How am I running late again? Aria Cassidy is never late.
Normally, I would be up at five, in the bakery at five thirty, and have my scrumptious muffins in the oven by six, just in time for my dependable morning customers.
But it was now five thirty and I was still getting ready, having slept terribly during the night.
I applied the final touches of mascara and surveyed myself in the mirror. My green eyes are large in my petite oval face, giving me the appearance of a fairy, as a young customer told me once.
My dark brown hair had a slight wave to it and was cut in layers down to the middle of my back, and side-swept bangs framed my face.
This was all Chad’s doing of course. He insisted that I adopt the current trend as my busy schedule never allowed me the time for my hair maintenance.
I sighed. Unlike my best friend, hair maintenance was not on my priority list.
I quickly pulled the thick length into a high ponytail and fastened it, before clipping up the bangs so they would stay off my face.
Finally satisfied with my appearance, I took my denim-clad form over to the kitchen, spotting my bag on the counter. Grabbing it and my keys, I hurried out the door, securing it safely behind me.
I took the two flights of stairs quickly, which led me to the main door and onto the sidewalk. A quick turn to the left, and I was in front of my pride and joy: The Cinnamon Bakery and Café.
I could never tamper down the thrill that coursed through me every time I walked through the doors, knowing that it was all mine; small and barely surviving, but all mine nevertheless.
The light was already on, indicating that Dana, my only waitress who also doubled as the cashier and my assistant, was probably already in.
Harry, my other employee, who was old enough to be my father, did odds and ends around the café and, also, cashed if needed, but he didn’t get in until seven, when the rush usually started.
I unlocked the door to the café, then locked it behind me again.
Straight ahead of me was the display case, already full of an assortment of cheesecake slices I had made the night before, as well as various trifles.
Just to the right of the display case, against the clear window, facing the sidewalk, was the cash register and coffee station, which emitted the intoxicating scent of freshly brewed coffee.
I couldn’t resist walking over and pouring myself a cup before passing the four square tables opposite the display case and heading back to the kitchen.
I pushed through the swinging door and saw Dana sprinkling some fresh blueberries into the batter she was mixing.
“Hey, boss!” she said as she glanced up at me without stopping her work. “I came in and noticed you weren’t down yet, so I started on the muffins. I hope that’s ok.”
She looked up again and I could see the hesitation in her eyes.
I waved a hand dismissively and took a long swallow of my coffee. “I know you’ve seen me do it at least a dozen times. You’re good to go.”
I leaned back against a cupboard and sipped my coffee as I took a minute to myself before I got started. I observed her, feeling like a proud mama.
Dana was nineteen and attended the local community college, majoring in literature.
She was taller than I was, which we constantly joked about, and her hair was bright red and spiky, in stark contrast to her alabaster skin.
She had a nose piercing and always wore bright red lipstick.
I secretly wished I could be as outgoing as she was. She was literally the first person who answered my waitressing ad, and I loved her instantly in her spontaneous interview.
I polished off the last of my coffee and sighed audibly, resting the cup in the sink.
“That coffee was fantastic. You keep this up and you’ll have me sleeping in more often!” I teased as I picked up an apron from the counter and tied it on.
She gave me a quick grin and started scooping batter into a greased muffin tin, while the oven behind her was preheating.
“I’ll get started on the donuts,” I told her, reaching for a bowl.
“The dough’s already done,” Dana informed me with a smirk, pointing to a covered bowl behind me. “Just got to cut and fry ’em up.”
I raised my eyebrows at her in surprise. “Are you trying to take my job?”
She frowned and stopped mid-task, suddenly serious. “I know you’ve been working nonstop for the past couple of weeks, trying to keep the bakery going, boss.
“Harry and I can see the dark circles under your eyes. I just want to help out more.”
Great. My staff thinks I look like a zombie. I walked over and hugged her tight. I couldn’t help it.
“Thanks, hun. You and Harry do more than your fair share around here. I can’t ask you to do more than that. I already don’t pay you guys enough.”
I could feel the sob in the back of my throat and swallowed it down. I would not cry. At least, not until I was all alone.
This business was my life. My dad died when I was four, and my mom had remarried and now lived in Germany with her new husband. We were never close.
As soon as I turned twenty-five, I got the money my dad had invested for me and started the bakery.
Since the two malls had opened up nearby within the past year, business had slowed considerably, even in this popular commercial area.
It seemed like people felt more inclined to walk through the malls than pass the local shops on the sidewalk.
I was barely covering my mortgage and ensuring my staff was paid on time as it was.
I pushed away from Dana. “Come on! Enough with the mushy stuff.” I sniffed while starting up the deep fryer for the donuts. “Customers will be in soon.”
Lucian De Angelis surveyed the streets below him, twelve stories down, his hands tucked into the pockets of his navy-blue suit.
