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By Annabeth Albert
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Annabeth Albert
All rights reserved.
"Are we ready to have our cake and eat it too?" I joked as my clients, Maria and Leah, walked up the sidewalk in front of the bakery. Both of them laughed, which was my intent.
"I'm so nervous," Maria confessed, tossing her long, black hair over one shoulder. "I've never ordered something so fancy."
They were both prone to attacks of nerves about their wedding, and it was my job to reassure them and keep everything running smoothly. I prided myself on taking good care of my clients, so I put on my most reassuring smile.
"This is supposed to be fun. Your cake should be the least of your worries, and Vic's going to take great care of you." I removed their folder from my green Alexander McQueen handbag. Inside the folder, I had all the details for their big day next month, as well as a bunch of design inspiration photos for their dresses, cake, and decor. They might be working on a tight schedule, but these two had definite ideas about how their wedding should go.
I held open the door to the bakery. It was a sunny little building in Southeast Portland, a longtime fixture in this neighborhood, and was recently under new management as Vic, the baker I usually worked with, had become a partner in the business. But the man himself was nowhere to be seen when we entered the storefront.
Instead, the delivery person who had accompanied Vic on the last several weddings I'd planned was working the counter. A cute blond kid, he'd grown a beard since I'd seen him last. I'd assumed previously that he was in his late teens, but the beard made him look older. And yummier. I'd felt guilty macking on him before, but now I could see he was more like twenty-one, maybe twenty-two or -three if I squinted hard. Still younger than me, but a person could look without shame.
"Hi, Todd," I greeted him. I make a point of learning the names of everyone associated with a wedding, even the support staff. It helps that I'm good with names — always have been. That and I enjoy the look of surprised pleasure on someone's face when you remember their name — Todd's eyebrows went up and his mouth quirked. "I'm here with the Ramos-Vienne wedding. Can you let Vic know we're here?"
"Sure thing." He pulled a large glossy binder out from behind the counter. "You guys can look this over while you wait." He had a bit of a Southern drawl and a slow way of talking that made one really pay attention to his words, like each might be extra-important. Not that Todd was much of a talker — our few interactions before, he'd always let Vic handle things.
Thus, I was surprised when a few minutes after we got all settled at one of the tables tucked into the front window area, Todd came back with Vic and took one of the free chairs at the table.
"Hey, Kendall." Vic greeted me with a hearty handshake. I introduced Maria and Leah, who also got handshakes from Vic.
"I asked Todd to join us because I'm training him in more front-counter stuff. I want him to know how we handle a wedding consultation, just in case he has to do one in a pinch." Vic gestured at Todd, who gave a nervous smile that was closer to a grimace. He had a spiral notebook and pen with him, and his expression reminded me of some of my friends facing a test they hadn't studied for.
Vic talked to Maria and Leah about their wedding, a small intimate affair at the Benson, and what they were looking for in a cake.
"Stunning and elegant," I said, taking out the inspiration photos we'd collected. They liked sugar flowers, which was something that Vic specialized in, but they also liked complex yet modern cakes. I couldn't wait to see what Vic dreamed up for them. He started scribbling in his sketchbook, adding and crossing out things as we talked and flipped through the pictures.
"Memorable," Maria added.
"And tasty." Leah laughed.
"Well, we've got tasty covered. Todd, could you fetch the tasting cakes from the case?"
"Sure thing." Todd stood, then hesitated, forehead creasing. He truly was distractingly adorable, even confused. "Hey, Kendall, I've got a carafe of water and cups ready for us. Could you give me a hand?"
He nibbled the corner of his lip and I had a strong feeling he had more than water to hand me. He had that look — the one people get when they're trying to figure me out. Nevertheless, I nodded and followed him to the counter area.
"What's on your mind?" I asked in a low voice once we were out earshot of the others, who were continuing to look at cake pictures. No sense in pretending that he hadn't wanted to talk to me for some reason.
"We work a lot of weddings with y'all." He pulled two plates of samples out of the refrigerated case and set them on the counter. "And I just ..." He shrugged.
A prickle raised up my spine. This could get uncomfortable fast, but even as I felt my shields rising, I still gave him the benefit of the doubt and nodded stiffly. "Yes?"
"I want to make sure I treat you with respect," he whispered. "You know, when I think about you and stuff."
"You think about me?" Despite myself, my voice took on a flirty edge, in part to see if I could make him as uncomfortable as I was.
"Umm." He tugged on his left ear, a most delicious pink blush staining his cheeks. Yeah, he thought about me, probably in ways he'd rather not. "I just mean, I've heard Vic recommend y'all to people looking for a planner."
I nodded. I'd let him pretend that was it.
"I want to make sure I'm using your preferred pronouns, you know? I never know what to use when I'm thinking about you."
Well, wasn't that adorable. I'd been expecting something more blunt, along the lines of the oft-asked Are you a guy or a girl? But Todd looked so beseechingly earnest standing there, chewing his lip. His eyes were serious, like he actually cared about getting this right.
