Special Delivery (Wendy)
Of course, I’ll deliver the cake.
Why not? It’s not like anyone – ANYONE – would possibly remember that Blake Paumer stood me up for junior prom. Or how embarrassed I was to go back to school that following Monday, after everyone had already heard about it.
Of course, no one remembers.
That's because it didn’t happen to Rochelle. If my sis was ever stood up for prom, the entire world would remember how crushed she’d been and who’d done the smooshing.
Just like today, when no one would ever make the golden daughter deliver a cake to the very person who’d left her waiting at the front door for hours all those years ago.
I wrap my fingers tighter around the steering wheel as a sense of self-reproach strikes.
Fine. So the cake isn’t technically for Blake, but it's for his father. And Blake will be at the retirement party, guaranteed.
I glance up, glaring at the red light that hasn't changed in the last century.
“C'mon! There’s no one coming in any direction!” I moan to myself, turning up the radio.
It doesn’t help. The light doesn’t change, neither does my mood.
How could it? I have nothing else to think about.
There’s a hulking marble sheet cake with Congrats on your retirement! written in buttercream frosting sitting on the seat beside me, and this red light perched on a chilly Saint Paul street just might be the longest in history.
The party hasn’t started yet, and whether it starts hours from now or not, Blake will be there, helping with the prep work. Along with his wife, Heather.
My best friend, once upon a time. She hadn’t even had the guts to tell me she’d convinced Blake to take her to the prom instead of me. When she did finally fess up, she’d had the nerve to say she didn’t think it would bother me because I wasn’t in love with Blake like she was.
“Finally!” I hit the gas as the light turns green and cross the intersection carefully because I don’t want the cake hitting the floor.
Heather was right.
I hadn’t been in love with Blake. But I had wanted to go to prom. Rochelle was at college then, so it had been my turn to shine. The mousy little sister. Who wasn’t nearly as pretty or smart as her older protégée.
To this day, it burns.
No, I don't care if it's a little irrational.
I don’t care if it was eight years ago, and that I was just sixteen. Missing that prom still pisses me off.
Almost as much as it pissed me off four months ago, when Heather asked me to bake her wedding cake because nobody could possibly do a better job than our small family-run bakeshop.
We did our job too well. That's why she's hit us up again for her father-in-law's party.
I glance at the cake on the passenger seat of my mother’s ancient mini-van and wonder once again, as I did while baking Heather and Blake’s cake, if I should have sabotaged it.
A cup of salt in place of sugar, or maybe just one egg, or a couple strategic tablespoons of cayenne pepper...
No, I'm not that bad a bitch. No matter how incredibly tempting it had been.
Wendy Agnes doesn't do passive-aggressive vengeance.
I shake my head as I focus on the road again, taking the corner slowly, and let out a thankful sigh that the road ahead is clear of traffic.
The day isn't all bad. I’ll arrive in plenty of time with an immaculate cake. I’d never do something like that.
Plus, acting on my revenge fantasies would hurt Midnight Morning far more than it would anyone else. The coffee shop and bakery will be mine someday.
And I've gotten over the whole prom ordeal, too. Mostly.
I wasn’t truly psycho upset over baking Heather’s wedding cake, either. I love baking.
It’s weddings I’m sick of.
So sick I could yak up my lunch in my own purse. That's thanks to Rochelle becoming the ultimate bridezilla, which shouldn’t shock anyone.
Especially not me. I’ve lived in her wake my whole life.
Too bad her wedding is only two weeks away, and just like her prom, I’m dateless. Again.
I close my eyes, trying not to hear the inevitable pecking at my future wedding-trial.
“Poor little Wendy!” Aunt Charlotte will say. “She’s still never had a real boyfriend, has she?”
Mother will just shake her head. “No. She hasn’t. Poor thing.”
No excuses, no rational, no offense taken. Just agreement so mortifying it already makes me want to shrink into the ground until I wind up on the other side of the Earth.
I hear Australia's nice. At least the kangaroos there will be friendlier than my relatives.
That’s how it goes, though. And always has.
No one will point out my other accomplishments, like the two years I spent in Europe in culinary school, or that I baked pastries in Buckingham Palace. For the Queen’s birthday celebration, no less.
It's just as well, because if mother did say any of that, she’d follow it up by pointing out how I didn’t date anyone overseas. Then she’ll give her patented, cringe-inducing advice – if I’d simply wear some makeup and do more than clip my hair up, I’d stand a better chance.
Better chance than what? Being stood up again? No freaking thank you.
I'm still in my own muddled head when something flashes.
Movement, just outside the passenger window. Before I can make out what, it jumps the curb and flies out in front of me.
