Leah could remember the buzz of the adrenaline flowing her through her veins as she’d worked fast and steady, tuning out the sounds and scents and overwhelming air of panic around her.
Now in the quiet kitchen she watched, as with twenty-five seconds left on the clock, the enormity of the situation caught up with her. She could see it so clearly on her own face. The self-doubt reaching up and grabbing her by the throat as she carried her beautiful, perfect, five-tiered wedding cake to the judging table and…
She watched as it hit the floor with a splat, watched herself go pale and bring shaky hands to her mouth. Watched as everyone else on the cast turned to take in the disaster, shocked horror on their faces.
Each of them had been playing for second place, and everyone had known it.
Except Leah had dropped the cake.
The show cut to an ad break, and there on the counter, Leah closed her eyes. What had she been thinking?
But she knew what she’d been thinking. She’d stood there on the set, the win literally within her reach, and it’d hit her like a ton of bricks.
It was hers. The win was hers. She was about to be given everything she needed to open her own pastry shop—with the world watching.
You’re never going to amount to a damn thing, Leah.
The anxiety had ridden up and grabbed her by the throat.
And suddenly the very best thing that could happen had become the worst.
The commercial break ended. The show came back on, and Leah forced herself to watch. Forced herself to take in her own misery at being sent home when she knew damn well she’d had first place if she’d only been brave enough to take it.
But she wasn’t brave.
She let out a careful breath and turned off her iPad. And since her phone was buzzing like it was having a seizure, she turned that off as well.
That’s when the bakery phone started going off.
“Oh my goodness, Leah,” came Dee’s disembodied voice from the answering machine. “Honey, I’m so sorry you tripped and dropped the cake.”
The phone immediately rang again.
“Leah?” It was Ali. “You tripped? Do you need me? I mean, I realize you’ve known you tripped for six months, but…damn. Call me.”
And so on.
Leah closed her eyes and tuned it out. It wasn’t hard to do when the messages were all the same. Lucille said it looked like she’d been tripped by another cast member. Aubrey offered to drive the getaway car.
Leah dug into the bowl of cookie dough with renewed energy, inhaling the rest of it—which was delicious. Gee, maybe she should do this for a living…
Why hadn’t she left already?
She hadn’t left because of Elsie, she reminded herself. In spite of her grandma’s assurances, Leah wasn’t at all sure that she could go back to handling the bakery by herself.
And then there was the fact that Leah was all Elsie had.
No, wait. That was backward. Elsie was all Leah had. Leah had nearly forgotten what it felt like to be with family, to be unconditionally loved…
And that wasn’t all, a little voice inside her head reminded her. There was more holding her to Lucky Harbor, and she knew it.
There was Jack. He was family too, in a very different way. Jack was…
As if she’d conjured him up, he appeared at the back door looking superficially neutral. Letting himself in, his gaze settled on hers as he shut and locked the door behind him.
He was in a T-shirt that said JUST DO IT and a pair of old Levi’s that lovingly contoured his body, intimately cupping parts of him that she missed. He smiled at the sight of her on the counter, bowl under one arm, wooden spoon in her other hand. But the smile didn’t meet his serious eyes.
He’d seen the show.
“I’m not going to talk about it,” she warned him. “So if that’s why you’re here, go away.”
He didn’t respond to this.
“I mean it, Jack. You said no big good-bye. You said it. It was your rule. I’m leaving tomorrow. Let’s just let it go.”
He came closer, until his thighs bumped hers. He looked into the bowl and then ran a finger along the bowl’s edge and sucked it into his mouth.
“Double fudge,” he said.
His eyes met hers, and the things she saw in them dried up her mouth. Because he was also bad. Perfectly, wonderfully bad. Not wanting to acknowledge the tightening in her gut—God, she hated knowing she’d let him down along with everyone else she knew—she licked the wooden spoon and said nothing.
He leaned against the counter and waited her out. He always could.
“Still not going to talk about it,” she finally said.
He just looked at her.
Dammit. “Listen, just being on that show was a big deal for me, okay? Who could have expected me to get as far as I did, much less win it?”
