Rowan stared out the almost too-shiny front window of Elli’s. It’d long been replaced since the wild thunderstorm a few months earlier, but the glass was nearly reflective. She suspected it had more to do with Matt’s obsessive cleaning of the window than the actual glass itself.
She sighed. Snowflakes drifted down from the sky, painting the quiet Main Street in soft white. The scene was picturesque—or it should’ve been. Watertown’s Christmas cheer contest was in just three days, and she was nervous.
Actually, “nervous” didn’t even begin to cover it. She’d entered Elli’s—the bakery she’d inherited from her aunt Katherine—with confidence, but that was before The Curse started.
Yes, she was definitely calling it The Curse now.
It was more than a funk. She’d been in baking ruts before—where no matter what she did, she botched every single recipe—but that was years ago when she was still a student. She was a pastry chef—one with certification and her own business. She never messed up the recipes she’d made a thousand times before. It was getting to the point where Matt—her handsome business partner and boyfriend—was taking over her morning work. She was even ruining plain old bread. No matter how carefully she measured, it ended up too salty or completely flat.
She was cursed, plain and simple.
She sighed again and looked away from the pretty town. Normally, snow would cheer her up. It was almost Christmas, after all. But if she couldn’t pull it together, Elli’s would not only lose the competition, but they’d become the laughingstock of the town.
Her shoulders slumped. “C’mon, Aunt Katherine,” she whispered. “Be my angel and guide me or something.”
The bells over the door jingled and Rowan straightened in her seat. A vaguely familiar young woman strode in, a red Starbucks cup in her gloved hand. She was decked out in full winter attire: the world’s cutest knit cap, a red sweater wrapped several times around her neck, and cozy UGG boots. Rowan glanced down at her flour- and chocolate-streaked chef’s jacket. Matt should be up front greeting customers—not her.
“Hello,” she said, managing not to sound like a total Scrooge. “What can I get for you?”
“Hi there,” the other woman chirped. “I’m from over at Tilly’s.” She pointed in the direction of the little café. “I’m just scoping out the competition.” She peered into the display case, not even trying to look ashamed. “All you have are sandwiches? Where are those famous cookies and cheesecakes I keep hearing about?”
Rowan suppressed a groan. Tilly’s Café, to both her and Matt’s chagrin, had opened about a month earlier. The town only allowed three total bakeries, but Elli’s hadn’t had a competitor in years. Everyone loved Elli’s. There was no need for another place like it. But Tilly’s had roared in, taking the space where the old chocolate café had once been. The owners fixed up the inside, repaired the stage, and reinstated the open mic nights and other events the town had loved when Rowan was a kid. Elli’s couldn’t possibly compete with that vibe, considering they didn’t have enough space to add a stage.
There had been no stopping it, though. Technically Tilly’s was well within their right, and the town approved it unanimously. Competition, everyone said, was healthy.
Composing herself, she lifted her chin. “Gotta keep our secret weapons hidden until the big day.”
“Ah.” The woman lifted a finger. “Good plan.” She held out a hand. “We haven’t met yet. My name is Tilly. Are you surprised?” She simpered, perfect dimples appearing in each cheek.
Rowan shook hands with her and resisted the urge to gag. Tilly was sugary sweet, in that completely fake way that some women adopted. “So you’re the baker?”
Tilly scoffed. “Oh no, sweetie, I’m the director. I have people baking for me.” She glanced Rowan up and down. “I’m assuming you’re the baker here. Where’s your director?”
“You’re looking at her,” Rowan said, not bothering to hide her disdain.
“Oh my. That’s telling.” Tilly shook her head and clucked her tongue in disapproval. Straightening, she sniffed the air, her delicate nose wrinkling. “Is something burning?”
Eyes widening, Rowan darted out of the front room and careened into the kitchen. “No, no, no,” she protested, yanking open the oven door. But it was too late. The pan she withdrew and placed on the counter held a dozen nearly black red velvet cupcakes. She slumped against the stainless steel counter.
“Well,” Tilly said from the kitchen entrance, “it’s been a pleasure. I’m really glad I came by.” With one last condescending smile, she turned and left.
