Thunder crackled loudly above Daniel. Even with his hands shaking from the hold, he somehow managed to turn the large brass key into its lock. He was alone in every possible way. The reality of it should have filled him with dread, but instead he felt a kernel of hope in his chest. He had been given a chance to escape, and he was damn well going to take it.
Milford, Pennsylviania was a small and quiet town. Daniel was still fairly new to it, but he had already fallen in love with his life there. New York City had been exciting, but the hustle and bustle, as well as the judging eyes of his family, had taken a toll on him. For being a city boy, small town life fit him surprisingly well.
Daniel especially loved the early mornings of Milford. The air was still crisp and the sounds of the town muted. It was a peaceful time of reflection and when Daniel liked to get most of his baking done.
It had been an easy decision to accept running his uncle's bakery after he passed. The man had been a bachelor, similar to Daniel, who had never had children of his own. The reading of the will had been a shock to everyone in the family, but Daniel’s move to Milford had been an even greater one.
It was barely dawn when Daniel heard the tinkling of a bell, signaling the entrance of an early morning customer. He set his dough aside and wiped his floury hands on his apron before walking towards the front of the shop, ready to greet the first customer of the day.
Something Daniel did not love about Milford was Adrian Dane.
“Goodmorning, Adrian,” Daniel smiled politely as the town blacksmith squeezed through the front door, letting in a draft of cold air with him. Even though they were about the same age, Adrian must have been at least a foot taller than him. His presence seemed to fill whatever room he entered.
“Sure,” the burly man replied casually as he examined the loaves and pastries that were on display. He shouldn’t have been surprised at the early hour, Adrian was usually his first customer of the day.
He’d been shocked when Adrian had first started frequenting the shop, since Daniel was convinced the man hated him. Upon moving to Milford, most people had been exceedingly friendly and welcoming, but Adrian had nearly run the other way when they’d first made eye contact. After that, it was mumbled greetings, if Adrian had spoken to him at all. Now it was blatant teasing at his expense. Daniel knew that he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but most people at least put on the pretense of kindness.
“He’s always been a prickly one,” Miss Lillian had assured him at the time. “Don’t take it personally.”
The problem was, it really wouldn’t do to have the only blacksmith in town completely loathe you, so Daniel tried his best to be friendly. He was very glad for his exceptional baking skills. Otherwise, he was sure Adrian wouldn't even attempt to tolerate him. Daniel often wondered what he did to make such a horrible first impression, but there was no point in fretting about it now.
“Can you please leave that thing outside?” Daniel said, pointing to Adrian’s lit cigarette. “I don’t like the smoke getting on the food.”
Adrian opened the front door again and flicked the cigarette directly out on the pavement. “Sorry, forgot.”
Daniel highly doubted that, but held his tongue. “How can I help you this morning?”
Adrian scratched the dark stubble on his jawline. “Got anything fresh?”
“Do I have anything fresh?” Daniel huffed. “Are you insinuating I’m selling–”
The corner of Adrian’s mouth twitched upwards. He was poking fun at him, again.
Daniel exhaled deeply, attempting to recenter himself. “I just finished this batch of cornish pasties, so they’re still warm. I assume you could use the protein, with such a physically demanding job.”
Adrian nodded, signaling he would take the pasties to go. “More demanding than baking, I assume.”
Daniel bristled at the subtle jab. “Yes, well…” he trailed off in lieu of a comeback. “Baking is a science. It’s still very difficult.” Which is why you have to come here for baked goods rather than make your own. “It’s hard to become good at.”
“Isn’t that true for every profession?” Adrian countered.
Daniel set the pastries down with more force than necessary. “That’ll be $2.”
Adrian nodded his head in a manner that appeared grateful before pulling out some coins and setting them on the counter.
Daniel delicately wrapped the items in a cloth, before handing them over. “Have a nice day.”
“Sure,” Adrian nodded as he exited the shop.
Daniel was sure he’d come back later. Adrian was his most loyal customer, always picking something up in the morning and evening without fail. It only served to baffle him further.
