Read The Bake-Off Online

Authors: Beth Kendrick

The Bake-Off (9 page)

Instead of answering her, Ben grabbed his sister's hand and started jumping on the bed. Both children shrieked with laughter, the dog barked, and amid the ruckus, the alarm clock started beeping.
Amy and Brandon looked at each other and laughed.
“Why do we bother setting this thing?” Brandon asked as he turned off the alarm. “We haven't made it past five thirty in two and a half years.”
“But
someday
,” Amy said in a hushed, reverent tone. “Someday we might oversleep, and when that day comes, we'll be ready.” She rolled out of bed, pulled a thick flannel robe over her oversize T-shirt, and launched into a groggy rendition of Journey's “Don't Stop Believing.”
“Uh-huh. Right after we finish grooming our unicorn and pruning our money tree in the backyard.”
Amy switched on the light and noticed a flurry of dust motes swirling above the comforter. The kids' bouncing had stirred up every allergen in the bedclothes. “Any chance there's a live-in housekeeper out there with the unicorn and the money tree?”
Brandon winced as he stubbed his bare toe on the corner of one of the unzipped suitcases strewn across the floor.
“Sorry about that.” Amy kicked the bag aside. “I'm almost done packing. Just have to throw in my toiletries.”
Brandon surveyed the array of matching red canvas garment bags, duffels, and valises. “You packed five bags for a week in Manhattan? You
are
planning to come back eventually, right?”
“Yes, but I'm high-maintenance,” Amy said. “Actual and factual. I need a complete outfit for every day, plus dress clothes for the evening events, plus coordinating shoes, makeup, jewelry, and handbags for every ensemble, plus workout gear—”
“When are you going to have time to work out?”
“The hotel has a gym. It could happen.”
Brandon gave up trying to reason with her. “Tip the bellhop well, 'cause you're probably going to give him permanent back problems.”
Amy caught Ben under his arms just as he climbed into the largest suitcase. “No, no, no, Mommy just ironed all these clothes. Go put your slippers on, both of you, and Daddy will make you breakfast.” The twins skedaddled, the dog dashing down the hall after them.
Amy crouched down and started to zip up the luggage.
“I still can't believe I got suckered into this with Linnie,” she said. “We'll be lucky if we both survive the week. She's such a . . . She just makes me—
Ugh
.” She exhaled loudly and shook out her hair. “Sorry, honey. I'm being such a whiny little bitch about this that I'm starting to annoy even myself.”
“Hey, don't talk about my wife that way.” Brandon wrapped his arms around her, and she rested her head against his chest.
“This is the problem with me and Linnie,” she mumbled into his shirt. “I don't like the person I am when I'm around her. I get all petty and negative.”
He rubbed her back. “You could still bag the whole trip and stay here.”
“I'd bail right now if I thought I could withstand the lifetime of guilt trips from Grammy Syl. She's made it her mission in life to force me and Linnie to become BFFs, and yes, she actually used the term
BFF
.” Amy's amusement faded. “The sad thing is, I know she's right—sisters are supposed to share a special bond that transcends time and distance and whatever. But I honestly can't imagine ever having anything like that with Linnie. This is terrible to admit, but my relationship with her was why I always said I'd have an only child.”
“But aren't you glad we ended up with a twofer on that score?”
“Definitely.” Amy pulled out of his embrace and resumed packing. “I miss them already. Give them extra hugs for me while I'm gone.”
“Will do. And you know how my mom spoils them when she comes to babysit. They'll probably be in sugar comas by the time you get back next week.”
“La, la, la, I can't hear you.”
“Don't worry about any of that while you're gone. Enjoy your break and bake your way to riches. How much do you get if you win this thing, anyway?”
“A hundred grand. If I win, we can put my share of the money toward opening your own dental practice.”
“It'll be
our
dental practice,” Brandon corrected.
“You're sweet, honey, but let's be real. You're Dr. Nichols; I'm just your assistant. No one comes to a dental practice because of the hygienist.”
“Don't give me that; all the patients love you, and you know it. I couldn't do this without you.” He opened his arms to encompass their house, their family, their lives. “Any of it.”
“That's true.” Amy brightened. “I am the linchpin, baby. I keep the trains running on time!”
“Yes, you do, and we're all lucky to have you.”
“Thank you. Now go toss those blankie-crazed urchins a bagel before I have to crack the whip.”
