Saturday, June 13, 2015

Chapter Six Diana's Burger Bistro

UPDATE: Unlikely Merger is NOW available! We will offer
the book FREE on Kindle July 1-July 5, 2015!

Mercy cruised the Caribbean in The Love Boat Bachelor, checked out an alligator farm in the previous chapter of this story, and now she's headed for a small Alabama town. Such an adventurer! Would you like to do her job? 

We're at the halfway point. Have you picked out a favorite hero yet? Voting opens June 20.

Here are links to the previous chapters, in case you're joining us for the first time.

Unlikely Merger: Chapter One

Unlikely Merger: Chapter Two

Unlikely Merger: Chapter Three

Unlikely Merger: Chapter Four

Unlikely Merger: Chapter Five

Chapter Six
Diana’s Burger Bistro, Madison, Alabama

Mercy’s eyes widened as they approached Denver International Airport. No matter how many times she’d driven up to the multi-white peaked roof of the place, it still caught at her breath. Her dad’s words pulled up a memory, and she blinked back tears.
“Your mother likened the airport roof to mountain peaks or teepees.” He would say. “How I miss her.”
Though she had very little memory of her mother, Mercy missed her too. She focused on the driver of the spacious sedan.
“You’re quiet today.” Madeline smiled at her. “Afraid to go to the Deep South on this early Sunday morning?”
“No, I’m getting a little more comfortable with traveling. And Duck Dynasty is in Louisiana, not Alabama.” She pulled out her iPad. “From my research, Madison is a mix of high tech and defense firms, service businesses, and retail stores with a highly educated population. It’s not far from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.”
“Well, I’ve been to the South several times and there are some charming southern gentlemen there.” Madeline slowed the car as they turned onto the main road into DIA, passing the large statue of a blue horse with fiery eyes. “Now you have orders from me to not only scout this restaurant for your father, but to find a SAM.”
“What’s a SAM?”
“Single, available male.” Madeline laughed. “That’s my answer to all these shortened words. I know that you’ve stayed hidden too long since that cruise, and it’s time to move on. Now from what I understand, Geoffrey Hawthorne has a son about your age who is unattached.”
“I’m looking at this as an investment, not to find a love interest.” Besides, she’d already met a southern hottie, a California charmer, a Northeastern hunk, and a cutie from her own hometown. How many did she need? “Here’s where we need to be. Just pull up, and I’ll unload by myself.”
Madeline pulled up to the curb. “You be careful, dear. I don’t know what we’d do without you.”
Mercy gave her a quick hug. “I’ll be back before you miss me.”
She exited the car and pulled her small suitcase and overnight bag from the trunk. She slung the carry-on backpack onto her shoulders then waved Madeline on. She stood for a moment watching the blue car drive away then turned toward the airport. A cold blast of air pushed her toward the door. Alabama here I come.


