Chapter 1: a coffee dessert, yes you know it's good news
What I do is an art.
It's something that comes from the spirit. For me, it takes a force of will, knowledge of my own abilities, and using tools I trust. Part of it is learned, but much of it relies on natural talent and aptitude. The theory can be studied, but it takes more than that for someone to be great at it. It's a process and a labor of love. I excel at it through a mix of raw skill, practice, and luck. It is my livelihood, my passion, and my most addictive hobby.
The name's Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. I own the Stars and Scones Bakery and Coffee Shop in River North, Chicago. I'm the best there is at what I do. And what I do... is bake.
That, and put out fires. Metaphorical ones, I mean. Not literal fires.
I walked into the back room where my barista was hiding. Bob had a sixth sense about when I was about to yell at him and tended to hide in the coffee pantry. Unfortunately for him, we'd worked together for a few years now and I knew his habits.
Bob's bad habits are what had me so incensed. "Bob. Bob! Why are we out of scones at ten o'clock?" I checked behind the giant batter mixers, between the cooling racks, and the tiny crew room, looking for my elusive employee. "If you were giving out samples to the co-eds again, I'm taking it out on your hide!" I lifted my giant wooden spoon like a scepter. I always kept it with me, tucked into the cord of my apron, a tactile symbol of my power.
It'd be more than just a symbol when I found Bob.
Molly looked up from the large ceramic bowl she was stirring like a girl possessed. "He's probably hiding."
"No, really," I drawled. "Where?"
She shook her head. "I'm not helping you. Bob would never forgive me."
Not only did Bob lose all my scones, he was turning my apprentice against me. Molly was supposed to be learning responsibility and maturity and so on, not the sort of lessons Bob was teaching her. "Stir faster. It's called whipped cream for a reason."
She turned big, surprised eyes on me. "Really? That's why? I just thought the cream was kinky."
"Argh!" I covered my ears with my hands. "That's on the list! The list of words you don't use until you're eighteen!"
Molly rolled her eyes. "Okay, boss," she said light, in that tone that meant she would listen until the next time she saw an opportunity to mess with me. I had such respect for Charity since taking Molly on part-time. Normal teenagers were fueled by crappy processed food and soda; Molly subsisted on the frustration of her caretakers, like some really weird vampire.
I was about to resume my manhunt for Bob when the bell on the front counter rang with one crisp, long note. I deflated a little; unleashing my wrath on my customers would be bad. "Stir, minion," I commanded Molly with a poke from my spoon before jogging out of the kitchen.
Murphy was leaning on my front counter, hand hovering above to bell, ready to ring again. I shot her a tired look and she smirked, but obligingly moved her hand away, instead tapping the pastry case with one finger and raising her eyebrow at me.
"You're out of--"
"I know," I growled. "Bob probably gave them away. I just made a batch."
"You know, when you name your shop Stars and Scones, customers expect there to be scones," she pointed out, because Murphy lived to wind me up. It was a favorite past time of hers. That and slamming people much larger than her onto an exercise map. She ran the Akido studio two blocks down. Tiny but powerful was Karrin Murphy.
I started to get together her usual. It was an hour until her first class started and she always came by for brunch. Jasmine tea, a bowl of fresh fruit I picked up specially for her, and a BLT with avocado-mayo spread. "I know. But I don't have 'em. You don't even like scones."
"I like the blueberry ones. You never make those anymore."
"Too easy. Gotta test myself." I made a mark under her name on a chart I kept behind the counter. I let her go weeks at a time without paying. I knew where she lived and worked. I could show up and annoy her if she didn't take care of the tab. There was one time she forgot, and I enacted revenge by covering her motorcycle in cake icing and fondant bows. I thought it had been funny. She.... hadn't.
"Well, I hope the co-eds enjoyed their gourmet scones."
"I'm going to kill Bob," I told her earnestly.
"Was bound to happen eventually," Murphy said, unconcerned. She took her food and grabbed a seat at the bar, tucking in. "Don't do it in the kitchen. Health code violation."
With Murphy taken care of, my hunt could resume. I waited a cursory ten seconds, trying to seem like a sane, responsible shop owner before I darted back to the kitchen. "BOB!"
We nearly knocked each other over as I slammed into him, right around the corner. He had his arms full with a bag of fresh coffee beans. "Where's the fire, boss?" He gave me a guileless blink, a picture of innocence.
I was not fooled, and smacked him in the arm with my spoon. "I told you about giving away product to the college girls! They come in here just because they know if you're working front, they don't have to pay for anything!"
Bob sighed luxriously, eyes rolling up to the ceiling. "Oh how I wish those lovely ladies had been by today. I've had no one to look at but you, that red-headed linebacker, and the off-limits apprentice." He cast a look over his shoulder at Molly that was too keen for my tastes.
I whacked him again for good measure. It wasn't abuse. My employees wouldn't know I cared if they didn't get spooned a bit.
Then again, the one time I accidentally said that aloud, Bob had laughed himself sick.
"Eyes back here. I'm still missing a full rack of scones."
Bob huffily turned to regard me again, this time actually seeming to think about what I was saying. "Which ones?"
"The cinnamon ones with the apple preserves. The ones I spent all morning on."
His brow furrowed. "I didn't see those. When did you put them out?"
"When did I--" I blinked, a new, not-Bob excuse forming in my mind. "You didn't grab them from the oven?"
Bob shook his head slowly. "I had no idea I was supposed to. Molly usually does."
"Molly was late this morning, remember?" Cogs turned in my head. If Bob didn't get the scones out and Molly wasn't here to do it for me, that meant...
Just as I figured it out, I heard Molly call my name in a high-pitched, panicked tone. Right after that, the smoke alarm went off.
"Scones are up!" Bob said, entirely too cheerful.
I grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran to the ovens.
I put out a lot of metaphorical fires in my bakery. Occasionally, though, I end up putting out some literal fires too.
When I eventually emerged from the kitchen, having put out a small fire and gotten rid of the charcoal remains of what had been a batch of scones, my patrons burst into applause. I rolled my eyes, but gave a showy bow before punching Bob in the arm. "You're on dish duty tonight."
He squawked indignantly, rubbing his arm where I'd hit him. Drama queen. "The scones were not my fault!"
"Getting everyone in the shop to applaud me was," I told him.
"Well, I can't come in tonight. I have a date, I'll have you know," Bob said.
I didn't bother hiding the skeptical look on my face from him. "Really?"
He frowned. "Well, I could. Surely someone attractive will come in today." I nodded to the people we had in the foyer, who I didn't think were too shabby looking. "Most of them are off-limits."
It was true. The thing about Bob was that he was great for business. He was a passable cook, a great barista, and was handsome in a studious, British way. He was a little shorter than me, had a penchant for fancy waistcoats, and was very charming when he wanted to be. He also was a terrible lech, but I couldn't keep him hidden away in the back room. When Bob worked front, there was a small but noticeable increase in sales. I blamed the accent. Everyone loved the British accent, even if that baffled me. I'd grown up with Bob's voice, so it didn't impress me.
But he was right; I'd banned Bob from harassing our more loyal clientele. I figured if they came in often enough, they were here for the food, not for Bob's sexual innuendo. Quite a few people were off-limits. The red-headed college guy who was always working on his laptop with a stack of philosophy books wasn't interested. Molly's boyfriend Carlos, who always came in on her break, could probably give as good as he got when it came to flirting but was obviously taken. I didn't need to tell Bob that Murphy was a no-fly zone; she'd nearly broken his arm the first time he got friendly with her. The entire Carpenter family, of course. I hadn't explicitly said my ex Susan was off-limits, but watching their to-and-fro had apparently made me so grumpy, Bob actually backed off.
Bob looked to the door. "Speaking of people I'm not allowed to have," he murmured, gave me a wink, then vanished to the back.
I looked up and groaned as the door's entry bell chimed and my least favorite customer came inside, accompanied by my favorite customer. Funny how that worked out.
John Marcone was the bane of my existence. He was a suave lawyer-type who was one of the name partners of a nearby firm, Vadderung, Marcone, & Associates. He was the type of guy who'd play the corrupt, amoral lawyer in every single crime drama that required one. He wore tailored suits, had perpetually shiny shoes, and a feline grin. According to the rumor mill, he'd lived in New York for a few years, working as consigliere for one of the Families before having to retreat to his hometown of Chicago lest he be 'disappeared.'
We didn't get along.
The first time I met John Marcone, it was because another coffee shop in my corner of River North had gone out of business. I didn't exactly drive them out, because that would imply intent on my part, but my business was booming, so that might've had something to do with it. Apparently, Marcone had been using the other shop for his caffeine fix and had to find a new place after his went under. And in the area, it was Stars and Scones or one of the myriad Starbuckses or Caribou Coffees.
When Marcone came in, I had no idea who he was. To me, he was just a suit who looked like he'd been run ragged and had an attitude problem. It'd been the middle of the morning rush and he'd jumped to the front of the line. "Excuse me, I need a hazelnut latte with an extra expresso shot."
I gave him a slow blink. Too slow; his foot started tapping. Bob moved to fill the order and I gave him a head shake. "There's a line," I said to the man.
He snorted, like I'd told a joke. "I'm late for a meeting. I need the latte now."
I looked at my customers conspiratorially, sharing a non-verbal who does this guy think he is with them. "That's really not my problem, pal."
"As I understand it," his gaze flicked down to my chest, like he was checking for a nametag. There wasn't one because I found those things annoying, but it was a massive tell for the man. He was the type to find your name and use it against you, saying it with molasses-thick cotempt like having your name meant he owned you. I hated people who did that, treated food service people like crap. "This establishment drove my usual cafe out of business. I only found out this morning. Now I'm late."
I crossed my arms and leaned on the counter. "Sorry about your crappy morning, but you still can't skip ahead. Now, if you want to wait like everyone else, I'll be glad to get you taken care of and even give you a free pastry. Tradition here at Stars and Scones for first-timers."
The man stared at me. "Stars and... Scones."
I beamed at him. "That's what I called it." I twoodled my fingers at him. "Harry Dresden. I run the shop."
The man suddenly smirked. "Pleasure to meet you. John Marcone."
He said it like it was his personal Open Sesame. Someone in the line inhaled sharply, so maybe he was someone important to someone.
But not to me. "Same. Back of the line, please."
His smirk dipped into a displeased frown. "If you agreed to make my latte, I'd be on my way by now and you'd have half your customers taken care of."
"Yeah, but that'd be against my religion," I said cheekily. He had a point, but you had to shut down stubborn customers like him right off the bat. Give them a little leeway and they'd try to walk all over you.
Marcone's eyes dropped to my neck where my silver pentacle hung, laying on top of my apron. He looked around, at the rather... esoteric design of my shop. One wall was covered with movie and music posters and a few Art Nouveau tarot card designs one of my D&D group made for me. Behind the counter was a mural of the Wheel of the Year. Murphy once called my spread hipster, but I kind of liked it and its confused see-sawing between pretentious and comfortable. There were rugs overlapping on the scuffed wooden floor and mixmatched chairs surrounding thirteen tables of various shapes and sizes. It was homey, if odd.
But it could be misconstrued and I could see the disapproval on John Marcone's face. "I see. I had no idea one of the branches of Neo-Paganism had such staunch rules on the topic of cutting in line," he said, voice heavy with disdain.
I stared at him for a long moment, deciding that I really, really didn't like this guy. "Bob. Make the drink," I ordered quietly, and for once my barista obeyed silently. Marcone reached into his coat pocket, likely to pull out a wallet. I waved a hand. "Don't worry about it. I don't usually make people pay for their drinks before I throw them out."
Marcone gave me a completely bewildered look. "Excuse me?"
"I'm going to give you your latte. Then you're going to get out of my shop and go to your important meeting with your power suit and your smarmy smile. I don't know who you are but you don't scare me, you just piss me off. Maybe you make six or seven figures, but you can't afford some common courtesy in a place where you're a guest." As I spoke, I backed away from the counter and picked an amaretto dark chocolate pastry out of the case and bagged it. "Yes, we sunk your dinky little cafe and its store bought bakery goods." I shoved the bagged sweet across the counter at him as Bob finished the latte and offered it to Marcone. "I made that from scratch. Enjoy it, it's the only thing you're ever getting from this place." I grinned malevolently at him. "Also, it's Wicca, but I'm lapsed. Given it's Sunday, I bet you know something about that, right?"
I moved onto my actual customers, getting Mac squared away with his order of sourdough bread. I pointedly did not look at Marcone as I worked. Eventually he must've left, because he was gone when I looked up next.
And that should have been that. But it wasn't, obviously. John Marcone came back, like some brand of masochist that enjoyed the fact I'd lay into him at the smallest provocation. Eventually he got off my blacklist, mostly because Bob and Molly didn't listen when I said Marcone was banned. He was repentant for having pissed me off and always turned on the charm when I was around, trying to work his way into my good graces. Probably only because bribing me hadn't worked.
"I don't need a fifty dollar tip!" I yelled at him, walking up to the table he was sitting at. "No one here needs a fifty dollar tip!"
Molly, behind the counter, raised her hand. "I do! I'd love a fifty dollar tip!"
I snapped my fingers and pointed to the pastry case. "Clean. Now."
Marcone chuckled, crossing his legs at the knee and linking his fingers over them. "You underestimate your baking skills, Harry."
"Dresden," I corrected him curtly. "And no, I don't. I'm the best in Chicago. I still don't want the money!"
He sighed and tucked his wallet away, leaving the bill on the table. "Mr. Dresden, there's no need to get hysterical."
"You're trying to bribe me!" I pulled my spoon from my apron and waved it at him. His lips twitched like he was fighting down a grin. "You bought an entire batch of cupcakes and now this. Bribery!"
"The cupcakes were for my daughter, and I am not bribing you. Consider it a tip to be split between all your employees."
"That's still over sixteen dollars per pers--" I stopped. "Daughter?"
Marcone smiled. "She likes the tiramisu best."
And the day after that, I met my favorite customer, Ivy Marcone. Since then, I'd probably been doomed to lose my battle of wills with her father, John.
My apron was burnt from the minor kitchen fire and I probably looked like a mess when the Marcones came in. Ivy didn't care though, walking primly up to the pastry case like an elegant young lady instead of a ten-year-old. Her dress was a demure grey that contrasted with the pink ribbon tying her blonde hair back in a braid. She didn't press her hands to the glass like other children did. Instead, they were folded behind her back as she stood on her toes and browsed. Her face was almost eerily calm as she scanned the selection, but a smile lit up her face as she spotted the cupcakes.
I leaned on the counter to watch her because I was a sucker for kids. Marcone stood nearby, his attention divided between watching her and giving me a knowing grin.
When Marcone had first started bringing Ivy around the shop, I'd thought he was just trying to earn points with me. But Mr. Corporate Lawyer was actually a devoted single father who indulged his daughter endlessly. I'd gotten used to the two of them hanging around; Ivy had started coming in after school, having a snack and working on her homework until her father showed up to take her home. I'd grown more and more used to them camped out at one of the larger tables; Marcone often brought his own lawyer things with him and the two would work in each other's company.
If that wasn't bad enough, Marcone was painfully sweet on Ivy. For a while, I had maintained my only slightly paranoid suspicions about Marcone's intentions. Then, the two of them had spent an evening in the shop, eating a trial run of toffees I'd been experimenting with. Ivy had eventually dozed off against her father's arm.
Marcone reacted by putting their things away quietly and gently picking Ivy up to carry her out to his car. I'd gotten the door for him, saw up close how all his attention was on her, moving carefully so to avoid waking her as she slept.
Thank god for that. He was so distracted, he missed how completely, stupidly charmed I was.
It's not my fault I have a soft spot for kids, okay?
"You made the cat cupcakes," Ivy pointed out sunnily.
"Well, someone keeps eating them, so it seemed the thing to do," I told her.
She walked over to the counter and looked up at where Mister, my mammoth grey cat, sat on top of the expresso machine. Ivy made a soft clicking noise, holding her hand out to Mister.
Mister gave her a sour look upon waking from his sleep and meowed.
I poked the cat in the side. "Old grump."
"All cats are like that," Ivy explained coolly with a tone more befitting a lecturer than a child. "They'll sleep over fourteen hours a day. Some sleep away sixty percent of their lives."
I nudged Mister harder until he growled and leapt down to the ground near Ivy. "Sleep, eat, catbox. Useless animal."
"Mascots are important for PR," Marcone offered.
"Yeah, yeah." I watched Ivy turn Mister into a purring pile of fluff, petting him with both hands. "Staying or going?"
"Having some brunch before Mr. Kincaid arrives." Marcone took in my rough appearance. I subtly rubbed my face, hoping I'd gotten myself mostly clean. "It seems you've had an exciting morning. Care to take a break? Join us?"
I looked away, shaking my head. "I have a shop to run, Marcone."
"Both your employees are on duty. They couldn't spare you a few moments?"
He was always asking things like that. Just a moment of my time, just a small piece of my attention. I was reluctant to concede anything to him. I had the feeling a single step in that direction would lead to a slippery slope, and I had no idea what would be at the end of it. "Chai latte, earl grey tea?"
Marcone sighed and nodded. "Tuna and cucumber for Ivy. I'll take the panini if you could heat it up for me. And the profiteroles, please."
I got them set up before finding an excuse to duck into the back room. Molly was leaning over the oven that had the batch of scones in it earlier, black smeared up both of her arms and her cheek from cleaning. I took the steel wool and oven spray from her. "Tap in, grasshopper."
She gave me a suspicious look. "You want to trade?"
"Yeah. Go run the front, I'll finish this."
Bob looked up from icing a cake. "John Marcone's here. Harry's hiding."
Molly smiled. "Aw, boss."
"Out! I just heard the door bell," I said, pointing to the front. "Go!"
She tsked at me. "You keep doing this and he's going to think you don't like him."
"Good, 'cause I don't. Shoo!" I pushed her encouragingly. "Wash up first."
She gave me a mocking salute before bouncing away. Bob watched her, gaze firmly fixed on her... well. Her bounce.
I smacked him with the spoon. "Stop it."
"I'll stop if you admit you want to shag Marcone."
British slang, ugh. "Shag?"
Bob beamed at me. "Fuck. Make the two-backed beast. Do the nasty. Get it on. Invite him upstairs and have him pound you through--"
I covered my ears. "No! I don't! Shut up!" I threw an empty icing bag at his head. "Am I the only person here who isn't obsessed with sex?!"
Bob snorted. "Oh, Harry, you're just as bad as any of us, I'm sure. You are just the epitome of American sexual repression."
So I made Bob clean the damn oven, taking over the icing myself. Someday I would find the way to make my employees respect me and cower in fear of my retribution. And then my life would be better because I'd never have to hear another word about how Marcone and I were destined to... do all that Bob said.
I needed to hire some not-crazy people sometime. I would, as soon as I met some.
There was never a slow day at Stars and Scones. We were in a prosperous part of the city surrounded by boutiques and shops, so we had nearly constant foot traffic. We had our one-time passerbys who needed a pick-me-up in the middle of their shopping trips. We had the people who came in because we got a nice write-up in the Chicagoist or in one of the tourism guides. We also had plenty of regulars from all around the city.
Stars and Scones was catty-corner to the Merchandise Mart's Purple-Brown Line station. It was an amazing location. I sometimes got offers to have my shop moved so someone could snag the real estate, but I'd never let go. I'd survived the rent hikes over the years out of pure luck and grim determination. And it was something of an heirloom.
My father had once run a magic and novelty store out of the same spot. He hadn't been a wealthy man and was more interested in giving free magic shows to the libraries, schools, and children's hospital than anything. There'd been a sizable debt when he died and a lot of his stock was liquidated to pay everything off. I had very little to remember him by.
I'd lost everything he had when I went into the orphanage. Then I'd lost everything I had when I was adopted by Justin DuMorne. DuMorne was a man always eager to help. He'd took Elaine Mallory and me in knowing we both had some issues to sort out.
He was going to help. It had been a passion of Justin's, figuring people out. He wanted to fix us, but to do that, he'd said, he needed to take us apart to understand how we worked.
In the end, he hadn't been that interested in putting us back together again.
Elaine would probably always be claustrophobic. I still jumped at sudden noises.
We'd had a tutor in lieu of going to school, which was "an uncontrollable environment that would be detrimental to our treatment," Justin claimed. Hrothbert, or Bob, gave us lessons, and kept quiet.
But then Elaine went... There was a knife, and Justin screaming at her, and I ended up with a long thin scar on the inside of my arm, though I never could remember how it got there, even years later. That night must've been the final straw for Bob, since he called the police. There were some court hearings, a lot of people asking me invasive questions in soft tones. Justin went to prison and Bob was rewarded by having his teaching license revoked.
None of that mattered to me. I was old enough to strike out on my own. As I did, I learned the shop my father had owned was open for rent again.
It was the only thing left of my father. I dug into it hard, working fifteen-hour days or more until I could get my feet under me.
I was never going to let the shop go. I felt like it was mine, my birthright. I had to make it work, even if at first it was just me slogging through insane hours and juggling working the front and the back. I was all alone; Elaine was long gone.
Then Bob showed up one afternoon when I was in the thick of it, dashing from the kitchen to the counter trying to keep up with both. I don't know if it was pity or a sense of obligation that drove him, but he came around the counter and started to take orders.
Life had gotten rough for Bob in the wake of Justin. It wasn't a perfect arrangement-- he'd been complicit in Justin's abuse for a long time, but he needed a job and I needed help in the shop.
Bob turned out to be... I won't say a nice guy because I can't think of someone who skirted sexually harassment so often as 'nice,' but he worked diligently, lessened my load, even learned to operate the coffee machine. When he cut out the constant stream of sexual innuendo, he was also pretty funny. Desert dry, relaxed, sometimes making me laugh. Bob's chatter made the day go faster, especially in the early days when I always felt like I was hanging on by a thread.
It was a time when I needed friends. Bob ended up being one of my closest. Having him around helped me work through some issues that were left over from Justin. I had a lot of denial going on about it, about Elaine leaving. I was just angry all the time: mad at Justin, at Bob, at Elaine, at myself for being too weak to protect anyone.
Bob, in a weird moment of somberness, told me that being hurt still counted, even if there weren't any bruises left behind.
That was why, despite everything, Bob was my friend. Every once in a while, he said exactly what I needed to hear.
The only time things slowed down at Stars and Scones was when Chicago went grey, be it from snow or rain. Like pretty much every city that had a thriving system of public transportation, Chicago was a city of walkers. And very few liked to walk in the rain.
We had a few people inside the shop. Molly was on her break, sitting with Carlos as they traded notes on their homework assignments with sandwiches and mint mochas shared between them. Hendricks, the philosophy grad, was peering through his little rectangular wire-rims at his laptop. Bob was behind the counter, reading a Cosmo.
I sat by the windows, drinking a loose leaf tea Bob had spent weeks perfecting. He'd mixed in various tastes and flavors until he got the effect he wanted. It was smooth and vaguely fruity and was clearly a take-off of Oolong, with that distinct gunpowder smell to it. Generally speaking, the windows stayed shut all year, if only because they were a pain in the ass to open. They stretched from the ceiling to about a foot off the ground and were operated by a metal hand crank. Turn the crank, and the slots of glass would fan outward.
All the cranks were rusted over from disuse except for one in the corner that only survived because of me. I used it on days like this, when the rain was pounding down onto the streets and sluicing down the windows. It collected outside, the water surprisingly clear.
I was having a zucchini muffin, watching the sidewalk become a puddle. The water grew deeper as I watched, and in my daydreams I thought about closing the window and holding back the rain as it flooded the world with cool, clean water.
Then I wondered if Bob had put something a little more recreational into this tea blend of his.
Either way, it was a nice, peaceful thought. It was kind of amazing, how quiet it'd gotten in my own head over the past few years. Five or ten years ago, I'd have been rooting for the imaginary flood to wash the world away, or something equally dark and dramatic. These days, I was okay most of the time. My past was buried and the only reminder of it was Bob and a fading line on my arm.
That was, until the day Thomas Raith walked into my shop.
Chapter 2: a ginger sling and a pineapple heart
Bob was in the shop from morning to early afternoon, while Molly usually came in after school and stayed until she had to go home and do homework and other school-related things. It was a Saturday though, so Molly didn't have school to worry about and could help me out with the closing duties. Molly and I took our time cleaning up, playing music on the radio, and sharing space. I sang along to anything recorded pre-1990s, and Molly drummed out the beat to anything released after that point. It was a nice routine I fell into, comfortable in my shop with the Top 40s and Jon Bon Jovi, and with each other's company.
