Beth Monroe thought it was a joke when she got a call from the bank saying that her business partner, Hannah Larson, had emptied out their business accounts.
Not believing for one moment that her friend of seven plus years could betray her, Beth tried numerous times to contact Hannah on her cell phone, but her calls went straight to voice mail.
Worried that it could be foul play—that someone actually forced her take the twenty thousand of their hard earned cash, Beth contacted the police. If there was foul play involved, she hoped Hannah was alive and safe. Money could be replaced, but not a friend.
Beth trusted her partner wholeheartedly. She never thought Hannah would do something as terrible as stealing. They’d each put their hearts and sweat into Sweet Cupids, a bake shop they had opened up in the South Loop of Chicago three years ago.
They were equally passionate about the bakery. Or so Beth thought until the cops confirmed that Hannah had indeed acted on her own accord.
After the police ran through the security cameras, which showed her walking into the bank alone and withdrawing all of the money, they checked Hannah’s apartment. It was empty with all the furniture gone, except for a broken coffee table and the fridge.
Beth hadn’t thought twice and filed a police report. Although, she was baffled—and angry for what Hanna did. How could she not see the signs? If Hanna wanted out of the partnership, all she needed to do was open her mouth and say something. No, instead she stole the damn money—all of it. There was no money to pay for any additional needs for the shop. Nothing.
After leaving the station that morning, Beth had opened a new account at a bank down the street from the shop. She had to transfer some money from her personal account—which wasn’t much, barely enough to cover the bills. Thank God, she hadn’t had a chance to deposit what the weekend had brought in, but Beth knew it wasn’t enough.
Rent was due, plus the upcoming expenses of supplies and employees salaries had to be paid, leaving only a few hundred dollars for Beth’s personal needs. What was worse? Christmas was less than two weeks away and she wouldn’t have enough money to cover their supplies through the New Year.
“God! Why Hannah?” Beth leaned against the black marble frosting bar at the back of the bakery. She contemplated on what she had done to deserve this lousy crap happening in her life.
Beth assumed their friendship was tight. They had been friends since their NIU days. How could she not know, or see through Hannah’s treachery?
Yet, it didn’t matter anymore. Twenty thousand dollars was gone, and Beth couldn’t get it back. Well, not right now anyway.
She wiped a runaway tear from her cheek.
What the hell was she going to do if she had to close the shop?
Get a grip. You know you can do it.
Yes. Beth knew what she needed to do. Sweet Cupids had to survive. Her livelihood hung in the balance. And there was no way in hell she was going to run back to her parents and ask them for help either. They would only sneer at the news about Hannah stealing the money.
They were against the partnership from the beginning, but she had calmly explained to them that Hannah had the revenue while Beth had the ingenuity to get the business to take off. It was going be perfect.
Well, Beth thought it was a perfect partnership. What did her parents see that she didn’t?
“Damn it, Beth. Stop blubbering,” she scolded herself while wiping away the tears with her not-so-clean floured apron.
It had been four days since Hannah split, and not a single word or update from the police on her whereabouts. And, every night Beth worried the shop wouldn’t earn enough revenue to stay afloat.
A chime from the front door caught Beth off guard.
She forgot to lock it again. She rushed to the front of the shop and said, “Sorry, we’re closed. We’ll be opened tomor…” Beth’s words faltered the second she locked eyes with the one and only, Bryce Landry.
Oh. My. God!
Her breath hitched in her throat and her heart thrashed against her chest so hard that it hurt to breathe. Her college love stood just inside the doorway with a tentative smile across his handsome face. He was even more attractive than when he left for Harvard four years ago. Bryce was the one who got away. Or actually, she ran away so she wouldn’t have her heart broken by this man.
Oh boy, he was still beautiful. Sun-kissed blond hair, combed back as though he’d used his fingers. Beth always loved that disheveled look on him. His strong, squared jaw showed a five-o’clock shadow. And his beautiful full lips were still very much kissable. She had dreamed many times of his mouth bearing down on her, on her body, and her sex.
Those two words pulled her out of her revelry. How she hated him calling her that.
His voice was the same. Just as deep and hypnotic as ever. His glorious blue eyes instantly woke the side of her she had hidden—no, packed up with duct tape and thrown into the deepest recesses of her mind.
She was over him… Well, maybe not quite so over him. Though enough that his charms weren’t going to affect her. Anyway, it wasn’t like they dated or anything relationship wise. They were only friends.
Yeah right, keep telling yourself that lie!
“Hi Bryce,” she said hesitantly, pushing her brown hair away from her face. “W-what are you doing here?”
