The following is an excerpt from my December 2011 Harlequin SuperRomance,
The Baby Truce
The Baby Truce
Book One--Too Many Cooks?
TOM GERARD CAME AWAKE suddenly, aware that something wasn't right. He reached out and found the other side of the bed empty, the sheets cool to the touch.
The suite remained silent, and although he couldn't see into the living room, he felt the stillness.
"Reggie!" He got out of bed and walked out there naked. His clothes were still scattered across the floor, but hers were no longer there.
He stood taking in the emptiness, not liking it. She was gone, and he didn't think she was out getting coffee and the newspaper. That had been his Sunday morning task during the year they'd been together. Hers had been to laze in bed until he returned. Then they would drink coffee, share the paper, make love again.
Those days were almost a decade past, but when Reggie had come to his suite with him last night, he'd assumed everything would be the same. For a while anyway, until they went back to their real lives—hers in Reno, his in New York City…or wherever he got hired. So far San Francisco was a bust, but he didn't care, because, honestly, he was an East Coast chef. California cuisine didn't do it for him.
The phone rang and Tom scooped it up. "Reggie?"
"It's Pete." Tom's long-suffering business manager, who took a nice slice of his income in return for that suffering. "I just booked you a ticket to New York. You leave at noon. Jervase Montrose wants to talk about a job. It looks good."
"Great." Tom wasn't surprised to have nailed an interview with Jervase, despite Pete's concerns. Yeah, he'd gotten his ass fired a couple weeks ago—the second time in two years—but he was still one of the top chefs in the country. Jervase would be lucky to get him.
Pete gave him the flight information, then added, "Be on your best behavior."
Hey. It wasn't like he was a wild man. He simply knew his own worth and he didn't suffer fools gladly. Was it his fault that he'd run into a hell of a lot of fools lately?
"I'll call you when I land." He hung up the phone and stood regarding the empty suite.
In all the time he'd known her, Reggie had never once walked out on him without a word.
REGGIE TREMONT SNAPPED off the TV and tossed the remote onto the sofa, startling her fat cat, Mims. "Damn it, Tom."
Not a world event, but he was enough of a bad-boy chef to get a small blurb on the E! entertainment network. Volatile chef dismissed. Celebrity witnesses involved.
They'd flashed a photo that made him look more like a pirate than a chef, with his black hair pulled into a ponytail, scruffy facial hair, dark eyes glinting. She was quite familiar with that unrepentant expression—a mask he popped on when he didn't want anyone getting too close. Or when he was getting ready to walk away.
Reggie grabbed her red cardigan off the arm of the recliner, where she'd left it the night before. She slipped it on while Mims twined around her ankles.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." She headed for the pantry, where the cat food was stored. Like she'd forget to feed the cat. Mims was as wide as she was high.
Reggie opened the can and dumped it into the ceramic dish with Meow spelled out on the bottom, wrinkling her nose as the scent of fish mixed with who-knew-what hit her nostrils. Her stomach roiled. Second day in a row. That did it. She was going back to the old brand.
She fanned the air as she retreated from the kitchen. She had to make a quick stop at the catering kitchen she ran with her sister, Eden, and her brother, Justin, to pick up her portfolios, before her client meetings and site visits. At noon she'd trade her business heels for kitchen clogs and prep for a luncheon the following day. Full days were good days.
She glanced at her watch after pulling her hair into a barrette at the back of her neck and double-checking her makeup. Please let the traffic be with me for a change.
The kitchen still smelled of the awful cat food and she tried not to breathe as she retrieved her keys from the hook next to the sink. Once she got outside the house and took a deep breath of fresh, non-catfood-tainted air, she felt better. Well, a little better, anyway. The scent of the lilacs blooming beside the house was surprisingly strong and cloying, but not nearly as bad as Mims's new food.
Reggie pressed the flat of her hand to her stomach as she walked to her car, parked on the street, since her tiny brick house had no garage. She would not, could not, come down with something while they were short one prep cook.
Mind over matter. That was the trick.
