Valentine's Day, with Jack and Gabriel from SUGAR CRUSH


At every floorboard creak, swinging gate hinge, and faint tapping of a tree branch against a windowpane, he tensed. He sat with his back to the wall, broken and bleeding, tire iron in his hand, senses on alert, adrenaline racing through his blood. Alone, but not alone. Not from the sound of footsteps growing closer. Gathering his courage and channeling his rage, he readied for one final battle.


Jack ended the chapter there. Rocking the chair onto its back legs, he read through the last page he’d written. As he’d promised Gabriel months ago, the hero of this story abhorred all things horror, just like the love of Jack’s life.

He reached for a mug of coffee he’d long since drained, frowned to find it empty, and rolling his shoulders, stood.


The warm and quiet kitchen had been his writing spot since he rose at seven-thirty to a Good morning, Happy Valentine’s Day text from Gabe, and had stumbled into the kitchen for coffee.


They hadn’t seen each other in over a week. Jack’s deadline had kept him chained to his laptop and Gabriel had been pulling in some extra shifts at the bakery and spending his nights helping Ryan and Everson with their final wedding preparations and last-minute tasks.


But like all good stories with happy endings, he’d finally get to see Gabe in late afternoon. Gabe was coming by to get ready for the wedding and pick up Jack so they could travel together. And then he’d have Gabe to himself for the whole weekend.


He couldn’t wait.


The doorbell rang. Jack glanced at the time. 1pm. Would that be another special delivery?


The dozen roses adorning Jack’s coffee table had arrived at nine AM. The bouquet of multi-colored cake pops on the kitchen counter had arrived at ten. The dozen heart-shaped balloons weighed down by a bag of conversation hearts had arrived at eleven. The box of strawberry and cream macarons on the table behind his laptop and the special anniversary edition with director’s cut and commentary of Jack’s favorite horror movie had arrived at noon.


He opened the door and grimaced at the fierce, biting wind and frigid temperature. Shane Brennan stood on the second step, bundled in a huge coat and Philadelphia Frenzy winter hat, holding two large Bliss Bakery bags and a drink carrier with two coffees.


Jack’s brows drew together as he motioned his best friend inside. “I didn’t expect to see you today. Figured you would be busy with wedding stuff.”


“I stopped by the bakery to pick up some cookies and cupcakes for all of the people filling my dad’s house, and Gabe asked me to deliver this to you on my way home.” He held out one of the bags.


“More presents?” Surprise shot through him and he dragged his hands through his hair before taking the bag from Shane. “He’s been sending me stuff all day.”


“I figured that from the stuff in the living room and in here. I’m not surprised. He said he felt bad about you guys not being able to see each other this week.” Shane set the drink tray on the table. “You get one of the coffees too.”


“I could use a caffeine hit. Can you stay for a few minutes?”


“I’ve got some time. Wouldn’t mind some quiet.” Shane tossed his hat and gloves onto the table and hung his coat on the back of a chair. He pulled the two coffees from the tray, handed one to Jack, and then sat and took a long drink from his own coffee.


“And from that, I’m guessing your day has been anything but quiet.”


“Try the past few days. Ryan took extra shifts at the gym to make up for being out next week for the honeymoon, but since I’ve been off, my dad’s had me running around either picking wedding guests up from the airport or taking them out for site-seeing. His house has been filled with people all week. Today, everyone’s hanging out there.”


“I’m sorry. Here, have a macaron. No one makes them like Gabe.” He pushed the box in Shane’s direction. “How are Ryan and Everson holding up? Any wedding day jitters?”


“Ryan’s a little hyper, worrying about something going wrong now that they’ve issued the wind advisory and are calling for freezing rain tonight, but Leo’s been good at calming him down. Everson seems as cool as ever. Xavier and a few of their teammates are there. I think trading stories about football games and injuries is helping keep him relaxed.”


Jack glanced out the window at the overcast sky. “Hopefully the bad weather holds off until after the ceremony.”


“The last thing we need is icy roads and sidewalks.”


As if on cue, the wind whistled, rattling the windows. Jack sipped his coffee, glad to be inside the house, safe and warm. “That ice storm last year took out power lines and turned the streets into a skating rink. Breaking a bone or having a car accident tonight would suck for the wedding guests.”


Shane grunted his assent and snagged one of the cookies from the box. “You and Gabe are still staying the night at the hotel, right?”


A Friday night wedding, on Valentine’s Day, at a boutique hotel in Center City, where he and Gabe had a room reserved, would be the perfect start to their own celebration. “Actually, I changed it to the whole weekend. I thought it would be nice. I’ve been working hard, and he’s been working hard, and a weekend away, even if it is in the same city, seemed like a good idea. And now, with the weather, I’m glad we won’t have to venture outside until Sunday afternoon.”


“Lucky. I’ll be shuttling people around the city all weekend.” Shane gestured to the bag he’d given Jack. “Gabe said that he’d be home in a few hours, but you should open that now.”


Jack pulled out the bakery’s tissue paper stamped with yellow cupcakes. Inside the bag lay a square bakery box and a large envelope. He set the envelope on the table and then opened the box. The scent of chocolate wafted toward him from an oversized cupcake covered with a cloud of white frosting and a sprinkling of red and pink hearts. A tiny card fluttered to the table. For us, for sharing, for later.


The smile that stretched across his face couldn’t be stopped. He gazed at the cupcake, picturing Gabe swirling the frosting from a piping bag, and the way his head tilted and he bit his lip when studying a finished product. The way the muscles in his forearms bunched… A throat clearing pulled Jack’s attention back to his surrounding. Cheeks heated, he glanced at Shane. “What?”


Arms crossed over his chest and eyes twinkling with his smile, Shane ate the other half of his cookie. “It’s just good to see you happy. I’m so glad things are working out with you guys.”


“I’m lucky I found him, and I’m lucky that he loves me too.” He set the cupcake box on the table, then opened the envelope. The top of a large red heart peeked out. He carefully pulled it free.


The heart-shaped Valentine constructed of thick, embossed paper, had elaborate cut-outs to resemble lace. Gabe’s handwriting filled the heart’s center. He’d transcribed Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…


Jack’s gaze roamed the paper, taking in the words, warmth washed through him and tears pricked behind his eyes. Gabe loved him. Truly.


