Bad Boy Bakers 2: Wrapped Up with a Ranger
Bad Boy Bakers 2: Wrapped Up with a Ranger
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Can a grumpy former Ranger find lasting happiness in a marriage of convenience with a sunny single mom?
After losing his leg, former Army Ranger Holt Steele is building a new life and a new business with his friends. Sure, he never expected to put small-town baker on his resume, but he finds he likes the quiet, simple life. If only he didn't like the sunny single mom who works across the street--or her adorable kid--quite so much.
After escaping a controlling husband, event planner Cayla Black has one focus--growing her business and maintaining a safe, happy home for her daughter. She has no time or interest in a man. Not even one who charms her child with Disney songs and keeps turning up like a mind-reader to help without being asked.
But when her ex's conviction is overturned on a technicality, and he shows up to reclaim his wife and child, Holt intervenes with an outrageous lie. The only way to fix it is to make his falsehood the truth. As they struggle to convince everyone that their marriage of protection is real, these two reluctant hearts fall deeper, until the lines between the fiction and the dream begin to blur, and they have to risk it all to protect the family they didn't know they wanted.
Holt Steele eyed the absolutely packed parking lot of Elvira’s Tavern. “Who decided karaoke night was the way to celebrate the acquisition of our business license?”
His business partner, Jonah Ferguson, drove on past. “Drinks we didn’t pour ourselves were the designated celebration for the approval of our business license. It just so happens that the lone drinking establishment in Eden’s Ridge is hosting karaoke night on the day it happened.”
From the backseat, the third member of their trio, Brax Whitmore, snorted. “He’s conveniently not mentioning it’s an opportunity for the two of you to seek out some prospective female companionship, and that he’s shamelessly willing to take advantage of those pipes of yours to impress the female population with your karaoke prowess.”
“Hey, we can’t all be as lucky as you,” Jonah protested. “And anyway, you still owe me a drink or something for dragging your ass down here so you could reconnect with Mia in the first place.”
“And again, I remind you that you didn’t know she’d be here.”
They were both right, but none of them were under any delusion that Brax would have reconciled with his wife if he hadn’t come to Eden’s Ridge and been forced to overcome a decade’s worth of stubborn misconceptions when she’d turned out to be the contractor hired to renovate their building.
“Details. You still wouldn’t have been here if not for me.” Jonah slid the truck into a space a block away with the practiced ease of a country boy used to squeezing an extended cab pickup into the tight confines of a street that had been built when vehicles were considerably smaller.
“I suppose I can buy you a pity drink since I’m the only one of us currently having my bed regularly warmed by a beautiful woman.”
“Hey, I could have options if I wanted them.”
“And does the not wanting have something to do with a certain blonde who just headed back to Syracuse last week?” Holt asked.
Jonah scowled and slid out of the truck. “I told you, there’s nothing going on with Rachel. We’re just friends.”
Holt hummed a noncommittal noise and glanced at Brax, who smirked. They both had eyes enough to see the tension simmering between their buddy and the woman who’d taught them all to bake as part of an experimental therapy program last year.
“Besides—” Jonah started back toward the tavern. “Since it’s my hometown, I’ve gotta be discreet. Doesn’t matter that I’m over thirty. Any of my shenanigans get back to my mama, I’m gonna hear about it. I don’t look forward to that any more now than I did when I was sixteen and she somehow found out that Ashley Chapman relieved me of my virginity in the backseat of my car. No man should have to endure a safe sex talk with his mother more than once in a lifetime.”
They all shuddered, though they shared a mutual adoration of Jonah’s mom, Rebecca, who’d unofficially adopted Brax and Holt when they’d moved to town to go into business with her son.
“See there, Broadway, you’re morally obligated to impress some tourist women with your voice to improve Jonah’s odds. Especially if he gets enough beers in him to try singing himself,” Brax added.
Holt had no intention of getting up and singing. He wasn’t embarrassed and didn’t have stage fright. He just didn’t want the attention the whole thing would bring. Women liked men who could sing. While he might appreciate some companionship, he didn’t relish the looks of pity or revulsion when they found out his military service had claimed part of his leg. He’d made peace with being an amputee and outstripped all of his doctors’ expectations with how he’d taken to the different prostheses, particularly the carbon fiber running blade that was his favorite. But there were plenty who’d view him as less of a man for the loss, and he wasn’t much up for screening the potentials.
