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Penny Jackson knew that it was probably wrong to be so excited to see her ex-husband come crawling back, but she was willing to live with the character flaw.
"You know he's going to want to hire you," her friend Naomi said.
"Oh, yeah. The sweet smell of validation." Penny leaned back in her chair and considered the possibilities. "I want him to beg. Not in a vicious, I hate your guts way, but more as a…"
"Show of support for divorced women everywhere?" Naomi asked.
Penny laughed. "Exactly. I suppose that makes me petty and small."
"Maybe, but you're looking especially fabulous today, if that helps."
"A little." Penny smoothed the front of her loose sweater and glanced at the clock. "We're meeting for lunch downtown. A neutral location—no memories, good or bad."
"Stay away from the good ones," Naomi warned her. "You always were a sucker where Cal was concerned."
"That was so three years ago. I'm completely over him. I've moved on."
"Right." Naomi didn't look convinced. "Don't think about how great he looks in his clothes, or out of them. Instead remember how he broke your heart, lied about wanting children and trampled your fragile dreams."
Easy enough, Penny thought, a flicker of annoyance muscling in on her good mood.
Nearly as bad, four years ago she'd applied for a job as a cook in Buchanan's, one of Cal's family's restaurants. The job had been strictly entry-level—she would have been in charge of salads. There had been ten other applicants. Worried she wouldn't make the cut, Penny had asked her then-husband to put in a good word for her with his grandmother. He'd refused and she hadn't gotten the job.
"This time the job is coming to me," Penny said. "I intend to take advantage of that. And him. In a strictly business way, of course."
"Of course," Naomi echoed, not sounding the least bit convinced. "He's trouble for you. Always has been. Be careful."
Penny stood and reached for her purse. "When am I not?"
"Ask for lots of money."
"Don't think about having sex with him."
Penny laughed. "Oh, please. That isn't an issue. You'll see."
Penny arrived early, then stayed in her car until five minutes after the appointed time. A small, possibly insignificant power play on her part, but she figured she'd earned it.
She walked into the quiet leather-and-linen bistro. Before she could approach the hostess, she saw Cal standing by a booth in the back. They might have friends in common, and live in the same city, but since she'd done her darnedest to avoid close proximity to him they never ran into each other. This lunch was going to change that.
"Hi," she said with a breezy smile.
"Penny." He looked her over, then motioned to the other side of the booth. "Thanks for joining me."
"How could I refuse? You wouldn't say much over the phone, which made me curious." She slid onto the seat.
Cal looked good. Tall, muscled, the same soulful eyes she remembered. Just sitting across from him caused her body to remember what it had been like back when things had been good and they'd been unable to keep their hands off each other. Not that she was interested in him in that way. She'd learned her lesson.
Plus, she couldn't forgive the fact that in the three years they'd been apart, he hadn't had the common courtesy to get fat or wrinkled. Nope, he was gorgeous—which was just like a man.
Still, he needed her help. Oh, yeah, that part was very cool. While they'd been married the message had been she wasn't good enough. Now he wanted her to save the day… or the restaurant, in this case. While she planned to say yes, eventually, she was going to enjoy every second of making him beg.
"The Waterfront is in trouble," he said, then paused as the waitress came by to take their order.
When the woman left, Penny leaned back in the tufted seat of the booth and smiled. "I'd heard it was more than in trouble. I'd heard the place was done for. Hemorrhaging customers and money."
She blinked, going for an innocent expression. No doubt Cal would see through her attempt and want to strangle her. But he couldn't. Because he needed her. Was, in fact, desperate for her help. How she loved that in a man. Especially in Cal.
"Things have been better," he admitted, looking as if he hated every second of the conversation.
"The Waterfront is the oldest restaurant in the infamous Buchanan dynasty," she said cheerfully. "The flagship. Or it used to be. Now you have a reputation for bad food and worse service." She sipped her water. "At least that's the word on the street."
"Thanks for the update."
His jaw tightened as he spoke. She could tell he was furious about this meeting. She had an idea of what he was thinking—of all the chefs in all of Seattle, why did it have to be her?
She didn't know either, but sometimes a girl couldn't help catching a break.
"Your contract is up," he said.
She smiled. "Yes, it is."
"You're looking for a new position."
"Yes, I am."
"I'd like to hire you."
Five little words. Words that weren't significant on their own, but when joined together, could mean the world to someone. In this case, her.
"I've had other offers," Penny said calmly.
"Have you accepted any of them?"
Cal was tall, about six-three, with dark hair. His face was all sculpted cheekbones and stubborn jaw, and his mouth frequently betrayed his mood. Right now it was thin and straight. He was so angry, he practically spouted steam. She'd never felt better.
"I'm here to offer you a five-year contract. You get complete control of the kitchen, the standard agreement." He named a salary that made her blink.
Penny took another sip of her water. In truth she didn't want just another job. She wanted her own place. But opening a restaurant took serious money, which she didn't have. Her choices were to take on more partners than she wanted or wait. She'd decided to wait.
Her plan was to spend the next three years putting away money, then open the restaurant of her dreams. So while a big salary was nice, it wasn't enough.
"Not interested," she said, with a slight smile.
Cal's gaze narrowed. "What do you want? Aside from my head on a stick."
Her smile turned genuine. "I've never wanted that," she told him. "Well, not after the divorce was final. It's been three years, Cal. I've long since moved on. Haven't you?"
"Of course. Then why aren't you interested? It's a good job."
"I'm not looking for a job. I want an opportunity."
"More than the standard agreement. I want my name out front and complete creative control in back." She reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "I have a list."
Doing the right thing had always been a pain in the ass, Cal thought as he took the sheet and unfolded it. This time was no different.
He scanned the list, then tossed it back to her. Penny didn't want an opportunity, she wanted his balls sautéed with garlic and a nice cream sauce.
"No," he said flatly, ignoring the way the afternoon sunlight brought out the different colors of red and brown in her auburn hair.
"Fine by me." She picked up the sheet and started to slide out of the booth. "Nice to see you, Cal. Good luck with the restaurant."
He reached across the table and grabbed her wrist. "Wait."
"But if we have nothing to talk about…"
She looked innocent enough, he thought as he gazed into her big blue eyes, but he knew better than to believe the wide-eyed stare.
Penny could be convinced to take the job; otherwise she wouldn't have bothered with a meeting. Playing him for a fool wasn't her style. But that didn't mean she wouldn't enjoy making him beg.
Given their past, he supposed he'd earned it. So he would bargain with her, giving in where he had to. He would even have enjoyed the negotiation if only she didn't look so damn smug.
He rubbed his thumb across her wrist bone, knowing she would hate that. She'd always lamented her large forearms, wrists and hands, claiming they were out of proportion with the rest of her body. He'd thought she was crazy to obsess about a flaw that didn't exist. Besides, she had chef's hands— scarred, nimble and strong. He'd always liked her hands, whether they were working on food in the kitchen or working on him in the bedroom.
"Not going to happen," he said, nodding his head at the paper and releasing his hold on her. "You know that, too. So where's the real list?"
She grinned and eased back into the booth. "I heard you were desperate. I had to try."
"Not that desperate. What do you want?"
"Creative freedom on the menus, complete control over the back half of the store, my name on the menu, ownership of any specialty items I create, the right to refuse any general manager you try to stuff down my throat, four weeks vacation a year and ten percent of the profits."
The waitress appeared with their lunches. He'd ordered a burger, Penny a salad. But not just any salad. Their server laid out eight plates with various ingredients in front of Penny's bowl of four kinds of lettuce.
As he watched, she put olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette and ground pepper into a coffee cup, then squeezed in half a lemon. After whisking them with her fork, she dumped the diced, smoked chicken and feta onto her salad, then sniffed the candied pecans before adding them. She passed over walnuts, took only half of the tomato, added red onions instead of green and then put on her dressing. After tossing everything, she stacked the plates and took her first bite of lunch.
"How is it?" he asked.
"Why do you bother eating out?"
"I don't usually."
She hadn't before, either. She'd been content to whip up something incredible in their kitchen and he'd been happy to let her.
He returned his attention to her demands. He wouldn't give her everything she wanted on general principle. Plus it was just plain bad business.
"You can have creative control over the menus and the back half of the store," he said. "Specialty items stay with the house."
Anything a chef created while in the employ of a restaurant was owned by that restaurant.
"I want to be able to take them with me when I go." She forked a piece of lettuce. "It's a deal-breaker, Cal."
"You'll come up with something new there."
"The point is I don't want to create something wonderful and leave it in your family's less than capable hands." She glanced at him. "Before you get all defensive, let me point out that five years ago, The Waterfront had a waiting list every single weekend."
"You can have your name on the menu," he said. "As executive chef."
He saw her stiffen. She'd never had that title before. It would mean something now.
"And three percent of the profits," he added.
"Five," he said. "But you don't get a say in the general manager."
"I have to work with him or her."
"And he or she has to work with you."
She grinned. "But I have a reputation of being nothing but sunshine and light in the workplace. You know that."
He'd heard she was a perfectionist and relentless in her quest for quality. She had also been called difficult, annoying and just plain brilliant.
"You can't dictate the GM," he said. "He's already been hired. At least in the short term."
She wrinkled her nose. "Who is it?"
"You'll find out later. Besides, the first guy's just coming in to do cleanup. Someone else will be hired in a few months. You can have a say on him or her."
Her eyebrows rose. "Interesting. A gunslinger coming in to clean up the town. I think I like that." She drew in a breath. "How about five percent of the profits, a three-year deal, I get some say in the next GM and I take my specialty items with me." She held up her hand. "But only to my own place and you can keep them on The Waterfront menu as well."
He wasn't surprised she wanted to branch out on her own. Most good chefs did. Few had the capital or the management skills.
"Oh, and that salary you offered me before was fine," she said.
"Of course it was," he told her. "That assumed you didn't get this other stuff. How many are you bringing with you?"
"Two. My sous-chef and my assistant."
Chefs usually came with a small staff. As long as they worked well with the others in the kitchen, Cal didn't care.
"You'll never take the vacation," he said. At least she never had before.
"I want it," she said. "Just so we're clear, I will be using it."
He shrugged. "Not until we're up and running."
"I was thinking late summer. I'll have everything together by then."
Maybe. She hadn't seen the mess yet.
"Is that it?" he asked.
She considered for a second, then shrugged. "Get me the offer in writing. I'll look it over and then let you know if we have a deal."
"You'd never get this much anywhere else. Don't pretend you'll back out."
The smugness returned. "You never know, Cal. I want to hear what your competition puts on the table."