Chapter One

Izzy jumped when Angie slammed through the kitchen door and dropped the dirty dishes into the sink.

“That bitch is here again with a table full of people.” Angie grabbed her hips and spun around. A vein pulsed in the middle of her forehead. “She’s pissed because her usual table is taken. They have a solution for that. It’s called res—er—vations,” Angie spouted in a no-brainer rhythm.

“Did you find her another table?”

“Of course I did. You think I want to have her standing there breathing down my neck for the next twenty minutes? It took two tries, but I finally found one the princess would accept.” She filled six water glasses and set them on a tray. “Not a thank you or a kiss my ass. Nothing.”

“Settle down before you go back out there, Ang. I don’t want any problems tonight.” Izzy’s hot-tempered little sister wasn’t very good at serving people. She also wasn’t good at holding her tongue when she thought she was right, which was all the time.

Izzy peeked out the door behind the bar and watched Angie deliver the glasses of water to the table. She smiled and took out her order pad. So far so good. Izzy glanced around the dining room. Almost every table was full. When she’d seen the reservation list for the night, Izzy had regretted giving Gio the night off. But he had what he called “a date with the girl of his dreams” tonight, and Izzy had given in and let him go. Her little brother had more than a few of those dates, but the excitement in his eyes always won her over. It had been a while since she’d had a date like that, and for now, she was glad she had the restaurant to occupy her time. She’d just finished plating another party’s order when Angie rushed back into the kitchen.

“I need a cup of minestrone, three Caesars, and two house with vinaigrette on the side.” Angie filled a metal bowl with romaine lettuce and freshly mixed Caesar dressing. After tossing the greens with the tongs, she plucked them out into individual bowls before taking the soup and salads back to the dining room.

Tony glanced over at Izzy. “She seems to have settled down.”

She stuck up two fingers and crossed them. Angie was already pissed because Izzy had called her in on her night off to help out the four wait staff already scheduled. Her sous chefs, Carlos and Miguel, were keeping up with the prep in the kitchen, and she and Tony were right on spot with the dishes going out.

The kitchen door slammed against the wall. So much for wishful thinking.

“Unbelievable!” Angie said, barreling back into the kitchen. “She wouldn’t take the plate from me. I had to squeeze between the chairs and put it down in front of her.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do, Angie. We’ve talked about this before. Mrs. Thomas is a longtime customer. Take care of her.”

“I know, but she doesn’t have to be so smug about it. Sitting there, tapping her finger on the table.”

“Why don’t you let one of the other girls take the table?”

“If she didn’t tip so damn well, I would.”

A few minutes later, the door swung open and the woman was in Angie’s face. “This is the wrong salad. I said mixed green with NO onions.”

Izzy watched Angie’s jaw tighten. She slipped in between the two of them before Angie let loose on the customer. “I’ve got this.” She grabbed Angie’s shoulders and spun her around. “You go out back for a minute.” Angie glared over her shoulder, jaw clenched, ready to spout something. Izzy pointed to the door and said, “Now!” She turned back around, took the salad from Mrs. Thomas, and set it on the counter. “I understand you’re upset about the salad. I’m sorry. She’s doing the best she can.”

Cool, shuttered eyes zoomed in on Izzy’s. “If that’s her best, she needs to find another career.”

“I’ll take care of it right now.” Out of my kitchen! Izzy took the woman by the elbow and guided her to the dining area.

She yanked her arm free from Izzy’s grip, spun around, and dug in with both heels like she was steeling herself for battle.

“I’ll have your salad out in just a minute,” Izzy added, waiting for the retort she knew was ready to spew out of the woman’s mouth.

Mrs. Thomas sucked in a deep breath as her frigid gaze held Izzy’s. “I’d like a new waitress,” she said, her voice low and even.

“Of course.” Izzy pinched her lips together and counted to ten in her head. “I’ll have that salad right out.”

Izzy watched Mel Thomas speed back to her table before she glanced around the dining room to see if any of her other customers had been disturbed. She hurried back to the kitchen, prepared a new salad, and sent it out with one of the other waitresses.

“Is it rude to toss a Xanax into someone’s mouth while they’re talking?” she said to her brother, Tony, who had taken over the cooking when Izzy left the stove to deal with the woman who had burst into the kitchen.

He let out a big belly laugh and Izzy grinned. She dropped her smile and headed out back to talk to Angie. “What the hell happened out there?”

“The woman acts like she’s my only table. She’s waved me down five times already. Plus she’s so picky. Everything has to be perfect for her.”

“She’s the customer, Angie. I’d like everything to be perfect for her or she may not come back.”

“Good riddance.” Angie swung her arm backhandedly.

“How many people are at that table, Ang?”

“Six.”

Izzy scrunched her face and glanced at the dark sky. “Okay, six times twenty, plus twenty more for appetizers and around sixty for wine. That’s about two hundred bucks.” She glared back at Angie. “You want me to take that out of your check?”

“Well, no.” Angie’s eyes widened, and Izzy knew she was getting her point across. How long she would remember it was yet to be seen.

“Then get your shit together and start being nice to the customers.”

“Fine.” Angie pulled her order pad from the pocket in her apron and tore off a page. “She wants the shrimp scampi. Remember light on the garlic or she’ll send it back.” She slapped it into Izzy’s hand.

“I remember.”

Izzy slid the last dish for the table of six under the warmer, and Angie started loading the dishes on her arm. “No, you don’t. I’ll take the order out.” Izzy took the plates from her.

Angie dropped the last plate she was holding onto the counter. “Whatever. Her husband has been looking me up and down all night anyway.”

Izzy had delivered all of the meals except for the one for the unhappy customer, who sat tucked in close to the wall. She slipped between the two tables and was just about to set the dish in front of her when, in a quick swift motion, the man behind her pushed back in his chair as the woman swung her hand up in conversation. Time froze for Izzy as she rocked backward and then forward, her movement sluggish as if in slow motion. She reached out but couldn’t stop. Her cranky customer enjoyed a delicious serving of shrimp scampi with angel-hair pasta served right into her lap. Light on the garlic, of course.

Izzy’s eyes bounced from Mrs. Thomas’s shocked expression to her lap and then back to her widened eyes. It seemed like the longest minute ever.

“Oh my God!” Her eyes narrowed and her voice erupted in a low, angry rumble. “I can’t believe you just dumped that on me!”

Shit! I can’t believe it either! “I am so sorry.” Izzy picked a handful of pasta from her lap and put it back on the plate. “Let me get you a towel.” She raced into the kitchen, the door smacking against the wall behind it. “I need towels. Now!” Tony threw her a couple. “Start another order of scampi.”

She rushed back out to the dining room with Angie on her tail. They got all of the pasta cleaned up, and Tony brought out another dinner for her. In the meantime, the women at the table had all gone to the bathroom, and Izzy’s unintentional target was much calmer when she returned. Who knew how long that would last. She seemed to be holding her tongue in front of her friends.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” Izzy leaned against the counter in the kitchen and rubbed her forehead. “Comp the meal.”

“Everything?” Angie gave her a crazy look.

“Yes. The whole meal.”

 

v

“It was an accident, Mel. Let it go,” Jack said as he got out of the car.

“It was ridiculously embarrassing.” Mel continued to stare at the large oil spot in the middle of her Armani dress. “This is never going to come out.”

“I think everyone got a good laugh out of it.”

“Exactly.” She blew out a breath. “Not the impression I like to make in public.”

“Everyone doesn’t have to think you’re perfect, Mel.” Jack, always the gentleman, held the door for her as Mel entered their condo.

“I never said I was perfect.” She just didn’t like them to see her lose her composure. She had certainly done that tonight. She headed for the stairs and Jack moved to the bar. She stopped at the bottom step. “Are you coming up?”

He shook his head. “I have work to do.”

She took in a deep breath and proceeded up the stairs. She always asked, and he always gave her the same response.

The room was Mel’s sanctuary. It was decorated with two linen wingback chairs near the window and antique cherrywood dressers covering each wall. A king-sized, leather-padded sleigh bed centered the room with matching tables on each side.

