It was after six in the showroom of Cannon Motors on the Wednesday before Christmas when Mimi Morgan’s life changed.
Change came in the form of a card. A very nice card. Glossy red with Merry Christmas embossed on the front in gold foil. Not the usual twenty-to-a-box number Cannons’ staff tended to drag out for their annual Secret Santa gift giving ceremony. Someone had spent money.
Mimi crumpled her nose at it. Odd. Very odd. The large car dealership’s employees weren’t known for their profligacy when it came to Christmas. Or any other celebration, for that matter. Cheap and cheerful was the order of the day, and everyone was happy with that.
The tinny echo of ‘Jingle Bells’ from the showroom’s roof speakers merged with the chatter, laughter and gleeful rip of wrapping paper. Bossy Belinda had done the doling out, as she did every year because… bossy, and now she simpered alongside the dealership’s general manager Des Pfeiffer, in between holding her scented candle gift to her nose and snorting it like a coke addict.
Mimi’s anomalous red card notwithstanding, there were no surprises. The technicians played maracas with their plastic jars of scorched almonds – pretty much what they scored every year – while the sales team showed off novelty socks and soaps. Steph Albrecht was smoothing the pudding themed tea-towel she’d draped over her lap while the manager’s PA Taylor Duncan squinted at the instructions on her grow-your-own herb kit. Young Jordie from tyres had abandoned his gift in favour of stuffing another of Mimi’s Christmas cupcakes into his mouth. Catching her eye, he grinned sheepishly before toasting her with the uneaten half of his cupcake, unaware that he’d given himself a festive cinnamon and brandy buttercream moustache.
The remaining staff raided the food table and ice-filled coolers for more drinks and chattered on.
Mimi eyed her card again. She wasn’t in any hurry to open it. Seven years of Cannon Motors secret Santas had taught her the contents were bound to be a few scratchies or a Christmas draw lottery ticket. Maybe this year they’d even be lucky ones.
‘Aren’t you going to look inside?’ It was, of course, Bossy Belinda. She regarded Mimi’s card with pursed lips and sniffed. ‘Bit flash. Not really in keeping with the spirit of things.’
‘Perhaps someone was feeling generous,’ said Mimi and to save the peace, opened the card.
Inside was a neatly folded piece of lined paper.
‘Huh,’ she said, lifting it out to check the inscription behind.
This Christmas, may all your dreams come true.
A nice sentiment, if a little much for a secret Santa. Mimi frowned as the card interior caught the light. She’d thought her Santa was being sneaky by printing the message, except it hadn’t been printed at all. The letters were sunk into the card and not all of them clear. Her message had been typed. Properly typed, on an old-fashioned typewriter and using a ribbon at the end of its life. Who even owned one of those anymore?
This was getting beyond odd.
Mimi shook her head and glanced around the room. Bossy Belinda had moved on to chew Jordie’s ear, probably about his cupcake consumption. The rest were slurping drinks and making half-hearted attempts to tidy the wrapping paper mess. No one was paying Mimi the slightest attention.
She refocussed on the folded paper. It looked like standard notepaper, with ragged edges of the kind you got from tearing a leaf out of a spiral bound notebook. Maybe an IOU? They’d had a streak of those a few years ago, when it had become a thing to offer shoulder massages and coffee runs. The novelty only lasted one Christmas, chiefly because recipients had the habit of calling in their IOUs at the most inconvenient time. And because, for a secret Santa, they weren’t exactly secret. Bossy Belinda did not approve.
Mimi opened the folds and flattened the sheet on her knee. She scanned the handwriting. Then with bulging eyes scanned again.
‘Duck eggs,’ she whispered, torn between awe and elation. ‘It was duck eggs.’ She jerked upright. The arm holding the paper stretched upwards in salute as she twirled around. ‘It was duck eggs! Eeeee!’
Silence fell. Every staff member turned to stare at her.
‘Don’t you see?’ She grabbed the paper by its sides and presented it outwards. ‘It was duck eggs. That was the difference. Duck eggs!’
‘Ooo-kaaay,’ said Matt Gibson, a technician in the service department. He leaned into his equally sexist crony Alex. ‘Someone ought to ration the pink moscato.’
