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Five Days in Skye
By Carla Laureano
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Carla Yvonne Laureano
All rights reserved.
At least they couldn't fire her.
Andrea Sullivan propped her elbows on the bar and buried her head in her hands. How had things gone wrong so quickly? One minute she'd been on the verge of closing a half-million-dollar deal. The next, she'd nearly broken her hand on the jaw of a client who thought her company's offerings extended to favors she had no intention of delivering. Three years of working her way up the ranks toward VP of Sales all down the tubes because one man couldn't keep his hands to himself.
No, her company certainly wouldn't risk an ugly, public legal battle. They didn't have to. Her boss had other, more subtle means of showing his displeasure.
As punishments went, Scotland was a big one.
"What's so terrible about Scotland?"
Andrea jerked her head up and met the bartender's gaze. Had she said that aloud?
The man's eyes crinkled at the corners as he ran a towel along the polished mahogany surface of the bar, evidently amused by her slip. Round-faced and topped with a thinning mop of dishwater-blond hair, he looked as stereotypically English as the London pub in which he tended bar.
She let out a long breath, her shoulders slumping. "Scotland's cold, it's miserable, and the food is horrible."
"Oh, it's not so bad as all that, is it?" His expression turned from amused to sympathetic. "Take in some countryside, tour a castle or two, maybe some high street shopping ..."
"This is a business trip. Trust me. My dream vacation involves sunshine and umbrella drinks on the beach, not rain and fog in some backwater village."
If she'd only managed to keep her temper in check, she'd be spending the next week in the tropics with the promise of a fat commission and a guaranteed promotion, not serving time in Scotland babysitting a celebrity client who suddenly wanted to dabble in the hotel business.
She'd never heard of the man. Then again, she didn't own a television. She spent so much time on the road, she wasn't even sure why she owned an apartment. She seemed to be the only one on the planet, however, who hadn't heard of the Scottish celebrity chef. Half a dozen restaurants, four cookbooks, his own television show. Even her taxi driver had been able to name MacDonald's three London restaurants without hesitation.
Andrea toyed with her half-filled wine glass, watching the golden liquid slosh around the bowl. "I should be on my way to Tahiti right now, not sitting in a pub drinking a rather mediocre glass of wine."
"That's because you go to Paris to drink wine," a deep male voice said over her shoulder. "You come to London to drink ale."
Andrea straightened as a man leaned against the bar beside her. He was tall and broad shouldered, dressed in a pair of dark slacks and a business shirt, the collar unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up to show off muscular forearms. Dark hair worn a little too long, brilliant blue eyes, handsome face. Handsome enough she took a second look and immediately wished she hadn't been so obvious about it. His grin made her heart do things it was certainly not intended to do.
She couldn't prevent the corners of her mouth from twitching up in a smile. "Now you tell me."
He glanced at the bartender. "Get me a 90 Shilling, and whatever light's on draft for the lady." He looked back at her. "We can't have you leaving London thinking that pathetic chardonnay is the best we have to offer."
"That's very thoughtful." She offered her hand. "I'm Andrea."
"Mac." He held her hand just a moment too long while he studied her face. Her stomach made a peculiar little leap. She quelled it ruthlessly and drew her fingers from his grasp while he slid onto the barstool beside her.
"Now tell me why you're sitting here instead of on what sounds like a brilliant holiday in the South Pacific."
Because my temper finally got me into more trouble than I could talk my way out of. Aloud, she said, "I'm doing research on the owner of this pub."
"Ah, the illustrious Mr. MacDonald. Brilliant chef, but not the full quid from what I hear." The sparkle returned to those devastating blue eyes, and she had the feeling she was the butt of a private joke.
Andrea couldn't pass up the opportunity to gather some local gossip. She plowed onward. "You know him?"
"That depends on why you're asking. Is it business, or is your enquiry of a personal nature?"
"Business. I'm supposed to meet him in Inverness tomorrow, and I'm looking for a little background."
"Are you always so unprepared for meetings?"
Andrea bristled. "Of course not. I only got the call from my office a few hours ago. I'm now fortifying myself for a long night of web browsing back at the hotel."
"I can see that. Well, I'd say this pub is a pretty good reflection of him. Comfortable, slightly sophisticated. Best selection of locally brewed beers in England and some truly inspired food."
Andrea looked around. Typical decor, lots of wood and brass, dim lighting. Stained glass and leather accents. Upscale but not uptight. Welcoming but not sloppy.
"Middle of the road," she murmured. "But that still doesn't tell me much about the man."
"And why do you need to know so much about him?"
The bartender returned with Andrea's drink and poured Mac's from the bottle into a glass, watching them as if they were his evening's entertainment.
"My job requires rapport," she said. "I can't convince someone we're right for the project if I don't know what he's looking for. I can't win him over if I don't know which buttons to push."
"Hmm." He sipped his ale, his eyes dancing over the rim of the glass.
Was he laughing at her? "What?"
