Jenn McKinlay

New York Times Bestselling Author

Vanilla Beaned

Chapter One
“Viva Las Vegas!” Tate Harper sang at top volume. Then he did some sort of shimmy shake thing that Melanie Cooper was sure was supposed to look like a suave, swivelly hipped Elvis but more resembled a person suffering electrocution.
“Viva, Viva Las Vegas!” Angie DeLaura slid across the bakery floor, bumping hips with Tate while they sang together.
Mel was behind the counter loading the display case with vanilla cupcakes and ignoring them, well, trying to ignore them. Her two best friends in the whole wide world were making complete jackasses out of themselves so it was pretty hard to remain indifferent.
“What? Now we’re offering cupcakes and a show?” Marty Zelaznik asked. He’d entered from the kitchen and stood beside Mel while he tied on his apron.
Marty was the main counter person for Fairy Tale Cupcakes, the bakery that Mel owned with Tate and Angie. He was a bald, shriveled up prune of a man, but the older ladies loved to baby him and he had a special charm with the young ones as well. To Mel, he was as integral to the success of the bakery as the flour in her cupcakes.
“They’re a little overexcited about our upcoming road trip,” Mel said.
“So, you’re really going?” Marty asked. He kept his voice low as if he didn’t want Tate and Angie to hear him, although Mel was sure there was no way they could over the racket they were making.
“Yup,” she said.
“You know you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” Marty said.
“Yes, I do,” she said. She put the last cupcake in the display and closed the back of the case. “We are three equal partners in this venture, and they want to franchise.”
She tried to keep her voice neutral but she couldn’t help it if the word “franchise” came out sounding more like “black death”.
“So what if they do?” Marty asked. “You’re the master chef, the creative genius behind every flavor; I think that gives you extra say.”
Mel reached over and squeezed his hand. “It’ll be o—“
Whatever she’d been about to say was interrupted by the front door being yanked open with an enthusiasm that did not ring of joy.
“Vegas? As in Las Vegas? Oh, hell, no!”
Tate and Angie stopped singing and their sick dance moves tumbled to a halt.
“Liv!” Marty goggled at the woman on the other side of the shop. “What are you doing here? You know we have an agreement. Neither of us sets foot in the other one’s bakery.”
“Oh, sugar lips, relax,” Olivia Puckett said. She waved a hand at him as if he was being silly.
Marty’s bald head turned an embarrassed shade of fire engine red at the endearment and his bushy silver eyebrows rose so high he almost had a hairline.
He opened his mouth to speak but Mel got there first, mostly so that Angie would not feel behooved to tackle Olivia to the ground and drag her out of their shop by her feet. Olivia Puckett tended to bring out that sort of emotion in Angie, primarily because Olivia owned a rival bakery but also because she was dating Marty, a relationship of which Angie had never approved.
“How can I help you, Puckett?” Mel asked.
Olivia’s gray corkscrew curls popped out of the topknot on her head as she strode forward.
“I saw a social media update that somebody is opening a franchise in Vegas, is this true?” Olivia demanded.
She stood across the display case from Mel in her blue chef’s coat looking like she wanted some dough to knead, or more accurately some butt to kick. Mel glanced at Marty, and he shook his head. She turned back to Tate and Angie and glared. Tate gave her a sheepish shrug.
“Just promoting the business,” he said.
“What if it is true?” Angie asked. “What are you going to do about it?”
She turned and strode toward Olivia, looking like she was getting ready to do some damage. To Olivia’s credit, she didn’t even flinch, which was saying something since the two of them had tussled before.
Tate deftly slid in between Angie and Olivia and looped his arm around Angie’s shoulders, anchoring her to his side. He met Mel’s gaze over Angie’s head and gave her a bug-eyed look that she interpreted to mean he wanted her to take the discussion elsewhere.
Right, because Olivia was about as easy to move as a three day old cupcakes at full price. Feeling cranky about the Vegas sitch, she opted to go on the offensive instead.
“Maybe we are franchising. What’s it to you?”
Tate’s eyes almost popped out of his head while Marty clapped his hands onto his bald dome as if he had just witnessed a car crash and had no idea what to do.
“I’ll tell you what’s it to me, Princess,” Olivia snarled. “With a tasty knuckle sandwich.”
She began to roll up her sleeves. Mel stepped around the counter. She was feeling just ornery enough to welcome a scuffle. She and Olivia started to circle one another like two boxers squaring off in a ring.
“I can serve up a pretty mean five across the lip when I want to,” Mel said. She hoped she was the only one who heard the lack of confidence in her voice. Truth to be told, when upset, she was more of a snacker than a fighter.
“Code Blue,” Tate said to Marty.
“What?” Marty squawked.
“Code Blue!” Tate yelled. The veins in his neck began to swell and Mel wondered how much pressure he was exerting to keep Angie in place. “We talked about this; this is a Code Blue situation!”
“I can’t remember what Code Blue means?” Marty cried.
“Think!” Tate growled.
Marty’s face puckered up with the effort. Then he broke into a smile. “Oh, yeah!”
With a smooth move the likes of which was only seen in Fred Astaire movies, he hopped onto the counter, spun around and slid over the top of it, dropping to his feet right in front of Olivia.
