The Halls Bakery had never had a slow day in years. Customers usually queued up at the landmark boulangerie from eight in the morning and it did not dwindle until the late hours of the evening. Three decades worth of wear showed on the black and white checkerboard floor tiles, the countertop looked dated, and the server uniforms likely had not changed in years. But business had remained steady at all times. The aroma of freshly baked brioche, the best cakes, pies, and pastries in town and the affable service were enough to make people stay.
That morning was different, though. There were no customers at the counter, no waiters moving around the place with plates full of delights, and the kitchen seemed unusually quiet.
Andrew was jerked out of his observation by the sight of a little boy no older than five with an extraordinarily large cowboy hat covering a good part of his small face. In a pair of beige shorts and a green shirt, he kneeled on a bar stool on the other side of the counter with a bright smile.
“Hi,” he said. “Is anyone around here today?”
The boy took a quick glance in the direction of the kitchen and proceeded to climb on to the countertop, shifting until he was within earshot of Andrew. “I’m not supposed to talk,” he whispered.
Amused, Andrew leaned his forearms on the counter and gave him a smile. “And why not?”
“I burnt my tongue after I licked a light bulb.” He stuck out his raw, red tongue. Andrew was suddenly torn between flinching and laughing.
“Why would you do that?” he asked.
“I wanted to taste light.”
“I see. And what did it taste like?”
“Like dust,” he shrugged, pushing up the hat to reveal his forehead. Andrew muffled a snort with his hand.
“Next time, try a new light bulb,” he suggested. “They taste better.”
At the sound of footsteps, Andrew lifted his head to look into the softest brown eyes infused with green. Moving from the counter, he straightened himself, holding the intense, probing gaze. It was a trait that ran in the Halls family⎼ light eyes, red hair, and pale skin. Richard Halls and his wife Rachel had two daughters, and the exoticism of their features was known to every regular customer. Audrey had auburn hair and eyes the colour of cinnamon cream with a streak of freckles dotting her cheeks. The woman at the kitchen door, however, had flawless skin and flaming sienna hair, and from the obvious physical similarities, it was not hard to tell she was the other sister. Arms crossed and brow furrowed, she stared at him, and try as he might, Andrew failed to utter a word.
“Did you just tell my son it was alright to lick a light bulb?” she asked, one perfect eyebrow arched at him.
Andrew’s gut tightened at the soft, bedroom voice. The gentle lilt curled around him like the magic of deepening dusk, and he unconsciously clenched his fists to avoid imagining things highly inappropriate in front of a child. He had seen that face almost every day for the last three months and wondered why she affected him the way she did. But he hadn’t known that she possessed a voice capable of heating his blood… or a son.
“Olivia?” He finally cleared his throat. “Olivia Halls?”
“Yes.” Uncrossing her arms, she relaxed her brow. “Can I help you?”
“Well, your father asked me to meet you,” he explained. “I realise that the bakery has been having a hard time with the head baker and the pastry chef absent⎼”
“Are you the new baker?” Her eyebrows flew up. “Andrew Maxwell?”
“I am.” His eyes raked over her lithe form, the loose button-down or the baggy, cropped jeans doing little to conceal the pert bosom or the trim waist. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know he was your son.” He looked down at the boy. “It wasn’t my intention to encourage him.”
“He needs no encouragement.” With a jerky nod of her head, she motioned him to come down from the counter. Andrew watched him obediently do his mother’s bidding. “He does a good job of getting into trouble without any help.”
“I’m sure we all got into trouble as children.”
“I don’t remember skipping rope with rollerblades on and breaking my wrist,” she sighed. “Or hiding inside the freezer while playing hide and seek.”
“If we hadn’t looked in there, we would have found a frozen five-year-old next to the turkey.” Audrey put down a tray on one of the tables of the empty bistro and walked over to the counter. She was slightly shorter than Olivia and not as lean. “I see you have met each other.”
“I didn’t realise…” Olivia shook her head a tad apologetically.