Mel crossed the room to the bathroom, kicking off her shoes on the Oriental rug covering the wood floor. Glancing at herself in the mirror, she unzipped her ruined dress and let it drop to the floor. The loss of the dress didn’t really bother her; it was the embarrassment that hurt. And the look of disdain Jack had given her stung the most. She finished undressing and stepped into the shower. The steaming jets hit her from all sides.

She heard Jack come into the bathroom. The drawer rattled open and closed, and then he was gone again. Once in their marriage he would’ve come into the shower with her uninvited, but those days were long gone. He regularly slept in the guest room now, with the excuse of the constant news-monitoring he did during the night. Being married to an international news reporter was glamorous but had many drawbacks.

When had she become so driven by other people’s opinions? Mel had never aspired to keep up with the Newhouses and the Murdochs. After all, she had her own marketing and public-relations firm that had been successful for quite some time. Maybe if she’d succumbed to Jack’s requests for her to stay at home and be satisfied with what he provided, they would’ve been closer.

She turned the knob on the shower and sighed as she stepped out. He would have been happier, yet she could never have been fulfilled that way.

 

v

 

Izzy found herself at one of her usual haunts on a barstool sitting next to a beautiful brunette she’d met for the first time only an hour before. She filled her glass as well as the brunette’s with the last of the wine from the bottle of merlot she’d ordered.

“I’ll be right back,” Izzy said, motioning to the restroom. She glanced at the woman’s backside as she got up. The woman had an irritating voice similar to the sound made by rubbing your hand on a balloon, but her knockout body made up for it in spades.

“I’ll be waiting.”

When Izzy returned, the woman sipped her wine and gazed over her glass at her. She gazed back at her smoky, dark eyes and knew immediately where this was going. “You want another glass of wine?”

“I think I’ve already had too much. Would you mind giving me a ride home?”

“Not at all. Just let me settle the tab.” She waved the bartender over and handed her a couple of twenties. “Keep the change, Terry.”

Terry gave her a wink. “Thanks. You two have a good night.”

“We will,” the brunette said over her shoulder as she took Izzy’s hand and led her out.

 

v

 

Izzy dropped her keys on the entry table and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge before she went out on the deck. She flopped down into a chair and took in the welcome sight of the ocean. The night sky was clear. The moonlight shimmered across the water as the waves rolled up on the shore. She probably should’ve gone straight home after the restaurant closed tonight, but she was too keyed up. The pasta fiasco had sent her adrenaline skyrocketing, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to relax. The brunette had been a nice distraction. She took in a deep breath and smiled. The familiar face that popped into her mind when she’d peaked was certainly unexpected. As was her body’s heightened response to the image.

What was she going to do about her problem customer or, more still, her problem sister? Angie’s heart just wasn’t in it. The blood that ran through her veins was different than Izzy’s. Angie didn’t feel the pull of the restaurant like she did. It was clear Angie didn’t want to be there. Her mind was always a million miles away in cyberspace. No matter how many times she told her, Angie couldn’t seem to grasp the idea that the customers were the ones who paid her salary. For someone who spent the majority of her time in school or communicating with a laptop, that wasn’t surprising.

The thought of another talk with her made Izzy’s stomach turn. It would be another bitch session she didn’t want to have. The thought of letting her go made it even worse. But if she didn’t rein her in, she would lose a customer who spent a considerable amount of money in the restaurant on a regular basis. She didn’t know how to get her point across to Angie without making her feel threatened.

She pushed out of her chair and went into the house. Tomorrow was going to be a big day. First off, she would call her regular to apologize again and offer to pay her cleaning bill. She couldn’t afford to lose her business, no matter how much of a bitch she was.


Chapter Two

The mountains of Marin County were brown from lack of water. There had been only a smidgen of rain this summer. Izzy was thankful to have the beach in her backyard. She put all of her nagging thoughts of yesterday behind her as she soaked up the beautiful view on her drive to work.

Summer was almost over, but surf camp was still in full session. Camp ran from nine to four daily until mid-September. Black wetsuits filled with kids as young as six dotted the shore, eager to learn how to tame the choppy waves of the Pacific. The sight brought back good memories for Izzy. She’d learned to surf on this very beach when she was a child, and to this day, she still kept the friendships she’d made with many of her surf buddies.

The cars were sparse at this time of the morning. Whatever traffic there was on Highway One had already gone, except for a sporadic group of motorcycles. Izzy loved not having to commute into San Francisco. She didn’t care too much for the city and absolutely hated traffic. She’d had enough of that when she was in culinary school. The forty-five-minute trip downtown she drove five days a week had lost her close to two hours a day in traffic, easy.

Now her morning commute to the restaurant lasted only about thirty minutes. That included the detour to her parents’ house in Mill Valley. She was living the dream and only wished she could find someone with whom to share it.

She pulled up in front of her parents’ house and collected the daily paper from the driveway as she stepped onto the porch. She gave the door a light tap and let herself in. Bella was sitting at the kitchen table still in her housecoat waiting for her, as usual. She’d made the coffee and already had a cup in front of her.

“Hey, Momma.” Izzy bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “How are you feeling today?”

Bella patted her on the hip as she responded. “Today is a good day, I think.”

“Well, that’s good to hear, Momma.” She dropped the paper on the table in front of her. “What are you in the mood for this morning?”

“Pancakes.”

Izzy grinned at her mother. It was a good day if Bella wanted pancakes. “Plain or blueberry?”

“Blueberry, but only half the amount this time. You got carried away with them last time.”

“The doctor said they’re good for you.”

“I know, but I want to taste the pancake too.”

Izzy grinned. Bella knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to tell her. She fixed them both a plate of pancakes and ate with her mother. They talked about the weather, politics, and the pope.

Bella really liked this new one. He seemed to understand more about the people than others had in the past. Izzy wasn’t a religious woman any longer, but on this subject, she agreed with her mother. It had taken far too long to choose a pontiff who had compassion for every human being.

Izzy cleaned up the dishes and sat back down to finish her coffee.

“Your sister tells me you gave someone their whole meal free last night.”

“Yes, I did, Momma.”

“You did this because?” Bella lifted a brow while waiting for Izzy to answer.

“I spilled a plate of pasta in her lap.” She didn’t mention that Angie had words with the customer also.

“I see. Have you called her to apologize?”

“Not yet. I’ll do that this morning.”

Bella reached over and patted her hand. “Good girl.” She smiled and sipped her coffee.

Customers were business, and Izzy knew how to keep them happy. Even when they were really unhappy, she could usually turn the situation around. Typically, all it took was a sincere apology and a free dessert. But this particular one might be a little more difficult.

“Your youngest daughter can be a challenge to work with. She doesn’t want to be there.”

“She’ll settle down. I remember a time not long ago when you were just like her. Wild in your ways, never agreeing with anyone.”

Izzy laughed. “Then I realized how much I need you.”

Bella’s lips tipped up. “Angie will realize that about you someday.”

“This is different, Momma. She’s not a cook. She likes technology.”

“You mean computers?”

“More than just computers. She wants to change the world. She probably will. She’s so much smarter than I ever was at her age.”

Bella’s brow furrowed. “Not smarter, dear. Just different.”

“I’m going to cut back her hours at the restaurant so she can focus on her college courses.”

“If you think that will help her.”

“I do.” Izzy took the last swig of her coffee and put her cup in the dishwasher. “I love you, Momma. See you tomorrow.” She kissed her on the cheek.

“I love you too, sweetheart.” Izzy turned to the door and Bella said, “Don’t forget to pick up the cleaning bill for that customer.” Izzy smiled at her mother’s persistence. Even though Izzy had taken over the restaurant years ago, Bella still never failed to remind her of what to do.

“Don’t worry, Momma. I’ll take care of it.”

Izzy drove the short distance to the market to buy some fresh fish and meat for the specials. On tonight’s menu, she would offer a small roast pork chop with garlic-mashed potatoes as well as prawn fettuccine with marinara.

She drove to the restaurant thinking about how she would apologize to Mel Thomas. She fully expected to get another earful when she did and needed to be prepared to respond without becoming angry. After all, even though it was an accident, it was her fault that she had stained her dress. She couldn’t deny that.

