Happy Book Birthday to my thirteenth book TAKING STOCK!
Taking Stock (A Later in Life Romance)
The sale is still on for my other two Later in Life Romances, but they won’t be for long so now is the time to snag those!
SALE!!! DOPPELGANGER (A Later in Life Romance)
SALE!!! MUST LOVE COFFEE (A Later in Life Romance)
First Chapter of Taking Stock…
Conversations in a small-town grocery store can be riveting. Case in point:
“Do we have any more of the Gravy Lovers? The kind Frank’s cats like?” I asked Denise, the other clerk stocking the shelves with me. God, what a boring life I live. I slid my box cutter through the next box of Salmon Delight and frowned, annoyed at how many boxes of this crap we had.
“He bought us out of them last week. Won’t get another shipment in until the fifteenth,” Denise replied as she adjusted the cans of dog food to be label out.
Great. That would make him cranky. Frank’s girls were picky buggers and he had no issue bemoaning the fact we didn’t have their favorite can of soft food and now, because of our poor cat food ordering, he would have to drive forty-five minutes to a big box store to get it. He was a nice old man, but lonely. This would give him something to do with his day. He should be thanking me instead of complaining. Then again, what else did I have to look forward to? A grumpy Frank might just be the highlight of my otherwise banal day shift.
“Guess we’ll have to draw straws to run the register the next time he comes in,” I said, filling the hole on the shelf with the small cans.
“Want me to call over to Bert’s and see if he has any?” she offered.
Bert’s Bazaar Tackle & Gift Shop had just about everything under the sun, but I would never buy anything perishable there. Not if the layer of dust was any indication of how fresh the contents were. Bert’s was great if you were looking for odd things like weed-wacker wire, tacky tourist trap tchotchkes, or fishing gear, but not so good on practical items. If you wanted something normal like underwear or decent shoes, you had to head out of town.
“Nah. I’d never hear the end of it from Bert if I sent him over there to talk his ear off.”
It was a Monday morning in boring Bucksville, New Hampshire, and so far, the conversation was as riveting today as ever. Not that I expected anything different to happen. Nothing ever did in this sleepy little town. Well, outside the month in October when we’d get a wave of tourists who’d flock to New England to see the foliage. In a few short weeks, the crowds would return, and the town would spring to life with energy and excitement. Everyone’s mood appeared a little brighter and the world would seem ripe with possibility.
Local businesses loved the tourist season. For one brief moment, the town felt alive. Relevant. You couldn’t help but people watch during peak conditions. I’d watch couples, young and old, holding hands, strolling through our boring sleeping town, sipping their pumpkin spiced lattes from our one and only coffee shop, Must Love Coffee. Families would push our squeaky carts up and down our aisles, commenting on how quaint everything was. Selfies would be taken at random with large, goofy smiles, recording the happy moments they had while on their adventures.
Love was everywhere in the fall, except for me, stuck inside the same static walls of the Shop & Go. It was the curse of small-town living. Your romance options were nil to none. Though, I couldn’t help but hope every fall that maybe someone new…someone single, would come into the store, see me, and take me away from all of this.
Yet, year after year, the tourists left, and I…well, I got left behind. When the colors of the leaves faded to brown outside and died off, a part of me did, too. When they left, I hibernated inside myself, waiting for that spark of hope to return the next year.
This fall, the weather would be perfect for prime foliage displays, or so our weatherman said. Though it was hard to trust the opinion of a guy you went to high school with, who was known not for his book smarts, but for his B.O. How he ever landed a former cheerleader, Candy Guerin, I’d never know. I couldn’t even get a date with the smelly ones.
Reservations were filling up at our local bed and breakfast in anticipation of that first cold snap. Hell, even our semi-resident movie star, Morgan Malone, had come down from her mountain on high and shown her face among the locals. She was normally a recluse, keeping to herself when she visited, but I’d seen her in town a few times now, both with and without her bodyguard. The town lost its ever-loving mind when she graced it with her presence. I wish she’d stay secluded up in her mansion. I didn’t like being reminded how the other half lived.
“So, what are you doing for Christmas this year, Penny?” Denise asked, pulling me out of my toxic thoughts.
“The usual. Going to Maine to visit the family.”
She nodded and started prattling on about her plans. She had no idea that I was lying between my teeth. If she knew I was planning on being alone with my cats—again—she would invite me over to her place, and, no offense, but her two-year-old son drove me nuts. I would much prefer to stay at home in my pajamas. Besides, it was better no one knew that the poor, fat, singleton spinster didn’t have anyone special to spend the holiday with. I refused to be anyone’s pity invite.
