Marcus pored over the books one more time, not registering the evidence before him. The numbers were all a blur at this point. He didn’t want to believe his restaurant was hemorrhaging money. Slamming the books shut, he swore. After four years of living his dream and running his bistro, Marcus may need to hang up his apron.
“Are you sure there’s nothing we can do?” He looked at Steven, his accountant, who looked just as deflated as Marcus felt.
Steven took out a business card and slid it across Marcus’s desk. “Another accountant handed me this. Supposedly this Alex Lopez is a whiz at taking failing restaurants,” Marcus scowled at the word failing, “and turns them around.”
Marcus fingered the high-quality, gold-embossed card. “Is there no other way out of this?”
“Marcus, I’ve been with you since the beginning. We’ve tried everything. The market and location just don’t support what you charge and if you lower the cost, you’ll bleed even more money.”
He nodded his reluctant acceptance of his situation and dismissed Steven from his office. With a resigned sigh, he picked up the phone and made the dreaded call.
“Here are your appointments for tomorrow, Ms. Lopez. You have an initial consultation in the afternoon.”
“Thank you, Marie.” Alex took the paper from her assistant, essentially dismissing her, and gave a rueful smile when she saw who her consultation was with. Marcus Maxwell. “Well Marcus, I guess you finally need your friend after all these years.” Her mind flashed to their time in culinary school together. They were best friends back then, becoming more just before their final competition. They relied on each other for support on the methods and techniques they were attempting to master. Those grueling hours were only made bearable by going through it together. Until that final competition.
As friends, they knew each other's weaknesses. Marcus was arrogant and his unwillingness to adapt to any given situation was his downfall. She was a perfectionist. When they went head-to-head, he’d used that against her to gain the upper hand, effectively defeating her in the competition. All the judges agreed her food tasted better, and what she’d managed to display on the line in time, was elegantly presented. But, she hadn’t finished all the elements they were to present within the time limit. In the adjacent kitchen, Marcus kept yelling over goading remarks about her dishes not looking as good as his would--getting in her head the way only he knew how. She ended up spending more time on presentation than she needed to. Thereby losing the competition.
She doubted Marcus realized he’d be seeing her this afternoon. Alex would help him no doubt—she was a professional and excellent at what she did—but she’d enjoy watching him squirm in the process during that initial meeting. Would he even remember what he did to her in school? Would he even care? She had her own reason for needing to see him though. Alex picked up the photo frame on her desk and smiled. Michaela was such a sweet girl. She shook her thoughts free and prepared for her meeting with her former best friend.
A knock on his office door resounded like the thud he felt in the pit of his stomach, but Marcus went to open it anyway. Before him stood a svelte brunette in a trimming crimson skirt, hair down, and familiar dark brown eyes. Only the eyes he remembered were warm and loving. These were full of disdain and…regret? “Alejandrina? It’s been a while,” he was nervous, knowing what he’d done to her years ago, “I have an appointment, but I’d love to catch up with you over coffee later.”
She offered her hand and gave an icy, professional smile. “Mr. Maxwell, your appointment is with me. I’m Alex.”
More certain than before he’d lose his restaurant, Marcus knew he needed to put the past behind them. Oh, he’d always meant to apologize, but training in London, opening his bistro, and excusing his own jackass behavior, he just lost touch and moved on. He’d thought of her enough over the years, wondering what she was up to, if she’d ever married, or opened her pastry shop as she wanted. She crossed his mind more than he cared to admit. Evidently, their paths needed to cross again where he was vulnerable to her. Silently cursing the fates having them reunite in this way, he shook her hand and invited her in.
He cleared his throat. “You go by Alex now? It suits your fun-loving nature.”
“Mr. Maxwell, this is business. What you think you know about me has changed in the last nine years. Have a seat, we have a lot to discuss.” She was no non-sense. This woman looked like the Alejandrina he adored back in school, but Alex was down-to-the-point and gave off a cold, distant vibe.
After all these years, she hasn’t aged a bit. She was still as lovely as he remembered. “So, Alex…” He was at a loss for words. Had ‘Alex’ been a stranger he didn’t know, Marcus was prepared to offer his own ideas on what could be done. But alas, ‘Alex’ was the woman he had fallen in love with in culinary school. The woman he’d stolen the final victory from, effectively taking away any future they may have had together.
“Listen, Mr. Maxwell, I’m good at what I do. I’m willing to help you save your restaurant. I know how important it is to you.” Her chilly tone wasn’t lost on him. She continued, “but, you need to follow my advice.”
“Alex, we were friends back in the day. Just call me Marcus.”
