Read The Bake-Off Online

Authors: Beth Kendrick

The Bake-Off (6 page)

Linnie had started college at fifteen, right on schedule, then shocked everyone by dropping out after one semester. Desperate to see some return on their financial and emotional investment, their parents had tried everything—threats and bribes and begging—to convince Linnie to give school another shot. But nothing could sway Linnie once she'd made up her mind. As soon as she turned eighteen, Linnie moved out of their childhood home and into a series of increasingly depressing apartments and dead-end jobs. She'd recently started dealing blackjack in Vegas, which surprised Amy, given her sister's vocal dislike of drinking, carousing, and the public in general.
These days, instead of shuttling Linnie from private tutors to piano lessons to chess tournaments, Mom and Dad chauffeured a wiry, bossy Irish terrier named Rhodes from the dog park to the holistic veterinarian to competitive obedience trials. They'd relocated from Connecticut to North Carolina so they could be close to Rhodes's trainer, Shawna. (Or so they claimed. Amy was convinced that after years of her parents' bragging about Linnie to all of their friends, the pointed questions about “Whatever happened to your daughter the doctor?” had shamed them into seclusion.) Purebred Irish terriers were rare and expensive, and Rhodes came pedigreed with an impressive bloodline and a formal AKC name: Blarneystone's Rhodes Scholar.
Fortunately, the rare and expensive Rhodes had now been placated to the point that Amy could finally hear her mother on the other end of the phone line.
“We have an announcement.” Mom's voice quavered with anticipation. “Wait till you hear. Pick up the phone, Jim,” she hollered. “It's Amy!”
Two seconds later, Amy's father clicked on. “Hi, sweet pea. I'm so glad you called. Did you tell her yet, Linda?”
“Not yet,” Mom said. “I wanted to wait for you.”
“What's going on?” Amy brightened. “Sounds like good news.”

Great
news,” her father corrected. “Listen, is there any chance you might be able to take a few days of vacation time in May?”
Amy did a quick flip-through of her mental daily planner. “I'm sure we can work something out. What's up? Are you coming up for a visit?”
“Actually, we were hoping you might be able to come down here,” her mother said. “Rhodes is going for his UDX.”
Amy turned her car into the day-care center parking lot. “UDX?”
“It's the canine equivalent of a PhD.” Her father made no effort to conceal his pride. “Only the best and the brightest make it through the testing process.”
“And most of the dogs that do pass are herding and working breeds: Border collies, German shepherds,” her mother added. “Terriers aren't generally considered good candidates.”
“But Rhodes is one in a million,” Dad said.
“One in a billion.” Her mother laughed. “Moving down here to train with Shawna was absolutely the right decision.”
After Rhodes had triumphantly completed his UD title (the canine equivalent of a master's degree) last year, her parents had hosted a family weekend in the little dog's honor, complete with a professional photographer, tearful toasts, and an elaborate boneshaped cake. Grammy, Amy, and Brandon had all put on their Sunday best and played along. Linnie hadn't even bothered to RSVP.
“Well. That sounds pretty exciting. I'll check with Brandon and get back to you,” Amy hedged. “Anyway, Mom, I just called to say—”
“Oh, that's the other line.” Her father's voice went tense. “It's Linnie.”
“Linnie?” Her mother's entire demeanor changed. “We'd better take it.”
“Okay, I'll let you go, but I wanted to say happy birth—”
Click.
Dial tone.
Amy dropped her phone on the dashboard and sat back in her seat for a moment, staring out her windshield at the heavy gray winter sky.
Two decades later, the sting of coming in second still hadn't worn off.
Chapter 3

