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Never Let You Go


Chapter One

Alexandra


You ever have that feeling that your day started off wrong, and you might as well give up ’til tomorrow?

I’m the opposite.

Take today. January’s first Monday morning in Manhattan, sidewalks full of people shoving me to the side so they can get to their nine-to-five, city buses splashing snow and mud and salt on my new boots, my two coffees spilling off the container.

Because of this, I’m looking forward to the rest of the day. It can only get better. Bright, beautiful mornings? They set up the wrong expectations. Trust me—I’ve been there. At least tonight, I have something to look forward to: microwaved ramen and wine from the box with my roommate and BFF, watching a trashy show. Now, that’s a day with an upswing.

My stomach clenching, I slosh through the marble floors of Red Barn Baking headquarters, the chain of industrial bakeries owned by my late grandmother and my current place of employment. As I swipe my card through the turnstiles and make my way to the row of elevators for the first time since her passing, the finality of her death hits me like a slap. What am I even doing here? It’s not like she’s going to start noticing me now.

The pit in my stomach grows while I make my way to my cubicle in the Marketing Department, returning the fake smiles of my coworkers. I quickly switch my boots for the pumps I keep under my desk, smooth my skirt, fluff my hair, and take my two dripping coffees to the office of the CEO’s assistant, Barbara.

Her warm smile greets me, but she waves her hands, No, across her desk.

“Organic, sustainably harvested, soy milk and honey, just how you like it. Don’t you want to make your Monday better?” I’ve known Barbara my whole life. She was my grandmother’s assistant. And from the day Mom died fifteen years ago, she’s been there for me. So, although she’s now the CEO’s assistant and I’m barely above entry level, I take some liberties with protocol. Especially since Rita, my grandmother, died last week, and her constant frown and pursed lips are no longer here to chase me away like she did whenever she patrolled the hallways of her empire.

“Sweetheart, you’re the best,” Barbara says. A whiff of patchouli hits me like a sweet memory. “I just don’t want you to spill it on my desk again, is all.”

“Spill already happened this morning, and it wasn’t even my fault this time,” I say, handing her a messy cup and pulling up a chair.

“Don’t sit down, honey. Boss wants to see you ASAP. Conference room.”

Oh shit. I’m never called into a meeting with the CEO. It’s so above my paygrade. “What about?”

She raises her eyebrows and makes a my-lips-are-sealed gesture.

“Does this have anything to do with Rita?”

She tilts her head, maybe. “Be smart,” she says. Her eyes are kinder than usual. My stomach bottoms out. Am I being let go? This company is the last tether to any form of family I have. Please don’t let it be that.

I square my shoulders and force a smile. “I’m very smart.”

“Not that kind of smart. And leave your soggy mess here,” she adds, pointing to my coffee.

I put the tray down. “Gotta make a bathroom run.”

She shakes her head. “No time for that. Robert already asked twice for you.”

Am I really that late?

She waves me out. “They’re waiting for you.”

Who’s they? I clench my bladder and take a deep breath. Doesn’t look like the day is getting better just yet. Ramen and wine, and a trashy show. Focus on the little things that’ll get you through the day.

The big boss, Robert Norwood, is sitting at the top of the conference table with two other people in suits on one side, a man and a woman. Stacks of paperwork are lined in front of them in neat piles. On a side table, a silver tray holds a steaming pot of coffee, croissants, and immaculate porcelain mugs with our new logo on it. I love that logo. It’s a stylistic rendition of a red barn, not unlike the one on the giant picture frame hanging on the wall right above. It’s been a pain to get everyone to agree on that logo, but after exhausting the patience of two external firms, we ended up doing the job ourselves and—

“Alex! Are you with us?” Robert’s voice booms, pulling me out of my thoughts. “Help yourself to some coffee. You look like you could use it.” He sounds even more annoyed with me than usual.

“Thank you.” I almost take him up on the offer, but my bladder rings the alarm, so I choose the safer route of sitting down and getting this over with quickly. I smile at the people across the table from me. They smile back, lips pinched.

Not good.

