Read The Bake-Off Online

Authors: Beth Kendrick

The Bake-Off (10 page)

“But I'm good at my job.” Linnie tried not to plead. “I don't make mistakes.”
“When it comes to shuffling and dealing, you are absolutely on point,” Chip agreed. “But the girls who do well in this room tend to have a little swagger.”
“I'll try harder,” Linnie vowed. “I'll swagger.”
Janice gave her another fortifying hand squeeze. “Swagger's not something you can force. And I don't want you to take any of this the wrong way. You're a good employee, and you're a classic beauty. You just come off as a tiny little bit, uh—”
“Cold,” Chip muttered.
“Intimidating.” Janice frowned at him. “I know you're scheduled to start a week's vacation tomorrow. Tell you what. Just take tonight off, too.”
“Take as long as you need,” Chip offered. “There's no rush, no rush at all.”
This is where I'm supposed to quit gracefully so they don't have to fire me for being a socially stunted ice queen.
But Linnie couldn't do it. She needed this job. This was her only source of income, and now she was in debt.
So she clenched her molars together and thanked them for demoting her with a smile on her face.
“Linnie?” Janice looked alarmed. “You okay?”
“Fine, thank you.”
“That's all,” Chip said, turning his attention back to his paperwork. “You can go home now.”
So she did. She drove her crappy little car back to her crappy little apartment, unlaced her polyester corset and changed into one of her shapeless gray outfits. Then she went to the grocery store, spent the remaining cash in her wallet on butter, sugar, flour, and eggs, and devoted the rest of the night to making piecrusts.
Since she didn't own a food processor, she did it old-school: using a fork to score the cold butter into pea-size spheres. She considered experimenting by adding a few drops of chilled lemon juice, buttermilk, or even vinegar along with the sour cream to help break down the gluten proteins and enhance the buttery flavor, but ultimately she was too afraid and overwhelmed to deviate from Grammy's original recipe. So instead she focused on finetuning her rolling technique. She baked the crusts empty, without the apple filling. They turned out even better than she had hoped: flaky, light, rich, and golden brown.
As she broke off a piece of crust and let the delicate layers dissolve in her mouth, Linnie pressed her hands to her face and cried, her tears mingling with the sprinkling of flour dusted across her cheeks. Not because the pastry wasn't perfect, but because it was. She had been speaking the truth when she told her supervisors that she didn't make mistakes. But perfection paralyzed her. Perfection, or the illusion thereof, was what had derailed her life in the first place.
Chapter 7

