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Cake Walk

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‘Knead to Know’, a small bakery owned by pastry chef David Allen, was a popular spot for morning commuters, so it wasn’t uncommon to find one or two particularly early birds lingering outside the door before opening... but the two men David spotted there this morning as he exited the kitchen with a tray of paris-brests weren’t his standard customers. Well, one of them wasn’t anyways; he wasn’t sure about the other.

Never one to be rushed by others when in the middle of a task, David took a moment to place the freshly baked rings of choux pastry and cream in the display case as his assistant swept out after him and noted the same thing he had.

Rather than put her own tray of croissants into the display case the way her employer had, however, the woman shot David a dry look, which he ignored, and said, “You could let him in early.”

“I will when I’m done,” David replied as he glanced sidelong at the petite woman who was still giving him a look that said she was disappointed in him. At 5’9”, the pastry chef wasn’t a tall man, but he still had several inches on Kara when he straightened and turned to face her.

The woman had been working for him nearly three years now, almost since he’d first opened the bakery, but that look still got to him. Kara was a few years younger than himself, but she had such a powerful ‘mom energy’ about her that it took a person far stronger than himself not cave before the force of her disapproval. Even those that could tended to wind up regretting it eventually. Kara was perhaps one of the most kind hearted people he knew, she’d give a stranger the shirt off her back, but she had an excellent memory.

Still, he was her boss.

“Let him in, then,” David said with a soft snort as he took her tray of croissants and bent to add those to the display case as well. “I’ll handle these.”

Knowing full well what the man was doing, Kara rolled her eyes but did as she was told, lifting the section of counter that separated them from the front of the shop and striding towards the front door. Her approach was noted almost immediately by the two men waiting outside, and she smiled at them both as she twisted the key and let them inside.

“Mornin’, Kara. Glad to see one of you is feeling hospitable this morning; fuckin’ freezing out there,” Hank said as he passed her, cheeks and nose ruddy from the cold. The calender and the local weatherman had declared it spring at last, but the temperature still hovered around freezing at night and into the early hours of the morning.

“Good morning, Hank,” Kara told the man with a warm smile, then glanced at the tall, quiet man who had accompanied him. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Connor,” Hank said, jerking his thumb at the man before he could answer for himself. “He’s my new sous chef.”

“Oh,” Kara said with a blink. “What happened to-” the woman frowned a little, brow furrowing in thought as she struggled to recall the name of his last sous chef. Normally she had a knack for remembering that kind of thing, but Hank went through assistants like the bakery went through rolls of parchment paper.

“Didn’t make the cut,” the man said with an almost irritated wave of a hand, clearly displeased by this fact.

“Ah,” the woman said in a carefully neutral tone before turning and offering her hand to the newcomer, who had yet to say anything. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Connor. I’m Kara.”

Being just as tall as Hank, Connor towered over the petite baker, and his hand dwarfed hers when he accepted and gave it a shake. Kara was pleased to note that, though small, the man’s smile was warm and genuine as he replied, “It’s nice to meet you too.”

“My order ready?” Hank asked as he approached the counter where Allen had finished putting away the croissants and moved on to a tray of decadent eclairs.

“Oh yes, I was just about to box it up, actually,” Kara said as she ducked back behind the counter again. “Give me a minute.”

“Sure thing,” Hank said as he flashed her one of his lopsided grins and leaned against the nearest section of counter so he could watch David work.

Before he could say anything, however, David beat him to it and, in perfect French, asked, ‘Another sous chef? How many is that since January now? Ten?’

Standing politely in front of the display case with his hands tucked into the pockets of his coat Connor looked at him and blinked in surprise that only increased when when Hank cracked a grin and just as fluently replied, ‘Six, you prick.’

Allen grunted, though a smile tugged at his lips as he finished his work and set his tray on the back counter before moving to the register and beginning to ring up Hank’s order from memory. He glanced at Connor briefly as he did so, then looked back at Hank and asked, ‘Think he’s going to last or are you going to be back in here next week with number eleven?’

‘Seven,’ Hank corrected again with a snort, then looked at Connor speculatively. Unable to follow the conversation of the other two men, despite being certain he was the subject of it, the sous chef had turned his attention to the contents of the display case, an inscrutable expression on his pale, angular features. ‘And who knows. He’s promising, I’ll say that much,’ Hank added with a shrug.

