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"Pretty," Belinda said quietly to herself as she stood in front of the flawlessly shined window of Lillian's Bakery.
The legendary upscale bakery occupied half the lower level of a building on Chicago's famed Magnificent Mile, likewise owned by Lillian and Henry Drayson, Belinda's grandparents and two of the most inspiring people in her life. Lillian Reynolds-Drayson had begun testing her baking recipes on the customers of Woolworth's cafeteria in the 1950s back when she was still Lillian Reynolds. Demand quickly grew for her delicious cakes and pies, which was a godsend, as she'd recently become widowed and had a son to take care of on her own. Through her unwavering faith and plenty of elbow grease (as Lillian would advise seriously), she was able to save up enough to rent space and open her own bakery. Eventually Lillian's sweets lured in more than just customers, as she met her second husband, Henry Drayson, in 1960 and went on to have two more children. It was the beginning of a legacy, one Lillian had no idea would be born but now cherished with every breath she took.
And that was the number-one reason that Belinda Drayson-Jones worked as hard as she did. If her grandmother, a woman of small stature but big personality, could build this empire from nothing, then Belinda could certainly do her part to make sure the name and the quality it was known for carried on. Even if it meant losing sleep thanks to that awful five-hundred-cupcakes-in-fifty-minutes nightmare she kept having.
Pretty in Pink was the theme of the front window and it was deliciously gorgeous. White netting lined the bottom of the window while pink confetti sparkled among its sheerness. On white pedestals stood three perfectly decorated wedding cakes, each six tiers. One was pink, the other two white. The pink one had been lavishly decorated with cherry blossoms while one of the white ones displayed perfect blush roses in between each tier. The final white cake was one of her cousin Carter's masterpieces with pink satin ribbons and an intricate lace design that covered the entire cake. It was gorgeous and, since the unveiling of the new window design two weeks ago, they'd already received seven orders for that exact cake, to be made by the fabulous Carter Drayson, of course.
With a satisfied smile Belinda made her way into the bakery, letting the stately and elegant decor—complete with its fresh-cut-flower arrangements that were a must as far as Lillian was concerned—welcome her like a second home. Yes, she could come through the back with the rest of the staff, considering they all parked in the same garage just off North Michigan Avenue, but admiring the window and witnessing passersby as they did the same boosted Belinda's pride and gave her that extra push she needed too much recently.
Amber Mitchell, one of the baker's assistants—who also did double duty as the receptionist when Nichelle, the part-time college student, wasn't in—was standing behind the counter flipping through papers in a loose-leaf binder.
"Twelve deliveries and six pickups today," Belinda told her. "The last delivery is the baby-carriage cake going to Congressman Delaney at his condo, and make sure it stays completely covered. He doesn't want his wife to see it," she said, removing the black tailored jacket she wore with black straight-legged pants and a lavender top.
"You memorize every day's orders, don't you?" Amber asked, her doelike eyes intense with curiosity.
"I like to know what's on the agenda. Keeps us ahead of the game," Belinda told her and received a look she knew well.
It was the look her cousins and most of their staff gave her on a daily basis. The one that said she was taking this business entirely too seriously. It was nothing new and didn't really faze Belinda all that much. Her cousins had always thought she was too serious, too intent on being Miss Perfect. That's what Monica would say. Monica was the younger daughter of Lisa and Dwight—Lillian's eldest son. She had a sister named Shari who was actually the only cousin Belinda could confide in—to the extent that Belinda confided in anybody. As for Carter, he was Uncle Devon's son—Uncle Devon being the only one of Lillian's children that never married. Belinda's parents were Matt and Daisy, Lillian's only daughter. Belinda's younger brother was Drake. All of Lillian's grandchildren worked at the bakery. As a matter of fact, they should be in the kitchen in exactly twenty minutes for the emergency meeting Lillian had called. Belinda was early. There was no mystery there; she was always punctual.
"I'll get the slips to the back for the delivery guys to look out for," Amber said.
