Cooking Up Love
What a dump.
Jemima George added an exclamation point and hit Send on her smartphone. A sigh surged up from her toes as she glanced around at the café she’d just inherited. Walking through the door of Caro’s Taste was like stepping into a time machine with a direct route to late nineteen eighty.
Grant Dubois, her aunt’s lawyer, augmented the sensation. He could have been a cover model on a senior citizen’s romance novel. His shoulder length salt-and-pepper hair flowed around his face as if stirred by a slight breeze, even though they were inside with the door firmly shut. He appeared fit, but his broad chest had begun the inevitable shift toward a softening waistline. The retro style, antiquated Windbreaker and shiny shirt, unbuttoned to midway down his chest, made his overall image the tiniest bit seedy. And he’d worn that getup to the funeral. The only things missing were gold chains and a pinkie ring.
“I’ve invited a local contractor to join us,” Grant said. “I thought you’d appreciate a cost estimate to update the space. It’s been a while, as I’m sure you can tell.”
“I don’t know about renovations. I’ll probably list it for sale. I need to get back to New York.” She scanned her vibrating phone and read Resa’s reply to her text.
The café or the town?
Jem keyed in the café and pressed send before returning her attention to the lawyer, surprised by the undisguised animosity on his face.
Jem blinked and the look was gone, replaced by a bland facade. An arc of guilt for being caught texting while he was talking forced heat into her cheeks. “Sorry. What were you saying?” She set the phone on a nearby table and shook her head to clear the odd sensation Grant’s shifting expressions had created.
“I urge you not to be hasty. Caroline’s income didn’t allow her to entertain thoughts of buying a Caribbean island for retirement, but she was comfortable. She left you quite a nice inheritance, between savings and insurance.” He waved his hands vaguely around the tiny shop, his quicksilver expression at odds with his words. “However, I’d completely understand if you wish to wash your hands of it. I’d be delighted to handle the details of liquidating for you.”
“I just can’t pick up and move to Granite Pointe. I have a job I really like.” Jem did a slow turn, surveying the room. “Even if I found someone I trusted, it doesn’t make sense to run it long distance.”
“Really liking your job isn’t the same as loving it.” Grant’s eyes twinkled as he widened his hands in a question. “Are you passionate about your work?”
Passion, huh? Jeez, he knew how to milk his resemblance to a cover model. His words were earnest, but his body language implied he’d like her on the next bus out of town.
“Besides,” Grant continued, “the café is only open mornings. Still plenty of free time to carry on Caroline’s work with our local environmental group. Her loss will hit them hardest.”
Jem cocked her head to the side, feeling like she’d fallen down the rabbit hole. The sour look on Grant’s face and the insincerity of his tone told her what he really thought of the idea of her staying, in spite of his encouraging words. What was his deal? “What happened? When I saw her in New York two months ago, her health was excellent. Do you know—”
Grant held up one finger and pulled his mobile phone from his jacket pocket, frowning at the display.
“Sorry, I have to take this. Excuse me.” He turned away to answer the call.
Jem looked around the café she now owned. She’d been a frequent visitor as a child, and memories of the smells and sounds of the busy restaurant echoed through her mind. As a teen, she’d worked here each summer. If serving coffee and pastries to the locals could be called work.
Granite Pointe was pretty as a picture as she gazed through oversized front windows. She shrugged out of her coat and tossed it on the counter next to her purse and cell phone. The heavy black wool had been welcome as the wind blew through the cemetery.
Trailing her hand along the butcher-block counter, she wandered toward the kitchen door. Walking along the display cases occupying one wall of the narrow space, she briefly considered the possibility of owning and operating the little shop.
Her lips quirked into a slight smile and she shook her head, rejecting the thought. Her life was in New York, as assistant and chef to Margo Tremont, reality television’s latest darling in the chronicles of the rich, fabulous and ridiculous.
It was where she lived and played with her hopefully soon-to-be fiancé, Phil Centers. They’d been a couple for two years, and Jem was as positive he’d propose soon as she was eager to become his wife. They were perfect for each other. Both of them were going places and he’d make the journey together fun.
No, Granite Pointe, Massachusetts would remain a great place to visit, but it wouldn’t do as a residence or place of business.
“I’m sorry. It was extremely rude of me to interrupt our conversation.” Grant strolled back toward her. Well, she’d been put in her place. “Unfortunately, I have a small problem at the office. Jack Kerrigan, the contractor I mentioned earlier, should be here soon. Do you mind waiting alone?”
“Sure, no worries. As I said earlier, I’d rather see a realtor than a builder. I’m just not in a spot to consider moving here.”
“Please don’t rush into this decision. If you do decide to sell, some basic remodeling might appeal to potential buyers. You’re bound to get your investment back through an increased sale price.”
