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
"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
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
"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
"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
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 herâ€”againâ€”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 foodâ€”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
Dana Sue moaned. "Oh, God, I was hoping you hadn't
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 momâ€”overweight and
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
friendsâ€”Maddie Mad-dox, who was managing The Corner Spa, and
attorney Helen Decaturâ€”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 collegeâ€”her
ex-husband made the court-ordered child support payments,
but that was allâ€”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
"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
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