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Taste of Love
 

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Taste of Love


  Taste of Love

  by Maria Ling

  Smashwords Edition

  Copyright 2011 Maria Ling

  Cover photo copyright Kurhan - Fotolia.com

  Smashwords Edition License Notes

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  ***

  CHAPTER 1

  Janine stepped off the bus at Whitby station with a sigh of relief. The trip from York lasted two hours, and Janine felt it in the muscles of her back. The bus was comfortable enough, with wide cushioned seats and stunningly clean windows, but she wasn't used to sitting still for long periods of time. In her job as a physiotherapist, she was more used to standing.

  Seagulls wailed in the distance. She hefted her suitcase, remembering to tense her core muscles and keep her back straight, and set off down the road from the bus station. For a moment she toyed with the idea of popping into the Co-op to stock up on food, but dismissed the idea. The one thing she could be sure of finding in her Nan's house was tea and biscuits.

  Even though Nan was no longer there.

  The thought cramped her heart, so hard that she had to stop walking. For a moment she was afraid she would burst into tears, right here in the street.

  "Are you all right, love?" A large woman who'd sat next to her on the bus stopped to look at her with kind concern. Janine forced herself to smile.

  "I'm fine, thanks. Just got a speck in my eye."

  "It's a grand place here, isn't it?" The woman looked around with evident satisfaction, a broad smile spreading across her face. She spoke in a Leeds accent so strong it brought a more genuine smile to Janine's face. "Have you been here before?"

  "Often," Janine said. "I used to come every holiday. My Nan lived here, but she's dead now."

  "That's a shame. I suppose you miss her terribly." The woman patted Janine's arm. "Cheer up, love. You're born and you die, nothing else for it. Enjoy that sunshine while you can" She set off down the street, dragging a suitcase behind her like an overfed mastiff on a leash.

  Janine turned her face towards the sun. It shone with surprising strength, considering October had come and gone. It was early November now, cold and damp, with the promise of fierce rain to come later. But for now, the skies were -- if not clear, then at least patchy. In this part of the world, that was practically blazing summer.

  She hefted her suitcase again. It wasn't heavy, and she was used to carrying it. Every holiday for the past six years she'd taken it with her to visit her Nan. But this time it felt heavy in her hand, the handle rough and uncomfortable, digging into her fingers. She stalked off down the street, trying to keep her posture straight and controlled.

  The little cottage lay sunken from the road in an alley just off Flowergate. Its peering windows were achingly familiar. The whitewashed walls shone quietly in the dim November light. The net curtains hung as straight and fresh as ever, but no table lamp glimmered behind them, illuminating the old sofa and bulging armchairs. The house had an abandoned look, even though everything was exactly as Nan had left it before that last brief hospital stay.

  Janine let herself in. She propped the door open with her suitcase and opened the kitchen window to air out the thick musty smell. The neighbour, Mrs Sutcliffe, had been faithful in her attentions to the houseplants, which gleamed with good health, but she couldn't be expected to do everything. There was a fine layer of dust on the kitchen surfaces, barely visible in the slanting light from the window, and a settled chill in the atmosphere that showed the heating hadn't yet been turned on for winter.

  Janine trudged up the stairs, into the bedroom where a double bed stood crammed between two walls. Nan had slept in it throughout the twenty years of her widowhood: she never considered changing to a single bed. The white crocheted bedspread looked just as it always had done, right down to the frayed edge where Janine's childish hands had worked a five-year-old's vengeance at being denied more sweets. She still felt vaguely guilty, seeing it.

  The tiny guest room and the absurdly lavish bathroom -- decorated in an era when colour trumped taste, with ornate taps and leonine feet on the tub -- were clean and tidy. No sign of spiders or mice. Janine opened the windows in all the rooms, shivered in the brisk sea breeze, and went back downstairs.

  Mrs Sutcliffe was in the kitchen, depositing a pint of milk on the worktop.

  "I thought you likely hadn't bought any," she said. "You'll be off to the restaurant now, won't you?"

  "Soon," Janine said. "I'll want to freshen up first."

  "You do right." Mrs Sutcliffe was Whitby born and bred, same as Nan had been, with the robust approach to life Janine had always loved. "There's tea and biscuits in the cupboard, just like when your Nan was here. I knew you'd like that."

  "Thank you." Janine half expected the tears to well up again at Mrs Sutcliffe's kindness, but instead she felt almost cheerful. Nan would have enjoyed knowing that life went on around this place.

  And in it. Nan had loved this house, as much as she loved the business that she and her husband had built up from scratch. The restaurant had been all their own doing, and she had kept it going after Granfa died. Often she would say how proud she was to have this one thing she could leave to her daughter and grand-daughter after she died.

  Janine made herself a cup of tea, and hastened Mrs Sutcliffe to the door as forcefully as she could without appearing rude. She would have to go to the restaurant as soon as possible. Anything else was just delaying the inevitable, putting off the terrible moment when she'd have to tell the staff that they were all laid off. Take one last look around that beloved room, with its quaint old photographs and lace curtains, before shutting the door on it for the final time.

