Suburban soccer mom Amy has always wanted to stand out from the crowd. Former child prodigy Linnie just wants to fit in. The two sisters have been estranged for years, but thanks to a series of personal crises and their wily grandmother, they’ve teamed up to enter a high-stakes national bake-off in the hopes of winning some serious cash. Armed with the top-secret recipe for Grammy’s apple pie, they should be unstoppable. Sure, neither one of them has ever baked anything beyond brownie mix, but it’s just pie—how hard could it be?!
When the competition heats up, what begins as a straightforward pact for victory deteriorates into a sugar-coated free-for-all. Amy and Linnie struggle to rebuild their relationship as family secrets, old betrayals and new romances enter into the mix. Given the right recipe and an unexpected blend of bitter and sweet, even the oddest pairings can produce something delicious.
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“Honey, I hope my luck is half as hot as you are,” slurred the Hawaiian-shirted frat boy as he studied the pair of cards in front of him on the casino table. “Hit me.”
Linnie Bialek kept her expression neutral and her eyes lowered as she flipped over the top card in the deck.
The frat boy woo-hooed and high-fived the guy hunched on the stool next to him. “Hit me again!”
“Double down,” intoned the sidekick. “Double dooooown!”
Frat boy pounded the table. “Yeah, okay. I’ll double down.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you no longer have the option to double down; you have more than two cards.” Linnie squirmed as the top of her leopard-print bustier dug into the tender skin under her arms. This corset, along with black satin hot pants, fishnet stockings, black patent-leather Mary Jane pumps, and furry cat ears comprised her outfit as a dealer in the “Kitty Korner,” the casino’s newest marketing ploy: a secluded, cordoned-off area for high rollers who liked a bit of T & A served up along with their complimentary cocktails.
“If I get twenty-one, can I buy you a drink?”
Linnie shook her head. “I’m not allowed to accept drinks from customers.”
He stopped hooting and hollering and started to pout. “Are you allowed to smile, at least?”
Linnie tried to force her features into a happy expression. She slapped down the top card with a little extra vigor. “Bust. House wins.”
She stepped back from the table and made way for Sasha, the olive-skinned brunette who’d materialized next to her. “That’s it; my shift’s over. Best of luck to you both.”
Linnie brushed off her hands and splayed her fingers so that the tiny bubble “eye in the sky” could ascertain that she hadn’t palmed anything during play. Then she slipped past the velvet ropes and into the crowds playing slots.
“Honey!” Hawaiian Shirt howled after her. “Wait! Come back and I’ll give you a tip you’ll never forget!”
Please. As if she’d ever look twice at a man who hit on seventeen when the dealer was showing a four. There wasn’t enough alcohol in the world to excuse that level of dumb-assery.
After working at the blackjack tables for several months, Linnie knew she should be accustomed to reckless bets, but she never ceased to be shocked by how poorly most people understood the natural order of the universe. Many casino games, like craps, blackjack, poker, and baccarat, were not games of chance at all. If you had even a rudimentary grasp of probability and statistics, you could beat the house, provided you were patient and rational in your approach.
But people didn’t want a clean, calculated formula for winning. They wanted “luck.”
Well, Linnie didn’t believe in luck. She believed in logic.
As she strode toward the employee locker room, her heel caught on a loose flap of rug and she stumbled into a young couple watching the action at a craps table.
“Sorry.” She steadied herself, then leaned down to adjust the ankle strap of her shoe.
The male half of the couple did a double take when she straightened up. “Hey. Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
“I don’t think so.” Linnie studied the couple’s features, trying to place them. He was short and pudgy, but his charcoal gray suit was obviously expensive, cut to camouflage an imperfect physique. His companion was a willowy redhead clad in a Grecian-inspired white minidress that looked fresh off the rack from one of the Strip’s couture shops.
“I know I know you,” the guy went on. “What’s your name? It’s Russian, right? Kind of weird and unpronounceable?”
The longer she stared at him, the more familiar he looked. Linnie lowered her gaze. “I think you have me confused with someone else.”
“I’m Sam Janowitz,” he said.
She shrugged one shoulder. “Doesn’t ring any bells.”
