Zack Cooper wasn’t your typical male, and he knew it. He couldn’t simplify life by innately compartmentalizing its various issues. If something was wrong at home, that something tried to go with him when he left for work. And this rainy June morning, as he made a delivery to Millicent’s Tea Shop in downtown Middleburg, that something felt like a passenger sitting beside him in the front seat of his truck. Or maybe like two passengers, because his teenagers, Dylan and Sherry, were what was wrong at home.
He stopped in front of the tea shop and hurried to remove two boxes of produce from underneath his truck bed’s tarp. A chatty group of women walked toward the front door and blocked his path toward the shop’s back door, so he waited for them to file into Milly’s. He would have tipped his baseball cap were his hands free, but they didn’t seem to notice him anyway.
Most of the ladies shared umbrellas, squeezing together to avoid the rain. The lone woman at the end of the group, while the last to enter, somehow seemed in charge. As she neared Zack, she tilted her umbrella back to look at him.
“I’m sorry. Please excuse us.”
Zack experienced a momentary ability to compartmentalize. The kids were nowhere in his mind just for that instant. Neither was work.
This was one great-looking woman. Exotic, with dark hair and warm brown eyes. Even though he hadn’t said a word, her lips tugged into a subtle smile, and she looked at him as if he had the driest wit imaginable.
On the contrary, he stood in the rain, holding fruit, and struggled to string words together. “Uh, yeah. Sure. I mean, yes. Or, no. No problem.”
Her eyes twinkled at him briefly before she turned and entered the shop.
He shook his head and spoke aloud. “Real smooth there, Zack.” He hefted his boxes and continued around to the rear of the building.
Milly didn’t answer the back door right away. Zack figured she was up front in the dining area, greeting the same ladies he had just passed. She was expecting his delivery this morning, though, so she had probably unlocked the door for him. He shifted the boxes to one arm and was about to reach for the door knob with the other when he heard a sweet young voice from behind.
“Who’s that handsome farmer? Locked out, are you?”
Zack turned to see Jane, Milly’s assistant. He grinned at her as she tossed back the hood of her slicker and shook out her red hair. Like Milly, Jane always managed to sound upbeat. And both of them were British, so Zack loved listening to them talk.
“Morning, Jane! I’m not sure if it’s locked. Haven’t tried the knob yet, but Milly didn’t answer. I knocked with my elbow, though, so she might not have heard me.”
Jane pulled a set of keys out of her purse even as she reached for the knob. “Ah, there we go. Not locked.”
Zack lifted his chin at her. “After you.” The moment the door opened, he could smell the irresistible pastries freshly baked or still baking in one of the shop’s ovens. He wondered if Jane could hear his stomach grumble. He’d missed breakfast this morning.
Milly walked into the kitchen just then and broke into a warm smile as Jane and Zack entered.
“Sorry I’m late, Milly.” Jane removed her slicker and swiftly exchanged it for an apron. “I’ll never get used to how timid drivers get around here when a single drop of water falls from the sky.”
Milly set a serving tray on the counter and pointed to a mat near the door. “Mind you dry your shoes off so you don’t slip, Jane. You’re just in time for Tina’s group. Would you mind bringing them a pot of English breakfast? Tina’s asked for a tray of the apple-cranberry scones. To start, anyway.”
Jane prepared the teapot, cups, and saucers. “Is Carmella with her today? I saw her over the weekend, and she said she didn’t care how early in the morning they were meeting or what else they were ordering, she planned to get some of your little berry shortcakes before leaving.”
“We’d better go ahead and whip up some cream, then.” Milly turned her attention to Zack. “Oh, Zack, I’m sorry. Here, here.” She patted the counter near the sink. “Set those right down. Such a wet morning for you! Do you have time for a cup of tea?”
She turned away and poured a cup without waiting for his answer.
