Excerpt from The Cupcake Witch by Poppy Lawless
Holding the whisk tightly, I swirled the pale-yellow batter around the bowl, the sweet scents of vanilla, brown sugar, and bitter dark chocolate perfuming the air. Even though it was a cool autumn morning, the heat from the oven made the kitchen feel toasty warm. I’d been baking all morning: expresso mini cupcakes with cappuccino flavored frosting, matcha green tea macaroons, and strawberry rhubarb coffee cake. The kitchen smelled divine. Now, with a pot of coffee brewing and a batch of chocolate chip walnut cookies just about ready to go into the oven, I could almost relax.
“Here, taste this,” I said to Dad, scooping up a small bite of the dough with a spoon and sticking it into his mouth before he could protest.
“You’re going to give me salmonella poisoning,” he said then sighed deeply. “A little food poisoning is worth it. So good, but they taste…different.”
Dad shook his head. “Tasty different.”
“Organic brown sugar and sea salt.”
“I’m going to gain ten pounds before you go back to college next week,” he said with a laugh then turned back to his paperwork.
Sighing, I placed the cookie dough on the baking sheet and stuck it in the oven. How was I going to tell Dad I wasn’t planning on going back? With Mom gone…well, I just didn’t even know why I was there anymore. It wasn’t like I had ever wanted to go to college. I wanted to be a baker. But Mom wanted me to be a dentist, so I was studying pre-dentistry. Now, Mom was gone. The pain of her loss still felt like a huge lump in my chest.
I poured Dad and myself coffee and sat down at the table. He was thumbing through a heap of real estate briefs. Dayton Real Estate was busier than ever, and with Mom gone, an agent short. Dad was running himself ragged.
I spooned some raw sugar into my cup and tried to think of something to say other than the fact that I hated school. It was nearly the end of October and thus far junior year had been a bust. I told Dad I wasn’t ready. After losing Mom that summer, I just couldn’t get my head back into the game. I didn’t want to waste my life pursuing a career in dentistry just because everyone, but especially Mom, thought it would be a good move for a smart girl like me. Mom’s death had taught me many things, the most important being that life was short. Why was I working so hard for a future I felt pretty apathetic about?
“Here is the property in Chancellor I was telling you about,” Dad said, saving me from having the dreaded conversation once more, as he handed me an envelope. From inside, I pulled out a yellowed photograph of a tiny little Tudor-style cottage. Under the photo, the words Serendipity Gardens had been written in faded pencil.
“It looks like a witch’s cottage. Mrs. Aster, the woman who left us the building…how did you say we were related again?” I stared at the photograph as I twirled one red dreadlock around my finger. The little building was a mess, the glass nursery overgrown, but there was something quaint, almost fairy tale like, about it.
Dad was eyeing the table full of sweets, finally settling on one of the mini cupcakes, popping it into his mouth. “These are amazing, Julie. Seriously,” he said after a moment. “Mrs. Aster was Grandma Belle’s husband’s sister.”
“And how does that make her related to us?”
“Through marriage only, but we are her closest living relatives,” Dad said then shrugged. “I’ve got the property into the MLS system, but I need to run over to Chancellor this week and put up the signs. Probably won’t be hard to move the old place. I already have a message—which I haven’t even managed to return yet—from Blushing Grape Vineyards inquiring on the property. Need to get that sign up, see if I can fish any other bids out of the pond. Maybe the college will want the property, turn it into an office or something. On the corner of Main Street and Magnolia, the location is great. We’ll probably get a good price if we can get some competition,” Dad said then paused. He looked up at me, a serious expression on his face. “You know, Chancellor College offers science degrees. Jules, I know you aren’t happy…” he began then stopped. Trying again, he switched directions by saying, “Maybe if you were closer to home, things might be easier.”
Panicking, I picked up the envelope. “Chancellor, eh? Don’t they have a harvest festival at this time of year? Why don’t I take the signs over? I’ll grab a pumpkin spice latte or something.”
My dad pushed his glasses back up his nose then ran his hand through his hair. Was it my imagination or did his hair look whiter? His face was certainly more drawn. He must have shed twenty pounds from his already thin frame. Mom’s death had hit us both hard. It was just manifesting differently. Dad was running thin, and I was running scared. I didn’t want to waste my life following the dream Mom had lain out so neatly for me. My real passion had always lain in the kitchen. Fondant. Buttercream. Meringue. Ever since I got my first Easy-Bake Oven, I knew what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be. My dream, however, had never jelled with what Mom had wanted. And as much as it hurt, Mom was gone. I could keep going to college for her, but that didn’t feel right. I needed to do something. Something needed to change. And in the meantime, I was failing my classes.
“Walk around the campus while you’re there. Check out its vibe. See if you like it.”
“Or not,” I said absently. The last thing I wanted was more college: more homework I couldn’t get myself to complete, more classes I couldn’t get myself to go to, more anything.
“You know, they also have a culinary program,” my dad said carefully. “A letter came from your college’s advising office. It said you’re failing all—”
“I…I know,” I stammered, standing. “Can we talk about it tonight?”
He nodded. “I love you. We’re both just trying to manage here.” He lifted a macaroon then looked from it to me. “The culinary program. Mom and I always disagreed...tonight, let’s talk. But you’re making dinner.”
“Of course. It’s pizza night! I bought portabella mushrooms, arugula, and goat cheese.”
“You had me at portabella,” Dad said with a chuckle. “Anything would be better than those damned frozen dinners.”
“Dad! You can’t eat that garbage.”
He shrugged. “What can I say? I don’t have time to cook. Speaking of which, did you know it only takes five weeks to get a real estate license? Without your mom, I could use the extra help,” he said then patted the massive stack of inspection reports, loan documents, and other paperwork that was my dad’s—and had been my mom’s—life’s work, “and a home cooked meal, on occasion.”
I picked up the envelope then kissed my dad on his balding head. “Home cooked meals I can handle.”
My dad patted my hand.
“Take the cookies out when the timer goes off?”
“Of course. I’d never let a Julie Dayton cookie burn. Too precious a commodity.”
I wrapped my arms around my dad and hugged him tight.
“Love you,” I said.
“Love you too, Julie bean,” he replied.
Letting him go, I grabbed my purse and keys and headed off to the witch’s cottage.