Sweet Confections – Chapter One

LIFE AS A SINGLE CHICK SUCKED. Well, not all of it. Rachel loved designing cakes at the upscale bakery she co-owned with her best friend. Kicking butt at local and state cake competitions made work all the sweeter. No, there were lots of great elements about life in general, but the search for The Guy was exhausting. Was it really too much for a girl to ask for interesting conversation not centered around sports, a guy who laughed at corny jokes—possibly even himself at times—and a kiss with some zing? Major zing would be most appreciated.

She’d had visions of left-handed sparkle in the not-so-distant future with Nico Giambiasi. Instead she sat at Brisket and Noodles, one of Kansas City’s popular BBQ restaurants, decked out in her favorite clingy jeans, an emerald top that contrasted nicely with her deep red hair and killer heels, trying to absorb the bomb her boyfriend just dropped.

“Are you serious? You’re married?” Rachel pushed her hair back over her shoulder, although she was tempted to wrap it around her fingers and pull hard to see if this conversation was real or just a horrible dream.

“It’s not what you think, darling.” Nico reached across the table, but she moved her hands to her lap.

“Really? We’ve been dating for three months! What am I supposed to think?” She searched his face for signs of something she must have missed, but all she saw were dark good looks. She leaned back in the seat and placed a hand over her stomach, trying to hold back the bubble of hysterical laughter gathering within. Dimly, she heard him talking, but couldn’t focus on the words. How could this be true? Sure he left for extended trips, often flying back to Italy where the company he worked for was based. But married? Never in a thousand million years would she have guessed he was spoken for in a very permanent way. Had all the time they spent together really been one big tangled web of lies? There should be a cell phone app that monitors your social calendar and sends a flashing neon text message after ten dates with a reminder that it’s probably time to apply the one thing the males species ever got right—the Boy Scout motto. ‘Be Prepared’ and locate the nearest emergency exit.

Then she heard something that made her sit up straight. “Stop. Say that again.” She shook her head. She couldn’t have possibly heard him right.

“I said if it weren’t for the kids, I would have left Denita long before I met you.”

“Your kids?” she squeaked. The image of a little boy covered in dust and dirt and a sweet girl holding her baby doll with no daddy to play with popped into her head. Nico was lucky the table wasn’t preset with sharp knives. The jerk. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “You make me sick.” She pushed back from the table and stood to leave, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her close.

“You need to listen, Rachel.” Anger sharpened his features. Her heart pounded against her chest as she attempted to step away but he pulled her closer still. “Sit down. I’m not finished yet.”

She reached for a glass of water, intending to throw it in his face, but he took the goblet from her. “Please, that is so cliché.”

Her nails bit into the palm of her hand, then the next thing she knew, her fist connected with his nose. Pain shot up her forearm, all the way to her elbow. Holy mackerel. She had never hit anyone before, but thankfully her brothers made her learn how to do it properly.

Nico gasped and released her, bending over to cover his face. She took the opportunity to snatch her purse and get away, quickly weaving between the tables toward the front of the restaurant. Well, Rachel, she thought, this is what you get for meeting people online. Didn’t Mom tell you there were a bunch of loonies out there? But did you listen? Of course not. As she neared the foyer, Nico yanked her around to face him. A trickle of blood ran down from his nose. A wave of queasiness washed over her when he reached up and wiped it with the back of his hand. He looked at the smeared blood, then shoved his hand into his pocket before returning his attention to her.

“Where do you think you’re going? You came with me and you’ll leave with me.” People waiting to be seated stopped talking and stared at the drama unfolding before them.

“Let go of me, Nico. You’re causing a scene,” she said quietly. Instead, his hand tightened on her arm, making her wince. What was he doing? He had always been charming and sweet—until tonight. Was it all a masquerade?

“Excuse me, but I believe the lady asked you to let her go.”

The deep voice came from over her shoulder. Nico glanced up and his eyes widened, then narrowed. He slowly released her arm.

Rachel automatically stepped away, but bumped into a solid chest. She moved to the side and looked up . . . and up.

