Chapter 4

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It was near three when Irene returned to the Sweeties. Bustling in the after-work rush hour, customers sat eating their pastries while drool pooled at their chin. There was a constant ding from the register in the back of the main room, followed by, "Have a nice day. Come back to Sweeties anytime." And it was true. Even Irene knew this. 

Meanwhile, Erli soared above the customers' heads with a little song, having been left in the care of Bethany while Irene secured permission to divorce the shipwright. So, every now and then, Bethany's voice rang over the chatter of the bakery. "Erli! Get. Back. Here." Of course, he was a bird and kept nesting in one twitching critic's shaggy hair. 

As Irene walked into the bakery, she heard her bird being chided. "No pissing off the customers. Got, it Erli?"

"Oh, Erli," Irene muttered to herself. She brushed back a blue curl over her ear. She saw Bethany in the little kitchen in the back room. As residue rose into the air from the dough, the little flecks of dust seemed to powder the baker's ebony hair. This flew in blurry streaks in the frame of the rectangular cut in the wall.  

"Erli ..." Stern words swarmed like the calm before the storm. Irene couldn't help laughing. Strangely enough, the laughter echoed moments after it ceased. 

"Never gon' catch me." Irene nearly jumped out of her skin at the unfamiliar voice belonging to a male. It wasn't that it was a man speaking to Bethany that made chills shudder in her spine, but more that she'd never heard the voice before.

In the province of Westwind, it was a custom to know everyone with the proximity. Outsiders were rarely welcomed. And everyone was okay with it.

Irene took a step towards the kitchen as the curls settled down on her friend's back. "Erli—" Irene was drawn to the door out of the swarm of curiosity in her mind "—you put that down this second!" 

She had to know. She just had to. The desire throbbed in her stomach. It devoured her thoughts. 

So, she peeked inside the smoke-filled kitchen and saw a two-year-old boy in nothing more than an oversized dress shirt, flapping his concealed arms as he ran from the grasp of Beth. "I'm gonna get ya, Erli," Beth said with a laugh. 

Irene's jaw dropped. "What?" The word wasn't audible enough for anyone to hear. 

As Beth seemed to pull this Erli to her stomach, she and the boy bursted into an aria of laughter followed by the boy's slow syllables. "I love you, mama." 

"Mama?" Irene interjected, unable to close her jaw as it trembled. She twisted her arms into the depths of her sweater. "When did you become a mom?" 

Beth's eyes flickered to Irene. "Two years ago," she said and returned to her son.

"You named him after my bird?" Irene asked, squinting her eyes. 

Beth nodded as she wrestled with her son's hair. Irene watched without a single blink. "Go say hi." 

The toddler stumbled over to Irene who looked down at the boy as he said, "Hello."

"Hi." Irene then casted her gaze to her best friend. "Why didn't you tell me?" 

"It just never came up." Irene tilted her head to the side in acknowledgment. It made sense. After all, it was Irene's life that was discussed whenever they got together. She always assumed that there wasn't much to the topic of Beth's life. She was a successful baker. Period. "I'm sorry." 

"It's okay," Irene said with a pat on Erli's head. "It's my fault. I should've asked." Irene brushed a metallic blue behind her ear. "I'm sorry."

"Want to help me with the beignets?" Beth asked after distracting her son with a lollipop. 

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