Then again, with their bakery about to open, maybe he should get up there as a form of free advertising. If people were intrigued, it might get them to show up. Holt knew the food would keep them coming back once they tried it.
Flanked by his friends, he stepped inside the bar. For a few moments, they stood in the entryway, eyes adjusting to the low light, each of them scanning the building in the tactical evaluation that was second nature after their stints in various branches of the armed forces. He’d committed the layout of the place to memory months ago, so it was the crowd he assessed as someone on the little stage performed a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that was so bad Freddie Mercury himself was probably on his way to haunt the tone-deaf son of a bitch. Holt wished he was packing tranq darts just to save the audience from further ear hemorrhaging. He could argue it was a public service. Probably.
“I’m gonna need something a hell of a lot stiffer than beer to endure this,” Jonah muttered.
“Won’t we all.” Holt led the way toward the bar, automatically searching the patrons for a familiar face he knew he shouldn’t be looking for.
Behind the bar, Sariah Hitchens worked the taps with an economical grace. The bottom edge of a Marine Corps anchor tattoo peeked out from the sleeve of her fitted gray t-shirt, but it was the haunted eyes that gave her away as someone who’d served. Like recognized like. She’d come here for the equine therapy program a few months back and hadn’t left. Holt couldn’t fault her for it. The mountains of East Tennessee were a good place to heal and a good place to build a life.
“What’ll it be, boys? It’s Coronas usually, right?”
“Nope, we’re here to celebrate,” Jonah announced. “A round of that twenty-year Macallan that Denver keeps for special occasions.”
Her sleek black brows arched. “What are we celebrating?”
“We’re all official and shit. Bad Boy Bakers can legally open its doors. Got our business license today.”
Sariah didn’t even try to hide the smirk. “Bad Boy Bakers? That’s really what y’all went with?”
Holt felt his cheeks heat and crossed his arms.
Jonah just shrugged. “I mean, we’ve gotta work with what we’ve got.” He gave an exaggerated flex of his biceps, coaxing a laugh out of the serious bartender.
“Fair enough. Coming right up. And hell, I might grab one for myself just because Jed’s finally finished committing crimes against Queen.”
“Thank God.” As Brax made some creative suggestions about what could be added to the hapless Jed’s drink to ensure he didn’t make it back into the singing rotation, Holt turned toward the stage to see who was coming next.
And there she was.
A familiar, curvy little blonde stepped up, trailed by a couple of women he didn’t know. Cayla Black. Event planner. Their across the street business neighbor. And the woman he couldn’t get out of his head, despite his best efforts. The intro began, and Holt recognized “I Won’t Say I’m In Love” from Hercules. He wondered how many million times Cayla’s daughter, Maddie, had made her watch the movie. Or maybe this had been one of Cayla’s favorites when she’d been a kid. It had certainly been one of his sister Hadley’s.
Cayla launched in, her smooth, clean voice a breath of fresh air after the musical butchery of Jed. Her friends sang backup, the three of them obviously having a hell of a good time. It seemed like this might be some kind of bachelorette thing, because they all wore t-shirts with bling proclaiming I’m with the bride. He tried not to notice how those rhinestones highlighted her breasts and utterly failed. The whole trip across the bar, he lectured himself—again—about how she was absolutely off limits and not for him. As a single mom, she deserved more than what he had to offer. So did her cute-as-a-button kid. But it didn’t stop him from flipping through the song catalog for something that would adequately show off his skills. If he was gonna do the thing, he was gonna do the thing. He punched in his selection just as she hit the last couple of lines.
The crowd hooted and cheered. Cayla took a little bow as her friends waved and began trooping off the stage. Because he was next up, he waited at the edge, holding out a hand for the mic as she neared. Her step hitched, her cheeks pinking as she laid her hand in his. The spark snapped all the way up his arm, singeing his good intentions at the edges as he closed his fingers around hers and helped her down the step.
Those big brown eyes darted up to his and away again. “Hi.”
The blush deepened. “Thanks.”
Instead of releasing her hand, he held out his other one. “I think I’m next.”
She looked down at the mic, as if she’d forgotten she had it. Her cheeks headed toward fire engine territory. “Oh, um. Sure.”