Y
ou're late.” Linnie had an exasperated expression on her face and her watch prominently displayed when Amy pulled up to the airport curb.
“And hello to you, too.” Amy tamped down her annoyance and leaned over to open the passenger-side door. “Is that all your luggage?”
Linnie glanced down at the lone carry-on bag. “Yeah. We're only going to be here for a week. Why? How much did you bring?”
Amy jerked her chin toward the backseat. “I'm doing my part to keep the chiropractors of America in business.”
While Linnie wedged her black suitcase in amid the pile of overstuffed red bags, Amy reflected that her sister looked and behaved like a 1940s pinup with a mood disorder. From a painter's or photographer's perspective, Linnie really didn't have a bad side. She'd been born with thick, silky hair, perfect bone structure, and tilted coffee brown eyes that gleamed with foxlike cunning and intensity. When she and Linnie were children, strangers would stop the family on the street to ooh and aah over the angelic little blonde.
“What a gorgeous child,” cashiers would gush, craning over the counter for a better look at Linnie. Then their gaze would flit over to Amy and their smile would soften. “And you're cute, too, sweetie.”
When Linnie climbed into the front seat, Amy opened up the car's center console to display a veritable vending machine's worth of snacks. “Care for some chips? Cookies? Trail mix?”
Linnie refused the offer with a curt head shake. “You know, you were supposed to be here seventeen minutes ago.”
“Given the traffic on I-95, seventeen minutes late is practically early.” Amy flipped on her turn signal and tore into a bag of Doritos.
“I didn't know what happened to you, if you decided to blow me off or died in a fiery wreck or what,” Linnie continued, her whole body tense. “I tried to call you.”
“You did?” Amy grabbed her cell phone from the car's cup holder and glanced at the screen, which read:
3 missed calls
. “Oops. Sorry. I guess I didn't hear it ring—I had the stereo on pretty loud.”
“Well, being late is really disrespectful, not to mention passive-aggressive. You're effectively conveying the message that your time is more important than mine.”
Amy wrapped her fingers around the steering wheel and squeezed. “The only message I'm conveying is that road construction sucks and the Pretenders sound better cranked up to eleven. There's no psychological power play here. Shit happens, and I'm not even that late. Let's just move on and try to have a good time, okay?”
“Okay.” Linnie buckled her seat belt and lapsed into silence for a moment. Then she drew a deep breath, as if she couldn't help herself. “But punctuality is of utmost importance. This competition has a lot of time limits and—” Her lecture ended on a gasp as Amy floored the accelerator. The SUV leaped away from the curb, spun into a sudden, screeching U-turn across four lanes of traffic, and narrowly missed a collision with a rental car shuttle bus.
Linnie clapped her hands over her mouth, then braced herself against the dashboard and cried, “What are you doing?”
“Going home.” Amy gunned it for the airport exit. “I quit.”
“You can't quit!”
“Sure I can. Watch me.” The car screeched to a halt as Amy braked for a yield sign. She turned to her sister with one eyebrow raised. “I'll drop you at the hotel, and then you're on your own.
Smacznego
, baby.”
“Slow down!” Linnie cried as Amy merged into traffic. “You're out of control.”
“Oh, how I wish that were true,” Amy countered. “But actually, I have spent the last few years of my life being completely reasonable and responsible: ‘Put on sunscreen, send your mother a birthday card, eat your vegetables, don't forget to floss.' This week is my vacation, and I will not have you badgering me and giving me agita over seventeen stupid minutes.”
“But this bake-off is—”
“Exactly that. It's a
bake-off
,” Amy said. “Put it in perspective, Linnie: It's just fucking pie.”
Linnie slumped back into her seat. “Not to me.”
Amy kept one eye on the road and the other on her sister. “Is this about the money? Because I'll write you a check right now if it'll get me out of this. How much do you need? Two thousand? Five?”
“Forty.”
Amy choked. “I'm sorry. Could you repeat that? I thought you said you need forty thousand dollars.”
Linnie nibbled her lip, calculating internally. “Well, probably more like forty-five once all is said and done.”
Amy whistled long and low. “Vasylina Bialek, what did you get yourself into?”
Linnie sighed. “Just come and do this with me, okay? Please. I'll stop badgering you.” She paused, then amended that to, “I'll
try
to stop badgering you.”
The smart, sensible side of Amy knew this was the time to get tough, cut her losses, and leave Linnie in the rearview mirror. But her sappy, sentimental side had summoned up an absurdly misguided sense of protectiveness. “Fine.
Fine
. But remember, we're supposed to be a team. Cut me a little slack, and I'll do the same for you.”
“I don't need slack.” Linnie straightened up, straining against her seat belt. “I'm never late.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “For anything? Ever? In life?”
“It's one of my rules.”
“You sure have a lot of rules.”
“What can I say? I respond well to structure.”
Amy adjusted the heater vent and bit into a nacho chip. “Do you mind if I turn the Pretenders back on? Or do you have a rule against new-wave music, too?”
“Is it going to be too loud to talk?”
“Yep.”
“Then by all means, rock on.”
 

