In his defense, he had an excuse. Well, two, actually.
First of all, her nephew had a huge sweet tooth and was usually sneaking over by noon for a secret treat, as he had been for every day of the summer, so he usually had the justification of returning the cookie-thief. In addition, his job really wasn't the most exciting, so he had plenty of time to walk next door to her bookstore and visit her.
It wasn't exactly like he was some big corporate lawyer with a large enough salary to buy himself a boat, plus winter and summer homes. Nor was he some brilliant, world-renowned, cancer-curing doctor. He was just plain Arthur—or simply Art to those who knew him—George, small café owner, the eight to six guy.
Art wasn't really much to look at. He owned a vast collection of aprons, cookbooks, and probably had invested too much money in culinary school for him to be some critically acclaimed chef.
And truth be told, if you lined him up against a bunch of other men his age and race with the same vague short hair style prominently seen on males, there was no way you would pick him out as an individual—were you ignoring the flour on his shirt and in his hair, or the way he looked perpetually disorganized.
He was the Average Joe, the nice guy you always dated once or twice, but later dumped because of the lack of thrill. It wasn't as though he was boring; Art George was simply simple. He liked the little things in life, quirks about the people he held dear, didn't strive to stand out, but above all, he couldn't say no.
His last girlfriend had told him he needed to get a back bone. His mom had told him he was the-settle-down guy. When women wanted to marry, they would come to him, for loyal and agreeable he was. He was built to be the little league father, the kind of guy who had no qualms about shipping around a minivan full of kids to their next soccer game or field trip; not the exciting boyfriend girls his age wanted.
However, if you thought this bothered Art, you would be surely mistaken. He knew his mother was right—he was, after all, a bit of a mama's boy—and he could be patient.
He was an optimistic romantic type, firmly believing when the time was right, he would fall head over heels for the woman that fit snugly in his side, the woman who wouldn't mind a quieter life, the woman who kept him up late, smiling to himself.
So, when he was sure he had met her, of course he was going to try and worm his way into her life.
Okay, he might admit, the second part wasn't really an excuse. Sure, it was a reason, but that didn't necessarily make it an excuse.
Looking against the media's portrayal of what he should consider beautiful, he supposed he should say that she wasn't. But Art didn't particularly like the media's portrayal of anything, especially body image. She was curvy—not fat, or however that was considered this decade—and healthy.
She wasn't particularly striking or thin, but like always, it wasn't those types of things that got Art.
It was more of the round cheeks she had that seemed to be perpetually flushed, the honey blonde hair that she always tied up in messy buns, and the warm smile that had his heart strings tugging. Art just loved everything about her; little oddities and embarrassing habits included.
He knew it was love at first sight. She agreed.
She just…didn't know it yet.
But it was okay, because he was going to fix that.
"Caleb! No, Caleb, don't do this! Come back here!" She cried, lunging at the seven year old boy. He giggled, squirming just out of her reach.
It was moments like these when she knew she was out of shape.
Resting her palms on her thighs, she leaned over, panting. She had been okay with the constant chatter. She had been okay with the never-ending supply of energy. She had even been okay with the horrible sweet tooth.
But she was certainly not okay with him when he refused to listen to her. Glaring at the young boy, she forced herself to pick up her adrenaline, preparing to dash after him again. He already had a good head start, from when he'd tired her out two blocks down, and despite the fact that her legs were more than twice as long as his, she still knew it would be in vain.
But hey, she thought viciously, the kid has to tire eventually, and when he does…she would have her revenge.
"Can't catch me, Auntie Willa! Nah-nah-nah-nah!" He called, glancing back over his shoulder.
"Maybe I can't!" She returned, spotting a familiar figure rearranging the chairs outside his shop. She slowed. "But he can!" Caleb shot her a confused look before turning his head in the forward direction. That was when he and Art saw each other.
It didn't take long before Art caught on; they had been in this situation many times before, and he knew the drill. Grinning and playfully rolling his eyes, he stuck out his hand. Caleb's forehead instantly met his palm, stopping him in his tracks. "Hey, no fair! Lemme go!" He cried, leaning forward, trying to swipe at the older man.