That I could still be comfortable around people after what Justin did surprised me every time.
Rain pelted against the windows. Most days, I drive Molly home after her shift, but Sunday is always a big day with the church crowd, so my Saturday nights are always dominated by prep and night baking. I made us dinner, put a large batch of muffins into the oven, and the two of us sat by the door, keeping watch for the taxi that would take her to Wrigleyville.
"You still have that can of mace Murphy gave you?" I asked her. We'd done this plenty of times, but I never really stopped worrying about her. I'd known Molly since she was a kid, and in some part of my mind, she'd always be that little thing hiding behind Michael's legs.
"It's on my keychain," she said, showing me. She pointed it at my face, and I yelped, covering myself with my arms. She laughed.
"Brat," I muttered. "I could make you stand out in the rain."
"I'll tell Mom," she replied breezily.
I sighed. One of the few upshots of being an orphan is not having parents to scold you. Or at least in theory: I am as dependent upon Charity's mercy as any of her children. I told her as much in a moment of frustration, and she just tutted and turned me around so she could unknot my apron for me.
A yellow cab pulled up in front of the shop and I jumped to unlock the door for Molly. "Make sure you call me when you get there--"
"Oh my God, Harry, you have problems, you know that?" Molly got up more calmly, slinging her bag over her shoulder and giving me a severe eye-roll. I glared at her and childishly stuck my tongue out. Without missing a beat, she leaned to grab a saltshaker off the nearest table. I backed away, hands up in surrender as she laughed.
By the time we'd subsided, the cab... had pulled away. A man had gotten out and, wow. He was a little shorter than me with glossy, wavy hair framed his movie star-good looks perfectly. His eyes were grey, set off like diamonds by his golden suntan. He was trim in the way a swimmer or runner might be, his physique shown off by a tight tee and tighter pants. His hair had started to sag in the rain, but it took nothing away from how good he looked. Quite the opposite, actually.
I swallowed and had a moment of feeling intensely inadequate. Running a bakery didn't leave me much time to get to the gym, and normally I didn't mind. But right now, I really did. It was stupid to compare myself to this guy, but he looked so good, it was like a beacon of you are a boy among men and here is a list of all your physical failings and by the way when was the last time you shaved? shining in the rainy Chicago night.
He had to be a celebrity. Only celebrities looked that good. And it wouldn't be the first time I got a late-night call from someone like that. A few years ago a sports star had knocked on my door at one in the morning, begging for my vanilla and chocolate fudge brownies. Unsurprisingly, he got busted for drug use a few months later.
I hadn't known who that guy was then, and I didn't know who this supermodel guy was now, so I looked to Molly. She was female and teenage, so to my reasoning she must have memorized the names and faces of everyone with even an ounce of star power.
She was gaping as much as I was and she offered no insight besides, "Oh, I hope he's coming here. Open the door, turn on the sign!"
"I-- It's eleven at night, I am not turning on the sign!" I nudged her away from the door. "He's probably headed for the L station--"
"No, look, he's coming this way!" She ran her fingers through her hair. "How do I look?"
"Oh, don't answer that, no one in their right mind would trust your opinion." I made a hurt noise, but Molly shushed me. "Here he comes!"
Something caught my eye and I pointed. "So does your ride."
Molly spotted the taxi and groaned. "No, why can't they be late? This timing sucks!"
She got no disagreement from me. The weird hot guy was definitely coming our way and I didn't want to let Molly out with him lurking around. He could be a chloroform-wielding lunatic for all we knew. Looks could be deceiving. And maybe on some level I just didn't trust anyone that attractive. It wasn't natural. Maybe this guy had made a deal with the devil or something.
Giving into the need to protect my employee, I pulled Molly behind me, putting myself between her and the door just before the knock came.
The shop lights were dim, but the curtain on the door was up. he had to be able to see us. I was quiet, hoping the stranger would take the hint and just leave. Instead, he knocked again.
"Coming, hold on!" Molly called and shoved past me, hurrying to the door. I flailed, trying to grab her, but she had the door swinging open before I could react.
"Mols--" I came up behind her, trying to look intimidating.
The stranger guy was half soaked, and his eyes locked on mine, wide and surprised. I averted my gaze-- I was never too comfortable looking people in the eye. It always felt too personal. "We're closed, sorry."
"I..." The guy started, then licked his lips. "I know. I'm looking for someone. Are you Harry?"
I narrowed my eyes and put an arm around Molly's shoulders, trying to pull her away. She pinched me until I stopped. "Ow, dammit, kid... I might be."
"Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden?"
Not many people knew my full name. It was unwieldly and barely fit on my driver's license, so I rarely used it on any ads or papers. "Yeah?" I narrowed my eyes, the who wants to know unsaid in the air between us.
Apparently he missed it. He was breathing hard, like he'd been running a long time. "Son of Malcolm Dresden and..." he faltered a moment before going on, voice thready. "Margaret Gwendolyn LeFay?"
I nodded, unsure what this was all about.
"Empty night..." Handsome Guy rubbed his mouth, his eyes shining. "Th-that pentacle, that was your mother's, right?"
"Yeah, how'd..." With his hand up, his arm was caught in the light from the nearest steetlamp. I could see that around his wrist was a length of chain, a bracelet that was snug to his skin and dull from regular wear. From that bracelet hung a single charm-- a silver pentacle, a twin to mine.
The taxi outside honked, impatient. It startled me, and I tore my gaze from the pentacle. "Uh. Mols, your cab."
"It's fine, Molly. I'll see you tomorrow. Remember we have the church crowd to handle."
She looked between Handsome Guy and me. Handsome Guy paid her absolutely no mind, staring at me in wonder. Molly sighed. "All the hot ones are married or..." In a huff, she brushed past me, out the door, jogging over through the rain to the taxi. I had the presence of mind to watch her, making sure she got there fine before my view was obstructed by Handsome Guy throwing his arms around me and kissing each of my cheeks in that weird European way. I yelped and tried to get away but the guy had latched onto me with an iron grip. I relented and started patting his back awkwardly. "Uh. Have we met?"
"No," the guy mumbled into my neck. "But I'm pretty sure you're my brother."
I have a half-brother named Thomas Raith. He was my mother's son from a previous relationship, apparently a very unhappy one, with the head of Raith Enterprises, some big-time corporation that dominated in the entertainment industry. They'd split, or rather my mother ran for it, around the time Thomas was seven. The Raiths are big on legacy, so Thomas had been raised pretty well, albeit in a loveless home, by aloof older sisters. He never saw his father outside holidays and learned to be self-sufficient quickly. When he'd turned eighteen, he studied abroad, striking out on his own, and never looked back.
"Got out of the country, explored the world a bit. Germany, France, Portugal," he elaborated as we sat at one of the tables. I had grabbed two beers and made some leftover roast beef into sandwiches for him. He took a large bite, hungry. "Oh. Oh my god, what is in this?"
"Homemade bread is the trick," I said, smiling. That and the aioli I'd concocted paired with peppers sauteed in garlic oil.
"You made this?" he asked through a mouthful before swallowing. "If you gave me a loaf of this stuff and some butter, I could just eat that for a meal. It's incredible."
Not to stroke my own ego, but I got that a lot and I had other things on my mind. I brushed the compliment aside, returning to the matter at hand. "Why now? How did you find me?"
Thomas put his sandwich down with more than a little reluctance and reached into his jacket. He pulled out a rolled up notebook and set it on the table, carefully flattening it out. "I live in Los Angeles, and there's this woman who comes into my salon. She's a regular and we talked a bit. Became friends." Once the notebook was bent back into shape enough for him, he slid it over to me. "It was like destiny. She showed up at my salon so I could get to know her so I could see this in her cafe."
I picked up the notebook and looked at it. For a moment, the details didn't come together cohesively in my mind. Just little pieces. The cover made of laminated construction paper. The fraying binds that held it all together. The words written in a familiar, loopy cursive on the cover. Elaine and Harry's Recipe Book, with the 'c' in recipe drawn in darkly over an accidental 's'.
Inside, the first pages were dominated by simple concoctions. Chocolate chip cookies. Cheese quesadillas. A really easy caramel fudge. Microwave bacon.
As it went on, the handwriting got neater. Instead of the recipes being labeled by Elaine Mallory, they were increasingly by Harry B. C. Dresden. Cherry turnovers. Challah cinnamon raisin bread. Raspberry tarts. Brie and rhubarb pie. A breakfast quiche that had ingredients and quantities scribbled out and rewritten in until the taste and consistency were perfect.
Kids needed hobbies, even in Justin DuMorne's household, and we'd found our own. It was one of the few things Justin had allowed us. After all, as I got better and better and devoured all the cookbooks I could and honed my craft, Justin got to eat the fruits of my labor. It'd started as just a pasttime, but when Elaine's interest had waned, mine had picked up. I discovered I had an intuition about baking and cooking, a real talent. I could tell what things would go together and how to tweak and improve the recipes in the books I read. It seemed like the only thing I was good at. Still does, sometimes.
I'd collected my best ones in this book. I hadn't seen it since Elaine skipped town one night and never came back. I had been so crushed by what happened, suddenly so alone, I hadn't realized she took it. Was it a keepsake or did she use it to remake my creations?
Either way, I didn't mind. And now it was back. With a long-lost family member attached.
Thomas reached out and put his hand over mine. He seemed like a touchy-feely guy. At least there was no more kissing. "Hey. You're, uh. You're crying. A bit. Are you okay?"
I rubbed at my face. "Fine. I'm fine. Just old memories. Thank you, for this." I patted the old memento, feeling the cool laminate under my palm. It crinkled, the plastic peeling at the corners. "Look, tell me about yourself. Who are you?"
My half-brother smiled like a Colgate commercial, bright and unfairly handsome. "Where should I start?"
"Where all good stories start."
"No. Around the middle, with flashbacks to the earlier stuff."
Thomas snorted in surprised and started to laugh. At least we both had the same stupid sense of humor.
The night baking ran long with my new guest. I let him follow me into the kitchen as he talked. Between him telling me about his fiendish older sister Lara inheriting the family's business and gushing about Justine, the light of his life, I baked him one of the old recipes I'd created in my childhood, the notebook open on the counter.
Then he made the mistake of asking me about my life and... well, that is never a happy story.
"Tell me that son of a bitch is dead," Thomas growled.
"No. Committed to a ward for the criminally insane." I handed him some maple butter for the croissant I'd made him. "Going to be there a long time."
Thomas dipped his finger in the maple butter and tasted it. "Empty night, is there anything you can't make? I'm not sure my jeans are going to fit after this."
I sucked in my gut. Not that I was... I'd always had a metabolism Murphy referred to as completely ridiculous and unfair, but I tasted everything I baked. That adds up. Thomas saw, and laughed. "Sorry, didn't mean to throw doubt on your girlish figure there."
"Shut up, eat your croissant. I have to finish the crumble." My eyes were getting that itchy, rough feeling that came from being awake for nineteen hours. "And I need to sleep. Tomorrow will cover the week's overheads if I'm lucky."
"Church crowd. Half the congregation of St. Mary of the Angels comes by once--" My jaw cracked in a yawn. "Once Mass is over."
"You sound wiped. I'm sorry I came by so late. I just got off the plane a few hours ago and I've been trying to find this place since."
I waved a hand at him, then considered that. "Where you staying?"
Thomas gave me a blank look. "Oh. Crap, I knew I forgot something."
So, my half-brother: Shorter than me, but much better looking. Older, well-groomed, lightly tanned in a way that spoke to a much sunnier home than mine. Nice, tactile in a way that I wasn't used to, and a little scatteredbrained in a way I was. Familiar, but new.
"I have a sofabed."
There was a hopeful gleam in his eyes even as he said, "I couldn't, not after how I--"
"Oh, shut up. Do you know anything about Chicago? Where you'd even find a decent hotel? Come on, I don't have much, but I can share." Besides, that's what brothers were supposed to do, right? In theory, anyway. It wasn't like I actually knew. But I could learn.
Thomas looked so touched and grateful, I had to look away. "Sure. I. Thank you." He laughed quietly. "You're amazing. You bake, you're tall like Mom, you just met me and you're feeding me and putting me up."
Mom. He knew Mom. It'd been so long since I could think about her or look at her old picture on my dresser without that ache of want in my chest. Not since I lost Dad and his wistful, happy stories about her. Hell's bells, the idea of family always dredged up dark thoughts from the dusty corners of my mind. The days with Justin when I'd been so angry at Dad for dying and leaving me in that monster's care, when I'd put my hate of that monster onto my Dad because his memory couldn't save me. How I'd never had my mother to teach me baking, even though that was what mothers were for. Or so I assumed. No personal experience, obviously.
"Hey." Thomas put a hand on my shoulder. "You're getting that look again."
"You can stay," I said, tone rough, throat tight. "But I have to ask a favor and you're going to think I'm an asshole."
"No, I won't."
"You haven't heard it yet."
"Yeah, but I won't."
I took a shaky breath. "You can't tell anyone you're my brother. Not yet."
I had to give him credit. He didn't even blink, though his mouth bent down in a frown. "Okay. Can I ask why?"
"Everyone here knows me. A lot know I was an orphan. Not many know about Justin, just that... I had it rough for a while." I couldn't look at him. "If I suddenly have a half-brother no one has ever heard of before...."
"They'll ask questions. And you," he waved a hand at me. "Don't deal with talking about it too well."
I barked a coarse laugh. "To put it lightly."
Thomas nodded slowly. "Okay. I'm just an old friend visiting then. I can do that."
"I'm not going to waltz in and screw up your life, Harry. Especially with your trauma."
The word twinged something in me, and I found myself snapping before I could stop myself. "I do not have trauma!"
"Okay," he replied easily. "But I get it. I can do that."
A vise of pressure released in my chest. It was an issue I was still learning to deal with, being so unable to really talk about... what happened. Not yet. Not often. Not to just anyone. It was part of why I ignored Bob's quiet suggestions that I talk to a shrink about it. That, and after a shrink spends years trying to break your mind into tiny desperate pieces, it's hard to go visit one voluntarily. Believe me.
Anyway, I talked to Bob and I'd managed to tell Thomas. One person at a time I could handle. But all the eyes that filled the room during the Sunday rush, all of them wondering about me, if my eccentricity came from that dark place, the unwanted pity I'd see in their faces... Just the idea of it made my hands shake.
Thomas squeezed my shoulders. "You done here?"
I looked down at the muffins I'd topped with crumble, hands mindlessly working as I talked. They looked perfect, even if my mind had been a million miles away while I made them. This was what I was good at, and no memories of my screwed up past could take that away from me.
"Yeah. Come on, it's late."
Between wrapping things up for the morning, getting Thomas settled in for the night, and getting to bed myself, I only ended up sleeping for about four hours before needing to get up and open the store. I wasn't actually going to face the whole day on a half night's rest, since I could take a nap later after the morning rush was over. But that was later and I felt dead on my feet as I shuffled around my home, getting ready.
Thomas was sprawled across the sofa bed, twisted in the blankets at a weird, bent angle that had his feet hanging off the edge. Every minute or so, his feet rubbed together in a jerky up-down motion. After watching for a bit, I realized he was trying to get his feet under the comforter.
I sighed and went over to him, shaking his shoulder. "Hey. Hey, uh, Thomas."
"Jetlag. Go 'way."
I snorted and shook his shoulder a little harder. "Or, you can wake up for five minutes and go climb into my bed and get some real sleep."
A grey eye opened, squinted at me. "Who're you? You're not Justine."
"I'm Harry, your brother. You're in Chicago. I'm sure it'll all come back to you later, but right now I have to go open the shop. If you want my bed, it's open. I'll see you later."
"It's... It's like... fuckin' early, what time is it?"
I laughed, finding myself charmed by the fact that my older brother was not a morning person. "Crack of dawn. I've got work to do. Come down to the shop if you get hungry, okay?"
"'Kay," Thomas said, and sat up. Even after a restless night, his hair just looked more artfully tousled. Unfair, so unfair. "Where bed?"
I pointed to my little bedroom. "There bed. Help yourself."
"No problem." I patted his shoulder, smiling, before grabbing a shirt and heading downstairs.
What I really needed to get me going was one of Bob's coffee potions. I don't know what he puts in the pick-me-up drinks, but it works better than Red Bull and is probably slightly less likely to give me a heart attack. Luckily, when I got down to the shop, Bob was just letting himself in with the key. "Morning, my esteemed paycheck signer. Might I say you're looking exceptional today?"
"Couldn't find my comb," I groused and tried to finger-comb my hair into submission. "I had a weird night, so go easy."
"You look like you need one of Hrothbert Bainbridge's wake-up potions."
"I need about five of them."
"I'll get the espresso machine woken up."
Molly went with her family to church on Sundays, so for the first half of the morning, it was just Bob and me. We were used to being slammed and had adapted. It wasn't much worse than the weekday morning rushes. Bob and I shared the register, bouncing between ringing people up and getting them their food and coffee. It was why Sundays required so much prior baking-- I didn't have time in the morning to get into the kitchen for even a moment.
It was better after Molly strolled in. She grabbed a bite with her family, then washed up and pulled on her apron, taking over the register. From that point on, we got orders out efficiently and quickly, like a well-oiled machine. The line may have been to the door, but no one was actually waiting in it for long. There was no spare seating, though, but the bakery hadn't been set up with so many people in mind.
We ran out of muffins at eleven. It was always something. "Mols, I got a tray of muffins in the back and crumble in the fridge. Go put 'em together and toss them in the oven to warm."
She gave a quick salute and bounded away dutifully to do my bidding. Sunday mornings were pretty much the only time I didn't get sass from my employees. Too busy. They made up for it during the rest of the week.
Things picked up as the crowd of people who had weekends off and didn't want to cook breakfast meandered in. Hendricks was one of them, looking a little wild around the eyes. Must've been rough waters in grad student land. In line in front of him was a tall blonde in a white shirt, suspenders, and gunmetal grey vest and pants. She must've been one of the lawyers at Vadderung, Marcone, & Associates because she was voluntarily standing next to Marcone, who was similarly dressed up for the day, pinstripes and cufflinks galore.
I was just steeling myself for having to deal with Marcone when Thomas wandered down the stairs that lead to my apartment. He was casual in jeans and a black tank, eyes wide as he took in just how many people were in the shop. Once he spotted me, he made a beeline over. "You. Now I remember. Sorry about last night, it was a little wild." Not one for personal space, he crowded into me and slung an arm over my shoulder.
I was fishing a pastry out of the case when he leaned on me, body still sleep-warm. I was still only awake thanks to Bob's espresso potion, and the sudden weight made me stumble. "How'd you sleep?"
Thomas nodded. "Good. But we need to get you a bigger bed."
Over at the coffee machine, Bob made a strangled sound as he bungled up the milk steamer.
I frowned at him, but gave Thomas my attention again, ringing up a customer's soy latte and turnover one handed. "Six seventy-two. What's wrong with mine? You slept fine."
"Yeeeeah, but..." Thomas cast me a guilty look under his lashes. "It's small. You can't, say, share with someone."
Bob started coughing. At the counter, Murphy's spoon hit her yogurt so hard, I worried the bowl would crack.
So my brother didn't want the sofa bed. I could understand that. It wasn't great to sleep on if you were even an inch over five feet. "We'll figure something out tonight. Hungry?"
Thomas grinned. "If it means you feeding me, hell yes."
I shrugged his hand off my shoulder and nodded to the pastry case. "Help yourself to something. If you want something special, I'll make it after the rush."
Thomas went and fawned over the pastries and cakes. "You, Harry, are a marvel. I mean, between my good looks and your magic hands, we could take over the world."
Bob sputtered, the milk steamer screaming when he let the mug he was frothing drop too low. "Who are you?"
My brother straightened, and finally seemed to notice there was someone else behind the counter. "Thomas. Thomas Raith. You are?"
"I meant in the abstract. Your name's not important yet."
"I'm Harry's..." Thomas hesitated, blinking somewhat glazed eyes. "Friend."
Bob turned to me, eyes wide. I yawned at him. "Sure. Of course." He cast another baffled look at Thomas before getting back to his coffee-making.
With whatever that was defused, and I turned back to the counter and stiffened. Marcone and his blonde companion were next up. Marcone had this strange, opaque look in his eyes, staring at me. "Harry."
"Hey, Marcone," I said, then covered my mouth to swallow a yawn. "Sorry. Who's your friend?"
"Associate," the blonde corrected instantly. "Sigrun Gard. I'm a junior partner at the firm."
Stars, Marcone was still staring at me. "Oh, great, another soulless corporate lawyer." Gard arched a blonde eyebrow at me and I instantly felt like a tremendous dick. "I-I mean, sorry, that was uncalled for, Ms. Gard. I'm kinda sleep-deprived and it's making me more tactless than usual."
Gard's mouth twitched. "I can see why he likes you." That twitch turned into a small smile. "And the moniker isn't unwarranted. I'm presently assigned to a Fortune 500 that doesn't want to give its factory workers full benefits."
Marcone's expression soured. "I said I would take it--"
"I am capable," she shot back. "May I have a long macchiato with soy and the fruit crepe?"
Marcone seemed to be coming out of his daze slowly. If only I was so lucky. "And... my usual, if you would, Harry." I nodded and rang up the dirty chai and margherita panini.
"Thomas, grab the panini and the crepe while you're there," I said, taking Marcone's card and swiping it.
"Ordering me around already?" he asked with a good-natured grin that lessened the blow of his words. He picked out the right plates and handed them over.
"Remind me again: whose bed did you sleep in?"
"Mr. Dresden," Marcone's voice cut through our brotherly banter. I frowned at him in annoyance. It wasn't like I got to have brotherly banter before. I was overdue by a couple decades, and it was hard not to be greedy now. For the longest time, the closest I'd gotten to family was living vicariously through the Carpenters-- when I even had time for that. "We'll take it all to go, please. We have a meeting to attend."
Gard's head snapped to the side, her piercing eyes boring into the side of his head. "The meeting doesn't start until--"
"We can walk to the office. It's a nice day, and walking's good for digestion." He turned away, and just... disengaged. His word had that finality I'd only heard him break out every once in a while, usually when he was ordering junior partners around on his phone as I talked to Ivy. He turned on the charm so often in my shop that when I saw him, I forgot he could speak with authority like that.
I bagged the food and handed it all over with their drinks. Gard nodded her thanks and followed John out the door, the scumbag's shoulders a weary slope. That wasn't right. People came in to the bakery looking like that, not leaving it.
"Never thought I'd see the good gentleman broken-hearted."
I jerked out of my musing and saw Bob watching Marcone leave, a pitying curl to his words. "What?"
Bob glanced up at me and seemed to get even more morose. "Nothing, boss. Forget I said anything about him."
I did, for a little while. Life was just easier when I wasn't thinking about Marcone.
By two o'clock, I was just done. I'd had two more of Bob's espresso potions to keep me going, but by the time the lunch crowd was milling out, the caffeinated upper was running out and I was crashing hard.
I took a moment to lean on the counter, letting my head drop forward wearily. I only meant to shut my eyes for a second, but next I knew I was blinking up at the ceiling lights and Bob was frowning down at me. "--rry, Harry. Earth to Harry."
"Nnngh," I said.
Thomas leaned into my view as well. "Is he usually that pale?"
"No." Bob sighed. "I'll have Molly watch counter so I can take him upstairs."
"I can do it," Thomas said.
"Do you know how to work a register? Or what half the things we sell are called?" Bob looked Thomas up and down, an oddly disapproving set to his face. "You don't look like the type to eat baked goods."
The two of them stared each other down. "I meant I'd take him upstairs."
"I think that's what got Harry into this mess in the first place."
I had no idea what they were talking about. I started to reach for Bob's shoulder, then decided that took too much energy and let my arm flump back down. Oh, I was lying on the ground, wasn't I? "I'm confused..."
"You say that like it's news," Bob muttered at me.
"Are you always such an asshole, or did we catch you on a bad day?" Thomas snapped. He bent down, grabbed me and started to get me upright. Bob, with an air of annoyed resignation, helped him until I was on my feet, hanging between the two of them.
"Molly! Mind the front for five minutes!" Bob called to the kitchen.
"I said I could take him."
"So can I. Why're you so eager to get him alone when he's half-asleep?"
"I... Oh, fuck," Thomas swore, blanching. "You think... Oh, crap." His arm slackened and I nearly fell back to the ground.
