The Rules of Their Red-Hot Reunion by Joss Wood

CHAPTER FOUR

ONRETURNINGFROMher five-kilometre run through the pear orchard, past the stream, and through the vineyard—showing off its lovely autumn colours—Aisha jumped into the shower and afterwards pulled on a pair of black yoga pants, fluffy socks, and a comfortable, slouchy, off-the-shoulder cotton sweater. She intended to work from the cottage today and the four-seater square dining table in her open-plan lounge, dining, and kitchen area suited her perfectly. She had coffee and, because she’d stopped by a deli and bakery in Franschhoek yesterday, she had enough food to tide her over for a couple of days.

She anticipated a day of immense productivity.

But first, she wanted to take five minutes to relax. She picked up her cup of coffee and walked onto the tiny patio leading off from the kitchen and sat down on the white concrete wall enclosing the small area. There was a small wrought-iron table, but she wanted to feel the sun on her face, so she sat on the wall, back against the cottage, and stretched out her legs. The smell of lavender and thyme, planted in raku-fired pots, wafted up to her and she could hear tractor engines rumbling in the distance.

It was a perfect day, clear, cool, and sunny, and Aisha couldn’t take her eyes off the Simonsberg mountain basking in the sunlight. It was like a huge dragon’s tooth, raggedy edged, filled with cracks and crevasses. She’d read, somewhere, that it could be hiked, and she’d love to do that. Maybe in a month or two when she had a handle on her work here at St Urban, she’d carve out the time.

You left me because I was a poor sous chef and couldn’t give you the life you wanted, the life I promised you...

Last night, after her anger had died down, Pasco’s words had kept buzzing around her brain. Where and when did he pick up the notion that money, or lack of it, was the reason she’d left him? Of all the reasons she’d bailed, and there were many—lack of time and attention being the biggest reason—money had never been an issue.

She had been all but excommunicated by her parents, so her uncle Dominic had stepped up and paid for online university modules and, when she could, she’d picked up waitressing shifts at the bistro down the road. They hadn’t been rich, but they’d been a long way off poor.

‘Stunning, isn’t it?’

She wasn’t surprised to see him, had even expected him to turn up this morning as he wasn’t one to leave an argument unfinished. What did surprise her were the battered, faded jeans hugging his hips, and old, mud-splattered boots. The cuffs on his long-sleeved T-shirt—navy blue and hugging his wide, wide chest—also showed some signs of wear and tear.

But the watch on his thick wrist was a limited edition Patek-Philippe, his sleek and sexy aviator sunglasses were high-end, definitely designer. She couldn’t name the brand, but knew they’d be ferociously expensive to buy. His hair was expertly cut and his cologne, dancing on the light breeze, was a compelling mixture reminding her of the sun and the sea, and a blend that perfect cost money. Lots of it.

He looked fit, hot, and take-me-to-bed sexy, but Aisha had no intention of letting him off the hook. He needed to do some big-time grovelling first. ‘What do you want, Kildare?’

His eyes deepened and desire flashed, briefly, in his eyes. Yeah, yeah, she got it, he wanted her, their kiss last night clued her in, but if those were the first words out of his mouth she might throw her coffee cup at him.

Pasco jammed his hands into the front pockets of his Levi’s, those huge shoulders rolling forward. ‘To apologise, actually. I was off base last night. I was pissed off and frustrated and I should never have said what I said.

‘You’re obviously damn good at your job and I was way out of line,’ he added. ‘I’m sorry.’

Aisha, shocked at his sincere apology—the Pasco she knew would rather burn Wagyu beef than apologise—needed a minute to think, so she lifted her coffee cup to her lips and sipped, trying to formulate a response. She’d been expecting another fight—Pasco hated losing—but she hadn’t expected an apology.

This was new. And she could either accept it and move on or take the opportunity to needle him a little for his assumptions. Be an adult, Shetty.

Aisha nodded. ‘Thank you.’ She saw him looking at her coffee cup and sighed. ‘Do you want a cup?’

‘I’d love a cup,’ he replied, stepping onto the patio. Aisha swung her legs off the wall and walked into her kitchen, Pasco a step behind. She grabbed a mug and put it under the spout of the coffee machine and checked the level of the beans and water.

