Spicing Up Trouble: a romantic comedy

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Copyright © 2015 by Mary Jo Burke

Gemma Halliday Publishing




All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

































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"Mirror, mirror on the wall, Sunday nights were the worst of all," I said to my reflection in the cab window.

Not only were they followed by Monday mornings, but I also had a standing dinner date with Eleanor and Irene, my older sisters. Lion tamers and cliff divers, meek in comparison. Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, beauty queen wannabes. Superheroes, random guys in tights. Eleanor designed, sewed, and sold her own clothing line. She also highlighted up-and-coming designers' work. Her boutique was the go-to place for wedding guest attire and upscale party dresses. Eleanor preferred to date wealthy older men. After the recent recession, most of the men aged faster and some hit her up for a loan. She currently flew solo and kept her eyes open for a recently orphaned heir. She bought my employer's newspaper and circled prospects in the obituary section.

Irene lost Kevin, her high school sweetheart and the love of her life, a few weeks before their wedding. His family owned a candy company and flooded us with free samples. He died in a freak car accident. To her, he had become a myth of perfection, and she measured every possible suitor based on his memory. The men who followed Kevin failed to get Irene's attention. She found Kevin's lack of ambition and focus adorable. Once he mentioned it was his dream to own a cool bar and restaurant with no oversized televisions blaring at the customers. I think Irene opened the Reign Bar to keep her image of him alive. He never would have come up with the unique design and sleek ambience of it. Plus, Irene helped with the renovations, decor, and menu. She got an award from the city for saving an "historic gem" from demolition. Her grit and determination had made the bar the place to be seen in Chicago.

I loaded up on student debt and never finished culinary school. I learned I couldn't cook when people watched me, let alone graded me. I had a job, not a career. Eleanor's divorce settlement financed both her shop and Irene's bar and cancelled my loans. The elder Hale sisters outshone all comers and blinded all with the light.

Especially me, Alexia Hale, the youngest sister who wasted her cooking skills and wrote kitchen utensil and condiment reviews for a newspaper. I also tested dessert recipes. I loved to bake, but what drove me to the kitchen was my never ending search for hot spicy food. Jalapeños, chipotle chiles, and cayenne should be added to every dish. I've tinkered with recipes from egg strata to hot chocolate to bring more heat.

I dreamed of being a chef, but sharp knives, delicate plate presentations, and a demanding headwaiter equaled disaster at my first and only culinary job. After it, I had been employed by both my sisters. At Eleanor's clothing boutique, I lasted two hours as a sales clerk. The customers wore a violent mix of stinky perfumes and hair spray. One badly timed sneeze did me and a white silk glove in. Next, I stocked shoes by size, not style. It took Eleanor a weekend to straighten out my help. Finally, I pinned the price tags on the inside of clothes. I didn't realize how sharp pins were until one scraped my hand. I bled on a five hundred dollar dress and bought it. I did tatting and beading work on a few dresses and didn't hurt myself. I won't detail my follies with Irene's restaurant. Suffice it to say, tablecloths were flammable, and spilled pasta was slippery.


An Eleanor Roosevelt quote said something about no one can make a woman feel inferior without her permission. She never met my parents' other daughters. They loved me and never mentioned my failure to scale any heights in my profession. There was always a head pat or a cheek pinch from them. I was their little sweetie, and they tried to bolster my meager accomplishments. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect on me, a constant reminder I followed in my sisters' wake, making no waves of my own.

We were born in the same year: Eleanor in January, Irene in February, and me, the token biological child, in December. We all turned twenty-eight this year. My sisters were acquired through legal means, as Dad used to say.

According to Irene, she was adopted, and Eleanor had been abandoned on the doorstep by gypsies. With Eleanor's emerald green eyes, long ebony hair, and six feet the embodiment of pure larceny, it made sense. In school, the guys called her "the Amazon," comparing her to a full-bodied female warrior who sliced off a breast to help her fighting abilities. It would be drastic but improve her golf game.

According to Eleanor, she was adopted, and Irene had been the free gift with any purchase. Irene had amber brown eyes, strawberry blonde hair, and stood five feet ten inches of steel. She wore a slight heel to stay eye to eye with Eleanor. With her fitness obsession, she appointed herself the muscle of the family.

I was the other one: dirty blonde hair, blue eyes, five foot three on a sunny day.

"Reign Bar. Fare comes to thirty dollars," the cabbie said.

