Three years earlier
“In other news, Mayo Clinic in Rochester reports…” I slammed my hand down on the snooze button and moaned. It’s too early for news, and much too early to be awake.
“Time to make the donuts, Liberty,” I muttered, rubbing my hands over my face as I sat on the edge of the bed.
Well, in my case, it’s time to make the pies, but that wasn’t how the commercial went. I heard the coffee pot come on and start its morning gurgling. Next I would hear Dad moving about, as he got ready to go, too. At three a.m. we didn’t exactly have to worry about heavy traffic in Snowberry, so our commute only took a few minutes to get down to our bakery, the Liberty Belle.
I stood up and stretched, my back tight from the busy few days we had last week. We booked three weddings the first week of May and getting all those cakes baked, decorated, and delivered on time was a lesson in planning, and luck. Thankfully the brides and grooms had a beautiful May day for their big event, and I wasn’t rained on while carrying cakes in and out.
I stuck my head around the corner of my bedroom door and called down the hall, “Dad, time to get up!”
After giving him a wakeup call I went in the bathroom to wash, my eyes still partially closed. I moaned when the warm washcloth settled on my face and held it there until the cloth cooled. I hung it to dry then threw on my white baker’s uniform, and hopped down the hall while tugging on my favorite tennies. I hopped past Dad’s room on my way to the coffee pot and stopped. The door was cracked, but the room was still dark. I pushed it open a little bit further and noticed his bed was empty.
“Dad?” I called as I skidded to a stop in the open kitchen and living area. The house was quiet and I checked the other rooms while my heart did a staccato knocking against my ribs. Where was he, and why didn’t he leave a note? I threw the door open to the garage and sighed a little bit when his car was gone. He must have left for work early and didn’t want to wake me.
I grabbed my phone and sent him a text saying I was on my way. Then I filled my travel mug, switched the coffee pot off, and hesitated at the door to the garage. It was spring now and the weather was nice and warm. Since Dad was already at the bakery there was no rush. Walking the few blocks to Main Street would work some of the kinks out of my body from the last few days. I grabbed my house key, instead of my car key, and went out the side garage door, basking in the warmth that greeted me, even at this time of the day.
The street lights lit my way as I walked up the street towards the bakery. Only in a town like Snowberry could a twenty-something woman walk alone at three a.m. without fear. I checked my phone, expecting a text back from Dad, but there was nothing but my sent text saying delivered, but not read. He must be busy on the bench. I stepped my speed up a bit, wanting to get there and help him as much as I could.
Since Mom died two years ago he had thrown himself into his work at the bakery. He eats and sleeps marketing, and new products, which will keep the Liberty Belle going for the next several generations. He knows I want to take over the business eventually, and is determined to hand it over to me in prime fiscal shape. I spent two years as a baker’s apprentice then graduated to master baker while taking night classes in business and finance. I was ready, but he wasn’t. Dad was using the business as a way to avoid an empty, lonely house. I understood how much he missed Mom. She was a vibrant woman, always smiling and sharing a kind word. I’m not sure how many people truly loved our donuts and how many simply stopped in to chat with her.
Mom and Dad were ready for retirement, making plans to hand over the bakery to its namesake when she crashed her car one morning on the way to work. That’s when everything changed. I crossed my arms, my travel mug warm against the tender underside of my arm. The doctors think she may have passed out, hit the gas, and launched the car into the lake. No one noticed her until Dad went looking and found her car.
I shivered. That phone call was a nightmare I relived over and over every time the phone rang. I wondered how long it would take before that feeling went away, but even two years later my heart races when my phone rings.
I rounded the corner onto Main Street and found myself jogging toward the storefront. The awning hung off the display window like always, its red and white fabric flapping lightly in the wind. I could see the light shining from the back of the bakery where Dad was working. The warm glow lessened my anxiety as I put my key in the door and walked into the quiet storefront. There was no whomp-whomp of the steel mixer, and no sizzling from the donut fryer. I turned and locked the door before I called out to him.
“Dad, I’m here. Why didn’t you wake me up this morning?”
I grabbed a crisp, clean white apron from the box near the bakery cases and tied it around my waist, something I’ve done a million times over the last twenty-some years; then carried my travel mug to the baker’s bench. It was clean. There was no flour, no donuts, no bread dough rising, and no sign that anyone had been in. I looked around and was surprised that the mixer was still clean, and the proofer was off.
