“Let?” Ben asked. “Dee, no offense, but no one lets Jack do shit. He does whatever he wants, when he wants.”
Dee beamed. “Exactly.”
When both Jack and Ben just stared at her, she shook her head. “Honestly, do I have to spell everything out? You don’t see? Neither Jack nor Leah pretended anything.”
Jack shook his head, seeing where she was going with this. “Mom, listen—”
“No, Jack. You listen. You’ve been so good to me. And I’ve had a good life. All I wanted for you is the love of a great woman, someone who would treat you right and take care of you. And then I could die happy.”
“And when I’m gone,” she said. “I—”
“I’m not done, Jack.”
“Hell no, you’re not done. You’re not dying.”
“You’re not. I’m not going to let you,” he said very seriously.
At his side, Ben nodded just as solemnly. “No one’s dying,” he agreed. “Especially you. You’re the glue, Dee. We need the glue.”
“Oh.” She breathed and sniffed noisily, searching her pockets, presumably for a tissue. “Oh, you boys are just the sweetest things.”
Again Ben winced at the “sweet” moniker but offered her the hem of his T-shirt for her to swipe at her eyes.
“And as for Dad,” Jack said. “You’ve waved the widow’s weeds for long enough. I know you loved him; we all know it. And I know you miss him, but that doesn’t mean you’re half human. Live, dammit. It’s worth it.”
She stared at him, and then, horrifying him, her eyes filled with tears again.
“Ah, Mom. No.” He pulled her in and hugged her, pressing his jaw to the top of her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t you dare be sorry.” She sniffed and pressed her face to his chest. “I shouldn’t have let everything overcome me as much as I have.” She lifted her head. “I taught you boys better than that.”
“You did,” Ben said quietly. “You taught us to go for what we wanted, and we each did.”
Jack didn’t say anything because in Ben’s case it was absolutely true. Ben had wanted to design and build stuff, and he had. He’d wanted to fall in love and get married, and he’d done that too, until it’d been taken from him.
But Jack had let his future be guided by his past. Exactly what he’d accused Leah of, which made him a hypocrite.
He wasn’t much for regrets, but that one was starting to weigh on him now.
“Jack,” his mom said, cupping his face. “If I have to get over myself and go for what will make me happy, promise me you’ll do the same.” She pulled Ben in by the hand as well. “Both of you.”
“Promise me,” she said fiercely.
Jack nodded. Ben did the same.
And then Dee smiled her queen bee smile, squeezed them both one last time, and pulled back. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to RSVP to a steak barbeque.”
They watched her walk toward Ronald with great purpose.
“Imagine if she harnessed her powers for good,” Ben said.
Jack started to respond, but then Dee went toe to toe with Ronald. Putting her hands on his, she pulled him to her and kissed him like she meant it. “Shit.”
“Yep,” Ben said. “She’s tonguing your boss.”
Jack grimaced and then rubbed a hand over his face. When that didn’t clear his head, he gave Ben a shove. That helped only marginally.
“Your maybe, sort of, pretend ex-fiancé is next in line, man.” Ben shoved him back. “Time to get to work.”
Jack turned and looked. Sure enough, Leah was in his mom’s car. She’d come around to the hoses and buckets of soapy water and had just hefted one of the hoses in her hand.
Leah stood there in white short shorts and a dark-blue LHFD T-shirt that he was pretty sure was pilfered from his closet. It was tied at her belly button, and she looked like a cross between his greatest fantasy and his biggest heartache.
She met his gaze, her own hooded.
Jack handed Ben his sponge and headed toward her. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he said when he got close.
Her eyes flashed. “Look, you might be right about everything you said last night. I am a complete screwup. I’m a lot of things. But I am still a contributing member of society here in Lucky Harbor, so—”
“I meant you aren’t supposed to be here, behind the line, with all the gear.” He gestured to the madness around him. “It’s some sort of insurance liability.”
“Oh.” In the bright sunlight she blushed. “Right.”
He caught her arm just as she turned away, not sure what he planned on saying, only knowing that seeing her was like a punch to the gut. But the next thing he knew, he was doused with water right in the face.
“Whoops,” Tim said from the next car over, where he was hosing off the soap. “Sorry, kids!”
He’d also managed to hose down Danica, who was standing next to her car behind them. That snug, thin white sundress was now turning the family car wash into an X-rated wet T-shirt contest. She turned on Tim and nailed him in the face with a soapy sponge.
And just like that, the water fight was on. No one escaped unscathed. And in fact several people ganged up on Jack, including Tim and Ian, and he was pretty sure that it was Danica who’d jumped on his back and smashed a wet sponge in his face. The craziness went on for a while. People were soaking wet and having a good time. Lucky Harbor residents were nothing if not opportunistic and resilient.
When Jack finally pried free and swiped his eyes clear, Leah was gone.
On the night of the Sweet Wars finals, it was Elsie’s turn to make dinner. “So,” she said over meatloaf and potatoes. “Back to school, huh?” She smiled. “I’m so happy for you.”
“It’s only for one quarter.”
“And then you’ll go run a pastry shop, probably somewhere really exciting like Paris or New York, right?”
“I don’t know,” Leah said. She hadn’t gotten that far in her head yet.
Elsie laughed a little. “Why am I asking? Three months out is about as far as you ever plan.”
Leah went still, then reached for her grandma’s hands. They were dry and callused. A baker’s hands.
They matched Leah’s.
“Grandma, you knew this was temporary.”
Elsie nodded. “Of course, honey. I knew. I understand. If I were thirty years younger and half as talented as you, I’d be off making the most of it too. You have a lot out in front of you. I hope you know that.”
“I know it,” Leah said. “And I know it because of you.”
“Oh. Well.” Elsie’s eyes filled, but she shook her head. “You’d have figured it out sooner or later.”
“No, Grandma, it was all you. You and Jack.” Her own eyes filled. “Always loving me unconditionally. Beating me over the head with it all until it sank in.”
The doorbell rang.
It was Max Fitzgerald. Leah stared at him in surprise. “Mr. Fitzgerald. What are you doing here?”
“I need to speak to your granny.”
“I’m right here,” Elsie said, coming up next to Leah. “What do you want, Max?”
“You convinced Lyons to pull out of escrow? You can’t do that.”
“Can and did,” Elsie said and went to shut the door on him, but Max stuck his foot in it.
“Why?” he asked. “Why the hell would you get him to back out of a deal like that?”
“Why do you care?”
“Because believe it or not,” Max said, “I care about you. It was a great offer. He would’ve gotten good, fair-market value on that piece-of-shit building. So what the hell?”
Leah stared in shock at Elsie. “You talked Mr. Lyons into keeping his building?”
“Yes.” Elsie tilted her nose up to nose-bleed heights. “Yes, I did.”
“Because…” Elsie turned to Leah and softened her gaze. “Because you’ve reminded me how much I love that damn shop. I made that place, from the bottom up. I know it’s nothing fancy, and I’ll probably have to hire some more help after you leave, but…” She shrugged and broke eye contact with Leah. “I’m not ready to let go.”
“You didn’t have to let go!” Max said. “No one was going to kick you out.”
“But the new guy will be making changes. Updating, renovating. At the end of the year, the lease will go up. Everything will change.”
Max couldn’t deny this. He sighed. “Look, one thing I’ve learned…it’s the way of things, Elsie. Change happens.”
Elsie looked at Leah as she answered. “But I know,” she said softly. “Except this at least, this one thing, didn’t have to.”
“You don’t think Lyons will raise the lease?” Max asked. “Because he will.”
“Not mine,” Elsie said confidently, causing Max to toss up his hands and stomp off.
Leah parked at the bakery. She’d made her excuses to Elsie, and to Ali and Aubrey as well.
She didn’t turn on any lights as she let herself into the kitchen and hopped up on the counter with a tub of leftover cookie dough and a wooden spoon.
And there, with her iPad and her impending sugar rush, she watched the Sweet Wars finals.
The challenge had been deceptively simple. Make a five-tiered wedding cake large enough to serve two hundred people.
Except a cake that size was never simple, as Rafe so cheerfully pointed out to the camera. Unlike a smaller cake, frosting wasn’t just spread onto traditional wedding cakes. Rather fondant covered each cake tier to give a smooth look. Fondant was made from a sugar syrup that took up to forty minutes of constant stirring to get to the correct consistency. And then after applying it to each painstaking layer, there were still many hours of decoration needed.