Veronica.

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7. You taste like blueberries.

The bakery is a cute, brick building situated a short drive away from the fire station. There’s a giant display window with a pastel pink and white striped canopy hanging above it. The word Sweetness is printed in bold letters above the door. A luscious amount of cakes and pastries sit in the window, every one of them calling out to me. Max laughs and places his hand on my lower back to push me gently through the door.

Upon entry, the delicious smells reach my nose. ‘Sugar & Spice & All Things Nice’ is certainly a viable description. The walls are painted to match the outside, with a variety of baking images lining them. Stood behind the counter is the same lady from the station’s Valentine’s party. Her auburn hair is piled in a bun atop her head and dazzling, pale blue eyes sit atop a heart-shaped face. She rounds the counter to approach us. The white, wrap dress she wears hugs her huge bump. After offering me her hand to shake she introduces herself.

“I’m Darla Ashford, Henry’s wife. Pleased to meet you!”

“Veronica Halloway. You have such a cute bakery here,” my eyes wander across the sponge cakes that sit before me.

“Thank you! Max, how are you doing? How’s Lou?” She wraps her arms around Max’s shoulders, hugging him.

“I’m good. Lou’s doing better too. I think she just wants things to go back to normal now.”

“I bet. I’d like that too. To fast forward to when I can hold this munchkin in my arms!” She runs a hand across her stomach. “At first everything was amazing but now I’m just frustrated.”

“How far along are you?” I ask.

She smiles, “Eight months. Almost there.”

“The next few weeks will fly by,” I confirm her comment, receiving an excited smile in return. Darla will soon be holding her baby in her arms and as a mother, I can confirm that it’s the best feeling in the world. Having something that has grown inside of you finally in your arms makes fourteen hours of labour worth it.

“You have children?” Her eyes dart across to Max briefly.

“Twins. A boy and a girl. What’s yours going to be?”

“A boy. Henry’s over the moon.”

“Dads always are. My ex believed the twins would both be boys until they told us Rowan was a girl.”

“Tell me about it,” Darla rolls her bright eyes. “Let me show you guys where you’ll be spending your day!” She begins to move through a door that sits by the side of the counter. “Now, I’ve laid out the ingredients for blueberry muffins because Max here told me that you tried those and they didn’t exactly go to plan.”

Thinking back to this morning, I begin smiling. I had attempted to send the rest of the terrible batch into school with the twins. Though when I mentioned it, the two of them threatened to tell the teacher’s the muffins were poisoned. I honestly don’t know where they get their ideas from sometimes!

With a shrug of my shoulders, I say, “You could say that.”

“They tasted like sandpaper, Darla.” Max slips a hand over my shoulder, resting it there briefly.

Darla doesn’t miss the action. Her eyes scan over us before she gestures towards a pile of ingredients. She wasn’t kidding when she said that she’d laid out the entire recipe and by the looks of it, she’s laid out enough for more than what is needed at the bake sale. My eyes widen as I take in the pile.

How exactly am I going to turn that into something edible?

With a furrow of my eyebrows and a calming breath, I accept the apron Darla holds out for me. It’s pastel pink and there’s a tiny whisk sewn into the fabric. With Max’s help, I have mine on in seconds and then I tie his for him. We stare at our new apparel with nods of encouragement.

“It suits you, the pink really brings out your eyes.”

He flutters his eyelashes, “You’re too kind.”

“I’m going to leave you two to it. Have fun!” Darla leaves us alone minutes later claiming to have work to do in her office.

Once she’s out of the room and the door is closed, I ask Max, “Does she know that Henry came to the strip club?”

“Oh, yeah! He tells her everything. Plus, he didn’t do anything except watch. We were there for me. She knows that.” He explains, all the while beginning to set out the weighing scales.

“She doesn’t know about me, does she?”

“No! Hand me that metal bowl, will you?”

I do as he asks, “Did I mention that I’m really glad you came into the strip club?”

“You didn’t.”

“Well, I really am. It’s been great getting to know you, and I am still super sorry about how I treated you the other day.”

“If you think I spent my night worrying about what you said to me, then you’re wrong.” He wiggles his eyebrows, putting his own spin on what I told him when I saw him in the park.

I smirk, “Touche, Maxwell, touche.”

“Hey! Don’t call me that! Now, get over here and help me. We’re here for you after all!”

I reluctantly approach the bench he’s stood by. He has already measured a heap of flour and is ready to move on to the sugar, which he hands to me. I do as he says, measuring out 450g, which is a hell of a lot if you ask me. But, what do I know about baking?

It doesn’t take us long to get the dry and wet mixtures ready. Then, Max has me mix them. After a few disasters with the electric mixer, I manage to combine the two.

“Now, we add the blueberries.”

“Can I have one first?” I ask.

