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"Radishes." Darcy tapped her pencil on the gleaming wooden bar, made from salvaged Wisconsin oak. Her thoughts were drifting from Gladiolas's emptying dining room around her to the side dish she was imagining for her restaurant's summer menu, though it being merely the end of May in Wisconsin, summer seemed depressingly far away. Sauteed radishes, smoothed with butter, accented with salt and chives. And something else sugar snap peas for color, texture and to balance the slight bite with sweetness. Or would a complementing strong taste be better, to deepen the flavor? Chard? Watercress?
"Radishes sound perfect for my mood."
Darcy snapped out of her vegetable reverie and squinted at Amy Walker, her dining room manager. "What mood, crunchy?"
"Round and bitter." Amy tipped back the last of the cup of coffee she never seemed to be without. Her plump body was slumped onto her stool, her short, flaming red ponytail shedding strands that hung around her cheeks.
"Bitter? I like that. Maybe we can use that in a menu name. 'Love failed meI'm bitter.' A pork dish with bitter orange, a side of greens and radishes, something like that." She made a few notes on a paper in front of her, then remembered they were talking about Amy. "Sorry, my brain went AWOL. Why are you bitter? Not Colin "
"He hasn't called for two days or answered my emails. I'm thinking I've worked my Amy-magic again and am being dumped."
"No way." Darcy felt familiar anger churn in her stomach. Yes, she had issues, but it was hard to work through them when men kept providing more and more examples of selfish behavior. "I thought this guy was really into you."
"Yeah, me, too." Amy laughed harshly. "And they say women play mind games and are hard to figure out."
"I'm sorry. But you know men. They have a completely bizarre concept of time. He'll reappear when you least expect it, without a clue he'd left you hanging." Darcy pushed her untouched glass of chardonnay over to her friend, and signaled their handsome, burly bartender, Jeff, to get her another. "In the meantime, drink away your sorrows, honey. At least alcohol is dependable."
"And a depressant." Amy lifted the glass anyway and took a healthy swallow. "I don't know. It's too easy to blame men. Sometimes I think it's just me, Ms. Man-Poison."
"You are not"
"No, really, I'm serious. I think there's something about me that horrifies them. Until I find out what that is, maybe there's no point looking anymore. I'm thinking of giving up."
"No." Darcy held up a hand for emphasis. "I'm the cynical, damaged one. I'm the one headed for a life of questionable hygiene, living alone in a ramshackle house overrun with cats. Not you."
"Maybe." Amy fingered the stem of her wineglass, eyes down. "I want to find a guy who accepts me, warts and all, who'll consciously work on the relationship and compromise when necessary, someone for whom my happiness is nearly as important as his. Because that's exactly what I'd do for him."
"Oh, that guy!" Darcy accepted her new wine from Jeff. "I know exactly where he is."
"Where?" Amy lifted a skeptical brow.
"Hanging out with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny!"
Amy snorted. "I know, I know. But I can't totally crush hope the way you have. I wish I could. It would save me a lot of trouble and a lot of pain. I really thought Colin would hang around. Of course I probably thought that about all of them at one time."
"Uh yeah." Darcy nudged her affectionately. "Didn't we all."
"It's just that it can happen, out of the blue, when you least expect it. My sister met her husband on her millionth blind date, sick to death of trying to find someone, and they were both struck stupid with love the second they saw each other. They're still wildly happy."
"Because they're stupid. You said it yourself."
Amy finally loosened up enough to let out her trademark cascade of giggles. "I did. Now enough of my whining. Back to your radishes."
"Nah." Darcy lifted her glass, irritated by the story of Amy's sister. People who were disgustingly goopy like that made her sick. Or jealous. Sometimes she wasn't sure which. "Forget the radishes for now. We need to cheer you up first."
"Ooh, I know. Ken, the new Lenson's sales rep, came by this morning with industry gossip." Darcy sipped her wine. She'd stick to the gossip that had been pleasant. The rest had been eating at her all day. "The new place down National near Fourth Street? Esmee? The chef is Lebanese. He's supposedly giving the usual bar food an innovative Middle Eastern kick. Want to check it out? Get your mind off Colin?"
"Oh, that would be" Amy's cell rang with the theme to Love Story. She fished it out of her pocket and gasped at the display. "It's him."
"Ha!" Darcy smacked the bar with her palm, wanting to tell Amy not to answer it. "Told you he'd show up."
