CLOSING NOTE: BEST OF 2016:
Diane A.S. Stuckart is the award-winning author of the Leonardo da Vinci mystery novels, and (writing as Ali Brandon) the New York Times bestselling author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series. She wrote romances under the names Alexa Smart and Anna Gerard. She lives in Florida with her husband and a menagerie of pets.
TAKING THE CAKE
by Diane A.S. Stuckart
“Cate! The Uber driver is here!”
“Hang on a sec,” Cate MacKenzie told the auto repair shop owner she’d just called. Lowering her cell phone, she peered out of her tiny office to the equally small but well-equipped commercial kitchen beyond.
“Madison,” she instructed her assistant, “grab Damon and get the Thompkins-Jones cake loaded for me. I’ll be ready to go in a minute. I’m working on getting the van repaired in time so we can still deliver the cakes to the Martinez’s quinceanera and Mrs. Fillmore’s 100th birthday by the end of the afternoon.”
Madison nodded, her asymmetrical blond bangs dipping over one blue eye. Flipping her hair back into place, she gestured toward the staging table where a series of sealed white cake boxes was arranged.
“Damon and I finished boxing up all three cakes,” the girl said. “He’s outside now helping the driver get his car ready. It’s an SUV like you asked—the kind with the sliding doors—so all they need to do is fold down the seats and then we can load up for the wedding.”
Cate grimaced. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but it was the best she’d been able to do on a Friday at noon with barely two hours until the Thompkins-Jones wedding, and the company delivery van unexpectedly needing a new starter. With her custom cake business still in the fledgling stages—she’d been open for a little less than a year—no way could she risk a justifiably ticked off bride posting a bad review on Yelp for breach of contract.
Calling an Uber driver had seemed the most practical option to get the cake to the wedding on time.
Leaving her assistants to literally handle the heavy lifting, Cate finished her call with the repair shop, then set her phone next to her purse and returned to the kitchen. As she’d explained to the bride when the young woman had placed her order, delivering a wedding cake consisted of more than simply dropping it off. Even a fondant cake—the kind with flashy molded icing, and all its layers already assembled—needed a final look once it reached its destination.
But a traditional buttercream wedding cake such as Jen Thompkins had chosen required careful assembly onsite, and usually a few fixes and repairs. More concerning was how the delicate icing would hold up when the cake was to be served outside on a spring afternoon. Timing was everything—while she didn’t want to be late, she couldn’t deliver it too early and risk the icing melting. That’s why Cate always brought along a decorating kit that included knives, spatulas, shaping tools, and a dozen different tips for last minute fixes.
Note to self. Next time, push harder for fondant.
Making sure everything she needed was in her caddy, Cate went to the refrigerator and pulled out several bags of prepared icing in white and pastels.
“Cake insurance, check,” she murmured, adding those to the equipment.
Setting her caddy on the staging table, she went over to the coat rack where several clean chef’s jackets hung. She chose the black one…Damon and Madison, both being interns from the local culinary academy, wore the white. As always, she couldn’t help a small rush of pride at seeing the words, Cate’s Classy Cakes, embroidered in gold on one side of the jacket.
Standing in front of the narrow mirror hung beside the coat rack, she quickly buttoned the jacket over her crisp white blouse and black dress pants. Of course, when she was actually working, she’d wear drawstring white or black pants and sensible rubber-sole flats instead of the black high heels she was wearing, but she always liked to dress up when delivering for a formal event. Besides, a few inches added to her five-foot two-inch height always made her feel a bit more “in charge.”
“We’re set,” came a youthful voice behind her. Her other assistant, the dreadlocked Damon, had returned from loading the wedding cake and was dabbing sweat from his dark brow. “I can’t believe it’s April and already hot as heck,” he grumbled.
“That’s the price you pay for living in beautiful West Palm Beach, Florida,” Cate reminded him with an ironic smile. “And you’re exaggerating. It’s barely going to hit eighty degrees today.”
With a final check of her long, brunette hair smoothed into a sleek knot at the base of her neck, she returned to her office and snatched up her purse, slinging it over her shoulder. Then, caddy in one hand, and invoice and map to the reception location in the other, she rushed out to the sidewalk.
Madison was leaning toward the driver’s side window of the late model, light gray sport utility vehicle, flirting with the guy behind the wheel. All Cate could see of him was a muscular tanned arm and the short sleeve of what appeared to be a garish Hawaiian shirt in shades of red, blue, and yellow.
She rolled her eyes at that, even as she gave an inner self-deprecating chuckle. Pretty bad when a twenty-year-old had better luck with men than she did. But, on the bright side, the man in question had horrendous fashion taste. Cate preferred her guys in khakis or suits.
