Just a Batter of Time
“Hell to the freaking yeah!” Riley O’Neil pumped her fist in the air as she did her regular celebratory dance party like she did at the end of every night. With her lips curled up into a contagious smile, she flipped the lock on the door and switched the sign to Closed. Another day well done, if you asked her.
Even though it was the end of the night, a surge of adrenaline rushed through her. How could it not? This was her dream come true. Trying her best to hold in her excitement, Riley brushed her hands down her apron before spinning around to face the front of her bakery.
“Day six-forty-eight done and dusted!” Riley’s feet bounced as her excitement grew. Her dance party was now in full swing by the time she moved back to the front counter, her smile somehow more infectious than before.
Her eyes sparkled with pride as they moved to the glass display case, causing her plentiful hips to do another swing.
Who would’ve thought she would be where she was right now?
Closing her bakery.
That’s right. Her bakery.
Holy freaking moly!
Riley O’Neil owned her own damn bakery!
She did another shimmy as she moved her hands through the air to the joyful beat that played in her head. No matter how many times she tried, Riley still couldn’t believe it.
Riley O’Neil was not only working in her dream career, but she was also the proud owner of her own freaking bakery.
Her smile morphed into a full-blown toothy grin as she slid her hand across the glass display case housing her creations.
Who said hard work and determination wouldn’t pay off? ‘Cause that was a damn lie. I did it. No cheating someone out of something or fake promises. This is mine, built from the ground up.
Riley high-fived herself.
Before she could stop, her mind briefly drifted to her parents. Quickly, she pushed those thoughts to the back of her head. There was no way in hell she would let them dampen her mood.
She was the owner of a bakery, no matter what her parents thought.
Riley’s nose scrunched. Okay, well… she wasn’t the sole owner, but that was neither here nor there. She was just going to skip past that tiny technicality and move on to the important part.
Pastries & Paws was her baby.
The bakery that catered to humans and their fur-babies alike. Because why not? When she first imagined the idea, she knew it was a little out there, but when she thought about it, and really thought about it, she realized it was exactly what she wanted in her life. Animals were just as much a part of the family as anyone else, and they deserved pet-friendly treats every once in a while, as well.
Just because she couldn’t have a fur-baby of her own with the bakery taking up all her time didn’t mean she couldn’t dote on them and make goodies for them. It was her dream to one day have a house full of animals, especially since she wasn’t allowed to have any growing up.
Not with how her parents were.
And until that day, when Riley knew she could have a home of her own and as many pets as she wanted, she would do the next best thing.
Thus, her grand plan of creating Pastries & Paws was born.
Riley had it all figured out. Save as much money as she could, and once she was halfway to her goal, take out a loan for the rest.
At least that was the plan when she mentioned it to her older brother Patrick.
How was Riley to know Patrick would end up telling his best friend Liam and then boom, stuff started rolling sooner than she could wrap her head around.
Her head spun whenever she thought about the sequence of events that led her here.
Holy freaking moly.
Riley’s hips did another shimmy as she glanced around the small seating area, trying to ignore her train of thought.
The chairs were on the tables. The floor was mopped and everything was good to go for tomorrow. She had to admit; after doing this for almost two years now, she’d gotten pretty good at it. At this point, she pretty much had everything down to a science.
See, hard work and determination did pay off.
Riley flicked her eyes to the ceiling as she made her way toward the back. Once she made it behind the counter, she did a quick double-check to see what items she was running low on.
Of course, she would have to make her usuals. Her morning rush always wiped her out of cinnamon rolls, croissants, blueberry muffins, and a few varieties of bagels.
Once Riley was done taking inventory of the human side of her display case, her eyes glanced toward the pet-friendly side, her heart swelling.
Honestly, the four-legged treats are what put Pastries & Paws on the map. Not even a week after opening, Riley realized having her pet-friendly goodies was the thing that made her stand out among the other bakeries in the area. And even though she’d only been open for almost two years, she was well on her way to making an actual profit.
The tip of her tongue darted out from behind her lips as she scanned through her display case.“Okay, let’s take a look.”
Riley made a quick mental note to make an extra batch of her Smoochies, a dog bone-shaped biscuit, her, Howl at the Moon, doggie cupcakes, and her Bow Down to Me cat treats.
“That’s not too bad.”
Thank the Universe she didn’t have to stock up on her CatCrack, a catnip-glazed bite-sized treat. They took forever to make, and right now, it already looked like she would have to get up before the butt crack of dawn to get everything done in time.
