"What do you think?" Jenna Stevens asked, doing her best to sound confident. When faced with something scary, like a big dog or a really bad decision, it was important not to show fear.
"I love it," her mother said. "Truly, it's amazing." Beth squeezed her daughter's shoulders. "I'm so proud of you, honey."
Proud? Proud was good. Proud implied an accomplishment. The only problem was Jenna couldn't claim one. She'd acted on impulse.
As a rule, she could respect a good impulse purchase. There were times when life sucked and a woman needed to buy a pair of shoes or a skirt or even a lipstick she didn't need just to prove she could. To show the world she wasn't defeated.
Only Jenna hadn't bought any of those things, mostly because she wasn't much of a shopper. But she'd sure stepped out of her comfort zone recently. Had she done it with a too-expensive handbag? If only. Instead she'd impulsively signed a three-year lease on retail space in a town where she hadn't lived in nearly ten years. As if she knew anything about retail. Oh, sure, she shopped on occasion, but that wasn't exactly the same as running a business. Just like being a chef didn't mean she knew squat about running a kitchen store.
"Breathe," her mother told her. "You have to breathe."
Apparently she'd shattered the illusion of courage by hyperventilating.
"Maybe not," Jenna murmured. "If I stop breathing and go into intensive care, the management company might let me out of my lease. There has to be a clause about a near-death experience, don't you think?"
Jenna turned from staring at the front of her new business and pressed her head into her mother's shoulder. Something of a trick considering Beth was a good six inches shorter and Jenna was wearing heels.
"I didn't read the lease," she admitted, her voice slightly muffled.
She braced herself for the chiding. She'd been raised to read everything before signing it. Even a greeting card. She deserved to be yelled at.
Her mother sighed and patted her back. "We won't tell your father."
Jenna straightened. They stood in the parking lot in front of the space she'd rented. Right now it was just an empty storefront, but in a few short weeks, it would be her new business.
"Fifty percent of all new businesses fail," Jenna whispered.
Her mother laughed. "That's my little ray of sunshine. Come on. I'll buy you a latte. We'll sit, we'll talk, we'll plan ways to have your soon-to-be ex-husband tortured. I'm sure your father knows a guy."
Despite the fear and the panic swirling in her stomach, the sense of impending doom and a life that bordered on pathetic, Jenna smiled. "Mom, Dad's a banker. Men who run banks don't know guys."
"Your father is very resourceful."
He was also a physically fit, active man who enjoyed plenty of outdoor activities. If Marshall Stevens wanted something physical to happen to Jenna's ex, he would do it himself.
"I'm just so angry at Aaron," Beth said, leading the way to her SUV. "That cheating, lying you-know-what."
The "you-know-what" was, of course, a stand-in for bastard. Or possibly sonofabitch. Either way, Beth didn't believe in swearing.
She was a traditional kind of woman. She put on makeup before leaving the house, always brought a casserole in a covered dish when there was a death in someone's family and never, ever had a cocktail before five. All things Jenna loved about her.
She knew people who thought traditions were stupid and a waste of time, but for Jenna, they were the warm, comforting glue that held her family together. She could count on her parents to be what they'd always been. Today, that was more important than ever.
They got into her mother's SUV, a late-model gas guzzler, and drove toward the closest Starbucks.
"I'll never forgive him," Beth announced. "I suppose I could accept it if he decided that your relationship wasn't working. Not every marriage lasts. It's the cheating that makes him a weasel. I swear, if my daddy was still alive, he would go after Aaron with a shotgun and I wouldn't stop him."
Some days Jenna wouldn't have stopped him, either. But her anger at her ex wasn't about the other women, although the thought of them didn't make her happy. What made her lie awake at night, questioning herself and every decision she'd ever made, was the other ways Aaron had hurt her.
The cheating simply gave her an easy excuse to say why the marriage had failed.
They pulled into the Starbucks parking lot. Her mother turned to her. "You get anything you want. Venti, syrup, whipped cream." Beth wrinkled her nose. "I won't even mention how resentful I am that you're as skinny as a string bean and I'm stuck with thighs that hate me. That's how much I love you."
Jenna laughed, then leaned across the console and hugged her mother. "I love you, too, Mom. Thank you."
"I haven't bought the coffee yet."
The thank-you wasn't about the drink, but then her mother already knew that.