EDEN SWIVELED in her chair as soon as Reggie walked into the tiny Tremont Catering kitchen office. "We have three applicants for the prep cook position!"
Finally. The employment agency they used for catering temps had taken its sweet time. Eden and Reggie had been fighting to keep their heads above water after their last employee quit.
"Have you set up interviews?" Reggie asked, dropping her tote bag on the floor next to her small workstation. She was still fighting queasiness and now her forehead felt damp.
"Day after tomorrow. Back to back, starting at one o'clock."
Eden slipped an elastic band off her wrist and gathered her dark blond hair into a haphazard knot, then pulled a clean white chef's apron off one of the hooks next to her station. She wrapped the strings twice around her before she tied them. Eden was petite, but…
"I think that's Justin's apron," Reggie said.
"It'll do," she replied distractedly. "After the agency called about the applicants, I got news that the Dunmores have an unexpected guest this week, so I have to figure how to stretch what I made yesterday and add a couple more dishes. Then I still have all the morning prep for that luncheon."
Reggie glanced at the handwritten schedule she kept next to her computer. "Justin's coming in at nine?"
"New cake order and he wanted to get started."
"Of course," she murmured. He wasn't quite overextended enough and had to take on that one extra project to tip the scales.
When they'd first started Tremont six years ago, all three of them had worked extra jobs to keep the business afloat. Reggie, who like many would-be restaurateurs and caterers, had taken business and accounting classes along with her culinary courses, did the books for a couple small firms. Eden worked as a personal chef and Justin had snagged a part-time job as a backup cook for a resort at Lake Tahoe.
Reggie had long ago given up the bookkeeping to run Tremont full time, but Eden still cooked for three families on a weekly basis and Justin was a backup pastry chef and fill-in cook at the same hotel. And he made cakes. Exquisitely crafted and gloriously expensive cakes that were gaining popularity and bringing some serious money into the business. At the same time they were forcing him into a ridiculous work schedule that didn't involve a lot of sleep.
"I saw that your ex got the ax again," Eden said.
"I saw it, too," Reggie said, without looking up. She tucked her site notes into the wedding portfolio.
"I guess he should have kept his mouth shut." Eden breezed by her and disappeared into the kitchen.
"A lesson for all of us," Reggie muttered. A lesson Tom wasn't learning.
She shut off her monitor before shouldering the leather portfolio. Her stomach tightened as she walked into the kitchen, where Eden had beef stew simmering.
"There's something wrong with your stew," Reggie said, wrinkling her nose. She stopped a few feet away from the stove.
"What?" Eden lifted the spoon and sniffed.
"Can't you smell it? It's…off."
Eden sniffed again, then tasted. "No it's not."
Reggie came closer, took a deep whiff of the rich brown broth, and her stomach roiled violently. She clapped a hand over her mouth.
The leather portfolio hit the rubber floor mat in front of the stove as Reggie turned and raced for the bathroom, barely making it before she heaved. She pushed away from the porcelain bowl as sweat broke out on her forehead. Then pulled herself closer as she heaved again.
"Reggie!" Eden knelt beside her, one hand on her back, offering her a wad of toilet paper.
"I'm fine," Reggie said automatically, taking the tissue to wipe her mouth.
"Oh, yes. Totally fine."
"No. Really." Reggie focused on her sister. "I feel better."
Eden regarded her for a moment. "Could you stop by the seafood shop right now?"
Reggie's stomach convulsed at the mere thought of fish. It must have showed.
"Uh-huh." Eden helped her to her feet. "You need to go home and lie down before you get really sick."
"This was just a fluke. Besides, I have meetings." That she couldn't afford to throw up in.
"How long have you been feeling like this?"
"A couple days," Reggie said. "Just a little out of sorts. Kind of sick in the mornings."
Reggie met her sister's eyes, then slowly started shaking her head. "No. I feel sick in the morning. There's a difference."
"Oh, yeah? And what is that difference?"
"I believe what you're talking about is called pregnancy," Reggie said.
"No chance…?" Eden asked.
