Take My Place

- a contemporary romance -

Beate Boeker

The black BMW convertible slid to a stop in front of her. Chris jumped out.

Maren watched him coming closer with her arms crossed in front of her chest. He looks like a film star. She narrowed her eyes. Is it because of that ruffled hair and and his blue-green eyes? Maren frowned. No, it’s the way he moves. He moves as if the world belongs to him.

He took her hand and held it a moment longer than necessary. “I can’t believe you waited.”

“I didn’t expect you any earlier.” Maren made sure her voice sounded sweet.

His eyes widened. “But didn’t we agree to meet at seven?”

She pretended to smile. “We did. But my experience told me you wouldn’t make it.”

“I tried to, Maren. I really did.”

She eyed him, unconvinced.

“I lost my keys. It took me ages to hunt up my spare.” He held up the key as if it was some kind of proof. “By the time I got to the dock, I’d missed the ferry by inches.”

Maren couldn’t suppress a grimace. How pat his excuses came.

He mistook it and smiled. “I’ve booked a table at Tony’s. I’m looking forward to tonight.”

Well, I’m not, Maren thought. And even a table at Tony’s won’t reconcile me.

With an inward sigh, Chris scanned the menu. Maren reminded him of an iceberg. Why did their fathers have to play golf at the same club? He couldn’t afford to ruffle her feathers or he’d have to face some nasty consequences. His father had made that clear. If only she wasn’t so strait-laced. As a rule, he never had trouble with women, on the contrary . . . but Maren always looked at him with a mixture of amusement and disdain that made him uncomfortable. Maybe his brother would be able to charm her. Surely the waiter had told Tony by now he was here.

The cell phone in his breast pocket began to vibrate. Darn. Maren wouldn’t appreciate if he answered that call. She had shot a look like a dagger at him when he’d answered a call during their business meeting last week. Heaven knew why. The hum got stronger.

It might be Kitty.

He had promised to answer.

Chris pushed back his seat with a fake smile at Maren. “I’ll just wash my hands. I’ll be back in a sec.”
He retreated towards the back of the restaurant and ripped out his phone. “Hello?”

“Chris!” Kitty’s voice sounded high and thin. “Thank God I reached you! You’ve got to come and help me; I lost it all, all, all; I don’t know what to do anymore; I . . .”

“Hold on, Kitty! What happened?”

Kitty gulped. “My . . . my computer crashed, and it’s all gone. All my work! I . . . I can’t find the backup, and it’s due on Monday, and I . . . “ she started to cry.

Chris checked his watch. He couldn’t leave Kitty in a hole, but he had that disgruntled iceberg waiting for him. Darn, darn, darn. He frowned and bit his lips. He had to find a way; he had to . . .

A thought shot through his head. Tony!

But no. Chris frowned. It was crazy.

Kitty’s voice wobbled. “Chris, can you . . . can you come?”

Yes. It was crazy, but it was the only solution.

Chris took a deep breath. “Shhhh, Kitty, it’s all right. I’ll come and help you fix your computer, okay? But I’m on Bainbridge Island right now and have to wait for the next ferry.”

“Bainbridge Island? But that’s at the end of the world! I . . . “ Kitty stopped mid sob. “Yes. I . . . thank you, Chris. I’ll wait for you.”

“See you soon.” He hung up, turned on his heels and stormed into the kitchen of the restaurant. For an instant, the white light blinded him. At the long wall in the back Tony’s chef, Giovanni, and an assistant surveyed several pans sizzling over blue gas flames. The aroma of steak and onions made Chris’s mouth water.

The assistant turned his head and Chris grinned at him. Must be a new guy; he had never seen him before. “Hi. I need my brother. Where’s Tony?”

“Right here,” Tony said behind him. “What’s the panic?”

Chris swiveled around.

Tony stood in the small door which led to his office.

Thank God he was here. “Hi, Tony. I need your help.”

The assistant stood frozen to the spot. He blinked, shook his head, and blinked again. Chris saw it from the corner of his eyes and couldn’t suppress a chuckle. Always the same reaction—whenever people saw them together, they didn’t trust their eyes.

Giovanni realized his assistant had turned into a statue and turned as well. When he discovered Chris standing next to Tony, a smile stretched across his broad face. “Hi, Chris.” He nudged the assistant. “Can’t see a difference, eh?” he said with a move of his chin towards the brothers.