Rowan glowered at her back. “I’m really glad you’re a total bitch,” she muttered. She shook her head at herself. That was hardly even a comeback.
“Are you talking to yourself again?” Matt strolled into the kitchen from the back room. He carried a clipboard in one hand and pushed back brown curls from his eyes with his other.
“You were supposed to be watching the cupcakes,” she accused.
“I was?” Green eyes shifted from side to side. “I thought I was taking inventory.” He pointed to the clipboard.
Jabbing a finger at the ruined goodies, Rowan scowled. “Tilly’s owner came by. She was a complete tool.” She crossed her arms.
“Sorry, babe.” Matt put the clipboard down. It clinked against the stainless steel counter. He drew her in for a hug, and she couldn’t help but relax against him. With his green eyes, cherub-like curls, and muscular arms, he was living, breathing Ativan. “Still on that streak, huh?”
She huffed. “It’s a curse.”
“Nah.” Stepping back a bit, he lifted her chin with a warm finger. “It’ll pass. You’re Rowan, Elli’s amazing baker.”
Snorting, she shook her head. “More like Elli’s walking disaster!”
“It’ll be okay.”
“Oh yeah? When? The day after the competition?” She stepped completely away and put her hands on her hips.
“It’s no big deal. It’s just a contest.”
Her eyes widened. “Just a contest? Matt, you must have amnesia. Elli’s has won every single Christmas cheer contest for the past ten years.”
“To be fair,” he said, “that’s only because we’ve been the only bakery in town.”
Rowan’s jaw dropped open. “Are you saying we didn’t deserve those awards?”
He held up his hands. “I’m just saying that there was no one else in our category. It’s been, well . . . a piece of cake.”
“I hate you right now.”
He chuckled and slapped his thigh. “Sorry, I couldn’t help it.”
Rolling her eyes, she turned back to the burnt cupcakes. “This event always meant a lot to Aunt Katherine. Christmas was her favorite holiday.” Tears stung her eyes. Exactly six months had passed since Katherine had suddenly died—well, suddenly to Rowan. She’d had no idea that Katherine was even sick. She’d been out in New Jersey, licking her wounds and hoping to sever her family ties all the way down to her DNA. She’d been so, so wrong.
Matt cupped her shoulders. “I know,” he said quietly. Those green eyes bore into hers, pulling her back from the abyss. He smiled. “What if we go through Katherine’s recipe book? Maybe you just need to try something new.”
“And botch one of her sacred recipes?” She shook her head. “I don’t think I could handle it.”
“Well, it’s better than ruining your own recipes and beating yourself up.” His lips flattened. “Actually, it’d be great if you could just stop the self-flagellation altogether. Ro, you’re a freakin’ magician in the kitchen. Everyone has a bad day now and then.”
“A two-week bad day?” she asked. Still, she bent down and retrieved the cherished recipe book from its spot, nestled in a wicker cube that also housed Katherine’s lucky apron. She eyed the apron thoughtfully. “Maybe I should put that on.” Her forehead wrinkled. “Or . . . not. It’s probably better if I don’t taint it.”
She plunked the recipe book onto the counter. It was a two-inch binder wrapped in a floral pattern fabric. Each of Katherine’s recipes was tucked into a clear sheet protector, written in her looping hand that Rowan had always loved. She flipped it open and skimmed through the contents. “What do you think?”
He drummed his fingers on the counter. “Something we don’t make very often . . . and something easy.”
“Hey.” She swatted at him.
Shaking her head, she read through the list again. “What about Aunt Katherine’s candy cane cookies?” She tapped the photo with a fingernail that she’d nibbled down to the nub.
“Those are good,” Matt agreed. “She made them the first year I worked here.”
“You mean the year you stole my job?”
“Yeah. That year.” He grinned. “Anyway, she wouldn’t let me touch them. I could only watch. She was so particular about how everything was done.”
“In the best way possible.” Rowan smiled. “She always wanted to make sure you were paying attention, that you really learned how to bake with your heart.”
He nodded, then pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Bake with your heart, babe.” He picked up the clipboard again.
“You’re not going to help?”
“I believe I just did.”