Beside her stood one of the tallest men she’d ever seen. She was an average girl who could hit 5’8” with the right heels on, but still, her head barely came to the middle of his chest. He turned and blocked Nico from her.

“Are you okay, miss?” he asked in an unexpectedly gentle voice. She forced herself to nod, but couldn’t seem to make her vocal cords work. He studied her for a moment, then gave a return nod. When he turned around, she saw Nico’s face harden with resentment and a shiver ran down her spine.

“Rachel,” Nico said tightly. “This is enough. I’m taking you home, now.”

“I believe she’s changed her mind. You can say goodnight.” Her rescuer motioned to the front door.

Nico looked as if he might push the issue, but instead turned away and pulled his coat on. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Don’t.” She couldn’t stand the thought of being near him. If she didn’t get away from him soon, her roiling stomach would force her to the nearest restroom or trash can.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he repeated, then shoved the door open and stormed out.

Married. He’s married, married, married.

“Excuse me,” the man said, stepping to her side. “Perhaps you’d like to come into the office while you wait for a cab?”

Rachel tightened her grip on her purse, trying unsuccessfully to quiet the jumbled confusion in her head. “Yes, thank you. I’d appreciate that.”

“Max, please call a cab and let me know when it arrives.”

The restaurant host gave a slight nod in acknowledgment, then she followed the man down a short hallway and into a masculine office. Simple black framed pictures of hockey players and teams lined the wall behind the desk. He motioned to the black leather couch sitting in front of a large mahogany desk. “Please sit while I get you a drink.”

She sank into the soft, buttery leather and closed her eyes, concentrating, searching for the calm she needed to make it home before falling apart. She could keep herself together. She would keep herself together. She opened her eyes to find the manager standing before her with a glass of ice water. She’d noticed his height, but didn’t realize how big he really was. Medium brown hair fell forward onto his forehead, his shoulders were wide and everything else was all muscle. The combination of being in the small office and him standing near made her claustrophobic. She thanked him, then took a sip, but didn’t relax until he took a few steps back and leaned against the edge of the desk.

“I’m Graydon Green,” he said. “And I take it you’re Rachel.” He extended his hand toward her.

“Yes, Rachel Marconi.” Warmth tingled where his rough palm rubbed against hers and she pulled away. “I really appreciate your help, Mr. Green.”

“Please, call me Graydon. Do you need some ice for that?” He motioned to her hand.

She held it out in front of her. There was some redness around the knuckles and it still hurt a little, but she shook her head. “I’ve never hit anyone before. Not even my stupid brothers when they cut the hair off my Barbie dolls.” She flexed her hand a few times, then transferred the water glass to it. The iciness felt good as it seeped into her hand.

“It looks like you did a decent job for your first try.”

She twisted the glass around, listening to the clink of ice against glass. Calm, she repeated to herself. Find something else to focus on. She looked at the decor. “So, who’s the hockey fan?”

His whole body tensed and became unnaturally still before relaxing. The moment passed so fast, she wasn’t sure if she had really seen it or if it had been her imagination.

“The guys in my family. Any time we all get together, it’s the only thing that can be on TV without someone complaining.” He hesitated, then asked, “Do you like hockey?”

She shook her head. “Not really. But my dad and brothers follow almost everything—football, golf, soccer, bowling. I think I’ve interrupted them during a few hockey games. Personally, I think it’s too violent.” She looked again at all the hockey pictures, sure she had offended a die-hard fan. “Well, it’s not just hockey. I feel the same way about football.”

“Says the girl who just punched her boyfriend in the nose,” Graydon said, a small lopsided smile made a dimple appear in one cheek.

Rachel snorted. “Believe me, he deserved it.”

He remained silent, looking at her in a way that made her feel like he was weighing her comments. She met his gaze as they contemplated each other. Then she blurted out, “What is it with guys and lying?” He jolted in surprise. She continued before he could answer. “Seriously. Why do men think it’s okay to cheat?”

