Tricks AND Treats Contest Entry
1st Place Public Vote
3rd Place Judges Vote
Judge's Pick: Cejsmom (THANK YOU!)
A/N: Congratulations to all of the other winners! Thanks to everyone who was involved in this contest: The organizers, judges, writers, Betas and readers. . . it was so much fun! Thank you especially to everyone who voted for Vanilla and Cupcake Girl. I'm thrilled that you enjoyed their story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
FYI, I had to chop this story down to meet the word limit for the contest. Like, really cut a lot out. It was a bloodbath. Before you ask, I am not extending this into a full-length story, but I did write a short epilogue, and I am adding all the other stuff back in to post it here. Thanks to the lovely Ninkita for her invaluable advice, Beta work and editing skills. Deleting supporting characters along with thousands of words was a tough decision, but she helped me make sure the core elements of the story stayed intact for the contest. I'm very pleased to be able to share the unabridged version with you now!
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
"Why do you have a ring through your nose?" the girl asked with a look of guileless curiosity.
"Mindy!" her mother gasped in shock.
"But, mom, you said-"
"Hush. What kind of cupcake do you want?"
"It's okay, Mindy. When I was little, and I saw grown ups with body piercings, I wondered the same thing. When I was six, I had to beg my mom to let me get my ears pierced. I wear her birthstone in these," Bella explained pointing to her earlobes. "When I was all grown up, I decided I wanted more earrings for all the other people I love. These are for my dad. He's a cop." She pointed to the gold handcuffs connected by a silver chain at the top of her right ear. "They remind me to always listen to his advice. Each time I got a new piercing, it was to help me remember something important in my life. This one," she said, tapping the side of her nose, "is for my Grandma. She taught me how to cook cookies and cupcakes. I had to put Nana's earring here, you know why?"
"Cuz when I was your age, I loved visiting her house because it always smelled so good." Bella sniffed the air dramatically.
The girl giggled. "That's weird."
"Yeah. I know. I'm a weird person. But you're not weird, are you, Mindy? I bet you don't want a weird cupcake. You want. . ." she made a show of searching through the display case. "You want a. . . raspberry cupcake with lemon frosting!"
"I do?" Mindy looked at the iced confection suspiciously. "Can you add sprinkles?"
"Mindy!" her mom scolded again, obviously uncomfortable with her daughter's forthright attitude.
"Of course I'll give you extra sprinkles. One for each of those adorable freckles."
Mindy giggled and stood on her tiptoes, watching as Bella transferred the cupcake from the display case to a clear plastic container. She doused it liberally with colored sprinkles and rang it up at the till.
"Anything else for you ladies? Latte? Hot chocolate?"
"We really are in a hurry," the mom apologized. "Wait! Isn't that one of your specialty flavors?"
"I charge a flat rate for kids when they come into the store. It makes it easier for their parents to say yes," Bella smiled.
"Wow. Thanks," the girl's mom said, handing over her debit card.
Bella's cupcakes ranged in price, depending on the ingredients and the effort that went into preparation and presentation. The 'Raspberry Swirl-Lemon Chiffon' cupcake was her newest flavor and the featured Cupcake-of-the-Month for August. There was only a week and a half left in August, and she still hadn't decided what to feature for September. If she didn't have any inspiration, she could always fall back on her 'Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Cream' cupcake. It was a perennial favorite with the UW students who made up a majority of her clientele, and fall quarter had just begun. She was almost guaranteed to sell out every day.
As the mom and daughter were leaving, three more groups came in, and Bella scrambled to fill their orders. Frantic moments like this made her reconsider only hiring summer help. But when she did the math, it didn't make sense to hire a regular employee. The shop made money, and she had a comfortable life, but there wasn't a lot of extra cash. Not yet. Of course, she'd only been in business for two years. There was still a lot of room for growth.
"I like you hair," a boy said, as she helped his mom select two dozen cupcakes.
"Thanks! Go Hawks!" she laughed.
Her hair was dyed black with green and blue tips for the football season. She wasn't as crazy as some fans, but she sold tens of dozens of blue and green frosted cupcakes on game days. Since she was usually working, she also had the games playing on a wall-mounted screen. Supporting the Seahawks went hand-in-hand with running a business in Seattle.
"I'm going to dye my hair blue for crazy hair day next Friday," the boy confided, shoving his hands in the pockets of his bright yellow hoodie.
"Ooh. That sounds like fun. What grade are you in?"
"Fifth. My sister's in kindergarten. She's turning six tomorrow," he said, pointing his elbow at the girl who was hovering shyly under her mom's arm.
"Six already? Wow!" Bella said with her eyebrows raised. "Are these cupcakes for you?"
"Yeah-huh," the girl said shyly, blushing.
"You know, birthday girls get an extra special cupcake. For free."
That got her attention. She stepped closer to the glass with her eyes open wide.
"Pick one. Any one," Bella encouraged.
"Why does that one have a carrot on it?" The girl wrinkled her nose suspiciously.
"It's 'Carrot Cake.' My personal favorite. With cream cheese frosting. Does that sound good to you?"
The girl shook her head abruptly. "Carrots are gross. What's that?" she asked, pointing at an unfrosted chocolate cupcake on the specialty shelf.
"Oooh. That's a grown up cupcake. That's my 'Volcano Cake.' I don't think you'll like it."
Another client stepped into the shop just then, the bell ringing cheerily. Bella glanced up and saw a good looking college guy checking out the cupcakes on display. She took his measure in a single look. He had auburn hair, neatly combed and gelled, with thick-framed glasses, khaki slacks and a sweater vest over a light blue button down shirt.
She bit her lip to hide a smirk. A sweater vest? She had already narrowed down his major, his preferred genre of music and his favorite cupcake to a couple of options. That boy was vanilla, vanilla, vanilla. Definitely not a 'Volcano Cake.' Not by a long shot.
"Volcano? Really?" the birthday girl's eyes were glowing. All shyness forgotten, she pressed her face up against the glass. "Does it explode?"
"No. No. Nothing like that. But it does have a molten core," Bella said with a sly smile. "I serve it hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. See, it's made with dark chocolate batter, chili pepper for a bit of a bite and liquid chocolate in the middle. Then, you see the red lava? That's homemade cherry jelly. When it gets hot, it bubbles up and melts down the sides. Crazy, huh?"
The girl nodded, entranced. "I want that one."
"Uuuhhh," Bella was nonplussed.
She loved the contrasting sweet, spicy and tart flavors, but it was a mature, complex blend. Not something most six-year-olds would like or appreciate.
"She loves volcanos," the girl's mom explained, shaking her head.
The college guy was patiently watching the exchange, a small smile tugging on his lips.
"'Volcano Cake' it is!" Bella shrugged, and popped the cupcake into the convection oven to heat while she rang up the order. "Promise me you'll have the best birthday ever!"
"I will," the girl replied, taking her bowl to one of the tiny bistro tables near the window. Her mom and brother sat down with her, drinking coffee and hot apple cider.
"What can I get for you?" Bella greeted her next customer.
Up close, she could see how beautiful his eyes were. A unique, light brown hue, almost the color of amber, framed by long, dark lashes.
"I have no idea. Uh. It's not for me. There's this girl. . ." he trailed off.
The guy was holding his wallet, flipping it open and closed nervously. Bella's eyes were drawn to his long, graceful fingers. A pianist's hands. No, he didn't have the aloof air of a musician. He was definitely studying medicine. Second generation, at least. Maybe a future surgeon?
"Courting with cupcakes. I like it," Bella smiled. "Tell me a little bit about her."
"Well, for one thing, Lauren is gorgeous. Classy. And smart. Phenomenally smart. She's in my Psych 301 class, and I bet she could teach it better than the professor."
Bella amended her earlier assessment. He was probably majoring in Pre-Med, minoring in Psychology. "Okay. Anything else? Have you known her long?"
"No. I haven't actually ever spoken to her. I was hoping. . . see, there's a study session for our class in half an hour. I was hoping to take her something sweet and, you know, introduce myself. Ask her out to dinner."
There was a slightly formal tone to his speech, even though he was obviously embarrassed and shy. Like he wasn't really comfortable in his own skin. Bella felt sorry for him and decided to help him put his plan in motion.
"I'm guessing you don't know if she has any allergies."
"Uh, no," he confessed with a worried look.
"So, nuts are out. That rules out quite a few cupcakes. How about something with a white cake and fruit filling?"
"Um. Okay. What kinds do you have?"
"They're all on this shelf, and I have some blueberry ones in the back I was frosting this morning. They should be set by now," Bella offered, gesturing to the back of the shop.
"Maybe. Wait. What about this one?" the guy asked, pointing to a cupcake labeled 'Here Comes the Bride.'
It was a raspberry-vanilla swirled cupcake with buttercream frosting, decorated with silver pearls. Bella had made three dozen for a bridal shower the previous weekend, but the bride came down with the flu, and the party was canceled. An entire shelf in her walk-in was full of the damn things. She planned to take the unsold cupcakes to her friend's tattoo parlor after closing.
"Don't you think that's coming on a little strong?" she laughed.
"Oh, crap. You're right," he said, blushing. "It just looks so fancy. Classy, like Lauren. Wait! 'Peaches and Cream?' That would be perfect. It kind of matches her complexion."
"Uuuhh. You're going to ask a girl out with 'Peaches and Cream?' Kind of daring, aren't you?" Bella teased.
He looked confused, as if he had never heard that particular euphemism. "What do you mean?"
"Um. Never mind. It's nothing. Great choice. This was a good year for peaches, too. Okay, just the one cupcake? Nothing for you?"
"Everything looks delicious, but I'm too nervous to eat. Maybe next time."
"You got it," Bella grinned. She tied a gold ribbon around the container and handed it across the counter. "Good luck!"
"Thanks, Cupcake Girl," he said as he ducked out of the shop.
Bella took advantage of the mid-morning lull to rearrange the display case and make room for the 'Blueberry Dream' cupcakes she had just finished. There was always a quiet time between the breakfast rush and the lunch hour, and another between 1 and 3 o'clock, but Fridays seemed to be busier on average. She would probably be on her feet all afternoon.
Bella made herself a cappuccino and settled into her breakroom - little more than a nook with a comfy chair and a tiny side table - trusting the bell on the door to alert her if another customer came in. She opened her notebook to her most recent recipe and scribbled down some adjustments to the butter and sugar quantities. It had turned out a little dry and heavy when she scaled it up in the bakery kitchen.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
At 9:00 that evening, Bella flipped the sign to closed and locked the front door. She went through her normal closing checklist, moving all the desserts to the walk-in, cleaning the espresso machine, wiping down tables and chairs and sweeping the floor. She used a strong glass cleaner to remove the little fingerprints and nose smudges that had accumulated on the display case throughout the day.
With her chores complete, Bella hung up her apron and changed out of her comfy shop shoes into her favorite Doc Martens. She filled a large cardboard box with the remaining bridal shower cupcakes, along with the seconds and failed experiments that had built up over the course of the week. Jake and his crew were not picky. Free food was free food. It didn't matter what it looked like.
Lone Wolf Ink was only two blocks away from Bake Me a Cupcake. Bella hefted the box up on one shoulder and strode down the street, moving nimbly between groups of students and bar hoppers. She shoved the door of the tattoo parlor open with her hip, greeting the girl at the counter with an air kiss.
"Hey, Leah. I got two of your favorite. Better grab 'em quick before your brother finishes that tramp stamp."
"Bella! How did you know I was desperate for my Nutella fix!" Leah peeked into the box and located the two 'Chocolate-Hazelnut' cupcakes that Bella had saved for her. "One for now, and one after closing. Mmmmmm. So fucking good," she moaned around the first bite.
The girl that Seth was working on in the tattoo chair closest to the door was giving Bella a dirty look. If she didn't want people talking about her tramp stamp, she shouldn't get one, Bella thought to herself. Instead of saying anything out loud, she just raised one sardonic eyebrow and set to work unloading the treats onto two giant platters. Clients could help themselves while they waited, and the guys could chow down between jobs.
The tattoo parlor stayed open until midnight on the weekends, or later if things were really busy. The first month of fall quarter was always a zoo as freshman boys and girls exercised their independence from Mommy and Daddy by tattooing tribal arm bands, Mickey Mouse or any number of other stereotypical designs on their arms, ankles, hips and lower backs.
Bella had never felt any desire to get a tattoo. She could take her earrings out any time she liked, but a tattoo was forever. Leah had done all but her first ear piercings, and she had quite a few. Bella had only explained a handful of her piercings to Mindy. The girl's mother would not have been impressed to hear about the belly button ring she got for her 18th birthday, the nipple rings she got after she handed her V-card over to her second boyfriend, intended to symbolize the overlapping pain and pleasure of the experience, or the four eyebrow rings she got to remind herself to keep her eyes open when it came to men.
Each eyebrow piercing commemorated the end of one of her trainwreck relationships. Three boyfriends and one ill-fated engagement. Opening her own shop had been the start of her life of self-imposed celibacy, and the beginning of her commitment to being self-reliant, both financially and emotionally. It was the best decision she had ever made. Rather than feeling deprived, she felt liberated. The stud and ring which passed through her bottom lip was her most recent piercing. When she was ready to kiss another man, ready to be in a healthy relationship instead of the codependent emotional mindfucks of her past, then she would take it out.
"Bella!" Jake called, his voice booming as he stepped out of one of the back booths. "How'd you know I worked straight through dinner? I'm wasting away, here. Bring me some sugar!"
"I just lugged this box two blocks. You can cross a room, you lazy SOB. Besides, you know what the health inspectors would say about you eating while you work. Nasty!" Bella made a face.
He crossed the studio in five long strides and vaulted over the low wall. Tall, muscular, athletic and ruggedly handsome, Jake attracted attention everywhere he went. Seth's client watched him with hungry, jealous eyes as he pulled Bella in for a hug, kissing the top of her head. Little did the girl know, there was nothing to be jealous of. If she played her cards right, the shop owner would happily take her upstairs to his apartment after closing. Jake wasn't picky about his girls, as long as they were cute and easy.
Bella had watched, bemused, as the gangly boy she used to make mud pies with transformed into a heartthrob and a player seemingly overnight. Despite their very different personalities, Jake was her oldest friend. She still jokingly referred to him as her little-big brother, although he had taken the older sibling role more and more lately. In fact, he had negotiated on her behalf to secure an affordable lease on the retail space where Bake Me a Cupcake now stood.
He and two of his buddies from community college, Quil and Embry, had started the tattoo parlor five years ago. Meticulous work and imaginative designs had contributed to their rapid growth. Three years ago, they brought in Seth, along with his sister Leah, and added body piercing to the menu. Like the others, Leah was an artist and an individualist, designing much of her own jewelry and expertly tackling some of the more daring piercings.
"Are these edible?" Jake asked, poking one of the silver decorative pearls suspiciously.
"It's just sugar. Yes, they're edible," Bella laughed.
Jake shrugged, finishing it in two massive bites, then reached for another. Bella leaned up against the counter while Leah flipped through her sketchbook, sharing her latest idea for a new piercing tool that would allow her to insert a corkscrew-like industrial piercing through eyebrows and lips more easily and less painfully than the current process. She clicked her tongue piercing against her teeth as she talked; a habit that used to annoy Bella, but she'd grown accustomed to over time. A few minutes later, Leah's next customer walked in, and Bella took the sketchbook over to a chair in the corner to hang out and wait until her friends had another break.
Just as she expected, Jake took over for Seth once the college girl's ink was complete, explaining care and hygiene to the blonde coed in far more intimate terms than the situation called for. Bella caught Leah rolling her eyes and smirked. He was so predictable.
At closing time, the crew scattered. Leah walked back with Bella since she lived in the apartment building half a block up from the bakery.
"How's business?" Leah asked.
"Good. Even better than this time last year."
"Are you going to need help over the holidays do you think?"
"That's a tough one. I'm not sure. I already spoke to Angela, the girl who filled in for me over the summer. She thinks she'll be able to put in a few hours here and there."
"If you get desperate, let me know. Winter is usually a slower period for me. As long as you don't think I'll scare away the kids," Leah laughed, wiggling her tongue. Leah loved her art and had piercings through both cheeks, her tongue, the bridge of her nose and studs above her eyebrows.
"We're in Fremont. They've seen it all, I'm sure. Besides, you're not scary. You're beautiful, and you know it," Bella reassured her with a hug. They were back in front of the bakery.
"I might, but not everyone does," Leah shrugged, a slightly bitter look on her face, confirming Bella's suspicion that her girlfriend was harboring an unrequited crush on her womanizing best friend.
"He'll come around. Just don't stoop to his level," she whispered into Leah's ear.
"When? When we're in our thirties? Cuz I'm not cut out to be a nun."
"Aww, Leah. I'm sorry. We'll figure something out. I promise. Maybe he just needs a little nudge. We have to come up with a plan this weekend. I'll talk to you tomorrow, okay?"
"Thanks, hun. Love you."
"Love you, too."
Bella let herself back into the shop and took the back stairs up to her apartment. Kicking off her boots, she switched on the TV, poured herself an inch of Maker's Mark and curled up on the couch. She empathized with Leah, but being alone was okay. She didn't need a man.
She didn't like to admit it, but the mantra was getting thin in places. Maybe she didn't need a man, but, like Leah, there were occasional nights when she didn't look forward to going to bed alone.
She sipped her bourbon pensively. But she didn't need one anymore. Want was not the same as need. Did that mean she was ready to remove her lip ring? Maybe. Someday soon. If she met someone with whom she could share the most personal parts of herself.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
Bella closed the shop every Monday except for the occasional special order. Not only was it the slowest sales day of the week, but she needed time to do inventory, clean, restock and take care of all the little tasks that piled up throughout the week.
Dressed in jeans and a hoodie with her hair pulled up into a tight ponytail, Bella unpacked massive bags of flour, icing sugar and decorations. A separate delivery brought perishables like eggs, milk, cream and the fresh fruits and vegetables she used in many of her recipes. She played music as she worked, rotating her stock and making notes of ingredients that were getting low for her next order.
Once she was all caught up, Bella lugged an armful of supplies up the stairs to her own kitchen where she conducted her experiments and trial runs. She had one week to come up with a new flavor for September, but she was drawing a blank. Three more trials turned up lackluster results.
Feeling dejected and uninspired, Bella shoved her wallet into her back pocket, grabbed the deposit envelope and went out. She took care of her business at the bank, then walked the few blocks to the movie theater where she bought tickets for back-to-back showings of two new movies, a massive tub of popcorn and a super-sized Coke. She definitely didn't need a man in her life. He would only want to steal half her popcorn anyway.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
The following Friday, Bella saw a familiar face waiting in line to order. When Vanilla, as she thought of him, stepped up to the display case, he was grinning.
"Did she like it?"
"She loved it. We went out last weekend, and now she's sitting next to me during lectures."
"Nice. Looking for an encore then, right?"
"Yeah. I was thinking something a bit bolder," he said, scanning the flavors in the case.
Bella followed his gaze. "Apple Spice? This one has apple cider, cinnamon and nutmeg. Great with hot tea."
"Um. That sounds good. . . or maybe something with chocolate in it," he said, his eyes roaming over the available options
"You've got lots to choose from. I love chocolate. I guess you make what you love."
"Wait, you make all of these?" He looked impressed.
"My shop, my recipes. Well, actually I got most of the basics from my Nana. But a lot of these are Bella Swan originals. I try to come up with one new recipe each month," she explained, pointing to the tiered dish of 'Raspberry Swirl-Lemon Chiffon' cupcakes.
"That's really neat. What are you doing for September?"
"I have no clue," she confessed with a laugh. "Most of the time, I have an ingredient that I use as a prompt and build the recipe around it. Like this one. One of my friends made me the best raspberry lemonade I've ever had earlier in the summer. I tried to capture that flavor in a dessert. But this coming month? I'm stumped. September is always the hardest."
"Well, if I think of something, I'll let you know," he said, then looked over his shoulder with surprise, realizing there was a line behind him. "I'll take that one, I guess," he said, pointing to the 'Tuxedo' cupcake, a chocolate/vanilla marbled cake with chocolate ganache and curls of white and dark chocolate on top.
"Coming right up," Bella replied, boxing it up for him. She was out of gold ribbon, so she chose a length of crimson silk to tie the box. He handed her a twenty and turned to go.
"Wait! Your change!"
"Keep it," he grinned. "Thanks, Cupcake Girl!"
Bella was grinning, too, as she helped her next customer. Vanilla was a hopeless romantic. Lauren was a lucky girl.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
The weekend passed by in a blur of baking, frosting and tending the shop. Bella went through the motions on the following Monday morning, unpacking the supplies as they were delivered, then started in on her bookkeeping for the month. It was August 31st. She was pretty much resigned to baking 'Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Cream' cupcakes all month long. She had even ordered extra tubs of peanut butter.
She was filling out a deposit slip for her weekly trip to the bank when the doorbell rang. Bella paused. She didn't have any special orders scheduled today. Did she? If she did, she was royally fucked, because she had no memory of one.
Bella slipped shoes on her feet, hastily pulled her hair back into a ponytail and slid-ran down the stairs. She hurried through the dark kitchen and into the front of the shop. Her jaw dropped when she saw Vanilla standing under the canopy, one hand in his pocket and the other holding a small white paper bag.
Bella unlocked the door and swung it wide open. "I'm so sorry. I'm actually closed on Mondays, but I have a pretty good selection in the refrigerator if you-"
"I know you're closed. I saw the sign. But there were lights on, so I was hoping you would answer. I just wanted to give you this," he said, holding out the bag.
"What is it?" Bella asked, curious. She kept her foot against the door to prop it open and took the proffered package in both hands. Peeking inside she saw a brown and white confectionary box. She took it out and opened it. "Toffee?"
"You're still looking for a main ingredient, right? For your new recipe? Or did you already come up with something? I was going to come by first thing this morning, but I had classes, and it's been really crazy lately with school."
"Gosh, no. I haven't. This is awesome. Thanks!" The ideas were already popping up in her mind. Pecan cupcakes with vanilla frosting sprinkled with toffee, toffee apple cupcakes, chocolate layered with paper-thin toffee and cream. Her lips split into a wide smile of excitement. "Do you want to come in? I was finishing up some paperwork, but that can wait. Do you want some coffee?"
"Coffee would be wonderful," he replied, rubbing his hands.
It was surprisingly cold, even for late summer in Seattle. Vanilla - she really needed to ask him for his actual name - looked around curiously as she locked the door and led him through the enormous kitchen.
"This is incredible. So, you own this place?"
"I have a five-year lease, but business is good, so I plan to stay here. Besides, I like living upstairs from where I work. It gives me a lot more flexibility."
"You live here?" he asked, a light blush staining his cheeks.
"Yep. The previous tenant had a bakery, too, so I didn't have to invest much in the equipment," she said, leading him to the narrow staircase in the back. "And the apartment came furnished. It also has a professional-grade kitchen, which is a huge bonus. I can experiment all I like on a smaller scale, which saves me from making a mess downstairs and minimizes waste if it doesn't turn out."
She hadn't thought before she invited him in, but suddenly Bella was very conscious of the fact that a man was following her up to her apartment. The only people who had even been up there were Leah, Jake, Seth, Quil and Embry. And, while four of the five were men, they shared a long-standing friendship that ran almost as deep as family. She barely knew this guy. Her heart was racing by the time she opened the door to her living room.
"Come on in, sorry for the mess," she apologized.
She had kicked off her boots and thrown her jacket on the couch carelessly last night. There was an empty tumbler stained gold with dried bourbon on the coffee table, along with several baking and cake decorating magazines. Her dining table was strewn with receipts, order forms, sticky notes and her ledger.
"Don't apologize. It's nice. I share a house with five other guys. The couch breeds crumbs and nobody ever takes out the garbage. It's revolting."
"Ah. Roommates. Can't do it. I'm a loner."
There was no reason to get into her own roommate horror stories. She was over that mindfuck. For the most part.
"Really? That surprises me. You're so friendly and open. Especially with kids. They love you."
Bella snorted. "Hardly."
"Really. They talk about you as they leave. I think people come here as much for you as for your baking. Although your cupcakes are incredible."
"Oh. I had no idea. Thanks," Bella blushed. She poured him a cup of coffee and pushed the cream and sugar across the counter toward him. "I mean, I like kids. They're blunt and honest. Or at least they start out that way. And I like baking for people. I like being a part of their celebrations. The birthdays, showers, tailgate parties, whatever. It feels good."
"Everyone should love their job as much as you do. Keep coming up with awesome recipes, and I'll keep coming back. I plan to try everything at least once. Especially that lava cake I saw the first time I came in."
"I'll set one aside for you next time I make them," she promised.
"So, what are you baking today. Does this help?" he asked, indicating the box of toffees. "Those are my favorites. My aunt sends us a box every year for my dad's birthday. He can't eat them. Dental work, you know? But he hasn't told her that, because he knows how much I love them."
"Oh my gosh, I can't use these. They're a gift, and it sounds like a rare one, too!"
"Stop. It's fine. You can order them straight from the company online. They aren't even that expensive. You helped me. I wanted to return the favor."
"Thanks. That's really sweet. Do you want to try out a couple cupcake ideas with me? You don't have any classes or a date or anything?"
"Nope. I'm free all afternoon. Show me what you want measured or stirred. I'll even help with washing up."
"Okay," she agreed, smiling. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Bella preheated the oven, then pulled bowls, pans and basic ingredients out, piling them on the counter. She grabbed a fresh sheet of paper and did some quick arithmetic to scale down one of her other recipes. She wanted to try a toffee apple recipe, starting with her 'Apple Spice' cupcake, but taking out the spices, adding in fresh-grated apple, and pouring a layer of toffee over the top.
She re-tied her hair, washed her hands and tossed an apron at Vanilla. "Don't want to get flour on your sweater," she teased.
"Actually, it's way warmer in here than outside." He lifted off his vest, rolled up his sleeves and washed his hands before tying the apron around his waist. "How do I look?"
"Very cute. Like you're making your debut as a TV chef," Bella laughed. "Come on over here. Measure out the dry ingredients into this bowl, then mix them well with this wisk."
Vanilla read over her notes and selected a measuring cup, taking a big scoop out of the flour jar.
"Wait! No. Here. Like this," she said, taking the scoop and showing him how to level it off. "There's a lot of chemistry in baking. You have to have the right proportions. How you mix the wet with the dry, the type of oil or fat you use, the number of eggs, the presence of cocoa or nuts, even the temperature of the ingredients at each step, they all affect the final product."
"Oh, right. I knew that," he said, embarrassed.
Bella stepped back and watched him carefully smooth out the top of the measuring spoon with the back of a knife before adding the salt to the flour. Biting her lip to stop herself from laughing, she blended sugar in with the eggs, whipping it into a smooth, creamy consistency with her spatula.
She looked up when Vanilla grabbed the sugar jar. "Not the sugar! I already did that."
"But you said all the dry-"
"Sorry. I know I said that. Um. . . see, sugar melts when it gets hot, so we treat it like a liquid. We blend it into the butter and eggs to make sure it's more evenly distributed before it hits the oven. You get a smoother texture. A finer crumb."
"Okay. . ." he said, looking overwhelmed.
"Don't worry. You're doing great. Do you want to grate up some apple?"
"Sure. I can do that."
Bella passed him a small knife, chopping board, a grater and a bowl.
"Got ahead and quarter, core and peel one apple. These Jonagolds are good. Nice and tart. Grate it into that bowl. We'll use about two thirds of a cup, so just grate it all. But watch your fingers."
The oven beeped to indicate it was pre-heated. Bella popped liners into the fifteen-muffin tin and deftly combined everything. Vanilla stood back and watched as she rapidly poured batter into each liner, using the rubber spatula to manage the flow as she moved between each cup. She only spilled one drop and had to swallow a triumphant smile. She might have been showing off. Just a little.
"Okay, that was amazing," he said, visibly impressed.
"Do anything every day of your life and you're bound to get good at it," she shrugged, dismissing his praise. Inside, her stomach was doing flips, and her heart was glowing. "Okay, how do you feel about melting some of this toffee to pour over the tops when they're done?"
"In the microwave?"
"Eww. No. I have a heavy saucepan for making candy, because it gets way hotter than boiling water. You don't want to splatter. Candy burns are nasty," she said, showing him the scars on her hand and forearm. "I washed a spoon and didn't dry it properly before stirring treacle raindrops I was making with my Nana when I was a girl. They're these delicious little sugar candies that she would dust with powdered sugar and keep in a bowl on her counter. It hurt so much, I was freaking out. Nana was so calm, though. She held my arm under the faucet and gave me a basin of ice water to dip my arm in any time the sting got too bad. She had to finish cooking without me, because I couldn't stop crying. I don't think anything hurts worse than burns."
"You're probably right. That's one of the reasons I want to specialize in pain management for burn victims after medical school. In the last decade, there's been a huge demand for advanced treatment for burn victims, especially with the military, but we're still dosing people with heavy narcotics, building up dependence and resistance without offering any sort of quality of life. There's an enormous demand, but not a lot of new solutions."
"That's incredible. Although, I have to admit, I thought you were planning to be a surgeon when I first saw you."
"You have such beautiful, graceful fingers," she confessed. "I imagine you're very good with your hands."
Too late, she realized it sounded like she was flirting. Vanilla was blushing again, fidgeting with the strings of the apron. That just drew her attention back to his hands, then she was blushing, too.
"Actually, my dad's a surgeon. He teaches at UW."
"Aha," Bella said, giving herself a mental high five. She didn't always get a chance to verify her guesses, but she had been right more than fifty percent of the time for those she did confirm. Forcing herself to get back to baking, she said, "I don't want to waste the toffees, so I'm only melting enough to cover two cupcakes for now. I can frost the rest and give them away, or put them out on the discount platter tomorrow if they're okay to sell."
"You don't think they'll be good?"
"I hope they are. We'll see. Let's try one with chocolate. Speaking of which, how did your girlfriend like the 'Tuxedo' cupcake?"
"You mean Lauren? Uh, she thought it was good."
"Cool," Bella said, wondering why the room suddenly felt cold. Was it wrong for her to remind him, and herself, that he was taken?
"Yeah," he mumbled, staring at the digital display on the oven.
"Well, let's try this recipe, too. Toffee and walnuts go great together."
They started the process over again, using walnut flour, walnut pieces and chunks of dark chocolate in the batter. Bella showed Vanilla how to make frosting, smiling to herself as she watched him measure out two teaspoons of vanilla extract. She almost didn't want to know his real name, the name he went by with everyone else. In her head, he already had a name that fit him perfectly.
When the apples cupcakes were done, she poured a thin layer of smooth, translucent toffee over two of them, then set the tray on a cooling rack. The walnut cupcakes went into the oven, and she scribbled out directions for Vanilla to measure out ingredients for a chocolate muffin batter.
He asked if he could crack the eggs, and they spent several minutes fishing fragments out of the bottom of the bowl, laughing at his clumsy attempt. He mixed the ingredients himself, quickly responding to her suggestions about how to hold the spatula and bowl. Bella felt her face grow hot as she watched him, seeing the look of intense concentration in his amber eyes. He trapped his tongue between his teeth as he worked, his hands and forearms flexing with every beat of the utensil.
"That's enough," Bella said, stepping in suddenly. She could feel her pulse pounding deep in her stomach.
Vanilla leaned back against the other counter, relinquishing control without a word. Bella poured the batter into the muffin tin and turned out the apple cupcakes. They were still warm, but the toffee crackled, shiny and hard on the top.
"Do you want some milk?" she offered as she poured herself a glass.
They stood at the counter and tested the desserts. "Too sweet," Bella said at the said time that he said, "Not enough apple." They both laughed.
"It's already pretty moist. I can't really add more apple. I didn't realize that the flavor would disappear so much without the cinnamon and nutmeg."
"I don't think it's too sweet, but I see what you mean. It would be really heavy. These don't look like they got as puffy as your other cupcakes."
"They didn't. Good eye. We'll make a cupcake chef out of you, yet!"
"But I really like the toffee crunch. I think it will go well with the walnuts."
They both agreed that the frosted walnut toffee cupcake was a contender, but when Vanilla saw what Bella had planned for the third recipe, his eyes went wide.
Bella removed the paper liner and cut the cake horizontally into thirds. She reconstructed the cupcake inside a brown paper wrapper, pouring melted toffee over the first cake layer, followed by a drizzle of melted chocolate. The second layer was toffee and vanilla cream frosting, and the confection was topped with chocolate ganache, chocolate shavings and a sprinkle of crushed toffee.
"This is it," he said, before he had even taken a bite.
"It's a lot of work, but it's so worth it," she smiled, peeling back the paper to show him the layers once it had cooled.
"That's so gorgeous, I can't decide if I want to eat it or put it on display," he laughed, unwrapping his own. "Three cupcakes in one afternoon. I'm going to crash hard after this."
"I don't actually eat the whole thing. It's taste testing, not a buffet," Bella said, pointing to the barely touched cupcakes on her plate.
"Yeah right. As if I could take just one bite. Which one are you going to pick?"
"I'm on the fence between the walnut and the layered one. How about you?"
"This one. Definitely this one," he said, finishing the layered cupcake with his eyes closed and a blissful, chocolate-smeared smile on his lips.
Bella laughed, ran water over the corner of a dish towel and dabbed the corner of his mouth. "Aw, Vanilla. You got into the chocolate."
"Ummm," Bella stepped back, embarrassed.
"Uh uh. You don't get to do that. Did you just call me vanilla?"
"Well, I don't know your real name."
"So you chose vanilla. . ."
"I'm sorry. It was the sweater vest."
He burst out laughing. "Vanilla," he chuckled under his breath.
"Nothing. I like it, Cupcake Girl." His eyes darted to the clock on the stove. "Crap. It's getting late. I better go. See you Friday?"
"Sure. That sounds great."
She followed him downstairs and let him out. From the dark window of her shop, she watched him walk away, his sweater over one arm and flour in his hair. He never had told her his name.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
When Vanilla came into the shop on Friday morning, there was already a big crowd. Bella had taken a picture of the new cupcake and gotten it blown up as a poster to hang in the window. 'Chocolate-Toffee-Crunch.' It was a hit. She'd used the entire pack of toffees in the first two days and had to look up one of her grandmother's old recipes to make her own. The cupcakes were definitely more labor intensive than most, which was reflected in the price, but it hadn't seemed to hurt the sales at all. When he reached the front of the line, Bella pulled a large white bakery box out from behind the counter.
"For your study group," she said. "If you need more than twelve, I can fill another box."
"Actually, there's only ten of us. That means three for me. Perfect," he grinned, reaching for his wallet.
"Uh uh. Nope. This one's on me. Thanks for the inspiration."
He paused, his eyebrows drawn together slightly, before he nodded in agreement. "If you insist. We're even. For now. See ya, Cupcake Girl."
"Bye, Vanilla," she giggled, then turned to help the next person in line.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
The following Monday, Bella was piping icing onto parchment paper, making fresh candy carrots to decorate her 'Carrot Cake' cupcakes, when the doorbell rang. Her heart jumped, and blood rushed to her face. She knew who it was before she even turned the corner.
"Looking for a sugar fix?"
"Am I that transparent?"
"Well, you are knocking on the door of a cupcake shop when it's closed. That sounds like desperation to me," she challenged him.
"I'm addicted. What can I say?" he replied, smirking.
"Well get in here, then. You can help me make decorations."
"Hanging streamers and balloons? I'm good at that."
Bella looked up and down his six-foot frame. "Thanks, but no. Although I could use your help for Halloween decorations next month. Right now I'm making little candy decorations for the cupcakes."
"If I make a mistake, do I get to eat it?"
"Ha ha. Sure. Why not?" Bella showed him around the commercial kitchen, gave him an apron and a hair net, then proceeded to teach him how to pipe tiny carrots.
"Okay, that's one ugly carrot. I guess I'm going to have to eat it," he said, reaching for the blob of orange icing.
Bella smacked his hand. "Stop. You're breaking at least three DOH rules right now. I don't want to lose my food service license over a misshapen carrot. When we're finished, we'll sort them. You can have all the rejects."
"Reject? Aww. Don't call him that. He's got feelings."
"Shut up, Vanilla. I've got another tray of these to do, plus I'm low on roses, daisies and smiley faces."
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, they joked around as they finished the candy carrots, Bella following behind him with green icing for the leaves. They filled five racks with trays of decorations before he checked his watch and took off his apron.
"Can I have my crazy carrot now?"
"It's not dry yet. I'll give it to you on Friday," Bella said, committing him to stopping by without thinking.
He didn't object. "See you then, Cupcake Girl."
"Have a good night, Vanilla," she laughed, waving goodbye as he headed off down the sidewalk.
"Who the fuck?"
Bella spun around to see Seth and Leah watching her with wide eyes.
"Uh, just a friend. He was helping me in the shop. Do you guys want to come in?"
"Actually, we were heading back to my place to watch a movie. Jake's coming over, too. Do you want to come?" Leah said.
"Sure," Bella agreed. "Let me grab some treats to bring along, or else Jake will throw a fit. He's always hungry. How he hasn't doubled in size yet, I don't know."
She filled a box with an assortment of cupcakes out of the walk-in. When she joined her friends out on the sidewalk, Seth took the box, and Leah slipped her arm through Bella's.
"About that preppy sexpot that walked out of here two seconds ago grinning like he just got laid."
"You have no idea what you're talking about. He's just a friend. And he has a girlfriend!" Bella protested. "Besides, you know me. See?" she pointed to her lip ring. "I'm still on the wagon and happy to be here."
"Yeah, well so am I, but I'm not happy about it," Leah griped.
"Get Jake drunk and have your wicked way with him."
"And swap germs with half of the sluts in Seattle? No thanks. Jake's the biggest man-whore I know. He'll have to be six months clean before I let his dong anywhere near me," Leah retorted, making a disgusted face.
"Uh, could you two not talk about sex right next to me?" Seth begged looking green.
"Aw, Seth. Does it make you uncomfortable to imagine your big sister banging your boss?" Bella teased, holding the door for him as they entered Leah's building.
"Fuck, you, Bella. That's wrong and you know it," he grumbled, jabbing the up button by the elevator.
Bella and Leah collapsed against the back wall of the elevator, giggling at his stormy expression.
The friends were half way through the previews when Jake arrived, plopping himself down on the giant bean bag next to Leah and reaching for a cupcake.
"I'm taking the rest of the night off. I'm done with butterflies, rainbows and other sissy shit. If I can't do a real tattoo, I don't want to do it."
"Oh, poor baby. Too much estrogen in the shop lately?" Leah poked him in the side.
Jake swatted her hand, so she poked him again. He squirmed away, dropped his snack back on the platter and grabbed her wrists, trapping her with his larger hands.
"Be still, woman," he growled.
"Make me," she challenged him, her eyes both defiant and seductive.
He pulled her across his body, wrapping his muscular, tattooed arms like a straightjacket around her slender frame.
Bella caught her friend's gaze, her own eyes wide and questioning. Leah just rolled her eyes and smirked. She knew what she was doing. She was done waiting for Jake to catch a clue. Bella wondered how long it would take for Leah to hook her best friend. Not six months, she was positive.
They would be good together. Really good. Two confident, driven, strong, artistic individuals, hell-bent on living life on their own terms. She stifled the twinge of pain beneath her ribs.
She wasn't exactly jealous. . . but it did remind her of what she was missing. When she pictured herself in Leah's position, it wasn't dark-skinned, tattooed sleeves across her chest, it was pale skin and gentle hands. Not like that would ever happen. She was just friends with Jake and his crew. She could be friends with Vanilla, too.
She smiled wistfully to herself and turned her attention back to the TV. Poor Seth was shooting daggers at the couple on the bean bag. Bella nudged his foot with her own. He shrugged and cracked a smile. Bella was confident that, as long as Jake didn't jerk Leah around, Seth would tolerate this new development.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
That Friday, Bella had a bag full of candy treats waiting for her favorite customer. He deliberated over his options for several minutes, allowing two other customers to go ahead of him. When there was a temporary break in traffic, Bella came around the counter to look at things from his perspective.
"What message are you trying to send now?"
"To your girlfriend," Bella supplied. "Duh."
"Oh. Right. Actually, I'm not sure."
He was looking at the floor, shuffling his shoes on the tiles.
"The 'Red Velvet' is pretty popular."
"Sure. That would work."
"Okaaay," Bella said, surprised by his noncommittal attitude. "Is there another one you like better?"
"No. That's great. Thanks so much."
He handed her a twenty, but refused his change again, leaving the shop with a distracted smile and a wave.
"Bye, Vanilla," Bella said under her breath, confused by his behavior.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
The next day, Bella made a call.
"Angela, it's Bella Swan. Last time we talked you said you might be available to pick up a couple shifts throughout the fall and winter. Is that still okay?"
"Absolutely," Angela chirped.
Bella could hear her smiling through the phone. She continued, "How about tomorrow? I want to hit the Ballard Farmer's Market, it opens at ten o'clock. Are you free from nine to noon?"
"Sure! There's no game tomorrow, right?"
Bella could hear chatter in the background and the whir of an espresso machine. Angela was a coffee junky. She was probably feeding her addiction at her second home, the Starbucks on the Ave.
"Nope. It should be pretty slow. There are a couple scheduled pick ups, but I'll have everything boxed and tagged in the walk-in."
"Great! I'll see you tomorrow. Thanks, Bella!"
Bella hung up, shaking her head. Angela always used more than her fair share of exclamation points.
The next day, Bella gathered her ID, cash and three large canvas bags, and boarded the bus heading west to Ballard. She always used pumpkin in her October special, and she wanted to get a head start on coming up with a new recipe.
Vendors were still unloading crates from their trucks and setting up their booths when Bella reached the open-air market. She dodged dollies and carts, admiring the speed with which the sellers erected tents and tables, hanging out signs and constructing towering piles of fresh produce and other wares on their tables. More and more, the market was attracting jewelry makers, knitters and other small businesses.
As she looked around, Bella took mental note of a local dairy that was selling handmade cheeses, a farmer that she knew from previous visits who always gave her a discount, and a girl that was hanging up knitted beanies in dark, earthy tones. She knew Leah would love the maroon and brown one. She found what she was looking for right when the market opened; a Puyallup-based farm stand selling sugar pumpkins.
Bella backtracked to the cheese, tried a few samples, then purchased a couple tubs, stowing them in one of her bags. She took her time looking over the produce, buying fresh groceries for herself.
The knitting girl turned out to be a former customer and friend of Seth's, sporting twin snake tattoos that climbed up from her slender wrists to her elbows. The designs danced sinuously as she worked. Bella hung out with her for almost half an hour, chatting about their mutual friends and the challenges of running an independent, hand-crafted business. Then she bought the hat for Leah and wandered back down to the pumpkin stand. In addition to sugar pumpkins, the vendor had a fantastic variety of decorative gourds and one massive, behemoth of a pumpkin.
"Do you actually think you're going to sell that thing?" she asked in disbelief.
"It's already sold. They're bringing a truck round to collect it when the market closes," the man said, laughing along with her. "It's a pain in the ass to cart them around, but they get people's attention. If I don't manage to sell it, I just load it back into the truck for the Crossroads market on Tuesday. But I almost always find somebody who's willing to pay for a laugh. Why, you interested in buying one?"
"Uh, no. Definitely not. But I do want about a dozen of your sugar pumpkins. Give me three for two?"
"Ouch. Buy three, get one. I can give you that."
Bella pursed her lips. Twenty seven versus twenty four dollars. She shrugged. Good enough.
Bella counted out the cash and carefully chose twelve bright orange pumpkins, tapping each one to check for freshness and moisture. If they were too dry, the flesh wouldn't be very flavorful. Too moist and it would puree down to a mushy soup that would ruin the cupcake batter. The vendor watched her with an approving smile on his face as she filled her bags and turned to go.
She let out a yelp, almost dropping everything when she ran into a familiar sweater-clad chest. "Vanilla? What are you doing here?"
"Gosh. I'm so sorry. Um, hey. I'm here with Lauren and her roommate. Just looking around. Whoa. What is all this? Do you have a bunch of severed heads in there?"
"You caught me. I'm making blood and brain cupcakes next month. People love 'em."
"That's so wrong. But seriously, what's with all the pumpkins? Halloween is still like seven weeks away."
"They're sugar pumpkins. For baking. I'm actually heading back to the shop now. Angela is watching it for me. She's my part-timer from the summer and is helping me out here and there."
"Cool. Where's your car? I'll help you carry them back."
"Oh, I rode the bus. My stop is right over there," Bella nodded across the bustling farmer's market in the direction of Market Street.
"You're kidding. Here, let me drive you."
"That's so sweet, but really, I've got this. Besides, I thought your girlfriend and her roommate are here with you."
"They're trying on jewelry. They'll be there for another hour at least. I insist. Come on, Cupcake Girl," he grinned, taking one of the bulging bags.
"Well, if you're sure it's okay," she caved.
Bella was simultaneously worried and relieved. The bags were heavier than she expected, and she was actually excited to see what kind of car he drove. When he unlocked the silver hatchback that was parallel parked half a block away, Bella had to bite her tongue. The picture was now complete.
"This must have excellent safety ratings," she said in an innocent tone.
"Just say it."
"You think it's a pansy-ass, effeminate joke."
"I would never!" she laughed.
"I can't read your mind, but your face broadcasts on every frequency. It's okay. I bought it off a friend who was having trouble making her tuition payment. I know how it looks."
"Okay. You're right. It makes your sweater vest look like Spartan armor. But, hey. At least it's silver, not bright yellow. Or pink."
"Phew. Wow. You're going to kill whatever self-esteem I have left. Where are my balls? I seem to have misplaced them."
Bella burst out laughing, holding her arms across her stomach because it hurt to laugh so hard. "Oh my God, Vanilla. I am so sorry."
"Don't worry about it. I'm good," he grinned, easing smoothly into traffic. "I love hearing you laugh. It's more than worth it."
"Awww, there you go being all sweet again," Bella said, feeling her cheeks burning.
She looked out the window. Strangely, she wished her shop was hours, not minutes, away. As they neared the shop, she heard Vanilla's phone start ringing, but he silenced it immediately.
"Okay. Here we are. Let me help you get all this inside."
"That's not necessary. I can manage," she argued.
"It'll only take a second," he reassured her, sliding up to the curb and hopping out to retrieve her bags from the trunk.
Bella avoided Angela's curious gaze when they entered the shop. She deposited the bags behind the counter and thanked him. His phone started ringing again, but he sent it to voicemail.
"See you tomorrow?" he asked, hopefully.
"Um. Sure. I'll be here."
"Great!" he said, waving as he left the shop and hopped back into his car.
"Oh. My. God! Who was that!? Bella, he is HOT. Oh, wow," Angela squealed, fanning herself frantically. "Please tell me you're getting some of that. Those jeans! That ass! How is that even legal!?"
"Angela. Stop. He's just a friend."
"Nuh-uh. No way! Well, if you're going to pass, I'll take him. Do you have his number? What's his name?"
"He has a girlfriend. And he's not that hot," Bella lied, bending over under the pretext of grabbing her bags to hide her blush.
Actually he was. And then some. Unfortunately, she didn't have his number. She didn't even know his real name. This was so fucked up.
"You need glasses more than me, that's all I'm sayin'," Angela snorted, then giggled. "And his hands. . . I can just imagine. . . Mmmmm."
"Angela!" Bella cried more sharply than she intended.
"Sorry. Ummm, Miller hasn't come by yet, but the other two picked up. You were right. It's been pretty slow."
"That's okay. I was actually thinking it might be good for me to set aside a couple hours on Sunday mornings. It was nice to take a break today. Would you be interested in making this a regular thing?"
"Uhhh. Yeah. That would be really helpful. My mom doesn't think I need spending money. Any hours you can give me would be super awesome!"
"Thanks, Angela. If you are available next Sunday for the same times, I would love your help."
"Thanks, Bella! You're the best!" the smaller girl squealed, hugging Bella harder than she expected considering Angela's petite frame.
"Great. Thanks. You're a lifesaver."
Bella scribbled out a check to cover Angela's hours, re-tied her hair and washed her hands. She had two dozen chocolate cupcakes to frost for an early morning pick-up.
As Bella worked, she realized her tongue was fidgeting with her lip ring. No way. Nope. She was happier without a man in her life. She was completely content, she told herself defiantly. But the trembling, slightly nauseated feeling in the pit of her stomach told a different story. She wasn't content. And the man she wanted wasn't even available.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
When the doorbell rang late Monday morning, Bella hesitated before answering. She was up to her elbows in pumpkin guts, having prepared a third of the pumpkins for roasting. She felt short of breath as she washed up and dried her hands. Still carrying the towel, Bella went to the front of the shop and looked out. Vanilla was standing under the awning, shuffling his feet, with his hands in the pockets of his slacks and a nervous look on his face.
"Hey, Vanilla," she greeted him with forced cheerfulness.
She was so excited to see him. Too excited. She needed to keep herself in check.
"Hi. It's not too early to stop by, is it?"
"No. Of course not. Come on in," she said, standing aside.
He wrinkled his nose and smirked. "You smell like a pumpkin."
"Yeah, well, you will too in a minute. Suit up," she said, tossing an apron at him.
Bella showed him how to test the pumpkins for doneness, scoop out the bright orange flesh, blend it and package it for freezing. She set aside a few cups to use in her test runs that afternoon.
"Do you have anywhere else to be, or did you want to be my assistant and taste-tester again?"
"Put me to work. I'm all yours," he said with a mischievous grin.
"Let me shut all this down, and we can head upstairs. Here, take this," she said, handing him her notebook full of recipes.
Her feet felt like they weighed a ton as she climbed the steps to her apartment. It was a combination of anticipation and dread. Being alone with him, working close to him, it was pleasure wrapped in agony, spiked with pheromones.
Vanilla followed right behind her, his arms loaded with fresh ingredients. She was hyper-conscious of every rustle, every breath, every step he took. Bella cleared a place on the dining table for him to set his load down, then busied herself in the kitchen, wiping down the counters and setting out all the utensils, bowls and pans they would need.
As they started the first recipe, they barely spoke. The air felt too warm, close, like it was lacking oxygen. Once the first batch of cupcakes was in the oven, Bella kicked her shoes off by the couch and took off her hoodie. It didn't help. Her skin was burning up.
Vanilla followed suit, taking off his sweater. He paused, then unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it over the back of the couch. She could see the muscles of his arms and chest, lean and strong beneath his white undershirt. Bella looked away.
"What's next?" he asked.
"I. . . Here. This one was my second choice from last year. I've tweaked it a bit, but I haven't tested it yet."
Vanilla stepped up behind her, reading the recipe over her shoulder. Bella swallowed hard. She could feel the heat of his body. Or maybe it was her own body heat, radiating out and bouncing back at her. She reached for a measuring cup, but misjudged, sending it skittering across the counter. His hand darted out, grabbing it before it flew off the edge.
His chest was pressing up against her back. They froze in that pose, neither one moving. Bella felt him inhale and hold it.
Her hands were shaking. She pressed them flat against the cool surface of the countertop. He stepped closer, and she realized it wasn't just her. He was burning, too. She felt him, hard and urgent, pushing up against her butt. He set the measuring cup down with a clatter and covered her trembling hand with his own. Long, strong fingers overlapped hers, curling between them, squeezing them into an interlocking fist.
He breathed out and in again, his nose in her hair, nudging against her ear. Bella moaned, soft but needy. His hips shifted, pressing his cock against her. She pushed back, letting out a shaky breath as it slid up over the curve of her ass, digging into her lower back.
"I want you," he whispered, using his other hand to pull the tie from her hair.
"Oh, God," she cried softly, her hair falling in a multi-hued cascade around her shoulders.
All thoughts of resisting evaporated. Her consciousness narrowed to the sphere of superheated air that crackled around them. She twisted around to face him.
His lips came down on hers hard, a sudden release of tension and control. Long, lean arms lifted her up onto the counter. He hooked his hands behind her knees, roughly dragging her right to the edge. Bella wrapped her legs around his hips, locking her ankles around each other and pulling herself hard against him. His tongue slid between her lips, his mouth molding against hers. She was surprised. Her lip ring only intensified the feelings, tugging and pulling with every movement. His hands ran up over her hips, then under her shirt, burning like hot brands against her skin.
"I want you so bad," he groaned again, moving his mouth down to her throat, even as he lifted her shirt up higher.
Bella pulled away long enough to tear it off, helping him do the same. He fumbled with her bra for a second, before that hit the floor, too.
"Fuck me," he moaned, the curse word falling from his lips sent shivers up her spine.
Vanilla licked his lips hungrily as he stared at her breasts. He ran his thumbs hesitantly over her nipples, stroking the metal rings back and forth in a repetitive arc. Bella's breath caught in her throat, and she arched her back, encouraging him to be more aggressive. He bent over to take her left nipple into his mouth, wiggling the ring up and down with the tip of his tongue.
"Ungh. . . More. . . Please. . ." she begged, tangling her fingers in his hair, tugging him closer, shamelessly rocking her hips against him.
The oven beeped behind him, and he cursed. Moving faster than Bella's dazed vision could track, he grabbed a glove, opened the oven and tossed the tray on top of the stove. The oven door slammed shut, and he turned back to her immediately. Vanilla tossed his glasses onto the counter, and pulled frantically at her belt.
It took about five seconds for them to strip off the rest of their clothes. Bella's eyes widened in surprise. There was a dark scrawl of ink leading down from his belly button, and she was positive she caught a glimpse of silver before he was sliding into her, moaning and gasping in unintelligible bursts.
Holy shit! He had an Apadravya? Everything she had assumed about her sweet Vanilla was flipped inside out and upside down by that revelation.
His forehead was pressed against hers as he surged into her, holding her balanced right on the edge of the counter. His eyes were squeezed shut, and his features twisted into a rictus of such indescribable pleasure that Bella couldn't look away. The ball and post piercing was sending frighteningly powerful pulses through her core. She had one hand in his hair, and the other over his heart, his thundering, pounding heart. Just then, it didn't matter what she thought she knew, only that he spoke to her, moved with her, touched her in a way that no man ever had before. Labels, stereotypes, body image. . . none of it mattered.
There was a lump in her throat that grew and grew. He was beautiful as he made her his. Smooth, fair skin. Rigid jaw. Rippling, flexing, straining muscles. Even when the knot of fire in her stomach burst into a conflagration, she couldn't look away. There was nothing tame about him now. Nothing really vanilla after all. He was stripped of his polished mannerisms, his controlled refinement, leaving a raw, animalistic man. A passionate, demanding demigod. In that moment, she would have given him anything he asked.
Her orgasm hit its peak, and a keening cry tore from her throat. His eyes burst open, flashing amber and black, hot and hungry. He slammed into her harder, grunting through his own orgasm, his eyes blazing with the fierce joy of possession. He froze as he pulsed inside her.
"I've wanted you since the second I heard your voice," he confessed. He exhaled roughly. "Now, I'm never going to stop," he added, his voice low and hoarse.
"I. . ."
Bella swallowed hard, her heart still trembling. He had wanted her since. . . That's when reality finally caught up with her. What they were doing. What they had done.
"Oh, God. . ." she cried, horrified.
She looked around and saw chaos. Clothes and cupcakes and memories of helping him choose treats for his girlfriend. Bile surged up from her stomach and she covered her mouth, choking it back down. He was still inside her, large and firm. Still inside her.
She was gasping for air. Panicking.
"You need to go. Now," she yelled, pulling back and pushing away.
"Wait, what's wrong? I'm sorry. I thought. . ."
She couldn't let him finish. She turned her head away and held out her hands, warding him off. Of course he thought she wanted him. It was probably painted on her face from day one. How could she not? Sweet, romantic, gorgeous, perfect as he was. Or maybe not so perfect. It had turned out to all be an elaborate camouflage.
"I know I never should have-"
"No shit. You shouldn't have even been here! What's wrong with you? You have a fucking girlfriend! Get out! Get the fuck out of here!"
"But I'm not-"
Bella twisted away from him, sliding and stumbling down from the counter. His semen was already dripping down her thighs.
"I said get out. Get out!" she screamed, throwing his clothes and shoes at him. Now Vanilla could see her other side, too, she thought viciously.
His eyes were wide, and the color drained from his face. He swallowed once. Twice. Then he slowly pulled his clothes back on, his movements jerky and robotic. Bella stood in the middle of her kitchen, her own clothes hugged tight against her chest like a shield.
"Look, Cupcake. . . Bella. . . I. . ."
"Don't you dare call me that. You don't get to call me that. Get. The. Fuck. Out. Now! I can't believe we. . . You. . ." She was dizzy, unable to breathe past the agonizing pain. "Go. You need to go," she choked out, tears streaming down her face. "I never want to see you in my shop again."
The pain in her chest sent her flashing back to the day when her world had imploded two and a half years earlier. The day when she came home early from work because the computer system had crashed only to find her fiance, her fiance!, bare-assed and sweaty, fucking her roommate and best friend over the side of the couch.
She'd lost it. Completely lost her mind. Throwing shit, screaming, ready to tear them both to pieces. Jerry Springer's guests had nothing on Bella Swan in a rage. She'd chased them both back into Jane's room then called her lifeline, Jake. Jake had arrived with Quil fifteen minutes later, and the two of them had helped her pack up and move out that same afternoon.
It had taken her a whole month to stop crying. Two more for the murderous rages to pass. Three months after that she was piecing her life together with new friends, a new home and a business that demanded her love, patience and hard work, but gave her so much more in return.
Bella watched Vanilla's face as his emotions transformed from denial to resignation. Lips white. Hair a tangled, tousled mess. Clothes rumpled and shoes untied. He was a wreck, standing there in her apartment. It was in his eyes, wide and staring. A broken, hopeless wreck.
Didn't he realize what he had done? What he had made her do? Were all men assholes or did she only fall in love with losers? How could she be so fucking blind?
It took several minutes for him to start moving again, then he wordlessly stumbled backwards to the stairs. Bella closed her eyes and listened as his footsteps rang out in heavy, despondent thumps all the way down to the kitchen. Several seconds later, the little silver bell on the door rang cheerily, and the door swung shut behind him.
Bella slumped to the floor, shattered. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. She hadn't meant to. . . She hadn't tried to. . . Oh, God. . .
She had never intended to be that woman. The other woman. Not after what Paul had done to her. How could her Vanilla be the same as all the others? How could she have fallen into that trap again?
Eventually, she dragged herself to the shower. As she washed him off of her skin, she cursed herself for her stupidity. It wasn't like her to get carried away. Not anymore. The old Bella, maybe, but not the self-sufficient adult she had worked so hard to become. And now, to know that she had fucked over Lauren, a girl she'd never even met. . . She hated herself.
Feeling wrung out like a threadbare rag, Bella cleaned up the mess in her apartment, then went downstairs to lock the front door. She hoped he obeyed her command to never set foot in her shop again. She didn't know how she could look into his eyes without disintegrating completely. Her heart felt like it had been torn to ribbons. This was exactly why she had made that promise to herself. In the end, it had been pointless.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
That Friday, she looked up in dread every time the bell jingled. He never came. She was relieved. Sort of. She never should have let him into her shop, or her heart.
Every morning and evening, Bella attacked her chores with a vengeance. She spent Monday afternoon in her kitchen, throwing her energy into baking and experimenting, cutting back on the salt to account for the tears that dripped constantly into the mixing bowl. Remembering him standing beside her, touching her, kissing her lips, driving into her, it set her nerves alight with longing. Every time that happened, the feeling was quickly chased away by self-disgust.
Another week passed. Bella pulled out her step ladder to decorate her shop for October, hanging black and orange streamers and piling pumpkins in the window. She wasn't exactly thrilled with her special flavor of the month, but it was good enough. It sold well, most likely because of the theme, not by its own merit. If Vanilla hadn't touched her, if they had just carried on like before, she would have taken a lot more pride and joy in the sales. As it was, she felt obligated to smile when people ordered the 'Pumpkin Cream Cheese Surprise.' Her heart wasn't in it any more.
One Friday in mid October, a couple of college girls came into the shop. Bella grabbed a notepad to write down their coffee orders, wondering if she had a backup carton of skim milk in the fridge or not.
"Hi, I was wondering if I could speak to your manager," the tall girl with perfectly highlighted hair inquired.
She was Barbie in the flesh. Long, slender legs, tiny waist, pert breasts and the most symmetrical face Bella had ever seen.
"How can I help you? Did you have a problem with an order?" Bella asked, racking her brain but not remembering either girl.
"Actually, it's kind of a personal question. I have to talk to her about one of your coworkers," the girl said in a conspiratorial whisper.
"What kind of a problem?" Bella cocked her head, puzzled. She knew she had been out of sorts for a couple weeks, but she had never been rude to a customer. Not once.
"We may have a mutual acquaintance. I think she works on Thursday evenings or Friday mornings."
"Okaaaay. That would be me. I have a friend who fills in on the weekend once in awhile, but other than that it's just me."
The girls both looked at her in confusion, then disbelief.
The second one, a cute girl with bright red lipstick and curly, golden-brown hair, burst out laughing. "I don't believe it. Like, seriously. I don't believe it for one second. You're Edward's cupcake girl?"
"Excuse me? I don't know anyone named Edward," Bella protested.
But even as she spoke, she knew exactly who they were talking about. Her Vanilla even had a vanilla name. She couldn't help the way that thought made her smile. Her reaction seemed to flip a switch in coed Barbie's brain. The polished shell cracked, revealing the harpy beneath.
"Shut up, Jessica," the girl she assumed to be Lauren said, her blue eyes flashing angrily. She turned back to Bella, her features turning hard and bitter. "People like Edward don't slum it, certainly not with trash like you. I don't know what you did to him, but when I find out, I'm going to ruin you."
"I'm really sorry. Is this Edward your boyfriend?"
Her guilt forced her to maintain her manners, but she instinctively disliked the pair and didn't want to act subservient to either one.
"Maybe not, but he should be. Things were great until you interfered. When he wandered off while we were shopping a few weeks ago and came back claiming he needed some space, I knew there was another girl in the way. He acted like I was some sort of clingy bitch who was calling him every day and night. Did I complain that he acted like a goody-two-shoes Christian boy? Milquetoast kisses and chivalry. Blech. He's just lucky I'm patient."
"Yep. He sounds like a real lucky guy," Bella said, noncommittally.
The pieces were starting to fall into place. Vanilla - Edward - hadn't been cheating after all. Then why had he continued with the whole cupcake buying charade? It didn't make any sense.
"You need to stay away from him. You're not his kind of girl. Trust me."
"Trust you? I don't even know you."
"Are you trying to tell me that you're going to keep pursuing him?"
Bella laughed outright. "I promise, I have no intention of doing anything of the sort. In fact, I didn't even know his name until you told me."
Lauren and Jessica looked at each other, confused. Bella's phlegmatic reactions had completely taken the wind out of their sails. What had they expected, a screaming cat fight complete with shrieking insults and bitch slaps? Bella laughed again. She had better control of her emotions now. Besides, they'd already told her everything she needed to know.
Now, if only she knew how to find him.
Bella turned her back on the girls and resumed frosting a tray of pumpkin cupcakes. Their muttered curses were drowned out by the silvery chime of the bell as the door swung shut behind them.
The seeds of an idea were forming, and she found herself genuinely smiling for the first time in weeks.
~ Bake Me a Cupcake ~
On Halloween morning, Bella got up at 4 AM to bake and frost the hundreds of tiny cupcakes she gave out to trick-or-treaters. She had candlelit jack-o-lanterns lined up on the sidewalk outside, and she had partnered with the other businesses up and down the street to post fliers, inviting all the little goblins and ghouls of the neighborhood to stop in between 5 and 9 PM. There was a fun and flighty vibe in the air.
Angela and Leah stopped in at lunch time to press candy ghosts and pumpkins into the tops of each treat. As evening drew closer, they brewed hot coffee and mixed apple cider to chase away the autumn chill.
Leah cut out once it got dark. They were hosting their own more adult-themed party at Lone Wolf Ink. Angela stayed a little longer than she had originally planned, manning the counter while Bella doled out treats and complimented the tiny Ironman, Ice Princess and Jedi wannabes. When traffic slowed to a trickle, Bella let Angela go with a check and a box of cupcakes to share with her friends. She poured herself a decaf coffee, added a generous splash of Kahlua, and waited for 9 o'clock to roll around.
During the last half hour, two groups of teens stopped by and Bella off-loaded as many of the treats as they would take. At closing time, she blew out the candles and dragged the pumpkins in, flipped the sign to 'Closed' and turned out the lights. She had her hand on the deadbolt when her eyes caught movement across the street.
The man's figure was familiar, but he looked nothing like her Vanilla. During a break in traffic, he crossed the street toward her. Her heart hung in her throat as he came closer.
His hair stood up in every direction, gelled into artful disarray. His glasses were gone. Instead, his eyes were lined in black, amplifying the warm, amber color, exactly the same shade as her favorite bourbon. There was a black ring through his septum and another in his left earlobe. He wore a ratty white t-shirt, untucked over stovepipe jeans that hung low over his narrow hips. She already knew about the piercing and tattoo underneath.
Bella's hands hung limply at her sides as she watched him through the glass. When he stepped up on the sidewalk in front of her, he waited until the count of ten and knocked on the door.
"Trick or Treat," he spoke through the glass with a tentative smile.
"You tell me," she replied stiffly, crossing her arms.
He tested the knob then opened the door. "It's not locked. Does that mean you don't hate me?"
"Lauren and her roommate came into the shop a while back," she said with a shrug.
"Fuck. . ."
"Actually, the conversation was enlightening. And a little bit entertaining. There is no way that girl has ever seen you naked."
"Not even close." He shook his head slowly. "Bella, I was wrong. So fucking wrong. I should have told you the truth from the beginning. I went on one date with Lauren. That one date told me everything I needed to know. She is everything I am supposed to want. Everything my parents told me to look for in a woman. But she bores the ever living fuck out of me. I kissed her once at the end of the night. On the cheek. That day at the market? It was supposed to be a group outing. A bunch of us from study group were going people watching for a class project and Jessica suggested the market as the perfect place. At the last second, everyone else backed out and it was just the three of us."
Her thoughts were reeling, trying to take it all in. One thought kept bobbing up to the surface. "You lied to me."
Bella scowled and bit her lip before answering. "You never corrected me. You let me believe. . . God! It still makes me sick! Why didn't you just tell me you weren't with her like that?" she cried, her arms still crossed and her hands in fists.
"Because I'm a coward. And I was ashamed. I know I fucked this up. Please give me a chance to fix it. The truth is, the first time you smiled at me, I could tell it was because you thought I was a certain kind of guy. A milkshakes at the drive-in, casseroles and apple pies at mom's house, white picket fence, all-American kind of guy. I felt like, if that's what you liked, some sort of opposites attract kind of thing, I didn't want to show you the real me."
"The real you? Why don't we start there. Tell me the truth," Bella commanded.
"I don't even know where to start. The fact is, I suck at dating. I've only ever hooked up with friends. And that was cool because I never wanted anything serious before now. I cuss like a sailor. My last car was a piece-of-shit Camaro I rebuilt during high school. That girl who sold me the Volvo? I begged her to teach me how to dress. I'm a complete fraud. This is my dad's world. I've been trying to fit in for years and failing miserably."
"And everything you told me about medical school? Was that all lies, too?"
"That's the honest truth. It's been my dream since I was a kid. And I have to keep a professional image on campus. If I showed up to a lecture like this, my dad would kill me. Look, here's the real story, Bella. The only part that really matters. My name is Edward Anthony Masen, and I am hopelessly infatuated with you. I can't think of anyone or anything else. I lived for Fridays and Mondays because those were the days I got to speak to you. But it wasn't nearly enough. I would have come every other day but I couldn't think of a legitimate excuse."
"It's not that hard. You don't need an excuse. Just tell me you want to be with me."
"I thought it was obvious."
"I'm a girl. I still need to hear it."
"Fine. Bella, I want to be with you. Only you. And I want you to bake cupcakes for me every day for the rest of my life."
"Except for the days I bake them for you," he corrected, pulling out the sweet smile she adored.
"Huh. So. . . Edward," Bella said, doing her best to hide her confusion.
"Um, yeah. It's a family name."
"Uh huh," she said, wrinkling her nose. "I like Vanilla better."
"Oh, Bella. You know I am not really vanilla. Not in the slightest."
"Then we'll use it ironically. Now come inside before you freeze your balls off. I know how important they are to you."
"Awww, Cupcake Girl. I thought you'd never ask."
And a little encore, just as a thank you to everyone who read, reviewed and voted!
*FOUR HOURS LATER*
Vanilla rubbed his eyes and rolled onto his back. "Cupcake?" he asked groggily, patting the warm, rumpled sheets but coming up empty.
"Did you call?"
He looked to the open bedroom door and his mouth fell open. "What are you. . . wow. Please tell me that's for me."
"Baby, it's all yours."
He scooted back in the bed until he was sitting with his back against the white-washed headboard. The black sheets covered his lap, obscuring most of his tattoo, but Bella could see it began with a cursive 'G'. She set the plate on his lap and knelt between his feet, resting her hands on his knees.
"What's it called?" he asked, lifting the plate to examine the confection from all sides.
"Vee three. Only the 'V' is sideways on the November poster. It was supposed to be a message to you, just in case you walked by some day," she said shyly.
"Help me out here, babe. You're speaking in riddles." He peeled back the white paper and took a bite, closing his eyes as he savored it. "Wow. Mmmm. That's delicious. You're a fucking master. You know that, right?"
"Maybe. I was inspired."
"By what? Tell me. I'm clueless."
"Tell me about your tattoo, first," Bella countered, sitting back on her heels.
"Uh, it was stupid. I was in a frat sophomore year. Some idiot got it into his head that everyone needed to get tattoos. Of course, half those douche bags got barbed wire around their biceps or some other cliched ink. I wanted to do something different. I mean, I'd had this idea for a while. Young guys and their egos, y'know?"
"Vanilla. You're stalling."
"Fuck. Here. Just read it."
He flipped the sheet back, and Bella felt her eyes automatically shift further south.
"There's nothing written on my cock."
She giggled and tilted her head to read. "Guaranteed?"
"Uh. . . yeah. Like I said. I was a cocky prick."
"You know. Guaranteed. . . to please. I thought I was God's gift or something. When my friend saw it, the girl I hooked up with most of the time, she couldn't stop laughing. I finally convinced her to tell me what the fuck was so funny. She said that it was only striking gold like thirty percent of the time. She hadn't said anything before because she didn't want to hurt my feelings. I was humiliated."
"Ouch," Bella said, trying not to laugh. "For what it's worth, the guarantee seems to be working for me. So far."
"Yeah? That's good. Cuz if you were faking it that last time I would have to give up and go home. That was some damn fine acting."
"Not faking it," she laughed, shaking her head.
"Thank God. Actually, it was good to hear the truth. It made me try harder. Really pay attention. I mean, if I had this lie tattooed on my stomach for the rest of my life, I would feel like a Grade A moron."
"I guess I should find your frat brother and thank him. I'm reaping the benefits of a pretty absurd chain of events."
He rolled his eyes and took another bite. "Okay. I told you mine. Your turn."
"Um. . . Well, it's called Vee Three. Vanilla times three. I used vanilla beans in the batter, vanilla custard in the center and vanilla-bourbon frosting on top."
"You said it was a message. . ." he said, setting the plate to the side and licking frosting off his thumb.
Bella's eyes slipped down to his mouth, licking her own lips in reaction. "Uh, yeah. If you're texting and you type the less-than symbol before the number three. . ."
"Well, what does it make?"
He squinted his eyes, trying to visualize it, before realization dawned. A wide grin split his lips. "Ah. Are you being cute?"
"Maybe," she replied, blushing.
"Well, Cupcake Girl, I less than three you, too."
"Fucker," she laughed, slapping his thigh.
"That, too. Get over here so I can thank you properly. I've got a guarantee to uphold."
~ THE END. . . FOR REAL THIS TIME ~
A/N: Readers of "Mosaic of a Broken Heart" will notice that I shamelessly stole a major plot device from my WIP, with a bit of SM-style gender swappage thrown in for shits and giggles. It was kind of nice to sprint from build up to conflict to resolution so quickly. The characters and storyline for Mosaic are just a tad more complicated. Makes for much slower, more careful writing and editing. *sigh* At least all you Mosaic readers know there WILL be an HEA eventually. :)
If you haven't already, you should definitely check out the other contest entries. Some were creepy, some were hot, some were just perfect for the season.
My top picks included:
"Lost Souls" a collaboration between beachcomberlc and Content1
Here's a romance that spans many years, from innocent first love, to the heartbreak of betrayal, then ultimately redemption and the best sort of HEA.
"Will O' The Wisp" by Hoodfabulous
This story fed my appetite for the mystical, ethereal, other-worldy charm of Halloween. Open your mind and let your imagination go where it will. . .
Chills. Heavy on the creep-factor. I dare you to read it tonight, then turn out all the lights and go downstairs. Alone. Without a flashlight. heeheeheehee
**There will be a complete list of stories, authors and awards posted on the Tricks AND Treats Contest page.**