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Authors: Jessica Topper

Courtship of the Cake

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PRAISE FOR

Dictatorship of the Dress

“Insightful, charming, and romantic.”

—Heroes & Heartbreakers

“Riveting and pitch-perfect . . . with an honesty and charm that is heartwarming and spellbinding. Topper's tale of loss and love is a winner.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Delivering a fresh twist on boy meets girl,
Dictatorship of the Dress
is full of endearing characters, hilarious yet plausible circumstances, and plenty of surprise twists and turns leading to happily ever after.”

—Tracy Brogan, author of
Crazy Little Thing

“A stellar new voice in contemporary romance, Jessica Topper weaves the present and the past seamlessly to tell this sexy, funny, and oft times heartbreaking story. I adored this book! Ms. Topper is a must-read author.”

—Terri Osburn, author of
More to Give

“Lightning-quick and full of surprising humor . . . refreshingly daring.”

—RT Book Reviews

PRAISE FOR

Louder Than Love

“An emotional ride with a to-die-for hero and with a sparkling ending. Topper is an author to watch!”

—Laura Drake, author of
The Reasons to Stay

“I was absolutely blown away . . . A wonderful story [and] amazing characters.”

—The Book Pushers

“I can't begin to say all the reasons that I loved this book . . . I just found myself enraptured and so caught up with the story that I was talking to Adrian and hugging Kat in my mind.”

—Nocturne Romance Reads

“A beautiful and engaging story that will melt your heart . . . Absolutely an emotional whirlwind and well worth the buildup! I don't want to say too much about the story itself because as I've said before, there is such a raw human element to this book that you need to experience it as it happens. My final words would be to read
Louder Than Love
. Allow yourself to be open to a new experience and reap the rewards! You will not be disappointed.”

—Open Book Society

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

This book is an original publication of Penguin Random House LLC.

Copyright © 2015 by Jessica Topper.

Excerpt from
Dictatorship of the Dress
copyright © 2014 by Jessica Topper.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY® and the “B” design are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information about the Penguin Group, visit penguin.com.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-17537-2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Topper, Jessica.

Courtship of the cake / Jessica Topper.—Berkley Sensation trade paperback edition.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-0-425-27685-3 (alk. paper)

I. Title.

PS3620.O587464C68 2015

813'.6—dc23

2015005179

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Sensation trade paperback edition / June 2015

Cover design by Lesley Worrell.

Cover photo “Woman” by Tassh / Shutterstock.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Version_1

For Amanda
Writer. Chef. Romantic.
Friend.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

If gratitude were a cake, this is how I'd slice it:

Laura Drake, Pat O'Dea Rosen, and Kristin Contino—you deserve huge, sweet helpings for keeping your eye on this book as it took shape. Thank you! Amanda Usen—you'd get the piece with “YOU ROCK” written on it in big swirly letters. I'm eternally grateful to you for the handholding, the brainstorming, and for making me your famous “Get Your Groove Back” soup when I needed it the most. Meesha Axelrad—here's your slice, with a big frosting flower on top, for helping me to better understand name signs and deaf culture. Any mistakes I made in describing ASL are completely my own.

I'm saving the frosting-covered corners for my agent, Nalini Akolekar; my editor, Leis Pederson; her assistant, Bethany Blair, and the entire Berkley publishing team. Any way you slice it, I couldn't do it without all of you!

And you, dear reader—every candle on the cake is dedicated to you, with my best wishes. I hope you enjoy this book!

While my characters are fictional, and their band, festival, and business names come from a fun place in my imagination, ankylosing spondylitis is a very real disease. According to the National Institute of Health, AS and other spondyloarthropathies affect 3.5 to 13 per 1,000 people in the United States. Strength, hope, and respect go out to all those fighting this battle, including Mötley Crüe guitarist Mick Mars. To learn more about AS, and how you can help, please visit www.spondylitis.org.

