Cake and Punishment
Maymee Bell is Tonya Kappes’s pen name in this two book series.
In the first of a delectable new Southern-set baking cozy series, Sophia Cummings, pastry chef extraordinaire, must craft the perfect cake for an old friend’s wedding while sifting through the suspects in a murder.
Bucolic Rumford, Kentucky has glowing fields of bluegrass, a fine selection of bourbons, and now a professional pastry chef. Broken-hearted Sophia Cummings has come home from New York City. She’s not there a minute before she’s charmed into making her high school friend Charlotte’s wedding cake. The kitchen at the Rumford Country Club seems perfect until Chef Emile’s body is discovered, sprawled near the stove, a cast iron skillet on the floor close by.
With one look at the shiny, new frying pan, Sophia knows it’s not Emile’s. She offers her knowledge to Sheriff Carter and her talents to Evelyn, the manager, who needs an interim chef. The mood in the country club is grim: Emile’s peppery personality had burned members and staff alike. Sophia wonders which one of them burned him?
Cake and Punishment
“Vrrrrrrr. Vrr. Vrrr. Vrrrrrrrr.” The sound of the electric mixer was music to my ears. It was like coming home. “Vrrrrrrrr. Vrrrrrr.” I held the mixing bowl under the whisk, blending and folding the icing to the perfect consistency.
The chocolate icing was making my mouth water, and it would’ve been a sin not to taste it. I stuck my finger in the bowl, and coated the tip and slowly raked it across the top of my lower teeth, making sure I got every single morsel of chocolate off my finger. My eyes closed as I breathed out a deep sigh of satisfaction of the bitter chocolate added to the sweet combination of ingredients to make the perfect flabor . Even heartbreak couldn’t change my excellent baking skills.
The flavor of the icing was as pleasing to my taste buds as the beauty of the bluegrass field just beyond the bay window of my parents’ gourmet kitchen was to my eyes. With a mug in my hand and a quilt off the quilt rack, I walked out onto the three-tiered deck. A quick cup of coffee would allow just enough time for the icing to settle and the flavor to stabilize.
Tucking the edges of the blanket around me as I sat down, I curled my hands around the warm mug before I took a sip and enjoyed the sun peeking up over the trees in the cool spring morning air.
It’d been a long time since I’d seen a sunrise. The sun bathed the ten acres of bluegrass with dazzling light that blanketed my hometown of Rumford, Kentucky. The countryside was unblemished, not like the view I was used to in New York City.
In Manhattan, every morning I’d wake up and look out the tiny window of our eight-hundred-square-foot apartment and peer at the fifty-one-story apartment building next to us. Any sort of sunrise was blocked by the concrete jungle of the city. There was nothing like the bustle of people walking so fast on the sidewalks to get to work. Or the sound of the horns of the taxis as they zoomed past. Even the raunchy smells of the water run-off as shop owners sprayed off the sidewalk in front of their stores excited my soul. It was all the things about New York City that I loved.
But I’ve always been a southern girl at heart. The open fields and the sounds of the cows in the pasture next to my parents’ property had their own happy melody.
“For goodness sakes,” Mama chirped her signature phrase after she slid open the deck door and looked at me.
The sheer pink housecoat, or what she considered to be a housecoat, floated behind her with each step. Her pink low-heeled house slippers with a puffball on top clicked against the wood deck. She had a quilt in her hand.
“Sophia, you are up even before the rooster crows. The sun is barely popping up. People move a lot slower in Kentucky than that big city you’re used to. Especially here in Rumford. Or did you forget since you’ve been gone for ten years?” she asked.
I patted the chair next to me. “I’ve been back to visit since I moved.”
A tinge of sadness hung in her eyes. “You’ve stopped in, not stayed. Especially during the holidays, which you know I love.”
“Mama, I’m sorry, but you know that the holidays are the busiest time of year for restaurants,” I said knowing all my co-workers back in Manhattan were working on the upcoming Easter brunch menu.
The restaurant business during the holidays was a combination that Mama never seemed to grasp, even after the endless times I’d told her why I couldn’t come home. Being the head pastry chef, I’d never dreamed of asking off on holidays. But when it came to mama, she made restaurant reservations during the holidays, but somehow she still didn’t grasp that I worked in that industry and I too had to work, to bake for people like her.
“You’re home now.” She pulled the edges of the quilt up around her ears.
I could protest that I was only taking off a couple of weeks. I hadn’t quit my job. I only quit the relationship with Noah, which meant that once I got my head on straight, I had to go back to Manhattan and find a new place to live.
“Let me get you a cup of coffee.” I let the quilt fall around my ankles. A shiver crawled up my legs.
“I’ll come in.” Mama stood up and followed behind me.
“Sophia,” Mama gasped, looking around the kitchen. She put her hand up to her mouth. “It’s too early to be down here making a mess when you know my cleaning ladies are coming while we are at the Junior League meeting.”
Mama traipsed over to the counter and stared at the dusting of sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt. Not to mention the puddles of wet ingredients that didn’t make it into the cupcakes. A look of horror crossed her face.
Only my mama would make sure her house was clean before her housecleaner came to actually clean.
“I’m going to clean it up,” I assured her before she pitched a hissy fit right there. I’d seen Mama lose her religion and it wasn’t something I wanted to see again.
“Honey.” Mama brushed the palm of her hand over my dark brown hair that was pulled back tightly into a ponytail, my usual hairstyle when I baked. “I just hate seeing you go through this.”
Internally I questioned her sincerity. After all, it’d been her dream for me to move home for good.
