HE TAKES THE CAKE – Sample Chapter: Preparation

On a Sunday evening a month later, packing checklist in hand, I stand over the open suitcase on my bed and mentally run through the itinerary for the convention.

“Do you think I should bring anything else?” I ask Carmella, who sits on the accent chair in the corner, flipping through the organizational packet I got in the mail last week.

“Maybe another cocktail dress,” she says, frowning at the last page of the printed schedule. “The dark green one you splurged on after you finished your ACF coursework would look awesome with those copper highlights you just had done, and it complements the mahogany tones of your skin so well. You should wear it to the soiree.”

I brush my palm over my hair. The highlights were a last-minute idea. There are two semi-formal receptions I’ll probably attend over the next week, and I love how highlights look when I style my hair into chunkier, relaxed curls instead of leaving the tight, corkscrew ringlets that form when I let it go natural.

Approving the clothing suggestion, I cross to my closet and pull out the green dress. After carefully folding it, I cast a sidelong glance at Carmella. “If anything happens while I’m gone, anything at all, make sure you call me. Okay?”

“You do realize I have at least a month before my due date, and you’ll be back well before then. But yeah, I promise.” She flips open the convention booklet that arrived on Friday. “Did you get to proof your bio before they printed this?”

“No. I just copied and pasted from the bakery’s website, so it’s short and sweet.”

Carmella glances up. “The website doesn’t have anything about your new ACF credentials.”

I shrug and focus on shifting the contents of my suitcase so the green dress doesn’t get crushed. “It’s not a big deal. They’ll probably ask for something more inclusive to use at the panel discussion.”

“I’ll remind Lily to update your bio while you’re gone.” The booklet pages make a slight fwip sound as she flips to a different section. Then she gasps. “Tess!”

“What?” I spin, a pair of running socks in each hand.

“Did you see this? The final list of featured presenters?” Carmella turns the booklet and holds it up. A look of surprise etches itself on her face. “You must have.”

When I realize what pages she’s showing me, my stomach twists. I hide the accompanying grimace by shoving the socks into a side pocket of my suitcase. “Yeah, I saw it. So what?”

“What do you mean, so what?”

She stands and comes to my side, laying the open booklet across the suitcase and jabbing her finger at a bio at the bottom of the right-hand page. A small headshot, of a handsome black man in his early thirties, accompanies the short paragraph. He’s smiling—no, smirking—at the camera.

Tyler Brinks.

The man I told in no uncertain terms about seven and a half years ago that I never wanted to lay eyes on him again.

I hate that smirk. That cocky, self-assured, heart-numbing smirk.

A cold wave of irritation slides over me. I push the booklet away so I can finish organizing my clothes. “You know what I mean.”

Carmella snatches up the booklet and settles on the edge of the bed. She peers at me as she reads the first sentence of the bio. “Tyler Brinks, owner, operator, and head chef of the five-star restaurant On the Brink, brings his unique expertise in food fusion to the table, as he discusses the techniques and tips that have made a success of his Charleston and Hilton Head locations.”

“Again, so what?”

“This is Ty. You two were so tight those last couple years of college, we were hard pressed to pry you apart with a spatula.”

I pull the booklet out of her hands and toss it toward the chair. It falls short and plops onto the floor. “So we have a little bit of a romantic past.”

Carmella snorts. “That’s an understatement. I’m surprised you didn’t set off the fire alarms with how hot and heavy you guys were.”

“Well, we cooled off pretty quick after graduation,” I snap, leveling a glare.

She sighs and rests her hands on the top of her baby bump. “But not before he convinced you to pursue culinary arts.”

“That’s about the only good thing Tyler Brinks ever did for me.”

“You never did explain why you broke up with him. Just that your amour en flambé completely blew up.” She leans toward me. “Are you freaked about possibly seeing him again?”

Although my dander is up, I refrain from barking a reply at Carmella. It’s not her fault I’m faced with the prospect of crossing paths with Ty after almost eight years.

“It . . . might be bugging me a bit,” I finally mumble. I focus on making sure none of my clothes catch in the zipper as I close my slightly overstuffed suitcase.  Satisfied that my bag won’t explode on the way to Charleston, I drag it off the bed and sit down beside Carmella.

“Why?” she asks, cocking her head to one side. “You have as much of a right to be there as Ty does.”

“He’s a featured presenter.”

“On fine dining cuisine,” she points out. “Which is something you haven’t focused on. Pretty sure his knowledge of confectionary and pastry is rudimentary compared to yours. Aren’t you the only pastry chef at the panel discussion?”

I shrug. “You may have a point.”

She bumps my shoulder with her fist. “Of course, I have a point. You’re awesome at what you do, Tess. I can’t count the number of catering jobs you’ve had to turn down this past year because you’re already over-booked. We have so many customers these days, we never have to put leftover baked goods on special—because there are never any leftovers!”

“All right,” I say with a laugh, holding my hands up. “You don’t have to convince me of my own business success. I’m the first to toot my own horn, and you know it.”

“Then don’t let that toot go flat just because of Ty.” She wriggles to the edge of the bed and stands up. “You probably won’t even see him.”

I rise as well. “You’re right. The convention hosts hundreds of professionals. The only way I’d possibly see him is if I went to his presentation.”

Which I absolutely will not do.

As if reading my mind, Carmella winks. Then she cradles her belly in one hand and squats to retrieve the convention booklet from the floor.

“Carmella . . .” I begin, starting forward.

“Stop it. Seriously, between you and Ryan, you’d think I was the first woman on the planet to have a baby.” She slowly straightens, huffing out a breath, then tosses the booklet onto the chair. Then she faces me. “As your friend and business partner, I insist that you have fun at the convention this week. Don’t just toot your horn, play a damn fanfare. Oh, and if Mario Batali is there, get me his autograph.”

 

I laugh and nod. “You got it.”

A loud cheer echoes in from the living room, where Ryan is watching the college hoops tournament. The cheer is punctuated by several loud claps.

“I take it his bracket has survived?” I ask with a grin.

Carmella shrugs. “One branch at least. I should take him home before he gets absorbed in the next game. Text me when you get to Charleston tomorrow.”

 

“Will do,” I promise.

“And if you do happen to run into Ty,” she adds as she heads into the other room to pry her husband away from the T.V., “flip him off for me, for breaking your heart.”

If only breaking my heart was actually what had happened between me and Ty.