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A Taste for Love: Chapter 17

The tension of the bake evaporates the minute Mom, Mrs. Lee, and Chef Anthony exit the room to discuss things. Mothers spill onto the bakeshop floor to reach their sons, some of whom are sagging against their stations. Grace is making a beeline for Ben, while Jeannie turns to me with a sparkle of excitement in her eyes.

“Nathan just texted me. He wants to take me out to dinner!”

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” I tease.

“That’s not a lot to go on, Liza.”

She runs off to call Nathan before I can smack her on the arm. Sarah scoots over and waggles her eyebrows at me before glancing at Ben and James, who are admiring each other’s creations.

“So which one is the hottie who helped you with Brody?”

I point surreptitiously at James. “That one.”

“Whoa,” Sarah says, giving him a once-over. “I can’t believe you’re not into him. He’s so hot, and not just for an Asian guy.”

I grimace. “That sounds really bad, Sarah.”

She shakes her head frantically. “I was only trying to say that he’s really . . .”

“Hot. Yeah, I got that. But you make it sound like Asian guys are not as hot as other guys.”

“I definitely wasn’t trying to say that.” Sarah cocks her head to the side. “I just meant that I’m not usually into Asian guys but—”

I groan. “Stop. You’re making it worse.”

Her face crumples, and she wrings her hands in her lap.

“I’m really terrible at this, aren’t I?” she mumbles. “I never know how to explain myself. Mom calls it verbal diarrhea.”

“First of all, that was a mental picture I didn’t need,” I answer. “Second of all, if you’re not sure you should say something, just don’t. Think about how you’d feel hearing someone say it to you.”

“What do you mean?”

I twist in my chair to face her more fully. “Okay. For example, how would you feel if I told you that someone you like was only hot for a white guy?”

“Well, now that you put it that way . . .” Sarah freezes. “Wait. You do like James! You just admitted it!”

“What are you talking about? I was turning your words around to give you an example.”

“No, not exactly. You added the part about ‘someone you like,’ which implies that you like James.”

My head spins trying to keep up with the abrupt shift in our conversation.

I roll my eyes at her. “You’re missing my point.”

“I’m pretty sure I heard it loud and clear.”

Sarah’s giggling draws attention from those around us, including the guy in question. Luckily, I remember something that gives me the upper hand.

“You’re one to talk. I saw you with Edward earlier.”

Her eyes go wide. “Edward?”

“Yep. You were totally flirting with him.”

“I wasn’t,” she denies, twirling a strand of red hair. “He was just—we were talking, that’s all!”

With every stammer, her voice pitches higher until she reaches frequencies only dogs can hear. I lean in with a smirk.

“Does that mean you think Edward’s hot, and not just for an Asian guy?”

Sarah’s face ripens like a tomato from my teasing. I take pity on her and stick my hand out.

“I’m kidding. How about a truce? I’ll even introduce you to the guys.”

She pouts but shakes on it. I bump her shoulder repeatedly until she finally cracks a smile. I tug her to her feet and lead her over to the others. They’re crowded around Ben’s workstation. He and Grace are attached by the hand and whispering to each other, while James hovers close by like a hawk. I fall into place beside him but keep my distance.

“Hi, guys. This is our friend Sarah. Sarah, this is Ben and his cousin James.”

She sticks out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you! I’ve heard absolutely nothing about either of you.”

Ben shakes her hand with a lighthearted chuckle. James nods politely.

“You guys did amazing today!” Sarah says with a smile firmly on her lips. “All your cookies look delicious.”

“I want to try your cookie, Ben,” Grace cajoles.

He gives her a heart-melting smile. “I’ll pick the best one for you.”

Ben also hands Sarah and me pieces without being asked. Just like Mrs. Lee said, it’s a bit softer than typical biscotti, but in the best way. With the last bite softening on my tongue, I angle my eyes at him.

“Did you put a little cinnamon in there?”

His eyes widen. “How did you know?”

“Because she’s just that good,” Grace answers. “Liza’s going to be a world-famous baker one day.”

I wave her off. “She’s exaggerating. The truth is, when you spend as much time as I do at a bakery, you pick things up that normal people won’t.”

