Claire is content is remain the quiet one, unobtrusive, so she doesn't incur the wrath of her short-tempered, sharp-tongued sister. But when a foul-smelling, dirty stranger comes through the door of their bakery looking for a job, no one is more surprised than Claire that he might be just what she needs.
But what she discovers is that what she needed, she had all along, and that she has the courage to stand up to her sister and take what she wants.
But the dirty stranger? He's a lot more than she bargained for.
Enjoy Chapter One below!
“He looks like a serial killer.”
Claire, sitting next to her sister, watched as the last poor soul in a long string of poor souls left their bakery, tail tucked between his legs.
“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think, Lisa?” She pretended not to see the hateful glare her sister threw her way. “Look.” She pulled a resume from the stack in front of her and pushed it across the table. “This one looks promising.”
Lisa snorted and chunked it in the trash. “Look, sis. I haven’t spent the last ten years breaking my neck in this bakery to see it fail now.” Claire cringed when her sister shoved her chair back, the legs scraping across the polished concrete. “Mom and dad left us nothing but this bakery and a pile of debt.”
Claire’s heart sank. “Don’t talk about them that way.” She dipped her head to avoid her sister’s pointed stare. “They did the best they could.”
“Yes, and then left me with you.”
It stung. Claire knew she had always been a burden on her sister. Lisa had been twenty-three when the police came to the door to inform her that their parents had died in a car accident. She was ill prepared to raise a fifteen-year-old, even if she was family. Claire had tried to make it her mission not to be a burden on her sister, but Lisa had never seen it that way.
As usual, Claire let the comment pass. It was usually in her best interest to turn the other cheek where Lisa was concerned. Claire tried to make herself small, living unseen so as not to draw Lisa’s attention and subsequently, her wrath.
The bell above the bakery’s front door jingled.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Lisa spat.
Claire glanced up, thankful that someone else had drawn Lisa’s attention away from her.
He stood just inside the doorway, his gaze fixed on the floor. His unruly brown hair fell over his forehead, hiding most of his features. He wore brown pants that had seen better days, a grimy white t-shirt and a frayed flannel shirt. His Converse high tops nearly fell off his feet, and only stayed in place because of the green army duct tape wrapped around each toe.
“Hello.” He held his baseball cap in his dirty hands, and Claire feared he would rip it in two the way he wrung it between his fingers. “I heard you were looking for help.”
“Not by the likes of you,” Lisa declared hotly.
“Please.” He looked up. “I’d like a job.”
Claire was struck by the most beautiful blue eyes she had ever seen on a man. They were rimmed by full, thick lashes that should have been strange on a man. But here, Claire thought, they were perfect.
Her throat caught as he turned his gaze to her. His lips tipped up into a grin, hesitant but welcoming. He drew her in like a lodestone. Ignoring her sister, she strode forward and reached out to shake his hand.
He dipped his head in acknowledgement. A small dimple on his left cheek peeked out as his grin widened. “I’m Ben.”
“I hate to break this up, but we’re not hiring.” Lisa stepped up and pushed Claire aside, breaking the contact.
“But your sign says —”
“Are you daft? I said we’re not hiring.”
“We could try him out.” Claire was careful to keep her voice low. The last thing she wanted was her sister’s attention back on herself, but…. There was something about this young man. “We need the help. We can’t fulfill Mr. Brooks’ order without —”
Lisa threw up her hands. “Fine. Fine!” She spun on her heel and stomped behind the counter. “But you’re training him! And he needs to take a shower.”
Claire’s cheeks burned red as she turned to face Ben. “I’m so sorry. She has a lot on her right now. We signed on to do Nathan Brooks’ birthday party?”
“Nathan Brooks? The one who owns —”
“The billionaire? Yes, that’s the one.” Claire swiped a hand through her hair.
Ben nodded. “I can understand her stress. I guess I came at the right time.”
“When can you start?”
Claire was momentarily blinded when his grin spread into a full-fledged smile. “How about now?”
Claire sent a silent prayer of thanks that Lisa shut herself in the office for the rest of the day. After giving Ben a quick tour of their bakery, she supplied him with a hair net and a smock.
“You’ll have to wear this,” she said, holding the garment on the tip of her finger. “Lisa likes things to be neat and, uh, clean.”
Her cheeks flamed as Ben glanced down at himself. When he tilted a sideways grin at her, her stomach flipped over. The blue eyes held a hint of amusement and she had to turn away before he saw the spark in her own.
“Do you have somewhere I could wash up?”
Relieved, she welcomed the distraction. “Of course.”
“I must seem a mess,” Ben said, leaning over the sink to scrub at his hands and arms. “I just came from —”
“Oh, no need to explain.” Claire waved a dismissive hand. She knew what it felt like to be judged by others. Her sister constantly reminded her that their parents would be sorely disappointed in Claire’s lack of drive and ambition. She was too soft, a doormat, easily distracted, and naïve. Lisa saw fit to point out Claire’s flaws on a daily basis. “You seem like a hard worker. I’m sure you’ll catch on easily. I’m glad we can help you out.”