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Never Let You Go

 

Chapter Two

Christopher


 Skye grabs a handful of my hair to pull my head up so she can see how her pedicure is coming along.

“Wait, sweetie, I’m almost done,” I say, applying a coat on her pinky toe with the tip of the brush. She still has a bit of baby fat around the toes, and the nail is tiny.

“Let me see,” she says, frowning. “I love it. Do you think you could do my hands?” she asks, extending her fingers like a diva and wiggling her toes. She’s spending too much time at my cousin’s beauty salon and is clearly picking up on her clients’ mannerisms. It’s cute now, but I need to keep an eye on this before it gets out of control.

“Don’t smudge them, Skye. Be patient.” I use my fake big voice. “I’m not doing them over.”

“How about my hands, Daddy? Wouldn’t the glitter just be the prettiest on my hands?” she insists.

I glance at the time. I’m expecting the new apprentice at any moment. “All right, then. Real quick and promise you won’t move.” I start on her nails just as the bakery phone rings.

I tuck the receiver under my ear while painting Skye’s fingers. The bed-and-breakfast is having a bus tour and wants to add two dozen croissants for the morning and three apple crumbles for tea. I add their order to the four dozen apple cider muffins going to the coffee shop. I hang up, and the phone rings again. I curse under my breath as I pick up. This time, it’s the restaurant at the inn, asking for a special order of low-sodium dinner rolls.

Once I’m done transcribing their orders on our log for tomorrow, I resume my six-year-old daughter’s manicure. “How is your writing coming along?” I ask her.

“Daddy. You know I got an A-plus!”

“Good, because I’m going to need an assistant soon.”

She wiggles in her chair. “Caroline says her mom says every good baker needs a wife.”

“Caroline’s mom talks too much.” And she’s been wanting in my pants for years. “I’m already the best baker in the country.”

“That’s what I told Caroline.”

“You told Caroline her mom talks too much?” I chuckle.

“Noooo.” She giggles. “I told her you’re already the best baker in the whole entire world. But she says her mom said it’s not true.”

“Is that right?”

She pouts. “I hate her.”

“You can’t hate her. She’s your best friend.” I do sort of resent Caroline’s mom right now for saying that, although I know it comes from a good place. A number of people in Emerald Creek are gently nudging me to compete in the TV show, New England’s Best Baker. It would attract a lot of outside shoppers and tourists and benefit all the other shops. I know I’m good enough to hold my own on the show and even win the competition. I just haven’t given it the time, yet. Skye is my priority.

Being a single dad and growing my business is eating up my days and nights. But, as several friends have pointed out to me, winning the competition or even placing well would help my own business a lot. Other bakers who have won it, even in remote places similar to Emerald Creek, experienced an increase in sales, allowing them to hire more help and increase their prices on high-end products. It would bring the bakery to the next level. It’s actually exactly what I need.

It’s just not what I want.

“Well, today, I hate her,” Skye says as I finish her last fingernail. “Thank you, Daddy.” She smiles and purses her lips to give me a kiss. “May I please watch a cartoon, now?”

“Sure, princess,” I say, propping her in front of her favorite show. “Don’t smudge your nail polish, now. That was hard work for me.” I ruffle her unruly hair. “I told you about the apprentice coming to live with us, right? He’ll be here any minute. You stay in front of the TV while I get him settled.”

She’s deep in her show and nods absently. I’ve had little time to prepare her for the arrival of the apprentice. It’s just the two of us, and she’s not comfortable around strangers. The downside of growing up in a small town, I suppose. She knows everyone and everyone knows her.

Getting an apprentice all happened over the last couple of days. The foundation that provided the grant for my bakery called to set up an apprenticeship ASAP. They’re who made my dream of owning this bakery possible, so although I typically put my apprentices through an interview process, this time I didn’t have a say.

Not that it matters that much. Just like I did when I left my family over ten years ago, someone needed a place to land. Maybe someone who needed to get away from some family drama, or who, like me, was just over feeling not wanted and simply felt the urge to do something useful with his hands. Something that expressed love and brought people together.

I only hope the apprentice will be friendly and not as rowdy as I was in my days. All I know about this kid is that he comes from New York City and is arriving today. I offered to pick him up at the bus station but was told it wouldn’t be necessary.

I’m on the phone, again, when the door to the bakery chimes. Our shopkeeper, Willow, is gone by now. We’re sold out of bread, and the lights are dimmed. It has to be the apprentice, so I wrap up my call and head over to take care of him.

I feel like a tsunami is hitting me as I take in the woman standing in the middle of my bakery. A shy smile, big brown eyes, and a mouth that turns my thoughts dirty against my better judgment. I take my time closing the door so I can collect my thoughts. Calm down.

