© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Fort Worth, Texas
Summit Avenue—Quality Hill
September 23, 1910
WITH THE SLEEVES OF HIS white shirt rolled up and his suit coat and tie now tossed aside, Duke Baker walked around the billiards table, looking for his next shot. The nearby grandfather clock bonged the hours. Pocket this shot and he’d break his record.
“If I didn’t know better, Lord, I’d think the felt had channels tonight for the balls to roll effortlessly into the pockets.” He paused and chuckled at the hint of sarcasm in the almost audible response. “You could be right. Practice does make perfect.”
At the clock’s final bong, Duke decided on the orange number five ball.
Nine p.m. Two more hours before his father would return from the Friday evening performance of The Merchant of Venice, a play Duke would be attending, too, if his wife were alive. How ironic his dad had avoided the theater when Duke’s mother lived yet faithfully attended now. Did other people not do things alone that they used to do when their spouses were alive? He imagined loneliness was a good motivator. Not that he was lonely enough to change his comfortable evening routine of solitary pocket billiards and talking out loud to God.
He leveled his gaze. Drew back the stick.
The door creaked open.
Duke turned his head enough to look over his shoulder and see his daughter standing on the threshold, the sides of her white nightgown twisting between her fingers. “You should be in bed.” Fast asleep.
“Daddy, I must have a word with you.” Not might I have a word? Not a request for a moment of his time, but an order in the same confident tone reminiscent of her granddaddy.
Accustomed to the way his five-year-old made grand pronouncements, Duke rose to his full “Baby Bear” height, as Janet used to say—not too tall, not too short. He rested the stick against the table. “Do I need to sit for this, or is standing acceptable to you?”
A wrinkle deepened between Tabitha’s light brows. Her face scrunched. A little sigh. “Sit, please.”
Duke grabbed his crystal goblet from where it rested on the edge of the billiard table and carried it to the nearest seating area, the one beside the unlit hearth. He found purchase in the padded leather chair, sliding his drink onto the lamp-bearing table. “What ails you?”
Tabitha, as expected, climbed onto his lap. “I kissed Charles.”
Duke paused a moment in shock at the confession. He shifted Tabitha for a better look at her face. Her blue eyes, so guileless and sincere. What Quality Hill family had a son, or grandson, near her age and named Charles? He couldn’t think of any. Then again, he socialized little. Or the boy could be older. Much older. In the morning he would have to speak to Nanny Ruth about her supervision skills.
“I kissed George, too,” she added before he could speak. “And Mr. Tumpkins, but”—Tabitha sighed loudly—“it didn’t work. I’m quite fustgated.”
“Frustrated,” he mumbled, staring absently at the foot-wide mahogany molding around the matching paneled ceiling that seemed to be closing in on him. He knew of several boys in Quality Hill named George, but Tumpkins? Still, it was oddly familiar. He frowned and felt his brows drawing together. “Isn’t Mr. Tumpkins one of the frogs in your grandpa’s pond?”
That could only mean— “Charles and George are frogs, too?”
Her eyes rolled. “Of course, Daddy.”
Duke rested his head back against the chair. The thought of her kissing a boy was bad enough, but an amphibian? Three, to be precise. “Sweetheart, why are you kissing frogs?”
She looked at him as if he’d lost his wits. “To find the prince.”
“Frogs don’t turn into princes.”
“No, they don’t.” She nodded fervently. “Misery says they do.”
Ah, Misery, her imaginary friend of late.
“Only happens in books.” Princes never lived happily ever after with their princesses. Death saw to that. He leaned forward, spoke gently. “Sweetheart, your grandpa bought those frogs to eat, not to play with. You have to stop pretending they are your friends.”
Tears welled in her eyes. She buried her head against his shoulder, muttering something about family and him breaking her heart.
Duke held her tight. His heart ached over having to be the voice of reason. He shouldn’t have let her play with the frogs. He should have forbidden her from even going to the pond to visit their future dinner. He should have told her to stop talking to Misery and listening to what Misery had to say, because imaginary people aren’t real. If she was lonely and wanted someone to talk to, she should talk to God, like he did. Or talk to him. Times like this. . .
