Her doorbell chimes startled her as she was tapping the eggs on the counter, resulting in a sticky mess as her hands crushed the shells instead of cracking them.
Wiping her hands on the side towel, she went to the door and checked the peephole. Scott from next door. Her heart thudded a bit faster and she felt a tingling wave of heat rise up her neck. Was he here because she'd dropped by the police station, then rushed off like the cops were seconds away from coming after her? She twisted the knob.
"Ashley? I'm returning your tray."
She pulled the door open. He waited in the hallway, still wearing what she'd seen him in this morning. Khakis and a green polo that intensified his hazel eyes. But there was a weariness about him, as if he'd be more comfortable dressed in his robe.
"You really didn't need to," she said.
"I also wanted to tell you the cookies were a big hit. I'm sure you'll have a lot of customers."
"Thanks." From the kitchen, her timer dinged. "Would you like to come in? I'm in the middle of baking, and have to get the cookies out of the oven."
"For a minute."
She hurried to her cookies, aware that he followed slowly behind her. She pulled the sheet out of the oven and set it on the stovetop while she cleared enough room on the island for another cooling rack. Soon, she told herself. Soon she'd be doing this for real, in her shop kitchen.
Scott still stood there, holding the tray. She looked more closely. It held two bags of microwave popcorn.
He extended it. "My mom would kill me for returning an empty tray, but I'm afraid I don't have much in the house. And I'm certainly not competing with your baking skills. The closest I've ever come to homemade cookies are those blobs of dough from the refrigerated section of the grocery store."
She couldn't help but smile as she took the tray. "That was very—" She caught herself before she said sweet. Somehow, sweet didn't seem to fit Scott.
"Thoughtful," she finished. "We were raised the same way. But Mom wasn't a very good cook, and she always dreaded getting anything on a real plate because she'd have to reciprocate. She'd leave the empty plate in the middle of the table, nagging her to create something. I loved it, though, and as soon as I was old enough, I took over that chore. Although for me it wasn't a chore at all."
When she looked at him again, she noticed an aura of weariness. A slight slump to his shoulders, shadows under his eyes. "Would you like some coffee? It's fresh."
His eyes brightened. "If it's not too much trouble, I'd love some."
"Take a seat." She got out two mugs and filled them, adding cream and sugar to hers. "How do you take it?"
He pulled one of her stools away from the counter and sat. "Black is fine."
She handed him a mug, took a sip from hers, then grabbed a damp rag and swabbed the eggy mess. "If it's all right, I need to get this batch of cookies going." She gestured to the cooling rack where her earlier cookies waited. "Help yourself. Those are a new recipe, and I'd appreciate an outside opinion."
She scraped the softened butter into her mixer and began creaming it with the sugar, keeping an eye on Scott as he sampled one of her cookies. First, he broke the ball in two, studying the two halves. The chunk of bittersweet chocolate she'd placed inside the dough oozed enough to tempt, not enough to drip. He popped one half into his mouth.
He chewed, then his eyes widened. He coughed. "Whoa. These have some kick."
"Too much? I call them my spicy Aztec chocolate drops, and I've been playing with the amounts of cayenne and black peppers."
Were his eyes watering? She grabbed one from the rack and sampled it. The bittersweet richness of the chocolate and the sugary topping were rapidly replaced by a strong burn on her tongue. She strode to the fridge and got a carton of milk. Pouring two glasses, she said, "Definitely a bit heavy on the cayenne. Drink some of this, and if you're willing, try one of the others. It's a milder batch."
He gulped some milk and gave her a narrow-eyed look that said, Can I trust you?
She took one of the cookies and broke it in half. Eating one, rolling it around in her mouth, sampling the blend of flavors, she extended the other half to him. "These might be more to your liking. There's still some heat, but it's not quite so dominant."
He took another swig of milk, then some coffee before testing the cookie. He mimicked her tasting technique. "Actually, I think you could meet somewhere in the middle, as long as you advertised them as spicy. That way, there's still a bit of adventure."
"Thanks." She went back to her prep, mixing her wet and dry ingredients into a stiff dough and adding the chips and nuts. Scott sat, watching, but not speaking. The rhythm of placing scoops of dough onto the parchment seemed to give her the nerve she hadn't been able to muster inside the police station.
"Can I ask you something?" Not brilliant, but a start.
"Sure." Scott snagged another cookie. His voice was calm, reassuring.
"Can you check to see if someone in prison is still there? Or if he's there, but getting someone to do sneaky stuff for him?"
Ashley plunged forward. "It's my bakery. It's supposed to open soon, but there have been all sorts of construction glitches, and I was talking to Maggie—she works at That Special Something—and she said that there was this guy who had sabotaged the shop, trying to do something to Sarah."
"And you think he's trying to sabotage your shop as well?"
Ashley felt a flash of relief that Scott didn't sound like he thought she was nuts. She put the cookies into the oven. "So, is there a way to find out?"
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