Sam snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it. Science enrichment camp. Palo Alto, late nineties. You’re the girl who whupped all the boys at chess, right?”
“No.” Not anymore.
“Vaseline! Your name sounds like Vaseline.”
“Vasylina,” Linnie corrected faintly. She ducked her head so she wouldn’t have to watch his expression, which vacillated between disbelief and pity. “And it’s Polish, not Russian.”
There was a long pause; then he coughed. “So you, gosh, you work here now, huh?” Sam opened and closed his mouth a few times before finally saying, “I went to school for aerospace engineering, but then I sold out and joined up with a hedge fund firm in Manhattan.” He forced a chuckle. “I’m out here for a corporate retreat. This is my wife, Mia.”
“Nice to meet you.” Linnie nodded at the redhead but didn’t extend her hand.
Mia gave her a quick once-over, took in the polyester corset and the cleavage, and managed a trace of a smile. “I like your ears. Very frisky.”
“We’re late for our dinner reservations. We’d better get going.” Sam tugged his wife forward and stole one last glance back over his shoulder. “Great seeing you. Good luck with everything.”
“You, too.” Linnie remained rooted to the carpet.
As Sam turned away, she heard him exclaim to his wife, “That girl is like Doogie Howser trapped in Barbie’s body. No exaggeration. She started college when she was fourteen.”
Mia sniffed. “Then why is she dressed like a day-shift call girl?”
“Beats me. But I’m telling you, back then, she was Little Miss Priss with an ego the size of a particle accelerator. She told everyone she was going to finish her MD before she was old enough to drink. I wonder what the hell happened to her.”
“Don’t freak out about the smell. I can explain.”
Linnie froze in her apartment doorway, keys in hand. She had been looking forward to curling up in her pajamas and unwinding with an iced coffee and a DVD of the Met’s production of Manon Lescaut. By herself.
But her roommate, Kyle, was sprawled out across the sofa, peering up at her through shaggy blond bangs with a sheepish smile on his face and a bottle of Febreze in his hand. He looked like a puppy who’d spent the afternoon shredding a box of Kleenex and scattering the wreckage all over the house.
“What happened in here?” She stepped into the living room, surveying the splintered coffee table, crumpled cans of beer, and mysterious new stains on the carpet.
“A bunch of the guys came over. It was my turn to host the VGOs.”
“Video Game Olympics. We do it every year. My brother, Derek, even drove in from SoCal.” Kyle struggled up into a sitting position to get a better look at her new work uniform. “Why are you dressed like a slutty cat?”
She instinctively tried to cover herself from his stare, but between the exposed cleavage, the exposed thighs, and the semi-exposed bottom, she didn’t have enough hands. “I started my new job today, remember?”
Kyle let out a whistle of appreciation. “Well, you look fiiine. I had no idea you had an ass like that.”
She pinned him with a glacial glare. “Don’t you ever look at my ass again.”
He looked away, muttering, “Someone needs to lighten up.”
She stalked across the living room to the apartment’s tiny kitchen, perused the nearly empty cupboard shelves, and tossed a bag of artificially flavored butter popcorn in the microwave for dinner. “How long have we known each other? Ten years? Twelve? If I were going to lighten up, it would have happened by now.”
Linnie first met Kyle when she’d responded to a classified ad for an economics tutor. At sixteen, she’d just dropped out of a top-rated university, and at nineteen, he’d just enrolled in community college. On the surface, the two of them couldn’t have been more different. Kyle had enjoyed a brief bout of fame and fortune when he was seven years old, hamming it up in a series of national potato-chip commercials. Though he’d never landed another major role after that, his parents had yanked him out of public school to appear at an endless series of casting calls and auditions. He and Linnie had both missed out on a huge, formative piece of their childhoods, and their student-tutor dynamic had evolved into an unlikely camaraderie. Two years ago, after finally being dropped by his Manhattan talent agency, Kyle relocated to Vegas to take a role in a murder mystery dinner theater, and he’d persuaded Linnie to join him (he’d claimed he valued her companionship, but she suspected he just needed help making rent).
