It was dark and deliciously warm under the covers when Ginger Burnet opened her eyes. As she slowly came to consciousness, she yawned and stretched, careful to not dislodge her boyfriend’s arm from where he had it draped across her waist. She smiled to herself, there in the cosy, quiet darkness of a cold November morning, soaking in the perfection of the moment and committing it to memory.
After a few minutes, however, Ginger knew she needed to move. Turning half over, she pressed a soft kiss to Rhys’ forehead, just under where his nutty brown curls flopped into his face. He stirred as she slipped out from under his arm, but not for long. Ginger smirked to herself as he almost immediately flipped onto his stomach, crossed his arms under the pillow and fell back asleep.
She didn’t blame him; it wasn’t quite eight in the morning on a Saturday and the previous night had been a raucous one spent celebrating his thirty-fourth birthday. Just because she needed to be awake, didn’t mean he couldn’t sleep for a while longer.
Gathering her clothes from the chair by her dressing table, Ginger tiptoed to the bathroom to get dressed. She had to admit to herself that she was barely awake and all she wanted was to crawl back into bed with Rhys to sleep until noon, but there were things to be done.
It was then, as she had one leg in her black jeans, that the door opened untouched. Ginger paused, wondering if she had woken one of the other guests. The face that poked around the door, however, was closer to ground level, small, and very furry.
Nina, one of the two blue shorthair cats that Ginger loved like children, meowed plaintively. A moment later, the door opened further as her brother Miles headbutted it and strolled into the bathroom.
“Respectful of my privacy as always, I see,” Ginger said dryly, finishing shimmying into her jeans and pulling on her burgundy sweater. “Don’t worry, your breakfast is on the way.”
Miles made a happy little chirp, rubbing his face on the pair of fluffy socks patterned with tiny gingerbread men that Ginger was about to put on.
“Hey, I need those,” Ginger said gently, pulling the socks away but pausing to scritch under his chin.
He purred, blinking slowly in contentment, his one milky green blind eye still somehow conveying his pleasure at the attention. Nina, sprawled just outside the door on the patch of floor where the pipes for the heating warmed the carpet, flicked her tail in irritation, clearly more interested in breakfast.
“Impatient little madam,” Ginger mock scolded, closing the bathroom door behind her as she headed downstairs.
The wooden stairs in the old stone cottage that Ginger called home creaked and groaned as she made her way downstairs. After feeding the cats in their usual spot in the old pantry she had turned into a storage space specifically for the cats, Ginger padded along the freezing cold stone floor of the hall to the door that led into the living room. Not even the heavy woven rug that ran along the hall stopped the cold from seeping into her feet.
Cracking open the door, she was hit with a pleasant warmth and the lingering smell of last night’s party food. Bowls and plates and platters were scattered around the room, bearing the remnants of the more traditional party fare such as tortilla chips and salsa, as well as plates with a jumbled collection of the meal Ginger had made in Rhys’ honour. The woodstove set up on the cottage’s original stone fireplace still glowed with amber embers, the cast iron retaining enough heat to keep the room toasty warm despite the low temperatures outside.
Amongst the rest of the mess, were several sleeping bodies all piled up on pillows, sofas, and a half-inflated air mattress that Ginger vaguely remembered pumping up in the early hours of the morning. She couldn’t help but smile as she scanned the sleeping forms of friends and family who had all come together to celebrate the man she loved.
Closing the door into the living room carefully behind her, Ginger crept around where her brother Valerian, or Ryan as he preferred, was sprawled on a heap of pillows, fast asleep. He stirred slightly, one foot lightly kicking the air mattress where Ginger’s good friend Bonnie was curled up with her wife Mariah.
Making sure not to disturb any of them, Ginger made her way into the kitchen, closing the door behind her before setting the kettle on to boil. She yawned as she made herself a pot full of peppermint tea, flicking through her social media and emails while she waited for it to brew.
“Ah, a few more to add to the block list,” she muttered, finding several trolling comments and unpleasant messages. “The price of success. Or rather the price of having several very famous people promote your business to the point that it brings all the weirdos in.”
It was a new development in her strange life, that was for sure. A catering job for an old art tutor of hers had turned into a deadly game of hide and seek on a private island. The experience had left her with even more trust issues than before, but also several very high-profile celebrity fans.
She glanced at the clock as she finished blocking the trolls, noting she didn’t have very long to get out of the house if she wanted to be sure that she wasn’t late.
Setting the kettle on to boil again, Ginger dug around in the fridge, taking out a tray of chocolate pumpkin bread and a box of apple and cinnamon muffins that she had made for the post-party breakfast. After wrapping a piece of each in some foil for her own breakfast, she set both the trays to warm in the proving drawer of the oven on a low heat. She then made a very large pot of French press coffee, set out several bowls of homemade winterberry compote, and a jug of vanilla cream.
