Chapter One: Regina CHAPTER ONE Regina
Present Day, Saturday
In a commercial kitchen far, far away, in a military town in the middle of Georgia, a caterer named Regina Castro had an online crush. It was ridiculous, really, how often she thought of Henry Just, but when one was a single mom and an entrepreneur who didn’t have the time and the energy to date, an online flirtation was absolutely and positively enough. A heart on a post from Henry sent her spirits soaring. She preened whenever he commented on a photo, which, these days, was often. On the day over a year ago she received her first direct message from Henry—an innocuous note on how to properly grease and flour a cake pan, because he was a baker (and how sexy was that?)—she rushed through the kitchen, arms extended like Fräulein Maria singing “The Hills Are Alive.” Through the screen, Henry Just was sexy and sweet, and safe.
But now, looking down at an open package atop her work desk addressed to her from Henry, she wasn’t sure whether to scream with glee or to pack up and run to the next state.
“Earth to Regina? Hello?”
Regina snapped her gaze up to her catering manager, Alexis McCartney, who had a hand on her hip at the office doorway. “Excuse me?”
“I said that I need to head out to do another round of shopping. We underestimated the flour for the Food for the Gods.” Alexis’s gaze traveled from Regina to the package, and her expression switched from the usual stoic, don’t-give-a-damn nature to mischief. “But it looks like someone got a package.”
Regina shut the flaps, face burning. “It’s nothing.”
“Uh-huh.” Alexis entered the office, dimming the room. The office was closet-sized, and not even the walk-in type. With the two of them, it was a shoebox.
The sleeve of Alexis’s black chef’s jacket brushed against Regina as she flipped one of the box’s flaps. “From Henry Just of Just Cakes in Alexandria, Virginia? Huh. The Henry? The one you’ve been canoodling with online?”
Regina looked up then, shocked, to see Alexis’s raised eyebrow. She gasped. “I’m not canoodling. That’s not even possible.”
“Mm-hmm.” Alexis rolled her eyes. “With the way you’ve been writing each other? You’re practically making out. You can’t deny it—we share the same social media account, and I see all the details and the DMs. But obviously he hasn’t gotten the memo that the way to your heart is through movies, not books.”
“Hey!” Regina objected, though she was partly feigning her defensiveness. There was truth to Alexis’s words. Regina could recite movie lines like some people did the lyrics of their favorite songs but couldn’t remember the plots of many literary classics. But Alexis’s implication was reminiscent of something Regina’s ex-husband had said so long ago and was a poke in the tender parts of her heart. “What about all the bedtime books Miko insisted I read a million times? Not to mention culinary-school textbooks. And cookbooks.”
“That’s all for work or part of parenting. But for fun?” She gestured to the book nestled in the box. “May I?”
“Be my guest.”
Regina thought back to the very last “fun” book she’d undertaken. It hadn’t been for fun at all but for a book club—the only book club she’d ever been a part of—in upstate New York when she was still on active duty in the Army.
“The Sky Is Everywhere. That was the last book I read for fun.” She half smiled at the memory of the chaotic circle of hens—and a couple of roosters—that had comprised the Millersville Book Club, and a pang of regret sliced through her heart. She heaved a breath. “But anyway. Henry and I were DMing about books chefs should read, and I guess he took our conversation to heart.”
Alexis nodded in approval. “Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Looks older.”
“He said he found it at his local used bookstore.”
“So thoughtful.” Alexis flipped the pages. “And now the pressure’s on. Time to get reading—he might ask at some point if you enjoyed it.”
Regina pressed her lips together. In truth, she didn’t have time to read. Heck, she didn’t have time to stand around to even talk about reading, if she was being honest, because every minute not earning money meant she was losing it. “Or maybe, because we’re so far away, I don’t have to. Two whole states separate Georgia from Virginia. He won’t ever know.”
“Well, I think it’s sweet. Though at some point, maybe you should speak. Like on the phone or video chat. It’s ridiculous how much you’ve flirted without actually communicating in real life.”
