Matt pushed open the door to Elli’s and slipped inside. Usually, on a Monday morning, they opened much earlier. That morning, though, he’d attended Katherine’s funeral, and now he had only a few minutes to himself before the post-burial reception.
He was still trying to sift through his feelings. He’d spent the night before and part of that morning before the funeral prepping for the gathering. Mostly, though, he’d tried to figure out how he felt about Katherine leaving Elli’s to him.
He had no idea how to run a business. Since hiring him, Katherine spent less and less time in the kitchen, and more time on the administrative end. She’d taught him how to make mini cheesecakes and perfect bread for sandwiches, but she’d never showed him how to order ingredients or balance Elli’s bank account. After all, he was only a baker—and not even a trained or safety-certified one, at that. He’d been lucky to get the job at all.
Walking through the dining area, he straightened tablecloths and double checked that every setting had flatware. Realistically, there was nothing else for him to do, but standing around and waiting would only put him more on edge. He leaned against a wall and loosened his tie. The suit he’d worn to Katherine’s funeral had been his father’s. It felt more than weird to wear his dad’s clothing, but his own suit hadn’t fit in years. Daniel Sr.’s suit fit him like a glove—more testament to just how much had changed.
It made sense that he was thinking so much about his dad, he mused as he gave the room a final once over. What wasn’t fair was that he’d lost two people in almost exactly the same way. The familiar burning sensation ripped through him, his chest growing tight. Clenching his fists, he turned toward the wall, meaning to hammer one against the cool, smooth surface.
The bells on the door jingled. He turned, eyes widening in surprise as Rowan stepped inside. He should’ve had a few more minutes to himself before everyone arrived.
“I ditched the procession,” she explained. “Took a shortcut.”
A smile tugged at his lips. He would’ve done the same, in her shoes. He started to say so, then stopped. After their last conversation, he should probably say something to smooth things over. There wasn’t anything he could say, though. She was right. He shouldn’t have kept Katherine’s secret. Though it seemed not to bother the rest of Katherine’s family, it had definitely hurt Rowan. If they were going to work together, they were going to have to find a way to put it behind them.
“So what did you make?” she asked, crossing the front end and glancing around.
Or maybe he didn’t need to say anything. Maybe they just needed to keep moving forward. “A bunch of sandwich platters.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “No cheesecake?”
Matt smiled. “Do I look like I want Katherine to come haunt my dreams?” He motioned for her to follow him, and led her to the walk-in cooler. Opening the door, he pointed to a cart stocked full of Katherine’s favorite recipe, Elli’s famous mini cheesecakes. He gestured to another cart. “And some of the staples.” He mentally ran through his checklist: cannoli, cupcakes, and cookies. Combined, they made up Elli’s top-selling items—what Katherine referred to as the Super Cs.
Rowan stepped past him into the cooler. She lifted the lid of a tray of cookies and stole a peanut butter blossom. Taking a bite, she gave him an approving nod. “She’d be proud.”
“Thanks,” he said softly. Taking a deep breath, he surged forward. He wasn’t going to get another chance. “Look, about last night—”
She held up her hands. “I was totally out of line.”
“No,” he said firmly. “You were right. It wasn’t fair of us to keep you out.”
Hugging herself, she looked away. “I probably deserved it.”
Matt frowned. “You? No way. Katherine loved you.” He drew her out of the walk-in and shut the door behind him. “Why would you say that?”
Her lips parted, and the front door opened.
His shoulders slumped. It was show time. Giving her shoulder a squeeze, he moved past her into the front end. He recognized all of the faces from the funeral, except for his mother’s. She’d probably decided that she’d had enough. Still, he wished she’d come to Elli’s. It would ease his nerves to have an ally. Then again, his mother hadn’t been anyone he could rely on in years. His job was to take care of her, not the other way around.
Steeling himself, he let habit take over. He guided people into seats and rolled out the carts. He spent an hour alone hopping from table to table, serving coffee and replacing finished goodies. It wasn’t until he stopped to brew more coffee that he realized he was exhausted. He wished Katherine had hired some more help before she died.
Tears pricked his eyes. He blinked them away angrily. He shouldn’t feel guilty for thinking that. It was the truth. He needed help. If he and Rowan actually took over Elli’s together, the first thing he was going to suggest would be to hire a couple of high school kids for the afternoons and weekends.
He glanced around, but didn’t see her anywhere. Moving toward the front, he peered through the double windows. Her car was still parked outside. He rubbed at his cheeks, freshly shaved that morning but rapidly becoming more stubbly as the day dragged on.