Bob frowned deeply at Thomas. "Okay. Not to belabor the question but, who are you?"
Thomas shook his head. "Upstairs. Not here."
The two of them hauled my dozing ass to my apartment, Bob using his spare key to open the door. I was more than happy to nap while they did the legwork. Both of them were warm and short enough to lean on comfortably. "I should add 'pillow' to your job description," I told Bob.
"Right after barista, assistant baker, and metaphorical bomb defuser, I assume?" He let Thomas help until we were safely in my home. Then Bob took me over to the bed and dumped me on it. The bedclothes were mussed, the top sheet on the floor in a twisted mess Bob fought to unfurl. I helped by nudging off my shoes and then not a lot else. I was so tired, I could just sleep in my work clothes.
Thomas, ever tactile, pushed me onto my stomach and plucked at the knot of my apron. "Harry. You said you trust this guy, right?"
"Yeah. 'S Bob."
"Okay, then maybe you can talk to him because right now he thinks I'm trying to steal your virtue."
I let Thomas take off my apron, then blinked at him. "Huh?"
Bob was watching us with an eyebrow raised. "A strange, handsome man shows up, is practically attached to Harry's hip, spent the night in his bed--"
It all clicked together in my head. I fought to sit up, surprised. "Wait. Hold on. I must be dreaming or something because I think you just implied I'm.... you knowing Thomas."
Thomas started laughing. "You knowing? What are we, in eighth grade?"
Bob, on the other hand, looked pissed. I don't think he was used to not knowing what was going on with my life all the time. That kind of happened when you basically lived in each others' pockets for years. I couldn't remember the last time Bob was out of the loop about anything. "Clearly I'm mistaken. Enlighten me, boss."
"Thomas is my half-brother," I said bluntly. Lying back down again, I went on, "Can I go to sleep now?"
Bob's eyes widened comically in his shock. Or at least I thought he looked funny and started snickering into my pillow. "Since when do you have a brother?"
Thomas begged to differ. "Well, technically since he was born. I'm the eldest, hard as that is to believe."
"I think you just insulted me," I mumbled.
In a much needed gesture of good will, Thomas offered his hand to Bob. "Thomas Raith. I flew up from LA last night. I've been looking for Harry off and on for years."
Bob frowned, not taking the hand. Instead, he crossed his arms, his body language closed off and unfriendly. That was weird to see. Bob always seemed amiable with everyone, except right now when it would have really counted. "There was no record of Harry having a sibling."
That offhand statement stilled me to the core. There was the trouble of Bob being all stand-offish and protective of me. Now we were treading into territory I wanted to pretend didn't exist on good days and got the shakes just thinking about on bad ones. "Bob."
"Record?" Thomas asked.
"Justin DuMorne kept--"
"Bob!" I snapped, my voice like the crack of a whip. Bob and Thomas both jumped and stared at me. "Enough. I'm grateful that you worry about me like this, but drop it."
Bob stared at me for a long moment; I tried not to shift subconsciously under his gaze. I knew Bob had this guilt thing he was dealing with all the time, how he'd helped Justin hurt Elaine and me. I didn't hold what happened against him, not anymore. But the reminder... was not appreciated.
I made a show of pulling off my shirt and socks. "I'm going to take a nap. If I don't get up on my own, wake me for closing. Bob, get Molly a cab back home at three."
"Later," I said and laid down, facing away from them. The two of them lingered a while, but I shut my eyes and resolutely (and maybe a little childishly) pretended to be asleep until I heard them leave.
Alone in the darkness, the curtains pulled tight over the windows to block out the sun, I laid on the bed, tense and sure I wasn't going to be able to sleep. My mind was full of Justin's cold smile, of his house in Des Moines, the one that had never been a home, and of waking up to a silent apartment, the space Elaine once filled empty and deafening.
But not even those memories, curdled and sour like old buttercream, could keep me from falling into a deep sleep.
Chapter 3: coconut fudge really blows down those blues
It seemed that while I was out Thomas and Bob made nice. Thomas was trying to figure out our cranky old register and busing tables while Bob iced a commission for me when I finally woke up. There was a tension in the air between them and sometimes they had spiteful conversations comprised entirely of hateful looks, but it never escalated, as far as I could tell.
Which was great, because Thomas was sticking around for a while and I was on cloud nine about it. He couldn't stay for long with his own business waiting back in Los Angeles, but his girlfriend Justine was covering for him to give us time. I decided then and there that Justine was one of my favorite people in the whole world. Her and Thomas, because, oh yeah, I had a brother. And he was goofy and, in his own way, just as weird as I was. And he liked that I was a baker and never made any cracks about it. To me, it was deadly serious, and he accepted that without question.
Maybe he and Bob were never going to be best buddies, but everyone else seemed okay with the new model-handsome guy ringing up orders. Molly kept muttering about the best ones being gay, thus confirming that everyone seemed to think Thomas was my boyfriend. Carlos looked a little threatened by Molly mooning over Thomas, but I'm a magnanimous sort, and gave Molly a few days off. Thomas was able to just barely pick up the slack and Carlos was happy to take his girlfriend out to woo her back.
It was all pretty amusing, and the charade kept away unwelcome questions, so I played along.
I think Murphy caught wise; Murphy never missed anything. It was kind of creepy, but also nice. You didn't have to stop and explain things to her. She got it. I'd never told her about my past, but she was always careful to avoid saying certain things that... I didn't like. It was a constant struggle most of the time, how certain words or phrases would pull memories up from the corners of my mind and darken my mood, but with Murphy, I never had to worry about that.
Womanly intuition was a scary thing. She watched Thomas with an idly amused smile, and unlike most of my regulars, she didn't ask how Thomas and I had met or how long we'd been seeing each other.
She had my number. But that wasn't news.
Still. It worked.
For the most part.
Thomas was not good at baking. At all.
I mean, I'm actually a pretty decent teacher when it came to this stuff. Bob had known nothing about baking when we'd started working together, but he was now a passable sous chef to my creations. And Molly, hell's bells. Molly had been terrible. She had inherited none of her mother's grace in the kitchen. The first week I'd had her, she'd managed to ruin three pans and two cookie sheets, and I bought durable cookware. She killed them, blackening them with a thick layer of what appeared to be burnt cement. Careful testing and scientific inquiry could not reveal what the mixture had once been.
To this day, Molly wasn't allowed to make candy, brittle, or fudge, but I'd trained her up and she was good enough with the rest of the menu so long as Bob or I supervised.
Thomas, though. God, it was like Thomas had never cooked or baked anything in his life. Basic things like preheating ovens didn't occur to him. Maybe it was an LA thing, or the fact he'd been born with a silver spoon, so to speak. If I had to guess, I'd have figured he'd gone to restaurants every day of his life or had a personal chef. It was insane.
I tried to involve him anyway. Call me persistent, call me bullheaded, but it was a bonding experience.
We were making tarts. Or, I was making tarts and Thomas was watching me make tarts and helping when I let him. Vanilla crusts with a strawberry filling and just a bit of lemon rind to for a citrusy kick. It was married to the topping, a lemon meringue I'd let Thomas beat until the sugar integrated properly. Each tart got a heaping spoonful of meringue before I broke out the tiny pastry blowtorches.
Thomas' eyes lit up at the sight. Playing with fire in the kitchen was always fun, so I understood his excitement. "You're going to let me help?"
I flicked on each torch and handed one to him carefully. "Yeah. This is dead easy. You just heat the meringue until it browns, okay?" Showing him how to use the torch, I slid the pan of tarts closer. "I'm going to get the ones in the back. I got reach. You just take care of the ones close to you."
Thomas nodded eagerly, grinning. I watched him do one tart, stopping him when it was perfect. "Yeah, like that." Then I leaned over to get the back row. Between the two of us, we'd get the whole batch done in a few minutes.
Or, we could have.
I didn't require a uniform at my shop, because that was a little too Starbucks for my tastes. I like a casual atmosphere, forgoing a lot of the usual trappings of food service. No nametags, no matching shirts, no real code of conduct outside 'don't be an asshole to the customers.' Even that one had a caveat for Marcone; taking his ego down a few pegs was just one of the many services Stars and Scones offered. Clothing-wise, the only thing I insist on aprons, mostly for protection. Baking can get messy and the coffee magic dealt with hot liquids. It was just good sense.
I'd had a lot of aprons over the years. My first after moving out of Justin's place had been from Goodwill, a faded piece of work with a missing pocket and obnoxious blue and yellow flowers. But it'd been functional, which was all I'd really cared about at the time.
I'd been able to afford more later. I earned enough spare cash to buy some plain brown aprons and they'd practically become my unofficial uniform for a few years. Then I started to get more from friends. I had a handmade quilted one with a heavy stars motif from Charity, and an Apron Of Power that claimed to give +10 to Craft: Cooking and +5 Fire Resistance from my tabletop group. Molly, knowing my love of Star Wars, had picked me up one that said 'Come to the Dark Side, we have cookies.' I had a closet full of the things now and a new apron had become the de facto gift I was given around the holidays. That suited me fine.
The one I was wearing then was from my GM, Butters. It was navy blue with fancy stitched lettering that said, 'BAKING: It's Chemistry for hungry people.' It was a favorite of mine.
Thomas set it on fire.
It was not as fire resistant as it could've been. Not that I was going to be able to wear it ever again after Bob came in, saw my brother and I flailing around and me on fire, and decided to help by drenching me with water from the extendable faucet at the sink. By accident or design-- I would never know which-- he managed to get Thomas' nice suede shoes as well.
"So," Bob said as I coughed and shivered, suddenly damp and cold. "Another fire, boss?"
I sputtered. "It wasn't me!"
Bob looked to Thomas with new appraisal. "Clearly the destructive gene comes from your mother."
"I am so sorry, Harry," Thomas said miserably.
I sighed. "Do me a favor, mop this up. Bob, see what tarts can be rescued. I need to put on an new apron."
"I'm really sorry--"
"Don't worry about it, I have more."
Except, when I got upstairs, tossed my ruined apron in the trash, and went to my closet for a new one, I came up empty.
I had a lot of aprons, yeah, but I'd been sharing with Thomas since he started to helping. Between work and enjoying my brother's company, I hadn't had time to do laundry. The basket of dirty clothes at the bottom of my closet was overflowing, jeans and shirts spilling out onto the floor.
Great. I wasn't mad at Thomas, but I was annoyed. I hated to go without an apron, for reasons that Thomas had made abundantly clear. I'd happily lose an apron to a pastry torch if it meant saving my own skin. My mind filled with nightmarish visions of Thomas spilling molten sugar or getting reckless with a knife.
Maybe Bob would loan me his. Unlike me, Bob had some natural grace and poise and thus didn't regularly have the kind of accidents I did around the shop.
"But I work with the coffee machine," Bob pointed out when I asked him. "It's a dangerous piece of equipment."
I narrowed my eyes. "Bob."
"It dispenses steam and hot liquids. Using one without proper protection is a recipe for disaster."
"Fine! I'll just go without."
Bob smiled cheerfully. "Oh, I wouldn't, boss. Thomas was talking about trying to make those caramel squares again." I winced, remembering the last time. "After all, you should have one more apron, by my count."
"What? Which one?"
Bob turned back to the drink he was making, a twice dirty chai. "Remember last Christmas?"
"Really? See, what happened was--"
I cut him off. "No, I mean no, I'm not wearing that."
My barista pouted. "But Harry, I got it for you and I've yet to see you wear it."
It's amazing my eyes didn't pop out of my head given how hard I rolled them. "You know, Bob, I don't think it'll flatter my figure."
"Au contraire, boss," he corrected me. "When I made the order, I gave them your exact measurements, so it actually will." He glanced around the shop, confirming there were no nearby eavesdroppers. Then, he leaned into me and whispered, "Go put it on or I'll let it slip to Molly who Thomas is."
I blanched. "You wouldn't."
"I very much would."
"Think of poor Carlos! She'll start mooning over Thomas and he'll be heartbroken!"
Bob shrugged one shoulder dismissively. "Heartbreak builds character." His eyes slid sideways to meet mine. "Well?"
I went back upstairs. I could call Bob's bluff, but his moral compass doesn't point north as consistently as mine does. He could've been serious, and between Molly gunning for Thomas and Carlos sulking around the shop about her sometimes flighty nature... I'd take door number two. It was close to closing time anyway, and there weren't many people around. Most of those who were still here were regulars and used to some eccentricity from the staff. Sometimes I think that was half the reason they stayed so late. One week, Molly got in in her head that old Fifties drive-thrus were the best thing ever and took to bringing everyone their orders with those sneakers with the roller wheels inside, gliding across the floor. Much fun was had watching her careen into things.
Pulling Bob's 'gift' out of the closet, I was reminded what an exceptional asshole Bob really was. He didn't do anything by halves.
I pulled the thing on over my head. It was weird how high it sat on my chest, but the apron was well-made and did indeed fit me well once I tied the ribbon in the back. There was only one way this could go well, and that was if I owned it. So I looped the ribbon into a wide bow.
There was a mirror above the dresser. I ignored it, sure I'd lose my nerve if I happened to glanced at my reflection, and hustled back downstairs, not willing to leave Thomas alone in the kitchen any longer.
When I got back down to the floor, I dodged Bob, who was helping someone at the counter, and ducked into the back. Thomas was peering into one of the cabinets, a plastic bowl under his arm and a bag of caramels in his fist.
I snatched the bowl from him. "If you are thinking of using this bowl for caramel, you've got another thing coming."
He withdrew from the cabinet. "Why's tha-- uh."
The bowl slotted back into its place on the work table. "This bowl is for holding ingredients. It's not for mixing hot components. You'd melt the bowl."
"You're wearing pink," Thomas blurted out.
Before I could stop myself, I looked at my reflection in the shiny metal surface of the fridge. The image was distorted and fuzzy, but I could see that, yeah, he was right. It was really, really pink. The apron was some vintage design in soft pink paisley with a high curved neckline and cream ruffles. It was surprisingly well-made, and even though it was something of a prank gift, Bob hadn't skimped on any of it. It was even longer than most aprons I owned, custom made for my long legs. Actually, from the front, it looked like I was wearing a dress over my jeans and shirt.
I lifted my chin defiantly. "Only one I had. And so what? You're wearing purple."
"Yeah, but I'm Californian," he protested. "It's different."
"Is not," I muttered. I took the ingredients out of his hands and put them away. "No more kitchen today, okay? I don't think my heart can take it."
Thomas dragged his gaze up and down my body, grimacing. "Do you need me still?"
He crossed the room to the coat hanger by the break area and grabbed his jacket. "I'm going out. Going to buy you some aprons." He looked at his own feet. "And maybe new shoes."
I laughed and followed him as he stepped out into the foyer. There were a few people still lingering, even as closing time inched closer. I kept walking, not letting my stride falter. Yeah, I was wearing a pink apron. Any regular would be used to this level of weirdness in my shop. "You know, I think you're more uncomfortable with this than I am."
"Well, it..." He waved at me. "Doesn't really suit you?"
I smoothed a hand down the apron. "Actually, I think this one fits better than the rest."
"Empty night. I'm going out. I'm going to pick up new ones. With flames and crude sex jokes. Manly things."
The bell on the door rang as Thomas fled. I caught my hand on the door jam and leaned out to call after him, "Says the guy in purple! And don't get lost, I am not driving halfway across Chicago because you got off at the wrong L stop again!"
My brother waved at me over his shoulder and kept walking. I snorted, amused at how he could be utterly aloof until suddenly he really wasn't. Maybe having a plethora of neuroses was another family trait.
I went back inside and all eyes were on me. It was oddly hushed, quiet except for the sounds of people trying to pretend they weren't staring. That was fine; I was a master of paying no attention to things that bothered me until they went away.
Bob was reloading the coffee beans, so I took over counter duty. Murphy was sitting at the bar, as she was wont to do, and tipped a smile to me. "Dresden."
"Hey, Murph. Need a refill?"
"Get me a to-go. I'm headed out soon." She reached over and caught some of the cream ruffle between her fingers, rubbing the soft fabric thoughtfully. "Nice. The sweetheart neckline works for you. And it brings out your color."
I scoffed. "What color?"
"Okay, it makes you look less like a pale nerd."
Handing over a new cup of jasmine tea and fluttering my eyelashes, I put on a little Southern belle. "Well I do declare. That's mighty kind of you, Ms. Murphy."
She shook her head, still smiling, and hopped off the stool. "See you, Dresden."
I curtsied, because why not?
Over the next half hour, most of the crowd cleared out. Bob started the closing rituals, tidying up and wiping things down, clearing out the pastry case. The things that were going to be taken to the food bank or tossed out, he left on the counter, and a few people grabbed them on their way out. Old rituals, unspoken understandings: I love things like that. They feel sacred.
It's possible I take my job too seriously.
I started collecting used plates and mugs from the vacated tables, gathering things to be washed. When we're all hands on deck, I usually have one employee do dishes throughout the day. Lately, with Thomas around, I'd been avoiding that. Having a lot of dishes for him to do when we closed kept him away from my night baking.
I got the odd compliment and remark on my apron as I worked around the room. The only person who didn't say anything was Hendricks, who was glancing between his laptop and Gard, sitting with her back to him across the room. Gard had been coming in with Marcone often over the last two weeks. Hendricks had always tended to have a usual seat in the far corner, a quiet place to work, but since Gard had become a regular, he'd slowly migrated out into the open.
Aw. Young love. It was kind of sweet, like if the Hulk had a crush on the Black Widow.
Hendricks was still trying to be subtle about staring at Gard when I picked up the teacups from his area. I wiped down the table beside him and said quietly, "You keep staring, she's going to think you're kinda creepy."
The kid frowned down at his laptop, as if it required his supervision to shut down properly. "Don't know what you're talking about."
"You could just ask her out like a normal person," I suggested. Hendricks glared at me. I shrugged. "Suit yourself, wallflower." I moved on, passing Gard on her way out. She gave me a curt nod and a little half smirk, but said nothing.
Gard had been in most of the afternoon with Marcone. They'd claimed the tables against the windows, spreading their work out over every surface they could, like some self-replicating legal paper monster. Marcone was still there, nursing the last of his dirty chai, shuffling things back into their folders and tucking them away methodically into his briefcase. He looked more drawn than I could ever remember seeing him, faint circles showing under his eyes.
It was interesting to watch him organize things. Everything clearly had to be put in his briefcase in a specific order. He picked up some folders and skipped others, stacking everything neatly.
He picked up his mug to take a sip, then frowned when he discovered it was empty. I snickered and plucked it out of his hand. "Are you awake enough to drive?"
"I have a driver." Of course he did; fancy scumbag lawyers didn't have to burden themselves with mundane tasks like driving. Before I could tell him that, Marcone looked me over and... smiled. Not like Gard's quirk of the mouth or Bob's shit-eating grin. Marcone's smile started with the crinkled skin around his eyes and bloomed slowly from his mouth, so warm I was sure the temperature lifted a few degrees.
I shifted all the dishes to one arm and waved my finger in his face. "Don't. Don't say anything."
He chuckled faintly, no more than a sharp exhalation tempered with good humor. "Not even to say it suits you nicely?"
"I agree with Ms. Murphy on the color, and it does a kindness to your hips."
I was so surprised, I barked out a laugh. "Shut up! You're not allowed to say things like that!"
His smile widened, but he obligingly remained silent. His eyes were saying plenty though.
I stood there way too long, grinning like an idiot. It was a relief when Thomas barged back in, a shopping bag slung over his shoulder. "Why are you still wearing that?" Thomas hissed, walking over, looking around as if horrified to even be seen with me.
Marcone's smile faded, his eyes shuttering. "Thomas, wasn't it? I don't think we've been formally introduced."
Whoa. Suddenly things were really tense and uneasy. Thomas and Marcone slipped into a staring contest between one second and the next. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. "Uh, guys."
Marcone offered his hand. "John Marcone, of Vadderung, Marcone, and Associates."
Thomas looked at Marcone's hand and pointedly didn't take it. Five really fucking uncomfortable seconds later, Marcone lowered it, making a fist and tucking it into his pocket.
"Yeah," Thomas finally replied, "but you can call me Mr. Raith." He turned and walked away, heading around the counter and into the back.
I cleared my throat. "Uh, sorry about that. I don't know what's with him."
Marcone sighed and went back to packing up his files. "It's strange. I never imagined your tastes would be so..."
I raised an eyebrow at him. "... So?"
"Hm?" He blinked at me. "Sorry, I lost my train of thought." Which I didn't believe for a goddamn minute. "I'll take my leave now. Have a good night, Harry."
"I'll take two mojitos and an Irish coffee," Murphy said, leaning on the counter Friday evening. "Anastasia'll take a Rusty Nail, a Mimosa, and a Cuba Libre."
Murphy and her fellow akido instructor weren't heavy drinkers. Friday evenings meant cocktail parties at Stars and Scones, and since I didn't actually have an alcohol license and could only use liquor in my baking, I spent all day making cocktail cupcakes. It'd been Bob's idea, as he actually went out drinking socially and was familiar with foofy drinks. With his guidance, I'd put together a wide array of cupcakes to fit the theme.
Mimosas with peach and champagne cake topped with candied orange peel and zesty icing sat in the pastry case next to lurid green mojitos, rum and lime with minty chocolate ganache. Luccio took the last Cuba Libre, with its tricky Coca-Cola icing. Rusty Nails had Drambuie spice cake and buttercream, coladas and the ever-present daiquiris had fruit jams in the center.
I was running low on Irish Coffees, even though I'd made two whole trays of them. The mix of espresso-infused cake and Kahlua icing sold fast. I went through my trays of Grand Marniers, dark chocolate cake with liquored-up ganache, just as quickly. Mac came in early every Friday before his pub opened to buy a full tray of them for his own clientele.
Baking burned off most of the kick of the alcohol, but left the various tastes behind. The same wasn't true of the sweet icings, though. So when Ivy Marcone skipped up to my counter, I had something special set aside for her. She loaded up a small platter of cupcakes for her father and herself, half of them Shirley Temples, gingery with grenadine and a bright red cherry frosting. She paid with her father's Black Card. Just touching that thing made me feel powerful, like I could hop onto eBay and buy an island. Ivy simply tucked it back into her pocket like it was nothing and carried the treats away.
We stayed open later on Fridays, all the way to nine at night, but it was actually easier work. The cocktail cupcakes sold until we ran out. They were the only pastry for the evening as an exclusive deal. I would never be able to compete with the club scene and its actual cocktails, but I had people who came in for my cupcakes every week and that suited me fine.
Slow and leisurely as it was, I sent Molly home at seven. I still had Thomas in the unlikely event of things picking up.
That is, if I could ever get him off the phone. He'd been standing at the window for over an hour, on the phone with his girlfriend. Apparently there was some surprise inspection at his salon he was trying to handle despite being two thousand miles away.
I was nosy, so I took Thomas a cup of coffee as an excuse to get closer and eavesdrop.
"But that's not-- Justine, no, we sanitize those after every..." Thomas frowned, listening to her reply. "What do you mean we have to throw them out? But... we sanitize-- no, wait, ask the guy where it says we have to throw them out, that's ridiculous."
I patted his shoulder. "Everything going okay?"
Thomas glared. "No. Someone's trashed the Coiffure Cup's reviews, all this bullshit about a lice outbreak and now there's an inspector there telling me how to run my salon!"
I blinked and took a step away. "I'm going to check on my customers now."
"My Yelp page is ruined," he said as I shuffled away. I didn't say anything about my Yelp page, which was highly rated. The only complaint people had was about the somewhat cramped location which I wasn't interested in fixing. The bakery was my home, and I liked it the way it was.
A few tables over, Ivy and Marcone sat wiith their cupcakes half-eaten. Her fingers were stained pink from the frosting while Marcone was carefully tugging away the wrapper from an Irish Coffee. The circles under his eyes were darker, I noticed idly. He seemed more awake than he'd been on Pink Apron Day though, looking up as I walked by with a wry grin on his face. "Mr. Dresden. It sounds like your boyfriend's having a bad day."
His interest was a little too on the nose for me to ignore. "Yeah, maybe." I leaned on the table to catch his eyes. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Marcone?"
"Why would I stir up trouble with Mr. Raith? Though the fact you believe my influence stretches to California is flattering, I must say." He took a bite of his cupcake and hummed. "Excellent as ever, Harry."
