“He was too stuck up to hang out with us. So he’s not a Hallmark hero, I guess. What can I say? A meddling friend has to try.”

“Good,” I said. “I never really wanted one of those bickering, opposites attract relationships anyway.”

“Who said anything about a relationship?” Layla asked. “It’s called a fling. You do him. A lot. You feel great, your confidence soars, he goes back home, no complications.”

“I don’t do that,” I said.

“You’re no fun,” Layla complained. “If he hadn’t been stuck up to Sarah Jo, I’d try the hate sex angle myself. But you know, you have first dibs.”

“It’s not like calling shotgun,” I said with an eye roll.

“Yeah it is. You saw him first. So if you want him, go for it.”

“Sarah Jo, tell her that’s not who I am,” I said, appealing to my more traditional friend.

“Sorry, babe, I’m with her. Go fling that sexy asshole.”

We all laughed at that, but I shook my head. I did not need the kind of trouble that the swoop of desire in my stomach told me he would be.

4

Jeremiah

The foreman and the general manager both insisted on giving me the tour of the factory and grounds. I was given a hard hat and briefed on safety procedures. The manager literally handed me the brochure they gave out to school field trip groups to explain what they did at the plant.

“You give tours? To school kids?” I asked, baffled. “Doesn’t it, you know, bother them that you’re killing and processing chickens? I thought kids loved cute fluffy animals.”

“Nah, we give them free chicken nuggets at the end of the tour. Huge hit with the kids. Want one?” Rick, the foreman said.

“No, thank you,” I said, trying not to grimace. The kids here must be a tough breed if that was their school trip—watching people process raw chicken and eating the end product as a souvenir.

“We’re so glad you’re here so we get to show off the plant. We’re pretty proud of this here operation,” Rick said. “We got some awards hanging in the office, nice plaques from the old company for safety and no accidents. Our record was 219 days without one. Then Carl Pitts fell in the vat talking on his phone. There’s a reason we banned cell phones out on the floor. It’s not just cause the high school co-op kids would do those stupid TikTok videos dancing around flapping pieces of raw chicken. It’s a distraction. If he wouldn’t have been yelling at his wife on the phone, he wouldn’t have fell in the chilling vat. Damn shame about him.”

“Was he killed?” I asked.

“Near enough. Broke his arm and collarbone, lungs full of that liquid—they had to do surgery after surgery and he still don’t breathe quite right. We got him on office work now,” he shook his head and scanned the floor sharply as if looking for anyone not doing their job.

“That’s terrible,” I said, wondering why he was telling me about a major industrial accident when I was inspecting to decide about shutting the place down. Not a great strategy.

“This here team does our labeling. Girls, say hello to Mr. Leeds. He’s down here all the way from Hadley Corporation. Isn’t it wonderful that he came all the way out here to check on us?” the foreman asked.

A line of women in paper shower caps and smocks were applying stickers to plastic packages of chicken pieces. Every label went square in the bottom left hand corner.

“Nice job, ladies. Carry on,” I said.

“It’s one of the plum jobs here. Everybody who’s anybody in this county wants their daughter to get to be a label licker. Now the labels have adhesive on them now just like a sticker, but they used to have to lick ‘em and stick ‘em in the old days so we still call them the label lickers. It’s an easy job, pay’s good, and you don’t come home stinking like scalded chicken fat,” he said.

I just nodded because there was really nothing I could say to that.

“Isn’t this just the best factory you ever saw?” The foreman prompted. “Look how they’re on task and meeting quota!”

“Very nice, yes,” I said.

As we toured the facility, I checked off the items on my list. The line was running fine. The fire exits were clear, the equipment was in working order, and people seemed to take their breaks on schedule. I made a note of it all, then the manager took me to his office.

It was wood-paneled and not very large. He had a wooden desk with a green-shaded bankers’ lamp on it. It had probably been the height of style in the 1980s when the factory was built. On the wall were several plaques thanking the factory for sponsoring a blood drive or a kids’ ball team, and their support for the community. As I sat down on the vinyl chair, I felt a strange surge of regret. I felt bad for this guy.


Tags: Natasha L. Black Romance
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