He turned the card over and on the back, at the bottom, written in Gabe’s script: Made with love, from Gabriel.

Jack blinked at the words. Gabe had handmade this beautiful creation???


Suddenly, the card Jack had bought—propped on the living room coffee table with his own gifts—didn’t seem nearly as special as it had earlier. Neither did the gifts. There were only two. Nowhere near the level that Gabe had been showering on him all day. What if Gabriel found his efforts lacking? What if Gabe misread those efforts and thought Jack didn’t care as deeply as he did?


Worry and desperation hung heavy on his shoulders. Shaking his head, he looked at Shane. “I wasn’t sure what to do or how big to go for our first Valentine’s Day together. But what I’ve done isn’t nearly enough.”


Shane’s brows drew together as he stared at the Valentine, then at the cupcake box. “You could make him something now."


Making something, crafting it with his own hands, just as Gabe had done, could help make up for it. But what? "Gabe will be home in a couple of hours. That doesn’t leave much time.”


He traced his finger over the sonnet. He was a horror novelist, not a poet. But he could talk about the eyes that always captivated him, and the way that the way Gabe’s smile lit up not only his face, but the entire room. And how Gabe was a soft place to land and also a tower of strength. All things he’d planned to say to the love of his life when they were alone in the hotel room that night, wrapped up in each other.


Shane picked up his coffee again. “Food always seems to be a good idea. Ryan offered to cook breakfast for everyone today. He made Everson heart-shaped pancakes. The rest of us got regular round ones.”


Laughing, Jack laid the Valentine on the table. “I’m sorry. Want me to make you some special pancakes sometime?”


Mouth quirking, Shane shook his head. “I’m good. But you could bake something for Gabe.”


“I haven’t tried baking him anything since that failed birthday cake.” He rolled his eyes at the memory. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve cooked dinners and breakfasts. But not desserts. That’s Gabe’s specialty.”


“Then he’d probably appreciate and be surprised by you taking a stab at baking something again.”


Jack rubbed his hand over the back of his neck as the idea rolled around in his mind. “That’s not a bad idea. Maybe cookies? I could handle cookies, right?”


“Sure. I have confidence in your abilities.” Shane’s phone pinged. He pulled it from his coat pocket, barked out a laugh, and then stood. “Ryan’s wondering if I’ve run off with the food. I should head back before he sends out a search party.”


Jack waited while Shane bundled himself into his coat, hat, and gloves, then walked him to the door. “See you tonight.”


“Good luck with the baking. Call Ryan if you need help. He’d probably appreciate the distraction.”


Back in the kitchen, Jack headed for his laptop. A search of Valentine’s Day recipes pulled up dozens of ideas. He amended that to easy Valentine’s recipes, and a photo of sugar cookies cut into heart shapes and decorated with frosting caught his attention. That looked easy enough.


He searched out the contents of his kitchen for the ingredients.


Thanks to Gabriel spending a lot of time at Jack’s home, the fridge and cabinets were stocked with all sorts of flours and oils and sugars and spices. Wanting Gabe to feel comfortable, he’d purchased a standing mixer, gadgets and utensils, baking pans and sheets, dishes, a food processor, and anything that he noticed Gabe using on a regular basis at his own place.


Once all the ingredients were set on the counter, he turned back to his laptop and raised the volume on his playlist for the book’s inspiration. A rioting clash of pipes and drums and electric guitars blasted out. Grinning, he rolled up his sleeves, washed his hands, and got to work blending together butter, sugar, baking soda, salt, eggs, vanilla, and flour.


Per the recipe, the batter had to chill for at least one hour. Then the cookies had to bake, and then cool before they could be decorated. That would be cutting it close. Perhaps he could speed up the process by putting it in the freezer.


He divided the dough into two portions, hoping they would chill faster that way. Covered them, and popped them in the freezer. Then, he set the timer—a winding dial one that was shaped like a cupcake—and then set another timer on his phone as a backup, and dived back into his book.


An hour later, beeping pulled him from the fight between the killer and the hero. He quickly pre-heated the oven and then grabbed the bowls from the freezer. Goosebumps broke out on his skin as the icy cold raced into his hands. He’d seen Gabe roll out dough a number of times, enough to know to flour the surface before he set the first portion of dough down to be rolled.


Rolling the dough proved to be harder than he’d thought. It had thoroughly chilled, but seemed almost stiff. Frowning, he put extra effort into the rolling. He’d followed the recipe exactly. Hopefully, nothing was wrong.


He couldn’t find cookie cutters, so he took a butter knife and cut the hearts freeform. Gabe could probably do that blindfolded and create perfectly symmetrical hearts. Hopefully, Jack’s would pass for artistic.


The recipe called for the baking sheets to be greased or lined. He lined them with paper and transferred the first heart, which ripped in two.




Using a spatula, he managed to move the rest without causing too much damage, but he did have to reshape more than a few. As he worked, his heart pounded and his shoulders grew tight, knotted by stress and concentration.


Finally, he slid both trays into the oven. Rolling his shoulders, he set the timer for ten minutes and picked up his coffee. Time to make the frosting. The recipe seemed easy enough, just some butter, confectioners sugar and vanilla, and the mixer took over, blending far better and quicker, when Jack realized that stirring it by hand wasn’t working.


The cookies in the photo were brightly colored. He dug into the back of the spice cabinet, searching for food coloring. Gabe preferred to tint things using natural flavors and colors when possible, but Jack didn’t have the knowledge to do that or the time to look it up, so food coloring would have to do. They’d used it at Christmas, so it had to be in there somewhere.


The scent of something… odd… hit him. What was that? It smelled like… crayons? Frowning, sniffing harder, he turned away from his search of the cabinet. Cookies shouldn’t smell like that…


He opened the oven door. Smoke hit him along with the stench of acrid-smelling cookies. Coughing, he donned oven mitts, pulled the trays out and dropped them on top of the oven.


This was bad. This was so bad. What had happened?


His heart lurched at the sound of the front door opening then closing.


“Jack?” Gabe’s voice called out. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”


Jack threw the mitts onto the counter, canceled the bake time and turned off the over, and twisted toward the doorway.


Gabe came in, cheeks red from the cold, dressed in a black long sleeve Bliss Bakery T-shirt and jeans. His eyes immediately creased in concern. “What happened?”


