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He called me five times within the last 3 days and I ignored every single one of them. I had no idea what he wanted and I didn’t care. I wasn’t even sure why I still had his number saved in my cell phone in the first place. I didn’t think he would have the gall to show up at my house though.

“Can’t you take a hint?” 

“My mother always told me I was a little slow to learn.” He chuckled in an attempt to make light of the situation.

“You know, you’re acting like a stalker Munch. Showing up at my house like this…”

“Technically no, I mean, for it to constitute as stalking you would have to be in a reasonable amount of fear of me. I haven’t done anything to make you afraid of me.”

Disgusted should count for something! “What do you want?”

“I’ve been to your café. The food is great, service is great too. Five-star rating in such a small space of time, that’s quite an achievement.” He said with a seemingly genuine smile.

“Thanks.”

He waited for me to say more and when it was apparent that I wasn’t going to, he continued, “I’m aware of how much of a jerk I was to you Maia and I want to apologise for that.”

An apology? I was shocked! “I appreciate the apology…but you didn’t come all the way over here to say that, did you?”

“Correct. I want you to have lunch with me…or dinner if that suits you better since I know that’s when your café isn’t open.”

“I’m married,” I stated, assuming a date is what he had in mind.

He grinned. “So am I. Michael’s a lucky guy.”

I was surprised he actually said Michael’s name instead of being a douche and calling him Mitch or Maurice or Matt like he did before. “So you know his name after all, huh?”

“I was just being a dick back then. Water under the bridge. Look, this isn’t personal. It’s business. I have a proposal for you and I’d like to discuss it over dinner at my restaurant. I think you might find it interesting.”

I was intrigued. Chad Munch wanting to discuss business with me? He must be desperate! “You better not be wasting my time, Chad.”

“Oh, I promise I won’t keep you long, or waste your time. How about tomorrow evening at 7?”

I hesitated a little. Chad was still just as arrogant as ever but he didn’t seem as smarmy or conniving as before either. I thought I should at least hear what this proposal was all about. “Okay, sure. I’ll meet you there at 7.”

When I arrived at the Villa Bovine, a place I hadn’t been to since I quit, I was overwhelmed by the nostalgia. Walking through those doors and looking over at the bar, reminded me of when Michael and I discovered we would be working together. And seeing the pathway, leading to the kitchen reminded me of all those times I would strut down that aisle, anxious to get started on today’s batch of marinara sauce. I was also surprised to see some familiar faces. I would have thought they would have all moved on to somewhere else given the kind of boss Chad was.

“Oh my Watcher! Maia!” squealed Maci, the hostess who looked like she hadn’t changed one bit. “I actually didn’t believe Chad when he said you were coming. How have you been?”

“Great, actually. What about you? How’s Greg doing?”

“He’s awesome. We started trying for a baby. I heard you and Michael have a couple of your own now. You better show me some pics before you leave!” She grinned from ear to ear, typical Maci. She was always so bubbly and sweet. I wish I kept in touch with her more. She and I were such good friends back in the day.

Chad and I met up and we sat down at our table. I browsed through the menu realising it looked a lot different than I remembered. A lot of the entrees we had before were gone except for the butternut squash gnocchi and the tri-tip steak. Fish tacos in an Italian restaurant? It was the strangest thing. And there were way too many appetizers.

“I know, I know.” He said. “You don’t have to say it. The menu sucks. I ruined it.”

“If you know that, then why haven’t you fixed it?” I asked.

“Because…pride?” He smiled warily. “Turns out I’m good at crunching the numbers but not so good at actually managing the restaurant.” His tone suddenly became more serious. “My Uncle Francois passed away last year.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, he was like a father to me. After my parents’ divorce, my mutter…she didn’t have much time for me so it was Tante Elsa and Onkel Francois who were there. He was the one who taught me how to cook. When he handed over the reins to this restaurant…I didn’t want to disappoint him. I might have been too aggressive in my tactics but I just really wanted to prove myself to him…and maybe also to my mother who said I was worthless like my vater…even though she died years before.”

I didn’t expect him to be so serious or to tell me so much about himself. Honestly, it brought down some of my walls a little. “Why are you telling me all this?” I asked seriously.

“Because…I need your help.” I could tell it was hard for him to say those words and he probably had to stuff down his pride too. “I need you to come back.”

“I can’t do that. I have my own business to manage now.”

“I know that which is why I’m thinking you can be kind of like a consultant. You can help me figure out how to get this train back on track.”

“I don’t know.” His offer caught me off guard. Before I got there I was sure he was going to ask me to come back to work for him so I was prepared to have dinner on his tab and then leave him with a rejection. Now I kinda felt bad about saying no to him for some reason. “There’s too much bad blood between us Chad. I don’t know if I feel comfortable with us working together again.”

“I understand but I’m not gonna play any more games. That’s not what this is about. See the thing is, I have a lot more to lose. My wife just gave birth to our son and…this restaurant is our only source of income and we’re losing money every month.”

“Still, I don’t know…”

“How about this…let’s order first and then we can discuss it some more.” He suggested. With a snap of his fingers, Houda came over to our table. After a brief friendly exchange between the two of us, she took our order and left.

“So, you’re married now?” I asked, genuinely interested. Chad didn’t seem like the marrying type.

“Yeah, only recently. We got married just before our son was born.”

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Eli. What about your daughters?”

“Nori and Olive. Wait…how did you know I had two daughters?”

He chuckled. “It’s a small-town Maia and you’re the only legacy family in it. Don’t you read the tabloids?”

“No. I’m too busy running a successful business.” I wasn’t trying to be mean but after my joke came out I realised that the timing was bad considering he just confessed to me his financial troubles. Thankfully he took it in stride. “Touché!”

