Jenn McKinlay

New York Times Bestselling Author

CARAMEL CRUSH (#9)

Chapter One
“Why are you hiding in the walk in cooler?” Melanie Cooper asked her friend and business partner Tate Harper.
“I’m not hiding,” he said.
It was hard to understand him as his teeth were chattering, making a sharp clacking noise that drown out his words. His lips had a tinge of blue around them and his fingers were shaking so badly, he could barely type on the laptop he had set up on one of the wire shelves.
“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” Mel said. She looked at him and raised one eyebrow. “Bet that would feel pretty good about right now.”
“Wh…wh…where is she?” Tate asked. He blew into his cupped hands and rubbed them together.
“She just left to go look at flowers…again,” Mel lied. “Now get out of here before you freeze to death.”
She pushed open the door to the Fairy Tale Cupcakes’s walk in cooler, and shoved Tate out into the bakery kitchen. Mel scooped up his laptop and followed him. The thing was like snuggling a block of ice. Brr.
“Sweetie, there you are,” Angie DeLaura cried when she caught sight of her groom. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you. Beth at the flower shop is waiting for us.”
Tate slowly turned and looked at Mel over his shoulder. His eyebrows lowered in what she recognized as his seriously unhappy face. Too bad.
Tate and Angie had flipped a coin to see who Mel would stand up for, since they were both her best friends since middle school, and Angie had won, calling “heads” right before the quarter hit the ground. Mel’s loyalty now had to be with the bride until the vows were spoken and normalcy returned.
“’To love is to suffer’,” Mel said to Tate. He glowered and she shrugged.
“Love and Death,” Angie identified the movie Mel had quoted. It was a game the three of them had been playing since they were tweens bonding over their mutual love of the Three Stooges and Mars bars.
“Well done,” Mel said.
“But wait.” Angie frowned. “I don’t see the relevance. Tate, you’re not suffering, are you? You’re enjoying planning our wedding, right?”
Mel gave Tate a pointed stare. If he answered this incorrectly, it would be very bad for them all.
“Of course, honey, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do with the sixteen hours a day I spend conscious and breathing,” he said. Mel noted he had his fingers crossed behind his back.
Angie grinned at him and Mel blinked. Wow, the bride thing must be like wearing a suit of Teflon that could deflect sarcasm, because if anyone else was on the receiving end of that razor sharp response they would have begun bleeding out by now.
Mel gave Tate a reproachful look. He bowed his head and she noticed his shivering had subsided somewhat.
“I’d do anything for you, babe, even days and days of looking at flowers, flowers, and more flowers,” he said. This time he sounded sincere.
“You’re the best groom ever,” Angie sighed.
“That’s because you’re the best bride,” he returned.
Then he grinned and pulled Angie in close for a smooch. She squealed and then the whole thing turned mushy-gushy, saccharine sweet and Mel felt her upchuck reflex kick in.
Tate and Angie’s wedding was a little over two months away, and if the past few weeks were any indicator, it was going to be a long two months with Angie, who had shocked them all by morphing into some sort of bridezilla wholly consumed by her upcoming nuptials and all that went with becoming Mrs. Tate Harper. It horrified.
Mel was trying to be the supportive best friend, but she really didn’t know if she could handle much more of this. Possibly, it was because it was summer in central Arizona, and the heat was making her a little bit crazy. But more than likely, it was because Mel had put off her own wedding to Joe DeLaura, Angie’s older brother, so that Angie could have her special day and the waiting was making Mel a bit antsy-pantsy.
Mel and Joe had attempted to elope in Las Vegas a couple of months ago, but because it was Mel and she was sure she was cursed in matrimony, the Elvis impersonator-slash-Justice of the Peace that her bakery assistant Marty Zelaznik had hired to marry them had turned out to be a fraud, making Mel and Joe’s vows worth less than the free limo ride included in the wedding package.
“I love you more,” Angie said.
“No, I love you more,” Tate replied.
Gag. Mel left the kitchen and headed back into the front of the bakery. It was fairly quiet. Marty was restocking the front display case, and Mel blew her blond bangs off of her forehead and began to help him.
“Back so soon? I thought you went to go bake something,” he said.
“I started to get a cavity.”
Marty’s bushy eyebrows rose up on his shiny dome, and then Tate and Angie came through the swinging door, holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes.
“You’re beautiful, poopsie,” Tate said.
“No, you are, snuggluffagus,” Angie answered with a giggle.
“No, you are, cutie patootie,” he insisted.
“Oh, barf on a biscuit,” Marty said to Mel. “Those two are revolting.”
“Welcome to my world,” Mel said. “Honestly, I don’t know how much more I can take.”
“Tell me when they’re gone.” Marty said.
He shuddered and then turned back to the display case. He looked like he was going to shove his whole body from the shoulders up into the glass case to avoid looking at Tate and Angie as they rubbed their noses together and murmured more lovey-dovey sweet nothings.
Mel was not to be abandoned. She wedged herself in beside Marty and helped him offload the chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting that she had baked fresh that morning. Sometimes in life there was nothing better than chocolate cake with a fresh dollop of peanut butter frosting on top. This was one of those moments.
“Hey, find your own display case,” Marty grumbled at her. He nudged her out of the case.
“But this is my display case,” she protested.
“I was here first,” he argued. “Besides you’re the maid of honor, you have to put up with that.”
