Five Weeks before Christmas
“Hey, have you seen Coffee-Croissant today?”
Darcy almost didn’t hear the question over the screech of the steaming wand in the pitcher of milk Alysha was foaming for a cappuccino. She looked up from her inventory sheet and frowned. “Who?
The barista rolled her eyes and finished the milk, pouring it into one of the bakery’s large red mugs and adding a dash of sugar on top before she called out the name on the ticket. “Coffee Croissant,” she repeated herself, waiting for Darcy to react. When she didn’t, the younger woman continued. “You must know who I’m talking about. Blonde hair, blue eyes,” she motioned to the bottom half of her own face, “some super sexy scruff and the shoulder-to-waist ratio of a Dorito?”
Darcy’s frown remained in place. “Are you describing a real-life person?”
“So real-life,” Jamie added from the front register, sounding dangerously close to a swoon. “I know you’ve seen him before,” he admonished. “He comes in every Wednesday morning and gets a large coffee and a plain croissant.”
She bit her lip and tilted her head to one side. “Oh, right,” she said, feeling stupid for not remembering the sinfully attractive man who patronized her little bakery once a week. She shook her head and chalked it up to pre-holiday rush stress. “But to answer your question, Leesh, no, I haven’t seen him today.”
Another ticket printed back, pulling Alysha’s attention away from her boss and back to her work. “Shame,” she sighed and pulled a double shot of espresso.
It was Darcy’s turn to roll her eyes as she looked at her watch. “He might still come in,” she said, offering them both hope. “It’s only a quarter to five.”
“Oh no,” Jamie shook his head. “If he was coming in, he’d be here by now. He’s never in any later than ten.”
“Well...” she finished counting the boxes of raw sugar packets under the espresso bar and stood up. “That’s a little creepy that you two are so invested in his schedule,” she commented mildly, “but I’m sure he missed us and will probably be back next week.”
“You mean you’re sure he missed you,” Alysha commented with a smirk on her full lips.
Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”
“He missed you last week,” Jamie added with a teasing lilt in his voice. “He came in when you were at the bank last time,” he said before she could ask him to explain. “He was totally trying to play it cool but he looked like a lost little puppy when he realized you weren’t around.”
She rolled her eyes again. “Oh please,” she laughed and pushed back her hair. “You’re so precious.”
“No, I think he’s right,” Alysha agreed with a knowing nod. “When I gave him his drink he was even like, ‘Just you two today?’ which was definitely his way of asking if you were around.”
“Fascinating,” Darcy said dryly. “I’ll have to start wearing lipstick again on Wednesdays,” she quipped before she tapped her pen to her clipboard and glanced between her employees. “But in the meantime, we all have work to do, so let’s at least pretend like we’re doing it, huh?” She pointed to the Alysha. “Make sure that machine is set to clean before you leave tonight and Jamie--”
“Signs are printed, voicemail is changed, and all our social media blasts are set up for tomorrow,” he finished her sentence and waved her away with a smile. “Go finish your inventory. We got this.”
And they did. Of the ten people Darcy employed, Jamie and Alysha were some of her favorites. Exceptionally talented with customers and knowledgeable about the menu, both excellent baristas, and both almost as fiercely loyal to Queen of Tarts Bakery as Darcy herself.
She felt a smile play across her face as she listened to Jamie switch seamlessly to Spanish to assist a family looking to place an order while she was left free to finish counting the to-go containers and red and white pastry boxes.
It was almost an hour later, as she entered the data on the computer in the tiny, cramped storage room she’d converted into an office, that Alysha knocked on the door. “Hey,” her curly hair fell over her shoulder as she swung in on one arm and offered her boss a grin. “We’re super dead all of a sudden. So we cleaned and mopped and I told Jamie to go home. I can cover the front.”
Darcy glanced at the clock. “Um, actually, I am just about finished here so you can head out,” she said slowly, momentarily distracted by the algorithm that calculated her production cost each week. She looked away from the screen and smiled. “I was thinking I’d stay open for another hour or so,” she shrugged. “Maybe we’ll help out a last-minute straggler before tomorrow.”