“I do too, Mama,” my voice cracked. A tear trickled down my face. Bitsy’s warm hand brushed it off my chin. “I really thought Noah was the one. We were like a well-oiled machine. When we moved into the apartment, we had the same design taste. When we went to work, his dishes complimented my desserts and vice versa. It was a match made in Manhattan culinary heaven.”
I gulped back more tears.
“Last week on my day off, I’d come up with an amazing dessert that I had to get him to try. I ran it down there because I had a really great idea for an Easter dessert and that’s when I caught him and the maître d’ in his office. Apparently, he was the daily special.”y .”
“I’m glad you told him to hit the hay.” Mama nodded. “He’s lucky I’m never going to see him again.” It never failed. The madder Mama got, the thicker her southern accent got. “Don’t get me started on what I’d do to him.”
“That’s enough about him.” I grabbed a banana chocolate cupcake off the cooling rack and took a spatula out of the crock.
“What is on your face?” Bitsy’s demeanor had turned.
She was the epitome of a southern woman. She could be so kind and gentle, but if you wronged Elizabeth Cummings, Bitsy for short, she’d rip out your heart, fry it up and serve it to you on a piece of her fine china as you drank it down with a glass of her sweet iced tea, the one thing she could boil.
She swiped her finger under my eye. “Is that mascara? Did you sleep in mascara?”
Before I could put the cupcake and spatula down to defend my face, she’d already spit on her finger and swiped again.
“Gross,” I jerked away the furthest I could. “Stop that.”
“Listen here, Sophia Cummings.” When Mama said my full name, I knew a tongue-lashing was coming my way. She shifted her weight to the side. “You need to get yourself together. And I don’t mean by eating yourself silly with all these cupcakes or being lazy and not washing your face at night. No man is worth that. I taught you better than that.” She pushed the pads of her fingers underneath my eyes. “You didn’t use the ‘H’ did you?”
The ‘H’ was Bitsy’s code name for Preparation H. Yes. The hemorrhoid cream. She claimed if it did the you-know-what to hemorrhoids, it’d shrivel up wrinkles and bags under the eyes.
“I’ll look presentable. I promise,” I assured her. “Just so you know, I made these to take to your Junior League meeting.”
I stuck the spatula in the mixing bowl and used the broad side of it to place the frosting on top of the cupcake. Carefully, I spread the chocolatey goodness to the edges.
Mama leaned on the counter. She looked as fresh as a daisy so early in the morning.
“I have to say that they do smell good.” There was a flicker in her gold eyes and a little pride in her tone that was her way of making peace. “I’ve missed you mussing up my kitchen.”
“I’m probably the last person who cooked in here.” I held the cupcake out for her. “Go on. It’s got banana in it.”
“And we do eat bananas for breakfast.” She grabbed the cupcake and peeled back the paper holder.
“Mmm, good.” A deep sigh escaped from the depths of Bitsy’s gut. “I can’t wait until your daddy gets home from court today and has one of these.”
Daddy was a very prominent lawyer in our small town. He made good money along with the other people who lived in their fancy gated community. I remember when we moved here—it was a new concept to Rumford. All the houses were massive and had an extensive amount of acreage. We had neighbors, but they were an acre over to the left and the right. It was like we lived in a neighborhood, but also on a farm.
We also had the fancy kitchen filled with the finest the builder had to offer, which I blamed for my love of baking. Daddy had questioned Bitsy’s white cabinet choice, but the interior decorator insisted they’d be pleased. The white tile floor was shiny and the half-moon island that took up most of the middle of the kitchen was the perfect gathering spot for conversations and homework. The restaurant grade appliances made my heart sing as a young girl. I took every home economics class I could when I was in high school and participated in and won every single bake-off at the Rumford County Fair.
My parents always did love my baking but had thought it was just a phase. They were pleased as pie when I’d decided to go to college and put the baking behind me. It wasn’t until I was twenty that I realized I didn’t like learning from books. I loved working with my hands and creating pastries that made people happy and smile.
Though Mama wildly begged me not to become a baker, I set off for New York City and enrolled in culinary school and never looked back. . . until last week.
Mama even admitted herself to the hospital when I took the job at The Manhattan as a pastry chef a year ago. She claimed I’d induced a mental breakdown at the thought of her daughter living in a crime-ridden city.
“I couldn’t sleep last night and baking helps me think.” I quickly iced the other cupcakes and placed them neatly on one of Bitsy’s silver platters. For a second I thought she was going to protest. I guess she figured it wasn’t worth the fight. She shuffled over to the coffee maker, grabbed the carafe and topped off our mugs..
“You think too much. Come sit by me.” She eased down into one of the fabric, straight back white chairs that butted up to the glass top table in front of the bay window. She pulled the pastel colored placemats into a pile and stuck them in the center of the table next to the big ceramic bunny.
Decorating for every single holiday and season was in Bitsy’s blood. Currently my parents’ house was bathed in creams, green moss, and several Easter eggs, bunnies, and baskets in all sorts of pastels I was sure Bitsy’s decorator from Classy Southern had done. There was no way Bitsy was going to break a nail getting in and out of her holiday shed. Men had man caves; Bitsy had a holiday cave where she kept her decorations.
Duchess, Bitsy’s exotic short-haired cat that she insisted she had to have after I left Rumford, was curled up in another chair. She scooped her up into her lap.
“Those turned out better than I thought with the lack of ingredients you had in this fancy kitchen.” I grabbed a cupcake for me and another for her. I handed her one before I sat down and held my cupcake in the air. “Cheers.”
We tapped our cupcakes together like we were having a fine glass of wine. I peeled back the cupcake wrapper, took a bite and burst out in a sudden fit of laughter. Mama stopped in mid bite. I couldn’t stop laughing.