“You know what I mean.” She began laying out the ingredients.
Grimacing, he continued toward the store room. “And hang around you? That’s bad juju.” He strolled away, whistling “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
“Brat,” she called after him. Still, she smiled. Despite their rocky beginning, Matt was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
Rolling up her sleeves, she got to work.
She flipped on her favorite Christmas music playlist—a mix of piano-only songs on Spotify. With the cheerful tunes drifting through the kitchen, she started mixing the dough. Mixing was always her favorite part. Though she used a mixer, there was just something so soothing about watching all of the ingredients come together. She combined butter, sugar, egg yolks, and peppermint extract, watching as the paddle stirred the wet components together. Her shoulders loosened and a sappy smile played on her lips.
This was it. She was going to break the curse, if it was the last thing she did.
Switching the mixer to low, she stirred in the dry ingredients. The dough churned, becoming more and more solid with each turn. It was hard to believe that, at one point, she’d been willing to give all of this up.
Once the dough was mixed enough, she shut off the machine and separated it into two equal halves. She swaddled one in plastic wrap and set it aside. Maybe covering it completely was going overboard, but with her luck she’d splash red food coloring everywhere and she’d end up with completely red cookies instead of candy cane-shaped cookies, alternating in red and white.
She hummed to herself as she dyed the other half of the dough red. Already she could see the perfect little candy canes, positioned in the display case so that every other one of them were Js, their sugar sprinkles glistening.
Using her hands, she shaped each ball of dough into a flat square, smoothing the edges into perfection with a bench scrape.
The front door jingled again, and she cringed. “Matt,” she called.
“It’s just me.” Her best friend, Charlotte, practically floated into the kitchen. Her face glowed, and Rowan suspected it had little to do with the cold weather.
“Tell me everything,” Rowan said as she wrapped the squares, “in just one more minute.” She tucked the dough into the walk-in refrigerator, taking a moment to admire her work. Content, she hurried back into the kitchen. “Go!” she told Charlotte.
“Okay, so you remember Amarie?” Charlotte said, unable to hide the goofy grin that clung to her lips like confectioner’s sugar.
“How could I forget?” Rowan tossed everything into the pot sink for later scrubbing.
“Well,” Charlotte drew out the word, “she added me on Facebook a while back.”
“Uh-huh. I remember,” Rowan prodded.
“She hasn’t posted much lately, because of finals and all that, but . . . she’s coming home for winter break!” Charlotte clapped her hands together and bounced on the balls of her feet, her hair flying off her shoulders. Usually dyed one bright color or another, Charlotte had made no exceptions for the holiday season and had turned her naturally blonde locks into cheery Christmas red.
“That’s awesome, Char,” Rowan said with a smile. “So are you gonna make a move?”
Charlotte’s smile faded. She took a deep breath. “She’s still with Jason,” she admitted.
Rowan nodded sympathetically. “We’ll just have to plan a get-together and then you can sweep her off her feet!”
Her best friend shrugged. “I don’t know . . . I mean, I know she’s queer. My gaydar has never failed me. But . . .”
“Jason puts a wrench in the plans.”
“Exactly. I’m not into adultery.”
“They’re not exactly married,” Rowan said, lifting a finger.
“Right, but they’ve been together a while now. Over a year? Maybe even close to two. And I don’t think she knows she likes girls, too, Ro. Like, maybe deep down, but not really, you know?”
Rowan nodded. She slung an arm around Charlotte. “We’ve got to cure you of this crush, babe. It’s only going to tear you apart.”
Charlotte twisted her lips to the side. “I know it. I barely know the girl. I’ve never felt so connected with anyone before, though. It sounds freakin’ stalker-ish.”
“Nah. I get it.” Rowan shrugged out of her chef’s jacket. “How about we go get our Starbucks fix? I’m really craving a peppermint mocha now,” she said, sniffing at the faint traces of the oil on her hands.
Charlotte giggled. “So I take it your streak has ended?”
“I think so,” Rowan said. “I can feel it.” She pulled on her winter coat, a black parka that fell to her knees. Though Charlotte had tried talking her into dying her whole head green, Rowan had gone back to her natural mousy brown—just until the competition was over. She meant no offense to Charlotte, but she’d wanted to be taken seriously, and she was glad now that she knew how put-together Tilly was.