Alysha looked dubious. “You sure? I can stay.”
She shook her head. “No, no, I’m good. Didn’t you say you had a cheesecake to bake?”
Her barista grimaced. “Shit,” she muttered. “Totally forgot I said I’d do that. What do you think my impossible-to-please mothers will like? Carrot cake cheesecake or chocolate mousse cheesecake?”
Darcy grinned. “Either way, I think you’re gonna knock it out of the park. If your moms don’t like it, you just come over and have Thanksgiving with me.”
Alysha cocked her head to one side. “Hey, what are you doing anyway?”
“Same as usual,” she answered with a bounce of her shoulders before she glanced at the mountain of canned goods they had been collecting all month. “The trucks from the shelter will be here at nine, then I’ve got pies to bake and I have to be at my Aunt Selma’s in Flatbush by three.”
“That sounds nice.”
“It is,” she agreed before she grinned. “Now stop stalling and bake your cheesecake.”
Alysha made a sound of frustration. “Seriously though, what recipe?”
Darcy crossed her heart. “Super swear. Happy Thanksgiving, sweetie.”
Alysha crossed the small office in a single stride and gave Darcy a quick hug. “Happy Thanksgiving,” she echoed. “I'll see you Friday.”
The wave of hustle and bustle they'd been sailing all week had finally died, leaving Darcy with an empty shop for the first time in days. She did a needless wipe down of the counters before rearranging the wet-floor sign and checking to make sure that Jamie had thoroughly mopped under each table.
She’d just decided to restock and wrap her cold pastry case when she heard the bell chime above the door. Darcy called out a quick greeting from behind the counter and gave her guests a chance to look around while she finished her task.
It was only a moment before she realized she was being watched.
The blue eyes on the other side of the cold pastry case were hard to miss as Darcy restocked the chocolate eclairs. They belonged to a little girl with a round face and sandy blonde hair, who looked on with interest as Darcy worked.
She smiled and stood up, noticing the blue eyes followed her as she did. “Anything I can help you with?” she asked, coming around the case to the counter and leaning on her hands.
Her short customer looked to be about eight or nine years old, missing a few teeth when she smiled politely up at Darcy. Her hair was pulled up in a high bun and she wore a black leotard and floaty pink skirt under her puffy purple winter coat. She scrunched up her face in consideration and turned her attention back to the top shelf. “Are they called macarons or macaroons?” she asked, pointing to the brightly colored confections on the top shelf of the case.
Darcy smiled and leaned forward so she was at eye level with the little girl. “These,” she followed the child’s point with her own fingernail, “are macarons. They’re French cookies and they are de-licious.” Her new patron smiled before Darcy continued. “But everyone comes in here and calls them macaroons which are actually something totally different.”
This news was met with a solemn nod. “I want to say it right,” she insisted.
Darcy raised her eyebrows. “Wanna try one?” Normally giving away her merchandise wasn’t something she made a habit of—especially the delicate little cookies that took hours out of every week—but rules were made to be broken. And as her mother was always so fond of saying, what was the point of owning your own bakery if you can’t give away a few treats every now and then?
“Oh, yes please,” the little girl said quickly before she stopped herself and caught her lip between her teeth. She glanced toward the other case, where a man was bent over, examining the cakes in the main display case. “Can I try one, Daddy?”
The man stood and Darcy forced herself not to gulp. Hello, Hot Dad, she thought before she catalogued the broad shoulders, narrow hips, and all-American good looks standing on the other side of the counter. Coffee-Croissant, she labeled, suppressing a smile as Alysha’s ‘Dorito’ comment bounced to the top of her mind. “Just one,” he said, glancing toward Darcy with a half-grin and a set of blue eyes to match his daughter’s. “As long as they were offered and you didn’t just invite yourself.”
