Oxford, United Kingdom
Two Days Later
Jayne Clark rounded the corner briskly, her arms full of files stacked precariously on top of each other—and smacked right into someone coming the other way.
The collision brought her stumbling to her knees with a winded oomph.
For a moment, she sat amid the scattered papers, blinking and wondering idly whether the whining sound in her ears was yet another carpenter with a drill straight from hell or whether the past few days had triggered a tinnitus.
If she had known opening her own restaurant would be that much work and stress, she would never have embarked on the endeavor. But then she reminded herself how lucky she was to finally be living with Robert Astor, the man she loved. With his encouragement and support, she felt as if she could accomplish anything.
“Verrry sorrrry, ma’am. So incrrredibly sorrrry.”
The Indian electrician who had collided with her managed somehow to blush beneath his chocolate-colored skin. He was hovering close by, gesticulating frantically and clearly torn between apologizing profusely and wondering whether it was the right thing to do to help her to her feet.
With a defeated sigh, Jayne scrabbled for the papers and stuffed them into the files. By the time she had gathered everything and managed to climb to her feet despite her throbbing knee, the man in his blue overalls was wringing his hands and still apologizing.
“It’s all right, for god’s sake, it’s not like I need an ambulance.” He looked relieved.
She half-jogged and half-limped down the stairs and along a corridor filled with dust and noise from all the workers trying to meet the deadline. As if to taunt her, the banner hanging out front caught her eye in passing.
THE CALIFORNIAN RESTAURANT – GRAND OPENING JULY 18th
Despite the nagging sound in her ears and the dull pain in her knee, Jayne couldn’t help smile a little. Even with the humungous workload and countless responsibilities, it was still a dream come true.
She was only 24 years old, but with Robert’s and Beatrice’s investment and their generous help, she was going to open her own restaurant, for heaven’s sake! And in Oxford, England! All the stress and hard work made it worthwhile.
A still door-less doorway opened into the main kitchen. The room served as an interim office for now, because the bare counters made an excellent replacement for desks and because the actual office was jam-packed with furniture in its protective wrappings.
She squinted against the visual overload and finally found her business partner back towards a corner. An elegant woman in a sharp pantsuit in unforgiving black stood out like a sore thumb in the middle of the chaos.
Jayne shook her head softly. She’d never understand why Beatrice Egerton-Jones would choose to wear these expensive and sorely out of place clothes inside the restaurant under construction, but she’d come to associate it with the young woman and admired how clean and unwrinkled she somehow managed to keep it at the end of each busy day. It was as typical and tell-tale as her penchant for emeralds and her weakness for Jayne’s raspberry tartlets.
“Beatrice!” she yelled, having to repeat herself twice before the woman’s head snapped up from studying a rolled-out site plan.
She waved at Jayne for a second before wheeling around and shouting an order at a man armed with a hammer and nails.
Jayne walked over, maneuvering around cardboard boxes, toolboxes and a tile-less hole in the floor, left open for god knew what last-minute adjustment.
“Jayne.” Beatrice pecked her on both cheeks once she’d set her mountain of files down and narrowly missed dumping them on the floor again. “You look a mite frazzled, if I may say so. Not that we don’t all have a million reasons for being frazzled.” Even shouting so she could be heard over the din, Beatrice sounded posh and proper.
Jayne was used to the British way of talking now, with its way of sugar-coated criticism and being indirectly direct. Three months in Oxford had acclimatized her quickly.
With a grimace, Jayne lifted herself up to perch on the edge of the cluttered counter top, not caring a bit whether her worn-out grey jeans and paint-splattered sweatshirt would get dirty. Frazzled was the understatement of the year. She’d come in here only an hour ago and already felt as if she’d wrangled a dozen disasters. So much was at stake with this startup, so much depended on it being a success. And while that was the main reason for all the pressure, there was always an underlying excitement that propelled her on and that even infected Beatrice with her always-in-control attitude.
Jayne rubbed her sore knee and leaned over to look at the site plan. “Is anything the matter?” she asked.
Beatrice smoothed a hand over her chestnut-brown hair, which was almost always a superfluous gesture—there was never a hair out of place in whatever neat, understated yet beautiful hairstyle she chose for the week. Sometimes Jayne felt like a donkey next to a purebred mare. Sure, she also cleaned up nicely if she made an effort—but with her average height, her blondish brown, almost shoulder-length hair and her naturally slender but not exactly curvy figure, she wasn’t as captivating as Beatrice. Not that Rob minded, judging from how many compliments he always paid Jayne.
“Well, some fool thought it would be a good idea to deliver the potted plants two days early, so now they’re in everyone’s way and likely to be damaged before they’ll ever have a chance to bloom.”
With a grimace, Jayne made a mental note to herself to speak with Jacques, the notorious interior designer from France they’d hired. “I’m sorry, I have no idea how this could happen. I’ll get right on it. Speaking of plants, what do you think of going for seasonal decoration instead of choosing one signature flower arrangement? I’m planning to adjust my menus according to the seasons anyway, so why not also the table decoration and plants out on the patio?”
“Splendid idea. I knew you and I were the perfect match. I’d never know what to do about all the creative aspects, but you seem to have an intuitive grasp on matters.”
Beatrice smiled at her before turning to bark out another order at the construction workers without missing a beat.
Jayne smiled back, feeling ten feet taller at the praise. “Well, I wouldn’t know a loan application from a delivery bill, so I sure as hell wouldn’t have any idea what to do without you.”
The restaurant venture had actually been Beatrice’s idea. She was a friend of Robert’s and had proved to be an invaluable companion in many ways. Like Rob, Beatrice was from a very affluent family, with all the privileges and quirks that came with being wealthy in England. But unlike some women of her status, Beatrice was a hands-on type, willing to actually put in an effort and make a mark for herself instead of letting her family name and money do all the work. With her civil engineering degree from Oxford and a recent MBA from Cambridge, she was the perfect supervisor for all the work that had cropped up during the renovation.
Like Jayne, Beatrice was a great fan of “fusion cuisine”—integrating various cooking styles and ingredients. She was particularly aware of American trends in cuisine that were—according to her—so lamentably late in crossing the ocean and winning over the British. When Jayne had mentioned her love for California cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats and seafood, Beatrice had taken her hands in hers and declared her a heaven-sent blessing—”Oh my god, Jayne—we must open a restaurant together!”
To Jayne, Beatrice was the brains of the business, the one who not only held all strings but also made sure that none of said strings tied themselves into knots. Beatrice handled all the commercial aspects—finance, marketing, server management, B2B and B2C relationships—while Jayne stuck to what she knew best and loved doing. She was the creative one, in charge of everything design-related, the menu, and managing all the kitchen staff, the kitchen and the cooking equipment. And she would be the chef, at least for a while.
Any hesitation about having Beatrice as her business partner had quickly evaporated in the face of the woman’s relentless enthusiasm. Robert was excited about the idea, too. He and Beatrice decided to put up the startup capital together, also taking out a small business loan, and the three of them became one-third equal partners in the venture. Beatrice still lived in London and had already reduced her job at an international construction firm, which required a lot of traveling around Western Europe, to half time. As soon as the restaurant officially opened, Beatrice planned to quit the job altogether so she could concentrate wholly on the fledgling operation.
It took Jayne a full minute to realize that the increased whining in her ears was in fact the ringtone of her cell phone, half drowned-out.
Robert’s name flashed, making her heart skip a beat. Though they’d technically been together for more than a year now, she still got that giddy feeling whenever he called or they spent time together. She knew that feeling would eventually fade, but she wanted to hold onto it as long as possible.
Their corner of the kitchen was comparatively quiet despite the commotion all around them, so Jayne answered the call in front of Beatrice, sending an apologetic smile her way.
“Hello, darling.” His deep voice traveled straight to her heart. “Am I disturbing you?”
“Never,” she said, and she meant it.
“I’ve got some of the investment documents ready for you and Bea to sign. Stock certificates, liability insurance forms, you know the drill…” No, she didn’t know the drill—which is why Beatrice and Robert’s help was invaluable. “I’m on the train from London, about to arrive in Oxford, in fact. Why don’t you pop over to the house and we go over the documents, shall we?”
Pop over, Jayne thought. She’d quickly learned that nobody in Oxford ever drove, walked, bicycled or simply came over—they “popped” over. Beatrice detected Jayne’s smile and raised an eyebrow.
To Robert, Jayne said, “Why don’t you just ‘pop over’ here, and then both of us can get this whole signing issue out of the way. We could show you the latest progress, and…”
“Darling?” Something about his tone made her stop mid-sentence, her belly fluttering. “Did you miss me?”
Her response was immediate—he’d been away in China all week. “Yes, of course.”
“I missed you too. Terribly. So terribly, in fact, that I’d rather have you all to myself for a few precious hours. Why don’t we meet in the quiet of our home so I can show you just how much I’ve been pining for you?”
His voice had dropped into a lower register, deep and sexy, making her toes curl in her shoes.
“Oh…” Her breath left her in an anticipatory sigh, but then she remembered Beatrice was watching her, and she felt a twinge of awkwardness. “Um…yeah, sure.”
When Jayne cut the call, Beatrice asked, “Is Rob on his way?” There was a knowing smile on her face.
“Well, we’re meeting at the house.” Now Jayne felt even more awkward. Rob and Beatrice had been close friends from way back in prep school, had even dated a little, but both had realized that romance between them was a bad idea, and had decided to keep their relationship platonic. Beatrice was now engaged to Damien, one of her classmates from Cambridge, and they seemed to be suited for each other just as well as Jayne and Robert were.
Jayne said, “I’m meeting him at the house to pick up the documents for us to sign. I’m sorry for deserting you like this…”
Her business partner shooed her away with another smile. “Off you go, off you go.” She paused and gave a little wink. “Love bird.”
Hoping she wasn’t blushing, Jayne muttered a goodbye and left.
Read Part 1 here
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