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Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.—Erma Bombeck
"To die for."
"Had me at the crystallized ginger."
Rocky Monroe glanced around her grandma's dining-room table, smiling as everyone sampled her cupcakes with a blissful moan, pumping a mental fist as every member of Cupcake Lovers—at least the ones in attendance—concurred. Her proposed contribution for the club's Creepy Cupcake booth at the upcoming Spookytown Spectacular was a hit. She'd always had faith in her cooking skills, but when it came to baking there was nothing like a thumbs-up from the four senior members, Judy Betts, Helen Cole, Ethel Larsen, and Rocky's grandma, Daisy Monroe, who'd been baking for charitable causes since before the Vietnam War.
"Brilliance, sweet pea."
"Thanks, Gram." Rocky's generous, purple-haired grandma had hosted tonight's meeting even though it was Rocky's turn. Rocky's home, which was also a bed-and-breakfast, was undergoing extensive renovations. So instead, they'd gathered at Gram's humongous three-story colonial, a home brimming with folksy knickknacks, antique furnishings, and generations of Monroe family love. Personal nirvana for Rocky.
"I'm digging the gingerbread and pumpkin combination."
This from Rocky's cousin Sam McCloud, the only male member of the local baking society. He caught a lot of flack for that, especially from their male relatives, of whom there were many, including Rocky's two older brothers, Luke and Dev.
"Yeah, but they're not as creepy-cute as yours, Sam." Rocky gestured to one of several cupcake platters on the table. Sam had made and rolled out his own colored fondant—orange, green, and white—then, after utilizing "monster" cookie cutters, molded the designs over the top of the cupcakes, using dark-chocolate frosting as his glue. "Jack-o'-lanterns, Frankenstein, and Ghouls. How great is that?"
"Can't take the credit. My kids inspired me."
Ben and Mina, eight and five, respectively.
"Still," Rachel Lacey said, "who makes their own fondant? Not me. I've never mastered the technique."
"I'd be happy to give you some tips," Sam said. "Maybe some afternoon…"
Rocky held her breath as did the other ladies seated around the table. Sam, a widower of two years, had joined the club months ago. He'd claimed he'd wanted to broaden his horizons, to break out of his morbid funk. Maybe that was part of it, but everyone knew he had a crush on Rachel. Well, except for Rachel.
How the young woman could be so oblivious was a mystery to all. Or maybe she simply wasn't interested and was too polite to say. Rachel, a day-care center's assistant, was beyond polite. Still … Sam was former military, a master furniture maker, a really nice guy, good with children, and he baked! How could Rachel not be attracted? And why was he tiptoeing around his infatuation? Why not just ask her out on a date? But no, every once in a while he threw out these vague offers that Rachel kept sidestepping.
Not that Rocky was any expert in the romance department. Okay. She sucked in matters of love. And all right. Fine. Maybe she sucked at relationships in general. She'd certainly screwed up the perfect friends-with-benefits arrangement she'd shared with Adam Brody, a hunky, sweet-natured guy who freelanced as a recreational sports instructor. But that wasn't her fault.
She blamed Jayce Bello.
Her first love. Her first lover. A physical and emotional firestorm that had warped Rocky's perception of love and caused a severe rift between her and Jayce for thirteen years. Thank God he'd gone back to New York, after his recent and disastrous visit to town, so that she could get on with her life. Such as it was.
"That's sweet, Sam," Rachel said. "But I wouldn't dream of imposing on your valuable time."
Rocky blinked back to the present debacle: Sam's lame attempts to ease his way into Rachel's life and her shy reluctance to give him a shot. Rocky wanted to shake them both.
"Oh, for goodness' sake, Sam," Gram said. "Just ask her out already. Life's short!"
The seventy-five-year-old woman's motto for the past year and a half, the one that caused her to do foolish things like taking Rocky's snowmobile for a joyride or, most recently, veering off of a bike path and cycling down a hill at full speed. Both incidents had ended in a crash. Gram had yet to recover fully from the latter, still wearing a cast on her broken ankle and leaving her wearing only one trademark metallic sneaker at the moment. Her current motto also caused her to speak her mind when maybe she shouldn't. Although in this instance, no one, including Rocky, hushed her. Nope. Everyone waited for Sam to get off his duff and take action while Rachel sat wide-eyed, her cheeks burning brighter by the second.