“Alex, this is the law firm representing your grandmother’s estate,” Robert says. He doesn’t bother with their names, and for some reason that makes me feel a little closer to them.

I nod their way and smile again.

“They’ve come here for the reading of the will, as a convenience to us. Save us some time.”

My eyes drift from the snow now falling steadily on Manhattan to the picture on the wall. A red barn, horses grazing in a lush meadow in the background, and a guy in a flannel shirt holding a massive round bread, flashing a smile too white to be true. For all its fakeness, every time things felt awry in this company, I’ve taken solace in the picture that’s supposed to symbolize it.

I take a deep breath. This is just a formality. For a minute, I thought I was in real trouble, but then again that meeting would have been with HR. This is all making sense.

“Ms. Pierce,” the woman across the table says, “Your grandmother, Ms. Rita Douglas—”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names,” I interrupt softly, my gaze darting between the two of them.

The man reaches for two business cards from his suit pocket and hands them to me. Robert shifts in his seat, like he doesn’t approve. I’m just being polite. It looks like these people are about to get personal about me and my grandmother. The least we could do is introductions, no?

“We would normally do this type of thing at the deceased’s estate, or at our offices, but this seemed more convenient than having you come to Long Island,” the woman says.

“This is perfect,” I reassure them. “Thank you.” My grandmother practically lived here, having founded the company decades ago, and managing it almost to the very end of her life. She had a mansion that was never a home. Not to her, and certainly never to me.

I glance at their business cards while the woman clears her throat and starts reading from her stack of papers, never making eye contact with me. The man next to her is fidgety. I wonder if they’re concerned about my reaction when they get to the part where I get nothing. Or rather, when they get to the end of the document and my name never came up. I bet they rarely see that. The sole heir of a tycoon getting absolutely nothing. Although, if they want to see me, there must be something they need to tell me. I clench my bladder again. This should be quick.

Rita raised me like that. You’ll never get anything from me that you didn’t work for, she would tell me.

Now, there’s something to be said about tackling your twenties with a knack for budgeting and penny pinching. I have Rita to thank for that. Her stinginess made me stronger. It turned out to be her gift to me.

It wasn’t Rita who’d recruited me to work for Red barn Baking. I’d followed the standard application process. I never knew whether she was proud, annoyed, or pissed when the head of Marketing hired me. Or how she felt when I quickly became their best asset.

My name comes up in the monotone reading of the will. Rita left me with a sum of money that would have covered maybe three days of her living expenses but amounts to about two of my paychecks.

That’s a nice chunk of money. Fuzziness spreads inside me, but I suppress it quickly. It doesn’t sound right to feel happy under these circumstances.

I twitch in my seat. Surely this is close to being over. I really need to use the bathroom.

Hearing my name againI straighten my shoulders. A part of my brain listens while the other part drifts back to Rita. To be honest, I don’t miss her. I just have to accept that the opportunity to connect with her will never present itself now. I thought that by working for her company it would happen. With time. When I became an adult.

It didn’t.

End of story. I need to move on.

“Alex, did you get that?”

I jump. Yes. Yes, I did get that. I internally repeat something totally outlandish. The gist of it is, if I want to be vested in the ownership of Rita’s shares of Red Barn Baking, giving me a controlling vote on the board, I have to complete a baking apprenticeship. Said apprenticeship needs to happen in a specific bakery in a village in Vermont.

Um… what? My gaze drifts to the picture of the red barn. Several things don’t make sense: Me potentially being at the helm of Red Barn Baking. Me becoming a baker.

And also, why didn’t this ever come up before? If she wanted me to take over after her, why didn’t she prepare me? At least sit me down, have a conversation?

“Can you run this by me once more?” I ask, and while they do, I wonder what Rita’s intentions were. And as usual, when trying to figure out my late grandmother, I come up empty. “What does this apprenticeship consist of?”

Robert snorts.

The man explains, “You would be working part-time at the bakery in Emerald Creek, under the supervision of their baker, a Mr. Christopher Wright. The rest of the time is for you to study the theory and practice your skills in the bakery. You’ll have to pass the French baking exam. An examiner is scheduled to visit a culinary school in the state, and he will validate your apprenticeship.”

