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Authors: Kathryn Littlewood

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BOOK: Bite-Sized Magic
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Ty and Sage had already started loading boxes into the back of the Bliss family van. Leigh helped by sitting beside the boxes and patting them with her frosting-covered hands. “Pat-a-cake,” she said over and over again.

Sage strapped her into her car seat and climbed in beside her.

“I'm driving,” Ty said proudly. He was fond of reminding everyone that at sixteen he was old enough to drive, and now he reached into the back pocket of his dark jeans and pulled out his license. The picture on the front captured the full height of his red spiky hair, though it cut off everything below his top lip. “Phew,” he said. “Just making sure I had my license. My
driver's
license.”

Rose rolled her eyes.

“Let's go,
hermana
,” he said. “I'll drive.”

“Actually, I think I'm going to make a few personal deliveries on my bike, if that's okay,” Rose said.

Ty looked at her sideways, then shrugged. “Whatever
hermana
wants,
hermana
gets.” Ever since Ty had taken Spanish in school, he added foreign words to what he said in an effort to sound foreign and sophisticated.

Sage called out through the van's window. “You do know there's no air-conditioning on a bike, right?”

“I know,” said Rose. While her brothers waited, she rifled through the back of the van and grabbed a few choice boxes. She loaded them in the front basket of her bike and carefully put one special box into her backpack. Just as she was about to set off, Gus hopped inside the basket, too.

“Onward!” he cried.

 

“Do stop at the Reginald Calamity Fountain, sweet Rose, so that I can catch myself some breakfast.”

The fuzzy gray blob of Gus's head peeked out from Rose's basket as she pedaled through the streets.

“Gus, there are no fish in the fountain,” Rose answered, “only nickels and dimes that people throw in there for good luck. It's a tradition.”

“Well, then, I shall collect those nickels and dimes and buy myself some delectable smoked fish.”

Without stopping at the fountain, Rose parked her bike in front of the ivy-covered bungalow owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bastable-Thistle.

“No talking, Gus,” she said, opening her backpack.

Gus leaped inside, wiggled around until he was comfortable, then poked his head out. “Oh, I know.” He sighed. “If only the sight of a talking cat didn't cause such violent fainting among humans.”

Rose pulled aside a tapestry of ivy and pressed her finger into the doorbell, which was shaped like a frog.

After a moment, Mr. Bastable, wearing a frog-printed T-shirt that read
KISS ME
, answered the door. “Hello, Rose,” he said. He seemed a bit droopy, though his stringy white hair was as wild as ever. “What brings you here?”

Rose stared at the welcome mat, which said
FROGS AND CERTAIN HUMANS WELCOME
. “As you know, the Bliss Bakery has been closed,” she said. “But we wanted to say thank you for supporting us while we were away at the Gala, so we brought you some of your favorite Love—I mean,
zucchini
muffins.”

“My my,” he said quietly. Rose could tell by the soft twinkle in his eye that he was touched, but Mr. Bastable had always been shy, hence the need for Love Muffins.

Mr. Bastable noticed Gus's folded ears peeking out from Rose's backpack. “Hey, is that a cat? What's wrong with its ears?”

Rose felt Gus's body tense inside her backpack.

“Oh, nothing! He's a breed called a Scottish Fold. They just have folded ears.”

“Huh,” Bastable mused, biting absentmindedly into one of the Love Muffins. “Somewhat like the ear of a frog, all folded up on its face.”

Gus dug his claws into Rose's back. “Ow!” She jumped.

“What?” Bastable said.

“Nothing,” said Rose.

Ignoring her, Bastable took another crumbly bite and swallowed loudly. Suddenly, his eyes flashed a bright green, his back straightened, and he cleared his throat. “Felidia!” he shouted. “I must woo my beloved Felidia once more, for she is a supreme woman, and supreme women must be wooed daily! I'm coming, Felidia!”

Then Mr. Bastable turned away, the box of muffins tucked under his arm. He slammed the door in Rose's face.

“I guess it worked,” Rose said, though she didn't want to think about what was about to transpire inside the Bastable-Thistle bungalow.

“Ears like a
frog
,” said Gus. “Of all the ridiculous nonsense.”

 

Florence the Florist thought that Rose was a burglar until she took a bite out of a piece of Seeing-Eye Shortbread. “Ah! Rose Bliss!” she cried out, and sighed with relief that the Blisses hadn't forgotten about her.

Rose caught Pierre Guillaume on his day off.
“Sacré bleu!”
he cried as he took a bite of Frugal Framboise Cake, which promptly dissuaded him from buying a yacht on eBay. “That mother of yours, Purdy, she eez always looking out for me,” he said.

Box by box, Rose went around town, narrowly averting small disasters, until just one box remained: the one in her backpack, the one she'd really wanted to deliver, for which all the others had been only an excuse.

She pedaled up the impossible incline of Sparrow Hill and parked her bike in front of Stetson's Donuts and Automotive Repair.

Rose wondered whether Devin had seen her new haircut. She had gotten what the hairdresser called “side bangs,” which meant that her black bangs now sloped down from one end of her forehead to the other, instead of the usual straight line that she gave herself in the bathroom mirror. Rose hadn't said a word to Devin in school, but she thought that maybe he'd seen her bangs in the paper, or in a TV news report. She hated to admit how much the side bangs made her feel like a sophisticated woman, but she couldn't help it. They just did.

Walking in a sophisticated manner, Rose wandered into the store carrying the box of Breathe-Easy Sticky Buns. They were gooey pillows of sweet dough covered in sticky cinnamon frosting. In the very center of each was a dollop of crème infused with Arctic Wind—the buns instantaneously cleared the lungs and sinuses of any unwanted goop. Purdy used to make them for Rose when she was home sick from school with a stuffy nose, and they were far more fun to eat than chicken soup.

Rose spotted Devin behind the checkout counter. He sported side bangs of his own, only his were a rich, sandy blond. To her they looked like spun gold. His nostrils were bright red and his eyes were clouded and dull. He blew his nose into a tissue.

“He looks like a sickly version of that Justin Boo Boo character,” Gus whispered from his perch in the backpack.

“Shush!” she hissed, gliding over to the checkout counter.

She gathered herself and took a deep breath. “Hi, Devin.”

Devin quickly wiped his nose, then smoothed his bangs. “Hi, Rose,” he replied gloomily.

“Are you okay?” Rose asked. “Sick again?”

“Yeah, you
d
oh me,” he said, sniffling. He nervously drummed his fingers on the glass countertop. “You're, like, this celebrity
d
ow. It's weird.”

Rose's heart sank. “Bad weird, or good weird?”

Devin stumbled over his words. “Good weird. Oh, defi
d
ently good weird. I . . . uh . . .” He trailed off. His eyes darted between her face and an empty corner of the ceiling.

Is he nervous?
Rose thought.
I'm usually the nervous one.
Aloud, she said, “I came because even though the bakery is closed, I wanted to bring you your favorite—Sticky Buns! So you're not forlorn without them.”

Rose nearly kicked herself as the words left her mouth.
Forlorn?
Why did she say that? She sounded like a ninety-year-old granny. Devin probably thought she was a word-obsessed moron.

Devin opened the box and sank his teeth into one of the thick, pillowy buns. “Mmmmmmmmm!” he exclaimed. “My oh my, that is one gnarly bun.” The
m
's and
n
's came out crystal clear. “Weird! I can breathe again!” He smiled, and his eyes lost their sleepy look.

“Good weird or bad weird?” Rose teased.

“Good weird,” he replied, smiling.

 

Back outside, Gus whispered, “He's not even that cute,” as Rose skipped toward her bike, her feet so light that she felt like she might be receiving assistance from unseen fairies.

“Says you.” Rose squealed, already replaying the moment in her mind like a beloved DVD.

“The basket of your bike is decidedly uncomfortable for travel,” Gus observed, squinting up at the empty wire basket. “And cold. The wind, you know.”

“Would you like to ride in my backpack?” Rose said.

“I thought you'd never ask.”

She knelt down and opened the flap, and Gus leaped inside. From the dark, she could hear him moving around and saying, “Much warmer! This is more like it!”

She reshouldered the pack and had very nearly reached her bike when a voice called out to her from the lookout fence at the top of the hill.

“Are you Rose Bliss?”

Rose turned and saw a hulking figure silhouetted against the afternoon sky. The only person she'd ever seen with such enormous shoulders was Chip—but this man sure didn't sound like Chip. She moved closer.

“You're Rose Bliss, aren't you?” he repeated in a deep, gravelly voice.

The man had a nice-looking face—at least for someone almost as old as her dad—rugged, with a huge head, a square jaw, and narrow, beady eyes. He had thick black hair and wore a track suit made of fuzzy maroon velour. His fingers and the front of his track suit seemed to be covered with a light dusting of flour.

“I don't like this,” Gus whispered. “What's that on his fingers? What sort of grown man wears a maroon velour track suit?”

Rose's parents had always told her not to talk to strangers, but ever since she'd won the Gala des Gâteaux Grands, everyone knew who she was. There was no real point in denying it. “Yes, I'm Rose Bliss.”

“I thought so.” The man gestured over the tranquil pastures of Calamity Falls. “You know what's a travesty, Rose? The new bakery law.”

Rose softened a bit. “Yeah, it makes no sense.”

“Those people out there,” the man went on, sounding passionate, “they need cake and pie and cookies and donuts. Just a little sweet thing once in a while reminds a person of how sweet life is.” He rested his hand on his chest, like someone about to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Rose nodded. She thought of the lives she had brightened this morning. The people she and her family had helped. But how long would they be able to keep it up? The Blisses had provided enough magic that morning to last the town a couple of days, but they couldn't really go on baking and delivering everything to people's homes without being paid. They weren't broke, not yet, but they couldn't support the whole town.

“A life without the occasional slice of cake is . . . it's an empty life,” he continued, inching closer. “Look out there,” he said, gesturing again at Calamity Falls. “Emptiness. That's what's going to become of all those lives.”

Gus reached a paw out of the backpack and swatted Rose's ear. “I don't like this!” he whispered.

The strange behemoth of a man bent over so they were eye to eye. “Would you . . . I mean, do you want to help those people?”

“Of course!” Rose said. She thought of the wish she'd made. She didn't really believe what the cat had told her (did she?). A wish couldn't change the world (could it?). But even so, she would take it back if she could. “It's what I want most in the world.”

“Oh good!” said the man. “In that case . . .”

He snapped his fingers.

Before Rose could take a deep breath to scream, darkness closed over her and Gus as they were enveloped in a giant empty flour sack.

CHAPTER 2
Making the Mostess of a Bad Situation

T
he two hours that Rose spent trapped in the burlap sack with Gus were by far the worst of her life.

First of all, no one likes to be kidnapped by strangers and tossed into a bag. Questions such as
Where are they taking me?
and
Will I ever return?
naturally arise. Second, being trapped in a burlap sack inside a moving vehicle in summer feels essentially like being kept in an itchy oven. A bouncing, jouncing,
moving
oven. Third, the residual flour that dusted the walls of the bag mingled with her sweat to form a disgusting paste. She scrabbled at the neck of the sack with her nails, but it was firmly tied shut.

Then there was the matter of Gus. “I have claws,” he kept whispering to her. “Just remember that, Rose. They are weapons of mass destruction, these claws.”

Luckily, the man who had stuffed her in the sack seemed not to be able to hear the whispers of the Scottish Fold cat over the hum of the van and the honking of traffic. All Rose could do was keep her wits about her and, every so often, yell, “Where are we going? Let me out of here!”

But there was never any answer.

When the van finally came to a stop, a pair of sturdy arms lifted the sack containing Rose and Gus out of the van. She heard the opening of doors and felt a sudden rush of air-conditioning.

Then the arms set her down in a chair, and the burlap sack was pulled away.

Rose was instantly blinded by fluorescent lights.

She found herself sitting on a rusted metal chair in the center of a room made of gray concrete. Feeble light peeked through tiny windows near the ceiling. At one end of the room was a gray metal desk covered in manila file folders. The wall behind the desk was lined with filing cabinets of rusted gray metal. The rows of rectangular fluorescent lights that hung from the ceiling sputtered and hummed in the awful way that fluorescent lights do, as if they were actually prisons for thousands of radioactive fireflies.

The room smelled like metal and disinfectant, and Rose suddenly felt a wave of longing for the scents of home: butter and chocolate and cakes just pulled from the oven.

“I don't like this place,” Gus whispered, digging flour out of the spaces beneath his crumpled ears with his paws. “It looks like an office from a movie about . . . how terrible offices are.”

She petted the cat on the head. “It's okay. You've got those claws, remember?”

“Indeed,” the cat purred.

Rose shook out her hair. She dusted flour off her red T-shirt and her eyelids and from behind her ears and even flicked some out of her armpits.

“Where am I?” she yelled.

When no one answered, Rose spun around and saw two men standing by a grimy, empty water cooler in the opposite corner of the room. One of them was the hulking, squinty gentleman in the maroon velour track suit who had approached her on top of Sparrow Hill, and the other was a tall bespectacled man. He had a tiny face and a bulbous white head that was entirely hairless. He looked like an illustration of an alien wearing a suit.

“Hello?” she hollered again. “Where am I?”

Neither of the men so much as turned to acknowledge her—they kept chatting at the water cooler, sipping from little paper cones.

“What is this?” said the bald man, gesturing at Rose, so that water splashed from his little paper cone onto the floor. “You were supposed to get the BOOK.”

“It was a no-go on the book, boss,” the man wearing the track suit answered. “The bakery is closed. I couldn't get in there. So I brought the
cook
instead.”

Rose gasped. These two had been after the Bliss Family Cookery Booke—but what could they possibly want with it? It was bad enough when Aunt Lily had gotten her hands on the Booke, but when she'd given it back, Rose had thought that she—and her family—were safe.

The wiry bald man refilled his cone of water. “No, not the
cook
, the
book
. What we need is the book.”

The bulky man let out a long huff. “But, sir, the
cook
is the next best thing to the
book
. She won that French baking contest. She can do it.”

The bald man goggled his eyes at Rose. “But she's so young!” he said in a sharp, quiet voice. “So scrawny! And she has a cat in her backpack, with broken ears!”

“I can hear you, you know,” Rose fumed. “I'm right here. And if you don't tell me where I am, I will sic my cat on you.”

Gus jumped out of the backpack and sat back on his hind legs, hissing and swiping, with his front legs extended and his claws bared. He looked like a praying mantis.

“And his ears are
not
malformed,” Rose added. “They are a distinctive feature of the breed.”

“Don't worry, little lady,” said the thin man. “We'll explain everything, just calm that old cat down.”

Rose gave Gus a stern look. He shrugged and retracted his claws. “Good kitty,” she said, pulling Gus into her lap and petting him until he was purring. “There,” Rose said. “Now, I repeat: Where am I?”

The two men inched along the perimeter of the room toward the desk, keeping as far away from Gus as they could.

The bald man sat in the chair behind the desk, while the man in the velour track suit settled in behind him, leaning against the row of rusted metal filing cabinets.

“Where you aaaaaare,” said the thin man, “is the finest bakery in the universe: the Mostess Snack Cake Corporation.” He tapped his long index fingers together and stared at Rose through his spectacles. He had no lips to speak of—it was as if the skin beneath his nose and above his chin just decided, at a certain point, to stop. “I am Mr. Butter, and my muscular associate, whom you've already had the pleasure of meeting, is Mr. Kerr.”

“Mostess, huh,” Rose said. She had heard of Mostess Snack Cakes, of course. Everyone had. They were the ones with the little white cow in the corner of the package.

At school, Rose's friends sometimes pulled out packages of Mostess Snack Cakes at the lunch table—little chocolate cakes stuffed with marshmallow, black cupcakes covered in white dots, vanilla cakes stuffed with chocolate cream—each with different names that bore no resemblance to the cake itself, like Dinky Cakes, Moony Pyes, and King Things. Rose never thought to try a bite of her friends' Dinky Cakes or King Things, because her mother always packed her a delicious homemade treat, and anyway, the snack cakes were gobbled and gone in two bites.

“Misters Butter and Kerr, of the Mostess Snack Cake Company,” Rose repeated. “Got it. Now I can tell the police who kidnapped me.”

Mr. Butter opened his non-lips and let out a crisp
ha-ha
. “Kidnapped! Do you hear that, Mr. Kerr? The poor thing thinks that we
kidnapped
her!”

Mr. Kerr stared nervously at Rose. “Ha,” he replied.

“You carried me here in a flour sack,” Rose said. “Against my will.”

“Oh, you've misinterpreted the day's events, Miss Bliss,” Mr. Butter went on smoothly. “We haven't
kidnapped
you, we've brought you here to offer you a
job
!”

Rose furrowed her brow. “A job? What kind of job?”

“We need help with our recipes,” Mr. Kerr said bluntly, rubbing his hands over the smooth velour of his track suit.

Mr. Butter glared at Mr. Kerr a moment, then turned back to Rose, all smiles. “Yes, that's the gist of it,” he said, tapping his fingers on the desk. “You see, Rose, we here at the Mostess Snack Cake Corporation were just as horrified as you were by the passage of the Big Bakery Discrimination Act. Of course, the law does happen to benefit our bakery, as we employ well over a thousand people. So we wanted to help a newly unemployed small-town baker like yourself by putting
you
to work for
us
.”

Gus fidgeted on her lap. It suddenly dawned on Rose that neither of them had seen a bathroom for hours.

“Think of it as an exchange program,” Mr. Kerr added matter-of-factly. His voice was so deep that it sounded like his throat was trying to swallow the words before they escaped. “Like you kids do in school.”

“Exactly,”
said Mr. Butter. “You see, Rose, we have something wonderful to offer each other.”

“We do?” Rose said.

“Mostess has the finest baking facilities in the world, thousands of square feet of floor space, the most cutting-edge machinery, and a staff of thousands of qualified baking professionals.” Mr. Butter paused a moment to savor the thought of it. “That is what you lack.
You
, Rosemary Bliss, are a baker without a bakery.”

Rose hung her head. Mr. Butter was wrong. The Bliss family had a bakery; they just weren't legally allowed to
operate
it. She thought of last night, how cramped and hot the tiny kitchen had been, and how little they could really afford to support the town's baked-goods needs. How exhausted she and her parents were. They couldn't go on like that.

“What
we
lack is the kind of attention that you small-town bakers can afford to lavish on each loaf of bread, each crumpet, each swirl of cupcake frosting, each—”

“I understand,” Rose interrupted.

Mr. Butter bristled. “You know as well as I do that a perfect dessert sweetens life like nothing else. People in every town, students at every school, from every walk of life, they all depend upon that little bit of goodness that they can find within, say, a Bliss tart. Or slice of cake.”

“Or a muffin,” Mr. Kerr continued. “Or a croissant. Or clafouti. Or—”

“I get it,” Rose snapped.

Mr. Butter cleared his throat and ran his fingers along the bald arches where his eyebrows should have been. “At the Mostess Snack Cake Corporation, we believe our snack cakes are nearly perfect, but our recent sales record has not reflected this. Our snack cakes can't compete with the love and the . . . how do I call it . . . the
magic
that you small bakeries provide.”

Rose eyed Mr. Butter suspiciously and felt something flutter nervously in her stomach.
Magic?
she thought.
He couldn't possibly know about the magic.

“And shouldn't every town have what Calamity Falls has? Readily available, forever fresh, fabulous, delicious gourmet treats?” Mr. Butter went on. “Before your fortuitous arrival, we had—”

“You
kidnapped
me,” Rose said again. On her lap, Gus growled.

“—we had the assistance of a master baker who had very nearly perfected our recipes. Sadly, she competed in a baking contest in Paris, and after events there never returned.” Rose immediately knew there was only one person he could be talking about—her devious aunt Lily. “And that's why we need
you
,” Mr. Butter said. “To perfect the recipes. To make our snack cakes the best in the world. To finish what the previous director started but failed to finish.”

Rose looked down at Gus, who stared back at her with wide eyes, as if to say,
Don't you dare
. The point of his tail flicked.

“Why me?” Rose asked. “Why not any of the other bakers at any of the millions of bakeries around the country that were just put out of business by that crazy new law?”

Mr. Butter tapped his finger on the tip of his broad nose. “You come highly recommended.”

“By whom?”

“Well . . . Jean-Pierre Jeanpierre, of the Gala des Gâteaux Grands, of course. He selected you as the winner of the most prestigious baking competition in the world, didn't he? Wouldn't it make sense that we would seek your help above everyone else's?”

Rose blushed. It was flattering, if highly suspicious. Apparently she was never going to live down that competition. “But you said before that you wanted the book instead of the cook. What book were you talking about?”

“We heard that at the Bliss Bakery you use a . . . special book that makes your treats magically delicious,” Mr. Butter said. “That the secret of your success is thanks to—”

“Nope!” Rose lied.
How could they know about the Booke?
“No special book! We do all our baking from memory. Whoever told you about a special book was pulling your leg. Yanking your chain. Lying through their teeth—”

“And that is precisely why we brought you here,” said Mr. Butter. “You are our only hope, Rosemary Bliss. We desperately need your help. Not just for us, but for the good of anyone who has ever turned for hope and happiness to a sweet baked good.” He removed his glasses and dabbed at his eyes with the corner of his handkerchief. “Will you help us in this, our time of greatest need?”

Mr. Butter obviously cared about baking, Rose thought. True, he
had
kidnapped her, but her mother would never have let her go anyway, so in a sense, Mr. Butter had no choice if he wanted Rose's expertise.

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