"Oh, my gosh." Amy took a deep breath, smoothing her hair, and connected the call. "Hey, Colin! How are you? Good. Yes, I'm fine. But I was worried, since I haven't heard"
Darcy shook her head urgently. Rule number one: never let a guy think you've been sitting around waiting for his call.
Amy cringed and nodded understanding. "Heard from my family in a while and was thinking you were one of them checking in."
Darcy gave her a thumbs-up.
"Uh-huh. As far as I know. Oh, tonight?" She looked pleadingly at Darcy. "I'm, um "
Darcy shook her head again, hard enough that her bobbed hair flew out nearly horizontal. Rule number two: Never be immediately available to a guy who hasn't been available to you.
"I'd love to." Amy spoke firmly, turning away from Darcy who rolled her eyes. "I've really missed you."
Darcy let out a sound of disgust purposely loud enough for Amy to hear.
"Yes. I know where that is. Okay. Yes. See you in a few." She shut her phone with a soft sigh.
"Amy. At least pretend you haven't been panting after his call for"
"I know." She held up a hand to stop Darcy's lecture. "I know."
"Seriously, if you want men to stop taking you for granted " She tried to soften the frustration in her voice. "You have to show them you're worth better treatment."
"Yes. But as I said, I have really missed him." She slid off the stool and squeezed Darcy's shoulder. "You're right. I know you are. In a week or a month I'll be miserable over him again. I just"
"Have really missed him."
"Wow, how did you know?" Amy looked like a different person, cheeks flushed, eyes snapping excitement. Even her hair had revived.
"Wild guess." Darcy managed a smile. "Go. Have fun. He doesn't deserve you."
"Undoubtedly. And I'll be screwed over in the end. It's what men do to me. Then you can say, 'Ha-ha, told you so,' and watch in amazement at my masochistic stupidity while I proceed to do it all again with someone else."
"Gee, um, I'm really looking forward to that." Darcy rolled her eyes in exaggerated dismay. "Wouldn't it be easier to stay single?"
"Easier, yes. Better? No." Amy jumped off the bar stool and strode over to their hostess, Kelly, to ask her to close up.
Darcy watched her go. Easier, but not better She turned resolutely away and pushed her glass to the bartender. "G'night, Jeff."
"'Night, chef. You heading out?"
"Yeah. New place to try tonight." Darcy had to force the enthusiasm, when she generally loved discovering neighborhood gems. She didn't mind going out alone, either. In fact, sometimes she preferred the opportunity to concentrate on the food instead of on making conversation.
Among the gossip Ken passed along was that Raoul, Darcy's unlamented ex-employee, had secured new wads of cash for his restaurant after the original investor had indeed backed out. James Thomas, one of Milwaukee's wealthiest, had turned Darcy down for Gladiolas, saying women had no place in the restaurant business. She'd had to settle for a lesser amount from the bank, which meant shelving plans for a more elegant downtown address and locating Gladiolas where she could afford to lease.
"Sounds good. Report back." Jeff, classic stud of few words, acknowledged a patron's signal and went over to refill his drink.
Darcy slid off her stool and strode through the dining room and into the gleaming stainless kitchen she was so proud of, inhaling the fragrance of food in its many stages of preparation. She collected her things and called out a good-night to the staff, including Gladiolas's dishwasher, real name Francis McDonald, but everyone called him Ace. Great kid, reliable, could be pulled onto the line when things got crazy busy in the kitchen, but from what Darcy could tell, he lived most of the time in a chemically enhanced universe.
She banged out the alley door, got into her car and drove down National Avenue from her own place on Fourteenth Street to Fourth. Short hop, but she'd been on her feet all day, and while she wouldn't mind walking over, after a drink and some food, she'd want to get home quickly to her tiny house in Washington Heights, which she'd bought five years earlier after saving every cent she could for the downpayment.
Too bad Amy hadn't wanted to come tonight. Another wonderful, funny, smart, talented friend wasted on the male population of Milwaukee. Maybe Darcy should introduce Amy to Milwaukeedates.com owner, Marie Hewitt, who'd matched up two of the town's best and brightest, Candy and Kim. But talking to Marie about matching up Amy would invariably segue into Marie talking about matching up Darcy, and sorry, but Darcy couldn't be less interested. Though seeing Amy so happy when Colin called.
