By Sheri Yutzy
Lana stood before her ring cake, frowning at the two tiny craters on the top. What had she missed? Not enough shortening in the bottom of the pan?
Goldie banged through the kitchen door, dustpan pinched beneath her arm. “Still working on that cake? Goodness sakes, child, the councilmen will be here in an hour.”
Lana glared through the sunbeams that shone from the window between them. “Think I don’t know that?”
Goldie’s perpetual motion carried her into the broom closet and out without pausing. She shook her head, and short, hair-sprayed blonde curls shifted as one mass. “I’ll go lay out your dress. Heaven knows you won’t let me touch that cake.”
Lana frosted the cake and garnished it with glazed berries, arranging the beautiful fruit like a master artist. Thank goodness the councilmen were only making an afternoon visit. It would have taken days of cooking to make a Southern meal she could stand behind, and putting off the meeting surely wouldn’t endear the city councilmen to her or her cause.
Whisking off her lace-edged apron, she carried the cake out to the immaculate parlor. Lana put her hands on her slim waist and surveyed her beloved home. Through the doorway on the left, she could see the rotten steps of the grand staircase. To the right, the sagging ceiling in the drawing room testified to the leaking roof. How could things have gone so awry in ten short years? If only she hadn’t gone to culinary school…
She pinched her lips together. No more regrets. She had to deal with what was given her.
Lana had just slipped on her knee-length lavender dress when the doorbell reverberated through the house. As she reached the front door, she spotted a tall, darkly dressed figure through the side window. She paused before the rotting grand staircase and imagined Mama sweeping down to greet her guests. Someday, I’ll make a grand entrance like Mama did. Straightening her shoulders, she fixed on a confident smile and pulled open the door.
Her smile froze as her gaze traveled up. Dancing blue eyes, dark hair curled rakishly over a smooth, tanned forehead. Was it legal for councilmen to be this handsome?
She forced her mouth open. “Come in, Mr…”
He grinned, dipping his head. “Vanner. Ray Vanner.”
She stepped back and let him in, still holding the doorknob for support. “Step into the parlor, Mr. Vanner.” She gestured that way.
“Please, call me Ray.”
Her heart tripped.
He paused before the cake table. “What a lovely cake, Miss Ford. It must be true what they say about your cooking.” He picked up a glass of iced tea and took a sip.
She ignored the pink blush creeping over her cheeks and gestured to the table and chairs behind him. “Thank you … Ray. Please, have a seat. We’ll have cake as soon as the others arrive.”
He sank into a chair on her side of the table. “Ah, yes, the others.” He cleared his throat. “Are you feeling settled in yet, Miss Ford?”
Lana frowned. That seemed a strange thing for him to say, being a part of the council that planned to condemn her home. The doorbell thundered again, saving her from responding.
Three other men in suits brusquely greeted her when she opened the door. Mr. Hardy, Mr. Lucas, and Mr. Wright. She invited them to the parlor, ignoring their frowns as they stared at the rotting staircase. Ray was already standing when they came in, sipping from his glass. Mr. Hardy, his narrow lips pursed, ignored Lana’s offer of iced tea and cake and glared at Ray as he passed on his way to the far seat.
Ray broke the silence after he’d taken his first bite. “Superb, Miss Ford. As good as it looks.”
She gave him a relieved smile.
“Miss Ford, we’re here to discuss the council’s plans to condemn and demolish this…unsafe building.” Mr. Hardy gestured toward the grand staircase. “As a recent heiress of this property, you have a right to state your case against such plans. I understand, however, that you do not have the funds to properly repair the house and are asking the city to provide them?”
Lana’s mouth felt like a desert. It sounded so much more plausible in her head. She had nowhere near enough money to fix the beautiful but rickety mansion and hoped desperately that the city would preserve it for its history.
Ray swallowed his second bite. “My friends, you must try the cake before you discuss destroying anything. It is di—”
“Vanner,” Mr. Hardy barked. “What are you doing here, exactly?”
Ray’s fork stilled and a mischievous grin spread across his face. Lana’s eyes widened as she looked from one to the other. Was he not a council member?
“I am here, Hardy, because I have an interest in this property. Especially if it contains a baker who can produce cakes like this.” He turned toward Lana. “I’m the head of a … private historical society, and when I heard about the city council’s plans, I rushed over here. Several local businesses often donate their surplus to the preservation of history, and we offer you the funds needed to return this house to its former beauty.”
Lana opened her mouth. “But, Mr. Vanner…”
His grin returned. “Of course, you can pay me back with more masterpiece cakes.”
Mr. Hardy stood stiffly. “What you do with your money is your business, Mr. Vanner, but I’ll thank you not to meddle in ours in the future.” The others followed Mr. Hardy as he stalked to the door and let himself out before Lana could get up.
A hazy glow overtook the parlor as Lana imagined it refinished. The grand staircase whole and polished. She took a bite and let the airy cake melt in her mouth.
“I told you.” Ray winked.
Her smile seemed to fill her whole face. “I’ll make you a caramel cake next time.”