As Delaney Holbrook watched the man in the suit approach, she did her best to remind herself she’d given up on men in suits—in fact all men and most suits, when it came to that. She was a different person, with new and improved goals, although she could still admire excellent tailoring. And nice blue eyes. And a firm jaw. And his walk. He had a very purposeful walk that was incredibly appealing. She sighed. So much for giving up on men in suits.
She waited until he was directly in front of her before giving in to temptation and saying, “It’s been six weeks and this is getting pretty serious. Don’t you think I should know your name?”
She had no idea how he was going to respond. She half expected him to give her an icy stare and turn away, because this particular man in a suit had an impressive icy stare. She’d seen it more than once, albeit directed at others. But he didn’t glare. Instead he smiled. No, that was wrong. He didn’t just smile, he gave her a slow, sexy grin that kicked her in the gut and left her feeling all fluttery and stupid and just a little hopeful.
Talk about opening Pandora’s box.
His voice was low and masculine, with just enough gravel to give her a happy shiver along her spine.
“Good morning, Malcolm.” She pointed at her name tag. “Delaney, although you already knew that.”
Malcolm was a double shot, extra hot, large latte. Although he arrived every morning at exactly seven forty, he bypassed the busy coffee stand in the middle of the building’s lobby, instead making his way to the special bank of elevators that required a cardkey or a security escort to reach their lofty levels. But sometime midmorning, he would wander down for a morning latte.
Her shift ended at ten and more than once she’d found herself lingering, oh so foolishly, so she could take his order. A ridiculous truth that should have embarrassed her, but didn’t. Instead of telling herself that at twenty-nine she was too old to be crushing on a handsome stranger, she went with a kinder, gentler message. Time did heal and as she’d suspected, she was more than ready to return to normal life...whatever that turned out to be.
“My usual,” he confirmed as he handed over a reloadable gift card to pay for his coffee, along with a tall white mug. She ran the card through the cash register, then walked over to start his drink.
Luzia, her teammate, untied her apron. “I’m going to go to the storeroom for more supplies,” she said. “You going to be okay by yourself?”
Luzia smiled politely at Malcolm before stepping out from behind the counter and walking across the lobby.
Alone at last, Delaney thought, careful not to laugh. No way she wanted to explain what was so funny.
Malcolm slid the coffee card back into his wallet, then returned his attention to her. “You’re new.”
“Relatively. I’ve been here nearly two months.” She tipped the small metal pitcher of milk so she could insert the steamer. The familiar hissing, gurgling sound began. She poured four shots of espresso into the mug he’d brought.
“You’re with Alberto’s Alfresco.” She nodded at the logo on his mug. “Your company owns the building and our little coffee stand is a renter. Hmm, does that make you my boss?”
He grinned. “Don’t go there.”
“Why not? I suspect you like being a boss.”
“Not all the time.”
“Most of the time,” she teased. “Your suit is too nice for that not to be true.”
“What is your experience with people in suits?”
“I used to be one.”
“Unexpected.” One eyebrow rose. “Not anymore?”
“No. I’ve decided to go in a different direction.” She poured the steamed milk into his mug. “I know what you’re wondering, so to answer the question, it was my choice.”
In a manner of speaking, she thought. The decision to change careers had been hers—the circumstances leading to that decision had not.
“What direction is that?” he asked.
“I’m going to be a naturopath.” She waited for the look of confusion before adding, “It’s a—”
“I know what naturopathic medicine is. It emphasizes using the body’s own systems for healing through a combination of Western medicine and natural cures.” One corner of his mouth turned up. “My grandfather’s housekeeper has a niece who graduated from Bastyr University with a degree in acupuncture or something like that. Are you a student there?”
She ignored the bit about his grandfather having a housekeeper—the suit already implied money, so she shouldn’t be surprised. “That’s my plan. I have to meet certain prerequisites in science and math but my business degree didn’t require them so I’m going back to college to make them up.” She shook her head. “It’s been a while since I’ve had to go to class and study. My brain is still unamused and crabby about the whole thing.”
He sipped his coffee. “What classes did you start with?”
“Biology and algebra.”
He winced. “Good luck with that.”
“Thanks. At first I had to read every chapter three or four times to remember anything. Now I’m down to only having to read it twice. The lab work has been interesting, though. In three weeks, we have to dissect things. I’m dreading that.”
“There shouldn’t be blood. Whatever it is has been dead awhile.”
“Still. Knives, cutting, organs.” She shuddered.
His blue eyes brightened with amusement. “Is this where I remind you that you’re basically studying to be a doctor?”
“Yeah, I get the irony. I try not to think about it, but I get it.”
They looked at each other. She felt...something. Tension maybe, or awareness. Whatever it was, she appreciated the confirmation that she was alive, relatively healthy and moving on with her life. The world kept turning and dragging her along with it.
“I need to get back to work,” Malcolm told her.
She wanted to believe there was a hint of reluctance in his voice, but she couldn’t be sure. Still, it was nice to think about.
“Me, too.” She glanced at her watch. “Or rather, head home and study for a few hours before class. Enjoy the rest of your day, Malcolm.”
“You, too, Delaney.”
He hesitated a second before turning toward the elevators. She watched him walk away and let herself imagine that he would spin back and ask her to lunch. Or dinner. Yes, dinner on his yacht. Or maybe they could helicopter to somewhere nice, although she wasn’t sure where a helicopter ride from Seattle would get them. Portland? Vancouver. Oooh, an international destination!
Regardless, he would ask her to dinner and they would...
She laughed as she rinsed out the milk pitcher and made sure everything was in order for Luzia and the next shift. She and Malcolm would what? Go to dinner? Kiss? Fall in love?
Hardly. They had nothing in common. Years ago, maybe, when she’d been on the fast track in finance. Only then she’d been engaged to Tim. She wouldn’t have noticed Malcolm at all.
“It doesn’t matter,” she told herself as she slipped off her apron. She had plans and dreams and hopes for the future. Not anything she would have imagined, but now, after everything she’d been through, they felt right. She would learn to heal others and if she got through that, she might have the chance to heal herself, as well.
* * *
Alberto’s Alfresco corporate offices occupied the top three stories of the twenty-story building. The company leased out the rest to tenants that ranged from a dentist, three law firms and Amazon. The latter had six floors where people came and went at all hours of the night and didn’t talk to anyone who didn’t work for their company. Malcolm Carlesso hoped they were building drones with artificial intelligence. He enjoyed sci-fi movies. Seeing one lived out in real time would be fun. Or not, he thought as he headed up to the top floor of the building. He didn’t want to go out in a hail of angry drone gunfire.
Malcolm stepped out of the elevator. It was the middle of the workday and people were everywhere—walking in the halls, having meetings, taking calls in their offices. Alberto’s Alfresco was a vibrant, multinational, multibillion-dollar enterprise.
While the company had always been successful, until a few years ago, it had been much smaller. Malcolm had come on board right after he’d graduated from college. He’d been determined to grow the firm and make his grandfather—the Alberto in Alberto’s Alfresco—proud. Two years ago, Malcolm’s mission had taken on an urgency he couldn’t seem to shake.
He passed his own office and went into that of the chief financial officer. Santiago Trejo had joined Alberto’s Alfresco eighteen months ago when Malcolm had stolen him from a successful hedge fund. Together they made a formidable team.
Malcolm nodded a greeting at Santiago’s assistant, sitting guard outside the open door, then entered the large corner office and took a seat. Santiago was on the phone. He smiled when he saw Malcolm and quickly wrapped up his call.
“Quarterly numbers from the East Coast are messed up,” Santiago said cheerfully. “Our friends down in accounting are scrambling. I had to explain our ‘fool me once’ philosophy here at the company. It won’t happen again.” He paused. “What?”
Malcolm pulled his gaze from the view of the vast Seattle skyline and Puget Sound and looked at his friend.
“What do you mean what?”
“There’s something. What happened? You look...” Santiago frowned, as if trying to figure something out. “Different. What’s happened? Did you discover some new truffle oil vendor?”
“Nothing happened,” Malcolm told him, then held out his mug. “I just went for coffee.”
He’d talked to an attractive woman about something other than business. While unusual for him these days, it was hardly noteworthy.
Okay, maybe it was a little noteworthy, but not anything he was going to discuss with Santiago.
His friend was a “get back on the horse” kind of guy. Should a woman ever break Santiago’s heart, a very unlikely event considering how many women came and went in his life, he would simply find one who was smarter, prettier or both, and make them both very happy. Malcolm had chosen another way to deal with his ex-fiancée’s betrayal, and that had been to withdraw into work.
Still, he’d enjoyed talking with Delaney. And looking at her. He’d never had a type before, but as of today, he was definitely into redheads. Maybe he should—
Santiago’s phone buzzed, then his assistant’s voice came over the speaker. “Alberto is in the building. Repeat, Alberto is in the building.”
Santiago looked at Malcolm. “Did you know he was coming? Do we have a meeting? It’s not on my calendar.”
“No meeting.” Malcolm tried to figure out why his grandfather would show up with no warning, then reminded himself the exercise was futile. He would never guess. Alberto didn’t like talking on the phone—if he felt he had something important to discuss during the workday, he would simply drive himself to the office and find the person he wanted to talk to.
The fact that he was here and not at their warehouse in the SoDo—south of downtown—district meant it wasn’t about packaging or food, and wasn’t that lucky. Malcolm still remembered the rotini-fusilli incident from three years ago when Alberto had discovered packaging that had used the two pasta names interchangeably, which might be fine for some but not for a company that prided itself on selling authentic Italian food.
The entire marketing department had been forced to listen to a twenty-minute lecture on the importance of knowing the different types of pasta as they prepared their campaigns. Information they needed to have, but perhaps not delivered by a man in his eighties who still occasionally broke into passionate Italian.
Malcolm set down his mug, then made his way to the elevator bank to wait for his grandfather. Alberto Carlesso had been born in Italy and brought to America when his parents immigrated in the 1930s. During the Second World War the then teenager had put his cooking skills and family recipes to good use in their Seattle neighborhood. Food was scarce and Alberto’s ability to create delicious meals out of whatever was on hand had made him popular. Every summer, he’d made his own marinara sauce with the fresh ingredients grown on neighboring farms. Some of the bottles had made their way to New York where a few Italian grocery store owners had sold them at a tidy profit.
The elevator doors opened. Malcolm smiled at the slightly bent, white-haired man in a suit and tie who walked toward him.
“Malcolm, they still warn you when I’m coming, eh? What is everyone so afraid of? I’m an old man who no longer runs the company. I’m a pussycat without claws.”
“I think you’re more bobcat than house cat.”
His grandfather grinned. “A bobcat? I like that.”
Even though they’d seen each other at breakfast that morning, they hugged. Alberto was a toucher. Thank goodness he’d retired before the new standards for sexual harassment had come into law, Malcolm thought. Not that his straight-as-an-arrow grandfather would ever make a pass at anyone, but he would hug and occasionally clasp hands with whomever he was talking to—regardless of gender. While most of the employees understood that was just his way, a few were less accommodating.
“I saw the new catalog,” Alberto said as they walked toward Malcolm’s office.
Malcolm held in a groan. Catalog releases were always stressful. Would the customers respond favorably? Would the new products be successful? Would his grandfather want to know why they were offering a line of gluten-free pasta?
“Very nice,” his grandfather continued. “I don’t agree with the macarons but I understand they’re very popular and have an excellent profit margin. You have to keep up with the times.”
They walked into Malcolm’s office. The huge space had been Alberto’s, before the old man had retired. Malcolm had replaced the old-fashioned wood paneling and the carpeting but otherwise had kept the room much the same. The desk and credenza, monstrosities from the 1970s, were a reminder of the heritage inherent in the company and Malcolm liked that.
They passed by the desk and made their way to the seating area at the far end of his office. Malcolm preferred to use a conference room when he had a meeting, but he kept the sofas for the same reason he kept the desk—because they belonged.
Malcolm’s assistant walked in with a tray. She smiled at them both, set the tray on the coffee table and left. His grandfather picked up one of the two mugs of steaming black coffee, along with a piece of biscotti. After dipping the latter in his mug, he said, “I found her.”
Resignation, irritation and inevitability battled for dominance. Malcolm realized it didn’t much matter which won—it wasn’t as if he was going to change his grandfather’s mind about any of it. To Alberto, family was everything. A trait to be admired, even if it occasionally made everyone’s life more complicated.
About the time Alberto had decided to cut out the middleman and sell his food directly to the public, through a mail-order catalog, he’d met, fallen in love with and married the pretty Irish girl who lived next door and they’d had one son—Jerry.
Alberto’s Alfresco had been successful, with steady but modest growth. Jerry had little interest in managing the company, a disappointment to both his parents. Instead he’d taken over corporate sales, traveling all over the country. He’d never married, but he had managed to father a few children. Three, to be precise, all by different mothers.
When Malcolm had been twelve, his mother had brought him from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle and had demanded to speak with Alberto. She’d presented Malcolm as Jerry’s son. Alberto had taken one look at Malcolm and had smiled, even as tears had filled his eyes. Malcolm was, he declared, the exact image of his late wife.
Jerry had been more reticent, insisting on a DNA test, which had proved positive. Within the week, both Malcolm and his mother were living in Alberto’s huge house.
Malcolm remembered how confused he’d been at the time. He’d been ripped from the only home he’d ever known and moved to Seattle. His grandfather had been adoring, his father indifferent, and Malcolm had taken a long time to accept that the large house by the lake was his home. Back then he’d been unable to figure out why his mother had suddenly decided to change everything and for the longest time she wouldn’t say. When she finally confessed she was sick and dying, he’d been forced to accept there was no going back. It would never be just him and his mom ever again.
When she’d died, Alberto had stepped in to take care of him. Jerry had remained indifferent—something Malcolm had come to terms with eventually.
Then two years ago, Jerry had died leaving—everyone had presumed—only one child. A few months ago, Alberto had finally brought himself to go through his son’s belongings. There he’d found proof of two additional children—daughters. Keira, a twelve-year-old living in foster care in Los Angeles, had been easily located and moved into the house six weeks before, but an older daughter, Callie, had been more difficult to find. Until now, apparently.
Malcolm gave in to the inevitable and asked, “Where is she?”
“Texas. Houston. She’s twenty-six.”
Eight years younger than him and fourteen years older than Keira.
“She’s living off the grid, as you young people like to say,” Alberto told him. “That’s why it took so long. The private detective had to trace her from Oklahoma. The lawyer will speak to her and confirm everything using DNA.”
“Do you want me to go meet her and bring her home?”
Because like Keira, Callie would be invited to come live with her paternal grandfather. While the twelve-year-old hadn’t had much choice—Alberto and Malcolm were her only living family—Callie was an adult. She could tell her grandfather to go pound sand. Malcolm honestly had no idea what she would do. But the promise of inheriting a piece of Alberto’s Alfresco would be difficult to resist.
“I’m sending a lawyer,” Alberto said. “That makes it more official.”
Malcolm wondered if that was the only reason.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about the sudden influx of siblings. Keira confused him—he knew nothing about twelve-year-old girls. After enrolling her in a quality private school that was conveniently across the street from the office building, he’d asked Carmen, their housekeeper, to keep tabs on her. Every now and then he suffered guilt, wondering if he should be more involved in her life, but how? Take her shopping and listen to teen music? He held in a shudder.
“I’m hoping she’ll move here,” Alberto told him. “We’ll be a family.”
Before Malcolm could respond, his grandfather shifted in his seat. The late morning light caught the side of his face, illuminating the deep wrinkles. Alberto wasn’t a young man. Yes, he was in good health, but at his age, anything could happen. Malcolm didn’t want to think about what it would mean to lose him and he sure didn’t want his last years to be unhappy.
“I hope she does, too,” he said, wondering if he was lying, then telling himself it didn’t much matter. When it came to his grandfather, he would do what Alberto wanted. He owed him that for everything that had happened...and everything he’d done.