Trace Hutton struggled to focus on the rough-hewn stone in his hand as he back-buttered the small slab with cement, but all he could think about was Avery playing with icing downstairs. And how he wished he were playing with her.
The warm scent of chocolate and spice floated up from the partially remodeled kitchen, sweet and infinitely tempting, just like the café’s owner. In his mind, the cement in his trough turned to icing, the stone transformed into Avery’s naked body, and his hands replaced the trowel and controlled the frosting.
“Thinkin’ with the wrong head again.” He used both hands and a sharp eye to settle the stone atop the last, building the fireplace hearth, stone by stone.
An upbeat song from Lifehouse echoed through the unfinished space, its lyrics filled with hope and talk of fresh starts. That’s what this project was about for both him and Avery—the perfect opportunity for each of them to give their lives a boost.
Too bad that boost didn’t include a hot hookup between the good girl and the ex-con, because all he’d been able to think about for weeks was licking buttercream frosting or melted chocolate or caramel whipped cream—really, any of the mouthwatering fillings she created—off her equally delicious body.
His watch chimed, dragging Trace from his fantasies and reminding him of his father’s medical appointment. Trace glanced over the hearth, only half-finished. Damn, there just wasn’t enough time in the day. He still had so much to do to get this place ready for Avery’s opening, just a few short weeks away. The invisible vise cranked a little tighter, giving him a fresh perspective on the concept of time crunch.
Trace was able to lay four more stones before his watch chimed again, signaling he had twenty minutes to swing home, pick up his dad, and get him to his doctor down the street. Totally doable if his dad was in a cooperative mood. If not . . .
Trace checked the last stone he placed with his level. Sweat trickled down his bare chest. This Northern California Indian summer was killing him. It was almost November, for God’s sake. He cleaned up his supplies, washed off in the upstairs bathroom—yet another “to finish” on his list—and trotted down the stairs to check on the guys he’d hired to install the booths in the café’s main seating area.
The scent of home-baked chocolaty goodness drew his gaze toward the baking area on his way past. In addition to the full kitchen in the back, Avery had wanted a central area where she could bake in full sight of customers. So Trace had created a secondary kitchen for her consisting of a large butcher block with a small inset of marble. As soon as her appliances came in, she’d have an oven, fridge, and sink against the back wall, effectively separating the cooking and baking areas.
To keep debris out of the area so Avery could continue working during most of the construction, he’d installed thick plastic sheets from floor to ceiling, with one entrance held shut by Velcro. Through the murky panels, Trace saw Avery swaying and singing along to her preferred music, a mix of pop and country.
He paused to watch her, loving the way she sang and danced a little, then refocused and became intensely still as she put piping tip to cupcake. A furrow of concentration between her brows, she assessed the next cupcake like an artist looking at a blank canvas. She twisted her pastry bag and bent toward the counter.
Trace’s devilish streak sizzled across his shoulders. Grinning, he slapped the plastic aside, ripping the Velcro open. “Hey, Snickerdoodle, how are you doing?”
Avery startled. Her hands slipped, and icing squirted onto the stainless steel counter. “Dammit, Trace. How many times have I told you—”
As she caught his grin, her frustration turned hot. She aimed her pastry bag at him and squeezed. Icing shot across the space, splattering his abdomen in a cold blast.
Shock tripped Trace back a step with a laugh. Arms lifted out to the sides, he looked down at the gooey mess and laughed harder. That wickedly playful move was not what he’d expected, but the longer he spent around this woman, the more she surprised him.
Avery looked a little surprised, too, her cheeks turning a deeper pink. But she was laughing. “You deserve it. You can be such a little shit.”
Trace approached the counter, swiping a finger full of icing off his gut. “Is this royal or cream cheese? Because you know I hate royal.”
The way she pressed her lips together in annoyed humor told him it was cream cheese, and with a laugh of triumph he sucked the icing off his finger. But this wasn’t just cream cheese frosting. She’d added spices that made him hum with pleasure.
Her hair was up in a messy bun with wisps falling around her face and neck, and she looked absolutely adorable.
She smiled, her light-blue eyes twinkling. “You ass.”
“Just part of my charm.” He reached for the cupcake she’d messed up. “Guess that’s going to have to be donated to the less fortunate.”
She smacked his hand hard, the sting singing through his skin.
He pulled back but remained poised to grab the treat, and he leveled a look at her. “You’re feisty today. Am I going to have to fight you for that? ’Cause I was quite the wrestler in high school. My moves combined with all the icing around here . . .” He added a teasing warning to his voice. “It could get really messy, really fast.”
“Maybe you will.” She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. The look she gave him—as if she were seriously considering—shot a little thrill through his chest. “I should fight you for it on principle alone.”
Oh, the images that flashed in his head . . .
But he just wasn’t that lucky, and this project was just too important to both of them to mess it up with flirtation gone wild.
Trace purposely brought the teasing back to a respectable level. “But you won’t because you know it’s late, you know I’ve got to be starving, and you know I won’t have time to stop for lunch today.”
Her gaze darted to the clock on the wall, and her humor faded. “Oh my God, it is late.”
She wiped her hands on her apron and turned toward the old fridge. Trace took the opportunity to grab the ruined cupcake while her back was turned. This batch was for a bridal shower / wedding-cake-tasting party, so he knew they would be her best. And after working around Avery seven days a week for two months, Trace knew she made twice as many of everything as she actually needed. So he didn’t feel bad about stripping the wrapper and stuffing half of the cake into his mouth.