Chapter One – Josie
Maybe I was crazy, but the vacant property still smelled an awful lot like burnt sugar.
I never liked the smell, especially since it was a sign something went super wrong in the kitchen. Those were the days I’d stay late, break out the chisels, and chip away chunks of blackened sugar. Life in a candy shop and bakery created one sticky disaster after another, but I had loved it, even when the chocolates seized or the soufflés deflated.
The fire didn’t leave me many candy-making opportunities. Those cookies crumbled a year ago, and I was still sweeping up the mess.
But I swore a smoky scent remained. It wasn’t caramel sweetness or the accidental drip of cake batter in the oven. This was acrid, tacky, and charred. It must have been in my head. Nothing remained of the ashes, fire, or ungodly amounts of sugar the flames consumed.
We had cleared the rubble a year ago, once the state fire marshal completed his report. Sweet Nibbles, my family’s historical bakery and candy shop, was gone. Completely. We had only memories now, though the night of the fire was still a hazy nightmare that trapped my thoughts in the smoke.
A weed poked through the hard-cracked dirt, right where my walk-in refrigerator used to sit. I plucked it, scaring the whiskers off a little mouse surveying my property too. At least he stayed outside permanently now—I lost enough bags of sugar to the greedy little furballs. I never had the heart to kill them, effectively enabling the first generation of diabetic mice in the small town of Saint Christie.
A discarded coffee cup from Anne’s Beans rolled over the grass, and I grabbed it before the mouse dove inside to get his fix. If the property was all I had anymore, I couldn’t let it look unsightly. My family was too proud for that.
At least…we were before.
“Heya, Josie!” Benjamin Ducacas’s voice bellowed over the street. “Good to see you in your old stomping grounds!”
I waved at Benjamin and subtly checked my phone. After five already? That meant Benjamin closed his hardware shop to become the unofficial town-crier. Soon enough, everyone within earshot would know I visited my property.
Benjamin shuffled closer to the lot as he walked—showcased—his prized standard poodle for the town to admire. Or avoid. Probably avoid. The puffed up prize-winner had a bite worse than his owner.
Benjamin was a bit too curious for his own good. “Breaking ground yet?”
I rattled the empty coffee cup. “Got some grounds at least.”
He wagged a finger at me, but I was lucky. He couldn’t delay his nightly walk with Jean-Baptise. Benjamin insisted on a brisk, full-hour of exercise to benefit the poodle’s waistline. The training regimen was strict to qualify the dog for the state championship show…though Jean-Baptise’s preferred path always seemed to lead Benjamin right to Tyler’s burger stand.
“You’ll be re-building again soon enough,” Benjamin said. “Mark my words, little lady. We won’t go another Christmas without your peppermint bark, will we Jean?”
The poodle, as always, feigned indifference to my peppermint bark…but maybe a peppermint howl would earn me a tail wag. I politely smiled. Once a week someone asked about my grand re-opening, but I had no real answer, nothing the townsfolk didn’t already know. We needed money to rebuild, and those were the sorts of secrets everyone had been gossiping for months.
Still, Saint Christie’s main street wasn’t the same without the shop—the quaint historical town grinned like a child missing a tooth. I wasn’t the same either. I missed the shop. I missed baking.
I missed him.
No stoves. No counters. No little ice cream corner with the paisley-striped wallpaper and red, old-fashioned booths. Nothing survived the fire. We had been lucky to make it out. Molten sugar was dangerous enough making homemade candies. I never wanted to be surrounded by it again. Or burning walls. Crushed glass. Collapsing stairs.
Odd how only one year had passed since my little slice of gum-drop heaven got flambéed. Felt longer. Lonelier.
“Josie Davis!” A voice shouted over the lot. “You’re on my property!”
Bob Ragen screamed loud enough for Benjamin to hear at the corner of the block—that meant the entire town would hear every word that was exchanged.
I retreated three feet even though it was all my property according to the survey. It appeased the heavy-set grump locking up his sporting goods store.
“And keep out!” Bob pointed a fat finger at me. It wavered in the air. Must have been five o’clock somewhere long ago. “If I told you once, I told you a million times, check the goddamned survey—”
His words slurred, but the malice behind them came through perfectly clear.