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Delicate Escape Sneak Peek


How many ways could you kill someone in your mind? Nikki and I had gotten creative over the past few months, coming up with some real gems. 

“Buried alive with fire ants,” I said, burrowing deeper into the overstuffed couch in her tiny apartment. 

She scoffed from her spot, sprawled on the floor, wineglass precariously balanced in her hand. “Not nearly bad enough. I’m going with…eaten by piranhas, starting with his dick.” 

I snorted, taking a sip of my drink. “Maybe he could just choke on his lies,” I muttered. 

Nikki sat up in one swift move, her red hair flying around her face and wine sloshing out of the glass. At least it was white and not red. Even though she was tipsy, her eyes narrowed on me in a now familiar way. One that managed to be both fierce and gentle. She was the kind of best friend who had your back—one of the few who hadn’t been swayed by Brendan’s bullshit. 

“You need to tell someone. Someone who can actually do something to his ass. Or I’m going to run him over with my car,” Nikki grumbled, setting her wineglass on the coffee table. 

I squeezed my knees to my chest, trying to take comfort in the pressure as if I could hug myself out of my current situation. “And say what? I’m getting heavy-breathing phone calls from an unknown number?”

“Sel, he got you freaking fired. From a job you worked your ass off for.” 

I had. Undergrad in business. Masters in nonprofit business management. Countless hours of unpaid internships and volunteer work. All to land a job at my dream organization: The Literacy Project. But all that had gone down the tubes this morning when I found out I’d been fired. 

“There’s no proof,” I said softly. But an ache took root in my chest. I knew Nikki was right, even though there wasn’t a shred of evidence. Brendan’s fingers stretched far, and his grip could be strangulating. 

Nikki let out a huff of air. “You know it’s him. Tossing money around and pulling strings.” 

I worried the corner of my lip as pressure built around me—as if I were being suffocated by the air itself. It was starting to feel like Brendan was everywhere. I’d thought breaking up with him would be the end of it. That I’d be free. But it had only been the beginning. 

“This has to be it,” I said, finally meeting her eyes. “He won. And I think that’s what he’s wanted all along. Maybe I can finally move on.” 

I just wasn’t sure where that would be. Los Angeles didn’t feel like home anymore. For so long, I’d loved living here. The live music scene, museums, and amazing restaurants with every type of cuisine imaginable. I’d always felt like I could melt into the sea of people and get lost in their diverse uniqueness. Now, it felt like every single pair of eyes could be watching. 

“Maybe,” Nikki mumbled. 

I leaned over the coffee table and squeezed her hand. “Thank you for being the bestest friend a girl could have.” 

She just scowled at me. “I want to junk-punch him before I throw him to the piranhas.” 

I choked on a laugh. “Have at it.” 

But the laugh quickly died away. I’d only told Nikki bits and pieces of the bad stuff. If she knew it all, she really would be gassing up her car for a hit-and-run. But knowing that just made me love her more. 

I stood, picking up my wineglass and emptying its contents. “I need to get home. It’s almost time for Moose’s dinner.” 

Nikki shook her head. “Better keep that beast fed. If you don’t, he’s liable to take off a toe in your sleep.” 

That had a genuine smile stretching my face as I carried my glass to her sink. “He’d never.” 

Nikki grunted as she struggled to her feet. “Keep telling yourself that. You ordered a car, right?”

I shook my head. “I switched to Fresca after my first glass.” 

Her mouth fell open. “You bitch. I’ve been getting sloshed, and you’re sipping freaking Fresca?”

I chuckled as I pulled Nikki into a hug. “Sorry, babycakes.”

The truth was, I never had more than a single glass of wine these days. My anxiety had already reached the red zone, and I needed all my faculties.

Nikki hugged me tighter. “Want me to come with you? I can sleep on your couch tonight.” 

God, she was an amazing friend. “I’ll be fine. I’ll probably stay up late looking at what other nonprofits might be hiring.” 

Nikki held on, not letting go. “You’re an amazing person. Don’t let his bullshit make you think anything else.” 

My eyes burned, tears struggling to break free. I did everything I could to beat them back. Because there were times that I’d started to wonder if I was, in fact, the person Brendan said I was. That I was manipulative, cruel, sick, and a slut. 

Two years ago, I would’ve laughed if someone had said I’d think those things about myself. It was shocking how fast things could change. How quickly a mind could be twisted. And how long it took to undo that kind of damage. 

“Love you, Niks,” I whispered. 

“Love you, too,” she said, finally releasing me. “Text me when you get home, or call if you want someone to talk to while you’re getting inside.” 

