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Goddess of Spring, Page 3

P. C. Cast

Chapter 2

  Gut instinct, she reminded herself as she gunned her BMW and almost flew over the Highway 51

  overpass, heading away from Tulsa's downtown business area to the trendy Cherry Street location of her bakery. Next time she was going to listen to her gut, and when it told her to run screaming in the opposite direction she wouldn't be stupid enough to hire another jerk. What in the hel had she been thinking?

  Lina sighed. She knew what she'd been thinking. She'd needed help. The money management end of her business had never been one of her strengths. Her father had always taken care of that for her, but three years ago he and her mother had joined her grandmother in a Florida retirement community. Dad had been so sure she could handle her business finances herself that she hadn't wanted to admit it to him last year when she had final y given up and hired an accountant. So instead of asking for his advice in who she should hire, she'd bumbled ahead and, in a stressed-out rush, chosen Frank Rayburn, Mr. Sleazy Non-Personality.

  "It's what you deserve for al owing your pride to get the best of you," Lina muttered to herself as she turned east onto the Street - the street that would, within a couple of blocks, morph into the area known as Cherry Street, and lead her to the door of her wonderful, incredible, beautiful, and now completely broke, bakery.

  The pit of her stomach ached. There must be a way to pay her debt and keep her two long-time employees as wel as her name and location. She gripped the steering wheel with one hand and twirled a short strand of hair around and around her finger. She would not sel her name. She couldn't.

  Pani Del Goddess, or Breads of the Goddess - the name sang like magic. It was indelibly tied to al the most wonderful memories of her childhood. Pani del goddess is what she and her beloved grandmother used to create on long winter afternoons as they watched old black-and-white movies and drank fragrant, honey-sweetened tea.

  "Carolina Francesca, you bake like a little goddess!"

  Lina could stil hear the echo of her grandmother's voice from her childhood, encouraging her to experiment with classic recipes from the Old Country, her beloved Italia.

  "Si, bambino, first learn the recipe as it was written, test it and try it, then begin to add un poco - a little here, and a little there. That is how to make the breads your own. " And Lina had made them her own, with a talent and a flare that had even impressed her grandmother, who was renowned as an exceptional cook. It had been her grandmother who had bragged so much to her friends that they began asking Lina to bake "something special" for them on the occasion of birthdays or anniversaries. By the time Lina graduated from high school, she had a steady stream of customers, mostly retired widows and widowers who appreciated the taste of quality homemade breads.

  When her grandmother had offered to send her to Florence to study at the famous school of baking, Apicius, she had begun shaping the design of her dream - the dream of owning her own bakery. When she was a child, her grandmother had whispered to her that Italy and baking were in her blood. After she graduated from Apicius, Lina fol owed the whispers of her childhood back to Tulsa. With her she brought a little piece of Italy, its style and its romance - as wel as its amazingly rich assortment of breads and pastries. Again her grandmother helped her. Together they discovered a worn-down old building smack in the middle of the artsy area of Tulsa known as Cherry Street. They'd bought it and slowly turned it into a shining sliver of Florence. Lina shook her head and flipped off the radio. She couldn't let Pani Del Goddess fail. It wouldn't just break her own heart; it would cut her grandmother to the bone. And what about her customers? Her bakery was the meeting place for a delightful y eclectic group of regulars, made up mostly of local eccentrics, celebrities and retirees. It was more than a bakery. It was a unique social hub.

  And what would Anton and Dolores do? The two had been working for her for ten and fifteen years. She knew it was a cliche, but they were more than employees; they were family to her, especial y since she had no children of her own.

  Lina sighed again, and then she inhaled deeply. Despite the horrors of the day, her lips curved up. Pinyon smoke drifted through the BMW's partial y rol ed down windows. She was passing Grumpy's Garden, the little shop that signaled the beginning of the Cherry Street District, and, as usual, "Grumpy," who was actual y a very nice lady named Shaun and not grumpy at al , had several of her huge chimeneas perpetual y burning, perfuming the neighborhood with the distinctive smel of southwest pine.

