A Taste for Love: Chapter 20


Lunch flies by, and soon, we’re all back in the bakeshop. It’s time for the highlight cakes, and I can’t wait to see what James has in store. I’m positive it’ll be amazing. It’s just too bad I couldn’t coax it out of him while we were eating lunch. Once the remaining bakers are positioned behind their bake stations, time starts. Mom, Mrs. Lee, and Chef Anthony watch from their position at the front of the bakeshop, occasionally whispering to each other.

Wedged between Jeannie and Grace in our seats along the left wall, I do my best to pay attention to all the contestants in the room. It’s just so hard when James is by far the most entertaining. He’s deep in concentration, a frown painted on his lips and his sleeves rolled up past his elbow as he bends to check the oven temperature. Every so often, he walks over to the fridge and tucks something inside.

“Hey, why is Mom giving you the stink eye?” Jeannie asks.

“Huh? What?”

I swing my gaze over to Mom and find her scowling menacingly at me. I sink lower in my chair.

“Edward probably told her I refused to go on a date with him.”

Grace spins around. “Wait, he asked you out?”

“No. Not really. It turns out she’s been secretly trying to set us up the whole time, so I told him to tell her that so she’d get off both our backs.”

“She doesn’t look real happy,” Jeannie observes, lips twitching.

“What else is new?”

“What if you tell her about James?” Grace suggests. “I’m sure she’ll forgive you then.”

She’s got a point. James checks off pretty much everything on Mom’s list. If she finds out he’s interested, she might finally leave me alone. It’s perfect.

That is, if I decide to tell her.

The truth is I’m not ready to say anything yet. I’m not sure if it’s because everything’s so new with James, or that she’d find a way to take credit for putting us together. No matter what, though, I know I want to keep this to myself a little longer.

I give myself a shake and turn back to the baking. Edward is busy cutting pieces out of his cake, and it’s hard to tell what he’s going for at the moment. Sammy has been working diligently on his three-tiered creation. He’s chosen a naked cake, which is a bold move. It’ll be impossible to hide any defects in his baking that way. From the looks of his tiers, though, he’s done a good job.

David and Albert have at least decided on different flavors but are easily twenty minutes behind the rest of the group. Ben’s been sitting on his stool while waiting for his cake to cool down, and now he starts in on his decoration. He doesn’t notice how Mrs. Lee’s eyes keep glancing between him and James. Not in the Mrs. Robinson way but definitely with a creepy vibe. James admitted to knowing her that night in Hermann Park, but there must be some bad blood between them if he won’t say anything else about her.

“Bakers! You have fifteen minutes left. Fifteen minutes!”

Chef Anthony’s warning sends the room into overdrive. David is doing his best to frost his cake, but it keeps melting. Albert, on the other hand, has slathered his on and is tossing sprinkles onto one side like Salt Bae. Edward is putting the finishing touches on his cake using flowers he brought in, while Sammy is doing something similar. Ben has opted to pipe his flowers, the ombré reminding me of the one Selasi made during season seven of The Great British Baking Show. I’m not able to get a good look at James’s cake, because as usual, he’s standing directly in my line of sight.

“Bakers! Time is up! Step away from your cakes!”

Icing bags are dumped, tools are dropped, and cake stands are cleaned as the contestants prepare their cakes for judging. Mrs. Lee and Mom step up to the table, and Chef Anthony gestures at Edward. He carries his creation over and places it down gingerly. I’ll admit it’s a pretty gorgeous cake. He’s iced the top and sides using a smoother, leaving a spotless finish. Fresh spring flowers are arranged on top in a crescent shape, with the Chinese character for love written in red icing.

I have to hand it to Mom. She’s an excellent teacher.

“Beautifully done,” she proclaims predictably. “Tell us what flavors you chose.”

“It’s a fudge cake with fresh strawberry filling. I used strawberries in the frosting as well.”

Mrs. Lee slices into it and gently works the piece out, but the tip of it stays behind with the rest of the cake.

“I think he sliced off the top to make the layers look even,” I tell Grace under my breath.

“It’s a nice shortcut, taking a little off the top to even out your layers,” Mrs. Lee observes immediately after, “but I like the character of a slightly imperfect cake.”

