Melanie Cooper has zero interest in catering her fifteen-year high school reunion, but Angie insists it's only right that they bask in the success of Fairy Tale Cupcakesand Mel's engagement to the delicious Joe DeLaura is the cherry on top!
Everything is going better than expected until Cassidy Havers, resident mean girl and Mel's high school nemesis, picks a fight. No longer willing to put up with Cassidy's bullying, Mel is ready to tell the former homecoming queen to shut her piehole and call it a night. But as Mel and Joe prepare to depart, Cassidy is found dead in the girl's bathroom, next to a note written in lipstick that points right to Melmaking her the prime suspect.
Now, Mel must follow the clues to find the real killer and keep her reputation from being frosted for a crime she didn't commit.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jenn McKinlay
At the screechy noise, Melanie Cooper squeezed her pastry bag too tight and frosting shot out of the tip into a big glob on top of the cupcake she was decorating for a wedding the next day.
“Angie DeLaura, what was that?” she asked. She blew her blond bangs off her forehead as she glared at her business partner, who had just come running through the swinging doors from the front of the bakery into the kitchen, where Mel was working.
“That’s Angie Harper to you, and”—she paused to strike a pose and fan herself with a large envelope and fancy-looking invitation before she continued—“to everyone else we graduated high school with fifteen years ago.”
“Huh?” Mel frowned at her recently married petite brunette friend.
“Our fifteen-year reunion,” Angie said. She pointed to the envelope in her hand. “It’s coming up and guess who they want to bake cupcakes for it?”
Mel stared at her childhood friend who was the sister of her heart. How could she put this as tactfully and delicately as possible?
“No.” Mel used a rubber spatula to scrape the glob off the ruined cupcake and flicked it into the large garbage bin to her right.
“What?” Angie froze in mid-fan. “What do you mean, no?”
“I have no intention of baking cupcakes for those people,” Mel said.
She bent over the cake in front of her. It was a red velvet cupcake with cream-cheese frosting. She was keeping it simple and working the frosting in a thick smooth swirl that she then sprinkled with small red hearts. Just the thought of going to her high school reunion made her want to mainline the frosting and shove a whole cupcake into her mouth like a boss.
“But . . . but,” Angie stammered. It was clear she hadn’t anticipated this sort of response, which boggled Mel, but she continued on.
“No buts,” she said. “You’re welcome to go to our reunion but I refuse.”
“Mel, I don’t think you’re grasping the big picture here.”
“Oh, I’m grasping it and I’m tossing it away.”
“But look at us,” Angie said. She swung her arms wide to encompass the kitchen and beyond. “We’re hugely successful. We have franchises all over the country. That gives us a moral imperative to show up at our reunion.”
“Mel, I know there were some people who hurt your feelings back in the day—”
“Hurt my feelings?” Mel straightened up. She grabbed a pinch of heart-shaped sprinkles and didn’t so much sprinkle them as threw them onto the freshly piped frosting. She stared at her friend. “Angie, they called me ‘Melephant,’ they bullied me about my weight, and Cassidy Havers, in particular, wrote my name in all of the boys’ bathrooms with my phone number. She was vicious and mean and cruel and if I never see her again, it will be too soon.”
“She’s Cassidy Havers-Griffin now,” Angie said.
“Yes, as in Daniel Griffin.”
“She married Danny?” Mel asked. She felt her old high school crush spread its wings and rise out of the ashes of her adolescent heart like a phoenix. “When?”
“A couple of years ago,” Angie said. “I think you were in Paris at culinary school at the time.”
“And you didn’t mention it?”
Angie just looked at her and Mel nodded. Yeah, she wouldn’t have told Angie if her high school crush had gotten married, either. Oh, wait, her crush had been Tate Harper and he had gotten married six months ago. To Angie.
“But you’re going to marry Joe,” Angie said. “And you had a much deeper and longer-lasting crush on Joe than on Danny, right?”
“Well, of course, but I can’t believe he married her,” Mel said. She shuddered. “I mean, he was captain of the basketball team and totally out of my league in high school, and she was the homecoming queen, so I guess it makes sense, but I always hoped he’d meet someone . . .”
Mel’s voice trailed off. She was not going to say it out loud.
“More like you?” Angie guessed.
This was the problem with besties, they knew you too well.
“No, not like me,” Mel said. She felt the need to protest even though they both knew she was full of it. “But someone more like me than her.”
“Uh-huh,” Angie said. She lowered her head and glanced at Mel through her eyelashes. “I can’t believe you’re going to let Cassidy Havers keep you from our reunion.”
“Don’t even try it,” Mel said. “You can’t manipulate me into going. You’re not that good.”
“But what about the commission?” Angie asked. “Five hundred cupcakes with little fifteens on them and we can do them in the school colors of gold and black. They will look so cool and we can use them on our website for advertising and get even more reunion jobs.”
“Nope,” Mel said. “I’m not interested.”
She frosted several more cupcakes and added the sprinkles. Angie didn’t move. She just stood there, glaring. Mel knew she was formulating her argument to get Mel on her side. It was never going to happen. Not only because Angie didn’t have her older brother Joe DeLaura’s lawyerly gifts but also because Mel would not be budged on this. She had less than no interest in seeing anyone from her graduating class. Ever.
“So, the idea of strutting into our reunion, looking amazing, as a successful business owner and renowned pastry chef doesn’t appeal to you in the least?” Angie asked.
“Not even a little,” Mel said. “I could not care less what those people think.”
“And the thought of sashaying into the room on prominent assistant county attorney Joe DeLaura’s arm, while flashing that dazzling sparkler of a ring he gave you, does nothing for you, either?” Angie asked.
“Not a thing,” Mel said. “I’m thrilled to be engaged to Joe but he’s not a trophy husband.”
“You sure about that?” Angie asked. “Because I’m pretty sure every woman in our high school, including a few of the teachers, had a thing for Joe.”
It was true, Mel had to concede that, but she wasn’t about to say it out loud or Angie would have her at the reunion so fast her cupcakes would have whiplash.
“I’m sure Joe would be flattered to hear that,” she said.
She hefted one large tray of cupcakes onto her shoulder and carried it to the walk-in cooler for delivery tomorrow morning. When she came back out, she noted that Angie had her chin set in a defiant tilt. Oh, boy, she wasn’t going to let it go. Mel lifted the second tray and carried that one into the cooler as well.
There was no avoiding Angie as Mel began to clean the steel worktable. Cupcakes were a gloriously messy business. She glanced down at her apron to find some dollops of frosting stuck on the front. She smiled.
Despite what she’d said to Angie, she was thrilled with how successful their enterprise Fairy Tale Cupcakes had become and would have loved to brag about it. When she had started the business with her two childhood best friends, Angie DeLaura—now Harper—and Tate Harper, a few years ago, she had never envisioned the level of success they had achieved. She knew a lot of it was because of Tate’s brilliant business acumen, but she didn’t think he could have made them a success if the product she toiled over, the cupcakes, wasn’t top notch.
“You realize you’re forcing me to go there,” Angie said.
Angie blew out a breath. “Mel, don’t you want to show off you?”
Mel tipped her head to the side. She felt like a dog hearing a high pitched whistle. “Come again?”
“You. Look at you,” Angie demanded.
Mel glanced down. She noted the hot pink apron, the frosting blobs. Oh, there was a sprinkle stuck in a glob. She flicked it off into the garbage. Beneath the apron, she was the same old Mel in denim capris, slip-on Vans in the chevron pattern, and a plain blue T-shirt. Sexy, she was not. Comfortable, she most definitely was.
“I’m not seeing where you’re going with this,” she said. She gestured to her ensemble. “This is not exactly show-off worthy.”
“Yes, it is. Mel, this is your chance to show them what you look like now,” Angie said. Her voice was soft as if she was trying to say it in a way that wouldn’t offend Mel. Sadly, there was no way to say it without offense.
“You mean I should go to the reunion because I’m thinner than I was back then,” Mel said. Her voice was tight. “I should hold my head high, wearing my size six, sometimes eight, and trot around the room, letting everyone have a good look at the new and improved Melanie Cooper? Is that where you’re going with this?”
Angie shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Aw, come on, don’t be bashful. You opened this can of worms,” Mel said. “What do you think will happen if I do that?”
“You’ll have the last laugh,” Angie cried. There was a fierce light in her brown eyes. “You’ll arrive a hugely successful pastry chef, about to marry a gorgeous district attorney, and you will positively stun them with how beautiful you are.”
They stood staring at each other. Mel gave her friend a small smile. “I love that you see it playing out that way. You really are such an idealistic optimist. Here’s the problem. That’s never going to happen.”
The kitchen doors banged open and Marty Zelaznik, the bakery’s octogenarian counter help, stood there with his scrawny arms on his hips and his bald head glowing like a beacon.
“Hey, Ange, how about a little help out there? The lunch rush came and you vamoosed. I’ve got people lined up to the door,” he said. He looked at Mel. “Wouldn’t kill you to come out and help, either.”
“Fine,” Mel said. She walked around the table to follow him back into the bakery.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Angie said. She was hot on Mel’s heels. “We’re not done here.”
“Yes, we are.”
“Walk and talk, people,” Marty barked. “We have customers waiting.”
They pushed through the swinging doors and sure enough, there was a line now going out the door. Most were calmly waiting but a few of them looked irritated. Never a good thing.
“Hi, how can I help you?” Mel asked the first person in line.
“I need a dozen cupcakes,” the woman said. She was twenty-something, dressed in a pale green suit that brought out the red in her blond hair. “But I don’t know what kind to get. I’m meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time and I’m terrified. Cupcakes will help, right?”
“Absolutely,” Mel said. “If his parents don’t appreciate a dozen cupcakes from us, then you’re far too good for them.”
The girl laughed and Mel guided her in picking out a solid dozen with a dairy-and-gluten-free option thrown in just in case there were some dietary intolerance issues. Then it was on to the next customer and the next. The business did not stop Angie from badgering her about the reunion, however.
“We could rent a limo,” Angie said while boxing up an order.
Mel tried to avoid the discussion but Angie was persistent.
“How about we get Mean Christine to do our hair and makeup?” Angie asked while Mel rang up a customer. “She always makes us look amazing.”
“Oh, I’ve been to Christine’s,” the customer said. “She can roll back the years like nobody’s business.”
Mel shoved the box of cupcakes at the woman, who lifted her eyebrows, took the box, and left.
“Angie, I am not going,” Mel said. “I don’t know how many ways I can say this to make you understand.”
“You’re just being difficult,” Angie said. She crossed her arms over her chest with such a look of immovability she could have sprouted roots.
“No, I’m not,” Mel protested. “You can go with Tate. You don’t need me there.”
“Yes, I do,” Angie cried. “You’re my best friend. Besides, our whole business is successful because of you. We need to be there together to represent.”
“‘You know, even though I had to wear that stupid back brace and you were kind of fat, we were still totally cutting edge,’” Mel said.
“Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” Angie identified the movie quote. It was a longtime game between them as movie lovers to stump each other with movie quotes. “I have been waiting for you to bust that out since I mentioned the reunion.”
“What reunion?” Olivia Puckett, Marty’s squeeze, asked as she entered the bakery, which had finally cleared out.
“Our fifteen-year high school reunion,” Mel said.
“Fifteen?” Olivia looked them up and down. “I’d have thought you were on twenty by now.”
Angie emitted a low growl from her throat. Mel instinctively stepped in front of her to block her from Olivia.
“Why are you here?” Mel asked Olivia with narrowed eyes.
“I’m taking my honey out for a late lunch,” Olivia said. She blew a kiss at Marty and he leapt into the air, pretending to catch it. Mel hope he didn’t slip a hip with that maneuver.
“Gagging,” Angie said. “I’m actually gagging.”
Olivia gave her a dark look. “What’s the matter, short stack? Is the bloom off your newly wedded rose?”
This time Mel wrapped an arm around Angie’s head and pulled her in close. She supposed it could technically be called a headlock, but it prevented Angie’s wildly swinging fist from connecting with Olivia’s nose, so Mel figured it was for the greater good.
“Now, Liv, be nice,” Marty said. “Mel is having issues because she’s too chicken—bock bock—to face her old classmates at her reunion.”
Mel dropped her arm and Angie careened forward. Olivia side-stepped behind a table just in time.
“I am not chicken!” Mel protested.
That brought Angie up short and she whirled around to look at Mel as if she could not be serious. “Yes, you are! Otherwise, why don’t you want to go? Brittany Nilsson is coordinating the whole thing and she says just about everyone has RSVP’d yes. She was so excited about your cupcakes.”
“Like I care what Brittany Nilsson thinks of my cupcakes,” Mel scoffed. “I have no reason to go. I don’t care about high school or any of those lame people. I kept in touch with the people who were my friends and that’s all that matters.”
“That’s me and Tate,” Angie said. She held up two fingers.
“Exactly,” Mel said. “Why do I need anyone else?”
Olivia glanced back and forth between them like she was watching a ping-pong match.
