Walking through the swinging door that opens onto the front of the café, I turn off the switch next to the doorframe, so the only thing left lit is the glass case that houses the cakes, cookies, bars, and all the other delicious stuff Gina bakes, though it stands empty now. Gina will be back at it tomorrow, arriving before the sun rises so she can make all of her delicious goodness ready for the morning crowd.
She can make a chocolate croissant that would have your eyes rolling into the back of your head it’s so good. I’d put in a special request for them tomorrow just before she left. She said she’d make a double batch just for me.
Working at the bakery is going to kill my figure and make my butt big if I don’t watch it. A girl can hold out for only so long.
I push in the rest of the chairs, the task forgotten after I rejected Gage and basically kicked him out of the café. Everything else in the area is clean. Perfect and ready for tomorrow—so why am I lingering? Shouldn’t I want out of this place since I’m going to be right back and at it with gusto by seven o’clock tomorrow morning?
Where else do you have to go? Not like you have anyone to go to besides your parents, and they sure as heck don’t count.
That is the most depressing thought ever. I feel like I’ve been listening to all the women in my family crying over how I’m a spinster at twenty-freaking-three and it’s starting to take hold. If I think about it too much, I believe it. I’m a total screw-up.
Blowing out a harsh breath, I hang my head back, staring at the ceiling. Since when did I turn into such a world-class failure?
I hear a faint knocking on the front door, causing the bell hanging above it to tinkle and I startle, looking straight through the glass and right at . . .
Gage Emerson? Standing on the doorstep?
I frown at him, wondering if I’ve become delusional. I’m hallucinating. No way is he really standing there . . . is he?
Shaking my head, I blink my eyes shut, counting to ten before popping them open again. He’s still standing there, though now he’s clearly impatient with me, if the glower on his face says anything. His hands are resting on his hips, pushing back his unbuttoned, elegantly cut navy jacket and showing off that broad chest of his, his tie loose around his neck, his shirt wrinkled. He’s rumpled and looks absolutely delicious.
Oh God. I need to get rid of him, and quick.
MARINA IS LOOKING at me in utter disbelief. Like she can’t believe I’ve somehow magically appeared in front of her. She even closed her eyes for a few seconds. Does she think I might be a figment of her imagination or something? I don’t know. There’s an entire building separating us and I want in. She didn’t conjure me up.
Nope. I’m real. As in I’m the idiot who’s drawn to her despite her obvious hate—or at the very least, disinterest in me. I must be a glutton for punishment because here I am, standing in front of her door in the hopes that just maybe she’ll still be inside the bakery. Despite the fact it’s past nine o’clock and she shut the place down at five.
Then unceremoniously kicked me out.
Luck’s on my side tonight, I guess, finding her here.
Honestly, I don’t know what possessed me. I left Autumn Harvest and went back to the house, hoping to get in a few phone calls. Hell, I even tried to call her father but he wasn’t in. Not that he’s ever in for me.
I think the guy is on to me. I haven’t been sneaky about my approach, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew all about my sniffing around his property.
But the thrill of the hunt couldn’t hold its allure today. I got depressed. And I never get depressed. I’ve been rejected twice within an hour. First by Marina, then by her father. It’s a multigenerational-rejection type of day.
Deciding the house was too quiet, and I didn’t want to be alone, I left. Wandered down the cute little Main Street in St. Helena, purposely avoiding the bakery. I ended up at a bar and grill, where I ate dinner and consoled myself with a few beers. Watched the baseball playoffs on the flat screen TV over the bar. Giants were in the lead and eventually ended up winning the game.
The Giants are my favorite team. Hell, my friend Matt used to play for them, so of course I love them. But I couldn’t work up even a trickle of enthusiasm for their win. All I could think about was . . . her.
She’s consuming my thoughts. I never a let a woman do that to me, and I can’t believe how fast my attraction for her has grown. I like everything about her, even how much she seems to hate me.
How driven she is, how protective she is of her family. I understand that side of her and I’m drawn to it, too. That she acts like she’s attracted to me despite herself is intriguing too. Most women practically beg for my attention, drawn by my bank account more than anything else.
Not Marina. She’d rather I never darken her doorway again. And she’d most definitely benefit from my bank account. Yet she views my wealth with contempt.
I admire her for that. Hell, I want her more because of it. I feel like she sees me, the real man behind all the bullshit. Flaws and all, and despite that, the attraction is still there between us. Like a living, breathing thing. Does she see it?
If she does, she’s pretending it doesn’t exist.
A shiver moves through me as Marina slowly approaches the door, her expression wary, those pretty blue eyes narrowed as she studies me. I’m this close to leaving, but something keeps me there. I think I want to see what she might say to me. See if she’s going to let me in.