  It all had to go. The restaurant was up to its ears in debt, the house had to go on the market just to clear Nan's outstanding payments. There was nothing at all left of the dreams and hopes from half a century ago. Nothing at all left of Janine's happy childhood here, except the memories that had been joyful but were now so bittersweet.

  Standing alone in the old kitchen, drinking her Tetley's strong with lots of milk the way Nan had always made it, Janine cried.

  ***

  She was hardly more composed two hours later, as she stood in the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, giving the chefs the bad news. There were two of them, a lanky man in his forties named John and a kid straight out of school who went by the name of Tommy. Neither of them seemed entirely surprised.

  "I'll stop bothering with this, then." John threw down the knife he'd been using to chop parsley. Green specks smothered the blade.

  "I'm so sorry," Janine said. "You'll be paid until the end of the month, of course. Thanks for all your hard work here."

  "Yeah, well." He seemed about to spit in the sink, but thought better of it. "Not much to show for twenty years of work." He took off his apron and threw it over the abandoned parsley. The weight dragged the knife off the chopping board, and it fell to the floor with a clatter and a spray of green. Tommy gave a nervous giggle.

  "I'm sorry," Janine said again. She felt rather aggrieved that she was the one apologising, but she couldn't stop herself. And she was taking John's and Tommy's livelihood away, no matter how reluctantly. "You'll get good references." She wondered if she was promising too much. After all, she didn't really know enough about John's and Tommy's work to comment on it in a professional capacity.

  But they were honest
and hardworking and hadn't poisoned anyone yet, so she could probably give them a good reference with a clear conscience.

  She walked through to the main room and stood there, breathing in the atmosphere. It was warm in here, cosy against the grey light from outside. A light drizzle began to tap on the windows that fronted the street.

  She would stay until the waitresses arrived, then have the same dispiriting little talk with them. After that she'd tidy up, make sure everything was clean and neat, and shut the door for the last time.

  Not just on Nan's hopes and dreams. On her own hopes and dreams, too.

  Janine had always believed she would work in the restaurant. Help Nan and Granfa to run it. Even she was little, she'd tell them they didn't have to worry about their old age, because she'd be here to take care of them. She'd be running the restaurant, and they could come in and eat here every day, and --

  She broke off her thoughts. What was the point? It was all shattered and wasted and spoiled. Nothing she'd dreamed of had come true.

  Janine leaned her face against the pane of glass. It felt hard and chilly against the skin of her cheek. She could hear the rain tapping against the glass, could almost feel its faint vibration.

  Except that it wasn't tapping. It was knocking.

  There was a man outside the front door. Janine sighed, manufactured a smile from some raw materials she had lying around, and put it on.

  "I'm sorry," she said as she opened the door and squinted out into the grey mist. "We're closed until further notice." Forever would be more accurate, but she didn't want to tell anyone else that until she'd had a chance to speak to all the staff.

  "I'm not surprised." The man was tall and dark-haired, with a sharp brown gaze that seemed to fillet her heart. "Day like this, place like this, hardly worth opening. But I'll come in out of the rain anyway." He pushed past her into the room. His coat, thick navy-blue wool, glistened with drops. "I'm here for a job."

  "Tough," Janine said, her anger waking. Who did this arrogant man think he was? "We're closed. And we're not hiring."

  "You'll hire me," the man said. "Unless you're an idiot." He held out his hand. "Matthew Sutcliffe, head chef at the Brasserie. Until this morning. Head chef here, now."

  "Head -- " Janine gaped at him, her hand outstretched in automatic response. He shook it, and the firm warmth of his hand made her heard quiver. She forced herself to come to her senses. "No, I'm sorry. We're not hiring. The restaurant is closed for good." There, she'd said it. And she was proud of the fact that her voice hadn't cracked. Inwardly, she through she would break apart from the pain.

  "Rubbish," said the man. "You're the new owner, aren't you? I heard you were coming down today. Well, I'll tell you what the problem is here. Crummy décor, boring menu, overpriced food. What you need to do is turn it into a fish restaurant. Then you'll have a viable business on your hands."

  "It is a fish restaurant," Janine said with icy sarcasm. "Did you miss the shark in the window?"

  "No, I saw it. Been there for decades. Would you eat in a place that kept the same fish lying around for decades? Even if it is just bones -- which actually gives a pretty good idea of the food at this place. Clear it out, make it smart and fresh and open. Serve quick-fried plaice and grilled halibut. None of this overcooked crap." He flicked a finger at a menu, dismissively.

  Janine took a deep breath.

  "Please leave. We are closed."

  He stooped to peer into her face. His expression changed from contempt to concern.

  "Are you all right? You look like someone just kicked you in the teeth."

  "Someone did," Janine said. "You. This was my Nan's restaurant, and now she's dead. I don't need some obnoxious idiot coming in here telling me she's been doing it all wrong."

  She stopped herself before she could go any further. Already her voice was tipping over into shrill fury, and her eyes and nose burned. A moment longer, another word, and she'd be either screaming or crying. Probably both.

  "I'm sorry." He touched her arm, very gently, with such tenderness that her heart raced. She almost burst into tears there and then. "I didn't realise it meant so much to you. I'm only trying to help."

