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A Taste for Love: Chapter 14

I spend the next two days before the contest in self-imposed exile. Thankfully, Grace volunteers to be my lifeline. She delivers tea from Boba Life, and even brings Sarah around one afternoon. It’s the stories she regales me with that cheer me up the most, though. Apparently, people have been claiming to see me around Chinatown.

I guess that makes me the new Bigfoot.

Unfortunately, when the morning of the contest arrives, I have to make a real appearance. With all the extra attention this year, a few of the news channels are coming to cover opening day. After tossing and turning the night before, my eyes are duller than a bun without egg wash. So, I ask Jeannie to help me with my makeup. The last thing I need right now is to look like I crawled out of a grave. I sit patiently as she applies it all with a precise hand. At some point, she steps back with a faint smile.

“Take a look.”

I turn to face the mirror and suck in a sharp breath. It’s a miracle! Instead of a circus clown, I’m staring at a better version of myself. My eyes are bigger and brighter, my cheeks are rosy pink, and my lips are shaped like a bow. I meet Jeannie’s nervous gaze in the mirror.

“What do you think?” she asks. “Do you like it?”

If my eyes could form actual hearts, they would. Instead, I throw my arms around her neck.

“I love it!”

I release her to examine her work more closely. How did she turn so many products into something that looks so natural?

“You’re like my real-life fairy godmother, Jeannie.”

She chuckles. “In that case, let me work my magic on your wardrobe.”

She sifts through the hangers in my closet and tosses what she likes onto the bed. Then I put on an impromptu fashion show so she can decide what looks best.

“No, not that one. It’s too long.”

“I don’t like this. It makes you look bigger than you are.”

“Where the hell did you get that?!”

By the time she settles on an outfit, I’m ready to go back to sleep. I don’t know how she does this for a living.

“Now go get changed.” Jeannie piles everything into my arms. “You don’t want Mom yelling at you for being late, do you?”

Alone in my bedroom, I crash from the momentary high of my makeover. My stomach churns as I pull the navy blue swing dress over my head, a gift from Jeannie for my sixteenth birthday. Next is the long chain necklace she’s lending me for the occasion. The weight of the pendant lies heavy against my rib cage.

Jeannie also left me a pair of low heels to put on, but I trade them for my nicest white sneakers. I instantly feel calmer when I put them on. Everyone’s waiting outside, so I head to the garage after a quick once-over.

Mom cocks an eyebrow in my direction as I walk out, the canvas bag with her notebook of recipes clutched against her chest like it’s her greatest treasure. Jeannie whistles and winks at me. Once we’re all in the car, Dad glances back at me through the rearview mirror.

“You look very nice, Liza.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

When we pull into the campus for Bayou City Culinary Institute, I squeeze my eyes shut for a second. Mom’s grating voice rips through my last moment of peace.

“Get out of the car, Liza! We can’t be late!”

“There’s plenty of time, laˇo pó,” Dad interjects with a hand on her shoulder. “No need to rush her.”

I resist the urge to scream and trudge behind my parents as we cross the large but mostly unoccupied parking lot. Jeannie loops an arm through mine, bumping hips with me until I break into a smile. We’re at the top of the front steps when someone calls her name. She turns, her lips parting.


He jogs the last few feet to greet us both with a toothy grin. “Surprise!”

Jeannie’s eyes flit to where Mom and Dad are standing over her right shoulder.

“What . . . what are you doing here?”

“I saw your Insta post from last night about the contest, and I was in the neighborhood. Besides, I promised to come visit, didn’t I?”

I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. There’s no denying he wants out of the friend zone now. Why else would he fly all the way down to Houston just to see her?

She smiles tentatively. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well, I booked a job down here anyway, plus I’m taking a photography class at the University of Houston while I’m here.” Nathan leans toward me and winks. “Maybe I’ll practice taking pictures of you while you’re baking.”

He might be into Jeannie, but I still flush beneath his gaze.

“Who’s this?”

Mom’s voice teeters between intrigue and suspicion. The blood drains from Jeannie’s face, but she has no reason to worry. Nathan is smoother than Yin and Yang’s famous milk cream.

He flashes a brilliant smile. “You must be Jeannie’s mom, Mrs. Yang. My name is Nathan. I’ve heard so much about you from her, but she forgot to mention how young you look.”

“Oh! Well, thank you,” Mom stammers. “How did you two meet?”

“At a fashion show. Jeannie and I were walking for different designers, but we ran into each other backstage.”

She turns to Dad with stars in her eyes. “They met at work! Isn’t that wonderful?”

He makes a noncommittal sound in reply before pinning Nathan with a firm look.

