Baked with Love
Long Valley Romance Novel – Book 9
When Gage took over his grandparent’s bakery four years ago, love was the last thing on his mind. Despite the best efforts of his wanna-be-matchmaker sister, Emma, he was content to keep his nose to the grindstone, work his ass off, and make the bakery the success he knew it could be.
That all changed the day the neighbor from hell bought the shop next to his and began remodeling, destroying Gage’s well-ordered life in the process. It really was too bad she was so damn gorgeous...
Baked with Love is the ninth novel in the Long Valley series, although all books in the Long Valley world can be read as standalones. It has some strong language, and oh my, sexy times. Enjoy!
Click here to find all of the storefronts where you can find this book for sale, or read on to enjoy an excerpt...
Cady Walcott squinted into the bright sunshine bouncing off the thigh-deep sparkling white snow, stretching out as far as she could see, broken only by the greens and browns of the pine trees and boulders of the Goldfork Mountains. It was a gorgeous winter day – one of those brilliant days that just didn’t happen often enough during the normally dreary Idaho winter.
Or maybe they happen all the time and you just don’t know it because you’re too busy hiding away from the world to notice.
She ignored the Negative Nelly thought. Today was the start of the new year, and she wasn’t about to lose sight of that.
Well, fine, technically it was January 3rd, not January 1st, but she’d always been a little slow, so maybe today could just be considered the start to the New Cady Walcott Year instead.
Either way, she was officially done. Done hiding in her bed. Done trying to sleep until her life faded away into nothingness. She’d taken the bold step of coming up to Long Valley – forcing herself out of the comforting embrace of her flannel sheets instead of lazing the day away – and now, she was going to enjoy the world she found herself in, dammit.
She scrambled up a giant boulder, the tip of it sticking out above the snow, warmed by the sun and blessedly clear of ice or moisture of any form. She could warm herself in the sun while taking a bit of a breather – the air up here was thin and sharp and cold, forcing her to take it slow.
She instinctively patted the emerald green pendant hanging around her neck, making sure, as always, that it was there and then pulled her cell phone out of her back pocket to look at the calendar app. Huh. Apparently, today was a Thursday – who knew? – so it was possible Hannah Lambert, her old college roommate, was at the elementary school teaching her 5th grade class.
On the other hand…Cady wasn’t an expert on the scheduling practices of elementary schools, but it seemed a bit early for the school district to be back in session. Surely they’d wait until next Monday before forcing all of the students to go back to school, right?
Which meant that Hannah probably had the day off.
Which meant that Cady should probably call Hannah and tell her that she was in the area so they could meet up for coffee or something.
She stared sightlessly down at her calendar app, the should taunting her. That morning, Cady had managed the miracle of making herself drive up to Long Valley and her old favorite hiking trails, but she hadn’t quite managed to make herself also call Hannah.
That just seemed so…sociable.
Am I ever going to be normal again?
The very idea seemed exhausting, quite honestly.
She shoved her cell phone into her back pocket. New rule: One major step forward per day. The next time she came up to Long Valley, she’d call Hannah. Today wasn’t that day.
After a few pulls on the water hose snaking out of her pack, Cady pushed herself off the rock and began walking again. Despite the bright sunshine, it was still too cold to sit still for very long, no matter how lovely it was to just sit and take in the vitamin D. Carefully, she wound her way through the forest, sticking to the parts of the trail where the weak winter rays had melted the snow down to a more manageable depth. Cady breathed in deep, almost enjoying the painful crispness of the air, the icy oxygen burning its way into her lungs. It was winter’s way of reminding her that she was still alive.
Whether or not she wanted to be.
You want to be. Look around, Cady. Look at all that you’d be missing if you’d given up.
Apparently, her Negative Nelly and Cheerful Cady personalities were at war with each other this morning, both of them insistent upon her seeing the world through their viewpoint.
Well, both could stick a sock in it. She just wanted to be.
She paused on the nonexistent trail and sucked greedily on her water hose again. Even at the shallower depths, it was still a good workout to slog through the snow. Instead of feeling worn out by the exercise, though, she felt invigorated. Alive. Her heartbeat was in high gear, her lungs had that pleasant burn feeling from breathing in the icy air, and she felt good.
But, she realized after sucking down more water, her legs were shaky as hell and she was running out of energy a whole lot faster than she used to.
This is what happens when you lie around for months on end. Your body atrophies. You know that.
Yeah, she did know that. After years of working in sports medicine and rehab, she hadn’t exactly missed that fundamental point.
“I wish I had a dog to talk to,” she told a chattering squirrel, watching as it bounced from pine tree to pine tree, dumping snow off the branches in a shower of white with each jump. “I wouldn’t seem so much like a crackpot if I had a dog on a leash that I talked to as I walked.”
The squirrel bounded off into the pines, snow swirling to the ground in its wake.
“Thanks for listening!” she called out after the squirrel.
Squirrels aren’t great listeners. Who’s surprised?