“Madison, save it for the tow truck driver,” she said, but without true rancor. “He should be here any minute to get the van. Remember, if something happens and the repairs aren’t finished in time for Damon to make the other two deliveries, call another Uber driver and have it put to my account.”
“Will do. Good luck!”
With a saucy wave in the direction of the driver, Madison strutted her way back to the shop. Cate, meanwhile, was juggling caddy, map, and purse as she climbed into the SUV’s backseat and closed the sliding door. Not exactly limo service, but as long as she got to the reception site in time, and with cake intact, she wouldn’t complain. Swiftly, she eyed what Damon had done.
The larger section of the passenger’s seat—leather-upholstered in the same shade of gray as the SUVs paint—had been lowered and flattened to form a deck. Damon had put down a yoga “sticky” mat atop the resulting carpeted surface before setting down the two cake boxes. That way, the boxes were less likely to slide in transit.
The taller box held the first three layers, already stacked and doweled together. The second, much smaller box held the elaborate top layer—the “mini cake” that would be removed before slicing for the happy couple to save for their first anniversary.
“We need to hurry,” she urged the driver as he signaled and pulled out from the curb. “But not too fast. We don’t want the cakes sliding around. Plus, I need you to turn your air conditioning on high so the icing stays cool. Oh, and I have a map to the wedding”—she waved the paper with the instructions—“if you want to take a look. It’s at Mounts Botanical Gardens.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Mr. Hawaiian Tropic replied as he obediently cranked up the a/c and carefully rounded the block. “I’ve got a GPS that’ll take us the fastest route. But we’ll have to take side streets. The President is supposed to be landing at PBIA”—Palm Beach International Airport, he meant—“in the next hour, so chances are the interstate will be blocked.”
“Fine, fine,” she absently muttered as she dug through her purse for her cell. Where in the heck had she put it? Then she recalled how she’d hung up from the repair shop and set her cell beside her purse, not in it. She’d been in such a hurry to get out the door that she had completely missed grabbing it.
Panic flashed through her, a reaction that she ironically recognized as the old, OMG, I’m used to being connected 24/7/365 and suddenly I’m not syndrome. She knew the symptoms well—a bit of twitching, heart palpitations, fingers clutching at a phantom phone case. Maybe she should have the driver turn around and head back to the shop so she could retrieve it.
Get a grip, Cate. People have gone without phones for millennia and survived it.
Not that it was good business to be headed toward a client’s location with no way to reach her, or vice versa. But they’d arrive within twenty minutes, and surely there would be no disaster in the interim. Once on site, she’d simply borrow someone else’s phone and call Damon to make sure all was well back at the shop.
“Catie? Catie Stubbs? Is that you?”
The sudden questions from the front seat startled her from her reverie, the more so because no one had called her by either of those names in years. Her gaze flew up to meet that of the Hawaiian-shirted driver reflected back at her in the SUV’s rear view mirror. All she could see of his face was his broad forehead and his brown eyes, both features seeming vaguely familiar. As did the man’s voice, come to think of it.
And then it all clicked into place.
Her own brown eyes widened in horrified disbelief. His dark hair was shorter than he used to wear it, his hairline a bit higher than she remembered, and the lines around his eyes more pronounced than they’d once been. But, it definitely was….
“Noah?” she choked out. “Noah Ransom?”
“Yeah. So, uh, how have you been, Catie? I guess from the sign on the shop that you finally got your own bakery, like you always wanted?”
Disbelief was rapidly morphing into something between dismay and outrage. How have you been? What the heck kind of question was that, after the way they’d parted…and how in the heck was she supposed to answer?
Fine, was polite and shut the door on further prying.
Great, after I figured out you were the jerk ten years ago, and not me, was more accurate, if less than polite.
Fabulous, once I realized you did me a biggest favor in the world when you broke our engagement…and my heart, was the unvarnished truth.
Instead, she took a steadying breath and said in a cool, clipped tone, “Yes, I own the shop. And it’s Cate, not Catie. And it’s Mackenzie now, not Stubbs.”
He didn’t need to know that her marriage had happened on the rebound following their breakup…a quickie Las Vegas elopement that ended in an equally quickie divorce two years later. She’d kept her married name, partly because she was by then gaining a professional reputation as Cate Mackenzie, and partly because she’d been glad to unload the Stubbs name. No offense to the generations of stalwart Stubbses who’d proceeded her; she’d simply had her fill of jokes over the years regarding her last name and her admittedly short stature.
She saw Noah nodding.
“Hey, I should have known some lucky guy would snap you up,” he replied, sounding surprisingly cheerful about the situation.
They drove in silence for a few more minutes, Cate concentrating on holding onto the cake—and onto her composure. With luck, he’d have the decency to keep their unexpected meeting a business transaction, as she intended to do.
But her hopes for that were dashed when, abruptly, Noah asked, “So, is he—your husband, I mean—in the food biz like you?”
