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"You can't do this." Dinah Hopkins glared mercilessly at the oven knobs. "I own you. You work for me and insubordination of any kind will not be permitted. Capiche?"
Her New York mobster impersonation failed to impress, for the pilot light still stared at her with one blue, unblinking eye. For lack of a better solution, she whacked the side of the cold oven with her rolling pin. Whacked. That was a gangster term, right?
"Whacked, as in end of life. As in light this minute or it's the end of my life, buster." Dinah fiddled with another knob or two, which had worked last week to get the fickle thing started, and checked the gas connection. "All's well, you iron beast, you've got gas and flame but what I need is heat. So heat. I can't exactly run a bakery with a microwave. Bakeries have ovens. Nice, obedient, toasty ovens."
The blue unblinking eye mocked her. Okay, let's try a little tenderness. "C'mon, baby, you know you want to. It's a brand new year. You see that dough over there just begging to be sticky buns? You can do that. You're the one who makes it happen. Let's get cooking." Dinah stroked the side of one burner as if she really could tickle an oven under the chin. She straightened up, blew a lock of her bright red hair out of her eyes, and listened to the hideous silence. No ticking sound, no heating metal, no hot oven.
No response. "I'm your master and I said 'heat!'"
"Don't you mean mistress?"
Dinah jumped at the unexpected male voice, spinning around ready to wield her rolling pin upon the intruder. The thing was large enough to be a weapon, that's for sure. She dropped it on her toe once and limped for a week. She pointed it now at thedark stranger standing in her doorway. For a misguided robber dumb enough to enter a business with the lights on at two in the morning, he sure looked calm. And he was barefoot. And what was with the T-shirt and sweatpants? Didn't criminals wear black cat-suits? "Who are you and how did you get in here?"
The man yawned. "Could you put that thing down?" He reached into one pocket.
"Not a chance, buster." Dinah waved the rolling pin around to let him know just how serious she was about breaking a rib or two with it. She lunged for his hand just as he pulled his glasses out of his pocket and held them out.
"Glasses," he said, fixing the expensive-looking tortoise shell frames onto his face. "Not firearms." Now he looked even less like a criminal. More like an accountant home sick with the flu.
"You've got ten seconds to tell me who you are." Dinah hoped that even in flip-flops, she could outrun him to the police station if he tried anything. Especially after she threw the rolling pin to bruise his trespassing little shins.
He scratched his stubbly chin. He had thick, dark hair. "Do you realize what time it is?"
"Time for you to get out of my bakery before I call the police. I'm sure they know what time it is."
"Sandy said you opened the bakery at six, maybe started baking at four. That was bad enough, but it's two. That's just not acceptable, no matter what you may have done in the past, so let's get that out on the table right now."
Sandy Burnside owned the building next door and hers as well. Oh no. Dinah put down the rolling pin and groaned. Sandy evidently did have a new tenant. A trespassing boor who decided it was okay to order perfect strangers around. "You're Sandy's new tenant? How'd you get in here?"
"Can I reach in my pocket again without the risk of pummeling?" The man did so and drew out a key. That still didn't explain anything. "I thought I heard something strange going on."
"My coming to work is strange?" Great. Not another one of those "the world is my territory and I must save the day" types. Dinah Hopkins was no damsel in distress and she surely didn't take to being treated like one in her own kitchen.
He yawned. "Someone assaulting an appliance in clown clothes at two in the morning is not strange?"
Dinah felt a surge of regret for the purple tank top and red striped pajama pants she currently wore. She always came down from her apartment upstairsshe had a direct stairway in the backto start the ovens and put the first batch of buns in while she was still in her pajamas. "Some stranger sneaking into my bakery at two in the morning is strange enough. Once more, for the record, who are you?"
"Cameron Rollings. Your new neighbor. I moved in above Mr. MacCarthy's office next door."
"I can't say I care for your version of neighborliness, Mr. Rollings. And do you want to tell me why Sandy chose to hand over my bakery keys to a total stranger?"
He raked his fingers through his unruly hair and straightened up. "Because I'm also your new landlord. I bought this building from Sandy last week while you were on vacation."
