Exclusive Excerpt from Sweet Valentine...
It was early, that time of morning just as the sky went gray around the edges, and the dark gave way to the birth of a new day.
As had become part of her routine, Phoebe Turner took a moment to pause, and watched as those bright fringes of colorful light crept their way slowly up over the horizon. She smiled, her heart content, as the sky shifted from a purple bruise to the pale blush of pink, and thought there was no better way for Valentine’s Day to start.
Humming to herself, as she was often want to do, she tucked a lock of her long, silky black hair behind her ear, then went back to her morning chore of stacking empty milk crates next to the side door of her bakery, Sweet Cakes. She had a batch of her famous red velvet cupcakes cooling on racks in the kitchen, a second batch already in the oven, with the plan for some black forest ones to come next. She was still toying with ideas for her third special for the day – leaning toward strawberry, her dark chocolate ganache for icing, though her coconut and lemon curd was another popular choice – when she stepped back into the kitchen.
A born baker, her internal timer went off just as she finished washing her hands, and she went to take her cupcakes out. The cupcake-shaped kitchen timer her older sister – and business partner – was obsessed with using, gave its shrill warning just as she set her baking tins on the cooling racks. Absently, she reached out and poked at it, then went to the walk-in for the trays of chocolate chip cookies she’d already put together.
A firm believer in multi-tasking, she set them to bake – and re-set the timer, to keep Sybil happy – then gathered her ingredients for the black forest cupcakes.
“You’d think that after two years a person would build up an immunity to the smell of all this stuff,” her younger sister, Angelina, said as she breezed into the kitchen, late for work – as usual. She inhaled deeply, sighed as she let it out. “But no. It’s as tantalizing as the first time.” Eyeing the racks of red velvet, she hung her coat and purse on the peg designated for her, and then pulled on her apron. “Are you making more of those?” she asked, pointing to the cupcakes.
“I will later on, yes,” Phoebe replied, switching on her mixer. “Keep your fingers off my cupcakes,” she added, without even turning to see that her sister was, in fact, debating which one would make a good breakfast.
Angelina pouted, then decided it was probably better for her hips to refrain from indulging anyway.
“How was your date last night?” Phoebe asked as she hauled the enormous mixing bowl up onto her work counter, where she had baking tins already prepared. She let it sit a moment as she went to take out her trays of cookies.
“It was wonderfully romantic,” Angelina replied, even as she slicked a fresh coat of bright, cherry red lipstick onto her full, wide mouth. “Tyler brought me a dozen long stemmed red roses, and gave me this.” She held her slender wrist out and wiggled it to show off the pretty ruby and diamond tennis bracelet that decorated it.
“Oh, wow.” Phoebe took a moment to pause and admire it. “That’s beautiful. But shouldn’t he have waited until tonight to give it to you?”
Angelina rolled her bright blue eyes, then shifted the angle of her wrist so she could admire her new bauble as well. “He wanted me to have it to wear to the Sweetheart Gala,” she told her, her tone suggesting this was an obvious observation. “He gave these to me the night before last,” she gestured to the earrings she wore, which matched the bracelet. “And gave me a necklace that completes the set the night before that.” She checked her reflection in the mirror above the handwashing sink, lifted a hand to tuck a lock of her long black hair back into place. “It’s been kind of like that Christmas song, you know, about the twelve days and all the gifts. Only it’s been the fourteen days of Valentine’s Day.” She smiled brightly and turned to her sister. “Tyler has a cousin,”
“Oh, no,” Phoebe said before she could finish, and she laughed as she measured chocolate cake batter into her baking tins.
“You haven’t even let me finish.” Angelina pouted as she washed her hands, then went to gather the ingredients to mix the icing for the first round of cupcakes. “He’s very handsome, and he’s a lawyer. A very successful one,” she added with a meaningful look at her sister.
“Good for him. I’m still not interested,” Phoebe replied, and she carried her tins to the oven.
