Last week I posted the original chapter 1 for my culinary mystery. This is the deleted chapter 2.
The headlights slashed onto my best friend’s face, making her teeth glow white against her caramel-colored skin. She sat on the steps leading up to my grandma’s place, above the empty restaurant. I sighed in relief and parked beside her minivan, feeling at home for the first time in nearly a year. The long drive to Silver Springs, Arizona from Chicago had been grueling, reminding me why I usually flew when I came to visit.
Honey held a plastic-wrapped plate, piled high with the brownies she’d promised. There is nothing quite like a chocolate fix when your world has been turned upside down.
Though we had talked on the phone for over two hours since I left Chicago the previous afternoon—using my blue tooth, since I’m all about safety—just seeing her standing there, a half-gallon of milk sitting at her feet, the goodies in hand, made me feel better already. It had been too long since I’d last made the trip.
I dragged myself from the car, reveling in the warm air—Chicago winters are miserable—and threw my arms around Honey.
“You made it right on time. I pulled in a couple of minutes ago,” she said, hugging me.
“Thanks for being here.” I stepped away and looked her over. The past year had been good to Honey. Her cornrows were longer than last time I saw her—down her to shoulder blades and pulled back on the sides. Her round features, heart-shaped face, laughing brown eyes, and the dimple in her right cheek were reassuring and familiar.
“Like I would be anywhere else! Besides, it gave me a good excuse to avoid the quilt guild meeting again. Mary Ellen is getting so pushy lately!”
It was good to be back. I pulled out my key to unlock the door to the narrow staircase leading to the apartment above grandma’s old restaurant. “Let me get my bags and I’ll be right there.”
I held one suitcase in front of me, and another behind as I scaled the steps. The lamplight fell in pale splashes against the faded yellow paint on the right wall of the stairwell, showing rub marks and chips in a few places. Family portraits and postcards from trips my family had taken littered the walls. The Acropolis, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Egyptian pyramids, and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia made appearances, many with me and my parents in the corner of the shot.
The little apartment held a slight musty smell. Everything was familiar, and contrary to the pain I’d felt on my last couple of visits, comforting. The room held old, worn sofas covered with afghans Grandma had knitted, the fake plants standing sentinel in the corners and on tables. More faded paint in mint green, more pictures, knickknacks, and a heavy layer of dust covered everything. It was a balm to my broken heart.
At least I’d have plenty of work cleaning the place up again. That should give me time to consider what to do next.
The sound of Honey running water drifted to me from the kitchen as I took the bags to the tiny bedroom I’d always slept in. The thought of moving into Grandma’s much bigger room hadn’t occurred to me until she’d been gone over a year, but I was so rarely here, I hadn’t bothered. Since it would have required going through her personal effects, the bigger space wasn’t worth the time, or the pain it would have dredged up. Now some time had passed, I might be able to face it.
Two sparkling salad plates, now with a couple of brownies on each, and two tall glasses of milk sat on the dusty coffee table when I returned to the living room. Though I considered detouring to the bathroom for a cleaning rag to wipe the table down, I decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Tomorrow was soon enough.
With a sigh, I kicked off my newest pair of Monolo Blahniks and wiggled my toes. They hadn’t been very practical for the long drive, but they made my feet pretty, and had cheered me up when I’d dragged myself out of the motel bed at the crack of dawn that morning.
Honey picked one up and held it reverently. “How unfair is it that I can never borrow your shoes? I can’t believe your feet are smaller than mine.”
I didn’t bother to point out that I lived on the other side of the country so borrowing opportunities were minimal anyway. “It’s all that coveting you did as a kid. This is Karma blowing back at you.”
She pulled a face at me. “How was your trip?” she asked as she curled up on the long sofa.
Snuggling in on the other end, I reminded her, “I spoke to you less than an hour ago.”
She laughed, her voice like the sound of tiny seashells as they clinked together. She was so feminine, from her short frame and tiny hands to her womanly curves. She even looked the part of a mother of three, though I still struggled sometimes to believe her oldest son was already eight. “So you did. Feeling any better?”
