Destiny is impossible to escape...
Caterina Bonavera had a solid plan. To move up the line from sous chef at one of New York City's top restaurants and then open one of her own. Moving back to Virginia to help her sisters run the family winery had been nowhere on her radar. But neither had landing the head chef's job at a popular local restaurant upon her return, only to find herself unemployed again after three years; nor getting romantically involved with a man who proved her ability to judge one's character hadn't gotten any better than her ability to fly by flapping her arms.
Caterina's confident she'll get her life back on track with Serendipity, the boutique hotel and restaurant she and her oldest sister Lucia were opening at the end of the summer, but that's almost a year away, and meanwhile, she's forced to deal with Liam Dougherty, the surly contractor building the restaurant of Caterina's dreams. Liam gets along fine with everyone else, but it's clear to Caterina that he's disliked her since their first meeting, and she has no idea why.
To complicate their already tentative working relationship, Caterina begins to develop an unwanted attraction to Liam. She tries to counter it by avoiding him, but then she discovers something that changes her opinion of him completely, and along with it, her desire for the one thing she wants most in her life. Will trusting Liam turn out to be another mistake when it comes to the men in her life, or have her prior mistakes been leading her to him all along?
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"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."
The newly erected wooden frame stood in stark relief, a skeleton in the diminished light of a low-hanging moon. The Blue Ridge marched behind it, cloaked in misty twilight, a familiar sentinel that grounded everything in its shadows: the skeleton, the valley, the vineyards — her.
A breeze kicked up, laced with the scent of fresh sawdust — the scent of progress — a scent that pleased her. Caterina slid her hands into the pockets of her favorite bomber jacket: red leather, well-worn, familiar as an old friend. The familiar gave her comfort, and she welcomed both it and the extra bit of warmth the jacket lent against the descending chill of an early November evening. A shiver raced through her. She hugged the bomber tighter and stood, staring silently at the framework Liam Dougherty and his crew had finished putting up that afternoon.
If everything went per plan, she and Lucia would be opening the doors of Serendipity to the public by late summer next year. Lucia would get the boutique hotel she wanted. Their architect, Antonio DeLuca, who also happened to be Lucia's new fiancé, had created an amazing design. Caterina knew that with her sister's decorating flare, and the special attention she gave to their guests' comfort, the hotel would be truly special.
My restaurant will be no less special.
There were times, in moments like this, when her vision of what it would be was so clear she feared she'd wake from a deep sleep only to discover her dream of opening a restaurant was merely that ... still a dream. But the concrete foundation in front of her stood solid; the wooden skeleton rising above it in the shadow of the mountains was as tangible as she was, and Serendipity was less than a year from becoming a reality.
So much had changed in five short years. Things she hadn't, couldn't have planned for. Big life things that altered people. Five years ago, she'd been living in New York, working at one of the city's top restaurants. Moving back to Virginia to help run the family winery where she'd grown up had been nowhere on her radar.
She'd scored a great position at a three-star Michelin restaurant right out of culinary school. At twenty-two, she'd been promoted to sous chef, the youngest ever to work there, and her plan had been to keep moving right up the line until she ran the place or one of her own. They'd been high aspirations for one so young at the time, but she'd always dreamed big, and she believed that with the right strategy, and a willingness to go the extra distance, anything was possible.
She'd had the willingness, and her creative flair in the kitchen had been encouraged and appreciated. The work never felt like a job. Her goals, however, hadn't allowed much time for socializing. Not that she didn't have friends. She did. They were just few, and she kept them casual. She'd decided early on that she needed to advance her career first. Once she secured her future, she'd focus on developing personal relationships.
A fox ran in front of the foundation, not twenty feet from where Caterina stood. She'd been so still, she wondered if it knew she was there. She watched it trot into the woods beyond the apple orchard, off to hunt under the veil of night. Yes, a lot had changed, and those changes had led her far from New York City's bright lights and skyscrapers.
When Marcella, her twin, implored Caterina and their sisters, Lucia and Eliana, to try to make a go of the winery they'd inherited after their parents' death, Cat hadn't felt that she had a choice.
The winery was Marcella's lifeblood, the only thing she'd ever known. If they'd let it go, it would have destroyed her. They'd already lost Mom and Dad, and although she knew her other sisters wouldn't have held it against her if she didn't agree to go in with them, they'd probably have lost the winery — the home where they'd all grown up. How could she have refused just because it didn't fit her five-year plan? They were hers, all she held most dear ... family. Family stood with family.
So, she left what she'd thought would be her future in a puddle in the middle of Greenwich Street, just down the block from Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill — one of Manhattan's most famous restaurants in the triangle below Canal Street — and moved back to Virginia, securing a job as head chef at Caulfield's, a restaurant in Ashburn, working for Mitch Gregory.
In some ways, she'd probably be reaching her goal sooner than if she'd stayed in New York. And, in retrospect, she'd missed her sisters more than she had allowed herself to admit.
