59 rave reviews!!Kindle Nation fave Christine Nolfi takes readers back to the charmingly quirky small town of Liberty, Ohio in this unforgettable tale of love, loss and second chances…
“Nolfi writes with a richness of heart that is incredibly endearing and totally refreshing.”
by Christine Nolfi
Dr. Mary Chance needs a sabbatical from medicine to grieve the loss of her closest friend. But when she inherits a struggling restaurant in Liberty, Ohio, she isn’t prepared for Blossom Perini. Mary can’t resist falling for the precocious preteen—or the girl’s father. The bond they forge will transform all their lives and set in motion an outpouring of love that spreads across America.
Welcome back to Liberty, where the women surrounding the town’s only restaurant are as charming as they are eccentric.
5-star praise for Second Chance Grill:
A triumphant celebration of love
“…literary escapism at its finest…. a whirlwind of love and loss, joy and sorrow….”
A heart-warming read
“…an adorable read, it was cute, entertaining and truly heartwarming; a book packed with emotions…”
Richly envisioned, quirky, and believable
“This delightful story swept me up and away…the characters and their interactions…make the story such a pleasure to read. There is plenty of humor along the way…”
an excerpt from
Second Chance Grill
(Book Two, Liberty Series)
by Christine Nolfi
Dr. Mary Chance feared she’d poison half of Liberty on her restaurant’s reopening day.
Not that she’d personally put the town at risk. Ethel Lynn Percible’s cooking skills were to blame. Her slippery hold on the summit of culinary greatness had Mary wishing she’d dumped antacids instead of mints in the crystal bowl beside the cash register. Perhaps the elderly cook hadn’t quite poisoned anyone. But the historic recipes Mary hoped to serve arrived soggy, lumpy, undercooked or scorched to a fine black sheen.
A trim woman in a severe grey suit rose from a table. “I hope you were a better doctor than you are a business woman,” she snapped. Storming past, she favored Mary with a dismissive glance. “You should’ve opened an emergency room instead of a restaurant. Or better yet, both. Then you’d have a thriving business.”
For a shattering moment, Mary connected with her frigid gaze. The woman had ordered the opening day special—Martha Washington’s beef stew. She’d received a concoction that resembled glue and smelled worse.
In the center of the dining room, the young waitress Mary had rehired tried to fend off a barrage of insults. Delia Molek’s voice rose like a violin’s plucked string. Trapped beneath antique pewter sconces by a portly man, she ditched patience and began arguing with the disenchanted patron.
In contrast, Ethel Lynn hid in the kitchen. She’d suffered a host of culinary calamities since the first customer arrived at seven A.M. Maybe she was infected with opening day jitters. Maybe she would serve up savory meals once she got into the swing of things. The restaurant had closed for six months. In the fervor of new and disbelieving ownership, Mary had overhauled the menu. She’d brought back a delectable array of historic recipes like succulent beef dotted with cloves and cakes sweetened with Rum that had once graced the finest Colonial tables. The new menu featured a Civil War recipe of chicken seared with cherries, gingered turnips, rich puddings and a Spice Cake from the Roaring Twenties so beloved by Calvin Coolidge during his presidency that he’d made the confection a White House staple.
No wonder Ethel Lynn’s skills needed polish. Surely the historic recipes were to blame for her bad start.
Mary stopped wringing her hands as Delia marched up.
The waitress nodded at the portly man fleeing to the street. “He didn’t leave a tip.”
“Would you? I’m grateful he didn’t demand a refund.”
The waitress popped a stick of gum into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “So. Your first day is a train wreck. Guess what? We still have the dinner rush tonight.”
Mary surveyed the patriotic decorations festooned throughout the dining room, a treasure trove of Americana harking back to the restaurant’s inception during The Civil War. So many beautiful things, but they’d gone unappreciated. Diners noticed little but the glop on their plates.
Her heart sank. “There won’t be a dinner rush. After the meals Ethel Lynn made for the breakfast and lunch crowds, we won’t see a soul.”
Delia approached the picture window. “I hope the town council doesn’t burn up the phone lines scaring off our customers.” She squinted at the courthouse anchoring the north end of Liberty Square. “Then again, they have a soft spot for Miss Meg. It might stop them from passing legislation condemning this place.”
“Maybe I should ask my aunt to fire off an email.” Would long-distance lobbying work?
“You should—Meg can fix anything.” The mirth on Delia’s face died as she added, “We were all sorry to see her go.”
And sorry to see me arrive? Mary resisted the unwarranted thought. Didn’t everyone in the small town treat her kindly? Sure, she suspected they gossiped whenever she moved out of earshot. She’d come around a corner in Liberty Square only to find chattering women huddled on the cobblestone walk. One glimpse of her and they’d burst apart like so much confetti showering down on Times Square. The men were no better. If she strolled past the courthouse they stared blatantly, making her wonder when was the last time Liberty had taken on a new resident.
Dismissing the thought, she said, “I know everyone misses Aunt Meg.” She ignored the curiosity glittering in Delia’s blue eyes. “She called an hour ago—from Tibet. She’s praying with the monks.”
“She sure is eccentric.”
Incorrigible was more like it. “She’s practicing yoga with the monks then having a drink once they retire for the night. How she smuggled booze into a monastery is anyone’s guess.”
“Makes her own rules, that’s how.” Delia tipped her head to the side. “She’s also an open book, which you aren’t. You never talk about yourself.”
Mary crossed her arms. “I will when I have something to say.”
Evidently the young waitress wasn’t buying. “Everyone has stuff to talk about,” she said. “Like, why did you agree to take over this dump? And what’s it like being a doctor? Do you miss it?”
“Not at the moment.” Worry over bankruptcy occupied most of her thoughts. “Well, I miss my patients. But I don’t want to talk about it.”
In truth her emotions were sorely in need of CPR. And her bank account languished on death’s door after generous Aunt Meg handed over the restaurant and waltzed into retirement.
True, her aunt’s largesse was perfectly timed. Though Mary was loath to explain, she’d eagerly left Cincinnati for a yearlong sabbatical from medicine. Slogging through her residency and working long hours in the ER had left her exhausted. When the unthinkable happened, she handed in her resignation and packed her meager belongings in two suitcases. Grief over the sudden death of her friend and confidant, Dr. Sadie Goldstein, wouldn’t abate any time soon. She needed time to heal.