"Pronouns are tricky bastards, but you can use 'he,'" I said. "That's how I identify — a genderqueer gay man." I laid it all out there for him, in part because people who took the time to ask questions always wanted to know everything, including things that were none of their business, like when I'd first embraced my genderqueerness or whether I identified as both male and female or neither. More than one person had asked for percentages, like I did some complex math each morning when getting dressed. But I also wanted to mess with that little flare of interest I'd seen when Todd said that he thought about me. Did he think about me because he'd read me as female? It wouldn't be the first time. Especially when I left my hair down so that the curls brushed my neck, I got more "yes, ma'am" responses and curious looks. Frankly, I loved rocking my androgynous presentation, even if it did sometimes lead to awkward conversations like this.
Todd's face didn't give away a lot, with his eyes staying serious, but his ears flushed a darker shade of pink. "Good to know," he mumbled, not quite meeting my eyes.
That little bit of avoidance made my spine stiffen and my voice harden. "How about you? You have any labels I should know about?"
"Thought you'd already figured me out." He turned his arm over for me, revealing a tattoo on the underside of his forearm. He'd rolled the sleeves of his white bakery jacket up today, but I had a feeling they'd been down the other times I'd seen him as I totally would have remembered that tat — it was a tribal design with a sun at the center, but the sun was rainbow colored.
"Nice." I'd planned Vic's wedding to his husband, Robin, and I knew he liked to hire along the QUILTBAG spectrum, but unlike Todd's assumption, I really hadn't been able to get a read on him. Why would I ...
For when I think about you. Oh. Maybe this wasn't just the ordinary fishing expedition that curious people liked to hit me with all the time. Maybe —
"How's the cake coming?" Vic raised his jovial voice.
"Coming!" Todd scooped up the cake plates, leaving me with the water and a lot of questions.
When I got back to the table, Vic had sketched out a gorgeous cake — square base, round middle, and top tiers with a cascade of orchid-like flowers down the side.
"We want buttercream frosting, not fondant," Maria said as I settled back down. "I already know that."
"Their buttercream is divine. Try it with the espresso-infused cake." I pointed to a sample on her plate. "And remember, this is your day. Go with what you find absolutely delicious for both of you."
"Do you want a slice of something, Kendall?" Vic asked. "Anything you want in the front case, on the house. Todd can get it."
Vic always offered and I usually declined when bringing my clients in, but some little devil made me look directly at Todd. "I think I'll let my brides handle the cake. What do you recommend?" I didn't bat my eyes, but my tone was plenty flirtatious.
"I ... uh ..."
"Todd doesn't eat much sugar," Vic explained, giving me a stern don't mess with my assistant look. Whatever. We'd known each other long enough for him to give me a little leeway.
"I like the new paleo muffins." Todd blushed. His Southern accent got more pronounced when he was flustered. "No refined sugar."
"You can bring me one of them, if it's not too much trouble," I said.
"No trouble at all." His long, loping strides took him back over to the display case. He ducked behind it to grab a muffin and put it on a plate. His bakery coat was too baggy for me to check out his rearview, which was a pity. As he slid me the plate, his eyes lingered on my sweater. It was butter yellow, with a loose weave and plunging V in both front and back. It was one of those pieces in my wardrobe that made me feel invincible. And hot. The tips of Todd's ears blushed as he sat back down. Yeah, he'd noticed the hot part.
I tried to return my attention to Leah and Maria and what flavors would best compliment the rest of the reception food, but I was still aware of Todd, in a way that I hadn't been in a long time.
* * *
Over the next couple weeks I thought about Todd and his sweeter-than-butter-cream questions more than I would have liked, but work kept me busy — and away from the bakery until a rare lazy Saturday with my bestie.
"I don't want coffee," Freya said once we were already walking away from our building.
"What? Are you feeling okay?" I reached over and touched her forehead. Come to think of it, she had been acting a bit off the last few days. "This is what we do. We get coffee."
And by coffee, I meant fancy coffee drinks at our neighborhood place, which let us get in some great people-watching along with single-origin cappuccinos.
"I know, but I'm hungry. I've been doing that low-carb thing again, and all I can think of is carbs. Which I can't have."
"You doing the paleo thing like half the city?" I shook my head, making my hair tickle the back of my neck. It was an off day for me, so I'd left my hair natural and hadn't tried to tame the curls with product. Freya did not need to lose weight in my opinion, but she was convinced she had too much junk in the trunk.
"That's the one. I miss bread."
"Honey, you're perfect. Exactly as you are. You don't have to starve yourself."
"Thanks." She gave me a wan smile.
"Well, at the very least, let's find you something you can eat. The bakery that handles most of my wedding clients has a new paleo muffin. No grains, no refined sugars. It's not bad." Todd's muffins had come to mind immediately. I had a better chance of cheering her up — and giving myself a boost with a possible glimpse of Todd — at the bakery rather than hitting our usual neighborhood coffeehouse.
