Read The Bake-Off Online

Authors: Beth Kendrick

The Bake-Off (4 page)

Over the next three hours, she doubled her money, then tripled it. Her male opponents had long ago acknowledged her superiority and seemed almost honored to lose to her.
“You're good,” said the broad-shouldered Bostonian sporting the gold Rolex. “Are you a professional poker player?”
She stared down at the table, refusing to be distracted. “No. Beginner's luck.”
The redhead with a smattering of freckles across his nose and a Patek Philippe on his wrist asked, “Have you ever watched the World Series of Poker on ESPN? You should enter that. Even if you didn't win, you could be the official spokesmodel.”
This time, she did get distracted. She slouched deeper into her oversize wool jacket, and before she could come up with a response, a tall, dark Adonis reeking of Scotch and cigar smoke lurched into the empty seat next to her and announced his arrival with a long, guttural belch.
“ 'Scuse me.” He pounded his chest and shot the dealer a cocky grin as he tossed down a fistful of five-hundred-dollar chips.
Linnie wrinkled her nose and inched away.
The other guys glanced at one another and exchanged curt nods. “Last time around for me, guys,” the Bostonian announced.
“Yeah,” another agreed. “Let's grab breakfast and go crash.”
Then Linnie saw the opportunity she'd been waiting for all night: Between her hole cards and the community cards lined up in front of the dealer, she had three tens and two twos. A full house. She could tell from the other players' glum expressions that they posed no threat. The boozehound next to her didn't even try to maintain a straight face. He peeked at his hand and cursed loudly, then let loose with another thundering belch.
She did some quick calculations and concluded that, if she went all in on this hand and convinced the other players to bet high as well, she'd win enough money to buy back Grammy Syl's brooch. Unlike many other high-stakes players, she knew when to quit. She wouldn't get reckless or greedy; she'd cash out immediately and head straight to the pawnshop.
After three rounds of betting, she made her move.
“I'm all in.” She pushed her entire stash of chips toward the center of the table.
The members of the yacht club crew pulled back and conceded defeat:
“Guess I'll quit while I'm ahead.”
“Me, too. You've cleaned us out.”
The interloper to Linnie's left slammed down his glass, spattering drops of amber liquid across the tabletop. “Damn, cutie, how much did you just bet there?”
She adjusted the brim of her baseball cap. “Approximately twelve thousand dollars.”
“You got a hand worth twelve grand? For real?” He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “This I gotta see. Call!”
She waited while the dealer turned over her cards, then smiled triumphantly. “Full house.”
“Well, shit, you got me beat. All I got's a pair of twos. I need another drink, stat.”
Linnie stood up to rake in her winnings, but froze when her seatmate's cards were revealed.
The dealer cleared his throat. “Sir, you have four twos.”
“Yeah. Two pairs of twos. So?”
“That's four of a kind, sir,” the dealer said patiently. “You win.”
“Wha'?” The blowhard's bleary-eyed gaze flitted from the cards in front of him to the cards in front of the dealer. “Oh, yeah, I guess you're right. Would you look at that? Four of a kind! Woo! What are the odds?”
“Less than one-fiftieth of one percent!” Linnie cried. “It's statistically impossible.”
Players at neighboring tables started to turn around and take notice as her voice got increasingly shrill.
“Things like this do not happen. Not in real life. Nobody actually wins the lottery or gets hit by lightning or gets four of a kind in a poker hand.” But even as she said this, Linnie had a flashback to one of her professors reciting the cardinal rule of probability theory:
Statistics don't apply to individual cases.
“Ma'am,” said the dealer, “I'm going to have to ask you to settle down.”
Linnie snapped. After hours of holding herself in check, she burst into loud, body-racking sobs.
Five minutes later, she had been hustled outside by a floor manager and banished to the cabstand with a box of tissues. Shivering in the cold night wind, she flipped open her cell phone and reached out to her only remaining source of hope, the woman who always seemed to have an ace up her sleeve.
Grammy Syl answered on the second ring. “Linnie, darling, good morning! I'm so glad to finally hear from you again. How
are
you?”
Linnie opened her mouth to confess everything, but couldn't bear the thought of Grammy's reproach. Her voice dropped to a whisper as she haltingly tried to convey the extent of her plight without revealing that she'd lost the heirloom that had been entrusted to her.
“What's that, darling? I'm afraid you'll have to speak up.”
“It's a long story, Grammy, but basically, I need to make money. A lot of money. The sooner the better.”
“But why?” Grammy sounded alarmed. “What's happened?”
“I can't tell you.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble? Are you sick?”
Linnie closed her eyes, burning with shame. “I can't explain everything right now. But I really need this, Grammy. I'll do anything.”
Her grandmother paused. “Anything?”
Linnie gazed up at the casino's flashing neon marquis. “Anything.”
“In that case,” Grammy said, her voice jubilant, “I have the perfect opportunity for you. Chin up, darling. It's your lucky day.”
Chapter 2

