Rachel pushed through the double doors of the kitchen, took one look at the masked man at the counter, and dropped the freshly baked tray of cupcakes on the floor.
Did he plan to rob Creative Cupcakes, demand she hand over the money from the cash register? Her eyes darted around the frilly pink-and-white shop. The loud clang of the metal bakery pan hitting the tile had caused several customers sitting at the tables to glance in her direction. Would the masked man threaten the other people as well? How could she protect them?
She stepped over the white-frosted chocolate mess by her feet, tried to judge the distance to the telephone on the wall, and turned her attention back to the masked man before her. Maybe he wasn’t a robber but someone dressed for a costume party or play. The man with the black masquerade mask covering the upper half of his face also wore a black cape.
“If this is a holdup, you picked the wrong place, Zorro.” She tossed her fiery red curls over her shoulder with false bravado and laid a protective hand across the old bell-ringing register. “We don’t have any money.”
His hazel eyes gleamed through the holes in the mask, and he flashed her a disarming smile. “Maybe I can help with that.”
He turned his hand to show an empty palm, and relief flooded over her. No gun. Then he closed his fingers and swung his fist around in the air three times. When he opened his palm again, he held a quarter, which he tossed in her direction.
Rachel caught the coin and laughed. “You’re a magician.”
“Mike the Magnificent,” he said, extending his cape wide with one arm and taking a bow. “I’m here for the Lockwell party.”
Rachel pointed to the door leading to the back party room. The space had originally been a tattoo shop, but the tattoo artist relocated to the rental next door. “The Lockwells aren’t here yet. The party doesn’t start until three.”
“I came early to set up before the kids arrive,” Mike told her. “Can’t have them discovering my secrets.”
“No, I guess not,” Rachel agreed. “If they did, Mike the magician might not be so magnificent.”
“Magnificence is hard to maintain.” His lips twitched, as if suppressing a grin. “Are you Andi?”
She shook her head. “Rachel, Creative Cupcakes’ stupendous co-owner, baker, and promoter.”
This time a grin did escape his mouth, which led her to notice his strong, masculine jawline.
“Tell me, Rachel, what is it that makes you so stupendous?”
She gave him her most flirtatious smile. “Sorry, I can’t reveal my secrets either.”
“Afraid if I found out the truth, I might not think you’re so impressively great?”
Rachel froze, fearing Mike the magician might be a mind reader as well. Careful to keep her smile intact, she forced herself to laugh off his comment.
“I just don’t think it’s nice to brag,” she responded playfully.
“Chicken,” he taunted in an equally playful tone as he made his way toward the party room door.
Despite the uneasy feeling he’d discovered more about her in three minutes than most men did in three years, she wished he’d stayed to chat a few minutes more.
Andi Burke, wearing one of the new, hot-pink Creative Cupcakes bibbed aprons, came in from the kitchen and stared at the cupcake mess on the floor. “What happened here?”
“Zorro came in, gave me a panic attack, and the tray slipped out of my hands.” Rachel grabbed a couple of paper towels and squatted down to scoop up the crumpled cake and splattered frosting before her OCD kitchen safety friend could comment further. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of the mess.”
“I should have told you Officer Lockwell hired a magician for his daughter’s birthday party.” Andi bent to help her, and when they stood back up, she asked, “Did you speak to Mike?”
Rachel nodded, her gaze on the connecting door to the party room as it opened, and Mike reappeared. Tipping his head toward them as he walked across the floor, he said, “Good afternoon, ladies.”
Mike went out the front door, and Rachel hurried around the display case of cupcakes and crossed over to the shop’s square, six-foot-high, street-side window. She leaned her head toward the glass and watched him take four three-by-three-foot black painted boxes out of the back of a van.
“You should go after him,” Andi teased, her voice filled with amusement. “He’s very handsome.”
“How can you tell?” Rachel drew away from the window, afraid Mike might catch her spying on him. “He’s got a black mask covering the upper half of his face. He could have sunken eyes, shaved eyebrows, and facial tattoos.”
Andi laughed. “He doesn’t, and I know you like guys with dark hair. He’s not as tall as my Jake, but he’s still got a great build.”
“Better not let Jake hear you say that,” Rachel retorted. “And how do you know he has a great build? The guy’s wrapped in a cape.”
“I’ve seen him before,” Andi said. “Without the cape.”
“His photo was in the newspaper two weeks ago,” Andi confided. “The senior editor at the Astoria Sun assigned Jake to write an article on Mike Palmer’s set models.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Mike Palmer created the miniature model replica of the medieval city of Hilltop for the movie Battle for Warrior Mountain and worked on set pieces for many other movies filmed around Astoria. His structural designs are so intricate that when the camera zooms in close, it looks real.”
Mike returned through the front door, wheeling in the black boxes on an orange dolly. Rachel caught her breath as he looked her way before proceeding toward the party room with his equipment. Did the masked man find her as intriguing as she found him?
Andi’s younger sister, Kim, came in from the kitchen with a large tray of red velvet cupcakes with cherry−cream cheese frosting. The three of them together, with Andi’s boyfriend, Jake Hartman, as their financial partner, had managed to open Creative Cupcakes a month and a half earlier.
“Who’s he?” Kim asked. She placed the cupcakes on the marble counter and pointed toward the billowing black cape of the magician.
“Mike the Magnificent,” Rachel said dreamily.
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