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Authors: Leigh Ellwood

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Chapter Three

 

Spot on seven a.m., Neve pulled into the small lot of the
strip mall where Sugar Rush anchored the far corner. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle
occupied her usual spot, and all neighboring slots had been taken as well.
Unusual for a weekday morning, she observed, especially since none of the other
businesses would open until nine.

She looked toward the building and saw the crowd of people
gathered around her shop.
Oh Lord
. Neve steered into the first open
space she could find.
Please, no pitchforks.

As she approached the front door, she estimated about twenty
people stood by the storefront windows, either looking inside or chatting with
each other. Some had arms folded tightly against the cold morning while others
sipped from covered to-go coffee cups. Nobody carried a sign or a brick, which
boded well for the early hours of the business day, at least.

“Excuse me, please?” She had to shoulder through men and
woman of varying ages to get to the door. The key in her hand caught their
attention and the questions immediately followed.

“Do you work here?”

“How long until you’re open?”

“Do you serve breakfast? Coffee?”

Neve nodded, keeping her focus on the lock as the key
jammed. A wave of relief washed over her when the people gave her some berth to
open the door. “We’ll be open in two hours. Sorry, I don’t have anything to
serve right now because we bake our breakfast pastries fresh daily. Thanks,
everybody,” she said. “I’ll have coffee on then. Have to get in and prep.”
Damn. Did nobody read the hours sign in the corner of the window? She’d have
Corky make a bigger one using her Photoshop skills.

“I appreciate your patience, y’all.” She looked over her
shoulder at myriad warm smiles. She had a feeling some people were gay or
lesbian, judging from rainbow pins on a few coat lapels, but were she asked to
sort people in a lineup, she doubted she’d perform well. That suited her
fine—the sexual preferences of her customers had no bearing on her business.
However, if they preferred red velvet over lemon cake, she’d adjust the menu.

She pushed the door and it opened wide. Neve felt shuffling
at her back and feared for a moment that the crowd might roll over her, so she
called out, “Hope you come back at nine! Thanks!” Once inside, she turned to
secure the lock. She waved to the would-be customers beginning to drift away, a
few of whom stared back with odd expressions. They were pointing, though at
what, Neve had no clue.

“Whew!” she exhaled, then turned toward the kitchen to start
the day’s first wave of baking—

And collided with a lovely woman crowned with auburn bangs
peeking from under a black beret.

“Oh!”

The intruder yelped as well, and flushed deep red.

Neve backed up a step and cried, “I about wet my pants! How
did you slip through?”

The other woman laughed and held up two pink-gloved hands,
likely to assure Neve she hadn’t come armed. “Would you believe me if I told
you I snuck into the bathroom before closing and spent the night here?”

“If you did, I’d feel insulted if I walked into the kitchen
and found food still in the walk-in cooler.”

The woman frowned. “You just said you bake everything fresh
daily.”

“Almost everything. Unfortunately, we don’t sell out every
day. Leftovers are either discounted or donated. You didn’t answer my
question.”

“Oh right.” The young woman appeared chagrined now. “You
were so focused on getting through the door, I just stood close to your back
and sort of…shuffled on in. Works great to get me into VIP clubs.”

“Clever. I’m guessing you’re not looking for work, otherwise
you might have started on some cupcakes to impress me.”

The beret came off and Neve noticed the auburn was actually
a shade of magenta that complemented the woman’s makeup and multiple rings
through her left ear. “I was hoping for a minute of your time. I know you’re
busy, but I figured it was better to come early.”

Neve glanced at the storefront windows and noticed the crowd
had dispersed. Tiny patches of fog from where people had breathed against the
glass remained.

“Well, I suppose you can have a seat. I don’t see a reason
to turn you out into the cold. Hope you don’t mind my working while we talk.”
Neve bent behind the front counter for a canister of grounds. “Coffee?”

“No thanks, and I promise I won’t take too long. I’m Judy
Goldsmith, by the way, from Facebook.”

“Really? You work for Facebook?”

Judy laughed. “No. I sent you a message on it last night.”

Neve looked up from the coffeemaker on the back counter. She
tried to remember the photo attached to Judy’s profile, but didn’t recall
seeing a pixie-cute woman with short dyed hair and a near-metal ear. Neve
studied Judy’s pert nose and sharp chin and guessed her to be in her
mid-twenties, which would put her about a decade younger than Neve’s
thirty-six.

Judy, Judy, Judy
, her memory mocked in Cary Grant’s
voice. Why did the name strike her? Well, better
this
woman infiltrated
her bakery than a protestor infuriated by her decision to sell a wedding cake
to a lesbian couple.

“Oh okay,” she said when realization dawned. “I bet you’re
here to ask about an extensive cat-treat menu.” Neve smiled. “You caught me off
guard, I have to admit. I haven’t had time to plan.”

“Yeah, that.” Judy looked away briefly, as though
embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I guess I was anxious to get some treats for myself
too.”

“I also notice you came alone when you said you’d bring
friends.” Neve made a show of checking around the sales floor. “Are they hiding
in the bathroom?”

Judy laughed again. “I owe you more business. Don’t worry, I
know lots of people with sweet tooths. Teeth.”

Neve thought it cute the way the young woman blustered.

“Anyway, I was kidding a little bit about that,” Judy continued.
“I don’t really have a cat, officially. Outside my building, there’s a stray
who hangs around because we all feed it. So I guess it’s a community cat.” She
drummed her fingers on the yellow table, and Neve noticed she wore a nail
lacquer the same shade as her hair.

“I actually came by to inquire about catering, if you do
it,” Judy continued. “I didn’t see any information on your website, so I
figured I should stop by and ask.”

“This early?” Neve took the opposite chair. She knew she
needed to be in the kitchen getting ready for the day, but Judy intrigued her.
The girl seemed sweet and attractive, and Neve had to admire her balls for
slipping past her. Thank God she hadn’t tried that in an attempt to mug her—
and
I responded to a private message from her last night without thinking
.
Well, crap. Wasn’t that how internet-savvy criminals found their victims?

“I’m surprised you didn’t ask while you had me online,” Neve
said. Again with the online stuff. Neve decided going forward to leave
everything computer related to Corky, leaving herself more time to worry about
baking.

“Well, the thought didn’t occur to me until earlier this
morning. I logged off after talking to you last night because I was, er, busy.”
Judy grinned. “But when I got up at the crack of dawn, I realized I needed to
get quotes for this job. Your website doesn’t list your hours, and I figured
you’d open early for breakfast…oops.”

“That’s not right. About the hours, I mean.” Neve made a
mental note to ask Corky to correct that. Of course, Corky needed access to the
website—that was the one thing her tech-savvy employee didn’t do,
marketing-wise, and Neve doubted she could remember the password, much less the
URL for the site’s backend. Perhaps it was time to contact the absentee web
firm that had designed it and light a fire. “Well, sorry about that. To answer
your question, I do some catering, provided I have enough time to prepare. I
mean, it’s going to depend on when the event is and how many people are eating,
and what kind of spread you’re looking for.”

Judy leaned over the table and extended one hand, as if she
wanted to take one of Neve’s and squeeze it. “Thank you,” she said in a near
whisper.

“For what?” Neve frowned. “I haven’t committed to anything
yet.”

“No, but thanks for not saying it depends on what the event
is.” Judy leaned back in her chair and brought her hands together, picking at
her nails. “I’m planning a birthday party for my best friend. You know Little
Dude’s, the lesbian bar? That’s where we’re having it.”

Neve nodded. She’d heard of the place from Terri, but never
patronized it. She wasn’t the bar type.

“Rachael is out and proud. In fact, she officially came out
on her eighteenth birthday, so it’s like an anniversary as well. Originally I
wanted to have a cake made with the rainbow flag or maybe some rainbow cupcakes
but,” a deep sigh, “three places said they wouldn’t do it.”

“I’m sorry.” Neve didn’t want to pry. It wasn’t her business
which bakeries had turned Judy away. Though she had to wonder, also, if the
reason was more because of short notice.

Judy shrugged and the side of her mouth quirked up. “Anyway,
Maggie McCray is a friend of mine on Facebook, and when she posted that you
were doing her wedding cake, I checked out your page. I can pay you in advance.
I passed the hat around to some of Rachael’s friends and I can get more if the
final price is over what we have in pocket.”

The fresh aroma of brewed coffee soon filled the sales
floor, and Neve again offered Judy a cup—this time she accepted. As Neve
prepared two mugs, she contemplated Judy’s dilemma and imagined she couldn’t be
the only service in town willing to bake cakes for gay people. Amazing how it
took one public announcement to stir up a hornet’s nest of homophobia, and for
what? Neve didn’t ask her customers who they slept with or loved, so why should
other customers care?

She set down the mugs and resumed her seat after Judy turned
down cream and sweetener. “Okay then,” she said. “What’s the time frame and how
many people do we have to feed?”

“I have thirty confirmed, but here’s the thing—it’s Sunday.”
Judy bit her lip.

Oh Lord
. “Sunday night, I hope?” Judy nodded, and
Neve added, “Well, that’s a bit better. That would give me two and a half days
instead of just two.” Neve closed early on Saturdays, but she supposed she
could recruit Terri to help with the promise of extra pay. “Let’s get out the
photo albums then,” she said, “and you can look at cakes and cupcakes and other
desserts we offer. I really need to get started on today’s stuff, though. If that
crowd comes back in full force, I’ll need product in the display case.” Terri
wasn’t due for nearly an hour. Neve thought of texting her to check her
willingness to come early.

“Oh, thank you so much!” Judy seemed to want to say more,
but she simply turned her attention to her mug, and then thanked Neve again
when she set down the albums. “I’m just glad you’re willing to help,” Judy
added. “We’d given up on catering two weeks ago and I was
this close
to
ordering a bunch of pizzas. I wanted something a little classier for Rachael.”

“I can do class, no worries. I’d chat more about it, but I
need to get busy opening the shop and putting some sweets in the oven.” Neve
left the young woman to study catering choices and headed toward the kitchen,
calling over her shoulder, “All the pricing is in there, so take your time
looking and let me know when you’re ready.”

“I will, definitely.”

* * * * *

Judy watched Neve take charge of her kitchen, amazed by how
quietly the pastry chef maneuvered and handled the heavy-duty bakeware. She
folded her hands over the open photo album and remembered childhood weekends
spent with her mother, and how the clang and crash of aluminum pans and cupcake
tins signaled an afternoon of stirring lumpy batter until all the pockets of
dry mix dissolved. The end product rarely tasted like the best treats Betty
Crocker or Mrs. Fields could offer, but it didn’t matter. She and her mother
had so much fun together.

Here, though, Judy saw nothing motherly about the way Neve
ruled the space. Despite the loose, comfortable clothing and a knit cap
covering the woman’s hair, Neve exuded a quiet eroticism that Judy found
attractive.

Judy leaned toward the wall to better observe the chef and
how she stirred various contents in bowls and iced tiny cakes and cookies.
Completing one tray, Neve absently pressed a finger to her tongue to lick away
a dab of chocolate, and Judy’s stomach fluttered.

How sweet would a chocolate kiss from Neve’s lips taste?

She shook her head and tried to concentrate on the photo
album. She truly
had
come to order something for Rachael’s birthday, and
with Neve open to doing a cake with an LGBT theme, it gave Judy hope. The other
bakeries turning them away had soured Rachael on having a party at all. Neve
suspected her friend now looked forward to passing most of the day in a
sixty-nine position with her boi
du jour
.

Judy silently thanked Maggie for sharing that Facebook link
to Sugar Rush, which had inspired her to connect with Neve.

She heard water rushing as Neve called from a distance, “Any
questions?”

“Huh? Uh, no, I think I pretty much know what we’d like for
the party.” She tapped a photograph as Neve returned with her hands hidden in a
white towel. “This spread looks nice. Could this be done with a rainbow theme?”

Neve hovered over Judy, tilting her head to see better.
“That was an anniversary party we did a few years back. Lots of vegan and
gluten-free treats. They’re not difficult to do, but we’d need more of an
advance notice because we don’t keep too many supplies in stock.” Neve quirked
up her lip. “We should, though. Wouldn’t hurt if everybody cut down on certain
things.”

“I didn’t even think of that. Nobody has any allergies that
I know of,” Judy said. “It doesn’t have to be gluten-free, you can use
whatever’s handy.” She focused on a spot of chocolate icing near the corner of
Neve’s lip, dark and delicious like a beauty mark. Oh, to kiss it away…

BOOK: Sugar Rush
11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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