There was a line at the deli in Emory’s Grocery.
Kimmy Easley took pride in the deli’s popularity and hurried to move the lunch line along.
“What’s the special today, Kimmy?” Clarice Rogers leaned on her hickory walking stick. The free-spirited former hippie had been slowing down lately and claimed to be holding out as long as possible before having her knees replaced.
“Garlic-butter Italian-sausage sandwich.” Kimmy finished assembling a ham-and-cheese panini for Everett Bollinger and put it on the grill. “It’s served on a crusty baguette with melted cheese on top. Can I make you one?”
“Yes. It sounds delicious, like something my Fritz would’ve liked.” Clarice eyed the selection of salads, her long gray braids swinging against the orange paisley of her blouse. “And a side of the wedding salad.” She chuckled. “I have weddings on my mind. Specifically, Haywood’s.” Her expression turned wistful. “Are you going?”
“Yes.” Kimmy tried not to let talk of Haywood’s marriage diminish her shine. She was happy for Hay but she had a little over a week to find a wedding date. She sliced open a baguette for Clarice and stuffed it with garlic-butter-soaked sausage.
Welcome to my thirties. The reality decade. Unmarried. No prospects. And light-years behind her peers in getting a career in place.
“I’m sure you have a date already.” Kimmy could tell Clarice was trying not to seem like she was prying. But this was Sunshine. People pried. When Kimmy didn’t immediately respond—what with being busy prepping the sandwich—the old woman added, “Not that an independent woman like you needs a date.”
Oh, Kimmy needed a date, all right. She needed one like Batman needed his mask.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Kimmy lied. She slid Clarice’s sandwich into the toaster oven, checked Everett’s panini, decided it needed more time, and dished out Clarice’s wedding salad.
“Did you know the Widows Club is hosting a bachelorette auction Saturday night?” The reason for Clarice’s visit became clear. “It’s a great way to meet someone new and perhaps find a wedding date.”
Kimmy hadn’t signed up. She never signed up. She expected being on the auction block at Shaw’s Bar & Grill on a Saturday night to be like showing up at her high school reunion in a sundress and forgetting to shave her legs. Mortifying.
But mortification was exactly what she was going to experience if she showed up at Haywood’s wedding dateless.
If only it were the fall, which was when the Widows Club hosted its bachelor auction. Kimmy would rather be empowered to choose her own date, not wait for someone to bid on her.
Kimmy rang up Clarice’s order and then sighed. “Do I have to give you an answer now?”
“No, dear.” Clarice paid in cash, dollar bills plus exact change, which she counted out in pennies. Thirty-seven of them. “You can sign up until the bidding begins.” She smiled kindly. “Hope to see you there.”
A few customers later and her boss, Emory, came behind the counter. He was old school and wore a white button-down with short sleeves and a red bow tie. “I’m worried.”
“I can handle the line,” she reassured him, working on a sandwich for Paul Gregory, one of her regulars and the owner of the local exterminator business. “It moves quickly.”
“I’m not concerned about you.” Emory shook his grizzled head. “I’m worried about the Burger Shack. I hear Booker is back for the wedding.”
She’d heard that too. The news had given her a warm, fuzzy feeling. She, Haywood, and Booker had been close in high school.
“You should be anxious, Kim.” If the worried emoji had been based on a real face, it would’ve taken inspiration from Emory’s. “Booker bought his parents out and plans to change the menu.”
Kimmy couldn’t worry about that. “It’s about time.” The Burger Shack menu hadn’t been updated in forever.
“You don’t understand.” Emory shook his head once more, this time causing a lock of stringy gray hair to fall onto his forehead. “They’re adding gourmet burgers.”
A tremor of unease worked its way through Kimmy. “Gourmet?” Gourmet sandwiches were her thing. Emory’s was the only place in town you could get gourmet anything.
Used to be the only place in town.
“Yes.” Emory rubbed a hand behind his neck. “Fancy burgers.”
The unease turned into apprehension.
A tall man with thick black hair got into the end of the line. He stood next to Clarice’s friend Mims Turner, chatting amicably.
Booker Belmonte. He’d been her rock throughout middle and high school. Maybe he still was. Just looking at him settled her nerves and turned the inclination to frown into a smile.
“Speak of the devil.” Kimmy nodded in Booker’s direction.
“He’s here to check you out.” Emory, being in his seventies and a bit naive, didn’t catch the double meaning of his words.
“My sandwiches, you mean,” Kimmy said under her breath, because Booker was like family to her. She handed Paul his order. “Did you get new uniforms?” His shirt was lime green and printed with brown cockroaches, vaguely reminiscent of a Hawaiian shirt.
“Yes.” Paul turned to show her the back, which was more of the same. “Do you like it? I got tired of boring blue.”
“It’s a bold choice.” Kimmy gave him a thumbs-up.
“The American species is a bold creature.” Paul tapped a cockroach on his shirt. “He takes what he wants. I’ve decided I should be more like him. And since I’ve been wearing these shirts, business is up.”
“Please don’t say the c-word.” Scowling, Emory scrubbed the top of the deli case near Paul.
“Congratulations, Paul. See you next time.” Kimmy gave Paul her patented customer-service smile and turned to the next customer before he could go in depth on the bugs he loved to terminate. They’d taken some classes together at the community college in Greeley so she knew Paul loved to talk about his work.
“Will there be a next time?” Emory muttered, wiping down the counter because he was a stress-cleaner. “Everyone’s going to want to check out the sandwiches at the Burger Shack.”
“Maybe a time or two.” Kimmy gestured to Lola Williams that she was ready to take her order.
Kimmy looked upon the Burger Shack with nostalgia, having worked there for three years during high school. At the Shack, she’d been one of the guys, along with Booker Belmonte and Haywood Lawson, boys higher on the popularity ladder than Kimmy. They’d taught her how to grill, and she’d taught them the importance of loyalty and keeping their word. Her father always said a kept promise was a true sign of character.
When it came to making promises, Booker and Haywood had balked at girlish pinkie swears. Instead, they’d given their word while holding a hand over a hot basket of French fries. Silly kids’ stuff. But it had meant something to her, even if Booker’s promises had often come with conditions.
“If our customers head to the Burger Shack for lunch more than a time or two,” Emory said mournfully, “I’ll have to cut staff hours, maybe even resort to layoffs.” The old man spoke as if gourmet burgers at the Burger Shack were already trendier than gourmet sandwiches at Emory’s Grocery.
Truthfully, at the words cut and layoffs, the bottom dropped out of Kimmy’s little world. Six more paychecks and she could afford a new transmission for the food truck she and her dad were restoring. If she lost this job before the truck was ready…
She glanced at Booker. At broad shoulders and the face of reliability.
It wouldn’t come to that. It couldn’t come to that.
Still, it took her a moment to work up enough saliva to reply to her boss in an upbeat voice. “It’ll be okay, Emory. Can you work the register for me?” Kimmy tried to take Lola’s order, not to mention smile and not look like Emory had put her off her game. But she reached for jalapeños instead of green peppers for Lola’s wrap, something her customer pointed out.
Somehow, Kimmy made it through four more specials, two wraps, and a chef’s salad before Emory was called to the front of the store and Booker appeared before her.
With his jet-black hair, deep-brown eyes, and infectious smile, Booker had always been handsome. But the years had given him an air of hard-won confidence.