How the Cookie Crumbles (A Bluewater Bay Novel)
After losing a rigged cooking show competition—and a potential lover—to another baker, Frederic Jackson packs up his considerable baggage and moves to Bluewater Bay. He uses the network’s hush money to buy a new bakery where he hopes the small town’s revitalized economy will let him start anew.
Blaire Caruthers never wanted to work for his father at Caruthers Industries. He should have known that fixing the company’s show results was a mistake, and that choosing another man over kind, generous Frederic was an even bigger one. But the damage is done. To escape the fallout, he’s gone to Bluewater Bay to oversee the company’s interest in Wolf’s Landing merchandise.
Stuck in a small, nowhere town doing a job he hates, Blaire wants nothing more than to prove to Frederic he’s changed. However, Frederic struggles to trust the man who betrayed him once already. As Blaire loses ground with his father, and Frederic starts falling back into self-destructive habits, they both have to find the balance and control that’s been missing from their lives.
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Themes: addiction, child abuse / neglect, enemies to lovers, financial gap / class disparity, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, power imbalance, prostitution, recovery, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
This was hurtling quickly toward disaster. If Frederic didn’t get the smoke out, and fast, the sprinklers would activate. His night’s work would be ruined. His shop drenched. His entire week trashed. And it was Monday.
Using his apron as a pot holder, he whipped the tray of cookies out of the oven and rushed them to the back door. He flung the door open and the entire tray out into the alley. The echoing clatter was lost as the door clanged shut again. He had to find something to prop it open so the smoke would vacate the kitchen. Dragging one of his large mixing machine’s bowls over, he upended it and shoved at the crash bar on the door again. Its squeaky hinges protested, but the door opened, and Frederic jammed the bowl between it and the doorframe.
Next, he hurriedly repositioned the fans to blow the smoke away from the front part of the building. There was more in the kitchen than out front, though some had escaped through the pass-through window behind the serving counter.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he muttered, wiping sweat off his brow, probably replacing it with a smudge of flour. “Stupid oven. I knew I shouldn’t have set it past three hundred. F-fudge-cakes. What time—?” He glanced at his watch. “Fifteen minutes.” He hurried out front to open the door to the street. A billow of smoke followed him out there too, and he tried to drag one of the heavy wrought iron tables over to prop the door open.
The hand-painted tile set in the center of the table, with the Cookie Crumbles logo of his shop, rattled. He made a mental note to call the artist who had refitted the tiled tabletops and ask him to refasten it.
“Hey, Freddie. Careful you don’t hurt yourself!”
Frederic glanced up from where he was trying to get the table far enough in front of the door to keep it open. He didn’t know the name of the kid who’d addressed him, but he knew the type. He wore a cap from some Seattle team or another, high-top runners, and expensive everything else. His skateboard growled down the walk as he approached.
“That’s Mr. Jackson to you.”
The boy sneered. He couldn’t be more than ten, but he rolled on by with a thunder of plastic wheels. “Whatever you say, Freddie Baker.”
Why did rich kids have to be such—
“Need a hand?” Frederic’s attention caught at the question, and he turned to find Alicia grinning at him. “Let me.” Without seeming to strain a pinkie, she lifted the heavy table and plunked it down in front of the door. “That better?”
“Yes, thanks.” Frederic gave her an answering smile. “Come on in. I have your breakfast ready. Grape jelly this time. And some coffee I know you’ll love. Even better than that French blend you always want. Here.” He gestured to a seat at the counter. “Sit. I’ll pour.”
“Is that oven acting up again?” She plunked her diminutive frame onto the stool he’d indicated even as she waved a hand in front of her face and screwed up her expression. “It stinks in here.”
“Yes. I should have known better, but the cookies I wanted to try needed a higher temp, and I didn’t plan it out as well as I could have. All the other ovens were already in use. I should have just waited.” He set two mugs down as he spoke and filled both with coffee from the row of pots.
Alicia was a camera operator for the Wolf’s Landing television show that filmed in the small town where Frederic had bought his bakery. She’d worked on the reality show that had, in a roundabout way, led him here as well. That was where he’d met her, and they’d hit it off instantly.
While Frederic was not a large man, Alicia was tiny, even next to him. But she was powerful, a dynamo in body and personality. Frederic liked that she could shut him up with a look or a word. Very few people managed to get him to zip up.
“So what’s on your agenda today?” he asked her.
She wrinkled her nose at the smoke that curled lazily over their heads. “As it happens, I have the day off. Thought I would go into Seattle or something. Don’t suppose you’re free this afternoon?”
Frederic lifted an eyebrow as he pushed her coffee across the counter at her. “Are you kidding me? I work, I sleep, I bake. That’s all I do, honey, you know that.” He sipped his own coffee and closed his eyes briefly, while the aroma of the black brew temporarily overpowered the acrid stench of charred cookies.
“You need a holiday.” She plucked the coffee out of his hands. “Is this decaf?”
He shot a guilty look sideways at the row of pots, and she clucked her tongue.
“I thought you weren’t going to do this again.”
“Just a pick-me-up,” he protested, reaching for the cup that she moved farther away.
“And a dump-you-on-your-ass in an hour. No. No caffeine. You know it’s going to fuck with you. Have some juice and nuts and behave. If you want to pick yourself up, pick yourself up and take yourself out of this place for a couple of days. Hol-i-day. Say it with me.”
He curled a lip at her, then fished in a cupboard under the cash register for his private stash of mixed nuts. He hated that something as simple as a cup of coffee had to be so carefully regulated. Yes, the caffeine crash was a bitch, but he also knew it wasn’t the physical effects but the thought process that had to be acknowledged. The “I need a pick-me-up” mentality that she was making him admit to.
