I licked my lips, tasting the sweetness, and groaned with pleasure. So good. So creamy. So perfect. I licked again, closing my eyes and relishing in the exquisite taste on my tongue. I inhaled, letting all my senses join in on the pleasure filling my mouth. I ran my tongue over my lips, getting the corners of my mouth and savoring every drop of goodness.
“The candy man can,” I sang out in what was probably the worst impression of Sammy Davis, Jr. ever. It was the song I always sang when I was working. I was the candy man.
“Who can make a sunrise?” I murmured, swaying back and forth as I added a layer of chocolate over the confections I had made.
It was an experiment with new tastes. I loved making candy. It was what I did. My dad used to tease me I had chocolate running through my veins. I tended to agree. I was mildly obsessed with candy. Not eating it—making it. Creating it.
“The candy man can,” I sang the lyrics to one of my favorite songs.
I had my own private lab. I liked privacy. I liked being alone. People thought I was eccentric. Maybe I was. I preferred my own company over others. I liked being in my lab with hundreds of ingredients at my fingertips. It was where I felt most comfortable.
I looked at the formed chocolate and smiled. It was different. It was unique. It was unlike anything else I had ever seen on the market—but would it be a hit? I made my version of a French fry dipped in a chocolate milkshake.
There was a rap on the glass. I looked up to see my friend and spokesperson for Saunders Sweet Treats staring at me through the window. I gestured for him to come in.
“Hey,” he greeted, staring at the neat row of chocolate fries. “I don’t even want to know.”
I grinned. “This is going to be good.”
“You say that every time,” he pointed out. “Last time you gave me a Buffalo Wild Wing inspired candy that nearly killed me.”
“This isn’t spicy, though,” I said, looking down at the little chocolates and letting my mind drift into new flavor profiles.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Chocolate dipped French fries,” I answered proudly. “Not actual French fries but a salty nougat that tastes like a French fry.”
He shook his head. “Gross.”
“Come on, give it a try. You can’t tell me you’ve never dipped a French fry in your milkshake.”
He raised one of his bushy black eyebrows that looked like a furry caterpillar resting above his eye. “I can tell you that. That’s disgusting.”
“You’re crazy. Try it.”
“You try it,” he shot back.
I smiled. “I have tried it. I created the thing. Of course, I’ve tried it.”
He grimaced, reaching out and pulling one of the fries off the sheet. “I swear, if this thing makes me sick, I’m going to make you pay.”
I shrugged. “We’ll see.”
He closed his eyes and took a bite. I watched his expression, studying every little nuance. I looked for any sign he didn’t like it. He opened his eyes and looked at me, popping the rest of it in his mouth. “Not bad.”
I nodded. “Told you.”
“It isn’t great, but it isn’t total shit.”
“High praise,” I said with a small laugh.
“We have a school tour coming through,” he said.
I shook my head. “No thanks.”
“Theo, this is kind of your thing. You need to make an appearance.”
I curled my lip. “I hate those things.”
“You’re the head of the company. You’re the real-life Willy Wonka. Kids are interested in you. They want to see the man behind the myth. They want to see if you truly exist. You’re kind of an enigma.”
I shook my head. “No.”
I went back to covering the remaining “fries” with the creamy milk chocolate, doing my best to ignore him. He always insisted I meet the kids. I didn’t mind the kids. It was the looks from the adults I hated. They all looked at me like I was a freak of nature.
“Theodore Saunders,” he said, using my full name.
I gave him the side-eye, my blue side-eye. I was a little bit of a freak of nature, I supposed. My eyes were different colors. It was like DNA got confused during my creation. I had one blue eye, the left, and one green eye. “No.”
“Five minutes,” he insisted.
“What grade?” I asked without looking at him.
I groaned. “That is the worst age group. Preteen little shits are ruthless. They have no manners. They’re too old to be given a free pass for being rude and too young to kick their asses.”
He laughed. “I never knew you could be violent.”
I put down the spoon and turned to look at him. “Kids that age are trying to prove themselves. They are always trying to one-up each other. Dares, ugly jokes, and downright nasty attitudes plague that age group. They all want to be popular in high school and figure the only way to do that is to step on the kids around them like they were nothing more than a footstool on their rise to the top.”
“I think you’re being a little dramatic.”
“I think you and I had very different experiences in the eighth grade. I was always the freak with weird eyes. I couldn’t gain weight, even if I ate nothing but chocolate for a week. I sucked at sports. I was shy and awkward, and those kids made sure I knew every single one of my character flaws. They took great pleasure in making fun of me.”
Sawyer let out a sigh. “You’re not that awkward little kid anymore. You’re the owner of a very successful company. You’ve got more money than god, and I think it’s safe to say you’ve grown into your ears.”
I scowled at him. “I didn’t say anything about my ears.”
“Oh, well, they work for you. Consider yourself lucky that you’re lean. Not everyone needs to be a buff bodybuilder. You’re tall, in good shape, and the eye thing could really work for you if you ever gave it a chance.”