But camaraderie went only so far. While Linnie had been pathetically grateful for any scrap of social acceptance ten years ago, her tolerance for Kyle and his perpetual adolescence had worn thin now that they shared living space. She had applied for the promotion to the Kitty Korner specifically so that she could earn higher tips and afford her own apartment.
Kyle resumed his explanation of the trashed apartment. “So, yeah, a bunch of the guys came over for our Video Game Olympics—it’s awesome; the winner gets to wear a yellow jersey like Lance Armstrong—and you earn points by getting the highest scores in the games, but you also get bonus points for drinking.”
Linnie handed him a coaster as she sat down on a clean patch of sofa. “I assume ‘the guys’ will all be chipping in to purchase a new coffee table.”
He glanced at the fractured wood as if noticing it for the first time. “Oh. I guess so. Anyway, we decided that since the winner got a yellow jersey, the loser should have to wear a pink one. But I don’t have any pink shirts, so Matt said we should check your room.”
Linnie lunged off the couch and bolted for her bedroom.
“What did you do?” She froze in her doorway, stricken by the sight of the contents of her closet strewn across the floor.
Next to her, Kyle forced a chuckle. “Turns out you don’t have a pink shirt, either. I told Derek to clean up in here before he went home, but I guess he didn’t have time to finish.”
Linnie knelt down, gathered up an armful of sweatshirts, and was mentally composing the overture to her symphony of vitriol when she noticed the books stacked on her nightstand: a biography of Carl Sagan, The Joy of Cooking, and a dog-eared paperback edition of The Iliad.
Her breath caught. “Who touched my books?”
Kyle scratched the stubble on his chin. “What books?”
“The Joy of Cooking.” She pointed. “It was on the bottom of that pile, and now it’s in the middle.”
He shrugged. “The guys must’ve knocked it over, but like I said, we tried to clean up a little bit. Why are you all emotional? It’s not like you ever cook.”
The backs of her arms went hot and prickly. “Point A: I’m not emotional. Point B: It’s not about the cookbook; it’s about what’s inside the cookbook.”
She grabbed the book and flipped through the first few pages to show him how she’d hollowed out the appetizer and main-course chapters with a razor blade to create a hiding place for the only material object that had any real value to her.
Kyle’s eyes widened when he spied the rectangular blue velvet box nestled in a berth of black-and-white text. “That’s so James Bond. What’s in there?”
Linnie skimmed the pads of her fingers across the cool, smooth page and the warm, soft velvet. This cookbook had been a bit of wishful thinking on her grandmother’s part. On the morning Linnie started college, Grammy Syl had presented her with two beautifully wrapped packages, along with a note: Congratulations to my brilliant granddaughter. I hope this gift will provide a connection to your past as you embark on your bright future. P.S. Don’t forget to eat. I recommend starting with the hard-boiled eggs and working your way up to the main courses.
The first gift had been this cookbook.
The second was an antique brooch crafted over a century ago by a master silversmith who’d designed jewelry for Russian royalty.
She pried out the jewelry box and opened the lid, instructing, “You may look, but you may not touch.”
But the box was empty.
For a moment, her mind went completely blank.
“Linnie?” Kyle’s voice sounded tinny and distant. “Hey, are you okay?”
Her panic returned in full force, along with a sickening sense of vertigo. The room seemed to sway around her, and she braced one hand against the wall for support as she gazed down at the slotted blue velvet padding.
“Maybe it fell out onto the floor,” Kyle was saying. “It’s probably hiding under a shirt somewhere.”
Linnie forced herself to wait until she regained her balance before responding. “My grandmother’s brooch is not hiding. One of your Neanderthal friends lost it while you were pawing through my personal effects in a blatant violation of my trust.”
He edged toward the doorway. “Listen, seriously, I know you’re upset, but your voice is all growly and your face isn’t moving, and you’re kind of scaring me.”
She continued to glare at him, and he stammered, “If you kill me, you won’t have anyone to help you look.” He paused. “What am I looking for, anyway?”
“A one-of-a-kind platinum brooch studded with rare cognac diamonds.”
He blinked a few times.
“Silver metal and brown stones.” She pointed imperiously at the carpet. “Stop standing around and start searching. Move!”
