Excerpt from Big Sweet Love
Pick up your crap. Tonight.
Angie set her cup onto the rectangular saucer, covering the depiction of the tiny brown bean being ground into a heap of coffee—the logo of the coffee shop that had quickly become her Sunday afternoon hotspot—and stared at her cell phone as another message slid onto the screen.
I need the space.
So much for Josh’s promise to love her forever. In the end, “forever” had been another five weeks and two months later someone else was moving in.
Why else would he need space? Josh didn’t have siblings. Or buddies, for that matter. He did, however, seem to have found a replacement for his ex.
Angie waited for the pang of hurt, disappointment, at least regret, to cut through the steady hum of Ground Bean customers chatting animatedly behind her. In reality she felt nothing. Nothing besides annoyance that he was putting her into a tight spot. Again.
Where was she supposed to find free storage space this late on a Sunday afternoon? Surely he didn’t expect her to cram two hundred pounds of clutter into her new shoebox of an apartment that she had to rent because he refused to move out of their conveniently subsidized university accommodation.
Or maybe he presumed she would just load up one of her good old friends?
Ha. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so hell-bent on taking up every last second of her time while they were together, she would actually have good old friends in this strange city they called the Big Apple.
Knowing Josh, he hadn’t even thought about the predicament he was putting her into when he made the request for her to clear out her stuff. Selfish and lazy were Josh’s middle names.
His only redeeming quality was that he was an honest jerk. Angie had known exactly what she was getting herself into when she had agreed to go steady with him at the beginning of their undergraduate studies. Cooking, cleaning, on-demand sex. Josh liked the benefits a girlfriend came with. And Angie? Well, she had put up with everything from him just because he accepted her curves.
Angie popped another one of the mini macaroons that were sitting artfully arranged on a matching rectangular plate in front of her into her mouth and chewed the raspberry-flavored treat pensively. Thinking about her less-than-ideal weight always affected her appetite in a rather counterproductive way. It was a disposition that neither her parents, nor her previous boyfriends, had ever understood. Emotional eaters lived in a perpetual catch-22 situation.
Maybe she was too hard on Josh. At least he had had the good grace to keep his mouth shut when she had emptied a full carton of chocolate-chip ice cream just because her favorite author had killed off her favorite hero in her favorite serial.
If she were literarily instead of artistically gifted, she’d probably say he had given her back her faith in mankind. There were guys out there who preferred women with character rather than beauty. Especially if the woman in question knew how to use a feather duster and could be talked into wearing a French Maid costume on occasion—anything to cover her less than flattering love handles.
As it was, Angie was better with a paint brush than words.
Thankfully Josh didn’t require her to wax poetic. A simple acknowledgement that she would be there tonight would do.
Angie sucked a bright pink spot that the raspberry filling had left on her finger and contemplated her options.
She could temporarily cram the boxes into her apartment, if she could stomach crawling over an obstacle course on her way out the door, for the next few days. Ugh. Not her idea of a good morning. She would need to find something more permanent soon. Her parents’ place was out of the question. All of her family lived back in her native Scotland. Thank God.
Perhaps she could ask one of the pole dance girls to help her out.
The thought of the group of six that Angie had met during the Beginners class at Crystal’s pole dance studio over two months ago instantly lightened her unusually solemn mood.
The company of the girls was like a breath of fresh air after years of near isolation, acting as Josh’s live-in housekeeper. They actually made working out fun, something Angie had never thought possible. Something she hadn’t expected when she had followed up on the ad she had seen on TV.
Tired of punishing herself and her oversized hips in the gym every week—who wanted to don boring sneakers to run on a treadmill when she could wear glitzy high-heels climbing a pole?—she had signed up to try the fitness craze. After getting her first taste of pole teacher Ruby’s special brand of warm-up, she had almost given up. But she had endured the first class, then braved the second, surprised that she was actually starting to enjoy herself. By the third class she had known she would stick around and had even managed to shed some weight. Unfortunately her high had lasted only until that night. Josh had broken up with her, and although Angie wasn’t crying after their relationship, she hadn’t dealt well with Josh’s inflexibility that had threatened to land her on the street. By week eight—the end of their Beginners course—she had managed to secure a tiny place in an apartment block not far from her university, but she had gained a whopping three pounds in the process. She had celebrated the sad realization that she had ruined yet another chance to become the slender beauty she had always dreamt of being with her first Sunday visit to the Ground Bean.
But even though pole dancing hadn’t proved to be the magical solution to her weight problems Angie had hoped for, there had been no question whether she would sign up for the second level course at Crystal’s. If swinging from a metal rod meant more liveliness and laughter with young women her age, she was going to class until she fell off the pole from arthritis. Especially if Lexa, a twenty-two-year-old, newly enamored dance student, organized more “after pole class get-togethers.”
That reminded Angie, didn’t Lexa move out of her roommate’s apartment and didn’t Molly refuse to let someone else move in? Something about not being compatible with other personalities. As far as Angie was concerned, Molly Rogers had too much money.
Good for Angie though, if Molly agreed to store Angie’s mute and characterless boxes in Lexa’s old room.
