Kara Malendar was a bitch. She hadn’t planned on being one and hadn’t always been one, but as she stopped during her mid-Saturday morning run, it was clear she must be the very worst kind of person. Catching her breath and taking a sip from the little water bottle fastened around her waist, Kara fixed her eyes across the street at Marco Polo. Men in blue jumpsuits were emptying the local Italian restaurant. Boxes, tables, and chairs were being loaded onto a large moving van with a cartoon kangaroo painted on the side. Tony and Pam Forte, the owners, were a husband-and-wife team. He was the business part and she was the chef. Pam was classically trained, or so Kara had read in the About Us portion of their website. She had always hated the term “classically trained” because it was assumed that was synonymous with great chef. Trained and great were two very different things in Kara’s book.
She pulled her UCLA cap down low and sat on the bench just up the road from where the Fortes were saying good-bye to their dream. They’d been open a little over two years. Seventy percent of all restaurants collapsed after a year, so they were luckier than most. And who really knew why they finally decided to call it quits? There could have been several reasons Kara was not privy to, but as she took an even larger sip of water, she felt certain it was the scathing review she’d submitted six months ago to her employer, the Los Angeles Times. That had probably finished them off for good. “The last nail in the coffin,” as her Nana would have said. Granted, Pam’s linguini was overcooked and the wine pairing their sommelier had suggested was awful, but the atmosphere was wonderful, with old exposed brick and fantastic Venice-like lighting. Their bruschetta was on point. It wasn’t clumsy or overblown. Very few restaurants could pull off bruschetta. Kara had been to Marco Polo a couple of times, but the night she went for her review, things were clearly not working in the kitchen and the critic in her pounced. She could have remembered their bruschetta and come back another day, but she hadn’t. She’d listened to the nasty beastie that whispered in her ear. The best survive, it growled. You’re doing the California dining population a service. It’s your job. No mercy, the beastie had insisted. Her review was front page of the Food Section with the headline, “One Word Every Italian Chef Should Know—Al Dente.”
Six months later, as Kara stood across the street sweating, her stomach knotted with something she didn’t often let in: sympathy. She felt bad. They were human beings after all—the sleeves-rolled-up, worried-about-paying-their-bills type. She could have walked away, given them a break, but she didn’t and that made her a bitch. Her reviews had power. That was something she’d loved, wielded even, over the years, but lately she wondered if instead of powerful she’d simply become detached.
As she watched the still-new-looking Viking range top being carried into the moving van, Kara tried to remember the last time she had even enjoyed a meal. Was it at a restaurant? Which one? It couldn’t have been at home because she barely cooked anymore. The next question that popped into her mind could have been easily dismissed, but the knot in her stomach tightened, telling her she was onto something: did she even like food anymore? Sure, she knew all the check boxes: what made a perfect cassoulet or which microbrew went best with Wiener schnitzel, but that was just semantics. She used to love food: the sizzling pop of cooking, the blending flavors, the dance of a meal. Kara used to feel passionate about a lot of things, but now, as she slowly let out a breath, she realized she felt very little at all these days.
Oh, boo hoo, she thought, quoting her father as she stood and prepared to finish the last leg of her five-mile run.
“Boo hoo, you’ll survive,” was one of Senator Patrick Malendar’s favorite pieces of parenting advice for her and her brother, Grady, whenever either of them complained. Turned out he was right—she and her brother had survived.
Kara took one more look at Marco Polo, shook herself back to indifferent, and put her headphones on. In the time it would take to finish her run, she would have forgotten all about the sad, failed Fortes. They should have done better, worked harder, she told herself as sweat soaked the brim of her cap. Kara started up the hill that would twist two more times before delivering her home. She wondered, not for the first time in the past few months, if who she’d become was who she was meant to be.
Logan Rye wasn’t superstitious, but he did believe in good and bad energy or karma. People got back what they put out. For that reason, he was a little reluctant when Tony Forte called to tell him Marco Polo was going under and he would give Logan a great deal on anything he wanted. It felt like benefitting from someone else’s misfortune, but Logan went anyway. He’d given the Fortes a more-than-fair price for the food processor and a few copper core pans. Logan was a sucker for copper. He hugged Pam, wished them both the very best, and left through the side door leading into the alley.
Apparently the universe didn’t care about his more-than-fair price or his best wishes, because right before he stepped out of the alley, karma punched him in the face. Kara Malendar was sitting on a bench across the street, right in front of his truck.
He should have just wished Tony good luck over the phone and stayed home, but no, here he was taking a couple of steps back into an alley and hoping the only woman to have put his heart through a meat grinder hadn’t seen him. Not that she would run over and throw her arms around him even if she did happen to notice him. Yeah, that fantasy died a long time ago.
She still had legs for miles and he was sure those same hazel eyes that used to crawl right into his soul were tucked somewhere beneath the cap she was clearly hiding under. Logan knew he would bump into Kara Malendar eventually. After all, he was a newbie restaurant owner; didn’t her kind prey on his? No one wanted an enemy at the LA Times. He’d have to find his way to cordial, but that wasn’t going to happen today. He wasn’t in the mood and definitely wasn’t ready.
He did allow himself one more look. She was too thin, too pensive, and even from a distance, a little sad. That part he hadn’t expected. In the few short months they had spent together his senior year of college, she had never seemed sad—the opposite actually. Kara Malendar, or Winnie Parker as she’d been known to everyone in their cultural food exchange program, was a little shy at first, but then she simply exploded with color.
At the memory, Logan suddenly became aware of his heart in his chest. Her hair was pulled back now, but he remembered Paris and the gold streaks of curly blonde hair. Winnie wore bright peasant tops and no makeup. She was spectacular. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her back then, and eventually they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Logan looked out from the alley as Kara stood and turned to leave. How could all of that breath-stealing, uninhibited sunshine turn into Kara Malendar, cynical food critic? It seemed a shame, but it wasn’t like she cared what he thought anyway. Whatever game she had been playing in Paris was over a long time ago. He would admit it took him a while to forget the depths of her eyes and the silky curve of her body, but he had. Most women in his experience were game players, and Kara Malendar had proven herself a master.
Once he was sure she was gone, Logan crossed the street, loaded the box in the back of his truck, and by the time he arrived at his new restaurant his heart had settled down.
Entering his kitchen through the back door, he found Travis finishing up the pizza dough and mushrooms for the lunch crowd that would hopefully arrive in about four hours.
“Whatcha got there?” Travis asked as he floured, balled, and placed his morning’s work in the dough boxes lined with parchment.
“Fire sale at Marco Polo.” Logan put the box down in his office, which acted more like a storage room than anything else.
“Aw, man! Really?”
“Afraid so.” Logan stepped over to the utility sink to wash his hands.
“Their bruschetta was the best. Shit, I had my last decent date there. Another one bites the dust. Make you nervous?”
“I’m not sure nervous is the right word.” Logan dried his hands. “Gets me up earlier, puts me to bed later. I mean that’s all we can do right?”
“And cook kick-ass food.”
Logan laughed. “That too.”
“So what do you think it was? I mean, I like to analyze this stuff. Figure out what they did wrong, so I can make myself feel better.” Travis stacked the finished dough boxes.
“I don’t know.” Logan shook his head. “Who knows why anyone succeeds or fails? I mean shit, Applebee’s is still in business. Nothing makes sense.” He put pieces of the food processor into one of the dishwasher bins.
“True, but if you needed to make your favorite sous chef feel better . . .” Travis gave him a pleading look. “Help a man rest easy.”
Logan shrugged because there was nothing he could say that would ease the constant uncertainty of the restaurant business.
“Oh come on, we both know you’ve thought about it.” Travis turned, leaning on the counter now.
Logan sighed. “They never found their groove, I guess.” As soon as the words came out of his mouth, he felt like he was jinxing himself, speaking ill of the unlucky. Because it was luck, wasn’t it? He considered Marco Polo’s demise as he broke down the box he’d brought in and the three others up against the wall from last night’s wine delivery. No, he didn’t believe in luck. Hard work—that’s what he was raised on and he had to believe it’s what separated his from the hundreds of other restaurants trying to succeed. Hard work, good energy, and great people who knew more than he did—those were the keys.
Travis was still looking to him for comfort.
Logan let out a steady breath. “Their parking lot was too small and the valet company they used kept screwing up. They lost customers because it was a bitch to even get in there. Their bartenders were inconsistent, and they had almost fifty percent turnover with their wait staff. I don’t think their clientele ever felt like they knew the place.”
Travis smiled, so Logan finished strong.
“And Pam’s sauce was too sweet, too many carrots.”
“There he is! I knew you had a list, my fearless leader. I feel better already.” Travis wiped his brow with his forearm.
Logan smiled, walked into his office, and returned with two pages torn from a yellow pad.
“That being said, here’s my punch list for this place.”
He handed the pages to Travis and watched his ego deflate.
“The top ten are ongoing overall issues. Makenna is taking the lead on most of those, but I need you to deal with the last one. The left walk-in is a mess. I’m not sure what system you’ve got going on in there, but it needs to be redone.”
Travis glanced toward the huge refrigerator taking up most of the wall behind them and nodded.
“The other fourteen items at the bottom are things I observed last night. When we all meet later, I’ll go over those, but I wanted to give you a heads up. Most glaring, the eggplant on our bruschetta was overcooked, and I’m not sure what’s going on with the grater, but the shreds of white cheddar on the spinach salad are too big. It’s overpowering. We need to figure that out and tone it down by lunch today.”
Travis read the list with wide eyes that traveled to Logan and then back to the list. He didn’t say a word and Logan laughed at the look on his face.
“Okay, so back to work.” He patted Travis on the back. “We don’t want to be next.” Logan left to turn the floor lights on.
He’d cut some new flowers for the giant vase standing among the round tables. It was a tall copper pot really, and they tried to change out the flowers every few days. The last ones were all wrong, so Logan replaced them and noted which windows needed to be recleaned once Summer, their hostess, arrived in a few hours. He heard bins being dragged around and the opening and closing of cabinets back in the kitchen, along with Travis cursing. That was always a good sign that work was getting done.