“How hard is the caramel in the brown butter caramel-filled cookies?”
My head snapped up from packing a twelve piece box and my eyes searched for the guy asking the most ridiculous question I’d ever heard.
“Is it really runny? Cause it sounds so good,” he continued, groaning a little as the last word rolled off his tongue. “But I really don’t want to mess my outfit.” He bit his plump lower lip when he finished talking, the sparkle in his eyes resembling childish mischief.
I stared at him. I couldn’t help myself. He was so fucking gorgeous that I didn't care if he asked stupid questions. He could ramble all he wanted as long as I got to feed him caramel-filled cookies and lick the sauce dripping down his chin.
“Um...” He glanced uncertainly behind me at Chris as she poured a shot of espresso in a cup of frothed milk.
Realising I was staring at him, unblinking, like an idiot, I tore my eyes away, handed the lady in the queue before him her takeaway box, and wished her a pleasant evening with a charming smile.
Then I focused my full attention on caramel guy.
“I tell you what,” I said, placing my elbows on the counter. “You can have the chunky oatmeal now and I guarantee you won’t mess up your clothes.” I slid my eyes down his body appreciatively, taking in his lithe frame dressed in dark slacks and crisp green button down. “And I’ll wrap a couple of the brown butter caramels for you to enjoy later.”
A cheeky smile appeared on his full mouth and, god help me, his cheeks dimpled as he tried to contain it.
The woman behind him rolled her eyes, pointedly looking at her wrist watch.
“Cool. Thanks,” caramel guy said, lowering his lashes.
Chris appeared next to me and took the woman’s order. Double skinny latte. No cookies. I hated her even more.
I could feel Chris wanted to roll her eyes as much as I did, but she refrained and retreated to the coffee machine at the back once again.
“That’ll be one sixty five, please,” I said as I handed caramel guy his oatmeal and his packed brown butter caramels.
“But...” he began, lowering his eyes to the price labels on the display window.
“The caramels are on me,” I said.
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll pay for them,” he protested, a slight frown appearing between his brows.
“No, I insist.” The frown didn’t ease and he looked at me, straight at me, searching for something. As his clear blue eyes darkened I could see he was weighing the pros and cons of accepting my offer. “I look at it as an investment. I’m sure you’re going to love them and come back for more so I’m willing to give you a free sample.”
The woman behind him scoffed and just when I was about to turn my glare at her, Chris appeared with her coffee. Thankfully, she took it and departed swiftly, her heels clacking on the pavement.
“Alright then. Thank you.” Caramel guy said as he took his cookies from me and paid for the oatmeal. “Are you new? I haven’t seen you before, and I’ve been here every day for the past week.” He leaned a bit closer over the counter to whisper conspiratorially. “Let me just say that the blueberry and lemon cookies are to die for. And the salted caramel brownies? It’s a classic for a reason.”
I laughed and nodded, ridiculously glad that he liked my cookies.
“If I continue like this I’ll have to increase my exercise or I’ll be rolling down the hill to campus every day.”
“I don’t think that’ll ever happen,” I said, my eyes roaming over his body again.
Subtle, I know. But I couldn't help it. The guy was absolutely gorgeous and I couldn't keep my eyes off of him if I tried. His blond hair brushed his shoulders as he moved, the light playing with its natural highlights. And his eyes... His eyes held me captive in their clear blue depths.
“Oh, for god’s sake. Can you two flirt later? I’m dying for a cinnamon sugar roll,” the woman next in line grumbled, but gave me a wink when I levelled her with a look. Chris came to my rescue again and started serving the rest of the queue efficiently while I focused my attention back to caramel guy.
“Sorry, I should go. Don’t want to get you in trouble,” he said, tucking the take away cookies in his messenger bag.
“Don’t worry about it.” I waved a hand, trying to look nonchalant when my brain was desperately looking for a reason to get his name. Or number. Or get him to come back.
“Will you be working tomorrow?” A wave of relief washed over me hearing that question. He wanted to see me again.
“Yeah. Stop by any time. I’ll save you some caramels.” I grinned at him and he beamed back, pulling the strap of his messenger bag up his shoulder.
“Cool. Thanks again,” he said as he backed away and raised his hand holding the oatmeal cookie.
As I watched his retreating back merge into the crowd of shoppers and disappear I couldn't help but smile.
“Wow,” Chris said, bumping her hip with mine and folding her arms. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
“What are you talking about?” I fully intended to ignore her and focus on the customers waiting but I realised she’d taken care of everyone while I was indeed flirting with caramel guy.
“You’re swooning,” she said with glee.
“Fuck off. I don't swoon.”
Turning my back on her, I started towards the back of the tiny shop, trying to find something to keep me busy until the next wave of customers arrived.
“You are totally swooning, big guy.” She followed behind me and unfortunately there was nowhere to hide.
I turned to face her, a menacing scowl on my face. Chris completely ignored it. I knew she was seconds away from saying something that would really piss me off, so I decided to nip her attempts to rile me in the bud.