"I'm glad you're home," Beth told her as she climbed out of the SUV. "This is where you belong. Real people live in Texas, not in Los Angeles. All those Hollywood types." She sniffed. "Is there anyone normal in the city?"
"A few, but they never go out at night." Jenna linked arms with her. "I'm glad I'm home, too."
Jenna couldn't quite escape the feeling that going back to look at her store was like returning to the scene of the crime. But it had to be done, and someone, probably her, needed to get her business started.
Despite having spent the past couple of weeks getting things ready for the grand opening, every time she pulled into the parking lot and stared at the space she'd rented, she couldn't bring herself to believe it.
Three months ago she'd been in Los Angeles. Her husband had walked into their tiny bathroom while she'd been brushing her teeth and had announced he was leaving her for another woman. He was in love and he was leaving.
What Jenna remembered most was standing in that cramped space wondering when she was supposed to spit. At what point in that kind of confession was it polite or expected for her to lean over the sink, spit and rinse?
She'd been unable to speak with all that toothpaste in her mouth, so she'd stood there like an idiot. Eventually Aaron had walked out, leaving her stunned, emotionally shattered and with toothpaste dribbling down her chin.
Later they'd talked. Or he'd talked, explaining all the reasons the breakup was her fault. She realized now that that was Aaron's thing. Taking whatever was good and strong in a person and systematically destroying it. On the outside, he was pure charm, all dark good looks and an easy smile. On the inside, he was the devil. Or at the very least, an evil minion.
She supposed she could have fought for her marriage, but a part of her had been relieved to have a reason to leave. So she'd packed up everything she owned and had returned to Georgetown, Texas.
She'd been lost, so going home had made sense. As much as anything could, under the circumstances.
She was grateful her parents had never asked why she didn't try to get a job in a restaurant. She'd been a professional chef for nearly a decade. It was what she knew. Or it had been. Today, cooking anything seemed impossible.
Oh, sure, she could throw together something easy. A bisque, a dozen or so pasta dishes, a savory tart, prime rib. The basics. But to creatively cook? To take new flavors and blend them into something so good it was almost magic? That had been lost.
It was as if her culinary soul had been stolen. As much as she wanted to blame Aaronand a case could be made that he was guilty of theftshe'd been the one not standing guard, not protecting what mattered most of all. She'd been the one to let him berate her, mock her and claim her best ideas as his own. She'd let herself begin to doubt her abilities, her imaginative self, and now she was just someone who had once known how to cook.
The killer was, no one knew. Not that she wanted to talk about it or have people feel sorry for hershe didn't. On the outside, she was as good as she'd ever been. It wasn't as if she'd lost her actual skills. But the thing she'd loved bestthe spark of creatingwas gone. And she didn't know how to get it back, much less articulate the problem to anyone else.
She tried to tell herself that opening a cooking store was a grand adventure. It was her new destiny. She would pass on her skills to others, share the wealth, so to speak. And if she didn't want to use that as inspiration, she had three years of lease payments to worry about. If she couldn't perk her mood with self-help, then she would get real with fear. Whatever worked.
At least the location was great, she thought, staring at the big windows and glass front door. Old Town was a thriving part of Georgetown, and her store was in the middle of it. To the right of her space was a yarn store called Only Ewe. To the left was an insurance agency and, beyond that, a beauty salon.
Old Town itselfa series of square blockswas a combination of business and retail with some residential areas. There were restaurants, boutiques and a couple of banks. Foot traffic was high, and Jenna was hoping that impulse buying was also a part of everyday life.
As she got out of her car and studied her store, she told herself she could do this. She could be successful with her new business. She'd never been a big believer in "fake it until you make it," but maybe now was the time to explore a new philosophy. After all, like it or not, the store was opening. The sign would be delivered early next week. The final deliveries of her inventory would arrive two days after that. Then it was just a matter of getting everything in place and opening the doors.
She was waiting to see how well she did before spending money on advertising. Grate Expectations would sell high-quality kitchen supplies with expert instruction. She would demonstrate, offer cooking classes and give the people in town the chance to learn the secrets of professional chefs. There didn't seem to be any competition for this kind of business in the nearby communities.
As she pulled out her key to the store, she heard a car door slam. She turned and saw a dark-haired woman walking toward her.
"Hi," the woman called. "Jenna?"
"Yes. You must be Violet."
They'd spoken on the phone. Violet had been one of nearly a dozen calls she'd had about the job she'd posted in the paper. Of the potential applicants, Violet had had the most experience, not to mention the most normal personality.
