The Sugar Queen
Emerson Pass Contemporaries, Book 1
True love requires commitment, and many times unending sacrifice...
At the tender age of eighteen, Brandi Vargas watched the love of her life drive out of Emerson Pass, presumably for good. Though she and Trapper Barnes dreamed of attending college and starting their lives together, she was sure she would only get in the way of Trapper's future as a hockey star. Breaking his heart, and her own in the process, was the only way to ensure he pursued his destiny. Her fate was the small town life she'd always known, her own bakery, and an endless stream of regret.
After a decade of playing hockey, a single injury ended Trapper Barnes' career. And while the past he left behind always haunted him, he still returns to Emerson Pass to start the next chapter of his life in the place his ancestors built more than a century before. But when he discovers that the woman who owns the local bakery is the girl who once shattered his dreams, the painful secret she's been harboring all these years threatens to turn Trapper's idyllic small town future into a disaster. Will it take a forest fire threatening the mountain village to force Trapper and Brandi to confront their history? And in the wake of such a significant loss, will the process of rebuilding their beloved town help them find each other, and true happiness, once again?
Fast forward to the present day and enjoy this contemporary second chance romance set in the small town of Emerson Pass, featuring the descendants of the characters you loved from USA Today bestselling author Tess Thompson's The School Mistress.
Content warning for stillbirth.
— scroll down to read book sample —
"There are books, authors, that pull you into their pages and make you want to come back for more. Tess Thompson can do that with her stories, with her series...Each page draws the reader, page turning, drama, sweetness, and heartache." —★★★★★ Reader Review
"...this book touched my heart, and I loved it...I am eagerly awaiting the upcoming stories, for both past and present." —★★★★★ Reader Review
"Emerson Pass is quickly becoming one of my favorite little towns...I absolutely suggest this book to anyone who loves small town romances and stories that truly take you away. This series goes from past to present and back again. It is so fun to follow the family tree and make the connections while reading. Another great series from Tess Thompson!" —★★★★★ Reader Review
"Tess Thompson has a way with her writing that wraps your heart and soul when pulls into story...All the characters and their relationships are so realistic and complex which is why I'm totally hooked in this series...All in all I absolutely loved this book even more than first one but that shouldn't be really a surprise because each new book is somehow better and better! Still in awe! Pick this series up and get hooked! It's ten stars worth!" —★★★★★ Reader Review
"Finally finished The Sugar Queen of Emerson Pass and I LOVED it!...A true story of second chance romance, with two childhood sweethearts torn apart in the midst of young love, and then thrown back together years later in very different circumstances, but in the same setting. The story tore at my heart, with loss and confusion, misplaced loyalties and rediscovered romance. Oh and the build-up to the next romance. Loved it, truly! Can't wait for the next one..." —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly 40 published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on, Hometowns and Heartstrings.
She’s married to her prince, Best Husband Ever, and is the mother of their blended family of four kids and five cats. Best Husband Ever is seventeen months younger, which qualifies Tess as a Cougar, a title she wears proudly. Her Bonus Sons are young adults with pretty hair and big brains like their dad. Daughters, better known as Princess One and Two, are teenagers who make their mama proud because they’re kind. They’re also smart, but a mother shouldn’t brag.
Tess loves lazy afternoons watching football, hanging out on the back patio with Best Husband Ever, reading in bed, binge-watching television series, red wine, strong coffee and walks on crisp autumn days. She laughs a little too loudly, never knows what to make for dinner, looks ridiculous kickboxing in an attempt to combat her muffin top, and always complains about the rain even though she chose to live in Seattle.
She’s proud to have grown up in a small town like the ones in her novels. After graduating from the University of Southern California Drama School, she had hopes of becoming an actress but was called instead to writing fiction. She’s grateful to spend most days in her office matchmaking her characters while her favorite cat Mittens (shhh…don’t tell the others) sleeps on the desk.