With a sigh, she turned and headed back down the trail towards the trailhead. She should get going back to Boise. Darkness came early in the mountains, the tall, icy peaks blocking out the winter sun and forcing the valley below into hours of prolonged twilight. Up here, it wasn’t unusual for it to start getting dark at four in the afternoon during the deepest winter months.
It really is too damn bad that all of this gorgeous scenery and snow comes part and parcel with limited daylight hours.
After a hard slog through the snow and a careful winding of her way down the Goldfork Mountains in her Jeep 4x4, Cady took a left and headed towards Sawyer. A blink of the eye and she’d be through the tiny town and back on her way to Boise. Once she made it home, she could…
Well, she’d have to start making decisions. Decisions she’d been avoiding for the past six months. Because this was the start to the New Cady Walcott Year, and that included doing things like acting like an adult, not a neurotic, scared child hiding from the world.
And anyway, she wasn’t neurotic. She just had quirks. Lots and lots of quirks. Which, by definition, made her quirky.
A totally different thing.
She was squinting into the bright sunshine that was reflecting off every car and window, practically blinding her as she drove through the quaint town, when she noticed a charming storefront. The Muffin Man, the sign proudly proclaimed, and beneath it, the large plate-glass windows were decorated with gingerbread men, snowflakes, and cups of coffee with steam swirling out of them. It was adorable, and absolutely fit the vibe of the tiny mountain hamlet.
Impulsively, she flipped on her blinker and pulled into a parking spot out front. She could grab a to-go cup of joe to drink on the way home – it’d warm her up and keep her awake for the 90-minute drive at the same time.
She took a few steps towards the front door, the sugar and yeast and coffee aromas floating on the air and tempting her before she could even get inside, when a forlorn For Sale sign in the window of the business next door caught her eye. Hesitating, she paused for just a moment, and then shrugged, changing directions and heading to the connected storefront to the right of the Muffin Man. She wasn’t sure why she was even looking – it wasn’t exactly like she needed a store. They weren’t an item that a person collected, like adding to a scarf or handbag collection, but there was something a little sad, a little pathetic about the place, that begged for her attention.
Like it needed some love, and wanted her in particular to give it.
Great, now storefronts are talking to you.
She ignored that bit of input from Ms. Negative Nelly and instead scrubbed at the dirty window pane, pressing her face against it, trying to peer into the darkened, abandoned building. Squinting as hard as she could, she worked to make out the details. The flooring was composed of large white-and-black tiles in a checkerboard pattern, set on edge to create rows of black and white diamonds that marched off into the darkened rear of the store. About a third of the way in were…
“Are those hand-carved wooden countertops?” she asked herself under her breath, scrubbing at the window pane again and pressing her face to the freezing glass. Everything about the shop screamed quaint and adorable and lots of character and charm…
Huh. Except for the left-hand wall, that was. The wall of the shop that it shared with the Muffin Man next door was a dark charcoal gray with what appeared to be smoke damage.
Shit. Fire damage…that could be trouble.
She squinted hard, peering around at the shop through her limited peephole, but couldn’t spot any other signs of fire or smoke damage. Had an electrical outlet gotten hot, but was quickly put out before it could set the whole place on fire?
She took a few steps back from the window and looked at the storefront as a whole. It actually looked a lot like the Muffin Man next door…minus any care or attention for the last 25 years, that was. All of the huge glass-paned windows facing Main Street were in one piece, which she considered to be a big plus, but the awning over the front door hung at a steep, awkward angle, obviously broken after a large snowstorm had piled up too much snow, testing – and breaking – its structural integrity. The brickwork also wasn’t in great shape – the red bricks were worn and pitted, with a couple missing to the right of the front door, below one of the large windows.
Then there was the fact that everything was beyond grimy. It would take countless hours of scrubbing just to make the place inhabitable.
A store? Cady, you can only barely handle getting out of bed on a regular basis, and you think you want to buy a store?!
But despite Negative Nelly’s best efforts, she still couldn’t quite stomp the excitement into oblivion that was bubbling up in her. She’d come up to Long Valley several times when she’d been roommates with Hannah, and she’d always loved the area. There was a reason that when she was trying to make herself move and do something today, she’d come to this magical valley.
A store would require something to sell, though, and she didn’t make things by hand. She wasn’t crafty. She didn’t paint, or sew, or quilt, or carve, or scrapbook, or cook—
Hold on. There’s an idea.
She wasn’t a cook – at least, not much of one, although she’d managed to survive 33 years without starving to death – but she was good at smoothies. When she’d worked at the smoothie shop and health food store in Boise last year, those five months had been the happiest of her adult life. She’d been making a difference – serving up good food to people, not junk food full of additives and sugar. There was a satisfaction there, and even better, a barrier between her and the public.
A shocking fact for anyone who knew her: She was good with people…if there was something between her and said people. The counter at Give It A Whirl had separated her from the strangers off the street, and that had meant that she could relax while working. Working in a clothing store or restaurant where she’d be forced to mingle in amongst everyone simply wasn’t an option, but Give It A Whirl had been ideal.
