But I wasn’t alone long. “Miriam?”
Startled at the interruption, I glanced up from the pan of ginger consommé I was stirring at the stove. Trevor Baines, whom I’d expected to be working on bookkeeping for another hour, stood shadowed in the doorway. When he stepped into the light of the kitchen, I smiled at how miraculously unrumpled he was in his dark-blue dress shirt and black slacks. The handsome owner of Spicy Seas, Trevor is technically my boss but also my long-term boyfriend. He’s tossed around the description “fiancé” once or twice, but we’ve been too busy with our business plan to discuss wedding plans.
I doubted that was why he’d sought me out now, though.
“We need to talk,” he said. Despite our doing a great night’s business, his expression was medium dire with a side of pity.
In fact, his features were arranged in what I think of as his Poor Baby face, the one that secretly makes me want to smack him in the head with a spatula. Don’t get me wrong, Trevor’s a great guy, but from time to time he can be unintentionally patronizing, especially when giving bad news. As if I need to be handled delicately. He should know better than anyone how staid and dependable I am.
My creative culinary bent and occasional errant thought about spatula violence notwithstanding, I was the one who calmly dealt with the behind-the-scenes crises that almost always arise when launching a restaurant. Trevor contributed family money—which secured us the place—and his sweet-talking ability to charm vendors, prospective clients and the staffs of food magazines. His people skills and my fabulous recipes have made Spicy Seas one of Charleston’s most successful new dining spots. I have as many insecurities as the next vaguely neurotic twenty-eight-year-old American woman trying to have it all, but my cooking isn’t one of them.
I turned off the burner, sensing that whatever he had to say needed my undivided attention. “What’s up?”
“First of all, let me just say you did a great job tonight.” He ran a hand through his wavy black hair. “You always do, but that critic really liked the wreck-fish and spicy fruit salsa.”
Wreckfish is a recent South Carolinian delicacy; the salsa, based on tamarind, is a specialty of mine.
“I think the write-up is really going to help us,” he continued. Which was all to the good, but his smile had the same ring of insincerity as a doctor who says, “This shouldn’t hurt,” just before jamming in the hypodermic needle.
“Thanks, Trevor. You know I appreciate the praise, but if there’s something wrong, you don’t have to soften me up first.”
He chuckled. Nervously. “Such a pessimist. What makes you think something’s wrong?”
Certain symbols throughout history have been universally recognized as Bad Signs—a skull with cross-bones, for example. And the words we need to talk. He had to have been really nervous to make such a rookie mistake.
Oh, God. Was Spicy Seas in trouble?
Profits had been promising, particularly for a restaurant less than a year old. Promotion had been well planned, and the critics had been kind thus far. The recent change in seafood suppliers was costing us a bit more, but our new provider’s strict attention to conservation principles would benefit restaurateurs up and down the coast.
Don’t panic. Whatever the problem was, we would deal with it. My friend Amanda had commented once or twice that she didn’t see the sparks between Trevor and me—and we’d subsequently decided that maybe it was better just not to discuss our respective love lives—but sparks or not, Trevor and I made a good team.
“Just tell me what happened,” I prompted.
“All right.” His hazel eyes were full of anxiety, and he glanced away. “The truth is, I don’t think this is going to work.”
“The restaurant?” My worst fears, realized. I was certain my face had gone the same white as my discarded toque, the chef’s hat I’d removed at closing.
“No, not the restaurant, Miriam. It’s doing great. I meant us.”
Spicy Seas was doing great—relief bubbled up inside me like milk at a fast boil. Wait a minute, cancel that order. “Us? As in, you and me?”
He nodded, suddenly looking haggard in a way that was rare for him even after a double shift. “I think the world of you. You know that.”
Well, I’d inferred it, based on our discussing eventual matrimony. Maybe that had been presumptuous.
“You’re a talented chef, too,” he continued, his Poor Baby expression firmly back in place as he oozed flattery, no doubt meant to temper the blow. “And a, um, lovely person. These months with you—”
“While we’re young, Trevor.” I sounded as impatient and demanding as the most dreaded culinary professor, but allowances for snippiness should be made when a girl’s getting…dumped? For a moment, confusion beat out all the other emotions swirling inside. What was going on, and why hadn’t I seen it coming? “Is there someone else?”
I had no idea when he would have found time to cheat on me, but I’d watched him charm dozens of women. Women who showed up at the restaurant in little black dresses and the latest haircuts. The combination of hours spent in a hot kitchen and unflattering, boxy chef’s whites don’t exactly create a Vogue cover look.
Trevor shook his head. “It’s not anyone else. It’s you.”
“Me?” I blinked, indignant. Although I could objectively admit he dealt nightly with more attractive women, I still thought he had a lot of nerve to announce that whatever problem we had was my fault. My right hand felt along the countertop for a spatula.
“Not that you’ve done anything wrong,” he hastened to add. “I talk about us during publicity interviews, and it’s really made me think about our relationship. You and I together, we don’t make sense. Take a rack of lamb—it goes so perfectly with a cabernet sauvignon.”
I was too caught off guard by this conversation to point out that the entire concept of Spicy Seas was more imaginative combinations.
“You wouldn’t pair it with a cheap beer, right?”
I managed to find my voice. A hoarser, angrier version of it, anyway. “You’re calling me a cheap beer. You’re breaking up with me and insulting me? In my kitchen?” He probably had hot plans to crash a convent and harangue nuns next.
Forget whacking him with a spatula, this called for something cast-iron.
“Our kitchen,” he corrected with a surly tone no customer would ever hear. “My reputation’s on the line with this place. I’m somebody in the restaurant community, among the movers and shakers of Charleston. I want you to stay, of course—you’re part of what makes Spicy Seas work—but you aren’t the woman people expect to see on my arm.”
“Trevor, I…” Have no idea what to say. This man who had ardently pursued me now thought I didn’t fit his image and should be cast aside like a freaking cuff link that didn’t look right with his jacket?
He sighed. “I know there’s such a thing as being too blunt, but you deserve the truth. Inside the kitchen, you make some of the spiciest, most creative dishes I’ve ever tasted. But everywhere else, Miriam, you’re a little too bland for me.”
WHEN I ARRIVED HOME—a reasonably priced duplex apartment in North Charleston with nice amenities but entirely too little kitchen counter and pantry space—I was still vacillating between shock and anger. Tomorrow, I might be feeling homicidal, or at least angry enough to submit my résumé to Spicy Seas’ top competitors. Tonight, though, hours of being on my feet and orchestrating the precision timing of entrées had left me too drained to sustain quality rage.