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'Lorenzo, I sent a message requesting your presence in Luca's office for a meeting ten minutes ago. Did you not receive it?' The words were calm. Professional. They stated the facts and requested an explanation of the man's absence, nothing more or less.
Yes, Scarlett Gibson wanted to tug in frustration on the hot-pink ribbon adorning her ponytail of shoulder-length black hair and, yes, that reaction annoyed her. She hadn't seen Lorenzo for five years. For the next two months she would be working with him. Scarlett had hoped she would be able to do that without caring much about anything to do with him. After all, that was the state she had been forced to reach after he broke her heart five years ago.
Well, Scarlett hadn't become a top financial advisor in Australia by losing her control the first time something annoyed her. But she also hadn't come back to Italy to help out at her uncle Luca's Rosa restaurant, only to have her authority thwarted by the head chef on her first day at the job.
The source of that thwarting stood inside the kitchen of Rosa with his back to her. A slim, muscular back in a fitted black shirt. He wore black trousers, black shoes on his feet. Did he still wear the gold medallion?
Not that Scarlett cared, though she supposed such thoughts were bound to surface. But, surely, they were no different from her wondering if the stranger on the tram beside her back in Melbourne had her coffee made on full milk or skim!
As Scarlett glanced about the kitchen different things began to register. The scents of rich, melted chocolate blended with the warm heartiness of yeasty savoury bread stuffed with tomato and herbs, onion and garlic and olives. Several loaves of the bread were cooling on trays on a bench. Those scents probably explained why Scarlett's tummy suddenly felt a bit odd. She'd have to watch that. She didn't want to eat her way through the next two months. In any case Lorenzo certainly wasn't the reason for her tummy-consciousness.
Three kitchen hands were at work. A woman who looked to be in her thirties, and two men. Scarlett had bumped into the woman inside the restaurant as she appeared to be arriving for work, and had asked her to let Lorenzo know that she wanted to see him in Luca's office without delay.
The woman glanced up now and met her gaze. She didn't look at all guilty or forgetful, which led Scarlett to believe that she had, indeed, passed her message on to Lorenzo.
So what was Lorenzo Nesta's game? Yes, he appeared to be working with great concentration and, yes, there appeared to be quite a bit going on in the kitchen right now. Various desserts in different stages of production littered the bench space around Lorenzo in what appeared to be a very organised kind of chaos.
Scarlett registered this fact, but it was still quite early in the morning. Lunchtime diners were a long way away. Lorenzo should be able to leave his kitchen hands unsupervised at this time of day, with tasks to keep them going, and give Scarlett the time she needed.
Scarlett's sherry-brown eyes narrowed. If Lorenzo thought she would chase after him any time she wanted a few words, he needed a lesson in the order of authority in this restaurant. Scarlett's uncle Luca came first. He was the owner, though he'd told Scarlett that during her time here he didn't intend to come in, just let her get on with what had to be done.
Cousin Isabella had been managing the restaurant a lot of the time anyway. Isabella was gladly taking a step back to focus on her relationship with her newly found reclusive prince, Maximilliano Di Rossi.
Then came Scarlett in the role of business manager.
And then came the head chef/assistant manager, Lorenzo Nesta. In other words, where Lorenzo was concerned, Scarlett was the boss!
Scarlett gave a determined nod of her head, only to feel a recalcitrant lock of hair slip loose of its beribboned ponytail.
Confound it all.
Scarlett frowned and blew the lock of hair off her cheek, and glared at that stretch of shoulders in her line of vision.
She had every right to glare. The man was a love rat.
Lorenzo twisted his upper body and glanced over his shoulder at her. 'Just one minute more.'
'Just one more—?' As though she had nothing better to do than stand about and wait for him? Scarlett's brows went up even as she forced her teeth together over the words that wanted to pour out.
Lorenzo held a slender, hollow stainless-steel tube in his hands. He rotated it with long, deft fingers and Scarlett got a view in profile of a manly cheek already darkened with a hint of beard shadow, a strong nose and chiselled lips pursed in concentration, and the downward sweep of thick lashes over eyes that she knew were the deepest, richest shade of brown.
Not that Scarlett had any particular kind of obsession with dark brown. Well, with the possible exception of it swirling around in a mug with a marshmallow melted in the top of it.
'Actually, Lorenzo, I've been waiting ten minutes already.'
Scarlett uttered the words in a calm tone that nevertheless held a hint of steel within it. 'You know the way to Luca's office. I'd appreciate it if you didn't keep me waiting any longer.'
Scarlett wheeled about and made her way back through the kitchen's swing doors, through the rear of the indoor dining area past several potted plants and a nook filled with a warm colourful display of bottles of oils and relishes and sauces, and into the corridor that housed Luca's office.
Mixed feelings walked with her. This return trip to Italy was important to Scarlett for many reasons. She wanted to enjoy Isabella's company and bond with her again and maybe get in a better place with all of her family here. If that was even possible after so long? Helping Uncle Luca out felt like a good step towards that. She'd hesitated when Isabella had asked her, and that had been because of Lorenzo. But then Scarlett had decided if she was facing down old demons she could just as easily face down this one at the same time. How hard could it be?
'Scarlett, good morning.' Her cousin Isabella approached as Scarlett put her hand on the office door. 'All set for your first day on the job?'
Scarlett stopped, and regrouped. And smiled, because this was Izzie and they had grown up together. They'd had a lot of girlish fun together before she and Scarlett had done something incredibly silly. The ramifications of which were only now settling. Scarlett had punished herself and had moved to Australia, away from her Italian family and friends to get to know her father and his side of her family.
'Hi, Izzie. Yes, I'm ready for my first day. I didn't expect to see you in here today. You look glowing. How's your prince?'
'Princely as ever.' Isabella blushed a little, but she also smiled and held out her arms. 'I'm rather pleased that I've found him.'
'He's made you happy, so I'm pleased too.' Scarlett stepped into Izzie's hug.
There was an ache in the middle of her chest when she let go.
Coming back here always tugged at her emotions. This time she was here to try to help the family out, with a hope of reconnection hiding some place deep inside her that was perhaps unrealistic.
If it was going to make her feel all mushy whenever she came across a family member, Scarlett had better get that reaction right under control, and fast. 'I have Lorenzo coming in for a meeting. Since you're here, I'd like to speak with you after that, if possible.' Her full lips tightened before she went on. 'I'll probably have questions for you after I've grilled him.'
'Grilled? You won't upset—?' Isabella cut herself off and forced a smile back to her face. 'You're the boss. Of course you should manage things here however you feel is right.' Isabella drew a breath. 'I'm here to put together a batch of Papa's special sauce, so I'll be around for a while. I can speak with you when you're ready.'
'Let's say in about half an hour, then.' Luca's secret recipe sauce was a mainstay of the Rosa restaurant's authentic Italian cuisine. Scarlett wondered what kind of reception she would get when she wanted an accounting of the ingredients list so she could cost-base it.
A hands-off we're-not-telling reception, she imagined, from both Luca and Isabella. Well, perhaps they could tell her the costs, but not the ingredients?
'It's nice to have you back in Italy, Scarlett, and I really appreciate all you're going to do for Rosa.' Her cousin's expression tightened. 'The money issues are worrying. Max was prepared to invest a cash injection to get Rosa back in a strong financial position, but of course that would have offended Papa and it wouldn't have really solved anything in the long term. I couldn't have let Max do that, either, much as I love him for wanting to.'
'Quite right.' Simply throwing money at things wasn't the answer. But with the right changes and improvements, success could be grasped. That was what Scarlett believed, and had proved in her own career path as she climbed the ranks to a highly successful financial advisor in Australia, advising some very respectable companies. She wanted the same for Rosa. She wanted the restaurant to run at a profit and be self-sufficient and successful.
Isabella disappeared and Scarlett stepped into Luca's office. It would be her headquarters for the time being, though she didn't intend to be the kind of manager who sat behind her desk all day and didn't watch what was going on around her. Despite her hope to not need much to do with him, she might have to watch Lorenzo Nesta very closely. Particularly if he thought he could get away with stunts like ignoring her summons when she sent it!
And speaking of her nemesis, there he was, standing in the doorway of the office looking a little prickly beneath the surface though she could see he was trying hard to mask that. And, she supposed, somewhat attractive.
Not that he appealed to Scarlett any more in any particular way. He'd killed that reaction in her five years ago. Her heart rate had jumped a little just now, but that was as a result of preparing to do battle if necessary.
'Lorenzo.' She gestured to the visitor's chair on the other side of the desk. And really, wasn't she the one to have the right to some prickliness? She'd only just started here, and already he'd put her morning's schedule off centre. 'Please be seated. I want to speak with you about how things have been running here at the restaurant, and how they'll need to be run from now on. But perhaps you'd care to start by explaining why you ignored my request for this meeting.'
'I didn't ignore the request, I just couldn't drop everything and come to you immediately.' His chest expanded beneath the black shirt before he carefully exhaled. Scarlett caught sight of a glint of gold around his neck. Was it the chain that he'd had when they first met?
Not that you care, Scarlett.
'Why couldn't you leave your staff for a few minutes?'
'It's not always possible to walk out of a busy restaurant kitchen without consequences.' His words were respectful, but also firm. 'You gave me no notice, just a message that my presence was immediately required.'
'At this early hour of the day I would have thought you'd be able to spare some time.' Scarlett tried to keep her gaze locked on his eyes, yet it wandered to the curve of his lips, the strong nose, the very old, small scar over his left eyebrow and despite her determination, a memory stirred.
He'd held her in his arms one day after they'd made love, and had made up outrageous stories about how he got the scar as a child. Each one had been sillier than the last until Scarlett had needed to hold her sides to try to contain her mirth. The truth was that he'd fallen, not very far or excitingly, off a piece of play equipment at school.
That day, Lorenzo had said something strange to her. Sometimes the scars you see are better. I'm happy to wear this one. At least it bears no shame. His gaze had sobered and for a moment Scarlett had felt as though he'd pushed her away, even though she still lay snuggled in his arms. She'd opened her mouth to ask, she hadn't been sure what, but he'd kissed her again and the moment had passed…
Well, that was then, and what was she doing thinking about this now anyway?
Scarlett wasn't laughing now. Nor did she want to reminisce about the far distant past of her life. She couldn't afford to be distracted!
'We're very busy in the kitchen today. It's good that Isabella came in. I've asked her to supervise until I can get back.' Lorenzo drew a deep breath. 'At least that's something.'
Did he say that as though Isabella wouldn't know what she was doing in there?
'My cousin has worked in the kitchen of Rosa for a long time.' Isabella could do a just fine job of supervising the staff, or making the meals for that matter. 'Whether she has a whole lot of bits of paper to say so or not, it wouldn't surprise me if she's a more qualified cook than you are.'
Lorenzo made a sound in the back of his throat. 'Of course I trust Isabella in the kitchen. That's not what I meant.'
'Whatever you meant, we're wasting time.' Scarlett glared at him across Luca's desk. If her anger was somewhat of a shield, she wasn't about to admit it.
Lorenzo stared back and whatever thoughts he had disappeared in his eyes. 'By all means, please go on with what you need to say.'
'I will.' Another curl of Scarlett's hair slid from its moorings and lay against her cheek. Scarlett gritted her teeth and asked herself how a few minutes in his company could get her so worked up so easily. She'd just finished telling herself she would treat this in a calm, professional manner.
Lorenzo's gaze clung to her hair for a moment before he raised it to meet her eyes.
Dark brown to sherry brown.
Five years older to aeons wiser.
He'd be thirty-two now. Scarlett was twenty-eight. That extra layer of maturity…flattered him.
'Do you understand the reason for my presence at Rosa?' Scarlett didn't know what Isabella had told him. She doubted Luca would have said much. Her uncle had hidden the state of Rosa's finances even from Isabella for as long as he could. It had taken effort to get Luca to the point where he was willing to have Scarlett come in to try to clean things up here.