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Heart's Cove Hotties Book 5: Dirty Little Midlife Debacle

Heart's Cove Hotties Book 5: Dirty Little Midlife Debacle

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An ex-con, a baker, and a competition with stakes higher than either of them could have anticipated. Dirty Little Midlife Debacle is a hot, hilarious, wild ride.


Kissing your coworker is a bad idea.
Neurotic baker and business owner Jen knows this from experience.

An even worse idea?
Signing up for a televised baking competition and partnering up with said coworker.

The treats they bake might be sweet, but the only thing they’re planning on sharing is the trophy.

Oh...and a bed. There’s only one bed.

All Jen has to do is make it to the end of the competition without letting her desires get in the way…until she discovers there might be more danger afoot than sharing a bed with a hot, hunky ex-con with a heart of gold.

This competition is about to get very, 
very interesting…

MAIN TROPES

  • 40+ year old characters
  • Small town
  • Workplace relationship
  • Type-A heroine
  • Only one bed
  • Baking competition
  • Comedy
  • Steamy/Spicy

Chapter 1 Look Inside

I LIKE TO WIN.

Mostly, when I put my mind to it, I do.

But this particular challenge…I’m not sure I can pull it off.

A big farmhouse looms in front of me, imposing with its white siding, black shutters, and gently pitched roof. It would be idyllic, if not for the army of TV-production ants carrying various pieces of equipment and thick rolls of cable currently rushing in and out of every door. To my left a huge barn yawns open, and I can see neat rows of kitchen islands lined up to face in one direction. Scattered around the vast surrounding land, nestled in copses of trees and patches of grass, are a number of guest cabins.

The Heart’s Cove Manor Retreat has been repurposed for a televised baking competition—and I let my publisher persuade me to participate.

I may have insinuated I thought I would win.

So, you know. No pressure.

“You must be Jen!” A man in his late twenties wearing a headset with the wire dangling down to a device clipped to his belt comes hurrying toward me. He’s thin, with dark navy jeans and a slim-fitting black tee. With a mess of blond curls on his head and a broad, disarming smile, the man spreads his arms. “Welcome, welcome. I’m Gus.”

“Hi, Gus,” I answer, shaking the hand he shoves toward me.

“I’ll be helping you get settled. If you need anything, let me know.” He flashes his wide smile at me again, but it doesn’t unknot any of the tension worming around my belly.

I have the sneaking suspicion I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

My eyes drift back to the barn. I wonder if Gus will let me back out of the competition, get in my car, and drive far, far away. Maybe he’d let me jump in a time machine and go back to the day I agreed to this stupid idea.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Gus beams, following my eyes to the barn. “We’ve been working for weeks to get the set prepared. I can’t wait for you to find out what the judges have planned for you. This show is going to be huge. Huge.” He spreads his arms wide as if to say, this big, then swings his gaze back to me with a decisive nod. “You’ll love it.”

“What happens to the barn once filming is over?”

“Well, that was serendipity. The managers at the manor have been wanting to offer cooking classes, and we at the show were happy to renovate the space—in exchange for a lower rate for the rooms, of course. We’ll leave the amenities when we leave.”

“Huh.”

“Enough of that, though. Follow me!”

Before I can react, Gus is halfway across the lawn, striding to the farmhouse’s front door. I grab my bag from the back seat of my car, which is parked in a gravel area at the front of the house, and hurry behind Gus.

When we reach the entrance, he glances over his shoulder. “I went to Four Cups this morning and tried one of your croissants. Divine.” He kisses his fingers. “The crew have a betting pool going, and you’re my pick to win this thing.”

“Oh, great.” I give him a weak smile. Pressure squeezes a little tighter around my chest.

Four Cups is the café that I part-own with my three closest friends. I’m in charge of all things related to baked goods and have made a bit of a name for myself in Heart’s Cove, our little Northern California town of artists and eccentrics.

I wish I was in the Four Cups kitchen right now. Being neck-deep in experimental recipes and baking chemistry would be much, much preferable, but then I wouldn’t get the chance to win the hundred-thousand-dollar prize. My brand-new recipe book wouldn’t get beamed to a whole new audience, and I’d stay stuck in the same comfort zone I’ve been in for years.

So even though all I want to do is bolt, the logical part of me tells me to stay. Staying means opportunity, and opportunity means career advancement. Haven’t I already sacrificed a lot to get here? Why stop now?

Plus…I do really like to win.

Still, I can’t quite shake the feeling that this is a mistake.

I don’t do television or public appearances, and if I’m honest, I mostly avoid social interaction—unless I’m already comfortable with whoever it is I’m supposed to be interacting with. I might as well have INTROVERT tattooed in big, black letters across my forehead.

But hey—a baking show sounds perfect. Stick me in front of a bunch of cameras, ask me to do near-impossible baking tasks that my perfectionist brain will no doubt short-circuit trying to achieve, and watch the fireworks.

This is either genius, or—more likely—a disaster in the making.

Amanda, my publisher, pitched it to me as the perfect way to launch my new recipe book. The book was released three months ago and already shortlisted for half a dozen awards. All those hours I spent in a baking frenzy late at night—and early in the morning—have already paid off. I’m simultaneously elated that my dream is becoming a reality, and worried that everyone will realize I’m a fraud.

It doesn’t help that I’m allergic to social interaction. I have the charisma of a bridge troll.

When the book came out, my first interview was over email. The publisher of Bon Appetit magazine sent me a list of questions to answer, and it took me three whole weeks to type out a few sentences. My hands shook too much to write out the answers until I got myself tipsy and coerced my girlfriends to type while I dictated.

My second interview was for a local news station. The anchor asked me a grand total of four questions outside the Four Cups Café on a sunny spring morning in Heart’s Cove. I puked afterward and refused to watch the news for two weeks.

Look, I said I was a high achiever and a winner. I never claimed to enjoy the spotlight.

Yet here I am, following a spry young man named Gus who has money on me winning the whole competition. Bold of him to assume I won’t faint when the cameras start recording.

You know what would be a better bet to take? Maybe one where I run away screaming as soon as someone calls, “Action!”

Deep breaths.

I’m a grown woman. I’m successful. I restarted my career in my thirties, and I can do a silly little televised competition. Piece of cake. Literally.

We walk into a large foyer and past a comfortably furnished living area. Six or seven people are talking animatedly as they sip sparkling drinks, and they all turn to stare at me as I walk past.

I give a little wave.

Gus stops. “A few of your fellow competitors.” He sweeps his hand toward the living room.

Two big, burly men stand up to shake my hand.

“Reg,” one of them says.

“Call me Tex,” the other one growls, his meaty paw nearly crushing my fingers when he squeezes my hand. “Texas born and bred, here to show y’all how things are done.” He keeps his hand wrapped around mine as he stares in my eyes. “You’re Jen Newbank. I bought your book when it came out.”

“Oh.” I arch my brows. “Thanks.”

They get shoved aside when an old woman butts in. She speaks to me in rapid-fire Spanish and I just stare at her, wide-eyed.

A younger version of her—daughter, probably—hustles up. “Mamá, she doesn’t speak Spanish.” She flicks her long dark ponytail over her shoulder and sticks her hand out toward me. “I’m Emma. This is my mom, Carla. Big Tex says we’re the wildcards.” She gives the big man a smile, and her mother just rolls her eyes.

“Wildcards,” she huffs, then clicks her tongue before saying something in Spanish that has Emma’s cheeks going red as her lips fight to keep a smile down. I’d put money on Carla having a dirty mouth and a love of creative insults.

“Mamá, please. You can’t say that kind of thing when the cameras are rolling.” Emma gives her mother a loaded stare.

Carla’s gaze cuts to me. She winks.

The last two people in the room are a husband-and-wife team from Idaho who introduce themselves as Tori and Hank. They own a cake-decorating shop, and when the woman wraps her arms around me, her whole body is soft and smells like sugar. She gives amazing hugs, and I immediately feel better when she pulls away—and that’s saying a lot, because I’m not a hugger.

“Okay, okay people!” Gus cuts in. “You can get to know each other once Jen is set up in her room.” Gus starts marching down the hallway, and by the time I grab my bag from the floor he’s nearly out of sight. “Follow me! Chop-chop—ha, get it?” He grins, then ducks around a corner.

I hurry to catch up. We walk past two bathrooms and a huge kitchen teeming with a crew of caterers. A hallway juts out to the back of the house and Gus tells me there are six bedrooms there. “For the crew,” he says. “I hope you don’t mind, the other competitors have their own guesthouses, but since you don’t know your partner very well and the only guesthouse remaining was a one-bedroom unit, well, we thought it would be better to give you your own space.”

“Yes.” I let out a sigh. “Much better.”