"Again?" Art asked, turning his gaze onto Willa.
She nodded grimly. "He still seems to think that I find this fun," she said, glaring down at her nephew, who had finally resisted Art's palm and slid up against him. He just flashed his toothy grin up at her. Oh, right, she thought, rolling her eyes. As if the innocent, cute act is still going to get me.
"Come on, Caleb. I can't make money until I open up, and I can't open up until I get there, and I can't get there until you come with me," she said, tiredly stretching out her hand towards him.
He scrunched up his face, squishing his body against Art's long legs. "No way! I wanna hang with Art today," he said, crossing his arms.
Willa's shoulders slouched as she bent down to his eye-level. "Caleb, you hung out with Art yesterday, and the day before that. And from what I heard," she said, glancing fleetingly at Art, "you ate about half of his cookies. Without asking?"
"I asked!" Caleb protested, stomping his foot. He turned to look up at Art. "Didn't I, Art?"
Art laughed softly, running a hand through his hair. The dimple in her cheek that always appeared when she was secretly laughing at something began to emerge, which probably meant he had just gotten flour in his hair again. He pretended not to notice, as he knew it amused her. "I guess we could call it that."
Confused, Willa turned her big blue eyes up at him. Smile deepening, he continued, "He technically asked, but didn't wait for a reply. By the time I turned around, half the sheet was gone."
Caleb let out a pfft sound, rolling his eyes. Surprising both the little boy and his aunt, Art leaned over, grabbing Caleb by the torso and throwing him over his shoulder. "But don't worry; I can watch him again today, too. I know it's your busiest time."
She wrinkled her nose. "Kinda sad how the back-to-school books are what keep the paychecks coming, huh?"
He shrugged his shoulders, momentarily forgetting the boy slung over them until he let out a cry of protest. "Not everyone are avid bookworms like you, Willa," Art reminded her. She rolled her eyes.
"Says the guy with flour in his hair and all over his face," she pointed out, striding up to him. She licked her thumb and rubbed it across his cheek, scrubbing it clean. He didn't know if she could see the tips of his ears reddening at the proximity of her body, but he certainly hoped she couldn't.
She eyed him up and down once, squinting, as though there was something she was missing, and dropped her hand.
"Well, okay, you can watch him again. To you I say: please, don't make me have to pay for another trip to the dentist's office, and to Caleb: be nice," she said, stressing this as she tugged on Caleb's jean leg. She heard an indignant cry sound from behind Art, followed by, "I'm always nice!"
They parted a few moments later, each going into their respective shops. He waved at her, and she grinned back, wiggling her fingers distractedly as she fumbled with her key set.
Caleb wasted no time. The moment the seven year old hit the floor, he squared his shoulders, craning his neck up at the café owner. "You're a wimp," he declared finally, his voice sounding ridiculously serious. Art had barely finished plugging in the espresso machine when he said this, not having even been in his café for more than a minute, and grinned down at the boy good-naturedly.
"A wimp, huh? What make's you think that?" He asked, moving to slide the last of his muffins into the display box.
"I don't think anything, Art," Caleb clarified, attempting to catch his gaze. "I know."
Still not paying much attention to him, he nodded absentmindedly, setting aside a cookie for Caleb. "Know what?" He hummed.
"That you like my Aunt Willa," he said loudly, causing Art to come rushing over, slapping his hand over the boy's mouth. Art's eyes glanced from side to side, as if to check if the coast was clear.
"What?" He hissed, incredulous. Caleb glared down at the hand still clamped over his mouth, bugging his eyes out at it. "Oh, right, sorry." He took away the hand, stepping back a step. Nervously, he cleared his throat. "What…makes you think that?"
For a seven year old, Caleb certainly didn't beat around the bush. "Well, the way you responded kinda pointed towards 'yes', Art. You don't play it cool very well, do ya?"
"No," Art admitted, running a hand down his face with an exaggerated groan. "Am I that obvious?"
