Caitlyn honestly doesn’t know how she stumbled across Keystone Cottage.
A night of aimlessly scrolling through social media after finishing her latest big case in a string of big cases saw her tapping from feed to feed, from one to one article then the next. Eventually, she came across a piece about a beloved Bed and Breakfast in the Holdrum area on the brink of closing down.
Despite having been in the same family since 1934, the picturesque Keystone Cottage was soon to be without an owner, with no one in the local village to take over. The current owners had spent forty years running the B&B, and were moving across the country after the promise of grandchildren.
Caitlyn scrolled through the pictures. It was all she expected of a village B&B: an old, loved building with low doorways, patterned wallpaper and exposed beams, with guestrooms that looked like part of a family home. It was the view from the B&B that caused her to sit straighter on the sofa and actually soak in what she was seeing.
The morning sun hung low between the surrounding hills. There was a forest in the distance, trees indistinguishable in the long shadows of dawn, and not far off, a lake shone like a mirror. Caitlyn glanced out her apartment window to see yet another apartment block, windows reflecting her own building back at her.
She’d driven down to Holdrum in a blur of a weekend. She’d met with the owners, explored the property, and took photos of her own, scrutinising the structure as best she knew how. She’d left a deposit that day, along with a list of small repairs and renovations to be passed on to one of the village tradespeople.
Back in Piltover, she’d had a contact in real estate survey the place, checking everything was in order. She’d sat at her desk, fifty storeys up, drumming her fingers as she read over the finalised contract. She’d signed it with a shaking hand and authorised the payment to go out.
She’d paid cash. Her stomach clenched when she looked at her hollowed-out bank account, and it wasn’t until that moment she was brave enough to hand in her notice.
And so there she is, standing on a chair in the middle of the foyer, replacing a spluttering lightbulb. The chair isn’t the steadiest. All the furniture in Keystone Cottage looks as though it came from an antique store, but Caitlyn moves slowly, carefully, twisting the new bulb into place, and—
“Whoa, Cupcake, there’s a step-ladder out back for that kinda thing,” comes a voice from behind her.
Caitlyn starts, dropping the old bulb. It hits the carpet and rolls harmlessly across the floor, but the chair shakes, her arms flail, and there’s a stranger gripping the backrest of the chair, stopping her from falling.
Caitlyn plants a hand on the woman’s shoulder, scrambling for balance.
“What are you doing here?” is all she manages to get out.
The woman grins up at her, easy, and Caitlyn pulls her hand back like it’s burning. Her scowl does nothing to deter the amusement across the woman’s face, nor does it stop her eyes being quite so strikingly grey. It’s an absurd thing to notice, especially since said woman has a mane of pink hair.
“Door was unlocked,” the woman shrugs.
She’s still holding the back of the chair. Her other hand is held out, balancing a white box on an open palm.
“And do you always let yourself into random unlocked buildings?”
Caitlyn knows how ridiculous she sounds, but her heart’s racing. She hasn’t slept in close to three days.
“My bad. Mr and Mrs B used to let me wander in and out,” the woman says, humming. “Or maybe not my bad? You do know this is a B&B, right, Cupcake? You’re gonna have to get used to people appearing out of nowhere.”
Caitlyn knows she’s scowling. She knows she’s making a terrible first impression, and she knows she can’t treat this interaction like she would in the city. Chances are she’s going to be seeing this woman regularly for the foreseeable future, even if it’s only in passing in the village square.
“I apologise. You startled me, is all,” Caitlyn says, attempting a recovery.
“Hey, no. You’re good. Shouldn’t have snuck up on you while you were up there, fiddling with glass and electricity.”
The woman lets go of the chair, and when it doesn’t tremble, steps back to slide the white box onto the reception counter. She holds out a hand, which Caitlyn gratefully takes, offering up solid support as she hops to the ground.
“Whoa. Look at that. Chair or no chair, I’m still looking up at you,” the woman says, grinning.
“Yes, well,” Caitlyn says, reclaiming her hand. She tugs the hem of her shirt, pulling it back into place. “Thank you for your help in—well, in solving the problem you caused.”
The woman still hasn’t stepped back. Now she’s no longer at risk of breaking her neck, Caitlyn allows herself a better look at her. Her ripped, light blue jeans are covered in no small amount of flour, and the loose, plain t-shirt she wears shows off more tattoos along muscled arms than Caitlyn thought to look for in such a small, quiet village.
“I’m old enough to clean up my own messes,” the woman says.
After a beat, Caitlyn recalls her manners and says, “Caitlyn Kiramman. I’ve just moved in. And you’re—?”
“Vi. Vi Hund,” the woman says, taking her hand again to shake it. “And don’t worry, Cupcake. Everyone knows all about you. It’s all the village is talking about: what is a hotshot lawyer from the big city doing in a place like this? It’s refreshing, honestly. Now there’s someone new around, the gossip isn’t all about me.”
Caitlyn was warned that news travelled fast in small communities. Perhaps it’ll be good for business.
“Did you move recently as well?”
“Oh, sure. What’s it been—thirteen, fourteen years now? Seriously, you’re the most exciting thing to happen around here in long time.”
“Well. Perhaps that will bring some tourism back to the area,” Caitlyn says. “Was there something you needed from me?”
Caitlyn can’t imagine what it could be, but Vi clearly isn’t there to take a room for the night. Vi claps her hands, grabs the box, and holds it out to Caitlyn.
“Don’t know how much of the village you’ve explored, but the bakery down in the square? That’s mine. Thought I’d bring you some welcome gifts. Well, welcome bribes. Mrs B used to get all her baked goods from me,” Vi says, opening the box. “So I brought a selection.”
Caitlyn peers in. There are two crusty white rolls, some thick, sliced bread, three cupcakes, a cookie the size of her face, and a generous slab of brownie.
“That’s quite the bribe,” Caitlyn says, fighting off a smile.
“Still warm, too,” Vi says, hands on her hips. “I can drop off whatever you need fresh every morning. I take out deliveries around seven—that’s the great thing about villages. You can leave stuff on the doorstep and no one’s gonna take it. Well. A fox, maybe, but you’ve gotta take some risks in life.”
“You’re very confident.”
“And you haven’t even tried it yet,” Vi says. She’s still grinning, and Caitlyn finds she is, too. Vi crosses the room, plucks up the forgotten lightbulb, and tosses it in the bin behind the counter. She knows the place better than Caitlyn does. “What about the repairs? Everything okay on that front?”
“Yep. Me and my brother took care of it. Everyone was worried the new owner was gonna come in, rip everything out and modernise it, but I don’t think you’ve pissed off anyone too badly. I liked the note you left. You were right! Putting down a new carpet really did bring out the patterns in the wallpaper. Nice we didn’t have to replace it all.”
Vi smooths a hand over the faded, floral wallpaper, humming to herself. She toes at the skirting board and nods in approval.
“I’m sorry. Didn’t you just say you were a baker?” Caitlyn asks, eyes trained on Vi. “You managed the repairs, too?”
“Sure. I’m out of the bakery by ten – my brothers do the customer-facing bit – and there are plenty of hours in the day to fill.”
“That’s more than impressive. You did a wonderful job with the cottage, and I haven’t thought of anything but the smell of that bread for the last three minutes,” Caitlyn says.
“I’m no hotshot lawyer,” Vi says, shrugging. “My card’s in the box, though. Lemme know if you want the usual deliveries. It’s up to you, Cupcake. You could always drive twenty-five minutes to the nearest supermarket for pre-sliced bread.”
Vi shudders as she says it. With one last glance at the skirting board, she leaves Caitlyn with a lazy salute and a box of baked goods.
Funny. A lifetime spent in Piltover, and no one ever offered her so much as a muffin—not even when they knocked hers clean out of her hand, rushing to their next big meeting.