‘I didn’t hear a car, so how did you get here?’ Aisha asked him.

‘I walked over,’ Pasco replied, pulling out a chair. He lifted his eyes at the piles of multicoloured folders on the table and cocked his head to read the tabs. ‘I own the smallholding right next door, actually. This cottage is about a ten-minute walk, as the crow flies, from my back door. But I took a long way around and walked up St Urban’s drive.’

Aisha turned her back to him, not sure how comfortable she was with him living in such close proximity to her.

Pasco pulled out a dining chair and sat down. ‘Franschhoek is my home town so I bought a place here.’

‘It’s a long commute to Pasco’s at The Vane every day,’ Aisha said, placing his mug in front of him. It was black and strong, the way he used to drink it back in the day.

He picked up the pottery mug, sipped, and closed his eyes. The corners of his mouth kicked up. ‘I see you still drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.’

She smiled and shrugged. Money had been short during their marriage but some things, Pasco had declared, could not be compromised on. Coffee, excellent South African wine, exceptional olive oil. ‘Some famous chef introduced me to it and got me hooked. I had severe withdrawal symptoms because I couldn’t afford it on my student budget, but as soon as I started earning decent money, it went back on the list.’

‘That chef taught you well.’

He had. She’d learned a lot from Pasco about food and wine and making love. Aisha, feeling her cheeks redden, remembered his comment from last night and decided to take the plunge. ‘Talking about money, you said something last night that shocked me.’

Pasco winced. ‘Only one thing?’

She smiled briefly. ‘I don’t want to fight with you this morning, I don’t.’ She lifted a finger. ‘And we really do have to work out the rules of our working together, Pasco.’

He waved her suggestion away. ‘Later. What did I say to shock you?’

‘You said I left because you didn’t earn enough money, because you didn’t give me the life I wanted.’

Pasco nodded. ‘I didn’t.’

Aisha held his hard stare, needing him to believe what she was about to say next. ‘I never left because we were financially strapped, Pasco. That was never a problem. Other things were, but not that.’

‘What—?’

‘No, that’s enough for now,’ she interrupted him. She nodded to the window and the awesome view of the sun shining on the mountain. ‘It’s a beautiful day and I’m declaring a truce. Please?’ Not giving him a chance to argue, she switched subjects. ‘We were talking about your commute to the city.’

Pasco didn’t drop his eyes from hers and she knew he was digesting her words, trying to make sense of them. She caught the impatience in his eyes and knew he wanted to dig, needed more of an explanation. She hoped he didn’t push; she really wasn’t up for another fight.

Pasco dropped his eyes and when his shoulders dropped, Aisha knew she was safe. For now.

‘At some point, we’ll pick up where we left off...’

Of that she had no doubt. Just not this morning, thank God. ‘I don’t live here permanently, I just use my Franschhoek house as a bolt-hole,’ he continued. ‘I have an apartment in Fresnaye, but my chef de cuisine, or executive chef, runs the restaurant on a day-to-day basis.’

‘Nice gig if you can get it,’ Aisha said, sitting down opposite him.

‘Hey, I’ve worked long hours for a long time to earn that sort of freedom,’ Pasco snapped back.

Wow, his work ethic was a hot-button topic for him. And, yeah, she knew exactly how hard he worked as she’d been the one waiting for him at home.

Aisha cast around for a neutral topic of discussion, but Pasco beat her to it by tapping on a folder. ‘Tell me about St Urban.’

That was an unexpected question. ‘I’m sure Ro told you all about her plans for the place.’

Pasco tucked his long legs under the table and his knee brushed hers and Aisha felt the familiar tingle, the hit of connection. Pasco folded his forearms on the table and shook his head. ‘I haven’t had many discussions about St Urban with her. We’ve all, Muzi, Ro, and I, been so busy with our respective projects—St Urban, Muzi launching a new wine from a rare cultivar he found on the property and my launching a range of cooking accessories and foodstuffs—that when we do get together the last thing we discuss is work.’

Pasco’s wicked grin flashed. ‘Honestly, all we’ve discussed lately is Ro’s pregnancy.’ He pulled a face. ‘I know more about pregnancy and birth plans and multiple births than I need to, thank you very much.’

