We didn’t see you there.
We were just thinking about some of our very favorite things. If you, too, like dessert and, *ahem*, dessert, read on for the first chapter of Cake at Midnight, a deliciously sweet foodie romance in which twenty-something pastry chef Gio falls out of sync with her old childhood crush and falls into the arms of the quiet but charming boy next door.
Best friends becoming something more is a good story. I’ve certainly always been a big fan.
It’s a classic combination, after all: a solid bedrock of affection and respect suddenly shot through with the lava of red-hot passion. You see it in food all the time: creamy, comforting chocolate awakened by fiery chili; a soft, delicate roux set aflame by Worcestershire sauce and a sprinkling of white pepper. It just worked. Or, at least, it did with other people.
The evening I realized ‘best friend’ to ‘passionate lover’ wasn’t going to be as natural a progression as all my recipe books had suggested, I stood at the island bench of my Great Aunt Agnes’ kitchen. A tray of perfect, velvety dollops of choux pastry and my two squabbling best friends were before me.
There wasn’t much about this scene that differed from any of the past hundred Wednesday nights, but there was a slight tight- ness in my chest that told me that this one was special. This was our last Wednesday as high schoolers, our last Wednesday before actual adulthood set in.
My friends, however, didn’t seem to appreciate the significance. ‘I swear to god, Dec, call me shallow one more time.’ Zoë’s smooth, jet-black bob quivered with agitation and Declan, lanky and bright-eyed, held up the bible he’d been flipping through in mock surrender.
‘I’m not calling you shallow,’ he objected with a laugh that suggested that’s exactly what he was doing. ‘I’m just pointing out that on this, the eve of our graduation, we’ve all decided to pursue careers represented by the cardinal sins.’
‘Training to be a beautician does not make me prideful.’ Zoë, the spitting image of how Snow White would’ve looked had she had anger management issues, rose immediately and predictably to Dec’s bait. ‘Or stupid or vain or whatever the hell you’re suggesting I am.’
‘And I wouldn’t say training to be a pastry chef necessarily means I condone gluttony,’ I said as I dipped my finger into a glass of water and began carefully dabbing down the tops of my pastry blobs so they wouldn’t catch in the oven.
‘There’s no need to deny it, we’re all friends here,’ Dec said cheerfully, sending a tiny wink my way as Zoë let out a constricted noise of outrage. ‘And I’m not saying I’m exempt. I mean, I have an excessive love of, and desire for, earthly possessions. Greed, yeah?’
There was a ‘tsch’ noise and we looked up to see Great Aunt Agnes – Aggie to all who knew and loved her – emerging from the bathroom in a waft of her distinctively spicy perfume.
‘What is this talk of sins?’ she asked in heavily accented English, putting her hands on her hips with a flourish that made her gold bracelets chime. ‘You are not sinners. You are my brains, beauty and,’ she searched for a way to describe me and then raised her rather severe eyebrows and finished, ‘baker.’
This sort of affirmation was nothing we hadn’t heard from her before, but we still smirked at each other in that mixture of embarrassment and pride we felt every time she so easily validated each of us.
‘But this?’ She marched over and pulled her bible from Dec’s grasp before waggling it in his face. ‘Not a prop.’
Dec grinned back at her, unrepentant. ‘I thought you’d be pleased I was expanding my religious education.’
‘Aw.’ She reached out and gave his chin an affectionate little wiggle then lightly slapped him on the cheek. ‘Respect and grace,’ she reminded him, a common refrain of hers that Zoë and I mouthed behind her back.
Her gospel saved, Aggie moved away to start rummaging through her cavernous wardrobe on the other side of her studio flat and the rest of us returned to the matter at hand.
‘Of course, there’s another way to look at it.’ Zoë shifted forward on her stool and poked Dec in the chest with a perfectly polished nail. ‘Some would say that my aim is to make people feel beautiful on the outside, and Gio’s is to do the same on the inside. Frankly, we’re going to bring good to the world. You’re the only bad guy here, Brains.’
