“That man’s hair is so red he must be making gingersnaps for the competition,” remarked Keira nonchalantly as she slid a tray of macarons into the oven and tossed the mitts onto the countertop. Ruffling her tousled dark curls, she rolled her eyes and chewed at the corner of her lip while eyeing the master list scribbled in Karen’s chicken-scratch across the rustic chalkboard.
“How many minutes?” Lanie asked with a frown as she glanced over at the unset timer. “This is the third oven you’ve walked away from…”
“Yeah—yeah,” Keira responded absently, her eyes wandering to the wide window that overlooked the icy street. Among the snowdrifts that were more than two days old, the general population of Denton were rushing through the streets with last-minute purchases and often dragging children by the hand.
It was Christmas Eve, so why wasn’t everyone home cooking and finishing decorations in preparation for the big day tomorrow? Keira ran a hand abstractedly through her hair again, struggling to keep up with her distracted thoughts. The sunlight drifting through the heavy layer of the stratus clouds that had accumulated over the past day or so gleamed perfectly on the old snow, adding to the festivity of the street.
White Christmas lights glittered along the windows of each store like stars against the dark green garlands twisting and twining almost everywhere one looked. Knots of holly brightened shadowy corners, intensely-scented candles released the heavenly aromas of spicy cinnamon, hot pumpkin pie, warm vanilla, and fresh pine. Keira closed her eyes and let a smile have its way, a small measure of the stress that had been mounting over the weeks releasing from the tension in her neck.
“Where are they?”
A voice as clear and manly as it seemed possible for a voice to get shattered the fragile peace and sent Keira immediately dashing behind the corner that the kitchen manager Darryl seemed to love to whiz around at the most inopportune times. Well, Darryl would just have to keep dealing with the faulty ovens in the back, she decided grimly with a heart hammering itself against her ribcage.
“What?” faltered Lanie as the girl fought to get the frosting to lay right on the carrot cake sitting in the middle of the pine table laden with almost every baked good imaginable. Eyes wide, she stared at the tall young man standing in the entrance to the kitchen with hands fastened on his hips and blue-green eyes darting around the room.
“Where is Darryl?” demanded the young man with a conflicting grin twitching at the corners of his mouth. “Where is my guy?”
“Excuse me, but who-who are you?” Lanie questioned in utter confusion as the piping bag dropped from her unsteady fingers.
“Derek,” stated the young man with a startled expression as if it was unbelievable that she was not aware of the fact. “Derek Panettone of Panettone’s Artisan Pastries just across the street. Where have you been?”
“Corner!” bellowed a gruff voice as a man twice Derek’s width and only about two-thirds of his height barreled around the corner with a steaming mug in one hand and a clipboard in the other.
It all happened in the matter of three seconds. One moment, the man was charging through with all abandon of care, and the next there was a young woman sprawled on the floor with coffee drenching her white t-shirt and dripping from her hair. Utter disbelief marred Darryl’s face as he stared from the auburn-haired man with a Santa apron tied around his muscular frame to the woman dazedly sitting up and grimacing up at him.
“I’m obligated for your help in finding Darryl,” smirked Derek with a quirk of one reddish eyebrow.
“Oh, you’re welcome,” snapped Keira with a dark glare as she stood and surveyed the indestructible mug lying sideways on the wood floor. Not a single spider-crack or chip manifested itself in the bright red surface, and the ridiculous snowman still mockingly grinned from ear-to-ear on the side. “What do you want.”
“Darryl,” Derek said, shaking his head, “how do you deal with this attitude six days a week?”
“Bro, she tells me to fire her all the time, so I don’t want to give in,” stated Darryl with a hearty laugh. Adjusting the glasses gripping the edge of his nose, he shook his head and delivered an obliging grin down at Keira. Silence fell over the kitchen as the heavenly aroma of hot, fresh sugar cookies wafted from the far oven across the room.
“Oh my gosh…the-the cranberry pies,” gasped Keira as she scrambled up from the floor, her old white converse nearly slipping in the puddle of coffee lying there. Annoyance flashed in her eyes as she hastily stepped to the fourth oven and threw open the door just as the filling began to drip from the edge of one of the pans and sizzle in the bottom of the oven.
“Something wrong?” demurely questioned Derek as he stepped up behind her and strove to peer over her shoulder.
All of a sudden, a hard smack came down on his left shoulder that resounded in the small kitchen, and the auburn-haired baker staggered back a step in astonishment. Blue-green eyes wide and mouth hanging open, Derek stared at Keira as she whipped the pies out of the oven and stood frowning at the extremely crispy edges of the lattice.
“Bro, calm down!” shouted Darryl, but then, when did Darryl ever not speak as if he was yelling to someone across the street in the middle of rush hour? Keira looked up at the ceiling and closed her eyes, releasing the long breath that had been pent up inside of her for the entire day. All she could think was that at least it wasn’t the snickerdoodles for the competition.
Every year, the small town held the Christmas Bake ‘n Take Cookie Contest, a competition in which everyone in the small town of Denton could submit their Christmas sweets with the chance to win a thousand dollars as well as the title of having won. For many people, it was merely another relaxing way to spend the holiday season, baking with their grandmother, aunt, or whoever in the family held the family “secret recipe.”
However, Keira dreaded baking for contests like the plague.
Kneeling down before the oven that held her entry, she squinted into the glass and then stuck her tongue at her reflection when she caught a glimpse of the stressed mess staring back at her.
“Is there flour on my nose?” she demanded while turning to Lanie who seemed almost on the verge of tears behind the massive carrot cake.
“That’s the least of your worries,” Derek snorted with a knowing glance thrown at Darryl who was now occupied in sorting the novel of new orders he had been bringing in from the front room. “Your hair is kinda—kinda—”
“I know,” Keira replied with a deliberate blink of her green eyes. As she was about to look back at the fluffy cookies rising beyond the glass, a flash of bright red caught her eye and drew her mouth open in disgust.
“What,” she said flatly, “are you wearing, Derek?”
A boyish grin deepened the dimple in his right cheek as he spun around on the heel of his black restaurant shoes and glanced down at the festive apron.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” choked Keira as she struggled to muffle the laugh that rushed to her lips and set her sides to aching.
“At least I’m not the one soaked with coffee,” he retorted. With a glance at the clock, he said, “I don’t know how you’re ever going to make that deadline, by the way. If you’re even brave enough to show your face in that contest. My family and I have been doing this for more years than they can remember, and there’s a lot of people out there that have some pretty great recipes up their sleeves.”
“Thank you for your encouragement, but I think I’ve got this,” Keira sighed as she pulled the three cookie sheets from the oven and set them on the top with a sharp clatter. “Don’t you have things to be doing or did your family already make these said cookies for you to merely enter into the contest?”
His face flushing a light crimson, Derek opened his mouth as if to say something and then closed it. He blinked several times and looked out the window to where Panettone’s Artisan Pastries stood across the street in a haze of bright Christmas lights and people standing in a queue to pick up their holiday treats.
“No, but thanks for your confidence in me,” he said quietly as he matched her gaze evenly.
They had known each other for a year or so, ever since the one time that the Panettone family had asked Keira to help them cope with the orders last Christmas when the Fine Pastries had been swamped with both customers and demands. Even though Nice ‘n Spice had been slammed itself, last year had been when Uncle Jason had still been alive to keep things running smoothly and his employees reporting into work. She had been needed, but by the Panettones more, evidently. Uncle Jason had forwarded her on over to the Artisan Pastries, where she and Derek had been forced to whip out more than six hundred cookies in two-and-a-half hours. Even though it had been exhausting and beyond stressful with all the other orders being carried out, they had been able to do it, but at the expense of a whole lot of attitude being thrown back and forth. The kitchen had been hot already, but the atmosphere had gotten a lot more stifling once Keira had decided that the man’s self-confidence needed to be taken down a notch or two.
Ever since then, they had seen each other once or a few times a week, casually chatting until Keira knew they couldn’t carry a conversation without fighting. Well, not fighting, but something similar that was almost impossible to be put into words.
“Darryl, can you give us a second?” Derek called over his shoulder, raising his reddish eyebrows.
Darryl looked up from his stuffed clipboard with an amused expression glinting in his eyes past his thick glasses’ lenses. Shrugging, he grabbed a bonbon or two from a bowl on the table, popped one into his mouth, and then started for the corner again.
“Will I have to drag one of you out of here dead, bro?” he queried over his shoulder as he paused at the corner for a moment. “Because I don’t have time for that today.”
A hint of a smile flickered across Derek’s face while he benefited Darryl with a definitive shrug. He watched for a second as Darryl shuffled away and then began to stride toward one of the ovens at the back end of the kitchen.
“I couldn’t let—”
All of a sudden, there was a commotion in the street, and the reverberation of yelling and clapping seemed to rattle the thin panes of the windows facing the street. In confusion, Keira walked to the window and felt her heart nearly drop into her stomach.
“But it’s only four-thirty,” she stated incredulously. “There is no way…”
“What is it?” Derek wanted to know as he joined her at the window. “What happened?”
“The contest is starting. That’s all,” answered Keira, shrugging while she tried to keep her composure. She turned to the snickerdoodles still piping hot from the oven with furrowed brows and cheeks draining of color.
“See you later. Have fun at the contest.”
With that, Keira went for the staircase in an alcove in the kitchen that led up to the second floor.
“You did an amazing job, dear.”
It was just one of the many consoling remarks imparted as each person passed her at the potluck that all business owners had been invited to on this Christmas Eve. Keira felt her eyes falling to the cold snickerdoodles that sat in the hastily-created arrangement on one of Darryl’s best presentation plates. The hours she had spent perfecting the new recipe now fell completely short of the amazingly artistic creations submitted by those at the dinner.
Her jaw tightened as she held her cup of steaming apple cider to her lips, letting the hot liquid run through her dry mouth. Now that the contest was over and Mr. Richardson had victoriously carried away the check as well as the title, the stress and exhaustion from the holiday season was finally taking its toll on her.
A hand suddenly grasped her shoulder, almost jolting the cup of cider and drenching her red, brown, green, and white-striped apron that she had thrown on before the judging as well as clothes that did not have the luxury of being coffee-stained.
“Hey, want to go look at the lights?” queried a familiar voice as a pair of blue-green eyes glanced over at her in concern. “It’s a little warm in here, and I’m not very hungry.”
Keira glanced out the ajar door of the steakhouse and involuntarily shivered.
“You go ahead, I’ll probably just go home,” she shrugged nonchalantly, taking another spicy sip of the steaming beverage.
There was silence as Derek’s gaze wandered across the room and he stuck his hands deep inside his coat pockets. Briefly, he raised his eyebrows and then began chewing on the corner of his lips as he still stood there suddenly looking as uncomfortable as she had ever seen him before.
There was absolutely no way he was disappointed, Keira told herself with a sigh. The entire evening, he had avoided her and had not so much as ever looked at her. Not that she missed it, she hastily told herself. It had just been strange, something that bothered her for whatever reason. Now that there was even the slightest chance of him wanting to go look at the lights, she was in no way convinced that it was genuine.
“Look, Keira, can’t we just be friends?” Derek suddenly turned around and looked her straight in the eyes. “I don’t understand what I did for you to hate me so much, but I’m starting to wish things were different.”
Startled out of her mind, Keira started for the door with her heart pounding so hard against her ribs that she felt as if a fracture were beginning. The cold air hit her face like needles and her coat was inside, but she didn’t care.
“I don’t hate you,” she nearly laughed but ended up choking out instead.
The sidewalk was enveloped in a golden haze of white Christmas lights, the sky a perfect pitch-black with thousands of stars shimmering like diamonds. The air was clear and crisp with a bite to it that sent Keira immediately to shivering uncontrollably as the gooseflesh rose on her arms.
Derek suddenly stepped in front of her, making the sidewalk nearly impassible as his muscular frame deftly moved around her.
“Then what is going on?”
His eyes were so frank and penetrating that it was impossible to look away. A sudden wave of embarrassment washed over Keira, and she closed her eyes and exhaled a deep sigh. What it would mean to be completely, utterly honest with him would be impossible to convey into words. She couldn’t, just couldn’t lay her whole heart open when it was evident that he did not feel the same way. How could she explain it? How could she metaphorically-speaking break her heart open and tell him that…she really did care?
It came as a surprise to herself, but in that moment as she looked up at Derek she knew it to be true.
“I-I—” she stammered lamely as a conflicted smile twitched on her face.
“Yes?” Derek prompted as his eyes sparkled.
“Don’t know how to say this,” grumbled Keira in annoyance with herself. “I’m bad with words, as you already are aware of.”
“Are you kidding,” snorted Derek, “you are literally the worst conversationist I have ever met.”
Keira’s mouth opened wide with a retort on the tip of her tongue, but she stopped herself as she saw the amusement twinkling in his eyes along with an expression she had never noticed before.
“Can’t we just be friends?” he asked again in an almost pleading tone, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “If you don’t hate me exactly, then what is with the attitude, girl.”
“If you’ll tell me what’s up with your attitude then maybe I’ll tell you,” countered Keira, tilting her head. “You have enough attitude to go around the whole town. How does that just happen?”
There was silence in the street, families and relatives at home enjoying Christmas Eve dinner while they two fools were out in the vacant, cold street on the verge of another altercation. Not even Darryl was there to break up the fight if one were to break out suddenly between the two strong-willed young adults.
“This is so stupid,” breathed out Derek as he looked away. “I can’t even believe this.”
He exhaled the breath he had been holding into the air in a cloud and glanced down at the tops of his shoes.
“Fine. Let’s just start with the fact that I love you.”
Keira could feel her legs threatening to give out underneath her. All she could do was stare at Derek who was still fascinated with his shoelaces apparently.
“So…yeah,” he murmured.
“Derek,” said Keira in a whisper. “No.”
“Yes,” he stated flatly, finally matching her eyes. “But it’s obvious that it’s not mutual, so it’s far from mattering.”
“Oh, no it’s not.”
Keira’s cheeks began to feel so sore from smiling for merely a few seconds, and her heart felt as if it were going to suddenly have an aneurysm.
“Because I love you too.”