“I don’t know about that,” Ben insists.

“Grace is right,” James adds, stepping forward to join us in the circle. “No one else picked it up, including your mom and Mrs. Lee, and they’re the professionals.”

His words hit me hard. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. A smile blooms on my face. My eyes meet his, but we both look away quickly.

“So how about yours?” Grace asks James. “Do you mind if we try some?”

“I guess,” he answers with a shrug.

He puts four cookies on a plate and slides it across the stainless steel surface of the table. Grace and Ben take theirs immediately, while Sarah plucks hers up and examines it first. As I reach for the plate, James goes to move it toward me. His fingers brush against mine, leaving sparks along my skin like a struck match. My eyes shoot up, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed.

Focus, Liza. You’re here for his cookies.

And his buns, a mischievous little voice adds.

I’m pretty sure my face is redder than a char siu, so I stay focused on the cookie. On instinct, I bring it up and give it a sniff. The soft floral scent of cherry blossoms tickles my nostrils. Then I take a bite of the cookie and let it sit on my tongue instead of chewing. The butter melts in my mouth and releases the flavors, one layer at a time.

“So . . . what do you think?”

I lift my eyes to find James watching me intently. A tiny crease forms between his thick brows. I glance over at Ben and Grace, but they’re too busy making eyes at each other. Sarah just makes a happy sound as she takes another bite.

“Um,” I stammer. “It has a really delicate flavor. Infusing the cherry blossoms into the butter is a really nice touch.”

“Wait, how do you know he put them into the butter?” Sarah asks.

I shrug. “It’s just a guess. I thought I tasted the two flavors at the exact same time, instead of one following the other.”

Ben eyes his cousin. “Did she get that right, James?”

“Yes . . . she did.”

There’s a slight hush to his voice, as if he’s coming to the conclusion as he speaks. This time, James’s deep brown eyes hold mine for a long second before he casts them down onto the table.

“I hope you like them. Since you’ve never seen cherry blossoms in person.”

I don’t know what to say first. I never expected him to remember one of the random things I blurted out trying to make conversation that night at Dumpling Dynasty. On the other hand, his cookies do evoke the picture of walking through sakura trees.

“I do. Like them, that is,” I admit after swallowing the rest of the cookie. “They’re very . . . thoughtful.”

Thoughtful? Of all the descriptions you could have chosen, you picked thoughtful?

I half expect him to say something condescending or turn his nose up at me.

Instead, he smiles.

It’s not a toothy one by any means, but enough to showcase the lone dimple on his left cheek. It’s an open parenthesis wishing for a partner, and my fingers itch to trace a matching one on the other side. His features, once sharp, stretch and soften into something that sends my heart racing.

“Liza, right?”

I spin around and find Edward at my elbow. Apparently, he’s decided this is the ideal time to butt in.

I force a smile to my face. “Yes?”

“I . . . uh . . . I just wanted to introduce myself to you properly.” He sticks out his hand. “We didn’t get a chance to talk earlier.”

“Oh. It’s nice to meet you,” I reply as I shake his hand.

Edward’s eyes keep darting over my shoulder. I resist the urge to turn and see what James is doing behind me.

“Your mom is very knowledgeable. Super nice too.”

I blink at him. “Sure. Of course.”

“Oh! I didn’t mean you’re not. I was just . . . that is . . .”

Edward implodes in real time as he forgets whatever speech he’s prepared for the occasion. Grace jumps in with a brilliant smile.

“Hi. I’m Grace.”

“I’m sorry . . . I should’ve asked your name,” he mumbles.

“It’s okay. You know it now.”

Sarah’s staring wordlessly at him, so I give her a gentle shove toward him.

“And you remember Sarah, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” he acknowledges, not quite meeting her eye. “We met in the hall earlier, right?”

“Congratulations on your bakes.” She smiles shyly. “Your highlight, especially.”

He perks up. “Really?”

“Definitely! I mean, the whole using the icing to draw Liza’s face and everything . . .”

Sarah launches into a full-on review of his cookie. Her tendency to gesture wildly while talking overwhelms most people, but Edward doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he’s laughing within minutes. Grace and I look at each other knowingly. Maybe I don’t really have to worry about Edward.