“But you haven’t even,”
“Leave her be, Lina,” their oldest sister, Sybil, called out as she came down the back stairs from the office. Like her sisters, she was tall and slender, her own long black hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun she made look stylish, her silver framed glasses perched on her slender nose as she scowled at invoices.
“But Tyler has this cousin, visiting from Atlanta,” Angelina complained. “He’s a lawyer. A successful one, and I was just thinking,”
“That you’d try to play matchmaker again,” Sybil finished, and she lifted her eyebrows when Angelina shrugged. “Because that worked out so well the last time.”
“She didn’t even give Henry a real try,” Angelina muttered.
“And who could blame her after he told her he could fix her overbite,”
“I don’t have an overbite,” Phoebe muttered irritably in the background.
“And then offered to toss in a free whitening treatment for her teeth,” Sybil continued as she ignored her.
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe he was just nervous?” Angelina demanded as she rested her hands on her hips.
“Did it ever occur to you that it might not have been the best idea to set our baker sister up on a blind date with a dentist?” Sybil countered, setting her paperwork down on the counter beside her.
“Or a dietitian,” Phoebe added, and she smirked when her younger sister grimaced at the reminder of that particular incident.
“Well, all right, so maybe those weren’t good matches,” Angelina finally conceded, and she stuck her tongue out at her sisters when they both feigned shock at her admission. “But Paul really is a great guy, and again, he’s very successful. He’s very handsome, too,”
“And lives in Atlanta,” Phoebe added. “So what would be the point?”
“The point would be you’d have a date for Valentine’s Day,” Angelina replied, shifting to get back to mixing the icing for her sister’s cupcakes.
“And what if I don’t want a date for Valentine’s Day?” Phoebe asked.
“Well, that’s just ridiculous. Every woman wants a date on the most romantic day of the year,” Angelina replied.
“I’m sorry, have you met our sister?” Sybil asked, and ignoring the look Phoebe cast her way, selected a chocolate chip cookie to nibble on. “I’ll go out with your spare lawyer.” She shrugged when Angelina blinked in surprise. “My plans for tonight got cancelled, and unlike Phee, I do want a date for tonight. There’s nothing more depressing than going to a Sweetheart Gala solo.”
“True that,” Angelina said in way of agreement. “Okay, I’ll set it up.” Warming to the idea, she began to chatter on, giving Sybil his details.
Phoebe smirked as she listened to her, and continued her work, grateful for the reprieve.
It wasn’t that she was against dating – she enjoyed it when she was inclined to go out – but she’d been in a kind of dating moratorium lately, and didn’t see the point in coming out of it for a single night. Even if that night was supposed to be the most romantic night of the year.
“Oh, hey, I have an idea,” Angelina announced, and she reached out and poked Phoebe in the arm to get her attention.
“Do I want to know?” Phoebe asked, and she reached out to take the bowl of icing from her.
Angelina made a face, then simply folded her arms at her chest as she leaned back against the counter. “You’ll like this one. You will,” she insisted when Phoebe shook her head and began to fill piping bags.
“All right, then, what is your brilliant plan?” Phoebe asked, shifting to begin icing her red velvet cupcakes.
“Since you’re not interested in going out with Paul, or any of Tyler’s other friends, why don’t you talk Drew into taking you to the gala?” she replied, referring to a friend of theirs. When Phoebe snorted out a laugh, she scowled. “I don’t know why you’re laughing. It’s a perfectly reasonable alternative. And if you two go together, then we can all go out for drinks after, like a triple date.” She smiled brightly at the idea of it. Then scowled again when Phoebe shook her head. “And why not?”
“Did it ever occur to you that Drew might have plans for tonight?” Phoebe asked as she continued her icing.
Angelina rolled her bright blue eyes. “As he’s as commitment-phobic as you are, I think it’s safe to assume he doesn’t.”
“Hey now, that’s not fair. He did date that Yankee paralegal for a whole year,” Sybil reminded her. “What was her name? Connie? Cami?”
