“Okay, I didn’t think he could get any more adorable, but now…” Lara waves a hand.
I snort. “I’d love to go, Caleb.” I flash Lara one last look. “But only if you’re sure.”
“Get out of here before I shove you out the door,” she scolds, reaching over to accept the apron I’m untying from my neck.
“Fine, I can take a hint,” I call over my shoulder. I’m nervous about leaving the shop in Lara and the assistants’ hands. But I can’t deny it—those nerves flood away in an instant when Caleb reaches down and catches my hand in his, our fingers entwining.
We take his car, drive to his sister’s house on the outskirts of town. When we climb out of the car and he catches my hand again—unafraid to hold it in front of his family, apparently—I can’t help thinking yet again that this has to be something special. Unique.
There’s no way he’d bring me to this party if ours was a purely business relationship. Right?
Caleb’s sister, Beth, turns out to be his stepsister, I learn as he introduces me to the bubbly blond with a strong American accent.
“So glad you could both make it,” she gushes as she tries to corral a small herd of 6-year-old girls, currently stampeding through the house on their way from one birthday activity to the next. “Oh, and the cake!” Her eyes light up. “I’m in love with your bakery, Carmine. Caleb was telling me you gave him a special class and everything, I about died of jealousy.”
My cheeks flush bright red, thinking about exactly how special that class was. Pretty sure his sister wouldn’t have wanted the version of baking class that he got. “No trouble at all,” I hear myself saying as Beth leads us through the winding hallways of her house toward the kitchen.
“Still, it’s so sweet…”
I lose track of the conversation when we reach the kitchen, which is packed with people. I lose my grip on Caleb too, and find myself fumbling through the chaos, trying to find some people I recognize.
More than a few seem to recognize me, though, and after I spot Caleb trapped in a conversation with a few older guys out back by the grill, I let some neighbors pull me into a conversation about the bakery business. We chat for a few minutes, mostly them asking questions about how hard it was to get started and how much they’ve heard from their friends that they need to try our cakes.
Then the conversation drifts toward mutual friends, play dates for the kids, and other topics I can’t follow, and I politely excuse myself.
I’m trying to make my way back across the kitchen when I catch a snippet of a conversation that freezes me in my tracks.
“Where do you think he knows her from, anyway?”
“Who knows? Probably his company, if you can call it that.”
“Can you believe Beth is okay with him doing that? I hear his own mother disowned him, you know, when it came out.”
“So do you think she’s a client or…?”
“Surely not. Even a whore must have the dignity not to bring his work to a six-year-old’s birthday party,” one of the neighbors says. “It’s just not appropriate.” She doesn’t even bother to lower her voice on the word whore.
I spin around, face bright red, fists clenched with fury. “You’d think using that sort of language would be the thing that’s not appropriate,” I say, scowling.
The woman flushes. Clearly she thought I was out of earshot. Her friends all blush too, avoiding my eye.
“Who asked what any of you think, anyway?” I ask, my voice rising a little. I can’t help it. I’m too angry. “It’s none of your business how Caleb decides to earn his living.”
“As long as you don’t mind that your man earns his money giving it up for other people, you’re right, what business is it of ours?” One of the girls laughs. The others join in.
“Personally I just can’t imagine being all right with that,” the first woman adds, shaking her head at me, as though she pities me. “Going out with a man who would toss you aside the second a woman with a bigger purse came along.”
I push past them. Screw these women. Screw their judgmental attitudes and their know-it-all smirks.
And screw the way their words sink into the pit of my stomach. Make me confront what I’ve been hiding from all along. Because deep down, I know they’re right.
This isn’t anything more than a business relationship. And I’m already in way over my head.
I elbow my way out the back of the house and head for the path to the front. I’ll catch a cab out front. I can’t stick around here any longer. Can’t be paraded around as if I’m Caleb’s friend, or girlfriend, or something, anything besides what I actually am. Nothing more than a client.