Keeping Guard Ch. 03bysunny55235©
I got my answer almost immediately: yes, John was very good at kneading. As soon as I threw the ingredients together I put him to work on the early steps of baking bread. His strong hands turned the stiff dough with ease, and he was able to finish in half the time it would have taken me. Unfortunately, I was quick to discover that John was not very good at much else in the kitchen.
"Great, now we leave that down by the oven to rise," I said once he had finished with the bread dough. "Now we just need to whip up some cake batter in the mixer."
"That's this thing, right?" John asked, pointing to the little food processor I used for chopping nuts. I bit my lip, hoping his mistake was from a lack of experience in a commercial kitchen and I wouldn't regret my job offer. That should have been the first indication that I had a long road ahead of me.
Over the course of the next hour he managed to break two mixing bowls, bend a whisk beyond repair, and start a small fire in the oven that led to an introduction to the first aid kit.
"I guess I'm not cut out to be a baker," he said as I opened the plastic box of bandages and ointments. "Unless everyone almost sets their arm on fire their first day."
I laughed, selecting a tube of antiseptic cream and a roll of gauze from my first aid supplies. "Believe me, there's no avoiding the occasional burn. But maybe I'll start you out at the front of the shop until you get some more practice."
I did my best to keep my hands steady as I applied the ointment, and I kept my face down so he wouldn't notice I was blushing. His suggestion of a date in the near future was still fresh in my mind, and even medicinal physical contact was making my stomach flutter. I finished up by wrapping a layer of gauze around his forearm and securing it with a piece of tape.
"Does that feel OK?" I asked, finally looking into his eyes.
"Oh good, now my arm matches my head," he replied with a crooked smile.
After all the prep work for the next morning was complete I took John to the front counter and walked him through everything he would need to know, including how to use the ancient cash register I had vowed to upgrade one of these days. After I was sure he was prepared for the next day we grabbed our jackets and headed out the front door.
"The dress code is pretty casual, just be sure your shoes are comfortable. And we open at six, can you be here a few minutes before that?" I asked as I locked the doors behind us.
"Wow, I'll get to sleep in," he said, and I realized he meant it. One of the reasons I had chosen the security company where he had worked was their willingness to come to the bakery so early in the morning.
The crisp autumn air whipped the leaves around our feet as we stood outside the doors. Neither of us knew quite what should happen next, and I felt increasingly awkward as I deliberated about shaking his hand. Instead I shoved my hands deep into my pockets, and felt a wave of discomfort when my fingers brushed my engagement ring.
"Well, see you tomorrow then!" I blurted, and turned away quickly in the direction of my apartment.
The next morning I heard the reliable whine of my alarm clock filling the room, rousing me from my pleasant dreams and reminding me that there was work to be done. But my outlook had completely changed: where once I would groan and wish for a few more minutes of sleep, I now gave a wistful sigh and imagined the day ahead. It was guaranteed to be different, but in what way remained to be seen.
For the first time I was so excited to get to work that I walked out the door without any jewelry, and my engagement ring would just have to stay neglected on the nightstand for the day.
When I got to the bakery John was already waiting outside, hopping from foot to foot in the chilly morning air. I was happy to see that the bandage from his head was gone, and whatever was left of his injury was hidden beneath his hair.
"You're early!" I said, trying to sound pleased though I was actually worrying I'd told him the wrong time.
"I was already up," he answered, "thought you might need some help."
Memories of his baking lesson from the night before came flooding back as I unlocked the front door and we entered the warmth of the store. "I could always use more help," I admitted, though I decided to put him back on mixing duty until he had a little more experience.
After locking the door behind us I took John to the back to hang up his coat, and then outfitted him with an apron. "All the cold pastries are in the refrigerator ready to go, would you mind putting them out while I start on the warm stuff?"
From there the morning progressed smoothly, and the shop was ready to open in record time. I began calculating how much later I could reasonably get into work in the mornings, and the extra sleep coupled with the prospect of some company put a smile on my face.
