It was like sitting in a container - working in her shop with the shutters down! Or a coffin. Ella shuddered at the thought and turned the volume of her iPod up. She’d long since stopped opening up the coffee shop before the sun was out. With the roller shutters up, there was every chance someone would stop by, lured by the warm glow of the lights, especially in the dark, cold winter mornings. And if that happened, she wouldn’t be able to ignore them. And letting anyone in was out of the question.
She’d done that one too many times last year and paid for it both times. The first time, when she’d let James in and he’d pinned her to her own wall to demonstrate how dangerous it was to let strangers in. It was all with good intentions, but scary nonetheless. The second time, she’d unknowingly let Christian’s thug in - and would’ve gotten herself killed had the man been so inclined. It was just plain luck that Christian had wanted her alive back then. Now? Now she wasn’t that sure.
She shook her head and went back to beating the eggs for her Japanese souffle pancakes that had become an instant hit among her regulars. In fact, the sweet, cloudy concoctions had probably gained her a few new regulars. Putting aside the batter for the pancakes, Ella turned to shredding the pork for her pulled pork sandwiches.
Whoever said beating a cake batter was therapeutic, obviously hadn’t teased slow-cooked pork. The fine, fragrant threads, softly separated by the mere touch of a fork were soothing her nerves far better than the ‘soothing’ music she had on her iPod.
A rap on the back door of the shop had her eyes snapping up to the old grandmother clock she’d found during one of her treasure hunting trips. Over the last year, Ella had slowly added period pieces of furniture, turning the decor of the little hole-in-the-wall shop she’d rented from James. It was still, after a whole year, hard to believe James owned the entire building sitting on the prime spot where E79th St. joined with the iconic 5th Ave in New York. The shop, with its contemporary white surfaces and an abundance of glass had stood out like an ugly patch on the otherwise perfect old-world charm of the stone facade.
Thirty minutes to nine. As usual, her morning barista and friend Tilly, was dot on time. She hurried to let in the burst of energy that was Chantelle Berger.
“Morning, ma Cherie,” Tilly beamed, pulling Ella in for a quick kiss on either cheek. Born and brought up in New Orleans, Tilly was a home-grown exotic beauty complete with a genuine French accent.
“Morning, Tilly.” It was impossible not to smile when confronted with Tilly’s infectious good humour.
“You okay? You look a bit…” Tilly trailed off, squinting at her. Then, tapping her slender finger against her tiny, upturned nose, she continued, “Worried?”
A year ago, Ella would’ve laughed it off with a ‘it’s nothing’. It wouldn’t have fooled Tilly’s brilliant law-student brain, but she’d have respected it. Not now. Now, she looked at keeping her friends informed of her plans and her whereabouts as an advantage, rather than a breach of her privacy.
“Someone was following me yesterday when James and I went out for a jog. At least, that’s what we both thought,” Ella shared.
“Damn! It was too good to be true, wasn’t it?” Tilly cursed.
Ella shrugged, “Maybe it wasn’t anyone and we were just plain jumpy.”
A finely arched eyebrow shot up, “Jumpy James?”
The girls burst into a fit of laughter. Ella swiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks at the trill of her phone. She frowned at the unknown number staring back at her from the lit-up screen. With a quick swallow to calm her suddenly galloping heart, she flicked the green arrow, “Hello?”
“Hi. Is this Ella Bridges of Sugar & Salt?”
“Yes,” Ella replied cautiously, trying to place the husky, bedroom voice asking for her at the other end of the phone. The voice wasn’t familiar in the least.
“Good. I am Maria Gonzales. I’m the Catering Manager at The Plaza. We’re on the lookout for new vendors and you were recommended. If you’re interested, I’d like to schedule a meeting.”
“The Plaza?” Ella asked. If she’d heard it right, this may be the single biggest opportunity to grow that’d ever come her way.
“Yes,” Maria answered.
“Vendor for what?” Ella asked.
“We’re rolling out a redesigned welcome hamper. But I can tell you all about it when we meet. Does this Wednesday at 10 am work for you?” Maria asked.
Ella’s gaze flicked up to Tilly, but she was busy setting up the tables and chairs for the morning. “Yes. That sounds good, Maria,” she made a quick decision and confirmed the meeting.
“Fantastic. I’ll text you the confirmation and see you day after tomorrow.”
“What was all that about?” Tilly asked the moment Ella looked up, a wide grin splitting her face.
