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Simon Says
Simon Says
Simon Says
Ebook441 pages6 hours

Simon Says

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About this ebook

Haldemanns don't cheat, get divorced, or break promises. So Markus Haldemann isn't worried that ex-girlfriend Luci's best friend Simon–Markus's cousin–will take his place, because Simon promised he wouldn't.

When Luci Clark realizes Simon's a very desirable man, she really doesn't care what Markus wants. To Simon, Luci is everything...but is she worth the risk of compromising his own integrity?

Release dateFeb 28, 2018
Simon Says
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Sharon Gerlach

Sharon Gerlach was in training to be a ninja, but a dismaying lack of physical grace and balance—not to mention the inability to keep her big mouth shut—ended her ninja career before it really began. Now she writes. She doesn’t write about ninjas because that’s obviously a sore subject. But she writes about other really cool things and figures someone else will cover the ninjas. Life’s really not all about ninjas, anyway. Sharon lives on the dry side of the Pacific Northwest with her husband (who must really be fond of her as he hasn’t left her yet despite her ninja failings); her kids and grandkids (none of whom possess ninja qualities either); and two cats. Yes, you guessed it—ninja cats!

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    Book preview

    Simon Says - Sharon Gerlach

    Chapter Three

    Chapter Four

    Chapter Five

    Chapter Six

    Chapter Seven

    Part Two

    Chapter Eight

    Chapter Nine

    Chapter Ten

    Chapter Eleven

    Chapter Twelve

    Chapter Thirteen

    Chapter Fourteen

    Chapter Fifteen

    Chapter Sixteen

    Chapter Seventeen

    Chapter Eighteen

    Part Three

    Chapter Nineteen

    Chapter Twenty

    Chapter Twenty-One

    Chapter Twenty-Two

    Chapter Twenty-Three

    Chapter Twenty-Four

    Chapter Twenty-Five

    Chapter Twenty-Six

    Chapter Twenty-Seven

    Chapter Twenty-Eight

    Part Four

    Chapter Twenty-Nine

    Chapter Thirty

    Chapter Thirty-One

    Chapter Thirty-Two

    Chapter Thirty-Three

    Chapter Thirty-Four

    Chapter Thirty-Five


    Family Tree

    German Glossary


    Burning Books

    Harper & Lyttle Series

    Office Politics

    The Secret Dreams of Sarah-Jane Quinn

    Blackberry House Series

    Where I Belong

    The Devil's Mansion Series

    Malakh (novella)

    The Wyckham House


    The Revenant Chronicles

    Blink of an Eye

    Revenant (coming in 2018)

    A Running Ink Press Novel

    This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

    All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

    Running Ink Press

    1419 N Lee St

    Spokane WA  99202


    Character-driven fiction. Because characters matter.

    Simon Says

    Copyright 2018 Sharon Gerlach

    ISBN-13: 9781370162857

    Cover image Copyright 2016 by PeopleImages (kissing couple). Used by permission.

    Cover image Copyright 2014 by Pixabay (mountain cabin). Creative Commons licensing.

    Blackberry sprig clipart #2834942 from clipart-library.com. Creative Commons licensing.

    Leaf flourish divider # 1320171 fromclipat-library.com. Creative Commons licensing.

    Cover design by Joshua Gerlach, Gerlach Graphics


    I have a wonderful fan base, and I love and appreciate each and every one of them. They aren’t afraid to poke and prod me, or reach out to connect with me. Folks, I’m just a financial aid specialist by day who manages to eke out some coherent words at night. I’m very approachable. No guards at the tower, no personal assistants – when you comment on my fan page, it’s really me who’s answering.

    There are six fans I would like to thank in particular, who are always there cheering me on, encouraging me, pushing me: Debbie W., Renee L., Sharon B. (you are delightfully feisty and never let me slack off), Lisa S., Kelly P., and Nele L. (who has her very own Gus Checklist that a man must meet before she’ll date him).