As soon as the lights were on and the doors were unlocked the customers started ambling in, all looking like they were in desperate need of the breakfasts they were buying. The bakery served as a favorite spot for more than just the police department across the street, and all manner of people came in and out of my doors. Everyone from professionals just heading into work to bartenders and bouncers just heading home passed through for a bite to eat, and the early morning crowd offered the most diversity.
Customers were also the most spread out during this time, and it was a few hours before business really started to pick up. At first I manned the cash register so John could get the hang of it, but before long he was comfortable handling it on his own. That gave me more time to catch up with some of my regulars, who I was usually too busy to chat with.
After a few hours I began drifting between the front and the back of the store, keeping an eye on what was running low and replenishing the stock.
As the day wore on, we ran into our first slow period. The breakfast crowd had come and gone and the lunch business had not yet started, so I took the opportunity to clean up the front of the store and give John a break. For the first time all day the store was completely silent, a stark contrast to the previous hours.
After all the counters were wiped clean and the floor was swept, I returned to the back of the shop and kept an ear open for the front door. I turned to a work table and sprinkled it with flour, preparing to roll out a fresh batch of gingerbread cookie dough.
"Don't you ever take a break?" John's voice was right behind me, and took me completely by surprise. I nearly jumped out of my skin, but stopped myself just before letting out a squeal.
"Sorry! I didn't mean to sneak up on you," he said, backing away quickly.
"No, it's fine," I replied, barely able to hear over the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. "I'm just not used to having anyone else back here."
He considered this before answering. "But you do like having me here, right?" As he spoke he took a step forward, halving the distance between us. Immediately I became aware of the situation: we were alone, in the back room of an empty bakery, far from prying eyes.
I smiled, my heart still pounding but now for different reasons. "Of course," I replied, "it's nice to have company."
He took another step forward, and I felt my stomach flutter once more. "Is that all I am? Company?" A playful smile crossed his lips as he stood in front of me, as close as he could be without actually touching. I felt my face flush as I searched for an answer.
The sound of the bell on the front door interrupted us. "You'd better go get that," I said, my voice unsteady. He gave a small sigh before straightening up, and with obvious reluctance trudged back to the front of the store.
I had barely composed myself before I heard a commotion in the next room. I rushed toward the door to see what was going on right as John came running back. "Watch out!" he yelled as he tried to push me back into the kitchen. "She's crazy!"
Right on his heels was a woman screaming and wielding a purse like a medieval mace. "Come back here you thug!" she yelled. "I'll teach you to mess with my daughter!"
"Mom?" I yelled, stepping in front of her so she would stop pummeling John with her bag. "What are you doing?"
She stopped, her eyes darting between me and John. "You know this man?" she asked, her gaze settling on John and boring into him enough to make him take a step back. I took a deep breath before I answered.
"Mom, this is John. He works here now, but he's the security guard who..." I hesitated, wondering how best to finish the sentence. Who protected me? Who comforted me? Who I've been secretly pining for? In the end, I settled for, "who was here that day."
She stood frozen in place, her purse still poised in the air as the information sank in. An instant later my mom had sidestepped me and rushed at John. He tried to scramble away but she caught him before he could get very far, and her attitude had completely changed. "Oh thank you!" she said as she crushed him against her in a bear hug. "Thank you so much for looking out for my little girl!"
I could only stand and watch as John squirmed in her grip, a completely bewildered expression painted across his face. It would have been funny if it was not so embarrassing, and after nearly a minute of hugging and appreciation I had to pull my mother off of him.
"It's very nice to meet you," John managed to say only after he was able to fill his lungs again. "Can I get you anything?"
"Oh how nice," she answered, shooting me a look that I could only interpret as approval. "But I stopped by to have a word with Megan so I'll just have a cup of coffee if it's handy."