“I didn’t,” she said, shaking her head effusively before she looked at Darcy. “Right?”
She found herself unable to stop smiling. “Absolutely,” she said firmly and removed the macaron tray from the cold case. She presented it to her guest. “What looks good, little miss?”
The question brought a sparkle to the child’s eyes and another grin that dimpled her cheeks. “They’re all so pretty,” she said, almost wistfully, before she looked up. “Which one’s your favorite?”
“The black currant,” Darcy pointed to the row of dark purple cookies on the far-left edge of the silver tray. “But I’ve been selling an awful lot of the salted caramel and the dark chocolate lately.”
Little pink lips twisted in thought and she tapped a fingernail against her mouth while she narrowed her eyes, seriously considering her options. Her father laughed. “Come on, Charlotte. Just pick one. She doesn’t have all night.”
“But I want to try them all,” she insisted. “I can’t pick.”
Darcy grinned and glanced at the clock. “You know, it’s just about closing time,” she admitted. “And I’m the boss here. I bet I could hook you up with a few flavors if you promise not to tell anyone.”
The child’s eyes widened. “Really?”
She held a finger to her lips. “Our little secret,” she said and grabbed a bag from under the counter. “And as long as you promise to share with mom and dad, okay?”
“Oh,” Charlotte didn’t miss a beat. “My mom’s in heaven; it’s just me and dad.” Before Darcy could react to the brusque way this news had been delivered, the little girl was already eyeing her left hand closely. “I notice you’re not wearing a ring.”
“Ohhhkayy there, little lady,” her father had crossed the length of the counter in two quick strides and clamped a hand on her shoulders. “You’re getting into dangerous territory.” When he looked up, Darcy noticed his cheeks and the tops of his ears were red. And from this angle, she couldn’t help but notice that he really was good looking.
Like, crazy good looking.
No wonder Jamie and Alysha paid such close attention to his schedule.
Charlotte shot her a guilty grin. “Sorry,” she said, not quite managing to sound genuine.
“No worries,” Darcy assured her as she dropped five varieties of macarons into the paper bag and raised her eyes to the man. “You’ve got a junior detective on your hands there, sir.”
“His name is Steve,” Charlotte piped up. “Steve Rogers.”
Steve Rogers looked flustered. “Uh, yeah,” still blushing, he held out a hand. “That’s me. And this is Charlotte.”
Darcy shook his hand. “I’m Darcy Lewis,” she said with a laugh.
Charlotte looked up at her father. “She’s the boss, Daddy.”
“Well then you better hope she doesn’t throw us out of here for asking too many questions,” he said, only half joking. He took the bag of cookies and handed them to her. “Do me a favor and go share with your uncles, okay?”
Charlotte’s blue eyes darted between the two of them. “Okay,” she said after a moment of not-quite-awkward silence had passed. She stopped at the door and waved over her shoulder. “Bye, Darcy! Thank you!”
Darcy waved back. “Bye Charlotte,” she echoed. “It was nice to meet you.”
The bell jingled and Steve laughed nervously, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Sorry about that—I don’t know where that came from.”
Darcy smiled. “Don’t worry about it,” she assured him. “It’s not the worst thing anyone’s ever noticed about me. And all things considered, she’s pretty delightful,” she added genuinely.
He shook his head. “Thanks,” he said, watching her eye them through the front glass as she approached two men waiting by the meter who gladly accepted the cookies she offered. He cleared his throat. “So...you’re the boss?”
She nodded. “Guilty as charged.”
He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Would that make you the Queen of Tarts?”
Darcy laughed. “Oh no. My mother was definitely the queen,” she assured him with a smile that she hoped didn’t reveal how much using the past tense still hurt her heart. “I could be the Princess of Pastries, I suppose,” she decided, pleased when he grinned back at her. “Or the Countess of Custard.”
“Equally respectable titles,” he agreed with a decisive nod before his eyes wandered over her shoulder. “Is that her?” he asked, pointing to the wall above where they stacked the plates.
