Valentine's Day is right around the corner, and we're getting into the spirit by sharing some excerpts of sweet reads right here on OOM!
First up: Here's the first chapter of I Only Have Pies for You by Suzanne Nelson!
About the book: Dacey Culpepper Biel comes from a long line of pie bakers. Her family's shop, Pies N' Prattle, is legendary in her small Texas town. But Dacey didn't inherit a gift for baking. Her pies always end up as messy or burnt disasters. Even worse? Business has been slow lately, and Dacey wishes she could do something to help.
Then opportunity knocks: A popular TV show wants to feature the shop! But that means Dacey will have to spend time with Chayton Freedel, her arch-rival and the cute son of the show's host. And when clues arise about a long-hidden family recipe, life at the shop may never be the same
With a sprinkling of luck and some Southern charm, will Dacey be able to find the recipe, work alongside Chayton, and save her family's legacy?
I approached the oven with a mixture of hope and trepidation. Could it be that I’d finally done it? I reached for the handle, then hesitated, breathing deep. The pie definitely smelled right. The kitchen of Pies N’ Prattle was steeped in the scents of caramelized butter, cinnamon, and apples. A promising sign.
I opened the oven a crack and peeked in. No! The caramel apple pie I’d spent my entire afternoon making looked like a natural disaster. The crust was a sinkhole, cratering into the caramel apple filling; only its sad, crinkled edges remained.
I ripped off my oven mitts and launched them across the room, letting out a cry of frustration. I’d always had a temper worse than a grease fire—flaring in an instant and tough to douse. My parents often laughed about the fervor with which I’d thrown myself on the floor as a toddler whenever I was told I had to eat my peas or go to bed. It wasn’t a trait I was proud of, but I never could seem to get a handle on it, either. In fact, I might’ve hollered again over my pie fiasco if the muffled voices of our customers in the main room hadn’t stopped me.
“¿Qué pasó?” I heard Mrs. Gonzalez say. “Is that Dacey? Is she all right?”
Mom’s bell-like laughter sounded from the other side of the kitchen door. “She’s fine. Just doing some baking is all. She’s so much like her great-grandma Hazel . . . a bundle of pint-sized passion, especially when it comes to pies.”
Like GG Hazel? I scoffed, staring at my sunken pie. I’d never known GG Hazel in person. She’d died long before I was born. I knew about her, though. Every person in Bonnet, Texas, did. There was one, universally acknowledged truth about Hazel Culpepper: That woman could bake pies.
And I couldn’t. But Mom kept insisting on this resemblance I supposedly had to GG Hazel. As if Mom’s saying it might give me the pie gene that seemed to have skipped my DNA.
“Dacey?” Mom stuck her head around the door. A quick scan of the kitchen told her I was alive and well, but she still said, “Scale of one to ten, hangnail to Armageddon. Go.”
Mom had played this game with me for as long as I could remember, asking me to pick a number on a scale of one to ten as a way of gauging the severity of any problem. It was her not- so-subtle way of reminding me to control my temper.
“Two,” I mumbled grudgingly. “Not Armageddon, but my pie does look like it’s been hit by a meteor.”
“Caramel apple crumble it is, then.” Mom smiled. “You come from a long line of great pie bakers, Dace. Don’t worry so much. You’ll grow into your talent.” She took my apple “crumble” out of the oven and slid it into a pastry box. I had no idea what poor victim Mom might give it to, but I hoped I’d never set eyes on the disaster again. “Now come on out and say hi to everybody. They’ve been asking after you.”
I followed Mom through the swinging doors. The snug main room—painted a cheery daffodil yellow and crowded with armchairs, settees, and coffee tables—instantly brightened my mood. More than that, though, were the waves, smiles, and “hello”s I got from the dozen or so folks in the shop.
There was Mrs. Gonzalez with her fussy baby Marco and little daughter Alma. There was Mrs. Beaumont and her Friday afternoon knitting group. Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Walker were arguing over their game of Scrabble, and Ms. Jackson was work- ing on the romance novel she’d been swearing she’d have finished by the summer solstice. They weren’t customers so much as per- manent fixtures in Pies N’ Prattle. They’d been coming to our shop since before I was born, and knew almost as much about my life as Mom and Dad did.