"I've just never heard a woman worry about which buttons to push when she's wearing a skirt that short and heels that high."
Heat crept up Andrea's neck and into her cheeks as she tugged down her suit skirt. It wasn't as if she were wearing a miniskirt. The length was perfectly modest when she wasn't sitting on a barstool. The heels were admittedly less conservative, but she wore them for height, not for looks. Then she realized he was watching her with a satisfied smile. She had taken the bait. Who exactly did he think he was?
She stilled her fidgeting and fixed him with a direct stare. "I could close a deal in jeans and tennis shoes. I just don't like being unprepared. Besides, I'm used to dealing with hotel groups with hundreds of properties, not celebrities with nothing better to do than play innkeeper."
"So MacDonald's a dilettante?" He swiveled on the stool and leaned back against the bar, arms crossed over his chest. Repressed laughter flashed in his expression.
"Frankly, I don't know the first thing about him. I've never seen his show, I certainly don't cook, and I can't fathom why anyone with a successful career in London would want to open a hotel on the Isle of Skye."
"Now that just sounds like bigotry. We Scots have an overabundance of national pride."
Andrea's cheeks heated again. How could she not have noticed? His accent, while refined, had a distinct Scottish burr. She was really off her game if she had failed to pick up something that obvious. Still, he had needled her about both her clothing and her professionalism, and she had to pry the apology from her lips. "I didn't mean to be rude."
He waved a hand in dismissal. "You've got bigger problems, if you know so little about your client. Though you'll do fine if you avoid the pejoratives about his native land. I do think you have one thing in common."
"You both think work is a terrible reason to cancel a trip to Tahiti."
A reluctant smile crept onto her face. "I can drink to that."
"Slàinte, Andrea." He clinked his glass to hers, took a long pull of the ale, and hopped off the stool. "I should get going now. I would suggest you do the same, Ms. Sullivan. You've got a long day ahead of you tomorrow."
She blinked at him. "How did you—"
"Night, Ben. Her drinks are on the house."
Mac—or the man pretending to be Mac—winked at her and sauntered out of the pub.
"That was ... He was ..."
Ben seemed to be fighting a smile. "Mr. MacDonald, yes. I daresay that's the first time not only has a woman not fallen all over him, she's actually insulted him to his face."
Andrea's heart sank to the soles of her Jimmy Choos. "I think I'm going to be sick."
"I wouldn't worry too much. I rather think he liked you."
Right. She glanced back at the door, but James MacDonald had already gone. Why, oh why, did this happen now? She had to hook this account if she had any hope of getting back into her boss's good graces, and now she'd be spending the next few days trying to placate a celebrity ego.
She'd never been particularly proficient at groveling.
Andrea hopped off the stool and reached for her purse before she remembered Mr. MacDonald had taken care of her bill. She found a couple of one-pound coins in her change purse and set them on the bar as a tip, even though Ben had done nothing to signal her impending disaster. Would it really have been so difficult to give her a shake of the head, a raised eyebrow? But of course he'd stay out of the matter when his boss was involved.
"Thank you, Ben." For nothing.
"Good night, Andrea." He slipped the coins beneath the bar and added, "Don't think too badly of Mr. MacDonald. He's a good man, beneath it all."
Andrea forced a smile and hiked her handbag onto her shoulder, then escaped onto the dark London street. At nine o'clock on a Sunday evening, traffic had tapered off, and the usual haze of diesel fumes faded into the musty scent of damp concrete. She made a left and strode toward the Ladbroke Grove tube station, irritation speeding her steps.
How many times had she lectured her junior account managers on the importance of maintaining professionalism at all times? Every contact was a prospective client or referral. She'd just proved her own point in a particularly embarrassing manner.
Not that she excused James MacDonald for his role in this debacle. She knew his type. Wealthy, good-looking, famous. He expected women to fall at his feet, and God forbid one had a mind of her own. She'd probably be dodging his advances for the next three days while she tried to convince him she was more than a pretty face. He was lucky she hadn't smacked him for commenting on her clothing in the bar.
Truthfully, she hadn't been in much shape to do anything but put her foot firmly in her mouth. It had been years since she'd let a man rattle her, and it had taken only a smile and a lingering handshake to do it. Heaven help her.
She only made it a few blocks from the pub before the stiletto pumps began to rub blisters on her heels. She gave up on her plans of an indignant walk to the tube station and raised a hand to the first black cab she saw. She climbed into the rear and gave the driver her destination.
She could salvage this. She'd spend the rest of her evening with her laptop, finding out everything she could about the man. From here on, she would act with the utmost professionalism. She hadn't gotten this close to VP through years of seven-day weeks and grueling round-the-clock hours to blow it now. Her boss may have given her this assignment as some backhanded punishment—after all, it had been years since he'd wasted her on a barely five-figure deal—but there had to be some sort of cachet to landing a celebrity client like James MacDonald. Surely she could turn it into bigger accounts. But first she had to repair the damage she'd done with her big mouth.
