Zoe picked up the tray of little balls of cake and backed through the swinging door from the kitchen to the front of Buttered Up. She needed to dip them in their colorful coatings, add the sparkly sugar, and stick them on sticks, but she could do that on the prep table in the main part of the bakery while she watched for customers and waited on anyone who came in. She and her best friend, Jocelyn—Josie to her friends—did most of the baking in the back, but they liked to frost and decorate the goodies up front where people could see what they were doing. It was where people really saw their talents and what all they could offer.
Honestly, Jocelyn was a better cake decorator than Zoe. If someone asked for something custom and elaborate, it was always Jocelyn who made it happen. Especially since the Great Hippo Cake Incident of last year. Zoe liked the more straightforward, simple icing jobs of their basic cakes, cupcakes, and decorated cookies. Tasks she’d been doing all her life. Well, since she’d been tall enough to reach the top of her grandma’s worktable anyway. Even though that had required a stool at first. She could frost a cookie and add icing roses to cupcakes in her sleep.
But honestly? She was a girl who’d inherited a bakery and was tasked with keeping her family’s legacy going, and she wasn’t all that good at anything other than the essentials. So she stuck to the basics like peanut butter stuck to… well, everything.
Zoe noticed someone out of the corner of her eye as she set the tray down on the big prep table that sat in the middle of the area behind their L-shaped display cases.
When she turned, she was afforded a very nice posterior view of a man who was leaning over, studying their display of cake stands. She took him in from foot to head. Well, foot to midback. That was all she could really see with the way he was bending at the moment.
He was not the average Appleby-ite. The general male dress code around here was work boots, denim, and t-shirts. Henleys on occasion. Flannel when it got cold. Not this guy. He was in a freaking suit. Only Mr. Thompson, the bank president, wore a suit. Some of the guys wore slacks and button-up shirts—other bankers, the ones who worked at the insurance company, the school superintendent. But honestly, dressing up in Appleby mostly consisted of khakis instead of jeans. Ties were saved for funerals. Not even weddings a lot of the time. Things were very casual in Appleby.
This man wore a full-on suit. Pants, jacket, dress shoes. She could even see the end of a tie hanging. Red. The tie was red. Nice. As far as she could tell, this was a custom-tailored suit too because it fit very well.
She didn’t know who he was, but she appreciated him stopping by. She liked a guy in jeans. Ones that were well-worn and fit nicely across the ass. Not the bagging, hanging-on-their-hips kind. But she saw a lot of jeans. She definitely appreciated finely woven Italian wool.
She sighed wistfully. But it wasn’t just the suit that was making her study him. He was new. And there wasn’t a lot of new in Appleby. Especially of the male, around-her-age variety. She cared about that more than she’d liked to admit. She hadn’t before. But things had changed.
She’d become horny.
Not just oh-he’s-kind-of-hot aware or even an oh-I’m-very-attracted-to-him realization. It was no-I-really-need-to-have-sex horny. She didn’t know if it was hormones, or her friends who had active sex lives and loved to talk about it, or her friends who didn’t have active sex lives and loved to talk about that, or her biological clock, or what. But she had sex on the brain now. All the time.
Which seemed odd for a virgin.
She didn’t even know what she was missing, and was, honestly, a little uptight about finding out.
She sighed again. The truth was, she did know what had started it all.
And The Kiss. The stupid, what-the-hell-had-she-been-thinking-throwing-herself-at-him-Christmas-Eve kiss.
The best kiss ever. For sure in her life. She might be a virgin, but she’d kissed guys. A few anyway. And Aiden was the best. It had been romantic-movie good. R-rated romantic-movie good. Definitely not Hallmark.
Of course, she was never going to be able to face him again after that. Well, after the moment after the kiss anyway. But that was just something she was going to need to deal with. Somehow.
The guy she’d been studying from behind suddenly straightened and turned.
Zoe smiled and opened her mouth to ask how she could help him. But the words got stuck in her throat.
No. No. NO!
What was he doing here?
Several emotions swept through her as she stared at Aiden. And his stupid, handsome face, and his sexy, things-are-totally-fine smile.
Shock. Happiness. Mortification. In that order.
She snapped her mouth shut, shook her head, turned, and headed back into the kitchen.
Jocelyn looked up from where she was cutting a 3D cat figure out of a tall cylinder of chocolate cake.
Zoe again opened her mouth, then snapped it shut, shook her head, and turned. She went straight for the freezer. She opened the big door, stepped inside, and shut it behind her.
Cold. She needed cold to combat that hot flush of humiliation that had just washed over her. And a huge metal door between her and Aiden.
She pulled in a deep breath of freezer air. The cold prickled her nose and was sharp in her lungs. She blew the breath out, studying the puff of white in front of her face. Then she did it again.
What was he doing here? Why hadn’t he told Maggie he was coming? No way did her mother know Aiden was in town. If she knew, Zoe would have known.
Her mother always told her when he was coming to visit. The news of either of her boys—Aiden or Cam—coming home made Maggie giddy like a little girl. She cleaned and cooked at her house and then cleaned Zoe’s house, since that was now where the guys always stayed when they were in town. Maggie brought over scented hand soap and new towels and filled the fridge with their favorite beer and juices, and the cupboards with chips and crackers. It was like a freaking bed and breakfast at Zoe’s house when the guys were home. Which had never bothered her before.
But this time… this was the first time she’d seen Aiden since The Kiss. And there wasn’t a single new towel or box of crackers in her house.
And even more importantly, now that he was here, how was she supposed to sit across her mother’s dining room table from him and not shrivel up thinking about the fact she’d asked him to take her virginity and he’d said no?
She’d been dressed in lingerie. He’d kissed her as if he wanted to eat her up—in every single dirty way that could be intended. Then… He’d. Said. No. To. Taking. Her. Virginity.
Zoe put her hands over her face and groaned.
She’d known never seeing him again was impossible. He was practically one of her brothers. Which, yeah, sounded ewww when paired with the kissing and sex thing. But they’d grown up together. He’d more or less lived with them after his mom died. Zoe had known him her entire life.
And she’d never even thought about kissing him until about two years ago when he’d walked in on her ironing a dress. She’d been wearing only a bra and panties, and the look he’d given her had been holy-hell-melt-those-panties-right-off hot. She’d never seen him look like that. She’d never even imagined him looking like that. Certainly not at her. But that was the moment she’d stopped considering Aiden her older brother’s best friend and started thinking of him as a very hot guy who she would like to get naked with. It had been like a light switch.
A very inconvenient light switch that had led to the most humiliating moment of her life. And that included the one time she’d tried to make a 3D custom-decorated cake.
Josie had been sick, and Angela Adams had needed the elephant cake. The elephant cake that had ended up looking like a hippo. A melted hippo. With an unfortunate snout deformity.
Zoe shuddered thinking about the fiasco. She’d been so mortified. She’d had to deliver the cake. The horrible gray-blob-with-eyes cake. Angela had already paid for it, and there hadn’t been time to make another.
There had been forty kids at that party. Forty kids who had moms who may or may not ever order a cake from Buttered Up again. Even now she blushed thinking about it.
But the moment after The R-rated Christmas Kiss with Aiden had been, amazingly, worse.
Suddenly Jocelyn whipped the freezer door open.
“What is going on? Why are you in the freezer?”
Jocelyn swung around at the sound of Aiden’s voice. “Oh! Hey, Aiden.” She paused. Then said, “Ohhhh.” She looked back at Zoe. “Never mind.”
Zoe blew out a breath. “Yeah.” Then she raised her voice. “Oh, here they are!” She picked up another tray of cake balls. After they were formed, they sat in the freezer until they got firm enough to work with. These needed sticks and the coating and decorations to officially be cake pops, and they weren’t ready to be finished yet, but what, she was going to let Aiden think she’d run into the freezer to hide from him? Yeah, running and hiding wouldn’t be embarrassing at all.
She’d just about used up her embarrassment quota with Aiden. For the decade. She needed to cover here.
Jocelyn stepped back as Zoe carried the tray out.
Zoe pasted on a bright, completely fake smile. “Hi, Aiden.”
There. Just “Hi, Aiden” as if nothing at all was wrong. Or awkward. Or horrifying. Or even surprising. As if she’d known he’d be walking into her bakery, unannounced, looking amazing.
What the hell was he doing walking in here in a suit? He didn’t want her to take her panties off for him? Then he needed to wear ripped-up blue jeans and an old hoodie.
She sighed internally. Even that wouldn’t make her not want him.
But the suit was really unfair.
“Ladies.” He gave them both a grin. “Just got into town and thought I’d stop in and say hi.”
“Did my mom know you were coming?” Zoe asked. Maybe she did have a freshly clean house and lavender-scented sheets on her bed after all. She loved when Maggie spruced things up because she always washed the towels and sheets in every room and then spritzed all the beds with the Sleepy Time Lavender Sleep Spray she swore by.
“You just left Chicago and drove over on a whim?” Chicago was five hours from Appleby. “Is everything okay?”
Was he sick? He didn’t look sick. He looked… really, really good. But maybe he wasn’t feeling well. Maybe he needed some TLC. Maggie would make him soup and some of her menthol shower fizzies for any sinus issues. She’d gotten into Pinterest and Do-It-Yourself projects over the past couple of years big-time.
