Reviewer's Choice Award Finalist
Light of Day
Loner Lila Waters had never met a man as fascinating as her new employer. Dashing and charismatic, yet also brooding and distant, Samuel Bashir awakened the hungry, loving woman within her. But too many clues–and the darkness that seemed to surround him–hinted at a mystery that could break her heart.
Years of being on a dangerous secret “mission” were gnawing at Samuel, leaving him empty, except for an aching desire for Lila. But she was a creature of light, of shimmering passions, while he moved among the shadows. He could offer her nothing but pain. Still, her poignant radiance tugged at him, daring him to dream the impossible–that their love could find its place in the sun….
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The car rumbled up next to Lila, a beautiful old Mercedes, black, with modest fins at its tail and a smoothly purring engine. It gleamed like polished glass in the silvery light of the overcast day. She’d loved the model since childhood, when the wife of a rich neighbor had driven one home from Dallas.
Only after she’d admired the car in all its detail did she notice the man behind the wheel—and he startled her. The lines of his face were as spare as those of his automobile. Harsh, slanting cheekbones cast shadows over the lean flesh of his cheeks. A broad, high forehead met straight slashes of brows even darker than the heavy black of his hair. His nose would have overpowered another face, but on this man, it was the only possible nose to balance the square, hard chin.
Lila grinned. If she’d been one to admire severe and arrogant men, he’d have been a prize. Instead, she thought he looked in need of a little whimsy to chase the scowl from that intelligent brow.
She flicked her wrist on the accelerator of her bike, revving the engine of her motorcycle into harmonious vibration with the car. He still didn’t notice her next to him, so with a toss of her head, she whistled, loud and long, in admiration of the car.
Black eyes, fathomless without the mark of a pupil, met hers. Lila felt her heart do an odd thump, and was suddenly thankful the helmet she wore hid most of her face. He lifted his chin in the slightest of acknowledgments, and Lila saw there was danger in his eyes—danger and power, and something else she couldn’t even name.
An impatient honk sounded behind her, and Lila glanced, startled, at the traffic light. Seeing it had turned green, she let go of the brake and pulled ahead easily.
It was impossible to resist one peek in her rearview mirror at the man in the finned Mercedes. Maybe, she thought as her heart thudded, there was something to be said for that darkly elegant type, after all.
A light rain had begun to fall from the Seattle sky as she pulled into the parking lot of The Shell and Fin, an elegant seafood restaurant she’d formerly managed with some success. A year ago, unable to placate the alcoholic owner, she’d quit to become a free-lance dessert maker, and now she sold tortes and other rich delights to them.
Rather than clip the helmet under the seat as she ordinarily would have, Lila dashed for the kitchen door to the restaurant. She hoped the storm would blow over. The Pacific Northwest boasted a great many advantages, but the weather was definitely not among them. One day she’d give in and buy a car.
In the kitchen, confusion reigned. Three women, dressed in the slacks and neat blouses that made up the uniform of the waitresses, huddled around a steam table, trading short bursts of murmured outrage. Off to one side, Lila saw another woman throwing clothes from a locker into a plastic bag. “Georgia,” she said in surprise. “What’s going on?”
“I’m fired,” Georgia spat out. “Along with half of the crew.”
“Who fired you?”
“Oh, that big shot that took over.”
Confused, Lila frowned. “What big shot?”
Georgia slammed the locker and pushed past Lila. “Ask somebody else to fill in the details, sister.”
Lila glared at the retreating back. “Good riddance,” she murmured to herself. Georgia had never been the best employee. Hired in an emergency, she’d managed to hang on to her job only through a kind of dogged ingenuity. But half the crew? Who else was fired? And who’d done the firing?
“What’s going on?” she asked the cluster of people around the steam table.
The head waitress, Charlene, a fiftyish woman with a rock-solid group of faithful customers, said, “A new owner took over Monday morning. He’s turned everything upside down.”
“Is he any good?”
