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The Bakery

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Ever since Grace died, Tommy kept himself to a strict routine. He liked the routine. It made his life easier. It made it easier not to think.

Monday through Friday, Tommy woke at 5am. He went downstairs to exercise for an hour and a half in his gym room, leaving half an hour to shower, dress, and grab something to eat on the drive to work. Tommy worked until 5pm, taking a break somewhere between 11:30am and 12:30pm to eat lunch at his desk. After work, Tommy either spent the evening in the den going over finances or he relieved the nanny early and took Charles with him to Ada’s.

On weekends, Tommy allowed himself to sleep in until 7am. He spent his Saturdays with his family, usually gathering at Polly’s for a “family meeting” so that they could update each other on different aspects of business.

This left Sundays free for Tommy. At first, Sundays were the worst. They could be impossible to get through. Tommy would attempt to spend the day with his son, but it often resulted in him having to leave the room to bury his face in his hands and fight back urge to sob just to make the empty house less quiet.

Soon, he began to take walks every Sunday. He wandered all over the city. And when he bored of the same old streets and shops in Small Heath, Tommy started driving to London and exploring the less populated side streets and neighborhoods. It helped. When he was walking, Tommy didn’t have to think about anything. Over the weeks and months, it got a little easier, every long Sunday walk, until he got home every Sunday night and remembered how lonely he was.

It was on a very hidden street in Camden Town that Tommy found it. A tiny little coffee shop/ bakery that honestly looked more like a shady hideout for a gang in the 1920s. Not that Tommy was unfamiliar or uncomfortable with such a thing. The Shelbys basically ran Birmingham, and they didn’t get their high status from charity and good Christian acts of kindness. There was just a door set into the building, plain and black. A sign hung to the side, simply reading, “The Bakery”, with a tiny picture of a coffee cup and a tea cake underneath. Something about the shop intrigued Tommy, like it was calling for him to come inside. Tommy shrugged and reached for the dark, metal door handle. A cup of tea wouldn’t hurt.

The coffee shop was much cleaner inside than Tommy thought it would be compared to the street outside. It was a little cramped, eight or so tables shoved together with just enough room to squeeze through between the chairs. On one side of the room was a hallway leading to the bathrooms, a kitchen, and a cordoned-off staircase, presumably leading to a flat above. On the other side of the room was a tall counter painted black and gold, stocked with huge, multi-colored mugs stacked neatly in rows and a display of glass jars filled with tea leaves.

Next to the counter was a broad glass case filled with all sorts of baked goods. Even from across the room, Tommy could identify cookies and brownies tiny cakes covered in bright icing. There was an entire shelf just for scones. The menu was scrawled across multiple chalkboards hanging on the wall behind the counter in practically illegible yet somehow still elegant. It took Tommy a moment to decipher some of the strange and witty coffee names like, “I’ve Bean Everywhere, Man”, “The Happy Hippie”, and “It’s Pronounced ‘ES-presso, NOT EX-presso”.

“You’re a brave lad, eh? Wandering in to a strange shop on your own. You want to take a look at my bakery?”

It was only years of keeping his calm and cool façade that kept Tommy from jumping out of his skin at the sudden voice. He turned away from the menu to see a large, bearded man emerging from the kitchen carrying a tray of some kind of dark bread sliced into thick chunks.

The man was… interesting. His frame seemed deceptively large and lumbering, especially when the man began walking towards him with a distinctive gait. He wore a white shirt and dark vest with a food-stained white apron wrapped around his waist. His face was face intense, his expression a bizarre cross between a glare and a contemplative stare.

As the man started plating the bread slices in the display case, Tommy noticed a small crown tattoo on his hand. The man continued his odd chatter.

“We bake all sorts here, mate. Did you know we bake over 10,000 loaves of bread a week? Restaurants from all over the city buy from us. Can you believe it? We bake the white bread, we bake the brown bread. We bake all sorts. Would you like to try some?”

Tommy wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but he was a little surprised when the man actually placed two plates in front of him, one with a slice of fluffy, white, sweet bread, and the other a darker slice with bits of dried fruit in it. At least from appearance, the man looked more likely to make his own whiskey than to bake his own bread. Though Tommy certainly knew that looks could be deceiving.

Tommy studied the man. Usually, Tommy was able to figure people out with little effort. It was an essential skill in his business, a way to know who was useful to him and how to manipulate them. But from this man, Tommy got nothing. It was curious, like a question mark floating in front of him. Offering him freshly baked bread. Tommy sniffed and moved closer to the counter.

“Alright,” Tommy responded, trying to gauge the man’s expression without much luck.

“What would you like, brown or white?”

This felt like a test. “I’ll try the brown.”

“Brown, alright.” Still no clues in the man’s face. He pushed the plate with the darker bread closer to Tommy.

Tommy picked up the slice of bread and took a bite. The man’s eyes never left Tommy’s face, like he was searching for Tommy’s reaction. Tommy ignored how the man lingered on his lips as he licked away the crumbs.

The bread was rich and flavorful, perfectly moist. It was the best bread that Tommy had ever had, though that wasn’t saying much considering Ada burned everything she touched in the kitchen and Polly wasn’t the best baker.

“Not bad,” Tommy answered neutrally, dropping the bread back on the plate.

“Not bad, eh? Hmm.” The man’s face turned pensive, his mouth frowning slightly. “Not bad.”

Tommy tried to keep his face impassive, but he couldn’t help the fact that this strange man was intriguing. For some reason, Tommy wanted to pass this cryptic test.

“Fucking brown stuff is horrible. The white stuff, now that is for the bosses.”

The man picked up the white bread and took a giant bite out of the slice. Tommy couldn’t help but crack a smile at his antics.

“So, what’ll it be?”

Tommy looked at the menu again.

“Can I ask, what exactly is a ‘Sugar Daddy Latte’?”

