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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Just Desserts, you’re in for a real treat:
by Barbara Bretton
4 Rave Reviews
Kindle Price: $2.99
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Don’t have a Kindle? Get yours here.
Here’s the set-up:
Hayley had sworn off bad boys until Finn Rafferty set out to win her heart…
Once upon a time, Hayley had believed that a good woman (her) could turn a bad boy (her ex) into a knight in shining armor (pure fantasy). Ten years of marriage had finally drummed the truth into her head. In the real world bad boys didn’t turn into knights in shining armor. Bad boys grew up to be even worse men and the world would be a much happier place if little girls were taught that basic fact along with their ABCs.
Hayley Maitland Goldstein knew all about how these things worked. First a girl giggled, then she sighed, and the next thing you knew she was in Vegas taking her wedding vows in front of a red-haired Elvis with an overbite. You knew you had made a bad choice when Elvis slipped you his divorce lawyer’s business card while you were still shaking the rice from your hair.
But then Finn Rafferty came into her life and everything changed.
Hayley should have seen the kiss coming but it surprised her just the same. He had been looking at her with a crazy kind of unfocused intensity and she had been about to ask him if he was having a stroke when she realized she was about to be kissed by a man she actually wanted to kiss back.
Every now and then life handed you a perfect moment but the secret was figuring out how to make it last.
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:
The other attorney leaned forward and fixed Finn Rafferty with a look meant to remind him which one of them had Harvard Law on his side.
“Our own report on outstanding paternity claims against your client came in yesterday,” Hampton Sloan IV said in the clipped and highly enunciated way of those to the manor born.
Finn, whose own background was more blue collar than blue blood, leaned back in his chair and fixed Sloan with a look meant to tell him that he already knew the answer.
“And—?” he prompted. These Ivy League types had a real jones for making you beg.
“To my surprise, the names on your list are no longer an issue.”
Tell me something I don’t know, Finn thought. This wasn’t the first time (and it probably wouldn’t be the last) that he had been down this road. “No surprise to me. Those names have been vetted more than once.”
He had to hand it to aging preppies with roman numerals after their names. Being wrong didn’t even register on Sloan’s patrician features. Finn, however, was having a tough time keeping “told you so” from registering on his.
“Glad it all checked out.” He gathered up the signed documents scattered across the top of the cherrywood desk. “Mr. Stiles will countersign and then we can consider the prenup a done deal.”
The smile on Sloan’s face should have tipped Finn off but he was already planning his escape route from the city. “As I said, Mr. Rafferty, the original list you provided checked out, but our investigators turned up one more name that seems to have escaped notice.”
“We didn’t withhold any names, if that’s what you’re implying. The list was complete and current.”
“It would seem your investigators didn’t go back quite far enough, Mr. Rafferty.” Sloan slid a crisp manila folder across the desk. “I think you’ll find this very interesting.”
Finn, who had been hoping to hit the road before rush hour started, looked down at the folder. “ ‘Maitland,’ ” he said, reading the label. “What’s this?”
“Read the summary page, counselor.” It was never a good sign when the other side’s attorney looked that amused.
He flipped open the folder. The summary page was on top of the paper-clipped stack. “Where did this come from?”
“Like I said, our investigators are very thorough.”
“We’re talking Tommy Stiles, the man who actually wants to know if he has other kids out there.”
“Then he should be exceedingly happy if this turns out to be a DNA match.”
A graduate of Harvard Law would have tendered an enigmatic smile, slid the folder into his briefcase, then waited until he was safely ensconced in his own cherrywood-and-leather office before he read the contents.
Finn, however, had graduated SUNY Stony Brook and he read it twice while Sloan watched.
Name: Hayley Maitland Goldstein
Mother: Jane Maitland
Father: Thomas Joseph Stiles
Place: Lexington, KY
Marital Status: Divorced/Michael Goldstein (February 1999)
Children: 1 daughter (Name: Elizabeth)
Occupation: Bakery Owner
Current Residence: 418 Main Street, Lakeside, NJ
He met Sloan’s eyes across the wide expanse of antique desktop. “I don’t know how in hell we missed this. Our people are relentless when it comes to tracking down paternity claims.” Tommy was probably the only superstar on the planet who was actually disappointed each time a claim was found to be without merit.
Sloan leaned back in his chair and for a moment he looked almost human. “It was a fluke,” he admitted. “The original birth certificate was amended two weeks after the baby’s birth to read Father: Unknown.”
“That’s not uncommon,” Finn said. “Usually the original is destroyed.”
“Not this time.” According to Sloan’s people, the hospital in Kentucky had held on to the original records in a basement storage room where they stayed for years until they ended up being scanned into the county’s genealogical database two months ago. “Quite clearly a mistake on their part but an interesting turn of events for our respective clients.”
“ ‘An interesting turn of events’?” Finn said, meeting the other lawyer’s eyes. “That’s one way to put it.”
