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Always the Baker, Never the Bride
By Sandra D Bricker
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEmma cradled a single cupcake in her hands and lifted it within inches of her face to examine it with care. How she'd love to take a massive bite out of it and feel that moist, crumbly red velvet cake against the roof of her mouth, a flavorful burst of sweetness, and then the kiss of cocoa.
"You're not thinking of eating that, are you?"
Emma didn't even blink. Her focus remained fixed on the red velvet cupcake.
"Emma Rae? Have you had some protein? Because if you haven't, I'll tackle you right now and take that cupcake away from you."
The corners of her mouth quivered into a half smile before she set the confection on the wire rack beside the others.
"Calm down, Fiona. I'm not going to eat it. But you could let me dream about it for thirty seconds, couldn't you?"
Fee peered over square black glasses, a short fringe of matching ebony bangs dangling inches above them. She stared Emma down, one colorful tattooed arm bent at the elbow, as her fingers drummed an impatient rhythm on her hip. Then she wobbled her head in that familiar way, the one that warned: Next stop, a shaking finger, right in your face.
"How about I go get you a protein shake," her friend suggested. "They have a new sugar-free flavor. Mango."
"Mmmm." Emma forced a sliver of a smile and shrugged.
"Dude, you'll love it. I'll be back in ten."
Emma glanced with longing at the wire rack before she returned to the sink to rinse the cupcake pans.
Diabetes. What a funny and cruel joke for God to play on a baker with a penchant for confections. For her recipes, the sweeter, the better. But Emma didn't partake. She'd won the Passionate Palette Award just last month for her crème brûlée wedding cake—a six-tiered, twenty-four-layer masterpiece filled with sweet custard that inspired one of the judges to remark, "This rocks my world." And yet Emma had never tasted more than a single, ecstasy-inducing bite.
She dreamed of sitting at one of the bistro tables beyond the swinging doors of her kitchen, a cup of coffee before her, a china plate adorned with an oversized hunk of cake, where the sweetness of each bite enveloped her and every forkful inspired a new creation.
The jingle of the front door beckoned, and Emma dried her hands before she abandoned her sugar-glazed dream and pushed through the kitchen door.
"Welcome to the Backstreet Bakery," she greeted the GQ cover model in the $600 suit. "How can I help you?"
"Coffee. Black. And one of those chocolate brownies."
He flicked the shoulders of his jacket with swift brushes that produced sprinkles of moisture. Emma darted a glance out the window; the sky had turned dark and rain drenched the streets.
"I didn't even know it was raining," she commented as she placed a paper doily beneath a large fudge brownie on a Staffordshire-inspired blue-and-white dessert plate.
"Came out of nowhere." He stood before the bakery case and peered at the confections on the other side of the glass.
"You know, these brownies are awesome with hazelnut coffee. Can I interest you in—"
"No, thanks," he said, cutting her off. "Just black."
Emma tried to resist the urge to tempt him further, and she was successful for about twenty seconds. Then, with a charming smile, she extended a glass coffeepot toward him.
"Dark roast. Extra bold. Hazelnut's perfect with chocolate."
He lifted his eyes and glared at her across the bakery case. "Just black. Thank you."
Emma shook her head and slipped the pot back into its place before grabbing the Colombian from one of the adjacent burners.
"Black it is."
He raked his dark hair with both hands, and his milk-chocolate brown eyes met hers without warning. A world of conversation passed between them in one frozen moment. She peeled her gaze away and tried not to stare at the slightly offcenter cleft in his square chin.
"That'll be four dollars and eighteen cents."
He slipped a five toward her and muttered, "Keep the change."
She hesitated, wondering if she should bother to point out that she was the baker and not a waitress. And then she realized the tip was only about eighty cents.
While GQ took his cup and plate and settled at a table near the window, Emma wiped down the counter and started a new pot of decaf.
A happy grunt called her attention back to her customer, and she tripped over the crooked grin he aimed in her direction.
"What's in this?" he asked, wiping a smear of chocolate from the corner of his mouth. "It's fantastic."
