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He took up her whole office.
At least that's how it felt to Melissa Sweeney.
Brian Montclair sat in the wooden chair across the desk from her, his arms folded over his chest and his entire demeanor screaming ''get me out of here.''
Tall with broad shoulders and arms filling out his button-down canvas shirt rolled up at the sleeves and tucked into worn blue jeans, he looked more like a linebacker than a potential baker's assistant.
Which is what he might become if he took the job Melissa had to offer him.
Melissa drew in a deep breath, brushed her long hair back from her face and held up the worn and dog-eared paper she had been given. It held a short list of candidates for the job at her bakery, Sweet Dreams Bakery. She had already hired one of the people on the list, Amanda True, but as a high school student she was only available to work part-time.
The rest of the names, once neatly typed out, had been crossed off with comments written beside them. Unsuitable. Too old. Unable to be on their feet all day. Just had a baby. Nut allergy. Moved away.
This last comment appeared beside two of the eight names on her list, a sad commentary on the state of the town of Bygones, which she had only recently moved to.
When Melissa had received word of a mysterious benefactor offering potential business owners incentive money to start up a business in the small town of Bygones, Kansas, she had immediately applied. All her life she had dreamed of starting up her own bakery. She had taken courses in baking, decorating and business management, all with an eye to someday living out the faint hope of owning her own business.
When she had been approved, she had quit her baking job at the hotel in St. Louis, packed up her few belongings and come here. She felt as if her life, after all the mishaps and missteps, had finally taken a good turn. A turn she had some control over.
She started up the bakery in July and for the past month she had been running it with the help of Amanda. However, in the past couple of weeks it had become apparent she needed extra help.
She had received the list of potential hires from the Bygones Save Our Streets Committee and was told to try each of them first. Brian Montclair was on the list. At the bottom, mind you, but still on the list.
"I want to thank you for coming here," she said by way of introduction.
"No problem," he said, glancing her way, then looking suddenly away as if unable to hold her gaze. "What can I do for you?"
"The reason I called you here was to offer you a job," she said, injecting a note of enthusiasm into her voice.
Melissa still didn't know what the people on the SOS Committee were thinking when they put this man on her list. He looked like he should be pulling wrenches, not handling the delicate petit fours, tarts and cupcakes she stocked in the bakery.
Brian pulled back, his frown making his heavy eyebrows sink lower, hooding his eyes. "A job? Here? In a bakery? That's why you phoned me?"
In spite of her own concerns about his suitability, the veiled contempt in his voice raised her hackles. "Yes. I was given a list of potential hires and your name was one of the candidates."
"Seriously? The committee gave you my name?" He slapped one large hand on his blue-jeaned thigh.
She frowned herself at his shocked anger. "I was told everyone on this list was looking for work. Why else would you think I would have called you?"
"I don't know. That's why I came. To find out what you wanted. As for your list, I sure never put my name down for working in a bakery," he said, his voice full of frustration as he shoved his hand through his shaggy blond hair, his blue eyes growing hard. "The new hardware store, sure. Maybe even the bookstore that just started up, but this bakery? Seriously?"
Melissa drew in a slow breath, trying to stifle her own growing anger with his incredulity. Though she had only been running the bakery for a month now, she was proud of what she had done here.
Bygones, Kansas, she understood, had been dealt some hard economic blows the past few years. The closure of Randall Manufacturing, a major employer, had reverberated through the town, resulting in people moving away, businesses losing revenue and some even closing down.
Then, in May, someone with deep pockets set up the Save Our Streets Committee to oversee the selection of candidates to run new businesses in Bygones. Melissa had been one of the lucky applicants.
"It's a good job," she said now, a defensive note entering her voice.
"If you like working with frilly cakes and sugar and all that stuff you've got in those cases out there," Brian said, sweeping one large hand in a dismissive gesture behind him.
"I happen to enjoy it a lot."
"Well, I'm a guy. I can't see myself baking and icing cakes."
Melissa wanted to stop the interview immediately, but she knew she would have to report back to the committee and they were quite adamant about her trying to hire the people from their list.
And given that Brian was the last one on the list..
"The hours are from nine o'clock to five-thirty with half an hour off for lunch," Melissa said, forcing herself to carry on in the face of his obvious antagonism.