"To everyone but her, yeah," Caleb said, shrugging. He strode over to the counter where his reserved cookie lay. He hopped up, munching on the cookie innocently, as if he hadn't just revealed something incredibly embarrassing.
"You're pretty smart for a seven year old," Art said, managing a feeble smile.
"I'm almost eight," Caleb corrected proudly. "September fifth."
"So…she doesn't know, then?" Art asked after a few more antagonizing moments, wringing his hands. He had to make sure. She couldn't know—not yet, anyway.
"Nah," Caleb said in between bites. "She's too wrapped up in her bookstore to notice anything else. Grandpa had no idea what he was gettin' into when he left her in charge."
"Right," Art said slowly, sounding incredibly relieved as he fell against his dishwasher. Suddenly, another thought occurred to him and he sat up straight, fear in his eyes again. "Wait, are you trying to say she doesn't like me?"
Caleb shot him a genuinely confused look. "When did I say that?" He asked, raising an eyebrow.
Realizing he had been jumping to conclusions too quickly, Art let out a self-conscious chuckle, nodding. "Think I've got a chance?"
Once again, the seven year old had the trump card, smirking. He had the upper hand; for once, grown ups didn't know the answer. Well, it was a good thing they had someone like him. "Wouldn't be telling ya this if ya didn't, Art," he said, getting up to pour himself a glass of milk.
He had just finished closing up early for the day when she came rushing in, hands over her hair. She yelled something at him just as another cloud of thunder clapped over head. "What?" He called over the storm.
"I said: I have a leak! I need some of your bowls or buckets!" Willa cried, rushing over to him in the kitchen. The lights dimmed for a few moments.
"Sure!" He nodded, grabbing a few mixing bowls. He locked the store on his way out and followed her into Book Nook, her store. Sure enough, the ceilings were creaking as water dripped, some onto the carpet, some on shelves, and some even on books.
"I'm going to light some candles, in case we lose power," Willa said against his ear. He forced himself not to shiver.
"I'll get these bowls out, then," Art agreed, placing the first mixing bowl on top of a shelf. Ten minutes later, the store was fully lit by candles with various mixing bowls of sorts scattered across it. She collapsed in one of the big, comfy arm chairs by the window, pressing her forehead into her knee.
"Thanks, Art," she said, and she meant it. She didn't know what she would do without him, sometimes. "Really."
"It's no problem, Willa," he said, feeling a grin form. He placed himself in the chair opposite of hers. "I'd do anything for you," he added before he could think otherwise. He expected her to raise an eyebrow and get suspicious, but she just smiled (shyly? No, he quickly assured, that wouldn't be it) at him, the candles illuminating her skin.
"Where's Caleb been these days? I always have cookies set aside for him, but they're still there when I clean up for the night." He said, waiting until after another round of thunder cleared.
"School," Willa answered sadly. "He's been pretty nervous, though he won't admit it. Starting a new school can be pretty hectic."
He chose his next words carefully. "Yeah, how's he holding up? About the whole…mom thing, I mean."
She sighed. "Oh, you know how Caleb is. He likes to pretend he knows everything; like he's some big Man of Steel and nothing can get to him. When he first came to me, I was pretty worried…but I think he's getting better. He does miss her, though, I can tell."
Art felt a pang for the younger boy. He hadn't even been eight when his mother had passed away—sure, they knew she was dying, and he knew he would go to live with his aunt, but it wouldn't be the same. Art had no idea what the boy must have gone through.
"Well, you're doing a great job of being a pseudo-mom," he said finally.
"Thanks. Kind of weird, but… I really love being a mom. It's something I've always wanted to do," She said, smiling softly. "Run a small bookstore in a big city, check, be happy, check, be a parent, check… I've still got get married and/or engaged unchecked. I sort of figured that the last one would be one of the earlier checked off, at least before the parent one, but I'm not going to complain."
"You want to get married?" Art asked hesitantly, preparing to take mental notes.
She broke out into a big grin. "The question is: what girl doesn't? Then again, I probably shouldn't say that."
"Because I don't really want to," she said finally, biting her lip shyly.