Aisha smiled. ‘It’s pretty exciting they are having twins.’

‘It’s pretty scary because they are having twin boys,’ Pasco corrected her. ‘I knew Muzi as a kid and he was wild!’

Aisha raised one eyebrow. ‘And you weren’t?’ She pretended to think. ‘Weren’t you the guy who drove his car through the window of an art gallery in town?’

‘You remember me telling you that?’ Pasco asked.

She remembered everything he told her about his teenage years, boarding school, and his adventures with Muzi and Digby Tempest-Vane. But he never spoke about his childhood before he came to live in this valley in his early teens. Then again, she never spoke about her family either.

‘St Urban, Aisha?’ Pasco prompted her.

‘Right.’ Where to start? She glanced at the folders, wondering where to begin. ‘Okay, let’s start with the manor house. It was important to Ro, from the beginning, to preserve the elegance and grandeur of the house, so distinctive details like the hand-painted dado rails and the broad yellow wood floor beams, and a million others, have been kept and, if needed, restored. After extensive renovations, the manor house can now sleep sixteen, with six en suite bedrooms and a family suite. She’s also converted the smaller guest house and the venue can sleep eight. So we have space to host over twenty people in supreme luxury.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Pasco murmured. Aisha wiggled in her seat. She’d forgotten what it was like to have all that intense energy and attention focused on her. When Pasco listened, he concentrated. And she knew that, in a week, a month, or a year, he would be able to recite their conversation verbatim.

Unfortunately for their marriage, he’d only paid attention when he’d wanted to, when the subject had interested him enough. Her unhappiness hadn’t.

Oh, maybe that was unfair. The truth was more nuanced than that. In hindsight, she thought Pasco hated talking about their problems because then he’d have to admit there was a problem, that there was something he—they—couldn’t instantly fix. Unlike cooking, you couldn’t toss your wife out and start from scratch.

Anyhoo...

‘I’d like the guests to feel like they stepped into their second home so, while everything must be exquisite, it must also feel welcoming. Ro and my boss, Miles, who is currently Chief of Operations for Lintel & Lily, felt the same way and that’s the direction they went in. The library will be full of books, the lounges will have plump couches, and there will be fresh flowers everywhere. Luckily, the house was filled with antique furniture when Ro inherited so a lot of the desks, tables, dining tables, and bedposts will go back into their original rooms when they have been restored and polished.

‘I’m planning luxury picnics by the river, hiking and mountain-biking trails, a small bar stocking the best liquor money can buy. The guests will be able to drink cocktails on the veranda or under the massive oak tree with the wide spreading branches. Damn, I need a mixologist.’ Aisha picked up her phone, opened a document, and tapped in a note to look into whether the budget would support a mixologist.

‘Talk dirty to me, Aisha,’ Pasco murmured.

Her eyes flew up and connected with his. ‘What?’ she asked, blushing.

He grinned, and Aisha felt as if she were touching the sun. ‘Talk food. Chefs, produce suppliers, menus.’

She leaned back and crossed her legs. ‘For the manor house kitchen, I’m thinking farm to table, seasonal, local, lovely. That’s all I have, right now. The rest depends on who we hire to run the hotel kitchen.’

‘Do you have anyone in mind?’ Pasco asked her, running his finger up and down the edge of his coffee cup.

‘No, not yet. I’ll advertise the position in a month or two, and if I don’t find someone suitable I’ll work through a recruiting agency.’

‘I have one or two ideas on supremely talented people who would jump at a chance to run their own kitchen and who’d be up for the challenge. I can get their résumés to you.’

‘Thank you, I’d appreciate it. Muzi is restoring the cellars and he wants to install a winemaker here. He’s going to focus on producing wine from the rare cultivar he found. Muzi will also be employing the staff needed for wine tastings and cellar tours. The cellar is so old and such an amazing space and I’d like to find a historian who can give me a history lesson of winemaking in the valley and, hopefully, of St Urban itself.’

‘My brother Cam is a winemaker and he’s the area’s local-history nerd. I’m sure he could give you what you need.’

Aisha made another note on her phone. ‘You are proving to be surprisingly helpful this morning, Kildare.’

