SWEET SOMETHINGS | EXCERPT

 

One

Juliette Adams had been at work in her bakery for over an hour when the sun came up over Fairhope, Alabama a little past seven on Thursday morning, the second of February. Her kitchen smelled like cinnamon and sugar, and the heat from the ovens had put a red flush on her cheeks. While she loved serving her customers, there was nothing better than the actual baking: kneading the dough, whipping the cream, layering the pastry—all of it, really.

Her father said she'd been born to bake, and she'd always believed that. Nothing had ever made her happier than early mornings in the kitchen like this—except maybe the mornings when her dad had been the baker and she'd been his trusted assistant. In those quiet and dark hours before dawn, they'd shared their dreams, their triumphs, even a few fallen cakes, but it had all been so special—until it had ended painfully and abruptly. 

She drew in a breath as her thoughts moved in a negative direction, and it took all of her will to force them out of her head.

Wiping her flour-covered hands on her apron, she popped the last tray of her Valentine's Day Wish cookies into the oven. Starting every February first her father had made the special batch of cookies in honor of the season of love. According to town lore, dozens of people had found their heart's desire after eating one of the magical cookies.

Now it was up to her to continue the tradition—to give love and fate a little help.

Her cookies were good, but were they the same? Were they magical?

She hoped so. It wasn't just the cookies she wanted to recreate; it was the wonderful life she'd had in Fairhope before her parents died, before she had to move away to New York, before she had to start completely over.

But her big city days were behind her now. She'd been back in the idyllic small coastal town of Fairhope for five months, and she was feeling pretty good about most things.

Her bakery business was growing rapidly, and she'd found a second sales outlet at Donavan's, the popular coffee shop across the street. Between the two locations, she was beginning to show a profit, which would eventually bring her closer to her long-term goal—to buy the house she'd grown up in.

The old Victorian on Primrose Lane called to her every time she walked down the street. The house had changed hands a couple of times since her parents had died, but one day she hoped to make it hers, the way it should have been.

Most of her New York friends—make that all of them—had thought she was out of her mind to leave one of the most exciting cities in the world to go back to small-town life, to consider buying a house before she was thirty or married or living with someone. But they didn't understand that while she'd enjoyed New York and spending time with them, there was still a hole in her heart, and she couldn't seem to fill it no matter how hard she tried.

Maybe she'd have the same problem here; she hoped not, but only time would tell.

As the oven timer went off, she quickly retrieved two trays of cookies and put them on a cooling rack. Then she went into the front of the bakery and refilled the display cases she'd emptied the night before.

Her storefront was small but cozy. She had a twelve-foot glass display case that ran most of the length of the room, showcasing her pastries, cookies, cakes and pies. On the wooded shelf behind the case and against the wall, she featured her homemade breads: rye, seven grain, white, wheat and the occasional sourdough.

In front of the display case was a coffee stand with a large stainless-steel canister for Donavan's dark roast, coffee beans provided by Donavan's Coffee Shop. For the fancier coffee drinks, customers would have to go across the street.

Next to the coffee offerings were two small red café tables for those customers who liked to linger.

As her gaze moved to the window, she caught sight of a man standing outside. His presence startled her—not just his presence, actually, but the dark, compelling gaze that seemed to hold a hint of yearning that she found oddly unsettling.

He straightened when her gaze met his. He gave her a slight nod and then took off.

She walked over to the window and saw him jogging down the street. He wore dark track pants and a hoodie sweatshirt, and he moved with the athletic ease of a long-time runner.

It wasn't uncommon for some of the before-dawn workout crowd to hit up her shop before they went to work, but she'd never seen him before.

Had he just been hungry or had there been something else in his eyes?

Shrugging that odd question out of her head, she turned away from the window and went back to her display case. She'd just finished that task when her assistant manager came in the door.

