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A Taste of Magic
By Tracy Madison
Copyright © 2009
Tracy Leigh Ritts
All right reserved.
Chapter One "You married a lemon, Elizabeth," said Grandma Verda, as if that explained everything.
Interesting concept. I'd never compared my ex-husband to a piece of fruit before. Unless you counted the time I likened a certain appendage of his to a banana. "Assuming that's true, even lemons can be satisfying. With a little water and sugar, you have lemonade."
Grandma Verda wrinkled her nose. "You add sugar to a bad lemon and all you get is a nasty aftertaste. And Marc Stevens is about as rotten a lemon as any I've ever seen."
We were sitting in my office at A Taste of Magic, the bakery I co-own with my best friend, Jon Winterson. When I'd arrived at the crack of dawn, I'd found Grandma Verda, hot pink sneakers and all, waiting for me.
I kept my voice light. "But Grandma, when I married Marc, you thought he was perfect for me."
"That was ten years ago. I didn't know. He was still ripening-he could have turned into an orange. Oranges make decent husbands."
"I see." Well, not really, but her train of thought was interesting. Maybe someone should write a guide on how to know you're marrying a lemon. I mean, you get an instruction manual in three different languages when you buy a toaster,so why not when you're committing your life to another person?
I liked that idea. It could be given out after the I dos and right before the kiss. Hmm. On second thought, it should happen before the I dos. That way, either party can hotfoot it out of the ceremony before it's too late.
Even so, I don't think it would have changed my mind. I'd been pretty set in my decision to become Elizabeth Stevens.
"You were too good for him. I knew that much." Grandma Verda sipped her tea. "I don't know why you agreed to do it."
She wasn't talking about my ill-fated marriage any longer. This subject was one I preferred not to discuss. "I'm fine. Really. It's not that big of a deal."
I'd just told my first lie for the day, and not even an acceptable one at that. While I tended to be an honest person, there were two things in life I figured all women had the right to lie about: chocolate and headaches. Neither of which was the case here. And I never lied to my grandmother. Well, hardly ever. It didn't sit well with me that I just had.
She stared at me with her never-miss-anything blue eyes. You know how when the quiet stretches on too long you feel forced to talk? To fill in the gap, I said, "I'm sure I'm not the only woman in the same situation. Besides, I'm just baking a cake. It's not like I don't do that every day, anyway." Crap. I was overexplaining.
"Uh-huh." She smacked her teacup down, a wave of Earl Grey sloshing over the side. "Let loose, Lizzie. You've been holding back for a year under a blanket of 'I'm sorry,' and 'I'm fine,' and 'It's no big deal.' Tell me how you really feel."
Her words hit me dead center.
I sopped up the tea with a paper towel and ignored the pressure in my chest. "What do you want me to say? That I'm crushed Marc left me for his blond Barbie-doll receptionist? That my marriage fell into the worst stereotype ever? Okay, yeah-it sucked. But it was a year ago."
Last year was supposed to be "our year." Marc and I were finally going to start a family. I'd wanted a baby for a long time, but he'd kept giving me reasons to wait. Only, instead of having a child, he'd decided to marry one.
My eyes welled with tears. One blink and the charade would be up. "I'll be right back, Grandma. There's something in my eye." Second lie for the day. My grandmother might be tough, but she was still eighty-five years old. She didn't need to see her granddaughter cry.
In the restroom, after the tears subsided, I turned the cold water on full blast and splashed my face. I was pale. Too pale. And the dark circles spoke of too many sleepless nights. I put a little color back by pinching my cheeks. As I stared at the woman in the mirror-a stranger-I realized it was time to quit deluding myself. I wasn't okay. I hadn't been for twelve long months. And what I had to do today might make me ill.
Scratch that. What I had to do today could kill me. I could even see the headlines in the Chicago Tribune:
DEATH BY CAKE!
Highland Park Baker Chokes to Death Swallowing Every Last Vestige of Pride While Baking Ex-Husband and Mistress's Wedding Cake!
Yep, that's right. My job today was to create a culinary work of art for the next soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Stevens. Marc and Tiffany. Otherwise known as my cheating ex and the young, beautiful woman he'd left me for exactly one year ago. And if that wasn't hell enough, it also happened to be my thirty-fifth birthday. Now, for the second birthday in a row, Marc was front and center in my mind. Something just wasn't right about that.
I pulled in a deep breath, pinched my cheeks again for good measure, and returned to my grandmother. "Sorry about that," I said, avoiding her gaze.
Grandma Verda squeezed my wrist. "I want you to be happy."
Blinking, I said, "I know. I'll get there. Why are you here so early, anyway? Won't you be at Mom and Dad's tomorrow night?"
My family was celebrating my birthday the following night, since it was a Friday. It was easier for everyone to get together.
"Of course I will. I never miss a chance to see all my grandkids. But this is nice. A few minutes alone with my granddaughter on her actual birthday. We haven't done that for years."
