Philadelphia Frenzy series
When tight end Xavier Brennan is asked to participate in a charity baking competition with his teammates, the pro football player is torn. He doesn’t know the first thing about baking, and he doesn’t want to become a laughingstock on national TV. But he is a team player, and he can’t say no to helping a charity, especially one so close to his heart.
Bakery owner Ashley Yates is desperate to win the competition. It’s her last hope at saving her bakery and her mother’s legacy. Being paired with an athlete known for partying makes her nervous, but he assures her that he’s committed to the cause. As they bond over shared heartache and shared recipes, their connection becomes harder to deny.
Every touch, every taste, every moment spent together holds the promise of more. But attraction is a distraction. Will working together be a recipe for love, or will they both end up getting burned?
Hometown Hero was originally featured in the Love, Philly anthology, and has since been expanded.
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"Good customer?" Xavier threw his trash away. He'd polished off his cupcake and drained his coffee embarrassingly fast.
"The best. He's been coming here every Sunday since my mom opened the shop. My most loyal customer." She dusted her hands on her cheerful yellow apron. "Ready to head in the back and talk baking basics?"
Not quite. He met her at the register. "What was that about Blackstone's?"
She wrinkled her nose. "They're new. And super close by. And everyone wants to try them."
"Aren't they in the competition with us? I'm pretty sure that's the bakery Tyson will be working with."
"Unfortunately." The shadow was back, dimming the happiness from her face. "Whatever player you see as your biggest rival, that's what Blackstone's is to me. And I'm having a losing season."
Years of playing sports, studying how to take down an opponent, and how to play to his strengths had more than prepared him for this. It was the one area—maybe the only area—where he could really help her. "Then let's go build a game plan to beat them."
The light of battle came into her eyes, and she motioned him back into the kitchen. "Are you ready to bake something?"
"More than ready. Ryan keeps texting me with tips and reminders and asking me the definitions on those flash cards. He's deemed himself as my coach."
"Sweet's one word for it." But he grinned. Ryan was helping him. Xavier read through the cards multiple times a day.
"When you sent me those texts, I decided to dig through my mom's recipes too. I mean, I use her recipes all the time, but I started digging for some that I hadn't seen in a while. And I was thinking, to tie more into the cancer charity, we could use recipes from our mothers' recipe boxes in the competition. That way, it feels like they're there with us." She wrapped her arms around her torso. "I know I'll need all the support and good feelings I can get."
She looked as lost and lonely as he'd felt when looking through those recipes that day. He pulled the recipe cards from his pocket. "I like that idea."
"So what do you have?"
He traced his finger over the even script. "She made these great chocolate almond crinkle cookies."
"Let's start there."
Xavier shuffled one of his cards to the top of the pile. "My mom had one from her grandmother. It's an Italian recipe. Ricotta pie."
"I've never made that before. I'm intrigued." She leaned over his shoulder as she studied the recipe. "Do you mind if I copy this down so I can practice it this week?"
"Go ahead. My brothers and I tried making that one for her once. But that's a story for another day." He couldn't handle the emotion of sharing that one now. After handing over the card, he walked the length of the room and stopped by a grouping of photos taped to the wall. In one picture, a woman stood with her arms around a younger Katie and Ashley. "This is your mom?"
"Yeah." The word was immediate and wistful. She joined him. Her smile was a shade too sad. "It was taken on Mother's Day the year before she got diagnosed."
"You miss her a lot."
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "I miss mine, too. Especially at important moments, like tonight with my brother's engagement cake. Or back when I played my first game for the Frenzy. Or when Leo's team won the hockey championship last year. Or when he got married last summer."
"Holidays are hard too. Like today. I thought having us meet today would be a good way to take my mind off of not having my mom here, but it hasn't worked so well."
"I'm sorry. I can't say that it gets easier as the years go by. It's more like the grief changes."
She nodded. "That's what the grief counselor told me. But it's even the everyday stuff. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to pick up the phone and call her, only to remember I can't. Or something happens and she's the first person I want to tell. Even just being here every day is hard. Memories are everywhere." Her voice broke, and she cast a helpless glance around the room.
Eyes stinging, he drew her against his chest. His childhood home had been the same, constant reminders of a deeply missed presence. "I know."
Her arms held him tight for one long moment, and then she slowly stepped away. Rubbing her arms, she leaned against the counter. "It's silly, and I was entirely too old for this, but when she was first diagnosed, I thought that if I wished and hoped hard enough that she would get better."
"I can sympathize. When my mom got cancer, I thought that if I was good enough, she'd get better. Ryan was only a baby, but Leo and Shane and I tried really hard. We didn't fight, we didn't get into trouble. Well, not much anyway. We did all of our homework and were on our best behavior. But it didn't work." Caught up in his memories, he fought for control. He never shared so openly.
She laid her hand on top of his. "I can't even imagine what it was like to lose her when you were so young."
"It sucked. My brothers and I banded together back then, and we've pretty much stayed that way. That's not to say that we didn't have disagreements, but we saw how hard my dad was working to keep us together, even when he was wallowing in his own grief. I don't know how he did it."
"The experience made you closer. Katie and I are definitely closer now because we had to lean on each other so much."
At that moment, he felt closer to her than he'd ever felt to anyone outside of his brothers and dad. United in pain and in heartache, they understood each other.
She had a sweetness, a vulnerability, and an inner strength that made him think of a combination of romantic princess and bad ass warrior. Much like the treats she baked, he wanted more. To keep delving for a richer flavor, a deeper taste, to continue exploring until he knew all. And then, to start all over again.
Surrounded by cakes and sinful scents, he watched and waited. She'd held him back once, so she needed to be the one to make the next move.
His pulse thudded with desire. That golden gaze bewitched him. As much as he'd told himself that getting involved with her wasn't smart while they were working together, he couldn't deny the connection and chemistry they shared. The intention to stay strictly professional fell away.
Ashley closed the space between them. She still held his hand. Raising onto her toes, she wound her other arm around his neck and drew him down.
Hands framing her face, he bent, inching closer, watching her eyes close and her full lips part. Still, he paused, a breath away, and let her initiate the kiss.
Petal soft lips brushed against his mouth. Her curves pressed into his torso. He wanted to devour but kept his hands gentle. She was someone to be savored.
With a low moan, he deepened the kiss and sought out more sweetness from her mouth. She tasted like frosting and magic and possibilities.
Her nails scraped over his neck, stoking the fire in his blood. He could kiss her for hours, days, forever.