Mom scowls openly at her co-judge. I hide a smile behind my hand as Grace’s elbow jabs into my side. After having a bite, both judges agree that it’s a solid bake, though Mrs. Lee announces the cake itself is a bit dry. That only incites another glare from Mom.

David is up next. His cake is a hot mess, because he spent too little time cooling it. His frosting has fallen off in giant lumps, leaving only a separated layer on top. He’s so distraught neither Mom nor Mrs. Lee knows quite what to say about it.

“You know, sometimes things don’t pan out,” Mom points out gently, “but appearances aren’t everything.”

Yeah, right.

I look around, but everyone’s heads are still fixed on the front. I sag against my chair. For a second, I thought I said that out loud.

“Mrs. Yang is right. Let’s cut into your cake and see what we’ve got,” Mrs. Lee announces.

Once they get past the unappetizing exterior, the texture and taste of his red velvet cake are quite nice. David traipses back to his station with far less disappointment than he started with.

“Albert, if you please.”

David’s twin struggles under the weight of his thickly frosted cake. Chef Anthony rescues it from his arms and escorts him to the front of the room. His highlight has been baked as a whole sheet before being cut into messy blocks, each of which has been frosted within an inch of its life. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was trying to copy Ben’s Minecraft piece from the first challenge.

Mrs. Lee smiles politely. “Albert . . . were you trying for petit fours?”

“What’s that?”

She stares at him in disbelief for half a second. “Uh, never mind. What flavor is your cake?”

“White.”

“You mean vanilla?” Mom asks.

He shrugs. “I guess. It’s white.”

I groan internally. Mom takes a deep breath and smiles.

“Right. Let’s try it.”

Each of our judges transfers a block onto their plate and slices through the center to take a look. As I suspected, there’s almost as much frosting as actual cake, and my stomach turns at the sight of it. Mom is equally thrilled at the thought of having to put her piece in her mouth and ends up digging out just the middle to try.

“But the frosting’s the best part!” Albert protests.

If he doesn’t go home today, I’ll be shocked. There’s silence in the room as the two judges chew and swallow. Mrs. Lee gestures for something to drink, and Chef Anthony pours them both a glass of water. After a long sip, she takes a deep breath.

“I’m sorry, Albert, but your cake is dry. It’s been overbaked, and the frosting is too thick. This was not your best bake.”

He hasn’t had a single decent bake yet, but I keep my opinion to myself. Mom bobs her head up and down alongside her.

“It was a good try, Albert, but Mrs. Lee is right.”

I know it’s bad if Mom is agreeing with her nemesis. Albert’s face reddens, and his fists clench at his sides. Tension fills the bakeshop as we wait to see what he’ll do.

“Albert.”

Mrs. Kuan’s quiet but firm warning pricks through his anger, and Albert deflates. He stomps to his table while grumbling under his breath the entire time. I shake my head. It’s hard to believe he’s only a year younger than me.

As with day one, Sammy’s at the table and placing his highlight down before Chef Anthony calls his name. His naked cake is gorgeously decorated, the real flowers on the cake spiraling down the layers.

“Sammy! What a wonderful surprise,” says Mrs. Lee. “Your cake looks like it could be in the display case at my bakery.”

He presses both hands to his chest. “Thank you, Mrs. Lee! I feel so honored.”

Mom’s face might be unreadable to most, but I can tell she wishes she’d gotten to say that first. However, she bounces back with a bright smile.

“I’m excited to try this. What flavor did you pick?”

“Lemon poppy seed, with a cream cheese filling.”

Oh, that sounds amazing. I’m going to have to figure out a way to sneak a bite later. This time, Mom takes the lead after they have a taste.

“This is so moist, Sammy! The cream cheese doesn’t overwhelm the light flavor of the lemon at all.”

“Like I said,” Mrs. Lee adds. “I’d sell this in my display. No question.”

Mom and Mrs. Lee stare each other down while Sammy floats back to his station with a giant grin, positively bursting with pride.

“Ben, please bring up your cake,” Chef Anthony states.

Ben glances over at us as he moves to pick up his cake, but he stiffens as he spots someone over my left shoulder. I turn and am surprised to find Nathan tucked against the wall behind Jeannie, though I barely make out his face beneath the brim of his baseball cap. He looks like a celebrity who doesn’t want to be recognized. I knew the two of them had lunch together, but she must have convinced him to check out the highlight bake.

