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Authors: Jacklyn Brady

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A Sheetcake Named Desire

BOOK: A Sheetcake Named Desire
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PRAISE FOR

A Sheetcake Named Desire

“All the right ingredients . . . Sure to satisfy.”

—B. B. Haywood, national bestselling author
of
Town in a Lobster Stew

 

“A decadent new series with a Big Easy attitude.”

—Paige Shelton, national bestselling
author of
Fruit of all Evil

 

“A mouthwatering new series! Brady’s writing is smooth as fondant, rich as buttercream—the pastry shop’s delectable confections are just icing on the cake for the appealing characters and intriguing mystery.”

—Sheila Connolly, national bestselling
author of
Bitter Harvest

 

“A delicious blend of deception, danger . . . and dessert.”

—Dorothy St. James, author of
the White House Gardener Mysteries

 

“Jacklyn Brady whips up a delectable mystery layered with great characters and sprinkled with clever plot twists.”

—Hannah Reed, author of the Queen Bee Mysteries

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

 

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

 

A SHEETCAKE NAMED DESIRE

 

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

 

PRINTING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / August 2011

 

Copyright © 2011 by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

 

ISBN : 978-1-101-51714-7

 

BERKLEY
®
PRIME CRIME

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

BERKLEY
®
PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

 

 

http://us.penguingroup.com

For Lorelei

One

The Mississippi riverboat cake tilted on the table in front of me, its fondant paddle wheel askew, gashes of lemony yellow cake gaping in its once-smooth white surface. In all the years I’ve been working as a cake artist, this was the worst disaster I’d ever seen. Repairing the badly damaged threefoot cake would have been a daunting task under ideal conditions. In my current situation, the job was almost overwhelming.

Trickles of nervous perspiration snaked down my back as I studied the wreck from every angle. I could feel the staff of Zydeco Cakes watching me intently as I sorted through possible ways to proceed.

First priority: stay calm. Not easy under the circumstances. The stakes were as high as they got in the world of professional cake decorating. The cake was due in less than three hours at the grand opening of a new riverboat cruise line, for folks with money and influence. Failure to deliver on time would have a far-reaching impact on Zydeco’s reputation. For a cake artist, reputation is every bit as important as talent.

The staff at Zydeco had already suffered a blow today. I couldn’t let them down again.

The air conditioner was cranked up to keep the work area cool, but the intense heat and humidity of New Orleans in July still managed to creep into the building somehow. The undercurrents of tension that ebbed and flowed through the room didn’t help me keep my cool either.

My name is Rita Lucero, and I’m a trained cake artist, a graduate of the French Pastry School in Chicago. Currently wasting my fancy training by working as sous chef in my uncle Nestor’s Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque. So what was I doing sweating over a cake in New Orleans?

It was the same pending divorce that had left me chopping onions by the bushel that had brought me to the Crescent City for a few days. But now, instead of getting my ex’s signature on our divorce settlement, I was standing in his bakery, shaking the dust off my cake decorating skills.

Taking a deep breath to calm my nerves, I closed my eyes and counted to ten—a trick my aunt Yolanda had taught me when I was thirteen and angry with the world. It didn’t always work, but I hadn’t given up trying. I needed to focus, but concentration was hard to find in a room full of tense, anxious people.

When I opened my eyes again, Zydeco’s manager, Edie Bryce, was staring up at me, a deep scowl accentuating her round face and the almond-shaped eyes she’d inherited from a Chinese grandmother. To the uninformed, Edie resembles the stereotypical porcelain doll, but I learned a long time ago not to underestimate her.

“So?” she demanded. “Can you do it or not, Rita?”

“I’m thinking.”

“Think faster! That cake is due for delivery in less than three hours.”

Not helpful. “Nobody’s more aware of the clock than I am,” I assured her. “Just back off a little, okay? Pushing through this too quickly is guaranteed to make things worse.”

Edie’s frown deepened, and impatience flashed in her dark eyes. She muttered something under her breath and turned away, but I knew she’d be back soon. Patience has never been one of her virtues.

I glanced around at the others, some of whom I’d known since pastry school. The rest I’d met just a couple hours earlier, and I was still struggling to remember their names. “We’re going to need buttercream,” I said to no one in particular. “Lots of it.”

 

 

It had all started just two hours earlier, at precisely ten o’clock a.m. It was a Saturday morning in July and already steaming. I’m from New Mexico, so hot I can deal with—but I’m used to dry desert heat, and the humidity here weighed me down even as it made my curls frizz up.

I dragged myself and my duffel bag out of the taxi I’d taken from my hotel near the French Quarter. I’d booked the room back when I thought I’d get in some sightseeing while I was in town. Big laugh. Maybe I should have let Philippe know I was coming, but I’d been afraid he’d put me off. I’d spent the entire day yesterday trying to catch him, and I was back this morning to try again.

Zydeco Cakes—Philippe’s business—occupied a gleaming-white, beautifully renovated antebellum mansion near the Garden District. Philippe couldn’t have picked a more perfect setting for his new business. The surrounding neighborhood was upscale and trendy, the nearby restaurants and boutiques looked eclectic and inviting, and the renovated mansion could have been used on the set of
Gone with the Wind
or
Jezebel
; it looked ready to receive carriages filled with gentlemen planters and hoopskirted belles. Philippe, with his old-money roots, must feel right at home here; I felt dazzled but intimidated and totally self-conscious about being a poor, orphaned Hispanic girl who was out of her element in this town.

Already wilting from the humidity, I let myself inside the building. Photographs of elaborate and elegant cakes adorned the crisp white walls of the foyer, and the familiar scents of chocolate, sugar, lemon, and almond filled the air. An ornate staircase rose to the second floor, its rich dark wood gleaming in the sunlight. So far I’d only seen the reception area, which was pretty incredible. I was dying to get a look at the rest of the building.

Edie Bryce—Zydeco’s business manager—shot to her feet from behind the reception desk when she saw me and stated the obvious. “You’re back.”

With a nod, I lowered the duffel bag to the polished hardwood floor at my feet. “I told you I would be. Could you please let him know I’m here?”

Edie’s eyes narrowed slightly, and she glanced toward the door I’d already deduced must open into my ex-husband’s office. “Philippe? Sorry. You just missed him.”

Hearing Philippe’s name pronounced correctly always gives me a little jolt. It’s Fil-
eep
, not
Fill
-ip. He’s tolerant of folks who don’t get it right (approximately 99 percent of the population), but heaven help the fool who says it wrong in front of his mama. Miss Frankie can take the hair off a dog with one look when someone crosses her. I know. I’ve been the dog a few times.

I’ve known Edie for almost a decade, and she’s not exactly a poker face. She stared at me without blinking, but she had guilt smeared all over her expression. I understood why. She was lying to me.

For the past few months I’d suspected that Edie was running interference between Philippe and me. But he’d called earlier while I was in the shower, so apparently she’d told him that I was in town. He’d left a voice mail on my cell phone asking me to meet him at Zydeco, so I
knew
he was here. The layer of defiance that showed through her expression like chocolate cake through a thin crumb coat of buttercream was harder to understand. Maybe she could tell that I wasn’t being entirely honest with her either.

I’d spent the past two years getting over Philippe and nursing the wounds he’d inflicted when he left. It had taken me a long time to reach this point, and now, just when I was ready to take control of my life, get the divorce finalized, and move on, Philippe had left a message that made me wonder if he wanted to get back together.

I’d played it half a dozen times already, trying to figure out whether I was interpreting it correctly, and I knew it by heart.

Rita? Philippe. Listen, Edie told me that you came by yesterday. Sorry I missed you. Actually, I’m glad you’re in town, babe. We need to talk. I made a mistake when we split up. Probably the biggest mistake of my life. You gotta admit, we were good together. Come by Zydeco this morning. Around ten? I want to talk to you about starting over.

Okay, so he hadn’t actually asked for reconciliation, but he
had
admitted that he’d made a mistake, and those words were like music to my ears. On some soul-deep level I still loved him and probably always would. But the rest of me—the part closer to the surface—hadn’t forgiven him for hurting me. I had no idea which side would win when we met face-to-face. I supposed that would depend on whether he seemed genuinely sorry.

“I can’t believe I missed him again,” I said, serving up a cheerful smile to cover my confusion. Apparently, Philippe hadn’t told Edie that he’d asked me to meet him. I wondered what that meant. “Honestly,” I said, “I have the worst luck. Guess it’s a good thing I came prepared to wait, huh?”

