A note before you start reading Canoes and Cupcakes.

I’m joining Kindle Vella and hope you’ll read my stories there. Vella is a serialized story-telling app on Amazon that lets readers read stories one episode at a time. The first three episodes will always be free, then it’ll cost a pittance to read the rest of the episodes.

My first foray into Vella is “THE SPACE BETWEEN THE STARS.” It’s science fiction, the first-person stories of women who joined the multi-generational starship Nova One on a one-way voyage to a new home on a planet across the galaxy. The stories will all be different. Different kinds of stories, different characters, all HEA. Some funny, some heart-warming, some sad, some hard science fiction.

Hope you read THE SPACE BETWEEN THE STARS. Kindle Vella is due to go live in mid to late July. Don’t yet know how to access it other than what Amazon says, that it’ll be available on the Amazon Kindle Vella Store. Whatever that means. Hope you find it and hope you like all the stories you find there.

Here’s the June story. A romance because it’s June. Of course!

CANOES AND CUPCAKES

by

Florence Witkop

“Cupcakes are a thing.” John examined the sky. “And you always did enjoy baking.”

It took a moment for me to realize what he’d said, after which all I could manage was, “Where’d that come from?” My brother checked the sky again to make sure it was still there as a way of not looking at me so I knew the comment wasn’t random. He had something on his mind.

“There’s money in cupcakes.” His attention slowly, carefully, moved from the sky to me and pleading was evident in his pitiful expression. He’s good at pitiful expressions. I used to fall for them. I don’t anymore. “A cupcake business would be a chance to make money and, since you like to bake, you’d have fun at the same time.”

“I don’t have time. I have my studies.”

The pitiful pleading increased. “Ancient history? That’s about dead people.” A flick of his hand sent fluff from the nearby milkweeds into the air. There was a patch in our yard that we didn’t cut because Monarch butterflies lived there. I still lived at home, being a student, so I loved watching them. John had an apartment but visited often. Like now. Today. Because  he wanted something. From me. “Don’t you have enough degrees? Do you truly need another one?”

I wanted to tell him that I found dead people fascinating. That jobs in history pretty much require a PhD. That I wasn’t interested in his idea, whatever it was. That I was happy with my life. Instead I foolishly asked, “What’s behind this sudden interest in cupcakes?”

A Monarch butterfly landed on the picnic table and we both went quiet and watched until it flew away. We followed its path through the air until it disappeared around the corner of the house. Then he answered my question. “Canoes.”

“Huh?” He managed not to look away but it was hard and he cleared his throat as I asked a second question. “What do cupcakes and canoes have in common?”

“Evan and I want to go canoeing.” My brother loves the outdoors. Always has, from watching butterflies in the summer to snowshoeing in the winter and everything in between. If it was out of doors, he and Evan, his best friend, knew about it, had tried it, and loved it.

“You don’t have a canoe.”

“That’s the problem. Can’t go canoeing without a canoe.”

“So a cupcake business is to fund the purchase of a canoe?”

“Yep.” He looked away. Then back at me. Then away again but I’d seen his face during that brief moment and found myself wilting. The nearby river was gorgeous and flowed peacefully through graceful twists and curves for miles. Almost every time we crossed the bridge on our way to town we saw at least one canoe floating down the lovely waterway. “We couldn’t think of another way to get enough money.”

They both had jobs but were paying off steep school loans plus rent, and entry jobs don’t pay a lot. The thing is, they are both nice people. And I am a fairly decent baker. “You think cupcakes will do it.” My tone of voice said what I thought of such a ridiculous idea. I said it in that specific tone of voice to make him understand that it was impossible.

He wiggled. Found a comfortable position. Opened his mouth. Wiggled a bit more and sat up straight again which meant this was truly important. “We stopped at a bakery in the mall for some donuts and there were people lined up buying cupcakes.”

“So?”

“So we were the last customers so the owner had time to talk while getting our donuts. We asked about the cupcakes everyone was buying. He said they must be a ‘thing’ now because people are buying them as fast as he can bake them. He said there’s enough demand for a dozen cupcake businesses.” He looked at me sidewise. “And canoes are on sale now. Probably will be for a while. Most rivers are low, not much call for them.” The river near us was, as usual, flowing normally.

“So you’re saying that people liking cupcakes and you two wanting canoes should be the catalyst to start a business?”