"Take me there. Now."
"All they have is drip coffee —"
"I don't care. I want muffins."
"Okay, okay." I lived in the newer part of Southeast Portland, but not too terribly far from the older neighborhood that housed Vic's bakery. "We'll have to take my car."
Freya was already turned around and headed for the underground parking at our building. Something about her still seemed a bit not herself, and not simply her sudden craving for carbs. I licked my lips — terrible nervous habit — and then immediately pulled out my clear gloss to fix the damage I'd done before I followed her.
* * *
Once we found parking on a side street near the bakery, my stomach did this weird rumble. Not hunger. And not unease about whatever was going on with Freya that she hadn't told me about. No, the wobbles were all anticipation — something I hadn't felt since long before Lewis, my ex. I wasn't sure whether I wanted Todd to be working the front or not. I hadn't seen him in the three weeks since our conversation during the Ramos-Vienne planning session. I didn't really have room for a lot of distractions in my life, and I needed a good relationship with Vic's bakery — not some weird, awkward shuffle with his assistant. But my uncertainty didn't matter because Todd was indeed working the front.
"Hi, Todd," I said when we approached the counter.
"Kendall! No consultation today, right?" Todd looked ... well, he was the sort of guy who didn't really look eager about anything in life, but his blue eyes lit up and the corners of his mouth lifted into a not-quite smile. The beard gave him a very roguish air and also made it even harder to read his emotions.
"No, I was telling Freya here about your new paleo muffins, and we'd like two, and two coffees with room for cream."
"For here or to go?"
"Here." I pulled my wallet out to pay.
"That's pretty," Todd said, gesturing to the pink embossed leather. His neck, not his ears, flushed this time. I couldn't tell whether he was uncomfortable complimenting a man who carried a purse and pink Coach wallet or whether he was uncomfortable with himself for liking said wallet.
Regardless, it wasn't my problem. "Thanks," I said and accepted our coffees, passing one to Freya. Todd put our muffins on cute little plates with red flowers on them.
We headed to one of the front tables. "Let me know if y'all need me to adjust the blinds," Todd called after us.
I snorted. Only in the Northwest did we fret over what to do with that strange glowing orb in the sky.
Some of the light in Todd's eyes flickered. "I mean ... let me know if there's ... well, anything I could do."
"We'll do that, honey." Freya reached across the counter to pat his bicep. She gets away with stuff like that. Me, I don't like my personal space invaded, so I'm careful to not do it to other people, Freya being a notable exception. We'd known each other a million years, and had the sort of comfortable friendship that should not have had her shifting around, fiddling with her phone and not meeting my eyes.
I waited until we were seated at a table to say, "Out with it."
"The bakery guy likes you."
"Not that," I said, even though it did make my cheeks heat. "And Todd's simply a nice kid."
"He's maybe five years younger. You can totally fish in that pool."
"Enough about him, or he'll hear you," I whispered, resisting the urge to look over at the counter and see what Todd was doing. "Now out with whatever's bothering you."
I needed her to tell me so that together we could solve the problem. It was what I was good at — helping my friends work through both major and minor crises. I knew I could get her back in a better mood.
"Okay." Freya stirred her coffee over-vigorously. "Here's the deal. I can't do the dance classes with you."
"What do you mean? Classes start in two weeks." Freya and I had planned for months to take West Coast Swing dance classes together in prep for a forties-themed charity dinner dance that I had no choice but to attend.
The charity event for the homeless shelter was sponsored in part by my mother's law firm, for which both Freya and my ex-boyfriend worked, Freya as an admin assistant, Lewis as junior associate. I had to make an appearance, and I'd been planning to show off some new dancing skills. Well, more accurately, I'd been wanting to not fall on my face or end up standing there alone, both of which seemed likely now. I'd had this vision of showing Lewis exactly what he was missing and not getting back, but that wasn't happening if I had to languish like some Victorian spinster without a dance partner.
"Kayla — you know, my sister in Tacoma — her husband's still deployed, and she just got put on bed rest with her pregnancy. I'm cashing in all my leave at work, and taking three weeks to go be with her until her husband gets back. I'm leaving tomorrow."
"That makes sense." I sighed. No way could I compete with a little sister in need. "Give my best to Kayla. You need anything for the drive?"
"I'm good." Freya gave me a tentative smile. "You're really not mad?"
"Of course not." I waved such a notion aside with a flick of my wrist. "But, what am I supposed to do now?"
"You already paid for a couples registration, right? Call around — I'm sure one of our friends will dance with you. Or you never know. Maybe you'll meet someone." Her eyes slid to the counter area where Todd was unloading a tray of cream puffs into the glass case.
Excerpted from Danced Close by Annabeth Albert. Copyright © 2017 Annabeth Albert. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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