Choosing Love

 

Chapter One

“I’m sorry, Jenny. I’m so, so sorry.”

Jenny Kline stared into the tear-filled brown eyes of the woman sitting across the table from her and tried to resist the urge to pinch herself. There was no point. This whole conversation might seem like a dream, but she knew she wasn’t asleep. She really was sitting in a worn booth at the Sunnyside Diner in downtown Hardy Falls, Pennsylvania. She really was having breakfast with Missy Leon, her friend and boss, while a chilly late-March rain pounded against the diner’s big plate glass windows and turned the morning outside to steel gray. She really was smelling bacon and eggs and coffee, as Mr. and Mrs. Bunson and their staff served the local crowd that was bustling in and out of the rain on the way to work on a Monday. And she really was…

“Did you just say you’re firing me?” she asked, wanting to confirm she’d heard her friend correctly. Maybe Missy had said, “I have to hire you.” Although that didn’t make any sense because Jenny had been working with Missy for a long time now. Almost nine years. Even when Jenny still lived with her ex-boyfriend, Stefan, in his townhouse near the university a few miles away, she’d worked for Missy’s housecleaning business. She’d assumed they’d gotten even closer once she’d finally ditched the bastard and moved home.

“I’m sorry,” Missy repeated and reached across the linoleum tabletop to grab Jenny’s hand. “I don’t have a choice. I just can’t pay you anymore.”

Jenny pulled her hand away.

“I thought everything was good! What happened to all the money?” Okay, that wasn’t exactly tactful, but she was honestly stunned. As far as she knew, the business had been chugging right along. They’d certainly been working hard enough between the housecleaning and the catering work Missy had insisted they start doing last year. In fact, they’d gotten so busy that Jenny hadn’t been able to get out to her art studio in weeks.

Missy sat back in her seat. Her round face was still blotchy from tears, but there was a harder light in her eyes now.

“I’m not sure that’s any of your business,” she said flatly.

Jenny drew in a sharp breath, the slap-down unexpected.

Ouch. That hurt.

Because, yes, technically Missy owned the housecleaning service and was Jenny’s boss. And Missy had been the one to cut the deal with Mr. Foster, the caterer, so they could both earn some extra money. Jenny had happily tagged along. Technically, Jenny was a freelancer. But it never felt that way. She might not have been especially interested in all of the business stuff Missy tried to show her—she had enough trouble with her own taxes, thank you—but in everything else she’d considered herself to be kind of a partner. She’d thought she and Missy were a team.

Wrong again.

“Sorry,” she managed.

“God.” Missy ran her hands through her thick mass of curly, brown hair.

“Here you go, loves.” A matronly waitress came up to the table holding two thick white ceramic plates. She slid them across the table before stepping back and studying them with sharp eyes partially hidden by large glasses. “Everything okay?”

Jenny forced a smile for the older woman. “Yes, thanks, Mrs. Dorinsky. We’re good.” She’d worked at the Sunnyside through high school and a couple of years after graduation, so she still knew everyone on the staff. Which meant they all felt free to be up in her business.

Mrs. Dorinsky looked skeptical, but she nodded and headed off, sturdy black sneakers squeaking, to get orders from the four old men who’d just settled at a nearby table. It looked like Albert Cromwell, Harry Newman, Joe Horton, and Martin Scanner were right on time today.

Jenny turned her attention back to Missy.

“You don’t need to tell me,” she apologized. “I’m sorry I was snarky.”

“It’s okay.” Missy avoided eye contact and looked out the window at the rain. “Buster’s been borrowing money from the business for over a year.” The words came out in a rush.

“What?” Jenny gaped at the other woman, shocked again. “Really?”

Darren “Buster” Leon was Missy’s husband. The two had dated in high school and gotten married a year or two after graduation mostly, Jenny knew, because Teagan, their now thirteen-year-old son, had been on the way. Jenny actually liked Buster, although sometimes the man could be pretty damned dense.

“Yeah.” Missy sighed and turned to look at her. “He needed cash to pay for parts and taxes and stuff like that at his shop.” Buster owned a motorcycle repair shop on the other side of town. “He always paid it back before—he just needed it when his accounts receivable got behind, so he could keep the cash flow working.”

“Okay,” Jenny said, although she honestly knew nothing about accounting and was happy to keep it that way. “If he was paying it back, then—”

“I said before,” Missy interrupted and picked at the ridged metal strapping running around the edge of the tabletop. “His shop hasn’t been doing so well, and then he got stiffed on a really big job so he couldn’t pay me back, and he needed more to keep going. It all kind of snowballed.”

“Wow.” Jenny couldn’t think of anything else to say because Missy normally wasn’t this stupid.

She tried not to let her thoughts show on her face, but she must have failed because the look her friend shot her was defensive.

“He’s my husband,” Missy said shortly. “His business pays our mortgage.”

“No, I know.” Jenny tried to soothe, although she wanted to point out that it was total bullshit. Obviously Missy’s business was the one bringing in the cash or Buster wouldn’t have needed to borrow it all the damned time, and he would have been able to repay what he had borrowed.

