Max had no illusions about romance. But he vowed to protect the mother-to-be from the wolves at her door. With her lively spirit and loving nature, she was making the buttoned-down businessman long to break down the walls around his heart. Because falling in love with Tommi was no fairy tale. It was as realand as goodas it got!
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Tommi Fairchild had been raised to handle whatever she faced with grace, determination and calm.
She could manage grace as long as she suppressed her tendency to fidget or pace. Determination she'd always possessed, since she'd never have had the courage to go into business for herself without it. It was the calm part eluding her at the moment. As she watched the ebb and flow of guests moving past the ornately decorated Christmas tree in the Olympic Hotel's gorgeous, garland-draped lobby, she desperately tried not to feel desperate.
Needing to distract herself from the anxiety causing her foot to jiggle, she consciously stilled the movement, straightened in the club chair she occupied and focused on the festive tree. Beyond it, a porter bundled against Seattle's damp first-of-December air pushed a luggage cart through the tall glass front doors.
The attempt at distraction lasted long enough for her to wonder how much longer she could preserve the illusion that all was well in her once neatly ordered little world.
In the past two weeks, she'd been turned down by a credit union and two banks for a loan. Her prospects with a third bank weren't looking good, eithergiven that the loan officer hadn't returned her calls. Still, the optimist in her needed very much to believe that her luck with her dwindling prospects was about to change.
Yesterday, her Uncle Harry's secretary had called to tell her that a business associate of his had been quite impressed by the Northwest Times' latest review of her restaurant. That man wanted to see her as soon as possible.
Uncle Harryher honorary uncle, actually, given that he was a family friend rather than related by bloodknew nothing of her predicament. No one did. Because she didn't want to worry her family, or suffer their inevitable disappointment in her before it became absolutely necessary, she needed to keep it that way. At least, until she could assure them that she had everything under control.
She barely knew the man who'd asked for this meeting. Harry had introduced her to Scott Layman last month at a Hunt Foundation dinner, a not-so-intimate affair for three hundred of Seattle's key corporate and social movers and shakers. Scott had been among the glitterati. He was the Layman of Layman & Callahan, the international consulting firm Harry's people used to locate properties worldwide for the expansion of his multi-billion-dollar computer company.
Of more importance to her at the moment, as she'd learned from their website last night, Layman & Callahan also invested in local businesses as part of its commitment to the community.
Since it had been the glowing review that had caught his interest, she could only believe that, at the very least, Scott was looking for an intimate venue or catering for some sort of an event, which could translate into sizeable dollars. At best, he recognized potential when he read about it and wanted to discuss bringing her bistro into their fold.
Since she couldn't get a loan, a partner would be her next best option. Preferably, a silent one who wouldn't interfere with what she'd created and would give her the capital she needed in return for a share of the profits.
A leather portfolio holding her business plan lay on her lap. With a glance at her watch, she let out an uneasy breath. The man was already a half an hour late. As badly as she wanted to talk with him, if he didn't arrive within the next few minutes, she'd have to leave. It was nearly five o'clock. Her bistro reopened at five-thirty for dinner.
Her small waitstaff could dish up the soups du jour she had prepped that morning. In a pinch, they could also help with cold appetizers and salads. But there was no one to prepare the hot appetizers and entrees except Tommi herself. Not since Geoff Ferneau, her brilliant former sous chef, had packed up his knives and left for greener gastronomic pastures three months ago.
Three months and a week, to be precisewhich had been a week and a day after he'd charmed his way into her bed following a hugely successful private dinner party and a shared bottle of an excellent Brunello.
She was not, however, going to dwell on what should never have happened with her hired help. Not now. If she did, she'd just start beating herself up all over again for letting herself be seduced by his charm, which was exactly what had happened with the only other man she'd ever been involved with. But she wasn't going to go there now, either. Feeling as protective of her mental energy as she did her physical stamina, she had no desire to waste either on things she couldn't change, anyway.
The fact that her usually endless energy had developed limits lately was why she couldn't wait much longer to hire another chef to help her. One of the caliber she required to maintain the quality of her menu. Because she had let herself be seduced, she was now three and a half months pregnant. Without bringing someone onboard soon, she wasn't at all sure how she'd keep up, especially after her baby was born.
Her hand unconsciously slipped to the tiny bulge concealed beneath the stylish jacket of her cocoa-colored suit. She'd spent the first weeks of her pregnancy in denial, and the last couple of months dragging herself out of bed, throwing up, bucking up and, through sheer determination, facing her new reality with an Oscar-worthy portrayal of normalcy. The thought that she carried a baby shook her on a number of levels. So did the knowledge that she would lose customers if she couldn't keep up. If she lost customers, she could lose the restaurant, which meant her staff would lose their jobsand she would lose the means to support her child.
Even though it had been years since she'd experienced it the first time, the sensation of having the bottom fall out of her world felt all too familiar.
Her focus had fallen to her lap. Jarred from that disquieting sense of insecurity, it jerked to a pair of large, expensive-looking black loafers planted on the teal and gold carpet.
The leather shoes looked suspiciously Italianas did the black briefcase carried by the six feet of decidedly gorgeous urban masculinity in a tailored Burberry trench coat and charcoal slacks. Above his crisp white shirt collar, his silver-blue eyes narrowed with unnerving scrutiny on her upturned face.
The hand on her stomach slipped to one side as she straightened. Despite the anxiety she battled, the motion appeared to be nothing more than that of a woman smoothing her jacket.