I like women, but damn.

I take a deep breath and follow the pull that takes me to the middle of the room instead of staying safely on my side of the counter.

There is a duffle bag next to her, but no apprentice in sight. She must be part of the bus tour.

“Can I help you?” I ask. Real original, I know, but my brain stopped its normal functions. And I do want to help her—in more ways than I care to elaborate.

She twists her long, dark-honey hair in a rope and brings it to one side of her body. My gaze follows her delicate hand from her face to her breast to the slope of her waist above her perfectly curved hip. When I snatch my gaze back up, her eyes are fastened on mine, amusement lighting them ablaze.

In another time, another life, I would have offered to conclude whatever business she has here with a drink at the pub. But those days are long gone.

She takes two, three steps toward me. She looks tired in a beautiful sort of way. Glowing skin, dark circles.

“I’m looking for Christopher Wright?” She sounds both a little worried and happy to see me.

I’m getting more confused and not because there’s a buzz in my veins I haven’t felt in a long time. I know exactly where that comes from. I don’t mean to take my time answering, but I keep running scenarios through my head of who she might be. Social services? School? Bank? Lawyer? I’ve been in trouble with each of those at some point or another. Nothing major, just annoying. It’s the duffel bag that throws me off. The most logical answer is that she’s accompanying the apprentice.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I say, scanning the room.

She smiles softly and sighs in relief. My groin starts seriously stirring, begging my brain to come up with a follow-up question that will keep those lips moving.

“You’re the baker?” she breathes. “I’m here for the apprenticeship.”

I knew it. “Right. Alex, correct?” I say, looking around. “Where is he?”

Her brow furrows, and she tilts her head. “That’s me. Alex Pierce. Alexandra?”

Holy fucking shit. I take in the whole package. Her long nails, not good for kneading or prepping or any manual labor. Her tiny wrists—will she be able to lift heavy bags of flour? Her age, on the older side for an apprentice, only a couple years younger than me. That part doesn’t bother me, not in the least, but for different reasons, and that isn’t good either.

Maybe I should have asked a couple more questions before taking her in. Just to be prepared.

“Of course,” I finally manage to say. “Alexandra. Welcome.”

She extends her hand, and I take it. It feels awkward. We don’t really shake hands with women around here, unless they’re your banker or doctor. She’s going to be living under my roof, be part of my family for months.

But it’s not like I can hug her, so I hold her hand longer than strictly required, relishing the feeling of her soft skin against my palm, noticing the gentle strength of her grasp despite how small her hand is. Her eyes hold my gaze, a shade of pink tints her cheeks, her body inches closer to mine, and her throat bobs as she swallows.

Fuck.

Me.

The doorbell chimes, pulling me from my fantasies. I peel my eyes from Alexandra. The town’s official gossip, Sophie, is ogling us.

“We’re closed, Sophie; you know that.”

“Oh?” she says, quizzically looking at Alexandra and her duffel bag.

I try to scare her away with a frown, but I should know better. That only makes it more interesting to her. “What do you need?” We keep our unsold breads of the day in the back to give to the food shelter. The townspeople know they can always try their luck if they need something.

“You’re the best. Two blueberry muffins for the morning, if you have any left over. I have an early start.” She turns to Alexandra. “I’m Sophie, the town librarian,” she says. “Welcome to Emerald Creek.”

Alexandra gives her a sweet smile. “Thank you. I’m happy to be here.”

I duck to the back as quickly as I can.

“And I’m happy for Christopher,” I hear Sophie whisper on my way out. “It’s about ti—”

“Sophie, mind your own business!” I boom.

“And a sliced Two Millers, if you please. Or anything sliced!” she replies.

She wants me to use the slicer so she has time to pry, and so the noise covers her chatter.

I hand Sophie her baked goods and the first unsliced bread I could get my hands on and push her toward the exit. “You need a life, Soph’.”

She stops at the door. “Did you read my new fairy tale?” she says, a twinkle in her eye. “Did it resonate with you?”

“Be right back,” I tell Alexandra as I walk Sophie to the sidewalk. If I don’t, she might stay for dinner. “I’ll have some cinnamon rolls for your knitting group tomorrow. How’s that?”

“It’s crochet and thank you. You’re the best.” Looking above my shoulder at the bakery, she adds, “Who’s the beauty?”

I sigh and cross my arms. There’s no point telling her it’s none of her business. It’d be rude. And it’d be wrong. Everything that happens in Emerald Creek is Sophie’s business. “She’s a new employee. An apprentice.”

