Wrapped in a towel and her chestnut-colored hair still dripping from her shower, Kate silenced the staccato alarm clanging from Ben’s phone. The sky showing through the slats in the window blinds had transformed to something between charcoal and pewter gray, signaling she was behind schedule. She nudged him impatiently. “Get up. I gotta get to work.”
“My head’s killing me,” Ben grumbled, nestling further into his pillow like a hibernating bear. Kate flung back the duvet, prompting him to groan and flip on his back.
Grabbing her comb from the bedside table, she ran it through her hair, then gathered it into an elastic band. “Hope you’re not getting that flu everyone’s talking about.”
Ben stretched, as if savoring the delicious feeling of the morning after a well-deserved screwing. “Too much wine last night, more like.” Hauling himself up, he sat at the edge of the mattress and rubbed his sleep-smudged eyes, his shaggy hair disheveled.
As Kate thumbed through the stack of laundry on a chair in the corner of her bedroom for jeans, she said, “Last night was fun. Same thing next week?”
“Sure. I’ll even let you be on top.”
Kate snorted, side-eyeing him. She scooped up Ben’s tee and sweatpants from the floor and lobbed them at his head. He ducked, snagging his clothes with his fingers but not losing his grin.
Zipping her blue jeans and stepping into loafers, Kate peeked at her cell. Wincing at the time, she hastened to locate her purse and keyring on the dresser. She said over her shoulder as she left, “Lock up when you leave, stud. If you stop by the shop later, I’ll buy you an éclair.”
Her partner was at Buttercream Bakeshop when Kate arrived, a catchy pop song blasting over the speaker of her smartphone. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, at forty Rosie was a decade older than Kate, but exuded the perkiness of a college co-ed. She bopped to the music as she leveled flour in an eight-cup measure, adding it slowly to the whirring commercial mixer with practiced movements.
Kate projected her voice to be heard over the din. “Good morning, Rosie. Sorry I’m late. What are you working on?”
“The shortbread for Les’s catering order.” Rosie lifted her chin toward the ovens. “I’ve got the pies going for LuAnn.”
“You’re a lifesaver!” Kate went to the staff coffeemaker on the worktop and poured a cup of coffee. Blowing on the surface, she took a sip, then grabbed the spiral bound notebook from its place beside the coffeepot, consulting her to-do list. She put a line through Pies—three peach, three apple, three mixed berry, three cherry for LuAnn’s standing order at Corner Market and set about assembling the pâte à choux pastry for the éclairs to go along with Les’s shortbread.
Over the next hour, the two women mixed and baked doughs and batters in tandem without speaking, operating with efficiency honed over years of sharing a workspace. When the rolling metal racks were filled with trays of cooling confections, they sat for a quick coffee break, sharing the reject pieces of shortbread that had broken during cutting. Popping the last morsel in her mouth with relish, Kate savored the buttery taste. “You want to deliver orders or open the shop today?”
“I’m in the mood to deliver.” With a swift look at the wall clock, Rosie pulled the elastic netting from her head and fluffed her bangs. “It’s almost six! I’ve got to get those pies boxed and loaded into the van. When I get back, I’ll run the dishwasher and bake the cookies and cupcakes.”
Resigned, Kate stood. “And I need to get the case stocked before Bud pounds on the door for his breakfast. I could set a watch by that guy.”
Kate yawned as she replaced her stained beige baking apron with the pristine bubble-gum pink serving apron embroidered with a cupcake logo. It was the same graphic as on the pink-and-black striped awning above the street entrance to the bakery. Pulling off her hairnet, she ran a shrewd glance over her appearance in the mirror inside the swinging kitchen doors, wiping a smudge of flour from her nose.
The trays of blueberry, banana nut, and apple cinnamon muffins were artfully arranged in the glass case beside decorative stands piled with shortbread, éclairs, and croissants. On her way to the front door to turn the closed sign over to open, Kate pushed the power button on the boxy three-burner Bunn coffeemaker on the counter behind the case. The rich, nutty aroma of brewed French Roast mingled with the hint of sugar in the air. She straightened the chairs around the half-dozen bistro tables in the shop while listening to WPAL’s morning show broadcast on the wall-mounted TV.
Through the plate-glass window the tangerine orb of the sun peeked above the horizon, the sky infused with lavender and fuchsia. Kate didn’t need to hear the forecast to know it would be a pleasant spring day. The international news briefing had just begun when the bell above the door tinkled. Bud Bradley, her favorite customer, entered the café.
The pouches under Bud’s eyes were pronounced and his greeting less robust than normal. “Mornin’, Katie girl.”
“Hey, Bud. Rough night?” Kate poured his coffee and used plastic tongs to put a blueberry muffin on a paper doily-lined plate. He wearily lowered his large frame to a chair at his designated spot overlooking Main Street.
“Whoa,” Bud muttered, putting his hand to his temple. Kate’s forehead wrinkled in concern as he abruptly got to his feet, his actions erratic. He put a palm up to discourage her from bringing his order. “All the sudden I’m not feelin’ too bright. I’m gonna have to pass on breakfast, kiddo.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. How ‘bout I lock up shop and drive you home before you keel over?” She hurried around the counter to help Bud, untying her apron as she walked, but he waved her away before she reached him.
“No—don’t get close to me. Maybe I’m comin’ down with that nasty flu I heard about on the news.” He jerkily pushed his chair in and went to the door. “I’m gonna tuck back into bed, where I suppose I should’ve stayed to begin with.”
Bud’s face became ashen and his fingers trembled on the doorknob as he gripped it. Kate’s tone revealed her alarm when she protested, “I really think I’d better drive you—”
“Now, Katie, don’t fuss! I’ll be right as rain tomorrow morning and ready for my muffin first thing.”
Mouth pursed, Kate watched as Bud staggered out to his rusted pickup and drove away. She sanitized everything he had touched with Lysol, her attention cutting to the anchorwoman on WPAL-TV saying, “Concerning reports coming in this morning as the yet-unidentified strain of influenza cases grew exponentially the last twenty-four hours…”