Peter wasn’t sure how he ended up towing his two nieces and nephew around the mall for the better half of the day, but here he was, five-year-old Cora holding his left hand hostage while her older two siblings walked ahead of them, weaving in and out of the crowds of people doing their own shopping. Thirteen-year-old Laura had four shopping bags in her hands, none of which held the birthday gift for her mother, the supposed reason why the foursome was in the three-story shopping structure an hour away from Talia's home in the first place.
Nine-year-old Derek, on the other hand, only had one bag containing the new video game he had been all but drooling over when Peter had found him an hour after he had snuck away to Game Stop while Laura and Cora were trying on clothes. The game was a bribe to keep the fact that he had lost his nephew a secret from his mother…which meant his nieces were looking for a bribe as well and while Laura was okay with a fifty dollar bill, Cora had no interest in paper she wasn’t allowed to eat. Instead, she wanted to go to the candy store, which Peter was okay with since it was next to Bath and Bodyworks. He could grab his sister a gift set from there so that at least the one thing that was supposed to be done today would actually happen. Also because by the time Cora’s sugar high kicked in, she would no longer be his problem. It all would work out.
As Peter followed Cora around with an open the plastic bag already half-filled with candy, Derek and Laura roamed the store on their own. Or at least they were. A quick glance around told Peter that his darling niece and nephew were no longer to be found…again. Before more stress could seep into Peter’s shoulders, the two missing children were rushing back into the store, their excited faces expressing that they wanted something and expected Peter to provide a way to get it.
“Uncle Peter. Uncle Peter,” they chanted as they slowed from a run to a walk after nearly bumping into a elderly couple.
“Can we have some money for the hot chocolate cart?” Derek asked, widening his eyes in a plea, something he learned from his older sister when they were younger.
In fact, a glance to Laura’s face showed she had broken out of her teenage angst long enough to make the same expression.
“Didn’t I just give Laura $50? Why didn’t you just use that? I’m not a walking bank,” Peter said, leaning the bag closer to a preoccupied Cora so she could drop a scoop full of sour gummy worms into the bag.
Laura rolled her eyes.
“That’s bribe money. I wouldn’t spend that on hot chocolate.”
“Of course not. How could I be so naïve?” Peter said, sarcasm leaking into his tone.
He pulled out his wallet and slid a twenty-dollar bill from the bill pocket. He held it out towards the two children, pulling it back once their fast hands reached to snatch it.
“Come right back here afterwards. We’ll be leaving after I pay for your sister’s candy and if you’re not back, I’m not afraid to leave you here.”
He let them have the money and they immediately took off.
“And get a small one for Cora!” He called out, noting the direction they were heading.
When he turned back around, Cora was arm deep in the bin of peach rings. As she picked up one and placed it into her mouth, she turned to give Peter a big, somewhat toothless smile with even bigger eyes. Peter sighed, tying up the bag in his hand and picking up his niece, putting her on his waist as he headed towards the cash register.
Ten minutes later, after he had to explain to the clerk that seven pounds of candy is perfectly okay for a five-year-old who was going back to her mother, Peter and his little candy monster exited the store. Glancing around the area, he noticed that Laura and Derek still weren't back yet. He carried his favorite niece on his hip as he headed in the direction the two had gone. He wasn’t truly worried about the kids being taken as Laura had enough teenage anger in her body that people should be afraid of her taking them out for just looking at her weird. Also, he wasn’t entirely sure Derek ever got over that biting phase he developed when he was younger.
Thankfully, he spotted the two still standing at the wooden hot chocolate cart, speaking to the animated person manning it. As he walked closer, he saw that the two had multiple miniature paper cups on the counter space in front of them.
“Are you two seriously trying samples right now? It’s warm milk and melted chocolate. How different can it taste?,” Peter scoffed, adjusting Cora’s position on his hip.
The man behind the counter spoke up, his voice filled with enthusiasm.
“Well, here at Hot Cocoa-mo, we have seven different flavors of hot chocolate—two of which change twice daily because ingredients run out and I have to get creative until I close up and can head to the store.”
His smile was bright, reaching his honey whisky-colored eyes. Moles spattered across his face and neck, the man with the upturned nose turned to fill a sample cup with a cream-colored liquid, steam stemming from the top. He held the cup out towards Peter with long fingers. Peter looked at it for a moment, eyebrows furrowed, before grabbing it.
“It’s white fudge oreo hot chocolate. Today’s special.”
Peter tilted the cup to look at its content before bringing it up to his lips. He drank it down, the hot liquid nearly burning his tongue as he swallowed. It wasn’t half-bad, despite the fact that he wasn’t a big fan of white fudge.
“Not bad. Still not like my grandmother’s salted caramel hot chocolate, but not bad.”
