Fake It Till You Bake It by Jamie Wesley (Excerpt)

Chapter One

Donovan Dell was a professional football player who loved to bake.


He was used to the quizzical looks people gave him when they learned he, a man who made a living terrorizing quarterbacks, co-owned Sugar Blitz, San Diego’s latest and best cupcakery. He didn’t care, though.

Baking relaxed him. Running his own business thrilled him. His plans for his post-playing career were starting to take root. Exactly how he’d planned.

“Donovan, sales have declined for six straight weeks.”

Okay, maybe not exactly how he’d planned. As his accountant had just noted with absolutely no attempt to spare his feelings. Their weekly business call was off to a rip-roaring start. He made a face at the cell phone lying so innocently on his office desk.

“Donovan, did you hear what I said?” His accountant’s exasperation came through the phone’s speaker loud and clear.

“Yes, Shana, I know profits have declined for the last six weeks,” he answered. Better than anyone.

Business had been good—really good—when the shop first opened in January after his team was eliminated from the playoffs (which sucked, by the way), probably because people were dying to see their favorite football players up close and personal, hawking baked goods. After that first month, however, the number of customers had slowed from a flood to a steady stream to a damn trickle. He didn’t know why. He’d done all the market research. Their product was top-notch. The shop’s location was excellent.

Yet the sales figures on his computer screen did not lie. And if he and his business partners were going to follow through with their plan to hire a full-time manager, whose salary would be fully funded by the store’s profits by the start of training camp in July, then sales needed to rebound. Soon.

He stifled his hundredth sigh of the day. “We’re going to turn things around.”

He was Donovan Dell. He didn’t fail.

“I hope so.” She didn’t sound optimistic, which set his teeth on edge. Why had he thought it was a good idea to hire his big sister to be his accountant? Yes, she had a brilliant mind, but she would never respect their professional relationship. He was just her baby brother whose diapers she’d changed on way too many occasions, after all. “I told you I wasn’t sure such a large storefront was the best option for the store.”

“Yes, I know.” He was proud of his cordial tone.

He’d bought the building, located in East Village, years ago as a real estate investment. He’d fallen in love with the wide-open space with its exposed brick and original fixtures. Then last year, his best friend and teammate, Nicholas, had suggested turning their mutual baking hobby into a business. Donovan had run all kinds of analyses on the best use for the property, but ultimately, he’d trusted his instincts.

“You’ve already invested so much money into this venture,” she continued.

“Yes, I know,” he repeated, maybe a little less cordially this time.

“You need to start turning a profit soon,” she said. “Football isn’t going to last forever.”

“Yes, I know, Shana,” he said through gritted teeth. Cordiality was no longer on his radar. If there was a person who could be counted on to keep things more real than he did, it was his sister. Growing up in a household with a father who had no interest in reality tended to do that to you.

Shana harrumphed. “I’m just looking out for you, baby brother. We can talk about your personal life if you want. You know Mama is dying to know when you’re going to get married and give her grandkids.”

Donovan groaned, the change of topic doing jack shit to improve his mood. “You already gave her two tiny humans to spoil.”

He always considered the whole marriage-and-kids thing to be something he would think about in that nebulous time frame called the future. Maybe. His parents sure as hell weren’t an example of wedded bliss.

“Pssht,” his sister said. “Like she thinks that’s enough. You know what she says.”

“You can’t give me grandbabies if you’re working twenty-four hours per day,” they said simultaneously. They chuckled for a moment, then went silent.

Shana sighed. “I’m really concerned about the shop, Donovan.”

So was he.

“Have you considered—”

“Hold on, Shana. Someone’s calling me.” He loved his sister, but she’d been giving him advice his entire life, a lot of it good, but this was his problem. He’d figure it out on his own. Besides, he already knew what she was going to suggest—shutting the shop down and dividing the property into apartments he could rent at a premium thanks to the building’s prime location. Probably because he’d contemplated the same thing before Nicholas proposed the cupcake shop. He never took chances. But he had this time.

As a kid, baking with his mom had offered joy and calm on the occasions when his dad made their lives unhappy and chaotic. He’d gone with his gut, instead of his head, for the first time in forever, and he was going to make the shop work if it was the last thing he did.

“Yeah, I’ll be right there, Nicholas,” he said loudly to his business partner, who was most definitely not standing in his office. “Shana, I gotta go.”

“But what about—”

“We can talk about it next week. Love you.” Donovan ended the call and dropped his head into his hands. He needed a stiff drink. But one wasn’t available at the moment. Which left the next best option.

A cupcake.