"You what?" He winced. She hadn't really thought she yelled that loud given her state of shock. When Sandy had casually mentioned wanting to sell off some of her real estate holdings some weeks back, Dinah had started saving. She couldn't put away much, but in another year, she might be able to make a small downpayment on the space that held her bakery and apartment. She'd never expected Sandy to sell so fast. While she was gone. To this guy. I hate him already. Sorry, Lord, but he stole my bakery. That's not fair.
"I bought this building. I'm staying in Sandy's other apartment, the one above MacCarthy's office, while I build a house on some of the other land I bought from her further out of town. So, I'm your neighbor for just a while but your landlord from here on in." He took a step toward her, adjusting his glasses. Even at this hour and in sweats, he had a well-mannered look about himsomething in the precision of his haircut, the elegance of his glasses, the way he carried himself. He looked like the kind of guy who wore a tie to work every day and got his shirts done at the dry cleaner.
Lord, you know how those suit-and-tie types make me break out in hives. Why didn't I talk to Sandy about this before now? Now I'll never own the bakery outright. Not fair! Not fair! The plan was for me to buy the bakery and own my own building!
"I had planned to come down and introduce myself properly," he continued with a hint of a smile. "You know, in the daylight. Like normal people."
"Yeah, we all see how well that plan turned out, don't we? How come Sandy sold to an out-of-towner?"
"It was a sudden thing. Anyway, formal introductions and residency requirements aren't needed to buy property in New York. Is this a Kentucky thing I didn't know about?" He yawned again. "I don't suppose you've got any coffee on?"
Dinah glared at his dodging of the question. "I wasn't planning on company. The bakery coffee machines take half an hour to heat up. My little, fast coffeepot's upstairs. Where I live. Where I go back to get dressed for the day after the oven turns on. When the oven turns on, that is." She spun in a chaotic circle, grabbing a fistful of hair in one hand. "But it's no business of yours how I start my day. Come back at six when we open . Hey, wait a minute, it is your business. Okay, Mr. what's your name again?"
"Rollings. Cameron Rollings."
Dinah straightened up. "Mr. Rollings, sir, my oven is broken. That's a landlord thing, isn't it? You own the place, you've gotta fix my oven, right?"
Rollings came over and sat on one of the stainless steel stools that stood next to the work counter. "Under normal circumstances, that'd be true. But your lease with Sandy states that you merely rent the space and all the specialized bakery appliances are your responsibility."
He was right. She'd completely forgotten about that because nothing had ever broken in the nearly year and a half she'd been running the Taste and See Bakery. That didn't really change matters, because as it stood, there wasn't anything she could do to get things baking in time to open today. Why is it the world always goes to pieces my first day back from vacation?
"On the other hand," he said, "if the oven in your apartment breaks, I guess that is my problem."
Her oven. She didhave another oven! Sure, it was about one-third the size, but it was better than nothing. "My kitchen oven works. I could put some of this in there."
"So go put some of these " He pointed to the tray of dough on the counter with one eyebrow raised.
"Sticky buns in your apartment oven. I suppose I can see if there's anything to be done down here. For the sake of my future sleeping opportunities."
Dinah grabbed one of the two trays of dough, then stopped. "You can't."
He exhaled. "I know I'm not exactly the Maytag repairman "
"You're barefoot. You can't. Regulations. You've got to have shoes on."
"Fine, I'll go upstairs and "
Dinah reached down and pulled the fuchsia flip-flops off her feet and handed them to Rollings. "Here, wear these."
He stared at them. Sure, they had polka dots on the soles, but it wasn't like she was asking him to walk down the street in them. Slowly, as if they might inflict pain once applied, he took them from her. "And what are you going to wear?"
"I'm going upstairs to my apartment. I've got thirty-four more pairs up there, so chances are I'll find something."
Cameron found himself in an empty kitchen in the middle of the night, kneeling in front of an iron stove that looked as if it had lived through World War One, in pink flip-flops.
The new year was not off to a good start.