Slippery slope, Freddie. He sighed and opened the can to dump a handful of the salted nuts into his palm.
“Seattle,” she said. “Come with me.”
“Sweetheart, if I had time for a holiday, it would not be traipsing through some stinky city, shop to shop looking at all the crap no one needs to spend money they probably don’t have on. I’d lie on a blanket in my yard in the shade with a water bottle, a book, and a very thick and comfy pillow pretending to read while I doze and ignore my neighbors.”
Alicia was shaking her head halfway through his speech. “You are a consumer society’s worst nightmare, you know that?”
He shrugged. “I beg to differ. I cater to the masses, dear.” He threw a handful of nuts in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “I make what people don’t need and ask them for more money than is decent for the privilege of tasting my wares.” He grinned at her. “Not that anyone has really gone after my—”
“Please don’t.” She held up a hand. “Where is my breakfast?”
He laughed as he picked up a plate for her food. “You’re just jealous because you’re not invited to the feast, sweetie.”
“Look at the size of you!” She snorted. “You’re a mouthful, if that. And I swear your ass is even skinnier than it was yesterday. Did you eat last night?”
“Of course I—” He frowned. “I— Maybe not.” He stopped, empty plate in one hand and her steaming pastry in the other’s tongs, to think about his evening. “I was here until five”—he waved the pastry around as he talked—“finishing up an order . . . cupcakes for a kiddie’s birthday. Chocolate and pink vanilla. I was waiting for the father to pick them up.”
He plopped the pastry onto the plate and turned, but still stood, one hip canted out, tongs in one hand and plate in the other, just out of Alicia’s reach. “He was a nice one, if I do say. Broad and beefy”—he demonstrated with the tongs and plate, holding them apart at his own head height and much wider than his own narrow frame—“and tall. Dark. Mm-mmm. Yummy.”
“Pervert. Gimme my food.”
“I can look,” he told her, finally setting the plate on the counter and going to the sink to rinse the tongs. “Anyway, after that, I was in the back getting this morning’s order ready, and cleaning up a few things. Then I had to run to the Walgreens for some supplies—”
“Walgreens? No wonder you aren’t making any money, honey.”
“If there was a decent place within walking distance, I’d go there. But there isn’t. Walgreens flour is cheaper than a car, and gas, and insurance, and repairs—”
“I get it. Fine. Point taken.”
“Anyway. I brought the overpriced Walgreens crap back here.” He was waving the tongs around as he spoke, droplets of water flying through the air. “Then I put them away, and I was going to go across the street for something, but I found this recipe.” He grinned at her. “For the cookies, and I needed some stuff, so back to Walgreens.” He shook his head at himself. “I swear, I wonder sometimes if I’m going to totally forget my own name one of these days.”
“What about breakfast?” she asked, ripping off a chunk of her treat and stuffing it in her mouth. She pushed the container of nuts in his direction, as if she already knew what his reply was going to be.
“I ate. Had some grapes and a banana before I came over.”
“Grapes and a banana.” She eyed him, then the nuts. “When was that? Five? Six?”
He thought. “Three thirty, I think?”
Her eyes bugged. “Three fucking thirty in the morning? You were here at three thirty in the morning?”
He shrugged. “Things to do, precious. Not going to do themselves, now are they?”
“You can’t live on no food and no sleep, Freddie.”
“Ali,” he warned.
She stuck her tongue out. She hated being called “Ali” almost as much as he hated being called “Freddie.”
“You cannot live on caffeine, no sleep, and no food. It isn’t healthy. You’re going to have a nervous breakdown.” She pursed her lips, and then, apologetically, “Frederic.”
“I’ll sleep on the weekend.”
“Frederic, it’s Monday. You didn’t sleep this last weekend. You say the same thing every—”
“Because it’s the same argument, love. I’m a baker. I bake. That’s pretty much what I do. Bake. Sell cake. And coffee, sometimes, and make people happy and fat.” He waved a dismissive hand at her. “Well, except you, because I’m pretty sure you sold your soul to the devil to keep that body, but everyone else. That’s my mission. My baked goods will save the world. You’ll see.”
“Before or after you burn your kitchen down?” A male voice, deep enough to make Frederic’s balls shiver, asked from the open door.
Frederic and Alicia both turned to the speaker.
Blaire Caruthers. He hadn’t changed one bit in the time since Frederic had last seen him. He obviously still had a thing for the dramatic entrance.
“You so have to stop doing that.” Frederic smiled into the mirror at Blaire where he stood in the dressing room doorway. He had both hands in his pockets, a shoulder propped against the doorframe. His stance, even relaxed, was so full of bravado and charisma, it was like the building ought to be grateful he had deigned to grace it with the task of holding him up.
“Doing what?” Blaire’s lazy grin and deep voice sent a thrill right down to Frederic’s toes, and he set the eyeliner he’d been using down. No point taking out his own eye because his entire body was succumbing to the low-level thrum Blaire’s presence always initiated.
“Sneaking up on me. It gives me goose bumps.” He rubbed his arms.
Blaire stared at him through the mirror. “That so?”
God. That smile. It was pure sex, and Frederic wanted. “Yeah,” he managed.
Blaire grinned a bit wider, a bit sexier, and sauntered forward.
“Don’t get up,” he said as Frederic pushed his wheeled chair away from the makeup counter. Blaire spun the chair to face him as he leaned against the edge of the counter and gazed down at Frederic. “You ready?”
