One Gingerbread Extravaganza competition. One cynical judge. One holiday-loving baker. Four challenges, and a pinch of spice ...
Nate Miller has never entered a televised baking competition before. But he’s good at gingerbread, he loves flavor, he adores the holiday season, and he’d definitely like $25,000 and the publicity for Nate’s Bakes. He’s here to win -- but also to have fun and enjoy himself. Too bad one of the judges has a reputation for ice-cold critiques and precise perfection ... along with a gorgeous smile, killer cheekbones, and a delicious air of command.
Marcus LeGrand knows his reputation: sharp, chilly, and demanding perfection. He’s great for ratings, and baking-show audiences love his sarcasm and his expertise. But he’s getting tired of being the bad guy, intimidating everybody, never getting close. He’s here to judge this competition, and he’ll do his job…but Nate’s persistent friendliness, terrible holiday sweaters, and decadent gingerbread just might make Marcus want a taste.
The kitchen chemistry’s instant, but Nate and Marcus will have to resist temptation in order to make it through the competition ... and achieve their Gingerbread Dreams.
Nate’s turn. Round one. First challenge. First of four. Time to show off what he could do.
For the money, for the prestige, for the chance at a bigger bakery and expansion and more publicity. For the joy he felt when making people happy with a taste, a sensation, a cozy shared bit of indulgence.
Maybe, just a little, to show Marcus LeGrand what he could do. To impress those wintergreen eyes.
He set out plates. Cleared his throat. Time to be himself, as hard as he could: the person who liked silly sweaters and hot guys, and who loved every gingerbread holiday crumb.
“This particular gingerbread recipe is based on my grandmother’s. She taught me how to bake -- some of my best memories are in her kitchen, especially around the holidays. This version’s got some updates, though. A little extra spice.” He paused, threw in a grin, batted eyelashes at the judges. At Marcus in particular, who got more stiff-backed and astonished. “I like a little extra spice in my life.”
Miranda and Eric laughed. Marcus looked as if he was trying not to; his lips twitched.
“So,” Nate said, “I hope you enjoy them,” and took a couple of steps back and waited.
Miranda nibbled a gingerbread heart. Eric took a large bite, and both eyebrows went up. Marcus actually cut his in two, very precisely, no doubt inspecting the bake and the texture, and then bit into a half.
And made a small noise. An honest-to-God happy noise. Blissful.
Nate couldn’t not grin more, though he tried to squash the exuberance. Marcus LeGrand had just made that sound. About something he’d baked.
He wanted to jump up and down and cheer. He wanted to dance under the preposterous exuberance of on-set holiday lights and garlands. He wanted to lean in and kiss Marcus, to taste those lips with traces of cinnamon and molasses and pepper, and to see if he could earn that soft pleased sound again.
He stood in place and beamed. The glow spread all the way to his toes.
Marcus cleared his throat. His fellow judges were regarding him with some awe and some startlement. “That ... is an excellent piece of gingerbread, Nate. You should be proud.”
“Me and Grandma Louise,” Nate said, mostly just to see the expression and a little to give his grandmother the credit. She’d been his inspiration and his cheerleader; she would’ve loved this, he knew.
Marcus cleared his throat again. “Yes. Well. Well done. I was worried from your description that you might be in favor of too much spice, but it’s perfectly balanced with the sweetness.”
Had that come with a double meaning? Innuendo? A warning, or approval? Nate couldn’t quite read the tone. Maybe Marcus just approved of holiday flavors.
“It’s delicious.” Miranda was nibbling more. “I could eat this whole plate. The cloves and allspice you’ve put in blend so well with the richness of the molasses, without being overpowering ... I’d like to hear more about your recipe later.”
Eric put the whole rest of the cookie in his mouth, and said around it, “That’s how good it is. You did not come to play, man.”
“Oh, I’m here to play,” Nate corrected. “I do love the holidays. I love feeding people. I’m having fun. But I can have fun and be awesome. I’m good at multitasking.”
The judges laughed more. Marcus did that skeptical eyebrow-lift again, which Nate was guessing meant he was amused and cranky about it.
A memory drifted up like oven-heat. Marcus out in that little space behind the studio. Face tipped up to the sun. Less guarded, more wry, more touchable. Offering reassurance that an accidental meeting was okay.
Nate, under set lighting and glittery tinsel, thought briefly about other situations in which Marcus might reassure him. Might touch him. Might rest one long-fingered commanding hand at the nape of Nate’s neck, or stroke his hair, or press gently down and bring him to both knees.
Marcus, he thought, would be stern but kind. Surprisingly so, given that reputation for precision and perfection. Someone who’d care for a nervous contestant, who liked sunshine, who made tiny happy noises about a cookie he enjoyed.
Those were not wholesome camera-friendly thoughts to be having, mid-judging.