The Perfect Dish





Kristen Painter






* * * * *




Kristen Painter


The Perfect Dish

Copyright © 2010 by Kristen Painter



All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.


* * * * *

Chapter One


Kelly pounded his fist against the door for the third time. “I know you’re in there, Shelby. Open up.” If she’d done anything foolish…his blood chilled at the thought, and he raised his hand again.

Across the hall, a door opened and a wizened face peered out. “She hasn’t been out in days.”

He nodded. “I know, Mrs. Rubenstein.” He lifted the plastic sacks stuffed with food containers from his restaurant. “That’s why I came. She’s got to eat.”

The old woman clucked her tongue. Her fingers strayed to a strand of graduated pearls at her throat. “When my Milton died, I lost twenty pounds.”

He smiled. “You must have been nearly invisible then.”

She smiled back and touched her gray curls. “If I were thirty years younger, you’d be in trouble, young man.” Her smile faded. “You take care of that sister of yours. Poor thing is taking this so hard. She’s got a lot of life left to live.”

“Will do, ma’am.” He knocked on the door a fourth time. If he had to, he’d go get Mick and they’d take the door off the hinges. “Shel, let me in or I’ll call the super and tell him I smell gas.”

“That’ll do it.” Mrs. Rubenstein gave him a wave and shut her door. A few seconds later, the sound of a deadbolt unlocking came from inside Shelby’s apartment.

His sister opened the door, but left the chain lock on. “What?”

He could barely see her in the dark interior. It was 10 A.M. Every blind must be nailed down. “I brought you some food.”

“I’m not hungry.” She started to close the door, but he jammed his boot in.

“You’ve got to eat.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Let me in or I will pole-axe this door, so help me.”

“You’re a bully.”

“I can live with that.”

She exhaled like the act of breathing was a chore, her eyes blank and dull as the dark circles beneath them. “Move your foot so I can undo the chain.”

“You swear you’ll let me in?”

Her mouth bunched to one side and she tugged at her t-shirt – one of Kevin’s old ones. Judging by the length of her sweatpants, they’d been Kevin’s too. “Yes. Fine. Whatever.”

He moved his foot. “Love you too.”

She undid the chain, opened the door and walked back into the cave of her apartment without waiting for him to enter. Her honey blonde hair was knotted up in a greasy ponytail. She flopped onto the couch, her gaze going to the bags in his hand. “If you think I’m eating something you made…”

“I didn’t use the book.” He wouldn’t either, not directly. Shelby had to get through this for real, without the use of the magic his family’s mystical cookbook could provide. He set the sacks on the litter-covered coffee table.

“Prove it.”

He grabbed the box on top, opened it, took out a piece of cornbread and bit into it. He swallowed and stuffed the rest of the piece back in. “There. No spell. And even if there was, it would be gone now.”

“Fine. I’m not hungry. Stick the food in the fridge. I’m going back to bed.”

“Shel, you can’t spend the rest of your life in bed. Or in this apartment.”

“Sure I can.” She disappeared into the master bedroom, shutting the door hard enough to tell him she hadn’t gotten past anger yet.

Sighing, he flipped on the kitchen light and put the food in the fridge beside a gallon of milk that had expired a week after Kevin’s sudden heart attack. He added it to the overflowing trash, then changed the bag and set it by the door.

The apartment smelled stale and slightly rancid. Dirty dishes spilled out of the sink. Unread mail covered the counter. He walked into the living room to let in some light, wondering if he could get away with opening the windows for some fresh air. He yanked up the blinds and a shower of papery leaves rained off the ivy that had once thrived on the sill.

Kevin had been in the ground nearly five months. Shelby should be functioning better than this. Kelly shook his head. He hadn’t felt so helpless or useless since they’d been kids. He’d vowed to protect her and he had, up until now, but this was different. Shelby was shutting down and he was powerless to stop it. Nothing he’d said or done had made any difference. Hope drained out of him like he’d been shot full of holes.

He kneeled and scooped the leaves into an old newspaper. They crumbled into dust under his touch. Losing his brother-in-law had been painful enough. He would not lose Shelby too.

She’d refused the counseling offered by the hospital, said she wasn’t about to be put through that machine just so they could feel better about not being able to save Kevin, but there had to be someone she’d listen to. Someone who understood what she’d been through. Who knew how to free his beautiful baby sister from the grief turning her into a ghost.

He stared at the ceiling. Dust motes turned the sunlight coming through the windows into foggy streaks. Cobwebs draped the room’s corners. The leaves and newspaper crumpled in his fist. He’d find someone who could help her. That much he could do.

* * *

Fifteen minutes until opening and the chain bookstore hummed with activity. In the employee break room, Kelly arranged some chocolates on a small wooden tray. What woman could resist a man who made his own chocolates? Hopefully, not the one he was about to meet today. After all he’d read about Dr. Meredith Black, she seemed like the right person to fix Shelby. She’d been on Oprah. That was like the female stamp of approval. And fate, in the form of his publicist, his editor and numerous phone calls, had gotten him a seat at this multi-author book signing. Charming Dr. Black into helping Shelby should be the easy part, so long as he got some of these chocolates into her.

The manager sidled up. “She’s here.” He bumped his chin toward the tables reserved for the signing. “Just settled in.”

“Thanks.” Kelly turned, his heart thumping with new hope. She arranged the books at her table, visible through the door. Her dark brown hair was twisted up, sleek and smooth, and her conservative tan suit, white blouse, and low heels were just what he’d hoped for. She was perfect. Exactly the kind of woman Shel would respect. Professional. Serious. Killer legs. He grinned. Shel wouldn’t care about those, but they were a nice bonus.

Leaning against the fridge, the manager snorted. “Don’t know how she got one man to marry her, let alone two. She looks like a dull fish.”

Kelly stiffened and glared at him. “She’s buried both those husbands. Might take a toll on a person, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I suppose.” He mumbled something about work to do and took off.

Kelly returned his gaze to Dr. Black. Any woman who could survive being twice widowed and then make a career of helping others through their grief deserved some respect. So she looked a little reserved. So what. She could help Shelby.

Dr. Black sat in her chair and folded her hands in her lap, back straight, face serene. He palmed the tray and stepped out to see better. She studied the other author tables.

Dog biscuits and fuzzy neon mice covered the table opposite hers. An easel displayed the book
Sit, Speak, Feel
. Some sort of pet psychic. He glanced back at Dr. Black. She smirked and rolled her eyes.

He chuckled. No surprise a practical woman like that didn’t buy the psychic thing. He moved closer, following her sightline to the next table. A romance author. That was probably more her speed. But her jaw tensed as she surveyed the stack of books titled
Second Chances
. She frowned, her fingers worrying a ring on her right hand. Odd. That whole fairy tale ideal seemed to fall in line with the “getting on with your life thing” she preached.

She adjusted a wayward hairpin, her gaze turning downright disapproving. Damn. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so easy. Well, standing around thinking about it wouldn’t get the job done.

He headed over, took a deep breath and extended his tray and his brightest smile.

“Hi there. Chocolate-covered pepita cluster?”

She looked up, startling him with unexpected green eyes. She knit her brows at the tray of chocolates he held out. “No, thank you.”

“Aw, c’mon. Try one. I made them special for the book signing.” He amped up his grin. “They won’t kill you.”

The twitch at the corner of her mouth disappeared too quick to be called a smile. “Everything kills you sooner or later.”

“Guess that’s what keeps you in business, huh?”

“You might say that, yes.” She took one of the bumpy chocolates, stripped off the star-patterned paper cup and inspected the candy before popping it in her mouth and chewing.

With her dark hair pulled up, the exposed length of her pale neck seemed as wicked as a glimpse of cleavage. Every movement of her taut jaw was precise, measured.

Her eyes closed and she leaned back, nodding. He swallowed. She didn’t look quite so reserved at the moment. Her blissful expression was one he wouldn’t mind seeing again—especially if he could take credit for it.

He tipped his head to sneak a peek beneath the table. One point for great legs, one point for not mentioning the word diet when he’d offered the chocolate.

Her hand went to her mouth and she exhaled a quiet, “Mmmm”. Color spread across her cheeks as she swallowed, opening her eyes. “The spiciness was unexpected. But nice. I’m impressed.”

Me, too.
He exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. She licked her lips and his groin took notice. Okay, that wasn’t supposed to happen. “Glad you liked it. The habanero’s a kicker, ain’t it?”

“Indeed.” Her green gaze narrowed in on him, darting from his face to his chest to his Texas-shaped belt buckle then back to his face. Cattle at auction didn’t get inspected this hard. “What exactly is a pepita? Please don’t tell me it’s chef speak for toasted cricket.”

“Pepitas are pumpkin seeds.” He extended the tray again. “Want another?”

She paused, her clenched hand hovering over the tray.
C’mon, take one.
Chocolate released all kinds of good endorphins and he needed her in a willing mood. He brought the tray closer.

Her hand unclenched. Relief swept him.

“Thank you.” She took another. “I’ll save it for later.” She set the candy in its little paper cup beside her pen.

He put the tray down, then jerked his thumb toward the table beside hers. “I’m right here next to you.”
Thanks to promising that fool manager a deuce at seven next Friday night.
“Kelly Spicer, author of
Grill Of My Dreams

She glanced over at the stacks of cookbooks on his table. “So I see. How wonderful to be so successful at such a young age.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Young? There couldn’t be more than ten, fifteen years between them. He held his tongue. She could say and do whatever she liked, so long as she agreed to see Shelby. He stuck out his hand.

Her gaze met his again and she shook his hand. “Dr. Meredith Black.” Her eyes returned to the uneaten pepita cluster.

Good. She liked his sweets. He could work with a woman who dug his cooking. Plus a woman who appreciated good food couldn’t be that bad. “You’re the grief doctor, right?”

“I’m sorry, what?” she asked, looking up.

“You help folks with—”

The manager clapped his hands. “All right people, I’m about to unlock the doors. Let’s sell some books!”

They’d have to talk later. “Time to paint my butt white and run with the antelope.”

“Paint your what?” She shook her head, her brow crinkling.

He laughed. “I mean it’s time to get this signing underway.” He leaned in, catching a whiff of her clean, soapy scent. “Maybe we can talk some more, after the signing?”

She ran her tongue over her teeth before smiling pensively. “I suppose. Nice meeting you, Chef Spicer.”

He grinned again, and new color brightened her cheeks. “You can call me Kelly. Nice meeting you too, Dr. Black.”

“Meredith is...okay.” She bit her lip like she regretted offering that bit of intimacy.

She was warming up to him, whether she liked it or not. “Meredith, then. Much obliged.” He slid between the two tables to get to his seat.

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