“We’re just friends,” Regina said.
“Uh-huh. Online friends with imaginary benefits.” Alexis cackled.
She pretend-flipped an imaginary shirt collar. “That was pretty good, if I say so myself.”
Regina busted out with a laugh; she couldn’t help it.
From behind them, a crash sounded, followed immediately by the clatter of dishes. Regina winced at what she imagined had found its way to the floor, perhaps the tray of vegetables from Pickett Farms, which she had driven two hours for.
But she didn’t move.
“What the hell are you guys doing over there?” Alexis pressed her hand against her blond hair, which was pulled taut into a bun, and went to the doorway. With her back to Regina, Alexis took command of the chaos that had erupted. Both former military, Regina and Alexis had divided up the labor so that it ran like an Army unit, like a chain of command.
Their system had worked, thus far. Regina found comfort in using the rules that had been ground into her since becoming a soldier, and she thought it the right way to do business. Regina was the good cop, and Alexis, the scarier one despite being the smaller of the two, was the bad cop. They both abided by standard operating procedures, by lists, by following orders. Finally, she and Alexis believed in BLUF, bottom line up front, with the overall business mission taking precedence over feelings and emotions.
All truly the Army way, despite Regina having left the Army more than seven years ago.
When Alexis turned back to her, she said, “Okay, back to our business. As I was saying, I’m stepping out for about an hour. Are you due anywhere?”
“Nope. I’m here all afternoon.”
“Great. Because…” Alexis’s shoulders slumped. “We need to do another monthly roundup.” She gestured toward the local Boy Scout troop calendar on the wall, open to the month of March. The picture was of two Scouts whittling down pieces of wood. One of these Scouts, fair-skinned and freckled but with dark brown eyes and hair, was Regina’s son, Miko.
Regina dropped her eyes, and the last bit of warmth she’d felt from her receiving the package shriveled up. The talk. The talk of business finances, and whether The Perfect Day Catering would survive. She stood quickly to walk Alexis out. “Yes, of course.”
Alexis nodded and led the way to the kitchen.
Regina’s eyes swept across the humble starter kitchen, cozy even for her staff of five part-time employees. One hundred percent of her employees had other jobs elsewhere, which made for, sometimes, a hodgepodge of a skeleton crew whose employment loyalties were challenged by their steadier paychecks. Despite its three-year anniversary coming up, The Perfect Day Catering still clamored for purchase in their military town, where there was a limited amount of clientele.
Currently, two employees rolled lumpia, and one skewered marinated pork onto sticks. One was off to the side making batter for Food for the Gods. And their last and newest employee, the culprit of the crash, was at the sink washing vegetables he had, indeed, dropped, now flanked by Alexis.
Soon, all of these parts would come together like an orchestra. The next night was the biggest catering job they’d had yet, an eighteenth-birthday party. The Filipino debutante party, wedding-like in scale, was a departure from their usual promotion party and Army-unit event. The event would boast a coordinated dance, a princess dress worn by the celebrant, and a horse-drawn carriage that would sit in front of the VFW for picture taking.
The event had been a risk to undertake, but it was time to level up. Not only was it the rare occasion that Regina could fix the recipes she’d learned from her own mother—because there weren’t a ton of Filipino cultural events happening in their tiny town—but the company had nothing in the books scheduled for another month. The profit from this debutante party was already earmarked for rent and utilities, leaving little for much else.
Regina’s tummy soured at the thought.
“What are you thinking about?” a voice whispered from behind her, which made Regina jump and spin around.
“Ma! Geesh. I swear you’re always in my shadow.”
Gloria Castro gave Regina a mischievous smile.
Her mother seemed to be everywhere Regina turned, in both good times and in bad, and at the most critical junctures in her life. Much like right then, when Regina’s mind was in a vortex of doubt.
And like a shadow, Gloria was wearing all black, though not as part of the catering staff. This was her perpetual mourning attire. Regina’s lola, the Castro matriarch, had died almost five years ago, but Gloria had never kicked the habit of wearing black to honor her mother. On her most whimsical days, Gloria wore shades of gray and, depending on her mood, might surprise everyone with a pop of color in a statement necklace, a fancy bangle, or pointed, impractical shoes. And despite this outward appearance of gloom, Gloria was as cheerful as ever.
“So?” Gloria asked.
Gloria’s eyes widened.
“I’m not thinking about anything. But wait…” Regina looked at her watch. “Miko’s supposed to be at baseball in fifteen minutes. Is everything okay? And speaking of, you didn’t forget to bring oranges did you?” She ran through the never-ending list in her head. Today was her son’s baseball clinic, and she was the team mom but occasionally delegated her responsibilities to her mother at business crunch times.
“Dios, I know what time it is! Don’t worry, Miko’s outside with Alexis. But the mailman caught me at the door on the way out and this looked important. You know, that Mr. Leong is such a handsome man. Fit, too, carrying that bag and driving his car. So good at parking.”
“I’m ignoring you, Ma.”
Gloria presented her the stack of mail. “Maria Regina. You’re really not allowed to ignore me since I’m your mother. Life cannot just be about work.”
“It’s not just about work. It’s about Miko, our future.”
“That’s still work. You volunteer for everything; you don’t ever take a day off. And I asked Mr. Leong—he doesn’t work Sundays.” She blinked repeatedly, her flirtatious look. “So maybe you shouldn’t work one Sunday so you can have a good time? I already talked to him.”
“You did not.”
“I did. Since you’re so type A about everything except your social life, I thought I would take the initiative.”
“I don’t even know what to say.”
Gloria was right, of course. Regina approached parenting like her business, completely hands-on. Team mom, room mom, PTA mom. All of it. Still, she pretended like she didn’t hear her mother, and instead, flipped through the mail: Credit card bills. A notice for her to re-up her commercial kitchen lease. A note from her accountant to remind her that quarterly taxes were coming up.
“I mean, you could have just saved all this for me to look at later,” Regina said, properly deflated.
“There’s an express envelope in there.”
Regina fished out the official envelope marked for two-day delivery. She tore it open to reveal a kraft envelope with her name and address handwritten in a fancy scrawl in blue ink, complete with curlicues on the first letter of her first and last names. And while the top-left corner of the envelope didn’t bear a return address, Regina knew who it was from. No one had a love for kraft and calligraphy more than her longtime friend Adelaide, who also had an obsession with burlap, lanterns, wreaths, and antiques. While Regina could wax poetic on wine and menu pairings, Adelaide was equally as passionate about interior design. Adelaide was a woman who embraced her Southern roots despite not having lived in the South for years, with a homey and modern style that had preceded Joanna Gaines and the Magnolia empire.
“Adelaide,” she whispered.
“I could tell it was important,” Gloria noted.
Adelaide had only mailed Regina three times: once, to invite her to a book club at her home all those years ago; second, to apologize over their biggest fight; and third, to announce her pregnancy and Regina’s new role as godmother. Even more, Adelaide had her number. There was no reason why she couldn’t have called with news. They followed each other on social media and could have easily DMed.
Regina thought back to the last time they had touched base. It was a random text about six months ago when Adelaide let her know that she and her daughter were PCS’ing, or moving, to the DC area from South Korea. I’m on your side of the world, finally! it had said, though after a couple of back-and-forth texts, their communication had trailed away.
“Thanks for bringing it over.” Regina absentmindedly sidestepped to a barstool in the corner of the kitchen and popped up onto it. Around her, sounds prattled on. She slid a nail under the flap to lift the envelope’s seal.
Under her breath, she read aloud, “‘To my dearest Reggie. I know it’s been a hot second, but I need you…’”
“What is it, iha?” Gloria said, sensing Regina’s rise in panic as she skimmed the rest of the note. Regina didn’t catalog every word or all the details, but the message came through loud and clear.
“Sounds like I’m going to get the vacation you say I need.” She looked up at Gloria. “It’s an SOS.”