mia blew out a breath. “Yep.”
They both knew the implications of this birthday.
“You given any more thought to what you wanna do?” He kept his voice easy, no pressure.
“Yeah. I’m gonna try to stick it out ’til graduation. If I go out on my own, I’d probably have to drop out to work enough to support myself. And even then, it probably wouldn’t be enough to make it on my own.”
Brax got that. He worked his ass off at two jobs so that he didn’t have to depend on anyone else, and so he could put a little bit by each pay period in case of… In case. He wanted to tell her she wouldn’t have to do it on her own. That she’d have him. But something held him back. Would she see the offer as friendship or a request for more? God knew he wanted more with her, but he’d never do anything to pressure her or risk destroying the trust she had in him. She was too important.
“Makes sense,” he agreed equably. But he couldn’t get the image of those blinds out of his mind. He wanted her out of that house, and he’d been considering extreme measures to accomplish it.
She opened a pack of Pop Tarts, passing him one, as she always did, for the last chunk of the walk. “One of these days, I’ll be able to afford real pastries, like they have in the window of the bakery downtown. They always look so shiny and beautiful.”
Understanding she wanted easier conversation, he followed her lead. “And what kind would you get?”
“Something raspberry. Maybe one of those tart things with all the pretty designs made out of dough. Or the pinwheels. Oh! Or those sort of swirly ones—what are they called?—palmiers.”
“They were my mom’s favorite. I don’t think I’ve had one since she died.”
Brax decided he’d move heaven and earth to get this girl something raspberry for her birthday.
At the dog groomer’s across the street from the school grounds, they stopped, watching other students flowing into the two-story brick building.
“I gotta go. Test this morning.”
Much as he’d hated everything about the restrictions of school, he wished he was going in there with her. He wasn’t ready to walk away from her yet. He suspected he never would be. “You have time to come by my place after school?”
Her brows drew together. “Don’t you have to work tonight?”
“Not until tomorrow night.” He’d talk Jerry into trading shifts with him. “I have a surprise for your birthday.” Or he would by the end of the day.
Her face twisted somewhere between suspicion and excitement. “Early?”
“Yes, early. I can’t wait.”
That earned him another of those smiles that warmed him up inside. “Then I can’t either. See you after school!”
As he always did, Brax waited for her to get inside the building. The jingle of the shop bell behind him told him someone was coming out. He was unsurprised when Valentina, the tatted-up owner of Mudpuppies, strode out. She wore a hot pink bandana over her spiral curls and a smirk on her warm brown face as she looked across the school grounds. “When you gonna lock that down?”
“It’s not like that, V.”
“The hell it isn’t. I been watching you walk her to and from school every day for the past… how many years? You are totally gone over that girl.”
That was completely beside the point.
“I’m just looking out for her.”
Brax met her skeptical gaze. “She’s not ready for anything else.”
Valentina crossed her arms and arched a perfectly manicured brow. “You actually asked her?” When he kept his mouth shut, she just shook her head. “That’s what I thought. Boy, you’re loyal as the day is long, but you sure are blind. She’s crazy about you.”
As the bell rang for the start of the school day, Brax glanced back at the school. Was she right? Did Mia feel more than he thought she did? Like most foster kids he knew, they both habitually played things close to the vest, masking their emotions because, in their world, feelings were weaknesses to be exploited. Was it worth the risk of finding out?
“Her birthday’s tomorrow. Eighteen.” He didn’t know why he said it, except that it had been on his mind for weeks.
“That what you’ve been waiting for?”
Was it? Maybe on some level. He’d been very aware of their year and change age difference since he’d left the system, not wanting to do anything to rock the boat and put her at risk or give anyone ammunition to keep them apart.
But at eighteen, she got to make her own decisions. She’d have to fight for them, but she’d be a legal adult.
Maybe he’d talk to her about it. But he’d see how the birthday surprise went first.
“I gotta go. Lots to do today to surprise her.”
Valentina grinned. “Good for you, honey.”
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