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Where the Light Glows

By Dena Blake

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Dena Blake

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Where the Light Glows

Mel Thomas doesn’t realize just how unhappy she is in her marriage until she meets Izzy Calabrese. Will she have the courage to overcome her insecurities and follow her heart?

Where the Light Glows

© 2017 By Dena Blake. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-959-4


This Electronic book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: May 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Shelley Thrasher

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Len Barot and Sandy Lowe for bringing me into the BSB family and letting me fly. You’ve given me the most precious gift of all, validation.

To Shelley Thrasher, my editor extraordinaire, for cleaning up my sentence structure and making this book flow so eloquently.

To Sheri for a gorgeous cover and knowing exactly what I wanted even when I didn’t.

To the rest of the BSB crew for making the publishing process seamless.

To Robyn for reading all my manuscripts, correcting my grammar, and always reminding me to write the happily ever after.

To Kate for patiently waiting while I finish just one more line and giving me honest, practical feedback without shattering my ego.

To my kids, Wes and Haley, for just being there and always having faith in me. You’ll never know just how much your encouragement means.

To my family for loving me no matter what and for tirelessly cheering me on each step of the way.

To my parents who never had the opportunity to see this book, but whom I hope would be proud.

Last, but never least, thank you to all of you who will read this book and, hopefully, all my books to come. Without you, my passion would never be realized.

Dedication

For Kate, who makes the impossible seem anything but.

I love you.

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.”

*

“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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

“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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.”

*

“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.”


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