But a careful excavation of the debris on the bedroom floor yielded nothing. Linnie scoured every centimeter of every article of clothing that had been displaced; Kyle lifted the bed frame and the bureau so she could check beneath them, but all to no avail.
Grammy Syl’s brooch had vanished.
“You are going to call every person who was in this apartment last night, we are going to corral them in this room, and I am going to grill them until I get my brooch back.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll start with Derek. Maybe he put it somewhere for safekeeping when he was cleaning up. Maybe he—” Kyle’s expression flickered. “Uh-oh.”
She took a single step toward him. “Out with it. Now.”
Kyle fidgeted with the belt loops on his baggy cargo shorts. “It’s just . . . you know how every family has a screwup?”
Linnie flinched, painfully aware that she herself filled that role in the Bialek clan. “Go on.”
“Well, Derek doesn’t have the best track record, and he’s been having some pretty heavy problems lately with his house and his wife.”
“And?” she prompted.
“I’m sure it’s just lost. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.”
She took off her shoe and imagined wedging it down his throat. “Find a phone and start dialing.”
Kyle retreated to the living room while Linnie started yet another inch-by-inch search of the floor and the closet. When he returned, his sheepish smile had been replaced with a dazed expression of dawning horror.
“Derek knows where your brooch is.”
Linnie nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“It’s in a pawnshop.” Kyle stared at his bare feet. “Someplace out by the Strip called Longbourne Jewelry and Loan.”
She nodded again. “So he stole it.”
When Kyle started to plead with her, she got a glimpse of the winsome little boy who had sold millions of bags of potato chips with his earnest charm. “He knows he shouldn’t have done it, okay? He knows that. And as pissed as you are right now, I’m just as mad. But you have to believe me when I tell you that the guy has, like, an avalanche of financial problems. He lost his job; he’s losing his house; his wife just found out she’s pregnant.”
Linnie pressed her fingers against her temples and inhaled deeply through her nose. “We are going to the pawnshop right now, and we are going to get the brooch back. Where’s the claim ticket?”
“Derek’s going to send it to me.”
“Incorrect. He’s going to give it to me when he meets me at the pawnshop.”
“He’s already on the road to California.”
“Tell him to turn around and get back here with his ill-gotten money.”
“Well. Here’s the thing. He went to the bank as soon as it opened. Tomorrow is the first of the month, Linnie. He’s out of time. He’s been putting off foreclosure for months already.”
The pounding of her pulse began to amplify in her ears. “Exactly how much money did he get for the brooch?”
She clamped her lips together and bit down so hard she tasted blood. If a pawnshop had paid thirty-five thousand, the actual value of the piece had to be at least three times that amount. Grammy Syl could never find out about this. Linnie had disappointed too many people already.
“Derek says we have thirty days to pay it back, plus a bunch of interest and fees,” Kyle was saying. “Grand total should be around forty or forty-five thousand.”
“Who is this ‘we’ you keep referencing?”
“Us—Derek and me.” Kyle hunched over, his hands in his pockets. “Try to calm down and get a little perspective. He’s got a family to support.”
“That doesn’t justify stealing. Kyle, what do you suggest I do here? I don’t have forty-five thousand dollars. I don’t have anywhere near that, and neither do you.”
“We’ll pay you back, I promise.” Kyle lifted his hand in a throwback to the Boy Scout oath. “It might take us ten years, but we’ll pay you back.”
She shook her head. “Ten years is unacceptable. I have thirty days before the pawnshop can resell it, with interest and penalties accruing by the minute.”
“I’ll straighten everything out, I promise.” Kyle sounded like he was trying to convince himself. “I’m going to land a big role any day now; I can feel it. A TV role, maybe a movie.”
Linnie started toward the kitchen. “I’m calling the police.”
He raced ahead of her, snatching up the cordless phone by the entryway. “Don’t do that. Please. Please. There has to be another way to work this out.”
“How? The pawnshop’s not going to return that piece to me without a police report.”
Kyle finally realized she was implacable. His whole body slumped and he dropped the receiver onto the counter with a clatter. “I guess you have to do what you have to do. But tell them I did it, okay?”
