The Adventures  of Natalie Bloom FINAL.jpg

Chapter One

 

I bend my neck back and glide my eyes up, up, up the mirrored façade of the towering building that houses Kennedy Media and all its publications. It’s an impressive structure with all its chrome, steel, and colossal opaque windows. Hundreds of faces could be looking out in the offices above, glamorous people I can’t see.

Pushing the silver frame of the revolving door, I swing it around until I’m deposited into the vast lobby. I feel minute as I look across the sprawling white marbled floor to the large security desk with only one guard sitting on his perch. A couple of young women, in heels and outfits that look fitting more for a night out than a morning at work, push through the turnstiles after they swipe their badges. The click-clack of their heels disappears around the corner, and I’m left alone.

It’s just before noon, and the lunch rush hasn’t begun. There’s an internal shift in people’s brains as soon as the first hand strikes twelve. They suddenly have a Pavlovian response and rush to the nearest deli counter or restaurant. I’ve seen it again and again from the many restaurants I’ve run as a sous chef and then head chef, but now I’m finally opening my own restaurant.

“Catelyn Bloom’s your sister?” The security guard frowns at the driver’s license I hand him.

One day, I better be known as more than Catelyn Bloom’s sister.

 Quickly, the middle-aged man’s scowl transforms into a bright smile. The sun coming in from the slanted skylights high above him reflects off his balding scalp. “That lady’s all right. Last night, I made her pumpkin cheesecake from that TV special she did in November. My wife and me didn’t even need to wash the dish. We licked it clean.” He laughs boisterously.

 “Did you make the praline topping?” I ask, unable to keep the eager tone out of my voice.

“Yeah. It was damn good.” The man chuckles again as my eyes widen. “Sorry for the language, lady.”

My cheeks hurt from the smile that has spread across my face. I created that recipe, I want to tell him, but I don’t. I’ve kept my involvement in my sister’s career a secret for the past four years—what’s one more day?

“I’ll let my sister know you liked it,” I say as I pass through the security turnstile and walk around to the elevator bank. My sensible Frye boots (a gift from Catie—the beauty editor at one of the fashion magazines in the building gave them to her, but Catie only wears boots with at least a three-inch heel) don’t make the intimidating click-clack like the heels the other girls wore. My shoes have the very unimpressive sound of mediocrity.

A bell dings, and one of the eight elevator doors opens. Simply Chic, the lifestyle magazine my sister writes for, is on the tenth floor. When I arrive, I walk straight past the doe-eyed receptionist—who yells out a small protest—and wind my way past desks and work tables to Catie’s office. The blinds are drawn across the large glass windows that face the outer office, hiding her office behind them.

“Doesn’t anyone at your work get suspicious that the Queen of Clean’s office is such a pigsty?” I ask, entering.

Last year, The New York Times called Catie the “Martha Stewart for a younger, hipper generation.” As far as her readers and fans are concerned, she’s the go-to domestic goddess, gourmet chef, and perfect wife and homemaker.

Except it’s pretty much all a lie. She’s a complete slob, doesn’t have a husband, and burns toast. But I’m helping her change that. We were both almost outed two months ago when she filmed a special on national TV. Catie’s quitting the magazine soon to pursue a more honest career in interior design, and I’m opening my own restaurant. Finally.

Looking around, I’m reminded of her true talent—interior design. Her office is impeccably styled with only the hottest designers’ furniture and décor—none of which I can name—but it’s impossible to see the beauty of it with the piles of magazines, design books, loose papers, a white Christmas tree overdue to be put away, and multicolored boxes stacked on and around every empty space. She can design the hell out of anything, but that’s where her domestic talents end.

Catie’s lucky I fell in love with cooking while helping our mom run her catering business. At the first sign of a spatula, Catie fled our kitchen. But she loved designing and putting together the centerpieces and table settings for the parties. So we each found our calling.

Catie looks up from her computer screen, where she’s watching a how-to video on the differences between chopping, dicing, and mincing. I almost laugh at the intensity with which she’s watching it. I’ve been sending her videos to study and then coming in and practicing with her in the test kitchen as she hones her skills. I don’t expect her to become a master chef, but she needs to at least know the basics as she transitions to a more authentic work life.