The next few days are spent in much the same fashion. Caitlyn alternates between getting to know Keystone Cottage and unboxing her belongings, finding new homes for them, and entertaining the endless stream of people who, as they put it, just pop in to say hello. She has no fewer than two-dozen guests in two days, each eager to welcome her to village, to express how glad they are that the B&B won’t have to close down.
Caitlyn feels like she’s met the entire village without having to step into it. She’s kept on the B&B’s one employee, a young woman named Sky who knows exactly what she’s doing, leaving Caitlyn with only management and accounts to worry about. She keeps herself busy those first few days, fussing over things like linens and breakfast menus, not giving herself time to wonder if she’s made a terrible mistake in uprooting her life and moving there.
There are thirty-five unread texts on her phone.
She’ll get to them soon. Tonight. Tomorrow morning, at the latest. Definitely by the end of the week.
When she’s done all she can in Keystone Cottage itself and the stream of visitors has trickled to nearly nothing, Caitlyn decides it’s time to brave the village. In Piltover, she was always part of the crowd, safe in utter anonymity, but she knows all eyes will be on her in the village.
Everyone will be wondering why the Piltovan lawyer has taken over a B&B, of all things, and whether this is a brief respite from some lingering crisis for her. Caitlyn will have to consider it, too.
She has one refuge in the village: the bakery.
The bread was, without a doubt, the best she’s ever tasted. That may not be saying much, considering she’s always brought the offending pre-sliced bread from supermarkets, and has no experience baking herself. Still. She can’t quite comprehend how the same, simple ingredients can yield such wildly different results.
Something about proving? The quality of the texture? She doesn’t know.
She has Vi’s card taped to the reception counter. The bakery logo is a bagel and two crossed baguettes, laid out in the style of a skull and crossbones, and beneath it in bold letters, it reads:
@VDBakery / Hexster
Contact Vi at 07666-###-516 for catering / deliveries
Remembering Vi’s words about finishing up at the bakery by ten, Caitlyn walks down into the village at a few minutes past nine. It’s an easy, ten-minute walk down a winding dirt path and onto honest-to-god cobbled streets, and Caitlyn marvels at how much of a village it feels like. It’s absurd, but having lived her entire life in the capital, she’d half convinced herself places like this didn’t exist.
It feels displaced from time. Caitlyn finds herself pausing to take everything in, from old brick buildings to swathes of wildflowers growing anywhere they can find a speck of soil, moving at far from her usual, brisk, city pace.
The bakery is at the heart of the village. A row of narrow shops with window fronts wrap around a fountain at the centre. There’s a butchers, a post-office-slash-newsagents, a grocers with baskets of fresh produce out front, a phone and computer repair shop, a pharmacist, café, and of course, the bakery itself.
The faded sign above simply reads VILLAGE BAKERY.
Caitlyn steps inside, endeared by the bell chiming above the door.
It isn’t so plain within: the walls are decorated in neon spray paint, illustrating more in the way of animal faces than baked goods.
The young man behind the counter, comprised of mostly eyebrows, squints a little at Caitlyn.
“Hey. What can I get ya?” he asks.
Caitlyn glances at the baked goods on offer. She hadn’t intended to pick up anything for herself, but supposes it would be rude not to make a purchase while she’s there. After a moment spent humming, Caitlyn points to a slab of marble cake, and the man grabs a paper bag.
“Nice weather today, huh?” the man says with all the interest of someone who hasn’t yet looked out the window. “That’s one-twenty-five.”
“Thank you,” Caitlyn says, sliding the surprisingly small amount of money over. “Is Vi here? I wanted to speak with her.”
Caitlyn swears the man rolls his eyes. He holds up a finger and takes a few wide strides back. Opening the door behind him, he takes a deep breath and yells at the top of his voice.
“Vi! You’ve got a visitor!”
Caitlyn doesn’t catch the muffled response, but the man shrugs and slides back onto his stool behind the counter. He taps at his phone and Caitlyn holds the paper bag with both hands, distracting herself with the colourful artwork all around.
Less than a minute later, the door swings open. Vi near-enough barrels out, apron-clad, flour across the bridge of her nose. She thwacks an open hand against the back of the man’s head, catches Caitlyn’s eye, and grins.
“Cupcake!” she says, ducking beneath the counter. “Knew you wouldn’t be able to keep away.”
Caitlyn’s nose crinkles in irritation belied by a smile.
“Would you stop that? You know my name,” Caitlyn says. “Unless you’ve already forgotten it.”
“Me? Never. But I’m a baker, Cupcake. Let me have my thing. It’s what I do,” Vi says.
Caitlyn may have spent less than an hour around Vi, but she was a successful lawyer for a reason. She knows a lie when she hears one.
“Really? Then you bestow nicknames of the sort upon everyone?” Caitlyn asks.
“Then who is the young man behind the counter?”
Said young man only looks up to scowl.
“That’s my brother,” Vi says, stalling. “Cinnamon Swirl.”
The brother snorts. Caitlyn can’t help but smile.
“The brother who helped you work on the cottage?”
“Nah. That’s Claggor—uh, Rocky Road. He’s the good, helpful brother. Mylo here wouldn’t pick up a handsaw if his life depended on it,” Vi says.
“I’m a salesman,” Mylo – not Cinnamon Swirl – says, face buried in his phone. “I know what I’m good at.”
“I suppose I did buy a cake I had no intention of purchasing when I came in,” Caitlyn says, lifting the paper bag.
“Oh? Really did come to take me up on my offer, huh?”
Caitlyn nods. Vi unties her apron, hangs it on a peg behind the counter, and ineffectively brushes flour from her hair. She grabs a ledger from a back room and opens it out on the counter. For all her easy airs, everything is meticulously recorded.
A few customers come and go as Vi explains how the deliveries work, how they take payment on the first day of every month, and how there might be the occasional substitution or two, depending on what ingredients they have to hand. Vi’s sometimes overtaken with the urge to throw a new recipe together, and Caitlyn nods as she talks, ignoring the way the customers’ eyes linger on her.
Caitlyn decides to start out with the order the previous owners of Keystone Cottage had, and Vi agrees to tweak it, should there be any problems. They shake on the deal, and in a voice that spells the start of so much trouble, Vi promises Caitlyn that she’s going to kill it in the B&B industry.
The first few weeks fly by. Caitlyn has her belongings unpacked by the ten-day mark, and with Sky’s invaluable help, she welcomes the first guests to Keystone Cottage, and ends with a heart-felt message of thanks in the guest book. Caitlyn remembers that she is good with people, so long as she can keep up an air of friendly professionalism and work from a script.
She even makes the time to reply to the increasingly worried texts and emails from her friends.
No, they personally haven’t done anything wrong; yes, she was in her right state of mind when she resigned from the law firm; no, she doesn’t want to come back to Piltover; yes, she really did buy a Bed & Breakfast; no, this isn’t a midlife crisis.
She needed a change of scenery. Why does there have to be anything more to it?
Despite the pressures of adjusting to brand new surroundings and running a business she has absolutely zero prior experience in, Caitlyn’s finding more time for herself than she has in years. Something’s slowly uncoiling inside her, and by the end of the third week, she finds herself throwing open the windows and taking in deep lungfuls of the crisp spring air.
Like flour and water, the simplest things in life are starting to shape themselves into something new, something more.
She’s always been one for early mornings. Her body is hard-wired for the six am commute on the underground, but without a migraine every night, she’s more rested than ever. She starts her mornings slowly, not having to work her daily plans into a minute-by-minute schedule, and finds herself running again.
It’s been years since she had time for actual running. She’d grown accustomed to sterile, airconditioned gyms, to the whirr of a running machine beneath her, but it takes her all of half a mile to fall in love with the outdoors again. She takes the trail through the hills she stared longingly at through a photograph, running in the cool shadows of the endless oak trees surrounding the village, earbuds in.
After a slow, steep five miles, Caitlyn turns back to the cottage. The day’s only getting warmer, and sweat beads down the back of her neck. She rounds a hedgerow, onto the dirt path home, and almost runs straight into a bicycle.