He and I struggled to have a polite conversation at first but then gradually got comfortable. I realised then that we never really had a proper conversation despite knowing each other since we were teens. He was still just as arrogant and snobby as before but hearing him talk about his son I saw a softer side to him that I never knew.

Our order took a lot longer than I thought it would. I also looked around and saw that a few other patrons were getting impatient waiting for their orders. When I was in the kitchen, an entree would take no more than 15 minutes to get on to the table but we had been waiting for almost 30 minutes. Nestor even brought the wrong order for a customer so he had to take it back. The kitchen was obviously in a mess.

When our orders finally arrived, it was not what I was expecting. The Villa Bovine was known for its excellent food. This…this was just…barely mediocre!

“How is it?” He asked.

I reluctantly swallowed the bit I had in my mouth. I didn’t want to be mean but I had to be straight forward since he made it clear that he wanted my help. “The sauce is salty and completely lacking in flavour other than that. There are no herbs or spices, just salt. The gnocchi is perfect but this sauce kills it. Not to mention it took over half an hour to get to me and it’s kind of cold.”

He took a big gulp of his drink and nodded. “Yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes around here.”

“Why is this acceptable to you?” Knowing how well he can cook himself I wondered why he settled for that kind of food in his own restaurant.

“It’s not. It’s been falling apart ever since Darren retired. He knew how to keep the kitchen together and …well I’m…I’m floundering Maia. The new chef is green but he’s all I can afford right now. We’re not bringing in the money that we used to and our rating on SimYelp has dropped down to three stars. This is where I’m hoping you can come in and bring in your talent and skill to getting us back to where we used to be. I’m willing to give you a ten percent share in the business…as a partner. What do you say?”

Houda came not too long after to take our plates. I couldn’t even finish mine because it was just awful. At least the wine was top of the line. I looked around the dining room and noticed there was such a small dinner crowd for 7 pm. When I worked there, the place would be packed on a Friday night but as I looked around I could count the number of people there on one hand. This place was in bad shape.

I never once thought of myself as any kind of expert but having worked in the kitchen gave me a better perspective on how a restaurant should be run from the front to the back. Simple things like putting the wrong shorthand on a ticket could mess up an entire order which leaves the customer dissatisfied. Proper meal preps before opening are essential since it cuts back on the cooking time. I wonder if this new chef knows all of that. Probably not since this is his first job. I felt bad for Chad but more so for people like Houda, Nestor and Maci who were still working there and depended on their income. If this place closed down not only would Chad suffer but so would they.

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

He looked so relieved but still maintained his composure. “Great. I’m looking forward to…”

“But I want 30 percent,” I said firmly.

“Thirty? That’s…no…that’s too much.”

“You’re the one who wants my help Chad. Thirty percent seems fair given the amount of work I’ll have to put into this place. If I’m going to be spending time away from my restaurant and my family ten percent of the profits isn’t worthwhile.”

He lifted his chin and looked me square in the eyes. He didn’t think he would have to negotiate, obviously. “Fifteen.”

“Twenty.” I countered.

We were at a standoff. He stared at me intensely but I wasn’t backing down. Finally, with a bemoaned grunt, he agreed. “Okay, twenty percent. You’re a tough negotiator Sloane.”

“You have to be in business,” I said with a smile.

“I’ll have my lawyers do up the paperwork for you to look over. Just throwing it out there though, if you had stuck to your guns I would have given you the 30.” He winked.

“I would have settled for 10.”

***

“You did what?” Michael wasn’t pleased when I told him I was partnering up with Chad and his restaurant.

“It’s actually a really good deal. I get a twenty percent stake and the only investment I’ll have to make is offering my services.”

“And what kind of services does he expect you to deliver?”

“What are you saying?”

“I don’t trust him. I don’t think you should agree to this.”

“It’s too late. I already gave him my word and plus I don’t see any reason to say no. You know how much I’ve wanted to expand and open a new restaurant, a real restaurant this time and not a café. This can be that opportunity. And I’ve always loved the Villa Bovine. It’s where you and I got close and most of our old friends still work there. I can’t let that place run into the ground.”

“I get it. You want to grow and I’m in full support of that. I just don’t like the idea of you working with Chad Munch. The last time he offered you a business proposition, it came with strings. Or did you forget?”

“I didn’t forget but it’s in the past now. Chad’s married, he has a baby.”

“You think having a wife and kid automatically keeps his dick in his pants?”

“Doesn’t it for you?” His last comment got a little under my skin so I had to ask. “Some of your clients are women. Most of the employees at the gallery are women. Should I be worried?”

“That’s different. That’s business…”

“Yeah, and this is business too. And just like I trust you, you should trust me.”

“I do trust you. It’s him I don’t trust!” He took a deep breath to calm down suddenly aware that we were right outside the nursery and the girls were sleeping. “I love you, Maia. I’ve always loved you and I’ve always made that clear. I’ve never had a secret agenda when it comes to you…but he did. Who’s to say that’s not what this is about?”

“I’m not stupid. The moment Chad crosses a line, if he ever crosses that line, I’m out. I know what I’m doing.”

“I hope you do.” He gave me this stern look but I also saw that behind that look lied insecurity. Michael was jealous. I should have picked up on that earlier. No wonder why he was so worked up about me working with Chad.

Thing is, he has nothing to worry about. Even if Michael was right about Chad I have absolutely no interest in Chad in any kind of romantic way. He could plot and scheme all he wanted but there’s no way I would ever do anything to jeopardize my marriage. I just wish Michael had a little more faith in me.

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