THE PLACE was busy. It was a nice late May morning as college finals were winding down, and people wanted to be out in the warm weather after a snowy winter. The cobblestone patio was scattered with students studying, drinking coffee, and eating pastry while trying to cram one more bit of knowledge into their heads. Or they were drinking coffee and celebrating the end of their finals. Folk music blaring in the background added to the general level of noise. The place was busy and happy, just the way I liked it.
I had stepped out of the kitchen, wanting to take a break from the heat before starting to bake for the afternoon rush. I stretched and wandered over to get an iced coffee, smiling and waving at the regulars.
“Busy,” I observed to Becca, who ran the front end. She rolled her eyes. It was always busy this time of the day, and she thought it was a stupid comment. She’d been with me since the beginning and was allowed such sass.
“One more day of finals. And tourists are starting to come out of the woodwork,” she grumbled. “Most of them seem to think the place is a freak show.”
“They pay the bills too,” I reminded her.
Tourists weren’t as colorful or as fun as the students, so Becca didn’t like them. The tourists could be rude SOBs too, especially the ones who confused my bakery with the new fu-fu café that had opened down the street last winter. All I asked her was to not be too much of an asshole to them. Becca wasn’t much of a people person, but she needed this job, so she tried to be civil even though she had a short fuse and no tolerance for bullshit. But she couldn’t bake, so she had to hand out what I baked, along with coffee, and had to try not to let the customers get to her.
Becca sniffed, and I poured my coffee, adding sugar and cream. I had stopped counting calories ages ago. Which was funny, because I was a lot fitter than I had been before, even with all the cookies, cakes, and brownies I sampled. Hauling around sacks of sugar and flour kept me in shape better than any gym routine ever had.
“There’s been some special orders for this weekend,” she informed me. “A couple of cakes, and some department at the college is throwing a party this weekend and just got around to letting us know. The paperwork is in your office.”
“I’ll charge ’em extra for being last minute,” I told her.
It wasn’t too much of an inconvenience, but I didn’t want them to think they could pull this all the time. Money was something everyone understood. I had ordered extra supplies too, knowing I would be called at the last minute, so I wasn’t panicking. I was going to be working all day tomorrow, but I didn’t have anything else to do.
“New secretary,” Becca explained, even if she did enjoy sticking it to the college too.
“End of the year, and the Art Department party always happens this weekend and I always supply the sweets, thanks to the local-sourcing rule they have,” I shot back. “And it’s not like the college doesn’t have the money.”
Mountain College was a small liberal arts college in northern Vermont. It was isolated, and the college was pretty much the only reason the town was here. Tourists wandered through on the way to someplace else and always exclaimed how pretty and quaint the place was, stopping to shop and eat before going back to the big city.
“You have no heart,” she told me dryly, as if she wasn’t enjoying this as much as I was.
“What do you think I sold to start this place?” I snarked.
It hadn’t been my heart; I hadn’t had one back then. I’d sold a number of other things, but not my heart. I had started this place four years ago, and after the first winter, it was going strong and making money. I was doing well and happy with my life.
“I passed! I passed! I passed!” I heard off in the distance.
The screeching came closer. The source was a short Asian boy, dressed in torn jeans and a loose T-shirt with Russian characters on it. He was pretty, with messy shoulder-length hair and dark eyes. He came to a halt in front of me, waving his phone in my face.
“I passed!” Xue repeated excitedly. He sounded as if he was five, but Xue was overtired, and I’d make sure he got some sleep in a couple of minutes, after I saw what his grade was. He added a couple of words in what I thought was Chinese.
“We heard,” Becca said dryly.
Xue glared at her even as he was shoving his phone underneath my nose. Now that it wasn’t moving and I could focus on it, I could see his report card or whatever it was called in college. The grades were still mostly unknowns, because professors were sadists and waited until the last minute to post their grades. But there was a B in American Literature of the Eighteenth Century on the screen, one of the required courses he had to take to graduate. Xue had barely passed the midterm, but he had gotten a B over all because of my tutoring. I felt warm and fuzzy because of that.