“You’re talking about turning down a job for five hundred cupcakes!” Angie raised her hands in the air as if she had hit her exasperation breaking point. “Most of these people we graduated with are local or still have family here. The potential for more business from this reunion is huge.”
“I don’t care,” Mel said. “I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to see any of those people ever again.”
“You’re just being stubborn,” Angie said.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Well, I’m going to lunch,” Marty said. “Liv, you ready?”
Mel glanced at Olivia, who was suddenly quiet. She had her back to them and was whispering into her phone. Mel stepped closer so she could hear.
“Yes, I’m the owner of Confections bakery. I hear you need five hundred cupcakes,” Olivia whispered.
Angie’s eyes went wide. She waved her arms like she was indicating that the bridge was out. “Now see what you’ve done, Olivia is going to scoop our job.”
“Not on my watch,” Mel said. She stepped around Olivia and snatched the phone out of her hand. “Hello?”
“Hi, Ms. Puckett? Is everything all right?”
“There’s no Ms. Puckett here,” Mel said. “This is Melanie Cooper, owner of Fairy Tale Cupcakes.”
“Oh my god! Mel! Hi, this is Brittany Nilsson, remember me? Go Devils!”
Mel closed her eyes. It was impossible not to remember Brittany. She was the most school-spirited person Mel had ever known. Short, stout, and with a walk that was militarily precise, she chanted peppy slogans that sounded more like orders being barked. During spirit week, she positively ruled school-color day, crazy-hair day, and dress-like-twins day. She was in two words: too much.
“Hi, Brittany,” Mel said. “Of course I remember you.”
Olivia made to snatch her phone back but Mel turned away from her. She heard a grunt and an oomph and guessed that Angie had blocked another attempt.
“So, Angie tells me you’re quite the culinary wizard, so here’s what I’m thinking: five hundred cupcakes with little glittery fifteens on them,” she said. “And could you make a variety of flavors? Chocolate cake with vanilla icing is so 2010.”
Mel glanced over her shoulder. Marty and Angie had each hooked one of Olivia’s arms, holding her back. The light in her eyes was fierce, and Mel realized she could give this huge order to Olivia and walk away but, no, she couldn’t. They’d been baking rivals ever since the day Mel had opened her shop and even though Olivia was dating Marty, it hadn’t changed one bit. Mel would be frosted by her own pastry bag before she’d willingly give Olivia her business.
“That sounds great, Brittany,” Mel said. “I’ll email you an invoice.”
She hit end on the call and tossed the phone back to Olivia, who yanked her arms free and caught it. Mel then glanced at Angie. “You win. We’re going and we’re making the cupcakes.”
“Yay!” Angie jumped up and down and clapped. Then she turned to Olivia and the two women exchanged a high five. “Nice work, Puckett.”
“Thank you,” Olivia said.
“What?” Mel snapped. “This was a setup? You two set me up?”
Olivia shrugged. “Sometimes you just need a hard shove to the back to do the right thing. Come on, handsome, I’m so hungry I could eat a bear.”
“Right behind you,” Marty said. He glanced at Mel. “For the record, I had no idea about any of this.”
Mel turned to Angie. “Oh, the betrayal! How could you?”
“How could I not?” Angie asked. “Mel, it’s our fifteen-year high school reunion and we’re getting paid a fortune to show up and show off. Honestly, if you hadn’t caved in under the Olivia competition maneuver, I was planning to clunk you on the head and drag you to the reunion bound and gagged if I had to.”
“You’re mental.” Mel shook her head. “This is really that important to you?”
“Yes.” Angie studied Mel’s face and added, “Cheer up, this is a huge event and we are going to rock it. I mean, it’s been fifteen years since we’ve seen any of those people—what could possibly go wrong?”
“How did you get talked into this again?” Joe asked as he straightened his tie.
“Your sister manipulated me with Olivia Puckett’s help,” Mel said. They were parked in the large lot adjacent to the resort where the reunion was being held. “I’m still mad at her.”
“It’s been weeks. That’s a pretty long time to hold a grudge,” he said.
Mel gave him a dark look.
Joe raised his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender and said, “But, of course, I’m completely on your side.” He leaned over the console and kissed her quick. “Have I told you that you look beautiful tonight?”
“Three times,” Mel said. Then she smiled at him. “Thank you. But fair warning, you may have to say it a couple hundred more times to get me through this evening. I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“Nervous?” he asked.
