Take A Number by Amy Daws

 

The bell above the door jingles as the familiar scent of fried dough permeates my nose. I glance around the quaint bakery peppered with regulars and find Norah behind the glass display case.

She purses her lips when she sees me coming. “You were just here last night, Moser. Aren’t you worried about ruining that supposed six-pack you’re always bragging about?”

“Norah, have you been thinking about me naked again?” A knowing smile spreads across my face. “You really should see a therapist about your obsession with me. My friend Lynsey has her own practice now…you could give her a call.”

Her cheeks flush a rosy hue that I’ve become addicted to bringing out in her, but she maintains her poker face as she fiddles with her bandana over her shoulder-length blond hair. “Dean, did you know that narcissist spelled backward is douchebag?”

“I had no idea!” My lips part in mock surprise. “The alphabet must have changed since last time I checked.” She can always dish it out just as well as she can take my overtly flirting ways.

“Hey, if you can make shit up, so can I.” She fails to hide her smirk as she lowers her gaze back to her large tray of colorful donuts and begins arranging them in a precise order.

I adjust my glasses and smile fondly. I love it when Norah is in a feisty mood. My first clue should have been her bandana, featuring Heart, a popular band from the eighties. I come into Rise and Shine Bakery enough to know that when Norah is wearing her classic rock bandanas, she’s not to be messed with.

Except for the fact that messing with her is always the highlight of my week.

Most women don’t fight back the way Norah does. Most women fall for my charms and trip over themselves to flirt with me. I may be bearded, but I’m not the typical knuckle-dragging, small-town Colorado guy who wears flannel and drones on and on about camping and ice fishing. I appreciate the finer things in life, like travel, nice clothing, IPA beer, and artfully constructed charcuterie boards.

Real men can taste the subtle nuances between a one-year aged cheddar and a five-year aged cheddar.

I should print that on a T-shirt.

My point is, the ladies of Boulder, Colorado, dig me. They appreciate my expensive shoes and tailored dress shirts. And they practically salivate over the story of my self-educated brilliance and the wealth I’ve made in the stock market as a result.

But not the stunning Norah Donahue, who makes the best croissant and donut combination I’ve ever tasted. She mocks my worldly charms.

I fucking love it.

I lean against the glass case and sigh heavily. “Norah, Norah, Norah, if you want to see me naked, all you have to do is ask.” I make a move to undo the top button of my dress shirt.

“Oh, trust me, I know,” she groans, her blue eyes meet mine with a challenge. “You’ve made your availability abundantly clear to the entire state of Colorado, Dean Moser. But no shirt, no service. That’s company policy.”

I clutch my fist to my chest, wounded. “Is this how you treat your best customer?” My eyes dance over every feature on her face—mostly because it’s all that’s visible since she’s determined to wear an ugly baker’s muumuu to work every day. Thankfully, her face is striking enough to distract me from her questionable fashion sense.

Norah’s features have a Nordic look to them—fair hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a sloped nose that curves up at the tip to humanize her a bit. Her pale complexion contrasts stunningly with her full, peach lips that my eyes always seem to zero in on. Her top lip is deliciously larger than the bottom, and I’ve fantasized multiple times what it would be like to kiss them.

In short, Norah is gorgeous, and she couldn’t care less.

“You would be my best customer if you didn’t make it your life’s mission to get on my nerves.”

My brows lift. “I wouldn’t get on your nerves if you’d finally let me see what’s under that biohazard suit you wear to work every day.”

Her jaw drops, and she pulls away from the donut case, dropping her empty tray on the counter with a loud clack. “You are the king of too far, Moser. Please God, why did I ever think it’d be wise to let you become an investor in my second bakery?”

I huff out an incredulous noise. “Well, normally, I try not to mix business with pleasure, but something tells me you’d be worth it.” I hit her with a stunning smile that she does not reciprocate, and damn if it doesn’t make me smile even more.

She crosses her arms over her chest and glowers at me. “I’m a fool because I’d hoped we could have the Luke and Lorelai flirty diner relationship before they decided to date. Everyone knows the show went downhill once they started to hook up.”

“Did someone just make a Gilmore Girls reference?” a familiar voice chimes in from behind me, and I look over my shoulder to see Kate standing there in all her wild, red-haired glory. “You guys can’t make Gilmore Girls references without me. I’m president of the Boulder fan club, and I could have you drawn and quartered for that.”

I roll my eyes at my best friend’s insanity. “I don’t know what you guys are talking about.”

Kate cuts me a punishing scowl. “Dean, don’t make me junk punch you. I’ve done it before.”