The man started chuckling, and Tommy could swear there was a hint of blush on his cheeks. “It’s candy, caramel, and hazelnut. I, uh, let my sister name that one.”

“As appetizing as that sounds, I think I’ll just take a large tea.” Tommy gestured at one of the jars. Instead of a name or flavor, the jar read “Never give power to the big man.” It seemed more trustworthy to Tommy than the jar with only a picture of an old-fashioned cabinet cut into two pieces.

“Fantastic choice. Homemade mix. Oriental spice, vanilla, with a touch of hazelnut.” The man paused to grab a cup and a sharpie. He looked up and stared at Tommy expectantly.

“Tommy.”

“Tommy,” the man repeated as he scribbled down the name.

Tommy paid for his tea and sat down, keeping a careful eye on the man’s back. He chose a seat with a good view of the entire room, both the entrance and the hallway in the back, that et him put his back to the wall. There was a bookshelf nearby with battered paperbacks stacked messily into every nook and cranny, even piling haphazardly on the top. Scanning the titles, Tommy recognized many classics, some crappy harlequin romances, and weirdly enough, some newer sci fi books based off popular franchises.

“It’s Alfie, by the way.”

Tommy looked up to see the man, Alfie, placing his drink on the table in front of him.

“Nice to meet you,” Tommy replied cordially.

Alfie left him to move back behind the counter and continue working. Tommy removed the lid from his styrofoam cup to blow on the hot tea, keeping his eyes on the tall man wiping off the counter top. The motion made the muscles of Alfie’s forearms more pronounced in a way that was quite distracting.

The afternoon ended up passing quite peacefully. Halfway through his tea, Tommy had grabbed a random paperback from the shelf to skim through while peeking up at Alfie between the pages every so often. And though there was a steady stream of customers, none of which received the same bizarre and cryptic greeting that Alfie gave Tommy, the shop was never too busy or too loud. And Alfie was never too busy to swagger over to refill Tommy’s tea whenever his cup emptied. It was, surprisingly, enjoyable.
It wasn’t until Alfie began wiping the tables and stacking the chairs that Tommy realized the shop was closing and he had stayed all day.

Tommy would never admit the awkwardness or embarrassment he felt at this realization, but he couldn’t quite meet Alfie’s eyes as he stood and pulled some change out of his pocket to leave on the table as payment for his many refills. Alfie noticed, muttering a “cheers, mate” and twitching his lips in what might have been a smile and most certainly drew attention to how full and pink his lips were. Tommy would also never admit that he blushed a little as he turned to leave the shop.

 

Tommy went back to the shop the next week. But instead of walking around for a few hours like he had the week before, Tommy drove straight to the shop. He had also decided to skip breakfast that morning.

But when Tommy walked into The Bakery, Alfie wasn’t behind the counter. He was greeted by some twink with dark, curly hair and a mean-looking frown. Tommy thought about just walking back out and finding a new neighborhood to walk through. But he was already at the shop and was starting to get pretty hungry.

“Can I have a large tea and some of the white bread, please?” Tommy asked, gesturing at the same jar of tea.

The twink gave him a funny look. “The white bread? We have a few different kinds of white bread here, sir.” The This is a bakery, dumbass tacked on silently at the end.

Tommy had no way to know which bread Alfie had brought out last week, and didn’t really want to deal with the twink anymore, anyway. He forced himself to keep calm, knowing there was no rational reason for Tommy to be frustrated with him. “Whatever you have is fine.”

Attempting to hide the roll of his eyes, the twink picked up a large cup and a pen. “Name?”

“Tommy.”

The pen faltered and the twink looked up at Tommy with wide eyes. Then he glanced Tommy up and down, taking in his tailored black coat and his Italian leather shoes. “Oh. Hang on a sec.” The twink put the cup and pen down on the counter and skittered away into the kitchen while Tommy looked on in confusion.

After a moment, Tommy wondered if he should just leave. He didn’t have many enemies in London, none in Camden Town that he knew about, but Tommy still felt uneasy. Something about the twink put him off. Or maybe it was just the fact that Alfie wasn’t there.

“Long time, no see!”

Tommy’s head whipped around in time to see Alfie emerging from the kitchen, covered in flour. The arms of his dark shirt not covered by the long apron were dotted white and brown. Tommy absolutely did not find the smear of flour on Alfie’s nose adorable.

“I see you met Ollie. He’s my nephew. Picks up morning shifts every so often. I wasn’t expecting to see you this early,” Alfie said, ineffectively wiping his powedery hands with the bottom of his apron.

“You were expecting me?” Tommy asked, not bothering to hide his smirk.

Alfie shrugged, but his lips twitched again, and Tommy felt a warmth low in his stomach. “No one can resist once they’ve had a taste.”

The man grabbed the cup Ollie had left on the counter but moved to begin filling the tea bag from a jar stashed behind the others that Tommy couldn’t see. Alfie caught Tommy staring and wiggled his eyebrows playfully as he turned to pour the hot water. He placed the cup in front of Tommy, this time without the lid, and stepped over to the bakery display. From there, Alfie artfully placed two pieces of fluffy white bread onto a plate, followed by a slice of the chunky brown bread Tommy had tried before and a banana that seemed to appear from nowhere.

It was more than Tommy usually ate for breakfast but would certainly tide him over if he decided to spend all day at the shop again. Alfie nodded his head towards the sitting area and Tommy grabbed his tea to follow Alfie to the table he had sat at last week.

Alfie set the plate down with a flourish. “There we go. Best breakfast in England.”

Tommy played along and made a show of smoothing out a napkin from the dispenser on the table over his lap and adjusting his shirt collar. It earned him a smile from Alfie and a strange flutter in his own chest.

“Unfortunately, there’s still baking to be done, so I’m going to have to leave you with Ollie. Just call him over and he will get you anything you need,” Alfie told him, wiping at his hands again. On anyone else, Tommy would clock it as a nervous habit, but when Alfie did it, it almost made him look more confident and knowing.

