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     Undead Sublet, p.10

       part  #2. 5 of  Half Moon Hollow Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
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Page 10


“You’re going to all this trouble—aged cheddar, sauce from scratch, what appears to be green beans combined with bacon, butter, and brown sugar—so you can feed a church crowd mac ’n’ cheese before a card game?”

“These people deserve good food, carefully prepared, whether it’s simple fare or a wedding feast. They’re going to share a meal, something to bring them closer together. That’s the point of what we do, Tess. Not the reviews or the interviews. Good food. Happy diners. That’s all there is. ”

He pinned me with that frank gray gaze, and I felt a little ashamed of myself. “Now, be a good girl and stir the sauce. ”

With that, he popped me on the butt with a dishtowel and returned to his nutritionally bankrupt green beans.



When I was in college, I saw cafeteria serving as the last stop before culinary oblivion. I had nightmares in which I woke up patting my head to make sure the hairnet wasn’t really there. But now I found that I liked greeting people as they came through the kitchen line for their lunches. I liked being able to talk to friendly faces as they moved by, complimenting the colors of the food or the delicious smells wafting up from the steam table.

I’d never had this sort of contact with customers before. Phillip did his damnedest to make sure I was insulated from dealing with overenthusiastic customers. I rarely left my kitchen, just in case.

But because these diners liked Chef, I was accepted as his little helper, greeted warmly, and complimented for my addition of smoked paprika to the macaroni and cheese. After we’d fed everyone, some of them twice, Chef made me sit at the counter and eat a huge helping of everything. I wasn’t gaining weight back fast enough, in his opinion. Overall, it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

I guessed Chef didn’t have more Kitchen Yoda wisdom to impart, because he joined the Uno games—leaving me with the dishes, thank you very much. I was up to my elbows in bubbles when a trilling feminine voice behind me cried, “Hi there!”

Jumping and nearly dropping a sixty-four-ounce glass measuring cup on my foot, I turned to see a pretty, slender woman with a brown bob and mischievous hazel eyes. The shape of her mouth reminded me of someone.

“Aren’t you Tess?” she asked, smiling broadly.

“Um, ye—gah!” I yelped when the woman threw her arms around me and squished me to her bosom.

“Oh, honey!” she exclaimed. “I’m so glad my Jane has a friend who goes to church!”

Well, I was standing in a church building, so I guess she was technically right.

“I’m Sherry Jameson, Jane’s mama. ” She sighed, giving me one last squeeze. “But you can call me Sherry. All her little friends do. Jane told me you’d be here today, and I just couldn’t wait to meet you! Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Andrea and Jolene, but it’s just so good to know that my daughter spends time with a nice girl. I mean, just look at you, cooking up a storm in the Lord’s kitchen. ”

Now was so not the time to whip out my phone and show her the pictures of Jane and me running tequila boat races. So I settled for a bland smile while Mrs. Jameson pressed a heavy Saran Wrapped package in my damp hands.

“I made you my special peach cobbler. Jane mentioned you’re a cook, so I knew you’d appreciate a little something sweet. Don’t you worry about sugar or calories, all right, honey? You need a little meat on your bones,” she said. “I used to make this for my Jane all the time, but you know, she doesn’t eat anymore. ”

“Thank you,” I managed to say before Sherry crushed me into another hug, my arms flailing against her back.

I glanced down at the package in my hands. Mrs. Jameson had cooked for me. I didn’t even know if it was any good. But it was thrilling to have someone else cook something for me, not because she was trying to impress me or drill me for information but for no other reason than that I was a friend of her daughter’s and she thought I needed it.

Hungover or not, I was going to go home and eat every bite.

Somewhere in the back of my pickled brain, a switch labeled “Sherry Jameson” flipped into place. Now I knew why Sherry’s name sounded so familiar.

I smiled brightly, though it sort of hurt my cheeks. “Aren’t you the Realtor selling Howlin’ Hank’s?”



Two hours later, I was in love with the Howlin’ Hank’s building.

Miss Sherry was honest with me. Hometown Realtors had assigned her this building to test her newly official salesman skills. The agency had been trying to offload the place for years and hadn’t had so much as a nibble. The idea that she could be the one finally to sell it had thrown Sherry into warp speed, as Jane put it.

Chef Gamling accompanied us as my “anti-life-ruining-decision lifeguard. ” Before she let me in the front door, Sherry went in to turn on all of the old beer signs and the jukebox. The current selection was a Hank Williams Jr. song made overtly off-key by the warped 45. That’s right. The jukebox was so old it played actual records. Still, the electric display gave me a better idea of what the place had looked like in its heyday.

Chef Gamling didn’t comment on the dilapidated condition of the building or the sheer amount of beer and/or NASCAR memorabilia on the walls. He simply wandered around the kitchen, his hands clasped behind his back, while he chewed on his lip. The kitchen was in surprisingly good shape, albeit seriously outdated. I would need to replace all of the appliances, but the traffic flow of the room was pitch-perfect for maximum efficiency from the stove to the pass to the dishwashing area.

The dining room’s open floor plan, the old oak bar worn satiny smooth by countless hands, the wide, spacious booths—it was the perfect setup for a small, informal restaurant. Before I’d even put down my purse, I’d started making plans in my head. I’d keep some of the more retro beer signs, but I would paint the walls a soft denim blue. I would have to replace the tables. But I might be able to preserve the carved tabletops and use them as wall panels.

I would keep the view to the kitchen open, so the customers would get the feeling that they were just hanging out at a friend’s place, waiting for their meals to be finished. I would replace the battered dartboards with photos of the original Hank’s and maybe a few of the remodel—something to show that I appreciated the history of this place and wanted to be part of it.

Oh, how I wanted to be part of it.

I rubbed at my sternum, praying for the acidic roll in my stomach to die down. Could I really do this? Could I stay in the Hollow and open up my own restaurant? Chef Gamling was here. My friends were here. What did I have waiting for me in Chicago?

I had acquaintances and colleagues in the city but nobody who would take me out for drinks and mechanical-bull rides. I had Phillip, who was waiting for his marriage-license paperwork, not for me. I had my reputation, but that wasn’t exactly keeping me warm at night. It couldn’t even give me the warm sense of fulfillment that it used to.

I sat down at one of the booths, leaning over to put my head between my knees. Across the table, I could hear the sound of old leatherette crackling. I looked up to squint at Chef, grimacing. “Am I completely insane?”

“Why would this be insane?”

“Because I’ve only cooked. I’ve never managed a restaurant. Because of the risks involved. Because these are disastrous economic times to strike out on my own. ”

“This is all true,” he conceded. “But do you want this?”

I chewed on my lip, nodding. It scared me how much I wanted this. I didn’t think I’d ever wanted something so badly in my life. Sure, I’d wanted to leave my hometown. I’d wanted to graduate. I’d wanted the job at Coda. But this was a different level of desire. I had to have this place. I could feel the desperation down in my bones, crushing my stomach with the anxiety that I might not be able to make it happen.

I had a place in the city. I had a routine. But I could have a life here. I didn’t exactly fit in, but I could love people here. I was well on my way to loving a few already. And those people could love me if I let them.

I could do this. I could make a life here. Hell, I already had a life here.

I wanted to feed people, not just because they had showed up for a business meeting or to be seen. I wanted them to leave my dining room happy. I wanted to cook and not think about whether the ingredients were exotic enough to please the customers. I wanted to serve food that nourished people, that made them feel comfort, whether it meant using Velveeta or ungodly expensive Jarlsberg cheese.

“Yes,” I whispered. “I really want this. ”

“Then you are insane,” Chef said, shrugging. “But it could be just the kind of insane needed to run this place. ”

“Not helpful. ” I groaned, dropping my head back to the table.

I felt a cool, damp cloth pressed to the back of my neck and heard a fond tsking sound just in front of me.

Sherry pressed her handkerchief to my temples and smiled gently. “Jane felt the same way just before she decided to renovate her shop. She was so afraid of making a change, so afraid that she would fail. But she couldn’t stand not to try to make a go of it. She’s always been my brave one, you know. Though if you tell her that, I’ll deny it just to keep her on her toes. The bottom line is, life is for living, sweetie. It’s for taking chances and trying to grab up every little piece of happiness you can latch on to. And I say that as a mama and a friend and not someone who stands to make a very healthy commission if you agree to take this place on. ”

I laughed and handed the damp handkerchief back to Sherry.

I stood and took another look around the restaurant. While my savings were not enough for the real estate market in Chicago, I had more than enough for the down payment on the building. Heck, given Hank’s kids’ desire to unload the building, I might be able to buy it outright, if Sherry and I were clever enough. The problem would be the cost of renovating; I would have to figure out a way to pay for that.

I needed to make this change. I needed this town. I needed the slower pace, the quiet. I needed the people here. This was my place now.

I edged toward the dusty old chalkboard behind the bar, advertising the specials and “pie du jour” in place when Hank’s had closed. I took the eraser and carefully swiped off the old chalk marks. The brittle white chalk nearly crumbled under my touch, but I was able to scratch out what I wanted. “Honey-smoked pork with apples,” I wrote. “Corn fritters with spicy relish. Dessert of the day: raisin brioche bread pudding. ”

I stood back and admired my handiwork.

“I would have served a chutney with the fritters,” Chef said, sniffing.

My lips twitched. “Well, it’s not your restaurant. ”

He sighed, rolling his eyes heavenward. “Sassy-mouthing again. ”

Sherry grinned at my very first selection of specials. “I take it you’ve made a decision?”

I turned and threw my arms around her and squealed, a very un-Tess-like squeal. She laughed again and patted my back. “Is it OK to hug your Realtor?” I asked.

Sherry gave me a very momlike little squeeze. “I’ll allow it this once. ”

Poaching Territory

7

I sat on the front porch, under a purpling sky, mulling over the paperwork for Howlin’ Hank’s. I teetered between giddy joy and abject horror over signing a letter of intent to buy the building. What was I thinking? What had I done? What would I serve? What would I call the place?

I should have considered that before I signed the papers.

I made calls to Chicago as I drove, shell-shocked, back to the house. Phillip was very gracious about accepting my resignation and agreed that it would be too awkward to work with me while planning his wedding to someone else.

As expected, Coda’s owners jumped at the chance to buy me out and promised to deliver a cashier’s check within forty-eight hours. While their offer was generous, considering the economy, it left me with two options: Take out a mortgage for the building and a second loan to cover the costs of renovating, or pay cash for the building and leave myself with a practically nonexistent budget for the facelift. Neither seemed like the ideal situation. While the building was structurally sound—with the exception of some storm damage to the roof—it would need some serious cosmetic work. Key changes usually translated to “expensive” in construction-speak. The whole prospect made me nervous. Thanks to some youthful indiscretions with a Visa card, my credit wasn’t stellar. Damn my addiction to fancy Belgian knives.
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