I carried my bag to the nook by the window and settled into an early Victorian chair covered with peach brocade. It was by far the most comfortable chair in the reception area. I knew, because I’d tried them all yesterday. Its location by the window was also the best for a lengthy sit-in thanks to its unobstructed view of the reception area, the staircase, and all the doors leading into it.

Scowling, Edie came out from behind her cluttered U-shaped desk. “Wait a second, Rita. You can’t just
sit
here all day again.” Edie may be short, but she can still look formidable when she tries. I’m sure that’s why Philippe hired her as his manager. After spending time in pastry school with her, I can safely say it wasn’t because of her superior skills in the kitchen.

I dug a bottle of water from the bag at my feet and opened it. “I’m not going to stay here all day. I’ll leave as soon as I’ve talked to Philippe.”

She frowned as she bore down on me. “Look, I gave Philippe your message yesterday. I’m sure he’ll call as soon as he has a break in his schedule.”

“He called this morning, as a matter of fact. That’s why I’m here.”

She stopped in her tracks. “He
called
you?”

I retrieved the paperback novel I’d picked up in the hotel gift shop and settled in. “He did. So don’t mind me. I’m prepared to wait as long as I need to.”

“But I
do
mind,” Edie practically snarled at me. “You can’t just sit here with your water bottle and your . . .
stuff
. We have an image to maintain.”

I met her eyes briefly over the rim of my water bottle, but her expression made me uncomfortable. I looked away and cracked open the book. A breath of cool air wafted down from the overhead ceiling fan, and the air conditioner kept up its steady hum as it worked to keep that big old house comfortable—not an easy task on a day when the temperature had topped 80 before eight in the morning. “Why don’t you just let Philippe know that I’m waiting? I’ll leave as soon as he signs the documents in my bag.”

We’d had this same conversation yesterday, so I didn’t hold out much hope that Edie would do what I asked, but I had to try. I wasn’t going to leave New Orleans without Philippe’s signature on the divorce agreement. Of course, there was a possibility that I’d forget about the signature. I mean, you know, if Philippe really had come to his senses and really wanted me to forgive him and stay in New Orleans. And
maybe
I’d agree. But the chances were slim.

Edie darted an uncertain glance at the door that led into the back of the house. “Philippe is busy. I have strict orders not to disturb him.”

“I don’t mind waiting,” I assured her. In an effort to lighten her mood a little, I grinned and added, “He can’t hide from me forever.”

Instead of smiling at my little joke, Edie ticked her tongue in irritation. “He’s not
hiding
from you. He’s busy.” She thrust out a hand and wiggled her fingers in my face. “Just give me the papers. I’ll get him to sign.”

She was seriously starting to piss me off. She had no idea what was going on between Philippe and me.
I
didn’t even know what was going on between us.

Brushing aside the urge to slap Edie’s hand out of my way, I managed a regretful smile. “I wish I could, but I’ve lost track of the number of phone calls and e-mails he’s ignored in the past two years. He ignored the papers I mailed him six months ago. And the documents I faxed three months ago. And he never returned the agreement my attorney sent him last month.”

Remembering all of that made the warm glow I’d been feeling since I heard Philippe’s voice this morning on the recording cool considerably. “I’m through with go-betweens, Edie. Just give me five minutes with him and I’ll get out of your hair—forever.”

Just then, the door to the inner sanctum opened, and the scent of freshly baked cake grew stronger. I turned toward it eagerly, swooning a little at the smell of warm chocolate but annoyed with my heart for racing with anticipation.

Along with the overload of pleasant aromas came the sound of loud, angry voices and a young blonde woman with wide, blue eyes and a frantic look on her face. “Edie! You have to—” She stopped abruptly when she realized Edie wasn’t sitting at her desk and glanced around helplessly. She spotted us and shot across the room toward us. “Edie. You have to do something. They’re going to kill each other!”

A loud crash reverberated through the bakery, and Edie set off toward the open door. The young woman wheeled around to follow her, and I brought up the rear. What can I say? I’ve always been the curious type, and I’d been dying to get a look at Philippe’s operation.

I stepped through the door and found myself inside a huge open workspace interrupted only by four large support beams. The aromas of citrus and chocolate were even stronger back here, and memories of pastry school filled my head. My stomach growled, and I regretted skipping breakfast, but I didn’t have time to worry about being hungry.

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