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"Congratulations, Dante." Sage Anderson gave her dear friend a warm hug. Dante Moore, who was six feet tall with searing light brown eyes, a neatly trimmed goatee and dressed in a crisp white shirt open at the throat and dark slacks, was just plain fine.
She and her boyfriend, Ian Lawrence, had just arrived to their weekly family dinner at Dante's newest restaurant. Located in Harlem, Renaissance had only been open for six months, but had already hit its stride. There were several couples lined up at the door eager to get in. Lucky for them, they had reserved a private wine room and it easily accommodated their ever-expanding family.
"Thank you, Sage." Dante affectionately squeezed the five-foot-two woman who was like a little sister. She was out of her usual business suit attire and wore a rustic wrap dress that complemented her warm brown skin, short haircut and gold hoop earrings.
He glanced down at Sage and couldn't believe how far he'd come in the past seven years. When he'd been nominated for a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year, he'd known it was time for his own place. That's when he'd opened Dante's, a tapas and wine bar in Greenwich Village. Now Renaissance was on the same path to success. Who would have ever thought that a kid who'd been abandoned by his mother as a toddler would become a successful chef and restaurateur? And thanks to Ian he was also the requested caterer for the creme de la creme of New York society. To be sharing this moment with the people he thought of as his family, Malik Williams, Quentin Davis, Sage and their respective partners, was the icing on the cake.
"You are truly gifted," Ian commented from Sage's side after placing a canape in his mouth.
"Dante, you really need to be thanking Riley Ward," Malik said, "for that excellent review of up-and-coming New York restaurants in Foodies magazine several months back. The man positively gushed about you. You would have thought you were the Second Coming of Emeril or something." As always Malik was dressed simply in jeans and a gold T-shirt that matched his toffee complexion and dreads.
Quentin Davis held up one of the framed magazine articles currently being displayed on Renaissance's walls and read, "'Dante Moore, the Best New Chef in New York.' What a compliment!"
"And every word of it is true." Sage smiled, lightly stroking Dante's cheek.
Dante glanced back and forth at Malik, Quentin and Sage. They were his oldest and dearest friends. It was amazing that they'd all achieved their dreams given their modest beginnings at the orphanage. Quentin was a highly respected photographer; Sage, a partner at Greenberg, Waggoner, Hanson, Anderson and Associates; and Malik, the head director of the Children's Aid Network community centers in New York. And Dante was the owner of two restaurants and a thriving catering business.
"You have a point," Dante responded, stirring up the corn polenta on the table. "I think I will stop by Riley Ward's office and thank him personally." Thanks to his glowing review, their reservation list had been jam-packed for months. They also had to create a waiting list for the restaurant. He couldn't have asked for a better outcome. Initially, he'd been a little hesitant about branching out into another restaurant. He knew Greenwich Village and felt the NYU students would be major customers for Dante's, but thisclassic soul dishes with a twistwas closer to his heart and gave him a chance to explore his creative side.
"When can we dig in?" Malik's wife, Peyton, asked, eyeing the hot appetizers on the table. Malik laughed at her side. Peyton was six months pregnant and the woman had a raging appetite.
"Soon, baby, soon." Malik patted Peyton's growing belly. "That son of mine is already making his presence known."
Peyton's face upturned. "And how do you know it's not a girl?" Her mocha complexion glowed from her easy pregnancy. They'd both agreed they wanted the sex of the baby to be a surprise.
Malik's chest puffed out. "It's just a feeling."
"A father's intuition?" Sage asked, chuckling.
"Call it what you will." Malik swung his dreads. "I just know."
"I hear you, Malik," Quentin replied. "I could have sworn Avery here" he pulled his wife and baby girl nestled in her arms closer to him "was going to have a boy, but when Bella came out wailing in the delivery room without a pee-pee, I knew I was wrong."
Dante glanced wistfully at his brothers who were now both happily married. Quentin and Avery already had a beautiful four-month-old baby girl and the two suited each other despite their being polar opposites. Quentin's dark good looks, broad build and bold personality versus Avery's fair complexion, slender form and conservativeness suited each other. Then there was Malik and Peyton, who had a bundle on the way. Even Sage had found herself a steady beau. Sure, Ian was ready to make an honest woman out of her, but because of his playboy past, Sage was making certain before she allowed him to put a ring on her finger. Seeing how happy they all were made Dante long for a future that would never be. A future he'd dreamed of once with Adrianna Wright before she'd walked out of his life without a word and left him with a broken heart.
"This place is certainly living up to the hype," Peyton's best friend, Amber Martin, commented as she glanced up at Dante.
Dante turned his light brown eyes on Amber. "You should know me well enough to realize that I always live up to the hype."
Amber was a looker in her snug jeans and casual top. Not to mention she was fun, hip and sassy as hell. They'd kicked it a few times a while back, but Amber was content with the single life and although Dante enjoyed her company he was ready to settle down. He wasn't looking for marriage just yet, just someone who loved him and who he could depend on.
Amber smiled widely at Dante's innuendo. She certainly did know that he lived up to it. He was a giving lover. Too bad the six-foot chef with the killer abs and dreamy bedroom eyes wanted more than she could give. Or was it the fact he was still hung up on the woman who broke his heart long ago? Whatever the case, she still considered him a friend.
"Are you two flirting?" Peyton inquired. She'd hoped for Amber to settle down with Dante a couple of years ago, but it wasn't meant to be.
"I always flirt." Amber tossed her shoulder-length hair over her shoulder. She'd allowed her former chic bob to grow out.
"She's shameless." Dante winked at Amber. "But I love her anyway." He leaned over and kissed Amber's forehead. He was happy they could still be friends even though a relationship hadn't emerged from their short time together. "Now how about we get started on dinner, before Peyton and Ian fill up on canapes?"
Ian looked up guiltily from the appetizer table. "Hey, I can't help it if your food is that good."
Dante's staff started bringing in platters of food for their weekly family dinner. Sage smiled as she watched Dante in his element. He was so warm and giving. She wished that he had someone in his life like she, Malik and Quentin had. Despite the front he put up that everything was okay, Sage recognized that Dante was lonely at times.
"How's the new art show coming along, Avery?" Dante inquired.
Avery shrugged. "Slowly. It's hard keeping so many balls in the airthe show, the gallery and being a mother to little Bella here." She reached into the bassinet on the floor and touched her daughter's cheek. "It's a balancing act."
"Much props to you, girlfriend," Amber replied. "'Cause I sure as hell couldn't do it."
"How about some coq au vin?" Dante asked, cutting the conversation short about families and babies. Something he knew nothing about.
"Sounds good to me," Malik said. "I'm starved." Since Peyton had gotten pregnant, meals at the Williams household consisted of takeout and pizza unless Malik cooked. Peyton was often too tired after teaching education courses at NYU to even think about making dinner.
For Dante, the rest of the evening continued much the same as their other family dinners. Laughter and jokes were aplenty along with some old orphanage stories tossed in for good measure, but most of all there was plenty of love. Once everyone had full bellies, eventually their tight-knit group dispersed. Quentin and Avery were the first to leave because they had to put his goddaughter, GabrielleBella for shortto bed. Malik and Peyton soon followed. Only Sage, Ian and Amber were left.
"You don't have to stay, Sage," Dante said as he began piling the empty plates into a bin. Although he had staff he could call on, Dante wasn't above pitching in.
Sage was still lingering around chatting with Amber. He knew what she was up to. Sage had mentioned an associate at work that she was dying to set him up with, but she needn't worry. There wasn't a shortage of women willing to entertain him for the evening. He just hadn't found the one.
"I'm just waiting for Ian," Sage replied. "He went to the kitchen so Marvin could make him a doggie bag to take home."
"Ian can afford a full-time chef ten times over, so why is he waiting on my leftovers?"
"Because," Ian replied, returning to the private wine room, "you're that good. Matter of fact" he rubbed his chin "I think it's time the world was introduced to you."
Dante's forehead furrowed into a frown. "What are you talking about, Ian?"
"I think it's time you had your own food show." He paused for several seconds. "On my network."
"Ohmigod!" Sage stomped her foot. "That's a fabulous idea, honey. Why didn't we think of this before?"
"Well, that is why I'm a multimillionaire with holdings in magazine, television and radio," Ian replied smugly, right before Sage punched him on the shoulder.
"Are you serious, Ian?" Dante asked. He was certainly intrigued. A food show would take his career to new heights.
"I never joke about money," Ian said, sternly. "Of course I'm serious. We've been toying with this idea for a few weeks now. I'll set up a meeting with my head of development and we'll discuss it."
"That sounds great." Dante stepped forward and shook Ian's hand. "Thanks for the opportunity."
"It's absolutely deserved. Sage, you ready to go?" Ian turned to his girlfriend.
"Well " Sage paused. "I wanted to talk to Dante about something "
"Sage, leave the man alone. He just cooked us a four-course meal, for goodness' sake," Ian returned. "Let's go home."
"All right, but you know this isn't over." Sage pointed her finger at Dante.
"Good night, Sage!" Dante waved them out of the room until it was just him and Amber.
"So." Amber walked toward him. "How about a nightcap?"
There was no mistaking the look of hunger in Amber's eyes and it had been a while since he'd been with a woman, but Dante didn't want to give her mixed signals. He wanted a committed relationship and Amber was just not interested. "It's kind of late," Dante replied. "Another time?"
Amber grinned mischievously. "Sure."
"Are you comfortable, Daddy?" Adrianna asked as she propped up her father, Howard Mitchell, against the pillows in the Victorian master bedroom he'd once shared with her mother, Vanessa, before she'd succumbed to breast cancer two years ago.
"I am. Thank you, baby girl." Her father patted her hand. "For coming back home. I really missed you."
"And I missed you, too," Adrianna replied. She'd only been back a few weeks, but she was glad she'd come.
Gone was the distinguished, poised governor with the salt-and-pepper hair who could simply will something and it was done. In his place was a weak man with thinning hair and a quiet whisper of a voice who depended on her or his nurses to take care of him. Her father had been diagnosed with colon cancer. He was gravely ill and the disease had taken its toll, so much so it appeared he'd become old practically overnight. Adrianna knew how much it must be hurting her father to have to depend on others for his well-being.
Even though she'd made a name for herself in the culinary scene as a reviewer for Foodies magazine under the pseudonym Riley Ward, Adrianna had come rushing home as soon as her ex-husband, Phillip, had confided in her just how ill her father was. She'd thought his cancer was in remission, but apparently it had come back full steam. And so she'd packed up and left behind her condo in Chicago and moved in with her father at the family mansion in the Hamptons.
Foodies, on the other hand, was happy to finally have her stationed closer to the corporate office in New York instead of sending her articles. Now that she was back in her hometown, she had the desire to get back into cooking. Reviewing was great, but cooking was her true passion. She'd heard through the grapevine that Lawrence Enterprises, the Goliath of multimedia empires, might be interested in starting a food show on one of their networks and she hoped to throw her hat in the ring.
"You know Phillip came by the other day," her father said.
"Oh yeah?" Adrianna rolled her eyes upward. Why would he think that information was relevant? Did he think she'd forgotten the real reason she'd married Phillip Wright in the first place? It was because of her father. She'd married Phillip to save his good reputation so he could run for governor again. The fact that she loved and was pregnant with another man's baby was inconsequential.
Marry Phillip or else I will disinherit you and you will be left penniless to take care of your bastard child.
Those words still rang in Adrianna's mind as if he'd just spoken them to her. Her dying father was the reason why she'd lost the one man she'd ever truly loved: Dante Moore.
"Let's not talk about this now, Daddy," Adrianna replied, sitting down in the chair by his bedside and taking his hand in hers. It was amazing how frail he was given how larger-than-life he once was. She remembered cowering to his six-foot presence as a child and now here he was bedridden.
"Why did you never give Phillip the chance?" her father questioned. "He could have made you happy."
"Daddy, must we get into this now?" Adrianna replied. She'd barely been back a few weeks and he was already bringing up a sore subject.
"You know how much Phillip loved you. Hell, still does. It's not too late if you want to make things right."
"Make things right, Daddy?" Adrianna rose from his bed and walked over to the window to look out over the courtyard. The overcast sky reflected how she felt. "Things were wrong the moment you threatened to cut me off if I didn't. They were wrong because I didn't love Phillip. I never did and I never will."