I follow him up the creaky, carpet-covered stairs and hike my bag higher on my shoulder. “How many people are competing in this thing, again?” I know Amanda told me about the competition, but I was simultaneously freaked out about being on TV and fantasizing about what I’d do with my winnings, and therefore unable to listen.

“Eight teams of two. We’ll film five elimination challenges—one on Week One, two on Week Two, and two on Week Three—until there are three teams left for the finale during Week Four. Production will last one month. You’ll get every Sunday off.” Gus pauses at the top of the stairs. He turns on the landing and grips the bannister, looming above me on the stairway. “I was really sorry to hear about your partner, by the way.”

I frown up at him. “My partner? What happened?” Amanda organized a baking apprentice to work alongside me months ago. A young woman named Mary-Ann, who is apparently very good with chocolate.

Gus tilts his head. “You didn’t hear about your own partner pulling out of the competition?”

Uh-oh. “I never even met her.”

Gus lets out a long sigh and stares at the ceiling. “That would have been great television. Oh well.” He turns around and takes a step before I stop him.

“Wait. What happened?”

“Broke her legs in a water-skiing accident, poor girl,” Gus says with a wave of his hand. “Got the call this morning right after I finished one of your amazing croissants at the café, which was fortunate, all things considered.”

Frowning, I watch him turn around and stride down the hallway. “Why were my croissants fortunate?” None of this makes any sense. I hustle to catch up to him. “Will I be competing alone?”

I’m shuffling behind him, readjusting my bag on my shoulder for the thousandth time and trying to remember what the hell I packed that was so damn heavy.

“No, of course not. We got a replacement. Like I said, fortunate.” He stops at a door. “Your room, madam,” Gus says with a bow and a flourish, gesturing to the closed room.

The knob turns freely and I push the door open, stepping onto the threshold to get a look at where I’ll be staying.

The first thing I hear is a strange ruffling sound, but nothing looks out of place. To my relief, the room is nice and well-appointed, with a neat double bed and sturdy timber furniture. When Amanda pitched this show to me, I was imagining zero privacy, but she assured me the only filmed portions of the show would be the actual baking competition. It’s not a reality show, she assured me. Very classy. Very professional.

At least the production costs cover private rooms. I drop my bag just inside the door.

There are no bunk beds in sight, which alleviates my biggest fear of being on a television competition bunking with a bunch of strangers. Even better, everyone will be out in the guesthouses so hopefully I won’t need to interact with them much more than necessary.

Look. I know that sounds bad, but it’s the truth. I’m an introvert and a homebody. Simone, Fiona, and Candice—my co-owners at Four Cups—can be the town’s social butterflies. I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by baked goods and houseplants.
Another ruffling sound ripples through the room, followed by a snap, like a tea towel being flicked. Frowning, I glance around the tidy space for the source of the noise, then look down at myself and my bag. No stray straps, nothing that would sound like a snap.

What in the world?

The snapping sound rings out again, twice in quick succession. I glance back at Gus, who looks horrified by something inside the room. His eyes are angled toward the ceiling.

I take a single step inside, look up at the exposed roof rafters, and freeze.

Dozens of crows are perched on the beams. As soon as I cross the threshold, the cawing starts. The nearest crow cries and I just stare at it, then look forward at the wide-open window.

“Oh, dear,” Gus whispers behind me.

Then the swooping starts.

The crow nearest to me dive-bombs, swooping near my head as I double over.

I scream, throwing my hands up to protect my face. Without my hand holding onto the doorknob, the door swings open wider and more crows start their attack.

The noise is deafening. The swoops are never-ending. Crow after crow after crow attacks my head, with their talons and beaks pecking at my hair, my neck, my shoulders. I fall to my knees with a yelp, then flop forward onto my front.

Gus screams for help. I’m breathless as I try to protect my face from the swooping crows. They’re vicious as they attempt to rip apart my face—or at least that’s how it feels. Most of them just swoop close but don’t touch, but the noise of the wings and the intensity of the swoops has me screaming. My hands are clutched over the back of my head as I lie on my stomach on the floor, the insistent cawing of a murder of crows resonating from all corners of the room.

This is an omen. I don’t believe in omens, obviously, but a literal murder of crows attacking me as soon as I step foot in my room? Come on.

I quit. I’m going home. I’m locking myself in the Four Cups kitchen and baking for the next seventy-two hours straight just to wipe the memory of this from my mind.