Riley’s eyes instinctively traveled to the fancy clock on the wall as she attempted to calculate the time she’d need to make everything.
A sharp exhale escaped Riley as she moved her neck from side to side. “One of these days, I’ll be able to hire someone to help. Maybe then I won’t have to wake up as early as I do, run the register, or go through the bookkeeping, and I’ll be able to spend all my time baking. It’ll happen. It’s called manifesting.” She sharply nodded.
Riley knew she was close to that point, but not quite there yet. Besides, everyone that came into her little hole-in-the-wall bakery never made her feel rushed. Sure, she would get the occasional asshole customer, but it was rare.
She’d lucked out with most everyone’s understanding. Maybe it had something to do with the items she made. Or her bubbly personality. Who knew? Regardless, she was still grateful it hadn’t been an issue.
In reality, though, what’s so bad about sacrificing sleep when it was your dream career that was the cause of it?
Plus, she never got too far behind on everything that needed to be accomplished.
Early on she decided to keep Pastries & Paws closed on Sunday.
Originally, she thought she would get a day off during the week, but it soon turned out she needed Sundays to catch up on paperwork and balance her books. Not to mention it gave her a jumpstart on the baking for the week, like feeding her starters for the bread or experimenting on whatever creation grabbed her attention.
But at least she didn’t have to watch the front at the same time.
As Riley’s mind raced with the calculations to figure out the time she’d need to get everything ready the following day, she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth. Sleep was important, but so was having adorable treats for all her furry customers.
And her four-legged friends would always win out. Even if that meant no sleep for her.
Who cares if you don’t get enough sleep? You can sleep when you’re dead.
“What in the world am I doing?” Riley shook her head, her smile still on her face. “All this thinking is wasting time.”
She chuckled to herself as she made her way toward the back. However, just as she was about to walk into the kitchen, her eyes caught the front window and noticed the sun had already begun to set.
Riley’s face scrunched. Okay, it wasn’t super dark out. Just, you know, that twilight kind of dark? The dark that would quickly turn to dark-dark soon.
Riley worried her bottom lip as her brain raced to come up with a plausible excuse for why she didn’t have time to wait for Patrick or Liam to escort her home.
It was a stupid rule anyway. It wasn’t like the house the three of them shared was that far from the bakery.
She’d walked it a thousand times with no issue.
“If it’s dark out, me or Liam walk or drive you home. This isn’t up for discussion.” Her brother’s words echoed through her mind for the millionth time.
Riley didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the situation. Part of her understood why Patrick and Liam were always so adamant about one of them walking her home. But at the same time, the reason behind their “rule” happened years ago.
She didn’t even think about it anymore, or at least she tried not to. At the time, she was just a teenager, and it was the night before her graduation. That’s how long ago it was. Yet, somehow that one day, even though she handled herself perfectly. It made Patrick, and in turn Liam extra protective of her. Okay, there was that one other time she’d had an incident…
But damn it, Riley was older now. She could handle herself. She sure as shit did that night, too.
Blahhhh, let’s not think about it right now. Focus on the important things.
It was only a ten, maybe fifteen-minute walk tops to get home. Even less if she had a car…
Riley’s brows dented at the center at the thought of a car.
If she had a car, she could come and go as she pleased; no more waiting around to be escorted back and forth like a child.
Then again, having a car would mean putting money into something that wasn’t her bakery.
Riley shuddered at the mere thought.
That wasn’t an option.
Besides, walking was fine by her. She enjoyed it. And if she really needed a car, she’d just borrow Patrick’s or even Liam’s.
Liam… Riley pinched her eyes shut. Ugh. She’d been nursing a crush on him for as long as she could remember. It was pretty pathetic. Not only was he her older brother’s best friend, but they definitely had some rough patches growing up.
Rough patches. Riley scoffed. If by rough patches, she meant a solid year where he’d treated her like either she wasn’t there or somehow was on the receiving end of his annoyance. It hadn’t lasted long, and after her first incident, Liam pretty much went back to normal. He was still grumpy and annoying at times… and a little too protective, which agitated Riley to no end, but he wasn’t usually like that.
Besides, what could she do about it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And, if she were being honest, her crush had a pretty intense chokehold on her.
Liam Kelly was in her life and it looked like he’d be in it for as far as she could see. Strictly in a platonic, only her brother’s best friend kind of way, she forced herself to believe.