That said, it would be year number six that I’d done the holidays alone. I was a pro at the lie by now. Once my dad died, there wasn’t really anyone around I cared enough to see. What little family that was still alive were spread out. I had a cousin out in Florida and an aunt in DC, and a few second cousins in Maine, but we didn’t see each other often enough to warrant that kind of a trip. We were a holiday card only family.
The door chimed, letting us know a customer had arrived.
“I’ll get it,” Denise said. “I’m out of cans anyway.” She kicked an empty box toward me for me to break down and went to the front. I dug the box cutter from out of my back pocket and made quick work of the tape. I tossed the flattened box on top of the others and glanced at the front of the store, curious who was coming in so early. Normally, no one came in before seven. We opened at six thirty primarily to restock and clean before the seven thirty rush. There was a factory about twenty minutes away, so workers stopped by on their way in for the lunch they forgot to pack, or soda and a Slim Jim, or breakfast sandwich to tide them over on the drive.
I watched with interest as Denise spoke with a man I didn’t recognize. He was tallish, bald on top, with a brown horseshoe hairline. He had a goatee, which was in serious need of a trim. His appearance could best be described as haggard. The brown suit he wore looked as though he’d been wearing it for several days. His shirt was slightly untucked, allowing his stomach to fall over his belt. When Denise pointed in my direction, I put the last can of cat food on the shelf and made my way up front.
“What can I help you with?” My manager voice was engaged. Clearly, he was selling something, and I wasn’t interested. I had my list of vendors, and I didn’t need some out-of-towner convincing me their sub-par product was better than those I’d worked with for years. It was too bad. He was kind of cute in a pathetic hobo sort of way.
“Hi, my name is Rob. I’m from the Sunset Journal.”
Ah. Not a salesman. A reporter. Figures. I held up a hand. “Let me stop you there. You’re chasing a cold story. Yes, Morgan Malone came into my store. Yes, I was at the register when she did. Yes, she bought food here. I know, shocker. A movie star who eats. No, she hasn’t been back since.” I frowned. “You’re like the twentieth reporter to try and get my exclusive scoop. You people really need a life.”
Denise chuckled under her breath. I knew she was sick to death of all the attention Morgan Malone got as much as I was. Though, I think Denise was unhappier with the way her boyfriend—at the time—made such a fuss over Morgan. Jealousy runs rampant in small towns. Then again, we don’t have much else to do here.
I realized as I walked back to my boxes of cat food that my tone with that man was harsher than I would have liked, but if I were honest with myself, I was annoyed. Annoyed that just when I thought a potential eligible bachelor had walked into my town, he turned out to be another stupid member of the paparazzi trying to make a quick buck. Yes, I noticed he wore no wedding ring. It’s the first thing I looked at whenever I saw a man I didn’t know, a tick I wasn’t proud of, by the way. The first glance always went to the left hand, not to the face to see if the guy was cute or not. The time to be picky about looks had long since come and gone.
Opening another box, cat treats this time, I heard footsteps behind me. I spun around, box cutter in hand.
“Whoa,” the reporter said with his hands raised. “I come in peace.”
I looked down at the blade. “Oh, sorry.”
“No, I’m the one who is sorry. I think there was a misunderstanding. I’m not here about Morgan Malone.”
The way he said her name indicated he didn’t give two shits about her fame or current location. Finally, a sane person.
“Oh?” I heard myself ask. “Then what can I help you with?”
At that, his face went a little red.
“I’m from the Sunset Journal.”
“Yes, you said that already.”
He seemed confused that I wasn’t more impressed with the name of a paper I’d never heard of before.
“You don’t know—” His eyebrows crinkled as he held back his sentence. “Is there a place we can talk a bit more, privately?”
I crossed my arms over my chest, instantly defensive. I saw the news. I binge watched the crime shows. I was no dummy. I wasn’t going anywhere private with a perfect stranger.
“Whatever you have to say to me, you can say right here, under the security cameras.” My eyes flitted over to Denise for some backup, since there really weren’t any cameras in the store, but she was busy on her damn phone. Again. If it wasn’t for the fact she was trying to raise a two-year-old on her own, I would have fired her a long time ago.
“Oh, no, that isn’t what I was implying at all,” the man said, clearly flustered. “Let me start over. It’s clear you don’t know who I am.” He straightened his thin brown tie and extended his hand. “My name is Rob Walters.” He emphasized his last name as though trying to help jog my memory, but I had no idea who this yahoo was.
Cautiously, I shook his hand, which was soft and warm to the touch, not rough and calloused like I’d imagine a serial killer would be, but I dropped it quickly as he continued his introduction.
“As I said, I’m a reporter with the Sunset Journal. I’m doing an article…on Small-town Singles.”
I waited for him to get to his point. Why the hell did I care what he wrote about?
“Yeah. So?” I asked when it was clear he wasn’t going on.
“Well, you’re Ms. White, aren’t you?” he asked. “You live here in Bucksville, have three cats…”
“Yeah, what the hell is it to you?” And more importantly, how does he know my name? Or about my cats? My nametag only said “Penny.”
Rob looked utterly perplexed. “Well, um. You wrote to us hoping to make a love connection…”
I blinked at him.
“I’m here to interview you for my article,” he said, as though that clarified everything.
I opened my mouth and cocked my head. I heard the words he was saying, but they were not registering.
“Is this not ringing a bell?” He gave me a puzzled look as to why he needed to explain himself.
“You think I wrote you a letter?” I shook my head and laughed. “Sorry, but I think you have the wrong woman.”
“Oh. My apologies.” He dug in his leather satchel and produced a lined white piece of paper. “The lady at the front told me this was you.” He pointed to the name at the bottom of the letter. “I’m looking for a Penelope White.”
I flinched. “It’s Penny.” I snatched the paper out of his hand without asking for permission and scanned the letter that did, indeed, appear to have been penned by me, except for one thing. It was not my handwriting.
I looked up at Rob. “Do I look like the type of woman who makes hearts over her Is?”
He shrugged. “I thought it conveyed a sense of playfulness.”
I frowned. “That’s because it came from the mind of a teeny-bopper. Denise!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
Her frantic assault on the keyboard of her phone came to a stop as she looked up at me. Her face froze. The color left her cheeks as her eyes grew wide. She knew she was busted.
“Yes, Ms. White?” Her voice was far more timid and polite than it normally was, and she never, never, called me Ms. White. Oh, she was in trouble now.
“Get your skinny butt over here and explain to this man, and to me, why you wrote this letter.”
Denise lowered her head for a moment before she reluctantly came over, pushing aside her dark brown waves behind her ears as she walked toward us like a dog that had eaten the Christmas ham.
“I’m sorry. It was stupid, I know. I wrote that letter ages ago. I didn’t think anything would come of it, honest.”
I sighed. “Why? Why would you do this?”
Her eyes looked up at me, then back at Rob.
“Well, I just thought…I just thought you seemed lonely, and well, they were looking for people who lived in small towns who were single…so I thought you, you know, you might find someone.” She turned to Rob. “She’s an amazing woman. I know she doesn’t, like, dress hip or anything”—I was about to be offended until she went on—“but she has the biggest heart of anyone here. She gave me a job when no one else would. She has yet to fire me either, even though I’m, like, the world’s worst employee.” Denise looked up at me with her sad little eyes. “I just want her to find someone who deserves her, that’s all.”
The kid had a good heart, if not the sanest of minds. “Thank you, Denise. That was kind of you, kid, but I’m not looking for love. A woman doesn’t need a man to make her feel complete,” I said, regurgitating the headlines of every woman’s magazine on our store display rack. “I’m quite happy on my own.” It was a lie, but they didn’t need to know that.
Denise made a face. “No one is happy alone, Penny. That’s just something lonely people say to make themselves feel better.”
Just then, a customer walked in. Saved by the bell.
“You better go back to your register, Denise. I’ll deal with this mess, but we’re not done talking about the heap of shit you’ve landed in,” I said to her.
She nodded once then rushed back to safety behind the counter.
“She’s wrong, you know. I am quite happy on my own,” I told Rob, and myself.
“Sure. I am, too. Some people just don’t get it, though.”
“No, they don’t,” I said, thinking. “Out of curiosity, just why are you looking for small-town singles, Mr. Walters? I’m not sure how that is information worthy of an article?”
At that Rob beamed. “Not true. You see, I want to hook two of them up and then write about their love connection for our February issue.”
I snorted at that. Literally snorted.
“That sounds like about as much fun as watching paint dry, but you have fun with that, Mr. Walters.”
Turning away from him, I set back to work. What a ridiculous task he had put upon himself. Trying to capture lightning in a bottle and then write about it. Talk about a fool’s errand. You’d have to be a complete moron to want to be a part of that science project. No, thank you.
Taking Stock (A Later in Life Romance)
Until next week! Hopefully, I’ll have some reviews to share! Happy reading!!!