I pulled the cooler open, sticking my head inside, but it was as it was last night when I closed the bakery. “Dad!” I called frantically, a sudden feeling of dread gripping my stomach. “Dad, where are you?”
Maybe he got a delivery and was unloading inventory. I rounded the area behind the cooler where we stored our flour and sugar bags, along with tubs of frosting and boxes of bakery containers. I sighed with relief when I saw him resting on the flour bags.
“Dad, why don’t you go home and go back to bed? I’ll get things started here,” I said walking over to where he rested. His face was relaxed when I approached and I shook his shoulder. “Dad, wake up, you don’t want to sleep here.”
His head rolled when I shook him, and I knew something was off. “Dad!” I yelled while I slapped his face lightly, but there was no response. I held my cheek near his lips, but they were cool and there was no air passing between them.
“Dad!” I cried, grabbing his hands. He didn’t do anything but lie there unmoving. Something slipped from his fingers and I picked it up, a sob catching in my throat when I saw my mother smiling back at me.
I grabbed my phone and dialed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?” a voice asked.
I was crying hard and barely coherent. “It’s my dad. I think he’s dead!”
“Okay, honey, tell me where you are,” came the voice over the line.
“I’m at the Liberty Belle; it’s my dad, Jack. He’s not breathing! I need an ambulance,” I cried into the phone. The slickness of the phone made it hard to hold it between my shoulder and ear while I held dad’s hands.
“Okay, Liberty, I have a unit dispatched and on the way. Tell me what happened,” she encouraged soothingly, and calmly.
“I don’t know! I just came into work and found him here on the flour bags. I don’t know when he left home. It could have been hours ago. Shouldn’t I do CPR?” I asked frantically, trying to move him off the flour bags to the floor. I could hear the faint sirens as they came from the fire station on the other side of the lake.
“Check his neck for a pulse; do you feel anything?” she asked logically and I did what she asked, but shook my head.
“No, there’s no pulse, and he’s not breathing. His lips are cold!”
“Liberty, listen to me, the ambulance is almost there. Is the door open for them?” she asked.
“No, I locked it when I came in because we aren’t open yet,” I explained, my voice sounding distant because of the static in my brain.
“Okay, leave your dad for a second and open the door, so the EMTs can get in,” she ordered.
I ran through the bakery but didn’t stop in time and slammed into the front door. I twisted the lock over just as I saw the lights of the ambulance reflected in the window.
“I can hear the sirens. Are the EMTs there?” she asked calmly.
“Yes, they just got here! Thank God!” I cried. I hung up the phone as two men in blue uniforms ran towards me carrying boxes. I led them to the back room where my dad still lay in the same position.
“How long has he been down, Liberty?” the EMT asked.
“I don’t know. I just found him like this five minutes ago. I don’t know when he left home,” I said quickly.
The one EMT held me back while the other checked him, looking for a pulse and checking his breathing. I noticed a subtle shake of his head and I wrenched out of the arms of the other EMT, kneeling next to my dad.
“Do something! Don’t just sit there, do something!” I yelled.
The EMT turned to me and took my shoulders, shaking them firmly. “Liberty, he’s gone. He’s been gone for a few hours already. There is nothing I can do, honey.”
I shook my head back and forth in slow motion, tears falling down my face. “No, no. No, he can’t be dead,” I whispered. I laid my head on his chest and refused to let go.
I heard the bell above the door tinkle when someone entered from the street. I stood up and stretched; the long hours of sitting to decorate cookies had left me stiff with a kink in my back. I tried to stretch my right leg, but the new brace the docs hooked me up with wasn’t cooperating. I checked my watch. It was barely eight and I had only opened the door a few minutes ago. Whoever was waiting in front of the bakery case had a real desire for donuts this Sunday morning.
I went around the corner of the bakery wall to see the ringer of my bell, and Bram Alexander stood in a suit and tie, bouncing on his toes. His shades were still on his face, the case of bread reflecting in the overly polarized lenses.
“Hi, Bram,” I acknowledged him, trying to step up on the stool to see over the case. The brace on my right leg hung me up and I fell off, landing on my butt between the stool and the display case behind me.
“Liberty!” he exclaimed, then his shoes were in my line of sight. I was certain my cheeks were bright red when he bent down to check on me. “Are you okay?”
