Habitual playboy Alex Scheff is looking to drown his sorrows, but instead discovers that he may have a weakness for Englishmen who carry cookies in their pockets. Can a seemingly incompatible pair find the recipe for love in a relationship they claim is casual?
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I COULD JUST GO home. I really could.
Craig props his chin on his hand and stares through the plate glass window, through the large, swooping white and gold letters that spell out Sucre Coeur — backwards of course, from his safely indoors perspective — as a tiny red Toyota goes careening down Queen Anne Avenue. The car's tires slide over the ice-sheened asphalt in front of the bakery, and Craig winces as it squeals through the intersection. Assuming I would make it home. The odds look good for neither pedestrian nor driver.
A decade of Januaries in Seattle and he has still not quite come to grips with the danger factor of winter here. Not that his native England hasn't got its share of dangerous cold weather, but he'd had eighteen years to get used to that before he took off for the States. By similar reckoning, he'll acclimate himself to Seattle nicely by his thirty-sixth birthday.
Then he'll move somewhere else. With a beach.
Craig observes how very, very far the sugary sprinkle of snowfall is from warm white sand, and sighs.
"Don't worry," says a voice, bright with amusement. "It could snow ten feet, and you'd still find a way to make it to the pub."
Adrenaline sends Craig spinning to face the voice while simultaneously jumping what must be a good foot into the air: not his most graceful moment. Heart racing, he collapses against the register stand. "Don't sneak around like that!"
Laughter, light and airy and free of any remorse or contrition whatever, floats from the depths of the bakery kitchen before the owner of the voice emerges and pools of shadow resolve into the diminutive shape of Sucre Coeur's best decorator. "Right," Sarita says, dropping the pink plastic trays she's carrying onto the marble top of the display case with a crash, "because when I'm wearing Docs and carrying a stack of trays, I am totally a sneaky ninja. Not my fault you weren't paying attention."
This is not an argument he will win with any dignity or grace, Craig understands — best not to try. "I didn't realize you were still here. Thought you'd gone out the back entrance when you started the dishwasher. I heard the door."
"I did go out the back entrance, to take the garbage out to the dumpster. As is part of my duties when closing, much like washing the display trays and putting them back." With exaggerated care, she pulls open the display cases and starts returning the trays, widening her already large dark eyes in mock astonishment. "Ooh, look, doing my job, ooh, I'm a freaky quiet ninja-slash-decorator."
"All right, you've made your point; I wasn't paying attention, shut it." He sticks his tongue out at her as he tugs at one of his dreads, willing himself to calm down, already.
"Weren't doing your job, either," Sarita observes, arching one delicate black eyebrow. "Register count? Inventory? Time off slips?"
Craig snorts and reaches beneath the counter for a zip bag and a manila envelope. "Done and dusted, thank you very much."
"Because you have to get to the pub, because it's Thursday." Again the mock innocence as Sarita closes the display case. She pretends to dust her thin hands together and hold them out for his inspection. "Yes?"
"Because our esteemed employer is coming to pick up the money and paperwork on her way to the airport; she's got a red-eye to Brussels." He draws himself up to his full five feet, eleven inches, more out of a reach for dignity than any attempt to intimidate Sarita, who is possessed of the impressive implacability of a Galápagos tortoise. "I always have the paperwork done early for Theodora anyway, whether she's off on holiday or not. I think I resent the implication you're making."
"That you go to the pub every Thursday, rain or shine or snow, because you have a routine and you like your routine?" She pokes at the messy bun of black curls piled atop her head, a pile that adds a good three inches to her height. Her attitude adds another foot at least. "What's to imply?"
"You make me sound dull." Craig pulls his coat and hat from the cupboard below the register and stacks them next to the zip bag and envelope. He checks the pockets of the puffy blue anorak, making sure the wax paper bundles he stashed away earlier are still there, and slides a glare at Sarita and her amused eyes. "I like things a certain way. Nothing wrong with that. That pub's got good microbrews and decent food. Not a bad place to spend a couple of hours before I go home."
"Alone, because you don't pick up anyone at the pub." Sarita rolls her eyes as she tugs her own winter gear from the cupboard and slips into a bright pink coat. She yanks a bright rainbow-knit cap down over her hair and tucks her stray curls under the wool. "Don't you — "
"Alone, because I usually have work to do when I get home from the pub," he retorts, raising his voice to carry over whatever lecture she is about to deliver about the human condition. His human condition, specifically. In the four years they've worked together, he's heard a thousand of these lectures, and they've only gotten worse since Sarita decided to enter the University of Washington's graduate philosophy program. God spare me the philosophy grad student's view of the world. "Which, tonight, includes a review of that blues band we saw last week. The arts district wants it for the debut issue of their new quarterly. I've got a deadline." He raises an eyebrow at her. "See? I don't only ever go to the pub. And I am not always alone. Took you with me that time."