    You ladies are, quite simply, the best. And when I open up my fan page and see I have a message from any of you, it just makes my day. The joy you take in reading my scribbles is more than half the reason I keep scribbling. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

    Part One – Present Day

    In retrospect, Lucia Clark shouldn’t have been surprised by all that had happened, because she did not lead a charmed life. In fact, it was probably safe to say she’d been cursed to run a never-ending obstacle course that most other people called Life. Nothing came easy. Not. One. Thing.

    And it didn’t matter that the all she was referring to was safely in the past, or that at long last her love life was smooth sailing, because in the here and now, she couldn’t balance the business account, and she’d eat a silica sandwich followed by a seawater chaser before she asked her adoptive uncle Dietrich—the family accountant—to find a lousy dollar and some change.

    A knock on her office door brought her head up, and only then did she notice the stiffness in her neck that sent shooting pain up through the back of her head. How long had she been sitting here, lost in the memories of the past, both horrifically painful and wildly exhilarating while she was supposed to be balancing the account?

    Too long, apparently, for someone had missed her presence. She gave the knocker permission to enter. As the door swung open, the heavenly aroma of steak sizzling on hot iron billowed in, making her taste buds perk up hopefully.

    Sorry to bother you, Chef. Your husband’s here.

    Did he pronounce my name correctly today, Bryleigh?

    Her hostess aka best girlfriend grinned mischievously as only redheads seemed to manage. He said it only stands to reason that if your nicknames are Luce and Luci—she pronounced them Loose and LOOsey—"that your name should be pronounced LooSEEuh."

    Luci picked up her pen and pretended to go back to the reports on her desk. Tell him I’m sorry I married him.

    Bryleigh Branson dropped all formality. "He said you’d say that. So he said to tell you to—and I quote—get yo ass out here, looCHEEuh, because he’s spent half his life waiting on women, and he’s done with their nonsense."

    Snorting, Luci struggled out of her chair, her hand resting on her six-months-pregnant belly. Fine time he picked to be done with my nonsense, what with Daughter Number Two on the way.

    Bryleigh made a face. Should you really be calling her Daughter Number Two? You know what’s going to happen if you keep that up: she’s going to develop a complex, because all the other kids will then start calling her Poopy Daughter. Poopy Girl. Poopyhead.

    Do you lie awake at night, thinking up these things?

    The curse of an insomniac.

    You’re not an insomniac. Remember, I shared a house with you for the better part of a year. You could sleep away eighteen of twenty-four hours in a heartbeat.

    Maybe I developed insomnia after you moved out. Luci scoffed, and Bryleigh sent her a sly, sidelong look. Or maybe it’s a recent development.

    Luci barked out a laugh, and then stopped suddenly. Really? Who is he? Where did you meet him? Details. She parked one butt cheek on the corner of the desk to take some of the weight off her feet.

    No way, José. Your fine young man out there—and there’s all kinds of fine going on with that one—said I wasn’t to distract you with—

    Nonsense, Luci finished. Yeah, yeah. Spill the beans.

    Bryleigh sobered a little. I wouldn’t keep him waiting, Luce. A man as good as . . . as . . .

    Luci waited, watching her friend fish for the name. After a painful moment, it became clear that the name wasn’t going to surface. She didn’t provide it; filling in the blanks made Bryleigh feel impaired, and regardless of the fact that she was impaired—a fence post to the head three years before Luci met her had ensured that her brain would always be a bit scrambled—her friend insisted that she was perfectly fine.

    It’ll come. That’s only three times this week you forgot his name.

    Bryleigh said, a bit dryly, It’s only Tuesday. Do you ever forget his name?

    Only when he pisses me off. Which, luckily, is rare.

    Luci stiffened as a piercing whistle rent the air, rising above the clatter of the commercial kitchen.

    I’m going to ban him from my restaurant if he keeps doing that. Tell me about this guy who’s keeping you up at nights.

