Authors: Amanda Usen
Copyright © 2012 by Amanda Usen
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by John Kicksee/The July Group
Cover photos © Dick Izui Photography; PBNJ Productions/Getty Images; Coprid/Fotolia.com; Auremar/Fotolia.com
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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For Ben, always my hero
“Order in!” The waiter dropped a ticket in the window.
Irritation spiked in a sudden, sharp wave up the back of Olivia’s neck. It was hard to resist the urge to throw something, especially since she had a tomato in one hand and a knife in the other.
She set them both down on her cutting board and took a deep breath.
it, so not worth it
. Lately, her control felt as thin as the delicate skin of that heirloom tomato. It was only a matter of time before she popped, split wide open, and exposed the mess inside.
She hung the new order with the rest of them, glad the end was in sight. This was it—her last lunch service. Tomorrow, she would leave for Italy. For good, although no one else knew it. The thought made her feel both hopeless and weightless.
Marlene and Joe had everything under control here at Chameleon. They were fantastic chefs, her best friends. She was lucky she didn’t have the staffing nightmares her colleagues suffered—no backstabbing, no laziness, no high food cost or pilfering. But she did have two love-struck cooks mooning all over the kitchen. Jealousy, quickly suppressed, tasted bitter in her mouth and guilt made her eyes sting.
, she told herself, furiously kicking slippery chunks of fallen zucchini under her station. Her kitchen staff was off-site working the Norton Women in Business lunch, so it was all up to her today. Standing still wasn’t going to get her through lunch service.
Her eyes darted up and down the empty hot line before they settled on the growing line of lunch tickets. What to do first? The heat from the stove and the grill pressed against her, holding her in place as she stared blankly at the orders. Oven? Grill? Salads? Indecision kept her stock-still in the middle of the kitchen until the sweet smell of roasting garlic gave her a place to start.
She bent to pull the covered sauté pan of garlic cloves from the oven and walked it into the back kitchen, wrestling her doubts beneath the surface again. “Hot! Coming around!” she called, taking comfort from the familiar warnings even if no one was there to hear it.
As she returned to her station, she shook her head, disgusted. Four lousy tables and she was already sweating, feeling the weeds grow around her before the rush even began.
, she told herself firmly. She could do this. It was just food. She’d been living and breathing this restaurant her entire life. Her instincts, long ignored, would be enough to get her through the afternoon. Of course,
worked a heck of a lot better with six pans on the burners and a full staff behind her, a luxury she didn’t have, but she could do this. Not as fast as Marlene. Not as effortlessly as Joe, but she could get the job done.
The tasks fell into place in her mind—fire the hot stuff, then make the salads. She picked up her tongs and turned to the stove, pulling pans down from the shelf and cranking the burners beneath them. Oil, vegetables—she checked the orders, added white beans to one pan and rosemary red sauce to another.
She moved down the line to the grill and laid marinated chicken breasts on its hot surface. Doubt flared up to catch her again. She had been a better cook before the Culinary Arts College, before she had met Keith.
can’t believe I almost let him ruin Chameleon. God, I’m such an idiot…
It hurt to think about it. She cranked the heat higher on the stove and cleared her mind.
After lunch service, she’d be free. She’d meet Sean at Johnny’s bar to pick up her divorce papers, hop on the plane with Nonna Lucia tomorrow afternoon, and be in Verona by dinner time on Friday. No doubt her mother would put her to work in the Villa Farfalla kitchen. Or maybe her father could use her in the vineyard. Either way, she’d have a job, and it would be far away from Chameleon and her ex-husband.
Olivia tossed vegetables in pans with a practiced flip of her wrist. She gave each chicken breast a quarter turn, then reached into the lowboy refrigerator for shrimp skewers and threw them on the grill. The familiar smell of seared meat and smoking oil put her firmly in the zone. She didn’t need to think to do this. In fact, it was better if she didn’t. Methodically, she washed her hands, put on gloves, and made the Mediterranean salads. She would figure out how to tell her parents “Thanks for giving me the restaurant, but I suck at running it” during the flight. For now, she just had to focus on cooking lunch for twenty-plus people.