“Fiddlesticks.” Riley shook her shoulders, attempting to push away any and all thoughts revolving around Liam.
It was better that way.
Riley quickly switched gears back to her to-do list. The sooner she got home, the sooner she could get into bed and actually get some sleep before turning right around to do it all over again.
She pulled out her phone as she always did when she was ready to text them that she was done for the night.
But for the life of her, she couldn’t bring herself to hover her fingers over the keypad.
She had two options:
Wait for one of them, which could take a while. Or walk home and hopefully slip in undetected.
After all these years, they still weren’t the best at communicating which included who was on pickup duty. She flicked her eyes to the ceiling.
It might’ve been wrong, but Riley may or may not have used that flaw to her advantage on nights she really didn’t have the time to wait for them.
Kind of like tonight.
What’s that saying? It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission? Honestly, what’s the worst that could happen? Nothing, really. Riley pulled her bottom lip in between her teeth. That’s it. I’m doing it.
She was a big girl and she damn well could take her curvy butt home.
Quickly, Riley grabbed the batch of brownie-fudge creations she’d been experimenting with and placed them in her bag along with the buttercream frosting she’d made.
Dimwitted brother and his best friend: zero.
Riley’s lips twitched into a smirk as she finished closing her shop. This was a win-win in her book.
If she got caught, she’d give them a sample of her newest creation to distract them. And if she didn’t, she’d mosey out of her room as if she’d been there the entire time and then casually offer them the treat.
Another point for me!
Either way, she was coming out on top. She’d get home early and get a new taste test out of it.
Even though Riley hadn’t been too thrilled about their living situation when it first came about, especially since it meant living with Liam, she was grateful they were always there to try out what she’d made.
The corners of her mouth quirked up, turning her crooked smile into a full-blown grin as she thought about the time she made them try one of her top-selling dog biscuits. Riley swore she did it under the pretense of: if it wasn’t good for human consumption, it sure as hell wouldn’t be good for her furry friends.
Her brother, bless him, tried his best to not hurt her feelings when he mentioned they were a bit bland and dry for his taste. Liam, on the other hand, spit them out and yelled how she’d tried to poison him.
To this day, it still made her laugh. Once she finally confessed they’d eaten dog treats… hoo-boy, it might’ve erupted into chaos, but it was well worth it.
Riley did another shake of her hips at the memory, her laugh even louder as she clapped her hands together in excitement.
Damn, she loved her job.
With her smile firmly in place, Riley walked around the kitchen and made sure all the appliances were off. The dough was proofing and would be ready in a few hours. Her starters for her bread were fed, and everything else was set for her return.
Riley really had gotten good at all of this. Sure, she would love some extra help, but until then, damn she was proud of what she’d accomplished.
With one last look around, Riley grabbed her stuff and stepped out of the backdoor that led to the alley behind Pastries & Paws.
Once the door was locked, she pushed the strand of her chestnut hair that had escaped the messy bun from on top of her head to behind her ear. She then hiked her bag higher onto her shoulder, spinning around on her heel to head in the direction of home. “Look out world, one badass bitch is coming your way.” Riley shook her hips again, doing another little dance as new determination swelled through her.
She might be plus-sized, a little too opinionated, and a whole lot of ‘not society’s norm,’ but she didn’t care. Riley gave zero craps what the world thought. She was here living her dream and was damn well going to enjoy it.
A lopsided grin appeared on her face as she took off toward home. However, Riley only made it a few steps before a faint noise caught her attention, making her pause. She scanned the area, straining her head in the direction she believed the noise came from.
Only a few seconds passed before Riley heard the noise again, this time without a shadow of a doubt, knowing it was an animal.
A cat, if she wasn’t mistaken.
And a tiny one, if the cry was any indication.
Being as quiet as she could, Riley waited for the sound again. As soon as she heard it, she was able to pinpoint it coming from the dumpster behind her bakery.
Abandoning her original plan, Riley dropped her belongings to the ground before slowly making her way toward the dumpster.
Without even a second thought, Riley fell to her knees.
Please don’t be hurt.
She worried her lip as her eyes searched the area, coming up empty. “Pspspsps. Come on out.” Riley continued her search, but still nothing. “Come on, little one. I know you’re still here. You’re safe. Trust me, I’d rather cut off my left boob before I let anything happen to you.”
Riley paused for a second, pulling back as she realized what she’d said. “You probably have no idea what a boob even is.” She sighed, rolling her eyes. “Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I’d rather hurt myself than hurt you.”