‘Ford released a duck egg blue colour one year,’ mused Xander Dickson, the senior sales manager. ‘Never sold a single one. No wonder, fragile name like that. Gave the impression it’d crack into a dozen pieces at the first carpark bingle.’
Mimi’s face reddened as everyone continued to stare, amusement – or was it pity? – etched on their faces. Didn’t they understand? It was duck eggs. She’d been sending herself crazy over this for nearly two years and not once had she considered duck eggs.
She lowered the paper and turned it toward herself, eyes prickling as she absorbed the preciousness of her gift. How could they not grasp its importance?
Darling Jordie came to the rescue. ‘Is it a recipe?’
Mimi could have kissed him. ‘Yes. And not just any recipe. The recipe.’
Even Jordie looked confused at that.
‘The opera cake I’ve been trying to make?’ She scanned her colleagues’ faces for any sign of recognition. Irritation flared in her chest. She’d been bringing her attempts at opera cake – a complex and time-consuming, layered, high-end patisserie cake – for morning teas for two years for them to sample and they couldn’t remember it? Seriously? ‘The one from Restaurant Ten I’ve been trying to copy?’ That at least garnered a few nods. She waggled the paper. ‘This is the recipe. The actual recipe. Kai’s recipe. The man himself.’
Mimi panted a little. Saying it out loud took her breath away.
She had asked. Multiple times. Not just asked but pleaded, even offered money, and Kai’s answer was always the same. He would not give up his secret, and certainly not to a restaurant guest. If Mimi wanted to indulge in his special gateau, she’d have to book and pay for a seat at one of his Sunday high teas like everyone else. Restaurant Ten was a business and Kai had a family to care for.
‘What have I missed?’ called a male voice from the hallway entrance to the inner offices.
‘Everything,’ said Bossy Belinda, snatching up the last present from under the tree and handing it to the late arrival, but there was no rebuke in her tone. Everyone was nice to ‘Poindexter’ Preston Hanson. He oversaw their pays. ‘Someone gave Mimi a recipe for her secret Santa, and she got a bit hysterical.’
Mimi gritted her teeth. She really did not like Bossy Belinda. And she was not hysterical.
‘Did she?’ Preston turned his tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses toward Mimi. If he weren’t such a numbers nerd, Preston would be a bit of a hunk and Mini would have been flattered by his attention. Now, thanks to Bossy Belinda, she just felt silly. ‘Must be a hell of a recipe.’
‘It’s for Restaurant Ten’s opera cake,’ she said.
‘That’s the cake with all the layers,’ explained Jordie, sneaking a hand toward the cupcake tray.
Mimi beamed at him. Jordie was her biggest fan and, unlike the other ingrates, knew all her bakes. Maybe he was her secret Santa? She’d bake him two trays of cupcakes if he was. With his favourite peanut butter cream cheese frosting on top.
‘Oh, right. Good.’ Preston glanced around and lifted his present. A rattling cylinder. Definitely scorched almonds. ‘Guess I’d better open this and get back to work.’
‘Really?’ said Bossy Belinda. ‘It’s our Christmas party. Surely you can stay for one drink.’
Preston shrugged. ‘I suppose I can hang around for one…’ A teasing smile curled the corner of his mouth. ‘I’m sure no one will mind if I don’t get the Christmas pays lodged in time for tomorrow.’
‘Out!’ the technicians yelled in a chorus, before chucking wrapping paper and a bon-bon Preston’s way. Jordie looked so horrified he missed his mouth with another of Mimi’s cupcakes and gave himself a buttercream kiss. Even Bossy Belinda was speechless.
Preston shot Mimi a wink as he sauntered for a cooler. ‘One beer won’t hurt.’
But his path was blocked by the sales team, shoulder to shoulder and arms crossed like gangsters. Steph twisted her pudding tea-towel and with a practiced flick, whipcracked the end in warning, while Eva smacked her herb kit box against her palm like a truncheon.
Preston held up his hands. ‘All right, all right. Save me a cupcake, okay?’
Jordie eyed the tray. There were only three left. He shuffled a little closer, hands held out and curled as though about to embrace the lot.
‘Jordan,’ growled Bossy Belinda.
Jordie’s shoulders slumped. With a wincing expression he pushed the cake with the least amount of buttercream to the far end of the tray before edging the remaining two into the corner closest to him.
