The holidays had proven to be a great distraction, but as Emma stood in her kitchen in early January, she wasn’t sure what was going to distract her now. It had been over a month since her departure from Montgomerys. The awkward situation had only been prolonged due to the issue with her car. She’d been on the verge of calling for a cab when Jason Montgomery had quietly taken the phone from her and offered to take her to pick her car up. As much as she wasn’t feeling too kindly toward any of the Montgomerys, Jason had played no part in what had gone wrong.
He’d been the perfect gentleman on the two-hour drive and made sure he steered clear of any talk of business or of his family. He’d been content to talk about her plans for Christmas and New Year’s and then about their mutual interest in books. All in all, what should have made her feel better, only stood to make Emma feel worse. She really had loved the Montgomerys and knew that, in time, if Lucas had only given her the chance, she would have fit in with them better than she ever had with her own family.
The thought of job hunting over the holidays had not been appealing and Emma was silently thankful for the severance pay that had appeared in her bank account. She’d wanted to decline it and tell William Montgomery what he could do with his money, but it had allowed her the time she needed just to wallow in her own misery until she was ready to look for work.
Luckily, the week before Christmas, a fairly perfect job had opened up, as if it was created just for her. Her favorite bakery was looking for help. Emma only found out about it because she was craving brownies but didn’t want to be bothered making them herself.
The small bakery was a family-owned business and Emma had frequented it enough that she knew the owners well. They had discussed baking techniques from time to time, and so when the holiday orders were becoming too much for them to handle and Emma had walked in on her brownie quest, they had asked her if she’d consider helping them out.
It was a godsend.
The crowds had been plenty and the work kept her so busy that most days she came home too exhausted to think. But now with the busy season over, Emma was certain that it was time to move on and find a more permanent position. The thought made her sad, because as much as she enjoyed working in the corporate world, baking was really a passion for her, and now she had the time to dedicate to it. Maybe it was time to change careers?
As much as that thought appealed to her, she couldn’t afford to live on a part-time baker’s salary. Maybe she should look into a business loan and starting her own bakery? Then she thought of her bosses and realized she’d be their competition, and she didn’t want to do that to them.
Sighing, Emma realized she was back to square one. What to do?
“Emma? Would you mind watching the front for a little while so I can go to the bank?” her boss, Mrs. Dupre, asked.
“Of course,” Emma replied with a sincere smile. Straightening her apron, she walked out to the front of the bakery and came to a dead stop.
“Emma? Is that you?”
“How are you, Mrs. Montgomery?” Maybe the floor would open up and swallow her right now, Emma thought. She hated the thought of any of the Montgomerys looking down on her career right now and acting smug, like leaving their company had been a mistake.
“Oh, I’m doing fine. Sort of…”
“What can I help you with? We have some fresh-from-the-oven muffins over here,” Emma said brightly, indicating the shelf with the oversized muffins.
“Actually, what I need is enough dessert for say…two hundred people.”
“What?” Emma gaped.
“Well, next month is mine and William’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. We’re having a big party at the country club but I absolutely detest their desserts. I’ve made an arrangement with them that we can bring in our own dessert caterer but I’m having a hard time finding one that makes the things we want.”
“Okay,” Emma said, forcing the cheeriness into her voice. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re looking for and we can arrange a tasting for you to see if we can meet your needs.”
Monica Montgomery looked at her with a combination of love and gratitude. “Actually, Emma, it’s no accident that I’m here. Rose mentioned to me that you were here and I want you to do the desserts. You know how I have always loved all of the goodies you’ve made for me over the years, and that’s what I want.”
“I…I can’t do that. You have to understand,” she stammered.
Monica waved away whatever it was that Emma was going to say. “Emma, I may not look like much, but having raised three boys has taught me a thing or two about being firm. For starters, Margaret Dupre and I have been friends for ages. I always come here for baked goods and I always told her about how wonderful the things you made for me were. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find you working here.”
Emma nodded but was unsure of what to say.
“I already talked to Margaret about my plans and she suggested you for the job mainly because she knew that you’d be good at it.”
“I’m not going to take her customers from her. If you’ve come here for years, why hire me?”