The other way was holy shit, but he kept that observation to himself.
Midtown traffic was hellacious as usual. It took Finn almost an hour to make his way from West Fifty-seventh across town to the Queensborough Bridge entrance, but he barely noticed it. The Maitland folder was open on the passenger seat and each time traffic ground to a standstill, he read more of the background information Sloan’s people had uncovered about Jane Maitland and her daughter, Hayley.
The more Finn thought about it, the less he believed there was anything to the claim. There was nothing unusual about reverting to Father: Unknown status. More than likely Jane Maitland and Tommy had come to some kind of understanding about paternity and the issue was dropped. The only reason it was being addressed now was because some overzealous record keeper had saved the original documents instead of destroying them.
Traffic at the entrance to the bridge was at a literal standstill. Finn dug deeper into the file and found a photo of Dr. Maitland. He couldn’t quite match up the fiercely intelligent but plain-looking scientist with nineteen-year-old guitarist Tommy Stiles. Call it sexist on his part, but the whole thing just didn’t compute. Not even when you factored in the whole older woman/younger man dynamic.
A dead end, he told himself as he waited for traffic to start moving again. Nothing more than a formality.
And then he saw Jane Maitland’s curriculum vitae.
She was an oceanographer.
A world-famous, prizewinning, planet-changing oceanographer.
Suddenly it all started to make sense.
He looked more closely at the paperwork. Hayley might have been born in Kentucky but her mother had been teaching at Princeton during the years before and after. Tommy had grown up right outside Princeton.
And there was the ocean…
Two hours ago he had been certain this new prospect would turn out to be a dead end like all the others. Now, the more miles he racked up, the more certain Finn became that the Stiles family was about to increase by two.
New Jersey… the ocean… the timing.
By the time he rolled past the sign welcoming him to East Hampton, he was reconfiguring Tommy’s prenup to include the Goldstein girls as legitimate heirs.
He made the turn onto Greenleaf Path on autopilot. The toughest part would be getting Tommy alone so they could talk. The place was usually bursting at the seams with family, friends, friends of friends. Sometimes the only way they could get any work done was to head down to the beach and talk business while they walked the shoreline.
Tommy’s place didn’t look like much from the road. Two stories of sprawling sun-bleached shingles set on what passed for a hill in the Hamptons. The house sat so close to the water that it was practically built on beach sand. There were times when it seemed like a stiff breeze would send it hurtling into the Atlantic. It wasn’t until you wound your way up the driveway that you got a real sense of the place. Ten bedrooms, twelve full baths, and two guesthouses tended to make an impression.
The first time Finn saw the place, he was a scared sixteen-year-old kid with no family and enough baggage to fill the hold of a 747. Tommy Stiles was his father’s best friend, and when Jack and Mary Ann died, it was Tommy who opened up his heart and his home to Finn.
And how did Finn repay him? He had done his level teenage best to throw it all back in the guy’s face.
The Hamptons were another planet to the kid from a small town in central New Jersey. The people were aliens who might as well have been sporting antennae and wearing shiny silver jumpsuits. Tommy’s kids—and there were a hell of a lot of them—all had one thing in common: they hated the ocean. When the winds kicked up they retreated deeper into the house, hiding beneath headphones and loud music, counting down the minutes until the sun came out again.
Not Finn. The briny smell, the percussive sound of the waves breaking along the shore, the silvery glint of sunlight against the dark, unknowable ocean. It got into his blood fast and hard and before long he loved it the way Tommy did.
It seemed like another lifetime. He could barely remember the angry, lonely kid who had shown up on Tommy’s doorstep with his father’s Stratocaster, an old leather jacket, and what was left of his heart.
Tommy wasn’t like anyone Finn had ever known. You couldn’t get a rise out of the guy. You couldn’t make him angry. The house had reverberated with enough teenage rebellion and adolescent angst to fuel a thousand TV movies, but during it all Tommy’s gut-level goodness carried them through.
Everyone loved Tommy Stiles. Even his exes loved him. The place looked like a Mormon family reunion on holidays and birthdays, what with the former wives and girlfriends and kids who flew in from far and wide to be with him. A man had to be doing something right to be loved like that.
Definitely not the kind of guy who’d cold-bloodedly ignore his firstborn child.
Willow’s Porsche was angled at the head of the driveway near the path that led to the front porches. Willow was young but she knew how to mark her territory. As the presumptive next Mrs. Tommy Stiles, Willow was also making sure the others in line to the throne understood exactly how important she was in the hierarchy.
Zach and Winston, Tommy’s teenage sons by LeeLee James, a backup singer with a smoky alto and world-class legs, were staying at the house this semester. Their matching black Highlander Hybrids were tucked in behind Willow’s sports car. The Toyotas were expensive carrots being dangled in front of their teenage noses by Tommy, who hoped that the prospect of wheels would inspire them to knuckle down and hit the books. They were good kids but academia wasn’t their strong suit. Both of them wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps and go out on the road as musicians, but Tommy was hanging tough on the subject of college.