“Terrified,” she said. She made no move to get out of the car and Joe seemed to be waiting to follow her lead. She loved that about him. He never rushed her. She took his hand in hers and said, “There’s something I need to tell you.”
“All right,” he said. He paused with his head tipped to the side, as if he had all the time in the world for her to be ready. As the middle of Angie’s seven older brothers, Joe was the family mediator and a master at patiently guiding people where they needed to go. Oh, how she loved this man.
Mel shifted in her seat, trying to find her courage. She hated this. She didn’t want to have to tell him all of the humiliating stuff from her teen years. A flash of anger towards Angie flared up in her. She could have just gone on with her life, never admitting any of this but, no, here she was getting ready to face her old nemesis and there was no way she couldn’t prepare Joe for the drama that was likely to unfold. It would be like sending him barefoot into a snake pit.
“The thing is, I wasn’t exactly homecoming queen material back in the day,” Mel said. “In fact, I was more likely to be confused with the float that the homecoming queen rode on, or at least that’s what our homecoming queen, Cassidy, liked to say to me.”
Joe blinked. Mel knew she had just changed his perspective of her entirely. He probably didn’t remember that when she was a teenager she was on the heavy side—understatement—and that her weight had been a burden for her throughout high school and most of college, until she nearly starved herself to death. If anything, he remembered her as Angie’s chubby friend, not the most flattering image but not entirely accurate, either. She’d been more than chubby.
After a miserable stint in the corporate world, she decided to follow her bliss and quit the insanity of crazy starvation diets and went to Paris to study cooking. It was there that she learned to have a healthy relationship with food. And it was after that that she reconnected with Joe, who was four years older, and who now knew her as a grown-up and a woman who knew who she was and how to manage her emotional eating—mostly.
“Cassidy?” Joe asked. One eyebrow was lowered in what she recognized as his unhappy face.
“Havers,” Mel said. “Although, Angie told me she’s Cassidy Havers-Griffin now.”
“And she was your homecoming queen?”
“Yes,” Mel said. “I know she was four years behind your class but you probably saw her at the annual homecoming football game. She was a vivacious redhead, with big bazooms and a cute little button nose, and huge blue eyes. She looked like a fairy princess.”
“Sounds like she was more the villainess in this story,” he said. “Please tell me you shoved her face-first into a bowl of pudding or stuck a kick me sign on her back.”
Mel burst out laughing. “No, I was too shy and timid back then. Mostly, I remember trying to shrink myself in all directions. I used to walk with my elbows tucked in and my head down.”
A soft look came over Joe’s face. “I wish I had been there. I would have protected you.”
Mel was horrified and shook her head. “Oh, no, that would have done me in. I could barely string together a sentence whenever I saw you at your parents’ house as it was. You were Angie’s older brother, the impossibly handsome and kind Joe DeLaura, and I was crushing on you so hard. It would have killed me if you’d witnessed any of my humiliation.”
He raised his eyebrows. Mel was not going to get into it. She waved her hand and said, “Dumb stuff. No big deal.”
“It doesn’t sound like no big deal,” he said. “Especially if it still hurts you. Do I have to punch someone into the ground tonight?”
“No, really, it doesn’t hurt me anymore,” she said. “I just want you to be prepared if we go in there and people don’t remember me or they’re not kind; it’s because I was definitely an outlier in high school, as were Angie and Tate, which is why we’re such good friends.”
“And yet Angie is very excited to attend the reunion,” Joe said. “Why is that?”
Mel glanced down at her hands in her lap. “Because Angie probably would have been popular if she hadn’t chosen me as her best friend. I was the fly in the pie there. But Angie is so loyal, she always put me first. I think she’s eager to show everyone how successful we are, whereas I—”
“You what?” Joe asked.
Mel felt her throat get tight. Damn it. She didn’t want to cry but this whole thing was much harder than she’d expected. The truth was she’d been bullied mercilessly by Cassidy and her squad and the wounds still cut deep.
“I just don’t want to get hurt,” Mel said. “I don’t want to be that sad girl who felt so ugly and unattractive all through school. It’s taken me so long to leave her behind me, and I’m afraid if I walk in there, I’ll be her again.”
Joe cupped her cheek and pulled her close. He kissed her forehead, her cheek, and then her lips. “Listen, I don’t think you should let go of that girl. She made you who you are, who, for the record, is funny, smart, kind, and a stunner of a woman. That girl needs you to embrace her and love her.”