  She felt the knot in her stomach loosen as she downshifted and slowed her car, careful of the pedestrians crossing the streets while they moved back and forth from antique shops, to new-age bookstores, to posh interior de-sign studios and unique restaurants. And final y, in the heart of the street, nestled between a trendy little spa and a vintage jewelry store, sat Pani Del Goddess. As usual, there were few parking spaces available on the street, and Lina turned into the al ey to park in one of the reserved spaces behind her building. She had barely stepped out of her car when she felt an al too familiar tug at her mind. The feeling was always the same, though it varied in degree and intensity. Today it was like someone far away had spoken her name, and the wind had carried the echo of the sound to her mind without having to reach her ears first. She closed her eyes. She real y didn't have time for this. . . not today.

  Almost instantly Lina regretted the thought. Mental y she shook herself. No, she wouldn't let financial troubles change who she was - and part of who she was, was this. It was her gift. Glancing around her, Lina peered into the shadows at the edges of the building.

  "Where are you, little one?" she coaxed. Then she focused her mind and a vague image came to her. Lina smiled. "Come on, kitty, kitty, kitty," she cal ed. "I know you're there. You don't have to be afraid. "

  With a pathetic mew, a skinny orange tabby stepped hesitantly from behind the garbage receptacle.

  "Wel , look at you. You're nothing more than a delicate flower. Come here, baby girl. Everything wil be fine now. "

  Mesmerized, the smal orange cat walked straight into Lina's outstretched arms. Ignoring what the cat's matted, dirty fur could do to her very clean, very expensive silk suit, Lina cuddled the mangy animal. Staring up at her rescuer, eyes fil ed with adoration, the cat rewarded Lina with thunderous purring.

  Lina could not remember a time when she hadn't felt a special affinity for animals. As a smal child, she had only to sit quietly in her backyard and soon she would be visited by rabbits and squirrels and even nervous little field mice. Dogs and cats loved her. Horses fol owed her like giant puppies. Even cows, who Lina knew had big, mushy brains, lowed lovingly at her if she got too close to where they pastured. Animals had always adored her, but it hadn't been until Lina had become a teenager that she had real y realized the extent of her gift.

  She could understand animals. Sort of. She wasn't Dr. Doolittle or anything ridiculous like that; she couldn't carry on conversations with animals. She liked to think of herself as if she were a horse whisperer, only her abilities weren't limited to horses. And she had an extra "thing" that most people didn't have. Sometimes the "thing" told her that there was a cat that needed her help. The

  "thing" was something that went off in her mind, like a connection she could plug into. She knew it was weird.

  For a brief time in high school she had considered becoming a veterinarian. She'd even volunteered at a veterinary clinic during the summer between her sophomore and junior years - a summer that had taught her that while blood and parasites were definitely not a part of her special animal "thing," they certainly were two things that were a consistent part of veterinarian work. Just remembering it made Lina shudder in revulsion and want to scratch her scalp.

  "In a bakery, you never, ever have to deal with blood or parasites," she told the little orange cat as she stepped out of the al ey, turned left and inhaled deeply.

  " Magnifico," she murmured in her grandmother's voice. The enticing aroma of freshly baked bread soothed her senses. She sniffed
appreciatively, expertly identifying the subtle differences in the fragrance of olives, rosemary and cheese, wedded to the sweet smel s of the butter, cinnamon, nuts, raisins and the liqueurs that went into the creation of the bakery's specialty bread, gubana, which was the sweetbread of Friuli, a smal region east of Venice.

  Lina paused in front of the large glass window that fronted her bakery. She nodded appreciatively at the beautiful y arranged crystal platters that were displayed on tiers and fil ed with a fresh assortment of Italian pastries and cookies. Pride fil ed Lina. As always, everything was perfect. She glanced beyond the window display to see that about hah? of the dozen little mosaic-topped cafe tables were occupied. Not bad, she thought, for late Friday afternoon. She shifted the cat in her arms and checked her watch. It was almost 4:00 p. m. and they closed at 5:00 P. M. ; usual y the hour or so before closing was a quiet, winding-down time.

  Maybe that was one answer. Maybe she should extend her hours. But wouldn't she have to hire more help then? Anton and Dolores already worked full-time shifts, and Lina herself was rarely absent from the bakery. Wouldn't the additional cost of another employee cancel out any revenue generated by staying open longer?

  Lina could feel the beginnings of a serious tension headache.

