After ordering Rob to get his stuff out of her house and get lost, Nicky finds him faceup with her expensive Chroma knife sticking right out of his cheating heart.
As the prime suspect, Nicky is in hot water. And no matter how hard she tries to clear her name, her problems only mount. She's convinced she can solve the murder—if only she can figure out the identity of the skinny person seen walking away with Rob after the party.
Getting "Skinny" won't be easy for Nicky, but she never imagined it would be life or death…
sometimes a girl just knows
Call it intuition. Call it a sixth sense. Whatever. Somehow I just knew. The thing is, when a man gets ready to pop the question, he does a series of little things that give a pretty good idea of what he’s up to. The right woman—the clued-in woman, as my friend Toni would have said—picked up on them. Rob would propose tonight. I just knew it. And that was why I had to look amazing.
I looked at my nemesis, the scale, next to the bathroom vanity. I’d ignored it for weeks now, but it beckoned. Come, Nicky. Come see how much you weigh. I knew I wouldn’t like it but I couldn’t help myself. I had to find out. Even surrounded by non-weight-conscious men in chef school, I’d never quite relinquished the dream of being thin. I wanted to have a nice figure. To fit into a size eight. To look sexy for the man I loved. Was that so much to ask?
I peeled off my bra and panties, removed my watch and small stud earrings, then stepped on the scale. I held my breath as the dial spun. Back and forth it went half a dozen times, so fast the numbers were a blur. Finally it settled on…
“Argh!” Impossible. I refused to believe it. I had gained another ten pounds. Good grief. How’d that happen? I’d been so careful.
Oh, all right. I hadn’t been that careful. Only in my dreams did I stick to my diet.
But this was it. I was going to start counting calories. This time I really meant it. No more cheating. From now on I’d be good. I’d treat food preparation like wine tasting: taste and spit. Maybe a tiny morsel here and there to really check the seasoning.
Ten pounds more. How could that be? Maybe the scale was wrong. I crept back on and this time shifted my weight onto my toes. Occasionally this maneuver shaved off a couple of pounds. But this time the number on the dial climbed another few digits. Shit.
The problem was that I was a chef and, working in a kitchen, I had about as much chance of losing weight as an alcoholic bar owner had of staying on the wagon. With my self-control, my chances of winning the lottery were greater. Ten pounds. Well, that settled it. I was no longer voluptuous. I couldn’t call myself curvaceous or even queen-size anymore. There was one word for what I was and that was fat.
Jackie Chan, my Yorkshire terrier, came bouncing in. She skidded to a stop two feet from me and barked.
“Are you laughing at me? If you bark my weight to anyone, that’ll be the end of Jackie Chan,” I told her.
She tilted her head while she thought it over, then spun around three times and scooted out. Smart girl. She knew when to stay out of my way.
I picked up the dress I’d purchased four weeks ago. This dress was a miracle of engineering. In the store dressing room, I’d looked taller than my five-feet-four inches and pounds lighter than my…never mind. Why remind myself? And the color—cilantro green—was perfect with my strawberry blond hair.
Barely one month later, here I was, unable to pull up the damn zipper. This was a disaster. Rob’s party was in a few hours. And tonight, I just knew, would be the most important night of my life.
I looked at my dress again. Surely there had to be some way… Hold on. Don’t I have a body slimmer somewhere? I raced to the bedroom and rummaged through my underwear drawer until I found the spandex garment I’d bought a year ago. I’d seen it advertised on an infomercial in which the model wearing it shrank three dress sizes the instant she slipped into it. When it arrived in the mail a few days later, I tore open the package and crammed myself into the contraption, only to discover that it made me feel like an overstuffed cannelloni. Still, I had looked a bit smaller. It smoothed out my panty lines and ironed out the spare tire around my waist. But I could never have imagined actually wearing the thing. I might get gangrene from lack of circulation. Tonight, however, was special. I needed Rob to think I was the most beautiful creature in the world, and if that meant enduring the body slimmer for a few hours, then so be it.
I pushed my legs into the slimmer up to my thighs and pulled as hard as I could, squirming and wriggling until all my parts fit snugly inside. By now I was breathing like a steam engine. I tried the dress again, held my breath, pulled at the zipper and…it worked. Hallelujah. The dress was still snug. In fact, it might be better to avoid breathing altogether. But hey, I was wearing it.
The phone rang and I rushed from the bathroom, trying to determine where it was. The problem with the cordless phone and Rob was that he never remembered to leave the receiver in its cradle.
I set off for the living room where he left it nine times out of ten. Sure enough, there it was on the coffee table right next to the bowl of mixed nuts. I grabbed a handful and hesitated. Then I remembered that nuts are a healthy source of protein, and everybody knows protein keeps a person feeling full for a longer time.
I picked up the phone just in time to hear a hang-up. I glanced at the caller ID. Why was Toni calling? She knew I’d be at the restaurant in half an hour. Uh-oh. I pushed the redial button.
After the first ring, Toni’s voice came through, sweet and reassuring. My suspicions were instantly aroused.
“Everything over here is under control. You have nothing to worry about, so take your time,” she said, using her pacifying voice.
“Thanks, but I was just about to leave. I should be there in about fifteen minutes.”
“Why rush? Take the rest of the afternoon off. Take a long bath. Do your hair. You don’t have to show up until just before the guests.”
I knew that tone. Something was definitely up. “What’s the problem, Toni?”
“Problem? Who said anything about a problem? I swear, sometimes you really are paranoid. Just because I want to make things easier for you…”
“Cut the crap. Something’s up and I want to know what it is.”
Her voice came back with less honey and more whine. “It’s not really a problem. We can always get something at the bakery up the street.”
My heart sank. I so did not need this right now. “You know Skinny’s will never serve goods from a bakery. Give it to me straight.”
She sighed. “It’s the lemon curd for the meringues.” Pause. “It scorched.”
“Oh, no.” A vision flashed through my mind—dozens of perfect little meringue nests lined up in rows, every one of them filled with a brown glob of goo. What would that do to our reputation? Our reputation would be cooked.