Linking arms with Charlotte, Rowan called out to Matt that they were heading out, and promised to bring him something back. Arm in arm, she and Charlotte stepped onto Main Street. It was at least a mile walk to Starbucks, but with Charlotte she didn’t even feel cold. They chitchatted as they walked, catching up on their lives. Charlotte had started bartending school so that she could be a mixologist at The 545, the lounge she was a short order cook at.
“This way I can chat up cute girls and make some extra money in tips,” she reasoned.
“Makes sense to me.”
Rowan glanced into the windows of the various shops they passed. Main Street was always cute, but it had an even more special vibe during the holidays. Each bare tree was wrapped in white string lights, the lights intertwining and forming a canopy above the sidewalk. It was pure magic, she surmised.
By the time they stepped inside Starbucks, though, her cheeks and nose were numb.
“My treat,” Charlotte said, blocking her from the chip reader.
“No, mine,” Rowan insisted. “You got the last time.”
“Plus Matt’s ordering too. C’mon.”
Charlotte stuck out her tongue playfully and gave the barista their orders before Rowan could argue further.
“You,” Rowan told her, wrapping her in a one-armed hug.
“Me.” Charlotte beamed.
They took their coffees and sat down at a table.
“So,” Charlotte said meaningfully, dragging out the word. “Any special Christmas plans with Matt?”
Rowan tilted her head, her eyebrows furrowed. As far as she knew, they were each spending Christmas with their families. They saw each other every day anyway. They could exchange gifts any time.
“Seriously? He didn’t invite you to Christmas dinner with the family?”
“So what? I mean, he doesn’t really have a lot of family. It’ll just be his mom, his little brother, and him. He doesn’t get to spend much time with them.”
Charlotte gave her a flat look. “You guys have been together for like six months now.”
“Four, technically. Actually . . .” Rowan counted. “Three.”
Her best friend rolled her eyes. “Six,” she said firmly. “That month or whatever you were ‘broken up’ so doesn’t count.”
“Either way,” Rowan said, “it’s family time.” She suppressed a groan. “Family time,” to her parents, meant ditching their children just before the holidays for their annual cruise. “What are your plans?” she asked, changing the subject.
“The Butler family tradition: Christmas Eve mass and a stern talking-to about how God hates gays.” She rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry, love.” Rowan reached across the table and gave her best friend’s hand a warm squeeze. “Any way you can skip?”
“Only if I’m bleeding to death. And even then . . .” She shrugged.
Rowan raised her coffee cup in a salute. “To family.”
Charlotte knocked her cup against Rowan’s. “Happy holidays.” She giggled.
A little while later, they headed back to Elli’s. Full dark had fallen in the meantime and, with it, the temperature. Rowan huddled deep into her coat.
Charlotte walked her to the door and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck with those candy canes,” she said. She hopped into her warm car, thanks to her remote starter when they were still a block away, and waved as she pulled from the curb.
Taking a deep breath, Rowan hurried into the warmth of Elli’s. She hung her coat up, then went into the walk-in.
Matt bent over a shelf, his black Dickies accenting his ass.
“Nice,” she said flirtatiously.
Straightening, he turned and wrapped her in a hug. Full, warm lips pressed to hers. “Aw, look who’s cold. Let me warm you up, baby.”
“In the walk-in?” Rowan lifted an eyebrow.
He smirked. “We could do it in the kitchen instead, if you prefer.”
“Tempting,” she said, twirling away, “but I’ve got a hot date.” She grabbed her chilled dough and took it to her station, leaving him chuckling after her.
Heart thudding in her chest, she eyed the dough on the stainless steel, willing it to cooperate. “All right,” she said. “Let’s break this streak.”
Rowan is determined to win the town’s Christmas cheer contest, but she’s in a funk—for the past two weeks straight, she’s managed to botch every single recipe. With the judging day only a few days away, can Matt get her back on track?
Just One More Christmas is a standalone holiday romance novelette set six months after the novel Just One More Minute.