"Anything for you?" he asked me, and I admitted a cup of coffee would be nice. John nodded and headed back to the front, careful not to walk too close to my mother as he went. "And a slice of cherry pie to go with it!" she yelled after him.
I rolled my eyes as I went back to the office, the only place we could sit without getting flour all over us. John arrived soon after with two cups of coffee and a slice of pie, and then made a hasty retreat out of the office as my mom's eyes followed him out.
"How long have you had an assistant?" She asked, gesturing toward the door and the front of the store where John was presumably debating about making a run for it. She tried to make the question sound offhanded, but I could almost hear the wheels in her head spinning.
"It's his first day," I answered, offering her my chair as I pulled up a stool. "He's not much of a baker, but he doesn't seem to mind the hours."
"He's cute too," my mom said as she took a sip of her coffee. "I mean really, if I was twenty years younger I'd tap that."
"Mom!" I spluttered, horrified on multiple levels. I was still trying to find out where she got her "young people" terminology, and doing my best to cut off her access to it.
She assumed a look of complete innocence before answering. "What? I'm just saying."
"First, inappropriate. Second, where do you even hear these words?"
"Oh please, I know all about how you kids communicate."
"What was it you came to talk to me about?" I asked, trying to change the subject as quickly as possible. Immediately she switched into her serious voice and sat forward in the chair as she answered.
"Your father and I just wanted to check and make sure you're OK," she began. "You've been through a lot lately, and we're just a little concerned about how you're coping."
"I'm fine," I replied after a sip of coffee. "Really, the police were here after a few minutes and it could have been so much worse."
She studied my face before responding. "That's not all we're concerned about."
"What do you mean?" I asked, hoping her mother's intuition had not been working overtime.
She took my hand. "How are things between you and Charles?"
"What do you mean?" I asked again, glancing away from her. I did my best to give off an air of nonchalance instead of the rising panic I really felt.
"It just seems like you talk about him less and less, and I haven't heard a word about your wedding for months."
"Well you know, he's been busy."
"But still, it seems like the two of you have been engaged for forever and you haven't even set a date yet."
If this conversation had come a week earlier, I would have gone on the defensive. I would have reminded her of our schedules, what a busy time of year this was for Charles, and how focused we both were on our careers. But despite any of my arguments, she still would have been absolutely right.
"You know your father and I love you and support your decisions, but we're just beginning to wonder whether Charles is the same man he was when you first started seeing each other."
Ordinarily at this point I would deflect, cite a million different reasons why Charles was the perfect man and why we should spend the rest of our lives together. Maybe it was because our engagement was already broken off, but for whatever reason I couldn't muster up a single argument.
"Actually Mom, Charles and I..." I hesitated, remembering my promise to keep the end of our relationship a secret, and how I had already broken the promise once. "Charles and I have talked about it, and we've decided maybe it's best if we break up."
Her eyes got wide as she did her best to suppress a smile. "Well, I'm sure you two have given this a lot of thought so I can only hope it's for the best." She busied herself with the piece of pie she was eating, but I could tell how pleased she was at the news.
"Oh don't pretend like you didn't always hate him," I said. "We're keeping it quiet until the election is over, so could you please not tell anyone?"
She promised to keep the secret better than I had, and I finally relaxed. After a few more minutes of chatting it was time for my mom to leave, and I walked her to the door. "Lovely to meet you!" she said to John as she passed, and he gave her a weak smile before going back to looking busy.
As soon as my mother was gone I turned to John with a smirk. "Is that what all your fancy guard training taught you? Run away from the middle-aged lady armed with a purse?"
"You can tease me all you want," he replied, "but you didn't see the look in her eyes."
I smiled and let it drop; I had seen that look before, and could only imagine just how terrifying it must be for someone on the receiving end of it.
The lull in business passed, and the trickle of customers turned into a full stream as lunch hours, shift changes and afternoon coffee breaks rolled around. John took care of the selling while I focused on inventory and switched between helping out at the counter and running to the back to bring out fresh food.