With a thumbs-up to Jordie and a nod to Des Pfeiffer, Preston strode for the back offices and their Christmas pays, a collective sigh of relief reverberating in his wake.
Chatter resumed, all memory of Mimi and her recipe forgotten. She collapsed onto a chair and read the ingredients again. Duck eggs. Why-oh-why hadn’t she thought of that before? Any baker worth their salt knew that duck eggs created the best sponges. The extra fat in the yolks and protein in the whites could shoot a recipe into a class of its own. It also explained why she could never match the fluffiness of Kai’s joconde sponge or the richness of his crème au beurre.
Excitement rippled in her chest. What an extraordinary gift. She couldn’t wait to try it.
She gazed at her colleagues. Who could have done this? Everyone knew she coveted this recipe – everyone who paid attention, that is. Each time she attempted to perfect her opera cake and brought the result in to work she’d ended up lamenting that something was missing, that it hadn’t reached the heights of Kai’s sublime patisserie. A lament that typically earned her stares of disbelief and head shakes. Apart from Mimi’s, most of Cannon’s staff had never eaten an opera cake and only a couple had tried Kai’s.
Except she knew. Mimi understood baking perfection.
Who, though, would go out of their way to secure for her a recipe the chef had sworn not to part with? Who cared that much?
And who would write – no, type – a message about following dreams?
Again, she studied her colleagues. Jordie? The young apprentice was a sweetie, but she doubted he had the gumption or imagination to pull off this coup. He’d probably never seen a typewriter. Bossy Belinda? That was laughable. Xander? He barely recognised her existence. Steph? She was a bit of a go-getter, but they weren’t close and it was hard to believe she’d go to such trouble. Her boss James? Unlikely. As for the others… Mimi let out a long sigh. She had no idea.
She reread the recipe, still unable to credit she had it. Every element was as it should be. The thin almond joconde sponge layers, the coffee syrup, the crème au beurre, the ganache. She’d had everything right in her attempts. Except for the separated duck eggs – the whites in the sponge and the yolks in the crème au beurre.
Mimi had to know who gave this to her. Secret Santa or not, a gift this precious couldn’t go unthanked, and she needed to know who cared this much. Maybe her secret Santa was as passionate about baking as her? Maybe they understood?
The thought gave her more heart-flutters. A baking friend… What a Christmas present that would be.
Whoever it was, Mimi had to suss them out fast. Only two working days remained before Cannon’s broke up for the holidays and leaving it until after New Year would lose all impact.
She stood, eyeing Jordie, her easiest suspect, and set to work.
Mimi stood on the footpath outside the front of Restaurant Ten and wrung her hands, barely aware of the rush of people around her making the most of Levenham’s last full shopping day before Christmas.
It was ridiculous to be nervous. The man was a chef, not a god. So what if a prestigious food magazine had once nicknamed him the Kitchen Kaiser? And so what if he had the intuition to use duck eggs in his opera cake? That didn’t make him any more special than Mimi.
Oh, but she was in awe.
Today was different too. Today she wasn’t here as a guest, she was here – yet again – as a supplicant, a girl ready to beg, if necessary. This time not for a recipe but for the name of the person who had weaselled it from Kai’s clutches.
A day and half’s investigation had yielded Mimi nothing but an enhanced reputation for mild eccentricity. Cannon’s secret Santa cult was holding firm. Which was nuttier than Mimi’s macadamia caramel slice. It was a staff Christmas gift swap, for heaven’s sake, not the official secrets act. Yet no one would admit to being her Santa.
On Wednesday night, when she’d approached, Jordie had regarded her with complete befuddlement before replying that surely everyone knew he’d scored Steph in the draw. The pudding tea-towel was on display in the front window of his mum’s shop. Mimi had then cautiously tackled the technicians only to be fobbed off, with Matt muttering a not very discreet aside to Alex about weird spare parts girls who think they’re chefs. Given the remaining technicians’ alcohol consumption, Mimi had thought it prudent to let things be and leave further investigation for the following morning.
Querying Bossy Belinda at the end of morning tea on Thursday proved just as fruitless. Belinda had scolded Mimi for even daring to ask about her secret Santa’s identity because… bossy, then glanced at the clock, gave a tsk at the time and ordered Mimi back to spare parts where she belonged.