Susan Montgomery was a fifty-year-old woman whose only daughter had gone off to college in the fall, leaving Susan with time on her hands. She'd been the first person Juliette had interviewed, and she'd known instantly that the perpetually cheerful and dedicated woman would make the perfect assistant manager.

“Morning,” she said.

“It sure smells good in here.” Susan took off her coat and hung it on a hook by the door leading into the kitchen. “I know I should expect it by now, but every day I'm still a little surprised by the delicious aroma. Oh, and George said to tell you he's gained ten pounds since I started working here and bringing him home extra treats, so I better be more careful about that.” She laughed, adding, “We're not going to talk about how many pounds I've gained.”

“One of the dangers of working in a bakery,” she said.

“Not for you, Juliette. I don't know how you never gain an ounce. Actually, that's not true; I do know. You never stop working long enough to eat.”

“I do enough tasting, believe me. I get plenty of calories in. I want you to try my latest Wish cookie.”

Susan tied her apron on. “How early did you start today?”

“Four.”

“Oh, my goodness. You might as well stay here all night.”

“It might come to that. Every day there are more requests for Wish cookies.”

“That's because they're so pretty and so good,” Susan said, her gaze sweeping over the shortbread, heart-shaped cookies with the purple icing that were not only in the first display but also on a sample plate on the counter.

“I just don't know if they taste the same as my dad's cookies.”

Susan picked up a cookie, bit into it, chewed for a moment, then shook her head. “You're right. They're terrible.”

“They are?” she asked in surprise.

“No, they're amazing, but you already know that. Maybe they're not the same as your dad's; perhaps they're better.”

“But if they're not the same, I can hardly make a claim that they'll make someone's Valentine's Day wish come true.”

Susan rolled her eyes. “The only people who believe in that are twelve-year-old girls, Juliette.”

Since she'd been a twelve-year-old girl the last time she'd made a wish on the cookie, Susan was probably right.

“I understand that the wish gimmick sells cookies, but you really shouldn't worry about it so much,” Susan continued. “These cookies will sell even if they don't make any wishes come true.”

“I'm sure you're right. I'll bake some more this afternoon. I have one more variation on the ingredients that I want to try.”

“I know you won't stop until you get it the way you want it,” Susan said, with a knowing gleam in her eyes. “You're quite the perfectionist when it comes to baking.”

“It's the one thing I'm confident I can get right if I put my mind and my effort into it.” She paused. “I'm going to take our delivery over to Donavan's and get an espresso. Shall I bring you back something?”

“No, thanks. I already had two cups at home.”

“I'll be back in a bit.”

“Take your time.” 

She grabbed the plastic container of assorted brownies, muffins, cookies, and pastries she'd put together earlier and took them across the street to the coffee shop.

Donavan's wasn't just a place to get your daily dose of caffeine; it was where the townspeople gathered to chat, work on their computers, play chess, and watch the tourists go by. It was also a place where she was starting to sell a lot of baked goods.

As she walked into Donavan's, she saw Donavan, the pretty blonde owner with the big blue eyes behind the counter, whipping up coffees for the early morning crowd of caffeine addicts. Her coworker, Sara, tended the register. Sara had dark hair and dark eyes that were framed by a pair of black glasses.

Donavan and Sara had become two of her closest friends since she'd moved to town and tentatively asked Donavan about selling some of her baked goods at the coffee shop. Donavan had generously said yes, and it had turned out to be a good business arrangement for both of them.

“Good morning,” she said to Sara, as she went around the counter to unload her baked goods.

“So, did you bring more Wish cookies?” Sara asked, eagerness in her eyes. “They were gone yesterday before I got one.”

“I've got a dozen here.”

“Excellent.”

“I am ready to find some love.”

She laughed. “It's not just about finding love. It's about wishing for something you want—your heart's desire.”

“Great, then I'm going to need more than one cookie. Because I have a lot of wishes.”

She opened the container and put the plate of cookies on the counter, then loaded a display case with mini banana bread loaves, chocolate muffins, and raspberry tarts. “I can't quite believe people still remember the Wish cookies from when my dad was the baker here in town. It's been fifteen years,” she said.

