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A Taste for Love: Chapter 26

There’s less than a half hour left of our final technical challenge—dessert jelly. Inspired by the agar cake I made in New York, I created a recipe based off yoˉkan. In addition to the two different colored layers of jelly, it must be flavored with red bean and milk with chunks of strawberries mixed in. To make it even more difficult, the dessert needs to be light while still holding its shape.

Before we began, all of James’s missing ingredients were replaced. Since Ben wanted to be in the audience to support him, he snuck in after time began and sat in the back row. I’m pretty sure some of the other mothers noticed him, but Grace glared at them until they went back to minding their own business.

I’m glad we’re finally nearing the end of the bake because my patience is at its end as well. Mom grabs my knee to stop me from squirming in the chair for the hundredth time.

“Which two contestants do you think will pass your challenge?” she asks.

“James, definitely,” I answer honestly. “It’s a toss-up between the other two, but my money’s on Sammy.”

“You don’t think Edward can do it?”

Despite giving James her approval, Mom apparently hasn’t let go of the hope of matching me with a future doctor. Even the way he keeps smiling at Sarah hasn’t been enough to deter her.

I shrug. “It’s always possible. There is a science to getting the right consistency. If Edward times it right, he could win it.”

Chef Anthony’s voice rings out into the hallway a second later.

“Ten seconds left, contestants! You have ten seconds left!”

Mom and I stand just outside the door as our host counts down.

“Time, gentlemen! Move away from your jellies!”

Once the three plates are transferred to the table, we walk in and face the remaining contestants. Only one of the jellies is perfectly set. It’s easy to assume it belongs to James, but I do my best not to jump to conclusions. After all, Sammy surprised us all last time. We start with the dish on the far right. It’s held its shape, but tiny cracks in the jelly reveal that it was pushed out of the mold rather than carefully removed. When I press the fork into it, it bows ever so slightly.

“It’s just a hair too soft for this type of yoˉkan,” I conclude. “However, it looks pretty good, and the flavors are well balanced.”

Mom nods in agreement, and we move on to the second jelly. Rather than a pert, bouncy dessert, the yoˉkan has spread across the plate like Jabba the Hutt. Mom pokes at what remains of the saggy jelly.

“This baker struggled a lot. It wasn’t given enough time to set, which means the flavors have melded together. On the plus side, it does still taste like it should.”

The last one is by far the best looking, with the right firmness and chew. The flavors are distinct in each layer but also come together beautifully.

“This is exactly how it should look and taste.” I turn to Mom. “What do you think?”

“I agree. Whoever made this knew what they were doing.”

The deliberation is pretty much already done, so we go ahead and rank the jellies. I’m glad we didn’t bet on the winner because I would have lost. It’s Sammy’s jelly we loved the most, followed by James, and then Edward. I quirk an eyebrow at James, who grins sheepishly.

“I’m sorry, Edward,” Mom says gently. “You had a great run, but unfortunately, you are eliminated from the finals. Congratulations, James and Sammy. You are our finalists.”

Edward’s face falls, but he puts a broad smile on and bows in our direction.

“Thank you all for the opportunity. I wish both James and Sammy good luck.”

We give him a round of applause as he walks over to his mom in the audience. She gives him a comforting pat on the back as he plops into the seat next to her. Sarah surreptitiously slides onto the chair on Edward’s other side, and he sneaks his hand into hers. She catches me looking at them and blushes. I guess it’s official now.

Chef Anthony raises his hand to get everyone’s attention.

“Let’s take a quick break. Make sure you get back in time because the final is next!”

He ushers everyone out of the room quickly so we can get set up one last time. Gloria and the other students have the stations cleared off and cleaned within minutes. Mom and I then rearrange everything by going through the lists of ingredients Sammy and James gave us for their highlights. When we give Chef Anthony the signal, he escorts everyone back in. As soon as we’re all in position, the final bake begins.

With Mom and Mrs. Lee set to judge like usual, I head over to sit with Grace and Jeannie along the wall. This puts Sarah directly behind me, and she taps me on the shoulder. I swivel halfway in my chair as she leans over.

“Is everything okay? I was really worried after you ran off the other day. I know you said you were busy with all this, but . . .”

With all the chaos surrounding the last few days, I’d completely forgotten to tell Sarah what happened. As if in sync, several people in the audience shift in their seats to listen in on our conversation.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch,” I answer in a low voice. “We should get together after this and catch up. All of us.”

Sarah smiles, leaning closer and dropping her voice down to a whisper.

“By the way, I wanted to tell you what Edward told me. He said he only joined the contest for his mom. He refused to date an Asian girl she picked for him, so she pressured him into competing.”

Oh, the irony.

“Well, I’m glad he made his own decision this time,” I remark after sneaking a peek at James.

“But what if his mom doesn’t approve of me?” Sarah asks, eyes brimming with worry.

“Don’t think like that. Remember, you’re smart, kind, and amazing. That’s why Edward likes you. You’ll win her over. It just might take some time.”

“Are you speaking from experience?”

My eyes drift over to Mom. She’s strolling between James’s and Sammy’s stations with arms folded across her chest, watching them like a vulture.