Rita Douglas, founder of an industrial bakery, wants me to undergo a traditional French baking training? “How long is this apprenticeship?”

“It’s on the very short side. Five, six months. Lots to pack in, according to the examiner, unless you have solid baking experience and knowledge.” He cocks an eyebrow at me, and Robert scoffs.

“Can’t I do this here, at a culinary school?” I’m pretty sure I already know the answer, but what’s the harm in asking? “If I pass the exam, what’s the difference?” I am actually thinking about this.

I know. Crazy, right?

Robert sighs and shakes his head while the woman cuts in. “These are the terms set forth by the late Ms. Douglas. There can be no modifications, I’m afraid. You need to follow the rules of a traditional French apprenticeship, one where you live on site and are under the baker’s responsibility for most areas of your life, regardless of your age. The late Ms. Douglas also prescribed the one bakery where the apprenticeship is to take place.”

Robert is rubbing his face like he’s super tired. It’s what—ten in the morning on a Monday? “You don’t need to worry about all this,” he says. “You can’t be seriously considering it. You’d be setting yourself up for failure. You realize that, right?” He flicks his pen nervously. “Supposing you pass the exam, do you seriously see yourself presiding over the company?” he snorts.

I would kinda be his boss? That’d be awkward, and I see now why he’s more pissed than his usual self. But I can’t let that distract me.

“What’s the valuation of Red Barn?” I ask him. I should know this, but I don’t. I can tell you how my most recent tweak on our latest social media campaign increased click through rate, in what measure this directly impacted each of our five regional territories, and the net dollar amount generated by that adjustment. I can tell you what color scheme in our graphics is sure to generate greater customer engagement. But I’ve never known the big picture of the company itself, its margins, its real estate holdings, its investments in mills, and all the other components of this empire. Rita never shared this with me, which makes her posthumous offer even more surprising to me.

Robert moves his hands like my question might require an audit.

“At the close of the books last year, what were the assets, what were the liabilities, and what were the revenues?” I ask him slowly, mentally patting myself on the back for remembering Small Business 101. Not too incorrectly, I hope.

His gaze narrows on me. He gives me three numbers, then adds, “give or take a few dozen million.”

Holy shit. I swallow hard but hold his gaze. So much for small business. “I’m going to have to think about this.”

The woman interjects, “You need to make a decision—”

“This does look like a lot of money,” Robert interrupts, “but it’s more of a headache than anything else. However, in consideration of the circumstances, the board has authorized me to share an offer they want to make.” He pulls a paper from inside his jacket and unfolds it.

“What circumstances?”

“Pardon me?”

“You said the board wants to make an offer in consideration of the circumstances.” I have to pee so bad, I switch the way my legs are crossed.

“Y-yes. The fact that Rita—Ms. Douglas—didn’t provide for you in her will. The board understands that this might be… difficult… and they want to help make it right.” He takes his glasses off.

“So the board knew? I thought a reading of a will was like—this surprise revelation.”

The woman stacks her papers back into a neat pile. “The late Ms. Douglas, as many prudent entrepreneurs, chose to share her succession plan with her board.”

I chuckle. “You call that a plan? It’s a frigging monkey wrench.” I blush at my near use of the f-word. I don’t know what’s gotten into me this morning. I’m blindsided, and angry about it, but that’s no excuse to be rude.

“I’m sure she had her reasons.” She purses her lips. “Though I can’t see which.”

“That makes two of us.” My heart drums hard, pushing words out of me.

Robert extends a pacifying hand. “Rita was… a special person. Very few people could ever understand her. But here we are,” he says, gesturing to the sprawling offices, and the stylish logo stenciled on his crystal glass. “So we have an offer. Handsome compensation in exchange for declining Rita’s—Ms. Douglas’—offer.” He slides a two-pager signed by the board members across the table.

In between a couple of dense paragraphs, I read a number, and I learn the monetary equivalent of the word handsome. I’m speechless.

“It’s very generous,” Robert says. “They really don’t need to do this.”

Then why are they doing it?