He lifted a shoulder. A big shoulder clothed in expensive, charcoal-gray fabric. That probably smelled great. The fabric, not the shoulder. Though she wouldn’t mind putting her nose against his shoulder either. Especially if it were bare…
“Everything’s fine. Great. It wasn’t really a whim, no. I’ve been planning the trip for a while.”
“But you didn’t tell my mom.”
“No,” he admitted. “I—” He shot a glance at Jocelyn. “I thought it might be best to surprise you.”
Zoe blinked at him. Surprise her?
There were no surprises in her life. She lived in the same town she’d lived in since she’d been born.
She worked in her family’s bakery, where she’d been working since she was sixteen. But she’d been helping in this bakery since she’d been old enough to work a mixer.
She’d lived with her parents until two years ago when she’d moved into a house she knew almost as well as her own—the house Aiden had grown up in. The house his dad had given to her parents when he’d moved to Des Moines and that her parents had been renting out ever since. Which meant it was the house Zoe had helped clean and repaint several times over the years.
She used the same recipes in her baking her grandmother had used for over fifty years.
She saw the same people she’d been seeing for the past twenty-five years with very few exceptions.
Yeah, surprises weren’t really a thing in her life. Especially from Aiden.
That’s why she’d picked him to take her virginity. She knew him. Well. That had been a perk of the first-lover thing. She had no worries with Aiden.
Until he’d said no to the whole thing, of course.
Yeah, calling that a surprise was an understatement.
She didn’t really like Aiden surprises, it turned out.
Zoe cleared her throat and moved forward, stepping around him to carry the cake balls to the front. The cake balls that would totally defrost before she had a chance to put a stick in them or dip them in the coating.
“Mom’s going to be pissed you didn’t warn her so she could scrub the bathroom and grocery shop for chicken alfredo ingredients.” Maggie always made chicken alfredo for Aiden when he came home.
She stepped through the swinging doors with the big, useless tray of cake balls. Then froze.
Wait. The bathroom. The bed with the sheets Maggie was going to spritz for Aiden. The crackers. Those were all at…
No. No, no, no.
She turned quickly. The doors into the kitchen were still swinging, and she saw Aiden through them. Then she didn’t. Then she did.
She was vaguely aware that a few of the balls had gone rolling off the tray with her quick turn.
She couldn’t care about cake balls right now. Her whole world was rolling off the tray—so to speak. Pull it together, she told herself sternly. Don’t act like an idiot.
“Where are you going to stay?” she asked. Dammit, her voice sounded funny.
“At the house,” he said easily. “Of course.”
But the way he was watching her told her that he realized there was nothing easy about that now. The house referred to his old house. The one she was now living in. Her and Camden’s childhood home was only a three-bedroom house. Her younger brother, Henry, had slept in a bassinet in their parents’ room until Cam went off to college. Then his old bedroom had become their little brother’s. Her old bedroom was now Maggie’s sewing room, and the guys were too old, and big, to sleep on couches and air mattresses.
Zoe’s house, on the other hand, had four bedrooms. She used one as a library-slash-office, but the other two were, well, bedrooms. They still had all the bedroom furniture in them from when Aiden had lived there. It only made sense that her brother, and the guy who was practically a brother, would stay in those extra rooms. Hell, Aiden stayed in his old bedroom.
That had always been a perfect solution to the space issue around holidays and family get-togethers when the guys stayed for a few days.
Perfect until she’d made a complete and total ass of herself. In Aiden’s bedroom. Hell, she still blushed when she walked past the room five months later.
“No,” she said softly, shaking her head. She was aware she was not playing this cool as she’d wanted to. But her heart was suddenly pounding and she felt hot. She kind of wanted to head back to the freezer.
Aiden stepped through the doors into the front of the bakery. “Yes,” he said. His voice was a little gruff and firm.
Her stomach flipped. Gruff and firm? That wasn’t Aiden. But it was really working for her.
“We can’t be there. Alone. Together. Now.” She sounded like an idiot. But he knew very well what she was talking about. He’d rejected her. She’d made a fool of herself. She couldn’t relive that with him every day for however long he was staying.
“Yes. We can.”
Yeah, there was definitely a little huskiness in his voice. And her stupid stomach swooped again at the sound. This horniness was a huge problem, and when facing the man who had started the whole thing, it was simply the worst idea to have him staying with her.
Could she use her vibrator, knowing he was just down the hall?
Taking in the sight of him in that suit and tie, her first and only thought was, Hell yeah, I can.
“The idea of that is…” she started.
He gave her a slow, stupidly sexy smile.
“Horrifying,” she finished.