by Amy Knupp
Former marketing whiz Kennedy Lowell knows bartending isn’t her destiny. After derailing her life to epic proportions in one fell swoop, though, she’s content with the easy refuge of pouring drinks and keeping to herself. But the arrival of her sexy new boss and two wannabe friends who won’t take no for an answer throws Kennedy into a tailspin. Add the temptation of a homey new bakery desperately in need of a marketing genius and Kennedy begins to wonder if easy is all it’s cracked up to be.
Easy is Hunter Clayborne’s middle name. Uncomplicated is what he expects when he moves home to Nashville to take over the family business. What he finds, though, is the polar opposite of easy—a bar losing money, a family entrenched in doing things the old-fashioned way, and an irresistible redheaded bartender who keeps him at a cool distance in spite of their sizzling mutual attraction.
There’s nothing simple about the chemistry between Kennedy and Hunter. But sometimes, if you can work your way out of your comfort zone, that’s when you just might find your sweet spot.
By Amy Knupp
Kennedy Lowell was in it for real now. And though the evening had been gratifying and exciting, she kind of wanted to puke if she thought too hard about it.
What the ever-loving hell had she been thinking? She'd committed, just today, to at least a year at this brand-spanking-new bakery. She didn't bake, and rarely in her thirty-one years—if ever—had she succumbed to whimsy or external pressure, no matter how logical or impassioned a person's arguments might be.
And then she'd met Violet Calloway and Ivy Gibson. Crazy cousins who'd drawn her into their world.READ MORE
She'd barely known them when Violet had come up with the idea to open a bakery in the old building her father had willed her. Violet and Ivy had involved her in the conversation—and the plans—then and countless times after. Violet had found out Kennedy had a marketing background, and she'd gradually lured Kennedy in by repeatedly asking for advertising and social media advice.
Fast-forward a few weeks—weeks, for god's sake—and here she stood in the retail part of Sugar Babies Sweet Shop, still reeling from tonight's uber-successful grand opening party.
With the attention-grabbing curved front counter, the pale-gold tin ceiling tiles, the custom wood shelves along the side, and the beautiful bay window that jutted out toward the sidewalk on Hale Street, the place was, well, gorgeous. Cozy and quaint, with a touch of historical Nashville grandeur. Violet, who was the brains and driving force behind the bakery, had outdone herself.
Golden-haired Ivy whirled over to Kennedy, laced their arms together, and forced her into a spin move that was as foreign to her as the high-heeled blue Manolo Blahniks she'd borrowed from Violet. The only other person still hanging around was Kennedy's always-supportive brother, Jackson, who watched her and her roommate with an amused smirk, kind of like people got when they were at the zoo and they happened upon the orangutan cage just as the apes were making babies.
Kennedy wasn't a whirler or a twirler. She had her ways, her comfort zone, which was, admittedly, sort of narrow. Some might call her rigid. And Violet and Ivy had pegged her with the nickname Prickly Pear—lovingly, they assured her.
After an awkward two rotations, Kennedy managed to disengage herself and smile. Because Ivy was on top of the world, and she deserved to be.
"They ate it up!" Ivy said, laughing, everything about her, from her backless, super-short, gold party dress to her multiple rings on her fingers, sparkling. "Every last bit of it."
"All fifty dozen mini-desserts." Kennedy twisted a strand of her hair, which was pulled to the side in a fancy work of art courtesy of Ivy, around her finger and edged toward one of the two long tables that had replaced the day-to-day café tables for the evening and been laden with stunning confections that tasted like ambrosia.
"Hell of a grand opening, girls," Jackson said. "You deserve to celebrate. But where'd your third go?"
"Violet's with Nick. We literally had to push her out the door. I think she'd sleep in here if she could," Kennedy said.