None of which was suitable conversation with the gum-popping Delia. Excusing herself, she returned to the kitchen.
Ethel Lynn fluttered before the stove like a butterfly abandoned in the carnage of the kitchen. Her oversized apron swung in loose folds. She padded her fingers across the collar of her bluebell-patterned dress, a retro number that seemed better suited for the Eisenhower era, much like Ethel Lynn herself.
“Is the lunch rush over, dear?” she asked. “I’m ready if you need anything.”
Mary hesitated. “Why don’t I take over for a few hours? You look frazzled.”
Ethel Lynn threw back her shoulders. “I’m fit as a fiddle!”
Right. The woman possessed the metabolism of a sparrow on amphetamines. She’d worried her way through the renovations after the restaurant changed hands. Ethel Lynn had perspired in her delicate way, lace handkerchief at the ready, as the dining room took on a new coat of creamy paint and patriotic bunting was hung on the picture window. Now they’d reopened to disastrous results. Predictably, she seemed ready to fret into a full-blown state of distress.
Which was never good for a woman on the far side of sixty.
Gently, Mary patted her on the back. “About your cooking . . . there’ve been a few complaints. Do you need another pair of hands in the kitchen?”
Ethel Lynn turned her palms skyward. “What’s wrong with this set?”
“I mean, well—it is a lot of work. Too much work for one woman.”
“Nonsense. This establishment manages fine with one cook.” Ethel Lynn puffed out her sparrow’s chest. “You rehired the staff, didn’t you?”
“I rehired Delia,” Mary corrected.
“I called the other waitress. She refused my offer.” The mysterious Finney Smith had blistered Mary with a few choice words before slamming down the phone. Shocking, sure, but who cared if they were short one waitress? “We’ll find a replacement for Finney. Honestly, I can’t imagine a woman like that waiting tables.” Not unless the tables were in Sing Sing.
A squeak popped from Ethel Lynn’s throat. “It’s about Finney,” she whispered, and something in her voice sent goose bumps down Mary’s spine. “She wasn’t a waitress, dear. Her job was—heavens to Betsy—a tad more important.”
Mary’s pulse scuttled. “What do you mean?”
* * *
Blossom’s dad thought a lot about dying.
She supposed it was natural given all the pain, blood tests, and hospital visits they’d endured. Going through it, years of it, had changed him. It put lines on his forehead and doubt in his eyes. She’d watched the changes color him, as if he’d been a pencil sketch before the ordeal and was now bolded in by the blues and grays of his experience with cancer.
She wanted to tear up that picture, throw it into a garbage can of unwanted memories. She’d heard for herself the word Dr. Lash used. Remission.
It was over. Finished. The word always made her happy. Then she’d think about her dad, stuck on his thoughts of death.
Which made her sad.
Pausing on Second Street, Blossom tugged the book bag’s straps across her shoulders. Feeling self-conscious, she hesitated beside the large picture window where a curtain patterned like the American flag hung in heavy folds.
She hooked a curl behind her ear and glanced down the street like a spy afraid of being noticed. Which was stupid. She was a sixth grader at Liberty Middle School and knew everyone in town.
Before she might chicken out, she peeked in the window.
No one in sight. Blossom toed the ground with the tip of her bright red tennis shoe. On a silent prayer she swung her gaze to the long counter hemmed in by bar stools. Her mood soared. Mary was there, all right.
Ducking out of sight, she leaned against the wall’s rough bricks as the fizzy elation ran down to her toes.
Then she dashed across the street.
She ran diagonally through the park-like center green of Liberty Square. Maple trees wagged leaves in the breeze. The scent of freshly mown grass mingled with the sweet aroma of lavender spilling in waves across the sidewalk.
Moving faster, she narrowed her concentration with an adolescent blend of purpose and amusement. Sure, her dad worried about death. Grown-ups did all sorts of stupid things. He acted as if death lurked outside the door, which she knew was a silly idea. Death wasn’t cloaked in black, waiting to snatch you away.
Yet no matter how many times she reassured her father, he saw death as the enemy. He believed in it.
That was nonsense. Blossom knew with an eleven year old’s certainty that death was outsmarted by good doctors and positive thoughts. Wishing helped, too.
Buoyed by the warm May air and her foolproof plan, she ambled across the hot pavement of the Gas & Go. Inside the garage her father clattered around the pit, working beneath a late model Toyota.
“Hey, there.” She spotted the vintage oak office chair, her favorite, and dropped onto it. “How ya doin’?”
“Hi, kiddo,” Anthony Perini called from inside the pit. “How was school?”
“Just counting the days until my prison break.” She yawned theatrically. “Guess what? The restaurant reopened this morning. Been there yet?”
A rattling erupted beneath the car. “Too busy.” Several bolts clanked into a tray.
“Go over and meet the new owner. She’s nicer than prissy Meade Williams.”
“Don’t start. All right?”
It was an old request. Meade Williams posed the biggest threat to Blossom’s emotional well-being since she and her dad had high-tailed it out of the hospital last year. Rich and as plastic as a platinum-haired Barbie doll, Meade was now upping the ante. The cosmetics entrepreneur filled her Mercedes at the Gas & Go so frequently she was probably siphoning off gas in a cornfield to keep her fuel gauge on empty.
Ditching the thought, Blossom said, “If you aren’t careful, Meade will have you doing the goosestep to the altar. You don’t know women like I do. I am a woman.”
“We aren’t having this conversation.”
“Face it, Dad. If I don’t give you advice, who will?” She wheeled the chair to the garage door. Sunshine dappled the quaint shops and the restaurant on the other side of Liberty Square. “The lady at the restaurant is pretty. You’ve got to meet her.”
Beneath the Toyota, a tool clanked. “Meet who?”
She wheeled close, happy she’d caught his attention. “The lady—I think she’s Miss Meg’s niece. She’s a real looker.”
“If you say so.”
“Aren’t you interested?”
A grease-stained hand popped out from beneath the car and grabbed the air ratchet’s snaking black hose. The hand disappeared underneath, as an ear-splitting, motorized whirring roared through the garage.
When the tool fell silent, Blossom continued. “She has brownish-red hair down to her shoulders and green eyes. She’s kind of shy, like she’s scared or something. She even fixed up the boring old menu. I’ll bet the stuff she’s making is better than your cooking.”
