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Dying For Devil's Food

Chapter One

“Squeee!”

At the screechy noise, Melanie Cooper squeezed her pastry bag too tight and frosting shot out of the tip into a big glob on top of the cupcake she was decorating for a wedding the next day.

“Angie DeLaura, what was that?” she asked. She blew her blond bangs off her forehead as she glared at her business partner, who had just come running through the swinging doors from the front of the bakery into the kitchen, where Mel was working.

“That’s Angie Harper to you, and…” she paused to strike a pose and fan herself with a large envelope and fancy looking invitation, before she continued, “to everyone else we graduated high school with fifteen years ago.”

“Huh?” Mel frowned at her recently married, petite brunette friend.

“Our fifteen-year reunion,” Angie said. She pointed to the envelope in her hand. “It’s coming up and guess who they want to bake cupcakes for it?”

Mel stared at her childhood friend and business partner. How could she put this as tactfully and delicately as possible?

“No.” Mel used a rubber spatula to scrape the glob off the ruined cupcake and flicked it into the large garbage bin to her right.

“What?” Angie froze in mid-fan. “What do you mean, no?”

“I have no intention of baking cupcakes for those people,” Mel said.

She bent over the cake in front of her. It was a red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting. She was keeping it simple and working the frosting in a thick smooth swirl that she then sprinkled with small red hearts. Just the thought of going to her high school reunion made her want to mainline the frosting and shove a whole cupcake into her mouth like a boss.

“But…but,” Angie stammered. It was clear she hadn’t anticipated this sort of response, which boggled Mel, but she continued on.

“No buts,” she said. “You’re welcome to go to our reunion but I refuse.”

“Mel, I don’t think you’re grasping the big picture here.”

“Oh, I’m grasping it and I’m tossing it away.”

“But look at us,” Angie said. She swung her arms wide to encompass the kitchen and beyond. “We’re hugely successful. We have franchises all over the country. That gives us a moral imperative to show up at our reunion.”

“No.”

“Mel, I know there were some people who hurt your feelings back in the day—“

“Hurt my feelings?” Mel straightened up. She grabbed a pinch of heart shaped sprinkles and didn’t sprinkle them so much as threw them onto the freshly piped frosting. She stared at her friend. “Angie, they called me ‘Melephant,’ they bullied me about my weight, and Cassidy Havers, in particular, wrote my name in all of the boys’ bathrooms with my phone number. She was vicious and mean and cruel and if I never see her again, it will be too soon.”

“She’s Cassidy Havers-Griffin now,” Angie said.

“Griffin?”

“Yes, as in Daniel Griffin.”

“She married Danny?” Mel asked. She felt her old high school crush spread its wings and rise out of the ashes of her adolescent heart like a phoenix. “When?”

“A couple of years ago,” Angie said. “I think you were in Paris at culinary school at the time.”

“And you didn’t mention it?”

Angie just looked at her and Mel nodded. Yeah, she wouldn’t have told Angie if her high school crush had gotten married either. Oh, wait, her crush had been Tate Harper and he had gotten married six months ago. To Angie.

“But you’re going to marry Joe,” Angie said. “And you had a much deeper and longer lasting crush on Joe than on Danny, right?”

“Well, of course, but I can’t believe he married her,” Mel said. She shuddered. “I mean he was captain of the basketball team and totally out of my league in high school, and she was the homecoming queen so I guess it makes sense, but I always hoped he’d meet someone…”

Mel’s voice trailed off. She was not going to say it out loud.

“More like you?” Angie guessed.

This was the problem with besties, they knew you too well.

“No, not like me,” Mel said. She felt the need to protest even though they both knew she was full of it. “But someone more like me than her.”

“Uh huh,” Angie said. She lowered her head and glanced at Mel through her eyelashes. “I can’t believe you’re going to let Cassidy Havers keep you from our reunion.”

“Don’t even try it,” Mel said. “You can’t manipulate me into going. You’re not that good.”

“But what about the commission?” Angie asked. “Five hundred cupcakes with little fifteens on them and we can do them in the school colors of gold and black. They will look so cool and we can use them on our website for advertising and get even more reunion jobs.”

“Nope,” Mel said. “I’m not interested.” She frosted several more cupcakes and added the sprinkles. Angie didn’t move. She just stood there, glaring. Mel knew she was formulating her argument to get Mel on her side. It was never going to happen. Not only because Angie didn’t have her older brother Joe DeLaura’s lawyerly gifts but also because Mel would not be budged on this. She had less-than-no interest in seeing anyone from her graduating class. Ever.

“So, the idea of strutting into our reunion, looking amazing, as a successful business owner and renowned pastry chef doesn’t appeal to you in the least?” Angie asked.

“Not even a little,” Mel said. “I could not care less what those people think.”

“And the thought of sashaying into the room on prominent assistant county attorney Joe DeLaura’s arm, while flashing that dazzling sparkler of a ring he gave you, does nothing for you either?” Angie asked.

“Not a thing,” Mel said. “I’m thrilled to be engaged to Joe but he’s not a trophy husband.”

“You sure about that?” Angie asked. “Because I’m pretty sure every woman in our high school, including a few of the teachers, had a thing for Joe.”

It was true, Mel had to concede that, but she wasn’t about to say it out loud or Angie would have her at the reunion so fast her cupcakes would have whiplash.

“I’m sure Joe would be flattered to hear that,” she said.

She hefted one large tray of cupcakes onto her shoulder and carried it to the walk-in cooler for delivery tomorrow morning. When she came back out, she noted that Angie had her chin set in a defiant tilt. Oh, boy, she wasn’t going to let it go. Mel lifted the second tray and carried that one into the cooler as well.

There was no avoiding Angie as Mel began to clean the steel work table. Cupcakes were a gloriously messy business. She glanced down at her apron to find some dollops of frosting stuck on the front. She smiled.

Despite what she’d said to Angie, she was thrilled with how successful their enterprise Fairy Tale Cupcakes had become and would have loved to brag about it. When she had started the business with her two childhood best friends, Angie DeLaura, now Harper, and Tate Harper, a few years ago, she had never envisioned the level of success they had achieved. She knew a lot of it was because of Tate’s brilliant business acumen, but she didn’t think he could have made them a success if the product she toiled over, the cupcakes, wasn’t top notch.

“You realize you’re forcing me to go there,” Angie said.

“Go where?”

Angie blew out a breath. “Mel, don’t you want to show off you?”

Mel tipped her head to the side. She felt like dog hearing a high pitched whistle. “Come again?”

“You. Look at you,” Angie demanded.

Mel glanced down. She noted the hot pink apron, the frosting blobs. Oh, there was a sprinkle stuck in a glob. She flicked it off into the garbage. Beneath the apron, she was the same old Mel in denim Capris, slip on Vans in the chevron pattern and a plain blue T-shirt. Sexy, she was not. Comfortable, she most definitely was.

“I’m not seeing where you’re going with this,” she said. She gestured to her ensemble. “This is not exactly show off worthy.”

“Yes, it is. Mel, this is your chance to show them what you look like now,” Angie said. Her voice was soft as if she was trying to say it in a way that wouldn’t offend Mel. Sadly, there was no way to say it without offense.

“You mean I should go to the reunion because I’m thinner than I was back then,” Mel said. Her voice as tight. “I should hold my head high, wearing my size six, sometimes eight, and trot around the room, letting everyone have a good look at the new and improved Melanie Cooper? Is that where you’re going with this?”

Angie shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Aw, come on, don’t be bashful. You opened this can of worms,” Mel said. “What do you think will happen if I do that?”

“You’ll have the last laugh,” Angie cried. There was a fierce light in her brown eyes. “You’ll arrive a hugely successful pastry chef, about to marry a gorgeous district attorney, and you will positively stun them with how beautiful you are.”

They stood staring at each other. Mel gave her friend a small smile. “I love that you see it playing out that way. You really are such an idealistic optimist. Here’s the problem. That’s never going to happen.”

The kitchen doors banged open and Marty Zelaznik, the bakery’s octogenarian counter help, stood there with his scrawny arms on his hips and his bald head glowing like a beacon.

“Hey, Ange, how about a little help out there? The lunch rush came and you vamoosed. I’ve got people lined up to the door,” he said. He looked at Mel. “Wouldn’t kill you to come out and help either.”

“Fine,” Mel said. She walked around the table to follow him back into the bakery.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Angie said. She was hot on Mel’s heels. “We’re not done here.”

“Yes, we are.”

“Walk and talk, people,” Marty barked. “We have customers waiting.”

They pushed through the swinging doors and sure enough, there was a line now going out the door. Most were calmly waiting but a few of them looked irritated. Never a good thing.

“Hi, how can I help you?” Mel asked the first person in line.

“I need a dozen cupcakes,” the woman said. She was twenty-something, dressed in a pale green suit, which brought out the red in her blonde hair. “But I don’t know what kind to get. I’m meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time and I’m terrified. Cupcakes will help, right?”

“Absolutely,” Mel said. “If his parents don’t appreciate a dozen cupcakes from us, then you’re far too good for them.”

The girl laughed and Mel guided her in picking out a solid dozen with a dairy and gluten option thrown in just in case there were some dietary intolerance issues. Then it was on to the next customer and the next. The business did not stop Angie from badgering her about the reunion, however.

“We could rent a limo,” Angie said while boxing up an order.

“No.”

Mel tried to avoid the discussion but Angie was persistent.

“How about we get mean Christine to do our hair and makeup?” Angie asked while Mel rang up a customer. “She always makes us look amazing.”

“No.”

“Oh, I’ve been to Christine’s,” the customer said. “She can roll back the years like nobody’s business.”

Mel shoved the box of cupcakes at the woman who lifted her eyebrows, took the box and left.

“Angie, I am not going,” Mel said. “I don’t know how many ways I can say this to make you understand.”

“You’re just being difficult,” Angie said. She crossed her arms over her chest with such a look of immovability she could have sprouted roots.

“No, I’m not,” Mel protested. “You can go with Tate. You don’t need me there.

“Yes, I do,” Angie cried. “You’re my best friend, besides our whole business is successful because of you. We need to be there together to represent.”

“‘You know, even though I had to wear that stupid back brace and you were kind of fat, we were still totally cutting edge,’” Mel said.

“Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” Angie identified the movie quote. It was a long time game between them as movie lovers to stump each other with movie quotes. “I have been waiting for you to bust that out since I mentioned the reunion.”

“What reunion?” Olivia Puckett, Marty’s squeeze, asked as she entered the bakery, which had finally cleared out.

“Our fifteen-year high school reunion,” Mel said.

“Fifteen?” Olivia looked them up and down. “I’d have thought you were on twenty by now.”

Angie emitted a low growl from her throat. Mel instinctively stepped in front of her to block her from Olivia.

“Why are you here?” Mel asked Olivia with narrowed eyes.

“I’m taking my honey out for a late lunch,” Olivia said. She blew a kiss at Marty and he leapt into the air, pretending to catch it. Mel hope he didn’t slip a hip with that maneuver.

“Gagging,” Angie said. “I’m actually gagging.”

Olivia gave her a dark look. “What’s the matter, short stack? Is the bloom off your newly wedded rose?”

This time Mel wrapped an arm around Angie’s head and pulled her in close. She supposed it could technically be called a headlock, but it prevented Angie’s wildly swinging fist from connecting with Olivia’s nose so Mel figured it was for the greater good.

“Now, Liv, be nice,” Marty said. “Mel is having issues because she’s too chicken – bock bock -- to face her old classmates at her reunion.”

Mel dropped her arm and Angie careened forward. Olivia side stepped behind a table just in time.

“I am not chicken!” Mel protested.

That brought Angie up short and she whirled around to look at Mel as if she could not be serious. “Yes, you are! Otherwise, why don’t you want to go? Brittany Nilsson is coordinating the whole thing and she says just about everyone has RSVP’d a yes. She was so excited about your cupcakes.”

