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To Emma Jarrett, finding her mother waiting in her office meant only one thingtrouble. Cherie Kenner-Jarrett didn't venture out of the eastern suburbs of Sydney without good reason, although her reasons were seldom good for Emma.
Ignoring her mother's tiny frown, she slid her patchwork velvet backpack off her shoulders and parked it on the desk.
"What happened to the Miu Miu bag I gave you for your birthday?" her mother asked. Cherie's own bag was Prada as usual, Emma noted. Her charcoal suit over a frilled pink shirt had the distinctive cut of an Aloys Gada, her mother's favorite designer.
Cherie's hair was styled in a flawless chin-length bob with a sleek, off-center part highlighting her sea-green eyes. Emma's hair was a lighter reddish-gold, like the last embers of sunset, but flared out in an undisciplined cloudthe reason she usually wore it twisted up and imprisoned in a bear-claw clip. A couple of extra inches in height made her look slimmer than her mother, although Cherie actually weighed a little less, watching her diet with a resolve Emma couldn't match while working in the food business.
Since her mother sat behind the desk, Emma took the visitor's chair, a recycled wooden kitchen chair she'd painted citrus to match the billowing folds of curtain disguising the window's small size and view of the brick wall next door. "Your bag is toospecialfor every day. This backpack is one of my own designs. The material came from a vintage velvet skirt I found at the markets. Aren't the colors amazing?"
"Amazing," Cherie agreed without conviction. "It's good that you keep up with your hobby. But if it means you sold my gift online, I don't want to know." Her manicured hand swept across a sheet of paper in front of her. "I see the bank's concerned about the business exceeding your overdraft limit. Why didn't you come to me or your father?"
No point protesting about her mother's right to read the letter, Emma knew. As a teenager growing up in Bellevue Hill, she'd never had the pleasure of opening her own mail. The letters had been neatly slit before reaching her. "In case there was something we needed to know about," was the excuse. Emails and instant messages fared little better until Emma learned to password protect them. Then there'd been lectures about the dangers of the internet and parental need to keep their child safe. "Your father and I worry about you," her mother had explained. "In our work we see the harm that unsupervised internet activities cause families all the time."
Emma's parents were in practice together. A pediatrician, Cherie was marginally more successful than her obstetrician husband because of her high profile in the media. Issues like child protection were her specialty, and she was a frequent guest on talk shows.
At first Emma had been proud of her mother's fame, until she realized she and her brother provided the case studies for many of Cherie's theories. To the media, Cherie made much of being a mother herself, when in truth, their housekeeper spent more time parenting Emma and Todd than their parents did. Running a demanding medical practice plus writing and public speaking meant family interactions generally came down to "quality time," not Emma's favorite term.
"Most businesses struggle in their first few months," Emma said, suppressing the urge to sigh. She wasn't prepared to ask for financial help from her parents, knowing she would lose some of her independence. Being the only civilian, as Todd called her, in three generations of medical practitioners was tough enough. Becoming a chef and opening a catering business had really put her beyond the pale. She wasn't giving her mother any more reason to find fault. "Thanks, but I'm doing okay, Ma."
"You know I don't like being called 'Ma.'"
"You don't object when Todd does it."
Cherie didn't have to add that anything Emma's older brother did was fine with her. Unlike Emma, Todd was establishing himself as an endocrinologist, to his parents' delight. So she masked her surprise when her mother said, "This visit is about what I can do for you."
"You need my catering services?" she asked warily.
Cherie looked uneasy. "Not me, Nathan Hale, the heart surgeon. His thirty-fifth birthday party's in three weeks and he's been made head of his department, both causes for celebration. I'm sure you remember Nate. It's only been nine weeks since you met at our office Christmas party. The two of you spent enough time together, before you left in his car."
Emma felt her face start to heat and looked down before her mother noticed. "The name rings a bell." Mostly alarm bells. Of any night, that was the one she most wanted to forget. She'd never come on to anyone the way she had with Nate Hale.
Now her mother was proposing Emma have him as a client. Good grief. If he was only now turning thirty-five and already head of a department, he must have inhaled his medical studies with his mother's milk.
She lifted her hands palms upward. She could hardly tell Cherie the real reason she didn't want to work with Nate, so she used the only other excuse she had. "Renovation on the kitchen hasn't even started, Ma. There's barely room for Sophie and me to work together, much less the people I want to hire. It's too soon for us to take on a large project."
As usual, her mother demolished Emma's objections with a gesture. "You can do anything you set your mind to. Besides, your father and I have already recommended your service to Nate."
Emma felt herself start to drown. "Why?"
"You keep telling us how well you're doing." Cherie tapped a finger against the bank's letter. "Even if this suggests not all is going smoothly."
"Love This Catering is doing fine." Emma dragged in a calming breath. "Exceeding the overdraft was a small oversight. Things will improve once I get the kitchen upgraded and my team in place."
"How will you stay afloat until then if you reject every decent job that comes your way?"
The same way we've managed for the past five months, she thought. On a wing and a prayer. But she couldn't tell her mother that. Instead she said, "Doing work Sophie and I can manage with the facilities we have, and the monthly chef's dinners we hold here. The mailing list for them is growing all the time."
Cherie all but wrinkled her nose. "People come here to eat?"
