But she wasn’t acting like a winner.
Had she quit that too?
Because the truth was that she tended to run from her demons. She always had, and some things never changed.
She met his gaze. “What?”
“You tell me. Tell me what’s wrong.”
She shook her head, her pretty eyes surprisingly hooded from him. “I’ve learned to fight my own battles, Jack.”
Maybe. But it wasn’t her battles he wanted to fight, he realized, so much as he wanted to see her smile again and mean it.
The next morning, Leah walked to the bakery. From her grandma’s house, downtown was only a mile or so, and she liked the exercise, even at four in the morning.
Maybe especially at four in the morning.
Lucky Harbor sat nestled in a rocky cove between the Olympic Mountains and the coast, the architecture an eclectic mix of old and new. She’d been to a lot of places since she’d left here, but there’d been nowhere like this small, cozy, homey town.
The main drag of Lucky Harbor was lined with Victorian buildings painted in bright colors, housing everything from the post office to an art gallery. At the end of the street was the turnoff to the harbor, where a long pier jutted out into the water with its café, arcade, ice cream shop, and Ferris wheel.
Right now, everything was closed. Leah was the only one out on the street. She loved the look of Lucky Harbor on sleepy mornings like this, with the long column of fog floating in from the ocean, the twinkle of the white lights strung along the storefronts and in the trees that lined the sidewalks.
Like a postcard.
And all of it, right down to the salty ocean air, evoked a myriad of memories. So did the bakery as she unlocked it and let herself in. It was warm already, and for now, quiet. Later, Riley would show up. Riley was a Lucky Harbor transplant who’d made her way to town as a runaway teen and then had been taken under the wing of Amy, a friend of Leah’s. Riley had grown up a lot in the past few years and was now a part-time college student who worked a few hours a week at both the local café and the bakery. At the moment, though, Leah was alone. She flipped on the lights, and as always, the electricity hummed and then dimmed, fighting for enough power before settling. The cranky old building needed a renovation in the worst way, but Mr. Lyons was so tight with his money he squeaked when he walked.
So tight that he had the building in escrow. No word yet on what the new owner might be like, though he’d promised everyone that he’d honor their leases. This left them safe for the rest of the year at least.
Leah turned on the ovens. They were just as temperamental as the old building. She had to kick the broiler plate twice before hearing the whoomp of the gas as it caught. One more day, she thought with some satisfaction. The bakery was going to hold together for at least one more day.
Her grandma Elsie had been baking for fifty-plus years, but she hadn’t experimented much in the past few decades. Leah had pretty much taken over, updating the offerings, tossing out the old-fashioned notion of frozen cookie dough, taking great joy in creating all new, all fresh every morning.
It was a lot of work, but she welcomed it because there was something about baking that allowed her to lose herself. Several hours later, she might have had to kick the ovens no less than twelve more times, but the day’s offerings were looking damn good. Bread, croissants, and donuts…not exactly the fancy fare she’d gotten used to creating at school or on Sweet Wars, but she loved it anyway. And she’d done it all in spite of the equipment.
After that, she shelved her freshly made pastries in the glass display out front and dreamed about finishing culinary school someday. She stopped daydreaming when the bell over the door chimed for the first time that morning. Forest Ranger Matt Bowers strode in mid-yawn.
Leah automatically poured him a Dr. Pepper on tap and bagged up two cheese danishes—his morning special.
“Enjoyed Sweet Wars the other night,” he said. “You’re the best one.”
If you can’t be the best, Leah, don’t bother being anything at all.
Her father’s favorite sentence. His second-favorite sentence had been Christ, Leah Marie, don’t you ever get tired of screwing up? And then there’d been her personal favorite. You’re going to amount to nothing.
She knew there were people who’d had it far rougher than she had growing up, but his words had always sliced deeply, and her mother’s halfhearted attempts to soften the blows with “he means well” or “he loves you” hadn’t helped. Instead, they’d left her confused, hurt, and feeling like she could never please.
As a result, she wasn’t very good with praise. It made her uncomfortable, like there was a standard that she couldn’t possibly live up to.
“Tell me the truth,” Matt said. “You won the whole enchilada, right?”
She handed him his breakfast. “I can’t say,” she told him. “Contractual promises.”
Matt took a big bite of the first danish and sighed in pleasure. “Oh yeah. You totally won.”