“Thanks, Alfie.” Tommy liked the way the man’s name felt on his tongue.

It was about two hours before Alfie emerged again from the kitchen.

“He doesn’t like to leave the bread in the oven unsupervised. He is very particular about his bread. If one thing goes wrong, he will throw out the whole batch and start over,” the twink told him, unprompted, while refilling Tommy’s tea.

Tommy ignored the twink and took a sip of the tea Alfie had selected for him. It was good, more spicy than sweet, the way that Tommy liked it. He turned the page of the novel he had pulled off of the closest shelf, a mystery novel with pitiably predictable plot twists, and pretended to be engrossed until the twink left him alone.

Alfie finally emerged sometime after that, his arms loaded with trays of goodies. He set them on the counter and pointed them out to Ollie before walking over to Tommy’s table. Alfie had cleaned up, no longer covered in flour, and had taken off the long apron. He sat down across from Tommy.

“How was it?” the man asked him, motioning at Tommy’s cup and crumb -strewn plate. “You didn’t eat your banana.”

“Never really liked bananas. Too… squishy.”

Alfie nodded. “You prefer hard things, then?”

Before Tommy could think of a response to that, Alfie reached over and grabbed the banana. He watched in disbelief as the man slowly peeled the banana, keeping uncomfortable eye contact with Tommy. Alfie’s lips parted and wrapped around the tip of the banana as he took a bite. Tommy immediately stood and excused himself to the restroom.

 

Visiting Alfie’s shop quickly cemented itself into Tommy’s weekly routine. Every Sunday, Tommy would sleep in, have a late breakfast with Charles before the nanny arrived, and drive to Alfie’s shop. Sometimes Ollie was there, and Tommy waited for Alfie to pop out of the kitchen and give him a seemingly pre-chosen breakfast, disappear again for a few hours and then reappear to sit with him for hours. Other times Alfie was waiting for him at the counter, the chosen food already carefully set at what was now Tommy’s unofficial table. Alfie wasn’t able to sit with him on those days, but they always talked.

It was strange, because Tommy rarely talked to people outside of his family (though, admittedly, Tommy’s family consisted of an awful lot of people not biologically related to him but whom had been around since before even Arthur was born) since Grace’s death. He had business meetings and occasional run-ins with people from school on the street, but he never just talked with anyone. Not the way he and Alfie talked.

Really, they talked about anything and everything. Tommy learned about Alfie’s equally large family and the shady dealings Alfie’s father used to run out of the building before Alfie converted it into a coffee shop (this was when Tommy realized that the two men had much more in common than he previously assumed). Tommy told Tommy about his own company, the new expansion into London and his plans to venture business all the way to America one day. To Tommy’s complete surprise, one of their discussions led him to talking about his mother’s death and his father’s subsequent departure. They talked about politics and history and their favorite books, Alfie’s passion for his religion and Tommy’s love of horses.

The only subject that Tommy never brought up with Alfie was Grace. He knew that Alfie had seen the ring that Tommy still wore on his left hand, but Alfie hadn’t asked about it either. Tommy also knew that despite the ring, Alfie was definitely flirting with him.

Tommy wasn’t sure exactly why Alfie was flirting with him, though. Perhaps Alfie just didn’t care if he was married. Or the lack of dissuasion on Tommy’s part and the implication that he was married to a woman led Alfie to believe Tommy was in need of a gay awakening. Whatever the reason was, Tommy never felt the need to ask Alfie to stop. In fact, he enjoyed the attention and didn’t mind the embarrassing fluttering heat in the pit of his stomach every time Alfie made a lewd joke.

Not to mention, one particular afternoon Alfie launched into a rant about capitalism and how “big always fucks small, mate,” telling Tommy everything he needed to know about Alfie’s preferences in the bedroom.

One morning, Tommy walked in to see his table set with food and a cup filled with tea but no Alfie in sight. Ollie noticed him from behind the counter and gave him a sad and slightly panicked look.

“There was a problem with the ovens this morning. We are crazy behind and Uncle’s in a pissy mood.”

As if on cue, a large crashing sound echoed from the kitchen, like a stack of trays being thrown across the room by a large, muscular man, followed by loud cursing. Tommy saw Ollie wince out of the corner of his eye.

Tommy nodded to the twink in thanks and sat down to his breakfast. But he didn’t eat. His stomach was rolling with worry and Tommy eventually realized he was worried about Alfie. He picked at the bunch of grapes on his plate and attempted to read a Jane Austen novel but was constantly glancing at the kitchen door and watching every time Ollie paused outside the door to take a deep breath before going in to ask his uncle a question, only to be met with more yelling.

Usually Alfie was done with the baking and the pick-up orders a little after noon if not sooner. That day, however, Alfie didn’t come out into the shop until after three. The man’s face was red, his clothes were sweaty, and he hadn’t bothered cleaning himself up so his face and arms were caked with flour, sugar, icing, and whatever else he had been messing with back in the kitchen.

Alfie groaned as he sat at the table across from Tommy, clutching a cup of coffee that smelled strongly of whiskey.

Tommy didn’t bother asking if the man is okay.

They sat in silence for a few minutes while Alfie relaxed a little. Tommy didn’t bother pretending to read and let himself stare at the man, who seemed much too distracted to notice. Alfie had told Tommy that he had always loved baking, that it reminded him of his mother, how it was therapeutic for him during rough childhood (though he didn’t use those particular words). Alfie never admitted to working for his father when he was younger, but there was certainly implication that opening his bakery was a relief from a less than straight and narrow previous job that Alfie used to have. Tommy could understand that. Which is how he knew no matter how exhausted and pissed off Alfie was at that moment, he wouldn’t trade the bakery for the world.

But before Alfie was able to finish his drink, someone came into the shop. The young man surveyed the room nervously, almost looking scared when his eyes landed on Alfie and Tommy. Then he marched over to Ollie out the counter, obviously trying to look more confident than he felt.