I smile. “You could say that.”

“Well, that answers one of my questions,” Sarah answers, giggling.

I poke her on the arm. “Speaking of which, don’t forget you can always ask me questions. Grace, too.”

“I will. I promise. I really want to learn more about Asian culture.” She pauses and shakes her head. “I mean, cultures. Plural.”

“That’s definitely a good start.”

Sarah turns back to Edward when he taps her on the arm. Our eyes meet for a brief second, and he offers a faint smile. I grin before turning my attention back to the bakers.

James is all technique and precision with his coffee and cream jelly. He’s bent over his station in fierce concentration, measuring and slicing each layer with knives and rulers. I bite back a sigh. Nothing makes my heart race like a guy who knows how to bake.

Except for maybe a really hot guy who knows how to bake.

As if to prove my point, James applies gentle pressure to the grid slicer to cut his finished jelly. A shiver runs down my back when the tool slides out without disturbing a single square. James meets my eye and winks before turning away to plate his highlight.

Boba tea sounds really good right now. With extra ice.

I force my gaze over to Sammy and his three-layer rainbow jelly cake. Dyes are spread all over his table, and his apron is covered in splashes of bright color. He pours the different combinations into his mold, eyeing his proportions rather than weighing it all out. His instinctual baking style is utterly entertaining, and I find myself cheering him on.

The two of them reach the end of the bake in what feels like minutes, instead of the three hours allotted for this final highlight. Both James and Sammy plate their jelly at the last minute possible to ensure a clean presentation. When Chef Anthony calls time, James walks over to Sammy, and they shake hands. Mom and Mrs. Lee step up to taste their final highlights. James is first.

“The layers are identical in shape and size,” Mom observes in an awed voice. “It looks like it was cut and put together by a machine.”

After tasting, Mrs. Lee is the first to offer her opinion. There isn’t an ounce of disdain in her expression.

“I am a self-professed coffee snob, and this tastes just like the cakes from my favorite shop. You even managed to mimic the foam on top. Delicious. Great job, James.”

He’s clearly not expecting such praise from her, but he recovers and murmurs a thanks. James trades places with Sammy. He’s carved his jelly cake in the shape of Texas, even marking Houston’s location by hollowing out a star.

“You really pushed yourself on this highlight,” Mrs. Lee comments. “I count . . . four, five, six distinct colors in your jellies?”

“Yes, and they’re each a different flavor,” Sammy replies, chest puffed out.

“Really? Well, let’s dig in, then.”

As they each take a bite, the two judges exchange identical looks of appreciation. Mom even goes back a second time before critiquing it.

“You’ve surprised me again, Sammy. I expected to be overwhelmed with too many flavors, but you managed to pick ones that blend beautifully together. And the extra effort in cutting it into the shape of Texas? Very nice!”

Sammy floats back to his station with a giant, toothy grin. With the judging complete, Chef Anthony addresses the room.

“Both our bakers delivered amazing pieces today, and I don’t envy the judges for the job they have to do now. Mrs. Yang, Mrs. Lee, you may leave to deliberate.”

Once they’re gone, Ben turns to Grace and me with an anxious expression.

“Who do you think will win?”

I already know the answer but decide it’s more fun to wait and see their reactions. Sammy moves over to chat with his family, and James strolls over to us. To avoid any accusations, he stands close to me but doesn’t take my hand.

“Congratulations, James,” Grace offers with a smile. “They really liked your cake. I hope you win.”

James tugs at his collar and takes a deep breath. “Grace, you deserve an apology. What I did was wrong, and I know it really hurt you. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Has Ben forgiven you?”

Her question takes him off guard. James glances over at Ben before answering.

“Um, yes?”

“Then I forgive you too. But only if you promise to keep a certain person happy.”

He’s careful not to look my way, but he grins. “That’s a promise I don’t mind making.”

The judges walk back into the room then, cutting off the rest of our conversation. James and Sammy position themselves at the front of the room, and Mrs. Lee and Mom stand on either side of them. Though I’ve already guessed who they’ve chosen, I’m still excited for it to be official.

“The judges have made their decision,” Chef Anthony proclaims loudly. “And the winner of the Fifth Annual Yin and Yang Junior Baking Competition, the one who will receive the scholarship and private lessons at Yin and Yang Bakery and Restaurant, is . . .”

He pauses for effect. It’s so quiet you can almost hear their hearts pounding, and the entire room leans in to hear the answer.

“Sammy Ma!”

Sammy’s frozen in place as his family starts whistling and screaming. James gives him a clap on the back before stepping aside. Mom hands him the glass trophy, and Mrs. Lee steps up with an oversized novelty check.

“Sammy, in addition to your trophy and bragging rights, I’m delighted to give you this fifteen-thousand-dollar scholarship check to the college of your choosing. We see great things in your future.”

Sammy beams through a series of photos with Mom, Mrs. Lee, and Chef Anthony. His family runs up to embrace him, crying and laughing at his win. It reminds me of how excited I was whenever I won a baking contest. Mom must be thinking along the same lines because our eyes meet across the room.

I smile.

She does too, and for once, there’s only pride in her eyes.

