"Hi, how can I help you?" Angie Harper asked the customer across the bakery counter. She had her lips pulled back in what should have been a smile but looked like a grimace instead.
Melanie Cooper glanced at her partner. Angie sounded odd, as if she were forcing herself to be friendly when what she really wanted to do was reach across the counter and rip the person's head off. Judging by the wary gaze of the customer, they weren't buying the show of teeth, either.
"You okay there, Ange?" Mel asked.
"Yes, of course, why wouldn't I be?" Angie frowned. Her long curly dark hair was pulled back in a knot at the nape of her neck. She was dressed in her usual bright pink apron over a tank top and jeans, and she plopped her hands on her hips as if spoiling for a fight.
Mel raised her hands in the air. "Just getting a vibe, an unhappy vibe, and I'm willing to step in if you need a sec."
"Why would I need a sec? I'm fine, totally fine!" Angie insisted.
"Then why are you yelling?" Mel asked.
"This isn't yelling!"
"Not for nothing, but over on this side of the counter it sounds like yelling," said the customer, a thirty-something man in khaki slacks, sandals, and a festive Hawaiian shirt that was a rowdy repeating pattern of orange hibiscus blossoms and blue macaws. In other words, loud.
"I'm so sorry," Angie said. It would have worked as an apology, except she said it in an exaggerated voice that made it clear she wasn't sorry at all.
The customer glanced from her to Mel. "Maybe you can help me. I'd like some red velvet cupcakes, please."
"Oh, sure, get someone else to help you," Angie said. "Because I'm incompetent, is that it? Is that what you're trying to say?"
The man pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. He was obviously a smart guy, realizing there was no winning here.
"He might not say it, but I will." A woman spoke up from the back of the line of people. She had gray hair, twisted into a topknot of corkscrew curls, and she wore a chef's coat in a bright shade of blue. Olivia Puckett.
"Oh, crud," Mel said. Owner of a rival bakery, but also dating Marty Zelaznik, one of Mel's employees, Olivia was the last person Angie needed to tussle with right now, as the two women rubbed together about as well as static and hair. "Olivia, don't poke the bear."
Angie swiveled her head slowly in Mel's direction. Her voice when she spoke was filled with disbelief. "Did you just call me a bear?"
"Um . . . well . . . affectionately," Mel explained. "You know, like a teddy bear, all cute and cuddly and squishy."
"Right, or, more accurately, like a ginormous grizzly bear," Angie said. "Admit it, you think I'm fat!"
"Oh my god." Mel pressed the heels of her hands against her forehead as if it would keep her head from exploding. "You're not fat, you're not chubby, you're not even pleasantly plump, and I'm an expert as I cycled through all of those stages on repeat for most of my life, as you well know. Honestly, what is going on with you today?"
"She looks hormonal to me," Hawaiian Shirt Guy said.
"Ah!" Angie sucked in a gasp and glared at him. "I. Am. Not. Hormonal."
"Nailed it," Olivia chimed in.
Angie whipped around with a glower. "You hush."
"Angie!" Mel hissed. They might not like Olivia, but it wouldn't do to verbally abuse her in front of a customer.
Olivia laughed and nudged the guy with her elbow. "If you want cupcakes without the drama, you can hit up my bakery, Confections. It's just down the street, and we have red velvets to die for."
"Thanks, it's tempting, but I'm already here and I've got my eye on those beauties right there," he said. He tapped the glass case, which displayed a shelf full of red velvet cupcakes. "I can wait out the pregger rage."
Angie blinked. "What did you say?"
The man turned to look at her. "Pregger rage, you know, the unreasonable fury that comes with being pregnant. My wife was exactly like that when she was expecting our kids. We have four, so I've been at this rodeo before. Yee-haw and congratulations!"
"But I'm not . . ." Angie's voice trailed off. Her eyes went wide, and then she clapped a hand over her mouth and ran back into the kitchen.
"Vomiting," the man called after her. "That's another symptom."
Mel glanced from him to the swinging door, behind which came the unmistakable sound of someone retching. Should she follow, or would Angie punch her in the throat? It was clearly a toss-up.
As if they'd been shot out of a cannon, Mel's two bakery workers, Marty Zelaznik and Oz Ruiz, blasted out of the kitchen.
"Don't go back there!" Marty said. His eyes were round in his bald head. "It's bad."
"Really bad!" Oz confirmed. Standing well over six feet tall and almost as wide, he looked visibly shaken by a tiny woman heaving her guts out.
Mel stared at the door. Could Angie really be pregnant? She and her husband Tate had been trying for months. Did it finally take? She needed to call Tate for backup, but she didn't want to blow it if it wasn't true or if Angie wasn't ready to tell him. Dilemma!
"Hi, handsome," Olivia called to Marty.
"Liv, what are you doing here?" he asked. He beamed at her.
"I locked myself out of the house and I need your key," she said. She was staring at the display case full of cupcakes. She pointed to a section of cupcakes that sported festive cherries and striped straws. "Who made those?"
"I did," Oz said. "Root beer float cupcakes."
Olivia raised one eyebrow. "If they taste as good as they look, you've got some skills."
Oz looked pleased. "They do, and I do."
While Mel loved seeing his confidence, she wasn't sure she liked the covetous gleam in Olivia's eyes. She knew her rival wouldn't hesitate to sink her hooks into Oz.
"You could be doing great things in the culinary world," Olivia said. "And staying in one place of employment for a long time doesn't fill out a chef's résumé or round out their skills."
And there she went, trying to poach. Now Mel's internal alarm system was clanging like a fire truck on a call.
"Do not even think about trying to pinch my staff for your bakery, Olivia," Mel said. She lowered her voice, hoping she sounded zero tolerance enough.
Olivia blinked at her, the picture of innocence. Marty handed her his keys, and Olivia glanced back at Oz and made a call-me gesture with her free hand. With a wink and an air-kiss at Marty, she turned and left the bakery.
"Marty, you need to rein her in. I won't have her coming in here trying to take my customers or my assistant chef," Mel said. She glanced at Hawaiian Shirt Guy, who'd been patiently waiting. "Red velvet, did you say?"
"Yes," he said. "Two, please, one for now and one for later."
Mel smiled at him. She took a two-pack box out from under the counter and folded it into shape before putting two red velvets inside. She passed it off to Marty, who was already ringing up the man's order.
The sound of a curse and a door slamming from the kitchen brought her attention back to Angie. She gestured for Oz to take her spot behind the counter as she popped back into the kitchen to check on her best friend. There was no sign of the petite brunette. On the upside, there was no sound of upchucking, either.
Mel noticed the door to the employee bathroom was closed, and she crossed the kitchen and knocked.
"Angie, are you all right?" she called through the door.
"I'm fine," she said. "I just need a minute."
Mel stood by the door, debating what to do. She didn't hear any noise, so that was good, but Angie didn't open the door, which seemed bad. Did she force Angie to open the door and prove that she was okay, or did she give her a minute? She tried to decide what she would want if the situation were reversed, and went with giving Angie a minute, but just a minute and no more.
"All right," Mel said. "I'm going out front to see if things are under control, but I'm coming back."
"Whatever," Angie called.
Okay, safe to say Angie was still feeling salty then.
"Hey, Mel." Oz stuck his head around the door. "Peter Klein is here."
"Oh, right, it's Friday," she said. "Tell him I'll be right there."
Oz disappeared, and Mel went to retrieve Peter's cupcakes from the cooler. A regular, Peter had stopped in every week for as long as Mel could remember to buy his wife, Rene Fischer-Klein, a four pack of her favorite cupcakes. The flavor changed every few months, but lately her favorite had been the pumpkin spice cupcakes. Peter absolutely doted on his wife, and he never missed a Friday.
Rene was a glass artist at the art gallery, Desert Winds, down the street. This was one of the things Mel loved about the location of Fairy Tale Cupcakes. There was always something happening in Old Town Scottsdale. It was packed with art galleries, jewelry stores, restaurants, and bars. All of which made the place a happening spot year after year for tourists and locals alike.
Shortly after Mel and Angie had opened the bakery, Peter and Rene had dropped by to welcome them to the neighborhood. Rene had even brought them a small handblown glass cupcake that Mel kept on display in the front of the shop. They had become friends with the couple over the years, and both Mel and Angie agreed that Peter and Rene most definitely represented their marriage goals, as they seemed to be the perfect combination of business partners who were very much in love.
Desert Winds housed several artists and their studios, one of which was Rene, and Mel and Angie often popped in on art walk nights to see what Rene had going. The last time Mel visited, Rene had made the cake topper for Mel's wedding cake as her gift, and Mel was just thrilled. Rene's career had taken off in the past couple of years, and her work was in high demand all over the country. To have a Rene Fischer-Klein original glass sculpture on her cake was almost too much.
Mel pushed through the swinging door into the bright and happy pink bakery. Red Velvet Hawaiian Shirt Guy was gone, but a new line had formed at the counter. Not bad for the middle of the morning, which was usually their slow time. Oz and Marty had it under control. She spotted Peter waiting in the corner and crossed the bakery to greet him.
He was on the tall side, built lean, with a thick thatch of rust-colored hair that stuck up in the back no matter how often he smoothed it with his hand. Mel had noticed the gesture over the years, particularly when he was talking about art. A painter himself, Peter loved everything about art and the artist's life. When he saw Mel, he broke into a grin that was reflected in the blue eyes behind his wire-framed glasses. Mel had always thought he looked more like an accountant than an artist, but she had the good sense not to say so.
"Hi, Peter." She waved with her free hand. "Happy Friday!"
"Hi, Mel," he said. "How're things?"
Mel glanced back at the kitchen with concern but forced a smile and said, "Good, really good."
"Who are you trying to convince?" he asked. "Me or you?"
His eyes were kind, and Mel found herself confiding in him when she handed him his box of cupcakes. "Truthfully, Angie doesn't seem to be herself today. She's a bit moody, and by that I mean super surly and stomach sick."
"Oh, no," Peter said. "I hope she doesn't have the same ailment as Rene."
Mel looked at him in surprise. "Rene is sick?"
Peter nodded. "She's been suffering for a while now. She can't sleep. She can't eat, unless it's your cupcakes."
Mel smiled. "We do try to bake some magic in them."
"Thank goodness, or I'm sure she'd starve," he said. Mel thought he was joking, but the look of concern in his eyes and the anxiety in the tight lines on his face made her pause.
"Has she seen a doctor?" she asked.
Peter shook his head. "She refuses. Even when I found a clump of her hair in the bathroom, which was not a normal amount of hair loss, she brushed it off as nothing. She's got that big installation over the city canal coming up that has consumed her for the better part of the year. She keeps saying she'll go to the doctor when it's done, but I feel like she's taking a dangerous risk by putting it off. It would destroy me if anything happened to her, but I just can't make her see sense."
"Some people are stubborn about these things. Do you want me to talk to her?" Mel asked. "We have a meeting set up tonight to discuss the cupcakes that we're baking for the opening of her show. Maybe if I express concern, it will back you up and get her motivated."
"Would you?" he asked. "I'd so appreciate that. I've had a few people at the art studio talk to her, but she won't listen. She seems to think everyone is out to ruin her big career moment. It's as if she's forgotten that we've been the ones cheering her on all along."
"That doesn't sound like her." Mel frowned. "She's always been so gracious."
"I know," he said. "Sometimes I feel as if I'm dealing with her evil twin and the real Rene is locked up in a tower somewhere. There are days where I don't even recognize her."
"So, I'm betting our meeting tonight will be interesting," she said. "Any advice for me?"
"Do whatever she wants," he said.
Mel laughed. He didn't. "I'm serious. Whatever her vision is, just say okay even if she gets a wild hair for kale cupcakes."
Mel blanched. "I'm sorry, but that's a line I just can't cross."
He laughed, and she felt her tension ease, realizing he'd been kidding.
"You're one of Rene's favorite people," he said. "If anyone can ease her stress, it's you. Plus, I'll deliver these, and she'll already be mellowed. I just hope she's feeling well enough to discuss her ideas. Maybe if you mention to her that Angie's ailing, too, she'll realize that it could be something serious and get checked out."