gingerbread competition with Xavier & Ashley
Ashley waved to goodbye to the harried family who had dropped off their entry for the gingerbread competition and then locked the bakery’s doors. Twinkling lights and ornaments in the shapes of cookies and cupcakes lined the shop’s windows, surrounding the elaborate gingerbread holiday city scene she, Gabriel, and Sebastian had slaved over for days. But the gingerbread creations she was most excited about were the two dozen gingerbread houses placed around the shop, submissions for the newly revived Bliss Bakery Kids Gingerbread Competition.
Her mother’s tradition, alive once again.
She blinked away the tears pricking behind her eyes. In a slow spin, she took in the bakery’s front room. During the day, it was sunny and warm and lively with people bustling in to pick up treats or order cakes for happy occasions. Exactly as her mom had always dreamed.
In the months since the grand opening, the bakery continued to thrive in its new location, exceeding Ashley’s every expectation. Not a day went by that she didn’t think about her mom, and how thrilled her mom would’ve been by the bakery’s success.
Standing alone in the middle of her mother’s legacy, gratitude — for the steady stream of loyal customers, the wonderful staff she’d hired, the support from Xavier’s family, and the love from Xavier himself — overwhelmed her.
Ashley took a moment to make sure her eyes were dry and her breathing was even before making her way toward the laughter and conversation flowing out of the decorating room. Being in the bakery after hours hadn’t been this much fun — or loud — in ages. Freshly baked gingerbread spiced the air. Holiday music played softly from someone’s phone. And all of the Brennan brothers, friends, and significant others were gathered around the large table in the room’s center, elbow deep in icing and sprinkles and overlapping conversations.
Getting together to build gingerbread houses had seemed like a good idea in theory, but in actuality, was, in a word, a mess.
Gobs of various colors of icing, splashes of sprinkles, and copious amounts of candies were spread over the large table, interspersed with four different takes on gingerbread houses. She’d seen all of that earlier, before the last entry had arrived. But a new, healthy coating of confectioner’s sugar now added to the mess, and also covered three of the Brennans.
Fighting a smile and a laugh, she crossed her arms over her chest and cleared her throat. “Guys? What happened? I was gone for five minutes.”
Xavier looked up from wiping a rag over his forearms. A patch of white powder also covered her fiance's cheek and his red shirt. “Ryan knocked over a bag of the sugar and clouds of the stuff caught the three of us.”
Ryan narrowed his eyes as he swiped a hand over his sweater. White powder dusted the dark blue material like a starry sky. “I wouldn’t have knocked into it if you hadn’t backed into me while I was reaching for the pizza box.”
A long suffering sigh accompanied Xavier’s cleaning. The look he sent his brother was equal parts amusement and frustration. “I didn’t see you, Ry. I was too preoccupied with getting Leo and Kelsey on video chat.”
He gestured toward his phone, set up on one of the counters. On the small screen, the eldest Brennan brother and his wife waved. They had a gingerbread house kit laid out on their kitchen table.
“Hey guys, I’m so happy you could join us.” Ashley smiled and waved, then tossed clean towels to Xavier, Ryan, and Shane. “How’s Buffalo?”
“It’s snowing here. Just flurries for now.” Leo glanced at the window behind him and then shrugged. “But it should clear up before tomorrow’s game. We’re playing my old team, so if you guys are watching, I could use some extra positive vibes.”
"Count on them." Xavier's promise was echoed by similar ones from Ryan and Shane.
Kelsey lifted a coffee mug decorated with dancing cartoon reindeer. “The flurries and this gingerbread are putting me in the holiday spirit. Thanks for asking us to join you all tonight.”
“It wouldn’t be the same without you.” Xavier walked over and rested his hand on Ashley’s waist, drawing her into his side. “I know Everson and I will get to see you when we play in Buffalo in three weeks, but that still seems like a long way off.”
“It’s been a while since we were all in the same room. Miss you guys.” Leo sighed and rolled his shoulders. For a moment, the eldest brother's features twisted with wistful longing. “You know, the last year that we all decorated Christmas cookies with Mom, our entire kitchen looked like your table. There was more icing and sprinkles on the floor than the cookies.”
“That’s because of the icing fight,” Shane called out. He sat back with the proud, satisfied smile of a willing participant in the madness. “I started it. One spoon of green flung at Leo, and then colors were flying all over the place.”
“It was great.” Leo grinned. “A continuation of the snowball fight we’d had in the yard earlier that day.”
Shane nodded. “Mom was not happy. But she laughed about it once we’d cleaned up the mess.”