My bladder is ready to explode now. I stand from the table. “If you’ll excuse me a moment.”

“We need your decision now,” the woman cuts in.

I’m about to ask her why, but I can’t hold it any longer. “And I need to pee now.”

As I dash past her office, Barbara scowls at me. But when I exit the stall, she’s leaning on the bathroom vanity. “How are you doing, honey?”

“Do you know what’s going on?” I take time lathering my hands, observing the soap suds form and pop, before rinsing them under scalding water, trying to calm the thrum in my body. Despite my pitiful efforts to be loved by her, Rita barely tolerated me. So, why this?

Barbara turns sideways to face me and crosses her arms. “Robert asked me to prepare a packet, Just in case, he said.”

I shake the droplets off my hands and turn toward her. “You know why Rita would do that?”

“Red Barn was her family. You were her granddaughter.”

The nuance doesn’t escape me. It’s nothing new, but it still stings. It always will.

“It’s the village she was from, you know. Where she was born.” Her gaze is on me, soft yet burning. She’s hurting for me.

“I figured,” I whisper before sliding my hands between the loud air blades of the dryer. I run then up and down several times, my skin creasing as I do, then lift them slowly out and turn to face Barbara’s scrutiny.

She takes my face between her soft hands, and her gaze bores into my eyes. “This means the world to her.” She says it as if Rita was still here to watch me make my decision, and in a sense, she is.

I hold back tears. “Why did she do that now? Why didn’t she ever let me in before?”

Barbara pulls me into a hug, her silk scarf caressing my cheek. “She wasn’t good with words. But she did love you, in her own way.”

“I only had you after Mom died, and you know that,” I say after she lets me go.

It’s her eyes that well now. “Oh hush. Now go back there and do the right thing,” she says. “Never mind the boss.”

Of course I’ll do the right thing. Rita was my only family, but I never felt like I was her family. Red Barn Baking, the business she created on her own as a single mother and grew into an empire, was her family. Barbara is right. This is Rita’s love letter to me, and I have no other choice than to act on it.

I’ve been wanting a family forever, and she’s giving me hers—a business.

So because she was my only family, and because this void I always have inside me feels like an abyss right now, I’m going to do what she said.

And also because it’s pissing off Robert. Can’t discard the little pleasures in life.

***

“Holy shit, Alex! That’s next level,” my roommate and best friend, Sarah, says that evening. She hands me a glass of wine and sits on the couch next to me, curling her legs under her. “That’s where Rita was born? Didn’t you tell me they kicked her out of there when she was pregnant with your mom? Do you think that’s why she wanted you to go? And why did she not ask you to go earlier?”

I have all the same questions, none of the answers. I take a long sip of wine, appreciating the fact that we’re drinking from actual glasses. A celebration of sorts.

“Did you ever visit there? As a kid?” she continues.

“I went once with my mom.” The memory is fuzzy but potent. The air was crisp and smelled of fire in chimneys. There was a dusting of snow on the ground, and it was pretty in an eerie way how it mingled with the leaves that hadn’t quite yet finished falling from the trees.

Mom wiped her cheeks a lot on the drive back, but these were happy tears. “I think she was reconnecting with her dad?” My belly clenches. “Isn’t it messed up that I can’t remember?”

“I’d say it’s normal. It must have been pretty heavy duty. Is it a happy memory?”

“Yeah, it was one of those good times. I wish I could remember more.”

“Why didn’t you ever go back?”

“I guess… it must have been shortly before the accident. Maybe she planned on going back? I’d say that was late fall, and she died right after Christmas. Yeah, it probably was the same year, you’re right.”

Sarah chuckles but pats my hand softly. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You’re helping me, dude. You’re like the memory whisperer.” I take a long draw on the wine.

“Alright. Enough with the past,” Sarah says, grabbing her phone. “What’s the name of this bumfuck place you’re going to?”

“Hey. That’s my small town you’re talking about,” I say, swatting her arm playfully. “It’s called Emerald Creek.”

“Awww. Can’t make this stuff up. Alright. Here we go. Emerald Creek, Vermont. Kay. Located at the edge of the Northeast Kingdom. Whaaaat?”