The burn was back, tears fighting to fall. She’d been the recipient of more than one phone call when I freaked myself out thinking I was being followed, only to realize it was an innocent bystander going about their business. She never complained. 

“Thanks,” I said, quickly kissing her cheek and grabbing my purse. 

I headed out of her small apartment on the outskirts of Silverlake and down the sidewalk toward my car. It was still plenty bright out, but my head was on a swivel, taking stock of everyone around me. There was the typical hipster fare, a couple making out near a café, a family with two young kids running circles around the parents... Nothing out of the ordinary. 

I still felt twitchy. I walked faster, moving toward my Subaru hatchback that had seen better days. She’d seen plenty of action before I bought her in college and had officially passed her prime now. But since I was out of a job, an upgrade wouldn’t be happening anytime soon. 

Beeping the locks, I slipped into the vehicle and winced at the tote bag full of produce on the floorboard. I hadn’t planned to stay at Nikki’s for as long as I had. Hopefully, the bag of farmers market finds would be all right. 

Shutting the door behind me, I locked it and let out a breath. My eyes caught on my reflection in the rearview mirror. My blond hair was in disarray, and my pale green eyes had dark circles under them. But I didn’t look away, not even when my eyes filled. 

“You’re a good person,” I whispered. “You’re not who he says you are.” 

My phone dinged, and I fished around in my purse for the device. As I pulled it out, it chimed again, the screen lighting up. My stomach hollowed out as a text flashed on the display. 

Unknown Number: Seen this?;-)

The text had a screenshot of an article. Actor Brendan Boseman Donates One Million to The Literacy Project. My hands trembled as I scanned the short piece. 

Mr. Boseman, best known for his roles in box-office-gold romcoms and superhero megahits, was captured touring the nonprofit’s West Adams location here in Los Angeles. “Reading is something I’ve always been passionate about. And being a part of The Literacy Project’s mission to give people the tools they need to succeed is an honor.”

More unshed tears burned the backs of my eyes, a mixture of anger, fear, and frustration at the blatant bullshit that streamed out of his mouth. Brendan’s idea of reading was scanning The Hollywood Reporter and cursing anyone who got a job he wanted. I couldn’t read any more. It was too much. 

I’d given everything to The Literacy Project: ridiculously long hours at low pay, courting countless benefactors to keep us in the black, and jumping in on tasks that had never been in my job description. And all because I believed in their mission. And because I loved being a part of something that changed lives. Now, it was all done. Gone. 

A tear slipped down my cheek and fell onto my jeans, making the indigo strands darken as it sank in. Maybe this was what I needed—the final straw to make me leave LA and start fresh. A chance to truly be free.

It wasn’t like I had anything left here other than Nikki. Everything had been slowly and deliberately stripped away. I swallowed the anger that surged, grabbing my key from the seat and sliding it into the ignition. Twisting it, I had to try three times before the engine caught. 

Just one more thing I couldn’t afford to fix. But I ignored it and headed for home. Even at four in the afternoon, rush hour had already begun, turning my ten-minute drive into twenty. As I pulled up in front of the rundown fourplex, the hairs on the back of my neck rose. 

I glanced around the residential street, doing my now standard scan. Nothing out of the ordinary: a couple walking their fluff ball of a mutt, a young woman pushing a stroller, a couple of teens shouting as they raced their souped-up bikes down the street. 

But I felt eyes on me. Familiar anxiety took root, and quick on its heels, frustration. Because I didn’t know if the feeling was warranted or if I was losing it. I grabbed my phone and quickly typed out a text. 

Me: Home. Going to feed Moose and make dinner. Make sure you eat something so you don’t wake up with a hangover from hell.

Nikki: Already ordered pad thai and pad see ew. Going to sop up all that alcohol. 

My mouth tried to curve as I shut off the engine, but it couldn’t quite get there. I grabbed my purse and the tote bag with my farmers market goodies, then climbed out of my hatchback. As I slid my phone into my pocket, I did another quick scan before heading up the walk. 

My gaze jumped at every flicker of movement around me as I moved, bracing. But I just kept going. It was the only answer. If I let myself fall, I knew I’d never get up. 

My feet hurried across the cracked pavement and up the chipped concrete steps. Punching in the code to the building, I waited for the buzz and stepped inside. I quickly shut the door behind me, making sure it latched, then moved to the door marked 1B. 

I unlocked the deadbolt, then the doorknob. When the door swung open, a beep sounded. A deep meow greeted me as I plugged in the alarm code. 

“Hi, Moose,” I said to the dark room—dark because every curtain in the place was pulled. 