Just as she was in the process of pouring her sufficiently brewed peppermint tea into a flask to take with her, the kitchen door opened, and the short, very sleepy-looking figure of Maggie MacFelder wandered in.
Her usually sleek black bob was rumpled and sticking out in all directions, and the glittery make-up framing her dark brown eyes was smudged. Ginger had known her for several years now, ever since the two of them had survived a hellish murder house together, but this hungover, dazed version of her friend was a sight she didn’t often see.
“Good morning,” Ginger said, trying to hide her amusement.
“Why in the name of sweet Saturday mornings are you not only awake at this hour, but also dressed and being productive?” she asked, her Scottish accent particularly thick and rough first thing in the morning.
“I’ve got a meeting with a contractor over at the Lambington shop,” Ginger said, packing the flask and foil package of baked goods into her bag. “I should be back in a few hours, but for now I left breakfast warming and coffee brewing for everyone.”
Maggie frowned, the strawberry cupcake piercing in her nose shifting as she wrinkled it in confusion.
“I thought the new shop was all done and ready to open?” she asked. “You were ready to hire staff and everything.”
Ginger rolled her eyes. “That was until I started getting weird flickers with the lights and occasional power outages. I think it might be the wiring just being old and bad in places, but I’ve got someone coming to look at it today.”
“You know it’s completely wild that you’re already opening a second shop when you just opened The Gingerbread House this summer?” Maggie said with a yawn, wandering over to inspect the breakfast prep. “Oh my goodness, is that pumpkin bread I smell?”
“It’s in the warming drawer,” Ginger said with a chuckle. “Should be ready in a few minutes and I figured the smell would rouse people soon enough.”
“Have I ever told you that you’re one of my favourite people ever?” Maggie asked, beginning to take down plates from the cabinet to warm in the drawer beside the goodies.
“I seem to remember you threatening to fight Rhys last night if he was ever anything other than nice to me,” Ginger whispered from the doorway, not wanting the other sleeping guests to be disturbed. “Which I thought was delightful, if a bit full-on considering that it was his birthday.”
“I stand by it,” Maggie said stubbornly. “Now go to your meeting, even though it’s disgustingly cold and dark out there, so you can come back and have coffee with us while Rhys opens the rest of his presents.”
“All right, all right.” Ginger raised her hands, backing out of the kitchen. “I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
“Can’t promise there will be any food left when you get back,” Maggie stage-whispered after her.
Warmed by such a wonderful start to the day, Ginger didn’t feel the cold and the slight rain as she hurried to her car.
How could she complain about an early start when she was finally living the life she’d always wanted?
The Lambington shop smelled of fresh paint and sawdust. Ginger stepped inside, a smile still on her face from seeing Creature Comforts on the sign above the door. It still seemed so entirely impossible that she had not one but two shops of her own.
She wandered around, opening the shutters and turning on the only light that wasn’t flickering. Shivering in the freezing cold interior, she hurried to turn on the two space heaters that were the only current source of heat for the building.
When Rhys had suggested off-hand a few months before that she should perhaps consider opening another shop in the bustling market town of Lambington, Ginger had initially rejected the idea. She was still finding her feet managing The Gingerbread House, the busy and successful café bakery she had opened that summer in Little Chiswick.
However, with the addition of her mother Dorothy taking over full-time as manager, as well as the addition of four very capable, passionate members of staff from the local area, Ginger soon found herself with little to do at the café. She would arrive to get to work baking in the kitchen or making coffee behind the counter, only to find everything under control.
Sure, she still provided the recipes and kept a close eye on the finances, but she honestly enjoyed having more time to get back to her original love of taking on cake commissions.
Trailing her fingers along the shelves bearing elegant, framed photos of some of her most notable creations, Ginger wandered around the reception portion of the shop. The renovation and decorating had only been finished a few days before, hence the smell of fresh paint still lingering.
The shop wasn’t large at all, only around fifteen feet across. It was a tiny stone building wedged between a tailor’s and an antique shop that didn’t look like it had been open for customers in several months. But the front had two windows large enough for a display, much to Ginger’s delight. Already, her mind buzzed with the various displays she could create using both real baked delicacies and ones that she could craft from clay and foam that would be easier to manipulate and pose.
However, the front area of the shop wasn’t only a place for customers to wait. It also served as an advertisement hub for The Gingerbread House and for various local sites and venues around the county.
Ginger briefly paused by the dark wood sideboard she was turning into a small but luxurious coffee and tea bar, where she could serve her clients top quality coffee, a range of loose-leaf teas, and rich hot chocolate. She’d upcycled the piece of furniture with some sanding, a few coats of varnish, and some new handles, but she still needed to put out the various pieces of equipment needed to make the hot drinks. Crouching down, she checked that the mini fridge she’d installed into one of the cupboards was still working, groaning when she found it was at room temperature. It seemed her problems with the power supply extended beyond just the flickering lights.