“I don’t know. I was trying to bake you cookies, and I ruined them.”


The concern faded as Gabe’s smile bloomed. “You baked cookies for me?”


“I ruined them,” he repeated. “But I don’t know what I did wrong.”


Gabe walked over to inspect the trays. “You used wax paper to line the sheets? You can’t use that, it burns.”


“But I’ve seen you use paper.”


“Parchment paper. It’s not the same thing.”


A tidal wave of embarrassment swept over him. Jack dropped his head, gaze contemplating the floor. Maybe it could swallow him up. “I’m an idiot.”


Gabe closed the distance between them and took hold of Jack’s hands. “No. You’re not.”


“The recipe didn’t say parchment paper. It just said paper. I didn’t know.”


“I still appreciate the thought.” Gabe drew Jack into his arms, against his chest, and Jack inhaled the sugary warmth that was all Gabriel. Sighing, he held on. All day long, this was all he really wanted. Gabe’s echoing sigh, and the gentle hand in Jack’s curls, warmed him.


He turned his head until his lips met Gabe’s. They opened for him, allowing him to take what he needed. When his heartbeat felt steadier, he pulled back and gazed at Gabe’s face. “You did all of these amazing, thoughtful things for me all day.”


Gabriel’s forehead creased as his brows rose. “You liked everything? It wasn’t too much? I was afraid it was overkill, but I couldn’t help myself.”


“I loved it all. And I wanted to do something just as nice for you.”


Gabe resumed the gentle stroking of Jack’s hair. “I, ah, noticed some presents in the living room.”


His shrug was immediate. “They aren’t as good as yours were.”


“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?” But instead of moving away, Gabe stayed where he was and kept Jack in the circle of his arms. “All I wanted for today was to be with you, and I’m getting that right now. Anything else is a bonus. You’re my Valentine, Jack. And you’re perfect.”


The words were a balm. Jack held tight, reveling in the warmth and security and relief.


Gabe glanced as the oven. “We’ll turn on the exhaust fan and put out some cups of vinegar and some baking soda. That will help take the smell out of the air.”


“I’ll crack open the back door and window too.”


After they cleaned up the kitchen, Gabe drew Jack into the living room. “Can I open my presents?”


“Sure.” Jack sat beside Gabe on the couch, resisting the urge to pace as his better half tore into the larger gift.


Gabe peeled away the black paper studded with shiny black hearts and grinned at the pink boxer briefs covered with cupcakes and hearts in various hues of red and white. “I love them.”


He’d thought they would look perfect on Gabe the moment he’d spotted them online. “Do you? They aren’t too silly or stupid or—”


“They’re perfect.” Gabe leaned in and kissed him. “The cupcakes remind me of the red velvet ones you and I made for the holiday party. Remember what we did while the cupcakes were baking?”


His voice had deepened and Jack’s body hardened at the rasp of voice and the memory of Gabe taking him against the counter in the kitchen. His help in the kitchen that day had involved a lot of distracting touches, to the point where want and need had overtaken everything else, dragging Jack and Gabriel into an all-consuming heat and passion. “I remember. I thought of the same thing when I saw them.”


“Did you?” Eyes heavy-lidded, Gabe slid his hand to Jack’s neck and drew him closer for another kiss—a deeper, hotter exploration that lingered and promised and teased. “I’ll think of it every time I wear them.”


Jack blew out a breath. “I’m sure I will too.”


“We’ll have to add to the memories.” Gabe’s thumb swept across the backs of Jack’s fingers, stroking the skin below the knuckles. “What do you say, want to reenact that night?”


His limbs turned liquid and desire heated his blood. Even though the kitchen still smelled like burned plastic, and the cold air seeped in through the windows and door, with that one touch, he was transported to the heat of the kitchen on that cold December day and the way that Gabriel had played his body like the finest instrument. “Do we have time now?”


“I’m thinking of nice and slow, taking my time with you so you know how perfect you are to me.” Gabe’s blue eyes blazed with an intensity that took Jack’s breath away. “Tonight, after the wedding. And again tomorrow. All day tomorrow. Until we leave the hotel on Sunday afternoon. It’s a promise.”


Wishing he could speed time forward, Jack traced a line from Gabe’s beard to his chest. “I can’t wait.”


Gabe sat back and opened the smaller package. Jack watched his face as he unwrapped the wireless ear buds. Gabe’s brows rose and his gaze flew to Jack’s. “No way! I’ve been thinking about buying these for months. How did you know I wanted them?”


Jack grinned. He’d witnessed on several occasions how the wires had frustrated Gabe. Considering the man used them on an almost daily basis, listening to audiobooks on the way to and from work, a change was needed. “I saw how much the wires bugged you and I wanted your audiobook listening experience to be happy.”


Gabe set them down and launched himself into Jack, knocking them to a half-sitting half-lying tangle of limbs. “Jack, why wouldn’t you think this is a perfect gift?”


He shrugged a shoulder. “It’s not a trip to Paris, or I love you written in the sky, or an avalanche of heart-shaped confetti, or anything like that.”


“It shows how much you pay attention to me, and how you want to make things better.” Gabe stroked his hand over Jack’s cheek. “Just by being in my life, you make it better.”


The words warmed him, soothed something deep within, and made his heart sing. “I love you.”


“I love you too.” Gabe pulled him closer, until their lips met. Soft and slow, the kiss centered him, and Jack poured all of his love into the action, willing Gabe to feel the depths of his emotion. After a long while, Gabe sat up and smiled. “We should start getting ready. I told Ryan we’d meet them at the hotel early.”


Jack stood and extended his hand and drew Gabe to his feet. “I need to shower. I smell like the kitchen disaster.”


“Wait. I didn’t open my card yet.” Gabe peeled open the envelope. The card’s front had an illustration of a typewriter and a heart. Inside, the caption read You’re just my type. Beneath that, Jack had written: I could write all the words forever and they still wouldn’t be enough to tell you how much I love you.


He bit his lip, shifting his weight from foot to foot, waiting for Gabe’s response.


“Jack.” Gabe’s whisper touched something deep inside of him. He set the card down and pulled Jack into his arms. “I’m never getting rid of this card.”