SAMPLE FROM THE SUGAR QUEEN
Chapter 1: Brandi
The ghosts of Emerson Pass haunt me. Not the spirits those who built this town from bricks and dreams. They’re all resting in peace, probably sitting around a table eating my great-great-great-grandmother Lizzie’s chicken stew. No, these apparitions are the loves of my life.
They’re only memories now, replaced by gaping holes of grief. One is a secret buried in the town cemetery under a gravestone with no name. The other is Trapper Barnes, professional athlete and descendant of the infamous Alexander Barnes. The boy who left and never returned. The boy who chose hockey over me.
The boy I sent away.
Until he returned on an ordinary afternoon in August.
The bells over the front door of my bakery jingled as I was about to close for the day. I looked up, surprised to have a new customer. Emerson Pass was a small town. Everyone knew my sandwiches, muffins, cookies, and cakes were gone by three. By four, I had only a few sad scones begging for a buyer.
My heart stopped for at least three seconds. Trapper Barnes stood before me.
I blinked three times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. But no, it was him. Tall and tanned with the same thick brown hair and big brown eyes.
“Hey, Brandi.” A deep voice, masculine yet soft. He smiled, showing his straight white teeth. Other than his dimples, all youthful roundness had disappeared, leaving chiseled cheekbones and a defined chin. The years had broadened his shoulders and chest. He was even better-looking than he’d been when we were kids. Of course he was. This was Trapper Barnes. Town hero. Hockey star. Love of my life.
I’d seen him on television and magazines over the years. Not often, as I avoided anything to do with professional hockey. If I accidentally caught a glimpse of him, the wound opened fresh, and I was wrecked for days. None of those photographs did him justice. The man was sinfully beautiful.
I couldn’t utter a sound. Instead, I stared at him. Could he see the way my chest ripped open and bled onto my counter? I stole a glance at his left hand. No ring. Thank God, nothing but one long, gorgeous finger. I’d accepted long ago that he would never be mine, but belonging to someone else? The weight of that pain would crush me.
“It smells fantastic in here.” His brown eyes sparkled as if he were on the brink of laughter. “Now that I’m no longer training, I can have a treat every once in a while. I’ll take the pumpkin one.”
I grabbed the last pumpkin from the platters. No longer training? What did that mean? I set the scone on a plate and slid it across the wide counter. God help me, I could smell his cologne. He smelled the same as the last day I’d ever spent with him.
“How much?” he asked.
I shook my head. “On the house. The scone’s dry by this time of day.”
His mouth lifted in that same drowsy smile he’d had since we were kids. “You speak. I thought maybe you’d gone mute since I left.”
“Yes, sorry. You surprised me.” The understatement of the century.
“The Sugar Queen.” He gestured toward the doors. “It’s perfect.”
“Thanks.” I’m never a woman of many words, but my dry mouth made elegant oratory even more difficult.
“Mama tells me this is the best bakery in town,” he said.
I glanced around, wondering what it looked like through his eyes. Industrial lights hung over the counter. Round bistro-style tables and chairs looked out to the street. A silver espresso machine and a refrigerator with premade items took up one side, with the register and counter on the other. A chalkboard with the menu hung on the wall, written in my neat handwriting. Every morning I set out the day’s offerings on various platters and boards in an attractive display on the counter.
“It’s the only bakery in town,” I said.
He smiled again and lifted one thick eyebrow. “Probably because no one dares compete with you.”
Trapper. Always kind and encouraging to everyone he ever met. Lifting people up was like a mission with him. He could find the best part of a person, no matter who they were. He never missed an opportunity to inspire or encourage. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to bask in the glow of his compliment. Back in the day it had been the only antidote to my mother’s criticism. And there it was. I ached with wanting him, as if no time had passed. No, I screamed silently. Don’t let him break you. Not again.
“What’re you doing here?” I asked. “I mean, here in town.”
“I’ve moved home. Didn’t Breck and Huck tell you?”
Breck and Huck and Trapper were best friends from childhood. And no, they had not mentioned that Trapper was moving home permanently. Oh God. How could this be happening? I couldn’t have him here. Not living and breathing and stopping in for a damn scone. How would I look him in the eye, knowing what I’d done? The secret I’d kept from him.