On the other hand, finding out what had been going on sure explained a heck of a lot. Not only had Missy hooked them up with the caterer, but she’d also been adding more and more properties to their housecleaning list over the past couple of months. Jenny had been surprised when her friend had refused to discuss the need for another cleaner to handle the expanding workload, but now it was clear why.

Shoving her scrambled eggs around on her plate, she frowned at Missy. “So, what? You’re thinking you’re going to just do everything yourself? That’s impossible.” They were overwhelmed as it was.

Missy fiddled with her own food. “Buster’s going to help me,” she said.

Jenny couldn’t control her snort of disbelief. “Oh, right.” Buster wasn’t exactly known for his cleanliness.

“He will,” Missy insisted, frowning at her. “This is our business, and he knows we need to make it work.” She shrugged. “Until he gets the motorcycle shop turned around, anyway.”

Like that will happen.

“So he thinks he’s going to able to do both?” Jenny asked, feeling even more skeptical. Easy going Buster Leon was far better at coasting along than multitasking.

“We’ll find a way to make it work,” Missy maintained. “It will just take a little juggling.”

“If you say so.”

Jenny didn’t want to argue anymore, but she had a crystal clear picture of how this was all going to go down. Last fall, Missy had taken on the contract to clean Dr. and Mrs. Black’s huge McMansion after the couple had fired yet another cleaning service. Mrs. Black wanted what she wanted when she wanted it with no excuses—especially when she was hosting one of her many charity fundraisers. On top of that, Ms. Gregory, the town librarian, had just hired them to clean some of her business properties. The old lady was a real estate mogul and a shark who put up with zero shit. Between the two of them, Missy was going to have her hands full and then some.

“I could help you for a while for free,” Jenny offered. She might be angry and, yes, hurt, but this woman had been one of the most important people in her life for a long time. She wasn’t going to let her drown merely because she was pissed off.

Missy shook her head and her curls bounced, the fluorescent lighting catching the red highlights in the brown. “No, but thanks for that.” She smiled slightly. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t help, but Buster and I have to figure out a way to handle this on our own. You wouldn’t be able to work for free forever.”

Well, that was true. Jenny was living with her mother at the moment, but she still had expenses and debt, and she really, really, really wanted to be able to afford her own place soon. As much as she loved her mother, Jackie Kline wasn’t always the easiest person in the whole world to get along with. It probably came from being the police chief. You think you’re in charge of everything.

“I could ask Mr. Foster to give me more hours,” she said, considering her options. For the most part, they’d only been working with the man when he handled Mrs. Black’s events, but he certainly had more clients. He could probably use her, and the work would be flexible.

Missy shifted and looked even more uncomfortable. “Um…about that.”

Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.

Jenny frowned at her. “What?”

“He asked me to tell you that, uh,” Missy cleared her throat, “he doesn’t need you anymore.”

Jenny sat back. “He’s firing me, too?”

“I guess.”

She tried to understand. “Well, why? I ran my feet off for that man.” Mrs. Black’s fundraisers were killers.

Missy’s big brown eyes pleaded for understanding. “You spilled champagne on Mayor Truelove’s new dress at the fundraiser on Friday. She complained to him.”

Jenny gasped, outraged. “That was her own damned fault! She couldn’t wait a freaking second, like a civilized person, for me to hand her a flute. No, she has to try to grab it. And because she’s been having the nail salon put on artificial talons that make her look like a bird of prey, she couldn’t get a grip, and the glass slipped, and she knocked the tray.” Champagne had poured down the new mayor’s fancy sequined evening dress. But Mayor Truelove had laughed it off, shook her bright blond bouffant-styled hair, and said it didn’t matter. And then apparently she’d run right to Mr. Foster! The snake!

“I guess she thinks you could have caught it. And the dress is ruined. It was expensive.”

“Oh, right. I’ll bet she couldn’t wait to tell Foster what happened,” Jenny muttered. Mayor Margo Truelove had it in for the Kline family these days. In the last election, some people—including, Jenny knew, the four old reprobates currently yukking it up over at the other table—had written Jenny’s mother’s name on their ballots, even though Jackie Kline did not want to be mayor and was not running.

It didn’t matter. Margo became convinced that Jackie wanted her job. The woman couldn’t even acknowledge that the only reason she’d beaten the incumbent mayor in the first place was because the write-ins had split the race three ways. No, now Margo spent her days figuring out ways to assert her dominance.

“Mr. Foster can’t afford to have Margo angry at him,” Missy continued. “She’s holding a lot of town events now. Besides, she’s good friends with Mrs. Black and you know how much business he does with the Blacks. He didn’t have a choice but to agree to fire you.”

“Right.” Jenny resisted throwing her fork across the room because, with her luck, she’d spear somebody. “So what you’re saying is that I’ve lost both of my jobs today.”

Missy bit her lip. “I’m so sorry, Jenny. But you’ll find something.”

Jenny looked at her friend. “Yeah?” she demanded sarcastically. “Like what?”

Missy was quiet for a moment, obviously struggling to come up with something.

“Well,” she said at last, “you have all of that waitressing experience. Maybe the Bunsons need someone to work here at the Sunnyside? Or maybe Hannah needs someone at the Country Time?”

Well, yeah, Hannah had needed someone at the Country Time Bar and Grill. Past tense. In fact, she’d asked Jenny if she wanted to come on board as a waitress because she’d decided to open her local tavern hangout earlier for lunch service. Jenny’s younger sister Josie, a marketing guru and Hannah’s best friend, had been urging her to open the place earlier for a while now, but Hannah had been afraid of the risk. Now that she had an investor fund to help finance the business, she was even more paranoid about taking chances.

But for whatever reason, Hannah had finally decided to give lunch service a try. Since Jenny had helped out at the Country Time before, she’d asked her to think about making it more official.

Jenny had declined the offer because Hannah couldn’t give her enough hours to replace the income she made with Missy and Mr. Foster. And Jenny hadn’t wanted to cut back on her hours working with Missy because, you know, they were a team.

Surprise, surprise.

Although, to be fair, another big reason Jenny had declined Hannah’s offer was because Josie was usually at the Country Time. Her sister had moved back to town and hooked up with Mateo Guerrero, the tavern’s sexy cook / bartender / dishwasher. It was bad enough that being with Josie and Hannah always made Jenny feel like a complete outsider. She didn’t think she’d be able to handle watching Josie snuggle up with Mat day in and day out on top of it.

Especially since Jenny had kind of been hoping to snuggle up with Mat herself.

So, yeah. She’d said no, and Hannah had hired other people for the lunch service starting the first week of April.

“And you have your painting,” Missy continued, blissfully unaware of her thoughts.

“Yes.” Jenny always had her painting. Always had her dream hovering just at the edge of the horizon. Just out of reach.

“It’s nice to have a hobby,” Missy said, smiling and chattering away. “It will give you something to do while you look for another job. I wish I had something I could do like that. Take my mind off things. If I have downtime, I just watch television.”

Jenny held onto her patience. “It’s not a hobby,” she reminded her friend. “It’s more than that.”

“Oh, no. I know.” Missy seemed to realize she’d made a misstep. “No, you’re doing good. And you’re even selling things now that your paintings are hanging at the Country Time.” Hannah had decided to feature local artists and had taken on a few of Jenny’s paintings. “People are starting to know who you are. So maybe this is a good thing. You’ll have time to concentrate on that before you have to be tied down with a real job again.”

“Sure.”

Her art WAS a real job.

It was just a real job that didn’t pay any money at the moment.

Missy opened her mouth and closed it again. Her face made it clear that she didn’t know what else to say.

That was wrong, Jenny thought. It shouldn’t be like this between her and Missy.

“It’s okay,” she said, making herself smile at her friend. “I’ll work it out.”

“I know you will,” Missy nodded and then shifted to gather up her purse. “I’m sorry, but I have to take off and head over to the Walsh’s house.” She rooted around for money.

“Um, have fun?” Jenny said.

“Right.” Missy wrinkled her nose. She threw some bills on the table and grabbed the muffin off her plate. “I’ve got this, but you’ll take it up to pay, right?” They hadn’t gotten the check yet, but they both knew the menu inside and out at the Sunnyside.

“Okay.” Jenny wanted to protest about her friend picking up the tab, but she stayed quiet when she remembered she didn’t have a job anymore. Missy slid out of the booth and stood for a moment, looking down at her.

“I really am sorry,” she said.

“I know,” Jenny assured her. And she did.

Missy hesitated, then turned and left. Jenny watched her go out the door and step into the heavy rain. After another minute or two, Missy’s little car pulled out onto Main Street and drove away.

The shock was wearing off a little bit, and now all she wanted to do was cry.

“Everything okay, honey? Missy left without finishing her breakfast and you haven’t eaten a thing.”

Jenny looked up to meet Mrs. Dorinsky’s concerned pale eyes behind her dark-framed glasses.

“It’s fine, Mrs. D.” She hesitated. “I don’t suppose there are any openings here, are there?”

“No, dear. The Bunsons have been having a bit of a rough time of it since that restaurant with 24-hour service opened out on the highway. We can’t compete.” Mrs. Dorinsky’s plain face creased. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Jenny smiled. “I’m sure. You can just bring the check.” She hesitated. “Does Mrs. B. have some extra muffins around? I wanted to get six or so to take down to mom at the police department.”

Better make an effort to sweeten her mother’s mood, since it didn’t look like she’d be moving out of the house any time soon.

“Of course, dear,” Mrs. Dorinsky smiled. “I’ll get them for you.” She bustled away and returned a few minutes later with a white box.

“Here are six. And the check.”

Jenny thanked her, took the box up to the register to pay the bill, said hello to a beaming Mrs. Bunson, waved at the four old men at the table and a few other people she knew, then headed outside. She got drenched immediately.

Well, this sure was a hell of a way to start the day.
 

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