by Emily King
When pharmacist Janet Webber relocates to the agricultural heart of California for a new job, she is not at all certain that she has made the right decision. Her love life is in bad shape, and the weekly business travel now required of her isn’t helping. But when Janet meets walnut farmer Gail Lawrence at a housewarming party, Janet decides that her love life may be turning in the right direction.
Soon Janet finds herself inspired by the abundance of local crops and begins cooking and baking to escape the stress of her work. When Janet’s baked goods are well received in the community, she allows herself to dream of starting her own business. With Gail’s encouragement—and her walnuts—anything seems possible. But will Gail’s reluctance to trust another woman again push the two of them apart before they can even get started?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"A large part of the inspiration for Cracking Love was what I see at the local farmers’ markets. There is so much beautiful produce and so many wonderful homemade products at the markets that it is easy to be curious about what might go on behind the scenes in the lives of the people who grow the food and make the products. As a long time reader of lesbian fiction, it occurred to me that a lesbian romance could take place against the backdrop of farming in the central valley. So I decided to write one.
Because I grew up in a farming community where one of the largest crops is walnuts and because I have always thought the walnut trees in the area to be pretty—particularly the older trees that are huge, leafy green things as tall as telephone poles—I made one of the women in my story a walnut farmer. Her name is Gail. And with my pharmacy background, I decided to put a pharmacist in the story with Gail. That pharmacist is Janet, and she is very interested in Gail and her walnuts. I hope you enjoy reading about Janet and Gail in Cracking Love."
Janet Webber squinted against the setting sun as she emerged from the sliding doors of the baggage claim area at the Sacramento International Airport. She caught sight of a shuttle van to the parking lots, but its doors were closing. She was not going to miss it. She had already waited for one too many shuttles this leg of her business trip, and she wasn’t going to let this one pass her and be stuck waiting for the next one. She unlooped her laptop bag from her wheeled carry-on suitcase, slung the bag over her shoulder with her purse, and sprinted in her pumps toward the curb with the wheels of her carry-on squealing. She all but flung herself through the shuttle’s doors.
“I would’ve waited, you know,” the driver said, her brown eyes amused.
“Thanks,” Janet said a little breathlessly as she wrangled her luggage aboard the van full of other passengers.
“Here, let me get that for you,” the driver said, getting out of her seat.
Janet surrendered her luggage, and the driver turned to place it on the rack. The driver’s chinos tightened nicely over her shapely rear as she bent down. Her shoulders worked beneath her uniform polo shirt as she finessed the laptop bag into one space and the carry-on suitcase into another. Impulsively, Janet asked, “Are you a new shuttle driver? I only recently moved to the area, but I fly most weeks so I recognize a lot of the drivers. I’m Janet.”
The driver straightened and turned around with a smile. “Yes, I started about a month ago. I’m Tina.” She reached out her hand for Janet to shake. Smiling, Janet shook it.
The other passengers had taken the few seats in back, leaving Janet to stand and grab one of the handholds in the front of the shuttle. As Tina began the drive to the parking lots, Janet’s gaze drifted to her hands on the wheel. Her gaze stopped on the thick band of a wedding ring on Tina’s finger. Figures—with a body like that, she’s already taken. Janet gave a little sigh that she hoped was drowned out by the sound of the van’s engine.
“What brought you to Sacramento?” Tina asked with a glance back at Janet.
“Oh, I live here now. In Danforth, actually. I came from Connecticut about six months ago for a new job.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m Western Regional Account Manager for Rockland Healthcare Solutions. We contract with hospitals to provide pharmacy services. I oversee the start-up of the new accounts and maintain the existing accounts.”
“So you’re a pharmacist then?”
“Interesting. I didn’t know pharmacists did that kind of thing.” Tina glanced at her again. “This is a new job for me too. Or a new route, anyway. I was a shuttle driver before, but not at the airport. I drove a downtown shuttle route for public transit in Los Angeles.”
“What brought you to Sacramento?”
“My partner’s job. She works in the capitol building.” Tina cast an assessing glance at Janet.
Janet had the impression that Tina was trying to gauge her reaction to the use of the word “partner.” Tina probably encountered any number of intolerant passengers each day. Tina might also have assumed that she was straight. People tended to assume that about Janet, and she wished they wouldn’t since it all too often resulted in her getting asked out on dates by men rather than women. Janet was wearing her typical business attire, a dark blue suit with a pale blouse and a thin gold necklace. She had styled, blond hair that fell slightly below her shoulders, and she wore a light application of makeup that she knew brought out her blue eyes. Janet wasn’t sure if her business persona was somehow conveying heterosexuality to Tina, but at the next opportunity she would disabuse Tina of any such notion.
