Kate gaped at Robbie in disbelief. “You’re quitting now? The week before Christmas, when we’re up to our eyebrows in tourists?”
Her busboy/dishwasher shrugged and grinned. “My cousin’s driving out to Colorado tomorrow and offered me a lift. I’m gonna get a job in one of the restaurants and spend my free time on the slopes.” He mimed a slalom turn, complete with schussing sound effects. “I wanna live while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. You know how it is.”
No, I don’t know. Kate had always taken the safe, sane, and sensible path in life and never regretted it. Well, almost never.
“Anyway, I just stopped by to tell you and pick up my check.”
“You’re not even going to work today?” It was 6:00 a.m., and they opened for breakfast in an hour.
He shrugged again. “I got things to do before I leave.”
She bit her tongue and counted to ten. It wouldn’t do any good to yell at Robbie. He’d never been a model of responsibility, and this last-minute decision wasn’t a huge surprise. What she needed was a plan, and fast.
Her mind kicked into gear as she rifled through her desk drawer for the business checkbook. Maybe her sister Pam could get a sitter and help out for a few days until she found someone else.
She handed the check to Robbie, who grinned and bolted for the door. “Break a leg,” she called after him. Wait. Wasn’t that what you said to an actor about to go onstage, not a skier? Whatever.
She was about to pick up the phone to call Pam when Sylvia Richards bustled into the kitchen, unwinding her gray knit scarf from her head and neck.
“Robbie nearly knocked me down.” Sylvia was short and stocky, with thick ankles and tight curls the color of iron filings. She’d been a waitress at Katie’s Place for more than twenty years, and Kate loved her to death.
“He just quit.”
Sylvia stared at her. “You’re kidding.”
Kate shook her head. “Apparently, he’s decided to become a ski bum.”
Sylvia unbuttoned her shapeless brown wool coat and clucked under her breath. “And right before Christmas.” She hung her coat on one of the hooks by the back door. “Do you want me to put the Help Wanted sign in the front window?”
“I guess it couldn’t hurt.” Kate fished the hand-lettered sign out of a stack of papers on the floor beside the desk. “After the breakfast rush, I’ll call Harvey over at the Leader and get an ad in Saturday’s paper. I’m hoping Pam will be able to help out in the meantime.”
Sylvia took the sign and gave Kate’s shoulders a quick squeeze. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. We always are.”
True. They would get by somehow, but Kate missed her mother’s cheery efficiency. Why did Grandma have to choose the week before Christmas to try to master the kickflip on a skateboard? She sighed, rolled up her sleeves and reached for an apron. She had less than an hour before the Geezers Breakfast Club (as the group of five retired farmers liked to call themselves) showed up, and the morning glory muffins weren’t going to bake themselves.
By the time she unlocked the front door on the stroke of seven, the Geezers—along with two other groups—stood chatting on the sidewalk, rubbing their hands and stomping their feet against the cold. They poured into the dining room, and she seated them before returning to the kitchen, leaving Sylvia to take their orders. She wondered if she had time to call Pam, but Sylvia popped in with the first round of orders before she had a chance to act on the thought.
Like a well-oiled machine, Sylvia handled coffee and juice while Kate cracked eggs, turned bacon, and flipped pancakes until the orders for the first three groups were ready to go to the dining room. However, by that time, two more groups had arrived. Thankful that Sylvia had taken over the hostess duties, Kate paused to push a few stray wisps out of her face with the back of her hand. She had pinned her hair up and tucked it under her usual white cap, but the potent combination of steam and perspiration was quickly turning her long, dark locks into a mass of errant waves and curls. It was a good thing no one could see her but Sylvia. She bent down and peered through the glass of the oven door to check the color of the second batch of muffins.
“I’ve come about the job.”
Kate jerked up, and her elbow knocked the handle of the saucepan holding melted butter for hollandaise sauce. When she grabbed it to keep it from falling, she burned her hand. Swearing, she stuck her two injured fingers in her mouth then shook them to cool the burn.
She spun and found herself staring up into a pair of brandy-colored eyes she knew all too well. “David.”
Before she could say anything more, he held up the Help Wanted sign from the front window with a little grin. “You need help, and I’ve got some time on my hands.”
She stared at him, taking in the lean lines of his face, more sculpted than they’d been when she’d last seen him. He looked thin…and tired. She wondered idly why the television cameras hadn’t shown that. “It’s been ten years.”
He knows how long it’s been, dummy.
“Why are you here?” Kate frowned. The question hadn’t come out quite as she’d intended.
“I’m applying for a job.”
For some reason, his response irritated her. “That’s ridiculous. I run a café. You’re a world-famous television journalist.”
The light in his eyes dimmed. “Was.”
“We can talk about it later.” He tipped his chin toward the mountain of dirty dishes piled in the sink. “Right now, it looks like you could use a little help with those.”
She followed his glance. “My busboy and dishwasher quit this morning without notice.”
David shrugged out of his coat. “Hand me an apron, and I’ll get busy.” He rolled up his sleeves and headed for the sink.
She scurried after him. “Wait a minute. I didn’t say you were hired.”
“Do you have any other applicants?”
“Not yet, but—”
“Do you have more work than you and Sylvia can handle?”
“I’m here now, and I’ve got nothing better to do.” He turned the hot water tap on full blast.
She shook off the swirl of conflicting emotions his presence evoked. She didn’t have time to deal with it now. “All right, but be sure to get the egg residue off those plates. It really sticks.”
His eyes twinkled, and he gave her a two-fingered salute. “Aye, aye.”
She shook her head and returned to the griddle just as Sylvia popped in with another round of orders. The older woman glanced at David’s back then raised her brows in question. Kate shot her a don’t-even-ask look.
Sylvia handed her the order tickets. “Orren Waxman just came in with a couple of cronies. He’s asking for you.”
Orren was the last person she wanted to see this morning. “I don’t have time.”
Sylvia shrugged. “I told him we were short staffed, but he kept insisting.”
Kate wished she could tell Orren to take his business to the IHOP out on the interstate, but Grandma would have a conniption. She wiped her hands on her apron. “I guess I’d better go talk to him.”
Orren greeted her with a wide grin the minute she stepped into the dining room. “Hey there, Katie girl!”
Kate’s back teeth ground together as she forced a smile. He always insisted on calling her Katie, even though she’d asked him not to dozens of times. She was sure he only did it because he knew he could get away with it. “What can I do for you, Orren?”
“Have you seen our commercial?”
Her brows knit. “The one you were filming yesterday? Is it on TV already?”
“The crew whipped it together in time for the ten o’clock news last night. Here, take a look.”
The man really was an egomaniac of the first order if he’d dragged her out of the kitchen to watch one of his cheesy commercials. “Orren, I really—”
“You did great, Katie. See?” He stuck his phone in her face.
Her stomach plummeted at the sight of herself in Orren’s arms with his plump lips plastered against hers.
Orren grinned and leaned back in his chair, waving his hand. “Hardison, come over here. You’re going to want to see this. Our Katie’s a star!”Kate glanced up to see David loading dirty dishes from an empty table across the room onto a big tray. His brows formed a broad, dark “V”, and tight lines bracketed his mouth.