I glanced at my watch, wondering how fast I could get to the restaurant. It was already three o’clock. The curd needed four hours to cool before being poured into the meringues or everything would turn into a sodden mess. Even if we had enough lemons, this was cutting it awfully close. Maybe if we took our time serving the appetizers, then delayed serving the main course by a few minutes…ten minutes here, fifteen there. We just might pull it off.
“Do we have any more lemons?”
“Just enough for the seafood.”
“Damn.” I thought quickly. There was no time to stop at the grocery store. “What about limes? How many do we have?”
“Maybe a dozen or so.”
I allowed myself a tentative sigh of relief. “Skinny’s on Queen will be serving a new specialty tonight—lime curd meringues.”
“Lime curd meringues,” Toni registered the alteration as she slowly repeated my words. “Perfect! See? I knew there was nothing to worry about. As they say, all’s well that ends well.”
“Get Charles to make the curd, and tell him not to stop stirring for so much as one second,” I told Toni, holding back the few choice expressions on the tip of my tongue. “I’ll be there as fast as I can. If I see even one dark speck in that curd, there’ll be hell to pay.”
I hung up, spinning between being weak with relief and spitting mad. Why was it that nothing ever went smoothly?
I stormed off to the bedroom, removed my dress, carefully strung it over its padded hanger and slid it into a garment bag. Should I extract myself from the body slimmer? I could put it on later with my panty hose and three-inch heels. That way, I would feel comfortable while I cooked. But getting into the stupid thing was a challenge worthy of a contortionist. Better not attempt it in one of the restaurant’s three-by-three stalls. Instead, I slipped a pair of black pants and my new mango T-shirt over the torture garment and checked myself in the mirror again. Yep, even in my everyday clothes, I did look slimmer.
In the bathroom, I scrambled around under the sink for my makeup kit. What the hell? Pill bottles. What was Rob thinking? He couldn’t just leave bags of pills lying around. What if Jackie got into them? He deserved to get hell for that…
Wait. Hadn’t Rob said something about bringing antacids from the hospital? He was a sweetie, always taking care of me. I picked up one of the plain white plastic bottles. No label. How strange. Some generic brand. I was stuffing the bag back under the sink when I dropped it, scattering dozens of bottles all over the floor. Shit. That was clumsy of me. Every time I was in a rush, I turned into butterfingers.
I picked them up, threw them in his bag and resumed rummaging until I found my own. A few minutes later, I was freshly mascaraed and lipsticked. I was ready to go when I noticed an errant bottle on the floor. I picked it up and blindly grappled under the sink for Rob’s bag and threw it in with the others.
“Jackie,” I called. “Come on, girl. Time to go pee-pee.”
Jackie came skidding over, her little paws skating on the hardwood floors. Jackie weighed less than four pounds but there was nothing small about her personality. She scampered after me to the mudroom behind the kitchen.
“Want to go out?” At the word out, she began to spin. Around and around she went. I cracked up. “Stop chasing your tail, Jackie. You’re smarter than that.”
She gave me a dirty look and scooted out through her doggie door. I waited the required few minutes until she ran back in.
“Sit pretty.” I held up a liver treat and her bottom hit the floor with a thump. That was one thing Jackie and I had in common—we’d both do anything for food. “Good, good girl.”
Jackie snapped it out of my fingers, and in a flash it was gone.
“Hey you, didn’t anyone ever tell you to chew at least twenty times before swallowing?”
She looked at me as though I’d lost my mind.
I often wondered what people would think if they heard me talk to her. I could have entire conversations with Jackie and I was sure she understood. After three years, I read her body language as clearly as words.
I put a wee-wee pad down in front of the back door. Who knew at what time I’d be back tonight? I gave her a quick kiss and left.
Outside, I was greeted by a bright and sunny day. A perfect June day. A perfect day for a proposal. Every time I thought about it, I got another rush.
My new neighbor was staring at me from his living room window. He and I shared a common wall. Since the man moved in three weeks ago, all he seemed to do was loaf by the window. What a weirdo. Toni, of course, thought he was cute, but then Toni thought all men under forty were cute. This one looked thirty, thirty-five. Certainly too young to sit around doing nothing all day. What was his story? Didn’t he have a job?
He smiled and I turned away, pretending not to have seen him. I threw my garment bag over my shoulder and marched off at a brisk pace, praying that the lime curd would turn out perfect. Limp meringues wouldn’t exactly impress a roomful of Rob’s friends.
Why, oh why, couldn’t life be straightforward, even just occasionally? Despite the less-than-great things, like my weight and the threat of lifeless meringues, I knew I had it good
Here I was—twenty-nine and I already owned my own business. I had a great girlfriend. Toni was not only a close friend and my business partner, but she’d also bankrolled our restaurant.
I had a little house on Shaw Street in the Queen West area of Toronto. Few would describe the house as beautiful, even after dozens of gallons of paint and countless hours of sweat equity. But my home, as unpretentious as it was, was mine, and I loved it.
Then, of course, there was Rob. Lucky me.
whizzing through boyfriends with the energy of a shredder
Here’s what I discovered on my walk to work. One: those body slimmers were not meant to be worn during any form of exercise, otherwise a girl would soon find herself glowing, as in “horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow.” Two: the danger of them cutting off your blood circulation should not be taken lightly. By the time I arrived at Skinny’s, I could barely feel my legs. Never again would I ever wear this contraption. It simply wasn’t worth the discomfort—except for tonight of course—and maybe the day of my wedding
I walked into the hot, steamy chaos of the kitchen, threw on my chef’s jacket and glanced at the clock on the wall. Shit. Only two and a half hours until people were scheduled to arrive, and I still had a hundred things to do.
“Where’s the lime curd?” I demanded, heading to the stove. I lifted a lid and peered inside.
“It’s already cooling,” replied Toni. “Don’t worry. It’s perfect.”
“Show me.” I put down the cast-iron lid and followed Toni to the walk-in refrigerator at the far end of the kitchen.
She pulled open the door, striking a Price Is Right model’s stance. “See for yourself.”