It was like having a bunch of aunts, uncles, and grandparents watching over me 24/7—and not just in our shop, either. Our small, homespun town of Bonnet was bordered by the Brazos River on one side and the Jenkins cattle ranch on the other. A hiccup took longer than a drive down our main street. Bonnet’s single traffic light had made the front page of the Bonnet Times when it had finally been installed two years ago, and Bonneters loved to boast about the bona fide hitching post that still stood, as it had for over a century, outside The Chicken Shack. But people looked after each other in Bonnet, and it gave the town a coziness and familiarity that I loved.
“Don’t forget, Selena,” Mom said to Mrs. Gonzalez, who was leaving with Alma and the squalling Marco in her arms. “Two slices of the lavender honey pie an hour before you nurse Marco and you’ll both sleep through the night. You’ll see.”
Mrs. Gonzalez hugged her, gushing her thanks, then waved to me and headed out.
“Poor Selena,” Mom murmured. “A colicky newborn and now her restaurant closing its doors next month.”
Together, we stared out the window at The Whole Enchilada—the tiny but delicious Tex-Mex restaurant the Gonzalez family owned on Main Street. It sat between two vacant stores; those had once been the Bonnet Soda Shop and Shoe-La-La Consignment.
“That’s the fifth business to close in the last six months,” I said. “And we’re not even counting the Longhorn Loop.”
Just saying the name of Texas’s oldest wooden roller coaster made my throat hitch. It wasn’t that I was particularly attached to the ride. But when the coaster closed six months ago, the loss of the tourist attraction had been a virtual death knell for Bonnet’s businesses. Visits from out-of-towners had always been few and far between. Still, for over a century, Bonnet had boasted two claims to fame: Hazel Culpepper’s pie shop and the Longhorn Loop. Now we had only the pie shop left, and the tourists were dwindling.
“It’s not good,” Mom said. A second later, she straightened her shoulders, adding, “But it’s no use drowning in a river of worry, either.”
There it was. Mom’s glass-half-full MO. She smiled at our shop full of regulars. “We have our tried-and-true Bonneters.” Then she turned to the picture of GG Hazel that hung on the wall, alongside Hazel’s favorite apron. The photo was part of a framed article from the Bonnet Times, May of 1945. Mom reached out and pressed her fingertips to Hazel’s cheek. “And we have GG Hazel to inspire us. I just wish we still had her Heartstring Pie, too. Now that would be something folks would talk about all over Texas.”
A reverent hush fell over the shop at Mom’s mention of Heartstring Pie. There wasn’t a soul in Bonnet who hadn’t heard the stories about my great-grandmother’s most famous pie and the supposed “curse” surrounding it. Nor was there a soul who hadn’t, at one time or another, hoped to be the one to find the missing recipe for it.
“I had a piece of Heartstring Pie,” a gravelly voice said behind us. It was Mr. Jenkins. With his six-foot-four-inch frame, thick silver mustache, and broad build, he might’ve seemed imposing, except that I’d known him my entire life. “Just once when I was eight.” His expression softened into nostalgia. “Hazel brought me a slice after my mama’s passing. I didn’t want to touch a bite of it at first. Couldn’t eat a thing, let alone talk or even cry. But Hazel, she leaned over me and said, ‘Now, Jeb, just the tiniest nibble will ease you. It won’t stop the hurting, but it’ll make it tolerable.’ She spoon-fed me a bite and, next thing I knew, I was in her lap, the floodgates open.” He shook his head. “Strangest thing, too, but it did help. I don’t know how, but it did.”
I’d heard Mr. Jenkins’s story many times before, and it always gave me a little tingle of warmth, like there was a part of me that believed there was some magic in that pie. But then I brushed the thought away. I knew it was a silly idea.
“That sounds like Hazel’s Heartstring Pie, for sure,” Mom said reverently. GG Hazel had passed away when Mom was only five. Even though Mom didn’t remember her, she’d grown up steeped in Hazel’s larger-than-life legend, fostering a loyalty so deep that she felt “called,” as she put it, to do right by Hazel and the pie shop. “That pie was a treasure.”
“Miss Edie?” Mr. Jenkins said to Mom. “Speaking of pie, could I get a slice of your pecan pie for my Mazie? Her rheumatism’s acting up again and we’ve got company coming—”
“Of course.” Mom flew behind the sales counter to box up the pie. “And I’m sending you home with a slice of pineapple pie, too. Just the trick for aching bones.” Mr. Jenkins reached for his wallet, but Mom waved it away. “On the house.”
Mr. Jenkins clucked his tongue. “Edie, how many times have I told you to quit giving your pies away for free?”
Mom put her hands on her hips, feigning indignation. “Jeb, you run your ranch the way you see fit, and I’ll do the same for my shop.”
He gave a deep chuckle, tipped his Stetson cattleman hat to her, then smiled at me as he headed for the door. “Dacey, I’ll see you at the stables in the morning?”
I felt a swell of excitement. I boarded my horse, Ginger, at the Jenkins ranch and I never missed a day of riding if I could help it. “Count on it!” I told him.
I’d been riding Ginger in Western horse shows since I’d gotten her in the third grade, and I’d taken riding lessons at the ranch long before that. Dad teased that if he hadn’t witnessed the event himself, he would’ve sworn I was born in a saddle. My temper never got the better of me when I was around horses. I itched to be riding Ginger now—instead of stuck here at the pie shop.
I could feel GG Hazel’s gaze on me, as if she’d heard my thoughts. I studied the black-and-white photograph, taking in Hazel’s fair skin, wavy black bob, small mouth, slightly crooked nose, wide-set eyes, and dark arched brows.
Mom didn’t much resemble Hazel, but everyone was always commenting that I did. I couldn’t see it. Yes, I had Hazel’s dark hair, though mine was longer, curlier, and more unruly, usually tied back in a mussed knot. But her eyes were nothing like mine. Hers had a confident clarity and an almost clairvoyant quality that made people believe she could help them with whatever troubles they brought before her. Of course, that glimmer in her expression might also have been pride in the flawless Heartstring Pie she offered up to the camera.
What I apparently had inherited from her was her temper. The story went that Hazel had once pitched an entire banana cream pie at Bonnet’s mayor, simply because he’d suggested removing Main Street’s old hitching post. How bad did my luck have to be that I’d gotten GG Hazel’s only flaw and none of her charms?
I sighed and scanned the newspaper article for the hundredth time.
HAZEL CULPEPPER BAKES UP HEALING AND HOPE
Just days after D-Day, our own Hazel Culpepper, alongside other Red Cross volunteers, was saving the lives and lifting the spirits of dozens of American soldiers at Normandy Beach, France. Only it isn’t her nursing skill that’s earned her the nickname “Healing Hazel”; it’s her pie. Since returning to Bonnet, Hazel’s been busy baking up pies for our returning veterans.
“I saw our boys suffering,” she says. “Many were weary and shell-shocked. Some were plain brokenhearted from what they’d seen and done. The best comfort I could offer was a lending ear to hear their sorrows, and a pie to please their bellies.”
Hazel and her Heartstring Pie, in particular, are earning the admiration and devotion of every veteran for miles around.
“Hazel has a knack for knowing when a soldier’s down,” Fred Cooper says. “That’s when she comes knocking with her Heartstring Pie. One slice, and peace settles in my soul. I can’t ever forget the war, but I do take some comfort from Hazel and her pie.”
The article, I knew, had been reprinted in papers from Houston to Dallas, and soon much of Texas was flooding in to visit Bonnet for a taste of the famous Heartstring Pie.
Only now, the Heartstring Pie recipe was gone, and the pie with it. According to Mom, GG Hazel had hidden the recipe years ago, when she discovered that my grandma Mabel planned to turn the pie into a moneymaking machine. Mabel began claiming the pie could work legit miracles, from curing cancer to preventing aging, and she was going to sell the recipe for a pretty penny to anyone desperate enough to believe.
“Hazel never wanted the recipe to be misused like that,” Mom had told me. “She didn’t want anyone selling Heartstring Pie for a profit and cheating folks into believing the pie was some sort of eternal life elixir.”
After GG Hazel died, Grandma Mabel never gave up searching for that recipe, even when she retired and passed the pie shop along to Mom. No one in Bonnet knew where Hazel had hidden the recipe. But lots of people tried to re-create the pie without knowing what had gone into it. And the strange thing? Each attempt someone made ended in disaster.
Stories abounded of Heartstring knockoffs that smelled like skunk or putrid socks. One pie simply exploded, without any explanation, covering half the congregation of the Bonnet Baptist church in a purple stain that took weeks to wash off. Worst of all was the pie that Grandma Mabel made, which, when she sliced into it, produced a poor little mouse. Mabel never understood how that mouse got into the pie, and Mom swore she was still muttering about it with her very last breath.
Was it a true curse? I didn’t believe in that sort of nonsense. But that didn’t stop Bonnet folks from being superstitious about the Heartstring Pie, and lifting it onto a pedestal of magic. No one could duplicate that pie, and nothing else could ever com- pare to it in deliciousness or mysterious healing properties.
“I believe that recipe’s still hidden somewhere,” Mom liked to say with a smile. “Tucked into a cozy nook, waiting for the right Culpepper to discover it.”
I always rolled my eyes at this, but I wondered about the whereabouts of that recipe, too. Sometimes I almost felt tempted to look for it, but then caught myself. If GG Hazel’s spirit did still linger, she’d make sure that her recipe never fell into the hands of a failure of a pie baker like me.
Besides, the recipe had probably been destroyed decades ago, disintegrating in our Texas humidity in whatever ancient hole GG Hazel had stuck it in.
“Did Hazel finally give up the secret today?” a voice behind me said teasingly.
I whirled around to see my best friend, Zari, grinning at me. Her big eyes—the color of blackberries—glimmered from her heart-shaped face.
On the outside, Zari and I were opposites; while my hair was long and messy, hers was cropped short and cute. My skin was pale and freckled; hers was dark brown. I was tall; she was petite. But we’d been attached at the hip practically since birth.
“What a headline that would make,” Zari continued, peering at Hazel’s photo, “‘Famous Heartstring Pie Recipe Rediscovered At Last!’ ”
“Zari!” I laughed, exasperated. “It’s never going to happen. And would you please quit sneaking up on me like that?” The girl had a talent for slinking in and out of rooms.
“How else do you expect me to get decent scoops?” She shrugged, then snagged the slice of Lemon Zinger pie waiting for her on the sales counter. Zari stopped by the shop almost every day after school, and Mom always had a piece of her favorite pie waiting.
We sat down together at a table and Zari dug into her slice. “A skilled investigative journalist has to keep her eyes and ears open to everything,” my best friend went on. “It’s how Pulitzers are won and the best news written.”
“News?” I raised an eyebrow. Zari wrote a weekly “Buzz” column for The Beehive, the Bonnet Middle School paper, but whether its content qualified as news was debatable.
I ducked as she launched a napkin at my head.
“Hey!” Zari cried. “It’s not my fault our fishbowl of a town isn’t at the forefront of current affairs. But I report the truth. And if the truth is that Ms. Aberdine has fifty cats living in her basement, or that Mr. Victor’s pig got loose and ate every gera- nium in Mrs. Beaumont’s window boxes—”
“That pig did indeed!” Mrs. Beaumont interjected, looking up from her knitting. “Mark my words, that Tootsie will get her comeuppance someday . . .”
“Then,” persisted Zari, ignoring Mrs. Beaumont’s interruption, “it’s my duty to share it. The last decent story I had was when Mrs. Crenshaw declared she’d discovered the Heartstring Pie recipe buried in a sarsaparilla bottle under her front porch.”
“That was a doozy!” Ms. Jackson whistled, pausing over her typewriter. “That pie she baked gave her entire family hives for weeks!”
“The curse,” Mrs. Beaumont murmured with a shake of her head.
That brought a round of knowing chuckles from everyone in the room except for me and Zari. We exchanged an amused glance; we didn’t believe in the “curse.”
Zari slapped her messenger bag onto the table, jabbing a finger at the design printed on its label: a replica of a New York City street grid. “Right here. Forty-First and Eighth Avenue. That’s where my destiny lies.”
“The New York Times.” I grinned at her. “I know. You’re going to be the chief current affairs correspondent.”
“I hope so. My soul is a New Yorker’s. But”—Zari paused for dramatic effect—“I do have a real piece of news today. Something way bigger than cats and pigs. Only, I’m not sure how you’re going to take it.” She looked at me with conflicting flickers of excitement and hesitation.
My muscles clenched. I’d never seen Zari worried about spill- ing news before. “If this is about another store closing, I don’t want to know.”
Zari shook her head. “Just promise not to freak out, okay?” I nodded impatiently.
She took a deep breath, then let the words fly in a furious tumble. “ChaytonFreedellisbackintown.”
I blinked. My heart tripped. “I didn’t hear you right. Chayton Freedell is . . . back?” I hadn’t said that name in two years, and it tasted bitter on my tongue.
“He is,” Zari squeaked.
“What?” I shrieked, and Mrs. Beaumont dropped her knitting to clutch her chest.
“Everything’s fine,” Zari reassured everyone, then lowered her voice at me. “Breathe. I know you said you never wanted to see him again, but don’t go Hulk on me.”
I pressed my palms into the table. “Don’t you remember what he did to me?” I hissed.
“The parade disaster?” Zari scoffed. “Of course I do. I was the one who spent hours helping you wash the pie out of your hair.” I shuddered at the memory. When I was ten, Chayton Freedell and I had ridden our horses side by side in the Bonnet County Fair parade. Only Chayton started fooling around, like he always did, snagging people’s hats off their heads, lying across the back of his horse and pretending to slide off. I told him to quit, but did he listen? Nooooooo. Course not. Instead, he spooked my Ginger until she bucked me off. I flew through the air and crashed into the Pies N’ Prattle booth, right atop the fifty huckleberry pies stacked sky-high for the fair’s pie-eating contest.
“He did apologize,” Zari reminded me gently.
“It wasn’t a real apology!” I remembered the tightness in Chayton’s voice, like he was trying to keep from busting up laughing, which he’d been doing only a minute before, along with most of the population of Bonnet.
“Dacey, it was two years ago. You’ve changed a lot since then. He probably has, too.”
“Not enough.” It wasn’t just about the pie fiasco; it was everything else that had led up to it, too. Chayton sat next to me in every class from kindergarten on, whispering knock-knock jokes and drawing cartoons he thrust in my face, whether I asked to see them or not. We were neck and neck for our grades in every subject. Somehow, he always ended up doing book reports on the same book as me, studying the same battle for every social studies project, and even tying me for second place in the spelling bee. The epic horse/pie disaster had been the last straw. When he’d moved away, I told myself I’d never have to speak to him again.
I dropped my head to the table, my anger fizzling into dismay. “Why is he back?” I groaned.
“Um, did you forget his grandpa lives here?”
“No,” I said grudgingly. I just didn’t like to think about the fact that Mr. Jenkins was related to Chayton at all.
“And you like Mr. Jenkins.”
“Because Mr. Jenkins isn’t anything like Chayton!” I looked up at Zari and frowned. “Irritating, show-off, know-it-all—”
“Generosity of spirit, Dace,” Mom interjected, coming over. “What’s this about now?”
“Good news for Bonnet, actually, Miss Edie,” Zari chirped. “Do you remember Julip Freedell?” Mom nodded, and I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Chayton’s mom was now famous as the host of the über-popular cooking and lifestyle show Prairie Living. Julip traveled all over Texas scouting for obscure craft ideas, antiques, and recipes.
“I just saw Mrs. Freedell at the middle school,” Zari explained. “She was registering Chayton for classes. She’s come back to Bonnet to film a special ‘Homecoming’ episode of her show. It’s going to feature the Bonnet County Fair and pie-eating contest!”
“Well.” If it were possible for Mom to look even cheerier than usual (which was a tall order, believe me), she did. “I’d call that news better than good. Julip’s show might breathe some life back into Bonnet, and bring in some fresh customers.”
“And save us from boredom,” Zari put in. “Newcomers mean intrigue and scandals and—”
“Trouble,” I grumbled.
Zari shook her head at me. “It’ll be fine. You’ll hardly notice Chayton’s back at all.”
All I could picture was my ten-year-old self, covered head to toe in huckleberry pie. I cringed. Hardly notice the return of my archnemesis? Not a chance.
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