Table for Two (Heartsong Presents Series #1088)

Table for Two (Heartsong Presents Series #1088)

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by Brandy Bruce

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So the pretty food critic is stunned when she captures the eye of dashing chef Leo Romano. Leo's good looks and fabulous cooking are swoon-worthy, but it's his tender care of his ailing father and affection for his warm Italian family that really touch her heart. 

A broken engagement has made

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So the pretty food critic is stunned when she captures the eye of dashing chef Leo Romano. Leo's good looks and fabulous cooking are swoon-worthy, but it's his tender care of his ailing father and affection for his warm Italian family that really touch her heart. 

A broken engagement has made Leo cautious. And as he grapples with his dad's illness he's skeptical about starting a new relationship, even with a woman as compelling as Mandy. But as he spends more time with Mandy, Leo starts to realize maybe the last thing he should give up is love.

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Heartsong Presents Series , #1088
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Mandy Seymour held up one hand to hold off traffic as she dashed across the crowded street, wincing as the walk sign changed to Stop before she could reach the other side.

"Sorry, sorry," she muttered as the sound of honking horns followed her. She pushed through the revolving door of the Hyatt Regency hotel and rushed past the front desk. Taking a quick moment to look down at the brochure in her hand, Mandy took the next left and sighed with relief when she saw that the double doors to the conference room directly ahead of her were still open. She slid into the last row of seats and turned her attention to the speaker at the front of the room. Gabriel Romano. The Gabriel Romano-the well-known entrepreneur, chef and owner of three four-star restaurants, one in Los Angeles, and now two in Denver.

Mandy's mouth watered at the very thought of his famous tiramisu.

She caught the end of Mr. Romano's introduction as she shuffled through her purse, looking for a pen and a notepad.

How can I not have a pen? I always have pens-but of course, when I need one, there are none to be found.

Mandy ignored the disapproving voice in the back of her mind that always sounded just like her mother. Mandy, why are you so disorganized? Mandy, when are you going to be more responsible? Mandy, isn't it time you gotyourself together? "Here, take this."

Mandy looked up in surprise at the voice whispering next to her. A man in a blue tailored suit with a silver tie handed her a pen.

"Thanks," Mandy whispered back, accepting the pen, her gaze lingering just a little too long on the man. His dark wavy hair, jet-black eyes and olive skin were a nice combination.

Don't even think about it, Mandy. He'sprobably married.

Was that her voice or her mother's in her head? Mandy shook away the question and settled in her seat, eager to be swept into Gabriel Romano's rise-to-success story, beginning with learning to cook in his grandmother's kitchen during summers spent in the Italian countryside.

"So, why are you here?" the guy leaned over and whispered again.

Mandy barely glanced at him. Okay, I know you're cute, but I'm here to hear Gabriel Romano, so stop talking!

Mandy shrugged and kept her eyes on her notepad. "The same reason everyone else is-Gabriel Romano," she whispered, hoping her annoyance would register with the guy.

"So you're another admirer," he said.

It obviously didn't register with him.

"I'm a food critic," Mandy whispered in a rush as she turned to look at him. "I'm doing a review of the new Romano's on Fifteenth Street tonight, so I thought I'd come hear his story first."

A woman in front of them looked back, holding her finger to her lips. "Shh!"

Mandy's face burned with embarrassment and she concentrated once again on her notepad. The guy next to her seemed unaffected.

"What time will you be there?"

"What?" Mandy asked, forgetting to whisper. The woman in front turned around again, glaring this time.

The guy leaned closer. "What time will you be at Romano's tonight?"

Mandy blinked, caught for a moment by those dark eyes of his. Why did he want to know? She looked back down at the notepad on her lap without answering.

"I'm Leo, by the way," the guy whispered.

Mandy sneaked another look over at him. He had a nice smile. But that didn't mean anything. There could be a lunatic lurking behind that nice smile.

"I'm Mandy Seymour."

What happened to the lunatic theory? I'm now having a conversation with a complete stranger-to whom I just gave my name-and I'm missing out on the speech that I came to hear!

Leo nodded. "Nice to meet you. What time will you be at Romano's tonight, Mandy?"

Mandy licked her lips and gripped the borrowed pen in her hand.

"Eight o'clock."

Leo winked at her. "Maybe I'll see you there," he whispered with a smile before leaving the conference room. Mandy watched him go, wondering where he was going and wishing she had asked him why he was there.

Leo Romano typed the name Mandy Seymour into his phone and waited for the search engine to give him what he needed. Within seconds, the first page of hits came up on the screen and Leo scrolled through, clicking on the third link.

Mandy Seymour, respected food critic for Denver Lifestyle magazine, recommends the Coffee and Crepes delicatessen at Twenty-Third and Mountain

View. Mandy was quoted as saying, "The service was impeccable and the breakfast quiche exceeded my expectations…."

Leo clicked off his phone and shoved his hands in his pockets. Even from the hallway, he heard his father's voice booming through the conference room. He could quote verbatim his father's speech, and while it was inspiring for the audience, Leo could only stand to hear it so many times.

He stepped closer to the open door, scanning the back row where Mandy Seymour sat, scribbling on her notepad. She'd rushed into the conference room, late, juggling a purse and shoulder bag; then she'd furiously rummaged through her purse until Leo had given her his pen. He'd been amused by her effort to ignore him and her frustration at his attempt at conversation. Wisps of brown hair had escaped the knot tied at the nape of her neck. Leo doubted that Mandy knew her scarf was haphazardly dragging on the floor when she'd rushed in. Everything about the woman shouted scatterbrained.

Still, scatterbrained or not, when Mandy dropped her pen and then scrambled to find it under her chair, Leo smiled from where he stood watching.

She's charming. In a clumsy, disheveled sort of way. Leo watched her sit back up and blow a stray hair from her face while she continued taking notes. Not like Carol Ann. Clumsy and disheveled are two words that could never describe her.

Leo's neck stiffened at even the thought of Carol Ann Hunt. It had been more than six months since she'd broken off their engagement and moved back to her parents' home in Chicago.

Leo leaned against the wall near the doorway and closed his eyes, sending up a quick prayer for just a little more endurance.

Please help me get the new restaurant off the ground, Father. It's so important to my dad. He can't do this without me. And I can't do this without You.

The sound of laughter coming from the conference room broke his reverie and Leo looked up, glancing at his watch and knowing that the speech would be over soon. His father's voice echoed through the corridor and Leo couldn't avoid hearing the highlights of his father's life story. He listened as Gabriel Romano talked about discovering his passion-and talent-for cooking, marrying the love of his life and raising a family in Los Angeles, struggling financially to get his first restaurant off the ground. But through hard work, determination and a stellar reputation for good food, that first Romano's eventually thrived.

Gabriel told the audience that he hired his brother to be the manager and overseer of the restaurant while he concentrated on cooking, and a few years later he decided to move his family to Colorado. With the success of the Los Angeles Romano's, the opening of a second restaurant proved to be much easier. The restaurant on Franklin Street in Denver was an overnight success.

As the speech came to a close, Leo noted that his father hadn't mentioned that Leo would be the head chef, running the kitchen at the new Fifteenth Street location. He knew his father wanted to create more buzz by keeping the new chef's identity a mystery until the restaurant opened. That suited Leo just fine; he had enough on his plate without enduring the press and questions about his new role as head chef, along with the inevitable comparisons that would be made to his father.

As the crowd filed through the double doors, Leo moved back. From a distance, Leo could see Mandy Seymour make her way back down toward the lobby. Knowing she would be at the grand opening tonight, Leo would make sure everything-from the food to the service to the lighting- would be perfect.

Mandy took her time walking down the street toward Union Station. She planned to head back to her condo to work on her review of the mom-and-pop pizzeria she'd tried the week before. It was one of the things she loved most about her job-finding that diamond in the rough, so to speak. That little out-of-the-way place right outside of Denver that served amazing meat loaf or that tiny diner off Mosely Street that had the best cherry pie and homemade ice cream.

Not that Romano's could ever be described as a little hole-in-the-wall type place, with its marble flooring, outdoor fountain, stone fireplaces, textured walls and magnificent murals-it was more than impressive. Mandy had been to the restaurant on Franklin Street a number of times. The Italian restaurant was practically a landmark in the area. But this latest Romano's promised new items on the menu, created by a new chef-obviously someone with Gabriel Romano's stamp of approval.

Mandy tightened her peacoat around her and picked up her pace as the wind brushed across her face. She wished she'd thought to wear a more substantial coat. It had been a mild January for Denver, but as a lifelong Coloradan, Mandy knew how unpredictable the weather could be.

The sounds of downtown Denver competed with the brisk wind as Mandy reached Union Station. She loved the energy of the mile-high city. She thrived on the lights, the noise, the crowds; living in a place bustling with people helped with the loneliness of living on her own.

Within seconds of finding a seat on the train, Mandy's cell phone rang. Just the sound of the Shirelles singing "Mama Said" told Mandy all she needed to know. Claire

Seymour was nothing if not predictable. Mandy held the phone to her ear. "Hi, Mom."

"Mandy, are you still downtown?"

"No, Mom. I'm already on my way back home. Why?"

"I thought you said you'd call me on your way back to the Tech Center."

"I've only been on the train for about two minutes. I was going to call you once I'd been on the train for three minutes."

"There's no need to be snippy, Mandy."

Mandy watched the city fly by as the train moved.


"Good. Now, I'm cooking pot roast tonight, and I want you to come over for dinner. Your brother and Samantha are coming, too. Six o'clock."

"Mom, I already told you that I have plans tonight. I have to visit that new restaurant and then start my review. So I can't make it. But please tell Brian and Samantha that I said hello."

"I'm making pot roast!"

"Next time, okay?"

"Sunday dinner. I won't take no for an answer. I expect you in Evergreen by four."

"Fine. Tomorrow. Four o'clock. I'll be there."

"And I certainly hope you're wearing your good coat! It's freezing outside!"

"I know it is. See you Sunday."

Mandy clicked her phone off and leaned her head back against the cold window, ignoring the familiar wave of defeat that came over her whenever she talked to her mother.

As the train rattled to a stop, Mandy jumped up, swung her bag over her shoulder and braced herself for the cold wind. She allowed herself a little time to think about the mysterious Leo.

He's Italian, obviously. Aren't Italian men famous for flirting? Or maybe that's Greek men… Anyway, he probably didn't mean anything by it. And I'm sure he won't be at Romano's tonight. He's too good-looking to be interested in me.

Without a doubt, that last thought had her mother's tone.

Don't think about Mom. I've proved her wrong so far, haven't I? Here I am, living in the city with a job I love. I haven't turned out to be the failure she feared I would be. Okay, so I'm not married to a dashing, successful man and I'm not the size-six, fashion-conscious, top executive she'd wanted me to be. There are worse things in life.

Mandy's shoulder bag fell to the ground, its contents scattering. Mandy sighed.

Like being a walking disaster.

Chapter 2

1 told you, Ashley, it was nothing. He just asked me what time I'm going to be at Romano's." Mandy pushed the speaker button on her cell phone and set the phone on the bathroom counter before poking her head around the door to check whether the TV show she was watching was still on commercial.

A notepad with a half-written recipe lay on the coffee table in front of the muted television. Mandy's obsession with the Food Network usually resulted in notepads filled with amazing recipes, none of which she ever seemed to have time to make. When Ina Garten appeared back on the screen, Mandy told Ashley to hold on as she flew into the living room and jotted down the next step in making cheddar corn chowder.

Racing back to the bathroom, Mandy dug through her makeup bag, looking for her pale pink lipstick.

"I'm back, Ash. What were you saying?"

She waited for her friend to remind her again that at twenty-nine, Mandy wasn't getting any younger and she needed to take charge of her nonexistent love life. It was a speech Mandy heard nearly every time she and Ashley got together-or talked on the phone. But she didn't really mind. Ashley's natural tendency to be a fiercely loyal friend was something Mandy appreciated-and it helped Mandy overlook her other natural tendencies to be overopinionated and bossy.

As the social director of Redeemer Community Church's singles class, Ashley obviously considered herself an expert when it came to giving desperate women pep talks.

"Listen, honey, haven't you ever heard the phrase carpe diem? It means 'seize the opportunity' and that's just what you need to be doing, sweet pea." Living in Colorado for five years hadn't diminished Ashley's Virginia drawl. If anything, Mandy felt that the drawl was thickening.

"It means 'seize the day,' Ashley."

"Seize the guy, Mandy! You're not getting any younger! You've got to jump on these opportunities because they are few and far between. If a tall, dark and handsome Italian asked me what time I was going to be at Romano's, I'd tell him I could be there whenever he wanted me to be there."

A laugh disguised as a cough escaped Mandy. "Okay, okay. Well, I told him I'd be there at eight o'clock, and on the slim chance that he actually shows up, I should get going."

"Call me the minute you leave the restaurant. Or if things are going really well, take a bathroom break and call me. I want to hear every detail!"

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