He had long since removed his matching tie, now carelessly thrown on his desk, exposing the crisp white shirt under it.
The case he was working on was getting complicated. Not only was his client lying to him, but he had a feeling Ivan Francovich was into some really nasty, really illegal stuff.
He ran a hand through his jet-black hair, messing up the normally tidy waves that hung slightly over his forehead and down the back of his collar.
A knock on his door had him turning his head sharply.
“Luc.” Aidan Callaghan, Lucian’s best friend and business partner, walked in and took a seat.
Aidan and Lucian had met in law school and, after working in separate firms for a few years, decided to start up their own law firm, Callaghan and De Angelis.
Where Lucian was dark, Aidan was fair, from his blond hair to the color of his skin.
“Did you even go home last night?” Aidan asked him, leaning forward and clasping his hands together. His light gray eyes took in Luc’s unruly appearance.
Lucian sighed. “Francovich is giving me hell.” He took his seat behind his desk and leaned back, his blue eyes sharp, despite the lack of sleep.
“No sign of the missing daughter?” Aidan queried, leaning back as well.
Lucian picked up a pen and tapped his notepad, where a series of notes were scribbled.
“My sources tell me that not only is Francovich a big player in the human trafficking ring but that he sold his own daughter as well.”
Aidan’s back stiffened. “We have to let this go, Luc. Give the police the information. This is not what we do.”
Lucian sighed and nodded. Aidan was right of course. There was not much they could do at this point except share what they knew with the police. Hell, they specialized in corporate law.
Francovich had come to them when his business was under investigation for money laundering, and while that was still a stretch for them, they took the case, having been referred by a mutual friend.
“Are you going to the Greenwood Museum Charity dinner thing tonight?” Aidan asked, pretending to be nonchalant as he switched topics.
Lucian raised a dark eyebrow. “Clearly, you already know that I am. Cat told me she asked you and you refused her.”
It was Aidan’s turn to sigh. “Luc, I love your sister as if she were my own—”
Lucian let out a short laugh. “You certainly don’t look at her as if she were your sister,” he cut in.
Aidan frowned at him. “It won’t work. I’ve told her that a million times. She just doesn’t listen.”
“That’s because she’s in love with you. She always has been.”
Aidan fidgeted in his chair.
“All right, I’m done. I won’t interfere,” Lucian said, standing and reaching for his tie.
He had to admit, it was entertaining to watch his sister, Catarina, and Aidan cross paths. It was the only time he ever saw his best friend get nervous and confrontational.
He knew Aidan was in love with her; his friend just hadn’t admitted it to himself yet.
“Are you coming tonight?” Lucian asked him as he deftly re-tied his tie.
Aidan grimaced. “I wasn’t planning on it but I told Cat I was already going with someone else.”
Lucian laughed. “Your grave pal.”
The morning rush had died down and the display cases were more than half empty.
I closed the cash register with a click and watched as Dana refilled the coffee mugs of the two remaining customers in the shop.
Thinking I could use one myself, I went to the coffee station to fill up a mug.
My cell started ringing, the voices of will.i.am and Britney blaring loudly. Not only was the song catchy, but I was guaranteed to hear when my phone rang amid the din of the café.
“Hello.” I balanced the phone between my ear and shoulder while I filled the mug.
“Good morning, gorgeous.”
I smiled instantly. “Hey, Chad. Stopping by for breakfast?” I asked, walking back to the kitchen with my coffee.
Chad Whitcombe was my best friend and favorite person in the world.
We met at college, where we both studied business, although Chad dropped out to study medicine when we both realized it was his passion.
He was now well on his way to becoming a successful surgeon, raking in more money than I could ever dream of having.
“I would stop by more if you agreed to let me become a silent partner,” he playfully chastised, yet I could tell he was serious.
I rolled my eyes and put my mug on the counter. Chad knew about my situation with the bakery and always insisted on helping out.
“You know I can’t take your money,” I told him. It was an age-old argument for us. I was sure he thought he was wearing me down; in truth, it was the opposite.
“It won’t be like that. It will be a loan, Aria,” he said, trying again. “You can pay me back every penny whenever you want to.”
I knew he would never take any money from me, so I changed the topic to Chad’s current boyfriend. “How’s Royce?”
“Ugh, I don’t think it’s going to work out,” Chad said drolly. “He wants us to go out more in public. You know how I feel about that.”
I nodded to myself, knowing he couldn’t see me. “Chad, it’s going to have to happen someday. You can’t keep this a secret for much longer. Not if you want to be happy.”
“I’m not ready yet, Ari.” He sounded so sad. “Which is why I wanted to ask you to come with me to a charity dinner thing I’m going to tonight.”
That was Chad, using me as his escort to any social functions to blend in.
“I’ve already bought your dress,” he gushed. “You will look incredible in it. You have to say yes.”
I sighed knowing I was going to give in, yet again.
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