“What on earth is wrong with you?” Mama asked with a cool disapproving tone.
“I spent the last ten years going to culinary school. Doing countless apprenticeships and worked in several small-time jobs with years of low pay. Then I finally land my dream job where for a year I’ve worked my tail end off. Gaining recognition and rave reviews.” I held the rest of my cupcake up in the air. “Here I am. I endured all of that. All those fancy pastries and schooling to end up with this one cupcake in Rumford, Kentucky,” I said, feeling bereft as desolation crept in my gut. A new anguish filled my heart. “Mama, make the pain go away.”
Duchess jumped to the ground when Mama got up and dragged me into her arms. Days of sadness, bitterness, fatigue, and anger left me sobbing in the warm embrace of the woman who loved me more than anyone in the world. Conversations and excitement about how Noah and I had planned to open our own restaurant one day haunted my head.
For a few minutes, Mama let me wallow in my misery as she ran a loving hand along the top of my head and down my back.
“Sophia, honey, you’ve had your moment of feeling sorry for yourself.” Mama wasn’t one to gloat when someone did you wrong. “You need to get your act together and tuck that crazy away because we don’t have much time to get ready.” Her eyes drew up and down my body. “You’re gonna need some time. You know it’s at the RCC,” she said.
RCC stood for put on your best outfit and sweetest smile, but really was the acronym for Rumford Country Club. The only country club in Rumford that only wealthiest of the community could afford with their annual dues and monthly fees. With those dues came the coveted bonds. Mostly bonds were passed down in the family. Sometimes, if you hit the jack pot, they were willed to you. Rarely did bonds just go up for sale. If one did, it was compared to a price of getting a kidney.
“Don’t worry, Mama.” I rolled my eyes so hard I hurt myself. “I’ll pull out that new Lily Pulitzer sweater you snuck in my closet with my black pants and riding boots.” I called over my shoulder as I headed upstairs. “You’re not so sneaky, ya know.”
From Manhattan to Bitsy’s kitchen, something I never saw coming a week ago.
Miles and miles of the famous Kentucky post fencing zipped by as Mama zoomed her Mercedes convertible around the curves of the old country roads that led into Rumford’s downtown.
“Right over there was where I won my first baking contest.” I pointed to the Family Feud Diner, aptly named for the feud the Bruner family had while naming the place after they’d bought it. “I still can’t believe I beat all those women in your Friends of the Library Club.”
“Gawd,” Mama cackled. “Do you remember their faces when they realized a thirteen-year-old child had out-baked them?”
“Do I ever.” I laughed along with her. I sat up in the passenger seat and looked around. “It looks like the Beautification Committee has really stepped up.”
There were some new clothing boutiques that looked straight out of Manhattan, an upscale coffee house, even a wine shop mixed in with the old hardware store, pet clinic, sheriff’s department, and town hall where the mayor’s office was located.
“We are big time. How do you like the Garden Club’s contribution to the hanging flags and baskets off the new carriage lights?” Mama asked when we stopped at the red light.
The new lights Mama was talking about dotted each side of Main Street. There was a dowel rod on each one of the lampposts where a basket of fall flowers hung along with an ornamental flag.
“They are pretty,” I said.
Instead of the old brick buildings that used to stand side-by-side like I remembered, each shop had taken on a life of its own. Some shops had colorful awnings with the shop’s name printed on them. There were a couple of café tables inside of a little fenced-in area in the front of Small Talk Café. The post office even had a new facelift with the painted grey brick. The broken up sidewalk (that I used to jump over and try not to step on a crack because I didn’t want to break my Bitsy’s back) had been replaced with a fancy brick paved sidewalk that added to the charm of the revitalization.
“Oh no.” My heart fell into my stomach when we passed Ford’s Bakery, or what used to be the bakery.” What happened to Ford’s??” I asked when we passed a vacant white-washed red brick building.
The growing ivy on the front of the building covered up most of the For Sale sign in the large front window. It could stand to use some fixing up like the rest of the downtown area had been, though the ivy was warm and inviting.
“The Ford’s decided to retire,,” Mama said as if I didn’t remember all the times I’d spent there. “They decided to retire. None of their children or grandchildren wanted to continue with the business.”
“There’s no other bakery in town?” I questioned.
“No. It’s a shame too. Your daddy sure does miss their caramel long johns.” She turned right on Country Club Lane.
Even though mama was enjoying taking me down memory lane, I wasn’t interested.
“You’ve kept yourself busy, Mama,” I said, changing the subject.
It was true. Mama was an active member of the community. She was on the Junior League, Garden Club, Friends of the Library Club, Volunteering Club, as well as on a tennis team at the Rumford Country Club.
“I have. I’m not gonna dry up like an old turd,” she joked.
I shook my head. Mama had a wicked sense of humor behind closed doors.
“You’ll have to borrow the car and drive through town, maybe stop at a few of the new shops. You won’t believe all of the changes in the last ten years.” She was good at reminding me that I’d been gone way too long. I swallowed back any retort. “I’ll even swing for a new bag for you.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mama eyeballing my big bag that I carried everywhere with me. It had a sketch notebook so I could jot down my ideas for recipes as they came to me, pens and pencils because I never knew which one I wanted to write with, a flashlight so I could get a good look in all the nooks and crannies of different pastries I might encounter throughout the day since I believed details were very important in the pastry industry, mints for my palate, bobby pins because you never know when someone might ask me to give them a baking hand and I’d need to pin my hair back, hand sanitizer because tastings could happen at any moment and I’d need clean hands, money, lipstick, and a bottle of water.
“I’m happy with the bag I’ve got.” I patted it as the thing overtook my lap.