"Who are you talking to? I never take chances."
Eden merely stared at her in a decidedly unconvinced way.
"Ever," Reggie added. She glanced down at her shoes, which, thankfully, hadn't suffered any damage.
"You've been damned cranky lately and now you're puking in the morning." Her sister lifted her chin, looked Reggie in the eye and asked flatly, "You swear there's no chance at all?"
Next she'd have her putting her hand on the Bible.
"None," Reggie replied. After all, she and Tom had used condoms.
TOM WALKED DOWN Fifth Avenue, hands shoved deep in his pockets, chin tucked low to his chest against the pelting rain. He hated rain. Right now he hated just about everything, and especially Jervase Montrose. It was one thing to get canned, and another to get canned in front of his kitchen brigade just after service. Jervase had planned it that way. He'd all but called in a news crew. And he'd made such a fricking big deal about having taken a chance on him.
What chance? Tom had delivered everything he'd promised. The number of covers had increased exponentially since he'd taken the helm of Jervase's restaurant.
Tom climbed the four stone steps to the entryway of Pete's office building. The security guard nodded at him as he passed on his way to the elevator. His business manager's receptionist did the same, then ignored him during the twenty minutes Pete kept him waiting. He hadn't even sat down in one of the sleek ebony chairs on the opposite side of the equally sleek but cluttered desk when Pete announced, "It was your fault."
Tom didn't bother sitting after that, since it was going to be one of those kinds of meetings. Pete might be a good six inches shorter than Tom and generally soft spoken, but didn't take crap from anyone. "My fault? How the hell did you come to that conclusion?"
"What? Who? Because anyone there last night could tell you—"
"Not last night. The night before. When you told the group of diners how ridiculous upper management was."
Tom shifted his weight impatiently. "I didn't say anything that wasn't true." Rampant inefficiency was making it damned hard for him to do his best work, and it wouldn't have been that tough to fix it.
"But unfortunately, you said it to one of the men responsible."
Tom snorted. "All the more reason to say something. If they would have listened to me weeks ago—"
"Play the freaking game, Tom! Other people do. Why can't you?"
He placed his palms on Pete's desk and leaned closer. "Because the game bites. If there's a problem, you identify it and fix it."
"Well, apparently Jervase has identified the problem and fixed it."
Tom had no answer for that. Jervase was within his rights to fire him. He was stupid to, but within his rights.
"What now?" he asked.
"What the hell do you mean, what now? You're burning bridges faster than I can build them."
Pete slumped back in his chair. "Jervase is well respected. I hate to say this…but you may have burned your last bridge. For a while, anyway."
"If he wants to, he can blackball you."
Tom's chin came up. "He's a money man. He doesn't know squat about running a restaurant—or creating a menu." One of their first bones of contention. "I mean, seriously."
"Money talks." Pete got out of his chair and came around his desk. "Consider an apology. Possibly even a public one."
"An apology?" Tom almost choked. "Give me one frigging reason why I should apologize to him when his head is so far up his—"
"He can do you some major damage, no matter how good you are." Pete paused, then added significantly, "Even more damage than you're causing yourself."
"I am not the problem."
"So this has all been what?" Pete asked calmly. "A run of bad luck?"
Tom slapped his hand down on the desk. Why in the hell couldn't the man see what was going on? "It's been a run of idiots with money thinking they know more than the experts they hire. Assholes who can't handle hearing the truth because they didn't think of it themselves."
"Assholes who do the hiring and firing." Pete pointed a finger at him. "Assholes who hold your future in their hands."
"They don't hold my future," Tom said. "I hold my future."
"Don't be so sure of that."
Tom's head started to pound. Pete was missing the point, and Tom needed to get the hell out of there before he really blew. He turned and headed for the door. "I've got to go."
"Don't do anything stupid," Pete said. "Or should I say stupider."
"Wouldn't dream of it." Tom yanked the heavy paneled door open and strode out into the hall. "I'll check back with you."