“Sure,” he shrugs easily and offers me the colander, in which sit my favourite fruit. With a wide smile, I take it from him and tuck in. It’s only when I’m on my fourth handful that Max intervenes. He holds out his hand, palm up, “You’re not supposed to eat the whole lot!”

“You didn’t tell me that. I’m sorry, I just love blueberries!” I grin, my mouth full of fruit.

“I see that...” He can’t hide the smile that grows on his face, “You continue to surprise me, Veronica.”

“What? Why’s that?”

“You’re this beautiful woman but you eat like a pig. You’re tiny and sweet, yet are incredibly feisty when you want to be and then there’s that,” he pauses and takes a step towards me.

I swallow the last blueberry, “W-what?”

“That smile could bring a million men to their knees, but you don’t see it, do you?”

My lips part slightly as he wipes his thumb across the corner of them. He draws his hand back and brings his thumb to his own mouth, in turn licking the dark juice away. The way those lips of his wrap around his thumb leaves me breathless in all sorts of ways. Forcing myself to stop staring at him, I shake my head to clear it of the images of those lips against every part of my body.

Settle down, Veronica.

“A million? I think that’s a stretch, don’t you?”

He hums, “Fine, maybe just this man.”

Wow.

Would it be totally inappropriate to jump his bones?

I can no longer stare at him without my dilated pupils and heavy breathing giving the game away. Instead, I busy myself with tipping the leftover blueberries into the mixture. Max stands close but not too close to sense how worked up he’s made me. After a sentence? Yeah. It seems Max has a way with words. And boy, are those words effective.

After all, it is taking all of my self-control to not force him onto his knees.

That damn mouth of his.

The kitchen isn’t hot, in fact, there’s an expensive air con machine above us. That means it’s just me. My reaction to Max’s harmless and charming admittance is enough to leave me feeling flush.

“Tell me, how’s the hamster doing?” Max asks just as we begin scooping the muffin mixture into sets of six, paper cases.

“Mabel? Well, she’s adorable but...”

“But?”

I sigh, “I like the hamster but I don’t like what she symbolises.”

“And what’s that?”

“My ex wants shared custody of the twins. He’s got this new woman, Chloe perfect Nightingale and she’s insistent that they have a case. The hamster is his way of getting the twins on his side. They’re young and naive. Of course, they’re going to want to live with daddy who bought them their first pet. I was going to do that, you know? It was supposed to be a big deal but he took that away from me!”

Max takes the tray from my hands and places it on the counter. Then he takes hold of my hands which I didn’t realise are shaking until now. He runs his thumbs across my knuckles gently calming me.

“You’re missing the most important thing, Veronica,” he speaks to me with such a kind and endearing tone. “Now, I don’t know about your relationship with your twins but I take it that they adore you? Because who wouldn’t? You’ve got to realise that no matter what their father buys for them, no matter how many grand gestures he tries in the upcoming weeks, that you’re the one who brought them up. You’re the one they go to when they’re scared and you’re the one they’ll choose. Give them the credit they deserve. Veronica, you won’t lose your children... If that’s what scares you. I promise you won’t.”

I release a breath. My eyes drop to our joined hands, “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Max smiles, cocking a bushy eyebrow. “Is the new woman’s middle name actually ‘perfect’?”

“You know what? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was!”

“In whose eyes is she perfect? Yours?”

I shrug, “She’s got these piercing, blue eyes that just seem to cut right through me. Then there’s her hair and her nails and her ass. I mean, she looks like someone’s wet dream.”

“I could take her off his hands if you like?” He winks. My mouth falls open upon hearing what he has to say. I reply by saying his name in the form of a deflated whine. “The truth is, perfection takes on different forms for different people. Take you, for example, you’re perfect to me.”

“I am?”

“Sure, the only thing that isn’t perfect about you is your baking skill, and we’re fixing that today.”

I push at his chest, “You can’t just say something like that without expecting me to-”

“To what?” After catching my wrists, he begins to stroke the inside of them. The action sends my pulse into overdrive.

This man will be the death of me!

“Max! Stop. Come on, let’s get the muffins in the oven.”

He backs off then, holding his hands up in surrender.

Once the muffins are in the oven, it takes us a good half hour to clean up the mess we created.

“This has been great. I can’t remember the last time I spent this long without my children, having actual fun,” I speak, a yawn threatening to ruin the end of my sentence. With tired arms, I lift myself up onto the counter, my jean-clad legs hanging over the edge of it. I swing them forward, laughter leaving my mouth when the tip of my shoe brushes against Max’s hip.

He’s crouching down checking the muffins but looks my way, “I’m glad and now you can go home and bake with them without the risk of burning the place down.”

“I appreciate your honesty.”

“You’re welcome.” He stands up and approaches me. “In all honesty, you’re baking skills were... abysmal.”

My mouth falls open at the audacity of his words, “Wow. Look at you, you’re quite big-headed when it comes down to it, aren’t you?”

