Bad Boy Bakers 3: Stirred Up by a SEAL
Bad Boy Bakers 3: Stirred Up by a SEAL
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Can a SEAL without a mission and a widowed baker help each other learn to live again?
Jonah Ferguson never wanted to be anything but a Navy SEAL. But after an injury sidelines his military career, he finds himself back home in small-town Tennessee. Opening a bakery with his best friends and daring to re-imagine his life is a whole new mission, but his biggest challenge yet is sticking to the friend zone with the woman who helped give him new purpose.
Two years after losing her husband to a traumatic brain injury, baker Rachel McCleary needs a change. With the proceeds from the sale of her business, she's exploring what a new life would look like. For the short-term, it means helping one of her former students make his fledgling business thrive. And hopefully adding some benefits to the friendship that helped bring her back to life.
All Rachel wants is temporary, and that's the one thing Jonah can give her. But when the trouble that's stalked his business from the start lands her in its crosshairs--and the hospital--he can't deny that there's nothing short-term about his feelings. Determined to protect her at all costs, he enters into a dangerous race to neutralize the threat before it torpedoes everything he holds dear.
“What the hell is taking so long?” Jonah Ferguson paced another circuit of the hospital waiting room, no longer hearing the squeak of his dress shoes. He’d long since abandoned his tux jacket and tie, rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirt as his only concession to comfort since he’d arrived straight from his best friend Brax’s wedding reception last night. His very pregnant baby sister, Samantha, had thrown everyone for a loop when her water broke right on the dance floor.
Cayla Steele, wife of his other best pal and business partner, Holt, offered a tired shrug. “First babies can take a while. I was in labor with Maddie for fourteen hours.”
Jonah fixed her with a frustrated glare. “It’s been nearly twenty-four. Something has to be wrong.”
His mother, Rebecca, pushed up from her chair and stepped into his path, forcing him to stop or run her over. She laid both hands on his considerably taller shoulders in a gesture she’d been using to soothe him since childhood. “Nothing’s wrong. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll go check on her again.”
He jerked a nod. She patted his cheek and strode back down the hall to the birthing suite. Jonah resumed his pacing.
Holt shoved to his feet, holding out a hand for his wife. “Brother, I hate to do this to you, but we really need to be getting on home to Maddie. Donna has work tomorrow and technically, so do we.”
Work. The bakery. Normal life. “Right. Of course.”
Holt clapped him on the shoulder. “Listen, you stay here as long as it takes. Rachel and I can cover everything.”
Rachel McCleary had completely rocked his world last night.
Jonah’s mind slid to the party he’d left hours ago. His friend and business partner, Brax, had renewed his vows with his once-estranged wife, Mia. That was definitely cause for celebration. Jonah had stood in the shadows with Rachel—his friend, Rachel—watching the dance floor as everybody else got their groove on. He’d wanted to dance with her, wanted her in his arms with her scent surrounding him. Wanted to feel her body moving against his.
And that was exactly why he didn’t ask her. He wished he hadn’t finished the one beer he’d allowed himself. It would give him something to do with the hands that wanted to touch her.
He tuned back into their conversation. “Do you want to date?” Jonah told himself the answer didn’t matter. He couldn’t let it matter.
“I don’t even know. John and I were high school sweethearts. I’ve never dated as an adult. And the whole idea of navigating that is… exhausting. I signed up for online dating and got so many dick pics in twenty-four hours, I deleted my account.”
What the fuck is wrong with people? “Stay far, far away from the bottom feeders.”
“Believe me, I intend to.” Rachel spun the stem of her champagne flute between two fingers. “That said, I know John wouldn’t have wanted me to be alone and grieving him the rest of my life. I’m working my way around to doing something about it.” She took a bigger gulp of the sparkling wine and sucked in a deep breath. “I was hoping you could help me with that.”
Everything inside him revolted. He’d looked out for her. He’d keep looking out for her. Of course he would. She was his teacher, the master baker who’d given him the skills to make a life for himself after the SEALs. And she was his friend, who’d helped pull him to the other side of the trauma of separating from the life he’d known. But helping her find a new love life? He wasn’t sure he could do that. He worked to keep his face neutral. “You need me to screen some guys? Make sure they’re worth your time? That they’ll treat you right?”
“No, I’ve already done that. He is, and he does.”
Jonah set his jaw. Who the hell was she talking about, and why hadn’t she mentioned him before? Was this asshole good enough for her?
Rachel turned to him, blue eyes searching his face, her own full of something that looked an awful lot like hope and expectation. Except it couldn’t possibly be that.
“Then how can I help?”
Those lovely, smooth shoulders straightened. She tipped back the last of the champagne and set the glass aside with a thump. “Maybe this will help clarify.” And she curved those strong, slender fingers around his nape, closing the distance between them, to lay her lips over his.
Him. The asshole was him. Because apparently, in some past life, he’d done something incredible to deserve the attention of a woman like her.
On a sigh, he slid his arms around her, fitting that long, lean body to his as he angled his head to take the kiss deeper—
Blinking back to the present, he shoved aside the rest of the fantasy that had been playing on repeat for most of the last day and pulled Holt in for a back-thumping hug. “Thanks, man. I appreciate y’all sticking around this long.”
When he stepped back, Cayla moved in, wrapping Jonah in a tight hug. “Sam’s going to be just fine. And as soon as that little bundle of joy gets here, y’all will all forget about this stress.”
“God, I hope so.” Jonah squeezed her back. “Y’all go on. I’ll keep you posted.”
The two of them gathered up their things and headed for the elevator.
And then Jonah had nothing and no one left to distract him from the white elephant of The Kiss.
Surely the incident deserved capital letters. It had shocked the ever lovin’ hell out of him. So much so that, in reality, he hadn’t kissed her back.
He hadn’t kissed her back.
It wasn’t like he didn’t want to. Hell, he’d been having fantasies about exactly that, almost from the day they’d met. But when she’d done it, he’d been struggling to analyze the ramifications of giving in to his own desires, when she might simply have been acting on a high of wedding nostalgia and too much champagne. A situation not at all helped by the reduced blood flow to his brain.
Then she’d pull back, and before he could do or say anything, his sister Sam had gone into labor.
Now here he was, almost a full day later, still at the hospital in Johnson City, waiting on the arrival of his new niece or nephew, and Jonah still didn’t know what to do about it.
He’d spent the past two years telling himself to keep his hands off her. His inconvenient attraction didn’t matter a damn. She’d been recovering from major emotional trauma, and he’d been working through his own trauma, physical and otherwise, along with coming to grips with the abrupt end of his career as a Navy SEAL. Neither of them had been in a place where anything more than friendship made sense. So it had been easy to tell himself that he wasn’t what she needed. But now?
What exactly did she want? To date him? That was entirely impractical. His tiny hometown of Eden’s Ridge was twelve hours from Syracuse. Rachel was only here for a few weeks.
Was she looking for a fling? Jonah couldn’t imagine that. By her own admission, she’d never been with anyone else. Everything about Rachel screamed forever girl. And yet…
The echo of quick footsteps had him swinging toward the hall. His mom nodded at the nurses who’d become familiar faces over the hours they’d been here.
“Is the baby here?”
“Damn, this kid is stubborn. Takes after both its parents.”
“It shouldn’t be too long now. She’s finally fully dilated.”
He really didn’t want to think about what that meant.
Rebecca looped an arm through his. “Why don’t you sit down before you wear a literal hole in the floor?” Without waiting for an answer, she tugged him toward a row of chairs.
“I’d rather swim fifteen miles than keep just sitting here.” At this point, it felt like a year since Sam had gone into labor. He couldn’t shake the knowledge that, despite modern medicine, women still died in childbirth. She was his sister. He’d spent his whole life protecting her. But this wasn’t a battle he could fight, and the sense of impotence didn’t sit well.
“You need a distraction.”
“Yeah.” He scrubbed a hand over his hair. “Yeah, I do.”
“Okay. Then how about you tell me what’s up with you and Rachel?”
It took all his considerable training not to tense at the question. “Nothing’s up with me and Rachel.”
“That wasn’t what it looked like to me.”
Jonah didn’t even need to look to know she wore that bland, faintly amused mom expression that said Busted.
So she’d seen the kiss.
It wasn’t like he had anything to be ashamed of. They were both single and unattached. But as he still had no idea what actually was going on with Rachel, he considered answering the question with his name, rank, and serial number.