Linnie froze, her fingers poised over the phone’s keypad. “What?”
“Tell them I was the one who took the jewelry without your permission and pawned it. They can arrest me instead of Derek.”
“Absolutely not. Your brother needs to take responsibility for his actions. Why would you—”
“He’s got a family and a life and everything, and I don’t.” Kyle swallowed audibly. “He wouldn’t have done this unless he was really at the end of his rope.”
Linnie put down the phone, torn between blinding rage and helpless despair. “And you’re willing to take the blame for something you didn’t even do?”
Kyle scuffed the carpet with his toe. “Yeah.”
“You can’t do that. I won’t let you.”
“What do you care? You’ll still get your jewelry back.”
“But letting him take advantage of you like this isn’t doing him any favors in the long run. Trust me. It’s . . .”
Linnie looked away and dug her fingernails into her palms. “It’s wrong. Not to mention extremely dysfunctional.”
“It’s not dysfunctional.” Kyle stuck out his chin, suddenly defiant. “It’s love. It’s family.”
“You’re putting me in an impossible situation here.”
“Well, I don’t see any other way to get your thing back.” Kyle’s eyes lit up. “Unless . . .”
Linnie folded her arms. “Unless what?”
“Unless you go gambling.”
“Yes! You could hit the high rollers’ table tonight and win fifty grand, easy. I know you could.”
She almost laughed at the absurdity of this suggestion. “No, no, a thousand times no. I don’t gamble.”
“Why not? Just ’cause you’re a casino dealer doesn’t mean you can’t play.”
“Being a dealer isn’t the issue.”
“Then what is the issue?”
She inhaled as deeply as her tightly laced corset would allow. “I just don’t. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Dude, what is the point of having an IQ of a hundred and seventy if you’re too wussy to use it when you really need it?”
“It’s one eighty,” she corrected him.
“You can win, I know you can.” He turned on those puppy-dog eyes again. “Have a little faith. Give my brother a break. And hey, think about your karma. What goes around comes around, right?”
Linnie’s stomach clenched. That’s what I’m afraid of.
“Texas Hold ’Em, two-hundred-dollar minimum, no limit,” the dealer announced when Linnie approached the gaming table. “You want in?”
Linnie hesitated only a fraction of a second before nodding and depositing a stack of black chips on the green felt surface in front of her. She’d just written a check to the casino cashier, and this dismayingly short pile of chips represented the entirety of her savings account, along with a significant cash advance from her credit card.
She’d worn a baggy jacket to cover her body and a baseball cap to obscure her face, but she couldn’t hide the fact that her entire body was trembling. High-stakes, cutthroat competitions like this used to send her spirit soaring and her adrenaline surging, but that was before she knew how it felt to fail.
Pure icy panic seeped through her as she sank into her seat. Failure was not an option tonight. She would win, again and again and again.
While she waited for her first batch of cards, she sized up the other players at the table. These six guys looked like expense-account rookies, out for a little male bonding and bragging rights. She surmised from their crisp tailored shirts and European watches that they could afford to lose at two-hundred-dollar-a-hand poker.
She ignored their speculative smiles and devoted her full attention to her cards. Throughout the first few hands, she played very cautiously, hedging her bets and observing her tablemates’ styles and skill levels. As her stacks of chips grew taller, she got bolder with her bets and cagier at calling bluffs. Her body stopped shaking and her death grip on her cards relaxed.
Over the next three hours, she doubled her money, then tripled it. Her male opponents had long ago acknowledged her superiority and seemed almost honored to lose to her.
“You’re good,” said the broad-shouldered Bostonian sporting the gold Rolex. “Are you a professional poker player?”
She stared down at the table, refusing to be distracted. “No. Beginner’s luck.”
The redhead with a smattering of freckles across his nose and a Patek Philippe on his wrist asked, “Have you ever watched the World Series of Poker on ESPN? You should enter that. Even if you didn’t win, you could be the official spokesmodel.”
This time, she did get distracted. She slouched deeper into her oversize wool jacket, and before she could come up with a response, a tall, dark Adonis reeking of Scotch and cigar smoke lurched into the empty seat next to her and announced his arrival with a long, guttural belch.