Main Street was practically deserted. Mercy slowed her rented SUV as she passed small businesses. A barber shop, children’s boutique, and a florist occupied the upscale strip mall to her right. The area was beautifully landscaped with crape myrtles, azaleas, and pansies.
A brick restaurant ahead caught her eye. Diana’s Burger Bistro. The dark red brick building had a large black awning spread over its frontage with three antique lights lined over it. The azaleas were in bloom in front of the restaurant, a welcome sight after the cold of the mountains. Two large half barrels stood on each side of the black double doors filled with purple and gold pansies. She pulled into the empty lot. The visuals of the restaurant were pleasing to the eye. There was plenty of parking and the area felt warm, secure. Even the name seemed to reach out in comfort to invite her in.
But the restaurant was closed. Odd. Maybe something had happened. Sunday lunch in the South, from what she’d read, was important and revered. She stepped from the car and walked to the front door. She leaned against it, shielding her eyes with her hands from the bright sun so she could peer inside.
A modern diner with a comfy motif. Booths lined both walls. Tall tables with wood and metallic chairs filled the middle. A hostess podium stood near the door, created from a barrel similar to the planters outside. Interesting. Mercy could see a photo to her right, in a place of attention. She moved to the far end of the plate glass window for a closer look.
She pressed her face against the glass again. A man stood staring at her from inside. She jumped back, lost her balance, and grabbed at a nearby porch post to keep from falling.
She glanced up as the jingling of a bell announced the door being opened from the inside.
The man stepped out, his t-shirt tight over etched shoulders and arms. He swiped overlong blond bangs back from his face. “What are you doing peering in the window? Trying to case the place?” He glared at her, arms crossed.
“Hardly.” She frowned as she released the post and straightened. “I noticed the sign said closed. What are you doing in there? Trying to scare people to death?”
“Sorry if I scared you.” His voice softened. “Someone tried to break in last week, and we’re all a little jumpy.”
“No problem.”
“If you want to come back for the best homemade donuts in the south, complete with gourmet coffee, we open at seven in the morning.” He grinned, and his deep brown eyes seemed to dance.
Shouldn’t a guy that looked as good as he did be on a surfboard on a beach in California instead of peddling burgers in Alabama? Madeline’s term “SAM” came to mind.
“I’ll be back to try the donuts, for sure.” She put on her best professional face. “I’m Mercy Lacewell of Lacewell Limited.”
The smile evaporated, a frown emerging in its place. “I heard about you and your father. And I don’t think you want to invest in this burger joint. As you can see, it’s not near the interstate, and we’ll never be able to pull in the customer base you would require.”
What had she done? He transformed from surfer dude to great white shark at the mention of her name? Couldn’t anything ever be easy? “I’m sorry. I was under the impression that Geoffrey Hawthorne was interested in selling this restaurant. And from the numbers he sent us, we’d be interested in not only buying it, but franchising the name.”
His jaw clenched. “You’re wasting your time here. Go back to the mountains where you came from.” He swung around and traipsed back to the door, leaving her open-mouthed. The bells jingled again as the door slammed, the lock clicking into place.
She ambled to her car, mulling over his reaction. What was his problem? Was he afraid he’d lose his job? Looked like she could cross this place off the list already. She sat in the car and pulled her cell phone from her purse.
“Hello, Daddy.”
“Hello, Mercy.” His voice had a soothing effect on her. “How was your flight?”
“Uneventful, the way I like them.” She sighed. “I drove to the restaurant from the airport, and from the outside, I found it attractive to the eye. It was closed, but some guy who was there, working I guess, seemed to think the restaurant would be a bad investment. I know Madeline has all the figures, but do you think there’s something we don’t know?”
“That’s why I sent you down there. She thinks this could be a good venture, but I want to hear from the viewpoint of your woman’s intuition. Let the Lord lead you, Mercy. Jesus will give you peace over your decision.”
“I will, Daddy.” She glanced back at the cheery building in front of her. “I really like the way it’s set up. I won’t let one grumpy cook get me down.”
“That’s my girl. Geoffrey will be expecting you in the morning. I believe you’ll know what to do.”
“I will. I just needed a little encouragement. I’m going to check into my hotel now. Thanks.”
“You’ve got this. The Lord’s on your side.”
“He is.” As she clicked the phone off, she let out a breath. She could do this. Daddy and Madeline believed in her. God did too. So what if the good-looking grumpy chef didn’t like her? She would be a professional and make her report according to the facts, as she had done with the other investments.


