Gianna removed a fresh batch of vanilla cupcakes from the oven and placed them next to the others to cool in preparation for the next step – frosting. In the meantime, she slid in another batch. Lemon this time, her tenth batch of the morning.
“Shrew,” she said as the oven’s heat slapped her in the face. She closed the oven door and fanned flour dust away from her immediate space. It was a useless gesture. The kitchen in her bakery looked like flour-mageddon. A disaster. The equivalent of a man who couldn’t cook tearing up his wife’s kitchen. She grinned to herself thinking of how brutal men were in the kitchen – in anyone’s kitchen – but today, she was no better than a non-cooking male. Her black apron was covered with the dusty, white stuff as well as her black, no-slip, off-brand shoes. And why on earth did she buy black aprons over white ones? She couldn’t recall a specific reason. Maybe they were on sale or something. Most likely, that was the reason. With her budget, all she could afford was sale items. Whatever the case, black aprons in a bakery just didn’t make much sense. Maybe in some upscale, fancy restaurant, but definitely not a bakery. At least not her bakery.
Gianna coughed. Fanning, again. The Boardwalk Bakery – with its pastel pink walls and ten black, tables with four chairs to each – didn’t see much action in the mornings. It wasn’t until noon that the place started jumping with customers looking to fulfill their cravings for early afternoon sugar – something to help them make it through the rest of the day on their stuffy, corporate jobs. Gianna was accustomed to the routine. It gave her time in the mornings to prepare for the midday rush, especially since the early risers who wandered through her doors only wanted coffee. Did people not eat cupcakes in the morning? Probably not since they were considered a dessert and not morning breakfast pastries. With that being the case why was she consistently opening at 9:00 a.m.? Just to sell ten cups of coffee? It was hardly worth the effort.
Maybe I should only open in the afternoons, she considered, chewing on her bottom lip as she did so. But that still meant she’d have to come to the bakery early to prepare, so—
When her cell phone rang, she ran to the back office – the only office in the bakery – to retrieve it, recognizing her sister Gemma’s upbeat ringtone. Gemma was the only contact in her phone with an assigned ringtone. That was one way to ensure that she’d never miss a call from Gemma.
“Hey, Gem. I’ve been waiting for your call. How’d it go?” Gianna asked, heaving. Coughing.
“Gianna, why do you sound like you’re out of breath?” Gemma asked.
“Because I am out of breath. When I heard the phone, I ran to the office to get it. Plus, there’s so much flour floating around in the air, I feel like I’m trapped in a snow globe. It’s all up in my lungs,” she said, fanning.
“Why don’t you crack open a door or something?”
Gianna chuckled. “It’s flour, Gemma. Not smoke.”
“Laugh now, die of flour inhalation later.”
Gianna laughed again. “Anyway, silly, tell me how it went. Was it bad?”
“No. Well, it’s bad that I have to get chemo, but—” Gemma blew a breath. “I just hope it works. I want to be around to bug you for a very long time.”
“And I want you to bug me,” Gianna said with the cell phone pinched between her left ear and shoulder while she carried a tray of her best-selling butter pecan cupcakes to the front. She would put them in the display case when she got off the phone.
Leaning against the counter with her back towards the entrance, she crossed her legs at the ankles and held the phone with her left hand again. “So, you can’t give me any more details about the procedure?”
“No, and we don’t have to talk about cancer every time we speak, Gianna.”
“I know. I know. I’m just concerned. That’s all. Can’t I be concerned for my whittle sister?”
“Oh, jeez,” Gemma said. “Not the baby talk.”
“Can’t I?” Gianna asked again, this time dropping the whittle, but still amused by it.
“You can, but be adult-concerned. You’re all, goo-goo ga-ga, concerned. If I was there, you’d pinch my cheeks, wouldn’t you?”
Doing her best baby talk impression, Gianna said, “I sure would pinch those chubby whittle cheeks of yours.”
The sound of a man clearing his throat made Gianna spin around quickly to see who it was that had apparently snuck up in her shop. Snuck up on her. Her heart drummed in her chest when her eyes beheld the tall, six-foot-something of a man clad in a black suit standing there.
“Oh my God!” she screamed, throwing her right hand over her chest like the gesture would help to soothe her pounding heart. “You scared the crap out of me!”