"Just your average fudge brownie," she replied, unsuccessful in completely masking her pride. "Well, actually, I use cashews instead of walnuts, and the frosting is a mixture of cocoa and—"
"I'd like half a dozen of them."
"Can you pack them up for me?"
"Sure. But wouldn't you like to try a variety? We also have a really nice blonde brownie with hazelnut cream—"
"What is it with you and hazelnut?" he interrupted. "Are you invested in plantations? I like the fudge brownie. I'd like to purchase six of them. Can you do that for me?"
Emma swallowed the answer that pressed against her lips and instead replied, "Yes, sir. I can do that."
"Good. Thank you."
Fee erupted through the door at just that moment, drenched from the downpour on the other side, oblivious to the obnoxious customer in their midst.
"I didn't get mango," she announced, rounding the bakery case and shaking her wet head until it splashed Emma. "They had the berry one that you like so much, so I got that one. Is that okay?"
"Yep," she replied, accepting the protein shake. "Thanks, Fee. Our customer would like six fudge brownies. Would you package them and collect his payment?"
Before Fee could reply, Emma turned her back and headed for the kitchen to enjoy her shake.
"You know," she heard Fee suggest just as the doors clanked shut behind her, "we have a really nice blonde brownie if you'd like to try a variety."
The snicker that popped out of her was certainly not ladylike.
* * *
Jackson climbed out from behind the wheel of his Altima and tucked the white bakery box of brownies beneath the shelter of his overcoat to protect it from the rain.
The moment he crossed the threshold of The Tanglewood Inn, the familiar cackling of hens greeted him.
"Jackson, you're dray-enched," Georgiann declared in her thick Southern drawl.
"It's rainin' cats and puppies out they-ah," Madeline added.
Norma Jean tossed him a thick, white towel that smelled like flowers. "Dry yourself off, baby bruthah."
All my sisters in one place, at one time. No good can come of this.
"What are you all doing here?" he asked them and then rubbed his rain-soaked face with the towel. "Did I forget something?"
"Norma Jean called us just this morning," Madeline explained. "I can't for the life of me figure out why you didn't rally the troops, Jackson. You know we offered to help you interview for staff."
"I appreciate that, I really do—"
"All evidence to the contrary," she crooned. "Norma said you have hotel staff interviews all day today."
"But, nothing, do you hear me? We'll set up shop in three corners of the restaurant, and we'll just plow through those interviews until we find you just the right people."
Jackson knew better than to argue. He'd learned to choose his battles in cases like this.
Norma Jean Drake Blanchette was the sister closest to Jackson's age, but being raised as the only boy with three older sisters and a single mom left him feeling a little bit like a lone sitting duck on top of a twirling birthday cake.
"What's in the box, Jack?" Georgiann asked. Her smile caused the deep dimples on either side of his mouth to cave in like bread dough pressed with two large thumbs.
Box? He'd almost forgotten.
"The most unbelievable fudge brownies you will ever taste," he announced. "Let's get some coffee set up in the dining room, and I'll grab the résumés from Susannah and meet you in there."
If his sisters were going to force their assistance upon him, the least he could do was wash it down with a few more delectable calories. And he supposed he could share the wealth as well.
The glass elevator up to his office groaned before lifting and then shimmied the rest of the way to the fourth floor. He was relieved when the doors opened at last.
"Coffee?" Susannah asked him as he crossed her office toward his own.
"No, thanks. I'm going to have some downstairs with the Hens."
"I heard they were here."
"You heard?" And then he thought better of it. "Don't tell me. Do you have that file with the résumés?"
"On your desk with your messages."
Jackson dropped into the leather chair behind the large maple desk. Susannah had separated the message slips into two piles, based on priority. Inside the file folder were at least two dozen resumés, paper-clipped and categorized with small blue sticky notes, annotated in his assistant's perfect round handwriting.
Susannah Littlefield was the best thing that had ever happened to Jackson's professional life. She'd been with him for all twelve years at his former job and had agreed to take a gamble and leave the security of corporate America to come along with him on this turkey shoot. Susannah was nearly sixty now, and Jackson was in a state of denial about the fact that she'd be thinking about retirement one day in the not-so-distant future. What in the world would he do then?