"I imagine they're doing their own private version of celebrating," Ivy said. "Double celebrating. They seemed so happy. And not just bakery-grand-opening happy, if you know what I mean." More than likely, it was I-love-this-man-so-much-I-defied-my-mom-to-be-with-him happy. Ivy glided off toward the serving table across the room and started clearing away the empty dessert platters. Kennedy did the same at the other. "There's hardly any crumbs left. And the lemon-blueberry layer cake … I wasn't sure about that, but it was the first to run out."
"Lemon-blueberry? That'll teach me to show up late," Jackson said. Even though his styled light brown hair added a good inch to his six-foot height, the sparkle in his eyes at the mention of his favorite cake reminded Kennedy of the little-boy version of him. "Have any hidden away in back?"
"No, but if you're nice, I'll make sure Kennedy saves you a piece the next time I make it."
"But you'll have to pay for it like everyone else," Kennedy said, smiling and nudging her brother. She set the stack of platters on the counter, then removed the stunning centerpiece—a mix of vibrant deep purple and delicate lavender flowers interwoven with teal ribbons, the bakery's colors. "Every single last one of your creations was out of this world, Ivy." She said this as an authority, as she, personally, had sampled them all as soon as they'd come out of the oven. File it under research. "You, more than anyone, made this a success."
"What?" Ivy spun around and shot her a look of disbelief. "Without your genius marketing, no one would've shown up to appreciate my creations. We couldn't have done it without you, Kennedy."
Before Kennedy could respond, Ivy picked up the tower of platters and disappeared into the kitchen.
Jackson pulled Kennedy into his side for a one-armed hug. "Way to go, K."
"Thanks for making it," she said. Their parents had moved to Phoenix five years ago to escape the humidity, so her siblings, Jackson and Sierra, were the lone members of the Lowell clan who'd been able to attend this evening. Sierra had dropped by for a few minutes early in the evening. Seeing Jackson walk in an hour ago had meant the world to Kennedy, especially knowing he'd likely taken a break from work just to show up even though it was now after ten p.m. Jackson and breaks didn't often go together.
"I'm so proud of you," he said. "All three of you."
"I don't really deserve much credit." She removed the trash bag from the receptacle, cinched it, and tied it.
"That's not what I heard. Taking samples to the neighborhood moms' groups and that snooty salon was smart, as was the social media campaign. Nobody could resist the dessert pics you posted every day for the past week."
She checked over her shoulder to make sure they were still alone and lowered her voice. "I'm scared I'm going to screw it all up. But I have ideas." They'd been popping up in her head at all hours, especially in the middle of the night. Who needed sleep anyway? "Violet and Ivy have given me so much—a place to live, a chance to get back into marketing." A chance at real friendships, though she didn't utter that out loud because it was still hard to accept it. Trust it completely. "I need to market Sugar Babies and build up the brand for those two. And to earn my keep."
"You will. Not a doubt in my mind." Jackson pressed a brotherly kiss to the top of her head. "Congratulations, K. I have to go. Still have some paperwork waiting for me, but thanks for giving me an excuse to get out for a while. And eat cupcakes."
Kennedy hugged him tight. "Thanks again. Don't work all night."
Before the tall door could shut all the way, the bells on top jingled again, and in walked Hunter Clayborne, Kennedy's boss at her second job. Well, technically, it was her first. And probably about time to change that, but the thought of letting her bartending job go made her break out in a sweat. Or maybe that was from looking at Hunter…
"Forget something?" she asked casually, trying not to acknowledge how the sight of him made her breath catch in her lungs, even though he'd just walked out fifteen minutes earlier. She'd get used to that soon, she hoped, that adrenaline kick. It'd only been two weeks since he'd officially taken over from his dad, Earl Clayborne, the man she'd worked for at Clayborne's on the Corner for two years plus. Suffice it to say, Mr. Clayborne was more of a father figure, while Hunter was … not, with his model-worthy short, dark hair, perpetually shadowed jaw, bourbon-colored eyes that gave her even more of a kick than her liquor of choice, and his quiet confidence that, it turned out, was super-alluring.
"My car won't start," Hunter said, his attention half on his phone, as if he'd been trying to call someone. "Is Burke still here?"