“Actually, he was an investment banker.”
Cate hesitated. None of this was any of Mr. Noah Ransom’s business, but cutting off the conversation would make her look churlish. Besides, she no longer cared about his opinion of her. Not at all.
“We divorced after a couple of years,” she said, keeping her tone carefully non-committal. “I haven’t seen or heard from him since we signed the papers.”
“Too bad,” he replied, sounding like he meant it. “I guess no kids?”
They’d stopped at a red light. Noah took that opportunity to pull a small photo off a clip on his visor. He swung around to face her. Smiling, he proffered the picture, saying, “Just one son. His name is Trevor.”
A wave of all-but-forgotten bitterness washed over her. Marriage and kids had been the reason for their split ten years ago. She’d wanted it; he hadn’t. It had been, as they’d both agreed, a deal breaker. But it seemed that, once he’d dumped her, Noah had decided to close on at least one of those deals, after all.
The boy in the picture was a grade schooler—seven or eight, she judged. In appearance, he was the polar opposite of Noah with his pale blond hair and big blue eyes. Actually, she couldn’t see much of a resemblance between father and son, save for the single dimple when he smiled—his in the right cheek, and Noah’s in the left.
“Cute little guy,” she admitted in a tight voice. “I guess he looks like your wife.”
“Yeah, he lucked out,” Noah cheerfully agreed as he stuck the photo back on the visor, and accelerated with the now-green light.
Cate noted that he didn’t correct the “wife” assumption. Apparently, he’d changed his mind on the marriage portion of their deal breaker, too.
Then, while she did silent battle with unexpectedly resurrected emotion, he went on with obvious pride, “And he’s a good kid, too. He had his eighth birthday last month. Instead of a party, he and three of his buddies spent the day at the animal shelter cleaning cages and helping the other volunteers. And he used his birthday money to buy toys for some of the senior dogs who’ve been waiting for months to be adopted.”
A bit of the bitterness dissipated. Trevor sounded like a stand-up little guy…probably because of his mom, she decided with an inner snort.
“It’s great to see a child that young already doing for others,” she coolly agreed. “I’ll bet his mother is really proud of him.”
“Yeah, she was.”
Maybe his marriage hadn’t lasted, either, she thought with satisfaction.
Noah’s steady gaze met hers in the rear view mirror. “We lost Trevor’s mom two years ago. Pancreatic cancer.”
Cate caught her breath, abruptly feeling like a Class A jerk. Here she’d been feeling sorry for herself remembering a long ago breakup, and this man had recently lost his wife to a terrible disease. Not only that, but a little boy had been deprived of his mother at an age when he needed her most.
“Noah, I am so very sorry,” she choked out. “I can’t imagine how hard that was—is—for you and Trevor.”
“Yeah, it was pretty tough in the beginning, especially for him. You know, all those firsts.”
Cate nodded, eyes welling despite herself as she mentally ticked them off. First birthday without his mom. First day of school without her. First Christmas with only his dad. Noah obviously had been there to help him through it…though he’d had to go through those same milestones, himself.
But there was one thing that didn’t make sense here.
“I know it’s none of my business,” she ventured, “but why are you driving people for a living? I mean, I thought you planned on being a big-time attorney. When we broke up”—she stumbled only a little over those words—“you were finishing up your final year of law school.”
“I finished, even passed the bar,” was his even reply. “By then I’d met Maggie. We had a little birth control failure thing happen, and so we went ahead and got married. I wasn’t worried about a job, at first. I figured someone would hire me any day. But the recession was still going big guns, and there were a couple of thousand other new lawyers in Florida besides me looking for work. When nothing turned up after a couple of months, I got a job in sales and marketing, instead.”
He stopped at another red light, and while they waited for it to change, he went on, “I started hauling in the bucks, so I figured that was my career path, instead of law. But after Maggie died…well, I decided that life was too short not to do what you want to do. And what I still wanted to do was be an attorney. The only problem was that no decent firm wanted to hire a lawyer who never practiced a day in his life.”
The light turned green, and with a quick check of traffic both ways, he made a left. Cate, meanwhile, felt like she was watching a TV show, and they’d gone to commercial before the big reveal.
“So what did you do?” she persisted once he’d settled the SUV into the far right lane.
“About a year ago, I took the plunge and hung out my own shingle. I hand out legal advice for working people who can’t afford the rates of a big-time law firm. Things are picking up, but it’s still a bit hit or miss as far as income. That’s why I’m driving. Plus, I can take Trevor to school every morning and—Catie, quick, grab the cake!”
Barely had he shouted that last then he hit the brakes, and the SUV squealed to a lurching stop. Since Cate already had one arm protectively embracing the boxes, they held steady. Once the vehicle quit moving, she demanded, “Noah, what in the heck were you doing!”