He swallowed the lump in his throat. Janet would’ve known what to say. Mothers always know the right thing to say. His mother had. He wouldn’t be who he was today if she hadn’t been open about her failings and about the times God did little and big miracles. While his mother and wife hadn’t been “perfect” women, neither had they been full of pretense and platitudes. Some days the sting of missing them was almost unbearable.
Truth slammed into his already aching heart. He wasn’t enough for his little girl.
She needed a mother.
Finding one for her meant finding a wife for himself. Duke tensed. He couldn’t. He twisted the wedding band he still wore even though he’d buried Janet and their stillborn son twenty-five months ago. Dad was right. Tabitha’s needs were greater than his hurt. Even though his heart still clung to his wife, for his daughter’s sake, he had to do this.
“AND THAT, PETER, IS WHY the mixing and baking of a cake requires more care and judgment than any other branch of cookery.” Yet it is the one most frequently attempted by the inexperienced, Irie LaCroix silently added as she spread confectioners’ frosting flavored with coffee essence atop the mocha cake she’d made as she’d taught Peter how to make his. A cake perfectly baked because of the new Hughes electric range Mr. Baker had installed in the kitchen upon her advice.
With butter knife in hand, the young man mimicked her motion on the cake he had made. A mocha cake was the wiser choice over the moonshine cake he’d first selected from the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Still, Irie wished the Bakers’ burly chauffeur would have chosen a sunshine cake instead. Sunshine generally said “I adore you” more than coffee did. Or at least it would to her.
As for the redheaded maid next door, Irie could only hope a cake would win her favor, considering all the other normal—and logical—courtship gifts Peter had offered had failed to garner the girl’s interest.
“Do you think she will like it?” Peter asked, admiring his walnut-filled masterpiece, which looked almost as pleasing to the eye as hers did. Certainly smelled delicious.
She smiled up at him. “The food you make—in this case, your cake—should represent you, and convey the love you bear for those for whom you cook.” Irie rephrased some of the wisdom she had learned during her three years studying and interning at Mrs. Fannie Farmer’s Cooking School in Boston. “If this lady—”
“Yes, Miss Yates, is as kindhearted—”
“—as you claim,” Irie rushed to say, “then she will appreciate the work you’ve done to express the sincerity of your intentions.”
Peter raised the hand holding the frosting-covered knife. The moment he said, “If anything will, this cake—” and flicked his hand, a mocha blob flew from the knife and onto the bodice of the apron covering Irie’s pink blouse and gray skirt. His face colored. An expletive slipped from his tongue, which only reddened his cheeks more.
Irie lowered his knife-wielding hand to the black soapstone counter. “It’s all right, Peter. I’ve had food spilled on me numerous times.”
He dropped the knife, grabbed a towel. “Let me—uhh.” He paused. “Here.”
Irie chuckled and accepted the proffered towel. Unlike their two previous cake- baking attempts, this endeavor was the least damaging to her person and the floor. For all his twenty-one years, Peter O’Malley did everything wholeheartedly, which couldn’t be said of all men.
Dabbing her blouse, she strolled to the far wall. She opened the window to let in a cool evening breeze. “I say it’s time we sampled our work.”
“You mean yours,” he clarified.
“Tabitha?” A muted female voice came from behind the kitchen door, which promptly opened. Nanny Ruth stepped inside, her white hair in rollers, cane missing, and chenille robe haphazardly buttoned. “Is Tabitha in here?”
Peter shook his head.
Irie started toward Peter and the two cakes on the counter. “No, and I haven’t seen her for hours.”
Nanny Ruth looked crestfallen. “I thought the smell of cake would have led her here.” She hobbled over to the small kitchen table and sat. “Once Mr. Baker realizes I’m too old to watch the child. . .”
She stared at the painted brick wall and said no more. She didn’t have to elaborate for Irie to understand her fear. While the kitchen in the Baker Mansion was no larger than most home kitchens, Mr. A. X. Baker understood that an appliance with three burners and an oven in a freestanding unit would make meal preparations easier and less time-consuming. Much could be said of the two widowed men, especially Duke; that they both valued proficiency was obvious to the entire household. A nanny who couldn’t do her job as well as she used to was no longer practical, no matter how adored she was by the family.
Irie nodded toward the coffeepot containing the coffee she and Peter had planned on enjoying while they sampled her mocha crème–filled cake. He moved to fill three mugs while she plated three slices of cake. She placed two on the table—one for Nanny Ruth and the other for Peter, who took the seat across from the older woman—then she claimed the mug he had filled for her.
