Angel Café had grown during the past fifteen years, grown to the point where even its proprietor, Stephen Carmichael, had to concentrate long and hard to recall the offbeat little eatery it had once been. The restaurant had originally inhabited one small row home in Baltimore's Federal Hill. Ten years ago, however, Stephen had bought the film-processing store next door, acquired a liquor license, and guided his eclectic coffeehouse into the world of fine dining.
Elegance had come along with expansion. Angel memorabilia still highlighted the five small dining rooms, but now it nestled amid far more opulent trappings. Rich, velvet draperies framed leaded glass windowpanes. Antiques gleamed, inviting diners to forget the hubbub of the twenty-first century for an hour or two. As always, the delicate china place settings did not match each other. Now, however, they rested on thick ecru table linens, bathed in the soft glow of ivory tapers.
"Exquisite," the critics raved. "Charming," the customers gushed. "Exhausting," Stephen would have added, had anybody asked. The restaurant was open from eleven in the morning until ten at night six days a week, but the hours he spent there had never been tamed into anything resembling a schedule.
Today was no exception. It was only mid-morning, but he'd already put in five hours. Now he stood behind the polished wood counter in the lobby, checking the day's reservations. Down the hallway behind his right shoulder, he heard the clink of silver as one of his employees ran a last-minute inspection of the restaurant's main room. A giggle floated from the tiny dining area adjacent to the lobby. Stephen pulled a wry grin. Good. Let the staff laugh. They were in for one hell of a day. Not only was the restaurant booked solid, but Cybertec, Inc. had nabbed the upstairs room for an afternoon business meeting.
His grin melted into a grimace. He'd have to put in a personal appearance for that one, do a little schmoozing.
Stephen had once loved working a crowd. He had an easy, natural smile, clear green eyes, and a gift for glib repartee. But he was fifty years old now, with a wife and two school-aged daughters. The schmoozing part of his profession seemed a whole lot more intrusive than it once had. It was such trivial nonsense. He had to admit that most aspects of the business world were.
"I'm getting old," he said out loud, carefully returning the reservation book to its proper place. Age was the only way to explain why the thrill of success no longer intoxicated him. He leaned against the counter, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up to the top of his head so that he could massage the bridge of his nose. Glasses. Something else he couldn't get used to. Oh, well. At least he still had a full head of hair. The black was peppered with gray, but he could always palm that off as distinguished.
An insistent knock on the front window broke his reverie. Stephen glanced up, forehead furrowed. People without reservations often showed up early, angling for a good position in the line that formed around mealtimes. He usually forced a pleasant smile to his face and pointed at his watch. Today his smile was genuine. The woman on the steps was in her early forties, with thick, dark hair pulled back into a chignon. She wore a deep red business suit, cut to show off the kind of curves that could still send him into the realm of fantasy.
Her name was Katerina Piretti, and she was his wife.
Stephen hurried across the room, threw the bolt, and swung open the door.
"Hey!" he said. He bent to kiss his wife, but Kat swept past, depositing her briefcase on the floor with a loud thud before turning to face him.
"Where were you?" she demanded, one hand planted firmly on her hip.
Stephen appraised the smoldering expression on her face. "Watch the front, Laura, okay?" he called into the main dining room. He lifted Kat's briefcase and started back to his office.
"Give me that." She followed him, drawn to her briefcase like a magnet to metal.
"Jeez, what's in this thing? Bricks? No way are we staying out there, Kat. I don't believe in making my employees take sides in family disputes."
She remained quiet as the office door closed behind them. Stephen set the briefcase by the wall and sank into an armchair.
"What's the problem?" he asked.
"Where were you this morning?"
"Here, of course."
He hated telling her "since when." Lately she'd been harping on his hours, angry that he got so little sleep and spent so little time at home.
He gave a weary sigh. "Since five-thirty."
Kat flushed, momentarily speechless. Apparently the hour was even earlier than she'd anticipated.
"Inventory," he added lamely. "I told you about it when I clicked off the alarm this morning."
"Was I awake?"
Of course not. At that hour, even the dog hadn't been awake. Kat had been sleeping peacefully, a soft breeze from the window stirring a few strands of her long hair. Stephen had longed to slam the alarm clock against the wall and curl back beside her. They'd made love the night before, and he knew that she was still naked beneath the wreck of bedclothes they'd left behind. How tempting to crawl back into bed, wrap himself around her small, familiar body, and start this new day in the same fashion they'd ended the old one.
But businesses didn't make it without effort and sacrifice. Now, as he sat among his fine antiques, the sounds of his bustling restaurant outside the office door, he was annoyed that his wife couldn't understand this.
"Forgive me," he said, eyebrows lowered. "I was under the impression that you appreciated my financial contribution to our lifestyle."
Her wide brown eyes nearly bored a hole through his forehead. Her lips pursed. He'd made a tactical error. Kat was a partner with the law firm of Harper, Madigan and Horn. Money was hardly the issue. They both knew that he could afford to ease his schedule. The truth was that he just couldn't make himself do it.
He surrendered. "Okay. So I came in early. What's the big deal? Where on earth did you expect me to be this morning?"
Her mouth twitched. "In the carpool line at school."
"You heard me."
Jesus Christ. He remembered now. Today was the first day of school. He and Kat had hashed out a schedule only the other night. She'd had a circuit court hearing scheduled for early this morning, so he'd agreed to drive Julia and Claire to the private prep school they attended.
"Shit." He clapped a hand to his forehead. "Shit."
"Add one for me while you're at it."
f0 "Come here." Through his remorse, Stephen reached out a long arm, hooked it around his wife's waist, and drew her onto his lap. Her expression softened. "I'm sorry, Kat. What happened?"
She shrugged. "What could happen, Stephen? I dropped my file off at the office at seven o'clock this morning. Right now some junior associate is probably melting into a puddle on the city circuit court floor. Thank God it's only a routine motions hearing. I took the girls to school."
"Did you explain to them that I wanted to be there, but that the restaurant -- "
"I told them you forgot."
She stared him down. "You're a grown-up, Stephen. It's time to take responsibility for the choices you make in your life."
She was right, of course. Furthermore, she lived what she preached. Kat worked hard, but Julia and Claire always came first. Kat covered all the bases. She ran the kids to doctors' appointments, kept contact with their teachers, and knew at any given moment their clothing sizes and preferences. Stephen didn't know how she did it. He was afraid to know, because then he'd be obliged to jump in and work some of that same magic.
Kat leaned her head against his chest. She looked tired. Despite her makeup, Stephen could see the delicate purple circles beneath her eyes. She was losing weight again. He moved his hand up from her waist. No doubt about it, he could count her ribs if he wanted to.
He'd have to hire another manager and start spending more time at home. It wasn't fair that Kat had a demanding job and total responsibility around the house.
Maybe he could fit interviews in next week.
Kat lifted her head and met his gaze. "You'll need to pick the girls up at four o'clock," she said.
"Four? That may not work out. I've got a corporate meeting here, and it may go on -- "
"You also have an eight-year-old and a thirteen-year-old."
"But -- "
"Not to mention a wife who has a deposition scheduled at two. A wife who just bailed you out, I might add. Do it, Stephen."
She pulled herself up from his lap. He opened his mouth to protest, but words failed him. She was right, and that was all there was to it.
"I'll be there," he said.
She started toward her briefcase, then stopped. "I forgot. Aunt Frannie's back."
Stephen brightened. Francesca Piretti had practically raised Kat. Beyond that, she'd rapidly become one of his most trusted friends. He wished she didn't travel so much. There were times he felt he could use her advice, or at least her ear. But it was almost as if Francesca's home could no longer contain her. She'd traveled voraciously these past fifteen years, all through Europe, the Middle East, and much of Asia. This time she'd gone to England. Had she really been away since March?
Stephen sighed. Francesca had left the convent thirty-five years ago. Sometimes he wondered if she meant to leave them as well.
"When do we see her?" he asked.
"She wanted to come by as soon as possible, so I invited her to dinner tonight. It's strange, Stephen. She sounded...well, urgent."
"I'll tell the girls she's coming. They'll be thrilled."
ard"She wants to see them, too, but she was very definite. She needs to speak to you and me alone."
"Yes, you remember that. It means 'without kids.'"
A low murmur drifted down the hallway from the lobby. Angel Café was open and ready for business. Stephen instinctively rose from his chair.
"Wait," Kat said. "Say good-bye to me before you slip back into entrepreneur mode."
He laughed. "What?"
"I hate it when you close up on me. It's as if my voice can't penetrate. The only sounds that get through are work-related: silverware, china, cash registers..."
"Okay, okay." He gathered her into his arms and bent to kiss her lips. Her arms tightened around his neck.
She meant more to him than Angel Café ever could. He knew that. He knew it without a doubt as he held her close and felt the beating of her heart against his chest. He knew it as he opened the office door and escorted her down the hallway to the lobby.
"Mr. Carmichael!" His hostess appeared beside him, unusually flustered. "I think a reservation fell through the cracks."
He was already poring over the reservation book when Kat slipped out the front door.
Copyright © 2005 by Jill Morrow
The Open Channel
Attorney Katerina Piretti and her husband, Stephen Carmichael, own South Baltimore's trendy Angel Café. Having battled with the dark side in the past, they want nothing more now than to lead ordinary lives by simply raising their two daughters and pursuing their lucrative careers. Unfortunately, ordinary doesn't seem to be an option.
When their thirteen-year-old daughter, Julia, begins to experience frightfully realistic dreams and visions, Kat and Stephen quickly realize that protecting their family will require a return to the spiritual battleground they long thought they had left behind. Is Julia the prophesied child of light, or simply an open channel allowing spirits unfiltered access to the physical world? Kat and Stephen race against time to discover the truth, for Julia has become a target for an ancient evil they have no desire to meet again...and modern and medieval eras are about to collide.