No one wants to take a risk on The Girl Most Likely To Have Fun…except the one person in the world she’d rather not ask.
Katie Buick dreams of opening her own niche restaurant, but finding a financial backer for a reformed party girl is proving impossible. Until she makes a final desperate plea to Ric Emerson, former geek and high school friend turned successful businessman. Too bad they haven’t spoken since she humiliated him before their prom. The last thing she expects is for him to say yes, or for him to have made such a complete transformation from old friend to heartthrob. But she learned the hard way that nothing good comes from mixing business with pleasure.
Ric knows Katie’s idea is brilliant, and with his business acumen and her work ethic, they’re sure to be a success. Building the business brings Ric and Katie closer together. Chemistry still simmers between them, blurring the lines between personal and professional despite their best intentions. Ric trusts Katie to make their business a success, but can he trust her with his heart a second time?
READ CHAPTER ONE:
Katie wiped her sweating hands on her skirt, lifted her hand to knock on the dark wooden door and drew it back.
For the third time.
Why was she so afraid of seeing Richard Emerson again? They hadn’t seen each other since high school. Surely they’d both grown up enough to leave unpleasantness behind. But the stakes were high now, at least for her. Richard was her last chance. She’d been standing before his office door for five full minutes and had yet to garner the courage to knock.
Before she could chicken out once more, she took a deep breath, rapped on the closed door three times and stepped back. She tugged at her navy skirt and matching jacket, hoping she looked professional. She needed him to take her seriously.
“Come in,” a deep voice intoned, and she turned the knob. It was slippery in her palm and she exhaled, trying but failing to calm the nerves bouncing around in the pit of her stomach.
Stepping into the office, she saw him sitting in a seating area on the left. Richard, severe and imposing, was ensconced in a comfortable blue chair, files before him on a glass-topped, round table.
“I’ll be right with you,” he said without looking up.
She couldn’t help but stare. Where was the lanky, nerdy boy she remembered? The man with the thick file before him wasn’t the math geek she’d known all those years ago. His hair was rich and black with a hint of natural curl, and the sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled back to reveal strong forearms sprinkled with dark hair. Her eyes widened and pulse quickened at the sight of the man he’d become.
She forced herself to divert her attention to his office and was further discomfited by the startling neatness and the precision of organization. Honeyed hardwood covered the floors. A gigantic bookshelf covered one wall, each book spine lined up neatly. There was a beige file cabinet to one side, a smooth mahogany desk and a plush leather chair empty behind it. Everything was in an exact place. She wagered if she asked him where his extra staples were, he’d pull them out of a slot made specifically for that very purpose. All indications pointed to an orderly, analytical mind. In that way, she supposed, he hadn’t changed a bit.
She heard the file close.
“Sorry about that, Miss…”
He turned his head. “Buick,” he finished, his lips curving up a bit in surprised recognition. “My God. It really is you. Dad said you might be dropping by.”
“Yes, on business.”
She wiped her hands on her skirt again, cursing inwardly at her awkwardness.
For a long moment, they stared at each other. She saw his eyes were the same deep brown, still fringed with thick lashes. They had always been his best feature. She counted back. Ten years ago, they’d graduated high school together. Ten years ago, he’d been the one with sweaty palms as he’d invited her to the prom. Ten years ago, she’d laughed in his face. Not that he’d helped his case any. He’d had scrawny arms and a pimply face and had generally been known as a complete nerd. Still, they’d had a few classes together and their parents were friends. He hadn’t been bad to talk to. And he’d had big dreams. Katie’d admired that.
But he’d waited until three days before prom to ask her to go with him, and then he’d done it in public around all her friends. They’d never understand that Katie actually liked Nerdboy, as they called him. One of the girls—she couldn’t even remember her name now—had made a snotty remark, and Katie had done something cruel—she’d laughed at him. Instantly, his cheeks had stained red and he’d shuffled away. She’d felt awful, but had never gotten up the courage to apologize. It hadn’t been her finest moment.
Now the joke was on her.