He offered his hand, so I took it and he hauled me up into a standing position again. “I’m fine,” I lied. “I’m embarrassed, but fine. I missed the step,” I explained, motioning at the overturned stool.
“You use a stool to see over the case?” he asked, righting the offending block of wood. If he had noticed the white plastic and metal brace on my leg, he didn’t let on.
“I’ve used that stool since I was ten and trying to help dad when mom was too sick to come to work. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a wee bit vertically challenged,” I grinned, brushing off my white pants and straightening my frosting covered apron.
“You could look at it that way, but I like to look at it as being closer to the ground.” He winked and I blushed.
Bram Alexander was a year older, but not much taller, than I was. His brother Jay was the Alexander in my yearbook. Bram certainly wasn’t built like his brothers, Jake, Dully, and Jay. Even though Jay was in a wheelchair from Spina Bifida he had guns that never quit, and sitting in his chair he came up to Bram’s ear. Bram reminded me of the runt of the litter. I tried to stifle the smile when my mind thought of that one. I was pretty certain he wouldn’t appreciate me calling him a runt.
He stood before me, his face filled with concern, so I motioned around. “What can I get for you, Bram?”
“I’m here to pick up the cake for Snow and Dully,” he answered, still watching me like a hawk. I wanted to say it was out of concern after the fall, but it felt like he was thinking about making me his breakfast.
I thunked my head with my hand. “Of course, the baptism!” I exclaimed. “I forgot it was today, but I do have the cake done. It’s in the back, in a box. Let me get it from the cooler.”
“Maybe I should help you carry it. I’m worried about that spill you just took,” he said softly, as though he cared about my wellbeing. Bram Alexander caring about me was something that just couldn’t happen, now or ever.
I brushed him off with my hand, “I’m okay, but it’s a big cake, so if you want to carry it that’s fine with me.”
I started back around the wall of the bakery, self-conscious that he could tell my right leg wasn’t like my left. When I found out I had to wear this dumb brace I bought a size bigger pants to hide it, but then I had to tighten the elastic or they fell off. I was a hot mess, worse than the batch of pies in the oven. I stopped short and he bumped into the back of me grabbing my shoulders, his hands warm through my white t-shirt.
“Liberty?” he asked, and I hated the concern in his voice. I ignored it and turned around.
“Snow ordered the cake on the phone and I haven’t seen them since the baby was born. Do you have a picture? I’m dying to see her.”
He grinned and pulled out his phone, “Are you kidding me? I’m her godfather, and a photographer, of course I have pictures.” He busied himself with his phone while I tried not to be taken in by his charm.
All I was doing was buying time before I showed him the cake. His sister-in-law, Snow, is in a wheelchair after contracting polio as a baby. Suddenly, with him in my space, I was second guessing my design on the cake. That really shouldn’t come as a big surprise, Bram Alexander has always made me second guess myself, especially when I was turning down his invitations for a date.
“When Snow ordered the cake she just gave me the baby’s name, and told me to take it from there. I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to get over and see them,” I explained.
He held up his phone where there was a picture of a pink faced cherub. She had bright blue eyes and was wrapped in a little yellow blanket. I took the phone and instinctively pulled it closer to my face. “She’s so sweet,” I sighed.
“She is. She’s also very spoiled having Sunny as an older sister. She can’t even peep and Sunny has a new diaper, pacifier, or is begging Snow to feed her,” he laughed, shaking his head.
“Her name fits her,” I said slowly handing the phone back.
“She’s named after Snow’s grandma who raised her, Lila Jo. They had a hard time convincing Sunny that Dora wasn’t the best name for her little sister. I think Lila Jo is a much better choice.”
I laughed easily, picturing Sunny with her favorite Dora doll under her arm. “I can see her digging her heels in about that, but Sunny and Lila are perfect names. They go together like cupcakes and frosting. Speaking of frosting, we better get that cake.” I took ten more steps and pulled the large walk-in cooler open and pointed at the big box on the shelf.
He walked in and looked at it, then back to me. “It’s absolutely gorgeous. You do such intricate work, Liberty. You’re like an artist with frosting,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. He looked closer at the cake. “Did Snow bring those figures in? Wait, no, you just said you haven’t seen her.”
I motioned him out with the box, “Can’t stand here cooling off the oven,” I joked.
