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Authors: Donna Kauffman

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BOOK: Sweet Stuff
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“Duh,” Dre said, not looking up. “He’s a household name. Like Grisham, Patterson, and King. Who hasn’t? I was just surprised he’d come to Sugarberry.”
“How do you know about the sexy stuff?” Lani asked her. Dre looked up, and blinked through the hot-pink-and-black leopard-print cat-eye cheaters she’d put on, the girlishness of which was in complete contrast to the overall goth-darkness of the rest of her ensemble. Riley was fairly certain that was exactly why Dre had chosen them. She was nothing if not a fan of incongruity, two thousand identical paste roses notwithstanding. Perched on the end of her nose, they only partially hid the four rings now piercing her left eyebrow, but left entirely visible the diagonal lines she’d shaved across the other.
With great patience, Dre tipped her head back so she could look down her nose through her crazy eyeglasses, which, Riley had to admit, did go with her much-favored Johnny Depp Mad Hatter apron. “I realize I have the body of a twelve-year-old boy, and the relative height of said twelve-year-old boy’s ten-year-old brother. But I assure you, at the age of twenty-one, I do know about the sexy stuff. In fact, I know where babies come from and everything.”
“Come on, we know you date and all,” Riley said, not wanting her to feel awkward. “I simply meant—”
“No, I do not date,” Dre corrected her, clearly not needing the save. “I’m focused on my studies, and learning all things pastry from the master chefs Dunne and Dunne.” She turned and performed a from-the-waist-up abbreviated version of the “I’m not worthy” bow in Lani’s direction.
“What about Andrew, from your graphic illustrations class?” Lani said, giving her a quick salute back. “You’ve been to a couple things with him recently, right? Lectures and stuff?”
“Right. As friends. Colleagues. We share similar interests. We do not share a bed. Much less the clichéd backseat of a car.”
Lani and Riley might have swallowed a little hard at that.
Dre rolled her eyes. “What? You can’t have it both ways. You say you’re cool that I’m dating, which implies I’m having sex, but then you seem all weirded out by the idea that I might actually be—never mind. I’m not having this conversation. Or sex. There. Happy now?”
Lani was too busy coughing—it had been that or choke—so Alva said, “You’re a good girl, Missy Dre. I’m proud of you. Stand up for what you want, and don’t lie down for anybody you don’t.”
It was Riley’s turn to choke a little, though on laughter. To hide it, she ducked her chin so she could twist her hair up into a knot before she started working.
“As long as you’re happy, you go girl,” Franco told Dre. Then he turned right back to Riley. “What else?”
“Nothing else,” she said, exasperated, as she snapped the hot-pink scrunchie into place.
“Well, I love his books,” Lani said, turning back to her rack of tester cupcakes and picking up the pastry bag she’d filled with a creamy sherbety orange frosting earlier. “How he writes such gritty, horrible crime dramas, but wraps them up in such powerful love stories”—she sighed and fanned herself with the flap end of the pastry bag—“gets me every time.”
“I bet he’s good in the sack,” Alva said, then turned back to her sifting. “I just read them for the sex. You can skip right past the gory parts if you don’t like them. The sex parts alone are worth the price. I buy them in hardcover.”
It was pretty much a group choke that time. Riley recovered first and grinned broadly, not caring that it pulled at the tender skin around her scratches. “Power to you, Miss Alva.”
Franco started humming “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” making Riley nudge him in the ribs.
But she was grinning. She did love this group, nosy busybodies, fake accents, mandatory crazy aprons, and all. They had no idea how much they’d done for her.
“Okay, everyone, taste test time!” Lani lofted the tray of freshly topped cakes. “I give you Leilani’s Dreamsicle cakes, featuring mandarin orange soaked butter cake with cheesecake filling and sherbet whip frosting.”
Everyone
ooh
ed together, sounding exactly like the little green men in the
Toy Story
movies.
As they shuffled over, still replicating the LGMs in the movies, Riley quickly took the butter out of the cold pack she’d stored it in before heading to Lani’s table.
Franco swung back and cut her off, then leaned down close. “We’re not done talking, you and me,
mon amie
.”
She looked up at him. “Franco, I swear, there’s nothing more.”
Instead of a teasing or pleading look—he could teach master classes in both—his expression was uncharacteristically quite serious. “You’ve been there for me, Riley.” When she started to brush that off, he placed his big hand gently on her arm. “You’ve been there. You don’t have to confirm it, okay? I know. Those of us who’ve been there ... we know. It’s time for me to return the favor and be there for you. So ... we’re going to talk,
Mademoiselle
Brown.”
Riley was surprised into momentary silence. She appreciated that he’d understood her desire to be there for him, and perhaps she really had been more of a help than she’d realized, just by providing a shoulder and words of comfort. It was a little disconcerting, though, that he’d ferreted out just how much she had understood about his pain. “I don’t need a return favor, Franco. Not in this instance. I was glad I could be there for you. That’s what friends are for.”
“I know. And friends return favors.” He bent down and looked into her eyes, then smiled broadly. “I saw the stardust in your eyes,
cherie
. And that’s something I know a little about.” He looped an errant curl behind her ear. “Just know, I’m here.”
Chapter 4
Q
uinn stepped from the fixed pier onto the floating dock situated at the very back of the commercial moorings. It was where fisherman, commercial and local—he knew from past experience—could tie up temporarily without having to navigate through the maze of permanent slips, so they could run into Biggers’ Bait and Tackle for supplies or a bag of ice. Old Haney Biggers had run the place back when Quinn’s grandfather had run his trawler out from those very commercial piers. Other than a few fresh coats of paint, and an ATM parked out front, it looked much the same as it had fifteen or sixteen years ago. Quinn doubted Haney, who’d been older than his grandfather, still ran the place. Probably a son, or grandson by now.
Quinn wobbled a step or two as the dock dipped and swayed in the wake of an incoming slow-chugging trawler. It been a very long time since he’d needed his sea legs, but he was happy to discover, as he gained more consistent balance, that it was apparently much like riding a bike. Something else he hadn’t done in ages, he thought absently, as he made his way down the lightly swaying row of weathered planks. Maybe he’d pick up a bike while he was here and tool around the island. He knew many of the residents did, or had when he was younger.
He shifted his gaze past the bait shop to the boats tied up to the bigger, sturdier piers. Gavin Brannigan had kept his trawler there. He’d also harbored a little centerboard, single-keel sailboat back on a tiny pier behind the house on the sound that he and Quinn’s grandmother had lived in, on the west side of the island. Not too far from his beach bungalow in actual distance, but a lifetime away now. The house was no longer there; it had surrendered its weathered clapboard planks to a hurricane—what had it been, at least seven, eight years ago? Fortunately it had stood empty, both Gavin and his grandmother long deceased by then. The owner had been using it only as a summer cottage.
Quinn had gone by there yesterday, out of curiosity and sentimentality. A relatively new, modest lodge stood there now. He’d thought about knocking on the door and introducing himself, asking if he could walk the grounds around the sound for old times’ sake. There was no little pier behind the house, and the rest was so different, it hadn’t seemed worth the intrusion. He had his memories, and looking across the calm, smooth waters of the inlet brought them back as clearly as if he and his grandfather had set out on a sunset sail the evening before.
Gavin had been a fisherman by trade, operating a commercial vessel for work purposes, along with many other merchant vessels. Those days were long, hot, sweaty and reeking of fish stink, filled with some of the most demanding physical labor and extreme tests of Quinn’s patience the then fifteen-year-old boy had thought he could possibly endure. The former had taught him a lot about what kind of man he could be. The latter was the skill that would come in most handy for the man he had become.
Gavin Brannigan had lived to see his only grandson graduate from college, only the second, after Quinn’s father, in their branch of the family to do so. By the time Quinn had published his first book a few short years later, Gavin had already joined his beloved wife, Annie, in the “great and grand beyond,” as he’d called it, his rolling brogue always making it sound like the best adventure destination in the world. And perhaps it was.
