A Taste for Love: Chapter 25


After returning home from the Water Wall, I spend most of the night waiting for a lecture that never comes. We even make it through an entire family dinner without Mom offering a single criticism. I’m totally weirded out by this kinder, more trusting version of her, even though I’ve wanted this my whole life. Jeannie and I still aren’t talking, so I can’t really ask her about it.

When I glance across the table at Dad, he only shrugs. Half of me expects to wake up in the middle of the night to her standing over my bed with a butcher knife. Needless to say, I don’t get much sleep. It’s just as well, because I’m super anxious about telling Mom and Dad about Nathan.

The next day, I pull them into the kitchen before Jeannie gets up and confess my suspicions about his sabotaging the contest. Dad’s so stunned he can only shake his head.

Mom rubs her face and frowns. “Are you sure Nathan is to blame for this? He seems so . . .”

“Perfect?”

Her eye twitches before she replies. “I was going to say nice.”

“I’m sure that’s how he gets away with doing these things.”

With a little pleading, Mom agrees to help me convince Jeannie to hear Ben out. Within a couple of hours, Ben and Jeannie are sitting in the study with the door closed. Grace is perched on the couch, staring blankly at the fireplace while wrapped in her own thoughts. She wanted to be there in case Jeannie had any questions. James, who insisted on coming with Ben too, moves to stand by me. He’s wearing a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, paired with slim-cut jeans. I glance at him.

“Do you always dress like this?”

He winks. “Only if I’m trying to impress someone.”

“So . . . this is your ‘meet-the-mom’ outfit?”

His grin melts my insides. “Do you think it’ll work?”

“It’s working on someone,” Grace quips.

I scowl at her, but it’s rendered ineffective by the flush of my cheeks.

James laughs. “I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future.”

I go to shove him, but he captures my hand in his and tugs me closer. My head tilts automatically, but we’re interrupted.

“Liza.”

I twirl around at the sound of Mom’s voice. She gestures for me to join her in the kitchen, but I’m rooted to the spot.

James touches my arm. “Are you going to be okay?”

“She’s not going to murder me with guests present, if that’s what you’re asking,” I half joke.

“Seriously, Liza. Do you want me to go with you?”

I smile and cover his hand with mine. “Thanks, I’ll be okay.”

Mom is sitting at the kitchen table when I walk in, and I lower myself into the seat she’s pulled for me. For a few tense minutes, I’m a bug under Mom’s watchful eye. Finally, she tips her head and speaks.

“Are you doing this so I’ll leave you alone?”

It takes my brain a second to deduce what she’s really asking, but then I shake my head.

“No. I really like James.”

There’s another long pause before she nods.

“Good. Then his mom and I approve.”

Wait . . . what?

“You talked to his mom?”

“Of course I did,” she says, arranging the mail Dad left on the table. “When you came home so late that night, I called his parents to check if you were with him. His mom answered the phone.”

“You—” I gasp. “Did you call Ben’s parents too?”

“Why would I do that? It’s obvious he likes Grace.” She laughs at my hanging jaw. “I do pay attention, Liza. Especially when it comes to the people my daughters spend time with.”

My mind circles back to what she said first. “What do you mean James’s mom approves?”

“While we were on the phone, Mrs. Wong kept asking questions about our family, so I asked her why. Apparently, James had explained how the contest worked, and when he mentioned your name, he lit up. Mrs. Wong said she’d never seen him look so happy before.”

My face burns hotter than Szechuan peppers hearing this. If Mom notices, she chooses not to comment. She sets the mail on the kitchen counter behind her.

“Anyway, she asked to hear more about you, so I told her all about the things you’ve accomplished. She was very impressed to hear about your baking skills, by the way. It seems Mrs. Wong’s quite the baker herself. Of course, I asked about James too, and I have to say, he sounds like a very nice young man.”

I’m speechless. For once, Mom’s matchmaking worked to my advantage. She must be thinking along the same lines because she lets out a triumphant laugh.

