Jill Marie Denton
Hope Under Fire - Ch 1
Welcome to Chapter One!
Consistency was key. Timing was everything. Life was all about routine. At least it had been for the last few years.
Alarm at four-thirty in the morning. Teeth and hair brushing at four-forty. Programmable coffee brewer kicked on at four-forty-five while she stepped into her work uniform. The last bead of onyx magic dropped into her travel mug as she rounded the staircase. Black coffee in the mug at four-fifty-two. With keys in hand, she was out the door the next minute.
It took six minutes to walk from her doorstep to the corner, where Lynn’s Luncheonette sat dormant beneath dimming streetlights. Dawn began as she stepped past the ancient Jeep in the back lot and to the rear entrance’s screen door. Inside, the telltale bassline of metal music meant the prep work was already underway. With a cleansing breath, she stepped into the restaurant at five a.m. precisely.
Her voice lifted above the din of guitar and drum as she stepped past the janitor’s closet, through dry storage and into the kitchen. “Morning, Hank.”
The head cook glanced up from behind the stainless-steel hot line, the tabletops already littered with bins of chopped potatoes, peppers and onions. His hazel eyes twinkled under stiff graying brows. “Mornin’, Hope.”
She tied on the apron she found on a nearby hook. “What do I need to know?”
He groaned, stretching his back with a thoughtful, drawling hum. “Ted left a note, no berries on the truck so it’s only melon and pineapple in the fruit salad today. The breakfast special’ll be praline pecan pancakes and sausage. Soup’ll be tomato basil, ready around ten-thirty.”
“Can I run a grilled cheese special, maybe a fancier one?” Hope asked, fetching her order pad from her apron pocket. “You’ll move more soup that way.”
Hank opened a lowboy fridge and poked around. “Yep, can do. I got some applewood bacon and caramelized onion left so let’s have a grilled cheese with that on it. And that coffee creamer you wanted came in.”
“Sweet,” Hope tittered. “I’ll update the board out front. It’s just you and me until seven-thirty. Veronica’s gonna be late.”
“Hot date last night?” He snickered, resuming his chopping.
“Oh, I’m sure,” she tossed back, edging out through the swinging door and into the dimly lit dining room. Eight tables lined the walls, leaving a narrow walkway from counter to front door.
On a Monday like today, the booths would be full of local retirees and regulars. On weekends, when tourists and fishermen flitted into town, there would often be a wait for a table in this local landmark.
Lynn had long since retired and shifted the responsibility of the daily operations to her son, Jake, a family man with a full-time job. Hope and Hank had held his hands for years. Jake’s wife came by on Wednesdays after their two-p.m. closing to pick up receipts, balance books and chat with them about the restaurant’s needs in her husband’s stead.
Hope’ apron hung on that hook in this simple eatery going on fifteen years. Hank’s Jeep had been parked in that same spot on her first day. Together they’d navigated the place through fluctuating economies, natural disasters and an endless stream of short-lived employees. Perpetual flirt Veronica was their longest tenure, with only eleven months service under her belt.
The phone on the counter rang as Hope finished wiping down the plastic-coated menus. She lifted it from its base and set it on her shoulder as she stepped to the specials board by the door. “Lynn’s, good morning!”
“Good morning, Hope,” the male voice greeted. “I hope you enjoyed your day off. All good this morning?”
Jake’s voice echoed around the cabin of his sedan, making him sound a million miles away. She uncapped the marker to jot down the day’s specials. “So far, so good. And thanks for yesterday. My mom never comes for visits.”
“I was as shocked as anyone that you asked for a day off. Veronica needs to enroll for food handling today and the new line cook is coming in to do his intake paperwork at one.”
“Got it, no worries,” Hope replied easily, clipping around the counter.
“I never do when you’re there. Call me if anything goes down.”
“Nothing will. Have a great day at work.”
“Will do. Later.”
Hope reset the phone on its stand and tugged the bin of clean silverware onto the counter. That phone call had cost her four precious minutes. At five-thirty, Lynn’s doors opened, and the dining area needed to be perfect by then.
A little before six that morning, he pulled into Lynn’s front lot, eyeing the simple ranch house-turned restaurant. He’d driven by many times, had heard good things, but he normally spent his mornings sleeping off the night before. He’d had no reason to be up so early under normal circumstances.
There was nothing normal about his life nowadays, though.
Through the broad exterior windows, he watched a lovely server with auburn hair pulled back in a pert ponytail dash between to the two occupied tables and the counter a few times, a broad smile on her face despite the ungodly hour. And she took the time to chat with the aging diners, one hand perched on her hip and the other holding a coffee pot aloft.
He stepped from his late-model SUV to the front door. A tingling bell chimed overhead as he tugged it open. The distinctive scent of well-done bacon and bitter coffee greeted him instantly, as did the server, whipping around the counter again to approach.
“Good morning,” she beamed, her amber eyes turning up at the corners. “I’ll grab your coffee. Have a seat wherever you like.”
He nodded once, stepping past and to the booth closest to the front window. She followed a moment later, coffeepot in hand. She flipped and filled his mug before he had a chance to glance at the menu tucked into a wire rack to his right, alongside all the condiments he could need, topped off and pristinely clean.
“I’m Hope and welcome to Lynn’s. Not sure if you’re the type, but I’ve got pumpkin spice creamer this morning. We have praline pancakes on special and I saw some carrot cake muffins coming out of the oven a few minutes ago. Do you need anything to drink besides the coffee?”
He blinked twice, awestruck. “No, coffee’s good and I take it black.”
“Good enough. I’ll keep it coming,” she answered, tapping the edge of the table with two fingers as she started to turn away. “I’ve never seen you before, so take your time with the menu. Any questions, just ask!”
She was off to the neighboring table and refilling their mugs before he could find words. The older of the two gents, in a brimmed hat, uttered something and made her jubilant laughter echo around the narrow space as she swept off and back into the kitchen.
His heart skipped. She was perfect.
Veronica arrived a few minutes later than she’d estimated. Hope was waiting, palms on hips, when she strode in.
“I’m here, I’m here,” the twenty-something blonde announced as she nudged past her boss and into the kitchen to fetch her apron. “Sorry, traffic’s a bear.”
“You know, that’s one benefit to being here on time. No traffic at six.”
“You live around the corner,” Veronica argued, tying the knot around her waist and stepping up alongside to eye the occupied tables. “What can I do?”
“Bus two and four when they get up. One’s been here pretty much since opening, nursing his coffee.”
“I don’t recognize him,” she commented quietly. “He’s been on his own all morning?”
Hope turned her back to the dining room, her voice quieted against the din of the dining room. “Yep, and I don’t know him, either. Rare thing in this one-horse town.”
“What kind of world are we living in? Tall, dark, handsome guy dining alone?”
“A little old for you, isn’t he?”
Veronica snickered, rolling silverware to keep her hands busy while she watched their subject of discussion flick at the screen of his cell phone. “Maybe, but not for you. God knows you could use a ride.”
“Oh, please,” Hope murmured, rolling her eyes.
“I’m serious. He’s got that suave Mediterranean thing on lock and that’s a real Polo. And I don’t see a wedding ring. Since you’re not interested, you think he’s got time to show me a good time?”
“You’re pathetic. Stop chasing off new customers. I’m grabbing the iced tea.”
Hope passed through the swinging door into the kitchen, a palm over her chest. She released a deep breath, fighting back the fluttering. She’d spent the past few hours glancing at him one too many times herself, nagging suspicion suffocating the illicit, liquid pulls in her belly.
She wrung out her hands and strode with determination to the hot line, where Hank was pouring a pitcher full of sugar into their tall metal iced tea dispenser. She watched as he dipped a two-foot long whisk into the drum to mix it into their signature sweet tea. As soon as he was done, she scooped up the massive dispenser and ferried it out to the counter beside the coffee machine.
Across the room, Veronica leaned a hip against table one, chatting with their solo diner. He smiled jovially while she spoke words outside earshot. Hope wiped the counter, eyeing their interaction as slyly as she could manage. And when he rose from his seat and handed Veronica a credit card, she bit the inside of her cheek.
Veronica closed out his check, handed him a pen and thanked him. He glanced over her shoulder to Hope, who lifted her eyes warmly like a practiced extrovert. With a pert wave, the handsome stranger stepped out into the midmorning sun.
Veronica was barely around the counter when Hope stopped her. “He paid with a card? A corporate one?”
She handed the receipt over. “Nope, personal. Why?”
Hope eyed the name on the slip, Tucker Angelini, and his generous tip. “I was nervous, thinking he was a food critic. Name’s not familiar, though. That would’ve explained why he was alone, why I didn’t recognize him and why he was so interested in watching how we run things here. Hmm.”
“Oh,” she snickered. “I figured you were anxious because he was good looking. What was I thinking?”
Hope smacked her arm lightly.