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“I’m shopping for my cousin who’s on bed rest, and she’s obsessed with true crime. Books like that stress me out, but she can’t get enough of them. But since I can’t read them without having nightmares, I have no idea what I should get her. Plus, she’s a librarian, so I’m always terrified to buy her books.”

Her eyes lit up.

“It’s your lucky day because you’re looking at Southern California’s true crime book expert. I’d call them my guilty pleasure if I believed in guilty pleasures. I can give you as many recommendations as you have bookstore dollars to spend.”

Well then. It was his lucky day for more than one reason.

She picked up a book from the shelf they were standing in front of and paused.

“Wait, is this the same pregnant cousin you were telling me about the other night? What happened?”

He’d forgotten that he’d told her about Jessie. He was impressed that she’d remembered.

“Yeah, Jessie. She has preeclampsia. We found out this week.” He tried not to let on how anxious he was. “She’ll be okay, we think—it’s not the most serious kind, but it’s going to be a long twelve weeks for her.”

She squeezed his arm.

“Oh God, that must be so stressful.” She turned back to the shelves, her hand still on his arm. He resisted the urge to flex. “Okay, this just means we’ve got to get her some excellent books that will make her happy to stay on the couch. Do you know what she already has?”

They walked out of the bookstore forty-five minutes later, a bag of books in each of his hands.

“Can I buy you some coffee to thank you for your help?” he asked her.

“Absolutely not, I owed you this favor,” she said. “But I can buy you coffee to thank you for your help on Monday night.”

He laughed.

“Okay, how about I buy you coffee and you buy me coffee then?”

She steered him down the street.

“Deal.”

They ended up at a coffee shop with outdoor seating a few blocks away and sat down at a shady table with their iced espresso drinks.

“Preeclampsia can be scary, right?” she asked. “How is your cousin doing?”

Thank God someone understood that.

“It can be really scary, yeah. I think Jessie’s doing okay, but I’m not sure if she’s taking this seriously enough. She’s only twenty-eight weeks, so we’re all just hoping the baby stays put for at least another two months.”

He’d been terrified when he got the first text from Jessie. Thank God it wasn’t as bad as he’d initially thought, but that terror hadn’t completely dissipated.

She touched his clenched fist. He forced his fingers to relax enough to clasp her hand without breaking it.

“What’s making your face do that?” she asked him.

He scrunched up his face at her, and she laughed.

“My face do what? What is my face doing?”

She touched his cheek with her free hand.

“You have a dimple in this cheek right here. All afternoon and evening on Saturday, I saw it winking at me. The same thing happened when we were in the bookstore just now. But as soon as we sat down, the dimple disappeared. And lines appeared up here.” She drew a line across his forehead with her finger. He closed his eyes at her touch. She dropped her hand, and he opened his eyes.

“Remind me not to go to Vegas with you,” he said. “You’ll let everyone know all of my tells!”

“Oh no.” She shook her head. “I’m an excellent Vegas buddy. I’ll tell YOU everyone else’s tells.”

He laughed and sighed. His face was probably doing that thing again, but he couldn’t help it.

“This early in her pregnancy, for her to get this diagnosis—there’s a lot that could go wrong. I don’t want the rest of my family as anxious about this as I am, so I’m trying to be calm about this when I talk to them. I’m just worried.”

“Where’s her spouse in all of this, or is she single?”

He shook his head.

“No, she’s married, her husband’s great. But Jessie and Angela and I grew up together, she doesn’t have any siblings, so I’m sort of her big brother, as well as Angie’s.” It had always been his job to take care of Jessie and Angie. And since his dad died, he’d made an effort to always be there for them, even when he’d lived all the way over on the Westside. Jessie was still his responsibility, Jon or no Jon.

“Anyway, I was supposed to go out of town this weekend, but I’m going to have to cancel. My best friend Drew got engaged last week and he and his fiancée are having an engagement party in Berkeley. I was supposed to fly up tomorrow morning, but I can’t leave Jessie now. I still have to cancel my flight and call Drew and tell him I’m not coming.”

He sat up straight and tried to shake all of this off. Why had he just let all of these stupid emotions out to this woman who barely knew him?

“Sorry for spilling all of that. I’m sure you didn’t come get coffee with me in order to hear all about my family drama.”

She shook her head and squeezed his hand.

“Well, you didn’t go get dinner with me in order to become my private security guard, so I’d say it’s about even.” Her face lit up. “Ooh, here’s a thing that I bet a pregnant woman on bed rest will love: cupcakes. Courtney’s shop is just a few blocks away. Want to walk over there?”

Chapter Seven

. . . . . . .

Nik shook her head when she saw the pink and white polka-dot Cupcake Park sign. What was she doing bringing Carlos here? She would never hear the end of it from Courtney. But he’d looked so sad about his cousin. Cupcakes were the first thing she could think of that might cheer him up.

“Hey!” Nik said to Courtney, who stood behind the counter with a smirk on her face. “I brought you a customer.”

Courtney waved as she carefully placed an assortment of cupcakes into a box for the woman standing at the register.

“Hey, Carlos, good to see you again. Welcome to Cupcake Park. Nik can give you the rundown of all of the flavors while you wait. She knows them almost as well as I do.”

Nik gave him a wry smile as they went up to the counter.

“As much as I hate to say this, she is correct. I curse the day one of my best friends opened a cupcake shop so close to my apartment. And unfortunately, it looks like business is booming, so she’ll be here for a while, tempting me with her delicious sugary treats. I think she did this to get revenge on me for something.”

Courtney and her customer both laughed.

“I can’t tell if you’re the worst possible advertisement for my store or the best. I guess time will tell.”

The customer picked up her bag containing two big boxes of cupcakes.

“Get the strawberry ones,” she said. “Those are my favorite. Those and the coconut-lime ones. Ooh, and the matcha ones!”

Nik shook her head after the customer left the store.

“All of those are very good, but she’s wrong. He should get the confetti ones and the lemon ones.”

Carlos smiled at Courtney.

“Those flavors all sound great, but I need to start with some red velvet. These are for my cousin, and those are her favorites.”

Courtney smirked at Nik, and Nik put her head in her hands.

“What did I say?” He turned from one to the other.

“When I was opening this place, I insisted that I needed to have red velvet cupcakes. Nik argued strongly against them. She said my whole shop was going to be about unusual and interesting flavors, and that red velvet cupcakes weren’t good enough for me.”

“They taste like nothing!” Nik said. “They’re just a vehicle for cream cheese frosting, but you can put cream cheese frosting on other cupcakes!”

“I guess I can see who won this argument,” he said, and gestured to the case full of red velvet cupcakes.

“A good cupcake shop has got to have some crowd pleasers,” Courtney said.

Courtney was always so happy that she’d been right about red velvet, damn her.

“You’re shopping for your cousin?” Courtney asked Carlos. “Any special occasion, or a just because cupcakes are great?”

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