“It was someone, a Maria Gonzales, from The Plaza. Someone recommended us to her and she wants to talk to us about maybe becoming a vendor for them,” Ella finished out of breath.
“No!” Tilly shrieked.
“Yes!” Ella shrieked back, hugging Tilly.
The clearing of a throat, with a clear hint of amusement, forced the two women aside. They stepped away from each other quickly and turned, both sporting big smiles. Until Tilly’s smile slipped into a frown as Ella said, “Hey, Buzz. I thought you and Will were away for the week?”
Two of James’s friends, Sean ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and William ‘Legend’ Smith had retired from the army about the same time as James and now ran a successful security firm, specializing mainly in hostage rescue, but also taking up security gigs for big names in business and politics. When in town, they were, without fail, one of the very first customers at Sugar & Salt.
“We were meant to be. But then how could I leave my gorgeous girl all alone here?” Buzz replied, winking at Tilly.
Tilly groaned, threw the dishcloth she was using to wipe down the counter at him and growled, “Just go away, Buzz. You got your ass kicked off the gig is what happened. Poor Will. I don’t know how he puts up with you.”
They’d known each other for more than a year now, but they still snapped at each other exactly like they’d done the first time they’d met each other. Ella smothered the laughter that threatened to bubble out and turned her back to the spitting duo.
“Poor Will,” Buzz raised the pitch of his voice to mimic Tilly. Falling back to his usual tenor, he added, “If only you were so worried about me! Can I at least have my coffee and breakfast, or is that also reserved for Poor Will?”
“What about Will? Does he also want his breakfast and tea?” Tilly asked.
“Do you deliver?” Buzz asked, trying to sound innocent and, of course, failing miserably. There wasn’t an innocent bone in his body, hadn’t been for a long time, surely!
“Buzz,” Ella groaned.
“Well, alright,” Buzz agreed. “Yes, please, Ma’m. A tea and breakfast for Legend will be muchly appreciated,” he directed the request at Tilly.
“Fool!” Tilly muttered as she busied herself in putting together the two orders.
Buzz turned to Ella, “And how have you been, Snow White?”
Ella had stopped protesting the nickname that she seemed fated to carry. Christian’s younger brother, Alan, was the first one to call her Snow White. As the story went, Alan had given her the name the moment he’d seen the new-born Ella with her ivory skin and raven hair, not to mention the ruby-red lips. The three-year old Alan had been sure Aunty Rose’s baby was the real Snow white. The name had stuck.
However, that wasn’t the reason why Buzz and Co had re-applied this title to Ella. It was James who gave Ella this nickname the second time round, thanks to her proclivity to trust strangers to the extent of letting them into her home and hearth. Buzz was more than happy to run with the nickname as was Will.
“As always, Buzz. Nothing new,” she started. “What happened with your gig?”
Buzz shrugged. “She had to cancel her trip. Good riddance, if you want my real opinion.”
Ella laughed. He’d made his ‘real’ opinion abundantly clear the moment Will had accepted the deal to offer a protection detail to the busty socialite. You’d think with Buzz’s fascination with members of the fairer sex, he’d jump at the opportunity of spening time with the beauty.
“She is beautiful, though,” Ella couldn’t help the dig.
“Yeah. With not even the hint of anything between her ears. No, thank you.” Buzz actually shuddered at the thought of having to put up with the notoriously spoilt socialite, if rumors were anything to go by.
“That man...I’m going to bash his head in one day,” Tilly muttered, her eyes trained on Buzz’s broad, receding back.
“Or you might give in and go on a date with him?” Ella winked, not bothering to keep the laughter out of her voice.
Tilly stopped rinsing the mugs for a moment, her fine brows coming together in a pretty frown. “Hmmm...for all his flirting, he hasn’t ever actually asked me on a date. Ever. Did you notice that?” She asked.
Ella mouthed a silent ‘Oh’ before turning to serve a bunch of embassy types suits and skirts who’d clattered in. As soon as the group had been served, Ella turned, “You are right!” She went right back to where they’d been forced to interrupt the conversation.
“That’s weird,” she continued.
Tilly cocked her head in that adorable way which so...her. “Do you know what I think?” She asked, then continued, “I think he flirts to hide his pain.”
Ella’s eyes widened and bit down on her lower lip. “You mean a broken heart? Someone jilted him?”