In the meantime, I suggested she use readers’ recipes instead of her own (i.e. my own) in the magazine for now. The new column has been a big success. The recipes are also posted online, and readers get to vote and comment on their favorites.

“Should we go to the kitchen?” Catie asks, pausing the video.

“After my meeting,” I say, already inwardly cringing as I think of watching Catie nearly slice her perfectly manicured fingers at every chop.

“I thought the meeting with your contractor was this afternoon?”

“No. It’s in ten minutes. Thanks for letting us do it here. The electricity was shut off at the restaurant site when I stopped by last night. I don’t know why, but I left a message with Con Ed.” I stand, double-checking I have my binder of all-things-restaurant. “It’s as frozen as Susan Lucci’s face out there. The restaurant would have been an icebox.”

“I know. My nipples almost fell off on the walk from the subway.” Catie turns back to her computer, clicking the video back on.

“Any word on the book?” I ask, pushing her door open. Catie waves me away, and my mouth purses at her dismissal of my question, which means she hasn’t followed up with her publisher like she promised.

Last year, Catie wrote a best-selling lifestyle book called Catelyn Bloom’s Guide to Living Simply Chic. I secretly provided all the recipes for her book. Now her publisher is eager for a follow-up, but I’m not going to help Catie unless my name is on the cover too. Catie’s waiting to hear back from them, but I’m not sure how hard she pushed the issue. It’s not that Catie would mind having me coauthor it—she did give me half the profits from the last book, which is how I got the seed money to open my own restaurant—but she’s been distracted by the amount of work it takes to actually write about cooking in her columns instead of waiting for me to give her the content.

The main cooking column, which used to feature complex recipes for the more advanced readers, has now been changed to “Cooking 101.” It’s being promoted as a column for her readers who are newbies at cooking, and Catie regales them with tales of her early mishaps when she was learning to cook. Little do they know, these mishaps are happening just days before she writes the column.

I want to press Catie more about the book, but I only have a few minutes until the meeting. Jim, the contractor for my new restaurant, was cagey on the phone when I asked him about the permits we’ve been waiting for weeks to be approved. The budget is tight, and the last thing I need is delays with the permits. They are taking longer to get than a taxi at 4:00 p.m.

When I arrive, Jim is already in the small conference room, looking out of place in his paint-splattered pants, workman’s boots, and ratty backpack against the sleek, modern room.

“I hate to sound like your father, but I’m disappointed in you,” Jim says before I can offer a greeting.

The owner at the French bistro I worked at recommended Jim, and we hit it off when I discovered his wife is a huge fan of Catie’s. From the start, our relationship has been open and honest, and he guides me in the right direction when he feels my ideas are too intricate or overreaching, even if it means less money for him. He’s helped renovate and build a dozen restaurants and businesses in the city, and I look to him as a beacon in this new world of business ownership.

I was involved in a restaurant venture four years ago that turned into a financial and permitting mess, all because of me. So I am eager for any guidance that is offered to me. My father died when I was twelve, and my stepfather, who is a wonderful man, didn’t marry my mother until I was out of the house and in culinary school. My formative years were lacking a male role model, which didn’t bother me until I began this endeavor. Jim’s guidance has been a great relief. If it weren’t for him and my business partner, Luke Hawker, I would be drowning in second-guesses and self-doubts.

“I know I don’t know you that well,” Jim continues, and I cringe under his gentle scrutiny, “but I have two daughters around your age, as you know.” He strums his hands on the desk, and I stare at him. I don’t mind that he’s overstepped the boundaries of our relationship. Because I didn’t have a father during my adolescent years, having a man looking out for me almost endears him to me, but I have no idea what he’s talking about. So far, everything has run smoothly. I found a landlord who rented me a beautiful space for a reasonable price located on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The spillover from the now gentrified and overpriced Williamsburg has made the demands high and the rents higher in Greenpoint, now an up-and-coming neighborhood. I was lucky to sign a deal with the landlord on the cusp of the boom.

Jim has been fast and efficient with his work so far. I visit the restaurant several times a week to check on the progress, but so far, all we’ve done is gut the insides and discuss design and function as we wait for the remaining permits to be approved.

“I wondered if you were even a part of the operation anymore.” He threads his fingers and leans forward; a whiff of sweat and paint drift under my nose. “I speak to Luke more than you these days.”