Contents

Praise for Jessica Topper

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Dani: OVER THE RAINBOW

The Caged Bird Sings

The Calling

One for the Road

Thorn in the Side

Kid's Play

Rock and Rote

Appetite for Destruction

Fool on the Hill

Mick: THE HONEYMOON IS OVER

Dani: MEET AND GREET

Mick: HOMECOMING

Dani: WALK THE LINE

Mick: CAKE DUMMY

Dani: SOCIAL CALL

Mick: CHARMED, I'M SURE

Dani: SMALL WORLD

Mick: SLICE OF LIFE

Dani: GRIN AND BEAR IT

Mick: PICK YOUR POISON

Dani: MAKE A WISH

Mick: LOYALTY LIES

Dani: GUEST BEHAVIOR

Mick: ALL-NIGHTER

Dani: INNER SANCTUM

Mick: TABLE MANNERS

Dani: DOOR EXPLORATION

Mick: SIN AFTER SIN

Dani: SPIN DOCTOR

Mick: HAPPINESS SOLD SEPARATELY

Dani: GOSSIP GIRLS

Dani: DAY TRIPPING

Mick: BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS

Mick: A DATE WITH DRAMA

Dani: DASHBOARD CONFESSIONAL

Mick: CAKE AND A PROMISE

Dani: TRUTH TAKES A TOLL

Mick: LOVE STINKS

Dani: REVEL AND REVEAL

Mick: BEST INTENTIONS

Dani: LOVE IS LIKE A SOLDIER

Dani: VERA CAUSA

Dani: HEAVEN'S HALF ACRE

Dani: LOVE IN SPADES

Mick: BUSTED

Mick: SI NOS DEJAN

Dani: POLVORONE PALS

Dani: CAKE COURTSHIP

Mick: BUSINESS AND PLEASURE

Dani: HELP ON THE WAY

Mick: MOMENTS OF TRUTH

Dani: TIME TRAVEL

Mick: GOING WITHOUT

Dani: DREDGING THE PAST

Quinn

Mick: KEY NOTE

Dani: MASKS OFF

Mick: FROM HOPE TO HOME

Epilogue: DANI

Mick

Special excerpt from
Dictatorship of the Dress

Dani

OVER THE RAINBOW

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner! I don't know how do you do it, Danica James.”

“Easy,” I replied, handing the garment bag over the counter and into Bree's waiting arms. “I say yes, spend money I don't have on a dress I don't want, sashay down the aisle in it, and then I donate it to you.”

“The only hard part for Dani being a bridesmaid,” Laney added, “is not showing up the bride. Otherwise, it's a piece o' cake, right, Dani?”

I watched as my best friend selected M&M's from the candy dish Bree kept on the counter, using a vintage pewter salt spoon. Laney was just as picky about the brown M&M's as David Lee Roth backstage at a Van Halen concert.

She had to go and mention cake, didn't she?

I thumbed the tiny silver charm that hung at the hollow of my throat and wondered how the term
cake
came to mean
easy
.

Bree laughed. “See? And the hard part for me is not showing up
as
the bride!” The shop owner held up her hand, fingers splayed to
emphasize not only the number, but her latest rock as well. “Let's hope the fifth time's the charm, ladies.”

Bree's habit of “falling in marriage” earned her spots on the local news and was the impetus behind the former fashion model falling into Diamonds & Fairy Dust, her bridal attire consignment business. The tiny Cornelia Street store carried everything from your suburban strip mall off-the-rack dress to the custom couture Vera Wang, which hadn't moved in the five years I'd known Bree. But once annually, she initiated Operation Fairy Dust, a dress drive for local high school girls in need, and accepted donations of gently used bridesmaid dresses to give away during prom season.

“It's gorgeous, Dani.” She ran her hand over the ruched bodice and sweeping handkerchief skirt of the brilliant green gown. “We've still got a few schools in the area with prom approaching. You are going to make someone's dream come true.”

Laney popped an M&M about the same hue as the dress in between my lips. “So what does she win?”

“Whatever it is, it had better be small enough to fit in my backpack. Unless it's a car, which I would totally accept,” I laughed.

“According to my little black book of details, you have managed to donate a dress in every color of the rainbow . . .”

“And don't forget the ones she brought in that
weren't
colors found in nature,” Laney reminded, turning to me. “Like that Creature from the Seafoam Blue Lagoon dress my mother made you wear at her wedding.”

Bree laughed. “Earning the Rainbow Award is no easy feat. For that”—she rummaged under the counter and came up with the fluffiest rainbow Afro wig I had ever laid eyes on—“a picture on my Wall of Fame, if you will.”

“You want me to wear
that
? I don't know where that thing's been!” It looked like a relic from New York's Studio 54 disco era.

“Trust me, it's new. No one but you has achieved rainbow status,”
Bree assured with a grin. “You take ‘always a bridesmaid' to a whole new level, Dani.”