“You two enjoy the fruits of our labors,” she said. “I’ll find Tabitha.”
Nanny Ruth touched Irie’s wrist. “You are a blessing, Miss Irie. I don’t know how I would have made it through this summer without you.”
Irie responded with a soft smile and a nod. She had heard similar words from other employees of the Baker household. After three years away in Boston, she’d become a fixture again in this home. In only fifty-three days.
Coffee and cake in hand, she left the kitchen and wove through the first floor of the 11,000-square-foot mansion to the one place she’d wager Tabitha was—the billiards room. With her father. The man Irie had loved (still loved, unfortunately) since she was sixteen. A dozen years of foolish hope. She had to move on. Starting a cooking school in San Francisco was the best way to force her heart to stop wishing Duke would fall in love with her. This year starting the first of October was going to be her lucky thirteen. A time of good fortune. A time of no more clinging to infinitesimal hope for what was never going to be.
The only thing to make her life better would be Mama leaving her post as Baker housekeeper and moving to the West Coast with her.
“Irie, I have a duty to the Bakers, and you don’t have the finances to support two people.”
As always, duty and money stood in the way of her life being perfect.
Irie sighed. She slowed as she approached the billiards room. Paused at the open doors. And her heart did the little flip it always did upon seeing Duke. Tabitha sat on her daddy’s lap with his arms around her. His light brown head atop hers. He had been a doting husband, or so Irie’d heard from numerous members of the household, even Mama. He was a doting father; she’d seen that with her own eyes this past summer. “Good Christian man” defined Duke Baker. If only he had a plethora of flaws for her to focus on. . . .
I’m leaving in a week, Lord. I need to protect my heart.
She rapped the door frame with her knuckles.
Duke’s gaze found hers. He didn’t look relieved to see her, but neither did he look annoyed. Sometimes, it felt as if he didn’t see her at all. Much like how Peter O’Malley felt Miss Yates saw. . .well, didn’t see him. Baking a girl a cake was the most ridiculous attempt at courtship, but if it worked. . .
The romantic in her hoped it would. She didn’t just love fairy tales and happily- ever-afters. She loved to see people fall in love, be in love, live in love. Sitting near the Boston Common Frog Pond in winter wasn’t merely to watch the ice skaters. She’d sat there in anticipation of seeing a proposal at one of the most romantic places to propose in New England according to the Boston Globe. She agreed. Twenty-three proposals in three years. San Francisco—the Paris of the West—was where, she knew, she would find love and a proposal so romantic her daughters and granddaughters would ask to hear the story time and time again.
Extending the coffee and cake out before her, Irie pasted on a covering-her- aching-heart smile. “How about a trade?”
As Irie walked forward, Duke kissed the top of Tabitha’s head then slid her off his lap. “Off to bed.”
His brows rose.
Tabitha’s head drooped, shoulders fell. “Yes sir.”
Irie rested the coffee mug and cake slice on the round table next to his chair. “Thank you, Irie,” he muttered, yet didn’t touch either.
Tabitha’s hand slid against Irie’s, clenching. Without another word, they walked silently across the carpeted floor to the hall. Irie’s heart tightened. She paused in the marble foyer and, even though she knew better, spared a glance over her shoulder in hopes he was watching them leave. She gave her head a sad little shake.
Why do I keep doing this, Lord, why?
Duke stared absently at his hands resting in his lap, the fingers of his right hand twisting the silver wedding band. She didn’t fault him for still grieving after two years. Janet Mortimer Baker had been the perfect wife and mother. No woman could compete with her memory. Irie pitied any woman who tried.
She looked away.
“Misery, can I have a nighttime snack, too?” Tabitha asked.
Irie gave her a mischievous grin. “How about a bedtime story instead?”
Only Tabitha didn’t grin back. “You’re gonna have to work harder to get the smile out of me.”
“The situation is that dire?”
Irie knelt before Tabitha, holding two fingers about a centimeter apart. “Will this much cake do the job?”
Tabitha moved Irie’s fingers until they were an inch apart. “This much.”
“Oh my!” Irie stood. “All right. Let’s see if we can make it to the kitchen faster than the tortoise and the hare.”