“But she was weak,” Mel said. “You know, I realized when I got older that I wasn’t bullied because I was overweight—okay, I was—but it was more because I was sensitive. The bullies enjoyed torturing me because they knew they would get a response. They knew they could make me cry. I was such a target because my feelings were so easily hurt.”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you, and I would go back in time and save you from that if I could,” he said. “Even if you hadn’t wanted me to. But that sensitive girl, that shy young lady who was so easily hurt, she’s one of the reasons I love you.”
Mel rolled her eyes. She knew a bunch of bologna when she heard it.
“Hear me out,” Joe said. “You are a beautiful woman, and I’ve thought that for a very long time, even before you and Angie teamed up to open the bakery and I had an excuse to see you every day.”
The love in his warm brown eyes made Mel’s heart pound triple time. Only Joe had ever been able to do that. He took her hand in his and laced their fingers together.
“But it’s not the pretty package that made me fall completely, stupidly, can’t-breathe-without-you in love with you,” he said.
“Really?” Mel’s voice was high and tight and she had to clear her throat and say again, “Really?”
“Mel, I’ve watched you throw yourself in harm’s way repeatedly to help people of all sorts,” he said. “You hired Oz, a scary-looking teen, and Marty, a cranky old man, and you’ve taken on all six of my brothers when it was warranted. You give so much of yourself to everyone who meets you and you do it with humor and grace and kindness. You are one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and no mean girl from your high school days will ever change my opinion of you. Clear?”
Mel felt a grin burst across her face. “Crystal.”
“Good, now let’s go show them who’s who and what’s what,” he said. He climbed out of the car and walked around it to get Mel’s door.
She took one moment to glance up at the sky and say, “Dad, I know you’ve been gone more than ten years and I don’t know if you have any sway with the forces above, but if you could just make sure I don’t humiliate myself tonight that would be totally rad. Love you.” She kissed the tips of her fingers and touched the roof of the car.
Charlie Cooper, her larger-than-life dad, had passed away when Mel was fresh out of college. There was not a day that went by that she didn’t feel the lack of his bear hugs and booming laugh and she knew if it was at all possible, he would keep her from falling on her face tonight. Feeling marginally better, she took Joe’s hand as he helped her out of the car.
Mel had spent the better part of the day at the beauty salon. Her short blond hair had been poofed, fake eyelashes attached, and smoky eye applied. She was as ready as she’d ever be. She’d even splurged on a blue Shoshanna midi cocktail dress in floral guipure lace, which accentuated her figure and made her feel as if she cleaned up okay. Strappy sandals and a small black clutch completed the look. The narrow heels made walking a challenge and she was happy to have Joe’s arm to lean on.
“Come on, gorgeous, I want to go show off my girl,” he said.
Mel giggled, actually giggled—it was mortifying—but she let him lead her up the stairs and into the resort.
Tate and Angie were waiting for them. Angie raced forward, wearing a darling red cocktail dress and platform stilettos.
“Oh, thank goodness,” she said. “I was just getting ready to text you. I thought you might have decided to ghost.”
“I might still,” Mel said. She hugged her friend. “But I’m here for now. You look fantastic, by the way.”
“Me?” Angie asked. “Look at you. Wowsie wow wow.”
Mel laughed. She glanced at Tate. Like Joe, he was in a dark suit, which made him look like a grown-up, but the mischievous glint was still in his eye when he said, “‘That is so fetch!’”
“‘Gretchen, stop trying to make “fetch” happen. It’s not going to happen!’” Mel retorted.
“Mean Girls,” Angie identified the movie quotes. She looked at her husband. “How appropriate.”
Tate shrugged. “I thought so.”
Mel hugged Angie and then Tate. When she was close enough, she whispered in his ear, “Speaking of mean girls, have you seen her yet?”
“Cassidy?” he asked. He gave her a mock look of horror. “No, not yet. Maybe we’ll get lucky and she won’t be here.”
“Oh, she’ll be here,” Mel said. “She’s probably been waiting for this night since we graduated. It’s another opportunity to put on her tiara and lord it over the rest of us.”
“Who are you two whispering about?” Angie asked.
“Code name: Regina George,” Tate said.
“Oh, you mean Cassi—” Angie began but he interrupted.
“What is the point of having a code name for her if you go and use her real name?” he asked.
“Are you talking about Cassidy somebody or other?” Joe asked.
