High tea or sweet tea? As long as there are scones, it doesn’t matter. In fact, Suzie’s cousin Sydney Schul, owner of Sydney’s Sugar High Coffee Stop and Bakery, makes the best damned scones east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason Dixon, and there was an article written in Southern’s Best magazine to prove it. All is well and life in Legend is good, until a mysterious male stranger comes to town, stalking Sydney’s scones, and attempting to romance her out of her famous recipe.
“There he is again.”
Sydney Schul jerked her head up, bonking her forehead on the top of the display case where she’d just placed a fresh tray of scones. “What? Ouch! Where?” She rubbed her head and looked to where her cousin, Suzie Matthews, pointed.
“Over there,” Suzie said. “On the bench across the street, in front of the library. Your stalker.”
Sydney squinted, wiped her hands on her apron, and took a couple of steps toward the big picture window of her bakery. “Oh, Suzie, are you sure?”
“Dead positive. I remember his jacket.”
“Well, shoot.” Dammit.
Puzzled, Sydney blew a strand of hair out of her face and eyed the guy. “I thought maybe he was gone. I really didn’t believe he was stalking me anyway. I mean, Chelly gets riled up about stuff like that, but you are always so levelheaded, Suzie, which has me a bit worried. And you know me; I don’t pay a bit of attention to anything other than what’s happening straightaway in front of me. So, what do we do now?”
Suzie picked up her cell. “Time to call in the local forces.”
Grasping her wrist, she said, “I don’t think that is necessary.”
A brow arched above Suzie’s right eye. “Syd, listen to me. Let me give Matt a call. He can advise.”
“Suzie, Matt is about as effective as Barnie Fife. I mean, I love him, seeing that he’s Chelly’s husband and your brother-in-law and my cousin-by-marriage and all, but nothing big ever happens here in Legend, and I’m suspecting nothing big is going to happen with this guy. Let Matt be. We don’t need to involve any of Legend’s finest.”
She tried like hell not to look out the window again. “Besides, I don’t have a stalker.”
Glancing across the street, Suzie said, “Need I remind you that the guy followed you all around the Piggly Wiggly on Saturday?”
Well, that was true. He had a cart with only a few items in it, but he had watched her like a hawk. She also noticed he had a little notebook with him, and he frequently jotted down things while he stood a fair distance behind her. It wasn’t the first time she’d noticed him lingering about, either, but that didn’t mean he was a stalker. “He was shopping. Just like me. You know how I have to go through the entire store one aisle at a time. Likely that’s the way he shops, too. I don’t think that’s anything to be concerned about.”
The notebook thing bothered her a little, however.
“What about the Thursday before at the pancake breakfast you catered for the American
Legion? He was there, too.”
“He was eating!”
“Well, maybe so! But who is he? And why is he always staring at you!”
Sighing, Sydney moved closer to the door and stared at the gentleman across the street. It was early spring, and he wore a light blue fleece jacket, jeans, a nice pair of Nikes, and a black ball cap pulled low over his forehead. Nothing weird about that. In fact, he looked rather normal.
“I don’t think stalkers sit out in the open, in the middle of the day, watching their prey from a few feet away.”
“I don’t think they wear Nikes, either.”
“Unless they need a fast getaway.”
Sydney turned. “Oh, Suzie, stop it! The guy is not a stalker! I mean, why would he stalk me? I am nobody. I’m not famous like you. You’re the big television star and cookbook author. I’m a lowly baker and coffee shop owner in a very nondescript little southern town where nothing, and I repeat nothing, ever happens.”
She looked her cousin square in the eyes. Suzie’s suddenly shot open wider.
“He’s standing up.”
Sydney jerked her gaze back to the street. Her gut tightened, but she refused to acknowledge it. Well, sort of. “So what?”
The man looked right, left, and then stepped off the curb.
“Shit.” Suzie flipped her cell open again.
“Stop that,” Sydney told her. “You are not calling Matt.”
“He’s coming. Look! He’s staring straight at the store front door.”
“Great! I’ll sell him some coffee and Danish. Now move it, and put that phone away.” She hustled back toward the counter, unsure why her tummy was twittering like a house afire.
Stalker my ass. The guy is probably just new in town and trying to get a lay of the land.
“He’s on the sidewalk!”
Staring at her, Sydney said, “Quit! Go in the back if you are going to have a conniption right here in the bakery. I don’t need that.”
Sydney rounded the display case and pretended to straighten things on the counter. His shadow crossed the door.
“Oh, God. Oh, God!”
“Suzie, shut up!”
This was all rather unnerving. Suzie never acted like this or got spooked by things. What in the world...?
The bell on the door jiggled.
Glancing up about the time the door closed and the man stepped fully into the bakery, Sydney plastered her best Southern Belle smile on her face and said, “Good morning, sir! Welcome to Sydney’s Sugar High Coffee Stop and Bakery. What can I get you this morning?”
