The B Word by Mindy Klasky

The B Word

When opposites attract, fish out of water, and big city/small town legal shenanigans aren’t enough of a challenge—just add a pandemic!

Lawyer Emily Holcomb is up for partner just as she’s appearing on a blockbuster reality TV cooking show. Extroverted Emily only has to wrap up a mammoth real estate deal in tiny Black Duck, West Virginia, and her dream career will be secured.

But Liam Thomas, the reluctant mayor of Black Duck, is determined to see Emily fail. The calm, reserved mountain man has a town to protect from invading corporate interests.

Emily is a fish out of water in small town Black Duck. Liam is equally at odds with life in big city Washington, DC. But opposites attract—and this attraction burns hotter than Emily and Liam’s arguments over who should own the town.

How can these star-crossed lovers remain true to themselves and the people who depend on them when they can’t even agree on what to eat for dinner?

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Prologue

“Four years at Brown,” I intoned to my best friend, holding my phone between my shoulder and my ear. I kept my voice low so none of my co-workers would overhear me. “Three years of Harvard Law. Eight years working at one of Washington DC’s most prestigious law firms. And my entire professional career depends on whether my boss decides I added enough pecans to the frosting on my triple-layer hummingbird cake.”

“Did you?” Forsythia asked in her most reasonable tone.

“Probably not,” I admitted. “I bought enough pecans. But I ate some when I mixed the batter. And I had a few more while the cake was baking. And when I took it out of the oven. And while I waited for to cool. And, well…”

“Are there any pecans in the frosting?”

“Some?” I turned my fervent assertion into the question it was doomed to be. Before Forsythia could respond, my computer hooted with incoming mail, a mating cry that was immediately answered by half a dozen other messages. “Gotta go,” I said.

“But you’re coming here after work, right?”

“I’ll be there by seven.”

“The gallery opening starts at seven.”

“We’ll be fashionably late.”

“I don’t want to miss this,” Forsythia warned. “Cassis is doing amazing things with porcelain.”

Cassis was a pretentious snob of an artist whom I’d met at least a dozen times, but she always pretended she’d never seen me before. Still, I’d promised Forsythia I’d go, so… “See you at seven,” I said.

We both knew I wouldn’t get there till eight. But best friends forgave the inevitable, so all would be fine.

I tapped at my keyboard to see what was keeping my inbox so busy. Amy was moving next Tuesday’s Stitch-and-Bitch to her house, because Jules was freaking out about the coronavirus.

Jamie had changed his mind about his selection for book group. Forget about American Dirt; now we were reading Circe. I didn’t bother writing down the new title. He’d go through three or four more before we really, absolutely, positively had to have his final answer, if we had any hope of finishing the book by our meeting next month.

Carrie sent links to half a dozen games she thought would be great for Ashley’s wedding shower, and did I think it was wrong to use yellow for the event, because she really, really, really hated the pink Ashley had chosen for bridesmaid dresses. (Note to self: Pick up altered pink bridesmaid dress before March 28. Additional note to self: Stop by Sephora in likely futile attempt to find makeup that would keep my olive skin from looking green in altered pink bridesmaid dress.)

Three different people had reported in for cooking group. That morning, I’d finally chosen Spanish food for the April meeting I was hosting, and I’d let everyone know I’d make paella. Now, we had a tortilla española, pan con tomate, and sangria added to the menu.

My mother had sent a picture of my cousin Heather’s newborn son along with a predictable flood of questions—didn’t I think he was the most gorgeous baby in the world, and wasn’t it wonderful that he had Heather’s chin, and weren’t we fortunate that babies gave everyone a chance to get together for good reasons, instead of just for funerals?

Instead of family birthdays, like the one we’d had for Grandma Sadie last week? Or the family trip to the beach we had planned for Memorial Day? Or the 82,000 other times we got together during the year?

