Phoebe peered into the shop window. The CLOSED sign swayed in her periphery. Oh, come on. It was only 5:59 p.m. and the Peppermint Sweet’s website clearly stated they were open until six.
She rapped on the glass and aimed her best please face to the young thin blond behind the counter. The girl peered over her glasses, pursed her lips, and shook her head. Phoebe pointed at her watch. She needed a fruitcake, dammit, and she wasn’t leaving without one.
Her head bumped into the glass at the male voice. She turned to face the guy and got an eyeful of a woolen coat over a broad chest. She looked up…and up some more. Wow. Tall.
She straightened to her full height—six feet—and he still dwarfed her by many inches. “Um, yeah.”
She spun back to the door and pressed both her hands against the glass. “Please?” she mouthed again. Aunt Milly said specifically, “pick up the largest fruitcake you can get from Peppermint Sweet—and only Peppermint Sweet.” Her Aunt had been baking and cooking all week for her annual holiday bash, and Phoebe’s one contribution was to be this damned cake.
Fruitcake. Ick. The shop clerk should be glad Phoebe was unloading them of one more of the disgusting holiday traditions.
“Let me try.” The man didn’t wait for her answer but stepped up and inserted himself between the door and her, rather rudely if you asked Phoebe.
He knocked on the glass and showed his palm to her in a half-hello move. Like that’d work?
Miss Prissy Shop Worker Who Couldn’t Be Bothered circled the counter and was opening the door faster than if Idris Elba himself had asked to come in. She smiled up at him. “Oh, Mr. Breedan, I was wondering if you’d make it. Just on time.”
This could not be happening. Mr. Tall, Dark and Late shows up and he gets ushered inside?
Phoebe could work with it. A key rule of any deal was “an opening is an opening.” She darted into the shop before the woman could utter a word.
The girl pursed her lips at her once more but then turned glowing eyes toward Tall Guy. He was handsome and had a generous smile. It appeared sincere, too, unlike the guys she’d spent all day with today negotiating Bryson Manufacturing into caving to her merger demands.
Why couldn’t the men she met—and she met a lot of them as a manufacturing mergers and acquisitions specialist—be this handsome… and smiley? Wow, one night out of the office and she was already lamenting about her dried-up social life?
Get back on task, girl. You came for a fruitcake and nothing else.
“Scarlett, you’re a gem,” he said. “And it’s Henry to you.”
Scarlett waved her hand. “You say that to all the hot bakery chicks. Well, I’ve got your order right here.” She pulled out a white paper package tied up in red and green string and set it on the counter.
While Henry fished his wallet out of his overcoat, Phoebe set her hands on the glass counter.
“Scarlett,” Phoebe cooed. “I’d like a fruitcake, please.”
“I’m sorry, Miss. But we’re sold out.”
She didn’t hear that right. No one liked the stuff outside of Aunt Milly. “Not even one? Just a small one? It’s really important.” Phoebe turned on her begging eyes. In retail, no one ever truly sells out of anything—not if they want to stay in customer’s good graces. Orders get mixed up all the time, and having a few stashed in the back for such times is just be good business.
“I’m sorry.” Scarlett shook her head and didn’t sound sorry.
Phoebe turned to Henry and pointed to the white package. “Is that a fruitcake?”
“It is.” He nearly sang and handed over a fifty-dollar bill. An expensive fruitcake, too, apparently. “The best in town.”
Scarlett beamed a Christmas-bulb watt grin at him that almost made Phoebe blush because the woman’s thoughts were so transparent. They said spread me out like pastry dough and knead me, baby.
She couldn’t blame the girl. He was double-take worthy. Probably triple-take.
Who knew needing a fruitcake would put her in the way of a man like this—tall, dark, friendly, smiley? She was putty in the wake of smileys—at least outside the boardroom.
She didn’t have time for this. Be still libido. You get nothing until that fruitcake is in my hands.
After pocketing his billfold, he picked up his treasure and smiled down at her again. “Take care.” He then turned away – with apparently the only fruitcake in town tucked under his arm.
“Wait,” she called. “How about I cut you a deal?”
He slowly turned around. “A deal?”
“I don’t suppose I could buy it from you?” She cocked her head. “And I’ll throw in anything else in the store. You choose and it’s on me.” A negotiation rule was to sweeten the pot when one can, especially if said sweetener was not something she minded handing over. A cake or two was easy to toss into the deal.