  Forcing herself to relax, Lina squinted past the glare of the highly polished picture window. She could see the newly painted frescoes that decorated the wal s - part of the expensive renovation that had just been completed. But the price had been worth it. Lina had commissioned Kimberlei Doner, a wel -known local artist and il ustrator, to fil the wal s of Pani Del Goddess with authentic scenes from ancient Florence. The paintings, coupled with the vintage light fixtures and cafe*

  tables, created an atmosphere that made her patrons feel like they had stepped off the streets of Tulsa and had been temporarily transported to magical, earthy Italy.

  "Let's go in and see what we can do about you," she told the cat, who was stil purring contentedly in her arms. "First

  I'l take care of you, then I'l figure out what to do about the money," she said, wishing desperately that money was as easy to come by as cats.

  The wind chime over the door tinkled happily as Lina entered Pani Del Goddess. She stood there for a moment, basking in the familiar scene. Anton was fiddling with the cappuccino machine and humming the chorus of the song "Al That Jazz" from Chicago. Dolores was explaining the difference between panettones and colombe to a middle-aged couple Lina didn't recognize. They were the only people in the shop that she didn't recognize.

  Anton glanced up as several customers cal ed hel os to her. His full lips began a grin when he saw Lina, but then they pursed into a resigned pout when he noticed the cat in her arms.

  "Oh, look, it's our fearless leader - the Cat Savior. " Anton fluttered his fingers in Lina's direction.

  "Don't start with me, Anton, or I'l take back the DVD of Chicago that I got you for your birthday," Lina said with mock severity.

  Anton's pout turned into a gasp, and he clasped his hands over his heart as if she had just stabbed him. "You're wounding me!"

  Dolores giggled as she rang up the couple's order. "He's been tapping to 'Al That Jazz' al day. It's worse than his Moulin Rouge phase. "

  "Musicals are not a phase with me; they're my passion," Anton said.

  "Then you should understand me perfectly. Helping animals is my passion," Lina said. Anton rol ed his eyes and sighed dramatical y. "I think it's more than slightly disturbing that I have the number to the Street Cats Rescue Line memorized. "

  "Just make the cal ," Lina told him, but Anton was already dialing the number. She winked her thanks to him.

  "Wel , Lina! I was hoping to see you today. "

  Lina smiled and walked over to the table closest to the picture window. But instead of speaking to the dark-haired woman who had waved her over, first she greeted the miniature schnauzer who sat ramrod stiff on a scarlet-colored cushion at his mistress's feet.

  "Dash, you are certainly looking handsome today. " The cat stirred in her arms, but Lina soothed it with an absent-minded caress.

  "He should. He just came from the groomers. "

  Lina grinned at the wel -mannered little dog. "A day of beauty, huh? Honey, it's what we al need. " She turned her attention to Dash's mistress. "How is the olive bread today, Tess?"

  "Excel ent. Simply excel ent as usual. " Tess's distinctive Tahlequah drawl was lazy and melodic.

  "And this San Angelo Pinot Grigio that Anton recommended is absolutely perfect with it. "

  "I'm glad you think so. We aim to please. "

  "Which is why I wanted to talk with you. The Poets and Writers Association has chosen their Oklahoma Author of the Year, and we'l be having several functions to honor her next week. I want to make sure we have a selection of your excel ent breads for the dinner. " Lina's mind raced ahead. Tess Mil er was director of Oklahoma's Poets and Writers Association, as wel as the host of a very popular regional talk show - and one of Pani Del Goddess's most loyal customers. For years she and Dash had been stopping in the bakery during their daily walks, Lina had even had a doggie cushion made for the little schnauzer, which she kept in a special cubby underneath the cash register. There would certainly be no one better with which to begin her expansion. Even if she wasn't sure exactly what that expansion was yet.

  "Uh, Tess," Lina cleared her throat. "Of course I would be happy to provide any breads you might need, but I would also like to talk with you about our new expanded menu. Perhaps we could cater the whole meal for you. "

  "Wel , that would be just splendid! I'm sure anything you come up with wil be perfect. Why don't I cal you Monday? You can give me my menu choices and I'l fil you in on the details?" Lina felt herself nodding and smiling as she turned away from the table. She kept the tight smile plastered on her face while she made her way to the counter, speaking to each of her patrons as she passed them. It was only when she reached the counter and ran into the blank expressions of shock that had taken up residence on Anton's and Dolores's faces that she faltered.

  "Did I hear you say the word cater!" Anton whispered.