"Father, your nose," Ivy said, pointing to the icing smudged on Marcone's face. He rubbed it away, and licked the excess off his thumb.
I turned to the kid, because I liked her better than Marcone and ignoring the scumbag was my favorite way to irritate him. Responding to his cutting remarks meant he won; not giving him the satisfaction drove him nuts. "What're you doing up this late, Ivy?"
"Waiting for Mr. Kincaid. I'm headed to music practice. We're having a lock-in."
I leaned my elbows on the table, settling in. Marcone tried to subtly nudge a chair towards me, but I ignored it. I still refused to sit with him on principle. "What do you play?"
"Violin." She lifted her arms, bending them gracefully as she tilted her head to the side. After a moment of watching her fingers move and her arm sliding to and fro, I figured out she was miming playing. It was a strangely precise motion, as though I could slip an instrument into her grasp and she'd be playing for me, easy as you please.
Sometimes it scared me how smart Ivy was. She was quick as a whip and had spent more than a few afternoons in my shop on her little laptop, editing and correcting Wikipedia articles. Now I could almost hear the song she was practicing. Hell's bells, Marcone was the type of sharp and smart that already freaked me out; when she was grown, Ivy was going to trump her father on all counts.
Part of me wanted to take her out to watch a silly, light-hearted Disney movie. Most of me wanted to hug her and tell her I was so proud.
But that'd be weird. So I wished her luck with her lessons and went to talk to my other customers for a bit.
Eventually, Kincaid came in. If Ivy wasn't with her dad, she was with Kincaid. He was her bodyguard, as far as I could tell. He didn't look like much from a distance, just a blond guy with longish hair in clothes that could be best summed up as 'nondescript.' But when you got closer, you could see the keen alertness in his eyes and more muscles than you'd expect under his plain black tees. He was effortlessly graceful, moving with sure feet wherever he went.
I'd witnessed why this guy was the man Marcone trusted with his daughter. One winter, there was ice on the sidewalk in front of the L stop and I watched in horror as Ivy slipped, nearly face-planting. Kincaid had been beside her and had shifted his weight, caught her by the waist, and lifted her before she could hit the ground. He'd barely broken stride, carrying her over the ice and setting her down on the other side. He had an extremely relaxed, almost apathetic attitude, but he also had a nigh-psychic awareness of Ivy and her needs. He was good with her, too. I'd seen him sit with her in the shop, waiting for Marcone to get free of work, and he indulged her as much as he could without looking like a complete softie for the kids. I think his bodyguard job was for more than the astronomical amount Marcone was doubtlessly paying him.
Tonight, he strolled in, swung past Murphy long enough to say hi to Luccio and to steal a fingerful of Murphy's mojito icing, and went to collect Ivy. She bounced out of her chair, all youthful energy even at such a late hour. Kincaid and Marcone spoke for a moment before Ivy gave her father a kiss on the cheek and led Kincaid out into the fading light.
Marcone seemed to deflate with her absence. He rubbed his eyes, looking even more tired-- getting close to Pink Apron Day levels. I watched him for a while from the kitchen as he pulled a laptop out of his bag with an air of resignation and got to work on something, no doubt soulless and benefiting some megacorp.
I made Thomas get off the phone, in part because Justine didn't need him panicking at her while she had a health inspector breathing down her neck, but also so I could make him work the front while I hid in the back under the pretense of doing dishes.
I washed and cleaned the kitchen and even organised a bit. I had a narrow view of the cafe floor from the kitchen, enough that I could see Marcone near the windows, working, and doing that thing where he tried to take a sip from an empty cup. Every time, he seemed just as surprised as the last. It was oddly endearing, a muted version of that fuzzy feeling Ivy inspired in me all the time. Ivy must've gotten it from somewhere, I guessed.
I watched as Thomas walked over to Marcone and point to his cup, his other hand fisted on his hip. It was such a... sassy gesture, I can't believe he dared to give me shit about the apron. He said something, and Marcone bristled, giving him a dead-eyed stare. It was an unnerving, intensely creepy look, even from a distance. Thomas frowned, but stood down, retreating under Marcone's empty glare.
He walked into the kitchen. "I have never met a man more in need of a Valium."
I flinched. It was a dumb, flip remark but... The things that upset me were random like that and never made much sense. I once explained it to Bob, saying it was like having a phobia. Even if you knew it was irrational and you knew you were being ridiculous, it still happened.
Thanks to Justin, I was familiar with Valium and the way it sent me rocketing deeper into depression.
I wasn't about to upset Thomas by mentioning that. Saying something vague about finishing up, I passed the broom I was holding off to him and went out into the front.
It was very quiet in my head, like someone had turned the volume dial on my thoughts down. I needed something to do with my hands, so I dug out Bob's ever-evolving tea blend from the back of the cabinet and started to brew a cup. This week, it was an earthy chai-rooibos mix, the sharp spice of the masala cut by the sweetness of the rooibos. It was nice, especially with the rock sugar we provided just for tea.
I finished the tea, poured it into a wide soup-mug-sized cup and carried it out in the foyer to Marcone. Without a word, I swapped his empty cup for the new one and went back to the counter. Marcone's eyes bore into my back, almost a physical weight on me. I ignored him and started cleaning out the pastry case for closing.
Marcone had the grace to wait until everyone else had cleared out for the night before coming up to the counter I was wiping down and setting his empty mug on it. "What do I owe you?" he asked quietly.
I shook my head, not looking up from my fidgety tidying. "S'not on the menu. Bob's blend. It's not a big deal, I made a cup and then realized I didn't want it."
Marcone hummed. "I recognized the chai. What else was in it?"
"Dunno. Bob adds in a bunch of things. Some ginseng and rooibos are all I can figure out."
Marcone didn't say anything else, just stood there, and the silence started to get to me. I looked up at him, found him watching me with his tired eyes and an air of soft sadness that I found worryingly relatable. "What?"
"If you would excuse me overstepping my bounds a moment?" I frowned, but nodded. It was more formal than I was used to with Marcone, and it made me curious. "You don't seem very happy as of late, Mr. Dresden." For a split second, his eyes flickered sideways towards the kitchen before returning to mine. "And it's a sorry thing to see."
My heart was beating faster. I didn't say anything for a while, hoping against hope that Thomas would walk out or Bob would call for something, anything that would give me an excuse to turn away from Marcone.
Nothing of the sort came. But Marcone smiled, not in a pleased way. He dropped a folded up bill into the tip jar before bending to pick up his briefcase. "Have a good night, Harry."
He got to the door before I snapped out of it. "Hey, scumbag!" Marcone turned his head to look back at me, pausing in the doorway. "You know you can't keep doing that. Saying really vague things and then just walking away."
His lips twitched. "I never intended to be so opaque, Harry. Believe me, I regret that very much now." He nodded to me, and left without another word.
Only later did I realize he'd just done the exact same thing again, the crafty bastard.
Chapter 4: what is sweet now turns so sour
The bakery was open pretty much all the time, except for holidays. Some days had shorter hours than others, but we were usually open for the morning and early afternoon at least. There were a lot of people in my city who needed caffeine fixes, who had pastry cravings to sate, or who just needed a place to spend a few hours. Consequently, I didn't leave the shop a lot, especially with my apartment right upstairs. It took Thomas bothering me for the entire week before he left for me to agree to let Bob and Molly run Stars and Scones for a day so we could venture out into Chicago together.
We made a day of it. I indulged Thomas, taking him around the usual tourist traps: Grant Park was beautiful in the early autumn, the trees bronze and red even as the grass remained vibrant and green, fed with plenty of rain. I found the Planetarium a lot more interesting than Thomas did, along with the Shedd. Ivy had told me the otters there were adorable, and as usual she was right. We sat and had lunch on the Lawn: sandwiches I'd made with thick, crusty sourdough, an avocado-tomato spread, and a thick pile of smoked deli meats. We were sharing the space with some sort of Scottish heritage festival, and Thomas and I argued about which of us would look better in a kilt. Thomas brought up the pink apron, claiming it was pretty much a skirt anyway, and I maintained my knobby knees would frighten children.
It was a good lunch. Thomas apparently agreed. "You are murder on a guy's diet, little brother," he said between bites.
"There's caramel bourbon candy for dessert."
"You spoil me hard." He dug into the basket, looking for the candy.
I laughed, amused by his enthusiasm. It was hard not to shower him with treats; he was even more appreciative than my regulars, and I was a sucker for a good audience for my art. I was going to miss him.
Not just the ego-stroking, mind, but him, too. I'd gotten used to having a brother. Having family. I liked the created family I had around the bakery, but I was eternally, painfully aware that all it took was someone moving across town and I might never see them again. I was well-aware that I ran the best bakery in Chicago, but there were others. There were other places to get a coffee or a scone, and with traffic and a tangled public transportation system and the million little things that controlled people's lives, the prospect of losing people to the battle of convenience was a real one.
With Thomas, there was that blood tie, and to me that seemed more tangible than the rest of the connections I had. Thomas would return to LA, but thanks to our mother, we would always be linked.
Stars, I was kind of a freak, wasn't I? Treating our blood relation like a leash. The fact that anyone put up with me was amazing. I knew I was a bit off and had periods of being really off, but it wasn't something I could talk about to anyone. The idea that I might trust someone with that and they wouldn't understand...
I got quiet, and Thomas seemed to notice me retreating. He grabbed our trash, tossed it, and hauled me to my feet. "Come on. What's the fastest way to Michigan Avenue?"
"The Mag Mile?" I looked at my watch. Saturdays, the bakery closed early. If Bob or Molly needed help--
"Nevermind," Thomas said, towing me over to the nearest L station. "There's a map over here somewhere, right? I can figure it out."
I laughed and lengthened my stride to catch up to him. "Yeah, and we'll end up in Nantucket. Come on, a cab'll be faster from here to the Mile."
We hit the shops. Or, Thomas hit the shops while I window browsed. North Michigan Avenue was ridiculously opulent and proud to show off its high property values. It'd been... at least two or three years since I'd last been up here. I didn't have the time to wander around Chicago or the spare cash to warrant walking the Mile.
Thomas did, though, and picked up several bags full of stuff from the boutiques and shops. Then he realized it wouldn't all fit in his dufflebag so we had to go buy him some more luggage, which cost more than a month of my rent.
After that, I was all set to go back home and make dinner, and to make sure nothing catastrophic had happened while I was gone; the longer I was away, the more tense I became. But I was carrying all of Thomas' bags-- working in a bakery gives you stronger arms than salon work apparently-- and he refused to hail another cab and instead consulted the map on his phone.
He took me to Spiaggia.
"Hell's fucking bells, I am not dressed for this, Thomas!" I hissed at him.
Thomas shrugged. "I've heard of this place all the way back in California. Wanted to try it."
They had an actual coatroom, and the attendant courteously stored the bags there for us. It would have actually been better if she'd looked at us with disdain or stared judgmentally at my casual clothes, but she was nothing short of professional. It was slightly infuriating.
We sat next to the ceiling-to-floor windows, overlooking Michigan Avenue. The menus made my heart stop for a second, but Thomas waved away my concerns. "You've fed me three or four times this amount in the last week. I got this."
Thomas ordered for us; he'd spent some time in Italy while overseas and thus understood what everything on the menu actually was. I got the anitra arrostita con topinambur e piselli (duck with honey-thyme, a very balanced mix of sweet and savory). Thomas got the tagliata di manzo con coda di bue alla vaccinara (steak with actual oxtail on a really delicious-looking salad with balsamico that smelled so good, I had to dip my finger in it and taste it).
Then we had dessert. And I decided I really didn't like Spiaggia because it was possible they had a pastry chef who could kick my ass, and I resented it. The chef was probably born in Italy and was raised by a secret order of culinary monks who practiced the most ancient dessert arts. Me, all I had were years of raiding cupboards with an enthusiasm for experimentation and vague notions of good flavor combinations.
The less said about my petty jealousy, the better. It's not something I'm proud of.
It was dark by the time we finished. It was late. I practically dived at the first empty taxi that passed, trying to flag it down.
"Empty night, Harry, calm down!" Thomas snapped.
I rolled my eyes at him. "You calm down. I'm fine, I know what I'm doing." My phone was out of my pocket and I dialed the bakery. No one picked up, so I dialed Bob. He didn't pick up either. Not even on the third try.
Thomas watched me, his eyes an odd, dispassionate chrome. "Harry."
Right then, my phone beeped with a new message: it was fine, tell Thomas thx for getting you out of the bakery for a bit. and if yo-- the message cut off, but concluded thirty seconds later with another. u keep nagging and lose me this date, I will quit.
Not likely, though I got the point. But the whole ride back home, I kept looking anxiously out the window and tapping my fingers on my knees. I'd been away all day, had never left my bakery in anyone else's hands since the day it opened, and deep down, part of me was still shocked I'd managed to snap up my father's old shop off the market. Loosening my hold on it was difficult; like if I took my eyes off it for a second, someone would snatch it out from under me.
Thomas didn't say anything until I let us in, re-alarmed the door, and checked the foyer and kitchen. He was still standing in the doorway when I finished. "What?"
He shook his head and picked up his bags, which made me briefly annoyed he'd left me to carry everything as he shopped. "I've got to get this stuff packed and you need to do your prep," he said, and headed upstairs.
Pain started to radiate out from my temple. I'd been grinding my teeth. Ow. I dug out a piece of gum, jawing at it as I turned on the radio and got to work.
Molly had, as usual, left some sheet pans soaking in the sink. It was one bad habit of hers that I just could not break, and that was saying something. The rebellious teen Michael and Charity had asked for my help with had, at the time, hit every pet peeve I had. She didn't want to work in my shop and I hadn't wanted to take anyone on. My shop was... well, my shop. Bob was different, vital to my work in some indefinable way. And he worked the coffee machine better than I did.
But getting Mols involved had entirely prompted by her family. I couldn't turn down Michael and Charity, not when they'd done so much for me, brought in so much business, shared their home with me in the winter months when heating bills were gutting me. One favor in return was not unreasonable.
And it had worked out. Bob had been burning out before we got Molly, and she was a cheerful presence. She helped.
Having Thomas around had been enlightening. I loved my brother, even after knowing him for such a short time. And with him upstairs and me downstairs in my kitchen, my baking, and Bon Jovi, a knot that'd been tightening in me all afternoon came loose. The separation relieved me.
Except that once I realized that, I was crushed by guilt.
What kind of brother was I? I was happy Thomas was in the apartment sulking about whatever I'd done wrong? I was such an ungrateful jackass. I'd spent my years at Justin's staring at the ceiling at night, hoping against hope for a long lost relative to swoop in and save me. But now that the novelty was wearing off, I couldn't get away from Thomas fast enough.
Not only was I an ungrateful jackass, I was an idiot who was too tangled up in his own thoughts to remember to do basic things like use an oven mitt. I grabbed a hot metal tray and yelped as it burned me. "Owfuck, ow!"
I must've shouted fairly loudly. I heard steps on the stairs, then Thomas was jogging into the kitchen. "What happened? You--"
I was already darting to the sink and jerking on the cold water. "Nothing, nothing, just---" I cursed as the water hit the burn. "J-just get the tray out for me, okay?"
Thomas didn't move immediately, still staring at me. "Jesus, Harry..." Slowly, he did as I asked, then backed into the break room. A moment later, he had the aloe lotion from the first aid kit and some gauze. "Let me see."
"I'm fine, give me a minute."
"Don't be stupid," he groused, grabbing my wrist. I stiffened, but let him pull my hand from the faucet. "Damn, you don't do anything in halves, do you?"
He was right; it was an ugly burn, but I'd had enough in my time baking to know when it was serious and when it was just going to hurt like hell for a few days. This one was the latter, and at least this time I had someone to help. Thomas stood patiently next to me as I held my hand under the stream for a while longer, waiting to bandage me up.
He did so, tying off the gauze loosely so it didn't put pressure on the burn. "You going to be all right?"
"Fine," I said, flexing my hand slowly, testing for the point where it hurt the most. "Thanks."
Thomas bowed his head, his hair obscuring his eyes. "Yeah, you're always fine, aren't you?"
That was such a weird comment, I had no idea how to respond. I just frowned at him.
He sighed. "Sorry. Forget I said anything."
I was missing something. Not new, but irritating nonetheless. "It's a burn. I've had worse. Comes with the job. I'm fine, really."
Thomas twitched away, a jerky, angry motion. He was bothered by something and it pissed me off that I couldn't figure out what. He grit out, "Stop saying that. It sounds like you mean it."
He looked at me, my honest confusion, and his face softened. "Never mind. I'm going to just... go check on my ticket info. See you in a bit?"
I nodded numbly, watching him go. Standing there in a daze, mind full of shouting and noise, it took the oven timer going off to get me moving again. An hour later, I had everything pretty much squared away for the morning and could finally relax.
It was with some reluctance that I shut out the lights, double-checked the doors, and went upstairs to my apartment and my brother.
Thomas' duffel bag was on top of his new luggage, packed full with the day's purchases. He had the sofa bed folded out already, and he sat cross-legged on it, his iPhone in his hands. He was dressed down in a tank and boxers, his bedclothes.
I toed off my shoes and padded over to my room. Once I got myself in pajama pants, I took a breath and returned to the living room, sitting down on the sofa bed mattress as far from him as I could. "Hey."
"Hey. So I'm going to grab the Blue Line to O'Hare after lunch. I know I have to stay on it and not get off until the final stop." He turned his phone to me to show me the little L map on the screen. "No more ending up halfway across the city."
I nodded. "Good. If you need any help, I'll be here. Just call."
Thomas nodded, then there was an awkward stretch of silence and I... didn't know what to do with. Didn't know how families worked. Was I supposed to say something? Was I supposed to let sleeping dogs lie? It was the night before he left and I was just terrified that I'd say the wrong thing and he'd never come back.
So being away from him helped me relax, but I didn't want him to go. Confusing, to say the least.
The prospect of Thomas coming back wouldn't leave me alone. I wanted that, this bridge to before. And, lest I forget, Thomas was connected to my past in other ways too. The idea of it had been eating at me for a long time, probably since that first night Thomas had walked into my life.
"Thomas?" He grunted, his focus mostly on his phone, typing something. "Maybe next time, whenever it's possible for you to come back up... Maybe Elaine could come too?" His fingers froze, his whole body going still. Nervousness skittered up my spine. I'd probably gone and said the wrong thing again, stars. "Not that I don't want you up here, I do! But I didn't even know where Elaine went before you showed up and I'd never thought I'd see her again. Hell, maybe you can mention it to her and I'll see about flying her up sometime--"
Thomas sighed, deep and tired. "Harry..."
"What?" He didn't go on and I was just so tired of being out of my depth. I hated, more than anything, not knowing what to do, being so completely out at sea I couldn't find my way. "Dammit, Thomas, what is going on?"
He shut his eyes, setting the phone aside. "I asked her already, Harry. When I was planning my trip. I asked if she wanted to come and see you. She turned me down."
I didn't understand, and said as much, the words muffled, strange on my tongue.
"Don't you? If anyone should understand..." Thomas snorted. "Okay then, Harry. Come with me to see her. I'll book you a seat on my flight."
"I can't," I said.
Thomas picked his phone back up, tapped at it, and tossed it to me. It was an airline booking site, all set and ready to go to LAX if I just hit the submit button. But... Thomas had to know I couldn't just up and leave. I couldn't go to Los Angeles.
But Thomas apparently didn't know. "Why not?"
"What do you mean, why not? I have a bakery to run?" I waved at the floor and the shop beyond.
Thomas was smiling, smile gleaming like razor wire. "And I have a salon. But I took a vacation."
"You have Justine. There's no one to cover for me."
"Bob and Molly."
"I'd need more than just them! You've seen how mornings get."
"Hire more people."
Thomas shook his head. "Don't you see what you're doing?"
"You're shouting." I was. I was also standing with my fists clenched. I didn't remember that happening. Dazed, I sat back down. Thomas watched, still smiling. I wished he'd stop. "And you say you're fine."
I... didn't know what that meant. Or, honestly, why I'd gotten so worked up. My breathing was harsh, as though I'd been running. That and the distant angry, upset feeling boiling in my gut were horribly familiar. I'd gone through it a lot three or so years ago, back when I was... less than stable. But I was supposed to be past that shit. Now Thomas was dragging all that complicated, ugly emotion back up.
My brother, apparently satisfied with our talk, folded down the blankets and climbed under them. "Can you grab the light?"
Hint received, I stood up and went to my room, pulling the light chain on the ceiling fan as I went. The room remained dimly lit by the city lights outside.
I didn't reply, walking into my room and shutting the door silently behind me. My bedroom didn't have any windows, and the darkness was absolute. It was oppressive, less like being in the dark and more like there was a hood over my head.
It was hard to think. Or, I guess my thoughts were trying to run away from me, all anxiousness and shock and simmering hot hurt.
I startled in pain. I'd been digging my fingers into my arm, right above the long, thin scar I couldn't remember getting.
Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit.
I stumbled to bed, burying my face in the pillow until I had to breathe. Then I took a breath and pushed my face back into the worn cotton.
Not again. I didn't want to go through this all again. I was supposed to be better now, for god's sake. Not shaking with the effort of keeping a hold of myself.
And it was a big effort.
Justin, when he'd taken Elaine and me in, had been nothing but sympathetic about our problems. He'd been so kind when he'd explained why we were broken. It was something inherent in us, like a defect, but he'd work to fix it.
I'm not an idiot. I know Justin was screwed in the head. But sometimes I think he had a point: so was I.
I didn't sleep well and was surly and grumpy enough in the morning that even Bob was quiet, like he was sure I'd snap at him if he said anything. Which wasn't inaccurate. I was off-kilter and hurting. It was exhausting to remind myself not to lash out at any customers who dared to be having a good morning or, worse, be as unhappy as I was. I was on a short fuse, to say the least.
Thomas came downstairs as the morning rush was waning and helped himself to some food out of the pastry case. Twelve hours ago, I'd had it in my head that I'd make him something special for his last meal in Chicago, but. That didn't happen. Just having him behind the counter made me shake, and I started balling up my hands under my apron.
Bob noticed anyway, giving me a fretful glance before shooing Thomas to the back to eat his brunch. On one hand, being handled like glass pissed me off. On the other, it was really necessary. Fine, okay, I was a wreck of a human being who had massive unresolved issues that even my fucking brother who'd only know me a few weeks could--
Anyway. I was that, but none of my customers needed to know. I silently nodded my thanks to Bob and kept my head down.
Thomas came to me before he left. He had his duffel and his rolling luggage packed and ready to go at his feet as he stood by the stairs, waiting for me.
I couldn't pretend not to see him forever. When I eventually went over, He hugged me tightly. The knot in my chest tightened, and further still when he kissed each of my cheeks, like he had the first night he'd walked into my bakery, my life. "I'll call when I land."
I nodded. "I'll....--" I choked back a laugh, because of course. "I'll be here."
Thomas smiled, warm and handsome, but oblivious. "See you soon, little brother."
He hugged me again. I let him, told him goodbye, and watched him leave.
Things got worse from there.
Bob must've said something to Molly, because getting her to go home took twice as long as usual. It was like trying to get rid of a stray cat you made the mistake of feeding once. She cleaned the counter, then wanted to wipe down all the tables and chairs, then the windows were apparently looking spotty and she wanted to Windex them to death.
It was a school night, so I kicked her out before midnight because the girl needed her sleep, no matter what Bob had told her to convince her to loiter around. And, besides, I wasn't good company. At all.
I locked up the shop after taking Molly home in my rusted but functional Volkswagon. The lights went out, the curtains were pulled shut, the door alarmed. I was alone, actually alone, for the first time since Thomas had showed up. I'd hoped that'd make me feel better.
At least Bob, Mols, the lively patrons Stars and Scones were distractions. Retreating into the dark corners of your own mind was hard to do when people were constantly demanding your attention. Alone with my night baking and my evening routines, the sort of work I could do in my sleep, nothing was there to tether me, to keep me from falling back into old, bitter memories.
She kept our old recipe book. Or, she had until she'd given it to Thomas. Elaine, who didn't want to see me. Who Thomas said was as bad as I was. Who'd left in the night and ended up on the other side of the country.
Who left me.
That wasn't fair. I knew it wasn't. But that was one wound that refused to scar over. We'd survived Justin and got a foothold in a tiny little apartment in Des Moines. It was the two of us, two survivors. We hadn't let a fucked-up maniac with a degree destroy us.
