Secret Love is also part of the Unforgettable Suspense Boxed set that was just released yesterday! You can get that whole set for only 99 cents too! That’s eight stories from eight different authors!
Welcome to the Building
Two Years Later
Vin woke, but didn’t open his eyes, just zeroed in on his surroundings. He was in the apartment he’d lived in for two months now, and there wasn’t a noise to be heard other than his own breathing. But something woke him and something was off. He’d learned to go with his gut long ago.
He waited a second, then heard another noise, not recognizing it. He reached over and grabbed his gun from under the other pillow, then sat up fast and pointed it toward the closed door.
A few more seconds passed and nothing. No noises. No movements, on his part or the most likely imaginary sounds he was hearing.
Easing out of bed, he quietly made his way to the bedroom door, turned the knob and waited, listened, then moved again, into the hallway this time, his back against the wall.
He was popping around the corners looking for enemies, his gun drawn and ready to fire, but there was nothing. No one. Just him. Just his mind playing tricks on him. Again.
He wasn’t having as many nightmares. He wasn’t jumpy twenty-four seven. He’d thought he was improving. He guessed not.
Before he went back to bed, he walked to the front door and opened it to peek out into the hall. There on his doorstep, was a plate of cookies.
He rolled his eyes and picked them up. This was the third time cookies were left at his doorstep. The first time, he’d destroyed them, once he’d convinced himself it was okay to even pick them up to begin with. What an idiot move that’d been. Thankfully there was no one around to see him breaking every one apart until crumbs were spread all over the counter.
After reading the little welcome note on it, he’d realized how ridiculous he was being. He was a civilian now. He didn’t have to look over his shoulder at everything and everyone. Not unless he was working. And even then, he took on the jobs he wanted, when he wanted to. And those jobs had very little risk of life and death to them. Been there, done that and didn’t want to do it again if he could avoid it.
He was sick of being so jumpy. Sick of looking for the bad in everything.
He brought the cookies to his kitchen just now and lightly tossed them on the counter, watching them skid across and hit the backsplash. Then he looked at the clock and saw it was barely four a.m.
His wacko neighbor again. Piper Fielding. Owner and operator of Sweet Eats in town. He knew a lot about her. After she’d left the first batch of “welcome to the building” cookies with her card and handwritten note, he’d searched for everything he could on her.
Twenty-six-year-old single female. Opened her business almost two years ago, and by all indications was thriving. When he got the second batch and actually sampled her goodies, he could understand why.
What he couldn’t understand was why she was leaving him plates of food. He’d yet to talk to her once. He hadn’t even crossed paths with her. He only knew what she looked like from her picture on her website, and from when he was scoping her out coming home one day. It was hard to miss her driving around in a bumblebee yellow hatchback with her logo on the side.
He grabbed a glass and filled it with water, then drained it before he put it in the sink. He needed sleep. He’d been up researching a job until well past midnight. Then something woke him minutes ago, and he was thinking it was Piper sliding the cookies in front of his door. Or so he hoped. Because the other explanation was one he didn’t want to think about. He was getting better. He knew he was.
“Well, did you do it?”
Piper looked up when Sam walked into the kitchen thirty minutes before her shift. The store opened at seven, but Piper was here hours earlier baking away. Very few things stayed in her storefront window for longer than two days. And if they did, she got rid of them. Either as donations to the local homeless shelters or giving them to neighbors. She prided herself on fresh.
“I did. Slid them in front of his door before I left this morning.”
“Have you even talked to him yet? Has he thanked you for the other two plates you’ve left?”
Piper pursed her lips. “Nope. Haven’t seen him. I don’t even know what he looks like, for the most part. Just that he’s tall and has dark hair and some pretty impressive shoulders and legs.”
“Huh?” Sam asked, putting her apron on, her blonde ponytail falling over her shoulder.
“I saw him walking down the hall one day. He came out his door and turned so fast that I didn’t get to see his face. But the back of him was pretty darn spectacular.”