There were a few cars Finn couldn’t identify parked off to the side and an LIPA repair truck near the garage. A quiet day for once. He claimed his usual spot across from the mailbox.
The entrance foyer was an enormous, light-filled room with marble floors the color of beach sand. The walls had been hand-painted by artisans flown over from Italy who knew how to turn bare plaster into a sunny day. Twin staircases flanked the foyer. One led to the guest wing. The other led to Tommy’s nominally private space. The concept of privacy wasn’t big on the rocker’s list of life’s necessities. Left alone in a room, Tommy would make friends with a houseplant.
A hot-pink tricycle lay on its side at the foot of the guest staircase, a naked Barbie under the front wheel. He had learned to expect the unexpected when Gigi, Tommy’s youngest, or some of the grandchildren were in residence. It wasn’t unusual to find Barbie headfirst in one of the nine full baths or a Darth Vader action figure in the microwave.
He performed his civic duty by plucking Barbie from danger, then dropping her into the basket suspended from the handlebars. He then righted the trike and pushed it to a safer spot against the wall. Friends who were parents claimed that was like trying to save the Titanic by plugging the hole in the ship with your finger, but he didn’t have kids so he gave it a shot anyway.
Music blared from the media room. Kids’ laughter rang out from one of the game rooms. He heard the click-click of high heels along the upstairs hall and the sound of someone practicing on a tenor sax.
Anton was sitting at the table in the sun-filled kitchen, deveining shrimp. Some musicians went into detox before a major tour. Anton, the After Life’s drummer, cooked.
“You staying for supper?” Anton greeted him.
Finn grabbed a Coke from the Sub-Zero fridge. “Depends what happens after I drop a bomb on TS.” He took a long pull from the soda bottle and waited for the sugar rush to hit his bloodstream.
“You mean like the bomb he dropped on us yesterday?”
“This would be what, his third farewell tour?” Finn took another gulp of Coke. “I don’t see him hanging it up before Springsteen or Joel, do you?”
“I don’t know,” Anton said, popping the tail off a large crustacean. “You’ve gotta admit there’s something in the air around here. Even Willow’s thinking about swapping modeling for writing kids’ books.”
Finn wisely decided to keep his opinion on Willow’s literary future to himself.
“Where is he?” he asked.
“With Jilly in the spa. He’s getting highlights.”
“Better him than me,” Finn said, draining the bottle.
“Amen, brother. Why do you think I shave my head?”
Finn was still laughing when he walked into the huge space that served as salon, gym, and occasional day-care center.
Tommy was reclining in an uber-luxurious leather barber chair in front of a wall of perfectly lighted mirrors. Jilly, his stylist of many years, lifted one of her color brushes in greeting when she saw Finn.
His boss greeted him with the lopsided grin that had won him almost as many fans as his records. “Mission accomplished?” Prenups were part of the modern courtship ritual, like the Harry Winston diamond and the Reem Acra gown. They were a fact of life no sane adult who had achieved any measurable degree of success would ignore.
“They agreed that the claims on the list were all unfounded.”
“I take care of my own. I wouldn’t let a child of mine go unrecognized,” Tommy said as Jilly the stylist tilted his head to the left. “A little more color up top, Jilly. I’m seeing a lot of gray these days.”
“Any more color and you’ll be Donald Trump’s long-lost brother.”
She and Tommy exchanged friendly banter while Finn tried to be patient.
“Listen,” he said finally, shifting the manila folder from his right hand to his left. “We need to talk.”
“Go ahead. Jilly knows all my secrets.”
“Not all of them,” Jilly said, “but I’m willing to learn.”
Finn smiled but said nothing. Tommy studied him for a second then met Jilly’s eyes in the wall of mirrors. “Can we break for a few?”
Finn followed Tommy out onto the multilevel deck over-looking the ocean.
“It’s probably nothing,” Finn said without preamble, “but Sloan’s people did an additional background check and found someone.”
He handed Tommy the folder. “Her name was or is Jane Maitland. You were nineteen. She was forty. Sloan’s people found an original birth certificate for a baby girl named Hayley that cites you as the father.” He gave him a condensed version of the discovery. “Jane is an oceanographer, a pretty renowned one, with two doctorates. She’s teaching a course in Mumbai this year on the impact of climate change on coastlines throughout southeast Asia.”
Tommy peered closely at the grainy newspaper clipping photo of an austere, gray-haired academic. The caption read “Respected oceanographer rings the global warming bell in Mumbai.”
Finn tried to imagine what the good doctor might have looked like almost forty years ago, but the best he could come up with was the image of an austere, brown-haired academic.