"I didn't say you only ever go to the pub, I said you never deviate from routine, and your routine is that you go to the pub on Thursdays and you never go home with anyone," she corrects, her irritation and stern tone at distinctly stark odds with the fuzzy pink mohair mittens she's pulling on. "And that's —"
"A perfectly acceptable way to live, for me and a thousand other people in this world," he says, feeling no guilt or shame over interrupting her twice. Well. Perhaps some guilt. His mother would have shot him for being so rude. "It's nice. It's quiet. I like nice and quiet. My life is perfectly satisfactory by my standards, which is a good thing, as it's my life and all." Craig pauses and takes a closer look at Sarita. Tonight, at close range, her implacability seems more like a veneer than second nature. "Hey. What's your problem? You're giving me more shit than usual this week."
She knots a rainbow scarf at her throat with more aggresÂsion than is generally required for the task. "Nothing."
But Craig Oliver is the middle-ish child of a rambunctious, English, Caribbean and Scottish family, with all the patience such a position in life has forced him to develop, and so he stands and waits while putting on his own cap and gloves and he keeps a steady eye on her.
She gives in with a sigh and another of her expert eye-rolls but doesn't look at him, seeming to prefer instead the apparently fascinating sight of her mittened hand stroking the black and white marble top of the display case. "Sengupta family dinner tonight."
That is not usually something that upsets her to this degree, so Craig casts about for something that might. Ah. There. "So your sister and her husband are in town," he guesses — correctly, if the tight, flat line of Sarita's mouth is anything to go by.
Craig has never met Anjali Bhattacharyya, but watching the aftermath of clashes between Sarita and her enormously homophobic elder sister over the last several years has made him strongly question his pacifist tendencies. There's someone who'd benefit from a long dunk in Puget Sound. Repeated ones, perhaps.
Sarita's mouth is still compressed into that thin line. Her tan face is a bit paler than usual, which makes her eyes stand out and appear even more dark and enormous. Craig puts his hand over hers, stilling the swish of wool over marble.
"Hey," he says, tilting his head to try to catch her evasive gaze. "Hey. Come on. Skip it, hey? Come out to the pub with me. Have a pint, split a basket of chips. We'll go back to my place and listen to the CD that band gave me. You can help me with the review. Yeah?"
She shakes her head. "Can't." Her voice is hoarse, almost too soft to hear. "Devesh is out of town, that rat, so I have to go. I've skipped too many anyway. Damn it." The deep breath she takes in seems to go all the way down to her toes. It must give her the boost she needs, because when she looks up at Craig, her eyes are bright again. "It's fine. I'll be fine. Really. Mama always speaks up when Anjali gets too stupid anyway. I mean, Devesh is better at it, but 'Oh no, sorry, Reeti, Sunil and I just can't miss this Yorkie breeders' meet-up.'" The contempt in her snort could power a small car engine. "What good are big brothers if they're not there when you need them?"
"I can fill in," Craig offers, winding his scarf around his neck. "Go with you to dinner. I like your mother's cooking. Is it biryani tonight? With the mutton? Love it when she does that."
Sarita's laughter as she swats at him is heartening. "Oh, God, because a gay black Englishman at the dinner table wouldn't be more shocking to Anjali than any of the girls I've brought home!" She lets out a hoot. "No thanks, Craig. I appreciate the offer, seriously, but I've got to learn to deal with her one of these days." She gets up on her tiptoes and is only just able to plant a kiss on his cheek; she has to tug him down by a loop of his scarf to do it. "Nah, I can do it. You go to the pub. Find someone else to rescue."
"I could go home," he says, feathers ruffled again. "You know I could."
Sarita pats his coat sleeve. "You won't."
I bloody well will. "I'm going to."
She's just starting to tilt her head and smile when the bakery door crashes open, its cranberry-painted frame smashing into the white tiles of the wall and making the jingle bells on the knob shriek in cacophony. "Sorry I'm late," Theodora gasps. She motors into the bakery on impractically high-heeled suede boots, a swirl of blonde shag and pashmina and Opium. "Quick, hand over the deposit; I'm going to be late to the airport as it is and I know you're going to want to get to the pub, Craig."
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Craig groans.
CRAIG CAN'T FIGURE out if he's proving a point by going to the pub or not. It's too late, of course.
He's already here, standing outside and glaring up at the sign.
"There's nothing wrong with a routine," he grumbles and brushes a flake of ice from his face, where it has been numbing a pinpoint-sized spot on his face for five minutes. "Nothing wrong with peace and quiet. I get by. I like it."
He really does, so why is he so annoyed by Sarita's needling? He's got the solitary life down to an art form, a thing of beauty. He's got his work managing the bakery; that pays the bills. He's starting to get a decent amount of freelance work writing for publications around Seattle; that feeds his soul. He doesn't like going to clubs all the time; he's happy to go home to the cozy third-floor apartment he rents from Theodora, have a cup of tea and listen to music or watch a movie.
