Bad Boy Bakers 1: Mixed Up with a Marine
Bad Boy Bakers 1: Mixed Up with a Marine
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Can a Marine turned baker and a jaded contractor find their way to a second chance?
Braxton Whitmore needs a change. After leaving the Marines, he’s free to build a new life. But is he gonna be a baker? Really? When his buddy inherits a decrepit bar and proposes they partner up to turn it into a bakery, Brax figures why not? Until his ex comes walking in.
Mia Whitmore has built a new life for herself, far from the heartbreak and secrets that tore her marriage apart. The last thing she expects is for her estranged husband to be business partners with her latest client. Or for Brax to think they’re already divorced.
As they’re forced into proximity on the renovation, truths come to light, and Brax and Mia get a second chance. But when past secrets become present danger, Brax puts everything on the line to protect the woman who’s always held his heart.
Braxton Whitmore had never seen so many bras in one place in his life. And he’d been to Victoria’s Secret a time or two. His gaze snagged on one particularly heinous neon orange brassiere, one of many being used as ornamentation along the perimeter of the dingy cinder block walls. Its cups were large enough to fit his entire head. In a combat helmet.
“You have got to be shitting me. This is your inheritance?”
Jonah Ferguson moved past Brax into the bar proper. “In all its horrifying glory. Told y’all you had to see it to believe it.”
Holt Steele, the remaining member of their trio, crossed thick arms over his chest. “I see it, but I’m not sure I believe it. Your dad actually owned this place?”
“For near to twenty years. Picked it over my mama, my sister, and me.” If that still bothered Jonah, his matter-of-fact tone didn’t betray it. “Don’t know why the hell he left it to us when he couldn’t be bothered to give a shit while he was living, but Sam and Griff are being all newlywed and getting ready for the baby, and she doesn’t want anything to do with the place. She’d happily burn it to the ground.”
“I’m not sure she’s got the wrong idea,” Brax muttered, moving further into the dimly lit bar. Were the windows actually spray painted? The whole effect made him feel like he was back in a war zone, but he shuddered to think what direct sunlight might reveal about the place.
“It’s an eyesore for sure, but if we can clean it up, make it less terrifying, we’d get more profit off the sale. And be more likely to actually find a buyer.”
Brax took another disgusted look around, noting the designations carved directly into the door frames above the restrooms—Poles and Holes. Classy. “Didn’t realize you were that much of an optimist.”
“You gotta have some imagination,” Jonah insisted. “Look past the filth. Basically, everything in here can go. We strip out the gross, do some demolition, clean everything that needs cleaning, that gives us a blank canvas.”
Holt arched a skeptical brow. “You got a dump truck load of fairy dust out back? Because it’s gonna take more than demo and cleaning to make this a blank canvas worth a damn.”
Tuning out Jonah’s retort, Brax mentally stripped the place down. New flooring, sheetrock walls over the cinderblock, new ceiling, and better lighting would go a long way to improving the place. But that was all window dressing. No way in hell was that the extent of necessary renovations. He strode across the cracked concrete floors, deliberately not giving consideration to what the stains might be. A quick peek into the men’s room showed a trough and a single stall housing an avocado green toilet. An outdoor water spigot served as a faucet over a cracked and rusty sink. The women’s side was hardly better.
“Bathrooms need total gutting.” And possibly dynamite.
He headed behind the long, scarred bar and through the swinging door into what passed for the kitchen. The space was long and narrow—a health code violation from one end to the other. A door to one side opened into what had probably been a storage room. A few empty liquor boxes lay abandoned in a corner beside another door that led, presumably, to the delivery entrance. The actual cooking area was made up of a range so caked in grease it would likely go up in flames if anybody dared to turn it on. Beside that stretched a single, warped steel table, garnished with a few dead roach carcasses and rat droppings. A deep commercial sink sat next to that, adjacent to a dishwasher Brax recognized as a model that had been ancient back when he’d done his stint as a busboy in high school.
He shoved back out into the main bar. “Kitchen needs gutting, too. Jesus, how long has it been since the place closed down?”
“Lonnie died eight months ago. We let his bartender keep running it for another six before pulling the plug.”
“Ten bucks says somebody was paying off a health inspector. That’s way more than two months’ worth of nasty back there.”
Jonah started to take down one of the rickety chairs stacked on tables, then evidently thought better of it. “Look, it’s a shithole. I know it. I just want to make it less of one. If that’s just cleaning and fresh paint, fine. But it’s a project. We need a project, at least while we figure out what we all want to do now we’re done up in Syracuse.”
They lapsed into silence, considering.
Even before he’d joined the Marine Corps, Brax hadn’t been a guy to just sit. He’d spent most of the year since he separated from the military at an experimental therapy program working through PTSD and anxiety. It was where he’d met Jonah, a former SEAL, and Holt, an Army Ranger. They’d all worked through their shit and been trained as master bakers in the process. Who knew baking worked as therapy? Dr. Audrey Graham, apparently. She was the genius behind the program, of which the three of them were part of the first group of graduates.
Brax enjoyed baking—which had been a hell of a surprise to him—but, at the end of the day, he was still a Marine. He was used to being extremely physical. This place was going to take a fuckton of work, one way or the other. Hard, disgusting work. He wasn’t under any delusion that they’d turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but there was something appealing about the prospect of doing something visibly productive. Maybe spending a few weeks working on this place was exactly what they all needed while they figured out what the hell they wanted to do with their lives now that they were all civilians again.
He shrugged. “Hell, why not? It’s not like I’ve got anything better to be doing right now. Holt?”
“Long as I get to swing a sledgehammer.”
Jonah grinned. “I expect that can be arranged. C’mon. Let’s head on over to my mom’s place. She’s so excited I brought you along with me, she’s beside herself. Prepare to be spoiled.”
Holt headed for the door. “I could go for some spoiling.”
Brax didn’t even know what to do with that. Of the three of them, he was the most alone. Jonah had his mom and sister, and a brother-in-law Brax had served with in the Marines. Holt had a sister somewhere or other. Brax had no one. No family. No wife. Not anymore.
As he trailed his friends out of the bar, temper kindled. Why the hell was he even thinking of Mia? It had been nearly ten years. She’d left. She’d made her choice. He’d moved on with his life. So why the hell couldn’t he get her out of his head?
It was Griff’s fault. The two of them had bonded in the field over their complicated feelings about their ex-wives. But unlike Brax, Griff had been the one to end things with Sam after they’d impulsively married in Vegas at twenty-two. He’d always planned to go back for her, after turning himself into the man he thought she deserved. Brax had stood up for Griff as informal best man at their second Vegas wedding a few months back.
And damn if it hadn’t stirred up all the old feelings. He’d become a Marine to escape all that shit. The betrayal and, damn it, the longing. Because he’d never been able to get over Mia. For so many years, she’d been his everything. And then she’d left, with no explanation. Bailing on their marriage. On him. There was no reason to think that just because his friend had found a second chance, there was the remotest of possibilities for one of his own.
He didn’t want a second chance. He didn’t want a woman, period. After Mia, he’d basically sworn off relationships or any sort of entanglement, keeping himself in one war zone after another so he didn’t have to think about the life he’d never have. Without that outlet, he needed a new distraction.
Maybe a few weeks of hard, sweaty labor would be just enough to clear this shit out of his head so he could figure out what came next.
* * *
“Are you sure you want to take on this train wreck?”
Mia Whitmore ignored the skepticism from her best friend and stroked a hand along the stone that made up one wall of the kitchen. It had been part of the original cabin that had stood on the site, and she appreciated its inclusion into the design of the overall house. Even if the designer had been drunk or high. She hadn’t been able to decide which. “Too late for regrets now. I already closed on the property.”
Luca Gallo blew out a breath. “Well, I guess it’s not the hardest flip we’ve ever done.”
“Nothing will ever top that crack house you talked me into helping you convert right after we met.” They’d redone the two-bedroom bungalow he’d gotten for pennies on the dollar from rafters to floor joists. She’d loved nearly every minute.
“Hey, we made a tidy profit on that house when the neighborhood gentrified. And you fell into a career you loved.”
“For which I thank you, oh wise one.”
“Still, I see now why you wanted me to come out to Tennessee. You’re gonna need all the help you can get with this thing.”
She nudged his shoulder with her own. “I wanted you to come out because I miss your ugly face and because you needed a change, not because I wanted free labor.”
In truth, this house wasn’t a flip. It would be a labor of love; one she didn’t want anyone else’s hands on. At least not more than strictly necessary for the elements that would require more than her two hands. With this purchase, she was taking ownership of a dream that had once been shared. One she’d held onto for far too long.
Almost ten years. After all this time, she had to admit her estranged husband was never coming back to her. She knew what he believed, and he hadn’t been interested in explanations. She’d long ago given up trying. Leaving Washington to start over here in Eden’s Ridge had been her first step in trying to move on with her life. In the past two years, she’d begun putting down true roots in Tennessee. She was half owner in a business she loved and, in the friends she’d made here, she’d begun to build the kind of family she hadn’t had.
But she hadn’t given up on Brax, hadn’t relinquished that last kernel of hope that maybe… maybe there was some circumstance where they could find their way back to each other. And it was time to move on. Deep down, she knew that. So, when she’d found the house, so much what they’d dreamed of in all its mismatched, rambling glory, set into the side of the mountain, she’d taken the plunge.
By the time she finished the renovation, maybe she’d be able to finally let him go. To exorcise the ghost of him in the manifestation of the dream they’d once spoken of in intimate whispers, curled up in bed in their cramped, drafty studio apartment. Then she’d decide whether to live here, turn it into one of her vacation rentals, or straight up sell it. Either way, the renovation would take months in her off time from Mountainview Construction. She was okay with that. Therapy took time.
“I missed your face, too, Mia.”
Luca’s uncharacteristically serious tone set off alarm bells, reminding her of one of the other reasons she’d left Washington. She’d begun to suspect that her best friend might harbor more than just platonic feelings for her. Mia couldn’t go there with him. Couldn’t go there with anyone. She wasn’t free to pursue a relationship, even if she’d wanted to. Which she didn’t. She’d come to Tennessee hoping that the distance would give her some clarity, and she’d convinced herself that she’d imagined the whole thing and balked at nothing. Especially when he’d begun seriously dating and gotten engaged about six months after she’d left.
She’d missed Luca. Missed having someone who understood her. Someone who shared a common language built on years of friendship. So, when his fiancée had broken things off three months before their planned wedding, leaving him high and dry for an investment banker who was more champagne and caviar than beer and nachos, she’d invited him to come east for a while and work for her, trying the area on for size. She hoped like hell she hadn’t made a mistake because, as much progress as she’d made, she didn’t have the bandwidth to cope with feelings she couldn’t return.
Flashing a smile in his direction, she meandered toward the living room. “Well, I say we celebrate your new residency in Eden’s Ridge with a night out at Elvira’s Tavern so I can prove I’m still the world’s best wingwoman. January’s slower for the tourist trade, but there will be some, and I can think of a handful of locals who are going to be all over that blond Italian hotness.”
He trotted after her. “Is that your plan, then? Entangle me with a local, so I move here permanently?”
“You know me so well.” She stopped in front of a 1970s brick monstrosity of a fireplace. “Now, put your professional hat on. Imagine ripping out this horrifying excuse for a fireplace and replacing it with river rock going all the way up. I’d vault the ceiling here to give it some loft. Put up a big, live-edge beam across just there for a mantle and build out the hearth.”
Luca nodded, his brown eyes sparkling as his interest piqued. “Now you’re talking.” He pivoted to the wall across from the fireplace, where a row of three small double-paned windows showed signs of moisture between the glass. “You could knock those out and put in a big picture window to take advantage of that view.”
“I’m doing one better. Opening the whole space with accordion doors that will lead out to a big ass deck and entertainment space. It’ll be a bit of a tricky build, with the slope the way it is, but it’s doable, and that view can’t be beat.”
“Will the higher humidity here be an issue for those doors?”
They lost themselves in the familiar banter of the work they both loved as they wandered through the house, discussing possibilities. She enjoyed sharing her vision with someone who could see and appreciate it before the first hammer was swung, and she liked the additional considerations he brought up. It would be her house, not a perfect execution of that long ago dream. She could consider other suggestions. Not to mention, she knew a hell of a lot more now as a professional contractor than she had at nineteen. She’d improve on the vision, work with what was here, excise what didn’t fit. It was what she was doing with her life, after all.
As they completed their tour back in the kitchen, Luca slumped back against the counter and crossed his arms. “Well, I still think you’re crazy. It’ll be a ton of work. But it’ll be a helluva property when you’re through.”
“That’s the idea. Now, how are you feeling about pizza and beer? Elvira’s is the best around.”
“Isn’t it also the only pizza around?”
“I mean, yeah.” Eden’s Ridge only had a year-round resident population of only a little under three thousand people. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.”
“Fair point. I’m amenable. I haven’t hit up that food group today.”
“Then let’s get a move on. I—” The opening bars of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared from Mia’s back pocket. “Hang on. This might be related to work.” She dug out her phone. “Hello?”
Something in the man’s flat, formal delivery had more of those inner alarm bells ringing. Whatever this was, it wasn’t work.
“I’m calling on behalf of a mutual friend.”
She froze, recognizing the long-ago established code. “We haven’t been in touch in quite some time.”
“I understand. I’m sorry to say, our mutual friend is dead.”
Mia’s breath wheezed out like air from a punctured tire, and she wilted back against the nearest wall. “When?”
“Last week. Heart attack. We’re closing out his… projects and thought you’d want to know.”
Projects. Plural. So maybe she hadn’t been the only one.
Aware of Luca’s concerned gaze, she locked down the spiral of automatic anxiety and questions. “Yes, I appreciate you letting me know.”
“To be clear, we consider those projects wrapped.”
Translation: If anything happens, you’re on your own.
Well, she’d effectively been on her own for almost a decade, so nothing much would change there.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Whitmore.” The caller hung up before she could reply.
Mia lowered the phone. “I’m gonna have to cancel on dinner.”
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