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Hot buttered rum standal.., p.11
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       Hot Buttered Rum: Standalone Romance (Silk Stocking Inn Book 4), p.11

           Tess Oliver
 

  I reached the end of the alley. As my car left the shadows of the buildings, a dense fog still danced around it. I put on my windshield wipers in a desperate attempt to see what was in front of me. I no longer had any sense of direction. I had no idea where I was. My only chance was to retrace my steps, or, in this case, my tire marks and head back through the alley. I made a sharp left, hoping that no one was coming at me.

  My tires screeched as my foot slammed the brakes. I stared wide-eyed at the scene in front of me. In the midst of the nearly impenetrable cloud of fog was a clearing, a perfectly scooped out hole of clear night air. And, at the center of it all, stood a gothic looking, dilapidated mansion.

  I patted the console, the dashboard and the steering wheel of the car to make sure they were real. It was entirely possible that this whole day had just been a dream, and I was still tucked in my cozy bed waiting for the clock radio to wake me. I laughed and relaxed back. That was it. I was still asleep. No wonder I’d gotten the V.P. position. It was all just in my head. I’d just sit still and wait for Hank and Heidi’s morning show to pull me out of the weird dream.

  But it wasn’t the morning talk show that zapped me to attention. It was the mouth watering smell of baked goods. Cake, to be exact. Red velvet cake to be even more exact, if there was such a thing as being more than exact.

  Unless I was dreaming in sensory Technicolor, my nose and my taste buds were letting me know that I was definitely awake. All of it was impossible, and yet, the house was sitting there on its own luminous hillside.

  I glanced around. My car was still being swallowed up by the creepy fog. I pushed down the gas pedal and headed toward the house. It was the only thing visible through my condensation smeared windows.

  As if a switch had been shut off on a fog machine, the night air cleared. Two massive, yellow lamps flickered gold at the top of a long, winding driveway beckoning me forward. My only other choice was to navigate my way back through the horror movie style fog I’d left behind. At least this direction promised visibility and the prospect of a fresh baked good. After my terrible lunch, my stomach was protesting loudly with hunger.

  As my car rolled up the driveway, I came upon a red wooden sign with black and white block letters. I squinted into the dark to read it. ‘Welcome to the Silk Stocking Inn.’ Again my foot smacked down hard on the brakes. “It can’t be. There’s just no way.” Another sign, a chalkboard style panel with letters scrawled in pink chalk stood two feet ahead. I cautiously moved my foot to the gas and rolled forward. ‘Baker’s special today—red velvet cupcakes’.

  I put my foot down harder. “All right, this has gone far enough. It was entertaining on the computer, but now it is just downright creepy. And it has me talking to myself, which is probably getting caught on some secret camera to eventually be posted on YouTube. Then someone will use it to blackmail me, and I’ll lose my job. So stop talking to yourself, Jessi, and get to the bottom of this.”

  Chapter 5

  I drove, no longer with caution but with a damn purpose, toward the building. I stopped the car in front of the house and got out.

  The ancient house glowered down at me from it puny hill like an old grouchy neighbor scowling down from his porch just daring me to cross his lawn. Every other baluster was missing from the porch railing, reminding me of a smile in bad need of a dentist. One lone turret stuck up from the center, and the two dormer windows had been stripped of their roof slats. What must have once been a lush growth of ivy clinging to the clapboard siding was now just a crisp brown tangle of dead vines that seemed to be clawing their way beneath the wood boards. The landscaping looked like something from an old scary movie, a black and white movie. The only pop of color came from the two stone statues that were iridescent with mold. A tall ladder leaned against the side of the house as if someone had been working on the roof. There was no sign of the roses that had adorned the house on the website.

  The scent of cupcakes drew me up to the top step. It was an elaborate scheme to say the least. They were thorough, finding out my favorite flavor and then luring me up to the house with a hurricane of chocolate, cream cheese and buttery smells.

  I knocked hard and the door opened. No one was behind it. I slid my top half inside. “Hello?” I called into the cavernous entryway. Pale yellow wallpaper dotted with blue violets covered all the walls. The wood floors gleamed. The inside was far more inviting than the facade and front yard. My earlier anger melted away as my mouth watered with the promise of a cupcake.

  “Come on in. I’ve just finished frosting a new batch,” a woman’s almost lyrical sounding voice floated into the entryway. I hesitated but then reminded myself that I was there to get to the bottom of this farce. Plus, I was really craving one of those darn cupcakes. The aroma was so rich and sweet, I could nearly taste it.

  I headed in the direction of the voice and scent. I walked down a narrow hallway that was lined with oil paintings. I ended up in a giant parlor room that had been converted into a stylish bakery, like one you’d find in the middle of a hip urban neighborhood.

  “That fog is something else, isn’t it?” A woman wearing a paisley print head scarf and a floral print dress covered mostly by a white apron, walked into the room with a silver platter of cupcakes. Each one was topped with a swirl of white frosting and a red candy heart.

  On first glance, as the woman had stepped into the warm glowing lights of the bakery, she looked quite old, slightly hunched with a respectable amount of wrinkles. She lowered the platter onto the counter and straightened. It took me a second to find my voice. The woman wasn’t old at all. Sparkling green eyes looked out from a smooth olive complexion. And there was something familiar in her expression, as if she was an old friend instead of a stranger.

  The woman lifted a plump little cake in her hand and beamed up at it with pride. “I think these may be my best yet. I’m sure the customers will buy them up quickly, so you better give this one a taste.” She held it out to me with a smile that was impossible to say no to, especially because of the delicious cupcake in front of it. “I’m Coco, by the way. I’ve been expecting you. Was there much traffic?”

  I looked behind me and glanced at the empty shop. Round metal tables had been decorated with pink rose tablecloths and real flowers to match. Antique metal chairs were pushed up to the tables. Unless her customers were invisible, we were completely alone.

  “Jessica, right?”

  I swung back around. She held the cupcake out farther. I was just light headed enough from low blood sugar and complete confusion to take it from her.

  “How do you know my name?”

  She walked over to a small refrigerator and pulled out a cold carton of milk, like the kind we had with school lunches. Just seeing the carton and the little straw that went with it, drummed up a warm sense of nostalgia.

  It was, of course, impossible, but Coco seemed to sense what I was thinking. “I think sometimes we all long for those carefree days of jungle gyms, slumber parties and after school dances.”

  I smiled and unwrapped the cupcake. I lifted it in a toast. “To the good old days of braces, zits and training bras.”

  Her laugh bounced around the room. For a moment, I was sure some of the age lines I’d seen as she walked out reappeared around her mouth. I shook off the idea the second I took a bite of the amazing cupcake.

  “Oh my gosh, this is heaven in a paper wrapper. No wonder you think the customers will buy them up fast. By the way, where are the customers? And, another thing, how the heck did I end up here? Actually, there are a few dozen questions after that, but first, let me take another bite.” The cake was so moist it nearly melted in my mouth. I washed it down with the ice cold milk. I swallowed and looked expectantly at her for answers.

  “There’s one easy explanation for it all,” she quipped as she put the cakes on little doilies.

 
I raised a brow. “I doubt that.” I took another bite.

  “Your heart led you here. And, from the way you’re devouring that cupcake, your sweet tooth had a hand in it too.” With that simple and puzzling answer, she wiped her hands on her apron. “I’ve got to get the next batch of cupcakes frosted. Go ahead and take a few more up to your room. I’ve got a hot bath drawn for you, and I’ll make sure a fire is started in the hearth. It will get chilly tonight. The bones of this old place just aren’t as good as they used to be. You might have noticed some tools and a few ladders when you walked up. Grayson is doing some work for me.”

  “That’s all very nice, but I can’t stay. In fact, I’ve got friends waiting for me. They’ll be worried if I don’t show. They’ve probably already called the police,” I added just in case my clairvoyant hostess was an ax murderer. Although, I was sure an ax murderer would never be capable of baking five star red velvet cupcakes.

  I pulled out my phone. “I’ll just let them know where I am.” I looked at the phone. There was no service.

  “I’m afraid cell phones don’t work too well up here. Especially when that nuisance of a fog rolls in.”

  “Why am I not surprised,” I muttered to myself as I placed the phone back in my purse.

  Coco placed another cupcake on a plate and slid it across the counter toward me. “Looks like you’re almost done with that one.”

  “No, thank you. Two would be pushing it.”

  Coco laughed. “Sometimes pushing it is not such a bad thing, Jessi.”

  I found myself licking off every bit of frosting. “Right, well, I’ll just finish this one and be off. I can pay for it, of course.”

  “No need. But I’m afraid traveling in that fog at night would be treacherous. I’ve got a lovely room for you upstairs. You might find it so comfortable that you’ll stay all weekend.”

  I turned and walked to the front window. I could see every blade of grass and dandelion weed on the front lawn under the glowing yard lights, but five feet past the driveway, where my car was parked, the atmosphere was thick with fog. She was right. I’d be lost before I traveled half a mile.

  I turned back around. Coco was pulling sticks of butter out of the refrigerator. She placed them on the counter. “I’ll show you to your room.”

  “But I didn’t bring anything for an overnight stay.”

  “No worry. Everything your heart desires will be provided.” There was a glint in her green eyes as she spoke. “Follow me.”

  Chapter 6

  Coco led me to an upstairs room that was filled with a huge bed, complete with antique wrought iron headboard and enough pillows and quilts to hibernate in. An ornate brass fireplace screen sat in front of a brick hearth, just begging for a fire to lick at its gold metal scrolls.

  Coco walked over to a massive mahogany dresser and patted a silk nightie and robe that had been laid out on it. “I’ll deliver dinner up to your room after your bath. Chicken and mashed potatoes all right?”

  “That’s my favorite. I’d ask how you knew but since your explanations are nothing short of vague and perplexing, I’ll save my breath. This is a lovely room, by the way. And, you know, I think I will treat myself to that bath.”

  “Right this way.” Coco was pretty darn perplexing herself. At times she’d float along like a spry teenager with a bounce in her step, and at other times, she seemed to move rather slowly, like my Grandmother Jeanie after she’d been sitting too long.

  She pushed open a door into a spacious bathroom. An array of lit candles stood sentry around the tub, their flames flickering off the glittering white bathroom tile. A huge claw foot tub, nearly overflowing with sparkling bubbles, was sitting in the center of the room. The scent of lavender swirled around me like a perfect floral cloud.

  “Even if this is all a dream, I think I’m going to enjoy myself.” The words were really just me thinking aloud, but Coco laughed in response.

  “The enjoyment has only just begun.” She waved her hand toward the tub with a flourish. “I’ll go down and see about dinner. Oh, and you’ll need a few more towels.”

  She left me standing in the middle of her glorious bathroom. Just as my mouth had watered at the sight of the cupcakes, it was watering at the sight of the sumptuous bath. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d allowed myself the luxury of soaking in a bubble filled tub.

  I was like a kid locked in a candy store overnight. I knew the smart, proper and reasonable thing would be to call someone or find a way out, but, just like any real and truly smart kid, I decided to take advantage of the delights being offered.

  I slipped off the crisp blue coat, the one that I’d had perfectly tailored to match the pencil skirt that now felt tight and constricting. I pushed off my designer heels and reached back to unzip the skirt. I pushed it off and stepped out of it. My blouse, bra and panties fell in a neat pile next to the tub. Coco had seen to everything. A satiny sleep blindfold was resting on top of a plush white towel.

  I dipped my toes into the water. It was an ideal temperature. I briefly tried to deduce how she’d managed to have a perfectly warm bath waiting for an unexpected guest, but it took far too much thinking.

  I stepped into the water. Teeny, opalescent bubbles floated up as my body sank down into the lavender scented water. I put the blindfold over my head and pulled it down over my eyes. My elbow hit the bar of soap resting on the edge of the tub. It thudded on the floor. I was too cozy in my bubble quilt to reach for it.

  The tub was designed perfectly for reclining. I relaxed back with a long sigh.

  A rush of cool air ushered inside the bathroom and footsteps plodded over the tile floor. Coco returning with the towels, I decided.

  “Coco, I think I just invented a new type of sigh. It’s one that goes perfectly with the act of melting one’s body into a splendid tub of warm water.” I repeated the sound, and it swished around the room like a lost whisper. “Thank you so much for this. If you don’t see me in the morning, you’ll find me still sitting beneath the bubbles. You can just leave the towels. If it’s not too much trouble, could you retrieve the bar of soap? I knocked it off the edge.”

  Footsteps tapped the tile as Coco neared the bath. I was growing drowsy behind the blindfold as I lazily lifted my hand above the bubbles. Surprisingly callused fingertips grazed my palm as the soap landed on my hand.

  “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome.” The deep voice echoed off the walls and sent me upright.

  I yanked off the blindfold and was staring at a faded pair of jeans. The bulge in front assured me of what my terror-filled mind had already surmised. Coco wasn’t the second person in the room.

  I peered up at the impossibly tall man. His broad shoulders cast a giant shadow over the tub. His dark blue eyes stared down at me, more specifically at my breasts, which I’d now revealed by sitting straight up out of my bubble cloak.

  I sank back down into the water. “I don’t know how you got in here, but—”

  “Came in through the door, and I heartily approve of the new type of sigh. Works well in this context.” He stooped down next to the tub with a crooked smile that could only be described as a knee wobbler, a term Cara and I had come up with for a man whose smile caused a woman’s knees to turn to jelly. The rest of his face went well with the smile.

  His hand curled around the edge of the bath. I scooted away, which was comical considering I could only move about two inches before coming up against the far side of the tub.

  “Coco sent me up here with the towels.” He inclined his head toward the vanity where he’d placed the towels. He made no attempt at hiding the fact that he was staring down into the bubbles.

  “Thank you for the towels. Now please get out.”

  He didn’t move. His smile pushed a nice crease alongside his mouth that only added to its a
ppeal. His eyes were a dark blue, framed by thick black lashes. Dark brown hair was just messy and long enough to make me take a long, steadying breath. The hair curled up nicely on the collar of his flannel shirt. For a brief, scandalous moment, I imagined running my hand through his thick head of hair.

  My uninvited bath guest rested his chin on the edge of the tub, bringing his face even with mine. One foot closer and our mouths would be pushed together.

  “Are you always this uptight when you’re soaking in a bubble bath?” he asked.

  “Only when I have a big, intimidating stranger hanging on the edge of the tub.”

  “I can’t do anything about the big, or intimidating”—he raised a brow about that assessment—“but—” He stuck out his hand. It was huge and looked as if it could wield a hammer as well as it could finger me into a raging orgasm. Whoa, where the heck did that erotic thought come from? Must have been the sugar high and the heady scent of lavender. The gorgeous man staring at me didn’t hurt either.

  “I’m Grayson.”

  I lifted my hand from the bubbles taking care not to expose more than my arm. I placed my hand in his. It was strong and callused. I held it longer than necessary for a traditional handshake.

  “Jessi.”

  “There. We’re no longer strangers.” He stood up. Once again, his massive physique cast a shadow over the bathtub. He gazed down at me as if he could see right through the bubbles.

  I squirmed a little under his scrutiny, which only helped to obliterate some of my soapy cover. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Grayson, but as you see, I’m not really in a state to receive guests right now.”

 
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