"Oh, the suspense." Casey Monahan, part of the younger half of the club and as close to a buddy as Rachel allowed, elbowed Sam, who was doing one of his best silent glares at Gram, who just smiled.
Rocky, who was sitting on the other side of her cousin, nudged him with her knee.
Sam shifted his gaze to Rachel, though he at least ditched the death glare, just one of the intimidation skills he'd learned in the Marines. "This is awkward."
"You want to go out with me?" Rachel's voice was a disbelieving whisper.
"I was working my way up to asking."
"Meanwhile," Gram said, "hell was freezing over."
The senior CLs snickered.
Casey and Monica rolled their eyes.
Rocky's frustration shifted to sympathy. For her cousin, who'd lost the love of his life to cancer and hadn't dated, even casually, since. And for Rachel, who was painfully shy and, when it came to her looks, infuriatingly insecure. So much so she'd refused to participate in a CL photo session a few weeks back. Why did love or even just plain dating have to be so damned complicated?
"Maybe you could go out for drinks?" Monica suggested.
"Why not dinner?" Judy asked.
"You should take her someplace nice," Ethel said.
"But not too fancy," Gram said. "Then you feel pressured about how dressed up to get and which fork to use."
"Yeah." Rocky slid her cousin a teasing look, hoping to ease the tension. "Wouldn't want Sam obsessing on that."
He grunted. "I know which fork to use."
"Take her to the Sugar Shack," Casey said, getting in on the action. "Comfortable surroundings, great food."
Rocky agreed. Plus Luke, who co-owned and ran the place, would give their cousin and his date the star treatment. "Good idea."
"What are you doing Saturday night?" Helen asked Rachel.
"Nothing. That is—"
"Sam will pick you up at six," Gram said.
He shot the Monroe matriarch another one of those glares. "What if I had plans?"
Gram pushed her rhinestone-studded glasses up her nose and glared back. "Do you?"
"I'll be happy to babysit Ben and Mina," Casey said with a smile.
"This is whacked." Sam dragged a hand down his rugged face. Rolling back his broad shoulders, he adopted what was probably supposed to be a charming smile. His seduction skills were rusty at best. "Rachel, would you like to go out to dinner with me on Saturday night?"
Rachel smiled back, sort of. "Okay."
Not an enthusiastic yes, Rocky thought, but not a rejection. As the president of the club, she used her position to move things along, saving Sam and Rachel from further embarrassment. She hoped. "Now that that's settled, let's get back to the Spookytown event. Which cupcake should we focus on as the giveaway for the kids?"
"I vote for Sam's," Casey said. "No offense, everyone. All entries were delish, but like Rocky said, Sam's are just too creepy-cute. Totally appropriate."
Rocky looked around the table. "All in favor?"
Everyone, including Sam, raised their hands.
"Settled," Rocky said. "To be on the safe side, we'll need approximately two hundred cupcakes for the Spooktacular goody giveaways."
"The pumpkin spice cupcake recipe itself is simple," Sam said. "As for the fondant…"
Gram, Helen, Ethel, and Casey volunteered.
"Great," Rocky said. "So along with Sam, you four will tackle the monster fondant. Which leaves Monica, Rachel, Judy, and me to bake the cupcakes."
"What about Tasha and Chloe?" Monica asked.
"Wild cards," Rocky said while pouring everyone a fresh cup of Sweet Apple Chamomile Tea. "Wherever they want to focus their efforts is great."
Chloe Madison, the new love of Rocky's brother Dev, had recently graduated from a New York City culinary arts school. Although she specialized in cooking more than baking, her overall skills were incredible. In fact, she'd recently partnered with Gram to open a quaint café, which was why she wasn't here yet. Detained on business.
