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Authors: Leigh Ellwood

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“Chaz, hello,” she began, then her gaze slid toward Neve.
“Neve. I didn’t know you knew each other.”

“We only just met,” Neve said, sipping her drink. The look
Gianna and Chaz exchanged spoke plenty. Gianna’s ears burned brighter than her
lips, and Neve would guess she wanted to head off any possible note
comparisons. Clearly Judy’s friend could count Gianna as a former lover as
well, news Neve found interesting.

“Yes. If you’ll excuse me, I see my date over there. We’re
expecting a pizza for the back room.” Chaz gave a curt nod and backed out of
the tight circle. Neve watched her amble toward Rachael, who gazed at them with
confusion, and steer her toward the back.

This left Gianna and Judy staring placidly, sizing each
other up with silent irritation. Neve felt the tension radiating from them,
bringing the room temperature up a few degrees.
Might as well make
introductions
, she figured, before the claws came out. “This is Judy,
Gianna,” she said, “my date for the evening.”

No words exchanged, only mutual assessment with tilted heads
and raised eyebrows. In a minute they’d begin circling like caged zoo animals
if Neve left them alone. She tugged on Judy’s arm. “I think we should join the
rest of our party now. Nice seeing you again, Gianna,” she added, and nudged
Judy to walk.

“Buh-bye,” Judy chimed with a note of triumph and a wicked
grin. Neve didn’t bother turning back to check on the likely death glare
following them to where Chaz and Rachael had gone.

“I’m sorry for that,” Neve said as they took two chairs
facing the circular half-booth in the back room. “I just realized I didn’t
explain Gianna the other night when you showed up at the bakery. She’s my ex.”

Chaz stopped nuzzling Rachael’s neck for a moment to gape at
them. “Yours too? I know the dating pool isn’t the largest in this town, but
damn.”

“Really?” What more could she say? She’d thought as much.
Neve’s heart pounded in her ears; the noise masked the music behind them. She
didn’t know Chaz and Rachael well, but they seemed rather happy together now.
Still, Neve wondered if Chaz had been the one—the
other
one—in her
relationship with Gianna. Suddenly the idea of Judy keeping a relationship with
Rachael secret from her hurt less. “I hope this hasn’t made either of you
uncomfortable,” Neve said. “Gianna and I are history, really. I’m over it.”

Judy squeezed her hand and that made her feel better.

“Eh, I’m fine. I never saw Gianna here, so I never expected
her to show up.” Chaz shook her head. “Going out with her was a big mistake.
Thankfully a brief one. Some days I can’t decide if I should be mad at Gianna
or Terri.”

An alarm sounded in Neve’s head. “Terri?” she asked. “Not
Terri Pickford?”

“Yeah, that’s her. She’s on my bowling team,” Chaz said.
“She was the one who fixed us up, thought we might hit it off.” The boi laughed
bitterly and hugged Rachael closer to her side. “She meant well, but as you can
see, I turned out okay.”

Judy’s hand stiffened on Neve’s knee now, almost as a sign
for her not to pursue this line of conversation. And Neve knew she should let
it go, but Terri’s involvement surprised her. She had to know if there was a
connection…

“When did this happen?” she asked, already regretting the
question. When Chaz told her, the words stabbed Neve right in the heart.

She gripped her purse. She couldn’t feel Judy’s touch
anymore.

“I’m very sorry. I just realized I have to take care of
something important.” Neve scooted her chair back and rose to leave.

“What? You just got here,” Judy protested. “Do you have to
leave?”

Neve looked into the younger woman’s eyes and her heart
panged deeper to see the hurt. She’d intended to discuss her conversation with
Helen, but that possible deception paled in comparison to what she’d just
learned. Even if Judy and Rachael had been an item once, Neve could take some
comfort in the likelihood that it ended long before she’d met Judy.

What Terri did, if Neve could confirm it, was unforgiveable.

“I’ll see you tomorrow for the party,” she added before
rushing away.

“Neve?” Gianna called after her as she brushed through a
crowd of women at the front of the club, but Neve ignored her at first. She
stood at the door for a moment, contemplating her next move and how Gianna
might interpret it.

Fuck it
, she thought. She had to know.

“Gianna,” she turned back but kept her ex at arm’s length,
“Chaz told me that Terri introduced the two of you when we were dating. Is that
true?”

Gianna looked away, as though embarrassed to admit it.

“You don’t have to answer, I can read it on your face,” Neve
said, shaking her head.