With a deep, sophisticated voice, he said, “I was standing here, waiting for you to turn around. I apologize if—”
She threw up a twitchy index finger. “Hold that thought.”
She turned around again, back facing him and returned her attention to her phone. “Hello?” she said to make sure Gemma was still on the line.
“I’m here. What’s wrong, Gianna?” Gemma asked. “I heard you scream.”
“Gemma, I’ll call you later. I have to go.”
Gianna glanced back at the man again, feeling her breaths quicken. Men always made her uneasy especially since she didn’t have much experience with them. Honestly, she didn’t have any experience with them. And this one in particular – sweet mercy. He looked milk chocolate, like the icing she was going to put on her Devil’s food cupcakes.
Returning her attention to the phone again, she whispered to Gemma, “There’s a giant of a man in here and he looks hungry—no, not hungry. Hangry…a combination of hungry and angry.”
The man frowned slightly and smirked. Did she really think she was whispering?
“Ooh,” Gemma replied. “Is he hangry and cute?”
“Gem, I have to go.”
“Just answer the question, Gianna.”
“Okay, yes. He’s cute, now I have to go.”
“Wait, wait, wait…how tall is he?”
“What does that matter?”
“Ugh…just tell me.”
Gianna turned around again, her eyes doing a full sweep of the distinguished gentleman. Then she told her sister, “Yes, he’s tall. He’s so tall, his head will touch the ceiling if he jumps.”
The man looked up at the ceiling, cracked a half smile and shook his head. This was actually happening. What kind of bakery had he walked into?
Gemma laughed. “He ain’t that tall, Gianna.”
“Well, he’s tall enough to make me feel short.”
“That’s because you are short, shorty,” Gemma quipped.
“Okay, I gotta go, sis. This guy’s getting antsy.”
“Alright,” Gemma said. “Talk to you later.”
“Love ya. Bye.” Gianna slid her phone into one of the pockets on her dusty apron, looked at the gentleman and with her eyes narrowed to slits, she asked, “What the freak was that about?”
“Excuse me?” he asked, amused.
“You snuck up on me.”
“I did no such thing,” he said, his voice smooth and deep. “I walked into a place of business.”
Gianna felt a wave of heat rush through her body. The pure gorgeousness of this man had instantly given her hot flashes – those big ol’ broad shoulders on a lean body, lips that looked like they’d latch right on to anything and eyes darker than his suit. He was clean shaven. Mustache trimmed. Haircut fresh and neat. The base notes of his cologne snatched the smell of cupcakes right out of her nose.
She got ahold of herself, somewhat, crossed her arms over chest and said, “Well, I didn’t hear the bell ding-a-ling.”
He grinned. “You didn’t…” He laughed harder and could hardly get the rest of the question out. “You didn’t hear the bell do what?”
“Ding-a-ling.” She cleared her throat, not that it needed to be cleared. “That’s why I…why I said you snuck up on me. Anyway, what can I get you?”
He gazed at her for a moment about to explode with more laughter.
Gianna frowned. Why is he smiling? What’s wrong with this guy? Ask him why he’s smiling. Ask him! No, don’t ask him. Don’t…
“Why are you smiling?” she asked deciding to find out, going against her better judgment.
His smile turned into a light chuckle.
Narrowing her eyes, she asked, “Are you laughing at me?”
“Yes, I am and, by the way, you have something white on the tip of your nose. I’m assuming it’s flour. Well, I hope it’s flour. Here, allow me.” He reached out and wiped the substance from her nose using the back of his index finger.
At his touch, her entire body shook – not trembled – but actually jerked and wiggled like those twenty-feet tall, inflatable air dancers in front of a car dealership. Her legs went so weak, she had to catch herself from falling by placing her hands flat on the counter. The man must’ve thought she was nuts but in her defense, she’d never been touched by a man before, innocent or otherwise. And she’d never been in the presence of this kind of man – the kind of man you can look at and instantly tell he was somebody important. The kind of man that rocked five-thousand dollar, tailored suits. The kind of man who had the boldness to wipe something off of a woman’s nose without waiting for permission to do so because he knew he could get away with it. He could get away with anything with his fine behind.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Lips,” she replied.
He looked confused. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t flour on her nose. This woman is weird. “Come again?”
“I’m sorry,” she said blinking profusely and shaking her head like she had to physically juggle her brain around to regain focus. “What did you ask me?”