Screw winning. I don’t care about the hundred grand. This isn’t worth it.

But first, I need to get the hell out of here. Gus is still screaming, and I hear the sound of his retreating footsteps as he runs away. Wonderful. I’m on my own.

I take a moment to peek over my shoulder, only to see a huge crow diving for me. I scream, shielding my head just in time to protect it from a sharp peck. Pain lashes across the back of my hand.

Get out get out get out I need to GET OUT.

Army-crawling backward, I feel the threshold under my toes. Good. Only a few more steps and I can close the door on this nightmare—

Where the hell is the door?

I glance up and scream as six crows swoop me at once. I need to close this room now. Another crow dive-bombs my face, cawing loudly in my ear. They’re angry. There are a dozen angry crows attacking my head and I need to close this damn door.

Is this why the collective noun for crows is a murder? Because homicidal crows enjoy killing hapless TV-baking-show contestants? I knew this stupid show was a mistake. I knew it would be a capital-D Debacle.

I didn’t think it would end with me getting my eyes pecked out.

Wings flap all around me as I try to protect my head, crawling around the floor to grab at the door. A bird lands on my back and something hard whacks down on my spine. I grunt, falling flat on my face.

“Sorry!” Gus shouts. Then he screams like banshee. “Away! Get away! Ahhyiiiiiii!” Something whooshes above me as he swings—yep, he’s swinging a broom—in the doorway as the crows flap angrily just out of reach.

My hand finally finds the doorknob and I start shuffling back, still on my knees as I use my other hand to protect my face.

“Hurry!” Gus swings the broom again. “I’m dropping back. Close the door. Jen, what the hell are you doing, close the door!”

“I’m trying, damn it!” I shout into the arm shielding my face, moving back one knee-length at a time as I try to get this stupid door closed on these stupid territorial crows.

The biggest crow—the one by the door that first warned me when I entered—uses Gus’s retreat to make one last desperate attempt to kill me. It swoops at my head, its beak pecking at my skull as I screech, diving backward and pulling the door closed with me. My back slams onto the hard timber floor as I fall down and smack the back of my head, groaning as the world whirls around me.

I blink, staring at the ceiling. My heart is a drum beating inside my chest, my breaths short and sharp.

What. The. Actual. Hell?

I lift my head and see Gus leaning against the wall, panting, the broom clutched in his hands like a lifeline. He lets out a hard breath and shakes his head. “I hate birds.” He closes his eyes and rests the back of his head against the wall.

The noise of cawing and flapping wings is only slightly muffled by the door. I wonder if I should lock it, then shake my head to dispel the thought. Crows are smart, but they can’t open doors.

…Can they?

Huffing, I lift myself up to my elbows and survey the damage. My hands are full of red scratch marks, with blood beading along two particularly deep gouges. Twin black feathers cling to my pants, and when I reach up to touch the matted mess of hair on my head, I groan.

Blood smears on my fingertips tell me the final attack on my scalp did some damage.

Pounding footsteps on the stairs make me turn my head to see two paramedics—one man and one woman—rushing up with all their gear. They kneel next to me and start asking me questions and inspecting my injuries.

“I’m fine.” I groan as I sit up. “But you’d better call the local Audubon society to take care of those crows.”

“The what society?” Gus pulls a nearby chair over and sinks into it.

“Bird people,” I answer with a sigh as the female paramedic starts cleaning the wound on my head.

Gus just shudders.

“Crows get a bad rap, but they’re supposedly really intelligent,” I say.

Gus stares at me. “Why are you defending them? They just tried to kill you.” Gus gives me the oddest look, like he might be regretting his choice to bet on me.

I close my eyes as the paramedic cleans the cut on my hand. “True.”

Once I’m tidied up and the paramedics are sure I’m not going to keel over and die, I push myself to my feet and stare at the door, then swing my eyes to Gus. “What now?”

He taps the headset and jerks his thumb to the stairs. “Just got confirmation to move you to a guesthouse. It’s on the other side of the barn. Apologies, Jen, but you’ll have to share. The team is organizing a cot.” He looks at his watch. “We’re supposed to start the pre-competition interviews with all the contestants in ten minutes, but I think we can delay that to allow you time to shower and get yourself settled on account of the crows.” He pauses and shakes his head. “I’ve worked in television for eight years, but that is not a sentence I ever thought I’d say.”

I nod, already exhausted. The competition hasn’t even started yet, but I’m already feeling like this was a bad, bad idea.

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