My hands shook as I lifted the key to fit it into the lock of my bakery. Being alone in the early morning hours usually soothed me. No one was out walking their dog or jogging. I had a few hours of silence before customers came in, and my solitude was overtaken by the morning rush.
But this morning, the quiet was deafening, overpowering the sound of my heart pounding in my ears.
Through the store window, the chairs were visible on top of the tables like normal. Nothing looked out of place, but I couldn’t stop the trembling of my fingers.
I startled at the thump of soles against the pavement. Was it an early morning jogger or someone up to no good?
Worried, I shoved the key into the lock, willing it to fit. When it turned, I pushed open the door, the alarm chirping. I glanced over my shoulder as a shiver ran up my spine.
A man ran toward me at a good clip, a black hoodie covering his head and face.
My heart jumped into my throat as I slipped inside, my hands already pushing it closed when a rough, gravelly voice asked, “Are you open?”
The man was close. Too close. He’d stopped in front of my door, his head down.
“No,” I said, my voice shaking. I needed to close the door, but the alarm was dangerously close to going off. I inputted the code on the pad next to the door, but kept one finger hovering over the panic button.
My desire to be nice to a potential customer warred with my fear that this could be the guy who’d broken into my friends’ shops.
No one had ever seen him, but then, I went to work earlier than everyone else.
I moved so that more of the glass door was between us. If I attempted to close it, would he shove his foot in the doorway, or would he use his arm to block the door from closing?
“That’s too bad.” He hunched over as if he were recovering from a hard run.
“Do you need water?” I asked before I could stop myself.
He wasn’t carrying anything and was probably thirsty.
Why had I offered? He could be the robber or even worse. My mind raced with all the possibilities. I could just see the headlines: Local Baker Found Dead in the Early Morning Hours.
I shivered, tightening my grip on the door.
“That would be great.” He lifted his head slowly, the cut of his jaw visible before his strong nose and eyes.
Warm brown eyes. He was so familiar. I knew him.
Shock flew through my system as my hand fell away from the alarm system.
“Sophie?” His expression was a mix of surprise and something else—regret?
“Mark.” My heart clenched. I knew exactly who he was—my high school sweetheart—the one who’d left. The summer after graduation, he turned eighteen and enlisted in the Army.
“It’s good to see you.” The surprise was gone, and in its place was warmth. So much warmth. It was like a cozy blanket I could wrap myself in. I wanted to fall back into those fuzzy feelings he gave me back then and forget everything that came after.
“You too.” It was still early, and my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I was most likely weak from the adrenaline rush.
A few seconds ago, I thought I was about to be robbed, but even knowing who this man was, I couldn’t relax, not entirely. This was the man who’d walked away from me so easily.
Initially, I’d hoped he’d come back to me and admit he’d made a mistake. That the timing just wasn’t right for us in high school, but then he’d gotten some girl pregnant. And I shoved that fantasy down deep.
At eighteen, I had younger siblings to help raise. I couldn’t even think about building a future for myself.
“How ’bout that water?” Sweat dripped from his brow.
I was tempted to wipe it with my fingers, to run my hands through the hair that was buzzed short. Would it be soft? His hair had been longer when we’d dated, and I’d loved running my fingers through it.
“Sorry. Let me get that for you.” I stepped back, letting him enter before shutting and locking the door.
I wasn’t afraid of my ex—at least not physically, but emotionally, I’d be smart to keep my distance.
He wouldn’t rob me of anything other than my good sense and my heart. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
I grabbed a water bottle from the refrigerated case behind the counter, desperate to put space and physical barriers between us.
He sat at the counter to the left where I’d recently added stools for customers to eat.
I handed the bottle to him, and when our fingers brushed, I hoped he didn’t notice my fingers trembling. It had nothing to do with the robber still on the loose and everything to do with him.
He rested the bottle against his forehead and closed his eyes. “Thank you for this.”
I laughed despite my fear and the awkwardness of facing my high school heartbreak at four in the morning. “You’re not going to drink it?”
His gaze lowered to mine, and he slowly smiled. “I’m getting to that part.”
I blinked. He reminded me so much of the boy I’d dated. He was easygoing and fun, as long as his dad wasn’t on his case that day, and even if he was, Mark was good at brushing it off. I felt special because I was the only one who saw the real him.