  "And whole meal?" Dolores squeaked.

  Lina jerked her head toward the back of the bakery before stepping through the cream-colored swinging doors that divided the kitchen, the storeroom and her office from the rest of the bakery. Her two employees scurried after her. Lina spoke quickly as she pushed the startled orange cat into the carrier she retrieved from the coat closet.

  "You know the appointment I had with my accountant today? It wasn't good news. I owe money. Big money. To the IRS. "

  Anton blanched and sucked in air.

  "Oh, Lina. Is it real y bad?" Dolores sounded twelve years old.

  "Yes. " She looked careful y at each of them. "It is real y bad. We're going to have to make some changes. " Lina registered the twin looks of horror on their faces. Instantly Anton's eyes began to fil with tears. Dolores's already pale face drained of even the pretense of color. "No, no, no! Not that!

  There wil be none of that - you'l be keeping your jobs. We'l al be keeping our jobs. "

  "Oh, God. I need to sit down. " Anton fanned himself with his fingers.

  "My office. Quickly. And there wil be absolutely no fainting. " She picked up the cat carrier and clucked at the ruffled tabby as she headed to her office. Over her shoulder she said, "And no crying either. Remember - "

  Anton finished the sentence for her. " - There's no crying in baking. " Dolores nodded vigorous agreement.

  Lina set the cat carrier next to her desk before taking a seat behind it. Anton and Dolores sank into the two plushly upholstered antique chairs that faced her. No one spoke. Hesitating, Anton made a vague gesture in the direction of the cat. "Patricia from Street Cats said that she'd stay a little past closing today, so if you want me to, I can drop off that little orange thing on my way home. It's real y not out of my way. " He finished with a weak smile. />
  "Thank you, Anton, even though you cal ed her a little orange thing, I'l take you up on your kind offer. "

  "Wel , I meant little orange beast, but I was trying to be nice," Anton said, sounding more like himself and looking less likely to hyperventilate.

  "What are we going to do?" Dolores asked.

  True to form, Dolores was ready for the bottom line. Though only twenty-eight, she had been working for Lina for ten years. The reason Lina had hired her was not just because she had a flair for baking pastries and a way with old people, but Lina appreciated her no-nonsense personality. And she was the perfect balance for Anton, who was - Lina glanced at her other employee who sat with his legs crossed delicately, the sheen of almost-tears stil pooled in his eyes - decidedly more dramatic. They fit together wel , the three of them, and Lina intended that they stay that way.

  "We expand our menu," Lina said firmly.

  Dolores nodded her head thoughtful y. "Okay, we can do that. " Anton gnawed on the side of his thumb. "Do you mean, like, add sandwiches or something?"

  "I'm not exactly sure yet," Lina said slowly. "I haven't had time to think it through. I just know that we have to make more money, which means we need to bring in more customers. It only makes sense that if we expanded our menu, we would appeal to a larger group of people. " Anton and Dolores nodded in unison.

  "Catering Tess Mil er's dinner is a good place to start," Dolores said.

  "Catering," Anton whined. "It sounds so, I don't know, banal. "

  "As banal as bankruptcy?" Lina asked.

  "No!" The word burst from his mouth.

  "My thoughts exactly," Lina said.

  "So what are we going to serve?" Dolores asked.

  Lina ran her fingers through her neatly cropped hair. She had absolutely no idea.

  "We're going to serve selections from our expanded menu. That way we'l get practice as wel as publicity. "

  "And that expanded menu would be what exactly?" Dolores prompted.

  "I have absolutely no idea," Lina admitted.

  "And to think I didn't bring even one tiny Xanax with me to work today. " Anton was gnawing at his thumb again.

  "Quit biting your finger," Dolores told him. "We'l figure this out. " She shifted her gaze to Lina.


  Lina's heart squeezed. They looked like baby birds gaping up at her expectantly.

  "Right," she said, painting her voice with confidence. "Al I need to do is to. . . " she faltered. Her nestlings blinked big, round eyes, waiting for her next words. "Is to. . . um. . . brainstorm. " She final y finished.

  "Brainstorm? As in the step before writing a paper?" Anton, who was perpetual y a sporadic night school student at Tulsa Community Col ege, clutched onto a familiar idea.

