I Love You More

February 6, 2024

Available in: Paperback, e-Book

I Love You More

In this thoughtful, intimate novel centered around a San Francisco family restaurant, two estranged sisters get a chance to rediscover their bond in the face of personal upheaval—if they can let go of the past and embrace new beginnings . . .

To an outsider, television morning anchor Tess Stone’s life looks like glossy perfection. Ambitious, beautiful, and married to a major league baseball player, Tess seems invincible—until an on-air catastrophe puts both her marriage and career in jeopardy. Retreating home to San Francisco from New York to take stock seems like the best move. But that involves a challenge of its own: confronting her sister, Avery.

Unlike Tess, Avery has pushed her own dreams aside in favor of running the family restaurant, Stones, dutifully adhering to her father’s unchanging menu of stick-to-your-ribs traditional fare. She has mixed feelings about her sister’s return. After all, Avery’s fiancé, Bennett, loved Tess first, and it’s impossible to shake her jealousy and dread—especially as Tess begins stealing attention left and right once more.

But while both sisters have been immersed in their own lives, their parents have been keeping secrets of their own. And the curveballs keep coming—throwing into question all their relationships, the restaurant’s future, and their long-held assumptions about love, family, and especially, each other . . .


I know I love Bennett more than he loves me.

Five years ago, Bennett Lamb walked into Stones, sat at the bar, ordered my dad’s famous chicken potpie and an after-work cocktail. A martini if I recall correctly. Or perhaps I’m remembering a martini because I know it’s his drink of choice. He always sets aside the tiny skewer of olives and saves it for last.

In any event, he was at the restaurant that night, capping off his dinner with dessert. I was in the kitchen, helping my father on the line because Javi was on vacation, a trip to Disneyland with his grandkids.

Our two lives, Bennett’s and mine, might never have collided if not for two things.

First: my killer chocolate pot de crème (pudding, according to Dad). Second: the fight that broke out in the dining room.

Hesper Johnson came in like he does every evening. Hesper is homeless, or partially homeless. Six months out of the year he lives with his sister in Antelope Valley in Southern California. By February, the two of them are so sick of each other that his sister inevitably kicks him out and gives him enough bus fare for a Greyhound back to San Francisco, where he sleeps under the Bay Bridge or in one of the single room occupancy hotels in the Tenderloin, depending on his cash flow situation.

In September, when Hesper has had enough of living on the streets, the cycle starts all over again. He calls the annual pilgrimage to Antelope Valley his fall and winter sabbatical.

But while he’s here, we feed him most every night. Occasionally, he’ll take out the trash for us or do some other menial job in a show of appreciation. Mom always loads him up with leftovers at the end of the night, which he shares with the rest of his bridge posse.

Anyway, one of our diners took exception to him sitting up at the bar. To be honest, he doesn’t smell too great. The diner told him to take a bath. In return, Hesper told the diner to do something anatomically impossible. One thing led to another and before too long the men were brawling, like actually throwing punches in the middle of our family-friendly restaurant.

Dad and I ran out from the kitchen as my mom and our bartender, Cybil, tried to pull them apart. Carlos called the cops. But by then, the two men were on the floor, hitting and kicking each other. It was absolute mayhem. Then, out of nowhere came a loud whistle, the kind that comes from sticking two fingers in your mouth, the kind the hero in a movie uses to catch a cab, the kind I’ve never quite been able to pull off.

Startled by the ear-piercing sound, everyone stopped to see where it was coming from. And there was Bennett.

He hopped off his barstool, dashed over to the melee, pulled the diner up by his J.Crew collar and walked him to the door. “Do you mind? We’re all trying to eat.”

There was a round of applause from the room. Carlos sent the cops packing with cake, so their quick response wasn’t in vain. And Hesper went back to his soup while I stood at the corner of the bar transfixed on Bennett. On his kind, open face and his green eyes that I would later learn were hazel.

And then I did something I rarely if ever do at Stones. I walked up to him and said, “Your meal is on the house.”

His lips slid up in a smile that made my breath catch in my throat. “Nah, you don’t have to do that.”

“You sure? Because I’d...we’d really like to thank you for what you did,” I said, trying not to stumble on the words.

“Yep, totally sure. Nothing to thank me for. But if there are any more of these left, I’ll take another one.” He tapped his spoon against a ramekin that had been scraped clean except for a small trace of chocolate around the edge. “Best thing I’ve ever had.”

More than even his smile, the words went straight to my heart. Especially because he had no way of knowing it was my pot de crème. I’d never seen him in the restaurant before.

