He would be gone long before that. He’d agreed to come in temporarily to get things up and running, but he had no desire to stay to the bitter end. His only concern was saving the sinking ship. Let someone else shine it up and take all the glory. He was only interested in getting out.
PENNY WALKED into the Downtown Sports Bar and Grill a little after two in the afternoon. The lunch crowd had pretty much cleared out, although a few diehards sat watching the array of sports offered on various televisions around the place.
She headed directly for the bar and leaned against the polished wood. “Hi, Mandy. Is he in?” she asked the very large-breasted blonde polishing glasses.
Mandy smiled. “Hi, Penny. Yeah. He’s in his office. Want me to bring you anything?”
Caffeine, Penny thought, then shook her head. “I’m good.”
She walked to the right of the bar, where a small alcove offered restroom choices, a pay phone and a door marked Employees. From there it was a short trip to Reid Buchanan’s cluttered office.
He sat behind a desk as big as a full-size mattress, his feet up on the corner, the telephone cradled between his ear and his shoulder. When he saw her, he rolled his eyes, pointed at the phone, then waved her in.
“I know,” he said as she wove her way around boxes he had yet to unpack. “It is an important event and I’d like to be there, but I have a prior engagement. Maybe next time. Uh-huh. Sure. You, too.”
He hung up the phone and groaned. “Some foreign government trade show crap,” he said.
“What did they want you to do?” she asked as she swept several folders off the only other chair in the office and sank onto the hard wood seat. She dumped the folders onto his already piled desk.
“Not a clue. Show up. Smile for pictures. Maybe give a speech.” He shrugged.
“How much were they willing to pay you?”
He dropped his feet to the floor and turned to face her. “Ten grand. It’s not like I need the money. I hate all that. It’s bogus. I used to play baseball and now I’m here. I’ve retired.”
Just last year, Penny thought. With the start of the regular season just weeks away, Reid had to be missing his former life.
She poked at one of the piles on the desk, then glanced at him. “I distinctly remember you saying you wanted a desk big enough to have sex on. It was a very specific requirement when we went shopping for one. But if you keep it this messy, no one will be interested in getting naked on its very impressive surface.”
He leaned back in his chair and grinned at her. “I don’t need the desk to get ’em naked.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Reid Buchanan was legendary. Not just for his incredible career as a major league pitcher, but for the way women adored him. Part of it was the Buchanan good looks and charm that all the brothers had. Part of it was that Reid just plain loved women. All women. Former girlfriends ranged from the traditional models and actresses to mother-earth tree huggers nearly a decade older than him. Smart, dumb, short, tall, skinny, curvy, he liked them all. And they liked him.
Penny had known Reid for years. She’d met him two days after meeting Cal. She liked to joke that it had been love at first sight with the latter and best friends at first sight with the former.
“You’ll never guess what I did today,” she said.
Reid raised his dark eyebrows. “Darlin’, the way you’ve been surprising me lately, I wouldn’t even try.”
“I had lunch with your brother.”
Reid leaned back in his chair. “I know you mean Cal because Walker is still stationed overseas. Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”
“He offered me a job. He wants me to be the executive chef at The Waterfront.”
Reid might be a part of the family but until he’d blown out his shoulder in the bottom of the third late last June, he’d never been involved in the business.
“That’s the fish place, right?” he asked.
She laughed. “Yeah. And Buchanan’s is the steak house and you’re running the sports bar and Dani takes care of Burger Heaven. Jeez, Reid, this is your heritage. You have a family empire going here.”
“No. What I have is a two-for-one appetizer special during happy hour. You gonna take the job?”
“I think so.” She leaned forward. “He’s paying me an outrageous salary and I get a percentage of the profits. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. In three years I’ll have enough money to open my own place.”
He looked at her. “I told you I’d give you that money. Just tell me how much and I’ll write you a check.”
She knew he could. Reid had millions invested in all kinds of businesses. But she wouldn’t take a loan from a friend. It was too much like being bailed out by her parents.
“I need to do this on my own,” she said. “You know that.”
“Yeah, yeah. You might want to think about getting that chip off your shoulder, Penny. It’s making you walk funny.”
