Chris Larabee felt like day-old bread that had been sliced up for croutons. He woke to his friend Buck meringuing him for indulging in too much rum cake. All Chris wanted to do was remain oblivious to the world at the back of the pastry rack, but Buck stiff-peaked him to the front. Chris felt like breaking a few crusts right then, but he restrained himself. Apparently, there was someone in the pastry shop who'd come to see him.

And sure enough, there was a woman staring at him, a woman Chris had not thought about in years. Oh, she'd changed considerably since the last time he'd seen her, a baker's-dozen years ago. She was now a thin, middle-aged woman, though no less beautiful for the decrease in dress size and the increase in gray hairs.

Was it really Ella? Ella Gaines? He couldn't believe his custard!

"Surprised, darlin'?" she asked him, then did a little spin to show off her svelte figure. "And you look just as yummy as ever, Chris. You know, boys," she said, addressing the other six pies in the rack, "there was a time when I indulged in Chris every chance I got. I called him Finger-Lickin' Larabee, because he was so good! I'd probably still weigh 260 pounds if he hadn't up and left me." She grinned charmingly and everyone believed she held no grudges against Chris.

Chris wanted to remind her that they both knew it had been too much of a good thing. He'd been a fresh custard pie back then and her appetite had been voracious.

"Such a long time ago," Ella sighed. "So much has changed. I married after you left me, Chris. His names was Atkins Wait. He made me into half the woman I used to be, literally." She laughed, hands on her slim hips. "And then he left me his culinary academy when he died."

Chris was still wondering why she was here.

"Oh, sugar pie! All is forgiven," she exclaimed. "I want you back. I want things to be just as they were. You can't stay in this backwater bakery for the rest of your life. Come with me to the culinary academy and I'll feature you in my new Country Living Cookbook."

Chris racked his crust over this. It was a big decision to leave the bakery, to leave all the other pies who had become his friends. But Sarah had taught him the pleasures of home-style cooking. Could he have that kind of life again, only this time with Ella?

They tie the string pretty tight around those pink pastry boxes, Buck wanted to remind Chris, though he was sure his friend hadn't forgotten. No, Chris had to make up his own mind about this, no matter what Buck might think.

But Vin was of a different filling. Her name said it all — Ella Gaines-Wait. Vin knew that if Chris went with her, she'd eat him alive! How could he just sit in the pie rack and do nothing?

But Chris wasn't hearing any of it, stubborn custard that he was. He was sure that Ella wasn't like that, at least not anymore. Life with Ella would be all about moderation now.

Just then, Inez called out the next number, which belonged to Ella. "What can I get for you today, señora?"

"I'll take two dozen powdered sugar donuts," Ella said.

Chris was stunned by her order. Still, there could be a logical explanation — she must have friends, maybe she was throwing a brunch? But ultimately the reason didn't matter — Vin was wrong. Ella had changed. You only had to look at her trim figure to know that it was so.

"And I'll have that custard pie as well," Ella added, pointing at Chris in the pie rack. "And don't bother wrapping it, I'll be eating here."

Chris was stunned by this news. Was it possible that Ella hadn't changed at all?

"I'm sorry, señora," Inez told Ella. "The custard pie isn't for sale."

"What?" Ella exhaled sharply. "No!" Suddenly, from her handbag she pulled a sterling silver pie server.

Chris recognized the blade — it had been a wedding gift to Sarah and himself. But how had Ella gotten possession of it? Just then he noticed a newspaper clipping that had fallen out of her purse.

Two lost in tragic baking accident. Sous-chef Cletus Fowler, a graduate of the Atkins Wait Culinary Academy, fired after admitting guilt.

The seven magnificent pies let out a silent gasp as realization struck.

"That's right!" Ella proclaimed, still brandishing the pie slicer. "It was me! Fowler was acting on my instructions. I wanted you all for myself, Chris Larabee. That skinny slice of humble pie you called a wife, she was no good for you! She'd have just kept you around until your filling became moldy and your crust turned dry and inedible. A pie like you ought to be savored by someone who knows something about eating!"

Inez grabbed her arm and they flailed for a moment before the silver blade came down, cutting into Chris's firm custard filling. Vin tried to hit Ella with a berry, but it went wild as she snatched up the bag of donuts and made a break for the door.

"We'll find each other again, Chris, and diets be damned!" Ella shouted as she disappeared into the crowded street.

The pies all looked out the bakery window, but Ella was gone. Vin wished Chris had caused her acid reflux when he'd had the chance.

Next time, Chris thought.


August 2005

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Thanks to my friend for beta reading this story!

Characters from "The Magnificent Seven," were used without permission and this recipe in no way signifies support of, or affiliation with, The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment, CBS Worldwide, Inc., or Betty Crocker.  This recipe belongs to the cook and will not be sold for any reason.