“See, Liza? I knew he would be the right one. You should have more faith in your mom.”

Apparently, Mom’s just going to pretend like she didn’t have a whole help-Edward-win-Liza’s-heart scheme, but I’ll let it slide. After all, she did talk me up to Mrs. Wong.

“Thanks for having my back, Mom.”

“You’re welcome.”

Mom goes to check on Jeannie and Ben, while I head back into the living room to update James on our conversation. When I get to the part about what happened between our moms, his cheeks redden.

“They really did that? Shit,” he says a little loudly.

He claps his hand over his mouth. It’s so unexpected, I just about die laughing.

James grins sheepishly and rubs the back of his neck. “Ah, sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Are you kidding?” I poke him in the ribs. “I’ve been waiting for this since the day we met!”

His eyes twinkle as he threads his arm around my waist.

“Is that all you’ve been waiting for?”

I giggle as James dips his head down to meet mine, but the door to the study opens, and we pull apart. My heart sinks when I spot Jeannie. She reminds me of a wilted flower, crumpled and broken. I wanted her to know the truth about Nathan, but seeing her hurt like this makes me question if I did the right thing.

“What he did to you was terrible,” Jeannie tells Ben with fervent eyes. “I swear. I had no idea.”

“I know you didn’t. I’m just glad you were willing to hear me out.”

They share a tentative smile. Then Ben moves over to sit by Grace, while Jeannie looks over at me. I don’t know which of us moves first, but a second later, we’re hugging and talking over each other in the middle of the room.

“I should’ve believed you,” she says. “I should’ve known who to trust.”

“It’s okay,” I answer back. “He’s a really good liar.”

“All those things I said to you . . .”

I shake my head against her cheek. “Already forgotten.”

“Will you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive.”

Jeannie squeezes me hard and then steps over to Mom. She bows her head in shame.

“I’m sorry. I’m the one who brought him into this and ruined the contest. He wouldn’t have even come down here if it wasn’t for me.”

Mom strokes her cheek. “It’s not your fault. He was the one who decided to do this. Not you.”

“It certainly seems like he’s been trying to make James and me look like the guilty ones,” Ben adds. “After all, he made sure I was the one who found the trashed bakeshop.”

This only adds to Jeannie’s distress. She pulls her phone out of her pocket.

“I am going to break up with him right now.”

“Actually,” James interjects, “I’d prefer if you waited a while.”

“What? Why?”

Everyone turns to stare at him. He leans casually against the doorway.

“If we’re going to catch Nathan in the act, he can’t know we suspect him. He needs to think you still believe him.”

“James is right,” Grace states. “The only way we’re going to stop him is to have concrete proof he’s behind all this.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“Give him a perfect opportunity to do something more, and get it on video,” James explains.

“Do you think Mrs. Lee is part of this?” Mom interrupts quietly. “Did I make a mistake bringing her on board?”

I’m across the room in the blink of an eye. Jeannie takes one of Mom’s hands in hers.

“Mrs. Lee never knew he tried blackmailing me,” Ben assures. “And honestly, she would never risk her or her company’s reputation like this.”

I smile gratefully at him. Grace slips her hand into his, and he relaxes against her. Jeannie and I exchange a look before she turns to James with a determined set to her jaw.

“What can we do to help?”


Our plan is put in motion before everyone gathers for the next round of competition. After letting Chef Anthony in on the situation, he agrees to help us spring the trap. Jeannie texts Nathan, pretending to be too busy to meet up because the contest is almost finished. The night before bake day, she texts and asks him to stop by the bakeshop so they can spend some time together. Luckily, he agrees.


In the morning, everyone gathers around the table in the prep room. A short time later, we hear Jeannie’s voice in the hall.

“I just need to grab my purse,” she says. “You mind coming with me?”

“Sure, babe.”

Jeannie enters first, her face etched with tension. Nathan steps in a second behind her, and his eyes go wide when he sees we’re all inside.

