"Soldier boy's still out there waiting on his date." Grimacing, Mickey slammed her serving tray down on the prep table.
"He's actually a sailor," Archie, Sinclair's prep cook, corrected. "He's wearing his service dress khakis."
Sinclair glanced at the clock above the deep fryer. At a half past nine, the man at the center of their conversation had arrived at seven for a seven fifteen reservation.
Normally, to obtain a table at Too Sinful to Burn, you didn't need a reservation. On par with a Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, minus the waffles and chicken but with Low Country boil and shrimp served with cheese grits. But the hectic St. Patrick's Day holiday and the reported quarter of a million visitors that came with it made a reservation system a temporary necessity, or the line would stretch all the way down to the Savannah River.
"Have you taken his order?" Sinclair asked.
"I tried three times," Mickey drawled, drawing out time. The leggy waitress talked slower than molasses. "Appears he's an officer and a gentleman. He doesn't want to order until his date arrives."
"Did you tell him the kitchen closes in a half hour?"
Mickey sighed as she leaned up against the prep station. She was waiting on Sinclair to fill table ten's order. "He knows, boss. In spite of the circumstances, he seems perfectly content to nurse the Jack Daniels a customer bought him."
A wave of pity knotted Sinclair's stomach. Poor guy couldn't face the fact he'd been stood up by some heartless hoodrat or soldier chaser. At least he wasn't giving up in the face of adversity, no matter the cost to his pride or ego. Left up to her, she would've deserted her post two hours ago.
"And get this--when I suggested he move to the bar since he wasn't eating, soldier boy claimed he couldn't sit in there while in uniform." Mickey's frown deepened. "Too bad Con's gone home sick. He'd charm that guy right out of his seat and out the door."
Sinclair didn't doubt it. Con had a special way with people. His gregarious personality was one of the reasons why the former bar owner and father of two had won the job as both her head bartender and assistant manager.
"Doubt it," Archie replied while he spooned two bowls of shrimp gumbo. "You know Con's altruistic nature and his soft spot for the military."
Sinclair doubted Mickey could remember anything past her own self-centered nose. She, on the other hand, couldn't forget how much of a trooper Con was, despite having no family left. His wife had died of breast cancer thirty years ago, leaving him with two small children, a son and a daughter, who'd gone on to serve in the military. Both had died while on active duty, his son in Desert Storm and his daughter in Iraq.
"Maybe if you went out there and chatted him up a bit, boss, he'd change his mind about not sampling your famous shrimp and grits with gravy."
Sinclair didn't even bat a lash as she slowly spun a plate of blackened tilapia around to clean off the residual specks of gravy. Unable to afford an expeditor, Sinclair garnished and prepped all the dishes. Plus, Mickey had tried this ploy more than once in her tenuous tenure as a part of Sinclair's small staff. But it never worked. Sinclair never, ever stepped a foot outside the kitchen during restaurant hours.
If she did, all hell would break loose.
Still shouldering her secret, Sinclair had been unable to ignore her and Aunt Bernie's dream after all. Four months after she'd wrapped up her last episode of Cooking with Sin, the mercantile shop owner in Aunt Bernie's building had decided to retire. As one of three heirs of her aunt's estate, she suddenly had an empty storefront to fill. Instead of renting the bottom floor to another business, she sold her condo in a short sale, packed up her belongings, and moved to Savannah, Georgia.
In six weeks, Sinclair had turned the bottom floor of the brick building into the cozy restaurant she and Aunt Bernie had envisioned. To save money, she sold her BMW and moved into one of the apartments on the top floor.
She'd also enrolled in a couple of basic cooking classes, but, too busy with the opening, marketing, and promotion of a new restaurant, Sinclair hadn't finished any of them. But that hadn't kept Too Sinful to Burn from landing in the black fourteen months after opening, or from becoming the toast of the City by the Sea.
Sinclair credited fifty percent of the restaurant's good fortune to her former show's reputation. Thirty percent was based on Aunt Bernie's southern recipes, which gave homage to both of their Geechee roots in South Carolina's Low Country. The remaining twenty percent was a little-known family secret Sinclair would take to her grave.
Sinclair and Aunt Bernie shared more than a love for cooking. They also shared a common ancestor. All their fans knew her Gullah recipes originated from Sinclair's great- grandmother and Aunt Bernie's grandmother, Trudy Gateau. No one had a clue that she'd dabbled in herbs and potions and even authored a book she'd titled Ms. Trudy's Book of Cure-alls.
One particular spell would prove to be profitable over the years. According to family lore, Trudy loved her husband Albert so strongly she grew tired of him straying into the arms of other women. Fed up, she fixed up a potion, blended it into a cake to satisfy his sweet tooth, and served it to him on their tenth anniversary. From that day on, her great-grandfather never parked his shoes under any woman's bed except Trudy's.
Seeing firsthand the fruits of her labor, Trudy decided to fuse her love for cooking and her cure-alls into a profitable business, making wedding cakes for other people. Over the years, her cakes developed a reputation of their own. Not only were they delicious, but they seemed to guarantee happy marriages.
The business was still going strong back in Beaufort, South Carolina. Although decorating cakes made Sinclair's eyes glaze over, her younger sister Rosalind Fletcher--now Benedict, after marrying a hunk of a wedding planner four years ago--had taken over the business from their mother. Under her control, Forever, I Do Cakes had blossomed. The clientele had doubled, dozens of news articles had been written, and the shop had even been featured on several episodes of Southern Weddings.
Tweaking the original spell so that the results were only temporary, Sinclair had mixed her great-grandmother's recipe with the powdered sugar that she alone sprinkled on the complimentary corn fritters every guest received with their meals. This little kick made people not only like her cooking but practically fall in love with it.
Unfortunately, the spell had an awful side effect. It made her patrons fall in love with her as well. Although the effect only lasted temporarily, Sinclair never stepped outside her kitchen during operating hours, and her employees were forbidden from eating anything while on the clock.
Yes, it was wrong. And yes, guilt had eaten at her so badly she'd even reenrolled at the Academy of Culinary Arts of Savannah last spring, but she was too knee-deep in her own shit and too much of a coward to take a single class, much less close her doors for good. To say she was between a rock and a hard place was making light of her problems.
Her hot mess of a life was one of the reasons she also had a nonexistent sex life. Adding any kind of intimacy would just complicate matters further. Plus, who would want a relationship with someone living a big, fat lie? Just once, Sinclair wished she could meet some stranger and they'd just go at it. No strings attached--only mutual gratification. Wham bam, thank you, ma'am. Of course, that would never happen, since she had an awful habit of second-guessing her decisions.
"So what are you going to do about it?"
Sinclair ignored Mickey's question. The younger woman had more bark than bite.
Once, she and Archie had to practically scrape Mickey off the sidewalk out front after she'd mouthed off to her boyfriend's ex-girlfriend, who showed up one day to confront her about not allowing him to spend time with their son. The ex-girlfriend doled out a little tough love, and after that, she had no more issues with either Mickey or the boyfriend's lack of involvement.
"I hate to say this, but he has to go."
"What do you mean?" Sinclair asked, keeping her voice surprisingly level. In order to deal with Mickey and to prevent her famous temper tantrums, one needed to tread lightly. Even though she wanted to put said tread on the other woman's backside permanently.
"He's messing up my tips, Sin. I'd planned out my budget this month around the money I'd make on St. Patrick's Day weekend. And he's messing with my bottom line."
Archie snorted, and Gladys, his partner in crime and Sinclair's most dependable waitress, mumbled under her breath, neither of them directly addressing Mickey's insanity. It wasn't their place, since they were employees. Instead, they pretended not to be listening while they went about their normal duties, filling orders and cleaning up the prep stations.
Sinclair sighed. One of the biggest downsides of being the owner of your own business--you had to deal with the bullshit.
"And what's your bottom line?"
"I was hoping to clear an extra seven hundred dollars this week. My boyfriend and me want to go on a cruise for our one-year anniversary."
Obviously unable to hold his tongue any longer, Archie spoke up. "What's he getting you, sugar momma?"
Mickey looked down at her nails, intricately designed with tiny shamrocks for tomorrow's holiday. "I don't want anything. Just some one-on-one time."
