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Tyler frowned and sniffed the air. Was that burning he could smell?
Oh, no. He made a dash for the kitchen, to discover smoke coming out of the stove. Three seconds later, the smoke alarm started shrieking.
“Way to go, Carter. How to make the neighbors happy—not,” he said with a groan. He turned the stove off, then grabbed a dish towel so he could pull the cake out of the stove. The problem was obvious right away: the cake batter had spilled over the sides of the cake pan and the bits that had fallen onto the floor of the stove had burned. Great. So now he was going to have to clear that up, too, once the stove had cooled down.
He dumped the cake pan on the stove top, then frantically flapped the dish towel underneath the smoke alarm in the hope that the air would stop it.
Nope: it was still shrieking.
What was he going to have to do to shut it up? Take out the battery?
And if one of his neighbors called the fire brigade… Just no. He’d never live it down. Quite a few of the firefighters trained in Carter’s Gym—which was next to the Wolf Den dive bar in Marietta, opposite the fire station—and Tyler had a pretty good idea of the sort of jokes he’d have to put up with for the next six months if any of the fire crew found out about this.
It had been bad enough last time, when he’d made grilled cheese for his lunch at the gym and forgot about it for just long enough to set off the smoke alarm. The fire crew had teased him for months.
Why, why, why had his team entered him into this Bachelor Bake-Off thing? It was a crazy idea. He was just about the worst person they could’ve entered.
The smoke alarm continued shrieking. He opened the kitchen window, hoping that a blast of cold fresh air might make a difference.
And then the doorbell rang.
Half of him was tempted to ignore it. Then again, if it was one of his neighbors, he’d better explain that things were almost under control and he wasn’t actually burning down the apartment block.
When he opened the front door, he was surprised to see Stacey Allman standing there. She’d moved into the apartment next door to him about six months ago and he didn’t know his neighbor that well—enough to say hi to her in the lobby and to take in the occasional parcel for her. But she’d always seemed very sweet, albeit shy. Pretty, too, with her dark-blonde hair cut in a tousled style, a heart-shaped face, and blue-grey eyes.
Not that Tyler was looking to get involved with anyone. He was still getting his head together over what had happened with Janine. Right now he was happy to concentrate on building up his business and forget all about love.
“Are you OK?” Stacey asked.
“Uh, I just set the smoke alarm off,” he said. Talk about stating the obvious. She could hear that well enough for herself. “Sorry I disturbed you.” He’d better apologize to his other neighbors this afternoon, too.
“It’s not a problem—I’m not here to complain. I was just b-b—” She took a deep breath. “Being neighborly, in case something was wrong.” She looked at him, and the desperation must’ve been written all over his face because she asked, “Do you need some help?”
Did he need help? A miracle, more like. Tyler didn’t have a clue what he was doing and he really didn’t want to make a complete idiot of himself in front of the whole town.
Then he remembered that sometimes he’d walked past Stacey’s door and smelled something gorgeous cooking—sugar and vanilla, so he’d just bet it had been cookies or cupcakes. Plus he knew she was a teacher, so she would be the ideal person to help him through the next few weeks. But at the same time he didn’t want to be a nuisance. It wasn’t fair to expect a near-stranger to drop everything for him.
Though she had been the one to make the offer…
He raked a hand through his hair. “Yes, I probably do need some help,” he admitted. “You know the Bake-Off that the Chamber of Commerce is holding to raise money for Harry’s House? Well, it turns out that all my staff at the gym and some of the clients clubbed together to pay for my entry fee. Five hundred dollars.” He grimaced. “I had a word with Jane McCullough, who’s organizing it, and I offered to donate five times what my team paid to sponsor my entry if she’d let me off the hook. But she said no. I have this nasty feeling they’re all enjoying the idea of making me do baking stuff.”
“Because, as a gym owner, you always eat healthily and you never eat cake?” Stacey asked.
“No, because I’m the world’s worst cook and they know I eat out all the time.” He groaned. “The first round of the Bake-Off is in two weeks’ time and I’m going to make such an idiot of myself. I just tried to make a layer cake as a practice because this Internet site said it was the easiest cake ever, and I swear I only turned my back on the stove for thirty seconds to check my email…”
She laughed. “And that’s when the smoke alarm started going off?”
He gave her a rueful smile. “Yup.”
“Layer cakes can be tricky,” she said.
