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The Silver Falls Summer Fair was less than a week away, but Taryn Lawson wasn’t worried. It was only Monday, and the festival didn’t start until Friday afternoon. She stepped out of her back door and onto the covered patio. Unlike the other First Avenue Business Association members, who’d spent last night’s meeting in a panic over their booths not being finished yet, she had everything under control.
Pride surged through her, adding a bounce to her step. “This is my year.”
She’d worked hard in the fall storing parts of the booth in the backyard shed before the weather changed. Now that the bakery’s new patio seating area was open, she would prepare for the upcoming festival. It shouldn’t take long. All she needed to do was remove the pieces, assemble them, transport them to the park, and add the final details.
Warmth spread through her. Her parents wouldn’t be able to complain about this.
As Taryn crossed the backyard, her tennis shoes sank into the tall grass. She’d neglected the lawn and hadn’t mowed for far too long. The flower beds could use weeding, and the shrubs required trimming. Or was that pruning?
Nothing would bring her down today.
She would take care of the yard soon. So what if she’d been saying those exact words ever since her parents retired and she took over running the place?
They were true. Eventually, she would have the time once she didn’t feel as if the bakery and her future could be ripped away at any moment.
Sweat beaded at her neck. “It’s going to be a scorcher today.”
Not unusual for July, but she hoped the temperature wouldn’t rise until closer to lunchtime. Still, a dose of vitamin D would do her good. The clear, blue sky meant more customers might visit the bakery’s patio for dessert tonight. She shouldn’t complain.
Taryn floated toward the shed, buoyed by an overflow of hope. If things went according to plan, business would return to normal by August. She rubbed her hands together.
She removed the padlock and opened the door.
Mildew assaulted her nose. “Ew.”
She glanced inside. A smelly mess of wood, plastic, mold, and rot greeted her.
Taryn groaned. “No. This is not happening.”
Her muscles bunched. Her eyes wanted to close, but she kept them open. Nothing would erase the disaster in front of her, including pretending.
Out of sight, out of mind wouldn’t help.
She surveyed the items, her stomach dropping lower with each passing second. All her hard work on the Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed booth was…
“It’s all ruined.”
Boulders settled in the pit of her stomach. The smell of rotted wood assaulted her nose.
So much for the framing she’d planned on using as the base for the decorations.
The pop-up tent canopy hadn’t survived, either. Mold grew on the vinyl. Same for the signs she’d drawn.
Her shoulders sagged. “Ruined.”
No wonder the used shed had been dirt cheap. The roof or seams—perhaps both—must leak. The previous owner had told her it worked fine and that it kept their lawn mower and yard tools dry and in excellent condition, so she’d never considered testing it.
Why would someone lie?
To make the sale.
But that had never crossed her mind.
Taryn had heard it a million times. Her chest tightened. Guess people were right. She blew out a long breath.
Lesson learned. Even with the snow that fell this past winter, she would have been better off putting the pieces on her patio and covering them with tarps.
A trip to the dump would take care of the mess, but she’d planned on spending the morning preparing for her big build. Now, she would have to start over with only days to redo everything. At least she wouldn’t be starting from scratch. Her plans were hanging on the bulletin board in the bakery’s office.
“Might as well go to work.” The resignation in her words matched her sagging shoulders. She trudged inside.
After slathering sunscreen on her arms and face, she set off for First Avenue with its quaint boutiques, cafés, and stores lining both sides of the street.
The rising temperature didn’t stop the birds from singing in the tall maples nearby. The songs became nothing but white noise. With her mind on the booth, Taryn couldn’t enjoy the sweet melodies.
What am I going to do?
Yes, the new patio and dessert menu appeared to be a hit with customers, but the upcoming fair was the second part of her plan to turn business around and what kept her from making hard decisions—ones she didn’t want to make—about staffing needs now.
You have plenty of time.
Knowing that didn’t stop the churning in her stomach.
More than once, her father had mumbled about selling to the Summit Ridge Bakery owners since they knew what they were doing.
Unlike her had been implied.
The churning turned into a full-blown spin cycle.
It hurt knowing her dad felt that way when Taryn was doing the best she could and putting her all into the bakery. A part of her blamed Nick Baxter, a friend since high school involved with the new place. He used to come into Lawson’s all the time, but he and Robin, his wife, hadn’t been in since the other one opened.
Rumor suggested he hadn’t been a standup guy when he sold his company out from under his co-founder and fellow classmate, Brandt Winslow, but Taryn had given both friends the benefit of the doubt. Now, Nick wanted to drive her out of business. Maybe she should have sided with Brandt.
But it wasn’t only the Summit Ridge Bakery causing her grief. Her dad had voiced doubts about her abilities for years. But if he or Nick thought she would give up without fighting for what was hers, they were badly mistaken.
Taryn opened the bakery’s front door, and an electronic ping sounded. The scent of fresh bread greeted her like an old friend. And it was. This place was her second home.
She’d grown up within these walls—learning to bake saying her ABCs; measuring ingredients provided her first lesson in fractions; and using the differences between liquid and dry items to understand volume. Baking was in her DNA. She’d never considered, never wanted, another job other than to run the bakery.
The bell dinged again when the door shut.
The second sound reminded staff to come to the counter if no one was out front. It worked better than the jingling of the old bell. Though replacing it led to a meltdown by her father.
A typical reaction.
Ever since Taryn took over running the bakery, her parents questioned each decision, big or small, she made, threatening not to sign the bakery over to her. She’d run every aspect of the business for three years, longer if she counted the years before her father retired, but he kept saying her handling the bakery alone was a trial run.
What else did she need to do to prove herself?
Jayden, her assistant manager, refilled the display case with baked goods. “Good morning.”
He was the definition of tall at six feet two, dark with umber skin, and movie-star handsome with features that made customers take second and third looks. He was also a great baker. She counted him and Rachelle, his wife of ten years, among her closest friends.
He glanced up. “What happened?”
Taryn didn’t know how he could read her so well. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not smiling.” His gaze narrowed. “And two little lines above the bridge of your nose show up when you’re unhappy or upset.”
“I…” She touched the spot between her eyebrows. “There are lines.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
Taryn blew out a breath. “Remember how I stored the summer fair booth in the storage shed I bought last September?”
“The used one you found in an ad online?”
She nodded. “Turns out it leaks. Moisture has ruined everything inside. The pieces are warped or covered in mold or both. I have to start from scratch.”
Jayden glanced at the calendar—a fundraiser for the local fire department—hanging on the wall. “Isn’t that—”
“This coming weekend.” Taryn’s stomach churned. “We’ve lost so many customers to the Summit Ridge Bakery I need to win.”
“One summer fair won’t make a big difference.”
“It will remind people about Lawson’s Bakery. That it’s the place to buy bread for dinner, cookies for lunches, and cakes and pies for special occasions and has been for decades.”
She could visualize her theme with the Shakespeare title so clearly. Of course, that was because she’d created it ten months ago. Now…
“The fair will give us exposure. The same as the outdoor patio is doing.” The other bakery had only a small seating area inside. For two nights, customers had packed her patio. “But starting over with the booth will take time I don’t have.”
Her shifts, management stuff, life… Something would have to give—likely sleep—for her to finish by Friday.
Jayden added donuts to the top shelf of the case. “Hire someone.”
That was one solution, except she needed to cut expenses. “I have to replace all the materials for the new booth. I can’t afford to pay someone.”
“You’re running on fumes.” Concern laced each of his words. “You can’t keep up this pace.”
“That’s what coffee is for.” It had become her lifeline. She couldn’t rely on caffeine indefinitely, but it wouldn’t be forever. “I need to do whatever I can over the next three weeks.”
He raised a brow. “Before your mom and dad get home?”
She nodded. “They hate change. But neither my parents nor my grandparents faced any competition. If the booth wins, they might see my other ideas for the bakery are solid.”
“With that optimistic outlook, it will.” His grin spread. “Too bad I’m worthless with power tools. Now, give me a mixer, and I’m your guy.”
“That’s why you have Rachelle,” Taryn teased.
“I married a firefighter for a reason. She’s not afraid of heights, either, so she cleans the gutters.”
The couple complemented each other well. They didn’t worry about gender roles and laughed at stereotypes. They’d been trying to have a baby for years. Taryn hoped that happened for them sooner rather than later. “Lucky.”
His gaze softened. Any minute, heart eyes would appear. “Very. It’s too bad you don’t have a boyfriend who’s handy with power tools.”
“Yeah, but I’m on a sabbatical from dating.”
“It’s been what?” He refilled the tray of croissants. “Five months?”
Over six, but who was counting? “I don’t have time to date, anyway.”
Jayden snickered. “You made time before that hotshot attorney…”
Her jaw clenched, and she balled her hands.
“Garrett Andrews isn’t a hotshot.” She didn’t need some egotistical lawyer, no matter how gorgeous, treating her as a convenience. “He’s a jerk.”
When Garrett told her he’d call after he left town, she’d believed him. Why wouldn’t she when they’d had so much fun together while he was visiting his sister over Christmas? But he’d lied the same as the shed seller. Two important data points she would remember in the future.
