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Wednesday

Five Weeks before Christmas

 

 

“Hey, have you seen Coffee-Croissant today?”

Darcy almost didn’t hear the question over the screech of the steaming wand in the pitcher of milk Alysha was foaming for a cappuccino. She looked up from her inventory sheet and frowned. “Who?

The barista rolled her eyes and finished the milk, pouring it into one of the bakery’s large red mugs and adding a dash of sugar on top before she called out the name on the ticket. “Coffee Croissant,” she repeated herself, waiting for Darcy to react. When she didn’t, the younger woman continued. “You must know who I’m talking about. Blonde hair, blue eyes,” she motioned to the bottom half of her own face, “some super sexy scruff and the shoulder-to-waist ratio of a Dorito?”

Darcy’s frown remained in place. “Are you describing a real-life person?”

So real-life,” Jamie added from the front register, sounding dangerously close to a swoon. “I know you’ve seen him before,” he admonished. “He comes in every Wednesday morning and gets a large coffee and a plain croissant.”

She bit her lip and tilted her head to one side. “Oh, right,” she said, feeling stupid for not remembering the sinfully attractive man who patronized her little bakery once a week. She shook her head and chalked it up to pre-holiday rush stress. “But to answer your question, Leesh, no, I haven’t seen him today.”

Another ticket printed back, pulling Alysha’s attention away from her boss and back to her work. “Shame,” she sighed and pulled a double shot of espresso.

It was Darcy’s turn to roll her eyes as she looked at her watch. “He might still come in,” she said, offering them both hope. “It’s only a quarter to five.”

“Oh no,” Jamie shook his head. “If he was coming in, he’d be here by now. He’s never in any later than ten.”

“Well...” she finished counting the boxes of raw sugar packets under the espresso bar and stood up. “That’s a little creepy that you two are so invested in his schedule,” she commented mildly, “but I’m sure he missed us and will probably be back next week.”

“You mean you’re sure he missed you,” Alysha commented with a smirk on her full lips.

Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“He missed you last week,” Jamie added with a teasing lilt in his voice. “He came in when you were at the bank last time,” he said before she could ask him to explain. “He was totally trying to play it cool but he looked like a lost little puppy when he realized you weren’t around.”

She rolled her eyes again. “Oh please,” she laughed and pushed back her hair. “You’re so precious.”

“No, I think he’s right,” Alysha agreed with a knowing nod. “When I gave him his drink he was even like, ‘Just you two today?’ which was definitely his way of asking if you were around.”

“Fascinating,” Darcy said dryly. “I’ll have to start wearing lipstick again on Wednesdays,” she quipped before she tapped her pen to her clipboard and glanced between her employees. “But in the meantime, we all have work to do, so let’s at least pretend like we’re doing it, huh?” She pointed to the Alysha. “Make sure that machine is set to clean before you leave tonight and Jamie--”

“Signs are printed, voicemail is changed, and all our social media blasts are set up for tomorrow,” he finished her sentence and waved her away with a smile. “Go finish your inventory. We got this.”

And they did. Of the ten people Darcy employed, Jamie and Alysha were some of her favorites. Exceptionally talented with customers and knowledgeable about the menu, both excellent baristas, and both almost as fiercely loyal to Queen of Tarts Bakery as Darcy herself.

She felt a smile play across her face as she listened to Jamie switch seamlessly to Spanish to assist a family looking to place an order while she was left free to finish counting the to-go containers and red and white pastry boxes.

It was almost an hour later, as she entered the data on the computer in the tiny, cramped storage room she’d converted into an office, that Alysha knocked on the door. “Hey,” her curly hair fell over her shoulder as she swung in on one arm and offered her boss a grin. “We’re super dead all of a sudden. So we cleaned and mopped and I told Jamie to go home. I can cover the front.”

Darcy glanced at the clock. “Um, actually, I am just about finished here so you can head out,” she said slowly, momentarily distracted by the algorithm that calculated her production cost each week. She looked away from the screen and smiled. “I was thinking I’d stay open for another hour or so,” she shrugged. “Maybe we’ll help out a last-minute straggler before tomorrow.”

Alysha looked dubious. “You sure? I can stay.”

She shook her head. “No, no, I’m good. Didn’t you say you had a cheesecake to bake?”

Her barista grimaced. “Shit,” she muttered. “Totally forgot I said I’d do that. What do you think my impossible-to-please mothers will like? Carrot cake cheesecake or chocolate mousse cheesecake?”

Darcy grinned. “Either way, I think you’re gonna knock it out of the park. If your moms don’t like it, you just come over and have Thanksgiving with me.”

Alysha cocked her head to one side. “Hey, what are you doing anyway?”

“Same as usual,” she answered with a bounce of her shoulders before she glanced at the mountain of canned goods they had been collecting all month. “The trucks from the shelter will be here at nine, then I’ve got pies to bake and I have to be at my Aunt Selma’s in Flatbush by three.”

“That sounds nice.”

“It is,” she agreed before she grinned. “Now stop stalling and bake your cheesecake.”

Alysha made a sound of frustration. “Seriously though, what recipe?”

“Carrot.”

“Swear?”

Darcy crossed her heart. “Super swear. Happy Thanksgiving, sweetie.”

Alysha crossed the small office in a single stride and gave Darcy a quick hug. “Happy Thanksgiving,” she echoed. “I'll see you Friday.”

 

The wave of hustle and bustle they'd been sailing all week had finally died, leaving Darcy with an empty shop for the first time in days. She did a needless wipe down of the counters before rearranging the wet-floor sign and checking to make sure that Jamie had thoroughly mopped under each table.

She’d just decided to restock and wrap her cold pastry case when she heard the bell chime above the door. Darcy called out a quick greeting from behind the counter and gave her guests a chance to look around while she finished her task.

It was only a moment before she realized she was being watched.

The blue eyes on the other side of the cold pastry case were hard to miss as Darcy restocked the chocolate eclairs. They belonged to a little girl with a round face and sandy blonde hair, who looked on with interest as Darcy worked.

She smiled and stood up, noticing the blue eyes followed her as she did. “Anything I can help you with?” she asked, coming around the case to the counter and leaning on her hands.

Her short customer looked to be about eight or nine years old, missing a few teeth when she smiled politely up at Darcy. Her hair was pulled up in a high bun and she wore a black leotard and floaty pink skirt under her puffy purple winter coat. She scrunched up her face in consideration and turned her attention back to the top shelf. “Are they called macarons or macaroons?” she asked, pointing to the brightly colored confections on the top shelf of the case.

Darcy smiled and leaned forward so she was at eye level with the little girl. “These,” she followed the child’s point with her own fingernail, “are macarons. They’re French cookies and they are de-licious.” Her new patron smiled before Darcy continued. “But everyone comes in here and calls them macaroons which are actually something totally different.”

This news was met with a solemn nod. “I want to say it right,” she insisted.

Darcy raised her eyebrows. “Wanna try one?” Normally giving away her merchandise wasn’t something she made a habit of—especially the delicate little cookies that took hours out of every week—but rules were made to be broken. And as her mother was always so fond of saying, what was the point of owning your own bakery if you can’t give away a few treats every now and then?

“Oh, yes please,” the little girl said quickly before she stopped herself and caught her lip between her teeth. She glanced toward the other case, where a man was bent over, examining the cakes in the main display case. “Can I try one, Daddy?”

The man stood and Darcy forced herself not to gulp. Hello, Hot Dad, she thought before she catalogued the broad shoulders, narrow hips, and all-American good looks standing on the other side of the counter. Coffee-Croissant, she labeled, suppressing a smile as Alysha’s ‘Dorito’ comment bounced to the top of her mind. “Just one,” he said, glancing toward Darcy with a half-grin and a set of blue eyes to match his daughter’s. “As long as they were offered and you didn’t just invite yourself.”

“I didn’t,” she said, shaking her head effusively before she looked at Darcy. “Right?”

She found herself unable to stop smiling. “Absolutely,” she said firmly and removed the macaron tray from the cold case. She presented it to her guest. “What looks good, little miss?”

The question brought a sparkle to the child’s eyes and another grin that dimpled her cheeks. “They’re all so pretty,” she said, almost wistfully, before she looked up. “Which one’s your favorite?”

“The black currant,” Darcy pointed to the row of dark purple cookies on the far-left edge of the silver tray. “But I’ve been selling an awful lot of the salted caramel and the dark chocolate lately.”

Little pink lips twisted in thought and she tapped a fingernail against her mouth while she narrowed her eyes, seriously considering her options. Her father laughed. “Come on, Charlotte. Just pick one. She doesn’t have all night.”

“But I want to try them all,” she insisted. “I can’t pick.”

Darcy grinned and glanced at the clock. “You know, it’s just about closing time,” she admitted. “And I’m the boss here. I bet I could hook you up with a few flavors if you promise not to tell anyone.”

The child’s eyes widened. “Really?”

She held a finger to her lips. “Our little secret,” she said and grabbed a bag from under the counter. “And as long as you promise to share with mom and dad, okay?”

“Oh,” Charlotte didn’t miss a beat. “My mom’s in heaven; it’s just me and dad.” Before Darcy could react to the brusque way this news had been delivered, the little girl was already eyeing her left hand closely. “I notice you’re not wearing a ring.”

“Ohhhkayy there, little lady,” her father had crossed the length of the counter in two quick strides and clamped a hand on her shoulders. “You’re getting into dangerous territory.” When he looked up, Darcy noticed his cheeks and the tops of his ears were red. And from this angle, she couldn’t help but notice that he really was good looking.

Like, crazy good looking.

No wonder Jamie and Alysha paid such close attention to his schedule.

Charlotte shot her a guilty grin. “Sorry,” she said, not quite managing to sound genuine.

“No worries,” Darcy assured her as she dropped five varieties of macarons into the paper bag and raised her eyes to the man. “You’ve got a junior detective on your hands there, sir.”

“His name is Steve,” Charlotte piped up. “Steve Rogers.”

Steve Rogers looked flustered. “Uh, yeah,” still blushing, he held out a hand. “That’s me. And this is Charlotte.”

Darcy shook his hand. “I’m Darcy Lewis,” she said with a laugh.

Charlotte looked up at her father. “She’s the boss, Daddy.”

“Well then you better hope she doesn’t throw us out of here for asking too many questions,” he said, only half joking. He took the bag of cookies and handed them to her. “Do me a favor and go share with your uncles, okay?”

Charlotte’s blue eyes darted between the two of them. “Okay,” she said after a moment of not-quite-awkward silence had passed. She stopped at the door and waved over her shoulder. “Bye, Darcy! Thank you!”

Darcy waved back. “Bye Charlotte,” she echoed. “It was nice to meet you.”

The bell jingled and Steve laughed nervously, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Sorry about that—I don’t know where that came from.”

Darcy smiled. “Don’t worry about it,” she assured him. “It’s not the worst thing anyone’s ever noticed about me. And all things considered, she’s pretty delightful,” she added genuinely.

He shook his head. “Thanks,” he said, watching her eye them through the front glass as she approached two men waiting by the meter who gladly accepted the cookies she offered. He cleared his throat. “So...you’re the boss?”

She nodded. “Guilty as charged.”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Would that make you the Queen of Tarts?”

Darcy laughed. “Oh no. My mother was definitely the queen,” she assured him with a smile that she hoped didn’t reveal how much using the past tense still hurt her heart. “I could be the Princess of Pastries, I suppose,” she decided, pleased when he grinned back at her. “Or the Countess of Custard.”

“Equally respectable titles,” he agreed with a decisive nod before his eyes wandered over her shoulder. “Is that her?” he asked, pointing to the wall above where they stacked the plates.

Darcy followed his gaze and let herself notice the black and white photo they’d framed and hung up three years ago. “Yep,” she said, smiling at the image of her mother, standing behind her at a stand-up mixer, steadying her six-year-old daughter’s hands as they poured in a cup of chocolate chips. They were wearing matching, frilly aprons and were equal-parts covered in sugar, flour, and giggles. Raina Lewis’s curly brown hair had been pulled up in a messy bun at the top of her head and held back with a red and white polka-dotted bandana. Darcy still had that bandana in her top drawer at home. “That’s the queen.”

When she looked back, Steve was smiling in a way that made her notice the crinkles at the corner of his eyes. “You look just like her,” he said, unaware that that particular compliment always made chest twinge just a little bit. He studied the photo for a moment longer. “Is that here?” he asked, noting that the backdrop of the photo was the same black and white tile of the backsplash behind the counter. “Has this place always been a bakery?”

She nodded. “More or less. My grandparents sold flour and baking staples and only a few kinds of breads, but she took over from them in 1980, I think? Changed the name and gave the place a facelift and started selling sweet treats and the doors have been opened ever since.”

He looked impressed. “Must’ve had quite the touch.”

Darcy grinned. “I used to think she put love potions in the food, the way people would wait around for hours just to talk to her or get her advice on a new recipe. But,” she shrugged. “That’s just who she was: pure sugar from the inside out. Impossible to resist.” She looked over her shoulder at the photo for another moment before she looked back at Steve. “Anyway, she left the store to me and I’m going to leave it to my daughter someday and hopefully Queen of Tarts has a nice long reign in Brooklyn.”

Steve smiled. “How old is your daughter now?” he asked.

Darcy frowned. “I don’t have a daughter,” she said, confused before she realized what she’d said. “Oh,” she shook her head. “Oh, no. I don’t have children and as your girl pointed out,” she held up her bare left hand with a grin. “Not married. But, y’know,” she shrugged. “Maybe someday.”

He grimaced, embarrassed again. “I really am sorry about that; she doesn't usually do that...”

She laughed. “It’s fine,” she promised. “But it just occurred to me that you might have come in here for something other than my life story and I’ve kind of monopolized your evening.” She took a deep breath in and raised her eyebrows expectantly. “Was there something I could help you with?”

Steve blinked and shook his head, appearing to refocus. “Oh, yeah, actually,” he let out a dry laugh and shook his head a second time. “Yes. I completely forgot that tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I’m supposed to bring dessert.”

Darcy grinned. “Does your family like cheesecake?”

He scoffed. “We’re New Yorkers,” he reminded her. “Everyone likes cheesecake.”

She nodded. “Right answer,” she said and moved toward the other cold case. She directed his attention to the center row where two full cheesecakes were left, the rest having been picked over throughout the course of the day. “You’re in luck. We still have a full pumpkin and a full banana bread left.”

He looked distraught for a moment. “Banana bread cheesecake?”

“It’s a banana bread crust,” she explained. “And there’s bananas, cinnamon, and walnuts in the cheesecake itself.”

“Sweet Jesus,” he murmured and crossed his arms over his chest, bending down to examine the two cakes more closely through the glass. Darcy realized instantly where Charlotte’s indecisiveness had come from. After a few moments, Steve glanced over his shoulder and toward the front window. Charlotte and her two large bodyguards were still waiting by the meter. Darcy couldn’t help but notice that all three were doing an excellent job of pretending not to be watching what Steve was doing. He caught her attention and waved her back inside. The bag of cookies, Darcy noted as she pulled open the door, was nowhere to be seen.

“You’re taking a million hours, Daddy,” she reminded with a heavy sigh.

He chuckled and waited until she was standing in front of him. “Which one do you think Auntie Nat will like the best? Banana bread or pumpkin?”

Charlotte grinned up at him again. “Get both!”

He frowned. “There’s only going to be ten of us, sweetheart.”

“But three of us are going to be you, and Uncle Sam and Uncle Bucky,” she reminded, ticking names off on her fingers. “You should get both.”

Darcy smothered another smile between her lips as Steve looked back sheepishly in her direction. “She makes a decent point,” he admitted. “If those aren’t spoken for, I guess we’ll take both.”

“I’ll box them up,” she said and slid down the counter to prepare their purchases, thrilled that she wouldn’t have to worry about them going to waste before Friday.

“There’s a sign by the door about baking classes,” Charlotte said as Darcy slid the first cheesecake into a white cardboard box and unwound the twine from the spool to hold it closed. “They start on Saturday and they go until Christmas.”

“Oh yeah?” Steve asked, sounding genuinely interested in what his daughter was saying.

“Can I do them please?” Charlotte asked. “I don’t have Brownies until the beginning of next year and they’ll be done by then.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe. Are you sure they’re for kids?”

“They are,” Darcy called from her boxing station. “I do two,” she said as she reemerged with two boxed cheesecakes. “Ten to noon is for parents with kids under seven and one to three is for kids between eight and twelve.”

Charlotte took Steve’s hand and gave it a gentle tug. “Daddy, I’m eight,” she reminded softly, making Darcy laugh again.

“I know how old you are,” her father assured her, looking from Charlotte to Darcy and back again before he let out a flustered laugh. “Sure,” he shrugged. “I guess, if you really want to try it out. Do we have to...” he looked back toward Darcy, “does she need to bring anything?”

“Nope,” she assured him with a wide smile. “Just herself.”

“Got it!” Charlotte exclaimed with a little jump, still holding Steve’s hand. “This is going to be so much fun!”

He glanced over and shook his head, a smile playing on his lips before he looked at Darcy again. “Why do I feel like she’s going to be talking me into a five-hundred-dollar mixer by next Christmas?” He reached into his pocket and sighed as Darcy giggled. “Speaking of, how much do I owe you?”

She rang him up and slipped a flyer for the baking classes into the bag. “Well thanks so much for coming in, guys,” she said and handed the bag over the counter after he'd tucked his change away. “You made my night.”

Charlotte beamed. “Are you going to teach us how to make ma-crons?” she asked, trying to pronounce the word properly.

Darcy caught the smile Steve tried to hide as she decided she didn’t have the heart to tell this little girl they would not be making dreamy French presidents in her class. “Those are a little tricky,” she admitted. “Usually we start off with something a little more user-friendly. How do chocolate peppermint brownies sound?”