“Nathan?” Mrs. Lee scowls. “What are you doing here?”

“Er . . . Mom! I . . . I . . .” he stammers. “Remember how you wanted me to take some summer courses to catch up on my credits? Well, I found some down here that I could take since I was in town for a shoot.”

I can tell Mrs. Lee is gearing up to yell at him for not telling her sooner, but Mom distracts her by explaining Ben has been disqualified for stealing the recipe book and trashing the bakeshop.

Mrs. Lee’s hand covers her mouth. “Are you sure it was him? I’ve known him and his family for a long time. He’s not the type to cause this sort of trouble.”

I peer at Nathan, and my blood boils at the smirk on his face.

Mom leans against the table. “I’m afraid so. He’s the only person who had the opportunity and time. One of Chef Anthony’s students came forward and told us she saw him in the building thirty minutes earlier than he said he was. Plus, while the rest of us were trying to piece together what happened, Ben excused himself to go to the bathroom. That’s when my recipe book went missing.”

“Did you ask him why he did it?” Mrs. Lee asks.

“All he would say is that he wanted to get back at Nathan for what happened before.”

“What do you mean?” She turns to her son. “What happened? I thought you two were back on good terms.”

Nathan manages an innocent shrug. While I’m glad Mrs. Lee doesn’t know anything, seeing how easily he manipulated everyone makes me even angrier.

“I tried to get Ben to say more,” Chef Anthony adds with a shake of his head. “But he clammed up after I told him I might have to press charges for the damage he caused.”

Mrs. Lee’s eyes harden. “And James?”

“He wasn’t involved. Ben acted alone,” Mom affirms.

Mrs. Lee is less than convinced, but she relents. “What does that mean for us today?”

“I’d like to get ahead of the negative publicity.” Mom presses a hand to her temple. “It’s only a matter of time before word gets out about what happened.”

Chef Anthony jumps in and offers the suggestion we practiced with him early this morning.

“In that case, since we only have three remaining contestants, how would you feel about making the technical the semifinal round? That way, we can have the highlight as the final and crown a winner before anyone catches wind of the situation.”

Mom pretends to consider it before reluctantly agreeing with a heavy sigh.

“I don’t see any other choice, unless you can think of something, Mrs. Lee.”

“I’m just here to judge,” Mrs. Lee defers. “Whatever you think is best.”

There’s not a hint of malice in her reply. I glance between Mom and her. It’s nice to see the competition has turned them from enemies to friendly competitors over the past weeks.

“We should give them time to prepare. Not to mention for us to make the necessary changes,” Mom states as she walks over to Chef Anthony. “Maybe we should delay the bake until this afternoon.”

“Sounds fair. I guess there’s nothing left but to update the contestants,” he replies.

We file out of the room in somber silence, and I stick to the back of the group as we head toward the bakeshop. Jeannie and Nathan are walking directly in front of me. I’m proud of how well she’s holding up, considering I’m one domino away from full-on collapse.

Jeannie whispers something in Nathan’s ear with a giggle, never giving away the fact that she knows exactly what kind of person he is.

“Oh, really?”

Predictably, he glances over his shoulder and waves me toward them.

“Come on, Liza! Keep up!”

I pick up my pace and force myself not to cringe when he throws an arm over my shoulder.

“Jeannie tells me you’ve got something special planned for the last technical.”

“Yeah. I was saving it for the final, but since we’re cutting things short, it’ll make it easy to weed out the weakest contestant.”

“Who do you think will win?” Jeannie prompts.

I count five steps before answering. “Things could always change, but I think James will take it.”

Nathan’s eyes jerk back to me. “James? How do you figure?”

“Well, I know he didn’t win the bread challenge, but of the three bakers left, he’s been the most consistent.”

“That’s true, and we both know how much Mom loves consistency,” Jeannie adds in a stage-whisper.

I don’t need to read Nathan’s mind to see the wheels turning in his head right now.