“’Scuse me.” He pounded his chest and shot the dealer a cocky grin as he tossed down a fistful of five-hundred-dollar chips.
Linnie wrinkled her nose and inched away.
The other guys glanced at one another and exchanged curt nods. “Last time around for me, guys,” the Bostonian announced.
“Yeah,” another agreed. “Let’s grab breakfast and go crash.”
Then Linnie saw the opportunity she’d been waiting for all night: Between her hole cards and the community cards lined up in front of the dealer, she had three tens and two twos. A full house. She could tell from other players’ glum expressions that they posed no threat. The boozehound next to her didn’t even try to maintain a straight face. He peeked at his hand and cursed loudly, then let loose with another thundering belch.
She did some quick calculations and concluded that, if she went all in on this hand and convinced the other players to bet high as well, she’d win enough money to buy back Grammy Syl’s brooch. Unlike many other high-stakes players, she knew when to quit. She wouldn’t get reckless or greedy; she’d cash out immediately and head straight to the pawn shop.
After three rounds of betting, she made her move.
“I’m all in.” She pushed her entire stash of chips toward the center of the table.
The members of the yacht club crew pulled back and conceded defeat:
“Guess I’ll quit while I’m ahead.”
“Me, too. You’ve cleaned us out.”
The interloper to Linnie’s left slammed down his glass, spattering drops of amber liquid across the tabletop. “Damn, cutie, how much did you just bet there?”
She adjusted the brim of her baseball cap. “Approximately twelve thousand dollars.”
“You got a hand worth twelve grand? For real?” He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “This I gotta see. Call!”
She waited while the dealer turned over her cards, then smiled triumphantly. “Full house.”
“Well, shit, you got me beat. All I got’s a pair of twos. I need another drink, stat.”
Linnie stood up to rake in her winnings, but froze when her seatmate’s cards were revealed.
The dealer cleared his throat. “Sir, you have four twos.”
“Yeah. Two pairs of twos. So?”
“That’s four of a kind, sir,” the dealer said patiently. “You win.”
“Wha’?” The blowhard’s bleary-eyed gaze flitted from the card in front of him to the cards in front of the dealer. “Oh, yeah, I guess you’re right. Would you look at that? Four of a kind! Woo! What are the odds?”
“Less than one-fiftieth of one percent!” Linnie cried. “It’s statistically impossible.”
Players at neighboring tables started to turn around and take notice as her voice got increasingly shrill.
“Things like this do not happen. Not in real life. Nobody actually wins the lottery or gets hit by lightning or gets four of a kind in a poker hand.” But even as she said this, Linnie had a flashback to one of her professors reciting the cardinal rule of probability theory: Statistics don’t apply to individual cases.
“Ma’am,” said the dealer, “I’m going to have to ask you to settle down.”
Linnie snapped. After hours of holding herself in check, she burst into loud, body-racking sobs.
Five minutes later, she had been hustled outside by a floor manager and banished to the cabstand with a box of tissues. Shivering in the cold night wind, she flipped open her cell phone and reached out to her only remaining source of hope, the woman who always seemed to have an ace up her sleeve.
Grammy Syl answered on the second ring. “Linnie, darling, good morning! I’m so glad to finally hear from you again. How are you?”
Linnie opened her mouth to confess everything, but couldn’t bear the thought of Grammy’s reproach. Her voice dropped to a whisper as she haltingly tried to convey the extent of her plight without revealing that she’d lost the heirloom that had been entrusted to her.
“What’s that, darling? I’m afraid you’ll have to speak up.”
“It’s a long story, Grammy, but basically, I need to make money. A lot of money. The sooner the better.”
“But why?” Grammy sounded alarmed. “What’s happened?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble? Are you sick?”
Linnie closed her eyes, burning with shame. “I can’t explain everything right now. But I really need this, Grammy. I’ll do anything.”
Her grandmother paused. “Anything?”
Linnie gazed up at the casino’s flashing neon marquis. “Anything.”
“In that case,” Grammy said, her voice jubilant, “I have the perfect opportunity for you. Chin up, darling. It’s your lucky day.”