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He’d wanted to get to his office and change into a clean shirt, but his mom had been waiting for him. And when she’d ordered—yes, she’d ordered—him to sit, he did. This day could not get any worse. He was sure now, however, that it was about to. “Your dad told me that you got into a fight with the local baker. And when you tried to molest her, she fought back. Would you mind telling me why you thought it was a good idea in the first place to have a public and very…well, colorful, fight in my favorite place to get bread?” “It’s nothing. Just a misunderstanding on her part. Her temper was out of control for no reason and she started throwing a fit. I’ll take care of it tomorrow. Can I go now?” She told him to sit again. “I needed something from her, and she got mad at me. It’s nothing, I assure you.” “Yet here you sit covered in jelly and custard, and all you have to say for yourself is it wasn’t your fault.” Riordan wanted to point out again that he hadn’t done that much to her that warranted her having a temper tantrum, but his mom did not look like she was going to listen. It was women, he decided, that had the foul moods all the time. Men were not prone to acting like the world was coming to an— “Riordan, if you don’t answer me, I’m going to use my favorite rolling pin on your thick head, and then I’m going to be even madder at you. Because I’m sure rather than knocking sense into your head, all it’s going to do is crack this wood.” “She’s my mate.” Her foot started tapping, and he tried to think. But his dad came in then and sat down and started laughing. “Ask him. He was right there when she got it into her head to start hurling Danishes at me.” “I was there, love. And she did. But I’m thinking it might have been due to what he said to her and the way that he was pressing her against the wall with his big body. That’s not what she called him…let me see, what was it? Ah yes. I believe she called him a hulking monster that had no more brains than…well, love, you get the idea. I will say that her mouth and language are a little on the rough side, and she made her point quite…loudly. But she did toss him around like he was nothing more than the child he was acting like. I would have kicked his butt, too, but her friends, two elderly women who would have made me think…well, they had it under control, sadly.” His mother huffed at him, and her foot took on a speed that had him thinking he was as good as dead. His dad cleared his throat, and he looked at him. “Son, you have a bit of jelly hanging off your ear that looks like one of them dangling earrings your mother likes to wear.” “She won’t let me clean up.” He knew that he’d spoken loudly when his dad cocked a brow at him. “I’m a grown man. Not some teenager that has gotten caught with a girl in the back seat.” “No, you’re a grown man, or so you keep telling me, that has made your own mate so angry with you that she’s thrown her hard-earned product at you and has threatened to have you arrested if you come near her again.” Riordan looked at his mother as his dad continued. “And if you want us to treat you like you’re all grown up, I would suggest that you begin to act like it. This is no behavior for a man who is in charge of a large corporation, as well as one that hits the papers more often than not because he’s such a humanitarian and a calm and level-headed man. You were not very level-headed, nor calm, today. What do you think they’d put there now if they were to see you like this?” He knew just what they’d say. He’d fallen off his rocker. But as his parents continued to talk, he thought about the woman. She’d been…she’d been perfect, except for her temper. And if
she was going to be his mate, that thing was going to have to be simmered down a bit. There was no way he could have her flying off the handle like a harpy when she got her panties all in a bunch. He’d only gone in with his dad because he’d heard him go on about the place. All he’d talked about for the last month was the way this bakery made cheese Danish, and how they were flaky enough to make you beg for more. He’d even gone on to say that he wanted to invest in the place. And that was another reason Riordan had gone with him. No one was going to take his family for a ride. As far as space was concerned, the shop had it. The wraparound counter seemed to scream at you to come and look what delights were there. It was well lit, the glass sparkling clean, and the baskets were overflowing with an array of pastries and breads that made his mouth water. Even from the doorway he could smell the yeast and jellies, blackberry and strawberry. A coffee station sat on one side to the room with a carafe of water for tea, it said, and baskets of tea flavors that had him wanting to check them out. The two women behind the counter seemed to be working to their own music. They moved and slid around each other as if they’d been doing it for years, and not just the month that the shop had been open. They laughed with their customers, handed out samples big enough to look like a serving, and gave small ones cookies hand over fist. Whoever their marketing manager was had it right. The only way to make money was to spend a little. A woman had come from the back with a tray of the most beautiful loaves of bread he’d ever seen. Then he’d gotten her scent. And Christ, it had been all he could do not to— “Riordan.” Riordan looked at his mother. She had been talking to him, and he had missed it all. “I