Tilly Keyes © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Riley stared at the different bouquets of flowers, then groaned and rubbed his temple. Choosing flowers wasn’t supposed to be torturous. He reached for a bunch of yellow roses and stared at them long and hard. Roses were far too romantic, and it certainly wasn’t meant as a romantic gesture. He put them back and grabbed a bunch of white lilies while nodding. They looked nice, a bit droopy, a bit torn, but it was the thought that counted.
“Are you confessing your undying love or going to a funeral?”
Riley paused and turned to the woman beside him. The old lady clutched a woven bag to her chest and stared him down with her beady eyes. Her lips were framed by a mosaic of wrinkles, and she trembled slightly as she waited for a response.
She hummed, stepping closer. Her hand closed around the lily stalks, and she pulled them from Riley’s hand. He wasn’t anticipating the strength and speed and was left clutching the air.
“Lilies are what I expect to have at my grave,” she said, slotting them back in the flower stand.
Riley frowned. “That’s…that’s nice to know.”
“And roses are romantic, haven’t received roses in years. If it’s not meant as love, or condolence, what are you buying flowers for?”
“To say sorry, sorry for being a rubbish brother, and an even worse uncle.”
“Ah, well, there’s no tags on the flowers that say those exact words. Boy or girl?”
Riley looked down at himself, then back up at her. The woman rolled her eyes. “I didn’t mean you, did I?”
“No, of course not,” Riley said, scrunched his brow. “Girl, my niece. I’ve got a niece.”
“May I make a suggestion?”
“I’m sure you’re going to whether I say yes or no.”
The woman laughed, and her thin lips stretched in a smile. “Ditch the flower idea, alcohol is far better.”
“Alcohol?” Riley smirked.
“A bottle of whiskey, that was my favourite.”
Riley lifted his eyebrow. “Whiskey?”
She jabbed his bicep with her bony finger. “Don’t think I can’t drink you under the table.”
Riley rubbed his arm. “I 100 percent believe you could.”
“Good, now get to it.”
Her gaze followed him as he walked towards the cashier.
It was only a small village shop, and they kept all the alcohol behind the counter along with the medicines and cigarettes. Riley flicked his chin out at the man serving.
“What rose do you have?”
“We only have one, and it’s £3.99.”
Riley smiled tightly, nodding. “Guess that’ll do, then, can I have a box of those beers too?”
He didn’t particularly like Emily’s husband, but he couldn’t turn up without something for him too.
He paid and strolled out the shop, but a familiar croaking voice made him stop. He turned back to the woman and watched as she hobbled towards him.
Her thin lips tugged into a smile, and her pink cheeks looked fragile as it stretched. “Be a dear and help me cross the road.”
Riley offered his arm for her to take and she latched on.
He led her across the road and once on the other side, released her arm. He looked down and noticed the flowers poking from her bag—white lilies. His mouth bobbed open as he thought of something to say, but she only waved him away.
“You’ve got something for your sister, but what about that niece of yours?”
Riley darted a look back to the shop, but a tapping sound had him turning back to the woman.
She knocked her frail knuckles against the window, and Riley looked inside the cake shop. He hadn’t been to the village for months, and the cake shop was definitely a new addition. The village shop barely stocked anything of use. There were boards covering the windows of the hair salon; the church looked haggard and crumbling. But the bakery gleamed, and the display he could see through the window was more at home in the posh areas of London.
Riley flashed a smile at the woman. “Thanks.”
She turned and waved over her shoulder.
Riley pushed inside the bakery, and immediately a sugary scent wrapped around him. He strolled up to the counter and admired the cake creations behind the Perspex shield. They were all identical and arranged in uniformed lines. Chocolate sponge, one that looked like lemon, and a pink one with a strawberry on top.
Riley looked up and craned his neck to see further into the bakery kitchen. There was no one inside, and he frowned, checking his watch. It was two o’clock, and he doubted the staff were still on break.
Riley bunched his lips together and waited, but there was no reply. He turned, poised to go back to the shop, but the billboard caught his eye, and he moved towards it.
Adverts were nailed to the board, one asking for a tenant, one selling a wheelbarrow, and another an old sofa. They were scrawled in pen, and the pictures were black and white. Riley freed one of the pieces of paper and frowned. Not an advert, but a missing pet poster. Not a dog, or cat like he expected, but an African grey parrot.
“Who’s a pretty boy, then?”
Riley startled at the voice and pressed the poster to his chest. He flashed a look at the man behind the counter and laughed softly.
