How to Stir a Baker's Heart: Softcover
For Olivia Hudson, starting over was like trying to bake an award-winning pie out of olives and sauerkraut. No matter what ingredients she added to balance the flavors or how she arranged them, it wouldn’t work. Life was not a beach or a box of chocolates. Though chocolate did help.
The delectable, fudgy scent of her triple layer chocolate cake stirred Olivia’s senses as she stretched across the bakery counter and placed a fresh slice in front of her favorite customer. In the four months Olivia had lived in Stone Harbor, Maine, she’d formed an attachment to Arianne Anderson. The sugar-craving bridal boutique owner had an honest, down-to-earth personality Olivia found refreshing.
“Thanks.” Arianne lifted her fork as though it weighed a hundred pounds.
“Vanilla latte?” Olivia picked up a disposable cup and started the process, already knowing Arianne’s answer.
“With a shot of espresso.”
“Wow, someone’s had a rough day.”
Arianne stared at the thick brown frosting in a daze, sighed, and swallowed her first bite. Her eyelids fluttered closed, and her shoulders relaxed.
Olivia chuckled. All would be well in Arianne’s world now—at least until the plate was empty.
“It’s hot.” Olivia placed the latte in front of her friend then leaned her elbows on the counter and clasped her hands, her lower back grateful for the reprieve. “What’s got you down?”
Arianne’s dark blue eyes pooled with tears. She swallowed and tucked a strand of curly blonde hair behind her ear. “I….” Arianne glanced down at the cake. “I’m cheating on my husband.”
A tear dropped onto the granite countertop. Arianne swiped away the dampness on her cheeks and sighed. “Two evenings a week for the past three months, I’ve had things to catch up on at work,”—she made air quotes over the last word—”when really I’ve been driving twenty miles to escape my husband and indulge in the sinful ecstasy of your baking.”
The tight band around Olivia’s throat eased. “There isn’t another man?”
Arianne shook her head. “No. But the way I lust after this cake when I’m with Huck is adultery.”
Relief almost swept Olivia’s legs out from under her. She threw a wadded napkin at her friend, satisfied when it made contact with Arianne’s nose. “You scared me.”
More tears. Now that Arianne’s faucet was running, there was no turning it off.
Olivia checked the time on the tea-stained clock with a cupcake from an old Victorian postcard decoupaged to the face. Close enough. She locked the front door and flipped the sign to Closed. “What’s got you running?”
Olivia joined Arianne on the customer side of the counter and took the next wooden stool beside her. She pressed her fingertips to her lower back.
Through the wall of paned windows, an orange sunset lowered against the icy harbor, giving an ethereal look to the lobster boats and dories coated with frost. Perfect for wall art.
Arianne fidgeted with the napkin, now damp and covered in mascara stains. “I can’t get pregnant. We’ve been trying for almost two years and every time we’re…together I feel like a complete failure. Sometimes it’s so bad I avoid Huck entirely. Like tonight.”
This sweet woman wanted a baby more than anything. Meanwhile, other women conceived unwanted children all the time. The world wasn’t right.
“I’m sorry.” Arianne sniffed. “The hormone therapy to help the fertility wagon along makes me a little emotional. Combined with the stress of expanding the boutique and building a wedding chapel, I’m a mess.”
A little emotional? The woman was a basket-case. “How does your husband feel about you working late?”
Arianne forked a bite. “He doesn’t suspect a thing.”
“He will if you don’t get rid of that smear of chocolate icing on your upper lip.”
Arianne snatched up the napkin, made a face at the black stains, and smiled at Olivia’s offer of a fresh one.
Both women giggled.
“I’ve no right to complain. God has already blessed me with a beautiful daughter from my first marriage. But she keeps asking for a sibling, and I know Huck wants a baby as much as I do, no matter how hard he tries to hide the disappointment in his eyes month after month.”
Olivia stood and started cleaning the tables with a bleach-soaked rag. “Infertility doesn’t mean failure. Your husband may be disappointed, but I’m sure he’s not disappointed with you.”
The pungent smell filled the room as strongly as the words hit her heart. It was true in Arianne’s case. It didn’t apply to Olivia’s situation. That’s why work was such a great distraction. Her legs and feet ached, and her back complained by closing time every day, but the twelve-hour schedule did her good. She couldn’t dwell on regrets when she was too exhausted to think. Sleep, of late, had been blessedly quick and deep.
“In my head, I know you’re right. But my heart says something different.”
Don’t believe the lies. How many times back home had Olivia said that to patients in her office? Easy for her to say, but harder to believe now that she’d experienced the dark side of the rainbow.
“Hmm…this is divine,” Arianne said around a mouthful of cake. “What’s your secret anyway? I’ve never had frosting this perfect.”
Olivia shook off the black cloud. Her stomach grumbled, reminding her she’d skipped lunch. She paused her cleaning to smooth a knot from her shoulder. “Can you keep a secret?”
Arianne nodded, curls bouncing around her shoulders.
“The carbonated drink?” Arianne stared at the remaining nugget of cake on her plate in wonder. “You’re a genius.”
Olivia swallowed the bark of laughter that almost escaped. “People have been using it for years.”
A cobweb dangled from one of the nautical lanterns suspended from a hand-hewn beam above Olivia’s head. She stood on a chair, reached up, and brushed it away. Though both the building and the menu needed updates, the boat oars, fishing nets, and anchors adorning the whitewashed walls and the glass jars displaying colorful sea glass and shells gave the pastry shop a seaside, magazine-quality feel. Especially after she’d added thin crown molding to the display cases and then distressed them with white chalk paint.
Silence reigned until a ping on the glass caught their attention. The predicted wintry mix had arrived.
Arianne slapped five dollars on the counter and pushed it toward Olivia. “Tip.” She winked. “I’ll be back for another session on Thursday.”
“Session?” The bill crinkled as Olivia slipped it in her apron pocket. How had Arianne found out her secret?
“Your desserts. They work better than any therapy available. I always feel better when I leave here.”
Words Olivia had always loved to hear, though she’d never expected to hear them in a bakery. However, rumor had it the shop carried a confection to cure every problem. Like the gingersnaps that had helped ease Mrs. Watson’s queasy stomach, or the iced, red velvet brownies that erased local author Maggie Mahonen’s writer’s block. Of course, the claims were ridiculous. Something for small-town folk to talk about. But the rumors had boosted business all the same. Olivia unlocked the door for her friend. “See you Thursday.”
Arianne pointed her finger. “Next time, we talk about you.”
“Oh, I don’t—”
“You.” Arianne gently squeezed Olivia’s elbow. “Don’t think I can’t see the heartache lurking behind your eyes. I’ve been there myself. There’s a reason you came to Stone Harbor that involves more than caring for your grandma.” After a quick hug, Arianne put up her hood and dashed for her car.
So much for anonymity. There was truth to that women’s intuition thing.
Olivia sucked in a deep breath. The cold air shocked her lungs. Indiana winters had been cold, but Maine felt like the tundra. She needed some heavier gear.
After sweeping the small section of floor she’d missed earlier, she turned out the lights and pushed through the swinging doors to the kitchen. Gleaming stainless steel and the lingering smell of lemon cleaner made her smile. She was grateful for such a hard-working crew. And grateful they’d all left for the day. A quiet kitchen fed her creativity, revived her soul.
She cocked her head. The building was too quiet. Had Grandma fallen asleep while organizing her new desk? Olivia rushed to the office, where she’d left her grandma reading earlier. Other than typical office stuff and a small loveseat, the room was empty. A young adult mystery novel lay bookmarked upside down on a cushion.
Dousing the light, Olivia closed the office door and checked the bathroom. On her way to the other side of the kitchen, her foot hit an object that scraped across the tile floor. Grandma’s glasses. Olivia knelt to pick them up, and her gaze traced an invisible trail to the cracked-open back door. Dread coiled inside Olivia’s stomach and squeezed. “Grandma?”
The rear parking lot was void of cars and people but was quickly filling with sleet and snow.
“Grandma?” she yelled louder.
Where on earth had she gone?
Panic set in. Olivia grabbed her purse and locked the doors behind her, the display case of treats the last thing she spied through the glass before icy drops pelted her head.
If only her desserts could heal all the messes in her life. A cookie to regenerate her life’s purpose. A muffin to rebuild the declining bakery. An olive and sauerkraut pie to find a missing woman with Alzheimer’s.