“You’re not here to talk about The Daily Grind,” he said. “So why don’t you get to the point?”
“I want to talk about the restaurant,” she said.
“No, you don’t.”
Her dark blue eyes widened slightly. “Excuse me?”
“Tread carefully,” he told her. “There are specific rules in play. If you get in my face about any detail of the restaurant, I quit. I promised you a turnaround in four months, on the condition that you stay away. I meant it. One word of advice, one suggestion and it’s all over.”
“You’d really walk away from your legacy?” she asked, her expression both annoyed and imperious.
“I already have. It’s easier than you’d think.”
“I have bled for this family and our company,” she told him, her voice icy. “I have given up a life of my own.”
He’d heard it all before. “You’ve done exactly what you wanted,” he reminded her. “Anyone who stood in your way got taken down and thrown to the side of the road.”
She’d lived and breathed the family business for as long as he had been alive and he suspected the obsession had started long before then. Gloria would do anything to promote the Buchanan name. The irony was she wasn’t even a blood Buchanan. She’d married into the family.
“Let’s be clear,” he said. “I’m not doing this for you. I’m only coming in to help because of my brothers and Dani. Hell, Dani should be the one saving The Waterfront. She cares about it more than the rest of us combined.”
Gloria’s eyes narrowed. “Dani isn’t-”
He cut her off with a shake of his head. “Spare me the lecture. It’s boring. Like I said, I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it in case one of us has kids who care. I’m putting in my four months and then I’m walking away without looking back.”
“You make it sound like a prison sentence.”
“In some ways it is.”
He looked at her and for the first time she actually seemed old. Frail, even. But he knew better than to be sucked in by her tricks. She was a wily old bird and he’d been pecked more than once.
“Fine. Four months,” she said. “I heard who you hired as the chef.”
Her tone indicated he might have made a deal with the devil.
“She does great work and her name will bring in customers,” he said. “She drove a hard bargain, but I got her and that’s what matters.”
“I see.” Gloria didn’t sound as if she could see at all. She sounded annoyed.
Cal wondered what the old bat had against Penny, aside from the fact that she, Gloria, hadn’t handpicked her.
He knew Penny hadn’t believed that he’d done his damnedest to keep her off his grandmother’s radar when they’d been married. Back then he’d been afraid of what the old woman could do.
Now, everything was different. Penny had a reputation for being tough. He was willing to bet she could hold her own against Gloria. They would butt heads eventually; he only hoped he was around to see the show.
“If Penny cooks, they will come,” he said.
Gloria shifted in her seat. “I hope there won’t be any unfortunate incidents in our establishment.”
Cal knew he was being set up, but his curiosity was too strong for him to ignore the lure. The only thing he knew about Penny’s life since the divorce were the odd bits Reid dropped in casual conversation.
“What incidents?” he asked.
“She once stabbed a member of her staff. Apparently the man wouldn’t do what she said, so she took a kitchen knife to him.”
Cal started to laugh. Gloria glared at him.
“It’s not funny. She’s practically a murderer.”
He continued to chuckle. “Was she charged with anything?”
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
Which meant she hadn’t been. “I hope the story’s true,” he said, still amused. “I can’t wait to ask her for all the details.”
“IT’S ALL FINE and good to look at qualifications,” Naomi said. “But I want someone I can have sex with.”
Penny ignored her friend and glanced at the application in front of her. “I hear good things about him,” she said, making notes on a pad. “Put him on the list.”
“But he’s married and he doesn’t cheat.” There was a definite whine in Naomi’s voice. “I can accept one, but not the other.”
“We are talking about raising a restaurant from the dead. Not your sex life.”
“Why do they have to be mutually exclusive? I can be a good employee and have a great sex life. In fact, getting laid on a regular basis keeps me cheerful.”
Penny looked at her papers so Naomi wouldn’t see her smile. “Focus,” she said.
Naomi sighed. “You’re less fun now that you’re in charge.”
“And likely to stay that way. Who’s next?”
While Naomi shuffled through papers, Penny glanced around the transformed dining room. The place had been painted and there were new window coverings. The old carpet was up and the floors had been refinished. The scent of varnish competed with the smell of cleanser and bleach coming from the kitchen. The horrible odor of rotting food had been driven from the place, which made Penny grateful. She was well into her fourth month and she didn’t want to experience morning sickness at this late date.