Always a bridesmaid and never a bride worked just fine for me; marriage required commitment. Of course, so did insanity. Coincidence?
I think not.

Laney just about choked on her last M&M as I stuffed my mass of blond curls under the synthetic skullcap and mugged for Bree's Polaroid. Then she threw on a wig from the nearby display so I wouldn't have to go through the humiliation alone. Laney was good like that.

“How do I look?” she deadpanned. The long, black Cleopatra wig was just shy of covering her poker-straight fiery red bangs.

“Ridiculous and lovely. Like Cher.” I plopped a nearby tiara on the crown of her head, and we pressed our cheeks together for one last photo.

“Yeah, you should talk, Rainbow Brite. I think you used to have leg warmers that matched that hair.”

Bree waved the developing print. “For your travels.” She traded me the photo for the Afro, placing the small square into my hands as the image appeared, eighteen years of best friendship rising to the surface and solidifying like magic.

“I'm going to miss your visits, Dani. This one, though”—she reached to smooth Laney's fake bangs—“I have a feeling she'll be back. Just as soon as that new man of hers proposes.”

“Hey, slow down there, Five Time's the Charm.” Laney twined her own tresses with the long hanks of synthetic hair until it resembled a red and black candy cane. “Noah just finished paying off his non-wedding.” The lovebirds had recently celebrated his near miss with Bridezilla by throwing a huge charity event in place of the already-booked reception, and were still recovering. “We're not in any hurry,” she assured, but her mossy eyes blinked bright with the possibility.

Bree winked, more for my benefit. “Have fun. Be safe.” Smiling, she moved on to help a customer.

Laney pouted and pulled off the wig. “I can't believe you're leaving, Dani—
again
. Just after I got you back. You tease.”

“It's just for the summer, Hudson. Suck it up.”

Despite all we had in common, Laney's homebody habits mostly confined her to the tri-state area without complaint. My wanderlust since meeting Mick, on the other hand, had grown insatiable.

As had my sweet tooth.

“For someone who loves to live out of a duffel bag, you certainly held on to that dress from your sister's wedding for a record length of time. I was getting ready to call the
Guinness Book
,” Laney ribbed knowingly.

Posy and Patrick were about to celebrate their first anniversary, and I was nowhere closer to figuring out just what the hell had happened to me that night of their wedding in New Orleans. Or why I couldn't let go of its memories . . .

I stole one last look at the dress as Bree hung it in the store window. Its opulently embellished halter and keyhole neckline had been perfect for the discreet touches and stolen kisses Mick had lavished upon me in public; its wisps of tiered chiffon held every whisper leading us out of the reception and back to my room.

“A wise woman once told me never to let a dress rule my life,” Laney murmured.

The serene girl who stood before me was a far cry from the hot mess who'd been appointed dress bearer for her mother's cross-country nuptials this past winter. The one who had frantically texted, asking
WWDD—What Would Dani Do?—
every step of the way, until she had found her own footing. With a hand on my back, she pushed me over the threshold and onto the quaint, one-block city street. “What would she tell you right about now?”

“I'm not as well-adjusted as you think I am,” I mumbled.

“You are wonderful.” Laney dropped a kiss on my cheek and an arm across my shoulder. “And I, for one, will always look up to you
from my perch on your invisible psychiatrist's couch. As well as pay you in brunch food. What do you say?” She nodded toward the red-and-white-striped awning of the Cornelia Street Café. I knew tea and sympathy waited inside, as well as a willing ear if I was ready to talk about my rambling feet and broken heart.

“Sorry, girlie.” I gave her a squeeze. “I can't stop; I've got to see a man about a car.”

I was about to make my biggest commitment yet.

•   •   •

“So. How does zero interest for twelve months sound?”

My laughter reverberated off the chrome, steel, and safety glass surrounding me on the dealership floor. “Sounds a lot like my love life, actually.”

I reaped the rewards of my own joke before the cavernous showroom quickly swallowed up the sound. It was fun while it lasted.

Kind of like my love life.

“Oh, please! I don't believe that for a second, heartbreaker.” Jax propped his feet up on the prime Manhattan real estate that was his desk and flashed me a grin. “And everyone says used car salesmen are the scammers and con artists?”