He set the box on my baker’s bench and pointed at the figures on the cake again, his mouth opening and closing a few times. Here’s the thing about the Alexander boys, they are too observant, especially this one. He’s a photographer with the local paper and never misses a thing that goes on in this town, or about the people in it.
I set my hand on my hip, “No, Snow didn’t bring them in, okay? I made them from marzipan. It’s an old trick I learned from one of the finest,” I informed him, so he would take the cake and be on his merry way. Unfortunately he didn’t budge.
“You made her wheelchair even,” he said still staring at the cake.
I rested the edge of my bottom on a stool, “She’s in one, right?” I asked and he nodded. “I didn’t figure it would make much sense to have a woman holding a baby near a baptismal font who was standing up. I’m not rude, Bram.”
His head whipped towards me and he reached out, resting his hand on my shoulder. “No, that isn’t what I meant at all, Liberty. I was just surprised at the detail, and how much time and caring went into Lila’s cake. I don’t think any of us will want to eat it.”
I laughed and stood up again, walking towards the front of the bakery. “I’ve heard that a thousand times, Bram. Don’t worry I can always make more. So please eat it, and tell Snow, Dully and the whole family how very happy I am for them. They deserve all the happiness their little family can give them. Also, be sure to tell them Lila Jo has a fairy cake-mother, just like Sunny does.”
He stood at the door with his back to it, the cake in his arms, his head turned to the side. At some point he had slipped his shades back on and I saw myself in the lenses. I looked nervous, to say the least. “You’re the best, Liberty Belle, the absolute best.”
I waved as he pushed the door open and went out, the bakery silent again with his departure. It was Sunday and the store was never busy until after church. I would have a rush of people dropping by for bread, rolls and cookies, but then I would close for the day and enjoy some down time at home.
My gaze traveled to the stool Bram had set up on all fours and I felt myself grimace. I was going to have to take care of replacing that. My right leg was officially done cooperating, and even without a final diagnosis I knew that was never going to change. What I was going to replace it with was the burning question. I’m too short to hand people cakes and pies without some sort of step. Replacing the cases isn’t an option at the price of them, and chances are high I’m not going to grow any taller at the ripe old age of twenty-five. That only left one answer, a set of steps that were safe, and didn’t get in the way for other less vertically challenged workers like my best friend, Lucinda. Oh boy, I guess I had better spend some time on the internet this afternoon.
I took a rag and glass cleaner to the fingerprint smudges on the glass around the small storefront. When my father, Jack Belle, opened this bakery twenty-four years ago he was just starting out on his own as a baker. He came from the big city, having been trained by some of the best bakers in the business, to little Snowberry, Minnesota where he knew this girl he couldn’t get out of his heart. The rest, as they say, is history.
When his little girl was born a few years later, on the Fourth of July, they named her Liberty. Less than a year later when he opened his own bakery he named it “Liberty Belle”, after me. He always said there was no greater marketing tool than hearing someone say, “I’m heading over to the Liberty Belle, wanna join me?” He was right, because it caught on and this town has kept us in business for the last two decades.
The townspeople have seen us through the loss of my mother five years ago, and then my dad three years ago. The doctors say he had a massive heart attack, but I think he died of a broken heart. He never got over my mother dying so young. He was gone, but I was here, and I had to figure out a way to carry on his legacy, even with my current limitations. There were too many people in this town counting on me.
I checked the clock and noticed it was nearly nine. I only had a few hours to get all the buns and breads bagged, and the cases filled, before the folks started filing in. I stowed the glass cleaner and rag away. It was time to quit reminiscing, and get on with the day.
The masterpiece in my arms was heavy, the weight of the cake a constant reminder to be very careful as I pushed out of the door and carried it to my SUV at the curb. I set it on the backseat, adjusting it just so to make sure it wouldn’t slide on the way back to mom’s house. Liberty’s attention to detail tugged at my heart when my eyes drifted to the figure in the wheelchair again. Snow held a special place in our family, and now she had given us two precious little girls to love. Liberty did a fantastic job of honoring her with a little bit of frosting, and a whole lot of love.