asked you three times now what are you going to do to repair this. Because you will, or so help me, I’ll make you wish that you had.” “Repair what?” She bounced the rolling pin—her favorite—in her left hand like she was thinking it was his head. He had to think what he had to do to make her soften her glare. A glance at his dad was no help, as he was laughing again. “I don’t know what I did wrong that you think I need to fix. You should talk to her about what she’s going to do about telling me she’s sorry.” Riordan thought he heard his dad say, oh brother, but he wasn’t sure, because at that moment his mother slammed the pin down on the table so near to his arm he thought that she had cut that pretty close. But then…maybe she’d been trying to hit him. When she went to the door and opened it, he sat there, not sure what to do. It was Sunday after all. “Get out.” He looked at his dad, who was not only no longer laughing, but looked a little scared himself. “Get out of my house right now and don’t return until…until…get out of here right now.” “Mom?” She pointed out, and he had no choice but to move out or something was going to befall him that was going to be talked about in this family for the next couple of generations, if not forever. Riordan moved out the door and turned to ask her what he’d done. But the door slamming in his face made him feel stupid…and a little pissed off. He was thirty-five years old, not some kid. As he made his way to the truck, his brother, Mac, pulled in the drive. Riordan didn’t even bother stopping to warn him, but got in his own truck and left. “They’re all nuts.” Riordan turned the radio up as loud as he could to drown out his thoughts, then turned it down. He was pissed, but blaring his music wasn’t going to make it go
away. Instead, he lightened his foot on the accelerator and tried not to drive angry. That was all he needed to do, have an accident that would make his mom really mad at him. Riordan liked to think of himself as a cool and very rational man. He thought things through before speaking, his plans were flawless when he put them out for people to see, and he never did anything on the spur of the moment. He liked order, planning, and a calendar. Doing things off the cuff or sly, as his brother, Ennis, called it, was not his way of working, not in business or his personal life. The calendar on his phone was as filled as the one on his secretary’s. The ones on his computer in his office as well as his house were updated daily. And if there was something that had to be canceled or moved, he’d go over the entire month to make sure that it didn’t conflict with something else. Riordan was a man who did not like surprises. And finding out that the woman in the shop was his mate had messed up his entire schedule for the day. “What did she think she was doing throwing me out?” Riordan wasn’t sure if he meant his mom or the woman, but they both had done it. “It’s Sunday, after all, and we have dinner as a family. Was this worth Mom getting all upset and telling me to leave? No, it was not. This is her fault, too. The bakery woman’s.” As he drove to his apartment downtown, he thought about the way she’d felt pressed against his body, and wondered not for the first time what she would feel like wrapped around him naked. He had to adjust his cock for the third time since getting in his truck. She’d been coming from the back room, her arms loaded with loaves of bread, when she’d taken a short stumble. His only thought was to keep her from falling when he caught her scent. Then she’d told him to let her go, and he’d had to taste her. And just like that, her temper flared, and he could only stare at her. Who knew that being pissed off could be so sexy? As he reached for her again, having put the bread on the counter, she’d backed up quickly. Putting up her hands to warn him off, he thought, did nothing to slake his need, and he backed her up more until she was pressed against the wall. Burying his nose into her neck had made him hard as stone, and he could think of nothing else but taking her to the floor and coming deep inside of her. Except that she’d unmanned him with her knee, and that had him dropping like a stone. Then the projectiles had started flying. He’d been hit in the head with several of them before he could stand up. When he reached for her again, this time her hand was filled with more Danish, and he felt rather than saw her move. He was on his back and looking up at her before he could catch his breath. Then one of the older women was standing over him with a large knife in her hands. “I think you have overstayed your welcome, young man.” He nodded but was afraid to move. “You can crawl out on your belly or get up and walk out. Either way, she wants you gone. And I’m thinking that she might be right. I don’t want to have to stab you to get you going. Unless you want me to.” “I need to talk to her.” The woman told him he’d be better off talking to the door, which he’d better be going through rather than talking to her right now. “Can I at least have her name? I can call her later so she can tell me what she thought she was doing by this mess. Don’t you think she overreacted, even just a little?” “No, I don’t think so.” She pointed to the door again, and he got the idea that he was going to get nowhere with her. As he made his way to the door, his dad was paying for his purchases as if nothing at all had happened. He was going to have a talk to him as well. The man would surely have his side on this.