Luke is my first and only investor and my unofficial accountant and business adviser. He used to be a managing director at Morgan Stanley, which meant he oversaw a lot of rich people’s money. I was surprised when he offered to invest in my little restaurant, but I eagerly accepted, since he knew far more about handling money and running a business. I’d already failed once at opening a restaurant, so his insights and expertise were a blessing. And we’d become close friends by the time he offered to invest, so I felt less pressure accepting his money.

“Sorry. I’ve been busy helping my sister.”

“The big star,” he says, referring to his wife’s starry-eyed admiration of Catie, and smiles.

I laugh, but it comes out more like a groan. “Kind of.”

“My wife is redecorating every bedroom in the house thanks to her book.” Jim frowns, momentarily distracted. “After Catie signed it for her, she wrapped the damn thing in plastic so it won’t get a spot on it.” Jim rubs the five-day growth on his chin, shaking his head, but there’s a small smile on his lips that suggests he likes that it makes his wife happy.

“My wife DVRed that special where Catie hosted that travel journalist, Max something-or-rather, who almost died saving that little girl in Greece,” Jim says. “She watches it all the time. She wants our house to look exactly like Catie’s.”

At the mention of Max, my heart leaps excitedly in my chest, like a puppy trying to reach a treat.

 “It was a fun shoot.” I resist telling him that Catie almost didn’t do it, since it meant she had to fake knowing how to cook and find a man to pretend to be her husband for the special. Luckily, Sam Harding, her knight in shining Armani came to her rescue. She barely made it through the filming with her job, dignity, and heart intact.

“Anyway, I’m sorry to be blunt, but do you have the money I’m owed?” Jim’s eyes dart away and back at me.

I furrow my brow, trying to recall if Luke mentioned a payment that’s due. Pulling up the calendar on my phone, I scroll through it, but the last payment was paid a week ago.

“Didn’t Luke give you a check last week?” I ask.

“No. And I still need the payment for the last two permits I filed. Plus the demo work in the cellar.” Jim takes out two invoices with the word overdue stamped across them in red ink. Why does it always have to be red ink? It takes me back to the days in school when the teacher passed graded papers back, and everyone could glaringly see when you failed. It was humiliating, and that’s how I feel now looking at the invoices.

“He told me he paid you. He sent me texts confirming it was done.” Quickly, I search through my phone and find them. I show my phone to Jim.

“He lied.”

A cold sweat breaks out across my forehead. “There must be some misunderstanding.”

Jim takes a deep breath and temples his fingers. “Check your bank account.”

“Why?” My stomach clinches.

“It’s just a hunch. Do me a favor, and log into your account.”

My fingers fumble as I tap in the password. After the fourth attempt, my account screen flashes before me.

Checking: $5.07 glares back at me.

“It…it must be a mistake.” My voice barely makes it out of my throat. I bend over, the blood rushing back into my brain. But I can’t think. There should be over forty thousand dollars in that account.

“How well do you know Luke?” Jim asks. His voice is calm, and there is no judgment in the question, but my ears begin ringing as the implication hits me.

I gave Luke complete access to my business account two months ago. Unless I’m a victim of identity theft, which I highly doubt, he’s the only person who could have taken the money. But I know Luke. We’ve been friends for over a year. He’s a very successful banker. He doesn’t need my money.

But even as I think it, I doubt myself. How well do I really know him? I met Luke when he moved into the newly renovated lofts across the street from Chez Bella, the restaurant I ran. He was hard to miss when he first walked in. He was tall and broad with a mop of blond hair and tan skin and looked more like a surfer than a banker, even in his tailored suit, his silk tie loosened at the end of the day. Every weekend, he’d come in with a different beauty on his arm, ordering cocktails, three-course meals, and expensive bottles of wine. He was the ideal customer. He always came back, never complained, and tipped the waiters generously. Sometimes he was gruff and came across as entitled, but in New York, that’s run-of-the-mill. Then one day, he asked to speak to the chef after ordering the steak tartare. He wanted to compliment me on the preparation. He said he’d never tasted a more flavorful tartare outside of France. His red-haired date—stunning in a Mason Hosker tiered dress—looked impressed, and I applauded him silently for his guile, realizing he only brought me out to impress her. But it worked. I saw them walk past the restaurant during brunch service the next morning—him in jeans and a Thomas Pink blue-and-white-striped button-down and her still in her backless dress, a bit more rumpled than the night before.

