Boy Bakers 4: Hung Up on the Hacker
Boy Bakers 4: Hung Up on the Hacker
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Can a white hat hacker and a wild child tattoo artist turn their oops into forever?
Former Army Intelligence officer Cash Grantham is a whiz with computers and data. An expert in cyber security, he prides himself on being prepared for anything. That doesn't include his best friend's little sister. The one who's all grown up.
Tattoo artist Hadley Steele always had a thing for Cash when she was young. But the man who swaggers into her shop is a far cry from the moody teen she remembers. One look and that childhood crush ignites into a simmering lust that neither of them can deny.
Feeling guilty about his clandestine involvement with Hadley, Cash puts their relationship on hold and hauls himself to Tennessee to square things with her brother. Turns out Hadley has the same idea. And she's got a surprise he didn't see coming. Now they've both got to find a way to break the news their connection as family just got a whole lot more permanent.
Tennessee: The Volunteer State Welcomes You
As the sign flashed by on I-81, Cash Grantham hit the voice controls on his steering wheel. “Call Hadley Steele.”
The call connected, and the phone rang. And rang. And rang. Until her voicemail picked up. Again.
So, thirty-six hours hadn’t been enough time for her to cool off. She could’ve been in the middle of work, but he knew her routine pretty well by now. After five phone calls, if she’d wanted to talk to him, she’d have picked up.
“Look, Hadley, I know you’re pissed. I know you don’t think this is necessary. But I swear to you, in the grand scheme of things, this is the right move. I’ll come find you when I get back to town. Assuming your brother doesn’t put me in the ground first.”
It wasn’t an unrealistic outcome. Cash had chosen to drive the seven-odd hours down from Baltimore to give himself time to consider his approach to this conversation, in hopes that it would remain civilized.
Holt Steele was one of his best friends. His brother in all but blood. The man was the main reason Cash had survived growing up as the only child in an abusive, single-parent household. Holt had given him a safe place to land, when his mother couldn’t be bothered to give a shit—which had been most of the time. She hadn’t wanted him and had never made a secret of the fact that she hadn’t been given a choice. She’d resented every second of his presence, every penny he’d cost. Cash didn’t like thinking about where he’d have ended up without the Steele siblings. He knew well enough the horrors that had visited others in similar positions. Holt had always had his back. And Hadley… Hadley had given him a light in the darkness of a very grim childhood.
Cash didn’t know exactly when things had changed. He’d always loved her, even when that bold, fiery spirit landed her in trouble that they’d had to bail her out from. Which had been often. But it had been the love of a brother. A friend. He wasn’t sure precisely when he’d fallen for her. It was sometime after they’d reconnected, and he’d become aware that little Hadley Steele was all grown up and just as much of a ball buster as she’d always been. Damn, if he hadn’t found that hot as hell.
He’d never intended to lay a hand on her. Best friend rules and all that. But she’d had other ideas, and he’d been powerless to resist her. He wasn’t proud of how he’d justified it to himself, saying it was okay because they’d planned for their affair to be temporary. They’d both thought the heat between them would burn out and they’d move on, with Holt being none the wiser.
But Cash had gone and fallen in love with her.
He’d known it for a while and hadn’t said a word. Hadley would probably bolt if he dropped the L-word. It was one thing for them to have fallen into something more serious. It was another thing to label it. She didn’t trust in permanent relationships of a romantic variety. And why should she, after seeing her mom go through a parade of men, while more or less forgetting the fact she’d had two kids? So he’d put off dealing with the whole situation. But every day that passed, he’d felt more and more like shit that they were actively hiding their relationship from her brother. He’d finally hit his limit and put them on pause until he could talk to Holt.
Hadley hadn’t taken it well. She was justifiably pissed at the idea that he was headed to Tennessee to get her brother’s permission. She wasn’t a possession. Wasn’t Holt’s to control. Cash understood that. But because of who Holt was to him, anything less than this was a betrayal. Really, the last six months of lies were already a massive breach of trust. Cash needed to make it right, and he could only hope like hell that the ring in his pocket would help them both forgive him.
But damn, he had no idea how he was going to bring up the topic with her incredibly overprotective brother—the former Army Ranger who knew a lot of ways to kill a man. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if Holt wanted to kick his ass. It wasn’t like Cash couldn’t take on his buddy. He’d been Army Intelligence for a lot of years and was highly trained in his own way. Not to mention, they’d fought side-by-side for years growing up, so he knew how his friend moved. But if Holt needed to pound on him, Cash had no intention of stopping him. A bruising seemed like the least he owed his friend for the deception of the past six months. Then maybe Holt would actually give Cash the chance to explain that this wasn’t a fleeting thing. He truly was in love with Hadley and wanted to make a life with her.
Would Holt think he was good enough for her? The stability Cash had created, the company he’d built using the skills he’d honed in the Army, and the money he’d accrued weren’t the kind of things his friend gave a good damn about. They weren’t the measure of a man. Not when you’d lived through hell together.
By the time he rolled into Eden’s Ridge, Cash hadn’t settled on any answers. It wasn’t the first mission he’d worked with insufficient intel. He’d just have to play the whole damned thing by ear.
He hated playing things by ear.
Following the directions on his GPS, Cash drove to Bad Boy Bakers. It was a hell of a thing, knowing his friend had found a new purpose in opening a bakery with two other graduates from an experimental therapy program. But Holt was happy, and that was the only thing that mattered in the end.
Clad in dark green siding, the building itself sat partway up a hill, with the forested mountains stretching up behind it. Late autumn sun glinted off the tin roof. A few patrons sat on the wraparound porch, proving that winter was a long way from arriving here in East Tennessee. It was a little weird to see the place in person, since he was familiar with every angle of surveillance they had on the place, inside and out. But this was his first time actually visiting, despite repeated invitations from all three of the bakery’s owners.
Cash climbed out of the car and headed for the door. A few more patrons occupied four-top tables inside. Courtesy of interior surveillance footage, he recognized the old geezers as regulars who liked to camp out and visit several times a week. They had the look of veterans about them, even without the trucker hat one of them sported with the Marine Corps coat of arms. Behind the counter, he spotted Jonah Ferguson and Brax Whitmore, both of Holt’s business partners. They’d never met in person, but Cash was accustomed to being in situations where he knew more than everyone else in the room.
Jonah nodded a greeting. “Hey. Can we help you?”
Stuffing his hand into the pocket of his peacoat, Cash wrapped his fingers around the ring box. “Yeah. Holt here?”
The former SEAL didn’t lose the friendly smile, but Cash saw the sharpening of his gaze and approved. “Who’s asking?”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Jonah skirted out from behind the counter and came straight over, his hand extended. “It’s good to finally meet you in person.” The man’s shake was firm.
“We can’t thank you enough for your help over the last year,” Brax added, stepping up to offer his own hand.
Cash had turned his skills at espionage and hacking toward helping the three of them uncover who was behind a long string of harassment that had threatened the bakery and each of the women the bakers had fallen for. It had been a small thing in the scope of the sort of operations he ran most of the time. “Happy to help.”
“Holt!” Jonah shouted. “Get out here.”
The door that separated the kitchen from the front swung open, and Holt’s familiar figure strode through. His smile spread wide at the sight of Cash. Unlike his partners, he didn’t stop with just a handshake, pulling Cash in for a back-thumping hug.
“What the hell are you doing here, man?”
The box in Cash’s pocket weighed on him like lead. For just a fleeting moment, he considered blurting it all out. But just in case Holt elected to deck him, he really didn’t want that reputation for his friend’s business. He’d sit on it until he could talk to Holt alone.
“Well, you said I should come down and visit. I thought I’d surprise you.”
“About damned time.” Holt glanced back at the kitchen. “Listen, I’m on deadline. I’ve got a cake I have to stay after closing to finish. How long are you in town?”
“Not sure. For the night, at least.” He didn’t know how long this was going to take. His team was taking care of things while he was gone, and he had his laptop to tackle anything that came up in the meantime.
“Do you have somewhere to stay?” Jonah asked. “The Misfit Inn is the best place in town. Rachel’s their new in-house baker.” Pride in his fiancée shone in every word.
“I’ll be sure to stop by and see if I can get a room.”
“Fantastic. And you’ll come to dinner tonight,” Holt insisted.
“Is that going to be okay with Cayla? Do you really want to surprise your wife with a dinner guest?”
Holt waved his concern away. “It’ll be fine.”
God, Cash hoped so. He figured if he waited until they got to the house, around Holt’s wife and daughter, maybe he’d be less inclined to commit violence. If everything went smoothly, he could be back on the road tomorrow to go fix things with his woman.
“All right then. Dinner it is.”
* * *
Hadley Steele hated being wrong. She hated admitting it even more. But she’d been taught by her mule-headed big brother to own up to her mistakes. If she’d chosen to do that in her own way, on her own terms, rather than accepting any of Cash’s calls, well, all three of them knew she was the most stubborn of their trio. So she’d gotten on the road at an entirely unreasonable hour this morning, to drive down to Tennessee and talk to Holt herself.
If he lost his shit over her involvement with his best friend, he wouldn’t hit her. She didn’t have the same confidence about his restraint when it came to Cash. What was it about brothers and their friends when it came to little sisters? That protectiveness made sense when she’d been young, but she was a grown-ass woman who made her own decisions about who she let into her bed. She had plenty of choice arguments to make about the subject, and she was prepared to deliver them at top volume if necessary. She just hoped she got to him before Cash did.
Obstinate, honorable, sexy man.
Was it any wonder she was totally gone over him?
Not wanting to confront Holt at work, she’d timed her arrival, hoping to catch him at home. She knew that most days he picked up his adopted daughter Maddie from school when he finished up at the bakery. With luck, they’d be smack dab in the middle of snack time and homework. Was she hoping her niece would be an inadvertent buffer? Hell yes. Hadley knew how to work her brother, and she wasn’t above taking every potential advantage she could to minimize the inevitable explosion.
Pulling up to the curb several houses down from the little bungalow her brother called home, she took a moment to wipe damp palms on her jeans. It would be fine. Holt would probably be upset to start, for all the reasons Cash had outlined yesterday morning. He was likely to see their subterfuge as a betrayal. She didn’t think her reasons for not telling him were bad ones, but Cash had a point about not wanting to sneak around for the long haul. Which implied he also believed there would be a long haul. She wanted that more than she could admit, so no matter what Holt thought about it, she’d make him see reason. She absolutely would not allow him to end his friendship with Cash over this. Not when she knew how much that relationship meant to Cash.
Hadley climbed out of her car, pausing for a moment to strike a power pose, hands on hips, shoulders thrown back. She could do this. She was a badass. With a deep breath, she strode down the street and up the walk, past the bright-faced pansies in the neat little beds that provided a pop of color in the late autumn landscape, and on up to the cheerful blue front door. Her knock was greeted by a volley of frenetic barking from Banana Bread, the family mutt. Moments later, the door was yanked open, and a pint-sized blonde dervish shrieked, “Aunt Hadley!”
Maddie leapt, wrapping her little arms and legs around Hadley with all the excited joy a six-year-old could muster.
Delighted, Hadley hugged her back, inhaling the scents of bubble gum and… was that popcorn? “Hey, Pipsqueak.”
Maddie’s mother, Cayla, appeared in the doorway, her smile spreading wide. “Hadley! What are you doing here?” Any possible censure in the question was erased by the warm side hug she wrapped around Hadley’s shoulders.
“Well, I did promise I’d come back. I thought I’d pop down for a surprise visit.”
“That’s wonderful. Holt will be so happy to see you.”
Hadley shifted Maddie to one hip. “Is he home?”
“Not just yet. He’s staying late to work on a cake, but he’ll be home by dinner.”
So she’d be getting a little reprieve. That was fine. It would give her the opportunity to get the lay of the land before she had to face him.
Cayla glanced back at the street and frowned. “Where’s your car?”
“Down the street. The better to surprise him.”
“Fair enough. Come in! Come in!”
“Come play with me!” Maddie demanded.
“Homework first,” her mother ordered. “You only have one more worksheet left.”
As her niece’s bottom lip began to roll out, Hadley rushed to intervene. “Finish your homework, and I’ll give you a marker tattoo before dinner. Does that work for you?”
“Yeah!” When she squirmed, Hadley let her down, and she went racing off to the kitchen.
Cayla shook her head, a fond smile curving her lips. “Oh, to have that level of energy.”
“No kidding.” After the seven-hour drive, Hadley was dragging. She’d slept like shit last night, not in Cash’s bed. It annoyed her she’d gotten so comfortable there. She’d more or less moved in over the past couple of months, and now the tidy little studio apartment above her shop just wasn’t the same.
“That would be awesome.”
Hadley trailed her sister-in-law into the kitchen and slid onto one of the barstools at the counter. “So, how is everybody?”
Cayla began puttering around, putting on a pot. “Busy as all get out, but good. I’m up to my eyeballs planning a bunch of holiday weddings. The guys are doing really well. They’re looking at expanding into some mail-order business after the first of the year.”
Hadley listened as she talked and concluded that Holt didn’t know yet and had said nothing to his wife. As an event planner, Cayla was too much a romantic not to comment on it if he had. Instead, she prattled on about married and domestic things, clearly content. It was so… normal. Or at least what Hadley imagined was normal. Her brother deserved as much of that as he could get.
A few minutes later, Cayla settled on the next stool, sliding over a mug. “Now, tell me everything about what’s going on with you.”
Well, that was a tall order.
Hadley opened her mouth, intent on bringing Cayla into her confidence and asking for some assistance in managing her brother.
“Done!” Maddie threw up her hands, as if completing math worksheets was a competitive sport. “Marker tattoos!”
Chickening out, Hadley swallowed the words. “Go get your markers, then.”
Maddie scampered out of the room, the golden-furred BB on her heels.
“I should’ve asked first. Are you okay if I draw all over her?”
Cayla grinned. “As long as you’re not using permanent ink.”
“I can work with that. You’re such a good mom. Maddie’s lucky to have you.” Certainly, Hadley’s own mother hadn’t won any awards for her parenting skills. She’d been an unavoidable cautionary tale.
“She’s a great kid.”
Feeling far too exposed under Cayla’s empathetic gaze, Hadley cleared her throat and deflected. “So, are you and Holt planning on giving me a new niece or nephew anytime soon?”
Her sister-in-law’s cheeks heated, her eyes darting to the doorway her daughter had just exited. “We’re working on it.”
It was Hadley’s turn to grin. Holt was happy and settled here. Family life suited him down to the ground, which had been a surprise to them both. But having the choice, rather than being forced into it, as he had at far too young an age when he’d taken on the job of raising her, made all the difference. Hadley loved the little family he’d stumbled into. Loved that they were hers now, too, because he’d made that choice. Family was everything to them both. The one they’d been born into hadn’t been worth a damn, so they’d made their own little unit.
Cash had been a part of that unit for so long, her memories of him went back almost as far as those of her brother. He’d been another protector, another playmate, another friend. Of course, once she’d hit adolescence, she’d had the world’s biggest crush on him. That was part and parcel of growing up. But she’d never imagined doing anything about it. Not until he’d strode into her shop earlier this year and asked her to design a half-sleeve tattoo to cover that magnificent shoulder and biceps. She’d all but drowned in lust the moment she’d laid eyes on him again. And—wonder of wonders—she’d seen the same reflected in his dark brown eyes.
They were explosive together. She’d known they would be. But she’d thought the heat would burn itself out once their curiosity was satisfied, which was how she’d convinced him not to talk to Holt straight out of the gate. She hadn’t meant for this to happen. Things had gotten out of hand and turned serious a lot faster than—well, she hadn’t expected them to turn serious at all. Neither of them had been looking for serious, and they’d both been very careful not to talk about what came next.
Until yesterday, when suddenly Cash had hit his limit and declared them on a “pause” until her brother could be informed. As if their intimate relationship was any of his business.
Not that they’d clarified a damned thing about that relationship, beyond the fact that they didn’t intend to break things off. Never mind that she’d stormed out of Cash’s apartment in a snit. He knew she’d be back. So did she. Which meant she had to suck it up to do the hard thing. Damn it.
Maddie came running back in, a pack of markers in her hand.
Carrying her coffee to the table, Hadley sat and helped the child roll up her sleeve. “What would you like, kiddo?”
Hadley nodded soberly. “A classic for a reason.” After checking to make sure the markers were washable, she took Maddie’s hand and turned it this way and that, taking in the shape of her canvas and letting her brain paint the image there. Then she put marker to skin and began bringing the image to life.
Dimly, she was aware of Cayla moving around the kitchen, probably pulling out the beginnings of dinner. Maddie kept up a steady stream of chatter that Hadley answered with half an ear. Most of her focus was on the drawing, coaxing the colors into focus. Markers wouldn’t allow her to achieve the detail of the true picture in her mind, but she figured Maddie would be happy with the end result. The process relaxed her, getting her out of her head and away from the spinning anxiety of what was to come.
At least until Maddie yanked her hand free, shouting, “Daddy!” She leapt up, making a beeline for the garage door, where Holt scooped her up.
Maddie looped her arms around his neck. “Look who came to visit!”
“That’s what I was going to say.” Eyes on Hadley, he moved out of the doorway.
And there, standing behind him, was Cash.
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