“Jerrell!” Melody poked her head into the kitchens, where Jerrell was busy frosting the cooled eclairs. “You’re the one making the cheesecakes this week, right?”
Jerrell looked up. “Uh, yeah. Since Mary’s still sick, she asked yesterday if I could make them. Did someone complain? I followed the recipes exactly.”
“Mm-hm.” Melody’s lips quirked. “Except for the pumpkin one. Since that’s not one we usually sell.”
Jerrell ducked his head and went back to frosting eclairs. “I just made the one,” he said, concentrating on the eclairs so he didn’t have to look at Melody. Mary ran the bakery, but Melody ran the business. “Mary’s been letting me try my own recipes in the shop. We had extra pumpkin puree. It couldn’t have been that bad.”
She clucked her tongue, hands on her hips. “It wasn’t. We’ve got someone outside who wants to pay his compliments personal, so clean yourself up and come on out. Front corner table, the guy sitting by himself.”
Jerrell looked up again, and she snickered at whatever face he was making. “You heard me. Go. Leave the icing on your cheek. It’s a good look. Says you’ve been keeping busy.” Jerrell instantly threw up a hand to rub at his cheek. Melody snickered again and tilted her head out the door before moving towards it herself. “You’ve got three seconds,” she called over her shoulder.
Jerrell quickly set down the bag of icing, and looked over his torso and arms. Not completely clean, but he’d been working since four in the morning and it was almost eleven now. He straightened his chef’s hat and left the kitchen, quickly zeroing in on the front corner table. They weren’t too full yet, what with it being a couple hours after the morning rush and just the very beginning of the lunch rush, so it was pretty easy to find the–
Whoa, hot guy.
Light brown skin, broad shoulders accented by a suit jacket. Older, with thick black hair threaded with just a touch of grey and the barest hint of lines on a face that looked sculpted. Exactly Jerrell’s type, and exactly the sort of person he’d never in a million years approach for any reason.
At the front corner table.
Okay. Okay, cool, sure, whatever.
Jerrell walked over with what he hoped was a polite smile that didn’t make him look as if he wanted to run away. “Hi? Uh, I’m the baker. Melody said you wanted to speak with me?”
The man looked at him, surprised. “Hello there.” Just the barest hint of an accent. Indian? “Where’s Mary?”
Oh. He knew Mary? Was he a regular? “Mary’s out sick. Can’t, you know, can’t work in a kitchen if you’ve got a bug.” The guy kept on looking at him, and Jerrell started to sweat. “I’m second baker normally. Just filling in on all fronts til she’s feeling better.”
The man blinked and then smiled, blinding white teeth against warm brown skin. He held out his hand. “Good to meet you,” he said. “I’m Rafi.”
“Uh.” Jerrell shook the hand. “Jerrell. Hey.”
“I’m here often, since this cafe is close to where I work,” Rafi said. “I’ve tried near everything on the menu that I thought looked interesting. The pumpkin cheesecake was divine. And if Mary’s out, that means it was all you, wasn’t it? Thank you.”
Divine? “Oh, good.” Jerrell wasn’t sure what else to say. “I’m glad you liked it. I was playing around with a new recipe.”
Rafi smiled again. Winningly. Man, this wasn’t even fair. “Well, I’m certainly glad you did. Will it be a regular addition to the menu?”
“Maybe? It, uh, it depends on Mary. I’m just doing the cheesecakes until she gets back.”
“I see. I’ll have to follow up on it.” Rafi glanced over at the counter, and then back at Jerrell. “It’s lucky they have you to fill in. You’re clearly good at what you do.” He grinned. “Creative too.”
Jerrell’s cheeks went hot. He wasn’t all that used to compliments–and he didn’t interact with customers all that often. Mary was head baker. If someone wanted to pay a compliment, she was the one who went out. “I–thanks.” He clasped his hands behind his back, at-ease stance so he wouldn’t cross his arms. He’d been told enough times that it made him look like a thug, so he tried to avoid doing it. “It’s always nice to be told someone likes what I make.”
“Do you have a specialty here?”
“You said that Mary normally makes the cheesecakes. But I’m assuming that means you tend to gravitate toward certain items too. I’m wondering what else of yours I’ve had.” The grin turned a little mischievous. “I’ve tried quite a lot of the menu. Give me something else to compliment.”
“I-” Jerrell swallowed. Okay, calm down. That could have been interpreted as a little flirty, but Jerrell also found Rafi ridiculously hot and was probably projecting. It was way more likely that Rafi was just being friendly, especially if he was a regular. “I don’t know if you like macarons, but those are always mine. Mary hates making them.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rafi said. He didn’t say anything else, which Jerrell figured was enough of a dismissal that he could make a not-at-all hasty exit back to the kitchen. The safe, quiet kitchen, where there were no distressingly hot older men with endearing accents smiling at him.
He had almost, almost gotten back into the zone of icing eclairs when Melody burst into the kitchen again. “Jerrell.”
Uh-oh. That was a serious voice. He looked up. “What’d I do wrong?”
“Maybe nothin’. What’d you say to the Doc?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Rafi! You say anything bad?”
“What? I–no.” Jerrell wracked his brain trying to think where he could have possibly misstepped. “He just complimented my cheesecake. I said thanks.”
“That’s it?” Melody tilted her head. “‘Cause I was watching you, and his face fell right after you took off. Rafi’s a nice guy and a great customer–”
“He just wanted to know if the pumpkin was gonna be a regular menu item,” Jerrell interrupted desperately, holding up his hands. Melody could get upset at the drop of a hat, but she was usually reasonable about why. If he could stop her before she got too worked up... “And I said it depended on what you and Mary thought.”
Melody put her hands on her hips. “And you said nothing about his chair?”
Jerrell stared at her, bewildered. “Chair? Was I supposed be paying attention to what he was sitting in?” Melody had the place decorated with elegant, mismatched pieces. The cafe was often touted as comfortable but upscale. But Jerrell barely left the kitchen as it was. He certainly didn’t pay attention to which chair a customer was using. Why would he even need to?
Melody’s mouth snapped shut and then she narrowed her eyes, looking him over like she was trying to catch him out in a lie. Jerrell tried to look as innocent as he could. Hard to do at six foot two and solid, but it helped that he genuinely had no idea what was going on. After a few seconds of her staring at him, he asked, “Can I… get back to making cake now?”
Melody shifted her weight and kept looking at him, but her expression was more calculating than mad now, which was at least some improvement. “What’d you think of him?”
“Of Dr. Karunana… what did you say his name was?”
Her lips quirked. “Dr. Karunakaran, but if he introduced himself as Rafi, you can call him Rafi. What’d you think of him?”
Nothing fit for polite company, that was for sure. “Um, nice? Likes pumpkin cheesecake? Jesus, Melody, don’t tell me to talk to customers if you think I’m gonna mess up this bad.” He worked up his courage and then added, “I didn’t even do anything wrong.”
“Guess you didn’t.” She abruptly grinned at him, big and wide and maybe a little scary, after all the anger. “Nevermind honey, I jumped to conclusions. You get back to work.”
“Thanks.” He bent back down over the eclairs as Melody left the kitchen, relieved to be able to return to concentrating on them.