CAKE AND PUNISHMENT
A SOUTHERN CAKE BAKER MYSTERY SERIES
“Vrrrrrrr. Vrr. Vrrr. Vrrrrrrrr.” The sound of the electric mixer was music to my ears. It was like coming hom
e. “Vrrrrrrrr. Vrrrrrr.” I held the mixing bowl under the whisk, blending and folding the icing to the perfect consistency.
The chocolate icing was making my mouth water, and it would’ve been a sin not to taste it. I stuck my finger in the bowl, coated the tip, and slowly raked it across the top of my lower teeth, making sure I got every single morsel of chocolate off my finger. My eyes closed as I breathed out a deep sigh of satisfaction. The bitter chocolate combined with the sweet ingredients to make the perfect flavor. Even heartbreak couldn’t change my excellent baking skills.
The flavor of the icing was as pleasing to my taste buds as the beauty of the bluegrass field just beyond the bay window of my parents’ gourmet kitchen was to my eyes. With a mug in my hand and a quilt off the quilt rack, I walked out onto the three-tiered deck. A quick cup of coffee would allow just enough time for the icing to settle and the flavor to stabilize.
Tucking the edges of the blanket around me as I sat down, I curled my hands around the warm mug before I took a sip and enjoyed the sun peeking up over the trees in the cool spring morning air.
It’d been a long time since I’d seen a sunrise. The sun bathed the ten acres of bluegrass with dazzling light that blanketed my hometown of Rumford, Kentucky. The countryside was unblemished, not like the view I was used to in New York City.
In Manhattan, every morning I’d woken up and looked out the tiny window of our eight-hundred-square-foot apartment and peered at the fifty-one-story apartment building next to us. Any sort of sunrise was blocked by the concrete jungle of the city. There was nothing like the bustle of people walking fast on the sidewalks to get to work. Or the sound of the horns of the taxis as they zoomed past. Even the raunchy smells of the water runoff as shop owners sprayed off the sidewalk in front of their stores excited my soul. It was all the things about New York City that I loved.
But I’d always been a southern girl at heart. The open fields and the sounds of the cows in the pasture next to my parents’ property had their own happy melody.
“For goodness’ sakes.” Mama chirped her signature phrase after she slid open the deck door and looked at me.
The sheer pink housecoat, or what she considered to be a housecoat, floated behind her with each step. Her pink low-heeled house slippers with a puffball on top clicked against the wood deck. She had a quilt in her hand.
“Sophia, you are up even before the rooster crows. The sun is barely popping up. People move a lot slower in Kentucky than that big city you’re used to. Especially here in Rumford. Or did you forget, since you’ve been gone for ten years?” she asked.
I patted the chair next to me. “I’ve been back to visit since I moved.”
A tinge of sadness hung in her eyes. “You’ve stopped in, not stayed. Especially during the holidays, which you know I love.”
“Mama, I’m sorry, but you know that the holidays are the busiest time of year for restaurants,” I said, knowing all my coworkers back in Manhattan were working on the upcoming Easter brunch menu.
The restaurant business during the holidays was a combination that Mama had never seemed to grasp, even after the endless times I’d told her why I couldn’t come home. Being the head pastry chef, I’d never dreamed of asking off on holidays. Mama made restaurant reservations during the holidays but somehow still didn’t understand that I worked in that industry and had to work too—to bake for people like her.
“You’re home now.” She pulled the edges of the quilt up around her ears.
I could have protested that I was taking off only a couple of weeks. I hadn’t quit my job. I’d only quit the relationship with Noah, which meant that once I got my head on straight, I’d have to go back to Manhattan and find a new place to live.
“Let me get you a cup of coffee.” I let the quilt fall around my ankles. A shiver crawled up my legs.
“I’ll come in.” Mama stood up and followed behind me.
“Sophia,” Mama gasped, looking around the kitchen. She put her hand up to her mouth. “It’s too early to be down here making a mess when you know my cleaning ladies are coming while we’re at the Junior League meeting.”
Mama traipsed over to the counter and stared at the dusting of sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt. Not to mention the puddles of wet ingredients that hadn’t make it into the cupcakes. A look of horror crossed her face.