Sam giggled. She was just twenty-two, but Piper had known her for years, from a house they both lived in for a short period of time. Sam was a good person who just needed a job. Piper took her on knowing what it felt like to need a chance in life. Now Sam stocked the display cases every morning and waited on all the customers while Piper and Nicole worked the kitchen, baking and filling orders. Pretty soon she was going to have to get some more store help, and try to figure out a way to do it without hurting Sam’s feelings.
It seemed more and more people wanted cookies and cupcakes, pastries and muffins over cakes. Since she wasn’t a huge fan of decorating cakes, it worked in her favor. That was Nicole’s specialty.
“Do you even know his name?” Sam asked.
“Nope. Not a clue. I’ve asked around too. No one knows and everyone has been keeping an eye out and an ear open.”
Piper lived in a three-story apartment building with four apartments on each floor. She and her mysterious neighbor had the apartments facing the back of the building on the third floor. She liked not having anyone above her since she went to bed and got up so early each day.
“That’s weird. Have you tried to sweet talk the landlords for any information?” Sam asked.
“Tried and failed,” Piper said, frowning. “Brought them cookies and all, but I got nowhere.”
“They laughed at you, didn’t they?”
“Of course. You know how nosy I am. They know how nosy I am. Everyone does.” Piper laughed. “Sweets get people talking. Nothing is working this time, though.”
“I’m sure you’ll find something out soon enough,” Sam said, then wheeled the tray of baked goods Piper had lined up, ready for Sam to put up front.
“Maybe. But for now, we better get to work. I’ve got three orders to get done by this afternoon. Call me if you get busy and need help. Nicole won’t be in until ten today.”
“I’ll be fine. You do your thing and I’ll do mine,” Sam said, smiling and going about her day.
Piper put her head down and started to whistle while she filled a piping bag, preparing to decorate the five dozen cookies for an office party today.
“Piper,” Nicole said a few hours later when she walked in. “I think Sam needs some help.”
Piper wanted to scream since Sam never said a word. She wiped batter off her hands and pushed through the doors to see a line of people waiting to be served and Nicole jumping in to help too.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Piper asked Sam as she filled a pastry box with one of the brightly decorated cakes Nicole pumped out like an assembly line for her each morning.
“I know you needed to get those orders done. It was fine until about five minutes ago, and then it was like the floodgates just opened right up. The green floodgates. I had it covered though.”
Piper giggled. The green floodgates were the gates of money to Sam. “Next time just call me. You know I love mingling with the customers.”
Sam grinned and filled the orders just as fast and efficiently as Piper. Sam’s problem was she always wanted to prove her worth. Piper got that, understood it even. They came from the same place, both of them just trying to survive. But they were past it now. Sam needed to loosen up a little.
Twenty-five minutes later, the line had thinned out. Several people were sitting at the little tables taking a break and eating their treats, chatting with friends. Sweet Treats wasn’t a restaurant by any means, but there was seating for easily twenty to mill around and talk if they wanted. She even had open Wi-Fi, trying to turn this into a coffee house for the generation that liked to get out and work outside of four tiny walls.
Piper went back to the kitchen and finished baking the second order of cakes she’d been working on. Before she started assembling her third and final order, she detoured out to the storefront one more time. It was relatively quiet right now, so she walked out and started to clean up the tables, talking to those that were sitting there while Sam and Nicole restocked the almost empty showcase.
“You’ve outdone yourself once again, Piper.”
She smiled at Quinton, one of her regulars. A few times a week he’d open his laptop up on a table, eat a scone or muffin, have a cup of coffee with it, and silently type away. She always wanted to know what he was working on, but found she couldn’t ask for some reason. It never stopped her before, but with him, she hesitated.
“What did you have this time?” she asked, wiping down an empty table next to him.
“The fig-filled matcha muffin. Sam talked me into trying it. I’m glad she did.”
She loved coming up with new and different recipes, finding people were more adventurous than she’d thought. She noticed more than half of those muffins left, when by now the bulk of the muffins were gone this late in the morning. “I’m not sure everyone feels the way you do about them. Maybe it’s the green coloring,” she said, winking at him.
