A smile of approval lifted the corners of Chloe Lawson's mouth as she sampled her latest dessert creation. Rich chocolate from a bittersweet royale torte melted sinfully on her tongue. She'd gotten the cream glaze perfect. Not too thick and with just the right hint of cognac.
She loved being in the kitchen, working hands-on with the pastries and cakes she sold.
The sumptuous aromas of confectionaries floated in the oven-warmed air of her trendy bakery, Not Just Cakes. Having only opened five months ago, business had taken off in ways she'd only dreamed of. She sold a variety of desserts to local restaurants, and had been building a wedding-cake clientele with a steady stream of referrals. She'd had to hire extra help to keep up. Her instructions to Jenny and Candace were uttered succinctly and with time-tested methods that worked flawlessly.
"Chloe, do you want me to start frosting the cupcakes with the génoise?" Candace asked, standing at the worktable. Sandy-colored freckles dusted the bridge of her nose, her red hair pulled back into a loose ponytail.
Responding, Chloe said, "Thanks. That would be great."
Jenny filled piping bags with fresh white icing. "We have an order for six dozen of those cupcakes going to the Borah building later this afternoon. It's some official's birthday."
"Make sure we have the exact name, and I want you to put in a party praline as a special treat for them. In fact, when the stores open downtown, run up the street to the card shop and pick out a birthday card we can all sign."
"Sure, Chloe." Jenny set the piping bag down and jotted notes on a pad of paper.
That settled, Chloe refocused her attention on the torte and sampled another bite. Satisfied she'd done a perfect job, she smiled.
Cake-making was an exact process. Everything had to be calculated and balanced. For example, baking was only done in aluminum cookware. The shiny surface of stainless steel became too heat-reflective, causing the sides of the pan to cook the batter faster than the middle, creating a dry finished product.
Not only did Chloe like the intricacies of baking, but she also loved the variety of textures she created: the silkiness of butter creams and rich, thick mousses. Chocolate and vanilla sauces beneath fresh berries. The tart or sweet fruit fillings of a seasonal offering.
Baking drew out a blissful happiness from within her, linking her to the happy times of her adolescence, an otherwise blur in her young adult life. Decorating cakes had been the silver lining in her dark cloud when she turned fifteen, and the crazy-normal world as she knew it turned topsy-turvy.
Her aimless mother, Wanda, chose her boyfriend over Chloe, and left Chloe behind with Ethel Lumm her mother's mother.
Chloe wouldn't have the confidence she had today without her grandmother's encouragement. Funny how being suspended from school in the ninth grade had been the catalyst for a new direction in her life. With a suggestion so simple, Ethel had been the driving force behind Chloe's change. Developing her skills in the kitchen had been the start of a fresh perspective during her teenage years.
Chloe had taken to being in the kitchen, rolling out her first fondant in junior high and landing first place in the Western Idaho Fair's junior division with a three-tiered rose cake.
Ethel, nothing like Wanda, had a giving heart, plus a savvy mind. She'd offered the encouragement needed to help Chloe figure out her talent. Today, Chloe was a long way away from that confused fifteen-year-old girl. Her baking skills were second to none and Not Just Cakes was proof of her talent. Chloe's future looked very rosy.
Due in large part to Ethel's suggestion, Not Just Cakes had located in the Grove Marketplace where Ethel had her own business. Ethel's Boutique, a clothing store, racked up sales from the full-figured woman who wanted to be stylish. Ethel wanted her customers to feel good about themselves and not to be identified as a plus-sized shopper. So Ethel was fond of saying that even when Oprah was at her largest, she always looked fabulous because she dressed with class. Given that, Ethel's Boutique marketed the clothing for the "voluptuous and sexy" woman.
Behind Chloe, the heat of the oven radiated next to her back. Sunrise hadn't shown its gingered hues yet, and already the kitchen was uncomfortably hot. She kept cooling fans running, but certain glazes and icings dried out as she applied them, so she took care to make sure the room stayed the proper temperature.
Chloe wore her blond hair in a ponytail. Beneath her kitchen whites, she had on a pair of capris and a thin tank top. Neither fit really well. She'd lost weight. Eleven pounds to be exact. It had taken her months to shed the results of too much sampling and not enough exercising. Now, with little time for shopping, she hadn't fully updated her wardrobe to the next size smaller.
