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Alexandra McKnight opened the door to her dream-come-true restaurant and held her breath.
She loved this place already and she wanted her dearest friends to see beyond the sawhorses and scaffolding and unfinished surfaces to the potential awesomeness of it.
The members of her book club filed in, a little out of breath after walking up the hilly Main Street from her sister Maura's bookstore in downtown Hope's Crossing. At least they had a lovely April day for the walk, sunny and pleasant, with only a few puffy clouds overhead.
Claire McKnight, Alex's best friend and now sister-in-law, was the first one inside. She moved past the new double-sided river-rock fireplace that separated what would be the reception area from the first-floor dining room.
Claire whirled around to take in the walls, peeled back to bare brick, the original wood flooring and the intact fire pole that descended from the second-floor dining area that used to be the sleeping quarters of the old firehouse, back in the days when Hope's Crossing was a rough and rowdy mining town.
"What a fantastic space," Claire exclaimed. "I'll admit, I was more than a little nervous when you told me Brodie and Jack were cooking up this idea. I mean, this old place has been an eyesore in town forever! I thought they should have torn it down years ago. Now that I see the renovations, my mind is racing with possibilities."
"I know, right?" Alex beamed at Claire and her other friends and several family members gathered beside them.
"Pure genius to replace the fire-truck doors with that big sliding wall of windows," Charlotte Caine exclaimed, her pretty features alight. "What an incredible view of Woodrose Mountain and downtown. You can see everything from here."
"I know. And on summer days, we can roll the windows to the side and make the whole thing a big outdoor space.
"Oh, darling. This is fantastic," her mother exclaimed. Mary Ella squeezed her hand, and Alex was so glad she had brought them to the restaurant for the quick tour and an impromptu picnic dinner to take care of the Bites part of their Books and Bites name.
"Brodie is so excited about Brazen." Evie Thorne tucked a strand of long blond hair behind her ear. "I haven't seen him this enthusiastic about a project in a long time."
"Jack really did a fantastic job with the design," Mary Ella said, looking around.
"Of course he did. He's Jackson Lange." The wife of the man in question smiled with a contentment Alex never thought she would see again on her older sister's features, after the hellish time two years ago. She owed Jack so much. The creative architectural genius that had gone into designing this space was the very least of her debts to him.
She smiled at this group of women she loved dearly. "I'm am indeed blessed to have friends and sisters who are not only brilliant and talented in their own rights, but who also have the good taste to marry well
so I don't have to."
As she might have expected, her words earned a laugh from nearly everyone except her mother. Alex didn't miss the spark of worry in her mother's eyes behind their trendy little glasses.
She ignored it, as she customarily did. She wasn't going to let her mother's concern bother her. Not when she was so relieved at their excited reaction to the restaurant, even at this embryonic stage.
"Thank you for walking all the way up the hill for lunch today. As a reward, you get to be the first to enjoy a meal here at Brazen, of sorts. I packed a picnic for us. It seemed appropriate, given the infamous picnic in this month's selection."
"I still say we should have picked Pride and Prejudice instead of Emma. Mr. Darcy is a much sexier hero than Mr. Knightley," Brodie's mother, Katherine, opined, a distinct gleam in her eyes.
"We read P and P two years ago, remember?" Mary Ella reminded her. "Alex made that fantastic white soup and the trifles."
"I do hope you don't have pigeon pies and cold lamb in that hamper you lugged all the way up here," Alex's oldest sister, Angie, said.
"How do you remember what they ate at the picnic in Emma?" Charlotte asked with a laugh.
Angie grinned. "I'm all about the food. You should know that by now."
"No pigeon or lamb. Boring cold fried chicken, potato salad and fruit. But I do have pie. And other things."
She pulled open the large hamper, reached inside for the blanket and spread it out on the wooden floor. "Sorry we don't have tables and chairs yet. They're on order but won't be here for another few weeks. If you prefer not to sit on the floor, you can sit on the stairs. Katherine, Mom, Ruth, you three can sit on the hearth ledge."
"Perfect," Katherine Thorne declared.
Alex set the dishes out in the middle of the blanket, and for the next few moments, everyone in the book club was busy filling plates.
This had been a crazy idea to bring them here for the picnic. They all would have been far more comfortable back at Dog-Eared Books & Brew, Maura's shop, but Alex had been dying to show everyone the progress.
"You must be so excited for the restaurant to open," Janie Hamilton, one of their newer members, said around a mouthful of chicken salad sandwich.
"I can't wait," Alex said, though she declined to add that part of her also quaked with fear, if she let it.