After that night, he frequented the restaurant several times a week with his stunning dates, but sometimes he’d come alone, for a postwork nightcap or a drink with colleagues and clients. He began asking for me regularly to discuss the specials or my recommendations. Then one night after the restaurant closed, he sauntered into the kitchen, swirling his Glenlivet 18, and rested against one of the stainless steel workbenches, chatting with me as I prepared ingredients for the following day’s lunch.

We chatted, and then he was rolling up his sleeves, assisting me with the prep. As he chopped, sliced, or sautéed, he asked me dozens of questions about working in the restaurant industry and asked how I became a chef. He confided in me that he was burned-out from banking and wanted to try something new, something he could be passionate about, like I was. He knew I was going to start my own restaurant and offered to be an investor, which isn’t unusual. Many young professionals become investors in restaurants and bars in the city, mainly because it looks good on their social résumés, not because it makes a killing in profits.

Luke managed millions, if not billions, of dollars of other people’s money for a living; his investment in me was tiny in comparison, so I accepted his offer. Once it was official, I picked his brain about the financial side of owning a business, and he actively participated, coming with me when I looked at spaces, meeting with contractors, and offering me accounting and business tips. He soon became more than just an investor—he became my partner.

 “I’m sorry to say this, but I’m stopping work until I get paid.” Jim’s battered, black workman’s boots shuffle under my lowered gaze as he places his hand on my shoulder to soften the blow. “Be careful who you trust. You wouldn’t be the first gal to be taken in by a pretty face like his.”

What is he saying? I look at my account again—$5.07 swims in my head, muddling my thoughts.

“Don’t worry, Jim,” I finally say, giving him a weak smile. “I’ll figure this out.”

He’s quiet and then says, “Take a few days, talk to Luke, and give me a call once it’s sorted. I want to continue working with you, but I have a family and bills I need to pay too.” There’s a swoosh as the glass door opens and slowly shuts behind his retreating form.

In a daze, I walk back to Catie’s office.

“How did it go?” she asks, not looking up from her computer, where she’s typing rapidly.

The mention of the meeting sends tingles into my hands and feet. I shake my head but can’t utter the words. Catie slips around her desk and ushers me into one of the two armchairs, moving stacks of books from both. “You’re shaking. What happened?”

“Oh, Little Bee.” My chin quivers, and I suck in a deep breath. “The money’s gone. I think Luke…I don’t know. But it’s gone.”

There’s a pause, and I look up to see the same shocked expression I felt on my face when I first saw my empty bank account. “How?”

“Jim says he hasn’t been paid in two weeks, and when I looked at my bank account there was only five dollars left. Five dollars!” I yell, the realization of what it means hitting me.

“Calm down,” Catie coaxes. I take a deep breath, and she continues. “How did Luke get a hold of the money?”

“I gave him full access to the account,” I admit.

Catie gasps. “Oh, Natalie. How could you?”

“He’s practically my accountant,” I shoot back defensively. “He has tons of money. I’ve seen his office at Morgan Stanley. It’s huge. Or it was huge.”

“Didn’t he quit his job?”

“Yeah. He was burned-out and wanted a change. But he has plenty of money and wanted to invest in a passion project. Something that was more exciting than managing other people’s money.” My head drops. “I thought he was a godsend. Especially, after what happened to me last time…”

Taking my hand, Catie waits until I look at her; my eyes fill with tears at my stupidity. I’m usually the one taking care of Catie. She was nine when our father died, and I slipped into the role of her protector, which is why I was so willing to take a back seat and help her with her blog, which turned into her career. It feels strange for the roles to be reversed. “Are you sure he stole it? What did he say when you talked to him?”

“I haven’t.” I pull out my phone, realizing I should have called him the second I saw my dwindled bank account, but I was too stunned to think clearly. “I came straight here after the meeting.” Opening my contacts, I tap his name, calling him. It goes straight to voice mail, and I leave an urgent message telling him to call me but not mentioning the money. “I haven’t talked to him in weeks. We’ve exchanged dozens of texts and e-mails, but that’s it. I’ve been so busy with the designer and experimenting with the recipes for the menu and helping you transition and spending time with…with Max.” I look away sheepishly, realizing I’ve been so swept up in other people’s lives that I may have let a thief run away with all my money.

