Through the entire commencement ceremony, Emily just wanted to fast-forward to where she got to throw her hat into the air and start screaming. The other University of Texas graduates beside her shot annoyed glances at her rapidly bouncing knee. To calm down, Emily closely examined the cropped hair of the young man sitting in front of her and pulled her arm into the sleeve of her ridiculous graduation gown. Her fingers inched toward the long, narrow pocket she’d sewn into the side of her jeans two years ago until they settled around the smooth handle of her wand. “Sile,” Emily muttered.
A girl with stage makeup sitting next to her shushed her, but at least the immobility charm had made Emily’s knee stop bouncing. If I need an excuse to use magic right now, I’ll go ahead and call this a public service. When her name was called, she had to quickly undo the spell and shove her arm back through the gown’s sleeve beforeshe could stand.
She walked up onto the stage and fought celebrating early and just chucking her graduation cap into the middle rows. Nickie and Chuck raised their hands over the sea of smiling spectators to wave at her, grinning like a couple of loonies. She grinned at Nickie and her boyfriend, then noticed their oldest sister, Laura, on the other side of Nickie, sitting beside their parents.
At least neither of them brought dates this time. Still weird to see them sitting next to each other.
Finally, the Master of Ceremonies congratulated them all, wished them well in their bright and glorious futures, thanked everyone for attending this momentous occasion, and invited them all to step outside for the fireworks celebration and “The Eyes of Texas”. Yada, yada, yada… time to scream.
Emily jumped from her chair and threw her cap—she’d cast a spell on that stupid tassel before the ceremony so it wouldn’t flop around in her face—and let it fly wherever the heck it wanted to go. A massive, triumphant bellow burst from her throat. “Freedom!” Because now she could forget about all the things required of her and do what she really wanted. And that was to be in her kitchen. Chef Ansler’s kitchen. Jeremy’s right.
Voices rose all around her in the Tower’s Main Hall, which echoed with conversations and congratulations and the excited babble people had bottled up for hours under all this pomp and circumstance. Crowds filtered out of the Tower on the university campus. Feeling stifled, Emily bee lined for the exit. “I can get some air and wait for the fam outside.”
It was a sauna outside, too, and almost dark. The Tower was lit up in orange ‘in honor of the degree candidates’, and people gathered in anticipation of the fireworks.
“Fireworks are not my thing,” Emily muttered as she stood in front of a dogwood beside the path. A minute later, her boyfriend Jeremy found her and headed her way. “Okay. He said he wanted to talk after the ceremony. So, he’s either going to express his undying love, or it’s…the other thing.” She wiped at her sweaty forehead with the sleeve of her gown, gave the sleeve an apologetic glance and smiled as he approached. “You officially did it,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck.
Jeremy hugged her with even more enthusiasm. “So did you,” he said in her ear. He pulled away and grinned. “Whatever you think about it, it’s still a big deal.”
“So well done to both of us. You know, I think I’ve only seen you this excited about good food and comic books.” Emily studied his bright-blue eyes, her heart pounding in her chest.
He glanced down at the sidewalk between them with a self-conscious smile, then removed his hands from her hips, as if he’d just realized he’d put them there. “And after college comes the rest of our lives, right?” His puppy-dog eyes took this conversation to a different level as he looked at her again and raised his eyebrows.
“Sure does.” This is still fifty-fifty…
He took a deep breath and shrugged. “I took the opening in New Zealand. Bought my tickets last night.”
She nodded and gave him a huge grin, not once looking away from those blue eyes. Now she knew for sure that she wouldn’t be seeing them again for a long, long time. “Good. I’m so glad you took it.”
“Absolutely. How could I be upset about you fulfilling your dreams? I mean, you’ve been wanting to get into that program a long time. And you did.” She reached out to touch his shoulder, though now it felt forced.
“I did.” Jeremy chuckled and ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t believe I did. But I’m going.” He squinted at her. “You sure you don’t wanna come with me?”
“Jeremy…we talked about this.”
He closed his eyes. “Yeah, I know.”
“I can’t leave. Meadowlark Tavern is one of the biggest opportunities I have to get started. I paid my dues with school. Now I get to focus on learning everything a BA in Culinary Arts couldn’t get me.” Emily dipped her head and squeezed his shoulder to make him look at her again. “We knew this was coming.”
“I know, Em. I know. It’s just different now. It’s happening.”
“Yep. When do you leave?”
“End of July.”
She stepped closer and slid her hand off his shoulder and down his arm. “We still have the summer.”
Jeremy’s brows flickered together. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I need to be…focused when I get to the Institute. And that’s gonna take me a little time anyway. You know. Now that we’re…”
“Callin’ it quits?” It’s like I’m helping him break up with me.
Gently taking her hand off his shoulder, he lowered it and held it in both of his. “You’re going to blow that entire kitchen away, Em. And when you have your restaurant, I want an invitation to the grand opening.”
She laughed. “Deal.”
“Okay. Good. You, uh…you still have a few things at my place.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Emily shook her head and squeezed his hands. “Really. Those were gifts. Everything I left in your kitchen is for you. Take them with you.”
Jeremy looked embarrassed, blinking and peering behind her into the shady trees. “Thanks,” he said. With a tug on her hand, he pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her for probably the last time. He was trembling.
“All that training in New Zealand is really gonna add to what you’re doing,” she said, hugging him tight. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll poach you as my Sous Chef.”
He chuckled in her ear, then they pulled apart. Neither of them grabbed the other’s hand again; he wiped his on his robe. “I don’t think I’d be able to turn that down.” They stared at each other.
If he kisses me goodbye right now, this would be the ultimate mixed messages bag.
Jeremy cleared his throat. “Hey, can I—”
“There she is.”
Emily glanced at her dad coming toward them down the walkway, his button-down shirt with repeated guitar print fluttering loosely around him in the small, hot breeze. “Great timing, Dad.”
Jeremy shot her a questioning frown.
She shrugged. “That was sarcasm.”
The rest of her family followed behind her father. Her mom wore a flowing dress, and she’d pulled her straight, dark hair into a high bun. All three of her daughters—Laura, Nickie, and Emily herself—had the same dark hair, yet only Emily had dark, wild curls that grew three sizes in the Texas humidity.
Laura walked a step behind their mom’s left and was about as formal as she ever got in a cotton maroon skirt and Mary Janes. Behind her, Emily noticed Nickie’s straight dark hair spilled across her bare shoulders, a paisley shawl wrapped around them. She wore two layered skirts and, knowing her, she could have arranged them like that for fun. Nickie’s boyfriend, Chuck, walked beside her, holding her hand and beaming like Nickie was the Queen of England. Nope. Just Austin’s new Queen of Blues.
“Both of you,” Emily’s mom said, glancing between Emily and Jeremy with a huge smile. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” They’d said it at the same time, and when Emily glanced up at him, he blushed.
“Good to see you guys,” Jeremy told her family. “I should probably hunt down my parents though.” He held Emily’s gaze a few seconds. “Bye, Em.”
He hurried off through the milling graduates and their own families, and Emily smiled at her parents. Greg Hadstrom and Nancy Milton together in the same place. Not always the best combo.
And mom does not look happy.