Authors: Marianne Knightly
Charlotte remained bent over the counter as she completed her painstaking work. She was putting the finishing touches on the Vallerian coat of arms she had just created in fondant atop the cake. After carefully patting the final piece into place, she stood up. As she arched her back to loosen the muscles that had become tense in her hunched position, she gave the cake a critical glance. Any moment now Coco would demand to see it, and Charlie wanted to make sure it was perfect.
Charlie turned the cake around on its stand, viewing it from all angles, and nodded once she was satisfied with what she saw. The cake itself tasted good, she knew; Charlie could make this pound cake in her sleep.
With a soft, satisfied sigh – the sigh of one who had just finished something and finished it well – she picked up the cake stand, holding it high, and made her way across the small kitchen. Charlie decided that it would look better if she brought the cake straight to Coco for review; it would prove that she’d done the job and within the time allotted.
Just as she turned a corner, she was so focused on keeping the cake upright that she didn’t see the other person coming.
She didn’t see when he stepped in her path.
She didn’t even notice who it was, at first.
The only thing she saw was one corner of the cake bumping against a dark-suited chest and scruffy chin.
Then, her arms and his stumbled to catch the cake and shift its stand upright again.
But it was too late.
The cake was pushed higher.
Directly into someone’s face.
One moment lasted a lifetime.
In that one moment, the beautifully decorated three-layer cake slipped again.
This time, it completely smashed onto the floor, coating the man’s shoes.
And then she saw who it was.
Soft cake and creamy filling was crushed and crumbled over the chiseled edges of his square face, and stuck to his shadowed stubble and straight eyebrows. He stood stunned but for his light brown eyes which blinked in an effort to shake away the offending cake stuck to his long eyelashes.
As chunks of cake fell away from his broad shoulders and lean body onto the floor, the entire kitchen stopped and gasped. She wouldn’t be surprised if the entire world had just stopped, just for one moment, to witness her complete and utter carelessness, and what was sure to be the beginning of her demise.
Her heart stopped, too. She was almost sure of it. Any minute she would find herself on the floor, passed out from her own ineptitude.
But if it had stopped, why was it beating so furiously now? Why did it speed up as the Prince’s tongue slipped from his full, pink lips and licked the buttercream at the corner of his mouth?
“Well, if I had to be covered in cake, at least it was a delicious one,” Nate said wryly, his low voice coating her as the cake had done to him – completely and effortlessly.
She lifted her eyes to his and their gazes locked; hers wide and afraid, his stunned and bemused.
“Shit. Holy shit. Oh my God. I’m sorry.” She dropped the cake stand and it shattered on the floor, mixing with the mess and ruin of the cake. She stepped back. “I’m so sorry.” She stepped back again just as Coco called out to her.
“Charlotte Wyler! What have you done?”
Charlie broke her gaze with the Prince – the Prince! – and turned to watch as Coco stormed closer, working her way around the stunned kitchen staff who had witnessed everything and stood stock still, watching the scene as though she were an accident on the side of a highway.
Her breath was coming faster. Coco would punish her, and she would be fired for sure. “I’m sorry,” Charlie whispered as she continued to move back, as if she could run away.
Coco appeared, took one look and the Prince and one look at the mess on the floor and barked orders to some of the kitchen staff nearby. They jumped to attention, handing the Prince some towels while others began to clean up the mess on the floor.
Charlie turned to Coco, her cake-coated hands fisted in the hem of her chef’s coat. “I’m so sorry.” She turned back to the Prince. “I’m so sorry.” She couldn’t seem to stop apologizing; it was an old habit that she thought she’d broken. Apparently, she hadn’t.
Coco gave her an appraising look. “Go on to your room, Charlotte,” Coco said in a little-used soft voice. She also rarely called Charlie by her full name. Was that a good sign or a bad one? “Get cleaned up,” Coco said. “I’ll come by in a little bit.”
“I can make another one. The dinner’s not for a few hours yet. I can do it. I promise I can,” Charlie pleaded, knowing if she was busy she wouldn’t have to think about being fired before the day was through. One more cake, and perhaps she could redeem herself.
After a moment, Coco nodded. “All right, but go get cleaned up first. I don’t want to see you in this kitchen for at least thirty minutes, do you hear me?”
Charlie nodded frantically. “I promise. I’m sorry. Truly.”
Nate brushed some cake from the lapels of dark blue suit, spots of buttercream marring the expert tailoring and expensive fabric. “No harm done, Charlotte.”
Why did he have to say her name like that, so soft and warm? Hadn’t she just ruined his day?
“It was only a little cake.”
Needing to get away, Charlie nodded and then darted from the kitchen. She made her way through the halls to the servants’ quarters underneath the palace. Most of the palace staff had their own homes in the capital city, Valentia, which surrounded the palace, but not Charlie. She’d wanted to save money, so she lived on site. As an American, she’d never dreamt she would ever live in a royal palace one day.
Now, her days here may be numbered.
she chastised herself.
Stupid, clumsy, useless idiot
She finally reached her room, which lay in the middle of a mostly deserted corridor – only one other chef resided in this section of the servants’ quarters. She stepped inside the small, functional rooms and let out a long sigh.
She made her way through the small living area to the bedroom. All of these rooms had been renovated and redesigned to give palace staff slightly larger living quarters, and they’d even been retrofitted with a small stove and oven. Charlie’s room could have doubled as a nice one-bedroom apartment if it were located anywhere else. There were other living quarters – larger, and better suited for families – but Charlie didn’t need it, despite the fact they had been available. Charlie didn’t have a family.
She didn’t have anyone.