Tommy shot him a look. “She’s almost eighty.”
“She wasn’t eighty when you—”
Tommy cut him off midsentence. “Not my type.”
The other thing Finn knew about Tommy was that all women were his type.
“What about the daughter? Do you have a photo?”
“If the other side has one, they didn’t pass it along. She owns a bakery in South Jersey, halfway between Philly and Atlantic City.” She was building a name for herself by providing crazy expensive cakes for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and the occasional gubernatorial inauguration party.
Tommy looked up at him. “They’re from New Jersey?”
“Maitland spent fifteen years at Princeton. The daughter was born in Kentucky.”
He could see recognition dawning.
“I grew up two miles from Princeton. You’d be surprised how many university types showed up at our gigs.”
“My father told me a little about the early days.” Jack Rafferty had grown up in the house next door to Tommy. Two working-class kids with big dreams that, except for one of them dying young, had almost all come true.
“We played a lot of small clubs between Princeton and New York. Springsteen owned the shore. We were out to claim the rest of the state. Thousands of people moved in and out of our circle during those years.” Tommy turned back toward the ocean. “She told me her name was Jean. I didn’t understand half of what she said to me. We spent a weekend together. I never saw her again.”
And there it was. He waited a moment before he asked, “Your choice or hers?”
“Hers… mine.” He shrugged. “Both of ours. I tried to phone her but the number she’d given me was for a diner on Route One.”
“So you’re saying it’s possible.”
Another silence, even longer and more uncomfortable than the previous one.
“Lakeside?” Tommy asked.
“Between A.C. and Philly.”
“About a four-hour drive,” Tommy said. “If we leave in the morning, we can get there by noon.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“The hell I am. You tell me I might have a grown daughter I’ve never met and expect me to sit on my fat ass and do nothing? You know me better than that.”
Unfortunately Finn did. There were no half measures where Tommy was concerned. “Not a good idea, Tom. You have the rest of your family to consider.” He paused. “And there’s Willow.”
“I’ll say I need to check out the venue for the benefit next week in Atlantic City.”
“Why don’t you let me do my job before you put yourself out there. Let’s find out who we’re dealing with.”
Tommy opened his mouth to argue the case then stopped. “Shit,” he said. “I’m doing satellites tomorrow morning for the benefit, print in the afternoon, and a sit-down with Showbiz Extra in the evening.”
“Okay,” Finn said, not quite managing to mask his deep sense of relief. “I’ll call in a few favors. We should have a pretty good idea where we stand by the end of the week.”
Tommy said nothing.
“Are you going to tell Willow?” Finn asked.
“Not yet.” Tommy’s fiancée was a twenty-four-year-old supermodel/high school dropout who was three months pregnant with his seventh child.
Or maybe his eighth.
“I need to meet Hayley Goldstein.”
“That could get messy, Tom.” Which pretty much guaranteed Finn the Best Understatement of the Millennium award. “She’s lived thirty-eight years without you in her life. No guarantee she wants to meet you.”
He could see the wheels turning.
“You said she’s a caterer. Hire her for the after-party.”
Nuclear warnings sounded inside Finn’s head. “She’s not a caterer, Tommy. She bakes cakes.” Fancy, expensive cakes for fancy, expensive people.
“So have her bake a cake for us.”
“Listen,” he said carefully, “I don’t think this is a good idea. Let me run our own background check, see what I can find out, before we take the next step.”
“What does she bake, those fancy cakes like you see at weddings, right?”
The warnings reached DEFCON 3. “Right.”
“So tell her we want her to bake us a set of drums or a guitar.” He waved his hand in the air. “Whatever. The kids would love it and it would add a little something to her bottom line.”
“Tom, let’s pull it back before we get crazy. She’s a stranger. Her bottom line isn’t your problem. Why don’t you stay focused on next week’s show and let me do my job.”
Jilly popped out onto the deck. “You have thirty seconds before those highlights seep into your brain, TS! Get in here now!”
“See what you can find out,” Tommy said as he headed toward the door. “I want this moving.”
It was Tommy’s call. Not Finn’s. If Tommy wanted to take the private jet and fly down to South Jersey and confront Hayley Maitland Goldstein with news that—assuming it was true—would turn her world upside down, then that was exactly what Tommy would do.
That was the thing about superstars. Even the nicest among them, which definitely included Tommy Stiles, got what they wanted when they wanted it.
Goldy’s Bakery—Lakeside, New Jersey
Hayley Maitland Goldstein was fighting a losing battle with a sheet of rolled fondant when her daughter thundered down the back stairs and burst into the kitchen.
“You always did know how to make an entrance,” she said as Lizzie grabbed for one of the Linzer tortes cooling on a wire rack. “Good thing I don’t have cheesecake in the ovens.” Her girl was five foot two and one hundred pounds and somehow she managed to sound like a herd of Clydesdales in a beer commercial.