Tommy knew the type. Probably a college student with no connections and no knowledge of how to get a job but in desperate need of an income. Tommy wasn’t surprised at all when the young man asked Ollie for an application.

“I wasn’t sure if you guys were hiring or not, but this place is close to my apartment and I was hoping-“

Even Tommy jumped a little when Alfie stood abruptly, knocking their table a bit and causing some of his grapes to fly off his plate and into his lap. Alfie stomped behind the counter, reached underneath one of the shelves, and slapped a piece of paper in front of the young man.

“Fill it out. Fuck off.”

Ollie and the man both stared after Alfie as he sat back down at Tommy’s table with twin looks of terror. Tommy on the other hand was impressed. And the warmth was confusingly back in his stomach.

No words were exchanged between them, but Alfie did flash Tommy a grin as he sat back down and sipped at his drink, startling a chuckle out of Tommy.

 

On Saturday at Polly’s house Tommy realized what deep shit he was in.

Ada had been in charge of trying to convince a rival company to work with them in expanding to America. She had told Tommy months ago about wanting more agency and responsibility at the company now that Karl was in primary school and she could work more. When the opportunity presented itself, Tommy knew that Ada was perfect for the job. She was charming and bossy and exactly the CEO’s type. But she still needed Tommy’s help with some things she wasn’t quite experienced enough with.

She had been able to plan a crucial meeting with the CEO the next day and was hoping Tommy could go with her, even if just for moral support.

“If I fuck something up tomorrow, it will ruin the whole deal. I know everything I have to say, but if I have to hear him talk about his goddamn penis-shaped sports car one more time I might punch him,” Ada was telling him.

“I can’t make it, Ada. I have other things to do. I’m sure you will be fine. Just another meeting or two and you will never have to see him again,” Tommy responded, flicking ash from his cigarette into Polly’s gaudy yellow and purple clay ashtray that she had picked up from a secondhand store a few years ago. He hated the damn thing.

Ada sighed, before scrunching her facing and looking at Tommy suspiciously. “You have things to do? You never do anything on Sundays except wander around town like a weirdo. You should be jumping at the chance to control this meeting.”

Tommy tried to ignore his sister, turning to play with the toy car Charles had been holding out for him from the play mat on the ground.

“What’s going on?” Arthur came back from the kitchen, passing beers to Tommy and Ada.

Ada poked Tommy harshly and he glared back at her. “Tommy says he’s too busy to come with me tomorrow to a meeting with the Douchbag of Knightsbridge.”

“Really? He’s too busy? On a Sunday?”

Tommy rolled his eyes. Sometimes his family were assholes. All the time, really.

“So, he’s either working on his diabolical plan to take over the world or he has a new girlfriend and doesn’t want us to know about it,” Ada finished.

Arthur blinked and looked at Tommy in concern after Ada’s comment like he was worried it would make Tommy sad, or worse, angry, with Ada. And Tommy might have if Ada’s comment hadn’t been uncomfortably close to the truth and Tommy hadn’t been fighting the urge to blush bright red.

Ada, of course, noticed anyway and gasped loudly. “Oh my god, Tommy, you have a girlfriend?” Arthur’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.

“No, Ada, I don’t have a girlfriend.” Tommy rolled his eyes at her.

“Boyfriend?” Ada pushed, her grin coy enough to cause Tommy to lean forward and pinch the bridge of his nose in annoyance.

“Something is going on, Tommy. Why won’t you tell us?” Arthur observed.

Tommy leaned forward to push the blue car in his hands back and forth across the play mat next to the one in Charles’s hand, pretending to race them. And possibly stalling to answer the curious eyes of his siblings. But he also knew they wouldn’t stop pushing until he told them something or he stormed out in a giant hissy fit. Tommy didn’t quite have the energy for the latter.

“It’s not a big deal. I’ve been going to London every weekend to a coffee shop to talk to the owner,” Tommy said, hoping the others would assume it was a business deal, rather than a personal fancy.

Arthur hummed in confusion but was ready to drop it, but Ada’s eyes narrowed at him again. Luckily, Polly chose that moment to call for him from the kitchen, and Tommy seized the chance to escape Ada by asking her to watch Charles and disappearing into the kitchen.

The ordeal made Tommy hesitate before heading to the bakery the next day. The fact that he was hiding his trips to Camden Town from his family meant that the situation was no longer as innocent as it used to be.

His interactions with Alfie were important too him, more than Tommy had realized. And he could no longer deny his attraction to the man. He wasn’t sure yet about how deep his feelings went, if he wanted a fuck and a friendship or if he wanted something more. But something had changed.

Tommy rifled through the drawers and cabinets in the bedroom until he found it- along, silver chain that would lie under even his deepest cut shirts. He stared at it, wondering if he was really ready for this. He then looked down at the ring on his finger, rubbing his thumb over the smooth metal. Tommy took a deep breath before pulling the ring off and looping it onto the chain. The chain slipped over his head easily and the ring rested warmly just below his heart.

It felt like a giant weight had been lifted off of him. A part of Tommy worried that Charles would notice and ask questions, but he also knew it was time. Whether Alfie would have anything to do with it or not, Tommy was ready to start letting Grace go.

He went to the bakery.

Tommy arrived a little late that morning, partially due to his little epiphany and partially because of an accident on the M1. When he arrived, neither Ollie nor Alfie were in sight, and the lack of food on Tommy’s table concerned him slightly. He didn’t want Alfie to think Tommy had ditched him. Which was stupid, considering Tommy was a customer, not Alfie’s boyfriend meeting him for a date.

He sat anyway while he waited for someone to appear. It ended up being Ollie who emerged from the kitchen, immediately rolling his eyes and turning on the spot to duck his head in and yell something. Tommy didn’t hear what was said, but it confirmed that Alfie was in the kitchen as usual.

