"Every year on the second Saturday in December, this small town of three thousand hosts its annual Christmas festival. It's a major tourist event. People come from across the country to enjoy a long weekend away from the cities. Our hotels get booked, our shops sell out, and we make our financial year. It's really what puts us on the map.
"We cater to it in obvious ways. We clean up the Square, ban parking on the main streets—believe me, a $250 ticket is NOT worth the convenience—, set up hot chocolate stations, decorate the local shops, put wreaths on the streetlights, and string up Christmas lights everywhere you could possibly imagine.
"And then there are the less obvious—and honestly more effective—changes. Waitresses don high collar, full skirted dresses, men wear hats and long coats, cell phones are left at home, old radios are set next to every shop's register, and we even set up a huge speaker so clock chimes play on the hour, even though our clock never had a voice.
"But what really draws people here, the true headliner, is the Bake Off. Our little town is graced with not one but two, TWO, incredible local bakeries.”
He glanced over. “Bored yet?”
“No, no, please continue,” I said, curious about the stranger who had sat down and started talking to me out of nowhere.
"First, we have Lila. Lila is the mastermind behind Delicate Delights. If you're in the market for a magazine-worthy wedding cake or an elegant, perfectly frosted sugar cookie, she's your girl. Her skill and attention to detail are unmatched. She made the cake for my parent's 30-year anniversary party, and if my dad hadn't been...well, my dad, it would have had a very real chance at escaping the event intact.
"You can tell how much time and dedication she puts into each and every thing she bakes. Her fondant is flawless, her icing details look like they were printed on, the cake is dense and rich, and the cookies will melt in your mouth—or your hand, if you're too slow. If you drive through the Square in the middle of the night and see a tiny shop on the northwest corner with its lights still on, that's her.
"Next, we have Ken. Ken is the artist of Ken’s Kreations. If your kid has their heart set on a birthday cake featuring a wild caricature of the latest and greatest cartoon character or comic strip cookies, he's your guy. His imagination and execution are unmatched. My nephew's birthday cake last year singlehandedly made him the most popular kid in second grade.
"You can tell how much energy and passion he puts into each and every thing he bakes. His characters aren't recreated, they're brought to life, his frosting is the most vivid, true, wild colors you could ever imagine, the cake is light and sweet, and the cookies will give you a solid enough sugar rush to finish out a Wednesday afternoon. If you drive through the Square on a warm, sunny afternoon and see one lone shop with its lights out, that's him.
"So anyways, since we have these two amazing bakeries, the last day of the festival is all about the Bake Off. They each make their signature cookies--sugar for Lila, gingerbread for Ken--and the guest judges vote for the "Bakery of the Year." Our guest judges this year are our mayor, a semi-famous, semi-local country singer, and Bill. Bill was a tow truck driver. He devoted his free time to penning incessant letters and emails begging the mayor to be on the panel. No one really knows why, although free cookies could very well be the sole motivator.
"Ken and Lila had traded off most years. Whether that was by design or not was hotly debated in the diner following the yearly announcement. The same diner where the rumors were hotter than the coffee, but you wouldn't care about something as trivial as small town rumors."
"Try me," I said.
"Oh boy, well then let's get you a refill of the cocoa and settle in. These small towns sure know how to spin 'em. How does the top three sound?
"Rumor number one: Mayor Capson dyes his hair. In the words of Sandi from the salon, ‘That's Hairtone Boxed Black; swear it on my grave.’ The initiator of the rumor remains anonymous, but my money's on Sandi herself. Although she swears just as excessively that it wasn't her and she's just ‘an expert witness.’ This rumor didn't really catch steam until the mayor spoke at a school event and an eagle-eyed miscreant asked him about why the skin behind his left ear looked stained black in front of fellow students, faculty, and parent volunteers who put their phones down and began paying attention for the first time.
"Rumor number two: Kelly, the high school principal's secretary, has a bottle of whiskey in the bottom right drawer of her desk. Whether it was confiscated from a student or brought intentionally, no one knows. I have personally verified that this one was started by Al, the janitor. He maintains he caught a glimpse of the bottle through the slightly open drawer one day while he was gathering her trash. He says that she saw him look, slammed the drawer shut, and it's been locked ever since. I think this one will remain an unsolved mystery; parents don't want to hear that their kids are idiots and they also don't want to be the one dealing with them all day, so blind eyes are turned either way.
"I saved the best for last; you can thank me later. Rumor number three: Our very own rival bakers, Lila and Ken, are, in fact, more friendly than it would appear to the untrained eye. Don't get me wrong; they were ruthless competitors. At first. And it's not hard to imagine why. According to Mary, Lila's best friend, Lila hated Ken's lackadaisical approach to both baking and business ownership. And Ken told his friend Trevor that he thought Lila was stuck up and high strung. While the exact catalyst for the dissolution of this mutual disdain remains hidden—an impressive feat in and of itself—Mary's latest reports have Lila describing Ken as ‘a good guy,’ and Trevor told Bill that Ken called Lila ‘a smart cookie’ just the other day.
"Mrs. Smith swore that when she went into Delicate Delights to pick up the cake for her granddaughter's engagement party, Lila greeted her with a smudge of flour across her cheek. I'm sure you've heard enough by now to infer how uncharacteristic that would be. The woman whose bakery is so spotless that the local health department uses pictures of it in their training videos—true story—was greeting a customer with flour on her face? Something was suspicious, and Mrs. Smith's years of well-honed senses picked up on it immediately.
"Naturally she took her suspicions to the diner, to discuss with the other local authorities. Upon hearing her story, Mr. Dennis, the town maintenance worker on his fifth coffee break of the morning, regaled her with his own strange tale. He had gone to Ken’s Kreations to pick up one of those get-you-through-Wednesday-afternoon cookies. To his amazement, he was greeted not by Ken in his normal t-shirt covered in the ingredients of whatever he was baking that day, but Ken in an (originally) white apron, which was serving as a protective barrier between his shirt and the ingredients of whatever he was baking that day.
"Well, the conclusions they came to were only natural. Who wouldn't love to see the two young, attractive, young people fall for each other over smeared flour and aprons? They were so alike yet so different; a sugar cookie and a gingerbread cookie. The epitome of a real life fairy tale."
"Well, do you believe any of the rumors?" I asked, allowing the shadow of a smile to play on my lips.
"Yup, sure do. I have no doubt Mayor Capson dyes his hair. And in my opinion, it looks pretty dang good for a boxed hair dye. I'll withhold my opinion on Kelly's alleged bottle of whiskey. That's one can of worms I don't want to be involved with. And Lila and Ken...well, I've seen it with my own eyes."
"Ohhh, do tell!"
"It was the end of the festival last year. It was a bit drearier than normal, the crowds were slightly smaller, and there was a general air of disinterest hovering over the entire weekend. It just wasn't our normal festival. Maybe it was the unseasonably warm winter we had been having or the fact that the clock speakers broke and weren't fixed in time. Whatever it was, people weren't fully there.
"I think that's why I was the only one who seemed to notice it. Ken was the victor that year and his gingerbread had reached ‘new levels of cheer’ according to the semi-famous, semi-local country singer. With that announcement, Lila made her exit from the stage. But, on her way, I watched her brush his hand with hers in a gesture so small and insignificant that it would have been overlooked by a stranger. But I knew. There was something about it. Something about the way her eyes caught his, something about how she was just a bit too closer than she needed to be, something about the way that he smiled when he felt her.
"Let me tell you, those three seconds were more powerful than two hours of the most tear-jerking rom-com. So I don't need hearsay to tell me that something may be going on there. I already know.
"Well, that was a lot of talking and it's about time for the Bake Off. You'll be able to watch these two and decide for yourself if romance is in the air. Let's go!"
We left the warmth of the diner and joined the crowd gathering on the courthouse lawn. Mayor Capson's hair shone in the sunlight, and I had to agree with my new friend. It did look pretty good—for boxed dye, at least.
"Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to our annual Christmas Festival Bake Off! For any first timers here, we have Lila with Delicate Delights presenting her impeccable and adorable sugar cookies—can everyone in the back see the frosting? It's a penguin skating!—and Ken with Ken’s Kreations presenting his mouthwatering and snazzy gingerbread cookies—again, can you see in the back? It's a gingerbread man frosted onto the cookie in quite the stylish attire!"
Cheers erupted and billows of frosted air rose over the crowd.
"Each of our lovely guest judges, including myself—" the mayor threw an exaggerated wink at the audience "—will try both cookies and place our vote for this years winner!"
Lila and Ken handed their cookies to the judges and gave each other mock glares in passing. The judges made the appropriate appreciative noises, crumbs decorating the front of their shirts, then wrote down their choice for winner and passed the slips of paper to the mayor.
"Well, folks, the time has come! The w—"
"Excuse me, actually, I have something to say first," Ken interrupted. "May I?"
Mayor Capson glanced over the crowd. "Well, I suppose so..."
"Great." Ken cleared his throat and turned to face the throng of people glancing at each other in confusion. "I just wanted to say, most of you know that Lila and I have been fierce competitors for many years. This year, I felt like it was the right time to let her know how much I admire her."
He knelt on one knee and pivoted to face Lila, who burst into a smile bigger than Bill's when he was finally granted the title of judge.
"Lila, you are the most beautiful, hard-working, dedicated, intelligent woman I've ever known. It scared me when we were younger. But now, now I can see just how amazing you are. You've pushed me to be a better baker, a better man. And I want to spend the rest of my life learning from you." He pulled out a small velvet box. "Will you marry me?"
"Yes!" Lila said through her tears. Ken stood up, but before he could put the ring on her finger, she had thrown herself at him and buried her head against his chest.
"Well, well, well! It seems we no longer have two rival bakeries, everyone! Let's give it up for Ken and Lila!" The mayor waited for the applause to die down. "Now, do you want to know who won?"
"We both won today." Ken smiled, sliding the ring onto his new fiancées finger. "I think that's enough."
"There you have it folks! Another historic Bake Off at our very own Christmas Festival!"
I turned to my new friend. "There's something I should tell you. I knew they were together, and I knew Ken was going to propose today. Actually, that's the entire reason I'm here."
He stared at me. "You let me go on and on and you knew this already?"
"Well, in my defense, you just started talking and never stopped...but don't worry. It was much more entertaining to hear it all from you. My sister—" I gestured at Lila, who was busy staring up at Ken like he was the only person in the world "—is very matter of fact. You're a much better storyteller."
"Well, obviously Lila didn't know about today. Ken called me a month ago to tell me, and I decided it was well worth the trip. Plus, I got a great tour by a very knowledgeable local out of the deal." I bumped his shoulder with mine. "I think I'll be in town for a while, by the way."
He grinned. "Oh yeah? Why's that?"
"I'm baking their wedding cake."