When I landed the tiny apartment, I’d loved it for its windows—all that natural light. Now, all I had was the artificial kind.

I flicked on the switch as Moose wound through my legs. As soon as I threw the deadbolt, I bent to pick him up, grunting as I lifted all eighteen pounds of his Maine Coon self. He instantly began to purr, butting his head against my chin. 

I cuddled him close, letting the sound and feel of his gray fur soothe me. “What do you think? Time to leave LA? Maybe we could land somewhere with a yard. I could teach you to walk on a leash.” 

Moose let out a warbled meow as if to say: What the hell, lady? 

I chuckled. “Okay, pause on the leash training. How about some dinner?”

Another meow. 

I grinned as I set him down, keeping the tote bag over my shoulder. My hands trembled as I moved through the space, flicking on light after light. That slight shake told the truth. Brendan really had won. 

My life here was done. The only option I had was to leave—and pray he didn’t feel vindictive enough to mess with my life wherever I landed. 

I felt for the kitchen light and flicked it on. The counter was in complete disarray. Fruit from the bowl had spilled out, and I noticed an orange with what looked like teeth and claw marks in it. I gave Moose the side-eye. “Playing soccer again?”

He licked his paw and scrubbed it over his face. 

Then, I saw the true goal of his mischief. The treat feeder with its camera had been knocked over, looking like it had been bashed around. I righted it and put the unharmed fruit back into the bowl. 

“Seriously? The vet says you’re already overweight.” 

I swore Moose glared at me. Then he let out a bellowing meow. 

“Don’t give me that kind of back talk or no treats after dinner.” 

He hissed. 

I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. At least I had Moose. No matter how bad things got, he always managed to make me laugh. 

Setting my tote bag on the counter, I set to work putting away my produce, trying to dodge the swipes of Moose’s paws along the way. As I tidied, I began concocting a recipe in my mind. One of my favorite challenges was coming up with something based on whatever had looked best at the farmers market. 

I’d have to get more creative with my lack of salary now, but that would just make the game more challenging. We were finally in peach season, so I grabbed two. I’d also snagged some of the first mini heirloom tomatoes of the season. That, with some burrata, herbs, and balsamic, would be perfect with the crusty bread I’d bought from the local baker’s stall. 

My stomach rumbled as if agreeing with my plan. As I began pulling out ingredients, my phone started buzzing in my pocket. A cacophony of dings followed—every kind of alert my phone could give. Text. Email. Phone call. All at once. 

My alarm system let out a warning beep—the kind that said if I didn’t input the code in two minutes, it would go haywire. Then the stereo burst to life, blaring some rock song, the television following suit at a deafening level.

Moose let out an annoyed yowl. I hurried toward the alarm pad, plugging in the code as I pulled out my phone, still buzzing angrily in my pocket. The screen was filled with a laundry list of notifications, but they moved too fast for me to focus on any of them. And the dings just kept sounding. 

I silenced the phone and tapped on my email. The inbox read: one thousand six hundred and fifty-three. My heart rate picked up speed. I’d had six unread messages this morning. That was it. 

I tried to scan the subject lines, but they moved too fast as more poured in. I could only grasp a few. Warnings about my credit being compromised. Ads for penis enhancement and weight loss. And porn. So much porn. The kind that turned your stomach. 

Exiting out of my inbox, I clicked on my texts. Message after message. Too many to count. There was one chain from my bank. 

Did you approve this charge? $1,309.13 to Sex Toys, Inc.

Did you approve this charge? $10,237.53 to Hollywood Escorts.

Charge after charge. Each one worse than the one before. Then my blood ran cold. 

Unknown Number: This you?

There was no link to follow. It was simply a screenshot. From a porn site. Of me. 

My entire body vibrated as my ears rang. Some part of my brain computed that my alarm system was doing that warning beep thing again, but I couldn’t move. All I could do was stare down at the photo. 

It was me. There was no denying that. The brightly colored comforter on the bed was a dead giveaway. I was standing in the middle of my room, my top off as I reached for the button on my jeans, blond hair cascading down my bare back. 

Changing. I’d been changing. The photo was a screenshot of a video. A five-minute video. Which meant this kept going. 

My breaths came quicker, hiccuped half sobs tripping over each other. Another screenshot. Me. My face fully toward the camera, green eyes utterly unaware as I stripped down. Naked. Every part of me on display. On the internet. 

This wasn’t happening. 

The alerts just kept pinging on my phone. Emails, texts, phone calls. Fraud alerts. Low balance warnings. Links to my new porn listings. All as the stereo and television blared in the background.