Watching Ollie maneuvering behind the counter and start working, Tommy wanted to ask if things were okay. He didn’t think that he was much later than usual, but Tommy guessed there must have been food set out for him as usual and taken away when he didn’t show on time or there was something wrong. But Ollie didn’t say anything to him, so Tommy didn’t ask.

Two customers came through with to go orders, and another who ordered three slices of a decadent-looking triple chocolate cake and proceeded to sit down and eat the whole thing themselves.

Finally, just as Tommy’s stomach started to protest the lack of breakfast and he was thinking about getting up to order something himself, Alfie emerged from the kitchen. The man seemed to be glowing, freshly scrubbed (having most likely covered himself in flour again) with a soft smile on his face that Tommy had never seen before.

“Tommy! Good to see you! Sorry to keep you waiting, the bread wasn’t quite done.”

“That’s alright,” Tommy responded unconcerned, though unfinished work had never stopped Alfie from making sure Tommy was fed before. “I know busy you can get.”

Alfie winked slyly. “Come. Let us break bread together. He motioned towards the back, like he was inviting Tommy. When Alfie didn’t move, Tommy realized that was exactly what the man was doing and stood rather awkwardly. He wasn’t sure if he was being invited to the kitchen or to the flat upstairs Tommy now knew Alfie lived in by himself.

Tommy followed Alfie, not sure if he felt disappointed or relieved when they walked into the kitchen instead of upstairs. The kitchen was enormous, much bigger than Tommy would have thought could fit into the building. There were rows and rows of ovens, sterling silver counters, and giant shelves to fit the bins of flour and sugar. There were even a couple of wood-burning ovens in the very back which interested Tommy.

“This is amazing,” Tommy complimented Alfie sincerely, knowing the man must have worked hard for it.
Alfie flashed him a smile over his shoulder. “It is, isn’t it.”

He led Tommy to a corner of the kitchen where two stools had been pulled up to the counter and a loaf of braided bread, a kettle of tea, a bowl of fruit, a jar of honey, and plates and mugs for two were set between them.

It seemed quite intimate. The large kitchen, according to Alfie, usually had four or five people working on weekday mornings when the shop was busier, seemed even bigger with just the two of them. Tommy wondered how Alfie could work in the room alone so often without getting a little lonely. He distantly wondered if he should ask Alfie about coming back to the kitchen more to keep him company while he baked on the weekends.

At Alfie’s prompting, Tommy sat on one of the stools. There wasn’t much space between them, and when Alfie sat down, their knees brushed together.

“I had a feeling this morning that I should make this,” Alfie told him as he grabbed the knife sitting by the twisted loaf of bread and started to slice it neatly. “My mom used to make us sweet challah during the festive season. She said it brought joy and happiness.”

Tommy’s heart leapt into his throat when he realized what was happening. He knew what this meant. Alfie had called him ‘goy’ a few times when they were talking, and Tommy had never taken offense to it. He knew how strongly Alfie felt about his religion and that Tommy couldn’t be a part of it. Tommy understood that. But now Alfie was literally sharing a piece of himself with Tommy.

“Thank you,” Tommy said when Alfie placed a slice gently on the plate in front of him.

“Now, you gotta completely cover it with honey. That’s the only way to eat it. And the only time your parents don’t bitch about you eating so much sugar.”

Alfie grabbed the honey stick from the jar and smothered his own slice in honey. Watching made Tommy’s teeth ache. He waited his turn to drizzle a more reasonable amount of honey on the bread. Tommy took a bite slowly, trying to convey to Alfie that he understood and appreciated the weight of the moment.

It was delicious. They feasted together on the sweet bread and the fruit, comfortable enough with each other to let the silence drag and enjoy the food and the company.

Several times, Tommy was forced to watch Alfie lick honey that dripped down his wrist or swirl his finger through the honey that pooled on his bread and slide his finger between his plump lips to suck off. The place where their knees touched felt like an electric current running between them, lighting Tommy up. He thought about moving away but decided not to. It felt nice.

When they finished eating, and Alfie didn’t seem in any hurry to go anywhere else, Tommy asked about the man’s week. Alfie launched into a rant about a restaurant owner who had come to Alfie asking for a daily delivery of bread for his hip, new, organic sandwich shop which resulted in a blowout argument between the two men. The man insisted on knowing every ingredient in the bread he wanted and exactly where it came from. Alfie said the pretentious prick didn’t know what organic meant. Somehow, the argument ended with the man ordering ten dozen loaves to be delivered five days a week for the next month. This bizarre conclusion caused Tommy to burst out laughing, admiring Alfie’s persuasive skills.

They laughed together. Alfie moved his hand to rest on Tommy’s lower thigh, the pressure where their knees touched increasing from the movement. Alfie looked at him, giving Tommy the opportunity to push him away. Tommy didn’t.

The atmosphere had suddenly changed. Tommy could focus on nothing but Alfie and the warmth of the man’s large hand on his leg. He wasn’t surprised at all when Alfie leaned forward, eyes on Tommy’s lips, glancing up to silently ask for permission. Tommy gave it to him without hesitation. He moved his hand to rest on top of Alfie’s, lightly tangling their fingers together.

Alfie’s lips were just as soft as they looked. Tommy almost sighed into the kiss but caught himself at the last second, swallowing the sound and leaning as far forward as he could without falling off of the stool. The hand not gripping Tommy’s thigh moved up to the back of Tommy’s neck, Alfie’s fingers tangling in the short hair they found. Alfie pulled lightly on his hair, and this time Tommy couldn’t hold back the tiny moan the action forced from him.

Before things could progress farther, Tommy pulled away from the kiss. He couldn’t help feeling a little smug when, for a moment, Alfie tried to chase his lips. Alfie’s eyes opened, now glazed over and slightly blown. Tommy couldn’t remember the last time he had had an effect like that on someone. It felt good.