She wafted a hand toward the impressive-looking cupcakes and pies in the glass counter. “Those pies look amazing. So much better than …” she pointed at his purchase. “… that thing.” That fruitcake that she’d do anything for. She turned to Scarlett “No offense, Scarlett.”
The girl actually smiled. “None taken. But—”
The woman’s words were cut off when Henry raised his hand again. He eyed her and rocked back on his heels. “Anything, huh?”
She felt her hands moving to the lapels of her coat, closing them. “Almost anything.”
And, just like that, Phoebe was sprawled out on the glass countertop with Henry—in her mind only, of course. Her sudden, spicy, mental flashcard moment wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t had a date, let alone sexy times, in months.
He arched an eyebrow. “What’s your best offer?”
“A hundred dollars? And then any other dessert in here.” No. Sexy. Times. She needed a Christmas dessert.
Quiet stretched between them. In Phoebe’s periphery, she caught Scarlett watching Henry intently.
“$200,” Phoebe said. Silence was usually good when angling for a win but she was out of time. She was late to Aunt Milly’s. “And as many desserts as you want.”
He lifted the fruitcake, which balanced perfectly in one palm. “You must really want this fruitcake.”
“It’s the only thing my Aunt asked for. I’m Phoebe, by the way.” She held out her hand.
“Henry.” He returned her handshake. “It was all my client asked for, too.” He stepped toward her, still gripping her palm.
“Any price, you say?” He still gripped her hand.
“Yes.” She couldn’t believe she was saying all this. Phoebe did not violate negotiation rules and she’d blown the first three already.
One was don’t need whatever you’re trying it get. Two, was know your limits. Three was be willing to walk away. Plus, she’d made it personal. One should never, ever make something personal.
She still had number four left, and it was pretty powerful. There is always a price. Know it before going in. This guy had to want something.
Henry peered down. She wasn’t used to looking up toward men due to her height.
Scarlett took the stool behind the counter. “Oh, this should be good.”
“Tell you what. I ordered a big one. We could split it.” He finally dropped her hand, pulled the package out from under his arm, and placed it on the counter. “Scarlett, will you do the honors?”
Phoebe gasped. “Show up with half a cake? She’ll notice. Your client will, too.”
“Of course they’ll notice but who cares?”
She crossed her arms. “Second rule of being a good guest. Do not show up with a maimed dessert.”
He laughed. “And the first?”
“If they ask for fruitcake, you deliver.”
Scarlett set her chin in her palm. “She’s cute, Henry.”
“She is. Quite the little negotiator, too.” One side of his mouth inched up.
Cute? Phoebe was not cute. She had her good days and bad days. But she was a great negotiator. At least she usually was. “Listen, Mr. Breedan. I’m not—”
Scarlett hopped off her stool. “You should ask her out. I’ll throw in a pie if we can make it happen.”
What the ever-loving… Phoebe eyed Scarlett. Was the woman on drugs? She studied Scarlett’s eyes. Hmm, was she?
“The pumpkin?” Henry gazed over Phoebe’s head toward Scarlett.
“I think I can do that,” the young girl said.
Phoebe held up her hands. “Look. I just want a—”
“Fruitcake. We know,” Henry filled in for her. “But you did say any price, and I need a date. Tonight. Be mine? Then the fruitcake is yours.”
His gaze locked onto her face. Man, he had to have nice eyes, too? But a date? This was ridiculous. “I don’t know.”
“Late.” Late as hell now to Aunt Milly’s pre-Christmas gathering.
He blinked and glanced at her belly.
“Oh, not pregnancy late.” She laughed, nerves dancing on her vocal chords. She did not get nervous, like ever. What was wrong with her? The guy needed to stop staring at her, that was all. “I’m just late with the fruitcake.” Plus, her Aunt had someone she wanted Phoebe to meet, and Phoebe would not show up as the incompetent fool who could not commandeer a fruitcake.
“Which is sold out, remember?” There went his grin again. “So, it’s yours if you’ll accompany me. An hour tops. We can make some excuse to Mildred about the fruitcake. Pumpkin is a fruit, after all.”
It is, but…” She shook her head. Okay, she could play—but only because she really, really needed that thing. “It depends. A date to your client’s home or restaurant?”
“Home. Bishop’s Gate.” He gave her another one of his swoony smiles. Friendliness at all times was negotiation rule number seven, and he was being very, very good at it.
“Oh, Bishop’s Gate is fancy,” Scarlett sang behind her.