“You aren’t bringing that into the RCC are you?” Mama asked. I didn’t need to look at her face to hear the sarcasm in her voice.
Before we pulled up to the valet at the front of the clubhouse, Mama gave me instructions. “Now remember your manners. The yes ma’am’s and thank you’s.”
“I’m not ten.” I shook my head and let the attendant open my door.
While I waited for Mama to sign us in, I couldn’t help but let the comfort of the country club fill me with warmth. I’d spent many of my teenage days and nights here.
The yellow daffodils curved along the sidewalk leading up to the front entrance of the Rumford Country Club house that was a historic white brick mansion. Large brick stairways on both sides of the massive porch came together in the middle with an overlook at the entrance of the club.
The flowers danced in the light breeze, so jovial as if they were taunting me, reminding me of the last time I’d stood right here with Mama as I told her I wasn’t going back to college and instead was going to culinary school.
Mama had lost her religion right there for all her country club friends to see. It wasn’t pretty. She’d yelled that I’d forgotten my raising and that she’d never forgive me for shattering her dream of her only daughter growing up in Rumford and joining the Junior League.
“Now don’t be going and getting no big ideas about me joining. I’m only here temporarily,” I reminded her after she signed us in.
According to the RCC bylaws, everyone who came in and out of the club had to sign in or be signed in by a member. There was no riff raff allowed.
The chatter of the women who’d already gotten to the Junior League meeting floated out into the foyer of the clubhouse. A waitress took the cupcakes from me as soon as we walked in.
The musty old smell that I recalled to be very potent as a child didn’t hit me like I’d remembered. Gone was the maroon carpet with yellow diamonds and in its place were bamboo wood floors. The heavy drapes that once made the clubhouse so dark had been replaced by new windows that let the light shine in. Even the mid-century furniture had been replaced with more modern leather pieces.
“It can’t be!” The southern drawl screeched across the room as soon as Mama and I stepped in. “Hold my horses. Is that you, Sophia Cummings?”
The hat that covered the five-foot, six-inch tall woman flapped with each stalking step that came toward me. A tall glass of iced tea with a lemon slice wedged on the rim was in her hand.
“It’s me, Charlotte Harrington.” She dragged the hat off her head.
Charlotte had a beautiful head full of ginger red hair. It was a warm color that perfectly matched her sweet disposition.
She pulled me into a big hug, and we grabbed hands and jumped up and down like two little girls
“I’d heard from some of the gals down at the Sassy and Classy Salon that you’d come back to town.” She pulled back and shot me a theatrical wink. “Of course, all the rest I heard is rumor, but I’m still glad to see that you are here in the flesh.” She stuck the hat back on her head, tugged the straw from her drink to her lips and took a nice long drink. “I’m a bit sad you didn’t call me yourself.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time,” I said. The big solitaire diamond ring perched on her finger blinded my eyes. I grabbed her hand. “Don’t tell me you are engaged?”
“I am.” A smile curled up on her face and put a sparkle in her eyes. “I’m getting married!” She bounced on the balls of her fancy heeled shoes and stuck her hand out for me to get a better look. “And you have to come since you’re in town.”
“I’d love to. Congratulations,” my voice rose. “Do I know the lucky guy?”
“I doubt it. Brett Ponder.” She drew her hand to her chest. “Charlotte Ponder,” she sighed, but then picked right back up, “He didn’t grow up in Rumford. We met in college and he’s in real estate. We are livin’ in sin.” She curled her lips into a heavy grin, wiggling her brows. . “I’m never leaving Rumford like you. Plus he said that Rumford is growing so fast and he’d like to be part of it.” She smiled. “I’m so glad to see you.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting him. I’m so happy to see you. I thought I’d only be hanging out with Bitsy’s friends.” I took a deep breath and realized the Junior League now consisted of people my age as well as my Bitsy’s.
“Did Charlotte tell you that she and her fiance already live together?” Mama asked, walking up to us with a disapproving side-eye focused on Charlotte before she darted off into another direction.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized for Bitsy’s behavior. “Old school.”
Unfortunately, time in the south had passed, but not many moral codes were changed.
“That Bitsy. She’s something else.” Charlotte cocked a brow.
“Yes she is,” I agreed and looked over at Mama.
She was talking to some of her friends. She pointed at me. They waved; I waved back. I scanned the room.
“Is that Madison Quinn?” I asked about another one of our friends.
“Yes.” Charlotte batted my hand. “Yoo-hoo! Madison,” Charlotte grabbed her hat and waved it in the air. Apparently, her hand wasn’t large enough to get someone’s attention.
Madison was too busy sitting at a table talking to even hear Charlotte. That didn’t stop Charlotte from grabbing my hand and dragging me across the room.
“Sophia Cummings?” Madison stood up. Right there attached to her left boob was her infant child. “What? You’ve never seen breastfeeding?” She balanced the baby with one hand and swiped one of the cupcakes off the tray as the waitress walked by.
“I think I’m shocked you’re a mom.” I clearly remembered in high school that she swore she’d never get married and settle down. Children was a swear word to her.
“Honey, there ain’t no one more surprised than me and Matthew.” Her lips pursed.
“Matthew Ridge?” I asked about the boy we’d gone to high school and remembered how we thought he was as hotter than a Laredo parking lot in the summertime.
“The one and only. He took me out and it was all she wrote,” Madison sat back down and gestured for me to join her. Charlotte sat down at the open chair next to mine. “I was a goner. You and I both knew he was hot, but who knew he was so romantic?” She put her hand to her chest. “Mrs. Madison Ridge.”