Jackson Davenport was not your typical used car salesman, that was for sure. Upper East Side born and summers-in-the-Hamptons bred. Valedictorian of our high school, Ivy League educated, and handsomeness so rugged, you'd think he stepped out of a Patagonia catalog. But he'd swapped his silver spoon for a ballpoint pen long ago, which he was now tapping against his teeth impatiently.

“Are you going to take the car or not, Dani?”

“Hell yeah.”

Summer tour was calling, but it wasn't going to come to me.

Jax popped out of his chair. “Good. Then let's get this paperwork signed.”

He spread a tree's worth of paper in front of me and pointed at the first
X
. “So what happened to that last guy, Marcus? He was cool.”

“Firefighter Marcus . . .” I signed with a flourish, and relished the memory of those heated discussions we used to have, along with the slow burn of his lips. “He was a nice distraction.”

“How about the bartender?” Jax flipped the page. “Here, here, and initial here.”

“Sam? Arm candy.” I tapped my temple, and then mimed cocking a gun. “Pretty empty upstairs.” I lifted my pen to indicate I had signed, signed, and initialed.

“And Noah's friend . . . from Laney's mom's wedding? Soldier Boy?”

Tim had been a perfect partner in crime for the timeless, torturous bouquet and garter toss at the Hudson-Crystal wedding in Hawaii. After our respective best friends had snuck away from the reception together, Tim and I had been just about the only singles left on the dance floor to endure the humiliation. Tall and agile, he had barely needed to raise a hand to catch the lacy bit. And the flowers had landed right in my hands, despite Lady P, one of the many Elvis impersonators on-site, and her valiant attempt to dive for it in her skintight, rhinestone jumpsuit.

I let a wicked smile slip, remembering how Tim had eased that garter belt up my thigh, fingers climbing so high that I had to smack him with the bouquet to make him stop.

“Soldier Boy was fun,” I admitted. He and I had both arrived in town last week to attend Laney and Noah's charity soirée for the Kitchen of Hope and had had even more fun. “But now he's back overseas.”

“Pity. Mona and I really liked him.”

While I had my dalliance du jour, Jax had long-term
relationships
. Mona—or Bitch'n'Mona, as Laney liked to call her—was his latest ladylove. She had appeared on the scene after I'd moved out of state for my last job, so I didn't know her all that well. But if I knew Jax, it was serious . . . until the day it wasn't. My friend was an open-and-shut textbook case of serial monogamy.

Jax leaned over my shoulder and guided me through the last of the forms. His cologne had a hint of chilled cucumber with a citrus bite, and hung from his neck like a scrapbook for my senses. I was seventeen and running along the ocean shore again, not thirty-two and running away from my memories of Mick.

If that was even his real name.

“Tell me you're not still thinking about Mystery Man from a year ago?”

“Yep.”

And I was still dreaming about him, too . . . especially on the nights when I ate dessert after eight o'clock. Mick had been just that sweet, just that sinful, and just that much of an indulgent fantasy.

“Lucky is the thief who steals your heart, Dani . . .” Jax murmured.

Yeah, right. Not to mention the twenty thousand dollars in wedding gifts that disappeared that night.

“Please, don't start. Posy has finally agreed to speak to me again.” I ran my fingers along the creamy silk ribbon at my throat, avoiding the charm tethered to it, and refrained from saying more.

While I sometimes found it easier to talk about it with Jax than Laney, I still hadn't been completely honest. The past year had hardly been a cakewalk.

Despite what Mick did to my family, I couldn't shake him from my thoughts. “But you were the one who pulled the slutty Cinderella, right? Leaving him with a hard-on and a glass slipper at the end of the night?” Jax shuffled, collated, and stapled my paperwork while wearing a frown that either indicated intense concentration, or massive disapproval.

Swallowing hard, I managed, “I just thought . . . he was different.”

“No, you thought he was perfect. And he wasn't. So your playdar wasn't working that night? Time to forgive and forget.”

I sighed; during the plane ride home from my sister's wedding in New Orleans, I had managed to work through all five of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief over Mick's deception: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Forgiving was in there somewhere.

But forgetting? Kind of impossible. Not when those pale blue eyes haunted me every time I closed my own. His were icy like a husky dog's; mine were more of the Fiona Apple variety. Our gazes, made more electric and mysterious from behind the vintage masks Pat and Posy had insisted everyone wear during their reception, had locked in on each other the moment he'd stepped onto the dance floor.

BOOK: Courtship of the Cake
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