“It’s all Terri’s fault, you know!” Gianna’s eyes glassed
over. “If she hadn’t interfered, we’d still be together.”

Oh really?
Gianna could have walked away from Chaz,
could have told Terri to butt out. But she took the bait and broke Neve’s
heart. Angry as she was with Terri right now, Neve refused to give Gianna hope
that they could pick up where they’d left off. Gianna had two years to say
something, but hadn’t. Neve chose to move forward.

“If believing that gets you through the day, more power to
you,” Neve said. “See you later, alligator.”

Chapter Seven

 

Despite the many years Neve and Terri had worked together,
they socialized only occasionally—usually birthdays and holidays, and even then
with mutual friends and acquaintances. When Neve dated Gianna, she had
dismissed Terri’s concern as that of an employee and friend looking out for
her. That was why she couldn’t understand why Terri would willfully set up
Gianna with a potential suitor, while she was already with Neve.

Neve pondered this as she stood outside the door to Terri’s
condo. She knocked twice and waited—her employee was home, she could hear the
television on the other side of the door. A cooking competition, if she
understood the dialogue.

“Neve, what’s wrong?” Terri asked the second she opened the
door. She looked in for the night, with her hair bound in a ponytail and a pink
terrycloth robe covering a t-shirt and sweatpants. “You’ve got a wild-eyed
look…oh God, it’s that girl.” Her expression soured. “She fucked you over.”

“Well, somebody did. May I come in?”

Terri moved aside. Neve took in her employee’s immaculate
den and the glass of wine on the coffee table next to a small plate of cheese
and fruit. Terri lived no differently than she did, it seemed. Were it not for
Judy, Neve imagined she’d have spent tonight alone with comfort food and
television instead of having fun at Little Dude’s. Of course, she wasn’t there
now.

She refused a seat when Terri offered. “Terri, I’m afraid
this isn’t a social call. This evening I learned that you intentionally fixed
Gianna up with somebody from your bowling team while she and I were together.
I’ve heard from the two of them, now I want your side of the story.”

Neve instantly saw the shock and evidence of betrayal on the
other woman’s face. The temperature seemed to cool, and a thick silence
enhanced the tension between them.

“How could you?” Neve whispered, her voice cracking.

Terri reached for the remote and shut off the television.
“Neve, it was for your own good,” she began.

“Let me rephrase that—
how dare you
?” Her voice found
new strength. “My personal life is none of your concern, never was. What in the
hell were you thinking, messing with me that way?” Neve’s body trembled with
her anger, and she struggled to call up a memory she could associate with
Terri’s behavior. Why would she, a trusted employee who’d been with Sugar Rush
since before the doors opened for business, set Gianna’s infidelity in motion?

“Was this some kind of sick revenge ploy?” Neve wanted to
know. “What? I asked you to work late one night or couldn’t give you a day off,
and this was how you got me back?”

“Neve, it wasn’t like that at all. Please,” Terri gestured
again to the couch, “I can explain everything if you let me.”

Neve nodded for her to continue but refused the seat. It
felt like a trap somehow. She wanted to be able to bolt at a moment’s notice if
things got too weird in Terri’s condo.

Sighing heavily, Terri slumped in one corner of the couch.
“I never liked Gianna,” she said. “She acted nice at the bakery when you were
around, but you’d go off into the walk-in or outside, and she’d just sneer and
bitch.” Terri scrubbed a hand over her face. “She’d look as if she’d scraped
the heel of her shoe into some dog shit.”

“You know, I don’t recall you being civil to her when you
met. She was probably reacting to
you
,” Neve said. “It works two ways,
maybe if you had tried a little kindness—”

“I
did
try, and Gianna just complained about how the
bakery was your real love. You never had time for her. Did you know she talked
about getting you to sell the place?”

That struck Neve as odd, considering how Gianna had seemed
supportive of her business.

“I’m working in the kitchen, eavesdropping while she’s
yapping on her phone. She wondered aloud if she could bring girls home and fuck
them while you baked brownies. She pissed me off.”

This revelation sickened Neve, so much that the other end of
Terri’s couch appeared necessary. Neve fought the urge to collapse, however,
but braced herself against the back of a nearby chair.

“Then you should have come to me,” she said, her voice calm.
“If you had wanted to protect me for some reason, I don’t understand why you neglected
to—”

“Would you have believed me?”