But Tommy wasn’t ready for anything else. Not yet. He didn’t want to lead Alfie on and risk one of them getting hurt, or worse, pissing the man off.

It seemed Tommy didn’t need to explain. As he was searching for the right words, Alfie’s eyes darted down to the new chain hanging from Tommy’s neck. He nodded slightly, as if deciding something, and moved forward for one more kiss, just barely pressing his own lips to Tommy’s. Then he smiled and stood to start clearing away their dirty dishes.

When he returned home, Tommy spent the entire night wondering how much of Tommy’s situation Alfie had been able to figure out. The last kiss had felt like a promise for more to come, a promise to wait until Tommy was ready. At the very least, Alfie seemed to be putting in much more work than a one-night stand was worth. Alfie must know something. Maybe he was magic.

…INTERLUDE…

Ada had been watching the signs for months now. It started with little things. Tommy smiled more now, even laughing sometimes when he was in a particularly good mood. He played with Charles more, which made the toddler happy. The wall that Tommy had built around himself when his wife died was finally starting to fall.

The whole family noticed when the ring came off. They all had a good mind not to say anything to Tommy’s face, but after he left Ada and Polly burst into giggles and joined Arthur and John in speculating on what was going on.

Ada knew, and Polly agreed, that it had something to do with the coffee shop owner Tommy had mentioned. Ada hadn’t seen Tommy look so embarrassed and happy since he told the family that he proposed to Grace.

Naturally, Ada decided she had to go to the coffee shop.

There were about a million coffee shops in London, but Ada was able to narrow it down to Camden Town with the help of Polly, who managed to pull the location out of Tommy under the guise of being concerned about him driving so far every week (but honestly, Tommy wouldn’t make a two hour drive to Camden Town and a two hour drive back every week for nothing).

After a few failed attempts, Ada was able to find the shop. She was surprised to find that it was also a bakery. Tommy never really had a sweet tooth, and he usually preferred tea to coffee. She chuckled to herself, figuring the service must be amazing.

She opened the door to find a quaint little shop, small, but bigger than most of the shops Ada frequented on her way to work or dropping Karl off at school. It smelled fantastic. It was also pretty empty for a Sunday morning, but Ada guessed it was still pretty early. She had to make sure she would get there before Tommy.

“Hello.” Ada was greeted by a thin man with curly hair scooping grounds into one of the big machines behind the counter. She scrutinized him for a moment. He could have been Alfie’s type. He wasn’t that different than Ada’s old roommate James, and it only took a few conversations for Tommy to get in his pants.

But something told Ada that this wasn’t him.

“Is the owner here? I was hoping to speak with him,” Ada asked the man, using her business polite voice and plastering on a cute smile.

“Does he know you?”

“My name is Ada. Tell him I’m Tommy’s sister.”

The man’s eyes widened slightly, just enough that Ada was able to pick up on it. She had been trained well. She was a Shelby after all, no matter how long it had taken her to accept that.

“Yeah, I’ll go see if he’s busy,” the man said, abandoning the coffee machine. Interesting reaction.

It took a few moments, but eventually a much larger man emerged from behind one of the doors in the back. He walked right up to Ada, ignoring the two customers in the corner staring at them curiously.

“Ada Shelby, I presume?” the man said.

Ada looked him up and down. She could certainly see the appeal. Thick arm muscles, thick lips, thick, masculine beard. “The very same. And you must be the infamous coffee shop owner. I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”

The man smiled. “Alfie Solomons. I was told you wanted to speak to me?” Ada realized that he was measuring her the same way she was him. Something about him reminded her of Tommy.

Bluntness would probably be the best approach. Alfie would probably be just as bored as Ada with anything else. “Something is going on with Tommy. Something good I think. I wanted to find out what it was.

That seemed to pique the man’s interest. The corner of his lips quirked up. “Something good, eh?” He motioned to a table for them to sit while they talked. Ada nodded in thanks and made herself comfortable before zeroing in on the man again.

“He’s been smiling more since he started coming here. He kinda stopped doing that after Grace died. It’s really good to see him happy.”

Alfie’s polite smile faltered for a moment, Tommy hadn’t told him about Grace. But he nodded like he had suspected something.

“You better not fuck it up. I grew up with four brothers. I know several ways of making a man cry. And if you hurt Tommy, I promise you will regret it.”

The fact that Alfie’s smile wasn’t of condescension but of admiration was quite telling of Alfie’s character and how perfect he was for Tommy. Ada felt a little better now. But she still wanted to know more about the man, and to get as much dirt on Tommy as possible.

But the sound of the shop door opening followed by silence prevented it all. Ada watched Alfie’s eyes flicker up to the door and furrow in confusion.

“What the fuck, Ada?”

Ada turned around slowly and flashed her brother a toothy smile. “Hey, bro.”

Tommy looked pissed, which was to be expected. But the slight flicker of betrayal Ada wasn’t expecting. She felt a little bad for coming now. Despite it all, she knew she wanted the best for her brother and just wanted to help him. To make sure he didn’t fuck this up.

Ada turned back to Alfie. “Well, I guess that’s my cue to leave.” She stood and brushed off her coat. “Shame, I really wanted to try the Sugar Daddy Latte.”

“Next time, then,” Alfie said, biting back a laugh.

She went to brush past Tommy to the door, but his hand shot out like a snake and latched around her wrist.

“I swear to God, Ada, if you-“

Ada pushed his hand off gently and leaned forward to touch his shoulder soothingly. She looked in his eyes so he knew she was being serious. “I won’t tell the others. I just needed to make sure you were okay.” She squeezed his shoulder, rubbing slightly, the way she used to when they were kids. “He’s alright, though. I think he’s a keeper.”

Tommy pushed her off, his cheeks flaming red. “Fuck off, Ada.” But the heat in his words was gone.

She opened the door and turned back with a smile. “It was nice to meet you, Alfie. You kids have fun now. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” The last thing she saw was Tommy burying his face in his hands and Alfie with a giant smirk on his face.