Inside were shelves upon shelves of ingredients—cartons of eggs, wheels of cheese, quarts of whipping cream, pounds of butter, containers of precooked vegetables and packages of meat—and right smack in front of me was a large copper pot full of lovely lime curd. Not a speck of brown in it. Thank God.
Toni smiled smugly. “Told you.”
“Okay, where are we with the rest of the meal?” I asked, refusing to be so easily mollified. My eyes darted around the room.
Toni raised her perfectly penciled brows. “Nicky Landry, I do believe you are nervous! Why? This isn’t the first meal you’ve cooked. We’ve been open for nearly a month.”
Easy for her to say when she rarely picked up a spatula. Toni’s main responsibility was bookkeeping—her only kitchen duty, food assembly. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I was flooded with remorse. What in the world was wrong with me? Making sure the plates looked as delicious as they tasted was important. In fact, it was one of the determining factors that distinguished a restaurant. And if not for Toni, I would never have been able to become a business owner. At best, I’d probably be a sous-chef somewhere and still years away from running my own kitchen. If our restaurant flopped, Toni would lose all that money, not me.
“That’s true,” I said. “But for some reason, I can’t shake that first-time feeling.”
She responded in typical Toni fashion. “Hmm. Like a virgin, like the very first time.” She sang a few off-key bars of the Madonna song. “Did I ever tell you about my first time?” Without missing a beat she continued, “I had not one, but two orgasms.”
The two new guys turned and stared, slack jawed. As for our three regulars, they had long grown used to Toni’s antics.
She was on a roll. “You know what they say, ‘When you’re hot, you’re hot.’” She jabbed a finger to her hip. “Tsssss.”
“Back to work everyone,” I called out, snapping my fingers. “The show is over.” I turned to face Toni. “You shouldn’t talk about your private life in front of the staff.”
She shrugged. “Hey, one woman’s frankness is another’s vulgarity. Besides,” she stage whispered, “most of these kids lead such boring lives. It’s my duty to provide them with entertainment.”
“Like details about your sex life?”
She winked. “What could be more entertaining than that?”
Toni was tall, thin and gorgeous, just the kind of woman I should have hated. But from the moment we met in chef school, I saw something in her—the kind of false bravado often used to cover pain. I was right. She’d admitted that after eight years of marriage her husband had left her for his twenty-two-year-old secretary. Toni had packed thirty pounds on her rail-thin body and now looked fashionably thin rather than emaciated. She, of course, thought she was fat. I should be so fat. Anyway, since then Toni hated her ex as passionately as she loved every new man she dated. Three years had passed and she had only recently stopped sputtering on about Steven.
Whoever said money couldn’t buy happiness hadn’t told Toni. When she walked out of that marriage, she’d moved into a three-bedroom condo in Hazleton Lanes, one of the most prestigious addresses in the country, filled it with furniture from the Art Shoppe, bleached her hair even blonder, went on a shopping spree that saved more than one boutique from going under, and whizzed through boyfriends with the energy of a shredder. Then one day she’d looked at her life and decided it was time to move on. She enrolled in chef school, where we met shortly thereafter.
For all her bragging about countless lovers, Toni was much more conventional than she put on. Her boasting was about insecurity—her way of appearing desirable maybe?
I glanced around. Toni was at the sink, wearing her opera-length, marabou-trimmed black rubber gloves—a must, as she often told me, for any proud owner of ten perfectly manicured Frenchies.
“You should wear them, too,” she’d once told me when I complained about my dishwater hands. Yeah, right.
She was taking individual romaine leaves from their frigid bath and drying the leaves gently. “All joking aside, you have every right to be nervous. I would be, too, if I was throwing a party for my lover,” she said over her shoulder.
“Not lover. Boyfriend. Rob is my boyfriend.”
“No, it’s not. A boyfriend is a relationship, whereas a lover is just for sex.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you say so.”
“Anyhow, the fact that this party is for Rob only makes me even more nervous. I want everything to be perfect. I want him to be blown away.”
“Don’t worry, girlfriend. Everything will be perfect.”
When Toni and I first considered throwing a press party, I’d suggested we wait at least a month. By then we couldn’t officially call it an opening, but at least we’d have plenty of practice under our belts, which meant less chance of a mess-up with reporters around.
“We want it to be absolutely perfect, right?” I’d pointed out. “So what we should do is have a practice run before we invite the press.”
Toni had nodded. “Not a bad idea.”
Fact was, I had an ulterior motive. Rob had mentioned how he would like to celebrate the end of his residency, and I wanted to make him happy.
“As long as we’re having a rehearsal, why don’t we wait until next month?” I’d added, “Would you have any objection to celebrating the end of Rob’s residency?” I saw her hesitation and upped the enthusiasm. “We could invite his hospital friends. It wouldn’t hurt to have a bunch of soon-to-be-rich doctors sample our food. What could be better? They’ll love us and become regulars. Besides, I really want to do this for Rob. The poor guy’s been working nonstop. Sometimes he doesn’t even come home all night. He just works around the clock, shift after shift, back-to-back. I don’t know how he does it.”
Toni had quickly agreed. “I suppose if we did it on a Monday evening, we wouldn’t lose any paying customers.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Then her face had lit up. “Do you think Rob could invite some hot doctors?”
And so, it had been decided.
The kitchen was in a state of pandemonium. Just for tonight, we’d hired two extra employees. In addition to our waiter, Jake, whose charm placated the most difficult of customers, our sous-chef, Charles, who almost out-cooked even me—unless he was in one of his occasional torpors—Marley, our general assistant who chopped, stirred and whipped, and Scott, our dishwasher, we now had Jeff and Rick as pinch-hitter helpers. Everyone rushed about, sometimes coming perilously close to crashing into one another.
“For crissake be careful!” As much as I wanted to stay calm, I found myself on the edge of panic. “I love you guys but if anyone drops as much as one crouton, I’ll have a nervous breakdown.”