The man rising before her had certainly changed. His dark looks were now quite handsome. He’d lost his gawky teenage gangliness and his face was clear and tanned, smooth from his morning shave. He stood, his legs long and lean in the expensive fabric of his suit, while his shirt stretched taut across broad shoulders. In fact, besides the eyes and the shape of his mouth, it was almost like looking at a different person. He came forward, holding out a hand. She took it, hoping to God hers wasn’t as clammy as she thought it must be.
She blushed, and he smiled again, the warmth not quite meeting his eyes as he withdrew his hand. “You have business. Care to sit?”
She stepped forward, her heels clicking like gunshots behind him on the hardwood floor of his office. It seemed to take forever to cross the expanse, evidence of how well he’d done for himself.
“Thanks. This is a beautiful office.” Way to go, Katie, she thought. Nice sparkling conversation you’ve got going.
She took the chair opposite him, put down her portfolio and crossed her legs. Without thinking, she defensively crossed her arms.
“The perks of being the president,” he remarked, closed the open file on the table and pushed it to one side. Folding his hands in his lap, he wasted no time. “What can I do for you today?”
Ouch. That sounded like a standard line if ever there was one. Looking up at him, she saw his face was impersonal and barely interested. How could she ever sell him on this idea?
“I’m starting a new business.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
She bit down on her lip. “Well, unfortunately the financing has been…elusive.”
“The banks turned you down.” He cut straight to the chase and she winced.
“Yes.” Oh, how it hurt to admit it. She’d tried everything, but no one wanted to take a chance on her idea or put the money behind it. She had no experience, few credentials—just a small dream and a desire to make it happen. Apparently, the promise to work hard didn’t go very far in the business world. She’d done her homework, and though the banks thought her too much of a risk, there was no doubt in her mind she could do this.
“Perhaps you’d better tell me about your venture, though I’m not sure how I can help. I assume it has nothing to do with land development?”
“No, it doesn’t. But when I kept hitting brick walls, Dad suggested I try here.” That had stung too. Both taking advice from her dad and resorting to nepotism. It was definitely humbling.
To avoid meeting his eyes, she gazed around his office once more. He was a land developer and it was obviously very lucrative. Katie smoothed her department-store skirt, terribly aware of how circumstances had changed. Richard—Ric—now held the power to reject her and her idea, and she wondered if he’d turn her down as simple revenge for how she’d treated him in the past. Until now, she’d done a good job of avoiding him. Sucking up to him and his bank balance was something that didn’t appeal to her. If only she’d apologized all those years ago instead of leaving it be. But now their past was like another person in the room with them. She fought to get the words out.
“I want to open a restaurant.”
He steepled his fingers and rested them on his lips. “I see.”
“Not any restaurant. Something different.”
“Everyone thinks their idea is different.”
“Y-yes. I’m sure they do,” she faltered. She had to convince him that her idea was innovative. And beyond that, profitable. But every time she looked at him, she only saw the hurt in his eyes that day when she’d laughed at him.
He crossed his ankle over his knee, the black trouser leg flawless. “Convince me.”
Katie took a breath. Damn him for being completely in control, coolly implacable. She was sure her face was flushed, ruining any effect her careful application of makeup may have had. She uncrossed her arms and reached for her portfolio and the facts and figures she’d brought along to back her up.
“I want to open a healthy-choices type restaurant. Nothing upscale, in fact, it would cater mostly to the downtown lunch crowd. All of our selections would be based on sound nutrition. Whole grains, low in saturated fat, emphasis on vegetables and fruits, locally sourced and mostly organic. An alternative to fast food, if you will, but at the same time a step up. Something to grab on the run but also to sit down and enjoy.”
“Do you seriously think it will fly?”
“Yes, I do,” she replied, taking files out of her case. “In fact, I developed a bit of a survey about people’s dietary habits, dining out habits and what sort of things they’d be interested in. I tabulated the results. It’s clear. People are increasingly aware of their health and wanting to eat better, but they admit there seem to be few choices for eating out on a budget, and even fewer for eating out without overloading on starch and fats.”
She handed him the survey but continued on as he looked at it, the words spilling out as nervous energy pushed her on.
“Several fast food chains carry salads now. And they’re obviously popular, because they haven’t pulled them from the market. They’re slowly incorporating other healthier choices. The newest trend though, is not just healthy food but where and how it’s grown. I’d like to get established now. What is it you say? Get in on the bottom floor?”
Richard looked up, met her eyes, and she felt a jolt. He had grown up well. Now he was rich. He’d always said he would be and people had pointed their fingers and laughed. He’d told her about it one afternoon at a brunch his parents had held. He’d remarked with some amazement that she was the first person who hadn’t laughed at him.
Now here he was, president of his own company, mature, filled out and handsome. There was more to him than his physical appearance…it was power. It made for a potent combination.
“Katie? I asked if you had a sample menu.”
She shook her head, pulled out a sheet and handed it over. “The breakfast menu is small, as you can see.”
Ric scanned the menu but Katie continued, amazed he’d even asked to see one. “Egg-white omelets, low-fat muffins, multi-grain pancakes, oatmeal, cereals, fruit, Greek yogurt. I’d expect most of the morning traffic to be the coffee crowd, so we’d stock mostly muffins, tea and coffee. Our biggest rush would be at lunch. As you can see, we’d have two hot specials each day…for example, a vegetarian lasagna and perhaps chicken stir-fry with brown rice, that sort of thing.”
He kept staring at the sheet and her stomach tumbled. Desperate to convince him, she plowed on. “The sandwiches and wraps would be custom-made and served with a side of either one of three salads or a soup. Soup and a whole grain bun will also be a staple of the menu, as well as meal-sized salads. The nice thing about the sandwiches is that they are hot. Grilled chicken and mushroom. Lean steak and peppers. Roasted vegetables, for example. All may be made on a choice of whole-grain bread, wraps or pitas. No fried food of any sort. The dessert menu is also small. Fruit cup with dip. Fat-free chocolate cake with frozen yogurt. I’m still looking for dessert ideas.” She looked up again, surprised his eyes hadn’t glazed over.
“And dinner hour? Or does your plan include being closed over dinner?”
“The lunch selections will be available, but in addition we’ll have a handful of dinner entrees. Grilled chicken breast, brown rice or baked sweet potato and steamed vegetables, salmon, sole, grass-fed beef. Marinara sauce with whole-wheat or gluten-free pasta. Fajitas. Depending on response we could, and should, adjust the menu accordingly.” Katie took a breath as she finished.
He put down the menu and she got the sinking feeling she was going about this all wrong. Business plan, business plan, she chanted in her mind.
“Look, menus aside, the most important thing to realize is that there is a real hole in the market for this type of establishment. One of the biggest markets today is weight loss—food, programs, books, you name it. Come out with an eating establishment that carries great tasting food, healthy ingredients and the flexibility to fit it to a specific plan, and you’ve got a winner.”
“And who would do the cooking?”
She paused, expecting some surprise at the least and, most likely, strict resistance. “Me.”
“Yes. I’ve worked in the food service industry for several years.” She made it sound more than it was and felt a little niggle of guilt over fudging the details.
She should have known he’d persist. He quirked an eyebrow and she felt as if he saw right through that statement. “You’ve studied?”
“N-no,” she stammered, “not exactly. I’ve, well, I’ve worked in several restaurants, either serving or in the kitchen.”
He chuckled, leaning back in his chair. “Let me get this straight. You’ve got no money, no business experience, no chef’s diploma to hang on the wall. You’ve got an idea. That’s all. Does that sound like a strong investment to you?”
“Absolutely not,” she admitted. “But what I do have is a strong desire to do this and I’m not afraid of hard work. I’m also not scared to learn.”
“First of all, tell me why this is important to you.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, waiting for her answer.
The question threw her. Not once in the meetings she’d held with bankers had they asked that particular question. They had only seen the bottom line—facts and figures. She’d faced the inquisition about work experience, and the answer had always been a resounding no. But Ric wanted to know the why?