And at every step of the way, we flirted. It started off as a few coy remarks, but as time wore on I was finding excuses to put my hand on his arm or make some other form of contact. To my delight, John brushed his hand against my back every time he stepped around me in the narrow space behind the counter. I tried to convince myself that he was just letting me know he was behind me so I didn't crash into him, but more than once I caught his small smile out of the corner of my eye.
Unfortunately, I wasn't the only one who enjoyed flirting with him: the biggest hold up in the line seemed to be the women who came into the bakery. While they would normally speak to me only during breaks in their cell phone conversations, they all gave John their undivided attention. There had never been so much giggling and hair flipping in the line before, and besides being annoying it was also beginning to get in the way of business.
One girl in particular was spending an awful lot of time talking to John after the rush of customers had slowed. She was blonde and bubbly and looked like she was about twenty years old, and her entire body screamed youthful exuberance. I found myself searching for faults with her, but the best I could do was think how cold she must be wearing such a short skirt in November. Eventually she left, but not without writing something on a piece of paper and sliding it across the counter to John.
"Did you see the girl I was just talking to?" he asked when I came by to refill the display case.
"Yes," I said tersely, trying my best to keep from sounding jealous. I braced myself for his next statement, dreading whatever the blonde bombshell had to say.
"She just got engaged and was asking for a quote on a wedding cake," he replied. "Said her parents got theirs here when they got married."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "Wedding cake or bachelor party cake?" This was not the first customer who had come in asking for something the bakery had once sold back before I had taken it over, and it always made me wonder whether the changes I had made were for the better.
Recently I had even toyed with the idea of going back to the way the bakery was when my parents owned it, centering the business on large life events rather than daily sugar cravings. It was a project that would take time to plan and organize, and it was beginning to dawn on me that I might have that time now.
"I thought she said wedding, I would have remembered if she'd asked for a bachelor party cake." He thought for a moment before adding, "What is a bachelor party cake?"
"We used to make them back when the shop first opened and my dad and uncle were running it," I answered, settling in for a long explanation. "Back then it was almost all cakes, and they made a pretty good business doing weddings. Then my uncle had the bright idea of making bachelor party cakes too. You know, the kind that a lady jumps out of?"
"Ah. I always figured those cakes just made from cardboard."
"Sometimes they were, but not all of them. I think the ones made here were half cardboard and half cake since they were so huge. They were a pain because they had to be big enough to fit a person, plus people would get upset if the whole thing was destroyed and they couldn't actually eat it." I had heard horror stories growing up about cakes toppling over in the delivery truck, buildings without elevators, and doors too small to fit through.
"Still," I continued, "at least some good came out of it. That's how my dad met my mom." I gave him a smile and headed toward the back of the shop to put a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies in the oven.
"Wait. Wait wait wait!" he yelled after me as I went. "Hold on, you can't end the story there!"
"What?" I asked, an innocent look on my face.
"You're telling me your parents met because your mom jumped out of one of your dad's cakes?" His voice had jumped up an octave, probably from the memory of his earlier encounter with my mother.
"She was working as a secretary in some office, and to make a little extra money she answered an ad my uncle put in the paper. So on the weekends she would pop out of the top of a cake and then a bunch of dancing girls would come out and do their thing while she snuck out the back door."
He took a moment to process the information before asking, "So your mom was a stripper?"
I laughed. "Not exactly. She would have given the guys a hard time if they came anywhere near her, so she was strictly a cake jumper. The pay wasn't as good, but she got to keep most of her clothes on."
"And she got to hang out with the baker who put her in there," he said with a nod, all the pieces falling into place.
"And they've been together ever since," I replied. I had to admit it was an interesting story, though never one I could tell any of my friends growing up.
By this point John was slowly staring off into the distance and shaking his head. "I'll never look at her the same way again."
"Just be careful she doesn't offer to give you a demonstration," I warned.