“Damn good,” said Gerald, a portly man in chef’s whites. “I think he could turn the place around. They say that’s what he’s done everywhere he’s gone.”
Lila nodded, crossing her arms. “Great.”
Another waitress rolled her eyes. “But he’s fired almost everybody.” She ticked off the problems on her fingers. “We’ve got no bartender, one bus kid and one dishwasher to see us through the weekend. How are we going to get through on that?”
Smiling good-naturedly, Lila lifted her hands, palms open to signify her distance. “I’m just here to check on the desserts.”
The three women exchanged a strange glance. Lila narrowed her eyes. “What is it? Am I going to be relieved of my responsibilities, too?”
A deep voice, with the nasal but somehow sensual undertones of a native Frenchman, interrupted with the answer. “Actually, no, Miss Waters. If I may have a moment of your time, I’ll explain my hopes for you.”
With a ripple of intuition, Lila knew before she turned that the precise diction and lilting accent would belong to the severe man in the Mercedes. Embarrassed but determined not to show it, she swallowed a smile and turned.
The black eyes caught her hard where she stood, knocking the amusement from her chest like a bullet. He stood just inside the door to the dining room, possessed of the kind of long-bred elegance found only in the children of wealthy fathers or in men who’d striven to overcome their beginnings. As Lila measured him, she couldn’t decide which he might be.
An aura of ruthlessness about him suggested a self-made man, and yet his gaze was cool. It took in her leather flight jacket, her wild hair and long, swinging earrings—and dismissed them. He lifted an eyebrow in question. “Well?”
Again at a disadvantage over her open staring, she nodded. “Certainly.”
As he turned to lead the way to his office, Lila shot a quizzical glance at the other women. Charlene shrugged.
In the transformed office, he said, “Please, sit down.”
She settled in a functional, vinyl chair and folded her hands, waiting. He rounded a heavy walnut desk, smoothing an errant lock of hair from his forehead as he sat down. Behind him rain slapped with gray fury against the windows that looked toward Puget Sound.
He didn’t speak for a moment, and Lila found herself uncharacteristically nervous. He wasn’t a particularly large man, but in the small confines of the room, behind a closed door, she felt again that ripple of danger.
Which was ridiculous, she decided sensibly. Severe didn’t mean dangerous. She realized that he had a generous mouth between the hawkish nose and solid shelf of chin. He didn’t look cruel, as she had imagined at the traffic light.
“I’ll be frank, Miss Waters.” He tossed a pen he’d been holding onto a stack of papers. “There are considerable problems with this establishment, far more than my firm had anticipated.” He paused. “I’m told you once managed it all rather well.”
“I did,” Lila said briskly. “But if you’re about to offer me the position, I’m afraid my answer will have to be no.”
“You won’t even consider a temporary assignment?”
He pursed his lips briefly. “I see.” A frown fleetingly drew his brows together, and he looked up. “Perhaps, then you will consent to meet with me to unravel some of the more, er—” he gestured with a hand “—immediate tangles.”
“Do you mind if I ask who you are first?”
A pale spark of light glimmered in his eye. “How rude of me,” he said. “I am Samuel Bashir. My firm specializes in turning around restaurants with promise and poor management. The Shell and Fin is our latest purchase.”
For one instant Lila thought it was an odd picture, an odd career for this man, although she couldn’t have said just why. “I’m glad you’ve chosen to rescue it,” she said. “It deserves it.”
“And yet you won’t help.”
His voice was silky, mellifluous. Lila found herself tilting her head toward the sound so that her ear might catch it more directly, the way a houseplant turned toward the light in a northern window. When she realized it, she straightened her posture, surprised at herself. She liked men in jeans and boots and chambray shirts. And yet…
“I’m not able to,” she said firmly. It still hurt to say that about anything, but in this case it was true.
Samuel nodded, his eyes intently taking in her face and clothing. “Gerald warned me that you might feel that way.” He made a clicking sound with his tongue.
“I’d be glad to help you with anything else you need.”