She ignored that. “I like the idea of bringing back The Waterfront from the dead. I’ll become even more of a star, which will make my restaurant even more successful.”
“Not that you’re letting all this go to your head.”
She laughed. “Look who’s talking. Your ego barely fits inside an airplane hangar.”
Reid walked around the desk and crouched next to her. He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her cheek. “If this is what you want, you know I’m there for you.”
“Thanks.” She brushed his dark hair off his forehead and knew that in many ways life would have been a lot simpler if she just could have fallen in love with Reid instead of Cal.
He stood and leaned against the desk. “When do you start?”
“As soon as the paperwork is signed. I’ve heard the old place needs a total renovation, but we don’t have time for that. We’re going to have to make do. I need to put together menus, hire a kitchen staff.”
Reid folded his arms over his chest. “You didn’t tell him, did you?”
She squirmed in her seat. “It’s not important information.”
“Sure it is. Let me guess. You figured he wouldn’t hire you if he knew, but once you’re in place, he can’t fire you for it.”
“Slick, Penny. But it’s not like you to play games.”
“I wanted the job. It was the only way to get it.”
“He’s not going to like it.”
She rose. “I don’t see why it matters one way or the other. Cal and I have been divorced nearly three years. Now we’re going to work together. It’s a very new-millennium relationship.”
Reid looked at her. “Trust me, when my brother finds out you’re pregnant, there’s going to be hell to pay and for more reasons than you know.”
FOUR DAYS LATER Penny drove to The Waterfront and pulled into the empty parking lot. The day was typical for March, cool, cloudy with a promise of rain later. As she stepped out onto the cracked pavement, she inhaled the smell of wet wood, salt water and fish. There were seagulls crying loudly and an air of desolation to the old building. Several remodels and patch jobs couldn’t disguise that the structure had been through tough times.
There was nothing sadder than a deserted restaurant, she thought. It was midmorning. There should be activity as the prep cooks arrived to start their day. The chef should have already planned the specials and checked on deliveries. There should be the scent of lingering wood smoke from the grill and a savory hint of spices. Instead a page from the Seattle Times blew past her car.
This was her place now. She’d signed the papers and delivered them back to Cal’s office. For the next three years, this was her world and she was master of its fate.
Excitement and anticipation knotted in her stomach. Under normal circumstances she would celebrate with friends, food and wine. For now the wine would have to wait.
“For a good cause,” she whispered as she put a hand on her stomach.
A car pulled into the parking lot. She turned to watch a dark blue BMW Z4 pull up next to her. She eyed the expensive convertible and thought of at least a half-dozen comments she could make when Cal climbed out. Had he been paying attention to the weather for the past thirty-one years? Was a convertible in winter really a smart idea?
But when he opened the door and stepped out, she found herself unable to do much more than smile and wave. As he straightened to his full six-plus feet and adjusted his leather jacket, she felt like a bit player in a men’s cologne commercial. Her job was to watch the male model in question while staring with slack-jawed adoration. Any speaking parts would have to be played by someone with a functioning brain.
Not good, she thought as her throat got tight, her thighs trembled and her already sensitive breasts seemed to strain toward him. Under the circumstances, a visceral reaction to her ex-husband seemed like a very bad idea.
She wasn’t worried about them actually meaning anything. She was pregnant, which meant spending her days in a hormone bath. She teared up at Hallmark commercials, sobbed when little kids clutched puppies and generally wanted to send the world a candygram.
Nope, whatever she felt this moment about Cal had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the pencil eraser-sized zygote in her tummy.
But that didn’t mean she wasn’t fully capable of making a fool out of herself.
She had to remind herself she was a big, bad chef with a reputation for being tough and difficult and something of a perfectionist. She worked with very sharp knives for a living. She could snap chicken bones with her bare hands.
“Ready to take on the world?” Cal asked as he approached.
“Sure. At least my little part of it.” She followed him toward the front door. “I’m going to need a key.”
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a ring. “They’re marked. Front and back doors. All the storerooms. The wine cellar and liquor storage.”
He unlocked the right side of the wood-and-glass double door, then stepped aside to let her enter. She pushed into the dim, open space, then wished she hadn’t when the smell hit her.