“They don’t come by often.” I came out from behind the counter and turned the Open sign to Closed. “Anyway, it’s none of my business what you do.”
As I turned to face him, he placed his hand over his heart and smiled. “Ouch.”
Damn that smile. Still melted me like butter over a biscuit.
“You look beautiful,” he said. “More so than ever.”
“Not really.” I wondered if I had any flour on my face. When I was in the zone I didn’t think twice about my appearance. In the shop, I wore my long blond hair in a braid and usually didn’t bother with more than mascara and blush, always promising myself to remember lipstick but never quite managing. Truth is, I didn’t care about what I looked like. Everyone in this town had already seen me. I wasn’t interested in romance. The only Friday night date I wanted was a television show and a glass of wine.
The only man I’d ever cared about looking pretty for had left a long time ago.
“I always knew you’d do something spectacular,” he said.
“Baking bread is hardly spectacular,” I said.
“Tell that to the customers lined up out your door every morning.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
His chiseled features softened. I saw a hint of the vulnerable, sensitive boy I’d loved instead of the giant, confident man before me. “I’ve been by a few times. I didn’t know if you’d want to see me, so I just kept walking.”
“Why today then?” I kept my words clipped, unemotional. All I wanted was for him to leave so I could sort through what to do. I didn’t want him here. Not in my shop or my town.
“I couldn’t stop myself,” he said. “I wanted to see you.”
My stomach churned. “I would’ve thought Emerson Pass was a little small for you these days. Did you get hurt? Is that why you’re retiring?”
“That’s right. Bad knee. I lasted longer than most. It was time to come home and start a new chapter. I got some advice from my friend Brody Mullen. After my injury, he said to move back home. Start a new chapter with no regrets.”
I had no idea who that was. “I don’t follow hockey.”
His eyes widened. “Brody Mullen’s a former football quarterback. Some say the best there ever was. You don’t watch sports anymore?”
“No time. The world of professional sports is irrelevant to my life.” I motioned toward the back where my ovens resided. “Common people like me are just trying to make our rent.”
“There’s nothing common about you. Never has been.”
I ignored the praise. I’d be damned if he was going to suck me in with his effortless charm. Had I not evolved from a lovesick teenager? Remember your secret, I reminded myself. Remember what you kept from him.
“You used to love hockey,” he said. “If I recall correctly, you never missed a game.”
“I loved watching you. When you left, hockey lost its appeal.”
“Oh, okay.” He glanced down at the counter. “Guess that answers that question.”
“What’s that?” I asked, then silently cursed myself. Stop engaging. Tell him to leave.
“Sometimes when I played, I wondered if you were watching me on television.”
He flinched. “Got it.”
“What did you expect? That I was here pining for you?”
“Jeez, Brandi, you don’t have to be mean.”
The hurt in his eyes nearly undid my resolve to remain cold. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound that way. You had the life you dreamed of, and I’m glad for you.” His dreams had come true. I’d wanted that for him. Remember that, I reminded myself. “I’m just surprised you ever thought of me at all.”
“Do I need to remind you how it all went down?” he asked softly. “You’re the one who ended things. You’re the one who made the rules. No contact, remember? You made it so I couldn’t come home.”
“How’s that exactly?” My voice cracked. “Your family owns most of this town. It’s yours more than mine.”
“Because I couldn’t come home and risk seeing you. It hurt too much.”
His words nearly knocked me across the room. I gripped the edge of the counter to stay in place. He didn’t mean it, I reminded myself. He chose hockey. Not me. “From what I could tell, you made up for it by dating a plethora of actresses and models.”
His mouth lifted in a sad smile. “You didn’t watch my games, but you read tabloids about me?”
“It’s hard to avoid. I stand in grocery store lines.” I wiped crumbs from the counter into my apron and tossed them into the garbage.
“Most of that stuff is lies. I only dated half the women they said I did.”
An arrow pierced my chest. Half the women. Women who were not me. My lunch continued to churn in my stomach. A drop of perspiration slid down my lower back. “You were a girl magnet in high school. Some things never change.” I looked past him to the street. The wind had come up, shaking the leaves of the aspens that lined Barnes Avenue.
“I never noticed anyone but you,” he said. “I never wanted anyone but you. Surely you remember that accurately?”
I avoided eye contact by reaching under the counter for a cloth I had soaking in bleach. “Where are you living?” I wiped the counter with short, furious strokes.
“I had a house built on my dad’s property. You didn’t know?”
“I don’t exactly get updates about your life. Neither of your parents has ever set foot in this place.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Yeah, about that. What happened between our mothers? Do you know? Mama said your mom shut her out after we broke up. Refused to answer her calls or emails. They were such good friends.”
How could I explain this without telling him the truth? “After we broke up, my mom thought it would be best if they were no longer friends. Less messy that way, I guess.”
“That’s sad,” he said. “The whole thing was sad.”
“I’m sorry I hurt you, Trapper.” I hadn’t planned to say that, but somehow it slipped out of my mouth.
He shrugged one muscular shoulder. “You did. Bad.”
“We were young,” I said. “I wasn’t ready.”
“I remember your reasons.” His jaw clenched as he looked down at the floor. “Didn’t make it any easier to lose you, though.”
I fiddled with my apron strings as waves of pain slapped me. “Have you been happy?” I asked through clenched teeth. “All your dreams came true—just like you planned.” My chest ached as I waited for him to tell me. Please, I thought, say yes. Please let one of us have had the life we wanted.
“Yeah, all my hockey dreams did come true.” He ran a hand over the top of his head. “They didn’t make me as happy as I figured they would.”
“What do you mean?”
“I loved playing, don’t get me wrong. But as the years went on, I started to understand it was simply a job. Not family. Not friendship. Not love. When the docs said my knee was shot, I figured it was time to find some of what I gave up when I left. So I came home. Back to the place where I left my heart.”
I almost reached over the counter to touch him but pushed my hands into my apron pockets to stop myself. How could I still love him this much? “Not much has changed here.” Lame, I thought. What a stupid thing to say after he poured his heart out to me.
“Can I ask you something?” He shifted weight from one leg to the other.
“Did you ever have any intention of going with me to University of Michigan like we’d talked about, or did you know all along you wanted to stay here?” He asked this as if the words were being yanked out of him by an invisible rope.
“I’d planned on going, but I changed my mind,” I said.
“What did I do wrong?” His voice softened. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. I swear to God, he looked like the little boy I’d met on the first day of grade school. “I’d like to know that. For peace of mind.”
“Nothing. Trapper, it was never you.” The back of my throat ached. I swallowed, trying to keep my composure. “We were young. It was a high school thing—not meant to last.” Liar, liar, liar.
“I never thought it was just a high school romance. I thought we were forever. I’ve never been able to move on.” He rubbed the heel of his hand on his forehead. “I should probably stop talking now.”
We were more than high school sweethearts. I’d known it then, and I knew it now. “I haven’t either.” The words were out before I could stop them.
“Why haven’t you ever reached out to me?” His eyes filled. “I would’ve been so happy to hear from you. There’s not a day that’s gone by that I haven’t thought about you.”
“It would’ve been wrong of me. You and I just weren’t meant to be. For so many reasons.”
“I can’t think of one.” He swiped at his eyes.
I knew one. Her name was Ava Elizabeth, and she was buried in the town cemetery. Our baby. Our stillborn baby.
“I didn’t get into Michigan,” I said. “That’s why I couldn’t go with you.”
He rocked back on his heels, as if I’d smacked him. “What? How come you didn’t tell me that?”
“I was ashamed.”
He studied me for a few seconds before speaking. “If you’d gotten in, would you have gone with me?”
“It doesn’t matter. I didn’t get in. I couldn’t just follow you and make your life my life. Eventually, you would’ve come to resent me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Think about it, Trapper. What was I supposed to do? Live in your dorm room and work at a fast-food place? Michigan was your dream, not mine.”
