“Still haven’t found yourself a good man, sweetie?”
Bridgette fought her natural instinct to grimace at Mrs. Brown’s friendly question. The plump receptionist was a regular customer at her bake shop since she was in the habit of bringing in treats to the office where she worked. But sometimes she could be just a little too nosy.
Instead, Bridgette plastered on a sweet-as-pie smile as she continued to package up the dozen chocolate cupcakes Mrs. Brown had ordered. “I’m working on it,” she reassured her.
“They’re hard to come by,” Mrs. Brown sighed, readjusting her blouse. “And with your bad luck….”
Bridgette didn’t need reminding of just how few good men there were out there. One bad one had been enough for her. Most of the residents of the town knew the story, either from her mouth directly or from hearsay. The small-town rumor mill was always churning, and secrets never stayed secret for long.
Besides, a knocked-up eighteen-year-old turned teenage mother…everyone knew there was a tragic story lurking behind that reality. Even her daughter Gabby had picked up on the wounds from Bridgette’s past and knew better than to ask about her daddy.
“Who knows,” Bridgette offered brightly. The effusive optimism in her voice was an act, of course; it was easier to keep people from prying when she could pretend to have a handle on things. “Maybe my luck’s about to change. Maybe Prince Charming’s on his way into town as we speak.” She folded the lid of the cardboard box in, taking a moment to admire the bright, beautiful logo printed on the top.
It had been six months since all her hard work had paid off—two jobs and long shifts, frugal living that would make even Scrooge look like a spendthrift, the drawn-out process of groveling at four different banks for a business loan and, hardest of all, the countless times she’d had to tell her precious Gabby that they couldn’t afford this toy or that movie. The look of disappointment on her little girl’s face had nearly shattered her too many times.
But the end result still filled her with pride. Her own bake shop, Gabby’s Baked Goods, was still in the process of becoming a true staple of the community, but she didn’t doubt that it would soon be a success. High-end baked goods like pistachio brownies and chocolate croissants weren’t southerners’ go-to for their sweet cravings, but she was gaining more and more converts with every passing week. And as soon as she was past just breaking even, she could start building the life she’d always hoped for.
For now, the best part was seeing the logo with her daughter’s name stamped on every box of sweets she sold. It meant she’d almost made it, that she was close to crawling out of the hole her ex had left her in. Most of all, it was a beautiful reminder for her of why she was doing this, why she was fighting so hard. It was for her daughter, the one good thing that had come out of the darkest time of her life.
Bridgette pulled down a bit of pastel pink ribbon from the spool hanging above her and began tying up the box. She’d been clumsy at first, but continual practice had brought her to the point where she could box up anything with a beautiful bow blind-folded. She snipped off the ribbon and handed it over to Mrs. Brown, her smile still beatific.
“Don’t give up hope, honey,” Mrs. Brown urged her, a sad smile on her lips.
Don’t waste your breath, Bridgette thought angrily. But she didn’t let her irritation show. Instead, she thanked Mrs. Brown and waved her out the door.
She was used to the well-meaning words of encouragement. It was all she’d heard since Kyle had ditched her and their then-unborn baby girl. Somehow being broke and pregnant made her the helpless victim in desperate need of pats on the arm and sympathetic cooing. She was that poor thing, heartbroken and alone and struggling to make ends meet. But Bridgette was determined not to be the love-struck girl who couldn’t function after her man left her.
# # #
Kyle. She tried not to think about him, especially since there was so much anger and resentment attached to her memory of him. He’d been her high school sweetheart, and a bit of a troublemaker—the kind of boy who skipped class and flipped off his teachers whenever he felt like it. He hadn’t graduated, but that had never bothered Bridgette.
She realized she’d been young and stupid, running around with him like she had. He was a pretty boy with a mean streak, ripped muscles, a growing collection of tattoos, and no plan for his future. Sure, she’d always known he ran with a dangerous crowd and the job he never discussed was probably not legal, but he wasn’t a user. He had a short fuse, but he was sweet, too. And that had been enough for her.
She’d been wild about him, for sure, and even after all that had happened, she would still sometimes think of his touch when she was alone at night. When they’d been together, every kiss, every second of contact was an explosion of molten fire that threatened to burn out of control.
But he’d left. Not even left, but disappeared. They hadn’t even fought. He just never came home one night. Or the night after.
She called him, his friends, his few relatives, anyone, but no one could tell her where he’d gone. She’d even called the police, but they didn’t have any help to offer. She was left to imagine the worst, and every night she’d pray he would turn up, back from one of his spontaneous road trips.
