Read an Excerpt
Gimme Some Sugar
NICE SOUTHERN GIRLS did not make money baking penis cakes.
Lucy Bowman Garten was going to hell on a road paved with devil’s food and peach-toned buttercream.
Technically, she wasn’t even supposed to be working in her bake shop, which would eventually be called Gimme Some Sugar, as it wasn’t officially open. Hell, she’d only leased the defunct Hardison’s Meat Shop two months ago, before she’d even arrived back in town. And she’d had to do that under a limited liability company so her mother-in-law wouldn’t find a way to interfere with the rental agreement. Evie Garten had a surprising number of friends around town, despite the fact that she was ten pounds of mean in a five-pound sack.
While the kitchen was cleaned and ready and could easily pass a health inspector’s perusal—if the mealy-mouthed, liver-spotted bastard would ever show up for his damn appointments—the displays were still fitted for the enormous hunks of pork the former meat shop used to sell, and the “café area” looked like a hoarder intervention waiting to happen. Also, as a minor point, Lucy’s business license was still mired in the initial hoops set up by Sackett County’s small but byzantine government. So Lucy was doing this somewhat inadvisable job for a high school friend so far under the table she was practically subterranean. She wasn’t even being paid—Maddie’s fiancé was going to do some plumbing work for her in return for her obscene baking skills.
The next time she got a text message that started with So, I’m hosting a bachelorette party . . . she was going to respond with Do I know you?
Lucy finished the very last swirl on the royal icing E and stood back to survey her work—an eighteen-inch penis lying flat across a silver-foiled cake board, with EAT ME written across its testicles in hot pink.
She would not be taking pictures of this for her shop’s website.
Lucy did not understand the compulsion to eat phallic baked goods for a girl’s last hurrah before marriage. She remembered how hopeful and excited she’d been before she’d married Wayne. She’d wanted to start her married life as soon as possible. She’d thought, I can’t wait to spend the rest of my days with the man I love. She hadn’t thought, I better eat all of the buttercream-frosted appendage I can because I might not have the chance again.
Then again, she’d been a hopeful, excited idiot before she married Wayne, so what the hell did she know?
She blew out a long sigh and said, “Well, it’s grotesquely enormous and painstakingly detailed. And baking it has been the most action I’ve seen in years . . . so it’s perfect.”
Wiping her hands on her purple doughnut-themed apron, Lucy crossed to her carefully organized supplies and selected a large, unmarked sheet cake box—which, unfortunately for Lucy, had a little cellophane display window on top. She wasn’t eager to show this cake off, but it was the only box large enough to accommodate it.
Once the cake was secured, she put a Braves cap over her coppery auburn curls and carried it out the front door, carefully propping it against the half-collapsed wooden flower box in front of the shop while she struggled to fit the key in the door’s original and extremely tricky lock.
As usual, Main Street was bustling with midafternoon traffic: people driving home from work, ferrying their kids from school to baseball practice, the usual. She saw a couple of nearby shop owners out on the sidewalk, cleaning windows and hanging up flower baskets. February in Lake Sackett always felt like holding one’s breath, the last few weeks of quiet before the tourists descended on the town’s beautiful waterfront. At least, it had been that way when Lucy had been growing up—locals handed the town off to the tourists with smiles on their faces, happy to get their much-needed cash. However, it was always a relief when those same tourists cleared out in September.
After she and Wayne moved away for school, “mistakes were made” at the Sackett Dam and the Army Corps of Engineers released ten times the amount of water meant to be drained from Lake Sackett, right at the beginning of what became an extended drought. Lake levels dropped to an all-time low. Tourists didn’t want to risk their boats on a diminished, sad lake where they could potentially run aground in areas that used to be safe. That meant less money coming into the businesses, which meant less capital for those businesses to make improvements, which meant dilapidated motels and shops that fewer tourists were eager to spend their time at—and on and on the cycle went. Little extras like discounts and free samples were the first thing to go, followed by friendly smiles and easy conversations. Her dad said that tourists sensed this anxious energy and booked their weekends in areas that didn’t seem quite so edgy.
The town’s economy had stalled to the point where Wayne claimed that visiting their families was becoming “too depressing.” Wayne didn’t want to see their hometown all run-down and empty, like something out of a bad horror movie. He said he wanted to remember it as it was.