Darcy followed his gaze and let herself notice the black and white photo they’d framed and hung up three years ago. “Yep,” she said, smiling at the image of her mother, standing behind her at a stand-up mixer, steadying her six-year-old daughter’s hands as they poured in a cup of chocolate chips. They were wearing matching, frilly aprons and were equal-parts covered in sugar, flour, and giggles. Raina Lewis’s curly brown hair had been pulled up in a messy bun at the top of her head and held back with a red and white polka-dotted bandana. Darcy still had that bandana in her top drawer at home. “That’s the queen.”
When she looked back, Steve was smiling in a way that made her notice the crinkles at the corner of his eyes. “You look just like her,” he said, unaware that that particular compliment always made chest twinge just a little bit. He studied the photo for a moment longer. “Is that here?” he asked, noting that the backdrop of the photo was the same black and white tile of the backsplash behind the counter. “Has this place always been a bakery?”
She nodded. “More or less. My grandparents sold flour and baking staples and only a few kinds of breads, but she took over from them in 1980, I think? Changed the name and gave the place a facelift and started selling sweet treats and the doors have been opened ever since.”
He looked impressed. “Must’ve had quite the touch.”
Darcy grinned. “I used to think she put love potions in the food, the way people would wait around for hours just to talk to her or get her advice on a new recipe. But,” she shrugged. “That’s just who she was: pure sugar from the inside out. Impossible to resist.” She looked over her shoulder at the photo for another moment before she looked back at Steve. “Anyway, she left the store to me and I’m going to leave it to my daughter someday and hopefully Queen of Tarts has a nice long reign in Brooklyn.”
Steve smiled. “How old is your daughter now?” he asked.
Darcy frowned. “I don’t have a daughter,” she said, confused before she realized what she’d said. “Oh,” she shook her head. “Oh, no. I don’t have children and as your girl pointed out,” she held up her bare left hand with a grin. “Not married. But, y’know,” she shrugged. “Maybe someday.”
He grimaced, embarrassed again. “I really am sorry about that; she doesn't usually do that...”
She laughed. “It’s fine,” she promised. “But it just occurred to me that you might have come in here for something other than my life story and I’ve kind of monopolized your evening.” She took a deep breath in and raised her eyebrows expectantly. “Was there something I could help you with?”
Steve blinked and shook his head, appearing to refocus. “Oh, yeah, actually,” he let out a dry laugh and shook his head a second time. “Yes. I completely forgot that tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I’m supposed to bring dessert.”
Darcy grinned. “Does your family like cheesecake?”
He scoffed. “We’re New Yorkers,” he reminded her. “Everyone likes cheesecake.”
She nodded. “Right answer,” she said and moved toward the other cold case. She directed his attention to the center row where two full cheesecakes were left, the rest having been picked over throughout the course of the day. “You’re in luck. We still have a full pumpkin and a full banana bread left.”
He looked distraught for a moment. “Banana bread cheesecake?”
“It’s a banana bread crust,” she explained. “And there’s bananas, cinnamon, and walnuts in the cheesecake itself.”
“Sweet Jesus,” he murmured and crossed his arms over his chest, bending down to examine the two cakes more closely through the glass. Darcy realized instantly where Charlotte’s indecisiveness had come from. After a few moments, Steve glanced over his shoulder and toward the front window. Charlotte and her two large bodyguards were still waiting by the meter. Darcy couldn’t help but notice that all three were doing an excellent job of pretending not to be watching what Steve was doing. He caught her attention and waved her back inside. The bag of cookies, Darcy noted as she pulled open the door, was nowhere to be seen.
“You’re taking a million hours, Daddy,” she reminded with a heavy sigh.
He chuckled and waited until she was standing in front of him. “Which one do you think Auntie Nat will like the best? Banana bread or pumpkin?”
Charlotte grinned up at him again. “Get both!”
He frowned. “There’s only going to be ten of us, sweetheart.”
