Today's Reading

Chapter One

She'd never been much of a sleeper. A good thing, she supposed, since getting by with little rest was a major requirement for a cook. That morning, she'd been up well before the September dawn. She'd made the farm runs, picking up the day's fresh veg for the pub. Then, home again, she'd made breakfast for her eleven-year-old daughter, Grace, before taking her to school. She treasured those quiet mornings with her daughter. Often it was the only time they managed to spend together outside of the restaurant kitchen.

Her brief hour on her own in the pub kitchen before the staff arrived for lunch service was priceless as well, and today doubly so. She'd scrubbed the walk-in fridge, organized the supplies, handwritten the day's menu for Bea, her manager, to copy. Now, apron-clad, she sat on the kitchen's back step, looking out over the little service area between the pub and the cottage that was the chef's attached accommodation. Sipping her first espresso of the day from the pub's machine, she ran over her to-do list for tomorrow's charity luncheon at Beck House, the Talbots' place.

Sudden doubt assailed her. What had she been thinking to commit to such a thing, catering an outdoor lunch for four dozen of the local well-to-do, as well as national food bloggers and restaurant critics?

When she'd come here with Grace, three years ago, glad of a regular job that put a roof over their heads and food in her daughter's mouth, she'd sworn to keep it simple. Good pub food. Pies, fish and chips, seasonal soups, a Sunday-roast lunch. She had done that, and done it well, judging by the daily packed house. Why, then, had she let herself be seduced into stretching past those self-imposed boundaries? "Something memorable, Viv. Something only you can do," Addie had said, with utter, breezy confidence. She'd taken the bait.

Well, she was in for it now, regardless, and she couldn't stop the little fizz of excitement in her veins. Everything, from starter to pudding, was made with local produce, and she'd spent weeks refining the menu.

That morning she'd already prepped the pub's smoker—a poor man's Kamado Joe—and put in one last lamb shoulder. Over the past few weeks she'd cooked and frozen more than half a dozen joints, but last night, in an attack of panic, she'd decided to do one more. The white beans with fennel that would accompany the meat had also been cooked and frozen, and were now defrosting in the cottage kitchen. She had a few things to finish up that afternoon, and a few that could only be done tomorrow morning, but overall she thought she was in good shape.

Taking a last sip of her coffee, she gazed absently beyond the mellow Cotswold stone of the storage shed and adjoining cottage to the hills rising away from the gentle valley of the River Eye. This was her favorite time of year, early autumn, had been since she was a child, growing up in these same Gloucestershire valleys. She'd never thought, after fifteen years in London, that she'd end up back here. But maybe it was a good thing. And maybe the charity lunch would be a good thing, too. She'd certainly paid her dues the last few years between catering jobs and the pub, and if she was totally honest, she missed the buzz of the bigger food world. Maybe it was time she stuck a toe back in those waters. What harm could it do, after all this time?

She tipped the dregs of her cup into the potted geranium by the back door.

On with it, then, and let tomorrow bring what it would.

She was pushing herself up from the step when a tall shadow fell across the yard, blocking the morning sun, and when she looked up, her heart nearly stopped.

Nell Greene pushed a few bites of chicken-and-tarragon pie about on her plate. You could always count on the pub's made-from-scratch pies. Chef Viv's short-crust pastry was divine and a cold snap in the late-September weather had made Nell crave that sort of comfort. The pub's open fire beckoned as well, so she'd taken a seat in the bar near the hearth, rather than in the more formal dining areas on either side of the cozy center room.

But she'd felt odd, alone, in the midst of the Friday-night bustle, and had toyed with her food as she watched the evening sun slant through the pub's mullioned windows. Since her divorce, she'd found that she quite liked living on her own, but she had not got used to dining alone in public places. Watching couples always made her feel more awkward, and the sight of the two middle-aged and obviously married couples chatting over gins and newspapers brought a familiar twinge of jealousy. But tonight the young man and woman at the next table took the prize. They sat with their legs intertwined, kissing and nuzzling. When the blond woman ran her hand up inside the leg of the man's football shorts, Nell looked away, cringing with embarrassment. She suspected they were both married—but to other people. Nothing else would explain such a brazen display of—well, she supposed you could call it affection. At least she wasn't the only one alone tonight, she thought, glancing at the tall man in the fedora who had claimed the comfortably worn leather sofa in the corner.


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