I looked between my two good friends from high school and it was like the last ten years haven’t hindred our friendship at all. I took comfort in the fact that it was like we just picked up where we left off.
“How are you?” Madison asked and tapped my leg.
She gave me the tilted head, drooping eyes, sympathetic look that I was getting used to seeing. It was the ultimate bless-your-heart look without saying the words. She peeled back the wrapper on the cupcake and devoured it in two bites.
“Other than catching my live-in boyfriend cheating on me with a co-worker at my dream job, I’m good.” I laughed.
“Sophia.” Her dark brows slanted into a frown. She put the half-eaten cupcake on the table. “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do? We can do?” Madison and Charlotte nodded at each other.
“No, I’m fine,” I assured her.
“We three must get together while you are in town.” She gestured between Charlotte and me. “Outside of all the wedding stuff.” She ate the rest of the cupcake. “Maybe downtown for some shopping and food. You will love Peacock and Pansies ClothingBoutique. They’ve got the cutest clothes.”
Charlotte agreed with her.
“I’d love that,” I said hoping that we could make it happen. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when we drove through town. It’s so pretty and cozy. Not like it used to be.”
“My gosh, Charlotte, these are amazing.” Madison pointed to the cupcakes. “Did your baker make these?” Madison looked at me. “Charlotte is in charge of today’s dessert. A preview of what’s being served at her fancy-shmancy wedding.”
“Not from my baker.” Charlotte’s lips turned down. “That hussy, she up and cancelled on me yesterday and cancelled my wedding cakes. I have no idea who I can find to bake the cakes in a pinch.
Madison’s jaw dropped. “Oh, honey.” She paused. “Well, the Piggly Wiggly has some options.”
“That’s terrible,” I put my two cents in. It felt so good to be sitting here with them like we used to. Close friendships in Manhattan were hard to have. Everyone seemed to always be competing against each other. Especially in the restaurant industry.
“Mmm, hmmm.” Charlotte took a bite of the banana chocolate cupcake. “Oh my stars. You’re right. This is delicious.”
“Thank you.” I crossed my arms and leaned back in the chair. “I made those this morning.”
“You’re kidding me?” Madison had a look of shock and awe.
“Right? Mama had enough ingredients for me to throw those together,” I joked.
“No, no, no.” Madison shook her head. “Kidding me as in you made these?”
“I did.” I nodded. This was what made me love baking so much. It warmed the souls of everyone from the broken-hearted to the happiest of hearts.
“Then you must do my wedding cake.” Charlotte smacked the table.
“I don’t know.” I shook my head and sat back up. “I don’t have all the equipment I need to make a wedding cake.”
“A wedding cake? You mean lots of wedding cakes.” Madison pointed across me to Charlotte. “She’s invited the entire town. No wonder your other baker quit,” she joked.
Only I wasn’t joking. I didn’t have any equipment here to make the types of cakes and desserts I’d been used to making over the past few years.
“I just knew that God had another plan.” Charlotte wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “My daddy pays enough money to this country club that I’ll see to it that you have all the stuff you need and their kitchen to make my cakes. You meet me here in the morning.”
“I don’t know,” I said but she was having none of it. “I do want to spend time with the two of you while I’m here. I’m more than willing to help out, but the big responsibility of making the perfect cake. . .” She still ignored me.
“Aren’t those the best?” Charlotte asked one of the Junior League members who walked by with one of my cupcakes in her hand. She pointed to me. “My baker, all the way from a fancy restaurant in Manhattan, made them.” She smiled, as her shoulders danced back and forth. “Just you wait until you taste my wedding cakes.”
“Aren’t you Bitsy’s daughter?” the lady asked.
“I am.” I nodded and smiled.
“I’m Carol Bauer. I’m the president of the Garden Club. You’re going to have to come with Bitsy while you’re in town,” she said. “We’d love to have you.”
“I’ll do that if I’m still here.” I kept reminding myself not to get sucked into staying in Rumford for too long or Mama would have me committed to all sort of things, including volunteer work.
“Come on by the shop and I’ll give you the friends and family discount.” Carol spoke more with a southern twang by making her vowels more crisply than drawn out.
“Shop?” I questioned.
“I own Peacocks and Pansies downtown.” Her brown eyes drew up my body.
“You’d look great in our boutique clothes.”
“I saw your shop on our way here.” I recalled seeing the cute boutique store and even thinking how much it resembled some of the Manhattan boutiques I loved to wander around in.
“I have the perfect dress for you to wear to Charlotte’s wedding.” She nodded.
“Wedding and rehearsal dinner,” Charlotte barged her way into our conversation.
“Yes. I have a lovely dress hat I can see you in right now for the rehearsal.” Carol and Charlotte nodded between each other.
“You’re thinking the grey one, right?” Charlotte’s brows lifted.
“Red..” Carol’s shoulders shivered with excitement. Little did she know, red wasn’t my color. “I’m excited to taste your wedding cake if Sophia is baking it.” Carol’s eyes squinted when she smiled. “We haven’t had a good baker in town since Ford’s shut down.”
I chewed on the edge of my lips. What on earth had I gotten myself into?
Charlotte’s eyes met mine.
“I guess I am.” I shrugged.
“It’s settled.” Charlotte clapped her hands together. “You are baking my cake.”
A waitress walked by and I grabbed the only cupcake left on her tray.
I peeled off the wrapper and took a bite. A little sense of giddiness swept through my stomach as the thought of making Charlotte’s wedding cake started to sink in. I was a baker and seeing faces like my dearest high school friends enjoying something I made did make me happy. After all, you can’t be sad when holding a cupcake.