“Need to add that plug socket to the list of things to be sorted,” she mumbled, leaving the slowly warming reception area and going into her actual art studio at the back of the building.
Creature Comforts perhaps hadn’t quite been what Rhys had had in mind when he suggested a second shop, but for Ginger it made the most sense. Why squeeze all her tools and supplies for the cake decorating into the back of another café when she could dedicate an entire shop to it?
The studio was everything she could have hoped for. She was getting a top-of-the-line oven installed in the kitchen to replace the basic little one that had been there previously. This particularly pleased her as it meant that she could create the entire cake from scratch in the shop.
Shelves lined the walls of the studio, bearing the tools and ingredients she needed for her work. In the centre of the room was a large worktable, complete with a built-in rotating cake stand for when she was decorating.
Ginger’s deep sense of satisfaction was undermined somewhat as the lights all flickered and sputtered, giving the room an almost nightmarish hue for a few moments.
She sighed roughly, slumping down into the battered old sofa she used specifically for mid-decorating naps that she had moved from her garage to the shop. Taking out the tea and food from her bag, Ginger flopped back, idly wishing she was back in the warm comfort of her bed with Rhys.
“I really hope this guy is on time,” she muttered, biting into a muffin.
He was not on time.
When it was half an hour past the time they’d arranged, Ginger tried calling, her teeth chattering despite the cup of hot tea in her hand. She only got his voicemail.
After forty-five minutes had gone by, she tried again, but with the same result. Frustration growing, she texted Rhys, telling him that she was delayed and if he could please apologise to everyone and explain that she probably wasn’t going to get back before people started leaving to go home.
“I’ll give the electrician one more hour to show up,” she said slowly, saying the text out loud as she wrote it, “then I’ll come home.”
With nothing else to do, but not wanting to waste the trip, Ginger clambered down the narrow, rickety stairs into the basement of the building. She couldn’t use it to store stock until it had been fully cleaned and refitted to meet food safety codes, so for now she was focussing on clearing out the junk left behind by the previous tenant.
After dragging one of the space heaters down there with her and praying that the power wouldn’t give out and leave her in the pitch-black darkness, Ginger put on an upbeat jazz playlist and got to work.
She got so lost in the work of cleaning, tidying, and reorganising, that she squeaked in surprise when there was a knock at the door at the top of the stairs. Scrambling down off the A-frame ladder she was using to reach the top shelves, she looked up the stairs, hoping to see an electrician. The person who was standing there, however, was an even better surprise.
“I thought I’d come and check on you,” Rhys said, ducking the beams that stretched over the lower portion of the stairs. “Mostly because you said you’d be an hour and it’s been three and I was concerned that you’d died. But I also brought food. Specifically, brie, bacon, and cranberry paninis.”
He held up a bag.
Ginger groaned in delight, walking face-first into his broad chest, and wrapping her arms around his waist.
“You’re so warm,” she mumbled, trying to cling closer.
“And you’re cold and grumpy,” Rhys said with a soft chuckle. “Come on, let’s go sit in my car so you can warm up.”
“And also look for a different electrician,” Ginger said darkly, realising just how cold she actually was. “He never even called to cancel or reschedule.”
Rhys gently took her by the wrist and led her back upstairs. “You can see to that later. Let’s get you warm first.”
“I just want to get the place finished and operational,” Ginger said, leading the way up the stairs. “I’ve got half a dozen emails in my inbox asking about commissions. People having winter weddings, and Christmas charity events, and fancy work parties. And I can’t give any of them solid schedules because I don’t know if I have a functional studio or not.”
“Food and warmth before you stress,” Rhys reiterated, opening the door for her leading out onto the narrow, cobblestone street.
It had dawned into a bright, cold Saturday. Silvery frost winked from the moss on roof tiles that the sun hadn’t reached yet. An iridescent magpie squawked from its place in a baby birch tree growing out of a planter near some benches on the opposite side of the road. Rhys had parked directly outside in the space assigned to the shop and Ginger sighed in relief as she clambered into the cocoon of heat inside.
“It’s just frustrating, you know?” Ginger said, unzipping her coat for the first time since she’d walked out the door that morning. “Everything is ready to go, and then I get hit with this, and the management company for the building is being useless, so I had to leave you in bed this morning to be stood up by a balding electrician named Paul.”
“Food,” Rhys said, passing her a foil package oozing with steam and melted cheese. “Then rant.”
Ginger took a bite of the rich, salty, fatty sandwich, savouring the sharp tang of the cranberries with the gooey cheese and crisp bacon. Slowly, as her belly filled and the chill left her hands, she felt her shoulders relax.