“Oh, I have that too,” the man said, getting ready to grab another sample cup and a different stainless steel carafe.
“No, I’m pretty sure that’s not my grandmother’s hot chocolate in there, so I’m not going to pass.”
He gave a tight smile and then looked at his niece and nephew.
“Two minutes and we’re leaving without you,” He said before walking away from the cart with Cora still on his hip
Not even a minute and a half later, the two children approached Peter, each holding a regular size paper travel cup and a smaller version of the same cup. Laura handed her smaller cup to her younger sister who was now standing on her own two feet. Derek held the smaller cup out to his uncle who takes it with a confused expression on his face.
“Stiles said to give you. He said ‘it may not taste like your grandma’s, but it may still give you a sense of home’…whatever that means,” Derek said, taking a sip from his own cup with a pleased smile.
“And Stiles is…?”
“The man at the hot chocolate cart,” Laura replied as if it were obvious.
Peter looked at the cup and then back over to where this Stiles was, but the man was busy helping another small family, his hands gesturing wildly. Peter then looked back at his nieces and nephew as they enjoyed their hot chocolate, well, at least Laura and Derek was. Cora was struggling to get a sip as it was too hot and she must’ve burned her tongue. At least, that’s what Peter assumed since her tongue was currently sticking out of her mouth and her eyebrows were furrowed. Peter sighed.
“Alright, you little monsters. It’s time to go.”
The three young children walked ahead of Peter, this time not moving too far away as they focused on consuming their sweet drinks. Laura held her hot chocolate in the hand same hand that held her shopping bags on her wrist while her free hand rested on her little sister’s back as the five-year-old gripped the warm cup in both of her hands like a vice, Derek on the other side of her. Peter trailed behind them, taking a sip of the salted caramel hot chocolate in his hand and while it wasn’t the same as his grandmother’s, it definitely did remind him of those late snowy mornings in Montana when he’d come downstairs and the double broiler was on the stove, melting the chocolate as his grandmother caramelized sugar in the pan on the pilot next to it. Yeah, it did remind him of home.
And that was probably why Peter ended up at Hot Cocoa-mo the next afternoon. Stiles was there, smiling as if that’s all he knew how to do, though shocked to see Peter again so soon.
“You were right.”
“I usually am, but what about this time?”
Peter rolled his eyes, amused. “The salted caramel did remind me of home, of visiting my family in Montana. It was...nice.”
Stiles beamed, his wide smile and eyes lighting up his entire face. It caught Peter off guard. The man was breathtaking, even more so when he smiles like that. Peter cleared his throat.
“So, what fancy hot chocolate do you have today?”
Stiles grabbed a sample cup and a stainless steel carafe. He filled the cup three-quarters way before opening the small refrigerator and pulling out a filled piping bag. After adding a small swirl of cream to the top, he held it out for Peter to take.
“Red velvet hot chocolate with cream cheese whipped cream. I whipped the cream this morning.”
Slightly impressed, but trying to hide it, Peter took the cup and sipped. Damn, that was good. He looked up to tell Stiles as such, but the man had an amused smile on his face that sidetracked him.
“What?” Peter asked.
“You got a little…” Stiles trailed off, motioning to his lip with his finger.
Peter used his tongue to lick the cream and hot chocolate residue from his upper lip, just barely catching Stiles’ hard swallow in response to his action. He smirked a little.
“That’s good, especially the whipped cream. I’ll take a large.”
With a pleased smile, Stiles rang up Peter’s hot chocolate.
“That’ll be $6.72,” he said, turning to grab a large paper cup and sliding on a cardboard protective sleeve.
As Peter fished out his wallet from his pocket, Stiles got to work on his hot chocolate. He filled the cup nearly to the top with the red velvety liquid before piping the whip cream with a steady hand. He placed a dome lid on top, and traded the cup for the ten-dollar bill in Peter’s hand. After typing on his register, the drawer slid open with a ding and Stiles counted back the older man’s change.
“Thanks, man. I really appreciate it,” Stiles said with a smile.
Peter returned it, though his was more like a smirk.
“No problem. See you tomorrow,” Peter joked.
Stiles laughed. “See you.”
Though it was a joke at first, Peter did end up seeing Stiles almost every day after work going forward. It was almost as if Stiles had put a drug in his hot chocolate and Peter was hooked. Or maybe Peter was just addicted to seeing the over-animated, hot chocolate enthusiast that owned the cart. No matter the case, Peter continued to stop by after work to try whatever new hot chocolate creation Stiles had come up with and then shell out $6.72 for a large of whatever it was. He’s even sampled the man’s everyday flavors, though he was always partial to the more creative hot chocolates the cart offered. No mater what he drank, Peter always left the mall with a smile on his face and a large cup of hot chocolate.