“Oh, Emma,” she said wearily, “you have created quite a hole in our lives. I don’t think any of us realized just how big of a part of our family you were until you weren’t there. William didn’t just lose an assistant, he lost a friend. And I lost my brownie supplier.” She laughed, and Emma couldn’t help but join in.
“I know that you think things may be…awkward if you do this party for me, but I can guarantee you that I am the only Montgomery that you will have to see. You and I will work on the menu and you’ll bring everything in before anyone arrives at the club. Please say yes, Emma. I would really appreciate your help with this. I trust you to help make this party special.”
How was Emma supposed to say no to that? There was a war waging within her and as much as she wanted to say yes—to give herself a shot not only at helping someone who had always been kind to her, but to take that first step toward changing her career—she just couldn’t do it.
“I’m sorry, I really am, but I just can’t. I’m…I’m just not ready to take that chance on seeing…”
Emma nodded and cursed the tears that were beginning to well up. “I know you said that I’d get in and out of there before I’d have to see anyone, but I just can’t take that chance.” She looked up at the older woman and smiled sadly. “I’m not ready to take that kind of risk.”
Monica looked at Emma and her heart broke. Her family had done this to her. The once vibrant and joyful young woman was now emotionally devastated, and it was all her son’s and husband’s fault. She wanted to smack them both right now.
“Emma, tell me what I can do? How can I make this right?”
Swiping a stray tear away, Emma cleared her throat. “I wish there was something you could do, I really do. But this is just the way that it has to be.”
Shaking her head, Monica refused to admit defeat. “No, I don’t accept that. I’m going to be a bit of a brat right now and say what should have been said a long time ago.” Squaring her shoulders, she looked Emma in the eye. “I’m not going to make excuses for my husband or for Lucas; that’s not my place. In this whole rotten situation, you were the victim. I know Lucas likes to play that part, but this time he’s out of luck. I was furious when I found out what happened when Lucas confronted the both of you and as much as it pains me, he hasn’t come home since.”
“Oh no,” Emma gasped. “Surely you saw him for Christmas?”
The older woman shook her head. “Not a phone call or a card.”
“That’s horrible! Dammit,” she said with disgust, “I cannot believe he would do that to you!”
A laugh escaped before Monica could stop it. “To me? Sweetheart, I didn’t extend those to him either. I’m appalled by his behavior and I’m tired of tiptoeing around him. He’s a grown man and it’s time he took some responsibility for his actions. To that end I can say with great certainty that Lucas will not be at this party.”
“No! He’s your son! Surely you’ll make up by the time the party comes around.”
“It’s doubtful, and you know what? There’s a lot less tension with Lucas back in hiding. For far too long this whole family has been on edge trying not to do or say anything that would upset him and I’m tired of it. He’s my son and I love him, but for two years we’ve all made him the focus of everything and it’s time to move on to something else. William and I have had thirty-five wonderful years of marriage and as much as I’d like to stay mad at him, I can’t. I want this party, I deserve this party, and I am going to have this party no matter what!”
Emma couldn’t help but smile. “Good for you.”
“That said, young lady, you are the only one I want to do the desserts. You don’t have to worry about Lucas; there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of him making an appearance. You will most likely risk seeing William but I think that between the two he is the lesser threat to your well-being.” She leaned forward and took Emma’s hand. “You have no reason to be in hiding, Emma. If anything, you should walk into that club with your head held high that you stood up for what was right and refused to be a part of this ridiculous game.”
As far as pep talks went it was a good one. Emma chewed her bottom lip as she thought about it. “I don’t know that I can do all of the baking. My kitchen isn’t big enough.”
“Use this one.” They both turned and saw Margaret Dupre standing behind the counter. She walked toward them and smiled. “Emma, you have a passion for baking and the energy to make it happen. I’m getting to the point where it’s just a chore to me. Monica knows what she wants and you can make her party perfect. Use the kitchen here. I really don’t mind.”
“But…but…” Emma stammered looking from one woman to the next. “It just feels wrong to use your facility for this. I can pay you for the time!” she suggested but Margaret just waved her off.
“You want to know how you can pay me?” Margaret asked. “Do a fantastic job and promise me that when you are ready to admit that you want to do this full-time that you’ll let me know, because I can’t think of anyone better to take over this business for me.”
Emma’s heart was beating so wildly that she thought she was surely going to pass out. “Are you serious? I didn’t even know that you wanted out!”
“I’ve been toying with it for a while but I didn’t want to get serious about it until I found the perfect person who was going to love it like I once did. You can do that, Emma. You have a gift and the customers love you. Do this party for the Montgomerys and get the word out that you’re taking over this bakery. The place will be packed with customers the way it used to be.”
She didn’t know what to say. It was all too much. It wasn’t every day that you got handed what you wanted without really trying. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. She could handle seeing William and the threat of Lucas was gone. Emma turned to Monica Montgomery and smiled widely. “I’ll do it!”
The weeks that followed were the kind that Emma thrived on. She was learning the business of running a bakery while meeting with new clients on catering special events. The Montgomerys’ anniversary party was her first priority, and she was pleased with the progress they were making.
Besides a traditional yet customized cake that would be their centerpiece, Monica had requested at least a dozen different kinds of cakes, cookies, and pastries for her guests to enjoy. They had met several times to finalize the menu and Emma was thrilled with what they had decided upon. From cheesecake bites to truffles and gourmet cupcakes, Emma was certain that her desserts were going to be a definite hit with the guests.
The party was set for Valentine’s Day weekend and although it was a little cliché, the Montgomerys had indeed gotten married on February fourteenth. She knew this as a fact because in her years working for them, she’d been responsible for making dinner reservations.
The thought of Valentine’s Day was always depressing for a single woman, and it was even more so for Emma because she was spending the day ensuring the happiness of a couple who had been blessed with thirty-five years of marriage. She only wished that someday she’d get to hit that kind of milestone with someone.
“Any chance of there being any of those peanut butter mousse cupcakes?” a male voice said from behind her.
Emma whirled around and genuinely smiled. “Jason! How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks. Mom said that you were taking over this place and she brought home some amazing cupcakes yesterday and I must have eaten about half a dozen of them. Have pity on me, Em!” He laughed. “Are there anymore left?”
She laughed with him. Jason had always been so nice to her, and she realized that she actually had missed him. “For you? I think I can scrounge up a few.” Emma turned and walked to one of her display cases and boxed up another half dozen for him. Handing the box to him, she waved his money away. “On the house.”
“Emma, that’s a surefire way to go out of business. Please, let me pay for these.”
“Your money’s no good here,” she teased. “Consider them my gift to you for the day that you took me to go and pick up my car.”
Jason rolled his eyes. “That’s just crazy. It was Dad’s fault that you needed to go and get the car. You don’t owe me anything.”
“Then consider them a gift to a friend,” she said simply. “And promise not to share with anyone.”
“Done!” he said. “The place looks great, Emma. Mom is so excited that you’re doing the desserts for the party. But tell me the truth: Are these cupcakes on the menu?”
She laughed again. “They aren’t, but I promise that the ones that are on the menu are even better!”
“Not possible, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out.” He looked around the shop again before facing Emma. “Are you doing okay? I mean, this is a complete one-eighty from what you were doing at Montgomerys.”
“I am more than okay. Baking was always something that I loved but never had the courage to think about as a career. Between your mom and Margaret, I’m making a go of it.”
“Will I see you at the party?” he asked.
“Probably not. I’ll be bringing everything over before any of the guests arrive. I’m just the hired help that day.” It wasn’t said with any form of malice, she was simply stating a fact.
“Well, that’s just not right. I think you should get to stay and enjoy the festivities. If nothing else, you should get to sit and collect all of the compliments the desserts are going to garner!”
“You’re sweet, but with the agreement that your mom has with the club, they will have people to do the serving and so really, all I need to do is drop everything off.”
“Seems a shame, Emma,” he said and then paused. “We miss you.”
“Thanks, Jason. I miss everyone too,” she admitted honestly. Emma knew that by everyone she was implying the office staff, but it was really more than that. If Jason caught on to that fact, he chose to say nothing.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you at the party. I’ll try to get there early just in case you need a hand.”
“Take care of yourself,” she said, hoping he realized that she wasn’t encouraging him to visit with her again. The fewer Montgomerys she saw, the more intact her heart would stay.