The bike brakes hard, skidding across the dry dirt. The trailer veers behind it, and Vi’s thrown forward against the handlebars.
Caitlyn freezes, arms held out in panic. Vi doesn’t move for a beat, then lets out a long, heavy breath, slowly subsiding into laughter.
“Shit, Cupcake. I could’ve taken you out,” Vi says, shifting back onto the saddle, one foot on the ground. “I really don’t want to be sued.”
It takes Caitlyn a useless moment to reply. Half out of shock, and half down to the frankly unconscionable gym short/tank-top combination Vi’s wearing. More of her solid, blocky tattoos are on display across her arms, disappearing into the tank-top around her shoulder blades, creeping up the back of her neck.
“Don’t be absurd. I’m the one who almost ran you off the road. Are you alright, Vi?”
“Pssh,” Vi says, rolling her right shoulder back. “I got half my scars from falling off this bike.”
“And the other half?” Caitlyn asks.
Vi raises her brow. There’s something dangerously easy about taking to Vi, something jarringly natural, but Caitlyn puts it down to Vi being the first person she really met in the village.
“That’s a second-date kind of story,” Vi says.
“I see,” Caitlyn says, praying for a quick response and coming up empty. “And do you make all your deliveries by bicycle?”
“Watch it, City Girl,” Vi says. “It’s the best way to make sure my legs get the attention they deserve.”
“No skipping leg day for you, it appears.”
“Exactly. Guess you don’t have that problem, though,” Vi says, gesturing to her.
Caitlyn’s sure she’s pointing to the running gear as a whole, but Vi’s gaze drops, lingering without her apparent say-so. Caitlyn shuffles her feet, self-conscious. She’s painfully aware of how tall she is, how long her legs are, and has a brief flashback to gym class, half a lifetime ago, and the other girls’ delight at pointing out her giraffe-like proportions.
“So!” Vi says, eyes snapping back up. She squeezes her brakes, shifting her weight to the other foot. “Haven’t seen you down at The Last Drop yet. People are gonna talk even more than they already are if you don’t start mixing, Cupcake.”
The sour memory fades from the pit of her gut. A small smile plays at the corner of her mouth at the thought of Vi looking out for her at the local pub, hoping to see her, but—no, no. That’s just how village life is. People have the time to be friendly.
“You’re a regular patron, I take it.”
“Something like that. I’m there most evenings, anyway,” Vi says, nodding to herself. “They do a killer Sunday roast, too. So. If you ever wanna come down and grace us with your presence…”
“Will you be there this evening?” Caitlyn asks all too abruptly.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Vi says. She has the utter gall to wink as she puts her feet back on the pedals, setting off in the opposite direction to Keystone Cottage. “I’ll have a drink with your name on it!”
Caitlyn waves. She actually waves. She doesn’t say The name better be Caitlyn, not Cupcake, or even settle for a simple I’ll look forward to it. She waves at the woman who winked at her over her shoulder, and has absolutely no choice but to stand on the dirt path, watching Vi cycle along the rough incline, stood on the pedals, muscles straining.
The day is a slow one. The village may be small, but the two-platform station connects it directly to some extravagant castle ruins, and the surrounding countryside is popular amongst hikers. It’s the first day since Caitlyn’s arrival that the B&B has been empty; the last of the guests checked out around noon, and the next few won’t arrive until tomorrow morning.
Once everything is in order, once the bedsheets have been changed, the rooms aired out, and the carpets run over with the hoover, Caitlyn lets Sky leave early for the day. She spends the afternoon manning reception, should someone turn up unexpectedly, and stares into the middle-distance, slowly convincing herself to dread what the evening holds.
As a lawyer, Caitlyn attended countless formal events week in, week out. She was ever being dragged out by her colleagues to celebrate, and though she didn’t enjoy the late nights and loud music, she was excellent at pretending to tolerate the excursions.
But again, there was anonymity to hide behind. The bartenders there rarely saw the same face twice, and the press of the crowd was easy to lose herself in. The patrons of The Last Drop will have known each other for years. They’ll have their own unspoken customs, and Caitlyn doesn’t want to make a spectacle in—what? Ordering the wrong drink? Overdressing?
And then there’s Vi. Vi who’s probably just being friendly, who’s just making conversation and trying to draw her into village life. She didn’t mean anything more by it, even if she did promise Caitlyn a drink.
That’s what happens in a pub. Caitlyn expects she’ll buy the next round, if she doesn’t end up sat around a table on her own.
She could text Vi. Her number is printed on the business card still stuck to the desk, but she has no idea what she’d say. She can hardly ask for directions; she can see The Last Drop from one of the guestroom windows.
Caitlyn pinches the bridge of her nose. It’s been so long since she enjoyed herself on a night out that she can’t find anything to look forward to in it, beyond the thought of getting to talk to Vi. Which is stupid. Absurd. They’ve only met a handful of times, but she really is so easy to talk to, and her arms—
Caitlyn shakes her head. It’s wishful thinking. Vi probably isn’t even expecting her to actually turn up.
When seven o’clock comes and no one’s turned up to enquire after any vacancies, Caitlyn runs out of excuses to stay home. She can’t spend another evening with Jayce on speaker phone, trying to convince her to come back to Piltover. She wears something she hopes won’t stand out too sorely – skinny jeans and a loose blouse – and spends a little longer than usual frowning at her reflection and trying to do something with her hair.
She locks up, leaves a note on the door with her name and number, should anyone need her, and walks into the village.
God. It’s nice to have everything in walking distance. She shakes off the creeping memory of the close, cloying air of the underground in early spring, and enjoys the evening laid out before her. She brought her car with her, drove all her boxed-up belongings the four hours from Piltover herself, but save for a few trips to the supermarket in the town over, she hasn’t had to drive anywhere.
The Last Drop is a quintessential village pub; a square building with character, as old as anything in the village, stone walls painted white. Flowers burst from boxes at every window, and ivy wraps around a wooden archway over the open door. Benches are scattered around, and the patrons drinking outside watch Caitlyn as she makes her way down the path.
She offers smiles whenever she catches anyone’s eye. They nod their heads slowly, warmly, and go back to their conversations.
The last thing she’d dare do in Piltover was catch a stranger’s eye.
Inside, the pub is as she expected it. The bar takes pride of place, there’s a menu written on a chalkboard between the bottles of spirits, and the seating consists of mismatched armchairs, worn and comfortable. There’s an unlit fireplace at one end of the room, and a bookcase filled to the brim with battered paperbacks.
The comfortable conversation of two-dozen people fill the pub. A dog sleeps at someone’s feet, and a few teenagers busy themselves with a game of pool. Caitlyn looks around, in search of a telling shock of pink hair, and finds Vi behind the bar.
Definitely not a date, then.
She heads over before Vi catches sight of her.
“Don’t tell me you work here as well,” Caitlyn says, drawing her attention from the bottle she’s putting back on the shelf. “Between the bakery, your deliveries, all the handywork you do around the village, and now this, when do you find the time to sleep?”
Vi spins around. She doesn’t answer, not straight away. A soft smile plays across her mouth, and something like pleasant surprise glints in her eyes.
“Twelve to four at night, twelve to four in the afternoon. Works for me,” Vi says. “And this is my old man’s place. I help out now and again.”
A man who isn’t old enough to be Vi’s father walks out from the back. Vi introduces him as Claggor, the good brother, and asks if he doesn’t mind taking over the bar for a minute. Claggor takes Caitlyn’s hand, telling her it’s nice to meet her, and heads to the other side of the bar to serve a man he calls Two-Shed Steve in a cheerful rumble.
“So. What will it be?” Vi asks, gesturing to the drinks behind her.
Vi takes the challenge with glee. She grabs two glasses, fills them with ice, and opens a large glass bottle.
“Local cider, from End Lane Farm, a few miles that way,” Vi says, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. “Better than anything in a can.”