“See, Paavo! See! See! I won! I won!”
“He passed his lit course,” I told Becca.
“It happens,” Becca sniffed. “What’s the rest of your grades?”
“The bet was only for Literature,” Xue explained. “But we could go double or nothing for the rest of them?”
“Bet?” Becca asked, playing dumb.
She had laughed her ass off when she heard us making it. But it happened a lot, an extra treat for a student who worked hard and passed their class. Most of the time, it was something simple, a cake or a pan of brownies. Xue was fascinated with American musicals and Bollywood movies, so he wanted a dance with me like we were in one of those movies. I had agreed, amused and not thinking it was going to happen in the middle of my bakery patio. And it wasn’t like I didn’t want to hold Xue in my arms like that. I’d been attracted to him from the beginning and enjoyed getting to know him better over the winter.
“A dance,” Xue told her breathlessly before he turned to look at me. “How about if I get all Bs or better, I get another dance with you?”
I looked down at him. It was easy, because he was barely five feet tall and I topped out at a little over six feet. Xue looked like an overexcited kitten, and I was the toy he was going to pounce on. But pouncing wasn’t in my future, because I didn’t know if he was straight or gay or even interested in me. Our tutoring sessions had been very hands-off as I explained to him the mysteries of simile, metaphor, and New England history. But I was interested in him, even if it was stupid. I had been tutoring Xue in a couple of classes since last October, and started lusting after him soon after that. He was my type: lithe and sexy, becoming even sexier when I bothered to discover he had a brain. But then I had never stuck around this long with anyone I was interested in.
“I guess so,” I said slowly.
I was pretty sure he was playing me, and his squeal as soon as the words were out of my mouth told me that. I didn’t mind, though, since it wasn’t as if I was losing anything but my dignity.
Becca smiled evilly and disappeared into the back of the shop. Xue quivered in front of me, having far too much energy to stand still. I wondered how many energy drinks he’d had this week while studying, and how little sleep he’d gotten. He had a tendency to not sleep during finals.
The folk music was replaced with something more upbeat, with a lot of horns and drums, a song from Xue’s favorite Indian music video. It was amazing what you could get with a satellite dish and some unofficial help from a couple of enterprising, homesick Indian students.
Xue grinned up at me and tried to pull me onto the patio, not caring that I outweighed him by almost a hundred pounds. I shook my head and sauntered after him, trying to match the beat with my walk as he tugged me into the middle of the patio. I had been set up, and I knew Becca was in on it too from the way she was laughing. Thankfully she wasn’t recording this.
A lot of the students looked up from what they were doing. A couple of them looked annoyed until they caught a glimpse of me, and then they kicked back to watch the show.
Xue struck a pose: hands at his side, elbows out, and palms up. He swayed back and forth, his head moving the opposite of his hips. He was lip-synching the words, and I tried not to laugh. I stood in front of him and started to mimic his moves. Xue leaned back and I leaned forward, trying not to think about how this was supposed to be a love song. It was my turn to lean back, and Xue followed me, getting into my personal space.
We dropped our arms and circled around each other, close but not touching. Xue flowed into another dance move, and I followed him. It was easy, and I enjoyed watching Xue.
Halfway through, the beat turned into something closer to a tango and I made my move. I hugged him and swung him around, aware of how small our dance floor actually was. I turned the swing into a funky waltz and kept doing the odd twirl while making the most of the space we had until the music ended.
I twirled Xue once more before I dipped him with a smile, his face flushed and happy. A kiss was tempting, but I wasn’t going to. One of us had to be the adult, and that was the role I had always taken. Becca would give me grief for not taking advantage of this, but I didn’t care. I had at least sixteen years on Xue, and it would be awkward to press him about sex when I had been his tutor.