Standalone Women's Fiction
"What do you think?" Jenna Stevens asked, doing her best to sound confident. When faced with something scary, like a big dog or a really bad decision, it was important not to show fear.
"I love it," her mother said. "Truly, it's amazing." Beth squeezed her daughter's shoulders. "I'm so proud of you, honey."
Proud? Proud was good. Proud implied an accomplishment. The only problem was Jenna couldn't claim one. She'd acted on impulse.
As a rule, she could respect a good impulse purchase. There were times when life sucked and a woman needed to buy a pair of shoes or a skirt or even a lipstick she didn't need, just to prove she could. To show the world she wasn't defeated.
Only Jenna hadn't bought any of those things, mostly because she wasn't much of a shopper. But she'd sure stepped out of her comfort zone recently. Had she done it with a too-expensive handbag? Of course not. Instead she'd impulsively signed a three year lease on retail space in a town where she hadn't lived in nearly ten years. As if she knew anything about retail. Oh, sure, she'd been shopping, but that wasn't exactly the same as running a business. Just like being a chef didn't mean she knew squat about running a kitchen store.
"Breathe," her mother told her. "You have to breathe."
Apparently she'd shattered the illusion of courage by hyperventilating.
"Maybe not," Jenna murmured. "Maybe if I stop breathing and go into intensive care, the management company will let me out of my lease. There has to be a clause about a near death experience, don't you think?"
Jenna turned from staring at the front of her new business and pressed her head into her mother's shoulder. Something of a trick considering Beth was a good six inches shorter and Jenna was wearing heels.
"I didn't read the lease," she admitted, her voice slightly muffled.
She braced herself for the chiding. She'd been raised to read everything before signing it. Even a greeting card. She deserved to be yelled at.
Her mother sighed and patted her back. "We won't tell your father."
Jenna straightened. They stood in the parking lot in front of the space she'd rented. Right now it was just an empty storefront, but in a few short weeks, it would be her new business.
"Fifty percent of all new businesses fail," Jenna whispered.
Her mother laughed. "That's my little ray of sunshine. Come on. I'll buy you a latte. We'll sit, we'll talk, we'll plan ways to have your soon-to-be ex-husband tortured. I'm sure your father knows a guy."
Despite the fear and the panic swirling in her stomach, the sense of impending doom and a life that bordered on pathetic, Jenna smiled. "Mom, Dad's a banker. Men who run banks don't know guys."
"Your father is very resourceful."
He was also a physically fit, active man who enjoyed plenty of outdoor activities. If Marshall Stevens wanted something physical to happen to Jenna's ex, he would do it himself.
"I'm just so angry at Aaron," Beth said, leading the way to her SUV. "That cheating, lying you-know-what."
The "you-know-what" was, of course, a stand-in for bastard. Or possibly sonofabitch. Either way, Beth didn't believe in swearing.
She was a traditional kind of woman. She put on make-up before leaving the house, always brought a casserole in a covered dish when there was a death in someone's family and never, ever had a cocktail before five. All things Jenna loved about her.
She knew people who thought traditions were stupid and a waste of time, but for Jenna, they were the warm, comforting glue that held her family together. She could count on her parents to be what they'd always been. Today, that was more important than ever.
They got into her mother's SUV, a late model gas-guzzler and drove toward the closest Starbucks.
"I'll never forgive him," Beth announced. "I suppose I could accept it if he decided that your relationship wasn't working. Not every marriage lasts. It's the cheating that makes him a weasel. I swear, if my daddy was still alive, he would go after Aaron with a shotgun and I wouldn't stop him."
Some days Jenna wouldn't have stopped him, either. But her anger at her ex wasn't about the other women, although the thought of them didn't make her happy. What made her lie awake at night, questioning herself and every decision she'd ever made, was the other ways Aaron had hurt her.
The cheating simply gave her an easy excuse to say why the marriage had failed.
They pulled into the Starbucks parking lot. Her mother turned to her. "You get anything you want. Venti, syrup, whipped cream." Beth wrinkled her nose. "I won't even mention how resentful I am that you're as skinny as a string bean and I'm stuck with thighs that hate me. That's how much I love you."