“I’m here, you’re here, and these brownies,” I took a bite and moaned in appreciation over her famous rocky road brownies. Filled with walnut chunks and chocolate chips, topped with melted marshmallows, and slathered with my famous fudge frosting, nothing on the planet tasted better than these babies. “Can we say heaven?” This dessert wasn’t sophisticated enough for my Chicago clients’ palates—at least that’s what the head chefs claimed when I suggested adding them to the menu. But I couldn’t imagine anyone not melting into a puddle of fulfillment with just a single bite—the repeat business would be phenomenal.
We settled into giggles and chat, catching up on all the local gossip, avoiding the topic of Bronson, my oh-so-recently ex-fiancé. There had already been plenty of discussion en route about my anger, disgust and hurt feelings over catching him in a lip-lock with the kitchen manager he knew I hated. Now I needed distraction. I was surprised when there was a knock at the door. Who else knew I was in town?
Honey looked at me like she knew who it was, and felt guilty. “That’s got to be Analesa.”
I searched my memory until the name came to me. I met lots of the locals when I spent summers here with my grandma, but hadn’t seen or even thought about this one in years. “Analesa Plumber?” I remembered the short, freckled little girl who had tried to insert herself in our playtime when we were kids.
“Yes. She was in the store earlier and I mentioned you were coming home tonight.” She stood and moved to answer the door. Honey’s husband’s parents owned a large grocery store just a few blocks down the road and George was well on the way to taking over the family enterprise as his parents moved toward retirement. I knew Honey put in time there now and then between her web design clients, though her son and two daughters kept her busy.
The door opened to reveal a stunning woman with hair falling halfway down her back like a sheet of black satin. The freckles were gone, the pinched look of hunger she’d always carried as a child eliminated. As her willowy frame entered the room, her arms outstretched to me for a hug, as if we were long-lost friends instead of acquaintances who hadn’t spoken in a decade or more. “Tess, I’m so glad to hear you’re home in my hour of crisis.”
I stood and accepted the embrace out of politeness and shock, though I was still wondering what had happened to the little girl I remembered. I also wondered why I was such a good omen in her crisis. That made me nervous. “It’s lovely to see you too, Analesa. How are things?”
“Terrible.” The woman dropped into the nearby loveseat without being invited and snatched a brownie from my plate without asking. “My wedding is in five days.”
“Sounds like you ought to be excited, not upset.”
Analesa took a bite of the brownie and moaned in appreciation. “This is divine. Can I have the recipe?”
“Sorry, family secret,” Honey said as she returned to her seat. We had developed the recipe together when we were seventeen, and two sisters were never closer than we are.
“That’s just too mean of you.” Analesa’s mouth turned down in a moue of disappointment.
“Sorry.” Honey didn’t sound at all sorry. She’d earned a blue ribbon with the recipe at the state fair and we’d made a pact not to share it.
“So you said things aren’t going well with your wedding plans? That’s too bad.” I tried to infuse understanding into my voice, but considering the state of my own love life, I didn’t feel especially compassionate.
“The wedding is going well, except for one thing.” She turned soulful eyes on me. “My cake decorator fell and broke her leg this morning. She’s not going to be able to make the cake! I was aghast when I found out—the wedding is at the end of the week and no matter how many places I called, no one can squeeze me in on such short notice. Not unless I want a second-rate chunk of Styrofoam from the grocery store—no offense, Honey.”
“None taken,” Honey said, without a shred of genuineness.
I smiled at Analesa’s words. I thought most grocery store cakes were rather bad as well, though the ones at Mark’s Food Town were better than average. “How unfortunate. I know how important the cake is to a wedding.”
Analesa grasped my hand with one of hers. She waved the half-eaten brownie in her free hand as she spoke. “So you’ll do it? Please, pretty please. You’re the best. I’ve seen the pictures of your cakes on your blog and Honey said you’d be staying here through the week at least. I know you could save my wedding.”
I suppose I should’ve seen it coming. “I don’t have a license here, or a kitchen, or the right tools.” Mostly, though the selection in my car would do for most designs.
“You could use the grocery store bakery. We have extra space and don’t use all the equipment much through the later part of the day,” Honey offered.
My glare didn’t seem to cow her in the least. “I don’t even have a food handler’s permit in Arizona.”
“That’s not hard to fix. The health department in Prescott has classes on Tuesday afternoon. You could go take care of it tomorrow when you run in to pick up supplies,” Honey suggested so helpfully I wanted to strangle her.
