sweet dreams (the bakery romance series book 3)

 

 

 

 

 

SWEET DREAMS

 

 

 

Cecelia Dowdy

 

Chapter 1

 

Rain pounded on the roof of the stretch limousine. Thin streams of water slid down the closed window. The rain reminded him of his unending tears. He’d never cried so much in his life. Tired of staring out into the gloomy day, Sterling focused on his two brothers. His bottom lip quivered as salty wetness spilled down his cheek. He swiped the moisture away. Toughen up, that’s what he needed to do. He needed to be strong. Burying Dad had been awful and now he had to hold himself together before they had the meal at his home for the funeral guests.

The car swerved. His brother, Leon’s neck-length dreadlocks bounced as he jerked forward. “Watch it!” Leon’s voice boomed at the limo driver.

“Sorry about that.” The driver peeked at the threesome in the rearview mirror. “High winds out there, just hit a rough patch.”

He couldn’t take his brother anywhere without acting a fool. “Don’t pay my brother any attention.”

Leon pulled a small flask from his backpack, poured amber liquid into one of the glasses provided in the back of the limo.

Louis, Leon’s twin, wiped his wet eyes, his mouth mashed down. “Man, don’t get wasted.”

Leon gritted his teeth, clutched his booze. “Don’t tell me what to do.” He gulped the liquid during the hour-long drive from the gravesite. It was mighty tempting to grab that flask and toss it out the window. No, he couldn’t do that. His brother would act even worse if confronted. Ignoring his brother, he focused on the raging Florida storm. The leaves from the palm trees lifted in the wet summer breeze as they passed stretches of deserted beaches.

The threesome remained silent during the rest of the journey. When skyscrapers, hotels and city streets zoomed by, signaling their arrival into Miami, Sterling sat up straighter in his seat. He squeezed his hands into fists, his eyes watering. Again, he blinked his tears away. He focused on Leon. The empty flask tumbled from his fingers, his eyes partially closed. Drool dripped from his mouth. How disgusting.

He grabbed tissues from the box on the floor, shoved them into Leon’s hand. “Wipe your mouth.”

Leon pressed the tissue over his full lips, his hooded eyes appeared glassy and unfocused. Leon dropped the tissues on the floor, his thin body swaying. They’d be home soon. He’d barely have enough time to get everything ready for the guests. He didn’t know what he’d do about his crazy brother.

He closed his eyes, leaned back on the leather seat. Fatigue settled into his bones like hot glue. He’d been awake all night, baking sweet treats in the bakery he ran with his father. He wanted to serve the baked goods during the after-funeral meal as a final memory to his dad.

He closed his eyes. Maybe if he could just rest for a few minutes, he’d find the energy to make it through this day. The limo stopped. Sterling opened his eyes, smiled. Home, finally. He was just one step closer to getting through this awful day. He said a few words to the limo driver before he rushed to his front door. Fat drops of cool rain slithered down his face. He glanced back, spotted Leon shuffling behind him. Louis’s deep angry voice sliced through the humid air while he fussed at his twin.

Sterling unlocked the door, but before he could open it, Leon kicked it, crashing it open. The door swung into the wall, the loud racket filled the otherwise silent house. Leon shoved Sterling aside, stumbled into the house, water dripping from his hair. Sterling grabbed Leon’s shoulder, pushing him into a chair. “Man, would you sober up?” Leon’s hooded eyes remained glassy.

Sterling sighed, rushed into the kitchen to get the boxes of desserts he’d baked. He kept his eye on Leon. His brother continued sulking in the chair like a wounded cow. Gritting his teeth, he placed the cookies on the tray as thoughts of his father filled his tired brain. He recalled how often he and his dad had made these vanilla cookies in their bakery. He hurried with his task, wanting to finish before the guests arrived.

Louis approached the table, clamped his hand on Sterling’s shoulder. “You need some help?”

“No, I’ve got this.” This was his tribute to his dad. He needed to be the one to arrange the treats on the serving table. He’d always been closest to their father.

“Why did Daddy do that?”  Leon’s slurred, drunken voice grated on his nerves. Sterling winced, dropped one of the vanilla cookies. It landed on the floor in a sugary heap. Why did Leon have to refer to Dad’s unfavorable terms on his life insurance policy now? He’d been complaining about it while they drove to the burial site. He figured his brother would at least wait until another day to bring this up again.

He lifted the ruined cookie, tossed it into the trash. He closed his eyes.
Jesus, help me to mend the rift between me and my brother.

He finally pushed the box of cookies aside, rushing to Leon, grabbing his arm. “Man, would you calm down?”

Louis followed behind him obviously wanting to help. “You know how stupid he acts when he’s wasted.”

Leon jerked his arm away, narrowed his eyes. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket. His partially unknotted tie hung loosely around his neck and brown spots of booze tainted his shirt. Leon stood and stormed to the table, grabbing a cookie and throwing it on the floor. He crushed the confection with his foot. Sterling grabbed Leon’s shoulder, turning him around. “Stop it! Now!”

Leon jerked away, pushing a cigarette into his mouth. He flicked his lighter, attempting to light his cigarette.

“Ugh!” Sterling grabbed Leon’s arm. “Cut it out! You know you can’t smoke in my house!” He hated the acrid scent of cigarette smoke.

