What the hell had she been thinking?
Well, she hadn’t. She’d reacted. And now she was participating in something she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. Not that she had any enemies. Apart from the chef standing across the room that is. And even he wasn’t technically her enemy.
Sophie turned off her noisy Kitchenaid mixer, studying the plain vanilla batter cynically. The lime juice made her batter smell divine, but it looked ordinary. Nothing fancy or in any way special, that’s for sure.
She shot a glance towards her opponent. Let him underestimate her. To think she had no idea what she was doing. To believe, as he’d told her many times, that cupcakes were unimportant.
Just thinking about that statement made Sophie’s hands clench. Cupcakes were small, versatile indulges that anyone with sense enjoyed. They were important. And pretty much vital to living a happy life.
Looking around the spacious studio, no-one was taking any notice of her. Because, of course, all their attention was centred on the handsome male standing at an identical bench on the other side of the room.
Caden Bardwell was a city-bred chef who owned the only restaurant in Lightning Falls. He was the most talked about person ever to land in her hometown. The women thought he was so good-looking, and the men considered him an upstanding guy. Rumour had it that he’d opened his restaurant in Lightning Falls because of some ancient family connection with the place. But Sophie thought it was more likely because the urban sprawl of the nearby regional town was rapidly encroaching, bringing more people to her hometown.
Sophie sighed. Caden really was handsome, even though every atom in her body wished he wasn’t. But no. He was tall, with sandy-blond hair and the most amazing blue eyes. She was an ordinary country girl, owner of Sweet Dreams, a café she’d put her heart and soul into. But winning this competition was going to be tough.
And it was all resting on this last batch of cupcakes.
So, no pressure then.
She held the glass bowl securely as she carefully poured her batter into the prepared muffin pan. It flowed into the liners without hiccup, thank goodness. She straightened and let out a sigh of relief.
Back-to-basics this batch was not. No. These innocent-looking cupcakes packed a more adult twist than the plain vanilla variety everyone thought she was making.
Or they would once she finished.
They’d gone down a treat in her café. Her regulars had loved them. And, okay, she probably shouldn’t have tried them out at the CWA morning tea. Still, the meeting had been filled with laughter, so that was a plus, right?
And, this time, she planned to reduce the alcohol in the frosting. By just a splash.
* * *
Caden closed the oven door on the dark chocolate cupcakes he was depending on. He shot a quick glance across the room. Sophie Park’s Kitchenaid was still going, the noise of its churning barely making it across the divide, the overhead camera showing her mixture clearly on what he thought of as her screen.
Not that this was a race. Far from it.
His heart skipped every time he caught sight of Sophie. She was of average height. But there was nothing average about her incredible curves, or her mesmerising green eyes. Her face was open and friendly. He was admittedly fascinated by the freckles that marched over her nose. And today she had her reddish-blond hair tied back, a big green-checked bandana wrapped around her head like some 1940s housewife.
He watched as she turned her Kitchenaid off and carefully poured her plain vanilla batter into the green paper lined tray. He frowned. How on earth did she think her basic cupcakes would win? Especially when his were as decadent as they came? He almost felt bad, knowing his Baileys-infused chocolate cupcakes were going head to head with her plain vanilla ones.
But he’d known he’d be fighting a war when he agreed to this competition. A war he’d expected to win. He was an experienced and well qualified chef after all. And she was just an ordinary cook. He’d maintained those assumptions right up until Sophie had matched him, cupcake for cupcake.
Now, he wasn’t nearly as confident of the outcome.
Sophie opened her oven door and carefully placed her creations onto the centre rack. She swiped her hands on the apron around her waist, a gesture he’d seen several times. And one that always got his heart pounding and his brain going fuzzy.
Sucking in a deep breath, he dragged his mind off the things he’d love to do with his delectable competitor. Things were about to get very serious indeed.
* * *
Sophie couldn’t have stopped her eyes from straying over in Caden’s direction once more. He was standing with his hands spread out on the prep bench, his eyes intent, centred directly on her. She quickly turned around, ignoring the flush of heat looking at him always provoked.
You’d think after three months of seeing the guy almost daily she’d be immune by now. No such luck, unfortunately.
Shaking her head slightly, she ignored the bright lights and the just audible rumbles from the nearby technicians. She focused her attention on showing that gorgeous … no, that annoying male she was as good, if not better, than him.
When he’d first entered her café, she’d been welcoming. Once she’d picked her jaw up off the floor that is. Yeah, okay, he was well-muscled and the type of guy any hot-blooded woman would love to share some … intimate … time with. But he’d left his coffee exactly where she’d placed it, not even bothering to taste it. He’d walked out without saying a word after glaring around like the end of the world had arrived.
Sure, he came back the next day. And the next. Abby kept telling her he had the hots for her. That he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Abby insisted that was why he kept coming into Sweet Dreams almost every day when he had a perfectly nice restaurant of his own.