“Hard to believe anyone cooks better than me.”
“A lady like that must be a great cook.”
Frustrated by his lack of interest, she kicked away the bolts he’d thrown from the pit. “She changed the restaurant’s name. It’s now The Second Chance Grill. Her name is Mary Chance, by the way.”
“She’s younger than you. Twenty-eight or twenty-nine—nowhere near the old fart stage.” Like Meade. “C’mon Dad, take me over for a sundae.” Her father muttered a curse before climbing out of the pit. Plastering on a smile, she added, “You’ve got to see her.”
When he paused before her, she wrinkled her nose. He was grease monkey all the way. Droplets of motor oil dotted his curly brown hair. Oil glazed the side of his large nose. Beneath deep brown eyes, smudges of black covered his cheeks. To top it off, he stank of eau de gasoline and perspiration.
“You’re a stink pot.” She pushed the office chair toward the garage door and the reprieve of springtime air. “And you’re ruining your clothes. Geez, we’ll never get the gunk out of your jeans. Not even with ten boxes of detergent.”
Looking mildly offended, he ran his palms down his filthy tee-shirt. “Why are you always bugging me about my clothes?”
“You’re a good looking guy, that’s all. Clean up once in awhile. Strut your stuff.”
He gave her the quizzical look that meant she’d crossed the line of father-daughter relationships—a line she didn’t think existed.
She rolled her eyes at the ceiling. “I hate to point out the obvious but you need a date. Meade stalking you doesn’t count.”
“How long’s it been? Can you remember the last time you had a date?”
“That’s why she’s got you in her sights. It’s about damn time you found a nice woman.”
He threw a sharp glance. “You shouldn’t swear.”
“You shouldn’t make me.”
She pulled her attention from the ceiling and leveled it on his sweet, teddy bear gaze. It never failed to warm her when he looked at her that way. It also made her sad, the worry lurking in his eyes, the concern he tried to hide.
He’d had that look her whole life.
Crouching, he clasped the chair’s armrests. “Blossom, the last couple of years nearly did us in. It’s a miracle we survived. I can’t imagine thinking about a woman or dating or—”
“You don’t have to worry.” She patted his greasy cheek. “We’re fine.”
The concern in his eyes deepened. “I know.”
“Try believing it.”
A weary smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “I’m trying.”
He let the chair go, and she snatched the paper bag at her feet. Following him across the garage, she said, “I brought clothes. You can wash up and change.”
She lifted the bag. “Clean clothes. Let’s go to The Second Chance for a sugar buzz.”
“Shouldn’t you go home, do homework or something?”
“Got it done in study hall.” She pulled out a pair of jeans and wagged them before his nose. “Can we go to Miss Mary’s restaurant? Please?”
Her father leaned against the doorjamb, shaking his head. “Shit, you never give up.”
She tipped up her chin. “You shouldn’t swear.”
He offered a lopsided grin. “You shouldn’t make me.”
* * *
The now-familiar girl with the corkscrew curls and red tennis shoes entered from the street. She’d been peering in the window for days, an amusing state of affairs. A tall man in jeans followed. Mary nodded in greeting. Hopefully they’d arrived for an afternoon snack that wouldn’t put Ethel Lynn anywhere near the stove.
To her eternal relief, the girl asked, “Do you have sundaes?”
“With twenty flavors of ice cream.” She reached for the order pad as they slid onto barstools. “Would you like menus?”
The girl smiled broadly, revealing pearly teeth. “Naw, I’ll stick to chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce. And sprinkles, if you’ve got ‘em.” Light sparkled in her toffee-colored eyes. “I’m Blossom Perini. You’re Mary, right?”
“I am. It’s nice to meet you.”
The man quietly studied her, sending a pang of discomfort through her. He had the most expressive eyes—almond shaped, and a deep, warm brown. Like Blossom, his hair was a darker brown, and curly. An older brother? Or Blossom’s father? He possessed the well-toned build of a man who worked out, lending him a youthful appearance. Deducing their relationship was impossible.
Immediately Blossom cleared up the mystery. “This is my dad, Anthony.”
Mary extended her hand. “Hello.”
“It’s a pleasure.” He surged to his feet to give a handshake formal enough for colleagues meeting at a medical convention.
But he didn’t let go after the obligatory three seconds. With a start, she wondered if an odd bit of food was stuck on her face. Flecks of ash from the sausage Ethel Lynn had burned? With her free hand she made a self-conscious swipe at her cheek.
Clearly aware of her discomfort, he released her fingers and jerked back. He continued to stand behind the barstool in what she decided was a state of utter confusion. She didn’t know how to proceed, not with him staring at her and Blossom watching the interchange with ill-concealed mirth.
Blossom yanked on his sleeve and he dropped back onto his barstool. “Do you want coffee?” she asked.
The question drew Anthony’s attention back to his daughter. When he nodded in the affirmative, Mary tried to regain her composure. She stole a glance at the mirror behind the bar—no smudges, no food anywhere on her face. What had he been gaping at? Surely she appeared presentable, if a little exhausted. Given the apologies she’d doled out all day long, who wouldn’t look haggard?
Shrugging it off, she scooped ice cream then fetched the coffee pot. She’d just finished pouring when Anthony said, “So you’re Meg’s niece. How is she?”
“Traveling the world.” His remarks were light, and much friendlier than his strange, first reaction and so she added, “Meg’s decision to turn over the restaurant came as a shock. I’d never visited. I should’ve found the time.”
“I would’ve remembered seeing you.”
He seared her with a smoldering look. Was he flirting? The possibility boosted her sagging spirits.
Steering the conversation to safe ground, she said, “It’s been a crazy week. I’m still sorting through the antiques in the storage room and cleaning things up.”
“This is the oldest landmark in town but Meg hadn’t been turning much of a profit.” Anthony took a sip of his coffee. “I’m sure you’ll have better luck.”
“I hope so.”
An attractive grin edged onto his mouth. “I hear Ethel Lynn is still around.” He nodded toward the kitchen. “Keep her on a short leash. She’s . . . high strung.”
Mary chuckled. “And as eccentric as my aunt.”
