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Out of the corner of his eye, Gabe Mitchell saw his father, Patrick, spit a mouthful of seaweed-wrapped tofu into his napkin like a five-year-old.
Gabe kicked him under the table, appalled but envious.
"So?" Melissa-something-or-other, the chef responsible for the foul-tasting vegan spa cuisine, asked. "Was I right, or what?"
"Or what," Patrick muttered, balling his napkin up beside his plate.
"You were right," Gabe said and pushed his own mouthful of bitter mush into his cheek away from his taste buds. "This is really something."
"Well?" She smiled broadly like a cat with her eye on the canary. "When do I start?"
Patrick laughed, but quickly coughed to cover it, so Gabe didn't bother kicking him again.
He managed to swallow the mess in his mouth, took a huge sip of the unsweetened berry smoothie to wash it down and was appalled to discover she'd somehow made berries taste bad, too.
He'd interviewed and auditioned five chefs and this one really was the bottom of a very dark, very deep barrel.
"Well" he smiled and lied through his teeth"I have a few more interviews this week, so I will have to get back to you."
The girl looked disappointed and a little mean-spirited, which wasn't going to help her get the job. "You know," she said, "it's not going to be easy to find someone willing to live out here in the middle of nowhere."
"I understand that," he said graciously, even though it was getting hard not to throw her out on her scrawny butt.
"And it's a brand-new inn." She shrugged. "It's not like you have the credentials to get a"
"Well, then." He stood up and interrupted the little shit's defeating diatribe before shegot to the part about how he was ugly and his father dressed him funny. "Why don't you gather your equipment and I'll call you if"
"And that's another thing." Now she was really getting snotty. What was it about vegans, he wondered, that made them so touchy? "Your kitchen is a disaster"
"You know how building projects can be." Patrick stood, his silver hair and dashing smile gleaming in the sunlight. "One minute shambles, the next state of the art."
"You must be in the shambles part," Melissa said.
"Very true, but I can guarantee within the week state-of-the-art." His blue eyes twinkled as though he was letting Melissa in on a secret. It was times such as these that Gabe fully realized the compliment people gave him when they said he was a chip off the old block.
Patrick stepped to the side of Melissa and held out his arm toward the kitchen as though he were ushering her toward dinner, rather than away from a job interview she'd bombed.
Gabe sat with a smile. Dad was going to handle this one. Great. Because I am out of niceties.
"Tell me, Melissa, how did you get that tofu to stay together like that? In a tidy little bundle," Patrick asked as they walked toward the kitchen.
Melissa blushed and launched into a speech on the magic of toothpicks.
God save me from novice chefs.
The swinging door to the kitchen swung open, revealing his nowhere-near-completed kitchen, and then swung shut behind his father giving the oblivious woman the heave-ho.
Gotta hand it to the guy, sixty-seven years old and he still has it.
Silence filled the room, from the cathedral ceiling to the fresh pine wood floors. The table and two chairs sat like an island in the middle of the vast, sun-splashed room.
He felt as though he was in the eye of the storm. If he left this room he'd be buffeted, torn apart by gale-force winds, deadlines, loose ends and a chefless kitchen.
"You're too nice," Patrick said, stepping back into the room.
"You told me to always be polite to women," Gabe said.
"Not when they are trying to poison you."
Patrick lowered himself into the chair he'd vacated and crossed his arms over his flannel-covered barrel chest. "She was worse than the other five chefs you've talked to."
The seaweed-wrapped tofu on his plate seemed to mock Gabe, so he threw his napkin over it and pushed it away. At loose ends, he crossed his arms behind his head and stared out his wall of windows at his view of the Hudson River Valley.
The view was stunning. Gorgeous. Greens and grays and clouds like angels filling the slate-blue sky. He banked on that view to bring in the guests to his Riverview Inn, but he'd been hoping for a little more from the kitchen.
The Hudson River snaked its way through the corner of his property, and out the window, he could see the skeleton frame of the elaborate gazebo being built. The elaborate gazebo where, in two and a half months, there was going to be a very important wedding.
The mother of the bride had called out of the blue three days ago, needing an emergency site and had found him on the Web. And she'd been e-mailing every day to talk about the menu and he'd managed to put her off, telling her he needed guest numbers before he could put together a menu and a budget.
If they lost that wedding well, he'd have to hope there was a manager's job open at McDonald's or that he could sell enough of his blood, or hair, or semen or whatever it took to get him out of the black hole of debt he'd be in.
All of the building was going according to plan. There had been a minor glitch with the plumber, however Max, his brother and begrudging but incredibly skilled general contractor, had sorted it out early and they were right back on track.
"Getting the chef was supposed to be the easy part, wasn't it?" Patrick asked. "I thought you had those hotshot friends of yours in New York City."
Gabe rolled his eyes at his father. Anyone who didn't know the difference between a fuse box and a circuit breaker was a hotshot to him. And it wasn't a compliment.
"They decided to stay in New York City," he said. All three of his top choices, which had forced him into this hideous interview process.
Fifteen years in the restaurant business working his way up from waiter to bartender to sommelier. He had been the manager of the best restaurant in Albany for four years and finally owner of his own Zagat-rated bar and grill in Manhattan for the past five years and this is what he'd come to.
"I can't believe this is so hard," he muttered.
"I open in a month and I've got no chef. No kitchen staff whatsoever."
"What the hell are you laughing at, Dad? I'm in serious trouble here."
"Your mother would say this"
Icy anger exploded in his exhausted brain. "What is this recent fascination with Mom? She's been gone for years, I don't care what she'd say."