She ducks under the bar, drinks in hand, and doesn’t spill a drop. She straightens up before Caitlyn, and though she’s notably shorter, this is her territory and she knows how to fill a room.
“You look—” Caitlyn hears herself blurt out. “Different.”
Vi raises a scarred eyebrow.
“Without half a sack of flour all over you, I mean,” Caitlyn says.
Vi laughs, not worrying about drawing attention to herself, and says, “I clean up alright.”
She leads them to a small table in the corner, surrounded by two high-backed armchairs. Vi slumps in her seat, enjoying a long sip of her drink, and Caitlyn tentatively tries her own. She makes an involuntary mmph noise, surprised by the taste.
Bread, cider. Maybe everything’s better out in the country.
“Well?” Caitlyn asks, setting her drink down on one of the mismatched coasters.
“Aren’t you going to interrogate me? Find out what I’m really doing here?” Caitlyn asks.
Vi licks cider from around her mouth, takes another swig, and has to do it again.
“Nah. Not my style, Cupcake,” she says, setting her glass on the table and sinking further into her seat. “I will go through all the theories people have been throwing around, and you can confirm or deny them. How’s that?”
Caitlyn can’t pretend she isn’t curious. More than once she’s stepped into a store, only for everyone’s eyes to fix on her and conversation to suddenly fall silent.
Caitlyn nods. Vi obliges.
“Uh. Let’s see. Number one: you had a messy divorce and you’re running away from the big city,” Vi says.
Laughing, Caitlyn shakes her head and says, “Nothing that dramatic, I’m afraid. I neither brought nor left behind a broken heart.”
“Okay, good to know,” Vi says, propping one foot on the seat of the chair. “You took on the wrong case and now the mob are after you.”
“And this is, what? Witness protection?”
“Shit, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just repeating what I heard. You pissed off the mob, pissed off a big corporation, pissed off your boss—take your pick.”
Caitlyn reaches for her drink, taking another sip. Vi shuffles in her seat again, ending up with one leg hooked over the armrest.
“The only people I pissed off were my clients and colleagues who didn’t want me to leave, I’m afraid. I was excellent at my job,” Caitlyn says. “And I was a defence attorney, for what it’s worth. I’m sure there have been plenty of rumours about that, too.”
“Huh. Had you pegged for corporate. That’s cool,” Vi says. “So, why’d you pack up and leave if you were so good at it? How’d you go from a big-city lawyer to running a nowhere B&B?”
“I thought you weren’t going to pry,” Caitlyn says.
Vi lifts her hands, framing an apologetic grin.
“But if you must know, being good at a job doesn’t mean you enjoy it,” Caitlyn says.
It’s only a few simple words, but speaking them eases a weight off her chest. Vi grabs her drink, lifting it in a silent toast.
Vi has plenty of local knowledge to share. She tells Caitlyn about the regular events at The Last Drop – karaoke on the second Friday of each month, and a weekly movie night – along with all her favourite hiking trails in the surrounding hills and woodland. Some of it almost sounds like an invitation.
When Vi notices their glasses are long since empty, she springs to her feet for refills. Caitlyn takes the chance to look at something that isn’t Vi, and can’t help but notice that her face aches from smiling.
There are photos plastered across the walls of The Last Drop. Some of them are old enough to have faded edges and sepia tones. Others were taken within the last year. There are photos of the village in bloom, of everyone gathered under a banner marking the end of a half-marathon, and countless pictures of the patrons in the pub.
Caitlyn finds herself searching out photos of Vi. There are plenty of her with her brothers, along with a man who has to be their father, but a blue-haired girl, a handful of years younger than Vi, features in plenty of them. She hangs off Vi, kissing her cheek in some, caught in a headlock in others.
“Ah. The wall of fame,” Vi says. “Stick around long enough and you’ll be up there.”
She slides their drinks onto the table and finds another absurd way to sit in her seat.
“I already recognise a few of the faces. That’s one of the butchers, isn’t it?” Caitlyn asks, pointing at a photo. Vi nods. She points to another, hesitates, and says, “Who’s that?”
Vi’s an expressive person, but her whole countenance changes with the question. A look of pure pride takes over, and she sits straight to make the unorthodox introduction.
“That’s Powder. My kid sister,” Vi says, absolutely beaming. “Kid sister—shit, she’s twenty-six now. She’s off in Piltover, actually, working on her PhD. She’s the genius of the family. Hell, of the village.”
“It seems like she adores you,” Caitlyn says, eyes darting between photos capturing blue and pink hair.
“Hah! No kidding. She can be a real handful, sometimes, but she’s my whole world,” Vi says, and Caitlyn wants her to keep talking about Powder forever, if her face stays lit up like that. “You’ve seen the inside of the bakery, right? That’s Powder’s work. Artist, scientist—the only thing she can’t do is bake a decent loaf.”
“You’re a talented family.”
“Eh. Me and Powder, sure. Claggor, god, you should see what he can do with tin of paint, and Mylo, well. Mylo’s good at being himself,” Vi says, nodding wisely. “What about you? Left any siblings behind in Piltover?”
“There’s Jayce. He’s the closest thing I have to a sibling. He’s certainly taken on the role of overly protective big-brother since I moved here. He’s texting and calling non-stop, wanting to ensure that I’m okay,” Caitlyn says, sighing almost fondly. “I fear my friends in Piltover have as many theories about my reasons for leaving as the village does my reason for arriving.”
“I get that. When Powder first moved out for uni, I was texting every day. Asking if she’d remembered to have lunch, if she’d done her homework—pretty sure I was unbearable. I toned it down after a few months, but there was this one time in her, uh, third year? Sounds right. This one time in her third year where she stopped replying to my texts. Radio silence. And there I was, antsy as hell, and after two days, I decide enough’s enough. Powder can’t usually shut up, so I take, like, three trains down to Piltover and rock up to her student housing. Knock on the door. One of her housemates lets me in. I head straight up the stairs, get to Powder’s room, and—”
Vi cuts her own story off to shake her head. She reaches for her drink, swallows half of it, and wipes her mouth on the back of her hand. Caitlyn abruptly realises she’s shuffled to the edge of her seat and attempts to cover it up by reaching for her drink. She holds the cool glass of cider between her palms but doesn’t bring it to her lips, not wanting to miss a second of the story.
“I swear, she’d kill me if I told this story. I knock on the door, she yelps, I think she’s telling me to come in, so I open the door.” Vi pinches the bridge of her nose and sucks a breath between her teeth. “She’s got a girl in there. This shy looking blonde thing. My baby sister has a girlfriend, and she’s been too busy with her to bother checking her phone.”
“Oh my god,” Caitlyn says, bringing a hand to her mouth to try covering a laugh. The tips of her ears burn red on behalf of Powder, and a little warmth coils in her stomach just from Vi saying girlfriend like it’s the most normal thing in the world. “I don’t know who I feel more sorry for. Did you know—?”
“Eh. I didn’t not know. We talk about everything, and she was always pretty open around me, but she never explicitly said it. Didn’t need to. Guess that runs in the family, too.”
Caitlyn drinks an impressive two-thirds of her cider in one go. Vi doesn’t break eye-contact. Caitlyn’s about to say something intelligent and supportive and subtle when Claggor calls over to Vi from the bar.
“Shit. It’s getting busy. We wanted to give dad the night off, so it’s just me and Clagg here tonight,” Vi says, reluctantly prying herself from her chair. “Don’t miss me too much, Cupcake. There’s plenty of people for you to get to know.”
Caitlyn drags herself home at well gone eleven. She intended to finish her drink, stay for a few more minutes, and excuse herself amongst the rush. It turned out that half the village wanted to come over and say hello, to tell her how wonderful it was that the B&B wouldn’t have to close, and when Mylo made his appearance, Caitlyn quickly learnt that he played a decent game of darts.