“Marcus,” She held nothing back, “what I thought was friendship and possibly more, turned out to be a handsome, blue-eyed man taking advantage of a situation to get what he wanted, at any cost. We weren’t friends. You took advantage of me to win, starting with our first and only time having sex the night before the competition. But, lucky for you, I work with ethics in mind and will still provide you with the best suggestions to save your restaurant. You need to trust me.”
Crap. She was still pissed over what he’d done. “Alex, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry for what I did. You never had the parental pressure I did to succeed. I thought you’d understand. I should’ve never played the mind games I did during the competition.”
She quickly narrowed her gaze on him. “Marcus, we spent so much time together. How many times did I offer to help with your presentations? We were supposed to be supportive of one another, not use each other’s weaknesses against one another.” He held her gaze even though everything screaming inside him said to either just quit now, or lean forward for the kisses he’s missed since culinary school. She continued, “You want pressure? How about a young girl born to immigrants who barely spoke English, trying to make it in America? I had no role model at home to push me. My parents worked whenever they could. I forged my own path to reach my dreams.”
She sighed after her heated berating, “Did I, what?”
Reach your dreams?” At that moment, he wanted to know everything she’d done since school. Only now did he realize how much his betrayal of her trust and friendship impacted both of their lives.
“Does it matter? I’m here now to save your dream.”
“Fair enough. Alex, for what it’s worth, I did value our friendship. I was just too arrogant to appreciate you at the time.” He thought he saw her expression soften just a little with a hint of a glistening tear forming in the corner of her eye. She quickly regained her composure and covered it up. Marcus sighed, recognizing she wasn’t going down memory lane with him. Not yet.
She waved away his apology. “Fine. First, I think you need to scale back the menu and offer more affordable cuts of meat to bring in more families.” She continued sharing her ideas and for the first time, he didn’t feel like piping in his own opinion. He needed her help to save his restaurant. And Alex had a great reputation in the restaurant industry.
When she was finished, Marcus knew he’d have to reread everything she’d given him. While she was talking, he found his gaze landing on her crimson lips wondering if they’d tasted the same as they had in culinary school. She wore no ring and still went by her surname. “Alex, thank you for your suggestions. I appreciate all your hard work on my behalf.”
“Marcus, speaking to you as a professional who’s revamped her own business with some of these techniques, take my advice. Look over my suggestions and call me next week. Speaking as your former friend who knows your arrogance, get off your high horse. Losing your bistro would be a huge loss to you and your community. See the situation and adapt and save it.” She thrust the papers she’d prepared against his chest and left his office, leaving him wondering if he’d ever put the past right. Wondering if he’d ever have another chance to kiss her again.
Alex was mentally prepared to face him, help him even, but she was not expecting her body to betray her at the mere sight of him. His crystal blue eyes still held so much promise. She found her fingers still wanting to run through his perfect black hair while devouring him in a hungry kiss like she had the night before that dreadful competition. God, what was wrong with her?
How she made it through her meeting was beyond her. It took every last ounce of her professionalism to finish her presentation. When she sat in her car, she finally let herself ponder their predicament. She didn’t want to be upset with him anymore. She truly had valued their friendship and was hoping, for her own reasons, they could put the past behind them and move forward with a new relationship, even if it’s just as friends.
She knew she was good at turning a restaurant into a profit. Despite them not working out, she still opened her own place and sold it for a nice chunk of change. She’d worked damn hard and couldn’t have done it without her parents helping her with Michaela. She wanted to help Marcus turn his restaurant into a success.
Alex had been to his restaurant, not knowing he owned it. She thought it was delicious cuisine, but out of place. It held so much potential to thrive in his community. If Marcus was smart, he’d listen to her suggestions for a fighting chance to save his restaurant. After all, she made a name for herself in the restaurant industry on her terms and was respected, despite that competition.
She didn’t completely trust herself to work side by side with him physically, but she’d work through her pent-up emotions for him if she had to. If anything, he’d apologized. And she was ready to forgive him. Would he forgive her for not pursuing him to tell him about Michaela?
The next week proved difficult for Alex to concentrate on work. Every spare moment was focused on Marcus. The feelings she thought were gone, only showed themselves to be dormant after all these years, coming alive with the touch of his hand during their only meeting. She was more determined to help him. “Ms. Lopez, Mr. Maxwell on line one.”
“Thank you, Marie.” She let out an anxious sigh and picked up the line.
“Hi, Marcus. Did you review my proposal?” She put on her most professional voice, hoping her nerves weren’t evident. Once again, looking at the framed picture on her desk calmed her.