Except spare parts wasn’t where Mimi belonged. Not in her true heart. Her position as spare parts interpreter came about because it happened to be the only apprenticeship open when she’d finished school and, having a good knowledge of mechanics thanks to her dad’s and brothers’ car racing obsessions, along with a few family connections, she’d been the strongest applicant in a lacklustre field. It also helped that, egged on by his new young third wife, group owner Alistair Cannon had ordered management to pull up their equal opportunity socks.
What Mimi had really wanted was a baker’s or chef’s apprenticeship, but that smarmy idiot Dalby Yates had snatched the only one on offer and by the time another vacancy came round, Mimi had been at Cannon’s nine months and well on her way to becoming a highly valued employee. Though she was cheerful, reliable, and good at her job, Mimi had never been convinced that her colleagues’ appreciation wasn’t more for her homemade morning tea treats.
She sighed and cast a look up at the deep blue summer sky. It was too hot to be standing outside on the footpath and twenty minutes of her lunch hour were already gone. She’d swapped breaks with her boss James, taking the early eleven-thirty to twelve-thirty slot to catch Kai before the restaurant’s lunch rush. The chef was likely already busy with prep without Mimi letting more time slide by.
Mimi stared at the gold lettering on Restaurant Ten’s glass entrance door and straightened her shoulders. If it all went pear-shaped and Kai refused to reveal her Santa’s identity, at least she’d have this chance to thank him for his generosity. It was the least she could do in return for his kindness.
She slid inside and waited at the reception desk, conscious of her heavy boots and work clothes, so in contrast with the restaurant’s cool elegance. The tables were beautifully set as always, with shiny cutlery, linen and glassware, and centres decorated with squat silver candles of varying heights surrounded with red berry dotted greenery. Noise filtered from the kitchen at the rear, the clangs and babble punctuated with the occasional burst of laughter that tugged her with longing. Restaurant Ten sounded a happy place to work, with everyone part of a team whose goal was to give other people pleasure.
Mimi shifted her weight from foot to foot and glanced at her watch. Perhaps she should have called ahead but she hadn’t wanted to risk Kai fobbing her off over the phone. She took a few cautious steps further into the restaurant and was about to call out when the kitchen door swung open and the big man himself appeared.
For a half-second Kai faltered, then his usual bonhomie took over. He walked toward her with his hands outstretched, his belly straining the buttons of chef’s whites, and a broad smile splitting his round face. The chef was so large it was like being welcomed by a polar bear. ‘Bonjour, bonjour,’ he crowed in a fake French accent. ‘If it isn’t ma petite home baker.’
‘Hi, Kai.’ Mimi licked her lips. ‘I’m sorry to barge in—’
He put a finger to his mouth then waggled it and returned to his usual broad Australian accent. ‘Don’t worry, I know what you’re here for.’ He ran a hand down his barrel chest. ‘You’ve come to thank me.’
‘I have. Your recipe…’ She swallowed, heat prickling her eyes. She forced the tears down. This was not the time to get emotional. Enough people already thought she was weird without adding Kai to the collection. Mimi pressed her hand to her breast. ‘I can’t tell you how grateful I am.’ She shook her head, smiling. ‘Duck eggs!’
‘A stroke of genius, eh?’ he said, winking at her.
‘Very much so.’ Mimi began to gush. ‘I can’t believe it never crossed my mind. I could not for the life of me figure out where the richness of your opera came from. I tried everything. And I mean everything. I spent a fortune on special cake flours, couverture chocolate… I hand-churned my own butter, for heaven’s sake.’ She chuckled at her silliness. ‘I even bought special coffee beans, thinking it might have been the syrup. The difference in your opera had me completely flummoxed and all along it was duck eggs, the classic baker’s secret.’
Kai’s eyes sparkled at her joy. He bent closer, eager. ‘Have you made it yet?’
‘No. But I will, on Saturday. You can guarantee that.’ She locked gazes with the chef. ‘I only got it Wednesday and would have stayed up all last night making it, but I didn’t have any duck eggs and…’ She sucked on her bottom lip. ‘I’ve been a bit distracted.’
A furrow appeared on Kai’s brow, and he eased back as if her admission that she hadn’t immediately rushed to make his recipe displeased him. A state confirmed by his low ‘hmph’.
Mimi hurried on. ‘You see, someone gave me your recipe as a secret Santa gift and I’m desperate to find out who so I can thank them. It was such an extraordinary thing to do. I mean, I can’t imagine you gave it out easily. I tried how many times? Ten? Twelve? And you always refused. Yet this person managed it. For me. This special thing. So you see, I have to know who it is. I have to thank them.’
Kai puffed out his cheeks.
‘Please.’ She wrung her hands together. ‘It would mean so much if you could tell me.’
For a moment Mimi was convinced the chef was going to give in, then he shook his head. ‘I’m sorry. He was very firm that I not say.’
Kai huffed a breath and grimaced.
Mimi’s thoughts darted to her list of suspects and mentally drew a line through the women. Which left twelve Santa contenders. Jordie was out, as were Matt and Alex. The latter two men were too selfish and antagonistic to do this for her, although that never stopped them gobbling down her baking efforts.
Which left Des, the general manager – and Mimi was sure it wasn’t him – followed by the sales team of Xander, Ben and Olly. Xander was off the list because everyone knew his sweetie of a wife took care of his secret Santas every year. Ben was too slack for such an effort, and unless it was a racehorse, Olly would be lucky to remember his latest boyfriend’s name let alone that of a cake.
Which left her immediate boss James, Preston in the back office, Duong in finance and insurance, Paul the porter and new car accessories fitter Milo. Apart from James, Mimi generally had little to do with the others, and all had responded with laughter and a sworn adherence to the sanctity of the secret Santa code when she’d broached the subject.
‘Maybe you could describe him a little?’
Kai rubbed his mouth. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Please?’ Mimi clasped her hands below her chin and blinked. ‘Pretty please?’
The chef eyed her some more. ‘All I’ll say is that he thinks a great deal of you.’ A twinkle returned to his gaze. ‘A great deal.’
For a moment, Mimi couldn’t figure out what Kai was insinuating, then her eyes bugged out. ‘Are you saying he…’ She sucked in a shaky breath. ‘Likes me?’
‘He pestered me like a hungry dog for six weeks for that recipe.’ Kai folded his arms. ‘I’d say he more than likes you.’
‘Wow,’ said Mimi, feeling slightly faint. ‘Wow.’
Someone at work had a crush on her? That was… wow.
Kai glanced over his shoulder as the kitchen door swung open. ‘Ah, I’m in trouble now.’
An attractive slim woman in a blue dress with her hair styled up in a bun came toward them, a folder in her arms. Her welcoming smile lowered a little when she registered Mimi’s work clothes before resuming, although not with quite the same degree of warmth.
‘You remember my favourite home baker?’ Kai asked her. ‘The recipe pesterer?’
‘How could I forget?’ True warmth returned to the woman’s smile. She set the folder on the reception desk and held out her hand. ‘I don’t think we’ve ever been introduced properly. Louise.’
‘Mimi.’ Mimi shook and indicated Kai. ‘I came to thank Kai for his generosity.’
Louise hooked an arm around her husband’s. ‘Your man was very persistent, and Kai’s always been a sucker for a romantic gesture.’ She smiled at Kai then back at Mimi. ‘You’re a lucky girl. He’s a good-looking man.’
‘Aggh,’ said Kai, sounding strangled.
‘Oops.’ Louise’s hand flew to her mouth. ‘I forgot.’ Cupping her hand, she bent closer and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘We were sworn to secrecy.’ She straightened and cast a sly glance at Kai. ‘It is Christmas though.’
Mimi’s stomach swooped. Could this be the moment?
But as Louise was about to speak, the door swung open. Louise and Kai immediately lost their relaxed demeanours and went into host mode.
‘Audrey,’ said Louise, arms out to greet their guest. ‘How lovely you see you again, and you too Mayor McClintoff.’
Conscious again of her attire sullying the restaurant’s refined atmosphere, Mimi shrank against the wall, forgotten as Kai’s posh guests were ushered to their table next to the front window. The perfect position to see and be seen.
After pulling out chairs for his guests, Kai chatted for a minute then excused himself to return to Mimi. ‘I’m sorry, I must get to work.’
