Authors: Bernadette Marie
“And your dessert, ma’am,” he said, shutting the door with his elbow as he watched his mother’s eyes widened with delight.
“You got the tiramisu?”
“You asked me to.”
“It’s beautiful, where did you order it from?”
“Ah, I was going to keep this a secret, but I figure when I fly out on Monday you’ll be on Regan’s phone begging her for contacts.”
“How is it you know me so well?” She headed toward the kitchen, and he followed.
As it had always been, the enormous kitchen, with its miles of dark granite counters, was spotless and clutter free. She had trays of appetizers on the island still covered to keep his father’s fingers from digging into them.
“I have to taste it,” she said as she laid her roses on the counter and then pulled out two small plates from the cupboard.
Zach set down the tray. Toting that dessert around, he’d done nothing but think of Regan. She’d taken the time to prepare something so lavish for a woman she didn’t even know. Thinking of her mixing it together and cutting it into perfect servable squares made him wonder what else she took her time with. Did she keep house as precisely as she kept her desk? Did she sip tea and make cupcakes? Did she make love with the same passion she made desserts?
He shook the thought from his head. Images of Regan licking tiramisu from her fingers nearly had him needing to leave his mother’s presence.
He had desperately wanted to invite her to join him, but she was very straightforward with her attitude about seeing him socially. He didn’t think of the luncheon as a social event—it was more a torture session for Zach. But since it didn’t have to do with business, he knew she would have turned him down flat. Much like the symphony he’d attend the next night. It had seemed like fun when he’d received the tickets, but he’d really wanted to take her. Instead, he’d be taking Madison Fitzpatrick with him.
Nothing against Madison Fitzpatrick. However, her white-blonde hair in its tight knot on the top of her head wasn’t quite the style he looked for when he chose a date. He wanted the dark beauty who sat outside his office to accompany him. Alas, he’d be spending the evening with his mother’s grannyish best friend.
He didn’t blame Regan for not wanting to date her boss, but he couldn’t think of much else. The faces of the two men she’d embraced on Monday still filtered through his mind regularly. Maybe he should ask his mother about that Dr. Curtis, but then he didn’t have a last name to go along with his inquiry. Besides, when his mother gave her time and money, she didn’t do a lot of socializing with people beyond the board of directors.
There was no one but Regan that he could ask about the dark man who’d answered her door. Though the doctor had mentioned another man was worried about her when he’d gone to pick her up from work. His mind was in overdrive. Did the men know about each other? Regan didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would string along lovers.
That thought alone had his head spinning.
A week away from her face would benefit him greatly. As long as hearing her voice on the phone didn’t make him think of her too much, he’d be okay.
“Oh, this is delightful.” Audrey sighed, bringing Zach back to the present. “Taste.” She shoved a spoonful in his mouth and he nodded. The creamy texture of coffee and mocha melted on his tongue.
“That is really good. Let me have another bite,” he said with his mouth still full.
“Where what?” He dug the spoon into the piece of dessert Audrey was sampling.
“Where did you get it?”
“I don’t think I should tell you. I think I should keep it my secret.”
“Zachary Tyler Benson, I’m your mother and you’ll tell me, or you’re right—Regan will have me on her phone bright and early Monday morning.”
He shook his head. She actually would do it. “Don’t hound her. Promise?
” He raised his eyebrows, waiting for her confirmation.
“Would I do that?” She stuck her bottom lip out.
“Fine.” She smiled and folded her hands before her like a good girl.
“Regan made that just for your party.”
“She made it?” Audrey’s eyes widened just as they had when she’d seen him walk through with the delectable dessert.
“Yes. She said she’d bill me later.” Unable to help himself, he took another spoonful.
“She really won’t bill you, will she?” she whispered.
Zach laughed and kissed his mother. She might have been born to money and lived life lavishly, but she loved anything that was cheap, or better yet, free.
Tyler Benson strolled into the kitchen in his swimming trunks, leaving a trail of water across the tiled floor. His eyes lit when he saw Zach, but the tapping of his wife’s foot put him quickly in his place.
Audrey crossed her arms over her chest. “People will be here in less than thirty minutes. Why are you standing here dripping in my kitchen?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he joked and kissed her cheek. “Nice to see you, Zach.” He held out his hand, and Zach shook it at a distance, not wishing to get wet. “Oh, God! Is that a tiramisu?” His dad made a move toward it, but his mom’s hand smacking his arm stopped him.
“Don’t you dare! You are restricted from such things.”
The very mention of his restrictions drew Zach’s attention to the scar that ran down the center of his dad’s chest. How could a man who enjoyed his life, business, and was physically active be forced into retirement because his heart couldn’t keep up?
His father leaned in closer to his mother. “Then why do I have to be at your luncheon?”
“Because you love me, damn it. Now get a shower.” She tried her best to shoo him out of the kitchen, but not before he ran his finger through the slice of dessert on her plate.
“Damn, good. You make that yourself, Zachary?”
“No, sir. My new assistant seems to have many skills. One being desserts.”
“Better keep her around then.”
I certainly intend to
, Zach thought as his father dug his finger in one more time before heading upstairs to become presentable.
The party was just as Zach had imagined. Dull. He knew it was one more attempt for his mother to flaunt him in front of her friends and their lonely daughters.
“Zachary, this is Marsha Livingston,” she introduced him to the blonde at her side. “Remember the Livingston Care Estates that we built in the Hamptons?”
“Yes, a very nice facility.” He smiled politely.
“Marsha, I’ll find you an iced tea,” his mother said, excusing herself.
His mother left them alone, and Marsha, who was probably all of twenty-two, looked up at him.
“My father was very impressed with your company. He hopes to build more facilities in the future. He’d certainly use your company, I’m sure.”
Zach nodded and accepted a glass of champagne from a tray that passed by him on the hand of one of his mother’s caterers. “That would be a very welcomed opportunity.”
He looked around the room. He simply wasn’t interested. He knew all the names. Many of them had been engraved on plaques on the sides of buildings he’d cut his teeth on when he joined his father and grandfather in the business. Their daughters were elegant, educated, and beautiful. They were young and hopeful. They were bait for his mother to marry him off. But none of them could measure up to the quiet determination he’d found in Regan.
The party hadn’t yet died down when Zach cornered his mother. He’d graciously diverted Marsha Livingston’s attention to another young man, and Sylvia Astor had found herself all alone in the rose garden after he’d excused himself to take a phone call he decided he needed to attend to right away. He kissed his mother on the cheek.
“I really have to be going,” he said, to her displeasure. “I have a lot of things to do before I leave on Monday.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll be in Los Angeles. I have a big prospect.”
“I wish you had someone to go with you. I could make arrangements.” She looked around the room. “At thirty-seven you shouldn’t be alone. It is killing me.”
“I’ll be fine. This is one of those clients that like things personal. I’m not taking John Forrester or Regan either.”
“Well, fine then.” She straightened his shirt collar. “Please call me. I miss you so much.”
“Mom, I’m here once a week, and you talk to me threetimes a day.”
“I talk to Mary Ellen and…”
“Yes, Regan, more than I talk to you.”
“I’m a busy man.”
“I know, dear.” She grasped his hands in hers. “Don’t be too busy to remember what’s important.”
He kissed both of her cheeks, made his way through the guests and away from the few that were steering his way for conversation, and slid out the side door.
The long drive was filled with cars, and he was glad he’d parked where he had. He climbed into his Lexus and started away from the estate in which he’d lived his whole life, when he hadn’t been away at school, that was. There was no southern drawl to his voice. A fried chicken had never landed on his plate either, but he was blessed and he knew that. He had parents that doted on him. He’d never needed nor wanted for anything, and his family business was a legacy he was proud to carry on.
As he turned from the gated drive and headed back toward downtown Nashville, he looked around. He realized he was in the middle of Regan’s dream. Tennessee sprawling land, horses, and houses with large porches. What kept her from her dream of living in the country and having a family, he wondered. What was going to keep her from him? Nothing, if he could help it. He couldn’t remember when a woman consumed his every thought. Zach Benson wasn’t one to let go of something he wanted. And he wanted Regan Keller. He was just going to have to get her to trust him. He’d never hurt her. He’d never let anyone else hurt her. It was time he showed her what a great partnership they could have.
Monday was lonely. Regan arrived at work early and took the opportunity to get to know her surroundings and other coworkers, knowing Zach wasn’t there. Before she sat to answer the weekend’s e-mails and return Audrey’s second phone call, she’d taken out the plans for the Nashville building and looked over the designs. She needed to schedule meetings with three different departments on the build and wanted to familiarize herself with it better.
She looked over the plans for the penthouse suites. What would Zach’s penthouse apartment look like when he was part of it? Would it be streamlined, with dark cherrywood and tones of beige? Or would he be an eclectic type with bold colors and priceless works of art? What did his rented condo look like? His car was a simple black Lexus, nothing too fancy or flashy, but classy. The suits he wore were tailored to him, but again, not flashy. He had millions, she assumed, tucked away in banks and trust funds—but he ate from the hot dog cart next to his office, where he spent twelve or more hours a day designing and financing the next big build in Nashville, or wherever he and his company were needed.
She kept telling herself it didn’t really matter what his life away from the office would be like. It didn’t matter what her handsome boss planned for his future. All that mattered was that when the building was completed and he’d moved into his new home, she’d still be the woman answering his phone calls.
But she couldn’t help but wonder, because she was acutely aware he wasn’t in his office reading the papers she would have set out for him and leaving his coffeepot on.
She’d taken the bus to work so Carlos could use her car. He was doing her a favor as well. It was still making noise, and he’d promised to figure out what was wrong. The old lady had been on the bus, hoarding her two seats when Regan climbed on. She hadn’t tried to sit. She stood with the rest of the passengers, but she couldn’t help but look around as though Zach might be sitting there waiting for her to take his seat.
It was nine thirty when he finally called, and as soon as she spoke she wished she’d kept the sound of relief out of her voice.
“How is L.A.?” She gathered her note pad and pen.
“Dark,” he said flatly, and she smiled. “And the sun is up.”
“Not a big fan of Los Angeles, huh?”
“Smog is not natural air.”
She let out a small laugh. She couldn’t agree more. It had been one of the selling points when she’d taken the job in Hawaii and left Los Angeles behind. But she was sure glad she’d returned to the fresh air of Tennessee.
“Tell me, Mr. Benson, how can I assist you today?” She tried to sound professional, but it came out a bit too flirty.
“You’re in a cheery mood.”
“Remember? I had pie.” She hoped reminding him about her dinner would take the edge off of him flirting back.
“Sounds like a good time.” He cleared his throat. “Here’s what I need you to do.”
He read off a list of items he needed her to follow up on. There were e-mails, letters, phone calls, and contracts to take care of. He needed some items faxed to him in L.A., others could wait, and some he’d need given to Peterson.
“I’ll get this all taken care of,” she promised.
“I know. By the way, how many times has my mother called you already?”
“Twice so far. I guess she really enjoyed my dessert.”
“It was a hit.”
“She wanted to take me to lunch today.”
He let out a breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I have plans today, but we agreed on tomorrow. She said you wouldn’t mind if I took a long lunch.”
“Who am I to argue? Regan, honestly I can call her and have her cancel if you…”
“No. I look forward to it.” She laughed. “I figure it will give me some insight on you.”
“I don’t know if I like that or not.” The distress in his voice made her want to meet his mother even more.
“Do you have something to hide, Mr. Benson?”
“Not a thing.”
“Then I wouldn’t worry about it.” The flirtatious tone crept back, and she sat taller in her chair to at least look professional.
“I won’t, then.” He let out a small laugh that disappeared into awkward silence. “So what plans do you have today? Never mind. Don’t tell me. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“If there isn’t anything else, Mr. Benson, I’ll get to these right away.”
“Thank you, Regan. By the way, I left something on my desk for you. I think you’ll find it’ll come in useful. I’ll call you later after I meet with the investor.”
She hung up the phone and went straight into his office. On the top of his desk, beside his phone, lay a key. The keychain had her name on it. When she picked it up, she realized it matched the one he used in the elevator. Next to the key was a permit that would allow her to park in the building without having to pay.
She’d been toying with him about the long trek from the parking garage. She certainly hoped he didn’t think she was complaining.
Regan let go of her stiff professionalism and gave into a smile. Well, she’d take the permit. That would come in very useful and save her a lot of money, but she’d leave the key. It was his elevator. That was too private for her. Even though Zachary Benson continued to be on her mind, she couldn’t begin to take special gifts from him, no matter what they were.
She’d remember to thank him for the parking permit.
At noon, Regan met John Forrester on the corner for a hot dog from Frank’s cart. He was a gentleman, she decided when he offered to pay for her lunch, even though she’d invited him. They sat at a stone table, the fountains to their back, and the river in front of them.
“Thank you for lunch,” she said as she took her first bite of Polish sausage. “Mmm, this is just what I wanted.”