G
ood afternoon. Welcome to the Hotel McMillan.” A willowy, well-coiffed hotel receptionist smiled expectantly. The little brass pin on the lapel of her maroon blazer identified her as Michelle. “How may I help you today?”
Amy cleared her throat, the sound echoing through the high-ceilinged, marble-tiled lobby. “Hi, I'm with the Delicious Duet Dessert Championship and I have a room reservation through the weekend. Should be under Amy Nichols.”
“I've got a reservation, too,” Linnie piped up from over Amy's shoulder. “Vasylina Bialek. That's V-A-S-Y-L—”
“Wait your turn,” Amy admonished.
Michelle remained perky and attentive, but didn't make any move to enter the information into her computer. She just upped the wattage of her smile and announced, “Well, ladies, I have good news and bad news.”
Amy glanced back at her sister. “Uh-oh.”
“The bad news is, the hotel has been inadventently overbooked for the duration of the bake-off and we've run out of rooms. But the good news is, we've arranged for our overflow guests to stay a few blocks away at the Hilton. We're going to supply a courtesy shuttle to get you back and forth. Plus, we'll provide you with a hundred-dollar voucher for our hotel restaurant, and—”
“Unacceptable,” Linnie said. Her breathing had accelerated, and she was digging her fingernails into the nape of her neck.
“Stop scratching,” Amy whispered.
Linnie dropped her hand, but continued hyperventilating. “Staying in this hotel is absolutely imperative,” she told the clerk. “I need to be able to monitor the humidity and air temperature on the mezzanine levels at precise intervals over the next few days and nights. We've got perfect piecrust on the line here.”
“Hmm. Let me see what I can do. Give me just one second.” Michelle tapped at her keyboard. “Are you two together?”
“No,” Amy said, just as Linnie said, “Yes.”
“Well, it appears that we do have one last vacancy, up in the South Tower. I'm really not supposed to put Delicious Duet registrants up there, but I suppose, if you don't mind bunking in together—”
“I mind,” Amy said.
“It's a suite,” the clerk continued. “Normally goes for twenty-two hundred dollars a night.”
“We'll take it,” Linnie said.
“Hold on a second,” Amy interrupted. She addressed the clerk. “Does this suite have two bedrooms?”
“Only one, I'm afraid. And one bed. But it's king-size, with the special linen package we use for our luxury suites: featherbed mattress topper, eiderdown duvet, Egyptian cotton sheets, Belgian chocolates every night with turndown. . . .”
“We'll take it,” Amy relented.
“And if you prefer separate sleeping quarters, there is a large sofa in the sitting room,” the clerk said.
“Works for me.” Amy jerked her thumb toward Linnie. “She'll be on the sofa.”
“Very well. You're all set.” Michelle handed Amy a small stack of paperwork. “You'll want to use that elevator right over there. Just slip your room key into the slot above the elevator keypad to access the tower floors.”
Amy gathered up two of her suitcases, left the rest for the bellhop, and led the way across the lobby. She assumed that Linnie was right behind her until she heard a muffled thump and a surprised “Oof!”
She turned around to see Linnie struggling to disentangle herself from the long, slender straps of a gym bag carried by a tiny young woman with biceps that would make Madonna jealous.
“Oh gosh, I'm so sorry!” exclaimed the deep-dimpled petite powerhouse, who sported a sassy dark brown shag haircut, tightfitting workout gear, and diamond stud earrings. “I was gawking up at that huge chandelier, and I didn't even see you. What a klutz! Here, let me help you.”
“I'm fine.” Linnie pulled away with a frown, her tone positively glacial. Amy shot her a questioning glance.
“Holy cow, are you okay?” A tall, lanky man with wire-rimmed glasses and a wide, earnest face appeared on the other side of Linnie.
“It's my fault,” the woman told him, all the while trying to brush off Linnie's coat. “I walked right into her.”
“Sugar plum, you have
got
to watch where you're going,” the man said. Then he turned back to Linnie. “You sure you're all right?”
“I'm fine.” Linnie yanked at her coat lapel and backed away from the couple. Amy felt alternately outraged and embarrassed by her sister's rudeness. Because Linnie had grown up so sheltered and isolated from her peers, the Bialek family overlooked a whole lot of what might tactfully be termed “eccentricity.” But there was no excuse for this kind of behavior.
“She's fine.” Amy inserted herself between Linnie and the well-meaning couple. “She's just had a very long flight.”
“Hey, are you guys here with the Delicious Duet competition?” the man asked.
“Yes, we are.” Amy extended her right hand. “I'm Amy Nichols and this is my sister, Linnie Bialek.”

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