‘Glad to be of service,’ Pasco replied, amused. ‘Right, let’s get down to business... Ro’s pop-up restaurant. Where are you with that?’

Aisha looked at him and spread her hands. ‘Nowhere because that wasn’t something I was aware of until I got here yesterday.’

Pasco pushed back his chair, extended his long legs, and crossed his feet at the ankles. He looked relaxed, yet Aisha knew that under that lazy-looking exterior was a mind running at a sprinter’s pace and never stopped.

‘The tasting-menu restaurant has been low on her list of priorities. It was an idea we chatted about a little after she and Muzi got together, but never really pursued. Then she fell pregnant and it slipped even further down the list. But a couple of months ago, I told her that I was interested in doing it, but only for a few months. She liked the idea of bringing in different world-class chefs on a rotating schedule.’

So that was how the idea of a restaurant was born. Good to know. ‘So why are you getting involved in designing the restaurant?’

‘Because I’m good at it and have a rep for sky-high standards when it comes to decor, service and, obviously, the food itself. I like to have, at the very least, input into the design of the restaurant and complete control over the food, the menu and whom I work with.’

‘All that and without you putting a cent of your own money into the project,’ Aisha said, impressed by his cool confidence and a little frustrated by his arrogance.

Pasco’s green eyes slammed into hers. ‘I am one of the best chefs in the world and people will book into St Urban just to eat my food.’

Aisha cocked her head and sent him a look from under her lashes. ‘You really need to work on your self-confidence and self-worth, Pasco.’

He picked up a pen from the table and threw it at her. ‘Cheeky brat.’

Aisha looked out of her kitchen window to the sunlight falling on the mountain and nibbled on the inside of her cheek. ‘I’m going to be the point person representing Ro on the project, Pas. Are we going to be able to work together?’

Pasco’s expression remained steady and imperturbable. ‘Why wouldn’t we?’

Oh, let me count the ways.

‘Because you are demanding and bossy and determined to have your way. And so am I,’ Aisha responded. ‘I’m not the person I was before, Pasco.’

‘I would be disappointed if you were, Aisha. People are supposed to grow, you know.’

He wasn’t getting what she was trying to say. ‘But I’m not just going to nod my head and say, “yes, Pasco”, “no, Pasco”, “three bags full, Pasco”. I’m going to argue with you, contradict you, flat out tell you no, occasionally.’

He stared at her, the corners of his mouth twitching. ‘I’m becoming more terrified by the moment.’

God, he wasn’t taking her seriously. She reached across the table and poked her finger into his biceps. ‘You aren’t listening to me, Kildare! My loyalty is to Ro and her vision for St Urban. If you want or do something contrary to that vision, I’m going to put my foot down.’

‘I know that you will try,’ Pasco told her, still smiling. ‘Relax, Aisha, we’ll find our way.’

She knew that he meant that she’d come around to his way of thinking. Insufferable man! She poked him again. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Pasco.’

He looked down at the finger barely denting his skin. ‘Is that supposed to make an impression?’

She yanked her hand away and scowled at him. He grinned, pushed to his feet, and glanced at his watch. ‘Where are you going?’ she demanded. ‘We still have things to discuss!’

He looked from her to the coffee cup in his hand. ‘I was just going to make myself another cup of coffee.’

‘Oh,’ Aisha replied on an internal wince. ‘You could’ve asked me first!’

‘Honey, we’ve been married and divorced, and I got you hooked on this particular drug, so I thought we were beyond that. Do you want a cup?’

‘No, yes, okay.’ Aisha speared her hands into her hair and sucked in a deep breath. Twenty minutes in and she was already exhausted. She’d forgotten that dealing with Kildare was like trying to wrestle an octopus. And, off subject, the way those Levi’s cupped his butt was enough to make angels drool.

He turned, caught her ogling him and lifted an eyebrow. Aisha blushed, annoyed by his grin and the satisfaction in his eyes.

Yeah, he was a good-looking guy and she wasn’t immune. She wouldn’t touch, that would be stupid, but she could look. A little. A very little.

‘Rules of engagement...’ she muttered.

Pasco resumed his seat. ‘What are you muttering about?’

