Bitter news leads a San Diego widow and widower to true love—and to a scheme to marry off their adult children, a plan that goes deliciously awry.
Gaetano Lorenzo was the sweetest man that the widowed Estelle Bennett had ever met. That morning began terribly, with awful news, but now the owner and head chef of a local San Diego ristorante was offering up Italian delights: red wine, delicious food, walks on the beach, laughter when she’d never thought she’d laugh again…. Estelle felt twenty-five. She and Gaetano had found the recipe for love, and a simple variation might just get their adult children to settle down, too. A scoop of sugar, two ladlefuls of lust, a pinch of deception and a whole 24 oz.-can of danger— Suddenly, ingredients were coming from everywhere! But kitchens are crazy places, and variety is the spice of life. And for anything to get cooked, things have to get hot.
Check out the first chapter!
TOO MANY COOKS
Copyright © Shirley Ann Wilder 2012
Estelle Bennett hesitated at the door. It was slightly ajar, and the doctor was on the phone. She’d obviously gotten dressed and walked over to his office faster than he’d expected.
She waited out of politeness and debated if she should knock to announce her presence; then the conversation riveted her in place and she couldn’t help but listen to every word. Dr. Robert Taylor’s voice was not its usual deep, rich baritone. Estelle had known the man for over twenty years and to her he was Dr. Bob, a friend as well as her physician. She could tell he was fighting down emotion.
“You’re absolutely sure there’s no mistake? It’s leukemia for sure? Oh boy, this is not good.”
She had come in for a follow-up appointment and to get the results of some tests the physician had taken two weeks ago. She hadn’t been sick, just tired. Estelle leaned as close to the crack in the door as she could get without bumping it open.
“She just went through an ordeal not long ago, so if you have no objections I’m not going to tell her yet. God, I feel like the grim reaper. Well, we’ll get some meds started and then I’ll break it to her. In some cases, I don’t think it’s unethical to delay delivering a death sentence.”
It took Estelle a few minutes to recover after Dr. Taylor hung up. She raised her hand and was just about to knock when he buzzed Nurse Marlow at reception.
“Betty, would you have Mrs. Bennett wait just a few minutes before bringing her to my office? I’ve just gotten some terrible news, and I need time to compose myself before I see her.”
Estelle’s heart was in her throat. Oh, God. That call was about me. I have a terrible disease. Leukemia. She felt her body go from clammy to scorching hot. The urgency to get out of there overwhelmed her. She wanted to run, to hide, to…
Dr. Bob had said he wasn’t going to tell her today? Well, too late. She already knew.
Panic commanded her feet to move, and they obeyed. She almost knocked Betty over as she bolted down the hallway, through reception, and out the front door. She heard someone calling her name but didn’t stop. She had to be alone.
She scarcely remembered getting in her car, but she must have, because she was driving down the freeway toward home. Suddenly, though, she didn’t want to go there. She took the next off-ramp and found herself in the area where her husband’s business office had been. If there was ever a time she needed a drink, it was now. But it was only a little past three in the afternoon. Still, what difference did it make if she broke her cardinal rule of no drinks before five o’clock? It had to be five somewhere on the planet.
She pulled into a small strip mall and parked her car in one of the spaces while thoughts of what might be in store for her bounced around in her head. I’ll probably have to give up driving one of these days. Hope it’s not too soon. But, why not? The sooner it comes, the sooner I’ll be reunited with Marty.
But, what about Alex? At twenty-nine, her only child was still floundering. He had no clear direction and no real commitments.
Emotion welled up so Estelle pushed it down. She had cried enough, and she certainly wasn’t going to break down in public. Leukemia. It wasn’t really an ugly name, not for such an ugly disease. It sounded more like a houseplant. Oh, look how beautiful my leukemias are! Have you ever seen such blooms?
She was dying though. From a disease that didn’t bloom, but instead drained the body of all strength and vigor.
She pulled the car key out of the ignition and then sat for a few minutes. She’d have her drink before phoning the doctor to explain her odd behavior. He’d said he was going to start some meds. They’d probably have instructions stating, “Do not drink alcohol or operate machinery.” She’d always been a stickler for rules, but since she hadn’t taken the medicine yet, this could be her last drink—or two.
Estelle got out of the car, set the alarm, and walked to the entrance of Gaetano’s Ristorante. She’d been by the small Italian restaurant a million times. She and Marty had intended to go there for dinner but never had; it had been the wrong time or he was held up at the office or it had been one of a thousand other excuses for not doing all the things they’d said they would do one day and never did. Typical.
The minute the door closed behind her, scents of basil and garlic bread mixed with the heavy aroma of pasta sauces and cheese, tantalizing her taste buds. Skipping lunch hadn’t been a good idea, and now her mouth watered while involuntary growls escaped her stomach. How could she eat after learning that she had so little time left on earth? But if she didn’t eat, the glass of wine—or two—would go straight to her head.
She chose a small booth barely large enough for two, but she wasn’t a part of a couple anymore so she had plenty of space. Scooting into the seat, she smoothed her skirt over her legs. She’d worked hard at keeping her figure. She’d kept it all right, but for what? For whom? Well, there had been plenty of interest from men, but many of them were her friends’ husbands. She’d never felt comfortable around those particular couples afterward. Did the wives know?
Think of this in a positive way, she commanded herself. At least I’ve been put on notice and can get things in order. How many people get that chance?
She didn’t know exactly what the treatment would be, but she’d already decided that she would save Alex the agony of watching the day-by-day dying again. They’d both watched Marty struggle for life. The procedures had been painful, but he’d fought like a tiger. The end had come well over a year ago though…and yet, when she let herself go there, it still hurt.
It bothered her that Dr. Bob couldn’t tell her the truth about her condition. Did he think she wasn’t woman enough to take it? True, she’d been to hell and back during Marty’s illness, so it was logical that their old friend would want to protect her. Marty’s death had been hard for him too. They’d been golfing buddies for years. Maybe this was his way of dealing with it.
When Alex finds out, he’ll want to hover over me, she realized. I wonder if Dr. Bob will tell him before he tells me. Could he do that? There had to be some ethical rule stating that the patient is always told first. Wasn’t there?
She tried to remember if she’d been the first to know about Marty or if the news was given to them both at the same time. Marty’s illness had been such a shock. She’d been in a fog for weeks before she came to grips with it, and there were still time segments that remained blocked from her memory.
That made up her mind: She was going to keep her condition a secret for as long as she could. When the effects of the illness became obvious, then she would tell Alex. There was no point in burdening him with this so soon after his father’s death.
Of course, she wouldn’t wait too long, but she needed to get a few specific things in order. Would he want to move into her place? His townhouse was nice but not as large as her house. On the other hand, he’d been away from home a lot and the upkeep of a home the size of hers took considerable attention.
In spite of herself, she felt a lump settle in her throat. The inside of her nose began to burn just like it always did when tears couldn’t be held back, so she reached for the bright red napkin on the table in front of her. It had been folded in an intricate manner so that it stood at attention.
A white apron with tomato splotches appeared at her side, and Estelle flinched.
“I’m sorry,” a rich, deep voice said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. May I get you something? Iced tea, coffee?”
Estelle dabbed at her eyes, then turned to the man wearing the apron. He was fairly tall, and he had beautiful dark hair accented with silver. His deep brown gaze met hers, and she couldn’t remember when she’d ever seen such soulful eyes. His face held concern.
“I could also offer you a glass of wine, if you’d prefer. A nice Chianti? Or something white?”
“Yes, that would be wonderful.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve had quite a day and my head isn’t screwed on right I’m afraid. A Chianti will be fine.” She needed something heartier than a white to bolster her courage.
The man didn’t move. When she looked up he averted his gaze then peered at her with worry in his eyes. When he spoke Estelle detected a slight accent.
“Excuse me, I don’t mean to intrude, but…” He flushed. “Never mind. I’ll be right back with your wine.”
Gaetano Lorenzo hurried to the bar and filled one clear glass with his very best Chianti instead of the house brand. This was what his daughter always complained about, really. She said he let his heart rule his head and thus gave away the profits. But, what was wrong with being concerned? That poor lady back there was obviously in some kind of distress. He couldn’t help it if he was just naturally curious about people. His restaurant had been the meeting place for many lost souls, and he liked to think he’d helped many of them find each other. He’d made them all a little happier. Too bad he couldn’t work the same magic on his daughter. At the rate she was going, he’d be an old man before he got to bounce a grandbaby on his knee.
