A Sneek Peak into SUGAR CRUSH

Opposites attract, but are horror writer Jack and baker Gabriel too dissimilar to write their own happily ever after?

Sugar Crush | Susan Scott Shelley

Bliss Bakery series

When horror novelist Jack Kramer is guilted into joining his best friend’s softball team, he’s not expecting to come face to face with the inspiration for his next novel. But one look at Gabriel Spencer, and his muse is off and running. Good thing, too, as his deadline is looming.

Bakery assistant Gabriel abhors anything with blood and gore, but he’s intrigued by Jack and agrees to help the sexy author. He’s not expecting the white hot attraction that builds every moment they are together, or how to handle dating someone who pushes him so far outside his comfort zone.

Happiness versus horror, sunlight versus shadows, early riser versus night owl, the men couldn’t be more different. Opposites attract, but are they too dissimilar to write their own happy ever after?

Originally featured in Love Is All: Romance Anthology, Volume 2, this story has been revised and expanded.

Chapter One

Jack Kramer rubbed his hands over his face and then stared at the words filling his laptop screen. No doubt about it — this scene was the worst thing he’d ever written. Just like the rest of the book.

Low-grade panic pulsed with every heartbeat. His last horror novel had landed on every best-seller list and earned rave reviews. The expectations for this next book were high. So high. And six weeks to fix the book suddenly didn’t seem like enough time. Hell, at this point, six months didn’t seem like enough. But he’d never missed a deadline before, and wouldn’t let himself start now. Inspiration had to strike.

Slamming the laptop closed, he scanned the tables of South Philadelphia’s busiest diner. The clatter of dishes and hum of conversations, the scent of bacon and pancakes, the wait staff rushing around, and the customers enjoying their meals — he took it all in. People-watching and inventing stories for them had, at times, helped spark character and plot ideas. But nothing jumped out. Nothing at all. 
Fresh frustration and desperation tangled together and pushed him to his feet.

As he stood, his friend Shane Brennan emerged like a beacon. Maybe not of inspiration, but of welcome and needed distraction. 
Relief came as swiftly as the burst of hot air that accompanied Shane’s entrance from the sun-soaked summer morning. Jack grinned and waved. “Hey. I didn’t expect you for another half hour.”

Dressed in a baseball cap, athletic shorts, and green T-shirt emblazoned with a bat and ball and logo of his family’s gym, Shane set a duffel bag with a softball bat sticking out on the other side of the booth and slid in after it. “I need a favor.”

Jack took one look at his oldest friend’s face — the hopeful eyes, the winning smile, and the way his gaze darted to the bag that no doubt also held cleats and a mitt. “Ugh, no. Please don’t ask me to do sports things.”

Shane’s smile faltered. “One of the guys on the softball team broke his leg rock climbing, so we’re short one player. Can you fill in? It’ll be for the rest of our season — the next four Sundays.”

“The next four?” He gaped at the man. They’d been friends since high school. Eighteen years of memories should have been enough for Shane to know his idea wasn’t the best. “Are you remembering my lack of athletic skills differently than I am?”

“Please? I called around, but no one else can do it. I need you.” Shane shifted his attention to the waitress, who stopped by the table, holding two pots of coffee. “Regular, please. The strongest one you have.”

She poured Shane’s coffee and topped off Jack’s. While she relayed the endless list of breakfast specials, Jack was hit with a flood of memories: Shane protecting him against school and neighborhood bullies all throughout high school. Shane taking care of him the times he’d broken his leg and had been flattened by the flu. Shane being there for every failure and every success of Jack’s writing career. Shane had always, always been there for him.

He placed his order and waited for Shane to do the same. The weight of guilt hung heavy. He owed Shane so much more than he could possibly ever repay. But doing something so far outside his comfort zone?

“I don’t know, man. Watching a game is one thing, but actually playing one?” At thirty-two, memories of the taunts and torture he’d endured for his lack of knowledge about various games and his slow speed during gym classes and pick up games with neighborhood kids were still enough to keep him firmly on the sidelines. “I wouldn’t be any good.”

“You don’t have to be good. We just need a body.”

The words didn’t make him feel any better. “Most people on a team would want someone who has some semblance of an idea about how to play.”

Shane leaned across the table. “We’re a really low-key team. It’s more about having fun than winning.” 

“You say that now, but… What happens when I screw up?”

“One, you don’t know for sure that you’ll screw up.” Shane held up a hand to cut off Jack’s snorted protest. “And two, do you really think I’d put you in a situation where I’d let someone be awful to you?” 

Still the protector. Jack had to smile. “No competitive jerks?”

“Not while I’m team captain.” Shane’s voice hardened, and determination edged over his features. “I’ll put you in right field, or you can play catcher. And I’ll make sure the rest of the team knows to help you out. You won’t even have to play in the field every inning. And if you get on base, we have people acting as first and third base coaches, so they’ll tell you what to do. The games aren’t long. We play seven innings. It’s maybe an hour or so.” 