“It wasn’t me. Look.”
He gestured beyond the windshield, and Cate gasped.
They had turned south onto Military Trail, a major north-south artery that stretched through and well south of West Palm. Here, it was three lanes on either side of a narrow median that alternated between grass and concrete. The botanical garden butted up to that road maybe a mile down from where they were. They should have been a couple of minutes away from their destination.
Should have been.
Perhaps two dozen cars in all three lanes had come to an abrupt halt ahead of them despite the fact that the traffic light she could see a block beyond was green.
“What is it?” she demanded, trying not to panic. “A wreck?”
“Worse than that. Stick your head out the window and look at the northbound traffic. Notice anything strange?”
“Other than there’s not any, which I’ve never seen on this road before, except…oh, my god, there’s people standing in the middle of the road.”
“Protesting in the middle of the road,” he clarified, as around them car horns started blaring. “They’re holding signs.”
“But, why? Ohhh….”
Noah had turned on his radio and was tuning to a local AM station, but Cate already had a pretty good idea of what was going on. Military Trail also ran along the western boundary of Palm Beach International Airport where, as the news reports were noting, the president was soon to arrive. Moreover, if one followed Military Trail a bit farther south and then hooked east to the next major road, one would find oneself at one of said president’s eponymous golf courses.
Noah dialed down the radio volume again and turned back to her.
“I think we’re going to be stuck here for a bit,” he said. “There’s a pretty big group out protesting that new China deal. According to the newscast, the police are going to wait until after the president’s motorcade leaves the airport before they clear the road and make the protesters stay on the sidewalks.”
“But the wedding…my cake!”
Technically, they were right on schedule, meaning she’d be arriving the designated one hour before the ceremony started. But with traffic unexpectedly gridlocked like this—
“Can’t you back up, or drive over the median or something, and get us out of here so we can go another way?”
“Can’t back up,” he said with a shake of his head. “If you look behind us, we’re blocked in from the rear, too. And even if I could get over to the median and turn around”—he gestured toward the grassy strip, which lay two car-packed lanes to the left of them—“we’d run into the same situation coming from the north. And I don’t know any other entrance into the Gardens.”
“I’ve got to call the bride, Jen, and let her know what’s going on. I accidentally left my phone at the shop. Can I use yours?”
He nodded and punched in his unlock code before handing his cell to her. Luckily, she had Jen’s contact number on the invoice. Fingers shaking, she pressed the keys and listened in disbelief as a recorded message came on.
I’m sorry, we cannot complete your call at this time. Please try again later.
Biting back a curse, she ended the call and tried again, only to get the same message once more.
“Things are getting worse,” she cried as she handed back the phone. “Now the call won’t go through.”
“Well, we’re sitting beneath a bunch of power lines. Between that and the airport right down the road, there’s probably all sorts of interference.”
Feeling perilously close to tears, she sank back against the gray leather seat. “So I can’t even call tell Jen to tell her I’m stuck in traffic right down the street from her. So now her wedding is ruined, and I have to refund her $500 for a cake, plus she probably leaves me a rotten online review. The end.”
“Seriously?” Noah stared over his seat at her. “For someone who clawed her way to the top prize on Cupcake Battle, you sure give up easily.”
Cate stared back at him. Three years earlier, she’d impulsively sent in an application to that baking competition show on one of the cable food channels. To her surprise, she’d been chosen as a contestant…and to her bigger shock, she’d actually won that season. The $10,000 in prize money had gone a long way toward helping her get Cate’s Classy Cakes off the ground.
“How did you know about that?”
“Maggie used to like watching all the cooking and home improvement shows, especially after she got sick. One day, I flipping through the channels for her, and suddenly there you were, showing off a bunch of fancy cupcakes you’d made.”
He smiled a little at the memory. “She was pretty stoked that I knew you, and so we watched every episode together from there on out. She was thrilled when you won.” His smile broadened. “I was, too.”
“Thanks,” she muttered, feeling oddly touched by his story.
Of course, she’d had a great time sitting with her friends and family as they cheered on her televised image, none of them knowing until the finale whether or not she’d won. But knowing that her appearance had piqued the interest of a terminally ill woman, maybe distracted her from her dire situation for a few hours, was more than a little humbling.
But before she could say anything more, Noah’s smile became a frown as he added, “So get that cake baking butt of yours in gear, Catie Stubbs, and start thinking outside the box.”
And, like that, humble went out the window.
“Great advice, Noah Ransom,” she retorted, not bothering to correct him on the name, “but we haven’t moved one inch in the past five minutes with no hope of things changing anytime soon. So what good is thinking outside the box going to do?”
“Hold onto the cake, and I’ll show you.”
