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BEST LESBIAN ROMANCE 2012
Copyright © 2012 Radclyffe
All right reserved.
Chapter One VANILLA, SUGAR, BUTTER, SALT
The girl inside the bakery waves every time Blake passes. Four times a day. Once on the way to work; twice for the walk to and from the park on her lunch break, even in the rain; once on the way home.
Blake isn't sure why. She's never been inside. But four times a day, she catches that smile, small but bright, and a slight tilt of the girl's head, just enough to ripple her hair. Blake has never been able to manage more than a single nod back, hands in her pockets.
The front of the bakery is mostly glass, so Blake has a few seconds to watch her on the way by. A few seconds, four times a day. A minute or two a week.
Every day the girl wears jeans or corduroys. Under the bakery's blue apron, she wears blouses the color of peonies or butter. Her bangs are long enough to brush her eyelids, making her squint when she's at the register. Her hair grazes her shoulders like a fall of molasses.
She's small, but her little bit of extra weight keeps her from looking fragile. It's not visible when she dresses for fall or winter. But whenever she reaches for a high shelf, exposing a band of her midriff, Blake catches that hint of softness that calls to mind yellow-gold cake and mocha frosting. Her arms and shoulders are almost wiry from the mixing she does by hand, because some recipes need the warmth of fingers.
Today the girl is not behind the glass. She's in front of the shop, watering the marigolds in the window boxes. She cups a hand over each one, yellow and orange, laughing lightly as the frills ripple against her palm.
"Would you like a free sample?" she asks when she sees Blake. "Red velvet."
Blake politely shakes her head. She does not like sweets, and not eating the little square of cake seems ruder than not taking it at all. She prefers salt. On her kitchen counter sits a jar of fleur de sel, the French sea salt her mother gave her last Christmas. In the pocket of her jeans, she carries a little tin of kosher salt. Everything needs it. Even the steak fries at her favorite diner. Right out of the kitchen, they're bland, but with a quarter teaspoon more salt and some malt vinegar, they're her favorite food.
Blake asks what kind of marigolds she's growing.
"Two kinds," she says, tipping the watering can. "Man-in-the-moon and common." She takes Blake's hand so suddenly that Blake stumbles. She spreads Blake's palm and fingers over a marigold head the size of an apple. Blake shudders at the feeling of the ruffled petals. She almost laughs.
Two days later, Blake drives home from the hardware store; a broken door frame needed wood screws. A woman on her way to meet a friend for coffee runs a red while putting on mascara in her side mirror, hitting Blake's passenger side. Blake's car skids like a pinecone on a frozen lake and comes to rest against an electrical box bordered by cranesbill geraniums.
Blake does not wake up for the next four days. Her mother reads to her from a book of Welsh fairy tales that hasn't left the shelf since Blake was eleven. Her older brother reads to her from the newspaper, pointing out comma splices and dangling modifiers along the way. Her father spends little time in her room. He checks up with the doctors and makes twice-daily calls to the insurance company. The owner of the bookshop where Blake works dabs a handkerchief at the corners of her eyes while telling Blake she must get better and come back, because her temporary replacement thinks The Diary of Samuel Pepys belongs in the fiction section. An old college roommate shows up with a girlfriend, a vase of yellow-eyed daisies, and two Mylar balloons.
When she wakes, her brother is slumped in a chair with the business section, after falling asleep mid-article. He hears her weak groans, stirs, and runs out into the hall so quickly he startles an orderly.
Her mother cries when Blake remembers her own name. Her father tells her the accident paperwork is all taken care of, and if she can sign here and initial here, the insurance company will take care of getting her another car. Her cousins bring her a patty melt and steak fries from her favorite diner, along with the little tin of kosher salt and a plastic container of malt vinegar. She thanks them, eats half the sandwich, and does not touch the steak fries.
She doesn't use the salt. She doesn't want it.
The next time Blake passes the bakery, her first day back at work, the girl in the window waves. She doesn't stare at the sling where Blake's arm hangs or at the faint scarring near her hairline. She offers Blake the same smile and comes out to the sidewalk with a ceramic plate, robin's-egg blue and full of cake squares.
"Would you like a free sample?" She offers Blake vanilla beneath a cloud-cover of lemon frosting.
Blake takes it and thanks her.
"You like it?" the girl asks.
Blake says yes.
"Really," the girl says. "Be honest. It's a new recipe."
Blake tells her it's perfect. She asks for one of the same, lemon on vanilla.
The girl nestles two in a small box, robin's-egg blue. "On me," she says when Blake tries to pay. "First-time customer."
Blake protests, but the girl holds up a hand to stop her. Her fingernails are short, but manicured and polished shell pink.
"You'll be back," she says.
That night, after fixing the door frame that went unrepaired the day she bought the wood screws, Blake eats one of the cupcakes along with the dose of painkillers that lets her sleep. The frosting, petal soft, reminds her of lemon blossoms. The cake spreads butter and honey and vanilla sugar over her tongue. She eats the second for breakfast the next morning, after her over-easy egg and tomato on sourdough. No salt this time—the grains of vanilla sugar fit into the little space the salt used to fill.