The tears came fast and hard, like acid tracking down my cheeks. And then a voice rang out. One I knew. 

“Remember who’s in charge, Selly.” 

My blood turned to ice as I searched for something—anything—to defend myself with. My hand landed on a stone bookend in the shape of a flower. I gripped it as I moved toward the voice. 

Each step ratcheted up my heart rate, but as I moved into the kitchen, there was no one. 

Then a chuckle sounded, deep and raspy, as the light on Moose’s camera and treat dispenser turned from blue to red—the color that meant it was engaged. 

“You wanted to be a whore, Selly. I just made your dream a reality.” 


I moved as fast as possible, ripping the cord out of the electrical socket and smashing the camera against the wall. But it was too late. I knew it. 

Because those shots from my bedroom meant there were other cameras. They could be everywhere. He could be watching me even now. 

I needed to run, to get out, but I couldn’t get my feet to move. 

The corners of my vision darkened, and my fingers prickled. And then the darkness took me under.

Chapter One

Two Years Later

The first tendrils of sunlight streamed through my kitchen window as a series of almost barking meows sounded below me. 

I sent Moose a warning look. “I’m going as fast as I can.” 

It wasn’t good enough. He leapt onto the counter—a feat, considering he now bordered on twenty pounds of beefy glory. He hauled off and smacked my arm with a paw the moment he reached me.

My eyes narrowed on him. “Seriously?” 

He simply licked his paw and began washing his face. 

“Don’t think I believe that innocent act for one second,” I huffed, mixing his wet food with some dry. When I was done, I carried the plate into his corner of the living room, where I had a place mat and a cat tree. His bell jingled as he hurried to follow. 

I bent and lowered the bowl. Moose was on it in a flash, batting my hand out of the way like the vicious little monster he was—but an adorable monster. 

As I straightened, my gaze caught on the pen I’d set up for the foster kittens I’d be getting in the next couple of days. The babies had a litter box, heated blankets, and a little house to retreat into. It was the perfect little nook. Something about creating it had soothed me. Making a home for them where they were safe, warm, and happy. It gave me hope. 

Even though my world had been torn apart, I could put theirs back together. 

Glancing at Moose, I surveyed the bowl. Already almost halfway gone. A true fiend for food. I turned and headed down the hallway, the floorboards creaking beneath my feet. 

The old cabin in the Central Oregon mountains had lain vacant for years. As he aged, the previous owner had sold off his land piece by piece. When he finally passed, the house and remaining land had reverted to the state. The house had been so dilapidated that no one wanted it—no one but me. 

I’d gotten it for a steal, even if the hot water only lasted four minutes, and the living room floor sloped to the right. The best part about it was that the land was state wilderness or fields used for grazing and stretched as far as I could see. The only visitors I had these days were cows and horses. Just the way I liked it.

The small log cabin was nestled in the forest, but enough of the tall pines around the house had been cleared to let in plenty of light—sunshine that allowed a garden and greenhouse to flourish. But the trees still offered enough protection to make me feel somewhat…safe. 

Everything about the home was perfect, and it was only thanks to Nikki that it was even possible. She’d helped me set up a trust to purchase the property. Each month, I mailed her cash hidden in the bottom of a tin of bakery treats, which she then used to pay the small mortgage for me. No trail led back to me—nothing Brendan could trace. 

Because I’d all but disappeared. 

No email address. No phone number. No cable or computer. No tech of any kind. I’d closed every account and deleted every piece of my digital footprint I had control over. 

But there were some I didn’t. Photos and videos of me at my most vulnerable still floated around the internet, and there was nothing I could do about it. 

My throat wound tight on instinct as I swallowed down the burn. There was nothing I could do. I’d tried. It would’ve likely taken thousands of dollars I didn’t have for the lawyer fees, and I still wouldn’t have gotten it all. Because bastards in the dark parts of the internet lived to hold those kinds of things hostage. 

Instead, I let Selena die. She simply faded away into nothing, each piece of her erased like writing in the sand at high tide. Now, I was Thea. My blond hair had been transformed into a deep brown, and my pale green eyes were now the shade of mud thanks to contacts. No one would recognize me if they’d seen those cruel photos or the handful of shots the paparazzi had snapped of me and Brendan when we were together. 

I pulled a brush through my brown locks, checking the roots. I’d need a touch-up this weekend. But I had what seemed like a lifetime of dye in the hallway linen closet. I splashed water on my face and then slathered it in lotion and sunscreen. After my shift at the bakery, I’d head to my gig at the nursery, and the sun could fry you in an hour if you weren’t careful. 