Then one morning she’d woken up to a ransacked dresser. He was the only one with a key, and there was no sign of a forced entry, meaning it had to be him. He’d left no note, no sign of where he might be. The only way she knew he was gone for good was by the empty place in the drawer where they kept all their cash. She had nothing in the bank, no credit card, no savings. All she had to remember him by was a trashy little apartment with rent due in a week and a positive pregnancy test that she would never get to show him.
But the past was in the past, she told herself, grabbing a dishrag to wipe down the counter. It wasn’t really dirty, but she needed something to distract herself before she wandered too far into her memories. She’d promised herself long ago that she wouldn’t look back, only forward. She had her daughter and their future to think of, and Kyle wouldn’t—couldn’t—be a part of that future.
She glanced at the clock on the wall almost reflexively. Closing time was coming. She’d have to pick Gabby up from her after school daycare soon. She glanced out at the street, trying to see if there was anyone hanging around the entrance.
When she’d first opened her bake shop, things had been fine. The neighborhood was perfectly safe. It was a quiet little town, so she never felt uneasy closing up and heading out to her car by herself. But these last few days, there had been a couple of strange men hanging around outside. They looked a little shady—burly guys, a little unkempt, who mostly wore leather jackets. The kind of guys who never smiled, who made her skin crawl a little. They reminded her a little of the kind of guys Kyle would sometimes hang around.
They never said anything to her, but they would stare at her, and one even trailed her out to her car once. She’d gotten the hell out of there as quickly as she could, and she’d even considered calling the cops, but she figured the police wouldn’t be able to do much when the guys hadn’t even spoken one word to her. Still, the way they looked at her…they weren’t even like the leering men who sometimes whistled after her when she was out running errands. These men seemed to glare at her with a burning hatred. She didn’t understand it.
At least it was light out when she closed up the shop. And she didn’t see anyone out there now.
The ringing of the phone startled her, making her jump a little. She wiped her hands on her apron and picked up the phone, glancing at the caller ID. She didn’t recognize the number.
“Gabby’s Baked Goods Bakery, how may I help you?” she asked pleasantly.
“Hi, Bridgette? Hon, it’s Marcy, Lena’s mom.”
The mom of one of Gabby’s friends from school. The face of a heavyset woman with tight blonde curls flashed into Bridgette’s mind. They’d set up a play-date or two for their girls, but she didn’t know the woman well.
“Listen, I hate to even ask this of you, but I’m in charge of a charity for breast cancer research, and we’re doing a fun run tomorrow. Problem is, the woman who was going to do the goodies for the runners is sicker than a dog, and I remember you saying you’d opened up a place. Do you think you could help us out? We’d need ten dozen treats for tomorrow morning. We could pay you, of course, but we’re in a bit of a bind here.”
Bridgette’s grip tightened on the phone. That was a big order. She couldn’t afford to turn anything down now, not with her bakery just barely making it. Not to mention what good publicity it would be to have her baked goods served at a community event like that.
The problem was, she’d have to stay late to get the order filled. And Gabby was supposed to get picked up from daycare at five sharp. She’d been late too many times, trying to run errands or get groceries or finish something up around the shop. And she didn’t want to pick her daughter up only to run back to the bakery and make Gabby sit there for hours, bored out of her mind. There was nowhere for her to sit, and nothing for her to do. She didn’t share her mother’s penchant for baking either, so having Gabby help wouldn’t work either.
“Marcy, I’d love to, but I’ve got Gabby—“
“Oh, that’s no problem! Lena’s home now. Gabby could just come over if you need someone to watch her while you get things together.”
“I don’t want to impose—,” Bridgette began, but Marcy interrupted her.
“Don’t worry about it! We love having Gabby over. And it’s the least I can do since you’re doing us such a huge favor. You need me to pick her up?”
Bridgette glanced out the door again, scanning the empty sidewalk. If she stayed late, she’d have to walk to her car alone…. And if those men were still there….
No. She couldn’t afford to let those creeps, whoever they were, run her life and ruin her business. She refused to be scared.
“That would be a huge help, Marcy.”
Bridgette gave Marcy the address for the daycare, finalized the order and pricing with her, and thanked her again for helping with Gabby. “I’ll give you a call as soon as I’m headed out.” She called over to her daycare lady to give her a heads up, just to make sure everything would run smoothly.
Then she started working. It was definitely going to be Gabby’s Baked Goods’s biggest order to date.
At first Bridgette couldn’t help but peer nervously out the front door every few minutes, even after she’d locked up and flipped the closed sign for the night. But soon the logistics of baking ten dozen cookies consumed her, and she was lost in the chore of turning raw ingredients into delectable treats.