“Around here, people have long memories. Fifteen years is nothing,” Sara told her.

“I suppose.” She was happy that her dad had left behind an unexpected legacy, and it warmed her heart that so many people remembered him.

“Juliette, I have something for you,” Donavan said, reaching behind the counter to pull out a framed photo. “I was cleaning out the storage room yesterday, and I came across some old photos my mother had hung onto for whatever reason.” She turned the photo around so Juliette could see it. “What do you think about this?”

Her heart squeezed painfully at the sight of her father in his baker's hat and white apron. She stood next to him at about age six, dressed in exactly the same outfit. They were standing in front of the display counter in the bakery he'd run so many years ago. It had been located across town, and while she'd thought about getting the exact same space, she'd discovered that bakery had been turned into an Italian café, so she'd rented the property across from Donavan's.

It had actually been a better decision, because Donavan's provided a steady stream of customers and another place to sell her desserts.

“You look adorable,” Sara said, peeking at the photo over Donavan's shoulder.

“I loved helping him bake. He was my inspiration to become a pastry chef.” She took the photo out of Donavan's hands and pressed it against her heart. “Thank you.”

Donavan gave her a sympathetic smile. Having lost her mom, Donavan knew firsthand about parental loss. “I thought you might want to hang it at the bakery.”

“Absolutely,” she said. “I'm looking for as many photos as I can find that show off my dad or his old bakery.”

“If I see any others, I'll let you know.”

“I'd appreciate that.”

“How's business going?” Donavan asked. “It seems like there is a steady stream of customers going through your front doors.”

“It's picking up every month. Christmas was very good. With Valentine's Day looming, sales are staying strong. I just have to be able to keep up with demand. I might have overextended myself by signing up to provide desserts at every pre-Valentine's Day town event.  I can't quite believe how much Fairhope gets into the holidays: the romantic movie festival, the love boat parade in the harbor, and the Sweetheart's Dance to name just a few.”

“It's a way to turn February into a fun month and bring in some extra tourist dollars that we don't normally see in the winter,” Donavan said with a laugh. “And Sara and I'll be right there with you. We signed up for everything, too.”

“That's great. I'll be happy to have the company. In between events, I'm also starting to get a lot of orders for private parties, but I'm not complaining; the more business, the better. I love seeing a line at my counter.” She paused, as a gust of cool wind drew her gaze to the door. At first she thought it might be the attractive jogger she'd seen earlier, but it was another guy.

“Looking for someone?” Donavan asked curiously as she turned back to her.

“Not really. Well, sort of…”

“That sounds interesting—like maybe you're looking for a guy?” she asked with a gleam in her eye.

“There was a man outside my bakery early this morning,” she admitted. “He was jogging, but he stopped to look in the window, and, I don't know…there was something about him—he was kind of unforgettable.”

“Like he had two heads or he was super-hot?” Sara put in, curiosity in her brown eyes.

“Definitely not two heads,” she said with a laugh.

“So good-looking then,” Sara prodded.

“Definitely. He had this super intense gaze.” She shivered at the memory.

“That looked right through you?” Donavan asked, a gleam in her eyes. 

“Yes, exactly.”

“I'm pretty sure that was Roman Prescott,” Donavan said. “I heard he's back in town. I haven't seen him since high school, but that man's gaze was searing. There wasn't a girl in the school who didn't think so. If he's looking at you, you won't be able to do anything but look back.”

“Did you look back?” she asked, wondering if there had been something between them.

“Oh, sure,” Donavan admitted. “But I was two years younger, and far too innocent. Roman was not interested in me in that way. He liked the hot, fast girls.”

“In my experience, most high school boys do,” she said dryly.

“True, but Roman was different from most of the guys at school. He didn't grow up here, for one thing. He came to town to live with his grandfather when he was a wild, rebellious teenager, and he caused all kinds of problems, but most of them were just pranks. I always thought he had a good heart.” 