Brian drew in a long, slow breath, tucking his chin against his chest and looking away from her, his hair falling across his forehead. Then he looked up at her, his blue eyes like lasers. "I can't do it."
Melissa blinked, then felt the tension gripping her ease off. Brian had been the last person, in many ways, she wanted to hire.
She could still hear her friend Lily, who ran the flower shop beside her, Love in Bloom, specifically warning her not to hire the very man sitting across from her. Apparently he had been angrily vocal in his dislike of the new businesses starting up in Bygones and especially vocal about her bakery with its useless cakes and tarts.
But at the same time she knew that when she went back to the committee for a new list, she would have to show that she did all she could. So she gave it one more college try.
"I think I think you could like working here," she said with forced enthusiasm, stifling her own frustration with his obvious reluctance. "Besides, I know there aren't many jobs available in town."
His eyes narrowed and as he leaned forward, she could almost feel the hostility radiating off him. "I don't need you to tell me that." He spoke quietly but forcefully.
"Of course," she said again, wishing she didn't feel so intimidated by him.
Brian's eyes ticked around the office with its bare walls, then behind him, as if assessing the situation. The office was just off the sales counter of the bakery. Through the door she saw a portion of the glass cases holding the squares, cupcakes, tarts, cookies and pies she had baked this morning. Her feet still throbbed from being on them since five o'clock this morning, but it was a good feeling.
Brian turned back to her and pressed his hands against his thighs as he stood, filling up the small space even more.
He drew in a deep breath, his lips pressed together, and gave her a curt nod. "Thanks for the job offer, but no thanks."
He held her gaze a split second more and for the tiniest moment, Melissa felt a nudge of regret. In another time and another place she could acknowledge his rugged good looks, the line of his jaw.
But not here. And not now.
And not after what Jason did to you.
Melissa buried that thought again. Jason was in the past. She was in another time and a better place and she was her own person and her own boss in charge of her own life.
Girl's got to take care of herself because no one else will.
Her mother's constant mantra rang through her mind as she got to her feet.
"Thanks for coming in," she said, trying not to let her relief show.
Brian held her gaze another moment, as if he could sense her relief, then he gave her another curt nod, turned and marched out of her office, around the counter and out the door.
When she heard the door fall shut behind him, she dropped back in her chair. Her hands were still shaking. Goodness he was upset and she shouldn't be surprised.
At least this obligation had been taken care of. She could strike his name off her list.
The next thing to do was call Dale Eversleigh, her contact person on the SOS Committee, and let him know she had done her best with the names the committee had given her. Surely there had to be someone else in Bygones who was not only capable but willing to work in her bakery.
Just then the buzzer sounded, announcing another customer. Melissa glanced at the clock on the wall of her office. Amanda was still busy in the back. So Melissa caught the pink-and-white-striped apron off a hook, slipped it on and went out to greet her next customer.
A young man stood in the center of the bakery, hands in his pockets, brown hair brushed back from a narrow face frowning as a young woman flitted along the glass cases oohing and aahing over the contents, her dark ponytail bobbing as she crouched down and then straightened as she inspected everything. The cases held cupcakes with pink fluffy icing, cookies spread out on white paper doilies, cakes with pink trim and trays and trays of sugary squares and puffs piled up in fancy little displays. "Would you look at all the good stuff here?" she said, her voice full of awe.
"I'm looking at the prices," the young man said, frowning at the blackboard Melissa had up on one wall with the amounts written on it. Amanda, the young girl who worked at the bakery, had written the list of offerings up in colored chalk, decorating it with fanciful flowers and flourishes. "Now that Dad's not working anymore I can't afford anything here."
"But, Rory, it's all so lovely," the young girl said, pouting at him as she rested her hand against the case as if trying to touch the tarts inside. "I'm sure it's worth every penny."
"And I don't have as many pennies since Dad got laid off from the police department," Rory said. "We can grab a chocolate bar at The Everything around the corner. Be way cheaper."
"But not as good." In spite of her reluctance, however, the young girl straightened and with one last, longing look at the pastries gave Melissa an apologetic smile. "Sorry."
Then they left.
Another satisfied customer. Though the bakery was busy enough to require extra help, she had come across resistance to her priceseven though they were more than fairand resistance to her presence. Small towns, she thought, turning away from the counter, Brian's unwilling countenance slipping into her thoughts.
"Sorry I wasn't helping you," Amanda called as she came out of the storage room at the back of the bakery lugging a large yellow pail. Tall and thin, with curly brown hair and what Amanda said were True Blue eyes, she didn't look strong enough to carry the large bags of flour and pails of shortening Melissa used. "I saw you were busy with Mr. Montclair so I figured I'd get the shortening out to soften. But I couldn't find it right away and had to go digging." She set the pail down on the wooden counter, her hair coated with a layer of dust. "What's the matter? You look ticked."
"It shows?" Melissa pushed out her lower lip and blew her bangs out of her face with a sigh of frustration. "I just lost a customer and tried to hire Brian Montclair."
"You tried to hire Brian?" Amanda looked at her, her blue eyes wide with surprise. "I heard him at The Everything when the bakery first started, you know, saying he wasn't comin' to any of the new businesses if he could help it. 'Wasn't working for no city slickers,' he said." Amanda's last words rose up as if on a question. "Surprised he would come for an interview."
Though only a teenager, Amanda was a lifelong resident of Bygones and had been filling Melissa in on the many and varied people living in the town, their history and connections.
"He didn't know it was an interview when he came," she said. "But he didn't want the job."
"Not surprised. He's more of a mechanic than a baker."
Guess she had him pegged after all, Melissa thought.
"Got lotsa cake pops left," Amanda said as she pried open the lid on the pail. "We don't need to make any tomorrow."
"That's too bad. I thought they would sell better," Melissa said, picking up her checklist for what they needed to make for tomorrow. "Back in St. Louis there was a bakery around the corner from the hotel I baked at that couldn't keep up with the demand. Lots of mothers had them at birthday parties."
"They're great and all, but people need to try them, I guess. Maybe if Mrs. Morgan has them at the wedding"
Melissa held her hand up as if to stop what Amanda had to say. "Don't even say that out loud or somehow she'll find out and she'll add them to an already overstuffed dessert menu."
Amanda grinned. "She is kinda getting carried away."
"Kinda," Melissa agreed, glancing over the amount of squares and cookies still in the case. "At least today we don't have as much left as yesterday."
She eased out another sigh, rubbing her left temple with her fingertips as she hung the clipboard back on the nail beside the industrial mixer. She'd been up since five o'clock this morning getting the bread going for the day and a spike of pain was slowly drilling into her temple.
"You look beat," Amanda said. "Why don't you go home? I'll be okay to close."
Melissa glanced around the bakery trying not to make a face at the flour dusting the floor, the crumbs spread around the cutting boards and the fingerprints she knew smudged the display cases in the front. Though she had dreamed for many years about opening her own bakery, the reality of the relentlessness of the work was settling in.
As did the fact that the success of the bakery lay squarely on her shoulders. In St. Louis, working at the hotel as a baker, she was an employee. Here, she was on her own. Though independence and the ability to support herself were what she had always wanted, she never realized how heavy the load could be.
"Okay. If you don't mind cleaning up," she said.
"Sure. No problem." Amanda flashed her a smile.
With a grateful sigh Melissa tugged her apron off just as her cell phone rang. Her heart sank as she glanced at the name displayed on the screen.
Mrs. Morgan. Mother of the groom of the wedding Melissa was baking for. Very demanding mother of the groom, she might add.
"My dear Melissa. Sorry to be a bother," Mrs. Morgan was saying in her usual hurried and breathless voice. "But I need to meet with you and Gracie. I want to rethink the dessert reception."
Of course she did, Melissa thought, leaning against the counter behind her. "When did you want to meet?"
"Tomorrow. At noon at the Cozy Cup."
"Okay. I'll be there." She ended the call and blew out her breath, catching Amanda's concerned look. "Will you be able to help me at noon tomorrow for an hour or so?"
Amanda nodded. "My mom doesn't need me then. I can easily come."
"That would be great." She pushed herself away from the counter and walked into her office. Right now her first priority was to talk to Dale Eversleigh and see about getting a new list of prospective employees.