He put the SUV into gear again and made an abrupt right turn. The maneuver took them out of the traffic lane, and over the curb to the sidewalk. While Cate clung to the cake boxes and tried not to shriek, they bumped down a short incline into the empty parking lot of a closed auto repair shop.
Once on flat ground, Noah drove a short distance until he reached a concrete barrier which blocked the parking area from the deep swale on the other side. Then, backing into a marked spot, he threw the SUV in park and shut it off.
“All right, move it. You’re walking to the reception.”
“Walking?” She stared at him in horror. “You’ve got to be kidding. That cake has to weigh forty pounds. No way can I juggle it with all the other stuff I need…plus I’m wearing three-inch heels.”
“Don’t worry, I’m going with you,” he said with a snort of disgust as he threw open the driver’s door. “I’ll carry the main cake. You carry the little stuff. It’s less than a mile to the botanical gardens, and you’re young and healthy.”
Cate, meanwhile, had climbed out of the SUV and now stood toe-to-toe with him. Even in three-inch heels, she was still a good six inches shorter than he.
“Fine. I appreciate the help,” she shot back over the continued din of honking horns, not feeling much appreciation at all. “But you’re forgetting the high heel problem. If I end up breaking an ankle on the way, you’re going to have to carry me, too.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
He grinned a little, and despite her pique she couldn’t help blushing. The only times she ever recalled him carrying her was when things had gotten particularly hot and heavy between them back in their tiny apartment. Too impatient to wait for her to cover the ten or so steps from living room to bedroom, he would scoop her up and whisk her off to finish what they’d started.
“Back to the shoes,” he redirected her before she could travel much further down memory lane. “You know how, in the movies, the hero always whips out a machete and chops off the high heel part of them so the heroine can walk?”
“Yeah, and…wait! You’ve got a machete?”
Not that she was about to let him destroy her hundred dollar plus pumps, but the whole machete thing fell into the category of, this I’ve got to see.
“No. I’ve got something better.”
He pressed a button on his key fob, and the SUV’s rear hatch popped open. He rummaged around there for a moment and pulled out something; then, slamming the hatch shut again, he walked back around to where she waited.
“Try these,” he said, proffering a battered pair of red Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. “The kid has pretty big feet, so you might be able to squeeze into them.”
Cate warily eyed the sneakers. Actually, it looked like the kid had bigger feet than she did. And while she wasn’t a fan of wearing someone else’s shoes, it would be blister city if she tried hiking in her spikes for more than a couple of blocks. And the broken ankle thing was a distinct possibility, too.
“Okay, thanks.” Kicking off her heels, she crammed them as best she could into her purse and then swiftly pulled on the sneakers.
While she tied her borrowed footwear, Noah went around to the other side of the SUV and opened the sliding passenger door.
“Got it,” he said, hefting the taller of the two boxes and easing it out. “We’d better get moving. We’re going to have to cross through the protest line to reach the gardens.”
Slinging her purse crosswise over her chest, she grabbed the caddy and carefully set it atop the cake topper’s box. Fortunately, she’d sprung for sturdy packaging. She slid the door shut and walked around to where Noah stood clutching the box that was almost as wide as he.
He was fumbling with one hand with the SUV’s key remote, manipulating buttons to lock hatch and doors while trying to keep the cake box steady. That accomplished, he jangled the key ring in her direction. “You mind sticking these in my pants pocket for me? I’d do it, myself, but don’t want to risk the cake.”
Shifting her own much smaller box to the crook of one arm, she took the keys from him, and then hesitated. His faded jeans were not the skin-tight hipster style, thank God, but they still fit him more snugly than she would have liked. And stuffing the keys into his pocket would mean sliding her hand down the front of his thigh, dangerously close to—
“You want to hurry it up? This cake weighs a ton.”
Grow up, Cate.
Steeling herself, she reached over and slid the keys into his jeans, doing her best to keep her demeanor neutral. “All right, let’s get going.”
She could barely hear her own words, however, over the blare of car horns that was increasing by the moment, accompanied now by obscene shouts from inconvenienced drivers who obviously didn’t give a flip about the “cause”. Doing her best to ignore the ruckus, she instead concentrated on scrambling up the incline they’d just driven down.
The sandy soil was softer than usual from the recent rains. Had she attempted that climb in her dress pumps, her spike heels would have sunk into the grass. But the borrowed sneakers allowed her to move with relative ease despite juggling box, purse, and caddy.
Once on the sidewalk, she heaved a sigh. From there, they could move at a relatively swift pace. And if their destination was less than a mile away, they could still be there in fifteen or so minutes. Cutting it a bit close, but still plenty of cake-prepping time before the ceremony started.
She turned to watch Noah’s progress behind her. He was halfway up the incline, but she could see he was having trouble keeping both himself balanced and the cake upright as he negotiated the uneven soil. And then the tall box wobbled alarmingly.
