Book 1 The Buchanans Series
Penny Jackson knew that it was probably wrong of her to be so excited to see her ex-husband come crawling back, but she was willing to live with the character flaw.
"You know he's going to want to hire you," her friend Naomi said.
"Oh, yeah. The sweet smell of validation." Penny leaned back in her chair and considered the possibilities. "I want him to beg. Not in a vicious, I hate your guts way, but more as a..."
"Show of support for divorced women everywhere?" Naomi asked.
Penny laughed. "Exactly. I suppose that makes me petty and small."
"Maybe, but you're looking especially fabulous today, if that helps."
"A little." Penny smoothed the front of her loose sweater and glanced at the clock. "We're meeting for lunch downtown. A neutral location—no memories, good or bad."
"Stay away from the good ones," Naomi warned her. "You always were a sucker where Cal was concerned."
"That was so three years ago. I'm completely over him. I've moved on."
"Right." Naomi didn't look convinced. "Don't think about how great he looks in his clothes, or out of them. Instead remember how he broke your heart, lied about wanting children and trampled your fragile dreams."
Easy enough, Penny thought, a flicker of annoyance muscling in on her good mood.
Nearly as bad, four years ago she'd applied for a job as a cook in Buchanan's, one of Cal's family's restaurants. The job had been strictly entry level—she would have been in charge of salads. There had been ten other applicants. Worried she wouldn't make the cut, Penny had asked her then husband to put in a good word for her with his grandmother. He'd refused and she hadn't gotten the job.
"This time the job is coming to me," Penny said. "I intend to take advantage of that. And him. In a strictly business way, of course."
"Of course," Naomi echoed, not sounding the least bit convinced. "He's trouble for you. Always has been. Be careful."
Penny stood and reached for her purse. "When am I not?"
"Ask for lots of money."
"Don't think about having sex with him."
Penny laughed. "Oh, please. That isn't an issue. You'll see."
Penny arrived early, then stayed in her car until five minutes after the appointed time. A small, possibly insignificant power play on her part, but she figured she'd earned it.
She walked into the quiet, leather and linen bistro. Before she could approach the hostess, she saw Cal standing by a booth in the back. They might have friends in common, and live in the same city, but since she'd done her darnedest to avoid close proximity to him they never ran into each other. This lunch was going to change that.
"Hi," she said with a breezy smile.
"Penny." He looked her over, then motioned to the other side of the booth. "Thanks for joining me."
"How could I refuse? You wouldn't say much over the phone, which made me curious." She slid onto the seat.
Cal looked good. Tall, muscled, the same soulful eyes she remembered. Just sitting across from her caused her body to remember what it had been like back when things had been good and they'd been unable to keep their hands off each other. Not that she was interested in him in that way. She'd learned her lesson.
Plus, she couldn't forgive the fact that in the three years they'd been apart, he hadn't had the common courtesy to get fat or wrinkled. Nope, he was gorgeous—which was just like a man.
Still, he needed her help. Oh, yeah, that part was very cool. While they'd been married the message had been she wasn't good enough. Now he wanted her to save the day...or the restaurant, in this case. While she planned to say yes, eventually, she was going to enjoy every second of making him beg.
"The Waterfront is in trouble," he said, then paused as the waitress came by to take their order.
When the woman left, Penny leaned back in the tufted seat of the booth and smiled. "I'd heard it was more than trouble. I'd heard the place was done for. Hemorrhaging customers and money."
She blinked, going for an innocent expression. No doubt Cal would see through her attempt and want to strangle her. Verbally, at least. But he couldn't. Because he needed her. Was, in fact, desperate for her help. How she loved that in a man. Especially in Cal.
"Things have been better," he admitted, looking as if he hated every second of the conversation.
"The Waterfront is the oldest restaurant in the infamous Buchanan dynasty," she said cheerfully. "The flagship. Or it used to be. Now you have a reputation for bad food and worse service." She sipped her water. "At least that's the word on the street."
"Thanks for the update."
His jaw tightened as he spoke. She could tell he was furious about this meeting. She had an idea of what he was thinking—of all the chefs in all of Seattle, why did it have to be her?
She didn't know either, but sometimes a girl couldn't help catching a break.
"Your contract is up," he said.
She smiled. "Yes, it is."
"You're looking for a new position."
"Yes, I am."
"I'd like to hire you."
Five little words. Words that weren't significant on their own, but when joined together, could mean the world to someone. In this case, her.
"I've had other offers," Penny said calmly.
"Have you accepted any of them?"
