Five Years Earlier
Her hands wanted to tremble so she kept them neatly folded on her lap.
What was she doing here? Kasia Jacubek asked herself for the umpteenth time, her gaze flashing around the room with the streamlined furnishings of glass-topped tables and bright yellow padded seats sitting on royal blue area rugs, her fingers gripping together until her knuckles turned white from the pressure.
What would the prestigious, Toronto-headquartered, Holloway, Copeland, McLellan Law Firm, with a prominent presence in major international centers including New York, London, and Rome, advising a full range of high-profile clients in a variety of high-profile transactions want with her, a twenty-five-year-old, out-of-work chef, living in an out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere town?
The phone call last week from Richard Holloway's secretary--Kasia interrupted her darting gaze and halted it on the smart, savvy, and sophisticated-dressed woman seated behind the glass-topped desk, studying the computer screen with studious attention, her red-tipped fingernails tap-tapping the desktop--had offered her no clue for the out-of-the-blue summons.
Jerking her eyes off the woman, Kasia let them wander to the sliding glass doors through which she'd entered half an hour earlier, now closed, blocking out sound from the open concept outer office and ensuring privacy in this inner office. Her gaze shifted to the black metal credenza with several hard-covered books, probably law books, lining it, and noticeably free of personal touches, like framed photos or charming knickknacks, then skidded to the wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor windows beyond.
The bursts of color from within the office, the green, leafy plants dispersed throughout, and the muted sounds of classical music flowing out from hidden speakers were meant to not only give the office a smart and professional appearance, but also to make the client feel calm and confident. Calm in herself and confident in the attorney.
Kasia Jacubek felt neither.
She adjusted the strap of her purse, securing it to her shoulder, and picked up a magazine. Maclean's. She leafed through it, put it down. She selected another magazine. Time. She leafed through it, put it down. Twisting her wrist, she glanced at her watch, and frowned. She'd been sitting here for forty-five minutes. On a frustrated breath, she crossed her legs, and reached for another periodical. Canadian Lawyer Magazine. She leafed through it, put it down, and mutilated her fingers.
What am I doing here?
Kasia's head shot up, her fingers disengaging to clutch the purse strap.
"Mr. Holloway will see you now." The voice and the words sounded as proficient and polished as the woman appeared. "You may go in now," she said, her tone turning brisk, indicating she had no time and little patience for any dillydallying, and pointed her chin to the oak door for emphasis when Kasia continued to remain glued to her chair.
With a nod of acknowledgment, Kasia peeled herself from the seat and stood, pulled the purse strap further up her shoulder, and tugged at the hem of her blazer. Head up. Shoulders back. Gait poised. Mr. Holloway didn't have to know about the nerves kickboxing in her stomach. With her chin thrust up in a dignified angle, she moved toward the oak-paneled door, and felt swamped by a flood of panic.
Her hand on the knob, she paused, drawing in a steadying breath, then practicing a feigned equanimity, she pushed open the door. Mr. Holloway, a distinguished-looking man in his early forties, wrapped in a dark suit and red tie, sat behind his desk, holding the phone to his ear with his shoulder as he worked, his solid gold watch winking at her from beneath the cuff of his white silk sleeve. Uncertain if she should advance into the plush inner sanctuary or not, she hesitated in the doorway, clutching her hands together in front of her waist and reminding herself to breathe.
In a hurried glance, she took in the traditional wood motif of the room so at odds with the sleek, glossy lines of the outer office. Here, it was oak, oak, and more oak. Oak floor, oak desk, oak credenza. Even the two wall-lined bookcases jammed with thick leather-bound books were made of oak. And in the V where the bookshelves met, sat a leather armchair and ottoman. The place, like the man, Kasia mused, smelled of money. Lots of money.
When she drifted her gaze back to the man, she found Mr. Holloway still on the phone, but watching her through lazily narrowed eyes. She bit back a gasp, all but strangling on it. She somehow managed not to squirm under the scrutiny of the smoke-gray eyes, but failed to keep the embarrassing color from exploding into her cheeks. Adjusting the purse strap, she distributed her weight evenly on both legs and tried to put on her most carefree face. She almost wavered. After a long intense moment, he gave her a come-ahead curl of his finger, and sighing out a breath, she stepped into the office and closed the door behind her, feeling like a trapped animal.