“I thought you said Max ran off when you tried to kiss him.” Catie means no harm, but the words sting.

“He did, but…I’ve still been helping him with Bailey.”

Catie looks at me in disbelief. “Okay. We are so going to talk about that later. For now, you need to go to his apartment.”

“Whose? Max’s?”

“No, Luke’s. You know where he lives, right?” Catie brushes her dark hair out of her face and waits for my answer.

“Of course. Well, I know the building. I don’t remember the exact apartment number.”

Catie looks at me with a disbelieving look. “How can you not remember? You were at his place a few weeks ago.”

“Two months ago. And it was late, and I was a little drunk. I can’t remember exactly.”

“Hold on.” Catie leans across her desk, knocking over an overflowing pink paisley jar of colored pencils and picks up her phone, pressing speed dial. “Patrick, get in here.”

A moment later, Catie’s editor, Patrick Simon, walks into her office, his reading glasses pushed into his thick brown hair, making pieces stick up sporadically like a cactus.

“Catie, I’m the one who’s meant to yell for you to come into my office,” Patrick says without conviction.

Waving her hand, Catie brushes off his comment. Catie treats him like her kid brother, but he secretly loves it. He’d do anything for her. “Can you get your assistant to find an address for Luke—” She looks at me.

“Hawker,” I say.

“He used to work for Morgan Stanley.” She looks at me for confirmation.

I nod.

“Patrick’s assistant is a master sleuth,” Catie explains.

“It’s okay.” I look up at Patrick’s tall frame. “I can do a search online. It’s not hard to find an address. It’ll cost like ten bucks on white pages.”

“Don’t do that. Finding an address is easy. I’ll have it in no time.” Patrick turns back to Catie, indicating the disaster zone that is her office, and says, “Anything else, Queen of Clean?”

“You’ve got poop on your shirt.”

“What?” Patrick looks down at a dark-brown stain on his crisp-white cuffed shirt. “Ah! We were watching our neighbor’s baby. Practice, Avery says.” Patrick’s wife, Avery, is four months pregnant with their first child. “The kid’s an asshole.” Patrick grunts.

“I’m sure yours will be perfect,” I assure him.

“He’ll be an asshole.” Patrick takes a tissue from Catie’s desk and wipes at the spot. “But he’ll be my asshole.” Patrick throws the tissue in the overflowing trash can at the side of Catie’s white acrylic desk. “And when I want to punish him, I’ll let him crawl around in here for a bit.”

“Har, har,” Catie says. “You’ll ask your assistant?”

“I’m on it.” He leaves, pulling the stain away from his body.

A few minutes later, the phone rings. Catie dives for it, listens, jots down an address on a scrap of paper, and hands it to me.

“What are you going to say?” Catie asks.

“Give me my fucking money back.” I go to stand, but my legs feel like they’re filled with concrete as I remember the last time I had a fight concerning money. It’s what led to the end of my relationship with my ex, Cole Motherfucker Merrick But at the time, I didn’t see him as a motherfucker. At the time, I was in love.

“What’s the matter?” Catie asks, seeing my hesitation.

“Come with me.”

“I can’t. Jaclyn asked me to send her some social media posts. I’ve already delayed it twice. Aren’t you meeting Max for lunch?”

“Not for another hour,” I say. “And it’s to walk Bailey while he has a meeting with some editor.”

“You can’t keep being his dog walker,” Catie chides, and I know she’s right, but that’s what happens when you have an all-consuming crush on someone. You jump at any chance to see them. “I like Max, but if he’s not interested, put your foot down. Don’t let him use you. You deserve to be adored.”

 “I don’t want to talk about it,” I say. Sisters have an uncanny way of knowing just where to stick the dagger, even when trying to be helpful. Raising her eyebrows in a way that suggests she’s about to take matters into her own hands, Catie presses a number on her cell phone and gives me a mischievous smile. “What are you doing?” I ask.

