Bella

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Nervous as a girl at her first cotillion, Bella Francis, heiress to the Francis Shipping Company out of St Louis, stood in front of the podium with her best friend Abigail Vanderhooten. The Texas sun beat down on the women and the rest of the townspeople gathered to learn who had won the baking contest at the New Hope, Texas Annual Fall Festival.

The season was autumn, but the weather felt more like summer with the wind gently blowing her long skirts and teasing wisps of hair from beneath her bonnet.

She knew she was a good baker. Since the age of six, she'd spent time with Viola, her father’s cook. Whenever nanny told her to occupy herself, she'd spent hours learning how to create delicious pastries, in her father's fancy kitchen. But most of all, Bella discovered she enjoyed baking.

Mayor Jack Turner walked to the front of the podium and Abigail squeezed Bella's hand. Abigail and Jack were engaged to be married as soon as the rest of their friends, their fellow suffragettes, arrived in New Hope. And that should be any day.

"That's my man," Abigail said softly gazing up at Jack with pride.

"It's okay if I don't win," Bella replied, knowing even as she said the words, she wanted this more than the college diploma she'd run from. This was her dream, her desire to own a bakery and share her love of cooking with others. And if she won this small event, then the town would realize she could bake.

"I'm pleased to announce that after ten years, we have a new champion." Jack looked down at Bella. Her heart leaped into her throat pounding furiously. "Bella Sullivan."

For a moment, she was surprised he'd said Sullivan, but she and Abigail agreed it was best she went by her grandmother's maiden name to keep her family from finding her. She knew her father was searching and didn't want to be located.

The townspeople clapped as she made her way to the podium. There, Jack handed her a blue ribbon. "You've broken the longest winning streak by Franco Ruffini. He's been our winner for the last ten festivals. Congratulations."

"Thank you," Bella said. She turned to face the judges and shook hands with the five people from the small town who had bestowed her the prize. "Thank you."

"Delicious," Mrs. Fitzgerald said. "I can't remember tasting any pastry quite so good."

The older man shook his head. "I was shocked. I didn't expect it to just melt in my mouth."

"Bella, you should open your own shop," Henrietta Mason, the owner of the restaurant told her. "The town’s bakery closed when Franco took ill. You could earn a good living."

Smiling, Bella knew that was exactly what she hoped to do and was even looking at the building where the man's brick oven was located. It was the perfect set-up and she'd been considering the building since she'd arrived in New Hope. For now, her pastry goods were for sale in Abigail's mercantile. But it would be so much better if she had her own place with the right equipment.

"Thank you, Henrietta. I'll take that under advisement and consider your suggestion." She smiled at them. "Again, thank you, this means so much to me." How could she tell them it was the first good thing to happen to her in a long time, and she needed this validation that she was good at what she enjoyed doing.

Walking down the stairs, she noticed the crowd was beginning to disperse, heading over to other displays at the small festival. Actually, it was more like a town picnic compared to the events she'd attended in Boston or even in St. Louis, where she'd lived as a young girl.

Walking toward Abigail, an older, graying gentleman stepped in front of her.

"How did you convince the judges to vote for you?” he asked, his voice low and rigid.

Shocked, she shook her head. "What are you saying? I didn't say anything to the judges. They didn't know whose dish was whose."

His dark eyes flashed and he tilted his head toward them. "You talk to them."

"I was telling them thank you."

A young, dark-haired man walked up beside the older man. He glanced at her apologetically. "Papa, let it go. It was time for someone else to win."

It was then that everything fell into place.

The older man's eyes darkened as he gazed at her suspiciously. "I'm Franco Ruffini and this is my son, Luca. I'm the person whose winning streak you broke."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Ruffini."

The man's eyes narrowed and he stared at her. "I'm having a hard time believing that a young woman like yourself could out bake me."

"Papa," Luca said, gazing at her, shaking his head apologetically. "Things change."

The young man's dark hair and even darker eyes sent a tingle of awareness spiraling down her spine. He was certainly a handsome man. Even more attractive than the cowboys who roamed the town.

"My baking has not changed. It's still just as good as it used to be."

"I'm sure it is, Mr. Ruffini," Bella said, knowing the man was offended that a woman had beaten him. A young woman, an outsider in the small town.

"Next year, I will take my title back," he said, lifting his chin proudly.

She smiled. "I'm up for that challenge. Maybe before then, we can have our own bake off."

She tossed the idea out there just to appease the older gentleman.

The man tilted his head, his dark eyes suddenly brightening. A smile curved his lips and he nodded. "I accept. We'll set the time and the place."

"Papa," his son exclaimed. "Leave it alone."

The father held up his hand to silence his son. Then he reached out and took Bella's hand. "Nice to meet you, Miss Sullivan. And yes, we will set a time and a place for our bake off."