Monday, December 1, San Francisco
“Help wanted. Must be good with pastry baking, parties + kids. Part-time/Holiday Temporary. Competitive pay. Flexible hours. Apply in person. Bring printed resume. Must love cupcakes.”
Florian jumped off the trolley at the bottom of Market Street and checked the address on his smart phone’s map. He peered around at the busy area, looking for his new possible employment, Kate’s Cupcake Cart. He didn’t see it. He must be off by a few blocks. He hustled back up Market Street, one of San Francisco’s main boulevards.
A cold brisk wind had him turning up his collar, pulling down his cap more over his ears—couldn’t have people spotting them and asking questions—and tightening his scarf. He loved the weather at the city on the bay. Way warmer than New York City where he’d been working up to last week, and way, way warmer than back home at the Pole.
He stood on the busy street corner of the city’s Financial District and swiveled, not just his head, but his whole body. He still didn’t see it. He was about to wave his hand to stir up some magic, maybe bring a magnifying glass in front of him—he never knew exactly what he’d conjure—but then saw as the busy crowd thinned for a moment what he was looking for. A small food stand perched on the corner, kitty corner to where he stood. A big sprinkle-top cupcake jauntily capped the sign that stated in broad flourish font, “Kate’s Cupcake Cart.” At the other end of the sign, a frothy cappuccino angled in nice symmetry. He smiled. His sign-making elf cousins couldn’t have done a better job.
He crossed the street, a bounce in his step, and wiggled his fingers in his pockets. Nerves. This job would work out. Had to. He needed one more stint of unique work experience to round out his resume, emphasis on the unique. Uncle, known as Santa to the rest of the world, expected him to have a diverse and eclectic resume when he returned home to finally ascend to his rightful place as Master Baker for the entire North Pole community. He was young for a Master Baker but ambitious. He still had to prove himself.
He approached the cupcake cart and stood in line, already ten people deep at 9 a.m. He bounced up and down on his toes. A busy boutique business, how fun. What a refreshing change from the bigger business he’d worked in recently. He’d mostly worked in storefronts or pastry kitchens this past year. He was almost done with his year abroad. His family would so delight in his travels. He couldn’t wait to tell them about his confection adventures at the festivities Christmas morning.
Vibrant, hopping San Francisco was his last stop. A nice bonus. There was something special about this sparkling city by the bay. Another bonus: He’d enjoy a taste of a mild winter before returning home.
What better way to end his year abroad than to make cupcakes in a vibrant city for quirky Californians? Now he just needed to wow the proprietor of this cute establishment for the final flourish to his resume.
Kate Delore finished making the double cap dry with a flick of her wrist, creating her signature swirl on the foam, and handed it to the salt-and-pepper suit-and-tie customer. On the counter, her cell phone buzzed. In quick succession, the heater oven dinged and her phone buzzed again. She handed the man his warmed chocolate croissant cupcake, zapped his iPhone to transact the payment, and thanked him. He replied in French, and then English, smiled at her, and went on his way. She liked her cosmopolitan customers. Maybe one day she’d be able to buy a croissant in Paris and say thank you in English and French. She didn’t have time to dwell on the daydream—when did she ever have time—when her phone buzzed a third time.
She ignored it since at the window the next customer waited. The call was probably another lunch order. She’d have to take it at the next break. She made a mental note to look into an answering service. Kate glanced at the customer, ready to greet him. The tall red-haired man gave her a bright smile. She blinked at him, taken aback by his high-wattage happiness that seemed to roll off him in waves of sunlight.
“A good morning to you,” he said with a lilt.
“Good morning. What would you like?” She glanced at the caller ID when the phone buzzed yet again.
Another number she didn’t recognize. It could be another lunch order, or someone calling about the help wanted ad, or about booking another birthday party. She made a list in her mind for the tenth time this morning—that answering service, another baker, more customer service help so she could breathe a little, and—why not—a personal masseuse and some time away from the business. May as well throw in those last ones too since she was crafting a wish list.
The man didn’t reply to her question, so she glanced back at him.
He was craning his head into her food stand and nodding as if he approved of what he saw.
“Can I help you?” she said, maybe more sharply than she should have to a potential customer. But he was ogling her cart. She checked the time on her phone. Mike would be arriving soon to pick up the day-olds.
“Only if you can help me round out my resume,” he said in a serious tone, all sunlight gone from his voice.
She snapped her gaze back at him. Oh. Right. She’d asked people to come in person. Her brain was like a sieve these days, hence the lists. She opened her mouth to reply, but then he ruined the serious effect and chuckled.
“No, really.” He smiled broadly, the brightness back. “I’m replying to the ad. The help wanted ad. Especially the baking part. I was looking for the oven.” He had a slight musical lilt that evoked Ireland or Scotland. She didn’t know her lilts like she knew her chocolate cream and baking flour.
“It’s not here.” She scanned him up and down from her higher vantage point. The slender man was about her age—in his mid-to-late twenties. He sported a green wool sweater that brought out his sea-green eyes—so striking. Freckles sprinkled across the bridge of his nose and across his cheeks. At the nape of his neck, his curly red hair peeked out under his dark cap.