Our regulars were fresh out of chef school, working more for the experience than for the wages, thank goodness—otherwise, Toni and I would never have been able to afford them. Still, as much as I was grateful that they worked for minimal pay, coping with inexperienced workers drove me crazy. I was still too new at this myself.
From behind the eight-burner professional Wolf stove, I went over my to-do list as I stirred the béchamel.
Romaine for the Caesar? Across the room, Toni was wrapping the last bouquet of lettuce leaves with chive strings. I had to hand it to her, her presentation was inspired.
Vegetables for the root macédoine? At the vegetable counter, I was momentarily distracted by the tattooed snake on Rick’s arm. He wore a white T-shirt and, as he chopped and diced, the reptile seemed to undulate and writhe along his bicep and forearm. Ugh! I gave my head a shake and returned to my checklist.
Appetizers? Yes, those lovely little seafood cakes. Check.
One by one, I crossed off everything that needed to be done.
“Marley,” I called, “get over here.”
The young man came running, his blond dreadlocks in a Gibson bun that tilted precariously under his hairnet.
“You take over.” I handed him the whisk and he took it reverently. “Don’t let it boil. A low simmer, that’s as hot as a béchamel should get.”
I brushed a lock of hair back under my hat and turned my attention across the narrow room where Charles was working. He sported a close-cropped haircut with a lightning rod shaved across the back. He was turning over dozens of miniature seafood cakes on the grill as he bopped along to a rhythm only he could hear. Honestly, sometimes I wondered about that boy. If he wasn’t so damn talented, I swear I’d hire somebody else.
“How many times do I have to tell you to take off your iPod?”
He looked at me, a question in his eyes. “Did you say something?”
The thought flashed through my mind that maybe he was on drugs. It would explain a lot. I walked over and pulled out one of his earphones. “No more than six minutes or they’ll get tough. And take off that iPod.” I knew that when it came to cooking he didn’t need instructions. But I was the boss.
“Cool,” he answered, removed the other earpiece and resumed flipping the seafood cakes to the same secret rhythm.
I snatched a seafood cake from Charles’s pan and popped it into my mouth. Okay, so I shouldn’t have, but one of my head-chef duties was to test the deliciousness of everything that came out of my kitchen—and it was delicious. I wiped my hands on a bar towel and then flicked it onto my shoulder.
At that moment, Toni swept by on her way to the dining room. “I’ll set the tables. The place will look gorgeous. Now stop worrying.”
Stop worrying? Ha! Easy for her to say. She didn’t have to worry, the way I did, that all this would be taken away at any moment. Toni had money. Me, not.
Last May, Toni and I had decided to go for it. We’d both completed our chef’s training and since then, I’d been looking for work. But it seemed that no decent restaurant in the city needed a chef. I was almost ready to throw in the towel and take a job as an assistant in hope that I could work my way up, when Toni presented the idea. “Why not open our own restaurant?” she’d asked, as casually as I might’ve said, “How about we go see a movie tonight?” But she was serious.
After calculating how much we needed, and after every bank in the city had turned us down for a business loan, Toni offered to provide the seed money.
“It’s only fair,” she’d said. “After all, you’ll be doing most of the cooking.”
“I’ll do most of the cooking?” That had come as news to me. But I saw her point. It was only fair. And the truth of the matter was, although nobody could make a dish look like edible art the way she did, as a chef, Toni was good, not great. I, however, was great, but I had no seed money. We made the perfect team. And six months ago, we found the perfect place.
I remember standing on the Queen Street sidewalk, staring into the empty storefront. The place was rundown but it used to be a restaurant. The kitchen still existed, complete with an antiquated Wolf stove and a professional sink. Of course, there was a ton of work to be done, but considerably less than if we picked a virgin space.
Toni had been doubtful. “Are you serious? This place looks like a dump.”
“Trust me. It’s exactly what we need. Also, it’s all we can afford.”
“If you say so. So what will we name it?” She’d followed me inside the grimy interior. “How about Chez Toni?”
“How about Chez Nicky?”
During that visit, I was already envisioning how I would rearrange the working area, where I would place the stove, the counters and the refrigerator.
“How about La Cuisine Française?” Toni had asked with an atrocious accent.
I’d laughed. “Too pompous and very unoriginal.”
She must have submitted dozens of names but every suggestion sounded too one thing or another.
“How about something sort of tongue in cheek? Like Two Fat Chefs?”
“I’m fat, Toni. You’re not.”
“I am, too,” she’d said, lifting her sweater to reveal a perfectly nice-looking midriff. “Look at those bulges. See?”
“Hmm, let me get a magnifying glass.”
“Fine,” she’d continued derisively. “If you don’t like Two Fat Chefs, how about Two Skinny Chefs?”
“It’s hardly better. I’m not skinny.”
“Okay, how about Skinny’s?” she’d asked, laughing. “That doesn’t make personal claims about anyone’s size.”
For some reason, the name appealed to me. “I think I like it. It’s unpretentious and fun. But not quite right. How about Skinny’s on Queen?” I could tell that Toni was surprised. She’d obviously suggested the name in jest.
“It’s certainly catchy,” she’d agreed, nodding pensively.
“And that way everyone will remember our location,” I pointed out.
Of course Toni took the credit for the name. “I’m so smart,” she’d proclaimed, fanning herself with a diamond-bedecked hand. She’d had her engagement ring redesigned into a right-hand ring, adding enough smaller diamonds to turn it into a real showstopper. I’d seen more than one shop girl gawk at it when Toni pulled out her credit card. Toni loved to show it off.
After getting our business license, our liquor license and running around madly for restaurant equipment and furnishings, everything had finally fallen into place. Now, exactly one year after our momentous decision, here we were—co-owners of Skinny’s on Queen.
“Hey, Earth to Nicole.” Toni was waving a hand in front of my face. “You can stop worrying now.”
“I know. Tonight will be spectacular.” For all the confidence I was trying to project, my insides were quivering like wobbly aspic.
“So, what are those deep lines on your forehead?”
Before I could think of a quick comeback, a voice called out from the dining room.
I cringed. Only one person I knew had the knack of always dropping by at the wrong moment, and the very sound of her voice was enough to set my nerves on edge. Sure enough, the door to the kitchen swung open and Kim sauntered in, arms full of flowers.
“I thought these would lend an appropriately festive air to the place. Where should I…?”
I forced a smile. “You didn’t have to do that.”
She gave me her don’t-be-silly smile. “No, but I wanted to. You wouldn’t let me do anything to help for tonight. I figured you couldn’t say no to flowers.”
“Here.” I led the way to the small preparation table in the back, the only place not covered with food. “That’s really sweet of you. Thank you. I wanted to get flowers but our poor budget is on life support.”
“Oh good, you’ve got a budget. Nice work.” Kim set the flowers on the table. “Unless you keep an eye on the bottom line, you’ll never make it. Did you know that seventy-five percent of restaurants eventually go bankrupt?”
Of course I had a budget, and of course I knew the stats about restaurant failures. I didn’t need the reminder. “You’re full of cheer,” I replied, wishing I hadn’t had to invite her, and was instantly flooded with guilt. Kim was a real estate agent whom I’d recently met at a party, and since then she’d been nothing but nice to me. Why was it that the more she did for me, the more uncomfortable she made me feel? Maybe because I’d caught her more than once eyeing Rob as if she wanted him for herself. But when I mentioned my suspicion to Rob, he’d laughed.
“Hey,” he’d said. “You’re my girl, remember?”
Maybe I was just being paranoid.
“Is there anything I can help you with in the kitchen?” she asked.
I grimaced in mock horror. “Let you cook? Are you mad? Didn’t you once tell me that you’ve never cooked a thing in your life?” I took the sauce off the stove and turned to Toni. “Kim uses her oven to store office supplies.”
“Hey, I was only joking when I said that.”
“Sure you were.”
Toni changed the subject. “I can’t find the vases. Do you remember where we put them?”
“We don’t have any.”
She looked at me as if I’d just sprouted an extra head. “What do you mean we don’t have vases? How did that happen?”
“We ran out of money after spending so much on those frivolous items—you know, like dishes, glassware, cutlery.”
“Crap, now what are we going to do?”
“Let’s see.” Kim looked around for inspiration.
By the back exit, I spotted the solution. “I know, wine bottles. There’s a bin full of empties right there.”
“Great idea.” In a couple of strides, Kim was picking through the pile of bottles. “Wow, you sure serve a lot of wine.”
“Half of those are from our late-night planning sessions,” Toni said.
“More like late-night partying,” countered Kim, laughing. “Next time, invite me. It sounds like fun.”
I gave Toni a look, mouthing, “Don’t you dare.” She nodded imperceptibly.
For the next half hour, Kim cut, trimmed and assembled until she had a dozen gorgeous flower arrangements. I had to hand it to her. The girl was good.
“Help me bring them out,” she said, already carrying two.
A few minutes later, Kim called me to come and see. I grabbed a bar towel and, wiping my hands, popped my head into the dining room.
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
“What do you think?”
“Nice. Really, really nice.”
Even now, weeks after we’d opened, I still caught my breath every time I looked at the dining room. It was spectacular. Although not large, the room had eighteen-foot ceilings, which, when we’d first found the space, had been covered with a crisscross of dusty industrial pipes.
“That’s an easy problem to fix,” I’d told a doubtful Toni. I pointed at the network of plumbing and sprinklers. “We paint the pipes and the ceiling a velvety black and camouflage the whole thing.”
I’d been right. The pipes seemed to disappear into the ceiling, which then appeared even higher. For the floor, I had chosen a black-and-white harlequin pattern of linoleum tiles.
Toni and I had decided to have seating for no more than sixteen guests—that way we’d always look full. We gathered a mishmash of tables and chairs and painted the collection a bright fuchsia. We shopped for inexpensive wrought-iron chandeliers, spray-painted them glossy black, and hung one over each table. As a final touch, we covered every inch of wall space with dozens of gold-framed mirrors, some cracked, others peeling. The dishes we assembled were a hodgepodge of secondhand porcelain, as were the crystal glasses and silver cutlery. The two of us had scoured thrift shops and garage sales for three months of Saturdays to find every piece we needed. In the end, we’d created a bright, elegant and funky decor for next to nothing. Very eclectic. Very Queen West.
Next to me, Toni was admiring the effect. “I can hardly believe what we accomplished with such a small budget. You know what I think?”
Toni gave me a high five. “I think our guests will be blown away. They’ll tell their friends, and their friends will tell their friends. Before we know it, people will be lining up to get in.”
I crossed my fingers. “From your mouth to God’s ear.” Then I asked her what I really wanted to know. “Do you think Rob will like it?”
Standing behind Toni, Kim laughed. “That’s the reason you’re so stressed out. You’re afraid Rob won’t like it.”
In the four weeks since we’d opened, I’d adamantly refused to let Rob come over. I was afraid he might label our creation tacky. When I first mentioned “Skinny’s on Queen” as the name we’d picked, he’s been less than enthusiastic.
“I don’t get it,” he’d told me at the time. “Why wouldn’t you pick a name that people will immediately associate with fine cuisine? Skinny’s on Queen sounds like a greasy spoon.”
I’d tried to explain to him that our marketing plan was to make the place unpretentious and hip in an effort to attract a younger and trendier crowd. “We don’t have the money to go high-end. We’re relying on a cool image and excellent food to keep our clients coming back.”
The way Rob had raised his eyebrows told me that I should wait until just the right time to invite him over, even if it meant creating the right time myself.
“You’re right. I don’t know why I worry. Rob’s been so excited at the thought of tonight’s party that I know he’ll be impressed,” I told her, hoping this was at least half true.
Toni’s agenda and mine were slightly different. “Don’t forget,” she reminded me, “tonight is just a rehearsal for the press party.”
Of course I cared about impressing the press. The success of our business depended on it. However, call me silly, call me hopelessly romantic, but I cared just as much about impressing Rob. After all, tonight was the night he’d pop the question. I just knew it.
cute doctors don’t like fat girls
I was in the powder room retouching my makeup and—I couldn’t help it—playing reels of Rob’s proposal in my mind. I’d been running them, one after another, since I’d overheard him on the phone a week ago. I’d already imagined everything from the over-the-top proposal in skywriting, complete with balloon launch, to the surprise ring-in-the-Champagne. My latest fantasy was this one: Rob would wait until the end of the meal, then he’d stand up and make a toast. “To Nicole, the woman who’s brought joy and happiness to my life.” Of course, everyone would get up and, when the applause quieted, he’d take my hand, look deeply in my eyes and say, “I love you, Nicole, and I would be honored if you’d be my wife.”
I savored the imaginary moment before discarding it as too corny. There was no way in hell Rob would propose that way. He was a very private person and abhorred public displays of affection. Chances were he’d just wait for everyone to leave, then he’d pop the question.
“Hey,” he’d say, “I’ve been thinking. How about we get hitched?”
Sigh. Not the most romantic proposal but, hey, as long as he asked.
I had a quick vision of my mother helping me into my wedding dress. I wished she’d lived to see the day. She would have been so happy. The thought brought tears to my eyes.
The guests were scheduled to arrive any minute. This emotional fantasizing had to stop, otherwise I’d be greeting them with red eyes and nose—not the best look for the most important night of my life. I quickly dabbed the tears away and reapplied mascara and a fresh coat of lipstick.
The door to the ladies’ room flew open and Toni popped her head in. She looked amazing. Her hair was tied back, loose strands framing her lovely face. I got a glimpse of red silk and golden shoulders. I made an immediate mental note to not stand anywhere near Toni tonight.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” she said, turned and left. The bell above the front door tinkled as people arrived. I gave my hair a quick toss and stepped into the dining room.
Before I was halfway to the door, Jake, our headwaiter, pulled me to the side. “Stay right there,” he ordered, pointing his camera at me. “Now smile.”
I stood self-consciously, holding in my stomach and smiling until the camera flashed. Then Jake hurried to the front where he took photos of the arriving guests.
“Nicky!” This cheerful greeting was from Janice Bradley, an obstetrics resident who’d been in medical school with Rob. I liked Janice. Of all Brad’s friends, she had been the first to make me feel welcome into their fold. With her was her husband Simon.
“Janice. How long has it been?” I hurried over and kissed her on both cheeks. It had been months since we’d last gotten together, which was weird because Rob and I used to see them regularly.
“Way too long. Rob’s been overwhelmed at work,” she replied, smiling. “You look wonderful.”
“And so do you.”
Janice was what most people would call waifish. She was so thin that two of her could fit inside one of my dresses. But for all her fragile appearance, the girl was tight and sinewy from years of running. Rob had once told me that she thought nothing of going for a one- or two-hour run. My idea of long-distance running was, at best, half a block to catch the streetcar. When she found the time to work out with a resident’s crazy schedule, I couldn’t imagine. Tonight, she was wearing a gorgeous blue knit dress. It was sleeveless and short enough to show her legs. Ugh. I would look awful in something like that.
I turned to Simon. “I’m so glad you could come.”
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. It’s this wife of mine who’s more difficult to pin down, but she moved her schedule around so she could make it.” He wrapped an arm around Janice, and she smiled up at him.
It warmed my heart to see those two so obviously in love.
Simon looked better than the last time I’d seen him. When Rob and I had dinner with the Bradleys six months ago, I’d been shocked at Simon’s pallor and at how much weight he’d lost. When I mentioned it to Rob on the way home that night, he’d commented that with the state of the stock market, it was a wonder Simon didn’t look worse. Well, judging by his appearance now, the market must have improved.
Toni came over for an introduction. “Toni, I want you to meet my friends Janice and Simon Bradley. Janice is a resident at St. Timothy’s, and Simon is an investment advisor.”
Toni extended her hand. “Nice to meet you. Why don’t I show you to your table?”
They followed her, and I turned to the arriving guests. Within a few minutes, a dozen people had come in and they were all speaking at once.
“Hello, hello. Kiss, kiss. Beautiful place! Congratulations! So happy for you…”
I felt a pat on my behind and nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned around, thrilled to see Rob all dressed up in a suit and wearing a grin. He handed me a bunch of flowers. “Hello there,” he said, sending my heart aflutter.
He was so handsome, he nearly took my breath away. He was tall and nicely built, his dark hair shiny, with just enough length for me to run my fingers through it. His mouth was full and his grin wicked. But his best feature was his eyes. They were deep blue and fringed with thick dark lashes. Whenever he gave me that special look, I’d crumple.
“Oh, honey. That’s so sweet.” I discreetly looked him up and down to see if I could spot a jewelry-box bulge in one of his pockets. Nothing. But that didn’t mean anything, and I kept my smile from slipping. I knew he had the ring. He’d simply left the box at home.
“Don’t mention it,” he said, leaning over and kissing my cheek. Then he stepped back and looked around. “Wow, this place looks great.” The kiss felt superficial, but I reminded myself that he was surrounded by coworkers. I imagined the kisses he’d give me later, when we were alone.
Standing next to him was Gordon Page, another resident. The place was now crawling with young doctors. He buddy-slapped Rob on the back. “You mean to say you haven’t been here before tonight?” he asked, an incredulous look on his face. “What is wrong with you, my man? If my girlfriend opened a restaurant I would have been the first one there.”
“Hey, don’t blame me. Blame her.” Rob chuckled, tilting his head toward me. “She wouldn’t let me anywhere near here until tonight.”
“That’s true.” I jumped to Rob’s defense. “I wanted tonight to be a surprise. Well, not a surprise exactly, since he knew about the dinner party, but I wanted somewhat of an unveiling.”
“All I can say is, job well done. The place looks wonderful,” Gordon said.
Behind us, more people were coming in, so Toni escorted Rob and Gordon to their appointed tables. When she rejoined me at the front, she was grinning from bejeweled ear to bejeweled ear.
“The lime curd is almost ready to pour. That just goes to show you, when life hands you lemons, just chuck them over your shoulder and use limes.” She pulled me aside and whispered, “By the way, that Gordon Page fellow was asking about Kim. I think he likes her. Do you think I should seat them together?”
“Good idea.” That would keep her out of my hair for the evening, and more important, away from Rob.
“Is she seeing anyone?” Toni asked. “There’s no point in setting her up with Gordon if she is.”
“Not so far as I know. In fact, I’ve never known her to date anyone in particular.”
“I don’t get it. She’s gorgeous. I bet men flock to her. Why isn’t she involved with someone?”
“Don’t ask me. Ask her.”
Toni shook her head. “If I had men swarming all over me, I’d be going ‘I’ll take you, and you and you.’”
“You do have men swarming all over you. As for Kim, I asked her why once, and she told me she’s looking for the perfect man,” I said.
“Don’t tell me she still believes in that myth.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There is no such thing as the right man. It’s the right relationship, and a relationship is not luck. It’s something you create.”
Every now and then, Toni came up with something completely and profoundly true, and when she did, it surprised the hell out of me.
Toni smiled at me, conspiratorially. “Let’s move Dr. Page to Kim’s table.”
I didn’t think there was much point in it, but you never knew. I scanned the room and spotted her chatting with Rob—of course.
“Go tell Dr. Page to change tables before she notices, otherwise she’ll accuse us of matchmaking.”
Toni nodded. “Good idea.” Off she went, a woman on a mission.
At last the guests were seated and dinner was about to be served. On my way back to the kitchen, I paused in the doorway to take in the packed dining room. The scene was beyond what I had imagined. Crisp white tablecloths covered every table, and Kim’s flower arrangements sat neatly on top. The lights sparkled and reflected in the dozens of mirrors covering the walls. The place looked dazzling. Jake buzzed about, refilling glasses and serving appetizers, the miniature seafood cakes from my secret recipe. If the guests liked them, I’d make them again for the press party. The background music we’d so carefully selected was almost inaudible over the hum of conversation, the laughter and the clinking of glasses. The evening was a success, a smashing success. Rob had to be thrilled. I leaned against the door frame and allowed myself to savor this moment.
Planning this party had taken me weeks of preparation. First there’d been the menu, then the invitations and the shopping, not to mention the time I’d put into perfecting each recipe. So far, everything was going well. Considering the cost of this wingding, how could it not be terrific? I pinched myself. Everything was coming up roses—ever since meeting Rob, that was.
I’d met Rob almost two years ago and we’d hit it off—he with his dark good looks and me with my extra pounds. Who’da thunk it?
I glanced across the room to where he was huddling with his coworkers. He was laughing, having a good time. My heart swelled. How’d I get so lucky?
Maybe he wouldn’t wait until the end of the meal. Maybe he’d stand up in the middle of the sole amandine and… Or better yet, maybe he’d secretly drop the ring in my glass of wine and… What if I choked? What if I teared up? I made a mental note to not go into an “ugly cry.” I got a sudden vision of a red nose and makeup running down my cheeks. Maybe it would be better if he asked me after everyone left.
It never ceased to amaze me how life continued to offer surprises. After years of heartbreaks and dozens of first dates followed by very few second dates, I’d decided that maybe I wasn’t destined to be in a relationship. I had friends. I had Jackie Chan. So I wasn’t entirely alone. I’d even convinced myself that I didn’t care if I became a crabby old maid, sitting at home, knitting outfits for Jackie. Good grief, had I really believed that?
I guess I’d preferred the idea of growing old alone to enduring another heartbreak. Being dumped never got easier. In fact, it had seemed to hurt more each time—a blow to an already bruised heart. After my last disastrous relationship, I’d had enough of men and decided that it was high time I learned to enjoy life by myself―or, to quote one of my self-help books, with myself. This had been my mindset when Toni called to fix me up with Rob. I guess she hadn’t been interested in him for herself.
“He’s a doctor, and he’s cute” was the way she’d described him, which only threw me into a greater state of insecurity. Didn’t Toni realize that cute doctors didn’t want fat girlfriends? I’d tried to bow out but Toni had insisted, and a few weeks later, I found myself sitting across from a pleasant man, sharing a bottle of chardonnay. Much to my surprise, Rob had seemed to like me as much as I liked him. Then there had been a second date, then a third.
The first time I undressed before him, I was a nervous wreck. I turned off the lights and dove under the blankets so fast he couldn’t have seen more than a blur of motion. I was convinced that he’d take one look at my doughy body and walk out. To my amazement, he hadn’t found me repelling. “I like a woman with curves,” he’d told me, caressing my body—and the way he made love to me, I’d believed him.
By God, could there really be such a man?
In the two years since, twenty more embarrassing pounds had surreptitiously crept up on me. I’d noticed lately that Rob didn’t sleep over nearly as often. But with his crazy schedule, how could I blame him? That said, he did seem less interested in lovemaking than he used to. Hmm… Nah. That was just a normal part of a long-term relationship. Still, starting tomorrow, I vowed, I’d get serious about losing weight. Yeah, right. Like I’d never made that promise before.
I was still hovering by the kitchen entrance when the door swung open and Toni stepped out. “What are you standing here for? You should be with Rob,” she prodded me. “Don’t worry about the kitchen. I hate to tell you this, kiddo, but I can pull a meal together without you. Besides, as they say, too many witches…”
“Sure. Now that everything is ready, you don’t need me anymore. Fine,” I answered, laughing. “I’m leaving.” I pulled in my stomach and walked across the room toward Rob’s table.
Along the way I stopped to chat with a few of the guests. “Hi, Susan. Hi, Brian. So glad you could come,” I told the Harrises, who were both residents at St. Timothy’s, like Rob.
“We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
“Rob and I are thrilled to have you.”
Brian chuckled. “I didn’t make the effort for Rob.” If not for the wink, I might have believed he didn’t like Rob. “I came for your cooking. Rob keeps boasting about what an amazing chef you are.”
Susan laughed. “I hope Brian won’t start expecting me to make him gourmet dinners every night.”