“What about Sammy?” he asks. “He won the bread challenge. Or Edward?”

I scoff. “I think Sammy got lucky last time. As for Edward, he’s a solid third place. It would take a lot to knock James off the podium.”

Nathan’s eyes dart over to Mom, and a frown deepens on his face. We arrive at the bakeshop, and Jeannie tugs him inside. Chef Anthony announces us in order; I enter last. My eyes immediately lock on James. I wink at him, knowing Nathan’s watching us from the sidelines. Though it’s for show, my heart flutters at his smile.

“Contestants, families, and friends,” Mom begins. “In the five years since I created this contest, we’ve never faced as many challenges as we have this time around. Unfortunately, I must announce more bad news. After a thorough investigation, we’ve determined contestant number nine, Ben Chan, was responsible for sabotaging last week’s challenge. As such, he has been disqualified.”

A round of gasps circles the room. Predictably, many in the audience turn to James, who does an admirable job of appearing utterly stunned while standing behind his station.

“While I know this is shocking news, the show must go on. With only three contestants remaining, however, Mrs. Lee and I have agreed to make this bake the last of the competition.”

“How’s that going to work?” Edward asks with concern.

“We will use the technical challenge as our semifinal round. The top two bakers will then move on to the final highlight. Since this change is being made at the last minute, we will delay the start of the bake until two o’clock this afternoon. Take the extra time to prepare if you need, but don’t forget to have a good lunch. Good luck.”

No one moves at first. Then Jeannie urges Nathan to stand up and leave, which triggers a wave of activity toward the door. The family members file out first, since they’re closest to the door, followed by the bakers. I suppress a smile when Edward grabs Sarah’s hand in clear view of Mom. Once the room clears, Mrs. Lee is the first of the staff to leave, followed by Chef Anthony. Mom and I walk out last, arm in arm.

“Do you think it’ll work?” she says under her breath.

“Definitely. He’s plotting something.”

“Is everything set up?”

“Yep. They’re ready and waiting.”

We head out to the parking lot. With Nathan standing nearby, Chef Anthony feigns forgetting to lock the front doors of the building. He waves goodbye and leaves, while the rest of us debate where to go for brunch. Nathan begs off with a sudden stomachache.

“Do you want me to drive you back to your Airbnb?” Jeannie offers.

“No, no,” he groans, a hand on his stomach. “You go with your family. I can drive myself.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. Go enjoy brunch for me.”

We keep on our masks of sympathy until he’s pulled out of the parking lot. James steps out of the building once we let him know it’s safe. Ben and Grace then hop out of her car to join us.

“I’ve got the camera on record,” Ben tells us. “We’ll catch him if he tries anything.”

“He will. There’s no way he can resist,” James answers.

“In the meantime, I’m starving,” Dad blurts out. “How about we head to the restaurant and I’ll cook?”

The suggestion earns him enthusiastic replies. Mom agrees to let me ride with Grace and the guys, but I try not to look too thrilled. I hop into the back, and James links our hands as soon as he gets in the car. He also leans in for a kiss, but I push him back over to his side.

“My mom’s watching.”

He pouts. “How do you know?”

“Trust me.”

In that very moment, Dad drives by us. Mom stares directly into the car, her eagle eyes searching for inappropriate behavior.

I burst out laughing. “Told ya.”

“Phew! That was close.”

Once my parents are out of view, I slide across the seat and cup his cheeks, bringing our faces within inches of each other with a grin.

“Not as close as this.”

Without warning, James closes the distance and presses his lips against mine. I don’t resist when he kisses me a second time and giggle when he plants one on the tip of my nose as well. Ben groans loudly from the driver’s seat.

“Can’t you guys save it for later?”

We break apart and laugh. James makes a face at his cousin.

“Don’t be jealous. You volunteered to drive.”

“Speaking of which,” Grace reminds us all, “we should get going before Nathan catches us in the parking lot.”