Only he hadn’t. Not only had he laughed at him the entire way home, but he’d not agreed with him at all. Not about the woman being nuts, or about her blowing things out of proportion, nor did he think that she’d done a thing wrong. Riordan was going to go down there first thing Monday, which would mess up his entire morning, just so she could apologize to him. This was no way to start a relationship. ~~~ Storm washed down the wall where blueberry jam had stained it. She’d have to find the paint can in the basement to touch this up. The strawberry had washed off a good deal easier, but it was fresher. She thought that she’d grabbed that tray last when he’d— “You scrub much harder and the wall will fall over. You thinking about that man?” Storm nodded at her aunt. “Yeah, he was a big guy. Pushy as hell, but a big one all the same. Can’t seem to understand why you’re all pissy with him. You’re hurting now, aren’t you, child?” “Just a little, nothing I can’t handle. He mentioned that I was his mate.” She looked at Aunt Lynn when she huffed. Storm wasn’t sure if it was because she knew she was lying about the pain or about the man. Either way, it was a moot point. “I don’t have…he can’t be my mate. I don’t want him. And he won’t want me once he sees what is under my clothing.” “No one is more concerned with that than you are.” Storm knew that her aunt had never seen her body since she’d come home, so said nothing. “You still seeing that doctor? The one that says you need to have those drugs to help you sleep? You gotta see someone about that pain, too. We both know you’re hurting.” “You know that I’m not seeing him.” Aunt Lynn nodded. “I know that the VA pays for it, but it’s stupid to take them when all they do is make me weirded out. I was sleeping no better with them than I was without. But I do go and talk to that lady shrink. She’s not too bad.” The doc had been all right until about a week ago, right after Storm had told her that she wasn’t going to be able to see her again due to her having a job now. It was as if she’d taken it personally. Storm knew that she had to see someone or be back in the hospital again, but she was trying to stand on her own two feet instead of depending so much on her family. It wasn’t like she had to work for the money, but she needed to work to keep her body from tightening up. “That man, do you suppose he’ll come back here?” Storm didn’t turn around as she spoke to look at her aunt, but heard her huff again. “The man that he came here with is a nice man. I like him. But as far as I’m concerned, I really could care less if that fucking bastard darkened my doorstep again.” “Sally and I will keep him in line now that we know about him. I’m thinking he will be back. He didn’t strike me as a man that would give up too easily.” Storm had thought the same thing. But before either of them could say anything else, the bell over the front door sounded and Aunt Lynn went to answer it. Storm Browning was a woman that few people knew well. She preferred it that way, more now than before she’d joined the army. She supposed her upbringing had had a lot to do with that…at least the first ten years of her life. Now her memories were nearly too much for her to deal with, and she had a shitload of them. Few of them nice ones. Her men, nine of them when she’d gone in country—overseas—had been her friends, but they were all dead now. All but her. As she made her way to the oven again when the timer went off, she tried her best not to think of that day and what had happened. Instead, she thought about how many cookies she had left to bake. The board that Aunt Lynn had put up for her was filled. It felt good to see so many orders there, but it made her a little nervous too. If she was in too much pain, she knew that either of her
aunts could bake for her, but she wanted to keep them from having to lift so much. They were in their late seventies, both of them, and they were actually her great aunts. All the family that she had in the world. The cookies were put onto the cooling rack, then she put more on the parchment paper to bake as the first batch cooled. She had a system. It wasn’t a great one, but it worked for her. Stretching her arm above her head to hear it pop, she had to hold onto the table when the pain took her breath away. Storm made her way to the cabinet where she kept her medications. It was time for the next round of drugs anyway, and she thought that having a pain pill was in order this time. Moving slower now that it was getting later in the day, she sat down on the seat she used when she decorated if anything needed her attention. Since the man had left her, her back had been throbbing and her legs felt like rubber. Her body hurt now, and not just a little. There was more baking to do, and then there were the dishes to wash, but Storm wasn’t sure she could do either without lying down for a bit. Going to the front of the shop, she saw that her aunts were busy and went to talk to the man at the counter. He grinned at her when she welcomed him to The Bakery. “Nice name. Simple and right to the point.” Nodding, she waited for him to order or tell her what he wanted. He was dressed well, expensively, and he had a face that made her think she’d seen him before. “I need to get three loaves of rye and two of sourdough. And I’m supposed to ask you if there are any…let me see what Mom called them before I make a fool of myself.” She got his bread for him and put them into the long loaf bags she’d just gotten in. They were generic, but they served the purpose. He was still talking on his phone when the next man came to the counter. Storm wanted to ask him to wait for her aunts, but he looked like he needed more than what was on display. “You Sergeant Major Browning?” Storm nodded, but looked around to see if anyone else had heard him. “I was told to come on down here and see if you could use some help. The lady at the VA, she said you were looking for someone to help wash up.” Taking him to the back room, she sat him on the chair she’d been in and asked him when he’d last eaten. He told her that it had been a couple of days, because the shelter wasn’t open on the weekends. And he hadn’t cared for the meal they had on Fridays either. “It’s Monday. What’s your name, soldier, and don’t lie to me again.” He straightened up in the chair and nodded to her. “I’m PFC Daniel Gunning, but I go by Danny. I don’t have no problems with drugs or nothing. Just nightmares and so on. I get to where I can’t leave my place. And when that happens, I lose my place in line at the food pantry. It’s been a couple of days since I’ve…leaving the apartment kind of gives me the willies.” She knew that feeling. “I heard from Nurse Mason that you were looking to find someone to come in some days and help out by washing up. You mean dishes, I’m suspecting.” “Yes.” He looked around the room, then stood up…much easier than she could have today. She sort of envied his ease. “You can start today, but I’m feeding you first. And if you object then you can think of it as an order.” He nodded and moved to the table in the back of the kitchen. Storm went to the front to get a loaf of bread, and the man from earlier was still standing there. When she told him she was sorry, he winked at her. “I saw you were busy. You going to hire him, Sarge?” Nodding, she told him not to call her that. “All right. But what were you, if you don’t mind my asking? Air force? Army?”