“Eccentric? Wait until you get a load of Theodora Hendricks.” He warmed to his story. “Closing in on eighty years old, she thinks yellow lights mean ‘hurry’ and red means ‘floor it.’ She’s a bit crabby and about four feet tall—she drives a sky blue Cadillac. If you see her barreling down the road, get out of the way.”
His eyes danced, drawing a laugh from Mary. “Thanks for the tip. I’ll watch out for her.”
The kitchen door swung open and Ethel Lynn fluttered out. “Now, Anthony, you know better than to frighten Mary with tales of Theodora’s driving.”
“She’s had six fender-benders in the last year. Trust me with the numbers. I’m stuck working on her car every time.”
“You do bodywork?” Mary asked. His body didn’t need any work. He was a glorious study of lean muscle and commanding height. Squashing the thought, she added, “I mean, if you work on cars . . .”
“I’m a mechanic. The bodywork is a side business. Theodora is my best customer.”
He shrugged and Mary decided she liked Blossom’s father. He was attractive and sweet, and extremely protective of his daughter. Since they’d arrived, he’d reached behind his daughter’s back several times to pat her affectionately or rub her shoulders. It was heartwarming to see a man so engaged with his child.
Anthony turned to Ethel Lynn. “Does the change of ownership mean you’re retiring, too?” he asked.
“I promised Meg I’d stay until Mary settles in,” she said.
“Meaning you’d like to retire?” Mary savored the thought of ridding herself of the fretful woman. Guilt washed through her—Ethel Lynn was Aunt Meg’s closest friend.
Blossom, finishing her sundae, scanned the newly painted dining room. “I think Mary is doing great by herself.”
Anthony nudged her shoulder. “She’s Miss Chance to you.” He gave an assessing glance. “Or is it Mrs?”
“Dad, I told you—she isn’t married. Everyone knows that.” Blossom regarded Mary. “Well, Miss Chance, I like everything you’ve done to the place. Especially the new name.”
Mary smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”
“The Second Chance Grill. It’s a great name.” The girl tugged on her father’s sleeve. “Everyone deserves a second chance. Right, Dad?”
Her inoffensive comment drove sorrow into Anthony’s gaze. Mary’s breath caught. Both Ethel Lynn and Blossom missed the expression, vanquished quickly from his face. But Mary recognized it, a demonstration of intense pain deftly hidden a moment after it appeared. It was an emotion she knew too well.
Like Anthony, she’d learned how to hide the pain as soon as it surfaced. The sudden death of her closest friend, the loss of Sadie’s calm presence and unwavering confidence—all the dreams they’d shared about building a medical practice together had vanished in an instant.
She dispelled the memory before it gripped her heart. Well, she’d finish grieving before returning to Cincinnati. Once The Second Chance Grill was solvent, she’d get on with her life.
Drawing from her thoughts, she blinked. Then flinched—she was still staring at Anthony. Flushing, she pulled her gaze away. But not before his eyes grew dull with some confusing mix of emotion. Clearly he understood: she’d glimpsed his pain. His emotions were laid bare before her, a perfect stranger.
Her mouth went dry as his expression closed. Embarrassed, she stepped back as he rose and paid the check. Murmuring a farewell, he led Blossom out.
They skirted across Liberty Square. “What . . . was that?” Mary whispered.
Ethel Lynn looked up with confusion. “What, dear?”
“Anthony was so upset when Blossom said everyone deserves a second chance.” Why had the remark upset him? Trying to work it out, she asked, “What’s the story between him and Blossom’s mother?”
Ethel Lynn waved the question away. “Hells bells. Anthony dated Cheryl when they were teenagers. She got pregnant and he did the honorable thing by marrying her. Two years after Blossom came along, Cheryl fell for a guitarist and skedaddled off to Florida.”
The explanation was depressing and common. “Does Cheryl visit Blossom?” Mary asked.
Ethel Lynn snorted. “Good grief, we haven’t seen her in years. I doubt Blossom remembers her. Good riddance, I say.”
“No wonder Blossom’s comment upset her father. With a wife like that, he doesn’t believe in second chances.”
Silence descended on the dining room. Ethel Lynn seemed lost at sea, her expression clouding and her gaze faraway. An odd foreboding filled Mary.
Slowly Ethel Lynn withdrew a lace handkerchief from the pocket of her dress. “You don’t understand,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “Blossom has leukemia. Last year she was so sick, we weren’t sure she’d make it. The cancer is in remission, thank God.”
The news struck Mary hard. “And Anthony?” she finally asked. “How’s he managing?”
Sorrow bent Ethel Lynn’s spine. “He’s afraid to believe in second chances. He’s learned to live each day as if it’s Blossom’s last.”
Learning of Blossom’s leukemia added considerably to Mary’s anxiety the following morning as she drove out of Liberty in search of Finney Smith’s house.
She glanced at the address Ethel Lynn had jotted down before returning her attention to the road. Swatches of pink light brushed the newly plowed fields. Up ahead, a farmer on a tractor kicked up dust as he tilled the brown earth. She drove past with her thoughts wending back to Blossom.
Given Mary’s background in medicine, she couldn’t help but wonder about the prognosis. Leukemia was the number one type of cancer in children. When did Blossom receive the diagnosis? Was her remission stable, or did she still undergo treatment? And how did her single father manage? Like any doctor, Mary understood how stressful caring for an ill child became for a parent. Anthony’s confrontation with Blossom’s cancer might have affected his own health. Did he suffer sleepless nights? Have an ulcer?
Considering his wellbeing was the easier choice. She’d trained for a career as a general practitioner. Pediatrics had been the area of expertise of her closest friend, Dr. Sadie Goldstein. Before Sadie’s death, during those nights when they’d stayed up late discussing the practice they’d soon share, she’d talked with excitement about serving Cincinnati’s poorest children. Nothing about childhood illness frightened her. During their residencies at Cinci General, she gladly did the rounds of common ailments like an ear infection or a broken femur. But she’d never feared working with the life-threatening cases, like cancer.
Mary had always known she didn’t possess Sadie’s fortitude. During a rotation in oncology, she’d worked with a man losing his battle with prostate cancer. His smile said ‘Surfer Dude’ even though he was well past sixty. Throughout an increasingly unsuccessful course of treatment, he talked of taking one last trip to Hawaii with his wife. Too weak to surf the Pacific’s whitecaps, he’d appeared eager, even serene, about one last stroll on the beach.