“He sounds—complicated,” she murmured.

“The best ones always are,” Sara put in. “I haven't met this Roman Prescott, but now I really want to. There's nothing wrong with a good bad boy.”

“You have love on the brain, Sara,” Donavan told her assistant.

“It's almost Valentine's Day, what can I say?” She gave a helpless shrug. “It's the season for love.”

“Well, I don't think Roman was looking for love this morning, more like food,” Juliette said. “He was probably hungry from his run, but the bakery wasn't open yet.”

“Hey, Juliette and Roman…that sounds a little like Romeo and Juliet,” Sara said.

Her nerves tingled at the suggested coupling, but she brushed the comment off with a wave of her hand. “I've heard that joke before, too many times to count. And I'm not looking for a Romeo; I have no time for love. On that note, I'm going back to work.”

 

* * *

 

Work had always been his therapy, Roman thought, as he used a crowbar to rip off a piece of drywall in the living room of the old Victorian his grandfather was restoring.

Learning carpentry and construction had saved him as an angry teenager. He'd found a place to hammer out his frustration and bitterness. He wasn't sure the work would have the same effect on his burned-out, cynical, and weary thirty-one-year-old self, but at least it gave him a few hours of respite each day from the nightmares that haunted his dreams.

After thirteen years in the Marine Corps, it also felt good to be restoring a building, bringing it back to life, making it better. He'd like to believe he'd improved things in other places in the world. Certainly, he hoped he'd made some of those places safer, but the good didn't always balance out the pain and destruction.

“Roman, there you are.”

He looked up as his seventy-three-year-old grandfather Vincent Prescott walked into the room. Tall and thin, with dark eyes and dark hair that had never grayed, his grandfather had always been an imposing man. Vincent had done the hard, physical work of construction all his life, and his callused hands and weathered skin reflected those years. He might be moving more slowly these days with his arthritis flaring up, but his sharp gaze missed nothing. His grandfather had been the toughest boss he'd ever had, and that was saying something. 

“Where else would I be?” he drawled. “You gave me a job to do, and I'm doing it.”

He and his grandfather had had both an antagonistic and an awkwardly caring relationship. While Vince had saved him from the foster care system when he was fifteen, his grandfather hadn't been around the terrible years before that, and Roman had never really understood why. But his grandfather wasn't big on talking. He'd just moved him into his house, taught him how to build, and made sure he had food to eat and a place to sleep while he went to high school.

“Looks like there's some rot behind those boards,” Vincent said, tipping his head to the opening behind the sheetrock.

“I suspect we're going to find that throughout the house,” he agreed. “You may need to increase the budget on this one or change up some of your plans.”

“Can't do that. Just fix what needs to be fixed. Whatever it costs, it costs.”

He nodded, wondering again why his grandfather had chosen this particular house to flip.

In fact, he couldn't really understand why Vincent had bought the property at all. He'd been in semi-retirement before he'd purchased the property six months earlier, and he no longer had a crew to do the work. If Roman hadn't been put on medical leave from the Marines, he had no idea who'd be working on the house. But all he said was, “Will do.”

“I've got a kid coming in after school tomorrow to help you with the downstairs bathroom demo,” Vincent added. “Jeff Dobbs. He's Margaret's grandson,” he added, referring to his long-time neighbor. “He needs some cash for college.”

“Fine. I could use an extra pair of hands—more than one would be great.”

“I'm working on that. I should also be able to get back in here to work later in the week. These flare-ups don't last too long.” He flexed his fingers with a painful grimace.

“Whenever you're ready, but you're going to need to hire subs regardless. I am a little surprised you took on such a big project.”

“Why?” his grandfather asked, an edge to his tone.

He suspected that suggesting his grandfather was old would not be the best answer. “I thought you were winding things down.”