“We’ll never know the answer to that because it never
happened.” Yet she created a silent scenario in her mind that had an imaginary
Neve dismissing Terri. She’d been blinded by love then.

Terri shrugged, looking away. “Chaz had broken up with her
girlfriend, and when she described her, she sounded a lot like Gianna. I put it
in her head that I knew a woman who was single and looking, then on a day
Gianna came to the bakery while you were out, I mentioned that I knew somebody
looking for a new accountant.”

“And the rest is history, I presume,” Neve said.

“Not quite,” Terri said, and drained the rest of her wine.
She looked up at Neve with wet eyes. “I didn’t set out to pair Gianna with Chaz
to make you miserable. Yeah, you were supposed to feel betrayed and devastated,
but you didn’t bring that to Sugar Rush. You kept your heartache to yourself
and disappeared into your work. You were supposed to reach out for a shoulder
to cry on…” Terri’s voice broke on this and she heaved a sob.

Neve saw a clearer picture now. Terri hadn’t just acted
abominably, she had also been selfish. What she’d seen, she had wanted for
herself.

“Terri…”

“Neve, I love you.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I don’t
mean as a friend or a boss. I couldn’t bear to watch you with that bitch one
more day, especially after I heard her talking about wanting to cheat. You
deserve so much better…”

This time Neve didn’t think twice—she sat at Terri’s side,
cradling her employee’s head on her shoulder. All this time, she’d never picked
up on Terri’s feelings, merely attributing Terri’s protectiveness to friendly
concern. Of course, losing Gianna had set her focus on the business, so it
would have taken more than a longing glance from across the kitchen to get a
point across.

“I didn’t try to catch you on the rebound because afterward
I
did
feel guilty,” Terri said. “You looked so damn miserable, and I
tried to make you feel better, inviting you to dinner and movies. You always
said no, you were always busy…you couldn’t see that I wanted to be more than
friends.”

Neve tried to shush away Terri’s hysterics, but all the
while she thought about Judy. Terri hadn’t shown much approval for her, either.
Would she have pulled a similar stunt? How many more potential relationships
would Terri have sabotaged until Neve finally noticed?

“Terri, I’m sorry you didn’t get the reaction you’d hoped
from me,” she said, “but what you did was pretty shitty.”

“Gianna cheated on you.” Terri sniffed. “She would have done
it anyway without my interference.”

“Again, we’ll never know. She might have been blowing off
steam on that phone call. People say things they don’t always mean. It’s not an
invitation to mayhem.” Neve slowly eased away from Terri before the other woman
became too clingy. She definitely didn’t need to encourage her at her most
vulnerable. “I think you should take a break from the bakery—”

“Neve, no! Please don’t fire me,” Terri begged. Red streaks
from the tears marked her face and her nose dripped. Her misery rendered her
quite pathetic. “I’ve done nothing to harm the business, and you can’t do
everything on your own. I swear, I won’t interfere in your personal life
again.”

“I haven’t decided what to do,” Neve said, standing. She
brushed her arms and jeans, as though clearing away the bad mojo from this
conversation. “Anyway, you have a week’s vacation, and you’re taking it now
while I figure out a few things. I have Corky.”

“Corky is useless without that damn computer.”

“You like to blame Corky for a lot of things that go wrong.
How do I know you’re not seeding this ill will in my head?” Neve challenged.
“Are you trying to get rid of her too?”

Terri said nothing.

Neve wanted to spit. Memories of past arguments with Terri
surfaced in the silence. Neve had wanted to bring Corky deeper into the
business, but Terri doubted her ability to even work the counter. In
retrospect, it seemed as if Terri had sold the girl short. Neve doubted she
could trust her employee again.

“Your vacation starts Monday. Don’t come back until the
Monday after next, when I’ll have made my decision,” Neve said with finality.

She left the condo without saying goodbye. Even with the
week’s reprieve, she knew she’d soon hand Terri a severance check.

* * * * *

A wave of relief washed over Judy when a pair of headlights
swept the storefronts. She recognized Neve’s car, and once her eyesight
adjusted, she saw that the driver didn’t look too upset to see Judy leaning
against the Sugar Rush window. Judy took a chance that Neve might come here—the
baker seemed the type to want to work through any frustrations, and what better
place than the sweet shop?

“Neve, I have to tell you something,” she said the second
Neve emerged from the car. “I wasn’t completely honest with you, and I’m
sorry.”

Neve kept a straight face, which slowly curved into a sad
smile. “What? It’s not really Rachael’s birthday tomorrow, is it?”

“What? It is, seriously. Ask Rachael herself.”

Neve nodded. “Okay then. Are you going to tell me that you
fibbed about never being more than friends with Rachael?” she asked.

“Lord, no!” The thought struck Judy as incestuous. “Why
would you think that?”

“I meant to bring it up at the bar earlier. Helen, whose
wedding cake I’m baking, told me she thought the two of you dated.”

Judy had to think on that one. She knew Helen’s other half,
Maggie, better, and she strained to recall how the old woman would have gotten
it into her head that—

She snapped her fingers. “Rachael went out with a girl named
Judy. Last year. Helen must have mixed us up.”

“That’s your final answer?” Neve arched an eyebrow.

“Neve, Rachael cries on my shoulder after every breakup, no
matter long the woman lasted. I can’t name all the presidents, but I know all
the exes. Somebody has to keep track so she doesn’t repeat herself.”

Judy listened to her laugh softly, unsure how to interpret
it. When Neve came closer and drew her into a hug, she slid her arms around
Neve’s waist, savoring the warmth.

“I believe you,” she said. “I’m also sorry for jumping to a
wrong conclusion. So, if you were truthful about Rachael, how were you
dishonest with me?”

Judy shrugged. “Part of my reason for buying the party food
at Sugar Rush was to get to know you better. I saw your picture on Facebook and
crushed on you big-time. I didn’t want you thinking I was a creeper.”

“You’re not creepy,” Neve confirmed. “I suppose, in a way,
what you did was sweet. I’m flattered, though you could have just come in every
day for a few weeks to buy a cookie or something, and work on me gradually.”

“Yeah, but how would I know some other sweet tooth wouldn’t
end up nibbling on you?” Judy asked. “So, you’re not mad at me then?”

“You’re paying for the food in full, right? We made a
business transaction, and Rachael has an amazing friend who’s throwing her a
party. I’m not mad. I told you, I’m flattered.”

Neve drew back to unlock the front door. She moved aside to
let Judy enter, but Judy walked up to her and planted a kiss on Neve’s lips.
Her tongue swept the soft seam, breaking it so she could explore deeper. They
held each other close for several seconds, lost in gentle throes of a rising
passion, until Neve finally eased away.

“Come here.” She ushered Judy inside and locked up. “I came
here to bake, but I suddenly find I’m hungry for something more.”

In the pristine kitchen of Sugar Rush, Judy waited by a
large, stainless steel table while Neve set a pot to boil on the
commercial-grade stove. “What do you think—white, milk or dark?” she asked,
holding up three different bags of chocolate chips.

“I prefer dark,” Judy said, “it’s supposed to be better for
you.”

Neve nodded. “I like the taste too. Especially with a bit of
rum. There’s a bottle on the bottom rack, could you get it?”

Judy complied, and Neve isolated the dark chocolate and
liquor, poured heavy cream into a bowl, then set the bowl on top of the boiling
pot. “Many bakers use special double boilers, but this method has always worked
for me,” she explained as the stirred the cream. “Would you like to help?”

“Sure. I’m no Julia Child, but…” Judy quieted as Neve drew
her closer and encircled her in her arms. She positioned the large whisk in
Judy’s hands.

“When the cream begins to bubble up, ease the chocolate in
and just a bit of the rum. If you can eyeball a tablespoon, that’s all you need.”
She showed Judy how to properly stir the ganache and scrape down the bowl.

“This is fun,” Judy said, working the chocolate to a smooth
consistency. It melted rather quickly in the heat, and Judy inhaled the rich
aroma. She wanted to turn back to see what Neve was doing, but feared burning
the ganache.

“You want it to look shiny, but don’t overdo it,” Neve
warned. “When it’s done, use the potholder and set the bowl down on that
trivet, but keep stirring for a bit so it doesn’t harden.”

Judy heard activity behind her—sealed doors opened, heavy
implements hit the table, equipment hissed. What exactly did Neve have in mind
tonight? Judythought of the possibilities, her mouth watering. Food or sex,
she’d take either at this point.

“How’s it looking?” Neve asked after a beat.

“Just about there. Man, I have to get one of these stoves.
Doesn’t take long to cook.” Using the potholder, Judy grasped the lip of the
bowl and removed it from the steam. She shut off the stove and went back to
whisking the thick ganache, resisting the temptation to dip in a finger.

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