As Rosemary’s obsession with Ash consumes her, she may find she’s not the one doing the devouring…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Bloom by Delilah S. Dawson, a sweet sapphic romance with a dark twist, out from Titan Books on October 3.
Rosemary meets Ash at the farmers’ market. Ash—precise, pretty, and practically perfect—sells bars of soap in delicate pastel colors, sprinkle-spackled cupcakes stacked on scalloped stands, beeswax candles, jelly jars of honey, and glossy green plants.
Ro has never felt this way about another woman; with Ash, she wants to be her and have her in equal measure. But as her obsession with Ash consumes her, she may find she’s not the one doing the devouring…
The morning is blue and beautiful, and she sings at the top of her lungs, windows down and hair streaming. She almost gets pulled over by a sneaky cop hiding behind a neighborhood sign but manages to brake just in time; being happy always makes her drive too fast. As she walks from the parking lot to the market, a woman hurries toward her, eyes red and hair disheveled like she simply stopped caring.
“Have you seen my daughter?” she asks, holding up the same flyer Ro found under her windshield last week.
“No, I’m sorry,” Ro says.
“She was here,” the woman goes on as if caught in a panicked loop. “She told me she would bring me strawberries for my birthday, but I haven’t heard from her.”
“I’m sorry.” Ro says again and steps back, worried the woman will grab her arm like the wart-nosed witch from some old fairy tale. “I hope you find her.”
“Be careful,” the woman says before turning to the family coming up the sidewalk. “Have you seen my daughter?”
Ro pities this woman. She knows plenty of people her own age who have gone no-contact with their families due to bad behavior and bigotry, and she wonders if the girl is really missing or just blocked her mom and moved on with life on her own terms. She once wondered how her own mother would react to being blocked and unfriended, and the answer was a long, self-righteous email about how Ro was a bad daughter. Her mom wouldn’t even know if she disappeared, and she definitely wouldn’t be handing out flyers. But then again, some mothers push and some mothers pull, and this mother seems like she might be the kind of desperate Charybdis that a daughter might need to escape.
On her way down the aisle of stalls, Ro stops to buy a bag of jerky, a green box with four perfect peaches, and a dainty ring with a moonstone that has no business being so cheap. It feels new on her pinky, something she hasn’t tried before. It’s nice, doing something unexpected; it makes her feel like anything is possible.
As she approaches Ash’s booth, she slows. Ash is arranging the pots on her shelf, filling in spaces to show the little plants to their best advantage. She’s wearing a long dress, dusty mauve with puff sleeves, and again those light brown boots, their tips dusted with dried mud. Ash’s hair is in a loose braid that falls over one shoulder. She looks up sharply, frowning, like Artemis caught bathing in a glade. But on seeing Ro, she smiles.
“How long have you been standing there?” Ash asks.
“Not long.” Ro hopes she sounds easy and not caught out.
Ash crosses her arms. “Are you here to tell me how much you hate strawberry?”
Ro’s cheeks grow hot. “You know I’m not.”
A nod of triumph. “That’s what I thought. What can I get you this week? The special cupcake is red velvet.”
“My favorite. Maybe two of those, plus a lavender and a vanilla.”
“I don’t get to choose this week?” It comes out playful, teasing, like they’re deciding who will lead in their ongoing dance.
“Did I choose poorly?”
At that, Ash laughs. “I can’t say you did.” She goes to the table and picks up a sample of the red velvet, holding it out for Ro to eat from her hand. Ro takes it delicately, awkwardly, with no way not to brush her lips against those long, smooth fingers.
This is red velvet like Ro has never tasted before, rich and deep.
“I don’t know how you do it,” she says after savoring and swallowing. “They just keep getting better.”
“That’s the goal.” Ash packages up the cupcakes Ro has requested.
“Maybe some honeycomb this week, too?” Ro asks. “I’ve been doing more cheese plates lately.”
Ash puts a jar beside the cupcakes. “And how’s your plant?”
“He’s chugging along, just like you said he would.”
“And you haven’t been tempted to water him?”
Ro shakes her head. “Tempted, yes, but I resisted. I just gave him that drenching you suggested. I tend to yield to expertise.” She looks down at the golden honey, runs a finger along the label on the jar: Ash Apothecary, in dusty sage with little sprays of flowers. “I was thinking he might need a friend, actually. Don’t most things do best in pairs?”
Ash smiles knowingly. “That’s what they say.” She walks to the plant shelf and looks it up and down critically. “I only brought the most basic snake plants, but I have some more unique cultivars back home. Moonshine and jade. Would you like to see my greenhouse?”
That jolt Ro feels is akin to when the roller coaster takes off down the first hill. “Sure. If you don’t mind.”
“Stop by this evening, if you’re free. Around six, maybe?”
“Six is good,” is what Ro says, but what she really means is, I would cancel literally anything to be there.
“Give me your phone.”
Ro unlocks it and hands it over without a thought. Ash pokes around, and when she hands it back, the map app is open with a new destination. It’s out in the country, farther out than Ro has been since she moved here, but—well, if someone is going to have a greenhouse, a garden, and an apiary, they’re going to need space.
“I’ll be there.” She tucks the phone back in her pocket and pulls out her wallet. “What do I owe you?”
“Always in such a hurry,” Ash muses.
Ro looks around sheepishly. “I don’t want to interfere with your business. Or bother you.”
“You don’t bother me.”
Ro feels her dimples come out. “Good to know.” She holds out her card, and Ash runs it through her iPad. “Do you have a website or an Etsy shop?”
Ash’s brows draw down in a little V: a brief moment of frustration. “No. I don’t like all those layers. I only sell in person. And they carry my work in several shops downtown. The thought of something getting lost in the mail and some anonymous harpy leaving me a bad review that I can’t fight is infuriating.”
Ro nods. “I grok that. I’m a college professor, and I live and die at the whims of student surveys. Of course, the kids who won’t do the most basic work shout the loudest that I’m the unfair one. Anonymity can be a curse. And the postal system, of course, is a whited sepulcher.”
Ash’s eyes twinkle as she holds out Ro’s card. “You really have a way with words.”
Ro wishes to thank her grandmother for giving her that giant dictionary when she was eight. “Thanks. Words are my world. I teach literature.”
She doesn’t have to say at which college. There is only one.
“But you’re so young.”
“I get that a lot. I’m an assistant professor. That’s our entry level, hence me teaching summer classes. But I did graduate high school at sixteen and get my bachelor’s in three years.”
That little V forms again. “So are you one of those people who only value degrees and grades?”
“I—no. I’m not an elitist.” Ro is, but she doesn’t want it to be a turn-off. “What’s that old saying about how, if you judge a fish by whether it can climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing it’s stupid? I think there are myriad kinds of intelligence. My grandfather didn’t go to college, but he could take apart a car engine and put it back together, and that’s a lot more useful than deconstructing Hemingway. So is baking, and making soap and candles, and—everything you do. When the zombies come, you’ll be the queen and I’ll be fodder.” Ro knows she’s rambling, but she sensed a precipice there and wants to backtrack until she’s too far away to fall from it.
“Oh, I wouldn’t let the zombies get you,” Ash muses. “Professor.”
“Assistant Professor,” Ro corrects as she blushes, because along with her love of words comes a need for specificity and exactitude.
Ash looks over Ro’s shoulder to the market beyond. This tent feels so intimate, so quiet and calm, that Ro forgets there’s a huge crowd out there. While they talk, people wander past, but for no reason she can name it’s rarely busy when she’s here. She knows Ash must sell a ton; Ro gets here relatively early, and already the cupcake stand has been decimated. She follows Ash’s glance but doesn’t see anything unusual beyond the tent.
“Look, this is a huge ask, and I hope it’s not out of line,” Ash starts, looking unsure and a bit embarrassed, “but would you mind watching my stall for a few minutes while I run to the restroom? There’s not a line for the porta-potties right now.”
Ah. That’s what she was looking at—that row of green boxes stinking in the heat. Ro is somewhat stunned that Ash isn’t some sort of ethereal elf above such earthly triflings.
“Sure. I wouldn’t mind at all. Although I don’t know how to ring things up…”
“You don’t have to. I’ll be quick. If anyone comes in, just tell them I’ll be back in five.” She grab’s Ro’s shoulder, squeezes it. “Thanks. You’re a life saver.”
Ash darts into the crowd and disappears into one of the green boxes, and Ro finds herself alone in the stall. She moves to stand behind the table so anyone stopping by won’t think she’s just some rando. She peeks under the table but sees only a reusable shopping bag full of packing supplies and a worn canvas tote. She is desperately curious about Ash and nudges the tote with her foot to see if it’ll slouch open and reveal something, anything—a book, a keychain, a favorite lip balm.
But then the customers arrive.
A well-kept woman in her forties wearing a tennis skirt steps in to smell the soaps and promises she’ll be back in ten minutes to make her purchase. An older man with a cane inspects a jar of honey and asks if she’ll take five dollars instead of ten. A skulking tween boy makes a beeline for the cupcake samples, and she sternly tells him there’s a one-per-person limit before he goes feral. He grabs two and runs. It’s kind of fun, watching the stall, but she does feel helpless, since she can’t do much more than tell people that the proprietor will return soon.
As she rearranges the samples so they won’t look so lopsided, a girl steps up to the stall. She is maybe a few years younger than Ro, angular and thin, with curly hair and a posh hippie vibe that Ro admires but can’t pull off. Ro is not the kind of person who will set foot out of the house braless, whereas this girl…
“Is Ash here?” she asks with a little bounce.
Ro’s hackles invisibly rise, but she pastes on a bland smile. “She just stepped out. Should be back in five.”
The girl pouts. “But I want cupcakes.”
“You’re free to try a sample, and by the time you pick what you want, I’m sure she’ll be here.”
The girl steps to the table and pushes a sample of the red velvet in her mouth with one finger, moaning orgasmically. “I swear, these things taste like sex,” she says.
“Did you try the maple bacon last week?” Ro asks.
The girl’s head jerks around. “Maple bacon? There was maple bacon?”
A warm smugness drives Ro’s smile. “I bought two. They were incredible.”
“I want to try maple bacon.” The girl sighs and selects another sample, cramming it in her mouth.
“Did I miss anything?” Ash says as she slips behind the table and bumps Ro with her shoulder.
“One lady is coming back to buy some soap, an old man tried to swindle me, and a kid with a dirt mustache stole two samples despite my grim chastisement. And then there’s—”
She looks at the girl with the cupcake crumbs on her chin. “I’m Jessie,” she says with a toss of her dark hair. “Ash knows me. I’m here, like, every Saturday.” She leans forward over the cupcakes, showing skin down to her navel. “I heard there was maple bacon, and you didn’t save me one?”
“They went quick.” Ash’s smile is as tight and polite as her voice. “What can I get you?”
“Um… a red velvet, a strawberry, a lemon, and… what do you think? What’s the yummiest?” She sways as she looks up at Ash, lower lip poking out.
“They’re all good.” Ash folds up a box and puts in three cupcakes. Ro—still on the wrong side of the table because Jessie is taking up all the breathing room on the other side—notices that Ash doesn’t take the time to pick the biggest, prettiest cupcakes; she just grabs whatever is nearest. Two of them touch in the box, and she doesn’t seem to care. Ash never lets her own cupcakes kiss. This little detail plucks at Ro’s heart.
“Another red velvet, then. Like I told your helper…” Jessie throws her chin at Ro. “They taste like sex.”
Ash drops the fourth cupcake into the box and closes it. “That’ll be fifteen.”
The girl hands over three fives in a tight little roll. Ro imagines it’s warm from her body. “I want that maple bacon next week, Ash,” she says with faux sternness.
“We’ll see what happens.”
“I’m going to enjoy these.” Jessie takes the box and turns, swinging her hips as she leaves.
Excerpted from Bloom, copyright © 2023 by Delilah S. Dawson.