“I’d appreciate it.” He set the boxes of berries, cucumbers, and watercress on the spacious counter. He was always impressed with how tidy Milly’s kitchen was, considering how much she produced in it. He removed his hat and tucked it in his back pocket. “Had another one of those mornings with the kids. Didn’t get to enjoy my morning coffee, so I could use the caffeine.” He took the delicate cup and saucer from her as if they were priceless museum pieces.
“Milk?” She stepped to the refrigerator, but he waved her off.
“No, this is great.” He glanced toward the kitchen door, the one that led into the dining area. “You’ve got a good-sized group already, I see.” He wasn’t about to ask outright about that woman he saw earlier, but he wondered if she was Tina. Or Carmella.
“Yes, one of my regular groups. We have a few that come in on a scheduled basis.”
He watched her prepare a three-tiered tray with lacy paper things and what he assumed were the scones she mentioned. His stomach growled again, and she looked up at him.
He grimaced. “Sorry.”
She smiled and pulled a tall chair over to the counter. “Have a seat, young man. Something tells me you missed more than your coffee this morning.”
Zack obeyed her, and she placed one of the scones on a fancy flowered plate and retrieved a bowl of dense cream from the refrigerator.
“Here, now. You start off with that, just as my ladies out front are going to do.” She spooned a generous portion of the cream onto his plate. “We call this clotted cream. Use it like butter, only more generously. I think you’ll like it. If you want to try the little berry shortcakes Jane was talking about, you’ll have to stick around a few minutes. Interested?”
He shook his head as he bit into the amazingly perfect pastry. “Mmm.” Apple-cranberry. His new favorite combination. He quickly swallowed and washed it down with tea. “Can’t stay, no. But wow, that’s something!” He held up what was left of the scone. “I need to make a few more deliveries this morning before heading home. I got off to a late start.”
Milly had resumed her work, spooning the thick cream into a serving bowl. “You said the kids gave you a rough morning. Is everything all right?”
He shrugged his shoulders as he swallowed another warm bite. Without his asking, Milly placed another scone on his plate. “Thanks, Milly. No more after this. I really have to go.” He sighed. “I don’t know. Seems like one day Dylan and Sherry thought I was terrific. Their hero. And then suddenly I’m the enemy. We don’t seem to be able to get through a single conversation without getting into an argument.”
“Typical teenage issues?” Milly stopped working and turned to face him. “How old are they now?”
“Dylan’s seventeen. Sherry’s fifteen-going-on-get-lost-Dad.”
Milly smiled. “I’m sure they—”
Jane walked back into the kitchen. “You have those scones, Milly? Oh, great. Thanks.” She took the tray and bowl of cream from Milly and grinned. “I was right. Carmella’s already talked some of them into adding the shortcakes to today’s order.”
“I’ll get on it.” Milly turned toward the refrigerator, and Zack stood. He hadn’t finished his scones, but he had taken up enough of her time.
“Let me get out of your way, Milly—”
“No, hold on a minute, Zack. Sit and finish. I want to give you a few goodies to take home to the kids. We’ll have them calling you a hero again in no time.”
He smiled and sat for a while longer. “Thanks.” He scratched at the back of his neck. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know how much of the problem is growing pains and how much of it is the continued aftermath of their mother’s leaving. I’ve never dealt with teenagers before.”
Milly nodded as she placed several pastries in a box. “I wondered about that too. How long since Maya left?”
“Four years ago. Still not a word from her, but I’ve heard through the grapevine she’s moved on from the guy she left with. Different guy now. I can understand her leaving me, but I just don’t know why a mother would leave her kids like that.”
Milly placed the box on the counter. “I imagine Dylan and Sherry wonder the same thing. Poor dears.”
Zack’s cell phone rang, and he pulled it from his shirt pocket. “Excuse me.” His caller ID made him frown. It was smack in the middle of the school day.
“Dylan? Aren’t you supposed to stay off the phone during school hours?”
“Um, I’m not at school. I…I need you to come get me.”
Zack stood. “Now what? Please tell me you didn’t skip class again.”
“Dad, I’m at the police station. I’ve been arrested.”