I flagged down Mandy, Mom’s favorite server, and asked her to get Bennett another one.

“I take it you’ve got clout in this place.” He motioned for me to take the stool next to him, which I did even though they needed me in the kitchen.

“I’m the pastry chef here and my last name is Stone, so yeah, a little bit of clout.”

“Pastry chef, huh? Does that mean you made the pot de crème?”

“With my own two hands.”

“Wow, you’ve got some talented hands.”

Ordinarily, the “talented hands” remark would’ve skeeved me out but from his tone there was no double entendre in his meaning. He was being complimentary in all the right ways.

“Thank you.”

“So what’s the difference between pot de crème and pudding?” Mandy brought a second ramekin to the bar and Bennett pushed it in the middle, between us. “I’m willing to share but only a little of it, so don’t be getting any ideas.” He got up and filched a spoon from a nearby table and handed it to me.

I’d never shared a dessert with one of our diners, it’s a tad too intimate. Even creepy. But I didn’t hesitate to dip my spoon in and take a bite. I taste everything in the kitchen as I go, yet I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. Rich, smooth, and so chocolaty it melted in my mouth.

“My father, who’s the executive chef here, would tell you there is no difference,” I said, addressing the pot de crème versus pudding question, which by the way I get a lot. “But there is a distinct difference if you’re a baker. Both are custards. But pudding is thickened with cornstarch and chilled for at least three hours. Pot de crème is looser than pudding and is thickened with eggs and baked in the oven in a water bath. Probably more information than you wanted to know.” I laughed because I tend to geek out when I’m talking about food.

“Wow, who knew? I just thought pot de crème was the French word for pudding. You learn something new every day.” He grinned again and I felt his smile all the way down to my toes.

“So what brings you into Stones, I mean besides dinner?” My face turned red because it was a silly question and sounded like a cheesy pickup line.

“Word on the street is it’s good and I’d never been before. Thought it was high time I gave it a try. Glad I did. Besides the food being really good and the dessert outstanding, who doesn’t love a good barroom fight?”

“Yeah, sorry about that. Would you believe me if I told you that’s never happened before? Or at least not as long as I’ve worked here.” He laughed.

“And how long is that?”

“My whole life.”

“You came here straight from the womb, huh?”

“Pretty much.” Which felt like the truth. I can’t remember a day when Stones wasn’t part of my life.

“You’re a local, then,” I said. Because the way he’d made it sound was that he lived here and wasn’t just passing through.

“Born and raised if you count San Jose.”

I chuckled because San Franciscans have a thing about San Jose. A friend of my late grandfather used to say the last time they had a crowd in downtown San Jose was for a hanging. Given that San Jose is the epicenter of the tech world, San Joseans are having the last laugh.

“What brings you to our fine city?” I asked.

“I live here. Work a few blocks away.”

“And this is your first time at Stones?” I made a face.

“But it won’t be my last.” He shoved a heaping spoonful of my pot de crème in his mouth and when he finished, said, “How’s this?” and to the tune of the Rice-A-Roni jingle sang, “Stones ain’t phony, it’s the San Francisco treat. Stones is homey, the flavor can’t be beat,” then threw his hands up in the air. “Okay, best I could do on short notice.”

I laughed again because the rewritten ditty had a ring to it. “How’d you come up with that?” I didn’t think anyone, at least our age, knew the commercial anymore. I only did because some of the DeDomenicos, the family who invented Rice-A-Roni, ate in the restaurant from time to time.

“It’s what I do,” he said.

“Make up jingles on the spur of the moment?”

“Make up jingles, yes. But not on the spur of the moment. Like your pot de crème, it’s a fine art. And fine art takes time.” He winked as if he was letting me in on a joke.

“Seriously, you make up jingles for a living?”

“Seriously, I do, though we call it advertising.”

“Wow, name a couple.” I’d never met a person who wrote jingles.

He ticked off a few that I recognized but nothing like the “Nationwide is on your side” or “Every kiss begins with K” (thank God) commercials. Still, it was impressive. He was impressive. But the best part was he wasn’t impressed with himself. It’s a rare quality in this city. Most single men here think they’re the second coming, which made me check his left hand for a ring. There wasn’t one, which didn’t mean he was single.

But it felt like he was. More importantly, it felt like he liked me.

I glanced at my watch, knowing it was only a matter of time before Dad sent out one of the line cooks to find me. But I hadn’t wanted it to end with Bennett. I could’ve asked him for his number, but it seemed highly presumptuous. For all I knew, there really was a significant other hiding in the wings.

He must’ve sensed my dilemma because he followed my gaze to the swinging doors that led to the kitchen and said, “Do you have to get back to work?”

“Yeah, I’m filling in for our chef de cuisine this week,” I said, then casually threw in, “Most of the time I’m off by five.”

“Well, I’ll be back tomorrow for one of these.” He held up the now empty ramekin. “If you’re not too busy, come out and say hello.”

And true to his word, I found him on that same barstool the next evening. I even made and put aside a couple of pots de crème just for him in case he showed because it was Friday, bananas Foster day.

He came on Saturday and Sunday, too. I finally had to break it to him that if he wanted to continue eating my desserts, he’d have to branch out a little, that the chocolate pot de crème was a specialty item. Tuesday, he tried the butterscotch pot de crème and lost his mind. Wednesday, he deemed my carrot cake the best in the world.

By Thursday, I’d prepared him a small table in the corner of the kitchen, so he could eat lunch (he had started coming for lunch too) while I baked and we could still carry on a conversation. We talked about everything. My job, his job, his love of opera and how I hated it, my love of shoes and how he only owned three pairs. How we both wanted to buy a house someday near the water. How neither of us had ever been to Hawaii but desperately wanted to vacation there.

To my amazement, Dad never said a word, going about his business, pretending Bennett wasn’t there.

For four glorious weeks, we spent lunch in the kitchen and dinner at the bar. I was sure he was working up to asking me on a real date, somewhere away from Stones. Somewhere where we could kiss for the first time away from the prying eyes of my parents, Javi and the rest of the staff.

But that day never came. What happened next is hard to explain. Probably because I should’ve seen it coming but was too caught up in Bennett to think it could.


She walked into the restaurant one evening after work, her hair sleek and shiny, her dress not too fitted but just fitted enough, flashed those baby blues and Bennett was a goner. I could see the moment it happened, the way he instantly turned his head toward her entrance and glanced at her a little too long. His hazel-green eyes a puddle of wonder.

She waved at me and in a voice that could only be described as awestruck, Bennett asked, “Do you know her?”

“Mm-hmm, she’s my sister,” I croaked, telling myself that everyone was like that when they first met Tess. That in a second, he would come to his senses and remember I was the one.

“Are you going to introduce us?”

No. Go away, Tess. “Of course,” I said, trying to sound like it would be my greatest pleasure.

Tess sashayed over, looking beautiful and poised, and from that minute on, I was forgotten. A piece of day-old bread that had once been fragrant and fresh...and so, so stupid.

I slipped away, unable to watch him slip away from me. It was easy, no one even noticed as I left. It was just Tess and Bennett. I got as far as the kitchen before breaking into tears.

“Avery, honey, what’s wrong?” Dad, sweaty and smelling like freshly chopped onions, pulled me into his arms.

“I hate her.” I sobbed into his stained chef whites.

“Who, honey? Who do you hate?”

I stopped, unable to say my sister’s name, trying hard to pull myself together. And for the next eight months, trying for the sake of my pride to pretend I didn’t care as Tess and Bennett got closer and closer.

He still came to the restaurant, devoured my desserts, raved about how delicious they were, oblivious to my suffering. I no longer invited him back to the kitchen to the private little table I’d set up especially for him. And I kept our conversations cordial but short. If he noticed he never said anything, which I suppose was best for both of us.

I hated him and loved him but it was Tess I resented most. An argument could be made that she knew nothing about my feelings for Bennett and if I’d told her the truth, she would have backed away. But I wasn’t angry with her for taking him. I was angry with her for being more desirable than me.

I told myself that I would get over Bennett, that we’d only known each other for a mere thirty days. But my infatuation with him never subsided. The only thing that lessened was the closeness I shared with my sister. The fissure between us grew as deep as the Grand Canyon. By the time she left for New York, we barely talked anymore.

By the time she left Bennett behind I was all too ready to pick up the pieces.

It happened right before Christmastime. Tess got an offer to anchor Good Morning New York. She’d already been anchoring the weekend news here at KNTV. But WNBC would give her a higher profile and pave the way for her to make it to the network. She jumped at the chance. What she didn’t jump at was taking Bennett with her. In fact, she made it clear she was leaving Bennett...and his heart...in San Francisco.

Soon after, photographs of her and Kit Reid began to appear under headlines that the two were romantically involved. Of course, I already knew. We may not have been talking but she still spoke to my parents regularly. Sometimes twice a day. We’ve always been close and a little too dependent on them in that way.

