|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.46(d)|
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Regina's tips for surviving in a big Italian family: 1. Ignore behavior that will never change.
"Regina Maria, get down here. A guy wants to see th'owner."
My mother's loud, shrill voice exploded up the bakery's staircase to my office, pulling me out of my monthly receipts review. I winced from the piercing shriek neighborhood dogs had been known to cower from and pressed the intercom on my desk phone that connected to the front of the bakery. "I'll be right there, Ma."
I didn't bother telling her she should use the intercom and not resort to screeching like a vecchia strega — an old witch — if she needed something. After three years of working for me at the bakery and a lifetime spent listening to her interact with others, I'd come to realize it was a lost cause trying to change a behavior that was ingrained in her DNA.
I did a quick swipe through my unruly hair to make sure it was still secure in its ponytail and ran a hand down the front of my apron. I'd been up since three a.m. baking, and before going into my office I'd been covered from chin to knees in white streaks. I looked like I'd been slashed by a homicidal pastry chef wielding a flour-coated knife. With my order book in my hands, I jogged down the stairs.
Since opening my own bakery, Angie's, made possible with a loan from my father — and by loan, I mean the kind you don't pay back with interest that only an Italian father with lots of connections can grant — I'd been busy seven days a week, sixteen hours a day. Running your own business is a fulltime job that never allows a day off, never allows a respite from the chaos. My life, literally, is my business. I even live above the bakery in a rent-free apartment courtesy — again — of my father, so I was never far from home or work. Sometimes I'd go a week without even venturing beyond my storefront.
Pathetic? Yeah, maybe just a smidge.
"I stuck him at a corner table and gave him a cuppa coffee and a cookie," my mother told me when she spied me. At a spit above five foot, Ursula, my sixty-eight-year-old mother, is as round as she is tall, but blessed with more vitality than that battery-powered bunny who's super energized. The fact that she drinks a gallon of espresso a day — straight — adds to that vivacity. Her thick childhood Brooklyn accent was still on yelling mode in order to be heard over the din in the bakery.
I kissed her plump cheek. The scent of almonds and warm sugar wafted up to me from the cookie-laden tray in her hand.
"He give you a name?"
She shrugged, the corners of her lips tugging down to her chin as her shoulders lifted up. When I'd been little, I'd thought they were connected because I never saw my mother lift her shoulders without her mouth pulling down into a frown.
"Somethin' American, I don't remember what."
This is a common facet of my mother's personality: she only remembers names that either sound, or are, Italian in origin. Everything else is relegated to "sounding American," whether it's of Chinese, Russian, or Asian extraction. The fact that a name doesn't end in a vowel renders it impossible for her to recall it.
The bakery was packed with preholiday business, the reason for the high noise level. With the crowd three deep at the register and a line running the entire length of the filled-to-busting display cases, it seemed like everyone in my little Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan was purchasing their Thanksgiving pies, cakes, cookies, and breads today.
Not that I'm complaining. Business is brisk most days of the year, but holidays are nonstop. Hence, the three a.m. start to my day. I have a cadre of employees who work the night shift from nine until four baking daily bread, rolls, and pastry orders so I can get a little more than three hours of sleep in twenty-four. But during holidays, I get an early jump on my workday, knowing I'll be moving more goods than usual through the store.
I wove through the throng of customers all clutching little raffle-like tickets with next-in-line numbers written on them and smiled at a few familiar faces. I never tire of seeing how happy my customers look when they leave my shop with their white boxes tied with red string, filled with the day's baked goodies.
The aroma of warm yeast, caramelized sugar, and bread baking permeated the entire place and spilled out onto the busy street beyond my front doors. Even though I had a wealth of frequent, repeat customers, I still did a good foot traffic business with people who followed their noses to my door. Once inside and able to view all the sweets, treats, and savory items I offered, a customer never left without buying something — be it a box of anisette pizzelles or a yard of fresh herbed bread.
I spotted my customer in the seat my mother indicated. His back was toward me, but I could tell he was tall from how much of him shot up from the chair. Since I didn't know how to address him, I simply said, "Excuse me?" when I finally arrived at the table. I was all set to introduce myself and ask how I could help him, but before the words could form in my throat I was struck mute. Truly. I stopped short, my mouth falling open like unfilled cannoli shells, and no sound came out.
He turned to me at the exact moment a slice of midday November sunlight streamed through the window, landing right on him and surrounding his head in a halo of bright, brilliant light. I wouldn't have been surprised if a choir of angels started belting out celestial high notes because the guy could have been a charter member of the Messenger of God club.
Facially, he looked a little older than my thirty-two, but not over the forty-year mark yet. Where my hair is the color of wet ink, his was a shock of silver threaded with faint stripes of peppery black above his ears. It looked so thick and touch-worthy, the tips of my fingers were actually tingling to clutch the ends and grab on. Eyes the color of threatening storm clouds — gray and tinged with pale shards of blue — peered up at me, a question pulling at their corners. Eyelashes most women had to pay for framed his lids naturally. His jaw was square, his cheekbones carved from marble by a master sculptor.
But his mouth — Madre di Dio, his mouth. It was about as perfect as two lips meeting in the center of a face could be. Full and thick with that natural rimmed outline women were forced to create with a liner pencil, it was the most kissable mouth I'd ever seen. Tinted the color of aged Barolo — my father's favorite wine — ripe and smooth, full-bodied and intense, it simply stopped me in my tracks.
While I stood there, voiceless and paralyzed, my mind was still able to register how I wanted to sample his mouth to see if it was as tasty and satisfying as a sip of that wine.
His skin had an olive, sun-kissed hue, like my brothers', that I hoped meant he had some kind of Mediterranean history, despite a name my mother couldn't remember.
Ma's voice penetrated over the bakery's racket calling out the next number in line and pulled me out of my immobile state.
I blinked a few times and shook my head, surprised when I didn't hear rattling. While I was doing that, tall and god-like rose from the chair and put out one of his hands.
I knew I was supposed to take it, but the blood hadn't gotten back to my head yet to instruct me in how to accomplish the task. Staring down at it and then back up at him, I watched as the question in the corners of his eyes morphed into confusion.
I knew exactly how he felt.
"Sorry," I said, shaking my head again. I slipped my hand into his, and for the second time in less than a minute, my body went still.
The day was cold and dry, and the bakery was, as usual, stifling due to the continuous oven use so when our fingers touched a tiny spark shot off from the contact. My customer's perfect mouth pulled into a jaw-wide smile that had my knees wobbling and my toes tingling inside my work clogs.
"Sorry about that." I slid into the chair opposite him and pointed for him to do the same. "Dry air outside, dry in here, makes for lots of electrical sparks."
He sat and placed his hands on top of the table, bracketing the white coffee mug and plate with a half-eaten duetto, a butter cookie dipped in melted chocolate and hazelnuts, that heart-tripping smile still in place.
"I'm Regina," I said, looking back up at his face. "You wanted to speak with me?"
And there flew the Mediterranean ancestry thoughts right out the bakery window.
"I asked to speak to the owner."
"That would be me."
His eyes widened while he cocked his head a bit. I should have been insulted, but wasn't. It wasn't the first time someone who didn't know me doubted the truth.
"Owner. Main baker. Cookie chef. Head bottle washer when the need calls for it. Angie's is my bakery, so ..."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult you —"
"— but you look so ..."
His lips pulled back up into that delicious smile. "I was going to say young, but it sounded rude when I heard it in my head."
"I'm older than I look," I said, giving him my own smile. "So why don't you tell me what you need?" Was it wrong of me to wish he'd say, "You?"
"I'm in kind of a bind."
A phrase I was familiar with since I'd heard it often when I still lived at home, usually in the middle of the night from one of Pop's frantic "friends" when he picked up a ringing phone.
"Yeah, well" — he scrubbed his hands through the hair at his temples, lucky hands — "my assistant had to go out early on maternity leave two weeks ago, and since she's been gone, I've been putting out administrative fires and trying to play catch-up."
I nodded for him to continue.
"Every year I throw a big holiday party for a charity I support. We had a venue booked, the food all ordered, then the place where it was going to be held went into Chapter 11 receivership last week. Closed down, with no way to get in touch with the owners."
I felt the air from his sigh reach across the table and tickle my skin.
Mamma mia. The hairs on my arms stood straight up at attention.
"I was able to book a new venue and tag a catering service at the last minute, but they only do appetizers and hors d'oeuvres." His shoulders hunched a little as he leaned farther into me. Without even a thought, I did the same, inching closer to him.
"This is where I'm hoping you can help me," he said.
"I'm listening." Listening? Gesu. Every fiber of my being was zeroed in on this gorgeous guy.
"I know it's last minute and you're probably scheduled to the rafters with holiday orders, but I need a cake."
"That's what we do here."
"No. I don't mean an ordinary cake. One of my staff members was at a wedding last month and said this bakery" — he patted the table with the flat of his hand — "made the cake. He said it was the most amazing thing he'd ever tasted, aside from looking nothing like a cake."
"What was the name of the wedding party?"
"Um, I think he said, Maiden or Madden —"
"Yeah, that was it. You remember the cake?"
Of course I did, since I'd been the one to bake, decorate, and then deliver it. A six-tiered vanilla pound cake with alternating layers of salted caramel cream and vanilla filling, topped with a white chocolate ganache, crumbles of hardened caramel, and decorated with cascading red and pink roses from the top tier down.
It had been a new flavor profile for me, and the bride, groom, and their parents had been over the moon about the taste.
"So, what are you looking for?" I asked. "The same flavors?"
"If possible, but really, I need a statement cake. Custom."
"Custom like ..." I waved my hand in the air.
"Something big, like that wedding cake. With lots of, what are they called, tiers? Maybe something creative? Structural, you know?"
Unfortunately, I did. He wanted something that usually takes me days to bake, construct and then decorate. Thanksgiving was in two days, Christmas in four weeks, and I already had upward of fifty big holiday cake orders for businesses I needed to start on. Add in the orders for wedding, anniversary, and specialized birthday cakes and that number doubled. All that, plus the usual daily goods the bakery was famous for.
"And the date you need this by?"
He long neck bobbed as he swallowed. That he was nervous telling me was a bit more than unsettling.
Just three weeks away. Less. Nineteen days because Thanksgiving was late this year.
There was no way I could add another custom-designed cake to my already huge list. Especially at the last minute during my busiest time of the year.
I wonder if he realized what I was about to tell him, because he reached into his coat and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "This is the logo for the charity." He handed me the paper.
"The cake is for Pearl's Place?"
"The place that offers free hospice care to kids with cancer, including room and board for the family during treatment?"
"You've heard of it? You know it?"
It was on the tip of my tongue to say "intimately," but for once in my life I did what my nonna Angelina instructed me to do more times than I could remember when I was growing up: chiudi la bocca. Close your mouth.
"So, you've heard of it?" he repeated.
I nodded. "You support it?"
His gorgeous, storm colored eyes softened. "Not solely. I own a web and app-design company, but I do what I can. The Christmas fundraiser I throw every year brings in a huge chunk of change for the place, so you can see why I'm a little frantic to make sure it goes off as scheduled and promised. I'd hate for them to lose out on such a substantial donation, especially at the holidays."
I bit down on my bottom lip, my gaze dropping to my order book. Being busy wasn't the only reason I should tell him I couldn't help. There were too many memories, sad, heart-wrenching memories, associated with Pearl's Place. I didn't want to go there — go back to those memories, and I knew I would if I agreed to make him a cake.
He sensed my hesitation and leaned even closer. "Look. I know this is just about the worst request you can get from a customer this close to Christmas, but I'm willing to pay whatever you ask."
"It's not the money," I said, although the phrase whatever you ask had my mercenary business owner's heart pounding. I am, after all, my father's daughter. "It's more that I'm already jampacked with holiday projects as it is. Adding on another big custom order is going to be tough."
"I think I just heard you say it'll be tough ... but doable? Did I hallucinate that?"
Sitting across from me, his face was pulled into such an expectant expression of hope I wanted to laugh. He looked just like my cousin Chloe's son, Lorenzo, whenever he visits the bakery and gets a gander at the filled cookie trays. His eyes go as wide as his nonna's fine china plates.
I really shouldn't add another thing to my to-do list.
"Well ..." I sighed. "What did you have in mind?"
I tried to tell myself it wasn't because of that adorable expression on his handsome face that I'd acquiesced. It was a wonder the Virgin Mary herself didn't suddenly appear before me and box my ears for lying so blatantly.
"Since it's Christmas, I was hoping for something ... Christmasy." He waved his hand in little circles in the air.
Since my heritage is Italian, that kind of gesture is like a second language to me.
The tops of his ears turned the same color as my mother's tomatoes when she blanches them. "I'm sorry," he said, glancing down at his coffee mug. "Like I said, my assistant usually handles stuff like this. She's the creative one. I'm more the business end, you know?"
"My company is donating hundreds of tech toys to Pearl's Place this year to give the kids something to play with while they're receiving treatment, in addition to the money we're going to bring in from the fundraiser, so maybe something along those lines?"
Ideas, my father has commented on many times during my life, are his and my shared bread and butter.
"So, how about this?" I pulled my order book to a blank page and started sketching. "Since your event is gonna benefit a place that caters to sick kids, why not something like Santa's Toy Land?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Christmas and Cannolis"
Copyright © 2018 Margaret-Mary Jaeger.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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