I
have good news and bad news.” Grammy Syl greeted Amy at the door with a warm smile and a slice of apple szarlotka.
“Oh boy.” Amy pivoted on her stack-heeled boot and stepped back into the hallway. “Maybe I'll come back later.”
Grammy grabbed her elbow and tugged her inside the condo, or “casita,” as it was described in the promotional literature for the Willow Court Senior Living Community. “Don't be silly, dearest. Take off your coat and give me a hug.”
Amy obliged, glancing over Grammy's shoulder, on high alert for anything amiss. But the cozy little living room was tidy as usual, full of framed family photos and mismatched antique furniture.
“The suspense is killing me,” Amy said when Grammy released her. “Hit me with the bad news and get it over with.”
Grammy handed the plate of pie to Amy and toyed with the double strand of lustrous white pearls around her neck. “Good news first: We've officially made it to the semifinals of the Delicious Duet Dessert Championship. I got the certified letter yesterday.”
“Already?” Amy exclaimed. “It's only been a few weeks since you entered. Aren't there, like, a zillion entries?”
“At least.” Grammy preened. “There's a test kitchen somewhere in California that sorts through all the entries and narrows down the pool to a hundred or so. Then they bake those recipes and select the best fifty.”
“Congratulations,” Amy said. She leaned in for another hug.
“Congratulations to you, too. You're my co-entrant, after all.” Grammy didn't hug her back this time. Instead, she tilted her head and sized up her granddaughter with a cool, appraising stare. “Now I want you to promise me something. You're going to honor your word and go to New York for the finals, right?”
“Are you kidding me?” Amy's eyebrows shot up. “A whole week of room service and sleep? I'm there!”
Grammy folded her arms over her mint green angora cardigan. She looked very formidable for a white-haired old lady who barely topped five foot two in heels. “No matter what crops up at home or at your job? I can count on you?”
Amy sensed treachery and started to backpedal. “Well, I mean, I
want
to go. I plan to. But if Brandon or one of the twins got injured or seriously ill, I'd have to back out.”
“Naturally, but barring that—barring a catastrophic emergency—you promise to go to the finals and participate?”
“Ye-es,” Amy said. She should have escaped back down the hall while the escaping was good. “Why?”
Grammy nodded, then shifted back into nurturing, maternal mode. “Have a bite of pie, darling, and sign here, here, and here. I'll send this back to the contest officials.” Grammy produced a pen and waited until Amy signed and dated the finalist forms. “Now, have I already told you about Ty and Tai?”
“Who?”
“Ty and Tai Tottenham. The husband-and-wife team from Ohio who've been the second-place winners in the bake-off for the last two years. I don't know what it is about Ohio, but that state turns out more than its fair share of finalists. Maybe it's something in the water. Anyway, as for Ty and Tai . . .” Grammy lowered her voice as if preparing to impart juicy gossip. “They're infamous.”
Amy couldn't contain a laugh. “Infamous on the bake-off circuit? For what? Using margarine instead of butter? Scandal!”
Grammy pursed her lips. “It's no joke, young lady. Those two want the grand prize, and they'll stop at nothing to win. Rumor has it that last year they got the goods on one of the judges and
blackmailed
their way to the finals.”
Amy shoveled in another bite of pie, which tasted as delicious as it smelled. “Are you serious? That's pathetic. I mean, it's just brownies and cupcakes and whatever.”
“Just brownies and cupcakes, she says.” Grammy Syl shook her head. “You're in for a rude awakening if you think this is a friendly little cookie swap. The Delicious Duet attracts the most talented amateur bakers from all over the country. You need to bring your A game.”
“Then it's a good thing I'll have you to be my mentor. When we get to New York, just point out Ty and Tai, and I'll be sure to steer clear.”
“Mmm.” Grammy fiddled with her pearls again. “About New York. I won't be going.”
Amy froze midchew. “Why not?”
“As it happens, I have a scheduling conflict. I'm going on an Alaskan cruise. I booked the tickets with Harriet Webber ages ago, and it must have slipped my mind.”
“But you just made me promise that I wouldn't drop out for anything less than a medical emergency!” Amy exclaimed.
“I
am
sorry, my lamb, but the deposit's nonrefundable and Harriet's counting on me. Her husband died just last year; she needs companionship. Besides . . .” Grammy wrung her hands and let her eyes grow pensive. “I don't know how much longer I'm going to be around. I'd better travel while I still can.”
Amy put one hand on her hip. “Are you kidding me with this?”
“We're all going to die someday, and I'd like to see the glaciers before I go.”
“Then why did you make me sign all those forms?” Amy made a grab for the contest paperwork, but Grammy was too quick for her. “I can't do this all by myself! Aside from the fact that I can barely boil water, the thing is called the Delicious Duet Dessert Championship. Won't I be disqualified without my partner?”
Grammy beamed. “I've already worked all that out. You'll have a very capable partner.”
“Who?” Amy put down her china dessert plate with a clatter. “Your name is already on the entry forms.”
Grammy took Amy's elbow again and nudged her toward the kitchen. “My name, yes, but I may have taken some liberties with the rest of my personal information.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, you know, we do have a backup Vasylina Bialek.”
Amy gasped and dug her heels into the carpet. “Oh no. No, no, no. And did I mention hell no?”
“Don't be so negative. I know you and Linnie haven't had the easiest time of it, but—”
“I see what this is—this is a trap!” Amy flung her purse to the floor. “You never had any intention of going to New York with me. You railroaded me into signing a legal document under false pretenses.”
“My goodness.” Grammy rewarded this outraged performance with a smattering of applause. “You certainly can emote, darling.”
“I know you mean well, Grammy, but there's no way. Linnie and I are like oil and water. Fire and gasoline.” Amy glowered as she came up with a more fitting analogy. “The cat and the canary.”
“I'm right here,” came a familiar voice from the kitchen. “I can hear you.”
Amy found herself face-to-face with her younger sister for the first time in years. Linnie was sitting at the table with an untouched piece of pie and an empty glass of milk.
Amy took one look at the beautiful blond bombshell sporting the milk mustache and insisted, “I'm not working with her.” She turned toward the window, fuming.
“Hello to you, too,” Linnie said dryly.
“You promised,” Grammy whispered to Amy.
“No. I promised to do this with
you
. Not her.”
“It's okay.” Linnie sounded confident and kind of amused, which only fueled Amy's anger. “I don't want to work with her, either.”
Grammy grabbed a slotted metal spoon and brandished it like a cutlass. She muttered darkly in Polish for a moment, then switched to English. “Pavla and I never fought like this. You two are sisters; even if you don't like each other, you have to figure out a way to live with each other.”
“No, we don't,” Amy said.
Grammy Syl spun Amy around and yanked out a chair from the table. “Sit!”
Amy sat.
Grammy pointed the spoon at Amy. “You said you're desperate for a little time away.” She turned to Linnie. “You said you're desperate for money. It's time to grow up and get along. Life is too short for all this dysfunctional nonsense. When's the last time you saw each other?”
Amy glanced at Linnie, but her sister had gone into screensaver mode: head bowed, gaze vacant, body motionless.
“Well, let's see.” Amy cast her gaze upward, considering. “There was my wedding, of course, and then there was, um . . .”
“When's the last time you spoke on the phone?”
“Ooh, I know this one!” Amy smacked the table as if hitting a game show buzzer. “Christmas.”
“Which year?” Grammy challenged.
“I think it was right after I got pregnant. I remember because I had morning sickness, so I had to go throw up about thirty seconds into the conversation.”
Grammy nodded. “You two need to reconnect and try again.”
Linnie suddenly looked up. “Why?”
Grammy made a horizontal slashing motion with her spoon to indicate that this point was not up for debate.
But Amy persisted. “Yeah, why are you suddenly all worked up about this? It's not like it's anything new.”
“You should know by now that my kitchen is not a democracy,” Grammy said. “I'm not asking you girls to get along; I am
telling
you. And after all I've done for you over all these years, you can do this one thing for me.”
Amy opened her mouth to say no, but discovered she was physically incapable of refusing while Grammy stared her down like this.
“Well?” Grammy prompted.
“I guess,” Amy mumbled.
“Good. Now make me proud and win this thing.” And with that, Grammy Syl slapped down a yellowing index card bearing their great-grandmother's recipe in fading blue ink and swept out of the kitchen, leaving Amy and Linnie seated at opposite ends of the table.

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