All night long I tossed and turned. Duchess had laid on top of my head all night, which didn’t help, but it was the excitement bubbling up in me about baking Charlotte’s cake that really kept me awake. It was a much needed distraction from my life. The blood pumping in my head woke my muse up. If I recalled the items Mama had in her kitchen, I’d have just enough ingredients to make Red Velvet Crunchies, one of my favorite go-to cookies when I needed some comfort. One batch made a whole bunch of cookies, which was perfect for making ahead of time, freezing them and thawing as needed. I’d load mama and daddy’s freezer up with some.
“Let’s go, girl.” I peeled the covers off of me and grabbed Duchess off the bed.
We crept down the back stairs that were away from my parents’ bedroom and flipped on the kitchen lights. Bitsy’s pantry was a baker’s dream. It was a big walk-in with lights that automatically came on with a sensor. Mama neatly stored the baking appliances I’d bought with my own money when I worked at the RCC.
I grabbed the flour, baking powder, sugars and salt along with the box of food coloring and gels even though I wasn’t sure how old they were. Still, I just needed the red to make the classic chocolate chip cookie resemble red velvet. I was going to have to use the red gel and the red food coloring since there wasn’t enough of either separately.
I waited to turn the oven on because the dough needed to chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Filling the coffee pot and turning it on would make the coffee about ready when I was finished mixing the dough. Then I could enjoy a cup of coffee in the stillness of the early morning. Real early morning.
I whisked and used the hand mixer instead of the stand mixer. The least amount of noise I made was the best. Mama would be all worried about me and I didn’t want her hovering over me while I was here. The only thing that was going to get me through the grief was baking. It always helped.
“Bitsy would die if she saw this kitchen at two a.m.” I spoke to Duchess like she completely understood. She picked her head up off the chair cushion and stared at me. There was flour all over the countertops and some dusting on the floor from when I’d set the mixer too high and created a plume of dust. The front of the pink two-piece pajama set Bitsy had neatly laid on the bed and I’d put on to sleep in, was now dusty as well.
“Mmm.” The hum of my father filled the silence I was so enjoying. “I thought I smelled coffee.”
I had the bowl of dough in my hands to put in the refrigerator.
“Hi, Dad.” My eyes dipped. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”
He pulled the refrigerator door open and smiled.
“Nah. I couldn’t sleep.” He winked. “Like you, I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
I stuck the bowl in the fridge and shut the door. When I turned around, Dad had already pulled two mugs out of the cabinet and filled them.
“And I haven’t gotten to spend much time with you since you got back.” He pushed two chairs out from the table.
“I know you’re busy. Mama said you’ve got some big case coming up.” I picked Duchess up and put her in my lap when I sat down. She purred under all the fancy fur of hers. “It seems like we are a lot alike in the sleep department.”
“Yep.” He took a sip of coffee. “Is that the mess of red velvet crunchies?”
“You know it.” I smiled at the thought that my dad knew what ingredients I used for his favorite cookies. “I figured I’d take some with me to the RCC when I meet Charlotte.”
“Your mama told me about you stepping up to bake Charlotte’s cake. Are you sure you’re up for that?” he asked with a concerned look on his face.
“Yeah.” I pish-poshed. “You know Charlotte. I’m sure what she had planned is some gaudy, over-the-top, sparkly thing.”
“She’s definitely an over the top girl.” Dad laughed. “But don’t make excuses about why you’re up baking. You always carried cookies with you.”
“Something I still do.” It was true. Ever since I’d discovered I was pretty good at baking I started to carry examples around with me and get people’s opinions. “You know,” I gnawed on my thought to make sure it came out the way I wanted it to. “It was about getting other people’s opinions because you and Mama would’ve told me that my cookies were better than Mrs. Fields.”
“They are.” Dad cocked a brow.
“Seriously, what was really my validation that my cookies were good was the look on people’s faces after they ate a cookie that I created from scratch, with these hands.” I lifted my hands in the air and rotated them in front of me. Duchess looked up and let out a soft meow. Dad and I let out a low chuckle. I went back to patting her. “I love how cookies make people feel better. It’s like a magic potion for people to talk their problems out with me.”
“You’ve always had a knack with talking to people. Another trait you got from your grandfather and me. That’s what makes our law firm so successful. The gift of gab.”
It was always fun watching Dad in court. A time or two I was known to give the judge a couple of cookies while I was in the courtroom. Those were fond memories and I was sure that was the reason I’d become a pastry chef.
“You are very good at what you do.” Dad reached over and patted my hand. “Do you have a plan?”
“Yeah.” I took sip of the coffee. “I’m going to head back to the city next week. There’s no reason for me to run and hide when I did nothing wrong. There are tons of apartments. I’ve got plenty of money saved up to put down a deposit. I’ve still got my job and I’m able to pretty much avoid Noah by going into the restaurant in the middle of the night or when he’s off work. It’s not like my desserts have to be made right at the time the customer orders them. It was just fun pairing the desserts to Noah’s dishes.”
“You are a smart and kind girl who’s also pretty.” Dad had to add the last pretty part because he was my dad. I smiled. “You know, you don’t have to go back. You’re always welcome here.”
“Dad,” I wondered if Mama had put him up to talking to me. “I’m not about to go to the Piggly-Wiggly to get a job in the baking department. I want to create and not let anyone tell me what I can make. That’s not here in Rumford.”
“I’m just letting you know that this is your home and you are always welcome.” He stood up and bent down, kissing the top of my head. “I think I’m going to go read in the library for a couple of hours before I have to go into the office.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I looked up and took comfort in the warmth of his eyes and was so thankful he didn’t give me love advice.