The flexible rubber soles of her low-cut black shoes, though promising fantastic traction--for which she breathed a sigh of gratitude as her feet took her across the gleaming floor to the imposing desk of the imposing man sitting behind it--did not detract from the polished style and elegant charm of the shoes--for which she breathed out another sigh of gratitude as they shored up her lagging self-confidence.
She may hail from an out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere town, she may be assaulted by the kickboxing nerves in her stomach, she may be the antithesis of the smart, the savvy, the sophistication of the secretary in the outer office, but she didn't have to come across to this man whose woodsy cologne smelled of money, she thought with a faint frown marring her brow, who probably headed the list in the Guide to the Leading 500 Lawyers in Canada, she was a young, an artless, an out-of-work chef.
Taking the leather guest chair in front of his desk, she laid her purse on her black-and-white-checkered shirted lap, and resisting the urge to tug a forefinger at the button of the white lacy blouse currently strangulating her throat, she folded her hands atop the purse, and practiced breathing while maintaining a vision of dispassion, howbeit desperate, with a casual perusal of the office.
Startled, Kasia jerked to attention. So engrossed had she been in concentrating her efforts on appearing nonchalant, she hadn't realized the lawyer had finished his phone conversation and sat there, watching her, flicking the point of a pen in and out, in and out.
"I apologize for keeping you waiting." The smile reflected in his voice. "A last minute crisis call from a client." His shrug was philosophical.
She didn't know what she was to reply to that, other than to remind him, with an arched brow of discontent, he'd kept her sitting on prickly pins and numbing needles for almost an hour, so she decided she'd look less the foolish female and more the poised person if she remained silent, crossed her legs, and treated him to an intelligent nod.
Relaxing in his leather "Queen Anne" style chair, Mr. Holloway rolled the pen between his palms. "I trust with my secretary's directions, you had no problem locating our office?"
"None at all," she said, trying to speak without having to clear her throat. "Besides, I lived here not all that long ago, so I had a pretty good recollection of the downtown Toronto streets." The thumbs of her clenched hands circle-danced around each other.
"That's right." The lawyer nodded. "Two years ago. You were employed at the Irish Rose."
The thumbs stilled. The fingers clenched more tightly. The pained and piqued expression on Mac's face exploded on her guilt-ridden mind. "How would you know that? Why would you know that? What's this about, Mr. Holloway? Why am I here?" Once the questions started, there was no holding them back. They fired at him in rapid succession, and with each question, her voice rose a bit higher. The nerves kickboxing her stomach decided the time had come to enlarge their territory, and they punted their way into her chest, booted their way into her throat.
Mr. Holloway had the good grace to look away, at the pen held in both hands. For the first time since she'd walked into his office, he seemed edgy. Exhaling slowly, as if he'd made some critical decision, he looked up with eyes both weary and wary.
"I represent a client--"
He hesitated, then said, "My client wishes to remain anonymous. He--"
"It's his prerogative." The lawyer avoided meeting her gaze. "In any case--" He laid the pen down with deliberate casualness and lifted his face to her with the same deliberate casualness. "--his identity is irrelevant to the case and--"
He rolled his eyes to the ceiling and expelled a deep, loud sigh, the kind that said he was fast losing the little patience he possessed.
She was fast losing the little control she possessed. Why did he bring up her stint at the Irish Rose? Her teeth drew her bottom lip into her mouth and savaged it.
"Ms. Jakubek, I would appreciate it if you would kindly refrain from interrupting me with your questions. I would be in a more profitable position to tell you the pertinent facts you need to know." The raised brow told her this was his office, he was the lawyer, and she had better button up. The pointed glance at his gold watch told her his time was at a premium, so shut up! and let him get on with it.