“You scared the hell outta me.”
The man blushed and bit his lip. “Yeah, I don’t know why I did that. I saw you with the poster, and it kinda popped into my head.”
“And out of your mouth.”
Riley repinned the poster and walked towards the counter. The man was younger, midtwenties at a guess. He swept his black hair back over his head and fixed his warm eyes to Riley’s. There was a flutter in Riley’s gut that unnerved him.
“So, they haven’t found the parrot?”
“Nope, that posters been up since I opened.”
“The bakery is yours?”
The man puffed up, not to shove his muscles in Riley’s face but to show him the apron smudged with chocolate. “Yeah, it’s mine.”
“This place is real nice.”
“Thank you, it doesn’t bring me much money, but I enjoy it.”
Riley frowned. “Not everything’s about money. Happiness is more important.”
The man smiled warmly, then stuck out his hand for Riley to take. “I’m Zac.”
He frowned and looked down at their shaking hands when he felt stickiness. Zac glanced down, then up at Riley again.
“Well, that’s embarrassing.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Sorry for the wait, I was in the back, and I’m not strictly open right now.”
Riley darted a look back to the door and widened his eyes when he realised the shop was in fact closed.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise.”
Zac waved the comment away. “If I open all day, I’ll get overrun. I’ve got the breakfast pastries in the morning and the cakes and muffins in the afternoon.”
“You do this all by yourself?” Riley scanned all the cakes with wide eyes. There were so many it was hard to imagine one guy could do it all.
Zac ruffled his black hair with a tinge of embarrassment in his cheeks. “Yeah, I buy some stuff in and make the rest. My kitchen porter comes in at four and cleans everything up. He’s Dave—he’s a nice guy, but his taste in music is awful.”
“What does he listen to?”
“Very loud rock where you have no idea what the singer’s screaming about.”
“Ah,” Riley said, looking away.
Zac rocked back on his heels. “By that ‘Ah’ I’m guessing you’re a fan.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“So, Mr. Terrible-taste-in-music, what brings you here?”
“My sister, she lived in the village. I’ve been a bit of a crap brother recently, wanted to surprise her.”
Zac drew his eyebrows together. “What’s her name?”
“Emily Mathews.” Riley sighed.
It was a small village, but still with a population of a thousand or so—there was no way this man could know who she was.
“Ah. With little Maisy, right?”
Riley was rarely stunned, but it took an extended blink and a squeeze to the bridge of his nose before he could speak.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So, you’ve been a rubbish brother, then, and you want to make amends.”
“Something like that.”
Mischief danced behind Zac’s eyes, but before Riley could question it Zac had skimmed down the counter. He hummed to himself as he selected three cakes, placing them in a gift box.
“Maisy loves the unicorn one. You’ll know it by the colourful icing. Emily loves the lemon one. It has a slice of sugared lemon on top, and I’ve put in one for you.”
Zac closed the lid and placed it on the counter.
“Thanks,” Riley said, passing over his card.
He frowned when he noticed Riley had only charged him for two cakes, not three.
“That’s a welcome to the village gift from me.”
Zac smiled and passed the box to Riley. He took it and smiled back.
“Tell Emily and Maisy I said hi.”
Riley nodded. “I will.”
Riley cursed himself when he saw the other houses had a front step to lead up to the door and his sister’s house didn’t. Mark, Emily’s husband, had promised to fix it, but, like always, he let her down.
The curtains over the windows were netted—they had to be to have any kind of privacy when they built the house so close to the road. He had offered her money for a bigger place, one with a huge garden for Maisy to play in, but she always declined out of pride. Even though Emily struggled being a single mum, she rebuffed every offer of money reiterating she wanted to do it on her own. Riley didn’t like her self-blame, but he respected her need to provide for her daughter by her own back, not from her rich brother’s handout.
Riley rolled his shoulders, breathed deep in his chest and struck the door with a rap of his knuckles.
Maisy spied him from the window, yanking the net curtain out of the way with a muted squeal of delight.
Riley listened as footsteps bounded beyond the door, and his nervous grin adjusted into a genuine one. The little girl ran full pelt into his arms, hugging him as tightly as she could. Riley returned it.
“Hey, Maisy Moo.”
Maisy released him, taking a step back with a cheeky grin. Her smile was bright, rounding her peach blushed cheeks and lifting her gaze. The joy on her face was infectious, and Riley a surge of fondness went through him as he ruffled her blonde hair.
