“Alp Blossom.” I showed Olivia Harrington and her two grown daughters the beautiful cheese wheel coated in colorful trimmings of dried grasses and flowers. It looked plucked from a spring meadow. “This alpine cheese is made in Austria, but the edible flowers and herbs it’s dressed in are from the surrounding meadows of Bavaria.”
Olivia and her younger daughter Summer each nibbled at their samples as the four of us sat at the farm table in my cheese shop’s kitchenette. Yes, we were up to our twenty-third sample (with no end in sight), but I wondered how they were even able to taste it with the teensy-weensy bites they took. Maybe nibbling was how they maintained their size-zero figures. The diamond on Summer’s ring finger was way bigger than the bite she took.
Unlike Summer, her older sister Chloe ate the entire portion of whichever cheese samples she enjoyed and didn’t think twice about wrinkling her nose and spitting out those she didn’t. Chloe was just as svelte as her mother and sister, debunking my theory of how nibbling food sustained their figures. The sisters, both in their late twenties, also inherited their mother’s aquiline nose, large blue eyes, and thick mane of brunette hair. Basically, Summer and Chloe looked like Disney princesses.
Summer waited for her mother’s reaction before deciding her own, which always coincided with Olivia’s. Olivia nodded at the latest cheese sample in satisfaction, thus Summer did the same. Chloe looked a little green in the gills from having enjoyed so much cheese—a girl after my own heart.
As maid of honor, Chloe was the official hostess of Summer’s wedding shower taking place the following day, and had hired me to do a cheese bar. However, entrusting a cheesemonger to select cheese was apparently not in Olivia Harrington’s comfort zone, so the last-minute call came yesterday for a cheese tasting with the Harrington women. Even though it was a little late (to say the least) to change my selections and accompaniments, of course I agreed.
The Harringtons had risen in the ranks as the wealthiest family in Yarrow Glen after the Lippingers sold their vast acreage of Sonoma Valley land twenty years ago. Not only were the Harringtons wealthy and influential, they’d also recently purchased All Things Sonoma magazine from the Lippingers. I knew Summer’s wedding events would be highlighted in the magazine prior to a cover story for the six-figure wedding, which meant my shop would get a mention.
I was feeling slightly queasy from the déjà vu of being appraised by someone with the magazine. Guy Lippinger had been the magazine’s food critic and had threatened to give Curds & Whey a bad review just before he was found murdered outside of my shop last year. I had to remind myself that his murder investigation was behind me and so were the Lippingers. I was looking forward to a fresh start with the magazine. This could mean big things for Curds & Whey.
The recommendation to use some of Yarrow Glen’s local businesses came via our town mayor, as her nephew was Summer’s fiancé. Not only was providing the cheese for Summer Harrington’s wedding shower a big deal, but impressing Mayor Trumbull wouldn’t hurt either.
I glanced at the clock again. It was a half hour past closing time. Mrs. Schultz and Archie, my two employees, were perfectly capable of closing the shop on their own, but I felt bad they were being forced to do so. Plus, I had a date tonight with Roman, who had been inching his way out of the friend zone for the past three months.
Excitement bubbled up like a fizzy drink when I thought about our first kiss outside my apartment door, and the way my security light clicked off in the middle of it like a movie screen fading to black after the happy ending.
I sighed. If I didn’t get back to reality, I wouldn’t get back to Roman.
“Are you satisfied with the cheeses I’ve selected for the shower tomorrow?” I asked the Harrington women with hidden crossed fingers.
Mrs. Schultz, who was “smack-dab” in her sixties, as she liked to say, tentatively approached the kitchenette where I was doing the sampling. “Excuse me. Willa? I’m sorry to interrupt.” She displayed her usual toothy grin even after a full day of work. Her cheery disposition was matched by the bright colors of the dresses and scarves she always chose to wear under her Curds & Whey apron. “Archie and I are done closing the shop.”