Ready . . . Frederic should look up at his face. Into his eyes. Something other than lick his own lips and stare at the way Blaire’s trousers stretched across his groin.
Blaire’s throaty, happy laugh sent another wave of gooseflesh over Frederic’s skin, and he shivered.
“I, uh . . .” He shoved his chair back, shot to his feet, and nearly crashed to his knees when the chair bounced off the wall and knocked into the back of his legs.
“Hey!” Blaire laughed even as he caught him, a hand on his arm. “You okay?”
“Klutz,” Frederic said as heat flashed up his neck into his cheeks. He lifted his chin and found Blaire close. So close. Touching, even, and he didn’t think. He was on his toes, lips against Blaire’s mouth, tongue sliding over Blaire’s lower lip, and what a bad idea that was, but it didn’t stop him. Or Blaire.
The kiss wasn’t long or particularly deep, but it was real, and Blaire’s hand sliding up into his flop of longer hair was firm, huge, perfect.
Frederic let out a tiny breath, and Blaire caught the sigh, lingered, where they had to share oxygen, too close to see each other, not close enough. He was ready for a better, deeper kiss when the stage manager’s voice carried down the hall from another contestant’s dressing room, giving the five-minute call.
“I’ll let you finish.” Blaire’s hand caressed Frederic’s cheek as he stepped away. “Good luck.”
Frederic nodded, suddenly way less nervous about his first time in front of the cameras than he had been five minutes ago. He refused to think about what a bad idea it was to get involved like this with someone who would pretty much dictate the most important thing he’d ever done in his life . . .
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Alicia rarely sounded shrill. Blaire brought it out in her.
Frederic winced, and the little snatch of memory disintegrated like so much pulled-sugar sculpture. Crystal shards of it dug into him as Alicia rose, both hands clenched, eyes bright with anger.
Frederic hurried around the counter.
“Alicia, calm down.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Take your coffee.” He handed it to her, and then shoved the remains of her pastry in her other hand. “Go on. I’ve got this.”
“Oh no. I am not leaving you alone with him.”
“I’m a big boy, sweetie. Off you go. I don’t need blood on my floor on top of everything else.” He guided her to the door, around the object of her fury, ignoring the static charge that jumped from Blaire’s suited arm right down through Frederic’s toes as he brushed it with his own.
“Out,” he told Alicia. “Now. I’ll call you. Maybe even promise to sleep this weekend if you just don’t murder anyone in my place, okay? Please?”
“You shouldn’t let him in, Freddie.”
“Alicia.” He had her out in the street, resisting him more and more the farther they went. “I’ve got this. Please. Just go home.”
She snarled at him, turned suddenly, and shouted back into the bakery. “You’re a scumbag, Blaire Caruthers!” She swung a fist, pastry crushed in her grip. “You are a—”
“Alicia!” Frederic shook her. “Not here, hon. Just. Go. Home.”
“He’ll only fuck things up again, Freddie. You’ll see.” She went, no grace in her concession.
Frederic scrubbed at the buzzed hair on the side of his head as she stalked off. It was going to take some heavy bribery to get her to forgive him for not letting her eviscerate the man on his doorstep. The man he’d left alone in his shop, so he didn’t really have time to linger over Alicia’s bent-out-of-shape feelings.
“I don’t have the energy for this,” he grumbled, even as he turned, drew in a breath, and shoved through the door back inside. Might as well get it over with.
“Well.” Blaire quirked his lips in an unhappy smile that vanished almost before it had formed. “Guess she’s still pissed at me.”
Frederic hurried back around the counter, wanting it between himself and the much bigger man. “Would seem so. Can I get you something?”
“Got anything not burnt?” Blaire asked, offering what Frederic refused to think of as an endearing smile.
“Was that a joke?” Frederic stared at him, not smiling back. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Technically I don’t open for five more minutes. But if it will make you go away faster, I’ll serve you anyway.”
Blaire put the teasing tone and smile away and straightened his tie. “You’re still mad too?”
“I was never mad.” Hurt? Devastated? Betrayed? Frederic continued to stare, lips cramping with the tightness of his frown.
“Do you have any Danishes?”
Frederic shook his head. “Don’t make Danishes.”
“Ah. I thought maybe . . .”
“I don’t make Danishes. If that’s all, maybe you’d like to try across the street. The diner has some thawed-from-frozen junk you’ll probably like.”
“Actually, I came to see you, Freddie.”
Frederic tightened his jaw. “Well. Here I am. And the name is Frederic, thank you.”
“Right. Frederic. I’d forgotten that. I just wanted to let you know I’d be in town. Moved here a while back. Thought you should have a heads-up.”
“Don’t care what you do. If you’re not here for baked goods, then we’ve no business.”
“I made a mistake, Frederic, I admit—”
“You made many mistakes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do. Some of us have to actually earn what we have, because our daddies aren’t rich and we didn’t want to fuck to get our way.” His face heated, and he cringed because only this man could make him forget himself and swear.
Blaire’s swarthy face paled. “It wasn’t like that.”
“I’m pretty sure it was. He fucked you, he got the cash. Now I bake for people who actually appreciate my food because it wins awards I’ve earned because I can bake and not because I can fuck.”
Oh God that word kept coming out of his mouth and it was ugly and vulgar and not who he was.
With a heavy sigh, Blaire dropped the hand he’d lifted and fled the building.
“I was so over this!” Frederic muttered, swiping at the counter with a damp cloth. “So over it. I do not need this crap in this town. You would think a little backwater like Bluewater Bay would be free of dill-holes, but no—” He slammed the cloth down on the counter and ground his teeth. That flush of electricity at the mere accidental brush of Blaire’s arm with his shoulder had made a thin sweat break out over his back. Made him forget himself. Made him fall back into bad habits.