Allen crooked a brow at this admission. It didn’t sound like much to an outsider, but Hank admitting that someone was ‘promising’ was high praise indeed, which made the pastry chef give Connor a second look. Tall, pale, and freckled with a lean build, he had dark hair that swept mostly to one side with the exception of his forelock, which continually fell across his forehead. He seemed the introspective type, which was a relief after Hank’s last sous chef, who had been an unrelenting chatterbox. David wasn’t particularly sorry that he wouldn’t bee seeing him again.

“Here we go,” Kara said as she pushed back through the swinging door from the kitchen with three cake boxes stacked neatly on top of one another then placed them on the counter.

“Great,” Hank said, swapping back to English as he flashed the woman another smile and pulled the boxes closer while Allen ran his credit card. “What’ve we got this week?” he asked as he opened the top box and peeked inside. Beside him, Connor stepped in to take a look as well, clearly curious.

“The top one is a tarte tatin,” Kara explained, then tapped the middle box with a finger and continued, “then there’s a tarte aux fruits and a raspberry linzer torte.” She leaned in a little as Hank opened those as well to give them a brief inspection and, with a conspiratorial smile, said, “That one was my idea.”

“The Francophile let you put something Austrian in his oven?” Hank joked, grinning viciously as he looked at David who rolled his eyes and passed him the receipt.

“The Francophile is going to shove you in the oven if you don’t shut up,” the pastry chef countered.

Hank scoffed while Connor looked at Kara and said, “It looks wonderful. The lattice work is very impressive.”

Kara beamed and said, “Thank you. I don’t have another for you to try, but-” she looked at the back side of the display case for a moment, then slid open one of the doors and plucked out a paris-brest and offered it to Connor. “Here, try this instead.” When the man hesitated to take it, she waved it a little in encouragement. “Go ahead, my treat.”

Connor glanced surreptitiously at the other men and when David noticed, he raised an eyebrow and said, “You might as well. You’re going to need it, working with this casse couille .”

Hank barked a laugh and shot back, “ Blaireau . Shut up.”

“Just ignore them,” Kara said in a low voice as the pair continued to bicker back and forth over the counter while Hank closed the cake boxes back up. “They’re always like this.”

“Aggressively French?” Connor asked with a rueful smile as he cast them another sidelong glance, then accepted Kara’s offering.

The woman smiled and wrinkled her nose. “Pretty much, which I’ve always found funny considering neither of them is actually French.”

It was true, too, though both men had spent extensive time in France in their youth. Hank had spent years in the French Foreign Legion before finally retiring and returning to the states to open his steak restaurant down the street. Kara never had learned just where the man had learned to cook, but he was damn good at it, and it was a rare night the place was wasn’t packed to the gills. He’d never been much for desserts, though, which was why he’d been featuring their baked goods on his menu for years now, something that went over well with his patrons.

“No airing my dirty laundry to the kid until he’s been here at least a month,” Hank told Kara with a chiding wag of his finger and the woman chuckled.

Connor raised a brow at his boss, then turned back to Kara and said, “Well, I’ll be back in a month, then.”

“I certainly hope so,” she replied with another smile. “Feel free to visit in the meantime, though.”

The front door opened and a customer entered, distracting them all from the topic at hand as Kara turned to assist them. Hank took his stack of boxes in hand, but before he turned to leave he hesitated and, lapsing back into French, asked, ‘You checked out your new competition yet?’

David’s mouth twisted and he sighed through his nose at the thought of the new bakery that had just opened up down the road. Its appearance had taken him (and the rest of the neighborhood) completely by surprise. The owner of the pizza place that had previously occupied the space had, after being in business for over twenty years, decided to finally retire. Property in the area went fast on the rare occasions it was available at all, which was why no one had been particularly surprised when someone had snapped up the location within days. The renovations had gone fast too, and with his own shop to run, David hadn’t even realized it was a rival bakery going in until it was suddenly open for business.

‘Not yet,’ David admitted, grimacing a little. He should; he knew he should. There hadn’t been too much of an impact on his numbers yet, but he’d be a fool not to check out what the new place was offering, if only to make sure there wasn’t too much crossover and adjustment his menu if there was. Curious, he arched a brow at Hank and asked, ‘Have you?’

The restaurateur scoffed. ‘Nah. Glanced in the front window on my way past one day, though,’ he admitted. ‘Looked like a lot of cupcakes, cookies, birthday cakes, that kind of stuff.’