Angie pursed her lips. It didn’t hurt to ask. Contrary to Molly, she didn’t have money to throw around. Not even for renting storage space.
Although Angie could rely on her parents to transfer a fairly large amount of cash to her bank account every month—a cash flow that would dry up as soon as she graduated, as her mother liked to remind her—she had always been conscious about saving where she could. Living in New York was expensive and there was no guarantee she would earn anything as an unestablished artist after she finished her studies. It was only prudent to accumulate a stash of monetary reserves now, in case she struggled to find a temporary job that covered all her expenses later.
Resolving to speak to Lexa first—it would probably be better to approach Molly through her long-time friend—Angie finally relaxed back in the comfortably worn leather seat.
She had a plan. And she didn’t have to be at Josh’s for another two hours. The second level, Sophomore pole dance course started on Tuesday. All in all, life was good.
Especially when one gorged oneself on the near-perfect creations of The Dessert God.
Angie picked up another raspberry macaroon from her plate to nibble on and allowed her gaze to drift to the tall figure standing behind the counter of the coffee shop, serving customers with the ever-present smile on his handsome face.
Edward Daniels. Fantasy lover and drop-dead-gorgeous owner of the Ground Bean. Angie had developed somewhat of an obsession with the guy since the first time the pole girls had forced her into the little coffee shop to celebrate the successful completion of their Beginners course. Nobody had needed to force her since. If the cupcake Edward had personally served her that day hadn’t swayed her, and—who was she kidding?—she’d had the first chocogasm of her life, his voice alone could have done the trick. Smooth and rich, like the desserts he created, she’d been melting faster than butter in a pan.
Edward looked up at that moment and Angie gave him a wink, watching a familiar red flush creep into his cheeks. He was adorable to watch when he floundered. Even after three weeks of teasing him, she still couldn’t believe that he could be flustered by her boldness. This Adonis who could snap his fingers and have women at his feet was clearly at a loss when it came to handling public flirting. The thought was puzzling and flattering at the same time. Did the women in this city have no sense for adventure? Surely one or two of them must have tried their luck before.
Over the rim of her coffee cup, Angie saw Edward motion for an employee to take over the counter and anticipation fluttered in her belly. In a minute or two he would amble over to her, taking the time to speak to regulars in passing. It was the first thing Angie had noticed about him. He always seemed to have an open ear for the wishes and concerns of the people around him. He was one of the most relatable business owners she had ever met. The more she got to know him, the more she admired him. And there was a whole lot to admire about Edward Daniels.
Her mouth went dry as he approached, his full lips tilted in a lopsided grin. His green apron with the coffee-shop logo hugged his lean hips and emphasized his broad-shouldered frame. His brown-blond hair, too long to defy gravity on its own, was mussed up just enough to look effortlessly sexy. His eyes were a color Angie had never seen in her life, a mottled combination of brown and blue. They were set off by two dark slashes of eyebrows and a designer stubble that covered his jawline, cheeks, and upper lip. He looked as delicious as anything he put on her plate. And just like the sweets he created for a living, he should be strictly off limits for Angie.
Guys like him didn’t date girls like her, even if she had jokingly proclaimed during their first meeting that a woman was always in a relationship with her main chocolate provider.
He was too tall, too good-looking, too freaking lean. Jaguar, meet hippo. It would never work.
But Angie could dream, and dreamt she had. More nights than she could count or cared to admit. About his voice, his hands. His kissable mouth.
“Do you like my treats?” that same mouth inquired at this moment, the low timbre of his baritone voice sliding effortlessly under her skin.
Angie felt her insides clench in response.
She swallowed the last bit of her—his—macaroon and reminded herself that he wasn’t flirting. He never did. Public space and all. His not-quite-innocent question was simply his way of making sure that she would come back a week from now. His business hinged on his good rapport with his customers. All customers. That didn’t mean she should hold back.
Pushing his buttons was like an instant energy boost. A delicious zing that bounced around her body for hours. It was probably also as close as she would ever get to acting on her attraction to this man.
Deciding she deserved a little cheering up after the annoyance that had been Josh’s texts, Angie smoothed her hair, exposing her neck where she had fantasized about feeling Edward’s lips and looked at him from underneath her lashes. “If I say yes, will you treat me some more?”
His chuckle raised goose-bumps all over her skin. Then he surprised her by leaning in to whisper in her ear. “I’ll treat you any way you like.”
Angie sucked in a breath, his unique scent of sugar and orange peel tickling her nose. Her thighs pressed together. A shiver worked down her spine. “You’re a bad boy,” she breathed.
“You have no idea,” Edward murmured, sending more delicious heat curling low in her belly. “I’ll show you how bad exactly. Just say the word, Angel.”
What the… Angie swiveled her head. Was he coming on to her?
But Edward had already straightened, looking once again perfectly innocent. “I’ll get you some more macaroons on the house.”
Angie watched him retreat and shook herself, wondering if she had imagined the whole exchange. Wondering who was floundering now.
So much for not flirting with her. After three weeks of letting her think he was easily flustered, he had turned the tables on her with no effort at all. The man could talk.
She took a sip of cool water, suppressing the urge to fan herself.