I shift and turn my groin away because the girl is a loose cannon. She used to sneak into a tire shop waiting room to write her mommy porn books before she fell in love with one of the mechanics there—so a punch to the balls is not out of the realm of possibility.

“Of course he has no idea what Gilmore Girls is,” Norah snaps, turning her gaze from me to Kate, “because if he’d watched that show, he might have something mildly clever to say to me when he rolls in here every day.”

“Too right, Norah,” Kate chirps, jutting out her chin in solidarity. “I mean…Dean is far from Luke Danes.”

“So far!”

“He’s not even worthy of being compared to the actual Dean from the show who was a wimpy asshat at the best of times.”

Norah’s eyes widen, and her hands lift. “Stop right there.”

“What?” Kate replies, her brows furrowing in confusion.

Norah points at her chest. “I’m Team Dean.”

“Norah, no!” Kate gasps, her eyes wide with horror.

“I’ve always been Team Dean!”

“What kind of idiot is Team Dean?”Kate exclaims with disgust, and when Norah looks like she’s about to lunge across the counter to choke Kate out, Kate quickly holds up her hands and backtracks. “Sorry, my emotions got the best of me for a moment, and we aren’t close enough to be calling each other idiots…no one’s an idiot here…except for DEAN!” she growls, ramping up all over again. “I mean, after season one, he’s a home-wrecking idiot with no life goals.”

“He was Rory’s first love!” Norah splays her hands across the counter and leans closer to Kate.

Kate shrugs and crosses her arms while smugly replying, “We all make mistakes when we’re young.”

Norah exhales like a bull getting ready to charge. “And let me guess…you’re Team Jess.”

“Um…duh, Norah. I’m a romance novelist. Books are my life. Of course I want the book nerd to end up with another book nerd. That is basically porn in my world.”

A slow smile spreads across my face as I sit back and watch my best friend go back and forth with Norah over a television show. I can’t stop the dirtiness of my imagination as it forms a fantasy of Kate and Norah having a pillow fight over who should be in love with who. Before my mind goes too far, a shrill voice breaks into my pillow dreams.

“Jess is a drifter who doesn’t know what he wants…at least Dean took some risks for Rory.”

Kate shakes her head in disgust. “I can’t believe you never told me you were Team Home-wrecker Dean.”

“I can’t believe you never told me you were Team Zero Ambition Jess. You were one of my favorite customers.” Norah blinks back her shock like someone’s just told her Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

“Feeling’s mutual, Norah. I mean…Jesus. I’d be Team Tristan before I’d be Team Dean. I’d be Team Kirk before Team Dean.”

“Now you’re just being ridiculous,” Norah growls, and the two go silent as they stare each other down for a long, pregnant pause.

Kate’s the first one to crack. “Can I still take a number for a fresh croinut? What’s the flavor of the day?”

“It’s birthday explosion, and I don’t own the machine,” Norah snaps back, which breaks the tension as she stutters, “Well, actually I do own the machine because I own the bakery…I just…was saying that for dramatic effect.”

Kate breathes a sigh of relief and reaches down to pull a number out of the red ticket machine on the counter. “Oh, thank God because I love birthday explosion, and I’ve been thinking about a croinut all morning. Tire Depot’s Danishes don’t hold a candle to your baked goods.”

“Aw, you’re too sweet,” Norah replies, looking touched. “I know how much you love those Danishes.”

“Mostly just because they’re free, and I’m cheap,” Kate says with an awkward laugh. “Seriously, if your bakery was complimentary, I’d do all my writing here.”

Norah nods her head awkwardly. “Well, then I’d have no bakery because I’d have no money.”

“Right!” Kate barks out a laugh. “Maybe you should start doing oil changes here.”

“That would kinda get in the way of my bakery.”

“Obviously!”

The two grin at each other for a second, and then Kate says, “I’m gonna go grab a booth. Later, Norah. See you at the next Gilmore meeting.”

“Nice seeing you again, Kate.”

Kate turns to leave, and Norah busies herself back at the glass display case, rearranging the donuts that don’t require patrons to take a number.

My voice is low and strange when I state, “I have no clue what either of you was talking about, but is it odd that I am slightly turned on from watching what just unfolded here?”

“Moser!” Norah snaps, and I quickly take a number and rush over to join Kate at the booth.

Moments later, I’m seated across from my two friends, Kate and Lynsey, who are currently tits deep in wedding plans for Kate. Kate even has some sort of wedding binder spread open as they work through decorations and shit. Before the wedding talk, they discussed Lynsey’s sex life and how hard it is to bone your husband when you have a one-year-old who won’t sleep at night.

