Sharp at six the next morning, Olivia was awakened by the creak of her bedroom door. Half-asleep, she instinctively held up the duvet to let Eric scramble into bed next to her, as he did on most mornings. A small smile blossomed on her lips when he nestled against her chest and yawned.
“Mum?” he mumbled. Olivia wordlessly nodded to indicate she was listening. “I’m sorry.”
“For licking the light bulb.” He shifted, his small body tensing in her arms. “Are you still mad at me?”
“No.” She kissed his hair, fingers parting the blonde tresses to stroke his scalp. “I wasn’t mad, just worried.”
“I heard that.” Opening her eyes, she gently soothed the muscles of his back. “I don’t want you to repeat any of the trouble you’ve got yourself into so far. It scares the life out of me.”
Eric held her wrist with both hands, clutching her arm to his chest. Olivia had nearly dozed off again when his voice sounded. “Do you think I’m stupid, mum?”
Frowning, she looked at his face. “Why would you say that?” She held him against her chest. “Of course you aren’t stupid.”
“That’s what they called me at camp.”
“What?” Wide awake now, Olivia raised herself on an elbow. “Is that why you wanted to come back early?”
When Eric nodded, she sighed. “Why did they call you stupid?”
“Because I wore a new hat every day and the only friend I made was a squirrel.”
“That doesn’t make anyone stupid, Eric.” She kissed his forehead, closing her eyes when her throat tightened. “Didn’t you get along with anyone at camp?”
He shook his head, playing with the sleeves of his nightshirt. Olivia held his hand and squeezed it. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“I did not want to make you sad,” he answered. “You wanted me to make friends.”
“Yes, but…” She paused, having no idea how to finish the sentence. Camp had seemed a good excuse to keep him away from the bakery for a few weeks and give him a change of scenery. Six days since she dropped him off, Olivia had got a phone call, asking her to take him home. Her heart had sunk to find him sad and quiet, no trace of the fun she hoped he would have with other children his age. Hanging about the bakery kitchen or following Audrey around the bistro seemed to give him more joy than the thought of making friends.
It was deeply troubling to Olivia. In six months, Eric was to start school, and the very notion of seeing him lonely and friendless in a new place broke her heart. Much worse was the fear of being bullied by others. Besides her family, the only other person she had ever seen him get along with was the blind, homeless man he visited twice a week at the shelter with their baked goods. And none of it helped prepare him for school.
“Grampa and I are going fishing to Clapham today,” he smiled up at her. “Uncle David will join us at the pond.”
“Yeah. It’s Saturday.”
“Oh. Right.” Falling back onto her pillow, she closed her eyes again. Audrey had married a little over a year ago, and her husband David often took Eric out for the guy things Olivia found no interest in– boating, fishing, football, and building things. She knew Eric was loved but it would not be that way forever. Whenever Audrey had her own child, Eric would most likely take a backseat.
“Mum?” he urged after a minute’s silence. “Will you be mad if I bring Andrew home to see my hats?”
Olivia’s eyes flew open, her heart flipping at the mention of Andrew. Working with him in the same kitchen had been painfully distracting and discomfiting. A full head taller than her, Andrew had a formidable presence and a self-assured bearing. He worked at the speed of lightning, juggling multiple tasks without losing his mind or his cool, and did it with an enviable confidence. They had never had a man like him as part of the staff. Despite the arrogant streak in him, it was a relief to have him step in and hold the reins at a trying time.
She would be comfortable with the change had it not been for the way he looked at her. His dazzling blue gaze heated her skin whenever their eyes met, almost making her breathless. And if she knew men like him, she certainly was not the first woman to catch his attention. Anthony Maxwell had been a philanderer all his life, and she’d heard similar stories about Andrew from their customers. But his sensuality and the energy he oozed were unlike anything she had ever felt. And to her horror, she seemed to enjoy it.
“You’ve only known him for half a day,” she reminded him. “You’re not going to bring anyone home without my permission.”
“But he’s nice.” Eric sat up with his legs folded. “He played draughts with me and helped me bake cookies without burning them.”
“We must be sceptical of strangers, Eric,” she sighed. “You know nothing about him.”
“He isn’t a stranger.” Crawling close to her again, he laid his head on her shoulder. “He’s a friend. Don’t you always ask me to make friends?”
Olivia closed her eyes to alleviate the burn of tears. Nothing in the world had prepared her for Eric. No one had told her that as a 25-year-old bride-to-be, her dreams would break and her future change forever because of a tiny baby. Despite all her stumbles through the last five years, she had strived to do her best to be a mother he could look up to. But when she saw him with Andrew the other evening, it suddenly dawned on her again that regardless of all her efforts, she could never fit the role of both parents.
If only Allen had chosen to stay with her, Eric would have a father. They would be a family.