I still don't know what exactly went wrong, or if anything did. I spent plenty of nights awake, wondering if Elaine had been hurting that whole time we were living together. I was so hopelessly relieved to be out from under Justin's thumb that... Maybe I just couldn't see it. I had plans to move back to Chicago and get us a place and everything was going to get better. When you hit rock bottom, you could only go up, after all.
I was so naive. I forgot I still had more to lose.
I don't know if it was me that drove her off. I don't know if it was the trauma of Justin lingering, if the apartment was just so small that she couldn't stop thinking the walls were closing in on her.
Hell's bells, maybe it was all of the above.
I don't have many recollections from that time. A lot of them are still hazy and confused, and the psychotropic cocktails Justin gave me only blur things further. But I do remember the evening before she left.
I was cooking. One of the upsides to having a talent in the kitchen was being able to make a small amount of food last. I was making stir-fry with leftover steak. I had the only good knife in the kitchen in hand, thinly slicing the beef as the vegetables heated, ginger and soy sauce thick enough in the air to taste. It wasn't going to be a big meal, but I was determined to make it a good one.
There was a thunderstorm going on outside, rain beating violently against the windows, the lights flickering. I needed to get everything cooked before we lost power. Across the room, Elaine was already lighting candles in anticipation of a dark night. The smoke from the matches she used fought with the food and the smell of the air coming in through the one window we'd left cracked open despite the oncoming weather. The breeze was damp and electric as it closed in.
I was in a hurry and loud noises had a habit of... bothering me. The constant low rumble of thunder gave way to one loud, echoing crash. Everything but my hearing whited out. I knew I let out a pathetic cry of fear, but it was drowned out by another boom of sound.
The urge to run away and hide warred with the question of where the hell I could hide. I was too freaked out and stupid from adrenaline to figure it out. I was shaking enough that the knife in my grip went a bit wild. When I tried to put it down, I did it too hard. It was the sharpest knife I had, so at least it didn't hurt too much when I put a slice in my arm.
The pain at least grounded me. It took a full second to pry my hand off the knife, to unclench so I could instead press my palm to the wound. Slowly, blood spread warm and wet under my hand. "El-- Elaine, grab the kit. I got my arm."
Elaine got the kit. She sat me down and hurried to yank out bandages and peroxide, moving quickly, frantically, swabbing with disinfectant and wrapping my arm. She was breathing fast and shallow, louder than the storm.
I grabbed her hand, stopping her work. "Elaine. Elaine. Wrong arm."
She stilled. Then she carefully unwrapped the ace bandages from the red scar on my left forearm and treated the gash on my right.
The next morning, she was gone.
That was over a decade ago, but I could still see it playing out crystal clear when I closed my eyes. I remember the upset knit of Elaine's brow when she looked up at me, the lingering wildflower smell of her perfume left on the pillow, the brush she'd forgotten in the bathroom with a few strands of straw-gold hair caught its bristles, and all the little empty spaces left around the apartment in her wake. It was her missing clothes and books that stopped me from calling the police. I didn't have enough self-delusion in me to pretend she hadn't left me.
It was so easy to backslide into that old pain, into that feeling of abandonment. I'd been so sure I was getting better at dealing, but with Thomas' harsh reminder of reality, they were clawing out of their grave. Emotional zombies, out for my brain. Or something.
Spend so long aching and you didn't want the feeling to get better, just to go away.
As I mentioned, I don't drink. That's more of Bob's thing. But I finished my baking on autopilot, my mind filled with thunder and wet green eyes and a knife's edge, and tried to distract myself. Sleep wasn't an option; my subconscious was an asshole on nights like these and screaming nightmares weren't as fun as you'd think. There was a TV in the break room, so I slumped on the sofa and turned on Food Network.
Yeah, I watch Food Network. I'm a baker; I don't have time for serial television. It's all trashy reality shows and celebrity chefs for me. Usually, it worked at times like these. I needed something mindless to quiet my mind. Listening to Alton Brown explain at patient length why turkey stuffing was an invention of the devil would've been just the thing to help.
Instead, I got stuck with Sandra Lee, who refused to respond when I yelled at her all the ways she was ruining food. It was a relief when she moved on to her customary cocktail recipe.
In my defense, I was morose and tired and in the middle of one of the worst pity parties I'd had in years. Sandra Lee's 'cooking' was the last straw; so when she started to explain her cocktail, I decided self-medicating with some alcohol was just the thing I needed.
I made Sandra's cocktail, then made another one, a better one just to prove I could. I wasn't used to drinking and hadn't eaten dinner, so. Well. Things went out of control fairly quickly.
Booze helped! I mean, I couldn't stop all my dark thoughts from melding together into a Hemingway-level depression, but it stopped bothering me. I was floating, too detached to care about how my life was a Lemony Snicket novel and how nothing good had ever happened to me and I was a shut-in too afraid of being hurt again to reach out and not even Elaine, the girl I struggled and suffered and cried with for all those years, loved me enough to stick around. Bob, fuck, Bob had guilt issues like I had... everything issues.
S'why Susan picked her career over me, not that I blamed her. My issues, I mean, not Bob's. Stars, that was also probably why Murphy ignored my attempts at flirting. Murphy was... was the smartest person I knew. She totally avoided me 'cause I was a mess. Smart girl. Woman. Whatever.
Never met Mom, lost Dad, orphan, Justin, lost Elaine, worked myself into the ground for years, got Bob because Bob's stupid guilt, became a hermit, got a brother and was too scared of everything to hold on to anybody.
Cheers, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Admittance was the first step to recovery, right?
So what the hell was I supposed to do next?
Next, I was woken up by the sound of someone trying to break down my door. Or maybe they were just knocking. It sounded very loud, whatever it was.
The racket stopped eventually, thank fuck. I relaxed, turning my face into the sofa cushions, trying to get back to sleep. I may not have been a drinker, but I'd done it enough in the past to know when I needed to put off opening my eyes. The world beyond my eyelids was going to hurt me, and nothing would be gained from speeding up that process.
I would've lain there hiding from consciousness forever if not for Bob's spare key. He'd evidently given up on waiting for me to let him in and broke out his seldom used copy of the shop key. I heard the beep of the alarm being disabled and his approaching steps.
They stopped at the kitchen entry. "What the bloody fuck happened here?"
I twisted and cracked one eye open to look around. After the initial throbbing pain faded, I took in my surroundings.
Wow. That was a quite a mess. The oven was on and open-- no wonder it was so hot in there-- with one blackened pan sitting on the top rack. Bags of formerly frozen fruit were torn open, their contents scattered around the work area. Some thin sheets of phyllo were hanging off the counter, the sink, and (somewhat inexplicably) the ceiling fan. Simple syrup and honey were dripping onto the floor and, most damningly, two empty bottles of Van Gogh vodka were sitting conspicuously amid the chaos.
Bob jawed at the sight for a moment. I was a methodically neat baker and my kitchen hadn't been in this bad a state since the pre-Bob days. After taking everything in, he came to me, kneeling on the ground next to my head, looking worried.
For the nth time in the last two days, I felt like a complete asshole.
"Harry." His hand rested lightly on my shoulder. "Are you all right? Do you need..." What? A hug? To talk? To not be a screw-up?
I rubbed my face, squinting around. "Time?"
"Half hour to opening," he said.
"Get the front ready. 'M gonna get this crap cleaned up. Get myself cleaned up. We're not going to talk about this." I saw the flash of protest on his face and snapped, "I'm serious, Bob. Leave it."
His defiance shifted to pity. Because that's exactly what I wanted, right. "Later."
"Later, Harry," he repeated and got up. "Drink some water and take some aspirin."
"Yeah." I stumbled to my feet, bracing myself against the wall as I shuffled upstairs as fast as I could without falling over. It wasn't very fast.
Hell's bells, this was why I didn't drink. What had I been thinking? It never ended well for me, as evidenced by me brushing my teeth; I found the minty taste nauseating, threw up what little contents my stomach had (all liquid, unsurprisingly), and then had to brush my teeth again. Ugh.
I put on new clothes, grabbed a water bottle out of my fridge and chugged it, and took a lot more aspirin than the little medicine label said I should. More water, and I went back downstairs to get to cleaning the kitchen.
I'd taken longer than I'd expected. Bob had the front ready to go, the coffee machines on, the pastry case full. He was in the kitchen, a mop cradled in the crook of his arm as he stood over a plate with something on it. He had a fork in his mouth and a startled expression on his face.
"What? What is it?"
He swallowed. "Found it in the fridge. It's..." He took another bite, making almost aroused sounds as he chewed. "I want to say it's baklava, but I think 'ambrosia wrested from the hands of the Olympian Gods' may be more accurate."
I don't get compliments on food from Bob. He's used to my baking. I raised an eyebrow at him and he wordlessly handed me the fork.
It did appear to be baklava. But when I tasted it, I found Bob's description to be spot-on. "Holy crap, what is in this?"
"You don't remember making it?"
I shook my head. "Last thing I remember is throwing my shoe at Sandra Lee's stupid face. I can't believe I baked anything last night."
Bob stole the fork back and tried another bite. "God, boss. How bad of a person would I be if I said you need to get blackout drunk more often?"
"No worse than usual." I slid the plate away from him. "Stop. I don't even know what's in it."
"I'm not allergic to anything."
"I know, but I can't recreate it if I don't know what I put in it." I smacked his hand away when he reached for more. "Go open the shop. And make me a coffee potion before I kill someone."
Bob did as he was told, but kept looking over his shoulder at the baklava like they were two lovers torn cruelly asunder. It wasn't an unreasonable reaction.
I got a knife and cut a neat square out from the pastry to see what the hell I'd done in my drunken haze to make it so damn good. If I could make it again, I could charge a frankly ridiculous amount of money for it and people would pay it. It was amazing.
It was also impossible.
Most of the components I found to be replicable. The phyllo was broken up with layers of smashed pistachio, providing a great crunchy counterpoint to the fruit center. The fruit was, fittingly enough, crushed drunken cherries and I hadn't kept those bottles of Van Gogh to myself, because the cherries were soaked in the double espresso vodka with a dark chocolate layer right on top, the bitter battling the natural sweetness. But the weird thing that confused me the most was the sticky fluff between each layer of phyllo. It made the baklava much lighter than it would usually be if made with honey.
But it was honey. Instead of heavy, thick honey that oversweetened the entire thing, it was.... almost aerated. But that was impossible-- you couldn't do that, not without messing with the honey in a factory process. Yet, a little digging through the kitchen mess and I found a metal bowl with the fluffed white-gold honey, stringy like candy floss with a whisk in the middle of it.
How the hell had I done that? You can't just beat honey into submission, it's honey. Only molasses is more of a pain in the ass. Yet I somehow did it, while drunk, without adding anything to the mixture.
I still have no idea how I made the Impossible Baklava. It's one of the greatest tragedies of my life, to be honest.
I couldn't agonize over it for long. The early birds started filing in for their breakfast and coffees. I made Bob put the baklava out, ignoring his pleas to me to not sell it, that it was too good, that with the right application we could bring about world peace with the Impossible Baklava.
It sold very, very well. I was worried there wouldn't be any left over for my friends, so I hid it in the back corner of the walk-in fridge where Bob wouldn't be able to eat it. It was worth sharing. I was feeling very off-kilter and oddly desperate for attention, and seeing Murphy's pleased smile helped. When my GM Butters tried it, his eyes rolling up in rapture made me feel less sorry for myself.
It still wasn't a great day. I was hungover and vaguely nauseated even after the worst of it passed. Everything felt too loud or too bright, and if anyone but my friends dared to be cheerful in my general direction, I got grumpy and snapped at them. Bob had to do some damage control, but by the afternoon, we were pretty empty just because my foul mood was making the shop unwelcoming.
And realizing that just pissed me off further.
And then John Marcone walked in and opened his stupid mouth.
He was clearly on his break for a quick lunch, having left his briefcase in the office. Ideally, in a perfect world, he would have been in and out in five minutes, tops. But Bob offered him some of the baklava while I was busy busing tables, and I heard a small snippet of their conversation, Bob saying, "so I think I need to get him liquored up and set him loose on some phyllo dough." Marcone, listening intently under the guise of polite disinterest, didn't say anything.
I was seething silently as I made my way to the counter. I shoved the bin of dishes into Bob's arms. "Wash. Now." He had the decency to look a little guilty as he took the bin from me and went into the back. No sass or snide remarks, nothing.
I dried my hands and faced Marcone over the counter. "Are you going to order, or what?"
Marcone, contrary bastard that he is, didn't respond right away. He finished slowly eating the mouthful of baklava and examined my face with intense eyes. I drummed my fingers, impatient and not in the mood for his mind-reading games.
Finally, he said, "It seems I was right, as disappointing as that is. Unsurprising though. I did want to warn you: your dear Thomas didn't seem the type to stick around."
I'm not proud of what happened after that. I swear I'm not. But when I meant to tell him to order his damn panini and chai, it instead came out:
"Shut the fuck up, Marcone."
His eyes popped wide and surprised, taking a step back at the sheer fury barely contained in my tone. "Excuse me?"
"No. No, I will not excuse you, you asshole." I planted my hand on the counter and leaned in. "You presumptuous scumbag, you have no idea what you are talking about. You don't know anything about Thomas or what he did or means to me."
"I simply meant--"
"You meant to throw a fit because I had better things to do than humor you. Because I had someone I cared about and you thought you called dibs." I scoffed. "Don't look like that, you think I didn't notice? I mean, you're not exactly subtle, Marcone."
"No, I didn't. And I have reason not to. You, on the other hand, never took a hint, did you?" And that made him rock back like I'd punched him, face paling visibly right before my eyes. That one hurt him, I could tell. I didn't want to hurt him, or anyone, but I couldn't stop. "You were an asshole to him from the day he arrived 'til he left because, what? He made me happy? I cared about someone other than you?"
"No!" Marcone seemed to come out of his shock at that suggestion. "I was worried, Mr. Dresden. Mr. Raith did not act in a way I thought a caring lover would and was unsupportive--"
"The... the apron thing? That bothered you that much?" I laughed in his face. Again, I'm not proud.
He bristled, some of my anger seeming to move into him, like some ambient thing between us. "You did nothing. Yes, he treated you poorly and I didn't like it."
"You know why that is, Marcone? Why I did nothing?" I put both my elbows on the counter and smiled cruelly at Marcone, like this was the best part. "Because that guy you were such a prick to, who you seemed to think of as your goddamn competition? That guy is the only family I have in the world, Marcone. Thomas isn't my boyfriend, he's my brother, who finally found me after years of searching."
He went completely still. "I'm sorry?"
"Not sorry enough," I half snarled at him. "Do you get that, Marcone? He was my brother, the only blood relative I have still alive, a family who wanted me, who I went my whole life not knowing, and you couldn't have been a bigger dick to him if you'd tried. One person made me happy, made me feel wanted, like less of a freak, but you tried to screw it up, didn't you? The surprise inspection was you pulling strings with your rich scumbag lawyer powers, I know it." I felt myself shaking, all that anger spilling out of me and it just kept coming. I felt sick, but I had too much momentum. "What was the point? What was the big game there, Marcone? Get rid of the other man, then what-- Sweep me off my feet? Or just go back to your little hints and looks? Or were you just going to keep pushing, like I'm some witness you have to make break? In that case, congratulations!" I spread my arms, voice cracking. "I'm a complete mess, Marcone! I tried to brush you off with your eyes and your smile and the way you had to be a great dad instead of just using Ivy against me--" Marcone frowned, blinking at that, which was probably fair as I wasn't making a lot of sense. "--and your looks and you just never got it, that this is what I'm like, this is why I needed you to back off. Why couldn't you do that? Fuck, Marcone, why?"
Marcone shook his head, saying nothing. It could've been that I was right, or that he just didn't know how to deal with me when I was like this. Either way, he just took it as I laid into him in front of, oh stars, in front of Murphy and half the D&D group and Hendricks in the far corner. People who were part of our little community, who knew us and knew me, and now were looking at me like I was crazy. The one thing I tried to avoid, to spare everyone from knowing was out. Everyone was staring, everyone, with that mix of fear and shock and-- and pity.
Right at me.
Oh god. No, no, this was the opposite of what I wanted. No one was supposed to see me like... Oh, stars.
I trailed into silence, my fists clenched on the countertop, trying to quell my shaking. I was back to that uncontrolled feeling, breathing hard, my eyes stinging.
Of all the ways to fuck things up, this was the one I chose? I couldn't have a meltdown in private? How did it come to this, after I'd been okay for so long? Why couldn't I just keep being okay?
I had to look bad then. Bad enough that Marcone, still pale and taken utterly off-guard, obviously hurt, murmured my name softly, like I might startle. "Mr. Dresden..."
"Don't. Oh, fuck, don't," I said, and bolted for the back. I nearly ran Bob over where he stood in the doorway, having heard me shouting and come to see. I pushed past him, but he followed me, his arms guiding me to the break room, pushing me down on the sofa.
"Christ, Harry," Bob whispered. He sat next to me and pushed my head down, my forehead against my knees. "Just breathe, come on, Harry."
I tried to tell him I was sorry, that I didn't want any more pity, that I was a complete screw-up, but I couldn't make more than a gutted, choked noise. I tried again, and just wheezed at him.
He sat there with me and rubbed my back, shushing me like I was a child. He told me it was all right, it was going to be okay, to just keep breathing and let it pass. I was shocky and cold, but his hand was curled over the back of my neck and felt so warm and comforting as I tried to get myself together.
And the worst part, the one that stung the most, was that this was not the first time Bob had to do that. It wasn't the first time I'd lost it and he'd been there to pick up the debris.
When I was no longer in danger of hyperventilating, he got up. "I'll be right back. Stay here. It'll be okay, Harry," he said again and left. He flicked out the lights in the break room and shut the door most of the way, only a sliver of light cutting through the dark.
It was quiet, in the room and in my mind, like yelling my voice hoarse had silenced the ones in my head.
I'd screwed up in a big way, but for a while, I shut my eyes and enjoyed that quiet.
Chapter 5: I feel your taste all the time we're apart
Bob took care of things. He closed the shop, called Molly to let her know she had the night off, argued me down when I told him I didn't want to close early, cleaned up, and got me upstairs.
I felt like a child, sitting in bed under the covers wearing my pajama pants with a piping hot cup of tea on my bedside table. Or, how I imagined a child would feel after being tucked in. It'd been a long damn time since I'd had anyone do that for me.
Eventually, everything was settled downstairs and Bob dragged a chair into my room. "So. It's been a while since we've had one of those," he said wryly.
I winced, looking down at the comforter. "Who saw?"
"Don't worry about that." Bob was sitting backwards, one arm slung over the back of the chair in a deceptively lazy position; I had his full attention and knew it. "This is that later we talked about. What happened? First you get drunk, then you blow up at Marcone of all people. You like Marcone."
I scoffed. "I do not."
He rolled his eyes. "You like him more than you like shouting him down in the middle of the shop."
God, I'd done that, hadn't I? There were so many things about this that were not good. "Hell's bells, I've got to call him before he sues my ass for-- for defamation or something."
I started to pull the covers aside, kicking my legs to untangle them from the sheets. Bob yanked the linens back in place, putting a hand on my leg until I stopped moving. "Who?"
"Who? Marcone, Bob, who else?" I jerked a hand through my hair. "Did you see his face? We're so screwed."
Bob frowned at me. "You... think he's going to sue you?"
"Uh, yeah? Scumbag soulless lawyer?" One of the most powerful men in the city of big shoulders, the birthplace of the biggest political machine in the country, and home of many influential people who could ruin my life. I couldn't have picked a worst person to break down in front of. "Maybe if I talk to him and try to explain, he won't bankrupt us."
"He is not going to--" Bob rubbed his face tiredly. I settled back down, feeling guilty. Dealing with me on a daily basis was troublesome enough, but Bob did it anyway, even when I was like this. He'd helped me so much over the years, trying to make up for the Justin thing, but I'd forgiven him ages ago. I wasn't ever going to tell him that though. I was a selfish guy, and the prospect of losing Bob was paralyzing. Thomas had been right about me, about my inability to risk reaching out to people. The friends I already had were invaluable. Losing even one...
I'd lost Marcone. Well, okay, 'friends' was probably not a great description for our relationship, but he was a part of my life and I was used to his presence. Driving him off mattered.
"I need to call him." I could see Marcone's hurt, shocked face whenever my eyes closed. It was going to drive me crazy. Crazier.
"Harry, he is not going to do anything. Calm down."
"He should!" I snapped, my voice almost breaking. Getting not-calm again, right. I leaned forward until my head against my knees and breathed. "Sorry. Sorry."
Bob sighed, his hand cool when he cupped my neck. "I know. It's fine. Just... tell me what brought it on."
"I know," he murmured. "Tell me anyway."
It took a while, but I did. Or, I tried to explain the tangled mess in my head. The renewed pain of Elaine, Thomas telling me she didn't want to see me, that crushing disappointment and feeling of abandonment; the realization that I was a sad hermit of a man crippled by fear, that too. And how Marcone had just pushed the wrong button at the wrong possible time.
"Worst part is..." I blew out a breath over the rim of my mug, sipping the tea Bob had given me. Chamomile, honey, and mint were soothing flavors; Bob was getting good at his tea blends. "Worst part is that I kind of feel better now. So long as I don't think about how everyone I know is now aware that I'm a fucking mess, I mean."
"You're not a mess, Harry."
I smiled bitterly. "I am. A little bit." I stared down at the tea, at how it colored the teal mug a familiar pale green. "I can't believe I was so angry. I haven't been that angry for years."
Bob shrugged a shoulder. "He insulted Thomas."
I snorted. "He was such a dick to him."
"Well, he thought you were dating. Marcone's always sort of a dick to people you date."
"Yeah..." Except, he was talking about plurals there. I didn't follow. "Wait, he is?"
Bob chuckled softly. "Granted, he was more so this time, but if I had to guess, Marcone thought you were straight, not celibate. You shack up with a man, and he not only feels like an idiot, he's lost his chance."
I rocked the mug against my lower lip, letting the heat suffuse into me. "Really?"
"You missed his catfights with Susan?" I frowned, and Bob laughed. "Wow, boss. That's oblivious, even for you. What about with Luccio, before she got with Murphy?"
I choked on a gulp of tea. "Ana's with Murph?"
He leaned his head into his palm, shoulders shaking. "My god, Harry. I know you miss a lot of things, but did you not notice that Luccio only comes in with Murphy? That they leave together on Murphy's bike? That they play footsie under the table?"
Apparently I had missed all that. Huh. That explained why my tentative flirting with Ana had got me nowhere. But good for Murph, really. I was only a little jealous there. Not that I'd ever really pursued Anastasia or anyone else, really. I didn't have the time and wasn't willing to put myself out there. It's just easier that way. Losing Elaine had hurt. I'd had a rash of one-night stands after I'd moved back to Chicago, trying to seek out some kind of connection. They were... fine. But not what I wanted. Susan had been closer to it, a steady connection with laughter and affection, but I was so deeply rooted in my little corner of River North that when she'd left, I hadn't been willing to follow.
Since then... It was just easier to keep to my knitting, so to speak. At the most, I was friendly with some of my more interesting regulars. Nothing ever came of it. And that was fine. It was easier.
I shook myself back to the present. "So, what now?"
"Hold that thought." Bob took my mug, left, and returned with a refill. "Now, you are going to stay upstairs, and try to relax. Watch something other than Food Network lest you start a blood feud with Sandra Lee--"
"She ruins food, Bob." A blood feud would be completely justified.
"-- and stay away from the booze. Or, at least stay away from the good stuff, all right? It's too expensive to keep replacing."
I reluctantly nodded. "Yeah."
Bob leaned over me, a hand on each of my shoulders. Looking him in the eye was more challenging than usual. "Harry. You're going to be all right."
"No, you will," Bob said firmly. "Trust me. You've gotten through worse shit than this. Are you going to let this take you down?"
No. I couldn't. Maybe I was half crazy and unstable, but I would settle. I would get through this. I always did.
The bakery was quieter than usual for a few days after my meltdown. I was back to work, but my normal cheer was dimmed. People noticed, if they weren't part of the crowd that witnessed what swung my mood so far south. Word got out fast; the bakery grapevine was efficient, to say the least.
Murphy came in for breakfast every day that week, giving me the impression she was keeping an eye on me. She said nothing about what happened and gave me the same tough love as she always did. I was glad for it; if I ever managed to evoke any palpable worry from her, it'd be a sign of the Apocalypse.
