Authors: Lorna Seilstad
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #FIC042040, #FIC042030, #FIC027050, #Sisters—Fiction
Kathleen sashayed over to Charlotte’s area with a heavy skillet in one hand and a dish towel in the other. “I see you got a soufflé in the oven. Courageous, don’t you think?”
“I think all good cooks need to be a little adventurous.” Charlotte set her mixing bowl in one of the room’s two sinks. “What did you make, Kathleen?”
“My great-grandmother’s famous chicken pot pie.” She licked her lips. “Rumor has it she served it to the Indians and saved her family. No one has ever been able to resist it.”
Pushing up her sleeves, Charlotte set to washing her dishes. “It must be delicious.”
“Hmm. Speaking of delicious, look at the man who just walked in.”
Charlotte lifted the heavy pottery mixing bowl from the water and followed Kathleen’s gaze. She sucked in her breath. The bowl dropped from her hands, crashed to the floor, and shattered.
“Oh no! My soufflé!”
Joel pushed through the crowd and hurried toward Charlotte. He knelt beside her and took hold of her wrist. “Let me clean this up. Go check your food.”
She blinked. “Why are you here? Are Hannah and the baby okay?”
“Of course, but I needed to see if you were as good as you claimed.” He released her wrist and picked up the largest chunks of pottery. “Your sister has been singing your praises.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m sure my soufflé fell because of the crash.” She reached for some shards.
He took the shard from her hand, wrapped his fingers around hers, and pulled her to her feet. “Maybe it’s fine. You might as well go find out.”
She nodded. Her head hung a bit as she walked away. Cooking clearly meant a lot to her. He grabbed the other large pieces and deposited them in a trash bin before a man with a large mustache and an official-looking badge said he’d have one of his workers come sweep up the rest.
Joel leaned against the sink and watched Charlotte crack open the oven. A smile lit her face, relief flooding her features.
She turned her smile in his direction. He nodded and slipped back into the crowd. The last thing he wanted to do was give her the wrong impression of why he’d come here today. Curiosity alone had propelled him to come watch the finals of this contest.
He glanced her way again. He had to admit, she sure had a beautiful smile.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . .” The mustached man’s voice rose over the din of the room. “Our contest ends shortly, so before they begin their final round of judging, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to our esteemed judges.” Three men entered from a room on the side. “Please show your appreciation for Mr. Edward Miller, representing the Saint Paul Bread Company, Chef Geoffrey Reisen from Carling’s Restaurant, and last but certainly not least, Chef Boucher from the Saint Paul Hotel restaurant.”
Wasn’t he the same chef with whom Charlotte had had words?
He looked back in her section, but she was nowhere to be seen. Where was she? When he spotted her peering between tins of Baker’s Best Cocoa and Nabisco biscuits on the pantry shelf, he bit back a chuckle.
Could the plucky Miss Gregory be hiding?
Charlotte held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut. If Chef Boucher spotted her, her chances of winning would be over. Why did he have to be one of the judges?
“Would you gentlemen like to say anything to our contestants?”
Chef Boucher stepped forward. “All you ladies will make your husbands exceedingly happy—and possibly quite fat.”
Laughter rippled through the crowd, but his words kicked at Charlotte. How could he say something like that? No matter how well she did today, at least in Chef Boucher’s eyes she would only be fit to serve food to her family in her own kitchen. If all the other restaurant owners and chefs felt the same way, would she ever realize her dream?
She glanced at Tessa and recalled the day she and her sisters pledged to support one another in achieving their dreams. Since then, Hannah had been able to finish her schooling and join the
ranks of the few female attorneys in the country. Every time she stepped into the courtroom, she fought the prejudice of her peers.
But Hannah had always been a fighter. Standing up to life’s injustices came easily to her. She’d often quoted their father, who once said, “If you don’t like something, then you should either be quiet about it or be willing to do something to change it.”
Was Charlotte truly prepared to do something to change this view of women? With another look at her younger sister, she stepped out of her hiding place. Even if it meant facing Chef Boucher again, she’d fight for her dreams. She’d fight because she wanted things to change. She’d fight so Tessa wouldn’t have to fight so hard. She’d show Chef Boucher that he’d made a mistake in turning her down, and he’d soon see that someday she’d be in charge of the biggest restaurant in the city.
Chef Boucher turned her way. Like the whipped peaks of the egg whites in her soufflé, Charlotte froze. Did he recognize her?
Mr. Johnson returned to his place. “Now, if our judges will return to their room, our contestants can prepare their main dishes for the final round of scoring.” When Chef Boucher paused, Mr. Johnson swept his arm toward the room. After the judges had gone, he took out his pocket watch and turned to the women. “Ladies, one of our volunteers will be around in five minutes to take your main dish in to the judges. You must have it ready to go as you’d like it served.”
Charlotte bit her lip. Her soufflé needed every minute. The longer she left it in the oven, the better it would remain puffed, but she had to have it out before the five-minute mark.
She watched the clock tick by. Beside her, Kathleen bustled around, placing heaping servings on three plates. Across from her, Mrs. Gustason laid a piece of golden fried chicken on each plate beside a perfect mound of mashed potatoes ladled with creamy gravy. Was Charlotte’s plan of serving the entire soufflé to the judges a mistake?
Unable to wait another second, she opened the oven door and a gust of warm air hit her face. Using two thick towels, she removed the soufflé from the oven and set it on her work counter.
“Time is up!” Mr. Johnson shouted. “Ladies, step away from your work area.”
Tremors of joy coursed through Charlotte. If she wasn’t carrying a trophy, a gift basket, and a Bissell carpet sweeper, she might skip her way to the motorcar. So much for being a queen.
“It wouldn’t hurt you to carry the trophy a few minutes, Tessa.”
“Be glad they aren’t going to make you carry your new gas range home.”
The spectators and other contestants crowded the sidewalk. The gas company’s display room was more crowded than Charlotte had realized.
“Congratulations!” The judge from the baking company fell in step beside Charlotte. “Serving your soufflé in all its golden glory was a stroke of genius. I’m so glad you didn’t put it on separate plates, and it was delicious, by the way. Chef Reisen was especially impressed.”
A warm glow burned in Charlotte’s chest. “Thank you.”
It seemed as if everyone—that is, everyone except Kathleen—wished Charlotte well, and she responded with a sincere thank-you to each of them.
Tessa skipped ahead, then whirled to face her. “Aunt Sam sent her driver to pick us up. She said he’ll be on the corner. Aren’t you excited to get back and show her?”
Charlotte stopped to reposition her goods. “If I ever get there, I will be.”
“Need some help?” Someone stepped up beside her and reached for the trophy.
“I can handle—” Charlotte sucked in her breath when she realized who was standing beside her. Dr. Joel Brooks gently tugged the trophy, and she released it, followed by the Bissell sweeper.
“Thank you. Some people aren’t as inclined to lend a hand.” She looked directly at Tessa.
Tessa shrugged. “You’re the newly crowned queen of cookery, and no one said anything about me serving in your court.”
“Yes, congratulations are in order.” Dr. Brooks swung the trophy across his waist and bowed. “Well done, Your Highness.”
Heat warmed Charlotte’s face and neck. How different the doctor was now from when she’d met him in his office. Why? She couldn’t place it at first, but it had to be the smile—an alarmingly dangerous smile.
She touched her collar. “I’m simply praying this win will open a door to cook at one of the city’s fine restaurants.”
“I saw the face of the Saint Paul Hotel’s chef when you stepped forward.” A teasing glint sparkled in Dr. Brooks’s eye. “I don’t think you’re on his list of favorite people.”
“No, I have a feeling he’s still not interested in my services.” Charlotte laughed. “I’m just lucky he wasn’t holding a butcher knife.” They reached Aunt Sam’s automobile and the driver took her basket.
Dr. Brooks deposited the sweeper in the backseat. “I did a little checking, and apparently the hotel’s management is watching the cleanliness of his kitchen much more closely now.”
“For the community’s health.”
“Of course.” Charlotte tore her gaze away from his green eyes and his alarming smile.
Tessa hopped in the automobile and slammed her door. “Are you coming, Lottie? We’ve got news to share!”
Charlotte took the trophy from Dr. Brooks’s arms. “Thank you for your help. I’m sure I’ll see you at the hospital.”
“Actually, your sister and your niece are going home tomorrow.” His Adam’s apple bobbed beneath a dimpled chin. “But I’m sure we’ll run into one another.”
“Yes, we still need to discuss the hospital’s food service.”
His back stiffened. “Good day, Miss Gregory, and congratulations on your win.”
The driver opened her door as soon as the doctor turned to go. She pressed one shoe to the running board but stopped when she spotted Chef Reisen from Carling’s Restaurant. Today would be the perfect day to speak to him about securing a position.
“I’ll be right back,” she told Tessa before scurrying past Dr. Brooks and crossing the street. She stepped in front of the contest judge, and he came to an abrupt halt. “Excuse me, Chef Reisen, but I was hoping to speak to you.”
His smile widened. “Ah, you are the talented young homemaker who took the prize. Congratulations. Your soufflé was perfect—fluffy and delicious.”
“I’m glad you feel that way, but sir, I am not a homemaker, nor do I wish to be one.”
His eyes narrowed and his brows drew to a V. “No?”
“I was trained at Fannie Farmer’s School of Cookery. We learned about scientific cookery and all its components, and in light of the contest today, I’m hoping you might be interested in my services in your kitchen.”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid we have all the servers we need.”
“I’m not interested in being a server. I would like a position in your kitchen—cooking.”
“You want to cook in
kitchen?” His voice boomed against the brick and mortar building. A full-bellied laugh rumbled in his chest and rolled out. “Go home, little cook. Find a husband who
will enjoy your soufflés, and make delicious cakes and cookies for your babies. You don’t belong in a real kitchen. No woman does.”
“But Chef Reisen, even New York’s Women’s Club has a female chef.”
“A women’s club?” He rolled his eyes, and with a dismissive wave of his hand he walked away.
Charlotte fought for a breath, but her corset seemed to tighten on its own. Hot tears filled her eyes. He was her last chance. If he could turn her down after tasting her food, how would she ever secure a position?
The sidewalk rippled before her and she pressed a hand to her chest.
Vapors? Now? For the first time in her life? She couldn’t faint right here on the sidewalk. She leaned against the storefront and slid down onto the window ledge.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
She looked up into concerned green eyes.
Really, Lord, wasn’t Chef
Reisen’s laughter enough? Do I need to be completely
Dr. Joel Brooks knelt before her. “Miss Gregory, do you need to loosen your corset?”
Oh dear. Where was the nearest pickle barrel to crawl into?
Charlotte lay back on the davenport and tried to relax.
Why did Aunt Sam have to make such a fuss over her? Worse, why did Tessa insist on sharing everything that happened in vivid color?
“And then Dr. Handsome helped her all the way back to the automobile and told me to take her home and see to it she eats a good meal and rests the remainder of the day.” Tessa feigned a swoon onto the back of the settee. “It was so romantic.”
“Tessa, it was not romantic!” Charlotte yanked the cold cloth from her forehead and heaved it at her sister. “Besides, Aunt Sam doesn’t want to know every detail.”
“Quite the contrary. I’d like to hear all about it.” Aunt Sam removed the pin from her suffrage sash, folded the wide ribbon, and set it on the marble-topped table beside her chair. Her eyebrow arched in Tessa’s direction. “However, I’d like to hear about it from Charlotte. After all, it is her story to tell. I myself enjoyed a lovely morning in front of the capitol with my banner held high with my suffrage sisters.” She glanced at the empty plates and cups on the coffee table. “It appears you’ve at least followed some of the good doctor’s prescriptive. Now, tell me about the competition. Is that your trophy?”
Charlotte sat up and passed her the heavy silver cup. Aunt Sam grasped its heart-shaped handles. The trophy’s reflection caught the light of the afternoon sun drenching the room.
“My, it’s lovely.” Aunt Sam rubbed a fingerprint from the cup’s surface with her sleeve. “I’m so proud of you I’m about to burst. Soon the restaurants will be fighting over you.”
“I wish that were true.” Charlotte relayed the details of the day, from the burner being turned off by Kathleen, to the lack of mushrooms, to seeing Chef Boucher and fearing all was lost. She omitted the part about dropping the bowl and Dr. Brooks’s sudden appearance. To her relief, Tessa didn’t seem to notice the part she’d skipped in her retelling.
Tessa poured a cup of tea. “And after she won, a newspaperman interviewed her.”
Aunt Sam set the trophy on the mantel. “But how did you come to meet up with Dr. Brooks?”
Tessa giggled. “He was there watching her the whole time.”
Charlotte fired a glare at her sister. “He wasn’t there watching
. He was there watching the conclusion of the competition.”
“He made a point to congratulate you afterward, and he carried the trophy and the sweeper to the automobile for you. Think about it. Would a man carry your sweeper if he wasn’t interested in you?”
“Tessa, your imagination knows no bounds.” Aunt Sam poured
herself a cup of tea. “Did you grow faint on the way to the automobile?”
“Heavens, no.” Charlotte felt heat creep up her neck. “Can we forget that even happened? It’s so embarrassing. I simply skipped breakfast in all my excitement, and then with the interview and all, it was well past lunch.”
“Was your corset too tight?” A glint sparkled in Tessa’s eyes.
Aunt Sam laughed. “Ignore her. Think about your victory.”
Charlotte walked to the mantel. She laid her hand on the trophy. “But as wonderful as that is, I fear this win will not yield me a position.” She explained how Chef Reisen had dismissed her without seriously considering her request. “He knows I can cook, but he still turned me down.”
“But surely there are other fine establishments.”
“I’ve exhausted nearly every one in this city. I could start contacting those in Minneapolis. Of course, I would have to move there if I were to find a placement.” She turned toward Aunt Sam and forced a smile. “I’d hate to leave you, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Aunt Sam shook her head. “Let’s not be too hasty. God may have another plan already in place.”
“And Lottie . . .” Tessa giggled. “If you’re lucky, maybe it’ll involve Dr. Handsome.”
After parking his Model T touring automobile, Joel removed his doctor’s bag from the back, opened the clasp, and smiled. The children would be thrilled by
Anne of Green Gables
and the two picture books he’d picked up for their meager library. If only he could do more for these kids. He knew all too well what it was like to have less than everyone else.
He took the small orphanage’s steps two at a time and knocked on the door.
Sweet, dimpled Alice Ann opened the door and wrapped her arms around his legs. “Dr. Joel!”