In a flash, she set down her box and gear on the sidewalk and started back down the incline.
“Got it,” she exclaimed as she steadied the box. “You keep moving, and I’ll make sure the cake stays upright.”
A few moments later, they were on flat ground again. As they set off at a brisk pace toward the gardens, Cate could hear the sound of police sirens approaching. A glance behind her showed a trio of West Palm Beach police vehicles approaching the wrong way in the Northbound lane, lights flashing.
“We’d better hurry,” she shouted over the noise. “The situation looks like it’s escalating.”
She quickened her pace so she was all but race-walking, Noah on her heels. By now, she could see in the distance the large pole sign for Mounts Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, she could also now see the protesters, maybe twenty deep across all six lanes of the street. Most were holding what appeared to be professionally made signs, though from her vantage point she could only make out a few of the words: China, Stop, Trade.
Whatever, she thought. I’m trying to earn a living here! And at least the sidewalk ahead was clear. As long as no one broke out any water cannons, she told herself, they should be able to make it through unscathed.
But as they drew abreast of the chanting protesters, a good dozen or so of them broke away from the group to form a blockade.
“Nobody crosses the line!” a shrill redhead who looked to be about fifteen years old declared.
Two of her companions, a tall Latina with a pixie cut and a stocky Haitian-looking guy with dreadlock dangling well past his beefy shoulders, abruptly took their signs and held them out like train track crossing arms across the sidewalk.
“Nobody crosses the line. Nobody crosses the line,” the rest of their little group began chanting.
Cate shot Noah a desperate look. If they tried to power their way through, the cake would doubtless suffer the consequences.
“Please,” she called to the sign holders. “We sympathize with your protest, but we’ve got a wedding cake we have to deliver to the botanical gardens. If you’ll let us pass, we can make it there in time.”
Then, when none of them made a move, she persisted, “Think of the happy couple.”
“Yeah, well, too bad for them,” the Latina shot back. “Maybe this’ll send them a message about LBGTQ marriage rights.”
On cue, the redhead began chanting, “Love is love. Yes love wins.”
Cate exchanged a panicked look with Noah as the others took up the call. Okay, Mr. Outside The Box. Better come up with something.
The telepathic message obvious got through, because Noah shouted, “Listen! Do you know how long Jerry and Ben have been planning this wedding? They’ve been partners for eight years, and now that they finally have the chance to make it legal, you’re going to ruin their special day. Can’t you give these guys a break and let us through with their cake?”
The Latina and the Haitian stopped chanting and exchanged glances.
“This wedding’s for a gay couple?” the latter asked Cate.
She hesitated and then nodded vigorously. Not actually a lie, she reassured herself. It simply depended on how one defined that particular word. And the pair had always seemed happy enough.
The man grinned and lowered his sign. “Let ’em through, people. Love is love. Yes love wins,” he began chanting again as the protesters parted before them.
When Cate was sure they were out of earshot, she said to Noah, “Okay, that was good outside-the-box thinking. But, seriously, couldn’t you come up with any better names than Ben and Jerry?”
“What can I say? I like ice cream.”
She spared no further breath for banter, mostly because they finally had reached the botanical gardens. From the outside, Mounts wasn’t what Cate would call impressive—a gravel parking lot and a series of low, 1950s-era buildings that lay next to the road.
But appearances, as the old saw went, were deceiving. She’d wandered the gardens numerous times over the years and could testify that they were indeed glorious. Once you wound beyond the buildings and entry, a collection of twenty or so themed gardens—from roses to edible landscapes to tropical plants—sprawled over more than ten acres.
“The Thompkins-Jones wedding?” asked the gray-haired, green apron-wearing volunteer at entry. “Poor girl, she and her mother are about fit to be tied with all that commotion going on outside, and all their guests running late. They’re set up at the Gazebo. Take the main path and follow the signs past the lake.”
With a nod to the woman, Cate gestured Noah to follow. Already, the cacophony from the protest out on the street was fading as they moved deeper into the gardens. And with Cate running interference, they were able to easily dodge the occasional meandering garden patron who crossed their path.
A short time later, they halted at a split in the trail. Beyond that point lay a man-made body of water complete with small garden island accessible by a bridge.
“Here’s the lake,” she announced unnecessarily and then pointed to the left. “That’s the quickest way around. If I remember correctly, the gazebo is situated halfway between the lake and the gardens’ far boundary.”
“So we’re almost there?” Noah asked, puffing a little as a trickle of sweat slid down his forehead.
Puffing a little, herself—her heavy chef’s jacket was designed to protect against hot ovens, not to be worn on a garden jog—she gave him an apologetic grimace. “More like half way, but we’re getting there.”