    "No. Your guy was very emphatic about this, too. He said there’d be none of that Like that time when going on back here, because you have reservations."

    Of course I don’t! Luci exclaimed, affronted. I’m as sure about him today as I was the day I married him.

    "Dinner reservations, Bryleigh stressed. Besides, with this guy, it’s not like . . . we’re not  . . . I just like him, that’s all. And he seems to like me. And he keeps his hands to himself."

    Which suited Luci just fine; she hated men who tried to take advantage of her friend, thinking she was easy prey because of her memory problems.

    What’s his name?

    Don’t forget about your husband.

    Luci settled more firmly on the corner of the desk. Name.

    "His name’s Kris.

    What’s he do? For a living, I mean.

    He’s in the hospitality industry.

    A niggling suspicion made Luci narrow her eyes. No. Oooooh, no. Kristof is a player. And he may be mighty fine to look at, but he will break your heart without blinking an eye.

    It’s just hormones, Bryleigh said weakly, trying to brush it off as unimportant.

    Bry, no. He isn’t like that guy who tried to pass himself off as a ladies man, when really he went through girls on account of his obnoxious personality driving them away. Kris is the real thing. No strings, no commitments, no clinging, no engagement rings or wedding bells or babies.

    How much of this is about Kris, and how much is about his brother?

    Luci’s mouth tightened. Kristof was a Haldemann—her other adoptive uncle-slash-mentor’s second son—and Luci had spent three years living with his brother, Markus. Until the night she wasn’t, just like that.

    How did you run across Kris? Luci was aware they knew each other in passing, as Bryleigh was a frequent guest at the Haldemann holdings, where Luci had spent three years of her life. The stages of your life come in threes. Ever notice that before, Luce? She hadn’t, and it wasn’t important. What was important was that her best girlfriend keep clear of Luci’s lothario cousin-by-adoption.

    His date was seriously late. Like that time when. . .

    Markus was more than an hour late.

    Or perhaps he’d forgotten.

    Possibly he’d remembered but decided not to show up, figuring Luci would cancel anyway.

    To be fair, she’d worked long hours at an all-night restaurant on top of going to school, picking up extra shifts and filling in wherever she was needed in an effort to garner a recommendation to apprentice at Haviland’s, one of Portland’s finest dining establishments, that for the last nearly three years it seemed as though Markus lived alone. Or so he said.

    She’d won the apprenticeship, but she suspected it had come at the cost of her relationship with Markus.

    Meanwhile, Markus drifted from job to job, never satisfied, until he’d finally left the chef scene altogether and took a job at Best Buy. He’d packed away his chef’s knives, and the last time she’d mentioned traveling the world and eventually retiring to Blackberry House, the family’s bed-and-breakfast in Grants Pass, he’d snapped, Maybe I don’t care about seeing the world. And maybe I don’t want to live on the mountain, Luce.

    Fair enough. She was well aware that they’d out-stayed his tolerance for Portland, too; despite living here until he was sixteen, he had no real affection for the city of his birth. And Portland hadn’t been part of his life plan. When they finished college, he had wanted to head to southern California. When she learned she had been chosen to apprentice at Haviland’s, she’d begged for a year to finish her apprenticeship. He’d reluctantly agreed. Three more months, and she’d be done . . . and then the looming, anxiety-inducing threat of San Diego would become a reality.

    Her heart was already twisting at the thought of living so far away from the inn for the rest of her life. Part of her would do it in a heartbeat, the part that would do just about anything for Markus Haldemann. A larger part of her seethed in silent fury that, once again, someone else’s demands and desires were considered more important than her own. Often it seemed that in spite of all his wonderful Haldemann qualities, at his core he was really cast from the same mold as her mother: needy, self-absorbed, and perfectly willing to watch her sacrifice for his benefit everything she’d worked so hard to achieve.