 

When Tommy married Grace, they had made a deal. Tommy wouldn’t have to interact with Grace’s family except when absolutely necessary, if Grace never had to know what Tommy was doing at work. Grace hated much of what Tommy and his family were doing when they started dating, though Tommy was still continuing to push for legitimate business dealings for the Shelby Corporation, and Tommy hated Grace’s family. Or more accurately, Grace’s family hated him. Her father was a decorated and respected military man, her mother an ex-debutante from London high-society. Basically, the opposite of what Tommy was born into.

That was why the last time Tommy saw Grace’s family was at her funeral. They had written to him once to request certain items that belonged to Grace, stating that they were willing to take legal action to receive the items, but Tommy had sent them out to Grace’s family without question. They were relics of her past life with them, not of her life with Tommy, so he didn’t mind parting with them.

So, no one could fault Tommy for freezing up when he recognized Grace’s brother sitting across the room as he walked into his Wednesday morning meeting. Though part of him was fighting off the urge to be sick through the entire meeting, Tommy was able to put on his stoic façade and handle the meeting with as much tact as he could manage. Grace’s brother didn’t help matters, not bothering to hide his sneers towards Tommy, and not being subtle with his negative comments about Tommy’s intelligence and ability to run his company to his boss- the man Tommy had been hoping to sell market shares to.

Nothing from the meeting had been salvageable. Grace’s brother was obviously his boss’s right-hand man, and Tommy had admitted defeat and ended the meeting as soon as possible.

It wasn’t until Ada came into his office three hours later that Tommy realized he had done nothing but pour a glass of whiskey and stare at the amber liquid. His sister looked at him in concern, most likely having heard about the failed meeting already, and came around to sit on the desk in front of Tommy.

“You should leave early,” she told him, reaching for his untouched glass and taking a sip. When Tommy ignored her, she continued. “Why do you even let it get to you? Who gives a shit what they think?”

Tommy knew exactly why it bothered him so much, but he could never admit it to Ada. It wasn’t the reminder of Grace, or the problems they had, or the hatred her family had for him. It was the fact that people like her family controlled the world and would make sure no matter how hard Tommy tried to claw his way up the ladder and build a better life for himself and his family, he would never have the kind of power or respect that they had. It was a reminder that everything he had dedicated his life to was for nothing.

“Go,” Ada insisted again, this time nudging Tommy’s shoulder. “I’ll pick up Charles from the nanny and watch him tonight. You just get out and clear your head.”

“Where would I even go, Ada?” Tommy said, sitting up straight to try to shake himself out of his stupor.

She rolled her eyes. “You know exactly where to go.”

And suddenly Tommy wanted nothing more than to be out of that damn office, away from everyone else. He looked at Ada but ignored her knowing smirk as he silently stood and grabbed his coat.

“It’s raining. You might take an umbrella,” Ada said, looking out the window, but Tommy was already out of the door.

It wasn’t just raining, it was pouring. Tommy was used to driving in the rain, so he wasn’t bothered until he arrived in Camden Town and realized his mistake. The street he usually parked at near Alfie’s bakery was full of cars. All the roads were packed, and Tommy cursed himself for forgetting how much busier the area would be on a late Wednesday afternoon than an early Sunday morning. Tommy circled around for ages, finally taking an open spot about ten blocks from the bakery.

His cap and hoodless coat did little to shield Tommy from the bucketing rain. Within minutes he was soaked through. Tommy spared no thought towards how expensive his now ruined Italian shoes had been, only to getting to the bakery as quickly as possible.

The rain was so thick that Tommy almost missed the entrance. He gripped the metal handle of the door and threw himself inside the shop, resisting the urge to shake himself like a dog.

Looking up, Tommy saw the tables littered with patrons, some damp but none soaked like Tommy, keeping out of the rain with hot coffees and warm biscuits. Behind the counter, a woman Tommy didn’t know looked at him in concern. He went to take a step towards her before realizing he would track water into the shop and stopped.

“Any chance Alfie is in the back?” Tommy asked the woman, taking off his cap and pushing his wet hair back.

“Yeah, I’ll go grab him real quick.”

The other people ignored Tommy as he stood at the entrance, watching as his coat dripped water into an ever-growing puddle at his feet.

“Well, look what the storm blew in.”

Alfie’s voice warmed Tommy instantly. He looked up to see Alfie beckoning Tommy back, and the woman waiting at the ready with a large mop to clean up Tommy’s mess. Tommy followed Alfie, trying not to feel bad for the woman.

Tommy tried to ignore the shock when Alfie led him to the stairs instead of the kitchen, moving back the cordon and motioning for Tommy to climb up first. Tommy wondered if Alfie was staring at his ass as he followed up the stairs behind him.

There was a small landing before the door, and Tommy respectfully took a step back, so Alfie could unlock the door and invite him inside. The door opened to a little kitchen, an organized mess of cooking utensils, cook books, and leftover baked goods. A low entryway led on into a larger room, seeming to double as a living room and a bedroom. Tommy could see a plump-looking loveseat with a matching table covered in paperback novels sitting in front of a modest TV sitting on a small stand with a collection of movies protected by a pane of glass. On the other side of the room was a large bed, probably the biggest thing in the apartment, the sheets in a tangled mess.

It wasn’t an apartment Tommy would choose to live in himself, but he found himself liking it instantly. It felt warm, lived in, and smelled just like Alfie. Tommy stood by the door as Alfie walked into the other room. The man bent to rustle through stacks of clothes in a short dresser, pulling out a few things before coming back to Tommy.

“There’s a bathroom around the corner there,” Alfie said, pointing towards a corner of the room Tommy couldn’t see from his position. “That’s probably going to be big on you, but warmer than what you have on.”