“Cleo,” Phoebe replied, and she shook her head. “As he was relieved she moved back up north after hinting she wanted a ring or else, she did not in fact count as a commitment for him.”
“Right. I forgot about that.” Sybil’s eyebrows drew together over the slender wire frames of her glasses. “Well, then I guess Lina’s point has merit.”
“No, it doesn’t. And I’m not commitment-phobic.” She scowled at her sisters when they both silently lifted their eyebrows. “I’m not.”
“When was the last time you dated someone for more than a couple of weeks?” Angelina asked.
Phoebe opened her mouth, then closed it and hunched her slender shoulders a bit as she reached for the container of candy hearts she’d made the day before. “I’ve been busy.”
“Says every commitment-phobe everywhere,” Angelina said.
“Don’t poke at her,” Sybil said sternly. “You know she has good reasons for avoiding relationships.”
“That was back in high school. And not every man out there is as scummy as Mark Stewart,” Angelina pointed out.
“Yes, that’s true, but when your first love cheats on you and then makes a laughing stock of you at the senior Valentine’s Day dance with his extracurricular girlfriend, it leaves an impression,” Sybil replied.
“Thanks so much for the reminder of that truly heinous event, and for reaffirming my continued boycott of this particular holiday.” Phoebe scowled as she placed candy hearts on each of her cupcakes, her cheerful mood from earlier beginning to fray at the edges.
“Forget it. It’s not important.” She set the container aside, then wiped her hands off before she reached for her tray of cupcakes. Then she sighed, set the tray down again, then turned and took the chocolate cupcakes out of the oven, just before the timer went off.
“How do you do that?” Angelina wanted to know. “It’s like you’re a cupcake whisperer or something.”
“Years of practice,” Phoebe replied, and set them out to cool. “Don’t touch those,” she added as she reached for her tray again. Then she went out into the front of the shop and began to arrange the cupcakes in the glass display case, and absently waved when her mother knocked on the front door.
“Morning, Mom,” she said letting her into the bakery.
“Morning, baby.” Martha lifted a hand and patted her daughter’s cheek as she made her way to the display. “I need two dozen cupcakes for the Women’s Club Tea Social this afternoon.” She eyed the selection already in the case. “I think a couple of variety boxes will do.”
Phoebe took an order pad from her apron pocket, wrote the order out, and then reached for two of the pale purple pastry boxes with the bakery’s logo on the top. “How are you doing this morning?” she asked as she began to fill the boxes.
“Oh, I’m fine. Your father surprised me this morning with a bouquet of roses, and breakfast in bed before he went into work. The eggs were scorched and the bacon half raw, but it was the thought that counts,” she added, grinning happily. “And what about you?”
“It was all going so nicely until Lina started nagging at me about going out with Tyler’s lawyer cousin from Atlanta,” Phoebe replied. “Sybil’s going to go out with him instead,” she added when her mother gave her a look of interest.
“Oh, baby.” Martha sighed and shook her head. “What would be so wrong with going out for a romantic evening every once in a while? Your whole life can’t be this bakery.”
“Exactly my point,” Angelina said as she stepped out of the kitchen with the chocolate chip cookies. “I told her she should nag Drew into taking her out, when she passed on Paul.”
Martha’s eyes brightened in delight over the idea. “Oh, now wouldn’t that be,”
“I’m not going to use Drew as a fall back date,” Phoebe said before she could finish.
“And why not?” Martha rolled her dark eyes.
“Because he’s my best friend,” Phoebe replied, and she turned and continued to box her mother’s cupcakes up while Martha and Angelina continued to discuss amongst themselves just why they thought she and Drew were meant for each other.
“Cheer up, Phee,” Sybil said when she came out to set up the register for the day. “They meddle because they love you.”
“I know.” And because she did, she made herself smile as she set the boxes on the counter. “I just wish they’d see that they don’t have to meddle, or worry. I’m happy and content with my life.”
Sybil opened her mouth, then closed it again, deciding to keep her thoughts on the matter to herself as she watched her younger sister step quietly back into the kitchen.