Tony slapped Chris’s back. “What’s the matter, Chris? You look as if someone’s haunting you.”

Trust Tony to see through him. Chris pushed both hands through his hair and lowered his voice. “I’m here with a business partner, but Kitty just called. Her thesis is due on Monday, and her computer crashed. She’s hysterical. I need to go and help her.”

“So what’s new?” Tony leaned against a gleaming steel table. “Kitty’s been getting hysterical over some paper or other these last three years, hasn’t she?”

Chris sighed. “Lord, don’t I know it. But this is the last and most important one. I can’t let her down.”

“Right. And where do I come in?”

Chris lowered his voice even more so the sizzling almost drowned him out. “I thought we could switch roles, and you take my place with my business contact, with Maren.”

Tony stared at him, then pushed himself away from the table. “You’re raving. I’m not going to do anything of the kind.”

Chris hadn’t expected a different answer. “Come on, Tony, be a sport.”

Tony shook his head. He bent down, took a stainless steel bowl from a lower rack and placed a bunch of carrots inside. “Why don’t you explain the situation to that business partner of yours? I’m sure she’ll understand.”

“Not her,” Chris said. “She’ll wither me with a glance, and next thing I know, Dad will kick me out.”
That should convince Tony. He knew about the situation at the office.

Tony straightened and set the bowl with care on the table. “You know, I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing.”

Chris wanted to stamp his foot. He had no time for a sermon. “It would be a disaster, and you know it. Dad is still furious because you didn’t follow the family tradition. I don’t want to follow in your tracks and become the next victim of his wrath.” He grinned. “I prefer him to be angry at you.” Chris picked a carrot out of Tony’s bowl and twirled it around his fingers. “Besides, I can’t go to Maren and tell her she’ll have to go home. It’s the third time something’s gone wrong and . . .”

“Hold on a minute,” Tony held up his hand. “You’re telling me this woman is angry at you?” He grabbed the carrot from Chris and put it back into the bowl.

Chris waved his hand. “Nothing you can’t remedy with a bit of charm.”

Tony shook his head. “You’re mad.”

Chris nudged Tony with his elbow. “Oh, come on. We’ve always stood in for each other, haven’t we? Remember Greg’s party?”

Tony shook his head. “That was years ago.”

“But we can still do it.” Chris nodded towards the assistant. “Even your assistant thought he was seeing double, a minute ago. You know we can do it. It’s just one night. She doesn’t know me well.”

Tony didn’t reply. The assistant removed the sizzling pan from the fire, and all at once, the kitchen was so quiet, it hummed through Chris’s ears. Chris shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Why did Tony hesitate? They always stood in for each other.

The sounds of the restaurant came muffled through the green baize door. The clink of cutlery, the murmur of voices, and below all, the melody of Mozart’s piano concert no. 19 in F major.

He wished Tony would hurry. They’d fooled them so often. It was fun.

Something on the stove boiled over and hissed into the flames. Giovanni muttered an oath and rescued the pan from the fire.

Tony lifted his head with alacrity as if he had just realized they weren’t alone in the kitchen. He grabbed Chris’s arm, drew him into his office, and closed the door with his foot. The music now came muted through the wall, but the smell of onions still hung in the air. A yellow lamp glowed above a rickety office table covered with bills and order forms. Chris blinked. How could Tony be happy in such a mouse hole?

Tony frowned. “You’re sure . . . what’s her name again?”

“Maren.”

“What kind of a name is that?”

Chris sighed. “Her family is from Sweden. You pronounce it wrong, by the way. It’s Mar-an.”

Tony shook his head. “I’m sure this Mar-an will understand you have to go and help a friend.”

“No chance.”

“Hm.” Tony scratched his head. “Does it matter? If she complains, you just explain the situation to Dad. You know how he harps on and on about his friends and how they always help each other. He’ll understand you had to rescue Kitty.”

Chris frowned. Why was Tony so slow on the uptake tonight? “He would, if Maren’s father wasn’t one of Dad’s golf buddies. You know what happens if we make a golf buddy unhappy.”

Tony sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Oh, no. You sure pick ‘em.”

“Tony, come on, be a sport.” Chris checked his watch. “Maren will think I left the island if we take much longer.”

Tony took a deep breath. “All right. I’ll do it under one condition.”