He shook his head. “Now I know you’re just being nice. I was a total failure, and I’m happy to admit it. I just need to work out what I did wrong.”
“I do quite a b-bit of baking. Maybe I could help you,” she offered, her cheeks turning pink.
That would be perfect. But he really didn’t know her that well and it wasn’t fair to expect her to pick up the slack for the stuff he’d never bothered learning to do. “I couldn’t impose on you like that.”
“I don’t mind. Really.”
She gave him another of those sweet shy smiles, and Tyler had to rein himself in mentally. She was his neighbor. He was not supposed to start thinking of her in a mushy way when she smiled at him.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“Why don’t I make us some coffee?” he offered. “Come in—if you can stand the smell of burned cake and the noise of the smoke alarm—and I’ll tell you about the Bake-Off.”
Tyler’s kitchen was a complete mess. There was flour over most of the work surfaces and it looked as if he’d used every bowl and spoon he owned. There was a pile of dirty crockery next to the sink, and then on the stove top was a shallow cake pan. There was burned batter on the outside of the pan, and the center of the cake had sunk. Stacey could see exactly what had gone wrong.
Tyler was right: without help, he was going to come last in the Bake-Off fundraiser. With a very big gap between him and the next person.
But the first thing they needed to deal with was the smoke alarm. “Do you have a dish towel?” she asked.
“I’ve already tried flapping it under the smoke alarm,” he said. “As you can hear, it didn’t work.”
“Damp or dry?” she asked.
“There’s a difference?” Looking totally stunned, he handed her a dish towel.
“May I?” She gestured to the sink.
“Go right ahead.”
A few seconds later, she’d splashed the dish towel with water, squeezed it out, and flapped the now-damp dish towel under the smoke alarm.
Finally, it stopped shrieking. And the silence felt almost defeating.
“Thank you. And I think I can say thank you on behalf of the rest of the neighbors in our block,” Tyler said ruefully. “You’ve just more than earned that coffee.”
“No problem,” she said. “I once had a roommate who always set the fire alarm off whenever she cooked. That’s how come I learned that damp dish towels work faster than dry ones.”
“I’ll remember that.”
Tyler might not be any good at baking, but Stacey noticed that he did have a really fancy coffee machine. Even if it did have a slight covering of flour right now.
“How do you like your coffee?” he asked. “I can do latte, cappuccino, flat white…”
“A cappuccino would be lovely, thanks. With a spoonful of sugar, please,” she added.
“One cappuccino with a spoonful of sugar coming right up,” he said, and swiftly made two coffees. She noticed that he took his without milk or sugar, and it made her feel slightly guilty for taking the less healthy option. But she’d always taken her coffee sweet and milky.
She also noticed how beautiful his hands were. Well, the whole of Tyler Carter was beautiful, from his short dark hair to his sea-green eyes to his ready smile. His long-sleeved T-shirt was close-fitting and, given that he owned a gym and ran quite a few of the classes himself, Stacey was pretty sure he’d have a washboard stomach to go with the perfect musculature of his arms. And she wasn’t even going to think about how toned his butt looked in his faded jeans.
He was way, way out of her league and she’d better not get any stupid ideas. She could hear her father’s voice echoing in her head. You’re so dumb, Stacey…
She pushed the thought away. Not here, not now. Tyler was her neighbor and she was doing the neighborly thing. “So tell me about Harry’s House,” she said when he ushered her through to his living room. “I don’t really know anything about it.”
“The local chapter of the Montana First Responders is doing up a house on the corner of 2nd and Church Avenue—it was left to the city and it’s been vacant for years. The Chamber want to convert it to a Boys’ and Girls’ Clubhouse—the kind of place where kids can hang out after school and at weekends, get help with their homework, and use as a safe place,” he explained. “The city said yes as long as we can bring the house up to code within ninety days. If they can’t do that, then another development group is going to step in and buy the house. The First Responder chapter here in Marietta said they’d help out with the work and repairs, and they want to spearhead the fundraising and name the house in memory of Harry Monroe.”
“Harry Monroe.” The name was vaguely familiar. “Is he related to the Monroes at the grocery store on Main?” she asked.