Susannah stood in the doorway and adjusted the wire-rimmed glasses on her knob of a nose, and then she smoothed the salt and pepper bun at the top of her head.
"I brought you a brownie," he told her. "But it's in a box downstairs."
"I hope to one day meet it in person," she replied with a grin.
"We live in hope."
Susannah handed him a typed schedule of interview appointments. "They're all confirmed except the two highlighted in blue."
"Thank you, Suzi. You take very good care of me."
"Somebody has to do it," she commented on her way out of his office.
Jackson closed the thick file and tucked it under his arm, waving at Susannah as he strode past her desk. Remembering his elevator ride up from the lobby, he made a quick right and headed for the stairs instead.
When he reached the dining room, Jackson stood in the doorway and observed his three sisters. Georgiann and Madeline had their mother's dark hair, light eyes, and porcelain skin, while Norma Jean's sandy hair and hazel eyes were reminiscent of the father who had passed away much too early with four small children still waiting to be raised.
Jackson watched them doctor up their coffee as they chattered with one another, oblivious to his presence. Each woman had a style that was all her own: George, in her ankle-length floral dress and single strand of perfect pearls; Maddie, wearing a smart sweater and pleated brown trousers; both women flanking Norm in her acid-washed jeans, tucked-in Henley and flat-soled suede boots. Each of them so different from the others, and all of them still polar opposites from the little brother they adored. Jackson knew he was fortunate to have them, a fact that was easy to forget some days.
"Jackson," Georgiann called out to him, waving her arms. "What are you doing standing over they-ah? Come on in and let's get down to business, huh?"
"Did you open the bakery box?" he asked as he joined them at the table.
"We were waiting on you," Norma replied. "But let's have at those brownies."
Madeline poured a cup of steaming coffee and slid it toward him.
"Mm!" Georgiann exclaimed in one short grunt, and then she repeated it. "Mm! These are fantastic. Wherever did you get them?"
"I forget the name of the place. A bakery down near the square."
"The Backstreet Bakery?" Norma asked, savoring her first bite with what appeared to be nothing shy of ecstasy. "Has to be. Oh, I love that little spot."
"Jackson, you've got to steal away their pastry chef for The Tanglewood," Madeline stated. "These are amazing."
"Oh!" he snorted, setting down the cup and shaking his head. "N-nnnno."
"I met their baker, and she was annoying."
"Oh, come on," Georgiann drawled. "How much time could you have spent with her when you stopped in a bakery for a coffee and a sweet? Really, Jackson. How annoying could she be?"
"Ha!" he blurted. "Pretty annoying."
Well. Besides those exceptional green eyes, and the chestnut silk she wore pulled back into a casual ponytail.
"No kidding. She was pushy and tried to sell me something I didn't even want." The flour-dusted woman's green eyes flickered across his recollection, and Jackson shook his head. "And she has a strange preoccupation with hazelnut."
"Oh, I love hazelnut."
"Fine. But she's not an option for The Tanglewood," he declared. "Let's move on. Here are the resumés for the interviews, and the candidates should start arriving in about thirty minutes. George, why don't you make recommendations for the bellmen, and—"
"Can I have another?" Norma asked, dipping her hand toward the bakery box.
"No." He laughed, snapping the lid shut before she could reach inside. "I'm saving one for Susannah."
"There are two in there," she objected.
"The delivery guy gets the last one."
"They were delivered?"
"Yes. By me."
"Here. Console yourself with résumés for the restaurant positions. Maddie and I will talk to the desk applicants."
"Sweet tooth abuser!" Norma playfully accused.
"Just saving you from yourself," he said, tying up the box with the length of white string.
"Saving you from yourself," Georgiann repeated, and then she clicked her tongue. "More like saving the brownie for yourself."
"Yeah. There's that," he replied. And with one defiant flicker of a smile, he popped the last of the brownie into his mouth.
Excerpted from Always the Baker, Never the Bride by Sandra D Bricker Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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