After the first couple of weeks, they had turned it into a game. Stiles would give Peter the sample and if the man correctly guessed what the flavor was, Stiles would upgrade it to an extra-large for free, a size Peter didn’t even know Stiles sold…which he didn’t until the week before when Stiles had accidentally bought the wrong size cups...again. Peter was gone off Stiles, though, which was the real reason the man drove thirty-minutes out of his way after work everyday and spent almost $40 on hot chocolate a week. He wasn't even a huge fan of the stuff prior to that first trip to the mall. His gym sessions were a lot more intense to make up for the extra sugar.
It was a month after their weird flirtation began that Peter had the absolute worse day he’s had in years. His check engine light came on in his car—which never happens—his secretary was out sick, so he had to cover both her duties and his own, the phones never stopped ringing, and his last meeting slot of the day was double booked. Thankfully, both groups were understanding and one was willing to have theirs pushed back another hour, but it still ran over, meaning Peter was over two hours late getting to the mall that night. In fact, by the time he had got there, it was going to close within the hour. He didn’t know when Stiles closed up his cart, but he still hoped the younger male hadn’t gone home already.
When Peter got to the area of the mall Stiles’ cart was in, he noticed the cart was empty, the metal grates were pulled down and locked. He almost left disappointed when he noticed two thermos in the locked display case underneath and an envelope with is name on it taped to the glass. It took Peter a couple of random tries before he realized the three-digit lock combination was 672–-the price of his hot chocolate order every day. Opening the glass door, he pulled out the two thermos, placing them on the small ledge of the cart and then peeled off the envelope.
Opening it, he pulled out a card shaped like a mug of hot chocolate. There was a print holiday inscription that had been crossed out with pen and then a written note stating that Stiles would be gone for a week or so due to a family emergency, that he was sorry he had missed him since he had to go catch a flight—otherwise he would’ve stayed until the mall closed. He had also enclosed the two flavors of hot chocolate in the thermos and—wait, was Stiles asking him out?
Peter paused for a moment and re-read the last lines.
Maybe when I get back, if you’re interested, we could go out sometime? If you’re not interested, please don’t mention this when you come back to the cart again…if you even decide to come back.
Peter rolled his eyes at the last line, a small smile playing on his lips.
It was a long six days, but Stiles was glad to be back at his cart. He loved his father, he really did, but the man seriously needed to take his health seriously. Just because Stiles was no longer there to force-feed him veggie burgers and caesar salads didn’t mean it was okay to have a free-for-all at the diner every night. He had wanted to stay home even longer, but his father had all but kicked him out of his childhood home. He supposed his step-mother Melissa, who was also a nurse, would be able to keep an eye on him, but then again, she’s the one who let him eat that steak last week. Stiles sighed, wiping down the counter top again for the seventh time in the past hour.
He knew the real reason why he was so anxious. It had nothing to do with his father and everything to do with Peter, his favorite customer and current crush. Stiles hadn’t had a crush on someone like this since high school and not dating Lydia was the best thing that’s ever happened to him. He didn’t want asking Peter out to ruin the little routine they had going on; it was the highlight of his day.
Boy, was he pathetic.
As 6:30pm drew closer, Stiles drew more anxious. Peter rarely ever strayed from that arrival time and Stiles half expected the man to pop up early and tell him to never speak to him again. He tried to keep busy and keep his nervousness out of the way while dealing with other customers, but even he could hear the strain in his voice and see the light shake of his hands.
6:30pm came and went and Stiles felt depleted. He had Pushed Peter away and now he had to deal with the consequence of never seeing him again. He knew there was a chance this would happen, but no, he just had to listen to his stupid lovesick best friend who always seemed to have the perfect relationships and the perfect breakups. Stiles love life was always a tornado from start to the finish. To be honest, Peter not showing up was probably the best rejection the man has ever had.
When 7 o’clock rolled around, a disheveled Peter rushed up towards the wooden cart, a single red rose in his hand. Stiles’ back was to him, so he hadn’t seen his approach. He nearly jumped a foot in the air, however, when a familiar throat clearing had caught him off guard.
“Sorry, I’m late,” Peter apologized. “The lady at the flower cart wouldn’t accept a $100 bill, so I had to get change.”
He held out the single rose to Stiles, who had looked between Peter’s face and the rose a couple of times before passing out.
When he came to, there was a small crowd surrounding him and a paramedic hovering over him. Carefully, Stiles sat up on his elbows, scanning the small crowd for Peter’s face. Naturally, the man was the closest to him, the single red rose still in his hand. Stiles held out his hand.
“I’ll take my rose now.”
Peter, no longer worried, cracked a smirk, handing the younger man his requested rose.
“If this is how you react when I accept a date, I wonder what will happen on our actual date.”
Stiles wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t wait to find out.