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"You are welcome." Angela Loukas handed the plump waxed bag across her sparkling glass counter to her favorite customer, Marjorie. The seventy-something woman came daily to Angela's bakery, A Taste for All Pleasures, between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. for her next-day's breakfasttoday a cinnamon-pecan roll. Given that Marjorie weighed about a hundred pounds, Angela worried the bakery items were all she was eating. "Would you like a black-pepper fruit tart for dessert tonight?"
"Oh " Marjorie glanced doubtfully at the tiny tartsraspberries, blueberries, kiwi slices and mandarin sections glistening with currant jelly glaze and speckled with crushed black peppercorns.
"On the house," Angela said impulsively. "For a loyal customer."
"Oh, well. I can't say no to that." She reached to accept the tart, fragile hand bones extending from her flawlessly tailored coral linen suit. "I'll eat it right away. It looks too good to wait."
"I hope you enjoy it."
Marjorie took a bite and chewed carefully. "Hmm. Yes.
Very nice. But your muffins are exquisite. And those cinnamon rolls my goodness. As if God had smiled on them."
Angela kept her expression warm, but her heart sank. God hadn't smiled on the tarts? Maybe she needed to revise the recipe yet again. "Thank you, that's very sweet."
"You're welcome. I'll see you tomorrow, Angela, dear."
"See you then." Angela waved the tiny woman out of the shop, still pondering the reaction. She'd added the new section of European pastries to her year-old bakery in the last few months. So far, in spite of low prices and occasional giveaways, and in spite of Seattle's relatively sophisticated population, her customers still seemed to prefer the standard cookies, muffins, cupcakes, simple breads and other familiar baked goods she'd started with while she built confidence.
Her dream was to turn A Taste for All Pleasures into a European-style bakery known city-wide for its selection, quality and aesthetics.
Not there yet, but she wasn't giving up.
Her door chime began a phrase from one of Angela's favorite songs, Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Seth Blackstone, whose music studio was upstairs in the building, had rigged the notifier to play her favorites when customers came in.
Angela's welcoming smile got wider when she saw Bonnie Fortuna, gifted florist and owner of Bonnie Blooms, the shop opposite hers in the building she and four other entrepreneurial friends who'd graduated from Washington University together had bought a year before. Four businesses were arranged on the first floor, with individual apartments and Seth's studio/apartment combination on the upper.
"Hey, Bonnie. How's things today?"
"All good." Bonnie stood in the center of the bakery, wearing her trademark hodgepodge of styles and colors, proffering a vase of burgundy and pink alstroemeria. "Thought you'd like these. Maybe over by the coffee?"
"Ooh, those would look great, thanks." She watched Bonnie rotate the black-and-silver vase on the high counter until the arrangement sat just right against her faintly rose-colored walls. "Would you by any chance be hoping to trade for a cookie?"
"A cookie. Well " Bonnie gave the flowers one last look and nodded her satisfaction. "I could find uses for a cookie. Especially if it happens to be walnut-chocolate-chunk."
"It does." Angela handed one over. "What's new?"
"Wait, let me concentrate." Bonnie bit into her cookie and closed her green eyes rapturously, a smile curving her bright red lips. "Ohhh, these are so amazing. You are Seattle's cookie queen."
"Thanks." Angela leaned her elbows on the counter next to the register. Cookies. Yeah. Ordinary, everyday recipes she could make in her sleep. "So what's going on? Did that guy you met dancing ever ask you out?"
"Oh, him. Yeah, sort of." Bonnie made a face.
Bonnie studied her alternating scarlet and black fingernails a little too carefully. "I wasn't really feeling it."
"Why not? You don't have to marry him, just go out."
"Geez, Bonnie. You can't sit around the rest of your life wait" She stopped herself from blurting out her suspicion that Bonnie was still waiting five years later for their resident musician, Seth, whom she dated junior year until he freaked out over how serious the relationship was getting. Bonnie hadn't come close to being serious about anyone else since. "You can't avoid men forever."
"I've dated plenty. What about you? You're not exactly pouncing on single guys, either."