He and Mama didn’t understand. How could they? They’d been high school royalty in their day. The Homecoming King and Queen, the Prom King and Queen. The couple people in high school like me hated. They were the “it” couple and still were. They loved each other from the first time they’d set eyes on each other in the baby pool at the RCC. I was sure of it.
With another cup of coffee in me, it was time to roll and bake the dough into the warm red velvet crunchies finished product. I put Duchess in the empty chair. She curled into a tight fur ball. With two baking pans, parchment paper, the pre-heated oven, and the dough rolled into two-inch balls, the crunchies were in the oven making the entire house smell like cookie heaven.
There was some extra dough that I could refrigerate up to three days that I put back in the refrigerator. I took a sticky note from the built-in desk and scribbled some quick baking instructions in case Mama got a wild hair and decided to use her oven.
After they were baked with a nice crackly top, I put a few extra chocolate chips on the tops for looks and let them sit on the baking rack while I ran upstairs to throw on my shorts and tee. A good morning jog was exactly what I needed to start thinking about Charlotte’s cake before I met with her.
The dew was coating all of the lawns in my parents’ gated community. There was a faint line of orange on the horizon that would soon fully engulf the sky. Rumford did have the most amazing sunrises. With each hit of the pavement, my creative juices flowed. I created all sorts of different flavors to present to her, unless she’d already picked out the type of cake she wanted. I even created a mental list of items I’d need for all the fun piping that made the wedding cakes ornamental and gorgeous. When it came to weddings, I knew it was the presentation that caught the eye but the inside that warmed the soul.
After I got back, I quickly showered and threw on some jeans and a nice sweater along with my old pearls. The crunchies were nice and firm. The gooey middle I sank my teeth into when I tasted one was the perfect consistency and sure to please anyone’s palate. I took out a few baggies and filled them, sticking them in my bag.
I borrowed Bitsy’s car to meet up with Charlotte. We were meeting in the grand ballroom, which was in a different building on the country club property than the clubhouse.
I took my time driving through town so I could get another look at all the changes. There just so happened to be an available parking space in front of Small Talk Café. I had a few minutes before I met with Charlotte and a cup of coffee sounded good.
The café tables inside the picket fence on the outside of the café were occupied. The smiles on their faces and chatter warmed any chill that hung in the air from the fall day.
“Mornin’,” the southern drawl greeted me from over my shoulder as I reached for the door. “Let me get that.”
“Thank you,” I said to the man in the sheriff’s uniform. “I appreciate it.”
My face flushed. It’d been a long time since any man had held a door for me. His charming smile, good looks, and gentlemanly manners made my heart flip. Chivalry isn’t dead, I thought to myself.
“My pleasure.” He flashed that smile again. “Are you related to Bitsy and Robert?” he asked and motioned to the car.
“I’m their daughter, Sophia.” I stepped into the line to order my coffee.
“Carter,” he held his hand out. We exchanged pleasantries. “How are your folks?”
“They are good.” I was next in line. “It was nice to meet you, Carter.”
“Mornin’, Sheriff,” the young girl behind the counter glanced over my shoulder. It was like I wasn’t even there. “I saw you coming in, so your coffee is already down there.” She nodded to the end of the counter.
I looked at him again. He seemed pretty young, I thought as I looked at his side profile. He had pronounced cheekbones and sharp, clearly defined jawline.
“That’s mighty nice of you.” He thanked the girl. “Good to meet you Sophia. Please tell your parents hello.” He took a step out of line and then stopped. “If you need anything while you’re here, don’t hesitate to give me a call.”
He took a business card out of his pocket and handed it to me. I couldn’t help but notice he didn’t have a wedding ring on.
“Thank you, but I’m not in town long.” I returned the smile and took the card.
“Alright then. You have a good visit.” He winked and moved on down the counter, stopping to talk to a few folks on his way down to get his coffee.
“Can I help you?” The girl behind the counter cocked a brow. Much different tone she used on me than she had the sheriff.
“Black coffee, please.” My southern manners were slowly coming back along with the southern accent I’d thought I’d lost.
“Next,” the girl said and glanced over my shoulder. My signal to move along.
The sheriff made his rounds back through the coffee shop and gave me one last nod before he left the café.
The bold coffee was a nice surprise for a morning pick-me-up to get me good and alert for my meeting with Charlotte. It wasn’t a gourmet coffee like we’d serve with my pastries at the restaurant but it was a café, not a coffeehouse or bakery for that matter.
When I got to the RCC the valet took my name and directed me where to pull up in front of the old ornate building. From what I’d heard yesterday, it’d been restored when the country club redecorated the clubhouse and I couldn’t wait to see what it looked like for a wedding.
“It’s come a long way from our cotillion.” Charlotte was already there when I entered the ballroom.
“You aren’t kidding.” Twirling around the gorgeous ballroom with white-and-gold-checkered floors brought back the happy memories of me dancing with my dad during the cotillion.
Charlotte’s romantic decoration elements and towering floral arrangements were dripping around the room.
“A bit over the top?” she asked, but not really wanting my answer. “I know,” she gushed.
“Wow,” I gasped.
“I want that fairytale wedding.” She let out a deep sigh.
“You’ve definitely taken full advantage of the room’s extravagant beauty.” I knew the cake would look stunning on the table in front of the window with the long satin drapes that spilled into a pool at the base of the window. I’d play on the blues and golds to decorate the most spectacular cake anyone in Rumford had ever seen. My creative mojo was flowing and I felt alive. Images swirled in my head.
I reached in my purse and grabbed my pencil and paper.
“What are you doing?” Charlotte asked when I sat down at one of the place settings and pushed the dishes out of the way.