But it didn’t matter what her best friend thought.
Besides, she’d got his measure after his second visit. When he’d questioned why she didn’t have white bread sandwiches in a manner that said she was a naive idiot. White bread was like eating cardboard she’d told him. He’d disagreed.
Still, no matter how hard she’d tried she was still hyper-aware of him. Even though they continued to argue, over everything. To the point where she’d love to stamp her feet and scream her head off like a two-year-old in the middle of a monster tantrum. Or throw her arms around him and kiss him until he couldn’t argue back.
Thankfully, she’d managed to keep her cool.
Right up until challenging him to a cupcake cook-off. Something that had turned into a run-away YouTube sensation, bringing even more attention to Lightning Falls. Something her café, and no doubt Caden’s restaurant, had certainly benefited from.
But her biggest challenge wasn’t winning this cupcake competition. No. It was stopping herself from falling even further for her demanding, argumentative, too-handsome-for-his-own-good opponent.
Taking a deep breath, she grabbed a steel bowl and her Breville hand mixer from under the bench. She threw softened butter, half the icing sugar, lime juice and a very generous measure of tequila into the bowl.
Turning her Breville on, she began blending all the ingredients together.
* * *
Twenty-five minutes later, her cupcakes were ready to take out of the oven. Caden’s oven hadn’t gone off yet, so it looked like she’d have time to consolidate her decoration ideas, instead of trailing behind as she’d done the entire contest.
Well, not really.
In the first week of their competition, his apple crumble cupcakes had been judged superior to her butterscotch ones, by one measly point. Her red velvet cupcakes, another favourite in her café, had won the second round the following week against Caden’s orange and poppy seed ones. Again, by one single point.
Meaning now, in the third and final week of the competition, they were evenly matched.
‘You sure you want to present plain vanilla cupcakes, Sophie?’ Caden leaned towards her, his eyebrows raised, like he expected her to capitulate without a whimper.
She hadn’t realised he was so close. That he had wandered over to her side of the room, the first time either of them had done so. Her stomach clenched, her pulse raced, and her legs felt as weak as raw spaghetti. She breathed in, his scent hitting her full force. It was smooth and delicious, with just a touch of spice. Funny how the way he smelt reminded her of chocolate cupcakes. Decadent and totally irresistible.
She lifted her own eyebrows. ‘Who says I am?’
He shrugged. ‘Everyone knows chocolate cupcakes win over plain vanilla. Every. Single. Time.’ His mouth twitched.
If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was trying hard not to smile. But after three months of butting heads with this male, she did know better.
‘I think it’s time we upped the stakes a bit, don’t you?’ His low, deep tone sent shivers down her spine.
She crossed her arms, acutely aware of how tall he was, of his strength. The width of his shoulders. The way the hairs on her arms seemed to lean towards him. There was a definite twinkle of amusement behind those stunning blue eyes of his.
‘Winning this competition is more than enough,’ she replied, clenching her arms around her more securely. Every second they talked was a second too long. She had to get her cupcakes out of the oven. Pronto.
‘So, you’re not interested in a small wager then?’ He raised his eyebrows in that arrogant way he did just before he went on the attack. Oh yes, she knew his moves by now.
She straightened her spine and narrowed her eyes. ‘How about when I win, you’ll shout me dinner in your restaurant, on whatever day I choose?’ Her heart beat hard, her mouth was dry. Hopefully, he hadn’t noticed she wasn’t as sure of her success as she sounded.
‘And if I win?’
She shrugged. ‘How about I cook you a different cupcake every day for a month?’ she suggested, cringing a bit inside. There was no way he would agree. Was there?
‘So, let me get this straight. If you win, you get a meal in my restaurant. Something you are more than welcome to anytime.’
‘Yeah, but in this case, you’ll pay. Not me.’ She smiled.
‘And we go on a date?’
‘Now wait just a minute—’
‘But if I win,’ he continued, interrupting her, ‘all I get is a cupcake, a different one each day for a month?’ She nodded. ‘Can I at least choose the flavour? Or have some say over what will be presented each day?’
‘Okay,’ he said, calmly and confidently. ‘You’re on.’
* * *
Caden checked over his cupcakes, ensuring they were perfectly presented on the oblong crystal platter. The chocolate sauce dribbled over the piped Baileys and chocolate frosting made them look so enticing. The shaved dark chocolate sprinkled over the top, though, was bound to push his entry into the winner’s circle.
Not that he really wanted to win. Not now. He’d much rather lose this competition and win the bigger prize.
A date with the scrumptious Sophie Park.
Just because she hadn’t agreed to going on a date, didn’t mean he couldn’t turn her dinner in his restaurant into something resembling one. Assuming she won the competition. He wasn’t cheating. He was being strategic. And in the war to win Sophie’s heart, he’d use every weapon at his disposal. If she didn’t win, he’d have a month of cupcakes to win her over.
He watched as Sophie finished decorating her creations with a creamy frosting that made his look way over the top. She even had her cupcakes arranged on a plain white plate, ready for the final judging. Now she was rummaging around, looking for something or other. He couldn’t even guess what it was.
There was just over a minute to go until the gong sounded. She was cutting things fine. A bit too fine, if you asked him. Didn’t she want to win? Had their side wager been the catalyst for her giving up completely?
He frowned. That didn’t sound like the woman he’d come to know over the last three months. Determination and feistiness were her usual way of dealing with things. It’s what he loved about her. That ability she had to challenge him at every turn. To keep him on his toes.
So, no. There was no way she was giving up.
His mouth fell open as she sprinkled a light coating of coarse salt over the frosting on her cupcakes.
Salt. On a cupcake?
She then proceeded to place some small green-spotted paper straws on an angle into each cupcake’s frosting. This was followed by a thin, quarter slice of lime delicately placed on the edge. He straightened his spine as she quickly grated the skin from one lime over the whole lot, covering the frosting of each cupcake with small lime-green speckles. His heart started pounding and his hands became sweaty. Sophie stood back, her eyes intent on her creation.
They looked exquisite, better than any cocktail he’d ever seen. Just like her. A bit of bite with a whole lot of sweet undertones.
The gong sounded as Sophie smiled.
* * *
Caden watched from the kitchen doorway as Sophie was seated at the table he’d set aside in the most private part of his restaurant. It had taken her two weeks to turn up. But finally, she was here, inside his restaurant for the very first time.
Seeing as he’d be joining her, he’d impressed upon his best chef how important this meal was. He didn’t expect any trouble. At least as far as the food and service went anyway.
He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.
‘Good evening Sophie,’ he said, unable to keep his eyes from wandering over her body. She had on a nice dress and had her hair done in some sort of updo. She looked so stunning he could hardly breathe, let alone think straight. And of course, his heart was skipping and racing like it always did around her.
‘Caden,’ she replied.
Her eyes went wide as he sat down opposite her and proceeded to pour her a glass of wine. A bottle he’d selected and had had waiting on the table.
‘What are you doing?’
He stared into her wonderful green eyes. Her question wasn’t just a polite enquiry. It was a challenge. He grinned. Oh, how he loved every sassy inch of her.
‘I’m joining you for dinner.’ He shrugged. ‘Though I had imagined somewhere a little different for our first date.’
* * *
Sophie had heard all about the wonderful food and the first-class service in Caden’s restaurant. Now she’d experienced it firsthand. And it didn’t disappoint.
Nor had the company.
She certainly hadn’t expected Caden to join her, that he’d eat a meal with her. But she was very glad he had.
Of course, she’d told him this wasn’t a date. How could it be, when she’d won her dinner fair and square. Naturally, he’d insisted this was a date, whether she acknowledged it or not. And, yes, he’d been funny and entertaining while they’d eaten their dinner. Indeed, he had acted like this really was the start of their romantic relationship.
And of course, she’d spent the entire evening imagining just what that would be like.
‘Have you got room for dessert Sophie?’ he asked.
Her pulse raced as she wet her lips, glancing across the delightful candle-lit table into his wonderful blue eyes. He was leaning forward, his lips parted slightly, his whole attention on her.
Before long, a cupcake was placed in front of her.
‘What’s this?’ she asked, smiling. Because, hello, cupcakes for dessert? Seems he’d finally come around to seeing just how important these little cakes were at last.
‘I thought I’d create something special for our first evening together.’ His eyes shone as he leaned even closer towards her, a gorgeous grin lighting up his face. ‘So, I made these for you.’ He indicated the cupcake in front of her. ‘And, in honour of your triumph, I added a little something extra to make things interesting.’
And oh boy, had he. The chocolate-dipped strawberry imbedded into the pale pink frosting added that touch of class that was all Caden.
Without hesitation, she cut into the cupcake with her dessert fork and popped a small portion into her mouth. She widened her eyes as the taste of champagne, with a hint of strawberry, expanded within her mouth.
He nodded. He took her hand into his, his grip firm and light at the same time. Almost absently, his thumb began caressing the back of her hand, sending tingles and jolts of electricity through her.
‘Now, will you finally agree to go on another date with me?’
Warmth spread over her as a spontaneous smile caused her cheeks to ache slightly, one she couldn’t hold back even if she wanted to.
This was really happening. The possibility, three months in the making, something she hadn’t dared hope for, was finally happening. Here. Now.
And, hopefully, for all their tomorrows too.
‘Maybe,’ she replied, her tone intentionally mischievous.
At his shocked look, she giggled, not at all remorseful for making him worry.
‘Of course, Caden. I’d love to.’
Yes, the cupcakes in my story do really exist. Here’s the recipes, in case you want to give them a try: