Amanda Marks stared at the roll of duct tape in her hand and then at the industrial dishwasher as if all she had professional knowledge on how to fix it. In theory, there were some aspects of the thing that she did understand, but mostly, she had confidence on her side. Her business partner, though, was looking slightly doubtful and had yet to put down the repairman’s number.
“You’ve been at this for the last half an hour,” Hannah Young finally said without respect for her best friend’s feelings. “I have five loads of dishes, goddamn it. Dinner service is only half way through and we don’t have time to feed your ego.”
Amanda frowned, growled, pouted just a little and finally caved in. “Give me the phone.”
Hannah passed it over, trying, and failing, to hide her relief. “I’ll be in the bakery. Let me know when he gets here.”
“Do you know how much he’s gonna charge us just to come look at the thing? Not to mention the fact that he hates late night calls. And he always finds something else that’s broken. Isn’t that incredible?” Amanda asked.
There was no reason to reply, being that Hannah had already exited the kitchen, her nose in the air and the sense of righteousness radiating from her. Amanda hated that look. She dialed the number grudgingly, ignoring the smirks between the dish guy, Dale, and the rest of her kitchen staff.
“This is Amanda Marks at The Bull and Blossom. Our dishwasher just broke down and our dinner shift is in mid-swing and my guys are washing pots, pans and plates in a sink. Is it possible for you to send someone here in the next hour? You can reach me at this number or on my personal number. Thanks.” She hung up and settled the phone on its normal nook, even more pissed off that she’d gone straight to voicemail.
“Do I keep sending the glasses up to the bar?” Dale asked quietly, if not a little hesitantly.
“Yeah. I’ll get runners back here to take everything up. Hannah should close the bakery soon and we’ll just wait to put her things through until dinner is over. I’ll just go check on the floor and be back to help you wash dishes.”
Dale didn’t argue but he didn’t look happy, not because he had to wash dishes by hand but because she was coming back to help herself. It had been his opinion since he’d first started at The Bull and Blossom that Amanda did not belong in the dish pit and yet it happened more often than not. It shocked him to see her dressed up, in full makeup and sometimes heels, washing dishes. But even the boss, especially the boss, had to get her hands dirty sometimes.
She pushed pass the fireproof doors, her spine immediately straightening as her eyes scanned the dining room. It was a blessing from God and the kitchen saints that it was a Tuesday night and the restaurant was only partially full. Out of her ten tables, only six were full and only three of her bar stools were occupied. She shared a look with Suzie at the host stand and when Suzie sent her a thumbs up, Amanda detoured towards the bar. The college sophomore had been with her for the last seven months and she’d earned herself a measure of trust that allowed her to sit guests without Amanda constantly hovering over her shoulder.
The new girl at the bar was a different story. Sweet Kat was barely twenty-one, with no previous restaurant experience and lots of attitude. She’d been hired because Hannah had taken one look at her and decided she’d be worth the trouble. So far Kat proved to be having trouble memorizing their specialty cocktails or even learning the most basic of bar recipes. She was pretty, though, and her conversation flowed easily, which at least gave Amanda hope that if she didn’t work out behind the bar than she might have a place in the wait staff.
She stepped behind the bar and immediately scanned the station to see if Kat had any tickets waiting for her attention. Surprisingly, everything was cleared, clean and in order. Maybe, a big maybe, the little blond would work out after all. “Is everything okay back there?” Kat asked as she polished wine glasses at the other end of the bar.
“You’re gonna keep getting all the glassware. Run everything through and stack it to dry back here and I’ll have someone pull the extras out of your way later. Is everything alright up here?”
Kat nodded, even though Amanda knew she wouldn’t admit to being stumped. “The baseball game finished about twenty minutes ago and we might get a late bar pop soon.”
“If we do, give me a shout and I’ll come up here with you. We’ll finish your quizzes another time.” She spun on her heels and started to head back to the kitchen when another waitress stepped into her way.
“Hey, seat three at B10 said that her burger was undercooked. I took it back to Zach immediately and had him take it up to medium well. I brought it back and asked her to check for me if that was how she’d like it and she said it was perfect.”
Amanda looked back at the woman seated at her first booth and grimaced. Same person, every time. She couldn’t forget that perm if she tried. “Did they get drinks?”
“She’s drinking Sidecars like it’s water.”
“Get her first round and write a memo in their guest notes. This is the third time she’s done this. I keep taking care of her drinks but this is getting ridiculous. Drop it in the safe with your recon at the end of the night and I’ll input it into the system in the morning.”
The server nodded and scurried off and Amanda dragged her tired body back to the dish pit, where Dale reluctantly allowed her to give him a hand. By the time the repairman walked in, she wasn’t sure if she was happier to escape the heat of the kitchen or his grumpy mumbling. Thankfully the clock said nine o’clock and as far as she was concerned, if anyone else who wanted food they’d better know the way to McDonald’s.
She tracked back to the bakery, where Hannah was just sweeping the floor, her face smudged with flour and her hair up in a messy bum. They looked at each other, sharing a mutual appreciation for the other person’s support that more often than not, went unsaid. Neither of them were the kind to use words when actions spoke louder.
Amanda opened the half door that separated Hannah’s bakery from Amanda’s restaurant and walked in, glad to lean against the clean counter as Hannah put away her broom. She leaned against the counter too, eyes glued on the tray of blackberry butter tarts that would soon head to the bar for late night snacks. She’d have first pick.
“The fixing guy is here,” Amanda said quietly, not wanting to disturb the peace of the bakery space. During the morning, this was the loudest part of the restaurant, with people coming in and out through the backdoor to buy Charleston’s best breads and pastries. In the evenings, it was quiet space where Hannah could plan her next day efficiently and work on her more difficult cakes.
The focus of the night shifted just down the short hallway, where Amanda’s open kitchen gave out into an eclectic and fast-paced dining room. The menu was three years of hard work and impeccable planning not only from her, Hannah, and Zach’s part but from the part of their two mentors and silent partners. It was Southern soul and American comfort…and a whole lot of bourbon.
A year after opening their doors, in a new town where neither of them knew anyone, they’d made something unique and true to their passion.
“Think he’d mind having a look at my fridge while he’s here?”
“Is your fridge not working either?” Why was it that the one thing that never broke down was the two of them?
Hannah’s grin was shameless. “Oh it is, but I like watching him bend over.” They chuckled together and Hannah pulled a plate of treats closer to them, offering Amanda a port-ganache covered chocolate chip cookie. “I’ll wait until the tables are cleared and send my stuff up there.”
“Thanks. How’s the wedding cake going?”
Hannah shrugged. “I’ve come to the decision that we might not be able to cater to that particular group at this time. With baking bread, cookies and cakes for the restaurant and having the bakery open late, there’s just not enough time in the day or even space in the ovens. We might have to rethink this for maybe a couple months down the road.”
“Whatever you decide, I’ll do whatever I can,” Amanda promised, regretting not for the first time that she’d advocated so damn long and strongly for a smaller space for their first restaurant. Hannah could have used a little more space and their bank account could have used a boost from expensive wedding cakes.
Hannah sighed, nodded, and pushed off the counter. “I’m gonna go write in the book. Do you think you’ll make it over to my place for a night cap?”
“Maybe, but you shouldn’t wait for me. Write on the book and go home. I’ll take your stuff back and run it through. You should just go home and get some sleep. Fucking Mondays, I tell you.”
Hannah threw back her head and laughed. “Do you think Bill’s felt this exhausted for the last twenty years?”
They both paused to think about their oldest mentor and close friend, the reason they had the money to open their restaurant in the first place. Every day they found something else to appreciate him for. “Maybe. If he does, though, it explains his drinking habit and sleeping pattern.”
“Hey, boss?” Kat knocked on the glass partition and both Hannah and Amanda looked up.
“Yeah?” Jesus, she felt a million years old that very moment.
Kat looked bashful. “There’s a two-top walk-in at the bar. It’s that pitcher from the Kings and a local hot shot. They’re wondering if they can still get some dinner.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Amanda heard herself mumbled before she could stop herself. She could feel Hannah’s amused glance and hear Bill’s voice in her head. “Yeah. Get their orders.”
Kat didn’t move though. “Could you tell the kitchen? I don’t want Zach pissed at—“
“I’ll go talk to them. Get back to the bar.” The blond scurried and Amanda turned back to Hannah. “Go home. Before the whole of Charleston decides it wants a late bite of lemon tarts.”
She left Hannah standing alone in the bakery and walked back to the kitchen, where the line had already gotten the news. No one looked happy, not the sauté guy or the grill boy, especially not her executive chef, Zach. “It’s the pitcher from the Kings. You better believe we are gonna feed him.”
The tall and ridiculously thin chef immediately raised his brows. “Which one?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know the Royals lineup and I supposedly I cheer for them,” she reminded him as the door swung close behind her. Zach followed in her heels, out of curiosity more than devotion to the Kings. Like she and Hannah, he’d been born and raised in Kansas and he was as diehard a Royals fan as Hannah was.
“Can we get an autograph?” One of the line guys asked from behind them.
“Because they’re here to eat. And we are here to feed them,” Amanda said in the exact same tone Bill had used on her many years ago when Bill Murray had happened to dine at Wallflower’s. It was the tone one used when laying down an eternal decree.
The guys grumbled but went back to their stations while Zach remained to peek at the bar with her. The two men seated in her stools looked far too big for her space and certainly too big to sit in those tall seats. Both their shoulders were at least two and a half feet wide. One of them looked like he could bench press her new Nissan Altima if he set his mind to it.
Kat seemed entirely enthralled by them.
“The guy with the mohawk is Sam Porter, he’s the catcher for the Savannah Kings. He’s the transfer from San Fran. I wonder what he’s doing in town.”
She doubted she looked impressed. She didn’t understand baseball enough to be truly awestruck, but she could foresee Kat’s attraction to the sport star becoming a problem in just a few minutes. “Let’s get these gentlemen fed and on their way, yeah?”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” Zach was an old hand at this. He’d been with them from the beginning, back when she and Hannah had been in high school and he’d been the dishwasher in the Wallflower kitchen. His star had been poised to rise and Amanda was more than glad that he’d packed up his bags, and his lovely wife, to come to Charleston with them and to create something that was so much him and her as the bakery was Hannah. In many ways, she had Zach to thank for giving her his trust and time when he could have gone to New York or San Francisco or Chicago to make his mark in the culinary world.
She approached the bar quietly, picking up a discarded Wine Enthusiast and taking a stool as far away from the sport’s star as she could. Kat gave her an inquisitive look, but Amanda just kept her head down and her eyes glued to the small print. She knew better than to get involved when people were calm and quiet on their very own. And to be honest, she was more than content to take just one moment, a quiet one at that, to sit at her favorite seat, get caught up with one of her favorite magazines and to stare at the mural Hannah’s mom had painted just months before. Most people thought it was a sunset scene from Charleston’s many beautiful landscapes, but it was actually the sunset over the Kansas prairie. Patty had given them a little piece of home all the way out here.
“This is a pretty impressive collection of bourbon.” One of the guys said, the one that wasn’t wearing the funny haircut. Amanda was used to hearing the comment, specially considering that the list was long and thoroughly put together not only with quality in mind but price. “That’s a twenty-three year old Evan Williams. That would put you back a cool three hundred bucks.”
That made her ears twitch. The bottle had been a present from her father when she and Hannah had opened the doors of The Bull and Blossom. A present she’d put up on that shelf to remind herself of cost of good taste. It was a remarkable bottle, that was true, but many people would recognize that name. Not many people truly understood the greatness, though.
“And here you get to have it at the bargain price of thirty-two dollars for a shot. A steal.”
Amanda grinned at Kat’s smooth reply. She seemed pleased with herself and that gave her confidence a boost.
“What else do you have hiding behind the bar?” The man asked and Amanda caught Kat’s fast glance her way. She raised a brow back and shrugged, refusing to help the person who should, by her job description, know what to offer her guests.
“Well,” Kat started with a low Southern drawl. “I suppose it depends on what you like. Do you have a particular style?”
“I’m open-minded and I’ve had a good portion of this list before,” Mr. Expert said he peeled his hat off to run his hand through his hair. He had a full head of luxurious chestnut hair that was in need of cutting if he didn’t want to start looking like a rough-and-tough Cousin It soon. He also needed to trim his lumberjack beard.
Kat glanced her way again and Amanda held her gaze. “I might be able to work a little magic with the boss and find you something special hidden away.”
That gave Amanda pause, and then she immediately rolled her eyes.
“It doesn’t have to be bourbon, you know,” Mohawk said. “Any whiskey will do for him. He’s half drunk off piss warm beer already.”
Again Kat looked to Amanda, who this time motioned towards the back with just a small tilt of her chin. Kat smiled at the men, that beautiful smile of hers. “I’ll see what I can do. Let me just get the lady a drink first.”
She wandered over to the end of the bar where Amanda was sitting and made show of pouring her a glass of water with three lemons for garnish. “What should I pull, boss?”
“The Jeff Ocean that’s on the second to last shelf in the wine room. If they don’t like that, they can pick from the list just like everyone else.”
Kat nodded and walked off, hips swinging a little more than they normally did.
She was back in five minutes and received a warm welcome when she displayed the bottle and began to pour. Amanda relaxed into her seat, not really listening in but aware of their tones. When Kat brought out their food, she gave a scrutinizing glance at the plates. Zach had done it himself. She had no clue how she knew that, but she did. She’d always had the impression that his touch was more artistic than the other kitchen staff, light and smooth. She was also more than impressed by the ten different dishes they’d ordered.
Kat wandered around to clean her equipment and to stock for lunch the next day, which in its self was a surprise. She drifted back to the duo only to ask how their dinner had been prepared. This time Amanda looked at them a little closer. Mohawk did look familiar but she knew that it was only because the TV had been showing baseball non-stop since the season started. The other guy looked familiar too, but she had no clue where she knew him from. His size was remarkable as was the hue of his hair, but she was drawing blanks.
“Look who finally made it in!” Hannah laughed as she came walking from the back with her purse hanging on her arm and her face clear of any baking residue.
Both guys looked up but only the lumberjack seemed to know who she was. “Hey! I figured it was finally time. The food was awesome.”
“I’ll be sure to pass it on to the kitchen.” She gave him another warm smile. “Let me know when you’re coming in next time and I’ll see about making you some carrot cake.”
“Seriously?” He looked as if Christmas had arrived early and Santa had been extra generous. “I’ll be here tomorrow.”
So much eagerness for a piece of cake.
She missed what else they talked about since she was once again distracted by the condition of the vent above the televisions. They needed dusting. Next thing she knew Hannah was standing just over her shoulder. “Alright, I’m going home now.”
“Now? You sure? You might as well just nap upstairs. It’s almost time to open the bakery for tomorrow.”
“Ha ha ha. You’re hilarious.” She nodded discreetly to the guys behind her. “Take care of their check, will you?”
“I love it when you act like I know everybody who walks in through the front door.” She glanced discreetly back at the two men sitting down the bar from her. “Friends of yours?”
“That’s your neighbor.” Hannah looked at her with a frown and disappointedly shook her head.
“Mrs. Kimball?” He didn’t look much like the divorcee who liked to date younger man, unless he was the younger man.
“The other neighbor.”
She paused, really trying to place him. “The jackass from upstairs!”
Son of a bitch.
Now she recognized the bastard. How had she missed all two hundred and thirty pounds of him? They’d been neighbors for the six months, ever since he moved in into the apartment above hers. They shared a split-level house on Wentworth Street had been a dream for her to find. Her elegant main floor apartment had come with central air conditioning, a must during the South Carolina summer, a spacious, wrap around porch, a brand new claw-foot tub, a kitchen with marble counter tops, high ceilings, abundant light and beautiful wood work .
It had been perfect, until he moved in.
Christopher Valentine had a gift for parking his pickup truck in the middle of their short doublewide driveway. He also dragged mud and muck up their front steps, all over her porch and up his stairs to his apartment. God forbid they had to do laundry on the same day, because he wasn’t against pulling her clothes out of the washing machine and just throwing it on top of the dryer. And some times, he turned his TV so loud in his room that she could hear his porn through the walls!
“Why the hell would I do that?” She grumbled to Hannah as she slapped her magazine shut.
“Because I’m nice, even if you aren’t,” her best friend told her as she roughly wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her in for a quick hug. Hannah kissed her hair and released her. “Cover his dinner. Smile at him.”
“I’ll cover his dinner and give him a piece of my mind.” She made a move to stand up, but Hannah firmly pushed her back.
“My dishes are in the back, if you wanna get to them now. Much obliged.” Hannah waved back at Christopher and Mohawk, both who smiled at her, and then saluted Kat. “Eyes on the boss, Kat. If she looks like she’s about to say something mean, you give me a call.”
She left after that.
“Boys are closing down the kitchen and I’m on my way home to my wife,” Zach said as he approached with his backpack strapped to his back. “I’m coming in early to do inventory and I thought we could sit down some time tomorrow to discuss some slight menu alterations.”
“Oh? You want make some changes?” That was a surprise, but she refused to show it. She glanced back down at her magazine, opening it up and making a show of reading a few lines. Her temper momentarily diffused, she stole a peek at the man who controlled her kitchen with an iron fist.
Four days ago, he’d been adamant that they stick to all his original ideas.
“I’ve given it some thought and maybe you were right about the fried chicken. Maybe.”
Amanda didn’t smile nor did she gloat. “Alright.”
“’Night.” He kissed the top of her head and nodded to Kat.
“’Night,” Amanda called after him. Great, everybody got to go home except for her. She closed the magazine and looked up at Kat. “I’m going to send the servers home and get all the kitchen guys out. How confident are you about closing the bar alone?”
Kat didn’t even hesitate. “I can do it.”
Amanda stood up. “You can ring in their dinner order towards Costumer Complimentary. I’m just going to pop up to the office for a quick second. Bring up your recon if you get done before me.” She had strict rules about leaving female employees alone to close, especially new one’s still finding their voices.
As she walked by the men at the end of the bar, she just barely made eye contact and managed a nod, before she focused on the kitchen. As she walked by, she flagged Dale. “The bakery’s dishes need to be put through before you close down. And I’m sure Hannah left you some cookies out to take home. Thanks for the help.”
“I’ll get to it. Good night.”
Amanda nodded before she made her way through the bakery and put in the code for her office door. Hannah had left the stair lights on so that she wouldn’t trip on her way up to the crowded little room she, Zach and Hannah shared. When the remodeling of the building had begun, the only little space they had left after building the walk-in fridge and the pantry in the basement was the tiny attic. Out of all three, she was the one who spent more time in the windowless room, pouring over utility bills, rent, repair needs, insurance, invoices, inventory, payroll and all sorts of other things that consumed more time than she’d previously imagined.
There was also a red diary they referred to as the Book. It was where they detailed their daily operations, their troubles, their successes, the things they’d never encountered before and the things they were pros at handling. This was usually the best part of her day, finishing off a detailed account of how far they’d come since they’d opened The Bull and Blossom. She couldn’t keep a personal journal to save her life, but she was pretty damn good at making detailed notes for the sake of smooth business.
Next thing she knew, Kat was standing in front of her with a smile. “Everyone’s gone. I locked the doors after the guys left. Here’s my recon.”
“Thanks. Are you closed down?”
“Yeah. Awnings are rolled in and the lights are off.”
Amanda nodded. “Cool. Head off. I’ll see you at lunch.”
She still had at least an hour of work before she was ready to call it a day. Maybe tomorrow she’d even be able to sleep in for just a bit.
Kat hovered, forcing Amanda to look up. “So Kit’s is your neighbor?”
“Christopher. His family has been around these parts forever. There’s like, fifteen male cousins and they are all smoking hot!” Amanda had the impression Kat was about to start fanning herself by the way she was starting to blush. “They’re Charleston royalty. Did you see the size of his arms?”
She had noticed that, but it had been a couple of months ago when he’d been moving a huge flat screen TV into his apartment. The porn TV. “Are they all tools, too?”
“Never mind, Grinch. He’s hot as the Sahara!”
“Go home, Katherine.”
The girl opened the door and stood there, leaning one hit against the door frame. “If I were you, I’d be thinking of ways to climb into his bedroom and do naughty, naughty, disgusting things to that man’s body.”
The only thing Amanda wanted to do was work and sleep. “Out.”Kat left with a laugh and when the door slammed behind her, Amanda was more than ready to pack her bag and go home. Maybe, if God and all saints were on her side, she could be asleep before Christopher turned his TV on.