Jack held him, stroking Gabe’s back as the embrace continued and Gabriel shifted and then tightened his hold. He kissed the side of Gabe’s neck. “I sometimes wish I were a poet instead. You deserve the best words, the greatest, most lyrical—”


Gabe leaned back and pressed a finger to Jack’s lips. “I have everything I need with you. Everything. You’re perfect for me.”


Jack saw the truth in Gabe’s gaze, nodded and smiled. “Same.”


“Good.” Gabe brushed his fingers along Jack’s jaw. “Now that’s settled, let’s go upstairs.”


But instead of walking toward the stairs, Gabe stepped into the kitchen. He emerged with the bowl of frosting and a sexy smile.


Jack paused with one foot on the first step. “What are you doing with that?”


“Did you try this?”


“No.” For a moment, panicked horror filled him. “Is it awful?”


“Here.” Gabe scooped some on his finger, brought it to Jack’s lips, and painted them with a slow swipe. Jack licked at the concoction. Vanilla and so much sweetness. “It’s good, right?”


Gabe’s mouth closed over Jack’s lips and his tongue traced a path along the seam. He deepened the kiss, and desire curled through Jack’s blood, as potent as any sugar rush. “So good.”


As they kissed, want and need and heat and passion tumbled into each other, a raging storm gathering speed. When Jack raised his head, one hand clenched into Gabe’s shirt and the other exploring the skin underneath, the last thing he wanted to do was press pause on their time together. He glanced at the clock on the wall by the bookshelf. “We have some time before we have to go, don’t we?”


Gabe released a ragged breath. He slipped his hand from Jack’s hair and laced his fingers with the hand Jack had just freed from his shirt. “We do. I waited all day for some time with you. I don’t want to wait several more hours. We can steal some extra minutes.”


Hand in hand, they walked up the stairs, ready for more kisses and tastes of sugar and to revel in their love.


The Gingerbread Competition, with Xavier and Ashley from HOMETOWN HERO

Friday evening


Ashley waved to goodbye to the harried family who had dropped off their entry for the gingerbread competition and then locked the bakery’s doors. Twinkling lights and ornaments in the shapes of cookies and cupcakes lined the shop’s windows, surrounding the elaborate gingerbread holiday city scene she, Gabriel, and Sebastian had slaved over for days. But the gingerbread creations she was most excited about were the two dozen gingerbread houses placed around the shop, submissions for the newly revived Bliss Bakery Kids Gingerbread Competition.


Her mother’s tradition, alive once again.

She blinked away the tears pricking behind her eyes. In a slow spin, she took in the bakery’s front room. During the day, it was sunny and warm and lively with people bustling in to pick up treats or order cakes for happy occasions. Exactly as her mom had always dreamed.

In the months since the grand opening, the bakery continued to thrive in its new location, exceeding Ashley’s every expectation. Not a day went by that she didn’t think about her mom, and how thrilled her mom would’ve been by the bakery’s success.


Standing alone in the middle of her mother’s legacy, gratitude — for the steady stream of loyal customers, the wonderful staff she’d hired, the support from Xavier’s family, and the love from Xavier himself — overwhelmed her.


Ashley took a moment to make sure her eyes were dry and her breathing was even before making her way toward the laughter and conversation flowing out of the decorating room. Being in the bakery after hours hadn’t been this much fun — or loud — in ages. Freshly baked gingerbread spiced the air. Holiday music played softly from someone’s phone. And all of the Brennan brothers, friends, and significant others were gathered around the large table in the room’s center, elbow deep in icing and sprinkles and overlapping conversations.


Getting together to build gingerbread houses had seemed like a good idea in theory, but in actuality, was, in a word, a mess.

Gobs of various colors of icing, splashes of sprinkles, and copious amounts of candies were spread over the large table, interspersed with four different takes on gingerbread houses. She’d seen all of that earlier, before the last entry had arrived. But a new, healthy coating of confectioner’s sugar now added to the mess, and also covered three of the Brennans.


Fighting a smile and a laugh, she crossed her arms over her chest and cleared her throat. “Guys? What happened? I was gone for five minutes.”


Xavier looked up from wiping a rag over his forearms. A patch of white powder also covered her fiance's cheek and his red shirt. “Ryan knocked over a bag of the sugar and clouds of the stuff caught the three of us.”


Ryan narrowed his eyes as he swiped a hand over his sweater. White powder dusted the dark blue material like a starry sky. “I wouldn’t have knocked into it if you hadn’t backed into me while I was reaching for the pizza box.”


A long suffering sigh accompanied Xavier’s cleaning. The look he sent his brother was equal parts amusement and frustration. “I didn’t see you, Ry. I was too preoccupied with getting Leo and Kelsey on video chat.”


He gestured toward his phone, set up on one of the counters. On the small screen, the eldest Brennan brother and his wife waved. They had a gingerbread house kit laid out on their kitchen table.


“Hey guys, I’m so happy you could join us.” Ashley smiled and waved, then tossed clean towels to Xavier, Ryan, and Shane. “How’s Buffalo?”


“It’s snowing here. Just flurries for now.” Leo glanced at the window behind him and then shrugged. “But it should clear up before tomorrow’s game. We’re playing my old team, so if you guys are watching, I could use some extra positive vibes.”


"Count on them." Xavier's promise was echoed by similar ones from Ryan and Shane.


Kelsey lifted a coffee mug decorated with dancing cartoon reindeer. “The flurries and this gingerbread are putting me in the holiday spirit. Thanks for asking us to join you all tonight.”


“It wouldn’t be the same without you.” Xavier walked over and rested his hand on Ashley’s waist, drawing her into his side. “I know Everson and I will get to see you when we play in Buffalo in three weeks, but that still seems like a long way off.”


“It’s been a while since we were all in the same room. Miss you guys.” Leo sighed and rolled his shoulders. For a moment, the eldest brother's features twisted with wistful longing. “You know, the last year that we all decorated Christmas cookies with Mom, our entire kitchen looked like your table. There was more icing and sprinkles on the floor than the cookies.”


“That’s because of the icing fight,” Shane called out. He sat back with the proud, satisfied smile of a willing participant in the madness. “I started it. One spoon of green flung at Leo, and then colors were flying all over the place.”


“It was great.” Leo grinned. “A continuation of the snowball fight we’d had in the yard earlier that day.”


Shane nodded. “Mom was not happy. But she laughed about it once we’d cleaned up the mess.”