Cal was tall, about 6'3, with dark hair. His face was all sculpted cheekbones and stubborn jaw, and his mouth frequently betrayed his mood. Right now it was thin and straight. He was so angry, he practically spouted steam. She'd never felt better.
"I'm here to offer you a five year contract. You get complete control of the kitchen, the standard agreement." He named a salary that made her blink.
Penny took another sip of her water. In truth she didn't want just another job. She wanted her own place. But opening a restaurant took serious money, which she didn't have. Her choices were to take on more partners than she wanted or wait. She'd decided to wait.
Her plan was to spend the next three years putting away money, then open the restaurant of her dreams. So while a big salary was nice, it wasn't enough.
"Not interested," she said, with a slight smile.
Cal's gaze narrowed. "What do you want? Aside from my head on a stick."
Her smile turned genuine. "I've never wanted that," she told him. "Well, not after the divorce was final. It's been three years, Cal. I've long since moved on. Haven't you?"
"Of course. Then why aren't you interested? It's a good job."
"I'm not looking for a job. I want an opportunity."
"More than the standard agreement. I want my name out front and complete creative control in back." She reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "I have a list."
Doing the right thing had always been a pain in the ass, Cal thought as he took the sheet and unfolded it. This time was no different.
He scanned the list, then tossed it back to her. Penny didn't want an opportunity, she wanted his balls sautéed with garlic and a nice cream sauce.
"No," he said flatly, ignoring the way the afternoon sunlight brought out the different colors of red and brown in her auburn hair.
"Fine by me." She picked up the sheet and started to slide out of the booth. "Nice to see you, Cal. Good luck with the restaurant."
He reached across the table and grabbed her wrist. "Wait."
"But if we have nothing to talk about..."
She looked innocent enough, he thought as he gazed into her big blue eyes, but he knew better than to believe the wide-eyed stare.
Penny could be convinced to take the job, otherwise she wouldn't have bothered with a meeting. Playing him for a fool wasn't her style. But that didn't mean she wouldn't enjoy making him beg.
Given their past, he supposed he'd earned it. So he would bargain with her, giving in where he had to. He would even have enjoyed the negotiation if only she wouldn't look so damn smug.
He rubbed his thumb across her wrist bone, knowing she would hate that. She'd always lamented about her large forearms, wrists and hands, claiming they were out of proportion with the rest of her body. He'd thought she was crazy to obsess about a flaw that didn't exist. Besides, she had chef's hands—scarred, nimble and strong. He'd always liked her hands, whether they were working on food in the kitchen or working on him in the bedroom.
"Not going to happen," he said, nodding his head at the paper and releasing his hold on her. "You know that, too. So where the real list of demands?"
She grinned and eased back into the booth. "I heard you were desperate. I had to try."
"Not that desperate. What do you want?"
"Creative freedom on the menus, complete control over the back half of the store, my name on the menu, ownership of any specialty items I create, the right to refuse any general manager you try to stuff down my throat, four weeks vacation a year and ten percent of the profits."
The waitress appeared with their lunches. He'd ordered a burger, Penny a salad. But not just any salad. Their server laid out eight plates with various ingredients in front of Penny's bowl of four kinds of lettuce.
As he watched, she put olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette and ground pepper into a coffee cup, then squeezed in half a lemon. After whisking them with her fork, she dumped the diced, smoked chicken and feta onto her salad, then sniffed the candied pecans before adding them. She passed over walnuts, took only half of the tomato, added red onions instead of green and then put on her dressing. After tossing everything, she stacked the plates and took her first bite of lunch.
"How is it?" he asked.
"Why do you bother eating out?"
"I don't usually."
She hadn't before, either. She'd been content to whip up something incredible in their kitchen and he'd been happy to let her.
He returned his attention to her demands. He wouldn't give her what she wanted on general principle. Plus it was just plain bad business.
"You can have creative control over the menus and the back half of the store," he said. "Specialty items stay with the house."
Anything a chef created while in the employ of a restaurant was owned by that restaurant.
"I want to be able to take them with me when I go." She forked a piece of lettuce. "It's a deal-breaker, Cal."
"You'll come up with something new there."
"The point is I don't want to create something wonderful and leave it in your family's less than capable hands." She narrowed her gaze. "Before you get all defensive, let me point out that five years ago, The Waterfront had a waiting list every single weekend."
"You can have your name on the menu," he said. "As executive chef."
He saw her stiffen. She'd never had that title before. It would mean something now.
"And three percent of the profits," he added.
"Five," he said. "But you don't get a say in the general manager."
"I have to work with him or her."
"And he or she has to work with you."
She grinned. "But I have a reputation of being nothing but sunshine and light in the workplace. You know that."