Caitlyn barely manages to wash her face before falling into bed. She curls up, staring at her phone with eyes that are more bleary from sleep than alcohol, and finds herself opening Hexster for the first time in weeks. She ignores the DMs she’s already answered through text and calls and hits the search button.
@VDBakery is the first result three letters in. Caitlyn clicks on the page and skims over the profile – VIOLET DELIGHTS. Vi Hund & Bros. Delivering within a five-mile radius, available for catering in the greater Holdrum area. DM for more info – and goes straight for the photos.
As expected, a solid two-thirds of them are of various baked goods. Caitlyn looks at them all, scrolling through the short, witty captions Vi leaves beneath the pictures. @GETJ1NXD appears to be a regular commenter and a steadfast fan of emoji.
Ten photos in, Caitlyn finds herself staring at her phone until the screen goes dim. She taps the screen, praying she doesn’t accidentally like a photo from three weeks ago, and props herself on one arm to properly appreciate it.
Vi’s wearing her trademark apron and has a sack of flour slung over her shoulder. It’s a huge bag, easily a hundred and fifty pounds, but Vi holds out her other arm, flexing. She’s grinning at the camera, and the post is simply captioned DELIVERY DAY! LET’S GO!
Caitlyn screenshots the post.
She opens the three unread texts from Jayce – want to video chat tonight – seriously, cait, what are you getting out of this? – hello? is everything okay – and sends the screenshot to Jayce. The blinking ellipses pop up immediately, but Jayce’s only reply is an eloquent huh? wrong person
Rolling her eyes, Caitlyn switches to her messages with Mel. Mel’s latest message reads I don’t want to harp on, darling, but we really are all here for you, no matter what decision you come to. Stay or return home; know we support you and won’t judge you. We only want to ensure this is the best move for you.
Caitlyn sends her the same screenshot.
Well played, Kiramman, comes the reply, minutes later. I shall leave you to your business.
The next week doesn’t go as smoothly.
Sky has a number of days booked off, agreed with the old owners and honoured by Caitlyn, and Caitlyn doesn’t find time for so much as a run. She ends up double-booked when a couple arrive, all smiles, and explain that this week is always reserved for them, and they haven’t had to pre-book in years. The previous owners just knew.
Caitlyn stares at them for a solid five seconds, laughs, and says she’s so sorry, but she had her weeks mixed up. She feels so silly for not realising who they were immediately, having heard so much about them from the previous owners.
Caitlyn shows them to a room reserved for two young men, due to arrive within the hour. She bolts upstairs to her room, shoves her personal belongings in the hallway cupboard, and changes the bedsheets in record time. She brings fresh flowers into the room, sets out glasses and toiletries in the en-suite, and rushes down to greet her guests.
They don’t notice a thing. Caitlyn sleeps on a sofa in the small living area, waking earlier than usual to make breakfast.
People come and go. A few tourists drop in to ask after the local landmarks, and without Sky to rely on, Caitlyn’s mind goes almost entirely blank. After a beat, she hears herself rattling off a list of Vi’s favourite hikes, and manages to recall the directions to the station, and which platform takes them to the castle ruins.
After six days of running around without taking a moment to herself, Caitlyn stares at the boiler in the kitchen. She turns the dials. Nothing happens. She flips a switch in the fuse box, leaving the boiler off for a few minutes in the hopes that powering it down it will fix the problem, but has no joy.
Caitlyn chews her lip, considers her options, and brings up Vi’s contact information, hitting the call button before she can talk herself out of it. Surely Vi won’t mind taking a minute out of her day to give some friendly advice. What’s her alternative? Letting her guests take cold shoulders?
“Yeah? Vi speaking,” Vi says, picking up on the third ring.
She’s a little out of breath.
“Vi? I’m sorry to trouble you. It’s Caitlyn. Caitlyn Kiramman, from the B&B,” Caitlyn says, wincing as she speaks. Is there another Caitlyn Kiramman she might be mistaken for?
“Hey, Cupcake!” Vi says, voice less business-like. “What’s up? Bread emergency? I’m just on my way up to yours, actually.”
“I was hoping to catch you when you made the delivery. I know you’re a busy woman, but I wondered if you might take a look at something for me.”
“Huh. Sure thing. I’ll be there in five. Sit tight,” Vi says, hanging up.
Caitlyn waits in the open doorway, trying to enjoy the birdsong of the morning. Every time a floorboard creaks above, Caitlyn’s convinced someone is going to storm down the stairs and demand to know why the hot water isn’t running.
Vi pulls up on her bike, more red-faced than usual. Almost as if she’s peddled extra hard to get there.
She grabs Caitlyn’s basket of baked goods from the trailer, hops up the two shallow stairs to the front door, and holds it out to her.
“What’s the problem, Cupcake? I thought it was going to take the place burning down for you to finally call me, but it doesn’t look that bad,” Vi says.
Caitlyn takes the basket that’s usually left on the doorstep, drops it on the kitchen counter, and leads Vi to the boiler. She stands before it, arms folded over her chest, and gestures vaguely at it.
“I woke up and it wasn’t making a sound,” Caitlyn explains. “There’s a little warm water left in the tank, but it won’t be enough for everyone to shower. I’ll call a heating engineer, if I have to, but that could take hours. I wondered if you had any experience, considering all you did in the way of repairs.”
Vi clicks her tongue, leaning in closer to get a better look at the boiler. She twists the dial, waiting for the screen to light up.
“If I know anything about boilers, it’s that you don’t mess around with them if you don’t know what you’re doing. Last thing you want is a carbon monoxide leak. That will get you way worse reviews than a cold shower,” Vi says.
“That’s what I feared.”
Vi bites the inside of her cheek. She reaches beneath the boiler, causes something to click, and after a few seconds, the boiler roars to life again.
“What? How did you—?” Caitlyn asks.
“Reset button,” Vi says, shrugging.
“I looked for it. I swear I did. I even cut the power at the fuse box,” Caitlyn says, belatedly mortified. “I’m so sorry, Vi. I didn’t mean to waste your time.”
“I was on my way here, anyway, and you’re my last delivery of the day,” Vi says, leaning her elbows on the counter. “Not seen you around The Last Drop, lately. Busy week?”
There’s a knowing sympathy to the question.
“The boiler is merely the icing on the cake,” Caitlyn says, finding a smile for Vi.
“Nice. Baking reference.”
“Mm. Not only did I double-book, and so have to convert my bedroom into a guestroom in under an hour, but a gentleman staying with me was absolutely outraged to learn that the establishment didn’t provide dinner,” Caitlyn says, taking the bread for the morning’s breakfast spread from the basket.
“Wait, wait. The guy came to a Bed and Breakfast and was shocked when dinner wasn’t on the menu?”
“Indeed. If only there were something in the name to tip him off,” Caitlyn says, feeling herself relax with Vi there.
“Idiot. What did you do? I mean, I know what I would’ve done, but I don’t think a go fuck yourself would get you that five-star rating.”
“I pointed him in the direction of The Last Drop with tales of the legendary roasts.”
“Damn. You’re lucky it was a Sunday.”
Showing no signs of wanting to make an escape, Vi reaches for a bread knife and mutters something about slicing it properly. Caitlyn makes herself tea as she attends to the rest of the breakfast spread, and pours a cup for Vi, too. Vi sniffs it, takes a tentative sip, shrugs, and knocks back the rest.
“So, uh,” Vi says, hovering a few inches behind Caitlyn as she sets out the breakfast spread in the dining room. “You’ve got my number, so you can text me if anything else plays up. You know, if the kettle won’t turn on. And I’ve got your number, so I can text you if anything comes up?”
Caitlyn sets down the tray of cut fruit, turns around, and finds Vi much closer than she expected. Vi raises her brow, looking up at her with all the expectancy in the world.
“If anything comes up?” Caitlyn asks. “In case the bread doesn’t rise and I have to run to the rescue?”
“Shit, Cupcake, I’d never call a girl over a yeast emergency,” Vi says.
