“Are those… What are those?”
Rose looked up from using her wooden tongs to transfer pastries from a tray to the display shelves. It was the woman from the group of four strangers, with all her blonde hair still up in tiara braids. “Strawberry cheese strudel.” The three men were here, too, looking over what there was to see. The variety was small – she couldn’t afford to just make a lot and hope some stranger would come through and want it. “If there’s something you want for tonight or tomorrow morning, I do most of my business by order.”
The woman sniffed delicately, then shrugged. “I’ll think about it.” She turned and left the shop, not bothering to hold the door for any of the locals going in or out. Right on her heels, the two pretty men followed her out. The ugly one, though, stood there for another second, then he produced a silver coin. “I’ll take two of your strudels, please. Or is it ‘strudel’?”
Completely ignoring the gaggle of local women gawking at the strangers, Kent slipped over and took the coin. It was his whole job to handle what money was actually exchanged – locals did most everything by barter with each other – and to hand out the baked goods. “I’ll get your change.”
“No,” he waved Kent off, “that’s okay. Keep it. I doubt you’re ever paid what your effort is worth.”
Rose stared at him. It wasn’t as if she was never complimented on her pastries and breads. Everyone in town said she was a brilliant baker, had a real knack for it. However, it was quite rare for anyone to back up their compliments with money. The last time it happened… No, she couldn’t remember it ever happening before. Kent nudged her with his elbow when the silence stretched a little too long, and she blinked at the unimpressive man smiling at her. Forgetting herself completely, she handed over the two strudel without even asking whether he wanted them wrapped or not and ducked into the kitchen without a word.
“Thank you, sir,” she heard Kent say, then the bells on the door jangled and normal business – and chatter – resumed.
She stood just inside the kitchen, now staring at tables half cleaned from the morning’s work. They still had orders to fill, but it was all for lunch and dinner, and there was an hour or so to breathe and clean before getting back to work. Her assistant, Ada, stood humming at the wash basin with her back to Rose, washing the bowls and tools.
Kent poked his head through the doorway. “Are you okay, Rose?”
“What?” She frowned and turned to see him looking at her, worried. “No. I mean, yes,” she waved him off, “I’m fine. I just- It was an odd thing, what that man did.” Odd, indeed. She brushed her hands on her apron for no reason. He was probably rich, so he didn’t care about coppers. Yes, that had to be it. “If he comes back tomorrow, make sure you get his name.”
Kent nodded his understanding. “Do you want me to set anything aside for them in case they come out again tonight?”
Her thoughts turned to last night, how the three pretty ones were so smug and rude, even when they were being nice. “Just a loaf of bread. If they wanted dessert tonight, they should have placed an order.” The one man was polite, though, and overpaid for his strudel. “Actually, we’ll make something for that one,” she gestured back towards the door. “A cookie, maybe. We haven’t made cookies in a while, and I need to decide what kind to do for the Winter Solstice anyway. We’ll give away the extras tomorrow, since he already paid for them.”
Ada grinned as she turned enough to see Rose. “I love making cookies.” Rose rather thought Ada preferred the part where they taste-tested the finished product. Of course, she liked that part, too, and both of them were plump enough to attest to the quality of their baked goods. “Do you want to do specialty ones, or just a big batch of basic and flavor from there?”
Picking up her breakfast scone (orange cranberry, her favorite), Rose took a bite and thought about it. They could do gingersnaps, or brown or white sugar cookies. They didn’t have a lot of chocolate right now, so that was out. “Let’s do something different.” She noticed Ada’s brown eyes light up with excitement as she turned to scan her shelves.
The sounds of scrubbing and splashing stopped, and Ada came up behind Rose, also looking over their supplies. “We could do pumpkin, or mint. Those are different.”
“No, that’s the usual for this time of year. I want to experiment.” Rose chewed her scone and thought about it. “I can’t think of anything here I haven’t tried as a cookie yet. Hm.”
Ada shrugged and went back to her dishwashing. “Then maybe you should find something we don’t have.”
Rose gobbled down the last big bite of her scone and tuned back to pick up her cup of coffee. They brewed it first thing when they came in and let the aroma wake them up even before it was ready, then kept it warm all morning in a nook by one of the brick ovens set aside for that very purpose. She sipped it and stopped in the act of putting it back down, staring at it. “That’s it! Ada, let’s make coffee cookies!”
“Coffee? You mean cookies for dipping?”
“No, cookies made of coffee. The ground up beans. We’ll put them through the peppermill to make fine grounds. I wonder how much to use.” She bustled herself over to the coffee tin and popped it open. Grinding it up made such a mess she did all the beans at once, and that lasted them about a month. After licking her finger, she dipped it in, then stuck that in her mouth. It was strong – they wouldn’t need to use a lot. “Yes, perfect. We’ll put something sweet with it. Caramel.”
Ada made a face. “That sounds awful.”
Rose laughed, surprising herself with how it sounded a little off kilter. “As soon as you’re done there, start making some caramel.”
“You’re the boss.”
How dubious Ada sounded made Rose giggle more. Apparently, the younger woman didn’t remember the last time she experimented. In fairness, it was over a year ago, and that was all about ginger, but it turned out so wonderfully. She grabbed a mixing bowl and gathered ingredients. If she didn’t dawdle, the cookies could be ready when it was time to start working on the lunch loaves and dinner pies. Determination had her hands moving swiftly and surely, pouring ingredients into her bowl and stirring.
Recipes were entirely unnecessary at this point for Rose. Ada pulled out a small book to make the caramel, but Rose did everything without, just because she understood what all the ingredients did and how they worked together. Her predecessor – her stepmother’s father, which was a story all in itself – taught her everything he knew before he died, over the course of several years. Before she was the Baker, she did Ada’s job as his assistant. Someday, Ada might take the job over from her, but probably not. The girl was only about five years younger than her and had no imagination.
“Oh,” Rose said as she cranked the peppermill, “You said something about meeting Bryan yesterday. In all the excitement about the strangers, I almost forgot to ask about how it went.”
Ada looked up from her simmering pot, blushing. “Oh, that. It was nothing.”
Rose smirked. “Sure it was.”
“He just wanted…”
“What every boy wants.” Rose laughed and carried the mill to the wash basin.
“Rose.” Ada rolled her eyes and turned back to stirring her pot. “You don’t even like boys.”
“No, I definitely don’t.” She stirred her ingredients together to make the dough. “I like men. Sadly, this town is short of that particular commodity. At least, the unmarried variety.”
Ada’s giggles had a few snorts mixed in. “Well, maybe you just aren’t looking in the right places.”
“I’m sure not going to start checking down their pants.” This conversation was taking a turn Rose didn’t particularly care for. “Just make sure you get Handfasted before you let him under your skirts, girl.”
“I know, I know. He can’t eat the pastries if he doesn’t buy them first.” Ada lifted the pot and started pouring the caramel into a glass bowl to cool. “Because my mom doesn’t say something like that often enough.” She adjusted her voice a little higher. “Ada, don’t let him shear the wool without buying the sheep. Ada, he’s got to buy the cow before he can milk it. Ada, make him buy the horse before he gets to ride it.”
Rose chuckled, remembering when her own short-lived interest in Gavin, the town’s bard, prompted the same things being told to her. That was years ago. “Those are awful. But these cookies are going to be wonderful.”