DARRIN CHECKED his manicure and tossed his shoulder-length shag-cut hair back, shaking his head so it came clear of the dangly earrings. Yeah, it was a little grayer when he forgot to do highlights, but he still managed to look glamorous. Feeling cocky, and damned good about the coming Christmas season, he leaned forward against the high wooden counter and watched as Joni unlocked the doors.
“Think it’s going to be busy, boss?” Joni had a buzz cut, dyed black, and a body as stocky as one of the barrels that held hard-candy sweets throughout the store.
“I hope so!” Small businesses in this climate weren’t always a sure thing, but Candy Heaven had been around for a few years, and Darrin was clinging to his little store with every bit of strength in his long, manicured fingers. The store resided in Old Town Sacramento—a four-by-two block cobblestoned, boardwalked tourist trap formed in the pocket created by Highway 275, the Golden State Highway, the I Street Bridge, and the Sacramento River. The stores ranged from burger joints to fine-dining restaurants to antiques to importers to art galleries. They made their money from tourists looking for a quick bit of history at the railroad museum, and locals looking for a reliable place to get something specialized and unique. The candy stores—his wasn’t the only one—were a sweet little perk and part of the area’s appeal. They should do a brisk Christmas business, and Darrin thought about his crew of twelve or so employees and reflected that they might be down one for the holidays.
“In fact,” he said thoughtfully, “I think we may need to hire some help.”
Joni grunted. “I’ll put out the sign, then. God, I hope we don’t get high school students and shit. I hate premetacognitive beings.”
Joni was twenty-four and working on her master’s in sociology. Darrin was waiting for her to get old enough to think “premetacognitive beings” were adorable and pat them on the head and send them on their way with a cookie. Right now she was sort of abrasive—although that could have had something to do with her recent breakup. Joni’s ex-girlfriend had been barely nineteen.
Darrin ripped the top off a Pixy Stix and dumped the contents on the counter, then drew a random picture in the sour sugar and imagined who would work for him. Six four, chest like a wall, heavy tattoos on his back and neck. Bold nose, rectangular jaw, brown eyes, flat and untrusting. A heart like… quicksilver—used to defending itself by pretending it wasn’t there.
“Hm…,” Darrin murmured. “Yes. Yes, his name is Adam. He’s not going to be… friendly.”
Joni groaned. “Aw, boss! Seriously—do you see anyone else in there? Five six, blonde, blue-eyed, big boobs, tiny waist—”
“No, dear,” Darrin said, too intent on the man he saw in the Pixy Stix to be tactful. He saw a child huddled under a bed in the dark, the whip and slap of unkind voices echoing above his sanctuary. He saw a shining lifeline. Oh dear. And the lifeline led here.
Darrin licked his finger and then drew a little more. Staring at the picture, he tasted the sweet-tart powder on the end of his finger and grimaced.
More bitter than it should be.
“This one needs us. Needs sweetening.”
Joni groaned. “Boss, can’t we have, you know, a wide-eyed kinda hamster girl, smart enough to not be premetacognitive, dumb enough to want me?”
Darrin pulled himself away from his visions of sugar-humans and scowled. “You need to find someone who doesn’t take your shit. You drove that sweet young thang away sure as I’m standing here. Forget cute with perky boobies. You need someone who will throw you against the counter, kiss you, and then tell you to stop being a bitch!”
Joni grunted and set the Help Wanted sign up in the window. “Can she have perky boobies too?”
“I am not doing a reading for you! Now start stocking—we need more of the magnets with my picture on them. There’s going to be a run.”
Joni rolled her eyes and went to do her job, and Darrin sighed and started to pick up his end. Sometimes it sucked being the boss.
For one thing, he wasn’t going to be the one helping sweeten this man’s sugar. But maybe that was okay. Maybe just seeing who would sweeten this man’s life would be enough.