“Come on, come on!” I reefed on the tarnished handle of the old window until it finally gave way, swinging open onto the busy street below. I peeked outside. “Shit. That’s further down than I thought.” I always talked to myself when I was nervous. Who was I kidding? Nervous or not, I always talked to myself. Who could blame me? I was in excellent company.
Insistent banging caused me to swing around and double-check that I’d locked the door. The solid wood looked sturdy enough, but the lock looked straight out of the seventeenth century. Who knew how long it would hold the commotion happening on the other side. “Man, is he gonna be pissed when he realizes I’m gone. And so will all our guests.” The organ continued to play the music that always sounded more like a funeral march to me than a wedding march. “Freakin’ Lovers card!”
I tossed my cream-colored heels out the window, then hoisted my upper body onto the ledge. “Crap. Why do all these beautiful old Gothic churches have such tiny, useless windows?” I swung one leg around and out the window. “Just one more place to get stuck in life.” I swung the other leg out, and then I worked each shoulder through, grabbing onto the window ledge from the outside, my body dangling from the ledge. I hung there for a moment, catching my breath, suspended along the stone wall. That is until I realized my dress was gathered around my waist and passers-by could see part of my lacy trousseau. And I didn’t need anyone judging my wedding-day panty choice.
Stretching my feet toward the sidewalk to try to touch down, I decided to just let go. I landed on the pavement below. “Bonjour,” I said nonchalantly to a woman in a light blue suit walking by with her poodle. “Super tenue.” I complimented her brilliant choice of garb. Gathering up my shoes, I ran down the street toward the flat the film company had put me up in for the past six months. I wasn’t sure how much of a head-start I had, but I’d better pack. And fast!
I pulled my phone from my ‘something blue’ satin garter as I ran down the cobblestone street. Who decided the whole ‘something borrowed, something blue’ thing anyway? A last-minute ticket would be expensive. I searched for cheap flights. “Seventeen-hundred Euros?! Next. Next. Next. Oh, here. How many stops? It’s the freakin’ milk run. Whatever. I’ll take it.” I booked my ticket home with one hand, clutching my shoes in the other, and picked up my pace.
This was going to be hard to explain.
* * *
“You left him at the altar?” Katie was trying not to be scandalized, though I could see her new life with Lucan had loosened her up. A lot.
“Wait, go back. When did you get engaged?” Maya was already on her second cup of coffee. “You only left Cherryville like a minute ago.”
I frowned at her. “It’s been six months, smart ass. Good to know you missed me.”
“Of course we missed you, Aunt Franny,” Katie said, waving Joe Jr. over to our table. “But I thought you signed a one-year contract with the movie company. Did the film wrap early? What are you doing back home so soon?”
Katie asked Joe for a second cider, and Maya ordered another coffee, then said, “I still think the better question is why did you leave in the first place?”
“Yes,” Katie said, looking confused. “I need the full story, Franny. By the way, I love your haircut.”
“Thanks, Katie,” I replied. “You know what Coco Chanel said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” I’ll start at the beginning. But I think this might be better told over wine than coffee.”
Maya retorted, “We’re happy to move this reunion to the bar…oh, wait…then you’ll run into Jin…whom I’m pretty sure you’re hiding from.”
I stared Maya down, pretending to be annoyed. “I could keep this story to myself. I’m sure Cherryville has been just full of interesting action these past six months.” This was our usual reparté. And I’d missed it.
“Nope. We’re ready.” Katie coaxed. “We’ll listen all the way to the end.” Katie gave Maya a look to assert her agreement.
“Who you want to know about is Etienne.” I paused to take a sip of my latte. “I’ve actually known Etienne forever. He’s in the fashion industry. When I worked as a model’s assistant in Paris, he was working the venues. Our careers crossed paths in a variety of ways over the past ten years or so. The year before…” —I glanced at Katie— “...before my brother’s heart surgery, Etienne and I became involved. We were perfect for each other and everything seemed to fall into place. Until …” —I took another sip of latte— “Until I found out he was still married.”
“Franny!” Katie gasped. “Oh, sorry, I said I’d listen.” She zipped her lips closed and tossed the imaginary key over her shoulder.
Maya took the opportunity to weigh in, “Sounds like a typical Frenchman.”
I continued, “He’d not divorced his wife like he’d promised. I broke it off and came home. You needed me here anyway, Katie. Then…when the offer came after the Harvest Festival to style a movie in France, I jumped at it.”
Maya coughed and said, “To avoid Jin.”
I ignored her and continued, “Then on the production set, there he was. When I took the job with Amy, you know, the producer I’ve worked with in the past, I knew she would be pulling on her contacts, it’s how I got the job after all. It just never occurred to me that Etienne would be there. Amy had rounded up so many of us, it was like a reunion from the early days. And, damn, it was a blast to be back in the fray. Our days were busy with filming and the evenings were like an endless Paris party…champagne, clubs, dancing…and the clothes….” I paused to savor the memory.
