Excerpts for Accidental Bride


The restaurant kitchen was a scene right out of World War III. Pots churned, grills smoked and a dozen harried workers danced to avoid each other. It was cramped, hot and noisy?one step away from chaos.

And Jilly O'Hara couldn't have been happier.

She presided over the hot, noisy room like a choreographer, watching for problems and juggling advice along with her orders. Running a restaurant had always been her dream and her passion, and after years of work, Jilly had her own baby.

Since the first week it had opened, Jilly's Place had been a stellar success. Sometimes Jilly hated how successful her restaurant had become. The social end of the job gave her a headache, and shmoozing with customers was a nightmare. As soon as she could, she ducked back into the crowded kitchen to create magic.

Only here did she feel fully alive. With her wavy black hair tucked behind a bandanna, the rail-slim chef juggled a smoked asparagus risotto and two orders of grilled potatoes with salsa verde. Beside her on the counter, smoky-rich tortilla soup steamed next to a wedge of wood-grilled salmon. The flavors teased and tantalized, every color snapping with southwestern energy.

Another meal done, Jilly flipped a fresh towel over her shoulder and then attacked the next order. One of the kitchen crew caught her eye. Smiling, he poured a thermal cup of coffee and slid it toward her over the counter.

"Caffeine break. After all, you've only had three tonight," he said, well aware of Jilly's particular vice.

"Lifesaver." Jilly took a long drink, savoring the caffeine.

They were crazy crowded tonight, but that was normal. At the kitchen door, her front desk manager signaled his pleasure at the crowd with a big thumbs-up, then vanished back outside to deal with the reservations desk.

The Saturday-night pace was sheer pandemonium, but Jilly was used to that. She thrived on the jagged edge of chaotic energy. Even on her days off, she made it a point to check out new restaurants or help in the kitchen of a friend, working the line with manic energy. And why not? She loved to cook.

She didn't do vacations, and time off was for wimps.

Jilly finished her coffee and scanned the next set of dinner orders. Tugging on Kevlar mitts, she leaned down to grab an eggplant pizza from the wood-burning oven. She had just removed the mitts when the pain hit her.

Jilly looked up blindly at the ceiling, struggling to breathe.

No one in the busy kitchen noticed her shaking or her short, strangled breaths. No one helped her when she leaned forward to grip the counter.

Blindly, she stared at her white hands. No ring. No husband. No kids. Just a pile of debts from her years in cooking school.

A fresh wave of pain struck. Jilly whimpered, clutching at the long granite counter.

A pot was boiling over on the big 8-burner Wolf stove. The foam seemed to rise in slow motion. Bubbling and hissing, it exploded over the copper rim, down into the steel prongs of the burner.

Burn.

Burning.

Her throat and chest on fire, fear striking her like a mallet, Jilly slowly bent double and whimpered.

Her legs gave way. With a ragged cry she fell forward onto the cold tile floor.

The emergency room doctor was talking to her, but Jilly couldn't make out what he was saying. His lips moved but no sounds seemed to come out.

She squinted at him and tried to focus.

"More tests. But we think it was your heart."

Excuse me? Jilly's mind raced. Her heart? What about her heart?

Lights flashed on the machines that crowded the small white room. She had collapsed in the kitchen. She remembered that part.

Then something about an ambulance?

She closed her eyes, feeling dizzy. A little pain in her chest. Okay, nausea. Lots of nausea.

What was going on? She was only twenty-blipping-seven. She hadn't smoked more than three times in her life. Once when the town bad boy talked her into sharing a Marlboro behind the old post office. Once after her junior year prom, which she watched dateless and bored from the high school bleachers. And the last time, to celebrate her admission to cooking school in Arizona.

Six bleeping years ago.

So how was anything wrong with her heart?

"Symptoms are consistent.. still need detailed results of EKG, angiogram. More tests of your heart enzymes? Hospitalized until then."

Hospitalized?

Jilly stared at the white walls while the words rained down, sharp and cold.

Rest? More blood tests? No way. She didn't have time to be sick. She had a restaurant to run and debts to repay.

She looked down at her arm stretched out on the white bed. They were good arms. Good muscles. She could whip a chocolate mousse by hand almost as fast as a mixer could. She could swirl perfect frosted flowers over a white chocolate cake and mince a tomato as finely as any machine.

And Jilly loved that work. Every minute she spent cooking was a joy in her life.

But her hands showed another story, too. Jilly saw a sprinkling of fine silver scars from mishaps in crowded kitchens on busy nights. She had always felt proud of those marks as signs of her experience.

Her nails were short. Always clean and unpolished. She was strictly no frills and always had been. Her no-frills life kept her lean and fast, ready to catch that next wave and race on to meet her dream. Right now that dream was to create a natural-food empire by the time she was thirty-five.

Her scarred hands twisted with a tremor of pain and loss. What would happen to her dreams now? She listened to the machines hiss and whisper a warning.

A heart attack at twenty-seven. Why her? She closed her eyes. More words bounced past. "Possible malformation?MRI. Then exploratory catheterization." All bad things.

Jilly's mind stuttered and then shut down, paralyzed by the weight of her fear. Only once had she felt this overwhelmed and vulnerable. That had been years ago, on the day she found out her mother had left her in a cardboard box on the steps outside the local fire station at the grand, strapping age of two months.

