A holiday novelette in the theme of cozy romance.
Summary: When Clara loses her tech job right before the holidays she turns her passion to baking into a business and sparks fly under the mistletoe with a coffee shop owner. First in a new series for Firehole Press
A Cupcake Christmas (Part 1)
A pink slip was not the holiday card, Clara Keene expected to receive the Monday after Thanksgiving. In Scrooge like fashion, HR notified of her termination in a stale, impersonable email. No thank you, just goodbye.
“The timing is terrible – I just drained my savings getting my HVAC replaced last month and with Christmas coming up…” Clara battled her emotions, blindsided by the dreaded news. “Restructuring, what does that even mean? Our company made millions in profit last year.”
Software sales has its ups and downs, but Clara had given her heart and soul to software encryption company Data Dot. For the past eight years, Clara worked her way up the ladder, often forgoing a social life to make sure she hit quota and helped grow the business. She was aiming for a merited promotion in January as VP of Sales Success.
As a top performer she should have been the last to lose her position, but the newly appointed CEO decided to appease investors by restructuring the organization to glean profits. Half of Data Dot’s sales team was let go via email.
Clara knew she would land on her feet, but the pain of losing a job she loved felt like a divorce. The severance package would get her through the month, but how was she going to pay her bills in January.
Clara purchased a condo earlier in the year, and although it had a near perfect inspection – everything had gone wrong – from a burst pipe to the HVAC breaking down and issues with dry rot. She had used most of her savings to deal with the repairs, planning to build her savings back up in the new year. Her cushion of $800.00 would not go far.
“I can find another job in the industry,” Clara thought aloud, “but realistically it could take eight weeks or more to get through the hiring process. A lot of companies don’t start hiring again until January.”
Taking a deep breath, Clara gathered all her strength and started working on an action plan. Her severance would help her through January 1st…so count that as a blessing.
Running high on adrenaline from the shock of losing her job, Clara spent the entire day diving into LinkedIn applying for jobs. It would take prayers and her dogged resilience to keep from falling apart.
It was a quarter to six when Clara’s phone rang. It was her nine-year-old niece, Lucy.
“Aunt Clara, I’m sorry about your job.”
“It’s okay Luce. How’s my favorite niece?”
“I’m your only niece.” Lucy kidded. “I wanted to invite you to our winter carnival tomorrow night at school.”
“My class is having a bake sale to raise money for our school trip to DC in the spring,” Lucy explained.
“Sounds like a fun trip.”
“I need your help. You know mom is a terrible baker and will burn everything. You on the other hand are baker extraordinaire. Can you bake your world-famous cupcakes and get my class to Washington?”
Clara had to laugh. It is true- her older sister Emily is terrible at baking. She nearly set the house on fire trying to make gingerbread men one year. Clara on the other hand loved to bake – she’d even taken classes at the university and was a certified pastry chef. She dreamed once of owning her own bakery – but life had other plans. Software sales was her niche and it paid well, forcing her to put professional baking on the backburner.
“I don’t know about world-famous, but of course I’ll help,” Clara smiled – grateful to have such a sweet niece. “When do you need them by?”
“Thursday afternoon. Three dozen cupcakes would be great.” Lucy filled Clara in on the details. “I’m making advertisements for the bake sale on my graphic design app. I’ll list you as Clara’s Christmas Cupcakes – straight from the North Pole.”
“Graphic design, wow that is advanced,” Clara was impressed by the cool electives Lucy’s elementary school offered. “I’m proud of your creativity and hard work at school.”
“Which cupcake flavors are you going to make?”
“Vanilla and chocolate are always good standbys, but I’ll make a Christmas cupcake too.”
“I like the ‘Grinch’ one you did last year with the green icing and peppermint sticks. It was cool how you make the middle of the cupcake have red icing – to show the Grinch had a heart.”
“Do you want to bake with me? I can pick you up from school tomorrow and we can make the cupcakes together?”
“That sounds great. We can watch Elf while we bake to get us in the holiday mood.”
“Buddy does love his sugar…” Clara laughed. Her niece was just the medicine she needed to lift her spirits.
After hanging up the phone with Lucy, Clara stomach twisted in knots.
“Is this baking anxiety,” Clara wondered if she could still create her ‘world-famous’ cupcakes. “I haven’t baked in over six months.” To be perfectly honest, Clara couldn’t remember the last time she’d used her stove. With her hectic hours negotiating with clients and running large deals she had fallen into bad habits of getting take-out every night or skipping dinner.
Her orange tabby, ‘Pumpkin Spice,’ rubbed against her leg, roaring with calming purrs as if to encourage her.
“Pumpkin you always know how to make me feel better.” Clara knelt and gave her sweet kitty a handful of treats.
Clara rummaged through her cupboard and grabbed her box of recipes. “One good thing about losing my job is this December I’ll actually have free time to bake over the holidays.”
“Hi sweet Lucy, are you ready to bake?” Clara hugged her niece after picking her up from school.
“So excited!” Lucy’s blue eyes lit up; her blonde hair pulled loosely back into a ponytail. “I brought Samantha with me. She is not much of a baker, but we can teach her.” Samantha is Lucy’s favorite doll. They are inseparable.
“I like Samantha’s Christmas dress,” Clara noticed the doll’s classic red and green plaid chiffon dress.
“Mom designed Samantha several holiday dresses.”
“Your mom always was the fashion designer.” Clara pulled into her condo driveway. “Did you say the Nutcracker is the theme of the winter carnival?”
“Yes, everything is Nutcracker themed,” Lucy lit up, “My class is performing the Nutcracker dance at the carnival. The choreography is a mix of ballet and modern dance. I’m playing the Sugar Plum fairy.”
“That’s amazing. So, I tested several cupcake recipes last night and I created a Nutcracker theme for the cupcakes to coincide with the carnival. Our menu: Sugar Plum Fairy, Nutty Nutcracker and Winter Spice cupcakes. I will also have a gluten free option.” Lucy had mentioned her best friend at school has gluten sensitivity.
“That’s so creative! And how cool is it that your name is Clara – just like the girl in The Nutcracker!”
“I can design a menu with the prices.” Lucy proposed. “Can I make your business cards too?”
“Business cards?” Clara burst out laughing. “You sound like a Junior CEO.”
“Dad has them for his real-estate business,” Lucy paused. “Your cupcakes are so delicious you could sell them full time. So, you should be prepared, just in case clients want to put in Christmas orders.”
“We have to mix the batter before I become the next Food Network star,” Clara loved the carefree spirit of Lucy. Kids are not afraid to dream big and believe in big dreams.
Clara and Lucy spent several hours in the kitchen, baking up a storm. Lucy acted as chief taste tester.
“The sugar plum icing is heavenly. So sweet and delicious.”
“It is a mix of lavender and lemon, with organic food coloring…Lucy can you help decorate the sugar plum cupcakes?” Clara instructed her niece to drizzle each cupcake with snowflake sprinkles, peppermints, and gum drops.
“These cupcakes are going to sell out!”
“I hope so – I am excited for your class to go on a trip to Washington DC.”
Clara’s sister picked Lucy up just before dinner.
“Hey sis,” Emily popped her head into Clara’s condo. “It smells divine in here. Can I sample?”
“Just one,” Clara handed her sister a winter spice cupcake with cream cheese frosting.
“This is decadent. Forget software sales, you should open a bakery…”
“That’s a pipe dream full of icing,” Clara rolled her eyes. “I love to bake, but I don’t think baking will pay my bills. I do hope these cupcakes raise tons of money for the school.”
“God will lead you where you need to go – be it baking or software sales,” Emily encouraged. Though she hated the fact her sister lost her job, Emily could not help but see the layoff as a blessing. Clara had given up her life for her job and this time would give her time to reset – even restart her social life.
“I’ll meet you at the Winter Carnival with the cupcakes.”
“Love you,” Lucy embraced her aunt. “Thanks for letting me bake with you.”
As Emily and Lucy drove away, Pumpkin Spice meowed for attention.
“Okay kitty, your get a treat too.”
Lost in the smell of sugar and spice, Clara dreamed for a moment…oh how fun it would be to own her own baking business… “Unfortunately, this sugar plum fairy needs to submit a few more applications before bed.”
The Winter Carnival exuded holiday charm with Nutcracker themed décor and holiday themed activities for families.
Stepping into the school, Clara was greeted by a candy cane path leading to a large Christmas tree adorned with lights and ornaments made by the students in art class.
The gym was transformed into a Sugar Plum Ballroom with life size nutcrackers guarding the doors.
In addition to fun crafts and games, the carnival allows different school organizations to set-up information booths and fundraising stations.
The art teacher was selling crafts including handmade nutcrackers, while the athletics department was auctioning off sports memorabilia. The proceeds would fund low-income scholarships to the after-school rec league
“Aunt Clara, over here!” Lucy shined in her crimson velvet dress and patten shoes.
“Look at all these sweets,” Clara noticing the plates of cookies and homemade bars.
“I made a menu and some business cards to put by your cupcakes. Just in case someone wants to order more.”
“Thanks sweetie – you are certainly enterprising.” Clara noticed a cute freckled red head standing by Lucy.
“This is Becca- my best friend.” Lucy introduced a cute brunette with freckles, wearing a Frozen ‘Let it Go’ jumper.
“Nice to meet you Becca, I’m Clara.”
“Just like the Nutcracker,” Lucy commented. “My aunt makes the best cupcakes.”
“I’ll have to try one of these amazing cupcakes,” a male voice spoke suddenly behind Clara. She turned around abruptly to see a tall attractive man with deep hazel eyes. “How much?”
“$4.00.” Becca and Lucy said in unison.
“Give me two, then.” He handed them a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”
“Clara – this is my uncle Matt,” Becca introduced the pair.
Clara’s cheeks deepened to a rosy, red as he eyes met Matt’s. He was the right mix of handsome – just dashing enough to swept you off your feet with his hazel eyes and warm smile, yet down to earth in his corduroy pants.
“Nice to meet you Matt, I’m Lucy’s aunt,” Clara smiled, her cheeks rosy red. She hated feeling that flush of attraction, especially with a stranger who she would never see again. “Um…enjoy the cupcakes.”
“These cupcakes look amazing – are you a professional baker?” Matt’s compliment genuine.
“No, I just bake for fun.” She stammered, saving face with a smile.
Matt bit into the first cupcake, savoring each bite.
“Delicious – the best cupcake I’ve ever eaten, and I have had some amazing cupcakes.”
“I’m glad you enjoy them,” Clara felt a burst of confidence, grateful their first customer enjoyed her sweet creation.
“Listen, I own Soulful Java downtown, and the baker I worked with just moved out of state. I can brew the best cup of coffee in North Carolina, but without any pastries I am losing business left and right to the big chain competition. I’d love to sell your cupcakes in my store. Would you be interested?”
“Wow that is a really nice offer, but I don’t know…” Clara, overwhelmed with emotions. Of course, it was a fantastic opportunity, but how sustainable was baking professionally for a local coffee shop. “I don’t have a professional grade kitchen.”
“You can use the professional grade kitchen in the shop if you want.” Matt was persistent. “I know your cupcakes would be a hit with customers.” Before Clara could offer a word in edgewise, Lucy spoke up.
“My aunt would love to bake for the coffee shop. However, she demands fair compensation for time and supplies.”
“Your niece is quite the business expert,” Matt chuckled. “Of course, you will be compensated well.”
“I guess we can give it a try,” Clara bit her lip.
“Here is my business card. Stop by the store tomorrow and we can work out the details.”
“I guess I’m in the cupcake business.”
“Thank you so much for donating the cupcakes,” Lucy offered her aunt a big hug. “We more than enough money to go to DC.”
“That’s so exciting – you’ll get to see the Washington Monument and the Capitol and the National Zoo.”