Brandon headed down the stairs, and Amy took a deep breath as she conducted a quick rundown of her mental checklist. Two hours before she was due to leave for New York, and she still had to shower, get everyone dressed, make sure they had enough dog food, do a frenzied surface cleaning in both bathrooms in anticipation of her mother-in-law's arrival, double-check that all the online bills were paid for the month, drive the twins to day care . . .
Brandon reappeared in the bedroom doorway. “I just gave them the carrot muffins on the breakfast bar and turned on
Sesame Street
. Want to lock the door and, you know, crack the whip?”
“But . . .”
But my shower is my ten minutes of sweet, sane solitude.
Then she looked at her husband, his kind, tired face, and realized that as much as she craved time alone, he craved time together.
She loved that he still looked at her like that, as if she were still the smoldering sex kitten she'd been in her early twenties, rather than an overscheduled mommy in her thirties who sometimes regarded sex as one more item to be checked off the list. He would miss her, she knew, while she was in New York. She would miss him. This knowledge, however, did nothing to shift her mind-set from brisk efficiency into seduction mode.
But Brandon didn't need to know that.
She summoned a saucy grin, grabbed his hand, and tugged him into the bathroom with her. “Grab the soap and let's multitask.”
Chapter 6
L
innie hit the snooze button for the third time, then rolled over on her back and stared up at the revolving blades of the ceiling fan. The relentless desert sunlight cast a silhouette of the vertical blinds across the carpet. At this hour of the afternoon, most of her neighbors were at work and the apartment complex was shrouded in total silence. No phones ringing, no TVs blaring, no splashing in the community pool in the courtyard. She could hear the faint, dull thud of her pulse against the pillow.
If I died right now, how long would it be before anyone found the body?
Kyle had packed up his belongings and decamped to his buddy Matt's futon, leaving behind the pawn ticket that Derek had sent. Although Linnie had tried to suppress her anxiety and resentment, their friendship had permanently fractured. She'd asked the landlord to take his name off the lease and change the locks, and now she had the solitude she'd craved. No obligations, no expectations, no friends, and no real purpose in life beyond flipping cards for oversexed men on corporate expense accounts.
As soon as she got out of bed, before she got dressed or even used the bathroom, she picked up the phone and made the call that had become a daily ritual:
“Hi, I'm calling about the antique platinum-and-diamond brooch? Yes, again. Do you still have it?”
Every day she would hold her breath until the pawnshop employee replied, a tad impatiently, that yes, the brooch was still safely in the display case, and if she wanted it she'd better come reclaim it, because they weren't allowed to hold items after the redemption period expired.
“I'll be there,” she always said. “Very soon.”
But the moment she hung up the phone, her anxiety would return in anticipation of tomorrow's call. What would she do if the stoned-sounding male clerk (or his gum-snapping female counterpart) informed her that “we just sold that piece, actually, but could we interest you in an antique firearm or some collectible crystal stemware?”
She padded into the tiny kitchenette, peeled a banana, and glanced at the digital clock on the microwave. She should leave for work in thirty minutes, and after her shift at the casino, she'd head straight to the airport. No more procrastinating—she had to pack.
She dragged a battered old Samsonite out of the closet and tossed in jeans and T-shirts and wadded-up sweatshirts she'd had for years. Belatedly, she remembered Grammy Syl saying something about cocktail receptions, so she crammed in a dress and a pair of scuffed black sandals.
Cosmetics and jewelry had never held much appeal for her, so she collected the containers of eye shadow, lipstick, and foundation she wore for work, sealed them up in a plastic sandwich bag, and tossed that on top of the pile. Looking into that carry-on was like gazing into a dying planetary nebula: a murky jumble of black and gray. This was the wardrobe of someone who had completely given up.
But somehow, losing Grammy's brooch had swept her back into the world of cutthroat competition, first at the poker table and now at a national baking competition. For the first time in years, she would actually have to
try
.
And odds were, she would fail.
The mere thought of public failure made her throat close up. She couldn't stand to be criticized. She couldn't stand to be judged. Most of all, she couldn't stand to face Amy and, in doing so, face the parts of herself that she least wanted to acknowledge.
But for the next eight hours, all she had to do was tug up her fishnets, wriggle into her corset, and act like the kind of woman who enjoyed wearing leopard-print satin and meeting new people. She had to pretend to be normal. That, she could do.
 
A
s she headed out of the employee locker room toward the casino floor, Linnie rolled her shoulders and wedged the knuckles of one hand between the fingers of the other in a warm-up exercise she'd learned years ago from her piano teacher. Dealing cards for hours at a time required just as much dexterity and endurance as mastering scales and arpeggios.
A voice called out as she passed the door of her supervisor's office: “Hey, Linnie, would you step in here for a second? We need a word with you.”
Linnie glanced down to ascertain that everything was in place. “What's wrong? Am I late?”
“No, no, you're right on time.” Janice, a longtime floor worker with a face like an ex-model's and a voice like a cement mixer, ushered her into the small office filled with cheap corporate furniture and shiny fake plants. Chip, Janice's boss, was squeezed into a Naugahyde armchair behind a laminate desk. He had a clipboard and a somber expression on his face.
Uh-oh.
“Come on in.” Chip beckoned with both hands. “Close the door.”
After a moment's hesitation, Linnie did so. The metallic snick of the door latch echoed through the office.
Chip cleared his throat and launched into a speech that had obviously been prepared ahead of time. “We've been noticing a few things over the past few weeks. Both of us.”
Linnie's gaze fell on the pile of legal pads, manila envelopes, and pens stacked on the table between her supervisors.
Oh God.
They were documenting and corroborating the details of this conversation.
“You're firing me,” she said, bracing one hand against the doorjamb.
“No!” Chip shook his head so vehemently, his glasses fell off. “Absolutely not. We're just making a few minor staffing changes.”
Janice pushed back her mountainous blond bangs, opened one of the file folders, and got down to business. “Here's the deal. When we first opened the Kitty Korner two months ago, we thought you'd be a perfect fit. You're a great dealer and a total knockout.”
“Ten plus,” Chip added helpfully.
“But we both feel that there's room for improvement with the way you interact with our VIP guests.”
Linnie stiffened. “I'm unfailingly polite.”
“I know you are.” Janice nodded. “That's part of the problem. The whole point of the Kitty Korner is that it's a little bit secluded; it's a little bit naughty.”
“It's a hideaway,” Chip threw in.
“Exactly. And when guys come in here, they want a whole fantasy to go along with their gaming. They want you to flirt with them, joke with them.”
“I don't flirt.” Linnie delivered this pronouncement as though flirting were beneath her, but the truth was that she
couldn't
flirt, even if she wanted to. Giggling and eyelash batting were simply not in her repertoire.
“And nobody's asking you to,” Janice said. She and Chip exchanged a glance. “Your comfort and well-being are our first priority. That's why we think you might be happier moving back to the main floor. You can wear your old uniform of black slacks and a white shirt.”
Given that Linnie had always felt discomfited flaunting her figure in the Kitty Korner costume, she was surprised at how much this suggestion stung. “So you're saying, in essence, that I'm not hoochie enough for the hoochie room?”
“Oh, hon, no one's saying that.” Janice squeezed her hand, looking genuinely distressed. “We just feel that, personality-wise, you may not be the ideal fit here. Since we first opened the area, we've been tracking our customer demographic and behavior. And the guys don't spend as much time at your table as they do at the other girls'. They don't tip you as much.”

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