With Serendipity she had a focus again, a purpose, a new and better plan — something she desperately needed. Her life had been one big, jumbled mess the last six months. In large part, thanks to Mitch. Lying, cheating Mitch.
She wasn't stupid, but she'd been stupid where he'd been concerned. He'd charmed her. He knew how to turn it on. He'd made her head chef at Caulfield's, giving her all the autonomy she craved. They'd become lovers. She'd been blindly happy with him and the job at first, and blindly summed it up almost too accurately.
She'd taken on increasingly more responsibility, worked extra shifts whenever asked, no questions why. When he'd call at the last minute, needing her to cover for him at the restaurant, she'd change any personal plans and go in.
Her sisters had questions, though: Why was she working so many extra shifts? Why did Mitch need to be away from the restaurant so frequently?
At first Cat had defended him. She hadn't wanted to consider he might be taking advantage of her. She hadn't wanted to believe she'd misjudged him. She wanted to think she'd gotten better at judging a man's character over the years. She hadn't.
If not for a concerned coworker, she still might not know that while she was working all those extra shifts so he could pursue more business opportunities, he'd been sleeping around with other women.
She'd been stunned. Yes, she'd begun having doubts about their relationship, how he seemed to have less and less time for her, but she'd never suspected he'd been cheating.
When she learned the truth, she felt foolish, humiliated. She should have seen it coming, would have if she'd paid more attention to the signs, not been so singularly focused on the job.
She hadn't though, and now a big, rusted-out hole existed in the bottom of her trust bucket where men were concerned. What she'd salvaged after her high school sweetheart broke her heart a mere week after giving him her virginity, Mitch had drained dry.
She ended their relationship the night she learned of his infidelity — a Thursday, told him to find a new chef because she quit, effective immediately. The restaurant had had four private parties booked that weekend, with no open reservations Friday or Saturday evening, and she'd been scheduled to run the show.
An employee she'd stayed in contact with told her the weekend had been disastrous. Apparently, Mitch had been unapproachable, reduced to numerous cursing rants to which her name was central, overheard by the staff and, in some cases, customers.
Cat smiled. She loved poetic justice.
She needed to put that all behind her now, move forward ... and she would. Her life would undergo another major change with Serendipity. A good one, one that would get her back on track.
She pulled out of her pocket the flashlight she'd brought along, clicked it on, and then picked her way across the construction site toward the structure.
Over the next few weeks, the plywood cladding would go up, windows and doors would be framed, the roof would go on. She'd told Liam Dougherty she wanted a schedule every two weeks, in writing, outlining exactly what would happen next.
She didn't care if their surly contractor thought she was a pain in the ass. It was her project. She had a right to know what to expect. If he didn't like it, too bad. He could scowl, grumble under his breath, and roll his eyes all he wanted whenever she dropped by the site. She wanted to ensure things happened as planned. And no matter how great Lucia, Eliana, or Marcella thought Dougherty was, Caterina believed someone needed to hold the man accountable.
That left her.
When she reached the foundation, she took hold of one of the framing boards, hoisting herself up onto the plywood covering that had been laid down on top of the floor joists. She trolled the light over the sheets of wood to make sure there were no gaping holes or obstructions to avoid.
At this stage it was merely a shell, outlining her dream. Soon though, the outlines would be filled in, rooms would begin to take shape with the addition of internal walls, floors, lighting, paint, appliances, furniture — and with each step, her vision moved closer to reality.
Seeing no obvious hazards to prevent her exploration, Caterina circled the perimeter. She stopped at every third or fourth framing board, compelled to give them a random jiggle.
She moved to the middle of the expansive space, looked up. The night sky was clear. A million stars were the only roof over her head at this point. A bug buzzed nearby. She felt it land on her ear, slapped it away.
The finished building would have three floors. The restaurant and kitchen would be on the back half of the first level, running the full length of the building. Stacking doors would open from the restaurant to a large terrace for alfresco dining. Antonio's design included three large fire pits built into the flagstones, for ambiance, and to extend the outdoor dining season.
With nothing other than the new framing to inspect since her last visit, Caterina walked back to the perimeter. The soles of her leather boots resounded against the plywood sheeting, a muffled echo in the darkening night, a reminder she was here alone, just as she'd planned.
She crouched, placed one hand down — flat against the top of the foundation wall —, and dropped to the ground. A moment later, she ducked under the yellow caution tape surrounding the perimeter, glanced back at it, and smirked.
Liam didn't want her or Lucia poking around the site unless he, or someone from his crew, was on-site. Safety reasons, he'd said. Well, she'd been careful, and she didn't want to wait three days to see what they'd done. No one need know she'd been there, and this way, she'd satisfied her curiosity without him shooting daggers at her through cool, disapproving eyes — shards of aquamarine ice that bore into her, found her lacking, even though he knew nothing about her.
She brushed her hands against the sides of her jeans and, having accomplished what she'd come for, tramped up to the side of the road where she'd parked her Jeep.
* * *
THE FOLLOWING MORNING, instead of the scones or muffins she usually baked fresh for guests at the winery's bed-and-breakfast, Caterina made country sausage and blueberry pancakes to accompany the usual fruit, bagels, and assorted cold cereals.
She'd had a taste for pancakes and sausage, so Lucia's charges had been the benefactors of her desire. After clearing away the morning setup, Caterina drove to the Whole Foods in Ashburn. It was her fallback in the off-season when the local farmers' markets weren't operating. She preferred knowing where the food she used came from, wanted the freshest she could get and to support local farmers, fishermen, and other suppliers whenever she could, but that wasn't always possible.
She'd already begun experimenting with Serendipity's menu. Today she needed to get some specific ingredients for recipes to test this week. Their grand opening might still be almost a year away, but it was never too early to plan.
An award-winning dish didn't just happen. Like most things excellent, it resulted from practice — making it over and over until you mastered every nuance, until it became a symphony for the palate. She didn't care what it was; if it came out of her kitchen, it would sing to her customers.
The store was always bustling on Saturdays. Cat didn't mind. She liked being around people — in theatres, at concerts, in the grocery store — you could be around them without being with them. If you wanted to interact, you could strike up a conversation. Generally, she found most people felt safe enough telling you what they planned to make with the leeks and shitake mushrooms in their cart. Fruits and vegetables tended to be nonthreatening topics, even among strangers.
After checking that the wheels on her cart all went in the same direction, she strolled over to the floral section near the front of the store. Various mixed bouquets mingled with bunches of daisies, roses, alstroemeria, and the exotic-looking orange and purple-blue bird-of-paradise. Charmed by their simple beauty, she chose a bouquet of pale, blushing-pink and white roses for her nightstand. She despised clutter, wasn't keen on knickknacks, but what woman could resist the romance of roses?
Next, she meandered through the produce section, stopping here, there, inspecting, sniffing, and gently squeezing various fruits and vegetables as she made her selections.
Spying a bin piled high with bright-orange, baby pumpkins, Caterina maneuvered around a couple of other shoppers and stopped next to it. Antonio was in Italy, visiting his grandfather, and wouldn't return until Monday. She and her sisters had invited friends over this evening for a long-overdue girls' night. She planned to make a hearty hors d'oeuvre with the tiny squash and see how it went over.
She chose eight with evenly flat bottoms. She would hollow them out, stuff them with the rich, savory filling she used in her chicken pie, top them with fontina cheese, and serve them right in their beautiful rusty-orange skins. If they were as good as she imagined, she'd include them on Serendipity's fall and winter menus.
Moving on, she took time picking over the heirloom tomatoes, getting a few beautiful Romas that she'd seed for the guacamole she intended to make, three young red onions, a bunch of bright green, fresh cilantro, and three nice, firm bulbs of lovely, purple-skinned Marino garlic.
She worked her way around to the avocados. Looking them over with a critical eye, she selected a dark green one with no indentations. Holding it in her palm, she gave it a firm but gentle squeeze to test for ripeness. Perfect.
Spotting a nice-looking one toward the back of the bin, she leaned forward and reached for it. Someone stepped up beside her, on her right, and began indiscriminately picking up pieces of the fruit and dropping them into a bag. A man, and based on her observation, clueless about his selections.
Cat glanced up. Her breath caught in her throat. She took a step back.
"Liam." The name tripped off her tongue, which was unaccustomed to speaking it.
He swung his head toward her, a question in his eyes that dissolved into recognition, and with it, his gaze narrowed as it settled on her with the familiar coolness she'd become accustomed to from him. He gave a curt nod, grunted, looked away, then dumped the avocado he was holding into the bag.
A grunt? Seriously?
He couldn't open his mouth to say hey, or hi, or what's up? Couldn't expend the meager amount of energy it took to form a word? What had she done that he couldn't extend her the most basic courtesy?
She couldn't delude herself that whatever his problem, it wasn't about her, that he was just miserable by nature. He didn't treat her sisters this way. He knew how to use whole words around them. She'd observed him with other people enough to know he could be pleasant when he chose. It seemed he reserved the grunts and scowls solely for her, and she was getting damn tired of it.
He couldn't just single her out for his surliness and expect her to accept it. If he didn't like her, fine, but she refused to let him treat her so dismissively without a pushback, not when it was so unwarranted.
Caterina picked up another avocado. "I never would have expected to run into you shopping at Whole Foods."
"Man's gotta eat."
Words ... progress. "What are you going to do with those avocados?"
He tied a knot in the bag and dropped it into his basket. "What do you think I'm going to do with them?"
Cat shrugged. "I don't know, hide behind something outside and throw them at me when I'm walking back to my car? They've got to be as hard as rocks, except for that last one. It's overripe and would probably splatter like a water balloon on contact."
He rolled his jaw. Prickly man.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Caterina"
Copyright © 2018 Patricia Paris.
Excerpted by permission of BHC Press.
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