“That he was the new baker?” Audrey laughed, slapping a hand to Andrew’s back. “Yes, he is. He was the first person who responded to the ‘help wanted’ sign outside.”
Olivia nodded. “Our head baker broke his leg and needs three weeks to recuperate,” she said to him. “And our pastry chef’s mother is terminally ill, so he went home.”
“Livy handles the breadmaking,” Audrey pointed at her sister. “We need you to replace the pastry chef. Mum and dad should be back in a while to meet you.”
“She makes the brioche?” The question was out before Andrew could help it. The Halls Bakery made the best brioche in possibly the whole of Britain. He could eat it every day.
“Yes, she does,” Audrey nodded. “It was our grandmother’s recipe, passed on to our mother. Olivia learned it from mum.”
Her eyes darted at the boy. “Come on, Eric,” she beckoned. “We have work to do. And for god’s sake, take off that hat. You’re going to bump into everything.”
“I like the hat.” Andrew tousled his pale blonde hair. Eric beamed at him, blue eyes sparkling. He looked nothing like his mother or the rest of the family. The characteristic features that he had come to associate with the Halls family were strangely lacking in the child.
He cursed in his mind when his thoughts involuntarily went to Eric’s father. Of course, he had a father. Everyone did. Only in this case, it was the man who’d had Olivia hot, naked, and arching beneath him.
Andrew had no idea why that thought vexed him so much.
“He has about two hundred hats at home.” Audrey was picking up the tray with one hand and taking Eric’s hand with the other. “They are everywhere.”
“That sounds like quite a collection.” He kneeled in front of the boy. “I’d like to see it sometime.”
“Sure.” Eric nodded with enthusiasm, and a few locks of hair fell across his forehead. “Our house is two blocks away from here.”
“Eric, you don’t go about telling everyone where your house is.” The displeasure was evident even in the softness of Olivia’s voice. Andrew looked at her and his instincts confirmed what he had been feeling from the moment he first saw her. She was intensely aware of his gaze. Her breaths were quick and nostrils flared, throat working on a hard swallow. Like a deer sensing the hunter.
“But he’s going to work here,” he protested, putting the hat under his arm. “And everyone who works here knows where we live.”
“Alright, let’s go now.” Audrey was leading him away through the small door at the back of the bistro. Andrew rose to his feet, his eyes meeting Olivia’s again.
“He’s very sweet.” Looking over his shoulder, he smiled. “I’ve never seen him at the bakery before.”
“We don’t let him come out front. It’s usually too crowded for a child to hang around.” She was finally moving from the doorway of the kitchen. “We’re reopening this evening. Would you like to see the work area?”
With a small nod, Andrew followed her into the massive kitchen of the bakery, unable to keep his eyes off the sway of her hips as she walked ahead of him. The kitchen was clean, spacious, and terribly well-organised. Growing up with one of the country’s biggest hoteliers for a father, he’d had access to some of the finest restaurant kitchens. All through high school and college, he’d worked at several of his father’s establishments. But this was new to him. He smelled warmth here, and it reminded him of his grandma’s Christmas pies he loved as a child.
“This is our kitchen supervisor.” Olivia was leading him towards a middle-aged man with grey hair and a scruffy beard. “Richard, this is Andrew. He’s going to fill in Peter’s position for the next few weeks.”
She stepped back, allowing the two men to shake hands and become familiar. Richard was soon guiding Andrew to various parts of the kitchen, handing him an apron and gloves, and pointing out the appliances. Even as she watched him share a word with the kitchen helpers and seamlessly blend in with the existing staff, Olivia wondered what on earth had led them to hire one of their customers to work as a substitute baker. Their wealthiest customer, no less.
They had been helpless and out-of-sorts when two of their most important people had to go on leave at the same time. And it seemed like a no-brainer to hire Andrew. An Ivy League graduate with a major in hotel administration, he had worked for a few of the most famous restaurants in and out of England and possessed a chain of luxury holiday resorts in the Lake District.
And the most devastating features she had seen in ages.