"I'm not ready." Angela winced at how lame the excuse sounded. She'd been divorced for three years, after nine months of a dream-come-true marriage that turned nightmare when Tom was unfaithful with the exact type of woman his parents had wanted him to marry in the first place. Annabel, aka The Princess, was tall, WASPy and aristocratic, with strawberry-blond hair, flawless skin and an inheritance the size of her chilly conceit. While there sat half-Greek wallflower Angela Loukasnot tall, not blond, not rich, not chic, and worst of all, not perfect.
"Tom was a dork." Bonnie glanced longingly at the cookies, separated from her by a cold, uncaring pane of glass. "You can do sooo much better than him."
"Maybe. If I wanted to try." She reached down and pulled out another walnut-chocolate-chunk. "It's tough to recover from that much fun."
"Oh, come on. You're telling me if the perfect man walked through that door tomorrow and asked you out you'd turn him down?"
"Ha!" Angela handed the cookie over. "First of all, I matured out of the perfect-man fantasy when Tom came home late with hickeys all over him."
"Ew." Bonnie grimace melted into bliss when she started in on the second cookie.
"I was so naive I thought there was a grand plan written somewhere, 'Tom and Angela, love at first sight until death parts them.' Yeah, right." She wiped her hands on her apron, creamy white with the A Taste for All Pleasures logo Bonnie designed in rich burgundy: various breads tumbling from a cornucopia. "Death didn't part us, his dick did."
Bonnie gave a shout of laughter, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
"I'm sorry." Her fingers lifted to let the words out. "It's not funny, except that it is."
"I know. It's funny now. Sort of. Sometimes." Angela wrinkled her nose. "I just don't know how you ever trust that love-feeling again once you've been busted up like this."
"You want to know what I think?" Bonnie's walnut-chunk was fast disappearing. "I think someday you'll meet a guy who makes you realize how effed-up Tom was. You didn't have anyone to compare him to since he was your first love."
Angela stared at her, wondering if she had any idea how that advice could be applied to herself about Seth. Probably not. Every time Angela gently broached the subject of Mr. Can't-Commit, Bonnie turned bristly with denial and stopped listening. "You may be right. But forgive me if I am not holding my breath."
"Understandable. We all have to go through our bitter stage." She started backing out, hand raised in a wave worthy of royalty. "I've gotta get back to the store. Thanks for the cookies."
"You're welcome. Thanks for the bouquet." Angela watched her scoot over to her shop, worrying that there hadn't been enough flower-selling going on lately if Bonnie's frequent drop-ins to the bakery were any indication. It wasn't easy starting your own business; the five of them had some pretty rough times just getting the building bought and renovated. Close friendship was the miracle that helped them survive, but none were taking long-term success for granted.
They'd passed the one-year anniversary of the building's grand opening three months earlier, in January. They'd named the collection of businesses Come to Your Senses after one of themBonnie, Angela thoughtrealized that their five fields represented the five senses: tasteAngela's bakery; soundSeth's music; smellBonnie's flowers; sightJack's photography; and touchCaroline's physical therapy studio, bought by a woman named Demi Anderson after their beloved friend got married and moved out of state. The building's sign, painted in whimsical, colorful letters by Bonnie, hung over the front entrance to the ornate brick building on the corner of Broadway and Olive, a great location surrounded by other businesses, with Seattle Central Community College and Cal Anderson Park a few blocks down the street, and with nearby neighborhoods housing a population that wholeheartedly embraced the concept of anything goes.
The door chimedanother customer, or in this case, a slew of them, teenagers ready for a pre-dinner appetite spoiler. Angela called Scott, her black-haired multipierced part-time student helper, out of the back where he was sweeping the kitchen, and together they got the crowd taken care of. Two tangerine scones, three pumpkin muffins, eight assorted cookies and four cupcakes. Nothing from France: mille-feuilles, croissants. Nothing from Greece: baklava, kouram-biedes. Nothing from Italia: pignoli cookies, spumenti, each recipe made with her own special twist.
Scott returned to his sweeping and Angela glared around the now-empty shop, the last coffee-drinker having vacated his table. She was not going to give up her dream of having a bakery like the ones she and Tom saw on their European honeymoon. Especially because Tom's voice was still echoing in her headstick with what you can manageas if he'd never expected her to rise above a chocolate chip cookie. As if she'd always be plain old unsophisticated Angie
Stalking out into the store, armed with a rag and cleaner, she wiped down the four small and rather rickety tables. Someday her bakery would be the talk of the town. Not for bran and bland, but for elegant and exotic. She'd be
Angela turned abruptly. Customer. She hadn't heard the chime? It meant a lot to her when people first entered the shop to be waiting attentively, welcoming smile in place. "Hi, there. May I help you?"
Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. Had they opened the gates to Olympus and shooed a demigod into her shop?
Clear blue eyes. Strong chin. Sandy hair, kept short. Golden skin. Mouth with clean lines, slightly fuller lower lipshe must be staring like a crazy person to notice all that.
And he was staring back. Expectantly. Had he answered her offer of help? Had she missed that, too? Had she gone suddenly deaf?
She scooted to safety behind the counter to stash the cleaner and regain her composure, then tried again. "May I help you find something?"
"Oh. Sorry. Yeah." He laughed awkwardly, a surprising contrast to the masculine-warrior aura he gave off. "I guess I was in another world."
Whew. So she wasn't the one who had taken that trip. "I understand. Sometimes this world is hard to take."
He looked wary, as if he thought she were about to recommend a specific alternative. "Very true."
She could not ask him again what he wanted. So she'd stand here gazing her fill while he scanned the cases until he figured it out. Now that she looked past the initial impression of "hot damn," she saw his eyes were haunted, dark circles under them; a vertical line bisected his brows; the stunning lips were set tightly. Not a happy man.
As usual, when she encountered someone in pain, Angela wanted to help. Stuffing a person with baked goods wasn't always a healthy way to deal with grief, but sometimes short-term sweetness went a long way toward curing what ailed a person.
"If you have any questions "
"I am here to buy something, not just to stand gawking." He tore his eyes away from her bread shelf, mouth quirked in a self-deprecating smile that didn't reach his eyes, but softened his features enough that Angela's heart skipped a beat. Not so much the wounded warrior when he smiled. More like a man she'd like to get to know. As a friend. A very sexy friend.
"All gawkers welcome." She returned his smile, feeling as if some internal light fixture, which had been dark for ages, was sparking signs of life. "Did you have something in mind?"
"Bread?" She gestured to the loaves he'd been ogling. "All made daily on the premises."
"No, actually." His voice broke. "I'm here for cupcakes."
Cupcakes. So much emotion in that word. What was the significance? She was dying to ask, but gestured instead to the case on her right, where rows of them, somewhat depleted by the day's purchases, were displayed. Angela decided impulsively that this particular demigod was a chocolate guy. Not devil's food or German sweet, but dense, moist, bittersweet. Possibly with coffee frosting, or caramel, but more likely chocolate sour cream. "Flavor?"
"White with white frosting."
No. No way. She was so sure, she found herself having to stop from shaking her head at him. White-on-white? He didn't get that lean, muscular body by inhaling sugar. That lean muscular body, which she had noticed keenly, was displayed to advantage in a tight athletic shirt. Below the counter she could glimpse black biking shorts hugging powerful thighs. In large, strong-looking hands he held a biking helmet.
Times like these she was very glad her cases were see-through.
"White-on-white?" She put her hands on her hips, regarded him doubtfully. "I would have said chocolate."
"Yes, usually." He glanced at the chocolate flavors, then back to her, causing a renewed buzz in her internal circuitry. "Today white."
"Birthday." His words became clipped, lips thinning. Angela nodded, wanting nothing more than to continue her interrogation, but recognizing the signal to back off. "How many would you like?"
"Six white-on-white coming up." She grabbed a flat box and pulled it into shape. "Is it your birthday?"
"No." He spoke as if he were strangling on the word.
Hmm. She glanced at him after the first cupcake, feather-light under clouds of sweet icing, had gone into the box. She wasn't going to pry if it made him uncomfortable, but she wished there was something she could do or say to help. Tom's very sensible voice spoke again in her brainWhy are you always wasting energy taking on problems that aren't yours? Yes, yes, he was right. But
"Would you like a chocolate cupcake for yourself right now? On the house?"
"I'd " He frowned, seeming to deliberate. "No. No, thanks."
As if he were tempted, but shouldn't. Diabetic maybe? With a bod like that he certainly couldn't be concerned about losing weight. Whomever's birthday he was celebrating with cupcakes he didn't care for must have power over him. Though he didn't look like the kind of man a woman could dominate.