“Yes; he was their son. He was a firefighter and an EMT—he used to come and train in my gym, and he was one of the nicest guys I knew,” Tyler said. “He’d been visiting his fiancée in Bozeman on Labor Day. On his way back to Marietta, he stopped to change a flat tire for an elderly couple—just the sort of thing a guy like Harry would do—and he was killed by a hit-and-run driver.”
Stacey put her hand to her mouth in horror. “Oh, no, how awful! His poor family. I hope whoever did it was caught?”
“Nobody was ever caught,” Tyler said grimly. “The elderly couple didn’t get a license plate and they couldn’t even give a good description of the car—maybe they were too shocked to take it in, and it happened so fast. Though at least they had a cell phone with them and managed to call for an ambulance. But Harry had severe internal injuries and died at the hospital here in Marietta before they could get him to the operating room.”
“The poor man. That’s terrible.”
“So that’s why the fundraising’s happening,” Tyler said. “As I said, there’s an investment company looking into buying the house and the First Responders don’t want it bought out from under them. The local chapter is helping with the work, and so are other local businesses—even some of the vocational education students from the high school and community college are helping. Someone came up with the idea of a Bachelor Bake-Off to raise money, challenged local businesses to send someone along to compete.”
He gave her a rueful smile. “I knew about the fundraising and I’d planned to donate money and prizes, but my team just couldn’t resist nominating me. They’d signed me up before I had any idea what they were up to. And it seems that a few of our clients chipped in with the sponsor money, so I can’t make up any excuses—I’d be letting too many people down.”
“So what do you have to do on the Bake-Off?” she asked.
“What feels like the impossible,” he said with a sigh. “There are three rounds held over the space of two weeks, and apparently I have to bake cookies, a pie and a cake.” He ticked the items off on his fingers. “Except it all happens in front of people—we can’t just bake stuff at home and rock up with it.” He spread his hands. “Well, at least I’m making a prize idiot of myself in public for a really good cause. Maybe I can slap a dollar fine on everyone I catch laughing at me at work, to add to the funds.”
“You really don’t cook?” She’d never met anyone before who didn’t cook at all, even if it was only grilled cheese or a simple omelet.
“I really don’t cook,” he said. “There are enough good places to eat in Marietta that I don’t need to.”
“So I guess you need to start with someone who can teach you how to bake.”
“I can’t ask you to do that. It wouldn’t be fair. You’re a teacher, right?” At her nod, he continued, “My younger sister Lynnie is a teacher, too, so I know teachers work longer hours than most people think they do. It’s not all long vacations and short days—Lynnie tells me there’s marking and assessment and preparation on top of everything at school itself, plus activities after school and at lunchtimes.”
She smiled. “That’s true. But you’re not asking me to help. I’m offering to teach you to bake.”
“You’d really do that for me?” He looked surprised.
“Sure.” She shrugged. “It’d be the neighborly thing to do. Plus, now you’ve told me about what happened to Harry and what the First Responders are doing, I’d really like to do something to help with the fundraising.”
“Thank you. I accept.” He paused. “As long as I can do something for you in return.”
She felt herself flush. “There’s really no need. It’s fine.”
“Well, I appreciate it, Stacey.” He smiled at her. “Are you sure your boyfriend won’t mind you helping me?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.” And what a loser that made her sound. If she told him why, she’d sound like even more of a loser. “I’m kind of focusing on my career right now.”
The fact he’d asked her that question probably meant she ought to do the same. Even though she hadn’t seen Tyler in the apartment block with anyone that looked vaguely like a girlfriend, it didn’t mean that he wasn’t spoken for. “Um, will your g-girlfriend…” And trust her stutter to come back right now, just when she needed to sound cool and calm and collected. She held her breath for a second and reminded herself to take it slowly. “…mind me helping you?” she finished.
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” he said. “I’m focusing on getting the gym into a really strong place and looking at my next direction.”
Again, she felt the color seep in to her face. Hopefully he didn’t think she was fishing or planning to make some kind of move on him. Then again, he’d asked her about a partner first.
“W-when do you want to start?” she asked.
“Tomorrow?” he suggested. “I don’t think I can face setting off the smoke alarm again today. I think the rest of the neighbors might forgive me for doing it once, but not twice.”
“Tomorrow after school,” she said. “And you’re not going to set off the smoke alarm.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“F-firstly, we’re not making a layer cake, we’re making cookies. Because they’re easier,” she said. “And w-when we do bake a cake, we’ll use a different size cake pan.”