“Well, with a little more—” He waved his hands around as if he were conjuring up something. “Space, maybe it could.” He smiled sheepishly and tucked his hands under his armpits.
“What? Magic?” She wiped the counter, more out of habit than need.
He shrugged and smiled, making a motion across his lips, as if to zip them shut.
“Top secret, eh? What are you, from the Ministry of Magic?” She folded the towel she’d just been using and straightened the paper cups at her elbow.
He laughed—a big laugh for such a slender man—and shook his head. “I wish. Now that would be fun, wouldn’t it?” His eyes seemed to sparkle and something about his whole demeanor lit up the cold, blustery morning.
Was that a wink?
She sucked in a breath. She couldn’t help but smile back and pause in her multi-tasking busyness. “It would be fun.” Magic wasn’t real, but it was fun to entertain the possibility. Baking was a sort of magic—that special combination of ingredients, when applied with a little heat, turned into something delicious and evocative.
Though the morning rush was over, a few people were lining up behind this man who made her joke and smile and forget for a moment her lack of employees and her tight cash flow just as her business was getting busier. She had no idea cupcakes would be so popular in the winter.
Her business plan had her estimating that the spring and summer would be her busy seasons and she’d be able to at least break even in the fall and winter. Boy, had she been wrong.
Business was finally picking up after eight months of working her cupcake cart out of San Francisco’s Financial District. Her stress level was at an all time high with all the work and her not really properly prepared for it. Success was harder work than she ever expected.
He noticed her looking over his shoulder and motioned for the next person to take his place, a young man in a bike messenger outfit. “Sorry about that sir, what can we get you?” the red-haired man said in his lilt.
“A macchiato and two warmed apple nut cupcakes,” the bike messenger said with a half-grin on his face. Another customer was acting uncharacteristically, after all.
“Coming right up,” the red-haired man said. He grinned at her, hustled around to the entrance of her cart, and stepped up into it.
The words “get out” died in her throat as she watched him handle the espresso machine like he’d been using it his whole life. He was taller than her by about five inches, but not so tall that he didn’t butt his head against the eight-foot ceiling of the cart.
Who did he think he was? She huffed and crossed her arms on her chest. He then handed her the complete order in what seemed like under a minute.
Kate puffed out her irritation. Time to let it go. If he wanted the customer service portion of the job, what better way to test him than let him have a live audition? She could adapt quickly. Soon she didn’t feel like she was auditioning him, they had such a smooth operation going.
In between a small cap and three muffin cupcakes to a tourist in an oversized sweatshirt, the Golden Gate Bridge plastered across his chest, she found out her bold helper’s name: Florian MacMillian. Between four large lattes and ten savory breakfast cupcakes to four of her regular clients, men and women in their well-tailored business suits, he told her he was from Alaska and needed a job for December he could sink his teeth into to round out his resume.
She laughed at that. He chuckled too. So he was serious about the resume part.
It felt good to laugh. The cart didn’t seem so lonely as it had been these last few months as business had started picking up. She didn’t relize how much working mostly alone had been weighing on her.
Her one other part-time employee helped a bit, but somehow that woman’s presence wasn’t the same. Florian really seemed at home in her tiny cart. He efficiently and elegantly made delicious-looking espresso drinks, with full on foam decorations on top. Some were smiley faces, others were Christmas trees and stars, and she thought she saw one with an elf with a bell cap flopped over.
When there was a lull in the service about an hour later, she turned to him. “Can you bake?” She rubbed the knot that had been permanently lodged behind her shoulders for weeks. She really needed some downtime, maybe with some girlfriends at a spa where they served wine.
He smiled at her brightly and handed her a resume from his back jeans pocket. “Of course.” He’d slipped off his jacket and cap at some point and was wearing one of her branded aprons over his green sweater. She stared at the cupcake on his chest, broader than she thought it was when he’d been wearing his jacket. She realized she was staring and jumped her gaze to his resume in hand. After perusing it, she glanced back up at him astonished. “Where haven’t you been?”
He shrugged, a half smile on his lips. “Well, I’m sure there’s some undiscovered pastry gem of a town I haven’t visited, say, in the jungles of Brazil.” He chuckled.
She glanced back at the resume and sucked in a breath of surprise. “You worked at Giovanna Rosa Leone MacAuley’s Italian pastry shop in New York City. I’ve heard of that place.” She couldn’t keep the awe out of her voice. “I love their cream puffs. The amaretto, and the sweetened mascarpone cream, topped with swirls of delicious chocolate mousse and Chantilly cream.” She sighed. He might just be the perfect bakery chef for her.
He grinned. “Me too! I got to make those. My sister’s fiancé recommended me. Giovanna is his mother, my sister’s fiancé. That’s how I got that gig. And my mad skills.”
“And Paris! You made éclairs in Paris.” She sighed again.
“Go where the experts are, my uncle always says.”
She nodded and rolled her shoulders to try to relieve the tension lodged there. “Now there’s just the matter of the salary and other paper work,” she said and handed him a prepared file folder of the employment tax and business forms.