Checking my watch, I hurried to dress in jeans and a tee, making sure there were no new holes I’d missed. I slipped on my boots and headed back toward Moose. “You going to behave today?”

The cat meowed from his perch on the tower in front of the window. 

“Who am I kidding? You’re always up to no good.” I made quick work of checking the locks on every window, then gave Moose one last scratch. 

He did that chattering thing again as I headed for the front door, wanting me to stay put. But he’d be fine. He had cat TV—the massive picture window pointed toward the garden and the forest beyond it. 

One day, I’d give him a better view. A giant picture window overlooking Castle Rock or the mountain range to the east. Maybe both. 

It was the thing that had stopped me on my road trip escape from LA to Oregon. The breathtaking beauty could freeze you to the spot—the golden statues of Castle Rock and the purplish snowcapped Monarch Mountains. Something about the vastness of it all had made my problems seem small. And the way the small town of Sparrow Falls was nestled into that vastness made me feel safe for the first time since I’d met Brendan Boseman. 

I let out a breath as I stepped outside. Even though we were deep into June, the mornings were chilly in the mountains. But the hummingbirds were already out. A smile tugged at my lips as I watched while two deftly navigated the garden to the feeders I’d placed throughout. Something about the creatures and how they hovered and darted touched me. While delicate, they were warriors in their own right. Escaping enemies left and right. 

I forced my gaze away, pulling my sweatshirt over my head and turning to lock the door. Some might consider the deadbolt extreme. It didn’t look like a normal lock on a home, and it had taken me months to save up the sixteen-hundred-dollar price tag. But when someone lived through what I had, you did whatever it took to keep intruders from your home. A dozen of these deadbolts wouldn’t be enough. 

I knew it was a coping mechanism. Some tiny measure of control when so much of that very thing had been stripped from me. But it helped. The sound of the lock clicking. My keys tucked into my pocket. They were never off my person. Never anywhere someone could lift them and make copies. 

Just like I placed alarms on each and every window. Not ones wired to any electronics, just those that would blare a horrendous sound if the windows were opened. You could create your own tech-free alarm system if you were creative enough. And I’d found a book at the library that helped with ideas. Motion sensor lights, window shields that allowed me to see out but prevented anyone from seeing in, and a garden that would tell me if anyone had been in its midst. 

It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen or heard from Brendan in almost two years. The routine was ingrained in me now. And it did soothe. It was more than simply thinking it kept me safe. It was almost like compulsively knocking on wood. The routine kept me safer than the actual locks and sensors did. 

Because even though I’d braced my first few months in Sparrow Falls, Brendan hadn’t found me. And as each day passed, a little more traitorous hope filled me that he wouldn’t. That he’d forgotten about me and moved on with his life. 

Sliding my keys into my front pocket, I grabbed my helmet. I lived for the months when I could ride my bike into town. It might take me thirty-plus minutes, but it saved on gas, and the trip was also a meditation of sorts—with a stunning backdrop. 

Today was no different. I pushed off, riding down the gravel road that would take me to the two-lane highway into town. The cool morning air stung my cheeks, but in a way that reminded me I was alive. I never took those reminders for granted. 

As I reached the edge of the forest and rode into the pastureland, a cow let out a bellowing moo in greeting. “Morning, Bessie,” I called back. I had no clue if it was the same cow from yesterday. They all looked identical to me. But they were freaking adorable, just the same. 

Turning east toward town, I got my first peek at the breathtaking mountains, just as the sun crested their peaks. The early rays painted the forests and fields in a riot of color—the kind of creation I never would’ve gotten in LA. And that was a gift, too. A path I never would’ve expected but was grateful for all the same. 

My bike hit the rumble strip, and I cursed as I righted it. I probably shouldn’t let that gratitude get me killed. 

I kept a closer eye on the road for the rest of my trek. It wasn’t long before I reached the outskirts of town. Sparrow Falls was the kind of picturesque place you saw in movies but never thought actually existed. Many of the brick buildings flanking the main street through town dated back to the early nineteen hundreds, but they’d all been painstakingly restored. And new builds had to be thoroughly vetted to ensure they fit with the look of the place. 

The community had pride in their town. You could see it in how the flower beds were meticulously maintained at each and every corner of Cascade Avenue. How there was rarely a speck of trash to be found anywhere. But the place had heart, too—the kind that freaked me out at first.

People in LA mostly minded their business. But not here. As you walked by the locals, they greeted you with a hello or a head dip. They offered to help if your hands were full and held doors open if they were in front of you. 