Eventually, she leaned back in her chair with a satisfied sigh and looked over at Rhys.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there for your birthday breakfast,” she murmured, rubbing wearily at her eyes. “I was supposed to be home pretty quickly.”
“Well,” Rhys said with a wink, “I’m hoping you’ll let me make you the last course of my birthday breakfast when we get home.” He frowned. “Though I guess it’ll be more like brunch by that point.”
Ginger choked on a laugh, swatting at her partner, the warmth steadily spreading to her heart and not just her skin. “You’re such a charmer.”
A sharp knock on the car window only inches from Ginger’s head made her shriek. Ducking down, she saw a small, grey-haired woman wrapped in a long purple coat standing outside the car.
“Who is that?” Rhys muttered, subtly checking the locks on the car.
“No idea,” Ginger replied, reaching for the button to bring the window down.
With a whir, it lowered just a crack, enough for Ginger to speak to the woman.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
The woman outside the car smiled slightly, stooping so she could see Ginger and Rhys a little better.
“I know it’s a Saturday and rather quiet right now,” she said, hands in knitted gloves clasped loosely together, “but I just wanted to be sure you were aware that the parking spots on this road are for the proprietors of the shops here, not for the public.”
Ginger lowered the window a little more, her mild suspicion melting into amusement. “That’s very kind of you to come and check. I’m actually the owner of the bakery. I’m Ginger Burnet.”
The woman’s face registered confusion for a moment, then she beamed, her doll-like blue eyes shining in delight.
“Oh, I was hoping to meet you soon!” she said, leaning even closer into the window of the car. “I’ve wandered by a few times in the past few months, just to be nosy and see how the renovations have come along. It’s so nice to see the place looking so fresh and stylish.”
“Why thank you,” Ginger said, flicking a quick glance back at Rhys, who appeared to be thoroughly charmed by the sweet, grandmotherly woman.
“I run a similar shop, you see,” the woman said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the next street over. “I own and run Whimsy & Sparkle, the cake shop with the red shopfront on the next road? I’m sure you’ve seen some of my pretty little pieces in the window?”
“Yes, of course,” Ginger lied quickly, trying to remember if she had in fact passed by this shop at any point.
She was finally able to summon a vague memory of a red-painted shop with peeling paint on the windowsill and a display of rather unimaginatively decorated children’s cakes slowly going stale.
“You’ve got… such an eye for colour,” she said, hoping the compliment didn’t sound as weak to the woman as it sounded to her own ears.
“Why thank you,” the woman beamed, worming a hand through the space in the window to shake Ginger’s. “I’m Marion, by the way. Marion Bessett. Been in this business for almost fifteen years now.” She glanced back toward the empty windows of Creature Comforts. “Such a thrill opening your first shop, isn’t it? I do always love welcoming newbies to the area.”
“Oh, this isn’t her first shop,” Rhys cut in, proud boyfriend-mode activated. “She’s got a café in Little Chiswick, a village about half an hour or so from here. But the place is so busy that she needed to open up a second one for her private cake commissions.”
“Rhys,” Ginger hissed, feeling herself flush. “Stop bragging about me.”
“What?” He shrugged. “It’s all true.”
“Yes, don’t stop your man from shining a light on your achievements,” Marion said with a quick wink at Rhys. “My Lucas was very much the same, God rest him. Always wished for me to live my dreams and helped me get there. I only keep Whimsy & Sparkle going all these years later because he was the one who told me, ‘Why Marion, he said, you’re such a wonderful baker and such an incredible artist that you should be using those skills to bring delight to other people, not just your family’.”
Nodding and smiling, Ginger couldn’t help but be charmed by the wave of social chatter. In just a few minutes, barely seeming to draw breath, the woman whom she had only met a few minutes before unloaded what felt like her entire life story. The struggles she had starting the bakery. The support of her husband right up until his death several years before. How her love for brightening people’s lives with her cakes was what pushed her onward. How she was trying to find a way to keep Whimsy & Sparkle alive in these current times.
“But listen to me prattle on about myself while all the heat is escaping out of your car,” she said, flapping her hands in mild distress. “Are you opening soon? If there’s an event for the opening, I’m sure I could gather some people to attend. Get your name out there in town.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Ginger said, forcing herself not to shiver in the direct beam of cold air she’d been sitting in for the past ten minutes. “But I’ve already got a lot of contacts in town already and I’ll be announcing the opening event on my social media once I get these final issues sorted.”
“Issues?” Marion asked, then tutted in understanding. “I tell you, these old buildings are a nightmare to maintain. Been struggling for weeks with flickering lights and odd knocking noises coming from everywhere.”
“Is she sure her shop just isn’t haunted?” Rhys muttered, so quietly that only Ginger could hear him.
She forced herself not to laugh.
