A few weeks ago, Harper Worth wouldn't even have eaten at the Rusty Anchor, let alone worked there. But now she's in no position to be choosy. Fired from her lofty post as Washington, DC's, toughest restaurant critic, she's desperate. Desperate to build a new life for herself in Findlay Roads. And desperate to prove to brooding Connor Callahan, owner, chef and overwhelmed single dad, that she can be a real asset to the Rusty Anchor. Maybe even to him. If he'll just give her a chance. But he may never forgive her for the scathing review that cost him his DC dream. Or the plans she's hatching for his current restaurant
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Harper Worth stood in front of the brick building and stared at the weathered wooden sign. Rusty Anchor. Who in their right mind had thought that was a good name for a restaurant? It had been difficult to find, tucked out of the way along the docks instead of with the other restaurants and shops on the main street of town. It looked a little run-down, although dive wasn't exactly the term she'd use. It was cleanthe windows were clear of dirt and smudges, and the front stoop was swept spotless. There were several potted plants nestled around the entryway. If it hadn't been for the name and the peeling paint, the restaurant might have been homey.
Beggars can't be choosers, Harper reminded herself. All the other local restaurants were hired up for the season. It was down to the Rusty Anchor or the questionable Crab Shack on the far side of town. That place had received a number of health code violations in recent years, and Harper suspected the only regular customers were salty old fishermen.
"So. The Rusty Anchor it is."
She could hardly believe she'd fallen this far. From lauded restaurant critic to desperate waitress. The fates must really be having a laugh at her expense. Well, no point putting it off any longer.
She went up the front steps, opened the door and was greeted by the not-unpleasant aroma of sauteed onions and the yeasty scent of bread as a brass bell hinged to the door chimed her arrival. Moving past the threshold, she approached a podium she assumed was the hostess station. The wooden pedestal bore several nicks and scuffs, giving it the appearance of weathered driftwood. There was no one there to greet her so Harper waited, taking the opportunity to survey the restaurant's interior.
It was meticulously clean but worn, with several gouges in the walls, battered chairs and tables and outdated light fixtures. But despite its shabby appearance, it had a warm, welcoming airlike stepping into a friend's house rather than the pristine anonymity of the shiny, sleek new restaurants she'd visited earlier in the day. It was the opposite of every establishment she'd ever reviewed, yet somehow she found herself drawn to its quaint atmosphere.
As she waited for the hostess to appear, she began to tap her foot impatiently. Looking around, she noticed less than half a dozen tables had diners. There were several couples, a group of three girls and what appeared to be a family of five at a table in the center of the room. But she didn't see a single server.
She glanced around, searching for any restaurant employee, but there didn't appear to be one anywhere. A quick glance at her cell phone screen confirmed the time, and she wondered why the place wasn't buzzing when the clock was approaching the lunch hour. Perhaps the out-of-the-way location had something to do with it. And where was the staff hiding?
Moving around the podium, Harper scanned the doorway at the back of the dining area and willed someone to appear. Several seconds later, her wish was rewarded as a wiry young man with a black goatee, and a mess of curly hair pulled back into a ponytail, entered from the back of the room. She frowned as he looked around the dining room with a bewildered expression. His eyes widened as he took in the tables.
He began to duck back into the doorway as though trying to escape but then seemed to think better of it. He moved into the dining area and approached the family of five just as the youngest child, who was maybe three years old, began banging on her high chair with a spoon. The sound seemed to startle the young man, and he backed up again.
Harper feared he might make a run for it and decided to take matters into her own hands. Besides, her curiosity was piqued by this odd situation. Before the man could approach the table once more, Harper moved between him and the family.
She searched for a name tag but didn't see one.
"Hi, I was wondering if there was someone I could speak to about applying for a server's position?"
He looked positively befuddled. Curiouser and curiouser.
"I just arrived in the area, and I'm looking for a job as a server. Maybe I could speak to the manager?"
"Uh " He tossed a glance over his shoulder.
What in the world was up with this place?
"We're pretty busy," he claimed.
Harper thought this was a ridiculous statement if not a bald-faced lie. Five tables did not constitute a lunch rush.
"Oh. Is there anyone else I could speak to? Or maybe I could fill out an application and leave my contact information? I have experience," she tossed out, hoping that might increase her odds of employment.
A spark of interest lit the young man's eyes.
"You have experience? As a server?"
"Yes. I worked as a server during high school and all through college."