Baking had always been a calming process for herself, especially after Kyle had left; it had been a comfort and a distraction, and eventually it became the basis for the business plan that she’d hoped to be her salvation. Even after six months in business, she still found comfort in the familiar, repetitive tasks.
# # #
It was after eight by the time all the cookies had been removed from her industrial-sized oven, cooled, and boxed up. Bridgette was exhausted, and bits of dried dough still clung to parts of her arms; she was looking forward to a shower that night. But she was proud of the work and excited by the opportunity.
If only things could take off…she was sick of wondering how long her financial instability would last. She wanted to start saving for Gabby’s future. She wanted her to have a college fund and a plan so her baby girl wouldn’t find herself trapped and scared and alone like she had.
Bridgette stacked the boxes behind the counter so they’d be ready to be picked up the next day. Marcy had requested she keep them at the bakery, since the run location was in town anyway. She flipped off the lights, gathered up her purse, and headed for the front door when she thought she saw movement over in the halo of the streetlamp to the left of her bakery.
The keys trembled in her hands a little as she unlocked the front door and prepared to head out into the night. It was just your imagination, she reassured herself. You’re just nervous because of those guys. But she couldn’t shake the unpleasant feeling in her gut.
She took a deep, calming breath and pushed through the front door and into the sticky air of the humid summer night. She relocked the door behind her, clutched her purse tighter, and turned down the sidewalk. The community lot where she parked wasn’t that far away. She could make it. If she had to, she could run.
As she passed through the streetlight, a muscled figure stepped out to block her path. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and in the fluorescent light of the streetlamp she could see that his hard, angular face was carved into a deep scowl.
Bridgette’s heart started to race. She’d imagined something like this happening a million times already ever since those men had shown up. But having it actually happen…everything was so sharp. Her spine had gone rigid.
She wanted to just tear off running and hope she made it to her car in time. But the stranger’s hard eyes were on her, paralyzing her.
“Where is it?” the man growled.
General confusion trickled into her panic. “I—I have no idea—“
“You know exactly what I’m talkin’ about,” he snarled, seizing her by the wrist.
His massive hand dwarfed her slender arm, constricting around her brutally and threatening to crush her bones.
She tried to jerk away from him, but he was too strong.
“You listen to me, girlie. You’re gonna tell me exactly where you stashed it, or things are gonna get ugly. Understood?”
She tried to kick at him, hoping to at least distract him enough so she could wrench herself free. But he didn’t even flinch, and instead dragged her over to the side of the building, slamming her back against the wall.
She couldn’t get a good look at the man in the dim lighting, but she caught the glimmer of an earring, and she thought she could make out faint traces of scars on his face.
He trapped her by the throat with one colossal arm and leaned in close. So close that she could smell his rotten breath on her face and feel his thick, bushy beard against her forehead.
“You ain’t gonna try that again,” he growled. “Now tell me where it is or I start breakin’ bones.”
Bridgette tried desperately to crane her neck around. The street was always abandoned at this hour, but she thought she saw headlights. Heard the roar of an engine. There was a chance someone was around, someone who could call 911.
She sucked in a deep breath and let loose a piercing scream.
The hand around her throat tightened, cutting off her air. She tried to claw at her assailant, tried to stop him, but he held her pinned like a little bird against the wall.
She could feel her vision blurring and her strength failing. Then there was blackness.
When she came to, gasping for breath, she found herself slumped against the wall as some new muscular figure tussled with the creep who’d assaulted her.
The new man was a good few inches taller than her attacker. Though his build was less hulking, he seemed sturdy. More than able to leverage strength and speed to keep the upper hand.
Her savior ducked and dodged his opponent’s punches. Then he socked him square in the jaw.
Her attacker crumpled to the ground as the new man shook out his hand, which was likely still stinging from the hard blow he’d dealt.
“You all right, sweetheart?” he asked. His voice was deep and rich. Familiar somehow.
“I’m fine,” she answered, rubbing her sore wrist a little before touching her tender neck, trying to assess the damage. “Thank you so much for stopping him. If you hadn’t come, I…well, I don’t know what would have happened.”
“Don’t mention it.” He turned to her, casting her a smile. But he froze as soon as he met her eyes, his lips falling flat.
She froze, too, and her heart started pumping again. Hard. Her hands balled into fists at her sides—an automatic response to so much anger coursing through her.
After all these years. After everything he’d put her through.
Kyle stared at her, dumbstruck.