David nodded thoughtfully, a little relieved in spite of himself. He didn’t doubt the quality of his pastries, of course, but he was a savvy enough businessman to know that customers could be fickle, easily distracted by new things if you didn’t pay attention. Better if he made a point of stopping in so he could witness for himself,  just to be safe.

“You’ll be fine, don’t worry about it,” Hank continued a moment later in English when the pastry chef threatened to get lost in thought.

“Yeah,” David replied with a half-smile. “Thanks, Hank.”

The older man shrugged, then looked around for his wayward sous chef and found him looking out the window, already almost done with his paris-brest. “Connor!” he called, making the man jump almost guiltily, “If you’re done scarfing down freebies, we’re going. Got lunch prep to get to.”

Connor nodded and finished off the pastry, wiped a spot of cream from the corner of his mouth with the pad of his thumb, then hurried forward to take the boxes from Hank. His employer held the door open for him, but before he left, Connor paused and looked back at Kara and Allen, then said, “It was a pleasure meeting you. And thank you for the pastry, it was very good.”

Hank rolled his eyes at the niceties, then pushed him out the door while David chuckled and Kara waved.

Once they were gone, the woman turned to David and remarked, “He seems nice. I hope he lasts.”

Later that afternoon, David had found himself a seat in the sun next to one of the shop windows and was enjoying a kouign amann he’d baked earlier that morning while he checked his email when a customer entered.

The pastry chef glanced up out of habit, though he’d left Kara in charge of the counter while he took his break so he didn’t get up himself, but that didn’t stop him from staring a little at the newcomer. He was tall and blond with eyes bluer than the spring sky outside the window and David’s heart leaped uncharacteristically when the other man’s gaze swept the room and caught him looking. Luckily for him, rather than be put off, the blond just offered him a smile that David politely returned before dropping his gaze back to his tablet once more.

It was a very nice smile.

David tried to focus on his email, but after reading the same one three times and retaining absolutely nothing, the man hazarded a glance up to see the stranger examining the display case, clearly debating on what to buy.

He had a nice nose too, the pastry chef found himself thinking. Long and straight over an equally nice pair of lips, the bottom of which the man was nibbling at absently as he thought. He wasn’t as broad in the shoulder as David was, but he was narrower in the hips and much longer in the leg with a real nice-

Realizing his mind was skewing into a thoroughly inappropriate line of thought, the pastry chef gave himself a mental shake, wondering just what had gotten into him. He wasn’t generally the type to have his head easily turned by a man, but there was something about this one he was finding difficult to ignore, and not just because he was good looking (though that certainly wasn’t helping things).

“What can I get you?” Kara asked the man with a bright smile.

Kara always smiled like that for customers, but David wanted to bless her for it today as it inspired the stranger to return it in kind, wider and more earnest than the polite one David had gotten a few moments before.

“Sorry, I’m still deciding,” the blond man admitted with an apologetic grimace as he gestured for the woman who had entered after him to go in front. “You go ahead,” he told her and she thanked him.

Jesus, even his voice was nice. Dark, sweet, and smooth as a good chocolate mousse.

David wanted to cringe the moment he thought it, but cheesy or not, it was true, and he wanted to hear more. Just waiting for him to talk to Kara again didn’t satisfy though, and definitely felt a little creepy, but not doing that left him with only one alternative.

He’d have to talk to the man himself.

David got along fine with people, especially once he got to know them, but going out of his way to introduce himself to a stranger when there wasn’t some sort of business to be done had never come easy to him. Still, if he didn’t act now, he’d lose his chance to say anything without coming off as a total creep, so…

“I’d recommend the canelé,” he said out of the blue, and almost immediately kicked himself. The man was standing only a few feet away, but it still felt awkward. If he hadn’t heard him, David definitely wasn’t going to repeat himself, he-

“I’m sorry?”

The pastry chef glanced up into a pair of surprised blue eyes to find the stranger half-turned towards him, clearly uncertain if he’d been addressed or not. David’s stomach flipped at the sight but he managed to keep it cool as he cleared his throat and said, “I recommend the canelé if you’re having trouble deciding.”

“Oh,” the man said and blinked, then glanced back at the case, eyes scanning the contents until he found what he was looking for. “What are they?” he asked curiously as he looked at David again.

“It’s a rum and vanilla flavored pastry with a custard center,” the pastry chef explained as he stopped pretending to read his email and put his tablet down on the table. “And a caramelized crust,” he added as an afterthought.