What.

“That is a cool name. The Northeast Kingdom.”

“I guess. If you’re selling tiaras. Or setting a fantasy movie.”

“Or moving in with a hot baker.”

I glance at her phone. “Is he hot?”

She laughs and sets her phone down. “Nope. Sorry to disappoint. He is so fugly, you are forbidden—”

“Shut up. You don’t even know his name. You’re full of it.”

“True. Just kidding. So—what’s his name?’

“I don’t remember, and you’re not googling him.”

She picks her phone back up. “Why not?”

“It’s weird.”

“It’s research,” she says, her thumbs active on her phone.

The wine is beginning to mellow me, and the stress of the day, the questions I’ve asked myself, are wearing me down now that the tension is easing away. “Do you think she was trying to fix something? Rita.”

“Maybe? But who cares? This could be a great new start for you, Alex. This is so exciting! The beginning of a new life!” Sarah is always excited about new adventures, big decisions, major projects.

Me, I’d rather keep my life low-key. The truth is, my big-picture items always end up broken. So I focus my happiness on the little things. A cup of coffee with my favorite colleague in the morning, a glass of wine with my roommate in the evening. New boots to hop in the snow, a favorite perfume to wear on performance report day. Every time I’ve been excited about a big thing, disaster has struck. So I stopped making these things count, and since then my life has been going okay.

“Maybe this will spruce up your dating life!” Sarah continues. “How long since you went on a decent date?”

“Look who’s talking.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Seriously, Lexie, you should give it a try when you’re up there. Maybe you’ll meet Mister Right.”

“There is no Mister Right, at least not for me. You know that.”

Ohmygod. Not The Curse again.”

“You’re the one calling it The Curse. I’m just saying, it’s not in my DNA. My mother was a single mom, my grandmother was a single mom, and I’ve grown up—”

“I know, I know,” Sarah interrupts. “Men only bring misery. Blah blah blah.”

“But it’s true! For my family it’s true. No men for me.”

“You’re discarding the power of the orgasm.”

“And you’re confusing relationships and sex.”

“Ha! Now we’re talking. You need to get laid. It’s decided. Speaking of which, who’s the baker you’re going to be working for?” She waves her phone at me. “What’s his name again? Did you look him up?”

I spit my wine back in my glass. “Speaking of which? I am not sleeping with my boss! Are you out of your mind?”

She growls. “Yeah, yeah. Right.” She takes a deep breath. “Emerald Creek bakery. There’s like… nothing online. There does seem to be a bakery on the map. Nothing on social. Found a couple of middle-aged men in wife beaters.” She giggles and shows me her screen.

I don’t even look her way. “You did not. Anyway, my boss is probably twice that age. He’s some star baker.” In the packet of instructions Barbara handed me after the meeting, there was a short bio of the guy.

“What’s his name again?”

“Christopher Wright.”

“Ha! Got you. You do know his name.” She types and her eyes twinkle. “Huh,” she smirks.

Tonight I couldn’t care less about my future boss, but I should show some interest in my best friend’s efforts. “D’you find him?”

“Uh—no, it’s not him.” She puts her phone down. “Wanna watch something trashy?”

“Always.”

***

A couple of days later, I reach Emerald Creek several hours after leaving New York, and a sense of relief washes over me. Not just because the trip is over, although driving on snow was stressful enough, but because this place is so darn cute it belongs on a postcard. My ten-year old self didn’t register that at the time, or at least that’s not the vibe that stuck with me.

It’s the beginning of January, and the town is still decorated for the holidays. Soft white lights outline the pitch of the roofs and the contours of the houses. Candles flicker behind each window. Wreaths ranging from magnificent to elegantly understated hang on front doors. Fresh garlands and red bows graciously drape white picket fences. I sit still in the rental car, taking it all in before stepping out.

Standing alone on the quiet street, I take a deep breath and stretch my sore muscles. I tilt my head back, savoring the cool tingle of light snowflakes on my face as they flurry softly down to earth.