Kasia gifted him with a mutinous glare, hoping it would cover up those nerves performing a feisty jamboree within her, and gripped the purse strap with the fingers of both hands.
"My client..." He paused, waiting to see if she would interrupt him again. When she remained silent, he continued, "My client owns a piece of property in Harmony Village." When she opened her mouth, he narrowed his gaze in warning. With a nod of approval at her restraint, he carried on, "The building has lain vacant for many years. I understand--" He laced his fingers on his desk. "--it had once been a restaurant. I see you know the one I'm talking about." He cast her a dry glance. "Yes, Ms. Jakubek, you can affirm you know the place." His tone of voice was as dry.
"I know of it." Her shoulders and the back of her neck were tight with tension. "It sits on the canal, on the corner of Lakeshore Road and Ballymoney Boulevard. But what does this have to do with me?"
"My client knows of you." He paused. "That you're a chef. That you live in Harmony Village."
"Who is he?"
"Ms. Jakubek, I already told you he wishes to remain anonymous. Now, here's the thing." He leaned forward. "He does not wish to sell the building. It holds...sentimental value to him. However," the lawyer became brisk, "he also does not wish to die before it can be inherited."
Kasia wanted a coffee. Her fingers gripping the purse straps hard, she all but obsessed for a large, Tim Hortons coffee. She needed that coffee, but it was an indulgence that would have to wait. What does this have to do with me? She sent the question via telepathy.
In answer to her unspoken question, the lawyer explained, "My client has decided to name you as an inheritor and is willing the building to you, now."
"Willing--" Maybe her brain was a little addled by all the stress and strain, but she was having a hard time making it work and decipher Mr. Holloway's words. Why would anyone want to give her the restaurant? She drew her brows together. She couldn't recall anybody in town ever mentioning they knew who owned the place. It had been vacant...forever, for as long as she could remember. "I...I don't understand. Any of this."
"It's quite simple, Ms. Jakubek. My client wants you to have the building, effective immediately, but there are a couple of stipulations."
"Stipulations?" Her head was spinning, her pulse pounding.
"Yes. First, the building must used as a restaurant and it must retain its name, The Eagle and the Harp. You understand it's because of the nostalgia my client feels for it."
Kasia moved her head in a slow, up-and-down movement.
"Secondly, you have a...co-inheritor."
The lawyer nodded. "The gentleman--your partner," he said, avoiding eye contact, "also wishes to remain anonymous. He has absolutely no interest in a hands-on approach to the shared inheritance and will be content with remaining your silent partner, with you sending him his share of the profits."
"But...but how can I do that if I don't know who he is. To whom do I make the checks payable and where do I send them?"
"Make them out to McCree Management." The lawyer paused, gauging her reaction. "Send them to my attention here at the office."
"O-o-okay." Kasia only just became aware she mutilated the purse strap and forced her fingers to relax and still.
"There's one more stipulation. And my client was adamant about this." Mr. Holloway picked up the pen, flicking the point in and out. "You and your partner can never sell the business. Or buy each other out. You remain partners of the Eagle and the Harp Restaurant until--"
"We die." The words came out on a whoosh of air. "Does this mean, essentially, I work solo? That I don't have to consult either my...partner or my...benefactor in the running of the restaurant?"
"That is correct." He waited a beat, then, "Are you agreeable to the stipulations for inheriting?"
Nerves vanished into genuine pleasure. "Oh, yes."
The line of the lawyer's shoulders seemed to relax. He even smiled. "Very good. I'll inform the other parties. Now." He pushed some official-looking documents toward her and passed her his pen. "If you'll just sign where you see the X, we can wrap up this meeting, and you can return to your restaurant."
Kasia leaned over the papers and obliged him, with barely suppressed excitement. She handed back the pen, a huge face-splitting grin accompanying it, and he supplied her with a copy of the document and the keys to her restaurant. "Thank you, Mr. Holloway. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
Too excited to think, too distracted to object, she found herself bundled out of the office and into the elevator. The papers clutched in one hand, the keys in the other, Kasia leaned against the wall of the elevator ping-pinging its way to the lobby, her laughter quick and rich.