“It’s just some wiring, I think,” she replied to Marion. “I was supposed to have an electrician come this morning, but he never showed up, so… here we are.”
At this, Marion’s eyes lit up. “Let me give you the phone number of the one I used,” she said, taking a tiny black notebook from her handbag and digging around for a pen. “She was quick and ever so polite. Got everything sorted for me in just a few hours.”
Relief flooded Ginger’s chest. “That would be wonderful, if you don’t mind giving me the name,” she said, digging out her phone. “In fact, here, why don’t you put it straight in here for me?”
Marion glanced up from her painstaking task of finding a pen and shook her head. “Oh, I don’t fuss around with phones like that, pet. Too complicated for me. I like to stick to pen and paper wherever I can.”
Eventually, she handed Ginger a folded slip of paper through the gap in the window, then promised she’d come by sometime to see if everything got sorted.
“Well, that was… a lot,” Rhys said, watching Marion walk away down the street, the cold winter sun glinting off the final echo of brown in her silver hair. “Don’t you love how old people and drunk people in pub bathrooms are basically the exact same?”
“A heart-warming if slightly uncomfortably intense care for strangers and desire to share every detail of their life with someone they’ve never met?” Ginger guessed, putting the phone number and name — Dora Finch — into her phone. “I know. Isn’t it great?”
“Less great is how I now can’t feel my hands,” Rhys said, pointedly rolling up the window. “Shall we just go home? This electrician clearly isn’t coming, and I don’t think either of us want to spend today sat in my car.”
“Not really,” Ginger admitted, shivering. “Just come and help me load a bunch of things from the basement into your boot. We can drop them off at the dump on the way back home.”
“Should I feel bad about the fact that I might put the adorable baking granny out of business?” she asked a few minutes later as they carried mouldering cardboard boxes full of empty paint tins, musty Christmas decorations, and several rubbish bags of unknown contents.
Rhys looked back at her and frowned as he opened the boot of the car. “Where did that thought come from?”
Ginger shrugged. “It was the way she kept talking about how hard she’d worked to keep her shop open and how it’s such a passion project for her. All I could keep thinking is that our target market, while not identical, is pretty similar. Lambington is a busy town and lots of people come here for the fancy shops and such, but two specialist cake designers only one street apart? That’s going to hit her business pretty hard.”
Rhys got a thoughtful look on his face as he loaded the boxes into the car.
“At the risk of sounding pretty cutthroat,” he said slowly, “I don’t think that’s your problem. People will gravitate toward the service they need. And if you’ve got a higher level of technical and artistic skill than her, then people will come to you.”
“It did kind of sound like she did smaller events and kid’s birthday parties and stuff,” Ginger said, shoving a dusty stack of old catalogues in with the boxes. “My clients are usually looking for something more complex than what your standard baker would tackle. Maybe we won’t cross over on clientele too much?”
“Exactly,” Rhys said, closing the boot. “Now, let’s get this dropped off at the dump and then go home. I don’t want to spend any more of my Saturday freezing as well as hungover.”
Ginger nodded, but she could feel her forehead crease with a frown. Rhys’ dark eyes softened, and he pulled her in for a quick hug.
“Try not to stress about it,” he said gently, pressing a kiss to her forehead.
Ginger forced a smile onto her face, pushing away the thoughts of imagined guilt. “Of course not,” she said brightly, tapping the tip of his nose. “No stressing here.”
“I’m stressing!” Ginger wailed, slumping face-first into a heap of paperwork.
It was late in the evening a few days later at The Gingerbread House. The shutters were down, and the door was locked, but there was still activity in the warm interior. From the kitchen wafted the warm smell of baking cake, flavoured with orange, lemon, vanilla, and cinnamon. It was simultaneously cosy and autumnal, but with a spritely call-back to the clean, fresh tastes of summertime.
“Ah, come on now, Ginny,” said Colin, her stepfather, rubbing soothing circles on her back with his large, work-roughened hand. “Take a breath and take a break. You’ve been at this for hours.”
The deep bass of his rich Caribbean accent sent a soothing rumble through his palm into Ginger. She took a deep breath, lifting her head from the pile of invoices, stock lists, and seasonal recipes she was organising for the coming festive season.
“I was supposed to be making eighty cupcakes tonight,” she whined. “But instead, I’ve been stuck here with all this mess for hours, and poor Mum has been the one baking.”
“I can assure you that I would far rather be doing this than be in your position, love,” Dorothy said, poking her head out of the kitchen and into the main café where Ginger had set herself up at one of the large central tables. “The last batches are cooling off now. I’m pretty sure we’ll get them all iced and boxed up for delivery tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you go and start making the buttercream?” Colin said, slowly lowering his broad, solid frame into a chair. “I can keep looking these over for you. Go do what you’re really good at.”
He took an adorably tiny pair of glasses from where they were perched atop his greying locks and placed them on his nose.