Charlotte and Steve looked at each other with identical interested looks. “Pretty great,” she decided with a nod. “I’m in.”

Darcy grinned and offered her hand like a business deal. “Glad to have you on board.”

They shook with another smile from Charlotte before she returned her hand to Steve’s grasp. He looked at her expectantly and gave her hand a wiggle. “What do you say?”

“Thank you, Darcy,” she said obediently. “Happy Thanksgiving!”

“Happy Thanksgiving,” she echoed, waving at them as they headed toward the door. “Enjoy the cheesecake!”

“See you Saturday,” Charlotte called over her shoulder. “I can’t wait!”

Steve offered a sweet, almost shy smile as Darcy followed them to close and lock the door behind them. “It was really nice meeting you,” he said, pausing as Charlotte dropped his hand and ran back to her escorts. He coughed once and smiled again. “Darcy.”

She smiled back. “Likewise, Steve. I’ll see you Saturday when you drop off Charlotte.”

“Looking forward to it,” he said before he frowned and shook his head. “I mean, she is. She’s looking forward to it.”

Darcy’s grin stayed in place. “Me too.”

She watched them disappear down the block and twisted the deadbolts into place. Her cheeks were still a pleasant shade of pink as she hung up the ‘Happy Thanksgiving! We’ll be back on Friday!” signs.

Darcy finished up her close, still grinning, having decided to add the memory of the way Steve’s jeans fit to the list of things for which she was most thankful indeed.

 

1

Chapter Text

Four Weeks Until Christmas

 

The bell above the door jingled merrily as Steve held open the door for the second-to-last child and her mother to leave Darcy’s bakery.

Charlotte was seated on the counter, a large recipe book in her lap. She looked up with a wide, toothy grin at the sight of her father and waved. “Hi, Daddy!”

Steve grinned back. “Hey there, Betty Crocker, how was class?”

Darcy took the book from the little girl and helped her down from the counter. Charlotte ran to him and gave him a quick hug before she started talking excitedly. “It was so fun,” she exclaimed, her little fingers spread wide. “Darcy taught us how to make icing roses and I got to use a piping bag!”

He raised his eyebrows, impressed. “Oh yeah?”

She nodded rapidly. “We made banana cupcakes with chocolate ganache filling and they were so good so Darcy said I could save you one.” Steve looked up to find Darcy smiling at them before Charlotte continued. “Is it in the purple fridge?” she asked, turning away to look back at her teacher.

Darcy nodded. “Bottom shelf—right where you can reach.”

The eight-year-old grinned back at her father. “I’ll go get it,” she said and dashed off toward the kitchen.

“Be careful, sweetheart,” Darcy called after her. “Daniel just finished mopping!” She grimaced at the sound of sneakers squeaking and made a mental note to apologize to her dishwasher for ruining his hard work.

When she turned back, Steve was looking at her expectantly. “You taught third-graders how to make ganache?” he asked, amused.

Darcy laughed. “It’s never too early to develop a discerning palate when it comes to frosting,” she said innocently. “And she might know how to make it, but she hasn’t quite figured out how to spell it yet.” She produced the recipe card that Charlotte had written out herself for the day’s lesson and handed it to Steve.

His smile was bright and so full of pride it would have been ridiculous if it hadn’t been so genuine. ‘Bananna Cake with Gunoshe Inside’ Charlotte had printed in her neat, wide-spaced penmanship. He tucked it carefully into the pocket of his leather jacket. “Thank you,” he said, looking up. “For uh, for doing these classes. She doesn’t stop talking about them all week.”

Steve now came to the bakery twice a week, much to the delight of her cashiers and baristas. Once on his usual Wednesday pilgrimage and for the last two Saturdays to drop off and pick up his daughter from class. Darcy would have been lying if she said she hadn’t spent Wednesday morning glancing over every time the bell chimed above the door. It also would have been a lie to say she hadn’t made an excuse to be up front when he had finally arrived and took no shame in making conversation and letting him draw out their interaction as much as possible.

Darcy grinned. “Well I’m sure you hear this all the time but she’s a delight,” she said with sincerity. No matter who her dad was, Charlotte was easily one of Darcy’s favorite students. She was bright and funny and respectful in a way that most children weren’t these days. She came to class each week with wide-eyed excitement and the kind of contagious energy that made everyone else just as eager to learn. “I’d watch her with the chocolate chips though,” she added. “She’s got a heavy hand with the measuring cup.”

He laughed. “I’ll keep an eye on that.”

They were quiet for a moment before Darcy opened her mouth and started a sentence the same time he did. They stopped and smiled shyly at each other. “Go ahead,” Darcy insisted.

“Oh, no,” he shook his head. “I was just…uh…” he cleared his throat. “Going to ask if you…”

She raised her eyebrows, urging him to continue. “Yes?”

“Uh,” he coughed again. “If you live nearby. In the neighborhood.”

She did her best not to be disappointed in the way that sentence had ended. “I do,” she nodded. “Just a few blocks away, actually.” She cleared a tickle out of her throat. “And you guys? I know Charlotte said she goes to BSI so I figured you were close by.”

“Yeah,” he mirrored her nod as Darcy tried to figure out how to dig them back out of this sudden, awkward rut. “We live in Bensonhearst.”

“Nice,” she commented and tucked her hands into her back pockets.

Mercifully, Charlotte came skidding around the counter with a small red and white box clutched in her hands. She stopped and looked between them as she handed the box to Steve and raised her eyebrows. “What were you guys talking about?”

“Your school, kiddo,” Darcy answered quickly and felt the tension dissipate.

Charlotte didn’t bother to hide her confusion as she looked from Darcy to her father and back again. “Why?”

“Nobody knows,” Steve said quickly and placed a broad hand on Charlotte’s shoulders. “What do you say, Miss Rogers, wanna go get some dinner?”

“Chinese?” she asked hopefully.

Her father looked apprehensive. “Okay, but you’ve had sugar all day. You gotta eat something green.”

She sighed and turned on her heel to Darcy. “Do you like Chinese food? If you do, you can come with us. Or we can go somewhere else if you--”

“I’m sure Darcy has plans, sweetheart,” Steve answered before she could say anything, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. 

Darcy felt her heart twist as Charlotte turned her hopeful eyes on her again. “Do you?”

She bit her lip and pushed her crush back into the ‘Never Going to Happen’ pile. If Steve had any interest, Charlotte had just given him a perfect opening. She bent down to be at eye level with the little girl and smiled with a little regret. “Unfortunately, I do. I’ve got to figure out Christmas bonuses before it’s too late and they turn into New Year’s bonuses like they did last year.”

“You should give everyone who works here a million dollars.”

She laughed. “How much did they pay you to suggest that?” she said before she shook her head and continued. “But thank you for the invitation.  I’ll see you next Saturday, okay?” she asked Charlotte, tapping the tip of her button nose with her finger.

Charlotte smiled. “Can we make those almond tarts from your book?” she asked, pointing to the recipe book they’d been sharing on the counter.

“Heck yeah we can make almond tarts! That’s a great idea.” Darcy held up a hand and they clapped a high five. “Thanks for coming to class today, Charlotte,” she said. “I had a lot of fun.” She was just about to stand back up when Charlotte surprised her and threw her arms around her neck in a quick, tight hug. Startled, Darcy hugged her back and touched her cheek to the girl’s soft sandy hair. “And thank you for that,” she said. “I needed one of those.”

When they pulled away, Charlotte giggled and held a hand over her mouth. Steve noticed her delight and raised an eyebrow. “What’s so funny?” he asked, an amused half-smile playing on his lips.

“Darcy, you smell like sugar,” Charlotte said with a giggle. “Like sugar cookies.”

She couldn’t help but laugh at how tickled this discovery had made her favorite customer. She felt her cheeks turn pink as she got to her feet. “And that is what they call an occupational hazard, my dear.” She grabbed the long braid she wore over her shoulder, touched it to her nose and laughed. “Oh boy. I do.” She took another inhale. “Confectioners’ sugar, I think. My lungs are probably coated with it.”

Steve laughed. “Well there are worse things than…” he paused and thought. “Would doctors call that Sweet Lung?”

She chuckled. “Give it twenty years, there’ll be a late-night commercial for a law firm representing the victims of this terrible epidemic.”

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”

Charlotte tugged on his hand. “Daddy, Chinese,” she reminded. “I’m hungry.”

“Right,” Steve said, and gave a little shake of his head. “Uh, thanks, again for doing this.”

She smiled. “Pleasure’s mine,” she followed them to the door and held it open. “Have a great week, guys, I’ll see you next time.”

Charlotte waved over her shoulder as they reached the sidewalk and Darcy had to force herself to not find it too endearing that Steve, in his attempt to wave with one hand holding Charlotte’s and the other holding a cupcake box, only succeeded in waving the box awkwardly in her direction.

She wiggled her fingers at them and turned the lock on the shop door, turning away with a frown. “Get your shit together, Lewis,” she muttered to herself. She checked the time—almost four. It was probably for the best that Steve hadn’t wanted her to tag along for dinner when she considered the mountain of tasks lying in wait on her to-do list. She weighed her options: get payroll done here and not have to worry about it on Tuesday or grab her laptop and some takeout and work from home with Netflix to keep her company.

She had shut off the lights and slung her laptop bag across her chest when she heard the knock on the door. Surprised, she unlocked it and let Steve inside with a confused smile. “Hey,” she said, noticing that his daughter was waiting just outside the front window, doing a terrible job of appearing nonchalant. “Did Charlotte forget something?”

“Uh, no,” Steve said, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets. “I did.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Sorry?”

He took a deep breath and glanced toward the window once before he looked back at her. “I…forgot to ask if you’d like to get a cup of coffee with me. Sometime.”

Darcy blinked, uncertain she’d heard him correctly. “You…want to get coffee with me?” she repeated, uncertainly.

Steve’s ears had reddened again, much like the first time they’d met. He offered a nervous smile. “Look, I know that all I really know about you is that my kid is crazy about you and that your hair apparently smells like sugar which…” his smile brightened as he shook his head, “might be one of the most enchanting things I’ve ever heard in my life—”

She felt herself blush again as she looked down with a smile she couldn’t contain. “Steve,” she smothered that smile between her lips. “I don’t want you to think you have to ask me out because Charlotte and I are getting along.”

“Oh, that’s not…” he shook his head again. “I’ve been trying to ask you out since the first time I came in here months ago,” he admitted. “I keep making up excuses to come down here because I want to talk to you and I keep…” he sighed, “chickening out. But I understand if—”

“Yes,” Darcy said quickly, before Steve could backtrack and misread her hesitation. He looked up from the ground, the same hopeful expression Charlotte had given her earlier. She nodded for emphasis. “Yes, Steve. I would love to go out with you.”

“Really?”

She laughed and nodded again. “Really,” she insisted, before she caught her lip between her teeth. “I can’t tonight though—”

“Oh, no,” he shook his head. “I didn’t think—”

“But I’d love it if you called me,” she suggested with a smile as she turned back to the counter and plucked a pen from the bouquet of cupcake liner origami roses. “This is a better way to reach me than the bakery number,” she reminded and grabbed his hand, pressing the pen to his palm and writing out her phone number like they were in high school.

Steve glanced down at his hand, resting in hers and smiled at the number. “Good,” he said before he coughed. “I mean, thank you. I’ll—” he rolled his eyes at his stumbling response. “I’ll call you.”

“Good,” she echoed softly.

Steve surprised her by turning his wrist to grasp her fingers and brought the top of her hand to his lips for a kiss. He smiled and subconsciously licked his lips as he let her go.

She laughed. “Sugar?”

He nodded. “Definitely sugar.”

Something caught Darcy’s attention from the corner of her eye and she looked to see Charlotte standing in the window, grinning from ear to ear. 

 

 

***

 

Sam Wilson watched from the kitchen, intrigued, as Steve crossed the living room for the third time in as many minutes. “What are you looking for?” he called out as his friend ran his hand along the seams of the armchair and moved a throw pillow and a stuffed elephant.

“My watch,” he groused, absently patting his bare wrist. “I swear I just had it.”

Charlotte looked up from where she’d been sitting next to Bucky on the couch, pretending to interview him for a job with an imaginary resume and nonexistent glasses that she kept adjusting. “It’s on the bathroom counter, Daddy,” she said before she returned her attention to her applicant. “You have a good—” she stopped and dropped character with a frown. “What’s this thing called again?”

Bucky smiled. “Resume,” he reminded gently.

She nodded and cleared her throat. “You have a good resume, Mr. Barnes,” she said, motioning to the paper she was miming holding in her right hand. “I think I’ll hire you, even though you spelled ‘college’ wrong.”

Steve had paused at the foot of the stairs of the stairs long enough to bark out a loud laugh as he took off for the bathroom again.

From his place on the couch, Bucky looked offended. “I didn’t spell college wrong,” he insisted and made an effort to swipe back his imaginary resume as if to examine his spelling error.

Sam was still laughing as he moved the pillows and stuffed animals on the armchair and took a seat. “Dad’s looking pretty nervous, Charlie,” he commented, glancing in the direction Steve had just darted. “He must really like this woman.”

“Mmhmm,” Charlotte had abandoned her HR demeanor and hauled a coloring book and some crayons back onto the coffee table. Their disagreement over his spelling forgotten, Bucky took the page she offered him and began to color alongside her while Charlotte continued, “He likes her a lot.”

“And what do you think of her?” Bucky asked, swapping a black crayon for a light blue one.

Their charge looked up with a smile. “I like her too,” she insisted. “She’s very nice and she’s funny and she lets us lick the spoons in baking class.”

Sam and Bucky exchanged a look and Sam shrugged. “What more could you want?” he said honestly. He didn’t want to jinx anything. In the seven years they’d been perfecting this My Three Dads routine, this was only maybe the fifth time they’d had to watch Charlotte so Steve could go on a date. He’d mentioned other women in that time, of course. Women he worked with, single mothers at Charlotte’s school, the women in the neighborhood, but in Sam’s opinion, it had been far too long since Steve had that spring in his step, that stupid half-smile that came to his lips every time someone brought up Darcy’s name.

The man in question descended the stairs before Charlotte could say anything further and stopped in the living room. He held out his arms, looking nervous. “Is this...” he motioned vaguely to the dark blue button-down and gray pants he’d put on. “Does this work?”

“Where are you meeting her?” Bucky asked, giving Steve a quick once-over as he looked up.

“There’s a coffee place a few blocks up from her shop,” he said, checking the time again. “But now that I’m thinking about it, is coffee that good of an idea?” he asked, looking from Sam to Bucky and back again. “I mean, half her business is a cafe--she probably drinks coffee all day.”

“We all drink coffee all day,” Sam reminded. “If she didn’t have any objections when you brought it up, I’m sure she thinks it’s fine.”

“And that works for a first date,” Bucky assured him with a wave in the direction of his clothing. “Looks good.”

Charlotte finished her careful shading and looked up, tilting her head to one side. “You should roll your sleeves up,” she decided with a nod. “Girls like that.”

Steve frowned. “What? Where did you hear that?”

Charlotte shrugged, already distracted again by her coloring. “I don’t know. Probably on Youtube.”

Her father sighed. “What did I tell you about Youtube?” he asked wearily.

“She’s got a point though,” Sam piped up and motioned to Steve’s forearms with a nod of his chin. “Roll them sleeves.”

Officially outnumbered when Bucky gave him a quick nod of agreement, Steve unbuttoned his sleeves and cuffed them at the elbows. Charlotte beamed. “Much better.”

Steve checked his watch again and tensed up. “Okay, I should probably head out.” He grabbed his jacket and pointed at his daughter. “Is your dance stuff packed up and ready to go?”

She nodded. “It’s by the door.”

He turned his attention to her sitters. “I don’t know how long I’m going to be. Her class is from--”

“Six to seven-thirty,” Bucky finished his sentence for him with a half-smile. “Just like every Monday. I’ll make sure she gets there and gets home.”

He looked from one man to the other. “Are you both on call?”

Sam shook his head before glancing at his watch. “No, I’m on overnight starting at seven. Barnes, what time are you on call?”

Bucky moved his shoulders. “Noon to midnight but it’s been quiet so far.”

“Well if something comes up and you can’t pick her up, just text me. I can get her on my way home.”

Charlotte let out a heavy sigh and rolled her eyes. “We’re cool, Dad. Just go have fun with Darcy.”

Bucky glanced at her and then back at Steve with a grin. “Yeah, we’re cool, Dad,” he echoed. “Seriously. Go have a good time--and don’t be late. It’s a terrible first impression.”

Steve crossed the room and accepted a quick kiss from Charlotte. “Be good. No internet, please. Read a book.”

His little girl grinned. “Tell Darcy I said hi.”

He smiled and kissed the top of her head. “I will.” He addressed Bucky and Sam with a wave. “Thanks for helping out, guys. I appreciate it.”

               

Despite having left later than he had wanted to, Steve managed to arrive at the coffee shop with ten minutes to spare. Just enough time to order a latte and check his watch seven times before the bell above the door chimed at Darcy walked in.

He stood up and offered a quick wave, noting that she’d swapped her usual bakery attire for a sweater dress and a pair of boots. Her hair was down and curled around her shoulders and Steve found himself struck again by just how pretty she was. “Hi,” she said as she approached the table and rose up on her tiptoes to brush her lips to his cheek. “Sorry if I’m a little late.”

He shook his head and caught a trace of something sweet when she pulled away. “You’re right on time,” he assured her.

“Great,” she said and caught the attention of the waitress. She waited until after she’d ordered a peppermint mocha before she shrugged out of her coat and situated herself at the table. He could have sworn she’d glanced down at his cuffed sleeves for a moment before she met his eyes. “So, this is new,” she said. “Getting to talk to you when I’m not a total mess.”

He smiled. “And for more than five minutes at a time. Hopefully.”

Darcy laughed and Steve felt the strong desire to make her to do that as often as possible. She held up a pair of crossed fingers. “Here’s hoping.” She cleared her throat and placed her hands on the small table between them. “Can I be honest about something up front?”

A flicker of concern crossed his features, but he nodded. “By all means.”

“I’m exceptionally rusty at this whole...first date thing.”

His stomach unclenched and he let out a breath of relief. “I find that hard to believe,” he said honestly, “but I doubt you could be any more rusty than me.”

She wrinkled her nose in a way that was almost too endearing and looked embarrassed. “Oh, we’ll see about that.”

He grinned. “Other than admitting I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, is there anything else I can do to make this feel less like a first date?”

Darcy shook her head. “No, no, no,” she sat back and crossed her legs, letting her hands drift to her lap. “Trying to pretend it’s not a first date will just make it ten times worse,” she said with an authority he found himself trusting. “No, no, I say let’s just lean into this nightmare and treat it like the thinly-veiled job interview it really is.”

He laughed and sat back, surprised. “What are you saying? You want to play Twenty Questions?”

She shrugged. “Or however many it takes to unshroud some of your mystery,” she said, motioning with wiggling fingers to the space around him.

Steve scoffed. “If you’re looking for mysterious I’m afraid you’re going to be very disappointed.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she countered with a grin. “Do you mind if I go first?”

He sat forward and clasped his hands in front of him on the table. “Fire away.”

“What do you do for a living?” she asked before she quickly continued. “And I know that sounds like a shallow, boring question, but I’m not asking it for the obvious reasons.”

He chuckled. “I don’t think it’s a bad question,” he assured her. “But now I’m curious about why you had to ask it first.”

She took a deep breath in and appeared to weigh the benefits of revealing her motivations. “Look, here’s the truth,” she said plainly. “My entire staff has a crush on you—”

“What?” he exclaimed before he could stop himself from interrupting her.

“Oh yeah,” she nodded. “It’s madness. You should see the way they climb over top each other when I post the schedule to see who’s working Wednesdays,” she sighed and shook her head with an affectionate roll of her eyes. “Anyway, they’ve got a bet going as to what line of work you’re in. Right now the top three guesses are,” she held up one finger at a time as she counted them off, “personal trainer, MMA fighter, or underwear model.”

Steve laughed and felt the tops of his ears burn. “D,” he said. “None of the above. I’m an illustrator.”

She looked skeptical. “Seriously?” He nodded as the waitress arrived and set Darcy’s drink on the table in front of her. “What do you illustrate?”

“I’m a freelancer,” he admitted, “so usually whatever pays the bills. But mostly it’s children’s books and I’ve been doing some design and layout work for this little independent press on 20th since September.”

She made a hum of recognition into the foam of her coffee before she set it down and ran her tongue along her top lip. “Hence why you started walking past my bakery,” she guessed with a grin.

“It’s on my walk to their office,” he said with a shrug. “And I apparently have no willpower when it comes to fresh baked croissants.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment.”

“You should.”

Darcy’s blue eyes swept over him quickly again and she shook her head. “Children’s book illustrator,” she said with a soft laugh. “Yeah, no one's going to believe that.”

He chuckled. “You can tell ‘em whatever you want, I’ll play along. What did you have your money on?”

“MMA fighter,” she said quickly before her cheeks tinged pink.

Steve studied her for a moment before he grinned. “What was it really?”

Darcy's teeth sank into her full bottom lip. “Exotic dancer.”

If he'd been drinking, he might have come dangerously close to doing a spit take. “You thought I was a stripper?”

“Exotic dancer!” she repeated with a cheeky laugh. “You're in great shape and you frequently pay with cash—”

“I prefer cash!” he exclaimed with another laugh.

“So do strippers!” she said, holding up her hands, defensively. “It’s not an insult.”

Steve’s laugh faded as he shook his head. “Well, sorry to disappoint.”

“I didn’t say I was hoping you were a stripper,” she corrected around another laugh. “Just that I put two and two together and apparently got five.”

Steve sighed, not trusting himself to take another drink just yet. “Is it my turn to ask a question now?”

She turned her palms up, invitingly. “I insist!”

“Did you always want to be a baker? Or was that just something that was decided for you?”

Darcy bit her lip in consideration. “Well,” she let her head fall to one side in consideration as she drew the word out. “I started working in the shop when I was about six,” she admitted. “And it’s not like my family ever...” she shrugged. “I mean, there was never any pressure for me to keep the business going but I finished college and my mom needed my help and...” her shoulders moved again. “I guess it worked out because I never really found anything else I loved doing as much as running that shop.”

“Well you’re good at it,” he said sincerely. “That place is lucky to have you.”

She smiled and glanced down as she tucked her hair behind her ear. “So have you always been a Brooklynite?” she asked, sounding ready for a subject change and Steve made a mental note to steer away from anything that might make her talk about her mother and the bakery unless she brought it up first.

He nodded. “Born and raised,” he said with pride. “I grew up in Gravesend.”

She smiled and pointed to herself. “Williamsburg,” she said before adding, “before it was cool.” She opened her mouth and closed it again. He watched as she pressed her full lips together and tried again. “I have another question.”

“Shoot.”

“What’s the deal with Charlotte’s body guards?” Steve snorted a laugh, prompting Darcy to continue, “Come on, man. That little girl rolls mad deep with thick, ripped dudes. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to think.”

He was still laughing as he shook his head. “I consider them more babysitters than bodyguards but,” he shrugged. “Tomato-tomahto, I guess. Their names are Sam and Bucky, and they’re two of my best friends. Bucky and I grew up together and we met Sam at boot camp and...” He trailed off. “I’m not really sure what I would have done if they hadn’t moved back to town when they did.”

Darcy smiled softly, the mirth from earlier having dissipated. “Kind of a Full House situation?”

“For a while,” he admitted, glancing down at the table. Briefly, he wondered if he should be bringing this up. Especially on a first date. But when he looked up again, Darcy seemed genuinely interested, her eyes full of kindness, but not pity. “After Peggy—” he stopped himself and clarified, “Charlotte’s mother. After she died they came and stayed with us. Bucky had been living in Atlanta and Sam was in DC and I just figured they’d be in town for the funeral. Maybe a few days after, but they just kept...hanging out. And that was seven years ago.” He smiled faintly at the memory of the two of them taking turns sleeping on the couch and the floor. How Bucky would clean the house and Sam would cook for everyone and they’d each take turns caring for eight-month-old Charlotte until Steve could rouse himself from his grief enough to realize that it had been months since his wife had died and his two friends had dragged him along while the world had continued to spin.

“Are they still living with you?”

“Oh God, no,” he shook his head with a smile. “No, we’re all living independently of each other now, which is definitely for the best.”

“And do they also illustrate children's books for a living? Or do they do something equally charming?”

He laughed lightly. “Uh, no. No, Bucky's firefighter and Sam’s with the NYPD.”

She raised her eyebrows. “A cop and a firefighter?”

“I know,” he said with a smile. “All I need is a construction worker and an Indian chief and I’ve got a full set.”

Darcy laughed a little louder than she meant to and shot him a guilty smile when a patron at the nearest table gave her a dirty look. “I thought cops and firefighters were bitter, bitter rivals.”

Steve’s grin stayed right where it was. “And if you knew Sam and Bucky, you’d wouldn’t be surprised at all by their career paths.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Aren’t you all besties?”

He shook his head. “Not exactly. I’m pretty much all they have in common,” he admitted. “They’ve been fighting like an old married couple since they day they met.”

She looked wistful for a moment. “Do you think they’re in love?”

Steve laughed. “Uh, no. I don’t think so. I mean...” he frowned in thought. “No, I’m pretty sure they’re not in love. I feel like one of them would have mentioned it at some point.”

“Good,” Darcy said with another laugh. “Because that little detail would have made this whole thing just way too precious and I would’ve called bullshit on the whole operation.” She waited for him to laugh before her smile softened again. “Seriously, though, it sounds like you’re all pretty lucky to have each other,” she said quietly.

“Well,” he shrugged, “I’m not sure if helping their Army buddy raise a little girl was part of either of their ten-year plan but...”

“Plan or not, between the three of you, you’re all doing a great job with that kid.”

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said modestly. There were plenty of nights he’d stayed awake wondering if Charlotte was going to grow up to be some kind of sociopath after being raised by the three of them and all of their issues. Wondering if there was something else he could be doing that he just wasn’t seeking because he was too comfortable with the rhythm they’d established. But then a report card would come back with glowing praise or she’d come home and tell him about a new friend she had made at baking class and his fears would be set aside for another few weeks. “Charlotte might not remember her mother, but she’ll remember Sam teaching Bucky and I how to French braid her hair and the two of them dressing up like Little Red Riding Hood and Granny because she wanted to be the Big Bad Wolf last year for Halloween.”

Darcy made an unsuccessful attempt to hide her giggle behind her hand. “Please tell me you have a photo of that,” she said, laying to rest his sudden trepidation that he’d gotten too serious, too sad, too fast for a date.

He felt himself smile as he reached into his pocket. “It was my background for a while,” he confessed, swiping into the gallery and pulling up the photo he’d taken last October. Charlotte stood in the front yard in her wolf costume with her basket ready for Halloween candy, grinning widely and holding hands with Bucky, wearing a flannel nightgown over his jeans and boots, wire-framed half-moon glasses and a curly gray wig and Sam, who had asked his older sister to sew him a red and white checked dress and red cape to tie around his neck, complete with hood and a blonde wig with pigtails.

As he handed the phone to her, Darcy snorted and let out a loud cackle before she could stop herself. She clapped a hand over her mouth and blushed. “Oh boy,” she said, zooming in to examine all the details. “I'd have an oil painting commissioned of this beaut. Maybe a mural in the park.” She handed him the phone back. “And you're getting a text.”

He frowned down at the screen. “Sorry,” he said, swiping it open only when he saw it was from Bucky. “Speak of the devil,” he muttered.

Sorry to interrupt, Bucky's text read. Lottie's at dance but there's a callout. You okay to get her? Or I can try to call Nat.

He tapped out a quick response. It's okay. I'll get her on the way home. Thanks.

He looked up apologetically. “Sorry,” he said again. “Three people with irregular schedules,” he shook his head. “This used to be a lot easier before I agreed to all these activities.”

Darcy gave him an understanding smile. “Do you have to go?”

“Not yet,” he assured her with a glance at his watch. “But I'll have to be on 67th by seven-thirty.”

She brightened. “Does she dance at Poetry in Motion?” Surprised, Steve nodded. “Oh, one of my employees teaches tap there. I make the treats for their recitals every spring.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Those blueberry lemonade cupcakes were your handiwork?”

She nodded. “Guilty.”

He let out a low whistle. “That was the best cupcake I’ve ever eaten in my life. Not even joking,” he said when she scoffed. “I’m pretty sure I had dreams about them.”

Darcy laughed. “Had I known, I would have baked them off-season to try and lure you in sooner.”

It took him a moment to realize she was still flirting with him. That this date still felt like it was going really well, all things considered. “And if I’d known you were the one baking them, I would have been quicker to ask you out.”

She bit her lip, shyly. “So, funny thing, I actually only live a few blocks from said dance studio and I’d be happy to walk with you to pick up Charlotte, if you don’t mind the company.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You sure you don’t mind our date being crashed by an eight-year-old?”

Darcy grinned again. “I happen to really enjoy that particular eight-year-old’s company,” she reminded. “And I can think of worse ways for a first date to end.”

 

The temperature had dropped again by the time they had started walking toward the dance studio and Darcy balled her fists and stuffed her hands in the pockets of her wool coat. “Favorite type of food,” she said as they turned the next corner.

“Italian,” he decided after a moment’s consideration. “Favorite movie?” he asked before he stopped himself. “No, wait. That’s a terrible question. Nobody has a favorite-”

Back to the Future,” she answered firmly.

“I stand corrected.”

Darcy grinned. “Best Taylor Swift album?”

He scoffed. “1989. Everyone knows that.”

She let out a low whistle and swiped her hand across her forehead. “Man, I was ready to walk in the opposite direction if you answered that one wrong. Also,” she glanced sideways at him with another smile. “Thank you for not pretending like you don’t have a preference.”

He chuckled. “Favorite dessert?”

She made a sound like a game show buzzer. “Impossible to answer. I need more information.” He raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to continue. “After what meal? And what’s after dessert? Is my goal to gorge myself like a Roman so that I have to unbutton my pants and go right to bed?” Steve laughed as she went on. “Because in that case, it’s a slightly underdone chocolate chip cookie the size of my face with triple cream ice cream and warm hazelnuts and hot fudge.”

“Well that sounds amazing,” he commented.

“But if I’ve got post dessert plans that don’t involve naps and bloating--” he laughed again. “Then I’m probably going to roast some pineapple or strawberries and sweeten up some whipped cream to dollop on top of a little piece of angel food cake.” She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth. “And all of this is relative because I’m never going to plan a dessert without knowing what kind of meal it follows.” She stopped again and let out a deep breath that clouded in front of her face. “That was a loaded question,” she admitted. “I have a lot of thoughts about dessert.”

“As you should,” Steve agreed. “It’s very important. Your turn to ask a question.”

“Ooh, right,” she cleared her throat. “Favorite place in the city?”

“That’s a tough one,” he said as the cold began to seep through his coat, making him wish he’d grabbed a scarf or a pair of gloves. “I mean...Coney Island’s great.”

“Obviously.”

“But so is Prospect Park and there’s this Italian place in my old neighborhood that makes these cannolis like you wouldn’t believe...”

“Okay, so Brooklyn standards aside, is there one place you’d pick over everywhere else?”

He thought about it, one place rising above the din of potential answers in his mind. “There’s movie theatre in the village that’s probably going to top the list.”

“Any particular reason?” Darcy asked with a smile in her voice.

“I took Charlotte to see her first movie there,” he admitted, glancing down at the sidewalk before he continued. “But that’s probably a boring story and I don’t want to be one of those parents that just talks about his kid all night.”

Darcy scoffed and nudged him playfully with her elbow. “I asked,” she reminded. “And I want to hear this story. How old was she?”

His eyes rolled upward as he tried to remember what year it had been. “She would have been about four, I think. They were playing Singin’ in the Rain one Saturday morning and she’d been finding all of these old movies on tv and wanting to take dance class with her friends at school, so I thought it might hold her interest.” He glanced over, surprised to see that Darcy’s eyes hadn’t glazed over yet. “Anyway, it’s this huge old place that’s been there since the 30’s and they’ve been restoring so it’s still got the high ceilings and the big chandeliers in the lobby--whole nine yards.”

“What’d she think?”

“She was thrilled,” he said, the memory of how Charlotte’s eyes had lit up when they’d gone inside—how she’d run her hand along the glass candy case, how he’d had to pull her into his lap because she was too small to hold the theatre seat down herself and kept getting sandwiched in—turned the corner of his lips in an involuntary smile. “Anyway, we bought popcorn and there were only maybe five other people in the theatre that day so it felt like we had the place to ourselves. She’s sitting on my lap, looking around, and she turns back and goes, ‘Daddy, this is the best movie ever.’”

“Awww,” Darcy covered her heart with one hand and pouted her lips. “That’s too cute.”

“Only the movie hadn’t started yet,” he added with a grin.

“What?”

“Oh yeah, the lights hadn’t even gone down yet. She just thought that riding the subway and going to a fancy theatre and eating popcorn with a few other strangers—she thought that’s what going to a movie was.”

“Oh my God.”

“And then they raised the curtain and the actual film started and I thought her head was going to explode,” he laughed. “I’ve never seen her eyes get so big.”

Darcy laughed. “That’s so sweet,” she decided, slowing to a stop as the dance studio’s sign loomed just ahead. “And we’re here.”

“That was fast,” he said, absently rubbing at the back of his neck.

She smiled and turned to face him. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Her blue eyes sparkled with the reflection of the twinkling string lights that decorated the storefronts and her cheeks were pink from the cold. She was standing close enough to smell that sugary smell of her hair and it only would have taken a moment to lean in and cover her wine-colored lips with his.

But in that moment of hesitation, the doors to the dance studio crashed open and an army of children and their parents poured into the street. He willed his heart not to sink as Darcy took a step back and offered a small smile that seemed only a little disappointed. Charlotte spotted him right away and arrived at his side looking confused. “Where’s Uncle Bucky?” she asked, a little line of concern folding between her fair eyebrows.

“He got called into work,” Steve explained simply before he gave her a light tap on the chin. “Is it okay that I came to get you instead?”

She didn’t smile. “What about your date?”

“I tagged along,” Darcy interrupted and waved with a smile when Charlotte turned around. “Hope that’s okay.”

He watched as Charlotte turned from mildly disappointed to all smiles as she gave Darcy a quick hug around the hips. “It’s okay,” she said sincerely. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“But as I was telling your dad earlier,” she said with a quick glance in his direction. “I only live a few blocks from here and since it’s a school night, I should probably let you two get home, huh?”

Charlotte turned back to him. “Can we walk Darcy home, Daddy? Please?”

He bent down and zipped her coat up the rest of the way, pulling her hood on over her bun. “You took the words right out of my mouth,” he said and took her dance bag from her, slinging it easily over one shoulder. He stood and looked back at Darcy. “Would you mind if we walked you home?”

Darcy smiled and accepted the hand that Charlotte offered. “That would be lovely.”

