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Rachel Palladia was up to her elbows in dough. Unfortunately, none of it was greenthe kind she really needed. Specifically, one-hundred-dollar bills, and lots of them.
Damn it all. No, damn him. Rachel let the curse word fly as she thought of her thirty-six-year-old fiancé, Marco Alessandro. Make that ex-fiancé. A woman simply did not marry a man to whom faithfulness meant he could sample the sous chef whenever his libido demanded it.
"I'm Italian," Marco had proclaimed when she'd caught him and the nubile sous chef buck naked and bopping like rabbits in Rachel's bed. "Italian men take mistresses. You will always have my heart. You will be my wife."
Rachel had uttered a few choice expletives, tossed his diamond ring at him, told him to get out of her life and her apartmentand promptly donated her bed and linens to Goodwill. She was sleeping on one of those inflatable single mattresses until she could afford something else, but at least the inflatable was pure, unsoiled.
Rachel sighed, slapped the white-flour blob on the stainless-steel worktable and used a rolling pin to smooth out the piecrust. She was out several thousand dollars in nonrefundable deposits for wedding items and there were charges on her credit cards for other nonreturnable ones.
Even worse was that she was still working for the son ofRachel bit off the word. Her mom insisted that ever since Rachel had moved to NewYork City at eighteen she'd started cussing like a sailor. Rachel planned on cleaning up her language, but this fiasco with Marco wasn't helping any.
She placed the rolled-out dough in the pie pans and began trimming the crusts. To have come this far only to come tothis Rachel resisted the urge to throw the excess dough. She'd been in food service all her life, beginning at her grandmother's diner in Morrisville, Indiana. Instead of attending college, Rachel had graduated from the CIACulinary Institute of America, that isthen worked her way up in a succession of kitchen jobs until she'd landed here as head pastry chef at Alessandro's, a fine Italian restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
God knows how many other women had revolved in and out of Marco's life before she'd caught him with the sous chef one week before Valentine's Day.
She'd spent the holiday of love alone, nursing her wounds and chastising herself for missing the signs. She had to be an idiot. That mistress stuff only happened on TV, or so she'd thought. Now she was stuck in an employment contract with a noncompete clause that wouldn't allow her to work within fifty miles of the restaurant. Which left out finding another job in New York City, a town she'd loved from the very first minute she'd stepped foot in Penn Station the summer she'd been eighteen. Unless Marco let her out of her contract she had no option but to keep on at Alessandro's if she wanted to stay in any of the five boroughs.
New York had vibes rural Morrisville didn't. Sure, the tall buildings hid the sun. But the neon lights and nonstop crowds generated an energy that inspired. Despite being mostly anonymous in this city of over eight million people, she'd never felt rejected, as she had during her high-school days at home.
"So, are you surviving?" Glynnis, Rachel's second in command, took the pie pans from Rachel and began adding the rich chocolate filling.
"I'm fine," Rachel replied. She tucked the bangs of her dark brown hair under her pink baseball cap. She preferred something less ornate than those big white chef hats. "It's definitely been the week from hell. Thankfully, Marco took that last-minute trip to Italy. I'm finally ready to face him when he returns today."
"You think he's man enough to own up to what he did and still work with you?" Glynnis asked. The pies now filled, the older woman put them into the oven.
Many restaurants bought their desserts from specialty companies, but Alessandro's baked everything on the premises. In fact, over the past two years, Rachel's desserts had become so popular that the restaurant had now sold them to patrons and other dining establishments. When she'd dated Marco, she'd enjoyed helping him grow the family business this way. He'd told her that once they were married she'd receive half his stake in the restaurant. He'd insisted that married couples shared everything. He was lucky he hadn't passed along some sort of STD to Rachel in his spirit of sharing.
Rachel suppressed her anger. She couldn't believe she'd been so naive in the twenty-first century. But she'd wanted that alpha-male fairy tale. How stupid to have fallen for a liethat his type of man was perfect for her. came in to work today. She prayed she was ready.
YOU COULD TELL when Marco Alessandro was in the building. Six foot two, charismatic, he had movie-star looks that made women swoon. He arrived promptly at four, greeted his staff and then made certain everything was ready for the dinner rush, which began when the restaurant opened at five. By six, there would be an hour's wait for a table, because unless you knew one of the Alessandro family personally or were a favored regular, Alessandro's didn't take reservations. Even celebrities had to wait at the bar.