He unscrewed the cap and took a long pull. I was mesmerized by the up-and-down motion of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed.
There were so many other things I could have been doing. Gathering ingredients. Starting the dough. Turning on the ovens. Instead, I was frozen in place.
Once he’d drained the entire bottle, he set it down.
“Would you like another?” I asked.
“I should get going and let you do your thing.” He nodded toward the kitchen in the back.
“I do have to get to work.” Yet I was reluctant for him to leave.
I imagined him sitting on the counter in the kitchen as he told me about the last ten years. It was a ridiculous idea because we weren’t even friends anymore. The familiar pangs of loss pricked my heart.
He’d tried to reach out after his mother told me about the pregnancy, but I hadn’t responded. It had been too painful, especially when I’d thought we still had a future. His actions obliterated that idea.
He stood and lifted the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead. My gaze was drawn to the very defined abdominal muscles. He hadn’t looked like that at eighteen.
Mark exuded masculinity and strength. His shoulders were broader, his arms larger, and his abs were more defined. I couldn’t stop myself from following the happy trail to the waistband of his athletic shorts and the bulge the mesh material did nothing to hide.
I swallowed hard. Needing water, I turned away from him. Fumbling with the refrigerator door, I unscrewed the cap and took a drink. The cool liquid soothed my dry throat.
Why was I reacting to him like this? We’d dated in high school, but we’d moved on. Or at least, I thought I had.
“I’ll get out of your way.” His voice was deep.
I turned around and pasted a smile on my face. “You’re fine.”
“I’m sure you have things to do.” He stood and moved around the counter. My heart thudded with each step he took, wondering what he was doing as he got closer. He leaned down, and I sucked in a breath, thinking he was going to kiss me when he tossed the empty plastic bottle in the recycling bin.
I startled at the thud of the plastic bottle hitting the empty can, my entire body heating at his proximity.
Mark turned slightly, taking in the dining area. “You’ve got a great place here, Soph.”
Goose bumps danced over my skin at the familiar nickname. He’d stopped in one other time during a town festival, but we hadn’t had a chance to talk. Not like this. “Thank you.”
He stepped closer and lifted a hand as if to brush aside the strand of hair on my forehead. But then he dropped it. His expression filled with remorse. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
After he’d seen the hurt I’m sure was evident on my face when he told me how he’d enlisted, he’d proposed. It felt rushed. Like he hadn’t planned on asking me to marry him. It felt empty. Not at all how I imagined that moment.
I’d said no. I had to stay to help my family. I couldn’t help raise my sisters if I was traveling and moving around at the will of the military. “So did you.”
He’d wanted to escape and to make a man of himself. Someone who would make his father proud. I had my doubts that anything would help in that department, but he’d been determined. I’d wanted him to get peace, and if enlisting helped him get that, then I wouldn’t stand in his way.
He frowned. “I didn’t get everything I wanted.”
Was he talking about me? Hope flooded my chest despite the rational part of my brain that was telling me he wasn’t mine and never would be. “I guess that’s part of being an adult.”
My response was generic because we weren’t friends or confidants anymore.
He nodded tightly.
“Are you back in town for a visit?” I asked, continuing with safe small talk as we slowly made our way to the front door.
Outside, the sky had lightened slightly.
He turned to face me. “I moved back.”
My heart fluttered in my chest. “You moved to Annapolis?”
He nodded. “It’s the perfect place to raise a child.”
I barely restrained the wince at the mention of his child. “Oh, right. Of course, it is.”
For a few seconds, I’d forgotten his betrayal. At eighteen, I’d stupidly hoped he’d come back for me. That he’d tell me raising my younger siblings wasn’t my responsibility. That I had an amazing future ahead of me, if only I grabbed on and took it. But then it all came crashing down.
He wasn’t free to be with me. He had other responsibilities, and so did I.
I wanted to ask if the mother of his child was here, too. If they were together, even if they weren’t married. But I wasn’t privy to the details of his life anymore.
“I never thought you’d move back.” The pain of him leaving was sharp in my chest. It dulled over the years but came roaring back to life with his appearance.
He was quiet, as if considering his words. Finally, he said, “Things change once you have kids.”
“Right.” I wouldn’t know, as I’d never had any. I’d just raised my sisters as if they were mine. It was a good reminder of how different we were. He’d been in the military for the past ten years, traveling the world and having amazing experiences, while I’d stayed right here, getting my degree from home, raising my sisters, and then finally opening the bakery.
I was a business owner. He was a father. We had nothing in common. As kids, we were escaping the reality of our homelife. For him, it was the expectations of his father; for me, it was the pressure to step in and take on my mother’s role after she died.
“Thanks for the water.” His gaze was swimming with an emotion I couldn’t decipher. “It was great to see you.”
I nodded, unable to say those words because this moment was bittersweet. It was like encountering the one thing you’d always wanted but could never have.
Then he was gone, and I regretted all the things I didn’t say. I miss you. I want to see you again. I want to know who you’ve become. I want to show you who I am.
I locked the door behind him and reset the alarm. Then I checked the clock on the wall to note I was twenty minutes behind my early morning routine. I did things in the same order every morning because I knew I’d get it done before opening. There was a comfort to that rhythm. Mark’s presence had thrown me offbeat.
I usually felt pride when I took in the white wainscoting, the frothy pink paint, and the dark wood tables and chairs. The marble counter was my recent splurge. I wanted customers to feel decadent when they came inside.
Now it seemed meaningless.
How could one encounter erase all my progress to get over him these past ten years? Instead, I was right back where I was at eighteen. When Mark told me he had no choice but to enlist, that everything in his life had led up to that moment. I was crushed. I couldn’t think about anything other than him leaving me.
He’d asked me to marry him, but there was no ring, no dropping down on one knee. The proposal felt like a last-minute decision. As if he’d just realized he couldn’t leave me behind. I needed more than that. I wanted to come first, not be an afterthought.
I told him no because I couldn’t leave. I didn’t have a choice, and I thought he understood that. He knew my situation better than anyone. My teachers always commented on what an amazing job my father was doing, but in reality, it was me holding the family together.
I’d hoped Mark would ask me to wait for him. He hadn’t. He’d moved on before the pain of his leaving dissipated. The familiar hurt burst in my chest, reaching every nook and cranny, making it difficult to breathe.
I needed my routine. I needed to bake.
I moved blindly through the store to the kitchen, my respite, my oasis. Here, nothing could touch me. Not Mark. Not lost opportunities or regrets.
I took great satisfaction in the stainless-steel counters and appliances. Everything was clean and sparkling.
I wasn’t my sisters’ pseudo-mother or everyone’s best friend and confidante. I was Sophie. The baker.
The girl who’d thought she made the biggest mistake when she let the love of her life walk out the door. I rubbed the familiar ache in my chest. That one act negated everything we’d ever shared. Made me doubt every sweet word, every kiss, whispered promise, and declaration of love.
I thought he’d regret his decision to leave. He’d come back to me, but when he left, I was apparently out of sight and out of mind.
I squared my shoulders as I pulled out the ingredients I’d need for the morning. I’d grown up in the last ten years. I wasn’t the naïve girl he’d dated. I was a successful businesswoman. I didn’t need him walking back in here and eroding everything I’d built, along with my confidence.
Besides, he was here for his daughter, not me. He wanted to give her a better life. He wasn’t here to right some wrong or declare his undying love for me. I was too practical to believe those fantasies anymore. People left, or they died. And those who were left behind had to pick up the pieces and move forward.
I sucked in a breath. Mark was here to stay. I’d have to see him around town and pretend he didn’t mean anything to me. I wasn’t sure I’d survive.
Who knew a cancelled flight would turn out to be the best night of my life? He didn’t know what my life was like before he offered me a seat at his table. I don’t know how, but he could see I was crumbling inside. I had become an expert at hiding my true feelings and life’s desires but with Cash, he saw through the mask I had grown accustomed to wearing. That night with him was the first time I was able to be myself. He listened to me. For the first time in my life, I felt free, wanted, and cherished. But more than that, I felt seen. Our time together was effortless but unforgettable. But the night came to an end too soon.
Ivy It should have been just one night. One insane night where I tossed out inhibitions, my reserved nature... my brain cells. I let myself go with a total stranger. I had no idea who he was. Just that he protected me. Made me feel safe. And I did what any self respecting girl would do after a crazy, mind-blowing night. I waited till he took a shower and snuck the hell out of there.