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I was having a stroke.
Had to be. What else could account for the palpitations, the tingling all over, and the sudden urge to run in the opposite direction? Sure as hell couldn't be seeing Kevin Best for the first time in umpteen years. Could it?
"What the hell are you doing here, Kevin?" My pulse was racing and my palms were slick, but I sure as hell wasn't going to let him see that.
He stood there the picture of innocence. His tall frame was hunched slightly, and his green eyes sparkled with humor. An unruly shock of sandy hair framed a handsome face, and I was annoyed as hell with myself for noticing every inch of him.
"Just wanted to buy a chocolate raspberry tart." He leaned one elbow across my counter and put on that infernal grin. His voice was still smooth as silk, the Southern accent still lilting and calculatingly seductive.
I, however, was immune. "You know the recipe. You could've made that yourself. You didn't crawl in here after all this time just for a tart."
"Sure I did. I love your chocolate raspberry tart."
The remnants of the breakfast crowd shot glances our direction. I had a feeling I'd gone pale, but hoped not. I stretched my frame as tall as I could, grateful the pastry case hid my knocking knees.
I folded my arms and glared at him. "Don't stand there pretending you're a customer. You want something."
Kevin put his hands up in surrender. "I want a tart." I tilted my head to the side and he got the message. "Okay, you got me."
"I knew it!" I said in victory. "So what is it, then? Don't tell me Fred Carpenter has gotten a hold of you and is trying this approach now? You can tell him sending in hisminions won't work, either."
Kevin looked confused. "Who's Fred Carpenter?"
"Don't play innocent. Fred's been trying to buy us out for ages, but we're not selling. Period."
Kevin nodded. "Okay. Good to know."
"I'm not going to work for him, either. He tried that angle already, and it's not flying any better."
"Maggie, I don't know Fred Carpenter. But if he wants you, he's got good taste."
I scowled. He seemed clueless, but I wasn't sure I was buying it. "So if you're not an industrial spy, why are you here?"
"You mean, other than to buy a tart?"
"Will you forget the damned tart?"
The jackass had the audacity to chuckle. "No, as a matter of fact, I won't. But I do have another reason for being here. I wanted to let you know--before the rumor mill got going--well, you remember Angela Summerset?"
My temples throbbed. "Unfortunately."
"We're opening our own shop. Over on Colgate Street. Nothing like this, of course." He motioned around the small dining room with its tiny bistro tables and black-and-white checkerboard floor. He seemed to smile at each customer in turn, charming the room. They didn't know him like I did. "This is inspired, Maggie. A coffee shop. And the name! Let's Dish ... catchy. So it looks like you're doing well. Making good money?"
"Oodles." I was lying my ass off, but Kevin didn't need to know our bank account was so often in the red we'd nicknamed the checkbook Scarlet.
Kevin either didn't know or didn't care that his question had been out of line. "We're just doing catering, for the most part. Some bakery items and a freezer section with some quick-cook entrees."
One side of Kevin's mouth slid up into a half-smile, and I willed my belly to stop flip-flopping. "Anyway, our kitchen's not quite up and running yet, and we wanted to celebrate with something special. Your chocolate raspberry tart is legendary, Maggie. I never figured out how you mix the butter into the crust so there are little chunks of it in the dough..." He stopped long enough to look me over. With my arms crossed and my expression calculated to match, I hoped to seem imposing. It must have worked at least a little, because he cleared his throat before continuing. "I had a craving, I was in the neighborhood, I thought I'd stop by."
I stared at him a moment longer, but grabbed a box and opened the back of the display case. "Anything else?" I asked. Just like I would of any other customer.
"Maybe some of those sun-dried tomato pesto rolls. Those sound good with dinner tonight. Four of them, please."
I cocked an eyebrow. "Four? Got company?"
He grinned. "Not yet. Want to come over?"
My nose wrinkled involuntarily. "I think not." I made a production of sliding the glass aside to grab the rolls.
"You can bring Ted," he said. "How is old Ted, anyway? Still a drag?"
Now one might think that was an innocent question, but it was as loaded as my father after a Packers game. And Kevin knew it.
"Fine," I said. "I hear he's fine. He might be fine. He might be dead. None of my business anymore, really."
Kevin had the good grace to blush as his cocky grin faded. "Wow, Maggie. I ... didn't know. I wouldn't have ... I'm sorry. You couldn't make it work, then?"
"No." I felt like I'd swallowed a rubber ball and it was bouncing around my insides. "The divorce was finalized a few months ago."
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. I stood there with one fist dug into my hip, waiting to see what lame trash would come out of his mouth next. The humor in his eyes paled to a soft, sad expression. The rubber ball lodged and made my gut ache.
"Maggie, I never meant for this to happen."
