Authors: Melissa Whittle
Tags: #aa romance, #series, #small town, #ptsd, #grief, #bakery, #coffee shop, #Alpha Hero Romance, #business partners, #Melissa Blue, #contemporary romance, #multicultural romance
She swallowed, and he stepped out of her space. Glancing around he could see most of the displays were empty, and couldn’t imagine how she would give him another helping of Late Night Tennessee.
“Follow me,” she said.
The hallway she led him down had a coat of beige paint and scrapes, hip-level, along the wall that finally opened up to a large and airy kitchen. She pointed to a squat bar stool by a large wooden island. “There’s a good place. I’ll have to heat up the topping. Might take a while.”
“I’ve got time.” He sat down onto the padded stool, clasped his hands together.
She washed hers in the industrial-sized sink. Cursed, opened one of the cabinets, and took out a plate. She placed it in front of him. “Ask about me while I cook.”
His brows furrowed. “Why?”
“You don’t go into a business deal blind. We never got personal in the e-mails. Well, Tina and George never got personal. We’ve never spoken, actually. Directly, at least. Now’s a good time as any.”
Another piece that didn’t seem to fit. “Ok,” Tobias said, but found his mind blank.
The vanilla scent drifted up at her close proximity, and then it was gone. She washed her hands again, and afterward began to take dishes out of the refrigerator. He latched onto the first thought that managed to get through the haze.
“What culinary school did you go to?”
“None, but I did go to college. Junior year my parents passed.” She paused. The silence practically told a life story. She forced a self-deprecating smile. “I was home alone a lot. Idle hands.”
She lined up the containers on the other side of the island from where he sat. “Here.” She pushed a plate of cookies his way. “That’ll keep you busy until I’m done.”
She worked around him, more like despite his presence in her space. It was hard to come up with the next question to ask, because she continually muttered to herself and backtracked. The large room had two stainless steel ovens. A windowsill over the sink held plants. They were tall and healthy. He couldn’t place any of the scents, but together they eased the awkwardness holding his limbs stiff.
Another long sigh, a drawer opened and she brought him a cloth napkin. “Sorry, forgot it.”
“Thanks.” Vanilla filled the air around him again. “Uh…”
She seemed to realize his inability to concentrate and her eyes lit with humor. “Where was I?”
“Junior year. Home a lot.”
She tilted her head until the memories washed over her. An emotion flickered on her face, something more poignant than grief, but then it was gone.
“I was the only one with a stable residence. The tribe moved in and well, there were plenty of cravings for sweets that didn’t come in some plastic wrapper. My mother had all these cookbooks. I went through three.” Her tone turned wistful. “Everyone had to go up a dress size. Would have been more if Abigail hadn’t talked me into selling my treats outside the football games, then basketball season started. I fell in love with the noise people make when something is out-of-this-world.”
He turned to see her face. “What sound?”
“You made it.” Her grin was quick and startling and felt like a sucker punch. “
and the look that says 'you are a goddess.' In that one moment everything goes away.”
“Are you talking about the look you had after tasting my coffee?”
“Probably,” she said and was off again.
She pulled down a skillet from a selection hanging along the ceiling above the expansive island he was settled in front of. It amazed him how disorganized she was in her actions, but each peek into the cabinets let him see things were lined up and in order.
He didn’t quite understand it, but Emmaline never spent more than a few moments searching for something she needed. She had bins and almost every one had a label. Bemused as he watched her, Tobias absently ate another cookie. It tasted of lemon, but it looked like a sugar cookie. It, too, was delicious.
By the time she had whirled like a tornado around the kitchen, the sink was filled with discarded dishes and the oven warmed the large room, saturating the walls in the scent of chocolate and freshly baked cake.
She frowned at the empty plate in front of him. “You don’t have a sensitive stomach do you?”
After his rookie year, only a bubonic stomach flu could deter him. “I’m fine.”
He picked up the plate and took it to the sink. Proverbially rolling up sleeves, he tested the flow of water and began to draw dishwater.
“You don’t have to do that,” she said behind him.
to, no, but I asked for more of your dessert and you’re obliging. It’s the least I could.”