The kitchen was already clean and Carlos was doing food prep when Izzy arrived. Tony had the sauce started, and the first lasagna of the day was in the oven. Once everything was set for the day’s business, she would slip into the office and place the call she was dreading. She had mixed emotions about Mel. There were times when Izzy found her to be very likeable, but when she was unhappy, she could be a mega-bitch.

 

v

 

Mel was running late for lunch with her mother. She’d planned to get out early but had gotten hung up at the office, as usual. It was her mother’s turn to choose, and she’d selected her favorite restaurant on the pier in Tiburon. This was the only day this week she could break away to see her. Tomorrow Mel was doing a lunch presentation on email and Internet safety at the senior center, and she usually used her Friday lunch hour to catch up on work. Mel had stopped to drop off her dress at the cleaners on the way. She wasn’t counting on getting it back without the stain.

Mel knew when she arrived her mother would already be seated outside on the deck enjoying the sun. Cecilia Collins was always punctual. She wouldn’t fuss about Mel’s tardiness, and that’s why she hated to be late.

“I’m sorry, Mom.” Mel slid down into the chair adjacent to Cecilia. “I had to stop at the cleaners on my way over.”

“It’s the middle of the week. Don’t you usually do that on Friday?”

“It was unavoidable. I had a plateful of pasta dropped in my lap last night.”

Her mother chuckled. “That must have been a sight.”

“It’s not funny. I was livid.” She unfolded her napkin and slipped it onto her lap.

“Of course it is, dear. Stop being so pretentious. I didn’t raise you that way.”

Mel could see a twinge of disappointment in her mother’s eyes and felt it deep in her gut. Her mother had taught her to always be compassionate and to remain aware of other people’s feelings. Growing up, she’d always hated it when some of the girls in her group had made the less-fortunate girls within it feel different, like they were unworthy in some way of having the same things the rich girls had.

“I guess it was a little funny.” Mel let her lips slide into a smile. “The look on the chef’s face was hysterical.” Surprise and horror all jumbled together.

“I’m sure it was an accident. Was it at the Italian place you like so well?”

“Yes. She comped the whole meal.” Her voice wisped up slightly.

“You do throw quite a bit of business their way, don’t you?”

“I do, but even though I love the food, I think I’m going to steer clear of it for a few weeks. It was very embarrassing.”

“That may be difficult, dear. I planned a nice little birthday party for you there this weekend.”

“Mom, I told you I don’t want a party. Jack and I are planning to spend the weekend together.”

“Well, it’s already paid for. So you’ll just have to start your weekend after the party Saturday.” Cecilia arched an eyebrow. “Since when are you and Jack getting along?”

“I’m giving it one last shot.”

“How many times is this?”

“Mom, let it go.” She blew out a heavy breath. “I know you don’t like the way he treats me.” Mel opened her menu and gave it her full attention.

“Never mind that I don’t like it. You shouldn’t like the way he treats you.”

Mel could feel her mother’s eyes bearing down on her as she scanned the menu.

“Look at you. Beautiful. Successful. You’ve done that all on your own. My God, Mellie, you’re a grown woman. You don’t need to please anyone but yourself. Jack hasn’t worried about anyone but himself for quite some time.”

Mel ignored her mother’s comments. She didn’t need to be reminded of her husband’s roaming eye. She’d gotten enough of that last night at the restaurant every time the cute little waitress came to the table. She’d felt like she was back in high school when her beautiful best friend had enticed her first serious boyfriend away.

After that painful experience, Mel had promised herself she would never become close friends with any woman again. She’d only broken that promise once in college. That was another story altogether and hadn’t worked out the way she’d planned either.

Mel glanced up when the waiter brought two drinks and put one in front of each of them. “I ordered you an iced tea,” her mother said.

“Are you ladies ready to order?” the waiter asked.

Mel spoke up, thankful for the interruption. “Yes. What are the specials today?”

The waiter rattled them off, describing each one in delectable detail while also offering his opinion on which was the tastiest. Mel decided against them all and ordered a Cobb salad. Cecilia opted for the same, as well as a small cup of tomato basil soup.

“You know what you need to do, Mellie,” her mother said, gazing out onto the water.

Mel was silent, contemplating her next question. “What’s the difference between my situation and yours? Why did you stay with Dad?”

Cecilia’s gaze snapped back to Mel. “That was different. I had you and your brother to raise.”

“But you might have been happier with someone else.”

“Maybe so, dear. But where would I have gone? You and Michael would never have had the education and opportunities you received growing up if I had left.”

The waiter delivered their salads, and that was the end of the conversation. Mel knew her mother was right; she wasn’t happy. She hadn’t been for a long time. The thought of leaving Jack had crossed her mind more than once over the years, and the thought of not having him around didn’t really upset her anymore. But the thought of being alone for the rest of her life terrified her.

The salad was delicious, yet so large Mel left half of hers uneaten, as did her mother. She apologized to her for being disrespectful, questioning her as she had. Cecilia had done what she thought best for her family, and it was probably at her own expense.

They left each other on a good note, her mother looking forward to the birthday party she’d organized for Mel on Saturday. She wasn’t quite as thrilled, but her mother had gone out of her way to do something special for her. She would go and put on a good show for her family.

 

v

 

When Mel got back to her office, the red light was blinking on her phone. She hit the speakerphone button and dialed her voice mail. The sound of the head chef from Bella’s Trattoria filled her office.

“Good morning, Mrs. Thomas. This is Izzy from Bella’s Trattoria. I just wanted to apologize again for last night. If you’ll bring me the bill, I’d like to pick up the cleaning tab for your dress. I’m here most days, or I can come by your office and get it if you prefer.” There was silence for a moment. “Again, I’m so sorry for everything that happened last night.”

Mel pushed the replay button and listened to the soft, husky voice again. Izzy sounded sincere enough, not a twinge of nervousness in her voice. Mel felt a little ashamed now. She’d been embarrassed and reacted badly last night. She wouldn’t let Izzy pay for the cleaning. Comping the entire meal last night was more than she’d expected and altogether unnecessary. A nice bottle of wine would have sufficed.

She would see the chef again next week at the birthday party her mother had planned for her. It would be uncomfortable at first, but Mel appreciated the apology and wouldn’t take the issue any further.

 

v

 

“Hey.” Izzy scowled when she caught Angie hanging around in the kitchen with their brothers, Tony and Gio, who was bragging about a recent date. “I thought you had class tonight.”

“I do. Web design.”

“Are you nervous about it?”

“Are you kidding? I am so looking forward to it.”

Izzy smiled at her sister’s enthusiasm. It was nice seeing her excited about something. “Learn it all. Then maybe you can build a website for this place and bring Bella’s into the twenty-first century.”

“You’ll let me do that?”

“I’ll not only let you. I’ll pay you to do it.”

“Really?” Her eyes grew wide.

Izzy nodded. “Really.”

Angie glanced at the clock on the wall. “I gotta go or I’ll be late. I’ll see you guys later.”

“Okay, learn lots.” Izzy watched her rush out the door.

“What are you doing? Getting her all excited like that.” Their older brother, Tony, pushed the kitchen door open to see if she was gone. “What if she doesn’t get the hang of it?”

“She’s a smart girl, Tony. I have no doubt she’ll do great.” She crossed her arms and leaned back on the counter. “Have you talked to her lately about anything to do with technology?”

“Why would I? I don’t know anything about the subject.”

“Maybe if you did, you’d learn something. Or even better, get a cell phone.”

“What do I need one of those for? I got a phone right here.” He picked up the receiver from the wall phone and dropped it back onto the cradle. “I got one just like it at home. Speaking of phones, did you call Mrs. Thomas and apologize?”

“Yep. Called her first thing when I got here this morning.”

“You think she’ll come back?”

“She’ll be back.”

“Oh yeah? How do you know?”

“Her mother has a birthday party planned for her on Saturday.”

“I guess that’s a good thing. You’ll get a chance to win her over.”

“I just have to keep Angie away from her.”

“You have to admit, she’s pretty uptight.”

“I don’t have to admit anything, Tony. I just have to keep her coming back.” Not only did she bring in a fair amount of business, but she was also very easy on the eyes.

 

v

 

Angie joked with her friend, Doug, as she waited in the hallway for the classroom door to open. She was making fun of his Croc flip-flops, and he was critiquing her new home-dyed ombre hair color. She and Doug had been friends since middle school, when they’d ended up in a few classes together. Doug helped Angie get through English, and she did the same for Doug in history class. They both aced computer fundamentals and immediately knew they wanted careers in information technology. They’d decided to go to the College of Marin before moving to a four-year college. It would be cheaper, and they could take all of their classes together.

The teacher’s aide pushed through the waiting students, unlocked the door, and propped it open. “Okay everyone, let’s not leave any empty seats up front. You’re here to learn.”

Angie and Doug took seats in the third row. The instructor came from the back up the middle aisle to the front of the classroom and turned around.

“Hello, everyone. My name is Mel Thomas, and I’ll be one of your instructors for this class. Nancy Dolan will be the other. We’ll switch off teaching every couple of weeks. Also, on occasions, we will both be here teaching the class together.” She leaned back against the desk and crossed her legs. “I own an advertising and public-relations firm called 365 that specializes in web design. Nancy is a very talented designer who works with me.”

“Holy shit.” Angie sank down in her seat, hiding behind the computer monitor on the desk.

“What?” Doug quirked up an eyebrow. “You know her?”

“Yeah. Remember the crazy lady at the restaurant I told you about the other day?”

He nodded.

“That’s her.”

“Holy shit.” He chuckled “This is gonna be so good.” He grinned and returned his attention to the instructor.

“The first thing we’re going to do is go around the room and introduce ourselves. That means, your name, what program you’re in, and why you’re taking this class. Who wants to start?”

Doug threw his hand up, and Angie tried to bat it down.

“Okay.” The instructor pointed to Doug. “Go ahead.”

“My name’s Doug Haskell, and I’m in the computer-science program. I’m taking this class because it’s one of the requirements.”

“Hmm.” She touched her finger to her lips. “So you’re only taking this class because it’s a requirement. What do you plan to do with your computer-science degree after you complete college, Doug?”

“Be an application developer.”

“That’s fair. How about the young lady next to you?”

Angie peeked around the monitor.

“Yes, you.” Mrs. Thomas motioned for her to sit up.

Angie sat up and immediately saw recognition in the instructor’s eyes.

“Go ahead. Tell us about yourself.”

“My name’s Angie Calabrese. I’m in the computer-science program too. I’m taking this class because I want to create beautiful places for people to visit on the web.”

Mrs. Thomas nodded slowly. “Have you taken a web-design class before, Angie?”

“No, this is my first, but I’ve created a couple of websites on my own.” Angie shifted nervously in her seat as the woman moved toward her and tilted her head curiously.

“Do you think you can learn something in this class you don’t already know?”

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” she shot back.

Mrs. Thomas gave her a ghost of a smile and strolled back to the front of the classroom. “Good. We’ll see if we can help you improve on what you’ve created.” She fixed her eyes on the girl sitting next to Angie and dipped her chin, motioning for her to speak next.

“You are so screwed,” Doug mouthed to Angie, pumping his fingers into the side of his fist with a huge grin on his face.

“I’m going to kill you,” she mouthed back, narrowing her eyes and dragging her finger across her neck.

After they’d finished the introductions and had thoroughly reviewed the syllabus, it was nine o’clock. When the instructor dismissed the class, Angie grabbed her book and flew out of the classroom. She didn’t want any more one-on-one interaction with Mrs. Thomas.

 

v

 

Izzy jumped when Angie tossed her book onto the counter and flopped onto one of the stools in the kitchen. Doug followed her in and sat down next to her.

“How was class?” Izzy asked.

“I am so fucking screwed.”

“Watch your mouth.”

“She’s right. She’s screwed.” Doug grabbed a slice of sourdough bread and bit a chunk off.

“It’s only the first night. What happened?” Izzy dropped some pasta into a couple of bowls and ladled sauce over them.

“That crazy customer. The one you spilled pasta on the other night.”

Izzy nodded. “What about her?”

“She’s my instructor.”

Izzy stared. “No way.” She slid the bowls of pasta in front of them.

“Yeah. It was great.” Doug laughed as he twirled spaghetti on his fork. “Angie got all cocky with her. I thought the lady was going to grind her gears right there in front of everybody.”

“That’s priceless.” Izzy laughed.

“It’s not funny. She’s going to hate everything I create.”

“No, she won’t. I’ve seen what you can do. She’ll love it.”

“You just had to go and spill pasta on her.”

“It’s not like I did it on purpose. I called and apologized.”

“You did? But she was such a bitch.”

“She still didn’t deserve to have pasta tossed in her lap. Maybe a little salad.”

“That’s your opinion.” Angie raised an eyebrow.

“And that’s what counts around here, right?” She pinched her lips together, holding back a grin.

“Yeah…right,” Angie said as she let out a huge laugh.

“Dougie, get her out of here.” Izzy chuckled and snapped a kitchen towel at her. “Go do some homework or something.” Izzy turned to Tony after they left. “You don’t think she’ll hold it against her, do you?”

“Maybe.” Tony’s voice rose slightly.

“Shit. I hope not, or I’m going to have to do some serious groveling.”

“Humph.” Tony grinned. “A little humility might be good for you.”


Chapter Three

Mel’s stomach gurgled loudly as she and Nancy drove from McDonalds to Arby’s, and then to Starbucks. They’d been working all morning on a last-minute project, and her stomach was making it painfully clear she’d skipped breakfast this morning. The project had been thrown their way by a long-time acquaintance and current competitor who couldn’t seem to handle the load. They had barely taken a break to go to the bathroom since seven this morning, let alone eat something. She certainly couldn’t complain about the referral, but it would have been nice if she’d had more notice.

Mel thought she’d never get Nancy out of the car. She had to have a burger from McDonalds, curly fries from Arby’s, and a frappuccino from Starbucks, all of which had cost Mel close to twenty bucks.

Nancy carried the food into the conference room and divided it while Mel put straws in the drinks. “You know you shouldn’t accept referrals this late in the game. This project should’ve been done weeks ago.” Nancy unwrapped her burger and took a big bite.

“I know, but we can always use the business.” Mel took the top bun from her burger and scraped the massive amount of catsup from it. She ate about half her burger and tossed it back into the bag. “This food is terrible.” Bella’s would’ve been so much better for lunch and probably cheaper.

“It’s not that bad.” Nancy took another bite and continued to talk in between chews. “You want to grab a drink later? We can go to the microbrewery. They have great burgers there.”

“Another burger?”

“Then you choose.”

Despite how she felt about going back to Bella’s, the food called her, thoughts of linguine Bolognese floating through her head. The phone call she’d received from the head chef, Izzy, yesterday had thrown Mel off guard. She’d asked Mel not to judge Angie by her behavior the previous weekend. She’d admitted her sister was a hothead and didn’t control her tongue well, but she hoped Mel wouldn’t let that impact her assessment of Angie’s schoolwork.

“No, the microbrewery is okay,” she remarked.

The fact Izzy had risked losing Mel’s business to look out for her little sister provoked a bit of admiration in her. Putting family first went a long way with Mel, and it tugged at her heart just a bit. She hadn’t
let anyone new into her life in a long time and the thought of letting this strong, compassionate woman in scared her more than she wanted to admit.

 

v

 

The bar was busier than they’d expected. Nancy pushed through a few people and found them a couple of seats at the end of the bar.

Mel waved down the bartender and ordered two glasses of chardonnay. She always felt a little funny ordering wine in a microbrewery, but she wasn’t in the mood for beer tonight.

“This day seemed twice as long as it needed to be,” Nancy said.

“I know, but isn’t it exhilarating knowing we still work so well under pressure?”

Nancy lifted a brow. “That’s not the way I like to work.”

“Thanks for pitching in and helping me get it done.” Mel reached over and squeezed Nancy’s hand. Nancy was Mel’s best friend and biggest ally. She had been ever since college.

“You’re buying dinner.” Nancy grabbed the menu from the holder and flipped it open. “Will you order me a cheeseburger and fries? I need to run to the ladies’ room.”