His cruel words echoed through the empty room. He rubbed his face, weary and ashamed of himself. "I'm sorry, Dad. I've got so much going on, I just don't want"
"I understand, son." The heavy clap of his father's hand on his shoulder nearly had him crumbling into a heap. "But not everything can be charmed or finessed. Sometimes it takes work"
"I work." Again, anger rose to the surface. "I work hard, Dad."
"Oh, son." Patrick's voice was rough. "I know you do. But you've worked hard at making it all look easy. I've never seen a construction job go as smooth as this one has. You've got every lawyer, teamster and backhoe operator eating out of the palm of your hand."
"You think that's easy?" Gabe arched an eyebrow at his father.
"I know better than that. I've watched you work that gray in your hair and I've watched you work through the night for this place and I'm proud of you."
Oh, Jesus, he was going to cry in his seaweed.
"But sometimes you have to make hard choices. Swallow your pride and beg and compromise and ask for favors. You have to fight, which is something you don't like to do."
That was true, he couldn't actually say he fought for things. Fighting implied arguments and standoffs and a possibility of losing.
Losing wasn't really his style.
He worked hard, he made the right contacts, he treated his friends well and his rivals better. He ensured things would go his waywhich was a far cry from having them fall in his lap. But it was also a far cry from compromising or swallowing his pride or fighting.
The very idea gave Gabe the chills.
"You saying I should fight for Melissa?" He jerked his head at the door the vegan chef had left through.
"No." Patrick's bushy eyebrows lifted. "God, no. But I'm saying you should fight for the right chef."
"What're we fighting for?" Max, Gabe's older brother stomped into the room, brushing sawdust from the chest and arms of his navy fleece onto the floor. "Did I miss lunch?"
"Not really," Patrick said. "And we haven't actually started any fight, so cool your jets."
Max pulled one of the chairs from the stacks on tables in the corner, unclipped his tool belt and slung it over the back of the chair before sitting.
As the family expert on fighting, Max had made battles his life mission. And not just physically, though the bend in his nose attested to a few bar brawls and the scar on his neck from a bullet that got too close told the truth better than this new version of his brother, who, since being shot, acted as though he'd never relished a good confrontation.
Yep, Max knew how to fight, for all the good it did him.
"Well, from the look on Gabe's face, I guess we still don't have a chef," Max said, sliding his sunglasses into the neck of his shirt.
"No," Gabe growled. "We don't."
Now Max, his beloved brother, his best friend, stretched his arms over his head and laughed. "Never seen you have so much trouble, Gabe."
"I am so glad that my whole family is getting such pleasure out of this. Need I remind you that if this doesn't work, we're all homeless. You should show a little concern about what's going on."
"It's just a building," Max said.
Gabe couldn't agree less, but he kept his mouth shut. Going toe to toe with his brother, while satisfying on so many levels, wouldn't get him a chef.
"I'm going to go make us some lunch." Patrick stood and Max groaned. "Keep complaining and you can do it," he said over his shoulder and disappeared into the kitchen.
"Cheese sandwiches. Again," Max groused.
"It's better than what we had, trust me."
"Ah, she fed us terrible food and then said I was crazy for trying to build an inn in the middle of nowhere and get a chef to come out here for little pay in a half-finished kitchen. Basically, what all the chefs have said to me."
Gabe paused, then gathered the courage to ask the question that had been keeping him up nights.
"Do you think they're right? Is it nuts to expect a high-caliber chef to come way out here and put their career on the line and their life on hold to see if this place takes off?"
Max tipped his head back and howled, the sound reverberating through the room, echoing off the vaulted ceiling. "Brother, I've been telling you this was nuts for over a year. Don't tell me you're starting to agree now!"
Gabe smiled. He was discouraged, sure. Tired as all hell, without a doubt. Frustrated and getting close to psychotic about his chefless state, absolutely. But his Riverview Inn was going to be a success.
He'd work himself into the hospital, into his grave to make sure of it.
He had been dreaming of this inn for ten years. "It's not like I've got no credentials." He scowled, hating that Melissa had gotten under his skin and that he still felt the need to justify his dream. "I worked my way up to manager in the restaurant in Albany. And I owned one of the top ten restaurants in New York City for five years. I've had reporters and writers calling me for months wanting to do interviews. The restaurant reviewer for Bon Appetit wanted to come out and see the property before we even got started."
"All the more reason to get yourself a great chef."
"Who?" He rubbed his hands over his face.
"Call Alice," Max said matter-of-factly, as though Alice was on speed dial or something.
Gabe's heart chugged and sputtered.
He couldn't breathe for a minute. It'd been so long since someone had said her name out loud. Alice.
"Who?" he asked through a dry throat. Gabe knew, of course. How many Alices could one guy know? But, surely his brother, his best friend, had not pulled Alice from the past and suggested she was the solution to his problems.
"Don't be stupid." Max slapped him on the back.
"The whole idea of this place started with her"
"No, it didn't." Gabe felt compelled to resist the whole suggestion. Alice had never, ever been the solution to a problem. She was the genesis of trouble, the spring from which any disaster in his life emerged.
Max shook his head and Gabe noticed the silver in his brother's temples had spread to pepper his whole head and sprouted in his dark beard. This place was aging them both. "We open in a month and you want to act like a five-year-old?" Max asked.
"No, of course not. But my ex-wife isn't going to help things here."
"She's an amazing chef." Max licked his lips. "I can't tell you the number of times I've woken up in a cold sweat thinking of that duck thing she made with the cherries."
Gabe worried at the cut along his thumb with his other thumb and tried not to remember all the times in the past five years he'd woken in a cold sweat thinking of Alice.
"Gabe." Max laid a hand on Gabe's shoulder. "Be smart."