He’d been coming into her restaurant for weeks now, flaunting his gorgeous black hair and icy blue eyes. She had learned that his heritage was Russian, which accounted for the roller-coaster pitch of his consonants and his sonorous name.
He turned heads when he came through the front door. He melted hearts when he ordered from the menu. He was sharp, classy, and charming.
Dmitri Velichko was the enemy.
Sadie Spencer knew this well because she had learned, during her time at culinary school and her year as a cooking show host, exactly what comprised an enemy.
The sudden clatter of a pan in the kitchen arrested her attention, and she rushed from the main dining room to see what was the matter. As she flew into the kitchen, her conscience raised its hand, demanding attention.
What now? she asked it.
The hand came down, but a voice piped up. You didn’t know he was the enemy right away. You didn’t know until yesterday when you overheard Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones talking about him.
Sadie’s eyes narrowed to slits as she put her conscience on hold and surveyed the damage to her kitchen. Jimmy, a young man who had worked his way up from dishwasher and busboy and was now being trained as one of her line cooks, was hunched over and frantically scooping the remains of a rice pilaf back into the pan from the floor, where the dish had landed. She hurried over.
“What are you planning to do with that?” she demanded of him.
Jimmy swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing like her daughter Kylie’s attempts to submerge her rubber ducky in the bathtub. “Er…getting ready to plate it up?”
Sadie’s eyes widened with horror. “It’s been on the floor!”
Jimmy stared up at her with the mournful expression of a cocker spaniel. “It’s a clean floor,” he lamely noted.
Sadie closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead furiously with the tips of her fingers. She forced her shoulder muscles to relax and felt a tingling relief shoot up her neck.
“Throw it away,” she instructed. “Begin again. If you don’t have time, ask Karl to help you.”
Jimmy finished scooping the small grains back into the pan.
“You got it, boss.”
“Sadie. Just call me Sadie, all right, Jimmy?”
“Sure thing, boss.”
She glared at him, but he didn’t notice. With a toss of her long chestnut hair, she whirled on her heel and headed to the kitchen door, stopping to stare out the clear oval frame at the restaurant’s main dining room.
Where was I? Oh yes…Dmitri.
At first she had feared he was another food critic. There had been a whole slew of them the first week she’d opened. It seemed everyone wanted to critique the very first restaurant endeavor of the renowned Sadie Spencer.
Well, minimally renowned, maybe. After all, she’d briefly had her own cooking show, and her two cookbooks had competed moderately well on the big market. She had thought of herself as up-and-coming before…well, that had been nearly five years ago. Now she was simply Sadie Spencer once more—back at square one and working her way up the ladder to her dreams. Her restaurant venture was just over one year old and so far a great success…except for Dmitri Velichko.
Once she had realized that Dmitri was not a food critic come to criticize her efforts, she had simply assumed him to be one of her restaurant’s biggest fans. The modest-sized café in her hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania, drew all sorts of customers—locals and tourists alike, though she’d never had a regular customer who set female hearts to fluttering quite like Dmitri did. In a town where chocolate reigned supreme, Dmitri was considered an extra-sweet treat. Until yesterday, that is.
Sadie had known Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones from her preschool days, when they cotaught her Sunday school class at the Holy Water Evangelical Church. For as long as she could remember, the two had possessed an exasperating knack for eroding her confidence and showering pessimism on any sunny moment that came her way. She suspected it was all because of the time when, at seven years of age, she had been asked in front of the entire congregation who was older than Methuselah. In retrospect, maybe “Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones” hadn’t been the right answer.
But twenty-two years later, one would have thought it wouldn’t matter any longer. Still, whatever the reason, Smith and Jones seemed to go out of their way to rile Sadie. She supposed that at their age they didn’t have many other forms of entertainment.
Being two of her most regular customers, they took every advantage of their self-appointed positions as chief tormentors of Sadie’s life. Every Tuesday at precisely twelve noon, the two shuffled in and took up residence in the corner booth, beneath the display of butterfly suncatchers, and ordered their usual—the roast-turkey-and-spinach panini with garlic red lentil soup and an extra pickle with one glass of water and one cup of peach tea for Mrs. Smith and the same, minus the pickles, for Mrs. Jones. The two routinely turned up their noses at dessert, having informed Sadie long ago that her range of confectionery delights was not quite suited to their discriminatory palates.
Sadie snorted at the memory and slipped out the kitchen door to keep a closer eye on her Russian adversary.
It had been at 12:49 p.m. yesterday when Smith and Jones were working their way through the dregs of their teas and Dmitri Velichko had shadowed the doorway of Sadie’s restaurant. For three weeks, he had been coming and going at any hour of day or evening for a meal and a mug of coffee. That day, however, his appearance sent the old ladies tittering with delight.
Wiping down the table beside them, Sadie had rolled her eyes at their reaction. Sure, Dmitri’s darkly handsome looks made quite the impression on the teenage waitresses, but Smith and Jones were pushing eighty-four and eighty-six, respectively. Sadie had shrugged at this thought.
“You’re dead if you stop looking,” she had once heard them say.
It was the thread their conversation began to weave, however, that caused her to linger over the table, tidying the salt and pepper shakers and carefully arranging the sugar packets.
“Russian, you know,” Smith was saying.
“His parents, yes,” Jones corrected. “However, he was born in America.”
Smith’s bristly gray brows rose a notch. “Are you sure, dear? His accent sounds pure European, if you ask me.”
Jones had remained adamant. “I heard someone ask him the other day at the grocer’s. That young girl on checkout 12 who’s always flirting with any man under fifty-five.” Jones clicked her tongue in disapproval.
Looking was never a crime, but apparently flirting was.
“It would seem that his parents came over from Russia before he was born. After his birth, they saved money to have his grandparents brought over, as well. Comes from the big city, as I hear it.”
Smith’s eyes widened. “However did he end up here?”
Jones slurped the last of her tea and daintily placed the cup back on its saucer. “Apparently smaller town life appeals to him.” She leaned in conspiratorially, and Sadie took a decided interest in the tabletop she was wiping, leaning down and over to catch what was being said.
“He’s opening up an eatery of some sort. The place just across the street.” Jones had cackled. “Likely to send Sadie into a straitjacket when she finds out! You know how she hates competition.”
Straightening up, Sadie coughed. Jones glanced over her shoulder and did not appear in the least surprised.
“Oh, Sadie dear, hello. We won’t be needing anything but the check, thank you.”
Sadie plastered a smile on her lips. “Are you sure I can’t interest you in the dessert menu? Just this once, ladies?”
Smith shook her head. “No thank you, dear. You know your confections are simply too rich for our preference.” She placed a thin, bony hand to the side of her mouth and whispered loudly, “Have to watch our figures, you know.”
“And our blood sugar,” Jones added.
Sadie glanced into the mirror above their heads where a flock of butterfly suncatchers reflected the afternoon light. She checked her reflection to be certain her smile remained tacked into place.
“Of course. I understand. I’ll have the check brought right over.”
They smiled with enough sweetness to send Sadie’s own blood sugar soaring and chorused, “Thank you, dear,” in perfect unison.
She had walked off in the direction of their waitress to remind her of their check and then settled herself at a booth in the back with a stack of papers in front of her, watching Dmitri Velichko as he ordered from the menu.
The full impact of Smith and Jones’s conversation had slowly begun to sink in. A restaurant? Dmitri Velichko planned to open his own restaurant? Right across the street from her very own Suncatchers? The injustice! She had watched him with renewed suspicion, her eyes narrowing to slits as she contemplated how this would affect her own business.
Sure, it might create a stir at first, but then eventually things would die down, wouldn’t they? And her customers would be back, ordering their same favorite dishes every day of the week, right? But as Sadie watched her female clientele drooling more over Dmitri’s presence than her own mouthwatering entrees, a sinking stone of doubt had settled itself firmly in the pit of her stomach.
Dmitri Velichko could shut her down with a smile, if he so chose—but only if she gave him the opportunity. And that, Sadie Spencer would not do.
Slipping from the booth, she approached his table with a dazzling grin of her own and sweetly asked, “Is everything to your satisfaction, sir?”
Dmitri glanced up, clearly startled. The first several times he had come into Suncatchers, Sadie had tried to be unfailingly polite, though she knew she still possessed a faint edge of steel beneath her soft exterior. Of course, she had assumed he was a captious food critic at the time and had been doing her best to smooth the way to a glowing review without allowing her distrust to show. Once she realized she was mistaken in her assumption, she had thawed a bit and genuinely insisted that if there was ever anything he should need to please let her know.
But never had she greeted him with the syrupy grin she presented now. She noted he recovered instantly, however, and smiled that engaging smile that sent half her staff to swooning.
“My order hasn’t arrived yet, but I am sure it will be to my liking as always. Thank you.”
Sadie swallowed and fought the heat flaming up her cheeks. Maybe he would think she’d just come from the kitchen. The heat in there always left her flushed.
He turned his attention back to the article he had been reading. Sadie swallowed a second time and ventured, “W–what is that you’re reading, if I may ask?”
Dmitri glanced up again, his expression puzzled. He held up a newspaper. It was the business section. Her resolve stiffened.
His eyebrows dipped together in confusion. “I’m sure you do.” Clearly, he didn’t see whatever it was she was seeing.
His pale blue eyes were clear, but Sadie fancied a challenge in them. Well, if he thought Sadie Spencer was going to give up without a fight, he was dead wrong. She straightened to her full, magnificent height of five feet eight inches.
“Please enjoy your lunch,” she offered in a tone that indicated he should choke on it. She turned on her heel and marched away.
That had been yesterday, and now Sadie stood well away from Dmitri’s table, covertly watching him take bites of his creamy shrimp tart and mentally casting about for a plan of attack.
She had checked at the county courthouse yesterday and managed to ascertain that the worst was true. One Dmitri Velichko had indeed recently purchased the property across the street from Suncatchers.
What to do, what to do? Sadie sighed.
“Isn’t it about the time you head for home, boss?”
Sadie looked up as Jimmy spoke to her from behind the counter. Sparing a glance at the wall clock, she nodded. Six o’clock. Time to head home and relieve Jasper of babysitting duty. She smiled at the thought and lightened considerably.
Gathering her paperwork, she purposely kept her back to Dmitri’s table as she left final instructions with her evening shift manager, Glynda, before slipping out the back door, successfully sidestepping her Russian competition.
She reveled in the late spring air, savoring the dewy warmth brushing her skin. The last remnants of winter had been swept out with the spring rains, and now there was only heat and sunshine to look forward to for the next several months.
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, Sadie set out toward her house, only a few blocks away from Suncatchers. Although she still possessed a driver’s license, she hadn’t bothered to purchase a car upon her return to Pennsylvania some three years ago. In fact, she hadn’t driven much at all since her husband’s death from a car accident several years before. The lack of a vehicle didn’t bother her much, however. “Practically born walking” had always been her mother’s motto for her. Sadie smiled at the memory. Amelia Cameron used to assert that Sadie had taken her first faltering steps at a mere nine months of age. Since Sadie’s father hadn’t been a very constant figure in her life, there had never been anyone to dispute Amelia’s claim.
Thoughts of Mac Cameron brought a momentary shadow to Sadie’s features, but she forcefully locked away the memory of her father and concentrated on more recent remembrances.
There was Kylie, her daughter, who would be turning five years old on Saturday. And Jasper, her best friend since those early days when she truly had taken her first steps. Sweet, constant Jasper who had been with her through the worst of it all. For with the sweet also came the sour—a lesson, she had learned, that applied to cooking as well as to real life.
Kylie’s birth had ushered in an entirely new world of joys and fears, and Sadie’s time of bliss as a wife, mother, and cooking show host had been purchased with several subsequent years of failure, death, and change: Ned’s death in that tragic accident…the swift ratings plunge for the cooking show…her mother’s diagnosis of cancer and Sadie’s move back to Hershey…reconnecting with Jasper and learning to laugh and cry in side-by-side moments…and Amelia’s last breath, drawn as Sadie held her hand and promised to never forget the lessons her mother had taught her.
The ache in Sadie’s chest prickled sharply as she drew in a lungful of fresh evening air. Expelling the breath, the ache eased and happier memories began to buoy her. The down payment on her restaurant…Jasper helping her choose the name Suncatchers and decorating the mirrored walls with dozens of colorful glass art pieces…Kylie’s first day of kindergarten…Suncatchers’ grand opening…
Life could be bitter. But it could be sweet too. And no one knew better than Sadie how well sour balanced sweet.
She smiled beneath the glow of the street lamps and picked up her pace a little. She had paid her dues for this sweet time in her life. Nothing and no one—not even Dmitri Velichko—was going to take that from her now.
* * * * *
Sadie slid her key into the lock and turned it with a satisfying click. She entered the warm comfort of the home she had grown up in—now hers, since her mother’s death—and dropped her bag to the floor. It fell with a reassuring thud as she tossed her keys onto the hall table and slipped out of her jacket.
While she hung her jacket on a peg, her mind hummed over how to best conquer the problem of Dmitri Velichko’s interference in her life. She usually listened for the sounds of Kylie and Jasper’s chatter as they played or finished homework or started dinner, but, preoccupied as she was, Sadie didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the house remained strangely silent in the wake of her arrival.
“Jas? Kylie?” she called absentmindedly as she stepped from the hall and into the kitchen.
No dinner preparations. No boiling water or preheated oven. No salad fixings out to slice. She often brought dinner home from the restaurant for them to eat, but she thought she’d told Jasper that wouldn’t be the case tonight. She frowned as she reached for the mail and began flipping through the layers of thin white envelopes.
“Jas?” she mumbled distractedly.
He appeared in the doorway, his disheveled blond hair brushing against his eyebrows, as she tossed the remains of the mail onto the counter. She smiled at his boyish features. Jasper’s appearance never failed to tickle her in an odd way. He had never quite managed to refine a specific look and so forever had the appearance of a surfer dude gone country.
His skin bronzed lightly in any weather, and his wheat-colored hair never stayed neatly combed. His features were masculine with a strong jaw and an angular chin, but his lips pouted in an adorably childlike fashion. He was muscled and lean and, at the moment, dressed in his typical after-work attire of a T-shirt, faded jeans, and bare feet.
“Hey,” she greeted him with a grin.
He smiled back, but there was something uneasy in the gesture. She cocked her head for a moment and waited, but he said nothing.
“He came in today,” she volunteered, to begin conversation.
Sadie stepped to the fridge and opened it, reaching inside for a bottle of apple juice. She affected a Russian accent as she replied, “Da. Dmitri Velichko.” She pulled out the juice and opened the cupboard for a tumbler.
She reverted to her regular speech as she continued. “He was in twice today, if you can believe it. For breakfast—strawberry pancakes with fresh cream and a side of sausage. And coffee, of course,” she added as she poured the juice into the glass. “And again for dinner—creamy shrimp tart with a side salad. Russian dressing.” She raised her juice in salute before sipping. “What else? He’s a patriot, that’s for sure.”
Sadie drained the juice in seconds and rinsed the tumbler in the sink. “Who does he think he is, anyway, breezing into town like this and assuming he can just start taking over? I was born and raised here—born and raised,” she repeated emphatically, “and even I knew better than to assume I could make a go of it just like that.” She snapped her fingers.
“Maybe he doesn’t know he can make a go of it,” Jasper suggested. “Maybe he’s just holding onto a dream. Kinda like you.” He winked at her.
She refused to be charmed. “Oh, don’t even, Jasper.” She screwed the lid tightly onto the apple juice bottle and jerked the refrigerator door open to deposit the container inside. “Don’t even bother comparing Dmitri Velichko to me.”
“Why not?” Jasper prodded in that annoyingly ingratiating way of his. “Moving from the big city and attempting to make a go of a restaurant on his own? Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?”
Sadie slammed the refrigerator door shut. “For your information, wise guy, I was raised here—Dmitri Velichko was born in the big city. Or so Mrs. Jones claims.”
Jasper raised an eyebrow. “You’re basing this entire vendetta on information from Mrs. Jones?” He clicked his tongue in an uncanny resemblance to the very woman in question. “You and your sources.”
“I would hardly call it a vendetta. And Jones and Smith are unimpeachable sources.”
“Oh, just like when they claimed that your restaurant was going to be a huge flop since no one around here would want to eat ‘fancy, TV-style cooking’?”
Sadie couldn’t help but smile maliciously at that comment. “Hmm. Yeah. Crazy old biddies.” She shook herself. “But in this instance, I believe they are dead-on to something.”
“Oh, they’re on something, that’s for sure. I’m just not sure if it’s the Valium or the Prozac that’s doing it.”
Sadie turned her back to Jasper so he couldn’t see her grin. No use in letting him know she found his commentary amusing. His head was big enough as it was.
“Like it or not, my friend,” she said as she began rummaging through the cupboards for dinner ideas, “Dmitri Velichko isn’t going to get the best of me. I’ve worked too long and too hard to be ousted by some reformed KGB wannabe chef.”
Jasper frowned. “Come on, Sadie. That’s harsh.”
Sadie pulled a couple of chicken breasts from the freezer and stuck them in the microwave to thaw before opening the refrigerator once more. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time in this business, it’s that all may be fair in love and war but nothing’s fair in the food industry.”
“You’re staying for dinner, right?” she questioned with her face to the lettuce crisper.
Jasper and Sadie had worked out an arrangement following the opening of Suncatchers. Jasper worked as a teacher at Kylie’s school,
Agape Christian Academy, and each day when classes let out, he picked up Kylie from her kindergarten class and drove the three miles to Sadie’s house. They spent the next few hours playing, working on homework, or doing chores until Sadie was able to get away from the restaurant and come home to join them. In exchange for this, Sadie usually cooked Jasper dinner (if he hadn’t already cooked it for her), and he often spent the evening at Sadie’s playing board games or watching Beauty and the Beast with Kylie (their favorite) or simply chatting about old times with Sadie. All this was done out of the goodness of his heart. Sadie had offered to pay him a couple of times for his help, but he always refused.
Now there was sudden silence in the kitchen following her offer of dinner. She pulled her head from the crisper, her arms loaded with salad ingredients, and glanced over her shoulder.
Jasper’s face had paled beneath his sun-bronzed skin, and his arms remained crossed over his chest. Sadie frowned and noticed, for the first time, that her daughter hadn’t come to greet her yet.
She dumped the salad items onto the counter.
“Upstairs in her room.”
Sadie immediately found that odd. Kylie didn’t usually linger in her bedroom, especially not when Jasper was around. Where Jasper went, Kylie followed. She practically attached herself to his hip.
He shifted from one foot to the other. “Need some help?” He gestured to the carrots.
Sadie looked carefully at him. “What’s Kylie doing in her room?”
Jasper attempted an expression of nonchalance, something he usually achieved with considerable ease. But now he simply looked as though he were in pain.
“She got the Barbie dolls out. You know I hate that. Ever since Malibu Ken lost his leg and Kylie accidentally flushed it down the toilet and said it got taken by the volcano…it’s just not the same.”
Despite his obvious attempts at distracting her, Sadie had to laugh at this.
“Taken by the volcano?” she repeated skeptically.
He nodded in all seriousness. “Yeah. Mount Thousand Flushes.”
She choked and then coughed.
“Not to be confused with the Scrubbing Bubbles Lagoon,” he added. Then he leaned in and quietly whispered, “That’s the bathtub.” He made a face indicating that this admission could cost him his very life and then mouthed, “Shh! Don’t tell!”
Sadie covered her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. When she was able to control herself, she removed her hand and whispered, “Your secret is safe with me. I wouldn’t want the locals to know you were telling island secrets.”
“You’d better not,” Jasper soberly agreed. “Or it could be my leg that’s taken by Mount Thousand Flushes next.”
She smiled. “You do look a little like Malibu Ken, though.”
“That’s what Kylie said. But I told her the resemblance stops at the hair.”
Sadie grinned, shook her head, and pulled the defrosted chicken from the microwave.
“Um, Sadie…there is something you should know.”
Finally he comes out with it, she thought.
But following this statement, Jasper once more fell silent. She glanced at him.
A slow-working dread began to steal along her nerve endings, causing her skin to tingle. Jasper took several steps toward her.
“It’s about your dad,” he softly said, his breath brushing her eyelashes.
Sadie’s stomach dropped several inches.
“Nothing’s happened.” Jasper quickly tried to calm her. He reached out to smooth the layers of her long brown hair behind her ears. “It’s just that…” He took a breath, and she wanted to slug him.
Out with it! her mind screamed.
Before Jasper could repeat himself, Sadie sensed movement. Jasper’s hands lay gently on her shoulders, but she shifted out of their reassuring embrace to see past her best friend.
There, in the doorway of her kitchen, stood an older man with thinning brown hair and watery eyes. Her father.
“Hello, Sadie,” he greeted her.
She sighed. “Great.”
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