‘That’s fine. I understand.’ Mimi put all her heart into her next words. ‘Thank you for sharing your recipe. I can’t begin to express how much it means, but it’s a lot. A big lot. If I can make anything half as good as you…’ She broke off as her throat thickened.
Kai studied her for a long moment. ‘Baking is your passion, isn’t it? A true calling.’
Mimi’s already burgeoning emotions threatened to overwhelm her once more. It had to be Christmas fatigue. Mimi wasn’t normally this fragile. Having not only been brought up in a house full of men but worked with them in a non-traditional role, she was usually a bit of a toughie. Today her mettle was as wobbly as panna cotta.
Inwardly scolding her ridiculousness, Mimi pressed her lips together and nodded.
Kai considered a little more and pressed a giant paw onto her shoulder. Amazing how such delicate patisserie came from those hands. ‘I tell you what, you bring me in a slice of your opera cake in the New Year and I’ll tell you how it went. Deal?’
‘Deal.’ Her grin was so wide it was fit to fly off her face. ‘That is absolutely a deal.’
‘Good.’ Kai tossed a worried glance his guests’ way. ‘Now I need to get to my kitchen, and you need to find some mistletoe.’
‘Mistletoe?’ Mimi’s nose screwed up. ‘For what?’
‘To hold over your secret Santa’s head when you find him.’ Kai rolled his eyes. ‘What else? If any man deserves a kiss, it’s Preston.’
Mimi stared at Kai. Kai stared back.
‘Oh, shit,’ they said in unison.
It was five pm and the sales staff were already pulling across the showroom’s stacking windows, ready for locking. The technicians and other service staff had cleared off half an hour ago. James had tried to usher out Mimi at the same time, but she’d mumbled an excuse about needing to sort something out in the office then hid in the toilet where she’d spent too long inspecting her hair in the mirror and wondering what Preston saw in her.
Preston Hanson! Mimi had been in a daze from the moment Kai accidentally blurted his name. It didn’t seem possible. Apart from friendly hellos and compliments on her baking the few times she’d run into him at morning tea, they’d barely spoken. He was the office nerd-hunk who the less mature male staff called Poindexter behind his back. Their paths had little reason to cross.
Yet Mimi had always been aware of him. His light brown eyes, his always pristine clothes, his clean-shaven jaw. His work ethic and clear intelligence. That seldom spotted teasing smile, alluding that a good-humoured heart beat warmly behind those crisp shirts.
Her own heart whump-whumped at the thought.
She hovered at the head of the hall that lead to Cannon Motors’ back offices, sucking in breaths and rehearsing yet again the little speech she’d constructed. Trepidation sat low in her belly. Preston hadn’t wanted to be found out. How might he react when she confronted him?
Mimi closed her eyes. What if he rejected her? What if he laughed and said Kai must have got it wrong?
He couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fair. A man who went to so much trouble, who showed so much kindness and empathy, would not be so cruel.
Mimi took a step only to halt when a chair scraped somewhere ahead, followed by footsteps. A second later Preston appeared in the doorway to his office. His head was down as he studied the paper he held. Mimi couldn’t stop her soft gasp.
He was lovely. And he liked her.
Preston’s head jerked up. For a moment his gaze was bright with pleasure, then it turned wary.
‘Mimi,’ he said and glanced at his watch. ‘Shouldn’t you be on holidays?’
‘I should.’ She clenched her hands in front of her belly and forced herself to walk toward him. ‘I have something I need to do first.’
‘Right. Excellent.’ Preston moved behind his desk, set down the paper he’d been carrying and concentrated on lining up the desk’s already straight contents. ‘I was just getting ready to leave myself.’
He looked up.
Mimi smiled. ‘What you did. Your secret Santa. Kai’s opera cake recipe. It was you.’
Colour flushed Preston’s cheeks. He opened his mouth, shut it, then leaned on his hands and stared at the desk. His back rose and fell with the deepness of his breath. When he looked up again his smile was wry. ‘I should have guessed they couldn’t keep a secret.’
‘If it’s any consolation, Kai didn’t mean to let it slip.’
‘But he did.’ He rubbed his jaw. ‘And now you know.’
Whether he referred to the identity of her secret Santa or his feelings Mimi wasn’t sure. She chose the latter. Because Christmas was a time for making dreams come true.