Here and there, when he wants it or needs it, he can find someone to spend a night with. Sex is just another need to fill. He's got enough to do looking out for himself, and he's content with it; no need for anything longer-term.
So why, again, is he standing outside The Order of the Garter, glaring up at its blameless blue-lettered heraldic sign and arguing with himself?
"Because I'm right, and there's nothing wrong with routine," he snaps aloud, startling a pair of rugby-jerseyed fellows who have just shoved the mahogany and glass door of the pub open into his face. His cheeks go hot and he ducks their glances as he shoves past them into the warmth of the pub. What the hell. He's cold, it's warm inside and he has earned a pint, blast it.
"Craig!" The wave of a hand catches his attention, and he has to smile as he unwinds his scarf and skirts the crowd that's watching and betting on the boxing match on the big-screen television. The hand belongs to Katie, his favorite of the Garter's many bartenders and the reason he prefers to come here on Thursdays. He likes her constant parade of changÂing hair colors — a return to last autumn's red-streaked black this time — and elaborate facial jewelry, not to mention her relentlessly cheerful demeanor and the way it contrasts with her vast wardrobe of fishnets and black lace. Certainly not the usual girl you find behind the bar at a sports pub.
It helps that she's the only bartender there who remembers what he likes and pulls a glass whenever she spots him coming through the door. Craig likes the look of the pint glass she's got in her hand. He pushes his way through the heaving, murÂmuring crowd of UDub students clogging the tables in the middle of the pub — law students, from the sound of it, and all of them about three happy sheets to the wind if his judgment is any good — and aims for a spot as far from them as he can manage. He stops near the end of the bar, a couple of spaces short of a limp, possibly unconscious fellow in a gray woolen pullover who has collapsed in a precarious pile on top of the very last stool, and shrugs off his coat. "Tell me that's something good, Katie love. It looks good."
"Does it look like your favorite oatmeal stout?" she asks, green eyes bright, as she slides the glass down the length of the polished bar. She's clearly pleased with herself; she sticks her beringed hands into the pockets of her apron and rocks back on her heels, watching him. "Because it is. Paul got it back on tap this morning. Said he knew you'd be in tonight."
Score a point — no, make it ten points — for routine. Excellent. Just excellent. "God, yes, Paul's timing on getting this one back on tap is perfect. Thanks." It's all the goodness of an oatmeal cookie in an alcoholic beverage, with hints of chocolate and black currant under the warm, roasted flavor of the malt, and it's his favorite microbrew that the pub offers. "Christ, that's amazing, even better than last year."
"I'll be sure to tell him you said so; he was hoping he'd improved on the last batch, and you know yours is the opinion he trusts most on this one." Katie wiggles her eyebrows and beams a hopeful little smile back at him, shoulders twitching with her eagerness. It never fails to amuse Craig that Katie is the most cheerful punk-Goth-whatever in the free world. "Got my payment?"
"'Course I have." With a wink, Craig pulls a ten-dollar bill out of his left coat pocket and a carefully bagged almond and raspberry-lemon croissant, Katie's all-time favorite baked good, out of the right. He passes them across the bar as if he's James Bond — if a very cheeky and cheery sort of 007. "You know I'll always look out for you. Keep the change."
Katie squeals and flops across the bar to squeeze him breathless, and her ponytail slaps him in the nose. She bounces off with her treat in hand and Craig shakes his head and pulls long black and red hairs from his face, as he does every time this happens. Katie really is his favorite bartender at The Order of the Garter, hell, his favorite bartender in Seattle and maybe even the world. Much too good to be working at a grotty little pub, fending off unsavory advances and spilled drinks four nights a week; that's why Craig will bring her any bakery treat she wants, anytime she wants it, until she finally wises up and gets the hell out of this place.
Time for another sip of this excellent, excellent stout. Craig reaches forward. It's a good Thursday.
Of course, that's when it takes quite the sharp turn, leaving every Seattle-pub-Thursday Craig's ever known in the dust.
"Well, aren't you a hit with the ladies," comes a surly drawl from his left, startling Craig just as he's got his fingers around his glass. "Was that a croissant in your pocket, or were you actually happy to see her?"
"Both," Craig replies, shifting around to lean on his elbow and survey the formerly silent pile of misery hunched over two stools down, the limp guy at the end of the bar that Craig had spotted on his way in. He is not unconscious after all, much to Craig's surprise; judging by the row of empty shot glasses upside down in front of him and the distinct aroma of tequila emanating a good four-foot radius from his person, he should be. Craig winces and turns away as the fumes burn his nose.
"Baked goods. That's a new one. Never saw anyone use baking to hit on the ladies before." Mr. Misery sways his head upright, pushes a wild flop of brown hair out of his eyes and swings around until he locates Craig. He blinks. "Does it work?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Definitely, Maybe, Yours"
Copyright © 2015 Lissa Reed.
Excerpted by permission of Interlude Press.
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