NB: This subject to change. FYI.
7:30 am, Paisley Bakery and Café, Kearney Street near Clay, San Francisco, California.
Paisley Nichols loved her regular customers, every single one. She loved the first-timers too, but her regulars were special in her heart. She didn't deny the tingle of excitement at seeing this particular one, and not just because he qualified to be called a regular. She flashed a smile at him, but the morning rush was full on and there wasn't time for flirting, not even if she had the nerve.
Weekday mornings were a madhouse and anytime she was needed out front, well, she liked to think of the madness as a delightful way to make the rent on her hole-in-the-wall space. The tables were jammed and the line of hungry customers stopping by on their way to work reached almost to the door. She worked the counter every morning to keep that line moving. By the time her regulars got to the counter, all they'd have to do is hand over their money, exchange a quick good morning and head off with their coffee and pastries in hand. She prepped her regular's usual croissant and café au lait with three turbinado sugars while he tapped away at a cell phone.
Maybe she was ready to date again after the disaster of her relationship with Urban. The disaster part wasn't all Urban's fault, she was mature enough to acknowledge that. He'd met her mother, her tarot-card reading, astrology believing, psychic lunatic of a mother and that only sped up the downhill race to relationship death. She'd taken herself out of circulation for a long time after the crash. If she was ready to date again, this lovely, sexy man might be just the place to start.
He was handsome in a monied, elegant way subverted by long white-blond hair done up in dozens of braids with tiny red beads polished to a shine. The beads clicked when he moved his head. The look was sexy. Today's suit was tailored, like all the others she'd seen him in. This one was a midnight gray wool that turned his eyes an even more startling blue. His shirt was pristine white cotton with sharp collar points, his tie burnt-orange silk. An exquisite dresser. And then those beaded braids that worked with such ridiculous sex appeal. He didn't wear a wedding ring, that was something she'd noticed.
The line moved quickly because she had a lot of regulars now and the counter help knew what the regulars wanted. The Financial District had discovered her, thank goodness. Paisley Café and Bakery was now a popular morning stop for commuters. She got a lot of lunchtime traffic, too, plus a respectable number of orders for employee birthday cakes and lunch meeting treats. Her catering business was picking up as well. Over the last sixty days, she'd had money left over after rent, payroll, insurance and her loan. Profit.
The first dollar she'd made when the doors opened was framed on the wall behind the cash register. Whenever she looked at it, she just had to grin. This was her dream and she was not only living it, but succeeding at it, too.
Today marked the fifth week of her new regular coming into the café. He was three people from the front now and she gave him a secret look over and another quick smile. He was watching her. Oh, gee. Busted.
He smiled back.
A smile. For her. She smoothed her white chef's jacket and wished it was a little cleaner. A smear of chocolate ganache arced across one shoulder of the jacket. Occupational hazards included chocolate on your clothes and going home smelling like butter and vanilla.
"Good morning!" she said when he made it to the front of the line. She smiled, not too hard, and made eye contact.
"Good morning." He had a faint accent she couldn't quite place, but boy, was his voice dreamy. She handed over his items, took his money, made change and that was it. He hesitated, then said, "thank you," in that faint and yummy accent, and left with his coffee and croissant.
Then she was on to the next customer with no time to think about her disappointment until after nine-thirty, and then it was time to start another bake and do the prep for the lunch crowd.
She was out front for lunchtime and toward the end of the rush, he came back. Her heart leapt even while she told herself this meant nothing. She waved off the clerk and stepped up to the counter herself. He studied the various pastries and baked goods behind the glass display counter. Brownies, cupcakes, cookies and pastries from the morning bake. Samples of the various cakes she sold, either whole or by the slice. The beads in his hair didn't look like plastic. A few of them were faceted in a bezeled setting the color of rose- gold, but most of them were milky smooth. "Can I help you?"
He looked up and when their gazes met, she got a major rush of whoa. Her mother, if she had been here instead of in Georgia and if Paisley been crazy enough to tell her about the reaction, would have said it was fate. And then intone that fate came in three flavors; bad, worse and disastrous. Her mother was a real ray of sunshine. Paisley had spent years trying to get out from under the habit of seeing doom everywhere.
"I would like to buy a cake."
There was no doom involved in a hottie who wanted to buy a cake from her. There was, however, profit. And the possibility of a date because at the least sign of interest, she was going to ask him out to coffee.
"You're in the right place." She answered his questions about her ready-made cakes, how many they served and whether they could be personalized. Of course they could be personalized, she told him. He made his selection and she took the cake in the back to pipe out the phrase Congratulations on Your Success on top of a chocolate butter cake with a chocolate frosting decorated with white pastilles and white fondant daisies.
At least he wasn't having her write To my Lovely Wife on the thing.
She brought it out, showed it to him, and he smiled his approval. What a smile, too. Serious with an edge of heat. That smile made her think her lack of a sex life needed to be remedied ASAP. As she boxed up the cake, she worked up her courage and said, "I'm Paisley Nichols."
"The owner and principal baker of this establishment." His eyes jittered, which startled her enough that there was a brief and awkward silence. He closed his eyes for a moment but she could see his eyeballs twitching underneath his eyelids. When he opened them again, everything was back to normal. "Yes," he said. "I know you are the Paisley of Paisley Café and Bakery."