The thought is sobering, and I scoot back to my side. Once we arrive at Yin and Yang, Ben gets out, his laptop tucked under one arm and Grace under the other. Jeannie opens the door so we can head inside and locks it behind us. Dad scurries through the curtains to start cooking. Meanwhile, Mom heads into the bakery kitchen but shoos me away when I come near.

“It’s a surprise,” she says.

My eyebrows shoot up, but I know better than to question her. Instead, I join everyone else at one of the round tables usually reserved for large parties.

Dad really outdoes himself, pulling together a four-course brunch in less than thirty minutes. When the food is ready, Jeannie and I help carry out all the dishes. Then, we sit around the table to eat.

“This is delicious,” Ben tells him a few bites later. “Better than my mom makes, but don’t tell her.”

James nods. “He’s right. This three-cup chicken tastes exactly like the saˉnbeˉijıˉ I ate during a trip to Taiwan. Maybe better.”

Grace doesn’t bother with words, her enthusiastic request for seconds a compliment in itself. Mom disappears about halfway through the meal, and within fifteen minutes, the aroma of freshly baked pastries wafts over to us.

“What did you make, Mrs. Yang?” Grace asks, her eyes lighting up. “Please tell me it’s your custard buns.”

Mom grins. “It’s my custard buns.”

“Yes!” Grace whoops.

Ben raises an eyebrow. “That good, huh?”

“Wait until you taste them. They’re the best things ever.”

Mom proves her right when she brings them out in baskets to share. I gently pull mine in half to release the steam and let it cool. Then I pop it in my mouth, savoring the softness of the white dough mixed with the lightly sweet yellow custard inside.

“Ugh,” Ben groans after devouring what’s left of his bun. “This is the best.”

I peer over at James, curious how he’ll judge them. His eyes close briefly as he chews. When he swallows, he tips his head toward me.

“Can you make these?”

“Of course I can. My mom taught me years ago.”

He stares deep into my eyes. “Marry me.”

Chopsticks clatter onto the table. I don’t need to see who dropped them. Thankfully, Mom knows he’s joking.

I slap James on the arm. “You keep that up, and she’ll make sure you’re stuck with me forever.”

“I could live with that,” he quips.

I feel my cheeks flush at his playful grin. Ben comes to my rescue, or at least, his laptop does. He set it up on the next table over, and it’s going off, alerting us that the surveillance system has been triggered. All conversations cease as we huddle around to watch the feed. Nathan steps into view, clear as day, and heads straight for James’s workstation. He sifts through the ingredients for the technical before removing several key ingredients and pocketing them. Then he covers everything back up with the cloth and sneaks out of the room.

Ben grins. “Bingo.”

He saves the clip into a separate file and closes the laptop. Jeannie’s face crumples, and she excuses herself quickly. I start to go after her, but Mom puts up a hand.

“I’ll take care of her. You finish eating.”

My nerves have returned, and they chase away my appetite. Nevertheless, I force the rest of my food down before helping Dad clear the table. Then we all head back to the culinary school. Chef Anthony is already on site, and we all step back inside.

When Mrs. Lee arrives in the break room, Mom pulls her aside to talk privately. As their hushed whispers give way to aggravated tones, it’s clear whatever camaraderie they’d built over the past weeks is fading fast.

“Are you trying to get rid of your competition? Is that why you’re doing this?” Mrs. Lee fumes. “Because I’ll tell you now it’s not going to work. Accusing my son of something like this is only going to earn you a lawsuit.”

To Mom’s credit, she remains calm. “Mrs. Lee, if that was my intention, don’t you think I’d find a better way than sabotaging my own contest?”

“But you said this was Ben’s doing!” Mrs. Lee jabs a finger in his direction. “You told everyone.”

“Yes, I did, because it was the only way to confirm who the real culprit was,” Mom replies. “We needed time to gather the evidence.”

Mrs. Lee pales. “Evidence?”

Mom sighs and gestures for her to sit. “Let me show you.”