He made his rounds again, refilling cups of coffee. Then he filled two mugs and slipped into the hall.
First he checked the office. It sat dark and empty. His shoulders relaxed. Maybe she’d just gone to the bathroom. But no, he hadn’t seen her since she first came in. Something told him that she was hiding. Suddenly he realized that Noah Ellis and the rest of Rowan’s family hadn’t come. He shook his head. They were strange people, he mused. Just like he wished his mother had come, he was sure Rowan could use her family’s support.
After determining that she definitely wasn’t in the walk-in cooler or freezer, he found her in the much warmer store room. She sat on an upside down milk crate in a corner, her elbows resting on her knees. Tears streamed down her cheeks. When she saw him, she buried her face in her hands.
Matt hesitated. He was by no means an expert on women, but he didn’t think she actually wanted to be alone. Maybe she just didn’t want to be around him, he mused. If he left her, though, there was no one else. He pulled up another milk crate and squatted in front of her. “Thought you could use this.” He held out a mug of coffee.
Lifting her hands, she peeked out at him. The redness in her eyes made them startlingly blue. It was probably totally wrong for him to think so, but she was so pretty when she cried.
“Wanna talk about it?” he asked in a low voice.
She accepted the coffee and sipped slowly. After a few moments, she shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?” Her eyes remained on the floor, though.
Taking a sip of his own coffee, Matt watched her. Maybe it was because he’d already let her down, but he felt compelled to cheer her up. He supposed it was the “fix it” male genes in his DNA at work. Stretching out a hand, he lifted her chin until their eyes met. “Your parents didn’t come.”
She snorted. “Of course they didn’t. They’ve made their appearances. It was time for them to go back into their dark living room and spark up, maybe snort up a couple of Percs while they’re at it.”
His eyebrows lifted. Stifling the urge to comment, he took her hand in his. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said, but she squeezed his hand back. “It was dumb of me to hope they’d changed.” Sighing, she glanced away, withdrawing her hand.
“So they’ve always been like that?” He was starting to understand exactly why Katherine didn’t get along with her brother.
“Aunt Katherine told me it’s family tradition. Their parents were the same way. She used to say she and I were the ones who broke the cycle.” Rowan’s lips twisted wryly. “Not really, though.”
He tilted his head. “Why do you say that?”
“She didn’t have kids, and I won’t, either.” She set the coffee mug down and started dabbing at her face with a tissue.
Unable to help himself, he blurted, “Why not?”
“Because it would be totally unfair to subject them to this.” Rowan pulled her hair up into a messy bun at the top of her head.
He watched her, mesmerized. The scent of her hair floated to him, a subtle hint of coconut. “This?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “My family.”
“You could always cut off all ties with them.” He thought of his own mother and little brother. He couldn’t imagine never speaking to them again. Then again, his and Rowan’s families were very different.
“They would love that. I’ve always been such a disappointment.” She reached for her coffee.
“You’re not a disappointment to me,” he said before he could stop himself. Immediately he wished he hadn’t said anything. The tops of his ears burned. It was such a cheesy, rom com thing to say. Her face darkened and she looked away. He bit his lip, perplexed. He felt embarrassed, but she seemed almost angry. Running a hand through his curls, he tried to figure out how to save the conversation. If it could be saved. He cleared his throat. “So, Elli’s. What are we gonna do?”
Exhaling through her nose, she continued avoiding looking at him. “Good question.”
“You live in New Jersey, right?” He took a sip of coffee.
“That’s half the problem right there. I have a job. I have friends, sort of.” She muttered that last comment under her breath. His heart twisted in his chest. She really had no one left in the world.
He needed to convince her to run Elli’s with him. It was the only way he could keep a roof over Danny’s and their mother’s heads. By doing so, though, he would be tearing Rowan from the only thing she really had. It was selfish, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He doubted she would be moved by his situation. Still, he hated the thought of suggesting she leave her life behind and move back into close proximity with her family.
He ran his fingers back and forth over the stubble on his chin. Anything he said to convince her would be manipulative, and he didn’t want to be that guy. With barely a high school education, though, he’d never be able to find such a good job. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to look her straight in the eye. “Katherine trusted us to take care of this place.”
Rowan nodded. “I know. I can’t bear the thought of letting her down, but I don’t think I can do this.” Dropping her gaze, she drained the remains of her coffee. “I guess we could sell it, split the profit.”
His gut clenched. The money might take care of his family for a little while, but eventually he’d need to find something. “She’d hate that,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even.
“She would,” Rowan agreed. She sighed. “Maybe I could run the place remotely, like a long distance relationship.” Her cheeks reddened and she stared at a spot on the floor far away from him.
