Pumpkin Spiced Love by Kali Hart

1

MAPLE

“You’re a life saver, Maple!” The only thing keeping my seven-months pregnant bestie from strangling me in a hug are the plastic dessert containers I put in in her hands two seconds ago. “My heart sank clear into my toes when Maverick told me in the drop-off lane that he was supposed to bring class treats today.”

“I got you. There’s two dozen mini pumpkin cupcakes in there. The eight in purple spider-web wrappers are gluten free.”

“You’re amazing.” Tears threaten to spill, courtesy of the baby hormones. “I’ll pay you later—”

“Don’t you dare,” I interrupt before Alexis can start a completely pointless argument. She has enough on her plate this week with her Army Reservist husband away at drill. I’m not about to accept a penny from the woman who forced her friendship on me in kindergarten and has never left my side since. “The cupcakes were already made.”

“To sell,” she points out.

I wave away her comment. “I already marked them as sold in the video comments. Besides, I’ve still got half a dozen pies, three different kinds of breads, and an assortment of cookies up for grabs.”

“Your new oven won’t buy itself.”

“That’s what the Pumpkin Spiced Baking Contest is for.” All I have to do is win that competition at the end of the weekend, and all my kitchen woes are over. I’ll finally be able to get the double oven of my dreams, stopping the countdown timer that’s been ticking in the back of my head ever since old faithful cost me three hundred dollars for her last palpitation. It’s only a matter of time before she dies an un-resurrectible death. Pushing aside that thought, I envision another commercial grade mixer, and a few other fun accessories. There’ll even be enough prize money left to boost my online advertising. I’m in desperate need of a better camera for my YouTube channel, since it’s the primary way I sell my products each day. “I am going to win.”

“I know you will.” She looks at me with such best-friend love in her eyes that I think she might actually cry, right here on Main Street for half our small-town folks to see. “I’m so proud of you for chasing your dreams. I mean it.”

“Go, get your kiddo those cupcakes. Tell him he owes Auntie Maple.”

“Making Maverick help you bake cookies isn’t exactly a punishment,” Alexis says after sliding behind the wheel. Another week or two and she’ll have the seat cranked all the way back accommodate her growing tummy.

I’m about to make some comment about free babysitting when I catch a glimpse of something curious across the street. A bright orange coming soon sign appears in an empty storefront window. I watch as a corner falls, and a hand slaps up to hold it. A tall man in a pair of jeans peeks out from the side of the sign. With his hand still held high on the window, it’s not my fault that I get an eyeful of delicious abs when his t-shirt rides up.

My curious gaze travels up the length of him, admiring every flexed muscle along the way. Suddenly, this brisk October day feels like a sweltering desert. I’m craving an ice coffee like nobody’s business.

“So, is that a yes or no for dinner tonight?”

“Dinner?”

“Were you even listening to a thing I said?” Alexis scolds. But I’m too distracted to feel guilty about tuning her out. My gaze keeps traveling across the street.

“Dinner tonight sounds good. Unless you’re cooking.” My bestie is a master at burning even the simplest dishes.

“You know we’re ordering takeout. Be over by six.” Alexis shuts the door but rolls down the window. “You might want to pick your jaw up off the pavement before half the town notices you drooling.”

“I’m not—”

“You definitely are. Tootles!”

I should head back to my car to secure the next batch of goodies for delivery. The grocery store requested three pecan pies and half a dozen pumpkin rolls. But before I can tug on the door handle, I notice another sign being slapped up on that storefront window.

Carter Family Bakery?” Suddenly the lust I was feeling toward the ab-licious mystery man turns to irritation. Just who does this stranger think he is? Carter Falls is my territory. Never mind that I work out of my home and don’t actually have a storefront of my own. For the past seventeen months, I’ve been the lone one to supply the town with any and all sweet baked goods.

This town isn’t big enough to support two bakeries.

I march across the street, oblivious to traffic until an old truck honks at me. I wave an apology, never taking my eyes from the pair of legs behind the second sign.

My plan to dramatically storm inside and demand an explanation is downplayed when I run head-first into a locked door. I’m forced to wait outside as those pair of legs leisurely strolls my way.

My irritation only grows stronger when the owner of those legs stares down at me through the glass door with eyes the color of melted chocolate. I hate how my entire body reacts to his intense stare. My nipples tingle, reminding me about the washboard abs hiding beneath his shirt. Slickness between my legs begs me to entertain highly inappropriate fantasies.

“We’re not actually open for business.” The man’s honey smooth voice could turn me into a puddle if he wasn’t the enemy.

I fold my arms across my chest, determined to stand my ground. Even if the sinfully attractive man with his dark hair and devil-may-care smile is causing butterflies to swarm drunkenly inside my belly. “Carter Falls doesn’t need another bakery.”

“Carter Falls doesn’t have a bakery.” He gestures up and down Main Street, which is only three blocks long.

“Maybe you should do your homework,” I snap. “Then you might have heard of Marvelous Maple’s.”

“Who’s Maple?”

“I am.”

His gaze flickers up and down my body. I should be offended at the way he’s sizing me up, but secretly I’m a little thrilled. And thankful I picked out my only pair of skinny jeans that makes my legs look dynamite. “Where’s your store, Maple?”

“On Third Street.” I leave out the part that it’s inside my house as I stretch my neck, hopeful to sneak a peek. But my new enemy is too broad-shouldered and tall for me to see around. “When are you planning to open?”

“Next week,” he says. “After I win the Pumpkin Spiced Baking Contest.”

I sputter an embarrassingly loud laugh. “You’re not winning that contest. I am.” The man doesn’t look like any baker I’ve ever met. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say he was former military or some type of high security bodyguard. Maybe even a trained assassin.

“We’ll just have to see, won’t we?” In any other set of circumstances, I might take his half-cocked smile as flirtatious. But this is war. Romantic entanglements—no matter how tempting—aren’t allowed.