Although she had seen him at the bakery over the last few months, she had never noticed that his short, wavy hair was dark brown, almost bordering on black or combined with the tanned skin, it displayed the brilliant blue of his eyes to perfection. He talked to everyone, and within moments, had made himself comfortable in the kitchen, as though long familiar with the place. Olivia watched the muscles of his arms and broad shoulders beneath the grey t-shirt twitch as he effortlessly lifted the bags of flour, holding himself in the demanding environment with a refinement that betrayed his superior breeding. His hands were swift and every move sleek, and he had already memorized every name.
He also regarded her in a way that was disconcerting. Wonderfully disconcerting.
“He’s quite pleasing to the eye, isn’t he?” Audrey’s voice behind her was soft and teasing. If Olivia hadn’t been too preoccupied, she would shove her elbow in her stomach.
“You were ogling,” Audrey pointed out. To her dismay, Olivia realised her eyes were still focused on Andrew, even though he was now engaged in talking to her parents. Something that her father said made him laugh, and the rich sound enveloped her like an embrace. “It’s alright,” she added with a low snicker. “I’d be ogling if I wasn’t married.”
“I’m not ogling.” She turned to put her apron back on. “He’s Anthony Maxwell’s son. “Why is he here and can we even afford him?”
“He told dad the pay doesn’t matter.” Audrey pulled off her gloves and leaned against the smooth marble counter, all the while watching the nifty skills of the new addition. “Dad thought it would be good to have someone young and dashing as part of the team.”
Olivia’s hands stopped halfway through running the bread machine for the dough she was preparing for next morning’s brioche. It was not just his handsomeness that distinguished him from most other men she’d seen so far. It was the air about him. There was something about that wicked curve of his mouth and the predaceous grace that appealed to her and troubled her at the same time.
“I doubt he’s ever worked at a place like this,” she said. “He’s the descendant of a baron. Everything about him screams class. He isn’t fit for a family-owned bakery.”
“Are you implying our bakery doesn’t have class?” Audrey crossed her arms. “We are one of the best in the business. We set the benchmark.”
“I agree.” They looked to find Andrew behind them with a plate full of steaming apple pies. There was a streak of flour on his cheek, and sweat dotted his brow. Olivia tried and failed to look away. “Would you care to tell me how I did?” he asked, holding the plate in front of them.
“How did you even manage to bake them so quickly?” Audrey wondered aloud while breaking a little piece. Her eyes widened when she tasted it. “No offence to Peter, but this is delicious. I hope our customers like them… They have been used to a certain kind of pies and pastries for so long.”
“I baked my first pie when I was younger than Eric.” The faint hint of a smile in the corner of his mouth was directed at Olivia, giving the slightest indication of arrogance. “You are not going to lose any customer. That’s a promise.”
“Eric was four when he baked for the first time.” Olivia pretended to focus on the dough as she said the words. Even without looking, she sensed his gaze on her. “It was burnt.”
“What made me different was that I baked to perfection.” He swung around with the plate, his feet making no sound when he walked despite the chunky boots. “Still do.”
She closed her eyes and tried to recall the last time a man had elicited such physical reactions in her. Five years ago, when Eric came into her life, she shut the door to relationships and the possibility of something new and exciting. There were times when she looked at young, happy couples at the bistro and felt a sense of déjà vu. But she never lingered on those feelings, choosing to believe that those moments had only been an illusion. That Eric was all she had and despite how her life had somersaulted, she would not change any of it.
They had their biggest sale of the year so far that evening, with the apple pies, pecan cookies, brownies, and cannolis – all baked by Andrew – flying off the shelves within minutes. By half-past five, the shelves were empty and they were hanging the CLOSED sign outside the door. As she made a fresh pot of tea, Olivia watched her sister share a laugh with their parents, exhausted but happy about being able to resume normal service. For the first time in two days, she felt relieved, like a weight had been lifted off her chest.
“Where’s Eric?” she asked, putting three cups of tea on one of the tables. Rachel was the first to reach for hers.
“I saw him in the kitchen,” she said, taking a small sip of the steaming beverage. “With Andrew.”