“Still, that was easier to clean up than the flour fight three years later.” Xavier handed a fresh box of pizza to Ryan and then turned to Ashley. “We were helping my dad cook Thanksgiving dinner. He went out to pick up something from one of the neighbors, I don’t remember what. And I don’t remember who tossed the first handful of flour either, but it got everywhere. I’m still surprised that he laughed when he saw us and the mess instead of getting angry.”


Ryan dolled out slices of the veggie lovers special to Everson and then himself, then passed the box to Shane. “We have pictures somewhere. I’ll have to find them. We look like we were rolling around in it. I was too young to take part in the icing fight, but the flour fight was epic.”


Imagining the mess, Ashley pulled loose the towel Xavier had slung over his shoulder. She reached up and gently wiped the sugar from his cheek. He kept his gaze locked on her, as three separate conversations picked up around them. Ashley's breath caught. One look from Xavier was sill enough to make her heartbeat stutter. “Are you ready to start decorating?”


“How did the last kid’s entry look?” Instead of walking back to their spot at the table, Xavier guided her to the opposite side of the room, away from the conversations of how the Frenzy and the Bedlam were faring in the football and hockey worlds, respectively. Extra decorating supplies and a freshly brewed pot of coffee were within reach, and Xavier topped off both of their cups.


She added vanilla flavored creamer to her coffee. “It’s a gingerbread chess board with gingerbread snowmen, elves, trees, and presents as the chess pieces. Clean lines, colorful, and whimsical.”


“Pretty impressive for the under twelve crowd, but then again, the twenty-three other ones I saw all impressed me too. No way could I have done anything like that when I was a kid.” He pressed a kiss to her temple and then cupped her face in his hands. “You doing okay? Your smile isn’t reaching your eyes.”


She should have known she wouldn't be able to fool him. He knew her too well. The ache in her chest swelled as she glanced at the framed photo of her mom, her sister, and herself on the wall. “Just thinking of my mom. I’m glad we revived this tradition, both the competition for the kids, and the gingerbread house construction with the family, but it’s bittersweet.” 


Xavier wrapped his arms around her and enveloped her in warmth and security. “I know. I miss my mom too. She would’ve loved this, all of us together making a mess in the kitchen.” His wistful tone tugged at her heart. He’d lost his mom much earlier than she’d lost hers.


Ashley returned the hug, willing as much comfort as she could into it. “They’re here in spirit.”


“I think so too.” He sniffed once and then cleared his throat and gentled his hold to a soft caress. “I’m glad we’re making new memories together.”


“Me too.” Overwhelmed with love for this man, she rose onto her toes and he bent and met her waiting lips. The noise from the rest of the room faded as she lost herself in the kiss, in his presence, in the savoring of the moment.


Slowly, the world reintroduced itself into her awareness. She raised her head and gazed into hazel eyes that held quiet strength. He was her rock. Her forever. Gratitude swelled once more. “Come on. Let’s go decorate our house.”


Hoisting her coffee, Ashley linked hands with Xavier and together, they headed back to the table and the gingerbread dog house they were making in honor of Xavier’s dog, Rocky.


Ryan looked up as they approached. “I forgot to ask you, how are you doing the judging tomorrow? Are you ranking them? How do you choose a winner?”


“I know that most competitions take into account overall appearance, holiday spirit, originality, use of materials, and difficulty of design, but my mom had a soft spot for kids who baked, and wanted to inspire them to continue to do it, so she’d create categories so everyone would win for something they excelled in. The last year we held the competition, a quarter of the entries didn’t survive until the judging day. Those kids were crushed, but Mom still gave every single entrant a prize.”


Ryan looked pleased by the idea of prizes for everyone. “Are you going to do that too?”


“Absolutely. I’m excited to continue the tradition.” She reached for a handful of red and white striped peppermints to put on top of the dog house. “No matter what condition they’re in tomorrow, everyone gets something. But I’m so glad that all of the structures are still standing strong.”


“Which is more than I can say for mine.” Shane, on Ashley’s left, scowled at the caved in walls and the broken roof panel of his house.

Ryan grimaced in sympathy and passed his brother a large tube of icing. “That’s because you didn’t wait the fifteen minutes for the icing on the walls to set before moving on to the next step.”


“I figured that part of the directions was more of a suggestion than a must-do.” With a sigh, Shane arranged the large gingerbread pieces in a row and then piped fresh lines of icing onto the perimeter of the walls.


“Here, I’ll help you.” Jack Kramer, Shane’s best friend, propped two of the gingerbread walls against small bowls and supported the two others with his hands. “Gabe and I are done building ours.”


Gabriel bit into his slice of pizza and surveyed the library he and Jack had spent the last hour building. For people who treasured books as much as Jack and Gabriel, the library wasn't a surprising choice for their structure. “We can start decorating after we finish eating.”


Jack raised his head for a bite of Gabe's slice of tomato and pepperoni. “You sure you want my help with the decorating? If I help, it won’t look anything like the masterpiece you created in the display window.”

“The important part of this was that we do it together, right?” Gabe brushed his knuckles over Jack’s cheek, smiling softly.


Jack grinned at him and nodded. "Right."


Gabe bent and kissed his boyfriend and then pushed a plate with two slices of pizza in Jack’s direction. “Eat. I’ll help hold up one of the pieces for you.”


The way they watched each other, completely besotted, warmed Ashley through and through. The pair was perfect for each other.

Shane set one of the timers on the table for fifteen minutes. “I can take over one of those now too, guys. And if you want to send some of that decorating help my way, feel free.”


“Sure. I’ll help you.” Jack tossed out his offer and then laughed as Shane’s mouth worked open and closed and open and closed. “Oh, yeah. You probably meant Gabe, didn’t you? You’d want a professional.”

I’ll help you too, Shane,” Ashley promised as she stood. After snagging a piping bag filled with red icing, she detoured toward Xavier’s phone screen and peered at the couple working nearly four hundred miles away. “How’s it going over there, guys?”


Kelsey stepped back, revealing a tower of staggered gingerbread stars in descending size order stacked into a Christmas tree. She waited while Leo set the last piece in place. “We kept it easy. No threat of falling walls or roofs over here. Hopefully, the icing holds the tiers in place.”


Shane leaned across the table for a better view. “Looks good. If my house falls again, I’m going your route, and just stacking the pieces on top of each other. It’ll be a very short tree.”