Graydon held his hands out, as if defending himself from an ambush. “Just because I’m a guy doesn’t mean I understand why others make the choices they do.” He lowered his hands to grasp the edge of the desk. “To answer your question, I don’t know. Maybe they grew up with dads who cheated or didn’t have someone around to teach them the right way to treat a woman.” He shrugged. “I do know there are lots of good guys out there.”

“If there are, I haven’t discovered proof of their existence.”

He leaned slightly forward. “Is that what tonight was about?”

Rachel turned her head away. She would never tell a stranger the truth. But how could she tell her family and best friend that she unwittingly became ‘the other woman.’ The one wives whisper about and plot revenge against. She gripped the glass of water, pondering how her life had taken this turn.

“My parents have been married for almost 40 years,” she said. “These days, it seems like a miracle if a couple stays together long enough to celebrate their 10th anniversary.” Their eyes met, hers moist while his were contemplative. “What happened that people don’t love and respect each other through all the bumps anymore?”

The question sat in the silence of the room, dangling like a dead man at the end of a rope. Rachel’s stomach tightened in a knot, creating a combination of queasiness and the urge to laugh at the horrendousness of the situation. She had gone from a startling, relationship-altering bomb being dropped to spewing her inner-most gut-wrenching questions about men and relationships to a total stranger.

She fidgeted in her seat, desperate to change the subject. Suddenly, it clicked in her mind who he reminded her of. “Has anyone ever said you look like that guy from The Pacifier?” His forehead scrunched in confusion. That should have been her clue to stop, but instead verbal diarrhea took over. “You know, the movie about the military guy who ends up babysitting. I’m terrible at remembering celebrities.” She rubbed her forehead, trying hard to come up with the name that seemed to be on the edge of her memory. Anything to keep her mind distracted from tonight’s disaster.

He cleared his throat. “You mean Vin Diesel?”

Her head snapped up. “That’s it!”

“You think I look like Vin Diesel?”

“Yes! Well, other than you actually have hair and I guess he’s on the short side and you’re rather tall,” she tilted her head, not able to stop the rambling. “But your faces are similar and you’re both freakishly muscular—um, I mean . . .” Heat flooded her cheeks. His lips were thin and his eyes crinkled at the corners while mirth danced in the brown depths. “I’m sorry. I tend to put my foot in my mouth, or let it out as the case may be, but—” She didn’t even finish the sentence before he began to laugh. Great. Where was the duct tape when you needed it?

A light knock caught her attention. She turned to see the restaurant host standing at the door. “Your cab has arrived, miss.”

Escape. The emergency exit she so desperately needed finally appeared. She gathered her things, then stood and bumped into Graydon.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, hurrying out of the room.

“Wait.” He followed her down the hall. She almost made it to the front entrance without speaking to him again. “Here, let me get the door for you.” He reached around her and grabbed the handle.

Sure, anything to get me out of here faster. She brushed past him to the cab waiting at the curb, but paused when she thought she saw Nico’s car parked at the corner. Has he been waiting for me all this time? She squinted to see if it really was him, but the car was parked in a poorly lit area of the street. The evening’s darkness made it difficult to tell if someone sat inside or not.

Once more, Graydon materialized, this time to open the cab door. She wanted to slide in and escape, instead she turned toward him one last time. His expression was calm and warm. Chocolate. His eyes reminded her of melted chocolate just before mixing it into ganache. She blinked, then refocused. For a brief moment, gratitude pushed her desperation and anger aside.

“Thank you for helping me earlier.” She started to move, but he took her hand and helped her into the cab, then briefly squeezed it before he stepped back.

“I hope you come back soon, Rachel Marconi.” He closed the door and waved the driver on.

She turned in her seat. Graydon stood at the curb, hands in his pockets, watching her ride away. She faced forward and sighed. The night flashed through her mind like a bad movie rerun.

Well, one thing’s certain. I’m an idiot. She wiped at the tears falling down her cheeks, pulled her cell out of her purse and hit speed dial. But at least I’m an idiot who has Ben & Jerry’s and a best friend to share it with.