As for Tasha … When it came to community and charitable events, Rocky tried to put aside her personal dislike of their former club president. At odds since high school, Rocky and Tasha had a long and ugly association. Complicating matters further, after the botched seduction of Rocky's oldest brother, Dev, Tasha had set her sights on Randall Burke, a man thirty years her senior, the flipping town mayor. Last year, in a match that had set the town afire with gossip, Tasha had married into the Burkes, the most influential family in Sugar Creek, aside from the Monroes, intensifying her already bossy, arrogant, manipulative, and sometimes downright mean personality.
That said, Tasha made kick-ass cupcakes and had a history with the club that stretched back to her great-grandmother. Big on tradition and holding fast to the hope that maybe someday the thirty-year-old woman would mature into a kinder, gentler being (like her deceased mom and grandma), the club endured Tasha Burke like one endures a perplexing infection while awaiting a miracle cure.
Shaking off thoughts of Tasha-the-Pinhead Burke (as nicknamed by Gram), who was uncharacteristically absent from their weekly Thursday night meeting, Rocky set aside the teapot and reclaimed her seat.
She waited until Sam finished passing around his recipe cards, another tradition, before proposing her next idea. "I was thinking, since we'll have our own booth at the Spectacular, in addition to the free cupcake treats for the kids, maybe everyone could contribute a dozen or so cupcakes, utilizing the pumpkin theme, which we'll sell—proceeds earmarked for the day-care center."
"Great idea," Sam said.
"Dandy," said Gram. "Put me down for two dozen of my Pumpkin Walnuts."
Smiling, Rocky penned a list as everyone chimed in.
Rachel cleared her throat. "Wait. That's a lovely thought, but Gretchen's sort of touchy about contributions. She has her own way of doing things and she's keen on obtaining a grant."
Gretchen Tate, owner of Sugar Tots and Rachel's boss.
"Those things take time," Rocky said kindly, "and from what you've told us the center could use some immediate upgrades. We can at least contribute to the playground fund you mentioned."
"I think Gretchen intends to reach out to local businesses."
"Smart," Helen said. "Meanwhile, let us help a little, Rachel, honey. That's what we do."
It was what Rocky loved most about Cupcake Lovers—their camaraderie and charitable efforts. Founded in 1942, the social club had gathered weekly to share sweets, tea, and news from their loved ones who'd gone off to fight in WW II. As a way to boost morale and to share a taste of home, the group began shipping cupcakes to soldiers. Over time, the club evolved and, in addition to spreading joy overseas, they also started organizing local charitable events.
"It's settled then," Rocky said. "A week to prepare and—"
"Sorry I'm late, Sweet Peeps, but wait until you hear my news!"
Sweet Peeps? Rocky rolled her eyes at the pretentious greeting, then turned and frowned. Decked out in four-inch heels and a formfitting dress that highlighted her curves—some cultivated by a personal trainer, others, like her big, pert breasts, compliments of surgery—Tasha blew into the room, commanding everyone's attention. As always.
"Did you just walk into my house without knocking?" Gram asked.
"I knew I was expected." Tucking her sleek, black hair behind her diamond-studded ears, Tasha took a seat at the head of the table. There were two other empty chairs, but oh no, she assumed a seat of authority.
I should have sat there, Rocky thought. If for no other reason than to rob Tasha of the opportunity. "We were discussing our efforts for next week's Spookytown Spectacular," Rocky said, vying for control.
"I vote for whatever everyone else voted for," Tasha said with an I-couldn't-care-less smile. "Now for my news! Brett called. The collective powers-that-be at Highlife Publishing loved our proposal for Cupcake Lovers' Delectable Delights—Making a Difference One Cupcake at a Time." She squealed and applauded. "We're going to contract, Sweet Peeps!"
Rocky bristled. If she calls us that one more time …
"Incredible," Judy said.
Similar sentiments followed, including Sam's, "Freaking A."
Rocky remained skeptical. A brainchild of Tasha's, this project reeked of disaster. That it was actually one step closer to realization only amped Rocky's misgivings.
