Cookie Palooza

Charlotte discovers that stepping out of her comfort zone was the ingredient she needed for a sweet surprise.

Charlotte’s younger sister, Layla,  was one year, two months, and three days younger than her. 

But Layla was an old soul. An old soul who spoke truisms about life at every chance available. She made it a habit of practicing this gift on Charlotte. This time, Layla proclaimed one of her truths about life to Charlotte outside the door to the high school cooking classroom. 

“You can’t expect something different if you do things the same way.” 

A retort brewed in Charlotte’s belly but never rose high enough for her to deliver. So she relied on her tried but not always true defense mechanism–sass to conceal what was, in fact, whining. 

She spoke over her shoulder to her sister. “I don’t want anything different. I’m happy reading books and watching movie marathons.” She had learned to achieve this particular level of happiness after ending a two-year relationship with a boyfriend who moved to a larger city. Charlotte didn’t have to move. She could visit different worlds anytime she picked up a book. 

Like a mule that would lose the fight but couldn’t help resisting, she stopped short and dug her heels into the ground.

Layla collided into Charlotte’s back with enough force for her to grunt, “Oof.” 

Like a row of dominoes, a chain of events that would change the course of the day ensued.

Charlotte careened into the back of a man that was at least a head taller than her.

He crashed into a metal rolling cart loaded with flour. 

A silver metal bowl on the top rack of the cart wobbled. Time stood still and sped up simultaneously. The bowl rock back and forth. There wasn’t enough air for Charlotte to breathe in, nor enough motion to change gravity. 

That didn’t stop Charlotte from trying.  She reached as though extending her arms would convince the bowl to still. Then everyone would exhale a sigh of relief, maybe giggle about what almost was. 

 It didn’t work. 

Instead, a cloud of white dust cascaded down the front of the man’s black t-shirt and forest green cargo pants. 

Waves of oh no, oh no, oh no coursed through Charlotte’s chest, rising to her throat, eventually reaching her voice. 

Even with a thin sheen of flour, the man was cute. He looked like one of the props from a Christmas movie that had gone wrong. 

“Oh, I am so sorry.”  Charlotte held her hand in front of her like he was a puppy she didn’t want to frighten him. “I didn’t. We didn’t.” This was all Layla’s fault. If Layla would have let her stay home– like she wanted. None of this would have happened. 

The guy’s jaw tensed just before his eyes darted to the corner of the room and landed on a tall, lanky guy with an armful of kitchen utensils. The other guy seemed oblivious to the catastrophe that had just happened. He also was the only one in the room who was clueless. Everyone else in the room stopped and stared at the big kerfuffle. 

Charlotte scanned the area around them. Where were the towels, a brushes, a vacuum cleaner —something to help erase the fine white dust that coated the front of his pants? 

There were kitchenettes, metal bowls, mixers, tins with cookware, and bins of baking supplies. No towels.

In her desperation to find a solution, a flash of an idea rushed to the front of Charlotte’s mind. She had a clean Kleenex in her shirt pocket. Charlotte pulled it out and motioned to rub the man’s leg but thought better of it before her hand connected with him. 

His thick brows raised to the line of his baseball cap. The subtle shake of his head said he wished the solution to their problem was that simple. “We’re going to need more than that.” 

Charlotte’s heart did a little flip-flop when the rich voice registered. This man could read her books to her anytime. Then, he called across the room, “Hey, Logan, come back with a broom, will ya?” 

Then embarrassment set in. Charlotte was sure her face was one degree short of bursting into flames from the heat that rushed to it. She stammered her apology, “I’m sorry.” 

She turned on her heel to face the cause of her troubles. Layla. Anger bled through Charlotte’s embarrassment. “If I stayed home…” 

“Don’t put this on me,” Layla shook her finger in the no-no-no wag. “I wanted you to have a fun day baking cookies. Not take out G.I. Joe.”

G.I. Joe? Charlotte averted her attention back to the stranger. He straightened and puffed out his chest a little. Of course, he would like what Layla said. She always said the right thing. 

With the new identity association, the spattering of flour dust on the front of his pants gave him the “I can take out a robber while I’m baking you cookies” vibe. He flashed Charlotte a smile that burned all the resentment she had for her sister. “My name is Tegan.” 

Before the unconventional introduction to Tegan, Charlotte was tired of Layla’s do-gooder ways. But for once, Layla was right. Well, she was always right, but it was the first time Charlotte was happy about it.  If Charlotte were to have met Tegan under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have said a word to him. This time she said, “Nice to meet you. I’m Charlotte. Do you have a cooking partner?”

Tegan said, “I do now.” 

Charlotte loved her sister Layla. Layla may have been younger than her, but she had an uncanny ability to sort out life.

✨ ✨ ✨

“Oh, what happened here?” Janie Roberts, the director of Cookie Palooza, frowned at the mess until she saw Layla. Then she wagged her finger playfully, “You always were a troublemaker. Which means you know how to take care of this.” 

Layla batted her eyes and shrugged as if to say, “Yes, I’m a clutz.” 

There they stood in the slightly awkward situation. Thanks to her sister Layla, Charlotte was standing in front of the dreamiest man she had set eyes on. Tegan looked familiar, but she couldn’t pinpoint where she had seen him before. 

A slightly younger, thinner version of Tegan brandished a hand broom. “We’ll have this cleaned in no time.” 

He dressed more casually in jeans and a gray and red raglan shirt. The similarities in noses and square chins gave away that they were brothers. The man with the Nordic blue eyes that expressed a degree of seriousness despite his smile had to be Logan. 

Charlotte switched her gaze between the brothers. Tegan’s eyes were more along the lines of a cobalt blue hue. 

“I look more like my father.” Tegan tilted his head toward Logan. “The milkman left him on the porch, and we decided to keep him.” A warm grin full of admiration contradicted the barb.  

“Don’t listen to him.” Logan waved the hand vacuum around like it was a weapon. “He’s just jealous because Mom loves me best.” 

“I can relate,” Layla took the hand broom and handed Charlotte the dustpan. 

Layla had already won the battle of “What are we going to do for fun this weekend.” Charlotte wouldn’t let her sister get the upper hand on this one. She said, “Ah, sibling rivalry at its best,” which meant I won’t play this game. 

It was a skill her Aunt Lizbeth taught her. If you don’t pick up the ball, they can’t throw it back at you.

Tegan backed away, taking one step in slow motion. He was mid-second step when Tegan said, “Hold still. Every time you move, flour falls off of you. This will be easier to clean if you let me get you in one quick swoop.”  

“The quick swoop is what worries me.” Tegan held out his hand. Logan handed over the vacuum, again grinning. This time it was one of playful defeat. 

Charlotte and Layla swept up the flour on the floor while having a conversation of their own. Flicks of eyes and subtle brow wags claimed dibs. A slight lip curve conveyed agreement. Who cares? Both are cute. 

As Charlotte dropped the last dregs of flour into the trash bin, Tegan regaled Charlotte with stories about how Logan roped him into participating in events. He rolled his eyes and said, “I still don’t know how he talked me into a cookie-baking marathon.” 

Logan nudged Layla with his elbow. “There may have been some comparisons to the baking shows and fans.” He smirked, “If he asks, tell him the cameras are hidden in the cabinets.”

Logan hid behind jokes, but she could tell that, like Layla, Logan found a sense of purpose when he offered a helping hand to whoever was in need.

“Oh, what happened here?” Janie Roberts, the director of Cookie Palooza, frowned at the mess until she saw Layla. Then she wagged her finger playfully, “You always were a troublemaker. Which means you know how to take care of this.” 

Layla batted her eyes and shrugged as if to say, “Yes, I’m a clutz.” 

Janie peeked down at the clipboard in her hands. “How do you feel about snickerdoodles?” 

The four voices joined to become one. “They’re my favorite.” 

They all checked out the other kitchens. Six of the kitchenettes along the walls had teams of people working. The middle area of the room had two rows of four stoves lined back to back. Each had a cabinet to the side, with two stations sharing a sink.  Janie crossed the room and talked to the two groups of two people in the kitchens beside each other. 

Charlotte took the broom and swept the area where the flour had spilled. Layla held the dustpan in place and dumped the fine white dust in the trash. Tegan and Logan moved the bowls and vacuumed the cart rack. 

Thanks to their combined efforts, the four of them cleaned the area in less than five minutes, and Tegan returned to appearing more like a bodyguard. It was also enough time for the sibling families to form an alliance.  

Janie directed them to the kitchen area, where they would spend the better part of the day.  Six of the kitchenettes along the walls had teams of people working. The middle area of the room had two rows of four stoves lined back to back. Each had a cabinet to the side, with two stations sharing a sink.  

 As they stood among the cabinets in the middle of the room, Janie reminded the newly formed team of four how the system worked.  They’d bake the cookies. When they were cooled, the cookies were stored in containers. The batches of cookies were then delivered to the library. From there, volunteers packaged cookies that would be sold to raise money for the Spirit of Giving Fund. 

Over the top of the stove, Charlotte noticed that Bernie Chapman was in the kitchen across from them with his crew. Bernie Chapman. Her stomach soured. Her ex-boyfriend’s best friend was in the kitchen across from her for how many hours. Ugh. 

Bernie waved. Out of politeness, Charlotte smiled to acknowledge that she saw him. She quickly turned to focus on what Janie was saying. 

The entire time Janie talked, Charlotte glanced at the chrome kitchen aid mixer. She baked at home but used a food processor or mixed her ingredients by hand. A kitchen aid mixer was next level. TV baking contest next level.  When Janie left, Charlotte caressed the top of the mixer like it was a new car. “If I’d have known we’d get to play with this, I might have signed up for an extra shift..” 

“Oh, we know the secret to impress Charlotte.”  Tegan joked. 

Bernie guffawed. “If only all women were that easy to impress.” He asked, “Why can’t I go for a girl like you?” 

If Charlotte had feathers, every one of them would have been standing on end.  Bernie didn’t have room to talk. He was geekier than her. She remembered Bernie stealing away her ex-boyfriend on more than one occasion for a board game night. She also knew that any banter with him would throw out a signal for attention. Charlotte pursed her lips and silenced her thoughts. 

Then something glorious happened. 

Tegan stepped in.

His voice was low and sexy, like the men in the commercials. He flexed his biceps that said he’d completed thousands, if not millions, of push-ups in his lifetime.  “I’ll arm wrestle you to use the mixer.” 

The heaviest duty Charlotte did with her arms was to carry a stack of books.  

“You win.” She laughed, and the air around her shifted into something lighter, sweeter, and friendlier.

Bernie squinted his eyes, and he released a frustrated “Bah!”

Charlotte sucked in a breath to contain her laughter. Her eyes connected with Tegan, and his face shifted into an expression that asked, “What’s his problem?” 

Bernie’s problem was Charlotte’s solution. Tegan. 

Charlotte took in a breath and let the happy feeling settle in her chest. 

Making fun of a person is easy. Everyone has quirks that make them different. In a sentence, Tegan showed Charlotte that her quirks made her special–in a good way.

“What if I want in on the contest?” Layla crossed her arms in front of her chest, her lip quirked in challenge, and her eyes sparkled. 

“Rock-paper-scissors?” Logan pressed his fisted hand into his other palm. 

Charlotte rolled her eyes, but there was laughter in her voice when she said, “Ah, sibling rivalry is the best.” Because she meant it. It really was 

✨ ✨ ✨

While doing something for the community motivated Layla and Logan, Charlotte and Tegan’s inspiration came from the kitchen across from them.  

Bernie narrowed his eyes and wrinkled his nose. “Some of us are here to make cookies.” 

Tegan shielded his lips with the back of his hand. “He might be able to do it if he took the spatula out of his backside.” 

Charlotte pressed her lips against her teeth and tensed against the urge to laugh aloud. When she felt her resolve weaken, she covered her mouth with the palm of her hand and relaxed enough to allow her shoulders to shake. It had been so long since someone had made her laugh. She had forgotten how delightful it felt. It was like a glass of water after running for hours in the summer sun. 

“We’ll just have to show our friend across the way how it’s done.” 

Settled, they fell into their roles with minimal discussion. Because Logan had inspected the cabinets and knew where everything was, he was the runner between the supply station and the kitchen. He measured the ingredients for Tegan to mix. From there, Charlotte placed them on the cookie sheets, and Layla transferred the finished cookies to the cooling table.  Soon they were surrounded by the scent of buttery cinnamon and sugar. 

The team developed a rhythm where they worked and talked. Siblings compared notes. Layla had dragged Charlotte to Cookie Palooza, and Tegan also had been an unwilling volunteer. They’d both needed a gentle prod from their siblings to step out of their comfort zone. Making new friends, the laughter, doing something that would benefit the community. They were the gentle shake Charlotte needed. 

Logan said, “I tricked Tegan into getting into the car by telling him we were going out for omelets.” 

“They were good, too.” Tegan’s crooked grin said his brother was right, but he wasn’t mad about being tricked. The strings of attachment tugged at Charlotte’s heart. The orange apron tied loosely around his waist added to Tegan’s effect on her. She imagined he’d be a fun boyfriend. 

“I had to threaten to call our Aunt Lizbeth,” Layla pointed with her elbow at Charlotte. 

“You always were a tattletale,” Charlotte stuck out her tongue at her sister. 

“Because it works,” Layla pressed her thumb against her nose and wagged her fingers to say neener-neener. 

Bernie closed the oven door and stood with his fists pressed against his waist. “Think of all the money that could be made for Charity if you weren’t wasting so much time flirting.”  

Tegan spoke in a low tone, but it was loud enough for Charlotte and Logan to hear. “From the guy who worries about what happens in other people’s kitchens.” 

From that point forward, Logan, Charlotte, Tegan, and Layla celebrated every batch they finished. Sometimes it was a group high-five with a whoop. For others, it was a tally of their accomplishments. 

When Tegan finished mixing his batch of cookies and Charlotte was scooping dough on the baking sheet, he moved and bent his fingers. After repeating the routine four times, he announced, “We’ve made over 150 snickerdoodles. How’s it going over there, Bernie?” 

As far as Charlotte was concerned, every time Tegan said something to boast about what their kitchen accomplished, he was her knight in shining armor. She couldn’t count how many times when she was dating her ex-boyfriend, Bernie antagonized her or complained to her ex-boyfriend that Charlotte was a distraction. 

“Ha!” Charlotte thought. In the end, he left both her and Bernie behind. That’s probably why Bernie was so bitter. 

Perhaps it was the heat or the time the friends had spent together. Somewhere around the tenth batch, Layla broke form. It was a slight slip of the finger when she set the cookie sheet on a cooling rack. A tiny indentation on the side of one of the cookies deemed it unsuitable. Or that’s what Layla said as she nibbled on the damaged cookie.

“I see what you’re doing,” Logan, bent on winning bragging rights for the kitchen that baked the most cookies, chided. “That’s the only one. We have a record to maintain.” 

In an unusual display of defiance, Layla exaggerated a flexing of her eyebrow. She emphasized her pronunciation of the word “Oh,” just before she poked her finger in the middle of another cookie.  

Tegan elbowed Charlotte and spoke out of the side of his mouth. “I like your sister.” He turned around and flicked the switch to mix the ingredients Logan had poured into the bowl. The steady rhythm of its whirring was an extreme contradiction to the rapid beating of Charlotte’s heart.  

A wave of insecurity washed over Charlotte, dampening her spirit.

Of course, Tegan would like Layla. What wasn’t there to like? Layla was cute and full of energy. She made people feel good about themselves. 

Charlotte wished she could be more like her sister and less like herself.

When Layla delivered another batch of baked cookies to the library,  Bernie slid into place alongside Charlotte. “What would it take for you to put in a good word with your sister?” 

Charlotte loved her sister, but she didn’t like how guys made her feel less worthy because she didn’t have the Energizer Bunny gene. Regret clouded Charlotte’s earlier perception that participating in Cookie Palooza was a good idea. 

This was Layla’s gig, and in moments like this, she shined like the brightest star in the Milky Way. The thundercloud of negative thoughts struck Charlotte’s heart. 

 She plopped a cookie on the baking sheet. Perhaps the time had come for Charlotte to put her foot down.

Then she dropped the next cookie on the sheet.  To pursue what she liked. 

She added another cookie to the sheet. To maybe do something like reading books to shelter animals.  

Tegan flicked the switch for the mixer and leaned against the cabinet. He asked Charlotte, “What are you doing later?” 

“Me?” Charlotte thought for sure her delirium from being in the hot kitchen and close proximity to Tegan had manifested into hallucinations. 

She was hearing things.

Tegan asked her—not Layla—what she was doing later.  

“No, Bernie.” Tegan’s lip curled in a sarcastic but sweet twist. “Of course you. Are you going to the Pie Festival?”

“I was thinking about it,” Charlotte did not feel bad about lying. 

“What do you say we grab some brats and fries before we gorge ourselves on the world’s best pastries?”

Charlotte controlled her breath to keep her cool. “With Coke or Pepsi?” 

Logan leaned around them to talk to Layla. “You’re coming too?” 

Tegan’s eye twitch told more than a country song. His brother just shoehorned himself into their dinner plans. 

Charlotte looked up at Tegan through her eyelashes and curled the corner of her lips. “Look at what it took for them to get us here. Did you think it would be that easy to lose them?” 

Logan said, “Hey, now.” 

Layla said, “We can’t be mad. She’s not wrong. Of course, I’ll be there.”

And there they were, making plans for a double date. Charlotte thought to herself, This was all Layla’s fault. If Layla would have let Charlotte stay home like she wanted. None of this would have happened.