His eyebrows furrowed. Something teased at the back of his mind, then slipped away the second he tried to chase it.
“But I’d burn out really quickly. I’m a waitress and a blogger,” she explained.
“Oh, the dessert blog?” He grinned. “Katherine said you’d invented some of the recipes we use.”
She nodded. Tapping her chin, she finally looked at him. “Maybe you could run most of it and I’d just take less profit?”
Matt felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’d run the place into the ground.” The only solution was for her to stay. She had to see it. He gritted his teeth together, silently imploring her to figure it out.
“What if I teach you? I’m here for another day. It can’t be that hard.” She frowned, glancing toward the hall and Katherine’s office. “She taught me a lot of what she does. I’m sure her lawyer could fill in the blanks after I’m gone. He’s a business lawyer.” She shrugged.
Absorbing her words, he stared into his empty mug. He didn’t think he could just wing it. Make the recipes, sure. He’d been baking for Katherine for two years. Keeping the lights on and making sure they had enough on hand was a totally different story.
He needed Rowan. She’d gone to business school and she was a baker. She’d worked with Katherine for four years. No one in the world was more qualified. Actually, he surmised, he was lucky she wasn’t fighting him for the place.
“I don’t know,” he said slowly. His mind whirled. He needed to come up with a much better argument than that. She knew all of this, though. He needed to give her a reason to stay.
If things were different and she didn’t hate him for whatever reason, he could probably seduce her into staying. He smirked. He’d never had any trouble snagging girlfriends in school. His mother still chided him all the time for the phone calls she’d gotten, when he was in kindergarten, about him trying to kiss girls on the playground. And in high school he’d been somewhat of a player. He’d never taken any of it seriously, but he still occasionally got emails from his exes, offering to “Netflix and chill” next time they were home from college.
He wondered if he could actively seduce a woman who hated him.
Then again, she didn’t hate him entirely, he realized. That magnetic attraction he’d felt—she had to have felt it too. It would explain her rapidly alternating warm and cool attitudes toward him.
“Give me two weeks,” he blurted.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m leaving after tomorrow. I only asked for a couple days off—”
“I’m sure your boss will understand. Tell him you’ve got family business to take care of.” He stood and, taking her hands, pulled her to her feet. Though he had to duck his head a bit, he leveled his gaze with hers. He willed his eyes to smolder, to do whatever sexy trick they’d been doing his whole life. He wasn’t completely sure he could do it on command.
She yanked her hands away. “Excuse me?” Putting her hands on her hips, she cocked her head at him. Her eyes glinted, burning into his.
He fought the urge to kiss her.
“Spend two weeks with me. You’re going to love working with me. I can juggle balls of dough and I make a mean cupcake.” He brushed a stray curl off his forehead. “So? What do you say? Do you accept my challenge?”
Rowan stared at him. Several heartbeats passed before she answered. Tilting her head back, she lifted her chin. “Cocky, aren’t we?” she asked quietly. Pain flickered in her eyes. His hands twitched. He wanted to take her face in his hands and kiss the hurt away.
His pulse quickened in his throat. “More like confidence,” he whispered, not breaking eye contact. For a moment, he had a vision of hoisting her up onto the stainless steel table and kissing her until the moon rose in the sky. Screw the crowd of people in the front end. Forget the fact that he needed to convince her to stay. He wanted her to stay.
From the way she looked back at him, she might not even resist.
She looked away abruptly. Turning her back, she picked up her mug. “I don’t know about you, but I’m beat. How about we revisit this tomorrow?”
His shoulders slumped. Maybe he should have just kissed her. So far he was doing an awful job of convincing her. Then again, she hadn’t said no. “Sure,” he said with a sigh. “What time?”
Rowan crossed the room, pausing in the doorway. “You guys still come in early to start baking for the day, right?” He nodded. “I’ll see you at five, then.” She turned to go.
“Wait.” He had no idea how long they’d been in the store room and whether anyone had noticed their absence. “If we walk out of here together, people will probably think . . .” His ears and the nape of his neck burned. He cleared his throat. “I’m sure you don’t need your name in any more people’s mouths. Wait. I just realized how that sounded.” He held a hand up. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant.”
She stared at him, an amused expression crossing her features. He noticed that the slight dimple in her chin deepened when she smiled. If he remembered correctly, she hated her chin. The cleft was subtle, though, and he thought it was more endearing than anything else.
She laughed softly. “What makes you think we’re walking out together?” With those parting words, she turned on her heel and left him in the store room, gaping after her.
JUST ONE MORE MINUTE
A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.
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