“My pleasure. It’s not very often a beautiful woman asks me to lunch.” He opened his soda and took a long drink. “How’s it going in L.A.?”
“Zach’s not a fan of smog. Other than that, he has a full day of meetings and he’s working hard.”
“Did he get the contract?”
“He’s working on it. He is very secretive though. The investor doesn’t want his name on anything. At least until it’s all said and done, then Zach says he’ll want all the credit.”
John nodded his head. “So to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
Regan liked John Forrester. He had a personality that was infectious, and you just wanted to be around him. She figured him to be in his early fifties and someone who had worked outside in the elements most of his life. His skin was tan from the sun and the lines that crossed his face showed experience, but he was strikingly handsome. She also knew he was someone Zach trusted wholeheartedly. John worked on almost all of their Nashville projects and numerous ones out of state.
“I’m here to ask a favor.” She winced when she said it. She’d only had her job a week, and barely felt comfortable enough to ask him. “My brother is between jobs right now. He’s a junior high school math teacher, but currently out of work.”
“I see. And you want to know if I can use him?”
“Yes. I probably shouldn’t even ask, but…”
“Has he worked construction before?” he interrupted her before she could back out of the conversation.
“He did for a short time to earn money through college. He’s not a master of any specific trade, but he’s a hard worker.”
“I see.” John took a bite of his hot dog and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “So it could be temporary if he gets a teaching job?”
She nodded, realizing that wasn’t a great asset when asking for a job.
“I can see what I can do. I have a few guys leaving the job next week. Would that be soon enough?”
“Really? You can use him?” Her voice shot up in delight.
John rested his hand on hers. “For you, I’ll make sure I can.”
“Oh, thank you. He’ll be a good worker. I promise.” Excitement bubbled inside her. She couldn’t wait to tell Carlos.
“If not, he goes.” He was matter-of-fact about it, and she nodded. That she understood. But Carlos wouldn’t let her down, or John Forrester for that matter.
The moment Zach stepped into his office the following Monday morning, he sighed with relief. He was home. He’d never much minded business trips, but his trip to L.A. had been tedious and drawn out. The investor was not one of his most favorite people to work with, but he brought millions to the bargaining table, which Zach couldn't ignore. But not having Regan there, with her meticulous note taking and her keen ears and eyes, he’d hoped he hadn’t missed anything. Worse yet, he couldn’t ask for her help on anything to do with the project for the time being. When the time was right, she’d be brought up to speed on the events of the build, and so would John Forrester. In fact, he could discuss minor things with John before he could let Regan in on his deal.
He couldn’t be sure why the man always wanted to work the details out without anyone else being in on it. Obviously, he had something to hide. It only infuriated him that he couldn’t have his people working on it.
Zach blew out a ragged breath. He’d built buildings with the man before. This one would be just as successful and twice the size of all the others. It would all be fine, he reminded himself, even if he had to grit his teeth throughout the entire process.
He set his keys and sunglasses on his desk. His papers were set out, just as he liked them.
The key to the elevator sat next to his phone with a note addressed to Mr. Benson under it. He opened it to find Regan’s handwriting scrawled in it.
Thank you for the parking permit. I appreciate it. I’ll leave the elevator key. Thank you, Regan.
He wasn’t too surprised. A small part of him hoped she’d call and yell at him for it anyway. He’d leave it right where it was in case she changed her mind.
His coffee mug was full and hot, waiting for him. He smiled when he saw the cinnamon roll next to the coffee mug. After the tiramisu, he was confident in assuming it was homemade.
Trying to regain control over his mind, he sat down with his coffee and newspapers and thumbed through them.
The cinnamon roll was to die for.
He looked at his watch. He’d stalled exactly nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds. He couldn’t wait any longer. He had to see her.
He reached for the button on his phone to summon her, but that wouldn’t do. Instead, he plucked a flower from the vase on the coffee table and twirled it in his fingers. He opened the door only to be disappointed that she wasn’t at her desk.
“A flower for me? You shouldn’t have,” Kirk Peterson laughed as he walked toward him.
Zach put on a smile, hoping the disappointment that he felt in the pit of his stomach didn’t show on his face. He pulled the flower back casually as though he’d picked it up off the floor and tossed it into the trash can.
Kirk waved a file at him. “I wanted to talk to you about the Memphis project.”
“Yeah, why don’t you come in?” Zach stepped back to let him through and gave one more look down the hall, but still there was no sign of Regan.