I scowled at him. “Not with the kids, it won’t.”
The sound of an alarm cut through the air. “Shit,” I mumbled before walking out of my lab and following the sound to the room we had set up specifically for tours. “Every damn time, Sawyer.”
“It isn’t every time,” he said, quickly catching up to me as I took long strides down the hall of my sprawling factory.
I pushed open the doors that led into the interactive portion of the factory tour. There was a commotion in the corner. Sawyer and I both walked toward the action. I groaned, rolling my eyes and shaking my head when I saw what had happened.
I turned to look over my shoulder at Sawyer, who had a grimace on his face. “That can’t be good,” he said.
I turned to look back at the kid with his head stuck in a vacuum tube. It was only the top half of his head, and he wasn’t in any real danger. His shaggy hair was sucked into the clear tube, giving him the look of someone who had stuck his finger in a light socket. He was hollering and making a real fuss, but there was no way he was actually hurt. He was scared.
Good. He should be scared. Dumbass.
“I’ll shut it off,” I said with a sigh before stepping behind the barricade that the kid had gone over to get to the candy-wrapper vacuum.
“Hurry!” a woman shrieked. “He’s dying!”
I stopped and turned to face her. “He’s not dying. Do you see this barricade? It’s here for a reason. Maybe he should learn some respect for boundaries.”
Her mouth fell open. “I—”
Sawyer stepped in front of her. “It’s under control. He’s in no danger.” He turned to look at me. “Shut it off.”
I rolled my eyes again and stepped behind the machine to turn it off. With a soft whoosh sound, the machine shut down. I could hear Sawyer trying to talk with the chaperone and calm her down. In my opinion, she sucked. What kind of chaperone didn’t pay attention to what was happening with the kids she was supposed to be watching?
I stepped around the machine and found the kid frantically trying to smooth his hair down. It was futile. “Not gonna help,” I told him.
He frowned. “That’s a stupid machine.”
“I don’t think a machine can be stupid,” I replied. “What are you doing back here?”
He shrugged. “They dared me to.”
“I guess that didn’t work out too well for you, did it?”
“I didn’t know the machine was on!”
“Why do you think there is a rail and the big sign that says not to get near the machine?”
He shrugged again. “I don’t know.”
“Here’s some advice. Don’t let them convince you to do things that you know are stupid. It gets you nowhere in life. These guys aren’t your friends if they’re telling you to do stuff you know is wrong.”
He sneered at me. “Says the candy nerd,” he scoffed and crawled back over the barricade.
I glared at the little shit. The chaperone shot me a dirty look before wrapping her arm around the boy’s shoulders and leading him away as if he’d been injured. I moved to stand next to Sawyer, watching the rest of the little brats meander around the area.
“I should have left his head in the thing,” I muttered.
Sawyer jabbed me with his elbow. “Stop.”
“You wanted me in here. I’m here. I can see I made a real impression on the little punks.”
He sighed and shook his head. “I’ll handle this. Go back to your candy.”
“Thanks. Isn’t that what I pay you to do anyway?”
“Goodbye, Theo,” he said and walked away.
I looked at the twenty or so kids moving around the huge room, checking out the displays and helping themselves to the free candy that was left out. I thought I was giving the kid some good advice. Clearly, I had been mistaken. I would have liked it if someone had taken the time to tell me that the shit I dealt with as a kid wasn’t what defined me.
Watching the other kids push and shove the boy who’d gotten his head stuck in the tube made me feel sad for him. He had years of torture ahead of him. I walked back to my lab, happy to be free of my duty of entertaining kids.
When they looked at me, I always felt like that awkward kid from my childhood. I didn’t feel confident in my own skin.
I seemed to attract the attention of some very beautiful women, and I had dated a few of them, but I didn’t feel like it was based on my looks or my personality. It was based on my wallet. Sawyer had assured me it was my own insecurities that led me to think that way, but I wasn’t quite as sure.
Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw the guy with different-colored eyes and no style. I wore T-shirts and jeans most days, neither of which were overly stylish. I wore what was comfortable. My hair was probably too long for a man of my standing, but it was what I liked. Short hair made me feel naked and vulnerable, and maybe, just maybe, it made me a little self-conscious about my ears.
“Good morning, Mr. Saunders,” one of the new interns said as she passed me in the hall.
“Please, call me Theo. You say Mr. Saunders, and I start looking around for my dad.”
She smiled. “All right, Theo it is. Can I do anything for you?”
I shook my head. “No thank you.”
“How about some coffee?” she asked.
She was flirting. “No thanks. I need to get back to my lab.”
She nodded, looking a little disappointed before moving on. She was an attractive woman but young. I was thirty-five and long past the days of flirting with the pretty new interns. I had to be careful. One wrong move and I would find myself slapped with a lawsuit.
It didn’t mean I couldn’t look. I could look, but I couldn’t touch.