“All thanks to your delicious cupcakes,” Emily interjected as she packed up the booth. “They were a huge hit. Customers were gushing over how scrumptious they were. In fact, several members of the PTA may be contacting you for Christmas cupcake orders.”
“That is very flattering, but…”
“And I got Aunt Clara a job at Becca’s uncle’s coffee shop.”
“No, it’s not really a job…”
“Yes, it is,” Lucy insisted. “Becca’s Uncle Matt practically begged Aunt Clara to bake for him.”
“He liked the cupcakes and asked me to bake some for his coffee shop, Soulful Java. I am meeting with him tomorrow.”
“That is amazing Sis! I love Soulful Java – they make the best Americano in town.”
“I’m honored, but honestly I’m not sure it’s feasible. I’m going to need to do more than bake cupcakes to pay my bills.” Clara tried to be sensible. “Still, it would be fun – to bake goodies for the coffee shop – at least until the owner, Matt finds a new fulltime baker.”
“Speaking of Matt – he is single and looks like a movie star.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Clara’s cheeks beet red.
“It wouldn’t hurt for you to go on a date for once. You aren’t married to Data Dot anymore.”
“I’ll admit Mr. Orsay is attractive, but I’m more concerned about the business of cupcakes right now.”
“I’ve got to get Lucy ready for The Nutcracker recital.” Emily noticed the time.
“I cannot wait to see Lucy as the Sugar Plum fairy.”
“Meet you for cocoa at candy cane lane by the auditorium after?”
En route to the recital, Clara was stopped by several parents who asked her to bake cupcakes for their holiday parties. “My niece made these business cards, she is my baking assistant,” Clara laughed as she handed out her contact information.
“God, you certainly have baked up a holiday plan to help carry me over till I get another job.” Clara’s faith grounded her, and she speaks to God reverently, but also as a friend in conversation. “I can still use help with a ‘real’ job, but you know I love to bake.”
As Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite danced to life, with Lucy on Center Stage…Clara felt a peace that Christmas magic would make everything all right.
Clara squeezed her Subaru into a parking spot in front of Soulful Java in the heart of historic downtown Bedford Springs. She had not been downtown in over a year and was impressed to see several new restaurants and shops in the revitalized arts district.
“Here goes,” she breathed in deep and said a Hail Mary before going into Soulful Java.
She did not sleep a wink, spending most of the night creating a business proposal for Matt – including a list of cupcake and other pastry options including her cranberry scones and oatmeal kitchen sink cookies.
“I’m overthinking this,” Clara looked at the polished proposal she had artfully arranged in a binder. Clara thrives in business and loves to organize and present data, which coupled with her creative streak always empowered her to be the best sales representative on her team.
“Ms. Keene, it’s so nice to see you!” Matt’s eyes lit up as she walked in the room. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or what is your preference.”
“I hear you have the best Americano in town.” Man, Matt made her weak in the knees. She had not felt this way since her high school crush and that had not ended well.
“Keep it together,” Clara thought to herself as she gathered her composure.
Soulful Java is located on the first floor of what used to be the city’s old performing arts center. It is an art deco building with intricate detail work and character. The building fell on hard times a few years back, but local investors helped to restore the center to its former glory. Today the building houses a variety of artists and a small black box theater.
“I love what you have done with the space. It the ambiance of an upscale jazz club combined with a cozy neighborhood haunt.”
“Thanks,” Matt led them to a private nook in the back of the shop. “I am an architect by trade and wanted to retain the character of the space.”
“I can see this being a third space to gather downtown.” Clara noticed a small stage landing. “Do you host concerts here?”
“We have live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights – depending on the season.”
“The center used to be a jazz hotspot in the 30s and 40s I hear.”
“History lover and awesome baker-you do have a winning combination.”
“Speaking of baking – I really appreciate your interest in my cupcakes. I have a knack for baking, but I’ve never been asked to bake professionally before.”
“I’ve eaten a lot of cupcakes in my life and the sugar plum cupcake yesterday is by far the best dessert I’ve ever eaten. Everyone at the carnival was talking about how delicious your cupcakes were.”
“That’s kind of you to say…” While Clara had received multiple requests for Christmas cupcake orders, the idea of baking for profit seemed surreal.
“I know your cupcakes and desserts will fly off the shelves here – I’d love to form a partnership to sell your baked goods at Soulful Java.”
“I’m honored and I’d love the opportunity to bake for the coffee shop,” Clara handed Matt a copy of her business plan.
“A business plan – and you claim you are just an amateur,” Matt teased with a sly grin.
“I have been baking since I can remember, but my career is in software sales and business leadership. Baking has always been a hobby. I do have some extra time on my hands this month as I’m in between jobs, but that will change in January”
“Side hustles are always good. I still work as an architect and understand time constraints. I can be flexible with your hours as needed. I want to be the official coffee shop of Clara’s Cupcakes.”
“Clara’s Cupcakes…I do like the sound of that.” Clara rested on the idea a moment. “I will give it a chance through the holidays.”
“You don’t know how much this means to me! You are a life saver.” Matt had been genuinely concerned about not having any muffins and sweet treats in the café – a lot of the downtown customers relied on Soulful Java for a caffeine fix and quick snack. “I noticed you included sample pricing and menus in your proposal.”
“Yes, those prices factor in food costs and profit margin for both of us.”
“I appreciate your hard work – for a supposed novice,” Matt reviewed the documentation. “I agree to your terms, and I also will allow use of my test kitchen and provide key ingredients like flour, eggs and milk as needed.”
“I plan to produce some allergen free treats as well.”
“Great idea, several of my regular customers are gluten intolerant.” Matt took the next thirty minutes to give Clara a tour of the coffee shop and kitchen.
“This kitchen is amazing…Julia Child would be proud to bake here.”
“So, we have a deal?” While Matt recruited Clara for her top fleet baking skills, he couldn’t help but be attracted to her.
Clara is an old-school beauty – who resembled 1930s actress Myrna Loy. Clara’s classic look and complimented by her preppy bohemian style. Matt realized that java and romance do not usually work out, so he decided to focus on the business of cupcakes for now.
“Yes, when you want me to start?”
“The kitchen is open – so as soon as possible.”
“You want me to start baking right now?” Clara laughed.
“I’ve got a pretty bad sweet tooth and your cupcakes are the cure. Seriously no pressure, tomorrow works fine.”
“I like a challenge,” Clara countered. “I’ll bake some treats today, so you have them for your morning rush. My only ask is you add money to the parking meter out front.”
“This is the beginning of a beautiful partnership.”
Fortunately, the kitchen was well stocked with staples like sugar, flour, butter, and eggs. After surveying the pantry, she managed to scour up enough ingredients to bake a holiday take on the Vanilla cupcake.
“For your enjoyment – the ‘Winter Wonderland Cupcake.’” Clara presented perfectly decorated cupcakes. “This cupcake is a vanilla base with royal icing snowflakes and peppermint flakes.”
“Are these from Santa’s workshop.”
“I’m glad you approve.”
“I’m going to post a few cupcake pics on social media to get the word out. I want everyone to know that Soulful Java is the home of Clara’s Cupcakes.”
“Great idea!” Clara’s business brain contemplated getting a website for the cupcakes, but it was too early in the start-up game. She would focus on the baking for now. “Speaking of social media…I don’t want to overstep here – but I have a lot of marketing experience and I have some ideas to help drive additional business to Soulful Java. I can draft some ideas in a proposal if you’re open to it?”
“I’m always open to innovative ideas.” Matt enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with Clara, recognizing her creative business savvy. “Here’s a check for the first order, plus a little bonus for start-up supplies.”
“Pleasure doing business with you.” Clara was happy to get the payment– it was not much but certainly help. “I can be here tomorrow at 8 a.m. if that works?”
“Perfect.” Matt did not want Clara to leave – he wanted to sit and chat with her a few more hours – just spend time together talking over coffee and cupcakes.
“Thanks for taking a chance on me.” Clara’s voice filled with excitement.
“We’re going to be a wonderful team.”
To continue the story…