Quinn thought about the summers he’d spent here, from the age of fifteen until just past his twentieth birthday. He’d worked the trawlers for the income, lending a hand where it was needed ... and because Quinn had come to understand that what his father had wanted most was more time alone. Even from him. Maybe especially from him. Quinn had never been entirely certain. Still wasn’t. As if the long, eighty-hour workweeks his father put in hadn’t isolated him enough. Quinn’s mother had died in a car accident just after his thirteenth birthday. His father had never been particularly geared to parenting, though he wasn’t openly averse to it. But Mary Elizabeth had been born to the role, and he’d gladly left her to it, taking on the traditional patriarchal role, which was providing for his family. A role Michael Brannigan had taken seriously. They didn’t live in the lap of luxury, but they’d never gone wanting.
His father had loved his wife, that much Quinn knew, if by nothing other than the depth of his father’s grief. He wasn’t a demonstrative man, even with her. Not that Quinn had seen, anyway. And Mary Elizabeth’s death had pushed him to some place he’d never quite come back from, even now. So that had to speak of a deep bond.
Quinn didn’t know for certain. It remained a subject that, to this day, he and his father didn’t speak of.
He shifted his thoughts purposefully back to the handful of summers he’d spent on Sugarberry. When he’d been younger, his grandparents had lived farther south, and he’d rarely spent time with them. It hadn’t been until their move to Georgia, and his mother’s death, that he’d been shuttled off to their care, at least for the summer breaks. He smiled, remembering coming in from the backbreakingly long days, thinking there was no way in hell he’d be able to rise again the next morning and do it all over again. That if he never touched or smelled, much less ate, another fish for the rest of his life, he’d die a happy man.
Only to sit down to a solid hot meal, lovingly and always deliciously prepared by his Grams, and discover, to his absolute and continued amazement, that by the time the relaxed meal had been concluded, when his grandfather asked if he’d like to head out on a little sunset sail around the sound in the single keel, man against the sea and wind—rather than against what swam beneath it—Quinn had actually thought it sounded like a good idea. And it had been, every time. The leisurely loops around the inlet had provided opportunity for the two of them to talk, shooting the breeze and the bull. Workdays didn’t allow for conversation of any kind, and the young man Quinn had been looked forward to those long, rambling conversations as the favorite part of his day.
Quinn could hear his grandfather’s hearty chuckle as clearly as if he stood before him. He knew the pride that would have shone in his bright blue eyes upon hearing the news of his grandson’s accomplishments. Quinn’s smile spread to a grin. Along with it, the old man would have delivered a healthy dose of ribbing that his only grandchild had chosen to earn his keep making up stories rather than using his hands and back for what Granda Gav would deem an honest day’s work.
There weren’t too many Irishmen plying the southern shores back then, or likely now, for that matter. His grandparents and their families had come over from Doolin, a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland, to build a fresh life in New England, where the hardier Brannigan souls continued to eke out a living fishing. It was only after he’d met and married his wife, the former Annie O’Sullivan, and they’d begun their small family that Gavin had pulled up stakes and moved south. The warmer climate was beneficial to Annie’s poor health. First to the shores of the Gulf, and only much, much later, after Quinn’s own father had grown up and gone on his own way, had they come to Sugarberry.
Quinn had never known, exactly, what had ailed her. He knew it to be something with her breathing, but Annie Brannigan was a proud woman and the very last to allow anyone to see that she might be running on less than full steam. It simply wasn’t discussed outside what was held private between her and her husband.
Quinn’s smile turned wistful as he thought about the two of them, how they’d been with one another. For all that his mother had been loving and warm, making him feel very loved, his parents’ relationship had always been somewhat austere and reserved. Given his mother’s predilection for hugs and kisses, Quinn had assumed she’d taken those cues from his father. Actually, he hadn’t thought much about it one way or the other—his parents were his parents—until his mom had passed and he’d come to stay with his Granda Gav and Grams. Theirs had been an entirely different sort of relationship, the likes of which he’d never known could exist.
They were always as happy to see each other as if they’d been apart ages rather than hours. They were truly the light in each other’s eyes, even when they were squabbling, which was done with more affection than anger. He’d come to know theirs had been a love story of epic proportions, one Quinn had never been able to come close to writing about. No one would quite buy just how inordinately and blissfully happy the two of them made each other.
It had been the best thing Quinn had ever learned about the capacity of the human heart, and one of the hardest, as well. Finding a partner who could be to him all that he’d witnessed them to be to each other had proven elusive. Quinn often wondered if he’d have been happy settling for less if he’d never known what could be. If he’d only observed his parents’ kind of love.