Many of the adults she’d one day serve would confront disease, even death. Maturity would see them through life’s most difficult passage. Steering a vulnerable child through the frightening journey to death—as Sadie would’ve done with cool-headed compassion—was beyond Mary’s emotional skills. Pity filled her as she imagined the impact of Blossom’s ordeal on her devoted father.
Brushing away the thought, she scanned the countryside for signs of life. There wasn’t time this morning to consider a single father’s struggles or his daughter’s prognosis. She had a restaurant to manage. If she didn’t talk the cook into returning to work, The Second Chance Grill would soon close.
She cut a sharp right onto Elmwood, a woodsy stretch of road void of houses. On the side of the road a ravine swept down at a steep pitch. The soothing melody of the green, gurgling waters reached her ears. A thick line of evergreen trees blotted out the morning light, throwing shadows across the car’s hood.
Where was the house? She slowed to a crawl to consider her options. Give up looking for the cook’s house and return to Liberty? It wasn’t as if she’d worked out a suitable plan for convincing Finney to resume her job at the restaurant. Last night at closing, a nervous Ethel Lynn had admitted that she’d fired the cook weeks ago. Chances were, Finney had already secured another job. Convincing her to return might prove impossible.
Gravel crunched beneath the car’s wheels. Past a stand of maple trees, a white house sat lonely in a patch of yellowing grass.
The house needed a paint job. A truck pockmarked with rust sat in the driveway. Music blared across the lonely expanse. Did Finney have a teenager? Or was the cook a fan of screaming guitars?
Unsure, Mary parked and got out. Anxiety darted through her but she started up the steps.
And might’ve knocked, if the door hadn’t jerked open first.
“What do you want?” The woman didn’t wait for a reply. Turning away, she shouted, “Dang it all, Randy! Turn the music down!”
Mary floundered as the house fell into silence. She was quite a bit taller than the heavy-set woman before her. Finney’s shirt sported rumples but her brassy blond hair was neatly brushed. And she was as curvaceous as a woman could be. Despite her rampant femininity, a decidedly masculine aura surrounded her.
Squaring her shoulders, Mary asked, “You’re Finney Smith, aren’t you?”
“Of course I am. Are you stupid?”
She attempted a smile, and failed. “Finney,” she said, her lips frozen in a grimace. “It’s unusual. Is it Irish?”
The cook folded her arms across her ample bosom. “It’s Filomena and I don’t know what it is.”
“Filomena. Why, that’s beautiful. Why don’t you use it?”
“It’s too long.”
Finney glared. “Do I look like a horse?”
Mary stalled, unsure of how to proceed. In fact, the woman was as voluptuous as a Rubens despite her Farmer Joe jeans and plaid shirt. The shirt seemed ready to release her generous breasts from their unfashionable prison.
Starting over seemed wise. “I apologize for stopping by without an invitation,” she said. “I’m the new owner of the—”
“I know who you are. Get in here.”
Finney grabbed her by the wrist. Mary stumbled into the tiny foyer. Further down the hallway, a lanky teenage boy sauntered into the kitchen. No time to offer a greeting—a push on the back sent her lurching into the family room with its beat-up green couch.
A teenage girl’s voice rang out from the kitchen. Then the boy’s voice as a squabble erupted. So Finney had two kids. Mary recalled Ethel Lynn mentioning a deceased husband. A police officer, he’d died in an accident on I-90 several years ago. Evidently the cook supported two teenagers on her own. And barely, from the looks of the place.
“Sit there,” Finney said, breaking into her thoughts. Mary sank down onto the couch and the cook added, “Did the nibby old bat tell you why she fired me?”
“Ethel Lynn? No.” Mary pressed her knees together, conscious she was sitting like a disobedient child. “Would you like to explain?”
“Hell, no.” Finney paced before the couch. “Meade Williams has no right throwing her weight around when she’s inside my restaurant. Complaining because I put sour cream in the low-fat ranch dressing! I don’t use much, just a few tablespoons. So I threw her out.”
“Who’s Meade?” she asked, trying to keep up.
Finney snorted. “You haven’t met Liberty’s belle of fashion? She’s chasing our town’s favorite son, Anthony Perini. He owns the Gas & Go across the Square from the restaurant. He’s Mr. Fix-it.”
“I’ve met him,” Mary offered. “He’s nice.”
“God bless him, he’s always fixing something at the restaurant. But he’s got a problem. Meade has him in her sights. He’ll be hog-tied and hauled into marriage before the year’s out.”
“So they’re seeing each other?” The possibility sent relief through her. Ridiculously, she’d experienced the stirring of attraction when they’d met. A true inconvenience since she had more pressing concerns like convincing Finney to return to work, preferably today.
“It’s more like Meade’s on the hunt and Anthony is running for cover,” the cook said. “Why do you ask? Do you have the hots for him? Half the women in town do, you know.”
Mary angled her neck back. “I don’t have the hots for him, no.”
“Well, you are stupid. He’s the only eligible bachelor in town. Maybe you put men off. You seem the type.”
“You don’t know the first thing about me!”
“I put men off, too,” the cook said, missing the heated denial. “But for different reasons. I’m not strung tight, like you. Mine’s a different problem. I come on a little strong.”
“Like a bull?” Clearly she needed a seminar on polishing her people skills. An entire semester of White Gloves and Party Manners.
The insult stamped pleasure on the cook’s face. “Men don’t take well to strong women. The sissies.” She changed track. “Your Aunt Meg is a good woman.”
“She never so much as mentioned having a niece. Nice of her to leave you the restaurant.”
“I thought she was joking when she called to tell me.”
“Who jokes about real estate? I hope you thanked her.”
Despite Finney’s brusque nature, Mary found herself softening. The cook lived a hardscrabble life that seemed a place of meager hope and limited possibilities. A basket of laundry sat on the rug, the tee shirts and blue jeans folded with military precision. The jar on the windowsill brimmed with daffodils. Despite difficult circumstances, she clearly took pride in the smallest things.
“Meg knew I needed a change.” Glad for an opening, she donned a look of sincerity. “Listen, Ethel Lynn never should’ve fired you. Certainly not without consulting me first.”
“If I’d been in town, I would’ve stopped her.”
Finney shrugged off the apology. “Why did you need a change?” she asked.
The question hung in the air. From the kitchen, the girl shouted and the boy let loose a string of profanity. The back door slammed shut.