Running her own restaurant had been her dream since she first decided to go to culinary school. Now that the opening date was drawing closer and the dream was quickly on its way to becoming reality, raw anxiety warred with her anticipation, the fear that she didn't really have the necessary skills and creativity to make Brazen shine amid the crowded Hope's Crossing restaurant scene.
"As far as I can tell, only one small detail is missing," Angie said.
"What's that?" Mary Ella asked.
Her sister scanned the open space again. "Maybe I'm missing something but, um, where's the kitchen?"
"Oh, my word, you're right," Janie exclaimed. "There's no kitchen!"
"Where's your brilliant architect of a husband now?" Katherine teased Maura. "He left out the most important part."
"Yeah, yeah," Alex said, though she felt a stab of nerves. She needed a kitchen! "It's coming. Another three weeks, according to Brodie. The contractor who has done most of the rehab work so far had a medical emergency in his family and Brodie had to hire someone else to finish up."
"Sam Delgado," Evie said. "He's worked with Brodie before on some projects closer to Denver. I've met him a few times. He's really nice."
"I don't care how nice he is. I just want him to get his butt in gear and finish the kitchen so I can start stocking it and we can set an opening."
That uncertainty was just one of the worries keeping her up at night. After years of being a sous-chef in someone else's kitchen, she finally had the opportunity to prove herself. As owner and developer of the restaurant, Brodie was giving her this chance, and she couldn't afford to blow it.
She would be fine, she assured herself again. She was hardworking and talented and had years of experience under her white toque. What else did she need?
"I read something once that said nine in ten new restaurants close in the first year," Ruth Tatum said, wiping a napkin daintily at the corners of her mouth.
"Mom." Claire grimaced.
"What? I did."
Alex was quite used to Ruth's pithy comments, since she had practically grown up with Claire, but the words and the pessimism behind them still stung. "That's actually a myth," she was quick to point out. "The actual number is about one in four in the first year. Closer to three in five after about three years."
Yet another worry that kept her up at night. How would she face everyone in town who believed in her if she couldn't make Brazen a success?
"This place is going to be one of the restaurants that makes it," Mary Ella declared loyally. "Assuming you do get a kitchen and don't have to cook everything on a barbecue grill out back."
Alex sighed. "For now, you're going to have to use your imagination about the kitchen. Trust me when I tell you it's going to be fantastic. I've gone over the plans with Jack and Brodie. You've all seen Brodie's other restaurants in town. I'm sure you can guess this one is going to have state-of-the-art everything."
"So when will we actually be able to eat here?" Maura asked.
"You're eating now," she retorted. "A particularly delicious chopped spinach salad, if I do say so myself."
Her sister made a face. "That's not what I meant, Alexandra. When is Brazen supposed to open?"
She firmly ignored the flutters in her stomach. "Near the end of May but before Memorial Day weekend. We wanted to have a few weeks to work out the kinks before the summer tourist season hits."
"That doesn't give you much time, if the contractor still needs three weeks to finish the kitchen," Ruth pointed out, helpful as always.
"Yes, I know. He's supposed to be coming to town this weekend. It won't be soon enough for me."
"He'll be here," Evie assured her. "And I promise, you'll love the job he does."
She still couldn't believe the single most important component of her new restaurant wasn't complete. The previous contractor should have started in the kitchen and worked out from there, as far as she was concerned.
"Don't worry. Everything's going to be fantastic," Claire assured her. "Everyone knows what a brilliant chef you are. You're going to have people lined up from here to Silver Strike Canyon, waiting for your food."
She loved Claire dearly for her unwavering faith but had to take it with more than a grain of salt. Claire would probably bite her own tongue off before she would say anything that might be construed as even a sprinkle or two on Alex's parade.
To her relief, the conversation shifted away from the restaurant and on to the reason they ostensibly met, the book they had read that month. They discussed the mismatches in the book, Emma's strong and sometimes un-likeable personality, how different she was from many Austen heroines.
By the time the lively discussion trickled out and the conversation shifted again to gossip around town, most of the book club members had moved on to dessert.
"Charlotte, how's your brother?" Mary Ella asked into a rare lull.
Charlotte set down the sugar-free cookie Alex had specially fixed for her. Whenever she fixed a meal for the book club, she tried to remember that the candystore owner was very aware of each bite after losing nearly eighty pounds over the past year.
"He's coming home, finally."
"Oh, I hadn't heard!" Katherine exclaimed. "That's wonderful news."
Charlotte didn't look as if she completely agreed but she gave a forced-looking smile. "He was officially released from Walter Reed several months ago but he stayed in the area for rehab. Dad will be happy to have him home."
Much to Alex's amusement, Katherine looked a little flustered at the mention of Dermot Caine, who owned the Center of Hope Cafe in town. The two of them shared a mutual crush but so far neither had done anything about it.
Dermot would certainly take good care of his son's nutrition needs, but Alex still made a mental note to add Dylan Caine to her informal list of food deliveries. The cafe served good, hearty comfort food, but a war hero like Dylan deserved gourmet fare once in a while.
"We'll have to throw a barbecue for him or something," Mary Ella said.
Charlotte shook her head quickly. "He would hate that. He's very
different from the Dylan you all probably remember. He will barely talk to any of us."
Charlotte came from a family as large as Alex's, though she was the only girl in a household of boys, while Alex had four sisters and only one brother, Claire's husband, Riley.
"I guess I should get back to the bookstore," Maura said. "Jack has Henry this afternoon over at his office and he's probably ready for a nap."
"Who? Jack or Henry?" Mary Ella asked.
Maura's adopted son was just about the most adorable ten-month-old Alex knew, but he was already turning into a handful.
"I need to go, too," Claire said. "We left Hannah in charge of String Fever while we were gone. She has such a soft heart, she just might give away half my inventory."
Alex had to swallow a laugh at the irony of Claire worrying about anyone else's soft heart when she was renowned for her overwhelming generosity.
"I really do love your place, Alex," she said.
"Same goes," Maura said, kissing her cheek. Alex almost wanted to cry to see her sister's obvious happiness, when she thought Maura would never be able to find joy again.
"We're all coming on opening night. Just try to keep us away," Katherine added.
Her friends gathered up their things, and Alex watched as they all began heading down the hill toward downtown.
Her mother was the last to leave. Mary Ella hugged her hard, surrounding her with the familiar scent of flowers and fabric softener. "I love this place, darling. It's so good to see you happy."
She drew away from her mother's embrace. "What are you talking about? I'm always happy."
She wasn't in the mood for her mother's concern today. "Yes. I'm so happy, I beam with it. I'm a freaking glow stick. Why wouldn't I be?"
Annoyance flickered in Mary Ella's green eyes that she had passed on to each of her children.
"The restaurant is going to be wonderful. I just
hope it's everything you want."
"It will be," she said firmly.
"You know I worry about you."
"Because I'm not happily married, you mean, like everybody else, and cranking out grandbabies for you."
She meant her tone to sound flippant but she had a strong feeling she sounded prickly and sensitive instead.
Mary Ella stiffened. "That's not what I'm talking about."
She didn't want to get into this right now with her mother, not after their lovely book club meeting. She adored Mary Ella and admired her greatly for pulling the shattered pieces of her life together and moving on so many years ago, but sometimes her mother had very decided tunnel vision on some topics.
"Are you sure? Lila and I are the last ones standing, now that Riley and Maura have taken the leap, and Lila's too far away in California for you to meddle with."
"Do I meddle?" Mary Ella asked, her tone mild but her eyes flashing.
That wasn't fair to her mother, she knew. "No," she admitted. "But I know you would like to see me settled in a relationship like everybody else."
"Only if that's what you want. I don't care if you never marry, Alex. I've spent the last twenty years of my life single and thought I would remain that way for the rest of it. I certainly never expected Harry Lange to come blustering in."
She was glad Harry made Mary Ella happy, for reasons she still didn't understand, but that didn't mean she wanted to discuss her mother's love life.
"You can stop worrying about me, Mom. I have nearly everything I want."
She gestured around to the empty, echoing space. "I just need Brazen to catch fire on the local restaurant scene, so to speak."
Mary Ella didn't look convinced but she said nothing as she slipped her arms through the sleeves of the jacket she had shed during the picnic.
"I just hate to see you so
The term was painfully apt. She couldn't focus on anything, she was cooking up a storm trying out new recipes, she wasn't sleeping well.
Alex wanted to think her trouble was only jagged nerves prior to the restaurant opening, but she had a deep-seated fear the root was something else.
She had been looking for something for a long time since she had returned to the States. She had convinced herself it was only anticipation for this time in her life, when she was finally in control of her own restaurant, but what if Brazen still didn't fill that emptiness inside?
"I'm perfectly content with my life. Everything is just the way I want it."
Mary Ella stepped in to brush her lips to Alex's cheek. "If that's truly the case, then I'll try to stop worrying."
"I do believe you could survive without air and water longer than you could go without fretting over one of your children."
Her mother smiled, as she had intended. "It's a good thing I have so many of you to spread the love, then, isn't it? Imagine if you were an only child."
"The mind boggles."