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The smell of burning toast caught Dana Sue's attention just before the smoke detector went off. Snatching the charred bread from the toaster, she tossed it into the sink, then grabbed a towel and waved it at the shrieking alarm to disperse the smoke. At last the overly sensitive thing fell silent.
"Mom, what on earth is going on in here?" Annie demanded, standing in the kitchen doorway, her nose wrinkling at the aroma of burnt toast. She was dressed for school in jeans that hung on her too-thin frame and a scoop-neck T-shirt that revealed pale skin stretched taut over protruding collarbones.
Restraining the desire to comment on the evidence that Annie had lost more weight, Dana Sue regarded her teenager with a chagrined expression. "Take a guess."
"You burned the toast again," Annie said, a grin spreading across her face, relieving the gauntness ever so slightly. "Some chef you are. If I ratted you out about this, no one would ever come to Sullivan's to eat again."
"Which is why we don't serve breakfast and why you're sworn to secrecy, unless you expect to be grounded, phone-less and disconnected from your e-mail till you hit thirty," Dana Sue told her, not entirely in jest. Sullivan's had been a huge success from the moment she'd opened the restaurant's doors. Word-of-mouth raves had spread through the entire region. Even Charleston's top restaurant-and-food critic had hailed it for its innovative Southern dishes. Dana Sue didn't need her sassy kid ruining that with word of her culinary disasters at home.
"Why were you making toast, anyway? You don't eat it," Annie said, filling a glass with water and taking a tiny sip before dumping the rest down the drain.
"I was fixing you breakfast," Dana Sue said, pulling a plate with a fluffy omelet from the oven, where she'd kept it warm. She'd added low-fat cheese and finely shredded red and green sweet peppers, just the way Annie had always liked it. The omelet was perfect, a vision suitable for the cover of any gourmet magazine.
Annie looked at the food with a repugnant expression most people reserved for roadkill. "I don't think so."
"Sit," Dana Sue ordered, losing patience with the too-familiar reaction. "You have to eat. Breakfast is the most important meal, especially on a school day. Think of the protein as brain power. Besides, I dragged myself out of bed to fix it for you, so you're going to eat it."
Annie, her beautiful sixteen-year-old, regarded her with one of those "Mother! Not again" looks, but at least she sat down at the table. Dana Sue sat across from her, holding her mug of black coffee as if it were liquid gold. After a late night at the restaurant, she needed all the caffeine she could get first thing in the morning to be alert enough to deal with Annie's quick-thinking evasiveness.
"How was your first day back at school?" Dana Sue asked.
"Do you have any classes with Ty this year?" For as long as Dana Sue could remember, Annie had harbored a crush on Tyler Townsend, whose mom was one of Dana Sue's best friends and most recently a business partner at The Corner Spa, Serenity's new fitness club for women.
"Mom, he's a senior. I'm a junior," Annie explained with exaggerated patience. "We don't have any of the same classes."
"Too bad," Dana Sue said, meaning it. Ty had gone through some issues of his own since his dad had walked out on Mad-die, but he'd always been a good sounding board for Annie, the way a big brother or best friend would be. Not that Annie appreciated the value of that. She wanted Ty to notice her as a girl, as someone he'd be interested in dating. So far, though, Ty was oblivious.
Dana Sue studied Annie's sullen expression and tried again, determined to find some way to connect with the child who was slipping away too fast. "Do you like your teachers?"
"They talk. I listen. What's to like?"
Dana Sue bit back a sigh. A few short years ago, Annie had been a little chatterbox. There hadn't been a detail of her day she hadn't wanted to share with her mom and dad. Of course, ever since Ronnie had cheated on Dana Sue and she'd thrown him out two years ago, everything had changed. Annie's adoration for her father had been destroyed, just as Dana Sue's heart had been broken. For a long time after the divorce, silence had fallen in the Sullivan household, with neither of them wanting to talk about the one thing that really mattered.
"Mom, I have to go or I'll be late." A glance at the clock had Annie bouncing up eagerly.
Dana Sue looked at the untouched plate of food. "You haven't eaten a bite of that."
"Sorry. It looks fantastic, but I'm not hungry. See you tonight." She brushed a kiss across Dana Sue's cheek and took off, leaving behind the no longer perfect omelet and a whiff of perfume that Dana Sue recognized as the expensive scent she'd bought for herself last Christmas and wore only on very special occasions. Since such occasions had been few and far between since the divorce, it probably didn't matter that her daughter was wasting it on high school boys.
Only after she was alone again and her coffee had turned cold did Dana Sue notice the brown sack with Annie's lunch still sitting on the counter. It could have been an oversight, but she knew better. Annie had deliberately left it behind, just as she'd ignored the breakfast her mother had fixed.
The memory of Annie's collapse during Maddie's wedding reception last year at Thanksgiving came flooding back, and with it a tide of fresh panic.
"Oh, sweetie," Dana Sue murmured. "Not again."
"I'm thinking for tonight's dessert I'll make an old-fashioned bread pudding with maybe some Granny Smith apples to add a little tartness and texture," Erik Whitney said before Dana Sue had a chance to tie on her apron. "What do you think?"
Even as her mouth watered, her brain was calculating the carbohydrates. Off the chart, she concluded, and sighed. Her customers could indulge, but she'd have to avoid the dessert like the plague.
Erik regarded her worriedly. "Too much sugar?" "For me, yes. For the rest of the universe, it sounds perfect." "I could do a fresh fruit cobbler instead, maybe use a sugar substitute," he suggested.
Dana Sue shook her head. She'd built Sullivan's reputation by putting a new spin on old Southern favorites. Most of the time, her selections were healthier than some of the traditional butter-soaked dishes, but when it came to desserts, she knew her clientele preferred decadent. She'd hired Erik straight out of the Atlanta Culinary Institute because the school's placement officer had ranked him the best pastry chef candidate they'd seen in years.
Older than most graduates, Erik was already in his thirties. Eager to experiment and show what he could do, Erik hadn't disappointed her or her customers. He was such a huge improvement over her last sous-chef, a temperamental man who was difficult to work with, that Dana Sue counted her blessings every single day that Erik could double as a sous-chef and pastry chef. He'd quickly become more than an employee. He'd become a friend.
Moreover, there was already a high demand in South Carolina for Erik's wedding cakes. He'd raised the traditional cake to an art form that rivaled anything seen at fancy celebrity weddings. Dana Sue knew she'd be lucky to keep him for another year or two at most before some big-city restaurant or catering company lured him away, but for the moment he seemed content in Serenity, happy with the latitude she gave him.
"We did plenty of fruit cobblers over the summer," she told him. "The bread pudding sounds great for tonight. You're cooking for the customers, not me."
When was the last time she'd allowed herself so much as a teaspoonful of any of Erik's rich desserts? Not since Doc Marshall had given her yet another stern lecture on losing the fifteen pounds she'd gained in the past two years, and warned her—again—that she was putting herself at risk for diabetes, the disease that had killed her mother. That should have been warning enough for Dana Sue without the doctor reminding her constantly.
She'd thought that working with her two best friends to open The Corner Spa would keep her so busy she'd stay on her diet. She'd also convinced herself that the spectacular surroundings they'd created would give her an incentive to exercise. So far, though, she'd gained five more pounds testing all the healthy drinks and low-fat muffins they'd put on the spa menu. There was a peach-pear smoothie that might be worth dying for.
Putting on weight might be an occupational hazard for a chef, but Dana Sue laid some of the blame on the collapse of her marriage two years ago. When she'd kicked Ronnie Sullivan out of her house for cheating on her, she'd consoled herself with food—unlike her daughter, who'd chosen to avoid it.
"You're not the only person in Serenity worrying about sugar," Erik reminded her. "I can adapt."
"So can I. It's not as if I'll starve, sweetie. Tonight's menu will have plenty of vegetables and three healthy main courses. Now, go work your magic. Our regulars expect something amazing from you every time they come in."
"Okay," he said finally, then gave her a penetrating look. "You want to tell me what else is on your mind?"
She frowned at him. "What makes you think there's something else on my mind?"
"Experience," he said succinctly. "And if you won't talk to me, then go call Maddie or Helen and get it off your chest. If you're as distracted during the dinner rush as you were during lunch, I'll have to spend the whole evening bailing you out."
"Excuse me?" she said tightly, not one bit happy about the accuracy of his comment.
"Sweetie, half a dozen meals came back in here because you'd left off some part of the order. It's one thing to forget to send out French fries. It's another to leave off the meat."