‘Well, nothing new there, then.’ The corners of Dec’s mouth quirked self-deprecatingly.
Afraid that my eyes were about to start flashing neon heart signs at him like in a cartoon, I looked for something to say other than: I know you’re one of my best friends, but I’m mad about you, please let me have your babies.
‘Check out my choux!’ is what I landed on and, as distractions went, it was a pretty effective one. Dec and Zoë immediately stopped narrowing their eyes at each other and, appearing vaguely puzzled, lifted themselves to look over the counter and down at my feet instead.
When I realized why, I let out a little snort. ‘Not shoe,’ I laughed. ‘Choux!’ And I gestured at the tray in front of me.
They exchanged a look.
‘Not shoe shoe?’ Zoë repeated.
‘Choux,’ I said again, trying to enunciate the difference. ‘Choux.’
‘You’re aware that you’re just standing there repeating the word “shoe”, yeah?’ Dec said and I rolled my eyes.
‘C-h-o-u-x,’ I spelt out. ‘Choux pastry.’ I indicated the blobs on the tray again and they both obediently switched their attention to them. I could tell by their expressions, however, that they didn’t get it. They didn’t appreciate how sheeny the dough had become once I’d added the eggs or how evenly I’d piped the buns out, and they certainly didn’t appreciate the perfect golden puffs they were destined to turn into.
‘Just say, “They look lovely, dear”,’ I advised. ‘They look lovely, dear,’ they intoned obediently.
Tying a brightly patterned scarf around her throat, Aggie emerged from her Aladdin’s cave of a closet and headed back to the kitchen area.
‘Are you ready, minha querida?’ she asked and Zoë nodded, hopping off the bar stool, expertly shimmying her tight black skirt back to its proper length and then wrinkling her nose.
‘Sinner or not,’ she said dryly as she snatched up her purse, ‘as god is my witness, once I have enough money to quit waitressing I am going to burn this skirt. It doesn’t matter how many times I wash it, it always smells like garlic.’
‘So that’s what that smell is,’ Dec deadpanned, ducking as she thwacked her purse into his head in response.
‘Text me later,’ I called as she headed for the front door and she waved a hand over her shoulder in reply.
That was Zoë: always with somewhere else to be, always hitting someone round the back of the head as she went.
Aggie paused only to blow extravagant kisses at Dec and me, which we returned with gusto, before she, too, bustled out of her flat.
‘And then there were two.’ Dec stretched out his long legs, hooking his feet into the footrest of Zoë’s abandoned stool and grinning lazily at me across the counter.
Oh god, I loved him, I loved him, I loved him . . .
‘So you’ll be the first to try my chocolate-topped caramel custard profiteroles!’ My exclamation was much too high-pitched, but in my defense, it was getting harder and harder to act normally around Dec now my mid-level crush of the past two years had exploded into full-on infatuation.
‘Works for me.’
It was difficult to tell whether he was just being kind by not mentioning my obvious partiality to him, or whether Dec was actually so dense that he hadn’t noticed. His even response then left me none the wiser.
There followed a companionable half-hour or so where I pottered about finishing off my baking and Dec did whatever it was that boys do on their phones every waking hour of their lives. I reveled in the cozy domesticity of it all and tried not to feel too guilty about how much I enjoyed this time every Wednesday when Zoë left for work, dropping Aggie off at her ‘stitch and bitch’ group on the way, reducing our usual foursome down to a twosome.
Not that various permutations of us didn’t end up congregating at Aggie’s flat on other days of the week. Dec and Zoë had the sort of home lives that people spoke about in sad whispers, and my parents worked grueling shift-work hours and had always relied on Aggie to provide before- and after-school care for me when I was younger, a routine I’d never really grown out of. I adored Aggie and sought any excuse to see her. So it was here, where the door was always open and the kettle was always on, that we all ended up more often than not.
‘Do you think it’ll work out?’