"And you're paying?" Sinclair asked.
"I don't mind paying." Mickey straightened her skinny shoulders and lifted her chin. "He's does plenty for me."
"Ha!" Gladys laughed. "Name one thing he's done for you except for laying some pipe every now and then." The seventy-year-old grandmother glanced at Archie. "Sorry about that, Arch."
Archie's lips widened into a lopsided grin, and he winked. Under the kitchen's fluorescent lighting, his two front teeth, plated with simulated gold, seemed to twinkle. "No offense taken."
During their exchange, Mickey's tall, lanky frame seemed to quake with anger. "I'll have you know he watches my kid every night while I slave around here for a little to nothing."
"I guess live-in babysitters need a break every now and then."
Cackling at Archie's joke, Gladys shuffled over to the salad station and fixed four bowls for one of her tables. "You know she's simply repaying him for all he does around the house, Arch. Even though he doesn't have a job and lives with her for free."
"So what if he does? There's nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home dad."
"That would be true if he were really contributing," Sinclair piped in. She'd had it up to here with Mickey and her putting her boyfriend before her job and sometimes her own child. "And if I had a dime for every time you complained about doing all the cooking and cleaning, I wouldn't need a loan to refinish the bar."
Mickey's cheeks turned Macintosh apple red, and she balled her fists so tightly the knuckles blanched. "What's this, jump-on-Mickey hour?" The younger woman looked pointedly at Sinclair. "If...if you're not going to clear that table, then I will!"
She wouldn't dare! Before Sinclair could talk some sense into her or fire her, Mickey slammed through the kitchen's swinging doors.
"Oh yes, she would!" Gladys and Archie chorused. Sinclair vacillated. She should have been more professional and held her tongue, but Mickey always had a way of rubbing her the wrong way. The younger woman was downright selfish.
Throwing in the towel, literally, Sinclair tossed the dirty prep towel in her hand aside as she rounded the kitchen line. With each step, her feet felt leaden. If she went out there, all hell was going to break loose.
And if she didn't, Mickey would make sure it would.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Cole Rodriguez ignored the inquisitive but mostly pitying glances. He was used to the stares. He'd learned to ignore them when he'd spent four months in a wheelchair, then another eight on crutches, until the navy had outfitted him with the prosthetic limb he'd nicknamed Harvey. Attached to his right leg several inches below the knee, it had allowed him to return to active duty three years ago and to be recertified as a master diver a year and a half later.
Numb by now to other people's political incorrectness, Cole returned their stares with a polite smile and a nod of his head. Plus, a few stares couldn't dissuade him from his current mission.
En route from Alameda, California to a shore assignment at the Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Georgia, Cole had decided to stop to see Connie Dugan, despite her ardent protests to the contrary. But she'd finally given in. They'd set a date and time to meet over St. Patrick's Day weekend. Being Irish, Connie was unduly superstitious and believed that their meeting over green beer would ensure that their first encounter would go well.
Cole hoped so, because Connie had become special to him. Without her unwavering support and encouraging words, he would still be flat on his ass in some Naval Rehabilitation Center--or worse, a civilian. She'd kept him from wallowing in self-pity and made him pull himself up by the bootstraps. If it weren't for Connie, he probably wouldn't have returned to active duty so soon or competed in two consecutive Warrior Games. And he definitely wouldn't have become recertified as a master diver.
He was here, at the very least, to thank her for coming into his life through the Angels for Soldiers program and for not wavering after all the times he'd tried to push her away. From the jump, they'd established a connection. Not a week passed that they didn't exchange some kind of correspondence.
In truth, Cole was looking for more. He'd wanted to use the opportunity during tonight's brief stopover to see if their attraction could move from the Internet into the real world. And if so, he'd broach the subject of a relationship. Savannah wasn't too far from where his new unit was stationed. For about an hour's drive, he was willing to commute to see her on weekends if everything worked according to plan.
Cole grimaced. Before his amputation, he wouldn't have had any doubts over his prowess to win a woman over if he set his sights on her. Standing at six-three, Cole carried two hundred pounds of lean muscle, and his blond hair and hazel green eyes, inherited from his mother, had made him popular with the opposite sex ever since puberty.
Now with only half of his right leg, his self-confidence wavered from day to day, and right now he was more nervous than a virgin on his first date. Thankfully, his current desire for female companionship outweighed his insecurities. Celibate for almost four years, he was long overdue.
Subconsciously, Cole reached down and scratched his calf muscle. Whenever his thoughts drifted to the day one of his passions had caused his life to run off track, his absent leg itched. Realizing what he was doing, he pulled his hand away and palmed it in the other atop the red toile tablecloth.
So here he was, fresh off a plane and a hundred miles from his final destination, to put his feelings on the line. And for his trouble, he'd been stood up. Good thing he'd rented a vehicle at the airport, or he'd be high and dry with nothing but his seabag and the gift he'd planned on giving Connie.
Cole gritted his teeth. The first time he decided to climb out on a limb after so many months of self-doubt, and he'd been sucker punched with a dose of reality.
Who was he kidding? What woman in her right mind would be attracted to only half a man?
Man up, sailor!
Before he slipped into self-deprecation, Cole slammed on the mental brakes. The evening might not be a total waste. Connie hadn't chosen the location for their first meeting. He had. A part of him wanted to meet the owner of Too Sinful to Burn.
After his ex, Lorena, had left him high and dry and unable to afford a housekeeper, he was forced to become self-sufficient. On ship most of his adult years, and when not, living with a girlfriend who pretty much cared for all his needs, he'd never had to learn how to cook, wash his own clothes, or barely lift a finger around the house.
Of course, he could have accepted his mother's offer to come and stay with him until he got back on his feet, but Cole would rather stay in a military prison than have her babying him again. She'd always catered to her husband's and son's needs. It was one of the reasons he didn't know a frying pan from a saucepan.
His initial attempts at becoming a domestic god were laughable. In a matter of a week, he'd bleached half of his wardrobe white, scorched a good pair of sheets, and practically melted every kitchen pot.
Over time, he'd mastered most of his household chores, but cooking remained a health hazard. Luckily, during the half-time commentary of a Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots game, he'd decided to channel surf and stumbled upon nirvana--an entire network dedicated to the preparation of food!
From Mini Kansas City Burgers and Sweet and Spicy Crab Puffs to Limoncello Custard and Meatloaf Stuffed with Italian Sausage, Cole couldn't get enough. Of course, he'd watched the rest of the game--he had money riding on it--but from then on out, he'd been hooked. It was cheaper and less embarrassing than taking a cooking class at some community college and easier than scouring through cookbooks.
And Cooking with Sin was his favorite. As a red-blooded American male, how could it not be, with the hottest TV hostess he'd ever laid eyes on? Both her good looks and bubbly persona lured him back in every week like shark chum, whetting his appetite until he couldn't miss an episode.
He'd soon developed what one would call a celebrity crush and became one of her biggest fans. In fact, he'd meant to tell her if, on some off chance, she came out of the kitchen and saw to her guests.
"Excuse me, sir." Recognizing the tall, lanky redhead as his waitress, Cole looked up and smiled. Despite him taking up a table for the past two and a half hours, she'd been kind. "The owner...um...the owner wanted me to tell you that you're going to have to move to the bar or leave. On any other night, sitting here for two and a half hours wouldn't be a problem, but since this is St. Patrick's Day weekend, one of the busiest days of the year for us, you're causing me...I mean us, to miss out on dozens of other customers."
Broadsided, Cole could only gawk at her. Earlier in the evening, she'd practically drooled over him and even dropped a few unwanted innuendos about them hooking up after hours, but he'd gently deflected her interest by reminding her he was waiting on his date.
She leaned in closer, and the bite of her cheap perfume assaulted his nostrils. "Sinclair Fletcher, the owner, appreciates your service, as do I, but she can't pay the bills with a nonpaying table."
Somewhat surprised but not offended, since she wasn't treating him differently due to his handicap, Cole grabbed his cap from the chair next to him. "My apologies," he said.
"Do you want a bag for the beers?" she asked, nodding to the half dozen unopened bottles sitting on his table, courtesy of several restaurant patrons.
"That won't be necessary; the owner can keep them." Cole moved to stand up, but he stopped short as a black woman came barreling toward them. Short in stature and curvy, she wore a black chef's jacket, a pair of jeans cuffed at the bottom, and wedge sandals strapped around her slender ankles. Her dark hair was pulled into a messy knot atop her head and secured with a pair of chopsticks and a hair net.
As she marched down the open aisle, heads turned. Cole didn't blame them; he could barely take his eyes off her as well. Her delicate features, enunciated by the smoothest dark coffee brown skin, were downright exquisite. She practically knocked the wind out of his sails. Television didn't do her justice. And for the briefest moment, he forgot how to put one foot in front of the other, totally forgetting what he'd relearned barely five years ago.
"Isn't that the owner?" Cole heard someone whisper.
"Sinclair! I love your food! I love you!" someone else shouted.
"I love your cooking. I love you, Sinclair Fletcher. I want to have your babies," a woman cried out.
"She won't love you like I can!" An old man closer to Methuselah's age than Bob Hope's wheezed to Cole's left. He even had the nerve to lick his lips while he sucked on oxygen.
Despite the sudden outburst and the growing admiration of the other patrons, the one and only Sinclair Fletcher barreled on like a hurricane until she stopped at his table. She gifted him with a brief smile before turning her attention to his waitress.
In that briefest of moments, Cole's heart beat double-time, and the material of his issued service khakis tightened over his groin. He was so enthralled that the two women's shouting match filtered through his consciousness like voices underwater. That was, until a man shouldered his way between the two women, almost knocking them over.
"Are you really Sinclair Fletcher of Cooking with Sin?" the man asked. Or more like gushed, considering the rosy blush coloring his cheeks.
Cole, like everyone else in the restaurant, waited for her to confirm her identity, but she remained mulishly silent. The waitress, wearing a shit-eating grin, decided to put everyone out of their misery.
"Sir, this is the one and only Sinclair Fletcher, and the owner of Too Sinful to Burn."
The redhead's confirmation sent the man into a tizzy. He suddenly clamped onto Sinclair's tiny hand and enthused over her cooking. "I thought so," he crowed, his ruddy cheeks wobbling as he smiled. "I thought that was you. I just wanted to let you know how much I adore your cooking."
The man paused to swipe at his sweaty brow with a large hand that resembled a paw. He looked more nervous than a new father in the delivery room.
"Pardon my forwardness, but are you free this coming Sunday? I-I'd like to take you bowling, or maybe a picnic in Forsyth Park?"
Cole couldn't believe his ears! The guy had to be twenty years her senior. Still, he tensed in anticipation of her answer. He wasn't alone--the rest of the diners, food forgotten and growing cold on their plates, had also taken an odd interest in what was going on at his table.
"That's mighty kind of you, but Sunday's my only day--"
Before she could finish, the man reached for her other hand, pulled her toward him, and wrapped his arms around her. The dynamic of the room changed and erupted like a busted pinata. In one unified wave, the other diners flooded over chairs and tables, knocking them over onto the well-worn floor with absolutely no regard for spilled food or libations.
Their only concern seemed to be Sinclair and her overly ambitious admirer. Reminiscent of a frenzy of piranha he'd once encountered on a dive in the Amazon River, they appeared crazed and intent on only one thing.
"Kick him to the curb," some hillbilly in red and black plaid effused from the back of the room. "I'll eat any and everything you put in front of me. Choose me."
Cole glanced at the object of their unadulterated affection. Instead of enjoying their devotion, Sinclair looked absolutely terrified. Her shoulders rose and fell sharply, and her big, black eyes widened, practically engulfing her tiny heart-shaped face. Lines of tension framed her mouth. Recognizing the beginnings of a panic attack--he'd suffered them frequently after his accident--Cole moved in to protect her.
Unfortunately, he didn't anticipate how a two-hour vigil in a hardwood chair would cause his ass to become sore and his bum leg to be ill-prepared for the sudden pressure of his full two hundred pounds. He crumpled back onto his seat before he could stretch to his full height.