‘Now I know.’ Mimi kept up her smile. ‘You’re a very nice – a very kind – man, Preston Hanson.’
‘Yes, well.’ He shoved his hands in his trouser pockets and shrugged. ‘Don’t tell the others. They’ll only pester me for pay rises.’
She stepped a little closer. ‘How did you know? We don’t really…’ She ran the tips of her fingers back and forth over the edge of the desk, suddenly shy again. ‘Talk.’
‘We might not, but you do.’ At Mimi’s surprised glance, he went on. ‘You talk and I listen.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘I like listening to you talk about your baking. I like seeing you talk about it. Your whole face glows when you describe the recipes you’ve tried and the things you’ve learned. And when you watch people try your bakes, you get this… I don’t know… eagerness, like all you want is for them to be happy. It’s like you live for it.’
Mimi’s breath disappeared. ‘You noticed all that?’
‘I noticed.’ He gave another of those wry smiles. ‘I couldn’t not notice.’
Mimi’s heart turned in a slow, lurching tumble. This man had seen her. Not the weird girl from spare parts but her. The girl with passion and generosity, who secretly just wanted to bring people pleasure the way Kai did. The way a spare part never could.
‘I once overheard you say that if you had your time again you’d be a pastry chef. Is that true?’
‘You could do it. You’re good enough.’
Mimi shook her head. ‘It’s too late.’
Preston eased over the desk, his face close to hers, kindness and affection and belief in his gaze. ‘It’s never too late for a Christmas dream.’
‘What does Christmas have to do with it?’
‘Everything,’ he whispered, leaning closer.
Mimi sat in the passenger seat of Preston’s car cradling a large square plastic container like it was a baby and stared wide-eyed through the windscreen at Restaurant Ten’s kitchen entrance.
What in heaven’s name was she thinking?
A warm hand cradled her forearm, startling her out of her trance. ‘You can do this.’
‘I don’t know. What if he says they’re terrible?’
Mimi shook her head. Why was she putting herself through this? She couldn’t bake like Kai. The man had years of training and experience. She was a home cook whose learning came from YouTube, cookbooks, and television cooking shows. There was no comparison.
She sucked in a breath and forced herself to look at Preston. Immediately she softened. This man believed in her. He’d always believed in her. She hadn’t known how much until that Friday before Christmas, when their office confrontation had morphed into after work drinks followed by a proper date on Christmas Eve for which Mimi supplied dessert. The date would have been that afternoon, they were both so eager, except Mimi had an opposing date with an opera cake.
Now she held another in her lap. Not only perfectly measured slices of opera cake, but samples of other bakes – raspberry and white chocolate entremets, with layers of creamy mousse and bavarois and finished in a red mirror glaze; buttery pain aux raisins made with proper puff pastry; perfect mini tartes au citron.
They’d taken her all weekend, and today – the first Monday of the New Year – she would present them to Kai for assessment and know for certain if her dream was worth chasing.
Preston’s gaze held only love and encouragement. ‘He’s going to be blown away.’
‘Yeah,’ she managed then swallowed and straightened. ‘He absolutely is.’ She stretched for his kiss and levered out of the car.
With a last look back at her hero, Mimi strode for the kitchen door.
Forty minutes later she was out, springing across the carpark like a little girl, arms flapping, hair flying, legs on air.
Preston was leaning against the boot of his car. Mimi flung herself at him and held on for dear life. If it weren’t for this wonderful, adorable, gorgeous man…
He laughed. ‘I take it Kai liked your cakes?’
‘He did.’ She pulled back to nod at him vigorously. ‘He absolutely did.’ Then to Mimi’s embarrassment tears sprang to her eyes.
‘Hey…’ Preston cupped her face. ‘Don’t cry. It’s all good.’
‘I know,’ said Mimi, laughing and sniffing back her tears. ‘But, Preston, it’s more than good. He offered me a job. An apprenticeship.’ She bit her lip against her rising happy sob. ‘Can you believe it?’
‘You bet I can.’ Preston’s grin was as wide as her love for him. He rubbed his nose against hers, his own eyes suspiciously sparkly. ‘What did I tell you about Christmas dreams?’
‘It’s never too late for them to come true.’
And with his kiss, Mimi was finally convinced.
© Cathryn Hein 2021