Caroline’s Cupcakes

When Caroline Brant opens her cupcake shop, she has no idea that she is setting herself up as competition for the French bakery on the next block over. And while one of the two brothers who own the place is taking her presence in stride, the other is really very unhappy that she’s there. Then a fire at Les Deux Freres forces the brothers to share Caroline’s kitchen to deal with their holiday rush, and a romance develops as Caroline and Michel start baking bread together.

However, all is not what it seems with the handsome baker and when he leaves for vacation and abandons both her and his business, betraying his brother and leaving behind a huge trail of debt, it falls to Caroline to try and save both the French bakery and her own shop, as well as the jobs of everyone involved, including her nemesis Philippe.

Caroline is just a nerdy girl with a piping bag, can she really save everyone from ruin with some spreadsheets and a bit of self-sacrifice? And when forced to make a decision, which brother will she choose?

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Chapter 6

By the next weekend, the Deux Freres crew had moved in. Only minor rearranging had been required — Caroline and Ashley moved their office/staff lounge and storage shelves to the front corner behind the wall of the retail space, with the kitchen space behind it. This left the entire length of the opposite wall for Deux Freres to set up their shelves, work tables, and mixers. They rented a flash freezer for the patisserie work, but found that Caroline’s walk-in fridge had more than enough room for all their pans and trays.

The sheeter sat in the middle of the room, effectively dividing the space, looking for all the world like a piece of weird art that nobody understood.

The logistics of sharing her space had been easier for Caroline to negotiate than she had expected: her hydro was metered so the bill would be easy to split, she set up a spreadsheet to track oven usage so the gas bill could be easily divided, and both her insurance provider and landlord were extremely accommodating when it came to having an additional business operating out of her space. So much so that Caroline thought she might rent out the space officially when the brothers went back to their own kitchen, since she knew how hard it was for small start-ups to rent industrial kitchen space.

Schedule-wise, they were sharing the space genially and without incident. Michel and one staff member would start at around midnight, making the bread for the next day and finishing up by Caroline’s 7 a.m. start time. Caroline, Ashley, and their temporary holiday helper took over the kitchens from early morning to early afternoon, turning out cupcakes by the hundreds.

Philippe and his assistant typically showed up around 3 p.m. and worked until mid or late evening, prepping cakes, pies and pastries for the next day. While the chef grumbled occasionally about freshness — he preferred to make pastries the same day they were sold — Michel reminded him that it was better than nothing, and that it was certainly better than shutting their shop down until the renovations were done.

They were all busy managing their respective holiday rushes, working hard to not only fill their shops with their regular goods but also to accommodate the many party and event orders that were coming in. The weeks before Christmas were a blur of Philippe’s mince pies, Michel’s stollens, and Caroline and Ashley’s selection of holiday-themed cupcakes.

Caroline once caught Philippe sneering at the Christmas tree cupcakes — a red velvet cupcake topped with bright green frosting in a Christmas tree-shaped swirl and then sprinkled with coloured candy balls and a fondant star — but then also saw him visibly make an effort to hold his tongue as he turned away to his own side of the kitchen. She thought of how hard it must have been to not make a snarky remark about shortening and smiled to herself. He’s chilling out, at least a bit, she thought. Or he knows that being nice to me is the only way to keep his business alive.

During those weeks, Caroline saw Michel every morning. He was busy cleaning and packing up bread to be sent around the corner to the Deux Freres storefront, while she was getting ready to start her day, looking over orders and enjoying a coffee before turning on her mixers.

Michel would occasionally stop for a coffee with her and Ashley but he was often exhausted. While he and Philippe couldn’t do without their two apprentices to help with the workload, they had let their retail clerk go, so Michel was running the shop during the day before heading home to sleep a few hours and return at midnight to bake.

“You look so tired,” Caroline said to him one morning a few days before Christmas. She handed him a cup of coffee and he pulled two of Philippe’s almond croissants from a basket and handed her one.

