“He’s in his cups again.” Kimber only nodded. The woman standing in front of her started to tap her foot. “Well? Are you going to take over or not? Wendell has said that he’d rather die than to have to work in his place again, and Mark said that he is sick of working hard for him and getting no credit. It is up to you to take over for this evening’s dinner.” “I’m only the fourth cook, not the chef by any means.” Kimber knew she could do it, but it would be bad for her if she did. “He’ll fire me.” “No, he won’t. Who would he get to take over for him should he do this again? No one, I’m telling you. He’s done this too much, and no one wants to cover for him. There are no others that can or will do this. You are all we have.” Kimber glanced at the clock above Mrs. Stanton’s head. “You have plenty of time, yes?” “I’ll need help. And I won’t clean up after.” Mrs. Stanton looked pissed, but finally nodded. “And I want to have my own menu. Not his.” “You are going to make him upset, but I need a cook. Do what you must. But you had better be ready in time if you don’t want to have to worry about him firing you.” Kimber nodded and moved to change her jacket. As the fourth chef in a restaurant this size, and always busy, all she ever got to really do was the garnish on the plates, make the salads when they were different than the regular salad, and occasionally she’d be allowed to do the side dish. Not often, but enough for her to feel good about still working here. Kimber Gray was a first-rate cordon bleu chef and had worked in one of the most prestigious restaurants in Europe. Someday it was going to look good for her to have that on her resume when she applied to work as first chef somewhere. At ten minutes until the dinner hour, she stepped back from her counter. The dinners would be perfect…the steaks were cut, and the fish—trout that had been earmarked for a trout almandine—had been changed to a stuffed trout with wrapped grilled asparagus, with a baby-laced Swiss sauce. Everything was as ready as she could make it. And when the first order came in, Kimber let out a long breath and began working on it. The night wasn’t really busy, but she kept on top of everything. Appetizers were inspected to make sure that they fit with what the customer was ordering. Plates were spotless when she put her food on them, and looked like works of art when they left to be served. Kimber even made sure that two of the staff had clean jackets just before they left to work. Things were just as perfect as she could make them. After all, she wanted this to be perfect, her solo night as head chef. She was pleased when very little came back on the plates that had been sent out, and even less of the small desserts that she’d made up when she’d realized there wasn’t any to be had. The strawberries had been fresh and the cream would have gone bad by tomorrow, so she used them both to create a lovely dessert. The fresh blueberries had been sitting in their juices since yesterday, but they were usable and she wanted some color on the plate.
By the time the restaurant was ready to close, she was more than ready to go home. But the last minute order had her staying just a little longer to complete it. The special had gone over well. And with this order, a single person had gotten the last of it. The wrapped asparagus was perfect even though it had been made up in advance, and there was leftover sauce that she put in one of the small cups and sent out with the meal. By the time the dinner was out the door, she had nothing left but a slice of cheese and a single dessert with some smashed blueberries on the side. Pulling on her coat, she watched as the rest of the staff scrambled to clean up. As per her arrangement with Mrs. Stanton, she wasn’t going to be joining them. Kimber did notice that the work station that she normally worked at wasn’t even touched as yet, but it wasn’t her problem. Home was awaiting her. She was so excited when she got to go back in the employee area to clock out for the night. She was nearly home when her phone rang. “One of the last patrons would like a word with you. I think he wishes to complain.” It was Chef Hayes. His voice was slurred and he sounded very pissed. But Kimber knew that she’d done just what had been asked of her. Had he been sober, she would not have had to do his job. “I’m sorry, but if he wishes to complain, that would be to you or to Mrs. Stanton. I’m nearly home.” He started cursing and she felt her anger rise. “What is his complaint?” “Get your skinny little ass back here and find out. And you left your station in a mess. How many times have I told you to make sure that your area is cleaned when you are finished?” He huffed. “You will never be more than a grill cook for so long as you live. Why I took you on is beyond me. And I might not have if things had been different.” “Different how? And I had an arrangement with Mrs. Stanton.” He started laughing and Kimber felt the hair on her arms dance with her anger. “She said so long as I did the cooking, that others would clean my area. Also, had you not been in your cups, as she calls it, none of this would have mattered. Someone had to do your job, and I think I did a fine job of it.” “Fine job, is it? I’ll say what is a fine job and not. It was shit. It’s always shit when you’re working. And since when is she in charge of my kitchen?” Kimber felt her own anger take on a new level when he laughed again. “You will be here in the morning first thing. I will take care of this posthaste. Do not be late, Gray, or you will rue the day that you came to think you were a chef.” She was a chef. And for the rest of her walk home in the rain, she let her tears fall. She was a chef, damn it, and she wanted to someday work in the finest restaurant as one. But there had been stumbling blocks along her journey, and she had had to work harder at her life choices. It seemed to her that for every step forward she had made, there had been four to take her back. Kimber was sick of it. As she entered her tiny apartment, she looked at the woman who cared for her home and daughter while she was away. Fern Blue had been with her since Hannah had been born. And now, eight years later, they were more like mother and daughter than sitter to employer. Fern had needed her as much as Kimber needed Fern, so it had worked out well for them both. She woke when Kimber opened the door to hang her coat.