“Nah. It would look more like a stack of rectangles, but maybe you could say they were gift boxes.” Everson studied the gingerbread walls held in place by Gabe, Jack, and Shane’s hands. “You could cover each piece with icing and decorate them like presents.”


Shane lifted his free hand for a high-five. “My future brother in law is a genius.”


Everson grinned, cheeks turning as red as his long, auburn hair, and his gaze roamed to Ryan. “I don’t know about that.”


“I do. I think you’re one too.” Ryan presented a gingerbread heart, decorated in red and green swirls to Everson. His fiance, a linebacker known for stoicism, strength, and toughness on the football field, positively melted. Eyes sparking and mouth soft, he leaned in and brushed a kiss across Ryan’s lips.


With their wedding less than two months away, the plans for the wedding cake had been finalized, after multiple taste tests. Ashley couldn’t wait to bake it for them and to celebrate their special day with the entire family.


She returned to her spot at the table and piped line after line of red, following Xavier’s alternate piping of green, surrounded by laughter and conversations and best of all, love.


Maybe the holidays would always feel a little lonely. Maybe some occasions would be harder to handle than others, but she was trying her best to be strong and live a full and rich life, and to be someone her mom would be proud of.


Three hours later, after they'd completed their creations and cleaned up the mess, and everyone had exited the building with their gingerbread houses in tow, Ashley detoured with Xavier to walk by the front of the shop.


The wind whistled and sent leaves rustling along the street, but still, she paused. The streetlights cast an inviting glow on the window display and several of the entries were within easy sight.


"Everything looks amazing." His deep voice, hushed against the dark night, reminded her of the night before the store's grand opening, when they'd stood in the very same spot and he'd spoken the very same words.


"From where I'm standing too." Repeating the words she'd echoed back then, Ashley smiled. He'd given her the bakery, a second shot at her dream. But more than that, a love and a partnership deeper and stronger than anything she'd ever known. She tucked her hand into the crook of Xavier's arm and leaned against him as they walked to his truck.


No matter what happened at the judging, even if she walked into the bakery in the morning and found twenty-four gingerbread creations in various states of disarray, she'd do her best to bring happiness to the kids, the way her mom always had.


* * * * *



Saturday afternoon


Heartbeat pounding and nerves pulsing with excitement and anticipation, Ashley stood in the center of the bakery, and smiled at the sea of faces — the kids and their families, all eagerly awaiting the judging results. She glanced past them to Gabriel and Sebastian manning the counter behind the display cases. Her employees were wonderful with the kids, joking around and asking the kids questions about their entries.


“Ready for this?” Xavier was by her side, in a festive holiday sweater that complemented her own and jeans that showcased his athletic build, ready to help her hand out the awards.


“Ready.” She smiled at him and squeezed his hand. “Thanks for being here, and for helping us finish making the cookie awards this morning. I know it wasn’t easy getting up early after we went to bed so late last night. It means a lot to me.”


“Not a problem. I’m just glad you scheduled this for our bye week, so Everson and I could be here.”


“That may have been done on purpose.” She bumped his shoulder. When she’d first brought up the idea for the competition, scheduling it for the bye week had been Xavier’s idea. “Having your family here for support means a lot too.”


The rest of the Brennan clan, plus Jack, stood in the back of the room, ready to cheer for every child as they were announced. A cheering section well-suited to the job.


“Of course, they’re here. You’re family. They love you.”


“I love them too.”


She raised her hands and waved and pitched her voice above the din. “Hello everyone and welcome. Thank you all for taking part in our gingerbread competition. My mom started this tradition years ago, and it means so much to me that you’ve all been so enthusiastic about it. Every single entry is special and we loved them all. You kids should be really proud of yourselves. And now, we have a lot of prizes to give out. The best part about them is that they are edible. Are you all ready?”


Cheers rose from the kids. Tiny faces lighting up with excitement, their high-pitched voices raised in speculation of who would win what mixed with the jingle bells accompanying the instrumental holiday music, and Ashley felt a bit like Santa Claus, ready to deliver some holiday joy. “Then let’s get right to it. The first award, for the most frosting used goes to Max Tanner.”


Applause and shouts of Congratulations! and Way to go! and Yay, Max! rang out, echoing through the shop. When the applause died down, she motioned for Max to come forward. The little boy's castle, complete with dragon, was simply adorable.


Xavier handed him the award with a grin. Max’s eyes grew wide as he accepted it. The extra large sugar cookie was shaped like a trophy and decorated with white icing and red and green snowflakes. The Bliss Bakery logo sat at its base. Most Frosting Used was piped in fancy blue lettering across the trophy’s middle. “In addition to the award, you also win your choice of any cupcake in the display case. Gabriel and Sebastian are happy to help you. And the people who accompanied you today can pick their choice of treat too. Congratulations, Max.”


“Thank you.” Max beamed at her and then hurried back to his family and showed off his trophy.


For the next fifteen minutes, Ashley continued handing out prizes ranging from “most wintry,” “most magical,” and “most colorful” to “best use of glitter” and “the Philly-est” until every single entry had won an award and every single child had a smile on their face and a cupcake or cookie in their hands.


Finally, with the last of the awards given, Ashley raised her hands and her voice once again. “Thank you all for taking part in our competition and helping us recreate a very special Bliss Bakery tradition. Please feel free to stay and enjoy some cookies and celebrate your kids’ creations. We wish you a Happy Holidays!”


Everyone in the shop cheered. Sunlight beamed in, sparkling against the glittering ornaments and casting a rainbow of colors on the opposite wall. The very merry atmosphere, filled with love and laughter, was enough to grow any Grinch’s heart three sizes at least.


Xavier wrapped his arm around her shoulders and kissed her temple. “Your mom would be so proud of you.”


“She loved seeing the kids get all excited for Christmas.” She smiled through the ache and turned to face him. “I’m so glad we did this, and I’m so glad you’re here to share it with me.”


Smiling, he lowered his head. “Even though Rocky destroyed the gingerbread house we labored over at three o’clock this morning?”


Laughter shook her shoulders and stole her breath. The image of the smashed house on the floor and the dog standing guiltily over it with sad, please-forgive-me, you-can’t-stay-mad-at-this-face eyes was too much. “Can’t really blame him, can we? After all, we did make a dog house. He probably thought it was for him.”


“I still don’t know how he got up on the counter. I figured it was a high enough, safe enough place.” Xavier’s eyes crinkled as he laughed.


“Next year, we’ll leave it at the bakery. Or figure out a way to dog-proof the house.”


“Next year… We’ll be married by then.” A thrill skittered through her, just thinking about it.

His laughter faded but his smile remained and he framed her face with his hands. “And I can’t wait. I promise I’ll always be here to share things with you. I love you, Ashley.”


Heart full, Ashley drew him down for a kiss. “I love you too, Xavier.”


The rest of the family crowded around them, admiring the gingerbread creations, exchanging hugs, and making plans for the next few weeks. Ashley welcomed it all. She might be marrying Xavier, but through him, she’d gained a large and ready network of support and love.


Sometimes, it was chaos and messy decorating parties, and sometimes it was mellow brunches and laughter-filled family dinners. But always, it was showing up for each other, whether cheering on Leo or Xavier at their games, or helping out Ryan and Shane at the gym or cheering them on at their softball games, or the countless times the Brennans had filled in as extra help in various roles around the bakery.


She was a part of it, a part of them, and wouldn’t have it any other way.


After all, family was what mattered most, and with Xavier, and the Brennans and their extended clan, she’d received the greatest present of all: Love, in an overflowing amount from an ever-expanding crew.


Valentine's Day, with Leo and Kelsey from FIGHTING FOR MORE

The sun shined in the cloudless sky, a deceptive picture of warmth amid the icy air. Leo bristled against the cold as he bid goodbye to his teammates and hurried to his car. He whistled as he drove away from the rink. The team had held a good practice. They were coming off a win from the previous night, where he’d scored a goal and gotten an assist. The coach was pleased with their efforts. He didn’t have any community outreach or PR commitments scheduled for the afternoon. The rest of the day and evening stretched out before him and he couldn't wait to spend it with Kelsey.


He pulled into the parking lot of Jolt coffee shop. The post-practice pick-me-up had become a ritual for him and half the team, but today, only Rod followed him through the shop’s doors.


Hearts decorated every surface as though Valentine’s Day had exploded inside the coffee shop. A paper chain of hearts hung around the perimeter of the ceiling. 3-D hearts in pink, red, and purple were on every table, hearts were drawn on the chalkboard of the daily specials, and there were heart-shaped mugs in every patrons’ hands.


Jolt’s owner and Rod’s oldest friend, Ben, greeted them from behind the counter. “Want your usuals? How was practice?”


“Painful.” Rod held a hand to his chest. “Noah got me with one of his monster slap shots. I know I have a bruise. It’s probably the size of a softball by now.”


“It is not, you big baby.” Smiling, Leo shook his head. “I’ll have my usual, Ben, and a latte too. Kelsey’s meeting me here soon.”


Rod glared at him, rubbing his hand in a small circle over the center of his puffy down jacket. “You want to strap on the pads tomorrow and let him take another shot like that at close range?”


“No way.” Noah had one of the hardest shots in the league. Other goalies winced when talking about it. Leo draped his arm around Rod’s shoulder. His friend/brother-in-law’s chest probably was sore. It was time to stop teasing. “Rod’s order is on me today, Ben.”


Rod’s features brightened like the sun peeking through storm clouds. He nodded, recognizing the apology. “Thanks, buddy.”


“No problem.”


Ben waved to the display case. “We have heart-shaped brownies today too. Our Valentine’s Day special.”


Rod’s mouth twisted and he raised a brow at Leo. “Though I’m tempted to buy all thirty-six, thanks to my friend’s generosity here, I’ll take two along with two large coffees. To-go cups for me. I have to get home.”


Laughing, Leo withdrew his wallet. “Two brownies for me too.”


He paid and walked to the end of the counter to wait for their orders. Rod stood to his left, drumming his fingers on the counter in time with the beat of the music streaming from the speakers. “Got any plans for tonight?”


“We’re going out to dinner. There’s a new Italian restaurant near Canalside that’s owned by a couple who used to live in South Philly, so I’ll get a taste of home.”


“That’s awesome. Arielle and I are doing the coffee and chocolate tasting at Jolt’s second location.” He shifted closer to let people pass. “Ben’s really excited about it. I hope it’s a success.”


Leo nodded and glanced back at Ben. A small line had formed at the register. He and a barista were busy taking orders while three others filled them. The coffee shop was doing well. “Vince mentioned it to me last week and said that Joseph was hosting the event. I told him we’d come by after we finish at the restaurant.”


“Cool.” Rod picked up his order from the counter. “Then I’ll see you guys later.”


“Try not to drink both coffees before you get home,” Leo joked. From the coffee cup painted on his goalie mask to the ever-present cup of coffee in his hands, Rod’s love of caffeinated brew was well-known.


“Funny guy.” But Rod was grinning and gave him a hug before heading to the register at the opposite end to say goodbye to Ben. A few seconds later, he was out the door, letting in a burst of frigid air.


Leo shifted farther down the counter. At the end, a flier for the wine and chocolate tasting was propped against a metal sculpture of several stacked coffee cups. A bulletin board on the wall beyond the station with cream and sugar advertised several local community events. One for a pet adoption at the animal shelter caught his gaze.


He and Kelsey had fostered two shelter dogs in the past year. Their relationship with the animal shelter had started after the team had partnered with it for a fan event the previous season. Sidelined with an injury, Leo’s spirits were lifted by the dogs placed temporarily in their care. Especially one dog, Zamboni, who’d been abandoned by its mother. The black Yorkshire Terrier had been a bundle of energy and one of the happiest dogs Leo had ever met. Saying goodbye had been really hard.


His phone buzzed with a message notification. He pulled it from his pocket. The phone’s lock screen wallpaper was a photo of Icing and Zamboni snuggling on the couch. Smiling, he swiped up and saw the text from his wife.


Kelsey: On my way. Can you get me a latte?


Already done, he wrote back. He mentally patted himself on the back as the barista set down his order, complete with heart-shaped mugs. Spying a table by the front window, he maneuvered through the maze of tables. It was the perfect spot. Warm from the sunlight gleaming through the window, and Kelsey would see him as soon as she walked through the door.


He sipped his coffee and thumbed through his photos of Kelsey, his teammates, road trips, vacations, and so many of Icing. The white Yorkshire terrier had been Kelsey’s long before they’d gotten together, but the dog had loved him right from the start. Mixed in were photos of the foster dogs. Leo lingered on the photos of Zamboni.


Maybe it was time to think about adding another dog to their family, permanently.


A shadow fell across the table. He glanced up. Cheeks flushed from the cold, Kelsey bent to kiss him. She smelled of coconut and something that reminded him of the beach. He lingered in the meeting of lips for a moment, framing her face with his hands. As always, just seeing her made his day better.


Easing back, he smiled. “Hi.”


She unzipped her coat and then draped it over the back of the chair. “Those brownies are so cute! Sorry I’m late. I got a call from the animal shelter when I was on my way out the door.”


“Do they need us to foster another dog?”


“Not exactly.” She slid onto the vacant chair and wrapped her hands around her mug. “The person who adopted Zamboni can’t keep him. Their mother moved in because she can’t live on her own anymore, and she’s severely allergic.”


“Wow.” He set his cup down. “That’s a shame. I know how happy they were to have Zamboni. Maybe they’ll be able to visit whoever gets Zamboni next.”


Biting her lip, she shifted in her seat. “About that…”


“Yeah?” His heartbeat ticked faster. He knew her far too well. That expression always accompanied big news or something important.


She pushed her coffee and the plate of brownies to the side and leaned across the table. Blue eyes earnest, brows raised, she rested her hand on top of Leo’s and her fingers gently curled around his palm. “What if we adopt him? We already know he and Icing are a good fit. We both love him. What do you think?”


Leo gaped at her. Surprise shot through him like one of Cupid’s arrows fast-tracking straight for his heart. Warmth expanded in his chest as though his heart was readying to welcome back the dog. “I think we need to get to the shelter and take the newest member of our family home.”


Kelsey’s smile bloomed until happiness radiated out of her like sunshine. She launched herself into his arms. He turned his head and quickly found her lips. No matter how many times they’d kissed over the course of their relationship, it always sent a thrill through him. He held her close and gave thanks for the woman who made his life complete.


She leaned back and brushed her hand through his hair. “I’m so happy.”


“Me too.” He clasped her waist as she eased herself off of his lap. “When can we pick him up?”


“He’s at the shelter now. I’ll give them a call and tell them we’re heading over.”


While Kelsey made the call, Leo got a box for their uneaten brownies and to-go cups for their coffees which the barista kindly topped off.


He returned to their table as Kelsey slipped her phone into her purse. She grinned and shot to her feet. “We’re all set. They’re waiting for us.”


“Awesome.” He tugged on his coat. “We should cancel our dinner reservation. I don’t want to leave Zamboni alone tonight.”


Kelsey paused with her coat half-zippered. “I agree. But I know how much you were looking forward to dinner, are you sure you’re okay with postponing it?”


“Are you kidding?” Leo threaded their fingers together. “I was sitting here thinking about him when you walked in. I’m so happy right now.”


“Me too. Let’s go get our dog.”


* * * * * 

Four hours later…


Frozen ravioli wasn’t the same as a made-from-scratch pasta cooked by a professional chef, but Leo wouldn’t have changed a thing about his Valentine’s dinner with Kelsey.


Not when they’d had two dogs who were ecstatic to be reunited rolling around on the kitchen floor while he and Kelsey laughed at their antics and cooked the simple meal. By the time they’d gotten home from the shelter and a quick stop at the pet store for some extra food, new toys, and a new dog bed, his rumbling stomach would’ve been satisfied with anything, and the ravioli wasn’t bad. He didn’t even overcook the pasta this time, or burn the sauce, but that was thanks to Kelsey’s watchful eye.


Over plates of ravioli and glasses of wine, they took videos of Zamboni and Icing and sent it to friends and family.

Responses rolled in one after another, filled with congratulations and wishes to meet the dog soon.


After the dishes were done, Leo carried the wine glasses into the living room. The jangle of tags and clicking of nails on the floor—double the usual amount—made him grin.


Kelsey sank into the cushion beside him on the couch and rested her head on his shoulder. Icing jumped up and circled a cushion twice before settling into Kelsey’s lap. Zamboni followed, taking three tries before he cleared the distance from the rug to Leo’s knees and ambled into Leo’s lap.


The dog licked his hand and then snuggled against Leo’s chest, and Leo’s heart melted as he stared at the furry creature. “Welcome home, little guy.”


“This is pretty great, isn’t it?” Kelsey’s soft words were filled with happiness.


He turned toward her. “This time last year, we were at Ryan’s wedding. I was dealing with that knee injury. And you were exhausted from filming that special for the women’s national team on top of working two jobs. I never would’ve dreamed that one week later, we’d meet Zamboni for the first time. Or that we’d be reunited with him now.”


She laid her hand on his chest. “I know. A lot can happen in a year. This is the best Valentine’s Day ever, right?”


“I feel like every day is Valentine’s Day with you.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and drew her close. “But even so, happy Valentine’s Day. I love you so much, Kelsey.”


Her lips met his, teasingly soft and slow and holding the promise of more. “I love you too, Leo. Happy Valentine’s Day.”


Leo brought his other arm around her, and the movement disturbed the dogs. Both shifted, and Icing jumped to the floor. Zamboni maneuvered his body half onto Leo and half onto Kelsey. Then Icing returned and claimed the rest of the space on Leo’s lap and laid a paw over one of Zamboni’s.


Kelsey leaned into Leo’s touch as he traced his fingers down the side of her face. “It’s so cute, like they’re holding hands.”


“They’re happy to be back together. That’s how I feel every time I see you.”


The way that her smile lightened her face took his breath away. She stroked her hand over his stubble and into his hair. “You’re incredibly sweet.”


He didn’t know about that, but he was sure of one thing. “I’m very much in love."


He sought her mouth once more. The kiss was fire and passion and need and love. Deep, overwhelming, all-consuming love. The kind people wrote songs and poems and stories about. The kind that could heal and mend and lift and soar and challenge someone to be their best self.


The rest of the evening would be spent with dog cuddles and soft kisses. Then later, Leo would have Kelsey all to himself. He couldn’t wait to hold her close all night long. But as he looked at the dogs, he knew they’d end up in the bed too. He didn’t mind. They were starting a new adventure together and he couldn’t wait to get started.

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