Leon jerked away, still trying to light his cigarette. Would this day ever end? Sterling grabbed Leon again. Louis attempted to take the lighter away and Leon dropped it, the flame catching onto the carpet.

Louis stomped the flame, creating a black smear. He grabbed Leon’s other arm and they pushed Leon against the wall. Louis spoke through clenched teeth. “You idiot!”

Leon glared at his brothers. When they finally released him, he calmly picked up his lighter and lit another cigarette. He then cursed, his mouth set in a hard, tense line. “You guys can’t tell me what to do. I’m smoking.” Leon puffed on his cigarette, as if daring his brothers to stop him.

Sterling eyed the cookies he’d been setting out before dropping onto the couch, weary, tired, suffering from enough drama over the past week to last a lifetime. Louis plopped down beside him, running his hand over his forehead. “My head’s killing me. You got any aspirin?” 

Sterling made a trip to the bathroom and got the bottle of pills for this brother. He then refocused on the cookies and cakes. He wiped his moist eyes as visions of his dad danced through his head like a non-stop movie. Leon shuffled around the living room, smoking his cigarette, mumbling as if in a trance.

He eyed the desserts he’d prepared in loving memory of their father: Bright red velvet cake smothered in white cream cheese frosting, vanilla sugar cookies, lemon pound cake and a huge batch of chocolate chip cookies sprinkled with nuts. The delicious sugary scents of the sweets were now tainted with the nicotine smell from Leon’s cigarette.

He sniffed, turned away, wiped his eyes with a tissue. Louis glared at his twin. “I hope Leon doesn’t act a fool when everybody gets here.”

Sterling rubbed his tired eyes, downing two of the aspirins with a cup of water. “You tried to stop him from drinking. He never listens to us.” Although Louis and Leon were identical twins, their personalities were as different as night and day. Louis was always apologizing for Leon, as if he felt responsible for Leon’s crude behavior.

Leon’s voice boomed from across the room while he dropped into a chair. “Why would he do this?” He glared, his cigarette dangled from his mouth. “Why?”

Sterling forced himself to stare into his brother’s eyes. “I told you, I don’t know! You’d better get yourself sobered up before the people come here to eat.” The thought of his drunken brother acting foolish around his father’s friends was almost enough to make him puke.

Leon took another drag from his cigarette. “You make me sick. Dad always favored you and treated me and Louis like crap!”

“Would you stop?” Sterling turned away, ignoring the ugly truth that tumbled from his brother’s mouth. He’d always been so close to his dad. He recalled that a lot of his school mates didn’t get along with their fathers.

That wasn’t the case with Sterling. He supposed that their shared love of baking had helped them to create a bond as thick as a corded rope. He took deep breaths, the ugly truth from his brother’s mouth haunting his mind. The twins had always been on the fringes of the close relationship he’d shared with their father – almost as if they were on the outside, looking in.

“Why would Dad make you the sole beneficiary of his life insurance policy? Why?” Leon’s deep angry voice cracked throughout the living room like thunder.

Sterling shot out of the chair, stormed toward his brother. The good Lord knew he wanted to make everything better. But, he couldn’t do that until Leon stopped drinking. “I don’t know.” He took a deep breath.
Jesus, help me.
“I don’t know why Dad did this. We can talk about it later.”

Louis approached his twin. “Come on, Leon. I’ll drive you home so that you can go to sleep.”

Leon shook his head. “No, don’t want to.”

Sterling checked his watch. The guests would be arriving soon and he didn’t want Leon around. Leon glared at them. It looked like he needed to repeat Louis’s suggestion. “Let Louis drive you home. This is hard on all of us and we need to deal with it.”

Leon cursed again, dousing his cigarette in the paper cup he’d used as an ashtray. “Easy for you to say.” He stood, and jammed his index finger into Sterling’s chest, speaking in a low voice. “Dad made you the sole beneficiary. Is he trying to tell me and Louis that we’re not good enough, that we’re not really his sons?”

Sterling squeezed his eyes shut. “Leon, I don’t know.” He glanced at the wall, sniffed, his eyes again becoming wet. “You and Louis—”

The fist that slammed into his jaw took him by surprise. White hot pain seared his face as he stumbled against the wall, knocking a picture onto the floor. “Ugh.” He held his jaw as Leon attempted another blow. He pushed his brother away, resisting the urge to pummel Leon’s face.

Louis grabbed his twin. “Cut it out!”

Tears streamed from Leon’s eyes as he glared at Sterling, balling his hands into fists, as if resisting the urge for another blow. “I. Can’t. Stand. You.”

Sterling swallowed, stunned. This was the first time he’d seen his brother so tormented and out of control. “Calm down.” 

“No!”

When Leon stormed toward Sterling, his fisted hand swerved toward Sterling’s face. Sterling blocked the clumsy punch. “Ugh!”
Lord, I want to knock the daylights out of my brother. But, I’m so angry now, if I start hitting him, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop.

 

Chapter 2

 

Tears spilled from Leon’s eyes. Sterling blocked Leon’s clumsy attempt at another punch. Sterling ducked as Leon stumbled, slamming into the table, causing the red velvet cake to slide toward the floor. Sterling rushed to the table, holding his hands out. His fingers barely touched the icing before the cake toppled onto the floor into a crimson and ivory heap.

“Ugh!” He glared at Leon. Taking a deep breath, he stared at the cake. He needed to calm down. He closed his eyes for a few seconds. It was just a cake. He could always make another one later to honor his father’s memory.

His brother attempted another blow but Sterling grabbed Leon, and Louis helped, pulling their brother toward the front door. A knock sounded throughout the living room. Their first guest had arrived. Leon punched the wall, his mouth set in a tense line. Sterling gestured toward the kitchen. “Louis, take him out the back door.”

“No!” Leon gripped the doorknob, refusing to budge. “I’m not leaving yet! We’re not done.”

Sterling and Louis gripped Leon’s hand, pried his fingers from the door. Sterling and Louis dragged Leon through the kitchen, each of them pulling one of Leon’s arms. Leon cursed as him and Louis finally tumbled out the back door, in the midst of the raging storm. Lightening cracked the overcast sky while Louis tugged his twin toward his car.

Sterling rushed back into the living room.
Lord, help me through this day.
He eyed the mess his brother created. The knock sounded again.

He opened the door. “Adrian.” His neighbor’s cute, mocha-colored face split into a tiny smile. She folded her red and white cane before entering his home. She pushed her dark glasses up on her nose before lifting her head, as if scanning the room with her sightless eyes.

“Oh, Sterling.” She pulled him into her thin arms. She smelled nice, like lemons and cocoa butter. He took a deep breath, his fatigued brain felt a bit better, just from hugging his good friend.

Taking her elbow, he led her to the couch and she sat. “I don’t hear anybody. Am I the first person to arrive?”

“Uh. Yes, you’re the first guest.”

She frowned. “Where are your brothers?”

He looked away from her sightless eyes. How could he explain Leon’s behavior on the day of their father’s funeral?

“Leon got drunk on the way home.”

“Oh, my goodness. Is he okay?”

He blew air through his lips. “Not really.” He doubted Adrian wanted to hear about his family drama.

Adrian placed her cane into her large handbag. “Humph. I’m not surprised.” She sniffed. “It smells scrumptious in here.” She sniffed again, wrinkling her nose. “But I can tell that somebody’s been smoking.”

He sighed. “Leon was.” He cracked a window and told her about the events that had occurred over the last few minutes. “Now I don’t know what to do. That whole cake is ruined and the pictures need to be re-hung on the walls.”

Adrian shook her head. “You can’t salvage any of the cake?”

He shrugged, again looking at the ruined cake. “I might be able to save some of it.”

“Can’t you just take the cake and cut off the portion that touched the floor?”

He stared at the cake, closing his eyes, recalling the times he’d spent with his father eating his favorite red velvet cake. Tears rushed to his eyes, and he quickly blinked the moisture away. He really needed to make a better effort of pulling himself together before the other guests arrived.

“No, it’s ruined. I can’t serve this.” He lifted the moist cake and carefully placed it back onto the platter. If Adrian could’ve seen the cake, she would’ve known that he would never be able to salvage it for the guests.

She folded her arms in front of her chest, as if she wanted to take charge of the situation. “Well, just take it away and we can decide what else needs to be done.” He took the cake into the kitchen and returned. “You can remove the pictures and not worry about re-hanging them right now.” He attempted to do the things that Adrian suggested. “You got a vacuum cleaner? If you show me where the cake landed, I can vacuum while you clean up.”

He removed the vacuum cleaner from the hall closet and guided her mocha-colored hands over the contraption. He pushed her fingers over the ON button. “This is how you turn it on. Just push it straight ahead. There’s nothing in your path so don’t worry about running into anything or knocking anything over.” Adrian nodded, turning the vacuum cleaner on.

While she vacuumed, he placed more food onto the table. He eyed a splatter of cream-cheese icing on the wall. He rubbed his sore cheek. Why couldn’t Leon find another way to control his rage?

The loud guzzle of the vacuum cleaner ended when Adrian turned it off. She wrapped the cord around the plastic hook. “All done. What else do you want me to do?”

He took a deep breath. His head still ached. Maybe he should take some more aspirin. He pulled her over to the table. “Could you un-wrap these paper plates and place them at the end of the table?” His voice wavered. She touched his arm.

“You sound awful.”

“It’s been an awful day, Adrian.”

She ripped the plastic wrap off of the plates. “You know, I’ve been doing pretty bad since my roommate left and got married. I miss having a sighted person around to take me to work every day and to do grocery shopping and errands.” Adrian’s calm cool voice filled the room.

The thought of Leon’s crude behavior evaporated like a fine mist as he focused on Adrian’s problems. “You know I-—”

She reached over, felt around until she found his arm, halting his speech. “I know you’re willing to help. I appreciate how you’ve helped already, but, I really don’t want to take advantage of you.” She paused, setting more plates onto the table. “I have a cousin who’s moving in to help me. She’s having some problems at home and she feels it’s time to move out.” She gripped the stack of plates. “She’s twenty five, so she’s a little bit younger than us. She’s always lived with her mother and her sisters. She’s never lived on her own. She’s found a job down here and everything, but she’s not used to the area. I was hoping you could show her around when she moves in.”

He blinked, rubbed his sore jaw. “Hold on. I’m going to get some ice for my face.” He went into the bathroom and turned on the light. “Good grief.” He glared at his complexion. His eyes were red and ringed with dark circles. His cheek sported an angry blue-black knotted bruise. He touched his sore cheek, wincing from the pain. Still plagued by Leon’s behavior, he went into the kitchen. He grabbed some ice and shoved it into a sandwich bag, placed a washcloth over it, and held it to his sore jaw.

He returned to the living room. Adrian had finished setting out the plates. She’d made herself comfortable on the couch. Taking a few deep breaths, he pushed Leon out of his mind, again focusing on Adrian’s news. “So, you’re trying to set me up with your cousin?”

She shook her head so fast, a few strands of hair escaped from the fashionable bun at the nape of her neck. “No. I know you’ve been sad since your dad passed. I’m just trying to get your mind off of it.” She stopped speaking, placed her hand on his arm. “I’ve been praying for you every day since your dad died.”

“Thank you.” The simple words warmed his heart, making his grief a bit easier to deal with.

He eyed his friend. She sat up straight, her small hands now folded in front of her. He’d been worried about her over the last few weeks, helping her out when he could, but it’d been hard. He’d had to work more hours in the bakery after his dad had gotten sick. Now that he knew she’d have a roommate, he wouldn’t worry about her so much. “So, when’s your cousin supposed to arrive?”

 

Chapter 3

 

Sterling pulled his car into his driveway. He turned off the ignition, closed his eyes. Whew, he needed to refuel his energy before going inside. What a rough day. Surprising he’d made it to work on the day after his dad’s funeral. He peeked at his watch. It was four o’clock and once he was inside, he needed to catch a quick nap before settling into his evening routine. The bakery had been packed. Several of his regular customers expressed their sympathies. He’d been busy, baking pies, cakes and cookies all day. When his assistant had closed out the register, he’d been pleased with the day’s income.

His friend Rhea had sent a plant to his house and had called him the previous night. Speaking to her had been nice. Her twins were two years old and her third was still an infant. She could only talk for a few minutes but had urged him to call if he needed anything. His buddy Toni had also called him from Chicago. Since her own father had passed the previous year, she could relate to what he was going through. He’d bonded with Toni and Rhea at a food conference four years ago. They texted and emailed one another regularly. They also kept in touch via Facebook. He’d found that since both of his friends had gotten married, their texts and emails were not so frequent.

He’d also seen a lot of his relatives the previous day. His Aunt June had shown up at the funeral and she’d come to his house for the meal afterwards. He had not seen his Aunt June since he was a teenager when she’d come up for his mom’s funeral. It’d been weird seeing her after so many years. She looked so much like his mom, and sounded like her too. They had not seen her very much because she’d married a German and had moved out of the country. She sent a Christmas card every year, and that was about it. He’d told her that the twins had left early, confided about Leon’s drunken rage. She’d been concerned and worried about the twins. She’d promised to visit them before she took her flight home the next day. After all these years, he still missed his mom, and now his dad was gone, too. It was kind of hard to believe at thirty-three, both of his parents were dead. He was now an orphan. He shook the depressing thought away.

He forced his thoughts back to his workday. As he’d been baking, memories of his dad haunted him. He’d found himself stopping as he’d mixed pie dough or cake batter, recalling how his father used to continuously give baking advice as they’d gone through their day.

The noise from a loud engine broke his moment of solitude. He opened his eyes, turned and glanced across the street. A large orange, black and silver moving van backed into Adrian’s driveway.

He opened his car door and exited his vehicle. A petite, dark-skinned woman got out of the van. She wiped her brow, oblivious to his scrutiny. She opened the back of the moving van. Seconds later, she hefted a box from the van and approached Adrian’s porch. She dropped the container on the ground, pulled a key from the pocket of her jeans and unlocked and opened the front door. She then propped Adrian’s door open with a chair.

This had to be Adrian’s cousin. He checked his watch again. Adrian wouldn’t be home from work for another two hours. The woman hefted another box, turned, and spotted him. Their eyes locked like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. He waved. She obviously couldn’t wave back since her arms were full. He sprinted across the street, hearing a dog bark in the distance while birds chanted from the sky. He approached the woman, his arms outstretched, ready to take her load. “You need some help?”

She clutched her box, shook her head. “No, I’m fine. I’m moving in with your neighbor.”

“I know. Let me help you.”

Again, she shook her head. Sweat popped from her brow and her arms shook from the weight of the box. “No, I’ve got it.”

He grabbed the box from her slim arms and hefted it into the house. “Where do you want this?”

She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t even know who you are and you’re going into my cousin’s house with my stuff?” Her smooth voice brimmed with annoyance.

He took a deep breath. Maybe he should just leave this, petite, stubborn woman to unload the whole truck by herself. He eyed the countless boxes in the back of the van. He dropped the box into the doorway as a bead of sweat rolled down his cheek and irritated his aching jaw. He probably looked awful. He wasn’t in the best of moods, and this woman didn’t know who he was. He walked toward her, offered his hand. “I’m Sterling Richards. I live across the street. I’m Adrian’s friend. We go to the same church.”

Relief flowed through the small woman’s features. She smiled and a dimple winked in her cheek. His heart skipped. He again found himself staring, full of curiosity about his new neighbor. She shook his hand.

“I’m Melissa, but everybody calls me Misty.” Her small, soft fingers enclosed within his palm. He released her hand, spying her red-painted nails. He stepped back, catching a whiff of pleasant, rose-scented perfume. “I’m sorry about the way I acted. I didn’t know who you were.”

He blinked, spotting a small tattoo on her neck. She covered the mark on her skin, as if ashamed. What kind of tattoo was she hiding? Still feeling off-kilter, he said the first thing that came to his mind. “I could still help you move your stuff if you want.”

“Are you sure? I’ve got lots of stuff and some of those boxes are pretty heavy.”

“What else were you going to do?” He studied the loaded truck. “Could you really carry all of those boxes inside? It looks like you need some help.”

She looked away, stared at the ground. “Some friends were supposed to help me, but they bailed at the last minute.”

He wondered about the types of loser friends she had. The desire to bring the smile back to her face consumed him, in spite of his intense fatigue. Thinking about Leon’s behavior had affected his sleep the previous night, and again he longed for a nap. But duty called. He needed to help Misty move her stuff into Adrian’s house. “What’s the matter?” Her soft voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Huh?”

“I asked what was wrong.” She gave him a small smile. “You looked like you were going to cry.”

His eyes were moist. He blinked the tears away. No way did he want Misty to see him cry. He had to pull himself together. “What happened to your cheek?” She touched his cheek, frowning. “It looks like it hurts. Were you in a fight or something?”

He stepped back. His cheek still tingled from Misty’s cool fingers. Maybe helping her move in was not such a good idea. The last thing he wanted to do was tell a stranger about the fight he’d had with his brother. “Let’s hurry up and get your stuff in the house.” He glanced at the truck. “Are all of the boxes heavy?”

She pursed her lips. She was probably annoyed that he ignored her questions. “The lighter boxes are on the left and the heavy ones are on the right.”

“Okay, I’ll carry the boxes in and you can start unpacking.”

She touched his arm, her dark eyes serious. “You don’t have to carry all of the boxes. I’ll carry the lighter ones and you can carry the heavy ones. I’m not some weak female who can’t do any work.” Her stern tone brooked no argument, so he agreed. He just wanted to finish the chore so that he could lie down.

They worked in companionable silence, carrying the boxes. Good thing she didn’t have any furniture. Adrian’s spare bedrooms were already furnished, which seemed to work well for her cousin. After working together for a couple of hours, the van was emptied. Misty removed the keys from the pocket of her jeans. He glanced up and down the street. “Did you need to return the van and get your car?”

She shrugged. “I don’t own a car.”

He frowned. “You don’t have a car? How come?”

She folded her thin arms in front of her chest and looked away. “I just don’t, okay.” From the irritated tone of her voice, he figured he’d offended her. He wondered how much help she’d be to Adrian without a car. Since Adrian’s roommate moved out, she’d been relying on one of her coworkers to help her. How was Misty going to take Adrian to the grocery store, church, work, and weekly errands? Questions loomed through his mind, but he sensed he needed to stay silent. Misty stood beside the vehicle, jiggling her keys, as if anxious to return the van.

He knew the whole situation was none of his business. “Did you need a ride back to Adrian’s after you drop off the moving van to the rental place?”

After hesitating a few seconds, she finally nodded. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

He’d rather go into his house and get some sleep, but he wouldn’t let her know that. “Let’s get going.”

He followed her to the U-Haul center and waited outside while she turned in her keys. Seconds later, she exited the place and walked to his SUV. She opened the door and settled into the passenger seat. He turned his radio onto a gospel station, started the motor and made his way toward home.

The crowded sidewalks of downtown Miami were filled with throngs of people. The leaves from the palm trees fluttered in the hot evening breeze. Misty remained quiet during the drive home, and his mind was plagued with questions about her background. As they drove along the highway, the blue Miami beach sparkled under the bright sun. Sunbathers enjoyed the hot, humid weather. He gestured toward the water. “You like going to the beach?”

She shook her head. “I don’t go much. I don’t even know how to swim.”

He stopped at a light. “Where are you from?”

“I’ve lived in Lehigh Acres my entire life.”

“Lehigh Acres?”

“Yeah, it’s a town about two and a half hours from here.”

As he continued driving, he glanced at Misty whenever they stopped at a light. Her smooth dark skin and large pretty eyes were hard to ignore. He recalled Adrian saying Misty had family problems. He wondered what kind of problems she was having with her family that would make her relocate to Miami.

He pulled into his driveway. It was almost six thirty. Adrian would be home soon. His stomach grumbled with hunger. “Did you want to join me for dinner?” The invite popped out of his mouth before he could give it much thought.

She furrowed her brow. “Dinner?”

It sounded like she’d taken his invite the wrong way. “I have a lot of leftovers from…” He paused, wondering if Adrian had told Misty about his father’s funeral. He threw caution to the wind, decided to tell her about his messed-up life. “Look, my dad died a week ago and the funeral was yesterday, and—”

She touched his arm, her cool fingers bringing relief to his heated skin. “I’m sorry about your dad. Is that why you looked so sad earlier?”

The sadness returned. He wondered how long it would take for his grief to lessen. He nodded. “Yes, things have been pretty…stressful lately and the people came over for the meal yesterday and left a lot of food. I’m going to be eating leftovers for days.” He didn’t want her to think he was asking to share dinner with him for romantic reasons. “It’d help me out if you’d eat some of the food.” Another thought occurred to him. “When Adrian gets home, she can come by too. Maybe you guys can take some over to your place to eat tomorrow.” He stopped speaking, decided that he was rambling. He just needed to shut up, eat and rest for a while.

Misty opened her door. “I’d love some dinner.”

She followed him into his house. Butter-colored sunlight splashed into his living room. It was a good thing that Adrian had helped him to clean up the previous day. They went into the kitchen. He dished up tuna casserole and warmed it in the microwave. The fishy scent of tuna mingled with the smell of onions as the food circulated in the small oven. The microwave beeped, and he placed a generous portion of the warmed food onto Misty’s plate.

They sat at the table. Would she mind if he held her hand while he prayed over their meal? He shook the thought away. “I’d like to bless the food before we eat if you don’t mind.”

She nodded. “That’s fine.”

They bowed their heads. “Lord, thank you for this day, thank you for this food, and please…help me, Lord with…please help me with…everything you know what I need help with and please be with Misty during her move to Miami. Amen.”

“Amen.”

They ate in silence. Once they were done, he remembered dessert. Although there had been food left after the repast, the desserts were gone. He still had the red velvet cake that had landed on the floor. He’d taken Adrian’s suggestion, rescued the portion that had not touched the floor. He’d kept it for himself.

He pulled the cake out of the refrigerator. “Did you want a piece? Before you say yes, I need to warn you about something.” He told her the cake landed on the floor the previous day, leaving out the details about how it happened. “I threw away the first layer, but the other two should be fine.”

She shrugged, eyeing the dessert. “Sure, I’ll have some.”

He loaded their plates with thick bright red slices of cake coated with smooth creamy frosting. He popped a bite into his mouth. The blend of the buttermilk and chocolate flavors was phenomenal.

“Oh. My. Goodness.” She smacked her lips, finishing her cake in minutes. “That is the best cake.”

He grinned. “Thanks. I’m a baker…and so was my dad. We used to work together and red velvet was his favorite cake. I like it, too.”

Her pretty eyes widened. “You made this cake?”

He chuckled, sat up straighter in his chair. Hearing praise about his baking lifted his sullen mood. “Yeah, I made it. I make stuff every day. That’s my job and I love it.” He sighed. Since his stomach was now full, and he’d had a busy evening, it was time to lie down. He glanced at his watch. “Adrian should be home.”

She nodded, standing. “Yes, she should be.”

He covered the disposable aluminum container with foil, before pressing it into Misty’s hands. “You and Adrian can have the rest of the casserole.”

She accepted the container, smiling. “Thanks.” She placed the container on the table.

He cut a couple of slabs of cake. “You can take this, too.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it. Too bad Jennifer isn’t here. She really loves sweets.”

He frowned, puzzled as he wrapped the cake slices in foil. “Jennifer? Who’s that?”

“Oh, Jennifer’s my daughter.”

“Your daughter?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Didn’t Adrian tell you that I have a two-and-a half year-old?”

He shook his head. “No, she didn’t mention that. Where is she?”

“Who, Adrian?”

He placed the slices of cake beside the casserole dish. “No, your daughter. Where is she? She’s not going to be living with you and Adrian?” He wondered if Misty refused to raise her daughter herself and had placed her into someone else’s care.

She pursed her lips, staring at her red-painted nails. “She’s with my mother right now.”

“So, your mom lives in Lehigh Acres, right?”

“Yes, I’ve been living with my mom forever. This is the first time I’m moving out on my own.”

He frowned, wanting to ask another question, but wondered if Misty would get offended. He might as well ask. “So you just left your daughter with your mom? Why in the world would you do that?”

Misty’s head snapped up and her jaw tensed. “What kind of a question is that?” Her tone filled with anger. Maybe he shouldn’t have asked the question after all.

“Well, there’s lots of grandparents in my church who’re raising their grandchildren and it’s really hard on them. Can you imagine running around after a two-year-old when you have a hard time getting around yourself?” He shook his head, pushing the food toward Misty. “Just makes me wonder about the responsibility of today’s young mothers.” He glanced at Misty. Her mouth was set in a hard line. “How old are you, anyway?” 

She turned away, not answering his question. He took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” But he did wonder about her leaving her child behind.

She stood, shoving her chair underneath his table, taking the food. “I think it’s time for me to leave.” She took the food and he opened the door for her. She practically ran across the street to Adrian’s house and he wondered if she’d ever appear at his door again. He shut the door, figuring it was probably best if she didn’t return. After all, who’d want a woman who wouldn’t even take care of her own child?

 

Chapter 4

 

Misty balanced the food on one arm and shoved Adrian’s door open with her free hand. She hurried into the kitchen, slamming the food on the table.

“Misty, is that you?”

Adrian sat at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of tea, her fingers skimmed over a piece of paper scattered with Braille bumps.

“Yes, it’s me.” She hugged Adrian before dropping into a chair, took a deep breath, and tried to calm down. “What are you reading?”

“It’s a letter from a local organization for the blind, inviting me to a special art event for blind people.”

“Are you going?”

Adrian shook her head while she pushed the paper away. “No. They usually have those events during the workday since most blind people are unemployed. I’m not going to take off from work to look at art.”  She sipped her tea.

“How are things going at your job?”

“Things are going okay.” Adrian worked as a computer programmer for the government. She was able to work by using a special Braille display hooked up to her computer. Misty recalled how Adrian had been out of work for years before she finally found a job. “I bumped into a box as soon as I walked into the house.”

Misty sighed, folding her arms in front of her chest. “I’m sorry.” She had to remember that Adrian was blind and that she had to be careful about where she put her things. “I should’ve placed all of the boxes into the spare bedrooms.”

“That’s okay.” Adrian opened a small china dish and spooned some sugar into her drink. She sniffed. “I smell tuna fish and cake. Did you bring food?”

She guided Adrian’s hand to the aluminum container. “Sterling sent over tuna casserole.”

Adrian chuckled. “That man loves sharing his food.”

“Whatever,” Misty grumbled.

“What’s wrong?”

She sighed, telling her about the recent conversation she’d had. “That man made me angry. He’s thinking that I’m some unfit mother who’s abandoning her child and it’s not like that.”

Adrian laughed. Walking toward the cupboard, she opened up the cabinet above the sink, removed a plate. She pulled flatware from the drawer. “Misty, you have such a fiery temper. Don’t let him upset you. Why didn’t you tell him about your situation?”

“Because it’s none of his business.”

After Adrian had dished up the casserole, she placed it into the microwave to warm. Misty watched her cousin press the Braille bumps that had been taped over the numbers on the microwave – she selected the time she wanted to heat her meal. “Well, you need to calm down. Besides, you have a few faults of your own. You’re nosy sometimes. I’ll bet you asked Sterling some questions that he didn’t want to answer.”

Misty glanced at her cousin while she warmed the food. “I guess I did,” she mumbled. “What happened to his face? He looked like he was in a bad fight.”

Adrian folded her arms in front of her chest. “He’s having some family trouble now and he was attacked by his drunken brother.”

Misty gasped. “My goodness. What were they fighting over?”

“In a nutshell? Money. That’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to be spreading more information about Sterling’s business. Let’s talk about you. You could’ve simply told him that you need to start your new job and Jennifer’s new daycare didn’t have an opening for a couple of weeks, so you had to leave her with your mom until then.”

“Well, I don’t care what he thinks about me. I doubt I’ll be sharing any more dinners with him.”

“Don’t get so riled up.”

Misty grumbled. “It’s hard to stay calm after I’ve just been insulted about the way I’m raising my daughter.”

The microwave beeped and Adrian returned to the table with her heated food. “I’ve known a lot of single moms and you’re one of the best, most considerate mothers I’ve ever seen.”

Misty dipped her head, surprised at the praise. “Thanks.”

Adrian tasted her food. “But, you do go overboard with your daughter sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m talking about your dream of enrolling her into Juliette’s.”

Juliette’s was an expensive, elite pre-school in Miami. Children were not eligible to enroll until they were three years old. A lot of the children who attended Juliette’s went on to impressive grammar schools, going on to Ivy League colleges. The application period was opening up soon. If accepted, Jennifer would become a student the following school year. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best education for my daughter.” Why couldn’t Adrian understand that?

“Honey, I know you want the best for your daughter, but, you need to be realistic. I visited the school’s website. Their tuition is astronomical. Only rich people go there. No way would you be able to afford that cost.”

Misty grunted. Adrian was always online, looking things up and reading news articles. She was able to do this using her special Braille display. “My daughter is just as good as those other kids. No reason why she can’t have the same opportunity as them.”

Adrian sighed, felt around the table until she found Misty’s hand. Misty figured her cousin was trying to calm her down. “Misty, your daughter is just as good as those other kids. I know that. But, you simply don’t have the money to pay that tuition. There are lots of other nice preschools in the area.” She didn’t care about those other schools. She only wanted what was best for her daughter. “How do you plan on paying that tuition if Jennifer is accepted?”

Misty hopped out of her chair. Adrian didn’t know about her most recent find. She found the box containing her important papers. She took out a folder and returned to the table. “I found some full scholarships that are available.” She removed a paper from the folder. “This scholarship shows the most promise. I think I have a good chance of winning this for Jennifer.”

Adrian sipped her tea, tilted her head. “Tell me more about it.”

“It’s called the Sarah Wilkins Scholarship.” In a rushed voice, Misty read the information to Adrian. “Sarah Wilkins was abandoned by her mom into the foster care system. She knew how hard it was for disadvantaged kids to be given a chance. Now one of the richest women in Miami, she offered several full-tuition scholarships for preschool and grammar school children.” She paused for a few seconds. “It lists the schools for which a full scholarship is offered and Juliette’s is one of them.” Misty’s voice raised, her vision for her daughter showing promise.

Adrian shook her head, took another bite of casserole. “I’m sure the competition for those scholarships is pretty stiff.”

“But, Adrian, I haven’t told you everything yet. The Sarah Wilkins scholarship is only offered to children who are being raised my single mothers.”

“Well, I’m sure there are plenty of single mothers out there vying for those spots.”

“I agree, but not just any single mom can apply.” She continued reading the brochure to Adrian. “After being released from the foster care system at eighteen, Sarah Wilkins was homeless and she’d gotten her fair share of meals from soup kitchens. In order to apply for the scholarship, the single mother has to go above and beyond for her community by putting in weekly hours in a soup kitchen. Even after the scholarship has been awarded, the single mom still has to volunteer regularly at a food-based service. The single mom is expected to continue her community service during the duration of the scholarship.”

Adrian stopped eating. At least she’d gotten her attention. “Really?”

“Yes. I’ve been volunteering at the soup kitchen in Lehigh Acres for the last year. The director has already agreed to write me a letter, attesting to that fact, when I apply for this scholarship. I figure once I get Jennifer and get her used to Miami and her new daycare, I can find a soup kitchen in Miami and simply volunteer there.” Adrian quietly continued eating. “What’s wrong? Adrian, you know how much this means to me. You know what happened to me when I was a kid…” She sniffed, the awful memories invading her mind. “You know—” She couldn’t stop the choked emotion in her voice.

Adrian reached over, felt around until she touched Misty’s arm. “I know. I really hope Jennifer is accepted into Juliette’s and that you get the scholarship. But, I know how you are Misty.”

She swiped her tears away. “What do you mean?” she asked in a small voice.

“You tend to put all of your eggs into one basket. You get your mind set on one thing and go after it. Then, when things don’t go your way, you get upset. Look at how long you were depressed when things didn’t work out with knuckle-headed Nate.”

Why’d she have to go and mention Jennifer’s father? “I don’t want to talk about Nate.”

“Okay, but, do me a favor. Think and pray about this. I encourage you to apply for enrollment in the school and for the scholarship, but, ask the Lord to guide you, ask Him to let you know what to do if things don’t go your way this time.”

When Misty finally went to bed, she thought about Adrian’s advice. She was still getting used to asking for God’s guidance, and she figured it would take time to lean on Him for all of her problems. She then found herself wondering about the man across the street. It’s made her so mad when he’d implied she was a bad mom. She’d prove him wrong once Jennifer was back in her care.

*

Sterling got out of his car and strolled down the sidewalk, the Miami heat surrounded him like a dense cloak. Too early for rush-hour traffic, the streets were deserted. He relished the peaceful calm of the hot early morning. Unlocking the door, he entered the bakery and turned the ceiling fan on.

He blinked, welcoming the brisk air that now cooled his heated skin.

“Hey, man.” Eddie, a teenager he’d hired through a youth outreach program, entered the bakery, the bell tinkled as he stepped into the room. Eddie assessed Sterling with his dark eyes, his cocoa-brown face full of concern. “Man, you look beat.”

Sterling wiped his hands over his face. “I am. It’s been a lousy night.” He glanced at the clock. It was four thirty and they had an hour to get the donuts ready. He eyed the empty shelves and empty tables. In a couple of hours tasty donuts and pastries would fill the display and morning commuters would populate the tables, sipping coffee and eating their morning meal. He went into the back and turned on his laptop. Minutes later, he checked the orders that had been logged onto the system that day. “Eddie, you can get started on the donuts. I’ve got a lot of birthday cake orders to fill today so I’m going to get started on those.”

Eddie put on his apron and hair net. “Okay.”

Sighing, he went into the kitchen, washed his hands. Blinking rapidly, trying to stay awake, he mixed flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and chocolate into a huge bowl. After mixing awhile, he added a dollop of sour cream, his secret ingredient. Watching the white cream being enfolded into the batter, he recalled his father’s deep gruff voice, stating sour cream made the cake moist and delicious. After he’d added the rest of the ingredients, he poured the batter into the pans and placed them into the hot oven.

He then plopped some dough onto the counter. He pulled his rolling pin from the cabinet. After scattering flour over the dough, he rolled it into a large rectangle. Once it was the perfect size, he measured sugar, cinnamon and nuts into a large bowl. The previous day, they’d run out of cinnamon rolls. He needed to be sure to make a double batch that morning. While he scattered the sugar concoction over the raw dough, the heartwarming scent of chocolate suddenly filled the bakery. Thoughts of the previous evening’s events now filled his mind.

Starting at one end, he rolled the dough into the shape of a log. He cut the log into neat even circles and lined a clean pan with the freshly cut raw buns. He’d let them rise before baking them. He plopped another mass of dough onto the counter, still plagued about the events from the previous night. He just didn’t know what to do about his messed-up life.
Lord, help me.
Determined to patch things up with his brother, he’d visited Leon, not surprised when he’d found his sibling intoxicated again. A pretty woman clung to Leon’s arm while Sterling stood in the living room, wishing his brother would learn to control himself. He’d never seen the woman before so he assumed that Leon had found a new girlfriend.

He’d tried talking to Leon, but he couldn’t get his brother to see reason. Disgusted, he’d left, decided to approach Leon again when he was sober. The way things were between them weighed heavy on his heart. He wished there was something he could do to make things better.

The sad part was, he’d been praying really hard about his situation with Leon, and so far, the Lord had not given him any wisdom about his brother. He’d tossed and turned all night, worrying about the awful visit with Leon. His mind and body were loaded with fatigue, and Eddie’s movements in the adjoining room slowly faded and Sterling blinked and the room swayed. He had to sit down. His sleepless nights were catching up to him. He abandoned the cinnamon rolls and stumbled back into his office. He plopped into a chair and closed his eyes. He’d have a huge cup of strong coffee after his short nap.

“Sterling!”

He opened his eyes, spotting the stream of smoke tumbling from the oven. An acrid chocolate scent filled the kitchen. He jumped from the chair, placed the mitts on his hands and pulled the burned chocolate cakes from the oven.

“What happened?” Eddie stared at the burnt cakes.