Puffy pink-tinged clouds dotted the sky on Mercy’s drive back to the restaurant the next morning. The weather report had given a high of eighty degrees, a far cry from the lingering snow in Denver. She should be enjoying this more than she was, but her stomach twisted at the thought of meeting Geoffrey Hawthorne.
Stop it. You represent Henry Lacewell and Lacewell Limited. You’re not in high school anymore.
She drew a deep breath as she pulled into the parking lot of Diana’s Burger Bistro. Wow. The lot held a dozen cars already and one followed her into the lot. She hadn’t been sold on the idea of a burger joint doubling as a coffee shop, but obviously they knew what they were doing. At precisely 7:00 a.m., Mercy exited her car and trailed behind the others making their way into the restaurant.
As she passed through the double doors, the aroma of rising yeast mingled with coffee set her stomach to rumbling. A sign on the hostess stand invited her to seat herself so she chose a table in the right hand corner where she could watch the restaurant at work. A small display case filled with glazed donuts and some type of fritter was placed near the hostess stand. A fritter, especially apple, would be the start of a perfect morning.
Surfer dude stepped from behind the swinging kitchen door over to the display case, filling a small box with donuts. He glanced her way, ignored her, and continued what he was doing before stepping back into the kitchen. Still upset, it seemed. She scanned the menu in front of her. Donuts and fritters were the only morning offering. A nice variety of coffee, however.
She glanced up at the photo of an older woman on the wall in front of her—the one she had tried to look at yesterday. Her white hair framed her face in a bob and a wide smile lit her countenance. She must have almost been laughing when they snapped it. A shelf with a porcelain tea cup was placed under it. The delicate designs of a rose pattern made it appear fragile. The picture and cup were out of place in the modern diner.
A lanky man entered the room from the kitchen and, spotting her, strode in her direction. She guessed he was in his sixties, silver gray hair with a slight stoop to his back. “Mercy Lacewell?”
“I’m Geoffrey Hawthorne. So pleased to make your acquaintance. My son, Talon, told me you were here.”
So surfer dude was his son. Great. She gestured toward the chair. “Please join me.”
“I’m so pleased you’ve taken time to consider our restaurant. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering you the special. It’s an assortment of what we offer here at Diana’s. A platter of our four donuts: glazed, chocolate covered, cake, and red velvet. And it has an apple fritter, banana fritter, and our famous peach fritters.”
“Yum. They all look so good. I’ve never tried a peach fritter.”
“We buy our apples and peaches from a local orchard, dehydrating any extra fruit so we can use it out of season. It’s what makes them so fresh.” He motioned to a nearby waitress. “Josie, would you bring me a Grande house coffee? And for you?”
“How about the Caramel Macchiato? It sounds heavenly.”
Josie nodded. “Coming up.”
Mercy stared out the window. She should say something, open the conversation, and be direct. Why was that so hard? “Beautiful weather here.”
How lame was that?
He didn’t seem to notice her lack of intelligent conversation. “Yes. One great thing about Alabama. Spring comes early.”
She noted nothing but kindness in the older man’s eyes. “Sir, can I ask why you want to sell what seems to be a booming business?”
“Well, Ms. Lacewell, Diana’s restaurant was a dream my wife had, one that I joined with her to make happen. She was so vibrant working here. Diana enjoyed creating recipes and when Talon earned his degree in culinary arts and joined her, she couldn’t have been happier.” His eyes drooped as he pointed to the picture. “But when she died last year, all that made Diana’s special was gone for me. I’ve tried to push on for Talon’s sake, but …” his voice trailed.
Josie set a delectable plate of sugary wonder in front of them along with their coffee. The aroma of a steaming peach fritter pushed her stomach to growl.
“Here’s breakfast. Please, taste the fritter. They’re best when hot.” Mr. Hawthorne lifted a cake donut from the platter. “These are my favorites. Anyway, for me it’s time to move on. I’ve completed what I should do here. But I’m rambling. Please eat.”
She didn’t have an answer, so she bit into the fritter then took a sip of the beverage. Heaven. The taste of peach, caramel, and coffee mingled together for an exquisite bite. A bakery and a burger joint? If the burgers were anywhere near as good as this, she could picture the franchise spreading over the country.
They sat in silence as she finished off her fritter and coffee. If she’d been alone, she would have licked the last bit of sugary coating off her fingers. She picked up a napkin instead.
“I love the peach fritter. And I do understand why you would want to sell this restaurant. But your son didn’t seem to agree when I met him yesterday. He thought it would be a bad investment for us.”
Geoffrey furrowed his eyebrows. “He said that? Follow me, Ms. Lacewell, and we’ll iron this out right now.”
Mercy clenched her teeth. The kindly old man had switched to irritated father in an instant. Like father, like son, it seemed. Was she going to be caught in the middle of a yelling match?
She rose. Geoffrey motioned to his son, and she followed them both through the kitchen and into a small office. Papers piled up on the antique desk in the corner, and clipboards lined the walls, displaying charts and checklists. Looked like an organized mess. A large photo with Geoffrey, Diana, and Talon, along with a younger woman who had the same smile as Diana, graced the spot over the desk.
Geoffrey closed the door behind her and crossed his arms. Talon stood by the desk, the image of his father.
“Son, Ms. Lacewell tells me you think our restaurant would be a bad investment for her family.” Geoffrey kept his voice low, but angry undertones caused Mercy to step back against the door. Did he have to put it like that? Make her the bad guy? She glanced at Talon.
The look he shot her warmed her face. If she made it back to Denver, she would never leave the office again.
“It would be,” Talon countered. “We don’t need to sell it to some Midwesterner who’d come in and change what we have here. How would they know what Southerners want? We offer good food, modern cuisine, but don’t open Sunday so our employees can spend time with their families. It’ll be even worse if they franchise it.”
“You don’t know that. We haven’t discussed that far into the investment. My heart is not in this business anymore. Every day, as I deal with all the restaurant entails, I get more depressed. It was a joy when your mother was alive. Not now.”
Mercy drew in a breath. She was feeling the Lord nudge her to say something. Lord, are you sure? There’s a lot of hostility here. Another nudge. It was time to step out. “Talon, why are you really so angry? There must be more to this than what you’re saying.”
Both men turned to look at her as if they had forgotten she was in the room.
“Why am I angry? Probably because I learned about this on Saturday.” His voice had risen. “My own father didn’t ask for my opinion or advice or anything. Just told me he was selling the place.”
“Every time I try to mention your mother or the restaurant, you clam up. You say everything’s fine. Nothing needs to change.” Geoffrey paced across the room. “You’ve worked here since you were a teenager. It’s time to do what you want. Go to college or work in a bigger restaurant. Don’t you want more?”
“Yes, I do.” Talon’s voice softened. “But what I want is to own this restaurant. I love working here. This is as much my dream as it was Mom’s. You never even asked me if I wanted it.”
Geoffrey’s arms uncrossed. “I’m sorry. But I couldn’t see how you could afford it. I have bills to pay, or I would just give it to you. If that’s what you want.”
“I do. I’ve been saving my money. If you could give me time.”
Mercy quickly went through some calculations in her mind. It might work. “You know, Lacewell Limited doesn’t have to buy this restaurant. We could invest in it; work with you, Talon, to make your dream come true. The numbers already speak to the excellent job you’re doing, and this area is the fastest growing in Alabama. We could discuss this in greater detail if you want.”
Talon looked at his father. “What would you think of that? Would that still cause you pain? I want to keep the name, you know. It’s in Mom’s honor, not a memorial.”
“I think I could, looking at it that way.”
Mercy let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Let’s talk about it then.”
“Over dinner tonight?” Talon agreed. “I owe you that much.”
Surfer dude had a way about him. She would like to know more about Talon Hawthorne. And the restaurant. “I’d like that.”
She spent the day with Talon and Geoffrey, watching the unique eatery and its staff in action. Talon’s dry wit kept her and the customers entertained. A quick trip back to the hotel to change for dinner and she was ready. For what she didn’t know.
The place was packed with people standing in small groups on the sidewalk. She pushed through the double doors and walked to the hostess stand. “How long a wait is there?”
“About an hour.” Another plus on her list as a possible investment. An hour wait on a Monday night—impressive.
Talon exited the kitchen. His lime green Henley and chino pants somehow reflected who he was as much as his restaurant did. Modern, but comfortable. She blushed as he caught her staring.
“Mercy.” He strolled over to her. “Are you ready for dinner?”
“I hear there’s an hour wait.” She looked around. “Business is great.”
“Well, I know the owner, and he’s reserved a special table.” He offered his arm, and she accepted, being led back through the kitchen, past the office and out an exit door. A patio table, adorned with a red checkered cloth had been set with menus and dishes complete with lit candles. “Here you go.” He pulled out the chair, seated her, and pointed to the menu. “I recommend the Hawthorne hash burger. It’s a quarter pound of grass fed beef, topped with a hash made from bacon, cheese, potatoes, peppers, and onions. Served with homemade tater puffs. Our top seller.”
“Sounds perfect.” She placed the menu aside. “And how about the famous sweet tea the South is known for?”
“I’ll put in the order now.” As he stepped back into the building, she straightened her blue silk blouse. Madeline would be proud of her, having dinner with a SAM.
“Hey, what’s the joke?” Talon came back through the door carrying two glasses of tea as she chuckled. He slid into the chair beside her. “What did I miss?”
“Oh nothing. Been thinking about all the strange twists and turns in life. If you’d told me a year ago, I’d be eating dinner out back of a burger bistro in Alabama, I’d have thought you were losing your mind. I’ve traveled so much lately. It’s crazy.”
“I’m glad you came. Whether you invest or not.” He grinned again as he swiped his bangs back.
“Me too.” She took a sip of her drink. Surfer dude’s deep brown eyes unsettled her and held her attention.
“You know, we really should think about a franchise in Malibu.”
“Yeah? Why?” he asked.
Mercy shook her head. “I’ll tell you why—if it ever happens.”

A Dozen ApologiesAvailable on Kindle

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