“Cheesecakes are Friday,” Lizzie said with a powdered-sugar grin. “This is Wednesday. I figured it was safe.”
“Nice to know that fancy school of yours teaches you the days of the week.” She tried hard not to think about how many cookies she had to sell to pay the quarterly tuition bill at Olympia Prep.
Lizzie, who had clearly decided not to worry about the bakery’s profit margin at the moment, snagged another cookie. “I’m honor roll again this quarter.”
Hayley wanted to let out a whoop of excitement but Lizzie had reached the age where maternal enthusiasm was a source of deep humiliation. She feigned a yawn instead. “Old news, kid. You’ve been honor roll since kindergarten.”
“I’ve spoiled you.” Lizzie split open the cookie and began to lick the raspberry jam from the center. “Maybe I should fail physics or throw a chem test so you’ll appreciate me.”
“I don’t recommend it,” she said with a stern glance in her daughter’s direction. “The competition out there for scholarships is fierce.”
Lizzie rolled her eyes.
“I saw that,” Hayley said. “You have two and a half more years of high school, Elizabeth. This isn’t the time to lose your focus.” Academic achievement was a family tradition, even if it had skipped Hayley’s generation.
Lizzie’s blue-green eyes twinkled. “I’m on the honor roll, Mom, not probation. Quit worrying.”
“I can’t. It’s what I do best.” She was a worrier. Always had been, always would be. She worried about her daughter, her former in-laws, her cousins, their cousins, her daughter’s cousins, her daughter’s friends, her daughter’s friends’ friends, her employees, their families, the weather, the state of the world, the state of her checking account. One night last month she even found herself worrying about Katie Couric’s ratings, although Katie had yet to return the favor.
She glanced up at the clock. Maybe she’d better start worrying about the time. The Cumberland County Association of Female Realtors expected a fully decorated cake delivered to the Knights of Columbus Hall by seven p.m. and it was already almost three. Given the fact that the president of the association was the daughter of her former mother-in-law’s best friend, she needed to get on it or there would be a lot of explaining to do. Connie Goldstein lived in Fort Lauderdale but her network reached far and wide.
“Don’t talk,” she warned her daughter. “Don’t breathe. I’m going to take another shot at this.”
“Since when do you have trouble with fondant? I can do fondant. You’ve been edgy all day. Aunt Fiona said—”
“Lizzie, please! Hang on to the commentary until I drape the cake.”
Rolled fondant was like edible vinyl flooring. It required a sure touch and seamless application or you might as well commission the Home Depot to do the job. She had worked a nice pale blue tint into the concoction and kneaded it until it screamed for mercy. All the fondant had to do now was cooperate.
She inhaled deeply, centered herself once more, then draped the sheet over the bottom tier of carrot cake.
“Okay,” she said on the exhale. “That’s better.”
“Um, Mom? It’s lumpy.”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“The top,” Lizzie said, pointing with a half-eaten cookie. “It’s all bubbly.”
“That’s the bottom tier. Nobody but the baker sees the top of the bottom tier.”
“I thought you were a perfectionist.”
“A perfectionist on a deadline.” She grabbed a pair of clean shears and clipped the excess around the perimeter. “One down, one to go.”
“Let me do the next one.”
“I’m not paying five thousand a year so you can learn how to ice cakes.”
“I like to ice cakes.”
“No, you don’t. You like to study.”
“I like to ice cakes too.” There was that sugary grin again. “It’s a genetic thing.”
“You take after your grandmother, remember?” Hayley carefully lifted a new sheet of rolled fondant and laid it flat on a marble slab. “Go back upstairs and think lofty thoughts. I need to concentrate.”
“I’m letting my brain chill.”
“I love it when you talk like your grandmother.”
Lizzie wiped her sugary hands on her jeans. “Speaking of Grandma, she’s coming home.”
“I know.” There went her concentration again. “Fortunately I still have time to hide my stash of People magazines.”
“Not really,” said Lizzie. “She’s coming home next week.”
Hayley stopped what she was doing. “But she was supposed to be in India until after New Year’s.” Her mother lived the higher life of the mind, which, in practical terms, meant lots of travel to lots of faraway places in search of knowledge, enlightenment, and government funding.
“She e-mailed us her new schedule,” Lizzie said. “I printed it out and left it on your desk.” Lizzie was the family computer expert who not only understood how computers functioned, but knew how to use them to the bakery’s best advantage. Hayley was reasonably sure they were the only bakery in New Jersey with a website, a blog, and a mailing list.
“Why is Jane coming home early?” Her mother loved everything about the academic lecture circuit: the intellectual stimulation, the travel, the smells and sights and sounds of strange cities in faraway countries.
The same things that left her daughter stone cold.
Lizzie shrugged. “She didn’t say.”
