Lucinda Davenport darted sideways as a huge slab of snow slid free from a pitched roof and landed right where she’d been standing only a moment before. Normally getting powdered that way wasn’t a problem come February in St. Louis, but this year they had suffered record-breaking snowfall every month since November. The local kids might have been thrilled with the rash of snow days and snowball weather. Luce was not. Once the charming novelty of a white Christmas had passed, she was ready for spring.
A delivery truck roared past on the narrow street. One giant tire plopped into a pothole and threw a sheet of dirty water onto the sidewalk. Luce leaped back, gaining a modicum of satisfaction from being capable of avoiding a drenching. That feeling lasted until she took one more step and slipped on a patch of icy sidewalk.
Her world tilted on its axis, her feet flying into the air as she fell. When she hit the ground, her breath whooshed out of her lungs. Slush seeped into her thick jeans, soaking her to the skin in seconds. She gasped for air as the chill hit hard, though not hard enough to numb the ache in her butt from smacking the pavement.
Tears stung her eyes. Not because of the pain but because it was the icing on a totally crappy day. She removed her gloves and wiped her face, hoping her mascara hadn’t made a raccoon mask around her eyes. She could already tell her long hair was a scraggly mess. Her knit hat had come off during the incident and now lay in a puddle several feet away. Part of her wanted to lie back down and scream like a toddler in a toy store. It might be undignified, but it would feel so good.
Carefully getting to her feet, Luce took a mental inventory. Nothing was broken. Her designer handbag had a huge stain on one side that matched the smear now decorating her suede boots. Mostly it had been her pride that took the beating. It sucked to fall in public, even when it didn’t look like there was anyone watching.
Luce cringed when a car motored past, but the driver was too worried about watching the icy road to pay attention to a bedraggled pedestrian. She sighed and continued down the sidewalk. It was only another hundred yards or so to the bakery. Not that she really relished the idea of completing this little errand, especially not on Valentine’s Day.
In fact, Luce had come to the conclusion not two hours ago that Valentine’s Day sucked.
McKinloch’s Bakery hadn’t occupied the corner shop for long. At the moment it was only open from morning to early afternoon since the owner was still working part time at his family’s pub until the place really took off. The bakery had opened its doors on February 1 just in time to offer the residents of the Soulard neighborhood a selection of savory French cakes and pastries decorated in Mardi Gras-themed colors.
With Mardi Gras and its plethora of beads and trash several days behind them, Luce could see that the shop owner had transformed the front windows into decadent pink-and-white holiday displays. It was really too bad she had decided to hate Valentine’s. The heart-shaped cakes in the window looked good enough to die for.
Luce took a deep breath and pushed her way through the front door. A bell chimed merrily overhead. It was warm and inviting inside. It also smelled like the air had been iced in homemade buttercream. She sniffed the sweet scents and tried to ignore the stomach pangs that reminded her she’d never actually eaten lunch.
“You look like a Mardi Gras refugee.” A low, warm, and distinctly male voice announced the presence of the shop’s owner.
Luce gave Gavin McKinloch a sweetly sarcastic smile. “Nope. No beads.”
Like all of the McKinloch men, Gavin had thick, dark hair and eyes like melted chocolate. At the moment he was giving her a smirk that made her suddenly and overwhelmingly aware that Gavin wasn’t just a guy. He was a very attractive man. “I think I have some leftover beads in the back, Luce, if you’re willing to earn them.”
Her whole horrible day felt like a crushing weight she’d do anything to shed. It was strangely tempting to take Gavin up on his offer, lift her shirt under the guise of teasing holiday spirit, and then dive right into whatever happened next. Why not take advantage of an offer issued by a gorgeous six-foot-tall male with a lean physique that begged to be stroked? It would certainly help her forget being dumped.
“Luce?” Gavin frowned and set aside the white towel he’d been using to wipe his hands. “Are you okay? I didn’t expect to see you quite this early, but the cake is almost done.”
The cake. How could she have forgotten the entire reason she’d walked here in this horrible weather? Luce felt the sting of tears again and fought to hold them at bay.
Gavin stepped out from behind the counter and moved toward her. He looked uncertain, but she couldn’t blame him for that. She’d first met the McKinloch family when her friend Ashton had started working in their family pub. Then Ashton had fallen head over heels for Gavin’s brother Trip. After a whirlwind romance and Christmas proposal, the happy couple had left to join Trip’s military unit in Germany. Before Trip had come home on holiday leave, Luce was pretty sure Gavin had been the one interested in Ashton.
A new thought surfaced, causing Luce to stare almost rudely at Gavin. Of all the people she knew, Gavin might be the one who person who would understand her Valentine’s Day disappointment.
“Luce, you’re sort of freaking me out here,” Gavin said gently. “What’s wrong?”
“When Ashton fell for Trip, how did that make you feel?”
He backed off a step as if she’d physically shoved him. “Not great. Why?”
“I’m sorry. I know I’m being rude.” She swiped a hand across her damp eyes. “It’s just that you seem like you’ve gotten over it. I want to know how you did it.”
