The youngest of six kids whose father had died when she was two, Tara had been coddled and nearly spoiled by her family—which sometimes left her ill-prepared for a world beyond their loving arms.

And leery of strangers. Like this Sylvie. But Tara knew it wasn’t the woman’s outer appearance that made her pause. No, it was the bloodshot eyes that lacked any warmth or caring.

“We won’t be open for a few more weeks.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I have a job at the T-shirt shop—my real one—so I’m not in any big rush.”

“Uh-huh.” Tara bit her tongue, holding back the question she knew she couldn’t utter. This wasn’t a real job? This place that had taken every dime of her savings and inheritance and then some? This restaurant that was her dream, and yet the hardest thing she’d ever done, wasn’t a “real” business?

Tell her aching muscles that.

Tara racked her brain for an excuse to end this conversation and get back to work. “Well, as you can see, I’m busy right now.” She gestured at the paint and drop cloths. “Maybe in a week or so I can get started on the applicants.” She’d already scheduled two interviews, but something told her she shouldn’t tell this woman that.

“Sure. I’ll come back.” Sylvie smiled and spun on her heel. At the doorway, she stopped and looked back. “This will look really cool when you’re done. But that old blue is awful. White’ll really brighten up the place.”

“Really?” Tara couldn’t hide her sarcasm. Keeping her mouth shut had never been a strength.

“Definitely. I studied design in school for a while. White is like a blank canvas.” She spread her arms wide. “I could help you design a whole new place.”

Tara didn’t want a whole new place. “Uh, thanks. I’ll let you know.” Tara could only stare, hoping the woman wouldn’t return. She left the way she’d come, the door slamming closed behind her.

Tara looked at the light blue paint she’d agonized over choosing and had spent the better part of a week putting on the walls. It was perfect and would look beautiful—she hoped—with the lace curtains she’d ordered.

The old-fashioned, homey, wood furniture was in storage until she finished painting, and the oak floor was scheduled to be refinished later this week.

Picturing those black fingernails putting out the lace doilies she’d bought at the flea market last week made Tara cringe.

No, Sylvie wasn’t a good match for this place. She was too rough. Too edgy. This place had no edge. It was about comfort food and relaxation.

Turning to her work, Tara forced herself to slow down and not slap the paintbrush against the wall. Old blue? Really? She reached for the long-handled roller and started on the next wall, all thoughts of taking a break gone.

As she worked, her brain kept time with the rhythm of the roller. Was she doing the right thing? Up. She’d worked too hard to have doubts now. Down. What if everyone thought like Sylvie? Up. Not everyone had blue hair. Down.

The light shifted and the streak of blue in her own blond hair caught her eye again. Present company excepted. “I am not like her,” she said aloud.

“Not like who?”

Startling her worse than Sylvie had, DJ came into the room. Tara dropped the paint roller, which landed with a sloppy plop on the wood floor, flinging more paint in the air—most likely adding to her hair.

“Good thing you’re refinishing that,” he said, unruffled as usual. He carefully made his way across the room. His back must be bothering him today since he moved slowly. Though he was healed, DJ would never be a hundred percent like he was before he’d been wounded in Afghanistan.

“Why are you here?” She bent to pick up the roller and wiped up as much of the paint as she could.

“Grumpy today?” He lifted a white bag with a familiar logo on it. Her favorite burger joint. “Is that any way to greet the person saving you from starvation?”

“I’m fine.” Her stomach rumbled just to make a liar out of her.


He carried the bag over to the diner’s long counter. She’d covered it with an old sheet while she worked, and he pushed it away, exposing the beautiful hand-carved surface.