“All tuckered out, she was. I had her take a lovely bath at around six and she fell asleep on my lap. We had us a good bowl of popcorn before.” Kimber nodded and sent Fern to her room. Going to her daughter’s room, she paused in the doorway to watch her. Kimber would bet anything that Hannah had been up since she’d been in this room. “What are you doing up so late, young lady?” Hannah turned and grinned at her, the book she’d been reading still in her hands. “What is it you’re reading now?” “Moby Dick.” Kimber moved into her daughter’s room and looked at the worn book. “Mr. Fillmore gave it to me. He said it was a classic. I think Mr. Fillmore is a classic.” “I’m sure he is too. But you should be sleeping. Don’t you have school tomorrow?” Hannah nodded and wrapped her body around Kimber’s when she picked her up. “You’re almost too heavy for me to carry anymore. When will you be carrying me?” Hannah laughed as she put her in bed. As her daughter closed her eyes, sleep taking her almost immediately, Kimber looked around the room. She felt tears fill her eyes when she thought of all the ways she’d failed her only child. The furniture in the room was second hand. Some of it was third or fourth hand, even. Her clothing was all things that she’d picked up here and there…a friend’s child had outgrown them, a tag sale that she’d found out about. Her books were new. Not the writers that her daughter adored, but her work books and other subject books for her classes, and the extra classes that she’d been taking. Hannah was brilliant, read well beyond her years, and was a whiz at math. While her age had her listed as a third grader, the teachers at her school had been giving her work well beyond her grade level for months now, and it had improved Hannah’s wellbeing by not being bored in her classroom. Dozing slightly, Kimber got up and went to the kitchen. There was just enough food in the cupboards to last until her next check. Instead of eating anything, Kimber made herself a cup of tea, her only luxury, and sat down to drink it. Something was going to happen tomorrow, and Kimber knew that with her luck, it wouldn’t be good. ~~~ Lee watched as the women worked the line. He’d arrived early this morning, just as the sun was coming up, and he wanted to make sure that everything he’d put in place before he left was where it should be. Then he was going to take a long, well-deserved nap. For about three days, if he was lucky. The smack to the back of his head had him turning to his father. “You should have called when you were coming in. Someone would have picked you up at the airport. Now we have to figure out how to have a welcome home party on such short notice.” Lee hugged his dad and told him he loved him. “I love you too, boy. But you should have called. What are you doing here this early?” “I wanted to make sure that Dawn’s lines were working well before she went into production next week.” The two of them watched the line of women, three at the first part of the line and two more at each station after. The line, nothing more than a long set of burners that had been strung together, was going to make it so that Dawn could make ten to twelve batches of jams and jellies at each place, rather than just three or four as she’d been doing at her single stove. When he was satisfied that the work table was close
enough to the stove so as not to be a bother, he moved to the other part of the building. His dad asked him if he’d gotten things set up for Sloan. “Yes. I made sure she had good people in the kitchen and that they know what she wants done each day. I think that if I ever open my own business, I’m going to make sure that there is a kitchen with staff on duty like she has. It’s a nice place to eat. The food is healthy without being stale, and it’s a great place for them to go and relax. I do think that she’s going to need to expand in a few years, but she said that would be something that she’d have to look into. I think she said she was landlocked.” “Yeah, I heard her telling Hunter that when the time was right, she’d have to go over there and see to it. I’m thinking that they might be making a trip when that baby is here. She’s looking ready to pop.” Lee nodded. He knew that Sloan only had a month to go, and he was excited about holding his niece soon. “You hear about the little one that Luke and Jack got? He’s a pistol, all right. And he’s looking forward to having a fishing day with me soon. Mike and his boy have come down and they showed us what we need. When you gonna make me a granddaddy?” “I’m thinking that I should find a mate first, don’t you?” His dad snorted at him. “I’ve been sort of busy. And so you know, I’m not in all that big of a hurry to find her right now. I have a house, but it’s being worked on. I have a job, but I’m all over the world trying to make it work, and in the event that you didn’t notice, I’m working more than I am socializing.” “Yeah, I’ve seen that too. What do I have to do, go out and find her for you like I did the rest of them?” Lee just lifted his brow at his dad. “You know that I had to get Sloan and Hunter together. Luke would still be dangling at the end of his sticks had I not charmed my way into Jack’s heart first. And then there is Ellis and Jarrett. I’m about worn out keeping the women coming in just to find your mates for you all.” “I think you should just let the women find us. Graham has finished school, but he’s got things going on, and I have to find my own niche in life before I can even think of settling down.” Lee thought of his brother Graham. “Has he…you know, has he moved on yet?” “Not that I can see. Finding that body nearly done him in. I know that the police never thought he’d done it, but I think he still has him a few dreams about it. Can you imagine working on a log jam and finding a woman all wrapped up in them limbs? She’d been there for some time, too, those people said.” His dad watched the line as it moved in the right direction. “You thinking that he’ll stay holed up in that house of his for the next fifty years?” “I don’t know, Dad. When I talked to him last week, he told me that he’s doing fine, but he sounded like he wasn’t. I’m going to try and see him while I’m here. Sloan said that his house is coming along well.” His dad nodded. “But as for my mate, I think I can wait her out, don’t you?” “You mean wait until she falls in your lap before you figure out she’s the best thing that could have happened to you.” Lee had changed the subject on purpose, just to bring his dad around from thinking about it too much. His dad seemed to have gotten the hint for now, and asked about what he was looking at now in Dawn’s building.
“Jack told Dawn that she’d save big bucks if she printed her own labels. Jarrett set her up with the right kind of printer and the perfect paper, and all Dawn has to do is make what she needs. This will save her from having tons of inventory around just waiting to be used. Jack also told her that if she wanted to add something to them, like sugar-free if she went that far, then it would be easy to print up a few labels instead of a million or so that might not work out.” The machines were still now, the labels having been printed up a few days ago, but he liked the way it had been streamlined to not take up too much of her upper level. “I didn’t have anything to do with this part, but I can see that they had Jarrett up here. It’s nice.” As they made their way around the large building, Lee noticed that the kitchen area that he’d suggested be set up was well underway. Sandwiches were in the coolers right now, but he knew that in a few days, when people started to show up to work, there would be hot food as well as some cold for the employees. All of it was a perk to working here. He had also suggested to Dawn that she open a little shop one day and have some of her jams for sale in it, along with her scones and breads. His dad moved to the large desk at the front of the building when they were nearly finished with their self-guided tour. Martha Brooks was running the phones today. Lee had heard from Hunter that Mary Peacock and Claribel Sharp had been taking turns working the desk for Dawn. The women had come from Hunter’s pack, but he knew that they loved working for his brother and his wife. He was startled when the phone call that had just come in was for him. “I just found out that you’re in town.” He could hear the hurt in Sloan’s voice. “You go and see your brother before me? How could you?” “I haven’t seen Ellis or Dawn at all since I got here. I thought they were down there.” She told him she didn’t know anything anymore. “I’m sorry, honey. I just got in a few hours ago and had the plane bring me here instead of home so that I wouldn’t have to worry about this the entire time I’m home with you guys.” “Good save.” He laughed with her. “I’m just bored, if you want to know the truth. Your dad and I have put in as much garden as we dare already, but I want to get out there and dig the places up for my tomatoes. Did your dad tell you that we have first leaves already? They’re beautiful.” “No. He’s been hounding me about a grandbaby.” His dad popped him in the back of the head. “And he’s abusing me too. I tell you, I’d be better off just staying away sometimes.” “Oh no, don’t do that. What would I do without my family around me?” He didn’t answer her but smiled. “I’ve been thinking about some things that I’d like for you to look into. I have this place here in town that I want to convert into something…I don’t know, bigger. Like a steakhouse, but not.” “You mean something more than the diner in your town, and with bigger ticket items.” She told him that was about right. “I ate a late dinner last night at this place where I was staying called simply Parfaitement Fait, or Perfectly Made in English. I had a stuffed trout that was so good I tried to go back and hire the chef. They told me that the chef had
gone for the night, and all I got for my troubles was some drunk blowing his drunk-assed breath on me.” Her laughter made him smile. “And what would you have hired him for? You’re not thinking of being my competition, are you? I’m hoping so. Because I have to tell you that sounds delicious. Actually, everything sounds good to me. I’m always starved.” “You’re eating for two, so small wonder. And no, I’m not going to be competing with you in anything. I like to keep my own little corner of this world pissed off Sloan free. And the guy I talked to last night, I had a feeling…well, he didn’t strike me as the one who had made the meal. There was something…I don’t know. I knew that he was lying and he had no idea what I was talking about. He said I was to have had trout almandine and that I had it wrong. Like I said, he smelled of liquor too.” “Let me make a few phone calls. I know the restaurant. I don’t know what I can do, but I can find out for you. Perhaps we can persuade him to come here and open our venture.” Lee said nothing. He had thought when he went to school that he wanted to be this great cook. And now that he’d been working for Sloan and Hunter, he’d discovered that while he loved to cook, he was more into making the place work than being the chef. He enjoyed what he did more than anything he’d ever done before. Being a food critic for some really important newspapers was a dream he’d never even considered, but he loved it as much as he did figuring out problems at some really nice restaurants. “Just let me know. Dad and I will be there by tonight. I’m telling you now so you won’t be disappointed that I will be there for dinner, but I need to go to bed. I think I’ve been up for three days straight.” She told him that they’d expect him for dinner, and that maybe Ellis and Dawn could make it back as well, and that he should ask them. “I’ll see what I can do.” After hanging up, he told Dad what they’d talked about as they made their way to Ellis’s house. The building that Dawn was in was close to the house, so they opted to walk. As soon as they were in the yard, Lee stood back and stared. “Yeah, nice, huh?” He glanced over at Ellis as he came out of the barn just behind him. His brother looked very relaxed and happy as he continued. “We weren’t sure that we wanted it this big, but the more we thought about it, the bigger the house got. There’s room if you want to stay tonight. I know that Dawn would love it.” “Sloan and the rest of them are expecting all of us for dinner.” Ellis nodded and took him to the house. “Christ, this is gorgeous. What the hell? Did you win the lottery?” “No. We ran into some unexpected money.” Lee nodded. He’d heard about the inheritance from Dawn’s family, and that they had accepted her into their family with open arms. “When we showed them the house we were building before we left for our honeymoon, they were happy. But when we got back, there were more rooms on the framing, as well as a whole upper level that we’d had no idea about. Her grandparents said that when they come to visit they want to burden us with their presence.” Lee laughed and so did Ellis. He was taking them in the front of the house just as Dawn came from the back of it. He hugged her tightly, ignoring the growls coming from Ellis. Dawn looked wonderfully happy too.
“You’ll stay for dinner?” He told her what he’d told Ellis. “Oh. I guess we should go. The family has been excited for you to come home for weeks now. I’m so glad that you’ve made it home safely. How long will you be here?” “I’m hoping a couple of months. I have some projects here that I can take care of, and two on the burner for Sloan. But I’m hoping everything can be worked on from here.” She asked him about his house. “I’m hoping to get it done too. Mostly it’s just moving stuff in that I’ve already ordered. There are some decisions that I need to make. Most of them are things that I could probably have taken care of over the phone, but I wanted to be there too. I miss you guys.” “We missed you too. I guess you’ve been to the plant?” He nodded. “I’m so nervous. Not about the lines that you helped me get set up, but all of it. I’m so worried that I won’t be very good at this.” Ellis laughed before talking. “Yeah, those nearly two million dollars in orders mean that she’s going to fail big time. I mean, who would want to buy her things anyway?” “You have that much in pre-orders?” Ellis told him that was just on her website. She had nearly double that for stores wanting to carry her line. “Holy shit, Dawn, that’s wonderful. I’m very proud of you.” “I’m nearly sick with it.” Lee looked at Ellis over her head when he hugged her again. He mouthed the word Basil and he nodded. Her uncle, a man by the name of Basil Combs, had been found criminally insane by the courts. Other charges were pending: kidnapping, murder, as well as abuse to a corpse. But those were on the back burner until they could figure out the names of all the women, some dead and others still coming forward, that had in some way been harmed by the man. Basil’s mother had been murdered as well, and they were still trying to pin that on his list. The man had been taking women or children from their homes for decades. His “wife,” Neva, had been one of many that had been brought into the house as a play-thing, and had ended up living out the rest of her life with him. He’d also kidnapped Dawn’s mother, and had made her daughter’s life a living hell when she’d told him off. Life, as far as Lee could see it, was a never-ending line of people shitting on one another to get to where they wanted. Thank goodness his family wasn’t like that. As they boarded the plane a few hours later, Lee was dozing in the seat when his dad touched his arm. He had to stare at him for several seconds before he realized that he was talking to him about the phone. “You okay, son?” He nodded and took the phone from his dad. “You look like you’ve not slept in about a month. You sure you should be going to dinner tonight?” “Yeah, I’m fine. Just really tired.” He put the phone to his ear just as the pilot was telling them they were ten minutes from landing. Lee said his name in the phone as he started to pull on his seat buckle. “Mr. Emerson? Is this Lee Emerson, the food critic? I’ve heard so many things about you.” Lee told him that he was in flight, and that he needed him to tell him why he’d called. “Sir, there is a problem with the request that I have in for Mrs. Emerson. She called my restaurant just today requesting the information on the chef that had cooked the night
you were there. I’m sorry, sir, but the chef said that the person you were asking for is no longer with the restaurant.” “I see. Can you tell me why?” He said that he wasn’t sure. That as the owner of the restaurant, he had given full control over the kitchen to his chef. “And so you have no idea that the man you left in charge was drunk when I saw him just before leaving? Nor that the meal that I had that night was one of the best that I’ve ever eaten?” “Drunk? Oh no, sir. That couldn’t have been our chef. He no longer drinks.” Lee looked at Ellis when he touched his arm. They were at the airport, but he wanted him to take his time with the call. “He said that when he spoke to you, you were confused about the food that you were served. Are you sure you had the right restaurant?” “I’m sure. And you can be sure of this…if he fired this person that cooked for me, then you have made the stupidest decision you have ever made when it comes to running a restaurant. And I’m going to write up an article on it and say that, too. Not only did the staff look relaxed and happy, but the food, all of it, was outstanding. I noticed that when I was speaking to him that the entire kitchen staff looked like they were ready for him to explode. And he did, twice, while I was there.” “I assure you, sir, that I’ve never heard of anything like this from this restaurant. You can be assured that I will look into this. There are some…well, I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ve noticed some issues on the paperwork on that particular place. I’ll take care of it.” Lee told him he’d better if he wanted to remain in business for long. “If I do find that you are correct, I will get back with you.” “You do that. But I have a feeling that the next time I talk to you, you’re going to be telling me that you’re going out of business and that it was all because of the chef you have now. If I were you, and you know my reputation if you’ve heard my name, I’d be looking into the chef you have now and start asking questions. You’re about to get a rude awakening.”