Of course, he liked to think if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t be the writer he was, either. Although he couldn’t completely capture the depth and breadth of his grandparents’ love for one another on the pages of a book, the absolute knowledge that love like that existed was a large part of why Quinn wrote the kinds of stories he did. Not the murder, the grit, and the horror ... that was the grip, the grab, the thing that pulled his readers in. But what kept them in, what made them invest more than their curiosity, wondering how he was going to solve the crime, was his ability to make them care—and care deeply—about the people he put at risk. Would they triumph?
Of course. They
had
to triumph. And the why of that was always—always—love. Love was the foundation that motivated his protagonists to fight off the evil that other men do. It gave them the will and strength to do whatever it took to win out, and why, in the end, they always—always—did. To that end, the love affairs he wrote about were epic as well. Perhaps not in as grounded and real a way as his grandparents’ love—fiction demanded something of the tempestuous and fantastical—but his characters experienced love as deeply and fully as Quinn was capable of writing it.
Love was also the very reason he found himself at a crossroads. “What should I do, Granda Gav?” he murmured, looking out over the waters to the hazy blue horizon beyond, though his thoughts were much, much further away. “What would you do?”
On the surface, it seemed easy. Go with his heart. His grandfather would tell him that much, Quinn knew. On a certain level, he knew that was the right decision. Maybe even the only one he could make. But there were other considerations. Not the monetary ones. In fact, money was the least of it. It was more that he felt an obligation to his readers, to the ones who had made possible the life he was so fortunate to have, the career he so loved and enjoyed. He didn’t take lightly the idea that he would be potentially snubbing all that goodwill and trust. And for what? A self-indulgent choice that would possibly make only him happy?
His grandfather might not understand that specific commitment, the pact Quinn felt he’d made with each and every one of those readers who’d chosen to give him their loyalty and their hard-earned dollars. But he would have understood the emotion behind it. Commitment to the well-being and happiness of others, even at the detriment of your own success or happiness, was why Gavin relocated himself many hundreds of miles away from his own family and all they’d built on these shores. For the love of his wife, and her welfare, he’d started all over again. More than once. He’d never achieved a fraction of what he would have had he stayed north, where the strength and bond of their numbers alone had built a much sturdier trade.
His grandparents’ lifestyle could be described as simple, basic, but Quinn had absolutely not a single doubt that his grandfather would have done any differently, given another chance. Granda Gav would have made any sacrifice if it meant keeping his beloved wife happy and healthy. He would have even said it was a selfish choice, not a noble one. Because he’d been rewarded with her companionship and love for all the additional years the move south had awarded her. Them.
Quinn sighed and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck as he felt the tension begin to creep in again. It seemed so ridiculous on some levels. Just write whatever damn book he wanted. It wasn’t life or death. Not like with his grandparents’ choice. But this was
his
life. In the absence of what his grandparents had, at the age of thirty-four, this was what fulfilled him and made him happy. This was what he invested his passion and energy in. This was what he stood for, what mattered. So, in that regard, it was a very big deal. To him.
He rubbed the same hand over his face, then raked his fingers through his hair ... and laughed. “Damn, Brannigan. Maybe you just need to think about getting a life.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than the entire dock shook and rumbled under his feet, followed by what could only be described as an inhuman-sounding bellow.
He actually knew that bellow. One glance over his shoulder proved that he’d guessed right.
Barreling toward him, jowls flapping, was all one-hundred-and-God-knew-how-many pounds of Brutus.
Quinn stood frozen for a moment, stunned that the behemoth was capable of such speed. He had just enough time to glance skyward and murmur, “Sometimes you have a really twisted sense of humor,” before sidestepping out of the way, up onto the tips of his toes like a matador, so Brutus could skate right past him without taking them both into the water.
Unfortunately, with his intended quarry suddenly no longer in front of him, Brutus tried to scramble his huge, hulking frame back around with a skidding, surprisingly agile slide. But he didn’t quite make it, and off the end of the pier he sailed, making a huge splash in the water. The cascading fountain naturally sheeted back over the dock ... doing a decent job of soaking a good part of the front of Quinn’s polo shirt and khaki shorts.
BOOK: Sweet Stuff
8.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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