Not long after, Chef Anthony enters the room, followed by Mom and Mrs. Lee.

“Everyone, please return to your stations and seats for our judges’ decision.”

Grace, Sarah, and I walk back to our chairs. Jeannie slips in just seconds later. Her lipstick is smudged, and half her hair has fallen out of its clip.

I elbow her to get her attention. “I’m guessing Nathan came by again, huh?”

She blinks. “What do you mean?”

“Check your makeup.”

Jeannie pulls a mirror out of her purse. Her eyes widen with alarm, and she covers her face with her hands.

“This is so embarrassing!”

“Just be glad I saw you before Mom did.”

She sneaks a peek toward the front of the room. “Are you going to tell her?”

“Of course not.” I grin. “Not yet, anyway.”

She narrows her eyes at me. “If you don’t swear not to mention it to Mom, I’m going to tell her all about the boys you’ve been hiding from her.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Do you really want to find out?”

I put my hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. I swear I won’t tell.”

Chef Anthony clears his throat loudly and waits patiently for us to settle down.

“Thank you. Now I’m going to turn things over to our judges.”

Mom’s up first. She pulls herself to her full height—still a good six inches shorter than her stiletto-wearing co-judge.

“Well, this was quite an unusual opening day for our baking competition. Unfortunately, due to the burns to his hand, Harold will not be continuing with us. Timothy’s mother has also informed us he will not be back. Since this leaves us with two less contestants, we have decided not to eliminate anyone this week.”

Mrs. Lee steps forward, clasping her hands in front of her as she scans the crowd.

“However, as the rules explicitly state all highlight bakes must be original creations by the contestant, I’m afraid we must disqualify Michael Zhou.”

“That’s not fair!” a shrill voice shouts from the audience. “My son worked so hard today!”

Mrs. Zhou climbs out of the row and stomps up to the front like a coach angry over a bad call. Chef Anthony attempts to intervene, but she just turns her rage on him.

“And don’t get me started on you! Michael’s practiced all week for this. If anyone’s to blame, it’s you and your shoddy workstations. If the table was level, he would have won this highlight!”

That’s totally untrue, of course, but no one’s about to contradict her. Michael, on the other hand, begs her to stop. He steps out from behind his workstation, hands up in front like a lion tamer.

“Momma, it’s okay. Leave them alone. I wouldn’t have won anyway. There are way better bakers in here.”

“Don’t say that about yourself! You’re just as good as all these hacks in here!”

Things are spiraling rapidly out of control. We’re just lucky the camera crews have left, or else we’d be splashed all over tonight’s news. Hell, we’d probably end up trending on Twitter.

“Mrs. Zhou, there’s no one to blame for this but your son,” Mom states firmly. “As part of his application, he was required to acknowledge that he understood and would abide by the rules of the contest.”

“Well, he didn’t tell me!”

“That doesn’t excuse his or your actions. We cannot bend the rules for your son, or any other contestant. I’m sorry, but he’s disqualified.”

“We don’t need your stupid contest anyway!” Mrs. Zhou spits out. “Come on, Michael.”

Michael slinks out behind her with muttered apologies. They leave behind an unsettling silence, only broken after Albert abruptly pipes up.

“I guess that’s the way the cookie crumbles!”

The entire room erupts with laughter, the ridiculousness of the day having worn us all down. Mrs. Lee is laughing so hard there are tears falling down her cheeks. Mom is the one who recovers first.

“Why don’t we end today on a good note? Before we were interrupted, I was about to announce our very first brilliant baker. James, your tea cookies were perfectly executed, and we enjoyed our trip to Japan through your cherry blossom–inspired highlight. Congratulations!”

Her declaration is greeted by applause. The other contestants are clapping as well, minus the twins, who are back to bickering. James smiles faintly without quite meeting anyone’s eye.

“Enjoy the rest of your day, contestants,” Chef Anthony adds. “You’ve earned it. Our next bake day will be five days from now, and the theme of the day will be cake. We’ll be looking forward to what you come up with!”

With the first bake day complete, people trickle out of the room. Notably, Sarah and Edward walk out together. Mrs. Lee announces she needs to leave as well, due to a meeting with her staff about opening a second location in Katy. Mom’s lips thin as she nods once. It’s hard to tell if she’s pissed about Mrs. Lee’s success, or that she’s judging and running. Dad, Jeannie, and I stay behind to help with cleanup. Grace walks out with Ben and James, but she runs back inside a few minutes later.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m helping,” she says matter-of-factly. “Obviously.”

I push her back toward the door. “You don’t have to do that. Go hang out with Ben.”

“I will. That is, we will.”

“What do you mean ‘we’?”

She shrugs a little too nonchalantly. “We’re meeting the two of them later.”

“Grace,” I groan. “I don’t even know if I can go out tonight. Mom gets super stressed during contest season and always wants us nearby.”

Jeannie walks up then, holding a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle.

“What’re you two talking about?”

“I’m trying to convince Liza to come out with me and the guys tonight,” Grace tells her before transferring some dirty bowls onto the cleaning cart.

“Which guys?”

I stare hard at Grace, but she doesn’t get the hint.

“Ben and James. They’re contestants nine and ten. We met them right before graduation.”

Jeannie turns to me with an oddly hurt expression. “You didn’t tell me about them. Are you keeping secrets from me?”

“Of course not.” I keep my eyes on the station I’m wiping down. “There was nothing to tell.”

“Maybe not then,” Grace insists. “But there’s definitely something happening between her and James now.”

“There is not!”

“There’s not what?”

Oh no. Mom. Grace clamps her mouth closed, while I scramble for a reasonable lie. Ultimately, it’s Jeannie who saves us both.

“We’re talking about the contestants. Grace thinks we can already predict a winner, but Liza disagrees.”

Mom glances at the three of us in succession before nodding.

“Well, Liza’s right. No matter how well one of these boys does, there are plenty of chances to mess up later.”

Grace fakes a convincing shrug. “I stand corrected. I guess we’ll have to wait after all.”

“We need to finish clearing everything out, girls,” Mom goes on to say, pointing at the still dirty stations. “Chef Anthony needs to lock up.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Yes, Mrs. Yang.”

None of us relax until she’s out of earshot. I slump against the table.

“That was close.”

“Too close,” Jeannie agrees.

We move quickly. Gloria and the other students clear the bowls, utensils, and equipment while we clean the stations. Even with all of us working, it’s almost an hour before the room is put back together. We walk out as a group, but Grace, Jeannie, and I hang back so we can talk without being overheard.

“Jeannie, can you tell Liza she needs to come out with me tonight?”

I sigh. “Grace, I already told you. I can’t come out. This is peak stress time for Mom. She’ll throw a fit if I ask to go.”

“Then let me handle it,” Jeannie offers, threading an arm through my elbow. “She’ll be fine as long as one of us is home. Plus, Dad will help me keep her calm.”

“But you’re on vacation! Besides, you were supposed to go to dinner tonight with Nathan, right?”

“We’re actually meeting up tomorrow,” she counters. “And don’t change the subject. You deserve to relax. It’s summer.”

I nudge her shoulder. “Are you sure?”

“The world won’t end just because Liza Yang actually has fun for once. Go. Enjoy being a newly minted adult.”

I laugh. “You say that like it’s a good thing.”

“It is right now, but not forever. Make the most of your last summer before college. You’ll never get this time back. Trust me, I know.”

There’s something forlorn about how she says this, but in a flash, she’s back to her regular, cheerful self and shooing me toward the door.

“Fine, fine. I’ll go.” I wrap my arm around her waist. “Thanks, Jeannie.”


We reach the parking lot, and Grace tugs me toward her car. I pull out of her grasp.

“Hold on! I want to go home and change out of this dress. I’m sick of being in it.”

“Actually, you should go with her,” Jeannie comments. “It’s easier for me to convince Mom to let you stay out when you’re already gone.”

“Besides, you look great,” Grace says. “James seemed to like it a lot too.”

I’m glad it’s already dark outside because my face flames at the memory of his smile.

“Let’s just go and get this over with.”


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