She had been right--her apartment was only a few minutes from the studio. Minutes that Charlotte spent walking between them, babbling about her day at school and the piece they had been perfecting for their upcoming production of The Nutcracker. She talked about her math test and how much she liked learning division and the class’s new spelling list and the new girl from Jordan who had just started in her grade, barely letting either of them get a word in edgewise.

Steve considered suggesting that she take a breath, or at least shooting an apologetic look in Darcy’s direction, but when he glanced over, she was laughing at one of the jokes Charlotte had learned from her joke book and he couldn’t find a reason to interrupt.

Their walk ended in front of a red brick brownstone with a stark, black door and gold numbers. “Home sweet home,” she said, a little reluctantly.

“Which window is yours?” Charlotte asked, finally letting go of her hand.

“My window,” Darcy bent to be at Charlotte's level and pointed to the third floor so the little girl could follow her finger, “is right there. And if I get up early enough, I can sit on the ledge and watch the whole city wake up.”

“What does that look like?” Charlotte asked, looking from Darcy to the window and back again.

“Very pink,” Darcy said. “Pink and purple and blue,” she smiled softly. “It's the best part of the day.”

Steve felt something swoop in his stomach and resisted the urge to smack himself for already being so far gone if Darcy could make something as simple as waking up early sound magical.

She stood up and cleared her throat. “Well, Rogers family, thank you for a lovely evening.”

He felt that wave of nervous anticipation again, the way he'd felt right before not kissing her earlier. It was only a second of silence before Darcy laughed softly and leaned in, grabbing a handful of his coat as she stretched up on her toes and brushed her lips against his cheek. “I had a really nice time,” she said as she pulled away.

He smiled, wanting to drive the heel of his hand against his forehead for not having seized the opportunity to kiss her earlier, when he had a chance to do so without an audience. “Me too,” he said honestly before he had to resist the urge to shuffle nervously. “Would it be alright if I called you again sometime?”

Her cheeks flushed a little pinker as she nodded. “I’d like that.”

“Good,” he let out a deep breath he’d been holding and mirrored her nod. “Then...hopefully I’ll see you soon.”

Charlotte tugged on his hand. “We’ll see her Saturday, Dad,” she reminded, sliding her gaze between them curiously.

Darcy smiled. “Or before then,” she shrugged. “Whenever. You know how to find me.”

They bid their farewells after that and waited until Darcy was safely inside before Steve hailed a cab to get them home faster.

They’d only made it a block from her apartment when he leaned forward and asked the driver to turn around. She frowned and gave him a skeptical look. “What?”

“Just,” he stopped himself from sounding too impatient. “Could you just circle the block and go back, please? It’s important.”

She sighed and reminded him that the meter was running as she put her signal on and did as he asked. Charlotte matched their driver’s curious look as they pulled to a stop in front of Darcy’s brownstone again. “What’s wrong?” she asked, her face scrunched in confusion.

Steve pulled her flip phone from her dance bag and turned it on as he handed it to her. “I’ll be five minutes,” he promised. “Wait here and call the police if anyone tries to steal you.”

“What kinda cab you think I’m runnin’?” the woman behind the wheel asked, highly offended. “She’s safe in here. You do what you gotta do.”

He offered her a look of gratitude mixed with regret for implying otherwise before climbing out of the car.

Darcy looked confused when she opened the door. She glanced down with an embarrassed laugh at her appearance. She must have changed as soon as she’d gotten in the door. Her dress and heels had been discarded for a pair of leggings and a baggy t-shirt. “Hi,” she said, “I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon.”

The nerve he’d summoned walking up the three flights of stairs to her door was only going to last for another moment. “We had a good night,” he asked, motioning between the two of them. “Right?”

Her smile was slow as she tipped her head to one side. “Yes...”

“Good,” he breathed, summoning his long buried thrill-seeking courage. “Just wanted to make sure this was deserved.”

Her look of confusion hadn’t vanished, but before Darcy could say another word, Steve took her face in his hands and dropped his lips to hers. She let out a little hum of surprise before she relaxed and sank into him almost immediately, sliding her hands up his chest and pushing her fingernails into the hair at the base of his skull. Her lips were just like the rest of her: soft and sweet and perfect in the way they moved with his. She tasted like sugar and peppermint and everything he’d been missing for too long.

Her eyes were still closed when he pulled away and she opened them slowly, looking a little dazed before she smiled. “Richly deserved,” she said softly. “I was hoping you would do that.”

He brushed his thumb across her cheek, touched his forehead to hers. “I should’ve done it earlier.”

She stretched forward and pressed her lips to his again. A quick kiss; their noses brushed. “Can I see you before Saturday?” she asked, letting her hands drift back down over his shoulders.

“Anytime,” he said immediately.

“Maybe tomorrow?” she pulled back a little bit so he could see her hopeful expression. “Come by for lunch?”

“You got it.”

“Good,” she whispered and traded him one last soft kiss before she let him go. Her cheeks were pleasantly flushed as she took a step back toward her door. “Then...I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said shyly, pressing her bottom lip between her teeth. 

“Good night,” he said, a grin he could not control spreading over his face.

 

Charlotte was waiting with an expectant look when he climbed back into the cab with her. He thanked the driver again as she pulled back out into the street.

“Did you kiss her goodnight?” Charlotte asked with a mischievous half-smile.

Steve couldn’t have stopped smiling if he tried. “I did,” he admitted and raised his eyebrows. “That okay with you?”

His daughter let out a heavy, dramatic sigh and slumped against him. “Oh thank goodness,” she said, covering her face with her hands. “I was just about to think you were hopeless.”

Not wanting to admit that he had been starting to think the same thing, Steve settled for a tickle fight that had Charlotte squealing with delight the whole ride home.

 

 

Chapter Text

Three Weeks Before Christmas

 

Darcy felt Alysha’s eyes on her as she collected the last of the aprons from the kitchen and tossed them in her laundry basket. She looked up to find her employee unable to hide her grin. “...May I help you?” she asked, using one of the aprons to wipe a smudge of butter from the countertop.

“Nope,” Alysha smiled with a bounce of her shoulders. “I’m good.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?” she asked, innocently as she gathered the tasting plates. “Maybe I’m just enjoying this little...” she wiggled her fingers in Darcy’s general direction, “thing you’ve got going on.”

“What thing?”

Her employee scoffed. “This thing where you’ve been out with your new boytoy like, eight times since Monday,” she reminded. “Or that thing where you can’t stop smiling like an idiot every time your phone goes off.”

Darcy turned away, trying to bite back her smile as she set the laundry basket by the door and shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Alysha just giggled. “You’re so freaking cute, I can’t stand it,” she said with another bubbly laugh. “But for real...” she raised her eyebrows. “How many times did you see Coffee-Croissant this week?”

Darcy rolled her eyes again. “First of all, his name is Steve.”

“I know,” Alysha grinned. “I just like to see you get all blushy when you say it.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“I’m also super single and increasingly lonely so could you please just let me check into Hotel Vicarious for like, ten minutes?” she clasped her hands and turned her big green eyes on her boss. “Please?”

Darcy opened her mouth to object, but Alysha had already sat down at the table and batted her eyes a few times. The urge to gush won out and she sat down across from her barista. “Okay, so we’ve only seen each other three times if you count Monday.”

Alysha scoffed again. “Uh, that’s still a lot,” she laughed and then grew serious. “But tell me everything. Leave nothing out.”

“Well, we had coffee on Monday night.”

“Is that when he kissed you?” Darcy closed her eyes, savoring the memory and nodded solemnly. Alysha sighed. “Okay, so I know about that one. Then what?”

“Then he came down on Tuesday and we had a little lunch date.”

“Where’d you go? What did you do?”

“Just to that Thai place a block up.”

“How was that?” Darcy blushed and looked down at her hands. “What?” Alysha demanded, leaning in.

“Nothing,” Darcy insisted, rolling her eyes at her own giddy thoughts. “It was really nice. He’s just...” she stopped herself and looked up at Alysha’s eyes, begging for her to finish her thought. “He’s just really cute when he eats noodles.” She scrunched up her face in shame and slapped her hands over her eyes and groaned. “Oh my God, I’m so lame.”

But Alysha only clapped her hands and cheered. “This is the cutest shit I’ve ever heard. More gush! Much cheese,” she insisted. “What do you like about him?”

She bit her lip and resisted the urge to say everything, even if it was more than a little true. “He’s really kind and sweet,” she decided. “And he’s funny,” she said before adding, “but he doesn’t really try to be—he’s just this…snarky nerd who happens to…”

“Have abs you can do your laundry on?” Alysha asked dryly. Darcy snorted before she continued. “And an ass that doesn’t quit?”

She laughed and nodded. “And a jaw that could cut glass.”

“Oh my God, shut up,” Alysha tossed her head back dramatically. “No, wait,” she snapped her attention back. “Keep going. Tell me something sweet.”

Darcy paused and tilted her head to one side in thought. She bit back another smile. “He’s a face-holder.”

“When he kisses you?” Darcy nodded and Alysha sighed again. “I’ve always wanted to date a face-holder.”

“And then on top of all that, he just loves that little girl so much…it’s so refreshing and attractive.”

“I am in no way surprised,” Alysha agreed, “especially given your rampant Daddy Issues.”

Darcy coughed out a shocked laugh before she leaned over and smacked her employee lightly in the arm. “I do not have rampant Daddy Issues!” she exclaimed. “Not knowing your father doesn’t constitute ‘rampant Daddy issues’.”

“Okay first, that’s like, the definition of Daddy issues,” her employee reminded. “The only thing that would be more stereotypical is if you did know him and he didn’t love you.”

“Thanks, Freud,” Darcy shot back. “I’m so glad you’re applying that psychology degree to your work schlepping coffee.”

Alysha rolled her eyes with a laugh. “Well it’s gotta be good for something,” she said before she frowned. “Wait—you said you saw him three times. When was the third?”

“We went out last night,” she admitted, blushing again unintentionally at the memory.

Alysha’s eyebrows rose again. “A Friday night date?” she asked, sounding impressed. “Not on a school night?”

Darcy laughed. “No, it was a real date.” Steve had even specified it as such when he’d brought it up on Tuesday as he walked her back to the bakery.

“What did you do?”

“His friend owns a club in Manhattan and so we went dancing.”

“Which club?” Alysha asked before she shook her head. “Never mind, I wouldn’t know it. How was dancing?”

“Fun,” she answered honestly. The club had been crowded, but they hadn’t been packed in like sardines and the band was a large brass ensemble that had a pleasant mix of swing and salsa. Good drinks, good music, and a dance partner who couldn’t seem to get enough of her hips and curves under his hands. “Really fun.”

“So that was the third date?” Alysha asked, raising an eyebrow full of implications.

“Yep.”

“And were there any other...third date appropriate activities that occurred? I don’t need details...unless of course you want to share. Then by all means, drown me in second-hand smut.”

“Leesh,” Darcy rolled her eyes.

“I’m just asking!” she held up her hands defensively. “There are social norms surrounding the third date and if you were willing to divulge, I’d be open to hearing about it.”

“I’m not willing to divulge because there were no additional third date activities,” she insisted before the blush of her cheeks betrayed her again. “I mean...we just made out in the cab on the way home.”

Alysha clenched her jaw and groaned. “Ughhh was that amazing? I bet it was amazing.”

Darcy couldn’t lie. It had been pretty amazing. Steve had kissed her gently at first, holding her face with one hand while the other sank into her hair and caused further ruin to her curls. He’d traced his tongue gently along her bottom lip and moaned softly when she’d opened her mouth to deepen the kiss and stroked her tongue against his. And then, like giddy, greedy teenagers, they just couldn’t stop.

At some point she’d found herself in his lap, trying to muffle her own moans as he swept her hair to one side so he could press hot, open-mouthed kisses to her neck and throat. It wasn’t until he’d let his hands drift to her hips that she realized she’d been subconsciously grinding down onto him. An action that, she could tell, would not have been without reward if he hadn’t stopped and pulled away with a whisper of her name.

“Sorry,” she’d whispered back, her voice hushed as she struggled to regain her breath. In the dark of the cab, with the city lights and headlights flying past them, Steve had looked even more beautiful. Pupils blown with lust and framed by those criminally long eyelashes, pink and swollen lips, flushed cheeks.

He had slid his hands up from her hips and held her face again, swiping his thumb over her lips. “Don’t be sorry,” he’d breathed, a half-smile turning up the corner of his lips. “I want you, Darcy. But not...”

She’d been unable to help her guilty smile as she’d leaned in again to pin her forehead to his and finished his sentence. “Not in the backseat of a cab?”

“Exactly,” he’d pulled her down for another slow, lingering kiss. “I want to take my time.”

His words had sent a blossom of heat to her core and she’d been considering writing to Obama and asking for a Medal of Honor for the strength and fortitude it took to untangle herself from him a few minutes later and go to bed without inviting him inside. He had a babysitter to return to, after all, and she had a bakery to open first thing in the morning.

Alysha was shaking her head. “You must have the willpower of a saint,” she commented. “Jamie and I have had multiple conversations about what a slow and gentle lover he probably is.”

Darcy blinked. “Apparently I need to find some more work for you and Jamie to do,” she said, shaking her head as she stood up and resumed cleaning.

“Oh, no worries,” the other woman got up as well and grabbed her own apron from the back of the chair. “These are off-the-clock conversations.”

“That’s actually worse.”

“So really, it’s a good thing that I volunteered to teach class by myself this week,” she said, ignoring her boss’ comment. “Because not only do I get to share the magic of Nonni’s cannoli recipe with these delicate young minds,” she grinned, “but now you’re free to spend more time with your man and get you some of that sweet sweet Dorito lovin’.”

Darcy snorted before she could stop herself. “You’ve gotta stop calling him that.”

“Well then you better start feeding him pastries and fatten him up like the rest of us,” she stopped herself and held up a hand. “No. Wait. Don’t do that. What am I saying?”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Darcy assured her dryly. “As of right now I’ve seen no proof he actually eats the croissant he buys from us every week. The man has like, two percent body fat.”

“Ugh,” Alysha said again. “I have two percent body fat in my little finger.”

“You and me both, girlfriend,” Darcy said with a sigh. “Anyway, I doubt there’s going to be much time for sweet sweet lovin’.” They loaded the dishwasher together and she closed the door to start the cycle. “It’s more of a convenience date. We’re just going Christmas shopping.”

“Ooh,” Alysha’s lips formed a perfect ‘o’. “That can still be fun. I’m a size twelve, by the way.”

She rolled her eyes again. “So you’ve said.”

               

She'd managed to change her clothes and salvage her hair from its daily messy bun by the time Steve arrived to drop off Charlotte for class.

He was bent down, helping his daughter her tie her apron strings when Darcy had finally found and gathered her purse and phone. They looked up with similar smiles. “Hi, Darcy!” Charlotte waved as Steve got to his feet. “Is Alysha going to be our teacher today?” she asked, looking at the chalkboard by the instructional table where Alysha had written her name in flowery script.

Darcy nodded. “Yep, and you guys are so lucky she is,” she said as Charlotte's eyes glittered with excitement. “Because nobody makes cannoli like Alysha.”

Charlotte’s expression brightened, and she looked up at Steve. “That's your favorite, Daddy!” she exclaimed before she frowned and looked back. “But I thought we were going to make almond tarts.”

“Next week is almond tarts,” Alysha called out musically as she emerged from the back room. “Darcy and I switched lessons because I won’t be able to be here next week.” She looked from Charlotte to the other two children who had arrived early for class and held out her hands. “That okay with everyone?” All three students nodded and she clapped her hands together. “Awesome! Let’s go wash up!” She glanced at her watch as they filed past her toward the sinks. “How many more am I waiting for? Six?”

“Seven,” Darcy said as the bell jingled again and two more children wandered in with excited eyes and cheeks rosy from the cold. “Five now,” she amended with a grin. “Hank and Isabelle, how are you?” Darcy made brief small talk and traded high fives with the set of fraternal twins before she caught Alysha’s impatient glare.

“Get outta my shop, Boss Lady,” she said, pointing at the door. “Go buy us presents! And have fu-un,” she sang the last word, making Darcy roll her eyes as she turned back to Steve.

“I guess I'm good to go if you are,” she said as her heart flipped with a moment of fluttery excitement when she glanced at his lips.

He smiled for a moment before his gaze slid past her and lower. Darcy turned to see Charlotte had popped her head out of the kitchen door. “What's up?” he called across the small space.

“Who's coming to get me?”

“Uncle Sam,” he answered as Darcy realized with a smile that they wouldn't have rush their afternoon.

“Yes,” Charlotte pumped a fist in front of her face and grinned. “Okay, bye Darcy! Bye Daddy. I love you!”

“Love you too,” he echoed and waved until the door swung closed. Steve pulled open the shop door and offered her his arm. “Shall we?”

 

After almost two hours, Darcy’s feet were starting to hurt and she’d just about reached her limit on how many times she could be bumped into without grimacing. “I thought the whole point of millennials killing the holiday shopping industry was that everyone shopped at home and the stores were empty,” she grumbled as Steve gently pulled her out of the way of a group of tourists with clearly no intention of stopping or stepping around her as they made their way out of the bookstore.

Steve glanced sideways and appeared to be fighting a grin. “It’s three weeks before Christmas in New York,” he reminded. “What were you expecting?”

She sighed and shifted her bags into one hand so she could dislodge a piece of hair that had gotten stuck in her lip gloss. “I know. But...” she moved out of another man’s way. “Do they all have to be out at the same time?” When she glanced over again, he was still suppressing a smile. “What?” she asked, only a little annoyed that his grin seemed to be contagious.

“You’re kind of cute when you’re grouchy,” he said after a moment.

“No, I’m not,” she muttered before she stopped with a huff. She dropped her shoulders and scrunched her nose. “I’m sorry, I’m having a really nice time.”

And that was true. Shopping with Steve was infinitely more fun than shopping alone. He was great for tie-breaking decisions for gifts for people he'd never met and by the time the magic of the season was starting to wear thin, she'd crossed out half her list. Not to mention that he held open doors for her and held her hand while they walked, warming her up in a way that had nothing to do with the wool scarf she’d wound around her neck.

“Good,” he said with a nod before he motioned to a diner across the street. “Wanna grab a bite? I forgot to eat lunch.”

Darcy felt her stomach rumble as she nodded. “Lead the way.”

They ordered BLTs and a plate of fries to split, effectively canceling out the h’anger that had been steadily eating away at her good mood. Steve watched with interest as she checked off names on her shopping list. “How many more do you have to shop for?” he asked, when she looked up.

“Just family,” she said with a shrug. “My Aunt Selma, my cousin Jane and her husband, and my grandparents.” She put her phone away with a smile. “I've had a very productive afternoon.”

“At least one of us has,” Steve smiled ruefully.

She scoffed. “You’ve been shopping all day,” she reminded with a nod to the seat next to him, filled with bags full of presents for his daughter. “How much more successful were you hoping to be?”

“I was hoping to cross more than one person off my list today.”

“Who else ya got?”

“Well Charlotte’s done,” he eyed his purchases. “Probably more than done, honestly. I might save some of those for her birthday. But I still have Bucky and Nat and Sam’s parents...”

She crunched down on a fry and tilted her head to one side. “Okay, you've got to give me more to go on if I'm going to be any help.”

Steve finished chewing the bite he'd taken of his sandwich and swiped at his mouth with a napkin. “Well, Bucky...” he paused in thought. “I always have trouble with him because I've known him my whole life so,” he shrugged. “Kinda feels like I've gotten him everything over the last thirty five years.”

Darcy shook her head. “No no no, we can find the perfect thing. Where did you meet him?”

Steve pursed his lips. “We grew up in the same group home,” he said, swiping another fry off the plate. “He used to, uh, he used to look out for me,” the corner of his mouth quirked into a brief smile. “Y’know, when the other kids would pick on me. Bucky was a lot bigger so he’d beat up on anyone who tried to mess with me.”

Darcy tilted her head to one side. She wanted to stop him and ask about how he’d started that sentence. She’d been wondering about his family—why he didn’t talk about parents or siblings—since the first night they’d gone out. At the words ‘group home’ a whole new crop of questions bloomed in her mind. She shoved them away for another time—when they knew each other better, she told herself—and narrowed her eyes. “I have a hard time believing that you got picked on when you were a kid.”

He laughed and rubbed at the back of his neck. “I’ll show you a picture if you come back to my place,” he said with a shake of his head. “I was a scrawny little kid with glasses and braces and all kinds of health problems. I was a mess for a long time.”

She felt her bottom lip jutting out sympathetically. “And Bucky took care of you?”

He nodded. “Don’t know why,” he admitted. “But we were all we had for a while.”

Darcy swallowed hard. If she hadn’t witnessed it herself, she wouldn’t have believed that this guy squirming at the memory of glasses and school yard bullies was the same guy who’d had her heart racing and her head spinning in the backseat of a cab the night before. It just didn’t seem fair. She pressed her lips together and dropped her chin onto her hand. “So, what’s he like now?” she paused, “Other than, I presume, a huge softy who is completely wrapped around Charlotte’s finger?”

Steve grinned. “That’s more or less accurate.”

“Figured as much,” she mirrored his smile. “What’s he into? What does he do when he’s not working or hanging out with Team Rogers?”

He frowned. “Um...he likes...” he tilted his to the side in consideration. “I mean, he’s really into science and space--”

“Nerd,” Darcy joked, her smile widening as Steve nodded in agreement.

“Such a nerd.”

“Wait—what kind of space does he like?”

The lines in Steve’s forehead deepened. “Um...outer?”

She laughed. “No, I mean, does he like to follow what NASA is doing or is he into sci-fi and speculative stuff? Astrology or astronomy?”

“Oh, he’s a huge NASA geek,” Steve assured her. “He takes Charlotte to the space museum and the planetarium at least three times a year.”

“Does he have a telescope?”

Steve frowned in thought. “No, actually, not anymore. He used to, I think,” his eyes narrowing with concentration. “But I’m pretty sure he lost it in a break-up a few years ago.”

“She took his telescope?” Darcy asked, clapping a sympathetic hand to her heart. “That’s harsh.”

Steve scoffed. “Yeah, she took a lot of things. We don’t talk about it.”

“Fair enough,” Darcy help up her hands. “But you can probably find a decent one within your budget. Oh, hang on,” she said as a thought occurred to her and she pulled out her phone. She pulled up her messages and fired off a quick text. If I was buying a telescope what would you recommend? “My cousin Jane is an astrophysicist,” she said, tapping her thumbs against the screen.

“Really?” When she glanced up, Steve looked impressed.

Please don’t attempt to get me a telescope, Jane responded.

Darcy rolled her eyes. Don’t worry, she typed, you’re most likely getting your traditional Christmas scarf. But I need moderately priced suggestions for a space enthusiast to impress a hot guy, she clarified. Help a girl out?

I’ll email you, Jane replied in her usual short and to-the-point manner. And also, came a second, unexpected text, Get it, girl.

“Really,” Darcy echoed, biting back her smile as she put her phone away. “She’s going to email me a list of suggestions for telescopes if you’re interested.”

Steve smiled. “I think he might love that. It’s not the kind of thing he’d ever buy for himself.”

“Bam,” Darcy said, snapping her fingers. “Done. Onto the next.”

Her date laughed. “Well Sam’s already done. I’ve been hiding a turntable at my house for three months now. Charlotte’s been making a list of all the songs they listen to together and we’re going to buy him some of his favorites on vinyl.” He paused for a second and absently patted at his pocket. He retrieved his phone after a moment and frowned at the screen displaying an incoming call. “Sorry,” he said distractedly. “This’ll only take a second.”

“No worries,” she assured him.

“Were your ears burning?” Steve asked by way of answering Sam’s call.

“What? No. Why? Are you talking about me on your date?” Sam asked, his voice rich and loud enough for Darcy to hear him through the phone. “That’s terrible. I’m ashamed of you.”

She giggled into her hand as Steve rolled his eyes. “What’s up? Everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, but we’ve got some cahoots happening right now.”

He raised his eyebrows with a grin he couldn’t suppress. “Cahoots, huh? With whom?”

“My sister needs me to watch Mariah for the night and the girls want to have a sleepover.”

Steve frowned. “Your house or mine?”

Sam laughed. “Mine, obviously. I wouldn’t do that to you, man. I don’t mind if you don’t.”

“Uh, yeah,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “That’s fine with me. Are you just going to grab what she needs from the house?”

“Yeah, anything I might forget?”

“Her asthma’s been a little rough the last few mornings; I think it’s the cold. Can you grab her inhaler? It was on her dresser when we left this afternoon. She should know where it is. Other than that, I can’t think of anything.”

“Cool. Enjoy your night, I’ll have her call you before she goes to bed,” Sam said. “And for God’s sake, stop talking about me.”

Steve tucked his phone away with a shake of his head. “Sorry about that,” he said while Darcy’s grin stayed in place.

“That was some super active Dad-ing, right there,” she said with a laugh and swiped another french fry.

The tips of Steve’s ears reddened for a moment. “I know. I swear I’m going to take you on a date one of these days and not have to manage Charlotte’s social calendar in the middle of it.”

She grinned. “To be perfectly honest, I’m kind of enjoying the unpredictable nature of these dates,” she admitted. “I never know where they’re going to end up.”

“Well,” Steve looked like he was choosing his words carefully. “Since Sam’s on Charlotte detail until tomorrow morning, it looks like this one can end up wherever you want.”

Darcy’s eyes sparkled as she bit back another smile. “I have a couple of ideas.”

 

 

Steve’s breath clouded in front of his face as he tilted his head to one side and took in the scene before him. “This isn’t exactly what I thought you had in mind,” he admitted.

Darcy took his hand and pulled him along with her. “Come on,” she insisted. “Just for a little bit.” Steve’s good-natured laugh was all the encouragement she needed to keep their fingers laced as she dragged him up the path toward the skating rink. The holiday market was still in full swing around them, filling the air with the sounds of children laughing and parents chasing after them, of people buying and selling gifts out of their pop-up stores, all mixing with the heady aroma of kettle corn and roasted nuts and mulled wine. She noticed a vendor selling hand-made snow globes and made a mental note to stop back on their way out to have a look.

They stopped at the edge of the rink and Darcy leaned against the heavy white plastic barriers to watch the skaters. “Did you want to go skating?” Steve asked, coming to stand behind her.

She shook her head. “Not tonight,” she said. “I just used to come here every year when I was a kid and my schedule was so crazy I almost missed it last year,” she looked back and offered him a smile. “I wanted to make sure I got here at least once. Have you ever been to this?”

He shook his head. “No, I always mean to come and check it out but,” he shrugged. “Never seems to work out.”

“We should bring Charlotte skating sometime,” Darcy said before she could stop herself from being too presumptuous. “Does she...” she paused, realizing she’d just suggested a date that sounded hauntingly like a family outing. “I mean, if she likes to skate.”

“She loves to skate,” he assured her. “Did you used to come here with your mom?”

Darcy nodded. “She loved the ice sculptures,” she said with a smile. “And the kettle corn. And the candy cane hot chocolate.” Her smile widened. “She was really good at Christmas,” she admitted. “The shop was usually crazy busy but she’d always carve out one Saturday where we could come down and spend the whole day here together.”

Steve smiled softly. “What was your favorite part?”

Darcy tapped a finger in the direction of the skaters. “My mom would make sure we went on the Saturday when they had the figure skating demos and competitions,” she said with a hum of nostalgia. “And since it was the nineties...”

He grinned. “You wanted to be Nancy Kerrigan.”

She nodded happily. “More than anything in the world. My turtleneck and scrunchie game was On. Point.”

“You must have been a cute kid,” he commented, laughing when she shook her head.

“No, no I was a weird looking kid with like, big teeth and fluffy hair and Charlie Brown cheeks.” She rolled her eyes at her memory and turned back to the ice with a happy sigh. “But,” she shrugged. “None of that mattered as soon as I stepped out onto the ice...” she smiled to herself. “This magical circle that made everyone graceful and beautiful.” She motioned to the skaters, the parents helping their children inch along the walls, the new skaters who looked like baby deer trying to stand for the first time, the teenagers flirting and laughing and skating backwards to stay talking to one another. “Just look at how happy it makes people,” she said, “just to be going around in a circle.” She shook her head. “Gotta be some kind of magic.”

Steve stepped closer behind her and covered her arms with his. She leaned back into him a little and relished the warmth he carried with him. He kissed her temple and pulled her closer. “I like the way you look at the world,” he said softly, his words tickling her ear.

Darcy turned in his arms and slipped her hands around his waist, tucking them both into his open coat. “Well I like the way you look at me,” she said before she stretched up on her toes and pressed her lips to his.

If she’d planned for it to be a quick kiss, her plans changed the second his arms fell to her waist and locked her against him. Everything about him enveloped her the moment they touched; his scent of soap and clean laundry, the warmth that radiated from every inch of him, his sweet and tentative movements that were slowly growing bolder the longer they clung to one another. She sank into him as she opened her lips beneath his, welcoming another deep kiss that stirred her blood and warmed her belly despite the icy wind that had started blowing around them.

“Steve,” she whispered, pulling away to catch her breath.

“Hmm?” he asked, trailing soft kisses over her cheek while his hand trailed up to bury itself in her hair.

“Can you...” she bit her lip and pressed herself harder against him as his lips brushed her earlobe. “Can you take me home?” she asked, letting her hands slip under his sweater and flatten against the base of his spine before she added. “Your home, I mean.”

Steve pulled back just enough to meet her eyes. His throat bobbed with a swallow as he moved a piece of her hair from her eyes. “Yeah?”

Darcy felt the corner of her lips curl into a smile. “You said this date could end up wherever I wanted,” she reminded him playfully before she lifted up onto her toes again to brush her lips against his ear and whispered, “and I want to end up somewhere you can take your time.”

The smile Steve gave her was enough to keep her warm for the rest of the winter.

 

****

 

Darcy awoke to the sound of Steve's voice from the next room. Still feeling pleasantly drowsy, she pushed herself up and grabbed the nearest piece of clothing from the ground. His shirt was soft and roomy and hit her just at the tops of her thighs as she got out of bed and the chill of the hardwood floor prickled goosebumps along her arms. She followed the sound of his one-sided conversation into the hallway where she found him clad only in low-slung sweatpants, the sight of which got her heart racing all over again.

“One day at a time, sweetheart,” he was saying as she came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. “You can have Mariah stay over sometime after your show’s over, okay? Maybe when you're on vacation from school?” He paused and listened, using the hand that wasn't holding the phone to gently run his fingers over Darcy's arms. “I know, but you're going to be really busy until then,” he said patiently, sounding like this might be a rerun of something they'd discussed before. “We can talk about it tomorrow, okay? You need to get ready for bed.” Another pause and she heard him smile. “Yeah, I had a very nice time with Darcy.”

She couldn't help but grin as she pressed a kiss in between his shoulder blades.

“Sweet dreams, baby,” Steve said, tangling his fingers with hers. “I love you and I'll see you tomorrow.” He hung up and twisted around to see her smiling up at him. “Have a nice nap?”

She nodded and stretched up on her toes to brush her lips to his. “For the record,” she said as he ran his hands over her waist and laced them at the small of her back, “I had a very nice time with you, too.”

“Do you have any plans for the rest of the night?” he asked in a low voice that stoked that fire in her belly all over again. She shook her head, her nose brushed against his. “Good,” he said softly. “Because I’m not ready to let you go just yet.”

Darcy smiled. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well the first thing,” he let his eyes roam down and over her body, “involves me taking my shirt back.”

“Mmm,” she leaned in and kissed him again, running her hands up his chest and clasping her fingers behind his neck to keep him pulled down, close to her. “And the second?”

Steve grinned. “I’m hoping you might take pity on me and help me wrap some of these Christmas presents.”

She laughed. “Maybe if you ask nicely.”

He offered one brief, wicked grin before he dropped down and tossed her easily over his shoulder, pulling a squeal of surprise and delight from her as he lifted her off her feet and brought her back to his bedroom where he spent the next hour asking very nicely indeed.

 

chapter 3

Chapter Text

Two weeks before Christmas

 

 

“How long until the tarts are done, Darcy?” Charlotte asked as Steve made his way upstairs for what he hoped would be the final time that afternoon. The living room was a war zone of partially unpacked boxes and plastic crates, tangled webs of twinkle lights and ornaments. Their Christmas tree had been placed it its usual spot in the corner, filling the downstairs with a heady smell of pine and cold.

From her place in front of the sofa, where she was working to untangle a length of silver tinsel, Darcy glanced at her watch. “We’ve got eight minutes left for the shells and then twenty more after we fill them.”

Charlotte beamed. “Plenty of time to decorate,” she declared before turning around to offer Steve a hopeful look. “Did you find the angel, Daddy?”

He nodded and set the two remaining crates down carefully. “She’s in the bottom one,” he said, sliding the top box to the ground so she didn’t hurt herself trying to get into either box on her own. “Let’s get the lights and the tinsel on the tree before we worry about the angel, okay?” he asked, as Charlotte predictably abandoned her lighting test for her search for their tree-topper.

“I just want to get her out so she can see what we’re doing,” Charlotte said lightly, pulling open the lid of the crate. With another wide smile, she reached for the angel with the porcelain face and hands wrapped carefully in newspaper. Steve watched as she exercised more caution in removing the layers of paper from the angel than she did with almost anything else in her life. She smoothed the dust bunnies from her gold brocade dress and blew the fuzz carefully away from her white wings.

Darcy looked up as Charlotte appeared at her side, shyly offering her favorite Christmas decoration. She gasped and set down the tinsel, pulling the little girl into her lap so they could look at the angel together. “She’s beautiful,” Darcy said, resting her chin on Charlotte’s shoulder. “What’s her name?”

Steve felt a twist in his gut and opened his mouth to interrupt before Charlotte shrugged and answered simply, “Peggy.”

He waited for Darcy to look sad or at the very least, uncomfortable at the mention of his late wife, but she only smiled. “That’s lovely,” she said, smoothing down a stray piece of the angel’s hair. “I don’t know many angels named Peggy.”

“‘Cause she has brown hair and brown eyes like my mom and that was her name,” Charlotte added, pointing to each feature.

Darcy nodded. “That is one lucky angel to be named after such a beautiful lady.”

Charlotte turned and looked at Darcy curiously. “What color hair does your mom have?” she asked as Steve, trying to distract himself, picked up a ball of lights and got to work winding them through the soft branches of the Christmas tree.

“My mom had brown hair and blue eyes,” Darcy answered before she smiled. “Just like me.”

Charlotte frowned. “Had?”

“Mmhmm,” Darcy gave Charlotte a little squeeze. “My mom’s in heaven too.”

When she spoke again, his daughter’s voice had adopted a pensive undertone. “I was wondering how come she doesn’t come to the shop to see you.”

“Well, she does and she doesn’t,” Darcy answered carefully. “I can’t see her or hug her anymore, but Queen of Tarts was her whole life. So, by keeping it open and making all her recipes and teaching new people her techniques, it’s like she’s there all the time and she gets to live forever.”

When he looked over again, Charlotte’s lips had twisted into a thoughtful frown. “Maybe your mom and my mom are friends up there,” she said before offering small smile.

“Oh, I bet they are,” Darcy agreed as Steve tried to ignore the twisting in his chest. “I bet they hang out all the time and catch up on what their girls are doing.”

“Only my mom didn’t know how to bake,” Charlotte said with a giggle.

Darcy grinned. “Well you know what? My mom loved to teach people how to bake; she’s probably giving lessons left and right.”

“And my mom can show yours how to peel an apple,” Charlotte suggested.

“An apple?” Darcy repeated with a laugh.

Charlotte nodded. “Daddy said she could peel an apple with a knife and do it in one long piece without any of it breaking off,” she said, twirling her finger through the air. “Right Daddy?”

Steve swallowed hard around the unwanted lump in his throat. “That’s right,” he said, busying himself with the lights. “It was her signature move.”

“That’s definitely something my mom would want to learn,” Darcy said, turning her attention back to the little girl in her lap. “She’d think that was super cool.” From the kitchen the oven timer started beeping. Darcy shuffled Charlotte off her lap in one quick move and got to her feet. “Excuse me one second, sweetpea.”

“Do you need help?” Charlotte called after her.

“I’m good sweetie,” Darcy called back. “Just keep working on that tinsel, okay?”

Steve watched for a minute as Charlotte gently set down her angel and picked up the mess that Darcy had been working on. Satisfied with how the first strand of lights had taken to the tree, he maneuvered himself out from behind it and followed Darcy into the kitchen. He watched from the doorway while she spooned the almond cream she’d whipped up with Charlotte earlier into the tart shells and topped them with cinnamon and rum-soaked apples. “Smells great,” he commented after a moment.

“Can’t go wrong with almonds and apples,” she said, not taking her eyes off her work.

Steve frowned and took a few steps toward her, waiting for her to turn around. When she didn’t, he put a tentative hand on her shoulder. “Hey, you okay?”

She was already blushing as she turned around, swiping at her glassy eyes with the back of her wrist. “I’m fine,” she said, rolling her eyes with a sniffle he could tell was unintentional.

Steve felt his heart sink. “Sorry,” he said softly. “If that was...weird or...”

Darcy sniffled again and shook her head. “No, no, of course not,” she insisted, not pulling or turning away when he moved closer and rested his hands on her shoulders. She glanced down, embarrassed. “I don’t even know why I’m crying,” she admitted. “It’s just...this house and the tree and the way it all feels it’s just...” she paused and swallowed hard. “It just occurred to me, while I was sitting there with Charlotte that...” she managed a sad smile. “That this is the first year I’ve been looking forward to Christmas since before my mom got sick. And I...” her eyes welled up again and she blinked quickly, transferring a streak of sugar to her cheekbones as she wiped her face with her palm. “I just wish I could call her and tell her about this great guy that I met and his great kid whose kitchen I’m currently crying in like a sappy idiot,” she rolled her eyes again. “Sorry, I—”

Steve leaned in and kissed her, savoring the taste of apple cider and powdered sugar still clinging to her lips from the doughnuts they’d eaten at the Christmas tree lot earlier. He smiled and brushed the sugar from her face when they parted. “You don’t have to apologize,” he assured her, keeping his voice low and pressing a kiss to her forehead when she looked down at their feet again. He swallowed hard. “And just so you know,” he said, wrapping his arms around her to hold her close to his chest, “this is the first year I’ve looked forward to Christmas in a long time too.”

She looked up again with a soft smile. “Thanks for inviting me into your life, Steve.”

He mirrored her smile and tightened his arms around her. “Thanks for wanting to be a part of it,” he said before he dropped his head again to cover her lips with his.

“Darcy, are you sure you don’t--”

They sprung apart like guilty teenagers as Charlotte rounded the corner and stopped, her eyes wide and a slow smile spreading across her face. Bright red, Darcy covered her lips with her hand and coughed for a moment before she composed herself and stood up straight. “What’s up?”

Charlotte could not contain her grin. “Nothing,” she said, her eyes wide and innocent while she held up her hands and backed slowly out of the room. “Nothing at all. Don’t mind me.”

Steve sighed and felt his own face heat up as Darcy scrunched her nose. “Busted,” she said around a guilty giggle.

“Worth it,” he promised, not being able to resist dropping one more kiss on her lips.

She laughed and pushed him away playfully. “Go light that tree up,” she insisted. “I’ve got tarts to bake and you’re a big distraction.”

Steve grinned. “How big of a distraction?” he asked, quirking a mischievous eyebrow at Darcy. She laughed and rolled her eyes, prompting him to continue. “Like, huge?”

“Oh my God.”

“Like, the biggest distraction you've ever encountered?”

She snorted and nodded, feigning seriousness. “Almost an uncomfortably big distraction, but...y’know, in a good way,” she laughed before she shoved him again. “Now get out of here or you're not getting any tarts.”

Steve kissed her cheek and let the sound of her laughter chase him out of the kitchen.

 

 

By the time all the ornaments had found homes amid the branches and Charlotte had been scooped up to place the angel at the very top, it was well past dinner time and ordering a pizza seemed like the best idea.

“Daddy, guess how many special orders Darcy’s store had this week,” Charlotte said, lifting a greasy disc of pepperoni from her slice of pizza and depositing it into a pile on her plate.

Steve narrowed his eyes in thought. “I don’t know,” he answered honestly before he focused on her plate. “And since when don’t you eat pepperoni?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, I just don’t like it anymore.” Steve let out a grievous sigh and reached across the coffee table to scoop up her pile of discarded toppings and dropped them on his own plate. “And come on, just guess a number. I bet you won’t get it.”

He glanced at Darcy and found no hints in her amused expression. “Just this week?” he checked, trying to remember if she’d mentioned any specific number. She nodded and he frowned in thought. “Um...fourteen?”

“Ha!” Darcy barked out the single syllable and he couldn’t help but grin as Charlotte shook her head.

“Not even close,” she said, clearly enjoying knowing something he didn’t.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “How many?”

“Thirty-seven!” Charlotte exclaimed.

He recoiled in surprise. “Seriously?” he asked. “Thirty-seven special orders?”

Darcy nodded and reached over him to steal one of Charlotte’s discarded pieces of pepperoni. “It’s a new record,” she said modestly. “And one I’m okay if we don’t repeat again until we can hire a few more people.”

“No wonder we didn’t see you all week,” Charlotte added, shaking her head in disbelief.

“Trust me,” Darcy said, helping herself to another pepperoni, “I would have much rather been hanging out with you guys.”

In contrast to seeing each other four times the week before, Darcy had only managed to dart out for a quick hello/goodbye kiss when he’d stopped in on Wednesday morning for his usual breakfast. Other than that, Steve’s week had been a blur of work and shuttling his daughter to and from rehearsals for The Nutcracker.

“Do you have that many orders for next week too?” Charlotte asked before she tore off a bite of her crust.

Darcy shook her head. “Not quite so many. Right now, I have twenty-three orders for next week.”

Steve watched as Charlotte grew thoughtful again. “Do you...” she paused and frowned. “Do you think you’ll be able to come to my show?”

“Pssh,” Darcy waved a hand in Charlotte’s direction. “Like I’d miss that!” She leaned in, conspiratorially. “I’m hoping your dad will ask me to go with him on Thursday night.”

Charlotte brightened and she turned to him. “You better ask her,” she insisted, pointing a finger in his direction.

He rolled his eyes. “Quit bossing me around, young lady,” he said with a grin. “And I was going to ask her, you two just beat me to it.”

Darcy laughed. “Well good,” she said simply. “Because I’m going to say yes.”

“Can we watch a movie?” Charlotte asked, switching to a new topic like it was the next item on her list.

“Finish your dinner first,” Steve said, pointing to the half-eaten slice on her plate. “And then yeah, we can watch a movie, as long as I can have a night off from The Polar Express, please.”

“What?!” Charlotte exclaimed indignantly. “But it’s the best Christmas movie!”

“I know,” he sighed patiently. “And we’ve seen it fifteen times since Thanksgiving.” He ignored her pout and reached for another slice of pizza. “Pick a different one.”

“Don’t you like The Polar Express, Darcy?” Charlotte asked, turning her wide blue eyes on their guest.

She let out another laugh. “No way,” she said and shook her head. “Doesn’t matter what I like if Dad said no.”

Charlotte’s shoulders dropped for a second as she let out a sigh much too dramatic for her eight years before she brightened again with another idea. “How do you feel about the Muppets?”

Darcy cast her eyes quickly in his direction, checking for the agreement he granted with a swift nod. “I’m pro-Muppets,” she said definitively. “How about you?”

“It’s my second favorite,” Charlotte informed her, shooting another look in his direction. “But Polar Express really is the best.”

“Give it a rest,” he warned lightly and pointed to her plate again. “And finish up if you want to watch anything before it’s time for bed.”

In the end, it didn’t matter what Charlotte really wanted to watch, because she fell asleep about thirty minutes in. It wasn’t until he felt the warm weight of Darcy’s head drop against his shoulder twenty minutes after that that he realized he was the only one paying attention to Kermit and Michael Caine anymore and he reached over for the remote.

Darcy stirred just slightly as he got up and maneuvered himself off the couch. “I’m just going to take her upstairs,” he said softly, motioning to where Charlotte had passed out, cuddled into Darcy’s other side.

She nodded with a sleepy smile and assisted him in extracting his daughter from the confines of the overstuffed sofa. “Tell her I said goodnight,” she whispered as he scooped Charlotte up and onto his shoulder.

He would have passed on Darcy’s message if Charlotte had woken up when he carried her upstairs, or when he carefully changed her into her pajamas and tossed her sugar and pine needle-covered clothes into the laundry shoot. But she was dead to the world and snoring softly, likely close to an overload of sweet treats and Christmas excitement. He kissed her forehead and turned on her Frozen nightlight before he turned off the overhead lamp and pulled the door closed.

Darcy had fallen back to sleep by the time he got downstairs. Steve watched her for a moment, the way she shifted and cuddled into the arm of the sofa, the way her hair fell wherever it wanted, the little movements of her nose and her lips while she slept. He grabbed the blanket from the armchair and spread it over her. He turned the tv to the fireplace station and grabbed his sketchpad, hoping to bring to life the little idea that had been tapping at the back of his brain.

She woke herself up about an hour later with a start that sent her heel into the side of his leg before she sat up straight. She pushed her hair back and inhaled sharply, clearly blinking away the confusion of having woken up in a strange place.

Steve offered what he hoped was a non-threatening smile. “You okay?” he asked gently, placing a hand on the thick socks scrunched around her ankles.

She nodded, distractedly and took a few more deep breaths before she met his eyes and relaxed. “Sorry,” she said, her voice a little hoarse from sleep. “I guess I was really asleep.”

He squeezed the top of her feet and smiled. “You must be exhausted,” he said. “After the crazy week you had.”

“Mmm,” she waved the comment away and fussed absently with her frizzing curls for a moment before she noticed the sketchbook and the pencils on the coffee table. She smiled. “You know, you can kick me out if you’ve got work to do,” she teased.

Steve shook his head. “No work,” he assured her, turning the book over to hide what he’d been working on. “There’s just something I’ve been wanting to draw--now seemed like a good time to give it a try.”

Her eyebrows narrowed as a small, confused smile curled the corner of her lips. “It’s not a deal-breaker,” she began carefully, “but if you were drawing a picture of me while I was sleeping I definitely need to see it.”

He laughed. “Uh, no,” he admitted. “Not exactly. And really? That’s not a deal-breaker?” he asked in disbelief. “That’s like...serial killer shit.”

Darcy stared back in all seriousness. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t freak me out...”

He chuckled again. “Well, it’s not you sleeping, but...” he paused and flipped the sketchpad over. “I did make you a present.”

“A present?” She reached out and made grabby hands in the air. “Lemme see,” she insisted, shuffling and scooting herself around until she was tucked against his side. Her eyes found the page and she sucked in a gasp. “Oh my God.”

Steve held his breath and craned his neck to try to see what kind of face she was making. Was she offended? Confused? In the eternal second it took for her to respond, Steve tried to remember the last time he’d drawn anything for someone other than Charlotte or his clients and came up blank. Maybe it wasn’t as sweet of an idea as he thought it—

Darcy’s squeal of delight interrupted his downward spiral and yanked him back out. “Oh my God,” she repeated, reaching out to run her fingers along the page. “This is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen! Is that me as a macaron?”

Steve felt his cheeks redden. “You were saying last week that you don’t like your website and that it doesn’t have any personality and I thought...I mean, if you want to, you can have these little guys liven the place up,” he suggested as his stomach unclenched and he allowed himself a moment to admire his work.

He’d drawn a little team of macarons, each a different color with expressive faces, arms and legs, and--where applicable--different accessories.

“Oh my God, look at my little glasses!” she squealed again, each giggle chasing Steve’s anxiety farther and farther away. “And my little red hat!” Her eyes darted to the other macarons. “And look at Alysha’s braid! And Jamie’s eyebrows! And Megan’s eyeliner!” She looked up with a giddy smile. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “I love them.”

“You do?” he raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

She nodded. “I love them so much. Can...” she paused and pressed her lips together. “How do I get them onto my site? Should I scan them…or…?”

He smiled. “I’ll just do a digital rendering and then I’ll send them to you and you can go nuts.” He shot her a sideways glance and cleared his throat. “But you don’t have to use them if you don’t want. You’re not going to break my heart if you--”

You’re breaking my heart acting like I might not get to show these guys off,” she cut him off firmly. “I love them and I can’t wait to start rebranding around them.”

He was fighting a shy smile as he reached over and pushed back a lock of her hair. “As long as you like them.”

Darcy leaned forward and pressed her lips to his. “Thank you,” she said again, breaking away only briefly before she brushed her nose against his. “For my present,” she whispered and closed the distance between them with another quick, playful kiss, “and for a really nice day.”

He smiled against her mouth as he felt her slide his sketchbook from his hands and set it on the floor, not breaking their kiss. He skimmed his hands over her shoulders, settling one on her cheek and the other on the small of her back, drawing her closer to him, savoring the little groan she let out when he teased his tongue against her lips.

She shifted herself around slowly to face him first, pulling away gently to catch her breath before she slid over his lap and tucked her knees around his hips. She sank her nails into his hair and pulled his face back to hers with a quiet hunger that had him replaying the last time he’d been alone with her. The memory of the miles of creamy skin beneath her clothing, of the way she looked with a flush on her cheeks and the way her perfect lips had made him nearly forget his own name the last time they were together were playing back, building a very strong case for keeping her pressed against him.

Too soon, though, she pulled away and sat back on her heels. “I should--”

“Stay,” he interrupted, sliding a hand around the back of her neck to keep her face close to his.

She dropped her forehead against his. “Steve...” she breathed.

“You should stay,” he repeated, a little more firmly before adding, “please?”

Darcy bit her lip. “What about Charlotte?”

“She’s out; and anyway, she can sleep through a smoke alarm,” he reminded her with a half-smile. “You can leave in the morning before she gets up if you want to,” he toyed with a piece of her hair. “Besides baby,” he smirked. “It’s cold outside.”

She laughed and leaned into him more, giving him the chance to press kisses to her neck and the hollow of her throat. “Oh man,” she said, combing her fingers into his hair again. “Breaking out the Bing Crosby...how’s a girl supposed to say no to that?”

Steve smiled against her skin. “I’m hoping you won’t.”

She sighed and sank back down. “Okay,” she said, meeting his lips again with hers. “I’ll stay.” They kissed again. “But I’m leaving first thing in the morning,” she said, a hint of warning her voice. “Don’t try to make me change my mind.”

               

               

He awoke to the feeling of her fingers on his cheek. Her nails scraped against his stubble once before they were replaced with her lips. “Steve,” she whispered, dropping a kiss to the shell of his ear. “Wake up, sleepy head,” she said with a smile in her voice. “Kiss me goodbye, I’m sneaking out.”

His eyes fluttered open, surprised to find that she was already dressed and sitting on the edge of his bed. “Timeisit?” he asked, the words leaning clumsily into one another as he struggled to bring the rest of the world into focus.

She glanced at the clock beside them. “It’s just after seven,” she said, “I’m going to get moving.”

Steve forced himself fully awake as the memories began to sharpen. He swiped a hand over his face and pulled himself up to sitting. “Let me walk you out,” he muttered, reaching for the shirt she’d yanked over his head and tossed aside the night before.

But Darcy was already shaking her head. “You stay,” she placed a hand on his chest and gently shoved him back down. “I’m just going to splash some water on my face and I’ll be out of here before Charlotte has a chance to wake up.” She leaned in and kissed him before he could protest her plan.

 “Okay if I call you later?” he asked, watching as she checked herself in the mirror and pulled her hair into a messy bun at the top of her head.

She caught his gaze in the reflection in the mirror and grinned before she returned to his side and kissed him again. “I’m counting on it,” she said when they parted.

He watched her leave his bedroom, pulling the door shut behind her so the knob was almost silent as it clicked into place. The bathroom was right next to his room and he could hear the water running as he sank back into his pillows, pleasantly surprised to find that they smelled like Darcy. Like the minty shampoo she used and the almond extract she’d spilled on herself the day before.

 “What are you doing here, Darcy?”

The sound Charlotte’s voice from the hallway rocketed his eyes open and shot him straight out of bed. He grabbed his clothes and yanked them on at a violent speed, willing himself not to look as panicked as he felt when he wrenched open the door.

Charlotte was standing in the hallway, having clearly been waiting for her turn in the bathroom. She was regarding Darcy with a mild curiosity, her head tilted to one side.

Darcy, on the other hand, had taken a more dramatic route. She’d clapped a hand to her chest in surprise and flattened herself against the bathroom door. “Hi,” she croaked finally, offering a smile that wasn’t even in the neighborhood of nonchalant. “What are you doing up so early?”