But she had survived the news. After the crushing pain had passed, Jilly had wiped away her tears and boxed up her mother along with the rest of her sad childhood memories. With fierce determination she had dug a dark hole and shoved them deep inside, where she would never have to think about them.

Because Jilly O'Hara had no time for tears or weakness or what might have been. She was too busy racing forward, creating her dreams.

"Ms. O'Hara, can you hear me? We'll need your consent to proceed with the catheterization and other tests. I have the paperwork here."

Jilly blinked and struggled to focus. "I?I'm tired. Maybe we can talk later. Sorry." Her fingers clenched, and she thought of Caro and Grace and Olivi a. Growing up together in the small coastal town of Summer Island off the Oregon coast, the four girls had been inseparable. For years her best friends had shared her dreams and she had shared theirs.

They had argued and nudged and supported.

Their circle of strength had kept Jilly going during the worst of times.

She desperately needed them now.

Summer Island The Oregon Coast

"She still isn't answering her phone. Something's wrong."

Caro McNeal frowned at her silver watch. Her husband, a marine currently deployed in Afghanistan, had given her the slim silver design for her last birthday. Caro wondered where Gage was and what he was doing at that moment.

Was he in danger?

She tried to push her usual worries aside and focus on Jilly. "I've tried calling her half a dozen times, Grace. Why doesn't she answer?"

Grace Lindstrom put down the sweater sleeve she had been knitting. "Jilly gets distracted. Produce. Ovens. Spatulas. Anything can take her into that alternate chef universe."

"Not for this long." Caro frowned at the phone. The women had been closest friends since they had met as girls. When one of them faced problems, all the others seemed to feel it. First Caro had come home to heal from an accident. Then Grace, a respected food writer, had returned to Summer Island after her grandfather had been hurt. "This is different."

"Did you try texting Jilly?"

"Four times." Caro looked out at the ocean. Seagulls cried as they circled a trawler anchored in Summer Island's small cove. "Something's wrong, Grace. I've been sending Jilly daily updates on the repairs here at Harbor House. Jilly was excited about coming back next week to work on a design for the new front porch. She sent me a gorgeous picture using local fieldstone and a rustic brushed grout. It was gorgeous, but."

"But what?"

Caro blew out a breath. "I told her to send me more examples so I could work on pricing. Then I didn't hear a thing. That was two days ago." Caro shook her head. "Jilly wouldn't drop out of sight like this. She wants to finish the work here just as much as we do."

In a moment of insanity the women had decided to buy Summer Island's oldest landmark and renovate it to its former glory. They had been nearly finished when an earthquake had damaged the roof, half the rooms and part of the foundation. After serious soul-searching, they had decided to start all over, crazy or not.

Grace rolled her knitting up slowly. "Where was she when you two last spoke?"

"Working at her restaurant. Where else?"

"Silly question. Okay, I'll book a flight. I can be in Arizona before bedtime." Grace stood up and stretched. "The idiot is probably off in a peach orchard taking soil samples, completely oblivious to the time. You'll see."

"But I thought you and Noah were going to spend this weekend together in San Francisco." Caro studied her friend's face. "You've been planning the trip for ages. Is something wrong?"

Caro watched her friend turn, looking south past the old dock, past the restless sea wall. Grace rolled her shoulders but didn't answer.

"Grace? Tell me what happened."

"He was called in to work," Grace said slowly. "Another day, another emergency."

"Can't he get time off?"

"Apparently not. When you're good, everyone wants a piece of you," Grace said flatly. Then she forced a smile. "Don't worry. We'll go on our trip. But it won't be this week."

Something was very wrong here, Caro thought. Grace was acting too cool and trying too hard to be convincing. This was more than a simple trip cancellation. "Are you okay about this, Grace? You were so excited when you told me you and Noah were going on this trip."

Grace shrugged and then slid her knitting bag over her shoulder. "I'm almost used to the last-minute cancellations," she muttered. "But I'd better go. I'll call you when I get to Arizona."

Clearly, she didn't want to discuss her problems with Noah.

"You have the address for Jilly's new restaurant, right? She just moved into that new building."

"Got it."

Neither woman questioned that Grace would go to Jilly's restaurant and not her apartment. Chances were slim to nil that their driven friend would be anywhere but working. They would have to do something to correct that, Caro decided. "As soon as you hear something, let me know. I'm just sorry I can't help more."

"Let me handle the Barefoot Contessa." Grace cleared her throat. "You've got plenty to do with this renovation. Not to mention the baby to care for."

Caro was certain she heard a wistful note in her friend's voice.

So Grace was thinking about a family. That was interesting, since she and Noah had only recently confided that they were engaged. No wedding date was set as far as Caro knew.

Caro hadn't seen Noah since the spring and he'd only been in town for two days. He was supposed to be moving to a less demanding job, Grace had explained then. Something without constant emergency calls.

Given the cancelled weekend, that didn't seem to be happening.

Caro still had no idea what Noah did, beyond it being difficult and very secret. But she knew that Grace worried terribly about him.

More problems to sort out.

Caro gave her friend a hug. "Say hello to Noah. Tell him I'm still waiting for the Ukrainian Welcome Bread recipe from his mother."

"I'll get it for you." Grace slid her yarn and her knitting needles into her bag and forced a smile. "And stop worrying. I'll call you as soon as I have any news."

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