“And what brings you down here, Nathan?”

“I came down for work, but I remember Jeannie telling me about your contest. I thought I’d drop by and wish Liza good luck.”

“You are too sweet! Thank you,” Mom answers, reaching up to cup his cheek. “And so handsome too.”

Jeannie gasps. “Mom!”

“What? What did I say? It’s true. He’s very handsome.”

Jeannie looks to Dad for help, but he just shrugs. No one gets between Mom and a potential husband for her daughters.

“Thank you, Mrs. Yang. That’s very kind of you,” Nathan states without batting an eye.

“You two should go grab seats before we get started!” Mom shoves Jeannie toward him. “Jeannie, why don’t you show him where the bake room is?”

Nathan’s head dips. “I’m afraid I can’t stay. I have to get across town for my class.”

It’s hard to say who’s more crestfallen—Mom or Jeannie. Mom pulls herself together first.

“Then we’ll be sure to save you a seat in case you have some time to come back. I certainly hope you will.”

Nathan glances at his phone, seeming to reconsider.

“Actually, maybe I can come in for a quick tour, if Jeannie’s willing.”

“Of course she’s willing,” Mom answers for her. “You two go and have a good time.”

“Thank you again, Mrs. Yang. Mr. Yang. Liza.”

He nods at each of us before offering Jeannie his arm. We enter the building together—Mom and Dad up front, me in the middle, and Nathan and Jeannie at the rear. Mom whispers into Dad’s ear as we move down corridors covered with framed awards and posters advertising student organizations. It’s hard to make out what she’s saying with the click of her heels echoing down the halls. Nonetheless, I’m guessing it has something to do with plans for Jeannie’s upcoming wedding.

We bypass the bakeshop where the contest will be held. I crane my neck to peek through the open doorway. Though the room is still empty, the stainless steel tables are already set up with the tools and ingredients for today’s bake. Jeannie takes Nathan inside while the rest of us continue on to the faculty break room that’ll serve as our backstage area. Metal lockers line one wall, and small appliances sit atop a row of kitchen cabinets. In the back corner, a refrigerator hums.

Mom drops her bag on the counter next to a pile of extra contest materials. Jeannie joins us shortly after without Nathan. She’s saved from interrogation when Mrs. Lee swoops into the room. Her armor of choice today is a sleek black power suit with a white ruffled blouse. Her shoes are red-bottomed, the heels ready to pierce the heart of anyone who dares to come for her. With Jeannie beside her dressed in a canary yellow short-sleeved jumpsuit, it’s easy to mistake them for mother and daughter.

“Mrs. Yang!” Mrs. Lee exclaims. “I love your dress. It looks so . . . comfortable.”

To her credit, Mom doesn’t flinch at the backhanded insult. She greets her co-judge with a blithe smile.

“Mrs. Lee, do be careful around the contestants today. They’re far less predictable than your fancy baking machines. I’d hate for any of them to ruin that beautiful suit.”

Dad’s lips twitch as he tries to hold in a laugh. Mrs. Lee’s eyes narrow, but she’s prevented from offering a scathing retort when BCCI’s director pokes his head in the door. Chef Anthony, an African American man with imposing stature but heaps of warmth, is emceeing the contest again this year.

“Ladies! Are you ready to kick things off today?”

Mom, who’s studying the treasured recipes in her red leather notebook, doesn’t hear him. Mrs. Lee sidles over to him with a flirty smile.

“It’s such an honor to meet the man behind Bayou City Culinary Institute! Many of my bakers are graduates from your program.”

“Is that right? Then I’m grateful to you for giving them a chance,” Chef Anthony answers.

“Have you stopped by my newest bakery yet? It’s been open for a month now.”

He rubs the back of his neck. “Unfortunately, between the contest and teaching classes, I haven’t had time to make it out there.”

“You teach too? What an accomplished man you are.”

Mrs. Lee’s compliments are cloying to my ears, but he puffs out his chest.

She lays a hand on his bicep. “Make sure you let me know before you come by. I’ll give you a personal tour.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Lee. That’s so generous of you!”

Mom finally looks up and notices him for the first time.

“Chef Anthony, is everything ready to go?”

He straightens and tugs at his collar. “Oh, yes, Mrs. Yang. One hundred percent.”

“Mmm. I’d like to take another look to be sure.”

Over the years, Chef Anthony’s grown used to Mom’s neurotic tendencies. Despite this, his reply takes on a rough edge.

“You are welcome to do so if you feel it necessary, Mrs. Yang.”

Mom stiffens. Realizing everyone is watching to see what she’ll do, she puts a hand up.