She turns her back to me, the phone to her ear. “How are you doing? Good, good. No, I haven’t burned any kitchens down today. I have a quick favor. Can you meet Natalie a little early to confront a sleazebag that stole some money from her? Right now. Great. Meet her at the corner of Spring and Elizabeth in twenty minutes.” She hangs up, a wide grin on her face. It’s infuriating. She’s getting pleasure out of this. “It’s time you use him for a change.”

“I didn’t want him to know about the money.”

“Too late.” When I don’t move, she continues. “Don’t keep your boyfriend waiting.”

“He’s not my boyfriend.” Sometimes I feel like I’m twelve years old when I’m around Catie. Sisters are the worst. “And he only said yes because you asked him.”

“He knows my heart belongs to another.”

“Where is Sam?” I ask, not wanting to think about Max and his lack of romantic interest in me.

Frown marks appear across Catie’s smooth forehead. “Still in the Alps working on that story about the Aussie snowboarder.”

“I thought he was coming back this week.” I move to the oval mirror that’s hanging on the wall beside her bookcase, treading over boxes and books and discarded shopping bags. My ponytail is crooked and several pieces of blond hair hang loose. I scrape the stray pieces back in their place and tie my thick hair back up.

“The snowboarder keeps winning his comps. It should be over in a week or two.” Catie hands me tubes of lipstick and mascara. “Sam promised he’d be back for the Valentine’s Day Ball.”

“How are things going with you two?” My words are distorted as I spread the lipstick on, but Catie understands me. Sisters always do.

“A lot of start-stops. After the filming, we got kicked out of the townhouse by the cleaning crew before we could…you know. Then he got this assignment, and I’ve barely seen him.”

I don’t usually wear makeup; there’s not much use when I’m stuck in a kitchen most of the day, but Catie says if I want to be successful, I need to look the part. She’s always perfectly put together, not a hair out of place. I’m lucky if I’ve managed to pull a brush through my locks.

“That was two months ago,” I point out.

After four years, Catie finally admitted to her friend and colleague, Sam Harding—the editor of the digital magazine Limitless, for the “extreme-sports enthusiast”—that she loves him. He’s been in love with Catie for years but didn’t admit it to her until the filming, when he pretended to be Catie’s husband for the TV special.

“I know. But we’ve both been busy.” Catie dismisses the worried look on my face and hands me a tissue to blot my lips. “You’re lucky you have Mom’s natural beauty. Now go downstairs. I’ll call a car to drive you to Luke’s place.”

Twenty minutes later, I’m in front of Luke’s redbrick apartment building, waiting for Max to join me before I ring the buzzer. The building is next to a bar, which smells of stale beer and late-night regrets. I see the familiar, slender body of a silver greyhound rounding the corner of Spring Street, and I tell myself to keep it cool, but my heart betrays me and leaps into a gallop, knowing who will be holding the leash. When Bailey sees me, his tail wags excitedly, and he bounds forward.

Behind him, Max appears. The grin on his lips lights up his whole face and ignites something warm inside me. God, he’s gorgeous. He’s all dark haired and hard bodied with sparkling-blue eyes that turn my insides into a hyper carnival ride whenever they look my way. I have to consciously slow my breathing and portray an act of calm.

Bailey jumps up, his paws pressing against my red coat, leaving dirt stains. I don’t care. I scratch his head and kiss him behind the ear, his warm, silky fur feeling divine against my cool lips, calming my heartbeat.

“Thanks for coming,” I say.

“Of course.” Max smiles again, and I look away, worried he’ll read the desire that shoots through my body when our eyes meet.

“So what’s the story?” Max asks.

I relay the events of the morning, wishing I didn’t sound like such a dolt.

“You gave this guy complete access to all your money?”

“He’s my business partner,” I quickly defend and then add, “and my friend.”

“How long have you known him, Bloom?” Max’s voice grows stern, and I bite my lip as I go all hot-for-teacher. I become sophomoric around him. It’s no wonder he’s not interested.

“A year.”

“When did you give him access to your money?”

My skin prickles under the interrogation. “A few months ago. He used to be a big shot banker. I’ve seen where he worked, his office. It was huge. He was obviously making a lot of money. I don’t understand why he’d steal from me.”

