by China DeSpain
Maybe it was because she was named after a fruit, or maybe it was because she’d started rolling dough at her grandmother’s knee when she was five. However it happened, Lemon knew baking was in her blood. It was the only thing she’d ever wanted to do, and now, at last, she’d reached the pinnacle of her dreams. She dusted the flour off her hands and stood, assessing the shop. The walls were pink and aqua, and white fairy lights lined the ceiling in lieu of molding. The bakery cases had been cleaned until they shone, all polished glass and sparkling chrome. Vanilla wafted in the air, the lingering aroma of dozens of cookies, cupcakes, pies, and tarts.
Everything would be perfect for tomorrow’s grand opening.
With a grin, Lemon boxed up the extra pastries she’d made and flipped off the lights. She had one last chore to tackle, and then she could finally go home and indulge in wine and a bubble bath and clean, luxurious sheets. All she had to do was drop off her last wholesale delivery.
The drive to Vine and Bean took fifteen minutes, as there wasn’t much traffic this late. Despite the hour, the cafe was busy, especially in the lounge. She glanced in at all the men and women sharing sips and secrets, and her heart gave a little pang. Soon, she thought. Hopefully soon. Lemon bypassed the hubbub and headed for the quieter area of the coffee bar, where Mikaela waited.
“Hey,” the barista said. “What’d you bring us tonight?”
Lemon opened the yellow pastry box with a flourish. “A dozen cheese danishes, six strawberry cupcakes, a loaf of lemon poppyseed bread, and two dozen assorted cookies.”
Mikaela licked her lips. “That all sounds delicious. I can actually feel myself getting fatter just thinking about it. We are going to have some happy customers in the morning.”
“I hope so,” Lemon said, taking the check Mikaela proffered. “Just be sure to tell them where it all came from. Tomorrow’s the big day.”
“I’ll be sure to do that. Celina and I switched shifts, so she’s opening, but I’ll leave her a note.”
Lemon fished a stack of business cards out of her pocket. “Can you have her hand these out as well?”
Mikaela nodded. “Sure thing. Good luck with the opening.”
Lemon grinned and tucked the check into her purse. “Thanks. Fingers crossed everything goes well.”
Of course, Lemon didn’t need crossed fingers. She’d baked all the luck in the world into the pie she’d eaten for dinner.
The next day, Lemon stood in the sunstreaked morning, hands on her hips. The old-fashioned turquoise letters above her bakery gleamed in the light, proclaiming the business LEMON’S TARTS. She grinned, little thrills of excitement bubbling through her, and unlocked the front door, ready to embark on the next step of her destiny. Inside, the pastry cases stood like gleaming soldiers and she filled them with one-of-a-kind delights—food she never sold to any of her retail customers. No, these cases were filled with something special: lavender cookies for good luck, rosemary muffins for courage, vanilla scones for relaxation, and rose petal cupcakes for love.
Lemon’s gift for baking was special, but she had more than skill on her side: she was a kitchen witch.
The rumors had swirled for years, ever since she was a teenager whose baking seemed to make dreams come true. Lemon had never admitted to her kitchen magic, because she had no idea where it came from or how she did it. All she knew was that she could go to her family’s vast kitchen garden, pluck a few petals and sprigs, add it to her baking mix, and suddenly wishes were granted. Her friend Daisy went to prom with the quarterback, her mother found the courage to quit her job and go grad school, and when Lemon herself had baked and eaten spice cake with ground star anise (for cleverness), she’d aced every one of her final exams.
And now, after ten long years, she could bring her gift to the masses.
She had every confidence her bakery would do well, what with her built-in clientele from wholesaling and last night’s lucky pie. But the real test today would be Reed Mathison. She’d known Reed since grade school and had loved him nearly as long. They were best friends, but he’d never shown any romantic interest in her. She sensed the love within him, deep and hidden, like a treasure he hadn’t yet found the key to. All she had to do was help him locate it—and pray she was right. If she’d been less pure of heart, she could have slipped him something with rose petals—cookies, a muffin—and forced his affection. But she would never, ever do that. Her magic was a gift, and not one to be abused. Her creations served strictly to help people.
However, that didn’t mean she didn’t have a spell up her sleeve.
As her best friend, Reed knew today was opening day. He’d be here any minute. And she had a present waiting for him.
The tart had a vanilla base, and was carefully encased in a rich graham cracker crust with a dusting of crystallized sugar. The filling was lemon-flavored, obviously, to make him think of her, and a twirl of peel decorated one side like flower. It was a work of art that begged to be eaten. But it was the secret ingredient that excited her most: two pinches of clary sage. Not enough to affect the flavor, but enough to give the recipient clear eyes, mind, and heart.
If Reed felt anything more than friendship toward her, this tart would help him see it.
At eight-o-clock on the dot, she had the cases loaded and the lights on. LEMON’S TARTS was officially open for business, and just as she had expected, Reed was her first customer.
He strolled in, smiling, and her heart did the same little pirouette it did every time she saw him. He was beautiful, with brown eyes that crinkled at the corners and dark, wavy hair. He was charming, able to befriend anyone and everyone he met. He was funny, always quick to deliver a witty bon mot. But what she loved most was his kindness—the way he walked shelter dogs on the weekends, and gave homeless men coffee outside of Vine and Bean, and was a staunch vegan because he didn’t want animals suffering on his behalf.
For him, she’d made her entire bakery vegan, even though substituting eggs was sometimes a tricky endeavor. It was worth it, though, to see the joy on his face when he walked in. This bakery was a gift to him as much as it was one to herself.
“Lemon!” he exclaimed. “It’s wonderful. Everything looks and smells delicious.”
She grinned, a true heartsmile that soared straight from her chest to her face. “I couldn’t have done it without you. If you hadn’t pushed me, if you hadn’t believed in me…” She gestured to the pink and aqua space. “This wouldn’t exist without you.”
“Of course it would. You always had this in you. I just gave you a nudge.”
That was mostly true. She’d converted her home kitchen to a commercial one years ago, and had been selling to local businesses ever since. But to make the leap into her own storefront, a bakery with her name on it, well, that was something bigger.
“I have a gift for you,” she said, holding out the tart.
“It’s special. I made it with you in mind. It’s the only one in the batch.” She’d eventually add clarity tarts to her regular menu, but Reed would get the first.
“I’m honored.” He carefully lifted the crust and bit in, delight streaking across his face. The filling was creamy and thick, dense but not overpowering. The hints of lemon and vanilla mingled on his tongue, a pas de deux of tart and sweet. He finished it in three bites. “Lemon, this is incredible. It’s your best recipe yet. You have to sell these.”
Reed had been on the receiving end of many of her baking experiments, so she didn’t take his praise lightly. Still, that wasn’t what she was waiting for. She watched and he stared back, a little bewildered furrow between his brows. Then his dark eyes widened, and she watched the stars fall from his gaze. It was working. He was finally seeing her.
“Lemon?” he said, and she could hear both confusion and reverence in his voice.
“I…I don’t know.” He pulled out a chair and abruptly sat at one of the quaint tables.
“Reed, are you feeling okay?” All the cupcake should have done was give him clarity. He shouldn’t be sick.
He nodded. “Fine. I just…” He trailed off and stared at her again. “Why are we just friends?” he finally asked.
She sat across from him and took his hand. “What are you asking me, Reed?”
He frowned. “We’ve been best friends for more than fifteen years. I’m closer to you than anyone else. I love everything about you. Why didn’t I know I was in love with you?”
The joy bloomed in her then, like the roses whose petals she used to cultivate romance. “It just took time for you to see, that’s all. You know it now.”
“You’ve always known?”
She shrugged. “I knew how I felt about you. I suspected you might feel the same. I’ve just been waiting for you to catch up.”
He squeezed her hand and leaned closer. “Well, I’m here now.”
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