Art was dumbfounded. "You don't? Why not? Don't…believe in love, or something?" Could you be any more obvious? He could hear Caleb in his head, crossing his eyes as he stuck out his tongue, drawling D-uh.
"No!" Willa exclaimed quickly, possibly a little too quickly for her liking. "No, of course I believe in love. I always have; always will. I'm just not sure whether or not I need some certificate to tell me I've found the one."
She felt nervous under his gaze. "What I mean is…I like the little things in life, you know? I don't care about all these fancy gizmos that are supposedly created to make your life easier, or what all the hot celebrities are wearing this season."
He felt his breath catch in his throat, but he wouldn't stop her if he could.
"Nor do I care about some big fairy tale wedding with a bunch of people I don't even know there. If a guy was going to take me on a first date, I wouldn't want to go to dinner and a movie. Nice gestures, I guess, but everyone does that. It's way too cliché for my liking.
"Plus, I don't want a guy to feel compelled to spend money on me, just so I know he cares. People seem obsessed with the idea that money can buy you happiness, but in my opinion, all it does is buy you time. If you want to show how much you love a person, do it with little gestures."
She took a deep breath, eyeing him. He was listening intently, fiddling with his collar.
"Don't buy me a bouquet of roses—take me to a nice garden. Don't spend over a hundred dollars on dinner; rent me a couple good movies and fight over the popcorn with me. Or make me dinner, or just spend time with me. Just…be there. And don't stress the relationship."
When he didn't say anything, just watching at her with an astonished, barely-blinking, stare, she grew embarrassed. "Oh, jeez, listen to me. I must sound so weird, right? What kind of girl doesn't—" She was cut off as he leaned towards her, pressing his lips against her mouth.
He lingered there for a moment, and when he pulled away, her eyes were closed peacefully. "That doesn't sound weird to me," He said softly, still hovering over her. Willa's eyes slowly flitted open.
"What…did you just do?" She asked finally, voice meek.
It took every fiber in his bone not to shy away. "I kissed you," he said, channeling the blunt and to-the-point Caleb.
A grin lit up on her face and she pulled him back down, clumsily catching his lips in a surprise kiss.
Willa was surprised how she didn't even consider Art as a significant other before. It was so right, he was so right. He liked her for her round body, which she had spent years trying to alter before she accepted her frame, her way of babbling when nervous—he had always been there.
From the day her father handed her the store keys, signifying his retirement, when Art popped over for a neighborly hello. (He had his café for a few months now, and he was sure they could be friends, he had said.) And then, to the day where Caleb snuck over and stole his first cookie, when Art had returned the flailing boy, vehemently denying any thievery. Then, to the day where he had agreed to not go home early, but to offer his mixing bowls to save her books—how she had overlooked him, she didn't know.
And then it hit her: she did know. From the way she always let Caleb go over to Art's because it meant he could return him personally, to the way she always went to him for advice.
In short, neither of them was after much in life. They weren't out to be on the cover of some glossy magazine in airport newsstands, to make a lot of money, or to even make much of a mark on the world. They just wanted to make a mark on their own lives; on each other.
Because when it comes down to it, to them, living wasn't about the up-and-happening fashion trends or the new technology out every month. Living was about the little things.
To her, the little things were like the way your boyfriend, and onto fiancé, would purposefully get flour all over himself, just so you could wipe it off. Or the way your adopted nephew tried to act more mature for everyone, even if it stressed him out trying. And then there were the simplicities like the smell of a crisply printed book, the warmth of clothes fresh out of the dryer.
To him, it was the way she was comfortable in her own skin, when she grinned, a left dimple appeared, or the aroma of pastries in the morning, the feeling of happiness one felt when something warm slid into their stomach.
Looking at what makes people joyful nowadays, one might say it didn't take much to make them happy. But to them, those little things were certainly big enough.
Aw. This idea was spawned from my dream job--a little bookstore owner in a big city. Then, my low-maintenance personality kind of took over. I'm a lot like Willa, views wise. I'd be happier with something simple.
Of course, I'm a little different, as I would like to make some mark on the world, but our ideals are pretty much the same. Review and/or fave if you enjoyed--thanks!