She stops by the bakery on her way home from work the next day. The girl is making roses out of pink and yellow marzipan. She rolls tiny pieces of almond paste into balls and presses them into petals with the pad of her thumb.
"What can I get for you today?" the girl asks, finishing the outer petals.
Blake asks what she recommends.
"Mexican mocha," the girl says. "If you like cinnamon. It's my grandmother's recipe."
Blake says she likes cinnamon.
The girl boxes one up. "There's a little bit of chili powder, but you won't taste it. It just brings out everything else."
Blake hands her a credit card and ID.
The girl checks the ID. "Blake," she says. "I like it." She hands them back along with the box.
Blake looks for a name tag, but the girl isn't wearing one. So she says thank you and slides the cards into her back pocket, next to her medical insurance card, which she's gotten in the habit of carrying.
"Wait," the girl says. She opens the box, sets a marzipan rose on top of the frosting, and closes the lid. "There."
She takes Blake's good hand and shakes it, her grip firmer than her small fingers suggest. "I'm Aimee."
Aimee. Blake has thought of her as the girl from the bakery for more than a year, but the open vowels of her name fit her so well, it's an easy replacement.
That night, Blake slowly peels the paper wrapper from the cupcake. She eats it slowly, letting the dark cocoa and coffee bloom against the bite of the chili powder and cinnamon. She eats the rose last, closing her eyes and trying to make out the contours of Aimee's thumbprint on each petal.
Blake comes in every day, sometimes on her way home from work, sometimes on her lunch-hour walk. She needs sugar, once daily, like a vitamin. Each time, Blake hands over her ID along with her credit card, as though Aimee doesn't know her name and face. Each time she asks Aimee what she recommends. Some days it's coconut, the top covered in flakes like a quarter-inch of new snow. Others it's the wine-colored cherries of Black Forest, the warm spice of caramel pear with clover honey, or chocolate mint, the dark cocoa powder only giving up the burst of peppermint at the last moment. On Fridays, Aimee often suggests the strawberry lemonade, because it's the only day they make it. The frosting is blush pink, dotted with fuchsia sprinkles. Blake would never eat something that looked so much like a sofa pillow if Aimee didn't pick it.
A few Fridays later, the first after Blake's doctor says she can stop wearing her sling, Aimee seems distracted. Her shoulders are tense, and she taps her nails whenever she rests a hand on the counter.
Blake hands Aimee her ID and credit card and asks for whatever she recommends today.
"Anything," Aimee says. "They're all good." She barely looks at Blake. She doesn't smile at her or the two other customers browsing the counter.
Blake waits, studying the Formica floor. When Aimee says nothing else, she mumbles that she'll come back later and wanders out onto the sidewalk. She closes up the bookshop and goes home. She lies on the sofa, staring up at the popcorn ceiling while her hunger for sugar wears on her.
She's almost asleep when a few muted knocks wake her. She gets to her feet, shaking out the left side of her body on her way to the door. Since the accident, that side falls asleep more easily than her right.
Aimee stands in the hall. An oversized purse, the canvas printed with tea roses, hangs from her shoulder. It's so big, and there's so much fabric, it makes her look even shorter.
Blake wonders how she knows where she lives until she takes her credit card and ID from an inner pocket.
"You left these." She tips the cards, looking at the ID. "Today's your birthday." She hands it to Blake. "Why aren't you with your family?"
Blake says they don't live around here, that she'll see them over the weekend.
Aimee takes one of the bakery's blue boxes from her purse. "I brought you a maple and a plain chocolate." She hands it to Blake. "I didn't know what you'd be in the mood for."
Blake says thank you, not knowing if it'd be more polite to invite her in or let her get home.
"I'm sorry about earlier," Aimee says. "I was having a hard time."
Blake doesn't ask, and hopes it doesn't have something to do with a boyfriend. If Aimee wants to say more, she will.
Aimee goes up and down on the balls of her feet, deepening the crease in the sky blue canvas of her lo-tops. "I was testing a new recipe. I usually get it on the first couple of tries. My boss says I have the magic touch."
She comes in without Blake asking her. Blake likes that, not just because it saves her from asking, but also because she's the kind of girl who doesn't need to be asked. Few people would guess that from her pastel blouses and strawberry-colored lipstick.
"But I've been trying one all week and I can't get it," Aimee says.
Blake asks what she thinks is wrong with it. Aimee pulls another box from her purse and sets it on the kitchen counter. "You tell me. I took the extras home to try and figure out what I did wrong."
Blake carefully lifts the lid—vanilla cake with frosting the color of antique gold roses, capped with round sugar beads, tiny and cream-colored.
"Try it," Aimee says. "Tell me what's wrong. I can take it."
Blake pulls off a small piece and lets it dissolve on her tongue. She cocks her head, considering. The caramel flavor is soft and even, but it lacks the spice she's come to love in Aimee's baking.
"It's bland, isn't it?" asks Aimee.
Blake tells her it's still better than almost any cupcake she's ever had.
"It's bland," Aimee says.
Blake cocks her head to the other side and admits it's not as good as the ones Aimee usually makes.
Aimee takes a bite off the same one Blake tried. She stares into space as she swallows. "It needs something."
Blake tries it again, her mouth overlapping the shape of Aimee's bite. She tells her it needs salt.
"Salt?" Aimee asks.
Blake says yes.
"There's already salt in there," Aimee says.
Blake asks what kind of salt.
"What do you mean what kind of salt?" Aimee asks. "Table salt."
Blake shakes her head and finds the jar of fleur de sel her mother gave her. She lifts the lid and tilts the jar to the light, showing Aimee how the grains sparkle like snowflakes. She says Aimee should use this. Aimee looks skeptical. Blake says she should trust her. Aimee says she'll be right back.
Twelve minutes later she returns with a grocery bag from the corner store. She spreads its contents out on Blake's counter. Flour, white sugar, molasses sugar. Butter, brown eggs, cream, pure vanilla.
She mixes the cake batter with a wooden spoon while Blake finds a muffin pan her mother gave her when she got her first apartment. With a nod from Aimee, Blake adds to the batter as much fleur de sel as she can pinch between her thumb and two fingers.
Once the cake is in the oven, Aimee heats sugar and a little water in a saucepan until it turns deep amber. She stirs in heavy cream and vanilla, while Blake adds a sprinkle of fleur de sel that wafts down to the caramel like the petals of spring blossoms. When it cools enough to touch, Aimee spreads a thimbleful onto her finger and offers it to Blake, who tries not to blush as she licks it off the polished pink of Aimee's nail. The caramel tastes rounder and fuller, like a peony that's opened without warning.
"Better?" Aimee asks, and Blake nods. Aimee smiles and produces a KitchenAid mixer from her bag.
Blake asks why she carries a hand mixer in her purse.
"It's my baby," Aimee says, and kisses the pastel pink enamel. "I'm not leaving it there overnight."
Blake can't help smiling. She used to carry kosher salt in her pocket, so who was she to judge. She removes the cake from the oven while Aimee blends the caramel with butter and a little more fleur de sel.
Aimee spreads frosting onto a still-warm cupcake and drags her forefinger through. Her candy-colored tongue laps it away from her fingertip. Her eyes fall shut. She swallows. Her eyes open, and she wraps her arms around Blake's shoulders and kisses her, the taste of vanilla and salted caramel still on her lips.
"It's perfect," Aimee says.
Blake smiles, holding her breath to keep her balance.
"Here." Aimee pulls off a piece of the cake, sliding extra frosting on, and brings it to Blake's mouth. Blake hesitates. Even though Aimee just kissed her, she's shy about her lips brushing Aimee's fingers again. But Aimee brings the piece close enough that the frosting grazes her mouth. She accepts it, and the flavor of dark vanilla warms her tongue. She can't taste the fleur de sel, but it makes the caramelized sugar glow.
Blake tells her she's right. It's perfect.
Aimee nods, almost giggling, and kisses her again. Blake catches the cherry vanilla of her lip gloss; her tongue feels like wet brown sugar. Aimee presses her body into Blake's. She's soft. She gives her weight to Blake's right side, like she knows the left is still sore even though the sling is gone.
Blake unties the bakery apron Aimee is still wearing and pulls off her blouse. Aimee unbuttons Blake's shirt, leaving her undershirt because she can feel her breasts through the thin cotton. Their fingers tangle as they unbutton each other's jeans. Aimee finds brushed cotton under Blake's fly; Blake finds lace that dampens under her touch.
Aimee spreads a patch of frosting onto Blake's collarbone when she has her eyes closed. She licks it away and kisses Blake when it's only half-melted on her lips. Blake frees Aimee's left breast from her bra and spreads caramel over the circle of pink at the tip. Aimee throws her head back as Blake kisses her a dozen times to clear it, her hand pulling aside the lace of her panties and finding the softness underneath, like the frilled petals of marigolds.
By the time the muffin pan cools to room temperature, their clothes cover the floor of the apartment kitchen. The scent of salt and caramel still hovers like sugar clouds. Aimee's fingers play at Blake's underwear, drawing out her wetness until she aches and throbs for direct touch and her longing soaks a patch of the heavy cotton. Aimee lifts the waistband and eases her fingers inside so slowly that Blake startles when Aimee finds her little point of hardness, like a round bead of carnelian. When she finishes, she barely takes a breath before she turns Aimee onto her back and kisses the inside of each of her thighs, alternating, drawing closer to the center each time. Aimee moves her hips with impatience, but she laughs with the pleasure of waiting. When Blake reaches the midpoint between her thighs, she finds the sugar and salt of her, like fleur de sel and wildflower honey.
Excerpted from BEST LESBIAN ROMANCE 2012 Copyright © 2012 by Radclyffe. Excerpted by permission of CLEIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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