Mel gave him a look that she hoped clarified how she would not have a problem pelting him with cupcakes until he surrendered control of the glass barricade between them and the sickening bride and groom.
“There are limits to what a maid of honor can put up with,” she said. “And I draw the line at listening to the two of them call each other--“
“Martin!”
“Huh?” Marty went to stand and smacked his head on the top of the display case. “Ouch!”
Glaring at him over the top of the display case was Marty’s current girlfriend, who was also Mel’s baking rival, Olivia Puckett. She was in her usual blue chef’s coat with her gray corkscrew curls bouncing on top of her head in a messy topknot.
Marty rubbed his head as he faced the woman across the display case. He looked wary, she looked irritated, although in all fairness Olivia always looked irritated so she might be as happy as a clam, for all Mel knew.
Mel frowned. Were clams happy? Would anyone be happy stuck in a shell with mostly just a belly, some sinew and one muscly foot for a body. She shook her head. Focus!
“Hi, Olivia,” she said. “What brings you by?”
“Not the food,” Olivia snapped.
Mel pressed her lips together to keep from saying the first thing that came to mind. Her mother had raised her better than that, still, it was an effort.
“Now, Liv,” Marty said. “You know we’re not supposed to visit each other’s place of work. I stay out of your bakery and you stay out of mine.”
“Yeah, that’d be fine,” Olivia snapped. “Except someone filled up our DVR with reruns of Magnum P.I.”
Marty blinked at her. “So?”
“So?” Olivia’s arms flapped up in the air like she was trying to achieve lift off. “I can’t record my cooking shows because it’s all full of mustache guy.”
“Mustache guy?” Marty echoed the words as if she had blasphemed.
Mel ducked back down behind the display case to hide her smile. She noted that Tate and Angie had ceased the PDA and were actively listening to the conversation.
“Yes, mustache guy,” Olivia said. “What’s his face.”
“What’s his face?” Marty repeated faintly. He clutched his chest as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing and it was causing him a severe bout of angina. “His name is Tom Selleck and he is a god among men.”
“Pish,” Olivia said. “He’s overrated.”
Now Marty staggered back and Mel jumped up to grab him in case he stroked out on the spot. There were few things that Marty held sacred but Tom Selleck was one of them.
“He is not—“ Marty began but Olivia interrupted.
“Yes, he is,” she said. “And I deleted all of the episodes on the DVR and reprogrammed it to cover just the Food Network.”
“What?” Marty cried. He clapped his hands on top of his bald dome as if trying to keep the top of his skull from blowing off.
“You heard me,” she said. She looked quite pleased with herself and Mel had a feeling this was not going to end well.
“But…you…that…we…I…” Marty was so upset he was babbling.
Mel wondered if she should slap him on the back to help him get the words out. There was no need.
“That’s it!” Marty shouted. “When I get home tonight, I am moving out!”
Olivia crossed her arms over her chest. She glowered at him. “No, you’re not.”
“Oh, yes, I am,” he declared.
“Puleeze,” Olivia sniped. “Where would you go? Who is going to take in a man who thinks the floor is a laundry basket, snores like a donkey, and never cleans the bathroom?”
“Says the woman who can’t leave a dirty dish in the sink, thinks washing windows is a daily chore, and who writes her name on every single edible item in the fridge,” Marty retaliated.
Mel met Angie’s gaze over the counter. Marty had moved in with Olivia, at her request, just a few months ago. It appeared the honeymoon phase of their live-in period was good and truly over.
“You’re impossible,” Olivia snapped.
“No, you are,” Marty said.
Mel looked at him. As far as comebacks went, that one was pretty lame. He shrugged and turned his back on her.
“Give me until the end of tomorrow, and me and my stuff will just be a fuzzy memory,” he said to Olivia.
“Yeah, fuzzy because it’s growing mold on it like everything else you leave on the counter,” she said.
“That’s it!” Marty said. “We’re done here.”
“We’re not done until I say we’re done,” Olivia argued.
“To late,” Marty said. “Done.”
With that, he strode through the kitchen door, leaving it swinging in his wake.
“Hey!” Olivia shouted. “I’m not done with you yet.”
She charged behind the counter and followed Marty into the kitchen, where a clang of pots and pans sounded with a bang and a crash. Mel looked at Angie and Tate in alarm.
“What do we do?” she cried.
“Uh…nothing?” Tate said.
Crash!
“But my kitchen,” Mel said.
She twisted her apron in her hands. More ominous noise came from the kitchen but it did not sound like any more pots and pans were being tossed about.
“Will survive,” Tate said. “But you’ll never be able to unsee whatever you walk into behind that door.”
“I’m with honey badger on this one,” Angie said.
“Honey badger?” Tate asked her.
“It’s cute,” she said.
“If you say so,” he said. “I think I’m partial to honey bear.”
“How about honey bee?” Angie offered.
Mel blew out a breath. She wasn’t sure what was worse, the couple in front of her canoodling or the couple behind her brawling. Either way, she wondered if it was too early in the day, at ten o’clock in the morning, to require a nap.
The door to the bakery banged open, and in strode a tall, thin woman in a snappy, aqua skirt and suit jacket with beige sandals, and a matching purse. She scanned the room and then her deep brown gaze landed on Mel like a laser beam on lock.
A man, also in a suit, came in behind her and Mel had a moment of panic. Was this another couple? Were they looking to book a wedding? Were they going to be fussing or fighting or goopy in love? She didn’t think she could take much more coupleness, truly.
“Melanie Cooper,” the woman said. Obviously, she knew Mel from somewhere. “You’re just the woman I need. Lucky for me, you owe me one, don’t you?”