I frown as Ben exchanges a look with James, whose expression hardens upon seeing Nathan. His eyes then flick over to me for a single heartbeat before facing the judges once more.

Chef Anthony clears his throat. “Ben, your cake, please.”

Ben carries his cake across the floor, almost tripping at one point. My heart leaps into my throat, but he manages to right himself. He stands, ramrod straight, as he faces judging. Mom gestures at his cake.

“Your piping skills are incredible. Very nicely done.”

He barely manages to smile.

“Tell us about your cake,” Mrs. Lee states.

Ben doesn’t quite meet her eye. “It’s a Taiwanese sponge cake with fresh fruit filling. The frosting is actually colored whipped cream.”

Mom’s eyes light up. This is her specialty. She’s quick to remove a slice, going so far as to swipe at the frosting with her finger to taste. Based on what I can see, it looks like a well-executed bake. Mom agrees, but Mrs. Lee aims a more critical eye at it.

“I think the fruit layers could have been more evenly distributed, but all in all, a delicious cake.”

Ben practically rushes back to his station. If either judge notices, they don’t make mention of it. Unaware of the strain around him, Chef Anthony grins at James.

“Time for your cake, brilliant baker.”

Despite the way he just acted, I crane my neck to peek at his highlight. He’s been hiding it from view the whole time. When he steps away, I gasp.

“It’s a mousse cake,” I say to no one in particular.

“It’s a mango raspberry mousse cake,” James confirms. “With a vanilla sponge base.”

So that’s why he was going back and forth to the fridge earlier. There’s no denying it’s an expertly executed cake, with a thin raspberry glaze atop alternating layers of mango and raspberry mousse. When Mrs. Lee presses the knife into the top, it glides down without resistance. All the sections hold their shape as the slice is removed.

My mouth waters. Mango is one of my favorite flavors. No one utters a word while eating. It’s so good Mom closes her eyes for a minute to enjoy the aroma. Finally, she exhales.

“I don’t know what to say other than this is exceptional.”

This is high praise from Mom, who finds fault in anything and everything. He levels a look at Mrs. Lee as if expecting criticism.

“You’re a perfectionist, James, and it shows in this cake. Excellent.”

Her words take him off guard, but he recovers enough to offer a polite bow. Chef Anthony dismisses him back to his station and announces a short break for deliberation. Mrs. Lee and Mom head out of the bakeshop to discuss.

Grace and I are barely out of our seats when James approaches. The smile falls off my face as he brushes by me and heads right for Nathan.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing up here,” James hisses. “Who put you up to this?”

“No one,” Nathan replies calmly, though his jaw is tight. “I’m visiting my girlfriend.”

Girlfriend? That seems a bit premature. I glance at Jeannie, but she’s distracted by James as he spits out a reply.

“Like I really believe that.”

She steps between them. “You should. I am his girlfriend.”

He stares at her in disbelief before turning sharply toward me. “And you? How long have you known him?”

“We met during my trip to New York,” I answer slowly. “Why? What’s going on?”

He doesn’t offer an answer. I sense the shift in him before his eyes shutter.

“I see.”

James spins around and stalks over to Ben. He whispers something, and Ben shakes his head, but he repeats himself with urgency. The two cousins then leave the room together. Grace goes after them but returns almost immediately, her face riddled with shock.

I race to her side. “Grace? What happened?”

“He . . . he told me to stay away from him.”

“Who did?”

She looks at me with glistening eyes. “James. He wouldn’t let me talk to Ben.”

“What?”

Now I’m pissed. I move toward the door, intent on chasing them down, but she grabs me by the arm.

“Don’t go. I don’t want to be alone right now.”

A single tear trails down her cheek, and I know more will soon follow. I put an arm around her.

“Okay. Let’s go for a walk or something then.”

I lead her out into the hallway, careful to head in the opposite direction of where the guys went. Halfway to the end of the corridor, Grace breaks down. I pull her into my arms and hug her tightly as she cries. How dare James treat her this way? And Ben? What’s his excuse for not standing up for her? My eyes are drawn back to the bakeshop. It’s time to get some answers.

I murmur against her ear. “You okay?”

Her chin taps my shoulder. I duck down to examine her face. Her cheeks are streaked with half-dried tears.