Those simple kindnesses made it harder to stay anonymous. Threading the needle between careful and rude was a tricky balance I failed at most days. But a part of me hoped I could finally simply be in this new life. 

I pulled my bike to a stop in front of a storefront with huge glass windows and a teal sign above them that read The Mix Up. The letters were perfectly imperfect in a way that represented the chaos of the woman who owned the place. But Sutton’s haphazard energy was only matched by her kindness, and the combination was incredibly endearing.

Locking my bike to a lamppost, I crossed to the door of the bakery and keyed in the code to the electronic lock. It made a whirring sound and then a pop. I pulled it open, the bell overhead tinkling. Strains of country music drifted out of the kitchen, and the space was toasty warm. 

“Morning!” I called.

A second later, Sutton appeared in the kitchen entryway. Her blond hair was piled on the top of her head, and she had what looked like a butter knife stuck through the bun to hold it in place. Flour dusted one cheek and speckled her hair, but I didn’t miss the dark circles beneath her eyes. 

I had no idea how Sutton managed to get up sometime between three and four every morning to prep the day’s goods. Add on running a business and raising a seven-year-old little boy, and I was pretty sure she was superwoman. 

“Morning, Thea. How’s it looking out there?” 

“It’s going to be a beauty.” 

“Hopefully, that means lots of tourist dollars,” she said with a grin. “I’ve got the bread, scones, muffins, and croissants already out. The sweet and savory Danishes are cooling. And I’m working on the cupcakes now.” 

I frowned at her. “How many cups of coffee have you had today?”

Sutton’s lips twitched. “Just a few.” 

“Mooooom?” a slurred voice called as footsteps sounded on the back stairs leading to the small apartment above the bakery. 

“Right here, baby,” Sutton called, moving toward the little boy’s voice. 

He appeared a second later, clad in pajamas covered in hockey pucks and sticks in bright colors. His light brown hair was darker than his mom’s, but they had the same piercing turquoise eyes. 

The moment he was within arm’s reach, he launched himself at Sutton. She caught him with an oomph as he nuzzled into her, then rubbed a hand up and down his back. “Sleep good?”

“Mm-hmm,” he mumbled. 

Sutton bounced him in that soothing way that seemed almost second nature for most mothers. “I swear he’s still half-comatose when he gets up.” 

I grinned. “Waking up is hard.” Moving around the two of them, I tickled the little boy’s side. “Morning, Luca.” 

“Hi, Thee Thee,” he whispered. 

Sutton chuckled. “I’m going to get him ready for camp. You good to handle opening?”

I nodded. “I’ll get the coffee brewing and then switch to cupcake duty.” 

“You’re a lifesaver. I’m in the middle of the cookie monster ones.” 

“Me want cookie,” Luca mumbled against his mom’s shoulder. 

I laughed. “I’ll see if I can finish one in time for you to take in your lunch.” 

Luca lifted his head, turquoise eyes colliding with mine as he gave me a sleepy smile. “You’re the best, Thee Thee.” 

My heart squeezed. God, the kid was sweet. “You are.” 

Sutton gave me a thankful smile as she headed back up the stairs. He was really getting too big for her to be carrying around, but I wasn’t surprised. She was one of the strongest people I knew. 

I moved my way through the space. Sutton had done an amazing job bringing it back to life this past year. The walls were a pristine white, but dark, exposed beams soared overhead, and antique, shabby-chic-looking chandeliers illuminated the space. Teal banquettes lined the walls, bringing in a whimsical pop of color. 

But the true stars of the show were Sutton’s baked creations. While we carried a wide array of options, she specialized in cupcakes, and each one was a work of art. She had everything from butterflies to rainbows to princesses. And she had themed confections for every holiday. Even freaking Arbor Day. 

I got to work brewing our standard decaf and regular in the coffee urns as I hummed along to the country song spilling out of the speakers. I’d never really been a fan of country until I started working here and ended up inundated with it, thanks to Sutton. It was probably more that I hadn’t been exposed until now. 

Country wasn’t exactly a staple in LA, and growing up in the valley, it hadn’t been much of a thing there either. Over time, I’d slowly found myself enjoying the storytelling tunes and unique guitar strains. I hummed along as I glanced at the clock. Still fifteen minutes until we had to open. 

I moved into the kitchen, the music louder there, and slipped an apron over my head, then quickly washed my hands before grabbing the food dye to turn the white icing blue. A new song came on. 

