Deliciously SinfulBy: Lilli Feisty
Four Months Earlier
Blowing a frizzy strand of hair out of her eye, Phoebe Mayle looked at the bowl of organic, vegan, carob brownies she was mixing. It looked like brown glue. It was her third attempt that day. And looked like it was going to be her third failure.
You’re making brownies, not Pavlova.
What was she doing wrong? She’d followed the recipe down to the last half teaspoon of vanilla. Glancing at the calendar hanging on the wall, she sighed. The summer bake-off was in a few months, and these brownies had won the contest for ten years running.
Unless a fairy godmother came down and waved a magic spatula over the mixture, there was no way the Green Leaf was going to take first place this summer.
Great. The entire town would know that since Phoebe had taken over the café, one of the oldest establishments in Redbolt, California, everything was going downhill. Customers would dwindle until only “Grandpa Dave”—the town’s oldest resident—would come in for his daily cup of tea (which, Phoebe was convinced, the old man would do until the day he died), the place would close, and her aunt and uncle would be turning in their graves.
Take a deep breath. You can do this! They’re just brownies. Wiping her hands on her apron, Phoebe looked out the café window. Indeed, a monstrous, shiny yellow SUV had pulled up out front, and though she couldn’t see the driver due to the late-afternoon sun reflecting off the windshield, she knew it could be only one person.
“Thanks,” Phoebe said sarcastically.
Jesse said, “Pheebs, I can’t believe you hired some guy from L.A. to come and run the café.”
She’d known the girl since she was born, and had had the pleasure of watching Jesse grow into a young woman. A few years ago her niece had started growing the dreadlocks that were now piled high on her head and wrapped in a colorful scarf. True to the nature of the family’s long-standing belief in personal expression, Phoebe’s brother-in-law had heartily approved when his daughter had quit washing her hair.
Phoebe reached behind her back and untied her apron. “Do I have chocolate on my face?”
“No,” Jesse said innocently.
Rolling her eyes, Phoebe picked up a stainless-steel frying pan and looked at her distorted reflection. She wasn’t surprised to find a brown smudge of chocolate on the bridge of her nose. Using the tip of a towel, she wiped it off. Scraped it off, actually; chocolate crumbs fell off her face and onto the floor.
“And I still don’t understand why you couldn’t have found someone local.”
“I tried. Come on, Jesse. You know there isn’t anyone around here qualified to maintain Sally and Dan’s standards.”
“What about you?”
Phoebe must have looked surprised because Jesse replied, “Well…you could learn, right?”
Phoebe picked up the product of her previous attempt at the organic brownies and tossed it at Jesse, who jumped aside before the lump hit her right in the chest. “Hey! Watch it. I don’t want to die from a fatal brownie wound to the chest!”
The hard square landed across the café with a hard thud. “That’s why. Everything I make turns out like crap. Not to mention, I just don’t have the time. I have a whole other business to run, remember?” A business that had been suffering ever since she’d inherited the Green Leaf Café from her deceased relatives.
“I really thought I could handle it. I mean, I have all the recipes. Why can’t I just make them work?” She glanced at the myriad reviews tacked to the wall. All photocopies from food magazines, travel guides, and newspapers. All praising the simple, organic cuisine produced by the Green Leaf Café. All written before Phoebe had taken over the place.
Luckily, no critic had visited recently. Phoebe really didn’t want to be responsible for denting the café’s stellar reputation as the best gourmet bistro north of San Francisco. A six-hour drive north, to be precise.
“Hey,” Jesse said gently. “It’s okay. I didn’t mean to give you grief. We all know you’re trying really hard.”
Phoebe blew a strand of hair away from her eye. “And the cook-off is right around the corner.”
Jesse smiled, but she was biting her lip as she did so. “Yeah!” she said with enthusiasm. A lot of enthusiasm, way more than any cook-off deserved.
“Are you, um…” Jesse glanced at the plate of rock-hard brownies. “Are you sure you want to enter the brownies this year?”
“Well, what choice do I have?” Phoebe picked up another brown lump of brownie and bounced it on her palm. The rough edges pricked her skin. “Dan and Sally have been winning that cook-off with their brownies for the last ten years. I know it seems silly, but I really want to get the ribbon this year. For them.” And also for herself. She needed to prove that she could do this. That she could run the business as well as the family who entrusted her to do so. Winning the cook-off the first year Dan and Sally weren’t there to enter themselves—well, it all seemed monumentally important.
“Everything is going to be okay,” Jesse said.
She tossed the rest of the brownies into a garbage can. “It’s my own fault. I never should have committed to running this place.” But she had to. Phoebe believed in tradition, in family. In obligation. “I had no idea my organic farming business would become so popular.”
“Hey,” Jesse said, “you rock.”
“I don’t know about that. But so many local markets and restaurants are placing orders. I even got one out of Berkeley yesterday.”
“Wow. So things are booming, then?”
Phoebe nodded slowly. “Yeah. They are.”
“That’s great; it really is. I know that farm is your true passion.”
“Maybe…” But it shouldn’t be. This should be; this café. Her family’s reputation. Making brownies and winning the cook-off and being responsible and successful.
“Is that a freakin’ Hummer?”
Phoebe glanced up at the teenager who’d spoken the words. “That must be our new chef,” Phoebe said. “Thank God.”
Jesse, her eighteen-year-old waitress and niece, leaned against the counter, eyeing the Hummer with a frown.
Jesse turned toward the window and crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s getting out of the monster.”
It was early spring, and now the bright sun reflected off the so-shiny-it-hurt-your-eyes yellow-painted metal of the huge vehicle her newly hired chef had arrived in. The windows were tinted dark, so she couldn’t make out any images from inside the vehicle.
This would be the first time she’d actually meet the person she’d hired to take over the kitchen at the Green Leaf Café.
Her heart sped up a bit and she wiped her damp palms on her apron. She hoped she had chosen wisely. She realized hiring Nick Avalon was a risk. She knew he’d been fired from his last job. She knew he had a bit of a reputation as a bad boy. But she’d also done extensive research of his history as a chef, and he’d had what was definitely the most impressive résumé of any she’d received. Magazines like Bon Appétit had done articles on him and featured his recipes. He’d made a few guest chef appearances on popular Food Network television shows. And he’d worked at restaurants so popular even Phoebe had heard of them.
Still. In essence, she’d hired a stranger to help carry on her family business. Their legacy.
It’s okay. You’re a smart businesswoman. You know what you’re doing.
And she’d spoken with him on the phone. He had a nice voice and seemed friendly enough. And he was British, which she couldn’t help but find a bit engaging. Heck, he could have called her a daft cow, and it probably would have sounded charming.
Had she made a mistake? Well, there was nothing she could do about it now. Only time would tell.