“I am not doing this again!”
“Morning.” The sunny greeting snapped Frederic out of his griping, and he looked up to see Buck Ellis saunter in. “You got Ari’s very expensive sugar high ready, Frederic?”
Frederic smiled. “I surely do. How is Ari? You look good today. How’s your brother? Keeping out of trouble, I hope. Tori keeping you busy?”
Buck smiled and took a seat at the counter. “Which did you want me to answer first?”
Frederic flushed, but Buck only chuckled and chatted while Frederic packed up his order.
Blaire should not have gone to the bakery. He should have tried for more neutral ground first. But he was just trying to be upfront, wasn’t he? Let Freddie—Frederic—know he was in town so he didn’t find out by accident. Or through someone trying to make new trouble out of old news.
“Shit.” Blaire let out a heavy breath.
“Problem?” Lee, his assistant, handed him a takeout coffee.
“No.” Blaire glanced at the open door of the bakery. A thin haze still emanated from the front door, and people made faces as they went inside, but the smoke didn’t stop them going in. Blaire knew why. Frederic made the best damn desserts on the West Coast.
“We should get going, sir.”
Blaire grunted and shot Lee an annoyed look, which the younger man ignored. “I thought I told you not to call me ‘sir.’ I have a name.”
“You also have a title, which states that you are my boss, and that means I call you ‘sir.’ Your father would fire me if I dared call him ‘Oscar.’”
He was right about that. Oscar Caruthers would fire him, ruin his career while he was at it, and probably kick his puppy if Lee tried to call him anything other than “sir.” Or maybe “Your Worship.”
“I’m not my father,” Blaire said.
Lee rolled his eyes and opened the back door of the town car on the curb. “Indeed not,” he muttered, climbing into the car after Blaire.
“You know, it would help me to see the point of that kind of deference if you had the tiniest bit of respect for me,” Blaire said. Lee’s lack of actual respect had long since ceased to bother Blaire. At least, it didn’t bother him any more than the general lack of respect he got from anyone in the industry who knew him and his relationship to Caruthers Industries.
“Earned. Yeah. So I’ve been told. All my life. Trust me. I got the memo.” He glared out the car window as it pulled away from the curb. “All forty-two volumes of it.”
“Perhaps you failed to read the fine print?”
Deciding the view wasn’t all that spectacular after all, Blaire settled his head back and closed his eyes. “Don’t start.”
“It bears pointing out that rigging the finale on a reality TV show—”
“Those shows are rigged the instant the contestants are picked, and you know it,” Blaire reminded him, not even bothering to open his eyes.
“Not usually because one of the producers slept with one of the contestants and manipulated the outcome for his lover.”
“It isn’t even the rigging, so much as the getting caught that is the real issue.” Blaire blinked, straightened, and sipped his coffee. It was only lukewarm, and he grimaced. “My father is pissed off because I got caught and cost him a bit of money, not because I fucked Jerry.”
Lee’s eyebrows went up. “Only you can sit there and call five hundred thousand dollars ‘a bit of money’ and not twitch. Just shows what a spoiled brat you are that you think that’s no big deal.”
“It isn’t a big deal, Lee. Not to my father, and not to the studio. Not really. He doesn’t give two shits about the money. Take this car. Why the hell do we need a driver in Bluewater Bay? Did he order it?”
Lee shrugged. “You’ve just always had one. You want me to fire the guy?”
Blaire leaned forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Excuse me.”
“Who do you work for?”
“A service, sir.”
“So no cut in pay for you if you don’t drive me around.”
“Good.” He sat back again. “My father, Lee, cares about appearances. The money meant nothing to him. He cares that I embarrassed him.”
Blaire curled a lip. “Whatever. It was a stupid mistake.” He plunked his too-cold coffee into the cup holder and turned back to the window. So why did it matter to him if Frederic heard he was in town from Blaire and not through the grapevine? Why did he care so much that the baker was still so cheesed off with him?
A cool shiver passed through him, and he rubbed a hand over his arm where Frederic had brushed against him.
Lee shot him a thorny look. “You’re fucking kidding me, right?”
Lee pointed his laser gaze at where Blaire was rubbing his arm. “Really?”
“You watched the entire thing?” Blaire asked, irked that this little man would witness the exchange, but more than that, unsettled that anything to do with Caruthers Industries had gotten even that close to Frederic. Ever. Hadn’t his—the baker had enough of their interference in his life? “Fuck off.”
Blaire glanced at the man at his side. “What?”
“You’re brooding,” Lee said. “You’re making a dick of yourself over the nice kid from the coast when we all know you’re boning the little dick with the pretty mouth. So stop acting like the world fucked you over. You did this. Own it.”
“I hate you.”
Lee grinned. “I know. It’s okay. I forgive you. Jackson might not, but who cares? You play this right, Daddy’ll pay him off, and you get the guy with, like, no inhibitions. Plus, you get the hell off this stupid show with the divas and crybabies.”
“You really are a callous asshole,” Blaire said.
Lee shrugged. “Hey, I am not the one who led Frederic on, made him moon over me and want”—he grinned lasciviously and waggled his tongue—“things. Then turned around and slept with his competition. Now you just have to figure out how to let the little twink down easy and ride off into the sunset with your soul mate.”
“Jerry Keens is so not my soul mate,” Blaire muttered as he watched the bakers play to the camera on set.