“Thank you,” Ginger said gratefully, pressing a kiss atop his head.
She’d always known that she was blessed to have not only one supportive father figure in her life, but two. When her parents divorced when she was around fifteen, she’d been nervous about what would become of her idea of family, just like any child would be. However, not only had her mother and Ian, her father, stayed excellent friends, but Colin had quickly become a member of the family to the point that she couldn’t imagine a life without him in it.
Of course, yes, there had been some bumps along the way. As she wandered after her mother into the bakery’s kitchen, Ginger briefly remembered flashes of arguments that had raged between her brother Ryan and their mother about Colin’s place in the family. The arguments had gradually calcified into a thorny estrangement that had only been resolved a few years earlier.
“You really found a good one in Colin,” she said, squeezing her mother’s shoulder as she passed her on the way to the fridge. “I can’t think of many people who would willingly sit down to try and sort through that mess.”
“I’m sure Rhys would in a heartbeat,” Dorothy said with a pointed look that made Ginger roll her eyes. “Just like he’d move into the cottage with you at a moment’s notice.”
“Mum…” Ginger said warningly.
“Now you know I’m not being nosy—”
“Nosy is exactly what you’re being,” Ginger called from the fridge, grabbing a carton of eggs for the Italian meringue buttercream she was about to make.
“But why haven’t you two made the move yet?” Dorothy continued as if her daughter hadn’t spoken. “From what I’ve seen, neither of you want to break up. So why drag your feet on the matter? He spends most of his nights there anyway.”
“You know, suddenly, I’m filled with a burning desire to talk about invoices and stock take schedules,” Ginger said, tracking down the large tub of butter she had left out of the fridge to soften.
“Look, Mum, we’re both too busy with our own things to tackle something as big as that right now. Plus, we both still like to have our own space to go to when we need it. We’ve got tempers and weird sleep schedules.”
Hazel eyes so similar to Ginger’s sparked with understanding. “You think cohabiting would create stress between you two that wasn’t there before?” Dorothy asked.
Ginger gave a tight smile, pausing in the act of taking down her stand mixer. “Dear Mother, I love you, but we are not having this conversation. Not tonight. Not when my brain is this fried from all the paperwork, and I’m still waiting to see if the electricity issue at the new shop is a quick fix or a major rewiring job.”
“Did that new electrician come to check out the place yet?” Dorothy asked, bringing a set of scales and a large tub of sugar to the central worktop where Ginger was weighing her ingredients.
Ginger nodded. “She had a poke around in some places but said she’d need to come back with some other equipment to make some other checks.” She handed a bowl to her mother. “Could you put the sugar and water in a pan over a medium heat, please? And find the candy thermometer?”
“I think it’s shocking that the company let you rent the place without checking any of this themselves,” Dorothy said, mixing the sugar and water in a pan as asked. “It really goes to show how helpful Nathan was when you were renovating this place, doesn’t it?”
A grief-tinged sigh escaped from deep in Ginger’s chest before she could stop it. “It really does.”
Nathan Hannigan had been the owner of The Gingerbread House when Ginger was first setting up her business. Despite being a multi-millionaire construction and property tycoon, he had helped out with much of the hands-on renovation of the building. The two of them had become close friends and Ginger had been devastated by his death that occurred only days after her grand opening. However, he had left her ownership of the building in his will, and a portrait of him took pride of place in the café.
Mother and daughter worked in companionable silence for a while. Ginger whipped the egg whites into soft, white peaks while the sugar and water reduced into a bubbling syrup that would bring sweetness to the buttercream.
“Are you sure that you don’t want me to do this?” Dorothy asked gently as Ginger packed bags of ice around the bowl of her stand mixer to keep the meringue cool while she added the hot syrup.
“I’m fine,” Ginger said distantly, only half listening as she focused on drizzling the sweet liquid into the egg whites at a suitable pace. “Oh, I know I said I was going to try to be here tomorrow, but I’ll need to drive these cakes over to the event first thing in the morning, then head to Creature Comforts.”
She felt, rather than saw, her mother’s frown.
“Couldn’t someone else do the driving for you?” Dorothy asked, laying out the cooled cupcakes in rows, ready for icing. “You’ve got far more important things to be doing than that.”
“But everyone else is busy,” Ginger said, starting to add in the softened, unsalted butter. “Besides, I’ve always been the one who delivers to customers.”
Her mother suddenly appeared in her line of vision, leaning in with an expression of amusement mixed with concern.
“That was before you were responsible for running two different businesses,” she said gently. “Look, why don’t you at least find someone to help you with the admin side of things? Paperwork, booking events and cake design consultations, that kind of thing? Free up some time for you to focus on the baking.”