He blushed, just like she figured he would. Then she pushed the empty chairs in and made her way back behind the counter. She was just pushing the swinging door to the kitchen when she heard Sam ask the next customer what they wanted.
“Large coffee. Two blueberry muffins.”
She’d know that voice anywhere. The male voice that gave her nightmares for a long time.
The voice that made her stop believing when people told her they were there to help her.
The voice that laughed at her when she tried to play dumb. Tried to get away.
She wanted to turn around and blast him, tell him what a horrible person he was. That he might have fooled everyone around them, but not her.
Instead, she put her sweaty hand on the door and shoved it open with more force than necessary and took a couple of deep breaths while she leaned against the door.
The air in her lungs wasn’t helping. Maybe a glass of water would. After she downed one, then a second, she knew it was useless at this point to drink a third. She’d calm down in enough time. She always did. And she’d never have enough courage to face him the way she wanted. Instead she ran and hid like she did so long ago.
Sam popped her head in a few minutes later. “What did the creep want today? Gush about your Hulk-inspired muffins?”
For a minute Piper thought Sam was talking about Karl. One of her old foster fathers. The one that thought he could be more than a father to her. That thought she was in the house for his enjoyment. He learned otherwise, and he’d learned it fast.
But Sam mentioned the green muffins, so Piper knew who she was talking about. She forced a laugh. Sam was good about nicknaming anything she thought Piper made that was odd. “You shouldn’t call Quinton a creep. It’s not nice. He said he loved it. I think he might be alone in those thoughts.”
“It was pretty good, at least the first few bites, but too big for me.”
“It’s an acquired taste,” Piper said, pulling up a last-minute order she had to fill. Four dozen assorted pastries and muffins. She needed to get her mind off of the fact Karl was in her shop. She didn’t know if he saw her. He didn’t call her name and he always did when he saw her around town. Always put on a show for everyone that he was this great fill-in father for the short time she was there. Until she did the only thing she could to get out. “Do you think I should slip a few in this order for the fun of it?”
“I’m sure it couldn’t hurt. Someone might eat it.”
Piper laughed at Sam’s funny face, glad that her heart rate was back to normal and she could pretend nothing happened. Just like she’d been doing for years. “I’ll throw them in as two extras. Then I won’t feel bad if they aren’t eaten.” Sam was just standing there staring at her. “What’s on your mind?”
“Don’t you find him a little creepy at all?”
“Who?” Piper asked, walking around the kitchen and trying to figure out what she was going to fill the box with. She wanted clarification so she didn’t slip and say the wrong thing. Guess she was shakier than she realized.
“Quinton. I mean, he’s in here more and more. Just sits there for hours. Doesn’t he have a job? Once you go out and say a few words to him, he finally leaves. If you go out five minutes after he gets here, then he’ll leave. If you wait two hours, he stays until he talks to you. And he left another note on a napkin. I put it on your wall.”
The first time someone left her a note of thanks, she posted it on her wall behind the counter. Now it seemed to have caught on and she got several left a week. It was nice to feel loved like that. To know she was touching so many people in such a simple way.
“Really?” Piper asked. She’d never realized that before. “He’s sweet. Harmless. Just wants a friendly face to say hi. We know what it’s like not having many people to talk to. And whether he has a job or not is of no concern to me, because he’s paying for his food.”
“But it’s not the same. He’s an adult.”
“It’s always the same when you’re lonely, Sam. Like I said, harmless.”
“You think everyone is harmless,” Sam said.
No, she didn’t. But she wanted everyone to believe that, because deep down she tried to believe it herself. “After the lives we’ve had, you have to look for the positive. It will get you through. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
Sam shook her head, her ponytail whipping around. “You’re one of a kind.”
“Could you imagine if there were more of me?” she asked, giggling and crossing her eyes. The crisis had passed, just like she’d been forcing it to her whole life.
“Never,” Sam said, laughing and walking back to the front.