Dana Sue moaned. "Oh, God, I was hoping you hadn't noticed that."
Erik winked at her. "I notice most everything that goes on in here. That's what makes me a good backup for you. Now, go make that call, you hear?"
Dana Sue held in a sigh as Erik went to gather his ingredients from their well-stocked storeroom, and her own thoughts returned to her daughter. It was impossible for her to go on denying that Annie was getting skinnier by the day. She claimed she was no thinner than the models she saw in magazines and on TV, and that she was perfectly healthy, but Dana Sue thought otherwise. Her clothes hung loosely on her bony frame, Annie's ineffective attempt to disguise just how thin she really was. Dana Sue was convinced she was starving herself so she wouldn't turn out like her mom—overweight and alone.
Despite a frantic pace with the lunch crowd, which usually energized her and kept her focused, today Dana Sue hadn't been able to shake the image of that abandoned brown sack. Usually Annie made a pretense of eating something just to keep her mother off her case. Now Dana Sue wondered if that left-behind paper bag, with its turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread, celery and carrot sticks and a banana, was a cry for help.
Satisfied that Erik could watch over the dinner preparations in the state-of-the-art, stainless-steel kitchen, Dana Sue slipped into her small, cluttered office to follow his advice and call Maddie at the gym. Whenever her world seemed to be crumbling, she turned to her two best friends—Maddie Mad-dox, who was managing The Corner Spa, and attorney Helen Decatur—for sensible advice or a shoulder to cry on. Over the years they'd grown adept at providing both. Nobody in Serenity messed with one of the Sweet Magnolias without tangling with the other two, as well.
They'd bolstered each other through schoolgirl crushes, failed marriages and health scares. They'd shared joys and sorrows. Most recently they'd gone into business together, which had brought them closer than ever, their various skills complementing each other nicely.
"How are things in the world of fitness?" Dana Sue asked, forcing a cheery note into her voice.
"What's wrong?" Maddie asked at once.
Dana Sue bristled at being so easily read for the second time that afternoon. She obviously wasn't as good at covering her emotions as she'd like to be. "Why do you automatically assume something's wrong?"
"Because it's less than an hour till your dinner rush starts," Maddie said. "You're usually up to your eyeballs in preparation. You don't make casual, just-to-chat calls until after nine when things start to settle down again."
"I am way too predictable," Dana Sue muttered, making a vow to change that. Once, she'd been the most reckless and daring of all the Sweet Magnolias. But since the divorce, knowing she had a daughter to raise and send to college—her ex-husband made the court-ordered child support payments, but that was all—she'd turned cautious.
"So, what is it? What's wrong?" Maddie repeated. "Did somebody complain about their quiche at lunch? Were the salad greens from the produce vendor not crisp enough?"
"Very funny," Dana Sue said, not the least bit amused by Maddie's reference to her perfectionism. "Actually, it's Annie. I really think she's in trouble again, Maddie. I know you and Helen have been worried all along about her eating habits and weight loss. The collapse at your wedding freaked all of us out, but that was almost a year ago and she's been getting better since then. I made sure of it." Suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of unfamiliar helplessness, Dana Sue added, "Now, I just don't know. I think I've been deluding myself."
"Tell me what happened," Maddie commanded.
Dana Sue related the morning's incident. "Am I making too much of her ignoring the breakfast I'd fixed, and leaving behind her lunch?" she asked hopefully.
"If that was all you had to go on, I'd say yes," Maddie replied. "But, sweetie, you know there are other signs that Annie has an eating disorder. We've all seen them. When she passed out at my wedding, it was a warning. If she's anorexic, that kind of thing doesn't miraculously go away. She's probably just gotten better at hiding it from you. She needs counseling."
Dana Sue still clung to the hope they'd gotten it all wrong. "Maybe it's just back-to-school jitters, or maybe she's eating the cafeteria food at school," she suggested. She wondered if Maddie's son might have noticed something. "Could you talk to Ty? He might have some idea. They don't have any classes together, I know. Annie told me that much today, but maybe they have the same lunch hour."
"I'll ask him," Maddie promised. "But I'm not sure teenage boys pay the slightest bit of attention to what girls are eating. They're too busy scarfing down everything in sight."