“What does your partner do in the capitol building?” Janet asked.
“She works for Assembly Member Dan Fernandez from the Los Angeles district. We moved up here so that she could be an aide in his capitol office. She used to work with him in the mayor’s office in Los Angeles, where he was chief of staff and she was an office assistant.”
“Sounds like a nice career move.”
“Yes. She was really happy when he ran for state assembly after the mayor’s term was up. She’s excited about getting experience working in the capitol. I’m excited for her too. I can work anywhere, so it was no big deal to move.”
As the shuttle neared the first parking lot, passengers began standing and moving toward the luggage rack. A few people grabbed their luggage and exited the moment the shuttle stopped. Tina got up and assisted the others with their luggage. “How do you like your new job?” she asked as she resumed driving.
Janet was inclined to give a generic answer to someone she had just met, but Tina had been sharing with her, so she decided to answer more fully. “Well, it has its challenges. The travel is tougher than I thought it would be. I fly most weeks of the month, so I’m on the road a few days each week. And I’m still getting the hang of dealing with some of the characters I meet. Depending on the hospital I fly to and the people I encounter there, a few days can seem like a really long time.”
“Oh?” Tina asked.
“Yeah. This last account that I was just at was one of those. It was a new account, so I had meetings with hospital administration and department heads as usual, but there was a physician there who kept trying to involve himself in everything. He’s the head of a couple of committees and apparently felt the need to insert himself into practically every one of our meetings. He took up everyone’s time. I got the impression the others put up with him because he gets a lot of patient referrals for his specialty area that brings in a lot of money.”
“He sounds like a piece of work.”
“He was. He even invited himself out to lunch with us and hit on me.”
“No,” Tina said, disbelief in her voice.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. The others seemed used to his behavior, but it took a lot of effort for me to stay polite. Even if I weren’t gay, why would I be interested in such an egomaniac?”
Tina turned her head at that. Janet smiled at her. That’s right, I’m a lesbian too.
Tina stopped at the next parking lot to let more passengers out. After helping some of the people with their luggage, she returned to her seat and continued driving. Tina cast more glances at Janet, and seemed to be assessing her once again.
Janet waited, wondering what she was thinking.
“My partner—her name is Susan—and I are having a housewarming party this Saturday,” Tina finally said. “You should come. It sounds like you could use some fun after your trip. We’re having a lot of friends over—friends from Los Angeles and a few people we’ve met here.”
Janet was pleasantly surprised at the invitation but unsure whether to accept. “Oh, thank you, but I wouldn’t want to intrude. I wouldn’t know anyone but you.”
“Well, that’s the idea, to meet new people.” Obviously trying to encourage Janet, she added, “Some of the women are single.”
“Well…” Janet considered. But really, there was not much to consider. It would be nice to go to a housewarming party full of women.
“Give me your phone number before you get out of the shuttle, and I’ll text you the time and address.”
“Okay.” Janet nodded. “Sounds good.”
When the shuttle arrived at Janet’s parking lot, Janet collected her bags from the now nearly empty rack. She handed Tina a business card with her cell phone number on it, and said goodbye.
Janet drove the half hour from the airport to her apartment in Danforth. She passed through the corporate business parks on the outskirts of Sacramento. Traffic was tolerable right now in this state capitol of about half a million people, but she preferred living in her smaller city of Danforth. The freeway afforded her a view of Sacramento’s buildings in the distance beneath a layer of fluffy white clouds. The sunset bathed everything in a golden-pink glow, and the waters of the surrounding marshlands glimmered.
Janet parked in her space in the carport of her apartment complex. She stopped by her mailbox to grab three days’ worth of accumulated mail and then climbed the stairs with her luggage to her second-floor unit. She unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, set down her bags, and shut the door against the noise of street traffic.
Returning home to her empty apartment was not a high point of Janet’s travels. Janet was beginning to think that leaving Connecticut for this new job that she wasn’t particularly fond of so far had been a mistake. She missed her friends, her old co-workers, and her family, even if her parents were very set in their ways and did not approve of her “lesbian lifestyle,” as they put it. That housewarming party of Tina’s was going to be something to look forward to.
Janet set her mail on the kitchen counter. The light on her answering machine was blinking, so she hit play. A couple of hang-ups, probably telemarketers. A political robocall. A message from her friend, Katie, who also worked for Rockland Healthcare Solutions. When Janet was Director of Pharmacy at Fulton Hospital, her job before this one, Katie had worked for her as the Pharmacy Manager. Now Katie was Director of Pharmacy. It was good to hear from her. Janet worried that their friendship was going to drift apart now that they lived on the opposite ends of the country. Janet thought Katie was handling the pressures of the directorship well, especially since she was a little over halfway into a second pregnancy.
Janet’s stomach growled. She opened her refrigerator, but all that was inside was the leftover remains of a meal too old to eat, some cheese, and a package of aging carrots. She hadn’t had a chance to shop before leaving town. She shut the refrigerator and sighed. She didn’t want to leave after having just arrived but didn’t want to call for a pizza delivery, either. She deliberated only a little more and then picked up her purse to head out for dinner.
At the Danforth Bistro, Janet slid onto one of the comfy stools at the bar, letting the soft yellow lighting and pleasant wood tones of the popular restaurant and bar relax her.
“Did you come in for your veggie burger?” Debbie the bartender grinned at her.
Janet nodded. “I sure did.” Janet was not a vegetarian, but she loved the bistro’s veggie burger. The patty was a wonderful, savory creation that involved too many components for her to identify, but she knew from the menu description that there were walnuts and mushrooms in it. She could only guess at the rest of the ingredients but was almost certain that there was some secret flavoring like soy sauce or miso paste. Whatever it was, it was delicious and was served with a slice of melted mozzarella cheese on a buttered, toasted bun.
“I just opened a new bottle of the house pinot noir. Would you like a glass of that with your burger?” Debbie asked.
Debbie retrieved the bottle of wine, poured a glass, and placed it before Janet.
“Thanks.” Janet relaxed on the padded barstool and sipped her wine. She listened to the hum of conversations around her and the gentle clatter of silverware on plates.
Debbie arrived with Janet’s veggie burger. Janet took a bite, and savored its deep, rich flavor. Or, at least she tried to. She didn’t know if it was her imagination, but the veggie burger tasted a little off this evening. She regarded it. It looked the same. She took another bite. But it didn’t taste the same.
Debbie was watching her. “Is your burger okay?”
“That’s just it. It’s ‘okay.’ It’s usually delicious. Did the chef change something?”
Debbie nodded and pursed her lips. “You’re not the only customer to notice. The chef didn’t change anything, but our new owner did. He told Robert, the manager, to cut costs, so Robert eliminated our local suppliers and now just gets everything from a regional wholesaler. For the burger, we used to get our walnuts from a local grower, Lawrence Farms.”
“Wow, who knew that could make so much difference?”
“I know. I’ve been hearing complaints all week. I told Robert, but he thinks people will get used to the change.”
Janet picked up her burger to continue eating, but without much enthusiasm. “What happened to the previous owner?”
“He wanted to retire from the restaurant business, so he sold. Did you notice the salad is a little different too?”
Janet poked at the accompanying salad on the plate. The lettuce didn’t seem as fresh and delicate, and the toppings looked a little pale and dry. “Now that you mention it, it does look a little different.”
Debbie nodded. “The lettuce and tomatoes used to come from Lawrence Farms, just like the walnuts, but now they come from our wholesaler with the rest of our supplies. The tomatoes come pre-sliced in a container, and the carrots come pre-shredded in a big bag.”
Janet was taken aback at these drastic changes. “Doesn’t that bother the chef?”
“Yeah, he’s bothered, but he wants to keep his job. The new owner was pretty firm about cutting costs.” Debbie sighed. “None of us want to rock the boat.”
“Is it going to save that much money?” Janet asked.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think the cost is really much different, considering the big difference in quality.” Debbie shook her head. “I think the main thing is that Robert wants to show the new owner that he’s doing something. I guess he hopes that with our volume it will make some difference.”
“Well, if the taste of the food suffers, I doubt this way of doing things will work.”
Debbie nodded. “The restaurant has been busy as usual, but these changes only just started. Even though we have a good crowd tonight, I’m worried.”
“I agree. I think I’ll say something about my food to the manager. Do you think you will get a moment to call him over here?”
“I can—” Debbie stopped short and looked to the restaurant entrance.
Janet followed her gaze and saw a woman who was in discussion with the hostess.
“That’s the owner of Lawrence Farms right there, Gail Lawrence.” Debbie motioned with her head in the direction of the woman. “I’ve only ever seen her here before business hours. I wonder what she’s doing here now.”
Janet took in the woman’s appearance. Even from her seat at the bar across the room, Janet could see that Gail Lawrence was an attractive woman. She had dark eyes framed by dark eyebrows, high cheekbones, and a head of short brown hair. She stood tall and straight as she spoke with the hostess. Janet liked tall women, because she was tall herself at five-foot-eight.
The hostess picked up her phone and spoke briefly into it. Gail Lawrence’s eyes tracked to the back of the restaurant, where a man had emerged from a doorway with a resigned expression on his face. Gail strode purposefully toward him.
“That’s Robert, the manager,” Debbie said. “It looks like Gail came to see him.”
“It doesn’t look like he wants to see her. She seems upset. It’s probably about him changing suppliers, don’t you think?”
Debbie nodded. “Probably.”
Janet continued to watch from afar. There was frustrated gesticulating from Gail, head-shaking and crossed arms from Robert, and frowning from both of them. There was an intensity about Gail that drew Janet in and made her care as much as Gail clearly did about the topic of discussion with Robert, which had to be the changes at the restaurant. Although Gail was a stranger, Janet was bothered that Gail was upset and that Robert appeared unreceptive to what was being said.
Abruptly, Gail turned and strode from the restaurant. Janet frowned and looked at Debbie. “I don’t think that conversation went well at all,” Janet said. Debbie snorted in agreement. “Never mind what I said about talking to the manager. I’m pretty sure now is not a good time for that.”
The next morning, Janet sat down at her desk with a mug of coffee and logged on to the Rockland Healthcare Solutions website. Being able to work from home some of the time was an aspect of her new job that she enjoyed. She spent the morning completing reports and finishing other work related to her new account. Most of her reports could be filed online, but she would have to stop by the post office to mail some documents to company headquarters in Boston.
She checked her corporate email account. Elaine, secretary to Aaron Robson, the Senior Account Director who was Janet’s boss, had emailed the flight, hotel, and rental car reservations for her assignment next week. The rest of the emails were various regulatory and administrative questions from the directors of pharmacy at her accounts, and she typed out responses.
Janet’s phone buzzed with a notification. She looked at the display and smiled. Tina had texted the time and address of her housewarming party on Saturday, with a note that food would be provided so not to bring anything. Janet was looking forward to seeing Tina again and to meeting her partner, Susan. She was also looking forward to meeting some single women. With her work schedule, meeting other single lesbians wasn’t easy to do. Janet realized that she needed to get a housewarming present for Tina and Susan and made a mental note to buy it while she was out running the rest of her errands.
Running errands took most of the day. By the time Janet got home with her groceries, she had worked up quite an appetite, especially as one of her errands had included a trip to the gym for a workout on the elliptical trainer. It always felt good to move her body after a previous day spent in a cramped airplane seat. She set her bag of groceries on the kitchen counter and began filling her refrigerator with food, setting some items aside for dinner. After so many meals out this week due to being on the road and then coming back to a nearly empty refrigerator, it was going to be nice to cook and eat dinner at home.
She intended to make pasta with spring vegetables, one of many favorite dishes that her grandma had taught her to cook. She put a pot of water on the stove to boil while she prepared the ingredients. As she picked up a bundle of asparagus from the counter, the printing on the band around the bundle caught her eye. Lawrence Farms. Was that Lawrence Farms, as in Gail Lawrence? It must be. The asparagus was beautiful, just like the other vegetables at the Danforth Bistro had been until management changed suppliers.
Janet recalled the physical attractiveness of Gail herself and felt a little thrill run through her body. She wished the conversation between Gail and Robert had gone better, not only for Gail’s sake, but also so that Gail might have stayed longer at the restaurant, maybe even wandered over into the bar where they might have met.
Janet brought her attention back to cooking dinner. She removed the band from the asparagus and cut the asparagus into bite-size lengths. After she was done blanching the asparagus and some peas, she boiled fettuccine noodles while she made the pasta’s yummy garlic and lemon cream sauce. When the noodles were ready, she drained them and added them to the skillet containing the sauce, along with the blanched vegetables and some salt and pepper. She tossed it all gently together while it heated through, then transferred it to a dish and grated some Parmesan cheese over it. She prepared a plate for herself and sat down to eat. She took a bite. The asparagus was perfect, and even more flavorful than the kind she used to get at the farmers’ market in Connecticut. Management at the Danforth Bistro was crazy to stop using Gail Lawrence’s produce.