I ducked out of the car door and closed it gently then turned back towards the bakery. I could see Liberty through the window spraying and wiping the glass cases. Her back was turned to me and I took a moment to study her. She was the girl every boy wanted to date in high school, but she refused every offer. I couldn’t figure out why, either. She was tiny, but stunning. She was one of the few girls shorter than I was, but she was perfectly proportioned. I had spent more than my fair share of time trying to take her out on the town.
I went around the SUV and slid onto the seat, and pulled the door closed. As I turned the key over my mind’s eye pictured the scene a few moments ago of her falling to the floor. Something was off. Her gait was all wrong when she walked to the back room, too. Her right leg was seemingly propelled by her dragging it with each step. One thing was certain; she was going to hurt herself if she kept trying to climb up on that stool. I lowered the gearshift to drive and checked my mirror before pulling away from the curb. I had an hour to get the cake back to Mom’s, and then join everyone at church, so I’d best get a move on.
I turned and headed towards the place in which I had grown up, and I thought about the wonderful people I had to support me. Liberty didn’t have that. Her parents had both passed, her dad just a few years ago. She never missed a beat after his death, though. She only closed the bakery for the funeral and then went right back to work.
I hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand and shook my head. Dammit! I thought I had that woman out of my system, but now she’s running through my veins again. She will never let me take her out on a date, but I sure as hell was not going to let her hurt herself. I pulled down the driveway to Mom’s house and put my foot on the brake. I grabbed my phone from the cup holder and sent a text to the two guys I knew would help me.
It was official; Liberty Belle was once again the frosting on my cupcake.
The front display window showed me Bram Alexander walking down the Main Street, his camera around his shoulder, and his signature shades still on his face. I had the urge to pull them off and see what was underneath, but I shook my head and sighed into the empty room. You know what’s underneath, Liberty, sexy blue eyes that spent their entire senior year looking at you.
He must have seen me staring because he waved enthusiastically and I raised my hand back, feeling like a kid with her hand caught in a giant cookie jar. I turned away and tried to pretend that I was rotating the loaves of bread while I prayed he kept walking. It was three minutes until closing time and then I could escape out the back door, no one the wiser.
The bell tinkled over the door and I inwardly groaned. That bell has got to go. Now it’s just getting on my nerves. I turned my head slowly to greet my customer, even though I was well aware of whom it was.
“Liberty,” he said grinning, his glasses tucked in his shirt by one bow.
“Bram,” I answered, resting one fist on my hip. “It’s just about closing time, but I have a few things left. What can I get you?”
He waved his hand a little at the case. “As much as I love your pie and donuts I have to be careful or I’ll be sporting a donut belly,” he teased, patting his stomach that was washboard flat.
I raised one brow. “Are you saying my wares are fattening?”
He nodded his head up and down like a puppet, “Absolutely, but man do they taste good going down. That baptism cake the other day was so good. I had three pieces, and Dully made me do an extra lap around the property.”
“Well, you deserved it if you ate three pieces. What brings you by if it isn’t for sweet sugary confections?” I asked, before flipping the closed sign around on the door. My hand hesitated on the lock, but I didn’t turn it just yet, no sense being locked in with the man.
“Something else just as sweet…you.” He grinned, but didn’t miss a beat, leaving me no opening to object. “It’s that time of year again for the summer business flyer. I thought with all the sprucing up you did to the building, and the new display in the front window, I would take a picture. I can leave everything else the same, insert the new picture, and bing, bang, boom, the Liberty Belle is in the flyer.” He shook his camera a little with a grin on his face.
“Bing, bang, boom, huh?” I repeated, feeling like I was back in the 60’s, instead of the current decade. He nodded and I swallowed nervously; his presence was enough to make me sweat under my uniform. “Well, um, sure, I mean I guess you can take a new picture. Do you need me to move the bread and cake display out of the window?”
He turned and looked at the window display and then back to me. “No, that’s perfect. Do you have one of those frosting bag things?”
“Frosting bag things?” I asked, trying not to laugh at him. “You mean a pastry bag?”
“Is that what you call the thing the decorators put frosting in?” he asked and I nodded my head. “Okay, then yes, a pastry bag.”
I went around the back of the bakery case, and got one of my prefilled bags I use when customers need a quick, personalized cake to go. I held it up and tried to hand it over, but he refused to take it. Instead, he took me by the arm and led me to the window.
“Okay, now pretend like you’re decorating the cake and I’ll get your picture from out front,” he explained pointing to the sidewalk.