Jerry was grinning like a loon and flashing his trademark sex smile. Frederic stirred batter quietly, blushed when the host approached his table, and was otherwise completely charming as he answered questions and barely managed to lift his gaze to the camera.
The woman behind the cameras smiled at him, gave him a thumbs-up, and Frederic’s smile lost some of the fake, plastered-on quality and turned more genuine. He nodded to something the host said, glanced in Blaire’s direction, and his expression fell. Broke, really. It just . . . shattered, and Blaire couldn’t watch another second. He couldn’t take back what he’d done, and Lee was right. Frederic was never going to forgive him for the betrayal.
He turned his back on the set to hide in his office until the contestants had left for the day. He didn’t even want to think that Jerry and Frederic and the other remaining contestant still had a week of sharing the condo the show rented for them.
He was an asshole.
“You don’t have to be hostile.” Lee smirked. “I’m only here to tell you that shit is not going to happen, big guy. You stay away from the baker, you hear me?”
“What business is it of yours? He’s got nothing to do with Wolf’s Landing or the merchandising for the new season, so nothing I do or say to him has any bearing whatsoever on my job, and so it has no bearing whatsoever on your job. He’s got nothing to do Caruthers Industries or anything else.”
“Keep telling yourself that.” Lee sank back into his seat.
“You’re my assistant, Lee, not my babysitter.”
“Thank fuck for that.” But his gaze slid sideways, and he stared out the window in silence the rest of the way to the office.
Blaire wasn’t fool enough to think Lee wasn’t reporting back to Oscar on every detail of Blaire’s life. He just wasn’t cowed enough to care. Not anymore. If Jerry had taught him anything at all while they were together, it was that life was too damn short and pissy not to grab at what you wanted the instant it came within reach. Well, that and the fact that if you acted like a completely selfish jerk-wad, it would, eventually, come back to bite you in the ass. Hard.
Of course, it would probably help if Blaire had any idea what he wanted, other than out from under his father’s thumb. He realized he still had a palm flattened over the sleeve of his suit jacket where he and Frederic had made contact. His fingertips practically vibrated with the thought of that tiny interaction. He wondered what it would be like, skin to skin, and his breath caught.
He dropped his hand. He’d given up the chance to that find out when he’d been lured away from it by Jerry’s siren call of better and brighter.
“Problem?” Lee asked.
A sharp, stabbing pulse began behind Blaire’s left eye. He clamped his mouth shut and offered Lee his shoulder for answer. Lee wasn’t a confidant. Not even a friend, really. Blaire had no friends here. Suddenly coming to Bluewater Bay didn’t seem like as good an idea as it had when he’d so badly needed to be anyplace Jerry Keens was not and would never want to be.
Monday was a distant memory. Frederic gazed around his kitchen, noting the industrial shine hidden under a dusting of fine pastry flour. This was the last time he’d give the local school children a tour of his facilities. It had seemed like such a good idea when he’d agreed. Some of his own very best memories were of learning to bake at his grandmother’s side. He’d had a ridiculous thought that if he could give one child a memory like that, it would be worth it.
They had been a bunch of little hellions. Looking at the destruction fifteen middle schoolers could do to one kitchen, he decided it was going on the list of Things to Never Do Again. Right under participate in a reality cooking show, which topped the list.
“Hey.” Alicia’s voice carried from the front of the store. “It’s five after. You want me to lock up, babe?”
“Please.” He didn’t go out. She’d turn the sign and flip the lock for him. A minute later, she appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“Je-sus. What the hell happened in here? A flour-pocalypse?”
“Attack of the preteen sugar zombies.”
She snorted. “They certainly got it everywhere, didn’t they?”
Frederic gazed over the countertops and floor and sighed again.
“All right.” Entering the room, Alicia rolled up her sleeves and headed for the sink. “I have a few hours before I have to work. We’re shooting a night scene, and it’s too late for me to nap. You pile the dishes beside the sink, and I’ll wash what can’t go in the machine. You wipe down the counters and start on the floor.”
She grinned at him. “Don’t worry. I’m exacting payment. You have to take me out to eat after.”
“Anything not to have to clean this mess up by myself. If I ever think about doing this again, remind me not to.”
They got to work, and in half the time it would have taken Frederic to do it himself, they had the kitchen back together the way he’d need it in the morning. Alicia made a show of brushing her hands together in satisfaction.
“And this, my friend, is why I still say you need to hire yourself an assistant.”
Frederic rubbed at his bristly hair. “Who would I hire, do you think?”
“There must be someone in this town who likes cookies enough to work in a bakery.”
“To work here, maybe, but I’m pretty sure no one likes them enough to get paid in them.”
“So do like most employers, and pay in money, goofball.”
“That would require that I have some.”
She studied him intently. “I don’t get it. I know you can’t tell me how much or anything, but I’m sure they didn’t pay you peanuts to walk away from that cooking show disaster.”
Frederic didn’t look at her, and busied himself washing down the now-clean counters.
“So what did you do with it all?”
“I bought a bakery that was built in 1924, sweetie. That makes the building itself ninety years old. Don’t even get me started on how old some of the crud I scraped out of this kitchen must have been.”
She tilted her head. “Okay. So there were some renovations.”
“The appliances weren’t ninety years old. I know you didn’t replace them all.”
He shot a glance at the oven that had nearly burnt the place down only a few days before.
“Okay, well still. Where did it all go? Because you cannot convince me that it is inside these walls.”
“Your selfish, homophobic drunk father?”
He turned away. “He had medical bills.”
“Tell me you did not pay him to pickle another liver.”
“I did what needed to be done. Leave it alone.”