He'd heard she was a perfectionist and relentless in her quest for quality. She had also been called difficult, annoying and just plain brilliant.
"You can't dictate the GM," he said. "He's already been hired. At least in the short term."
She wrinkled her nose. "Who is it?"
"You'll find out later. Besides, the first guy's just coming in to do clean up. Someone else will be hired in a few months. You can have a say on him or her."
Her eyebrows rose. "Interesting. A gunslinger coming in to clean up the town. I think I like that." She drew in a breath. "How about five percent of the profits, a three-year deal, I get some say in the next GM and I take my specialty items with me." She held up her hand. "But only to my own place and you can keep them on the Waterfront menu as well."
He wasn't surprised she wanted to branch out on her own. Most good chefs did. Few had the capital or the management skills.
"Oh, and that salary you offered me before was fine," she said.
"Of course it was," he told her. "That assumed you didn't get this other stuff. How many are you bringing with you?"
"Two. My sous-chef and my assistant."
Chefs usually came with a small staff. As long as they worked well with the others in the kitchen, Cal didn't care.
"You'll never take the vacation," he said. At least she never had before.
"I want it," she said. "Just so we're clear, I will be using it."
He shrugged. "Not until we're up and running."
"I was thinking late summer. I'll have everything together by then."
Maybe. She hadn't seen the mess yet.
"Is that it?" he asked.
She considered for a second, then shrugged. "Get me the offer in writing. I'll look it over and then let you know if we have a deal."
"You'd never get this much anywhere else. Don't pretend you'll back out."
The smugness returned. "You never know, Cal. I want to hear what your competition puts on the table."
"I know who's interested. They'll never cut you in for that much of the profit."
"True enough, but their restaurants are successful. A smaller percentage of something is better than a big chunk of nothing."
"This could make you a star," he said. "People would notice."
"People already notice."
He wanted to tell her she wasn't all that special. That he could name five chefs who would do as good a job. The problem was—he couldn't. In the past three years, Penny had made a name for herself. He needed that to dig the Waterfront out of its hole.
"I'll have the agreement couriered over to your place tomorrow afternoon," he said.
She practically purred her contentment. "Good."
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Oh, yeah. I won't even mind working for you because every time you piss me off, I'm going to remind you that you came looking for me. That you needed me."
Revenge. He respected that. It annoyed him, but he respected it.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked as she picked up a pecan. "You got out of the family business years ago."
Back when they'd been married, he thought. He'd escaped, only to be dragged in again.
"Someone had to save the sinking ship," he said.
"Yes, but why you? You don't care about the family empire."
He threw twenty dollars on the table and slid out of the booth. "I'll need your answer within twenty-four hours of you getting the contract."
"You'll have it the following morning."
"Fair enough." He dropped a business card next to the money. "In case you need to get in touch with me."
He walked out of the restaurant and headed for the parking lot where he'd left his car. Penny was going to say yes. She would screw with him a little, but the deal was too good for her to pass up. If she pulled it off, if she made The Waterfront what it had once been, then in three years she would have more than enough capital to start her own place.
He would be gone long before that. He'd agreed to come in to temporarily to get things up and running, but he had no desire to stay to the bitter end. His only concern was saving the sinking ship. Let someone else shine it up and take all the glory. He was only interested in getting out.
Penny walked into the Downtown Sports Bar and Grill a little after two in the afternoon. The lunch crowd had pretty much cleared out, although a few diehards sat watching the array of sports offered on various televisions around the place.
She headed directly for the bar and leaned against the polished wood. "Hi, Mandy. Is he in?" she asked the very large-breasted blonde polishing glasses.
Mandy smiled. "Hi, Penny. Yeah. He's in his office. Want me to bring you anything?"
Caffeine, Penny thought, then shook her head. "I'm good."
She walked to the right of the bar, where a small alcove offered restroom choices, a pay phone and a door marked "Employees." From there it was a short trip to Reid Buchanan's cluttered office.
He sat behind a desk as big as a full-size mattress, his feet up on the corner, the telephone cradled between his ear and his shoulder. When he saw her, he rolled his eyes, pointed at the phone, then waved her in.
"I know," he said as she wove her way around boxes he had yet to unpack. "It is an important event and I'd like to be there, but I have a prior engagement. Maybe next time. Uh huh. Sure. You, too."
He hung up the phone and groaned. "Some foreign government trade show crap," he said.
"What did they want you to do?" she asked as she swept several folders off the only other chair in the office and sank onto the hard wood seat. She dumped the folders onto his already piled desk.
"Not a clue. Show up. Smile for pictures. Maybe give a speech." He shrugged.