“I will be glad when Christmas is over,” he replied, his eyes red and droopy. “I can’t keep up with this schedule much longer. We haven’t even started renovations.”

Caroline was startled by this information. “No?”

“The earliest I could get a contractor in was late January. It’s only a few weeks work, they tell me, but you know how that goes in the restaurant business — it will be more like a few months.”

“Oh.” Caroline wasn’t sure how to feel about that news. It wasn’t awful having Deux Freres working here in her kitchen but on the other hand, it would be nice to have her space back to herself.

“You’ve been so good to us, Caroline, I know it’s terrible of me to ask but I hope you won’t mind us inconveniencing you for a while longer.”

Caroline looked at Michel’s tired face. Even under his exhaustion, the warmth of his smile was engulfing.

“It’s been fine, I think. It’s nice to have you here, in a way. And you’ve all been great house guests,” she joked. Which was true. Philippe was maintaining a polite demeanour, and the apprentices barely said boo unless spoken to and always called her ‘Chef’ when addressing her, which made her secretly giggle. They all kept the place spotless and did more than their fair share of hauling garbage or heavy lifting.

“How about, once the holidays are over, I take you out for a nice dinner to thank you,” Michel said. “Just the two of us.”

Caroline blushed at the intensity of his expression. She had often wondered if their flirting would result in anything more or if she’d have to make the first move to get things rolling. She had been timid about doing so and felt a huge relief at Michel’s invitation and the obvious intent behind it.

“I… would love that actually. Yes.”

“Wonderful. We’ll touch base the first week of January once we’ve all had time to catch up on our sleep.”

She smiled at him over the edge of her coffee cup. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Michel broke the tension by changing the subject. “Are you doing anything for your staff, for the holidays? Philippe and I usually take our apprentices out to some high-end place for dinner in the new year, but things are extra tight this year.”

“I’m not sure. I’ve bought a gift for Ashley, and for Tanya, our holiday help. And I’ve given them bonuses. But this is my first year as a boss, I’m not sure of the protocol.”

“In the hospitality industry, staff usually get a big blow-out in the new year. Lots of restaurants do trades where they will host staff parties for each other,” Michel explained. “But because our staff is so small, as is yours, we can’t really do something on that scale. I was thinking we might combine them. Make for a better party, hopefully with less shop talk. Our dinner usually just devolves into Philippe lecturing the apprentices on sugar work or something tedious.”

Caroline laughed. “You don’t share your brother’s love of the craft, then?”

“Patisserie? No. Too fiddly for me. Too harsh a system to progress in. I need something more organic.”

“Wasn’t it the same when you trained to be a baker?”

“I came to the trade by a different path,” Michel replied. “I was living on a commune in California and was doing shifts in the kitchen. This old hippie lady was in charge of the food prep and she made all of these crazy breads from sprouted grains and things like that.

“Most of them were awful, in, you know, that really earthy, earnest way. I mean, the people there liked them and all but they wouldn’t have had much mainstream appeal at the time. As it is now, I make a few of her recipes for the shop. Philippe hates them but they sell out every day.

“Anyway,” Michel continued, draining the last gulps of his coffee, “I started making bread with her and it just felt like the most natural thing I’d ever done. And the more traditional breads she made were just mind-blowing. That’s where my sourdough starter comes from.”

Caroline laughed. “Really? It’s not passed down through your family? You’re not from a long line of bakers?”

“Ha!” Michel exclaimed, packing up the baskets on the catering cart he used to transport the bread to his shop around the corner. “Our father works at an engineering firm and our mother is a nurse. Did you think we grew up in some small mountain town in Alsace, baking from the time we could walk?”

Caroline nodded sheepishly.

“Hamilton, Ontario, born and bred,” Michel laughed. Our father is of Acadian descent, from New Brunswick. Spoke Acadian French to us at home. Which is why we both have this weird accent. Philippe’s is more refined because he lived so long in Paris. But the baking was definitely not a legacy for either of us.

“Almost everything I know about bread, I learned from that old lady. I took a few courses when I came back to Canada, just to learn how to run the professional equipment because she did everything by hand, and to get my food handler’s certificate. But apparently the magic of the bread is all me.”

He winked and wiggled his fingers at her before rolling the cart through to the shop and out to the street.

Caroline watched him go and waited until he was out of view before uttering a victorious “yes!” They had a real date. And he would be here in her kitchen for a few more months, at least. She had to catch herself from staring off into space and smiling on a number of occasions throughout the day and finally Ashley called her on it. “So Michel finally asked you out, huh?”

~

On New Year’s Eve, Caroline found herself alone in the shop with Philippe. They were both working on last minute orders for parties that night. He was finishing off trays of petit fours, while Caroline was building a cupcake tower of cakes sprinkled with edible gold flakes.

She had managed to mostly avoid Philippe since Deux Freres had been sharing her kitchen. Ashley was on a rotation of early classes, so Caroline had been taking the morning shift, usually overlapping time in the shop with Michel as he was packing up the loaves for the day. On the days when she was still there when Philippe arrived, she was usually doing paperwork and so moved to the front retail space with Marjory. Their exchanges had been polite but cursory. A ‘good afternoon,’ when Philippe arrived or a ‘have a good evening,’ as Caroline left.

Today they both worked in silence, each rushing to complete their respective orders as quickly as possible.

Caroline noticed Philippe stopping frequently to stretch his neck or shake out an arm. His work was highly decorative — each piece had icing work, a tiny macaron, fresh berries, and a tiny flower that required tweezers to place it exactly. Every one of the two hundred pastries looked exactly like the others, both in decoration and in size. But the work required Philippe to bend over the table for long periods and it was obviously taking its toll on his neck and shoulders.

He looked up to catch Caroline watching him and scowled. She looked away, feeling guilty both for staring and for getting caught.

“I am getting too old for this,” he said, a note of apology in his voice.

“I can’t imagine it’s easy on the back,” Caroline replied, guarded. “I often go home at the end of the day in pain, and my work isn’t nearly as detailed as yours.” She flinched inwardly. Had she just given him an opening to criticize her products yet again?

“Pastry is a young man’s game,” he said, setting down his piping bag to stretch again. “I would normally leave something like this to the apprentices but the order came in last night and I could not turn it down, even though we don’t normally do many private orders. Regular customer, good money… you know how it is.”

“I do,” Caroline said, fussing with the bits of gold leaf. “If it weren’t for the fact that these folks have given me lots of business and will hopefully give me lots more, I’d have turned this order down as well. Calling me at noon on New Year’s Eve… But they offered a bonus on top of my existing same-day surcharge, so here I am, fighting with gold leaf instead of at the salon getting my hair done for a party.”

“You have plans for tonight, then?” Philippe asked. Caroline was confused by this amiable, chatty version of Philippe.

“Just a house party at Marjory’s. She usually has a few friends around for dinner every year. It’s pretty low key. But this year her son is with his grandparents, so she’s having something a bit more… raucous, I think. More dancing and cocktails.”

“Sounds like fun,” Philippe said in a voice that clearly indicated that he didn’t think it would be at all.

“And you?”

“Pardon?”

“Any plans? For tonight?”

“Once I get this order delivered, it is home to an evening of TV and in bed by 10 p.m. I am a party animal.”

Caroline wondered if that was meant to be a joke.

“No parties for you?”

“No parties for me,” he replied. “My kids are spending the night with my ex-wife and her family at one of those big outdoor concerts. And I am going to recover from the holiday rush,” he said, rubbing his shoulder absent-mindedly.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Caroline said, realizing she was breaching a topic that was none of her business.

“It is alright. I am not one for crowds or big celebrations. I will see the boys tomorrow. I have a little flat a few blocks away and they will come spend the day with me. It is a big change, at a time when life is a bit of a mess, but we are getting used to it.

“Just one of the many things going sideways in my life right now. All the bad, it seems to come at once.” He talked while he worked, wiping down his worktable and cleaning his whisks and piping bags, placing them carefully in the drawers of the massive red mechanic’s tool chest he used to store his personal tools.

Caroline wanted to say something reassuring but worried that she had already over-stepped her place. Despite his prior outbursts, Philippe seemed like a very private person.

“I find,” she said, “that the good times balance out the bad. The losses always seem to come all at once, but if you accept them, embrace them, even, they set the groundwork for something even better.”

“So flowers from shit, then?” he laughed.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Caroline said with a catch in her voice, thinking of Andrew.

“Oh, I did not mean…” Philippe looked at the tears welling up in her eyes. “Caroline, I am sorry, I did not mean to make you upset.”

“Oh, no,” she waved her hand. “I’m just remembering my own situation that is similar.” She suddenly felt the urge to tell him about Andrew and their plans. Not even Ashley knew about Andrew and his importance to Caroline’s Cupcakes.

“I was meant to open this shop with my fiancé. He was the one who wanted to start a bakery. As you once mentioned, I’d have been just as happy running a clothing store or making jam.

“The point was that we do something together. I was the business end, he was the baker. But he passed away from cancer three years ago.”

Philippe looked at her with an inquisitive expression. “I am so sorry for your loss,” he said with sincerity. “But… you continued on without him?”

“It was a good idea. On paper. I had some money from my Grandfather. My business plan was a huge hit. The bank loved the idea, they were happy to give me a loan for the rest. And don’t get me wrong, I love baking. More than I ever thought I would. Despite the low profit margins, despite the aching back every night. This was the right thing for me.

“And I’ve mostly gotten over my grief at losing him. But there are times when it feels like he should be here, you know? Frosting these cupcakes alongside me.”

Philippe nodded. “Having someone who understands your work makes all the difference.”

“Anyway,” Caroline said, smiling as she wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron. “New Year’s Eve tends to make people more maudlin than festive, I always think.” She tried to laugh but it came out sounding hollow.

“Are you waiting for a pick-up on your order or do you need a lift somewhere?” Caroline asked Philippe, hoping to change the subject.

“Someone should be here any time now. The hot kitchen caterer for the event is coming by to pick up the stuff. You?”

“Dropping these off on my way home. I should start loading, actually.”

Wordlessly, Philippe picked up a cupcake tower and headed through the shop to Caroline’s delivery van parked out front. As they loaded the van in the waning late afternoon sun, the air cold and crisp and really feeling like winter, the caterer for Philippe’s order arrived and they juggled the massive trays of pastries while he tried to rearrange everything to find a flat surface big enough.

~

Once the caterer was gone, they donned coats and scarves, and Caroline turned off the lights and set the alarm, something that only occurred now on weekends and holidays, as there was almost always someone working away at something in the back of the shop.

On the sidewalk, the sky was now dark, streetlights on and holiday lights twinkling away, ready to help ring in the new year. Tomorrow those same lights would look tawdry and tired.

“Can I drop you somewhere, Philippe?” Caroline asked, locking the front door of the bakery.

“No, thank you, I am just a few blocks away.”

They stood uneasily, neither wanting to seem rude and be the first to leave.

“Thank you,” Caroline said, “for the talk earlier. It was good to tell someone, y’know?”

“Think nothing of it. If it made you feel better, then I am happy I could be of assistance. Happy New Year, Caroline.” Philippe reached out, gently touched her arm, and then leaned in and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

“Hap… Happy New Year to you, too!” she said, startled, as he turned and walked off down the street.

For the rest of the evening, during her cake delivery, while she was getting ready to go out, and throughout Marjory’s party, she would catch herself reaching up to touch the spot where his lips had so softly grazed her cheek. Even after the rowdy New Year countdown, the many hugs and kisses from friends and acquaintances, she found herself in bed that night still thinking about Philippe’s kiss. Why on earth would he do such a thing?