Boy Bakers 5: Caught Up with the Captain
Boy Bakers 5: Caught Up with the Captain
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Can a retired naval commander and the love he left behind overcome a 34-year-old secret to find their way to a second chance?
Captain Mitchell Greyson is a man who believes in duty. A bigger purpose and a thirst to prove himself took him away from his tiny Tennessee hometown--and the girl he loved--more than thirty years ago. After a distinguished career in the Navy, Grey's headed home, searching for new purpose and a glimpse at the road not traveled.
At the tender age of eighteen, Rebecca Ferguson made a choice that changed her life. Since then, she's had joy, regrets, and an ugly divorce, but she never forgot the love who walked away. She definitely never expected him to move back to town more than thirty years later, or for all the sparks to still be alive.
One look and Grey's all in, determined to earn a second chance at the love he left behind. The duty that took him away is over, but Rebecca doesn't know how to trust that he's home to stay, especially when the secret she's held onto all these years is closer than he thinks...and it has the potential to destroy their fragile new beginning.
Shoulders hunched against the damp winter wind, Mitchell Greyson stepped inside Elvira’s Tavern. As the heavy wood door swung shut behind him, cutting off the cold, he waited for his eyes to adjust. Though he hadn’t set foot in here for more than three decades, he still recognized shades of the place it used to be in the wooden booths built along the perimeter walls and the dark beams crossing the ceiling. But the floors had clearly been sanded down and refinished at some point. They glowed with the warmth of well-restored wood. The walls and ceiling had been repainted sometime after public smoking had been outlawed, covering up years of stains with a bright, warm cream. Somebody with a hell of a lot of talent had refaced the long bar with carved panels, and the shelves holding the selections of liquor were a subtle testament to someone who knew how to craft things out of wood for both function and beauty. Strands of garland and twinkle lights along the shelves and around some of the supporting columns were the only real nod to the holiday season. The whole place was warm and inviting, more elevated and subtly sophisticated than the merely functional bar and grill it had been during Grey’s youth. Given tourism had finally made its way to Eden’s Ridge, he figured that was a positive.
The man he’d come to meet was already seated in a corner booth, his back to the wall where he could observe the whole place.
Once a SEAL, always a SEAL.
Grey unwound his scarf and strode across the tavern to join him. “Ferguson.”
“Captain.” Jonah’s tone was cool, respectful, but Grey could see a hint of temper in his familiar green eyes. He’d expected that.
Shucking his coat, he slipped into the opposite side of the booth. “Thank you for coming.”
Jonah inclined his head. “Of course.”
“You didn’t have to. I’m not your CO anymore.” And neither of them was still in the Navy.
A trace of amusement leaked into his expression. “Yeah, well, old habits are hard to break. You said you wanted to talk to me.”
Grey opened his mouth to speak, but a cheerful voice with a broad East Tennessee twang broke in.
“What can I get you, fellas?” The well-endowed blonde flashed an extra bright smile at Jonah and made Grey feel about twice his fifty-three years.
He lifted a brow at the younger man. “Let me buy you a beer?”
“All right. I’ll have a glass of that IPA on tap.”
“I’ll have the same.”
“Any appetizers? Or would you like to go ahead and order dinner?”
Depending on how this conversation went, they probably wouldn’t be here that long. “That’s all for now.”
“Coming right up.”
She sashayed away, the extra swing in her step entirely lost on the very-engaged Jonah, who barely spared her a glance.
Not in the habit of mincing words, Grey took a breath and dove in. “I wanted to apologize for last month.”
One dark brow lifted. “Just for last month?”
Damn, he looked just like his mother when he did that. Had it always been that pronounced, or had being home and back around her on a regular basis brought more of those expressions to the surface?
“I didn’t show up at your business intending to blindside you. I really did come to check and see how you were doing.”
After a head injury ended his naval career, Jonah had completed an experimental therapy program that trained him as a master baker. He’d returned home with two friends from the same program and opened a bakery.
“So seeing my mom there was just a bonus?” On the surface, his tone was conversational, but there was a thrum of something underneath that Grey couldn’t quite peg.
Seeing Rebecca there had been… shocking. Exciting. And, in its own way, devastating.
“She was part of the business that brought me to town, but I had no way of knowing she’d be there that day.”
“And if she hadn’t been, would you ever have told me you two knew each other?”
That was the crux of the younger man’s irritation. Grey could respect it. “Eventually. Look, I know you’re pissed I kept it from you that I was from here. That I knew your mom. But I had my reasons. You and I had a professional relationship. Rebecca and I didn’t part on good terms.” Understatement of the century. “I had no idea what she might say about me if you went home and asked, and I didn’t want that to damage our working relationship, or the mutual respect we were building. Add to that, I didn’t want anybody to accuse me of favoritism.”
A furrow dug in between Jonah’s brows. “Favoritism?”
“I didn’t exactly favor you, but I kept a closer eye on you than I would have. Because you were hers, and because she mattered to me.” Once upon a time, he’d have done anything for Rebecca Ferguson.