Three weeks ago, at the urging of Tasha, who at the time had been their leader, the club had submitted a proposal for the recipe book—enhanced by photos, the history of the club, and heartwarming accounts—to Highlife, a New York publisher specializing in nonfiction. The entire process had been a hassle, complicated by Tasha's controlling nature and rabid quest for fame that had resulted in the members demanding she relinquish her role as president. Rocky, who'd been appointed as the new president, had secretly hoped the self-absorbed witch would quit the group entirely.
If Rocky were paranoid, she'd think the woman had retained her membership solely to make Rocky's life hell. Not that her life had been a picnic lately even without Tasha's influence, but that wasn't the point. Clearly the main reason the narcissistic woman had swallowed her pride was because she was banking on this publishing deal. Apparently, marrying the town mayor (who was stinking rich and influential) hadn't quenched Tasha's thirst for power and glory. Not that there was much glory to be had in their small town.
Sugar Creek, Vermont. Population 1,355. A quaint tourist destination for Flatlanders visiting the Green Mountain State in search of stunning scenery, relaxation, or assorted outdoor recreation. Home of Cupcake Lovers, an association with a long and notable history that, in addition to their delicious recipes and the current popularity of cupcakes, had apparently landed the club a book deal.
"I don't know why you're all so stunned," Tasha said with a haughty tilt of her chin. "I told you we'd get an offer. Brett called me this afternoon with the good news."
Brett Pearson, the senior editor she'd been wooing on behalf of the club even though she was no longer president. They'd all agreed Tasha should remain the liaison in this instance, mostly because she'd established contact. Partly because no one else wanted the job. Especially Rocky, who was up to her eyeballs in renovations with the Red Clover.
Gram frowned. "You've been sitting on this news all day?"
"Don't get your granny panties in a twist, Daisy. I wanted to tell all of you in person and we were meeting tonight anyway. What's a few hours?"
"Don't get your reconstructed nose out of joint," Gram fired back. "I'm just saying this is exciting stuff."
The front door opened and shut, followed by rushed footsteps. "I apologize for being so late, everyone. It took longer than anticipated for Devlin, Luke, and me to hang the signage and shelves that just came in. You're going to love it, Daisy! Looks even better than it did in the online catalogue!"
Rocky grinned at Chloe, who'd blown into the room and sucked the wind right out of Tasha's sails. The petite woman with an adventurous spirit that matched Gram's had originally moved into town and this house to work as Gram's companion, specifically as a chauffeur and cook. Chloe still did those things, temporarily, but she was now also Gram's business partner. Rocky had known Chloe less than two months but already loved her. She also loved that Dev, her overprotective, sometimes-pain-in-ass brother, loved Chloe. The icing on the cake? Tasha hated the highly motivated and cute-as-hell culinary whiz kid. Partly because Chloe had landed Dev. Mostly because, after living in New York City for fourteen years, Chloe trumped Tasha big-time in life experience and accomplishments.
Long chestnut hair pulled back in her signature sloppy ponytail, Chloe peeled off her vintage leather jacket and trendy scarf and plopped into a chair next to Judy. "What did I miss?"
The older woman leaned into her and winked. "Sam asked Rachel out on a date."
"We got a book deal," Monica said.
"Um … wow. On both counts."
"I'm flying to Manhattan tomorrow to seal the deal," Tasha said, grappling for the limelight.
Which earned a universal, "What?"
"We agreed that if this happened," Sam said, "Dev would be our business advisor. He needs to look over those contracts, Tasha."
"You can't just sign an agreement without us knowing specifics," Monica said. "We're all involved."
"Settle down, Sweet Peeps. I wasn't going to sign anything."
Chloe blinked. "Did she just call us Sweet Peeps?"
"You really need to drop that, Tasha," Rocky said.
"Why? It's catchy. If I'm going to promote us on Facebook and Twitter, we need a catchy name."
"We have a catchy name," Helen said. "Cupcake Lovers."
Sam shot Tasha one of his death stares. "Don't ever call me Sweet Peep in public, and that includes online."
Tasha huffed. "Whatever. Back to my trip to Manhattan. In one of our conversations Brett had expressed interest in sampling our cupcakes firsthand. He also thought it would be helpful if the publicity department could speak with me in person, to get in touch with the human side of the club."