Only my mama would make sure her house was clean before her housecleaner came to actually clean.
“I’m going to clean it up,” I assured her before she pitched a hissy fit right there. I’d seen Mama lose her religion, and it wasn’t something I wanted to see again.
“Honey.” Mama brushed the palm of her hand over my dark brown hair that was pulled back tightly into a ponytail, my usual hairstyle when I baked. “I just hate seeing you go through this.”
Internally I questioned her sincerity. After all, it’d been her dream for me to move home for good.
“I do too, Mama.” My voice cracked. A tear trickled down my face. Mama’s warm hand brushed it off my chin. “I really thought Noah was the one. We were like a well-oiled machine. When we moved into the apartment, we had the same design taste. When we went to work, his dishes complemented my desserts and vice versa. It was a match made in Manhattan culinary heaven.”
I gulped back more tears.
“Last week on my day off, I’d come up with an amazing dessert that I had to get him to try. I ran it down there because I had a really great idea for an Easter dessert, and that’s when I caught him and the maître d' in his office. Apparently, he was the daily special.”
“I’m glad you told him to hit the hay.” Mama nodded. “He’s lucky I’m never going to see him again.” It never failed. The madder Mama got, the thicker her southern accent got. “Don’t get me started on what I’d do to him.”
“That’s enough about him.” I grabbed a banana chocolate cupcake off the cooling rack and took a spatula out of the crock.
“What is on your face?” Mama’s demeanor had turned.
She was the epitome of a southern woman. She could be so kind and gentle, but if you wronged Elizabeth Cummings—Bitsy for short—she’d rip out your heart, fry it up, and serve it to you on a piece of her fine china as you drank it down with a glass of her sweet iced tea, the one thing she could boil.
She swiped her finger under my eye. “Is that mascara? Did you sleep in mascara?”
Before I could put the cupcake and spatula down to defend my face, she’d already spit on her finger and swiped again.
“Gross.” I jerked away as far as I could. “Stop that.”
“Listen here, Sophia Cummings.” When Mama said my full name, I knew a tongue-lashing was coming my way. She shifted her weight to the side. “You need to get yourself together. And I don’t mean by eating yourself silly with all these cupcakes or being lazy and not washing your face at night. No man is worth that. I taught you better than that.” She pushed the pads of her fingers underneath my eyes. “You didn’t use the ‘H,’ did you?”
The “H” was Bitsy’s code name for Preparation H. Yes. The hemorrhoid cream. She claimed that if it did you-know-what to hemorrhoids, it’d shrivel up wrinkles and bags under the eyes.
“I’ll look presentable. I promise,” I assured her. “Just so you know, I made these to take to your Junior League meeting.”
I stuck the spatula in the mixing bowl and used the broad side of it to place the frosting on top of the cupcake. Carefully, I spread the chocolaty goodness to the edges.
Mama leaned on the counter. She looked as fresh as a daisy so early in the morning.
“I have to say that they do smell good.” There was a flicker in her gold eyes and a little pride in her tone that was her way of making peace. “I’ve missed you mussing up my kitchen.”
“I’m probably the last person who cooked in here.” I held the cupcake out for her. “Go on. It’s got banana in it.”
“And we do eat bananas for breakfast.” She grabbed the cupcake and peeled back the paper holder.
“Mmm, good.” A deep sigh escaped from the depths of Bitsy’s gut. “I can’t wait until your daddy gets home from court today and has one of these.”
Daddy was a very prominent lawyer in our small town. He made good money along with the other people who lived in their fancy gated community. When we moved here, it had been a new concept to Rumford. All the houses were massive and had an extensive amount of acreage.
We had neighbors, but they were an acre over to the left and right. It was as if we lived in a neighborhood but also on a farm.
We also had the fancy kitchen equipped with the finest the builder had to offer, which I blamed for my love of baking. Daddy had questioned Bitsy’s white-cabinet choice, but the interior decorator had insisted they’d be pleased. The white tile floor was shiny, and the half-moon island that took up most of the middle of the kitchen was the perfect gathering spot for conversations and homework.
The restaurant-grade appliances had made my heart sing as a young girl. I’d taken every home economics class I could when I was in high school and participated in and won every single bake-off at the Rumford County Fair.
My parents had always loved my baking but thought it was just a phase. They were pleased as pie when I decided to go to college and put the baking behind me. It hadn’t been until I was twenty that I realized I didn’t like learning from books. I loved working with my hands and creating pastries that made people happy and smile. Though Mama wildly begged me not to become a baker, I had set off for New York City, enrolled in culinary school, and never looked back . . . until last week.
Mama had even admitted herself to the hospital when I took the job at The Manhattan as a pastry chef a year ago. She’d claimed I’d induced a mental breakdown at the thought of her daughter living in a crime-ridden city.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, and baking helps me think.” I quickly iced the other cupcakes and placed them neatly on one of Bitsy’s silver platters.
For a second I thought she was going to protest. I guess she figured it wasn’t worth the fight. She shuffled over to the coffee maker, grabbed the carafe, and topped off our mugs.
“You think too much. Come sit by me.” She eased down into one of the fabric, straight-backed white chairs that butted up to the glass-top table in front of the bay window. She pulled the pastel-colored place mats into a pile and stuck them in the center of the table next to the big ceramic bunny.
Decorating for every single holiday and season was in Bitsy’s blood. Currently my parents’ house was bathed in creams , green moss, and several Easter eggs, bunnies, and baskets in all sorts of pastels that I was sure Bitsy’s decorator from Classy Southern had arranged. There was no way Bitsy was going to break a nail getting in and out of her holiday shed. Men had man caves; Bitsy had a holiday cave where she kept her decorations.
Duchess, Bitsy’s exotic short-haired cat that she’d insisted she had to have after I left Rumford, was curled up in another chair. Bitsy scooped her up into her lap.
“Those turned out better than I thought with the lack of ingredients you had in this fancy kitchen.” I grabbed a cupcake for myself and another for her. I handed her one before I sat down and held my cupcake in the air. “Cheers.”
We tapped our cupcakes together as if we were having a fine glass of wine. I peeled back the cupcake wrapper, took a bite, and burst out in a sudden fit of laughter. Mama stopped in midbite. I couldn’t stop laughing.
“What on earth is wrong with you?” Mama asked with a cool, disapproving tone.
“I spent the last ten years going to culinary school. Doing countless apprenticeships and worked in several small-time jobs with years of low pay. Then I finally land my dream job where for a year I’ve worked my tail end off. Gaining recognition and rave reviews.” I held the rest of my cupcake up in the air.
“Here I am. I endured all of that. All those fancy pastries and schooling to end up with this one cupcake in Rumford, Kentucky,” I said, feeling bereft as desolation crept into my gut. A new anguish filled my heart. “Mama, make the pain go away.”
Duchess jumped to the ground when Mama got up and dragged me into her arms. Days of sadness, bitterness, fatigue, and anger left me sobbing in the warm embrace of the woman who loved me more than anyone else in the world. Conversations and excitement about how Noah and I had planned to open our own restaurant one day haunted my head.
For a few minutes, Mama let me wallow in my misery as she ran a loving hand along the top of my head and down my back.
“Sophia, honey, you’ve had your moment of feeling sorry for yourself.” Mama wasn’t one to gloat when someone did you wrong. “You need to get your act together and tuck that crazy away because we don’t have much time to get ready.” Her eyes drew up and down my body. “You’re gonna need some time. You know it’s at the RCC,” she said.
RCC stood for “put on your best outfit and sweetest smile” but really was the acronym for the Rumford Country Club. It was the only country club in Rumford, and only the wealthiest of the community could afford its annual dues and monthly fees. With those dues came the coveted bonds. Bonds were mostly passed down in the family. Sometimes, if you hit the jackpot, they were willed to you. Rarely did bonds just go up for sale. If one did, it was compared to the price of getting a kidney.
“Don’t worry, Mama.” I rolled my eyes so hard I hurt myself. “I’ll pull out that new Lilly Pulitzer sweater you snuck in my closet with my black pants and riding boots.” I called over my shoulder as I headed upstairs, “You’re not so sneaky, ya know.”
From Manhattan to Bitsy’s kitchen. Something I’d never seen coming a week ago.