It was faint, but Riley heard another tiny cry.
At least it was still there, right?
“Okay, my little friend, I get it. You’re scared. We all get scared sometimes. It’s okay. It’s a part of life. But just so you understand what I’m doing here to help you, I’m right next to a dumpster and it’s really starting to stink. Like really bad—”
Riley heard the cry again, cutting off her ramblings, her heart clenching as she really hoped the little guy wasn’t hurt.
Another cry echoed from under the dumpster, making Riley strain her neck further under the metal box as she held her breath. “I’m one of the good ones. Animals can sense when it’s good people, so you’re gonna grace me with your presence, right? That way, I can help you before I vomit.”
After hearing the cry once more but Riley still not being able to see anything, she sat back on her knees as she grabbed her phone from her back pocket. She then quickly flipped on the flashlight and returned to her mission.
Carefully, Riley lowered herself onto the ground. However, since she was more focused on the cat, she missed what was lying beside her. As she braced herself on her hands, she moved slightly to the left, causing something to squish under her palm.
“Ahhh!” Riley jumped back, her eyes honing in on her hand. “Ewww.” She gagged as she looked at what she hoped was a rotten banana peel.
As she flicked it off, she glared up toward the darkening sky. “That better have been what I thought it was, Universe. I get I’m a joke to you, but can you cut me some slack? All I want to do—”
Riley snapped her mouth shut the moment she heard the small cry. Forgetting about the gloppy mess on her hand, Riley dropped back down, her flashlight illuminating the underside of the dumpster. “Sorry about that,” she whispered. “I got distracted. I didn’t mean to scare you.” As she moved the flashlight, her heart stopped when she finally saw two small glowing eyes staring back at her. “There you are!”
Her heart hammered against her chest as she watched the very tiny kitten. “Hi, little one. I’m Riley,” she murmured, trying not to scare it further. “Aren’t you a cutie? Come here, kitty. Pspspsps. I’m gonna help you.”
The kitten slowly blinked but didn’t move.
“Is pspspsps offensive?” Riley asked, her lips pursing. “I apologize. It’s probably offensive. No one wants to be catcalled. Especially not a cat. Wait, is that what I just did? Did I catcall you?” Riley groaned. “Good goin’, Rye.”
Drastic moments called for drastic measures.
Pushing the fact she was crawling under a dumpster out of her mind, Riley laid on her stomach, doing the best she could to maneuver toward the kitten. As she reached with all her might, she held her breath, cursing her larger figure as it stopped her from going further under the dumpster.
Body, don’t fail me now. We’re on a mission. We’re almost there. Just a little further.
Riley was less than an inch from the kitten. She just needed to reach a litt—
A loud bang echoed through the area from the other end of the alley, causing the kitten to jump. It stared at her for the briefest of seconds before it took off in the opposite direction.
“Gahh!” Harrumphing, Riley crawled from under the dumpster and sat back on her knees. “Shit.” As she stood, she wiped her hands down her jeans. “Double shit.”
Riley’s eyes searched the area, but the kitten was nowhere in sight.
“Damn it all to hell.”
With a new sense of urgency, Riley rushed back into her bakery. As quickly as she could, Riley grabbed some dry cat food she kept on hand, a cardboard box, a bowl of water and some towels. Once she was back in the alley, Riley placed the box right outside the backdoor and put two towels inside. She then put a bowl of water and the plate of food next to it.
“I was so close. Dang it.”
Worrying her bottom lip, Riley glanced around, her heart bottoming out when she realized the kitten must be long gone.
“Freaking great.” She sighed, her shoulders slumping, as her eyes moved to the box, her heart clenching again. At least there was food and water now. Hopefully by morning, the kitten would be back and Riley could figure out what to do then.
The moment Riley pocketed her phone, she got a good whiff of herself. “Good Lord. Ew.” Her eyes narrowed toward the sky again. “You really just needed to add insult to injury here, now, didn’t ya?”
Throwing her hands in the air, Riley huffed as she picked up her bag from the ground. With one last scan of the empty alley, Riley’s stomached bottomed out, her heart clenching even further.
“I’m gonna go now. I’ll be back in the morning. There is a nice warm box for you to sleep in and some food and water. Please, please be safe.”
Riley’s gut twisted, but there was nothing she could do about it. She could only hope for the best once she got back to the bakery in a few hours.
With that, Riley headed in the direction of home.