Ben was Jack’s cousin, and when he wasn’t in a third-world country designing and building water systems for war-torn lands with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he and Jack shared a duplex a few blocks down, near the fire station.
Leah smiled at him, and knowing he wasn’t one for small talk, she turned to pour him a coffee, black, and bagged up a bear claw.
His standard fare.
He paid, and then instead of leaving as he usually did, he leaned against the counter and drank his coffee, watching her over the lid. Deceptively chill and laid-back, he gave off an almost surfer-guy vibe, but in truth he was about as badass as they came.
“What?” she finally asked.
“You tell me what.”
She lifted a shoulder. Look at her being all cool and casual. One had to be with Ben; he could spot a weakness a mile away. “I can’t tell you if I won Sweet Wars.”
He shook his head. Not that.
“I’m not talking about this morning,” she said. At least not until she talked to Jack. Which she hoped to do…never.
Ben dug into his bear claw, looking as if he had all the time in the world, and for all she knew, he did. He’d just come back from being on loan to the Department of Defense for the past eight months in Iraq. Before that, it had been Haiti and the earthquake aftermath, and before that, Japan’s tsunami, and so on.
But before any of those adventures, once upon a time, he’d actually worked in Seattle at a normal nine-to-five job—until his wife had died.
He finished his bear claw, balled up the paper, and made a three-pointer in the trash can across the bakery with no visible effort. “Thanks,” he said, and was gone.
Leah blew out a breath. Another bullet dodged, she thought and went back to work.
Since she’d been handling daily baking, she’d also taken on some responsibilities that were new to the bakery, such as a little catering. She created wedding cakes and baked for showers and reunions or whatever event came her way. The equipment—hello, ovens, looking at you—was killing her slowly, but she was still managing to enjoy it immensely. Two days ago, she’d created a dozen cream puffs for the B&B. The job had been incredibly stressful because the B&B was owned by three sisters, one of whom was a chef—a really great one.
Leah had angsted over those twelve stupid cream puffs like they were for the royal palace, spending hours making sure every fraction of an inch of each one was perfect. She had no idea if she’d succeeded until a few hours ago.
Tara had called from the B&B and said the cream puffs were so amazing she needed three dozen more for a baby shower, and could Leah rush the order for this afternoon?
Leah was currently rushing toward a heart attack.
Bent over the tray, she was obsessing over each little puff with one eye on the clock when Aubrey strode in.
The beautiful, cool blonde struck a pose in the center of the bakery as if she were mugging for the paparazzi, one leg out in front of the other so the slit on her skirt opened and flashed a trim thigh. She waited expectantly.
Leah looked up from her task. “Well hi there, Angelina Jolie.”
“Not the leg,” Aubrey said, annoyed. She wriggled her foot, drawing Leah’s gaze to the gorgeous leather boots. “I finally have better shoes than you. I won’t be eating all month, but they’re totally worth it. I need you to be jealous.”
Leah laughed but bent back over her cream puffs. “I don’t have time to be jealous. I don’t have time to talk.”
“Why?” Aubrey asked, giving up her pose. “You always have time to talk.”
Leah swiped her brow, spreading a dab of frosting over her temple. “I’ve only got thirty minutes before I have to have these delivered. And if I keep talking, I’ll mess them up.”
“What are you smoking? They’re perfect,” Aubrey said, and actually reached out to take one.
Leah smacked her hand away. “Oh my God, don’t touch!”
“Well, jeez. I just wanted one,” Aubrey said, rubbing her hand. “And I take back what I said. You’re not nice at all.”
Leah sighed. “You can’t have a cream puff. They’re for a fancy gig at the B&B.”
Aubrey rolled her eyes. “You do realize you’re not on TV, right? This is Lucky Harbor, not Paris. Drop some dough in a vat of grease and slap them on a tray, and people will be happy.”
“That’s not true,” Leah said. “And it does matter. Each order matters. They have to be perfect, or why would I bother at all?” Leah went still, then set her pastry bag aside and staggered back a step. “Oh my God.”
She stared at Aubrey in horror. “I’ve turned into my father. Quick. Shoot me.”
“I would,” Aubrey said, “but I’m not all that keen on prison. Maybe I should just call the people with the white straight-jackets to come get you.”