Letting out an unflattering laugh, Caitlyn shoves Vi’s shoulder, shaking her head as she returns to the kitchen for the last of breakfast.
“Just. You know,” Vi says, on her heels as she returns to the dining room. “If anything comes up. I don’t work every day, and you look like you’re half a disaster away from packing up and heading back to Piltover. Spring’s gonna be your busiest season around here, and you should get to enjoy all the hiking trails.”
Caitlyn’s grateful when a cheerfully oblivious old couple wanders in, wishing them a good morning.
Vi grabs a slice of toast, chewing in anticipation of Caitlyn’s answer. Caitlyn swears she isn’t trying to leave her in suspense, but she needs a considerable moment to pull together a coherent response.
“I’d be much better equipped to point my guests in the right direction if I had a seasoned guide such as you,” Caitlyn says. “Message me any time, Vi.”
Caitlyn heads into town on Friday evening. She purchases a new backpack, a sturdy, sporty looking water bottle, and two types of sun cream. She’s tempted by the hiking boots on offer, but that would make her look a little too eager, and her running shoes have decent grip.
She’s up embarrassingly early on Saturday morning, even if Sky’s covering breakfast for her. Caitlyn hops into the shower at just gone seven, and is devastated to learn that a twenty-minute shower doesn’t magically make it nine o’clock when she steps out. She towels her hair off and leaves it to dry in the warm morning air.
A hike, thankfully, doesn’t leave much room for error in the wardrobe department. She settles on her favourite set of running gear – three-quarter length black leggings and a loose, navy blue running shirt that may or may not have the habit of clinging to all the right places – ties her hair back, and threads her ponytail through the back of a baseball cap. She pops her sunglasses on the rim, double-checks she has everything she needs in her bag, and takes the stairs down two at a time.
“Sky, I’m going to—” Caitlyn calls out, feet and voice coming to an abrupt halt as she reaches the reception.
“Surprise!” Jayce calls, holding his arms out.
“She hates surprises,” Mel and Viktor drone behind him.
No, no, no.
It’s ten minutes to nine.
Caitlyn’s pulled into a hug. Jayce plants his hands on her shoulders, sounding far too surprised when he tells her how good she looks, then starts admiring his surroundings. It’s a blur of words like quaint and sweet and not what I expected, but!
“Jayce,” Caitlyn says through grit teeth. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, you know! It’s a Saturday, so we thought we’d drive down to see what all the fuss was about,” Jayce says, forcing his usual winning smile.
No, not forcing: Jayce is in earnest. He’s thoroughly deluded himself into thinking this is a good idea.
“Jayce thought he would drive down to see you,” Viktor says. “We are here as damage control.”
“There’s plenty of woodland to bury a body in,” Mel adds, offering a sympathetic smile.
“Jayce. Did it not—” Caitlyn says, hands on her face, words coming slowly, as if they’re not mean to be threaded together. “Did it not occur to you that I might have plans?”
Jayce glances back at Mel and Viktor, hoping one of them will pipe up. That’s a no, then. She’s moved to a quaint little village in the middle of nowhere, so of course she couldn’t possibly have something to preoccupy her time with.
She takes her phone out. Her stomach sinks like a stone.
She can’t cancel her plans with Vi via text.
“You have plans?” Jayce says, brow knitting together. “I’m sorry, Cait. I just, I wanted to surprise you, wanted to come here and be supportive, but we can head back? Or hang out here?”
Caitlyn screws her eyes shut. Patience, patience. Jayce might be presumptuous and overbearing, but he has redeeming qualities. He is—well, he can—he drove four hours there to see her on a Saturday.
He must have left at four am to get there.
“I appreciate the sentiment,” Caitlyn hears herself say. “However, if you ever do anything like this again, Jayce, I’ll disown you and never speak to you again. I will unfollow you on every platform. Now. Breakfast. You must all be hungry. There’s a lovely pub in the village, and I need to stop somewhere on the way.”
Jayce slinks out of the cottage, finally realising this may not have been a good idea. Mel pats his back, but Viktor only shakes his head.
They walk down to the village. Jayce tries to make up for his now clearly unwanted intrusion by talking at a mile a minute, pointing out every interesting vista and playing up the village’s virtues. Caitlyn ignores all of it, making straight for the bakery when they reach the village square.
“Wait out here,” she tells the three of them.
No one argues.
The bell chimes above the door. Vi appears in record time, grin on her face, apron over her hiking gear, and Caitlyn’s heart is a brick thrown into a chasm.
“Morning, Cupcake! You ready? You look ready,” Vi says, untying the apron.
“Vi,” she begins, knowing she can’t possibly salvage this. “I’m so sorry.”
Vi’s brow creases. Worry flashes across her stormy eyes. Caitlyn loves her friends, but in that moment, she wishes she’d never met any of them.
She gestures to the three of them standing awkwardly outside the bakery.
“I had no idea they were coming. I told you about Jayce and how involved he likes to be in my life and choices. He thought it would be a pleasant surprise for me,” Caitlyn says, holding out her hands in a fruitless attempt to convey just how much she hates this. “They drove all the way here from Piltover. I really wanted to—”
Vi breaks out into laughter.
“Shit. That’s all? Fucking hell, Cupcake, thought you were turning me down,” Vi says.
“You’re not angry?”
“Fucking furious,” Vi says, nodding. “But I told you about the time I did the opposite, right? Marched all the way to Piltover to check up on Powder, just because she wasn’t answering my texts? So I get it. It sucks, but I get it. They’re only going to be around for the day, right?”
Caitlyn finally exhales, shoulders sinking.
“They’re heading back to Piltover this evening,” Caitlyn says. “I suppose I should feel touched they’re willing to make an eight-hour round trip for me, but I really was looking forward to today.”
“There’s always tomorrow,” Vi says, shrugging.
“Don’t you have to help with the famous Last Drop roast on Sundays?”
“Shit. Yeah. Monday?”
Caitlyn shakes her head.
“A spectacularly busy day, I’m afraid.”
“Tuesday?” Vi asks, scratching the back of her neck.
“Perfect,” Caitlyn says.
She reaches over, squeezing Vi’s hand. It’s only meant to be a brief thing, but Vi instinctively tugs her a step closer. Caitlyn’s heart hammers the inside her chest, but something catches Vi’s attention outside the window, and she mutters, “No fucking way,” as she hurries over to the door.
Caitlyn watches in confusion as Vi charges towards the group who have ruined their plans and practically launches herself at Viktor.
Caitlyn’s on the other side of the door before she realises that they’re hugging.
“No fucking way!” Vi repeats, leaning back, gripping his shoulders.
Viktor takes it in his stride, chuckling. Jayce and Mel look on with as much confusion as Caitlyn feels.
“You know each other?” Caitlyn asks.
“Hell yeah we do!” Vi says, slinging an arm around Viktor’s shoulders. “We go way back to our days in Zaun. Viktor was, like, the only person in town smarter than Powder, but that’s only because she was a kid. He always kept an eye out for us. Hell, he’s half the reason Powder managed to get into the Academy.”
“Oh, yes,” Viktor agrees, nodding sagely. “Miss Hund has turned out to be quite the responsible adult. You would not believe it, had you known her as a teenager.”
“Hey. I was saying nice things about you.”
Mel steps forward, offering out her hand.
“Mel Medarda. I’m terribly sorry to have ruined your plans,” she says. But I’ve heard so much about you. It’s nice to put a face to the name.”
Vi glances over to Caitlyn. Caitlyn swears she reddens a little.
“Indeed. I believe we’ve worked ourselves into such a state over Caitlyn’s sudden departure that we haven’t gone a day without subjecting her to reams of texts and phone call after phone call. She has a lot to say,” Mel says. “About the village.”
Caitlyn isn’t certain whether she wants to kill Mel or kiss her.
Before something happens to tip the scales in either direction, Caitlyn makes her apologies once more, and Vi leaves with another slap of Viktor’s back.
