Rhea and her assistant, Candy, piped white icing over the cupcakes. The enticing scent of chocolate filled the air as Rhea glanced at the clock. While swirling frosting over the last treat, her hand shook, and the sugared topping spread into a wavy line. “I can’t believe I messed up another cupcake.”
“You need to calm down, Rhea.”
Using a spatula, she wiped the frosting off and re-iced the last one. The customer would arrive soon to pick up her order. Wiping sweat from her brow, she stared at the cakes. This three-hundred cupcake order would bring in much-needed revenue for her dwindling business. She really needed this money to pay her growing mountain of unpaid bills. She’d dealt with this customer before and she’d always been nit-picky about her desserts, making changes at the last minute. This order was not a done deal until the customer showed up and paid.
She dropped the pastry bag into the sink. “We finished in time.”
Candy dropped her pastry bag into the sink, too, her nose stud twinkling under the bakery lights. “I’ll box them up before—”
The phone rang and Rhea lifted the receiver. “Maple Grove Bakery.”
“Hi, I’m calling about my cupcake order.”
Rhea gripped the receiver, heart thudding. The client’s high-pitched, emotional voice resonated in her ear. Hopefully, she’d be arriving soon to pick up her order. “Oh, we just finished icing them. We’re about to—”
Rhea’s mouth dropped open, and she paced the bakery. “You can’t do that!” In order for her bakery to survive, maybe she needed to change her policy, requiring the client to pay a deposit when the order was placed.
“Yes, I can. I got them for half the price you’re charging over at the Grove Mart.” The customer hung up, and Rhea slammed down the phone.
She pressed her hands together, gritting her teeth, forcing herself to stay calm. She’d lost two hundred dollars on the cupcake order. What could she do now? She shut her eyes, pressed her suddenly aching head into her palm.
Candy touched her shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
Rhea struggled to control her voice. “The customer canceled. She got them for half price from the grocery store.”
Candy rolled her eyes. Her light brown skin reddened with anger. “This is the fifth cancellation we received this month.” She shook her head, her dreadlocks swaying. “We can’t go on like this.”
Struggling to control her anger, Rhea kicked a cabinet before slumping onto a stool, silently agreeing with her assistant. She could not go on like this. She’d already lost over one thousand dollars in sales that month because of the recent opening of the new Grove Mart. How could she get her customers back?
She eyed the trays of recently-decorated cupcakes. Unable to resist, she selected one, shoving most of it into her mouth. The wonderful taste of moist chocolate cake and creamy vanilla frosting comforted her. She gobbled two more cupcakes, stopping when she eyed her size-twelve hips.
Candy grabbed two cupcakes. “This has been an awful day. I need to take a walk.” Candy shoved the door open, the bell above the door jingled as she went outside.
Pacing on the sidewalk in front of the bakery, Candy gobbled two cupcakes before walking up and down the street, talking on her cell phone, while Rhea struggled to come up with a plan. She needed to figure out how to compete with the grocery store bakery. If she didn’t, she’d be forced to close her business.
Rhea pulled into the empty space in front of her apartment complex, removing the paper sack of baked treats from her passenger seat. She’d be eating baked goods for dinner, not wanting to waste money on food. Her stomach rumbled with hunger as she unlocked the foyer door and stopped at the mailboxes, hesitating.
She unlocked her postal receptacle and envelopes tumbled out onto the floor. The bright pink and blue notices from the creditors reminded her about the delinquent bills. Bending over, she lifted the unwanted bills, stuffing them into her bag.
She trudged up the steps toward her unit on the third floor.
Leonard, her obese landlord, stood at the top of the steps, stooped down, sliding something underneath her door.
“Oh, no, now what?” she mumbled to herself. Her shoulders tensed. Did she have enough time to run outside and hide before he spotted her?
Almost as if he sensed she stood behind him, he turned toward her, his signature cigar hanging from his thick lips. His gray hair looked like crinkly cellophane under the bright lights, and his eyes widened when he spotted her. His too-small T-shirt lifted slightly, giving her a peek of his fat, hairy stomach. He pulled his shirt down, shoving the hem into his dirty blue jeans. “Rhea! I need to talk to you!”
Lord, help me.
She swallowed, walking up the steps, grasping her keys so hard that they dug into her skin. Hopefully, he wouldn’t try to ask her out again. He always leered at her as if she were a thick slab of meat that he wanted to gobble up. “Leonard, what do you want?”
“Your lease expires in four months.”
“I’m not letting you renew it.”
She gripped the stair rail, groaning. “What do you mean?” Leonard charged the cheapest rent in Maple Grove. There was no way she could afford to live elsewhere.
“My nephew just graduated from college. He’ll be needing a place to stay later this summer. So, I’m letting him have your unit.”
“You can’t do that!” Balling her hands into fists, she glared at him.
“Yes, I can.”
She scowled, getting into his face. “You have an entire apartment building. Why’d you choose my unit to give to your nephew?”
Smoke curled from his cigar, the stench making her stomach clench. He pulled it from his mouth, licking his lips. He continued standing in front of the entrance, unmoving, like a statue. Why didn’t he answer her question?
She pointed toward her door. “I need to go inside.”
He shook his head. “Not until we talk.” His hot, musty breath fluttered around her face, almost making her gag. “You think I’m too old for you, but, if you go out with me, I might decide to choose another tenant’s apartment for my nephew.”
He took another puff of his cigar. She gritted her teeth. Could she really stand here, continuing to talk to this man any longer?
He refused to budge. “Make me move.” His taunting voice broke her patience. She reached forward, pushing, her fingers sinking into his fleshy arms. “I love seeing you angry,” he purred, leaning toward her, pulling her to his chest, his foul lips descending toward her cheek. The stench of his body wafted over her. When was the last time he had a bath? Her heart pounded, and using all her strength, she kicked his shin with her hard-toed shoes.
He hollered, his lit cigar, dropping from his mouth, landed on the dirty carpeted floor. Cursing, he turned away from her, lifting his cigar from the floor, placing it back into his mouth. “That’s the last time I try and be nice to you! You better find a new place to live! I don’t want you in my building anymore.” He narrowed his eyes, glaring at her. “You think you’re such a high and mighty broad, but, I got news for you, you’re gonna wish you’d taken me up on my offer when you’re homeless!”