Paris Ellison was so angry she made a seven-layer English Trifle and two large pans of double cocoa brownies.
She even dribbled water over the letter from Reynard House, Proud Member of the Reynard Media Group, but the ink refused to smear and the words continued to taunt her.
She’d said no once, and now the nerve—the nerve! To offer her first-class tickets, reservations at a Fifth Avenue hotel, and the assurance of box seats to Hamilton—how rude!
She whipped ganache into submission and drizzled it on the first pan of still warm brownies. She’d slice them later before taking them to Lisa’s tomorrow. The second pan of brownies went into the oven, and she paused in her fever of anger-fueled anxiety baking to read the infuriating letter again.
Anita Topaz did not make personal appearances. Paris had been perfectly clear about that from the get go. But the merger meant all the new people at Reynard House, and none of them wanted to remember that little detail.
A scratch and yowl at the door made her look at the clock. Right on time, Hobbit sidled in to offer mid-morning greetings by way of gracing Paris’s jeans with orange tabby tomcat fur.
“You’re not fooling anyone, you know. I’m just Second Breakfast to you.” Yielding to the cat’s single-minded agenda, she dropped a small scoop of crunchy dry food into the dish next to the door. Hobbit promptly abandoned his adoration of Paris’s ankles and dug in.
“Just because Reynard House is the new owner, that doesn’t mean my contract is revised. Not yet at least.” Hobbit ignored the bowl of fresh water Paris set down next to the dry food. “They can’t make me, so there. The only thing I owe them is the next book, on schedule.”
The oven timer beeped and she left Hobbit to his loud snacking. She turned the pan in the oven and reset the timer. The custard was cool enough now to assemble the trifle, and she devoted herself to carefully lining the bottom of her only clear glass bowl with fresh sponge cake and splashing it with sherry. Apricots and silky vanilla custard followed, then she repeated the layers until the glass bowl was nearly full.
At least the Misses Lambeth and Richards upstairs would love the treat. She’d take it up after supper and check on the progress of the colds that had kept her usually gregarious and active landlords in “little old lady” mode, as they called it. They did like a drop of sherry now and again, and nobody could feel out of sorts with dessert.
Except her, maybe. Her day had begun as peacefully and predictably as any other since the day she’d hunkered down in this haven. Then the mail had arrived this morning, again bringing demands.
Hobbit finished up Second Breakfast and padded across the faded linoleum to the soft brown carpet of the living room. He stretched and flexed, then sauntered to the sunny window seat, lord of all.
Paris ignored the loud, disapproving sniff at the layer of cat hair on the cushion. “What do you think this is, some swanky New York hotel?” She prodded the top of the brownies in the oven with a fingertip and judged them as needing one more minute. “Speaking of which, look at this letter.”
She carried the offending paper to the window seat and showed it to Hobbit. Hobbit let out a grudging purr, and granted access to his belly while Paris read the letter aloud with renewed outrage.
“Looking forward to finalizing all the details, sincerely, blah blah blah,” Paris finished. “See? They’re trying to bribe me into going, and you know why I won’t.” Hobbit had heard all about why Paris had moved three thousand miles from her last job. “Anita Topaz isn’t going to this meeting. She’s not going to do a TED Talk or whatever Reynard Media calls it for any—foul word!”
She dashed across the living room toward the ominous you’re-too-late scent of overcooked brownie. Her socks slipped on the linoleum, catapulting her through the kitchen door. She yanked the pan out of the oven, burned her wrist on the door. The pan slipped out of her grasp. She lunged to save it and whacked her head on the counter so hard that the world went dark for a moment.
The dancing stars in her vision went away finally as she Jackie-Chan rubbed the dent in her skull. At least it felt like a dent.
Hobbit coiled into view from around the corner of the kitchen island, tail kinked with annoyance that the clatter and cursing had disturbed his morning nap and petting. Rightly presuming that the fallen brownies were not anything he would want to eat, he pointedly began cleaning a paw.
“I’m not leaking brain matter,” she told the cat’s back. “Thanks for asking.”
At least the brownies had landed face up. The edges were hard and tasted burnt, even for people who loved that part. Increasingly foul-tempered about the whole world, she set to using a melon baller to scoop out the still moist and edible interior. Chocolate, sugar and butter in any form was edible, right? Brownie Curls… Lisa might still be able to use them.
Now that was an idea. Why wait until tomorrow? Getting out of the house would probably make her feel better. It had been three…four days? Her last brownie delivery to Mona Lisa’s as a matter of fact. Not for the first time she was happy to have found a way not to eat her bouts of anxiety baking all by herself, and it even involved exercise. If Lisa didn’t think anyone would buy the salvaged brownies, they could certainly have a few themselves. It was that kind of day.
Five minutes effort with little plastic bags and ribbons to tie them closed went without major mishaps. Two dark, moist curls in each. Paris thought they looked appetizing, but Lisa would have to agree. She shoved the letter into her back pocket, thinking she’d ask Lisa’s advice about it.
Hobbit gave a discontented moof as she dumped him on the front porch.
“Go find Elevenses wherever it is you spend the rest of your time. I know it’s early, but I’m getting some fresh air.”
Hobbit slithered under the hedge with a parting yowl.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve been called worse.”
She pulled on her coat, grabbed up the basket with her wares, and let herself out into the blustery blue day. Lisa wasn’t expecting Paris to show up with baked goodies until tomorrow. Still, as Lisa had said in the past, there really was no limit to how many brownies a bar full of sports fans could consume.
She zipped up her hoodie while tipping her face to the sunshine. The sharp wind off Massachusetts Bay shouted winter, but the sun was seductively whispering spring. San Francisco was never this extreme. She pushed away the pang of longing for Gorilla Barbecue and the pale, sandy beach at Pacifica.
She’d grown to like Revere and nearby Boston, but in the nearly five years she’d lived here it hadn’t turned into home.
One thing was true—it was hard to stay angry on such a glorious day. The blue sky refreshed her eyes and the sun warmed the tip of her nose. It was as if the long, frozen,wet, dirty, slushy, slogging New England winter was over. But she knew it was a lie. As her landlords had warned her, March coaxed you out of your jacket, then dumped a foot of snow down your back. Much like life itself, she’d learned.
The only thing she didn’t like about her apartment was its position at the bottom of a hill even San Franciscans would call steep. It did mean that her landlords had a great view toward the harbor and that Paris’s rental space was light and airy. But it made the location a challenge to someone without a car.
She took a deep breath and set off up the hill with steady, long strides. Steep roads aside, renting the basement flat of the Lambeth/Richards house was still an ideal arrangement, she thought. The ladies had cash to help with their bills and repairs, and Paris had sunny windows, a solidly constructed kitchen that allowed her to bake off her anxieties, and an oversized bedroom with a big bay window where her desk was turned to face the flower and vegetable garden.
Her name appeared nowhere on a lease or utility bill. Just the way she wanted it.
That Anita Topaz’s meteoric success meant Paris could afford more—a lot more—didn’t make a bit of difference. Anita Topaz was not online, didn’t Tweet or chat, and she did not do personal appearances!
In danger of losing her recovering good spirits, she paused halfway up the hill. In spite of the sun there was plenty of mud and slush lurking in the gaps between squares of sidewalk. Fortunately, her Doc Marten boots were perfect Adventuring Gear for New England winters. Snow and mud never slowed her down. Once she made it to the top of the hill, it was only two more minutes to a frequent bus that was only two short stops from the T—and from there all of Boston was within reach. It was also only three minutes to a grocery and five minutes to Mona Lisa’s. Her living quarters were as close to the rest of the world as she wanted them to be.
With her hoodie pulled up and zipped to her chin, jacket flapping in the wind, and wrinkled jeans scruffy at the knees, she might have been any of the local youths walking home from the high school for lunch. True, none of them ever had a picnic basket right out of Little Red Riding Hood swinging from one hand.
At the top of the block she paused to inhale deeply and smiled in spite of herself. There was a finch chirping. Spring was indeed coming. The last of her anger seeped away, leaving behind cautious contentment paired, as always, with the tickle of anxiety.
No news there. She’d known all along that her Berserker Baking Blitz was rooted in her hyperactive flight-or-fight instinct.
The flashing Sam Adams Lager sign over Mona Lisa’s familiar green door was a welcome sight. The flutters and shivers that had tightened her chest eased. Note to self—fresh air is good for you. It wasn’t the first time she’d told herself that. It wouldn’t be the last.
The steamy, golden air inside the bar was also good for her, she decided, even if her sunglasses immediately fogged up. The familiar sharp aromas of furniture polish, beer, and tangy tomato soup were immediately comforting. She shucked her coat and unzipped the hoodie. Her word count could wait. She’d clearly needed this break.
Mona Lisa herself was working the front of the house, and that was always a beautiful thing. It was just past noon and customers were scarce. By five o’clock there wouldn’t be an empty seat at the gleaming oak bar, especially if Lisa was still working it. Paris didn’t know where Lisa had picked up her mad skills, but she made filling a beer mug as eye-catching as a strip tease. It certainly helped that she had a mane of sun-streaked yellow hair and a figure that filled out a Shetland sweater and Levi’s in all the best ways.
Paris sent a chin nod Lisa’s way, hoisted the basket into view and got a nod in return. Her usual cushioned chair in the corner near the front window suited her just fine, especially with her face to the sun and back to the TVs. At the moment the muted televisions were replaying a broadcast of a baseball game so ancient it was in black and white. It still roused a cheer from a die-hard Red Sox fan at the far end of the bar. Next month, on opening day, the place would be packed.
“What did you bring me?” Lisa put a cup of coffee on the table in front of Paris and dropped into the opposite chair. “I made that a couple of hours ago. Up to you if you drink it.”
Paris sipped. Contrary to Lisa’s description, the coffee was hot and fresh. “What every growing girl needs. Can you use some brownies? I know I’m early. I’ll have the usual tomorrow.”
Lisa made a hmm sound that Paris had learned meant that the calculator in Lisa’s brain was adding up the potential profit. Pity the fool who thought the tanned, blond surfer girl exterior meant there was no business sense on the inside. “It’s going to be a slow night.”
“I had an anxiety incident.”
“Sorry to hear that. All better?”
“They look awesome.” With a Betty Boop coo in her voice and shimmering tears in her eyes, Lisa asked, “Would fifteen be okay?”
It was tempting to say yes to anything Lisa suggested, but they’d played this game before. With a Spock eyebrow lift, Paris corrected, “I think twenty. And the cup of coffee.”
The corner of Lisa’s mouth twitched. “Spoilsport.”
“Does that big blue eye thing ever work?”
“Oh honey, you’d be surprised.” Lisa was peering into a baggie. “Why are they shaped liked that? What went wrong?”
“I got distracted. Sorry they don’t look so great.”
“They look like a Stoli White Russian with a chocolate chaser to me.”
Paris appreciated Lisa’s creativity. “That does sounds delicious. What will you call it?”
“The ‘Adulting So Hard.’” Lisa flashed her a brilliant smile. “I know it’s the first of the month, but I haven’t picked a March special yet. Bring me more next week, just in a box is fine. No need to wrap them for single sale.”
“Sure.” Paris’s attention was caught by a new arrival. Small and pale skinned, she looked like a recent arrival from the Emerald Isle itself. If the saffron and green pleated skirt wasn’t proof of heritage, there was even a tweed flat cap holding down the abundant, wildly tangled orange-red curls.
“You have a customer.”
Lisa was already rising to her feet. “She’s been a regular for the past couple of weeks. There’s a new production rehearsing at the Ferley Playhouse. It’s always the same order—soup and a half pint.”
“Lunch of champions.”
She watched Lisa chat amiably with the newcomer about how wonderful it was at last to see the sun. Paris had heard often enough that former Floridian Lisa didn’t like the bitter Boston winters, but Lisa always added that her Alaskan-born wife knew how to keep her warm, wink-wink.
The most important thing Paris knew about Lisa was that she’d been a whistleblower against a large hotel chain in a dispute on union pay for wait staff. She’d pointed out they were not paying wages for required prep time. They’d fired her. She’d sued. The quick settlement had bought the bar.
Good thing, since Paris was pretty sure Lisa would never get work in a hotel again, not in New England, anyway. When a woman stuck her head above the weeds, there was no shortage of people willing to throw bricks at it. And if she interfered with profits, they never forgot her name.
She sipped the coffee and quelled the prickles of tension that threatened again. When a shadow fell over the table she jumped.
The redhead was holding out a folded piece of paper. “The bartender said this belonged to you. I found it on the floor inside the door.” The lilt in her voice confirmed that she wasn’t a native New Englander.
“Crap!” Paris snatched the letter out of the woman’s hand. “I can’t believe I dropped it.”
“I thought it was trash and unfolded it to make sure. Hamilton tickets, sounds grand.”
Paris didn’t hide her annoyance that the woman had read it. “It’s really none of your—”
“I know. I’m a speed reader. Helps with auditions and acting. Anyway, I hope you have a great trip.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
The full lips split into a broad smile. “Yes you did. I couldn’t help but absorb the whole thing, but it was still rude of me. So now we’re even.”
Hoping her nervous swallow didn’t show, Paris held out her hand. “I’m Paris.”
Though the handshake was brief, it had the surprising effect of abating Paris’s anxiety completely. Impressions rushed in—light freckles dusted Diana’s cheeks. Her eyes were insanely green. The lipstick was winter-ripe cranberry and the fingers that had brushed her palm were exquisitely manicured and tipped with the same red. The tweed pea coat fit the slim figure perfectly and its large buttons were covered with the same suede piping that outlined the collar. Classy buttons meant couture, as Paris had found out doing research for her high-fashion thriller, Hands Off the Merchandise.
Diana had that…that…thing. That whatever it was that Lisa had. That thing that made a plain woolen scarf sing with casual elegance.
“So you’re Anita Topaz?” Diana’s puzzlement was plain on her face. “The writer?”
Double crap, Paris thought. “It’s a pen name. And I would really prefer no one else know Paris Ellison is the real person behind the name.”
Her hmm sounded a lot like Lisa’s, as if they were sisters from different mothers. Luckily, Diana seemed only mildly intrigued. “Good for you. You’re not what I would have pictured for the Queen of the Bodice Rippers, and that’s probably shame on me thinking writers look like their characters.”
The more Paris heard her voice, the more aware she was that Diana’s accent was unusual. Definitely not American, and not Canadian either. It didn’t sound quite English or Welsh, or have the inflections of Irish cadence her landladies still had. Maybe a mix of all of those with something else?
Intrigued against her will, Paris temporarily abandoned her plan for a quick goodbye and heading home at full speed. “It’s true. I’m not personally a heaving bosoms kind of woman. On book covers, I mean.” She didn’t add how annoying it was that since Reynard had assumed control the covers had become increasingly pink, the gowns even more low-cut, with the woman dwarfed by a man who looked like he could snap her in two. Her first three books had been taglined, “A Smart Bodice Ripper.” Under Reynard the word “smart” had disappeared.
She added truthfully, “The covers are chosen by marketing pros, and they seem to know what people want to see.”
“When people see what they expect to see it makes them comfortable.” Diana pulled on supple leather gloves. “I have to get back to rehearsal. Could you tell me where the nearest postal box is?”
Surprised Diana hadn’t seen the building that lay between Mona Lisa’s and the Playhouse, she began, “The post office is a few blocks—”
“A drop box is fine.”
“It’s pretty well hidden from the street by the hedges, but I know they pick up from it at three. It’s not on your way.”
“I like diversions.”
It might have been the whack on the head earlier that made it hard to focus on anything but those impossibly green eyes. Paris heard her own voice offering, “I’ll show you.”
“That’s perfect.” Diana cinched up her scarf and declared, “Master, go on, and I will follow thee.”
“To the last gasp with truth and loyalty?”
Diana blinked in surprise. “Have I found someone who likes Shakespeare as much as I do?”
“I don’t know how much you like Shakespeare, but my mother loved Romeo and Juliet.”
“Hence, Paris for your name?”
“That and Casablanca.”
“We’ll always have Paris,” Diana mused as they left the bar. “She sounds interesting, your mother.”
“She was.” Forestalling an automatic expression of sympathy that would flick at a nerve that would always be raw, Paris quickly added, “I’m no Juliet, and I’m also glad not to have gone through life as Romeo either. Turn right at the corner.”
Paris had caught a broadly mimed wink of approval from Lisa as they had gone out the door. She hoped Diana hadn’t seen it. Paris had never picked up women in Lisa’s bar, or even wanted to. Hell, Lisa would want all the details on the next visit.
It wasn’t as if Diana pinged what little gaydar Paris had ever had. It had been a matter of high humor among Paris’s former colleagues that she had said, “No way!” when informed that Jodie Foster was gay. She’d was definitely going to blame leaving with Diana on the konk on the head. It was now throbbing for real.
“It’s just a block over.” Paris pressed for the pedestrian light when they reached the corner, then scrambled to keep up as Diana jaywalked. They skirted cars waiting for the light to turn and reached the other side without mishap. “So what play are you rehearsing?”
“An adaptation of Tartuffe. The director is hopeful that with some backing there will be money for off-Broadway. It’s very political and given the times there could be interest.”
“But you have your doubts?”
Diana seemed startled at the question. “Was I that obvious? I’ll have to work on that.”
“You seemed hesitant is all.”
“If it does make it to New York, it won’t be with this cast. We’re good enough for working out the bugs, but that’s about it.”
“Turn into the parking lot here.” Paris led the way around the high hedges that surrounded the small drug store. “They hid it well.”
“I’d have never seen it. Thank you.” Diana pulled a small, thickly padded envelope from a surprisingly capacious inner coat pocket.
Paris caught sight of an address in Utah before the package disappeared. It was so light it almost didn’t make a sound as it landed on the mail already in the box. “Hope it gets there safely.”
“Me too. Well thank you. I really do have to hurry. Do you go to Mona Lisa’s often?”
“Twice a week.”
“Then maybe I’ll see you there again.”
“Maybe,” Paris echoed. And she stood there rubbing the bump on her head and watching the petite figure make its way to the corner and then out of sight.