“Are you crying?” Big blue eyes stared at the errant tear trickling past the bridge of her nose. Olivia hastened to wipe it away and forced a smile.
“Let’s get breakfast.” Sitting up, she twisted her hair into a knot. “What would you like?”
“You had a smoothie bowl yesterday.”
“I like them.” He threw his arms around her neck and giggled. “I should gather my supplies. Grampa will be here soon.”
He scrambled down from bed, blowing her a kiss as he ran out of the room. Olivia’s heart soared at the reminder that Eric was all the happiness she would ever need.
“You’re early.” Olivia stopped at the entrance of the bakery where Andrew was looking over the supplies coming in for the day. He already had the apron over his Halls Bakery shirt while the gloves were shoved inside the pockets of his trousers as he single-mindedly watched the items being carried from the truck to the pantry.
He wanted to say that she had wrecked havoc on his schedule, but instead, he offered her a smile.
“Lateness is not the hallmark of integrity or reliability.” He looked over his shoulder when she walked past him to enter the bakery. “Where’s Eric?”
“Not with me, as you can see.” She made her way through the maze of tables to reach the kitchen. With the bistro opening in a few hours and an expected surge of customers, it was going to be a busy day. Andrew watched her disappear, the sight of her neatly knotted hair reminding him of the way she had set his heart aflutter by pulling the locks free.
It had not been easy to get through the night. A long cold shower had done nothing to ease the tension, and he had tossed and turned in bed while repeatedly telling himself that he was not a teenager and needed to have better control over his urges. But one glimpse of Olivia and he was restless again, even when she was dressed in the most unflattering clothes and throwing her temper around. Instead of dampening his ardour, her sass only turned his attraction into captivation.
“What on earth are you doing?” he exclaimed when he saw her struggling to drag a large bag of flour out of the pantry. Ignoring his query, Olivia kept up her relentless pursuit, even though her arms hurt and her knuckles had paled. With eyes narrowed, Andrew turned up at her side, gently peeling her fingers from the bag.
“I can do it,” she breathed, trying to ignore the way his body curled towards hers and made their proximity fiercely intimate. Andrew crouched beside her on the floor, his eyes locked on her bruised palms. Olivia’s throat dried. He was too masculine, virility pulsing from him like heat from a furnace. She was glad when he allowed her to pull her hands away.
“This isn’t the right job for you,” he noted. “Your hands are too delicate to belong to a baker.”
The visible stiffening of her body did not go unnoticed. Rising to her feet, she turned away from him.
“There’s work to do,” she said, goading her feet into movement. One large hand grabbed her elbow. Her heart panicked.
“Are you like this with everyone?” he asked, refusing to look away from her face. She swallowed hard, looking over her shoulder.
“Terse. Dry.” He walked over to come in front of her. “I’ve been observing you since yesterday. You don’t seem too happy to have me working here.”
“I did thank you, didn’t I?” she snapped.
“That has nothing to do with how you feel about me.” He crossed his arms. “Perhaps you were only being polite in front of your son.”
“I’m not polite.” She bent to reach for the bag of flour again. Andrew barred her way.
“I’ll get it,” he said. “The brioche is in the oven, if you did not notice.”
A scowl settled on Olivia’s brow. No one touched her brioche. No one. “I’d like it if you left the brioche to me,” she muttered quietly. “You’re here to fill Peter’s place, not mine.”
“I’m sure that isn’t how this bakery works.” He lifted the bag of flour and followed her into the kitchen. “Isn’t this a very close-knit team where everyone works together?”
When Olivia glanced at him, he was giving her a look that was wry without the smugness she had come to associate with him. Her heart pounded in her ears, as though she had spotted a panther hiding in the bushes. It had never been like that, not with Allen, not with any other man. She had not been anything but a mother since Eric came into her life, dressing unobtrusively and maintaining an indifferent air to avoid male gaze. Her stark features and red hair did not make it easy, but then, no man had looked at her the way Andrew did. More importantly, she had not taken such good notice of anyone in a long time.
Without further probing, Andrew turned his attention to the oven, opening the door to check on the bread and the brioche. He was glorious, burnished by the warm glow of the furnace, the large lines of his body gleaming with youthful vigour. It was impossible to not feel his presence. To make matters worse, being around him made her aware of her own femininity.
“You don’t need to work at a bakery for a living,” she blurted. “You’re well-settled, aren’t you?”
The door of the oven closed with a low thud. Andrew turned his face at her, lips twitching with the ghost of a smile. “Who said I’m doing it for a living?”
She frowned. “Why are you here then?”
“Listen…” he came forward and pointed towards the door. “Why don’t you manage the counter or the bistro today? Customers are pouring in and your sister and your mother are going to have a hard time.”
“You’re evicting me from the kitchen?”