The cab pulled up beside the imposing Victorian brick edifice of the Kensington Court Hotel. Andrea paid the driver and climbed out with a wince, once again regretting her choice in footwear. She limped into the richly decorated lobby and rode the lift to her fourth-floor room.
The lush carpeting muffled her footsteps to a whisper when she let herself in. She certainly couldn't complain about her accommodations. She had stayed in the hotel dozens of times over the years, and each room was impeccably decorated in its own style. Her current space featured an enormous tester bed, framed by blue silk brocade draperies that spilled from a gilded corona above the headboard. She gingerly eased off her shoes, sank onto the luxurious mattress, and heaved a sigh.
She was tired, and not the kind of tired a good night's sleep in a fluffy bed could solve.
She lay there for a long moment, then threw a glance at the clock and calculated back five hours. Her sister should just be getting supper ready in Ohio. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and dialed.
Becky answered on the fifth ring. "Andy! Why are you calling me? Aren't you supposed to be on a plane right now?" Something sizzled in the background, punctuated by a child's scream.
"Did I call at a bad time?"
"No more than usual. I'm frying up some chicken for dinner—Hannah! Leave the cat alone!"
Andrea smiled. Becky was almost eight years older than Andrea, and she had three children: a nine-year-old son and three-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. "I can call back later—"
"David! Don't hit your sister! I'm sorry, what were you saying? Aren't you supposed to be on your way to Tahiti?"
"Change of plans. Michael booked me a consultation with some celebrity client while I'm here. I'm flying to Scotland tomorrow."
"And you're okay with that?"
"I'd rather be in Tahiti, for sure."
"No, I meant—"
"I know what you meant. I'm okay. What's one more, right?"
"Oh, I don't know, the difference between a luxury vacation and a padded room, maybe?"
Andrea chuckled despite herself. Even from Ohio, Becky couldn't resist the urge to mother her. "It's my job. What am I going to do, say no?"
"That's exactly what you say. 'Michael, I've planned this vacation for over a year. Find someone else to do it.'"
"I know." The smile faded from Andrea's face. Had it not been for the disastrous outcome of her last appointment in London, she would have said exactly that. She'd gotten away with plenty of attitude in the past based on her unmatched sales record, but in this business, she was only as good as her last deal. "I'll be fine. Really. I'm meeting a client in Inverness tomorrow, and then we're driving to Skye. I should be back in New York on Wednesday."
"Maybe you should take a few days off while you're in Scotland. Your vacation is blown anyway."
"I don't think that's such a good idea. I'm staying at the client's hotel."
"Who's the client?"
Andrea paused. "James MacDonald."
The squeal that emanated from the speaker belonged to a teenage girl, not a thirty-eight- year-old mother of three. Andrea held the phone several inches from her ear until she was sure her eardrums were safe.
"And here I thought your job was completely boring!"
"Strictly business, Becks. I've got less than two days to put together a proposal, and he doesn't seem like the easiest client to deal with. It's going to be a long trip."
"I bet you don't even know who he is," Becky said reprovingly.
"Oh, I know who he is." A self-absorbed celebrity with the sexiest smile I've ever seen. She yanked her mind back from that precipice before she could slip over. "I need to do some research for my meeting now. I'll call you from Skye."
"All right, have fun," Becky said in a sing-song voice. Andrea could practically hear her grin from four thousand miles away. "I expect an autograph, by the way."
Not likely. "Love you, Becks. Give the kids a kiss for me."
Andrea clicked off the line and pressed her fingertips to her eyes, trying to calm the urgent thrumming of her heart. The last thing she needed was to think of her client in anything but a professional fashion. Men like MacDonald were predators—any sign of weakness and she'd never be able to shake him. She knew all too well what could happen if she succumbed to an ill-advised attraction. She'd been there once, and she wasn't going back there again.
"Strictly business." The steadiness of her voice in the quiet room reassured her. She took a deep breath and levered herself up off the bed. Enough procrastinating. She still had work to do.
Andrea slipped out of her suit jacket and skirt, hung them carefully in the closet, and ensconced herself in a luxurious hotel robe. Then she chose an obscure Dussek piano concerto from her phone as mood music and dragged her laptop onto her legs.
"James MacDonald chef," she typed into the search box, and waited. Page after page of results appeared: restaurant reviews, interviews, television listings. Andrea clicked through to his official website first and quickly read through his bio. Born in Portree, Isle of Skye, schooled in Scotland. Completed a degree in business at the University of Edinburgh, followed by culinary training at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. A long list of assistant- and sous-chef positions at some of London's most prestigious eateries culminated in his first restaurant, a gastropub in Notting Hill. That first location was quickly followed by smaller, more focused restaurants in Knightsbridge and Covent Garden, then Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.
Last year, he had been invited to prepare his take on traditional English food for the prime minister. A few months ago, he had been named a member of the Order of the British Empire for his philanthropic work with at-risk youth.
Excerpted from Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano. Copyright © 2013 Carla Yvonne Laureano. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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