Well, he was never that eager to visit Lake Sackett in the first place, but nostalgic sentimentality had been a convenient excuse. If her dad wanted to spend Christmas with them, Wayne had said, he could come to Texas and visit. Lord knew his own parents had accepted enough airline tickets on Wayne’s dime.
Lucy shook her head. Thinking about her daddy, or Wayne’s mama, for that matter, was not going to improve her already tense mood. So Lucy would focus on the positive. Thanks to some very concentrated effort by the recently established Lake Sackett Tourism Board, tourism to the town’s hotels, rentals, restaurants, and quaint little shops was slowly coming back to the numbers enjoyed before the water dump sent the town into a tailspin. Lucy was building a business in a town on the rise, no matter who thought she was a “damn fool” to do it.
“Would you just lock, you sonofabitch?” she hissed, jangling her keys as she struggled to get the lock to tumble. She leaned her ball-capped forehead against the glass of the door, glad that her four-year-old wasn’t around to hear her using foul language. The little sponge would probably repeat it at some terribly awkward moment, like in front of the local Baptist minister.
“Hey, let me help you with that!”
She turned . . . and screamed internally to see Duffy McCready jogging down the sidewalk of Main Street.
Duffy had been her very best friend in elementary school. She’d neglected friendships with the girls in their grade so she could play trucks in the sandbox with Duffy. She shared the Goo Goo Clusters in her lunchbox with him and only him. And in high school, well, she’d harbored a secret crush on him that reduced her to some very embarrassing diary entries, not to mention late-night-call impulses that made adult Lucy very grateful Pete Bowman had never allowed his teenage daughter a cell phone. Duffy had been one of her favorite people on the planet for years and she was so glad to reconnect with him after their years-long separation. But Holy Lord, right now, she wanted him to either go away or go blind.
She wasn’t evil or anything.
With the ladies-who-lunch crowd back in Texas, this was the sort of thing she would brazen her way through—smile, laugh it off, pretend it was a big joke. But this was Duffy McCready, her Lake Sackett Achilles’ heel.
Duffy moved to take the keys from her while Lucy tried to angle the box out of his line of sight. This brought her closer to Duffy’s tall frame as he hovered over her to work the lock. Between the warmth radiating off of his body and the smell of leather and cinnamon gum, Lucy had to brace herself against the brick to keep her knees from giving way.
Settle down, girls, she warned them. That way lies madness and tears and a crazy ex-wife who tried to push you down the stairs in high school.
Her knees argued that it had been a very long time since she’d been so close to a nice-smelling man. And Duffy was a reliable, emotionally stable sweetheart who wouldn’t mind a sniff or two between friends. Her knees were a very bad influence.
Duffy grunted and managed to flip the key in the ancient lock. He turned to smile at her, his face only inches from hers. Her breath caught as she got her very first look at adult Duffy up close, and her knees were now giving her very bad ideas. Her childhood friend had turned into a hunk of something.
Long of limb, broad of shoulder, and possessed of dear Lord, don’t even get me started blue eyes, what little baby fat Duffy’d had on his face had long since resolved into sharp cheekbones and a strong, square jaw. She stared at his mouth, somehow soft and inviting-looking even under that scruff of gingery beard. His brows drew together and his mouth opened as if he was going to say something. But his eyes cut toward the cake box, which had shifted during Lucy’s knee failure.
Duffy frowned and tilted his head. “Is that a . . . ?”
Lucy cringed, so very hard. Duffy had seen her penis.
She squeezed her eyes tight, even as she felt him move away from her. The blood rushed to her cheeks in a hot, humiliated wave. “Yes, yes, it is.”
“Wha—Who—” Duffy’s laugh burst out of him in a shocked bark. “Why?”
“I don’t know!”
Duffy burst out laughing. Lucy’s shoulders shook with her own giggles, despite the absolute mortification of Duffy knowing she’d spent the past few hours crafting edible genitalia from sugar and butter. “I honestly don’t know. Maddie Paxton is having her bachelorette party and she insists she can’t have a cake unless it’s penis-shaped. I’m just glad I wasn’t asked to order the penis gummy candy.”
“Women are a mystery,” Duffy said, shuddering as if he was imagining those particular confections being consumed. “A beautiful, divine, horrifying mystery.”
She sighed, moving toward her truck to put the cake in the passenger seat . . . far, far out of sight. “Yeah, I don’t think this sort of thing counts toward the feminine mystique.”
“If it makes you feel any better, it looks very realistic.”