“Good god, no.” His low, rumbling laugh drew the attention of some of the servers. “You’re my employer. How can I forget that?” When he inched closer, Olivia stepped back on impulse. “All I’m saying is that your bread and brioche are almost done, so you can focus on other tasks.”
“I am usually in the kitchen.”
“That’s because I’m not usually here.” He turned her around and gave her a slight push. “Go on now,” he nodded. “Send in the tickets and food will keep going out.”
Olivia looked behind her and into his eyes, not quite frowning but not appearing pleased either. Andrew had never seen such an expressive face on anyone. He could read everything going through her mind. Perhaps her offhandedness was only a defence mechanism to keep him at arm’s length while she tried to sort her own feelings.
To his surprise, she did not offer a retort. Instead, she picked up a tray full of bagels and wandered out of the kitchen, the door swinging close behind her. Andrew stared at the door for long after it had shut, the curve of her neck and the shape of her hips lingering in front of his eyes. He closed them, hoping to clear the image.
Olivia was gorgeous, but by no means the most attractive woman he had met in life. And bloody hell, she had a child. That alone should have made her unsuitable. But her beauty combined with her gentle yet firm mothering of Eric tugged at places he did not know existed within him. He could handle being physically affected by a woman, but this was an unfamiliar feeling.
“David called to say they grilled the fish they caught today,” Audrey said to her when Olivia returned to the counter after sending two tickets to the kitchen. “They also went to the football game that Eric wanted to see.”
Olivia nodded with a small smile. “You and David are so good to Eric. Your children will be very lucky.”
“Except we might not have any.” She looked pointedly at her. “From what I’ve seen of you, it’s not for me.”
“Audrey, if you make me the benchmark of parenthood, you will spend your life believing it isn’t for you.” Olivia quickly fixed a coffee and a sandwich for a customer before turning to her sister again. “There are parents who do a great job. I’m not one of them.”
“You never had time to plan or prepare, did you?” Audrey’s face saddened a little. “After Allen left–”
“It wasn’t his fault.” Closing her eyes, Olivia breathed in sharply. “I tried to thrust upon him something he wasn’t ready for.”
“You weren’t ready for it, either. But you did it.”
“That’s what being a woman does to you.” She swallowed around the tightness in her throat. “Your maternal instincts come out to play.”
She resisted the urge to wince when her arm was pinched. “What?”
“Andrew’s eyes are searching for you,” Audrey chuckled, glancing in the direction of the kitchen. Olivia shook her head.
“Stop staring,” she hissed.
“Why?” Audrey let a smile slip out from pursed lips. “How long has it been since you were with a man?”
“I’m not interested.”
“Really?” Taking a good look at her face, she chuckled again. “You are evidently flustered. Is that what disinterest does to you?”
“You’re acting less like a sister and more like a minx.” When Olivia looked up momentarily, she caught a glimpse of Andrew’s broad shoulders nudging the door of the kitchen behind him. She pinched her eyes shut. “Stop it.”
“Eric was supposed to make your life better,” Audrey’s voice was tinged with frustration. “Not turn you into a lonely, miserable hermit.”
“I don’t even know him.”
“I’m sure you will have plenty of opportunities to know him.” Audrey was walking out of the counter with an empty tray. “He’s been our customer for a long time. Don’t tell me you never noticed him.”
And so she had. But watching him from afar had been less distracting. Up close, Andrew was doing terrible things to her, heightening the senses that she had learned to forget. It was both tormenting and tempting at the same time.
There was no denying his expertise in the kitchen, though. Andrew alone could do the work of three bakers in half the time, without any sign of exhaustion. His adeptness made it hard to believe that he had not worked as a professional baker in seven years. It was not just the customers who were delighted with his baking skills. Olivia could also see how pleased her parents were with him. Her father seemed to have formed a rapport with him, engaging him in long conversations whenever the opportunity arose. Andrew liked to indulge him, his laugh frequently filling the kitchen and rippling through Olivia’s body.
Working at the bakery was suddenly beginning to faze her.
At the end of a long day, after the bistro had closed and the empty shelves had been cleaned, Olivia made it back to the kitchen and leaned her elbows against the counter, covering her face with her hands. Eric was at home with David, watching Paw Patrol after a day of fishing, football, and grilled fish. It relieved her to think that by the time she picked him up, he would be asleep and she could go to bed right after.
She laughed inside her head. Her life had changed in five years. But the biggest change was when she looked in the mirror and found a tired, overworked mother staring back at her.
“Tea.” The voice almost startled Olivia. She looked up from her hands to find Andrew next to her, hips pressed against the counter and eyes locked on her face. “No sugar, I assume?”
“Yeah.” Nodding, she straightened herself, one hand closing around the cup. “Thanks.”
Andrew took a sip of his tea, a smirk on his lips as he perused her countenance. Aware of his stare, Olivia looked at him.
