Chapter One

Keeping a job involves a few simple rules: Arrive on time. Work hard. And don’t assault customers.

I forced a polite smile as the woman at table six snapped her thick fingers even though I was already hurrying toward her, a tray of drinks weighing down my arm. She jabbed fuchsia claws at her meal.

“My pasta has no meat,” she declared in the tones of an offended Victorian governess.

I looked at her plate. The pasta did in fact display a shocking lack of poultry, considering it had arrived at her table with an entire grilled chicken breast. I knew, because I’d seen the busboy carrying it. Streaks of creamy sauce smeared the plate’s edge.

I looked at her tablemate’s meal. Oh hey, more Alfredo. And wow, that was a mighty big pile of grilled chicken sitting on top, which the other woman was eating at maximum speed as though she could make it disappear before my poor waitress brain calculated the disparate mass.

“This is unacceptable.” The woman waved a hand to draw my attention away from the suspicious heap of meat. “I hope you don’t expect me to pay for a meal that’s missing the main ingredient!”

Shifting the heavy weight of my tray, I gazed at her wordlessly, then turned the same stare on her co-conspirator. Did they really think I’d never seen this scam before? When they started to squirm, I refocused on the chickenless woman and smiled brightly.

“What was the problem again, ma’am?”

“My—my meal has no chicken!”

I tsked playfully, like we were all in on the joke, and winked at the other woman. “Your friend must have a lightning-fast fork, then! You didn’t even see her swiping the chicken off your plate.”

Forcing a laugh, I stepped back, the three cokes, two beers, and iced tea wobbling on my tray. Six thirsty customers only a table away watched me with begging eyes, and I could practically see my tip shrinking the longer they waited.

The chickenless woman gawked at me, rusty gears turning behind her close-set eyes. I’d called out her stupid lie and given her an easy escape. All she had to do was shut up and steal some protein back before her friend ate it all. No free meals for her today.

But instead, she swelled like a bullfrog and pointed a pink claw at my chest.

“What are you implying?” Her voice rose, cutting through the cheerful babble of the busy café. “I told you my meal arrived without any chicken. Are you calling me a liar?”

Why yes, I was. “I must have misunderstood,” I said soothingly, lowering my voice as though that would cancel out her increased volume. “I assumed you were joking because your chicken was obviously dumped onto your friend’s plate.”

“How dare you!”

Ah, okay, I probably shouldn’t have said that. “I’d be happy to have the kitchen grill up another chicken breast for you at no charge.”

“I’m not paying for this meal. After your rudeness, we’re not paying for anything!”

“I see. In that case, I’ll have to fetch my manager.” With my free hand, I pulled the chicken extravaganza out from under the other woman’s fork.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“She said you weren’t paying for anything, so I’m—”

“I’m not finished with that!”

“Are you planning to pay for it?”

Fork still poised in the air, she looked at her furious companion. More spinning gears. These two women probably hadn’t thought this hard since kindergarten.

“Put that plate back!” the first woman barked. “And get your manager over here immediately.”

I returned her meal, my drink tray wobbling again. The imaginary tip counter hovering above the thirsty table was now in negative numbers. I’d be paying them for their drinks.

“I’ll send a manager,” I muttered as I turned away. “Don’t pig out on your free meals.”

“Did you just call me a pig?”

The offended shriek silenced every conversation in the café. Oh, hell. Grimacing, I swung back to face the woman. “You must have misheard—”

“I didn’t mishear anything!” she straight-up screamed. “You called me a pig! Where is your manager?”

“Um.” I glanced across the tables, the dinner rush halted by the spectacle. No managers in sight, but at my panicked look, another server zipped into the kitchen. “Let me just—”

“We’re leaving. I won’t pay to be mocked and insulted.” The woman shoved to her feet, frothing at the mouth with vindicated rage. Her companion shoveled one last mouthful of chicken down her gullet before scrambling up.

“If you could just wait one moment,” I tried again. “A manager will—”

“Out of my way!” Her fat hand shot out and shoved my drink tray.

It flipped up, dumping all six beverages onto my chest. Liquid drenched my white blouse and glassware shattered on the floor, spraying shards over my legs as ice cubes skittered under tables.

Anyone who’s known me for more than an hour has an inkling of my temper. And by inkling, I mean I might as well wear a flashing sign that reads, “Firecracker Redhead, Beware.” Or, if you’re my ex-boyfriend, it reads, “Don’t Stick It in Crazy Gingers.”

I try my best, okay? I keep my mouth shut, I smile real polite, and I let the managers give free meals to every scamming asshole because “the customer is always right” or whatever.

But sometimes I react before I think.

Which is why, as ice-cold liquid gushed down my front, I whipped my dripping tray right into the woman’s smirking face.

The plastic hit the side of her head with a shocking crack and she stumbled backward, then fell on her well-padded butt. Her mouth hung open, eyes bugged out, coke and beer and a hint of iced tea speckling her cheek.

If the restaurant had been quiet before, now it was silent enough to be a new dimension.

“She pushed me first,” I announced, my voice echoing in the silence. “You all saw that, right?”

At my thirsty table, a middle-aged couple gave small, hesitant nods and one guy grinned, shooting me a thumbs-up. I could feel a hundred eyes on me as, my blouse and apron dripping, I reached over the woman and picked up the two Alfredo plates, stacking them on my empty tray.

The woman stared vacantly, but I knew better than to think I’d literally tray-slapped some sense into her. Once her shock wore off, she would start howling. Or wailing. Fifty-fifty chance.

“I didn’t call you a pig,” I told her. “But I should have called you a liar. You lied about your meal, then you assaulted me. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Her face purpled, eyes bulging even more.

“On the plus side,” I added cheerfully, “you’re getting your food for free, just like you wanted. Have a nice day, and please never come again.”

With the two Alfredo plates on my tray, I waltzed past her, ignoring the ice cube lodged in my cleavage. Whispers erupted at every table as I counted in my head.

I got to three before the noise erupted. Wailing. I knew it.

A manager flew out of the kitchen, and her glare blazed hot enough to grill some chicken all on its own. Wincing, I ducked through the doors into the back. The moment I appeared, the two line cooks whooped.

“Right in the face!” Neil laughed, waving a spatula at the door’s small window where he’d no doubt plastered his nose as soon as the shouting began. “Wow, Tori, are you insane?”

“Why do people always ask me that?” I muttered as I set the tray down on the counter and checked my bare legs and sandaled feet for glass shards.

“I can’t believe you—”


I flinched. The café owner stood at the end of the kitchen, her arms folded and her expression as black as her coffee. My innards melted with dread, but I straightened my shoulders and strode confidently toward her. In the dining area, the chickenless wonder had switched from wails to shrieks.

“Mrs. Blanchard, I can explain—”

“Did you hit a customer?”

“She pushed me first.”

Blanchard nudged her wire-rimmed glasses up and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Tori, I’ve told you more than once that if a customer is antagonizing you, fetch a manager.”

“I was trying to, but she—”

“I warned you last week after you called one of our regulars a half-plucked buzzard to her face—”

“She kept calling me anorexic! Every time I walked by—”

“I warned you,” Blanchard repeated, speaking over my protests, “that you were on your final chance. You’re a hard worker, and I’ve done everything I can to accommodate your … issues … but I can’t employ a server who attacks customers.”

“Customer,” I corrected in a dejected mumble. “Only one. I won’t do it again, I promise.”

“I’m sorry, Tori.”

“Mrs. Blanchard, I really need this job. Please, give me one more chance.”

She shook her head. “Leave your apron. You can pick up your last check on payday.”

“Mrs. Blanchard—”

“I need to help settle things down in the dining area.” She stepped around me. “Please use the back door on your way out.”