  "Why?" Janine glared at him. It was better to be angry than to weep. "What does it matter to you?"

  "Well, as I say, I'm out of a job." His quirky smile caused a shiver to grow in the pit of her stomach. "I quit this morning. I'd like to make a go of things here. Your Nan -- I'm really sorry she's dead, she was a lovely woman -- "

  "You knew her?" Janine interrupted.

  "Met her a few times this past year. She was my Mum's neighbour.

  Sutcliffe, Janine thought, kicking herself. Of course. But she didn't know this man. She'd never met him. Granted, she'd been swamped at work and hadn't visited Nan as often as she ought to have done. Guilt seeped through her heart, corrosive.

  "Anyway," the man continued. "Your Nan worked hard to keep it afloat, but anyone could see she was fighting a losing battle. I think I know where she went wrong. And I think you're giving up too easily. This could be a great little place, given the right décor and a tempting menu. Let me try to rescue it. Please. It deserves better than to be shut down without at least an attempt at making it work."

  Janine wiped her nose. There was a lot of sense in what he said. And she'd rather save the restaurant if she could.

  "Do you think there's a chance?" She looked him straight in the eye, challenging. "Seriously? Because I don't have either time or money to waste. If this place is doomed, then I'd rather face up to that now and cut my losses. I don't believe in fighting for a lost cause."

  "It's not a lost cause." His eyes were steady. "I promise you I can turn this place around and make a success of it. Will you let me try?"

  Maybe it was possible. She could let herself believe that. It would mean spending some more precious time in her Nan's house, working to save what her Nan had battled so hard to build.

  "I'll give you two weeks to convince me it can be done." She sounded hard and cold, even to herself. "After that, if I'm not won over, we shut our doors for good."

  CHAPTER 2

  Matthew ran his finger over the plaice. It felt slick with moisture, and smelled faintly of the sea but not at all of fish.

  "Fresh as can be," the skipper said. He was a good man and a great fisherman. Matthew had known him since school. "We were lucky this time out."

  "I'll take the crate," Matthew said. "And the crabs, too." They peered at him from their cage, suspiciously, as if they guessed what he had in mind for them. "And some of that halibut."

  He felt pleased with himself as he manoeuvred the crates through the back door of the restaurant. There was no fresher fish to be had than this.

  Better by far than imported rubber flown in from heaven knew where. That had been one of his standard rows at the Brasserie, and the reason he'd finally walked out. The owner insisted on putting lobster and tiger prawns on the menu, regardless of what today's catch at the docks might be. Frozen portions lay uneaten for weeks, tough and dull once cooked.

  Matthew believed in sourcing local ingredients and cooking them simply. This was his chance to put that philosophy into practice, without the hassle of some know-nothing owner standing over him, complaining about how he chose to do things.

  People should stick to what they knew, Matthew thought. Owners might know about money, so let them handle that side of things. He knew about food. It was his life, it was all he'd ever wanted to do, and he'd make no compromises on the quality of it. Not even if his stubborn adherence to principle cost him his job.

  Which it just had done.

  Not clever, the sensible part of his brain admonished him. Especially with it being autumn. Busy season was over, with only the highlight of Christmas and half term to keep things afloat through the winter. Some restaurants simply closed between November and April. He'd resigned himself to going without work until May at least.

  Then he'd seen her. Walking past the old lad
y's café, he'd seen the most gorgeous woman in the window. Staring out, as if she was just waiting for him to arrive.

  He'd knocked on the door on an impulse. He wanted to see her close up, hear her speak. He didn't know why. She was stunning to look at, yes, but there was no law against just looking. Instead, he'd foisted himself on her. Asked for a job. Spouted any bullshit that came into his head, just for the chance to stick close to her for a little while longer.

  And she'd hired him. He still wasn't sure just how that had happened. But he was head chef at her restaurant now, and he intended to do a damn fine job.

  Janine. It made him smile just to think of her name.

  The old lady had been a dear -- he used to go around and fix things for her, since she was Mum's neighbour -- but her ideas of good eating were stuck in a time warp. Twenty years out of date. This was his chance to bring the restaurant bang up to date, and stay close to the lovely granddaughter as well.

  Even as he thought that, she walked into the kitchen. She was strolling along, vaguely studying the pristine worktops, and jumped when she saw him.

  "I didn't realise there was anyone here," she said. "You're in early."

  "I was here at six." He didn't tell her it was to give the kitchen a thorough scrubbing - what he'd seen as she showed him around yesterday had been too appalling for words. Streaks of dirt on the walls, greasy marks on the work surfaces, a spatter of charred gunk clinging to the hob.

  Matthew refused to work in any kitchen that was anything other than spotless. So he'd scrubbed and disinfected every surface, vertical or horizontal, and now there was an air of clinical hygiene that would do a hospital operating theatre proud.

  "You've obviously been busy." She tapped the nearest worktop with her forefinger, then leaned over to study the wall behind it. "Is there anything you didn't wash?"

  "No." Matthew felt a surge of pride that she'd noticed. But she didn't look altogether pleased.

 
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