I glance over at Julianna, who’s seated in a high chair beside us with eight pounds of pink frosting smeared all over her face. She’s one now and looks like she’s about to slip into a diabetic coma any second.

When the fuck did my two closest friends become grown-ups?

It feels like yesterday I was rolling a keg of beer into Kate’s house to celebrate the completion of her smutty bed-n-breakfast series. Kate, Lynsey, and I were all neighbors making the city of Boulder our bitch. Now Kate lives in the tiny town of Jamestown with Miles, the mechanic she met at Tire Depot who smokes licorice like cigarettes, and all they do is talk about their rustic-themed wedding coming up. And Lynsey’s married to the doctor who knocked her up, and their brown-eyed little cutie is old enough to eat donuts like a well-seasoned trucker.

Jules’s eyes begin to close, and her head slowly descends to the table. “Is she okay, Lyns?” I ask, pointing at the bizarre sight.

“She’s fine,” Lynsey replies, waving me off as she asks Kate for the eighty-seventh time how many Mason jars she needs to paint for the centerpieces.

“She doesn’t look fine,” I add as Julianna’s forehead rests on the table.

Lynsey stops talking long enough to pull Julianna’s head up. She holds her hand in front of her mouth and nods. “She’s breathing, she’s fine. It’s just a sugar crash. It happens.”

My head jerks back because Julianna’s eyes are slightly rolled back into her head, and that does not look normal. Suddenly, Julianna comes to. “Mo dony!” she bellows, and her tiny finger reaches out to press down on a stray sprinkle on the table. She puts the sweet into her mouth before lowering her head and falling fast asleep again.

Fuck me, that was a disturbing sight. I’ve never been gladder not to have kids.

There are a lot of disturbing sights as of late. Like Kate staying in on a Friday night instead of coming down to Pearl Street Pub to have a beer with me. Or Lynsey having a ribbon cutting at her new family practice she opened with Dr. Dick.

He has a real name.

Josh something.

He’s okay, I guess. Both Miles and Josh are decent guys, and the girls are madly in love with them, so I guess they’re happy. But those two little smokies have officially taken away my wing women, and because of that, they must be my mortal enemies.

Clearly, I’m bitter.

My two best friends have completely different lives, and I’m here doing what I do best—trying to figure out how big Norah’s tits are beneath that ridiculous uniform she wears and avoiding all conversation concerning weddings and babies.

“Dean, did you hear me?” Kate asks, and I pull my gaze away from Norah as she artfully glazes a fresh batch of croinuts. She always looks so technical when she does that, like a scientist performing an experiment, and it’s soothing to watch. And every once in a while, she catches me staring, and her cheeks and neck begin to flush, and she gets this faint sheen of sweat on her face. It drives me fucking wild.

Kate’s voice cuts into my reverie again. “I said I’m going to murder you if you bring some random college girl to my wedding in a few weeks.”

“Murder seems a bit excessive,” I mumble under my breath and take a sip of my coffee. Damn, Norah makes a good cup of coffee.

“It’s not an overreaction,” Lynsey interjects, reaching out and grabbing my hand from where it’s resting on the table. “I still can’t forget the Lila disaster that happened a few weeks ago. I’m a therapist, and I think I need therapy to recover.”

“Her name was Lala, and you’re both being dramatic.” At least, I think that was her name. I jerk my hand away, her gentle touch a harsh contrast to my irritation. “It wasn’t that big of a deal.”

“She lit my tiki bar on fire, Dean,” Lynsey exclaims, and I swear her eyes well with tears because she’s obsessed with that stupid thing. “Lola or Layla or whatever her name is was so sloppy drunk she caught her hair on fire, which caught my tiki bar on fire, which resulted in the neighbors calling the fire department.”

“Your neighbors were overreacting. Nobody was in real danger…well, except for Lala. But your doctor husband said her hair will grow back, and there were no serious burns. Don’t make it bigger than it was.”

“Dean,” Kate chastises. “Listen to yourself.”

“I am listening to myself. I replaced Lynsey’s tiki bar, so what more do you two want from me?”

“It’s not about the tiki bar,” Kate blurts, her eyes wide and fierce on mine. “It’s about the fact that you brought an underage girl to Lynsey’s house for margarita night.”

“I wanted to bring a date, and she told me she was twenty-one,” I snap, frustration vibrating through my limbs. “I didn’t think I needed to check her ID—at least she was over eighteen.”

Both Kate and Lynsey gape at me, and I wonder when the fuck I started hanging out with such prudes. Kate writes erotic romance novels, and Lynsey got knocked up by a one-night stand. Surely, bringing a younger woman around isn’t that damn shocking for this group.

Kate exhales heavily. “Dean, I’m not even going to address the fact that you’re thirty-one to that girl’s twenty because I write romance for a living, and I’d be a fool to say that an age gap can’t be super-hot. But that girl had nothing going on upstairs. She thought Ebola was a country.”

I cringe as I recall her arguing fervently with Josh, the doctor, on that particular subject. He had to get out his phone and show her that Ebola was a virus, and even then, she got out her own phone to pull up a map. It was seriously uncomfortable.

“I didn’t realize there was an IQ prerequisite in order to hang out with all of you,” I reply flippantly, knowing I sound more childish than the child sleeping next to me.

Lynsey gets a sad look on her face and glances at sleeping Julianna. “Are you even happy with the women you’re dating, though? You don’t seem happy. You seem…bored.”

“What does it matter?” I snap, seriously wishing I was anywhere but here. “It’s not like I’m marrying these girls.”

I glance out the window at the people milling around Pearl Street, dining and shopping. Kate, Lyns, and I used to own this town. We’d be down here multiple nights a week having so many laughs our stomachs would be sore the next day.

Now, things have changed.

They’ve changed.

They aren’t the fun and wild girls I used to pull pranks on. I miss dropping into Tire Depot to give Kate shit about writing sex scenes in a waiting room. I miss buying Lynsey overpriced charcuterie boards and watching her clumsy ass trip in front of guys. The past year has started to feel…lonely. Which is not something I cope with very well.

Case in point: Lala.

Kate’s eyes find mine again. “We’re worried about you, Dean. The girls you’re dating keep getting younger and younger, and none of them have any substance. You’re floundering, man,” Kate adds, her voice taking on a serious tone I do not like. “This is a peen-tervention.”

“A what? Jesus, would you listen to yourself? I don’t need a peen-tervention…which, by the way, is not a thing. You two don’t need to worry about me.” I mindlessly brush away the scattered remains of our croinuts. “Business has never been better. My hedge fund company is up and running now, and I have six solid investors from Max’s referrals. Plus, I’m investing in Norah’s Denver bakery, which I know will be great. I’m at the top of my game.”

“We’re not talking about your professional life, Dean,” Kate says, her eyes bending with sympathy. “You’ve always been great with your work. We’re talking about your peen.”

What the fuck is going on here? Kate’s my funny friend. She’s the one who doesn’t take life seriously and threatens nut punches. Why is she looking at me like I have a terminal illness right now while calling my dick a peen? How many croinuts did she eat?

She licks her lips and leans across the table. “I just feel like ever since Lynsey had the baby and I got engaged, you’ve been hooking up with girls who are nowhere near your level. You’re a self-taught genius, Dean. You’re attractive, charismatic—”

“Generous,” Lynsey adds with a sad smile that instantly transports me to the days she was pregnant and living with me before Josh was allowed in the picture.

It’s crazy to think how different my life is with these two in it. They are literal pains in my ass seven days a week, but even when they’re annoying the shit out of me, I have a soft spot for them both. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them.

They’re kind of like the siblings I never had.

If having inappropriate thoughts about your sisters was okay.

Which obviously…it’s not.

“Are you and your peen depressed maybe?” Kate asks with a sadness to her eyes that is at odds with her ridiculous words.

“God, my peen is not depressed.” I adjust my glasses and exhale heavily while briefly wondering if a plastic fork could impale me enough to have to leave for the emergency room. “I’ll just quit bringing dates around. Problem solved.”

“That’s not what we want,” Kate replies with a shake of her head. “I’d just like to see you with a girl who you could actually have a conversation with. We have a lot of events coming up with the wedding, and I’d die of shock if you had someone beside you who wasn’t a throwaway girl. Lynsey and I have been brainstorming about who we could set your peen up with, haven’t we, Lynsey?”

I roll my eyes as they start rambling names and turn my attention back to Norah, who’s a lot more fun to watch than these two whack jobs trying to set my dick up on a blind date.

My brows furrow when I see Norah’s abandoned her croinut decorating and is now deep in a conversation with an older woman at the end of the counter. The woman gesticulates wildly, and my body tightens at the cornered look on Norah’s face.

Norah suddenly rips off her bandana and shakes her head, her blond hair wild around her face. The woman tries to show her something on her phone, and Norah jerks away and refuses to look at it. When the woman tries again, Norah lets out an exasperated noise and turns to storm out of the bakery through the back exit.