“Some updates might be necessary, even if it’s just a fresh coat of paint and refinishing the floors.” She critically eyed the rough pine plank flooring. “However, I’m sure I won’t change my mind.”
The first real smile she’d seen from Grant creased wrinkles on his brow and around his eyes as he zipped up his jacket. With a curt nod, he pulled on gloves and, twisting the doorknob jerked the door open, hastily grabbing it as the wind caught it. The small bell above the frame tinkled merrily. She grinned as he quickstepped his way across the street, his long hair flowing out behind him. Yes, ma’am, he could be the father of that famous model gracing the covers of the naughty books Caroline had constantly read.
Jem slipped behind the counter, heading to the coffee maker. Despite the warmth of her gray sweater dress and black suede boots, she remained cold. A hot cup of coffee would hit the spot.
She pulled the supplies she needed from a box directly below the machine and rinsed the pot in the nearby sink. The shop had closed when Aunt Caro got sick, so a fine coating of dust had built up in the entire space. A melancholy ache bloomed in the center of her chest. God, she couldn’t believe Caro was gone.
Shoot! Grant hadn’t answered her question about what might have caused Caroline’s death. So far, no one had answered the question. She’d have to remember to ask him later. Swishing soapy water around the carafe, she rinsed it before returning to the machine. She slipped a filter and ground coffee into the basket and poured clean water in the reservoir. After she flipped the switch to start the machine, she grabbed her cell phone and leaned against the counter to wait for the coffee to brew.
She’d missed three calls in a very short time. The first from Phil, the last two, within seconds of each other, were from Resa, followed by an urgent text from her with the code that meant there was an emergency with their boss. WTF! Another 911.
With Margo, emergencies were an everyday occurrence.
As she scanned the messages, another came in from Phil.
Hey Baby—hope all went well today. Crazy busy, no time to talk. Late client meeting. Will call tomorrow.
Par for the course with Phil. She sighed mentally. There was always a meeting or crazy day lately. Although he was a junior partner in a prestigious law firm today, he wouldn’t be for much longer. With her connections, more business had flowed Phil’s way, impressing the senior partners. Increased billings equaled a promotion.
Because of his success, he took phone calls all hours of the day and night, and worked nearly every weekend. They hadn’t been able to grab any real alone time for the past four months. Her filming schedule with Margo didn’t help the situation. She sighed, a deep, resigned exhale.
She speed-dialed Resa, who answered so quickly she must have been waiting with her phone in hand.
“Hi, Sweetie.” Resa jumped right in. “How are you? Did everything go well this morning? Was it awful? Is the café really a dump? How soon can you wrap things up there and get back?”
Used to Resa’s rapid-fire questions, Jem grinned. “Okay, yes, not as awful as it could have been, dump might have been too strong and I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Resa shrieked, zeroing in on the last answer. “I thought you were going to leave it in the hands of the lawyer and get your skinny ass back here.”
“The building is solid, even kind of interesting, but the interior needs work. It’s funny, I don’t remember the exposed brick.” She squinted her eyes at the walls in question. “I haven’t even made it into the kitchen yet. I’m waiting for a contractor to arrive. I won’t get a very good price if I put it on the market as is. On the plus side, the neighborhood has potential. It’s in a great location. Granite Pointe is a fun, historically significant place. Not Manhattan, but it has its own brand of charm.”
“Ooh, sounds like someone might be thinking about staying.”
“No! No way. I belong in New York. But the lawyer said something about having passion for what I do. Which made me think…could I be more passionate about another career choice? The work I do is challenging some days, but do I honestly love it?”
“As if you would have passion for frying eggs and making muffins.” Resa laughed. “Although, you do make the best I’ve ever eaten.”
“Well, I can see the upside of a less Margo-like life. Speaking of which, what’s up with her?”
“It’s a few clowns short of a circus here today. Production asked to film Thursday instead of Friday. Margo’s clueless about her calendar. The computer network is down, thanks to the cable company, so we aren’t sure it will work. I know you have her schedule memorized, so I made the executive decision to bother you with the question. Even though I know Margo’s schedule is the last thing you want to deal with now.” Resa lowered her voice and continued, “I mean, shit, you’re on bereavement leave. I’m so sorry to bother you when you’re dealing with so much else. Caro’s death was so sudden, I mean.”
“I’m still struggling with that,” Jem admitted to her friend as the coffee finished brewing. Tucking the phone under her chin, she grabbed a cup. “She was fine when I saw her in January. Then, three weeks ago, she gets the flu. Now, she’s gone. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I asked Grant, the lawyer, but he avoided answering. He made some lame excuse about an office emergency and left me here to meet the contractor—”
The bell above the door tinkled again. Jem glanced over her shoulder at the man who walked in. His back was to her as he pushed the door closed against the wind. When he turned around, she froze.
The next winner of the Sexiest Man Alive title stood in her café.