Behind the display case, she waved Suzie off, who was pressed to her back like a cat in heat.
The man didn’t say a word but took a leisurely pace moving forward, then let his gaze fall to the baked goods in the display case. “A cup of black coffee to start,” he said finally, shifting back and forth while looking over the goodies in the case.
“One cup of black coffee coming up!” She turned to stare at Suzie who was blocking her way. Keeping eye contact, she gripped both her arms and maneuvered her to the left so she could get to the Bunn coffeemaker. “Suzie, do I smell something burning in the back?”
A look of horror crossed her cousin’s face. “Muffins!”
“Go check please?”
She was off, and Sydney sighed, “Thank, God.”
Turning, she placed a thick mug of coffee on the counter. The man still stood at the case, scrutinizing her scones.
“Those…orange?” He pointed.
“Yes. Just baked and frosted. A local favorite. Shall I get you one?”
“What’s the icing?” The ball cap lifted a bit, and she caught his gaze. Barely.
“It’s a butter cream, sort of. With a hint of Curaçao and a little something else for tartness.”
“A little something else,” he mumbled.
“Shall I get you one?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“For here or to go?”
He glanced up and about the place, then finally responded, “Here.”
Crap. She halfway hoped it was to go, honestly. Suzie was so unpredictable.
Peering through the case, he watched her every move as, with gloved hands, she reached inside, covered one of the nicest scone specimens on the tray, and moved it to a small dessert plate. She always used real dishware in her bakery when people were staying to eat. It was homier that way, and she really wanted people to feel at home here.
So they would come back, of course.
Did she want this guy to come back? Quit letting Suzie get to you. He’s harmless.
She handed him the plate. “Three dollars and fifty cents.”
His head jerked up. “That’s all?”
“Yes, sir. One dollar for the coffee, two-fifty for the scone. Tax included.”
He mumbled something unintelligible, pulled some bills out of his wallet, and dug two quarters out of his jeans pocket. He scooped up his pastry and coffee and sauntered off toward a table in the corner.
“Great,” Suzie whispered from behind. “Now your stalker has set up shop in your bakery. I’m calling Matt.”
Sydney faced her. “Oh hell, just go on and do it. Geez!” If there was anything Sydney knew better than the back of her hand, it was her cousins, Suzie and Chelly, and how they were. Once Suzie had something in her head, there was no getting her to back off. “Have at it, cuz.”
Suzie scurried off to the back. Sydney wiped down the counter and ordered herself not to look at the man in the corner. But she did peek, once.
Stone Kellerman stared at the scone in front of him, glanced briefly up at the woman behind the counter—was she the Sydney of Sydney’s Sugar High Coffee Stop and Bakery? He’d have to peruse her later—then back to the object of his affection on the plate.
Damn. Real plates. Why hadn’t he thought of that? Added to the charm.
Yes, the town was full of charm. Something else he didn’t have a lot of in downtown Atlanta. He had urban. She had charm. But he wouldn’t think of that at this moment. He had a scone to consider.
And there it was, the thing he sought, the reason he was here, the possible cause of his demise or perhaps, the reason for his rise to glory.
The Double Orange Scone of Sinful Decadent Desire. Aptly named. Almost like sex on a plate. At least in his world.
But Curaçao? In a scone? How absurd.
Yet, it might work. Might.
Lifting his fork, he poked at the end of the baked confection devoid of glaze. A few crumbs flaked off. Moist, flaky crumbs. He frowned.
People loved that about scones. A delicate mixture between dry and moist, flaky and crumbly. Had she achieved it?
So they said. Now, he was observing, witnessing, experiencing one for his very self.
His chest grew tight. The proof would be in the tasting. Still, he was concerned about that butter cream and Curaçao combination.
His fork bit into the scone and cut off a piece. He lifted the morsel to his lips, sniffed first—ah, a nice aroma—and deposited the bite on his tongue. His lips clamped over the fork and raked all of the crumbs and glaze away and into his mouth before departing.
Melting. In his mouth.
Eyes closed, he savored the first taste. Moist, yes, with an earthy bite. Sweet orange flavor ran through the biscuit-y chunk. And…there was a hint of something else. Nutmeg? Maybe.
Allspice? No. No. Nutmeg. Yes. Orange and nutmeg…wait. Maybe a touch of...?
Not nut-meg. Maybe both.
He took another bite, rolling the scone over his tongue. Yes, a nutty flavor. But what exactly was it?
He wasn’t sure.
He might have to buy another one to take with him back to the Lodge so he could continue his flavor deconstruction in private.
Closing his eyes, he tried to concentrate on the subtle nut flavor.