Beth barely got out the words, hoping he didn’t catch the nervousness in her voice. Thank God the display counter sat between them because her hands were wringing her apron so tight, it’d probably shred to pieces.
How messed up crazy was this? From crying over her woes dealing with Hannah, to wanting to leap over the counter and kiss him. Instead, Beth clung to the hurt she had moments before, to regroup herself.
Remember? He slept with your roommate, Andrea. Beth’s inner voice spoke up and jabbed at her.
“It’s nice to see you too,” he said smoothly, but there was a hint of bitterness in his tone. Bryce walked over to her while glancing around the shop. “Nice place. Very eclectic taste. I like the Beatles memorabilia.”
What, more sarcasm? So what if she had a Beatles fetish.
“Thanks. What are you doing here?”
Her voice was slightly strained this time. For a brief moment, Beth considered what had she done to deserve more torture in her life. She wanted to scream. Instead, she looked at Bryce’s face, and saw exhaustion with a hint of worry. Her anger immediately defused, she uttered, “Sorry. What can I do for you?”
The intensity in his baby blues studied right back into her muted brown eyes. “I heard about this fabulous place called Sweet Cupids from a colleague of mine. He raves about how good the desserts are here. So, I thought I should check the place out for myself because you know how much I love sweets. So I swung by, and saw you,” he said with a big smile. “How have you been?”
Beth swallowed hard at his sincerity. “I’m…good.” What a liar!
There were seconds of awkward silence before Bryce asked, “Are there any sweets left?” He pointed at the display case.
He knew damn well there were baked goods left over. A blind man could see them, or smell them.
Clearing her throat, Beth walked behind the case and pasted on the best smile she could muster. “Well, I do have a few mini caramel eclairs, three mascarpone brownies, and four of our decadent chocolate cupcakes left.” She peered over at Bryce as he leaned closer to the glass case, eyes wide and needing a sugar fix. Same old Bryce.
“Ooh, chocolate cupcakes. Mmm. They all look good,” he said, his eyes bouncing from Beth to the desserts. In that moment, his beautiful sculpted face displayed a hint of his boyish charms. Just the way she remembered him.
His blazing eyes still produced that spellbinding effect, which made her sex thrum with need. Yet, her heart broke a little bit more as she admired his handsomeness.
Most definitely, she wasn’t over him.
It was bad enough that Hannah took off with all their money; now Fate struck again.
Here stood the man she had loved so many years ago, the man who had broken her heart. Beth had never really gotten over that—maybe never would.
She turned away and concentrated on the bake goods, so as not to burst into tears again. What the hell was she doing to herself? She’d turn into a pathetic loser—a blubbery mess—if she didn’t get herself in check.
“What would you like?” she asked steadily, although her insides were a balled up mess of nervousness.
As Beth focused on the cupcakes, she remembered how they had first met in a coffee shop near campus, fighting over the last chocolate cupcake in the case. They ended up splitting it, while spending that afternoon laughing, talking, and getting to know each other. Oh God, how she really missed him.
Even when he quirked his brows when he was in deep thought. Or how he used to tap his index finger whenever he was nervous. When he got mad, especially at his brother, his blue eyes were so intense she swore they glowed. But, when he smiled his impish grin, especially when used to steal her cookies, she couldn’t stay mad at him. And yeah, he would take a lot.
Though, she always found money shoved in her Hello Kitty wallet—which she had always kept empty.
Beth missed him more than she could ever say. Yet, when he walked off and screwed Andrea, she wanted nothing to do with him. The memory of that night sparked in her mind like a fuse. She had to tap the sudden anger down.
She remembered that Hannah had stopped her from rushing into the room and beating the hell out of Andrea, and Bryce. Even though Beth would have had great pleasure pummeling her roommate, she knew she’d regret it later. Instead, she left.
Even after four years, her traitorous body wanted Bryce.
Don’t think about it. He didn’t want you then and he doesn’t want you now.
“I’ll take all of it,” he said, pulling her out of her sobering thoughts.
“What?” Beth swept a glance to his face, and froze when Bryce reached forward to brush something off her cheek. His fingers were so warm. A tingle fluttered across her skin, spreading fast through her body, causing her bones to melt.
“Flour,” Bryce uttered with a chuckle. He dropped his hand but never looked away.
Damn, he smelled so good—too good, and even better than the sweets in front of her.
“What?” Beth shook her head to clear her damaged brain of Bryce.
“Flour on your cheek?”
“Oh, yes. I bake. I’m the baker.” Beth closed her eyes. You’re babbling now. “I mean—what do you want again?”