I’m freaking desperate for her to let me in.
My problem? Too many beers made me think too much, and now here I am, basking in the bakery’s autumnal finery. Late September and there are already a few pumpkins decorating the front. Two large planters flank either side of the door, filled to the brim with giant, rusty, orange-colored mums.
AUTUMN HARVEST is written in elegant black script across the door. The front window is large, allowing passersby a glimpse inside. Tiny tables and chairs fill the room. Large wicker baskets full of fresh fruit and wrapped baked goods line the walls. The bakery has a very warm, trendy Napa feel to it.
Yet she’s having trouble with the business. I don’t understand why.
Yeah. I really don’t know what possessed me to come back here. I mulled over the reasons why Marina sent me packing for hours. I freaking still can’t believe she told me no when I asked her to dinner. That she literally pushed me out of the bakery like she never wanted to see me again. I dangled the Archer carrot and she didn’t give a shit.
She didn’t think I was worth it.
No one tells me no. Well, I take that back. I’ve heard no plenty in my career. No is a part of negotiations. In fact, when I hear a no it makes me work that much harder to turn it into a yes.
But when it comes to women? They don’t tell me no. I’m the one who usually turns them away. The one who has to break it off first. I’m not used to rejection.
Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to her. She’s the complete opposite of any woman I’ve ever met.
“What are you doing here?” she asks, barely cracking open the door. Like she might be afraid I’ll push past her and force my way inside.
She wouldn’t be too far off base. The idea does cross my mind.
“I don’t know,” I answer honestly, stuffing my hands in my pockets.
She studies me for a long, quiet moment and I stare back. She looks . . . weary. A little sad, a lot irritated. “I usually never stay this late,” she admits. “Are you stalking me or what?”
“No, I’m not stalking you.” I chuckle, shaking my head. A cool breeze washes over me, making me shiver, and I nod toward her. “Can you let me in?”
“I was just locking up for the night.” She moves to close the door, and for a brief, terrifying moment, I’m afraid she’s going to slam it completely and shut me out.
“Just a few minutes. I want . . . to ask you something.” I made that up. I have nothing to ask her beyond why do you hate me so much, which has been running through my brain for the last five hours or so.
“Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”
Jesus. I have never, ever met a woman so disinterested in me before. I hate it.
I’m more determined than ever to turn her no into a yes.
“No, it can’t.” I try to turn on the charm and flash her a smile, but even I can feel how halfhearted my effort is. “Come on, Marina. Throw me a bone here.”
Rolling her eyes, she pulls the door open and I enter the quiet, dark bakery, brushing past her as I walk inside. I hear her sharp intake of breath when my body touches hers.
Just like that, I’m aware of her. Of every little sound she makes, the intoxicating scent of her, how she looks at me like she’s ready to run and hide.
I make her nervous. Fuck, she makes me nervous. I shouldn’t want this. Want her. She hates me. I don’t like her much either. At least I don’t like her attitude toward me or the way she treats me.
“What did you want to ask me, Gage?” She locks the door and leans against it, her tone bored, as is her expression. “It’s late so make it snappy. I need to go home and collapse into bed.”
Make it f**king snappy? I can’t even acknowledge that or I’m gonna lose my shit and say something I really regret. And the bed reference sends all sorts of dirty images into my brain.
The fact that she’s able to both turn me on and piss me off is quite the feat. She deserves a medal or something.
“Why won’t you go to dinner with me?” I blurt, instantly hating myself for letting the question fly out of my mouth. I don’t think I want to know her answer. I don’t think she appreciates me asking when I sound like a whiny little baby either.
“You want the truth.”
I nod furiously. “Hell yeah, I do.”
“You’re trouble.” She says nothing else, just regards me with those cold, assessing blue eyes.
“I think you have me mistaken with Archer.” No one has ever called me specifically trouble. Archer, yes, all the damn time. Me, Archer, and Matt together? Oh, hell yeah. We caused all sorts of trouble together, especially in our younger years.
But me, all alone? I’m not trouble. Not really. I’m a pretty responsible guy. My dad instilled it in me to take care of everything that matters. In business and in pleasure. When I see something I want, I go after it until I make it mine.
Is that what you’re doing right now?
I push the scary-as-fuck thought right out of my head.
“I already told you I don’t know Archer that well. I do know he has a reputation,” she starts.
I interrupt her. “Well earned, let me tell you. He’s an absolute dog.”
“Hmm. Well, from what I’ve heard, he’s settled down now that he has a fiancé.”
My sister, but I don’t bother telling her that. I have to keep some of my secrets. I might want to use them someday. And I can’t keep up this pretense that Archer’s a total dog because he’s not. Everything Marina says is true. “Listen, I swear I’m not trouble. Trust me.”