A Little Sugar, A Lot of love

ALS

Life isn’t all love and cupcakes …
Katie has had her fair share of bad luck, but when she finally realises her dream of opening a bakery it seems things can only get better.
But the reality of running a business hits Katie hard and whilst her partner, Steve, tries to help she can’t help but feel that the situation is driving them further apart. Could Katie be set to lose her relationship and her dream job?
Then, one winter’s day, a man walks into her shop – and, in the space of that moment, the course of Katie’s life is changed.
But nobody finds happiness in the blink of an eye. Sometimes it takes two Christmases, three birthdays and a whole lot of cake to get there …

Previously released as Sweet Occasions and edited by Choc Lit December 2015.

The First Christmas

Katie: The Storm Begins …

 

I glance outside and see that the rain is still slanting across in front of the window, the wind driving it at a harsh forty-five degree angle. It’s almost five o’clock, time to close up, and I groan inwardly. I’m going to get soaking wet walking to the car and that means frizzy hair by the time I arrive home.

I look up as the last person in the shop steps up to the counter and I have to stop myself from laughing out loud. Everyone else venturing out today has been wearing a thick coat, or waterproof, and has been juggling a soggy umbrella. The guy standing in front of me has no umbrella, no hat, and is wearing a totally inadequate lightweight jacket.

‘How can I help you?’ I ask, politely.

No response is forthcoming as the seconds slowly tick by. He appears to have lost the power of speech and I struggle to mask the grin that keeps creeping across my face. I watch as a rivulet of water dribbles down from his sodden hair and he raises his sleeve to wipe it away. As I lean forward to wipe random drips off the counter top, I can’t stop my eyes from straying to the floor. He’s standing in a rather large puddle that is snaking outwards as water continues to drip from his clothes. He observes me checking it out, but says nothing. The seconds continue to pass. I wait patiently, wondering why anyone would venture out on a day like this so totally unprepared to battle the elements.

He shifts from one foot to the other, and then runs his hand through his hair in an attempt to sweep the wet tendrils off his forehead.

‘S-s-sorry, I’m a l-l-l-little wet.’

Well, that’s an understatement if ever I heard one. He’s embarrassed and I swallow a chuckle, disguising it with a cough.

‘Um … I just need something … small,’ he continues, sounding hesitant.

He’s looking directly at me as if that should mean something.

‘Small?’

‘Yes.’

I’m frowning, so I slide back into smiley-face mode and pick up one of our leaflets. I spread it out on the counter and he leans forward to look at the array of cakes. As he moves his head a few drops of rain flick up into the air, splatting across the front of my blouse and landing on the counter. He looks mortified.

‘Um,’ he mutters, weakly. He looks up at me, a blank expression on his face.

My eyes stray to the clock on the wall and then I realise he’s watching me. This is beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

‘Were you looking for a cake you can take away today, or are you thinking of placing an order for a special event?’

As our eyes meet it’s obvious that this poor guy is not only soaked to the skin, but his teeth are literally chattering. No wonder he’s finding it hard to speak!

‘Oh my goodness, you really are wet through, aren’t you?’ I feel guilty now and point to one of the chairs at our cake-tasting table. ‘Take a seat. I’ll make you a hot drink. Do you prefer tea, or coffee?’

He looks at me with grateful eyes. ‘C-c-coffee would be nice.’

‘Why don’t you take off your coat and I’ll go and find a towel so you can dry off a little.’

Without any further encouragement, he heads across the shop as I disappear into the cloakroom. When I return his coat is draped over a chair and he’s standing there, shaking uncontrollably. By now his face looks a worrying shade of grey. I press a button on the coffee machine and then hand him the towel.

‘I think you should take off that shirt, too. The radiator is hot, so it will dry quickly. Coffee won’t be a moment. I’ll go and see if I can find you something to wear.’

Searching around in the back room the only thing I can find is a sweatshirt, which happens to be pink, but at least it’s over-sized and warm.

‘Here you go. Sorry about the colour.’ A part of me was quietly thinking that good-looking guys don’t have to worry about what they wear. To be honest, he’d look good in anything. Aside from the haircut, which isn’t doing him any favours at the moment, as the top is flopping down over his forehead in wet clumps, he has that effortless quality about him – the proverbial tall, dark, and handsome in a rather understated way. The sort of guy who makes no fuss over his appearance, yet still manages to look good without even knowing it. Even when he’s soaking wet.

A trembling hand accepts the item without any sign of hesitation and I’m rewarded with a weak grin. He begins unbuttoning his shirt, very slowly. His trembling hands struggle with each button. It’s all I can do to stop myself taking over, but he’s not a child and, what’s more, he’s a total stranger. I’m sure I would have remembered if I’d served him before.

I notice with alarm that his body has a tinge of blue to it as he peels off the wet fabric, which clings to him like a second skin. Then I realise it’s probably die seeping from his shirt. I avert my gaze, but not before he reveals a very fit body. This guy doesn’t have an ounce of spare fat anywhere and clearly takes good care of himself. I guess the cake isn’t going to be for him, then.

He stands awkwardly, not sure what to do with the ball of fabric in his hands. I step forward to take it from him and wonder what on earth I’m doing. A fleeting moment of panic courses through me and I quickly pull myself together. Spreading his shirt out over the radiator next to the door, I notice that the high street is already deserted. There’s no sign of any late shoppers today, as the rain continues to lash against the window. I flick the sign to closed and almost reluctantly turn the key in the lock. When I spin back around he’s sitting huddled on the chair and it reassures me he’s not a threat. The bright pink of the sweatshirt looks awful against the pallor of his skin.

‘Here, drink this and you’ll feel a lot better. I think you should put some sugar in there, boost the blood sugar levels …’

He stares at the steaming mug I’ve put in front of him and it’s obvious this guy isn’t in a fit state to jump on anyone at the moment. In fact, I probably need to be more concerned about what I’m going to do if he suddenly keels over and drops to the floor. At least he’s upright, albeit hunched over and now with both hands glued to the coffee mug.

‘Oh, it’s rather hot. I’d hate you to burn your hands.’ Come on Katie, he’s a grown man. What are you doing?

‘I c-c-can’t feel a th-th-thing,’ he admits. Another fifteen seconds and he’s feeling it – he almost drops the mug back down onto the table as the life comes back into his frozen fingertips.

‘You’re right.’ He manages an oddly disjointed laugh. At least his voice sounds a little more even. ‘It is hot.’

He takes a few sips of his coffee while I make myself a double espresso and then take the seat opposite him.

Looking across at me, I receive a rather sheepish grin from this stranger as he shakes his head. ‘An umbrella or a hat might have been a good choice, given the rain,’ he admits. He inclines his head towards the front of the shop, as the window flexes from the battering of howling wind and rain.

‘Well, I think I can safely say that you are the only customer visiting today that didn’t have one … an umbrella, I mean.’

I find myself blushing as he relaxes a little and his eyes sweep over me. The caffeine is starting to kick in. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes for a moment. When he begins talking again he sounds more in control and he’s no longer shaking.

‘You’re very kind. That hit the spot, could I trouble you for another? I’ll pay, of course, and I do need a cake. I’m afraid it’s not going to be a huge sale though as I only need a very small one.’

Now he’s talking normally he sounds like a regular guy. My moment of mistrust and panic is over.

‘No problem. Are you hungry? Do you prefer sweet or savoury?’

‘I’ll eat anything; it’s been a difficult day. Visibility was awful for most of the drive here and then I had a puncture. I had to change the tyre in the pouring rain. Then I realised I’d forgotten to bring the Christmas present, but it was too late to turn back. That’s why I need the cake. It’s for my grandmother. I was driving by and saw your sign. Everything seems to have shut already and I thought maybe I could buy a Christmas cake. I bought her a silk scarf, but I’ll have to post it now.’

He seems content to chatter away as I make his second coffee. I pop into the kitchen and search through the shopping I bought at lunchtime. We don’t sell savoury products, but he looks in need of something filling. Pulling out a mushroom and red wine en croûte, I put it into the staff microwave and zap it for a couple of minutes. Placing the mug and plate in front of him, I walk over to the cupcake display to see what’s left.

‘Do you like chocolate?’

‘Mmm.’ He nods his head vigorously, his mouth full. He looks like he hasn’t eaten in ages and it’s gone in a few bites – he has no idea it was on my dinner menu for tomorrow. I put two chocolate cupcakes on another plate, realising that each one will be little more than a mouthful for him.

‘Adam, my name’s Adam.’ He wipes away the crumbs from around his mouth and gratefully accepts the plate I offer him. ‘Sorry, I haven’t eaten since breakfast and the cold got to me. I’m not usually such a wimp but it’s been the day from hell. I’m very grateful to you.’

He grins and I smile back at him. He has the most fascinating deep-brown eyes that draw you in, and a face that reminds you of your best friend’s brother. A guy you quickly begin to feel comfortable around. As the colour returns to his face he’s becoming more animated.

‘My pleasure. I’m Katie. You’re the first case of hypothermia I’ve had to deal with this winter,’ I joke, feeling more relaxed and a little relieved.

