Donnie descended the stairs to the front of the building, Henry on his heels. He grabbed the handle of the door out to the street with difficulty, steadying himself against the wall and wriggling the bags of food farther up his arm. “Henry? You could be more helpful. I need to move some stuff in the back of my car to fit all this in.”
“Is that the time?” Henry made a big show of looking at his phone, not that he hadn’t been glued to it all the time he’d been drinking Donnie’s coffee and casting aspersions on Donnie’s baking. “I must be off, sweetheart, I’ll be late for lunch time opening. I can’t trust Debbie and Stuart to clean properly to the back of the shelves, and I have a new guy still on probation behind the bar.”
Henry nudged up behind him, apparently trying to push past Donnie and be first out into the street.
“Henry, back the hell off, will you?”
There was a sudden squash as they jammed shoulders in the narrow doorway. Donnie gave a yelp as he felt the tray of chocolate goodies start to slip from under his arm. “Help!”
The tray tilted, stuck at waist level between them as they stood wedged in place. Donnie wriggled, Henry panted and pushed.
“Catch hold of it!” Donnie moaned.
“Catch hold of what?”
Then Henry wrenched his way free, stepped out into the street, and the whole tray fell to the ground with a crash.
“Oh noooo!” Donnie wailed.
“I have to rush, sweetheart.” Henry was backing away, barely looking. Had he even realised what had happened? “You’ll manage!”
Donnie ignored him. He dropped immediately to his knees to survey the damage. A lot of the chocolates had broken—though he wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t that shape to start with—but much worse, oh my fucking God! A handful had bounced out of the tray and were rolling across the pavement towards the shops.
He reached for the nearest escapees. Luckily there were few shoppers around to tread on him or his eggs, but panic tightened his chest. The chocolates weren’t round like tennis balls, so why the hell did they bound away so quickly? The odd shapes seemed to have their own, innate mischief—they rolled erratically, like a rugby ball would bounce at an angle, like a sheet of paper would dart in the wind away from your foot no matter how quickly you stamped. He grabbed for a rabbit that was rolling toward the pedestrian crossing, then at the last minute its trajectory faltered, it wobbled, then set off again at right angles in the direction of the bakery. And Donnie, off balance and in a blind fright, crashed face down onto the pavement, his palm closing over thin air. “Oof!”
“Oh my God. Are you hurt?”
A shadow loomed over him. Had Henry returned to help out? No, the shadow was larger than his friend, and the cologne wasn’t as overpowering. Donnie sat up with an effort. His palms were scraped and bleeding and both his knees hurt. He felt that unique embarrassment of falling like a child when you were actually twenty years past toddler-hood and should have known better. “I’m okay. Sort of, thanks.”
The man who’d spoken hunched down beside him. Yes, definitely not Henry, who would have been flapping about getting dirt on his designer trousers from the ill-swept pavement. “Just sit there for a moment., It’s a shock when you fall. Do you feel dizzy?” He was older than Donnie, stocky and broad shouldered, with silver in his hair, worried eyes, and glasses balanced crookedly on his nose as if he’d bent one of the arms. Donnie did that a lot with sunglasses.
At the corner of Donnie’s eye, silver foil glinted in the morning sunlight.
“Fuck. My eggs!” Now he sounded like a manic chicken. “I’ve got to catch them!”
“Um.” The guy looked somewhere between bemused and scared. “Sure. I mean, let me help you. Do you mean these?” He shifted the fallen tray to Donnie’s side, then looking quickly from side to side, he rescued a chick that had almost rolled into the gutter. “That’s all I can see. I think you caught the rest.”
Donnie did a quick inventory check, which was pretty pointless when he couldn’t remember how many he’d started with. “I don’t know.” He wasn’t going to cry, was he? “They’ll all be broken now.”
“Well. Let’s not panic.” The guy tapped an egg gingerly with the tip of his finger. “This one seems to have got off unscathed.”
And as they both stared, the foil peeled away, a slow, ugly split crawled from its tip to its base, and it broke apart in at least eight pieces.
“Okay. So, not that one, then.”
“None of them! None of them. This is a disaster!” They weren’t much to start with, were they? Sitting on the pavement with his creations all jumbled up in the tray, Donnie could see quite how pathetic the mis-shapes were.
“Hey, don’t worry,” the man said softly. He had one of those nice voices, the ones that could go soft without sounding like he was talking to a baby. “Baking accidents happen.”
Donnie opened his mouth, then clamped it shut again. How did he explain that every fucking baking project he ever did was an accident?
“Thanks anyway.” He had to be brave. After all, kids, we’ll always have the sweet potato frisbees. He struggled his way to his feet. At the last minute, the man caught his arm and helped with a confident, very steady hand. Donnie had rarely felt less like either of those in his life.
“Can I offer you a cup of tea? You should sit still for a while.”
Donnie’s head felt too big and too slow as he shook it. “I have to drive these over to—”
“And definitely not drive straight away. Look, just for a few minutes, until you’ve recovered. You don’t have to go far—I’m your neighbour actually.”
The nice man smiled self-consciously. The skin around his eyes crinkled in a sexy way that gave Donnie more comfort than he’d found all morning. “You’re a hairdresser?” The guy’s hair was cut too severely, hiding most of that attractive grey, and it looked like he’d maybe trimmed his beard in the dark because there was a tiny bald patch on the left side…
The man laughed, loud enough for Donnie to smile in return, and surely, no, definitely too loud for public politeness, according to Henry’s social rules. “No way, I don’t think Emma would have me. I’m the new vet. Surgery doesn’t open until twelve today, so you can sit in the quiet while I look after you.” He blushed, very appealingly. “Sorry, is that too weird? I’m not trying to force myself on you, just wanted to help.”
“No, not weird at all.”
Forcing himself? Far from it. Donnie felt an irresistible urge to be forced upon by this cute man, no problem. He felt slightly dizzy in the face of that blush. Surely you couldn’t get concussion from a blow to the knees?
And he let the man take his hand.