“Thank you.” Tommy looked into Alfie’s eyes as he accepted the clothes. Alfie’s eyes were just as warm as his apartment. Tommy felt safe there.

Walking quickly to avoid splashing around too much, Tommy ducked into the bathroom to change. The cut off sweats were baggy but stayed around Tommy’s narrow hips when he tied them tightly enough. The t-shirt was soft and warm, but much to large for Tommy. He felt slightly ridiculous wearing the clothes, but definitely more comfortable. He carefully draped his wet clothes over the shower rod, finding some towels in the cabinet to set on the floor to avoid any more puddles. Tommy wondered if these were clothes Alfie slept in.

Tommy opened the bathroom door and was immediately met with Alfie’s laughter. What started as snickers erupted into loud guffaws when Alfie looked at the frown on Tommy’s face.

“Fuck you, they’re your clothes,” Tommy said, whacking Alfie’s shoulder as he brushed by him to sit on the loveseat. His eyes traced over the titles on the paperbacks resting on the table in front of him while he tried his best to tune out Alfie’s chortles. “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.”

“You look great, mate. Honestly,” Alfie said, still wheezing slightly. “Just wasn’t expecting you to look…”

“Yes?”

“Like a drowned cat.”

Tommy flipped the man off, a gesture he couldn’t remember using since he was a teenager. It set off Alfie’s giggles again, but Tommy couldn’t help but laugh with him.

Finally, Alfie moved to sit next to Tommy on the loveseat. There was no way to sit together without touching, but Alfie strategically sat so their knees and elbows barely touched. He was still smiling but he gave Tommy a look, clearly asking if it was okay that he sat with him. Instead of pushing him away, Tommy relaxed further, pushing their legs together and lifting his arm to rest across the back of the couch and brush against Alfie’s shoulders. Tommy was rewarded with a smile from the man, the kind that tugged at the corner of Alfie’s lips and made him look irresistibly sexy.

“So, do you have to get back to work?” Tommy asked.

“No, they can survive without me for one night.”

Tommy nodded. “I guess that means you’re all mine.”

He didn’t miss the heat that flashed across Alfie’s eyes at his words. But then Alfie moved back slightly. “Can I ask why you’re here? Rachel said you looked like a lost dog when you wandered inside.”

Tommy shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I was upset because of what someone thought of me and my family and my business. But those people don’t matter. They don’t define me.”

“Seems like you started feeling better fast,” Alfie said apprehensively.

Tommy shrugged, knowing that whether he should or not, he really did feel better just being here. “I realized I shouldn’t care that you think I look awful in your clothes, so I shouldn’t care what some nobody thinks of me.”

Tommy’s eyes widened when Alfie shot forward, eyes heated once again and looking Tommy up and down like he wanted to devour him. “I never said you looked awful, mate. Quite the opposite in fact.”

“I don’t want to think about him anymore. He’s nothing,” Tommy whispered as he grabbed Alfie’s hands and pushed them down to his own hips. He relished the slide of Alfie’s rough hands on him, the man’s thumbs dipping under his shirt to find skin, before reaching to grip Alfie’s biceps.

“I’m sure we can find something to do to distract you,” Alfie murmured, already leaning in, but giving Tommy time to pull away.

Tommy knew that he wanted this. He wanted Alfie. He had wanted the man for a long time, but now he didn’t want to wait another second. He captured Alfie’s lips with his own, swallowing the noise the Alfie made. Tommy’s hands moved down the man’s chest, grasping at clothes but not sure how to find the skin underneath them.

Alfie clearly didn’t want to wait either. He pulled away from Tommy’s lips just long enough to unbutton his vest and tear off his undershirt, Tommy remembering just in time to tear off his own, before they crashed together again, moaning at the feeling of hot skin on skin.

They eventually made it to the bed, but by then Tommy had forced himself to stop thinking, to stop analyzing everything, and to just let himself feel.

 

Tommy was woken the next morning by the sound of his phone chiming. It was still early, the windows of Alfie’s apartment still dark. Next to him Alfie opened his eyes, and Tommy took a moment to remember the previous night, his eyes running down the tattoos across Alfie’s shoulders and toned chest and the light dusting of hair that disappeared beneath the sheets. He could feel the pleasant ache in his back and shared a soft smile with them man. But his phone continued to ring, and Tommy couldn’t ignore it forever, not when it could be John calling about Esme going into labor again or Polly calling after another nightmare.

Dragging himself out of the bed, and not missing Alfie’s eyes roaming over his naked body and stepped into the bathroom. He had stacked his things carefully next to his clothes. On top of his phone was his wedding ring, still on its chain. He touched it lightly, but the guilt he expected never came. Tommy smiled and moved the ring so that he could check his phone.

Two missed calls from Ada and a text message. Tommy sighed and opened the message.

ADA: Taking the day off to take Karl and Charles to the zoo. Text me so I know you’re not dead. Hope you had fun last night ;)

Tommy left his phone in the bathroom and went back out to Alfie.

“Everything alright?” Alfie asked. He shifted to face Tommy, tugging the sheets down and revealing more of Alfie’s skin, another hidden tattoo, and the enticing ‘V’ etched into the man’s hips.

“Just wondering if I should thank Ada or kill her,” Tommy said, crawling back into bed next to Alfie.

“Thank her, definitely thank her.” Alfie moved to lie half on top of Tommy, his large hands roaming possessively over Tommy’s abdomen.

Tommy let one of his hands drape across Alfie’s back and play across the man’s spine, drifting as low as he could reach. “We should get breakfast.” They had talked about getting dinner last night but had ended up distracted again. And again. They managed to snack on some cookies at one point, but it had been awhile since either of them had had a proper meal.

“Yes, breakfast,” Alfie mused thoughtfully. “Here’s an idea.”

With that Alfie’s head disappeared under the sheets and Tommy’s mouth opened in surprise. He had a feeling he would have to wait a little bit longer before getting food with the man. Tommy decided he was okay with that.