Olivia frowned but said nothing. Later, when she poured two more cups of tea and sauntered into the kitchen, she saw Andrew helping her son take out a tray full of cookies from the oven. Eric’s face registered shock, before breaking into a wide grin.
“They didn’t burn!” he squealed, unable to take his eyes off his first batch of perfectly baked goodies. Andrew pulled off his mittens and lifted him onto the counter.
“No, they didn’t.” Breaking one of the cookies, he blew on it. “I helped you.”
“Granny helps me.” Eric opened his mouth to accept the piece of cookie, vigorously nodding in satisfaction. “So does aunt Aud. But they still burn.”
“If you spend some time learning with me, they will no more.” Andrew looked up when a cup of tea was pushed towards him, momentarily losing his tongue at the sight of Olivia’s flushed, misty skin. Being in an oven-heated kitchen all day would do that to anyone, he told himself, even as he failed to recollect the last time he had been thus captivated by the colour of a woman’s cheeks or the tiny beads of sweat pooled under her eyes. Without a word, she turned and walked over to the other side of the kitchen, reaching behind to undo the straps of her apron. It fell away to reveal patches of sweat dampening her shirt. One slender wrist reached up to pull her hair free from the knot that had been holding it up, letting the fiery tresses fall across her shoulders and conceal most of her back. She then turned on the tap and splashed water on her face.
Andrew should not have been hypnotized by her actions, but he could not look away. Her movements were every bit as erotic as a slow striptease, and the show sent a surge of energy through him. He had slept with women of all shapes and sizes, but here was someone fully-clothed sending him into overdrive.
“Does your mother ever help you bake?” He took a sip of the tea, focusing on Eric to take his mind off the sudden fascination cloaking his senses.
“Sometimes.” Eric had moved on to his third cookie, swinging his legs as he picked at a chocolate chip. “She can never eat any of it, though. Sweets make her sick.”
“Sick?” Andrew lifted his eyes to look at Olivia again. She nodded, still holding the towel she had wiped her face with.
“I have a severe sugar allergy,” she said, putting the towel away to pick up the tea. Andrew found himself searching her hands for a ring, for any sign that she belonged to someone. “Anything can trigger it.”
“Are you serious?” he gasped. “You run a bakery and you never get to taste anything you make?”
“The others do,” she shrugged. “I’m not the customer.”
“That’s disappointing.” Lifting the cup to his lips, he took another sip. “Is it just desserts?”
“No. Fruits, juices, potatoes… sometimes even the bread that claims to not have added sweets.”
“Did you show a doctor?”
“Yes.” Her face disappeared behind the cup for a moment. “He said, ‘if it doesn’t suit you, don’t eat it’.”
“Well, at least your son didn’t get it from you.” Andrew looked fondly down at Eric and wiped a fleck of chocolate from his upper lip with his thumb. “He did it all by himself. I only provided the directions.”
“I don’t need to be convinced.” Bright pink lips curved into a small smile. “They do look good.”
The simple curl of her mouth plumped up her cheeks and crinkled the corner of her eyes. Tea forgotten, Andrew stared at her face, his eyes refusing to budge even when she broke the gaze and looked inside her cup.
“I’m sorry I underestimated you,” she murmured. “The way you handled the pressure was remarkable. I realise you are going to be of great help for the next few weeks.”
The smile had reached her eyes when she looked up. “Thank you,” she nodded. “You saved us.”
Andrew’s hand instinctively travelled upwards, massaging away the sudden pulling in the middle of his chest. He hadn’t been with a woman in months, the longest he’d ever gone without feminine company, and he wanted to believe that as the reason why she affected him so much. But he knew it was more than that. Olivia had been on his mind for weeks. He would not have been surprised if the fact that she had a child swayed his emotions, but it only intensified his urge to know her better, to get past the offhandedness and confirm what he saw in her eyes.
“I’m glad to be of help,” he returned her smile, absently crushing his fingers around the cup. “Until your bakers return, I take responsibility for the kitchen.”
As he said the words, somewhere deep inside he realised that three weeks were hardly going to be enough.