“This isn’t funny,” Leah said. “I need sympathy.”
“I don’t do sympathy. Call Ali for that.” Aubrey strode closer to the displays. “But while I’m here, I’ll take two cannoli. They have lots of calories, right?”
“Good. They’re for my sister. I like it when she’s fatter than I am. And they’re free today since you snapped at the customer and that’s not allowed.”
Leah bagged the cannoli and shoved her out the door just to get rid of her.
By the end of the day, Leah was frazzled and on edge. She’d finished her orders, but Jack hadn’t called. His silence felt weighted and suspicious. She opened her back door and peeked out. No one. She stepped out and nearly jumped out of her skin when Ali came out of her door at the same time. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Did I?” Ali asked. “Who did you think I was?”
A big, built, pissed-off firefighter. “No one. Gotta go. Night—”
“Hold it right there,” Ali said. Clearly she wasn’t done working for the day because she was holding a vase and a sprig of baby’s breath. “Explain about earlier.”
“Well, the fuses blew, so—”
“You and Jack,” Ali said. “Explain you and Jack.”
“Listen, it’s been a long day, and—”
“Oh no. You’re not going anywhere. Not until you answer my question.” She pointed the sprig at Leah. “You and Jack. Yes or no.”
Leah sighed. “Yes. Okay? Yes.” Dammit. “Sort of.”
“Sort of,” Ali repeated. “You take up with the hottest guy in Lucky Harbor and you don’t tell me?”
“I thought Luke was the hottest guy in Lucky Harbor.”
“The hottest guy’s best friend then,” Ali corrected. “And don’t change the subject, missy.”
Leah sighed again. “It’s just pretend, Ali. I made it up.”
Ali gaped at her, then let out a low laugh. “You made it up? You just decided you suddenly had to have him—which, hello, any woman with an ounce of warm blood in her body would understand—and then you figured you’d just say it out loud and it would be so? How does that even work? Because I’d like to have a million dollars—”
“This isn’t a joke, Ali. I’m in big trouble here.”
“No shit,” Ali said on another laugh. “Jack’s pretty laid-back but he’s not a guy you can push around. He’s not going to like being played with.”
“I’m not trying to play with him. I’m just trying to make his mom happy.”
“Oh. Oh…” Ali breathed. “I get it.” Then she shook her head. “Except I don’t.”
Leah sighed. “You’ve seen Dee. The chemo and radiation are making her sick, really sick. She was feeling down, and I just wanted to…” She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know, make her feel better. She’s so worried about Jack. She feels bad about some of the choices she’s made over the years, choices that she thinks led to Jack not being big on relationships. She was down,” she said again, guilt swamping her.
“Dee’s been feeling down for a very long time,” Ali said gently. “You know that.”
This Leah already knew. She’d been there in those years right after Jack’s dad’s death. She’d seen Dee slowly fall apart, and she’d watched Jack and Ben—teenagers at the time—have to hold it all together for her; the house, the bills, the memories, everything. Leah had done whatever she could but had still felt so helpless. “Maybe me and Jack being a thing will help.”
Ali shook her head. “Jack would be the first one to do whatever he needed to do to make his mom happy. But pretending to be in a relationship? That doesn’t sound like him at all.”
Leah grimaced. “Yeah, well, that’s because it wasn’t his idea.”
The amusement came back into Ali’s gaze. “You sprung it on him?” She let the smile come. “Would’ve loved to see that.”
“This isn’t funny, Ali.”
“Yeah, it is. You got Jack to actually agree to this pretend relationship?”
Ali stared at her and then laughed. She laughed so hard she nearly dropped her vase. Finally, she straightened and swiped at a few tears of mirth. “Oh God, this is good. Jack in a pretend relationship.”
“A secret, pretend relationship,” Leah reminded her.
“A secret, pretend relationship,” Ali repeated. “The single women in town are going to go into mourning.” She was still grinning. “Luke’s going to love this.”
“You can’t tell him!” Leah said. “Everyone has to think it’s real.”
“Aren’t you cute.” Ali patted her on the arm as if she were a three-year-old. “Leah, it is real.”
Leah gaped at her. “What? No. No, no, no. It’s…not.”