A cold blast of fear slammed into Hayley. “Oh God. You don’t think—” She couldn’t finish the sentence. Her mother’s breast cancer had been in remission for seven years this time around, but the shadow of another recurrence was always there.
“She wants to know if she can stay with us until the sublet on her place runs out and she can move back in.”
“My mother wants to stay here with us?” It was easier to imagine Jane pole-dancing than living happily above the bakery.
“That’s what she said.”
“Nothing’s wrong, Mom.”
“I know your grandmother better than you do. Something’s definitely wrong.”
“She’s just coming home early. I think part of her lecture tour got cancelled.”
“If part of her tour got cancelled, she’d book herself a few new speaking gigs. The one thing she wouldn’t do is come home early.” The concept of home didn’t have the same meaning to Jane as it did to her daughter.
“Maybe she misses us.”
“Have you met your grandmother? She loves us, but we’re not the center of her life.” She didn’t mean to sound harsh but that was the reality of being the daughter of a renowned scientist. The work took precedence over everything else.
“Aunt Fiona said Meals On Wheels won’t be delivering tomorrow so maybe we could bring her some Mac and cheese or something.”
“We’ll do better than that,” Hayley said. “I’ll put a pot roast in the slow cooker in the morning. We’ll bring her a feast with all the trimmings.”
Fiona was Jane’s younger sister. Hayley had stayed with Fiona and her late husband during junior and senior year of high school. The fact that Aunt Fee deserved the Croix de Guerre wasn’t lost on her.
“Ms. Hughes e-mailed the schedule for next month’s mentor meetings. She also wants to know if you could take on two more boys from the vo-tech.”
“If they don’t mind heavy lifting, tell her absolutely.”
“Ginger’s driving down to Philly next week. She wants to know if you can get away for lunch.”
“I’ll call her later.”
“Aunt Paula wants to know if you’re bringing the circular needles to the knit-in at the Friends of the Library party on Friday.”
“Good thing you reminded me,” Hayley said. “I totally forgot.”
“Aunt Karen and Aunt Dianne IM’d. They said Aunt Paula’s turned into a knitting nazi and they blame you.”
Paula, Karen, and Dianne were Hayley’s best friends since high school. They were the backbone of Lakeside’s Friends of the Library. The fact that a knit-in attracted more guests than anything book related wasn’t lost on any of them.
Hayley laughed. “I’ll take care of it later.”
“I paid the utility bill,” Lizzie said, “the prop tax, and the quarterlies. Do you want to pay the restaurant supply store in full or in two installments?”
“You decide,” Hayley said. Nothing like having a fourteen-year-old financial genius in the family.
“In full,” Lizzie said with assurance. “We don’t need more bills hanging over our heads.”
“Amen to that.”
“Don’t forget I’m having supper at Aunt Michelle’s tonight. She wants me to run TurboTax on last year’s returns.”
Hayley tried not to dwell on the fact that her former sister-in-law still hadn’t filed her tax returns. “Stuffed peppers?”
“Aunt Michelle’s gone veggie. They’re stuffed with tofu.”
“I’ll have nightmares all night,” Hayley said with a shiver. “I want you home by ten. Tell Michie she has to drive you. On second thought, I’ll call and tell her myself.” She wanted to remind her former sister-in-law that she was scheduled to open the bakery on Saturday while Hayley and Lizzie went on Lakeside High School’s mentoring program spring picnic.
“I can walk.”
“Not at ten o’clock at night, you can’t.”
“Lakeside is one of the safest towns in New Jersey. I read the state demographics on safety and—”
“You’re not walking home alone. If Michie doesn’t want to drive you, call me and I’ll pick you up.”
“I’m fourteen. I can—”
Lizzie’s jaw stiffened and Hayley had a quick flashback to a stubborn two-year-old pitching a fit on the floor of the produce department of ShopRite. Where had the years gone?
The dark cloud lifted as quickly as it had appeared and Lizzie promised she wouldn’t walk home.
“Now scram,” Hayley ordered as her daughter grabbed another cookie, “or I’ll have one hundred angry Cumberland County real estate agents screaming for my head tonight.”
Lizzie darted back upstairs and Hayley tried to center her thoughts for what seemed like the thousandth time that afternoon. Working with rolled fondant wasn’t her favorite thing in the world, but it wasn’t exactly making phyllo dough by hand either.
It shouldn’t be a big deal but today it was. For some reason, everything had felt like a big deal today.
She had woken up feeling unsettled for no reason that she could figure out, as if something was looming just out of sight, waiting to pounce like a monster in one of the horror movies on late-night TV.
“Maybe Lizzie’s right,” she mumbled as she manipulated the fondant into position on the next layer. She had turned worry into an Olympic event. Creative types were supposed to drift through life without a care. Where had she gone wrong?
She had a brilliant mother, a budding genius daughter, and a thriving business.
Why not relax and enjoy?