    She wasn’t a violent person, but at the present moment, the urge to hit something caused her fingers to curl painfully around her chopsticks. Her slinky black dress and heels fairly shouted Date night! and the empty chair across from her testified to anyone who cared to look that she’d been stood up. And people were looking. The way she stabbed her chopsticks angrily at her plate made most of the gawkers look away quickly, but not before she caught their pitying expressions. Oh look at the poor, pretty girl, all dressed up for her own public humiliation.

    Sometimes she hated him as much as she loved him.

    She had waited at their favorite sushi bar long past decency before ordering for herself, deflecting her server’s On your own tonight? with a shrug and a vague comment about his not being able to make it. Because if he was already forty minutes late, he wasn’t coming. It happened with increasing frequency, his standing her up. She’d suspect another woman if it weren’t for that delightfully old-fashioned code of honor that seemed to render Haldemann men incapable of cheating.

    No, this was worse than another woman. This was a relationship crisis of epic proportions, a developing explosion of life as she knew it. Because she was so entwined with his family—his uncle being her adoptive father—it would affect everyone in the family if they split up.

    As she nibbled on her jumping spider roll, she reflected how regret wasn’t so much an emotion one felt as it was an entity living in the spaces between people, darkening every thought and word until all in its shadow withered and wasted away.

    Markus was clearly experiencing regret. She didn't know how she knew it; she just did. Regret that he’d followed her to Shasta College in Redding, California. Regret that he’d followed her back to Oregon for her apprenticeship at Haviland’s. Regret, perhaps, that he’d become involved with her to begin with, despite the early promise of their relationship.

    Simon said Markus was just being a whiny jerk because he didn’t always get his way. She didn’t know if that was the cousin in him speaking, or if he was just trying to make her feel better because that’s what best friends were supposed to do. Luci sensed the problem went deeper than Markus not being the king of everything. He had been distancing himself for months now, probably thinking it would limit the damage to her heart. But the biggest lie about love was that a broken heart could be mended, that the shattered bits could be swept up, pieced together, and stitched whole – or, at least, mostly whole.

    The truth was that the shards would lie forever where they fell, trampled by unexpected encounters, careless words, the very act of moving on. No one would speak of the mess underfoot; it would simply be ignored as he pretended to go about his life and she pretended to go about hers, like living in opposite corners of a house destroyed by fire.

    Luci’s proverbial house was blazing. Through the haze of smoke, she could see Markus packing his emotional baggage to move into his designated charred corner. He still went through the motions of staying – paying bills and making plans – but his heart turned inward and he displayed all the signs of entertaining the prospect of a different life separate from hers, where it would be easier to ignore the shattered fragments of love at his feet, a gift of inestimable worth that had been carelessly used, ineptly guarded, and insufficiently valued by them both. No need for sirens or firetrucks; they could not be saved. When the flames died out, they would each retreat to a smoky alcove and pretend that their burns were not mortal, because that was the way relationships ended: in smoke and fire and denial.

    She called for an Uber while she sipped the last of her green tea, which would elicit another lecture from Simon should he ever find out. Simon said taking rides from strangers was dangerous, regardless of what company they worked for. He was even reluctant about taking taxis. But Simon had left hours ago, heading home to Talent where he was building a cabin in the woods located a sanity-saving distance from his parents’ place in Ashland. Besides, she had a sweet little .38 (and the concealed carry permit to wield it) that should back off all but the most determined aggressors. For those, she had private training and years of practice to drop ‘em where they stood.

    Her driver was a perky young woman in a new Ford Fit who chattered incessantly despite Luci taking the back seat in hopes she would be left in peace. The girl’s friendly chatter backed off the worst of her anger with and anxiety over Markus, though, and in the few breaks in conversation, Luci amused herself with what Simon’s reaction would be to her current means of transportation. If you see a Ford on the road, he always quipped, look behind it to see how many people are pushing it.

    But the Ford stayed faithful, darting through traffic and down side streets Luci wouldn’t have thought to take herself, every turn and intersection punctuated with an oddball remark or story from her driver. Luci’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She ignored it, bracing herself as the driver stamped on the brakes.

