Unexpectedly His

By: Maggie Kelley

Chapter One

“Gee, how long can I be sexy?”

—Marilyn Monroe

Marianne McBride sat inside the darkened cake, her serious, efficient brain full of second and third and fourth thoughts. She pressed her palms into the sides of the moving confection and drew in a deep Ujjayi breath. She should be at home, peacefully drinking Chardonnay, watching The Seven Year Itch, not freewheeling into a birthday party.

“Are you ready, M.A.?” asked Jane Wright, bestie, boss, woman at the helm of the cake. The dark-haired Mila Kunis look-alike wore a curve-hugging LBD and an encouraging smile. “All that time studying Marilyn, doing Zumba, shaking your groove thing is about to pay off.”

Was she ready? Her heart was hammering so hard, she could hear it echoing against the interior walls of the flippin’ cake. What was she thinking? Exploring her inner siren! She wasn’t a siren. For heaven’s sake, she’d blushed at the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated when she’d stumbled across it on her ex-fiancé’s nightstand. Exactly. Her blush, his nightstand, and Sports Illustrated were only three of the reasons she’d agreed to strap on the ruby red heels. And not the most compelling reasons. She’d already spent too many sleepless nights analyzing her ex’s claim that she was prudish and unadventurous in bed. Certainly pouring her curves into a silver-spangled burlesque costume and climbing into a birthday cake qualified as adventurous.

Another breath. “I’m ready, Jane. I can do this.” Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Just a step, a confidence-building excursion. ”I want to do this.”

“And you’re sure, right?” Her friend’s voice held a hint of uncharacteristic hesitation, and the cake rolled to a stop. “Because you’re going to be amazing. Better than the actual cake girl.”

The double-booking of the actual girl was the reason Marianne was tucked inside the cake. This was not her usual Friday night. But not one to change course once she’d processed the analytics—and statistically speaking, this particular venture should accelerate the process of liberating her inner siren by 42 percent, plus or minus a few percentage points—she adjusted the feathery mask she wore in place of her horn-rims and drew in one last fortifying breath. “I’m sure.” Marianne closed the pop-out top.

And the cake began to roll.

As they moved from the back office toward the main bar, Jane nattered off a list of instructions and advice. “Take it slow—you don’t want to trip over the edge of the first tier. Remember to breathe, smile…” More words filtered in through the papier-mâché walls. “Music…spotlight…glasses on the vanity.” She tried to process them, but her practical brain had left the bar nineteen minutes and forty-two seconds ago.

Finally, the cake came to a stop, a bit like Marianne’s heart, before it started pounding against her sequin-covered chest. She heard Charlie Goodman, owner of the bar and Jane’s fiancé, step up to a microphone. “Tonight we’ve got a surprise for the man of the hour.”

Oh God, she was starting to sweat. There was a loud click, and she felt the heat of a spotlight hit the cake. She drew in a breath as burlesque-style music burst from the sound system, its throbbing beat her cue to exit in a hail of tiny paper squares.

Inner siren, don’t fail me now.

She burst out of the cake in one swift, just-close-your-eyes-and-do-it motion and the crowd in the dimly lit bar erupted in appreciative applause. Confetti flew everywhere, through the air, down the layers of the cake, into her cleavage. The rhythmic thump of the music seeped under her skin, boosting her confidence. Tomorrow, she’d happily welcome back plain, efficient Marianne. But tonight? Her inner seductress was tossing caution to the wind like confetti. This was her subway grate moment.

Her Marilyn moment.

As she shimmied over the rim and down to the second layer, her eyes scanned the crowd, hoping for a glimpse of the birthday bad boy, but without her glasses, she couldn’t see past the last layer of the cake. Then a slow, measured movement at the blurred perimeter of the spotlight caught her attention.

Nick Wright.

He stood apart from the lively crowd, his hands buried deep in the pockets of his dark, sleek pants, and for a second, she literally stopped breathing. Behind the mask, her eyes drifted a shade lower. He was just…wow, the whole tall, dark, and handsome package, with a set of incredibly broad shoulders that made a girl feel like she could let down her walls and rely on him to hold her up.

She lifted her eyes to find his gaze settled on her. Looking at her the way he looked at her in her dreams. Eyes locked on Nick, she ignored the faint trembling at the edges of her body and focused on her instructions. Settle onto the second tier, sing happy birthday, and blow a kiss into the audience. When you’re finished, Charlie will roll you out of there. Except now her arms were shaking. Not to mention her legs.

The room grew quiet, all attention focused on her as she moved to the next tier. She stumbled, briefly, a small mistake that she caught quickly enough to be sure no one had noticed. Perched safely on the second tier, she drew in a breath and started to sing in her best Marilyn. Happy birthday to you…

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