Young women today. They wanted the big career and waited for marriage until they were almost too old to have babies. Even if Gina fell in love, it could take years before she settled down to matrimony and motherhood. Gaetano wanted that to happen sooner than later. Mama mia, it was so much easier in the old country. The parents arranged everything, and everyone was happy. Here in America, his daughter Gina couldn’t even cook! Rosie was surely rolling in her grave.
He took the wine back to the table and set it down in front of the woman. She wasn’t wearing a wedding band. Not that it was any of his concern, of course, because he certainly never intended to remarry; this was just more of his curiosity. And there was nothing wrong with playing cupid or being interested in people, no matter what Gina said. Rosie had always been a people person too. They’d made quite a team.
Gaetano was so wrapped up in his thoughts he barely heard what the woman said.
“Sir? A menu, please.”
“Oh, forgive me. Yes, of course.” He fought back embarrassment. She must think I’m crazy—or worse yet, incompetent.
He sprinted to the back of the room, took a menu from the stack on the counter, and returned with a smile as he handed it over. At the same moment, his first dinner waitress came through the door.
Good, he thought. Debbie could take over. For some reason this sad lady was making him uneasy. He excused himself and retreated to the kitchen.
Estelle pondered the menu. It had been a while since she’d had any real appetite, but just reading about these entrées stirred her taste buds. She took a sip of wine then upended the glass and swallowed the contents in one gulp.
“Did you decide what you’d like?”
The little blonde waitress who’d come to take her order was so perky and cheerful that it was all Estelle could do not to strangle her. Instead, she smiled. “I haven’t quite made up my mind. How about bringing me another Chianti?”
“Sure.” The young woman took her empty glass.
Estelle looked around at the interior of the restaurant and admired the fact that real plants and not plastic ones adorned the window boxes. The tables were covered with red checkered cloths, and each featured a live centerpiece: a bright red carnation in a bud vase. Before she’d finished her assessment of the room, a full glass of wine appeared. Well, she grudgingly admitted, the service was good. That was important. When you didn’t have a lot of time, you needed things done in a hurry. Or, should a person take more time to savor each moment?
From speakers she hadn’t quite located, Placido Domingo’s beautiful tenor voice filled the room. Estelle listened in silence. Ah, yes, it was his solo from…what? Suddenly she couldn’t remember. That must be part of the illness. Loss of memory…and then how much time to the end?
Damn it! It wasn’t fair. She didn’t deserve this. All her life she’d followed the rules, and in the end none of that mattered. Because the end came, like it or not.
She turned in her seat to get the waitress’s attention; she had to go home and get started on her plans. Forget dinner.
“Where is that girl?” she muttered.
“Your waitress is seating some customers, but I took it upon myself to make some selections for you.”
The voice surprised her, but not as much as the fact that the man who’d seated her was now standing at her table with a fully loaded tray over his head. He lowered the tray and began placing dishes on the table.
“First, a little appetizer. Then salad. Then the entrée, it is one of my masterpieces. Chicken Marsala. And a fresh bottle of wine.”
Estelle was speechless and then shocked as the gentleman sat down opposite her. He’d lost the apron, but his eyes were still soulful and staring straight into her.
“Aren’t you the chef?” she asked. “When I saw you earlier you were wearing an apron. I just assumed…”
“You were correct. I am one of the chefs.”
“Can you leave the kitchen like this?”
“Ah, but I am also the owner. Gaetano Lorenzo.” He leaned forward and pressed his lips to her fingertips, his eyes twinkling with mischief. She offered her hand in return to his greeting.
“I called in another chef,” he admitted, “so now I can have dinner with you.”
Once more Estelle was at a loss for words. She looked around to see who’d witnessed this act of…whatever it was, and she saw that the restaurant had begun to fill up. There was no longer just the one waitress but several, and all of them looked busy. The shades at the windows were lowered, and candles were lighted at each table. She must have zoned out listening to the opera.
“I l-like your music,” she stammered, hoping she didn’t sound as dumb as she felt.
“I’m glad. This selection is Placido Domingo’s aria from La Traviata. Not everyone cares for classical. I think opera is something you must develop a love for.”
“Oh, yes, I believe that too. My late husband never took the time. After going alone so often when he couldn’t get away I finally let my season tickets lapse.”
“What a shame. The opera was my wife’s passion, but we also got too busy. We spent so many years getting the restaurant going… Ah, you know how it is.”
“Does your wife help out now?”
The minute the words were out of her mouth Estelle instinctively knew she’d put her foot in it. Gaetano’s face fell.
“Oh, no. Like you, I am alone. I keep busy—” The man stopped abruptly. He waved his arms in the air and unfurled his napkin. “What are we doing? Our food is getting cold. Eat. Eat!” he scolded.
Estelle smiled and picked up her fork. She couldn’t recall when she had such a handsome dinner partner. She squeezed her eyes and blinked, keeping tears at bay while she tried to eat. She didn’t have much time left to enjoy meals with anyone, especially someone as nice as this.
A short time later she was saying, “That was absolutely delicious, Gaetano, I can’t believe I ate so much!” She really couldn’t.
“What are you saying? You eat like a bird.”
“Yeah, a big bird. I haven’t had much of an appetite for a while. It’s no fun cooking for one.”
“I suppose not. But don’t you have any family who visit you?” He seemed genuinely
“I have a son, but I don’t want him to feel he has to look after me. Although, he does enjoy a good meal. Here, let me show you his picture.”
The restaurateur pulled his wallet out of his hip pocket. “I also have just one child. Let me show you my Gina.”
Estelle continued to flip through her bag, finally coming up with a small leather photo case. “This is Alex. He’s twenty-nine and still running around the world taking pictures.”
“Your son is a photographer?”
“Yes, I guess he makes a fair living with the magazine he works for, but it’s time he settled down and got a real job. Stayed in one place. Got married and had a family.”
“Ah, I know exactly what you mean,” Gaetano said. “My Gina is big-shot attorney, but she’s never home either. I spend all my time talking to her answering machine.”
They exchanged snapshots.
“Oh, my. Your daughter is very pretty,” Estelle realized. It made her think of something else. “Can she cook as well as you?”
The restaurant owner stared intently at the photo of Alex, perhaps seeing a perfect candidate for the beautiful Gina as Estelle had done with Gaetano’s daughter for her son. He must have realized that her question was still hanging in mid-air, however, as he spoke in a rush.
“Cook? Gina?” He laughed. Looking once more at the glossy print, he seemed wistful. Maybe he was imagining a little boy or girl with Gina’s dark hair and Alex’s green eyes and dimpled chin. That’s what Estelle was doing. But handing back the photo Gaetano shook his head. “Oh, sure, she can cook up a storm, but she has so little time.”
“I think that’s the way it is with young people—always rushing,” Estelle agreed. A big sigh escaped her lips. “I worry that he doesn’t eat properly. He, unlike your daughter, can’t even boil water.”
Gaetano made a strange face. As if eager to change the subject, he nodded toward Estelle’s photo and said, “I think he has your eyes, and maybe your smile?” He handed it back to her.
“Perhaps. I just wish I could be around when he finally settles down. That’s not going to happen.”
Gaetano seemed amused. “What are you talking about? He’s not that old. He will find some lovely lady and pop the question, and you’ll be a grand-mama before you know it.”
Estelle could no longer hold it in; the tears she’d swallowed came rushing back in a deluge.
That passion for horses carried over into her adult life and with her husband and four children, raised Quarter Horses and German Shepherds. Shirley’s other passion was writing, but it was put on hold until the three sons and one daughter were in high school.
After developing a severe allergy to the equine species and having to give up the major part of horse involvement, Shirley wrote a weekly column for a community newspaper and a monthly column entitled “On the Wilder Side” for the California Horseman’s News in the which she recounted the humorous episodes that happened during the Wilder Family’s horse era. Shirley also published in college literary magazines, but her real quest was to write novels.
After taking numerous writing classes and amassing many unfinished manuscripts, one of her writing instructors suggested she join Romance Writers of America. Taking that advice she also joined the local San Diego RWA chapter has since completed six novels. She served on the Executive Board as Co-President of RWA- San Diego for 2006 and 2007 and held several other chair positions. She credits her fellow writers for the support and encouragement that has kept her writing during recent difficult times.
Shirley Ann was widowed in January of 2008 when her husband died of stage four colon cancer after battling it bravely for three years and four months. Three of her grown children live near her in suburbs of San Diego and one son lives in Kentucky. They have blessed her with four granddaughters and one grandson.
Since her husband’s death, Shirley has become an advocate for colonoscopies and is currently working on a non-fiction book about the grieving process and all one encounters when suffering the loss of a mate. “John was my hero and I will miss him forever, but he always encouraged me to keep writing and to stay strong.”
Shirley Ann Wilder Online: