A Taste for Love: Chapter 19

After three days of Mom’s cold shoulder, I’m ready to warm up with some baking. In fact, I spend most of the night before bake day working out the pandan chiffon recipe. I’d forgotten how challenging it can be to achieve that perfect airy texture. Despite the tension between us, I earn a nod of approval from Mom as she heads to bed. I’m still hours away from doing the same, determined to ensure I can judge this technical recipe in my sleep.

I pass out well after two a.m. Nonetheless, when my alarm goes off less than five hours later, I jump out of bed. With no cameras following us around, I get to wear my own clothes again. As I prepare to get dressed, I find myself flipping through my hangers.

“Looking for something to catch a certain baker’s eye?”

I spin around to Jeannie’s amused grin. At this point, the high color on my cheeks has become the norm. I grab a light blue sweater and my favorite pair of black skinny jeans. Jeannie raises an eyebrow.

“Are you sure Mom will be okay with that?”

“It’s this or one of my geeky T-shirts from Tee Turtle,” I answer with a grin. “You know how much she loves those.”

“Point taken.”

Once I’m dressed, she helps apply my makeup. Since Mom and Dad left early to double-check everything at the school, I’m hitching a ride with Jeannie today. When we step out the front door, I’m surprised to find Nathan standing by the car. He lets out a low whistle.

“Look at you both!” He hooks an arm around Jeannie’s waist to pull her in for a kiss. “Especially you.”

“Stop it,” my sister protests. “Come on, we don’t want to be late.”

Once we’re all inside, Nathan ramps onto the freeway and weaves through the hectic rush hour traffic. He glances back at me through his rearview mirror.

“So, Liza, I heard it was quite an interesting first day.”

“That’s one way to put it,” I answer with a chuckle. “I’m just glad no one set the bakeshop on fire.”

“Are you rooting for anyone so far?”

“Nope. That wouldn’t be very objective of me, as Mom would say.”

He meets my eye in the mirror and smirks. “I promise I won’t tell.”

“Honestly, I’d say three or four of the guys have a really good shot at winning,” I hedge.

“Maybe,” Jeannie interjects, “but you wouldn’t be upset if James won, would you?”

“I mean, he had a really strong bake, sure,” I stammer, “but so did Ben.”

Our car abruptly veers into another lane, and I clutch the door as Jeannie lets out a yelp. Nathan’s knuckles are white as he regains control of the steering wheel.

“Is everyone all right?” he asks.

“Uh, yeah,” I manage. “What happened?”

“Someone cut me off. Sorry about that.” He meets my eye. “You were saying something about James and Ben?”

His words are stiff, and his eyes are pinned on the road in front of him. I don’t blame him for being so shaken. Houston traffic is some of the worst in the country.

“Oh, just that they both did well during the first bake,” I tell him.

“They’re from New York City, like you.” Jeannie grins and touches his arm. “In fact, we ran into James while Liza was visiting. That’s actually why she got into trouble the other night. She was out with the two of them.”

“Trouble that you encouraged,” I retort, though I duck my head.

“I suppose that’s true.”

We pull into the parking lot. Nathan offers to walk Jeannie into the bakeshop, since he has a few minutes before he has to head to class. After saying goodbye, I make my way to the prep room. Mom, Mrs. Lee, and Chef Anthony are gathered around the dining table and finalizing the schedule when I walk in.

Mom’s jaw drops open. “What are you wearing?”

I stare down at myself. “What’s wrong with it?”

“I told you to wear something nice!”

“I think it looks lovely,” Mrs. Lee says. “And very age appropriate.”

That only incenses Mom more. Her threat to remove me as judge flits through my mind. Thankfully, she’s too preoccupied with getting the day started to do more than send me a death glare. Gloria, the student we met on day one, bursts into the room.

“Chef Anthony! Something’s—”

She skids to a stop at the sight of us all gathered together, her expression strained.

“Um, could I speak with you, please?”

“Of course,” Chef Anthony answers immediately.

His eyes flicker toward Mom before he excuses himself. He shuts the door behind him, but hushed tones can be heard from the other side. Then Chef Anthony reappears.

“Mrs. Yang, I’m afraid we have a slight problem. The copies of the technical challenge have been . . . misplaced.”

Mom squints at him, her voice razor-sharp.

“Misplaced? How? I thought you said everything was ready.”

“It was,” he insists. “I even checked it last night before I left. I’m not sure what happened. Maybe one of the custodians tossed the pile, thinking it was trash.”

Mom retrieves her leather notebook of recipes and walks it over to him. Before handing it over, she issues a warning.

“Do not lose this.”

“I’ll make the copies personally,” he swears. “It’ll never leave my sight.”

Mom grips it in her hands for one last second before relinquishing it into his possession. Her eyes remain on the door as the rest of the room goes back to chatting. I’m pretty sure she counts the minutes before he returns, and when he does, Mom snatches the notebook out of his hands and tucks it carefully into the bottom of her bag. On the plus side, things pretty much settle down by the time Chef Anthony moves toward the door a half hour later.

“Are we ready to start?”

I murmur my assent, and we head down to the bakeshop together. As before, Chef Anthony opens the day, introducing Mom, Mrs. Lee, and finally, me. As I stroll over to join them, my eyes laser in on James. He’s dressed all in black, from the fitted button-down shirt stretched across his broad chest to the slim jeans and Adidas sneakers on his feet. It’s a risky choice when baking, but I’m not complaining. James’s gaze sweeps over me in a reciprocal fashion, and I see his mouth quirk up a bit, showing his dimple.

It’s easy to linger on the guy who’s managed to prove me wrong at every turn, but I peer past him to Ben. He’s dressed simply as well, donning a graphic tee and dark wash jeans. He wiggles his fingers in a greeting, and I allow myself just a quick smile so Mom won’t accuse me of impropriety.

“Who are we still waiting for?” Mrs. Lee asks out of the blue.

Chef Anthony notices the empty station at the same time. He frowns deeply.

“Anyone know where contestant two is today? Jay Huang?”

Mom snaps her head toward Dad, and he scurries out of the room. She leans across Mrs. Lee and mumbles something to Chef Anthony, who addresses the room.

“We’re checking with Jay now to see where he is. Thank you for your patience.”

Five minutes go by, then ten. Dad finally reappears in the doorway. The hope in Mom’s eyes dies as he shakes his head forlornly.

“Should we wait a little longer?” Chef Anthony asks.

“No,” she answers, her voice cracking. “Let’s get started.”

Clapping his hands together, he clears his throat to regain everyone’s attention.

“Okay, thank you for waiting. Welcome to day two of the Fifth Annual Yin and Yang Junior Baking Competition. The theme for today is cakes. Mrs. Yang, the floor is yours.”

Mom steps forward, but when she opens her mouth, nothing comes out. I look down and see her hands shaking slightly. She must be taking these mishaps even harder than I thought. Mrs. Lee stares at Chef Anthony with panicked eyes. Before I can convince myself not to, I walk to the front of the room and take a deep breath.

“For your technical challenge today, you have been given the recipe for pandan chiffon. The list of ingredients is short, but pay careful attention to your preparation. Miscalculate, and your cake will be flat and dense. You have one and a half hours. Good luck.”

The six remaining contestants start in on the recipes. I cast my eyes downward as I walk past Mom and out into the corridor. Dad comes out with two chairs, setting them up against the wall.

“No point in standing for that long.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

He pats me on the head. “Go easy on Mom today. She didn’t sleep almost at all last night.”

At least that’s one thing we have in common. Dad turns to walk inside but peeks back out with a grin.

“Four down, six to go.”

I swallow my laughter as Mom emerges to sink down in the chair beside me. I steal a glance. Her eyes have lost their usual luster, and patches of dry skin exaggerate the lines on her face. I feel an unexpected surge of sympathy and nudge her gently on the shoulder.

“Are you okay, Mom?”

She doesn’t answer for a few minutes. I’m about to ask again when she finally draws a breath.

“You did a good job giving those instructions. Very professional.”

I grin. “I told you binging The Great British Baking Show would come in handy.”

“It’s not good for your eyes to stare at a screen for that long,” she lectures, though the planes of her face soften. “You need to protect your vision.”

“Okay, Mom.”

It’s a while longer before she twists in her chair to look at me.

“We need to talk about the other night.”

I’d rather not, but I tense and wait for the impending lecture.

“Liza, I know you think since you’re a legal adult, you can do whatever you feel like, but I’m still your mother. It’s my job to protect and take care of you.” She chokes back a cry. “When you didn’t answer any of my texts or calls, all I could think about was if you were hurt, if you needed me, and I wasn’t there for you . . .”

Guilt wrenches through me. I take her by the hands.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I just didn’t realize my phone wasn’t on me.”

“It’s hard being a mother, you know. Your children are your life.” Mom takes a deep breath. “One day, you’ll understand what it’s like, Liza. Until then, try to be a little more considerate.”

I bow my head. “Yes, Mom.”

She squeezes my hands before tipping up my chin.

“Good. Now tell me more about Ben and James.”


We’re called back inside when the time is up. As soon as I step into the bakeshop, it’s clear with a quick glance which bakers failed the challenge. Their chiffon cakes resemble either pancakes or bricks.

Mom side-eyes me. “Shall we give these a try?”

Since chiffon cakes can be tricky to master, Mom has decided to lead the judging this round. We begin with the plate to our far right. This one has held up decently well, though the top is too brown. Once we slice into it, there are only occasional air pockets. I place it on my tongue and give it a second to soften before eating.

“It’s a pretty good bake. A bit chewier than chiffon cake should be, but the flavor is there and it’s got decent height.” I look over at Mom. “What do you think?”

“I agree. The egg whites should have been whipped just a little more to give it the fluffy texture we’re looking for. Good job.”

The second one is flat and amorphous, rather than tall and bouncy. Mom has to saw the knife through just to get one slice, so we split it. The taste is off, more egg than pandan.

“Whoever baked this overworked the egg whites,” Mom explains. “That’s why the cake didn’t rise.”

My bite has a surprise—a sliver of the leaf. I hold it up for everyone to see.

“This is also where reading the instructions carefully would have helped. The leaves were supposed to be strained, not chopped into the batter.”

Our third cake is on the flatter side but is improved by the lack of errant leaves. There’s nothing remarkable about it otherwise. The fourth cake is quite lovely looking. When we bite into it, though, there’s no hint of the grassy aroma.

Mom presses her lips together. “I think the baker forgot to draw out the juice with both water and coconut milk. The latter is too strong, and it overwhelms the delicate pandan flavor.”

I duck my head to cover my surprise. That’s something I wouldn’t have known either, and I must have baked a dozen of those cakes last night.

Now over halfway through, we arrive at the fifth cake. Mom purses her lips with approval.

“This has a very appealing look to it. Let’s see how it tastes.”

When the chiffon first touches my tongue, something doesn’t seem quite right. The pandan and sugar are there, but there’s an unknown flavor too. I close my eyes and take another bite.

Ah, there it is.

“This baker didn’t properly measure the amount of baking soda used,” I conclude.

Mom raises her eyebrows at me. “Liza is correct. She picked up on the hint of bitterness. This baker either added a little too much or it didn’t get mixed in well.”

When we pause in front of the very last plate, I’m positive it belongs to James. The chiffon cake looks every bit as good as the ones Mom and I have made. I give it a light tap with a fork, and it rebounds easily off the top. I grin and raise my head to make a comment about it, but all thought escapes me when I lock eyes with James. The look he’s sending me could melt sugar faster than a culinary torch. My spoon clatters onto the table.

“Oh!”

I tear my eyes away to focus on slicing two pieces of cake. I pass Mom the first without meeting her eye. She’d catch on to how I’m feeling in a heartbeat otherwise. The cake bounces easily under her gentle poke. She cuts off a smaller piece and places it in her mouth.

“This cake. The height, the texture, the flavor. They’re all there. Wonderful.”

“Yes, it’s quite delicious,” I murmur.

With our tasting done, Chef Anthony steps forward.

“Fantastic. Our judges will now take a minute to rank the technical bakes.”

It doesn’t take long for Mom and me to come to an agreement, and she lets me deliver the final verdict. Once I reveal the order we ranked the cakes, it’s Albert in last place, then David, Sammy, Edward, and Ben. That leaves James as the last one standing, and when his win is announced, his grin raises more than a couple eyebrows.

Chef Anthony leads the audience in a round of applause before addressing the contestants.

“Great job, bakers. You are now released until this afternoon. Have a good lunch, and meet us back here in one hour.”

Ben and Grace walk out hand in hand. James glances over to me before following behind them. I start to leave as well, but Edward steps in my path with an overly bright smile.

“Hi, Liza.”

I bite back a curse. “Oh, hi again.”

“You did a great job judging the technical today,” Edward says. “I bet your chiffon cakes are perfect.”

“Thanks, but yours could be good too, if you practice more,” I answer politely.

