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"What makes you think he's not just asking us to bend over so he can stick it in and break it off?"
Troy Metaxas stared at his younger brother across the diner table, his cup halfway to his mouth. Trust Ari to phrase the question that way.
He put his coffee down and sat back in the red leather booth. The Quality Diner was decked out for the coming holidays, with the struggling owner partial to the more whimsical themes of snowflakes and icicles, probably because they saw so little of either here in the Pacific Northwest. A white, papier-mache angel hung above their booth, lazily spinning first one way and then the other.
He'd be lying if he said the possibility that Mano"
"lis Philippidis was planning to do just as Ari was suggesting hadn't crossed his mind. It had. At least a thousand times a day. But ever since the wealthy Greek businessman had reestablished contact with him a week ago, offering an olive branch on top of the contract that Troy had been trying to close well, he'd been forced to listen.
He knew what he was getting into. But this project was important to him. After the family lumber mill closed over four years ago, he'd felt responsible for providing the town of Earnest with another employer. Then luck had met persistence and he'd come across an idea worth pursuing in emerging green technology. The solar panels the new company would produce would not only revolutionize the industry by capturing a wider array of the sun's rays, the thin-film method was also cost-saving, meaning more could afford the product.
A win-win situation all the way around.
He considered his brother. "So long as we finally get the project off the ground, what does it matter?"
"So your advice is to smile and take it?"
"That would be exactly my advice." He leaned forward. "Take a look around you, Ari. The unemployment rate in Earnest has risen to nearly thirty-five percent. And that doesn't count the residents forced to leave because they've lost their homes or had to relocate to find work."
He watched his brother look around the interior of the diner. It was a Wednesday morning and there were only a few people inside where once it would have been full of lumber mill workers catching breakfast before heading to work. Hell, five years ago, the midnight shift would just be knocking off and doing the same before going home.
"Half the businesses outside this diner have closed, with another quarter in danger of doing the same," he said. "Don't you think the town's worth a little discomfort?"
He didn't mention the exact reason for the collapse in negotiations between Philippidis and the Metaxas brothers six months ago. He didn't have to. Because the reason sat across from him. Ari's seduction and then stealing of Philippidis's bride on the evening before their wedding was the reason why the vital business arrangement had gone awry.
Even though it all seemed like yesterday to him, he had to keep in mind that Ari was now engaged to Elena Anastasios, and that she was entering into her third trimester with their child. No longer Philippidis's stolen bride, but Troy's soon-to-be sister-in-law and mother to his niece or nephew.
Ari shook his head now, as if in answer to his unsaid thoughts. "Considering all that no good SOB has done to us over this past half year, I would think the last thing we would want is to get into bed with him."
Troy didn't blink.
Ari raised his hands as if in surrender. "Okay, bad analogy. But you know what I mean. Who's to say this isn't just another set-up? That he's not going to string us along, get us to invest the few cents we have left, and then pull the rug out from under us again?"
"Who's to say he is?"
Ari remained dubious.
"Look, we've exhausted every other possibility. It's either this or we give up on the project altogether. That's not an option for me." Troy sipped from his coffee, the unsweetened liquid bitter against his tongue. "Anyway, we know who we're dealing with this time. And we're prepared for anything he can possibly throw our way."
Ari looked at his watch. Troy was as anxious as he was for the other three men scheduled to join them for breakfast to arrive. Because it meant that they were that much closer to the meeting they were to have with Philippidis at the mill offices later that morning.
The old cowbell above the door clanged. Troy glanced over his shoulder. It wasn't any of their three breakfast mates. It was a woman in black, close-fitting running pants and an oversize University of Oregon sweatshirt, looking more fit than he felt, her blond hair twisted into a knot at the back of her neck. She stripped the sweatshirt off, revealing the clingy tank she wore underneath.
Troy's gaze drifted over her nicely outlined curves. From her calves, up past her firm thighs, her rounded hips and then to where her breasts were two perfect half-globes under the damp fabric.
"Good morning!" Verna called out from the kitchen window. "Take a seat anywhere."
The latest addition was slightly out of breath as she voiced her thanks and chose the booth behind Troy, causing his seat to jostle a bit. He nearly spilled the coffee he was holding.
"Sorry," she said.
Troy looked to find Ari grinning at him. "What?"
His brother shook his head. "Did I say anything? Because I don't think I did."
Troy grimaced. Since when had it become a crime to appreciate a woman's form? Especially seeing as it had been so long since he'd allowed himself the luxury. That and there hadn't been much opportunity. When you lived in the same small town you'd grown up in, and knew just about everyone, it was hard to stare at a woman's breasts and think of anything having to do with sex. It seemed a bit too incestuous somehow, considering you knew her husband and kids and her parents and grandparents, not to mention that she used to wear braces or had a habit of drinking one beer too many on Friday nights at the pub.
Although he did have to admit he'd found himself doing exactly that lately, ogling the locals. How long had it been since he'd been on a proper date? Screw proper, when was the last time he'd lost himself in the scent of a woman's neck? Buried himself in her sweet flesh? Far longer than he cared to admit. And his body was apparently no longer willing to allow him to ignore it.
Just as soon as he got this contract nailed down, he'd dust off his little black book and call up a willing female or two in Seattle and go out on a date, he promised himself.
"Oh, you are in a sorry state, aren't you?" Ari asked. "How long has it been, anyway?" His dark brows rose high on his forehead. "Please don't tell me since Gail."
Troy squinted at him and leaned forward, indicating that he should lower his voice. With so few customers in the place, there was little doubt the woman behind him had heard what his brother had said.
"Later," he muttered.
"Well, that's the problem, isn't it, bro? It's always later with you." Ari leaned forward as well, but he didn't lower his voice. "Face it, you need to get laid."
The woman coughed. Troy looked to find her in the middle of sipping a glass of water, the contents of which she nearly spewed across the table in front of her.
"Cute," he muttered. "Very cute."
"Just sayin'," Ari said with a shrug.
Diner owner Verna Burns, who was also serving as the waitress, approached the woman's table and offered her coffee from the pot she held. Judging by the sounds, the woman accepted.
"Oh, Ari?" Verna said. "Thank Elena for that platter of baklava for me, will you? It was gone within a blink. Everyone loves it."
Before his brother could tell her he would pass on her sentiments to his fiancée, the telephone began ringing in the back of the diner. Verna hurried off to answer it with an apology.
"Elena's making baklava for the diner?" Troy asked.
Ari's grin disappeared. "She's still interested in buying the place."
"And apparently you're still against it."
"We're going to have a baby in three months. How is she going to handle that and this place? "
"Women have been balancing both since the beginning of time, Ari."
Troy felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to look into their neighbor's amused face. Her green eyes were bright, her cheeks brushed with color, her mouth full and smiling. "I'm sorry. Can I bother you for a little sugar?" she asked.
Oh, he'd like to give her a little sugar, all right.
"Sure." Troy picked up the container and handed it to her, noting that her nails were neat and manicured, white half moons on the tips. "Thanks."
He refused to look at Ari as he turned back, but couldn't ignore his quiet chuckle.
"Not a word," he muttered.
"Pardon me?" the woman asked.
"What? Oh. I'm sorry. I was talking to my brother."
"I see. I'm sorry to bother you again, but is that fresh cream there on your table? If it is, it's much better than this powdered stuff."
It took Troy a moment to process her request. When he reached for the cream, Ari was holding it out for him. He took it and nearly spilled the contents on the woman because he wasn't paying attention.
"Sorry," he said.
"No harm, no foul," she said with that same knowing smile.
"Good going, hot shot," his brother said. Troy glared at him.
The woman again. "I suppose since we're having coffee together, I might as well introduce myself." She held out a slender hand. "Kendall Banks."
He shook her hand. "Troy Metaxas. This is my brother Ari. Although I'm considering disowning him."
She laughed as she shook Ari's hand, as well.
"Ah, the famous Metaxas brothers. Nice to meet you both."
"Are you from here? " Ari asked, much to Troy's chagrin.
"No, no. Just visiting your fine town."
"Staying at Foss's Bed and Breakfast?"
"Yes. How did you know? Oh. Never mind. It's probably the only place in town, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is."
"Where are you from?" Ari asked.
Troy wanted to reach across and stuff a paper napkin in his brother's mouth, anything to keep him from continuing the conversation.
"I'll let you two get back to your breakfast. Oh, wait." She held out the cream and sugar. "You can have these back. Thank you."
"Sure," Troy said, putting them back on the table.
Something outside the window thankfully caught Ari's attention. "Is that Palmer?"
Troy followed his gaze to see Palmer DeVoe, one of the three due to meet them for breakfast, along with Caleb Payne and Graham Johnson, the company's longtime attorney, coming out of Penelope Weaver's shop. He was grinning and shaking his head as he stopped on the sidewalk. Then he glanced in the direction of the diner and began crossing the street.
Palmer came inside and Troy stood to greet him, shaking hands with the man he'd once played varsity football with, but more recently had been his business adversary. Until Palmer had closed down his operation and offered to come on board with them.
Troy was convinced that the latest of Philippidis's key players to jump ship was to credit for the Greek's about-face. Well, that and the fact that Caleb Payne's mother, whom Philippidis had recently been dating, had reportedly dumped him when her son objected to the union.
Whatever the reason, Troy was glad for the chance to reunify with the Greek. The way he saw it, it was better to have him as a wary friend than an angry enemy. Philippidis had thrown up so many roadblocks in their efforts to secure funding to convert the lumber mill into a manufacturing plant that would produce solar panels, he'd almost abandoned all hope.
Then Philippidis had contacted him and asked for a meeting to see if they couldn't finally work things out.
The offer couldn't have come at a better time.
Palmer nodded toward the woman behind Troy as he sat down in the booth next to him.
Ari grinned. Troy grimaced.
"Where are Caleb and Graham?" Palmer asked, taking the hint.
"They should be here any minute."