With a sigh, Ginger turned off the stand mixer and slumped forward onto her elbows on the worktop.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” she admitted. “There have been too many nights recently that I’ve left Rhys sleeping and gone creeping downstairs to hunch over my laptop. Too many hours spent stressing and crying over bills, and schedules, and deadlines, and expectations.”
Dorothy’s face softened with sympathy, and she gently stroked Ginger’s ponytail. “Then why not find someone?”
Ginger gave a rueful grin. “Even thinking about the process of hiring someone and training them felt too overwhelming. Seemed wiser to stick with the version of being overwhelmed that I’m already familiar with.”
Dorothy chuckled. “I know the feeling. But I also suspect that you’re reluctant to hand over certain strings of control. It took sheer brute force and the fact that you physically couldn’t be in two places at once for you to trust me to manage this place.”
Ginger scowled, but it quickly became a wry smile. “You know me too well,” she said, shaking her head. “Okay, yes, fine. I’ve been the one doing all the bookings and client-facing stuff since day one of my business. I was the one who danced around my kitchen alone whenever someone ordered a cake from me. I was the one doing the baking, the decorating, the delivery, answering emails, taking calls, buying supplies… everything.” She shrugged. “I’m not entirely certain I can release that part.”
“But it’s exhausting you,” her mother said gently. “You have bigger responsibilities than emails and deliveries now. The best lesson you can learn as you grow is the ability to delegate.”
Ginger narrowed her eyes. “You’ve been listening to motivational podcasts again, haven’t you?”
Dorothy slapped her on the shoulder and went back to arranging the cupcakes in rows. “Oh, hush, you. Let’s get these done so we can both get some sleep.”
Ginger started up the stand mixer again, beginning to add in the flavouring and a few drops of food colouring to get the pinkish blush for the buttercream that she wanted.
“I’ll put out an ad on my social media asking if there are any local admin assistants who can work with me for a few weeks,” she said slowly. “Maybe I just need some extra help to get the new shop open? Or if it works out well, I can keep them for the long term.”
“Or you could let someone else write that for you while you focus on getting another cake project finished tomorrow,” her mother said pointedly, taking out two piping bags ready to be filled with the icing.
“Baby steps, Mum,” Ginger said, shaking her head with a chuckle. “Baby steps.”
“Who knew so many people would want to work as my assistant?” Ginger muttered, sinking her hands into her hair in frustration as she scrolled on her laptop. “And who would have guessed that my inbox would be groaning with gross emails from trolls?”
She opened one, wrinkled her nose in disgust, and immediately deleted the message, blocking the email address for good measure. Nina, who was sleeping on the kitchen chair beside her, stirred momentarily at the sound of Ginger’s voice, but quickly returned to her snoozing.
“I thought it was all starting to quiet down a bit?” Rhys asked, adding another pinch of black pepper to the gloriously bubbling cheese sauce he was stirring. “Did BAD wake up the trolls by posting something new?”
Miles, who was hovering around Rhys’ ankles in the hope of catching a stray scrap of cheese, yowled pitifully. Ginger pretended not to notice when Rhys, weak-willed in the face of such begging, tossed the cat a little cube of cheddar.
Instead, she hummed in thought as she quickly typed into her search bar. “Possibly. I haven’t checked the site in a while. Seemed best to keep away.”
BAD, the site in question, had been a thorn in Ginger’s side for quite some time. Started by an unknown individual several years before, the site called itself “a source for the true crime enthusiast”. In reality, however, it had been created for the sole purpose of pedalling conspiracy theories. Specifically, conspiracy theories about Ginger and how she was secretly a mastermind murderer. The literal name of the website was Burnet All Down, shortened to BAD.
“They still haven’t updated their web design,” Ginger commented, scrolling through the various posts and articles. “You’d think with the amount of time they spend on here that they’d actually fix all the bugs.”
“I can’t believe it’s still running at all,” Rhys muttered darkly, briefly glancing over in the midst of mixing the cheese sauce with a pan of cooked pasta. “How have they not been shut down for harassment? Didn’t you file a civil case?”
“The case couldn’t go anywhere,” Ginger said, looking for any recent activity. “There was no way to find out the names of people who hold the domain. So, I couldn’t move forward with filing anything. The only suggestion anyone could give me is to hope they get bored and go away eventually.”
“How very helpful,” Rhys said dryly, tipping the now combined mac and cheese into a baking dish and covering it with another layer of grated cheese before sliding it into the oven.
Ginger shrugged. “It is what it is. I don’t like it, but what other option do I have? Ah, here’s the cause of my bloated inbox. They’ve linked my posts asking about admin support to their main page.” She sighed, rubbing at her eyes. “As usual, there’s no direct call to action to harass me, but just putting it on the site is enough.”
She heard the soft scuff of Rhys’ slippers on the kitchen floor a moment before his warm hands came to rest soothingly on her shoulders.