I shook off my brooding and paid him. We Hales met here in the River North neighborhood for a free meal. The building with its stone facade and high arched windows, accented with stained glass at the top, gave the impression of stepping back in time. It wasn't hard to imagine the gentry riding up in a horse drawn carriage to attend a play one hundred and thirty years ago. The stage had been replaced by a bar handcrafted from a solid piece of oak. The bar stools were more like comfortable elevated chairs. Sitting there gave the feeling of being invited to the coolest party ever. All the glass and brass sparkled around me. Irene done good.

The kitchen had been my blueprint. Plenty of prep room for slicing and dicing. I canned cucumbers, radishes, and tomatoes here to add sharper dill pickles, tasty slaw, and homemade salsa to the menu. Condiments and sides set restaurants apart. After trial and error, I concocted a spice mix to shake on green beans and carrots. At my suggestion, they were grilled to sear in the extra flavors. I'd left some dried fruit chutney recipes with Ivan, the chef. At first, he resented my presence. I told Irene to stand down and not tell him I researched his background. My recommendation got him hired. I wasn't certified, and it was his kitchen, but I wanted to talk shop so I cooked my variation of Shepherd's Pie for him. I added a touch of horseradish to the potatoes and grilled habañero chilis to the meat mix. After that, he added it to the menu and sent me a French-made cast-iron fry pan. Jalapeño cornbread never tasted better.

Customers chatted as I wandered in and waved at the staff. The summer warmth melted away in the cool interior. Mission style fixtures hung from the ceiling, the attached fans spun quietly, and deep wood tables dotted the main floor. A moodiness hung over the room. It reflected the irony of Irene's personality: intense yet welcoming. Eleanor and Irene were seated at a back table. They talked nonstop, solving the world's problems and not noticing me. I straightened my shoulders and exhaled. Tonight, I would steal a little thunder from both of them. For a change, they can play Loki to my Thor.

I air-kissed them, pulled up a chair next to Irene, and plugged into the conversation.

"Men don't fall in love," Eleanor said.

"Why are you so cynical? Irene and I don't agree with you," I said.

"Sweetie, you are so naïve. Eleanor's right," Irene said.

That went well.

I licked my bottom lip, lost my appetite, and rearranged my silverware. I'd created the recipes for the chicken wings sauce and the steaks' and pork chops' marinade so it would be rude not to order. To me, delicious food started with the preparation: how it was handled before it was served. The blends of spices, temperature settings, and time all melted together to create a mouthwatering dish. My sisters asked about calorie count and portion size. They missed the basic point of eating: food was meant to be savored. At least, the kitchen staff valued my opinion.

A shadow crossed our table and floated to the bar, I looked up and waved at Bruno, last name and address unknown, Irene's always-present bouncer. A slight nod of his head was the only sign of acknowledgment. Long ago I wondered if he had a crush on Irene, but his lady choices ran younger and bouncier.

"I'm eating light today. I bought a new bathing suit to help me forget my newest
employee," Eleanor said.

"Your new shoe buyer didn't work out?" Irene asked.

"She almost bought me into bankruptcy. She used the company credit card for one week to furnish her condo and outfit herself for the next three years, but she didn't buy a damn thing for my boutique or from it."

"Are you suing?" Irene asked.

"Better. First, I called to cancel the card and have the charges reversed. Then I gave them her home address for the bill. Finally, I fired her sorry ass."

"How did you find her?" I asked.

"Her mother was a customer. Last time I hire a so-called friend's greedy little spawn."

As the waiter approached us, Irene put up her hand.

"We'll have three appetizer trays and another bottle of Savoy wine," she said as he turned back to the kitchen. "I would have let him come to the table, but I enjoy the view when he struts away."

Both Eleanor and Irene leaned in and watched the waiter's backside. I sat back in my chair and waited for them to finish ogling. Eleanor fanned herself with a napkin as she laughed, and then her laser-tuned attention circled back to me.

"Alexia, check your calendar, I'm scheduling a trunk show and need you to model. You're the perfect size and hair color, whatever you wear sells immediately," Eleanor said as she smiled at me.

"Her silky hair is the color of butter mixed with amber with a hint of daffodils. Women pay exorbitant amounts of money to get even close to her natural highlights." Irene said as I swept a lock of my hair behind my ear. "But you missed the point of Alexia's allure. It's the shades of blue in her eyes. When she wears blue, they deepen to sapphires. Other colors brighten them to ocean or ice or baby blue."

I blinked several times to break their stares.

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