I spent just about every cent of the money I earned as a check- out chick on baking ingredients and recipe books and kept an extensive stash of both at Aggie’s studio. When Dec suddenly spoke, I’d been concentrating on melting chocolate to the right temperature for tempering.
‘My profiteroles?’ I asked blankly.
He shook his head. ‘I’m kind of thinking bigger than your profiteroles.’
I was about to make some smart remark about how it wasn’t the size of the profiteroles that mattered, but how they tasted, but stopped as I saw him start to spin his phone back and forth nervously.
‘Bigger how?’ I asked. Seeing that the chocolate had reached forty-five degrees, I removed it from the double boiler to stir in the remaining room-temperature chocolate.
‘You know, our sins.’ He raised his hazel eyes to mine and I belatedly realized how much his mood had shifted since Zoë and Aggie had left. ‘Do you think they’ll work out? Cos we’ve all sat here and talked about what we’re going to do with our lives for years. What the hell do we do if it turns out that the Beauty’s allergic to nail polish, or the Baker’s actually crap at baking, or the Brain’s not smart enough for uni?’
No-one was a bigger champion of Zoë and me than Dec, so I knew it wasn’t our abilities he was questioning.
The three of us lived in an outer suburb called Jarli that was known primarily for its large sign that proclaimed: ‘Welcome to Jarli’ and which some joker had graffitied ‘Good fucking luck!’ across. Our luck lay in Aggie, who’d immigrated to Australia from Brazil with my maternal grandparents and, from day one, had been deter- mined to make a success of herself. At an early age, Zoë, Dec and I had each become disciples of Aggie’s zeal for self-improvement, encouraged by her to read and study and work towards a better set of cards than our respective parents had been dealt.
Which wasn’t to say that some of the ingrained ‘you’ll never amount to anything’ Jarli way of thinking didn’t sometimes get the better of us. Dec most of all.
‘Okay,’ I said slowly, reinserting the thermometer into the chocolate as I stirred it. ‘Except Zoë’s been wearing nail polish since she could hold a brush, I’m a freaking excellent baker, if I do say so myself, and you killed it in your exams.’
‘I guess.’ Dec pocketed his phone and drummed his fingers on the counter. ‘It’s just that I want to be good at what’s coming, you know? I need to be good at it.’
His voice was fierce, but there was something small in it as well, and I got it. There weren’t exactly a surplus of successful role models in his family and he’d been talking about being nothing like them ever since the first day of primary school. Knowing the fear and anxiety that lay behind his words, I thought carefully about my reply.
‘I guess, in the very unlikely event that you did turn out to be a massive failure at uni, you’d still have a fair bit going for you.’
Deciding that his need for reassurance outweighed my desire for super shiny chocolate, I set aside the mixture and moved around the bench to perch on the stool facing him.
‘I mean, you are smart, like annoyingly smart, and nothing short of some sort of brain trauma’s going to change that. And you’d still be a laugh and a handsome bugger.’ He cracked a smile at this, which gave me the confidence to add, ‘And you’d have me. And Zoë and Aggie, obviously, you’d still have all of us.’
I’d looked down into my lap as I’d said this last bit and had to force myself to peek up at him to see what he thought of my mushiness. I was pleased to see that the taut line between his eyebrows had relaxed and he was looking at me with a small smile. I felt my breath catch in my throat as he shifted forward on his stool, reaching out to gently tuck a curl behind my ear. It was a completely futile gesture, of course, as it sprang straight back out, but it made me melt all the same.
‘You’re something else, Gio. I don’t know what I’d do without you,’ he said, leaning in close and lowering his voice.
Dozens of responses came to mind, most of them along the lines of you’ll never have to find out, but in the end, I just did what I’d wanted to do for so long now. I closed the minuscule gap between us and pressed my lips to his.
It felt so right, exactly what I’d been hoping for, and I let the moment consume me, cataloguing every last detail and storing it away with the intention of savoring it for the rest of my life.
Yes, I memorized our first kiss and, boy, did I live to regret it.