To her stupefaction, he grinned.
Before she could protest, he grabbed her arm and tugged her after him.
"Excuse me. Sir? We're still waiting to order."
Harper caught the irritated expression of the father at the table of five as the unknown man pulled her toward the back of the room.
"No worries, buddy, we'll be right with you!" the young man called out.
At this point, Harper wasn't even sure she wanted to apply for a job here. Something about this place wasn't quite right.
"You know what? I think I changed my mind." She tried to tug her hand free but he held on tightly.
"No way. We need you." He tugged her onward, through the back doors and down a short hallway. "I'm Rafael, by the way."
"Harper," she automatically replied.
"I'm the dishwasher and busboy around here. And occasional janitor."
Harper opened her mouth and then closed it, not even knowing what questions to ask.
"Here ya go." He pushed open a set of swinging doors and pulled her through behind him and into the back rooms. She immediately noted the chaos of a kitchen humming with activity and felt a spike in her adrenaline just being in the crackling atmosphere.
"Bossman" must have been the one in the middle of the storm, surrounded by steam and wiping his face with the back of his sleeve every few seconds. His black hair clung to his temples and forehead, and he didn't even glance up at Rafael's questioning tone. A pot began to boil over, and he reached for it, sliding it off the burner. He then shifted to another pan and quickly flipped what looked to be chicken before moving on to begin plating another dish. Harper was impressed with his movements. Though he was tall with broad shoulders and strong arms, he shifted gracefully through the steps of preparing multiple dishes at once.
"Connor?" Rafael tried again to get his attention.
"I told you, Rafael," the chef snapped, "I know you've never done the serving before, but you have to do this. Just hand them the menus, write down whatever they want and bring the orders to me. I'll handle it from there, yeah?"
It took Harper a second to sort through the Irish accent rounding each word. Before Rafael could reply to his boss, Harper laid a hand on his arm.
"Where's everybody else?"
Rafael made a face. "Nobody else, chica. Just us."
"And push the soup, okay?" Connor barked without looking up. "I've got plenty of that, and it's already made."
Both Harper and Rafael shifted their attention back to the frazzled chef.
"Boss, there's a lady here, and she's looking for a job."
"I don't have time for job applicants right now. She should have applied six weeks ago before the tourist season got under way. Tell her to come back tomorrow. Or next week. Or never. Does it look like we can take on any additional staff?"
"Not to state the obvious but what staff? It doesn't even look like you have a server out there, just the busboy." Harper spoke the words loud enough to be heard above the chef's frantic movements.
Her words got the attention she'd wanted, and the chef, Connor, stopped for a full five seconds as his gaze zeroed in on Harper. His eyes were green, she noted. A deep, mossy color that seemed fitting for his Irish brogue. His dark hair was long enough to fall across his forehead, wild and unruly as he swept his forearm across his brow to brush it from his eyes. There was a smattering of stubble across his jaw, lending him a slightly rugged look that was enhanced by his broad chest and shoulders. It was clear that he was irritated by the intrusion.
"Who are you and what are you doing in my kitchen?"
Harper knew she'd better talk quickly. Connor obviously didn't have time to waste.
"I stopped by to apply for a job. I have experience. I don't know what's going on, but I can help get you through this." She spoke with a confidence she didn't entirely feel. It had been several years since she'd done any serving, but she had to be better than the overwhelmed Rafael.
Connor made a sound of exasperation as he turned his attention back to the cooking.
"My scheduled server was a no-call no-show, and my sous chef had to step out due to a family situation. I tried calling in my part-time server, but I couldn't reach her. We're not normally very busy over the lunch hour, but we got a call for a party of fifteen who couldn't get a reservation at any of the other restaurants. We need the business, so it's up to Rafael to fill in as a server."
"Which I've never done," Rafael said. "I might occasionally help out on the line, but I've never done the serving."
Connor slid several finished plates up onto the hand-off pass. "Order up. Get these dishes out."
"Boss," Rafael pleaded, clearly out of his depth. "Give her a shot, okay? I have no idea what I'm doing out there."
To Harper's surprise, Connor paused and eyed her through a cloud of steam.
"You said you have experience?"
Harper nodded vigorously. "About seven years' worth, between high school and college."
Connor arched an eyebrow. "How long ago was that?"
She placed a hand on her hip, annoyed at how he was trying to deduce her age. "It's been a few years." More like ten. "But it's the same as riding a bike, isn't it? It comes back to you as soon as you touch your feet to the pedals." And that was how she felt, already craving the familiar adrenaline of working through a lunch rush as if she was still a server.
"You're a feisty one. What's your name?"
He frowned briefly. "Well, Harper, you'd better get these dishes out or you'll be fired before I even hire you."
Harper turned to a relieved-looking Rafael. "Get me an apron. And an order pad."
The younger man didn't ask questions. He grinned as he moved to do her bidding.
"What's the soup of the day?" she asked.
"Sweet corn and crab chowder."
"Anything else I should know?"
This question drew Connor's full attention once more. "I need this afternoon to go well.
Help me pull that off, and we'll talk about getting you a permanent position."
Harper nodded in understanding and then turned, catching Rafael's eye.
"You're a lifesaver, chica."
Two minutes later, Harper emerged from the kitchen wearing a hunter green apron over her sundress and carrying an order pad. She drew a breath and moved into the dining area, hoping she'd have enough time to take all the current orders before the fifteen-person reservation arrived.
"Hi, welcome to, um " She faltered for a minute as she tried to remember the restaurant's name. "The Rusty Anchor." Her smile widened. "Sorry about your wait. Can I start you off with something to drink?"
Two-and-a-half hours later, Harper stretched as the last of the party of fifteen walked out the door. She placed her hands around her hips and dug her thumbs into her aching back. She'd forgotten how exhausting serving could be when you were on your feet for hours on end. And she'd barely spent a full afternoon at it.
"Need me to finish clearing your tables?" Rafael asked as he stepped up beside her.
"Yeah, it looks like things are going to quiet down for a while."
"You showed up at a good time. I was really starting to freak out at the thought of doing all that serving. Hope it means the boss will give you a shot here."
Harper followed Rafael to the last couple of tables that needed cleaning up.
"Connor's the boss, I take it?"
"Yep. Owner and chef. Inherited the restaurant from his old man."
"It's normally pretty slow around here?"
"Oh, yeah." Rafael nodded. "The place is usually dead, especially through the week like this. It used to be a favorite of the locals, but when Connor's old man passed on, they stopped coming. And now, with all these fancy newer restaurants in the area, the tourists are more interested in hitting those than seeking out a local treasure."
Harper didn't say anything, but she couldn't help wondering how much money she'd be able to make serving at a place like the Rusty Anchor. For now, though, any income was better than nothing.
"Is Connor a nice boss?"
Rafael began loading water glasses into a plastic bin. Harper helped by gathering up stray silverware.
"Yeah, he's a good guy. A little uptight at times, but he's got a lot on his plate, running this place and raising his daughter."
"He has a daughter?"
"Yeah, Molly. She's six. Keeps us all on our toes but especially Bossman."
Harper digested this information as she reached for a fork.
The sound of the Connor's voice startled Harper, and she dropped a handful of silverware. It clattered to the table.
"Mind if I borrow our new friend?"
Harper began scooping up the forks and spoons once more, the back of her neck tingling as she felt Connor's eyes on her.
"Sure thing, boss."
Rafael took the utensils from her hand. "Go on," he urged.
And before she got out of earshot, she heard him whisper, "And good luck."
Connor escorted Harper through the doors at the back but instead of heading right, toward the kitchen, he moved left in the direction of his office. He entered the room and frowned at the disarray of papers scattered across his desk, files piled on the floor, broken restaurant equipment stashed in the corner and various cookbooks and periodicals stored haphazardly on a sagging bookshelf. There was also a plastic crate filled with Molly's toys and coloring books, which she used to entertain herself when she was forced to wait around in his office.
He was about to gesture for Harper to sit when he noticed the only other chair in the room, besides his own, was stacked with inventory paperwork. He quickly moved to gather up the clipboard and sheets and then nodded for Harper to take a seat. She still had to nudge a box out of the way to sit down.
"Rafael doesn't tidy up the office as part of his janitorial duties, I take it?"
He didn't know if she was trying to be funny or criticizing his lack of organization.
"I don't let the staff mess around in here."
"I'm kidding. It was a joke. Sort of."
He ignored her and took his own seat on the other side of the desk, suddenly embarrassed at the peeling upholstery with tufts of gray padding poking through.
"You seemed to handle yourself pretty well out there this afternoon," he remarked, trying to get them back on track and forget about the state of his office.
"Thanks. Like I said, it's no different than riding a bike. It all comes back pretty quickly."