“Good, good.” Inclining his head, he lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll be working until ten tonight. Is a late meeting possible for you? I would be happy to pay you for your time.”
“That isn’t necessary,” Lila said with a smile. “I have a sentimental attachment to this place. Ten o’clock?”
“I will have Gerald prepare a dinner so that your time is not completely lost.”
“All right, then.” She stood, brushing hair away from her face.
He stood, as well, rounding the desk to open the door for her. He paused, his hand on the doorknob, a sudden glitter lighting his black eyes. “Thank you, by the way,” he said, inclining his head in a peculiarly European fashion.
The subdued grin made clear that his reference was to her teasing whistle at the traffic light, and she suppressed an embarrassed smile. “It really is a beautiful car.”
“Ah,” he said. “And I thought it was me you were admiring.”
At that, she almost found herself flustered. Then she lifted her eyebrows and shrugged. “I’ll see you later,” she said, and escaped into the comforting noise and bustle of the kitchen.
Samuel watched her go. Her dark curls spilled over the shoulders of her worn flight jacket, and a silvery scarf trailed down the back. Not what he’d expected from the reports, he thought as he closed the door. The Lila Waters in the personnel files left short, professional notes about employees and dashed off quick memos about particularly successful menu combinations in the scrawl of a busy woman. He’d expected someone tall and brisk and polished.
Instead, Lila Waters looked more like her name, like a gypsy camped on a lake or a Bedouin in the desert—all scarves and jewelry and flashes of color. He smiled to himself, thinking of the mirth in her dancing green eyes, which she’d tried to quell. What pleased him was that she’d not quite been able to erase it.
His smile faded as he looked toward Puget Sound. Not for you, Samuel, he thought. Not ever for you.
* * *
The rain had let up for most of the evening, but naturally, as soon as Lila headed back to the restaurant for her late meeting with the new owner, it started again. Not a downpour, just a steady wet drizzle, but it was enough. By the time she pulled into the parking lot of The Shell and Fin, she was miserably cold and irritated. Reaching into the saddlebags on the bike for a change of clothes, she gave herself a lecture.
“Stupid, Waters, that’s it. Haven’t you carried this on long enough? Just buy a car and keep the bike for summer days, like normal people. You’ve proved what a big, brave woman you are. Now show everybody you can use your brain for something besides keeping your ears apart.” Clutching the bundle of clothes to her chest to keep them dry, she hurried up the steps to the back door of The Shell and Fin for the second time that day.
In the changing room, peeling off layer after layer of dripping fabric, she made a resolution: a car, tomorrow. At twenty-two, she’d desperately needed to make a point to her overprotective family about her hunger—despite her back problems—to be a strong, independent woman. At twenty-nine the need to be comfortable had taken top priority.
She glared at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair looked like the wet coat of a black lamb. Every vestige of makeup she’d applied had been washed away, exposing a decidedly unsophisticated shower of pale freckles over her nose. Surveying the damage, she gave herself a wry grin. “Admit it,” she murmured to the narrowed eyes facing her. “You wanted to impress him.”
It looked as if he was going to get the raw Lila instead. Since there was little she could do about it, she tucked her long-sleeved blouse into khaki slacks and went in search of him.
All afternoon, as she’d whipped coconut-pecan filling for cheesecake, sliced peaches for a tart and pressed her special mixture of graham-cracker crumbs into pie pans, she’d felt him whispering around the edges of her mind. She didn’t dare put his name to him. Just him.
Men didn’t rattle her ordinarily. Nothing rattled her, not after the continual, exhaustive pranks of seven brothers. Nothing, that is, until Samuel Bashir had muttered his teasing thank you this afternoon.
Business, she thought. That was the thing. He was the last chance for The Shell and Fin, and she owed the restaurant that had given her a home for seven years at least that much consideration.
The kitchen was empty except for a teenage dishwasher scrubbing the last pans. The office door stood open, but the room was empty.