“But three of us are going to be you, and Uncle Sam and Uncle Bucky,” she reminded, ticking names off on her fingers. “You should get both.”
Darcy smothered another smile between her lips as Steve looked back sheepishly in her direction. “She makes a decent point,” he admitted. “If those aren’t spoken for, I guess we’ll take both.”
“I’ll box them up,” she said and slid down the counter to prepare their purchases, thrilled that she wouldn’t have to worry about them going to waste before Friday.
“There’s a sign by the door about baking classes,” Charlotte said as Darcy slid the first cheesecake into a white cardboard box and unwound the twine from the spool to hold it closed. “They start on Saturday and they go until Christmas.”
“Oh yeah?” Steve asked, sounding genuinely interested in what his daughter was saying.
“Can I do them please?” Charlotte asked. “I don’t have Brownies until the beginning of next year and they’ll be done by then.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe. Are you sure they’re for kids?”
“They are,” Darcy called from her boxing station. “I do two,” she said as she reemerged with two boxed cheesecakes. “Ten to noon is for parents with kids under seven and one to three is for kids between eight and twelve.”
Charlotte took Steve’s hand and gave it a gentle tug. “Daddy, I’m eight,” she reminded softly, making Darcy laugh again.
“I know how old you are,” her father assured her, looking from Charlotte to Darcy and back again before he let out a flustered laugh. “Sure,” he shrugged. “I guess, if you really want to try it out. Do we have to...” he looked back toward Darcy, “does she need to bring anything?”
“Nope,” she assured him with a wide smile. “Just herself.”
“Got it!” Charlotte exclaimed with a little jump, still holding Steve’s hand. “This is going to be so much fun!”
He glanced over and shook his head, a smile playing on his lips before he looked at Darcy again. “Why do I feel like she’s going to be talking me into a five-hundred-dollar mixer by next Christmas?” He reached into his pocket and sighed as Darcy giggled. “Speaking of, how much do I owe you?”
She rang him up and slipped a flyer for the baking classes into the bag. “Well thanks so much for coming in, guys,” she said and handed the bag over the counter after he'd tucked his change away. “You made my night.”
Charlotte beamed. “Are you going to teach us how to make ma-crons?” she asked, trying to pronounce the word properly.
Darcy caught the smile Steve tried to hide as she decided she didn’t have the heart to tell this little girl they would not be making dreamy French presidents in her class. “Those are a little tricky,” she admitted. “Usually we start off with something a little more user-friendly. How do chocolate peppermint brownies sound?”
Charlotte and Steve looked at each other with identical interested looks. “Pretty great,” she decided with a nod. “I’m in.”
Darcy grinned and offered her hand like a business deal. “Glad to have you on board.”
They shook with another smile from Charlotte before she returned her hand to Steve’s grasp. He looked at her expectantly and gave her hand a wiggle. “What do you say?”
“Thank you, Darcy,” she said obediently. “Happy Thanksgiving!”
“Happy Thanksgiving,” she echoed, waving at them as they headed toward the door. “Enjoy the cheesecake!”
“See you Saturday,” Charlotte called over her shoulder. “I can’t wait!”
Steve offered a sweet, almost shy smile as Darcy followed them to close and lock the door behind them. “It was really nice meeting you,” he said, pausing as Charlotte dropped his hand and ran back to her escorts. He coughed once and smiled again. “Darcy.”
She smiled back. “Likewise, Steve. I’ll see you Saturday when you drop off Charlotte.”
“Looking forward to it,” he said before he frowned and shook his head. “I mean, she is. She’s looking forward to it.”
Darcy’s grin stayed in place. “Me too.”
She watched them disappear down the block and twisted the deadbolts into place. Her cheeks were still a pleasant shade of pink as she hung up the ‘Happy Thanksgiving! We’ll be back on Friday!” signs.
Darcy finished up her close, still grinning, having decided to add the memory of the way Steve’s jeans fit to the list of things for which she was most thankful indeed.