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"Allie Hendricks is back in town."
Mike Foster, halfway through dialing his wholesaler to blast him for a late delivery, hung up the phone and stared at Barney, his short-order cook. "Allie? She can't be. It's the beginning of the semester."
"All I know is she's back."
"For the weekend, maybe?"
Barney skillfully flipped a few eggs. "Nope. She quit med school. Showed up last night and dropped the bomb on her mother. Elaine's having a fit."
Mike was stunned. "I can imagine."
"It's a real shame," Barney went on. "If anybody had the smarts to be a doctor, it was Allie. Just goes to show you. Can't figure out people no matter how long you know 'em."
Mike nodded absently. Some people were a mystery, but until a couple of seconds ago he would have sworn Allie wasn't one of them. She had a plan. From the day she'd shown up in his newly opened diner at the age of sixteen, she'd known exactly what she was going to be: a doctor. She maintained this with such intensity that no one had doubted for a minute that she'd reach her goal.
The news had startled him so much he'd forgotten the job he had to do before it was too late. "Hang on a sec," Mike told Barney. He dialed the wholesaler again, got him on the phone this time and made it quite clear that his meat order must be delivered at once, because Mike's Diner wasn't a vegetarian restaurant. Then we went right back to the topic of Allie.
"Why'd she quit?"
"Dunno. Haven't heard that part yet."
Mike gritted his teeth. That was the frustrating part about small-town gossip. You got just enough of the story to pique your interest before the news dried up. The details would filter in eventually, one at a time, but he wanted to know now. It would take something major to make Allie give up her plan. Flunked out? No way. Stressed out from the work? Nothing had ever stressed out Allie. A disastrous love affair?
"You okay?" Barney shot him a glance—a quick one, because he had food on the grill.
"Yeah," Mike said, and turned his attention back to his own problems.
Maury, one of his brother's foster boys, swung through the back door, ready to start working. "Hey, Mike, Daniel said to tell you Allie Hendricks is back in town."
"I heard," he told the teenager, smiling at him. He was fond of all Daniel's boys, but he and Maury had a special bond—cooking. In fact, Mike didn't know how he'd get along without Maury when school started and he had to reduce his hours.
Maury looked a lot like a St. Bernard and acted a lot like one, too. "Can I start working on the Moroccan chicken?" he asked, practically salivating.
"Chopping the veggies, yes," Mike told him. "Can't cook the chicken until it gets here."
Mike's Diner, his diner, had become the most popular eating place in Serenity Valley, an isolated community tucked between two mountain ranges in southern Vermont. His customers came from all three towns that nestled in the valley: LaRocque, where he was located, Holman, the southernmost, and even the biggest, most uppity town, Churchill, which lay across the river. He served all the things people expected to find in a diner, but each evening he offered a chef's special. These specials had become the talk of the valley.
He'd succeeded with the diner. He had a career, he had his family, his older brother, Daniel, and Ian, the younger one. Life was good.
It hadn't always been good. Ignored by his parents, he'd predictably acted out as a teenager. When he got into trouble with the law, they disowned him.
He'd ended up in a juvenile correctional facility where he'd met Daniel and Ian. They couldn't have been more different in appearance and personality, but they'd shared a common goal—to learn from their mistakes and end up as honest, productive citizens.
They'd made it. Daniel was a veterinarian, Ian was a businessman and sheep farmer and Mike had his restaurant. They'd done it by supporting each other, each making sacrifices on the others' behalf, just as brothers would, which had made them decide to become brothers. They'd changed their surnames to Foster, and in the eyes of the world, they were brothers. The people of the valley didn't know about their past, and the Fosters wanted to keep it that way. It didn't matter what they'd done as kids. What mattered was what they were doing now.
And at the moment, he wasn't doing a whole lot. He opened at seven, and the pace was frantic until nine.
Then it slowed until just before noon, when everyone worked flat out until two, which gave him plenty of time to get ready for dinner. He had two waitresses, Becky and Colleen, who needed full-time work as much as he needed to know he'd have dependable help.