“Fine. I’ll shut up about it, but I don’t have to like it. If you keep paying his bills, you make it easy for him to keep drinking.” Then she added under her breath, “Nothing you can do about him being an asshole.”
“Nothing I can do about him being my father, either,” Frederic pointed out. “Or the only family I have left besides Gran. Whether I pay his bills or I don’t pay his bills, it isn’t going to stop him drinking.”
“But why make it easier for him?”
“He wasn’t always a drunk, hon.” Frederic plopped down on the one stool he kept in the small kitchen. “He was a good dad once. Sort of. Life just kicked him in the balls one too many times is all.”
“And you’re stuck paying for it, over and over.”
“I love him, Alicia. He’s my father. Nothing you say is going to change either of those two facts. If you want me to pay for your supper, I suggest you drop it.”
She shook her head at him, clearly very annoyed. “I’d pass up supper to get you to listen to me, but you’re the one who needs to eat, so let’s go. How do you feel about a Flat Earth pizza pie? You up for that?”
Annoyed at being manipulated, Frederic would have argued, but his stomach rumbled, and Alicia grinned at him, triumphant.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” She looped her arm in his, hauled him off his stool, and dragged him toward the back door.
“Dad—” Blaire gritted his teeth as he picked up his tumbler of Scotch. “Dad, will you listen?”
On the other end of the phone, Oscar Caruthers didn’t even slow his speech. It wasn’t like Blaire hadn’t heard it a thousand times already. That didn’t seem to matter to his father one little bit. Sighing, Blaire downed the rest of his drink and paced to the wet bar at the end of the room to refill his glass.
He set the phone down without even bothering to put it on speaker. Since he could probably recite his father’s “pep talk” in his sleep, he really didn’t need to listen to every second of it.
“Now if only I had the guts to hang up on him.” He glared at the phone, downed most of his drink, and refilled it before he picked the cell up again.
“—stop messing around with your life and find a nice girl to settle down with?”
Blaire sighed. “I’m not, Dad. You remember the whole gay thing, right? Means I like men. Not women, and sure as fuck not girls.”
“Do not swear at me, boy.”
“Right. Okay. I’m sorry.” Sip. “I won’t be finding a female to settle down with, Dad.” Sip. “I won’t be marrying a woman.” Sip. “And if I have kids, it won’t be in the usual way.” Sip. “Maybe I’ll adopt, but not anytime soon. You want an heir, maybe you should talk to Sonya.” Sip. Damn. Empty.
Blaire debated refilling his glass yet again. “She’s your daughter?”
“Not married to that Italian POS, she’s not.”
“And her kids won’t be your grandkids?”
“Not if they’re his kids.”
“You’re being ridiculous. You know that.”
“Mateo Fabiano took my little girl. He—”
“He put a ring on her finger and made an honest woman of her. I’d have thought you’d approve.”
“Well, she didn’t have the baby, so it doesn’t count.”
“Oh God, Dad. She miscarried that baby because—”
“I am not having this conversation.”
Of course you’re not. Because why the fuck should anyone point out anything you did that might have been wrong.
“Well, then, I guess we’re done here. I have to go.”
“We still have to discuss your objectives with the company. You’ve been given a rare opportunity with Wolf’s Landing, and I don’t want to see you screw it up.”
Like last time.
He didn’t have to say it. Blaire heard the censure plain enough.
“We made an agreement already, Dad. Business communication goes through Lee. You wanted him here to keep an eye on me; well, let him earn his damn keep. Send him a memo. I’m sure he’ll take great pleasure informing me what your lordship expects of me.”
“A little respect.”
“He’s there to assist you, Blaire. That is what assistants do. I didn’t send him to keep an eye on you.”
“I’m sure. You want to talk business, send it through him. I have things to do.” He hefted the decanter, still debating. What the hell. He poured himself another two fingers and picked up his glass. “If there’s nothing else?”
“Your attitude isn’t going to get anyone anywhere, son.”
“I don’t have an attitude. I have a life that you can either accept or not accept. I’m not changing my sexual orientation or my business practices to suit you. You sent me here to get the merchandising under control, and I will do that. Even you can’t deny that I don’t need anyone’s help in that arena. I know what I’m doing.”
Oscar grunted, but mercy of mercies, didn’t deny Blaire’s expertise where merchandising was concerned. He had an instinct for what would sell, how to sell it, and to whom. If his father was a guru at squeezing the last dollar out of a production budget, Blaire had that same acumen when it came to marketing. If not for the fact they couldn’t stand to be in the same room together, they would have made an unstoppable team. As it was, they managed to keep the company afloat, if not their family relations.
“I sent the best man for the job,” Oscar conceded, his voice flat. “So do your job, and stay out of trouble. I still own the company, and I still sign the paychecks. If you want to keep your position and not find yourself in a back lot in some Northern Ontario hick city supervising a French Canadian documentary, you’ll pay a little more attention to my suggestions.”
Blaire’s almost-numb fingertips tingled as his heart raced. His father had always had an issue with his sexuality, just as he had always taken issue with his sister’s Italian, blue-collar high school sweetheart whom she had eventually married. Until now, he’d never used Blaire’s job as leverage to pry his way into Blaire’s personal life.
“Are you threatening—”
“Just think about what I said and stay on the straight and narrow, son.”
Blaire snorted. “Don’t worry, Daddy Dearest. Lee keeps me on a nice, short leash.”
He hung up the phone because any more conversation with his father was going to lead to him being a drunk mess on his couch, and that was just pathetic. He stared into his glass at the Scotch splashing up the sides as he swirled it.