Amused, he released a small chuckle before he responded, “I asked you if you were okay, but never mind. You’ve pretty much answered my question already.”
Her eyes narrowed even further when she replied, “You think I’m a fruitcake don’t you?”
He frowned and quirked his mouth into a lopsided grin.
“Well, I got news for you, buddy. I’m not fruitcake. I can assure you. I don’t even like fruitcake.”
“Nobody likes fruitcake,” he said. “Why are you so nervous right now?”
Why are you so ferociously male, taking over my little bakery with your testosterone and distinctive spellbinding scent? Hunh? Answer that, buster!
“Hello?” he said, making a waving motion with his hand to get her attention. She had to have been the strangest woman he’d ever encountered. “Are you high right now?”
High off of your cologne. Yep. “No, I’m not high! I am a little freaked out because you snuck up on me.”
“I didn’t sneak up on you. Okay. This is a place of business. I came inside. Why are you so nervous?”
“You already asked me that.”
“And I’m still waiting for an answer.”
“You know what,” she said, then giggled. The out of place laughter made her look even more nervous and panicky. “Let’s just cut the small talk or whatever this is. I’m sure you have somewhere important to be, so what can I get for you?”
“I want a cupcake.”
“What!” she screeched.
He frowned. Okay, this confirmed it for him. Something was really wrong with this chick. “This is a specialty cupcake bakery isn’t it?”
“Then why are you yelling like I just pulled a gun out on you?” he interrupted her to ask. “I did just order a cupcake. Am I ordering incorrectly, or what? Do you have some special cupcake ordering system that I’m not privy to?”
She glared at him. “No, but you are ordering incorrectly and you know exactly what you’re doing…playing around with words.”
He was beside himself. “Look, lady, I simply said I wanted to order a cupcake.”
“No. You said you want my cupcake.”
He erupted in laughter. “No. I said I want a cupcake.”
Gianna crossed her arms again, staring at the man and his beautiful white smile. “I know what I heard.”
“And I know what I said,” he countered. “Now, can I get one of those butter pecan cupcakes, or are you holding them hostage?”
“Okay. Fine. One butter pecan coming right up,” she said unenthused. She slid a clear, plastic serving glove on her right hand, then took one of the freshly baked butter pecan cupcakes from the tray on the counter. She never did get around to putting them in the display case.
Glancing at him as he looked around the bakery, she asked, “Is this for here or to go?” Please say to go. Please say to go.
He had planned on taking it to go, along with a coffee, but now that he’d been thoroughly entertained by her, he wanted to stick around for more of her antics. “For here, please.”
Eyebrows raised, she asked, “You—you said, for here?”
He could sense she hadn’t expected him to dine in. “Yes. For here. Do I need to dust flour out of your ears, too?”
She smiled. “Sorry. I heard you.”
“You’re smiling. Does that mean you’re normal?”
“Somewhat,” she responded. “I’m just a little rattled.”
“A little?” His lips formed into a sensuous smile. “How about a lot? You’ve been high-strung since you realized I was here.”
“I know. I know. It’s no excuse, but I don’t usually get people in here this early in the mornings.”
“But when you do, you tell your sister how cute and tall they are.”
Gianna’s mouth fell open in shock.
“Newsflash, cupcake lady…you can’t whisper worth a lick,” the man informed her.
He watched as her already reddened cheeks turned a shade darker with embarrassment.
“To your point, though, I am cute and tall, although I would prefer handsome over cute. Remember that the next time you’re describing me to your sister.”
Gianna could only shake her head. “First of all, how did you know I was talking to my sister?”
“You mean your whittle sister?” He laughed.
She felt like locking herself in her office until he left. That’s how utterly embarrassed she was. Changing the subject, she asked, “Would you like some coffee?”
“I would like some coffee.”
“Small, medium or large?”
He smirked. “What do you think?”
She looked up at him. “Right. Large.”
She bent down to take a large paper cup from the shelf then placed it on the counter. “The sleeves and tops are over there by the cream, sugar and the…um…the…”
“Yes. The coffee,” she said smiling nervously, glancing at him then quickly returning her attention back to the cash register. After pressing a few more keys, she said, “And your total comes to $6.18.”
He pulled out his wallet from the back right pocket of his pants and took out a twenty-dollar bill, handing it to her. Before Gianna could give him change, he said, “Put the change in your tip jar.”
“I don’t have a tip jar.”