Nuh-uh, she wasn't going there. Some women could find happiness in men. Darcy wasn't one of them. The guys she fell for were angry, controlling and uninterested in supporting her, especially her ambition. Someone had to break that pattern and protect her, and Darcy had nominated herself for the job. Once in a while she allowed herself the luxury of a one-night stand or a casual series of dates, but she drew the line there. Any longer and it became apparent men wanted women who were home for them every night, not out on the front lines battling for their own success. Recently Darcy had also been denying herself those brief encounters. Even those had become dangerous to her sanity.
She found the restaurant and parked on a side street, emerged into the too-chilly air and hurried into the small, warm, welcoming space whose dim lighting created nice intimacy. A clean but battered wooden bar, kept on from the Irish pub this place used to be, dominated the room, furnished with booths and a few tables. Nearly every table and booth was taken, the bar three-quarters full. A good sign, though Darcy was attracting more attention than she liked from the mostly male clientele, even wearing an outfit about as revealing as a Girl Scout's, an outfit which also happened to be pretty ripe from an evening sweating in the kitchen.
Three stools sat empty at the end of the bar. Darcy chose the nearest to the door, leaving two unoccupied seats next to her, hoping no one would sit in search of a chatting partner.
"Hi, there." Nice-looking bartender, big guy, middle-aged, with warm gray eyes. Ten years and thirty pounds ago, he would have been a serious temptation. "What can I get you?"
He broke into a smile, bushy eyebrows raised, and responded in Arabic.
"No, no." Darcy shook her head regretfully. "Not native. I just know the drink."
"Ah, okay. Coming right up."
"What didja order? Ah-rack?" The pink-faced guy to her right looked as if he'd been at the bar most of the week.
"Arak. Anise liquor. Very dry. Very good."
He made a face. "Anise, like licorice? Licorice is candy. Sissy drink."
Darcy snorted. Said he who was drinking rum and Coke.
"Enjoy." The bartender set in front of her a glass of clear liquid, another of ice and a small carafe of water. "Like a menu?"
"Definitely." She ignored Mr. Sissy Drink, who was still muttering about alcoholic candy. Darcy would love to see him try to walk straight after a couple of glasses of arak. Strong as well as delicious.
"Here you go." The bartender handed her a menu.
Darcy opened it and fell in love. Burgers, salads, sandwiches and pizzas, but in each category a twist. You could have a burger with ketchup, mustard and pickle, or with parsley, onion, cinnamon and tahini sauce. Pizza with cheese and sausage or with ground lamb, diced red peppers and halloumi cheese. Iceberg salad with shredded cheddar, croutons and ranch dressing or romaine with toasted pita and feta, dressed with olive oil, garlic and mint.
After a terrible time deciding, she succumbed to the lamb pizza and the romaine salad. The bartender brought her a small bowl of olives, a few tiny round loaves of pita, about the diameter of tangerines, and a dish of a soft creamy white cheese with the tang of yogurt.
Darcy poured water into her arak, which turned it pearly-white, and added a few cubes of ice. She took a small gulp and sighed in pleasure. The anise flavor was clear and light, beautifully refreshing. A few sips later, she mingled the taste with a mouthful of bread stuffed with cheese and an olive. Heaven.
As usual, the experience of good food relaxed her, and she felt ready to check out her surroundings. Good crowd for a Wednesday night. A few couples on dates, a few single men at the bar, groups of guys out for a guy-time, one table of women. Most were neat and presentable, not too different from the crowd she attracted to Gladiolas. Neighborhood people out for the night. What crowd would Raoul get with his fancy backer and address? High prices would mean clientele with money to burn and similarly situated friends who had friends, who had friends.
Movement caught her eye, and she realized she'd been staring at a good-looking guy in a red shirt drinking with friends; he leered and toasted her with his beer.
Ugh. The last thing she needed was some guy thinking she was out trolling for the same thing he was.
Her food came, a happy distraction. The aroma made her stomach growl and her hand reach eagerly for a slice of the pizza, which she immediately launched toward her mouth.
Mmm. The crust was charred appetizingly around the edges, the lamb and peppers fragrant and subtly spiced, the cheese tender, mild and sparingly used so its bland richness didn't overwhelm the dish.
Delicious. After a few more ravenous bites, she gathered a forkful of the fresh-looking salad, preparing to dive in.
"So I was wondering " A man's shape entered her peripheral vision. Red shirt. Ugh again. He leaned on the bar next to her, too close, talking too loudly. His too-sweet aftershave intruded on her smell and taste. "Has anyone ever mentioned that you look like Catherine Zeta-Jones?"