She pressed her face against the window again. Hmmm…She could work behind that beautiful countertop, creating smoothies, and then in the front third of the store, she could have some tables for people to sit at on one side, and shelves with health food on the other. As long as she made sure to not create any dead ends where someone could trap her in, she should be able to handle the occasional venturing out from behind the counter. Especially if the shelves were low enough that people could see over them, even her.
Pulling back from the grimy window, she turned in a wide circle, taking in Main Street as a whole. There was a fountain in the middle with the water turned off – she guessed it only ran during the summer – and a big planter area filled to the brim with bright snow. If memory served her, someone took the time to fill it with flowers during the summer.
Across from her was the pharmacy and gift shop, and up the street was the hardware store. If she squinted, she could see Betty’s Diner further down the street with its iconic giant waving woman statue out front, and some businesses beyond there, although she couldn’t tell from this spot what they were.
Overall, it was a cute area, if a little rundown. The benches along the sidewalks had seen better days, and some of the stores were edging past quaint and straight into rundown territory, but…
She turned and looked back at the storefront for sale. There were possibilities here.
She looked up at the brilliant blue sky arching above Sawyer, no chemtrails in sight. The whole day up in the mountains and now here on Main Street in Sawyer, and not a single airplane had flown overhead at any point.
Yeah, she could make this work – she really could. She, Cady Walcott, could actually do something with her life that didn’t include her bed and/or her flannel sheets.
The bubble of hope rising up inside of her felt…weird, honestly. She headed next door to the Muffin Man, the doorbell tinkling as she stepped inside, her mind running a million miles an hour. Considering the state of the building next door, she could probably get a good deal on it, which meant her nest egg would last longer. She stared sightlessly at the bakery display in front of her, her mind on everything back in Boise that would need to be dealt with before she could move forward.
Move forward…there was a phrase she hadn’t used in relation to her own life in a very long—
“My personal favorite are the cream puffs,” a deep, male voice said in her ear. “If you’re—”
But she was screaming and jumping and turning in a half circle all in one terrified movement, her hand over her racing heart, backing instinctively away from the man who’d spoken. He jerked his head back and his friendly smile slowly faded away. “Sorry,” he said, not looking very sorry. He looked more…surprised and annoyed by her response than sorry. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
The haze of panic was settling over her, though, thick and blinding, as she stared at his biceps. They were bulging, holding a heavily laden tray of brownies that he’d apparently brought out to put into the display case. But they were huge – he was huge – and all she could think was that he could hold her down so easily, like a giant holding a baby in place. She could fight with all her might and not move him an inch.
She shook her head, backing towards the door, looking around wildly for someone else, anyone else, to step into view. Someone else being there would be her protection against this man. He would never attack her with a witness present. But the bakery was empty, just him and her, and she didn’t know him at all, and—
He slid the tray onto the countertop and then held up his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said again, but this time, his tone all but screamed, You’re taking this way out of context. “Are you looking for something in particular?”
She stopped her retreat to the front door, her gaze swinging wildly between the display case and the massive employee who worked there. She was almost to the front door. She was almost free. If she went on the offensive, then maybe he wouldn’t look at her as easy prey and she could make her escape.
“You know,” she said bitingly, “you shouldn’t serve up such large quantities of sugar. They’ve done a lot of studies on it. It’s terrible for the human body. It’s places like this that have caused the obesity epidemic in our nation.”
His smile completely disappeared then, replaced by an increasingly pissed-off glare. “Hey, I didn’t force you to come in here,” he practically growled. “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
“Well, maybe I will!” she shot back as she swung around, the bell ringing wildly above her head as she pulled the door open and ran blindly down the street, panic and anger nipping at her heels. Get away, get away! Escape!
Finally, she forced herself to stop, slumping up against an icy brick storefront and gasping for air.
She was fine. Everything was fine. She had taken control of the situation and had escaped.
She sucked in a lungful of air, trying to slow her breathing down.
She was fine. Everything was fine. She’d escaped. She was fine.
She forced herself upright and looked up and down the street, hunting for her Jeep, finally spotting it several blocks up. Whoops. She’d apparently run right past it in her pell-mell escape from the bakery and the wall of muscle who snuck up on people for fun and scared them half to death.
Man, what a jackass.
With any luck at all, that guy’s boss would’ve overheard that little exchange, and he’d be gone by time she actually moved up here. The sweet, elderly lady who surely owned the Muffin Man would be unhappy to have such a muscular man practically attacking defenseless women in her bakery.
With that pleasant thought, she began marching back up the street to her Jeep. She was going to head back to Boise, make some decisions that she’d been putting off for a very long time, get her life in order, and be back in just a couple of months. By that point, Muscle-Bound Man would be gone, off to go terrorize some other store, and she could settle into a quiet existence in her smoothie and health shop.
She slid into the driver’s seat and turned the heat on full blast as she headed back home. Finally, she was getting her life back into order. She wasn’t about to allow anything – or anyone – to get in her way.