  "Of course," Dolores added brightly. "Lina probably has about a zil ion and a half cookbooks at home. Al she needs to do is to go through them and pick out a few great recipes for wonderful meals. "

  "Then she'l share them with us, and we'l begin our new creations!" Anton gushed. "How ab fab! I can hardly wait!" Then he reached over and squeezed Dolores's hand. "I feel just awful that I was so negative in the beginning. I almost forgot our Baker's Motto. " Dolores and Anton grinned at each other, and then as if they were getting ready to say the Pledge of Al egiance, they covered their hearts with their hands and spoke solemnly in unison:

  "In baking we must always rise to the occasion. "

  Lina thought that she very wel might have been in baker's hel , but she kept nodding and smiling. Dolores was partial y correct, she did have a wonderful col ection of cookbooks at home - al fil ed with fabulous recipes for breads and pastries. She had very few cookbooks that contained recipes for meals. Actual y, she didn't even cook many full meals herself. A little pasta here, a little salad there, and a nice glass of Chianti was her idea of cooking a full meal. Baking was her specialty and her love. Meals were, wel , banal.

  Out of her element, she admitted to herself. This whole thing was total y out of her element. So, feeling a little like a sparrow struggling to feed the cuckoos in her nest, Lina kept smiling and nodding at her chicks.

  "Wel , I think we've been absent from the front long enough. Now that we've got a plan, why don't you two handle it for the next hour and close up for me? I'l go home and begin brainstorming. "

  "Tess said she'd cal you on Monday about the menu for the dinner, didn't she?" Dolores asked.

  "That's what she said, al right. " Lina focused on keeping the panic out of her voice.

  "Oooh, this real y is exciting. You know, I'l bet there wil be lots of local celebs at that dinner. " Anton waggled his wel -maintained eyebrows. "Not to mention media coverage. "

  "I imagine there wil be. " Lina walked briskly from her office. As she cal ed quick good-byes to her customers and hastily retreated out the door, she could hear Anton tel ing Dolores that he would certainly need several new, exciting outfits to go with their new, exciting menu.

  Her grandmother had told her many times that swearing was common, unladylike behavior reserved only for peasants and men who were not gentlemen. On the other hand, she total y endorsed a wel -accented, wel -chosen Italian curse as simply showing one's creativity. Standing in front of her bakery Lina let loose with a string of Italian that began with tel ing the IRS they could va al diavolo, or go to hel , and ending with saying they were nothing more than a chronic, flaming rompicoglioni, or pain in the ass. Just to cover al bases in between she strung together several

  "shits" and "damns," in Italian, of course. She felt sure Grandma would have been proud. When people began staring she shut her mouth and told herself to breathe slowly and deeply. She was an intel igent, successful businesswoman. Hel , she could even curse eloquently in Italian and English, but she tried to keep the English to a minimum - Grandma had been right, it just didn't sound as wel -bred (and yes, Grandma would also have appreciated the pun). How difficult could it be for her to come up with a few new menu choices? Even if they were meals and not breads. She started to twirl a strand of her hair, but caught herself and forced her hand to stay at her side. The problem wasn't that she couldn't come up with some new recipes. The problem, she realized, was that through Pani Del Goddess she had established a solid reputation for preparing breads that were unique and delicious. She couldn't just slap some pesto over pasta and toss a salad on the side of the plate. She wouldn't do it at al if she couldn't do it wel . The name Pani Del Goddess meant excel ence, and Lina was determined that it would never stand for anything less. She should cal her grandmother; she'd have a stack of ideas that she'd be thril ed to share with her beloved bambina. Again.

  "But as Anton would say, I'm sooo not a baby," Lina muttered to herself. "Good God, I'm fortythree. It's about time I quit running to Grandma. " Lina's dialogue with herself was interrupted by the sound of carefree laughter coming from two women who had just emerged from the used bookstore across the street. She scowled and wished that al she had to worry about was shopping with a friend for the perfect book. The scowl shifted as her expression turned thoughtful. The Book Place was a wonderful used bookstore with a vast selection of fiction and nonfiction. Lina had spent many satisfied hours lost in their maze of shelves. Surely she could find a fabulous old cookbook in the stacks, something that had been hidden in out-of-print obscurity for years, and within its pages there would be a recipe that was the perfect blend of Italy and magic and ingredients. Yes, she thought as she dodged cars and crossed the street, The Book Place was the perfect place to begin brain-storming.