    "Oh my God, you can’t just pull out in front of me like that! Especially with your dog in the car. The good-natured exclamation was followed with, Did I ever tell you that I once saw some guy driving down the road with a squirrel running around in the back of the car?"

    Nonplused, Luci said, I don’t think we’ve met before.

    I wasn’t sure if I’d mentioned it on this ride. Memory problems. I got whacked in the head with a metal fencepost three years ago—careless accident, not domestic violence. Oh, look! The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! And she pointed off to the right where, indeed, a giant inflatable pot of gold sprouting streamers of plastic gold coins crouched at the end of a puffy rubber rainbow. Christmas was one thing, but decorating the yard for St. Patrick’s Day just seemed obscene.

    And then there was the time that couple called me for a ride to the hospital. She was in labor. Or so they said. I broke at least four traffic laws and ran two red lights – don’t tell Uber – to get them there as fast and safely as I could. And then when they got out of my car, she pulls this fake pregnancy belly out from under her shirt and they start laughing. They just wanted to see how fast Uber could get someone to the hospital. She shook her head in disgust, then smiled impishly over her shoulder. I made them call for another driver to get them home.

    The stories came ceaselessly until her driver pulled into Luci’s apartment complex. Luci guided her to the right building, noticing only as she was about to climb out that most of her tension had fled, chased off by her quirky traveling companion. She paused, not certain how to put her gratitude into words. Listen, you have no idea how absolutely shitty the last six months have been and how this is the first time I’ve relaxed in what seems like forever. Or perhaps simple and to the point would be better: You made me feel better. So thanks. More than I can say.

    Her driver beat her to it, half turning in her seat to give Luci an unexpectedly x-ray scrutiny. I was about to sign out tonight when your request came in. I don’t know why, but I just felt like I had to take it. It’s a redhead thing, I think.

    Luci would have to take her word that she was a redhead, as her hair was tucked up inside a winter hat.

    I don’t know what you’re going through, but you were wound tighter than a Swiss watch when you got in my car. Better now, though, yeah?

    Luci smiled, relieved that she didn’t have to explain. Much better. Thank—

    Kick him to the curb, her redheaded chatterbox interrupted solemnly. Amicably, bitterly, coldly, however it takes. It’s over, and you know it.

    Cold chills rippled over her skin. Her dad’s wife Sarah was like this sometimes, spouting off things she shouldn’t know but somehow did.

    And then her driver grinned, showing deep dimples in her cheeks. The streetlight gave her face an almost ghostly glow, making her freckles stand out like dark polka dots. Redhead indeed.

    Gotcha. The look on your face . . .  It was a good guess, though, wasn’t it? It seems like it’s always a man at the root of a woman’s problems.

    He stood me up, Luci blurted. We live together, and he stood me up. I don’t know what he thought was going to happen when I got home.

    Well, you don’t look particularly cowardly, so go on up and find out. Now is always better than later.

    Listen, thanks. I . . .  She what? She’d been floundering in misery so long that she hadn’t even known how close she was to drowning in it? She’d denied the true state of her relationship for so long that it had taken a complete stranger to illuminate it?

    Her driver’s smile twisted a bit. No thanks needed. Been there myself.

    A gust of wind threw raindrops down the back of Luci’s coat as she hurried from the car and into the apartment building’s main entrance. Their unit was four floors up and she didn't feel like taking the stairs after being on her feet all day. The elevator let her out just as the door to the outside stairs closed behind another tenant. A thud and a muffled curse from that direction indicated whoever had gone out had just bit it on the rain-slick stairs, but she didn’t go to help. If he could swear, he was all right. She didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now, not as she was bracing herself to hash it out with Markus. The problem with that, however, was that Markus didn’t fight. He didn’t rise to any of her baiting remarks. He simply clammed up and turned inward.

    She paused as she slotted her key into the lock, straightened her shoulders, and let out a deep breath. Coming at him with anger was likely to shut him down immediately. So this time, she’d just ignore the fact that he’d stood her up and wait for him to bring it up.

    Turn the key, push open the door, and clamp your lips shut. Easy peasy. Easy as pie. Easy as one, two – what the hell?

    They didn’t have much, so it was easy to tell that things were missing. Things like his favorite chair and the torchiere lamp. That hideous modern art painting he’d bought in Ashland because he’d gone to school with the artist. The coffee table his cousin Simon had made out of reclaimed wood from their grandparents’ old barn.

    Oh, God – they’d been burgled.

    Footsteps pounding down the hallway outside reminded her that she’d left the apartment door open behind her. She spun around just as Simon skidded to a stop outside and braced himself against the door jamb, sucking in air like he’d just run a marathon. A raw spot on his chin blazed crimson.

    Gone, he gasped, holding a stitch in his side. He’s gone.

    Gone where? As if it weren’t bad enough to stand her up, he couldn’t even bother to be here when she got home? What happened to your chin? And what are you still doing here? I thought you left for home hours ago.

    Fell on the outside stairs. I forgot my sketchbook and had to come back, and found . . .  He broke off and palmed the light switch, turning on the overhead fixture Luci hated. He left, Luce. Packed up and left. I tried to call you, but you didn’t answer. Then I tried to catch you before you came in, prepare you, but you took the elevator.

    And now the missing items made sense. His chair and his lamp and his painting. Through her haze of shock, she scanned the small apartment, looking for other items Markus had taken. The key rack that had hung just inside the door was gone. The blown glass dish that usually held fruit on their tiny dining room table was missing, too. One of a pair of graceful herons carved from butternut that they’d picked up at an art show somewhere in the Rogue Valley. Her gaze fell upon the steel rack in the kitchen where her cast iron cookware resided. Empty. Her blood boiled instantly.

    He took the cast iron.

    Simon straightened, his breath regained, and came a few steps closer. Not too close, though, because growing up in a family with nearly a dozen female cousins and a sister, he knew better than to get within reach of an angry female.

    "Luci . . . Markus left. For good."

    "I know, Simon, but he took my cast iron!"

    Now she wept. Not because Markus had left her, because she’d been expecting it. Not because they’d failed, because no one could ever say they hadn’t tried hard enough or long enough. She cried because he’d left secretly, stealing away like a thief with no regard to her dignity or respect for the years they’d spent together.

    And because he’d taken her goddamn cast iron.

    Her first visit home to Blackberry House after the break-up fell on Easter weekend. She dreaded going despite Simon’s constant assurances that no one in the family had heard from Markus since a couple days after he’d moved out, so he hadn’t aired his side first. Perhaps Simon thought that made her feel better, and on one level it did. On another, however, it presented larger, more immediate problems, such as Markus’s siblings and how they were likely to react to her breakup with their revered older brother.

    Theirs hadn’t been the reactions she most feared, though. She passed the Great Room, sparsely populated due to the early morning hour, and dropped her weekend bag at the check-in desk with barely an acknowledgement for Kristof, Markus’s younger brother, who manned the desk.

    Is your dad here?

    Kristof swung the bag off the counter and shot a look down the hall. Kitchen.

    She squared her shoulders and started for the kitchen.

    Luce? I’m putting you in the Sunrise Room. I’ll take your bag up and bring your key to dinner at Gram and Gramps’.

    Thanks, Kris.

    I’ll kick his ass for you when we find him.

    That was surprising. Josef’s second son had always been close to his older brother. She hadn’t expected him to take her side. She had hoped none of them would takes sides at all.

    Thanks, but I don’t think that will help matters.

    Just say the word.

    Luci hurried away before she could take him up on his offer.

    No other encounters delayed her progress to the kitchen. She paused on the threshold, steeling herself to face her mentor. She valued his esteem more than that of any other person on the planet, save Gus and Sarah. That she might have fallen into disfavor with him caused a shriveling dread in the pit of her stomach.

    Joe’s not mad at you, Gus had insisted when he and Sarah came shortly after Markus left, bringing some spare furniture Simon had scrounged from his endless network of acquaintances. He knows his son.

    They’d taken her to dinner, studiously avoiding the subject of Markus, and other than Simon they’d been the only Haldemanns she’d seen since early April.

    Josef stood at the steel prep island, rolling out dough to make the inn’s trademark blackberry cinnamon rolls for tomorrow’s Easter brunch. Catching movement in the doorway from the corner of his eye, he glanced up. Stopped in mid-roll and set aside the rolling pin. Stared at her for a long moment, no doubt soaking in through the weird osmosis he seemed to command the long hours she put in at the restaurant and the equally long hours she put into TV marathons—her vain attempts to fill the void left by her failed relationship.

    When he was done mentally totting up the effects of too much overtime, not enough sleep, and the many episodes of Supernatural she’d consumed every night into the early morning hours, he went to the sink to wash his hands. Luci came into the kitchen tentatively, relieving a steel hook of its apron burden, tying the canvas shield around her as she crossed the room to the sink. Josef dried his hands on a clean towel, and when she tried to sidle around him to the faucet, he simply put his arms around her and hugged her hard.

    "Come, Sklavin, we have cinnamon rolls to make. When he tried to set her away from him, she clung tighter. He hugged her back a moment longer. I know, Mädchen. It will be all right. He succeeded in putting her away from him and smiled. But I can’t start fixing you if I can’t feed you, so let’s get to it."

    They fell easily into a routine for the rest of the day. A few hours after she arrived, distant shouts from the lower meadow behind his parents’ house reached the inn: the younger Haldemann kids on their Easter egg hunt. When she remarked that perhaps they should pause and go down to watch, Josef replied blandly that he couldn’t spare the time. The sardonic glint in his eye belied his words. He could spare the time; he just didn’t want to deal with the chaos of a shrieking swarm of kids. Fair enough. She didn’t feel like it, either.

    She worked well with Josef, and for him. She frequently wished she had chosen to apprentice with him after she finished school. There were many things about Haviland’s that drove her crazy, not the least of which were co-owner and head chef Michael Bryant’s often counter-intuitive decisions and the unwanted attentions of Michael’s playboy son, Noah. But she really wanted to add Michael’s coveted recommendation letter to her culinary portfolio. Over the last few months, she had started to wonder if it was worth Markus’s reaction to Noah’s unapologetic pursuit of her. His jealousy and suspicion had made it harder for him to accept her plans to complete her full year of apprenticeship. His leaving made it crystal clear it hadn’t been Noah he didn’t trust, but Luci.

    Josef’s able assistant, Levi—who, in a larger kitchen, would probably be either a sous chef or a station chef—arrived to prepare the evening meal. As they left the kitchen, Josef asked, Did you get a room here, or are you bunking in the family room at Mom and Dad’s with all the rest of the kids and young adults?

    I got a room here. Kristof said he’d take my bag up for me and give me the room key at dinner. She didn’t mention his offer to kick his brother’s ass for her.

    I’ll drive you down to Mom’s. Simon’s apparently running late, but he should be there to bring you back up. Got everything you need?

    She gave him a humorless half-smile. No. But I’m okay.

    He didn’t smile back. Yes, you are. I know you won’t ask, so I’ll just tell you. We don’t know where Markus is. He still has his cell number from Portland, so we can’t pinpoint his location through his area code. He led her out to his truck, unlocking it with the remote as they approached. Luci waited to speak until they were both inside the cab.

    Why all the secrecy? He’s acting like he’s on the run from domestic abuse, but he took off with all of my cast iron before I could put any of it upside his head.

    "Yeah, that was pretty low. You can take just about anything when you leave except a chef’s cookware. That’s a scumbag move. He’s well aware of my opinion on that matter. My guess regarding

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