A Sugar Blitz cupcake could always be counted on to make things better. Nicholas, the best baker in the group and the one who loved tinkering with new recipes, had been experimenting and put his newest flavor—apple crumble—on sale that morning. Donovan had meant to try one, but he’d worked through his lunch hour, staring at numbers that didn’t get any better no matter how many ways he added them up.

He pushed away from his oversized oak desk and headed to the front of the building. The walk down the hall was a quick one. As he did each time he entered the storefront, he stopped for a second to inhale the intoxicating mixture of vanilla, chocolate, and buttercream frosting that filled the air. No other place in San Diego smelled as good, he was positive.

He tried not to notice how not busy the store was. A couple of the tables toward the back were occupied, but he’d always envisioned the bakery full of customers, all stuffing their faces with his cupcakes. Dreams could still come true, he supposed. No, they would come true.

He pushed in a chair at one table, grabbed an errant wrapper off the floor, and tossed it into the trash. He glanced around. No imperfections would thrive on his watch. But nothing else caught his eye. A keen sense of satisfaction swept through him. Everything was perfect again. Well, except for the lack of customers. And just like that, his shoulders tensed up.

He snaked his way around the tables and headed for the counter. He would be his own customer, damn it, and pay, instead of filching the product.

At least there were a couple of customers in line ahead of him eyeing the cupcake selection. Not a long line, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and all that jazz. Except he’d never been good at setting his expectations low. He established goals, put in the work, and met them.

He settled in to wait, his mind turning to possible solutions. Maybe they needed to run a sale, do some more advertising …

“Girl, why do you come here?” the woman in front of him said to her companion.

Donovan’s thoughts came to a screeching halt. Here? As in here? As in Sugar Blitz? As in the place he’d poured blood, sweat, and a hell of a lot of money into?

She’d said it in the bougiest tone he’d ever heard. Or maybe he was being sensitive. Maybe she’d said it in a completely neutral tone, and he needed to chill.

Donovan deliberately relaxed his shoulders and studied his newfound nemesis. Or at least the part of her he could see—namely, her back.

Cupcake Shop Critic was dressed casually in a red jumpsuit, but there were cheap jumpsuits you got off the clearance rack at Ross and expensive-looking jumpsuits like the one she was wearing. The garment was made of the finest raw silk that, if he were the fanciful type, he would say flowed like water across her body. A woman used to the finer things in life. He’d become accustomed to the finer things over the past eight years, but that still left twenty-two years of his life in which he’d shopped off those same clearance racks. The sleeveless outfit showcased toned arms and did amazing things for her ass. Not so much for her mouth, which was still running a mile a minute.

The other woman said something, but her voice didn’t carry like her friend’s. Too bad.

Donovan inched a little closer. He shouldn’t be eavesdropping. It was rude and immature. And he tried to never be rude and immature. Practical and demanding, maybe—okay, always—but rude and immature, no. But she was talking about his pride and joy. And being loud about it.

“What is up with this ambiance?”

Ambiance? What the fuck was wrong with the ambiance? Who the hell used the word “ambiance” in normal, everyday conversation? Donovan took a quick survey of the space, although he knew every inch by heart. Sunlight streamed in through the wall-length windows. They’d gone with a modern, industrial look. Clean lines. Concrete floors, exposed ductwork, original brickwork. Modern splashes of color adorned the white walls. The interior designer he’d spent a fortune on assured him it was the latest and greatest design concept. The colorful frosting on the cupcakes would pop against the white and silver that dominated the area. Everything was neat and clean, just the way he liked it.

“It’s so…”

So what? Bomb? Fire? Lit? Awesome? The only acceptable answers.

“Stale,” she finally said, her dismissive tone making his insides curl in horror the same way it did whenever anyone suggested using carob instead of chocolate.

He should let it go. He was in a bad mood, and nothing good could come from confronting a woman who was entitled to her own opinion. Even when she was wrong.

“Stale, probably like the cupcakes,” she added.

“Excuse me.” Fuck letting it go. Nobody called his cupcakes stale. “Excuse me,” he repeated, maybe a little too loudly given the way the two women jumped in unison and whirled to face him.

Shit. He forgot what he was about to say. The critic was beautiful. Stunning, actually. Skin the color of chestnut. A heart-shaped face. He was pretty sure he’d never noticed eyebrows before, but hers were perfect, arched flawlessly over large eyes that were the color of his favorite dark chocolate chips. Hell, her whole face was perfect. High cheekbones. Full, lush lips. She looked like she’d stepped off a runway. His gaze slipped lower. No, she was too short for that line of work. The black heels added at least four inches to her height. He lifted his head.

A hint of something—uncertainty, maybe—flared in her eyes.

Copyright © 2022 by Jamie Wesley