She finally found him in the dining room at a table overlooking a magnificent view of the Sound through tall fir trees. Around the black edges of the water, lights flickered in rain-blurred beauty, a view that had always left Lila speechless. Inside, on a white linen tablecloth, a single candle burned against the night, supplemented only by muted spots along the walls. Samuel Bashir sat with his back to her, smoking and staring out the window, at a table set with a heavy white cloth and fine china. A bottle of chilled wine rested in a bucket near his elbow. Through the speakers discreetly set in the ceiling, classical music of a dramatic nature played softly.
Elegant men, pressed and well coiffed, had always seemed to Lila to be slightly effeminate. No woman in her right mind could say that about this man. In his relaxed pose she still sensed an aura of restlessness and danger, an impression she couldn’t quite shake, though she also couldn’t decide what made her feel it so strongly. She thought again that restaurants seemed a tame occupation for him, but brushed the notion away as unworthy of her. Power, after all, could be exercised in many ways.
He seemed to sense her soundless approach, for he turned and rose to greet her. “Miss Waters. I had wondered if the rain would keep you in.”
She smiled ruefully, gesturing to her wet hair. “I’m here.”
“We’ll eat first.”
“Wonderful.” She settled in the chair he indicated, aware of a slight nervousness again. “How was business tonight?”
“It was good.” He reached for the wine. “But, please, drink some wine and eat with me before we plunge into all the where’s and why’s. I have found the wine cellars here to be finer than most, and it would be a shame to waste such a vintage on business conversation.”
She lifted her glass, instinctively inhaling the aroma. “Mmm. I didn’t see the label. What is this?”
“Pouilly-Fumé.” He held his glass loosely in long, graceful fingers, admiring the glow of the liquid against the candle. “I’ve not found it in restaurants here always.”
Lila tasted it—a clear, crisp white. “It’s wonderful.”
He smiled. “Marie Antoinette’s favorite wine, this.”
“Really? How did you know that?”
“There is little about wine I’ve not learned.” He lifted his glass, swirling the liquid gently, then tasted. Apparently satisfied, he shifted, inclining his head. “The grapes that make this wine give off a mist at harvest time. It is a beautiful thing to see.”
“Are you French?”
“My mother is a Frenchwoman. I spent some time there as a youth.” He leaned forward to lift the dome of a covered dish, revealing casserole of cod, tomatoes and herbs, topped with tiny fried triangles of French bread. It was a country dish, a favorite with the customers and one of Lila’s preferred meals.
She smiled. “Gerald must have told you I ate this five nights out of seven while I worked here.”
He inclined his head, a very small smile showing the long lines around his mouth.
“Allow me,” she said, picking up the serving spoon.
As they began to eat, he asked, “Where are you from, Miss Waters?”
“Oh, call me Lila, please,” she protested. Settling a heavy linen napkin in her lap, she continued, “I’m originally from Oklahoma, but I left when I was seventeen.”
“And your family?”
“All still there.” For a moment she savored the bite of the herbed sauce, a flavor that mingled exquisitely with the light, crisp Fumè on her tongue, just as the candle, the music and the rainy night blended well. She found herself letting go of a long-held breath. “They would never appreciate Washington.”
She smiled. “No. This is a subtle climate. Nothing subtle about Oklahoma. Rains in torrents with lots of thunder and lightning or the sun shines like there’s a contest on. You ever been there?”
He, too, seemed relaxed. He shook his head with an outsplaying of hands. “Please. Go on.”
“Nothing subtle about the people, either. Ranchers and Indians and a lot of stubborn Irishmen. A handful of Italians thrown in for drama.” She grinned. “I tell you, I think God laughs when he sees Oklahoma.”
She won an honest smile—a little off-center and not nearly as intimidating as the rest of him. “And which are you?”
Lila laughed. “Every last one of them.”