Besides, she wasn't one to be overly concerned about fashion, something Ethel could not understand. If she could have, she would have worn rubber flip-flops from the discount store, but practicality, the desire not to smash her toes if she dropped a heavy pan on them, won out. Instead, she'd laced on a pair of white tennis shoes that already had fallen victim to pink coloring paste.
It was just another day as she began to decorate a cake.
The phone rang and Chloe's hand faltered just a little as she squeezed the piping bag to finish the reverse shell border. Her pulse skipped and she swallowed. The other bakers wouldn't have seen much of a change in her, if anything. But she felt her face flush from a momentary rush of heat.
Just as suddenly as it started, the phone stopped ringing.
Chloe glanced at the clock. 4:48 a.m.
The phone rang once more, startling her.
Setting the piping bag next to her cake turntable, Chloe ran her hands down the sides of her white smock, instead of using the damp cloth for this very purpose.
She grabbed the phone and, in almost an accusatory voice, she answered, "Hello!"
As had been the case from previous calls, nobody spoke into the receiver.
Chloe had had about enough of this. She had caller ID on her bakery phone, but the calls came in as "unknown." Originally, she'd assumed it was only a wrong number, or possibly a high-school prank at this odd hour. She no longer thought that.
An aching curl pooled in her belly, low and tight. She felt sick, as if she'd sampled too much frosting.
"Hello?" she said once more.
Finally, she dared to breathe into the receiver, "Bobby-Tom? I swear, if it's you"
The line clicked dead and Chloe hung up with a twist of anger knitting her brows.
Attempting to compose herself, she didn't acknowledge either helper. But in her peripheral vision, she saw the women exchanging raised eyebrows. Chloe wouldn't make a big deal about this in case the girls thought there could be something sinister about the call. But she knew the truth. This was the sixth time in five days that someone had called her and hung up without saying a word.
And not just at the bakery. Last night, she'd answered her home phone and had had the same experience. This couldn't be a random incident. Someone knew who she was, but even more frightening, where she lived.
Looking through her reflection in the kitchen's row of narrow windows, all Chloe could see in the alleyway was the predawn gray, and the mellow light of a lamp illuminating the cook's entrance at the back of the Mexican restaurant.
There's nobody out there.
She blinked and her reflection came back into her view. Her appearance seemed unpolished this morning. Usually her ponytail didn't have a single strand out of place. Today, pale wisps framed her face, bracketing its oval shape. Her eyes looked a darker blue, almost a violet shade. The shape of her mouth didn't seem as wide, rather more narrow as she caught herself biting her lower lip again in thoughtful contemplation. She stopped the bad habit, reminding herself that she shouldn't worry.
The only person who'd pull a crappy stunt like this was Bobby-Tom Drake and she wanted to forget her ex-husband existed.
Bobby-Tom had called a handful of times since their divorce, all jacked up on liquor and blithering on about, "Baby, I made a big mistake letting you go." He didn't get drunk on a regular basis but, when he did, he spilled his guts like a roadkill rattlesnake.
He'd been making babies with his new wife since the day he married her, and the whole thought of his fertile procreation caused Chloe to wince as if she'd sliced her finger with a serrated blade.
Chloe had always been attracted to the bad-boy types, thanks to her mother's guiding light. When Wanda Lawson left, the seed had been planted in Chloe that a broken man is better than a good one, because a woman can fix a broken man and make him good if she loves him enough.
Yeah, right. Only if she can have six kids in just about as many years.
Squeezing her eyes shut for a moment to keep the unexpected sting at bay, Chloe remembered the day she'd first met Bobby-Tom out at the Firebird Raceway in Emmett. The racetrack was known for hard-partying boys who drove fast and liked their women thin and pretty. Bobby-Tom had been in between girlfriends and Chloe slid right in to take up the empty spot. Good old Bobby-Tom oozed more charm than a box of magically delicious cereal.
He had a swagger to his gait that showed off the leanness of his butt in his 501 Levi's. Just about perfect in every way, except he smoked a pack of Marlboros a day. She disliked the tobacco scent that clung to his shirts and skin, but forgot all about that the second he flashed her a straight white grin. He called her "baby" from the start because she looked younger than twenty-one, and it stuck for the nine years they'd been married.
"Baby, bring me another cold one."
"Baby, you sure look pretty today."
"Baby, let's go out and shoot some pool tonight."
"Baby, Bobby-Tom needs some loving."
Nine years was a long time for baby-calling. Long enough for her to try every fertility treatment known to man to try and have...