I grinned as I grabbed the large mixing bowl and stirred in the blue coloring, all the while singing along off-key to the lyrics about finally kissing someone new and being unbothered by whatever your ex was up to. God, I longed for that kind of freedom. To remember what it felt like to have my lips tingle from the contact, and a flutter take root in my belly with the excitement of what could be. 

“Sounds like tortured cats reaching for those high notes,” a deep voice said, amusement lacing his tone. 

The shock of the voice, the deep rasp of it, the presence of it all, had me whirling around. The only problem with that was that the bowl of bright blue icing was still in my hands. When I stopped moving, the frosting did not. 

It flew out of the bowl and landed squarely on the chest of the man standing opposite me—chest, because even though I was on the tall side, he was taller, towering over me at what had to be six three or four. A white T-shirt was pulled taut over that broad, leanly muscled chest—one now covered in blue icing. 

My mouth went slack as my eyes went up, up, up to collide with now familiar amber orbs that had me sucking in a sharp breath. Eyes that were full of sparkling amusement, but somehow also seemed sharper than others I encountered. 

Eyes that made my stomach flip and my pulse thrum faster. Ones that had DANGER in huge capital letters flashing in my mind. So, there was only one thing I could say. 

“Oh, shit.” 

Chapter Two

God, she was beautiful. Standing there in the middle of the kitchen, singing the kind of off-key that made your ears bleed. But she was so free while doing it. I should’ve stayed in the doorway longer, really taken in all that was her. 

Because I didn’t think I’d ever gotten to see Thea this carefree or uninhibited before. She was the type of guarded that meant a dozen locks, triple-enforced walls, and a barbed wire fence. But I’d seen hints of the real her over the months I’d been coming into the bakery. 

Glimpses that told me the truth about the woman behind the walls. Ones that made me want to lean in closer.

But taking her in now, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Her mouth opened and closed as she took in the bright blue frosting dripping down the front of my shirt. When she finally managed to speak, it was only to curse. 

I laughed harder, and that only made her glare. 

“It’s not funny,” she snapped. 

“Come on, Thorn. It’s a little funny.” 

Thea’s spine straightened as if her spinal column had filled with steel. “Thorn?”

I arched a brow and reached for a towel on the counter to mop up the mess. The tee was toast. But it was a small price to pay for a chance to see Thea riled. It made her deep brown eyes burn with a heat I couldn’t help but imagine lighting in other scenarios. 

“Thorn. Fits your prickly personality.” 

She gaped at me, her mouth opening and closing yet again. “You broke into the bakery and scared the hell out of me, and I’m prickly?”

I just grinned at her. Riled. So much better than her usual brush-offs. “Door was open.” 

That had Thea’s mouth snapping closed. 

“I just figured you were open early. But no one answered when I called out, and I heard some horribly off-kilter singing coming from the kitchen. I had to investigate.” 

Thea’s cheeks flamed as she set the bowl of icing on the counter. “I thought I was alone.” 

“I know,” I said simply. That was why it had been such a gift. A single moment of Thea being truly herself. 

She moved toward the doorway, carefully giving me a wide berth. “I’ll get you a T-shirt to replace that one.” 

“You don’t have to—” 

“I do,” she clipped, bending over to rummage through the stack of tees with different bakery logos. 

I was going to hell. Because as Thea bent over, her jeans pulling tight across her heart-shaped ass, I couldn’t look away. 

She pulled a lavender shirt free and straightened, holding it out to me. “Here.” 

The tee was large enough to fit me, but the front had a bright pink cupcake with Cupcake Cutie written below it in a squiggly script. 

Her lips twitched as she held it out. “Problem?”

I met her stare head-on. I knew a challenge when I heard it. Grabbing the neck of my T-shirt at the back, I pulled it up and over my head, then tossed it into the trash can behind the counter. “Real men wear purple.” 

Thea’s gaze slid from my face down to my bare chest, and I didn’t miss the way her pupils dilated as she swallowed hard. 

I held out a hand for the shirt. “See something you like?”

Her eyes snapped back to my face. “Just wondering why the town’s golden boy is stripping down in the middle of a place of business.” 

I shrugged and pulled the purple shirt over my head. “I don’t have a problem with nudity. Do you?” 

The moment the words passed my lips, Thea stiffened, her face paling slightly. 

Shit. “I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “I’m an ass. I was just joking around—” 

She shook her head. “It’s fine. Just tell me what you’d like to drink or eat, and I’ll get it for you. On the house.” 

It obviously wasn’t fine, and that had my gut churning. I’d clearly stepped in it. And the way I’d done so had me kicking myself over and over. It also had me worried. “You don’t have to cover my breakfast,” I said softly. 