I leaned in and whispered loudly enough for Brian to hear. “I have a fantastic recipe for you. It’s called ‘reservations’ and it’s no trouble at all.”
Susan smiled and elbowed her husband playfully. “I like the sound of that one.”
“Hey, not fair,” Brian said. “I was hoping you’d teach her how to cook.”
Susan gave him a petulant look. “What is that supposed to mean? I thought you liked my cooking. Besides, I was hoping Nicole would teach you to cook. You need lessons more than I do.”
I made my escape while the going was good.
At the next table I recognized Harry Johnson, another of Rob’s friends. Just by looking at him, a person could tell the man was brilliant. He was slight to the point of emaciation and wore his thinning hair slicked back, and he was perpetually pushing a pair of large black glasses up his nose. He couldn’t have looked more like a nerd if he tried—funny, really. The one thing about him that always threw me was his voice. Half the time, when he called Rob at my place, I mistook him for a woman.
“Great party, Nicky,” he called out in his strangely high-pitched voice. He gave me a thumbs-up.
I smiled. “Thanks, Harry.”
A gorgeous brunette I didn’t recognize sat next to him. I gave her a smile, but she looked at me with such intense dislike that I was dumbfounded. Was I misreading her expression? I decided not to worry about it now and moved on.
I stopped by Kim’s table, where she was joined by a few of Rob’s single doctor friends and, of course, Gordon Page, whose eyes were riveted by Kim. With his muscular build and strong jaw, he and Kim would make a handsome couple. And the bonus for me was that she might be too busy to drop by all the time. I was filled with a fresh surge of guilt. I really should stop being such a bitch when it came to Kim. The real problem was probably just that I was insecure. From now on, I vowed, I would make an effort to like her.
Once everything in the kitchen was under control, Toni would join this table. “With any luck,” she’d said to me earlier, “I’ll hit it off with that cute doctor sitting across from Kim.”
I looked at him and tried to remember his name. What was it? Gerry? Barry? Wouldn’t it be scrumptious if both girls hit it off with their dinner partners tonight?
Kim was looking at me. “Nicky, these seafood cakes are to die for.”
“There are plenty more where they came from. But wait till you taste the main course.”
“I’d better not have any more of these,” she said. “I want to save room for everything else.”
Hmm, I always had room for everything else.
I helped myself to one of the seafood cakes and popped it in my mouth. Mmm. Delicious. I felt a flicker of regret. Bah, I’d be running around all night and those few calories would be burned off in no time.
I was on my way to the next table when I felt something pop. Oh, no. Don’t tell me… I was afraid to look. Sure enough, a dart had just burst open along the front of my dress. The only saving grace was that it was a dart that gathered fabric rather than one that joined two pieces. Thank goodness, or I would’ve been wearing nothing but my body suit. I made a beeline for the washroom, where I locked myself in one of the stalls and struggled out of the dress. I quickly inspected the damage and determined that maybe, just maybe, if I picked out the stitches from the opposite dart, my dress wouldn’t look lopsided.
I was still in the stall, pulling out bits of thread with my fingernails, when I heard the clickety-click of high heels on the tiled washroom floor, followed almost immediately by determined footsteps as a second person walked in.
“You have a lot of nerve showing up here tonight.”
My head snapped up. That was Janice Bradley’s voice. She sounded furious. This wasn’t like her.
“And why shouldn’t I be here?” the second voice asked.
“Listen, bitch. I know what’s going on between you and Rob, and under the circumstances you should have stayed away. This is Nicole’s evening. What are you trying to do, create a scene?”
I bit my lips to stop myself from gasping out loud. I was paralyzed, hanging on to every word.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m here as Harry’s date,” she replied, now sounding rattled.
“I’m telling you to leave Rob alone.”
“Why is it that when someone’s boyfriend is having an affair, the first person everyone blames is the woman? If there’s anyone you should be giving this speech to, it’s Rob. He’s the one doing the cheating, not me.”
“All I’m telling you is leave the man alone. Every time I see Rob at the hospital, there you are, following him around like a stalker.”
There was a short pause, then, the mystery woman said indifferently, “Hey, you’re entitled to your opinion.”
“You know as well as I do that I can make your life hell at work. I suggest you leave here right now, before I decide to do just that.”
Over the gray metal of the divider, I heard the door open and close, then silence.
My heart thumped as fast as my mind raced. I desperately wanted to believe they were talking about another Rob and Nicole, but I wasn’t stupid. I replayed the conversation in my mind and forgot I was dressless. I fumbled for the latch, pushed open the stall door and stumbled out. To my horror, standing right there and watching me from the mirror was the brunette who’d given me the cold shoulder earlier. My eyes caught our side-by-side reflections. I was a cow next to a graceful doe. To make matters worse, rolls of fat were bursting out of my bodysuit’s arm and leg holes. I was mortified, and I felt the blood rising to my face and—oh, the humiliation—tears started welling in my eyes.
The brunette looked me up and down without a shred of sympathy. “Well, what do you know? If it isn’t the party girl herself.” She dropped her brush into her bag, turned and faced me with a small, self-satisfied smile. “Nice outfit. Too bad they didn’t have it in your size.” Then she walked out.
Review Rating: 4 LIGHTNING BOLTS
Review: Humor, mystery, and a main character that's easy to relate to...that's what makes Getting Skinny a read to remember!
Nicky Landry is a character I easily liked- she's well rounded, full of good quirkiness, and a few flaws. She's got a lot going for her, and then there are a few things that she deals with where the odds seem stacked against her. I could see myself being friends with this character easily. The pacing of the story is fast, making for a page turner that's easy on the eyes and a breath of fresh air. The element of mystery kept me guessing and I had no idea who was behind things. This a great, light mystery that I was glad to have had a chance to read. Well done, and certainly will be looking for more from the author.
Monique Domovitch lives with her husband and an ever expanding family of dogs. They travel extensively and she is never seen without her laptop. When is not writing or traveling, Monique is an avid baker.
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Website 2: www.SkinnyRecipes.com
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