Pete didn't answer. Tom didn't know whether that was good or bad, and didn't care. Pete had been his manager since he'd been a candidate for the James Beard Upcoming Chef awards, and once they weathered this particular storm, things would be good again. He could see why Pete wanted to make nice with Montrose—after all, Tom wasn't Pete's only client. But he was his biggest name, and Tom would pound nails with his knife before he'd apologize for speaking the truth.
Let the man do his worst.
THE UNOPENED PREGNANCY TEST stood like a sentinel on Reggie's kitchen island. She walked slowly around the granite-topped fixture, not quite ready to take the plunge, mainly because she couldn't be pregnant.
She and Tom had used condoms. Both times.
So why didn't she just pee on the stick and get it over with?
Because the possibility of being tied to Tom for the next eighteen years was simply too much for her to handle. Yeah, she'd once loved him. But that wasn't why she'd slept with him.
Never sleep with someone you don't want to raise a kid with—no matter how hot they are. Her ninth-grade health teacher's words, which had been repeated at least fifty times during the semester.
No question about Tom being hot. And if Reggie pushed aside her resentment about how he'd walked out on her, how he'd chosen a high-risk job on the other side of the ocean over staying with her and starting the catering business that had become Tremont, she could concede that he had good points besides hotness. But he wasn't father material. Fathers needed to be steady. And there.
Reggie grabbed the box and opened the top. Enough. She was settling this once and for all.
IT TOOK TOM A LONG TIME to wake up enough to realize that the constant ringing was not in his head. He pushed himself upright on the sofa, stared at the cell phone he held in his hand, then answered.
"Are you crazy?" Pete barked into his ear, making him wince.
"According to you, I am," Tom said, his voice thick. He cleared his throat twice, trying to ease the cotton mouth. "Why?"
"Do you recall talking to any reporters lately?"
Tom planted a palm on his forehead, trying to hold in the pressure. "Why in the hell are you calling me about reporters?"
"Because of what greeted me in the paper this morning!" Pete, normally the most patient of men, even when Tom was on a rampage, sounded utterly pissed. "I sent you the link. Take a look once your vision clears enough to read it." The phone went dead.
Tom let his head fall back against the sofa cushions. Closed his
eyes. His head was throbbing. Mescal? Was that what he'd drunk? He remembered demanding something strong to kill the disappointment of having everyone he'd called for a job lead give him a helpful suggestion as to somewhere else he might want to call.
Whatever he'd drunk, it'd been a killer night. But he hadn't talked to any reporters. He was certain of that.
The room spun as he got to his feet and trudged naked to the bathroom. A woman's red sequined top hung on the doorknob by one strap. He stared at it for a moment, then continued into the john, closing the door just in case. When he came back out, he looked around the apartment, which didn't take long since it was only four small yet highly expensive rooms. No woman.
He sat in front of the computer, brought up his email and clicked on the link Pete had sent. Obviously some tabloid had manufactured a few lies, twisted a few truths.
And that tabloid was called the New York Times.
In a small but clear photo he had one arm draped over a woman wearing a sequined top very similar to the one on his bathroom doorknob. With the other hand he pointed directly at the camera, his mouth open as he obviously expounded.
And how he'd expounded, according to the article beneath the photo. The text wasn't long, but it was colorful and explained exactly what he thought of Jervase Montrose and his restaurants, plus his feelings on all corporately managed eating establishments. The reporter had also helpfully included Tom's insights into the personal habits of several food critics. There were many, many quotation marks.
Tom slammed the laptop shut and jumped to his feet, needing to move. He sensed the need for some damage control.
He punched Pete's number into his phone. The business manager answered on the first ring. "You read it?"
"Then you'll understand what I'm about to say next."
"I quit. Please seek other management."
REGGIE HAD HEARD OF WOMEN in denial buying three and four different pregnancy tests, just to make certain the first two or three were correct. She was about to join their ranks. The only thing that stopped her was the landline ringing as she went for her purse and keys. Ignore her sister or get it over with?
If she ignored her, Eden would show up at her door.
"Well?" Eden said when she answered.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I said I don't want to talk about it." Reggie planted the palm of her free hand on her throbbing forehead, trying to ease the tension there. "I'm going to buy another test. This one may have been old."
"Or compromised in some way."
"Or the reason you're throwing up is because you're pregnant."
Reggie dropped her hand. She couldn't bring herself to respond. "I'll be right over," Eden added.
"Don't tell Justin," Reggie said through gritted teeth. Her brother did his best to appear as if nothing bothered him, but it was a front. Justin was the most protective male of her acquaintance, and right now she didn't need protection. She didn't need to hash this through with Eden, either, but better to get it over with now, while she was still numb.
"Wouldn't think of it," Eden said. "See you in twenty. Just…stay calm."
Reggie rolled her eyes and hung up. Stay calm. Oh, yeah. She headed for the door. She had just enough time to get to the nearest drugstore and back again.
No. She'd wait for Eden and then go to the drugstore. They could go together. Reggie stopped in the middle of the room and pressed her palms against her abdomen. How? How could there possibly be a baby growing inside her?
When Eden showed up twenty minutes later, Reggie was sitting on the sofa, holding Mims on her lap and staring at the opposite wall. This was real. She had accidentally become pregnant at the age of thirty.
Unless, of course, the test was wrong. It happened.
Reggie stood as Eden let herself in with her own key. They were dressed almost identically in white T-shirts and jeans…and Eden's jeans were going to fit her in six months. For a moment the two sisters simply stared at each other, then Eden crossed the room to wrap her arms around Reggie and hug her tightly.
"You're not alone in this. All right?"
Eden released her and stood back. "It's none of my business—"
"Tom." No sense being coy.
"Gerard?" Eden's mouth fell open. She waited, as if expecting Reggie to say, "Just kidding." That didn't happen. "When…where…? Isn't he in New York?"
"Sommelier class. San Francisco. He was staying at the hotel while interviewing for a job. We ran into each other the first day of class."
"So you slept with him?"
Reggie gave her sister a weary look. Obviously.
"We used protection," Reggie said. "It didn't work."
She wasn't going into the wherefores and the whys—mainly because they sounded lame. And she didn't want anyone to know that she'd gotten pregnant proving to herself that she was over a guy; that she could walk away, just as he had. Especially when she'd made the rather startling discovery that physically, at least, she wasn't over him. Regardless of what her very logical brain was telling her. Sleeping with Tom after all these years had been…something. And if it hadn't been for her realization that she still had issues with him, she would have pushed back her departure. Had another night with him.
"Yes, Tom." She picked up a squirming Mims, who'd had about enough of being used as a security pillow. "And now I have to tell him."
Eden's expression became closed. "Why?"
Reggie hugged Mims tighter, holding the cat's plump gray body against her chest. "What do you mean, why? Because he's the father. He has a right to know."
Eden let out a sigh as she reached up to pat Mims, who escaped to the back of the sofa after Reggie released her. "It's just that he made you so damned unhappy when you guys broke up, and now…" She gave a small shrug. "But it isn't like he's going to want to settle down or anything."
"No." Again, obviously. He hadn't settled into anything for more than a couple years since leaving her. Her kid was going to have a normal life, and Tom's life was anything but normal.
Her kid. What a concept.
"And I guess he should pay support," Eden added.
"I don't know that I want him to." Because if he paid support, he'd have a say in the child's upbringing.
But would he want a say?
She'd been officially pregnant for all of an hour and was already drowning in unanswered questions and potential complications. And she was still grappling with the thought of a tiny being growing inside her. "I guess the smart thing to do, after I go to a doctor and make sure I'm really pregnant, is to see a lawyer." She sat on the sofa, reaching up to stroke Mims on the cushion next to her head. "It's going to take a while to get used to this idea."
"For all of us."
Reggie dropped her hand into her lap and looked up at Eden, who still stood next to the recliner. "I always figured that if one of us got into this mess, it would be Justin."
Eden's mouth twisted in ironic acknowledgment. "Instead, it's the responsible Tremont. Go figure."