“No, that does not make me feel better.” She shook her head and an enormous, blinding-white smile spread over his face, crinkling those big baby blues of his.
“So, welcome back to Lake Sackett,” Duffy said, laughing, opening his arms in what could be construed as an invitation for a hug. She laughed and stepped toward him and he wrapped those long arms around her in an awkward embrace that didn’t quite press their bodies together. A wave of disappointment swept through her, leaving her confused. Duffy was apparently one of those men—meaning pretty much all of them—who considered her a sexless nonentity now that she was a mother.
But that shouldn’t affect her at all, right? Weak knees, lantern jaws, and full-body hugs had never been part of the equation for them in the first place, so why did she feel that keen sense of loss when Duffy kept his distance?
“So, what are you up to?” he said, frowning slightly as she shoved the truck door closed.
“I’m opening a bakery,” she said, gesturing to the meat shop’s windows.
“Really?” he said, the corners of his mouth lifting. “I thought you wanted to be a marketing guru. PR and crisis management, all that stuff? I always pictured you walking around in office buildings, barking orders while people handed you stuff to sign.”
Lucy laughed, thinking of her life back in Texas, which had mostly revolved around scheduling playdates for Sam and trying to find inventive new ways to hide Wayne’s phone during dinner. “Yeah, it was a real rat race.”
“Well, I’m glad you got away from all that,” he said. “So you’re going to turn the meat shop into a bakery?”
“Sure. It’s got the right wiring to support the new ovens, fridge, and cooler cases I’ve had installed, along with a new sink. And it’s got loads of counter space for me to work with.”
Lucy didn’t mention the difficulty getting contractors who would work on the space on any sort of reasonable schedule, or how many she’d had walk off the job because they were distantly related to Evie or because Evie had sent Wayne’s little brother, Davey, to harass them while they worked. She’d finally had to hire a crew out of Atlanta who didn’t give a damn about local connections and made it clear they’d whoop Davey’s ass if he kept coming around. Davey, who usually lost interest once someone his own size made it clear they would put up a fight, skulked away and the work was finally finished.
Instead, she said, “I’ve got all of the kitchen changes made, now I just have to finish prepping and painting the café area.”
“You mean the place where people used to stand in line with deer carcasses waiting to have them processed?”
“It will be very bright paint,” she told him. “People won’t even recognize it.”
“So are you gonna be doing wedding cakes and all that?”
“Sure, wedding cakes, birthday cakes, cupcakes, anything people will pay me to bake. It’s something I started when my son, Sam, was a baby, making cakes for friends, just to relieve some stress, then doing birthday cakes for their kids as Sam got older. I got pretty good at it, took some classes and got some certifications, and now, here we are. I figured it would be a good way to make a living but have the flexibility to keep up with Sam.”
“And you should be pretty popular. Ever since the Dunbars closed their bakery over Christmas, people have been getting all their bought cakes at the Food Carnival. From what I hear, they taste like freezer-burned feet.”
“Which is great, because my slogan is going to be ‘Doesn’t taste like freezer-burned feet!’?”
He barked out a laugh. “Well, you’re the marketing guru,” he said, nodding toward the storefront, where the former meat shop’s faded weekly special signs and hanging meat hooks were still on display, like an art installation entitled Failed Scary Commerce. “Though the whole Texas Chain Saw Massacre theme, combined with the carb-based porno, might make me take that back.”
Lucy spread her hands over her warm cheeks. “I will never do a bachelorette party favor for a friend. For anyone. Ever again.”
“Good, I hear that’s how bakers get reputations.”
She laughed. She’d missed how easily Duffy could make her laugh. It was like his special talent in high school, taking everything in her life and making it seem like it wasn’t so bad.
Because he’s your friend, she told herself firmly. Duffy is a friend, a good man who deserves a heck of a lot more than being dragged into your mess of a life right now or at any time.
And suddenly Duffy wasn’t laughing anymore. His ruddy cheeks went pale and he looked a bit sick. “Oh my Lord, I just realized, I haven’t even said anything about Wayne. I just—I saw you and the penis cake and I just got so distracted.”
“Oh, no,” Lucy assured him. “It’s okay.”
“No, I was raised better than this,” he said, stepping even farther away from her. “I was really sorry to hear about Wayne. That must have been awful for you. How are you holding up?”
She swallowed thickly. Right, awful. Because she’d only been a widow for six months. And she was supposedly in mourning.
Lucy had her share of regrets about Wayne. In high school, she’d thought he was one of the most interesting, ambitious people she’d ever met. He had a great sense of humor. He was charming and could be so thoughtful when it suited him. But eventually, the sense of humor became as sharp and biting as new vinegar. The charm was worn down by the grind of everyday life, and all the lead showed through the gold plating. She was left with a man who seemed like such a loving husband from the outside, a good ol’ country boy who’d raised himself out of nothing to become a polished prince at Crenshaw and Associates Financial Management; but he couldn’t see her as anything but a member of his “support team,” a convenience, and occasionally, a source of embarrassment—certainly not as sophisticated as anyone they spent time with from his office.
Wayne had known she wasn’t happy, toward the end; he just didn’t understand why. He worked hard to provide for them. They lived in a beautiful home, took luxurious vacations, joined the best clubs. Sure, he had his dalliances with pretty much any female employee of Crenshaw and Associates, but that was par for the course for their circle. Hadn’t the other company wives told her to expect as much? Hell, it wasn’t exactly unheard of for men from Lake Sackett to stray, either. Besides, he didn’t drink as much as his friends did, and he didn’t spend that much money on his affairs. So why couldn’t she at least be content with their life? And the worst part was that she couldn’t make him understand, even when they’d gone two years without having sex because she wasn’t about to expose herself to whatever he might have picked up from his “friends.”
She didn’t love him anymore. She wasn’t sure she ever had, really, beyond the first wash of teenage hormones and blissfully stupid life-planning one did at eighteen. Wayne didn’t see how sleeping with other women should affect his relationship with Lucy, an “evolved” opinion he’d neglected to share with her before they’d stood in front of a priest and promised to forsake all others. And while Wayne didn’t see cheating as a reason to end the marriage, she wasn’t about to let her actions teach Sam that those patterns were acceptable. She’d insisted on counseling, and Wayne had made a half-hearted effort. He hadn’t stopped cheating, of course, but he had admitted that he should stop being so obvious about it. Then gravity had sort of ended the marriage for them, and sometimes she was at a loss as to how to feel about it.
“It’s been difficult. But Sam and I are going to be okay. We’re staying at my dad’s place. Sam’s raring to start kindergarten, but he’ll settle for running the preschool like his own personal kingdom for now,” she said with a snort.
Duffy’s brows drew together again, noting her darker expression. “Yeah, Tootie said something about that. Is ‘Mamaw Evie’ still giving you a hard time about putting him in preschool instead of leaving him with her?”
Lucy rolled her dark brown eyes so hard she almost dislodged a contact lens. “No more than usual.”
“It will get better,” Duffy assured her. “Evie’s just not used to anyone telling her no.”
“Oh, she’s used to it. She just refuses to hear it,” she grumbled.
Duffy placed one of his enormous hands on her arm. “She’s mourning. You all are. Wayne’s death was a shock, and people lash out when they’re grieving. They’re scared, they’re hurt. If anyone would know, I would.”
Lucy nodded. Duffy had a unique understanding of grief. His family had owned the McCready Family Funeral Home and Bait Shop, the largest funeral home (and bait shop) in this end of Georgia, as far back as anyone could remember. While Duffy worked on the marina side of things, leading fishing tours and selling tackle, he’d seen enough funeral fistfights break out to recognize emotional wear and tear.
She’d hoped that moving with Sam back to Lake Sackett, living in her late father’s home, would simplify their lives. In Dallas, she’d had “friends” that she lunched with and planned charity events with, but no one she could trust with even half of the personal details she’d mentioned in this single afternoon’s conversation with Duffy. She’d hoped that things would get easier once she was in more familiar territory, with people she knew and cared about. Yes, most of her own family was gone, but she could swing a cat down Main Street and hit three people who had known her since birth. She wanted that for Sam, that permanence and familiarity, even if it did come at the cost of living near her in-laws, which was enough of a negative on her pro/con list that it had almost convinced her not to move back.
She pursed her lips and nodded. “I’m sure that’s it.”
“Well, if you need anything, just let me know.”
Her traitorous knees could immediately name about ten things she needed, most of them requiring nudity and dim lighting. Very. Bad. Influence. Her brain scrambled for a much more appropriate and less naked answer.
