A Muse Bouche Review: January 2024

The Art, and Science, of Cooking

Dear Readers,


Welcome to our first edition of 2014. The theme is cooking and we have a spread of things, including, coincidentally, two meals made in one of those tiny kitchen one often finds in a New York City apartment. Indeed, we have stories of seduction-through-cooking.


The A Muse Bouche Review Team

Featured: The Onion Tart (Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
A Taste for Music (Louise Sorensen) Fiction
A Sugary Kiss (Renée Gendron) Fiction
A Dish Most Rare (David M. Simon) Fiction
Risotto (Heather Serrano) Fiction
Another Mistake? (Joseph P. Garland) Fiction

January Team Showcase


 A Sugary Kiss

Renee Gendron (@ReneeGendron)

A tight band of tension stretched across Céline Archambeault’s forehead, around her temples and wrapped around to the back of her head. With each breath, the tension grew tighter and her view of her computer screen fuzzier.

She poured her seventh cup of espresso of the day, then thought better of it. Another jolt of caffeine might give her a stroke. She reached for the bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol, popped two, then grabbed her bottle of carbonated water and took a healthy swig.

The numbers on the Excel table on her laptop blurred. The meeting with the company’s top client had run an hour over schedule, and Céline had three more weeks of account reconciliation to do before running errands and heading home.

She rubbed her temple, took another sip of water, and compared invoices with entries.

Two colleagues walked down the hallway, waved at her, and continued.

Céline returned her attention to the screen, and the pain in her forehead turned blinding. She ignored the uptick in unread emails on her toolbar. Those were tomorrow’s problems.

Someone in the cleaning crew turned on the industrial vacuum cleaner, and a man in a dark blue overall cleaned the windows in the hallway.

Céline’s phone beeped, and she checked the message from her husband.

Text from Simon: Need all-purpose flour, eggs, and white chocolate chips

Text from Céline: k

Céline finished her work, double-checked it, then put in her numbers for the year-end report. She rose, placed both hands on her lower back, and stretched. Something popped, and two other things cracked. She collected her purse, turned her office light off, headed for the elevator, and smiled at the night janitor.

The elevator doors opened with a ping, and she stepped into them, taking the longest two-storey elevator ride in her life.

Her ankles hurt. Her lower back was stiff and sore and in need of a one-hour hot stone massage. The tight band around her head had graduated to a steel vice, squeezing her skull.

The elevator lurched to a halt, and she almost vomited. She needed to lie down somewhere dark and quiet for the rest of her life.

She dragged herself to her car at the far end of the parking lot, threw her purse into the passenger seat and drove to the shopping centre to pick up some last-minute Christmas gifts.

Stop. Go. Stop. Go. Stop. Stop. Go.

So much for widened highways with smart technology to help steer drivers clear of traffic jams. The entire city was a parking lot, letting only one or two people drive to freedom.

Go. Go. Stop. Stop. Go. Park.

At the far end of the parking lot, where no streetlight illuminated and no plough had passed, Céline steered her car into the last parking spot. She stepped out of her car, trudged to the store, and elbowed her way through the throng of shoppers looking for last-minute deals and almost-forgot-to-buy gifts.

Céline picked out a silver tea set for her cousin—the one who adored British historical fiction shows and refused to serve anything but tea and scones and cucumber sandwiches—and waited in line to pay. Her phone buzzed with another message from Simon.

Text from Simon: need more wrapping paper

Text from Céline: k

Cheerfully irritating Christmas music played on the store’s speakers, creating a soundtrack to Céline’s headache. She joined the snaking line of customers waiting to pay, grabbed a roll of wrapping paper from the display next to the cashier, paid for her items and left.

A light snow fell, its large snowflakes tumbling from the sky without care or haste, covering everything with a wet blanket.

She slipped on her way back to her car, almost dropping the tea set. She waved her foot under the rear bumper, and the trunk opened. She placed her items in it. Back in her seat, she backed out of her parking spot, but the traffic to get out of the lot cost her two minutes.

Her next stop was the post office, but the roads were slick and the traffic heavy, and what should have been a five-minute drive turned into twenty.

Céline wanted to go home, kiss her son hello, kiss her husband, then disappear into the bathroom with a glass of expensive red wine, her audiobook and a bath so full of bubbles it belonged in a cartoon.

The car ahead of her inched forward, and Céline eased her foot off the brake and rolled forward.

Roll. Stop. Roll. Stop. Roll. Slam on the brakes because someone wanted to jam their SUV in front of her.

Céline‘s Christmas season generosity didn’t extend that far, and she steered her car ahead of the SUV. She had let in two previous cars, and now it was her turn to advance.

Obey the rules, jerk.

In the post office parking lot, she found the third to last parking space and stepped out, slipping on the coat of snow. She righted herself, then walked into the post office.

The longest line in the history of the postal service stood before her. Every person before had a variation of bored and tired looks. Some had AirPods in their ears. Some had their heads bent to their phones. Others looked as if convinced they were waiting for entry into Hell.

Céline took out her phone and scrolled through her messages. A string of texts between family members exchanging arrival times, travel routes, and changes in airport stopovers. The texts were all pieces of a puzzle she couldn’t solve with a blinding headache, too many errands to run in a short period, and a home she had yet to clean.

The person in front of her was served, and a flare of hope-filled Céline. She presented her parcel ticket, and the exhausted clerk went to the back and returned carrying a large box. Céline signed for it and shuffled back to her car, careful to avoid puddles and patches of ice. She placed the box in her trunk and headed to the grocery store.

The speakers spouted off-tune Christmas music that was more in keeping with torture than the festive spirit. Céline checked her grocery list in Simon’s texts, collected a basket and wove between clients and aisles and, fatigued store clerks and screaming children and abandoned shopping carts, found the items, then hustled to the express check out.

The woman in front of her had thirty items in a fifteen-item maximum lane.

The vice tightened around her skull, convincing Céline she needed to lie down on the floor and close her eyes to let the floor swallow her whole. She drew in a long breath, paid for her items, and then headed outside. The cool air offered some revitalisation, and her strategic parking allowed her a quick exit from the parking lot.

So close to home. A few gos. A few stops. Two turns, and Céline parked in her driveway next to Simon’s car. She collected the items from the trunk and entered the house from the garage entrance to not trudge snow into the front entrance.

The hearty smell of tomato sauce greeted her.

Simon stood at the kitchen island preparing ingredients for the meatballs with three-year-old Sébastian standing next to him on a stool, rolling the chopped onions and diced parsley and beef into balls. Simon glanced up, flashed a smile, then went over to her, relieved her of her items and kissed her on her cheek.

Sébastian flashed a toothy smile. She went over to him and hugged him.

Guests, dinner, household chores, and a bunch more things to do flashed in her mind. She stepped out of her uncomfortable boots, hung her coat and scarf on a peg, went to the hallway closest and took out the vacuum. She did a pass of the living room, dining room, and kitchen, then put the vacuum away. She wiped down every surface with Lysol disinfectant sheets, then dragged her exhausted body upstairs to the bathroom off the master bedroom for a shower.

The glass of the shower steamed, but the water wasn’t warm enough to ease the ache in her muscles. But friends she hadn’t seen in too long and Simon’s spaghetti sauce she hadn’t tasted in months waited for her downstairs. Dressed in a sweater that had more sequins than stitches and black trousers, she made her way downstairs to answer the ring of the front doorbell. The first guests greeted and served wine, she headed to the kitchen to pick up a tray of hors d’oeuvres.

Covered in flour with chocolate smears around his mouth, Sébastien swiped a cookie from the tray, scrambled down his two-step stepladder and held it up to her. He grinned from ear to ear, a pastry chef proud of his invention.

The kitchen was a mess. Not one clean dish, plate or bowl remained. Dirty utensils were shoved into dirty mugs, and reams upon reams of cooking parchment lay curled and burned on the edges.

Simon stood by the stove in his apron, stirring pots of something with gobs of sauce by his feet.

A disaster zone had more order.

She drew in breath, then looked at Sébastien’s hope-filled eyes and took his offered cookie. She bent down and picked up her son and planted a sugary kiss on his cheek. The rest could be cleaned, and her guests could wait. Her son had baked her a cookie, and there was no more perfect Christmas gift.

Photo by Silvia Rita on Pixabay

A Taste for Music

Louise Sorensen (@louise3anne)

She opened the oven door and checked on their last pizza.

He shuffled into the kitchen and sat at the table. Swine. Waiting to be fed. For her last act she’d like to poison him. By tomorrow she’d have something lethal to put into his food. But the powers that be wouldn’t like it. It would downgrade her chances of promotion, or if he was someone’s pet, her survival. And that of her family. No. As satisfying as it would be in the short term, she’d have to let him live. When they got home, she’d never have to see him again. She could hardly wait.

Breaking the silence, the stove dinged. The sharp peal sent a spike of pain through her temple. Who sets the volume on these things?

She didn’t startle. Hands dry, heart rock steady. She put in her earbuds. Pressed Play. “The coldest blood runs through my veins …” She could relate. From generations of selective breeding, ice-cold blood ran through her veins. It better.

Pizza done. She slid it out, left it on the top of the stove to settle for a few minutes, then cut, plated, and served it. Served it with side orders of patience, gentility, and respect. Held back dessert in the form of poison, plague, or a chop to the throat. She was undecided.

He took it with a grunt. Spoiled bastard. Partner in crime, or bodyguard? And not in a good way.

The next day, getting ready for work, and leaving this frozen rat hole forever, she was all business.

He was all business, too. Cleaned up well. Put on his mask of meek and mild. No bags packed, they’d buy something after lunch to help them pass as normal travellers. Vacationers. But their reservations were made, and she’d left her little potted trees on the balcony to freeze. A quick and merciful death. For those, she had mild regret.

Heads down and respectful on public transit, the charade continued as they walked through frigid city streets for the last time, entered the building, were blasted with a blessed shot of hot air, passed through Security, and headed into the lab.

She kept her head down, but raised her eyes and looked around through the fringe of her bangs. Everyone was calm. Her fellow countrymen told a few jokes. Her people had become sheeple. They’d adapted. Loved the new country, cold as it was, and become sheeple. Her lip curled.

Coffee and donuts. Abysmal security. A foolish practice in a lab full of deadly pathogens. Everyone getting down to their tasks. Earnest. For the most part, honest. Accepting. Live and let live. Pathetic.

Arm yourself with the perfect education and you were hired instantly. Throw in a dash of woe and oppression and they practically sprinkled the way with gold for you.

Such simple, trusting people.

How did they even get out of bed in the morning?

And what did they have that she could possibly want?

Not a thing. Well maybe one thing. Freedom.

They didn’t have to do what she did to keep their families safe.

And music. She adjusted her earbuds to shut out the world, started her usual tasks, and waited for the rhythm of the lab to begin.

Start the centrifuge. Boil the water. Stir in the agar. Wait till it cooled. Pour it into Petrie dishes. Put on disposable gloves. Apply the pathogens. All that was required was a swipe. She was tempted to leave a smear of each at her station, but that would be damning. It might get them caught before they were free and clear. Another time perhaps.

There was no need to do anything with agar in Petrie dishes in normal lab work besides check on it and read it, so to slice into her two grown samples, she released the scalpels secreted up her sleeve. Seeing this, he sidled up to her and started speaking quietly. The music flowing into her ears rose to a crescendo, and she couldn’t hear what he was saying. Just as well. The melody slid into the minor key. Prowling panther. She almost purred.

From their warm bath in the incubator, she removed the pair of Petrie dishes she’d prepared a few days earlier, and sliced off thin slabs of colourful bacterial growth. With utmost care, and her partner behind covering her actions, she slid them into small individual plastic bags, pulled down the front of the ridiculous white lab coat they insisted everyone wear, eased open her sweater, and placed one bag into each side of her bra. Luckily, she had room for a little padding, without looking like a degenerate.