“There’s no need. I’m confident in your attention to detail.”

A young woman wearing a polo with the school’s name stitched into it suddenly appears in the doorway.

“Chef Anthony? May I speak with you, please? We’re wondering where the camera crews can set up.”

“Excuse me one moment,” he tells us. “This is Gloria, one of the students helping out today.”

Everyone murmurs a hello before the two of them step out to talk. There’s still some time before the contest is to begin, so I excuse myself to use the restroom. In truth, I’m hoping to get a peek at this year’s contestants. My sneakers squeak on the linoleum floor as I stroll through the familiar hallways, arriving outside the bakeshop where the contestants are waiting to get started. Snippets of conversation float out into the hallway as I slowly ease my head through the doorway to try to catch a glimpse of who’s inside.

“I knew you’d be trying to sneak a peek.”

I spin around to find Grace grinning at me.

I smack her on the arm. “You nearly scared me to death!”

“Only because you weren’t paying attention. You should’ve heard me from a mile away.”

For emphasis, she taps her tan suede ankle boots on the floor.

“Sarah’s running late,” she tells me before I think to ask, “but she’s on her way.”

I nod before leaning back through the door.

She laughs. “Did your mom not show you who she picked?”

“Are you kidding? I’m almost positive she locked up the final applications in the restaurant safe. I looked all over for them.”

She purses her lips. “In that case, I think you’re justified in taking a look. Let’s go.”

I turn on my heel, but I’m rooted in place when I spot two familiar faces walking toward us.

“Ben? James?” Grace says, eyes darting over to me before she smiles.

“Hey, Liza!” Ben gives me quick hug. “You look great today!”

James, in typical fashion, stands there without a word. Grace moves to stand next to Ben, their hands joining together like two pieces of a puzzle. They’re disgustingly cute, and I love it.

“What are you guys doing here?” I ask.

Ben grins. “Grace, do you want to tell her?”

Wait. Grace has something to do with this? I level a glare that she deflects by nudging his shoulder with hers.

“You tell her.”

“Okay.” He turns to me. “Remember the other day when we ran into you outside Boba Life?”

“Uh, yeah. Vaguely,” I lie.

How could I forget? It’s only just the most mortifying day of my life so far.

“Well, after you left in such a rush, I asked Grace what was up with the flyer.”

“I explained everything,” she fills in. “How it’s your mom’s contest, that you wanted to compete but she wouldn’t let you, and—oh!—how she wrote that bio hoping to find you a boyfriend in the process.”

I shoot her a look—seriously?!—but she’s lost in Ben’s eyes.

“Anyway,” Ben continues, sweeping a loose strand of hair off his brow, “since Eastern Sun Bank is one of your sponsors, I had my dad pull some strings and get me and James into the competition. You know, so you’ll have two less guys to worry about.”

I’m not quite sure what he means by the last part, but there are more pressing matters to worry about.

I glance between them. “Can you guys actually bake?”

“Don’t worry about us. We’ll make it work.”

Ben’s eyes slide over to his cousin, who obviously wants to be anyplace but here.

“I’m sorry you got pulled into this,” I say to James.

“What are you talking about?” Ben scoffs. “He’s the one who came up with the whole idea in the first place.”

My eyes boomerang from him back to James. “Really? It was your idea?”

“Well, I . . . that is, there’s . . .”

His cheeks splotch with color as he drags a hand through his hair. James mumbles something under his breath. I lean in to make it out, but he jumps back.

“I . . . I need to . . . check on something inside,” he sputters. “Excuse me.”

He twirls around and sprints into the bakeshop. I turn back to Ben and Grace with a puzzled expression.

“What just happened?”

They look at each other and burst out laughing. I want to ask what’s so funny, but my phone goes off. I groan as I read the text message.

“Mom wants me back in the prep room.”

“I’ll go with you,” Grace offers. “See you later, Ben?”

He brings her hand up and presses a kiss against the back of it before letting go.

“Can’t wait.”

As soon as he heads inside, she sags against me. “Ugh. Could he be any cuter?”

I roll my eyes and drag her down the hallway. We’re greeted by a flurry of activity the second we step foot inside. In the best lit corner of the room, Mrs. Lee is being interviewed by a TV crew. Dad and Chef Anthony are going over the schedule one more time, while Jeannie is nowhere to be found. Mom rushes over as soon as she spots us.

“Ah, there you are! You said you were going to the bathroom!”

“Sorry, Mrs. Yang! I ran into Liza on her way back,” Grace states, hugging her briefly. “It’s my fault we lost track of time.”