I grab my duffel bag from the backseat, lock the car, and catch myself as I step on the sidewalk, my new boots betraying me as they slip on the packed snow, and I nearly fall.

The bakery is a Victorian house set back from the sidewalk by a narrow garden, if the round shapes covered in snow are any indication A Christmas tree blinks multicolor lights on one side of the garden, while a snowman stands proudly on the other side of it. A central walkway, free of snow and sanded, leads to the wraparound porch and the front door. The soft glow of the inside of the store spills into the night through wide windows, inviting me to move forward despite the Sorry, We’re Closed sign.

The door yields when I push it open, and the doorbell chimes. I take another deep breath and step inside.

It smells heavenly of baked bread and sweets, and any lingering stress I had goes down several notches.

A counter lines two sides of the bakery. Behind it, wooden racks are slightly tilted to display the breads. They’re empty at this late hour, but some of them have tiny blackboard signs with labels in cursive: Mother Hen, Bob’s Favorite, Two Millers, Down the River, Up the Hill, Across the Border. I’m assuming these are the names of the breads they bake here. Interesting choice. Not names we use at Red Barn Baking, for sure.

A large blackboard lists the prices for their baked goods, and my mouth waters as I read. Cinnamon buns, apple muffins, cheddar croissants, bacon maple rolls, apple cider donuts… the list of temptations goes on and on. I fish my phone from my pocket and snap a photo.

Barbara warned me that cell phone coverage was poor in Vermont. She got that right. I have like, one bar. Then none. Spotting the wi-fi password next to the old-fashioned register, right below a cardboard collection box for the local hockey club, I enter it in my phone, then send the picture to Sarah. Caption: Made it! ttyl.

A slew of notifications ding once I’m connected. I glance at the screen. Seven text messages and two emails. All the text messages are from Sarah, who must have gotten confused about my itinerary.

The emails are from Robert Norwood, the first one sort of menacing with a bunch of legalese, the second a desperate plea for compromise as he extends the deadline for me to come back to my regular job. My heart rate picks up, and I clench my jaw. I delete the emails. I can always fish them out of the trash folder if I have second thoughts after a few days. I just don’t want to see them there.

It’s bad digital feng shui.

With that out of the way, I focus back on the here and now. The little things. I slip off my coat, letting the warmth of the room envelop me. The only sound is a voice coming from beyond the wall. It sounds like a one-sided conversation, someone on the phone—a man.

I welcome the wait, savoring this time to myself, this buffer between my old life and what will be my world for the next six months.

I walk to the window. Lazy snowflakes dance in the golden light cast by the lampposts. Across the street is a vast expanse that looks like a park. In the center of it, I notice a lone silhouette gliding effortlessly and gracefully in circles on what must be an ice rink. Peering out, I can make out the string of lights surrounding it and several houses and buildings on the other side of the park, also decked out for the holiday season. Even if the reasons I find myself here are all wrong, I’ll do what I always do when life gets weird: I’ll ignore what I can’t change and focus on the little things that make me happy. It seems there will be no shortage of these here.

From what I’ve seen so far, Emerald Creek might just be the perfect place to forget the troubles that await me when I return to New York. I’ll learn a new skill, meet new people, become stronger. I suspect this is why Rita wanted me to come here. To learn some life lessons.

Footsteps approach from the back of the shop, the door behind the counter swings open, and my heart skips a beat before he even looks at me. Whoever he is.

Well over six feet.

Dark, mussed up hair.

Two-day stubble on a strong jaw.

Pecs all but snapping open a plaid flannel shirt, muscular forearms straining the rolled-up sleeves.

Our eyes connect for a split second and a zing of electricity runs from my brain to my core.

He turns his back to me to close the door. Softly. Deliberately. As if closing a door required care and attention.

His hair is a little long down his neck, but not long enough to hide his tan nape. The shirt strains against his shoulders, and my lady parts do a little happy dance before my brain catches up and scolds my body into calming the heck down.

He turns around and takes two steps to my side of the counter. His gaze does a quick swipe of my body, then he crosses his arms and locks his eyes to mine like he’s putting all his effort into being professional and not checking me out.

Well, hello to you too.

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