Just say the word, Angel.
Her nan was right. Silent waters did run deep. And what was she supposed to do now? No way could she take him up on the offer. No way couldn’t she.
Before Angie could come to a conclusion on how to deal with this new side of Edward—a side that she had never expected, but one that set her whole body to tingling—she saw a woman intercept Edward, her long-limbed shape punctuated by a tailored business suit. Her ash blond hair was pulled back into a severe ponytail. Her weight balanced out at an exact size zero. She looked perfectly proportioned. Perfectly put together. And one hundred percent perfectly boring.
Angie’s eyes narrowed as Edward grabbed the woman’s elbow and steered her past the crowd in front of the counter.
What did he want with little Miss Perfect? Surely the colorless stick wasn’t his girlfriend. Not after the proposition he had just delivered. A proposition that had sounded an awful lot as if he would like to handle her in the most delicious sense of the word. The thought made Angie uncommonly giddy and way more excited than was warranted under the Jaguar-Hippo clause.
She shook herself again to wipe the stupid grin off her face and shifted surreptitiously to keep the couple in her sight as Edward steered them toward a quiet table not far from her own.
As always, Angie sat close to the kitchen door. She liked hearing the bustle of activity inside. She liked the smells of baking wafting in her direction. She most certainly liked Edward’s deep voice as he gave instructions to his crew.
Right now, though, she most loved the fact that she must have become an accessory in his shop. Someone who could be trusted to overhear a business meeting. Because it was business that had brought the walking ad of a slimming agent here. Of that Angie was certain as soon as the woman addressed him as Mr. Daniels.
Angie repositioned her chair to catch as much of the conversation as she could, while trying to appear immersed in the information scrolling on her cell phone’s screen.
“I’ve put together a folder with ‘possibles.’” The woman handed over a tablet and Angie thought she saw a flash of a model’s face.
Edward swiped his finger over the touchscreen, his eyes studying the gallery of pictures intently. His brows drew together, his mouth set into a thin, flat line.
Angie’s fingers curled with the urge to grab her sketching paper out of her bag. She had severely underestimated the man. There was so much more to Edward Daniels than she had suspected so far.
Gone was the easygoing people-pleaser who reeled all his customers in with his too-big heart. Gone was also the dirty-talking seducer, who had made Angie flush hot and cold while he had cleared her table as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
In his stead was a determined businessman with an implacable will, who obviously hadn’t gotten what he had asked for.
There was a whole range of emotions buried under the imperturbable façade that Edward usually allowed people to see, and now that Angie knew what was bubbling under that calm surface of his, the painter in her itched to discover it all.
The woman in her was even more curious. But that was dangerous territory. So Angie focused back on safer ground. Like her year-end project for the university. A study of complex personalities in oil paintings would be perfect.
The Hundred Faces of Edward Daniels.
“They won’t do.” Edward shook his head, snapping Angie out of her runaway thoughts.
He handed back the device to Miss Perfect, who didn’t look quite so perfect anymore with a harrowed brow.
The woman exhaled a panicked sigh. “This is the third time you are throwing back our choices.”
“It is the third time you’re suggesting a model with their hip-bones and spine sticking out can make people believe they’re enjoying my desserts.”
“But they could.”
Angie snorted, then quickly coughed when both occupants shot her a glance.
“Sort it out,” Edward growled, and that growl did something wicked to Angie’s insides.
“Mr. Daniels,” the woman said, sounding decidedly unsettled. “We’ve tried to sort it out for the past two months. We have always worked so well together, but after losing Avery—” She twisted her hands when Edward flinched. “All I’m saying is that it seems particularly difficult this year.”
“It’s your job. You’re telling me you can’t find a single person people can actually relate to for my marketing campaign?” Edward asked incredulously, careful to keep his voice from rising. “Look at my customers.” He waved a hand around the room. “How difficult can it be to find someone like them?”
The woman blinked before relief transformed her features. “This is a brilliant idea, Mr. Daniels. To search for the next face of the Ground Bean right here. A modeling contest among your customers will be great publicity. Ordinary people love to do extraordinary things.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Edward shook his head, but the woman was clearly sold on the idea. Or maybe she was just sold on finding a solution before Edward threatened to terminate the contract.
“I can send you our specifications in terms of what we need for the photo shoot later this evening. Everyone meeting the criteria can sign up. We set up a panel and determine the person best suitable during a one-day audition. As a general rule of thumb, I’m thinking female, between five foot three and five foot seven. No more than a hundred and thirty pounds.”
Angie rolled her eyes. Well, that ruled her out then. Not that she intended to sign up for this circus. There was a reason why artists flourished behind the scenes and left the limelight to their work. But was it too much to ask for a little bit more diversity in marketing campaigns?
Her phone chimed, reminding her that she needed to leave for Josh’s. Just as well. Her close to one hundred and fifty pounds didn’t need the extra calories she would ingest with all the on-the-house treats Edward had promised.
She grabbed her bag and took one last glance at the Dessert God.
Just say the word, Angel.
Angie felt another flutter of excitement tightening her insides. Unless, of course, the treats were of a different variety altogether.