“Like I care what Brittany Nilsson thinks of my cupcakes,” Mel scoffed. “I have no reason to go. I don’t care about high school or any of those lame people. I kept in touch with the people who were my friends and that’s all that matters.”

“That’s me and Tate,” Angie said. She held up two fingers.

“Exactly,” Mel said. “Why do I need anyone else?”

Olivia glanced back and forth between them like she was watching a ping pong match.

“You’re talking about turning down a job for five hundred cupcakes!” Angie raised her hands in the air as if she had hit her exasperation breaking point. “Most of these people we graduated with are local or still have family here. The potential for more business from this reunion is huge.”

“I don’t care,” Mel said. “I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to see any of those people ever again.”

“You’re just being stubborn,” Angie said.

“No I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Well, I’m going to lunch,” Marty said. “Liv, you ready?”

Mel glanced at Olivia who was suddenly quiet. She had her back to them and was whispering into her phone. Mel stepped closer so she could hear.

“Yes, I’m the owner of Confections Bakery. I hear you need five hundred cupcakes,” Olivia whispered.

Angie’s eyes went wide. She waved her arms like she was indicating that the bridge was out. “Now see what you’ve done, Olivia is going to scoop our job.”

“Not on my watch,” Mel said. She stepped around Olivia and snatched the phone out of her hand. “Hello?”

“Hi, Ms. Puckett? Is everything all right?”
 “There’s no Ms. Puckett here,” Mel said. “This is Melanie Cooper, owner of Fairy Tale Cupcakes.”

“Oh, my god! Mel! Hi, this is Brittany Nilsson, remember me?”

Mel closed her eyes. It was impossible not to remember Brittany. She was the most school spirited person Mel had ever known. Short, stout, and with a walk that was militarily precise, she chanted peppy slogans that sounded more like orders being barked. On spirit week, she positively ruled school color day, crazy hair day, dress like twins day, she was in two words: too much.

“Hi, Brittany,” Mel said. “Of course I remember you.”

Olivia made to snatch her phone back but Mel turned away from her. She heard a grunt and an oomph and guessed that Angie had blocked another attempt.

“So, Angie, tells me you’re quite the culinary wizard, so here’s what I’m thinking, five hundred cupcakes with little glittery fifteens on them,” she said. “And could you make a variety of flavors? Chocolate cake with vanilla icing is so two thousand ten.”

Mel glanced over her shoulder. Marty and Angie had each hooked one of Olivia’s arms, holding her back. The light in her eyes was fierce, and Mel realized she could give this huge order to Olivia and walk away but, no, she couldn’t. They’d been baking rivals ever since the day Mel had opened her shop and even though Olivia was dating Marty, it hadn’t changed one bit. Mel would be frosted by her own pastry bag before she’d willingly give Olivia her business.

“That sounds great, Brittany,” Mel said. “I’ll email you an invoice.”

“Fantas—”

She hit end on the call and tossed the phone back to Olivia, who yanked her arms free and caught it. Mel then glanced at Angie. “You win. We’re going and we’re making the cupcakes.”

“Yay!” Angie jumped up and down and clapped. Then she turned to Olivia and the two women exchanged a high five. “Nice work, Puckett.”

“Thank you,” Olivia said.

“What?” Mel snapped. “This was a set up? You two set me up?”

Olivia shrugged. “Sometimes you just need a hard shove to the back to do the right thing. Come on, handsome, I’m so hungry I could eat a bear.”

“Right behind you,” Marty said. He glanced at Mel. “For the record, I had no idea about any of this.”

Mel turned to Angie. “Oh, the betrayal! How could you?”

“How could I not?” Angie asked. “Mel, it’s our fifteen-year high school reunion and we’re getting paid a fortune to show up and show off. Honestly, if you hadn’t caved in under the Olivia competition maneuver, I was planning to clunk you on the head and drag you to the reunion bound and gagged if I had to.”

“You’re mental.” Mel shook her head. “This is really that important to you?”

“Yes.” Angie studied Mel’s face and added, “Cheer up, this is a huge event and we are going to rock it. I mean it’s been fifteen years since we’ve seen any of those people, what could possibly go wrong?”