Charlotte’s eyebrows drew even closer together. “I had to pee and I needed a drink,” she said, glancing from Darcy’s panicked expression to the now empty bathroom. “What are you doing here?”

Steve cleared his throat. “You uh, you found your phone?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest in an attempt at casual.

“My phone?” Darcy repeated, confused for a moment before the realization clicked. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “My phone! My phone that I left here and had to come and get first thing in the morning so I can get on with the rest of my day. That phone,” she reached into her pocket and produced said phone and shook it wildly for a moment. “This phone. Yep. Got it. Right...here in the bathroom where I left it last night. Before I left.”

Charlotte’s confusion hadn’t dissipated. “You left your phone in our bathroom all night?”

“Sure did!” Steve heard himself exclaim a little too loudly while he forcibly tried to slow his frantically racing heart. “But you’ve got it now so you probably have to go and open the bakery, right?”

“Absolutely!” Darcy nearly yelled, still in a panic. She darted toward him and kissed his cheek. “Thanks for letting me in to look for it,” she said needlessly as she bent and kissed Charlotte’s messy hair as well. “But the tarts are calling and I must go. See you guys later,” she called over her shoulder and took off down the stairs.

Her brow still furrowed, Charlotte waited until the front door closed before she turned her attention to him. “Daddy, did you and Darcy have a fight?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

Steve scoffed. “What? No, of course not.” He moved in front of her and started down the stairs. “What makes you say that?”

Charlotte followed after him. “Because you didn’t ask her to stay for pancakes.”

He stopped on the fifth step from the bottom and turned back to find her looking at him expectantly. “Well...sweetheart...she just said she had to open the bakery,” he reminded, suddenly unable to remember if Darcy had said that or if it was something he’d suggested. He reached the bottom step and turned on the lamp, combating the silvery morning light streaming through the windows. He offered a brief smile back at Charlotte as she descended the last stair before he absently started straightening up the living room. “She can come back for pancakes another time.”

“But it’s Sunday,” Charlotte reminded, stopping him with a stack of her library books in his hand. “The bakery’s not open on Sundays.”

That realization settled over him swiftly, along with the reminder that his daughter was far more observant than he gave her credit for. Steve sighed and watched as she moved into the living room and came to stand right in front of him. “And whenever my friends have sleepovers, you always make us pancakes.” Leaving her father feeling dumber than ever for trying to deceive her, Charlotte climbed onto the couch and leaned toward the widow, pushing the curtains aside. “She’s still outside,” she reported with a curious frown. “I don’t think she has to go anywhere.”

Steve sighed and followed her to the couch, pulling the curtain open all the way to find that Darcy had only made it as far as the end of the driveway where she’d stopped to lean against the mailbox and rested her forehead on her arm.

Charlotte looked up at him, concerned. “Do you think she’s having a panic attack?” she asked seriously. “Mrs. Kerns had one of those last year during science class and she kind of looked like that--”

 “She’s not having a panic attack; she’s fine,” Steve said firmly before he closed the curtain and smiled at his daughter. “Should I go get her and ask her to stay for pancakes?”

The little girl’s grin was wide and contagious. “With bananas and chocolate chips please!”

 Darcy was still folded against the mailbox when he made his way down the driveway in his coat and slippers. “Hey, did you know it’s Sunday?” she asked conversationally, her voice directed at the pavement as he approached.

Steve smiled. “All day, apparently.”

“Funny how a little thing like that slips your mind when you’re trying to pull a fast one on an eight-year-old,” she stood up and wrinkled her nose. “Are we busted?”

He laughed. “Completely busted,” he assured her, reaching out to lace his fingers with hers. “But the lady of the house is hoping you’ll come back inside and join us for pancakes.”

Darcy grinned. “Do you have bananas for these pancakes?”

Steve leaned in and kissed her quickly. “And chocolate chips.”

 

***

 

The bakery was in high gear on Tuesday afternoon by the time Darcy’s phone started vibrating in her back pocket. She’d set up a little assembly line with her bakers in order to fill their two gigantic cookie orders as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was Mina’s turn to choose the music and a healthy mix of ACDC and Bruno Mars had been filling the kitchen for the better part of three hours.

She was surprised to find that it was already almost two-thirty when her thumb left a buttery print on her screen and she placed the phone to her ear. “Hey there, handsome,” she greeted with a smile.

“Hey,” he returned her greeting, sounding tenser than she would have expected. “On a scale of 1-10--and be honest--how busy are you today?”

Darcy inhaled sharply through clenched teeth. “Uh...8?” she guessed, looking around at the destroyed kitchen. “Maybe an 8.25? I’ve got to get 3,000 cookies packaged and ready for delivery by five.” She swiped at her forehead with the back of her hand. “Why, what’s up?”

Steve hesitated. “I’m kind of stuck in New Jersey,” he said before he continued quickly. “I mean, I’m not like, trapped against my will or anything--”

“Well, it is New Jersey,” Darcy commented lightly. “Anything’s possible.”

“I was supposed to be back an hour ago but between the language barrier between this client and I and the traffic, I don’t think I’m getting anywhere close to Brooklyn until probably after six.”

She frowned. “Do you need someone to watch Charlotte?”

“It’d only be for a little bit,” he said hurriedly. “I hate to ask because I know you’re busy, but the carpool mom who would normally just take her back to her house has--I don’t know--pilates or something on Tuesdays and she usually just brings her home but I’m not there and Nat’s out of town and Sam’s on duty and Bucky won’t be off duty until six and I just...” he let out a huff of frustration. “I’m kind of out of places to send her.”

Darcy bit her lip and glanced at the kitchen again. “I mean, Pilates Mom can bring her here if that’ll help you out,” she offered. “I can’t promise I won’t put her to work though.”

Across the kitchen Mina offered a thumbs-up. “Yes, send reinforcements,” she called over her shoulder as she unloaded the last tray of molasses drops from the oven.

“Especially ones with little hands that can arrange these puppies on the trays,” Laura added with a cheerful grin.

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Steve asked. “I’m really sorry to have to throw this at you.”

“It’s not a problem,” she insisted firmly. “Just have her come here.”

“Bucky’ll be there at six to take her to dance,” he assured her. “You’re saving my life.”

Darcy smiled. “You’re paying me back in free child labor,” she reminded.

In truth, Charlotte’s arrival and excitement at having been given a real job to do was fortuitous as Mina had to leave at four o’clock to retrieve her own child from daycare and the remaining work would have been just on the other side of overwhelming for two people to manage on their own.

Charlotte took her platter building very seriously, consulting Darcy’s arrangement charts with the scrutiny of a brain surgeon before she set the cookies in the right spots. “Do you think it’s going to snow at all before Christmas?” she asked, carefully fanning out a dozen walnut-dusted thumbprints around the center of the third tray she’d assembled on her own. They’d finished traying one job and had loaded up the van so Laura could make the promised delivery window, leaving the two of them to work alone while Alysha closed and cleaned the front of the shop.

Darcy hummed in thought. “Not sure,” she answered honestly, stacking identical towers of chocolate chip and sugar cookies on her own tray. “It’s been getting cold enough though.”

Charlotte frowned. “I hope it does,” she said with a glance toward the bay windows in the front of the store. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas until it snows.”

“Don’t worry, sweetpea,” she said with a grin. “Santa can still find you, even without snow on the ground.”

The eight-year-old looked skeptical. “I don’t think I believe in Santa anymore, Darcy.”

Darcy raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me? What kind of crazy talk is that?”

“I mean, I guess I still believe in him,” she conceded thoughtfully. “But not like I used to...I don’t think he does what all the stories say.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve been thinking about how he’d manage it and it just doesn’t make sense without magic.”

Darcy scoffed. “Who said he doesn’t use magic?”

Charlotte sighed. “That’s a lot of magic,” she said very seriously. “So, I think if Santa does exist then he probably only visits kids who don’t have any parents or presents and maybe he only gives good kids the really big, impossible presents that they think they might not get.” She paused and nodded at her own idea. “Something like that.”

Darcy was smiling at her when she looked up from her thumbprints. “How'd you get so grown-up, kiddo?”

Charlotte shrugged. “Are you going to tell Daddy what you want for Christmas?”

Darcy laughed. “I don't need anything,” she said seriously. “I've got everything I want. Tell your daddy not to worry about me.”

Charlotte gave her a very serious look. “He likes worrying,” she said. “He's really good at it.”

Darcy smothered a smile between her lips and snapped the lid on the now finished tray in front of her. “What about you? Anything you're hoping extra hard for this year?”

Her assistant shook her head. “Nope.”

Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Really? Nothing?”

She moved her shoulders again. “I already got it.”

“You did?” Charlotte nodded, not taking her eyes off her work. “What was it?”

Charlotte looked up with a shy smile. “I wanted my dad to be happy.”

Darcy's smile faltered for a moment. “That's it?”

She nodded again. “It’s been on my list forever,” she said with sigh. “But Santa only ever brought me toys and clothes and stuff. So I started asking Mommy too,” she said, unaware that she was twisting a sentimental knife in Darcy’s chest with each word. “And I heard that Mom was always really scary when she was on a mission so,” she shrugged, “I thought it might be a good idea.”

Around the sting at the back of her nose, Darcy laughed. “Who told you that?”

Charlotte readjusted a stack of gingerbread snowflakes.“Uncle Bucky,” she said simply. “And when I asked Daddy about her, he said she was determined,” she drew the word out seriously. “But I know what that means, and anyway, they both must have been right because I told her it was a really important mission and it worked.” She smiled again, brighter this time. “You make him really happy, Darcy.”

Darcy felt that lump rise in her throat. “You think so?”

“And me, too,” Charlotte added quickly. “But Daddy's crazy about you. And not in a stupid way like Marissa says Grayson Wells is crazy about me,” she paused and adjusted the look of disgust that had crossed her face. “In a good way.”

Darcy laughed. “Who’s Grayson Wells?”

Charlotte's delicate features twisted again. “Just this stupid boy at school and he chases me around all the time and gets me in trouble and he's just the worst.”

“Did you try to talk to him and tell him that he was bothering you?” Darcy asked, trying to remain diplomatic while at the same time wondering how there were still teachers who let boys get away with that nonsense.

“Yes,” she huffed. “I threw a rock at him and told him to leave me alone.”

Darcy clenched her jaw, forcing herself not to laugh. “Then what happened?”

Charlotte looked down and pouted her lips in another frown. “Then I got in trouble for throwing rocks.” She raced on before Darcy could form a comment. “And then Dad had to have a meeting at my school and he yelled at the teacher about having different standards?" she wrinkled her nose. "And I don't know what that means, but she got mad and Dad got mad and it was a big mess and then we had to make a deal.”

She raised her brows again. “Which was...”

She took a deep breath. “I won’t throw rocks anymore and he won’t get into fights with my teachers,” she said glumly, unaware that Darcy would have given anything to have been a fly on the wall of the showdown between Steve and the administration at Charlotte’s school. “Anyway, boys are stupid and Tori and Marissa’s mom said we should stay away from them because they only ever think about one thing.”

Darcy's lips were working overtime trying to keep the rest of her face neutral. “And what's that?”

Charlotte looked up and shrugged again. “I don't know,” she said honestly. “Nobody will tell me. But I think it has to do with boobs.”

Darcy’s laugh escaped before she could stop it. She came around to Charlotte’s side of the table with a smile and shake of her head. She wrapped her arms around the girl’s little shoulders and kissed her blonde hair. She smelled like bubblegum shampoo and the kind of modeling clay they used in elementary schools. “You are one fun girl, Charlotte Rogers,” she said seriously. “I hope no one ever tells you differently.”

Charlotte grinned back. “You’re pretty fun too.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Christmas Eve

 

The sound of a smoke alarm pierced the street as Darcy climbed out of her Lyft and waved a thank you to her driver. She stood at the edge of Steve's driveway-- presents and desserts in hand--and watched for a moment before the side door in the kitchen burst open and the sounds of two men bickering joined the trails of smoke and the shrill cry of the alarm.

“I told you thirty-five minutes was too long,” she recognized Bucky's voice from their brief meeting at the bakery a week ago.

“Okay,” his companion, who she could safely assume was Sam, sniped back instantly, “now I know you’re not honestly telling me how to make my grandmother’s 150 year-old recipe.”

“Well out of the two of us here, one of us burned them and it wasn’t me, so maybe you should listen to me,” Bucky argued while holding open the door for Sam to go back inside.

After a moment, the alarm silenced and the door remained propped open while the sounds of the argument continued from the kitchen.

Darcy laughed under her breath and made her way up the walkway and rang the doorbell. For the stampede of footsteps on the other side, she was surprised to find that it was only Charlotte who greeted her.

Her toothy grin doubled as she threw her arms around Darcy's waist for a hug. “Merry Christmas, Darcy!” she exclaimed, stepping away and holding the door open so her guest could come in.

Darcy set her box of treats on the ground and took hold of Charlotte's hands. “Merry Christmas, little lady, you look beautiful!” She dropped one of Charlotte's hands and gave her a quick twirl so the sparkling tulle skirt of her Christmas dress spun out in a wide circle. “You look like an angel on top of the tree!”

Charlotte smiled brightly as a few pieces of fine blonde hair dislodged from her French braid and fell into her face. “Thank you! We just got home from church and I wanted you to see my dress.” She took hold of the sides of her skirt and swished it back and forth.

“I'm so glad I got the chance to,” Darcy said and smoothed a few of the wispier pieces of Charlotte's hair back into place. “It’s beautiful.”

She leaned in with conspiratorial glee and said in a loud whisper. “It has pockets!”

Darcy gasped. “Get outta town.”

Charlotte nodded and plunged her hands into the sides, effectively hiding them from view. “Auntie Nat picked it out.”

Darcy nodded sagely. “Your Auntie Nat sounds like a wise woman indeed. I can’t wait to meet her.”

The little girl frowned. “She’s in Idaho for Christmas with her family,” she informed before she brightened. “But she’s always back for New Year’s.”

Darcy smiled. “Then I guess I’ll just have to wait and meet her then,” she said before she glanced around. “Where is everyone else?”

Charlotte sighed heavily. “Uncle Sam and Uncle Bucky were cooking, so now they're fighting, and Daddy is—”

“I'm right here,” Steve called apologetically as he made his way to the foyer from the kitchen. “Sorry, we had a little...fire hazard.” He reached them in a few quick strides and helped Darcy out of her coat.

She laughed and let him hang her coat and hat on the hook next to his before she unwrapped her scarf from around her neck. “I heard.”

“Is it snowing yet?” Charlotte asked, peering through the tall, skinny windows beside the door.

“Not yet,” Darcy said regretfully. “But it's pretty cold out there.”

“It must be,” Charlotte commented, looking up with a smile. “Your nose is pink.”

Steve laughed glanced at the box she'd set down earlier. “Charlotte, do me a favor and take that box into the kitchen. Show your uncles what dessert is supposed to look like.”

Charlotte picked up the box with relative ease and looked between Darcy and her father. “Are you going to kiss her?”

Steve rolled his eyes as Darcy giggled. “Yes,” he said impatiently. “Go and do as I asked.”

“Cool,” Charlotte bounced her shoulders and turned to deliver her package to the kitchen.

Darcy was still laughing as Steve stepped in close and tilted her chin up to meet his lips in a sweet kiss. “Hi,” she said when they parted.

“Hi,” Steve echoed and kissed her again. “Merry Christmas,” he added and glanced down. “You look beautiful.”

She glanced down at her red sweater and jeans--the same thing she’d worn to work that morning--and rolled her eyes. “Thanks,” she said and kicked out of her boots. “It really is freezing out there.”

“I can see that,” Steve said, holding his hands out to her. “You’re radiating cold right now. Come here.” Before she could protest, he grabbed her hand and pulled her in for a tight hug that had her giggling as he ran his arms up and down her back in an attempt to warm her up. “Jesus,” he jumped back as the tip of her nose touched his neck. “Your nose is freezing!” he exclaimed, unwrapping her from his embrace and tugging her toward the kitchen. “You need a drink.”

She happily tangled their fingers together and followed him down the hall and into the warm, brightly lit kitchen where Charlotte was setting the cookies and tarts she’d brought on a Christmas tree-printed tray and Sam and Bucky were arguing again.

“You can’t just rewrite history because you don’t like how it sounds!” Bucky exclaimed, throwing his hands up.

Sam’s arms were crossed over his broad chest as he shook his head. “That’s real rich coming from you.”

Steve cleared his throat and dragged their attention towards himself. “What are we fighting about now?”

Charlotte rolled her eyes from her seat at the table. “My first word.”

“It was ‘Bucky’,” Bucky said plainly.

“It was not Bucky,” Sam erupted. “I was there! It was ‘bird’!”

Steve sighed. “It was neither,” he said, shaking his head. “It was ‘ball’ and none of that matters because I swear to God, we just agreed that the kitchen was a DMZ.” He waited another moment for an argument before he cleared his throat. “And if you’re done making the worst first impression ever,” he gave her hand a swift tug so she was standing next to him, “Darcy’s here.”

She offered a smile to the two men who had the decency to look embarrassed at their argument. “Hi guys, can we hug? I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Likewise,” Sam said, crossing the kitchen and wrapping Darcy in a quick and surprisingly tight hug.

“Glad we finally get to spend some time with you,” Bucky said as he went in for a hug of his own.

“So, what’s the deal?” she asked, glancing between all four of them. “I was promised food and drink and I only brought treats and presents, so...”

“Steve, you didn’t tell her what to expect?” Sam asked with a critical look in Steve’s direction.

He held up his hands defensively. “It’s been busy week,” he reminded. “Get off my back.”

It had been a busy week. Between Charlotte’s performances of The Nutcracker on Thursday and that afternoon when she’d finally closed and locked the door, a tornado of last-minute special orders and holiday prep had befallen her and her team. The phone hadn’t stopped ringing and website orders kept coming even after she’d tried to turn off the submission link. In all the rush and craziness, Darcy had almost forgotten Christmas was supposed to be an enjoyable experience. It wasn’t until she’d flipped the sign on the door to the bakery and posted their holiday schedule that she had time to think about Steve’s invitation to their Christmas Eve tradition and let herself be excited about the prospect of spending the evening with someone other than her employees for a change.

“Like I said,” Darcy spoke up with a grin. “I was promised food and drink. What else is on the agenda?”

“Snacks!” Charlotte piped up from the table. “And movies!”

“So this is the BaGerSon Christmas Eve tradition,” Sam said, tossing an arm around her shoulders casually and steering her away from Steve. “Started after we were stuck in El Paso when we were supposed to be home from deployment and we didn’t have anything else to do on Christmas Eve except eat pizza rolls and watch It’s a Wonderful Life.”

She frowned. “This is a very upsetting way to start a tradition.”

“Don’t worry,” Sam continued with a smile. “It’s gotten less depressing over the years.”

“We’ve honed our craft,” Bucky added. “Except Wilson burnt the sweet potatoes this year.”

“Barnes, I swear to baby Jesus—”

“Everybody makes food,” Charlotte jumped up from her seat and interrupted the string of insults about to pour from Sam’s lips. “And then we watch Charlie Brown and the Grinch and Rudolph and make a fort in the living room.”

Darcy couldn’t help but smile as she listened to the three of them talk over each other and finish each other’s sentences. She glanced over and caught Steve’s eye for a moment before he offered her an apologetic shrug and she cleared her throat. “BaGerSon?”

“Barnes, Rogers, Wilson,” Steve clarified, pointing them out.

“It sounds better than Stamucky,” Charlotte said with the confidence of someone who’d done the math.

Darcy snorted and glanced up at Sam. “Talk to me about this food.”

He turned them to face the table Charlotte had just vacated. It was beset with mismatched plastic platters and a stack of Disney princess paper plates. “Shrimp cocktail, fried cheese, egg rolls,” he squinted. “I think…Steve, did you do the bacon-wrapped brussels sprouts again?”

Steve nodded as Charlotte gave an exaggerated gag and Darcy laughed again. “Mm I love those,” she commented as her eyes drank in the rest of the table. “Jeez, guys, you really go all out, huh? Caprese salad and kebabs, too?” she shook her head and itched to grab a plate. “I hope my little dessert offerings are a decent second act.”

“Oh, and there’s meatballs in the blue crockpot and mac and cheese in the red one,” Bucky said with a helpful point before he grabbed Charlotte by the waist and hoisted her up to be at eye-level. “And you,” he said, making her giggle. “Don’t think I don’t notice you sneaking cookies into those pockets of yours.”

She laughed again. “That’s what Auntie Nat said they’re there for.”

“Dad told you to get your pj’s on after Darcy got here, remember?”

She nodded. “And then Charlie Brown?”

“Is that what we voted on?” he asked, looking like he was having trouble remembering.

Charlotte scoffed. “We always watch Charlie Brown first,” she reminded him pointedly.

“Then go get changed so we can get this party started,” he admonished and set her back down.

Darcy had picked up a plate as Charlotte bolted from the kitchen, her white tights slipping against the linoleum before she got any traction. She bit her lip, looking at the buffet in front of her. “I can’t help but notice—and I say this with absolutely no judgment whatsoever—” she began carefully, spooning some cocktail sauce over Belle’s face, “that this is…almost entirely appetizers.”

Steve’s scoff mirrored that of his daughter’s. “If you think the sweet potato skirmish was bad,” he shook his head. “You should have seen the year the three of us tried to cook a turkey together.”

When Darcy glanced up, a solemn, heavy silence had befallen the three men. Bucky stared at the ground, his jaw set, Sam shook his head slowly, eyes closed. She pursed her lips. “That bad, huh?”

“We stick to appetizers for a reason,” Steve added hastily. “Speaking of, there’s plenty more of everything, so take as much as you want.”

And a variety of hot drinks,” Sam pointed to the kitchen counter where a plethora of bottles were on display, “alcoholic and nonalcoholic.”

“And on that note, I’m making hot toddies,” Bucky spoke up. “Darcy, you want?”

She wrinkled her nose. “No thanks,” she laughed. “That’s a grandpa drink.”

Sam barked out a laugh. “I’ve been saying that for fifteen years. How about I spike you some hot chocolate instead?”

Darcy couldn’t help but grin over her shoulder at Steve as Sam led her to their makeshift bar and reached for the peppermint schnapps. “Yes please!”

 

The fort they made in the living room was big enough for everyone with Charlotte having relocated all the pillows and blankets from the rest of the house to the space in front of the sofa. They’d even strung a zig-zag of twinkle lights across the ceiling that blinked cheerfully as Charlotte assigned everyone places to sit. “I’m going to sit between you and Uncle Bucky so you don’t fight,” she said to Sam, pulling gently on his hand until he claimed his own patch of blankets and pillows on one side of the fort.

“Good idea,” Sam agreed with a shake of his head. “Where’s Dad gonna sit?”

Charlotte raised her eyes to where Steve had already taken a seat on the couch. “You can sit up there with Darcy,” she said and grinned when Darcy sat down next to him.

“Oh, can I?” he asked, rolling his eyes. “Thank you, that’s very generous of you.”

“Should I bring the food in here?” she asked, tilting her head to one side thoughtfully.

Steve shook his head. “No, honey, there’s enough going on. We’ll just get up if we want to get more.”

She frowned. “What about the popcorn?”

“You get comfy,” Bucky chimed in, pressing a hand to her shoulder until she folded her legs underneath her. “I’ll get the popcorn. Less chance of it spilling everywhere.”

Darcy dropped onto the couch and pulled her feet up underneath her. “This is such an event,” she said with a smile she couldn’t control, thinking of how this time last year she’d been stuck in Christmas Eve traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel, reviewing her fourth-quarter sales reports and wondering if anyone at Jane’s house would notice if she just skipped the holiday all together. “I love it.”

Charlotte turned around and offered a proud smile. “Do you like the lights? Daddy put them up this morning.”

“I love the lights,” she assured them both. “They’re perfect.”

Bucky turned off everything but the twinkle lights when he returned to the living room, bowl of fluffy white popcorn in hand. He pressed play on the DVD player and filled the room with the familiar sound of the Peanuts theme.

Steve shifted into the corner of the couch and wrapped an arm around Darcy’s shoulders, pulling her gently against him. She tucked herself against his chest and smiled to herself when she felt him tip his chin and kiss the top of her head.

 

She wasn’t looking at the clock, but Darcy had to figure it was well past eleven by the time Charlotte finally fell asleep. They’d watched both Peanuts Christmas specials, checked in with The Grinch and Rudolph and were halfway through with Olive, the Other Reindeer when Sam peered over to examine the little girl who’d slumped fast asleep against him before he gave a nod in Bucky’s direction. Bucky silently caught Steve’s attention and raised a thumbs-up.

Darcy felt like she was watching a tactical drill as Steve disengaged from where he’d been letting her cuddle against him and silently got to his feet. Like she’d seen him do before, Darcy watched as he bent down and scooped up his daughter and carried her upstairs with barely a squeak on the steps. As soon as the duo had ascended, the sleepy, lazy vibe of the living room vanished and Bucky and Sam both got to their feet.

“Basement closet,” Sam said, pointing in Bucky’s direction. “I’ve got the pantry.”

Darcy frowned and blinked herself more awake. “Uh…what?”

“Sorry,” Bucky said with a quick, apologetic smile. “Operation Santa’s now live.”

She watched in amusement as Steve descended with a small handful of the presents she’d helped him wrap as the other two men split in opposite directions. “Operation Santa?” Steve asked, glancing around.

She nodded. “Can I do anything to help this maneuver along?”

He shook his head. “No, we’re just going to put out the presents and then…”

She raised her eyebrows as Sam reappeared with an armful of his own gifts. She glanced in his direction. “What do you guys normally do after presents?”

“Oh,” Sam started arranging the gifts under the tree. “We usually just sit up and play cards until three or four but I mean…”

“Yeah,” Steve shrugged. “It’s not like it’s set in stone or anything.”

Darcy shook her head as a mighty yawn won out and escaped her lips. “You better not be thinking of changing up a tradition on my account.”

“It’s not a tradition,” Sam assured her kindly.

She yawned again and stretched her arms over her head before she dug for her phone and ordered herself a ride. “Whatever it is,” she assured them both, “don’t worry about not doing it. I think I’m going to hit the road.”

“You sure?” Steve asked as he set the presents on the floor where Sam was still organizing.

She nodded sleepily and put her phone away after it buzzed with a notification that her driver was five minutes away. “I can barely keep my eyes open,” she reminded. “But don’t worry, I’ll be back in the morning.”

“You’re coming for brunch?” Bucky asked as he rejoined the group.

She nodded again. “Wouldn’t miss it.” Her eyes found Steve’s. “Walk me out?”

“You got it.”

Darcy waved over her shoulder. “Good night, guys, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You know you're welcome to stay, right?” Steve asked as she slowly descended the front steps ahead of him.

She turned back with a smile and nodded. “I know,” she assured him. “But you guys should do your usual Christmas morning thing.”

“Okay,” he accepted easily as their breath clouded between them. “If you're sure.”

Darcy nodded again. “I am sure,” she promised. “Just like I'm sure that this is already the best Christmas I've ever had,” she grinned. “And it's only Christmas Eve.”

Steve glanced down at his watch. “Actually,” he held up his wrist, “it's 12:02.” His hand came up to rest on her cheek and tilt her face to his. “Merry Christmas,” he said before he pressed his lips to hers.

Darcy let her hands slide up his chest and sink into the warmth and sweetness of his kiss. “Merry Christmas, Steve,” she said softly before she bit her lip and added, “I love you.”

He pulled back just slightly, enough for her eyes to focus on hers. He raised his eyebrows. “You…do?”

She nodded. “I love you and I love Charlotte and I don’t believe in loving people and not saying it out loud. So,” she shrugged. “I love you.”

There was only a second of hesitation; a second where Darcy thought she might have to back-pedal and tell him he wasn’t obligated to return her sentiment, a second where she could have worried about scaring him off. But it was only a second before he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her again, chasing away any fear that he didn’t feel the same. “I love you too,” he breathed when he let her go.

She giggled as he pressed his forehead to hers and their noses brushed. “Well that’s convenient, isn’t it?” she said as a shiver ran down her spine.

“Yeah,” he smiled that shy smile that drove her crazy, “I guess it is,” he said and pulled her in for another kiss. Darcy stretched up on her toes to slide her body against his.

She sank her fingers into his hair and deepened the kiss, barely noticing when the first snowflake hit her cheek. It wasn’t until the second and the third followed in quick succession that she pulled away and tilted her face upward. “Hey,” she breathed, holding out her hand to let the snow kiss her fingers. “It’s finally snowing.”

Steve followed her gaze upward, a soft smile playing on his lips as they stood together and watched the snow swirl around them, glittering in the streetlamps and landing thick and sticky in the grass. He blinked after a moment and dropped his eyes to her open coat. “Alright, you,” he reached out and pulled her back in by the lapels, “if you’re not going to stay and let me keep you warm,” he said softly, fastening the shiny black buttons of her wool coal for her, “then you at least have to promise to bundle up.” She smiled as he fished her red knit hat from her pocket and pulled it down over her ears. “Charlotte and I want to take you skating before New Year’s. Can’t do that if you’re sick.”

Behind them a car horn sounded and Darcy had to kick back the urge to cancel the ride and stay the night after all. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” she promised, pressing the words against his lips as she stole one last kiss.

“Get home safe,” he murmured before he let her go.

She climbed into the car and apologized to the driver if she’d kept him waiting. Steve was still standing on the steps and waved a hand as they pulled away. Darcy watched him until they turned the corner before she sat back in her seat and gently touched her fingertips to her swollen, kissed lips. She smiled to herself in the dark of the car, trying to savor what had just happened; wanting to remember the way Steve had looked the first time he said he loved her, the way his lips had moved against hers, the blush he couldn’t control that had nothing to do with the cold.

“Looks like the weather finally got the memo and sent in the snow,” her driver said conversationally, turning down the Christmas carols that had been drifting into the backseat. She glanced up and caught his eye in the rearview mirror. He smiled. “Always feels like some kinda magic when we get the first snow on Christmas, doesn’t it?”

Darcy nodded and rested her head against the window. “Some kinda magic,” she echoed, a soft smile on her lips.

 

Chapter Text

Christmas Morning
One year later

 

Darcy was always up early, regardless of the day, but Christmas morning was something special. She awoke on her own and slipped from under the covers and Steve’s heavy arm. On the way to the stairs, she peeked into Charlotte’s room and found the nine-year-old still sound asleep, her stocking unopened at the foot of the bed where Steve had placed it hours ago.

She stepped carefully over the sleeping figures of Sam, Bucky and Natasha in the living room as she made her way into the kitchen and started the coffee. The cinnamon rolls she and Charlotte had made the night before had risen nicely in the refrigerator and she peeled back the plastic wrap as quietly as she could before she set the oven to preheat.

The sun was just starting to filter in pink and orange through the kitchen window when she bent to slide the cinnamon rolls into the oven. She closed the door quietly and stood up a second before Steve’s hands on her hips sent her jumping a mile in surprise. “Jesus!” she whispered around a giggle, turning to face him. “You scared the shit out of me!”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered back with a guilty chuckle and wrapped his arms around her. He kissed her temple. “I thought you heard me.”

Darcy shook her head. “You’re like a ninja; I didn’t hear anything.”

“Sorry,” he reiterated and dropped his head to kiss her lips. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

She smiled up at him and rested her hands on his chest. “You’re forgiven.”

Steve pulled back for a moment and took her left hand in his, critically examining the diamond ring he’d placed on her finger the night before. “You’re still sure about this, right?”

Darcy laughed and stretched up onto her toes to brush her lips to his. “Never been more sure of anything in my life,” she promised.

From the moment she’d met Steve and Charlotte, they’d made her feel like she’d belonged with them. Like the three of them had always been meant to fit together. So when, following the happiest year of her life, Steve had come to bed after a few hands of cards with Sam and Buck, and asked shyly if she wanted to make it official, she’d accepted with tearful kisses and without a moment’s hesitation.

“Good to know,” he said softly before he smiled again. “Because I think Charlotte’s awake…”

Darcy could hear the sound of wrapping paper rustling as she and Steve crept back up the stairs and the sleepy sounds of Charlotte talking to herself as she unwrapped the gifts in her stocking. She stood in the beam of sunlight in the doorway and watched Charlotte push back her messy blonde hair and squint at the title of the book she’d just unwrapped. The sun hit her ring and cast a spray of rainbow reflection on the wall that went unnoticed.

Darcy bit her lip and tilted her hand so the sparkle moved from the wall to the bed and hovered right in front of Charlotte’s gifts. The little girl frowned in confusion and tilted her head to one side before she looked up and greeted Darcy with wide eyes.

“Is that what I think it is?” she asked, a smile spreading slowly over her face.

“I sure hope so,” Darcy said, taking a few cautious steps into the bedroom, holding up her hand so Charlotte could see. “Otherwise, I’m wearing it on the wrong hand.”

Her blue eyes still wide and sparkling, Charlotte got to her feet and stood on her bed, eye level when Darcy made her way over. “He really asked you?” she asked before she glanced over Darcy’s shoulder where her father was leaning in the doorway. “You really asked her, Daddy?”

“Yes,” he assured her with a laugh.

She looked back at Darcy, her hands on her shoulders. “And you really said yes?” Darcy only had time to nod once before Charlotte threw her arms around her neck and attacked her with a hug.

Darcy caught her easily and hugged her back, her heart stuck somewhere high in her throat. “I take it you’re happy about this?” she asked, blinking back tears that had blurred her vision.

“We’re going to be a real family!” Charlotte exclaimed into her hair before she let her go and bounced on her bed. “Did you tell anyone else yet?”

Darcy laughed again and swiped at her eyes. “No one else is up yet, honey, it’s early.”

“It’s not early,” Charlotte insisted. “It’s Christmas! Can we wake up Uncle Sam and Uncle Bucky and Auntie Nat and tell them? Are you going to start planning your wedding? Can I help? Can I be the flower girl? Are you going to wear white? Do you think I’m ever going to be a big sister someday?”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Steve called from the doorway. “One thing at a time,” he crossed her room in a few steps. “Let’s go eat some cinnamon rolls and open presents and have Christmas and we can worry about all that other stuff later, okay?”

Charlotte stopped her bouncing and smiled at her father. “Okay, Daddy,” she said simply and reached out to give him a tight hug too.

Steve wrapped an arm around her waist and swung her in a wide circle away from her bed. “Be careful going downstairs,” he warned, “you don’t have to wake everyone up just yet.”

They had almost reached the top of the stairs before Charlotte stopped herself. “I’ll be right down,” she promised. “I just forgot something.”

Darcy hung back while Steve descended the stairs on his own. In the reflection of the mirror on Charlotte’s door, Darcy watched as she went to her bedside table and picked up the framed photo of Peggy. She kissed the glass. “Thank you, Mommy,” she said quietly. “I knew you were listening.”

Swallowing down another lump in her throat, Darcy waited at the top of the stairs and offered her hand when Charlotte reappeared. “Cinnamon rolls?” she asked.

Charlotte slipped her hand into Darcy’s and squeezed her fingers with a decisive nod. “Cinnamon rolls.”