She could almost hear his smile over the phone. He chuckled, sending a warm familiar tingle through her body, then said, “I did. You’re really thorough. Can we meet to go over them together? I’d…” he offered a pregnant pause. His emotional vulnerability evident, “I’d like to see you again. Alejandrina, Alex, again, I’m sorry for what I did in school. You should’ve won.”
"Water under the bridge. Are you free for lunch tomorrow?”
“Name the place, I’ll be there.” She rattled off an address and hung up. Alex released a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Tomorrow, she’ll let him know the past is behind her. She owed that much to Michaela.
Marcus felt an indomitable weight lift from his shoulders when she’d suggested lunch. Whatever it took, he’d put things right between them. Could they pick up their friendship, dare he hope their then-budding relationship, where they left off? Could he rekindle those feelings with her? Heaven knew he has had restless sleep since he laid eyes on her again. His body came alive as if he’d just seen her without nine years passing between them. What if she only thought he was apologizing because he needed her help? He needed to make some grand gesture to show her he was sincere. After all, she had been his best friend and understood him more than anyone ever has.
Until he screwed it up.
Marcus sat down and made up his plan for his restaurant. Like a tsunami crashing on the shore, everything he loved about her came flooding into his mind. A plan came to fruition and he was pleased with its direction. She wouldn’t know what hit her tomorrow! If she didn’t forgive him, he knew he really lost her from his life once their business was concluded. At that point, his restaurant wouldn’t mean a damn thing.
Alex paced back and forth in her kitchen. Marcus would arrive any minute. She’d prepared her signature dish--his favorite from school. He’d apologized for the competition, which at this point, seemed moot. She was going to tell him just what she’d been up to. Had she reached her dreams? Not the way she’d planned, but she quickly adapted. She froze when she heard a knock on her door. This is it. Today, you tell him he’s a father.
Would he understand why he's only finding out now? Would he forgive her?
She went to open the door to let him in, again, taken aback at her reaction. She wanted to jump in his arms and never let him go. Instead, she gestured for him to come in. “Welcome to my home, Marcus.”
He handed her the bouquet of roses she didn’t realize he was holding. “Beautiful, Alejandrina.” He never took his eyes off her to look through. Was he referring to her? Or her home?
She motioned him to sit in the living room while she put the flowers in the kitchen.
“Marcus.” They spoke at the same time and started to laugh.
“Well, I guess that’s one way to cut the tension between us.” She stated.
“Alex, I have some ideas I want to run by you before we start.”
She sat next to him. “Marcus, how many suggestions are you ignoring?”
“None of them.” He pulled out his sketchbook. The drawings of his restaurant were vastly different than the restaurant she’d been in. It looked like….her perfect restaurant--the one they'd talked about in school. When he flipped the page to show her another, she felt a tear betray her and fall down her cheek. He’d designed a pastry display, with a sign reading Heaven Scent Desserts.
She wiped her tear. “Marcus, what is this?”
He closed his sketchbook and put it on the coffee table. Marcus pulled both of her hands in his and said, “Alex, we were great together. We had dreams that aligned until I messed it up. Now that I know your professional name, I looked you up. You did great for yourself! I’m so proud of you! You never used the dessert store name you pitched to me. You always loved ‘Heaven Scent’ and were always telling me how we eat with all our senses. I’m taking all of your suggestions…and including your dreams with mine.”
Another renegade tear fell. He wiped it gently away with the pad of his thumb. She was coming undone with Marcus. This was why she fell for him all those years ago. All she could do was nod and lean into his hand.
When she regained her focus, reality pulled her back. “Marcus, you need to know something. Right after graduation, you left so fast for training in London. I tried to find you. Nobody I spoke to had an address or contact information. But you need to know…” she stood up and headed to her mantle. She picked up her favorite picture and handed it to him. Marcus furrowed his brow, just before realization dawned on him.
“You're a mom.” He looked surprised, but not upset. Excited even.
“And you’re Michaela’s father.”
Marcus was thrilled to be a dad. With Alex back in his life, all his thoughts of their future flooded back. He’d wanted her to be the mother of his children, run a restaurant together, and build a life with her. He swooped Alex up in a tight hug and spun her around before good sense took over. “When can I meet her?”
Alex was laughing. It was music he’d missed hearing during the last nine years. “She’ll be home from school in three hours. In the meantime, let’s eat. I cooked your favorite, including my vertical lemon cake.” She gave him a wink and led him to the kitchen for lunch.
"All is forgiven?”
She walked into his waiting arms. “Yes. All is forgiven. Let’s pick up where we left off.” She tipped her head leaning forward. She aimed for his cheek, but he claimed her lips. Their first kiss of many, as they rebuilt his business and built a life as a family, together.