“I think that’s my choice,” Thea argued, moving around me, once again giving me a wide berth. “Black coffee, right?”

“Yeah,” I muttered, crossing behind the bakery case but giving her plenty of the space she seemed to need. 

“Pastry?” she asked. 

As I made it to the front of the case, where I should’ve been all along, I scanned the contents. The thought of downing one of the sweets this early turned my stomach. But there were a few other options. “I’ll take a ham and cheese croissant.” 

Thea nodded, her dark hair sweeping across her olive cheek. But she didn’t say a word. I didn’t push. I already felt like enough of an ass. 

Thea snapped a lid on the coffee just as Sutton emerged from the back, Luca’s hand in hers. She sent me a wide smile as she brushed some flour off her shirt. “Morning, Shep.” 

“Morning,” I greeted, then grinned down at Luca. “Hey, buddy.” 

He grinned, exposing a missing incisor. “Mr. Shep! Can I help you build again?”

I chuckled. “Anytime. We can always use another good man on the job.” 

Luca’s chest puffed up. “Mom, can you take me? Can you?”

Sutton just shook her head. “You have to go to camp first.” 

“But after? Pleeeeeease?” he begged. 

“Maybe later this week. I thought you wanted to go to the ice rink today.” 

Luca looked absolutely tortured by the decision. 

“The construction zone will be there, buddy. There’s no rush,” I assured him. 

Luca let out a tiny huff, as though the weight of the world were on his shoulders. “Ice today, building tomorrow.” 

I held out a hand for a high five. “Good choice, my man.” 

Sutton sent me an exhausted smile. “Thanks.” 

“Anytime,” I assured her. 

As she hurried toward the door, a flicker of movement caught my attention, right before a different sort of guilt flooded me. I forced a smile. “Hey, Mara. How are you?”

Her return grin was so bright it had that guilt digging in deeper. “Pretty good. You?”

“Doing well. Just grabbing some breakfast,” I said, glancing toward Thea as I pulled out my wallet. 

Thea’s gaze quickly darted away from my face. “I told you. On the house. For the whole…” She made some nonsensical gesture with her hand that had me fighting a smile. “Icing thing.” 

Mara looked back and forth between Thea and me. “Icing thing?”

“Just a little early morning mishap,” I said, pulling two twenties out of my wallet and stuffing them into the tip jar. 

“Shep,” Thea chastised quietly. 

I dipped my head to meet her gaze. “It’s your choice whether or not to charge, but how much to tip is mine. Sorry about the assholery.” 

Her plump, pink lips pressed into a hard line before popping apart again. “All good.” 

It wasn’t, though. Thea’s behavior was all wrong. The kind that said she’d been hurt before. And that had anger stirring somewhere deep, with a completely unwarranted heat behind it. 

I didn’t know Thea. Not really. I’d been coming into the bakery since it opened months ago, taken in by her striking beauty. But she hadn’t shared anything with me that let me truly get to know her.

All I’d gotten were minuscule snippets. Brief moments when she let her guard down. Usually, when she was teasing Luca or laughing with Sutton. 

And I hadn’t learned much more from my sister, who worked with Thea at the local nursery. The most I could pull out of Rhodes was that she thought Thea was running from something. The question was…what? 

“Shep,” Mara said, bringing my attention back to her. 

More guilt sparked at the flicker of annoyance I felt at being forced away from Thea. I really was an ass. 

Mara smiled tentatively. “Do you want to stick around? We could have breakfast together. I’ve got an hour before my shift starts at the hardware store.” 

Hell. Mara and I had ended months ago. We’d dated for about six weeks before I realized we just weren’t a match. It wasn’t that she wasn’t a good person. She was. But that only made ending things harder. Telling someone you thought you were better as friends never went over well. 

And now, it was like Mara thought she could convince me otherwise. She was never overly pushy about it, but there was a steady, uncomfortable pressure. She’d find a way to ask me to spend time with her every couple of weeks. I was running out of ideas for gentle letdowns. 

I cleared my throat. “Meeting Anson at a new site.” 

Mara’s expression fell, and my guilt dug in deeper. “Okay. Maybe another time.” 

I tried to hide my wince as I avoided her suggestion. “Have a good day.” 

I glanced over my shoulder as I started toward the door. “Stay away from the blue frosting for a while, Thorn.” 

Thea instantly scowled at me, but the heat was back behind those dark eyes. Something a hell of a lot better than the flicker of fear I’d seen earlier. 

I felt a tug to find out what had caused it and wipe it from the Earth. But that was wasted energy. Because I’d probably fail her, too. 

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