The Diva Frosts a Cupcake (4 page)

BOOK: The Diva Frosts a Cupcake
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A Saab that looked like a station wagon with a hatch in the back rolled into the alley and parked. Spenser stepped out. “I thought you might need a hand getting it up to Renee’s apartment. Sorry to be so late. Traffic was at a standstill.”

Summoning every bit of strength I had, I didn’t mention who had caused the traffic to stop.

Humphrey gladly accepted his offer. The men removed the desk from the car and carried it to the stoop. I opened the back door of the building. The three of us entered a small foyer, which smelled heavenly, thanks to cupcakes that were baking.

Muffin Pruitt emerged in the hallway wearing a cute pink Sugar Baby apron over a white polo shirt and a jean skirt. Black Mary Jane shoes adorned her feet. She looked like an adorable advertisement for happy baking. “Hi! Renee said you’d be coming by.” She opened a door and pointed. “Just take it up the stairs, if you don’t mind. Renee will be so thrilled to have it.”

I led the way up to a small landing that opened into an empty living room with two French doors overlooking the quaint street.

Huffing and puffing, the guys reached the living room and set the desk down. The delicate desk seemed even smaller in the empty room.

Spenser leaned against the wall to catch his breath. Humphrey, not at all used to physical activity, bent over, his hands on his knees.

Spenser choked out, “What happened here? There’s not even a sofa or a TV.”

Humphrey glanced around before whispering, “Joy must have wiped her out.”

His breath coming hard, Spenser asked, “Didn’t she have furniture of her own?”

Humphrey straightened up. “I thought Renee and Joy were good friends. Maybe I should have a word with Joy?”

“Humphrey,” I cautioned, “you probably shouldn’t get involved in someone else’s argument.”

“I disagree, Sophie. Someone should intervene on Renee’s behalf,” said Spenser. “Something isn’t right here.”

“You bet it isn’t,” said Muffin.

I hadn’t heard her feet on the stairs.

“I might look like a little mouse,” she said, “but I’m not one to stand by idly when I see someone wronged.”

She opened the slanted lid of the desk, which folded down into a writing area. Inside, adorable cubbyholes, delicate carved columns, and tiny drawers filled the back wall. “This is beautiful.”

A bell tinkled downstairs.

“Oops. That’s a customer. Just leave the desk against that wall,” she suggested. “Renee can slide it wherever she likes when she comes home.”

The guys still breathed heavily as we left the building.

“Do you think Renee would mind if I left my car here temporarily?” asked Spenser. “I’ll never find another parking space close by with Cupcakes and Pupcakes going on today.”

“Maybe we should do the same,” said Humphrey. “That way, one of us can give Francie a lift home later.”

The mind is a strange place. He couldn’t see that he’d been blocking traffic, yet he had enough foresight to realize that elderly Francie might be too worn out to walk home?

“Fine with me, as long as it’s not towed,” I said.

“I’ll clear it with Renee.” It was an authoritative declaration. Humphrey felt empowered by his relationship with her.

Spenser frowned at him, as though he didn’t quite understand. I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t, either.

I made Humphrey promise he would return to the booth immediately, so Nina wouldn’t stress out. Meanwhile, I went in search of lunch.

People and their dogs packed the streets. A line had formed on the sidewalk outside the little deli where I thought I’d pick up sandwiches, so I wound my way through the throngs on the sidewalks to The Laughing Hound. Bernie, the best man at my wedding to Mars, ran the popular restaurant. None of us ever expected footloose Bernie to settle down in one place, much less manage a successful restaurant, but he had. Bernie’s hair was always disheveled and his nose sported a bump that suggested it had once been broken, yet he exuded a friendly British charm that endeared him to those who knew him.

Located in a tall town house, The Laughing Hound featured dining rooms on several levels. As usual, the place was packed. I waltzed past the hostess and trotted down the few stairs on the right to the bar. Even the cozy lounge area overflowed with customers. Weaving my way through the crowd, I reached the bar, leaned toward a balding bartender I didn’t know, and asked if I could place a take-out order.

“Sure. I don’t have a menu, though.” He handed a customer a glass of white wine and a mug of beer. “It’s been a zoo in here, what with the cupcake-pupcake thing going on.”

“I don’t really need a menu.”

That stopped him in his tracks. He stepped toward me and took a closer look. “Sophie?”

“Yes?” Did I know this guy?

“Bernie said to be on the lookout for you. Be right back.” He disappeared through a swinging door that I happened to know led to the kitchen. In less than a minute, he returned with five take-out boxes that featured The Laughing Hound’s logo on the top. “You’re to try these and let Bernie know what you think.”

I took them from him, wondering what was going on. 
“Okay. What do I owe you?”

He grinned and held up a little note penned in Bernie’s handwriting that said,
On the house
.

“Thank Bernie for me. Why are there five boxes?”

The bartender shrugged. “That’s what Bernie told me, lunch and dessert for five.”

The crowd behind me was growing restless. I thanked him again and made my way up the steps and out the front door, relieved to be outside. How could Bernie have known I would be coming by for take-out lunch?

I walked past people browsing through Old Town with their dogs. Nina’s event had certainly drawn a lot of attention. I was within two feet of the adoption booth when I heard someone scream.

“Stop! Stop that dog!”

All heads turned as a tiny white dog shot between feet, heading for the street. She wore a robin’s-egg blue dress with white polka dots, and a blue sash around her waist. Two tiers of ruffles flounced on her haunches as she made her mad escape.

I tossed the take-out boxes onto the table and stepped into her path. I hunched over, ready to nab her. She veered . . . I lunged . . . fell over . . . and miraculously managed to wrap my arms around a wriggling mass of dog.

The crowd applauded, and someone offered a hand to help me up. I took it and looked up into blue-gray eyes that made my knees weak.

CHAPTER FIVE

Dear Natasha,

Over my vehement objections, my husband and son brought home a puppy—a very hairy puppy. You have a dog. How do you keep your floors clean?

—Tired of Sweeping in Furry, Arkansas

Dear Tired of Sweeping,

You’re cleaning the wrong thing. Buy a pet-grooming attachment for your vacuum and gently vacuum the puppy daily before he can drop fur all over your clean floors.

—Natasha

“Whoa!” He wrapped his other arm around my waist so I wouldn’t fall backward. For a moment it was as though we were in a romantic dance dip. He smiled as he helped me to my feet. Thick, neatly trimmed cocoa brown hair topped a strong forehead, great cheekbones, and a determined chin. Everything about him from the white shirt with a button-down collar that he wore under a casual maroon crew neck sweater to chinos with a crease pressed into them made a dashingly clean-cut impression.

General Euclid German looked on and clapped his hands together. A familiar face around Old Town, the retired general who published a newsletter for military retirees was one of the biggest contributors to Cupcakes and Pupcakes. “Excellent catch!” he said.

I wasn’t sure if he meant me or the gorgeous guy who still held my hand. The silly dog wriggled, forcing me to withdraw my hand and grasp her more tightly.

“Sophie’s a tough one to catch,” said the general. “Are you all right, young lady?”

The cute guy said,
“Sophie?”
softly, and I could hardly breathe. “This is Sophie?” he asked, a tinge of wonder in his voice.

The general slapped him on his back. “Sophie Winston, I would like to introduce you to my nephew, Alex German. Alex is relocating, and I’m trying to talk him into making his home here in Old Town. Looks just like me, doesn’t he?”

The family resemblance was unmistakable. Even though the general was well into his seventies, he stood erect as a twenty-year-old. He had a couple of inches on Alex, but they shared intelligent, kind eyes and a marked jawline. The general appeared fatigued, though, and perhaps a bit sallow. Probably the result of entertaining a younger relative.

“The general has been after me to meet you. I had no idea the old buck had such exceptional taste in women.”

I was savvy enough to know that guys as stunningly good-looking as Alex were flirts, and that he would have said something just as flattering if I had three eyes and elf ears. But that didn’t stop me from being captivated.

I managed to choke out, “Is this your dog?” She licked my cheek, which I imagined was the color of a cayenne pepper. I could feel the heat in my face.