“At her age? Is that even legal?”

Fine. An intern. Duly paid. How’s that?”

Sophie is also the self-appointed keeper of rules. “Much better. Words carry more weight than people realize.”

“You’re right.”

“Where is she staying?”

Seriously? I chuckle at her nosiness. She’s also one of the sweetest people I know, and she always means well. “Here. This internship is modeled after a traditional apprenticeship.”

“In the attic?” she cries.

“That’s where all the apprentices stay, Sophie. I can’t make an exception just because she’s…”

Sophie’s eyes narrow. Is she actually waiting to see me put my foot in my mouth and say something flattering about Alexandra?

“… a woman. That would be discrimination. Right?”

She huffs. “I s’pose so.”

“And it’s not an attic. It’s a quaint bedroom under the eaves.”

 “Well look at you. If this bakery thing doesn’t pan out, you could always write descriptions for realtors,” she says. “Seriously, Christopher, is that place even clean? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, you know.”

“What are we even talking about?” Pretending to ignore her gist seems to do the trick. She starts walking away.

But then she turns around.

“You’ll need to give that child a mother eventually,” she says.

Oh no she didn’t. My blood boils, and my words bite. “Skye has been doing just fine with her father, wouldn’t you say?” I leave it at that. She should know better than to bring that up.

“Not all women are bad mothers. Just saying.”

I guess she’s into extra layers tonight. “’Night, Sophie.”

“That came out wrong,” she says apologetically. “I worry about you too. We all do.”

I know they do. That’s what I love about this small town. They’ve all been looking out for me since I took refuge here to build my life on my terms. “There’s nothing to worry about.” And that’s the truth. Skye and I are doing just fine.

Back in the bakery, I lock the door and roll down the blinds for extra protection against the busybodies of Emerald Creek. Alexandra lifts her gaze from her phone, pockets it and gives me a shy smile. I hope she didn’t hear what Sophie said out there.

I grab her duffel bag before she has a chance to and start up the staircase leading to the bedrooms. “Let’s get you settled,” I say. I lead the way up to the first floor, where mine and Skye’s bedrooms are, then continue onto the second, narrower flight of stairs. The apprentice bedroom is exactly above mine, with only one layer of disjointed hardwood floor between the two rooms.

It’s not as bad as Sophie makes it out to be. The bedroom is on the larger side and has an en-suite bathroom. It has everything you need, but nothing you don’t. Nothing pretty either.

“Sorry about the room,” I say as we reach the eaves.

“This is adorable,” Alexandra exclaims. She’s a little out of breath, and her shallow panting makes my dick twitch again.

I set her bag down next to the twin size bed. “When I was an apprentice, I shared a room with the master’s kids. I thought this would be more than adequate. But we can change things around to make it more comfortable for you. I wasn’t expecting a—” Woman? Sex symbol? Bombshell? “I was expecting a teenage boy. I must have misunderstood.”

“Are you kidding? This is perfect,” she says, setting her handbag on the bed. She crosses to the dormer window and kneels on the small built-in bench underneath it, looking outside. “Oh, my god! This is sooo romantic.” She pulls her phone out.

“Yeah,” I say, scratching my head. “Bathroom is here.” I get self-conscious about the dull, thin towels hanging on the rod. “I’ll get you nicer towels.” I have a visual of her naked body wrapped in a towel while I am literally feet away in my own room. This is going to be near impossible.

She gasps at the clawfoot tub. “Awww, how cute!”

“That’s really old—been here since the fifties. The water probably gets cold really fast in there. I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Oh, I won’t use it,” she said. “It’s so deep, it’d take up all your hot water.”

Good. Last thing I need is to know she’s lathering her generous boobs, soap suds floating around her, toes sticking out… Stop. I have to stop these thoughts.

“I’m a shower person, anyway.”

Yeah, me, too. Do you like them hot and …

Stop. Stop right now. “We’ll have dinner in an hour. You’ll meet the woman of my life,” I say with a smirk.

Her eyebrows furrow.

“Kitchen and den are all the way downstairs, behind the bakeshop, which is behind the bakery,” I continue.

She seems puzzled. Doesn’t she know the difference?

“The bakery is where we sell the bread—where you came in. The bakeshop is where we make the bread. Some people call it a lab. There’s a door behind the counter that leads to the bakeshop. In the back of the bakeshop is our private kitchen and the den where we hang out.”

Her gaze darts intently from my eyes to my mouth as if she can’t decide where to focus her attention. She takes another shallow breath, her parted lips revealing the tip of her tongue.

I dash out of her room.

This isn’t going to work.

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