“I wish you’d have told me the truth,” he said. “You owed me that at least.”
“What good would that have done?” The truth? My rejection from Michigan was nothing compared to the other lie.
His cheeks reddened. “Because it would’ve helped me understand what the hell happened between us. One day we’re in love and the next day you’re breaking up with me. None of it made sense to me. It still doesn’t.”
“Do you remember the fight we had the week before we broke up?” I asked.
He nodded and shifted his gaze to the floor. “When you asked me if a circumstance demanded it, would I choose you or hockey—and I said hockey.”
After all these years, I could still feel the way those words had knocked a hole right through my middle. “That’s right.” I’d known I was pregnant by then. I hadn’t yet told my parents or Trapper. I’d planned to tell Trapper that night and see if we could come up with a plan together. However, the moment he’d said those words, I knew what I had to do.
Let go. Send him away to begin the rest of his life. At least one of us would have all our dreams come true.
He looked up at me. “That answer is the biggest regret of my life. I should never have said something so cruel.”
“It was hard to hear but necessary,” I said. “You were eighteen years old, and your whole career was in front of you. I was just the girl in high school you thought you loved.”
“I did love you. Not thought I loved you,” he said.
“No eighteen-year-old boy with the kind of drive and talent you had should ever pick a teenage romance over a college that would lead to a professional career. That would simply be stupid. Do you hear me? Don’t regret your honesty. It saved us both a lot of heartache in the end.”
“Did it? Or did it drive you away? I always felt like it was some kind of test and I failed and ruined everything between us.”
It was and it did.
“We were kids.” This wasn’t how I’d wanted this conversation to go. I needed him to leave. “What did we know about love? High school love never lasts. I was just a blip on your life. You know that.”
“I never knew that. In fact, I thought the opposite. Until you sent me away, I thought we’d get married. I thought we’d have a few kids by now.” His face twisted in obvious pain. “And then I ruined it by telling you hockey was more important than you.”
“Trapper, listen to me.” My chest hurt so much I could hardly breathe. “If I’d tagged along, you would’ve outgrown me.”
“What does it matter now?” I asked.
His voice rose in pitch. Tears dripped from his eyes. “I thought we were in love. Like epic love. The kind that lasts forever. Did you ever love me? I thought you did, and then you didn’t. I’ve never understood what happened.”
I looked at him too long. His expression changed from sad to expectant. The truth must have leaked out of my eyes along with the tears that suddenly blurred my vision. “I loved you enough to let you go.”
“That makes no sense.”
“What I needed from you was more than you could give.” My careless mistake would have cost him everything. Two nights in a row I’d forgotten to take my birth control pills. Instead of telling him, I kept it to myself. The first of the secrets I’d kept from him.
“What did you need?”
“I needed you to want to stay here and have a simple life. In the end, we simply didn’t fit together. I couldn’t leave here. I never have, you know.”
He watched me with those eyes that still drew me in like no one else’s ever had. “Well, I’m back now for good. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Too much time has passed, Trapper. We don’t even know each other anymore.”
“Fair enough.” The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile that did nothing to hide his sadness. “But we could get to know each other again.”
“I…I can’t,” I said.
“Are you seeing someone?”
My first instinct was to lie. However, this town was too small for yet more deceit. “I’m not. I don’t want a relationship. I’m too busy.”
He picked up a napkin from the counter and wiped his eyes.“Right. Got it. I feel like an idiot coming in here and talking about this stuff. If it means anything, my intention was to come in and say hello to an old friend. I didn’t plan for us to get into the past to this extent.”
“You know what they say about best intentions.” I smiled, hoping to lighten the mood.
“I guess so,” he said. “I’m still trying to find a way to move on.”
“I’m fine. You’re fine. Everything’s fine.” I couldn’t keep my voice from cracking like a burned, brittle cookie. “There’s no reason to hold on to the past.”
“I guess I should go, then.” He turned toward the door.
“Don’t forget your scone. I can bag it up for you.” Why had I put it on a plate in the first place?