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, why now, and why a restaurant? Why this particular kind of restaurant?”
She thought about her answer for a moment before answering. “I’ve worked in food service for a long time, but one thing always stuck with me. No real thought was put into nutritional content. The ingredients were always full of fat or made with white flour, deep fried or cooked in oil. When Dad had his heart attack, Mom and I started looking at healthier foods.”
She leaned forward a bit, resting her hands on the edge of his desk. “You know my dad, Ric. Larger than life and going great guns. Seeing him lying in a hospital bed, frail and grey…it broke my heart. He came home with strict orders for a better diet and more physical activity. I was still living at home and Mom and I did some experimenting. She lost twenty pounds and Dad’s color came back. The more I looked into it, I discovered there was a market for fast, healthy, economical food. That’s when I realized it was something I could do.”
“Do you realize how many entrepreneurs start businesses only to have them fail in the first two years?”
“The number fluctuates, but my research says around sixty percent. And for the food service industry, it’s even higher.”
Richard crossed his legs. “And you still want to go through with it?”
“I’ll never know unless I try.” Looking into his face, she would swear she saw a glimmer of admiration.
“Do you know what causes businesses to fail? Bad management. Poor marketing, location. Inadequate financing.”
Katie put down the portfolio and started to feel defensive. She wasn’t stupid, and she didn’t like when people made her feel that way. She knew she could do this. She’d believed him when he’d said he’d be rich one day, and she could make it too.
“I know all that. But I believe in the idea and in myself. I’ve even found a space to lease. A little tea room off of Third Street. Tell me, Ric, how many people told you you’d fail when you started ELDC?”
“Plenty.” For the first time, he smiled. “And I listened to every single one and learned from it.”
He rose from his chair and wandered the office for a few moments. Katie forced herself to remain calm and seated. Finally, he spoke.
“If I were to finance you, there’s still one sticking point for me. You’ll never keep customers with poor quality. I think you should reconsider doing the cooking yourself and hire a professional.”
“It would be foolish to spend the money on a cook’s wages when I can do it myself. I’ll already have to hire someone part-time anyway, because I don’t plan to be there seven days a week and take care of the business end.” A thought dawned on her and she ran with it. “I’ll make you a deal. You pick a meal from this menu. I’ll cook it for you tomorrow night. If you have any doubts about my cooking after that, I’ll concede to hiring a chef.”
“If you pass, I’ll name my terms.”
Katie’s heart leaped. My God, he was actually considering backing her. All she had to do was cook him a fabulous, healthy meal. She forced herself to sit still while her body vibrated with hope.
He sat back in the blue chair again, retrieved the menu. After a few moments perusing it, he chose. “Chicken fettuccine, with spinach salad and the chocolate cake.”
“It’s a deal.” Hastily, she took a note pad out of the portfolio and scribbled down her address. “Here’s my address, show up at six. I guarantee you won’t regret it, and we can iron out the details over dinner.”
Richard looked down at the address. “You’re very sure of yourself.”
She stood, hoping her wobbly knees weren’t obvious. She was glad he thought she was confident, because she felt anything but.
“Yes, I am.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow evening.”
He stood and held out his hand, and she was acutely aware of how much he’d grown since high school. Even though she wore heels, he topped her by a good four inches. For a moment, she panicked. She felt like a teenager again, off-balance and insecure.
There was no way she could wipe her palm on her skirt now, and she hoped it wasn’t damp when she clasped his. His fingers closed around hers firmly and her body was electrified by the simple touch.
“Um, yes. Goodbye, Richard.”
She withdrew her hand, hurriedly retrieved her case and scuttled out the door, shutting it behind her.
In the elevator, she leaned back against the wall and took a few calming breaths. For the first time in several weeks, she felt hope. Hope that she’d actually get this venture off the ground.
Katie smiled widely at her reflection in the mirrored elevator wall. He hadn’t said no. Now she was going to cook him a meal that would knock his socks off.