“Special Forces. Did you ever find out what your mom wanted?” He told her that he needed a dozen filled donuts, he didn’t care what flavors. As she filled his order, all she could think about was the man in the back. He’d be a great help should he be able to show up to work daily. She knew how hard it was for her just to get out of the bed some days, the pain was so bad. When she had the thirteen donuts for the man, she let Lynn ring him out. But he stopped her before she could go to the back again. “Are you sure it’s a good idea for you to hire him? You don’t seem to know anything about him other than someone sent him to you.” She pulled away from his touch on her arm. “I’m sorry. I just—” “I can take care of myself. I have been for a very long time. While I appreciate your concern, trust me when I tell you that he should be more afraid of me than I am of him.” He nodded and then looked over her shoulder. She didn’t have to look to know who stood there. He might have just been hired, but Danny was a soldier first and foremost. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve had a bang-up day so far, and I’d really like to be left to my own council.” “I’m sorry.” Storm nodded and moved to the back room. The man left a few minutes later, and Storm made Danny a sandwich. She also cautioned him about helping her out when he thought she was in trouble. “I’m hurting, like you, but I can handle myself. There is no reason for us both to get into trouble with some over protective shit that thinks because I don’t have a dick between my legs that I’m one of them fainting hearts.” Danny grinned at her. “Next time, you just let me handle it. But if someone fucks with my aunts, you have my full permission to kick some ass, all right? And don’t call me by my rank here. It’s Storm, or Stormy if you wish. I left that all behind a while back.” “Yes, sir.” He bit into his sandwich and finished chewing before he spoke again. “You’re that CO that got all those guys out, aren’t you? I heard about it when it happened. I’m really sorry.” “I don’t talk about it. And if you want to continue working here, you won’t either.” He nodded again. “I’m not trying to be a bitch—well, I am, but I don’t want to think about it anymore. The nightmares plague me as well.” “Yes, sir, I’m betting that they do. If you, you know, need to talk, I can listen to you. Won’t say a word, just be here for you.” He took another healthy bite, then continued. “I might need you, too. I won’t mean to, but I might just need to…I get them willies I was telling you about, and you might have to talk to me. About nothing if you want, but I get myself scared to death sometimes. I won’t hurt you, but I do get scared.” “I’m here.” He nodded, and she walked to the board. She had no idea what it said at that moment; her eyes were filled with tears. Storm wasn’t the whiney kind of woman. She wasn’t even one to lean on people, even if she was falling over on her face with the need to. But there were times that hot tears could make her feel more alive than anything. After a bit, she heard the water at the sinks turn on and Danny start to hum to the music that was playing in the front of the shop…soft country music that her aunts both loved to hear, and sometimes even sang to. Storm pulled the first of the orders down just as Aunt Lynn came into the back room. She had the nightly list of things that they were running low on up front. “We’re taking what is left to the shelter.” Nodding, Storm made a mental note to save some food for Danny to take home with him when he left. But her aunt handed her a sack that she could smell the bread in. “How’s your back, sweetie? Want me to stay and help?”
“I’m going to go up in a bit and take a little nap.” Storm was pretty sure her aunt knew it was a lie. “Then I’ll work on some of this and the front stuff.” “Don’t work too much, honey. We’ll make do with what we have, and tomorrow is a half day too, so we might be able to make it.” Storm nodded and locked up after her aunts left. Going to the back room, she started measuring things into the big mixer. It was going to be a very long night.