He definitely wasn't who she was waiting for. Scott was tall and fair and reminded her of the pretty-boy jocks who'd been after her oldest sister in college. The man with a voice as mellow as well-aged brandy easily had the height and lean, athletic build, but his neatly trimmed hair was as dark as midnight, and his arresting features were far too rugged to be considered anything but purely masculine.
An aura of power surrounded him. Or maybe it was control. Or strength. Whatever it was, that quiet command radiated from him like a force field, drawing the glances of other guests and making it impossible for her to shift her own.
An alpha male in a business suit.
"You're waiting for Scott Layman?" he prompted.
It seemed he'd also impaired her ability to speak. With a mental frown for the lapse, she offered a guarded "I am."
"I was afraid you'd left. He tried to call, but the only number he has for you is your work phone. I'm Max Cal-lahan. His business partner."
She hadn't realized his partner was coming, too. Suddenly feeling unprepared, determined to hide it, she smiled and started to lift her hand to shake his. "Mr. Callahan," she said, but he was already moving to the chair angled toward hers.
"It's Max," he corrected. Looking back, his glance skimmed her face, his assessment quick, impersonal, yet completely, unnervingly thorough. From the considering pinch of his broad brow, it seemed clear that he found her to be something other than he'd expected. Less or more, though, she couldn't tell. Nothing in his expression betrayed any hint of his impression of her. "Mind if I sit down?"
"Of course not. Please," she insisted, folding her hands more tightly. She felt totally disadvantaged. This man didn't seem nearly as easygoing as his partner. Certainly, he wasn't prone to Scott's broad smiles. That tempered her own as she glanced across the lobby to see if the man she knew was now there, too.
She wasn't sure if it was the situation in general or Max Callahan himself that had her seeking that nebulous bit of familiarity. She could usually hold her own with just about anyone, particularly on her own turf. She was at her best where she could saute, flambe, roast, bake or braise and totally in her element with her customers. Yet, the business end of her little establishment put her squarely in the opposite end of her comfort zone. Especially lately.
There was something enormously discouraging about trying to convince a stranger that her bistro could afford to bring in another chef, only to be told that her overhead was too high and her projections weren't realistic before being turned down flatter than a fallen souffle.
The problem was that Geoff had worked for next to nothing. The replacement she needed to hire would command considerably more than that.
She sat toward the edge of her chair, her legs crossed. Stilling the betraying jiggle of her high-heel-booted foot, she reminded herself that this rather disconcerting man's partner had asked for this meeting.
"Will Scott be here soon?"
Max had set his briefcase beside the chair, tossed his overcoat over the back of it. "As soon as he can be. His conference call was taking longer than he'd expected." A hint of frustration shaded his otherwise casual tone as he hitched at the knees of his slacks and lowered his large frame to the seat. "He asked me to keep you company until he can tie it up."
He sat with his elbows on the chair's arms, the tips of his fingers resting on his powerful thighs, his feet planted wide. Beneath his beautifully tailored suit jacket, his shoulders seemed impossibly wide as he gave her what almost looked like a small smile of apology. Or maybe what made her so aware of his commanding presence was that he didn't seem to occupy the space as much as he did to claim it as his own.
"Keep me company?"
"Actually, what he asked is that I buy you a drink while we wait." One dark eyebrow arched. "I'd be happy to ask a cocktail waitress to serve us here. Unless you'd rather go to the bar."
"Thank you," she replied, confused. She wasn't meeting with this man, too? "But a drink isn't necessary."
"Coffee, then? Something else?"
"Really. Nothing. And you don't need to wait with me. Honest," she added, not wanting to sound discourteous. "Unless you have questions," she would have said, realizing he might want to get a feel for the sort of person Layman & Callahan might be dealing with. Except he was already talking.
"Nothing, then." His concession came easily, his inscrutable glance skimming her face once more. "But I'm meeting a client here in a while. Since we're both waiting, we might as well keep each other company until Scott arrives."
It seemed obvious now that she was not meeting with this man, too. That relieved her hugely, though exactly why, she couldn't say. It could have had to do with the faint tension she sensed in him. Something latent and disturbing in its ability to taunt her already knotted nerves. Or, maybe, he was just making her more aware of her own anxiety. "Do you know how long he'll be? I don't mean to sound impatient, but I have to get back to work soon."
"I'd imagine ten minutes or so." At her wince, he added, "Or less."
Max leaned back, intent on ignoring his gnawing frustration with his partner as he openly studied the gracious brunette with the innocent brown eyes. It wasn't her fault that he couldn't get Scott to move faster on the expansion of their own company. And she certainly wasn't responsible for the procrastination that had cost their company the option on the New York office space Max had finally found for them. They needed that office. A branch there would save hours of travel between coasts and allow them to double their business. All Scott had needed to do was sign the papers.
Considering how none of that had anything to do with this woman, it would hardly be fair to be less than civil to her. If he was anything, he was a fair man. At the moment, he was also a little mystified.
Tommi Fairchild was not at all the sort of female who normally piqued Scott Layman's interest. Not by a long shot.
She was attractive enough. Pretty, even, in a quiet, understated sort of way. And young, to his way of thinking, anyway. She was easily a decade younger than his own thirty-eight years. She just didn't possesses any of the other club-scene, arm-candy, tall, leggy blonde characteristics that Scott seemed to prefer.
She wore her shining sable hair skimmed back from her face and twisted to spike up behind her head. Her features were as delicate as a cameo's; her makeup subtle.