She blew out a breath. “Anyway, as you know I started Sweet Tooth five years ago. I’m currently in the black.” At the end of her statement, he’d already made it through a fourth of the dishes. “Your efficiency intimidates me.”
“A wasted moment is one you can’t get back.” He wiped down a dish. “After seeing you in the kitchen…” He dried his hands on the towel neatly folded on the edge of the sink. “Tasting your food. Seeing your friends. I still can’t understand what you did last night.”
Her back was to him as she stirred caramel in a large pot. “Do you love your brother?” she asked over her shoulder.
He straightened; the question surprised him. “Yes.”
“Will you do anything to make him happy?”
He quit his job so that he’d actually be alive long enough to see his brother grow up. “Yes.”
She smiled. “Even if that means running down the street naked?”
Tobias doubted a situation would ever come up where being in the buff would be required to make his brother happy. But he understood. “I see your point.”
More pieces of her began to fit together. He sighed with annoyance and finished the rest of the dishes. A puzzle was why he’d been drawn to investigation. He wanted to know all her pieces and how they fit and that explained the tug in his gut when it came to Emmaline.
He pushed off the edge of the sink’s counter and went back to the barstool. If she hadn’t spent the last twenty minutes getting ready to serve him another Late Night, Tobias would have asked for a rain check and gotten out of there.
Her scent crept up on him, soft and tempting. The thoughts he suppressed filled his mind. Supple thighs. Silken skin. Emmaline came into his view, fully clothed. Thank God.
“Are you going to tell me your story? Fair play and all.” She blushed at the unspoken implications.
He reached up and rubbed a thumb over her heated cheek. His hand froze. The intimate touch crossed a line. Tobias drew back his hand. At her shaky release of breath, he silently cursed at himself.
“I quit my last job.” He wasted no emotion on the words. “I put together a business plan, scared up some silent partners, opened the first Caff-aholic, and then Josh was accepted here.”
Gabriella. His lover. The face of his former partner kept battering at the wall he put up. “The money they gave me and what I made is enough to keep me afloat for two years.” He shut down the memories with another breath. “Your friend, Abigail, I’ll probably need her services. I plan to go up to the college and leave some fliers, but that’s all I have so far. I was well known in Heron. Word of mouth is God.”
“It is, but
res ipsa loquitur
. Your coffee, definitely, speaks for itself.”
Digging in his back pocket for his wallet, Tobias pulled out a business card. Clumsy fingers stumbled over the cheap paper. He should have taken the cards out a year ago. He wasn’t a homicide detective anymore. She wasn’t a witness or a victim’s family member. He flipped the card around.
“Do you have a pen?”
She went to another drawer, rummaged around and then was back. He took the pen and wrote down his cell phone number.
She stuffed the card into the apron’s pocket, but didn’t step away. “I’ll give it to her.”
Tobias took in her scent, her demeanor and still couldn’t pin her down. “What do you have to gain by this?
“My first impression of you is from the e-mails. Tina and George were warm but professional. You know what you’re doing and you know what you want. Your coffee was unbelievably good, and that takes passion. I need more exposure and you’re offering it. Despite the circumstances, you helped me when you didn’t even know who I was. We’re meeting each other half-way here, for both of our benefits.”
The simple answer told him more about the woman than she could have known. Sitting there watching her open face and wide, innocent eyes, he felt more tainted by his past than ever before. Once again, he had to push down the urge to stalk out of the bakery, throwing a quick ‘forget it’ over his shoulder.
She picked up a container off the island and went to the stove. He watched, and saw her hand was steady as she drizzled both the caramel and raspberry topping. She hung the oven mitt on a handle next to a pantry door.
“I packed up enough Late Night so you can take some home to Josh.” She handed him the warm container. “Put together a proposal. I’ll have an attorney look it over and we’ll go from there.”
Tobias settled on, “Ok,” though he wanted to say more.
The sudden dinging of the bell over the door made Emma’s hand jerk. Half the platter of éclairs dropped to the floor. She cursed under her breath. All morning, anxiety and hope screwed up her normal resolve. She’d been hoping the store would suddenly be filled with the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans.
A quick glance over the edge of the glass counter made Emma deflate. She stepped over the pile of desserts that had turned to a pile of cherry goop. The syrup smeared across the front of her apron.
“I brought you the HR papers for Josh,” Abigail said. “You’ll have to white out the company name, but they’re good to go. The same procedure as before.” Abigail lifted on tiptoes to peer over the counter. She winced at the mess on the floor. “That’s a waste.”
“You startled me. Thanks.” She wiggled her fingers, covered with cherry syrup. “Put it on the counter. I’ll get to them once I clean up.”
Emma washed her hands at the sink behind the counter and was glad Abigail couldn’t see the lie forming on her lips. “Nothing. Tobias wants you to help him with some advertising.”
After drying her hands, she dug into the front pocket of the apron and handed over the business card.
Abigail’s brows rose. “Homicide. Interesting.”
Maybe it could have been interesting if Emma hadn’t seen the haunted look in Tobias’ eyes when he stated the fact. The look didn’t excuse his initial blunt reaction, but now it made sense. What all had he seen? How many times did he have to tell a family their loved one wasn’t coming back? He must have thought Emma incredibly stupid to put herself at risk for no reason.
“So?” her friend asked.
Emma snorted out a laugh. “I know you’re expecting details of how we had sex on the island in my kitchen. Sorry there’s nothing to tell. The man is exactly what he seems. Straightforward, focused and not the kind of man who would take me on the island in my kitchen. Anyone’s kitchen for that matter. I should have a business proposal no later than the end of the week and probably a design for the display.”
“Honey, I know men. He’s the still-water type, but I’m telling you once you’ve plunged there’s a world…” Abigail made a lewd noise.
A customer walked in on the noise and looked between the two women. “Welcome to Sweet Tooth,” Emma said, not missing a step. “How may I help you?”
She glared at Abigail who had the good sense to meander around the display cases. Silent. Her friend let out a laugh once the customer left.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s a wonder I get any customers with you and Sasha.”
“Because you’re a baking goddess. So, what are you going to do?”
“Abigail,” Emma gestured to the empty space between them, “meet the dead horse you’ll be beating.” She waited a moment and her friend didn’t reply. Emma sighed. “Watch the counter for me.”
She untied the dirty apron and headed to the small bathroom. On her way back to the front of the store, she grabbed a broom, dustpan and mop. The bell dinged, and the sound of a deep, familiar timbre stilled her steps.
Taking in a deep breath, she walked forward, closer to where Tobias stood soldier-straight by the door. Eyes as serious as death, he did one of those stuck in his chest kind of laughs. She wondered what it would take for him to let loose.
, came to mind. Letting himself be a man for one moment in his life didn’t count.
She shook her head at the musing. Abigail kept chatting him up about being an ad exec, which probably wouldn’t sell him on her shark-like abilities. But, when Emma really looked at him she could see Tobias was taking Abigail seriously. Then again he seemed to take everything seriously.
She stepped into view and Tobias’ gaze zeroed in on her. His midnight eyes had enough sizzle to cook a raw egg. Emma’s heart pitched forward and went off to the races, thudding fast in her chest. Maybe she had managed to plunge under those still waters.
“Hey.” She kept the tremble of nerves out of her voice.
He lifted a hand, full of papers. “Put together the proposal and an agreement.”
“That was quick. You can put it on the counter.” She lifted the mop and broom. “I can get my attorney to look it over. Don’t know when he’ll have a free moment—”
“He’ll have one,” Abigail interjected and then pursed her lips. “You know, my lunch hour is almost over. I’ll put something together for you, Tobias.” She lifted the card Emma had given to her earlier. “Give you a call.”
Could Abigail be any more obvious? Wait. Of course she could. Her friend could start wearing a shirt that had the words
Hump Him. Yes, HIM
. The idea wasn’t so far-fetched Emma wouldn’t dare joke about it. A blush rose to her cheeks. Ducking behind the counter, she cleaned up the mess. The bell above the door dinged again, and she let out a relieved breath.
With all the goop on the dustpan, she stood. Tobias loomed over the counter watching her. She jerked back and the mangled mush of éclairs threatened to upend. Tobias lurched forward and grabbed the dustpan with both hands.