‘You must think I’m mad. Who would go out on a day like this with no umbrella and wearing a thin jacket? That’s a car driver through and through for you. I’m used to dashing from car to door and that’s about it.’

‘You travel a lot?’

‘Yes, I’m an IT consultant. A troubleshooter – I go where the problems are. No two days are the same.’

He finishes the last bite of the second cupcake and proceeds to stack the two plates neatly on top of each other. He gives his mouth one last wipe with the napkin and in one gulp, empties his coffee mug.

‘You are a lifesaver. I feel almost human again now.’ He flashes a smile that plays around the corners of his mouth. ‘Umm … that cake, as I was saying … since Pop died Grace is always complaining that the world doesn’t cater for people who live on their own. So I was thinking something small. I’ll never hear the end of it if I turn up with a family-sized cake. My grandmother is a lovely lady, but she hates waste.’

‘Well, I think I have just the thing.’

We walk over to one of the display cabinets and I show him an assortment of small and medium-sized cakes.

‘Goodness, these look good. Hmm, I think the tiny one is too small – she’s bound to make me eat at least one slice before I head for home tomorrow. Can I take that one? She’ll love the decoration. Grace isn’t a snowman and plastic robin sort of lady, so that looks perfect. Is the winter scene edible?’

I feel the colour creeping into my cheeks as he inspects the small boy on the toboggan and the miniature forest of trees gracing the top of the cake. I nod and it’s clear he’s impressed.

‘Yes, the decorations are made by hand. Everything is baked on site, too.’

‘You ice the cakes?’ He looks at me as if he was under the impression I’m just the waitress.

‘I do. I bake sometimes too, although I have a full-time baker who is amazing.’

‘Oh.’ Now he feels awkward. ‘Look, I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time and it’s way past five on a Saturday evening. It’s probably been a long day for you, too, so if you let me know what I owe you, I’ll leave you in peace.’

Suddenly I feel a little flustered as I remember that he has to take off my sweatshirt and put his own shirt back on. I retrieve it from the radiator and it’s creased, but relatively dry and warm. Holding it out to him, I immediately spin around and discreetly busy myself boxing up the Christmas cake while he dresses.

Glancing up for a moment, I catch him pulling the sweatshirt up over his head. I can’t help noticing he has several tattoos on the side of his arm that I didn’t catch before, they look like Chinese symbols. He’s fit, I’ll give him that. I look away feeling cross with myself and very lucky he didn’t catch me looking at him.

‘Do you have far to go?’ I ask, unable to think of anything else to say to fill the silence. I tie the cake box with a dark green velvet ribbon and top it off with a pretty spray of winter berries, which helps me focus and at least prevents my eyes from wandering again.

‘Cheriton Court Mews, it’s probably about a ten minute drive, at most. What do I owe you?’ He turns back to face me, then pulls his wallet out from the inside pocket of a still-damp jacket. He makes a face and I laugh. He looks bedraggled still, but warmer.

‘Nine pounds and fifty pence, please.’

‘You haven’t charged for the refreshments. Well, it was almost a meal.’ He roars with laughter and I join in. He deposits a twenty pound note on the counter and puts his hand up, indicating he doesn’t want any change.

‘Thank you. I hope your grandmother enjoys the cake.’

‘She’ll be delighted when I tell her that the lady who made that amazing snow scene, also saved her beloved grandson from hypothermia.’

We exchange brief smiles and then he walks towards the door.

‘You’d better lock up behind me,’ he calls over his shoulder. ‘There are some funny people about these days. Fortunately for me, you didn’t think I was one of them.’

We both laugh a little awkwardly as he turns to look directly at me.

‘I’ll be back in June for her birthday, maybe cupcakes next time.’

‘Great,’ I return, sounding rather flustered.

He turns the key in the lock and holds the door ajar until I’m standing next to him, ready to lock up.

Turning to face me for one last, brief moment, he utters a sincere, ‘Thank you, Katie,’ before disappearing into the wet gloom of a winter’s evening.

After I lock up and turn off the lights, I have a broad smile on my face and a warm feeling inside.

‘Katie,’ I say out loud, ‘you have to be more careful in future. He could have been a murderer for all you knew.’ A voice inside my head answers me, ‘but he wasn’t, was he?’

***

‘You’re late.’ Steve is annoyed and after this morning’s argument his patience is wearing thin. ‘You know I have to leave by six-thirty at the latest. It’s one night a month, Katie, is it too much to ask you to remember that? I seriously doubt you’ve had a busy day, given the weather.’