"Is anyone here yet?" she asked, smoothing down her top and making sure there was no lint on her pants. Black picked up everything, but these were her favorite and most comfortable work pants. She had a busy day today so comfort was her first priority. While most of her clothes carried a designer label and made her five-seven frame look even taller, Belinda knew when to sacrifice the look for the feel. In this case the outfit worked both ways, as the pants were designer, an excellent fit, and would still feel comfortable in about twelve hours when she'd finally be able to leave the bakery. And with that in mind, Belinda resisted the urge to find a mirror and double-check the freshly cut edges of her hair or the quality of the honey-blond streaks she'd been adding for the past two years.
"The meeting's not for another twenty minutes," Amber said with a half smile. "You know that nobody is going to arrive until five minutes before."
Belinda sighed. "Punctuality is a virtue."
"More like an obsession where you're concerned," Drake Drayson-Jones said as he entered the bakery.
Before she could turn completely around, he was already leaning forward, placing a quick kiss on her cheek. "Good morning, sunshine," he said with the grin that had won him the Mr. Congeniality award in his high school superlatives.
"Good morning, Drake," Belinda said, shaking her head at her brother, who always seemed to be in a good mood. "You're early. That's a good look for you."
"I want to make sure my presentation is on point, so I had to get here early."
"Presentation? But Grandma called this meeting. I figured that meant she'd do all the talking."
Drake shrugged, heading behind the counter and taking out a Belgian-chocolate frosted doughnut. Before she could remind him that it wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning and he was too old to have doughnuts for breakfast, Drake had bitten through half and chewed it as if he hadn't eaten in days.
"Grandma's going to talk and then I have a few things to say. It'll be short and sweet, I promise."
"But she never calls a meeting on a weekday, in the bakery for that matter. You know how she is about working when in the workplace. What's going on?"
Drake finished off the doughnut then headed to the other side of the showroom where scents of different-flavored coffees brewed at the coffee bar. This convenience had been added to the bakery about three years ago. With the rise of coffeehouses and internet cafes across the nation, Drake was finally able to convince their grandparents to ride the wave. So far, based on how many coffee sales eventually turned into big bakery orders, it was a great idea.
Belinda followed him, taking a seat at one of the four cafe tables that occupied the space. The quaint little corner not only added ambiance but, thanks to the handpainted mugs on the tabletops, added a touch of art to the bakery that she loved.
Drake followed her lead and took a seat with his cup of coffee in hand.
"This is a special circumstance," he told her.
"One you are dying to tell me about," she said, letting her hands fall to her lap.
Drake shook his head. He looked a lot like their father with his caramel complexion and thick black eyebrows that matched the soft ebony curls, which he kept cut short.
"Not this time. Grandma wants to make the announcement herself."
"That means it's serious," she said quietly.
"And so are you," he told her, reaching forward to tap her on her forehead. He'd done that since she was little. Belinda half hated it and half loved it because it was a warm memory. Things had changed so much since she'd grown up. "Stop overthinking everything. The meeting will go fine and you'll rise to the occasion like you always do."
He was right. She would. Because that's what everyone expected of her.
Malik Anthony straightened his tie. It was silk and several different shades of blue all swirled into a paisley design. He figured it went well with the dark denim of his jeans and the white dress shirt he'd donned especially for this morning's meeting. Immediately thereafter he had a North Carolina Tar Heels T-shirt he would change into for work because Malik hated ties.
He figured that was one good thing to come out of his departure from the NBA—he didn't have to dress in a suit before and after every game. Now, almost eight years later, Malik could joke about the year he'd played professional basketball. He could look back on that time and not feel a deep sense of loss at a dream long gone. Some would say that was attributed to his laid-back demeanor, that he could always brush off things and move on. They weren't entirely wrong. But he readily admitted that brushing off the NBA was one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do.
Since then he'd found a new career. Becoming a pastry chef had not been on Malik's to-do list. In fact, during their years at college while his best friend, Carter Dray-son, had planned to join his family's baking business, Malik had only focused on the fact that Carter always made some banging desserts for their frat parties. Carter would become a businessman, in addition to learning more about the baking craft that had started with him tasting everything that came out of his grandmother's kitchen. He was going to someday either own his family bakery or create his own that would be top-notch because that's the way Carter rolled. As for Malik, it had been all basketball, all the time.