“I said I’d take it all.” His voice dropped to a sexy whisper.
“Oh, okay.” Beth sputtered out the words before quickly walking away. She needed a reprieve from the masculine scent drowning her senses. But when she returned with two boxes and began placing brownies and eclairs into the one of them, his mouthwatering spice began to mess with her brain again. Too late; she was drunk from the rich sandalwood, the same smell he’d had in college. There was no aroma on earth more intoxicating than the innate smell of Bryce. She slowly breathed in air and let it fill her lungs. Beth swallowed hard while her hands shook slightly at her slid the case open on the other side.
Get a grip, Beth!
Beth opened the other box and began filling it with the cupcakes. Her focus stayed on packaging the goodies so she wouldn’t have to look at him.
Beth couldn’t help it. She had to sneak a peek. When his lips bowed into a beautiful smile, she wondered if they were as tasty as they looked.
He’s here for the desserts, not for you.
Hell, Beth wanted to slap her conscience’s face for disrupting her wayward thoughts, but knew that reasoning to be true. She remained quiet while emptying the case.
“So…” He didn’t finish the sentence. All he did was stare at her.
Was that all he could say? So? The last time she saw him was the day he left for law school. She’d looked at him with utter anguish and walked away when he approached her. Beth never talked to him again, never asked why he slept with that slut.
“So,” she echoed back.
“How long have you been open?” Bryce asked. He looked down and tapped his finger against the glass.
He was nervous. Why? And what’s with the polite conversation? Okay. She could do that. “Three years.”
She hesitated, shot him a hard stare, but said, “No. Remember Hannah Larson?”
“The tall redhead?” he asked with a furrowed brow. Bryce never liked her.
“Yes. We’re partners.” Not anymore.
“It’s great to have friends you can count on, Beth.” Bryce hesitated for a second before he continued. “You’ve come a long way from selling your cookies to owning your own bakery.”
Friends? Look where she’d gotten to by trusting friends.
“Yeah. Great.” Beth tried to keep the vehemence out of her voice, but a bit slipped out. She folded the box lids down, taped them carefully with gold oval Cupid’s bow stickers, and slid them across to him.
“That will be twenty-five dollars even, please.” The sooner he left, the better Beth could breathe.
“Really? That’s it?” Bryce took the boxes, and handed her his black Amex card in return.
“It’s the end of the day. So let’s call it ‘a friend’s discount’,” Beth said with a thin smile. Her gut twisted tight when she used the word friend in association with him. It was like telling a lie.
“Are you all right, Beth? I didn’t want to ask, but when I walked in, you looked upset, like you’ve been crying.”
Now he’s asking me if I’m having a bad day? Men!
She swiped the card and handed it back to him. “No, I’m good. Really,” she lied, again.
Her pasted smile slipped from her face. Of course she wasn’t all right. From losing a so-called-friend who stole from their company and a so-called-friend who broke her heart all in one week, she was lucky her place hadn’t burned down.
“I’m simply great.” Far from great, but he didn’t need to know that.
Beth slid a pen and the receipt over to him to sign. Bryce quickly scribbled his signature and passed it back. He reached inside his coat pocket and took out a card. “This is my business card. On the back is my cell number. Maybe we can have lunch some time, or even dinner.”
Beth took a slight step back from the counter and stared down at the card as though it was kryptonite. She noticed the logo, Landry & Associates. She knew the name well. Bryce’s family owned the law office since the forties when his grandfather opened the firm. However, she had never thought Bryce would ever work with his family. Working for his family meant that he would have to be serious, like his father and his brother, Markus. The pressure would be too much for Bryce to handle. He had emphasized that fact repeatedly in college. She guessed things had changed with him. Lots of things had changed.
“You went to work with your family? Markus, too?”
A dark glaze of hurt ran across his face when she mentioned Bryce’s twin brother, Markus.
“No.” The word came as cold as the frigid winds outside.
Okay. “Oh.” It was all she could say.
“So lunch or dinner?” His tone shifted back to light.
“Sure.” No way in hell, buddy, am I going anywhere with you.
Bryce smiled, but this time it was weak and didn’t reach his eyes. He picked up the boxes and walked to the door. Just before he stepped outside into the cold December winter, he turned and said, “It was really good seeing you again, Bethie. And think about dinner. Please. We have way too much to talk about.” He strode out, without another backward glance.
Beth raced to the door and locked it with shaky hands. She turned off the rest of the lights, and trudged teary-eyed to her secluded office with the knowledge that her life truly sucked.