"Among Sydney foodies, the inner west has a reputation for innovative cuisine," Emma pointed out. "Lewisham's still making its mark." That was why she'd chosen to buy in the suburb. With help from the bank, she'd been able to afford the ten-foot-wide single-story cottage that had been squeezed into the garden of the neighboring home several decades ago. The expenses gave her nightmares, but the place itself gave her nothing but satisfaction. And she needed somewhere to live. Besides, this way she only had one mortgage to support.
The previous cafe had gone broke, but the basic structure had made it easy for Emma to set up her business. After the redecorating she and a group of friends had done, the former cafe now provided an ideal venue for small dinners, and the sensational food and subdued lighting distracted diners from any flaws in their surroundings. The kitchen was functional enough for these occasions, but wasn't equipped for more ambitious events.
"I don't understand why you're so touchy," Cherie complained. "I'm only trying to help."
"I know, and I appreciate the support."
"Then why react as if I have no right to my opinions?"
Perhaps because there are so many of them? "I know you mean well, and I appreciate it. If it wasn't " that the client is Nathan Hale? " too soon for me to take on big jobs, I'd jump at the chance." Emma crossed her fingers under the desk.
Cherie gestured around them. "You'll never grow by limiting yourself. I was so pleased when you bought this place."
Emma masked her astonishment. "You were?"
"You finally seemed to be getting a sense of direction."
One should always strive for the next goal, Emma had been reminded frequently when she was growing up. And what had been wrong with her sense of direction up to now? Wasn't gaining her diploma in commercial cooking an achievement? Or winning a scholarship to an international food festival in Singapore where she'd worked with world-class chefs? That distinction had earned Emma a job as a junior chef, then she'd skipped a couple of levels to become demi-chef at the Hotel Turista in Sydney's Rocks area. There she'd worked her way up to sous-chef, before deciding to open her own place. "One day I'll get my life on track," she said with an exaggerated sigh.
"Now don't sound so sarcastic. Just because I think your talents could be better utilized doesn't mean I don't appreciate that you have them."
Emma didn't bother trying to unscramble the compliment. Her mother cared about her and her brother, even if she had an annoying way of showing it. "I know, Ma. You and Dad should come to one of my chef's dinners and see how I do things."
Cherie gave her a bright smile. "We'll see."
Code for a snowball's chance, Emma knew. What else did she expect? "I'll email you the next few dates."
"Thank you, darling. But we really should discuss Nate's dinner party."
Over her dead body, Emma thought. "Can I get you some coffee and cake? Sophie's baking mini Bakewell tarts with wild huckleberry jam." Distraction didn't only work with customers. She could smell the delicious aroma from here.
Evidently so could her mother. "I'll have a tiny taste," she conceded. "I can work it off at the gym later. Then I want to talk about Nate."
That made one of them.
When Emma went into the kitchen, Sophie shot her a concerned look. "Everything okay?"
"Tell you later," Emma mouthed as she arranged some of the medallion-size tarts on a white plate. She walked over to the commercial coffee machine which came with the building and made two macchiatos, then carried the lot to her office.
Cherie was on the phone and looked up as Emma placed the tray on her desk. "Ah, here she is now. You can talk to her yourself, Nate."
Before Emma could shake her head in protest, the BlackBerry was thrust into her hand. She pulled professionalism around her like a cloak. "Hello, Dr. Hale."
"It was Nate last time, Emma."
No man should have a voice as rich as triple-chocolate fudge brownies, she thought as a shiver of response slid down her spine. And there was a last time? Who knew? "Ah, yes, Nate, we have met."
The insinuation sent heat arrowing from her head to her stomach. No, no, this had to stop. Head agreed, body didn't get the memo. "I'm afraid my business isn't fully operational yet," she said. "My mother tells me your birthday is in three weeks, but catering large-scale events isn't an option for at least another three months."
"Saying no isn't an option."
What Dr. Hale wants, Dr. Hale gets. Emma felt a jolt of frustration. No wonder Cherie was so keen on having Emma work for him. Nate and her mother were cut from the same cloth. "Acknowledging limitations isn't failure," she said. "It's a good business practice."
"True, but overcoming those limitations is preferable."
A vision flashed through her mind of Nate facing some huge challenge in the operating room, finding a way around it and saving the patient at the last minute. Wasn't that what always happened with his type? Her father's stories of his heroic interventions had been regular dinner table fare when she was growing up.
"I'll keep your advice in mind," she agreed crisply. "How many guests are you expecting?"
"Fifty at a minimum. I'm thinking of having the party on the terracesit-down, of course."
He must have some terrace. A sit-down dinner for fifty would be way off her radar. "Look, Nate, I'll gladly put together some options and email them to you to see if anything I can do meets your requirements." Her tone told him she doubted it would.
"I'd rather discuss this with you face-to-face." She heard the tap of keys as he consulted his schedule. "How does Friday sound?"
"I'm committed on Friday." She had a breakfast meeting with Carla Geering, a talented chef Emma had known since catering college, and Margaret Jennings, a self-taught cook who helped with the chef's dinners once a month. Both were prepared to leave good jobs to join Emma as soon as she was ready. She looked forward to their meetings. All three of them came away inspired and excited about what lay ahead.
But Emma's answer would have been the same whatever day he'd suggested, and she had a feeling he suspected as much.
"I'm sure you can uncommit yourself. I'll see you at my place at eleven."