Florian glanced at the little handbook for employees at the top of the stack and looked back up at her. “I prefer to work on a contract basis, if you don’t mind. Well, even if you do, that’s what I prefer.” He kept his tone cordial, but firm.
She eyed him a moment, assessing. She liked his style. Direct and kind. She could work with him. Judging people quickly was part of what had made this type of business a good fit for her.
“Well, if you bake as well as you make espresso, I’m sure something can be arranged.”
He brightened. “Then we have a deal.” He stuck out his hand to shake.
She gripped his warm palm and smiled at how simple hiring this man seemed. He was sweet, easy to work with, fast, nice to her and customers—so far—and he was cute too. A nice bonus.
She couldn’t release his hand. His grip was firm, his palm smooth, and long tapered fingers strong around her hand. She didn’t want to let go, so she did. She didn’t have time for complications as cute as him. She just needed to get her business to the next level.
“We will have a deal when you pass Phase Two, Cupcake Baking 101, and your references check out. Be at the kitchen tomorrow morning, 5 a.m. In Rockridge. Oakland. Across the bridge. Do you know where that is?” She tried not to smile at what felt like a goofy grin blooming on her face.
“Is the test the baking or the arriving on time?” He chuckled.
She laughed, heat blooming on her cheeks. “Yes.”
Just then her phone rang again and several more customers lined up at the window. She shrugged and waved at the window and her phone. “This is why I need your help.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Florian said, flashing her a bright smile.
“Thank you,” Kate said and answered the phone. “Kate’s Cupcakes, Kate speaking.”
“Yes, hello, I’d like to know if you have any openings to cater a party in a few weeks, on the twentieth. My nephew is turning six,” a man said.
Kate flipped to that page in her agenda, her palm still tingled from Florian’s grip.
Someone knocked on the door. She glanced at it, but didn’t open it. Florian was still helping customers. The knock came again.
“I do have that date available. I’m going to have to get your number and call you back. We’re in the middle of a shift here and—” Kate said.
“Oh, yes, of course.” The man gave her his number.
“I’ll call you back later today,” she said and clicked off her phone.
She grabbed the satchel from the bottom of one of the coolers and then opened the door. “Hey Mike, here’s the day-olds from yesterday, and I made you some fresh this morning too.”
Mike smiled through his bushy salt-and-pepper beard. He zipped up his faded parka and took the bag full of cupcakes. “Thanks Kate! You’re the best. The kids love the flavors you’ve been sharing. Same time tomorrow?”
“You bet, Mike.”
He kissed her on the cheek and patted her shoulder, like a kindly uncle. “You and your staff are invited to our Christmas party on the twenty-first. The kids will be expecting you.”
“Of course, I’ll come.”
Mike squinted at her. “And don’t work so hard. You need to take time off to enjoy life. Life isn’t all work, you know.”
“I know, but things are finally picking up.” She stood in the doorway of her cart, rooted to the spot.
“You’re doing your best. That’s all we ever do.” And with that bit of wisdom he hustled back to the family shelter nearby he helped run.
Hope so, but there was so much more to do, always. The never-ending to-do list to keep her on track.
“That’s a might nice of you,” Florian said, pulling her out of her mental list making.
“No child should go hungry. I do what I can.” She shrugged and reached for her agenda to scribble down her list. She knew what it was like to struggle. She put herself through college and had eaten cheap noodles and day-olds for years.
“And you run a busy outfit.” Florian scrubbed the espresso machine to gleaming.
“It’s been busier than I ever imagined it would be this time of year.” Or so soon. She turned back to the counter and wiped it down. Her phone rang again.
“You’ll tell them the position is filled, won’t you?” Florian said with a false stern look.
She chuckled. “As long as you pass the baking test.”
“Oh, I will.” Florian smiled, one dimple revealing itself.
She caught herself staring at his mouth. She grabbed her phone just as he stepped to the window to help another customer.
If Florian worked out, she wouldn’t need to hire another baker. She’d only need to find one more customer service person as backup and someone to help her with the kids’ parties. And get a phone service. She needed to get back to her entrepreneur support group one of these evenings to pick their brains on the best, most affordable options.
She answered the phone. A nearby office wanted a tray of her special gluten-free lunch cupcakes, an assortment of vegetarian and meat. Could she have it ready for tomorrow pick up? She flipped open to an order page in her agenda.
“Yes, I can,” she said, while she calculated the extra time she’d need to spend baking tomorrow morning for this order and the ingredients needed. She could swing by the market on her way back to the kitchen this afternoon and get to the kitchen extra early tomorrow.
Juggling a fast-growing business was a good problem to have, she reminded herself. But her professors in the MBA program had never told her how stressful it could be. Or maybe they had and she hadn’t been listening, so self-assured she’d been.
She got the details and credit card information. “Please come pick them up at 11 a.m. tomorrow.” And clicked off.
She rubbed the knot at her shoulder blade. She could do this, right? And what if this guy didn’t work out? She’d be back to square one, struggling mightily to get her business off the ground, by herself, until she found someone else suitable—if she didn’t crack first and retreat to her childhood bedroom a twenty-something failure. She shoved the unreasonable panic aside. She had work to do.
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