One plate at a time.
“Kitchen’s closed,” Olivia said when the server picked up the last four plates. Every second of lunch service had been torture as she waited for all hell to break loose, but there had been no disasters. She was safe now. Almost free. She wiped sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her chef coat, wondering if she looked as relieved as she felt.
She began refilling pans for dinner service and wrapping items that wouldn’t be needed until lunch tomorrow. Everything she couldn’t reuse she plated and put into the window for the servers to devour. Ironic that she was doing the same thing with her life—saving what she might need for later and getting rid of what she no longer could use, a husband, a house, and a job.
She swiftly wiped down the line. Joe and Marlene would be back any minute and she didn’t want to be here when they arrived. She wanted to bow out gracefully. No kicking and screaming. No hoping to be begged to stay. Absolutely no drama.
She dropped her apron into the bin and did a quick walk-through. The servers were out front doing their side work, so the back kitchen was empty. She grabbed her purse from the office and removed a manila envelope from its side pocket, then opened her filing cabinet and tucked the envelope inside. The drawer slid shut with a loud click and she wondered what Marlene’s reaction would be when she found the power-of-attorney papers. Shock? Relief? Glee?
She took one last look around the office. The walls held decades of memories—old menus, ideas for specials, and dozens of photos, mostly of her and Marlene clowning around on the line. Olivia took one—her favorite, a candid shot from just after high school graduation—and tucked it in her purse. She’d remember the good times, before she had ruined everything by marrying Keith.
She carefully locked the office door behind her. Walking up the small hall to the hot line again, she slid a Sharpie marker out of her chef coat pocket and grabbed a piece of paper. The note she wrote was short.
Ciao, my friends. Good luck!
She placed the note on the counter with her restaurant keys.
, she reminded herself. Her gaze touched the clean, white expanse of cutting boards, the knives hanging on their magnetic strip over the sink, the stove that had been her second home since she was tall enough to peer into a sauté pan. She shut her eyes for a moment, breathing in the unique aromas of Chameleon: the cooking grease, the sharp sting of raw garlic that never washed away, the summery smell of farmers’ market tomatoes, fresh basil, and ripe peaches. She wanted to imprint the last moment of belonging in the kitchen that held her childhood.
She opened her eyes and gasped, startled to see Jacques, her dishwasher, carrying a broom and dustpan, ready to sweep the line. Good old Jacques. The grizzled dishwasher had been working at Chameleon even longer than she had.
“Leaving, boss?” he asked, resting the broom in the crook of his arm.
She nodded. Impulsively, she reached up to kiss his rough cheek.
Jacques squeezed her shoulder. “It ain’t quittin’ when it’s time to go.”
Her breath caught in her throat. She nodded again, dismayed by the understanding gleam in his dark eyes. “Thank you, my friend. Take care,” she said.
“You too, boss.”
, Olivia thought as she walked through the dish room and out the back, for once letting the screen door slam behind her. Jacques’s comment made her wonder if he knew she wasn’t planning on returning. Did that mean Joe and Marlene knew too? Did everyone? If so, why hadn’t they said good-bye? She bit her lip, hard. That was just what she was trying to avoid. No big scene. Chameleon didn’t need her anymore, and that was fine, even if it felt like she’d just left most of herself in the kitchen by the stove.
“Oh, shut up,” she muttered to herself as she cut through the empty parking lot and crossed the street. She opened the door of the bar, blinking as it shut behind her. There were more people there than she would have expected at three thirty on a Wednesday, but since she was embracing the “it’s five o’clock somewhere” rule, who was she to judge? She sat down on a stool, surprised Sean wasn’t already waiting for her.
“What can I get you, Olivia?” Johnny asked, slinging a bar towel over his shoulder and crossing his arms.
“An Amstel, please.”
“You got it.” The tattooed bartender reached into the cooler. “You’re out early today.”
She nodded. “Actually, I’m out for good. I’m leaving for Italy tomorrow.”
“Visiting Mom and Pop?”
“Something like that.”
Johnny cocked a ringed eyebrow. “Everything okay?”
She took a swig of the beer he placed in front of her and smiled. “It’s better now.”
The door opened, making the bar brighter for a moment, and they both glanced over to see who was coming in. Too late, she steeled herself against the sight of Sean and her heart kicked up a notch. When his warm gray eyes met hers, a grin curved his lips and she smiled back.
“I hear rebound sex is excellent,” Johnny suggested with a sly chuckle.
She turned back to the bar and took a long drink of her beer. “Unfortunately, I heard that too. He turned me down two months ago.”
“No way.” The flat-out disbelief in his voice was cold comfort.
Johnny was still shaking his head as her lawyer took the stool beside her. “What’s up?” Sean asked.
“Nothing,” she said, taking a deep breath and then wishing she hadn’t as his clean scent filled her lungs. She stifled a growl. He smelled like soap and aftershave, and she smelled like grease, onions, and garlic. No wonder he wasn’t interested anymore. His pleasant memories of her in high school had been smothered by the stench of caramelized onions, while hers had been fed by the addictive scent of his high-powered lawyer pheromones.
Sean ordered a beer and paid for her drink too.
She sneaked a peek at him as he leaned over to get something out of his briefcase. As always, he looked amazing. He had a fondness for sharp suits that never looked flashy, just the right touch of
hot in his black jacket and slacks with a subtle stripe, a crisp white shirt, and an elegant tie. She felt like the ultimate slob sitting next to him in her jeans, stained chef coat, and food-splattered shoes. She closed her eyes and took another breath, forcing her racing thoughts to slam into the brick wall of a memory. She’d tried the seduction bit shortly after she’d hired Sean to finalize her divorce. She’d been lonely, raw, and miserable, and he’d left her alone at her door, looking after him with a bottle of wine in her hand. Clearly, not interested.
Paper brushed her knuckles and she opened her eyes.
“You’re all set,” Sean said with a nod.
She looked down.
was as far as she got before tears blurred her eyes. “Thank God,” she sighed, keeping her eyes on the paper until her vision cleared. She didn’t want him to see her tears. “I’m glad that’s over.”
And she was, mostly. It was one more failure to add to her growing list, but staying in the marriage while her husband gambled away their money and screwed every girl in Norton was a bigger mistake.
“Me too,” Sean said, shifting closer to her. He raised his bottle. “Let’s celebrate.”
Automatically, she clinked her bottle with his and took a sip. “What did you have in mind?”
“Dinner.” His gray eyes held steady on hers. “For starters.”
She gaped at him. He couldn’t possibly mean that the way it sounded, and if he did—no way. He should have said yes the first time. Too little, too late, too bad. “Sorry, I have a lot to get done before I leave tomorrow.”
“That’s a shame. I thought you might want to spend your last night in town…relaxing.”
“Nope.” She felt her jaw clench and forced herself to take another drink of her beer.
“You work too much.” He gave her a lazy grin.
“That’s ironic, coming from you. You’re always working.”
As if to punctuate her point, his cell phone rang.
He ignored it. “I’d take a break for you. Remember that time in high school when we skipped bio lab and went to Tim Hortons?”
Of course she remembered. Her mother had torn into her at breakfast that morning and she’d arrived at school a blithering, sobbing mess. Sean had taken one look at her and all but dragged her out of class. “I caught holy hell for that. Did you?”
He shook his head. “My mother never paid attention.”
Whereas hers had dictated, then monitored nearly every step in her life.
“So how about it?” Sean asked. “Would you like to have dinner with me? We’re adults now and can do whatever we want.” By the glint in his eyes, she knew she hadn’t mistaken his meaning. He really was hitting on her. Furious, she hopped off her bar stool and stuffed the divorce papers into her purse. Damn, he had a lot of nerve propositioning her on her way out of the country.
He tilted his head to the side and looked up at her with narrowed eyes. “How about when you get back, then? I’ll wait.”
He took her hand and another memory hit her: his fingers slowly curling around hers at the park where they used to watch his little brother’s baseball games on the rare Saturday afternoons she wasn’t working. They had never had the opportunity to spend much time together elsewhere, but those few times stood out in her memory as golden oases of freedom from school, the restaurant and her mother.