Angie gasped. “How do you know about her?”
“Mel told me,” he said.
“You told him?” Angie went wide-eyed. “About how she wrote your name and number in all of the boys’ bathrooms?”
“What?” Joe’s head whipped towards Mel.
“I didn’t get into the particulars,” Mel said to Angie. Then she looked at Joe. “It wasn’t that bad. My brother, Charlie, took care of it.”
“Yes, he apparently scribbled out my number and then wrote odes to Cassidy’s generosity with her charms and included her phone number. My dad raised his allowance for that one,” Mel said.
“I knew I liked him,” Joe said. But his lips were tight and Mel knew he hated that she had been bullied in school. She wrapped an arm around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Really. I have you and Tate and Angie. Plus, our cupcakes look amazing. Let’s go see them, then if it’s weird we can skedaddle.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Joe said.
They began to walk towards the registration table. Mel was halfway across the floor when she caught a glimpse of red hair out of the corner of her eye. Some survival instinct must have kicked in because she turned towards Joe.
“What is it, cupcake? You have a weird look on your face,” he said.
“Weird?” she asked. “Must be allergies.”
“Mel, what’s going on?” he asked.
“Oh my god, is that you?” a shrill voice cried across the crowded lobby. Had Cassidy’s voice always been that screechy? Mel couldn’t remember. “It is you! Angie DeLaura, well, look at you. You haven’t changed a bit. You’re just as short as ever.”
There was a beat of silence. Mel guessed that Angie was trying to decide if this was a compliment or not. Given the source, Mel was betting not.
“Neither have you,” Angie said. The disdain in her voice left no doubt that it wasn’t a compliment.
“And, Tate, you’re still hanging out with little Angie? Isn’t that precious?” Cassidy asked.
“Well, given that she’s my wife, yes, I’d say it is very precious,” he said.
Mel smiled. The warmth and affection in Tate’s voice was the perfect bucket of dirty water to be tossed onto the wicked witch.
“Huh, if I remember right, you always traveled in the threesome,” Cassidy said. “Where’s your third? What was her name? You know, the big girl?”
Her voice was getting louder as she came closer. Mel felt her chest get tight as she realized Cassidy Havers-Griffin was closing in. She looped her arm through Joe’s and tried to tug him out of the lobby, but he was busy getting their name tags from Brittany Nilsson at the sign-in table. Brittany was gushing over Joe like he was the president of their class instead of the one four years ahead of theirs.
“I remember you, Joe DeLaura. Go Devils!” Brittany cheered.
“Are you ready, honey?” Mel asked him. “We should go.”
“Sure, just a second. I’m still looking for your name tag,” he said.
Mel glanced at the table in front of them. It was massive and it was covered with badges. They could be here all night and the enemy was closing in!
“That’s okay,” she said. She forced a bright smile. “I don’t need one.”
“Everybody needs one,” Brittany said. She tucked her chin-length black hair behind her ear and gave Mel a flat stare. Brittany was short and sturdy and barked orders a lot, more like a tank commander than the leader of the pep squad, or so Mel had always thought. “How will people know who you are if—”
“Are you kidding me? I know who she is!” A man jostled up next to Mel. He smelled of beer as he thrust his buzz-cut head and lantern jaw into her personal space. “Give me a M!”
“Oh, god,” Mel said. She blinked. It had been years but she’d know that deep voice anywhere. “Dwight Pickard.”
“Give me an E!” he cried. “Hey, Cassidy, look who’s here!”
With a squeal, the tall redhead who’d been talking to Angie and Tate approached. Mel closed her eyes for a moment, hoping that this wouldn’t be as horrible as she feared and wishing she had a cupcake or four in her hand to help her get through it.
“Is that—?” Cassidy asked. Her long red hair was as smooth as water and it flowed around her shoulders like liquid fire. Her big bazooms and button nose were the same, as was her tall, tiny-waisted figure. She was wearing false eyelashes and her makeup was a bit on the heavy side, but otherwise Cassidy Havers looked exactly the same. She even wore the same vibrant pink lipstick she’d worn in high school. Mel felt as if she was time-warping back to the absolute worst days of her life.
Cassidy peered at her with a narrowed gaze. She leaned back and studied Mel, then she moved around her and checked her out from every angle. It made Mel feel vulnerable. She half expected Cassidy to pants her, or worse.