Michael heard from Molly what happened and came by to visit. I was invited to dinner, or to just drop by anytime I wanted. I also received a hug from the man, and complained loudly about how his beard was bristly and that if Michael wanted hugs, he needed to shave first. Michael just hugged me again and, because being a man of God didn't preclude being a jerk, rubbed his face against my neck until I had a really unfun, not-sexy beard burn.
Carlos gave me a grave nod and a fistbump. Kids these days.
I got some looks from the people who'd witnessed my meltdown, but all my regulars were either fine with it or very good at pretending. Hendricks was the only one who mis-stepped, leaving a book about dealing with post-traumatic stress in a really conspicuous spot on his table. I 'accidentally' spilled coffee on it, and that was that.
Ivy still came in after school. She sat with Kincaid and played with Mister as she waited to be picked up. Instead of her father coming in to get her, his car would idle on the curb outside, waiting for her to collect her things and leave.
Marcone didn't come in. Until suddenly he did.
It was a full week later. Everything was mostly settled and I was back to what passed for normal. Perhaps a little quieter, a little rawer, but otherwise I was fine. It was evening, right after closing. Molly'd finished sweeping and cleaning the front, and was on her way out. For the last few days, she tended to linger after hours, being a nuisance, but she and Carlos were going out to a movie together tonight.
I told her to lock up behind her and went to clean the dishes she'd left soaking in the sink, because she was nothing if not predictable. I heard footsteps and called out, "Forget the alarm code again, Mols?"
I stopped breathing for a moment. I knew who that soft baritone belonged to and it definitely wasn't Molly. Moving slowly to give myself time, I dried my hands carefully, thoroughly, before shuffling out of the kitchen. I tried to think of what to say, or what I even could say to make things better.
Nothing came to mind, and I lifted my gaze to Marcone on the other side of the counter. He was still in his work clothes, but without his jacket. In his arms was a cardboard box, unlabeled.
"Um. Hi." As soon as the mumbled words left my mouth, I mentally kicked myself. Really, Dresden? Um, hi? Hell's bells.
"I promise I won't take up much of your time," Marcone said in a low voice, gaze catching mine insistently whenever I tried to glance away. "I understand that you may not want to see me, but I wanted to offer you a proper apology."
"Marcone, listen, it's fine, I was--"
"It's not. Fine, I mean." He set his box down on the counter, then busied himself smoothing out his sleeves. If it were anyone other than Marcone, I'd call it a nervous gesture. "I've already made contact with Mr. Raith and extended my apologies to him. He was more receptive than I probably deserved." He smiled faintly. "He also asked me to tell you to answer his calls, as he's starting to worry."
Yeah, I'd been avoiding talking to him. At least until I was more stable. And feeling less like a coward.
"Now for you, Harry," he breathed. I stared at my hands on the countertop. Hearing the lawyer I always considered borderline-criminal and untrustworthy and recognizing so much sorrow and regret in his voice wasn't something I was prepared for. When I didn't look back up, Marcone sighed. "My actions during your brother's visit were reprehensible, as was my proprietary treatment of you. I had hoped--" He sucked in a breath. "It doesn't matter what I hoped. There was no justification for what I did."
"Please, let me finish." It was an actual request, something else I never expected from him. I fell silent, and he went on. "I never wished to hurt you, Harry. It is, in fact, the opposite of what I wanted. Perhaps you were already going through a hard time, but everything you said to me," shouted at him, more like, "was true. I treated you more like a conquest than a person, and I am more sorry than I can express."
"Marcone, seriously, I was on a short fuse. I was going to explode at whoever was there when it ran out."
"As nice a thought as that is, I'm fairly certain my remarks didn't help anything. And this is about more than that."
I was still averting my gaze, and Marcone put his hand on mine. I startled, looking up, and he immediately took his hand away. As soon as our eyes met, I was caught. "There are a great many things in my life I regret, Harry. This is near the top of the list. I don't expect forgiveness, but nonetheless I wanted you to know how sorry I am. That as I cannot make you happy, I hope someone does. You deserve..." His smile was among the worst things I'd ever seen, wistful in a way that resonated, like a tuning fork, sharp and painful. "You deserve a great deal of things: to enumerate them would take all night, and I've taken up too much of your time already."
He watched my face and shook his head, then brushed the back of my hand and, impulsively, I caught his hand in my grasp, holding on. Marcone looked down and, after visibly contemplating what to do next, lifted my hand and brushed his lips against my knuckles in such an earnest manner, I couldn't even complain about how ridiculous the gesture was.
He let go and stepped away. "I'll leave you to it then, Mr. Dresden."
"Wait," I said, before my brain could catch up to my mouth. Marcone froze, eyebrows lifted. "Uh. What's in the box?" I asked, reaching for the only coherent thought let in my head.
Marcone smiled. "A gift."
I eyed the box hesitantly. "There's not a lawsuit or whatever in there? This isn't some really elaborate way of serving papers?"
Marcone snorted. "No. You have nothing of the sort to fear from me." He nodded. "Goodbye, Harry. It's been a pleasure."
And John Marcone walked out of my shop and, in theory, my life.
It didn't work out that way, but I didn't know it at the time. I bent over the counter, resting my head against the glass, and waited for the rumbled mix of sorrow-regret-loss-loneliness to ease its vise grip on my chest.
The box went upstairs, where it spent a night sitting out in the open on my counter. The next evening, I put it in a cabinet. It remained there until the weekend, when I went to grab some chips and saw it. It ended up stashed under my bed: out of sight, out of mind.
Or so I'd hoped. I ignored it for most of the day, went about my business baking and making my customers happy and keeping Molly from breaking anything in the kitchen. When I went to bed, I just laid there staring at the ceiling and thinking about the mysterious gift directly beneath me.
I should have just opened it. The curiosity was killing me. But it was more than an apology; it was a goodbye. It was the last I'd see of Marcone, and if I put off opening it...
I wasn't lying when I said Marcone was the bane of my existence. But instead of thinking of him as an arrogant scumbag who thought he was entitled to everything the world had to offer whether the world wanted it or not, I kept remembering his smile when I was stuck with my pink apron; how his empty mugs of tea always confused him; when he'd gotten hooked on dirty chai, back when we first met, because I'd banned Bob from making him coffee. And then thanked me for it.
What he'd done was not okay. Thomas hadn't deserve any of it. But when he'd said he was sorry, I'd believed him. And that someone so sure of himself and his actions would even deign to admit fault was... a big deal. Stars, he hadn't even apologized for being a dick to me the first time we met, just insinuated himself into my life regardless. This time, he was sorry. Admitting fault like that-- in his shoes, I would have just run away and never looked back.
It was stupid, really amazingly stupid, but I was pretty sure I missed him. Every day, I hoped he'd come in for his dirty chai and panini. Stars, he was the only one who ate the margherita panini and yet I kept making it, even knowing he wasn't coming back. When a new customer asked for one, I lost my mind for about thirty seconds and told them no, it was my lunch.
Gard still came in. Ivy still came in, with Kincaid. It took all my willpower not to ask about Marcone.
The whole situation was pathetic, honestly.
I needed to get over it and move on. Another person walked out of my life; by now, it shouldn't have been a big deal. It wasn't like Marcone was a huge part of my day-to-day. When he actually went to court, I'd go weeks without seeing him for more than a morning latte.
And now he was somewhere else, letting his legal paperwork spread over someone else's tables, drinking someone else's chai, loosening his tie when the hours ticked by and his hair fell across his forehead, shielding his tired green eyes--
I rolled over, got out of bed and onto the floor to pull the box out from its hiding place. It wasn't large or heavy, easy for me to toss onto my bed. I crawled up next to it and tried to pull the lid open: it was taped down, so I went to my kitchenette, grabbed a butter knife, and tried again.
I got the lid off and found the contents tucked into the bottom of the box in eight small paper bags, each sealed with a brightly colored, clearly legible label.
All-purpose. Teff. Whole wheat. Rice. Pastry. Buckwheat. Spelt. Barley.
Each was a different flour. Not the sort of flour I tended to use-- it was extremely high-quality stuff, and the likes of teff was not easy to get my hands on, even in Chicago. At the bottom of the box was a receipt, listing a web address where they'd been bought from, an inventory, and a price, which Marcone had blacked out with a marker.
I wasn't sure what to make of it. It seemed like an odd gift for a goodbye, something tangible, but sure to be quickly used up. It wasn't something to remember him by; it was something I would have fun with, testing out new breads and concoctions, but then it would be gone. There was no note, nothing but a Mr. Jonathan Marcone on the receipt to betray who it was from.
Transient. It was transient, and that bugged me. John Marcone said his own name like it was his personal key to the city. He conspicuously left an impression on people and I could easily image him be offended if someone forgot him. Yet, he gave me something that would be used up or would go bad. Nothing that would last.
That was probably why I stacked the bags back in the box and put them away and went to bed. When I eventually broke them out and started to play with them, they wouldn't last long-- each was about a three-month supply. A three-month supply for a home baker. Not me.
Knowing what the gift was helped me focus, and just in time. It was Friday and I had a lot of specialty cupcakes to bake the next morning. I agonized over whether to make Ivy's Shirley Temples, eventually deciding on one half-batch.
No one showed up to buy them. I ate them myself that night, sitting in my underwear, watching a heavily censored version of Pulp Fiction on TV and trying not to feel too sorry for myself.
It hurt to lose Marcone. It was salt in the wound to lose Ivy as well. I wondered what they were doing that night, since they weren't in my bakery.
Attachment issues, I had them.
At three AM, I sat up in bed, completely awake, struck by a bolt of understanding.
I'd figured out what the gift was.
And. Hell's bells, that... that was not fair.
Saturdays are our slow days, and I left Bob to handle the front pretty much by himself while I did some internet reading.
On Sunday, I cut open every bag of the fancy flour and baked like my life depended on it. I used the spelt for a thick braided challah with cinnamon, star anise, and raisins. The teff, made from a chestnutty grain, I made into a spongey, porous flatbread. To go with it, I made a thick fruity paste of stone fruit and cherry. The rice flour was tricky, and I wasn't sure I had it in me to correctly pull off the traditional mochi on my first try, no matter how many recipes I dug up explaining the process; instead, I made a series of tiny steamed dumplings filled with sweet strawberry-mint cream. The buckwheat made a great brie-raspberry-blackberry galette. I made the best banana bread I'd ever baked along with a garlic, cheesy focaccia with sun-dried tomatoes--
I baked a lot, basically.
Because there was the matter of getting them to Marcone.
Marcone wasn't coming back. When he'd given me his farewells, he'd meant it. I could wait around and hope he'd get a craving strong enough that he'd stumble in, half-crazed and desperate for his panini, but I was pretty sure I'd be waiting a long time. Plus, he was Catholic once upon a time. He was the type who gave things up for Lent. He had willpower.
Everything was packed and ready. I could send them to him by courier. But the very idea of letting my creations pass through the hands of someone I didn't know when this was so important-- no way. Not happening. I had to be sure they got to Marcone, safe and whole.
I thought about giving them to Gard. I thought about giving them to Ivy, or waiting for one of those nights when Marcone's car idled outside. I could just walk out and give them to him then. That was, if he was in the car and it wasn't just his driver picking Ivy up.
No, no. Either way, that wasn't it. I needed to see him. I wanted to see his face when he got the box.
A week ago, I was certain I would never see him again. It hadn't occurred to me that I knew where Marcone worked. There was nothing to stop me from plugging "Vadderung, Marcone, & Associates" into Google, writing down the address it spit out, and catching a cab over to the Mile.
Thomas wasn't wrong about me. If I never had to leave my bakery, I probably wouldn't. My home was my castle. It made me feel safe and comfortable. I could control my surroundings, make my life as simple as possible: I removed every risk I could until it was a little insular bubble of safety. After all, there was nothing worth venturing out for, nothing worth being hurt over, right?
On Monday, I left Bob and Molly at the shop, wrapped all my new creations in parchment paper, and left in search of John Marcone.
My journey almost got held up at the front desk.
The Vadderung, Marcone, & Associates firm was high scale. They were right off Michigan Avenue, close enough to still radiate prestige and high class, but far enough away that the tourists and casual shoppers didn't stumble in. There was huge, modern art taking up most of the space in the lobby. Two of the walls looked like clouded glass until I got closer and saw they were actually artificial waterfalls. The floors were all hard, stained wood in an intricate, beautiful parquet pattern that swirled around like vines or branches. They spidered out from the elevator in the center of the building, also wood, but a smooth, unbroken facing that made the column seem like the trunk of a tree.
I should had worn some nicer clothes. My apron was still on, as I'd forgotten to take it off in my rush, the one with the sky-blue embroidery that said The spice must flow. The receptionist took me in in my flour-dusted clothes, my sneakers, and my box of baked goods, and looked distinctly unimpressed.
"Appointment?" She arched a penciled eyebrow at me. "Catering?"
"Um, no. I was hoping to talk to Marcone? I'm a-- a friend of his and need to see him."
"You want to talk to one of the name partners," she said slowly. "Without an appointment?"
I kept forgetting that Marcone was John Freaking Marcone, one of the most powerful people in Chicago. I had not thought this through.
"Yeah, it's... kind of a surprise. Look, could you maybe just call up and mention Harry Dresden wants to see him, I'm sure he'd--"
There was a click of heels behind me and a long, significant pause. "Mr. Dresden?"
My heart leapt when I turned to see Gard standing behind me. She had her briefcase in one hand and a coffee in the other. One of my coffees. "Gard! You have amazing timing. I really need your help here."
The receptionist frowned. "Ms. Gard, you know this guy?"
She sighed. "This is going to be interesting, I'm sure..." Knocking back the last of her coffee, she tossed the cup and took my upper arm in her grip. "Come."
I let her lead me away, elated. This wasn't a complete disaster, which was more than I was expecting when I set out on this mission of mine. "Thank you, thank you, you get free coffee for the rest of the month."
"It's the 30th," she pointed out dryly.
"Next month. Possibly the month after."
She dragged me into the elevator, flashing a guard her security pass briefly as we passed. She hit a button for one of the top floors, then released me, facing me properly. "What are you doing here?"
I did not shuffle my feet under her stern gaze, but it was a close thing. She projected authority like no one I had ever met before. "To... see Marcone?"
Her lips pursed. "Why?"
Self-conscious, I checked the lid of the box, making sure it was firmly in place. I had the feeling it didn't matter, that Gard could see through solid objects and knew exactly what was inside. Or maybe she could read my mind; her gaze seemed to cut straight into my soul. Yikes. "I need to see him."
She looked at the box. "This is not some clever scheme to serve him papers, is it?"
I blinked. "Are you psychic?"
She jabbed the button for the lobby.
"No, wait, wait, it's not-- look!" I shifted the box around until I could get a decent grip with one arm, then lifted the lid. "No papers, I swear. I just-- Gard, please. I need to see him, and I know he's not coming back to the bakery. This is my only shot."
Gard narrowed her eyes at me. I hated doing so, but I met her steely glare. Desperate times.
I think that did it. Stepping out of my comfort zone so obviously seemed to soften her. She hit the upper floor button again. "If you make me regret this, I'll make you regret being born."
I wholeheartedly believed her and meekly nodded.
Gard led me out of the elevator. There was a labyrinth of corridors, populated by plenty of smartly dressed lawyer-types carrying files and generally looking busy. None seemed to give me a second glance, which should have been a relief but mostly creeped me out.
The decorating theme continued even up here. The carpets were a plush storm grey, but the walls and furniture were all various types of wood. As we walked, we went by a large room that had Marcone's name on the door, but Gard's stride didn't slow, and I reluctantly left it behind.
On the way to wherever she was taking me, she asked, "Are you a fan of Neruda, Dresden?"
"Neruda. Pablo Neruda."
"Um. Is that a musician or something?"
Gard sighed. "Then you don't know who is responsible for the postcards either."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," I told her, telling the truth.
"Never mind, then. It will remain a mystery." She situated me in a conference room with a huge, ash wood table and leaf-green cushioned seats. She directed me to one. "Stay here. He's handling a client at the moment. He'll be in when he's done."
"Thank you. Good luck with your mystery."
Gard nodded, and saw herself out, leaving me with my box in the big empty conference room. There was one large window overlooking the city, but my stomach was already queasy with nervousness over what I was doing. The vertigo of being this high up wouldn't help any.
I sat in the chair. It swiveled, and that amused me for a few minutes, until it suddenly didn't anymore.
Maybe I shouldn't have come. There was something very final about Marcone's goodbye. But he was giving up, with one last gesture of affection, and I hated that. I didn't want to say goodbye, to him or the easy banter between us or that fond look he got when he looked at me or Ivy sometimes. And his gift was so-- so idiotically romantic, a gesture so teeth-rottingly sweet, I could hardly believe it came from him. But it did, and that meant a hell of a lot to me. I liked that he did it. I guess I liked him, enough to pull this stunt.
What if he wasn't happy to see me? I should have called or just let sleeping dogs lie. I should have let this go, fading into another old, bitter memory. I was a mess, and after my blow-up, Marcone had to know that. Maybe that goodbye wasn't just for my sake, but his. He had Ivy to worry about and a stressful career, an entire firm to helm. A skinny baker who couldn't let his fucked-up past go might've been too much for him.
I could leave. He wasn't here yet, and I knew the way back to the elevator.
I stood up, ready to chicken out and do just that, when the door opened.
The man who walked in was not Marcone. He was taller, broader, bigger in stature and sheer presence. He was dressed in a suit that probably cost more than all the clothes I had ever bought in my life combined and wore it well. Incongruously, he had a sort of high-tide mark of respectability; above his suit was a well-trimmed but large beard streaked with grey that looked like it belonged on someone's grandfather, or maybe even on a pirate. His face was scarred in odd places, and his gleaming eye was sharp as it took me in. Singular eye-- his other was covered by a discreet black cloth eyepatch held in place with a thin band that cut through his hair.
He smiled, and my knees wobbled. The man radiated a sense of old power and authority that put Gard to shame. I had the oddest urge to genuflect. "Well, well. I did not expect to meet Jonathan's baker. Harry Dresden, was it?"
"Yeah, hello. You work with Marcone?"
The man grinned. "Not as often as I'd like. Protégés find their feet too quickly these days and don't need their teachers." He stepped forward and offered a huge paw of a hand. "Donar. It's a pleasure to meet you, Harry. I have heard much about you, young man."
We shook. He had a gentler grip than I expected. "Really?"
Donar laughed, nodding. "Oh, yes. From what Jonathan said, I must admit I never expected to meet you. For such an intelligent man, he can be clumsy in matters of the heart. He seemed convinced he'd chased you off."
I shrugged and fidgeted with the box, fixing the lid needlessly again. "Well, it's... complicated."
"If you are here, then I imagine it's much simpler than he believed." Donar clapped a hand on my shoulder, and I nearly staggered. "I'm glad. He's a man in need of more happiness. I'm sure you know the feeling."
Exactly what had Marcone said about me to this guy? Because he was right, yeah, but it was disconcerting to hear from someone I'd just met. "Um."
I was saved from having to come up with anything more eloquent than that: the door opened again and Marcone came in. "Gard said someone was here to..."
His voice trailed off when he laid eyes on me, shock evident on his face, lips parted. Tellingly, he didn't recover, simply stared at me as if my showing up was the one possibility he had not planned for.
Donar, between us, chuckled. "Jonathan, you're catching flies. What would Ivy think?"
Marcone shut his mouth and tore his eyes from me to look to Donar. "Donar..."
"This was not my doing. He's here of his own accord." The man made to leave. "Harry, I hope to see you again. Jonathan," he stopped at Marcone's side and nudged him with an elbow before saying quietly, "Mind your mouth this time."
Marcone's gaze hardened. "I'll see you later, Mr. Vadderung."
Vadderung. I was talking to the other man at the firm who was among the most powerful people in Chicago. He was not what I'd expected. But, neither was Marcone.
Who was back to staring at me as soon as the door shut behind Donar.
My palms started to sweat, and I rubbed them against my apron nervously. A somewhat hysterical thought bounced around my head: please, don't make me have the first word.
He didn't. His gaze fell on the box sitting on the table, and his eyes grew colder. "Mr. Dresden. I wasn't expecting to see you again."
The detachment in his tone, the coolness of his expression, they worried me. I wasn't firing on all cylinders, worry and hope and fear tangled up in my chest. I blurted out, "Yeah, well, I wasn't expecting you to get me flours." My hands started to shake, and I folded them behind my back to hide them. "You got me flours, John."
He inhaled sharply. It was faint, but a blush appeared in his cheeks. When he looked away, he seemed almost... ashamed? Why? "Yes, well. It'd been something I'd been meaning to do for a while. I saw my last opportunity and took it. I admit, I... did not expect you to reject them."
"I recognized that my advances were unwelcome, but I had no idea that--"
"What are you talking... Oh!" I knocked my forehead with the heel of my hand. "The box, you think... No, no, hold on."
He saw the box, the one he'd given me, and thought I was giving him his stupid, insane romantic gesture back. Why didn't I just grab a new box, hell's bells... I took the lid off and started to pull everything out, setting each item on the table. As I did, I explained each one: "That's focaccia, some sourdough, sweet dumplings..." I went on, until the box was empty and half the table was covered in food. When I was done, I pushed the empty box away. "I just used that to carry them."
John gawked at the plethora of baked goods, then back up to my face. "Harry... What is this?"
"Uh. Spelt, all-purpose, this one's rice," I pointed to each in turn. "Teff, barley, buckwheat--"
He took a tentative step towards me, looking at what I'd laid out for him. "I don't understand."
"You gave me flours," I murmured, because to me that explained it all. "That's... a really bad pun, John."
"Yes. Well." He clasped his hands together in front of him, grip tight, and kept away, giving me more personal space than I was used to from him.
That... annoyed me. Anyone who invaded my space made me nervous, even when it was my brother and his hugs and cheek kissing. But just this once, I didn't want that gap between me and everyone else. I grabbed him by the lapel of his pinstriped suit and pulled him closer. He nearly staggered into me and I put my hand on his chest to steady him. "Look," I said, "what you did wasn't right, and if you ever do it again, I am probably going to blow up at you worse than I already did, because that's how I am and I'm not good at dealing with-- with much of anything, really." That thought stilled me and made me back away, leaning on the table behind me. "So I'm a mess, and if you want to stay away because of that, I understand. I mean, I have no idea why anyone puts up with me. Bob's kind of a saint in his own way."
John followed me, boxing me in against the table. His hands lifted and hovered indecisively for a second before landing on my shoulders. "I don't think that. At all."
"Okay. Cool, good." My heart did not skip a beat, thank you. I did start smiling in what had to be a really goofy way though. No one had told me that before, except Bob, who kind of had to when he was defusing me from one of my attacks. "I don't want this to be the end of it, so..." I nodded to the table. "Try the food. Come by later and tell me what you liked."
"I will," he said seriously, as though he were taking on a solemn duty.
"Great. All right. I'll just..." I pushed off the table, but John didn't back away. I nearly fell back until John's hands landed on my hips, hooked into the tie of my apron. He was looking up at me, eyes flicking to my lips every now and then. Was he going to kiss me? I was on board with that.
He didn't; John smirked, that habitual, charming arrogance making a show on his face. "Until later, Mr. Dresden," he said softly, taking my hand and doing that absurd knuckle kiss again.
"Is this going to be a thing with you?" He did it again. "I'm leaving now. Stop molesting my hand."
He snorted and let go. "All right."
"Eat the dumplings first. I heated them up and they'll be gross if they're cold."
"Have a good afternoon, Harry."
"Don't microwave them!"
He said something else in reply, undoubtedly snarky and desert dry, but I was halfway down the hall, and had to stop walking backwards before I collided with a paralegal or whatever.
I left, smiling all the way. By the time I got home, my face was starting to hurt. I didn't care.
When I returned home, Bob saw my grin and stopped dead in his tracks, gaping at me. "Harry? Did something happen?" And, silently, I could hear him asking, have you snapped?
I beamed at him. "Nah. It's just a good day."
That evening, I called Thomas for the first time since he left and caught him up with the soap opera that my life was becoming. I'd been avoiding him in the same way I avoid everything that made my hands shake with jittery fear. But I was in such a good mood, I doubted Thomas could put a damper on it.
"Baby brother," he exhaled over the line. "I figured something was going to happen after Marcone called me and filled me in, but that was not what I was expecting."