Not your everyday nut, he was sure. If he could only get a handle on it…
Now wouldn’t that be just it? An ingredient so obscure one could not distinguish it from the rest. Just like her to come up with something like that. Hm. Well, it was just like him to do the same.
He swallowed then returned his attention to the scone. With one fork tine, he dipped into a puddle of glaze on the plate. He touched the tine with sugary icing to the tip of his tongue, rolled it around on there for a moment to hit all the right spots of his palate, and then swallowed.
Eyes closed again, he savored the flavors…floral, orange blossoms? The liquor? Double…
Double orange. What were the two orange flavor combos? Wait…what did she say, something with a hint of tart?
Yes. Tart. There it was. Strangely complimented by the butter cream….
Not just sex on a plate. Bad, twisted, kinky and oh-so-very satisfying sex on exquisite bone china.
Startled, he glanced at his cup. Hadn’t touched it yet. Was totally and thoroughly absorbed in the scone. Still chewing, he lifted his gaze to the woman holding the coffee carafe. “I actually haven’t taken a drink yet. Come back in a little while?”
Her eyes were a deep shade of blue, and for a moment, he was totally distracted by them and had forgotten the scone. Well, almost.
“No problem. I’ll check back. Am interested to know how you like it.”
“The scone?” Shit, was she onto him?
“Well, that, too. But also the coffee. It’s a new blend. From Hawaii. Has a tinge of macadamia nut in it.”
Again, he glanced at his cup. A tingling ran up his spine. “Sure thing. I’ll try it.” He picked up the cup, lifted his eyes again, and caught her smile as she turned away.
A twitter of excitement rolled up in him as she sashayed toward the coffeemaker and replaced the pot. If he hadn’t been so absorbed in the coffee and scone, he wouldn’t have minded staring at her a little longer.
But not at this moment. Right now he was about to jump out of his skin.
He took a sip of the brew. Then another bite of the scone. Another sip of coffee. Relished in the blending of flavors.
The woman is brilliant.
A perfect blend, scone and coffee, so subtle the married ingredients that the average, ordinary person would not know whether it was the individual thing—scone or the coffee—that was so wonderful, when in fact, it was the combination of the two, that made them so perfect.
And not too smart. Because unknowingly, she had just given him her secret. Macadamia nut flour. Oh, he’d have to figure out the measurements, baking being such an exact science and all, but that was it all right. And he’d bet his bottom dollar it was Grand Marnier, not Curaçao, in the glaze.
Satisfied, he tipped the coffee back up to his lips, nodded her way, caught her gaze, and gave her a thumbs up.
Her innocent smile back spoiled his excitement. But only for a second.
It warmed her heart to see a person enjoying himself so much.
Sighing, Sydney stepped away from the counter and pulled her gaze away from Mystery Man—she much preferred that handle than stalker—who was still hanging out in the corner. The bakery was slow this morning, only a handful of customers, so she was actually glad to have someone here. He’d ordered another scone, the same kind, and was on this third cup of coffee.
She didn’t think a thing about it; Suzie, on the other hand, was rattled.
“He should be gone by now,” she whispered into her ear, while Sydney was cleaning off a table in the opposite corner.
“Suzie, get a grip. He’s harmless!”
They both filtered in and out, from the kitchen in the back to the front of the store. They were using her place, rather than Suzie’s kitchen at her B&B, to bake about a dozen trays of goodies for a writer’s retreat hosted at the Lodge. Of course, the kitchens at the Lodge were top-notch, seeing that Suzie’s husband was executive chef and owner, but Suzie preferred baking with Sydney at her place when they joined on these catering adventures. Besides, the Lodge was set up for all kinds of cooking; Sydney’s place was designed exclusively for baking.
“I love it here,” Suzie told her, leaning in to her right, pushing at some dough on the butcher-block counter.
“It is nice, isn’t it?”
“You’ve worked hard to get it exactly the way you want.”
Nodding, she smiled, glancing about. “I know. And patience is not always my virtue, but I was willing to wait to get exactly what I wanted.” She pulled a rack of biscotti out of the oven.
“Well, you’re doing so well. And that award!”
Sydney’s heart fluttered at the mention. Her toes hadn’t hit the ground for days after she’d been notified. At the thought, her chest swelled with twitterings. She was about to launch into an excited response, when the bells on the door tumbled again signaling either that someone had left, or come in.
Suzie was up to her elbows in flour, kneading that yeast dough for the cinnamon rolls.
“I’ll check,” Sydney told her.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she peeked into the store and saw no one. Then, moving further in, she glanced around the corner to where Mystery Man had been sitting, wondering if he had left.
Something icky landed in the pit of her stomach.
Mystery Man, indeed, was still there. And so was Chelly’s husband, Matt, Legend’s own Barney Fife—and she meant that in a good way—standing over him as he sat at his table.
And she wouldn’t have been so alarmed, had Mystery Man not abruptly stood, and shouted.