I excused myself from the Harringtons and walked with Mrs. Schultz to the front of the shop, where we met Archie. I’d been mentoring twenty-year-old Archie since Curds & Whey opened last year. He was a lanky guy with a generous sprinkling of freckles across his face and a port-wine stain on his cheek. His love of cheese along with his work ethic and enthusiastic personality were assets to my shop. Both he and the equally loyal Mrs. Schultz had quickly become much more than employees. They were two of my closest friends.
“I’m sorry about this. I had no idea they’d still be here,” I said in a hushed voice.
“No problem,” Archie replied. “Do you need us to stick around?”
“Gosh no, you two get home. I know you have your poker night to get to, Mrs. Schultz. I hope I haven’t made you late.”
“It’s at Sylvia’s house tonight, so I’ve got plenty of time. No worries,” she said.
“Thanks for the extra help.” I let them out the front door and locked it behind them, wishing I was following them out. I returned to the rear of the shop, where Chloe seemed as anxious as I was to wrap up the evening. Thus far, Chloe was my favorite Harrington.
“I think we have enough choices, Mother. We’re supposed to meet Nelson and the Trumbulls for dinner,” Chloe said, although I couldn’t believe she’d even be hungry for dinner.
Summer had taken out a compact mirror and was reapplying her lipstick, which was the exact shade of rose pink as her mother’s. “You’re supposed to be the one throwing me this shower, Chloe. You’d think you’d be a little more invested in it,” she said, pouting her pink lips in the mirror.
“I’ve eaten so much cheese, I won’t poop for a week! How much more invested can I be?” Chloe answered.
“Chloe, we don’t use those kinds of words,” her mother scolded.
Chloe continued, “What’s the big deal anyway? It’s not like this is your first wedding. We’ve gone through this routine before.”
Summer snapped her compact mirror shut. “You’re just jealous because you’ve never been asked.”
“And you’re just uptight because you’re afraid this one will leave you at the altar like your last fiancé.”
Oh my, this was spiraling fast. Cheese usually made people happier, not heated.
“Mother?” Summer pleaded with Olivia for backup.
“Girls,” Mrs. Harrington admonished, although she didn’t seem that ruffled. I got the feeling their squabbling wasn’t new to her.
I, on the other hand, was mortified on everyone’s behalf.
Thank goodness a knock on the door of the shop gave me an excuse to leave the table. It might’ve been a customer ignoring the Closed sign and dimmed front lights. I hoped it wasn’t Roman. I was going to have to text him and tell him I was running late.
Through the paned-glass door, I saw the statuesque Mayor Trumbull. Her son Everett, and her nephew Nelson, Summer’s fiancé, were with her.
Oh no, don’t tell me there are going to be even more opinions about my cheese choices. I hoped my face didn’t reveal my inner thoughts. I unlocked and opened the door.
“Mayor Trumbull. This is a nice surprise.” I allowed them in, forcing a smile.
The mayor wore a power red blazer over a black sheath dress that landed just at her knee, and modest heels. Everett and Nelson were about the same age but that was where the similarities ended. The mayor’s strong genes were passed onto her son, who had her wide nose and matched her in height. I’d met Everett before—Baz had been helping him transform the building on the other side of the alley next to Curds & Whey to open a bicycle shop. He always greeted me with a friendly “Hey, neighbor,” and tonight was no exception.
In contrast, Nelson walked in and looked past me. Apparently, I was not someone he needed to concern himself with. I’d never met him before, but Summer had shown him off to me in photos. Sunglasses were perched atop his head, probably kept in place by all the gel in his hair. The sun had gone down an hour ago, so they must’ve been worn just to complete the look that he’d obviously worked hard on. He was a walking billboard for trendy.
I tried to introduce myself, but he talked over me: “Summer! We’ve got dinner reservations. You’re keeping my aunt waiting.”
“It’s quite all right, Nelson,” Mayor Trumbull said in a lowered voice. She turned to me. “This is such a lovely shop, Willa. I need to make a point to come in more often.”
I beamed at the compliment. I was proud of how my French-inspired cheese shop had been thriving since I opened it almost a year ago. My shop’s aesthetic was inspired by my brief time working at a fromagerie outside of Lyon where my passion for cheese blossomed. I wanted to bring the color, warmth, and romance of France into my shop with raised panel wainscoting and textured walls that resembled rich wallpaper. At the new year, I’d splurged on some crimson faux Aubusson rugs to warm up the hardwood floors, which made me love the space even more.
We sold charcuterie boards, cheese lovers’ cookbooks, and anything you’d need for a cheese-perfect picnic: botanical tablecloths, picnic baskets, engraved cheese knives, and plenty of sweet-and-savory cheese accompaniments. Curds & Whey was on the California cheese trail, an online list of creameries and cheese shops for cheese-loving travelers to visit, and we were a hit with any who ventured to our small Sonoma Valley town. Cheese was undoubtedly the star of the shop. Distressed, turned-leg tables held stacked wheels of aged cheeses from all over the world. Wrapped wedges at the front windows revealed the shades and textures inside their casings, luring customers inside the shop to inhale their heady fragrances.
The kitchenette at the back of the shop was where I held cheesemaking classes or hosted special guests, and where our current cheese sampling was taking place. Much to my relief, Olivia, Summer, and Chloe had collected their designer purses and rose from the farm table to join us at the front of the shop.
Nelson slid his arm around Summer’s waist and pecked her on the lips. “Let’s get going,” he said, giving her a tug.
“We’ll go when Mother’s ready,” Summer muttered.
I was certain whichever restaurant it was would not give up a reservation with Mayor Trumbull and Olivia Harrington, no matter how late they were.
“It’s only up the street. We’ll make it just fine,” Mayor Trumbull assured him.
“Apricot Grille?” I said.
The mayor nodded.
“I’m heading there myself tonight,” I said, immediately igniting the belly flips that occurred when I thought of Roman.
I’d tried to tell myself tonight’s dinner wasn’t a special occasion, but the nicest restaurant in town wasn’t in our usual rotation of dates. In fact, I’d only ever been there a handful of times to sit at the bar to enjoy a drink and their truffle fries. Ever since Roman and I broke the ice with our harvest fair date last October, we’d been getting together when our busy schedules would allow. Neither of us were much for formal affairs, so his announcement that he’d made reservations for us at Apricot Grille was curious.
I thought maybe he was dodging the pressure of Valentine’s Day next weekend by taking me out now. My best friend Baz was certain it meant Roman was going to ask me to be exclusive. I wasn’t sure which scenario I preferred. Was I ready to go from dating to making it official with Roman, a known serial dater? Plenty of long talks allayed my trust issues with him and made me think I might be ready to take the next step.
Now that Nelson, Everett, and Mayor Trumbull were here to hurry the Harringtons along, I was feeling hopeful that I might have more than five minutes to get ready for the dinner. A rap on the door extinguished that hope. Roman stood on the other side.
“Will you excuse me for just a moment?” I said to everyone before scooting out of the shop.
I met him on the sidewalk under the light of the streetlamp. Our only spectator was Guernsey, Curds & Whey’s lopsided bovine scarecrow. I’d made her last fall for the harvest fair, and, despite her shortcomings, she garnered a permanent position at the door as our mascot.
Roman was dressed in a blazer and smelling of fresh soap. He might as well have been wearing a tuxedo for the number of times I’d ever seen him in anything but a T-shirt. Normally seeing him and his slow grin that ended in a dimple on his left cheek left me atwitter. But since I hadn’t even brushed my hair for our date, his presence left me less than thrilled this time.
“I’m early. I couldn’t help it,” he said, his grin stuck in place.
“I’m so sorry I’m not ready yet,” I said.
He reached out and gently tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear. “Perfect. You’re ready.”
I felt myself drift into la-la land, where only Roman and I existed.
“Roman Massey? Is that you?” Chloe’s voice broke the spell. She had opened the door wide and joined us on the sidewalk. She smiled for the first time that evening. “We were just talking about you.”
Copyright © 2023 by Korina Moss.