“Is that what I did wrong?” he asked. “Aren’t all cake pans the same?”
“Um, no,” she said.
He groaned. “I’m such an idiot. I just bought the first pan I saw.”
Charles Allman would’ve had a field day with that one. But Stacey wasn’t anything like her father. “You said yourself that you don’t cook. How are you supposed to know what to do if nobody ever taught you? You’re not s-stupid. That was just a learning opportunity—just like the smoke alarm and the damp dish towel. So now you do know that pans come in different sizes.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners, making her feel warm inside. “Now I definitely know I’ve got the right teacher to help me. You’re nice.”
“Making someone feel stupid won’t help them learn—it just makes them feel bad,” she said. “You needed two pans the size of that one, so then the batter wouldn’t spill over the edge as the cake started rising and burn on the bottom of the stove. And I’m guessing nobody told you about lining the pan before you put the batter in, either.”
“Uh, no. How do you line a pan?”
“Baking parchment. I’ll show you,” she said.
“And you really need two pans? I assumed you just made one cake and sliced it in half to fill it. Now I think about it, it makes more sense to have one pan for each layer.” He groaned. “What age is it you teach?”
“Kindergarten,” she said. “But only for half the week. The other half of the week, I work with the children up to the end of elementary school who have special needs. Dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger’s, or s-speech…” She almost cringed as she stuttered, hoping he didn’t think she was making some cruel kind of mockery of her students.
“Speech and language difficulties?” he asked. “Lynnie says she has a girl with a stutter in one of her classes—and she’s Lynnie’s favorite student.” He paused. “And apparently the girl doesn’t stutter at all when she sings.”
“Singing helps. It’s to do with breath control,” Stacey explained. “And practicing speaking s—” she took a deep breath “—slowly, so you’re not so tense and that helps you be more fluent.”
“That’s why you sometimes take a breath halfway through a sentence?”
Now she really did cringe. “I guess it’s pretty obvious.”
“Not that much,” he said, though she knew he was just being nice.
She could tell him that she was mostly fine when she taught at school, where she knew what she was doing and she knew she was making a real difference to children’s lives. She could tell him that she only stuttered badly nowadays when she was nervous or upset about something. But then he’d think her stupid for being nervous about talking to a neighbor—that she was acting more like an awkward seventeen-year-old girl than a qualified teacher who was ten years older than that. Better to say nothing.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“So what do I need to buy for tomorrow?”
“I’m guessing I have more b-baking equipment than you do,” Stacey said. “We could do it at my place.”
And why did that sound like a tacky innuendo? For pity’s sake. She was better than this. Of course a man like Tyler Carter wouldn’t be interested in someone like her. The important thing here was the fundraising. She needed to focus on that.
“Are you sure you don’t mind using your kitchen? I mean…” He gestured to the doorway. “My kitchen right now is a bit on the messy side.”
“If you make my kitchen look like it’s been hit by a flour bomb, I’ll m-make you clear up after,” she said, trying for levity.
It worked, because he grinned. Though in some respects that was a bad thing, because that grin was flat-out sexy and made all kinds of thoughts bloom in her head. Thoughts that really shouldn’t be there. He was her neighbor. She’d only lived in the apartment block for six months so she didn’t know him very well—just that he’d taken in a parcel for her a couple of times, and enough to say hi to in the lobby. The fact that he was drop-dead gorgeous… Well, that was none of her business.
“What ingredients do I need to buy for the cookies?” he asked.
“I’ve already got most of them. I’ll just need to pick up some butter on the way home tomorrow,” she said.
“I can do that,” he said. “How much do I need to buy?”
“A couple of sticks,” she said.
“Great. I’ll do that.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow for your baking class. What time?”
“When’s good for you?” he asked.
“School finishes at three and I don’t have meetings after class tomorrow. About four?” she suggested.
“That’d be perfect.”
She drained her mug. “Thank you for the…” Cappuccino was a risky word and there was too much chance of a double stutter in the middle. “Coffee,” she said carefully.
“I’ll wash up my mug,” she offered.
“No, it’s fine. I’m going to be a while cleaning up,” he said. “A mug won’t make any difference.”
“OK. Well—see you tomorrow.”
“See you,” he said. “And, Stacey?”
“Thank you. I really appreciate you helping me.”
And funny how his smile made her feel warm right from the inside out.
End of Excerpt