Holly versus Mr. Ivy by Amanda P. Jones
those days where fate decided anything that could go wrong should.
It all started with the power going out. An inconvenience, sure, but with Mom’s rigid medicine routine, every second mattered. It was the entire reason I lived and breathed my schedule.
I scrambled out of bed when my phone screen stayed black and ran into the living room. The clock on the microwave flashed green digital numbers. Grrr! Swiping an applesauce pouch from the pantry, I rushed back down the hall and knocked softly on Mom’s white bedroom door. “Morning, Mom. How are you?”
I went to her bedside, where the thick green comforter dwarfed her petite frame, something I’d inherited from her. Mom barely reached five-one. I only had an extra inch and a half on her.
She grunted in her sleep.
I gently shook her shoulder. “Mom?”
No thanks to the stupid power outage, I was late in getting her to take her pills. “I’ll help you sit up,” I said tenderly. “You need to take your medicine.” I slid a hand under her shoulder, ready to assist her.
“Sleep,” she mumbled.
“After, I promise.”
I helped her sit up and handed her the applesauce before opening the pill sorter on the nightstand. One at a time, I put a tablet in her palm, and watched her bring the glass of water to her lips. When she’d finished the last one, she slumped back onto her pillow.
I kissed the top of her bald head, once a black mane of curls. “I’ll check in before I head to work. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
I rushed to get myself breakfast and make some soft foods for Mom to eat later in the day. When I checked on her again two hours later, she was sitting up in bed, an audiobook playing on her phone beside her. She was too young to be so sick, fighting a disease. Too young to be a widow.
My brother and I were too young to become orphans.
It was all my fault, too. If I hadn’t gone off to culinary school in California, Mom would be healthy. She’d be managing the bank like normal. Maybe even dating since, before she was diagnosed, she mentioned getting back out there after Dad’s untimely death.
“Hey, you’re up.” I climbed on the other side of her bed—Dad’s side—and reached over to put my hand in hers.
She gently squeezed my fingers. “I’d slept long enough.”
Thankfully, Mom could still get out of bed without assistance. Of course, I’d do anything for her. If the time ever came when we had to help her like that, I would. I just hoped we wouldn’t have to.
“Are you hungry? I made pudding, soup, and banana bread. Does any of that sound good?”
Her hand waffled in the air. “A little. I’ll try some pudding.”
“Coming right up.” I scooted off her bed, going to the kitchen to dish up her food. When I brought it back to her, she took a few small bites but mainly just pushed it around the bowl.
“Is it gross?”
Mom’s taste buds had changed with chemo. She was as picky as a toddler now.
Her lips, the top one fuller than the bottom, curled up. “A little. There’s a metallic tinge to it.”
“Ew.” I wrinkled my nose. “I’m sorry. Do you want to try something else?”
“No.” She sighed. “I’m good for right now.”
I held back my frown, not wanting Mom to see how worried I was. She ate less than I liked. She needed to keep her strength up.
“I’m heading to work soon. Want—or need—anything else before I go?”
“More water, please.”
I did as she asked, leaving her with a kiss on her forehead and a promise that Trevor would be there in a few hours.
Holly:Hey. FYI: Mom’s not doing as well as yesterday. I was late dosing her morning meds from the stupid power outage. I logged everything in the spreadsheet. Hopefully, you can get her to eat more than a few bites of pudding. Call you on my break.
Rushing out the door, I headed to The Boardwalk, hitting every red light on the way. Who was watching down on me manically laughing as they orchestrated every single traffic light to turn yellow as I approached?
Whoever it was, I’d like to file a complaint.
I glanced at the clock on my dashboard and groaned. Great, now I was late, getting further off my schedule. Pulling into the employee parking lot at the back of the restaurant, I threw my car in park, grabbed my purse, slammed my driver’s side door, and took one step forward, only to be yanked right back.
My arms pinwheeled in the air as I fell backward. “Ahhh!” My backside slammed into the side of my red Miata convertible. Today was so not my day.
Grumbling to myself, I unlocked the car, then yanked my leather purse strap free, staring daggers at my car. How dare you betray me like that? Triple-checking nothing tethered me to my vehicle, I stormed inside, cursing under my breath the entire time.
No one noticed when I slipped into my office to lock up my purse and grab my uniform. I stood in the hallway between my office and the kitchen, buttoning my double-breasted chef’s jacket. The voices of my staff members echoed in the kitchen amid the clanks and whacks of food prep.