Vincent didn't answer right away, a faraway light coming into his eyes. “I always wanted this property. It has only been up for sale a couple of times in the last fifty or so years, and it was never the right time for me. When it came back on the market last year, I knew I had to get it. I've had ideas for it for a long time. I want to see those ideas come to life before I die.”

It was a sentimental reason for a man who wasn't known for his sentiment, and Roman wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

Vincent's gaze swept the room. “The arched doorways and windows, the exposed beams, the details are all here, but they need to be honed, remade, redone. This house could be magnificent. It deserves to be that.” Vincent frowned at the end of his statement, as if he regretted showing so much emotion. He cleared his throat, putting his usual cold, stoic expression back on his face. “I'll check in with you later. I'm going to run some errands and then meet Max at Donavan's for chess and coffee.”

“Sounds good.” His grandfather spent most of his afternoons at the local coffee shop.

As Vincent left, he thought about getting some coffee himself. He hadn't been to Donavan's yet. He hadn't been ready to face the social scene he knew he would find there, but he had always liked the owner, Donavan Turner, and he was curious to see what kind of business she'd built.

Two years younger than him, Donavan had been a sweet kid in high school and fiercely protective of people she considered underdogs. Back then, he'd fit into that category, with half the school judging him before he ever set foot on the campus. He'd been the new kid in the tenth grade in a school where everyone had been together since kindergarten, and he hadn't made it easy for people to like him.

He'd been reckless, pissed off all the time, impatient, bitter, and…lost.

He hadn't had a clue how to release those emotions in a positive way. He'd made a lot of mistakes; he'd hurt people. And he'd been hurt.

Water under the bridge, he told himself. His teenage years had been a long time ago, and the last thing he wanted to do was relive that time in his life. Unfortunately, he didn't think he would have a choice, because a lot of the people he'd gone to school with were still in town, and there was no doubt they would judge him once again.

He'd known coming back to Fairhope would stir up gossip and old problems, but it was the closest thing he had to a home, and after being injured in action, he'd been forced to take a break from the career he loved and the circle of friends who'd become brothers to him. He'd wandered around for two months before finally getting on a plane to Fairhope. He'd needed to feel grounded again, to get his feet back under him, to recover and recharge and be part of a world where he had a connection with at least one person.

His fellow soldiers checked up on him as much as they could, but they were on the other side of the world—where he would have been, if he hadn't gotten injured, if an explosion hadn't damaged his hearing, if bullets hadn't cracked his ribs and torn through his shoulder, leaving him with poor range of motion and nerve damage that went down into his fingers.

He'd gotten a lot better. He could do most things without pain. He was working out every day, and if he could pass the physical he had coming up in a little over a week, hopefully, he'd be cleared for active duty again. It was an optimistic thought, considering the level of skill and fitness required for his job and the damage that he'd suffered, but he wasn't giving up without a fight.

Focusing his attention back on the work at hand, he ripped off another piece of drywall, only to be interrupted again by a shrill, angry female voice.

“What the hell are you doing to my house?” she demanded.

He swung around, not only surprised by the question but also by the beautiful blue eyes spitting fire at him. It was the attractive brunette from the bakery. There was no apron covering her slender but curvy frame now, and she looked even prettier in black jeans, black boots and a body-hugging bright-green sweater. Her long hair was pulled back at the base of her neck, her skin clear and shiny, although he thought he could see a trace of flour along her hairline. He had to fight the urge to lean forward and wipe it away. 

“You?” she asked, more surprise in her eyes as their gazes connected.

That question made him stiffen. What did she mean—you?

Get the eBook

SWEET SOMETHINGS is a full-length standalone novel. But to add a cool twist, it's set in the world of a romantic movie called COFFEE SHOP that is being released on the same day! Both stories (the book and the movie) take place in the same small coastal town, and some of the characters cross over. You can read/watch each separately without missing a beat, as they each have their own independent storylines, but if you'd love to check out both, you'll have even more fun!

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