W
hat the heck is ‘maceration,' and is it something I shouldn't be doing in front of young children?” Amy Bialek Nichols glanced up from her cookbook with a quizzical frown.
Her husband, Brandon, looked over from the dinner table, where he was refereeing a french-fry fight between their two-year-old twins, Chloe and Ben. “What the heck is
what
?”
“Maceration. I'm trying to make raspberry-lemon tartlets for the day-care bake sale tomorrow. Everyone says if you can read, you can cook, but apparently my vocabulary isn't expansive enough, because I have no clue what these people are talking about.” Amy tossed down her wooden spoon in frustration, then winced as her adorable, rosy-cheeked son smeared a handful of ketchup through his silky brown curls as though applying sculpting gel at a salon. “Guess it's bath night tonight.”
Chloe immediately attempted her own version of condiment hairstyling, then did her brother one better by using her index finger to rub the bright red sauce around her mouth like lipstick. She blew a noisy kiss to each parent and announced, “Pretty. Like Mama.”
Amy had to turn away to hide her grin while Brandon started in with, “We use forks and spoons when we sit at the table, and we don't play with our food.”
The entire first floor of their suburban Connecticut home was cluttered with stacks of catalogs, half-empty sippy cups, picture books, mangled stuffed chew toys, and bits of gravel and rock salt that the family had tracked in from the blustery November sleet storm in progress outside. The kitchen had been designed to suit a fashion-forward gourmet, with a six-burner stove and sleek Silestone countertops, but the Nichols house would never be
Better Homes and Gardens
material. Tonight, the dining area smelled like wet dog and greasy fast food, and the braided throw rugs and sage sofa in the adjoining family room were dusted with a light sprinkling of pet hair. Amy had once read a magazine article by an organization expert who'd decreed that most people's homes had “hot zones” where debris tended to accumulate, and that these hot zones must be relentlessly targeted in the ongoing battle for physical and psychological serenity. A messy house meant you were losing the war on chaos.
Chaos: 1, Amy: 0.
She had waved the white flag right around the time she found out she was pregnant with twins.
“Why don't you sit down and grab a bite to eat?” Brandon tipped back his chair and snagged a damp dish towel from the countertop. The twins squalled in protest as he began wiping down their faces and hands.
Amy shook her head. “No can do. I've got to get cracking on these tarts if I want to get to bed at a decent hour tonight.”
“Where'd you get the recipe, anyway?” Brandon asked. “I didn't realize we actually owned a cookbook.”
“The kids and I stopped at the bookstore on the way home today, and I found this in the clearance section up by the cash register. When I saw this recipe, I knew I had to try it. Check it out.” She showed him the photo of lemon curd and glazed berries nestled into little golden pastry shells. “Does that not look delectable?”
Brandon cleared his throat. “It does look good. But, honey, it's almost seven thirty.”
“What's your point?”
Chloe's and Ben's whimpers escalated into a high-pitched, no-holds-barred brawl over ownership of the last ketchup packet. Mooch, the family's portly old gray schnauzer, darted under the table to gobble up the remnants from the french-fry fight, then began making ominous hacking noises. Brandon looked ready for a beer.
“My point is, this looks like a pretty big project for somebody who got up at five thirty, hit the gym, spent eight hours charting gum pockets and lecturing about flossing, skipped lunch, and hasn't had a moment's peace since she walked through the front door. Chloe, no spitting. Ben, if you pinch, you're going in time-out.” Amy's husband joined her at the counter and scanned the recipe text. “This is going to take forever, honey. Look at this: While you're macerating the berries, you're supposed to make a crust from scratch.”
Amy shrugged. “How hard can it be to make a piecrust? It's just butter, flour, and water, right? And then you roll it out. Oh crap—do we even have a rolling pin?” She knelt down to rummage through the cabinet. “Didn't we register for one when we got married?”
“We just had our seventh anniversary,” Brandon pointed out. “The fact that you haven't used a rolling pin in seven years should tell you something. Why don't I just run to the store, grab a box of brownie mix, and we'll call it a day?”
“No! Last year I showed up with those flat, pathetic chocolate chip cookies made from premade refrigerated cookie dough. I was disgraced and humiliated.”
When she reemerged from the depths of the cupboard, Brandon gave her a look. “It's a day-care bake sale. Let's keep this in perspective. Bobby Flay's not going to be there.”
“The assistant director threw out the whole batch when she thought I wasn't looking!” Amy covered her eyes at the memory. “She didn't want me to feel bad that no one would cough up a quarter for my ‘fail' cookies. I have to redeem myself. At the very least I should make something from scratch. Banana bread, macaroons, something.”
“Then make banana bread.”
“We don't have any bananas. Besides, I can do this. Just you wait and see.” Amy resumed her hunt for a rolling pin and began to hum with a renewed sense of optimism. As she set the oven temperature and located her measuring cups, she started singing softly to herself.
Brandon leaned in to listen. “Are you macerating your raspberries to the Beastie Boys?”
Amy whirled around, pointed her index finger at Chloe, and belted out, “ ‘No! Sleep! Till Brooklyn!' ” She started headbanging, and both toddlers immediately followed suit.
Brandon shrugged and shook his head. “Ever the rocker chick.”
Not anymore
. Amy smiled ruefully. Ten years ago, she'd been a short-skirted art school grad who'd fancied herself the next Debbie Harry while singing backup for her friends' garage band, the Skinnerists. Though she might not always be the most beautiful girl in the room, she was invariably the life of the party. She'd been aglow from the rush of playing a gig at a university coffeehouse when she first met Brandon, a soft-spoken dental student with a maturity beyond his years who'd been drawn to her spark and boundless energy. “You know how to have
fun
,” he'd said to her with an undertone of awe. He'd waited patiently for her to finish working the room, then asked her out and given her plenty of space to carouse and carry on and dance on bar tops until she finally calmed down enough to commit.
Now she had an SUV littered with granola bar wrappers, a ten p.m. bedtime, and a closet full of blue scrubs that she wore to her job as a hygienist in Brandon's dental practice. But contrary to all the clichés about repressed soccer moms languishing in quiet desperation, Amy reveled in her newfound, grown-up identity. She and Brandon balanced each other out. She still broke out her old leather miniskirts and hand-wash-only lingerie on nights when the kids stayed at their grandmother's house. And though she might never be lead-singer material, she had other talents; she could scrape off the plaque around an exposed tooth root with a dexterity that just couldn't be taught.
And who knew? Maybe baking would turn out to be her hidden gift. She grabbed a sack of flour and shook her booty with abandon. “The secret ingredient is sass.”
But by the time the twins were bathed and in bed, Amy's singing had given way to a muttered litany of curses. Every single mixing bowl in the kitchen was dirty, the raspberries had disintegrated into a runny red soup, and the sodden, sticky blob meant to be piecrust bore a striking resemblance to mucilage. She couldn't make another batch because she was out of sugar, butter, berries, and eggs. Not to mention patience.
According to the recipe, prep time for these tartlets was forty minutes. She glanced up at the digital clock on the microwave. She'd been at this for nearly two and a half hours, and all she had to show for her efforts was an oncoming tension headache.

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