“Nah, I lost my appetite. See you around.”
I watched him walk out the door. He looked left, then right, as if deciding which way to go. In the end, he crossed Barnes Avenue and hopped into a shiny black truck and drove away, just as he’d done ten years earlier.
Find a way to move on. He’d never been able to move on or get over me? As hard as this was to believe, I knew it to be true. Trapper had never lied to me. I was the liar.
If I’d gone to him back then and told him about the pregnancy, would the course of our lives have been altered but not ruined? Did my grief kill our baby? I’d never know now. Trapper could never be mine. Not after the secret I kept from him.
I sank to the floor behind the counter and cried.
Thirty minutes later, I drove out to the cemetery and parked in my usual spot. I walked down the winding cement path to the Strom family plot where my baby rested. I sat on the grass next to her. My mother had not allowed me to have her name or dates etched into the simple headstone. Only a simple outline of a bird carved into the granite marked her existence. Ava meant bird. My little bird.
I traced my fingers over the etching. “He came back. And it turns out I still love him. I know, not surprising. I never stopped. All his dreams came true. At least I was able to give him that.”
I’d had to lie to him, pretend I didn’t love him, and hide my pregnancy so that he might have the life he deserved. Hockey was his destiny. “When he was a little boy, all he ever cared about was hockey. You should’ve seen him on the ice. He was a sight. I couldn’t hold him back from his dreams.”
I knew if it came down to it, he’d choose the game over me. He proved me right when I asked him. Which would you choose? Me or hockey? We’d been sitting in lawn chairs at his Grammie and Pa’s house on the first warm day of spring.
“I don’t have to choose. I can have both,” he’d said, flashing me that confident grin.
“In this game, you have to choose.” I’d turned away, afraid to show him my reaction.
“Hockey. I mean, for now anyway. If I’m to give you a great life, it has to start with me playing hockey.”
There it was. The answer. I knew what I had to do.
Now I spoke to my daughter as if she were there. “When he moved away to college, I thought I might die without him.”
I didn’t, obviously. It was just my heart that had died. The rest of me was intact. After he left, I told my parents I was pregnant. My mother hatched a plan. A secret pregnancy. Adoption. No one would know, including Trapper and his parents. “I’ll be damned if I let a baby wreck your life like it did mine.”
It? “It” was me. I was her baby. And I was still here, ruining all her plans.
She’d wanted everything for me that she’d had to give up when she became pregnant at seventeen. She’d wanted a college education. She’d wanted a life with intellectuals and professionals. Instead, she’d gotten pregnant and married my dad. What had been a summer camp counselor fling had created a baby. Dad had brought her home to his mountain town in Colorado. As far as I could tell, she’d hated every moment of her life here.
Everyone seemed to understand that I lacked the brains to pursue academics except my mother. She couldn’t see me as I was, refusing to have me tested for learning disabilities, berating me that if I only tried harder my grades would be better.
In the end, it didn’t matter what she wanted for me. I was a disappointment. Even my compassionate father, who loved me more than anything in the world, was crestfallen at my failure to get into college. Then I broke his heart further when I got pregnant.
My mother had located a wonderful couple who desperately wanted a child. He was a doctor. She was a professor. The family my mother wished we’d been. Little did she know, I’d had no intention of giving my baby to anyone.
I’d been confined to the house as the baby grew inside me. To keep occupied, I’d baked bread in my mother’s kitchen. Loaves and loaves. Sourdough, wheat, oat, pumpernickel. I’d kneaded and measured and watched the yeast rise day after day. After I conquered bread, I’d moved on to cakes and cookies and muffins from the recipes from my great-great-great-grandmother Lizzie.
All the while I’d tried to work out how I was going to escape with my baby. I was a young woman with no skills and no family support unless I did exactly what they wanted. Still, I’d been determined that somehow, I would find a way to raise her on my own.
Finally, in desperation, I’d called my friend Crystal Whalen. She’d lived in Seattle during the school year and visited her grandparents during the summers. Descendants of Harley and Merry Depaul, her grandparents had continued the family’s horse breeding farm in Emerson Pass. However, her mother, Jennifer, had had different ideas. She’d chosen pottery over horses and had moved to Seattle, where she’d opened her own studio. When I told Crystal about the baby and my parents’ wishes, Jennifer had offered the baby and me a room in her home. I could stay with them until l got on my feet. She, too, had been a single mother, raising Crystal by herself. By choice, she assured me. “Who needs a man?”
Me, I’d thought. I wasn’t independent or progressive thinking like Jennifer. I had no talents or ambitions.
Sweet little Brandi Vargas. Blonde and cute in my high school cheerleader uniform, but without an ounce of brains. I’d wanted Trapper and babies and to bake bread on Sunday afternoons in my kitchen. No woman in this day and age was supposed to want such a simple life. Despite that, I had.
When it came time for the baby’s arrival, my parents had driven me to Denver, not wanting the local doctors to know about my pregnancy. In triage, the doctor’s face had blanched. He hadn’t looked me in the eye. I’d known something was wrong.
“What is it?”
“I’m not getting a heartbeat.”
No words strung together in the English language had ever been as cruel.
I’d given birth to a baby girl. A baby girl who’d died in my womb.
I’d begged my parents to let me take her home and bury her in the plot with Lizzie and Jasper and the rest of our family. They’d agreed, as long as I kept her name and dates off the headstone. We’d asked the funeral director to please keep it quiet.
For months afterward, I’d barely left the house except to go to the cemetery. I’d bring a blanket and stay for hours. Other than that, I kept to my room watching television or staring out the window. An entire season went by, then another. Finally, one day, my father perched on the side of my bed and proposed an idea.
“There’s going to be a farmers’ market in town on Wednesdays,” he’d said. “How about you bake some bread and sweets to sell?”
I’d agreed, mostly to quell the look of worry in his eyes. The very first Wednesday, I’d sold out of every loaf of bread, all the cookies, and most of the muffins. News of my delicious baked items spread, and people started stopping by the house, asking if I had anything to sell. People referred to me as the Sugar Queen.
When my mother couldn’t stand the flour on her kitchen floor one more minute, Dad encouraged me to take out a loan and open my own shop. He owned the building that used to be the Johnsons’ dry goods store back in the day. The former tenants had used it for a frozen yogurt shop that went under. I’d blamed the cold winters. Who wanted frozen yogurt when icicles hung from the rafters?
From the moment I’d walked in, even before Dad and I had installed the industrial ovens and painted the walls a cream color, the voices of the Johnson family seemed to speak to us. Offer a good product and service, and customers will come.
Dad had suggested I use my nickname for the shop. He’d painted the doors red, then we hung a sign: The Sugar Queen. I’d practically heard the Johnson sisters cheering me on as Dad and I’d given a face-lift to the front of the building. Cherry siding and tall windows with hanging baskets of bright flowers brought the storefront into this century. I’d decorated the inside with bistro tables and a wide counter made of repurposed wood from the original floors.
From that day forward, I started work every morning at 4:00 a.m. and opened the doors at 7:00 a.m. The inside always smelled of sugar, butter, and fresh coffee. Customers flocked to my little place. A hit, despite my deficiencies.
Our guidance counselor had once advised me to use my pretty face and sweet disposition to my advantage, implying I didn’t have much else going for me. Didn’t I get the last laugh? I did have a talent. A talent for which I was admired and adored. Or my products were, anyway. Notwithstanding the tears that sometimes fell in the batter, I was the Sugar Queen.
Most days, I worked so hard proving everyone wrong I didn’t have time or energy to think of all I’d lost. I made a good living doing what I loved. Crystal moved to Emerson Pass after her husband’s death and opened a kitchen shop next door to my bakery. Mom and I came to a distant truce. Dad was still my biggest fan.
A happy ending, of sorts. Until the day Trapper came home and I had to face the past, my lies piling up like sticky, messy muffins on a platter.
“What do I do, little bird?”
But my little bird didn’t answer. She never did.