“Um, actually, I need to get this cake over to Maddie. It’s kind of warm out for February, and buttercream melts pretty easy. You can only imagine how much worse that thing looks when it’s . . . molting.”
Duffy shuddered at the image. “Yikes.”
“Maybe you could come by tomorrow?”
“Ah, can’t, I’ve got a charter tomorrow. Bunch of guys from Clarksville, want to try their hand at crappie.”
“Well, text me, and we’ll work out a time.”
Duffy scratched the back of his neck. “I don’t have your number.”
“Sorry,” she said, her cheeks flushing pink.
Of course Duffy had no way to contact her, beyond the gossip grapevine. They’d emailed occasionally after she’d left, and stayed Facebook friends . . . until one day she’d checked her friends list and found that he wasn’t on it anymore. She’d wanted to believe it was some sort of techno-error, that he couldn’t possibly have unfriended her. But she’d never had the guts to contact him and ask if he’d meant to end their digital friendship, or even to try to refriend him. And now, realizing that he didn’t even have her number? It made the distance between them stand in even sharper relief.
“Give me your phone,” she said, holding out her hand. He slapped a very heavy chunk of plastic in her palm. “Sweet baby Jesus, can you call 1987 on this thing? Does it text or do I need to use Morse code?”
“Smartass,” he grumbled, taking the phone back and opening his texting window. Or at least, he tried—it took him several seconds to think about it.
“I don’t see a point in getting the fancy-schmancy models that can Google and scratch my back for me,” he said. “It’s not like I’m big on social media.”
“Really?” she asked, her mouth going slightly dry. Was he really going to bring this up now? Just minutes after seeing her for the first time in years?
“Yeah, I quit Facebook years back,” he said. “I just didn’t see the point in it. Do I really need to know that the guy I used to sit next to in math class is ‘drinking the weekend’s first beer, hashtag-blessed?’ And do I need to ‘like’ it?”
An old wound Lucy hadn’t even realized was there closed just a little bit. He hadn’t unfriended her; he’d walked away from the service entirely. Duffy hadn’t intentionally cut her from his life. Life had just happened, as it had with so many of her old friends, and they’d lost touch. Sure, she’d thought her friendship with Duffy was different, that it would last until they were old and gray, living next door to each other and watching their great-grandkids wrestle in their backyards. If someone had told her as a teenager that they would be standing there on the sidewalk, virtual strangers, she would have laughed in their face. And maybe kicked them in the shin for good measure. But knowing that he hadn’t deliberately pushed her away was welcome news.
“Probably not,” she conceded. “But it’s handy, when you move far from home. And when you’re planning on opening a business.”
“If this becomes the kind of place where people post pictures of their coffee instead of drinking it, I will boycott it,” he warned her, though he was grinning. “Publicly. There may be dead fish involved.”
“There’s not much I can do about that,” she told him. When Duffy’s text function finally launched, she texted a message to her cell number. This is Duffy.
“You could bake ugly cupcakes that don’t make for good pictures?” he suggested.
“That gets you on the Internet for other reasons,” she said, pursing her lips. Duffy threw his head back and laughed.
“That’s what I’ve been missing, that sense of humor,” he told her.
“You’re surrounded by women who have good senses of humor.”
“Yeah, but they use them against me, which isn’t as fun.”
She snorted. “I’ve missed you, Duffy.”
A truck drove by and honked, a typical greeting in Lake Sackett, but she felt oddly awkward standing on the street, where anyone could see her, laughing and typing her number into his phone. It seemed like something a widow shouldn’t be doing with an old high school friend just six months after her husband’s funeral. Especially a widow who was hoping to open a business that depended on community goodwill in the off-season.
“I’ve missed you, too, Lucy. And the rest of my family will be descending on you soon enough. Be prepared for more gossip than your ears can stand.”
She grinned. “I’m looking forward to it. I was so sorry to hear about your dad passing. I’m gonna miss having someone who’s willing to eat my baking mistakes, no matter how misguided. Especially now that those mistakes will be on a commercial level.”
Duffy smiled, the light in his eyes going just a bit sad. “Thank you. And he would have loved to see you open this place, no matter how many mistakes you bake. He always liked you, said you were a darling.”
“Well, he was right, because I am a darling,” Lucy said primly.
“With a penis cake in her truck,” Duffy noted.
“Come on, we’d just forgotten about the penis cake.”
Duffy shook his head. “Had we?”
“Oh, I’m already pretending it never happened,” she told him.