She looked surprised and then went to push him aside, but Marty wasn’t having it.
“No, Liv,” Marty said. “We need to talk.”
Olivia made a face like she’d just tasted something sour.
“You don’t want me to pound your boss,” she said. She sounded put out about the whole thing and Mel felt behooved to protest.
“Who says you’re going to pound me? I could take you,” Mel said. She lifted her arm and flexed her muscle. It sagged and she hastily put her arm down.
“This thing between you and me,” Marty said. He pointed from him to her and back. “We need to make it official.”
Olivia blinked. Her mouth trembled and her eyes got watery with tears. “Oh, Martin, I don’t know what to say.”
“That’s right,” he said. He puffed out his chest as if he was quite proud of himself for coming to this place in life. “I think it’s time you became my girlfriend.”
Olivia’s face fell. “What?”
“That’s right,” he said. “I want to formally make you my main squeeze.”
Olivia plopped her hands on her hips and glared. “So what, I get a dresser drawer in your bedroom of my very own now? Is that the elevated status you’re offering me?”
“I thought you’d be happy,” he said. “You’re always asking me where this is going. I figured we could make our coupleness official-like.”
“Official-like? What does that even mean? We’ve been dating for over six months. I thought I already was your girlfriend,” she said.
“Oh,” Marty said. He cast Tate a worried look, who helped him out with a cringe and a shrug.
“Martin Zelaznik, you’re about as romantic as a case of beer,” Olivia snapped.
“Hey, beer can be very romantic!” Marty argued.
“To a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal,” Olivia shouted.
“She has a point,” Angie said. “Six months is a long time for a woman to go undefined.”
“That’s true,” Mel said. “You really can’t string a girl along like that.”
Marty looked outraged. “What? You’re on her side now?”
Mel and Angie exchanged a look of understanding with Olivia. Then they nodded.
“Well, if that don’t beat all,” Marty exploded. He glowered at Olivia. “Fine, if you’re looking for more from me then spell it out. What do you want exactly?”
“Living together,” Olivia said. “If we’re a couple, then I want that shriveled up old face to be the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see before I go to bed.”
“Does she even listen to herself speak?” Tate asked Angie.
“Shh,” Angie hissed.
“But…but…but…” Marty stammered.
“I’m giving you one week to decide,” Olivia said. “If you choose not to live together then we’re done, finished, hit the road, Jack, and don’t you talk back no more, no more, no more, no more.”
Mel glanced at Marty while Olivia sang the rest of her ultimatum. He looked like he’d been slapped upside the head with a rolling pin.
Olivia turned and strode to the door. “Oh, and Princess, I hope your Las Vegas franchise blows up in your face but thanks for having my back with him.”
Olivia jerked her thumb at Marty and Mel nodded. She wasn’t sure if she and Olivia had just bonded or not. She suspected not since Olivia was still cursing the possible franchise and calling her “princess” in that singularly scathing way she had.
The door shut behind Olivia and they all turned to look at Marty who slid into one of the bakery booths like he was the melty part of an ice cream cone.
“Live together?” he asked. “As in cohabit 24-7? No walking around in my underwear, drinking milk right out of the carton, or leaving the john door open? This is a nightmare!”
Tate sat across from him and leaned across the table to pat his arm. “Are you going to be all right?”
“This is all your fault,” Marty said. He pointed a bony finger at Tate like he wanted to stick it right in his eye.
“My fault?” Tate asked. “How do you figure?”
“Code Blue,” Marty said. “You had to call Code Blue.”
“There was going to be a smack down,” Tate said. “We agreed that if that ever happened, you would step up and distract Olivia with relationship stuff.”
“Really?” Angie pushed Tate further into the booth and sat down beside him. “When did you two pumpkin heads come up with that plan?”
“About the time Marty and Olivia started their thing,” Tate said. “I knew there would come day when she would come in here and start something. This was our agreed upon plan to, er, redirect her ire.”
“Well, that sure worked out, now didn’t it?” Marty asked. His sarcasm was thick enough to frost cupcakes with. “Now what am I going to do?”
“Looks like you have to make a decision,” Mel said.
“Aw, man,” Marty whined.
“Look, it could be worse,” Angie said. “She could be pressuring you to get married.”
Marty gave her a flat stare.
“Or not,” Angie added before glancing away.
“One week,” Marty moaned. “How am I supposed to figure out the rest of my life in one week?”
“It’ll be okay,” Tate assured him. “We’ll be in Vegas, so you’ll have the whole place to yourself, plenty of time to think things through.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Marty said. “How about I go to Vegas and you stay here.”
“You know I would absolutely take you up on that if it weren’t for the whole franchising thing,” Tate said. Mel thought it spoke well of him that he managed to look so earnest. “I mean we’re going to be so bored what with meetings with the lawyers and the person wanting to buy in and looking at real estate. Really, it’s going to be a total snooze fest. Right, girls?”
“Right,” Angie said. She kicked Mel under the table and Mel added, “Ouch…right.”
One look at Marty’s narrowed gaze and Mel knew he didn’t believe them, not even a little.