Samuel laughed with her as she ruefully lifted a stand of curly hair as if to illustrate her words. In the candlelight her light green eyes held almost no color against sweeping dark lashes. Not a hint of makeup marred the fresh, clear features, and he found he didn’t mind. Even her lips, washed clean by her motorcycle ride, needed no assistance, for they were watermelon ripe and pouty and full. A mouth a man would not want a woman to paint, for even unadorned, it was impossible to avoid imagining the taste of it.
He glanced away, lifting his wineglass to distract himself. He tasted the pale gold liquid, then looked again at Lila. “One day I shall have to see for myself.”
The teenage dishwasher loped out of the kitchen toward them. “Got it all done, I think,” he said, shaking too-long hair from his eyes. “You need anything else?”
“No, thank you, Jesse,” Samuel answered. “You did well tonight. I hope to have a second dishwasher here for you tomorrow.”
The boy grinned. “Whatever you think, Mr. Bashir. Thanks for your help.”
Samuel inclined his head. “Good night.”
Lila watched the exchange with interest. When the boy left, she asked, “Did you wash dishes tonight?”
“Yes.” He smiled, leaning back comfortably in his chair to light an after-dinner cigarette. “I also cooked, bused tables and seated customers. As you may have heard, we are a trifle shorthanded.”
“I heard.” She ate another bite of her cod, then glanced at him. “Wouldn’t it be easier to cut the dead weight a little at a time?”
“I don’t think so. Each time a customer receives bad service or an improperly prepared meal or is dissatisfied with his experience, business falls. Better to sweep away all the trouble and begin anew.”
Lila finished her meal and, with a sigh, blotted her lips neatly. “I suppose it’s all a matter of philosophy.”
“Your chocolate-cherry cake sold out tonight, by the way.”
“Did it?” Lila smiled. “It’s a new recipe. I wasn’t sure how well it would do.” She paused. “I tried various methods—upside-down cake was the first step—but wasn’t satisfied with the way the cherries lost color. Did you try it?”
“Unfortunately I had no opportunity.” He exhaled and shifted. “We’ll need several new desserts tomorrow to see us through the weekend. Can you manage?”
Lila nodded. “I have deliveries to make at several places in the morning. I’ll come by here and let you make your selections first.”
“Do you make deliveries on your motorcycle?”
“No, although it’s possible. I prefer to borrow my friend’s car. The trays I use fit well in his back seat.”
Samuel nodded, stubbed out his cigarette and took up a sheaf of papers, signaling the start of their business conversation. For well over an hour, Lila made explanations of her choices in liquor and food distributors, gave overviews of customer preferences in menu specialties and price ceilings. Samuel asked pertinent questions in his liltingly accented voice, listening carefully to her answers, making notes on her recommendations. He asked about the dynamics between the kitchen and the floor, probed the needs of the employees and their expectations, as well as those of the customers.
“The management firm will establish health- and life-insurance programs,” he said at one point. “And I will offer long-term employees a chance to invest in the company. Do you suppose there will be interest in such a program?”
“Definitely.” Lila nodded, impressed in spite of herself. Health insurance? Profit sharing? Despite changes in the restaurant business the past few years, such programs for employees were still rare. It surprised her that a man who seemed to be such a rigorous and ruthless businessman should also show consideration for employees. Perhaps, she decided, it was nothing more than good business sense, a quality she thought he had in abundance. If the employees were well satisfied with their positions, after all, day-to-day operations would likely proceed with greater harmony..
“There is one more thing,” Samuel said. “I fired the gentleman who ordinarily manages the catering, and we have a rather large event scheduled for next Saturday evening.” He folded his hands on the table in front of him, and his voice dropped a notch. “Would you be kind enough to consider overseeing it?”
There it was again, Lila thought, that persuasively sexy intonation in his words. “What will you need to have done?”
“I need someone to organize the staff and make certain all the dishes will be available and properly served.” He lifted a sheet of paper with a typed menu. “It is a reception for a visiting professor. I’d like it to run smoothly.”