The man’s eyebrows went up and David’s efforts were rewarded with a smile, making the pastry chef’s heart threaten to join in on his stomach’s fledgling gymnastic attempts. “That does sound good. Thanks,” he said, then got Kara’s attention and placed his order.

Unfortunately, that left David in the position of not knowing how to continue. What other excuse could he make up to talk to the guy that wouldn’t be totally obvious? He’d made his suggestion, the other man had accepted it, and now-

Now the stranger was standing uncertainly next to his table.

“Would you… mind if I sat here?” the blond asked as David stared up at him in surprise. “All the other tables are full,” he explained as he waved a hand at the room around them, revealing that the handful of other small tables were indeed already taken.

The fact that the stranger seemed a little nervous, as if afraid David might turn him down, made things a little easier for the pastry chef somehow. He wasn’t the only one ill at ease reaching out to strangers, apparently.

“No, go ahead,” David replied immediately, pulling his plate and tablet in closer to himself to make room for the other man as he straightened a little in his seat.

“Thanks,” the blond said with a smile David thought might be tinged with relief as he took the seat across the table and settled in. He started to pick up his fork, then hesitated and offered his hand to David instead. “My name’s Simon,” he said, smile turning shy.

If Allen had thought his heart was jumping before, it tried a triple axel in the face of that sweetly shy smile now, but luckily he kept enough of his faculties not to leave the other man hanging. He took his hand and shook it, saying, “I’m David.”

“David,” Simon repeated, and Allen had to suppress a boyish grin at the sheer pleasure he got hearing that soft, smooth voice say his name. “It’s nice to meet you. Sorry to barge in on your space after you already helped me out once,” he said as he gestured to the canelé on the plate in front of him.

“Don’t worry about it,” David reassured him and was rewarded with another smile, small but earnest this time. He picked absently at his pastry to distract himself and pretended not to watch Simon as the other man finally picked up his fork and cut into his canelé, then took his first bite.

His expression was thoughtful at first, then melted into something that verged on pure bliss that definitely didn’t play havoc on David’s heart. “Oh wow ,” Simon said when he’d swallowed, a breathy chuckle of disbelief escaping him as he focused his gaze on the pastry chef again. “You weren’t kidding, this is incredible.”

David couldn’t repress a smile at the compliment, though he did manage not to look outright smug as he wondered when the last time he’d been so pleased to hear someone enjoyed his baking was. He was always glad of positive feedback, of course, but…

“No wonder this place is so popular,” the blond added after a moment as he contemplated the pastry sitting on the plate in front of him, fork hovering over it. It seemed to David, stranger though he was, that Simon’s expression had gone a little rueful. It didn’t last long, though, as he took another bite and sighed happily at the flavor that overtook his palate.

“Yeah,” the pastry chef remarked. “You should try one of the chocolate croissants next time,” he added and took a bite of his kouign amann.

Simon gave him a thoughtful look as he chewed, and once he’d swallowed, leaned in a little and asked, “Can I confess something, David?”

Surprised by this sudden turn, David blinked, but didn’t pull back despite Simon’s sudden nearness. This close, the pastry chef couldn’t help but notice that the other man smelled pleasantly of spices, though whether that was simply his cologne, or something else, he couldn’t say. “Sure,” he answered after a beat, brows lifting in curiosity as he tried very hard not to let his gaze drop to the other man’s lips.

The blond glanced back at the counter to see that Kara had disappeared back into the kitchen, then looked back at David and admitted, “I’m kind of under cover at the moment.” When the pastry chef’s brow simply furrowed in confusion, Simon elaborated, “I actually own the bakery just down the road, ‘Cake Walk’.”

Oh , I see,” David replied, eyebrows inching up higher.

He was surprised, to say the least. Not that the owner of the rival bakery had come by to apparently do exactly what he had been planning to do and check out the competition, but that they had, by pure chance, wound up sitting together. David didn’t know the man, of course, but he was convinced Simon didn’t realize he was the owner of the bakery he was currently staking out, or that David had made the pastry he was so thoroughly enjoying.

“Checking out the competition?” he asked casually as he sat back in his seat a little, a wry smile tugging at his lips.

Simon grimaced and sighed. “More or less,” he said, then quickly added, “I’m not trying to steal ideas or anything. Kind of the opposite, really.”

“What, you’re here to give them ideas?” David asked with a chuckle as he cross his arms comfortably over his chest and contemplated the other baker thoughtfully. Of course he knew Simon probably wasn’t there in an attempt to give him (or Kara) any ideas, but he’d seen the opening and hadn’t been able to resist.

“Alright, maybe not the opposite ,” Simon said with a wry smile of his own as he recognized the fact that he was being teased. David chuckled and the blond’s smile widened as he huffed a little before clarifying. “I meant that I was here to see what they had on offer so I could make sure not to do anything too similar. It’s bad enough having two bakeries so close together without trying to undermine one another.”

Simon picked at his canelé for a moment before taking another bite, his expression gone serious and thoughtful, a small crease appearing in his brow as a result. David watched him, head canted slightly to one side as he considered the other man’s words. The fact that he didn’t want to compete directly was good news, and the pastry chef was willing to believe that Simon had good intentions in visiting his bakery. It definitely took a certain weight off his shoulders, one that had been looming over him since he’d heard a new bakery was opening up just down the road.

“Not that there's much need to worry about that,” Simon remarked with a sigh and a thin smile that bordered on self deprecating.

Confused by the shift, Allen crooked a brow and asked, “Not a lot of pastry at your place?”

“I do some, but it's not my main focus,” the baker explained. “Good thing, too, there's no way I could compete with this,” he added as he gestured to not only his own pastry, but David's as well. His expression lightened after a moment, however, and he asked, “You seem to know a lot about what's on offer, though, do you come here often?”

“Oh, every day,” David answered off handedly as Simon finished off his canelé. He should probably fess up about who he really was before this went too much further, funny though his reply was with context…

The baker's eyebrows went up and he laughed. “That's some dedication; you must really love pastries.”

“You could say that,” David mused, a smile tugging at his lips.

Simon smiled in turn and the pastry chef tried to tell himself that his heart rate definitely didn't pick up when the blond leaned in a little, blue eyes bright, and said, “Well, far be it from me to try and poach customers from my competition, but you should come by my shop sometime and try a slice of cake. I'm good at cake.”

“Yeah?” David replied, working very hard to seem cool and unaffected by the man across from him. He had no idea if he was succeeding, but his voice at least remained steady as he continued, “I like cake.”

“We have a coffee bar too,” Simon added.

“Coffee's great.”

The blond's smile curled the corners of his mouth in a sweet way that put David in mind of cinnamon rolls for some reason. Cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven and dripping with icing…

Maybe he should make some for tomorrow.

“Oh, I know,” Simon said as he leaned back once more. “I practically live off the stuff,” he added with a good natured huff of amusement.

“Me too,” David admitted, and without giving it any thought, continued, “I’ll stop by sometime, see if this cake of yours lives up to the hype.”

Rather than look offended, Simon just grinned, blue eyes crinkling at the corners as he got to his feet and collected his now empty plate. “I’ll look forward to it, then.” He offered David his hand and the pastry chef stood as well before accepting and giving it a firm shake. Simon had a good four inches in height on him, so the pastry chef found himself having to look up a little to meet the other man’s eyes. Not that he particularly minded.

“It was nice meeting you,” Allen said honestly, something that would have surprised him the day before.

“You too,” Simon replied, and David flattered himself a little in thinking that the other man was as much in earnest as he was.

After Simon left, Allen remained standing next to his table for a long moment, a thoughtful, distracted expression on his face.

“Who was that?” Kara asked, eyes bright with curiosity and a knowing sort of smile on her face as she came up behind him, nearly making the man jump.

“Said his name was Simon,” David replied as he fought to keep up his mask of calm composure in front of the woman, but he knew as well as she did that it was slipping.

“Oh?” Kara remarked as she wiped down a nearby unoccupied table with a cloth. “He was cute,” she observed innocently.

“Yeah,” David agreed without thinking, then caught himself and before his employee could tease him, added, “He owns ‘Cake Walk’.”

It was just about the only thing the pastry chef could have said to distract Kara in that moment, and her eyes went wide in surprise. She looked towards the window reflexively, though Simon had long since disappeared from sight. “Really?” she asked and straightened as she came to stand next to him, brow furrowing a little as she considered this new information. Eventually, she glanced up at him sidelong and observed, “You two spoke for quite a bit.” David only hummed noncommittally as he took a seat and picked up his tablet once more in an attempt to deflect her questions. He failed completely as she continued, “Looked an awful lot like you were flirting from where I was behind the counter, actually.”

He glanced up at the woman where she still stood watching him with an attentive air she could keep up indefinitely when she put her mind to it, and sighed.

Recognizing the exhalation as the white flag it was, Kara smiled.