Running footsteps from up the hall had Jonah shooting to his feet in time to see his brother-in-law, Griff Powell, racing into the waiting room, his face alight with joy, his dark red hair a wild halo around his head.
“It’s a girl! It’s a girl! Ten fingers, ten toes! I don’t know what she weighs yet. They’re putting her on the scale now. Come on!”
Relief loosened his limbs, and for a moment Jonah slumped against his mother, breathing a prayer of thanks. She squeezed his arm, then they both hurried after Griff. They arrived in time to see a tiny bundle swaddled in pink being laid in Sam’s arms. Tendrils of his sister’s dark hair were glued to her face with sweat, the rest of it pulled back into a messy braid. But despite the long hours, she looked wide awake and radiant.
“Eight pounds, twelve ounces. Eighteen inches long. And she got a full ten on the Apgar!” Sam announced the stats with all the pride she might’ve infused in saying the kid was valedictorian. Which she probably would be, with his sister as her mom. “You’re gonna be tall, like your daddy.”
Rebecca’s “Oh!” sounded a tad watery as she moved to the opposite side of the bed to take her first look at her new granddaughter. “She’s beautiful.”
Jonah’s own throat went thick as he studied the baby. She was so very tiny. How could she be so freaking tiny? He swallowed. “What’s her name?”
“Aurora Leigh.” Griff eased a hip onto the bed, wrapping his arm around them both. “We’re calling her Rory.”
Rory. His brand new niece.
Cautiously, Jonah moved over toward Griff, laying a hand on his shoulder. “You did good, man. She’s the prettiest little thing ever.”
Sam nudged the pink hat up a little. “She got his red hair!”
“Your eyes.” Griff pressed a kiss to her brow.
“Maybe. We’ll see how they settle out in a few months. Either way, she’s perfect.” She beamed up at her husband.
As if sensing they were talking about her, Rory opened her eyes and seemed to look straight at Jonah. Those deep dark eyes just about took him out at the knees. She was new family. A new part of his circle to protect. And he vowed then and there that he’d do anything he had to in order to make sure nothing harmed this child or his sister’s family.
Which meant that he had work to do.
* * *
Rachel made another restless lap around the house. Jonah’s house. Where she was meant to be staying for the next three weeks because he had two extra bedrooms, since Brax and Holt were now living with their wives.
It had seemed like a great idea when she’d accepted his invitation. She’d save a bundle on lodging while she was here, and it put her in close enough proximity to finally do something about this attraction. Except, after half a magnum of champagne, she’d misread everything.
Now she was dying in this awkward limbo, expecting him to get home any minute, not knowing what to say to him when he did. But it had been a full day since The Incident, and as far as she knew, he was still at the hospital, awaiting the birth of his sister’s first child. Not that she’d dared text him to ask. Opening up any channel of communication seemed like the pinnacle of bad ideas under the circumstances. Instead, she’d paced the house like a lunatic, wrestling with the horror that came with reclaimed sobriety.
She was never drinking champagne again.
When her phone rang, she yelped, leaping away as if it were a poisonous snake. Calling herself an idiot, she edged closer to check the readout.
On a shaky exhale, she scooped up the phone and answered the friend she’d put on a plane in Knoxville earlier today. “Hey.”
“I just wanted to let you know I made it home to Syracuse.”
“Oh, good.” Her voice came out an octave higher than usual.
It didn’t take Audrey’s certified genius brain to figure out something was off. “Rach, what’s wrong?”
She’d opted to say nothing to Audrey this morning, but after having the whole day alone with her thoughts, Rachel knew she had to spill or she’d explode. Dropping onto the sofa, she buried her face in her lap and groaned, “Everything. I kissed Jonah last night.”
“Ah.” The simple, one-syllable answer was so much Audrey’s non-judgmental therapist response it had Rachel’s temper sparking.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” Her tone was calm and placating, as ever. “I just wondered when that was going to come to a head.”
“You knew?” What was she saying? Of course, Audrey knew. Even before all the graduate degrees, she’d been a natural observer. She saw everything. It was part of what made her a gifted clinician and researcher.
Instead of answering, Audrey came back with a question of her own. “How was it?”
Despite the fact that her friend couldn’t see, Rachel covered her face with both hands. “Awful. He didn’t kiss me back.”
Audrey’s legitimate surprise only compounded Rachel’s mortification. “I just… We’ve gotten to be such good friends, and he’s the first guy I’ve found really attractive since John died, and I thought it would be easier to take that leap with someone I care for and respect, just to get over the hump. But he didn’t kiss me back, and then he was gone to the hospital with Sam. And of course he should have gone with her. But now I’ve had time to sober up, and, Audrey, what the hell am I going to do for the next three weeks? How can I face him? I’m staying in his house!” The words spilled out in a flood, laying out everything she’d been spinning over since last night.
“He’s not home yet?”
“Hang on a sec.” Her voice got muffled for a moment as she murmured to someone else. “I’ll be off in a little while.” A low, male voice answered, ending on a low chuckle. Because, of course, Audrey’s husband, who happened to be Rachel’s cousin, was right there.
There was a click that might have been the closing of a door.
“Okay, I’m back.”
“Please, dear God, tell me Hudson’s not listening in.”
“Nope, I sent him to unpack and get the laundry started.” Audrey sighed, and Rachel could picture her settling into the comfortable reading chair in her study, massaging the legs that had been rebuilt of pins and titanium after the catastrophic car accident years before that had first crossed her path with Hudson’s. “Now, it seems to me you have two choices. You can either pretend it was a drunken mistake and laugh it off. Or you can talk to him about it while you’re sober.”
“If I could talk about it sober, I wouldn’t have had to drink half a bottle of champagne to get up the guts to kiss him in the first place.” Why, oh why, had she thought that was a good idea?
“You and Jonah talk about everything.”
“Not everything.” Not how she’d been having dreams about him. How his hands were the ones she was imagining on her body now. It was disconcerting. And it was thrilling to know that part of her hadn’t died with John. Or it had been before she’d all but expired from mortification on the spot at the reception.
“What are you afraid of?”
“Are you seriously asking me that question?”
Rachel blew out an exasperated breath and tried to come up with a coherent answer. Fear had become so much a part of her life since John’s accident. She’d gone from knowing who she was and where she stood, absolutely, to questioning almost everything in her life. It was why she’d sold her bakery. Why she’d spent the past couple of years as an instructor for Audrey’s experimental baking therapy program for military veterans struggling with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, where she’d met Jonah and the other guys.
“I’m afraid of everything. Of ruining our friendship. Of being rejected. I’m terrified that the idea of a friends-with-benefits arrangement will insult him somehow. This seemed easy through the veil of champagne. It made sense. But now? I don’t know.” And the not knowing was killing her.
“Well, you can’t undo the kiss. So you have to decide whether you want to make excuses, or whether to actually go for what you want. And you might want to make that decision soon, because Sam just texted. The baby’s here, so Jonah will probably be on his way home shortly.”
She so wasn’t ready for that conversation.
“What did they have?”
“Girl. Aurora Leigh. They’re calling her Rory.”
As Audrey reeled off the rest of the expected information, Rachel smiled through the pinch around her heart. She and John had been trying for a baby the year he’d died, and a part of her had been devastated not to have a piece of him to carry on. But it didn’t dim her legitimate joy for Sam and Griff. She didn’t know Jonah’s sister well, but she’d heard plenty about her through Audrey, as the two had taught at the same university for a while, before Audrey had reconnected with Hudson.
“I’m sure I’ll be seeing lots of pictures. Thanks for listening.”
“Any time. Do you know what you’re going to do?”
“Not a damned clue. But I’ll figure it out. I don’t have any other choice.”
She sat in silence for several minutes after hanging up the phone. Did she want to take the risk of talking to Jonah openly about what she wanted, or was it better to take the out of alcohol-impaired judgment and cling to the friendship they’d built? The answer wasn’t simple. Neither option had a flashing neon sign saying, Pick me!
The truth was, he’d been up for something like forty hours by now. In all likelihood, he’d want to sleep in tomorrow. She needed to be up early anyway to get things rolling at the bakery so they could open on time at seven. The best option right now was to avoid him. Maybe after another night’s sleep, she’d know what to do.
She scribbled a note and left it on the kitchen counter for him to find. Then, like the coward she was, she took herself to the guest room he’d given her and went to bed.
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