“You look nice today. I mean, you always look nice . . .” He reaches up and tugs at his collar. “Sorry, that came out wrong.”

I catch sight of Sarah standing by the row of chairs just over his left shoulder. She’s watching us intently.

“Well, I’m going to grab something to eat,” I say, jabbing my thumb toward the door. “You should too.”

I turn to leave, but Mom quickly intervenes.

“Edward, didn’t you have a question to ask Liza?”

He glances at me nervously. “Um, yes. I was hoping I could ask you . . . for some advice.”

“Some advice?”

“Yes. About . . . something personal.”

Oh no. She can’t be doing this. Not now. Edward’s eyes dart over to Mom again. I get an idea.

“Why don’t we go talk over there in the corner? It’s more private that way.”

“Oh, I . . .”

I grab him by the wrist and drag him away from Mom. She has no choice but to leave us alone, though she inches her way slowly toward us while cleaning. I hiss at Edward under my breath.

“What did my mom promise you?”

“Ex . . . excuse me?”

“What did my mom promise you?” I repeat more firmly. “For trying to get me to date you?”

“I . . . erm,” he stammers, casting his gaze to the ground with a sigh. “I don’t actually know how to bake all that well, so she promised to help me out.”

I press him. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“You know, she agreed to . . . give me lessons. But I only did it because my mom and my aunt made me. I swear.”

I ball my fists at my sides. Just when I thought I was getting somewhere with her, she goes and does this. He tugs at his ear.

“I figured I’d just flirt a little, convince you to go on a date, and then it’d be over. Simple as that.”

“Simple as that?”

He withers under my glare. “I know how it sounds. That’s why I didn’t ask you out just now. Well, that and . . .”

“That and what?”

Edward works his way through every shade of red. When he replies, he keeps his eyes glued on a spot behind me.

“I . . . I met someone. Someone I actually like a lot. And I don’t want her to think I like you instead.”

My heart sinks. “Please tell me you’re not into Grace. Or Jeannie.”

“What?” he stammers. “No, no . . . I was talking about . . . well . . .”

He mumbles something under his breath.

I frown. “What?”

“Sarah,” he grinds out. “I’m talking about your friend Sarah.”

My eyes dart over to where she’s still sitting against the wall, staring listlessly at her phone. A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth.

“Sarah definitely deserves a guy who isn’t pretending to like another girl.”

“I know. And I’m sorry.” Edward bows his head. “I just wanted to get my mom off my back. She wants me to date a nice Asian girl.”

I sigh. Now, that’s something I can relate to.

“Look, I might have to listen to my mom, but you don’t. Just tell her you asked me out and I said no.”

“Are you sure? I’d hate to get you into trouble.”

“I’m used to her getting mad at me. It won’t be anything new.”

He sags with relief. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”

Edward sprints out the door before Mom can intercept him. She throws a questioning look my way as I follow behind, but I ignore it. If I’m going to keep my promise to Dad, I need to get away from her for a bit.

I head down the main hall and shove the rear door open, ending up in a small courtyard shaded by trees. I hear what sounds like Grace’s laughter and follow it to the left side of the U-shaped building. Around the corner, I screech to a halt. Grace is pressed against the brick wall, and her lips are locked on Ben’s, whose arms tug her close.

“Whoops,” I whisper.

I avert my gaze and spin around only to crash into James. Knocked off balance, he stumbles, and my legs get tangled up in his. We both hit the ground hard.

He groans. “Any chance you could find a less painful way to greet me?”

I shouldn’t laugh, but I do. “I swear I’m not doing this on purpose.”

We pick ourselves up off the grass. He plucks some loose blades off my head while I brush them off his shirt. I make a spinning motion with my finger.

“Turn around. Let me check your back.”

He suppresses a smile as he does what I tell him. I dust the grass off his back, momentarily distracted by the softness of his shirt.

“Liza?”

As he turns to face me, I withdraw my hands and tuck them at my sides. His sharp intake of breath draws my eyes up to meet his, but nothing comes out of his mouth.

“Congratulations on your second win,” I blurt out. “That was a great bake.”

“You really think so? I wasn’t actually sure I’d get it done on time.”

“Why wouldn’t you have?”

He rubs the back of his neck. “My first batter was really salty, and I couldn’t figure out why. I was sure I measured everything correctly, so I double-checked my jars. It turned out my sugar had salt mixed in.”