Now Jenna took in the short, spiky hair, the dark eyeliner and thick lashes. Violet's beige lace T-shirt covered a deep purple tank top. Her skirt was layered and also purple. Dozens of necklaces hung down in various lengths, while an equal number of bracelets clinked on her left arm. High-heeled ankle boots completed the outfit.
She looked to be in her mid-to-late twenties. Humor and curiosity sparkled in her brown eyes and her smile was friendly.
"Great location," Violet said as Jenna wrestled with the door. "Very upscale. You'll get a lot of walk-in traffic. Especially if you're cooking. People will follow the smell."
They went inside. Jenna turned on the lights, then glanced around at the chaos.
She saw shelves against the walls and freestanding racks in the middle of the main room. A newly installed kitchen setup gleamed from one side. The desk for the cash register was in place. Boxes were stacked nearly five feet high. Unpacking was going to take days.
Daunting didn't begin to describe it, but Jenna didn't care. Hard work was exactly what she was looking for. If she was exhausted, she wouldn't have as much time to think. Besides, this was America. According to legend, all that stood between her and success was a little hard work. Fortunately, the ability to do what needed doing had always been one of her strongest attributes.
"Nice," Violet said, walking around. "The high ceilings are great. Some of the places around here have a second floor, so the ceilings are lower." She headed for the kitchen area, set down her purse and tugged on her sleeves. As she pulled up the lace, Jenna caught sight of a tattoo of flowers on the inside of her wrist.
Violet wasn't anything like Jenna had imagined. She'd pictured someone older. Someone more
conservative. But Violet had energy and an engaging smile. The pixie cut gelled to a fashion-forward mess suited her, as did the Goth-inspired makeup. Violet looked both fun and approachable.
Ten years of working in restaurant kitchens had taught Jenna to trust her gut when it came to hiring. For all his telling her that she didn't know what she was talking about, Aaron had listened to her gut, too.
"You enjoy working with the public?" Jenna asked.
She knew that was going to be the most difficult area for her. She was used to being behind the scenes, not dealing with the front of the house. Ordering, organizing, working under pressurethose were easy. But smiling in the face of harried customers? Not so much.
"Most days," Violet said with a laugh. "I think the difference between a place like this and, say, a big-box store is branding. You go to a retail chain with certain expectations. Sometimes it's price or convenience. But making a special trip to your store requires a little more thought. Customers have to want to come here."
She ran her hands across the stainless steel counters by the stove.
"I think the key to success is to give customers an experience they can't get anywhere else. Not only different products, but personalized service. You have to make them want to come back." Violet smiled again, her eyes dancing with excitement. "I do love a good challenge."
"Good thingbecause we're going to have that here."
Violet faced her. "Maybe not. What's the competition? I don't think there are any other places like this in the area, but I didn't do the research."
Jenna stared at her. Research? She did her best not to wince. Right. Because most people had a plan when they opened a store. They checked out the area, ran the numbers, worked on a profit and loss statement. Things Jenna would have done had she been opening a restaurant.
"We're going to offer something unique here," Jenna said. "Neighborhoods like that."
"You've owned retail stores before?" Violet asked.
"Not exactly. I'm a sous chef."
"Oh, wow. That's great." Violet moved to the open area in front of the sink and held her arms open wide. "We could set up cooking stations here. People love to get their hands dirty. With that big oven and the six burners, they can all be cooking and baking together. People would kill to get real tips from someone like you."
Jenna shook her head. "I wasn't going to have the customers cook. I'll be doing demonstrations. Showing techniques for different dishes."
Violet's arms dropped to her side. "That would be good, too," she said with measurably less enthusiasm. "Will you have prepared the dishes in advance so they get to sample what you're doing?"
"That's nice." She walked toward the boxes and read the labels. "So you've never exactly run a store before?"
Violet bit down on her lower lip. "Are you hiring a manager?"
"I'll be the manager. At least for now." Jenna squared her shoulders. It was time to get to the interview. "I'm looking for someone to work full-time with me. We'll be open six days a week. I'd prefer you take your second day off on Monday through Thursday. I'm guessing Friday and Saturday will be busiest. I'm going to offer different kinds of cooking classes. Classic recipes, easy to make, foods that can be frozen and served days or weeks later."
Stuff she could do in her sleep.
A part of her whispered it might be fun to experiment a little. To have customers surprise her with ingredients and then come up with something on the fly. She could