Today's Reading

Now, as Antonia roamed the sleek navy and white dining room, she surveyed it critically. It was a large space that seated sixty-five diners and the decor was comfortable, while also streamlined and uncluttered. Whereas Antonia had chosen to make the rest of the inn feel cozy—formal with antiques, lots of prints, and colored fabrics, she had given the restaurant a bright and crisp interior. The walls were painted eggshell white and held large canvases of modern art, mostly bright abstracts, but a few small, individually lit oil paintings as well. The floors had been stained a dark walnut wood, brushed smoothly and evenly. In the front of the room, by the maître d' station, was a dark-azure lacquered bar. Its eight barstools had button-tufted backs and sides studded with pewter nail-head trim. Beyond that were a dozen freestanding tables set formally with starched white linens, white china, and blue Murano goblets.

When she was decorating the inn, Antonia had sat on dozens of chairs in an effort to find the most comfortable; one that would encourage diners to linger and order more courses. The winners were softly rounded and upholstered in blue, with gently sloping arms and maple-stained legs. In the back of the room, beyond the swinging door to the kitchen, was a nook housing four booths, their banquettes covered in cobalt vinyl with white piping. Antonia had debated whether or not the booths made the place feel too casual, but tonight they had allowed her to successfully accommodate a last-minute party of seven. Smiling benevolently at the happy group, Antonia knew she had made the right decision in adding the booths. They made the restaurant feel complete.

Tonight, Antonia was clad in her best black satin dress, replete with a plunging neckline to both accentuate her ample breasts and move everyone's eyes away from her widening girth. (Ah, the havoc that working with food wreaks on your waistline, Antonia often despaired.) She had on the lowest high heels that she could find, as anything even a half an inch higher caused major wobbling in the manner of a drunken streetwalker. It was the last thing Antonia would have liked to have been wearing—sweats, elastic-waisted ruffled skirts, soft cardigans, and Crocs were more her speed—but her manager had told her that she needed to "sex it up and work the room" in order to encourage first-time customers to become repeat customers. She hardly thought that her looking all dolled up would entice diners, especially in this small town, but with all of her money on the line with the restaurant and inn, she agreed to do whatever had to be done for the bottom line. As a result, Antonia had pulled out all the stops tonight, blowing dry her glossy black hair until it fell in cascading waves down to her shoulders and even applying makeup. Her cupid's bow lips were deep red, her  porcelain cheeks blushed pink, and her already thick lashes fluttered darkly around her bright-blue eyes.

"Another wonderful dinner, Antonia, thank you," said Joseph Fowler as he signed his check and flipped the leather-bound cardholder closed. He placed it on the table next to the small pumpkin centerpiece. After finishing the last sip of his sherry, he dabbed his mouth with the cloth napkin.

"Thank you, Joseph. You always make my day!" Antonia beamed at her favorite dinner guest.

Joseph was a renowned writer of historical fiction. He had been recently widowed when his wife of thirty- plus years died after a long bout with cancer. Joseph was Antonia's first customer at the restaurant, and for that she was eternally grateful, especially as he had turned out to be a tremendous cheerleader for her. An elegant man, with refined features (aquiline nose, arched eyebrows, chiseled cheekbones, impeccably combed silver hair) he always dressed in custom-fitted monogrammed dress shirts and a bow tie, cords or khakis (depending on the weather), and a beautiful tweed blazer. As he was still only in his early sixties, Antonia fervently hoped he would find romance again. It was too soon for her to play matchmaker but she had already targeted some of the ladies who came to tea at the inn as potential suitors. Should she mind her own business? Probably. But that wasn't really her style.

"Joseph, I'd love your feedback. What did you think of the truffled polenta with Gorgonzola? It's a new recipe I'm trying out. You can tell me honestly."

He smiled. "It was exquisite."

"I'm not fishing for compliments, are you sure?"

He patted her hand. "My dear, I would have it every night if I could."

"You know how to make a lady happy," she said, wagging her finger at him. "I'll take your word for it, but I still think it needs some tweaking—maybe a different herb. It says rosemary but I have to be honest, I'm not the biggest rosemary fan. It sort of tastes like shampoo, don't you think? I much prefer tarragon or sage. Even chervil. Thyme could work, but it's kind of wimpy. Well, we'll see..."

"My advice to you is don't overthink it. The best thing about your food is that you cook from the heart. And it shows."

"Well, I try."

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