“I’m an army veteran. I have nightmares plaguing my dreams. I sustained a nearly fatal injury because I was blown up by a bomb.” The mocking expression on her face didn’t change as I took a step towards her. “I. Do. Not. Swoon.”
She burst out laughing, smacking my upper arm as she shook her head. I was glad I had a friend I could joke about this stuff with. Just over a year ago it wasn’t so easy to face my past, let alone joke about it.
“You also bake cookies for a living, and I bet my left boob that you also do it for fun.” I gaped at her. “You know, to fill the endless, empty nights you spend holed up in your house. Alone.” She emphasized the word and lifted an eyebrow.
Her attempts to set me up with ‘someone nice’ had failed miserably in the past, so she didn't even try anymore. That didn't mean she wasn’t rubbing my face in it every chance she got.
“Whatever,” I grumbled, walking to the front of the shop as a customer approached.
“You should ask him out,” Chris said when the customer departed with her box of cookies.
“The cute guy!” she whined, spreading her arms wide.
I turned to face her, taking in her pretty features – the straight nose, the plump cheeks, pouty mouth and expressive, dark eyes. Her red hair was relatively tamed today, tied in a ponytail, a black headscarf with white skulls around it. Not all women could pull that look off. Those who could, like Chris, looked edgy in a laid-back kinda way. Those who couldn’t resembled a housewife in her fifties, regardless of their age.
“Amir!” Chris sighed in exasperation.
“I’m not asking him out.”
“When was the last time you went on a proper date?”
God, she was like a dog with a bone, wasn’t she?
“Oh, I don't know. Let me think.” I made a show of looking upwards and tapping my lips with my finger. “It was a couple of months ago with that horrible junior doctor you set me up with.”
“He wasn’t horrible. You didn't even give him a chance.”
“He wore socks with sandals, Chris. On our first date. And he called me ‘bae’ before he attempted to kiss me goodnight.”
“Okay, fine. But that was months ago. You need to go out there again, Amir.”
“No, thanks. I still have PTSD from the dates you arranged for me.”
I said it without thinking, but realised my mistake when her eyes softened and all her bravado disappeared.
“It’s fine, Chris, really,” I interrupted her, a discussion about my actual PTSD the last thing I wanted to have right now. Thankfully, a customer appeared and I turned to take his order.
From the corner of my eye I saw Chris retreat to the back when she heard the man ask for a cappuccino. Her shoulders slumped as she walked and I hated that I made her upset, even if it wasn’t technically my fault. Chris was one of my closest friends and we spent so much time together that it was inevitable we stepped on each other’s toes from time to time. But seeing how my own problems weighed on her too, made me feel really bad.
Thankfully, another surge of customers lined up and we were busy until closing time, not having a chance to drag the conversation we’d started. When the last person in the queue got their cookies and waved goodbye, I dropped the shutter halfway and got ready to tidy up for the day.
“You can go, hun,” I told Chris as she came to help me pack the leftover stock. “I’ll just pack everything up and head to the centre.”
“Are you sure?”
I waved her off and nearly forced her out the door. We always cleaned up together but she’d covered so much for me over the past couple of months that the very least I could do was give her an early evening once in a while.
The thought that I should probably hire someone to help out, at least part-time, occurred to me as I packed the last of the remaining cookies, brownies, and shortbread. Chris was an amazing baker and she knew my recipes inside out, but we needed help, especially during peak times.
Cookie’s had gotten quite busy over the past few months. We could barely keep up with the lunch and evening crowd most days. On the plus side, it was making a healthy profit earlier than expected. On the other hand however, we definitely needed help.
Making a mental note to take care of that soon, I washed what was left in the sink, cleaned the counters and with two boxes of cookies in hand, walked out the door.
I heard Flo’s claws scraping the floor and rushing towards me the moment I opened the door to the John Sherwood Veteran Rehabilitation Centre. I was seconds away from being jumped on, dribbled on, and licked at by my seventy pound Labrador. Looking frantically around for a flat surface to place the boxes of cookies on before the collision, I heard a familiar voice say, “Flo, stay!”
Flo was nothing if not an obedient, well-trained dog. When we were playing she was all fun and games, but she always obeyed commands from me, or the people looking after her.
“Thank god,” I muttered as Shane approached me, Flo obediently walking next to him. Her tongue was hanging from her mouth, her tail wagging frantically, and I could tell she couldn’t wait to be allowed to jump all over me.
I loved seeing her so happy. She’d helped me a lot when I was recovering from my injuries and getting used to the idea that my left leg was amputated below the knee.
“Hey, man,” Shane greeted me, unloading the boxes from my hands. “The cookies are safe,” he declared with a smirk. “Have a go at him, girl.”
“Asshole,” I managed before Flo stood up on her hind legs, placing her paws on my chest, and licked my face with her long, wet tongue.