I threw myself down on my bed, the phone tucked between the comforter and my ear. My legs hung off the side of the bed and I bobbed them up and down, feeling light and cheerful without reservation. A novel sensation for me, really. "Neither was I. But it's... nice."
"You really went to his firm?"
"Uh huh. Nice place. Met Donar Vadderung. He's..." Big.
That too. "Mmhm."
"Harry, you are freaking me out a bit."
I laughed. "Why?"
"You just sound... You know."
"Like a teenage girl talking about her crush?" Because I could see that. I just needed some pigtails and a phone cord to twine around my finger as I simpered.
I loved my brother, but he was as new to this whole family thing as I was. Neither of us were great at it. This time, at least, I anticipated it. The lonely, stir-crazy voice that lived in the back of my mind started to wake. Niggling doubts tried to surge up. Yeah, you're happy now, but what about when that stops? Going back to normal is only going to hurt more now.
I ignored them. "I am, yeah. Problem?"
"It's... Marcone. He's kind of an asshole."
He was, true. "I think he's working on that. He'll get better." Like me, I hoped.
"How do you know?"
"That man's been coming into my bakery for over a year. I've got a decent handle on him by now."
Thomas snickered. "You're going to have one hell of a handle on him now, I bet."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves."
"With proper hold and pressure, he'll do whatever you want." I could practically hear Thomas waggling his eyebrows at me.
"Stop torturing that metaphor. What'd it ever do to you?"
"More of an euphemism than a metaphor. If we're talking metaphors, you know you have to break in a stallion before it--"
I slapped my hand against my face, as if that'd wake me up from this nightmare of my brother making really inappropriate jokes about Marcone. It didn't. "I am going to hang up on you if you don't stop."
"Dude, I have years of fraternal teasing to catch-up on here."
"Hey, my birthday's coming up. Do you have years of presents to catch up on too?"
Thomas subsided. "I could lay off a bit."
"You do that."
"Call me if Marcone pulls any more dickish moves. What's the tradition in Chicago, breaking kneecaps? I could do that."
I smiled against the handset. "Goodnight, Thomas."
"If it's cement shoes, I can do that too!"
I hung up on him and rolled over to flick out the light next to my bed. Darkness fell, like a thick blanket, and I slept soundly.
Deep down, I had hoped John would be visiting soon to fulfill his end of the bargain. Soon as in the same day. I knew that wasn't fair to him. The trouble was that I didn't let myself want things often, but when I did, I was really greedy about it, fixated and impatient. He didn't show up the first day, which was understandable. He didn't show up the second, which... okay, I could deal with that.
By the fifth, my sunny mood had dimmed. Opening hours seemed to drag on and on, sluggish and only seeming to get longer and longer every time I glanced at the door, waiting for John to walk in to charm the pants off me. So to speak.
Life continued on around me.
Business was slow, even for a Saturday. Most of my customers were shoppers who popped in for a pick-me-up and left immediately after. Only Hendricks was ensconced in the corner; his crush wasn't around, so he'd defaulted back to his old seat, nearly out of sight. I wouldn't have noticed he was loitering around if it wasn't for Bob, who was oddly solicitous. He hovered by Hendricks' table, talking in soft tones, and once even patted the guy's arm consolingly.
"Am I missing something?" I asked after the fourth time Bob went to bother Hendricks.
"Story for another time," Bob replied, aloof.
I was definitely missing something. An hour later, Gard came in, spotted Hendricks, and stalked over to him. Her heels on the floor sounded like a large cat's claws. I had the sudden urge to dive in and save Hendricks, though that was a bit extreme. Right?
Except maybe not. Gard stared down at Hendricks, eyes like ice. Hendricks was not an emotive kid, but even he looked intimidated.
I took a step towards them. Bob grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back, shaking his head.
From where I stood, I could eavesdrop on the ensuing conversation between the scary Nordic lawyer and my favorite taciturn philosophy student. So I did, because deep down I am a nosy individual.
"They were from you, the postcards, were they not?"
Hendricks nodded slowly.
"You acquired my name, my work address, and have spent two months bombarding me with postcards. Is that right?"
Hendricks nodded again.
I mouthed, what the hell to Bob, who responded, another time.
"Do I look like the sort of woman who enjoys poetry? Like I have time for antiquated rituals?"
Hendricks started to nod again, out of habit, then corrected himself frantically with a headshake.
"Some were at least readable, but perhaps you should do the world a favor and contribute no more original work. 'Shall I compare thee to a Chi-town day'? Honestly?"
Bob winced. "That one was mine. I thought it was funny," he whispered to me.
"You're part of this?"
"Yeah, well. I figured the guy needed all the help he could get, and I'm something of an old hand at bagging the babes."
I resisted the urge to put my face in my hands. "Stop talking."
Across the room, Gard went on. "And I have no idea where you got some of your translations from. Many were completely foreign to me."
Hendricks spoke up at last. "I did 'em." Gard stopped, narrowing her eyes. "The translations. Not all of them, but... Sometimes the translators just didn't convey the original imagery and nuance right, so I did it myself."
Gard peered hard at him, like she was taking in his very soul. It was uncomfortable to witness; I couldn't imagine how it felt. "Did you now..."
Hendricks shrugged, looking away. "Sorry, I'll stop. Didn't mean any harm. You were inspiring." The big lug looked down at his hands, like he'd never looked at them before now.
Gard continued to stare at him, evaluating: then she reached into her pocket and drew out a business card. She tossed it onto the table next to Hendricks' hand and said, "Take down this number." She waited until Hendricks grabbed a pen before rattling off ten digits. "Do not call before six o'clock. Do not leave any voicemails. I will get back to you when I can."
Then she turned on heel and left just as abruptly as she'd arrived, leaving Hendricks to marvel in her wake.
He looked at the card in his hand, then mutely held it up for Bob to see.
Bob began to applaud, grinning. "See? Poetry! What did I tell you, Nate?"
A lot of things I didn't understand had just occurred, but that one took the cake. My jaw dropped. "You have a first name?!"
Hendricks stumbled out with his heavy bag loaded with books, the last of the stragglers in my shop. With the bakery cleared out, I spent a little time sitting beside my usual window, watching the cityscape as it began to rain. I was in a mood as sour as overcooked lemon tarts and bemoaning the fact I looked terrible in orange.
Because clearly I was going to have to give up on ever having a relationship and become a monk or something. At least I could live in a remote place. And I could carry a robe pretty well. Maybe they'd allow me a better color scheme than the usual. Green was a good color on me.
I was so deep in my own head, I practically jumped out of my skin when someone hopped into the seat across from me. "Gah!"
Ivy put a hand over her mouth and giggled. "Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Dresden. I didn't mean to startle you."
My racing pulse took a few seconds to settle. "It's... it's fine. I wasn't paying attention."
"Do you like the rain?"
That seemed like a non sequitur to me. "Hm?"
She leaned her elbows on the table, propping her chin on her hands. "You're always sitting over here when it rains. I thought you might like rain."
I looked out, watching the water snake down the glass pane, catching the light of the street and the passing cars. "It's complicated."
"We're getting a lot of rain this year. Chicago usually gets approximately thirty-five inches. That's about six storms a year." There was fog on the lower part of the window, and Ivy reached out, drawing a happy face, a heart, then a pentacle. She glanced at my pendant as she did the last one, like she needed the visual reference to do it right. "You seem sad. Maybe you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, but with weather."
My lips twitched up. I think that was Ivy's way of asking after me. It was sweet, if strange. "It's not the rain, Ivy. Want a cupcake, kid?"
She bit her lip, trying to suppress a grin as she nodded. I grabbed myself a bottle of Coke, poured a glass of milk, and grabbed a small plate of red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese icing. Simple, but good stuff.
Ivy didn't seem to mind the lack of variety. She busied herself with a few dutiful sips of milk before taking the cupcakes apart, sticky fingers peeling the paper away before she took a monster bite.
I drank my Coke and returned her bright smile best I could. "What brings you here tonight? Meeting Kincaid?"
She shook her head. "Nope! Father's picking me up. First time all week."
"That so?" I tried to keep my voice light, even as my heart began to pound. Play it cool, Dresden. The Marcones' lives were none of my business, not really. The less I knew, the better, I figured.
"Yes. He's been stuck in the office with a merger disagreement. The clients are very high profile and insist they have..." She scrunched up her nose, thinking. "Unreconcilable differences?"
I took a drag of my soda before correcting her gently. "Irreconcilable."
"Yes, that." She sighed. "Once I get past six syllables, I have some trouble remembering."
"Forgetting words, that's a sign of old age."
She gave me an utterly guileless look. "Really? Well, then you would be an expert."
I choked on my drink, chuckling. "Cold, Ivy. Cold." She beamed, proud and pleased, and plowed her way through another cupcake, getting icing all over her hands. I excused myself again to go grab some napkins for her. "So, Dad's been busy?"
She stilled, suddenly staring hard at me. "Yes."
I made a non-committal noise and looked out the window.
"He's been very busy. Ensuring his client gets what they want out of the deal requires him to sit through very long meetings. Necessary evils of his job."
"You sound like a Harvard grad."
"Father talks about his work often. I don't understand it all yet," she said, like the fact she wasn't an adult with five degrees under her belt was some sort of personal failing on her part. "But I listen."
"He's had a lot to do this week."
"But he's done now," Ivy said slowly, as if I were particularly dense and needed to be spoken to like a small child. Weird, coming from a girl with a My Little Pony purse.
"Okay." I had no idea what she was saying, and she could tell. Her face went slightly pink. It was really adorable.
She sighed again, in that way she always did when the adults in her life disappointed her. I'd heard it more than a few times. I bet it drove her teachers crazy.
Ivy stayed at my table, talking about the new words Merriam-Webster had added to their dictionary this year, her latest violin recital, and the new Pixar movie she was dying to go see. She could be a chatterbox, but I didn't mind. It was nice to let her youth enthusiasm and cheer wash over me. Too soon, a car idled outside the shop, and Ivy got out her little coin purse.
I held up a hand. "On the house, kid. Go see your dad."
She got up and walked around the table to hug me. It took her standing up on her toes to her full height and me leaning helpfully over for her to manage it, but it was nice. "Goodnight, Harry."
I got a quick peck on my cheek and another bright grin before Ivy dashed out of the shop, heedless of the rain, and jumped into the car. I craned my head as the Lexus' door opened, trying to see in. I had no luck, and too soon it was pulling away from the curb.
I cleared the table and went to lock up. It was just as well. Tomorrow was Sunday, with its later opening time but its huge church crowd. I had a lot of prep to do.
Molly stuck around and helped with some of it before I reminded her that she'd be part of that church crowd and shooed her home. Her dedication would've been sweet, but I couldn't be sure it wasn't just Bob having her keep an eye on me when he wasn't around.
You have one hysterical meltdown in front of everyone and they never let you live it down, seriously.
It'd been a rough week, and work never quite stopped for me. I gave my bakery everything I had, and in return she kept me safe. I made the mistake of getting my hopes up, of venturing out, and what had it gotten me?
It didn't matter anymore. There was a lot of prep to do. There was the usual, plus Mac was having some kind of beer tasting tomorrow, a new microbrew to debut. He wanted a few dozen loaves of fresh bread. We'd sent each other plenty of business over the years, so I couldn't say no. And it wasn't a real hassle; kneading the dough and getting everything set to rise and bake took me to a calmer, zenned-out place, which I really needed.
The breads went in, and I had everything else ready to go for the morning. I could have watched some TV in the break room or something but... I'd even left the radio off so far, just listening to the rain and the distant rumble of thunder. But the noises outside were putting me on edge, and I needed more of the peace that came from working.
I made a very basic drop cookie dough, figuring I could at least screw around and experiment with some flavor combinations while I waited on the bread. That also meant I'd have to stay up longer to finish the cookies as well, but that didn't really occur to me at the time. Too much on my mind.
I looked at the tin Bob stored his tea blend in. It was still a chai rooibos, and that gave me an idea: a chai spice cookie would be overwhelming, but if I married it with something sweet and uncomplicated...
Busy contemplating some kind of fruit cookie, I nearly missed the knocking. It was faint, coming from the front door. It was late enough that even Chicago was lulling itself to sleep. No one should have been out there. I had no deliveries and my few friends tended to call ahead of time. The last time someone unexpected showed up, it was Thomas, and I doubted I had another long lost brother about to fall out of the sky.
So I ignored it. I needed to make some dinner, anyway. Half a red velvet cupcake was not enough to sustain me. I was skinny, but not from skipping meals; I burned a lot of energy, and nothing made me grumpier than being hungry while I worked. I checked the fridge, taking stock of what I had. There were a few things that would make a good meal, and also fresh fruit I could use for my cookies. I raided my spice rack, chopping up a few ingredients before tossing them into the food processor.
As loud as the processor was, it didn't drown out a second set of knocks. With a groan, I washed my hands and headed to the front, drying off with the threadbare cloth of my apron as I went. The curtains on all the windows were drawn for the night, and silhouettes stretched over them as the streetlights cast shadows. There was definitely someone at my door.
I pulled the curtain aside and froze when I saw John standing on the other side. The rain was getting heavier, and his hair was damp, coming out of its perfectly groomed comb-back to fan over his forehead. He was looking right at me, leaning close to the glass, and I could even seen a water drop clinging to his eyelashes that I... really wanted to brush away.
John tapped meaningfully on the glass, snapping me out of my daze. I jumped, nearly dove for the alarm to disable it, unlocked the door and yanked it open. "Uh. Hey."
He stepped in just enough to get out from under the leaking awning above my storefront. "Harry. I wasn't sure if you'd still be awake at this hour, but I saw the light..."
"Yeah, Mac put in a big order for bread, I'm working on it."
John looked past me to the kitchen, frowning. "By yourself?"
"I do all the night prep. It's not a big deal." I took one shuffled step away, looking at the ground. "It's almost fun. I was just trying some new cookie flavors, that sort of thing, you know?" I was babbling, and shut my mouth with a click.
Something dark gleamed in Marcone's eyes, more than just the shadows on his face. "New?"
"Yeah. I like throwing random stuff in a mixing bowl and seeing what happens."
"That does sound exciting."
I gave him a weak glare. "Yeah, yeah, it's not as fun as making five or six figures playing corporate marriage counselor for a week, but I got to get my kicks somewhere."
Marcone shook his head. "I wasn't being sarcastic, Harry. Given how good your products are, I imagine your experimental work would be a revelation." He paused in the doorway, like he wasn't sure if he should step inside or back away. "May I come in?" he finally asked, voice hushed.
"I'd like to see what you're working on."
I shot him a dubious look. "You want to watch me bake."
"I want to know why exactly you seem to smell like cinnamon. I'd also like to... talk to you. Perhaps explain, if you're still interested in listening." He was still hovering on the threshold of the shop, waiting on my word. It must've been cold, with his shirt wet from the rain and the autumn chill in the air.
"I'm making chai spice cookies," I said, focusing on the first part of what he'd said, and if you think I was ignoring the rest, well. That just your opinion, man. "You can smell that?"
"You always smell like baked goods. It's rather charming."
I reddened, because John thought I smelled good, and noticed on a regular basis. I had no idea what to do with that. John, sensing my indecision like the predatory lawyer type he was, leaned in, inhaling deeply.
My brain must've gone offline at that, because I stood back to let him in. I watched as he dripped on my floor, and relocked the door and keyed on the alarm by rote. "Uh. You're wet. I-I should have a towel."
John nodded. "Thank you."
I left him, I jogging upstairs to duck in just long enough to raid the linen closet in my apartment. Out of habit, I locked up after myself before heading back down. John had wandered behind the counter and was standing near the doorway off the kitchen with his eyes shut. He was taking deep breaths, looking peaceful. I could understand that; the air was thick with cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger. They were all strong aromatics, and I loved them: how they were at once exotic, but familiar in my kitchen. John hummed appreciatively.
"Erm. Towel?" My brain was going really stupid with John standing there, lounging against the wall and enjoying being in my home, as it was when the shop was closed. I stuck out the towel, offering it to him.
He took it and began to dry off; I really wanted to watch, but the oven dinged at the precisely worst time, and I hustled away to take the breads out. At least I remembered the oven mitt this time.
The list of people who had been in my kitchen was incredibly short. Bob, obviously. Molly, Thomas. The plumber when Molly had tried to put something down the sink she shouldn't have. The delivery woman when I needed help getting boxes inside. That was about it.
And John put himself on that list, stepping slowly inside. He was still damp, but no longer leaving small puddles on the floor. "Do you have a mop?"
"Yeah. I'll get it, give me a sec." I took the breads out of their pans and set them on a cooling rack. The mop was hung on the wall and I grabbed it, made for the front.
John caught the mop in his hand lightly as I tried to walk past him. "Let me?"
"I can do it."
"I know. But let me anyway?"
A roll of thunder echoed through the shop, rattling the teacups and saucers stacked behind the counter. I froze, feeling that prickly hot sensation of adrenaline hitting me. John's eyes widened, and he stepped into my space, folded his hand over mine on the mop. "Harry..."
Deep breaths, Dresden. "Have you eaten?"
"Dinner. I was about to make some. It's not going to be anything fancy but..."
John smiled, slow and warm. "If you'd have me, I'd be honored."
"Okay. Great. Uh." I looked at his hand clasped over mine, keeping me there.
John let go quickly, taking the mop from me. "Right. Sorry. Excuse me a moment." He inclined his head to me, oddly formal, and left.
I busied myself with making soup before I did something foolish. Like grabbing him and shaking him until answers fell out. Or asking if he wanted to get out those wet clothes. Both would send the wrong message. Maybe. I wasn't really sure what the right message was, had no idea how I felt about John at the moment.
I got out parsnips, turnips, carrots, and every other root vegetable I had at the bottom of the fridge. Peeling was eternally a time-consuming task, even with the fancy ergonomic peeler I'd sprung for months ago. Still, about half the vegetables were peeled when John came back in, returning the mop to its place and coming to stand at my elbow.
"It's soup. Or, uh, it's going to be soup. It doesn't take too long and it's dead easy. Unless you want something else, I could defrost something," I babbled, keeping my gaze on my hands. Now was not the time to cut myself, even if this was the perfect situation for it to happen. Stormy knights and knives tended to be bad for me. One day I will learn the secret to not being a scatterbrained klutz. There had to be a knack to it.
"I didn't say anything, Harry. Soup sounds fine." I could hear his amused smile. "Can I help?"
"Yeah... yeah, there are pots hanging on the far wall. Grab me the blue one." He obeyed instantly, fetching the pot I needed. "Put the burner on medium heat and pour the vegetable stock in there."
He was a good assistant, doing as I said without complaint as I finished up the knifework. I tumbled the squared-up root vegetables into the pot and tossed in some savory spices. "Okay. This goes for thirty or forty minutes, then we emulsify it." John gave me a blank look. "Immersion blender?" A blink. "Boat motor?"
"I have no idea what you are referring to."
"Really. I'm afraid my culinary knowledge is lacking."
"It's not like it's some trade secret. Watch cooking shows for a day, you'll see one."
"I'm afraid I don't watch much television. Ivy isn't fond of it, except for some Discovery and PBS shows." His gaze slid sideways across the work area to the mass of cookie dough I'd been toying with.
I smirked and went to wash my hands. "Come here." I beckoned him over, grabbing two stools for us to sit on. I had a bowl of chai spices waiting to be integrated into the dough and got to that. A small sprinkling on top, and I kneaded the hell out of it until it was worked through, the dough darkening as I did; next, I sectioned off several rolls to toy with.
John watched for a while, gaze traveling between my hands and my face, silent, just as wrapped up with my work as I was. Into one batch of dough, I tossed in cranberries and some extra cinnamon. Another got chips of dried apple and candied orange rind. Macadamia nut and raspberry went in the third. For the last, I dug out some dates and coarsely chopped them before kneading the chucks in. My fingers came away stained, and I sucked the juice off them.
John was definitely looking at my hands then. "Health code violation," he murmured.
"They're not for sale. Worried my brand of crazy is contagious?" I said lightly, pinching off the dough and rolling clumps of it into vaguely spherical shapes for baking.
"I'm a fan of your brand of crazy."
"Even when I truck a box full of baked shit into your firm and force it on you?"
John leaned forward, his arms on the table. I was bent similarly, and it was hard not to meet his eyes. "For one, referring to that manna from heaven as baked shit is inaccurate to the extreme. I had half the firm making up excuses to visit my office in hopes of getting a sample, and I came close to physically fighting them off." The image was so ridiculous I started laughing helplessly. John smirked. "For two, I don't believe I've apologized."
"For leaving you with the impression that I would come by to see you, then didn't do so."
"It's fine, Marcone. You were busy." So what if I'd spent most of the week moping around and being generally unpleasant to everyone?
"A moment ago you called me John. Clearly this is something that bothers you." I blinked at him, surprised that he'd even noticed. "I am a very observant person, Harry. And I should have called or sent word with Ivy about my delay. Or perhaps just fenced the case out to Gard or another junior partner."
"That's... no, that's stupid. It was fine."
John opened his mouth to go on, but stopped, shaking his head. "I'm sorry. I keep saying I don't want to be a person who hurts you. Especially when it's clear you've had too many of those in the past."
I shuddered. "John, can you... not? Please?"
"All right. My apologies." Wisely changing the subject, he nodded to the pot on the stove. "It's been a half hour, I believe."
Glad for the distraction, I went to check on dinner. The vegetables were soft to a knife poke, so I turned down the burner and retrieved a long, metal tool with a blade at the bottom. It was like the bastard offspring of a plunger and a food processor. I held it up for John to see. "Boat motor."
"Immersion blender. I assume it blends things it's immersed in," he replied, because he's kind of a dick.
I nodded to one of the cabinets. "Truffle oil."
He went to fetch it for me. "Black or white?"
"Black." I plugged in the boat motor and worked it into the soup. It took less than a minute to turn the mixture of broth and root vegetables into an earthy mush. "Come over here, drizzle some in."
"All right." John sidled up to my shoulder, uncapping the little bottle and tipping it in.
I blended. Soup was easier to make with someone to help, I had to admit. "Little more... that's it. Too much and it overpowers everything." I grabbed some of the day's leftover bread and poured the soup into two giant mugs. "Well, there we go. Nothing fancy, but you know." I sat on the stool by the cookies, blowing over the top of my mug.
John put the oil away and tucked in beside me. "It smells amazing."
I shrugged. It did, but I didn't want to agree outright and seem big-headed. "I'm a baker, not a chef."
John sipped gingerly at his hot mug and made a pleased sound in the back of his throat. "Christ, Harry. It's vegetables and broth. How could it taste this good?"
"Magic," I teased, giving the bread I was dipping into my mug all my attention.
"I'd believe it. No other possible explanation."
We worked our way slowly through the mugs, then I got seconds not so much because I was still hungry but because John looked like he wanted more and thought it would be impolite to ask outright. I left my second mug half-finished and went to put the cookies on trays and into the oven. John finished my soup off eagerly.
"Does anyone else feed you?" I asked him. "You're not secretly starving or something?"
"Homemade food, and comfort food like this in particular, is something of a luxury," John said.
"I could write down the recipe."
His smile faded. "Regretfully, I don't have the skill or the spare time to cook."
Right. Ivy. Between running his law firm and raising his daughter, I could see that. "I'm not... should you be home right now?" Even asking that made me feel selfish. "I'm not keeping you, am I?"
"From Ivy?" Ever-perceptive was John Marcone. Except for his massive blind spots, anyway. "Seeing how I am here on her instruction, that's doubtful."
John spread his hands and shrugged. "You are someone she cares for, and I did something to hurt you. She was unhappy with me and demanded I immediately try to make amends."
"I mean this in the best possible way, but sometimes Ivy terrifies me."
"Try being her father," John countered, voice laden with affection and love. If it was any hardship, I don't think John minded.
The timer dinged, and I opened the oven to three trays of golden brown cookies. I took them out and transferred them to my cooling racks, the smell of masala spice and fruit in the air again. "Okay. Dishes, then cookies."
"I don't suppose I could convince you to reverse that order?"
I laughed and pushed John away from the cookies. "Too hot to eat. They won't even hold together right now."
"If you insist..." he relented, letting me direct him to the sink.