With Maury on deck, Mike was free to wander around the dining room, giving the customers who were straggling in for an early lunch some personal attention. "Hey, Ray, Ed," he said to two of LaRocque's city selectmen. "Sit anywhere you like. Want a dark corner to conspire in?"
"If you can think of something for us to conspire about," Ray said. "This town could use a good fight."
Mike observed that they weren't speaking to him, but to his forehead. He knew what was coming.
"Like your hair," Ed said. "Glad you stopped shaving it off."
Ray studied Mike's head for a moment as if whether or not Mike grew his hair out was of utmost importance to the community. He finally nodded as well. "Better this way."
"Thank you," Mike said, meaning, Drop it. Now. This was another downside of a small town like La-Rocque, Vermont. Anything that could be called news got chewed and worked over and sent phone bills sky-high, and the news right now was that he was letting his hair grow out. He'd just have to live with it until something more exciting came along to put his hair on the back burner, so to speak.
"Did you hear Allie Hendricks is back in town?" Ed asked him.
That was it, the new news. Maybe now that Allie was back in town, people would focus on her rather than his hair.
He took their orders himself, and while he scribbled on the pad, he was thinking about Allie. Smart, friendly, efficient and pretty; well, beautiful in her own way, she'd waitressed for him summers and holidays from the time he'd opened the restaurant eight years ago. He'd seen her through her college years and was both proud and heartbroken—in a selfish way—when she was accepted to medical school. Of course, she was the best waitress he'd ever had. She was also the most overeducated one he'd ever had.
He seated a few more early lunch customers, since Becky and Colleen were setting tables, then went into the kitchen area and perched himself on a stool beside Maury, who was chopping almonds and dried apricots like a pro. The chicken had arrived at last, so Mike began trimming it.
He was working automatically and lost in thought when Becky appeared at his side, beaming. "Allie Hen-dricks is back in town," she said, "and she's here for lunch."
Surprised at how happy that made him, Mike stood, washed his hands, and went back into the dining room. He looked around for Allie, then took a second look at the stunning brunette who was smiling at him. This was Allie?
Mike suddenly had a burning desire to see if he looked okay with hair, which was dumb. He'd known Allie for years. She was like a little sister. It didn't matter what he looked like. It was how she looked that threw him.
She looked more mature. More…polished. The bookish, awkward girl he remembered had been replaced by a confident, elegant woman.
He approached her feeling dazed. She'd stopped by the diner from time to time when she'd been on breaks from college, but when had her transformation happened? The Allie he remembered had sported a bouncy ponytail. Now, sleek dark hair fell to her shoulders, swung forward to frame her face. He couldn't help skimming her up and down—any male would. Her bright-red turtleneck made her skin look translucent and her brown eyes a deeper, more vibrant chocolate-brown. Five-four, five-five, she was slim, but curvy, too. In the black skirt she wore with boots she looked absolutely…female.
When he reached her, he couldn't figure out what to do. A couple of years ago he would have given her a big hug. Now it didn't feel right, so he stuck out his hand and gave her a big-brotherly smile. "Hey, Allie, it's great to see you again."
She raised an eyebrow at his outstretched hand, shook it, then gave him a startled look. "You've let your hair grow."
"Um, yes. And you've let yours down." He felt himself flushing. "I mean…"
She seemed to be trying not to giggle. "Looks great. So how've you been?"
"Good. Fine. Um, good." Mike cleared his throat. He knew he was acting like a dork, but he was confused. Every cell in his body was screaming at him to flirt with this gorgeous woman, but he couldn't. The gorgeous woman was Allie. She was still eight years younger than he was, time didn't change that, but eight years didn't seem like such a big age difference now.
He brought himself back to reality. She was also a woman in the middle of a personal crisis. Something momentous had happened to cause her to drop out of med school. Now was definitely not the time to hit on her.
"So are you home for a while?" He waved her over to one of the booths against the west wall.
She sat and looked up at him. "Yes. And I need a job."
It was the last thing he'd expected her to say. "A job?"
Her smile was rueful. "Yes, that is, if you need help." She glanced around the diner, looking a little less confident all of a sudden. "Actually, it looks as if you already have it under control. I just wanted to check with you first…"
His brain came to life at last. "Of course I'll give you a job," he said as fast as he could get the words out. "Absolutely. No question about it. Only question is, why would you want to be a waitress again?"
With the direct look he'd come to associate with her over the years, she said, "You've probably heard that I've taken a semester off from school to think things through."
It wasn't exactly what he'd heard, but he nodded.
"I need to work, pay my mom rent—"
She must have noticed his surprise, because she said, "No, she hasn't asked me to pay rent. But she's hysterical that I've come home. I just want to—"
"Feel more independent," Mike said.
"Oh, yes." She said the words on a long sigh.
It gave him time to notice how luscious her mouth looked with shiny red lipstick smoothed over it. A wave of awareness washed over him. This wasn't good. He had to keep his hormones in check.
"Thanks, Mike," she said softly. "I hope you're not just doing this because…"
"Because you're the best waitress I've ever had? " He smiled at her, feeling more in control now. "When can you start?"
"Tonight at the dinner shift?"
He nodded and pushed back from the table, wanting to put some distance between them.
"Thank you again." When she smiled, her skin seemed to glow.
"No problem." He couldn't think of a closing line. Finally he fell back on his standby—food. "How about some pie? I'll send out a piece of chocolate meringue."
"You remembered that was my favorite," she said.
She looked so pleased that he felt uncomfortable again. Aw, hell. It was definitely time to get back to the kitchen. "Of course I remembered."
He signaled Colleen, told her to rush the pie to Allie and then review the new procedures with her. With a final wave in Allie's direction, he retreated to safety. This reaction he was having to Allie was not only surprising, it was annoying.
"Cut it out," he muttered.
"Cut what out?" Maury looked up at him and blinked. "I was just about to start on the carrots."
Mike glanced at Maury's workstation and was amazed to see the progress the boy had already made on the vegetables that would go into tonight's dinner special. He gave the impression that he was taking it slow and easy until you saw what he could accomplish in a short time. He had a real future ahead of him in the culinary arts.
Realizing Maury was still waiting for an answer, Mike said, "Ah, sure, the carrots."
Colleen appeared at the pass-through. "Mike, phone call for you."
Mike stepped into his small office off the kitchen, relieved to have a distraction. "Mike's Diner," he said cheerfully.
"I'm calling for Michael Foster," said a crisp voice with a British accent.
"It's Mike. Speaking," Mike said, pacing back and forth while he was on hold, his mind still on Allie. He glanced into the dining room, saw her laughing with some of the customers, then groaned and ducked back inside the office.
"Mike!" The man on the phone spoke enthusiastically. "Richard Stein here. I'm with Abernathy Foods, and I'm interested in your restaurant."
"It's not for sale," Mike said, and the phone was on its way to the cradle when he heard Stein say, "No, no, I'm quite aware of that."
He put the receiver back to his ear. "You want a reservation?" he asked warily. "We don't take reservations—"
"No," the man said again, adding a lot of ho-ho-ho-ing. "I mean, yes, of course I'd love to have dinner there, but I'm in New York, you see, and don't have a lot of time to…"
"I don't have a lot of time, either, Mr. Stein," Mike said. "I'm in the middle of the lunch crunch."
"This will just take a minute," Stein said. "What I called about was franchising Mike's Diner. I read the great review you got in the Boston Globe a few months ago, and we sent a couple of our people to check out your place. They came back with stellar reports. We've run some numbers, and now we'd like you to come to New York, see our operation, talk about the offer—"
"What?" Mike said. He couldn't quite focus on what Stein had just said. Somebody he didn't even know had checked him out and was running numbers on him? What the heck did that mean? And was Allie still out there?
Without thinking, he shifted to the doorway again. Allie was gathering up her bag and her jacket and talking to Colleen and Becky. Almost as if she felt his gaze, she turned to meet it. He raised one hand in goodbye. She smiled and waved back. He wanted to know what "things" Allie was home to "think over" a lot more than he wanted to know what Stein was talking about.