“I am pathetic.” After clunking the glass down, he turned on his heel and left the office. He had to get out of this house. Not that he knew anything about Bluewater Bay or what kind of nightlife it might have, but it was Friday night, and he had to get the hell out where other people were. The last thing he needed was to become his mother, alone in her study with her wine, drinking until she’d stumbled up to her bed and passed out. She hadn’t started out married life as a drunk. His father had that effect on people, evidently. It was just sad she had ended life so broken, and for nothing. For a bitter old man who had already moved on to women without enough emotional depth to even need the booze.
“That’s not me,” he told himself. “Not either of them.” He grabbed his jacket, wallet, and keys, and slammed out the door and down the front steps to the drive.
Frederic said good-bye to Alicia at the door to the pizza place. She went one way, off down Main toward work, and he the other, up the street toward home. His apartment was a tiny one and a half rooms on the side of one of the town’s original three-story brick houses behind Main Street, a few blocks from the bakery.
He’d thought about renovating the second story of the shop so he’d have more living space than the tiny apartment afforded, but he’d run out of money before that happened. In the end, he’d decided he rather liked being able to lock the doors and walk away from the place at the end of the day. Living upstairs from the job that already took fourteen to sixteen hours of every day, no matter how much he loved both the baking aspect and socializing with his patrons, didn’t seem like a wise plan. Not when he was so easily prone to overworking as it was.
He hated when she pointed it out, but Alicia was right. He was a workaholic, and living just a floor away from his addiction would make it too easy to satisfy. He’d figured out that much, at least, watching his father drink himself closer and closer to the grave. The addict gene had clearly been passed on. Now that he was aware of it, he tried hard to heed the warning signs that he was overindulging.
Shivering slightly, he shook out his jacket as he walked and slung it over his shoulders. He didn’t slow as he pushed his arms down the narrow sleeves. He loved the supple buckskin-colored leather of the light jacket, and it fit him like a glove. For the midsummer evening breeze floating in off the water, it was the perfect cover. Not too warm, not too light. It was probably the only nice thing he owned.
Warm yellow illumination from the fancy streetlamps along Main lit his way as he wandered toward home. The pizza he’d shared with Alicia burbled a bit in his belly. He’d probably eaten more than he should have. For a few minutes, he tried to remember when he’d eaten before that, and failed. He must have had some breakfast, otherwise he wouldn’t have made it through the day. And just because he didn’t remember what he’d had for lunch didn’t mean he hadn’t eaten any. It just meant it wasn’t all that memorable.
The pizza, though. That was doing its best to impress itself on his memory, and repeat up his esophagus. It had been too tomatoey for his liking, with sun-dried tomatoes and—something else. He forgot what, now, but clearly, it didn’t agree with him.
“Damn it.” He turned his steps away from home and back toward the water. He wasn’t going to lie down and get any rest with the acid eating its way out of his stomach. Best he take a few more minutes to digest. Might as well get a bit of exercise and fresh air while he was at it. The pier would be quiet this time of the evening. He could sit without being disturbed at the end of a dock to watch the lights glisten on the water.
One of the reasons he’d decided to settle in Bluewater Bay, apart from the bakery being for sale and cute as anything, was that the place still had a quaint, small-town vibe he loved. Helpfully, it also had a ready-made market for cookies and cupcakes among the TV crew, as well as a strong local need for fresh bread and fancy cakes. He could make a decent living, and if all had gone according to plan, he should have had a little nest egg allowing him to work only as much as he wanted.
Then his father had called. From the hospital. Again.
“Should have let him lose my number,” he muttered, making his way onto one of the docks. The echo of his footsteps on the wood carried him to the end, and he stood quietly for a few minutes, just gazing out at the darkness. The pier swayed under him slightly, and he grimaced.
Someday, this pile of ancient timbers would crumble into the water below. He wished someone would happen along and repair it. There was a gorgeous tract of land from the current marina to this old row of unused docks and off along the shore toward the hospital. He wondered why no one else saw the potential for a boardwalk that could lead all the way from the marina to Annette’s shop, or even farther.
Of course, wasn’t that always his downfall? He saw potential, but failed to see reality. The pier was falling apart. Blaire wasn’t interested in him. Never had been. His father was a drunk and always would be. The man couldn’t be a father.
That wouldn’t stop Frederic being his son. He wouldn’t ever cut his father out of his life. How many times had he argued with Alicia about this? As annoying and troublesome as his father might be, he was still family.
With a sigh, he sat on the end of the dock, still facing out over the water. Off to his left, in the updated marina, boats bounced with soft thuds against their bumpers. Ropes creaked. Water lapped at the piers and hulls. The sounds of the deserted marina surrounded him in a muzzy cocoon of restfulness. Frederic stretched his legs out and leaned back on his hands.
In his pocket, his phone buzzed. He pulled it out to see a text from his father. It was as if thinking about him had summoned him. He read the brief message.
You there? Need to talk.
Frederic held back another sigh and set the phone facedown on the wood beside him. He wasn’t going to answer. Not tonight. Maybe in the morning. He could always say he’d been asleep. The phone buzzed and vibrated, the sound amplified against the wood.
For all of about five seconds, Frederic resisted turning it over.
Plz. Need a favor. Not a lot. Just to get to the end of the month.
He hated that nickname. Annoyed, he flipped the phone over again.
Bzz. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzzzz.
Could he justify throwing the damn thing into the sea?
The smooth-as-butter voice sent a jolt through Frederic, and he jerked upright.