“Are there any useful applications?” he asked, resting his chin on the top of her head. “Anyone you think might be suitable?”
“A few,” Ginger groaned, keeping her eyes covered. “I’m ideally trying to find someone who is local so they can come into the shop, but I’m not ruling out someone working remotely. It’s just… turning into a lot of work, that’s all.”
“I’m guessing this is why you were reluctant to start the search at all?” Rhys asked, pressing a kiss into her hair. “Anything I can do to help?”
Tipping her head back to look up at her boyfriend, Ginger felt some of her stress dissipate, quickly replaced with gratitude and a deep sense of love. She knew that her mother really was right; Rhys would do anything for her in a heartbeat.
“Thank you,” she murmured, reaching up to tap him on the nose. “Maybe during dinner, we can go through some of the ones I’ve shortlisted? I think it could be helpful to have another opinion about this. Is that okay? I know it’s been a long day for you at school.”
“Not a problem.” Rhys straightened, stretching hugely for a moment, momentarily exposing a thin strip of his stomach scattered with dark hair. “You’ve stayed up with me helping to grade papers enough times before now. I can help you look through resumes while we eat dinner.”
“Which smells so good, by the way,” Ginger said, squashing the urge to poke his exposed belly like he was one of the cats. “If you’d told me when we’d first met that you would be standing in my kitchen making me a buttery mac and cheese with three different kinds of cheese in it, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Rhys grinned, his cheeks rosy from the heat of the kitchen. “I certainly wouldn’t have believed it. I don’t think I allowed cheese or butter in my house at that point. Plus, I was so intimidated by your ability to cook that I wouldn’t have dared to try.”
“I don’t think there was much to be intimidated by,” Ginger scoffed. “I was decorating cupcakes in my garage and wondering if I’d ever actually be able to make a living from baking.”
“All while still terribly traumatised from almost being murdered,” Rhys reminded her.
“Ah, ah,” Ginger corrected, waving a pointer finger emphatically. “Not trauma. Spicy memories.”
She squeaked as Rhys swatted her on the top of her head with a tea towel. The sound caused Nina to briefly lift her head, golden eyes blinking open. She watched silently, unobserved by the humans, head resting on her paws.
“I’m pretty sure your therapist told you not to use humour to undercut the reality of what you managed to survive,” he said, draping the towel over his shoulder once more. “You’re a powerful survivor, something those freaks in charge of BAD will never understand and never be.”
Seeing the man that she loved so passionately defending her filled Ginger once more with a powerfully warm feeling of adoration. Getting to her feet, she slipped her arms around his waist and gently bumped her nose against his.
“I’m so lucky to have you,” she said softly. “I really am. Who knows where I would be if it wasn’t for you?”
His eyebrows briefly pulled together in a sweetly confused frown.
“I feel like you’re giving me too much credit,” he said, pulling her closer until she was flush against him. “Like, of course you’ve leaned on your family and me during tough times, but don’t underestimate yourself. All this success is from your hard work and determination and what you are able to inspire in others. You would have found success one way or another. Someone like you isn’t meant to have a small, quiet life.”
“Stop it.” Ginger buried her face in his shoulder. “I was trying to compliment you but now you turned the tables, and I don’t like it.”
“You don’t like me being nice to you?” Rhys asked in a sweetly teasing voice, quickly tickling her ribs. “Should I be horrible and mean instead?”
Ginger lost herself in a fit of giggles, trying to squirm away. For a minute, lost in the comforting familiarity, there was only her and Rhys. The weight of bills and business plans and internet trolls fell away. Nothing else mattered.
Nina flicked an ear in amusement as she watched her people play with one another. She liked the golden hue of happiness that Rhys brought to Ginger. It smelled like a warm summer evening. Comforted, she returned to sleep.
“I surrender,” Ginger gasped, pounding her fists against Rhys’ chest. “I surrender. Let me go.”
“Hmmm,” Rhys hummed, his playful look turning darker. “Now why would I do that when I have you at my mercy? What are you willing to offer in return for your freedom?”
Ginger felt her face flush with heat and a delicious pulse of tension deep in her belly.
“Well,” she said, lowering her voice until it dripped with seduction like molten molasses, “it depends on how long we have until the mac and cheese is ready?”
Rhys bit his lip to hide a grin, then glanced past her to the oven timer. “Half an hour.”
Ginger winked, slipping a hand down between them to tug at his belt buckle. “I can think of something.”
When Nina flickered her eyes open again, it was to a distinctly less soothing sight. Flicking her tail in annoyance, she jumped down off the chair and went to join Miles where he was sleeping in front of the wood-burning stove in the living room.
There were so many rooms in the house, yet they had to choose the kitchen of all places…
This Mystery is a part of Ginger Burnet Cozy Mysteries Series!
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