I crossed my arms over my chest. Were they both insane? I came here to mope and bag on men, not to bake cakes for a wedding that was only five days away. Five days. “You can’t be serious.”
“Tess, it would save my life if you did this for me. My wedding will be perfect if I have one of your signature cakes.” Analesa popped the last bite of brownie into her mouth and gave me a pleading look.
I lifted my brows. My signature cakes often took more than four days to create. They required time and preparation, proper equipment, supplies I wasn’t sure I would be able to find in Prescott. However, I looked in her pleading eyes, I couldn’t tell her no. What else was I going to do with my time? “What did you have in mind?”
She grinned in relief and pulled out a picture with four round tiers, each separated with columns and plates, dripping with gumpaste flowers. It was a nice design, doable—if I had three or four more days. The flowers were far more time consuming than people realized, and they had to be dried properly. “I assume your previous cake artist already has the flowers made.” If they were nice, I’d consider using them—this one time.
“She said she hadn’t started anything.”
Seriously? What kind of second-rate pastry chef had she hired? I asked about her timeline, suggested some alterations to the design to ensure I could finish on deadline, and she selected cake and filling flavors. Then I figured a price quote, making sure to add in a fee for the grocery store since I’d be using their kitchen. Though I dropped the cost significantly to what I charged brides through the hotel, I’d added a bonus for the short notice. I’d earn every penny. She gasped when she saw the total, then swallowed hard. I was unrepentant—if she chose to go elsewhere for her cake, it would leave me free to mope, as I’d planned.
She pulled out her checkbook with shaking hands. “I also wondered about a cupcake dessert for the previous evening, but these brownies are fabulous. Could you make them? There will be about twenty of us.”
I figured another dollar amount and added it to the first one. She nodded and wrote a check covering the full price. I’d expected her to balk, and wondered if it would bounce. It must be the cynic in me, but I figured I could cash it before I headed to Prescott for supplies the next day.
When the door shut behind her I turned to Honey, who beamed at me. “See how much we’d love to have you open a cake shop here? You’d stay so busy!” she insisted—as she always did whenever I came to visit, and often when we talked on the phone.
Though I’d been happy working in Chicago—at least until Karen had become the kitchen manager a few months back—Honey was determined that I should move permanently to Silver Springs and open up shop downstairs. I groaned. “Please, can we not start again?” I didn’t need her poking at me when I was already not at my best. If I didn’t shore up my resistance, she might succeed this time.
“Why not? You don’t know where you’re going. You quit your job and don’t have a better offer. You have a little nest egg to set up shop, an international reputation that local hotels and reception centers are bound to be thrilled to have available. And you make the yummiest desserts anyone ever imagined.”
“The restaurant is unsuited to the kind of work I do,” I shot back. I picked up another brownie and indulged in a large bite. Why were we discussing this when I needed serious chocolate therapy? Retail therapy was usually a great solution to a blue mood as well, but considering my current jobless state, picking up a pair, or three, of new shoes was probably not the best idea. Dang it. Discount store specials were not touching my feet.
“When was the last time you looked? I bet it’s better than you think. We should go down right now.” She bounced up and grabbed my arm, pulling me with her.
“Honey, really. I’m tired, I’m cranky, and I’m not going to open shop downstairs.”
She grabbed the brownie from my hand and set it back on my plate, then towed me to the stairwell behind her. Without missing a step, she snatched the spare key ring by the door that went to the restaurant downstairs.
One last segment to post next week. Until then, here are some more great reviews I’ve gotten on my book, Blank Slate.
Ariel from the Librarian’s Bookshelf said “This book had me hooked from the start.”
Susan from The Book Bag said: “Okay, so this book starts off pretty predictable . . . Hang on, though, Ms. Justesen takes you on a ride you don’t want to miss.”
“Justesen has written a novel about the power of strength and love.” Uniquely Moi Books.
“I was concerned that as the turning point in the book happened that the consequences of the circumstances would be glossed over and again the author came through . . . and wrote a great book.” Read the rest at Book Reviews and More
Remember, you can get a discount coupon code good to the end of the month at the end of any of the book reviews on my blog tour. Check them out!