And when that time was gone, he'd had to regroup. Because diving into a pity party for one wasn't his idea of a good time. Instead he'd gone through a year of rigorous rehabilitation, during which time he'd begun taking online courses in, of all things, culinary arts. It was meant as a diversion, to keep his mind off the pain that sometimes threatened his sanity and the loss that could potentially haunt him forever. It wasn't until his therapy was complete that Carter suggested he spend some time at Lillian's Bakery.
Malik had wanted to laugh at the idea of becoming a delivery man after four years of college, a year playing professional basketball and another year taking online courses. But he needed to do something with his time, needed to keep moving or else he'd stand still in that same place for the rest of his life. So he went to work at Lillian's and eight years later he was still there.
No longer delivering the delectable sweets that came out of this world-renowned bakery, today Malik was a senior pastry chef right alongside the Drayson grandchildren. Hence his dressing up today for this very important meeting with Ms. Lillian, a woman Malik had come to love and respect as if she were his own grandmother.
He'd arrived at the bakery early; then again he did that on most days when he had three cakes to go out by noon. The orders were usually split among the chefs unless the customer requested someone in particular—which mostly happened to Carter, who was as smooth and charismatic as he was the absolute best artisan cake designer Malik knew. While each of the senior team were masters at baking and decorating signature cakes, cookies, brownies and fine pastries, they all had somehow managed to find their own niche that was respected throughout the business. As for Malik, his favorite dessert had always been fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies so it was logical that he spent a lot of time developing new cookie recipes. Brownies were a new specialty that he'd been working on, and after a tremendous response from customers to his new flavors, he figured he'd hit on something big in that department.
There was a children's party later today to celebrate one of the local middle schools' production of The Wizard of Oz, so in addition to the three cakes on his schedule, Malik had ten dozen cookies and four dozen mint brownies to bake by three o'clock this afternoon.
He looked at his watch as he moved down the hallway that separated the large kitchen and the offices at Lillian's, and headed toward the showroom. He knew Amber would already be at the front desk since the bakery opened at nine and it was already 8:50 a.m. Now, he would check the display cases to make sure they were full before heading into the meeting—the meeting he hoped didn't take too long.
As he approached the swinging doors to the showroom, Malik heard voices and figured more of the staff was here early this morning. He was just about to enter when he looked through the circular windows first and stopped dead in his tracks.
There should be a law against being so fine and so uptight at the same time. He shook his head as his eyes stayed fixated on her—a pastime he'd long since developed. His body had a systematically physical reaction to seeing Belinda. The heat always started at the top, with a lick of his lips as he swallowed deeply. His chest heaved, his heart rate increasing. Then his fingers clenched because the thought of touching her was almost irresistible. All that pooled into the groin area, causing an undeniable erection. To get rid of it, he'd have to focus extremely hard on something like baseball stats or the last chick flick he'd been forced to watch.
About thirty seconds later his brain would once again take control of his traitorous body and he'd be back to business.
Belinda Drayson-Jones was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. That was a simple fact. Her tall, curvy frame was alluring and the buttery complexion of her skin enticing. But for Malik, it was her eyes that grabbed him by the balls and squeezed so tightly he thought he'd have an aneurysm every time he stared at her. Not just their green color, because he'd seen green-eyed beauties before. No, for him, it was deeper. It was the look of pure sadness that he found in the hazel-flecked depths that kept a stranglehold on him.
Even today, as he finally pushed through the door and walked into the showroom, he could tell she wasn't happy.
"Morning, good people. How are we today?" he asked in his normal upbeat tone as he approached the table where Belinda sat with her brother, Drake.
"Hey, man, glad you're here early. I have something for you," Drake said to Malik as he dug into his leather briefcase and pulled out what looked like a report. "When you get a moment, look that over. I have one for Carter, too. We should meet sometime this week to talk about what we want to do."
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