By the time lunch rolled around, Daniel’s stomach was growling noisily. Normally, he’d nibble on his own concoctions when feeling peckish, but today he waited. He was meant to visit his friend Margaret at her apothecary during lunch. Though she mainly sold herbs and tonics, she’d made a lucrative side-business as a tarot reader, even if it was often looked down upon.
After locking up his store, Daniel walked a few paces down the street. Milford was small and nearly all shops were within walking distance of each other. He opened the front door of Margaret ’s shop and inhaled the heavily perfumed air. He switched her sign over to ‘closed’ before heading into the backroom.
He always looked forward to good company, a meal, and some gossip. The older woman hobbled forward and greeted him with a kiss on each cheek as she gestured for him to sit.
“Look at you! Working in a bake shop, but you're still skin and bones.”
“I think you’ll find I’m a very healthy weight for my height,” Daniel sniffed.
“And what a height it is!” she laughed. “You’re barely taller than an old woman.”
“I’ll have you know that many people find my petite size adorable.” Most of his bullies growing up hadn’t, but there was no point in bringing that up now.
“From what Miss Lilian says, most women find you adorable.”
Daniel groaned. “Please, I can’t handle this conversation on an empty stomach.” Miss Lilian helped run a tavern with her husband. She had been kind enough to help him settle when he’d moved to Milford, completely scared and alone. She’d developed a motherly relationship with him, meaning she was heavily invested in his love life. He didn’t have the heart to tell her, or anyone really, that he was very much not interested in women.
“You must have better things to talk about,” Daniel said, attempting to change the subject.
“You’re right! You won’t believe what Mr. Morganson’s been up to,” she started while placing some finger sandwiches on his plate.
“Please tell.” He didn’t feel bad gossiping about that old busybody, especially since he seemed to be the bane of everyone’s existence.
“He’s been campaigning to ‘clean up the town’. He wants me to give up my tarot side business because it has poor optics! I gave him an emphatic no. The man is a loon if he can boss all of Milford around.”
“Has he been bothering anyone else?”
Margaret nodded. “He’s trying to make Adrian Dane paint his storefront. He’s been pestering the poor man for weeks. I guess Adrian had enough of it and threw him out on his behind!” she guffawed.
“That’s what he gets for irritating a man twice his size. Anyone should know better than to brawl with a blacksmith.” Daniel felt as if he were repeating the words for his own benefit.
“Agreed. I doubt Andrian fears the devil himself. I think old Morganson would petition to get Mr. Dane evicted if he wasn’t so talented at his craft. He brings in loads of business for the town.” Margaret held up her knobby left hand, which showcased an intricate golden ring. “You know, he made this ring to commemorate my mother when she passed.”
Daniel gently took her hand within his own to examine the piece of jewelry more closely. It appeared as if three separate rings had been woven together to create a crown of some sorts.
“It’s stunning,” Daniel breathed reverently and somewhat reluctantly. How could someone so coarse create an object so delicate? “I’ve never seen anything like it, not even in any shops in New York.”
“That’s why I commissioned him; I knew he could do the job right. That man could make a killing if he moved to New York and expanded his business.”
“Why doesn’t he?” Daniel asked politely, now sipping at his drink.
“Why do people do or not do anything?” she shrugged. “You’ve become awfully popular here. Would you ever consider selling your uncle's place and starting a bakery of your own in New York?”
“Never,” he said, stomach twisting at the thought.
Margaret gave him a questioning look.
“The residents of Milford feel more like family than my relatives in New York,” he explained. “My relatives placed certain… expectations on me. I feel accepted here.”
She pinched his cheek goodnaturedly. “That’s because you are. I can see that you have a very strong future here.”
“Are you giving me a reading for free?” he teased. “Do I need to tell Mr. Morganson?”
“Hardly a reading,” she scoffed. “Though I could if you wanted me to.”
Daniel shook his head. “No, I think some things are best left as surprises.”
“Yes,” Margaret laughed to herself. “And trust me when I say you have plenty of surprises heading your way.”