“Fine, but so you know, I’m expecting a heck of a tip for this ride,” he grumbled good-naturedly as he followed after her again.
Once they rounded the small lake, she could see a child-sized hedge maze. Beyond that lay a sprawl of blooming shrubs and trees that hid all but the pointed round roof of a rustic wooden gazebo. Several dozen wedding guests in bright spring sundresses and pastel shirts were milling along the path that she knew led to a clearing where the gazebo lay. A line of bow-adorned shepherd’s crooks placed at intervals along that path added a festive air, as did a free-standing, swag-draped lattice bower through which the bride would presumably approach. And Cate could hear what sounded like a string quartet tuning up to play somewhere nearby.
As she and Noah drew closer, a cry rose from the bystanders who’d caught sight of them.
“The cake, the cake!”
The exclamations drew the attention of a stout bleached blonde in her fifties dressed in a seafoam green sheath. Mrs. Thompkins, Jen’s mom. Cate immediately recognized her as the woman came trotting toward them on silver-sandaled feet, hem raised in both hands.
Not bothering with a more effusive greeting, she began herding them toward the gazebo. In a rush, she went on, “You must have been stuck in that terrible protest traffic. We’re still missing half the guest list because of it, but the garden event manager said they’d make an exception and let us stay a little longer and, oh, never mind. The table’s ready on the far side of the clearing. Set up, and I’ll let Jen know you’re here.”
“Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control,” Cate called after the woman, who hadn’t waited for an answer but was already rushing off, presumably to help her daughter finish preparing.
The open space around the gazebo had been filled with maybe a hundred white folding chairs arranged in rows around the gazebo proper. There, the guests would sit and witness the ceremony. Behind the seating area was a white-covered table holding plates, glassware, and plenty of chilling champagne bottles. Centermost sat a large silver cake stand.
“That’s us,” she told Noah, sighing in relief. “Quick, we need to get the cake set up and check it for damage. It will be a miracle if every tier made it through all this craziness unscathed.”
At the table, she put aside purse, topper, and caddy. Then, with Noah’s help, she carefully tore down the box holding main cake. Together, they eased the three-layered creation onto the borrowed stand. While Cate stepped back for a swift overall look, Noah bent closer.
“Wow, that’s really something,” he said, the admiration in his tone sounding genuine.
Cate had to agree. The white-on-white buttercream frosting was a monochromatic symphony of sugary roses and petals and ribbons and pearls. She’d originally suggested a bit of color, but the bride had been adamant that she wanted pure white, save for a pastel splash of color on the top tier.
“I can’t believe it’s not all beat to heck,” was Cate’s practical reply as she pulled out a bag of white icing and a decorating tip, along with a narrow, knife-like spatula. “All I need to do is touch up a few spots, and then I can put on the topper.”
After using the spatula to scrape off a couple of slightly smushed roses, she grabbed the first icing bag. Normally, she’d carefully craft each bloom on a piece of waxed paper first, and then transfer it onto the cake. But with time at a premium, she went old school and began forming a series of petals directly on the cake to make her replacements.
As she concentrated on that bit of buttercream artistry, she asked Noah, “Can you unbox the top tier for me? Don’t try to lift it out, just break down the sides like we did with the main cake.”
“Sure,” he replied, followed a couple of moments later with a, “Hmmmm.”
“What?” she demanded, attention still fixed on the tier she was repairing. “Seriously, please don’t tell me that the topper ruined.”
“No, it’s not ruined. In fact, it looks like it’s in perfect shape.”
“Then what’s with the hmmmm-ing?”
There was a moment of silence before he finally answered.
“Uh, Catie, is it normal for a wedding cake to have Happy Quinceanera, Graciela written on it?”
“This is the best cake I’ve ever eaten in my life,” Noah declared sometime later. “And I’m not saying that because I’m faint from hunger after hauling forty pounds of it for about twenty miles.”
Cate smiled. She and Noah were sitting side-by-side on a grassy expanse near the manmade lake they’d bypassed earlier. The final strains of the traditional wedding processional, as played by the string quartet, drifted to them, signaling that the Thompkins-Jones nuptials were beginning. With the cake safely delivered and ready for cutting, her portion of the event was over.
Cate had stripped off her chef’s jacket and was leaning back on her elbows, legs stretched so the toes of her borrowed red sneakers peeked out from beneath her black slacks. Between her and Noah was a section of cakebox serving as a makeshift plate. Atop the cardboard lay the first couple of inches of the quinceanera tier that Damon had mistakenly loaded in the van instead of the wedding cake topper.
Cate winced a little at the memory. After that first moment of panic upon discovering the mix-up, she had borrowed Noah’s phone again and called the shop. Madison answered and confirmed that Damon had already discovered his error. Unable to contact Cate, and with no time to bake a replacement, the intern had made the executive decision to redecorate the wedding cake tier to match the quince cake.