“And?” Katie couldn’t resist interrupting my moment.
“And?” I asked.
“The proposal! The wedding!”
I remembered my point. “Well, of course, I couldn’t avoid Etienne. I was very cautious at first, and it was easy to get lost within the film crews. But…eventually, we fell into old ways.”
Maya added, “And by old ways, you mean fell into bed together.”
“Oh, God, yes. The sex always was great with him. What they say about French lovers is true. If you can find a faithful one. In my flat, in his flat…on set…even in the cart that shuttles the cast between sets.”
“Yeah,” Maya said. “I didn’t need to know that.”
“But, was he still married?” Katie prompted.
“I’ll fast forward to say that we had a really good talk…when we weren’t screwing each other’s brains out. He was divorced and was sorry to have misled me before. When we kissed, it was like the years hadn’t passed. I felt so young. Everyone was vibrant, the pace of the work was invigorating, there were hardly any setbacks. It was so romantic and perfect.”
“Sounds like a perfect distraction.” Maya prodded, “Until…”
“He proposed one night and said we could get married right away. There was a chapel available. I said yes.”
“And then?” Katie perched on the edge of her chair.
“And then, as I stood in the chapel, ready to walk down the aisle, I saw Etienne at the altar and suddenly felt like Alice eating the mushroom in Wonderland…shrinking by the minute.” I took a deep inhalation and sighed it out. “He wasn’t Jin.”
“You know you broke his heart, hey?” Maya stared at me in that matter-of-fact way she’d perfected.
“Yes, poor Etienne,” Katie said.
Maya continued staring at me, “No. You know who. Jin.”
I pulled my shawl around me, suddenly chilled. “Jin and I enjoyed the harvest dance and a month-long fling. I’m certain his heart is intact.”
Maya shook her head. “Jin and Dustin have become good friends, Franny, and I’m telling you, that man’s heart broke when you left him.”
“I didn’t leave him. I left…here.”
Maya didn’t let up. “Why would you ever need to leave here? We’re here, the family orchard is here, the tapas bar you created is here.” Maya shook her head again. “No, no, my friend, time for a little honesty. You didn’t leave here. You left him. Because shit got real.”
“Oh, fine, you’re right. It’s such a mess. I regret how I left things with Jin.” I confessed. “There. Are you happy?”
Maya smiled at me. “We’re not happy you broke Jin’s heart. But, we are very happy you’re home.”
Katie shared the sentiment. “Agreed! It’s good to have you back. And I’m so glad you didn’t marry Etienne. That would have made him Uncle Etienne. Nope.”
“Thanks,” I said, slumping in my chair.
“What’s wrong now?” Maya asked. “Besides the obvious.”
I let out another deep sigh. “Now…I need to get my bar back. I signed it over to Jin when I left.”
Katie exploded, “You did what?!”
“There’s that newly-empowered Katie I remember,” I said, ready to face the firing squad.
“Franny, why would you do that? The tapas bar was your idea, your baby.” Katie looked at me disappointed.
Maya joined her. “Yes, do tell. I can’t wait to hear why you would give up your baby. And to the guy whose heart you broke.”
I shrugged and drained the last of my now-cold latte. “Love makes you do strange things.”
BEST SERVED COLD
Jin greeted Maya and Dustin as they stood in the doorway of the bar. “I heard Franny was back in town.” I held my breath, hiding out of sight on the sidewalk. I’d hoped Maya and Dustin could test the waters before I spoke to Jin. I hadn’t expected him to be at the door.
“Ah, yes, she is, Jin,” Maya spoke up to alert me, clearly overcompensating. “She’s not feeling well, jetlag and maybe she picked up some bug. So she’s laying low for now. You short-staffed today? You’re usually in the kitchen.”
“I was just grabbing a bottle of wine to finish my chorizo al vino tinto,” Jin said, his voice trailing off into the bar.
I leaned against the wall. “Shit. That’s my favorite dish. What are the odds he’ll forgive me and feed me?” I tugged on Maya’s jacket. It really was a cute little wardrobe piece. Not too dressy…not too caszh. Nice choice with those jeans.
“Shhhh.” Maya waved me back.
Dustin spoke up, the voice of reason, “Just come inside and face him. You’ll need to do so sooner or later.”
Jin’s voice rang out, “You guys coming in? Grab a seat and I’ll be back out in a minute. Danika will get you a drink.”
I followed Dustin and Maya into the bar. Jin had gone into the kitchen. I ran my hand along the smooth wood of the bar top. “Hello, old friend,” I whispered. A young server greeted us.
“Hi, Maya. Hi, Dustin. Nice to see you again. The usual?”
Maya returned the greeting, “Hi Danika. Yes, the usual, please. How are the abstracts coming?”
“Good,” the young lady responded. “Your last class really helped me know how to narrow down my color scheme.”
“I’m glad it helped.” Maya sat on a stool at the bar.
I stared at her. “How does she know your usual? And front-of-house is my job.”
Maya replied, “You left just weeks after the Harvest Festival…almost six months ago. The bar was busy and Jin was in over his head. I suggested Danika for the job and she’s excellent at it. Now sit down.”
“On this side of the bar?!” I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing.
Danika poured Malbec into glasses for Dustin and Maya. “And what can I get you, ma’am?”
I repeated her word, “Ma’am?”
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I don’t know your name.”
A low voice rumbled behind her, “That’s Franny.”
I looked past Danika to see Jin standing in the doorway of the kitchen. My heart lifted. God, it was good to see him. I wanted to hug him.
“Hey… Jin,” I said, sheepishly, trying to put on my most charming smile. “Remember me?”
Maya tried to save it. “Oh, look! It’s Franny. You’re looking better. Jetlag gone?”
Dustin rolled his eyes.
Jin took one look at me and his entire face set. I watched the muscles in his jaw flex as he clenched his teeth and then headed back into the kitchen. Shit. This is going to be harder than I thought.
“I’ll leave you two to enjoy your wine,” I said. “I’m going to take this fight into enemy territory… and hope his knives are sheathed.”
“Oh, ma’am,” Danika interjected, “diners can’t go back there.”
I jerked at her comment as if I’d been physically hit.
Maya nearly snorted, saying, “Oh, Danika, it’s okay. She’s the owner. Or used to be.”
I gave Maya the side-eye and then carefully opened the door to the kitchen. Jin stood at the stove, his back to me, but he knew I was standing there.
“What did you come back for?” he asked, stirring red wine into the chorizo dish.
I knew it was a loaded question. One I wasn’t prepared to answer at that moment. If I said I came back for him, that would set my heart up to be shattered when he told me to piss off. And after what I‘d done…left him and ran back to France…who would blame him for exacting revenge that way? Think, Franny! I opted for safe and said, “I couldn’t leave all this behind. After we worked so hard to get it up and running. The production company paid well so I have a little to invest in those olive-wood serving pieces you were always talking about.”
His shoulders slumped. Without facing me, he said, “So, the bar brought you back.”
“Mm-hmm.” I tread carefully, even though that had never really been my style. “I’m back now. I can resume my role as owner. We can carry on.”
“Fine, you want your restaurant back? You can work for a share of the place.”
“What? But the tapas bar was my idea.”
“And you signed it over to me when you ran out of here six months ago. So, I guess if you want it back, you’ll take what I’m offering. Since you’re no longer in charge here.”
“Jin! That’s ridiculous.”
“Look, Francine…” —he leaned on the edge of the stove as if it was helping to hold him up— “...if you want your bar back, you’ll have to earn it. Show me you can stick around longer than a month. If you’re still here in a month, I’ll sign fifty percent ownership back over to you. If not, it’s mine for good.”
“Of course I’ll be here in a month. Dustin and Maya’s wedding is in a month. I’d have flown back for that even if I’d gone through with…” I stopped myself.
He spun around. “Gone through with…?”
“...staying for the entire production term.” I’d only just gotten Jin to agree to let me be in the restaurant. I wasn’t about to throw the whole ‘almost got married’ fiasco at him. “I’m back in time to help with the wedding plans. I’ll go back to managing the front of the house and you can do what you love…make amazing food.” I peered around him. “Like that chorizo there. Any chance I could get a taste? Or a dish?” The aroma of garlic and bay leaves taunted me.
Jin stepped to the side, blocking my view of the delicious dish simmering on the stove. “Danika will continue front-of-house duties, I’ll handle the business, kitchen and catering.”
“Will do what I tell you to do. And starting tomorrow, that will be cleaning.” He returned to stirring his dish.
“You heard me. You want to earn back your share, you’ll come to work at eight a.m.—”
“Jin, we don’t even open until noon. And I implemented that so I could enjoy my mornings, and then enjoy my evenings at the bar.”
“Eight. A. M.,” he emphasized.
“Fine,” I conceded, anger rushing my face, “I’ll see you at eight.”
“Oh, I won’t be here. I’ll be sourcing the day’s ingredients. I’ll leave you a list of what needs to be done. Eight, Francine. Not a minute later.”
I swallowed my pride…more accurately, I choked on it…and decided this was a short means to an end, and that I’d have control of my bar back in no time. Salvaging anything with Jin would be a different story.