‘Sorry. I’ll make pasta, fifteen minutes and it will be on the table. I had a customer come in at the last minute and I was on my own. As it was pouring with rain …’ The excuse dies on my lips as I see that Steve’s head is down and his fingers are flying around the keyboard of his laptop.

I slink into the kitchen, dropping my wet coat and bag in the hallway on the way through. Why does he always make me feel that I have to apologise? He works hard, I know that and he’s probably had a bad day himself, by the sound of it. Whatever’s gone wrong, I know I’ll have to wait until he’s ready to share it and a brief moment of anger flashes through me.

As I put on a pan of water and start chopping onions for the sauce I despair of the way he handles his work problems. Maybe the bank rejected the business plan he submitted last week for his latest client and he has to do a quick revision over the weekend. Who knows? Whatever it is, the way he’s bashing those keys reflects his annoyance and it’s probably the last thing he wanted to have to sort out today.

My mind reflects upon this morning’s argument and, again, anger starts to well up. Arriving home late tonight has added fuel to the fire, but it’s not as if I did it on purpose. Steve will see it as more ammunition to vindicate his mantra that it’s ‘all work and no pay, and that’s no way to run a business’.

‘I spend all day, every day advising small businesses and if you were my client, I’d say it was time to face the facts.’ His voice filters through into the kitchen, the words hitting me like a sharp slap. He’s probably right, but it’s what I enjoy doing and as long as Sweet Occasions is making even a small profit, I’m satisfied. I don’t think he realises that I’m not in business to become rich, it’s the satisfaction of being my own boss and doing something I love.

He was such a different guy when we first met, carefree and easy-going. Sadly, life has a way of changing people and I know there’s no point in dwelling on the past.

We eat in silence, guilt clouding my thoughts as Steve rushes his meal, one eye on the clock. I feel miserable knowing I put a stranger’s needs before those of my partner.

‘Sorry about tonight and thanks for putting up the new bookcase for me. It’s perfect,’ I say, trying to placate him and lighten the mood.

‘I knew you’d be pleased. You’ll fill it with your cookery books before you know it. You should have bought the next size up as I suggested.’

Looking across at it I have to agree he’s right, as always, and I nod as he rises from the table. He walks around to my side and his lips brush my temple.

‘I didn’t mean to be tough on you,’ he whispers, ‘but you worry me sometimes. I meant what I said this morning. I earn enough to keep us both. You don’t need to work and you certainly don’t need to work such long hours just to cover the overheads of that shop.’

I look up at him, trying my best not to let him see how his words hurt. Whether it’s the harsh appraisal of my ‘dream’, or the thought of being a kept woman, I’m not sure. What would I do at home all day? Sensing the emotions welling up inside me, Steve wraps his arms around my shoulders and gives me a gentle squeeze.

‘Think about it, that’s all I’m asking.’ He straightens and disappears to finish getting ready.

I thought we had reached an understanding. Since we can’t have children, the focus of our lives was going to be on our respective careers. Now, suddenly, Steve’s only motivation seems to be money and proving he’s successful with a bigger house, a newer car. And now, it seems, having a partner who doesn’t have to work. Things that don’t matter to me – I’m happy where we are. But asking me to give up on my dream is totally unexpected.

‘Why?’ had been my first reaction, when he threw it into the conversation this morning.

‘Because it would make our lives easier and we could move out of town, maybe buy a property with a large garden. Instead of being rushed off your feet, you would only have one thing to focus on. No more juggling home and work. You wouldn’t be as tired and you’d have a really happy guy coming home at the end of each day.’

The way he said it, so coolly as if this was something we’d been working towards, made me feel inadequate.

‘Teamworking at its best, Katie. I bring in the money, you keep everything ticking over smoothly at home and you get some time for yourself. No more worrying about deliveries, or staff turning up. Promise me you’ll think about it.’

If we’d ended the conversation at that point, the row wouldn’t have developed. But when I’d tried to justify what I do and explain how important the shop was to me, it had made him angry.

‘I’m working hard for us, Katie, and it seems whatever I do counts for nothing. I want to make our lives easier and yet you’d rather struggle and cause us both a lot of grief by hanging on to your ridiculous dream. You aren’t a businesswoman and you never will be.’

I left the house at that point, slamming the door behind me without uttering a single word. If I was in debt, and unable to pay my bills, I could maybe understand why this meant so much to him. So what if I’m not making a big profit, life is about being happy in what you do, isn’t it? As I drove to work in the pouring rain, the dark grey sky mirrored my mood. Suddenly I was beginning to feel trapped and the thought terrified me.

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A Little Sugar