Anything except the one thing she’d wanted.
The server came back with their beers. “Anything to eat, y’all?”
They both shook their heads, and she retreated.
Jonah lifted his glass and sipped before leaning back in his seat. “What’s the deal with you two? Mom got weird after you were here last month.”
Grey wondered what kind of weird. “Well, that is largely between me and your mother. But I can tell you we were friends for years. She and your dad and I were the three amigos from the time we were little. All the way back to about the second grade.”
But they hadn’t stayed that way. It seemed inevitable now that he and Lonnie would both have fallen in love with her.
Sipping at his own beer, Grey fought not to fall into the past. “After high school, your mom and I had a big fight. We both said things we probably regretted, and I haven’t seen her in over thirty years. Until that day at the bakery. I’ve certainly had time to grow up and think about how things might’ve been different, and I’m sure she has, too. We’ve got some history we need to work through, and that’s just for us. But I know my coming back here impacts you, too, and I wanted to say I’m sorry for not telling you. I wouldn’t change my decision, but I understand that the whole situation was probably weird for you.”
Jonah sat with that for a moment before nodding in acknowledgment. “I appreciate that.” He leaned forward, elbows on the table. “So you’re really moving back here now that you’ve retired?”
“That’s the plan. I’ve been away from home for a long time. I’d like to come back.”
“Why didn’t you before?”
“My parents moved while I was in college. When I was on leave, I generally went to them.” It had been both a blessing and a curse to have a reason to stay away from Tennessee and all the what ifs that lingered here.
“So, what are you going to do? You’re not exactly the settle gracefully into puttering around kind of guy.”
Grey snorted a laugh. That was putting it mildly. “You’re not wrong. I got out about eight months ago. Went through this veteran transition training program out in Montana. It made a big difference, so I decided I want to open a similar program here. Or as close to here as I can manage. You know as well as I do that there will never be enough of those kinds of resources.”
“True that. What about your family?”
“None left. I lost my dad about five years ago. Mom last year. I recently finished dealing with the cleaning out of their house and closing out of their estate, so it was a good time for a major change.”
A shadow crossed Jonah’s features. “Yeah. That shit’s tough. I just did the same.”
That was another point of pain for Grey. The man who’d once been a brother to him had died, and Grey had never once attempted to mend their relationship. Lonnie had gotten the girl, so Grey hadn’t known how. Even when he’d found out from Jonah that his mom was divorced, he hadn’t been able to make himself reach out. It was just one of many regrets he carried.
Jonah twitched his shoulders, as if shaking off his own dark thoughts. “So, what are you doing for Christmas?”
A fair question since it was the day after tomorrow.
“Nothing. It’s just another day this year.”
The younger man’s face twisted in true horror. “No. Are you gonna be in town?”
“Yeah. I rented a house for the foreseeable future until I decide what I’m buying.”
“Then you’re coming to Christmas dinner.”
Grey smiled a little, proud of this piece of military culture. Leave no man behind. “I appreciate the offer, but that’s not necessary.”
Jonah’s mouth twisted into a familiar stubborn set that had Grey thinking about Rebecca again. “Absolutely not an option. You are not going to be alone on Christmas.”
It wasn’t like he was looking forward to it. But what Jonah was proposing wasn’t as simple a thing as he made it out to be.
“Is this going to be okay with your mother?”
“We’ve always had an open door policy. She believes the more the merrier. And as you said, y’all used to be friends.”
Friends was the least of what they’d been, but he wasn’t going to mention that to Rebecca’s son. Because of that history, he wasn’t sure this was the best idea. But he wanted the chance to get close to her again, and he wouldn’t waste the opportunity presented.
“Well, all right then. Just tell me when and where and what I can bring.”
* * *
“You’re looking awfully cheerful for a woman about to be feeding sixteen people.”
Rebecca Ferguson grinned and linked her arm with Donna Black, one of her long-time friends. “All my chicks are home to roost, so I’m especially thankful.”
There’d been too many years of quiet Christmases while Jonah had been deployed, when it had only been her and her daughter, Samantha. Now Jonah was free of the Navy and here with his soon-to-be wife, Rachel. Sam was here with her husband, Griff, and their baby girl, Rory, the absolute love of Rebecca’s life. And as if that wasn’t bounty enough, all the extended, adopted family that came along with Bad Boy Bakers was here, too. Both of Jonah’s business partners, Brax and Holt, whom she’d informally adopted as soon as they moved to town, their wives and children, and a handful of others linked to them, including Donna, Holt’s mother-in-law. Finding seating was proving to be a challenge, but Rebecca wouldn’t have it any other way.
“No, no, shove the sofa against the far wall. That should give you room for the extra tables you brought from the bakery.”
“We’ve gotta move all of Rory’s Christmas presents first,” Jonah announced. “I’m not sure why you went so nuts buying her stuff. She’s only six months old. She’s not gonna remember all this.”
