Suspiciously Sweet by Samantha SoRelle

Chapter 1

Owen threw the last batch of croissants into the oven and dusted the excess flour off his hands. Last batch for now anyway. He’d need to make up another before the lunchtime rush for croissant sandwiches.

“Like I’ll have time for that,” he grumbled with a glance over at his mixer. The damn thing had crapped out again this morning, and this time Owen wasn’t sure he’d be able to fix it.

He hooked an ankle around a stool and granted himself the luxury of a full sixty seconds to sit down. He’d been up for hours already and once the store opened, he likely wasn’t going to get another chance to sit again until closing. And likely not even then, since he’d still have to clean, get everything set for the next day, do a quick inventory, and then it was time to wake up at 4 a.m. and start all over again.

At least, that was if things went well today. If the bakery was as quiet as it’d been the last few weeks, he’d have plenty of time to sit. Sit and think about all those negative numbers in the account books and how they were adding up to him losing his little shop forever. He groaned and got to his feet. Thirty seconds would have to be enough.

A quick look at the back counter told him the bread dough was still rising and the tart crusts needed to cool a little more before he added the filling. He grabbed a set of clean measuring cups, ready to start making up some more pie dough, then sighed and pushed them aside. He went over to the mixer. He needed to get it working before he could bake anything else, but his time working in chop shops taught him more about taking apart things that worked rather than what to do if they didn’t.

“Please be a cheap fix.” Owen gave the mixer a quick pat before opening up its casing to take another look. The thing was older than he was and up until the last few months had run perfectly. He respected that kind of loyalty. But it wasn’t sentimentality that made him keep the damn thing running, it was the fact he couldn’t afford to buy a new one. Hell, he could barely afford to keep the lights on and pay his one employee.

Speaking of, it must be almost seven. If Yvonne didn’t get here soon, Owen would have to serve the first few customers himself.

Owen hated serving the first few customers himself.

A glance at the clock showed just a few minutes to the hour, and he still had to fill the cherry tarts and ice the lemon cakes…

With a murmured prayer he abandoned the mixer to start spooning cherry filling into a pastry bag. Maybe they could be the first no bake bakery in the city of Grand River. The novelty alone might bring in at least a few customers.

He folded over the top of the pastry bag and focused his attention on piping the filling into the tart shells.

He liked all his creations equally, of course, but secretly, the cherry tarts were his favorite. The cherries seemed so sweet, but they weren’t just some soft little cream puff of a dessert; there was a real bite to them, something that made your eyes open wide and your mouth water. And the crust was even better. Strong enough to hold everything together, but gave just right when you sank your teeth into it, melting in your mouth into crumbly, buttery goodness.

But these were for paying customers, not him. Men like Owen O'Neill didn’t get the sweet, sharp things they wanted presented to them on a plate. All they got was hard work, long hours, and maybe—just maybe—the hope that someday their hunger would be sated.

He gave himself a shake. Pastries. He was talking about pastries.

He was placing the last whole cherry on top of the last tart, tweaking the stem slightly so it stuck out at just the right jaunty angle, when he heard the bell over the front door ring. Thank God. He scratched his bare arm, leaving a little bit of sticky filling behind. It wasn’t that it was usually a problem running the kitchen and running the register at the same time, but he’d only worn a t-shirt today and didn’t want to scare off the few customers who did come in.

“Yvonne!” he called out as he picked up the tray of tarts and carried them out to the front. “Get your ass back here quick! The mixer’s on the fritz and I—”

He stopped. Just inside the front door, a man in an expensive coat was eyeballing the bakery with interest, his eyes flicking from the long wooden counter to the glass display case to the small tables along the front window with their chairs still stacked on top. He was unwinding a scarf from his neck with quick, fluid movements and turned sharply at the sound of Owen’s voice.

Owen just had time to notice dark hair and a darker smile before he caught the guy’s eyes and oh.

Oh, damn.

He couldn’t make out what color they were at this distance—that’s what he got for living fast without dying young—but the man’s eyes glittered with humor and intelligence, like he was the only cat in a world full of mice, and he enjoyed toying with his prey before eating them alive. He looked like he was smart, he was a dick, and he knew it.

He was gorgeous.

Alarm sirens immediately went off in Owen’s mind. No matter what he might wish, hot, well-dressed men had no business anywhere near him. Besides, maybe it was the long legs encased in perfectly tailored pants, or the hint of gold at his wrist where his watch peeked out from a perfectly pressed shirtsleeve, but there was something about this guy that he instinctively didn’t trust.

He frowned at the stranger. “You’re not Yvonne.”

The man quirked an eyebrow at him. The sirens blared louder.

“And you don’t look like a ‘Nana O'Neill’, but I’m not one to assume,” he said, turning toward the front window where the words “Nana’s O'Neill’s Bakery” could be read in reverse on the glass. Everything about him was neat and precise, from the way he moved to the clothes he wore to the crisp staccato of his voice. The only exception was his hair. It might have started the day as neat as the rest of him, but Owen was delighted by the way the wind had tousled it around the man’s head with wild abandon, revealing just a hint of gray at the temples.

Late thirties, Owen figured. Maybe a little older if he’d had as cushy a life as his clothes suggested. About the same age as Owen himself, but Owen knew for a fact he showed every single one of his years. Lifting heavy sacks of flour seven days a week kept him in good shape, but every time he forgot to shave for a few days he noticed a little more silver in his stubble than he remembered.

Feeling suddenly shabby in his stained shirt and apron, he raised a hand instinctively to stroke his chin, nearly upsetting the tray of tarts and undoing all his hard work. It hadn’t been that long since he’d shaved, had it? What was today anyway? Wednesday? Or was it Thursday? They all ran together.

He set the tray on the counter.

“Nana O'Neill’s been dead for years. Now what do you— Fuck.” Owen swore as the timer for the croissants went off. Without thinking, he pointed a finger still caked in flour and tart filling at the man. “Stay.”

He turned to go into the back, then paused. “And don’t steal any goddamn tarts.”

Heart pounding, Owen scowled at himself as he walked back into the kitchen. Smooth, O'Neill. Real smooth.