“Yep.” He shaded his eyes with one hand as if a canoe wasn’t important. “That was the idea. Did it work?”

I should have said ‘no.’ Should have stopped things right there. But I didn’t. Because I truly do love to bake and cupcakes are one of my favorite things and John is my little brother and I’ve always babied him. Besides, canoes are a positive thing in the world. Quiet. Lovely. Non-polluting. Get people into the great outdoors. And so on.

So instead of telling him to get a second job I said, “I will not do it alone. I’m not going to slave over a hot oven to get you a canoe while you guys drink lemonade. You have to help.” He said he would. He nodded so hard his hair flopped all over his head. But I wasn’t done. “Evan too if he’s part of the canoe caper.”

“He’ll be glad to help. You know Evan.”

Yes I did, and he was the part of the plan that made it impossible for me to say ‘no.’ Both John and Even are nice, Evan being several years older, a couple of years older than me. They’d been tight ever since meeting at a ski slope where they were both neophytes and both ended up with broken legs and spent their recovery time getting to know one another.

Evan is as crazy about the great outdoors as John and has been close to our family ever since. And I like him. Like I said, he’s a nice guy. And good looking. And he makes my insides turn warm every time we are together, something I’d never in a million years admit out loud.

“Okay. You have a deal.”

John hugged me and danced a little jig that scared the butterflies away and I wondered if he somehow knew how I felt about Evan but there was nothing to indicate that he did beyond a quick comment that we three would be seeing a lot of each other. I couldn’t tell if the look on his face was a smirk or a reaction to the brilliant sunshine we’d been enjoying lately.

But I wasn’t about to start a commercial enterprise without doing my homework and I didn’t think John’s enthusiasm counted. So I visited that bakery he’d mentioned, not believing for a second that the baker had actually said what John said he had.

Turned out that he had said what John said he’d said. “You guys got a commercial bakery in mind?”

“A what?”

His look went skyward and he carefully explained that anything he sold had to be made in a commercial bakery. I shook my head and mentally started wording my explanation to a disappointed little brother when he continued. “I’m asking ‘cause I know one that’s not currently being used.” He wiped his hands on a paper towel and sat down and offered me a can of pop. Because this was going to be a long conversation? “It went out of business recently and that’s partly why I’m so busy now.” His head tilted from one side to the other and back as he tried to gauge my interest level. “I’d love to see it go back in business as long as I sell what’s made in both bakeries.” He stared at me. “So what about it? Are you guys going to bake me some cupcakes?”

When I walked out, I had an address and a promise to meet with the owner of the commercial kitchen and before the day was out, we were in business. Except I didn’t know a thing about commercial anything and the boys knew less than me, so I had a feeling life was about to get interesting. Fortunately, the owner of the bakery we were about to rent agreed to stick around and help us get started.

“Where’s John?” I asked the next afternoon when Evan showed up after work, right on time and alone.

“Had to work overtime. Not optional.” He shrugged. “It happens.”

So Evan and I learned about commercial baking without my little brother. The lessons added another dimension to my home baking. Evan learned from the beginning. The former baker only rolled his eyes a couple of times and was endlessly patient, which was good because otherwise we’d never have learned a thing.

One of the first things we learned was that if we were to provide fresh-baked cupcakes we’d probably be working odd hours so as to get the freshly baked cupcakes to the bakery in the mall before it opened in the morning.

That worked for me because my studies were individualized. It worked for Evan for much the same reason. He worked from home. Not so much for John who worked normal hours at a business that was experiencing a spurt of sales and required him to work long hours. Which left Evan and me alone once our helpful landlord/baker decided we knew enough to continue without him.

When he was gone and we’d done our best, Evan stared at a table covered by frosting in all the colors of the rainbow that topped cupcakes of every flavor imaginable in large boxes and there were more baking in the huge oven that came with the place.

He leaned on the table with his elbows and slow-blinked at me. I melted and reminded myself that as far as he was concerned we were just friends. I was John’s big sister, nothing more. No one special. “Who’d have thought there were so many kinds of cupcakes?”

“Lots more to be made. This is nothing.” My voice squeaked and I wished for the hundredth time that I could be normal around Evan.

He looked up. “Are you okay? You sound funny.”

“I’m fine.” I cleared my throat. “Must be catching a cold.”

His brow knitted. “You’d better take it easy.” He insisted I sit. “I can finish this.” He was truly concerned. “I’ll deliver these babies.”

“I’m fine. Really. And I want to help deliver them. Because I helped and because this is an interesting business.” 

He insisted I sit while he worked. I did and couldn’t believe how fast time passed as I watched Evan bake, cool, frost, and package cupcakes. He started awkwardly but by the time a stack of bakery boxes was ready for delivery, he’d figured it out and developed a rhythm. “I hope we earn enough to cover expenses and have something for the canoe fund.”

“The reason we’re doing this.”

We put the boxes in his car as the sun peeked over the trees, crossed the river as it topped them, and made our delivery as the day began and our small city came to life. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

We walked out of the bakery without those boxes but with a check for enough to pay rent on our commercial kitchen, buy supplies for the next batch of cupcakes and start a savings account in the local bank. After which we grabbed coffee and found our way to the bank of that river and watched the day finish waking up. “I love mornings.” Evan stretched his long legs and shook the tiredness from his frame. “I love the smell of them. The look of them. The canoes that are just starting out.” As two canoes floated beneath the nearby bridge. “And soon John and I will be doing that too.”

Something occurred to him. “You too. When we get the canoe. You must come too. You’ll love it.”

The peace and beauty of the river and the greenery along the banks. The silence broken only by the murmuring current. John in one end of the canoe, Evan in the other, and me in between. “I’d like that.”

So we continued. John’s overtime ended and he was able to help but he never was able to put in as many hours as either Evan or I. We didn’t mind, we knew it wasn’t his fault as one day when he had to doff his apron and leave for his day job, he said, “It’s funny. I actually enjoy this stuff.” His eyes looked skyward and he shook his head in disbelief. “Who’d have thought? Me and baking.”

Evan put his hands on hips, flour and all. “Me too, and that’s the last thing I expected when we started this gig.”

They both looked at me. “I always did like baking. Especially cupcakes.” We three inspected the day’s work consisting of cupcakes, but also cakes and sweet rolls and coffee cakes. And we planned to ask the mall bakery if they wanted still more variety. Because we were actually decent bakers and the mall man loved having more to sell.

So John went to work and Even and I finished up and cleaned the kitchen and brought our bakery boxes to the mall and collected a fat check. Evan looked at it. “We have our canoe.” He waved it in the air and texted John that they’d reached their goal.

I looked at him. “So now what?”

“What do you mean?”

“We rented the commercial kitchen for the entire summer. Do we just let it sit idle?”

He sobered. “I never thought about it.” He raked fingers through his hair and my stomach warmed in response. “It shouldn’t sit idle.” He thought a bit. “And we shouldn’t leave the mall baker in the lurch. That would be irresponsible.” And he thought some more. “Besides, I’m getting good at this stuff.” He colored. “I actually enjoy it.”

I colored also. “So do I.” Mostly I enjoyed working beside Evan though I wasn’t about to admit that out loud.

That evening, after purchasing what they informed me was a river canoe that would be perfect for either two or three people, we adjourned to the river bank to watch the sun set and see if John had any ideas about the kitchen. He did. “Why stop now? We have the kitchen for the summer, we have the skills and a lot of flour and sugar and stuff and the mall counts on us. So why not continue and just put the extra money in the bank?” He acknowledged that we’d worked way more than he had. “Besides, I’m really getting into this bakery thing. Hopefully I’ll have more time to bake stuff.”

So we kept baking and the mall baker said he’d love it if we came up with still more items because there definitely was the market for it all.

The next day we took the canoe on its maiden voyage. It was as magical as I’d imagined with green banks on either side and the sounds of the city muffled by the high banks and the murmur of the river. When we passed out of the city, it quieted still more and the banks flattened enough that we could look over the farms and country homes that dotted the area and float between the many tiny islands in that part of the stream close enough to touch them if we wanted.

I hated to see the trip end and I said so. John surprised me by adding, “I hate to see the whole thing end. The canoe trip and the bakery that made it possible.”

Evan agreed. “Who’d have though that a canoe would make me fall in love with baking?”

I spoke without thinking. Too fast, perhaps, but I spoke as soon as the idea came to me. “Then why quit? Why not go into business for real?”

They looked at me as if I’d sprouted horns. “What are you talking about? We aren’t bakers.”

“Yes you are, you just don’t know it because you came into the business sidewise.”

As we loaded the canoe onto Evan’s SUV and drove home, they were unusually quiet. Until John said, “If you guys can keep the bakery going so I can keep working until we get a comfortable bank account, maybe we could buy the kitchen and do as Anna Rae suggested. Go into business together.”