“Don’t panic. It’s just me.” A pair of patent-leather loafers appeared at his side. Tailored jeans in dark denim rose, covering legs that filled out the upper portions of those jeans very well. Then Blaire Caruthers was plopping his well-clad ass onto the dock beside Frederic. “Mind if I sit?”
“Free country,” Frederic muttered, scooping up his phone and making to get to his feet.
Blaire’s large hand shot out and clamped around Frederic’s wrist. “Wait.”
“Hands. Off.” Frederic jerked, and Blaire let him go immediately, so he ended up smacking his own fist against his thigh, overbalancing, and simultaneously dropping the phone and almost pitching sideways into the drink.
Blaire grabbed him and yanked him back down onto his butt, forcing out a grunted breath. His entire arm tingled, and his pulse ratcheted up at the brief touch.
“Please,” Blaire said, glancing sideways at him. “Just a few minutes?”
“Why should I?”
“So I can explain, at least?”
“What’s to explain? You did what you did. I did what I did. Your father made it go away.”
“I fucked up. I made a huge mistake, and you were right to call me out. The network, aka, my father, made you go away by throwing money at you, because he didn’t want me to have the chance to explain to you—”
“He couldn’t care less what you say to me. He paid me off so I would go away and not talk about it. I took his money because I was pissed off, and . . .”
And because I needed it.
“I fucked up,” Blaire said again.
“Well, you chose Jerry over me, so yeah. That was a fuckup.” His cheeks heated at the rough language and the admission, both. God, he hated that this man could get to him so easily.
Blaire snorted softly. “I know that now. I never meant—”
“You don’t ever mean things, Blaire. But still, the mess you leave in your wake.” He shook his head.
“And it never occurred to you that the payoff you got was more money than the equipment you would have won was worth?”
“You think that makes it okay?” Frederic stared at him. Maybe the money had been more, but it was the kitchen he’d wanted. His father could never have spent that kind of winnings. If only Frederic had won the prize at the end of the show—an entire industrial bakery’s worth of ovens and other equipment, brand-new, and impossible for his father to bleed away. He’d have been years further ahead than he was now.
“No.” Blaire’s low rumbling voice wended annoyingly through every one of Frederic’s nerve endings. “Nothing I say can make up for how I treated you.”
“You’re right about that. I don’t really care about the show. I went in knowing it was a long shot and that the experience was going to be difficult at best. I thought it would be worth it.”
“But it wasn’t?”
“I didn’t count on meeting you, did I?” Frederic rose, snatched up his phone, and moved away from Blaire before the other man could stop him again. “And you know, I get that things happen and not everyone you meet is going to be that guy. But I thought . . . You made me feel . . .” He took another step back when Blaire got to his feet. “You picked Jerry, Blaire. You chose him.”
He didn’t wait for Blaire to say anything else. He needed not to be this close to him. All but running toward the shore and the marina lot, he did not look back. He couldn’t risk it.
The street was quiet when he got there. He hurried along the sidewalk toward his block, hoping Blaire had gone away. He’d walked a good fifteen minutes, was almost home, in fact, when he heard the low hum of an electric motor. Glancing over, he saw Blaire leaning across the passenger seat to peer at him.
“Will you not listen to me even for a minute?” Blaire asked through the open window.
Frederic shook his head violently, not trusting his own voice, and not slowing his pace.
“You’re right about everything, okay?” Blaire tried again.
Why did he say that like it was some kind of revelation? Everyone knew Blaire had screwed up. It wasn’t a secret that he’d just about caused a network-sinking scandal with his bid to get his boyfriend the Bake Me a Cake bragging rights.
“I wanted to make him happy.”
Frederic ducked off the street into the walking path that led from the sidewalk, to between the houses, and into the next street. Why wouldn’t the man leave him alone? Did he think Frederic wanted to hear him say he had been trying to make Jerry happy?
Thankfully, Blaire’s car couldn’t follow him down the footpath, and he emerged only a few houses down from his place. He hurried along and had rounded the corner onto Sandy Bluff when the low hum of Blaire’s engine once again accosted him. Could the guy not take a simple hint?
“How can I make this up to you, Frederic?”
“You can’t.” Frederic shoved his hands into his jacket pockets.
“You won’t even let me try?”
“What would it get me?” Another broken heart? He didn’t need that. He had reached his house and was about to turn down the walk to the side door that was his apartment when Blaire spoke.
“I can help put that little bakery of yours on the map.”
Frederic stopped and turned. “What does that even mean?”
“I’m here to work, Frederic. I will be hosting a lot of business meetings and—”
“I’m not a caterer. I’m a baker.”
“I know, but I can throw a lot of business your way.”
“You’re trying to buy me?” He furrowed his brow. “You remember how well that worked the last time? I took a plane to the other side of the country to get away from you.”
“This isn’t a bribe, Freddie—”
“Never call me that. Ever.” Frederic turned on his heel and stomped down the brick path. He didn’t look back.
When Blaire’s car lights swung away down the tiny leg of Tenth Street toward the bay, Frederic stopped to stare. There was only one driveway on that street. It belonged to the huge new modern craftsman house on the lot between Tenth and Eleventh, hugging the bank of the small stream that ran along the edge of town and into the sound. The house was almost directly across the street from Frederic’s apartment.
“You have got to be kidding me,” he mumbled.
The drive was long, paralleling Sandy Bluff Street, and Frederic watched the progress of the car’s headlights flickering through the evergreens as it slowly drove up to the house.
“It’s like the entire world hates me.”
Word Count: 91,000
Page Count: 344
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Series: Bluewater Bay
Release Date: 02/13/2016
Release Date: 02/15/2016