Damn, she was cute.
Avoiding eye contact, she handed over the microphone and scurried back to her table with several other women in matching t-shirts.
Holding back a grin, he stepped onto the stage himself, surveying the crowd as the opening bars to “Your Song” from Moulin Rouge began to play. Plenty of curiosity out there, both about who he was, whether he could carry a tune in a bucket, and certainly a fair amount of Hello, Soldier from more than one of the women in the audience. But it was really one woman he was thinking about, and he brought his gaze back to hers as he prepared to sing.
* * *
He’d been holding out a hand for the microphone, not to help her off the stage. Cayla fought the urge to bury her flaming face in her arms as she dropped back into her seat. Would she ever stop embarrassing herself around the man? Seriously, it was a sign.
Zara Singh leaned over, her dark eyes lively with interest. “Girl, what was that?”
Misty Pennebaker, the bride they were out celebrating tonight, picked up her drink, one of the local wines her fiancé Denver, who owned Elvira’s, kept in stock for her. “That definitely didn’t look like nothing.”
Cayla waved them all off because Holt began to sing. The entire bar went silent as his voice rang out, clear and confident and performing one of her favorites. Not that there was any way he could know that. And as he hit the end of the first stanza, she’d have sworn he was looking at… her. Which was ridiculous. Foolish. And wouldn’t matter, anyway. She wasn’t looking for anything. Her plate was already overflowing with keeping her business afloat and her daughter safe and happy. There was no room for a man. Not even one who sang like an angel and made her want to lick those Army-honed muscles like a popsicle. Holt was just a nice guy. One who held a fondness for her daughter. She could enjoy his performance from a purely objective standpoint because he was one of the few present with any actual talent. It had nothing to do with the fact that it felt like he was singing to her. He wasn’t trying to melt her panties. It was just an unfortunate byproduct of all that potent alpha warrior hotness.
Then, on the last line, he winked. At her.
Cayla’s entire train of thought derailed as she tried to figure out what it meant. She was woman enough to admit she was hella attracted to this man. And on her confident days, she was pretty sure he was attracted right back. But over the past few months, as their paths had continued to cross, she’d gotten the impression he didn’t intend to do anything about it. Maybe that was because of Maddie. Most men wouldn’t want to take on a five-year-old. Not even if they seemed charmed by her. And that was entirely fine. It had taken far too long to rid herself of the last man who’d swept her off her feet to risk being swept again. Fool her once.
But Holt had winked. Hadn’t he?
Unable to hold back the question as he left the stage to thunderous applause and whoops, she polled her friends.
“Oh, hell yes,” Astrid announced, nodding hard enough that her cloud of gorgeous natural curls bounced. “I may bat for the other team, but I’ve still got eyes in my head. He totally winked at you.”
Misty and Zara confirmed.
Celeste Keeling, the fifth member of their bridal party, leaned back in her chair, glancing across the room in speculation. “Pretty sure that was as open a declaration as there could be.”
The certainty in her statement sent Cayla into an instant retreat. “We’re just friends. Sort of.”
“I would really love to have a friend look at me like that,” Zara sighed.
“How exactly are you ‘sort of’ friends?” Misty wanted to know.
“Well, he’s one of the guys opening Bad Boy Bakers across the street from my office.” Okay, office was an exaggeration as yet, but once she finished spiffing it up, she’d be bringing clients there. It still counted as hers from the day she’d signed the lease.
“Go on,” Celeste prompted.
Wanting to minimize the whole thing, Cayla shrugged. “I’ve been in and out over at the bakery a lot while they were renovating because of Mia. Holt ended up helping me out a couple of times with an emergency cake for some of the weddings I’ve done. It was just—I don’t know—preemptive partnership. They’ll be the only bakery in town, so of course they’re going to end up doing cakes and other food for the events I put together.”
“So he’s one of them,” Zara noted, grinning in the guys’ direction. “I’ve been hearing all kinds of rumors, but I hadn’t laid eyes on any of them myself.”
Celeste fanned her face, as if there were a hint of a blush to mar the warm bronze perfection of her skin. “I’m pretty sure they’ll be getting plenty of traffic on their looks alone.”