“You should. Your pocket will suffice for now.”
“Um…okay. Thank you for the tip.”
“Thank you for the cupcake and coffee. Finally.” He smiled again, then took the cupcake and cup from the counter, heading for the coffee station. After preparing his coffee until the color of it matched the woman’s skin tone – smooth and buttery brown – he sat where he would have a good view of her. He’d never met a more fidgety, uneasy woman. Granted, most women found themselves unnerved around him. That’s just the kind of hair-raising effect he had on women. And he could easily distinguish between the ones he could readily have and the women who would prove to be more of a challenge.
This woman, however, had him off his game. He couldn’t quite read her just yet, but he knew one thing for sure – she made some delicious, mouthwatering cupcakes. And everything about her appearance was beautiful in an innocent kind of way. He couldn’t see her hair because of the hairnet she was wearing, but he could tell it was black and balled up into a bun. Her skin complexion was a few shades lighter than his. She looked to be about five and a half feet tall. She didn’t have a curvy body from what he could see. She looked thin – straight up and down. And she had to be a smart woman. A little flaky, but smart. It took guts to run a small business, especially a niche market like specialty cupcakes where the profit margin was low and operating costs were high. He wondered how long she’d been in business, and if she ran the bakery alone.
He took a sip of coffee then removed his cell phone from his suit jacket. After pulling up a web browser, he Googled her bakery name – The Boardwalk Bakery – just to satisfy his curiosity on whether or not the bakery had an online presence. It hadn’t. And his search results yielded no reviews. No social media sites. Just a few listings showing the business name, number and address.
He glanced up when he felt her eyes on him and as soon as he met her light brown gaze, she looked away, continuing to wipe the counter in counterclockwise circles.
He took a sip of coffee, analyzing her – his eyes traveling down to her legs then back up to her oval shaped face. If he was correct in reading her, she looked like she wanted to ask him something but was hesitant to do so. That didn’t surprise him. Her hesitancy that is. He’d been told a time or two (truthfully speaking, more like a hundred times) that his presence was intimidating. Besides, the cupcake lady didn’t come off as a conversationalist and that had him guessing her age. Mid-twenties? Late twenties? There was no way she was a day over thirty.
His thoughts were interrupted by a tinkling bell at the entrance. He grinned to himself. So, there is a doorbell. Why didn’t it tinkle when I came in?
He shifted his body to take a look at the door. There wasn’t an electric chime doorbell, but an actual bell hanging from the interior side of the door. Apparently, it was faulty because it certainly didn’t tinkle twenty minutes ago.
Putting the doorbell concern on hold for the moment, he sat up tall watching a man who appeared to be homeless walk in – not that he was being judgy, but what else was he supposed to think by the appearance of the man? He looked like he hadn’t shaved in months and wore a dirty white T-shirt and worn, black shoes. He’d never seen a once-white T-shirt so filthy. And the khaki cargo pants the man wore had seen many bad days.
He watched the woman emerge from the kitchen and witnessed the moment her eyes lit up when she saw the homeless man.
“Hey, Jerry!” he said.
“Good moanin’ sweet thang. I see you done got yaself a customer dis moanin’.”
“Something like that,” Gianna said glancing over at the well-dressed gentleman who’d nearly frightened her half to death. He was looking back at her. She looked away from him, returning her attention to Jerry again. “I got something good for you. Be right back.”
She went to the kitchen for a moment, grabbed a box of cupcakes and, back at the front, she placed it on the counter. “Here you go. These were especially made with love for one of my fa-vo-rite people. You have three buttercream chocolate and three cream cheese carrot cupcakes.”
“Sounds good to me,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “Bless you, sweet thang.” He took the box and headed for the door.
“Have a good day, Jerry.”
“I will thanks to you.”
She smiled, satisfied she was able to do something to brighten Jerry’s day. “Don’t forget to share.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jerry said immediately before he exited.
Still smiling, Gianna glanced over at the suited-up man who’d unnerved her and interrupted her morning, feeling the smile instantly fall away from her face. Why was he staring so hard?
And he continued staring with his large hand wrapped around the tall coffee cup, sipping and reflecting on her interaction with the homeless man. He was on alert when the man came in, but it was obvious she knew who this guy was. And she’d given him a box of cupcakes for free. It only piqued his curiosity about cupcake lady. Exactly who was this woman?