She closed her sweater and patted the packs into place. Gently. There’s no way she wanted those particular prizes ever touching her skin. Recipe for disaster. She walked the scalpels over to the autoclave, laid them in, and started a cycle. Removed the gloves. Sanitized her hands.

Although what was the worst that could happen? You only die once. Hands dry, heart chugging along calmly. Blood cold. She loved not being able to worry. Thank you, Mom, Dad, Homeland.

Most people wasted so much energy on emotion.

The air in the lab was stuffy. Sweat, excitement, for the usual weekend game probably, and the stench of warm agar. A beefy smell. She’d never get used to it. If she never saw another research lab, it would be too soon.

With time to kill before lunch and their getaway, she typed up a report. Detailed, meticulous, bland, calm, scientific. No one could ever criticize her work. Like everything else she did, she excelled at it. It was a point of pride.

Lunch rolled around in no time, and he and she tidied up their stations as they always did, kept their heads down as they always did, put on their winter coats, and left the building.

At no time did they speak to each other. It would have been out of character, even though they were registered as husband and wife. As if she would marry someone of his calibre. She stifled a snort.

They went shopping. She looked at the world and wanted it all. But they bought only two carryalls, bathing suits, and a few cosmetics you couldn’t get at home. They had a quick snack at a ubiquitous donut place and removed the tags of their purchases in the washrooms. Took a cab to the airport. Passed through Security.

There was no scrutinizing their IDs. No body searches. No grabbing a person out of line, no taking them to a private room and interrogating them. No beatings. No truth drugs. Her heart rate had almost gone up. No point. Piece of cake. She almost shook her head.

Such simple trusting people. Candy from babies. Why spend time and money on research when it was so easy to steal?

Oh oh. Someone two places ahead in the line was giving the guard a hard time. They pushed their passport right into his face and started yelling. A brace of guards appeared out of nowhere and pushed through the line, jostling her. She felt a hand on her breast as they went by. Was that an accident? Or on purpose? Were they discovered? Betrayed? Was the mission not to bring back pathogens for their labs, but to disperse them right here and die with the rest of the country?

The surly passenger was extracted screaming from the line, the guards retreated with their catch, and he and she passed through without a problem.

The plane ride was choppy. They ran into turbulence.

After one particularly violent twist, she heard a thunk, and a vital piece fell off the plane.

The plane plummeted. Oh, dear god, what now?

Generations of murderers and smugglers and … survivors, looked down upon her and dared her to scream. A cold sheen broke out on her brow. Had they been betrayed? Replaced? Death would be so painful? Final?  Inconvenient.

The plane oscillated forever. Up and down, up and down. She gripped the arms of her seat so hard her fingers went numb. Kept her expression neutral. Would not let a scream escape.

Snippets of the songs she loved rang through her head. She concentrated on the music. Slowed her heart. Maybe it would stop before they crashed.

Then gradually, the up and down of the flight smoothed out and the pilot regained control. They made an emergency landing.

Her hands were dry. Her heart calm. Her blood cold. Ice cold.

Everyone clapped. After a few seconds, he and she joined in the applause. Blending in. That’s what you do. No drama. No panic. Just calm. Cool. Cold.

Apologies. New plane. Next stop, home.

Landing. Smooth. A good plane and pilot this time.

When she saw the dragon gates come into view, she smiled and allowed herself a little pat on the back.

Nobody does it better.

Image credit: Shutterstock

A Dish Most Rare

David M. Simon (@writesdraws)

My Chef de Cuisine called me into his office at the end of the night, which wasn’t unusual in and of itself. I’ve been his Sous Chef for nearly two years, and he often wants to discuss how that evening’s dinner service went—if one of the minor celebrities who called our small but bougie mountain town home had been in attendance and if their meal had pleased them; what worked and, God forbid, what didn’t; which kitchen staff were slacking and which were grinding; whether the saucier was still banging the garde manger. Shit like that. Chef wasn’t above a little kitchen gossip.

This was something different. For one thing he asked me to close the door behind me, which he rarely does. He also had an open bottle of Michter’s Single Barrel on his desk, along with a half-full tumbler, also rare for him. Chef’s not much of a drinker.

He got right to it. “I’ve been asked to prepare a very special meal for a group of very rich, very influential people. This is no shit, top secret stuff. I’m allowed to bring along one assistant, and I’d like that to be you. Thing is, I only know the bare minimum necessary to prepare—we’ll be cooking a rare and unusual protein, with every luxury ingredient at our fingertips to accompany it—and that’s all you, we, can know.”

“Let me guess, if they told us, they’d have to kill us.” I thought I was being funny. Not so much, apparently.

Chef glared the smile right off my face. “Lee, I need to know if you’re in or out. Now. These people don’t fuck around, and they’re waiting on my call for who I’ve chosen as my assistant, so you can be vetted. You’d have to sign an absolutely terrifying NDA, and yeah, if you tell anyone about it afterwards, I think they’ll kill you. On the plus side, the gig pays a hundred thousand dollars.”

What the hell, I was intrigued, and the money certainly didn’t hurt. I had culinary school loans to pay off. “I’m in.”

*    *    *    *

“Well, you were right, Chef. These people don’t fuck around.” We’d been flown by private jet to LAX, just the two of us and several guys dressed in dark suits with ear-pieces and suspicious bulges at their hips. They were not chatty.

Now we were in a house somewhere high in the Santa Monica Mountains. The place looked like the lair of a James Bond villain, nothing but acres of glass and metal, the lights of L.A. spread out far below. The kitchen was roughly the size of my apartment, with equipment that put even the restaurant we worked at to shame. Chef and I quickly familiarized ourselves with the setup. Between the pantry and the walk-in, we had what we needed to cook a feast fit for…well, whoever we were cooking a feast for. Three four-tops, set with crisp white linen tablecloths and expensive looking place settings, had been set up in a semi circle around our work station.

While Chef and I sharpened our knives and did what we could to prepare given the lack of information, the men in black continued to not be chatty.

Double doors opened at the rear of the room, and the participants began to trickle in on a wave of the kind of quiet confidence that comes from power, champagne flutes in hand. I quickly realized why the NDA I had signed was so brutal. I didn’t recognized everyone, but the ones I did—America’s favorite Oscar-winning actress, a singer regularly parked at the top of the charts, a disgraced former astronaut, several congressmen, a couple of billionaire tech bros, and at least one foreign head of state—told me everything I needed to know about the rest.

As they took their seats, a man sauntered into the kitchen from the service entrance we had used. He wore broken-in jeans, a vintage Nirvana t-shirt, and equally vintage Chuck Taylors, but he carried himself like he was wearing a tuxedo. He shook hands with Chef and I, thanked us warmly for coming with a downright boyish smile, then turned to face his guests. The group immediately quieted down. Whoever he was, he had their full attention.

His voice, when he spoke, was as relaxed as his attire. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for joining me in this once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience. As usual, you all have spent a great deal of money—” Chuckles rippled through the crowd at this, as if to say, nah, all good, it really wasn’t that much—“without knowing exactly what culinary adventure you were signing up for. I’m sorry for the secrecy, but I think you’ll understand why in a moment. I hope, given our previous exotic events, I have earned your trust. I believe this evening’s repast will not disappoint.” He raised his voice and called out, “General, we’re ready for you.”

The double doors opened again, and a military officer straight out of central casting strode into the room, followed by two uniformed soldiers carrying a large, high-end Yeti cooler between them. It was a little weird that I didn’t recognize which branch of service the uniforms represented, but they looked legit. The general’s chest bristled with enough hardware to build a scale model of the Serenity, and all three of them sported high and tight haircuts and ramrod straight posture. The soldiers placed the cooler on the floor, saluted the general, and quickly exited the room.

The general stood at parade rest, hands behind his back, and without preamble, without introduction, addressed the room. “Approximately fifteen years ago, an Air Force reconnaissance aircraft flying over a state in the American southwest encountered a UAP, and through aggressive aerial maneuvers was eventually able to force it to ground. Upon entering the spacecraft, they discovered a crew of thirteen extraterrestrials. The aliens were taken into custody without incident, and since that time have been held in a secure facility—no, before any of you ask, not at Area 51.” The general laughed at that, although it sounded more like two sheets of sandpaper scraping together.

“Although all attempts at communication have failed—they don’t even seem to communicate with each other—through trial and error we discovered they could tolerate, even thrive, on a diet of grain and vegetables. With that knowledge we’ve managed to keep them alive and more or less healthy, as far as we can tell. Until three days ago, when one of them died.

“According to military protocol, the body of the alien should have been incinerated. But your host and I happen to benefit from a mutually agreeable business arrangement, and we both felt that doing so would be a wasted opportunity.”

I may not be the sharpest knife in the leather roll, but I was starting to smell what the general was cooking. I looked at Chef with what I’m sure was abject horror. He shook his head and rubbed the fingers and thumb of one hand together in the universal sign for money. His way of telling me to suck it up, we were there to do a job.

The general turned to us, gestured to the cooler, and said, “You’re on, boys.”

Chef smiled, although it was the same smile he uses when one of our local politicians demands a table without a reservation. “That’s our cue, Lee. Let’s see what we’re working with.”

What we were working with, once we opened the cooler, was a holy-shit-no-fucking-way-honest-to-God alien. It was the size of a small suckling pig, with eight legs that ended in four-digit appendages. It was covered end to end with short, wiry hair the color of a yellow Starburst. It had no discernible head or face.

“Right,” Chef said. “Let’s get it up on the cutting board. Grab the le—grab two legs.” We pulled it from the cooler and heaved it up onto the board. The diners stood and erupted in applause when they saw the body, which to be honest turned my stomach.

Chef stared at it for several seconds, then chose his knife from the roll and quickly sharpened it. Before becoming Chef de Cuisine, he spent several years as a butcher in one of Chicago’s most celebrated kitchens, and even now he still likes to get his hands bloody.

Chef went to work. As always, I was transfixed by his skill. He expertly skinned it, removing the bright yellow pelt in one piece, which earned him another round of applause. The naked flesh was a pale sage green, so I wasn’t surprised when he began to break down the body into various cuts and the blood that trickled out was an almost fluorescent chartreuse. There were lumpy bundles of organs where you wouldn’t expect them to be, and long, tangled webs of stringy, striated something or other that Chef had to trim away with a boning knife. Who the hell knows. “I think we’re going to shitcan the organs and whatever that is, and stick with the meat,” Chef said to me quietly.

“Yeah, probably a good call. What are you thinking?” I asked.

“Well, it looks a little bit like a pig, if pigs were green and had eight legs and no head. Let’s do a take on our brown sugar garlic butter roast pork, roasted white asparagus with herbes de Provence, fried stuffed squash blossoms…and macaroni and cheese, because everyone loves macaroni and cheese.”

“Finish with a green tea créme brulee?” I asked.

“I’m going to make a chef out of you yet. Yes. Let’s do this.”

 We may have been cooking with a protein never before used, but these were recipes we made six days a week. The smell, when meat met heat, was…interesting. Not off putting, exactly, but definitely different.

We worked quickly, efficiently, in perfect sync. I’ve heard a well-running kitchen described as a pas de deux, but to me it’s more like a headbanging metal show—Chef shredding on guitar, me holding down the bottom on bass. Whatever metaphor you choose, when we put down our towels and stepped back, there were a dozen gorgeous plates lined up on the pass. The meal may have been an abomination, but it was an abomination worthy of a Bon Appétit cover.

While we cleaned and put away our knives, a trio of impeccably uniformed servers swooped in and delivered the plates to the oohing and ahhing group. Chef and I had not tasted the alien meat—we’d been told beforehand that the secret protein was for the guests only, under penalty left to our imaginations—so I was looking forward to seeing the reaction of the diners. It was not to be, however. The men in black hustled us out the service entrance to a waiting car.

Before the car door slammed, I swear I heard screams. And I can’t be certain, but I don’t think I ever saw any of the diners in public again. America’s favorite Oscar-winning actress never made another movie.

Luckily an NDA works both ways.


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay


Heather Serrano (@Serrano3H)

This is an excerpt from the author’s Five Days in May, a work in progress. It is set in the Manhattan apartment of Mimi, who the world expects will be engaged to Roger by her fortieth birthday, in less than a week’s time.

At 5:30, Mimi was in her kitchen unpacking her groceries—chicken breasts for piccata, lemons, risotto, garlic, asparagus, wine, and crusty bread—as she listened to Roger’s message.

{“Hi, wondering how my girl is doing today. I have been stuck in another day of meetings, all through lunch with the typical soggy sandwiches. Anyway, hope you made it to Saks and picked out the perfect dress for your big day. Love you.”}

She felt a pang of guilt. Two pangs. He would be out running by now, so there was no need to call. Up until four days ago, she was sure she loved him too…at least enough. But then the handsome disheveled man from West Texas appeared on her stoop.

After a shower, full on shave (because it had been days, and no other reason), and the application of liberal amounts of her expensive lotion, Mimi slipped a white sundress over her head. It was one she found hanging in the back of her closet from her Florida days. Her hair hung loose and curly, and she applied shiny gloss to her lips.

She walked into the kitchen to start pounding chicken and said, “Alexa, turn on classical.” Her phone rang. Perfect timing…

“Hello mother, I just have a minute…”

“The zoo? The Bronx Zoo?”

Crap. “Um, what are you talking about?”

“Don’t play dumb with me. While the rest of us, mainly Roger, are worried sick about you, you were spotted parading around at the Bronx Zoo today with someone who could only be described as a homeless man in cowboy boots,” Candice scoffed.

She choked back a laugh. “Who ratted me out?”

“Barbara Silverman was there with her daughter and grandchildren. And you were eating pink popcorn? The horror!”

“Does Roger know? Wait, that’s a dumb question. Of course Roger knows.”

There was a long pause.

“Did you ever think of talking to me first?”

*    *    *    *

“That didn’t sound like a friendly conversation,” Andy said, standing at her door. He was holding a six pack in one hand, a bouquet of yellow tulips in the other, and one of his uncle Henry’s paintings against his leg. It was a floral of yellow tulips in a blue vase.

“Oh, just mother on a Wednesday night. Come on in.” She took the flowers. “These are beautiful. And the painting! I do love this one.”

“Well, you said they were your favorite.”

“I did?” she asked, flustered and unsure.

“I don’t know. I just went with it. Listen, if this isn’t a good time…”

“No, c’mon in. I think I just blew up my life, so this is a perfect time as any.”

“What happened?”

“We were outed at the zoo.”

There was music playing as she methodically pounded chicken, squeezed lemon, chopped asparagus and onions, and stirred rice, all while taking generous sips of her white wine. Andy was engrossed, watching her cook. Aside from his mother, he had never watched another woman cook. The feelings he had watching her now made him think he had been missing out on something all these years. Her movements seemed to coincide with the music. When she brought a spoon to her mouth and delicately touched it with her tongue, he picked up his beer bottle and shifted in his chair, willing his desire away. This Roger guy is crazy, he thought.

She didn’t talk much throughout the preparation. He could tell she was in deep thought, constantly checking her phone. But forty-five minutes after she started, she placed a beautiful plate of food in front of him. “This is my famous Chicken Piccata and Risotto with asparagus.”

“Looks terrific. My mama fries all her chicken. This should be a real treat.” He took a bite. “Tastes terrific too.”

“Thanks,” she said, staring straight ahead, no interest in her food, and surprisingly, in his sexy Texan drawl.

“So…um…does your mood have something to do with the zoo?”

“My mother’s friend spotted us.”

“Are caged animals against the law?”

“Not the law, but against my life’s protocol.”

He chuckled. “You are so awesome. I don’t see why you just can’t be yourself around your family or Roger.”

She stood and looked at her phone next to the stove. “I can’t believe I haven’t heard from him.”

“I guess you do care.”

“Of course I care. I should have been honest. Not let it go…this far.” She sat back down and sighed heavily. “What time is your flight tomorrow?”

“I leave at noon. I should be on the road pretty early, huh?”

“I can take you.”

“You have a car?”

“Yes. It’s parked in a lot two blocks away. I only use it for the now rare getaway. We usually take Roger’s….” her voice trailed.

They were quiet again. He’d eaten half of his food. She’d barely touched hers. In their silence, the classical music seemed louder. It was nothing he had ever heard before…and in all likelihood, would never hear again.

“Can I ask where that music is coming from? I don’t see a stereo or anything,” he asked.

“Oh, it’s coming from my…” she lowered her voice lest the device hear her, “Alexa. You know what that is, right?”

“I’ve heard of it. We even have running water back home.” They laughed. “Um, can it play country music?”

“Of course! It can play anything.”

He stood. “Well then, I’d like to ask for a dance.”

She took a sip of wine. “I don’t know. I’m not in the mood for dancing. And I’m not very good at it. What’s that dance you cowboys do?”

“The two step. It’s easy. I’ll lead.” He could tell she was still hesitating, and he gently grabbed her hand and exaggerated his country drawl. “I’m purdy good at it.”

“Alexa, put on Garth Brooks.”

The Onion Tart

Marian L Thorpe (@marianlthorpe)

This story is the introduction to two of the main characters (well, three, if Luce is included) of my next novel, set in the same world as my Empire books but approximately 500 years later – the rough equivalent of the 13th and early 14th centuries in our history. Other than these characters I know very little about the book, except that it will involve trade, and possibly poisons. 

‘Kirthan del Candre de Guerdián en Leste wishes an audience with Cenric bé Casille.’ I read the first line of the note and rolled my eyes. Why were the Lestians so pompous? Then I frowned. Why was Benedit de Guerdián’s older brother asking to see me? I’d dealt with Benedit over the importation of spices for more than a decade. Kirthan, if my memory served, concerned himself with trade further east, with Beria and beyond. Was Benedit ill?

I supposed I’d better see him. And not here, at my office at Casille’s docks. No member of the de Guerdián family was to be entertained, even for business, in a ledger-lined room at one end of a warehouse. No more than I would expect to be, were it I who had taken ship for Leste and requested the meeting.

I wrote a reply, sealed it, and handed it to the boy waiting, along with a small coin. Then—“Wait,” I said, and scribbled another note. I handed it over. “Deliver the first to Aldor de Guerdián, and the second to my home,” I instructed. “Do not dawdle, and there will be another coin from the housekeeper.” She, I knew, would not be pleased to be told, so late in the day, that there would be company for the evening meal, and what was served needed to be less plain than our daily fare.

The boy ran off to earn his coins, and I returned to my account books. After a moment, though, I put my pen down. I should have sent a third note, to the Street of the Healers where my sister had her treatment rooms. Without knowing she should return home early enough to prepare for a guest, Luce was likely to appear halfway through the meal in her working tunic and leggings. They could even be stained with fluids I didn’t want to think about.  Kirthan del Candre de Guerdián en Leste would not be impressed.

Messenger boys were not in short supply. I opened the office door and shouted. Three or four ran towards me, elbowing each other and grabbing at tunics in an effort to be the first to arrive. They lined up outside the door, attempting to look responsible and reliable. I picked the oldest. The Street of the Healers was across the city, a fair distance. I didn’t want the boy stopping to rest halfway there.

The note to my sister written and sent, I finished the accounting. Then I took my cloak from its hook on the wall, shrugged into it, and stepped out into the late afternoon. Gulls screamed, men shouted, rigging jingled. The air smelt of fish and salt, of spices and sweat and the sharp odour of a smashed jug of vinegar, and behind that, the faintly foul smell of the water. In high summer, faintly foul changed to frankly fetid.

But it was mid-autumn, and so the harbour was less noisome. With the sun dropping into the west, I was glad of my cloak. I walked away from the sounds and scents of the docks, leaving the broad paving stones of the warehouse yards for the cobbles of the streets that ran slightly uphill into the heart of Casille. Different sounds, and different smells here, some pleasant, some not. At least the wind was blowing southeast, the stench of the tanneries carried out to sea.

*    *    *    *

My house—ours, I should say, as my father left it to my sister and me equally—stands nearly as high as it is possible to be in Casille, except for the hall, rarely occupied, that belongs to those who govern us. It is quieter here, and the air is fresh. I opened the door, gave my cloak to a servant, and walked through the central room to the kitchens. I stepped into the fragrant space with some trepidation.

“Aldor Cenric.” The housekeeper’s greeting was appropriate. Her tone was not, but she had been with us for longer than I had been alive, and without her, the household would fall into chaos. “A guest, at such short notice, and of such importance?”

“Aldor de Guerdián gave me little warning,” I said. “What delicacies did you order for our meal?” I breathed in, discerning cloves and onion, pepper and ginger. “Venison?”

“In broth, with carrots and turnips.” I knew the dish; it was a favourite. “Fish first, and an apple tart after.”

A simple enough meal, but from our cook, it would be worthy of our guest. As I climbed the stairs to my room to bathe and change, I wondered why I was nervous. Benedit had dined at our table often enough. But I had known Benedit since we were both young, learning our trade. I’d never met his fabled older brother. Benedit’s only voyages were between Leste and Ésparias. Kirthan had travelled the known world. The stories about him were many, and not all were about his travels.

*    *    *    *

When the steward announced Aldor Kirthan de Guerdián some hours later, I was ready, dressed in a fine wool tunic with silk trim, my best leather house shoes on my feet. One ring, set with a ruby, graced my right hand. The steward stepped aside to allow our guest in.

A fire burned on the hearth, and lamps lit the room against the falling dusk. The flames reflected off the polished wood of the chests and panelling, making the room—and the man who had just entered—glow. Kirthan del Candre de Guerdián en Leste looked as if he were made of autumn oak leaves, shades of gold and brown from the short curls of his hair to the tips of his polished boots. His tunic had insets of bronze silk, the sleeves embroidered with what could only be gold thread. Yet there was something untamed about him that the trappings of wealth could not disguise.

I realized I was staring, and then I realized the smile—no, the grin—on his face told me he was aware of his effect. On me, Cenric bé Casille, a man of mature years and a merchant of standing and not insignificant influence. But, oh, he was beautiful. And he was holding out a dish to me, covered in a cloth.

“Thank you for seeing me, Aldor bé Casille. I have brought something for the meal, with your indulgence,” he said.

I found my voice. “You are most welcome, Aldor de Guerdián. But—” I tilted my head to show mild surprise. “Is this a Lestian custom, to bring food to a host’s house? Or perhaps a Berian one you have adopted, as your brother has not followed it in his visits?”

He was still holding the dish out. I took it: to do otherwise would be impolite. Should I remove the cloth?

“Not a custom of either Leste or Beria,” de Guerdián said, his amusement evident. “I have brought a tart so that you can taste the quality of the safran I have come to offer you, how it retains and deepens its flavour after cooking. What better way to convince you it is worth its price, Aldor bé Casille?”

“Safran?” Only the very wealthiest could afford safran, the golden threads harvested from an autumn-flowering bulb in countries beyond the eastern end of the Nivéan Sea. It took, I had been told, hundreds of thousands of flowers to produce even a small amount of the dried spice. “Aldor, I am afraid—”

“That I have been misled as to your ability to invest in such an expensive trade?” That grin again, and a long-fingered hand run through already tousled curls. “Will you hear me out, bé Casille?  And should we sit?”

“Of course,” I said hastily. I had forgotten my manners. What would he think of me? “Wine?”

“Certainly.  My brother has praised your cellar.”

I poured two glasses. De Guerdián held his out, letting the firelight shine through it. “Fine glass.” He sipped. “And the wine does it justice.  Now, Cenric—I may call you that?”

“Please.” You may call me anything you like, I thought, watching a finger caress the bowl of the wine glass.

“I have spent much time in Beria, as you will know. They have recently begun to grow safran, in certain regions where the soil and rainfall and temperatures are to its liking. The harvest is still small. But it struck me that those conditions could also be met on Leste itself, and so two years ago I—” He licked his lips. I put my wine down, before it spilled. “Shall we just say I obtained some bulbs myself, and took them home.”

What he was saying penetrated. “You are growing safran on Leste?”

“I am.” He grinned. “And I am offering you the first harvest, and an opportunity to invest in its production. But shall we taste that tart, before you decide?”

“Why me?” I asked. There were other merchants, some with greater networks.

“My brother,” he answered, “thought we would find certain commonalities. I believe he was right.”

I had no chance to frame an answer: the steward knocked and entered. “A message, Aldor. From your sister. She has been called to attend a patient, and sends her apologies.”

“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t think I minded. “Will you bring us two plates, and forks, and a knife, please?”

He would only be gone a minute. I watched the man sitting across from me. He sat perfectly still, legs crossed at the ankle, but for one finger moving on his wine glass. Neither of us spoke. The fire crackled.

“Is there something you would like me to serve?” my steward asked, returning. I shook my head, dismissing him.

“Shall I?” De Guerdián rose, fluidly, going to the chest where I had placed the tart. He lifted the cloth. The scent of onion—and yes, safran—rose. The pastry was fluted and perfectly browned; the surface of the custard nearly as golden as his skin.

He pushed his sleeves back before he made a cut. My throat tightened. There would be a bracelet—in gold, of course—on one arm. Surely. He was older than I, by a few years. He could not be unattached, although I had heard of no alliance. But the fine bones of his wrists were unadorned.

“Your cook,” I said, trying to regain some equilibrium, “has baked a fine tart.”

He finished cutting the slice, lifting it carefully onto the plate. “Not my cook. I baked this.”

“You?” This elegant, feral man?

He cut a small piece and speared it with the fork. “I must know how the spices I offer behave in various dishes. How the tastes change with cooking, or when mixed with other ingredients. I can watch a cook carefully, or I can do it myself. I prefer”—he moved to crouch beside me, extending the fork to my lips—“not to watch.”

I accepted the morsel of tart onto my tongue, tasting the onion first. Then the earthy sweetness of safran, like a rich honey, took my attention. I closed my eyes to better concentrate on the flavour, letting the custard dissolve. A finger touched my mouth, brushing away crumbs of pastry.

I swallowed, parted my lips. “Kirthan,” I whispered.

“Kirt,” he said. “To my friends.” The fingers moved to my chin, tilting it upward.

He tasted like wine, like the scents of ripe fruit carried on the wild winds of autumn. A long kiss, before he drew back.

“So,” he said, one hand on my knee. “Are you interested, Cenric, in a partnership?”


The recipe for the onion tart is below. It was adapted by my father, medieval cookery being one of his many hobbies, from The Forme of Cury, a cookbook printed in 1378.

2 c onions, sliced
2 Tbsp butter
2 eggs + 2 yolks
1/8 tsp saffron
½ c raisins, plumped in warm water and  drained
¼ c currants
¼ tsp each of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg
1 c heavy cream
2 tsp sugar
1/8 tsp pepper
½ tsp salt
9-inch pastry shell, baked

Infuse the saffron in the cream. Fry the onions in the butter until golden, set aside. Beat the eggs and the yolks in a bowl. Heat the cream slowly until small bubbles appear; beat in the eggs. Add onions, raisins, currants and spices. Pour into the prepared pie shell and bake at 350o for 25-30 minutes, until set.

Image by magdus from Pixabay

Another Mistake?

Joseph P. Garland (@JPGarlandAuthor

In the July 2022 issue, the author had a piece about a couple who regularly ran into one another on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was entitled “It’s Always A Mistake.” It told the story of a man and a woman who over the years had a habit of running into each other, and this inevitably led to them going to his place for a few hours. And they each thought when they were done that it was a mistake. And here, in the dead of winter in the neighborhood, they’re at it again. 

It was dark when I awoke. I had no idea what time it was, but all I heard were the passing buses on Central Park West and the occasional voices moving up or down the block. It was very cold outside, but the window was open just a bit. I once asked someone why it gets so damn warm in New York apartments. He said it is something about this underground steam system that heated most of the older brownstones in Manhattan. The knobs on the radiators didn’t particularly work, so one gets used to leaving the window open a bit even when, like today, it’s about 20 degrees outside. You get used to the noise, too. Of course, I don’t have an air conditioner and with my windows open in the summer and pretty much all year round noise doesn’t bother me.

What may have awakened me, though, was more pleasant and more visceral. Through the gap between my door and the floor came the fragrance of sauteed vegetables with “All Things Considered” on at a low volume. So that’s where she was. After lying back with my eyes closed to savor that familiar aroma, I roused myself and grabbed a robe to go to her.

My kitchen is small, but a good cook can do magical things there. She is a good cook and can do many magical things. And not just in the kitchen. When I reached her, she was leaning over the stove. Her left hand was holding the handle of a pan and her right held a wooden spoon she was using to move the various chopped vegetables around. It was a heavenly smell.

She wore one of my oversized Columbia shirts. When I stopped behind her and encircled her waist with my arms, being careful not to disrupt her cooking, she said without turning her head, “Hello, sleepyhead.”

I gave her a kiss on the right side of her neck.

“You don’t have to cook anything. I thought we could go out to dinner.”

“Why? Then I’d have to get dressed and it’s freezing out and then…I don’t know about the then, but I thought it’d be nice to stay in and see.”

I gave her another peck.

“That smells good,” I said.

“Thanks.” She paused. “You can check,” she said.

“Check what?”

“You know.”

I lowered my right hand to the bottom of my shirt on her body and, well, checked.

Without missing a beat or a turn of her spoon, she said, “Oh, behave.”

Having confirmed that she was, in fact, wearing one of my oversized Columbia shirts and nothing else, she gave me a bump check with her ass and I stepped back.

“Look,” she said as she turned at the stove. “You keep stirring, and let me get dressed.”

“They say the majority of accidents happen in the kitchen,” I told her, and she said, “Which is why I’m getting dressed.”

I took the spoon from her, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek and headed to the bedroom.

Well, I thought, that takes care of my dinner plans. I don’t generally have “dinner plans” as a rule and I didn’t for that night. I’d say I was a go-with-the-flow sort of guy, but it’s really a combination of inertia and a lack of imagination that leads me to microwave my dinner more times than not. Even on most Saturdays I didn’t have particular plans for going out. What can I say? I’m a homebody.

I’d run into her yet again when I was getting some staples at the Korean market on Columbus. It was then in the mid-20s and I was bundled up pretty much but she still recognized me. So we did what we usually did when we ran into each other. We returned to my place and had sex. Summer. Winter. Spring. Fall. The thing is that when we’re done, we both think it’s a mistake. Every time. See, the other thing is that we both always love actually doing it. It’s something unique. If either of us was in a relationship that was even approaching “serious” and we met, we’d do no more than catch up like normal adult friends do. More and more, though, neither of us was in such a relationship. Hell, my last one was, what, three months ago? And the thing about that last, doomed one–that’d be Susan–was that the sex was really…okay. And she couldn’t cook worth a damn.

Now, I’m not saying I’m Gordon Ramsey or anything, but I can throw together something that’s at least decent. Susan couldn’t.

This one, though. She was a master, or mistress, in the kitchen, as was evident right before me in the vegetables I was sautéing.

It wasn’t long before she was back in the pants and shirt, now with one of my wool sweaters on top with its sleeves pulled up to free her hands and no shoes and telling me to get dressed while she finished her cooking.

She found some rice in a cupboard and some two-day-old chicken in the fridge, and by the time I was back, she had the rice cooking in a pot and the chicken mixed in with the vegetables and it was a smell to die for.

“I took the liberty of opening a Cabernet,” she said when she heard me come out of the bedroom. “It’s on the table in the living room. There’s an extra glass.” She nodded in that direction.

I poured myself one. “You need a refill?” I asked, but she said she was good. She asked me to set the table, which I’ll confess to not doing very often, and somehow I found placemats, mismatched silverware, and even a couple of cloth napkins to put on the table.

“It’ll be in about ten minutes. Then we can talk,” I heard. I gave her another kiss on the nape of her neck when I passed behind her to get the plates.

“No,” she said. “Leave them. I put the food on them here. You can be the waiter. For now, go sit down. About five minutes now.”

I sat on the sofa with my phone, but couldn’t resist looking at her. She is gorgeous, no more so than when I study her and she doesn’t realize it. She was in profile, her right arm gently making circles in the pan and now and then dipping a different spoon into the pot to check on the rice. She turned back to the pan and took a spoonful to taste it and I could make out a sotto voce “not half bad.” It was all like some ballet. Not the herky-jerky modern but some smooth, precise, beautiful Balanchine.

Suddenly there was all manner of movement. She was grabbing the pot and pouring the rice into the colander. She had taken a little-used large white bowl from a cupboard and poured the rice into it. A quick bit of water into the empty pot and that was in the sink. She then lifted the pan and slowly poured its contents in before rinsing that out and returning it to the stove.

“Pour me more wine,” she asked midmotion, and I did and topped off my own glass. I could see her very delicately stir her concoction and then dole it out onto the pair of plates.

“Come and get it,” she called to me before removing the dish towel she’d tucked into her jeans as a sort of apron. I lifted the plates and gave her a kiss on the lips as I brought them out and set them on the table.

She surprised me by carrying a candle she’d found in a kitchen drawer that she’d lit and put into a candlestick and brought it to the table and then went to turn off the light.

When we were settled, she lifted her glass with the candle light’s reflection flickering and I did the same and we clinked them. I took a sip, and she took more than a sip.

“This looks very good,” I said as I lifted my fork.

“Thank you,” she said. “Let’s talk.

Image: The photo is from Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. By Zhukovsky via Deposit Photos.com 

January Team Showcase

Renée Gendron‘s A Gift of Stars: Book 1 The Nearer Realm Tales is available on Amazon. Her Golden Hearts: Book 2 of Frontier Hearts and Two Hearts on the Backspin, Novella 2 of her Heartened series, are also available there. The second book in her Outdoorsmen series, The Officer’s Gamble, was published on October 18. Book 1 of the Outdoorsman Series is available as is her Ninth StarJaded Hearts, and Seven Points of ContactHeads and Tales, a supernatural/mythological anthology. to which Renée contributed a historical, supernatural, romance. Shopkeeper & SpoonBeneath The Twin Suns: An AnthologyHeartened by Crimeand In The Red Room: A crime anthology with heart, all edited by Renée Gendron, are also available now.

Marian L Thorpe‘s eighth and last book in her historically inspired speculative fiction series Empire’s Legacy, Empire’s Passing, is available for pre-order on Amazon. (Empire’s Daughter is the first part.) She has numerous titles available; they can be found at her aptly-named website, MarianLThorpe.com  or at Books2Read. Marian’s short story On Shining Wings is included in the anthology Historical Stories of Exile, published by Taw River Press.

David M. Simon has published The Wild Hunt: Novella 2 of The Wild Hearts and Hunts Duology (Part 1 is Renée Gedron’s Ninth Star) as well as Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, a middle-grade fantasy adventure.

Louise Sorensen has contributed to numerous anthologies that are available on Amazon, and is the co-author, with Misha Burnett, of Duel Visions.

The audio version of Joseph P. Garland‘s Becoming Catherine Bennet is available on Audible.com. It is an imagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice that is also available as an ebook (exclusively on Kindle Unlimited) and as a paperback and hardcover. (First Chapters.) He has also adapted his AMBR submission of a few months back involving Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy entitled “Mr. Darcy’s Regrets” from June 2023 into a novella entitled The Omen at Rosings Park, also available on Kindle Unlimited. (and being converted into an audiobook). He has also started a newsletter and those interested in getting on the mailing list can contact him at JPGarlandAuthor@DermodyHouse.com.