Chris Hart owns the only grocery shop in Nortown, but he isn't exactly overrun by customers. Some days he wonders why he bothers to open the doors at all. Spending his days smiling at the few people trickling in and his nights alone in bed isn't the most interesting life a man could lead. But when Chris suddenly gets the excitement he's been craving, it may be more than he bargained for.
Gabriel Miller loves his life. He's close to his sister, has a job he adores and is the proud owner of one and a half cats. But all of it is taken away when he witnesses a murder. To keep him safe, the police place him in Nortown, of all possible locations.
Chris can't believe they're letting someone live in his gran's old cabin in the middle of the winter. It's too cold. When the poor man shows up in his shop looking to buy clothes, Chris's heart melts, despite the freezing temperature. Gabriel notices the way the shopkeeper looks at him, but it can't be right. No one looks at a heavyset man with heat in their eyes. Do they?
He scratched his beard, hoping they wouldn’t treat him badly for looking like a vagrant, and opened the car.
The first thing he noticed as he neared the door to the café was several people inside. He glanced at his watch: twenty past eight. What the hell was everyone doing here? He hadn’t expected the café to get many customers in a day, but as he opened the door, he was greeted by no less than seven pairs of eyes.
“Erm ... good morning.” He pulled self-consciously at his sweater, hoping it didn’t draw too much attention to his wobbly middle.
“Good morning.” A red-haired woman smiled at him before grabbing a coffee pot and topping off the cups of two grey-haired women sitting at the corner table with knitting needles in their hands. Both of them smiled and nodded at him. A man completely dressed in green with a full beard and dark eyes was chatting to a man with honey-coloured hair and a model’s good looks. In the farthest corner, a fine-limbed, blond man did his best to avoid Gabriel’s gaze, and by the counter, a red-haired little boy was picking at a plate of scrambled eggs.
Gabriel breathed in deep and neared the counter.
The offerings were sparse. Gabriel couldn’t see any of the pastries he’d fantasised about.
“What can I get you, love?” The red-haired woman walked past him and stepped in behind the counter.
Gabriel looked around, wondering who she was calling love, but she only kept looking at him. “Oh ... erm ... I’d like a caramel latte and a cinnamon roll, please.”
The green-clad man stopped talking and glared at him. Gabriel’s cheeks heated, and he started stuttering, “O-or a s-salad and a glass of water, please.” He wanted to run out of there, preferably before he was served a salad.
“Tom!” The good-looking man reached over the counter and gently pushed at the man who was still glaring at Gabriel, his tone a mix of amusement and exasperation. Gabriel wished the ground would open up before him.
“I can’t do a caramel latte, I’m afraid. Jason here --” she gave the now chuckling man a hard stare “-- will make you a fake latte if you want?”
“A fake latte?” Gabriel didn’t know if he wanted one. Preferably, he wanted to run, but he was starving. “Nah, it’s okay. I’ll ... I’ll ...” Gabriel looked over his shoulder. The car they’d given him was right outside. He could slip out, they could laugh at the fatty who wanted cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and everything would be fine -- at least, in their world. The sweater must be shrinking, because now it worked like a corset, squeezing around his middle until it was too hard to breathe.
“I can give you an ordinary coffee with milk and honey if you don’t want to try the fake latte.” The woman’s green eyes had softened since she had glared at the man ... Jason? The pretty Jason, so good-looking he’d probably never been self-conscious about anything in his entire life.
“Honey?” He’d never heard of anyone having honey in their coffee. His scepticism must’ve shown, because the woman started laughing -- a chiming bubbly laugh.
“Yeah, I know, but Chris has it all the time.”
“You’ll meet him, sooner or later.”
Some of the pressure around his chest let up, and he chanced a smile but avoided looking in the direction of the two men.
“Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll be out with your order? If you want company, Marge and Monica are happy to chat.”
One of the knitting ladies waved at him, and Gabriel’s heart started beating faster again. What was wrong with these people?
Ordinary people did not sit down to chat with someone they hadn’t met before, not to mention he was supposed to keep a low profile. He couldn’t talk to them without explaining what he was doing there.
For a moment, his mind blanked. Was he supposed to have a cover story? He was, wasn’t he? There was something in the papers with his new identity. Hart had said something about him needing to learn it for when he went to work somewhere else in a few days.
Hesitantly, he waved in answer to the knitting woman but took a seat at one of the empty tables. It wasn’t long before a plate with two large cinnamon rolls appeared in front of him, along with a cup of coffee with honey and milk.