Bbriana Ryan hummed as she spread chocolate icing on a row of cream-filled eclairs. She loved this time of day; the sun was barely peeking over the horizon, and the bakery was still and quiet, save for her humming and the gentle whir of the mixer as her sister Lizzie prepared muffin batter.

“What are you so happy about?” Lizzie grumbled in Briana’s direction. Briana was a cheerful morning person, Lizzie just the opposite.

“Nothing and everything”, Briana answered, a small smile playing on her lips.

“Yeah, right”, Lizzie muttered. “You know he’ll be in this morning.”

Briana blushed. ‘He’ was Joe, a construction worker who stopped by the bakery on a regular basis for coffee and a doughnut before heading to his job.

“Lizzie, please!” Briana said irritably. Joe was the most exasperating man on the face of the planet. He complained about everything; the temperature of the coffee, the cost of the doughnut and he drove her absolutely mad. However, he does have the sexiest smile and bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, Briana thought but she’d die before she ever admitted her thoughts to Lizzie, who would have a field day teasing her. The sisters had worked in the bakery on and off since they were little girls, inheriting it as their own when their mother died three years ago.

Margaret Ryan was a remarkable woman, raising two girls on her own and running a bakery all by herself, at the same time. Their father left them when the girls were babies, leaving her alone and heartbroken. Briana swore she’d never let a man do that to her, and adopted a very cool nature as a result. Briana glanced at the clock, dusting her hands on her apron.

“Here we go.” She called to Lizzie, and headed to the front to unlock the door and put out the ‘Open’ sign. She barely made it to the counter when the bell chimed, announcing their first customer.

“I hope the coffee’s hot this morning”, teased a familiar voice. Briana’s cheeks flushed and she looked up to see Joe standing there, grinning devilishly at her.

“It’s always hot”, she snapped. “You are the only person I have ever met who prefers their coffee the temperature of lava.”

“Lighten up, Briana”, he chuckled. “Haven’t you figured out by now that I like to tease you?”

“Haven’t you figured out by now that I don’t like to be teased?” she retorted, feeling her heart beat faster at the sight of him leaning on the counter. His azure eyes sparkled merrily, and a small smile played on his lips. Briana couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to kiss him. He wore a simple T-shirt and faded jeans that fitted just right, and the tool-belt around them gave him a slightly boyish look that Briana found terribly cute.

Lizzie came strolling in from the back of the bakery and smiled at Joe. “Hi Joe”, she sang, in a tone that reminded Briana of a teasing high schooler.

“Morning, Lizzie” he greeted. “Your sister’s awfully feisty this morning.”

“Tell me about it”, she said, rolling her eyes playfully.

“Here is your coffee, heated to scalding, and your jelly doughnut” Briana declared shoving it in his direction. She’d taken special care filling and powdering the doughnuts, knowing they were his favorite.

“Thank you.” He spoke politely, a small smile on his lips, paid Lizzie for the coffee and doughnut, and tipped his hat to the sisters before heading out the door. Lizzie took one look at Briana’s expression and smiled knowingly. “You’ve got it bad for him.”

“I do not!” Briana retorted hotly.

“Brie, he’s been coming in here every day for a month. Every day he teases you and you say you hate it, but as soon as he leaves you get this goofy, lovey look on your face.” Lizzie remarked.

Briana rolled her eyes. Lizzie was the older sister, but Briana considered herself the more mature. “Look, Brie, I just want you to be happy!”

“I am happy.”

“You know what I mean. I thought I was content with being single, too, until I met Brad” said Lizzie, smiling at the thought of her husband. “You got lucky. Brad’s a great guy.”

“So is Joe!”

“How do you know?” Briana challenged. Lizzie shrugged. “I can feel it, Brie. It’s like a sixth sense I have.”

Lizzie had managed to find herself a wonderful husband; Briana had to give her that. “He’s crazy about you”, Lizzie insisted.

“That’s ridiculous. He picks on me every chance he gets”, said Briana defensively.

“I rest my case. You have a lot to learn about men, little sister” Lizzie bragged.

Briana sighed. She was thirty-three and Lizzie treated her like a teenager. Although Briana and Lizzie were sisters, they were very different. Lizzie was a social butterfly, chatty and flirty, whereas Briana was serious and shy. Even as a little girl, Briana would sit alone and read quietly while the other children romped outdoors. She’d been in several relationships, none of them turning out to her satisfaction. Her studious nature attracted studious, serious men, which she found strangely unsatisfying.

That evening, Lizzie left early to have a romantic dinner with Brad, leaving Briana to close the bakery on her own.

“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” Lizzie fretted. It was usually dark by the time they closed, and as a precautionary measure they always locked up and left together.

“Yes, Lizzie. Who would rob a bakery, for God’s sake? Go on, have a good time”, Briana insisted.

Lizzie gave her one last worried look before departing. An hour later Briana grabbed her coat and keys, prepared to walk out the door. The bell chimed and Briana frowned, slightly irritated. She was ready to go home. “I’m sorry, we’re closed”, she said politely, giving an apologetic smile to the man who’d entered. Instead of turning around, he strode towards her, an evil gleam in his cold, dark eyes. The man snarled:”Open the register. Now!”

“Wh-what?” Briana gasped, eyeing a shiny metal object in his hand. A gun! He has a gun! This cannot be happening, she thought, her body quaking with fear.

“Gimme the money!” He screamed, pointing the gun at her.

“Please don’t hurt me.” She whimpered, scurrying behind the counter. She was shakily attempting to open the register when the bell chimed again.

“Drop the gun. Now!”