“No, she’s not. But she’s cute, too.”

I tore my eyes away from him long enough to take a better look at the dog. Fluffy white fur covered her head. Toward her ears it turned ever so slightly ivory. Her tiny nose was jet black, and she had darling lively eyes.

“Martha! Martha!”

I recognized
that
voice. I didn’t need to turn around to know Natasha was behind me.

She strode up and stopped next to me looking glamorous in an impeccable knit suit of robin’s-egg blue adorned with pearl buttons set in gold frames. I’d felt svelte in my dark purple T-shirt, which hid the elastic waist on my black jeans, but suddenly they seemed drab and gloomy. Why hadn’t I worn something chic, or at the very least—spring colors?

“Sophie! What are
you
doing with my dog?” she asked.

Daisy lay in the shade under the table, and her head lifted at the sound of Natasha’s voice.

Francie clutched at her throat and staggered backward into Nina. “Dear heaven, tell me I heard that wrong.”

Natasha didn’t bother taking the dog from me. She had spotted Alex. She held out her hand to him and tossed her dark tresses back seductively with a mere shake of her head. “Helloooo,” she sang. “I’m Natasha. I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

Natasha and I had grown up together and competed at everything as kids. Everything except beauty pageants, where she was on her own. She excelled in them, as she did in most things she set her mind to. Unlike me, she was tall and model thin, with dark hair that was always perfectly coiffed. She never tucked her hair up with a big clip to get it out of the way, or left the house without makeup like I had that morning.

When my husband, Mars, and I divorced, Natasha had set up housekeeping with him, and they moved into a house on my block. I had wanted to think that she had nothing to do with the end of my marriage, but some of my friends and family blamed it on her, and as the years went by, I wasn’t so sure myself. Making matters worse, Natasha and I wrote rival domestic advice columns for newspapers.

I had come to terms with her relationship with Mars, sort of. He and I had shared a romantic moment in almost this exact spot not that long ago. The heat in my face welled up again at the mere thought. I’d avoided being alone with him as much as possible since then. It was the chicken’s way out to avoid addressing what had happened, but I was afraid to open that door and see what lurked behind it.

Natasha usually meant well. If only she didn’t think she was always right about everything. I blamed that on her adoring fans, who thought she was perfect because of her local TV show about all things domestic. At the moment, she teetered on five-inch heels, difficult under any circumstances, and impossible on Old Town’s brick sidewalks.

Alex shook her hand. “Alex German.”

“German? Euclid! You never told me you had such a handsome brother.”

Oh, puh-leeze! Why was she buttering him up?

Francie sputtered and hacked at Natasha’s flattery of the elderly man.

In a Southern accent, the general drawled, “You flatter me, Miss Natasha. Alex is my nephew, darlin’.”

She flapped the air with fingers that sported a gleaming French manicure. “I don’t believe it. You must be the baby in your family, sir.” Wrinkling her nose coyly at Alex, she added, “I’m a bit of a local celebrity.”

I didn’t mean to snort.
Really, I didn’t
.

Natasha bristled. “Well, I am! I have a TV show.”

The general beamed at her. “Natasha”—he pronounced her name as though she were a bug, Gnat-ash-a—“will be one of the cupcake bakers at tomorrow night’s feast. What kind of cupcakes can we look forward to, Natasha?”

Tucking her chin in slightly, she said, “I wish I could tell you, but mean old Sophie would have me disqualified.”

The general roared. “I must confess that I am partial to Spenser’s cupcakes at Cake My Day. In fact, I have a standing order there, but I imagine you’ll give him a run for his money, Natasha. I noticed your name wasn’t on the list of bakers, Sophie. Why aren’t you baking cupcakes for the competition?”

“Because I don’t own a bakery.” And I didn’t feel the need to compete with everyone about everything like Gnat-ash-a did. She glared at me. Of course, she didn’t own a bakery, either, but she would never pass up an opportunity to compete.

“It’s a haute cuisine event,” said Natasha.