Lila laid her fork and knife across the dinner plate, then folded her hands as she looked at him. “Mr. Bashir, I didn’t leave the restaurant because I no longer enjoyed it. I had some struggles with the old owner, but—” She paused. “I have health problems that will prevent me from assisting you in any but the most cursory ways.”
“What can you do?”
“I can make sure the buffet is beautifully arranged, that the food is up to its proper quality and see that the guests are satisfied. In essence, I can perform hostess duties, circulate among the guests to see that they are happy and supervise the employees who serve and clean.”
He measured her for a moment. “That would be excellent.” With the side of his right thumb, he brushed his chin meditatively. “Have you, er, the proper clothing?”
Lila grinned, more amused than offended. No doubt about it, this was the child of a wealthy father. “Yes, Mr. Bashir, I have the proper clothing.”
He responded with the curiously unthreatening smile and gestured with both hands, as if throwing the uncomfortable breach over his shoulders. “Forgive me.”
“It’s all right.”
“Have you a set fee you charge for such things?”
“Not really.” She frowned as she mulled over the time and energy involved in the task, then named a figure she thought was fair.
“More than reasonable,” he agreed. “Well, then, if you will come with me,” he said, rising, “I will find a copy of this list to give you.”
Lila rose, too, bending over the table to lift plates and carry them to the kitchen. For an instant Samuel allowed himself to admire a glimpse of the well-rounded figure she had hidden beneath her modest clothing. As he watched, she stiffened and straightened slowly, a flitting expression of pain tightening her mouth. By the time she turned to face him, there was only the slightest flare of her nostrils to betray her. “I will take care of those later,” he said. “Come.”
As he led the way to the office, he added a certain courage to his mental assessment of her, an assessment that was already rather confusing in its opposites.
Lila tried to control her legs as she trailed him into the small office, taking a chair before he could turn. Even when she was sitting, a series of muscle spasms in her lower back sent an excruciating radius of pain up to her shoulders and down through her legs to her toes. She breathed in slowly, consciously relaxing every atom of her body, then let go of the breath just as slowly. There was no controlling the spasms, but there was a way of living with them.
She glanced up to see Samuel’s black eyes on her, not with the impatience she often encountered, but with something very like admiration. “It’s your back that prevents your working,” he said.
“It’s nothing. The cold night made it act up.”
He seemed to accept this, and opened a drawer to withdraw a file. “These are the plans for the buffet. I plan to hire enough new people this week to cover both fronts that evening, but I thought Charlene would be our best choice. She seems popular with the customers.”
Lila shook her head. “No, she needs to be here to supervise the floor.” She paused to let a particularly vicious assault on her spine pass, keeping her face carefully neutral, as if in thought. “Eileen does a wonderful job with catered affairs.”
Samuel nodded. “Fine, then.”
The consultation was over, Lila thought, accepting a stapled sheaf of papers. Now, the only thing was to stand and go. She steeled herself to rise from the chair gracefully.
Ah, there, she thought. The grip eased, and she stood up. “I hope I’ve been able to help you,” she said, extending her hand.
He took it in his, and Lila noticed his hands were brown and hard and long fingered, his grip cool and professional. “Thank you for coming,” he said formally.
She released him. “My pleasure. I’ll bring your desserts by in the morning.”
As she turned, he saw one hand fly to the small of her back in distress. He pretended not to notice, bending to replace the file in his desk drawer then glancing out the window to the steady rain beyond. As casually as possible, he said, “Lila, will you allow me to drive you home? This weather is not fit for a stray dog.”
She paused, her hand on the doorjamb, and flashed him her dazzling, daring grin. “I’m stronger than a stray dog,” she said, and left.
That was no doubt true, he thought with a grin. Nonetheless… He took his car keys from a hook by the door and donned a light jacket, overtaking Lila as she gathered her wet clothes. “I insist,” he said, smoothly taking her elbow with a smile. “You admired my car, and now you may ride in it.” To forestall any protests, he added, “I need you to be in good health this next week.”