Evan pulled into a rest stop and turned off the engine and we sat for a long time before starting to discuss going into business. By the time he pulled back onto the highway and finished our trip home, it was decided. John and Evan were going into business together. But they wouldn’t do so unless I agreed to help out until John could work full time and then I’d drop back to being their baking consultant.

They didn’t need a consultant because they’d learned a lot in the time they’d been baking but Evan did need help and I agreed willingly. The next weeks and then months passed quickly and we became a well-oiled machine that produced all kinds of baked goods to be sold in the mall. And then to also be sold in the tiny store at the front of the kitchen.

Then spring rolled around, the boys checked their bank account, and they bought the kitchen and John quit his job to work full time and I could quit and go back to studying about dead guys. Except I didn’t want to.

The time spent working side by side with Evan had done something to me. Ancient history would always be my third love but my second love had become baking. And my first love would always be Evan, though he’d never know because since he gave no indication of feeling the same about me, I’d decided to keep my distance. I didn’t want to make things awkward. I wanted to keep working with him. So I did, more than was truly needed to keep the bakery going smoothly.

Then one day my brother insisted Evan and I take a canoe trip down the river without him because he wanted to prove that he could handle the kitchen alone because he’d been the last to jump into the business. “You’ll see. When you return, there will be the best baked goods ever made in this place. You’ll be astonished.”

I wanted to laugh at the idea of my baby brother being so competent but Evan and I shoved the canoe into the river just before the bridge after leaving Evan’s SUV at the end of the float trip. Then we stepped in, just the two of us, and set off as the sun peeked through the spring leaves and warmed the cool morning enough to be comfortable.

The day was perfect. The man in the back seat was also perfect as far as I was concerned. The only thing that wasn’t perfect was that we were so far apart but that didn’t last long. As we rounded a lazy curve in the river and left the city behind, one of those islands in the river came into view. Too small to have any trees, but bright yellow marsh marigolds covered most of the island in a riot of color and there was a tiny sand beach where I’d been told canoes often were pulled up to give canoers a break.

“What say we stop?”

I agreed and one hard shove of Evan’s paddle sent the canoe solidly onto the sand. We got out and pulled it up further and found a spot of warm sand and just sat and admired the day. And the silence. And the beauty.

Until Evan cleared his throat and spoke. “You know why John didn’t come today?”

I turned to him. “No I don’t know why but I suspected there was an ulterior reason because it’s not like him to miss out on a canoe trip.”

He cleared his throat again. “I asked him to take over so we could make this trip.”

“Just the two of us?” Something about his voice sent vibrations through my body and I didn’t know why. Just that I couldn’t stop the thrumming.

“Yep.” He dug in the sand with the toe of his shoe. “Just the two of us.”

“Because — ?”

He breathed deeply. Let it out slowly. Breathed again. And cleared his throat for the t hired time. “Because two is the right number.”

“The canoe holds three people.”

“Not today. Two people is right for today. For now.” He had a hard time getting the words out but he managed.

“Why?” I could hardly speak myself because something was happening. I didn’t know what but I knew it was earth-shaking.

“Because when a guy proposes to a girl, there should be just the two of them.” He cleared his throat. Again. “Don’t you think so?”

My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t say a single word until I made myself ask, “What are you saying, exactly?”

“That I think we should get married.” He was silent a moment, then, “Is that clear enough?”

“Yep.” Without thinking, without rehearsing what to say, without anything, the single word came out. Then I thought about what I’d just said and realized one word wasn’t enough. So I continued. “Yes I will marry you and why did you wait so long to ask when I’ve been in love with you practically forever?”

“Really? You were? I never knew.”

“I never knew about you either.”

“Dumb, huh?” We stared at each other, then Evan rolled his eyes and we started to laugh and couldn’t stop until tears fell down our cheeks.

Then we stopped laughing because it’s hard to laugh and kiss at the same time and we stayed there for what seemed like hours and probably wasn’t long at all before continuing down the river through that gorgeous, warm, sunny and absolutely perfect day.

When we got back to the kitchen, John had made good on his promise. The table was filled with all kinds of beautiful, tempting baked goods. And he had pictures of wedding cakes because he figured we’d need one and he insisted on making it himself.

He did make it when we got married and it was perfect.

THE END

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