If you were to describe washing dishes in five words, I bet 'cozy' would not be one of them. It's not one of the words that comes to mind when I think about it, given how many dishes a bustling bakery dirties. But filling the sink with warm soapy water and having John next to me, a clean towel in his hand, was... yeah. Cozy. I washed, and John dried, then took the dishes away. He wandered around the kitchen, trying to figure out where things went. I left him to it, letting him learn the set-up himself. It was slower that way, but I wasn't in a rush to get to bed for once. I ignored the sudden urge to glance at the clock, not wanting to know how late it was. I probably could have sent John home and turned in. But... the storm outside was getting heavier. And John wanted some cookies. And I was really greedy and didn't want him to go yet.
John smiled and dragged our stools over. "Excellent."
I portioned the cookies out, slid two of each kind in front of John. "Enjoy."
"I am certain I will," he murmured, picking up the macadamia-raspberry one first. I leaned my chin in my palm, watching raptly for his reaction.
That one was a win, with John popping the second into his mouth in one big bite. It was so uncultured and not-lawyerly, I ducked my head, laughing softly. The dried apple cookie got a little less enthusiasm, but that was apple for you. He tried the cranberry-cinnamon and...
I snorted at the pinched look on his face. "No good, huh?"
He shook his head and swallowed. "No, no, it's..."
I waved a hand. "You can spare my feelings, John. This is the downside to being my test subject. Too much cinnamon, right?" He frowned, saying nothing. "You're allowed to not like something I've baked, you know. These are experimental. Sometimes experiments don't work out. I don't sell everything I make."
John thought about that, then pushed the spare cookie aside. "The illusion is shattered. I have long since believed you to be the King Midas of pastry."
"Hey, before you lose all faith in my abilities, you have one more to test," I said, picking up one of the spice cookie with the chopped dates inside. John held out his hand for it, but that wasn't quite the thing... I leaned in and gently pressed the cookie to his mouth. "Open."
His eyes flitted between my face and my hand, utterly still for a moment. My thumb was touching his lower lip just barely, and the whole thing was a lot more intimate than I'd intended. Not bad though.
John took the cookie from my fingers and for a moment seemed too distracted to taste it. Then he did, his eyes popping in shock. "Mmfle."
"Is that good or bad?"
He chewed slowly, eyes going half-lidded. Normally, cookies weren't something to savor, but John really took his time with that one. "That. Was perfect."
I smiled. "Aw. You say the sweetest things."
"I would buy dozens of those. They're... spicy, but not too much, with the dates. It all just works." He refocused on my face. "You just made that by throwing a bunch of ingredients together."
I waggled my fingers at him. "Magic." The flattery was good for me, really. It wouldn't get John everywhere, but it'd get him somewhere nice. I got up, fetched a bag and piled the cookies inside. "You can keep them."
"Harry--" His tone was instantly argumentative.
"I can't sell them. Health code violation, remember?" I pushed the bag at him. "Keep them."
Solemnly, he nodded, and put the bag in his coat pocket. "Thank you." He caught my hand, grip loose enough that I could pull away. I didn't, and was rewarded with another one of those chaste, annoyingly sweet kisses against my knuckles.
I stepped away, out of his range. "What is with you?" John tilted his head, eyes hot as they swept over me. "That's so weird: I'm not some kind of damsel." His gaze was awfully intent... "You're not thinking about that pink apron, are you?"
His smile was fast and bright like quicksilver. "Well, I wasn't before."
I rubbed my face. "Oh god. You are too ridiculous to deal with at this hour. I'm done." Brushing by him, I went to the coat tree just inside the kitchen.
It was late, and as much as I hated to admit it, I was starting to wind down. Having John over was... It was good. Warm, and comfy. That wasn't a common feeling for me. Dating Susan had been awkward at first, though we'd gotten through that eventually. With John...
It was a date. Oh god, I made him dinner and everything. There wasn't another word for it. My first date in years, hell's bells.
Huh. At least it'd gone fairly well.
Thank goodness I had my back to John. The goofy look on my face couldn't have been attractive. I couldn't help it though. A nice night in with good company was... kind of a revelation. Sure as hell better than an evening alone trying to drown out a storm with crappy TV.
I was trying to pluck the knot out of my apron strings. The bow I tied had slid through, and undoing the tangle behind my back wasn't easy.
There was a sound behind me, and John was suddenly very close. I froze, and felt him put his hand over mine. "May I?" He was so near, his words warm against me. I tensed to fight down a shiver.
The apron pulled as John worked at it. The cord was looped several times around my waist and he slowly, gradually unwrapped me until I was free. His hands caught the hems and slid up the apron, past my chest and to my neck. Wordless, I bowed my head and let him draw the band of cloth over it and take the apron from me. His arms remained circled around me, and I turned to look at him. We stared at each other, waiting.
I blinked first, and John dropped the apron, his hands catching in my shirt. I backed up, and John pushed me against the wall, my feet clumsy. There was a second where I thought I'd fall, but John gripped me tighter and braced me up. We cinched together, everything still even as I tried to keep my feet under me, mindful of the weight I was putting on John's arms. A knee between my legs helped keep me from spilling to the ground, and was also a firm pressure in such a nice place, waking me right up.
John went for the kiss too suddenly. My nose knocked against his, and it ended up being a mash of lips, too wet and off target. I huffed a laugh against John's face. "False start?"
"I was preoccupied." His knee shifted and I sucked in a breath.
"Sorry. I'm really clumsy."
"I'm prepared to forgive you, just--" He tipped my head back and I scrambled to grab his shoulders, because falling before we got this right would really suck. I didn't have to wait longer; his mouth met mine dead on this time. I'd wondered for a long time, longer than I'd ever admit, what it'd be like to kiss him. Now I knew: a cool smell from the rain his skin, the chai spice of the cookies lingering around the corners of his mouth, and the weariness and warmth of his tongue pushing against mine.
We settled against each other, testing and trying each other out. I'd spent months learning his habits, subtle ticks, and how to drive him to distraction with a snide remark or an unexpected moment of kindness. Now it felt like I was filling in the gaps, discovering just how pushy John was and when he'd yield. And just the feeling of his mouth and hands.
John turned his head away briefly to breathe and murmur against my cheek. "If I am being too forward--"
"Hell's bells, John, are you serious?" I griped, not wanting to hear it. "I haven't kissed anyone in fifteen months."
His eyes narrowed. "Was it Kincaid?"
"Never mind," John growled and distracted me with another kiss. I fell gladly into it. It was like riding a bike, except if riding a bike felt this good, I'd drive my car into the Lake and never use anything but a bike ever again. It settled something in me, felt so good, new but familiar. I cupped John's head and yanked him in harder, earning an amused, surprised, "Mmph," from him.
It was easy and unrushed for a long time, until John shifted and grabbed my thigh. He coaxed my leg up, hooked around his. I was about to tell him I wasn't someone he could just manhandle as he pleased when his hips moved. We shifted into a rough grind that sent sparks up my spine. It was amazing, like the first rain after months of nothing but snow. Cracking open the oven and getting a blast of delicious-smelling air. Drinking a cup of tea on a cold day and feeling the heat slowly spread through your chest. All those things combined. I groped at him, uncoordinated but wanting, unsure how to make it better.
I opened my eyes, watching us wind from one kiss to the next. John's face was frighteningly intent, a little line creasing his brow. It was almost funny and definitely endearing to have all that focus on me; I'd never seen him grant that much attention to anything but his legal work. His hand kept dragging up and down my thigh, edging closer and closer to curling around my ass, but always backing down.
Turning my head, I took a breath and said, "If you treat me like glass..."
John blinked slowly, his brain catching up. "Treat you... no, I didn't mean to--" He cut himself off, tucking his face into my neck and grazing his teeth against my skin. His hands finally got friendly, fingers squeezing, as if my skinny ass had anything to squeeze. My hips stuttered against him, and he huffed a laugh. "Better?"
"Nngh." My head thumped back against the wall. He licked up my neck, against the grain of my end-of-the-day stubble. He bit me just hard enough under my chin and I whined. "Fuck, John."
"Harry... Harry, let me," he straightened up and worked his hand between us, sliding hotly under my shirt, nails scrapping my skin. That hit an itch I didn't know I had, as though he was scratching off an old patina, a thick layer I'd let build up and spread over me finally coming off. I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him in tight, trying to trap that hand where it was.
"Mother of Christ," John groaned and redirected, his fingers hooking in the band of my jeans and pulling, suggestive.
I caught his wrist. "John."
He reeled back instantly, and I got a proper look at his face: flushed, eyes bright, his pupils blown wide, his irises thin green circles. "Sorry, I didn't--"
"No, that's not a no, that's a not here," I said quickly. "I am not doing this in my kitchen; that's just wrong! I make food for people here!"
He relaxed, tension unspooling out from his body. "All right. Do you have an alternative?"
He smiled. "If you'll have me."
"Yeah." I'd definitely have him.
I couldn't just run upstairs, unfortunately. I had to double check the ovens were off, make sure the doors were locked and the alarm armed, flip off all the lights... John waited for me at the foot of the stairs, projecting an air of patience that I knew was bullshit, no matter how earnest it seemed.
I flicked off the last light, sending us into darkness. The storm outside was making a racket, but for once the pounding on the roof and the monstrous rumbling wasn't keying me up painfully. I was too busy grabbing John's sleeve and pulling him up the stairs. He turned his arm, tangling our fingers together, and pulled me to stop.
"I was serious. If this is too much for you, I'm in no rush," he whispered.
That was sweet. Really, it was, a consideration no one had ever given me before. And there had been a few. But, "John, how about you let me decide when it's too much, okay?" He nodded, lifted my hand. "Oh, enough of that." I shook him off and grabbed his collar, reeling him in for something less chaste.
I kept getting sidetracked. Trying to kiss him and get us both upstairs turned out to be quite the task; when I took a step, I suddenly was out of reach, towering over him. I could have just, you know. Stopped kissing him for ten seconds. Or I could yank him up and send him along first and keep ravaging his mouth. That worked better.
The door was locked, because I'm paranoid and keep it locked as often as I can. Digging out my keys took more coordination than I had to spare, and any I had vanished when John tucked his hands into my back pockets and started mapping out my clavicle with his tongue.
I got my keys and fumbled with the door, trying to get it open. Thinking in a straight line was getting harder and harder, along with other things. It was almost inevitable that I dropped the keys when John ground our hips together, the metal clattering against the wooden floor. "Oh, fuck, mm!"
He turned us, pinning me to the wall at the top of the landing. And then I didn't care about getting inside my apartment anymore; we were out of the kitchen, and that was what mattered
With John busy massaging my ass and murmuring appreciatively against my neck, I took over the task of getting pants loosened. I couldn't get a key in a lock, but I could unbutton and unzip and get John's belt loose. Getting him to take a step back was a challenge. "John, some help? Come on."
He managed to stop groping me long enough to get my jeans shoved down, my boxers with them. The broken noise I made when he fisted my cock was embarrassing, but I didn't care. He exhaled against my lips. "Legs. Just a little wider and I can--"
"Oh, stars." I had to make an effort to understand what he said. "I can't, jeans are in the way, that's good, just..." I whined, "Don't stop, don't."
"I've got you. I've got you," he started to say over and over. And he really did. I wanted to get his slacks out of the way, and it was difficult with his hand working at me. It'd been so damn long. My eyes kept lidding and I sagged back against the wall, sinking deep into the molasses-thick arousal. "Just like that, Harry."
He chuckled and stopped, pulling away. I almost grabbed his hand and put it right back where it'd been. He just pushed his slacks and my jeans down before plastering against me, getting my leg up around his hip like earlier, and wow, that grinding felt even better without so many clothes in the way.
He was panting against my shoulder, palms planted on the wall for leverage, rockin our hips together. Maybe it was because it had been so long, but that alone was doing all sorts of good things for me. I curled around him, gasping raggedly into his ear and let him take care of it. I could remember the last time I'd had sex; I couldn't remember the last time I'd just let go.
So if it was over pretty fast, blame that. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
John's hips stuttered and he was coming too. I think he'd been fighting it for a while. He was too short for me to lean forward and rest my head on his shoulder, but I bent down to do it anyway. Which was nice, especially when John cupped my neck, rubbing his thumb in soothing circles. That, along with the way all my tension had been stripped out of me, made me more than ready to curl up and sleep for a week.
Stars, that would be a dream come true, but I had to get up in a few hours time and I wasn't even in bed yet.
Reluctantly, I lifted my head off John and bent down to get my keys. Doing so separated us, and made it obvious how sticky and gross we both were. Not unexpected, and I was just happy it wasn't in my kitchen. Between the rain and other, uh, fluids, John's nice slacks were wrecked pretty badly. But I probably had some sweat pants that wouldn't be too long on him...
I opened my door and glanced back at John over my shoulder. He had taken a step away, and I felt something cold and hard knot up in my gut.
Screw polite distance, I thought angrily and pulled John over, kissing him. This time, it was slow, unhurried and heavy with afterglow, and John's mouth took mine greedily, completely lacking that eager-to-please sweetness from before. I didn't mind.
I drew back and breathed against his cheek. "Look, I may snore."
John smirked. "I'm a very sound sleeper," he murmured.
I pulled him into my apartment, kicked the door shut behind us, and flailed out one hand to lock it. "And I have space issues. A lot of them."
"I'll keep that in mind." His gaze wandered curiously around my apartment. It was too dark to see anything properly and I wasn't about to give him the walking tour. Maybe some other time.
The storm thundered over us, reminding me. "I'm bad with loud noises too. Storms scare the hell out of me."
"I'll help. I'll stay with you when one hits."
Like tonight. I bit my lip, so stupidly pleased and thrilled, it was hard to focus. I thumped into the doorframe to the bedroom, cursing under my breath when my heel knocked into the wall. John's lips pressed together and he tried not to smile. I let go of him, made it into my room without any more embarrassment. and flumped onto my bed. Sleeping with my clothes on wasn't unusual for me-- I ended up in the shower every morning anyway. "And you should know that I'm a massive mess, John."
He looked down at me and frowned, eyes flicking over my rumbled state. He didn't seem to find it a turn-on, either. That was fine, I could be obliging. I sat up and pulled my shirt off, throwing it aside, then propped one of my feet on John's knee. It took me waving at my shoe before he caught on and plucked at my shoelaces. He got that one off, then did the same with the other. "Even if that were true, and I'm certain it's not," he said as my shoes thumped to the ground, "I happen to think you're worth the effort."
That was good. I could deal with that, even if it was a little ridiculous. Back when we first met, John was the last person I expected to care about anyone but himself. Even now, I wasn't clear how much this was him caring about me or him wanting this to work out of sheer stubbornness and inability to accept defeat."Come on. Are you always going to say the right thing?"
John shook his head. "No. I think we've already proven just how cavalier I can be. But," he turned one of my hands and kissed the flesh under my thumb. I was starting to think he had a thing for my hands. Something to remember. "I endeavor to never repeat mistakes, and to learn from them."
The bedside lamp was bright enough I could see his eyes, their laser focus on mine. Thing was, he looked dead serious, like he wasn't kidding with the cheesy reassurances. "I, uh..." His mouth was still against my hand, and I rubbed his cheek lightly, thinking. "I don't do this. Let people in. It doesn't end well, ever."
John's fingers tightened. "I won't hurt you. And I'll destroy anyone who does."
Ah. Huh. I blinked.
He frowned. "What? Wrong thing to say?"
"I don't know. Uh. I can't decide if that's creepy or really sweet."
John's brow knit together. "Are those mutually exclusive?"
Come to think of it, I wasn't sure. And for the moment, I didn't care. I was riding a warm, hazy feeling and it made me more agreeable than I usually was. John took advantage, stripping us and tossing our clothes in a heap on the floor. He made a displeased face at them, and I snickered. "Nothing dry cleaning can't fix?"
"I'd rather not test the limits of my launderer's discretion. I'll buy a new suit."
Tired, I dragged down the bed covers and sprawled under them. They were still cold, and I ran my feet to and fro, trying to warm them quickly. "Guess I'm pretty expensive then."
John looked at me, at my wiggling, and smiled. "I promise I don't mind."
Throwing a hand over my face, I groaned. "Enough with the mushy crap, you've made your point. Now get over here and make yourself useful."
It was much more comfortable with the two of us tucked into each other. John tried to get away from my cold feet, but the bed wasn't big enough, so he settled and begrudgingly let me hook my ankles around his legs. In return, his arm wound across my chest, holding snugly. There were only two pillows, but when you were bunched up on a bed that wasn't meant for two people, sharing was easy.
John palmed my hip, thumb rubbing against my skin. I smiled, closing my eyes.
"While we're trying to... drive each other off by providing a bit of informed consent..."
I tucked my head against the pillow. "Are you breaking out the legalese? Seriously?"
"It's important." His voice had lost most of its humor, low and somber.
I looked at him, trying to pay attention even though I was warm and comfy and sleep, man, sleep would be good. "Okay."
He sucked in a breath. "I... am often a workaholic. I can be distant without realizing it. I have shown already that I react... poorly to jealousy. And everyone from Donar to my daughter has pointed out I can be rather arrogant."
I frowned. "Huh?"
"I simply mean that you were never wrong about me. There is a lot of... baggage to me. And I know you are still sorting out your own, and I wouldn't want to--"
"Are you..." I jawed at him for a second. "Are you warning me off?"
"I was reciprocating." He shrugged one shoulder. "Turnabout. Fair play. Et cetera. Und so weiter."
"Shut up. Just... stop talking. You should never talk, come to think of it." When he opened his mouth again, I put my hand over it. "I get it; we're both screwed up. Don't care, at least not right now. Can't we..." I dropped my hand, sagging back against the bed bonelessly. "Can we figure this out later? That's a thing adults do, right?"
John smiled. "Yes, I think they do."
"Great, 'cause I am dog ti--" There was a flash so bright, I could see it through the curtains. The bedside lamp flickered, and I stared at it, breath catching in my chest.
John reached out, turned it off, and pulled me in so my forehead was against his. His face filled my vision, blocking out everything else. "Right then. As I recall, you have an early morning tomorrow, as I do. Let's try to sleep."
I did more than try. Any other night with a storm like this, and it would have been beyond me. But that night, I was wrapped up in winter sheets, body heat, and happy endorphins. And John. I was out before I knew it.
It's not like I was expecting anything in particular when I woke up in the morning, but I wasn't expecting to find John on his way out.
The bed dipped, and I squinted my eyes open to watch John wearing a pair of sweatpants that were made for my legs, not his. He was rolling up the bottom cuff so the hem didn't hang down past his feet. He finished with one leg and stopped, his Lawyer Sense tingling or something, and looked over his shoulder to me, seeing I was awake.
"Leavin'?" I mumbled, turning my face into my pillow.
"Mr. Kincaid is a very good sitter, even on short notice, but I don't want to leave Ivy in his care for much longer. He teaches her terrible life skills." He brushed my hair from my forehead and kissed my temple. "Things she doesn't need to know unless she decides to become a Navy SEAL."
I grunted, and shut my eyes again, resigned.
"Believe me, Harry, if I didn't have to go see to Ivy, I would not be awake at this ungodly hour."
Shit, that reminded me..."Time?"
The numbers didn't mean anything to me. What was that in bakery time? "How long 'til open?"
"Oh. Three hours."
I flung out an arm and pawed at the nightstand. "Set alarm?"
"Set your alarm?"
John laughed quietly. "All right. An hour before open?"
I nodded and relaxed again, listening to the click of buttons as John set things up for me. "Thanks." I reached until I caught his arm and held on for a moment. Mm, biceps. I didn't expect those lurking under his fancy suits. "You need a ride? You can take my car. The keys are..." Actually, I had no idea. I didn't drive often. "Somewhere."
"I have a taxi coming. Besides, you might need it."
"Nah. I don't... go out a lot?" That sounded a lot worse out loud than it had in my head. "Kind of pathetic. I didn't tell you, 'cause pathetic guys aren't attractive."
"Then clearly you aren't pathetic."
I forced my eyes open so I could roll them at him. "That was terrible."
"Well, yes." John smiled. "Perhaps you could go out more often. Say, next weekend? There's this band Ivy likes playing a show, a rock adaptation of the Táin Bó Cúalnge."
Whoa. Those were not the sort of words people were supposed to use after only a few hours of sleep. "Huh?"
"I thought you'd be interested. You seem to enjoy a certain amount of esotericism."
I blinked at him. "I am not awake enough for this. Uh. Ask me later?"
"Later. Absolutely." His grin widened as he bent down to kiss me, close-mouthed but warm and comfortable. He had some stubble starting to spread over his jaw, which was an weird texture. But not bad-weird. I tended to like that, to tell the truth.
I didn't give that much more thought, dozing off again as John let himself out.
A few more hours of sleep and Bob's pep potion got me up and moving enough to get the shop open, even if I probably could've used more rest. I needed to just cave in and take a nap, and I had the feeling Bob knew it too; he kept smirking at me knowingly, like he had some kind of sex radar that kept him in the loop. I avoided him for a while, always keeping myself busy with something so he couldn't ask any probing questions.
I just wanted to enjoy it, without Bob's exuberant, unneeded approval. If only for a little while.
Thankfully, Hendricks wandered in and Bob made a nuisance of himself, suggesting "foolproof tactics" and dispensing dubious romantic advice. Though, to be fair, Bob had suggested poetry to Hendricks, and that had gotten him a date. Maybe Bob knew what he was talking about.
Or, as they say, a broken clock is still right twice a day.
The storm from last night was little more than a vague memory, seeing how I'd had other things on my mind at the time. But it had raged, and seemed to knock every leaf from every tree in Chicago, then helpfully blown them right to my store. While Bob was watching the counter, I fetched a broom and swept all the tracked-in leaves back out, then tried to brush the mulchy mess away. A few minutes of work, and the leaves were picked up by one of the winds of the urban canyon, chasing them away to haunt another shop's door.
A tug at my apron called my attention down to Ivy. She was bundled up for the cold, looking toasty in her puffy coat and cherry red boots. "Mr. Dresden, it's colder than average today. Where are your winter clothes?"
I peered past her to John bundled up in his own great coat. His hands were tucked deep in his pockets and he hung back, watching us with a fond smile.
Ivy used her grip on my apron to pull me down. I bent obediently and was rewarded with her fuzzy purple scarf looped around my neck. She tucked it into a knot and stepped back. "There. Better."
The scarf was obscenely soft and I tangled my fingers in the loose woolen knit. "Thank you," I said sincerely.
John joined us and put a gloved hand on his daughter's shoulder. "Head in and take your coat off. I'll join you in a moment," he said softly.
Ivy looked at the two of us, namely the conspicuous lack of space between us, and practically skipped away. At least we had Ivy Marcone's approval. Woe betide anyone who didn't.
The moment the door shut behind her, John leaned up and kissed me soundly. I nearly dropped my broom in surprise. "Um!"
John laughed, full and open with his head tipped back. "Sorry. Much like your baking, you're somewhat difficult to resist."
"You... never struck me as a PDA kind of guy." Because he really hadn't. Big stupid romantic gestures, sure. Standing on your tiptoes to kiss someone in the middle of the street? Didn't seem like John at all. Obviously I was wrong there.
John's lips titled down. "I could just as easily not, if it makes you uncomfortable," he said seriously.
He thought... I shook my head. "No. I was just surprised." And, barring last night, I hadn't kissed someone in such a long time, it was mortifying. Part of that was my fault, yeah, because being on my own was just easier all around. For years, I tried to wall myself up to make it harder for anyone to get in and hurt me. But then Thomas happened, and that all crashed down, leaving me sitting confused on the ground surrounded by mortar and loose bricks. It didn't seem worth it anymore. Not with what I was missing out on. I thought it was good enough, but not anymore. Not with the prospect of John so nearby. Not with the fact I had a brother now. Not after learning my best friend had been dating Luccio and I'd had no idea.
To hell with it, all the distance.
"No," I murmured. "I'm fine. Not even. I'm good." I smiled, and took a page from his book and stole a kiss, but longer, slower, savoring.
It wasn't perfect. But it had potential. For the first time in years, things were getting better.
The bell on the door rang and Ivy stuck her head out. "Father."
John was still looking at me, a bit dazed, but smiling. "Yes, Ivy?"
"Cupcakes. Kitty-cat cupcakes."
I snorted. "Come on. I think Ivy needs your magic money card."
He raised an eyebrow. "What, I don't eat for free now? My plan has fallen to pieces, it seems."
Ivy sighed. "Father." Nothing got between her and the tiramisu cat-cakes, not even her dad.
I nudged John to the door. "Come on. I'll make you a panini," I murmured, herding everyone into my shop, out of the cold.