Mrs. Lee sinks into the seat while Ben cues up the video. We stand behind her, clustered together, as she watches. When she sees Nathan grab the ingredients, Mrs. Lee gasps and clutches her chest, her face etched with shock.

“I can’t believe it’s really him. Please accept my apologies, Mrs. Yang. I don’t know why Nathan did any of this, but if I had known, I would have stopped him. I hope you believe me.”

Mom lays a hand on her shoulder. “I believe you. We’re planning to confront him with the footage, Mrs. Lee. I’ll understand if you’d rather not be here for it.”

“No, I’ll stay. He’s my son, and my responsibility.” Mrs. Lee turns to Chef Anthony. “Please send me the bill for everything he damaged. I’ll take care of it.”

He nods. With the first reveal out of the way, we take our places and brace for what’s to come. Mom turns to Jeannie.

“Are you sure you can do this?”

“Yes. I need to make this right for Ben.”

“Okay. We’ll be here when you get back.”

She leaves to find Nathan. A few minutes later, we hear them in the hall. Jeannie’s voice is tinged with anxiety, but Nathan doesn’t seem to notice. He’s the first to walk into the room.

“What’s so important I have to—”

His eyes land on Ben and James. He stiffens, his hands forming fists at his sides. When Mrs. Lee steps forward, however, the hard, angry look in his eyes softens into fear. Her normally polished demeanor has given way to fury, and she glowers at him with the death glare all Asian kids recognize.

“Nathan George Lee, what were you thinking?! Do you have any idea how ashamed I am of you right now?”

He backs against the wall. “Mom, they’re lying! I didn’t do anything!”

“Don’t you dare try to deny it. I saw the video of you stealing ingredients off James’s workstation.”

To prove her point, she presses play on Ben’s laptop. Nathan’s face turns ashen as the proof of his guilt plays out in front of him.

“If you think I’m mad, wait until your dad finds out what you’ve been up to,” Mrs. Lee threatens. “You can kiss your expense account goodbye.”

“But this is his fault.” He explodes, pointing at Ben, then James. “And his too.”

“Stop blaming everyone else for your bad decisions, son. It’s my fault. I’ve spoiled you for so long, but not anymore.” Mrs. Lee crosses her arms over her chest. “This time, you risked our family’s reputation. We could have had a lawsuit on our hands!”

Nathan balks. “What about Dad? What about him cheating on you with Ben’s mom? If it wasn’t for her, we’d still be a family!”

Mrs. Lee flushes, her eyes darting from face to face. Every major ad campaign for Mama Lee Bakeries has her loving husband standing by her side. I clued Mom and Dad in to the divorce already, so they don’t react. To his credit, Chef Anthony manages to keep his expression blank.

Mrs. Lee glares at Nathan. “I don’t know where you got that idea from, but that never happened. Your father and I decided to split up for other reasons—ones I will not discuss right now.”

Nathan, getting no sympathy from his mother, grabs on to Jeannie for support.

“Babe, you have to believe me. They forced me to do this. It’s their fault!”

She shrugs his hand off her arm and walks over to the door.

“Well, I’m not being forced to do this. Nathan, we’re done,” she says.

Jeannie gestures to the open doorway, but Nathan doesn’t leave. Not yet. Blotches of red mar his even complexion as he lunges toward James. Ben steps between them at the last minute, giving Mrs. Lee a chance to clamp a hand on to her son’s arm.

“You’ve embarrassed us enough already. Leave right now. I’ll deal with you later.”

“But, Mom—”

“Now!”

He rushes out of the room, humiliated. It’s only then that Mrs. Lee slumps against the table and covers her face with her hands. Mom sits down beside her.

“Would you like me to push the baking to tomorrow?”

“No, thank you,” Mrs. Lee replies after a pause. “Let’s go ahead and finish.”

After composing herself, she joins the rest of us in walking back to the bakeshop. Excitement and nervousness are palpable in the air as we enter. Chef Anthony steps forward, raking his eyes across the room.

“It’s time.”

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