Gram opened her mouth, only Chloe spoke first. "Maybe Rocky should go with you."
"What?" Rocky blurted.
"Why?" Tasha snapped.
"She is the acting president of Cupcake Lovers, plus she could add some interesting insight."
"Plus, she's human," Gram said.
"I agree," Sam said. "Rocky should be involved in those meetings. As for the cupcake samples—"
"I spent all afternoon whipping up a batch of my Death By Maple cupcakes," Tasha said. "Consider Brett and his team smitten at first bite."
"No denying that recipe is to-die-for," Monica said, "but a variety might be nice." She gestured to the platters on the table. "Plenty of fresh cupcakes here and a broader representation of the club's talents."
"I'll wrap you up a nice care package," Ethel said.
"It's a plan," Sam said. "Rocky will join Tasha in New York and together they'll present a sampling of our cupcakes to Highlife. All in favor?"
Everyone, with the exception of Rocky and Tasha, raised their hands.
"Settled," Gram said. "You'll both go."
Rocky could think of a dozen reasons why she shouldn't go. A dozen and one. But as acting president and a longtime member and, even more so, as everyone's friend, she couldn't allow Tasha to represent them unchecked. God knew what she'd say or do while grabbing for the brass ring.
Rocky looked at the woman who, three weeks ago during a down and dirty bar brawl, had tried to shove an olive up Rocky's nose. "Why tomorrow, Tasha? Why so soon?"
"Because they had an unexpected opening in their publication schedule and, given the current red-hot popularity of cupcakes, they're putting our recipe book on the fast track."
"How fast?" Rachel asked.
"I'll find out," Tasha said, then smirked at Rocky. "I booked a private charter."
But of course she did. Tasha, or rather her husband, was loaded.
"Be at the airfield by seven o'clock a.m. As for hotels, I'll be staying at the Waldorf Astoria." She smiled. "Might be a little pricy for you."
"I have some contacts," Chloe butted in. "Don't worry, Rocky, I'll hook you up with something affordable. I'd come with, but the grand opening of Moose-a-lotta is on Saturday."
Tasha snorted. "Charming name."
"We thought so," Gram said. "It's a themed café," she told everyone. "Wait until you see!"
"Can't wait," Rocky said.
Tasha raised a professionally shaped brow. "Did I mention I'm not flying back until Sunday?"
Meaning Rocky would miss the opening of Moose-a-lotta. "What publisher does business on Saturday?"
"Don't worry about it, sweet pea," Gram said. "Better you're in the big city looking after our best interests. If you run into any hassles, you can always call Jayce."
Rocky's chest ached at the mention of the man who'd stolen and crushed her heart more than a decade before—not that Daisy knew. That walking Adonis of supercharged testosterone was the number one reason she did not want to go to Manhattan. Jayce lived a stone's throw away in Brooklyn. Too close for Rocky's comfort. After years of tense avoidance, they'd shared a week of volatile arguments. Every confrontation sizzled with sexual awareness. Heady stuff. Irritating, too, since Rocky wasn't in the habit of sleeping with men she despised. When they'd parted three weeks ago, Jayce had melted her brain cells with a scorching kiss. Good-bye, he'd said. For now.
Since then those words had haunted Rocky. They had sounded like a threat. Or maybe a promise. It scared the hell out of Rocky. She did not under any circumstances want to see Jayce again. Her freaking vulnerable and mangled heart couldn't take it.
"Rocky's a scrapper," Helen said. "She won't run into any hassles."
"But if she does," Gram said, "she can count on Jayce. Always been fond of that boy. He's like a third big brother to my Rocky."
Rocky traded a look with Chloe and Monica, who knew her deepest, darkest secret.
Big brother, my ass.
That tore it. Her trip to the city would just have to be 100 percent hassle free. In the words of Gram: hassle, schmassle. In order for Rocky to call on Jayce Bello, it would have to be one flipping huge catastrophe.
She couldn't imagine.
Copyright © 2013 by Beth Ciotta