Naomi had turned forty last December and had celebrated with a long weekend in Mexico and a string of hunky cabana boys. Penny had always admired her friend’s ability to make her own fun.
“Nice sweater,” Naomi said, nodding at the emerald green fabric.
“I figure I’ll show off cleavage while I’ve got it.”
“Good plan. You hardly have any tummy at all, but the jacket hides the little that is there. Come on. You can’t stall here forever.”
Penny nodded and let Naomi lead her out into the main restaurant. As they walked out of the kitchen, a young blond waiter walked by. Naomi grabbed his arm.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He grinned at her. “Ted.”
“Good.” She turned to Penny. “That’s candidate number one.”
Penny was still laughing when she turned to face the crowd.
Her humor faded as she took in the sheer number of people milling in the main dining room. They’d sent out over five hundred invitations and from the looks of things, everyone had decided to show up.
Soft music was barely audible over the general din of conversation. People stood in groups, chatting and laughing, while waiters in white coats circulated with trays of food.
The bar was doing a brisk business, hardly a surprise when the liquor was free. Penny had a brief urge for something to steady her nerves, then braced herself and tried to pick a direction in which to wander.
Just then the crowd shifted and parted, allowing her to see into the center of the room. Cal stood there, tall and studly in a dark suit. Her body reacted, getting all hot and weak and needy.
She used her kitchen experience to call herself several bad names and when that didn’t decrease her very inappropriate desire, she reminded herself that she and Cal had already tried the relationship thing and it hadn’t worked. He’d let her go without a whimper, leaving her to wonder if he’d ever loved her at all.
“So it’s just you and me, kid,” she whispered as she lightly touched her stomach. Then she squared her shoulders and plunged into the crowd.
“Nice to see you. Thanks for coming.”
Penny smiled, greeted and generally made nice with the prospective clientele. She made her way toward Cal, who came and collected her before she reached him.
“It’s going great,” he said. “Big crowd showed.”
“Sure they did,” she murmured into his ear. “The food is free. Let’s see how many of them are willing to pay on another night.”
He chuckled, then introduced her to several government officials.
“We used to come here all the time,” a petite, pretty lawyer said. “Lately, though…” Her voice trailed off.
Penny waved away the comment. “You can say it was really bad. I wasn’t the one cooking.”
The woman laughed. “I guess not. I’ve sampled most of the food. It’s terrific.”
“Thank you. Obviously we want to offer traditional favorites while helping people branch out.”
Cal put his hand on the small of her back, which caused her nerve endings to make a few Flashdance moves of their own.
“Have you tried Penny’s fish and chips? They’re incredible. I made the mistake of saying they weren’t important enough for our menu. She won me over with one bite.”
Penny glanced at him. “I didn’t think you’d admit that.”
“I was wrong.”
The lady lawyer grinned. “Care to embroider that on a pillow? Women everywhere would love to see it.”
Cal excused them and they moved to another group of local business people. He introduced her and then let her explain about her philosophy as far as using local ingredients whenever possible.
“We live in a wonderful part of the country,” she said. “Why not take advantage of that?”
A reporter from the Seattle Times moved closer. “Are you going to be featuring Washington wines?”
“Of course. And those from Oregon and British Columbia. Obviously, we’ll have selections from California, France and other places, but our focus is regional.”
The next two hours were a blur of introductions and sound bites to sell the restaurant. Cal stayed close except when she ducked into the kitchen to check on things. When she returned to the dining room, it was to find Naomi leading Gloria Buchanan toward her.
They were an odd couple. Gloria was small, with white hair and piercing blue eyes. Her clothes cost more than the national debt of several small island nations. Naomi towered over her, six feet of Amazon beauty. Her wavy dark hair fell down her back, and her green eyes seemed to laugh at the world. But it was the heart tattoo on her bare shoulder and the way her breasts moved in the black halter top that really caught one’s attention.
“Lookee who I found,” Naomi said, releasing Gloria’s arm and grinning. “Don’t you know her?”
Gloria adjusted the sleeve of her winter-white wool suit jacket and sniffed. “Who is this person?” she demanded.
“Hello, Gloria,” Penny said, forcing a smile. Gloria had made it very clear she would never forgive Penny for leaving her precious grandson. After all, in Gloria’s mind, marriage to a Buchanan was a pinnacle few could hope to achieve. “Nice to see you. This is my friend Naomi.”
Gloria glanced at the other woman, then turned back to Penny. “If you say so.”
“Oh, Penny and I go way back,” Naomi said cheerfully. “We met while she was still at the culinary institute. I was her next-door neighbor and she came over to complain that I was making too much noise.”
Penny winced, knowing what was to come.
Naomi lowered her voice. “It was the sex. I have this thing for younger men and that can get kinda noisy. I felt really bad. But Penny was great about it and we became friends.”
Gloria’s expression didn’t change, but her mouth tightened. It was what gave her away-a trait she shared with her grandson.
Cal joined them. Gloria looked at him. “Do you know this woman?” she demanded, pointing at Naomi.
Cal groaned. “Oh, yeah.”
Naomi sighed. “Tell her about the time I saw you naked,” she said, then strolled off.
Cal looked from Naomi to his grandmother, then excused himself. Under the circumstances, Penny couldn’t exactly blame him. Unfortunately, his action left her alone with Gloria.
“So, Callister hired you,” the older woman said, her voice laced with displeasure.
“That he did. I have a three-year contract.”
“Have you tasted the food?”
Gloria glanced at a passing tray. “I have a delicate stomach.”
The insult was so blatant, it was almost funny. Almost. Penny wasn’t surprised to hear she wasn’t Gloria’s first choice. For some reason, the old bat had never liked her and it was hard to feel affection for someone so determined to keep her on the outside.
“Too bad,” Penny said. “We’re getting rave reviews.”
“The food is free, dear. What did you expect?”
Sort of what Penny had thought. Not that she was going to admit it.
“Well, this has been great,” she said. “Nice to see you again, but I have to-”
Gloria grabbed her arm. “You won’t get him back, you know.”
“Callister. He’s over you. I’m not sure what he ever saw in you.”
“Yes, I know. You made that very clear.” Penny pulled her arm free and wished her mother had been just a little less insistent on one being polite to one’s elders.
Cal might have let her go without a whimper, but Gloria had practically had a party to celebrate the divorce. At least that’s what Reid had told her.
“You were never right for him,” Gloria said. “You never cared enough. What kind of woman walks out on her marriage?”
The unfairness of the accusation caused Penny to abruptly excuse herself. As she walked away, she found herself wanting to turn around and announce that she had cared. She’d loved Cal with her whole heart. She would have done anything for him-anything but not have a child. Having a family of her own was the one thing she wouldn’t compromise on.
“Stupid old woman,” she muttered, then grabbed a cup of bisque from a passing waiter and drank it down.
“I saw the smoke so I came running.”
Penny turned and saw Reid behind her. She leaned against him. “Your grandmother is horrible. I’d forgotten how bad.”
“No one ever really forgets about her. You just repressed the memory. We all do. It’s how we survive.”
He wrapped both arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “The party is great. People are raving about the food. I think you’re a hit.”
“I hope so.”
“How are you feeling?” he asked, his voice low.
“I have a horrible craving for orange sherbet. I’m surrounded by all this amazing food and that’s all I can think about.”
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
Cal walked up, dragging Naomi behind him.
“Do something,” he told Penny. “She’s asking my opinion about waiters.”
“There are so many to choose from,” Naomi said, suddenly focused on Reid. “Well, hello. You didn’t head off to spring training.”
“Not this year.”
“That’s too bad. I always enjoy watching you work. You move really well.”
Penny shivered. “Stop it. You guys are my friends. I can’t deal with this.”
Reid flashed her a grin. “You’re going to have to get over it.” He held out his hand to Naomi. “Shall we?”
They strolled off together.
Penny watched them go. “I don’t know which one to worry about. I suppose it’s been inevitable. They’ve known each other for years. But Reid was always coming or going and Naomi…” She paused. “I’m not sure why she waited this long. At least she’ll help keep his mind off the season starting.”
“Nothing against your friend, but no woman could do that.”
“Then she’ll be a distraction.”
Cal shrugged. “Probably.”
“Naomi can handle him. She can handle anyone.”
“She’s had the practice.”
Penny was about to take offense for her friend when she realized Cal wasn’t talking to her. Oh, he’d faced her and was therefore pointing in the right direction, but his attention was far more on her chest than her face.
She’d never had the kind of body that commanded men’s attention and it felt good to have it now. Twisted, but good.
“Shall we?” she asked, pointing to the crowd.
They dove back in.
CAL WOKE UP in a great mood. The party the previous night had gone well and he was expecting a lot of positive press from the event. Even more important, people would talk about Penny’s food and that would bring in customers as much as any article. If the opening went as smoothly as the party, then he would have achieved the success he wanted in four months and he could bow out and return to The Daily Grind.
He showered, shaved and was about to pick out his clothes for the day when his phone rang. He glanced at the clock. Who the hell would be calling at ten past seven in the morning?
He instantly thought of Walker. Had something happened to his brother? He reached for the phone.
“Dammit, Cal, this is your fault,” Penny yelled before he had a chance to say hello. “Get down here right now. To the restaurant,” she added. “I mean it. You have twenty minutes.” Then she hung up.
A push, but he made it with forty-five seconds to spare. Whatever the crisis was, he planned to have a little talk with her about manager-chef relationships. She might be in charge of the kitchen but that didn’t make her boss of the world.
He pulled into the parking lot and circled around back. As he’d suspected, the morning deliveries were stacked outside the rear of the building. Penny stood there with a very tousled Naomi at her side.
He didn’t want to think about what Naomi had done with her night. Not when his brother was involved. So he parked and climbed out of his car. Penny saw him and raced toward him.
“Smell this,” she said, thrusting a large piece of fish in his face. “Smell it.”
He inhaled, then wished he hadn’t. Good fish shouldn’t have a smell at all. Old fish smelled fishy. This fish smelled as if it had died three weeks ago.
“It’s all crap,” she said, her eyes bright with temper, her cheeks blazing as red as her hair. “You could tie the celery in knots and it wouldn’t break. The shallots are practically a liquid. Crap. Did I tell you? Did I say there was a reason this restaurant had closed? Did you listen?”
She sucked in a breath. “Do you know how many reservations we have for tonight? The house is full. Full. Starting at six and going through until ten, we have every seat taken. We’re talking about dinner for just over three hundred. You want to know how much food I have? None. None! I have a damn box of cornstarch and three leeks and I have to provide dinner for three hundred.”
She ignored him. “I said they could screw up one time. Well, they have. I’ll get my own people in here, which is great, but I still have dinner for three hundred tonight. I want someone’s head on a platter. I want it now and I want it raw. I’ll cook it myself.”
With that she turned on her heel and stalked into the restaurant.
He was equally torn between admiring her spirit and dealing with the disaster at hand.
Naomi stared at him. “Don’t go there, big guy. You already screwed that one up once.”
Cal ignored that. “Tell the guy to pack up and send it all back.” He would call later and cancel the contract, but right now there was a bigger problem. Dinner for three hundred.
He went into the restaurant and found Penny in the cold storage, taking inventory.
“I have shrimp,” she said, a note of hysteria in her voice. “Great. If we cut them in half, then everyone gets a serving. Fabulous. Come to The Waterfront and enjoy half a shrimp.” She turned and saw him. “Get out of my way.”
“I want to help.”
“You will. Tell me you drive something bigger than that expensive toy.”
“I have a full-sized truck.”
“Good. Go get it. Dress dirty. We’re going to Pike Place Market. But first I’m calling my fish people and finding out what they can do for me.” She winced. “They’re going to charge a lot for a last minute order.”
“We’ll pay.” He moved close and grabbed her shoulders. “I’m sorry the delivery was crap, but we’ll handle this. We can do an opening night chef’s menu and pretend it was our plan all along.”
“I know, but you have the easy part. You just have to print it out on the computer and slip it into the menus. I have to figure it all out and then make sure we have enough food, then cook it.”
“You can do it.”
“There’s an assumption.”
He saw the doubt in her eyes.
He felt her pain and annoyance and couldn’t think of a damn thing to make her feel better. She deserved more. Worse, he was partially to blame. He’d insisted on keeping the old vendors.
“Yes? Any solution would be welcome.”
When he was silent, she sighed. “Yeah, I don’t have a miracle up my sleeve, either. Okay, meet us at the market in forty-five minutes,” she said. “We’ll check out what’s available and I’ll come up with a menu. Then we’ll put it all together and pray that it works.”