“Holy –” I slam on the brakes at the same horrible instant I realize it’s a kid, wrenching the wheel to keep from hitting them.
The van bounces like it's about to burst apart as it scales the curb before jolting to a stop.
Oh, God. My hands are shaking and my heart pounds up my throat as I look through the windshield, eye to eye at the boy standing mere inches in front of the bumper.
Thanking God all the while he is still standing!
“Hey, are you all right?” I ask, throwing open the door and jumping out.
“I-I d-didn’t see you. Sorry, miss.”
He’s clearly shaken.
So am I. I could have hit him. Flattened him.
“How'd you miss it?” I ask, pointing a thumb at the van. “It’s red! A huge red blob!”
Just like you could've been! I think to myself, shaking my head.
Sighing, I step forward and flip the black hood off his head to get a good look at him. He’s a good-looking kid. Young. Early teens, maybe.
I want to grab him, shake him, but that’s because I’m so upset. He is, too, so I try to pull myself together.
Take a deep breath. My nerves are literally shot. Breathing doesn’t help one iota.
His eyes are cast down at the pavement.
I glance in the same direction. Notice how one end of his skateboard is crunched under the van’s driver's side tire. The other end caught behind the bumper.
A sense of relief washes over me that it's only his skateboard.
“That could've been you,” I say, shaking in my boots all over again.
God, that was too close. This is all too close for comfort.
He nods and bites down on his quivering bottom lip. “I'm really sorry.”
I should let him go. We all make dumb mistakes when we're young, right? But something holds me back.
Feeling like I need to drill down how easily this could've been a whole lot worse, I ask, “What were you doing? Where were you going so fast that you couldn’t even see me?”
He glances around, as if looking for a place to flee.
Then I see more. Like the shallow, anxious guilt curdling his young face.
I know what I’m looking at. I also see the hands shoved in his coat pockets, fidgeting, far too much for just the cold. “Show me your hands.”
His eyes widen, and he looks around again.
I know what this is before he even moves.
Years working downtown in a business that's had more than one kid snitch something off the counter tells me. It also turns my terror at almost hitting him into anger.
“C'mon, kiddo. Hands. Now!”
Slowly, he takes a hand out of his pocket, holding something out.
I snatch the case he’s holding and flip it over. “A game? You almost got yourself flattened, killed, for a freaking video game?!”
Now, it's making sense. There’s a game shop up the road.
He probably stole it and was so focused on getting away that he couldn't see anything. An adorably annoying little rat, and a desperate one.
“A used twenty-dollar game, too.” I mutter, handing it back to him. “An old one from a series that's been around since I was a kid.” It’s based off a movie about robbing cars, and that makes me add, “Don't tell me this is practice. Thinking of upping your game? Learning how to steal cars instead of games?”
“No. I-I’ve never done anything like this before.” He shoves the game back in his pocket. “I don’t know why I took it. Really. I just...I wanted...”
Before I can blink, he goes stock-still. His face loses color. “Oh, no. Here he comes.”
I glance over my shoulder. A big black SUV is slowing down. The vehicle looks like an FBI rig, complete with tinted windows.
It’s not really the FBI or even the police, but this kid knows whoever's in that vehicle, and he's even more scared than before. “Who’s that?”
“My dad,” he answers, voice quivering.
Great. I’ve run into this before. I'll never deliver my cake on time without hearing the end of it.
Not when daddy dearest is probably one of those parents who think it’s the store’s fault for leaving things sitting out for their kids to steal.
It’s a store. Things are displayed for people to see them. Not steal them. But some people just don't get it. Don't want to get it. Especially when it comes to their precious kids.
“Please, lady, have a heart...he’s gonna be mad. Like, really mad.”
There's that hangdog my whole world just ended look on his skinny face again. Flustered at the empathy that rises up inside me, I roll my eyes and ask. “We'll see. What’s your name, anyway?”
It's all he gets out before jumping at the sound of a car door slamming shut.
My insides jolt a bit at the sound, too. Drawing in a deep breath of Minnesota cold, I turn around and damn near choke. Not on the icy air, but the sight of the beast-man walking toward us.
Not beast as in jungle.
Beast as in built. Manly perfection. All muscles, five o'clock shadow, body halfway to the sky, and shoulders wide enough to give the horizon itself a good run.
The kind of primal, almost dangerously gorgeous man you see in ads. The ones you know are Photoshopped.
Except...this guy isn’t Photoshopped, and those long, thick legs of his carry his bulk and brawn with a swagger that can’t help but draw attention to the rest of him.
The closer he gets, the better I see, and the more I lose every wit I've got.
He’s insanely tall, dark-haired, as sleek as the luxury SUV he’d whipped into park behind my delivery van that should've found a permanent home in the junkyard years ago.
Holy Hannah. I’m probably shaking harder than this kid for all the wrong reasons.
Trembling, just at the sight of this guy’s icy-blue stare.
I have to remind myself to breathe again as he steps past me. Total mistake.
Because when I take a long breath, I get a subtle whiff of cologne and beast that's enough to cause daydreams for years. Then this hulking, too-perfect-for-life thing speaks.
“What’s going on here, Ben? You know the rules. Straight home after school.”
His voice is as smooth as the rest of him. Husky. Sexy.
What the hell am I thinking? Or doing?
I pivot, so I can look up at him without getting a kink in my neck, trying not to focus on those lady-killer eyes as I point at the skateboard. “Seems Ben here forgot to look both ways before crossing the street.”
Color drains from his face, too. Not as thoroughly as Ben’s, or mine, but noticeably.
He shoots forward, grasping his son by the upper arms. “Ben? Are you okay?” He pats down both sides. “Hurt anywhere? Hit?”
“No, I’m fine,” Ben answers, his eyes on me. Full of pleading. Begging for mercy.
“Well, I'm glad, but...” He huffs out a breath. “Damn it, Ben. There are rules for a reason. No skateboarding downtown. No skateboarding anywhere in the winter, and yeah, it still counts, even if we've only got ourselves an inch of snow. You know that. You know that’s the end of it, too. This can't happen again.”
Ben nods, almost on the verge of tears.
Then he gives his son a hug. And I mean a real, solid hug. One that seems to embarrass the boy as much as it hurts my heart because it's so deep and honest. Because this man knows how close he came to losing him.
The boy's reaction is natural. It happens with kids his age. Someday, Ben will realize how much hugs like that can mean, but today isn’t someday.
I’m a bit surprised by all this, not to mention the fact that big daddy hasn’t turned on me like a grizzly bear yet. Put the blame on me. That would be par for the course.
“Won't happen again,” Ben echoes weakly, still looking back at me.
Again, empathy for the kid runs me over. Little brat or not, he deserves his second chance at life.
“The skateboard got the worst of it,” I say.
I can’t really read the look the man casts my way, but if I had to choose, I’d have to go with a who the hell are you? translation.
It's a miracle I can even talk. He's even better up close.
I think it's those uniquely vicious, rare, pale-blue eyes of his that do it. Leave me delirious. Make it brutally hard not to stare into them.
It’s hard because they're so bold. So exceptional. So unreal.
Keeping an eye on me, he drops his arm away from Ben and steps forward, toward the van. A solid kick dislodges the skateboard from the bumper and out from under the tire.
“I'll handle this. Get in the truck, Ben, and take your board.”
That was a command. A stern one. Which Ben immediately follows.
In a blink of an eye, this guy went from caring father to drill sergeant. I’m not thrilled by the shift because I’m next in line. A little more empathy swells in my heart for Ben. My father can be a drill sergeant, too.
I brace myself, ready for the blame, for this whole incident to be thrown back in my face.
“Thought you said the skateboard got the worst of it,” he says, walking around the front of the van.
I follow, cautiously, realizing I haven’t paid any attention to the van.
“That no parking sign took out your mirror and smashed the passenger door.”
I follow his gaze, seeing exactly what he's pointing to. Then I gasp.
The mirror's left hanging by wires, and the door is dented, still up against the sign, just like he said.
“Have you called the cops yet?” he asks. “Or your insurance company?”
“No, I hadn't realized how bad it was,” I say sheepishly, sizing up the damage. “I mean...it's not worth the hassle of a police report and the van isn’t worth the deductible. We only use this thing locally for deliveries.”
Wait. Something about that word shakes my brain alive again. “Deliveries!”
I scamper around the front of the van, to the driver’s door, then rip it open. “Damn it!”
It's worse than I even feared. The cake box slid off the seat and hit the floor when I hit the curb.
I climb in frantically, reaching down, grabbing at the mess. My stomach drops. The beautifully packaged cake is now a misshapen mass of frosting.
“I take it you were in a hurry?”
“Yeah.” Fat lot of good it did me. I grab my cell phone and flip open the case to check the time. Less than two hours. Not nearly enough time to bake another cake.
“Where was the cake going?”
“A retirement party.” I glance at the mangled mess in the box. It’s clearly beyond repair.
I so don’t need this. Not today. Not now.
“Where? Whose party?”
I stumble back out of the van. “Why does it matter? What is this? Fifty questions?” Frustrated, I shake my head. But I shouldn't take this out on him. “Just up the road. Byron Paumer, head of Paumer Architecture. He’s officially turning the business over to his son, Blake, at five o’clock today. Which means I don’t have time to bake a replacement.”
The cake was supposed to be the last thing served, the big finish. My brows inch together so hard it hurts. Think, Wendy. Think!
Okay. No time to bake a fresh one. But I could use the other still sitting in the fridge I baked this morning for that little girl’s birthday party. It's almost the right size, the same flavor, sans the unicorn shape it's supposed to have. And for the girl, there's time to bake another tonight. Just enough time to chill it before I can shape it tomorrow morning.
This could work. If I run.
Grabbing the steering wheel, I plant a foot on the van’s running board to climb in, but Papa Bear grabs my other arm. It's so swift, so smooth, the air leaves my lungs.
“Hold up,” he growls. “What’s the address? And what size cake is that?”
His grip on my arm is brazen, but gentle as he tugs me backward. Just far enough so I have to step off the running board. I'm not sure whether he's annoying or irresistible.
One thing's for sure: if I want to fix this cluster-frack, I need to get moving.
“The size you don't need to worry about,” I say, tugging my arm free. “Look, sorry, I have to go.”
“No.” A single stern word, and I'm frozen.
Then he has his phone up to his ear, looking around me to see the cake box. Stubborn bastard.
“I’m ordering you another cake. I’ll have it baked and delivered at my expense.”
“Whoa, dude, it’s not that easy,” I say.
Idiot. Kind hearted, possibly crazy idiot. Doesn't he get it?
No one in this town just has an extra sheet cake sitting around, unless it’s the bakery at a box store, where they just pipe on some cheap pre-made frosting and call it a day. You get what you pay for in this business. Their cakes can be up to a week old, and totally unacceptable for a man retiring from decades of hard work.
He's glaring, those blue eyes shining dangerously in slits. My sassy courage goes cold.
“Yeah, darling, you're wrong. It is that easy. I know the owner of Top Notch.”
The very name makes my cheeks burn.
Of course he’d know the owner of the most elite and expensive caterer in the Twin Cities. Which magically pisses me off in ways I’ve never felt before.
Ugh, I'm ending this. I grab the phone away, angrily pulling it away from his ear.
The phone barely moves. Yanking at his arm with all my might is like a mouse trying to move a mountain.
“Don't! If the Paumers wanted a cake from Top Notch, they’d have ordered one from them. They didn’t because they know my cakes are edible.”
Okay, too far. Top Notch’s cakes are more than edible, too. Damn good, as a matter of fact, but that’s hardly the point. I climb in the van. “I’m leaving now, so I can go back to my shop, decorate another cake and deliver it before the party is over. Do me a favor and let's all forget this ever happened.”
“Maybe, but then I'd have to forget five minutes ago, when you told me you didn't have time to bake up a fresh cake.”
Oh, he's a smart one. A natural smartass.
With too much money. Too many good looks. Probably thinks that’s all he has to do, throw a bit of his charm around and everything will be fine.
While I'm still contemplating how he's got me stuck in my tracks, he’s busy talking on the phone to someone and grabbing my arm, preventing me from shutting the door.
When I hear him say Byron Paumer's name, the look I shoot him changes from what the hell's happening to what the hell are you doing?
“They can have a cake there by five,” he says, turning his face away from the phone.
“So can I.” I say it loud enough so whoever's on the phone can hear. “The cake they want, baked by Wendy at Moonlight Morning, so you'd better go ahead and cancel that one. It's not a big enough party for two cakes.”
He says something else I can't quite make out, and then pauses, giving me this quiet, bearish look. At least he knows how insufferable I can be when I'm mad.
“I see,” he says coldly back into the phone. “All right. Fine. Cancel it.”
Pulling the phone away from his ear, he shrugs. “I was just trying to make this right. Can't figure out why that's such a problem.”
His demeanor is sullen, like he’s at a loss, which is almost sweet in an odd way.
Meanwhile, I'm perfectly disgusted with my own thoughts. I don’t have time to contemplate whether or not a perfect stranger's being sweet. “Listen, I don’t need you to make this right. But if you insist, the one thing you can do, is move your rig so I can back up.”
I turn the key in my ignition, so, so ready to be done.
But nothing happens.
So I try again. And again. And then one more time, twisting my wrist so hard it hurts.
“Here, let me try,” he says, grabbing my arm again.
I should tell him to keep his hands to himself, but I don’t have time for that either. This is officially ridiculous.
I need to get back to my shop, get the other cake decorated.
I need it so bad I'm actually going to shut up and let him do what he suggested.
So I grab my cell phone before climbing out of the van, then swipe through recent calls for Heather’s number while he climbs into the driver’s seat.
Heather answers on the first ring.
“Heather, it’s Wendy. Bad news. I was in a car accident while delivering the cake –”
I have to stop talking while she asks if I’m okay, what happened, followed by a dozen other questions. Heather always talks a mile a minute, and she's doing it again, without stopping long enough for me to get a word in.
I glance toward the luxury rig, where Ben sits in the passenger seat, looking like someone just killed his dog.
Sighing, I walk toward the SUV, letting motor-mouth Heather get the last hundred words in.
“I’m fine, really,” I say, when she finally takes a breath. “Yes, I've got another cake I plan on decorating. I'll have it there by five thirty at the latest. Promise.”
Clicking off before she can fire another string of questions, I arrive at the driver’s door of the SUV, where the window is already cracked. I’m sure Ben rolled it down, so he could hear if I’d mentioned the stolen game or not.
“I haven’t said a word,” I tell him. “And won’t, as long as that disk gets returned with an apology.”
For a second, he stares at me like a deer waiting for the inevitable crash of headlights. Then he nods, while glancing at my van, which sputters to a start just then.
“Tomorrow. I’ll call the game shop to make sure,” I tell him before walking away.
Mr. Money Bags climbs out of my driver’s door. “The van was still in drive, but it’s running fine now. You must've hit the brakes so hard you killed your engine.”
I could practically slap myself.
“Maybe. To keep from hitting your kid.” I’ve calmed down. No longer panicking over almost hitting Ben or the cake.
I’ll make this work, I know I will. But I'm still pissed. Flustered. At myself now because I can’t stop giving him those looks I know I shouldn't.
Money Bags. The name barely fits. He's rich, obviously, but he's so damn handsome. The Fortune 500 combined couldn't bribe their way into winning a Mr. Universe contest against him.
“Good. Then you'll let me pay for the damage to your van. Just let me know where you take it.”
All I can think through the new wave of shock is that maybe the name fits after all.
He’s handing me a business card, which I take and shove in my pocket.
That, too, just riles me up. Apparently, his only concern, his only answer, is to pay for everything.
Like money solves everything and he's got a sweet, sweet orchard of money trees planted in his backyard.
“I’ll make it right,” he says. “Don't you worry your pretty head.”
Ohhhh. There it goes.
Something inside me snaps.
Maybe it's because I still see Ben’s solemn blue eyes in my mind, a shade brighter than his father's. Or maybe it's because I’m just flipping sick of Murphy and his damn law that won’t leave me alone today.
Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong in spades.
“You know how you can make this right?” I ask quietly, with no intention whatsoever of giving him time to answer. “By keeping your boy off the street and away from speeding vehicles.”
“Lady, Ben’s a good kid, he just—”
Not in any sort of mood to hear more, I say, “Rich or poor, kids with too much free time on their hands are going to get into trouble. You're lucky he avoided more, this time.”
I'm being a royal snark queen, I know, but it happens in a flash.
Those blue eyes of his turn so dark I have to take a second look. I'm second-guessing everything I just said. Oh, yeah, he’s pissed.
But it does feel good.
“What exactly are you insinuating?” he says, an edge that could cut in his voice.
Crap. I can’t say anything about the game. I promised not to.
So I just shrug. “Let's see...a hundred-dollar sweatshirt, three-hundred-dollar jacket, two-hundred-dollar shoes, four-hundred-dollar skateboard.” I’m just throwing out numbers, but from his expression, I’m hitting the price tags close to the nose.
“There’s nothing wrong with having nice things or sharing wealth with my family.”
“No, there’s not,” I agree, while walking to the van. “It’s a fine goal for many people. What I'm saying is, whether a person has money or not, a job teaches them a lot. And it keeps them too busy for mischief.” I climb in the van, feeling lower than ever.
Life in general right now isn't bringing out the best in me, so I just keep going. “There are some pretty awesome perks, too. Responsibility, accountability, and time management, just to name a few.”
I shut the door before he can respond with all his millionaire fury and shift the van into drive.
My escape car, because that’s exactly what it is, isn't as smooth as I’d have wished. The cake on the passenger seat hits the floor again as the front tire rolls off the curb.
I bite my lip and bounce too, but keep driving, refusing to look in the rear-view mirror. No good could come of it.
I need to stay focused. Get back to the shop. Decorate another cake. Deliver it.
Get back to the shop. Bake another cake. Call my mother.
Tell her about the van she’s had since she was my age – and that's only a slight exaggeration.
A shiver numbs my spine. I know it's because I can see into the future.
Another day in the life of Wendy Agnes will end as usual.
A total and complete nightmare.