So much for that round of maternal emotional blackmail. But I did peek at the picture of Heather’s kid again. Nope. Not a single squeeze from my happily empty uterus. Zero baby lust for me. And I absolutely sucked at finding parental features in the faces of chonky newborns.

Oh. And there were a dozen emails about transactions I was working on for the firm—the Alphacon merger and the Blake Pharma reorg and HardyVision’s quarterly filing with the SEC. I did get some work done, between all my socializing. That’s why I was up for partner this summer. I’d put in my eight years, and it was time for me to reap my reward.

But first…

I glanced at the clock in the corner of my screen. 4:55. My natural inclination was to shoot off a couple of reply emails, maybe even double-check the numbers in the Hardy filing.

But my hummingbird cake was practically the guest of honor for As-You-Know-Bob Warner’s sixty-fifth birthday party. And as a loyal law-firm associate, I couldn’t be late for my boss’s grand celebration. I collected my cake, a book of matches, and a single, diplomatic candle before I headed down to the conference room.

A few dozen people were already gathered, nursing IPAs and chardonnay courtesy of the firm’s traditional Friday happy hour. “There she is!” my boss exclaimed as I reached the head of the table. I caught a whiff of mint on his breath, the characteristic scent of Pepto-Bismol. As-You-Know chugged the stuff like Gatorade before going in for the kill on behalf of his elite corporate clients.

“Happy birthday,” I said, releasing the cake from its carrier with a flourish. I produced a sturdy knife from the same container before I planted the candle like a flag on top of Everest.

My boss clapped his hands like a kid meeting his new puppy. “As you know,” he boomed, including the entire expectant crowd with his trademark phrase. “Hummingbird cake is just about my favorite thing in the world. And Emily Holcomb’s is the best I’ve ever tasted. Bringing her on as an associate was the best decision Warner Hamilton Jacobs ever made.”

Ernest Hamilton and Hugh Jacobs nodded agreement from the sidelines. I tried to look pleased, but honestly, I would have preferred a little recognition for, you know, my hard work and legal acumen.

But like a good little associate, I spread my arms wide, inviting my fellow lawyers to join in the traditional song. “Happy birthday to you…”

Everyone chimed in, with a few show-offs adding harmony on the final line. And then, because I wanted to prove I absolutely was a team player (and because my famous hummingbird cake was missing its usual full complement of pecans) I launched immediately into He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.

As-You-Know beamed.

He let the last echoes of “deny” trail off before he leaned over the melting candle. Closing his eyes in dramatic representation of making a wish, he waited for a full count of ten before pursing his lips and blowing out the flame. When he picked up the massive knife I’d provided, a genuine shiver of excitement rippled through the crowd.

One cut. Another. A perfect wedge eased from the cake, revealing three blond layers of banana and pineapple and an entire Indonesian island’s worth of spices. The frosting was perfectly even between the layers.

As-You-Know deposited the slice onto a plate. He drove home a fork like a gladiator spearing an opponent, and then he hefted a gigantic bite into his mouth. He chewed. Swallowed. And into the crowd’s expectant hush, he finally pronounced: “Wonderful!” But before I could exhale my relief he said, “But as you know, Emily, I’m a big fan of pecans. Next year, let’s have a few more in the frosting.”

The room laughed, but my smile cracked at the edges. Nevertheless As-You-Know passed me a sliver of cake, along with a fork. Murmurs lapped around the gigantic conference room table. Everyone knew cake was for partners. Associates made do with the catered cookies set out on the credenza at the far end of the room.

“Thank you,” I breathed, but As-You-Know had already moved on to serving the next slice of cake to Ernest Hamilton. Chatter surged around the room. Before I could withdraw to a knot of my fellow associates, Angelique Warner materialized beside me. Barely five feet tall—and that was in heels—she shimmered with scarcely bridled energy. Today, she wore a crimson suit, the jacket belted tightly around her wasp waist. Her hair was swept up in a precise twist. Her lipstick matched her lacquered fingernails, the exact same shade as her clothes.

Angelique Warner was the most successful real estate agent in Washington DC. And she’d slice open your jugular with her business card if you dared to work with anyone else.

I swallowed quickly, praying I didn’t have a stray smudge of frosting on my lips. “Mrs. Warner! How nice that you could join us.”

Her eyes glittered as she cast a possessive gaze toward As-You-Know. “I would never miss my Pookie’s party.”

“Let me get you a slice of cake,” I said even though one glance confirmed that Mrs. Warner hadn’t consumed a gram of refined sugar since the Reagan administration.

Ignoring my offer, she fastened her talons on my elbow and pulled me to the side of the room. “You should be hearing from Hearth and Home Productions in the next couple of weeks.”

“Excuse me?” The name was vaguely familiar.

“Pookie and I were in LA last week. Beyoncé was holding a little party for Meghan and Harry?” She didn’t wait for me to show how impressed I was. “I had a wonderful chat with Hestia. Have you ever met?”

Had I ever met the most famous female producer in the history of television? Had I ever met the brains and bucks behind the runaway TV success, Home Cook America?

Sure. Hestia and I traded cooking tips on a daily basis. In fact, she’d just asked for my recipe for hummingbird cake.

“No,” I said. “I’ve never had the pleasure.”

Mrs. Warner’s laugh could shatter pecan shells at fifty paces. “No one ever puts the word pleasure in the same sentence as Hestia.” She went back to excavating my biceps with her velociraptor claws. “I told her all about you.”

“Me?” My squeak was loud enough to cut off nearby conversation.

“Hearth and Home is selecting competitors for next season’s HCA.” Mrs. Warner’s crocodile smile made me want to check her teeth for feathers left behind by prey. “I had her message over an application right away. My assistant filled it out for you.”

“You what?” I actually choked on the last word, barely covering my mouth in time.

“Pookie was thrilled. He said your competing would be great publicity for the firm.”

“But how do either of you know what I can—”

I trailed off, though. The staff kitchen was just around the corner from As-You-Know’s office. For eight years, I’d been building my reputation, one dish at a time. Casseroles and salads. Home-baked bread and stews. Leftovers from countless dinner parties, deposited in the break room for anyone to enjoy.

But that didn’t mean I wanted a TV gig. Even if Pookie and the world’s most rapacious realtor had already greased the skids.

“I truly appreciate your thinking of me,” I said, trying to sound sincere. “But I can’t possibly follow up on that application. I’m up for partner this year. I need to be here in DC, taking care of clients.”

“Emily, Emily, Emily… If you’re going to succeed as a partner at this firm, you absolutely must learn to multitask.”

Sudden tears of frustration threatened my carefully applied mascara. I longed to whip out my phone and show her a social calendar filled with more events in a week than most people scheduled in a month. I wanted to remind her I had eight years of stellar reviews at Warner Hamilton Jacobs. I wanted to point out that her own husband had granted me a slice of cake today, publicly recognizing my soon-to-be-confirmed new status at the firm.

I was the queen of multitasking.

Which meant that I knew exactly how the game was played.

So I swallowed hard and tugged a smile over my teeth. I loaded fake enthusiasm into my tone. I did my best to feign gratitude as I said, “You’re absolutely right. Home Cook America would be a perfect opportunity. Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

The words were barely out of my mouth when my boss’s voice rumbled across the conference room. “As you know, Ernest, my better half handles that sort of thing. Angelique?”

Mrs. Warner launched to his side like a stooping kestrel. Left to my own devices, I realized I wasn’t in the mood for a party any longer.

As I carried away my hard-won slice of cake, I reminded myself what was really important. Next year, I’d be done with this sort of kissing up. Next year, I’d be a partner.

Back at my desk, I texted Forsythia in all caps:

Emily: LAST

Emily: HUMMINGBIRD

Emily: CAKE

Emily: EVER!!!

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