“I suppose,” he shrugs and to my surprise nudges my legs apart with a large hand. Without skipping a beat, he stands between them leaving my knees to brush his hips.

I rest my hands on his shoulders almost subconsciously, needing to feel something underneath my fingers. When his own splay up my thighs, I suck in a breath. He squeezes the plush flesh gently, his eyes batting down to my lips.

“This is like Deja vu,” I say quietly, leaning my upper body towards his.

Max doesn’t reply. A slight crease between his eyebrows leaves me feeling slightly deflated though. He doesn’t want this. Only, it’s gone seconds after it comes. With the familiar, easy smile tugging at his lips and a shake of his head he makes his decision.

I thank the heavens at that moment that he doesn’t back away.

When his lips touch my own, I freeze. Not from shock but from the terrifying array of hormones that wash over me. I know that there’s chemistry between us and feeling it first-hand leaves me astounded. It takes me a few seconds to respond.

When I do, I begin to fully appreciate his good genes. With a mouth like his, it’s obvious he’d be a decent kisser, but this? This is enough to have me clinging to him for stability. And that’s not because his kiss is rough, knocking me off my feet. No. His kiss is delicate, as though he’s exploring me. As though, tracing my lips with his is the only way he’ll remember me.

I try to be as gentle as he is being in return. He cups my cheek with his hand, running his thumb up and down. And as our mouths move in harmony, I melt under his touch. With every first kiss, there’s an expectation but with Max, it is what it is. He doesn’t need any fancy moves to show me how he’s feeling. Nothing shows me more than the upward curve of his lips as he smiles against me.

But then...

“I am so sorry!”

Darla’s words tear us apart.

“No, don’t worry! We’ll be out of your hair in a sec, Darla. Thank you.” The dip in Max’s voice is unmistakable. At least I know I’m not in the shocked as hell club alone.

Darla mouths her apologies again as she crosses the kitchen, heading to the bathroom. It’s her seventh visit this hour, the poor woman must be going crazy being this heavily pregnant. Bless her.

The bathroom door shuts gently behind her.

Neither of us has words. Instead, I slip down from the counter allowing my forehead to fall against his hard chest. With a content hum, he wraps an arm around my shoulders and holds onto me.

“You taste like blueberries,” his comment has me whipping my head up to meet his intense stare. As I do, he tilts his down and our noses touch. “So sweet.”

I’m about to kiss him again when the bathroom door is swung open. The two of us pull away from each other, turning to face a panicked Darla. She has one hand pressed against the doorframe in a bid to hold herself up and the other lays over her bump. I don’t need a midwife to tell me that her water has broken.

“What’s wrong?” Max asks.

“Her water has broken. She’s in labour. Have you been feeling unwell, all day?”

“I’ve been in pain, but I thought that it was Braxton Hicks,” Darla whines, “I am so not ready for this baby!”

“Shit. Where’s Henry? I’ll call him,” Max rushes to where his phone sits on the counter. Seconds later he’s dialling his friend’s number.

I approach Darla, “It’s okay. What’s your pregnancy plan?”

“The hospital... Henry’s supposed to be here. Shit, I can’t have this baby without him.”

“Hey, you’ll be okay. I promise.”

“... I don’t know, mate. She looks flushed.” I catch the tail end of Max’s conversation. “Okay, yeah. I’ll get her to the hospital then? See you there.” He hangs up, “He’s meeting us there. Darla, he says don’t panic. You’ve spent eight months preparing for this.”

She laughs, though it’s void of any humour, “That’s easy for him to say!” She gasps, “It’s too early! He can’t come yet, can he?”

“My two were two weeks early. I know that’s not the same, but it isn’t unheard of to have a baby a month early. Let’s get you to the car, yeah?”

With Max’s help, I lead her to a compact, Fiat 500.

✖✖✖

As hard as I try, I can’t calm Darla down. The car ride is terribly frantic and finding her a wheelchair once we reach the hospital even more so. It isn’t until Henry rounds corner into the private room do the three of us breathe a sigh of relief. He quickly joins his wife, taking a tight hold of her hand. After he thanks the two of us, we decide to leave them to it.

After all, this is one of the most important moments in a parents’ life. They will remember these next minutes or hours for the rest of their lives.

Max and I sit side by side on the blue, plastic chairs that line the corridor. After a few silent minutes, he speaks.

“You were great. Thank you for helping her.”

“Don’t mention it. The poor woman looked terrified!”

He smiles, “Can you blame her? Darla is an obsessive planner, so the baby coming early without Henry anywhere in sight scared her. They’ll be alright now though. They really have so much love to share with this baby.”

“I remember what it feels like to arrive at the hospital. This huge thing was happening to me and I knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t stop the feelings of extreme panic and fear.”

“Was Joel there?” Max asks, the question all too innocent.

“No... No, he wasn’t.”

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