“What?” I frown. “Maybe one of the culinary students got distracted while preparing for today. I’m sorry about that.”

“Either way, I’m just glad I had time to remake the batter and have the cake come out okay.”

“That was way better than okay. It was perfect. Even my mom said so, and she never says that about anything.”

James breaks into a dazzling smile. I stare, transfixed, at his crinkled eyes and that irresistible dimple.

“I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

I aim for a careless shrug. “Technically, I was complimenting your cake.”

As he leans in, my heart slams against my rib cage like a bird trying to take flight.

“Does that mean I haven’t changed your mind about me yet?”

“A-about you?”

“Well, I know I didn’t make the best first impression, but I was hoping . . .”

James catches himself then, and I resist the urge to scream. Hoping for what? His face twitches as it tries to settle on an emotion, but it never quite finds one. Instead, he straightens and drags a hand through his hair.

“Anyway, I’m glad you liked my cake. It means a lot, coming from you.”

It takes me a couple heartbeats to reply. Even then, I can only do it while staring at my shoes.

“Really? Why?”

“I . . . well, you’re an amazing baker, for one.”

“You’ve never had anything I’ve baked,” I point out, smiling up at him.

“I don’t need to,” he answers immediately. “The fact that you noticed Ben’s cake had too much baking soda is enough to prove you are. I never would have noticed.”

“Yeah, well, you learn a lot about chiffon cakes after you’ve baked a dozen of them in a row,” I joke half-heartedly.

Whatever he plans to say next is interrupted when Ben and Grace appear from around the corner.

“There you are,” Ben calls out. “We’ve been looking all over for you two!”

I keep my voice light. “In each other’s mouths?”

Ben blushes madly, while Grace just shrugs.

“The moment presented itself, so I took it.”

I bite down on the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. That’s peak Grace. She’s never been shy about going after what she wants. Besides, it probably would have taken Ben a year to kiss her. Grace’s eyes boomerang from me to James and back.

“Wait. Did we interrupt something?”

My eyes snap back to James. He opens his mouth to say something, then closes it again.

“We were just talking about this morning’s challenge,” I finally say. “Anyway, we should leave soon if you guys want to eat. We’ve got almost forty minutes left.”

“Do you know any place around here that’s quick?” Ben asks.

“Actually, I do. How do you feel about pho?”

“Love it. James, on the other hand, can be . . .”

“I’m sure it’ll be delicious,” he interrupts. “If Liza says it’s good, then it’s good.”

Ben and Grace lead the way back toward the building. I turn to follow, but James touches my elbow.

“Wait. You’ve got grass on the back of your sweater.”

I still beneath his hands as he sweeps them across my shoulder blades and down my spine.

James clears his throat softly. “You’ve . . . you’ve got some on your head too.”

He plucks the stubborn blades out of my hair before clearing his throat.

“All done.”

I twirl around to thank him, but all that passes through my lips is air. He’s standing so much closer than I expected. I follow his slender neck up over his angular jaw to finally meet his sparkling brown eyes.

“Should we . . .” I gesture back toward the school.

James shakes his head. “There’s one more thing.”

My breath hitches. “What’s that?”

He takes another step forward. With a tilt of his head and a tip of my toes, our lips meet, and my eyes flutter closed. His arms encircle me and pull me against him. It takes my brain a second to catch up, and then my hands find their way up his chest. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I register how lightly he presses his mouth against mine, how he holds me like I might break. He tastes slightly of sugar and coconut, and I giggle without thinking. James pulls back.

“What’s so funny?”

“You . . . taste good,” I admit, cheeks flaming.

“In that case . . .”

He dips down to kiss me again. This time, his lips move the way he does—confident, measured, and without hesitation. Not to be outdone, I quickly figure out the recipe that makes him press even closer.

“Ben, look!”

Grace’s gleeful exclamation pulls us apart, though not without a fair amount of reluctance. James grins down at me, his dimple on full display. I tuck my face into his shoulder as Ben playfully chides her.

“Look what you did.”

“Oh no! I’m sorry. Go back to what you were doing,” she insists. “Don’t let me interrupt.”

James is happy to oblige, but when he tries to steal another kiss, I turn the other way.

He pouts. “You’re such a tease.”

“I don’t give those out for free, mister. You want another one, you need to earn it.”

His eyes glint with mischief. “I do love a challenge.”

You and me both.

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