He did? Oh! Did that mean he'd been noticing her the way she'd been noticing him? Mentally, she tried out a few more ways to ask him to coffee without sounding like she was actually asking him out. She taped a set of instructions for storing and serving the cake to the top of the box, wrapped it up with her murderously expensive paisley ribbon, slapped on a gold foiled sticker with the name, address and phone number of her bakery on it, and set the box on the counter. All her prices included tax. "Twenty-five fifty."
"I am Rasmus Kessler." He said his name the way people did when they came from a country where they didn't speak English. He took a hundred dollar bill from a slim wallet and handed it to her.
She grimaced at the bill. "I can't break a hundred." She could, but she was under strict orders from her accountant never to take bills larger than a twenty. Too much counterfeiting going on.
"Of course," he said smoothly. He returned the hundred and took out two twenties.
"Thanks." When she gave him his change, she steeled her nerve for her invitation to coffee someplace. As she took the bills, the tips of his first two fingers ended up touching her right wrist and damned if she didn't get an electric shock from the contact. She laughed and shook her hand.
His eyes opened wide. They jittered again. "Are you all right?"
"Sure." Except her wrist burned where the static electricity had sparked off her skin. She handed him his change. "Enjoy your cake, Mr. Kessler."
"Rasmus, please." He picked up the box and stood there, silent. Watching her.
Dang it, her wrist hurt. Enough that she had to concentrate on not crying. "Can I get you a coffee for the road?" Was that lame or what? But she felt like she was talking past a steel plate between her and the outside world. Inside, pain crawled into her head.
"Yes, thank you," he said. "That would be nice."
She made him his usual café au lait, remembered the three packets of turbinado sugar he liked, stirred the contents and handed it over. The pain leveled out, but her wrist still hurt and her arm trembled as she held out the paper cup. "On the house, Rasmus."
He took the cup. She flinched from letting him touch her again which ended up being awkward. "Thank you again." He hesitated. "Perhaps I can buy you a coffee sometime soon."
"Friday evening? Where should I pick you up?"
"Here." She pasted on a grin. "I should be done about five."
He gave her his cell number so she could call him in case something came up and she watched him leave the shop with his cake and his coffee. The near certainty of her first date in ten months floated around her. She was practically giddy. Coffee wasn't a date, of course. Coffee meant you could bail if you found out he liked the Dodgers when this was a Giants town, or hated kids when you wanted a big family. Coffee was when you decided whether to never meet again or give a guy your cell number.
She'd have been more enthused about the uptick in her social life, except her wrist hurt like heck. After he was gone, she pushed up her sleeve to take a look. A blister had formed on the inside of her wrist, the exact size and roundness of a quarter.
Huh. Whoever heard of static electricity giving you a blister? She went into the back room and got out the first aid kit. Burns were an occupational hazard in a kitchen so she had the salve and bandages to wrap up the injury. A little later she popped a couple of aspirins for the pain in her wrist and the throbbing headache that went with it.
At home that afternoon, she replaced the dressing. The blister had popped, but another one looked to be forming where the first had burst. Her wrist hurt worse than ever, though the injury didn't look like it was getting infected. She half expected to see a red line heading up her arm. She felt crappy enough to have blood poisoning. The pain wasn't limited to her wrist anymore. Her entire arm ached all the way to her shoulder. Enough to make her sick to her stomach. She skipped dinner and sat on her cheap sofa with a cup of hot tea in her left hand because she was having trouble using her right arm.
She was sweating, too, and getting double vision. Her head felt like it was in a vice and that the pain wanted to crawl inside her skull and take over. A voice in the back of her head said she needed to get to the hospital. She didn't have health insurance. The bills would bankrupt her. Besides, who went to the hospital for a blister?
Sometime between coming home and sitting down, she'd gotten too weak to move. She put down her tea before she dropped it. Maybe the blister wasn't the problem, but whatever was wrong with her, she knew driving herself to the hospital might end up getting her killed. If she was lucky, she'd only kill herself.
She staggered to her feet, intending to find her cell phone and call 9-1-1 even if she did have to worry about the bill for an ER visit, which she did. She'd never been this sick in her life and the really scary thing was that she was too sick to be properly afraid. Meningitis, she remembered reading somewhere, came on quickly, and it made you feel a lot like she felt right now. Killer headache. High fever. Stiff neck and joints. Meningitis was deadly.
They way she felt, she wasn't going to live long enough to have a date with anyone. Fate. She thought back to that moment of whoa when she and Rasmus Kessler locked gazes. Apparently, hers was the disastrous kind.
Her phone was on the kitchen counter next to her purse. She lurched that direction, but there were three phones there, and she was shaking and sweaty and the pressure on her head was unrelenting. Her stomach had other ideas about what to do next. She barely made it to the bathroom before she threw up. The first time. Every time she thought she could make it to her phone, she heaved again. Her stomach turned itself inside out until there was nothing left and it still didn't stop.
She could barely move. Her skin was hot enough to fry an egg, her ears were ringing and every joint in her body hurt.
Pain gripped her like a wild animal and refused to let go. Never in her life had she been so sick she thought she might be dying, but in the back of her not quite functioning brain, she had a single coherent thought; if she didn't get to the phone to call for help, she wasn't going to make it.