“What?” she demanded. A low chuckle erupted from the depths of his throat. That simple sound seemed to carry all the complacency of the world.
“I was thinking that you must be hell to date.” He drank his tea while she waited for him to explain what he meant. “What kind of meals would you treat someone with a sugar allergy to? No desserts, no carbs, no alcohol…”
“I mostly live on salads. And grilled chicken.”
His eyebrows stood up. “You perform manual labour at the bakery and survive on salads?”
“I don’t perform manual labour,” she corrected him, relishing the warmth of the tea. “I bake, not break rocks and stones all day.”
“Spending hours on your feet inside a heated kitchen running heavy machinery is no less strenuous than breaking rocks and stones.” His gaze narrowed, became more intent. “Why do I feel this was not your first choice for a profession?”
“And why would someone with a chain of holiday properties want to work at a bakery?” she retorted. Andrew laughed, surprised by the playfulness in her voice.
“You really don’t want me here, do you?” He shook his head. “It’s only three weeks.”
“I know.” A small smile crawled over her lips as she absently moved the cup around on the counter. “How many cottages do you have?”
“Nine,” he said. “One of them is for my personal use.”
Olivia’s smile died as quickly as it had appeared when the use of that cottage became apparent. Her pulse quickened, her fingers involuntarily pressed against the cup. “Do you also have a house in London?”
“A flat, yes,” he nodded. “In Wimbledon.”
Taking a few long swigs of his tea, Andrew turned his head, and the quiet, contemplative look on her face made his breath catch. In the dim light of the kitchen, with flaming red curls fallen across her shoulders, Olivia was both unassuming and alluring. He wanted to touch her, wanted to find out if her lips were as soft as they seemed when they brushed against his own or if her hair was smooth like fine silk when curled around his finger.
“Eric told me you played draughts with him yesterday,” she said, giving him a sidelong glance. “That was sweet of you.”
“Why wouldn’t someone be sweet to a boy like him?” He put down his cup on the counter. “He’s adorable.”
She remained silent. Oblivious to his regard, she lifted a hand to flick at her eye. Andrew frowned.
“Are you alright?” he queried. Olivia nodded, although he was certain she just wiped away a stray tear. “Missing Eric?”
“No,” she asserted. “I like it when he’s away from the bakery.”
“Because…” She hesitated, wondering if she would end up saying too much. “He should be going out more and doing things like normal kids instead of hanging around at the bakery all day. I know I get to keep an eye on him here, but… he’s too little… He doesn’t need to learn how to run a bakery.”
“You’re the sole parent?”
“I thought that was obvious.” Her voice was wry, broken. “Would you like some more tea?” she asked, already walking away without meeting his eye. Andrew held her arm.
“You are doing your best,” he offered. Olivia drew in a raspy breath.
“I’m far from the best.”
“I’ve seen worse.” He turned, tugging her close to his body. Olivia stiffened, aware of his scent, his breathing, the heat burning into her skin where he held her. Through the confusion swirling inside her like a raging torrent, she tried to grasp a coherent thought, but none came to her.
“Andrew….” she whispered, trembling in his hands. “I can’t do this.”
“Why not?” he purred, fervent gaze roaming across her face.
“I have a child.”
“I noticed.” His index finger came up to follow the path of his scrutiny, grazing her forehead, tracing her eyebrows, marking the bridge of her nose. “But it doesn’t change the way you look at me.”
Olivia closed her eyes, hands curling into fists. She did not have to see to be able to tell how arresting he was with his beautifully masculine symmetry and how breathless their closeness made her. “How do I look at you?”
“With caution. Thinking too much. Trying to find a way out of the attraction.” Cupping her chin, Andrew tilted her face up to his. Olivia watched him pause, then lower his mouth in a slow and deliberate motion, his heated breath caressing her skin…
She pulled back, her feet stumbling.
“Don’t,” she gasped, her eyes watering. “Please.”
“Shh.” Two fingers pressed against her lips. “Stop thinking.”
“Stop.” With a hand on her waist, he pulled her against his chest. “I want you to look at me the way I look at you. Unabashed. Unquestioning. Don’t think. Just let yourself feel it.”
Casting a quick eye at the door, Andrew held her face. She seemed to lose herself in his intense blue orbs, surrounded by the smell of sweat, yeast, and butter. One hand trailed down to her wrist, turning it over to look at her palm.
“I would like to take you to dinner,” he murmured. “We could⎼”
“I can’t.” With downcast eyes, she pulled away again. “I should go now. I have to pick up Eric.”
“Olivia…” He tried to reach for her but missed. “I want to ease the agitated undercurrent between us. I’d hate it if you kept fighting me for the next three weeks.”
“I’m not fighting anything.” Andrew saw her lips quiver when she spoke again. “I just want you to know I’m not worth the effort.”
Without wasting another moment, she left the kitchen, the door shutting with a clink of finality.