She smiled gamely. “A friend died.” Of course, Sadie had been so much more. Her touchstone. Her sister in every way except blood. “I needed a sabbatical from medicine and my aunt wanted to retire. When she suggested I come to Liberty, I jumped at the chance.”
The explanation seemed to satisfy the cook. “Sometimes we all need a change of pace.” She offered a sympathetic glance. “What happened to your friend?”
“She was working late, downtown.” Grief settled in Mary’s chest. A twelve-hour stint at the hospital—no wonder Sadie hadn’t seen the car. “She was dashing across the street. A drunk driver hit her.”
The pity on the cook’s face intensified the sorrow in Mary’s chest. “Sadie was killed instantly,” she said, wondering why sharing such an awful memory gave a respite from the pain. “It happened so quickly … I don’t think she felt anything. I’m grateful for that. I’ll always be grateful.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
Pulling from the reverie, Mary returned to the task at hand. “Will you come back? The restaurant will go under without you.”
“Now there’s a news flash. Can’t run the restaurant without me.”
The cook snatched up a notepad and a pen from the coffee table. She scribbled furiously then thrust the pad toward Mary. “This here’s my hourly amount. I’ll work fifty hours a week . . . and this here’s my weekly pay. I gave myself a raise for general aggravation.”
“I heard you’re letting that old bat, Ethel Lynn, stick around. I suppose that makes you crazier than a loon but we all have our faults.” She planted her feet. “You’ll pay me on Fridays.”
“Miss a Friday and I’ll make your life hell.” She tapped the edge of the notepad. “This is my final offer.”
So Mary wouldn’t have to beg. Finney wanted to return. The pay she requested was more than reasonable. Mary was about to agree when the cook spoke again.
“Now I have a few questions for you.” She lowered her generous body onto the couch. “I like a good understanding of my employer. Ethel Lynn, well, she’s as buggy as a flea-infested mattress. How ‘bout you?”
“I don’t conjure imaginary friends,” she offered dryly. She might have laughed if the cook hadn’t been serious. Quickly, she added, “Finney, we’ll get along fine.”
“How many eating establishments have you owned?”
“Before this one?” The nerves she’d put at bay returned.
“Were you the cook in a fancy place? If Meg left you the restaurant you must have culinary experience.”
Wasn’t it enough that she’d survived med school and a grueling residency? “I don’t have experience. So what? How hard can it be to run The Second Chance?”
“You think running Liberty’s only restaurant is a walk in the park? Are you crazy?”
“We aren’t talking brain surgery. It’s a restaurant.”
Finney arched a brow. “What exactly are your qualifications?”
“I’m a doctor,” Mary snapped.
Finney sucked in a breath. “Run that by me again.”
* * *
Stifling a yawn, Anthony dragged himself from the master bedroom.
Inside the bathroom at the end of the hallway, Blossom gyrated wildly before the mirror. A portion of her back popped into view as she struggled mightily with a stretch of slingshot-like material. Evidently she risked losing the battle. Wrenching the strap up past her elbow, she growled with fury. The fabric snapped back and she veered into the wall with a loud thump! The sound sent Anthony hurrying down the stairwell.
With horror, he resisted the notion sinking into his skull. The effort went unrewarded. The truth hammered his grey matter, forever ending his parenting bliss.
Blossom had bought a bra.
A bra? At age eleven? Sure, female gadgetry loomed in her future. But she didn’t need the contraption. Not yet, not if her petite and scrawny build was any indication. He tiptoed back to the landing and stared dejectedly up the stairwell. Thank God nothing was visible except the shuffle of her feet as she battled the elastic menace.
The fact that he had no idea his daughter required feminine niceties sent him into a gloom that competed with his need for a morning caffeine fix. He fled toward the kitchen, away from the muttering irritation of his adolescent daughter, who might well strangle herself before she figured out the damn lingerie.
And therein lay the problem. Who would help Blossom negotiate the dangerous terrain of womanhood?
Single-handedly, he’d steered his kid through early childhood. He’d attended school plays and picked out her clothing while Blossom sat in the shopping cart or leaned against his hip.
In retrospect, those days were idyllic. They’d melted beneath the volcanic eruptions that were now commonplace, her sudden squabbles with friends, the stalking through the house with her mood as black as her jeans. Blossom had acne now, a sprinkling of hormonal rage scattered across her forehead. When she appeared for dinner, Anthony was confronted with cheekbones gaining definition and a mouth veering toward sensuality.
What was even worse? She no longer considered Good Old Dad as her buddy. If he dared to offer pithy advice or cracked a joke, she’d roll her eyes with embarrassment.
Were they becoming strangers? Worried, he trudged into the kitchen. He yanked the coffee machine open and dumped grounds inside. The machine started brewing. Above his head, thumps bounded across the ceiling like balls set loose in hell’s bowling alley. What was she doing upstairs? He wondered if she was evacuating the bathroom with her dangerous new lingerie—and he flinched as his daughter stomped to her bedroom with the grace of ten gorillas. Sighing, he took down a mug.
By the time he’d poured a second cup, Blossom was talking loudly on her cell. Something about Tyler’s cute butt—he glared at the ceiling in disgust. Listening to the rest of the conversation wasn’t an early morning elixir, and he retraced his steps to the front of the house and the sanctuary of his large front porch. On this gloriously sunny Saturday morning, several kids played hide-and-seek across the street. The sky was a faultless blue, unmarred by clouds.
He’d barely settled into a wicker chair when he caught sight of Meade Williams sashaying down the street with her white poodle straining to escape its faux diamond leash. The miniscule Melbourne was spraying everything from Mrs. Osborne’s petunias next door to the crabgrass beneath Anthony’s mailbox. What the beast lacked in size he made up for in sheer male aggression.
Before he might duck back inside, she tugged her pint-sized companion due east. Melbourne gave out a yip, bells jangling as she dragged him forward. Midway up the stone path, she paused to admire the pink turrets and gingerbread latticework adorning his large Victorian house. Longing bloomed on her face.
Like her irritating dog, she knew how to mark her territory. Why she’d staked a claim for Anthony—and his beaut of a house—was too frightening to consider.
Even if it was his fault, it didn’t make sense. Meade could have any man she wanted. Single, successful and snobbish, the cosmetics maven had seven years on him and more assets than his entire extended family.