Although she hadn’t said it explicitly, I knew she meant I wasn’t worthy of baking for it.

Alex stroked the little dog’s head. Her tail waggled back and forth.

“Did you say this is
your
dog?” I asked Natasha. “You hate dogs!” My own dog, Daisy, watched her wicked stepmother from under the table. Natasha didn’t like anything that might shed fur, and unless I missed my guess, this little dog would shed plenty. I had heard no end of complaints about Daisy’s fur. Natasha didn’t have the best record with animals. None of her friends would soon forget the time she’d lost two kittens outdoors on a cold winter night.

Natasha flashed a wild-eyed look my way and checked around to see if anyone had overheard. She responded smoothly, “Now that’s not true. I love sweet little dogs like this. I named her Martha after my idol, Martha Stewart. Isn’t she adorable?”

Martha was the picture of a perfect lapdog. She wriggled impatiently. I held her out to Natasha, who averted her eyes and leaned away.

“She’s from the finest show stock,” said Natasha.

I persisted, practically jamming the dog into her, until Natasha finally took her dog in her arms.

Martha growled. Daisy left her spot under the table to take a better look at Martha.

“I don’t dare tell Mars—” Martha bit down on Natasha’s arm. The muscles in Natasha’s neck tightened, but the smile never left her face. She finished her sentence. “—how much she cost.”

Snarling, Martha gnawed Natasha’s arm through her soft knit sleeve with a vengeance.

“Gahhhhh.” Natasha held Martha out to me. “Take her,” she wheezed.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Martha wanted to make another mad dash. Natasha had managed to buy a high-energy dog. “Do you have a leash?”

“Isn’t she darling? I can carry her around in a purse!” Rivulets of blood running down her wrist, Natasha pulled a leash out of her bag and handed it to me. Blue with white polka dots, it matched Martha’s dress. I snapped it on her and lowered her to the plaza.

Martha ran directly to Daisy and serious sniffing ensued.

“Give me a tissue, please,” hissed Natasha.

The general’s deep voice boomed, “Darlin’, I believe you’d better get that cleaned up. Alex, you don’t mind carryin’ that pup.”

The general offered Natasha his arm and gentlemanly strode her across the plaza toward the street.

Alex lingered. “I presume I’ll see you at the dinner tomorrow night?”

What did he want with me? Gorgeous guys like Alex went out with women like Natasha. “I’ll definitely be there.”

“I’m looking forward to it.” Alex ruffled the fur on Daisy’s head before picking up Martha. His eyes met mine, and he grinned. “She’s not biting
me . . .”
Taking long strides, he followed the general.

Nina scooted over next to me. “Be still, my heart! Some guys have it all. If I were you, I’d grab him.”

“You steered me toward my last boyfriend. Need I remind you what a mess that turned out to be?”

“Who could have foreseen that? Okay, we’ll do a little sleuthing about this guy first. If you can wait that long. Women will be after him like he’s the last cupcake on the plate. Military, don’t you think? He has that same regal posture as the general.” She gazed around. “Where did Humphrey go now? I’m getting a little miffed that he’s spending so much time at Sugar Baby. Not that Renee doesn’t need help, but have you noticed that she keeps asking him to fill in while she runs back to the bakery?”

“No kidding,” said Francie. “This time she sent
him
to the bakery.”

“Sophie, would you go get him? I have to make another run to pick up dogs and cats, but we’re so busy that I’m afraid to leave unless Humphrey’s back to help.”

“Sure.” Lunch on my mind, I hurried back to Sugar Baby. This time I entered through the front door. The walls and countertops of Sugar Baby Cupcakes were frosting pink, which provided a soft contrast to the lovely milk chocolate brown of the hardwood floors and the base of the cupcake display. Five old-fashioned tables with pink Formica tops and adorable brown bentwood chairs upholstered with pink fabric sporting brown polka dots offered places for a cupcake snack.

Humphrey stood behind the counter, holding cash in his hand like he worked there.

“Are you stealing Renee’s money?” I joked.

Humphrey didn’t smile at my question. His brow furrowed, and he said, “I can’t find Muffin.”

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