Jenna laughed, then leaned across the console and hugged her mother. "I love you, too, Mom. Thank you."
"I haven't bought the coffee yet."
The thank you wasn't about the drink, but then her mother already knew that.
"I'm glad you're home," Beth told her as she climbed out of the SUV. "This is where you belong. Real people live in Texas, not in Los Angeles. All those Hollywood types." She sniffed. "Is there anyone normal in the city?"
"A few, but they never go out at night." Jenna linked arms with her. "I'm glad I'm home, too."
While that wasn't necessarily true today, she hoped the sentiment would be. Soon.
Jenna couldn't quite escape the feeling that going back to look at her store was like returning to the scene of the crime. But it had to be done and someone, probably her, needed to get her business started.
Despite having spent the past couple of weeks getting things ready for the grand opening, every time she pulled into the parking lot and stared at the space she'd rented, she couldn't bring herself to believe it.
Three months ago she'd been in Los Angeles. Her husband had walked into their tiny bathroom while she'd been brushing her teeth and had announced he was leaving her for another woman. He was in love and he was leaving.
What Jenna remembered most was standing in that cramped space wondering when she was supposed to spit. At what point in that kind of confession was it polite or expected for her to lean over the sink, spit and rinse?
She'd been unable to speak with all that toothpaste in her mouth, so she'd stood there like an idiot. Eventually Aaron had walked out, leaving her stunned, emotionally shattered and with toothpaste dribbling down her chin.
Later they'd talked. Or he'd talked, explaining all the reasons the break-up was her fault. She realized now that was Aaron's thing. Taking whatever was good and strong in a person and systematically destroying it. On the outside, he was pure charm, all dark good-looks and an easy smile. On the inside, he was the devil. Or at the very least an evil minion.
She supposed she could have fought for her marriage, but a part of her had been relieved to have a reason to leave. So she'd packed up everything she owned and had returned to Georgetown.
She'd grown up in the town just north of Austin. She'd been lost, so going home had made sense. As much as anything could, under the circumstances.
She was grateful her parents had never asked why she didn't try to get a job in a restaurant. She'd been a professional chef for nearly a decade. It was what she knew. Or it had been. Today, cooking anything seemed impossible.
Oh, sure, she could throw together something easy. A bisque, a dozen or so pasta dishes, a savory tart, prime rib. The basics. But to creatively cook? To take new flavors and blend them into something so good it was almost magic? That had been lost.
It was as if her culinary soul had been stolen. As much as she wanted to blame Aaron—and a case could be made that he was guilty of theft—she'd been the one not standing guard, not protecting what mattered most of all. She'd been the one to let him berate her, mock her and claim her best ideas as his own. She'd let herself begin to doubt her abilities, her creative self, and now she was just someone who had once known how to cook.
The killer was, no one knew. Not that she wanted to talk about it or have people feel sorry for her, she didn't. But there was the fact that no one understood. On the outside, she was as good as she'd ever been. It wasn't as if she'd lost her actual skills. But the thing she'd loved best—the spark of creating—was gone. And she didn't know how to get it back.
She tried to tell herself that opening a cooking store was a grand adventure. It was her new destiny. She would pass on her skills to others, share the wealth, so to speak. And if she didn't want to believe that, she had three years of lease payments to worry about. If she couldn't perk her mood with self-talk, then she would get real with fear. Whatever worked.
At least the location was great, she thought, staring at the big windows and glass front door. Old Town was a thriving part of Georgetown and her store was in the middle of it. To the right of her space was a yarn store called "Only Ewe." To the left was an insurance agency and beyond that, a beauty salon.
Old Town itself—a series of square blocks—was a combination of business and retail with some residential areas. There were restaurants, boutiques and a couple of banks. Foot traffic was high and Jenna was hoping that impulse buying was also a part of everyday life.
As she got out of her car and studied her store, she told herself she could do this. She could be successful with her new business. She'd never been a big believer in "fake it until you make it," but maybe now was the time to explore a new philosophy. After all, like it or not, the store was opening. The sign would be delivered early next week. The final deliveries of her inventory would arrive two days after that. Then it was just a matter of getting everything in place and opening the doors.
She was waiting to see how well she did before spending money on advertising. From what she could tell, Grate Expectations would fill a need in the community. High-quality kitchen supplies with expert instruction. She would demonstrate, offer cooking classes and give the people in town the chance to learn the secrets of professional chefs.
As she pulled out her key to the store, she heard a car door slam. She turned and saw a dark-haired woman walking toward her.
"Hi," the woman called. "Jenna?"
"Yes. You must be Violet."
They'd spoken on the phone. Violet had been one of nearly a dozen calls she'd had about the job she'd posted in the paper. Of the potential applicants, Violet had had the most experience, not to mention the most normal personality.
Now Jenna took in the short, spiky hair, the dark eye-liner and thick lashes. Violet's beige lace T-shirt covered a deep purple tank top. Her skirt was layered and also purple. Dozens of necklaces hung down in various lengths, while an equal number of bracelets clinked on her left arm. High-heel ankle boots completed the look.
She looked to be in her mid-to-late twenties. Humor and curiosity sparkled in her brown eyes and her smile was friendly.
"Great location," Violet said as Jenna wrestled with the door. "Very upscale. You'll get a lot of walk-in traffic. Especially if you're cooking. People will follow the smell."
They went inside. Jenna turned on the lights, then glanced around at the chaos.
She saw shelves against the walls and free-standing racks in the middle of the main room. A newly installed kitchen set-up gleamed from one side. The desk for the cash register was in place. Boxes were stacked nearly five feet high. Unpacking was going to take days.
Daunting didn't begin to describe it, but Jenna didn't care. Hard work was exactly what she was looking for. If she was exhausted, she wouldn't have as much time to think. Besides, this was America. According to legend, all that stood between her and success was a little hard work. Fortunately the ability to do what needed doing had always been one of her strongest attributes.
"Nice," Violet said, walking around. "The high ceilings are great. Some of the places around here have a second floor, so the ceilings are lower." She headed for the kitchen area, set down her purse and tugged on her sleeves. As she pulled up the lace, Jenna caught site of a tattoo of flowers on the inside of her wrist.
Violet wasn't anything like Jenna had imagined. She'd pictured someone older. Someone more...conservative. But Violet had energy and an engaging smile. The pixie cut gelled to a fashion-forward spiky mess suited her, as did the Goth-inspired make-up. Violet looked both fun and approachable.
Ten years of working in restaurant kitchens had taught Jenna to trust her gut when it came to hiring. For all his telling her that she didn't know what she was talking about, Aaron had listened to her gut, too.
"You enjoy working with the public?" Jenna asked.
She knew that was going to be the most difficult area for her. She was used to being behind the scenes, not dealing with the front of the house. Ordering, organizing, working under pressure—those were easy. But smiling in the face of harried customers? Not so much.
"Most days," Violet said with a laugh. "I think the difference between a place like this and say a big box store is branding. You go to a retail chain with certain expectations. Sometimes it's price, or convenience. But making a special trip to your store requires a little more thought. Customers have to want to come here."
She ran her hands across the stainless steel counters by the stove.
"I think the key to success is to give customers an experience they can't get anywhere else. Not only different products, but personalized service. You have to make them want to come back." Violet smiled again, her eyes dancing with excitement. "I do love a good challenge."
"I'm glad. We're going to have that here."
Violet faced her. "Maybe not. What's the competition? I don't think there are any other places like this in the area, but I didn't do the research."
Jenna stared at her. Research? She did her best not to wince. Right. Because most people had a plan when they opened a store. They checked out the area, ran the numbers, worked on a profit and loss statement. Things Jenna would have done had she been opening a restaurant.
"We're going to offer something unique here," Jenna said. "Neighborhoods like that."
"You've owned retail stores before?" Violet asked.
"Not exactly. I'm a sous chef."
"Oh, wow. That's great." Violet moved to the open area in front of the sink and held her arms open wide. "We could set up cooking stations here. People love to get their hands dirty. With that big oven and the six burners, they can all be cooking and baking together. People would kill to get real tips from someone like you."
Jenna shook her head. "I wasn't going to have the customers cook. I'll be doing demonstrations. Showing techniques for different dishes." People came to cooking classes because they wanted to learn recipes and they needed certain skills. She could do that. No one would even notice something was missing.
Violet's arms dropped to her side. "That would be good, too," she said with measurably less enthusiasm. "Will you have prepared the dishes in advance so they get to sample what you're doing?"
"That's nice." She walked toward the boxes and read the labels. "So you've never exactly run a store before?"
Violet bit down on her lower lip. "Are you hiring a manager?"
"I'll be the manager. At least for now." Jenna squared her shoulders. It was time to get to the interview. "I'm looking for someone to work full time with me. We'll be open six days a week. I'd prefer you take your second day off on Monday through Thursday. I'm guessing Friday and Saturday will be busiest. I'm going to offer different kinds of cooking classes. Classic recipes, easy to make, foods that can be frozen and served days or weeks later."
Stuff she could do in her sleep.
A part of her whispered it might be fun to experiment a little. To have customers surprise her with ingredients and then come up with something on the fly. She could—
Without wanting to, she remembered experimenting with bread pudding as an appetizer rather than a dessert. Using savory flavors, chilies and spices rather than sugar. Aaron had grabbed one of her samples before she could taste it herself. He'd taken one bite and quickly spit it back into his hand.
Then he'd patted her on the back and said, "It's good that you try."
As if she were some kid who'd made a mud pie. Some kid who had trouble learning and needed a lot of praise.
She didn't know which was worse—the rest of the kitchen staff watching, or the fact that when she'd tasted her creation later, it had been delicious. But she hadn't trusted herself enough to give it to anyone else to try.
No. She wouldn't be experimenting anytime soon. The reality of that thought made her sad. No, sad wasn't the right word. It broke her heart.
"I want someone who can grow into the manager position quickly," she said before she could stop herself.
"I would be interested in that," Violet told her, looking pleased with the information.
Jenna pressed her lips together. If she wasn't managing the store, she would have plenty of time on her hands. Time to figure out how to find that lost part of herself.
Violet glanced around. "Are you going to sell the foods themselves? The various ingredients?"
"You need something for the people to buy. Either a gadget or a pan. Cookware doesn't exactly break or go out of style. If you don't offer the customers a reason to buy, they won't. They'll come in, get the recipes and tips, then leave. That means no money for you."
"I see." Jenna hadn't thought that part through. "I'll work something out. Maybe charge a fee for the classes. Why don't you tell me about your current job?"
Fifteen minutes later Violet had run through her work experience. She had two letters of recommendation and an easy way about her. Jenna knew her own personality tended toward the control freak end of the spectrum. Violet seemed liked a nice balance.
"Why are you looking to make a change?" Jenna asked.
"I like what I do," Violet told her. "But corporate America isn't my thing. I want to be part of a community. I've been in Austin a couple of years but I still feel like I'm settling in." She waved her hand at the shelves. "This is going to be a challenge and that's what I'm looking for. If you're sure there's a chance that I'll be considered for the manager position, then I'm interested."
Jenna was relieved. She'd already checked Violet's references and had been impressed with what she'd been told. At this point someone who knew what retail was all about would be a big help. "When could you start?"
"Next week. Tuesday."
The front door opened and a blond woman in her late twenties walked in.
"Hi. I'm Robyn. I own the yarn store next door. Thought I'd come say hi and welcome you to the neighborhood."
Violet moved toward her, smiling and holding out her hand. "I'm Violet Green," she said. "I know. Crazy name. I think my mother was deep into medication when she gave birth. Anyway, this is Jenna Stevens. She owns the store."
"Nice to meet you," Jenna said, thinking Robyn looked familiar. Georgetown was small enough that they'd probably gone to the same school, although in different grades. Robyn looked a few years younger.
Robyn looked around. "Great space. It's so light and bright. You're going to love it here. I'm hoping we'll be able to share customers." She wrinkled her nose. "I was terrified an auto parts store would move in next door. Not that I don't love my car, but not a lot of guys are interested in knitting."
Violet laughed. "I've been in your place before. It's beautiful. I love all the yarn."
"Do you knit?" Robyn asked.
"No, but I'd like to learn."
"We'll be starting a beginner class in a few weeks. If you're interested."
Jenna found herself feeling shy and awkward. She reminded herself it was simple conversation. She could handle that. But the truth was, she hadn't been out in the "girl world" for years. Most of the people in the kitchens where she'd worked had been guys. While Aaron had always had a pack of friends hanging around, she'd had more trouble finding women to relate to. When she'd lived here before, she'd had a lot of friends. She promised herself she would call them soon.
"I'm going to be doing a lot of cooking here," she forced herself to say. "I can bring by samples."
Robyn smiled. "This is why you're going to be my favorite neighbor. I can already tell. When do you open?"
Jenna gave her the date.
"Let me know if there's anything I can do to help," Robyn told them both. "Even if you just want to pop over and have some coffee to get away from the craziness."
"Thanks," Violet said. "We will."
Robyn ducked out. Violet closed the door behind her and laughed.
"What an adventure. I can't wait."
Jenna thought about how she'd spent the past couple of months feeling like a total failure. This was a new beginning for her. A chance to prove herself.
"I can't wait, either," she murmured. This time, everything was going to be different.
Jenna arrived at her new rented townhouse a little after six. After pulling into the garage, she climbed the stairs to the main floor, only to find her father squinting at a power drill. He checked the mark on the wall, then carefully drove in three screws.
She waited until the drill was silent.
He turned and grinned at her. "Hey, kid. Your shelves are just about done. Give me a sec and you can help me put the brackets in place."
The shelves were decorative metal with hooks for all her pots and lids. While the townhouse had plenty of room for the average cook, Jenna traveled with a lot of cookbooks, notes and equipment. Extra storage space was required.
Her dad winked at her. "I checked with your landlord, to make sure adding the shelving was okay."
"I'll bet that was a tough conversation."
"He saw my side of things."
As the man who owned the entire complex was a close friend of her dad's, she wasn't surprised.
Marshall put down his drill and held out his arms. "You okay, Jenna?"
She stepped into his embrace and allowed herself to get lost in her father's familiar strength. "I will be."
"I'm sorry Aaron turned out to be such a jerk."
"Me, too. I wanted what you and Mom have." Growing up she hadn't thought it was too much to ask. Now, looking back at her failed years with her ex-husband, she knew finding the right man wasn't as easy as it looked.
"You'll get there," her dad told her. "But do me a favor, kid. This time fall for a Texas boy."
She grinned. "You think they're that much better?"
"I know they are."
"What if he's an Aggie?" she asked in a mock whisper. Her father had gone to the University of Texas. Aggies—those who graduated from Texas A&M—were the enemy.
"Better an Aggie than someone from California."
She laughed. "I'll do my best."
"That's my girl." He kissed the top of her head and released her.
She stepped back and watched him finish putting up her shelves.
Maybe this wasn't exactly where she'd thought she would be at nearly thirty-two, but she could still make it okay. She'd failed at her marriage. People did that and recovered. Many of them thrived. She could thrive, as well. She could figure out how to make starting over the best thing that ever happened to her.
Standalone Women's Fiction
April 2011/November 2012 reissue
Jenna Stevens is still reeling from a recent divorce and recuperating from wounds inflicted by a husband who belittled her at every opportunity. A classically trained chef, Jenna no longer believes she’s capable of the leaps of creativity that once won her praise from her instructors and from food critics, so she moves back to her hometown in Texas to open a retail cooking store.
Just as Jenna’s settling into her new career and beginning to feel like she’s on even ground, her birth mother barrels her way into Jenna’s life. Jenna doesn’t want or need a second mother, especially a vegan mother named Serenity who would have named her Butterfly. But while Serenity listens to signs from the Universe, she easily ignores Jenna telling her to go away. With gentle but insistent pressure, she will find a way to open Jenna’s heart.
And once the heart is open, anything can happen!
COPYRIGHT © 2018 BY SUSAN MALLERY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. WEBSITE DESIGN & MAINTENANCE BY WEB CRAFTERS.
SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.