"How much were they willing to pay you?"
He dropped his feet to the floor and turned to face her. "Ten grand. It's not like I need the money. I hate all that. It's bogus. I used to play baseball and now I'm here. I've retired."
Just last year, Penny thought. With the start of the regular season just weeks away, Reid had to be missing his former life.
She poked at one of the piles on the desk, then glanced at him. "I distinctly remember you saying you wanted a desk big enough to have sex on. It was a very specific requirement when we went shopping for one. But if you keep it this messy, no one will be interested in getting naked on the very impressive surface."
He leaned back in his chair and grinned at her. "I don't need the desk to get 'em naked."
"So I've heard."
Reid Buchanan was legendary. Not just for his incredible career as a major league pitcher, but for the way women adored him. Part of it was the Buchanan good looks and charm that all the brothers had. Part of it was Reid just plain loved women. All women. He didn't so much have a type as a gender. Former girlfriends ranged from the traditional models and actresses to motherearth tree huggers nearly a decade older than him. Smart, dumb, short, tall, skinny, curvy, he liked them all. And they liked him.
Penny had known Reid for years. She'd met him two days after meeting Cal. She liked to joke that it had been love at first sight with the latter and best friends at first sight with the former.
"You'll never guess what I did today," she said.
Reid raised his dark eyebrows. "Darlin', the way you've been surprising me lately, I wouldn't even try."
"I had lunch with your brother."
Reid leaned back in his chair. "I know you mean Cal because Walker is still stationed overseas. Okay, I'll bite. Why?"
"He offered me a job. He wants me to be the executive chef at The Waterfront."
Reid might be a part of the family but until he'd blown out his shoulder in the bottom of the third late last June, he'd never been involved in the business.
"That's the fish place, right?" he asked.
She laughed. "Yeah. And Buchanans is the steak house and you're running the sports bar and Dani takes care of Hamburger Heaven. Jeez, Reid, this is your heritage. You have a family empire going here."
"No. What I have is a two for one appetizer special during happy hour. You gonna take the job?"
"I think so." She leaned forward. "He's paying me an outrageous salary and I get a percentage of the profits. It's what I've been waiting for. In three years I'll have enough money to open my own place."
He narrowed his gaze. "I told you I'd give you that money. Just tell me how much and I'll write you a check."
She knew he could. Reid had millions invested in all kinds of businesses. But she wouldn't take a loan from a friend. It was too much like being bailed out by her parents.
"I need to do this on my own," she said. "You know that."
"Yeah, yeah. You might want to think about getting that chip off your shoulder, Penny. It's making you walk funny."
She ignored that. "I like the idea of bringing back The Waterfront from the dead. I'll become even more of a star, which will make my restaurant even more successful."
"Not that you're letting all this go to your head."
She laughed. "Look at who's talking. Your ego barely fits inside an airplane hangar."
Reid walked around the desk and crouched next to her. He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her cheek. "If this is what you want, you know I'm there for you."
"Thanks." She brushed his dark hair off his forehead and knew that in many ways life would have been a lot simpler if she just could have fallen in love Reid instead of Cal.
He stood and leaned against the desk. "When do you start?"
"As soon as the paperwork is signed. I've heard the old place needs a total renovation, but we don't have time for that. We're going to have to make-do. I need to put together menus, hire a kitchen staff."
Reid folded his arms over his chest. "You didn't tell him, did you?"
She squirmed in her seat. "It's not important information."
"Sure it is." His gaze narrowed. "Let me guess. You figured he wouldn't hire you if he knew, but once you're in place, he can't fire you for it."
"Slick, Penny. But it's not like you to play games."
"I want the job. It was the only way to get it."
"He's not going to like it."
She rose. "I don't see why it matters one way or the other. Cal and I have been divorced nearly three years. Now we're going to work together. It's a very new -millennium relationship."
Reid looked at her. "Trust me, when my brother finds out you're pregnant, there's going to be hell to pay and for more reasons than you know."
The Buchanan Saga, Book No. 1
February 2006/Reissued June 2012
Cal Buchanan needs a top-flight chef to take over his failing Seattle restaurant, The Waterfront. He can afford to hire the best in town--the only problem is that the best happens to be his ex-wife, Penny Jackson.
Penny really needs this opportunity, but she doesn't need the distraction of working with her ex. She's sworn off romance--she's even having a baby on her own. But before she knows it, the heat is on...and the attraction between her and Cal moves from a low simmer to a full boil!
The rest should be easy as pie, but a secret from Dessert Cal's past could spoil everything. Maybe it's true that too many cooks spoil the broth--or maybe two is enough to make it irresistible.
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SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.