Mel hooks an arm around Caitlyn’s and leans over to whisper, “That woman could throw you over her shoulder like a sack of flour.”
“Shut up,” Caitlyn says, laughing.
Tuesday can’t come fast enough. Caitlyn considers heading to The Last Drop for a Sunday roast, but decides it would be awkward to not only head down alone, but also have Vi serve her. She’s so busy on Monday that when she finally has time to check her watch, it’s already nine-thirty, and her plans of catching Vi on her morning delivery run are down the drain.
Problems spring out of nowhere. A guest claims to be allergic to the down in the pillows, and it doesn’t matter how many times Caitlyn reassures him they’re synthetic pillows. In the end, she takes the pillow to another room, switches the pillow case, and tells the man it’s a brand-new pillow.
He preens, thanks her for her help, and doesn’t have any problems after that.
It’s gone eleven when she falls into bed. It’s not terribly late, but it’s the first time she’s been off her feet all day. Caitlyn curls into the blankets, face half-buried in the pillow, and decides it won’t hurt to check Hexster before falling asleep.
Sadly, there are no new photos of Vi. Caitlyn catches herself scrolling through older posts. With a sigh, she locks her phone, puts it on charge, and makes sure it’s out of reach.
Morning comes. Caitlyn dresses as she did on the ill-fated Saturday morning, double-checks everything’s in order with Sky, and heads into the village. Vi’s waiting for her outside the bakery, thumbs hooked around the straps of her backpack, rocking on the balls of her feet.
“Cupcake!” Vi calls, waving with both arms. “It’s just you, right? No more unplanned family reunions?”
“It’s just me,” Caitlyn tells her, stopping a few feet away.
Vi rocks on the balls of her feet again. Caitlyn wonders if she should do something, if she should offer a hug, kiss her on the cheek, shake her hand—no, no. That one’s stupid. She gives herself a moment to admire Vi’s outfit – a long, black tank-top that clings to her broad chest, a pair of neon biking shorts, and footwear that lingers somewhere between full-on hiking boots and trainers – and feels her mouth curl into a smile.
“What? Something on my shirt?” Vi says, frowning. “Flour?”
“No, no. It isn’t that. There’s nothing wrong at all,” Caitlyn says, trying to bite back the smile. “Only…”
“Only?” Vi asks, brow furrowed.
“I don’t want to offend,” Caitlyn says.
“Toeing the line, Cupcake.”
Caitlyn gestures to the whole of Vi.
“I’m sorry. It’s simply the combination of the tank-top, the bright-pink shorts, and the boots,” Caitlyn begins, letting herself laugh. “Add to that the sun visor you’re wearing, and—well. I’m afraid you look rather like a lesbian.”
Vi scowls, but can’t smother the amusement in her eyes.
“Wait. You think I’m gay?”
“Very funny,” Caitlyn says, turning in the direction she assumes they’ll head.
Vi hurries to catch up with her, saying, “Now you’re embarrassing yourself, Cupcake. I think you’ve got the wrong idea about today.”
“I’m sure I have. How could I have led myself so woefully astray?” Caitlyn says, reaching out to run her fingers across the short side of Vi’s hair. “Lovely undercut, by the way.”
They head an easy, flat mile out of the village, to the start of one of the trails. Vi explains that today’s going to be more of a ramble than anything, a chance to experience the famous Holdrum hills without worrying about any dense undergrowth or craggy inclines.
“Already hot today,” Vi says, sending an accusing glance skyward. “Put some sun cream on before I left, but I think you’re meant to reapply it after the first fifteen minutes, then every hour?”
Vi slides her backpack off her shoulders, unzips it, and digs out a bottle of sun cream. Caitlyn does the same, already feeling heat prick along her skin, and carefully sprays it onto her arms, face, and neck.
Vi, on the other hand, squeezes a dollop like an serving of soft scoop into her palm, and begins slapping it over her arms. Caitlyn stares in horror and absolutely not anything else; surely it isn’t her fault that she can’t tear her eyes away when Vi’s making such a spectacular mess of slathering sun cream over her biceps and neck, leaving smears all over her collarbones.
Vi reaches behind her, frowns, and tries looking over her shoulder.
“Little help?” Vi asks, gesturing to where the deep tank-top arms cut away, leaving the sides of her ribs and part of her back exposed.
“Oh!” Caitlyn says. “Oh, yes, I’ll just—of course.”
Caitlyn holds out her hand for the bottle. Vi slaps a palm against hers, smearing the last of the sun cream onto her fingers.
“Right,” Caitlyn says.
Vi turns, back fully facing her. Caitlyn reaches out then withdraws her hand, frowning at the exposed skin. Vi glances over her shoulder and Caitlyn starts, reaching out to Vi’s warm, soft skin, eager to get it over with.
“Thanks,” Vi says, clearly thinking nothing of it.
She slips the sun cream into her bag, pulls it onto her back, but pauses. Before Caitlyn has the chance to ask what’s wrong, Vi reaches out, brushing a thumb over her nose.
“You hadn’t rubbed it all in,” Vi explains.
Caitlyn’s face burns, even with the layer of protection.
They make for a worn path. The excessive sun cream across Vi’s arms slowly sinks in, making her tattoos gleam.
Caitlyn shakes her head. She’s there to look at the landscape.
It doesn’t take long for her to ease into the hike. Vi has plenty of local knowledge to share, and Caitlyn soon finds herself acting like a reasonable human being again. Vi’s voice is soothing, even as she takes purposeful breaths, pulling herself up the trickier parts of the trail and reaching back to offer Caitlyn her hand.
“Selfie?” Vi asks, taking out her phone. “Powder’s dying to know what you look like?”
“Your sister knows about me?” Caitlyn blurts out.
“She sure does,” Vi says, holding out an arm.
Caitlyn steps into the side-on embrace, letting Vi pull her to her side. Caitlyn feels Vi grin as she presses her cheek to Caitlyn, snapping a photo. It’s all sunglasses and visors, and for once, Caitlyn doesn’t hate seeing a picture of herself.
Vi tells stories about her adventures out on the hills with her siblings, and always stops to point out the perfect view. Caitlyn’s taken aback each time. She doesn’t expect the sheer rush of delight when Vi points out Keystone Cottage on the horizon. It’s only there, miles from the B&B, that Caitlyn realises it’s hers.
It’s her home. She’s taken control of her life, left everything behind, and started over.
“You okay, Cupcake?” Vi asks.
“Yes, yes,” Caitlyn says, clearing her throat. “It really is a spectacular view.”
“Mm. You don’t get used to it,” Vi agrees. “C’mon. I need a break.”
They sit at the crest of a hill, looking out to the village beyond. The forest is beneath them, having climbed so far, and Caitlyn watches small birds weave in and out of the canopy. A light breeze brings distant birdsong, and Caitlyn closes her eyes, focusing on nothing but the grass brushing against her skin.
Vi nudges her side. Caitlyn opens her eyes and the spell isn’t entirely broken.
“We’ve come all this way, Cupcake, so you gotta tell me. What brought you here?” Vi says.
“Truthfully? Impulse. Impulse born of a lifetime spent ignoring my gut,” Caitlyn says. Before Vi can ask for any more details, she says, “What made you want to become a baker?”
Vi squints at her from under her visor but allows it.
“Me and Powder grew up in the foster system. Lost our parents young – car crash – and didn’t have any other family,” Vi says, starting her story with a shrug. “We bounced around a lot of homes. Most of ‘em did less than the bare minimum, and me and Pow-Pow were always hungry. But even as a kid, I was pretty good at shoplifting. Powder would cause a distraction and I’d grab what we needed. Ended up with a box of cake mix on a whim, this one time. Took it home, followed the instructions, stuck it in the oven, and maybe it’s stupid, but that’s the first time I ever felt like I’d accomplished anything.”
Caitlyn offers out her hand. Vi belatedly catches sight of it, smiles, and takes it in her own.
“It became our thing. I’d swipe a box of whatever mix they had – cake, cookies, brownies – but after a while, I started feeling like something was missing. Like I could do better. I started reading the ingredients, and our shopping sprees get a bit more complicated. We were going for flour, sugar, eggs, butter, fucking vanilla extract, rather than one box. Which, yeah, made it more exciting.
“This went on for maybe six months before me and Pow couldn’t stand another bite of something sweet. But I still wanted to make stuff, so I tried out bread, and that was like—”
Vi lifts her free hand, trying to grasp for the right word in the air. She’s so caught up in her story that her eyes have a hazy sheen to them, and Caitlyn doesn’t try holding back a smile. The story has shed a startling amount of light on Vi’s childhood, but like Vi, Caitlyn chooses to focus on the parts that made her happy, that led to this, rather than the horrific failings of the system.
“Flour, salt, oil, and water,” Vi says, listing the ingredients off on her fingers. “That’s all it is, and sure, you have to beat the shit out of it a little, it’s a serious workout, but you can make something real out of all that. It’s just, I don’t know—every time I’m mixing it together, I feel like I’m the first damn caveman to sit down, chew some wheat, and mix it with water.”
Vi’s passion is infectious. Caitlyn entwines their fingers and Vi catches her eye, self-conscious for the first time since they’ve known one another.
“How old were you?” Caitlyn asks, not wanting the subject to change; wanting Vi to know that she wants to hear more, all of it, as much as Vi is willing to share.
“Twelve, thirteen?” Vi says, nose crinkled.
“Did you ever get caught?”
“Oh, shit, all the time! Seriously, Cupcake, it’s a good thing you didn’t know me back then. We would not have got on. I was always causing trouble, starting fights, in and out of juvie,” Vi says, rolling her right shoulder back. “I wasn’t on a great path.”
Caitlyn gives her hand a squeeze.
“It sounds to me like you were doing your best to look after yourself and your sister,” she says.
“I guess,” Vi says, shrugging. “Eventually, we’d been kicked out of so many homes that they were gonna split us up, like that would help either of us. That’s when our dad, Vander, came into the picture. Came out of nowhere, scooped us up, and brought us to live here. I fucking hated it. I was sixteen, used to living in a massive town, and then I was out in the countryside, going to a school with one-hundred other kids.”
“And now?” Caitlyn asks.
“Now I’m old and wise and I can see how good it was for me. How it took me away from so much trouble, fights and drugs and juvie, how it gave me a chance to do more than scrape by. Turns out I didn’t like living in town, it was just all I knew. It only took me three years to stop sulking about being here.”
Caitlyn shuffles a little closer, resting her head on Vi’s shoulder.
“Shit. Sorry. That was a lot, and you were just asking to be polite, so—”
“It’s alright, Vi. Really,” Caitlyn says, giving her hand another squeeze. “I’m eager to listen to anything you have to tell me.”
Vi shifts, freeing her hand from Caitlyn’s to wrap an arm around her shoulders.
“Guess you’re just easy to talk to,” Vi says.
Caitlyn hums happily. The sun may be bright, but it isn’t so very warm out that the heat of Vi’s skin against hers, the arm pressed to her side, the curve of her neck, is unwanted. The sentiment echoes heavy in Caitlyn’s chest, leaving relief in its reverberations.
For a time, she’d worried Vi was naturally open and accommodating to everyone she came across.
“My mother was ill, a while ago. Seriously ill,” Caitlyn says, returning the gesture. “She had a brain aneurysm, undetected for a long, long time. It was so sudden. My mother went from being one of the most motivated, hard-working people I knew, not stopping for anything, to suddenly needing life-saving surgery. Seeing her in a hospital bed, wearing something other than one of her immaculate suits, well.
“It was a shock, to say the least. It changed my entire perception of her – of everything – and all at once, I was confronted with the prospect of my mother being a mere mortal. The surgery went well, thank god, but there was every chance in the world of her losing her life on the table. In the days leading up to the surgery, I think I learnt more about my mother as a person, not merely a parent, a lawyer, a Kiramman, than I had in the entirety of my life.
“She was suddenly fragile. Real. And, inevitably, it made me reflect on my own life. On the path I was on. Working ten-hour days, suffering long commutes, and falling into bed with a migraine most nights suddenly didn’t feel like the only way to live my life. It didn’t help that my girlfriend at the time decided I wasn’t fun enough anymore and left me two days before my mother’s surgery.”
“Wow,” Vi murmurs in a low voice, not wanting to interrupt the story, but unable to help herself. “Sounds like a real winner.”
“Yes, well, that’s Dylan for you. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was suddenly free to do as I pleased,” Caitlyn says.
“So you came here?”
“No, actually. I took a month off work. I decided I was going to fix my life, was going to make it work for myself. I travelled. I went to Venice, Athens, Shanghai. I redecorated my apartment. I bought potted plants,” Caitlyn says. “I went back to work, swearing it would be different. And before I knew it, two years had passed, and my routine was the same as it ever was. All I’d done was actually use some of my holiday time, for once.”
“Huh. So how’d you end at Keystone?”
“I couldn’t tell you. I was scrolling aimlessly through social media and stumbled across a piece in a local news site about it. The moment I saw it – or rather, the views from it, out onto these hills – all that resolve I had after my mother’s illness came back in one single, crystalising moment. I made enquiries. I drove out here. It’s almost as though it wasn’t me making any of the decisions, and I was simply watching myself put the life into motion I’d never been brave enough to realise I’d wanted.”
Vi’s quiet as she takes in the words. Her thumb idly strokes the side of Caitlyn’s arm.
Caitlyn feels knots unravel in the deepest recesses of her body. Telling her story, as little as there is to it, brings everything around her into sharper focus. Now that she’s been honest with Vi, she knows she’ll continue being honest with herself.
“I’m glad you ended up here, Cupcake,” Vi says.
Caitlyn glances up. They pull away a little to face one another, hands pressed together in the long grass.
“So am I,” Caitlyn says, smiling.
“How are you finding village life? It’s a huge change, right? Can’t have been easy for you.”
“It wasn’t,” Caitlyn agrees. “But I’ve actually started reading books I’ve had sitting on my bookshelf for almost five years. I admit, I was a little concerned about moving to such a small, remote community, owing to being, well—”
“Six-foot of lesbian?” Vi offers. “Don’t worry, Cupcake. I’ve spent the last fourteen years chasing after girls. The village is used to it.”
“Chasing after girls? On your bicycle, with the little trailer?”
Vi looks genuinely wounded. Fearing she’s overstepped, Caitlyn places a hand on her cheek, about to apologise, and falls into Vi’s trap. Vi wraps her fingers around her wrist, foreheads pressed together, and doesn’t hesitate so much as take in the moment. All Caitlyn sees are grey eyes and a crescent of freckles beneath them, the curl of a scarred lip; her hands move to Vi’s shoulders, muscles tensing at the touch.
“The bike thing works,” Vi whispers.
“When you dress like that and stand on the pedals, it most certainly does.”
Vi laughs, breath warm on Caitlyn’s lips.
“I mean it, Caitlyn. I’m happy you’re here,” Vi murmurs. “And you were right. The Cupcake thing was just for you. You know. Because you’re sweet?”
It’s a ridiculous line. It shouldn’t work, but Vi has the spring breeze on her side, birdsong in the distance, and the long grass swaying around them.
“Well,” Caitlyn says, arms wrapping around Vi’s shoulders. “I think—I think I’m going to kiss you now, Vi. Is that alright with you?”
That ridiculous grin spreads back across her face.
Vi leans forward before Caitlyn can, pulling her in by the hips. Their lips brush together, Caitlyn sighs, and Vi moves a hand to the back of her head, keeping her close. Vi lowers her into the grass, offering her shelter from the sun, and Caitlyn’s hands slide across her tattooed, sun cream covered-arms as she kisses her like a woman who has all the time in the world.