If anyone had told him even two months ago that he'd find himself in this circumstance, he might have called security and had them thrown out of his office.
Until, of course, his boss had called security and had Cameron thrown out of his own office. Funny thing, those bosses. They don't take kindly to being told their companies are corrupt. Not at Landemere Properties where Cameron workedahem, used to workbefore he was told, in terms persuasive enough to make an employment attorney salivate, that his desk should be emptied and his resignation should be on the boss's desk within the hour.
You know, Lord, when I said that prayer asking what to do about the moral problems I was having with work? I wasn't really asking to leave my job. Or the state.
Cameron was just pondering his new sorry circumstances when Dinah Hopkins returned. In a lime green T-shirt slightly nicer than what she'd had on earlier, jeans and beaded green flip-flops. Maybe the woman really did own three dozen pairsthe greens matched exactly. She brushed her hands on the legs of her jeans. "Did you get it going?"
Other than stare at the iron monstrosity and twiddle a few knobs, Cameron realized he hadn't done anything. He was more of a microwave-frozen food kind of guyhe couldn't even remember the last time he'd turned on the oven in his old apartment. "Nothing doing. The pilot light's on, though."
"Well," she said sitting back on one hip with her arms crossed, "I know that." She paused for a moment, running a finger absentmindedly through a lock of red hair. That couldn't be her real color, could it? Tomato-red like that? Then again, with those freckles, maybe it could. It wasn't like anything else about her was subtle. "Okay, then," she said abruptly, grabbing the remaining tray of sticky buns. "We'll have to use yours, too."
"You. Your oven. Between the two ovens, I might be able to get enough buns and muffins baking to see me through the morning."
"Hey, you're up and all."
He reached under his glasses to rub his eyes. "I don't want to be." She parked her hands on her hips. He guessed she thought she was giving him a fierce look, but he'd seen far fiercer any given workdayher "ferocity" was mostly just entertaining. Like he'd just been launched into a bluegrass I Love Lucy episode without his consent. "This oven, as I just said, is not my problem to solve. I was merely trying to be helpful, but you look very resourcefulI'm sure you can get by on your own." He reached down to remove the hideous flip-flops, which didn't even make it halfway down his feet anyway, and handed them back. "I'm going back to bed, Miss Hopkins."
She put her hand out to stop the transfer of footwear. "You know my name?"
Cameron yawned again. "It did come up in the real estate transaction. Pertinent detail and all."
She pushed the flip-flops back toward him. "Well, as I see it, my oven is your problem."
It was becoming a struggle to remain civil about being roused out of bed by a flame-haired, loud-mouthed tornado in the middle of the night. "Not according to my paperwork. And believe me, Miss Hopkins, I read my paperwork." He thrust the pink monstrosities back in her direction.
"Well, if I can't open my bakery, I can't earn money. And if I can't earn money, then I can't pay my rent. So, unlessen you want to start off the year badly, I reckon it is your problem."
The Southern phraseology in her East Coast accent was just absurd. He glared at her. "Exactly what part of New Jersey are you from?"
That stopped her. "Exactly how much do you know about me?"
Exactly too much. And none of it prepared me for this. "I'm going back to bed now."
"By all means. I won't need any supervision from you. I'll just slip in and slip out, moving batches in and out of your oven. You'll never even know I'm there."
Oh, he doubted that. "No."
"Look, do you understand the concept of a bakery? It generally involves baked goods. That means baking. And you know, Mr. I'll-just-show-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-scare-the-pants-off-my-new-tenant, my day is off to a really bad start."
Cameron took off his glasses and gave her his most domineering I-am-immovable-on-the-subject look. "And you know, I can't imagine what that feels like."
That set her back a bit. As if she'd just realized most of the civilized world didn't take kindly to rising so painfully early. So early it was actually still late. The pity was just a flash across her features, replaced almost immediately by a sharp scowl. "Well, fine, then. Be like that. Just what kind of heartless beast did Sandy sell to, anyway?"
"Her nephew," he shot back. He hadn't intended to let her know that just yet, but his growing exasperation pulled it out of him. Aunt Sandy told him Dinah could be a handful.