The bell on the bakery’s door rang.
She jolted up from her work and swallowed against the combination of dread and delight that only his voice could generate in her. Damn him and his English fucking accent, the useless bastard.
“Oliver. What the hell are you doing here?” Her voice sounded false, foreign to her. Her heart raced.
“It’s nice to see you too,” he said, and his eyes captured hers, trapped them, locked her into his gaze. “Been a while.”
She marveled, despite herself, at the depth of the blue in his eyes–navy blue, almost black. An impossible color. Charlotte raised her eyebrows, as though trying to pull her eyes away from his by hoisting them up into her forehead.
“There’s a reason for that,” she said in a strained chirp.
Oliver stepped toward her and Charlotte stood back, bracing herself against the counter that separated them.
“You’re really not happy to see me,” he said quietly.
“Happy is not the adjective I would use, no.”
He seemed to lose his footing a little; a fraction of his domineering presence slipped away and Charlotte allowed herself to watch him more closely. He was exactly the same–tall, unreasonably handsome, maybe a little more gray at his temples, but still poisonously attractive. Her heart hammered against her ribcage.
“You didn’t just happen to be in the neighborhood–you never leave the city if you can help it. So. What are you doing here?”
“It really is nice to see you again.” His voice warm, luxurious, but she maintained her hard and cold countenance.
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Why don’t we start with ‘How are you?’”
“I’m fine,” she said. He waited expectantly until she cottoned on. “And you?”
“My life is good. I’m head of my department at the Shop now.”
“Okay. Um…that’s nice.”
After a weighted pause, Oliver glanced around him and said, “This is a charming little place you have. It is yours, yes?”
“Yes, it’s mine. This is the first of three, actually” she replied with territorial pride. “The other two are in Baltimore.” She swept her eyes over the tiny bakery, the shelves crammed with fresh loaves of bread, the glass cases packed with cakes, pies, and brownies. She inhaled reflexively, savoring the aroma of sugar and chocolate and cake.
“Are you seeing anyone, Charlotte?”
Instantly all her defenses rose, her eyes on him like infantrymen lining up a shot.
“Why do you ask?”
“I ask only because I have a business proposition for you.” He watched her closely, though his posture exhibited only studied ease.
“How is that a business-related question?”
“Well I’m assuming you’d want to take into account the needs and desires of your partner if you were to move back to New York City.”
Charlotte felt a nuclear warhead land in her stomach and wondered what would cause it to engage, thus destroying herself, this irritating man, her store, and all of Annapolis.
“Move back to New York City,” she repeated.
“Yes, the Shop is looking for a new head of the comestibles division,” he said. The warhead sat heavy in her belly.
“A new head of the comestibles division.”
“This is fun, I wonder if you’ll just repeat the last phrase of anything I say. Oliver please ravish me.”
“Oliver… you’re an ass.”
He chuckled. “Just come have dinner with me. Anywhere you like. The Shop will pay for it, so pick somewhere extravagant. Come on, darling, a free dinner. Doesn’t that appeal to your inner graduate student?”
In fact it did. Though she felt few genuine losses she felt from her old life, extraordinary cuisine was one. It would be foolish to refuse an outstanding meal paid for by an organization she loathed, simply because it required sitting across from this obnoxious, selfish (brilliant, sexy–she cut off her thoughts) man.
“Fine,” she said. “We’re going to Trieste. You can look it up online.”
“Excellent! I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“No, I’ll meet you there. Now get out.”
“Charming as ever. See you at seven,” and he obeyed her.
“Oliver–” she called, as his hand found the door handle. “There is no way I’ll be taking the job. You should know that ahead of time.”
The corners of his mouth went up as his eyes went down. “But it’s worth asking,” he said, and he left.