And soon, she could be out of a job, too.
She made her way to the bathroom, shedding her soiled chef’s jacket and revealing an expensive sports bra underneath. Unlike a regular bra; it kept her skin breathable and her breasts unmoving during long days and nights running around the kitchen.
If she had to take thirty minutes to get her head back in the game, she decided a shower would help. She stripped off her clothes and stepped under the punishing spray of icy cold water. The chill would help her stay strong and alert; she couldn’t afford to be relaxed or soothed just yet.
When she stepped out several minutes later, she felt better. Fiercer. Tougher. More like herself, and less like the whimpering woman that had fallen apart in the kitchen. That woman had not become a head baker at a royal palace.
The one staring back at her, with her face a mask of determination,
was a head baker.
She half-dried her hair and put it back into a ponytail. As she slipped on a fresh chef’s coat, she steeled herself even more. Her coat was her shield, protecting her from the past and the pain.
She wouldn’t be able to bear it if someone took that away. She wouldn’t
anyone take it away.
Just as she was about to head out the door, someone knocked. Was this it? Was this the end?
Charlie made her way across the room and opened the door, wishing there were peepholes in the doors.
Coco stood on the other side, her hands fisted on her wide hips. It took Charlie a moment to notice a full tea service laid out on a cart beside her.
Charlie swallowed. “Coco.”
“Charlie,” she nodded. “Let me in. We’ll have some tea and talk.”
The chill of the shower still ran through her veins. Pushing her shoulders back, she lifted her chin slightly. “If you’re going to fire me, you should just do it now. Let’s not draw it out.”
“Fire you? Why would I do something like that?”
Charlie blinked while her chin dropped. “I’m not fired?”
Charlie’s brows furrowed. “But, why not?” she asked before she could think better of it.
Coco let out a snorting laugh. “If you want to get fired, I’m sure we can figure something out.”
Charlie shook her head, unable to believe it. “I’m not fired?”
“No. Now can I come in, or should I stand here while the tea gets cold and you get more confused?”
“Step aside. Roll in the cart for me, would you?”
Coco stepped inside and Charlie rolled the cart in behind her, positioning it near the seating area. As Coco sat down, she let out a long sigh and gestured to the cart. “Pour us some tea, Charlie, and have a seat.”
Everyone who worked in the kitchen knew how Coco liked her tea: strong black tea mixed to a light caramel color with milk and one sugar. It was almost a test of some kind to get her tea exactly right. The kitchen staff still held wagers whenever she asked someone to bring them some tea; rarely had anyone ever gotten it right.
Charlie was one of the few who had.
Coco took the tea Charlie handed her, took a sip, and nodded her approval. “I’m getting old, Charlie.”
Charlie almost tipped her own teacup at the brisk change of subject. “Oh?”
Coco nodded. “I won’t be in charge of this kitchen forever, and I need to find someone else who can run it.”
Someone new wouldn’t put up with what happened earlier, especially not to a member of the royal family. “I understand.”
“I don’t think you do.” Coco took another sip of the hot, sweet brew. “I want you for the job.”
Charlie, who had been in mid-sip herself, spluttered, sending drops of tea dribbling down her chin. “What?”
“You heard me.”
Charlie tried to grasp that, even while she dabbed the mess of her second accident of the day off her face and strained to keep it away from her pristine white chef’s coat. “But, but.”
“But, I can’t even carry a cake much less run a royal kitchen. I did just shove a cake into the Prince’s face.”
Coco put down her teacup and laughed, deep and rich. “Oh, don’t I know it. Never have seen such a sight.”
A blush warmed Charlie’s cheeks. “But that’s just it. No one will take me seriously now. I need to find a new position, somewhere else,” she ended in a low voice, almost to herself. Though she loathed the thought of leaving, she could not stand losing the respect of the people she worked with.
“I wouldn’t worry so much. The staff will talk, of course. It’s too good a story not to be told. They know, however, that we protect our own in this kitchen. We’re a family, and you became a part of that family, too, when you came here.”
. She barely knew what a family was. Besides Coco, there had only ever been one woman to show any kind of motherly affection for her, and that woman had not been her own mother. “I don’t know, Coco.”
Coco placed a warm hand on top of hers. You could tell from Coco’s hands that she had worked with them her whole life. Chopping, crushing, kneading, cooking, even cleaning – whatever needed to be done in the kitchen, she had done it. They were soft and slightly wrinkled with age, her fingers thick from years of manual labor and the mild form of diabetes she had. A grandmother’s hands, some might say.
“What if the royal family doesn’t approve? I did just, well, harm, their son.”
“I know them, and they’re fair people. They’ll overlook one accident, especially since the Prince wasn’t all that upset about it, but they won’t overlook a second.” Charlie nodded.
“All of the royals listen to me,” Coco continued. “They listen when I talk. All of those kids – even the heir to the throne, Prince Alexander – grew up under my own watch. They snuck in here asking for treats at all hours of the day and night. They still do – why else do you think Prince Nathaniel was down here?”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
Coco picked up her tea again and sipped while she talked. “Think of it. I’m important to them, and they’re important to me. Now, with Prince Alexander getting ready to marry his lovely lady, and even Princess Arianna expecting a child with her beau in Brazenbourg, we’ll soon have a new generation of royals tugging at our legs for a treat.” Coco shook her head. “Much as I love them, I’ve been charmed by one generation of royals, and that is more than enough for me.”
Charlie could just imagine Prince Nathaniel as a young boy, running around with his brothers, years before the weight of privilege and responsibility fell on their shoulders. She could easily see them charming Coco out of a treat here and there.