Esme was caked in flour, powdered sugar, icing, and food colouring. Nonetheless, she smiled at the counter completely covered in a variety of Holiday cookies. Esme slogged all day in the kitchen for no less than 12 hours that day to make over a thousand cookies to sell at the holiday festival. This was an important event their town held every year and for the first time since they opened their bakery, Esme managed to acquire a spot for a few hours to sell their cookies. Esme was exhausted but the adrenaline rush from completing her goal kept her going.
“Are you going to the festival like that?” Olivia asked from behind. Esme did not hear her sister enter the room but she must have at some point.
“It will sell my hard-working-home-baked brand better, don’t you think?” Esme said as she turned to look at Olivia. Her sister was already dressed in dark leggings and a short green dress. Her brown hair fell in bouncy curls across her shoulders.
“You’re not going to be at the stall,” Olivia replied.
“Why not?” Esme asked, frowning.
“You worked on these cookies all on your own so the bakery wouldn’t be short-staffed for the day,” Olivia said. “In your absence, we figured we could handle the stall on our own and you can enjoy the festival.”
“I can’t,” Esme said. “You know how important the stall is. We finally got a spot and we have to put ourselves out there and promote our bakery. We’re doing okay but we haven’t had a steady growth in almost two years. That new bakery is taking all our customers.”
Esme’s frown deepened as she glared at Olivia. Olivia rolled her eyes.
“Do you think you will attract customers by looking like a culinary zombie?” Olivia asked.
“Did you just come here to mouth me off or will you help me pack?” Esme said.
“I will not help you pack,” Olivia responded. “I will do the packing while Martin and Annabel help me.”
“Please let me do this, you know how anxious I get,” Esme begged.
“No!” Olivia persisted. “You’ve been baking for two days without any breaks. You WILL go dress up for the festival and you WILL have fun. If I see you anywhere near the stalls, I will call security.”
Esme opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. The doorbell rang and since Olivia was by the kitchen entrance, she headed to open the door. Martin and Annabel were on the other side with two large bags in each hand. They entered and greeted Esme and headed straight to the kitchen.
“How will the others handle the bakery,” Esme asked as she looked at the clock. “It’s almost 5, we are usually swarmed at this time.”
Olivia rolled her eyes again and closed the door, then walked to the kitchen while Esme followed.
“These look great, Esme,” Annabel said as she scanned the countertop.
“Literally everyone is at the festival,” Olivia said. “The bakery has been deserted all day.”
Martin nodded, “we felt awful that you did all the work so we decided to take some load off your shoulders.”
“Exactly,” Olivia added, “if you would just listen to me you would understand.”
“Fine, explain,” Esme said as she folded her arms.”
“When we realized everyone in town would be at the festival, we decided to divide up our time,” Olivia said. “Martin and Annabel were at the festival all morning and will take over packing duty and work at the stall for a while later. Throughout the day everyone else had a chance to go to the festival so you are the only one left. The rest of us will handle the stall with no problem. You go take a shower, dress up, and go to the festival.”
“But how can I when everyone else is working,” Esme said as she pushed her lips together.
Olivia walked up to her and placed her hands on Esme’s shoulders. “I know how much this worries you, but you need to rest and enjoy yourself. This year has been hard on you. We opened ‘Turner Bakes’ together years ago but you’ve done more than I ever could. Let me handle tonight.”
Tears started pooling in Esme’s eyes but she wiped them away and nodded.
An hour later, Esme had showered and was dressed. She wore dark jeans and a low cut red blouse. The thick red and green jacket would cover most of her outfit anyway but Esme wanted to look nice underneath. She did not have time to style her thick wavy hair after blow-drying so she tied it up in a neat pony. Esme did not want to wear much makeup so she dabbed a little concealed under her eyes, put on mascara, and nude lipstick and she was ready to go.
Olivia had left with the others to set up their stall at the festival and let Esme know they would continue to pack there. Esme looked around for her purse and found a sole cookie container on the counter.
‘For the best pastry chef and businesswoman I know,’ the pink note on the container said.
Esme thought she would be bored at the festival all alone but she was having a great time so far. She played games at the game stalls, ate popcorn and cotton candy, and stopped by to listen every time a group of Carolers began singing. Her heart was filled with excitement and joy for the first time in over a year and Esme had her sister and their bakers to thank for. In a distance, she saw the food stalls and decided to head there. They were busy but her stall wasn’t too crowded so Esme thought she could stop by for a second to talk.
“How’s it going?” She asked.
Olivia lifted her head and smiled when she saw Esme.
“Great,” Olivia replied. “We’ve only been here an hour and we already sold a third of our stock.”
“Oh no,” Esme gasped, “I should have made more. Do you think they will be done in time if I head to the bakery now?”
Olivia laughed, “no it’s alright, we will be fine.”
“How is Xandra’s Bakery doing?” Esme asked, curious about the state of her rival’s progress.
“I think they had an earlier slot for their stall,” Olivia said as she frowned. “Heard they did well though. But I bet we will do better.”
Esme smiled. She turned around to walk away but saw a familiar face by a stall opposite them. Esme yelped and turned back around.
“It’s her,” Esme said and discretely pointed at the young woman in question.
“The girl from your book club?” Olivia asked and suggestively raised her eyebrows.
“Go talk to her,” Olivia grinned.
“I can’t,” Esme said. “I haven’t spoken to her outside of book club at all.”
“Well now’s your chance,” Olivia said.
“I can’t,” Esme mumbled.
“If you don’t head there right now, I will scream at her to get her attention,” Olivia replied. “Do you want that?”
Esme glared at Olivia then turned around to look at Alex. She first noticed Alex’s boots as she walked over to her. Black, sleek and stylish which stopped a few inches below her knees. It had a slight heel but Alex was already tall so Esme knew the woman would tower over her. The white coat she wore suited her dark skin and her soft curls which fell over her shoulder.
“H-Hi Alex,” Esme said and internally scolded herself for stuttering.
Alex’s smile widened when she noticed Esme, which made Esme’s already racing heart flutter. “Hi, Esme. Great seeing you here.”
“Likewise,” Esme responded, as she tried and failed to stop herself from blushing. Perhaps she should have worn makeup after all. “Are you here alone?”
Before Esme could chastise herself for being so forward, Alex responded, “sort of. I was here with some friends but they all went their way with their partners. So I am all alone. Are you here alone as well? Sorry I didn’t mean it that way.” Alex looked horrified.
“It’s okay, I’m not offended,” Esme said. “My sister is at our stall and I’m done with my duties so I’m all on my own.”
“We can hang out together if you don’t mind,” Alex said.
“I have cookies,” Esme blurted out, then turned a deep shade of red. “I-I mean yes we can hang out.”
Alex giggled and nodded her head, “so where are these cookies you just spoke of.”
Still red, Esme opened her purse and pulled the container of cookies Olivia left for her. She did not know what came over her or why she mentioned it. Esme shook her head, of course, she knew why. She opened the container and held it out for Alex. The woman picked a cookie and Esme held her breath and waited for a response.
“You made them?” Alex asked and raised her eyebrow.
“I am a baker myself,” Alex replied then took a bite. While Esme was nervous at the revelation, she trusted her ability enough to know that Alex would like it no matter what.
Alex closed her eyes as she chewed as if she was savouring every bite.
“Not going to lie, this is one of the best cookies I’ve ever had in my life,” Alex said and Esme smiled widely. “I was planning to pretend it tastes terrible as a joke but these are so good I can’t even joke about them being bad.”
“I’m glad you like them,” Esme replied. “I worked really hard.”
“You must bring them during book club meetings,” Alex said.
“I do,” Esme replied.
A look of concentration appeared on Alex’s face, “I’m sure I’ve seen you bring cookies from this awful bakery I know. But perhaps I’m thinking of someone else.”
Perhaps she was, Esme thought. Esme had so many cookie recipes that she tried to remember if she made these for the club before but couldn’t recollect. “I’ll make them again next time. And save some especially for you.”
After eating more holiday treats, watching carolers, and playing carnival games, Esme and Alex found themselves by the pier of a frozen lake. The moon was high in the sky and stars sparkled like diamonds. The only other light illuminating them came from fairy lights wrapped around some trees. The crowd was largely still by the festival enjoying every moment till it was time to retire for the night. But Esme and Alex wanted some peace and quiet. So they could talk, of course.
“I understand the struggles she went through,” Alex said. “But I can’t relate that well to her.”
Esme nodded, completely engrossed in the conversation about the book they discussed the previous week at book club.
“I felt it too, but I couldn’t speak up about it at the meeting. I admire that you mentioned it even though others disagreed.”
Alex smiled, “We all go through lives with different experiences so I did not want to invalidate anyone else’s. And while nobody saw it, I think some of them understood.”
“So what is your experience and how does it differ,” Esme asked. “I was curious the other day but did not want to pry or seem like I was opposing your opinion.”
“The business owner talks about struggles of managing and building her business. But she didn’t start from scratch.” Alex said. She glanced across the pier to the dark forest on the other side. “Her parents gave her the money and her business suffered a few times but they bailed her out. Her parents bought her the office so she never had to worry about making rent. I do not have that safety net. I have to worry about mortgages and rent and profits and paying my employees. It’s been such a tough year since I started. We’re on a good track right now but this weight of incompetence won’t be lifted for another few years.”
“Oh yeah I completely understand,” Esme said. “My sister and I had to work so hard and plan a lot before we even considered opening our shop. It did not sit right with me when the narrator put money into her business without a proper plan. She barely knew the industry. My own business is doing great but I constantly worry about losing business to our competition. At least I’m sharing the burden with my sister. It seems like you’re a sole business owner. That must be so hard and yet I’m sure you’re doing great.”
Alex smiled and looked away, possibly blushing. Esme made a mental list of questions to ask Alex about her business when she realized Alex’s eyes were fixated on the branch above them. Esme followed her gaze and found a mistletoe right above them.
“Oh!” Esme exclaimed.
They looked at each other and there was a familiarity in Alex’s expression. Her deep brown eyes were intense and beautiful and filled with compassion. Her lips looked soft and inviting. Without another word, they moved towards each other. And when their lips met, Esme felt like her heart stopped beating. Esme moved her lips against Alex and pulled her closer, her hands in her soft dark hair. Soon after they parted, out of breath and looked at each other.
“Cookies?” Esme said again, bringing up her icebreaker from before.
Alex’s laugh was hearty and natural and it did break any awkwardness which would follow. Esme pulled away handed her the cookie container and Alex picked one out.
“This is amazing,” Alex said. “I am tempted to ask for the recipe to add to my menu. I will buy it off you, of course.”
“I would love to but this is an original recipe I use in my bakery,” Esme replied.
“Your bakery?” Alex asked, confusion visible on her face.
“Turner’s bake…” Esme replied as her heart started racing but she did not know why.
“I own Xandra’s Bakery,” Alex replied stoically.
“You’re Alexandra Johnson?” Esme asked.
“And I assume you’re Esmeralda Turner,” Alex said.
There was a moment of silence between them. Esme did not know how to respond. They stood alone while owls hooted amongst the trees with distant sounds of the festival behind them, Esme looked at the frozen lake. She was standing next to Alexandra Johnson. Esme deemed the woman a rival for the past year. She made assumptions and imagined an evil and corrupt person in mind yet Alex was far from that image. She looked back at Alex and she seemed sad; as if contemplating choices of her own. At that moment, Esme did not see a rival or enemy, she saw Alex. Her friend Alex, and perhaps something more.
“There’s a place around the corner from the library which sells amazing bubble tea,” Esme said, her heart fluttering like a hummingbird. “Perhaps we could swing when we find the time.”
The smile on Alex’s face melted Esme’s heart. “Sounds like a date.”