A Beach Tea Shop Novella
A warm breeze blew Alexandra Powell's auburn hair around her face as she entered Beach Tea Shop, holding a dusty book. Tiny wind chimes on the door mixed with the sound of holiday music and people talking. Alex was looking forward to tonight’s expected cold front to make it feel more like Christmas. Drapes and tablecloths helped mute the chatter into a melodic noise. She breathed in the scents of pastries and tea, feeling at home. The Friday before Christmas always brought shoppers out in force, and many were taking a break at Beach Tea Shop.
“Glad you’re here, Alex. Grab an apron and get on the floor. We’re in the weeds.” Chelsea’s brisk tone was of a piece with her serving style, never missing a beat as she moved from table to table while depositing full plates or clearing off used ones. Her long brown ponytail swung back and forth with her movements.
“I found Nana Jean’s recipe book in one of the boxes from the attic,” Alex said, displaying her find. “I think this has her gingerbread recipe in it. Danielle wanted to make it for Tuesday’s Holiday Tea.”
“Dani can wait. Right now we’re swamped and I need you on the floor.” Chelsea smiled at Alex and said, “But I’m glad you found it. My mouth has been watering ever since Dani said she wanted to make gingerbread for the Holiday Tea. I’ve been trying to remember the last time Nana Jean made it.”
“It was before the hurricane flooded the old shop. Was it twenty years ago?” Alex moved through the tea shop, following Chelsea to the small back office. Alex placed the old book on the desk.
“Nineteen ninety-four. Hurricane Gordon. Time flies, doesn’t it? It feels like we’ve always been here. I can barely remember the old shop,” Chelsea said.
Stepping into the doorway of the kitchen, Alex said, “Dani, I found the old recipe book for you. I hope it has the gingerbread recipe.”
Dani moved with effortless grace, gliding from oven to cooling rack to refrigerator. “Excellent! I’ve been searching recipes on Pinterest in case we couldn’t find Nana Jean’s recipe.” Dani stepped back with her arms full of butter and eggs, a quart of cream held in the crook of her elbow. A black and white headband corralled her light brown bangs while her pixie cut grew out, and coordinated with the large black and white ticking striped chef’s apron. “I’m grateful for the holiday rush, but right now I am so looking forward to Wednesday when we’re closed. Alex, can you help Chelsea out in the dining room?”
“She already asked and I'm on it. I can’t believe we worried about whether anyone would take time for tea this week.” Alex slid an apron over her head and tied the apron strings behind her back. White eyelet lace edged the pockets on the bottom, and black piping set the white lace off from the black and white ticking apron. Slipping a covered elastic band off her wrist, she gathered her hair into a short ponytail. Picking up an order pad and several pens, she put them in one apron pocket before filling the other pocket with paper-wrapped straws. Taking a deep breath and exhaling, she headed out to the packed dining room.
Ruby Hayward and Phoebe Nolan sat in a protected corner, bags tucked under the table and placed along the walls. They looked like sisters, both with bobbed blonde hair that looked fresh from the salon. They wore shift dresses with sweaters draped over their shoulders, Ruby in her favorite pink and white, Phoebe in red and green. Ruby wore her usual Youth Dew perfume, and Phoebe wore a lighter floral scent.
The small table was favored by shoppers because its location limited movement to two sides, creating a cozy nook. A window next to the table allowed sunlight to sparkle on the bead-draped chandelier above, sending rainbows dancing over the whitewashed walls.
Ruby called out, “Alex? Did I hear you say you found your grandmother’s gingerbread recipe? It was a favorite during the holidays.”
“Maybe we should have a gingerbread bake-off. Ruby’s won awards for hers, and I have a new recipe I’d like to try. May the best gingerbread win,” Phoebe said, but she didn’t look at Ruby, whose mouth dropped open.
“Since when do you bake gingerbread?” Ruby asked Phoebe. “You always said how delicious mine was.” Ruby brushed non-existent crumbs from the tablecloth in front of her and smoothed her skirt. Crossing her arms over her chest, she leaned back in her chair and waited for Phoebe to answer.
Phoebe shrugged. “I thought I’d try it. I’ve seen some of those Food Network chefs make it, and it doesn’t seem that complicated. Maybe I wanted to try something you’ve been doing.” She dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, then folded it and placed it on the table.
Alex wondered at the unexpected tension between Ruby and Phoebe. They had been thick as thieves for as long as she could remember. “Yes, that's right. I just found Nana Jean’s old recipe book. I haven’t even had a chance to see if the recipe is in there yet. Do you ladies have everything you need?” Alex removed an empty three-tier stand from the table. Turning to take it to the kitchen, she bumped Chelsea. “Sorry, Sis. I don’t have my serving rhythm yet.”
Chelsea’s tray bobbled before she steadied it and set it down. “You’ll get it back. I’ll take that, and you can help the three women who just came in.”
Alex handed her sister the tiered stand and walked to the front of the tea shop. A cinnamon broom just inside the door welcomed guests with holiday fragrance that was amplified by fresh-baked pastries. Three women stood next to the empty hostess desk, smiling as they sniffed appreciatively.
Alex greeted the newcomers. “Good afternoon, ladies, welcome to Beach Tea Shop. My name is Alex, and I have a table available for you.” She led them to a table, and waited while they took their seats. “Would you like to see menus?”
“That would be lovely, dear. Thank you. We’re knackered from shopping and the heat. I didn’t expect this part of Florida to be so warm.” The woman’s British accent explained her comment about the heat. Temperatures in the high seventies weren’t hot to the locals, but it might feel that way to someone used to England’s winter cool.
Alex handed menus to each of the women. “You’ll be happy to hear we’re expecting a cold front to come through tonight. It’s going to get down into the forties. Tomorrow should be in the low sixties. Are you visiting friends in Citrus Beach for the holidays?”
“Yes, we are,” said one of the newcomers. “Our first trip.”
“Welcome,” said Alex, as she placed water glasses on the table and filled them from a pitcher on the buffet table near her. “I’ll give you a moment to look over the menu.” She gathered up three empty water pitchers that needed refilling.
“Thank you, Alex. It smells divine in here. There’s nothing quite like the smell of yeasty bread baking, is there?” She paused to take a sip of water. “You come highly recommended by a friend in Palm Beach. She suggested driving an hour north to Citrus Beach, where there was a delightful tea shop with marvelous baked goods that we shouldn’t miss.”
All three women glanced down at their menus and began deciding who would order what so they could share the treats. “Looking at this, I’m glad we made the drive up.”
Alex smiled. She and her sisters had debated whether re-opening Beach Tea Shop after their grandmother’s death was a good idea. However, it had been gratifying to see the community embrace Nana Jean’s legacy. An unexpected bonus was hearing how far their reputation had spread.
Whooping and hollering outside caught Alex’s attention, and she set down the three empty water pitchers and went outside onto the porch to see what the commotion was. Walking down three steps to the brick walkway that wound through the Victorian-style buildings in the Citrus Beach Shoppes, she saw five teenagers skateboarding through the strolling pedestrians and window shoppers, headed right for her.
“Stop! Skateboards aren’t allowed in here. You boys should know better. Go on home and don’t come back here.” Alex stood, hands fisted at her hips and glared at the boys. “Jacob Turner, I know your parents won’t want to hear about this.”
They were poking each other as if to say, what is she going to do about it? Realizing Alex knew one of them, their attitude shifted from defiance to polite attention.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jacob muttered. “Let’s go to my house, guys.”
They started to mount the skateboards but stopped and looked at Alex, as if trying to decide whether to obey her or not.
“Just pick them up and walk to the Turners' house. Jacob, I don’t want to see you boys around here again. I won’t mention this to your mother unless I have to. Understood? I know you’re on winter break from school, but the Citrus Beach Shoppes are not a playground. You could hit someone. Or get hurt trying to avoid a shopper.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The boys walked off, holding their skateboards and muttering to each other. They crossed the wide brick sidewalk, skirting the row of hibiscus bushes that separated the parking lot from the shopping area.
Alex couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she hoped they paid attention to her warning and didn’t come back on their skateboards. She went back into the tea shop, shivering as a sudden gust of wind raised goosebumps on her arms.
Ruby said, “Those boys are a menace. You should have called the police. We knew how to deal with boys like that, didn’t we, Phoebe? None of today’s spare the rod and spoil the child. Mark my words, they’ll be back.”
Phoebe nodded in agreement.
“They’re just excited to be done with school. Today was their last day until next year,” Alex said.
Ruby and Phoebe stood, gathering their bags and packages. Ruby looked out the window and rested a hand on the bottom pane. “The cold weather is moving in already. I need to get home and wrap my bushes so they don’t freeze.”
Phoebe snorted. “It’s not going to be that cold, Ruby. Your bushes will be just fine.”
Ruby distributed her packages between both hands and said, “Better safe than sorry, I say. And Alex, think about having a Gingerbread Bake-Off, so we can see who has the best recipe.”
Sure, Alex thought. In what spare time?
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