Was that okay? Madison had nervously asked. We didn’t know what else to do, since we couldn’t call you. And we figured that’s what you were doing on your end with the quinceanera topper, since you wouldn’t have time to drive back and get the right one in time for the ceremony.
Cate had assured the girl that she and Damon had done the right thing. Tell Damon that was good thinking outside the box, had been her exact words. After confirming that the repair shop had already called to say the van would be returned in time to make the day’s final deliveries, Cate had hung up and begun working her magic on the topper.
While also finished in buttercream, the multi-hued tier had far too much going on to simply scrape off Graciela’s name and call it good. Instead, Cate had done an impromptu decapitation of the uppermost portion with her trusty spatula knife. Then, with her extra bags of frosting, she had piped on a mound of white ribbons and ruffles over the now-bare surface.
Fortunately, she’d had in her caddy some waxed pink ribbon and half-a-dozen tiny silver bells left over from a previous wedding cake delivery. Between them and a series of oversized frosting roses that she sculpted directly atop the piping, she’d created a wedding-ready tier that coordinated flawlessly with the bottom three layers and added Jen’s splash of color.
All that remained to do afterward was to hide all evidence of the unfortunate tier mix-up.
Now, Cate sat up and helped herself to a generous bite of cake topped with an incriminating pink “G” against an electric blue buttercream background.
“The secret’s in the ingredients,” she explained as she took an appreciative nibble. “Everything fresh, butter instead of margarine, and never freezing the layers for later.”
Noah forked another bite for himself. “All I can say is that it’s obvious why you won Cupcake Battle. Next time I need a cake, I can tell you who I’m calling.”
“And next time I need a ride,” she replied with a smile, “I can tell you who I’m calling.”
Then, growing abruptly serious, she went on, “I can’t thank you enough for helping me out, Noah. You really saved the day, taking the cake all the way here for me like that. I seriously owe you one.”
“I was glad to help. Besides, I figured I still owed you…you know, for a lot of things.”
The words dangled uncertainly between them for a moment, and Cate wondered if it was guilt or something more that had prompted that admission. But even as she steeled herself to ask him what exactly he meant, he glanced at his watch.
“Uh, oh, I didn’t realize it was that late. We’d better take this cake to-go. We need to hike back to the car so I can drive you to your place before I pick up Trevor from school.”
Grabbing the makeshift plate, he scrambled to his feet and then extended his free hand to her, adding, “We’re cutting it close, but if traffic has cleared out by now, I’ll probably only be a few minutes late.”
“Why don’t we pick him up first?” Cate impulsively suggested as she took his hand and stood. “I mean, if you don’t think it would be a problem for him. Besides, I need to thank him for letting me borrow his sneakers.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. She was still holding his hand, she realized…and to her surprise, she wasn’t quite ready to let go. And for someone who’d been in a rush but a moment ago, Noah seemed content enough to hold her hand, too. He was giving her a considering look now, one that she couldn’t quite read.
The abrupt sound of applause drifted to them, spurring her to action. Pulling her hand free of his, she took a few prudent steps back and reached for her chef’s jacket.
“I guess the ceremony is over,” she observed as she bundled the coat over her arm and gathered up her purse and caddy.
Striving for a light tone, she went on, “We’d better get out of here, and not because we’re running late. Someone in the wedding party might see us and decide we need to join in the garter toss and the bouquet free-for-all.”
Noah smiled down at her, the dimple in his cheek abruptly appearing.
“Wouldn’t want that to happen,” he said. “I mean, it’d be pretty embarrassing if I ended up catching the garter, and you caught the bouquet.”
“Uh, yes. Embarrassing,” she echoed.
She hadn’t meant for him to pursue what she’d intended to be an offhanded comment. Suddenly, she felt a bit breathless as the symbolism of those two traditions flashed through her mind.
Meanwhile, his dimple deepened. “You know how it goes. I’d have to put the garter on you—which would look pretty ridiculous with those red sneakers.”
“Ridiculous,” she softly agreed, feeling her heart begin to beat faster.
He shrugged. “And once the garter was on, you’d have to give me a kiss. And with me holding onto this big slab of pink and blue cake, that could be, you know, kind of awkward.”
Cate met his teasing gaze and drew a quick, decisive breath.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be quite so awkward,” she countered with the tiniest hint of a smile, “if before I tried to kiss you, I took the cake and did this.”
So saying, she pulled the makeshift plate from his hands. Grasping it like a Frisbee, she gave it a careless toss.
Where the cake landed, she didn’t see…at least, not until several quite satisfying moments later, when they finally ended their kiss.
Copyright © 2017 by
Diane A.S. Stuckart.
Heart's Kiss Magazine: Issue 1: February 2017
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor