A Taste for Love: Chapter 13

After the Space City Live segment, applications come flooding in. It doesn’t take long before our mailbox is stuffed fuller than a deep-dish pizza. As the pile on our dining table grows, Mom hoards her favorites like red envelopes on Chinese New Year. Tina spends an entire afternoon folding our new flyers so Mom can stuff them into customers’ bags while I man the register. Even Dad and Danny get in on the action, inserting them in restaurant menus and to-go bags. The rest we take in boxes to our sponsor businesses.

“How do you choose who gets a spot and who doesn’t?” I ask Mom one evening.

“Why do you want to know all of a sudden?”

“I just thought it would be good to know more about the contestants as a judge,” I answer.

“If you really want to be a good judge, learn those recipes and practice your critiques.”

One of the reasons the contest has grown in popularity is Mom’s insistence on highlighting Asian-inspired recipes. With only ten bakers, the first seven rounds will eliminate one person each. The top three bakers go on to the finale. So far, I’ve tasted the recipes she’s planned for bread, cake, cookie, and sweet bun. All that’s left are tarts, puffs, rolls, and specialty.

“Okay, okay. I’ll get it all done.”

Mom pins me with her gaze. “Make sure you run any notes by me. It’s important you judge at the same level as Mrs. Lee.”

Since the interview, she’s been more determined than ever to make sure everything’s perfect. This isn’t just about the bakers or the community anymore. This is personal, and she’s not losing to someone whose idea of quality control is having the right font on her signage.

Her words, not mine.

Two days before the contest is set to begin, I’m back at Boba Life. Grace and I are supposed to meet Ben and James here, though I only agreed after she bribed me with a copy of Julia Quinn’s latest book. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea after the awkward run-in in New York. While I’m waiting, I jot down some thoughts on Mom’s tarts. When Grace slides into the booth, I jump.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I was just thinking about something,” I answer after giving her a hug.

“What are you working on?”

“Some notes for the contest,” I say, closing the notebook. “My mom’s letting me judge the technical challenges this year.”

Grace gapes at me. “Wait. This is why you’ve ghosted me for days? She actually agreed to that?”

“Sorry about that. It’s been super hectic lately.” I lean back against my chair with a sigh. “And yes, but only because she won’t let me compete. She said there’s too much attention on the contest this year to take any chances.”

With my cup empty, we head to the back of the line for another round of tea. As we wait, eyes stab into me like acupuncture needles.

“Everybody’s staring at me,” I whisper to Grace.

“It’s probably nothing. Just ignore them.”

I stare at the menu up on the wall until we reach the register. The redheaded cashier grins.

“Back again, eh?”

“You know we can’t stay away, Lance,” Grace states.

“You want your usual?”

We nod. He rings us up, and we step to the side to wait. The shop’s owner, Kevin, rounds the corner.

“Liza! Grace!” He winks at me. “Hey, you’re famous now! I should get your autograph and put it on the wall.”

“What are you talking about?”

Kevin stares blankly at me for a moment, his dark eyebrows knit together.

“You haven’t looked at the flyers, have you?”

I glance at Grace. “Um . . . no. Why?”

“It’s probably better if you just look at it yourself. Hold on.”

Kevin steps over to grab one off a pile sitting next to their cup-sealing machines. He hands it to me, and Grace reads over my shoulder. The flyer starts out normally enough—announcing the contest, rules, eligibility, and judges. Then I scan farther down to where the prizes are listed. There, in full color and taking up the bottom third of the page, is my graduation photo. Grace reads the accompanying text out loud, because I’ve lost all ability to speak.

“‘The first-prize winner will also receive five private lessons with our technical judge Liza Yang, three-time champion of the Houston Junior Baking Competition. Salutatorian of prestigious Salvis Private Academy’s Class of 2019, Liza speaks three languages and enjoys reading, nature, and, of course, baking.’”

The blood drains from my face, and I swallow the curse trying to claw its way out of my throat.

“Liza?” Kevin steps toward me. “Liza, are you okay?”

Without answering, I grab my things and make a beeline for the door.

“Liza! Liza!” Grace calls out. “Wait for me!”

I burst out onto the plaza with a gasp. My chest refuses to cooperate, as though an elephant is sitting directly on top of it.

Grace rushes to my side. “Liza, are you okay?”

“I can’t breathe,” I gasp.

“Oh my god. Should I call 911?”

Blaring sirens would only attract the one thing I don’t want right now—more attention.

I shake my head frantically. “Don’t . . . don’t do that. I . . . I just need to sit down.”

Grace scans the vicinity before tugging me over to one of the outdoor tables. She shoves me into a chair.

“Just . . . count to ten or something, Liza.”

I look down at the crumpled paper still in my hand. My head starts to pound.

“I can’t believe she did this to me! I knew she was determined, but this . . . this is a dating profile!”

“Maybe she didn’t realize that’s what it sounds like,” Grace suggests.

“She knew exactly what she was doing.” I put my head in my hands. “All those people inside . . . they’re going to think I agreed to this.”

“I highly doubt that, but if they do, so what? Who cares what they think?”

That’s easy to say when it isn’t her face plastered on every flyer in the city.

Every flyer.

I think back to the other morning, when Mom asked me to help with her makeup. The way she compromised and offered to let me judge. I thought maybe it meant things were changing, but now . . . this.

“Grace, she made hundreds of these,” I wail. “We’ve even got them in every bag at Yin and Yang!”

“People don’t pay attention to those things anyway. They probably threw it away,” she assures.

“I need to go home,” I say, standing up and searching for my car in the lot.

Grace grabs me gently by the arm. “What are you going to do?”

“I need to talk to my mom. She’s gone too far this time.”

I turn to leave, but as I step off the curb, the strap of my purse catches on something and yanks me backward. As I stumble, I grab on to the first solid thing I find.

“What the—”

I tumble against a warm body, and we hit the ground together. Footsteps come running up.

“Are you okay?”

I wince. I’d recognize that voice anywhere.

“Ben . . .”

Grace hovers just behind him, staring down at me with wide eyes. A pained groan reminds me of the person who broke my fall. I turn to utter an apology and come face-to-face with James.

Oh no.

I scramble to get up, and my knee accidentally hits him in the groin. He lets out a howl.

“Oh no. I’m so, so sorry!”

“Don’t move,” he hisses.

He grabs me by the shoulders and carefully shifts me off him before standing. Grace helps me up and dusts me off as James tugs his clothes back into place.

“You need to watch where you’re going,” he says gruffly.

“James, it was obviously an accident,” Ben defends. “She didn’t see you.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeat. “I didn’t mean to . . .”

My eyes drop down instinctively, and I jerk them away. My cheeks burn hotter than the ovens at the bakery.

“Are you hurt?” I mumble.

James shakes his head, doing an admirable job of looking unharmed. His deep brown eyes meet mine.

“What about you?” he asks.

Is that . . . concern in his voice?

“Depends on what you’re talking about,” I reply without thinking.

“What do you—”

Before I can make something up, Ben leans over to pick up the paper I’d dropped in my haste. I groan to myself. Why does this day keep getting worse? His eyes skim over the page, pausing when he hits the lower half. Ben looks up at me, then back down, and then back at me again. He opens his mouth, but no sound comes out.

James takes the flyer out of his cousin’s hand. “What’s so interesting?”

I pray for the ground to open up and swallow me whole. As he reads, his lips part when he hits my dreaded bio. It’s so bad all he can do is stare.

“Could I have that back, please?” I squeak.

James hands it to me. Silently, I fold it up and shove it in my pocket.

Then I dredge up my last bit of pride and square my shoulders.

“Please excuse me.”

Grace starts to follow, but I brush her off. Ben grabs her hand and tugs her to his side. I feel their eyes on my back as I walk to my car in a daze.

I barely notice the strange car parked outside as I unlock the door and step inside my house.



Her arms come around me and smother me in her embrace. Jeannie’s soft floral perfume tempers the bitterness of Mom’s betrayal. It’s a few minutes before I’m willing to let her go. As our parents walk into the living room, Mom freezes.

“Liza! Didn’t you say you were spending the afternoon with Grace?”

The sound of her voice sets my teeth on edge.

I scowl openly at her. “I need to talk to you in private, Mom.”

Jeannie glances between us. “Um, I’m going to go to my room.”

“Actually, why don’t you come into the kitchen with me,” Dad tells her. “You must be starving after flying all day.”

“Dad, I’m not really—”

“Come. Eat.”

His tone invites no argument. Throwing a glance over her shoulder, Jeannie smiles encouragingly before leaving with Dad. I wait until they’re out of earshot before marching across the room to Mom.

I wave the flyer in her face. “How could you do this to me?!”

It takes a second for things to dawn on her.

She juts her chin out. “You agreed to teach the lessons.”

“No, I didn’t! You asked me if I thought private lessons were a good idea. You never told me you wanted me to do it!”

“I thought it was obvious,” she says, busying herself with the books on the coffee table. “I’m swamped at the bakery, and Mrs. Lee has her own business to run. As the technical judge, you’re the only other person qualified to do it.”

What kind of mom logic is that? The lessons don’t even happen until after the contest is over. Besides, she’s taught me everything I know about baking.

Calm down, Liza. Remember, this is for culinary school.

I suck in a deep breath through gritted teeth. “Okay, fine, but why did you have to write that bio?”

“What’s wrong with it? I thought it was nice.”

“You thought it was—” I pause, aghast. “There was no reason to mention how many languages I speak or my class rank! Why would anyone need to know that?”

She shrugs. “People need to know you’re qualified.”

I position myself directly in front of her so she has to look at me.

“Then what about my hobbies? What do reading and nature have to do with my ability to judge a baking contest?”

Mom says nothing, not that it matters. We both know why she really did it, though it’s obvious to me now she’ll never own up to it. That’s it. This is my life, and I’m not going to let her do this.

“Take it back. Tell everyone you made a mistake, and I’m not teaching the lessons.”

“I will do no such thing, Liza!” She crosses her arms over her chest. “We have less than two days until the contest begins, and I’ve confirmed almost all the contestants.”

“Take it back or I quit!”

Mom rears back. I’ve never shouted at her like this before.

She glowers at me. “I will not, and you will be at the contest. That’s final.”

I twirl around and storm out of the room. The walls rattle as I slam my bedroom door closed. Shortly after, quiet murmurs seep in from the hallway, but I don’t bother eavesdropping. Then someone knocks on my door.

“Liza? Can I come in?”

It’s Jeannie. I ignore her, but just like everyone else in this house, she walks in anyway. She closes the door behind her and comes to sit next to me on the bed. I stiffen as she tucks my head into the crook of her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Liza.”

After a second, I relax. “Why would she do this to me?”

Jeannie sighs. “I don’t know. I think she believes she’s helping.”

“Well, she’s terrible at it,” I say, burrowing against her.

Jeannie’s chuckle rumbles through her chest. “That we can agree on.”

I raise my head to look at her. “What am I going to do? I can’t face these people.”

“Then what would you rather do?”

“Run away?” I answer with a hopeful expression.

“I doubt that’s going to work.”

We sit side by side, staring out the window with our heads propped against the wall. Eventually, I roll my head to peer at Jeannie.

“I wish I could move out of state like you.”

“Trust me. It’s not as fun as it sounds. I miss having someone cooking and cleaning for me all the time.” Jeannie smooths a hand over the blanket. “I have to do everything, plus go to school and model.”

“So . . . wanna trade?”

She smirks. “Not on your life.”

Laughter bursts from my lips like water from a broken faucet. When I catch my breath, Jeannie tugs me close.

“We’ll figure this out. You and me.”

“Pinky swear?”

She loops her finger through mine. “Pinky swear.”


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