GAVIN HOPED HIS face didn’t show how badly her comment had thrown him off balance. Having Luce throw Ashton and his brother’s unexpected romance in his face brought the whole incident back in humiliating detail. Being the youngest of four McKinloch brothers was bad enough. The fact that he was always last on everyone’s list just added another layer.
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her off. Then he realized she looked like hell. Her jeans were smeared with road grit and slush, and her normally sleek black hair was a tangled nest. Obviously she had a reason for bringing up the past.
“Want to sit and have a coffee?” Gavin gestured to one of the quaint bistro-style tables his sister Morrie had helped him choose for the shop.
Luce nodded and settled herself in a chair while Gavin headed behind the counter to make a latte. He watched her surreptitiously as he worked. She had produced a rubber band and was gathering her long black hair into a ponytail.
Whether it was her damp and ragged appearance or the shadow in her blue eyes, Gavin had the strangest urge to soothe away whatever had soured her mood. Luce was normally full of smiles, quick wit, and sauce. She was one of those women who was beautiful without trying to be—the kind of girl who had always been way out of his league.
He returned to the table with her latte and a black coffee for himself. Balancing his large frame on a bistro chair, he let her sip her coffee without pressing for information.
She closed her eyes when she tasted the drink. Her blissful expression sent an unexpected jolt to his groin. He wondered if she looked like that during sex. If pleasure drew her soft features into something more intense, if she sighed and moaned, or screamed her lover’s name.
His cock was growing, lengthening as it hardened behind the fly of his jeans. It was a totally inappropriate response to the situation but something he seemed unable to control at the moment.
“I met Winston for lunch,” Luce began abruptly, her gaze locked on her cup. “I knew we probably weren’t going to be able to have dinner tonight, even if it is Valentine’s. He manages that French restaurant down by the ballpark, so tonight’s a really busy night for him. That’s actually how we met. I used one of the dining rooms at Antoine’s for a retirement party I organized. It’s always been handy to have one of the managers on speed dial. Eventually we just hit it off.”
Gavin didn’t comment. He figured it was better for her to take the conversation wherever she wanted it to go. He had never met her boyfriend, Winston. The most he knew about the guy was that they’d been seeing each other for six months or more, and she’d ordered him a cake shaped like a conversation heart. Considering the amount of thought she’d put into the cake design, Gavin figured she’d been on the verge of a big reveal of some sort.
“I meant to give him the cake this evening at work to say I love you for the first time,” she said.
Gavin already knew where this was headed. “But?”
“He told me at lunch that he’s been seeing someone else.” A tear plopped into the foamy surface of her latte. “Apparently he’s professing his undying love to her tonight. She’s the daughter of the lady who owns the restaurant.”
She didn’t have to tell him how much it hurt. He could well remember the moment he’d discovered that a woman he’d been carefully courting for months would rather have his brother, the man she’d had a one-night stand with over the Fourth of July.
“So you know what I said?” Luce gave a bitter laugh, pressing her fingertips beneath her eyes to wipe away her tears.
“I told him he should come down to this bakery because you had a cake that would be absolutely perfect
for his little love confession.”
Gavin was at a loss. “So I guess I better go finish that cake?”
“Maybe we can put laxatives in it or something.” She took a long swig of her coffee.
Gavin did the same, buying a moment to think. “I’ll pass on that suggestion since I’d like to stay out of jail and keep the shop open. And remind me to never break your heart. God knows what you’d put in my coffee.”
She gave him a soft smile. “I can’t imagine you’d ever be that careless with a woman’s heart, Gavin.”
Another jolt, this one like heat lancing through his body and culminating in a desire so strong he had to fight back the urge to take Luce in his arms and show her how right she was. He’d never break her heart, but she would trounce his into a million pieces. She was looking for a pick-me-up, not a long-term relationship, and Gavin wasn’t wired like that. She was lonely, hurting, and vulnerable. Worse, if something happened between them, she’d probably regret it in the morning. Not a great beginning for anything. More like rebound hell.
“The important thing isn’t to ‘get over’ being dropped on your ass.” Gavin wished he could say something that would help, but he’d discovered there really wasn’t anything for it. “You just have to move on.”
He shrugged and swallowed the last of his coffee.
“I was kind of hoping for a curative formula.”
“Try asking one of those magic eight balls. I think Morrie has one.” He stood up. “And I apparently need to finish your cake, since you sort of sublet it.”
“Sorry about that.”
He couldn’t help himself. She looked so fragile sitting there with her hands wrapped around her coffee mug. He cupped her cheek with one palm and brushed his thumb over her full lower lip. “That’s okay, Luce. I don’t mind.”
She inhaled quickly, her blue eyes darkening to cobalt. He let the moment go, forcing himself to drop his hand to his side and walk away. He was done being the backup guy, the one who picked up all the pieces only to have women walk away when they found something a little more exciting. He’d made it behind the counter to what he considered a safe zone when Luce stood up and pushed in her chair.
“So, I guess I’ll just head home.”
How was any guy in his right mind supposed to tune out the pathetic note she’d probably intentionally injected into her voice? He’d have to be made of stone to ignore that. “You can hang around while I finish if you want.”