“What is that?” she asked, waving her hand in front of her nose. The odor was an unfortunate combination of singed fur, decaying fish and meat and rotting wood.
“It’s a little strong,” Cal admitted. “The storerooms weren’t cleaned out before the place was shut down. When I came by last week, the smell was worse.”
She couldn’t imagine worse. As it was, she had to fight to keep from throwing up. In the nearly four months she’d been pregnant, she’d never had a moment of nausea until now.
Cal propped open the front doors and turned on the fans. “It’ll get better in a moment.”
She rubbed her shoe against the carpet. “The stink isn’t going to come out with just a cleaning.”
“I know. There’s hardwood everywhere in the dining room but here. We’ll refinish the floors, then replace this carpeting.”
She hoped that would be enough.
At least the space was good. High ceiling and big windows. People dining on the water generally wanted to look at the view. She saw large easels with renderings of the dining room. Cal stepped toward them.
“As you can see, we’re making cosmetic changes. We don’t have time for a total remodel.”
Penny walked past him. The front of the store wasn’t her concern, nor did it interest her all that much. She had other places she would rather be-namely the kitchen.
She walked to the back of the dining room and through the large, single swinging door. The smell was worse here, but she ignored it as she took in what would be her domain.
At least it was clean, she thought as she looked at the large wood grill, the steamer, the eight burners, the ovens. There was the prep area, a long, stainless counter with a sink for salad, stacks of pots, sauté pans and bowls. She didn’t even have to close her eyes to know what it would be like. The blinding heat from the grill and the burners. The hiss of the steam, the yells of “order up” or “ready to fire.”
Because of the age of the restaurant, the kitchen was large and well ventilated. The mats looked new and when she picked up one of the pots, it was heavy and of good quality. Now for the storeroom.
“You could pretend to be interested,” Cal said from just inside the kitchen.
She turned to him. “In what?”
“The front of the store. The color scheme and how the tables will be set up.”
“Oh, sure.” She thought for a second, not sure what to say. “It was great. Impressive.”
“Do you think I’m fooled?”
“No, but you shouldn’t be surprised, either. The only thing I care about is how big the dining room is and the table configuration.”
It was important to know how many tables of six and eight and the policy on large parties. There were few things a kitchen staff hated more than a surprise order for twelve.
“I’ll get you that information,” he said. “So what do you think?”
She grinned. “Not bad. I’ll need to take a complete inventory. How much is my budget for new equipment?”
“Get me a list of what you need and I’ll get back to you.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I’m the executive chef. I should have final say on what I buy.”
“You forget that I know you. You’ll be online picking up God knows what from Germany and France and sucking down twenty grand before I blink.”
She turned away so he wouldn’t see her smile. “I’d never do that.”
“Oh, right. This from a woman who asked for a set of knives for her wedding present.”
She spun back to face him, more than ready to take him on. “Cal-”
He cut her off with a quick shake of his head. “Sorry. I won’t bring up our marriage again.”
News of her relationship, or former relationship, with Cal Buchanan would be common knowledge to the kitchen staff within fifteen minutes of opening. Kitchens didn’t have secrets. But that didn’t mean she wanted it shoved in their faces. Or hers.
Seeing Cal, talking to him, was strange. She wasn’t sure what she felt. Not angry. Awkward maybe. Sad. Things had been good once. But he hadn’t cared. He’d…
Okay, maybe she was a little angry. It had been three years. Who would have guessed there would be so much unfinished emotion?
At least she wasn’t going to have to deal with him on a regular basis.
“I’ll get you a list,” she said. “I’ll take an inventory after we’re done.”
“Okay.” He looked at her. “Try not to scream.”
“There are contracts in place.”
She knew he didn’t mean with employees, which only left food and services.
“Not my problem,” she told him.
“It is, because you have to deal with them.”
So typical, she thought. Cal was management. He might intellectually understand what it took to get dinner out for two or three hundred, but he didn’t feel it in his soul.
“I’m not working with crap,” she said.
“Can they screw up before you assume it’s crap?”
“If the food had been good quality, the restaurant wouldn’t be shut down,” she told him. “So there was something wrong, and I’m guessing it was the food. I have my own people I like to deal with.”