“Asshole alert at ten o’clock,” Naomi muttered.
Penny turned and saw Cal walking toward them. He looked good-tall and handsome, wearing a black leather bomber jacket and jeans. He walked with an easy, loose-hipped grace that all the Buchanan men had. Good genes, she thought, which, unfortunately, came from Gloria. Penny might not like the old woman but she knew her stubbornness and determination had been passed on to her grandchildren.
“He’s not an asshole anymore,” Penny said, ignoring the sudden quivering in her belly. “He’s our boss.”
“To me, he’ll always be the jerk who made you cry for two weeks straight when he walked out on you.”
Technically Penny had been the one to move out of the apartment, but she knew what Naomi meant. Cal had done nothing to keep her and certainly hadn’t come after her.
“That was a long time ago,” Penny reminded her. “I’ve let it go. You should work on that, too.”
Cal approached the table. “Ladies.” He held out a cardboard container with three cups of coffee. “A little something to help with the hiring process.”
Naomi grabbed a cup and looked at The Daily Grind logo. “I’m more a Starbucks person, but any port in a storm.”
“Nice,” Cal said, looking at her. “Hello, Naomi. It’s been a long time.”
“It has.” She stood. In her black leather boots, she was nearly eye-to-eye with Cal. “How’s it going?”
“I hear you’re in charge.”
She took a sip of the coffee. “Every time I go into one of your stores, I remember the time I saw you naked. It always gives me a little giggle.”
With that, she strolled away.
Penny closed her eyes and winced. Unfortunately Naomi had seen Cal naked. She’d walked in on them making love, once. After retreating, she’d stood behind the closed door and complained bitterly about people who didn’t have the common courtesy to at least make some noise while doing it so the world could know what they were up to and not accidentally walk in.
Cal took the seat she’d vacated and picked up one of the remaining coffees. “Do you really need her?” he asked.
“Sorry, yes. She’s great at her job and she watches my back.” Naomi would also take some of the heat off Penny as her pregnancy progressed. “We’ve become something of a team.”
“You’re only here for four months,” Penny reminded him. “How bad could it be?”
“We’re talking about Naomi. It could be a disaster.”
“Not for our big, bad general manager.”
He looked at her. “I don’t think I detect enough reverence in your voice. This is my restaurant and while I’m here, I’m a god.”
“I must have missed that memo. Could you resend it to me?”
“I’ll bring you a copy myself.” He glanced around the dining room. “What do you think?”
She followed his gaze. “It’s fine.”
“Fine? Do you know how much this is costing?”
“Nope. And I don’t much care. The front of the store is your business.”
He shook his head. “You haven’t changed. What happens when you open your own place? You’ll have to deal with the front of the store then.”
“I’ll manage. Naomi has fabulous taste.”
“Are you sure she won’t want to turn it into some kind of sex shop?”
Penny considered the question. “Good point. Then I’ll talk to Reid. I’m sure one of his former girlfriends was an interior decorator.”
“Assuming he remembers which one.”
“Another good point. You’re on a roll this morning.”
He sipped his coffee. “You’re feisty. When did that happen?”
“A hundred and forty-seven days ago. There was a report on the news.”
“I missed that.”
“I guess it’s hiding with your memo about being a god.”
He grinned and she smiled in return. Even as she wanted to lean in and continue the banter, she knew it was far better to keep things completely businesslike between them. Her former relationship with Cal had started with fun conversation and had gotten more dangerous by the minute. Although she felt completely immune now, she didn’t want to take any chances. Not when it was surprisingly easy to be around him.
“You’ve been out of the business a while,” she said. “How does it feel to be back?”
“Good. Familiar. I didn’t think I’d missed it, but there’s something about running a restaurant. Everything’s changing, with no hour the same, let alone a day. Time is always the enemy. The next crisis is just around the corner.”
“Sounds like you’ve missed it.”
“Maybe I have.”
“I hope you remember enough to keep this half up and running.”
“Your faith in me is overwhelming.”
Cal watched Penny lean back as if separating herself from him. He could read her mind as clearly as if she’d spoken.
He hadn’t had faith in her.
The statement wasn’t true, but he knew she wouldn’t believe him. His attempts to protect her from Gloria had only widened the chasm in their rapidly unraveling marriage.
Ancient history, he told himself. Better to forget it.
She reached into a battered backpack and pulled out a folder. “Here are some sample menus. I’ve marked the items I want to serve at the big preopening party. The question marks are in place where I’m not sure what will be available that particular day. Inventory changes quickly and my fish people can’t promise the more exotic selections until the day of the party.”
He took the sheets of paper. “The infamous fish people.”
She smiled. “Sometimes they dress in costume.”
“I’d like to see that.”
The sound washed over him in a wave of unexpected heat. He felt it sink into him, warming him, arousing him.
Whoa. Not going there. He didn’t believe in do-overs, not in personal relationships, anyway. He and Penny were simply co-workers, nothing more.
But even as he told himself to back off, sexual energy poured through him, making him aware of the humor in her eyes and the way her skin seemed almost luminous.
He told himself that the former was at his expense and the latter was simply the result of damn good lighting in the restaurant. But even he didn’t believe it.
“Are you even listening?” she asked.
“Yeah. Fish specials depend on the whim of the fish people.”
“No. I was saying that I’ll be building my specials slowly. I won’t want to dump a bunch of new items on the menu at once. I also have a few things in mind for new signature dishes. Once we’re established, I’ll offer them as specials and if they take off, I’ll put them on the menu. I’ve also been working on a seasonal menu. Certain fish is available at certain times of the year. I can build around that. The same with produce.”
“Berries in the summer, squash in the fall,” he said.
She sighed. “I’d like to think I’m more imaginative than that, but yes. That’s the idea.”
He looked over the menu. There were the basics-steamed and grilled fish, soups, salads, sides.
He’d had her garlic smashed potatoes before and his mouth watered at the memory. She put in a secret ingredient that she’d never shared, even with him.
He flipped to the list of specials. “Corn cakes?” he asked. “I thought we were specializing in Northwest cuisine. Isn’t that Southwestern?”
“That depends on how they’re prepared.”
He shrugged, then shook his head. “Fish and chips? Do we really want to do that here? We’re going for an upscale experience, not cheap fast food on the pier.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Do I look annoyed?” she asked. “Because you’re really pissing me off here. Did you or did you not want a special menu?”
“Did you or did you not hire me to make the dining experience special?”
“Perhaps you’d like to give me a chance to do my job before you start complaining.”
“Penny,” he said, his voice low and commanding. “I get final say on the menu. That’s in the contract.”
He could practically hear her teeth grinding.
“Fine. Mark everything you consider questionable. Then be back here in two days. We’ll have a tasting. At that point, you will sample the foods you object to. I will be in the kitchen where you can crawl to me and beg my forgiveness, after which you’ll never, ever question my menu selections again.”
He chuckled. “I won’t be crawling and I will question as I see fit, but the tasting session sounds fine.” He pulled out his Palm Pilot. “What time?”
“Fine. Of course if I’m not impressed, I’ll be calling the shots on the menu,” he told her.
“Only if hell has frozen over.”
“I hear it’s getting cold down there.”
She muttered something he couldn’t hear, which made him hold in a smile.
She’d gotten tough in the years they’d been apart. He liked that about her. He doubted she would have any trouble controlling the kitchen staff. He thought about what Gloria had told him, that Penny had stabbed someone. He wanted to hear the story, but not just yet.
Cal looked over the menu again. “We should price what we’ve agreed on,” he said. “Somehow I think that will be an argument.”
“I have the costs here.”
She pulled out several more sheets, these printed out from a computer. They broke down the approximate size of each serving and the cost to prepare it. Store costs-labor, wait staff and the fixed costs of the building were arrived at by estimating the total number of dinners served per night and dividing that into store costs for the day.
“Your portions are too large,” he said. “We’ll have to charge too much.”
“Better that than they go home hungry and have to stop for a burger on the way.”
He braced himself for the battle to come. “Who needs ten ounces of halibut?”
“Fish is different from meat. A four-ounce portion isn’t normal.”
“We’re talking about a premium product.”
She tapped her pen on the table. “Gee, and I thought this was going to be a premium restaurant. Did I have that wrong?”