Which had totally been the point when Cayla had thrown out the name. But she’d been half-joking, in one of those awkward, embarrassing, couldn’t-quite-keep-ahold-of-her-tongue-around-him moments. She hadn’t really expected them to take the suggestion.
“Well, I say we can’t just leave this as it is. We’ve got to encourage Fate a little bit.” Before Cayla could protest, Zara hopped up from her seat and crossed the bar to where Holt sat with Brax and Jonah. While Lewis Washington, one of the co-owners of Forbidden Fruit Cidery, rocked out to “Don’t Stop Believin’”, she said something to Holt in her enthusiastic, animated way. Holt glanced in Cayla’s direction and nodded.
Cayla desperately wished for the floor to open up and swallow her. That sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach got worse as Zara left the guys’ table and went to the karaoke computer. What the hell was she up to? A smug, self-satisfied smile split Zara’s face from ear to ear as she dropped back into her chair.
“What did you do?”
“Girl, I helped.” She waved a hand toward the screen on the wall that listed the next song and performers.
Holt Steele and Cayla Black. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”.
As Lewis reached the end of his song and Holt rose from his seat, Cayla shot her friend a withering stare. “I hate you.”
Zara just blew her a kiss. “You’re welcome! Now go on up there and flirt!”
Cayla approached the stage as if it were a gallows walk. Holt already had one mic in his hand and snagged the other from Lewis as he stepped down.
“Nice job, man.”
“Thanks! You’re not so bad yourself.”
Holt offered her the microphone, then continued to hold out his hand when she took it. Mortified all over again, Cayla thought about just stepping past him onto the stage. But that seemed rude and like a deliberate slight she didn’t intend, so she laid her hand in his. The moment those long, callused fingers curled around hers, she steadied, and the noise of the crowd seemed to mute. Did he feel that electric hum, or was it all in her head? It had been so damned long since she’d felt legitimate attraction, and God knew, it hadn’t been this… visceral with her ex-husband.
They took their places on stage, and he didn’t release her hand, didn’t look at the crowd. Nerves crashed down on her like a wave no longer held back, jittering in her belly, through her muscles. Cayla couldn’t remember the last time a man had made her nervous in a good way. She was well aware she squeaked through her first couple of lines. When they hit the “ooo hoo”s, he gave a little yank on the hand he held, spinning her into him for a joint shimmy. The move so surprised her, she laughed, missing her next line. But it loosened her up. The taciturn former Ranger was flirting. In some dim, dark recess of her mind, she remembered how to do that. So she stopped focusing on the situation, on the audience, and focused on the man instead, looking into those piercing blue eyes that seemed to spark with humor as she fell into the call and answer of the song. By the time they finished, she was grinning.
At Holt’s encouragement, she took her bow. He did the same, then escorted her off the stage.
“Buy you a drink?”
“Oh, well, I’m here for Misty’s bachelorette party, and I’ve already hit my limit. I’ve gotta pick up Maddie from my mom’s later.”
“A soda then. Or lemonade? Singing always makes me thirsty.”
“Okay, sure. Thanks.” Cayla headed for the bar, aware of the warm press of his hand on her lower back as they navigated the crowd.
They placed their orders and waited as the gorgeous black woman behind the bar pulled them together.
“So how’s everything going at your office?” he asked.
“It’s going. There are still a million and one things to do around there before I can really see clients. The painting alone is taking forever. But kid, work, only so many hours in the day.” She laughed, because she could move to a planet with a thirty-six-hour day and still never catch up. Such was life as a single mom.
“Sounds like you could use a hand. We’re all available Sunday.”
Cayla blinked at him. “Y’all have your own business to put together.”
“It’s mostly there. Got the business license today. That’s why we’re out tonight. Celebrating. Other than that, the renovation’s done, all our equipment is in. We’re just refining recipes and working out offerings and prices. We can afford to take a break to help you out. Besides—what’s that saying? Many hands make light work. Does Sunday work for you?”
“Um.” It seemed like there was probably a reason she should say no, but damned if she could remember why. “Yes?”
The bartender delivered their drinks.
“Good. It’s settled, then. We’ll see you on Sunday. Enjoy the rest of your party.” He lifted his drink in a toast, curved one corner of that mouth that so rarely smiled, and headed back to his table.
Cayla scooped up her lemonade and made her way back to her friends, wondering what the hell had just happened.
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