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In a romance novel, what is a "cinnamon roll"? It's a hero who is "sweet and gooey," said Minnesota modern romance writer Abby Jimenez, whose latest book has been topping national bestseller lists for weeks. "And you just love him."

She should know: All her heroes are cinnamon rolls. And her husband, Carlos? Total cinnamon roll.

"These are not your stereotypical romance novel alpha-male heroes, you know, that are growling," Jimenez said. "These are gentle, kind, soft heroes. They're emotionally intelligent and they're sweet."

Carpenters with six-pack abs who can whip up a mean brunch. Dreamy doctors who anxiously pen love letters and donate a kidney. You get the idea.

This spring Jimenez has been on a "surreal" ride, as her sixth book, "Just for the Summer," landed her on "Good Morning America" to celebrate the show choosing it as a book club pick.

Just a few years ago, she was better known for cupcakes than for character tropes.

The owner of Nadia Cakes (which has locations in Maple Grove, Woodbury and Palmdale, Calif.), she triumphed baking and decorating on the Food Network's "Cupcake Wars" and on the TLC show "Fabulous Cakes."

When her bakery's sparkly "geode" cake went viral in 2018 because people thought it looked like a vagina (it did), Jimenez's witty online replies ("Let's put that cute mushroom cake we had planned in the 'Do not make' file.") were the funniest part of the whole thing. So it's hardly surprising that she's become famous for the charged, playful banter that makes a romance novel impossible to put down.

Her own story arc is compelling, too. Jimenez didn't attend college or culinary school. She started her cake business out of her California home after losing her job when her three girls were still in diapers. She named the first Nadia Cakes bakery in Palmdale after her middle daughter. Then came the reality show invites.

"I am an extremely competitive person. I will run through that kitchen and do whatever it takes," Jimenez said on the Food Network in 2012.

That same year, the Jimenez family moved to Minnesota. They had wanted to open another shop, but it was too expensive in California, and they were hunting for better schools for the girls.

"We took a 23-state, cross-country trip for five weeks. And we came here, we looked really seriously. And we loved it," she said. "So, we packed up our whole family three months later and moved to Minnesota — in the winter." They couldn't have been happier.

"I was walking around taking pictures of things that you probably would not even notice. Ice crystals on plants. The snow on the tree branches. Kids ice skating on ponds," she said. "It's just beautiful and ethereal."

They rented a house in Minneapolis' northern suburbs, which they bought and still live in today — along with their "TikTok-famous" dogs. Jimenez, who uses her thumbs to type her books in a Google doc on her phone, said she's planning to set up a home office soon.

Abby Jimenez, bestselling romance author and cupcake boss, stands for a portrait at Nadia Cakes in Maple Grove on April 30.
Abby Jimenez, bestselling romance author and cupcake boss, stands for a portrait at Nadia Cakes in Maple Grove on April 30.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Love letter to Minnesota

Jimenez's love for the state comes through in her books and in the web of connected characters her fans call the "Abbyverse." Her novels are set along the Root River, in Ely and among the Christmas lights of Duluth's Bentleyville. There are mentions of Bloomington restaurant Hot Plate, local kitten rescue Bitty Kitty Brigade and even the Star Tribune. In every book she "shamelessly" name-drops Nadia Cakes.

In "Just for the Summer," the heroine is renting a cottage on Lake Minnetonka's Big Island. And the hero, well, he looks out his Minneapolis apartment window to see a giant billboard that's a fictional take on real estate agent Kris Lindahl and his outstretched arms.

As her fan base grows, Jimenez is becoming a one-woman booster for state tourism, with readers from all around the country telling her, "I want to visit Minnesota now," she said. "When they come, they do this pilgrimage where they stop at Nadia Cakes, then they go to the indie bookstore that I work with, Magers & Quinn, and they pick up some copies. It's a whole thing."

Her fans get tattoos of favorite lines from her books (posting photos to a Facebook group for Abby readers that's more than 26K strong) and order long-distance delivery when Nadia Cakes comes out with special "book-themed" treats. The Forehead Kiss, which boasts frosting tinted to match the "Just for the Summer" cover, is selling quickly.

They follow along as she shares highs and lows on social media — posting a video from the third E.R. visit in four days with her teen daughter, who manages chronic health issues, and in tears after a reader donated a kidney to a stranger, inspired by the cinnamon roll in "Yours Truly." (This one hit home, since Jimenez's own kidney condition is in remission.)

Recipe for romance

Jimenez's romance with writing began during a family camping trip in the Boundary Waters, when she told her girls a story. She decided to turn it into a young adult novel. Burned out on cake decorating and with trusted managers in place at all three Nadia Cakes locations, she finally had time to write.

The only problem? "It was a horrible, horrible YA that will never see the light of day," she said.

At an agent's suggestion, she joined the online community Critique Circle and spent as many as 12 hours a day getting and sharing feedback. She scrapped the YA book and started on a modern romance. Ever since "The Friend Zone" debuted in 2019, each successive book has outsold the next.

Her signature style weaves very real and relatable life challenges — issues like infertility, anxiety and grief — with rom-com staples like the meet-cute, the third-act breakup and the happy-ever-after ending.

But Jimenez isn't penning bodice-rippers. Her "spice" level (as sexy scenes are measured in romance novels), ranges from mild to medium. Jimenez's books are, let's say, Minnesota spicy.

At Tropes & Trifles, Minneapolis' romance-only bookstore, co-owners Caitlin O'Neil and Lauren Richards have been stocking and restocking Jimenez's books. They meet romance readers' need for a happy ending, even if the characters grapple with difficult issues.

Jimenez is "so talented at infusing sweetness and sexy tension into mundane moments: a long, private look exchanged across the kitchen table during a chaotic morning, or a moment of unexpected peace shared during a stressful day at Mall of America," O'Neil and Richards said in an email.

Jimenez uses sensitivity and beta readers as well as advisers like psychologists to make sure her portrayals are accurate and appropriate. Still, she wasn't sure her latest couple would resonate with readers as much as past pairs have. In "Just for the Summer," Justin, who is taking care of his siblings because his mom is in prison for embezzlement, woos Emma, who was in the foster care system.

"You look at my cover and you think 'Oh, this is gonna be a fun, flirty summer romance.' In a lot of ways, it is," she said. "But there's so much depth in this story. And it's gonna make you cry."

As it turns out, "Just for the Summer" has struck a chord.

"So many people are relating to it," she said. "I think it's because even though we might not have those specific circumstances in our life, we all have someone toxic in our life that we struggle to set boundaries with," she said. "I just get DMs all day long from people saying how much this book touched them."

Jimenez has already finished her next book, which is coming out next year. The cinnamon roll is a veterinarian. And you can bet there will be a happy ending.