"Yeah, well, it did. Nothing anyone can do about it now." I took a deep breath, realizing I was squeezing a pesto roll in one hand. I slipped it into the bag and placed it next to the boxed tart on the counter. "That'll be twenty-two fifty."
He handed me his money, but let his fingers linger on the bills near mine. "Maggie, if there's ever anything I can do..."
"I think you've done enough." I ripped the money out of his hand and dug for his change.
"Keep it." He stopped, and seemed to be engaged in a mental wrestling match. "Mags, I really am sorry. I didn't want to see you hurt."
"Then maybe you should have kept your mouth shut."
His brow furrowed. "You mean you would have rather..." He stopped, shaking his head. "Never mind. Thanks, Maggie." He took his order, shot me an uneasy glance, and headed for the door.
"Thank you," I said in a mocking, sing-song tone. "And be sure not to come again." He paused on his way out the door, but let it swing shut without another word.
I let out the breath that I'd been holding since he'd walked in. My brain was reeling. Kevin Best was opening a new shop? The fact that he'd slunk back into town had been enough of a shock, but to open a shop? A competing shop? Damn! After all this time, he was still hell bent on ruining my life. He'd just come up with a new angle.
I was pretty sure a stroke would have been better news.
Before the little bell above the door had stopped echoing around the dining room, the second third of our partnership walked in the door with her eyes still focused on the sidewalk behind her. The door snapped shut and she turned to face me. "Was that..."
"Kevin," I finished for her.
Lyla's jaw dropped. "No way! What the hell did he think he was doing coming in here?"
"Thank you! So I'm not the only one who thinks it's weird for him to show up here out of the blue and tell me he's opening a new store?"
Lyla's eyes popped. "He's what?"
"Here in Fallsview. Right under our noses."
"Why that rat. After what he did to you?" She paused. "Although..."
"Oh no. Don't even go there." I turned away and grabbed my rag to polish the display cases.
She shrugged. "Well, you never know. It's been a while since you and Ted split up, this might be your second chance."
I let out half a chuckle. "Next thing you'll be telling me people can change."
"People can change. Just look at me."
I scrubbed at a particularly stubborn smudge on the glass. "Minor miracles notwithstanding, a leopard can't change his spots."
She smiled, but it seemed a little patronizing. "Okay, Maggie. If you say so." She looked around at the dwindling mob. "Looks like we had a good crowd today."
"It's getting better," I agreed. "More every week."
Lyla bobbed her head in approval. "Excellent. But you're here by yourself?"
I nodded. "Armand's at the farmer's market."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"God, no." I threw my hands protectively across the display case. "Back away from the pastries, Lyla. Put away the cookbooks and nobody'll get hurt."
"Oh come on." Lyla shrugged. "What? Just because one time I mix up salt and sugar--"
"One time? How about the egg shells in the banana bread? The cranberry juice in the piña colada pie?"
"Hey, that didn't taste too bad." I stared at her, and she put her hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay! But I can pour coffee! Geez!"
I laughed and rearranged the bagel basket. "That's all right. The main rush is over, anyway. And I'm sure you came in to balance the books, not play waitress."
"Server," she corrected. "But yes, that was my intention. Taxes are due next month, insurance in two weeks, and I have to figure out which Peter to rob to pay Paul."
I winced, a familiar twinge in the pit of my stomach. "Is it bad?"
Lyla tried to look encouraging, but we'd been friends long enough for me to know when she was faking. "It's not hopeless or anything. Your instincts were right about adding the coffee shop on top of the catering. I think it's nearly doubled our profits."
"And double of nothing is..."
"Something," she said, but the façade was starting to crack. "We talked about this, Maggie. All businesses lose money in the first few years. Did you really think you were going to be the exception?"
"No." But deep inside I'd had hopes. "But losing money and going bankrupt are two different things."
"Nobody said anything about going bankrupt."
"We have to make this work, Lyla. If we lose the Dish, I'm doomed to spend the rest of my days living in my parents' basement. I might as well adopt fifteen cats and start watching Star Trek reruns right now."
"Don't be so dramatic." She headed back toward the office. "Let's see what happens. For right now, you and my husband just cook the food and leave it to me to cook the books."
"Hi, honey, I'm home," a voice said from behind us. Armand came in the rear door, his arms loaded with canvas bags. He put down the bags on the island, gave Lyla a quick kiss, and waved at me with one finger. "I got blueberries, Mags. And some strawberries to put in the cream puffs for the D.A.R. dinner tonight. They look good. Really fresh."
"Wonderful," I said. "I'll get started on the puffs right after breakfast."
Armand motioned for Lyla to follow him behind the counter, and swept through the swinging door with a mysterious look on his face. "You'll never believe what I heard through the grapevine." He leaned in so only Lyla and I would hear. "Guess who's back in town."
"Kevin Best," I said.
"And he's opening a new shop." Lyla, like me, had no problems with stealing Armand's thunder.
Armand's dark eyes crinkled around the edges. "How did you know? You wake up psychic this morning?"
"I wish," I said. "He was just here. Ly got in on his grand exit."
"He's got guts showing up here." Armand shook his head. "Last I heard he was trolling the cooking schools for someone to go into business with him."
"Well, he found someone," I said.
He nodded. "Angela Summerset, if you can imagine that pair together. Their place is called Best Dishes. Can you believe the size of his ego?"
"Duh," Lyla said.
"Kevin's a flash in the pan." My tone was more confident than I was. "Pun intended. And Angela flunked out of the Culinary Institute. She's a dilettante playing with her daddy's credit card. No threat there."
"Maybe not," Lyla said, "but Kevin is serious competition. And competition is bad."
"Not when it's bad competition."
Armand tilted his head, looking at me. "You know that's not true. No matter how you feel about him, you know Kevin's got talent."
I shook my head, exhaustion washing over me and making my knees feel weak all over again. "Talent with food is one thing. People skills are another. And we all know how Kevin is with actual human beings."
"But you said it yourself," Lyla said. "Angela has money coming out her wah-hoo. They've got tons more capital to work with than we do."
"Capital doesn't mean quality," I said, determined to sound sure of myself, whether I felt that way or not. "And Angela couldn't bake herself out of a paper bag."
Armand looked worried. "But Kevin--"
"Kevin, Kevin, Kevin!" I said, drawing a glance from Mrs. Foster and her sister at the corner table. I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my palms. "Listen, it won't matter who opens a shop if we stand here gossiping all day instead of taking care of our own customers."
Armand forced a smile. "Right. What can I do?"
"If I have to lift that coffee pot one more time, my arm is going to fall off."
"I'm all over it." He grabbed the coffee off the warmer.
"I'll help, too," Lyla said.
"Don't touch the food!" Armand and I said in unison.
She rolled her eyes. "I'll cover the cash register. Okay?"
Armand grinned at me, and I headed back into the kitchen, doing what little I could to try to save our business.* * * *
The smell of coffee in the morning had always brought me a warm, homey feeling. While it wasn't exactly going to make the morning paper, the fact that I was suddenly nauseated by it was somewhat disturbing. As I filled the giant coffee pot in the kitchen, I could swear I was actually turning green. Never mind the pineapple muffins I was baking. If I even thought about those, the coffee pot I was leaning over would be ruined forever.
I climbed down off the stepstool to face Armand, who was staring at me with a crooked gaze. "You gonna live?" he asked.
"With any luck, no." I shrugged. "I'll be fine. I think I just have a touch of the flu."
"Just don't share it with the customers." He took the coffee filter from my hand. "Remember when Forrest Bagels had that E. coli scare? They never recovered from it. The last thing we need is a bad reputation, especially with Kevin entering the game."
"Can we stop talking about Kevin now?"
He warmed up the cappuccino maker, but his eye was on me. "Touchy subject?"
"No," I snapped, but then took a breath. "Of course not. It's just you and Lyla went on about him all day yesterday and since he's not exactly my favorite person, if we could just drop the subject..."
Armand surrendered. "Okay. Consider it dropped."
"Thank you." I took a breath, determined to get on with my day. Without any more reminders of Kevin. "You taking those sandwiches over to the KC hall this morning?"
"Leaving right now." He gathered the packages while I went into the dining room to make my morning rounds.
"Good morning, Mrs. Adler," I said, refreshing her coffee. "Nice to see you in this morning. We missed you this last week. Were you on vacation?"
"No, dear," the gnarled old twig of a woman said. "I had that awful flu that's going around! I was--well, you know, dear, how the flu can affect us old people."
"And us not-so-old people." Bringing Mrs. Adler her prune Danish had almost done me in.
"Oh, Maggie, dear, did I tell you my granddaughter is getting married in the spring?"
"How wonderful! Congratulations!" Eat that prune Danish, old woman. Get it out of my sight before I hurl!
"I'm going to give her your number. You do cater weddings, don't you, Maggie, dear?"
"I certainly do, Mrs. Adler. Thanks for the referral, I really appreciate it." And I wasn't just being polite, even if she wouldn't get that damned Danish out of my sight.
"Anything I can do to help." She flashed me a smile that could melt dry ice. Good God, sometimes I wished she was my grandmother.
Just as I thought I was about to lose my breakfast--and yesterday's dinner and possibly lunch--Lyla staggered in the door looking like Bedhead Barbie after a frat party.
"Attacked by wolves?" I asked as she pushed passed me on her way to the coffee maker.
She shook her head. "A two-year-old."
"Coffee, coffee," she muttered. "Where's Armand's special brew?"
I pointed to the back with my thumb. "I hid in the butler's pantry. Didn't feel like poisoning any of the regulars."
"Face it, Maggie, some mornings you just need a mug of nuclear waste to get the blood pumping." She looked at me, focusing for the first time. "God, you look awful."
"Thanks, I love you too." I retreated behind the counter where I could hide from the sight of all the pastries, if not the smell.
"Before I forget, when I dropped Jack off at your mom's this morning--"
"My mother is watching your son? Why would you do that to the child?"
She shook her head. "My mom's got a manicure appointment and Dad has to drive her so she doesn't mess up her nails. Totally useless grandparents, if you ask me."
"Totally," I agreed.
"And your mom said since she doesn't have any grandchildren of her own..."
"Yeah, yeah. I don't need you starting in on me, too."
Lyla chuckled. "Anyway, your mom was cleaning out the basement. She sent over a box of stuff she said you might want. It's out in my trunk, so remind me later. Just some knickknacks, old perfume bottles. Your old diary."
"My diary?" I winced. "What do you bet she's read it?"
"I wouldn't bet against it. And I'm supposed to remind you about dinner tomorrow night."
"Like I could forget." But it was time to move on to other subjects I'd rather forget. "So you got a good look at the books yesterday afternoon?"
"Yeah." She took a sip of her coffee, looking less than thrilled.
"What's the verdict? Should we be panhandling out front?"
I knew the answer was bad, because before she even answered, Lyla made a career out of pulling a cruller out of the display case. "Okay, there's good news and there's bad news."
"Always good to start the day with a tired cliché." So much for my New Year's resolution to stop being sarcastic. She squinted at me in obvious displeasure. It was her own fault, though. She taught me everything I know.
"Remember what I said about the coffee shop yesterday? I was right. Opening for breakfast and lunch doubled our revenue last month."
"Too bad it cut my sleep in half." I tried not to sound bitter.
Lyla looked vaguely apologetic. As if. "I wish I could help more. But with Jack..."
"Forget it." That line of conversation was getting old. I bagged up Mr. Pereti's order to go. "Life throws you curve balls, and I've got a business to run. I do what I have to do to get this thing off the ground."
"Nice martyr routine. Now I know for sure you're related to your mother."
It was my turn to squint at her. "So are you going to hit me with the bad news eventually, or are you just going to stand there and eat up the profits?"
She stopped, the cruller halfway to her mouth. "Nice mood."
"Other shoe. Drop it."
Lyla took a deep breath, letting it out between clenched teeth. "Yes, the coffee shop is bringing in money, but it might be too late."
If I hadn't already been nauseous, I think my stomach would have heaved. "What do you mean, too late?"
"We're doing okay," she said in a hasty retreat. "But the insurance and taxes ... I'm not sure we have enough to cover it all."
I refilled the coffee carafe, my head splitting. "How much?"
"That's not so bad..."
I turned on her in disbelief. "No! That can't possibly be right!"
"Well, not exactly ten thousand each."
I let out the breath I'd been holding. "Good. Then how much?"
Lyla fidgeted, pulling at her pastry. "The total is nineteen thousand, two hundred."
"Holy Mother of God," I whispered.
"You can say that again. I'd say it, but since I'm Jewish..." She kept babbling, but being completely panicked, I didn't really notice. "It could be worse," she said, even though I was concentrating on trying not to puke on the bagels. "Maybe I'm overreacting. After all, you have that big bar mitzvah coming up next weekend, right?"
"Yeah, but that ain't twenty freaking grand!"
Lyla came over and put her hand on my shoulder. "Remember, we just need to hang in there until we get word-of-mouth advertising. Then we've got it made in the shade." She'd said that a million times since we'd opened Let's Dish.
It failed to get less annoying.
"Yes, I know. But we don't have time, unless we can convince the county to hold off on property taxes until we can pull a profit."
"So let's assume the worst," she said. "Let's say we have to close down. It's not the end of the world, Maggie. We can always start again."
Abject terror did nothing for my stomachache. "Start again? I did start again. This is my last chance at a real life, Lyla, since I screwed up the first attempt!"
"You didn't screw that up." She grabbed my shoulder a little harder. "Ted screwed that up."
"Ted was just following his heart." Too bad he stomped on mine in the process.
Armand picked that moment to come in with a load of bread flour. "Help me unload?"
Lyla glanced at me and stepped forward. "I'll do it. Mags, you take a break, talk with Mrs. Adler. Maybe that will make you feel a little better."
Yeah. And so would a straight shot of cyanide.