“Let’s go talk to Nathan,” I suggest. “Maybe he can tell us what’s going on.”

I thread an arm through hers and drag her back to the bakeshop. We make a beeline for Nathan. He’s talking with Jeannie but stops when he spots us.

“You want to know what happened, don’t you?”

I nod, and he gestures for us to sit down. I turn two chairs in the row in front of him around and guide Grace into one before taking the other. He scans the partially empty room before leaning in.

“Okay, the short version is I’ve known Ben and James for years. Our parents did business together, so we spent a lot of time around each other. We even attended the same academy in New York, but I was a grade ahead. James always acted like he’s better than everyone else, but in high school, Ben and I started hanging out more. It didn’t take long for James to become jealous of how close we were getting.”

As much as I hate to admit it, I can see James feeling threatened by someone as easygoing as Nathan.

“Anyway, when Ben refused to stop being my friend, James did everything he could to make me look bad. He convinced Ben’s parents I was the reason their son was partying so much, especially after he wrecked his car one night. They went so far as to contact my modeling agency and get me dropped. After that, Ben stopped talking to me too. It’s been a year now, and I’m still having trouble booking jobs.”

I fall back against my chair, and my chest starts to throb. Can this really be true? I glance at Grace, who’s staring at Nathan with a pinched expression.

“I’m so sorry this happened to you, babe,” Jeannie answers, pressing a kiss to his cheek. “It must have been awful.”

“That wasn’t even the worst part. I found out my dad was having an affair with Ben’s mom too.” Nathan drops his head. “I treated them like brothers, and they turned their backs on me. It’s part of the reason why I came down for the summer, to get away from the drama. At least, that’s what I thought I was doing.”

My head is spinning. I remember him mentioning his dad’s affairs, but with Ben’s mom? This is only supposed to happen in Asian dramas. Nathan presses his face into Jeannie’s shoulder, and she murmurs comforting words. Grace turns to me.

“Can I borrow you for a sec?”

“Yeah, sure.”

She leads me out of the room and down the hall to the cafeteria. After checking to make sure we’re alone, she gestures for me to sit down at the closest table.

“Do you believe him, Liza?”

“I . . . maybe?” I tug at my earring. “I don’t know.”

“I think he’s lying. Or at least, not telling us everything,” Grace says.

The conviction in her tone makes me raise my eyebrows.

“Why do you think that?”

She glances out the window. “It’s something Ben told me a while back, that he almost got in trouble with the police because of a false accusation. That’s why his parents suggested he move down here early.”

“Did he give you a name?”

“No, but now that all this has happened, I’m sure it’s Nathan.”

I frown. “Maybe we should go ask him, then.”

I start to head back, but she stops me. “Don’t! He’ll know that we know.”

“How can he possibly know that we know?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t want Nathan to know we know what Ben knows.”

My brain nearly short-circuits from the wheel of knows. Taking a moment to reorient myself, I consider her accusation. Can Nathan really be the reason why Ben fled New York? Conveniently, the one person who can clear this up isn’t talking.

We head quickly back to the bakeshop to rejoin the others. As if summoned by our conversation, Ben and James enter the room together. Both steadfastly avoid meeting anyone’s eye as they return to their stations. Mom, Mrs. Lee, and Chef Anthony return shortly after.

“The judges have deliberated. Mrs. Lee, if you please?”

She tucks her hands behind her back, but her eyes dim when they land on James’s station. I don’t have to see his face to know what’s probably on it.

“Mrs. Yang and I were unanimous in our decision this bake. The contestant going home today is . . . Albert.”

I tense. Rather than throwing a bowl or something equally breakable, Albert slouches on his stool and pouts.

“As for our brilliant baker this week, it goes to someone who already showed great promise on day one. Congratulations, James. You’ve done it again.”

There’s a smattering of applause in the room. He never takes his eyes off the front wall nor makes an attempt to smile. Mom is perplexed but smiles at the rest of the group.

“Well, contestants, it’s been quite an exciting day. I hope you get some rest and relaxation before we meet again. Just don’t forget to practice, because the next challenge theme is . . . bread.”

Sammy pumps his fist. “Yes!”

The minute we’re dismissed, Ben flees. James looks back at me once, eyes unreadable, before following his cousin out the door.

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