After the celebrations are over, everyone convenes in the cafeteria, where Dad, Danny, and Tina have set up a little celebration to thank Chef Anthony and all the students who helped with this year’s contest. Two rectangular tables have been pushed together, lined with catering trays brimming with Dad’s most popular dishes. There are also gift bags containing an assortment of Mom’s pastries on the far end.

As Mom and I are filling up our plates, Chef Anthony walks over and shakes Mom’s hand.

“Mrs. Yang, it was quite the roller coaster this year, but it was a ton of fun too. I hope you’ll come back and visit us next year.”

“Thank you, for everything,” she tells him. “We couldn’t have pulled this off without you.”

He smiles warmly at Mrs. Lee. “It was a pleasure meeting and getting to know you. I would love for you to consider mentoring some of my students.”

“I’d be happy to,” she answers, handing him a business card. “Contact my people, and we’ll work something out.”

He puts a hand on my shoulder and peers down at me. “Speaking of which, Liza, you really impressed me this year. If you ever decide you’d like to give culinary school a try, you’ve got a spot here.”

My eyes fly immediately to Mom and Dad standing by the lockers. I’m happy neither of them is scowling, but I know better than to assume anything more.

“I’m so honored, Chef Anthony. Thank you so much for the offer.”

“You’re welcome. Now it’s time for me to go check on my students.”

He heads over to where they are sitting a few tables away. Mrs. Lee turns to Mom.

“I must admit, this was by far the most unpredictable competition I have ever judged. However, you handled it far better than most professionals I’ve worked with. Thank you for the opportunity . . . and for your discretion regarding my son’s behavior.”

“Children make mistakes. It’s our job to guide them,” says Mom graciously. “I hope you’ll accept my invitation to judge again next year. I’ve learned a great deal from you.”

“And I, you.” She turns to Dad and me with a smile. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a naughty child to punish.”

Once Mom is satisfied we’ve left nothing behind, we head for the parking lot. Dad and Jeannie have gone to get the car, and Ben, Grace, and James are waiting for me off to the side. At the top of the stairs, Mom tugs on my elbow.

“Liza, I want to talk to you about something.”

I tense instinctively. “What did I do this time?”

Confusion and then regret flits across Mom’s features before a smile rises to her lips.

“I know I put a lot of pressure on you this year. And I admit I wasn’t sure if you could handle it, but you proved me wrong. I’m really proud of you.”

That’s it? No “but this” or “you need to do that”? Warmth spreads through me like honey.

“Oh, one more thing. About Chef Anthony’s offer.”

My heart stutters, and I sigh. She could have given me a few more seconds to enjoy that moment.

“I know,” I say, eyes dropping to the ground. “I need to go to college and choose a stable career. I got it.”

“That’s not quite what I was going to say.”

Mom tips my chin up so I’ll meet her eye. “Yes, Dad and I want you to go to college, but we understand how much you love baking now. We’ll talk things over with Chef Anthony, but I can’t make any promises, okay?”

I may or may not black out in that moment. Either way, Mom doesn’t give me a chance to ask any questions, descending the stairs and getting into the car with Dad and Jeannie. Before they pull away, though, she pokes her head out the window.

“Don’t be out too late, understand?”

I bob my head and continue to do so long after they’re gone. Eventually, I give myself a shake and head down to meet up with the others. James throws an arm over my shoulders.

“You okay?”

“Um, yeah. I’m really good, actually.”

We stand together in the near empty parking lot for a few seconds longer before I twist to look up at him.

“So,” I say, “why’d you do it?”

He pulls back. “Do what?”

“You know what. Why’d you mess up your technical?”

“How do you know that’s what I did?”

I scoff. “Come on. I’ve been watching you bake for weeks. If anything, you’re too much of a perfectionist to make a mistake like that.”

I stare him down until he relents with an easy smile.

“Sammy’s a good guy. He wants to go to the University of Houston, but his parents don’t have a lot of money.”

“So you made sure he would win. Because that means he would get the scholarship.”

James shakes his head. “Sammy made an amazing jelly. Between that and bread day, I’m pretty sure he would have won anyway.”

Surprisingly, I agree. Mom’s nothing if not a stickler for good bread, and it would have given Sammy the edge he needed in the end.

Ben suggests we head to the car, so the four of us make our way across the asphalt.

“Besides, I didn’t need the money,” James admits with a nonchalant shrug. “My parents can afford whichever school I choose.”

“Have you decided where you’re going, then?” I ask, voice wavering as we reach the car.

“Haven’t you guessed?” He smiles down at me softly. “Rice, of course. Although I haven’t told my dad I’m not declaring a major right away. I want to figure things out for myself . . . for once.”

I throw myself into James’s arms, catching him off guard as I kiss him hard. His eyes nearly bulge out of his head.

“What was that for?”

“For being you.”

James gives me the special smile again, the one with his dimple. He tugs me in for another kiss before finally letting me go. Not wanting to be left out, Ben kisses Grace soundly before tipping his head to the side. Then he unlocks the doors, and we climb into the car.

He turns to look at each of us. “So, where to?”

We glance at one another. There’s only one answer to that question.

“Boba Life!”


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