“Still, that was easier to clean up than the flour fight three years later.” Xavier handed a fresh box of pizza to Ryan and then turned to Ashley. “We were helping my dad cook Thanksgiving dinner. He went out to pick up something from one of the neighbors, I don’t remember what. And I don’t remember who tossed the first handful of flour either, but it got everywhere. I’m still surprised that he laughed when he saw us and the mess instead of getting angry.”
Ryan dolled out slices of the veggie lovers special to Everson and then himself, then passed the box to Shane. “We have pictures somewhere. I’ll have to find them. We look like we were rolling around in it. I was too young to take part in the icing fight, but the flour fight was epic.”
Imagining the mess, Ashley pulled loose the towel Xavier had slung over his shoulder. She reached up and gently wiped the sugar from his cheek. He kept his gaze locked on her, as three separate conversations picked up around them. Ashley's breath caught. One look from Xavier was sill enough to make her heartbeat stutter. “Are you ready to start decorating?”
“How did the last kid’s entry look?” Instead of walking back to their spot at the table, Xavier guided her to the opposite side of the room, away from the conversations of how the Frenzy and the Bedlam were faring in the football and hockey worlds, respectively. Extra decorating supplies and a freshly brewed pot of coffee were within reach, and Xavier topped off both of their cups.
She added vanilla flavored creamer to her coffee. “It’s a gingerbread chess board with gingerbread snowmen, elves, trees, and presents as the chess pieces. Clean lines, colorful, and whimsical.”
“Pretty impressive for the under twelve crowd, but then again, the twenty-three other ones I saw all impressed me too. No way could I have done anything like that when I was a kid.” He pressed a kiss to her temple and then cupped her face in his hands. “You doing okay? Your smile isn’t reaching your eyes.”
She should have known she wouldn't be able to fool him. He knew her too well. The ache in her chest swelled as she glanced at the framed photo of her mom, her sister, and herself on the wall. “Just thinking of my mom. I’m glad we revived this tradition, both the competition for the kids, and the gingerbread house construction with the family, but it’s bittersweet.”
Xavier wrapped his arms around her and enveloped her in warmth and security. “I know. I miss my mom too. She would’ve loved this, all of us together making a mess in the kitchen.” His wistful tone tugged at her heart. He’d lost his mom much earlier than she’d lost hers.
Ashley returned the hug, willing as much comfort as she could into it. “They’re here in spirit.”
“I think so too.” He sniffed once and then cleared his throat and gentled his hold to a soft caress. “I’m glad we’re making new memories together.”
“Me too.” Overwhelmed with love for this man, she rose onto her toes and he bent and met her waiting lips. The noise from the rest of the room faded as she lost herself in the kiss, in his presence, in the savoring of the moment.
Slowly, the world reintroduced itself into her awareness. She raised her head and gazed into hazel eyes that held quiet strength. He was her rock. Her forever. Gratitude swelled once more. “Come on. Let’s go decorate our house.”
Hoisting her coffee, Ashley linked hands with Xavier and together, they headed back to the table and the gingerbread dog house they were making in honor of Xavier’s dog, Rocky.
Ryan looked up as they approached. “I forgot to ask you, how are you doing the judging tomorrow? Are you ranking them? How do you choose a winner?”
“I know that most competitions take into account overall appearance, holiday spirit, originality, use of materials, and difficulty of design, but my mom had a soft spot for kids who baked, and wanted to inspire them to continue to do it, so she’d create categories so everyone would win for something they excelled in. The last year we held the competition, a quarter of the entries didn’t survive until the judging day. Those kids were crushed, but Mom still gave every single entrant a prize.”
Ryan looked pleased by the idea of prizes for everyone. “Are you going to do that too?”
“Absolutely. I’m excited to continue the tradition.” She reached for a handful of red and white striped peppermints to put on top of the dog house. “No matter what condition they’re in tomorrow, everyone gets something. But I’m so glad that all of the structures are still standing strong.”
“Which is more than I can say for mine.” Shane, on Ashley’s left, scowled at the caved in walls and the broken roof panel of his house.
Ryan grimaced in sympathy and passed his brother a large tube of icing. “That’s because you didn’t wait the fifteen minutes for the icing on the walls to set before moving on to the next step.”
“I figured that part of the directions was more of a suggestion than a must-do.” With a sigh, Shane arranged the large gingerbread pieces in a row and then piped fresh lines of icing onto the perimeter of the walls.
“Here, I’ll help you.” Jack Kramer, Shane’s best friend, propped two of the gingerbread walls against small bowls and supported the two others with his hands. “Gabe and I are done building ours.”
Gabriel bit into his slice of pizza and surveyed the library he and Jack had spent the last hour building. For people who treasured books as much as Jack and Gabriel, the library wasn't a surprising choice for their structure. “We can start decorating after we finish eating.”
Jack raised his head for a bite of Gabe's slice of tomato and pepperoni. “You sure you want my help with the decorating? If I help, it won’t look anything like the masterpiece you created in the display window.”
“The important part of this was that we do it together, right?” Gabe brushed his knuckles over Jack’s cheek, smiling softly.
Jack grinned at him and nodded. "Right."
Gabe bent and kissed his boyfriend and then pushed a plate with two slices of pizza in Jack’s direction. “Eat. I’ll help hold up one of the pieces for you.”
The way they watched each other, completely besotted, warmed Ashley through and through. The pair was perfect for each other.
Shane set one of the timers on the table for fifteen minutes. “I can take over one of those now too, guys. And if you want to send some of that decorating help my way, feel free.”
“Sure. I’ll help you.” Jack tossed out his offer and then laughed as Shane’s mouth worked open and closed and open and closed. “Oh, yeah. You probably meant Gabe, didn’t you? You’d want a professional.”
“I’ll help you too, Shane,” Ashley promised as she stood. After snagging a piping bag filled with red icing, she detoured toward Xavier’s phone screen and peered at the couple working nearly four hundred miles away. “How’s it going over there, guys?”
Kelsey stepped back, revealing a tower of staggered gingerbread stars in descending size order stacked into a Christmas tree. She waited while Leo set the last piece in place. “We kept it easy. No threat of falling walls or roofs over here. Hopefully, the icing holds the tiers in place.”
Shane leaned across the table for a better view. “Looks good. If my house falls again, I’m going your route, and just stacking the pieces on top of each other. It’ll be a very short tree.”
“Nah. It would look more like a stack of rectangles, but maybe you could say they were gift boxes.” Everson studied the gingerbread walls held in place by Gabe, Jack, and Shane’s hands. “You could cover each piece with icing and decorate them like presents.”
Shane lifted his free hand for a high-five. “My future brother in law is a genius.”
Everson grinned, cheeks turning as red as his long, auburn hair, and his gaze roamed to Ryan. “I don’t know about that.”
“I do. I think you’re one too.” Ryan presented a gingerbread heart, decorated in red and green swirls to Everson. His fiance, a linebacker known for stoicism, strength, and toughness on the football field, positively melted. Eyes sparking and mouth soft, he leaned in and brushed a kiss across Ryan’s lips.
With their wedding less than two months away, the plans for the wedding cake had been finalized, after multiple taste tests. Ashley couldn’t wait to bake it for them and to celebrate their special day with the entire family.
She returned to her spot at the table and piped line after line of red, following Xavier’s alternate piping of green, surrounded by laughter and conversations and best of all, love.
Maybe the holidays would always feel a little lonely. Maybe some occasions would be harder to handle than others, but she was trying her best to be strong and live a full and rich life, and to be someone her mom would be proud of.
Three hours later, after they'd completed their creations and cleaned up the mess, and everyone had exited the building with their gingerbread houses in tow, Ashley detoured with Xavier to walk by the front of the shop.
The wind whistled and sent leaves rustling along the street, but still, she paused. The streetlights cast an inviting glow on the window display and several of the entries were within easy sight.
"Everything looks amazing." His deep voice, hushed against the dark night, reminded her of the night before the store's grand opening, when they'd stood in the very same spot and he'd spoken the very same words.
"From where I'm standing too." Repeating the words she'd echoed back then, Ashley smiled. He'd given her the bakery, a second shot at her dream. But more than that, a love and a partnership deeper and stronger than anything she'd ever known. She tucked her hand into the crook of Xavier's arm and leaned against him as they walked to his truck.
No matter what happened at the judging, even if she walked into the bakery in the morning and found twenty-four gingerbread creations in various states of disarray, she'd do her best to bring happiness to the kids, the way her mom always had.
* * * * *
Heartbeat pounding and nerves pulsing with excitement and anticipation, Ashley stood in the center of the bakery, and smiled at the sea of faces — the kids and their families, all eagerly awaiting the judging results. She glanced past them to Gabriel and Sebastian manning the counter behind the display cases. Her employees were wonderful with the kids, joking around and asking the kids questions about their entries.
“Ready for this?” Xavier was by her side, in a festive holiday sweater that complemented her own and jeans that showcased his athletic build, ready to help her hand out the awards.
“Ready.” She smiled at him and squeezed his hand. “Thanks for being here, and for helping us finish making the cookie awards this morning. I know it wasn’t easy getting up early after we went to bed so late last night. It means a lot to me.”
“Not a problem. I’m just glad you scheduled this for our bye week, so Everson and I could be here.”
“That may have been done on purpose.” She bumped his shoulder. When she’d first brought up the idea for the competition, scheduling it for the bye week had been Xavier’s idea. “Having your family here for support means a lot too.”
The rest of the Brennan clan, plus Jack, stood in the back of the room, ready to cheer for every child as they were announced. A cheering section well-suited to the job.
“Of course, they’re here. You’re family. They love you.”
“I love them too.”
She raised her hands and waved and pitched her voice above the din. “Hello everyone and welcome. Thank you all for taking part in our gingerbread competition. My mom started this tradition years ago, and it means so much to me that you’ve all been so enthusiastic about it. Every single entry is special and we loved them all. You kids should be really proud of yourselves. And now, we have a lot of prizes to give out. The best part about them is that they are edible. Are you all ready?”
Cheers rose from the kids. Tiny faces lighting up with excitement, their high-pitched voices raised in speculation of who would win what mixed with the jingle bells accompanying the instrumental holiday music, and Ashley felt a bit like Santa Claus, ready to deliver some holiday joy. “Then let’s get right to it. The first award, for the most frosting used goes to Max Tanner.”
Applause and shouts of Congratulations! and Way to go! and Yay, Max! rang out, echoing through the shop. When the applause died down, she motioned for Max to come forward. The little boy's castle, complete with dragon, was simply adorable.
Xavier handed him the award with a grin. Max’s eyes grew wide as he accepted it. The extra large sugar cookie was shaped like a trophy and decorated with white icing and red and green snowflakes. The Bliss Bakery logo sat at its base. Most Frosting Used was piped in fancy blue lettering across the trophy’s middle. “In addition to the award, you also win your choice of any cupcake in the display case. Gabriel and Sebastian are happy to help you. And the people who accompanied you today can pick their choice of treat too. Congratulations, Max.”
“Thank you.” Max beamed at her and then hurried back to his family and showed off his trophy.
For the next fifteen minutes, Ashley continued handing out prizes ranging from “most wintry,” “most magical,” and “most colorful” to “best use of glitter” and “the Philly-est” until every single entry had won an award and every single child had a smile on their face and a cupcake or cookie in their hands.
Finally, with the last of the awards given, Ashley raised her hands and her voice once again. “Thank you all for taking part in our competition and helping us recreate a very special Bliss Bakery tradition. Please feel free to stay and enjoy some cookies and celebrate your kids’ creations. We wish you a Happy Holidays!”
Everyone in the shop cheered. Sunlight beamed in, sparkling against the glittering ornaments and casting a rainbow of colors on the opposite wall. The very merry atmosphere, filled with love and laughter, was enough to grow any Grinch’s heart three sizes at least.
Xavier wrapped his arm around her shoulders and kissed her temple. “Your mom would be so proud of you.”
“She loved seeing the kids get all excited for Christmas.” She smiled through the ache and turned to face him. “I’m so glad we did this, and I’m so glad you’re here to share it with me.”
Smiling, he lowered his head. “Even though Rocky destroyed the gingerbread house we labored over at three o’clock this morning?”
Laughter shook her shoulders and stole her breath. The image of the smashed house on the floor and the dog standing guiltily over it with sad, please-forgive-me, you-can’t-stay-mad-at-this-face eyes was too much. “Can’t really blame him, can we? After all, we did make a dog house. He probably thought it was for him.”
“I still don’t know how he got up on the counter. I figured it was a high enough, safe enough place.” Xavier’s eyes crinkled as he laughed.
“Next year, we’ll leave it at the bakery. Or figure out a way to dog-proof the house.”
“Next year… We’ll be married by then.” A thrill skittered through her, just thinking about it.
His laughter faded but his smile remained and he framed her face with his hands. “And I can’t wait. I promise I’ll always be here to share things with you. I love you, Ashley.”
Heart full, Ashley drew him down for a kiss. “I love you too, Xavier.”
The rest of the family crowded around them, admiring the gingerbread creations, exchanging hugs, and making plans for the next few weeks. Ashley welcomed it all. She might be marrying Xavier, but through him, she’d gained a large and ready network of support and love.
Sometimes, it was chaos and messy decorating parties, and sometimes it was mellow brunches and laughter-filled family dinners. But always, it was showing up for each other, whether cheering on Leo or Xavier at their games, or helping out Ryan and Shane at the gym or cheering them on at their softball games, or the countless times the Brennans had filled in as extra help in various roles around the bakery.
She was a part of it, a part of them, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
After all, family was what mattered most, and with Xavier, and the Brennans and their extended clan, she’d received the greatest present of all: Love, in an overflowing amount from an ever-expanding crew.