Kennedy realized she was just standing there, watching Hunter instead of cleaning. She busied herself removing the two tablecloths, one at a time, being careful to wad them inward so the crumbs wouldn't scatter to the floor. "He went out back to take a phone call a few minutes ago. I haven't seen him since. Let's go check."
She led him through the arched doorway to the kitchen, dropping off the tablecloths in the "soiled linens" basket, as Violet called it, that sat on the floor near the foot of the stairs to the apartment the three of them shared. It was the prettiest, daintiest laundry basket Kennedy had ever seen, and she ribbed Violet about it at every opportunity.
Ivy stood at the sink along the left side of the kitchen with her arms elbow-deep in suds.
"I told you and Violet we should've found dishwasher-safe serving dishes instead of antiques," Kennedy said, fully aware that Ivy detested washing dishes.
Ivy scrunched up her face, as if Kennedy had suggested serving sardines alongside the picture-perfect sweets.
"I know," Kennedy said before Ivy could re-lecture her. "'Every single one of these beautiful, unique platters adds character to the table…'"
"Exactly. We won't usually have so many to hand-wash at once. What's up, Hunter? I thought you left."
"I did, Sunshine. Came back to find Burke. Is he out here?" He approached the thick wooden door that went out to the patio and the tiny backyard Ivy, Violet, and Kennedy had nurtured to life.
"He's not," Ivy said. "I saw him heading toward the hotel a few minutes ago."
Kennedy eyed her roommate, looking for a change in expression, even a subtle one. For her to see Burke heading toward the hotel meant she had to have gone out of her way to look, because the backyard was tough to see when it was so dark outside. Visibility would be tricky.
Unless you were really trying.
The question was whether Ivy realized she was doing it or not. Most days, she didn't have much nice to say about Burke Wentworth, the over-serious owner of the Wentworth Hotel at the end of the street.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Ivy asked, and Kennedy pursed her lips against a smile and shook her head.
"Hunter needs a ride home," Kennedy said, picking up the platter Ivy had just rinsed and taking a towel to it. Kennedy's main mode of transportation, a used Diamondback Insight Hybrid bike, was useless in this situation.
"Take Violet's car. I've got this." Ivy nodded at the dishes.
The suggestion caused a flutter in Kennedy's gut, because … being with this vibrant, virile man in the close quarters of a car…
Definitely comfort-zone challenging.
Kennedy glanced at Hunter to see if he'd brush it off and reassure her that Burke would come to his rescue, but he looked up from his phone with his brows raised and his eyes piercing her with a hint of hope in them.
"I … could do that," she said.
"Her spare keys are in her desk drawer."
"You don't think Violet would mind me driving her car?"
"She would definitely be in favor." Ivy sent a weighty though brief look toward Hunter's back as he pressed his hand and face against the glass and peered outside one more time. Kennedy chose to ignore Ivy's look.
The guy needed a ride. He'd been supportive of the bakery and its grand opening even when it meant Kennedy had had to be a few minutes late to the bar twice in the past week. Driving him home was the least she could do.
No big deal.
When he turned and met her gaze, there was a jolt to her gut, as if she'd taken a kick to the solar plexus, and she had to remind herself to breathe in.
Kennedy ducked into the office and found the keys to Violet's Volvo, then took a second to coach her heart to stop racing.
With one last deep inhale, she stepped back into the bright kitchen. "I'll be home in a few to help you finish," she told Ivy.
"Oh, no need, sweets. You take your time. I won't wait up." The expressive rise of her perfectly plucked brows made Kennedy's neck heat up in spite of the air-conditioned air.
Maybe as damage control, or maybe as an attempt to convince herself how not a big deal it was, Kennedy raised her chin, stood tall, and walked as gracefully as she could in her heels up to Hunter as if she were completely unbothered. Then, possibly because her comfort level had already been blown to smithereens, she held her elbow out to him and waited for him to lock his with hers. When he did, she kept up her false confidence façade and said, "Okay, then. Let's do this."
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