“She rails on us if we’re two minutes late, and yet she can be twenty?” Darby, one of my vegetable chefs, complained. “It’s not fair—and it’s exactly like her to hold us to a high standard that she doesn’t follow.”
My nostrils flared, and I let out a slow breath. Darby had been a thorn in my side since I’d started working here. She uttered complaints about me nonstop. In her mid-forties, she had never married and often bemoaned her failed dates. Newsflash, Darby: stop dating losers you find at the fishing tavern down the street.
“As the Ice Queen, she can get away with whatever she wants,” Josh, my other vegetable chef, responded. “One wrong move on your part, though, and she sends you her cold, hard stare. It’s perfection or the chopping block,” he said, trying to mimic my tone.
I did not sound like a high-pitched harpy, thank you very much.
“She’s a witch, through and through. Makes working here such a joy.” I recognized Steven’s deep, rumbly voice.
This wasn’t the first time I’d overheard the staff talking about me. Just like last time, their words stabbed me in the heart, forcing tears to spring to my eyes.
And they wondered why I didn’t want them talking.
“That’s enough,” Kevin, my senior chef, said. “Holly is the boss. Treat her with some respect.”
Thank you, Kevin. At least someone liked me.
I fled to the restroom, passing the black-paneled bar on my way, and locked myself in the first stall. The tall wood door loomed depressingly in front of me. I closed my eyes, pretending I was lying on a couch snuggled in front of a cozy fire reading a book instead of swiping my tears away.
I’d tried being a friend to everyone when I first came to The Boardwalk. Staff members had quickly taken advantage of my easy-going management style by showing up late—or not at all. When they had come to work, they didn’t listen to my instructions. Their breaks always lasted longer than they should have, and we took forever getting tables served. I hadn’t known how to remedy the situation except to switch tactics and control every aspect of my kitchen. In some ways, it had worked. We ran like a well-oiled machine when it came to performing our jobs, but there was no camaraderie.
It seemed like the only way I earned respect was by embracing the “Ice Queen” persona Josh complained about. I might not be the most-loved boss, or even the kindest, but no one could say I didn’t slay in effectiveness.
Exhaustion settled over me, causing a fresh wave of tears. Being a female in a male-dominated career was hard enough. Earning respect from my staff, being executive chef, and being the primary caregiver to Mom overwhelmed me. How was I supposed to do it all? Where was the balance I craved? Where was the fun side of me? I hadn’t seen her since before Mom got sick, and I missed her. I missed the me I used to be before life beat me down.
I allowed the stress of the morning to run its course through my tear ducts. Wiping my nose on the two-ply tissue (no see-through toilet paper at this fine establishment), I exited the stall, washed my hands, then made my way to the kitchen, where half the people loathed me.
Every step I took made me want to return to yesterday, when I’d spent the day pushing Mom in her wheelchair around the nature preserve not too far from our house. Green leaves had blown gently in the wind. The earthy scent of dirt, sea salt, and flowers had provided the perfect aroma. The warm sun had beaten the right amount of heat on our backs.
All in all, Monday had been a fabulous day. Today, though? I was ready to stuff it like a turkey and burn it to a withering, black crisp.
As I turned around the dining room corner, I froze. My boss’s tall frame and wide width made it impossible to skirt past him.
“When we find Holly, I’ll make introductions,” he said.
My stomach fell to the floor. There was no mistaking the hard edge to his tone. Anthony Ivy was a formidable man. He was never satisfied with the state of the restaurant. He’d terminated the previous general manager and cautioned me on numerous occasions that my job was always on the line. Who was he talking to?
I cleared my throat so he wouldn’t think I was spying on him. “Hello, Mr. Ivy.”
He spun as quickly as his rotund middle would allow. The shrewd smile on his face made my heart skip a beat.
“Ah. Chef Holly.”
Dewhurst, I corrected in my head. Although my staff was instructed to simply call me Chef, Mr. Ivy had taken it upon himself to always say “Chef Holly.” Holly was for friends and family, not co-workers, and most definitely not the man standing in front of me.
I clasped my shaky hands behind my back. “Mr. Ivy. What brings you by?” Shockingly, my voice came out even instead of wobbly. He always set me on edge.
He gestured down the hall. “Let’s go into the office and I’ll explain.”
In the dimly lit hallway, and with Anthony’s wide frame, it was hard to tell who stood in front of him. I briefly glimpsed a blond, broad-shouldered man. Who is he?
We walked toward the back offices. Anthony’s expensive leather shoes tapped against the dark hardwood floor. We passed my office and entered the one next to it. Dread filled my stomach.
I stepped into the room, and my gaze locked on the man who Mr. Ivy had blocked. Heat seared my cheeks, trailing a path down my neck and chest.
Well, hello there, handsome.
The tall man dwarfed me in height by a good foot. His blond hair was a little longer than what most men wore, blessed with the kind of natural highlights others spent a fortune to achieve. The left section swept to the side, covering the tip of his ear. He had the ethereal beauty of a fae with the build of an alpha werewolf.
By the way my heart pounded, I liked that look—a lot. Considering the amount of time I spent lost in fantasy romance novels, it didn’t surprise me.
When my gaze slowly met his, his brown eyes sparkled in the canned lights above us. His luscious lips took on a teasing smirk. Scratch that. He was smoldering at me, like a pirate, making my knees turn into gelatin.
I whipped my head toward Mr. Ivy as another wave of heat consumed me, this time with embarrassment over being caught staring at this sexy man. Shoot. Ten minutes ago, I was crying in the bathroom. Were my eyes red and puffy?
Anthony pointed to the newcomer. “Chef Holly, I’d like to introduce you to my nephew, Everett Ivy. He’s the new general manager of The Boardwalk.”
My eyes widened. He was the new manager? I’d be working with him every day? Oh, no. No, this could not be happening. I couldn’t work with this extremely gorgeous man. I’d turn into a fumbling idiot and do stupid things, which was not a good thing when working with sharp knives and propane stoves.
Worker’s comp, here I come.
He chuckled, breaking my internal freak out. “Please, call me Rhett.” He extended his hand to me.
I swiped my palms down my chef’s jacket, determined to remain professional, before shaking his hand—his giant, warm hand. “Holly Dewhurst. Welcome aboard. I need to check in with my staff. I’m sure we’ll be speaking again soon.”
Anthony held up a hand, halting my exit. “One more minute. Have a seat.”
Everett—Rhett—scooted to the dark brown tub chair closest to the wall. Anthony made his way around the wood desk to the large leather chair. The office exuded importance, with rich, earth-toned decor and brown leather.
I slowly sank into the seat by the door. My polyester dress pants slipped against the slick edge of the cushion, and I slid right off onto the hard floor, landing on my tailbone. Ouch! I swear, karma was out to get me today. I wasn’t usually so clumsy.
“Are you okay?” Rhett asked.
I whipped my head to his. His lips were tucked in between his teeth and merriment danced in his eyes.
Sure, go ahead and laugh it up that the executive chef couldn’t even sit right. “I’m fine,” I grumbled.
Reaching behind me, I used the seat as leverage to hoist myself up. In the process of untangling my legs, a white square stole my attention.
Oh, come on. Really?Could I embarrass myself any more?
That little piece of colored tissue was toilet paper. Stuck to the bottom of my shoe. We were in an upscale restaurant. Why hadn’t they cleaned the bathroom properly? T.P. stuck to your shoe should NEVER be a worry at The Boardwalk.
Completely humiliated, I used the heel of my other shoe to sweep the offensive toilet paper off the toe of my black sneaker and tucked it under the chair.
Rhett leaned toward me and whispered, “Saving that for later?”
A whiff of forest and ocean hit my nose, making me lose focus. Why did he have to smell good too?
I leaned away from him, spluttering, “No.” Another wave of heat washed over me. At this rate, I’d need another shower. And some distance from this man.
Rhett chuckled, a low grumble that made my stomach flutter like leaves falling in autumn.
“Are you finally settled?” Anthony asked with impatience.
Wow. Thanks for your concern over my wellbeing, Boss.
I bobbed my head. “Yes.”
“Good.” Anthony rested his hands on the desk. “The restaurant has been operating at an unacceptable level. When I acquired this property, I knew it would be my step up into the big leagues. It’s time to put that plan into action.”
He wanted more?
“We’ll do it,” Rhett said overeagerly.
We hadn’t even heard what this entailed. How could he blindly agree? Unless Anthony had spoken to his nephew about his plan.
“What does that mean?” I asked, shooting Rhett a slow your horses look.
“I want revenue up ten percent by New Year’s Eve. I’m hosting my annual party here at the restaurant. Before my guests arrive, I want a report with the new numbers. If my profit is not at ten percent, or higher”—his dark eyes bored first into mine, then turned to Rhett—“Holly is fired and Rhett, you’ll be out of your promotion.” A satisfied smile settled on his lips.
Seriously? Ten percent in barely over three months?
“No problem,” Rhett readily agreed.
Stop being a suck-up, Rhett!
I held up a finger. “How do you see us magically increasing revenue by ten percent?”
Anthony’s brows rose. Rhett let out a soft “oooh,” like I was in trouble for questioning his uncle.
“Well, Chef Holly,” Anthony said condescendingly, “that’s for you and my nephew to work out.”
I turned my head to face Rhett. “Do you have any experience in restaurant management?”
He dramatically placed a hand over his heart. “I’m wounded, Holly.”
Noted—stay away from the new guy. He doled out fake charm like it was candy. If I wanted his respect, that meant firm boundaries. “And that means?” I asked.
“This isn’t my first rodeo.”
“It’s not,” Anthony agreed. “I picked Rhett for a reason. His excellent management skills will raise this place to its full potential in no time. Are you on board, or should I fire you now and promote Nico to executive chef in your stead? By the reports I’ve received from the staff, I should have replaced you already.”
Anthony constantly threatened to fire me. It also didn’t surprise me that my employees wanted me gone. If I didn’t need the money so desperately to keep up on Mom’s medical bills, I’d consider finding a new job. But the pay, the prestige of being an executive chef so early in my career, and my heavily fought-for control in the kitchen forced me to stay. And I secretly wanted to earn a James Beard Award or a Michelin Star. That wouldn’t happen if I left The Boardwalk, since executive chef positions were hard to come by.
I stared at my knees. “No, Mr. Ivy. I’ll work with Rhett to meet your demands.”
“Demands?” he growled.
My head popped up to meet his steely gaze. “I mean goals.”
He tilted his head to the side, acknowledging that, as always, I cowed to him.
“Very well.” Anthony smacked his hand against the wood desk. “Rhett, this is your office while you’re here. Don’t get too comfortable. When you turn this restaurant around, that regional manager position will be yours.”
“I won’t let you down,” Rhett promised.
Rhett stood and shook hands with his uncle.
Anthony placed his hands on the sides of the chair, pushing himself to a standing position. “Rhett. Chef Holly. I look forward to New Year’s Eve.”
With that, he tromped his way out the door.
Rhett stood the entire time, watching him go.
I sat frozen in my chair. How could we increase profits by that much? Reduce the menu? Open for lunch? Fire some of the staff? I had three from the kitchen I’d let go with as part of “operation increase revenue.”
Rhett plopped back into the chair, letting out a huge sigh of relief. “Finally, he’s gone.” He undid the top button of his shirt, exposing more of his smooth, tan skin.
Say what, now?“I didn’t realize you’d be so happy to see your uncle leave. You were utterly smitten with him earlier.”
I didn’t mean to sound so snarky, but my defenses had gone up the second he’d flirted. Well, not flirted, but exaggerated. I knew his type, and they always meant trouble.
He smirked. “One must play the game to succeed.”
What game? My life, the obstacles I’d tackled to get here, weren’t some child’s play. I poured sweat, blood, and tears continually into this job. I stood. “I really need to get to the kitchen.” My employees were probably wielding pitchforks, considering I was now almost an hour late. “Would you like to come meet my staff?”
I spun and glared at Rhett. “Yes. My staff. My kitchen. My rules. Do whatever you want with the rest of the restaurant, but don’t you dare overstep on my responsibilities.”
Why was he grinning? What had I said that was funny? Egotistical show-off.
“Chef Holly,” he crooned with clasped hands.
Nope. Not happening. Anytime he opened his mouth, my physical attraction to him decreased a thousand notches. The rate he was going, he’d be the equivalent of a street rat by the end of the night. “It’s Chef Dewhurst to you.”
He held his hands out defensively. “Chef Dewhurst, I have no intention of stepping on your toes. I’m here to work with you, not against you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Make today go away. Let this all be a bad dream with a hot, conceited man. When I opened my eyes again, all hope evaporated like boiling water.
Rhett was real, and he was here to stay.