A familiar voice growled. Briana’s eyes widened. Joe! She looked into his eyes and found comfort there. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded his head toward the back of the bakery but Briana remained rooted where she stood, afraid to move.

“Drop the gun. Now!” Joe ordered again. The man looked around, his eyes wild, then fixed his gun on Joe. “Shut up!” He screamed, his arm shaking. The two men stood silently, sizing each other up. Then, before Briana knew what was happening, Joe lunged towards the man, tackling him to the ground and sending the gun sliding across the floor.

As Joe and the burglar wrested on the floor Briana scurried from behind the counter and grabbed the gun, sprinting into the back to call the police. She returned to find that Joe had pinned the man on his stomach and was desperately trying to restrain him. Briana felt a surge of anger as she eyed the criminal. How dare he try to rob my bakery? My mother’s bakery! She seethed as she slowly extended her arm, pointing the gun directly at the man’s head.

“Don’t move or I’ll shoot.” She then said calmly.

The man glanced up at her from his position on the ground and, seeing the cold rage in her eyes, promptly stopped struggling. An hour later Briana sat on the floor of her bakery, sobbing. The police had come and gone, efficiently handcuffing the burglar and carting him off to jail. Joe stood a few feet away from her, shifting nervously.

“I was so scared Joe! I was so scared”, she cried. He knelt down beside her and folded her into his arms, cradling her as if she were a little girl.

“It’s okay now, Briana. You’re safe”, he soothed. She instinctively rested her head on his strong chest, comforted by the steady sound of his heartbeat and he gently stroked her chestnut hair. They remained there, on the floor of the bakery, for several minutes before Briana regained her composure. She pulled from his embrace and stood up, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.

“I’m alright now”, she declared, her voice hoarse from crying.

“I’ll take you home”, he said softly.

“That’s okay! I can drive myself”, she insisted, more bravely than she felt.

“I insist”, he said firmly.

Briana nodded and they walked the block to his truck, with the icy February wind blowing around them. Briana shivered and Joe instinctively moved closer to her. Once inside the truck Briana gave him directions to her apartment and they drove in silence for a few moments before she spoke.

“Joe, thank you so much. You saved me. I can’t believe you tackled him like that”, she said, still in awe at his bravery.

“I did what I had to do. Besides, he was scared. I don’t think he would have shot me”, he lied.

“I can’t believe you showed up. What made you come to the bakery?”

“I always do”, he said quietly.

“What?”

“I always stop by when you close. Just to make sure you get out okay. It’s a crazy world, y’know”, he said nonchalantly.
Briana looked at him, amazed. “I can’t believe I’ve never seen you”, she stammered.

“I didn’t want you to see me. I figured you’d get mad, think I was stalking you or something”, he said shyly, his face reddening.
“Oh, Joe! I can’t tell you how much that means to me; hat someone cares enough to do that”, she said softly, her voice thick with emotion.

He nodded slightly but said nothing, instead focused on the road. They arrived at Briana’s apartment and Joe exited the truck first, coming around to open Briana’s door. Briana blushed with surprise. They walked in silence to her door, Joe standing guard until she unlocked the door and was safely inside.

He asked: “Would you like me to sit with you for awhile?” Briana considered for a moment. Yes! Yes! Yes! She thought.

“No! That’s okay! I’m fine”, she said, hating herself.

“Well, if you need anything.” He reached in his coat pocket and extracted a card. Once alone inside, she studied the card he’d given her. ‘Joe McFarland, contractor’. Below his name was his telephone number. Briana smiled and placed it gently by the phone. That night she slept little, the evening’s events replaying in her mind and, when she finally drifted off, her dreams were filled with images of Joe.

Briana waited expectantly every morning that week for Joe to come by the bakery but he did not, and she found herself very disappointed. Valentine’s Day arrived, and Briana was totally depressed. Lizzie tried her best to cheer her up but to no avail. They were outside locking the deadbolt that evening when a horse-drawn carriage pulled up in front of the bakery, its jovial driver tipping his top hat. Briana watched in amazement as Joe descended from the carriage, a bouquet of red roses in his hand. Lizzie squeezed Briana’s hand happily as Joe sauntered up to Briana and handed her the roses.

“My lady”, he said cordially, extending his arm. Briana linked her arm through his and followed him into the carriage, leaving Lizzie smiling after them with satisfaction.

“Joe, what is all this?” Briana asked breathlessly, her amber eyes sparkling.

“All this is for you”, he said, gently tipping her face towards his with his fingertips. “Briana, I’ve been wrestling with this all week. Hell! No, longer than that”, he said huskily, his fingertips brushing against her silky chestnut hair. “Instead of beating around the bush, I’m just going to say it. I’m in love with you. I’ve been in love with you since the first moment I saw you at the bakery”, he admitted, his oceanic eyes searching her face. Briana felt her eyes fill with tears.

“What’s wrong, Briana? Are you with someone? Married? Or do you hate me?” He rambled nervously. Briana smiled as a single tear coursed down her cheek. “No, Joe McFarland. I’m in love with you, too, and have been since the first day you walked into my bakery”, she said, her voice heavy with emotion. He leaned towards her, their lips meeting in a kiss so passionate it left her breathless. They embraced, and Briana felt so safe and happy in his arms that she knew she’d be there forever.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetheart”, he whispered.

“Promise you’ll never let me go”, she said softly.

“I’ll never let you go, Briana. I love you!”

With that, Briana rested her head on his shoulder, and knew that the rest of her life had just begun.

THE END

Angela Harris is an aspiring romance novelist living in Virginia. She is proud to be a member of the Yahoo writer’s group CritiqueCreateMotivate (CCM). She can be contacted at: angelic024@aol.com

Copyrights reserved by the author.