Other people were able to relax and enjoy at the drop of a hat. Her mother had been known to fall into a deep, rejuvenating sleep in the middle of turbulence over the Indian Ocean. Her daughter had an ability to live happily in the moment that would throw the Dalai Lama into a swoon of spiritual envy.
When life was running smoothly, Hayley worried that she wasn’t worrying enough, at which point life usually gave her something to worry about.
Funny how it always seemed to work out that way.
It was probably fate’s funny little way of paying her back for all the worry she’d caused Aunt Fee and Uncle Bernie when she was a teenager.
Trish and Rachel were up front manning the counter. Lizzie was upstairs thinking great thoughts. The family pets were all accounted for. She could spend a little time worrying about living under the same roof with her mother, her daughter, three cats, a dog, and a parrot, but that seemed excessive even to Hayley.
Murmuring a prayer to Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of bakers, she got back to work.
* * *
“I don’t get it,” Anton said as Finn hung a left onto Lakeside’s tree-lined Main Street. “Why don’t you just ask one of the chefs at the hotel to make a fancy cake for the after-party?”
A four-hour drive to a family bakery in a small South Jersey town for a layer cake was hard to explain.
Not to mention the fact that Finn was a lousy liar. Sins of omission. Plain old evasion. And that old legal standby: obfuscation. He was no damn good at any of them.
“He wants a cake from Goldy’s Bakery.”
“Why?” Finn parroted. “What are you, four years old? Because he wants it.” Superstars wanted what they wanted at the exact moment they wanted it, and as a general rule nobody on the payroll ever asked why.
At least not to the superstar’s face.
“You know I’ll figure it out sooner or later.”
Anton was his closest friend. He would trust the guy with his life, but not with Tommy’s secrets.
“When you do, explain it to me,” Finn said. “I didn’t see this one coming.”
He had done everything he could to talk Tommy out of this, with no luck. “What’s the problem?” Tommy had asked him during one particularly heated exchange late last night. “I’m not trying to hurt her. No matter which way it plays out, she’s in a win-win situation.”
Finn didn’t believe in win-win situations. Somebody always came out on the short end of the winning stick and normally it was his job to make sure it wasn’t Tommy Stiles. In a perfect world, the idea made perfect sense: a business transaction conducted in a public venue with little chance for messy emotions to come into play. Unfortunately Finn knew Tommy too well. The second he saw this woman who might be his daughter, logic and reason would fly out the window and they would all end up screwed.
“That’s it?” Anton said. “That’s all you’re gonna give me?”
“I shouldn’t have given you that much.”
“This better be some cake,” Anton muttered.
“Looking to steal a few trade secrets?”
“I’m an amateur, baby,” Anton said with a laugh, “but I wouldn’t mind copping a few riffs from a master baker.”
“You’re sounding cynical, m’man. She’s supposed to be damn good.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Anton had taken a few series of classes at the Culinary Institute upstate and periodically threatened to quit the band and cook full time.
“We’re looking for Goldy’s,” Finn said as he rolled to a stop at a traffic light. “Number four eighteen.”
A bank. A card shop. A one-hour photo shop with a FOR RENT sign in the window. Blockbuster. Two dentists. One gynecologist. A holistic therapist who sold handmade candles on the side.
East Hamptonites liked to say they moved out to the end of Long Island for the “small-town” atmosphere, but they were kidding themselves. The Hamptons had become Manhattan East, almost as fast-paced, and definitely as competitive as anything you’d find on the little island on the other side of the East River.
Lakeside was the real deal and it would send most of them screaming for their air-conditioned Range Rovers.
“Up there,” Anton said, pointing. “Next to the dry cleaners. Somebody just pulled out.”
Finn angled Tommy’s shiny black Escalade into the parking spot. He was beginning to see the hand of fate at work.
“It’s small,” Anton said, gesturing toward the storefront with the sign GOLDY’S . . . SINCE 1969 stenciled across the plate-glass window. An old man sat on a lawn chair in front of the dry cleaners next door and watched them the way most men watched the Super Bowl.
“It’s Jersey,” Finn said with a shrug.
Which pretty much explained everything.
* * *
Trish, one of the high school girls Hayley was currently mentoring, burst into the kitchen looking like she had just bumped into Justin Timberlake and then ricocheted off Johnny Depp.
“There’s two guys outside who want to see you and they’re unbelievably hot!” Trish was seventeen, the age when the arrival of any biped with a Y chromosome rated a breathless announcement. “One of them looks like a rock star from, you know, way back in the eighties.”
Ouch. She had been Trish’s age in the eighties.
“A rock star?” she asked, lifting a brow. Rock stars were in short supply in Lakeside.
“A rock star,” Trish confirmed. “And he’s wearing leather.”
There was only one reason an aging leather-clad hottie would show up at Goldy’s Bakery at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and it had nothing to do with brownies, cheesecake, or bagels.