Mel had just put in the order for a grilled chicken sandwich and a cheeseburger with a large order of fries when a young body dressed in a charcoal skirt and jacket slid onto the stool next to her.

“Hey.” The woman smiled and flipped her long blond hair over her shoulder.

“Uh, hello,” Mel said when she realized she was talking to her.

“I haven’t seen you here before. Are you new to the area?” She leaned back and crossed her legs, letting her skirt pull up and expose a good portion of her thigh.

Flattered, Mel held back her grin. “No. I just haven’t been here in a while.”

“My name is Ashley.” She held out her hand.

Mel took her hand, surprised at how soft it was. “Nice to meet you Ashley. I’m Mel.”

“Is that short for Melanie?”

“You’re very intuitive, Ashley.” She smiled, not wanting to burst the young woman’s bubble. Nancy would take care of that. She could see the look of amusement on Nancy’s face as she approached. Nancy loved to play the role of the possessive girlfriend whenever Mel attracted an unwanted suitor.

“I think you’re in my seat,” Nancy said firmly, prompting the perky twenty-something woman’s smile to vanish. “That’s right. She’s with me,” she said, and the girl slid off the stool.

The girl laid a business card on the bar in front of Mel, then leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Give me a call sometime.”

“Seriously?” Nancy stared her down as she left. “The audacity these girls have now is beyond me.”

“She did mention she’d been waiting for you to leave so she could sit down.” Mel chuckled as she egged her on.

“She and I are gonna have a talk.” Nancy flipped her red hair back on her shoulder and turned to go after her.

Mel grabbed her arm and held it. “You’re taking this a little far, aren’t you?” She raised an eyebrow. “Considering we’re not actually a couple.”

Nancy let out a short breath. “She doesn’t know that.”

“Sit down and finish your wine. Your burger will be here soon.” She watched Nancy as she assessed the perky blonde who had since taken a seat at the table from where she’d come.

“She’s still checking you out.” As were the rest of the girls at the table.

“Please?” Mel let the word out slowly. “I’ll put my arm around you and rub your back to make it look good.” Her voice turned sugary sweet.

“Fine, but what’s with that?” Nancy slid onto the stool, and Mel put her arm around her just as she said she would.

“What’s with what?”

“You have the girls lined up and I’ve got nothing.” She threw up her arms. “It’s not even a gay bar.”

“It’s like being the girl who doesn’t like cats…the cat always wants to be in her lap.”

“I don’t think that analogy works in your case.” Nancy bumped her shoulder. “Face it, Mel. Whether you like it or not, you still give off a vibe.”

 

v

 

“Jack, you shouldn’t have.” Mel opened the Harry Winston box, took out the two-carat diamond pendant necklace, and let it dangle for all to see. Everyone’s eyes flew wide at the jewel. Mel hid her indifference as best she could. She couldn’t get excited about Jack’s gifts anymore. They were just one more substitute for what she really wanted from him…his time. He was leaving on another trip Monday but had promised her his sole attention for the weekend. That was the only birthday present she was looking forward to: a chance at getting the passion back between the two of them.

“You deserve it for putting up with me.” He took it from her hands and fastened it around her neck. It hung midway down her chest between the spaghetti straps of her black silk dress. “It doesn’t do you justice.”

She smiled, but his compliments didn’t have the same effect on her as they had in the past. She’d heard one too many of them over the years as he went out the door headed to another assignment. His work was still the most important thing in his life, and she’d grown tired of competing. She would never be enough to keep him home.

They were just bringing out the fruit-filled birthday cake when Jack’s phone buzzed at his waist. Watching his hand pull it from the sheath, Mel heaved a sigh and tossed her napkin onto the table. “Jack, you promised.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing.” He shrugged, pressing the phone to his ear as he got up from his chair.

“Then don’t answer it,” she said when the waitress set the cake down in front of her and lit what seemed to be a million candles. She waited for her family’s rendition of “Happy Birthday” to end and took in a deep breath before blowing out the candles. The waitress started cutting the cake.

Jack came back to the table, and the waitress handed him a large piece.

“Can’t.” He raised a hand in refusal before leaning down and kissing Mel on the cheek. “Sorry, honey, I’ve got to go,” he said, without a twinge of regret in his voice. “We’re taking off earlier than expected.”

“But I thought we were going to spend the weekend together before you left.” She couldn’t hide her disappointment. Ignoring her plea, he grabbed his suit jacket and headed for the door.

Mel popped up out of her chair and followed him. “Jack, it’s my birthday.”

“I gave you your present.”

“I don’t want this present.” She fingered the necklace hanging from her neck. “I want you.”

“Mel, don’t do this.” He pinched his lips together.

“Do what? Ask for a little bit of your time? Time that you promised me?” Her anger began to build inside.

“We’ll have plenty of time to spend together when I get back,” he said with such nonchalance, she couldn’t stand it.

“What? One or two days before you get called out again?” The restaurant was quiet, too quiet. She could feel everyone watching them.

“It’s my job, Mel. You know how it goes.”

“I hate it.” And I hate you for loving it so damn much.

“I have to go straight to the airport. We’re leaving in a couple of hours.” He pushed through the door.

Then it dawned on her. He was packed and ready to go. “You already knew about this.” She shook her head. “You had no intention of spending the weekend with me.”

“I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.” She rebuffed him when he stepped back inside and tried to kiss her on the cheek. “I’ll call when I can.”

Mel waited by the door as it slowly closed, then glanced back to the table. Her family quickly veered their wide-eyed gazes to their plates of cake. She wanted to bolt right then. She was suffocating. The happy façade was becoming too much for her. She would make an excuse for Jack, as usual. But they wouldn’t accept it, and she wasn’t up to defending him again.

She had to get out of there, if only for a few minutes. She weaved through tables in the dining room and headed for the bathroom. As she passed the side door to the kitchen, she saw the open back door and slipped out into the alley.

Izzy spotted Mel going out the door and followed her, wondering what was going on. “You shouldn’t be out here.”

Mel didn’t turn. “I just need some air.”

“The air quality is probably better out front.” Izzy lifted the lid of the garbage bin and tossed a bag inside, grimacing as the rotten smell floated into her nostrils.

Mel swung around, swiping the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. “I can’t go out front. He went out there.”

Shit. This is all I need. Izzy tried to ignore the woman’s tears. She turned to go back inside but couldn’t leave her like this. Mel might be a bitch, but Izzy wasn’t heartless. “Are you okay? I mean, can I get somebody for you?” Izzy stuttered. She wasn’t good at this kind of stuff.

“No, I’m fine.” She looked up, and Izzy was taken by the vivid green eyes she’d tried to ignore in the past. They shimmered with tears but were still captivating.

“You don’t look fine.” Izzy reached into her pocket, pulled out a cloth napkin, and handed it to her.

Mel took it and smiled slightly. “It’s just a little overwhelming in there right now.”

She smiled back. “It must be nice to have so many people who care about you.”

Mel let out a low sob, fell into Izzy’s arms, and began to cry uncontrollably.

“Double shit,” Izzy said, reluctantly holding her. “Guess that was the wrong thing to say.” What the hell are you doing here, Izzy? You sure as shit don’t want to be this chick’s shoulder to cry on.

“I’m so sorry,” Mel uttered, still sobbing. “I was so awful to you the other night.”

“It’s okay.” She let her fingers trip lightly up her back and then patted her softly. I am so fucking screwed.

“You must think I’m crazy.” She pressed into Izzy’s shoulder. “The way I acted before, and now this.”

“Not totally.” Mel pulled back slightly. When Izzy saw her soggy green eyes again, she felt a familiar pang inside. I’m the one who’s crazy, letting you get to me like this. She led her to the edge of the concrete barrier by the loading dock and sat with her arm around her until Mel got control of herself. “I’ve had one or two of these days myself.” Thoughts of her recent break-up flashed through her mind as she took the napkin from Mel’s hand and blotted her tear-streaked cheeks.

“How’s your mother?” Mel asked softly.

“She’s doing all right,” Izzy said, a little surprised by the question. When Bella first got sick, customers asked about her all the time, but in recent weeks, not too many still inquired. “Thanks for asking,” she said reluctantly as the sadness crept up her throat, stealing her voice.

Bella used to greet all the customers personally. It was one of her joys in life. Then about six months ago, she was diagnosed with lupus. Now because of her swollen joints, the Italian matriarch rarely came into the restaurant. Even though Izzy visited her mother daily on her way to work, she missed her presence at the restaurant immensely. Her long hours in the kitchen weren’t quite the same without her mother’s constant uninvited, yet loving, advice.

“Next time you see her, tell her I miss her smiling face.”

“Now you have to suffer with mine?” Izzy regained her composure and pulled her lip into a cocky half-smile.

“Suffer isn’t quite the word I’d use.” Mel smiled, and the startling glimmer Izzy remembered shone in her emerald-green eyes again. It was a glimmer that had entranced Izzy from the very first time she’d seen her walk into the restaurant. She was definitely a handful, but a beautiful one.

“Better now?” Izzy let her arm drop from Mel’s shoulder.

She nodded, tucking a strand of her dark-auburn hair behind her ear. “I should probably get back inside,” she said, blowing out a short breath.

“Hang on a minute.” Izzy blotted the napkin under her eyes to remove the runs of mascara staining her cheeks and slid the dress strap that had fallen back onto her shoulder. “That’s better.”

“I’m really sorry. This isn’t me.” Mel smiled and her eyes sparkled again. “I don’t randomly pour my heart out to people. I’m just a mess tonight.”

“You’re fine. Just tell them your allergies are acting up.” Izzy winked. “That always works for me.”

“Thank you,” Mel said as she got up and headed for the door.

“Oh, and—” Izzy drew her brows together, trying to find the right words of reassurance regarding her jerk of a husband.

“It’s Mel, Mel Thomas.” She swung around and offered her hand.

Izzy took it, squeezing her soft, manicured fingers lightly. “Mel.” Izzy smiled as she spoke. The woman’s unpretentiousness surprised her. She was spoiled and demanding, yet, even after frequenting the restaurant for the past year, she didn’t assume Izzy knew her name. “If you ever need to talk, I’m here pretty much every night.” She kept the comment she felt like making about her husband to herself. It was really none of her business anyway.

“Thanks.” Mel took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and strode into the dining room again.

Mel had just gotten back to the table when the waitress brought the usual apology from Jack, a snifter of cognac. Whenever he left her stranded, it always seemed to appear at her table after he left.

“A birthday wish from the chef.”

Mel glanced toward the kitchen, where Izzy stood leaning against the doorjamb. She smiled and lifted the glass to her. Hesitating before taking a sip, Mel realized Jack had never sent the cognac at all. The woman whose shoulder she’d just cried on had. The woman she’d reamed out the other night.

She glanced down at the napkin wrapped around the bottom of the glass. Happy Birthday was printed in all capital letters across the top, and a phone number had been written in just underneath. She flushed with embarrassment. It wasn’t like her to be so weak. She folded the napkin and slipped it into her purse, then picked up a glass of ice water from the table and took a long drink. She set the glass back on the table and raked her cool hand across the back of her neck. Suddenly the room was very hot.

Izzy waited in the kitchen doorway for a few minutes, making sure everything at the table was running smoothly. She glanced at Mel, who was dressed to impress as always. Tonight she wore a turquoise cap-sleeve dress cinched at the waist. Izzy had noticed how well it loved her shape as she followed her back into the restaurant. Dark hair, long eyelashes, full lips. The woman was beautiful, but she was also a big pain in the ass. Izzy wasn’t expecting her vulnerability to jab at her the way it had earlier. She threw her a wave and slipped back into the kitchen.

“What was that all about?” Tony asked as he tossed a pan of pasta into the air.

“Yeah, what the hell was she doing back here?” Angie’s eyes narrowed. She was clearly still upset about earlier in the week.

“Her husband took off on her again.”

“Serves her right. She’s a b.i.t.c.h.” Angie loaded an order on her arm.

“Knock it off, Ang.” Izzy pushed the door open for her.

“Just sayin’. Who would want to be married to someone like that?” She snarled and strode back into the dining room.

Tony crossed the kitchen and looked out the doorway with Izzy. “She tell you her husband left?”

“No. She’s been coming in for a while. He does it a lot.” She let the door close. “She hasn’t realized she’d be happier without him yet.”

“Don’t even think about it.” His brows pinched together. “You’ll only get hurt.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m not thinking about anything.” Except what’s underneath that silky turquoise dress. Alarmed by the vision, she shook her head to erase it from her thoughts.

Tony swung his arm around Izzy’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’d believe that if she wasn’t so hot.”

“You think she’s hot?” Izzy moved around to the bar door and pushed it open, catching another glimpse of the tall, dark-haired beauty. Definitely hot. Izzy had seen that the first day she came into the restaurant last year. “I guess she is kind of attractive. With all the blubbering she was doing, I hadn’t noticed.” She read the order hanging from the ticket holder and took a knife from the block. “She asked about Mom.”

“She did?” Tony dropped a glob of butter into a pan, and it sizzled as he swished it around. “Hmm, a hot woman with a heart. She might be worth a look.”

“Maybe.” Damn right. She’s worth more than a look. For a night anyway.

“You get her number?”

She took an onion and sliced the knife through it. “I gave her mine.” She gave her big brother a wink.


Chapter Four

When Mel got home, she went straight into her bedroom, stripped everything off, and studied herself in the mirror. Why doesn’t he want me? Is something wrong with me? She brushed her hands up her flat stomach to her B-cup breasts. She didn’t look so bad for thirty-seven, did she? After carefully scrutinizing her well-toned body, she let out a heavy breath and pulled on an old, comfy T-shirt. She brushed her teeth but didn’t wash her face tonight; she was mentally and physically exhausted. Flopping into bed, she rolled over and felt the cool sheet covering the empty space next to her. She should’ve known Jack was going to cut out on her this weekend. That was what he did best.

When Mel had arrived home from work earlier, she’d gone into the bedroom to change and had actually thought about making love to Jack. The thought hadn’t entered her mind in months, and it had excited her. But when he came into the room, he’d barely acknowledged her. Even with her standing in front of him totally naked, he hadn’t given her a second look, and the desire to be intimate with him had left her as quickly as it had come.

Sex between them was nothing like it used to be. When they were first married, there was never any question of his desire for her. He frequently stripped her naked and made love to her all night, and she’d enjoyed it. Had there ever really been anything else between them? The sexual attraction had always been so strong it had never really mattered before. When had they stopped wanting each other? The last time they’d made love was months ago, with no romance, no foreplay, and no orgasm—again. She didn’t know what was wrong with her. She used to have orgasms every time—sometimes twice. She wanted so much for it to be different, but now sex had become more of a duty than a pleasure. These past few years with Jack traveling so much had been hard on them both. When he was gone, all she did was work, and when he was home all she did was try to please him. God, my life is pathetic.

She rolled over to look at the picture of Jack on her dresser. Was he sleeping with that hot little reporter who traveled with the crew? Did she even care? Mel had been living this way for so long it didn’t really matter anymore. When he was gone, she was alone. When he was home, she felt alone. He was too locked up in his own world and wouldn’t let her in. When, exactly, had her fairy-tale life gone to shit?

 

v

 

Izzy pushed open the front door and headed straight for the shower to wash the restaurant smells off her. Between the garlic and onions, no deodorant in the world would make her smell better tonight.

As she lathered her body, she thought about the scent of the beautiful brunette she’d held tonight. She wasn’t a fan of jasmine, but it certainly smelled wonderful on her. The woman was so out of her league, not to mention married. Her heartbeat quickened and she shuddered, wondering if Mel had noticed its rapid rhythm when she’d fallen into her arms earlier. Tonight she’d gotten too close.

She’d seen Mel head out the back door and couldn’t help herself. She had to follow. Izzy didn’t want to comfort her; she didn’t want to go anywhere near her. But she couldn’t stand to see a woman cry. What was Mel doing right now? She closed her eyes and plunged her face into the shower stream. What the hell am I thinking? The woman is straight. She scrubbed at her face with the washcloth, then wadded it up and threw it against the shower wall. Pushing the image of her crying from her mind, Izzy let the hot spray of water pulse on her face.

After her shower, she pulled on a pair of shorts and a tank top before heading to the kitchen. She took an open bottle of chardonnay from the refrigerator and poured herself a glass. On her way out to the deck, as she rounded the counter, she noticed the light blinking on the message machine. She pushed the button, and her skin prickled at Dana’s sultry voice as it rang through the speaker.

“Hi, it’s me. I was wondering if maybe I could come over tonight and we could talk or something. Call me.”

“Fuck, no!” Izzy shouted, slapping her glass to the counter. She pulled her sweatshirt over her head. “We’re never doing something again.” She yanked open the glass door. It flew down the track and stopped with a thud when it reached the end. At least the damn thing hadn’t broken this time. She grabbed her glass and the wine bottle from the counter and stepped out onto the deck. Apparently, Dana hadn’t gotten the message yet. Izzy was through playing games with her. She set the wine on the table between the loungers and moved to the railing. Gripping the wood in her palms, she took in a deep breath of sea air, trying to make the ache in her heart disappear. After all these months, it still hurt. When was it going to stop?

It was her own fault. She’d gone into the relationship knowing full well Dana had never been faithful to anyone. Yet, she still dove in headfirst. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! She swung back around, swiped her glass from the table, and gulped down the rest of the wine. She had to stop letting Dana get to her like this.

She flopped into one of the lounge chairs and took in the beauty of the night sky and all its stars to clear her head. Her body tingled again as sparkling emerald-green eyes invaded her thoughts. The beautiful face of her familiar customer had been invading her thoughts for some time now. She’d stopped trying to elude it long ago. Mel Thomas could definitely help her get over this heartache. Then again, she could quite possibly just give her another one.

 

v

 

The morning flew by. Mel finally finished the preliminary design for Rick Daniels’s new website around eleven fifteen, and it was pretty damn good. The intro was flashy, but not too wild. The site included lots of promo pictures and links to all of his DVD movie titles on Amazon as well as placeholders for current box-office movies. This baby should net some profits for him. Now all she had to do was shoot him the link, so he could review it and give her some feedback.

She started typing a nice professional email to send, then decided to call him instead. She glanced at her watch, picked up the phone, and punched in his personal cell number. Rick had probably finished shooting for the day and was possibly still in his trailer getting ready to leave the set. He was on location for his new action movie, and the last time they’d talked, he’d mentioned they were shooting scenes at sunrise this week. Mel wanted to make sure he reviewed the website as soon as possible just in case he wanted any changes made. His latest film was due to be released in theaters next month, and she didn’t want any last-minute panic attacks.

“Hi, Rick. It’s Mel.”

“Hello, beautiful,” he said, his voice low and sexy.

“I’ve finished the preliminary design on your website.”

“Great. I can’t wait to see it.”

“Check your email. I’m sending you the link as we speak. Same password as last time.”

“I’ll take a look and give you a call back tomorrow.”

“I’ll only be here until about six tonight.” She smiled to herself.

“Big date?”

“Not really. Just some good Italian food.”

“I love Italian. You’ll have to take me there when I get back in town.”

“Sure. Just let me know when.” She pulled Izzy’s number from her purse and rubbed the napkin between her fingers. “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

“Nothing you do disappoints me, sweetheart.”

“We won’t know that until you look at the site, now will we?” She chuckled.

“I’ll give it a look and let you know what I think.”

“Thanks, Rick. You know I appreciate you.”

“Not as much as I appreciate you.” His voice lowered again.

“You’re sweet. I’ll talk to you later,” she said, ending the call and dropping the receiver into its cradle.

Rick had always been Mel’s number-one fan. They’d been high school sweethearts, and everyone assumed they’d get married someday. Then Rick skyrocketed to stardom and Mel married Jack. She wasn’t happy with her current situation, but the other choice would have been a disaster.

 

v

Izzy pushed the back door open and found Bella sitting at the kitchen table. “Hi, Momma.” She leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “It’s good to see you up and around.”

Her mother seemed well today. Bella was holding up pretty good for a seventy-five-year-old woman with an autoimmune disease. She didn’t take the amount of steroids the doctor prescribed because she claimed they made her puffy, but Izzy had stopped fighting with her about it. She didn’t like her decision, but she didn’t want her days with her mother to be filled with resentment either. She wanted to share every moment they could, letting her know just how much she loved her.

She peeked through the doorway into the living room. “Where’s Pop?”

“You just missed him. He’s gone to the post office.”

Sadness pinched her. It didn’t hurt as much as it used to, but she still hoped she’d walk in one day and he’d be sitting at the table, happy to see her. She didn’t like the way things were between her and her father, but then they’d never really seen eye to eye on anything. When he’d found out she was gay, he’d pulled away completely. In turn, she’d rebelled, deciding they could no longer continue even the strained father-daughter relationship they’d once shared. She’d finally decided to avoid him altogether. No relationship was better than the unforgiving one he was offering. In recent years, with the news of her mother’s illness, she’d rethought that decision.

“What’s for breakfast today?” She pulled open the refrigerator. “We’ve got fruit, eggs, and, ooh…how about French toast?”

“Whatever you want, dear. I don’t have much of an appetite.”

“You will when you smell this.” She took out the milk, eggs, and butter and set them on the counter before fishing around in the cupboard for a bowl.

“Have you started dating again?” Bella crossed the kitchen and took the Italian bread from the pantry.

“What?” Izzy reached up in the cabinet above the stove for the vanilla and cinnamon.

“Since you broke up with that woman.”

“You mean Dana?” She cracked an egg in the bowl and whisked it around.

“Yes, her.”

“No.”

“What?”

“No. I haven’t dated anyone since Dana.”

“Oh.” Her mother observed her curiously. “I have this friend, a lovely young woman. I think you two would get along nicely.”

“I appreciate the thought, Momma, but I can find my own dates.” She took a frying pan from the broiler drawer, set it on the stovetop, and ignited the fire under it.

“But you just said you haven’t dated.” Bella was very supportive of Izzy. It was quite possible she knew Izzy was gay before Izzy did. By the time she’d turned nineteen, she realized she preferred women and her mother was already trying to fix her up with women.

“Because I don’t want to right now.” She dredged a piece of Italian bread through the mixture and plopped it in the pan. “I’m a little too busy with the restaurant to worry about that kind of stuff.”

“Oh.” Her eyes flickered back and forth between her hands and Izzy. “But you might want to meet this woman. She’s very pretty, and she has a warm soul.”

“Bella. I said no.” She warned her again.

Her mother sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. Izzy always called her Bella when she meant business, and her mom knew it.

“Maybe I don’t want French toast this morning.” Bella did a little sing-song tone with her voice.

“I’m still going to make it, whether you eat it or not.” She flipped the bread to brown the other side. “I’m hungry.”

“You’re being selfish. Can’t you make an old woman happy before she dies?”

“Wrong daughter. That guilt doesn’t work with me like it does on Angelina, remember?” She sliced off a pad of butter and spread it across the toast before sprinkling powdered sugar on top and sliding it in front of her mother. Izzy smiled, watching as Bella picked up her fork and took a small bite. “See, you were hungry.”

“Not really. I’m just eating to please you.”

“I’m still not going to let you set me up.”

“Stubborn and bullheaded.”

“Just like my mother.” Izzy fixed her own plate and sat down across the table from her. “Now eat.”

“Perhaps I could invite my friend for breakfast sometime.”

“Bella.” Her voice was stern.

“She’s a little thin. I thought maybe you could fatten her up.”

“Everyone’s a little thin in your eyes. If you had your way, I’d be waddling across the kitchen.”

“That’s not enough to feed a bird.” She poked at Izzy’s toast
with her fork. “There’s nothing wrong with having a little extra on your hips for your special someone to hang on to. Your father loves my curves.”

“That’s enough, Bella. I don’t want to hear any more of that.” Bella had never made it a secret she prided herself on being able to keep and satisfy her husband for fifty-plus years.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy sex life.”

“Stop.” She dropped her fork and pressed her hands to her ears. “Kids aren’t supposed to know what their parents do in the bedroom.” The sound of her own voice echoed in her head.

Izzy heard the muffled sounds of protest through her hands. When she saw her mother’s lips tip up, Izzy removed her hands and picked up her fork.

“If you’d like to invite your friend for breakfast,” Izzy cut a piece of French toast and snaked it through the flakes of powdered sugar scattered across the plate, “I’d be happy to fix it for the two of you, but I don’t want any matchmaking.” She stuffed the bite into her mouth.

After Izzy finished her breakfast, she cleared their plates.

“Did Dad eat?”

“He’ll probably get a roll while he’s out.”

Izzy reheated the frying pan and threw a couple more slices of drenched bread into it. “I’ll cook these last two slices for him.”

“He’ll appreciate that.”

“You think so?” She glanced back at her mother as she slid them out of the pan and onto a plate, then buttered them before covering them with aluminum foil and leaving them on the counter for her father. He might not love her right now, but she hadn’t stopped loving him.

“Of course he will.”

“I’ve got to go now, Momma.” She leaned over to give her mother a kiss on the cheek. “When Dad gets back, all you have to do is warm those up in the microwave and sprinkle a little powdered sugar on them.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Bella took Izzy’s face in her hands. “He may not show it, but he does love you, Isabel.”

“It would be nice if he actually spoke to me once in a while.” She hated to admit it, but she missed her conversations with her father, even if they always turned into debates.

“He’ll come around.”

She shot out a short breath. “It’s been five years, Mom.”

“I’m working on him.”

“Thanks, Momma.” She choked back the tears as she pressed her lips to her mother’s head. “I’m going to the market to pick up the makings for the special today.” She made a mental note. Steak, crab, asparagus, bread. “You need anything?”

“Bring me some fresh mozzarella and tomatoes for salad.” Bella pulled open the refrigerator and rummaged through the vegetable drawer. “My friend is coming for lunch tomorrow.”

Izzy opened the door before turning and raising a brow. “Your friend?”

“Yes, the one I was telling you about.”

“Oh.” She pushed the door back slightly. “Does she come to the house a lot?”

“A few times a week.”

Halfway out the door, she hesitated, wondering about her mother’s mystery friend. “What’s your friend’s name?”

“Mary Elizabeth.”

“Mary Elizabeth what?”

She pushed the drawer in and let the refrigerator door close. “She told me, but I can’t remember.”

“Hmm,” Izzy said, thoughtfully. “You have fresh basil?”

“No. I’ll need that too.”

“Okay. I’ll see you in the morning.” She headed out the door, pulling it closed behind her. And maybe I’ll drop back by for lunch.

 

v

 

Izzy loved the local market. Family-owned since 1929, Mill Valley Market was a landmark in town. There were newer, larger markets that many shopped at, but none compared to this one when it came to fresh, homegrown products. The store was filled with good memories for Izzy. When she was younger, her mother had taken her there often. She got all the best cuts of meat because she knew all the butchers from the old neighborhood. Most of them had their sons working with them now, even a few Izzy had surfed with.

Izzy had been a tomboy and hung out with the guys most of the time growing up. Then she’d discovered girls—pretty girls who were attracted to other pretty girls. She fell head over heels in love with one of her culinary instructors. The relationship was short-lived, and Izzy was stricken with her first broken heart at the age of twenty. That was a defining period in her life because she knew from that day forward she would never be happy in a heterosexual relationship.

“Basil, tomatoes, she’ll want mozzarella too,” Izzy mumbled to herself as she wandered through the produce. “This looks good,” she said, picking up a couple of bunches of young asparagus and heading toward the butcher counter.

“Hey, Joe,” she called to her regular butcher. “You got any nice tenderloin steaks back there?”

“You bet, Izzy. How thick you want ’em?”

She held up a bunch of asparagus. “About an inch, inch and a half maybe. The special tonight’s gonna be steak Oscar.”

“Don’t tell my wife. She’ll drag me down there for dinner.” He smiled.

“I’d love to see her. What’s her number again?” She pulled out her cell phone and slid her finger across it.

“Don’t you dare. The basketball game is on tonight.” He headed in the back to cut her steaks.

She shouted after him. “Okay, Joe. I’ll take that excuse.”

She thumbed through her text messages as she waited for him to come back. Delete, delete, delete. Dana just wasn’t getting the message.

Joe returned through the door and slid the package of meat across the top of the case. “Here you go.”

“I’ll see you and Rose on Saturday night, then?”

“As usual.” He gave her a wink.

 

v

 

Mel’s stomach growled. Thoughts of spaghetti Bolognese, sourdough bread, and Isabel Calabrese flew through her mind. Boy, that woman could cook. The image of her standing in the doorway with that grin on her face invaded her thoughts, and her stomach flipped. She shook her head. What the hell is that about? She took a ten from her wallet and headed out of her office to run to the corner deli for a sandwich. Mel had opened her public-relations firm years ago and had leased the same office space within a multi-tenant building because she craved the daily interaction with others. When she first started the business, she had worked from home and found it to be a very lonely experience. Renting space downtown in one of the newly restored buildings worked well for her. As she’d added other services like web design, social-media promotion, teaching, and blogging, she had room to expand the office. Plus, she respected and got along well with the business tenants, which made her life not so lonely.

“Hey, where you going?” Nancy said, increasing her pace to catch up with her in the hallway.

“Down to the corner to get something to eat.”

“To the diner? Why don’t I go with you, and we can sit down and grab a bite together?”

“I was just going to get a quick sandwich at the deli.” Mel continued her pace. She’d tried to slip out without anyone noticing to avoid exactly what was happening.

“I really, really want a cheeseburger. Please don’t make me eat it alone.”

“I’ve still got an awful lot of work to do and am trying to get out of here early tonight.”

“Come on. It’ll take an hour max.” Nancy gave her a sad, puppy-dog face.

Mel smiled and blew out a breath. “All right, but no more than an hour.”

“Great. Let me grab some cash.”

“Grab a lot. Lunch is on you,” Mel said, following her back into the office.

 

v

 

The waiter seated them in a booth by the window and told them the specials. Mel ordered the chicken salad, and Nancy got the biggest cheeseburger on the menu.

“So what’s going on tonight?” Nancy asked.

“Nothing.”

“Don’t lie to me. You never cut out early unless there’s a reason.”

“Just dinner at Bella’s.” Mel focused her attention out the window, watching the cars as they passed.

“Is Jack back in town?”

“No. He won’t be back for a while.”

“Then who are you going with?”

“No one, just me.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“I finished the prelim for Rick’s website.”

“Boy. You banged that out in record time.”

“I had a little more time to work on it this weekend than I expected.”

“You and Jack were supposed to go away together.” She picked up a fry and trailed it through the catsup before biting off the end.

“Didn’t happen.”

“Why?”

“Same reason.”

“I’m sorry, Mel.”

“Don’t be. It gave me some time to think.”

“About what?”

“About what I want.”

“And?”

“I think I want out.” Saying it lifted a huge weight off her chest.

“Wow. Just like that?”

“It’s been coming for a long time.”

“You certainly hid it well. I thought you two were the perfect couple.”

“We do put on a good show, don’t we? I’m tired of faking it.”

“Hey. Why don’t I join you for dinner tonight?” She shot Mel a huge smile. “And you can tell me all about it.”

“That’s okay, I’m fine.” Mel took a drink of her water. “You probably already have plans.” She didn’t want to explain everything to Nancy right now.

“Nope. Ann’s got spin class tonight.” She flopped back in her chair. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”

She let her lips tip up. “All right, but just dinner. Don’t try to drag me out for a drink afterward.”

“I won’t. Ann’s coming over after class, and I have plans to cuddle up on the couch with her and watch some hospital drama she likes.”

“Are you sick?” She reached over and touched Nancy’s forehead. “I thought you only liked that reality stuff.”

“I do.” She laughed and her face lit up. “But you have to give a little to get a little, if you know what I mean.”

“So are you guys a couple now?”

“No, but she’s fun to be with.”

“Oh, I see. She’s not ready yet.”

“I don’t think either one of us is.”

“Sooner or later you’re going to have to trust someone.”

“Not until someone reciprocates.”