Her smile dropped, and she stuck her tongue out. Riley smirked, patting her on the head. “It’s boring,” she muttered, stamping her foot on the floor.
“Boring, but necessary,” came a voice behind her.
Emily walked towards the door, arms folded over her chest. “Haven’t seen you in months. You just took off.”
Riley held up his hands in surrender. “I know, I know, but I’m gonna make it up to ya.”
Emily sighed, beckoning him inside. “Next time, a little warning would be nice. I haven’t made up the bed.”
Both mother and daughter’s shoulders dropped in unison and Riley bit back a laugh. Emily flicked her blonde hair, settling her fierce blue eyes on him.
“So what is this, an hour, two?” Emily’s content tone had drowned under a wave of disdain. The folded arms were back in place like a barrier and she stood directly in front of him, puffing her chest out.
“Nope, try couple of months.”
Maisy’s mouth popped open, and she tugged her mother’s hands insistently. “Months? That’s a long time.”
Emily seemed too shocked to reply, so Riley did for her. “Yeah, Maisy Moo, a long time.”
“Y-you’ll be here for my birthday?”
He cursed himself for forgetting it was soon and nodded eagerly. “‘Course.”
Maisy cheered and threw another hug at his knees.
“What about you, sis? Do I not get a hug?”
The request snapped Emily from her paralysed state, and she wrapped her arms around Riley, sandwiching Maisy in the middle. “Months?”
Riley nodded beside her head. “Think you can put up with me that long?”
“I’ll try,” she mumbled, but Riley could feel the way she gripped him extra tight, as if she never wanted to let go.
She released him as she hissed, “I’m still mad at you.”
Riley pressed his hands together in a prayer pose. “That is why I’ve bought you wine, and some beer for Mark.”
Emily’s nostrils pulsed. “He’s not here anymore.”
“We broke up a few months ago, and he’s gone back to Scotland.”
Riley shook his head. “I’m sorry, Em, I didn’t know, If I’d have known—
She threw her hand up, and he immediately stopped.
“I don’t want to talk about him, especially not in front of…”
Riley understood and nodded. “I’ve brought cake too.”
He reached for the box of cakes in his bag and gave it to Emily.
“So, you’ve been to the bakery.”
“And you met Zac?”
Riley squinted. “Yeah, I met Zac.”
“Cute, isn’t he?”
Riley rolled his eyes. “He seemed nice.”
Emily grinned, flicking her head back for him to come inside. They moved into the kitchen, and Maisy hopped up and down when she saw the box of cakes. Emily flicked open the lid and sniffed in the sugar scent.
“They taste so good.”
Riley stared at the cake Zac had chosen for him. He hadn’t seen it when Zac hurried it into the box, but it was obvious which ones it wasn’t.
Maisy hummed her way through the unicorn cupcake, and Emily kissed the tips of her fingers when she finished her lemon slice. Both of them were satisfied by their sweet gifts and wore doped up smiles. Riley scrunched his eyes at the wrappers, wondering if they were laced with endorphins. There was one left in the box for him.
The slice of cake was a rectangle slice of rich chocolate sponge—the top was shiny and even, not a blemish on the ganache, and a red curl of icing ran from one end to the other. Riley took it as a compliment that Zac had picked such a sophisticated and stylish cake for him.
“If you’re not gonna eat it, I will.”
Riley stopped analysing the cake and narrowed his eyes at his sister. “You hate chocolate.”
“Even so, if it stops you staring at in accusingly, I’ll risk it.”
Riley smirked, finally taking the plunge and sinking his teeth into the treat. It was soft, rich, and creamy. This was a proper cake, not the stale ones of the supermarkets, but fresh and balanced out.
He was about to hum out his approval but stopped when heat flooded his mouth. He coughed, eyes going wide, before he blinked the shock away.
Chilli and chocolate. It tickled the roof of his mouth, making him gasp at the sensation and clack his tongue.
As his smile grew, so did his sister’s, until she was pressing her lips together not to laugh.
“You knew it was hot, didn’t you?”
Her nod was exaggerated, mocking. “Sure did, and the look on your face…”
She trailed off with a chuckle, moving out of the kitchen to Maisy in the living room.
Now the shock of the heat was gone, Riley could enjoy the complimenting flavour. It worked in cocktails, and it certainly worked in cakes too—dark, sophisticated, and hot. Zac had lured him into a false sense of security with his sincere smile before burning his taste buds.
He didn’t know why, but for the first time in forever he was genuinely intrigued by someone.