Trust needed to be earned, not given freely.
“He ghosted me.” Saying the words left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Not because she’d suffered a heartbreak. Oh, being ghosted stung, but mainly because he’d made her feel as if she hadn’t measured up somehow. She hated thinking she wasn’t enough.
“If Callie didn’t mention her three brothers, I’d have no idea if he was alive or dead.” Taryn flexed her fingers. She wouldn’t let the man affect her.
Jayden added more banana walnut muffins to the case. “Run a search on him.”
Taryn cringed. “Too stalkerish for me.”
His mouth quirked. “Did you ask his younger sister about him?”
“Nope. And I won’t,” Taryn blurted.
“Callie still doesn’t know you went out?”
“You’re the only one who knows.” Taryn straightened the menu cards on the counter. “I’d only look foolish mentioning it now, given what happened.”
Jayden shook his head. “The way he wanted Callie to have all the attention after she announced her engagement made him seem like a nice guy.”
“I fell for it, too. I wish I’d never met him.”
“Just because Garrett turned out to be a jerk doesn’t mean you should paint all men the same.”
Taryn raised her chin. “Have I treated you or the employees differently since December?”
“Nope, but you didn’t want to date the new paramedic Rachelle introduced you to.”
“He was attractive, but he only wanted free baked goods.”
“Possibly, but he works with a construction crew on his days off. Go out with him so he can help you.”
That appealed to Taryn for a nanosecond. “I would never use someone that way. Besides, I only have a few days to rebuild the booth. I couldn’t squeeze in a date, too. But no worries. I’ll figure it out.”
Jayden made room for more blueberry muffins. “That means you’ll do all the work yourself and not sleep for a week. That’s what happened with the Nutcracker-themed window.”
Taryn placed her hand over her heart. “That Christmas window was a masterpiece.”
He nodded. “If everyone, including you, hadn’t helped redo Callie’s doggy daycare window, the bakery would have won for the second year in a row.”
“No regrets.” The First Avenue Business Association sponsored an annual Christmas window contest. That night, no one had been competing when people came together to decorate Wags and Tails’s window in a way none of them would forget. “Callie deserved to win. Hers turned out so special, but the gloves are off for the fair’s booth decorating contest. Lawson’s Bakery has never won, and this is our year to pull off what my grandparents and parents couldn’t.”
Jayden didn’t appear convinced. “You’ll exhaust yourself.”
She shrugged. “You know what every baker who works the early shift says.”
“Sleep is overrated,” they said in unison and then laughed.
“I get by on five hours.” That much was true.
“If you want me to take more shifts…”
“You work enough. Unless you need the money, I’ll ask someone else.”
“Rachelle would prefer me at home on her days off.”
“You can cut your hours.” That would save Taryn money. She didn’t need to be paid overtime on top of what she regularly earned working there.
“I’m happy the way things are. I enjoy running things here. You know, Rachelle is in charge of our family.”
Taryn laughed. It was true, but that worked for them.
“Well, you’re the best assistant manager an owner could ask for.” She meant every word and wanted to give him a raise once the bakery was back on track. “I have no idea how I ended up hiring an all-male staff, but you’re better with the other guys than me.”
“You do great with everyone, but your baking skills intimidate them.”
“I’m as intimidating as a ladybug.”
“A ladybug who carries a machete,” he joked.
“You mean a spatula.”
“Let’s just say you set the bar high for people who work here.”
Her shoulders drooped. “Not that quality matters to customers if they can save money at the place in Summit Ridge.”
Jayden added bagels to the tray. “They’ve gone overboard with loss leaders.”
Loss leaders on what had been her top-selling products. Maybe that was their plan to bring in customers, but each time she created a new product, they did, too. It felt personal. “I don’t know how they are making money.”
“They can’t keep it up for much longer, or they’ll go out of business.” Jayden grabbed another tray from the tall rolling cart filled with trays of baked goods. “People will be back.”
She nodded, trying not to get discouraged. “I keep waiting for someone else to quit and go to work there.”
“Stop worrying. Those who wanted to leave took the offers. The rest of us didn’t.”
Jayden’s package had included benefits and the title of manager. Part of her thought he should have taken it, but she was relieved he hadn’t. “Thanks for staying.”
“We’re a team.” He bumped his shoulder against hers. “The others who are still here feel the same way. Things will turn around when the newness of the other place wears off, and they raise prices.”
“I hope so.”
If not, and if the outdoor patio and exposure from the summer fair didn’t bring in more business, Taryn had no idea what she would do.
End of Excerpt