“Tell him Mr. Goldstein doesn’t live here anymore.” And that Mrs. Goldstein couldn’t be happier about it. Not even sending him his monthly share of the store’s profits dimmed her joy.
“But he didn’t ask for Mr. Goldstein. He asked for you.”
Why did that surprise her? She was the Goldstein with a bank balance, after all. It had been a while since someone had come looking for her ex but the knot in her stomach was painfully familiar. The faint stench of danger still lingered in the air. She wished she had a dollar for every angry enabler who had shown up at Goldy’s in search of the reluctant Mr. Goldstein. She’d be able to buy him out once and for all and still have money to spare.
“Then tell him I’m not here.”
“But, Mrs. G., I already told him you were.”
“Then tell him the truth,” she said. “I’m busy working on a cake that should have been finished an hour ago. I can’t spare a second.” And here she’d thought her life would settle down after Michael moved to Florida to mooch off his mother. The man’s problems had the half-life of uranium.
Trish rearranged her pretty features into an even prettier frown. “He really wants to see you, Mrs. G. Maybe—”
Hayley could feel the hot breath of the Cumberland County Association of Female Realtors on the back of her neck. She whipped out The Look, the same look every mother on the planet had down cold, aimed it in Trish’s direction, then hoped for the best.
“I’ll tell him,” Trish mumbled, then pushed through the swinging door to deliver the bad news.
The Look had stopped working on Lizzie when she was seven, but it was nice to know she still had enough maternal firepower at her command to keep her young staff in line.
She pressed her ear against the swinging door but she couldn’t make out Trish’s words, just a high apologetic string of female sounds that was followed by a male rumble. Leather Boy had a good voice, baritone, a little smoky. She couldn’t make out his words either but Trish’s answering giggle conjured up some painful memories of herself at that age.
First a girl giggled, then she sighed, and the next thing you knew she was in Vegas taking her wedding vows in front of a red-haired Elvis with an overbite. You knew you had made a bad choice when Elvis slipped you his divorce lawyer’s business card while you were still shaking the rice from your hair.
She listened closer. Trish said something girly. Leather Boy rumbled something manly. This time Rachel, her other counter girl for the week, giggled too, a sound that sent Hayley’s maternal early-warning system into overdrive.
Rachel Gomez was a serious straight-A student bound for Princeton next year on full scholarship. She needed the paycheck more than any mentoring Hayley might have provided her. Rachel had probably never giggled before in her life.
If Rachel giggled, then even Lizzie might not be immune. Fourteen was when it started, that fizzy sensation in your veins, the yearning for things you couldn’t define, the sudden realization that boys were infinitely more interesting than global warming or the fate of the humpback whale.
Fourteen was also when young girls parted company with their self-confidence and traded in their love of math and science for a date for the prom.
Sometimes she wanted to lock Lizzie away in her room with her computer, her books, and a cell phone (maybe), and not let her out again until she was twenty-one. Thirty sounded better but even fantasies had their limits. The advisor at Olympia Prep had suggested that Lizzie might be better served intellectually by skipping the rest of high school and starting college in the fall but Hayley was dead set against it. Lizzie might be brilliant when it came to science but when it came to life, she was still only fourteen.
The world could be a scary place. A mother did her best to protect her kid from fast cars, drunk drivers, broken bones, flu, the common cold, but there was nothing she could do to protect her kid from growing up. No matter what you did or how well you did it, your little girl wasn’t going to stay a little girl. Right before your eyes she was going to grow up on you anyway and all you could do was pray she didn’t follow in your foolish footsteps.
Once upon a time, Hayley had believed that a good woman (her) could turn a bad boy (her ex) into a knight in shining armor (pure fantasy). Ten years of marriage to Michael Goldstein had finally drummed the truth into her head. People didn’t change with time. They just became more of who they were to begin with.
In the real world bad boys didn’t turn into knights in shining armor. Bad boys grew up to be even worse men and the world would be a much happier place if little girls were taught that basic fact along with their ABCs.
Why didn’t women teach their young how to cope with the things that were really important instead of how to walk in their first pair of heels? Why didn’t they make a point of sitting their girl children down and telling them the truth about men instead of letting some guy in a leather jacket seduce them over a tray of black-and-white cookies?
That was one of the many reasons why she had helped institute the mentoring program at the high school. Lizzie claimed her overflow worrying needed an outlet but it went far deeper. She saw herself in those girls, insecure, struggling, hungry for love, and ready to hand over their futures to the first guy who came along.
Those idiot girls out there were like ripe fruit on a very low-hanging branch. The slightest breeze would be enough to shake them from the tree and into the waiting arms of Leather Boy or someone just like him and their entire lives would be changed forever.
Except it wasn’t going to happen on her watch. With apologies to the good real estate agents of Cumberland County, it was time to prepare for battle.
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