Rebecca shot a mock scowl at her son. “Oh hush, you. Don’t you rain on my grandma parade.”
“That’s right,” Donna agreed. “Spoiling our grandchildren is one of our greatest joys in life.”
Holt shot a significant glance at his wife that nobody missed.
Cayla pressed her lips together to hide a smile. “Then I suppose this is as good a time as any to let y’all know you’re getting another one.”
Donna’s mouth fell open. “You’re pregnant?”
Cayla nodded, brown eyes twinkling.
The general volume rose several decibels as all the women began to squee and rushed forward to hug the mom-to-be.
Holt’s younger sister Hadley rested a hand on her own barely visible baby bump. “Oh, thank God. I won’t be the only one living off limeade and ginger ale.”
“The morning sickness really hasn’t been that bad this go-round.”
Hadley grimaced. “I hate you a little bit right now.”
Her fiancé, Cash, tugged her back against him, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “Yours is getting better.”
“I do think I can safely fall on that Christmas feast in there like a pack of ravening wolves, so there’s that.”
“Speaking of food, everything’s more or less ready,” Rachel announced. “We should probably start getting hands washed and drinks poured while the guys finish setting up the tables.”
A joyful chaos ensued, and Rebecca soaked up every minute. There was nothing better than family, be they of the blood or of the heart.
In less than twenty minutes, the extra tables had been set up in the living room to make one long table. Cayla had put her event planner skills to work and fitted them out with runners, centerpieces, placemats, and cloth napkins folded into some kind of fancy pinwheel. Rebecca had put her foot down on the china. No one wanted to do that many dishes by hand. The high-quality paper plates would be just fine.
The doorbell rang as Rebecca was lighting the final candle. She glanced around, confused. “Did somebody get locked out?”
“Oh, yeah.” Jonah scrubbed a hand over his head. “I forgot to tell you. I invited one more.”
“Oh.” She couldn’t be frustrated. This had always been her rule. They’d make room for one more. But she wished he’d thought to tell her while they were still sorting the seating. “Well, go let them in.” She turned to the tables, wondering where the hell they were going to shoehorn one more person in. Maybe if they shifted the high chair, they could wedge someone on the end down near her.
At the sound of more footsteps, she turned to greet the newcomer and felt the words die on her lips as she spotted him. All the chaos of parents wrangling kids faded into the background, and time seemed to slow as he stepped into the room and sucked up all the oxygen. Though silver threaded through his dark hair and beard, the years had been more than kind to Grey. A lifetime in the Navy had kept him fit, and she recognized the same economy of motion and readiness of stance she saw in her son.
He’d promised last month that he’d be seeing her. That he was coming home. But she hadn’t believed him. Just like she hadn’t been able to trust that he would come back when she was eighteen. A potent mix of joy and anxiety crawled through her as the corner of his mouth tipped up in a hesitant smile. The smile she’d missed like hell for years.
His voice was a deeper rasp now, but the tone was the same, full of affection and humor and the shared secrets of someone who’d once known her down to the ground. No one had ever called her that but him, and she’d loved it, as much as she’d once loved him. Hearing it now erased thirty-odd years of life and longing, leaving her feeling far more like an addled teenager than a brand-new grandmother.
“Grey.” She’d have preferred to sound a lot more carefree and breezy, but at this point, she was proud to have found her voice at all. “Welcome.”
Breaking contact with the hazel eyes she’d once known as well as her own, she began snapping orders.
“Griff, go grab the desk chair from Sam’s room. We’ll figure out where to slot it in at the tables.”
“Rachel, do we have enough silverware?”
“I’ll grab another set.”
“Donna, can you fill another glass with ice?”
Her friend was already reaching for the cabinet above the dishwasher.
When Rebecca turned back, Grey was right there, close enough to touch. She looked up at him, remembering what it had felt like to hug him again after so many years. She hadn’t been able to stop herself when she’d seen him in the bakery. No matter how complicated their history, nothing had been able to override that desire in the moment. Nerves were the only thing stopping her right now, because his presence here was like dancing around a bunch of land mines.
“I brought wine. And a little gift for the hostess.”
“Oh, I—” She accepted the bottle, and the large gift bag. “Thank you.”
He searched her face, lowering his voice. “If this isn’t okay, I can leave. I gather Jonah didn’t tell you I was coming.”
“He didn’t, no.” And what would she have done if he had? “It’s just a surprise, is all.”
Those eyes that had always seen too much stayed on hers. “I don’t want to make this awkward for you. I know we didn’t part on the most positive terms.”
Pain lanced through her at the memory of the things they’d both said out of heat and hurt. “It was a long time ago. Water under the bridge.” It had to be, because she couldn’t think about all that right now. Digging up a smile, she laid a hand on his arm and admitted the truth she could tell him. “I am happy to see you, Grey. Please stay.”
He covered her hand with his and squeezed, sending a buzz of electricity all the way up her arm. “I’d like that.”
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