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.
Kate laughed at the mischievous look he gave her, selecting a printed blouse from her closet. As she 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. 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 stowed her phone in her pocket, saying 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…”
Still disturbed by Bud’s departure, Kate worried whether she should have insisted on driving him home. Shaking off her lingering misgivings, she wrote the day’s offerings on the shop’s chalkboard wall above the coffeemaker. She had just stepped down from her stool when she heard the bell above the door. Turning, Kate tucked the chalk marker in her apron pocket and pasted on a welcoming smile.
Her smile slipped when she saw Dierdre Harcourt making her way across the shop.
“Kate, darling!” Dierdre was in her seventies with smooth features only a facelift could provide. Her blue-black hair was arranged in a chignon, and she wore riding pink that made it seem as if she recently dismounted from a thoroughbred horse. Tallyho and all that rot. “I need your assistance!”
Irritation rose in Kate’s breast, crowding out the unease that nagged at her after viewing the morning news. “Let me guess… catering order for bridge club?”
“No, Ladies Circle. Millie was to hostess but she’s under the weather, so the task falls to me, I’m afraid.”
Kate’s focus shifted when she noticed Ben’s green Jeep Cherokee parked in front of Buttercream Bakeshop. He emerged, freshly showered and shaved, wearing his customary dark suit. When he came into the bakery, Kate briefly met his eyes. “Dierdre, do you remember when I told you last time that I’d have to upcharge last minute orders?”
“I know, and I surrender myself to your mercy…” Dierdre appeared properly chastened, glimpsing over to Ben where he joined her at the display case. His fair brow was furrowed as he studied the chalkboard, like he was trying to decide between a muffin and a pastry. “Benjamin, how are you, dear?”
“Good day, Dierdre,” Ben replied, mouth quirking, the dimple in his cheek surfacing. “I’m just fine. Thought I’d grab breakfast on my way to court. I have a hearing in a half-hour.”
“Please, do go ahead of me. You absolutely must if you’re in a hurry. My insignificant gathering pales in comparison to the magnitude of your vocation as a public defender.”
Ben and Kate met eyes again. She could tell he was amused by the way the corners of his eyelids crinkled. He swept a hand in a gallant gesture. “Ladies first.”
Dierdre flashed him a coquettish look and said to Kate, all business, “No sheet cake. The Ladies Circle gals are a discerning bunch.”
“Uh…” Kate’s heart sank. She knew what that meant—a complicated request.
“I hoped for an assortment of macarons, truffles, and petit fours. Two dozen of each.”
Kate suppressed her displeasure and thought fast. “I can do chocolate truffles, and white cake for the petit fours, but I’m only able to do two flavors of macarons. What were you thinking?”
“Pink and yellow.”
“So strawberry, and lemon? A dozen of each? And pink and white icing for the petit fours? I’m afraid it’ll be quite costly at this late hour, Dierdre.” Kate threw out an astronomical figure, but Dierdre didn’t balk at the price. She clapped her immaculately manicured hands in delight.
“Accommodating as ever. You’ve swooped in and saved the day, Kate. You’ll be sure to deliver to my house by ten tomorrow morning?”
“Certainly.” Kate grabbed an order pad and hastily scrawled Dierdre’s selections. The woman was notoriously forgetful about paying the invoices Kate sent via mail. “However, new bakeshop policy dictates prepayment on catering orders.”
Dierdre opened her designer handbag and rooted around, producing a matching wallet. “Can I get one of your delicious croissants to take away as well?”
When the shop door closed behind Dierdre, Kate rolled her eyes. Ben roared with laughter, leaning across the counter and lacing her hand in his. “What was she wearing? There can’t seriously be a fox hunt planned in Clayton’s Corners.”
Kate stifled a giggle. “All she needs is a riding crop.”
“At least you’ll make bank on her order.” Ben lifted a shoulder.
“I’ll also be here all night,” Kate groused, nonchalantly pulling her hand away. “I promised you an éclair, didn’t I?”
“Yep.” Ben’s voice was neutral, but she sensed his disappointment as she plucked the pastry from the case with tongs. She avoided his gaze while putting it in a pink wax paper bag adorned with the shop’s stylized cupcake logo. Ben was three years ahead of her in high school, so they’d known each other only superficially then. Last year, they’d met again at a local bar called Cahoots and hit it off. Their friendship-with-benefits suited Kate to a T.
“Coffee?” Kate lifted a pink-and-black striped to-go cup, and he nodded.
When she handed him his coffee, Ben pinned her with a serious look. “So… when are you gonna let me take you out on a proper date?”
Kate bit back a groan. She scanned his fair hair, slicked back neatly from his forehead, to his handsome, boyish face, and his broad shoulders encased in his power suit. Most women would be thrilled to date Ben. He was a catch and on a fast track to a successful private practice. He was a hell of a nice guy to boot. Kate’s heart fluttered as she searched for the right thing to say. “It works. Why complicate things?”
“Because I like you,” Ben murmured, his sapphire eyes sad. “I want more than a once-a-week-roll-in-the sack.”
“Please. Let’s not get into all that…” Kate realized she fidgeted. She seized the spray bottle of cleanser and a paper towel and set about swabbing at the already spotless countertop. “You know I’m a loner.”
“Yeah. I get it.” Ben’s fingers tightened on the wax paper bag he held, but his face remained impassive. “See ya Thursday.”
Conflicted, Kate observed him leave. His stiff shoulders and ramrod straight posture made his frustration clear. Ben had a huge family. Parents who’d been married forty years. He’d said more than once he wanted the same and couldn’t fathom why Kate didn’t. The idea of a house filled with a passel of rambunctious kids was unimaginable—she’d been raised by her older sister after their father, in a drunken rage, had killed their mother then turned the gun on himself.
Kate’s past was complicated, and she didn’t often speak of it. How could she verbalize how anxiety closed her throat when she thought of being around Ben’s family? Kate didn’t know how to act or what to say to them. She felt like a fraud. She shook her head. Nope, it was easier to be alone. If only Ben would accept her wishes.
“Deliveries are finito,” Rosie said as she came through the swinging kitchen doors, tying her baking apron over her sweatshirt. “Something unusual though. Corner Market was shuttered. I tried LuAnn on her cell, but she didn’t answer. I let myself in with the key she keeps hidden by the service door and left the pies on the counter with a note.”
“What? Corner Market isn’t open for business? That’s not like LuAnn.” Kate put her hands on her hips and worried at her lip with her teeth. “You don’t think she’s sick with that flu going around?”
Rosie volleyed her a blank look as she affixed a hairnet over her blonde curls.
“Instead of streaming music, you ought to listen to the news occasionally, Rosie,” Kate chastised, picking up the TV remote by the cash register to choose a cable news channel. “Maybe the media is making a bigger deal of it than they should, but Bud came in earlier and he looked awful. He was so sick he had to turn around and leave.”
The TV host interviewed a taciturn epidemiologist who said, “The origin of this particular strain remains unknown. The WHO is tracing patient zero somewhere in Southeast Asia. Details remain murky. There’s been conjecture that it originated as few as thirty-six hours ago. Since it’s already here, we know it’s highly contagious and aggressive—”
The broadcast was gone, and President Rogers appeared onscreen, seated behind his desk in the Oval Office. “My fellow Americans, it’s with great gravity I address you today. Last night citizens began falling ill in massive numbers along the southeastern coast. I’ve spoken with state governors, and we are coordinating a nationwide shelter-in-place effective six o’clock Eastern Standard Time. I urge you to refrain from panic buying—”
Rosie’s cell phone trilled from her trouser pocket. Still watching the TV, she fished for her phone. She glanced at Caller ID, then at Kate, paling. “It’s the middle school.”
Alternating between the president’s address and Rosie’s conversation, Kate’s guts turned to ice. Perhaps all the hubbub was justified—she’d seen enough disaster movies to be worried. Propelled by Rosie’s unsteady hands as she spoke to the school nurse, Kate moved to lock the shop door and flip the open sign to closed, adrenaline making her wobble. She had shucked her apron and was flicking the power switch on the coffeemaker when Rosie ended the call.
The distress Kate felt was mirrored in Rosie’s eyes. She whispered, “I’ve got to fetch the twins. Robbie’s got a fever of a hundred and four and Jeff’s asthma is kicking up.”