The look Max gives me is incredulous. “There are a lot of reasons. When did you last see him?”

“Not since…since the night of my farewell party.” My cheeks burn, thinking of that night. I thought Max and I were starting our happily ever after, but the opposite happened. “We’ve been mostly communicating through texts and e-mails. I look over all the invoices and then send them to Luke who double-checks them and then pays them. Most of my time is spent at the restaurant site with the architect, designer, or contractor, but Luke doesn’t need to be there for any of that.”

I quickly push into Luke’s building as a woman with a Chihuahua comes out. The miniature dog barks wildly at Bailey, and the owner picks the small dog up and scurries down the street.

“This is where he lives?” Max asks, following me in.

“Yes.” I quickly walk down the wide entryway and turn right toward the elevators, a vague recollection of the layout of the building resurfacing in my brain. The first and only time I was here, it was late and dark, and Luke and I had been drinking at a bar around the corner and discussing the restaurant. I walked Luke back, and as I turned to leave, he grabbed me and kissed me. I was taken aback at first, worried how it would affect the business, but his kisses melted in my mouth, and soon we were stumbling through the lobby into the elevator and up to his apartment.

The next morning, we laughed it off, and I left, not thinking much about it. We both agreed it was a mistake, and then I was off to help Catie film the special. When I got back, it was as if the night never happened.

“Are you two together?”

“Why does that matter?” I shoot back and then regret the defensive tone in my voice.

“I want to know what I’m walking into.” Max stops me as I arrive at Luke’s door. “Is this a lovers’ quarrel?”

“No. Nothing like that. He’s my business partner. That’s it.”

“So nothing’s happened between you two?”

Instead of answering, I knock on the door and hear shuffling behind it, but no one answers. I knock again. Soft footsteps patter behind the door and stop. I hold my breath, waiting for the doorknob to turn.

“Luke,” I call. “I see your feet. Open the door.”

Max is raising his foot, as if he’s going to kick the door open. I bat it away. “Put your foot down, Bourne.”

I raise my hand to knock again when the door opens. A petite girl with dark hair stands before us, decked out in Lululemon: capris, cami, and sweatband.

“Luke isn’t here,” she says.

“Oh, uh…” I stumble, not expecting to see this little chipmunk in front of me. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“I have no idea. I barely know him.”

Max and I exchange a confused look.

“Then how—”

“I rented it on Airbnb.”

Why would Luke rent out his apartment? Unless it’s just for the weekend. A lot of people rent out their apartments these days to make a little extra cash when they’re traveling, or they just shack up with someone else for the weekend.

“How long are you staying?” Max asks.

“Six months.”

“Six months!” I yell.

The girl shuts the door slightly. “Yes. Look, I can’t tell you anything else. I don’t know the guy. I met him for two seconds when he gave me the keys.”

“When was that?” Max asks.

“A month ago.”

My mouth hangs open. Where has he been for a whole month?

“He didn’t say anything else?” Max asks, giving me a sideways glance in response to my silence.

“No,” she snaps. “That’s it.” And she slams the door.

We’re halfway to the elevator when the girl pokes her head out again. “He did say one thing.”

“What?” I ask.

“He’d be traveling out of the country and hard to reach.” She closes the door before I can ask her another question.

The elevator chimes, and Max and I step in, Bailey sitting next to me, quiet and sullen, as if he knows the seriousness of what’s just been revealed. If the girl is right, and Luke has run off to another country and won’t be back for six months, something very wrong is going on. You don’t leave the country on a whim. And you don’t rent out your apartment for six months on the spur of the moment. Luke’s been planning this.

This time was going to be different. I was using my head instead of my heart when it came to the restaurant. That’s why Luke was perfect. He’s a friend and an expert at money management. Everything about Luke screamed money: his job, his apartment, his tailored suits, his investments. How did I get it so wrong?

Luke invested thirty grand in my restaurant. If his goal was to steal from me this whole time, it seems like a high risk for such small amount of money—a small amount in his world of million-dollar deals, but not in my world. Unless he pulled this scheme on a dozen other women across the city at the same time.

Max puts his arm around my shoulders and squeezes me in a sideways hug, speaking the same thought that runs through my head. “I think you’ve been Madoffed, Bloom.”

It would be funny if it weren't true.

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