“I have a design idea for you to look at.” My ideas floated around my head like the wind. If I didn’t grab it while it was in there, it would float away and I’d lose it forever. “Unless you have something in mind.” I’d completely forgotten that she’d had a baker before me. Since the wedding was so close, she probably did have a design.
“No. Bad juju from the last baker, so I want to start fresh.” Her eyes narrowed. “Though I did love the almond cake with raspberry filling.”
“That’s easy.” I smiled knowing that recipe by heart would make the cake baking process so much easier for me. Plus it was all basic ingredients that any grocery store would carry.
The elegant shades of the ceiling’s graceful, painted details reflected the romantic feel Charlotte was going for. Towering centerpieces of roses, hydrangeas, and tulips set atop golden birdcages strung with glittering, twinkling lights. Rich, blue table linens overlaid with delicate Battenberg lace were accented by the ten place settings of gilded crystal and china around the round tables. Shiny silverware lay on top of cloth napkins. The massive windows overlooking the breathtaking courtyard of the Rumford Country Club invoked memories of Charlotte and I playing while our mothers played couples tennis on the courts beyond the courtyard.
“Fairytale wedding you want,” the pencil in my hand had its own mind as it sketched across the paper, bringing my thoughts to life, “a fairytale cake you will get.” I finished the quick drawing, stood up, and held the paper to face her.
“Sophia,” she gasped. Tears filled her eyes. “I’ve never seen something so beautiful. I can only imagine what it will look like in color.”
“This layer will be in gold fondant.” I pointed to each layer as I spoke. “This layer will be blue like the drapes with the gold accents on the swirls.” Layer by layer I told her my color vision.
It even took my breath away.
“You being here completes my vision of a fairy-tale wedding.” Charlotte squeezed me in a big hug. “Can you believe it?”
“No. It’s amazingly stunning,” I said. I wasn’t sure what it was, I’d not felt this creative in years and the ideas were plucking my brain so fast I could barely keep up with the mental pictures and few notes I was able to jot down. “And seeing you this happy makes me happy and a little ashamed I’ve not been a good friend over the last ten years. There’s no excuse. I should’ve come home more. Tried harder.”
“All that matters is that you are here now and you’re making it up to me by making my cake.” Charlotte might’ve been over the top, but her heart was always in a good spot. “Now,” she sat down at the table and pulled a chair out for herself while I sat back down. “Tell me about why you’re really here. I mean, I’ve heard all the gossip, but I want to hear it from you.”
“The gossip is probably true. I’ve been cheated on.” Tears burned the edges of my eyelids. I blinked them back. I stuck the pad of paper and pencil back in my purse to get my mind and hands off of my words. “Noah’s the head chef and I’m the head pastry chef in a very upscale restaurant in Manhattan. Our works complemented each other. We had the perfect relationship.”
By the look in her eyes, I could tell she was loving my very own fairytale that I’d thought I had.
“We even moved in together.” I let out a long deep sigh. I gulped and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. It was so difficult to talk about. “I went to work on a whim on my day off and he was in a very compromising position with the maître d’ of our restaurant.”
“Hush your mouth,” Charlotte snarled. “Go on.”
“I also found out that the entire staff and our little small circle of restaurant friends knew about it and no one ever told me. I dumped him faster than a speeding ticket.”
“I reckon you better have.” Charlotte slowly shook her head. “Well, I’m glad you’re here. It won’t be too hurtful for you to be at my wedding, will it?”
“Heck no.” Seeing how this ballroom got my creative juices flowing was all I needed to be all in. “This will be a good distraction and will help clear my head so I can decide what I need to do when I go back.”
“Go back?” Charlotte’s jaw dropped. “You aren’t?”
“I didn’t quit my job. I took a few weeks off.” The thought of just going back made me sick. I chalked it up to not enough time having gone by.
“If you’re sure, then I want you to get a look at the kitchen and meet Emile.” She jerked her head, looking around the room. “He’s the club’s head chef and magnifico,” she said in her best Italian voice, only it came out hillbilly style. She kissed her gathered fingertips before she exploded a wide palm from her lips. “He’s always here super early getting ready for the day.”
We stood up and looked around. No one was in the room but the two of us.
“I guess he’s back in the kitchen, which you need to see because it’s so different from when you worked here.” She curled her nose.
“I loved working here. Old Evelyn Moss let me bake whatever I wanted, plus it drove Mama crazy that I was here baking her friends’ desserts. She was so mad.” It was another time Mama had just about had a heart attack right where I was standing.
“If you thought Evelyn was old then, wait until you see her now.” Charlotte tilted her head to the side toward the offices.
“No.” My jaw dropped. “Evelyn is still here?”
“Still here? She’s the general manager now.” Charlotte’s brows lifted.
She pulled on the sleeve of my sweater. “I can’t wait for you to meet Emile. A little bit of a pickle, but he loves a southern lady.”
She pranced in front of me like a blue-ribbon racehorse on our way out of the ballroom and down the hall toward the kitchen.
My excitement on seeing the fully remodeled and updated modern kitchen quickly stopped when a blood-curdling scream echoed out of the kitchen’s swinging doors.
“What was that?” I asked.
Rushing past Charlotte, I prayed there wasn’t anyone hurt by a stove fire or a cut-off finger. I’d been around many kitchen accidents and they weren’t pretty. I flung open the kitchen doors.
“Help!” The shivering girl pointed behind the steel island where the food had started to be prepped. “He’s. . .”
“What?” Charlotte asked. “Spit it out.”
I eased around the island and looked down.
“Emile?” Charlotte gasped at the lifeless body of her wedding chef that looked like he’d met his untimely demise with one swipe of his own cast iron skillet.