“Did you know, Mr. Lancer, according to legend King Henry VIII beheaded a chef after finding a hair in his meal. Needless to say, the next chef intelligently agreed to wear a hat while cooking.”
Picking up a large copper pot, Scott raised a dubious eyebrow at his reflection. “Beheaded. Not such a bad fate considering the alternative is to sport an oversized mushroom on the noggin.”
“Better a mushroom than a Boston stove pipe.”
Scott grinned at Emily’s reference to the formal top hat. “Touché, Miss Browning.”
With a slight hop up, the Arcade Hotel chef seated herself on a sideboard housing various cooking staples and spread her arms out wide. “The kitchen is yours, sir.”
The newly elected baker enlisted a wooden spoon to point at his hostess’s choice of seating. “Take note, my dear lady. Tables are for glasses, not aaaa-” The teasing reprimand stopped short.
“My God, Lancer! Not only have you discarded proper etiquette, you’ve burned the damn book! Good show!”
Shut up, George. Scott felt the room grow warm - a stoked oven had little to do with the rising temperature. “What I meant to say is…”
Emily clapped her hands. “A poet is amongst us! Your list of titles grows longer.”
Scott’s embarrassment fell away to an appreciation of his audience’s forgiving sense of humor. “I can’t take credit for that lyrical masterpiece.” A blue mixing bowl with a white handle stood out from the others on the pastry table. “Winnifred McLoughlin lays claim as the influential author.”
“A woman of influence from your past! I’d like to hear more.”
“Ah, Scotty-Garrett. Go on and tell the lass about me Jameson hidden behind a bowl in the pantry. And while yer at it, be that young lad in me kitchen again and have some fun.”
As pans were gathered, greased and dusted, Winnie McLoughlin’s advice set the stage. Retelling childhood stories as flour measured and sugar sprinkled transformed Scott back to his boyhood expertise of impressing the fair maiden. Eggs became burlesque juggling balls during the tale of the Howard Theatre caper, with a one-handed egg crack serving as the story’s grand finale. The fine art of spoon tossing introduced the mixing of cake batter. Hitting the bowl dead center, the perfectly executed catapult was awarded with an enthusiastic round of applause. Sweeping his arm out for a bow, Scott realized how silly the shenanigans of a young boy could be when influenced by a pretty girl. He had to admit, silly felt pretty damn good.
Scott’s pocket watch ticked off the required minutes of baking while comforting aromas of a yellow cake pushed aside the last hints of dinner guest entrees. Humorous reminiscing soon replaced adolescent antics.
“Every morning she made me look out the window and answer what had the Good Lord blessed me with today.” Scott spoke affectionately of Winnie’s customary query. “Considering it was Boston, my response was usually rain or snow. Once, I made the mistake of pointing out the redundancy of the Good Lord’s Blessed Weather Report due to God forgetting where he’d put the sun.”
Emily’s laughter, sincere and genuine, danced about the kitchen with Winnifred McLoughlin’s spirit. “And how did she respond to your fresh-mouthed rapscallion observation?”
“Let’s just say each night for the next week the Good Lord blessed me with stacks of dirty dishes to wash.”
Light-hearted tales of skipping stones, buried treasure and hidden Jameson bottles eventually stepped aside for more thoughtful recollections of a dear friend who role-modeled not power and wealth, but respect and gratitude - the attributes of a decent human being.
“Winnie kept me balanced.” Scott smiled, paused and then offered an apology. “I’ve been rambling. Forgive me.”
“Nonsense. You’re a fascinating man, Mr. Lancer and I have enjoyed every word.”
“Yes, but now this sharing of our past is rather lop-sided and needs corrected.” Picking up the wine bottle, Scott refilled glasses. “Let’s start with where you grew up.” Eyes narrowed as a guess formulated with a grin. “Your vowels are telling me… Philadelphia. No, wait. New York City.”
“Ah, a Linguistic Detective hat now graces your head.” Emily slowly nodded affirmation. “Yes. New York City.”
“And what brought you west, Miss Browning?”
“The Mercy Train.”
Scott’s smile dissolved. Mercy Train. Baby Train. Orphan Train. The references varied, but all meant the same. Emily Browning had been one of the many thousands of New York City’s abandoned, orphaned children transported to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. Scott and Kinsey’s privileged lives were in sharp contrast to that of Emily's uncertain daily existence as a child.
“If I detect one glint of pity in those blue eyes, Scott Lancer, my foot will be kicking your aaaaaa out the back door.” Emily’s tone left no doubt in her commitment to carry out the threat.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Scott’s soft smile returned. “Understood.” A glance at the pocket watch fended off the possibility of awkward silence. “I best rescue the cake before it’s a burnt offering.”
While yellow, spongy goodness cooled on racks, milk and butter transformed cocoa and sugar into sweet, chocolate frosting with only a moment of disagreement between the cooks.
Emily tsked. “Only one teaspoon of vanilla.”
“Two.” Scott held up fingers to confirm the number.
“That’s one teaspoon too many.”
“Who’s wearing the ridiculous hat?”
“Then the vanilla stands firm on two.”
Sipped wine emptied glasses as dark icing covered golden cake. Spreading out the last of the frosting, Scott stepped back and admired his creation. It sure as hell wouldn’t win a blue ribbon at the county fair, but a passable effort nonetheless. “I present to you, Miss Browning, Gâteau de Lancer.”
Circling the cake, the Arcade chef took her time judging the dessert. “Frosting appears smooth, not sugary or fatty in appearance.” Two pieces of cake were sliced and placed on china plates. “Hmmmm. No crumbling, which signals a moist texture. Very good. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
Crossing his arms, Scott leaned against the table as Emily held up a fork with dramatic flair. Grinning, he watched the young lady’s theatrics continue with her exaggerated bite of cake, followed by smacking lips and an eye roll. “What’s the verdict?”
“Well, sir, permit me to be blunt.” Emily’s frown strained against a giggle. “I shall be adding two teaspoons of vanilla to my frosting from this day forward.”
Freshly washed pans and bowls were returned to their proper shelves while coffee brewed to accompany the pieces of cake. Respecting the young lady’s privacy, there was no further mention of New York City. Instead, Scott directed the conversation to the present as their desserts disappeared.
“Miss Browning, I’d be honored if you’d join me for dinner some evening.”
“I would certainly entertain the suggestion as long as it didn’t involve roast beef sandwiches.” As Emily plopped the last of the cake into her mouth, a smattering of chocolate frosting smeared her lower lip.
“By God, Lancer. If that isn’t a kissable mouth then you don’t know a Boston clam from a Georgia peach.”
I’m well aware of the difference, George. Taking his napkin, Scott offered it to the young lady sitting across from him. “If you prefer to lick your lips, I would consider it a compliment to my frosting.”
“Oh!” A grateful hand snatched the cloth and wiped away the dark icing. Redirection took hold. “Unfortunately, I’m committed to a dinner engagement tomorrow evening. I hope the length of your stay will permit another opportunity.”
“Truth be told, I too have a dinner commitment tomorrow. Although, I’m guessing it to be more work than relaxation, which will no doubt lead to indigestion. I’d beg out but the hostess adamantly stated she’d take no denial.”
The corners of Emily’s free-from-frosting mouth curved upward. “Say that again... regarding the hostess.”
“She’d take no denial.”
Emily rose and removed her coat from a nearby wall hook. Fishing in its pocket, she retrieved an envelope and placed it on the table. “I shall take no denial.” Two sets of eyes settled on a red wax seal embossed with an ornate capital S. “It appears, Mr. Lancer, our stars are slowly aligning.”
Scott smiled. “Please permit me to walk you home, Miss Browning. I’d like to further discuss your views on the full potential of the universe.”