If the situation were reversed, Mom would be ripping me a new one. Instead, she immediately forgives Grace and points at her bag.

“Will you hold on to it for me until Jeannie comes back, Grace? Liza will be busy judging, and my husband is very forgetful.”

“Of course! I’ll get it right now.”

She hoists it over her shoulder just as Chef Anthony gets off his cell.

“Okay, everyone! All the contestants have arrived! Let’s get this show on the road!”

The reporters rush out ahead of us to get set up in the bakeshop. Chef Anthony then leads the way, with Grace and me following in the back. My heart pounds harder with every step we take, a fine sheen of sweat gathering at my brow. As we near the door, Jeannie pops out and gives us a wave. Grace hugs me briefly before heading inside with Jeannie.

The walls on either side of the door are lined with the camera operators, each working out the final recording angles in the room. Chef Anthony waits for them to finish before strolling in and starting his rehearsed speech.

“Contestants, welcome to the Fifth Annual Yin and Yang Junior Baking Competition! I am Chef Anthony, and I welcome you to Bayou City Culinary Institute. This year, we had a record five hundred applications in total! From that, we’ve narrowed it down to ten of the most talented junior bakers Houston has to offer. This will no doubt be our best competition yet, and we’re very excited to see what you are all capable of.”

He pauses for dramatic effect, and looks toward the door as he continues.

“Before we begin, let me introduce our esteemed panel. First up, we have the woman who single-handedly changed the landscape of baking in the city, co-owner of Yin and Yang Restaurant and Bakery in Chinatown, Mrs. Janet Yang.”

Mom sweeps into the room like royalty, a welcoming smile painted on her lips. Chef Anthony waits until the applause has died down before continuing.

“Next, we are incredibly lucky to have a celebrity judge this year. Known for making it possible for hungry people to eat delicious pastries across the world, all while looking fabulous, please give it up for the Mama Lee herself, Mrs. Teresa Lee!”

As I watch her waltz in with an air of confidence I’ll never achieve, my hands start to shake.

Pull yourself together, Liza. Mom’ll never forgive you otherwise.

Just like that, my brain stops spinning. Nothing’s more motivating than the fear of disappointing your tiger mom. Besides, if I mess this up, I can forget about ever convincing her to say yes to culinary school.

“Now, if you tuned in to Space City Live this past week, you know there is another exciting change to this year’s contest. For the first time, the technical challenges will be co-judged by three-time champion of the Houston Junior Baking Competition—”

Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it.

“—Liza Yang.”

I don’t believe it. No embarrassing introduction? No rehashing of that humiliating profile? I’m so stunned I forget to move, but Mom’s glare ultimately propels me forward. I enter the bakeshop at almost a sprint, so I force myself to slow down for the last few steps. As I move to stand beside her, Mom gestures at my mouth with her eyes. It takes a second to understand she wants me to smile. I stretch my lips tightly across my face as cameras focus in on me. It’s only then that I sweep my eyes over this year’s contestants.

“Holy s—”

I bite back the rest of the curse when Mom clamps her hand around my forearm.

“Don’t you dare embarrass me,” she hisses in my ear.

Me, embarrass her? Is she kidding? I glance back out at the bakeshop. Behind every station is an Asian boy. Most are staring openly at me, their eyes raking over my body and making me shudder. I steer my own eyes toward Ben instead, who grins and mouths a hello.

You know, so you’ll have two less guys to worry about.

Gratitude fills me as his words finally click. Somehow, Ben knew this would happen and went out of his way to help me. Although . . . didn’t he say it was James’s idea all along? I lean slightly to the side and peer past him to where James is stationed. He’s busy organizing the supplies on his workspace, but perhaps feeling my gaze on him, he turns. When our eyes meet, he glances away.

I turn my attention to the rest of the room. In addition to the camera crews, we have a live audience for the first time. Three staggered rows of chairs line the left wall, and nearly every seat is occupied. Besides my family and friends, the boys’ families—or more correctly, their mothers—have come to cheer them on. They’re no easier to deal with, inspecting me like some prize cow.

Great. This is going to be so much fun.

Chef Anthony clears his throat. “Now that the introductions are done, we’ll move on to the rules.”

My mind wanders as he gives the contestants a rundown. As much as I appreciate the guys for joining, Ben sounded less than confident when I asked about his baking skills. Neither seems like the sort who can tell the difference between a spoon and a spatula. That goes double for James, who looks far from enthused about getting his hands dirty. It’s going to take a miracle to get them to the end of the competition. Chef Anthony’s booming voice startles me out of my thoughts.

“Now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for! Let’s meet our contestants!”

I close my eyes and pray for salvation.


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