Now she appeared determined to settle down whether he agreed or not. And if he were honest with himself, he had begun worrying about how his single status affected Blossom. No doubt Meade, with her laser-like blue eyes and kissable lips, had caught his scent of desperation. What man in his right mind wanted to fly through his daughter’s teenage years without a co-pilot? Stupidly he’d admitted as much to her last winter, at Mayor Ryan’s Christmas party.
“Meade. Good morning.”
His thoughts strayed to Mary Chance. Unlike the woman trotting up his front steps in crisp linen shorts and expensive jewelry, the new woman in town was . . . nice. Sexy in a subtle way. Assuming he did have the courage to find a woman, he’d prefer to take a shot with someone down-to-earth like Mary.
“Oh, coffee! May I have a cup?” Meade asked, dragging his attention back to her.
“Sure.” Anthony nearly tripped over Melbourne in his haste to reach the safety of the house.
She brushed past. “I’ll fetch it myself.” Melbourne dogged her three-inch heels.
Speechless, Anthony followed. Entering his house without an invitation was a new and disturbing escalation of her tactics. He wasn’t sure what to do about it.
In the kitchen, Meade asked, “Didn’t you use the beans I bought at Starbucks?” She frowned at the pizza box and the red sauce dribbling across the counter. “Where’s the coffee grinder?”
Anthony grabbed the pizza box and stuffed it into the garbage. “I’m not sure.” She’d given him the gift of grinder and beans last week. “Let me look for it.”
“You haven’t been making fresh?” With a silvery laugh, she rummaged through the cupboards. “Men. You’re helpless on your own.”
The comment hit too close to home. Blossom was maturing. The physics of steering a girl to womanhood were beyond him. How to manage?
“Ah, here it is.”
She placed the grinder on the counter with a self-congratulatory smile. Blossom trudged into the kitchen with her golden retriever, Sweetcakes. Blossom’s pooch noticed Melbourne. Meade’s runt bared his teeth and offered a low, rumbling growl in greeting.
Anthony sent his daughter a warning glance. Snickering, she pulled Sweetcakes into a sitting position before the dog made a snack of Meade’s poodle.
Blossom flopped into a chair. “I wouldn’t use the grinder if I were you,” she said to Meade. She made a careless wave of her hand. “The blades are screwed up.”
Meade popped off the lid and peered inside. “Goodness—they are.” She gave Blossom a glittering stare. “What happened?”
“I was grinding stuff.”
His daughter licked her fingertips then dunked them into the sugar bowl. “Peppercorns. Some of my dog’s biscuits. Rocks.” She licked off the sugary mess. “I was experimenting.”
“With the limestone Uncle Nick gave you?” Like his older brother, Blossom had a yen for science that made Anthony proud. “Or was it the quartz?”
He dared a glance at Meade. She appeared past simmer on her way to boil. “You should’ve asked first,” he said in a suitably firm voice. “The grinder was a gift.”
“Oops. I forgot.”
Meade banged the grinder down. “You don’t sound sorry.” She scooped up Melbourne and stalked across the kitchen. “Anthony, I really don’t have time for coffee. I have an appointment this morning.”
Blossom twirled one of her curls around her finger. “See ya.”
He launched into an apology for her impolite behavior—too late. Meade sailed through the house and down the front steps.
When he returned to the kitchen, Blossom gave a toothy smile. He couldn’t tell if, beneath her loose tee shirt, she wore the bra she’d wrestled upstairs. Did it matter? It wasn’t like he’d broach the subject. Not even if she cleared his bank account for iTunes downloads.
She surged to her feet. “Do something about Meade.” She got a bowl from the cupboard. “She’s on a mission, Dad. You’re the mission.”
He swigged down the last of his coffee. “Stop, all right?”
“I will not! This is serious.”
“I’ll handle it,” he said, having no idea how. Without thinking, he added, “Don’t blame her. I’m at fault for the way she’s acting.”
His daughter stopped pouring cereal. “Geez, what did you do?”
He stared at her as his brain emptied out. At a loss, he pretended to drink from his empty cup.
To punctuate her angst, Blossom stuck her hand inside her shirt. Red-faced, she looked away. Maybe she’d put the bra on so tight she was having trouble sucking in air.
The possibility sent his thoughts fleeing in another direction. Not that a stroll down memory lane to the drunken debauchery of Mayor Ryan’s Christmas party gave any comfort. Had Meade set him up? She’d arrived with punch laced with so much alcohol that diesel fumes seemed to waft from the bowl. Several of the shop owners on Liberty Square broke into song. Soon after, the mayor lured the county commissioner into her den. Other guests paired off.
Hammered after two cups of punch, Anthony grinned with drunken delight as Meade crowned him with mistletoe. When, exactly, did she lead him to a bedroom upstairs? More importantly, did she have a dragonfly tattoo above her left breast? Or was it a birthmark?
Blossom poked him in the ribs, catapulting him back to the present. “Spill, buster,” she said. “If you can’t talk to me, what will you do? It’s not like you have friends.”
“I don’t have time for friends. I have a garage to run, bills . . . and a nosy daughter.”
“This concerns me too.” Returning to the table, she dug into her cereal. “You need my blessing to marry. Skip the ritual and you’re excommunicated.”
“I’m not getting married.”
Unfortunately he’d given Meade a different impression when they’d wrestled in the sheets. He’d always found her attractive if a little too slick for his tastes. He considered her a friend. She lived life on the surface, which he didn’t like, but she was long-legged and shapely, which he did. For a woman of forty, she stayed in great shape through merciless exercise and a Spartan diet. And who wouldn’t admire her business acumen or her ability to get what she wanted from life? His days were a struggle. A shotgun marriage, Cheryl taking off, Blossom’s leukemia—by the time he’d reached his thirties, he’d felt beaten down by too many challenges. He’d nearly lost his child before the cancer was brought under control. Even now, worry poured into his gut if Blossom caught a cold or looked unusually pale.
The party’s Christmas music had been to blame. It left him feeling maudlin. Seeing so many couples together made him feel sorry for himself.
Of course, eighty-proof punch would loosen anyone’s tongue. By the time Meade steered him into the mayor’s guest bedroom, he’d admitted he was tired of single life, of raising a daughter without a woman’s influence to soften puberty’s harsh edges.
The other issue was too embarrassing to consider. He’d always been hot-blooded. Years of celibacy had taken its toll in sports injuries from too much jogging. He’d only had a sampling of marriage before his ex took off for greener pastures. At thirty-four he was at risk of reaching middle age as an abstainer. A real humiliation.
Which explained why he’d nearly slept with Meade before shame eroded his lust. He’d pinned her against the pillows, her platinum blond hair spilling across his fists. But he’d never used a woman. It took every ounce of self-control to get off the bed and leave.
Blossom dispelled the painful memory as she said, “You need to think outside the box. There is someone else you can date.”
She meant Mary Chance. If nothing else, his kid was persistent. Not that he was prepared to ask anyone out. His dating skills were rustier than his ‘69 Mustang. Knowing his luck, they were beyond repair.
He found his keys. “Are you coming to the gas station?”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
“I’m not ready to date, all right?” He stopped from mentioning cancer, or remission, or any of the crap they usually discussed. “Stop bringing it up. When I decide to hang out my shingle, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Geez, you’re touchy.”
“You shouldn’t swear.”
“You shouldn’t make me.” He shrugged on his jacket. “Well? What’ll it be?”
“I’ll hang with Tyler while you work.”
He wavered in the doorway. “Where are you hanging out?”
“At Tyler’s house.” When he stared, she added, “Chill, Dad. His mom is home.”
“She’d better be.”
“Go to work already.” She waved dismissively. “You’re getting on my nerves.”
He let the hostile retort pass. It was victory enough that she didn’t plan to torture him with dating schemes at the Gas & Go.
The traffic on Liberty Square was light as he drove past the courthouse. Sadly, no cars were parked before The Second Chance Grill. The tables looked spotless with their red, white and blue tablecloths. Small vases of carnations dyed in the same patriotic colors lent the lonely dining room a bit of cheer.
Mary stood at the picture window gazing at the center green. Disappointment rimmed her mouth, a puckering at the corners of her pretty lips. She’d bound the rich mass of her hair at the base of her skull but tendrils fell loose by her ears in a fetching display. Driving past, he glanced in the rearview mirror in time to see her lower her face before disappearing from view. Now there was a woman worth gambling on.
Jarred from his thoughts, Anthony blinked. Why even consider it?
The kitchen’s turbulent atmosphere did not resemble the sanitized sanity of a hospital.
Unsure how to bring order, Mary closed her eyes and imagined Cinci General. She’d despised how the constraints of a patient’s insurance controlled the amount of time allotted to administer care, how the long hours destroyed any possibility of a private life. But she’d enjoyed the nurses and the patients, and the air of civility that pervaded a hospital. No matter how dire the emergency, medical professionals never resorted to childish tantrums. They never raised their fists or shouted oaths. Even when the ER brimmed with sports injuries and whimpering children, the doctors and nurses worked with steely-eyed calm.
Now, regarding the mayhem, Mary was swamped with a feeling much like homesickness. The kitchen was officially a war zone.
Muttering furiously, Finney stalked in a circle like a panther bearing down on its prey. Ethel Lynn cowered in a vintage lemon colored dress and a pillbox hat that would’ve done Jackie Kennedy proud. Getting the two women on anything resembling civil terms would be difficult. Or impossible.
Silently Mary counted to ten. Pity she didn’t have a weapon. Finney did, and she whipped the ladle past Ethel Lynn’s shoulder. A joggle of old woman ankles, and Ethel Lynn scuttled to safety.
The cook stalked into the walk-in cooler. “What happened in here?” She surveyed the shelves of fresh produce and meat. “Broccoli has no business cozying up with beef brisket. And I don’t know what to make of collard greens sitting by the cottage cheese.”
“We can rearrange the cooler if you like,” Mary said. At least they had ample supplies if anyone took the gamble and dined at the restaurant.
Finney’s cheeks reddened. “I don’t want my cooler rearranged. It was perfect the way it was. Who’s been messing around in here?”
“Why, I don’t know . . .” Mary’s voice drifted away. She looked to Ethel Lynn.
The old woman tottered on her orange pumps. “I alphabetized,” she squeaked.
The cook rounded on her. “You what?”
“I wasn’t sure how to find ingredients. Doesn’t it make sense to put everything in alphabetical order?”
“Are you nuts?”
“You seem agitated.” Ethel Lynn waved a handkerchief before her delicately perspiring face. “Do you need a sedative? Should Mary write you a script?”
Finney backed her against the wall. “Why don’t you march your silk stockings out of my kitchen right quick?”
“Why, the nerve!” The pillbox hat nearly tumbled from Ethel Lynn’s head. Righting it, she added, “You’d left this fine establishment for greener pastures.”
“I left because you fired me!”
Mary stepped between them. “Let’s return everything to the way it was.”
“How about if I put Ethel Lynn out of her misery instead?” For emphasis Finney sliced the air with her ladle. “Use your doctoring skills to raise her from the dead.”
Delia crept into the kitchen. “Uh, Mary . . . someone out front wants to interview you.”
“Hold on a sec.” Channeling her Inner Zen, she turned back to the others. “I forbid you to kill each other. Finney, work on the cooler. Ethel Lynn, check out the storage room. It’s filled with antiques. I’d like to spice up the dining room’s décor. See what you can find.”
She followed Delia through the swinging door. “FYI, I’ve hung up my stethoscope for now,” she said. “If someone’s looking for a doctor, I’m not in the market.”
“You wish. It’s not about your last job.”
“My real job.”
“Yeah? Looks like you’re a lowly waitress now. Welcome to my nightmare.”
Mary smoothed down her apron, noticed a smudge of grease. “What is this about?” She tried rubbing out the stain then gave up.
“It’s about the food poisoning,” Delia said. “You’re in deep with the one person you don’t want to cross.” The waitress eyed her with clear sympathy. “Do you pray?”
Mary stopped abruptly. “Someone wants to interrogate me?” She considered dashing back through the door, which slowly squeaked shut. “Who, exactly?”
“Theodora Hendricks wants answers. She thinks you intentionally tried to kill half of Liberty.” The waitress shrugged. “Or that you’re incompetent.”
“Tough choices. Is there a door number three?” If so, she’d escape through it. Ditching the thought, she lowered her voice. “In point of fact, Ethel Lynn did the poisoning—I mean co