Okay, it was the most expensive part of town, which meant he was likely safe. Also, Bishop’s Gate was her Aunt’s neighborhood. Still, safety was safety.
Phoebe held out her hand. “Business card please.”
Henry patted his jacket pocket. “Sorry. Didn’t bring any.”
Who doesn’t bring business card with them? She had them stashed everywhere, even in her gym bag.
“Is that a deal-breaker?” His hazel eyes didn’t waver, his thick eyebrows didn’t raise, and his smile didn’t show any signs of dimming.
Shoot. This guy was good. He held all the cards. Ah, well. Some days you win, somedays you lose, she reminded herself. Or, in this case, compromise.
She sighed. “I can only stay for an hour. And I get the whole fruitcake.” She could do this for Aunt Milly. She’d secure the ickiest dessert known to Christmas. Have an hour with a very handsome man. Then, she’d go on to her Aunt’s. Meet whoever she wanted her to meet. Then, she’d go home. Have a long bath. Life would go on. It was settled.
She peered up at Henry. “I’ll follow you in my car. I’m headed that way anyway. But if I end up in a footlocker at the bottom of Lake Charles, you’ll have to explain it to my Aunt. I’m warning you. She wants this fruitcake, so don’t screw it up by being a serial killer.”
Henry at least laughed.
“I can vouch for him.” Scarlett rustled behind her. She was putting a pie into a white box. “He’s a gentleman and loves our shade-grown coffee too much to go to prison. They have terrible coffee there. Or so I heard.”
Scarlett handed over the pie box to Henry who jutted out his arm toward Phoebe. “Shall we?”
She took his arm. “I’ll take the fruitcake with me in my car. I’ll follow you.” She’d make up some story for Aunt Milly about why she was now going to be hella late.
“Deal. Oh, and I’m new to town. I don’t even know where Lake Charles is so you’re safe.” He winked down at her.
That wink met something. All the way to her car she mulled it over in her brain. She was going to die, wasn’t she? She would, indeed, end up in that footlocker. That was her thought as she trailed behind his taillights as he pulled out onto the street. And it would all be the fruitcake’s fault.
Traffic was heavy but the maybe-serial-killer Henry was quite courteous in driving slowly so she could follow his gigantic Ford Explorer. It was silly she followed, really. She knew the way to Bishop’s Gate, since she’d be there a hundred times before. And, if he did anything strange, she’d at least know the neighborhood if she had to make a run for it.
Okay, her imagination was officially on overdrive. She was overworked and overtired and who knew fruitcake had a scent that now filled her car and made her nauseous?
Rain started falling—hard—which was probably why she’d gotten so distracted and didn’t realize Henry’s SUV stopped… right in front of Aunt Milly’s.
Wait. Milly. Mildred. Oh, Jesus. She’d just negotiated a date with a guy over a fruitcake that would have ended up here, anyway?
Her car door opened suddenly, a huge umbrella shielding the space between her and the curb. Well, at least Henry was a gentleman and not a criminal. In fact…
She stood up. “Tell me. Did you know I was coming here to this house all along? Who I was?” This guy did say he was new in town and Aunt Milly had said the same about her mystery date.
“Nope.” He jutted out his arm again. “But it dawned on me at Peppermint Sweet. The gorgeous niece who could command a boardroom like a Rockstar that I was to meet tonight? Who was to bring a fruitcake but might forget? Hence, Mildred’s request for me to pick one up? It added up.”
“But what if you’d been wrong? And you’d shown up with a date?” He led her up the sidewalk. Her arm had magically slipped into the crook of his arm so easily without her even realizing it.
“I’d have let her off the hook so she could leave early… with her fruitcake. I’d done it the second Mildred made sure I met you.”
Oh. “That’s polite.”
They paused before the wide double door, and he faced her. “There’s nothing polite about what I’m thinking right now. Trust me.” He looked down at his shoes for a second and then back up at her. He then leaned toward her and whispered. “But not in a serial killer way. More like a … ” He paused, his lips inches from hers. He wanted to kiss her. It was all over his face.
She swallowed. “Well, I’ll have you know, I’d have paid $500 for that fruitcake.”
He chuckled and pulled himself upright again. “She told me you liked to win. But right now, I think I’m the one winning.” He rang the doorbell. “I can’t wait for our second date.”
O-kay. Aunt Milly had terrible taste in desserts but her taste in men? Most definitely improving.
If you’d like to read more about how the Peppermint Sweet Bake shop brings people together, check out the Meet Cute Series here!