“Well, well, well, can you believe it, Dwight?” Cassidy asked her longtime partner in bullying. “It looks like Melephant finally tried a diet that worked. Honestly, Mel, I didn’t recognize you. I mean where is the rest of you? What are you, a fourth or a fifth of the size you used to be?”
“A tenth,” Dwight said and then laughed.
Mel felt her throat get tight. This. This right here was exactly what she’d been dreading. That feeling of being made to feel worthless, ugly, rejected. Oh, how she hated it.
A pair of arms slipped around her from behind. Joe. He pulled her back against his front, lowered his head, and propped his chin on her shoulder. He eyed Cassidy and Dwight with one eyebrow raised as if he had no idea who they were but was quite certain they weren’t important.
“Hey, cupcake,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear him. “They made a mistake on your name tag.”
“They did?” Mel asked. She was half afraid he was going to slap a badge on her that read Melephant. She saw Cassidy watching them through suspicious eyes.
“Yeah, they put you down as Melanie Cooper and not as Mrs. Joe-DeLaura-to-be,” he said. “Clearly an oversight. I want the entire world to know how lucky I am that you’ve finally agreed to be my wife.”
Then he kissed her. It wasn’t a friendly kiss, either. It was full of passion, affection, and love. If high-school Mel had known this moment was waiting for her through all of the bullying, she would have gone through it all with a smile just to get here to this moment.
When he pulled back, she blinked at him and said, “I love you so much.”
“Marry me right now,” he said.
Mel burst out laughing. Ever since Tate and Angie had gotten married, Joe had been teasing her daily with random “let’s get married right now” suggestions. One of these days, she was going to shock him and say yes.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let me get this straight.” Cassidy held up two perfectly manicured hands in a stop gesture. “You two are together, as in a couple?” She glanced at her bestie, the same one she’d had in high school, Megan Mareez, who had just arrived, and asked, “Did you know about this?”
“Mele . . . Melanie Cooper is dating Joe DeLaura,” Cassidy said. She waved her hand at them as if Megan might have missed them.
“We’re engaged, actually,” Mel said. She patted Joe’s arm with her left hand, making sure her ring was visible, while she relished every stinking syllable.
“It’s true. You could say I’m ‘the rest of her,’” Joe said. “The less beautiful, less brainy part of her.” Mel glanced at his face. The look he cast Cassidy was positively glacial.
“Well, that’s—I mean—how—but you—” Cassidy’s ability to speak left her but the look of disgust on her face was pretty easy to interpret.
“Congratulations? Is that what you’re trying to say?” Joe offered. “Thank you.” Then he kissed Mel again. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cassidy storm away, the points of her heels punching into the wooden floor as she went.
“That’s wonderful news,” Megan said. She stepped forward and squeezed Mel’s hand. “I’m very happy for you both.”
Tall and slender with black hair that hung halfway down her back, Megan was a beautiful woman. In high school, she had been Cassidy’s best friend but if Mel remembered right, Megan was the one person in Cassidy’s pack who didn’t just follow. She’d even comforted Mel a time or two when Cassidy’s bullying was just too much. Mel had always wondered why Megan had hung out with the other woman.
“Megan, are you coming or what?” Cassidy snapped from across the lobby.
Megan cast them a sheepish glance. “Excuse me.”
“Of course,” Mel said.
“See you around, Mele—” Whatever Dwight had been about to say was stopped by a glare from Joe. He didn’t follow Megan and Cassidy but turned and headed for the bar.
As they watched Cassidy storm off, Joe leaned down and whispered in Mel’s ear, “I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hit a woman as much as I wanted to slug that Cassidy woman. She’s a nightmare.”
“Truly,” Mel said. “But you handled her brilliantly.” Then she rose up on her toes and kissed him. It was supposed to be swift and sweet but Joe had other ideas.
“All right, all right, enough with the canoodling, you two,” Tate said. “We’re the newlyweds here. That’s our job.”
“Yes, but that’s my sister,” Joe said. “No canoodling for you.”
“All right then, let’s drink,” Tate said. “Beers for the gents and what for the ladies?”
“Champagne,” Angie said. She linked her arm through Mel’s. “We’re celebrating.”
“We are?” Mel asked. She looked at her friend in confusion.
“Yes,” Angie said. “The day Melanie Cooper broke out of her cocoon and became a beautiful butterfly.”
Mel looked at her three nearest and dearest. Then she smiled. “All right, I’ll drink to that. You know, Ange, I think you were right. I think this may just be one of the best nights of my life.