Jack picked up his coffee, wrestling with uncertainty and insecurity. Only an hour. He could handle that, right? Besides, if Shane really needed him — and clearly, he did — then Jack couldn’t let his best friend down. “All right. I guess it wouldn’t suck too much. I’m in.”

“Yes! Thank you.” Shane grinned and lifted his own cup in a toast. “It’ll be good for you. Fresh air, sunshine, exercise…”

“I get plenty of exercise at the gym.” Working out at Shane’s gym three to four times a week saw to that. The hours logged there helped to counteract the effects of sitting behind a desk for hours on end. 

“I didn’t see you there at all this week. Or last week.”

“Yeah, well, I was busy trying to save my book.” Glaring into his coffee, he slammed the cup down. Liquid splattered across the table and onto his computer. “Shit. Good thing it was closed.”

Shane caught his wince as he mopped up the mess. “I’m guessing the book isn’t going well?”

“It’s a steaming hot pile of garbage.” He tucked the laptop into his bag and stored it safely away. Before he could elaborate, the waitress arrived with their plates. His stomach growled at the scents and spread of eggs, toast, and bacon before him. Skipping meals when he was writing was a bad habit he needed to break. “The plot isn’t working. The killer isn’t coming to life on the page. And the rewrites are due in six weeks.”

Steam from the coffee cup clouded Shane’s sympathetic grimace. “I’m sorry. Anything I can do to help? We can bounce around ideas after the game.”

“Thanks. I’ll let you know.” Brainstorming with his agent and his closest writer friends hadn’t helped. Their suggestions had boxed him into a place where nothing felt right. The annoyance and worry over his train wreck of a book couldn’t be pushed aside, and new worry over looking like an idiot at the softball game took over, wrapping around him like a boa constrictor squeezing the life out of its prey. He stabbed at his eggs. “Who’s on the team, besides you and your brother Ryan?”

“There are twelve of us on the roster. Mostly people from the gym, so you’ve met almost all of them. And Ryan’s friend Gabriel.”

Jack’s heartbeat stuttered. He jerked his head up. “Gabriel will be there?” 

Shane’s brows drew together. “That a problem?”

“No.” Yes. It was bad enough he’d be playing a game where he didn’t know the finer points or anything beyond attempting to hit the ball and run around the bases. But to do that in front of Gabriel? Gabriel, with his light eyes and dark hair and sexy smile, who moved with such grace and strength? The moment he’d seen Gabriel at the Brennan family’s holiday party six months earlier, he’d been struck by the man’s stunning face and athletic build and the interest had only grown in their brief encounters since.

Shane raised a brow and then shrugged when Jack didn’t elaborate and lifted a piece of bacon from his plate. “Anyway, he’s played in a competitive rec league for years, but we convinced him to join us this season, now that he’s working at Ashley’s bakery. It might not be the family gym, but it’s still a family business.”

“Right.” Jack nodded. He’d met Ashley several times since she and Shane’s brother Xavier had gotten together through a charity baking competition. Thoughts drifting to how he’d run smack into Gabriel at the bakery’s grand opening, and the man’s quick reflexes that had saved him from crashing into the display case, Jack flushed with fresh embarrassment. Hopefully, Gabriel didn’t think of him as an uncoordinated idiot. “Did she and Xavier set a date for the wedding yet?”

“Sometime next June, so almost a year away. Ryan and Everson are getting married on Valentine’s Day, and they’ll be sending out save the date cards soon, so maybe you could actually look through your mail and don’t just assume it’s all ads.”

He’d never live that one down. “Dude. Just because I didn’t see Leo and Kelsey’s save the date card—”

“Or their actual invitation.” Shane’s reminder came with a raised brow and teasing smile.

“Okay, okay, I get it. At least I didn’t miss their wedding or Everson and Ryan’s engagement party in May.” Jack ripped into his rye toast. He needed to change the subject before Shane could remember any of the other times Jack had missed out on things due to shutting out the world when lost in a story. “Your brothers all ended up with really good people.”

“I know it.” Shane’s gaze shifted to the window and into the bright sunlight bathing the busy street. His voice held a hint of something Jack couldn’t name. With a slight shake of his head, Shane turned back to his breakfast and loaded his fork with a combination of pancakes and sausage. “We’d better hurry up so we can get to the field in time for warm-ups. You’re fine with what you’re wearing. I have an extra mitt and a team T-shirt for you, and an old pair of cleats you can borrow. We need to stop somewhere and buy you a jock. Trust me, you don’t want to risk not wearing a cup.”

 Nerves interfered with enjoying his breakfast, but Jack managed another swallow of toast. “I thought this wasn’t a competitive league. I really need a jock?”

“You could still get hit by the ball, so yeah.”

Jack winced. And then his thoughts flashed back to gym class and the kids who’d thought it was funny to throw a dodge ball or basketball at the faces of unsuspecting victims. Those jerks had inspired some of his earliest stories. “Maybe if I get hit in the head, inspiration for my book will strike.” 

It needed to strike too. And soon. But first, he needed to get through the horror of playing a softball game.

Read the rest of Jack and Gabriel's story

Visit Sugar Crush's page for another excerpt and teasers.

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