"Ah, Rachel." Marco approached as Rachel was pulling the last of tomorrow's cakes out of the oven. Her shift would end at seven. Several heads swiveled in their direction. The sous chef was long gone, having tendered her resignation the day after Rachel had interrupted the affair. Marco leaned forward and kissed Rachel lightly on the cheek. She kept her gaze focused on the far wall, noticing that, like always, he smelled of spicy aftershave and minty breath. "You are a sight for sore eyes. I've missed you. Let's go talk in my office."
Rachel set the cake pans down on the cooling rack and followed him as requested, noting he was impeccably dressed in a custom black Armani suithis standard work attire.
His presence would dominate both the dining area and the kitchen. He would supervise everything, greet patrons at each table, and raise toasts to special events. He'd made Alessandro's one of New York's dining destinations. His brother Anthony preferred to stay behind the scenes and kept office hours, managing the operational things like payroll. Marco shut the door behind him and gestured for Rachel to sit. Unlike many restaurant offices, this one could easily suit any law firm or Fortune 100 company. The space was not as huge as his brother Anthony's office, but the mahogany furniture gave off that air of old-money wealth and privilege, although Marco came from neither. He took his rightful place behind his desk, leaned back in his leather chair and stared at her. "Have you calmed down yet?" he asked bluntly.
She cocked her head and her brow wrinkled. "Calmed down?" she repeated, incredulous, her blood pressure rising at his insinuation that their rift was her fault.
"Yes. I assumed my week away would allow you some time to put that unfortunate incident behind you. I, too, have done some thinking, and perhaps my words were not as clear as I'd meant them to be."
She bristled. "Not clear? What's not clear? You were having sex with the sous chef in our bedmy bedand then telling me that all Italian men have affairs."
Marco adjusted his red power tie. "Yes, well, maybe that was a little inconsiderate of me."
"You think?" Rachel retorted.
He didn't seem too perturbed. "I forget that you have Italian blood. It's what makes you so fiery. I dallied. I was wrong. From here forward, I will be committed. I don't want this relationship to end."
"Perhaps you should have thought about that before you bopped a bimbo," Rachel snapped, her anger boiling. "Marriage is sacred. My parents were married for thirty-two years before my father's heart attack. My grandparents' marriage lasted over fifty. Until death do us part. Monogamy. Faithfulness. Those things are important to me. I trusted you."
"And you can again," Marco said, as if doing so was just that easy. "We're well suited. My mother likes you. My brother raves about your pastries and how you've helped our restaurant become so in demand. My sister has never tolerated a woman in my life and yet she befriended you. We fit, Rachel. I don't want to lose you. Please forgive me."
She noticed he hadn't mentioned anything about love. She was twenty-nine, but that didn't mean she was afraid of the big three-oh when her birthday arrived in mid-April. Somehow she'd fallen for the smart image that he'd created in his attempt to rise above his middle-class Brooklyn up-bringing. That was probably the true extent of his appeal. The revelation smarted. "I think the bloom is already off the rose," she told him.
"I don't understand," Marco said. He reached into his jacket pocket and drew out a small black box. "Here's your ring. I had it cleaned. I want you back by my side, where you belong."
Rachel twisted her hands into her chef's apron. When she'd first met Marco, he'd charmed the socks off her. He'd brought flowers, wined and dined her, giving her little pieces of Tiffany jewelry just because. He'd never skimped on his extravagance.
He was older than her by seven years; he'd just turned thirty-six. She'd found him worldly and wise. On his arm she'd felt like a princess and that New York City was her kingdom. He'd taken her to glamorous parties and theater premieres, shown her a world that was such a far cry from Morrisville, Indiana, where the most exciting thing was either cosmic bowling, bingo night at the Knights of Columbus hall or a dance at the country club.
She'd found Morrisville claustrophobic, but her parents and grandparents had loved the town. Her mother and grandmother still did and were exceedingly content. At this point in her life, Rachel was not. She'd thought that perhaps marrying Marco would change that. How wrong she'd been. Instead, he'd made her unhappiness worse.
She took off her cap and undid her ponytail, letting the dark, straight locks fall around her shoulders. She was one-quarter Italian, although she considered herself first and foremost simply an American. Heritage wasn't really that important, except perhaps to the man sitting across from her.
"Marco, do you love me?" she asked.
He blinked. "What kind of question is that?" His tone bordered on indignant. "Of course I do. I asked you to marry me. Do you think I didn't have an array of women to pick from? I wouldn't have chosen you had you not been special. I love you."
Rachel sat there, arms folded across her chest. Marco was smart enough not to approach her. Normally after a fight, he'd hug her, run his fingers through her hair and whisper words that made everything better. If he tried any of those now, she'd slug him. No, how Marco really felt was clear. She'd be a big fool if she thought Marco was marrying her for anything but to protect his bottom line and his profits.
"I can't marry you," she told him.
Surprised, he frowned. "What? Your ring is right here. Just slide it back on and we'll call the priest and let him know we still need our date. Anything you've canceled can easily be restarted. I'll spare no expense."
The offer was pointless. As much as zebras couldn't change their stripes, Marco couldn't change, either. She sighed. "Marco, be honest. You don't really love me. You like that I'm convenient. I'm a great chef. Your family accepts me. But I can't ever trust you again. I can't even fathom touching you with a ten-foot pole. It's better to put this behind us and move on."
A vein twitched in his forehead. "You'll make a fool of me," he said, revealing the real reason he was still insistent on the marriage.
She shook her head, disagreeing. "People end engagements all the time. There might be a little press, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.You're MarcoAlessandro.You'll spin this news into more sales of calamari and caviar."
He tapped his fingertips, his elbows firmly planted on the desk. His mouth edged downward. "I was afraid you were going to be stubborn. Anthony worried that you might be. He suggested I see my lawyer before I left for Italy."
"Lawyer?" Rachel said, her eyebrows arching in shock. Anthony had made a point to avoid her since the "event." So what was Marco trying to doget her on a breach of contract? She'd given him back the ring. She didn't owe him one darn dime. If anything, he owed her.
"You have a contract with Alessandro's," Marco said, his voice level. "As long as you were my fiancée, that contract was merely a piece of paper. A formality. Now that you no longer plan on marrying me, Anthony insists that I the restaurant, I mean well, I suppose all of us must protect ourselves."
"Anthony," she said. "What is it that he wants? Are you firing me?"
"No, no," Marco said quickly. He grabbed the ring box and tucked the diamond back into his pocket. "I have no desire for you to leave. Neither does my brother. Despite your stubbornness, I'm sure that in time you'll come to your senses and forgive me. Then all will be well and we can stop this foolishness. Until then, Anthony just wants things on the up-and-up."
"Meaning," Rachel prodded. She knew that Marco was using his brother as a ploy to make Marco appear less the bad guy.
He brushed some lint off his jacket and then locked his gaze on hers as he delivered his ultimatum. "We want you to turn over your recipes. Anything you developed here while working for Alessandro's belongs to us."
"Are you crazy?" Rachel said, jumping to her feet so that she had some height on him. She couldn't believe he'd demand such a thing. "Those are mine."
"No," Marco said with a patronizing shake of his head.
"They're my recipes. Alessandro's. You created them as works for hire while we were paying you a salary. Since you don't want to marry mewell, it's all right here." From an inside pocket of his jacket he drew out a large cream-colored envelope. He placed it on his desk and slid it toward her.
Rachel could see the law firm's return address printed in the corner. Fingers trembling, she picked up the packet and removed the contents. There, in black ink, was a legal demand that she relinquish all recipes created or suffer being taken to civil court. She couldn't believe Marco had been so premeditated. "You're giving me a demand letter?"
"It was Anthony's idea," Marco said, as if blaming his brother made the letter less of an evil. "This would all be so much simpler if you married me as we'd planned. We had a good thing going."
"Until you couldn't keep your pants zipped," Rachel pointed out as she skimmed the appalling letter again. "I don't understand the rationale behind this action. I work for you. I bake here. My desserts feed your customers. That won't change just because you and I are no longer engaged."
"But in the future, it might. What if you choose to leave?" He tapped his fingertips again.
"I have a six-month noncompete clause," she reminded him.
"Yes, and six months is a mere drop in the ocean of time. If you go, all the money Alessandro's has invested in you flies out the window. We run a business here, and as much as I'd like to be generous, Anthony's right. We can't let you take our property with you."
Now he was talking way over her head. She planted her hands on her hips. "Let me see. Either I marry you, or I turn over my recipes?"
"Marriage to me wouldn't be that bad," Marco said with a smile. "At least you'd get something permanent in return."
"Who says I'd turn over my recipes then?" she demanded. The gall of the man.
He seemed taken aback by her outburst. "As I've always said, husbands and wives share everything. And when you became pregnant and stayed home to raise our children, your replacement would continue your work. I don't see what the big deal is."
Pregnant? Stay home and be barefoot in the kitchen? What had she seen in him? "You are archaic."
"Tradition is part of my heritage."