6 years later
The dining room was deserted, the cracked red leather of the banquettes sagging sadly over the snowy white tablecloths.
From here, she couldn’t tell that those linens were all fraying at the edges, but she could see every chip, every indelible scuff mark, in the gorgeous black-and-white tiles covering the floor.
Jules Cavanaugh peered out the round glass window cut into the kitchen door and remembered another night when Lunden’s had been empty, just like this. Only tonight, there was no blizzard. No storm. No snow.
And no customers, either.
Mind full of the worries that had become all too common over the last year and a half—is it time to talk Gus into shutting down lunch service? Do we really need four servers on Thursday nights if we don’t get more than ten covers all night long? What am I going to tell Gino when he calls about next week’s beef order? They’re not going to extend our credit forever, even if Gino’s great-grandfather supplied the first steaks ever cooked at Lunden’s—Jules had managed to tune out most of the commotion behind her.
A kitchen full of chefs with nothing to do was a recipe for trouble, and the Lunden’s crew was no exception.
The long, dull hours of boredom and inactivity, interspersed with pockets of chaos and action when a customer did happen to wander in wore on the men and women who kept Lunden’s back-of-the-house operations going.
Well, mostly men, Jules acknowledged, turning around to survey her ragtag makeshift family.
It was quite the sausage fest in the Lunden’s kitchen, she mused. And sure, it was weird for her sometimes, being the lone hen in a crowd of cocks, but mostly she felt like one of them.
Winslow Jones, always the first to get antsy, was entertaining himself by trying to con, charm, and weasel personal info out of their newest hire. Chef Beck, first name unknown to anyone other than Gus, who’d presumably seen his paperwork, gave Win back the stone-faced, crossed-arms routine he gave everyone—but Jules thought she detected a slight softening around his eyes.
She sympathized. It was hard not to soften up around Winslow, who had the kind of infectious good humor that was so sorely lacking around here, these days. Even Phil hadn’t been able to—Jules cut off the thoughts of her ex before they could begin.
“How long do you think they’ll stick around if Dad can’t make payroll?”
Jules jolted free of the endless circle of worries and fears and slanted Danny a glance. “Don’t talk like that. We’re not there.”
Danny gave her the look that meant he heard everything she wasn’t saying, loud and clear, but he let it go.
Twisting his hands in the white cloth looped through his apron strings, Danny slumped against the kitchen door beside her, his head dropping forward so all she could see was the pale, vulnerable back of his neck. Danny always took so much on. Too much, and he refused to lean on anyone. Only Jules got to see the exhausted, careworn side of him—and that, only when he was too tired to hide it from her.
“Your dad has a plan,” Jules reminded him brightly, ignoring her own misgivings.
Danny hissed out a sigh, lifting his head to bang it once against the door. “Judas priest. Don’t remind me.”
“The Rising Star Chef competition could be the answer to all our problems,” Jules argued. “Every restaurant that’s ever won it has turned into a huge sensation—reviews, publicity, and most of all, customers. Think about it, Danny. All the business we can handle, and then some!”
“You sound like Dad.”
Jules bit the inside of her cheek for control. “I believe in Gus. Wherever he leads, I’m going to be right behind him. A hundred percent.”
“Even if what he wants is for you to follow Max?”
Damn it. Danny knew her too well. Meeting his watchful gaze, Jules admitted, “Okay, maybe ninety percent. We don’t need Max to win this thing.”
He knocked his head against the door one more time in agreement, with a twist to his mouth that tugged at Jules’s heart. “Mom’s calling him today anyway, whether we like it or not. But hey, the good news is, he probably won’t come home. How could home be more fun than backpacking around Asia, living by his wits and a wok? And Dad doesn’t want Max to know about … how bad the restaurant’s doing.”
Danny’s moment of hesitation was like flimsy aluminum foil covering a heavy pot full of boiling, seething, steaming resentment, worry, love, and—worst of all—fear. Jules knew, because she felt the same way.
It wasn’t only the restaurant’s dire straits Gus intended to hide from his oldest son.
Facing forward and pretending to watch Winslow tease Beck, she cleared her throat and said, “How’s your dad feeling? Better?”
“He insists he’s fine,” Danny murmured. “He doesn’t want to talk about it.”
They lapsed into silence. Jules took in the demoralized kitchen crew leaning against their cold, empty stations. She thought about Gus and his hopes for the restaurant, and Danny, trying desperately to hold everything together, the weight of his own legacy bearing down on his shoulders. She remembered that snowy night six years ago, and how much she owed this family.
She’d do anything she could to save Lunden’s Tavern, up to and including working side by side with the guy who’d occupied most of her teen fantasies.
How bad could it be, right? After all, she was completely over him. Over men, in general, after Phil. So there was nothing to worry about. Not a thing.
Beck began to show signs of irritation with Winslow’s increasingly hyper bouncing. But as Jules moved in to rescue him, glad of the distraction, she couldn’t help but notice that the shiver running down her spine at the thought of Max wasn’t all dread, or even resignation.
It was anticipation.
* * *
The streets of Tokyo were a blur of dizzying colors, sounds too loud to understand, and smells that usually made Max Lunden want to tackle the nearest vendor for a taste of whatever mysterious meat on a stick was putting out that rich, fragrant smoke.
Today, though, Max’s normally ironclad stomach was too jumpy to risk street food. Ducking out of the swift, relentless current of foot traffic into an arched stone doorway, he looked down at his cell phone for the hundredth time, making sure it was on, had full bars, was ready and waiting to receive the most important call of his life.
For the last hour, Max had been elbow-deep in dough struggling to learn how to cut perfectly straight, even ramen noodles, and sucking at it because all he could concentrate on was his silent phone.
Once he finally had gotten his hands free and clean, and apologized to a very grouchy Harukai-sensei for being so distracted during his lesson, Max took to the streets to try and walk off his frustration.
He kept his fingers wrapped around his phone inside his pocket, so he’d feel it the instant it started to vibrate.
Ring. Ring. Ring, for shit’s sake!
As if by magic, he felt a buzz against his fingertips, followed by Steve Tyler’s unmistakable, if tinny, voice singing about living on the edge.
Heart in his mouth, palms suddenly slick with sweat, Max got the phone free of his pocket with only one near-catastrophic fumble. Centering himself with a deep breath, Max hit the button and lifted the phone to his ear.
Silence, punctuated by a bit of static and some breathing.
Cursing himself, Max cleared his throat. “Si? Pronto.”
They were the magic words, unleashing a volley of rapid-fire Italian Max had to struggle to wade through.
“Si. Si. Si,” he kept saying, feeling like a moron and not sure what he was agreeing to, until the gruff voice on the other end exhaled sharply.
“Italiano. You learn. Fast. I teach nothing until you understand my language.”
Max’s rib cage expanded with joy like phyllo pastry puffed up with honey. For a moment, he was honestly afraid his chest would pop open and spill his heart onto the street.
“You’ll teach me, then?” He had to clarify, had to be sure this wasn’t a mistake or a misunderstanding.
A long pause. “When you came to see me, two summers before … you were not stupid. Not completely. I think you can learn.” Vincenzo Cotto’s thick, accented growl went even rougher and lower. “So long as you learn to speak … and more important, to listen, in italiano.”
“I’ll learn,” Max promised. “I swear, I’ll be fluent by the time I see you.”
“Hmph. You have four weeks.”
Calculating frantically, Max immediately started listing in his head all the things he’d have to do—finish his lessons with Harukai-sensei, pack up all his gear, find a place to stay in the tiny Italian village that housed Cotto’s famed macellaio, the butcher shop where he sold his award-winning cured meats and sausages, and also occasionally took on an apprentice.
Very occasionally. Rarely, in fact, so rarely that Max could hardly believe his last two years of intermittent campaigning by letter and visit had finally paid off.
Once he’d learned what Cotto could teach him about prosciutto, pancetta, and fresh pasta, Max would be versed in the skills of every major cuisine. And a lot of the minor ones, too, since he tended to veer off course whenever curiosity beckoned. But this final piece of the puzzle?
Max had waited a long time to slot it into place.
“Four weeks,” he repeated, like a vow. “I’ll be in Le Marche in a month.”
Cotto grunted again, sounding satisfied, and hung up, leaving Max to stare out at the rushing river of pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, and buses that clogged the Tokyo street.
He was moving on again, onto the next new thing, the next challenge—and maybe this time, it would be enough. Maybe he’d find the place where he could stop for a while, and feel at ho—
His phone rang again, almost vibrating itself right out of his hand.
Shit. Had Cotto changed his mind already?
Dread clutching at Max’s heart, he thumbed the phone on and said, “Pronto.”
The uncertain voice didn’t belong to a mercurial Italian butcher-savant.
“Mom! I’m so glad it’s you. I was just about to call, I’ve got amazing news.”
“Do you?” The alarm in her voice sliced neatly through Max’s euphoria. He frowned.
Something had wigged his normally unwiggable mother.
“Mom? What’s up?”
“Nothing, honey, tell me your news.” The clear nerves in her voice twisted Max’s tension a notch higher.
“Mom, you’re freaking me out, here. What’s going on?”
“You need to come home.”
The world stopped.
“Did something happen?” Max forced out through numb lips.
Nina’s pause was enough to get Max’s heart jackrabbitting in his chest, but she said, “No, of course not. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, honey.”
Max’s lungs jerked into motion again. Relief made his voice sharp. “If everybody at home is fine, then what’s this all about?”
“Don’t take that tone with me.”
Max winced. Nina rarely busted out the steely grim, but when she did, no one was dumb enough to cross her.
“And you’d better not be saying the only way you’d come home is if someone’s dead or in the hospital.”
Max worked at smoothing out his tone. “No, of course not, Mom.” Although that was kind of true, wasn’t it? His conscience reared its ugly head, but Max sat on it. He’d left home for a reason, and he hadn’t looked back.
“So you’ll come home.”
“Mom. Seriously. Do Dad and Danny even know you’re calling me?”
Her overly bright confidence set off Max’s bullshit meter. “Oh yeah?”
Her huff of frustration was clearly audible, even over the somewhat crackly reception he got on his international cell phone. “Your father wants you home. Your brother’s not thrilled about it, but deep down, he knows I’m right. We need you, Max.”
Max sighed. It was entirely lame, but for one brief, glittering moment he’d actually allowed himself to contemplate the possibility of his family being ready to forgive and forget.
He’d talked to them since he left home—casual, careful conversations, chitchat. It was okay with Dad, if stilted. With Danny, though? Not so much. The kid knew how to hold a grudge. Every conversation was an emotional minefield.
“Sounds like nothing has changed,” Max said, trying to keep his heart open and yielding, rather than bitter and shielded. It was harder than usual. “And I don’t have time to come home—I have to be in Italy in a month.”
Even in the midst of arguing with his mother, anticipation thrilled through him.
“What? Honey, that butcher you’re always going on about? The one who never takes on an apprentice.”
“Almost never,” Max clarified, grinning into the phone. “I need a crash course in Italian, because I’m going back to Loro Piceno in four weeks. And this time, I’m staying until I learn everything Vincenzo Cotto has to show me.”
“I’m proud of you. I know you’ve wanted this for a long time,” Nina said, and she did sound happy for him. Her urgency had dimmed somewhat, giving Max hope he’d made his point.
“So you get it? I’d love to come visit, Mom, but I can’t miss this opportunity. Vincenzo Cotto is the best in the world, and he picked me.”
As if it could be that easy.
“A month is all we need.” Nina rallied quickly. “You’ll be back on the road before you know it.”
“Maxwell Gerard Lunden. You had better not be thinking about saying no to me.”
Max hesitated. The note of steel had reentered his mother’s sweet voice. Nina Lunden might look like a cream puff, but she was filled with sterner stuff than vanilla-flavored pastry cream, for sure.
“If I show up at the restaurant,” he said, trying to be reasonable, “it’s going to be a fight. You know I’m right.”
“It’s not okay for you and Danny to be at odds. You’re brothers. It’s past time to fix things between the two of you. And your father might surprise you. Besides, we don’t need you to work at the restaurant—where we need you is on the team for the Rising Star Chef competition.”
“What?” To Max’s knowledge, Lunden’s Tavern had never participated in any culinary competitions, let alone the largest, most prominent one in the United States.
“We’ve put together a team, and we could really use your competition experience. Your father’s even willing to give you his spot on the team for the first leg of the competition—that’s how serious he is about winning.”
Max leaned back against the wall, trying to take it all in. He’d been making his living for years by entering culinary challenges around the world, winning enough cash prizes to give him the freedom to apprentice himself to whatever master of the local cuisine could teach him the most. But those were single-competitor challenges in small cities and even villages, not a huge national competition like the RSC.
And the idea that his father could admit, even obliquely, that Max might be better at something … Max couldn’t help the grin that spread over his face.
As if sensing a weakness, Nina immediately segued into wheedling. “Come on, honey. I’m sure after so many wins, you must have lots of tips and tricks you could share, strategies that could help your brother and the others!”
Max laughed. “You’re laying it on a little thick,” he told her.
He heard the smile in her voice. “Is it working?”
Sighing, Max knocked his head against the rough wall behind him. “Kind of,” he admitted. “I’d do anything I could to help you, and the chance to make things right with Danny, with Dad—I won’t lie. It’s tempting. But—”
Nina wouldn’t be reasoned with. “Things change, honey. People change.”
“In our stubborn family? No. Not really.” If Max knew anything, he knew that. He’d given up on hoping for more a long time ago.
“Fine, but situations change. If you don’t join the team … Max, we can win. We have a good team, but they’re green. It’s imperative that we pass the initial qualifying rounds and get chosen to represent the East Coast. Once we’re over that hurdle, I think we’ll be okay, but to get there, we need your help. I’m pulling the mother card here, Max. Give me some credit; I haven’t seen my oldest son at home in six years, but have I nagged you about visiting? No. I’ve flown out to see you when I could. But now I’m not asking, I’m telling. Whatever it takes, whatever happens after you get here, we’ll work it out. I just … you need to come home.”
Max’s throat tightened in defense against the almost undetectable quiver in his mother’s voice. Not so steely, now, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard her sound like that. Maybe when his grandmother died. Something was up, something more than this sudden obsession with winning the Rising Star Chef competition. And whatever it was, it was bad enough to make the strongest woman Max had ever known sound like she was about to cry.
“Just for the qualifying round?” Max clarified, wanting to be sure he understood what she was asking. “I get you a spot in the competition, and then I’m on a plane to Italy.”
“That’s all I’m asking,” she said, cautious happiness coloring her voice.
Gripping the phone tightly enough to make his fingertips go numb, Max breathed in the hot, wet air of Tokyo, heavy with the scents of fog and car exhaust, and said, “I’ll be on the next flight out.”
Copyright © 2011 by Louisa Edwards