Half-Baked, A Better Late Romance

CHAPTER ONE

Halfway across the parking lot, Robbie stopped and pulled at his bowtie. “I hate these things.”

“The tie or the gala?” Maggie straightened her brother’s cheap clip-on tie and had a vivid flashback of decades past to the senior prom where she’d tried to smooth down Robbie’s cowlick. Balding had long since cured that problem.

The prom had also been held at this place, the Rancho Allegro Country Club. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and yet, here she was with her brother—again—in fancy clothes. It was as if she was on a spinning wheel revisiting the same places with the same people over and over again.

“Both,” he growled. “All these pompous posers looking down on the rest of us peons.” He shuddered.

She thought about pointing out that with his generous salary, he was probably richer than most of the people attending the party—not to mention in the world—but since she knew he hadn’t gone into medicine for the money, she pressed her lips together.

“I like your costume,” he said, his gaze flicking over her. “The blue wig should make you look like a smurf or Marge Simpson, but somehow you pull it off.”

Maggie fluttered her wings. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Tessa made it.”

Robbie’s lips tightened and a closed expression like a hood passed over his face.

“Why don’t you like her?”

“I never said I don’t like her.”

“You clam up whenever she’s around.”

He shrugged. “It’s weird you’re friends, that’s all.”

“Why?”

“You’re nothing like each other. You’re you and she’s…she drives a Mercedes.”

“So?”

He shrugged again.

“A Mercedes isn’t a sin-mobile.”

He elbowed her. “Come on, I have to show my face.” As head of the pediatric department, he was right. He looped his arm through hers and led her through the parking lot. “Thanks for being my date tonight.”

They passed the valets milling around the Teslas and Land Cruisers. Because Robbie didn’t believe in valets, they had parked in the neighborhood adjacent to the club. The lights from the party flickered in the distance and a honky-tonk jazz band began to play.

“No problem. I love free food.”

He smirked and shook his head. “I don’t get you.”

“Yes, you do.” She slid him a glance. “If not you, then who?”

“You’re right. I do get you, but I just don’t understand how you can spend all day around food and never get tired of it.”

“Do you get tired of saving people?”

“No, but it’s different.”

“No, it’s not. You save people, I feed them. We’re in the same line of work.”

They passed the valets—young, lean men in button down white shirts and tight black pants—without looking at them. Their parents had taught them that trick—never make eye contact with someone who might expect a tip. Of course, since they hadn’t actually parked in the lot, they didn’t tip the handsome young men, but Maggie felt their questioning glances on her back as she followed Robbie up the stairs.

Originally, The Lodge, as locals called it, had been constructed for hunting back when Rancho Allegro had really been a ranch and coyotes and mountain lions were nearly as plentiful as the bunnies that currently terrorized gardeners. Strange how the gentlest of the creatures were the ones who actually survived urbanization.

In the lobby, several people vied for Robbie’s attention all at once. Maggie, a baker without food, and therefore a nobody, wandered off to peruse the refreshment table, not necessarily because she was hungry, but because she liked looking at beautiful food displays.

She had to stop herself from whistling in admiration. The caterers, men and women dressed in black, moved like perfectly choreographed dancers around the room bearing trays that looked more like portable art than appetizers. Edible art, the phrase came to Maggie’s mind and rested there. Could she try and copy any of this in her bakery?

Her fingers itched for her phone, but she’d left it at home. She wished she could take pictures of this. Who were the caterers? Maybe she should skirt around outside to catch a glimpse of their van. Hopefully, it would have a logo on it.

Her nose wrinkled when she spotted asparagus spears wrapped in a flakey crust and a piece of bacon. She would never understand the compulsion to ruin perfectly good baked goods by partnering them with vegetables.

“What, no donuts?” Tessa, dressed as Florence Nightengale, appeared at her side. “They should have hired Maggie’s muffins.”

Maggie turned and gave her friend a hug. “Maybe next time.” Robbie was right, they were an unlikely pair. Tall and curvy Maggie dominated over pixie-like Tessa. Maggie was a red-headed buzzard while Tessa was as blond as Tinker-bell.

“Really?” Tessa asked.

She nodded. “Robbie said he’d recommend me.”

Tessa smiled and said, “that’s great,” but her gaze darted around the room. Was she looking for Robbie? Or someone else? “The costume looks really good on you.”

“Thanks to you.”

Tessa flushed and straightened Maggie’s wings. “I love making beautiful things even more beautiful.”

“It looks great here, doesn’t it?” Maggie said, glancing around.

“Yes,” Tessa said with a touch of pride. “My dad wondered if they were going to cancel because of yesterday’s earthquake, but the Lodge wasn’t damaged. Thankfully.”

“Any damage at your store?”

“Nothing I couldn’t take care of myself. How about the bakery?”

“A lot of rattling pots and pans, but not much else.”

Tessa bumped her with her hip. “We’re lucky.”

She wished that were true. Maggie’s parents used to say she was their lucky penny, and she’d always felt that way…until Peter got sick. Sometimes she felt like she’d been trying to win her way back into Lady Luck’s good favor ever since.

The band, playing on a soundstage across the patio, began Conga and a line formed.

Tessa took Maggie’s hand. “Want to dance?”

“Sure, but first let me check my purse.”

Tessa winced when she saw Maggie’s old beat-up leather satchel. It matched the costume like paper bag accessorized a tuxedo, but Maggie refused to be embarrassed. She loved her purse—she’d had it for nearly a decade. And yes, it looked like the poor country cousin among all the Coaches and Kate Spades on the shelf, but she didn’t care.

#

Steven strolled into the country club and sought out Tessa. Because of her diminutive size, she was often easy to miss. Most of the guests were wearing masks, but Tessa had told him she’d be wearing a Florence Nightingale costume. He spotted her dancing with a tall, blue-haired yet beautiful butterfly.

Because he was new to Rancho Allegro, he only knew a handful of the guests. His uncle, Tessa father, was the president of the St. John’s hospital chain and had insisted he attend. Even though Steven was probably now worth more than his Uncle Jack, it was still hard to deny Jack anything. The family still kowtowed to the rich uncle…even when there were, now, richer cousins.

As he crossed the patio, something crinkled beneath his shoe. Given the noise—the music, the chatter, the clattering cutlery—he almost missed it. What was it that people said about the sound of falling coins—everybody heard it because people heard what they wanted to hear? A hundred-dollar bill. Steven stooped and picked it up. Someone must have dropped it.

He glanced around at all the bejeweled people in their fancy costumes. Only one man wasn’t in a costume—although he was wearing a bowtie. Did he think that was costume enough?

In most crowds, someone would be frantically searching for the lost bill, but here, no one seemed to notice. Still, it had to have been an accident. He held it up and slowly turned, hoping someone would take note. Someone did. His cousin Mitch.

“I’ll take that.” Mitch, dressed as a pirate, moved to swipe it from his hand.

Steven tightened his grip on the bill and shoved it into his pocket, away from his cousin’s greed.

“Hey,” Mitch complained. “This is a fund raiser. I’m just trying to raise funds.”

Steven tried not to roll his eyes. “If I can’t find the owner, I’ll give this to someone who needs it.”

“The hospital needs it, you loon.” He waved his saber at the party. “That’s why we’re here.”

“This is a hundred-dollar bill. It cost, what? Three-hundred dollars to get in here? Besides, I already made a generous donation. I’m going to give this to someone else.”

Mitch scowled.

“I’m going to give it to…” Glancing around the room, he debated: a valet? One of the servers? He could wait and donate it to one of the regular charities on his list: the Red Cross, St. Judes Medical Research, or Orange Wood Foster Homes.

But then it would weigh on him and Mitch would harass him. His gaze landed on the coat check. One scruffy leather satchel stood out from the rest. He strode over to the bored-looking girl behind the counter.

“See that purse,” he pointed at the satchel.

“This one?” Surprise for a moment overrode the girl’s bored expression. She obviously didn’t think a man in a Zorro cape would be interested in a scuffed leather satchel. “It belongs to my girlfriend.”

“And now you’re a liar,” Mitch whispered in his ear.

The girl narrowed her lids and tightened her lips. “I can’t give out any of the purses unless you have a ticket.”

Steven hurried to placate her. “I just want you tuck this into it.” He pulled out the bill and showed it to the girl. “Can you do that?”

“You’re a crazy person,” Mitch said.

“Crazy like a fox,” Aunt Miriam said from behind him. Approaching eighty, she looked and acted like someone nearly half her age. Tonight, she was dressed as a flapper. She snaked her arm around his waist and looped the other through Mitch’s arm. “A silver fox! How did two of my favorite boys ever grow to be so old and yet so handsome?”

Mitch flushed. “The same could be said of you, Mom.”

“Hush!” Aunt Miriam she shook her long cigarette holder in Mitch’s face. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m old enough to belong to you.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “You could pretend I’m your date.”

“I could,” Mitch said, pulling away. “But I won’t.” He gave Steven the stink eye. “Let’s ignore her.”

“You can ignore me, but you better not ignore your wife,” Aunt Miriam said, nodding at the approaching Lydia, who was wearing a Queen of Hearts costume.

Mitch audibly groaned, but also grinned.

There were lots of things Steven didn’t admire about his cousin, but he did envy him his long and happy marriage. Mitch had married ten years before him and hopefully would be married for many years after. Lydia had been good for him.

The butterfly he’d noticed earlier approached the coat check and handed the girl her ticket. He watched as the girl handed the butterfly the beat-up purse that now carried his one-hundred dollar bill.

His gaze met the girl’s.

“Your girlfriend, huh?” the girl asked.

Surely, this was a breach of some sort of hired-help etiquette.

Aunt Miriam perked up. “Your girlfriend?”

Mitch grinned. “Yeah, about that, Steven?”

Steven rubbed his chin and decided to go along with it. “There you are,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“For me?” The butterfly put her hand on her chest. Most of her face was covered by a jewel-studded mask, but her lips were full, red and her skin creamy and white. Definitely girlfriend material.

Steven braced his shoulder, determined to carry through with his charade. “I want to introduce you to my Aunt Miriam and cousin Mitch.”

The butterfly blinked and took Mitch’s extended hand. “I’m Grace,” she said.

“Come on, Grace,” Steven said, taking her hand and pulling her toward the dance floor and away from his aunt and laughing cousin.

Grace stumbled after him until they reached the dancing couples. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re thinking,” she began.

He silenced her by putting his finger on her lips. “Just go along with me, please. There’s a hundred-dollar bill in your purse for your trouble.”

Then he kissed her.

#

His warm lips spread a flurry of emotions through Maggie. Should she slap him? Push him away? Scream at him…but…oh…was this what kissing was all about? How long had it been since she’d been kissed like this? Maybe never.

She’d loved Peter. She had loved kissing Peter. But near the end, the kisses had been so mixed up in grief and pain, they’d just as soon make her cry as curl her toes in pleasure…like this one did.

What must this person think of her? What made him think he could just kiss her like this? Maybe he kissed everyone like this. She couldn’t be someone special in his life since he had only just met her…but he hadn’t really met her, had he? It wasn’t as if they’d been properly introduced.

And she’d given him her middle name.

But this kiss, though…

She really should end it. This was exactly the sort of privileged behavior her brother and parents were always spouting off about. Rich people who thought they could do whatever they wanted with little or no regard for who they stepped on…or kissed.

Oh, this kiss. It was like kissing Clark Gable, or Gary Grant, or…Zorro.

He pulled away. She was grateful to see he wore a dazed expression.

Maggie touched her lips. “What was that?”

“That,” he said, “was worthy of an encore.” And he kissed her again.

This time, Maggie, forgetting all about social injustice, leaned in and gave herself into pleasure. It rocked her world. Shook her to the core. Made her legs shake.

It took her a moment to realize that not only was her world rocking, but the lights stringing above her were wildly swinging. The band had stopped playing. Pillars bearing lanterns fell with a crash and glass shattered. The hospitality tent collapsed and one of the curtains fell into an open fire pit.

And still Zorro held her in his arms. In fact, he tightened the embrace, making it more protective than sensual.

The lights went out. Women screamed and men shouted. All around her, panicked people pushed and pulled. Zorro grabbed her hand and pulled her through the chaos. She staggered after him, barely seeing through the smoke and din.

The damp and cold seeped through Maggie’s flimsy shoes as she crossed the lawn. Zorro took her elbow and steered her through the parking lot, passing the valets who had gathered into a tight bunch beneath the now catawampus awning. Here, away from the party, the moonlight shone clearer.

Maggie blinked when she realized it wasn’t Zorro who had led her through the chaos, but her brother.

“Rob! What the heck?”

He stopped and stared at her. “What’s your problem?”

“I don’t have a problem,” she said.

“You sound like you do.” He stepped closer. “Who was that guy you were kissing?”

She floundered for an acceptable answer and finally came up with, “I don’t know.”

“And I have a problem with that,” Rob said.

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