When he was gone, Leah sampled her danish and had to admit he was right about one thing at least. The danish was good.
The bakery door opened again, this time to one of the finest-looking cops in all the land—Sawyer Thompson.
“You’re pretty good on that show,” he said while she bagged up his favorite, a chocolate chip roll. “You win?”
“Not allowed to say,” she said, starting to feel grateful for the contract she’d signed, the one that said keep her mouth shut or else. She handed him his bag.
He took a big bite of the roll and sighed. “You so won.”
In spite of herself, Leah flushed with pleasure as he smiled at her, paid, and left.
“Seriously,” Ali said from behind Leah, having come in the back door, undoubtedly for her midmorning donut. “You get all the hot guys. It’s so unfair.”
“You sell flowers,” Leah told her. “I sell sugar. Do the math.” She gave Ali a bag of donut holes to go and put it on her tab.
And so went the morning. People coming in, buying her stuff—which was good—and asking about Sweet Wars—which was bad.
If you can’t be the best, Leah, don’t bother being anything at all.
“Get out of my head,” she said and went back to work. By noon she was ready for a nap, and she still had two more hours to go before Riley would show up. Leah still had to take her grandma for her physical therapy appointment, then grocery shopping for dinner, and then, if Leah was very lucky, she’d catch some sleep. She was going to be thirty this year, and she was already fantasizing about naps. Maybe she should try to get into the senior center…
But she knew it wasn’t the hours making her tired. She was used to hard work. Nor was it being displaced, living on a futon in her grandma Elsie’s tiny house for the duration of her rehabilitation. Leah was good at the wanderlust, nomadic lifestyle. She should be. She’d hit four colleges in four years, trying out premed, poli-sci, even journalism before going back to her first love.
But coming back to Lucky Harbor had thrown her a bit. Elsie’s knee surgery had been unexpected. Leah was grateful for how well her grandma was getting around, but the meds made it hard for Elsie to get up early in the morning and handle the baking. So Leah had come to help out for a week or so.
Except she’d passed the one-month mark and she was still here.
The door chimed again, and Dee Harper entered the shop, smiling at the man holding the door open for her.
Her son, Jack Harper.
Kevin was outside, his leash hooked around the wrought-iron bench beneath the picture window. Nose to the glass, the dog was eyeing the display cases like he hadn’t eaten in a week.
Jack pointed at him. Kevin licked his chops but sat on his haunches, and then Jack’s broad shoulders filled the doorway as he gently nudged his mom to the front counter.
“Hey,” he said with a smile at Leah as he sniffed appreciatively. “Smells amazing in here.”
“Thanks.” She drank in the sight of him. His hair had been cut short again. More for the ease of care than style, she knew. He’d always been way too good-looking for his own good, and that hadn’t changed. If anything, time and hard-won experience had only made him more drop-dead gorgeous.
Which wasn’t really fair.
But more than his physical prowess was his incredible charisma and easy charm. The joke was that he could coax a nun out of her undies. But that natural magnetism was missing today.
“Anything, Mom,” he said to Dee, gesturing to the wide display of choices spread out before them. “Everything. Whatever you want.”
“Honey, I told you. I’m not all that hungry.”
Jack’s eyes were shadowed, his jaw rough with at least a day’s growth. “The doctor said to eat, remember? He said if you want to walk through the castles of Scotland like you told him, then you have to build up your strength. And you love Leah’s pastries.”
Dee smiled at Leah.
Leah smiled back, working hard at not letting her sympathy or worry show. Dee Harper was fighting breast cancer. The chemo was the worst of it, and it was kicking her ass. Leah held out the plate of pastry samples she had on the counter. “Here, try one of my fruit tarts. They’re something new I’ve been working on, but I’m still not sure I got them right. What do you think?”
Dee’s expression said that she knew Leah was full of it. They both knew Leah never put out anything that wasn’t as perfect as possible. Her father’s legacy again—be perfect or be nothing at all. Mostly it was easier for Leah to be nothing at all, but baking was one of those things that she had to do. Like…breathing.
Dee took a bite of a tart. Her clothes were a little loose, and she wore a handkerchief to hide her hair loss. Leah saw the bandage around her forearm and knew they’d just come from the doctor. Jack pulled out a chair for his mom and waited until she sat before he limped very slightly back to the counter. Jaw set, he eyed the selection. “One of everything.”