At first, Bennett was too devastated to come around. The restaurant reminded him too much of Tess, which was ridiculous because she hardly ever came in. But little by little he began to emerge again, ten pounds lighter than he used to be.

He took his old place at the bar, often telling Cybil or whoever was making drinks that night that he wanted to say hello. Initially, I made up excuses. I was too busy in the kitchen to come out. I had to leave early for a date (I wasn’t dating). Or that I had called in sick that day, then I snuck out through the alley so he wouldn’t see me.

He was persistent, though, coming to eat almost every evening. Mom felt sorry for him while all Dad felt was disgusted. “The boy really needs to get a life.”

It appeared his life was Tess, who had moved on, trading up from a jingle writer to a major league baseball player. That was Tess for you, always climbing the ladder.

On a cold, foggy evening in May I finally broke down and joined Bennett at the bar. It was baked Alaska day and I wondered why he had nothing better to do on a Saturday night.

“How you holding up?” I didn’t really want to hear how he was still pining for my sister but was afraid it would be insensitive not to ask.

“Moving on, I suppose.”

Judging by the loose fit of his clothes and his slumped shoulders, it didn’t seem like he was moving on to me. But I nodded and ordered us both martinis.

“How ’bout you? Everything good?” he asked, but not in a way that implied he was asking about whether things were good between us.

The truth was, in his eyes there never was an us. Whatever flicker of interest he might have had for me was quickly extinguished the day Tess walked in the door and across the restaurant floor. He considered me a friend and that was all.

“Pretty good,” I said. “I’m thinking of adding a mille-feuille to the menu.” Dad had already nixed the idea but I was still fighting him on it.

“What’s that?”

“Thin layers of puff pastry with custard filling, whipped cream, or even fruit. Basically, a Napoleon.”

“Sounds fantastic.”

“It’s better than fantastic. I learned how to make it in culinary school.”

The next night, I had him test my revised recipe and by summer we were back to our old routine in the kitchen. Dad rolled his eyes but left us alone to our conversations.

In late June, we had our first real date, a bike ride on the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley. It was a gloriously sunny day as we cycled from vineyard to vineyard, admiring miles of rolling hills and grapevines. We ate dinner at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville and shared our first kiss in a dusty parking lot in the center of town. It was still faintly light outside but the sky had turned a multitude of colors. Oranges, reds, blues and yellows.

I remember clinging to Bennett, feeling his heartbeat as he cupped the back of my head, taking the kiss deeper. Later, I told myself it was the best kiss I’d ever had, slow and thorough and oh so romantic with the countryside as our backdrop.

As Tess’s relationship with Kit moved forward, mine and Bennett’s kept pace. Every day I fell more deeply in love with him. So much so that I ignored simple warning signs, like when he asked too much about Tess or moped when there was a new headline about the incredible first baseman for the Yankees.

In what seemed like a whirlwind to the rest of us, Tess and Kit got engaged the following year and were married just a few months later. The wedding, a big to-do, was held at the Carlyle hotel. I was Tess’s maid of honor. And though Bennett was invited as my date, we both thought it best if he skipped the event.

It was a beautiful ceremony and an elegant reception. My sister was breathtaking in her backless sheath wedding gown and I could tell she was really in love. And the happiest I’d ever seen her.

Here’s the really sad part: Instead of being happy for her I was happy for myself because she was no longer a threat to me being with Bennett. I know it’s pitiful but that’s how much I love him.

After the wedding, my relationship with Tess got better, or at least not so strained. For her part, she was so wrapped up in her own life I don’t think she ever realized that I’d pulled away. As far as me dating Bennett, she never gave it a second thought. For her, it was water under the bridge.

Where once I used to avoid her phone calls, we now talked at least once a week. She would entertain me with stories about the morning show and being a professional baseball player’s wife. We talked about the restaurant and how Mom and Dad worked too hard. About Javi and Wen and Carlos and Cybil and even Hesper. About my latest recipe. But I refrained from discussing Bennett and me, irrationally afraid she could still take him from me.

And while things were better between us they weren’t the same as they used be. I suppose I still secretly resented her.

When my father got sick, she and Kit came home. The two of us closed ranks and it almost felt like the old days, when Tess was my favorite person on earth. But then I caught Bennett looking at her. Longingly. It could’ve been my imagination or paranoia. And Tess didn’t even look back. Still, it brought out my hostility all over again.

And now she’s coming home. This time, alone.

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