This was a better subject. "I miss those lunches, but I'm glad you came by."
A smile wreathed her face. She pulled two envelopes out of her purse, one purple and one white. Holding one in each hand, she looked at them. She looked at me. Finally, she tucked the white envelope away and handed me the purple card.
"Open it now." She clapped in excitement, much as a child would.
Curious, I slid my nail under the flap and lifted the card out. Glitter flew up at me, and the heaviness in my chest disappeared. I laughed. "You've been putting glitter in my cards since I was little."
"Birthdays are about magic. Magic is fun. So is glitter."
She'd always said that. Always told me that on one of my birthdays, she'd have a very special gift for me. I glanced up and saw her pink cheeks and sparkling eyes. Maybe it was this birthday?
I turned the card face front and laughed again, this time at the picture of a bikini-clad woman wearing a birthday hat popping out of a cake. Maybe more apropos for a man, but after all, I did bake cakes for a living.
I opened the card, and a twenty-dollar bill swirled to the floor. Inside, my grandmother's flowing handwriting said:
It's time to believe in magic, Elizabeth. Open your heart wide and be true to yourself so the gift can find you. Happy Birthday, my darling girl. Love, Grandma. P.S. Have fun!
The writing seemed to shine brightly for a second. Bizarre. I blinked and rubbed my fingers along the ink strokes. Whatever I thought I'd seen was gone. Chalking it up to the early hour and my insufficiently caffeinated system, I knelt down to retrieve the twenty.
"This is great, Grandma. Thank you," I said, tucking the money back into the card.
Her eyes narrowed, and she glanced from the card to me. "How do you feel?"
"Oh, just wondering. I'm your grandmother. It's important to me that you're happy."
Hmm. Something wasn't quite right, but I couldn't put my finger on what. A glance at the clock told me I had no time to figure it out, either. "Come with me to the kitchen. I need to start work."
"Oh, well, I should probably leave."
Grandma Verda grabbed her coat. After I unlocked the door, she gave me another hug. "Sweetie, I want you to have fun. I want you to think about the things you really want, what you really wish for, and then-you never know-they might just come true."
"Life doesn't work that way," I mumbled.
"You're wrong. Life can work that way." Amusement flitted over her features. "You'll see. Your time is here, Lizzie-girl."
And then she was gone.
My mind played over the conversation as I returned to my office, and it still didn't make sense. Grandma Verda had her own way of doing things, not to mention her unique outlook on life. And, most peculiar, the things she wanted always seemed to come true for her.
And, at times, for me.
I twisted my shoulder-length brown hair into a knot on top of my head and secured it with a band. Smiling, I remembered a summer I'd spent with her as a child. Even though I knew better now, I still considered that summer magical.
It began when I lost my favorite doll. I carried Molly everywhere with me-not so different than Cindy Brady and her Kitty Karry-All doll. Except I knew for sure I'd left her in the park. When we returned to the park, she was gone. I'd cried all night, and the next morning Grandma Verda gave me a card. Seeing as I was too young to read, she read it to me. She told me to close my eyes and wish really hard that I'd find Molly. Later that day, I'd discovered my doll squished behind a couch cushion. Grandma Verda said it was magic.
As an adult, I knew she'd just replaced it with a new one. But then? Yeah, I'd believed her tales of magic and wishes. That entire summer had been filled with unexplained things.
When I told my mother, she got really upset. She told me not to listen to my grandmother. That Grandma meant well, but I should know the only magic you got out of life was made from hard work. And yeah, that was pretty much the truth of it, wasn't it?
Even so, my grandmother's obsession with magic must have made some sort of an impact on me. When Jon and I had decided to open a bakery together, the only name we'd agreed on was A Taste of Magic.
Pouring a cup of coffee, I checked the time again. Marc's cake could wait ten more minutes. I gulped the first sip too fast and burned my throat, but I didn't care.
Grandma wanted me to let loose and quit holding back. That petrified me almost as much as baking the stupid cake. If I faced how I really felt, it would hurt too much. I was an expert at running away from my feelings. From confrontations. From anything that meant anything to me.
I didn't want to hide anymore, but I didn't want to feel, either. And, if I was honest with myself, I knew what I'd become: a woman filled with remorse, confusion, sadness, and yes-a huge amount of venom. I was the coiled-up snake waiting for the perfect millisecond to attack. I was also the timid house mouse that ran and hid at the first sign of trouble. Snakes normally ate mice, but in my case, the mouse won hands down, time after time.
If I could be the snake, just once, maybe I'd have a chance.
My ten minutes were up, so I grabbed the file on the Stevens wedding and focused on that. Marc and Tiffany's order was for a standard three-tier with two additional sides. Any other day, I'd breeze right through. Today, I just wanted it over.
I took my coffee and the file to the kitchen. My business partner's significant other, Andy, was an interior designer, and he'd created the most workable kitchen possible within our limited dimensions. With overhead bins and cupboards for storage, wide surfaces for mixing, kneading, and decorating, along with two ovens and a commercial refrigerator, it should feel cramped. Because Andy was exceptional at his job, the space seemed larger than it was.
Of course, that didn't stop me and Jon from dreaming about the day we'd be able to upsize. Something that seemed more out of our reach now than ever before. We'd lost several high-profile jobs recently to competition, and because of that, we weren't picking up new business as fast as we'd like.
Just one more thing to worry about-but not now. I had enough stress at the moment, so the fate of A Taste of Magic would need to wait until another day.
My gaze flipped through the room and, as pleasant as it was, all I wanted to do was run back home and watch the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer again. Mature? Probably not. But at least I had good taste. Plus, those men-even the bloodsucking ones-were about as hot as they got.
"Stop," I whispered. I placed the ingredients for the cake-from-hell on the counter.
When everything was ready, I cracked and separated the eggs, measured in the milk, citrus oil, and vanilla into a large bowl. I swallowed. I forced myself to breathe. In. Out. In. Out. And then-out of nowhere-a vision of my wedding cake slipped into my mind. It had been far too grandiose for our wedding, but it was beautiful. Jon's gift to us, the sweetie.
I'd saved a slice, just like you're supposed to, and Marc and I meant to eat it on our first year anniversary. For good luck. But he'd been away on business, and it just hadn't happened. Ever.
Maybe that's what went wrong: we ignored tradition.
Anyway, it never got tossed. And I knew if I'd left it at the house, Marc would have disposed of it without a second thought, so I'd dragged it with me to my apartment and gave it a home in my new freezer. Somehow, as silly as it sounds, I wasn't ready to get rid of it yet. That stupid piece of frozen cake represented a life that didn't happen. A life that part of me still yearned for, still mourned.
"You're here early," Jon said.
I jumped at the sound of his voice and then turned to face him. "And you're not?"
He came closer, his jeans hugging his hips like they were painted on. "I wanted to be sure you were okay." Simple statement, but it conveyed a lot. Just like Jon.
"Of course I am."
He gave me a look with his baby blues that shone with pity. I hated that look.
"Stop it. I'm fine."
"No. You're not. You should have taken the day off. For crying out loud, it's your birthday."
"So? You're taking me out tomorrow night to celebrate. This is work."
"You shouldn't have to be here. It's my fault we even have the order."
And it was. Jon had only noticed the consultant's name and the date of the wedding when the order came in. By the time I discovered the identities of the bride and groom, it was too late to pass on the job. If we had, we may have jeopardized our future business from this wedding consultant. Business was business, and A Taste of Magic was too new to chance it. Besides, we'd lost out on enough jobs lately.
"You didn't do anything wrong." And then, to change the subject, I said, "You cut your hair. It looks good."
Jon grinned and ran his hand over his cropped, dark blond hair. "I found this great salon in the city. You should check it out."
"Maybe." For some reason, my stomach roiled, and I fought to quell the queasiness. Getting sick would be bad. Jon would send me home. While part of me wanted to run and hide, another part of me was committed to seeing this through. Possibly, it would give me closure.
Okay, closure was doubtful, but it was worth a shot. Jon glanced at the counter, his gaze taking everything in. "Want some help?"
"I'm fine right now. But if you don't mind, how about taking over the decorating portion? I won't be in the mood for rosettes and fondant tomorrow any more than I am today. And then I can stay home tomorrow. Is that cool?"
"Absolutely." Jon pulled me into his arms, squeezing tightly. "You know I love you, right?"
I closed my eyes and hugged him back. My cheek rested on his shoulder, and I could smell soap, shampoo, and his newest aftershave. This man, not just my business partner, but my friend, had been my rock for the past year. "I love you, too," I mumbled.
We stood that way for a minute. Then, we both stepped away at the same time, disengaging ourselves. His eyes held worry, but he smiled at me. "You're not going to wiggle out of tomorrow night, are you?" he asked, referring to our plan of karaoke and margaritas after my birthday celebration with my family.
"Nope. Maddie would kill me. She's bringing her new man for our approval." Maddie Sinclair was my other best friend. She lived in the apartment above mine. Actually, it was because of her I'd even found my apartment. And having her so close had made the move that much easier on me.
"Sounds good. I'm going to get started on the monthly accounting. Call me if you need anything."
After Jon left the kitchen, I returned my focus to finishing the damn cake, which-somehow-had become synonymous with moving on with my life. I turned on the mixer and added some egg whites, along with some milk. I tried to think of something else, tried to push back the sadness. "Snap out of it," I muttered.
Excerpted from A Taste of Magic by Tracy Madison Copyright © 2009 by Tracy Leigh Ritts. Excerpted by permission.
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