More nothing from the big, bad, attitude-ridden firefighter, and this pissed her off. “Your expectations for me have always been too high,” she snapped.
“You dropped the cake. You fucking dropped the cake.”
“I know,” she said. “I was there.”
“Leah, you could make a wedding cake when you were thirteen years old. I know it. I ate it. You’d carry it across my mom’s kitchen to the table with pride and grace. You never dropped it.”
“Well I did this time.”
He shook his head. “Why?”
In the heavy silence, her breath caught audibly. “I don’t want to discuss it. I screwed it up, that’s all. I’m not going to be a star pastry chef and that’s that. Get over it.”
He closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest for a beat before looking at her again, his eyes filled with exasperation and frustration. “I don’t give a shit about what you do for a living, Leah. It’s not about that. It’s about you.”
The storm that had been brewing inside her broke open. “I’m not perfect, all right? We both know it. So you, and everyone else who thinks I should be, need to back off. I’m only me.”
“Well finally,” he said, his voice not quite as low and controlled as usual. “Something real out of your mouth.”
She pointed her chocolate-covered spoon at the door. “Get out.”
“Oh hell no. We’re just getting somewhere.”
She clamped her mouth shut. She’d chosen to stay here in Lucky Harbor until the bitter end, so she had no one to blame for this confrontation but herself. She was going to own it. “I lost, okay? I’m not going to make excuses for not being the best.”
“Are you going to make excuses for not letting yourself be happy? For thinking you don’t deserve it?”
“I’m not going to open a pastry shop in New York City. Big deal. How many people get to do that anyway? I’ve got other stuff going on. I’m happy.”
“If only you believed that,” he said very seriously. Way too seriously.
“Don’t start with me, Jack. I am happy.”
He looked around, and she followed his gaze, taking in everything he saw. Elsie’s favorite bowls stacked up along the counter. Elsie’s utensils and cookery. Elsie’s everything.
“There’s nothing of you here,” he said.
“It’s Grandma’s bakery. Not mine.”
“I’ve been at the house. There’s nothing of you there either.”
“Again,” she said. “Not my place.”
“Yeah? Well then, where is your place, Leah?”
“You know I don’t have one right now. I’ve been a little busy. And now I’m leaving anyway, so—”
“Bullshit.” He caged her in with a hand on either side of her hips. “I’m calling bullshit, Leah.”
“No, it’s true. I leave tomorrow night.”
“Not that,” he said. “Yeah, you’re leaving. No one knows it better than me. I’m talking about you not letting anyone too close or they’ll see your flaws.”
Her breath hitched. Dammit. He knew her far too well.
He ducked a little to look into her eyes. “But I’ve always seen you, all of you, flaws and all. I know you, so I can say this. You’re not perfect. But you’re perfect for me. And it pisses me off that you won’t let that happen. Let us happen. I’m tired of watching you implode, Leah. Tired and done.”
“Then get the hell out,” she said. “I’ve asked you twice now.”
He did just that. He got the hell out.
Leah covered her face and tried to tell herself he was an ass. A pushy, unforgiving ass. But she knew exactly who was at fault here.
Leah jerked and opened her eyes.
Aubrey stood in the doorway holding a flask and a bag of potato chips. “Thought one of these might be of some help about now.”
“Alcohol and chips?”
“It’s my emergency ‘Just Fucked Up Again’ kit.”
Leah sighed. “You heard.”
“Everything,” Aubrey agreed. “Thin walls.” She came in and helped herself to two glasses. She poured a splash of something amber into each and then handed one to Leah, keeping the other for herself. “Cheers.”
“Cheers?” Leah choked out.
“You’re right,” Aubrey said. “How about…to fucking up? I mean, let’s face it, we’re both pretty good at that.”
“What have you ever fucked up?”
Aubrey laughed a little coldly, and yet somehow the sound held volumes of loneliness. “You grew up here. You know my rep.”
“You have a rep for being unflappable and gorgeous.”
Aubrey took another shot. “And…”
“Okay,” Leah said. “And maybe a little untouchable.”
“Bitchy,” Aubrey corrected. “Mean. Cold.”