Aisha waved her index finger between them. ‘We need rules. Last night I tried to talk to you about how we were going to work together and we got distracted.’

‘That’s one way of putting it,’ Pasco drawled.

She ignored his comment and pulled a writing pad towards her. Picking up a pen, she clicked the top a few times before jotting down a few bullet points.

He craned his head to look at her writing and released a frustrated huff. ‘Your writing is revolting.’

‘Yours, I recall, isn’t much better,’ Aisha retorted. ‘I’m making a note of what we need to discuss...things like the budget, decor ideas, equipment, staff. Oh, and we need a name.’

‘Pasco’s at St Urban,’ Pasco whipped back.

‘Uh...’

‘I have Pasco’s at The Vane, Pasco At Home—that’s my brand of kitchen items and foodstuffs—Pasco’s, Franschhoek. The name is part of my brand, instant name recognition, and that’s what this restaurant, if I sign the contract, will be called,’ Pasco said, determination in his eyes.

Aisha wrinkled her nose, knowing she’d already lost this battle. Luckily, she saw the reasoning behind his words and was prepared to hand him this victory.

‘Okay, then, let’s talk about how and when we’re going to meet.’ She pulled her tablet towards her and opened her calendar. She turned it to face him and gestured to the mostly blank squares. ‘As you can see, I’m pretty free, but that will change shortly. So, pick a date. I think we should meet a couple of times a week.’

Pasco shook his head. ‘That’s not going to work for me. My schedule changes from day to day. I go where I’m needed, do what I need to do as the day unfolds. The best I can do is give you a couple of hours’ notice when I’ll be free.’

Aisha felt her jaw drop, not sure she was processing his words correctly. Was he seriously suggesting she build her calendar around him? Did he not realise how much she had to do, the mountain of work ahead of her to get St Urban up to standard? She was already operating under time constraints and that was before she heard about the pop-up restaurant.

But now, like then, Pasco’s work came first. Aisha felt the wave of resentment and looked away so that he didn’t see how much his blithe words affected her. So, nothing had changed, not really.

And how sad was that?

She could say something—she should say something—but honestly, she was tired and didn’t have the energy to fight. Aisha scratched her forehead, worried she was slipping into the patterns of the past, allowing Pasco to walk all over her again.

‘I see some things haven’t changed.’

He frowned, trying to work out what she meant. Dammit! She hated it when passive-aggressive comments slipped out—she was better than that.

She held up her hand. ‘No, that won’t work for me. You need to give me definite times when we can meet because I am not sitting around waiting for you to call.’

She waited for his response and wondered if she imagined the flare of respect she saw in his eyes. Probably. Pasco took their empty coffee cups to the sink and when he returned to stand in front of her, he slid his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and nodded. ‘Fair enough. I’ll see what I can do, but I’m slammed.’

‘Make time, Pasco, this is important.’

‘Noted.’ He darted a look at his watch and sighed. ‘Talking of, I need to get to The Vane. I have a meeting and then we are spending the afternoon testing new dishes.’

Naturally, Sundays were never a day of rest for the workaholic chef. Aisha looked at her dining table and sighed. Rocks and glass houses, baby.

At the doorway, Pasco turned to face her and lowered his head, as if aiming for another kiss, or to brush his lips across her cheekbone or forehead. He hesitated and she saw awareness flash in his eyes, a reminder to both of them that what they had before, what was acceptable back then, might not be welcome now.

They had to rewrite the rules, find new ones, toss others. Tiptoe through this minefield.

Keep it simple and, for goodness’ sake, keep it professional. She sent him her most impersonal smile. Or at least she hoped she did. ‘I’ll see you around, Kildare.’

‘Don’t be like me and work all day, Aisha.’ Yep, there was that hint of bossiness she remembered so well.

‘Like you, I don’t have time to relax, Pasco. I have a million things to do and minimal time to get everything done. That’s why I need your cooperation.’

‘I’ll try my best, Aish.’ His eyes met hers and his expression turned rueful. ‘I know that I can sound autocratic, but I understand what burnout feels like, Aisha, and I’d hate it to happen to you. So do as I say and not as I do and take some time off to relax.’ Instead of dropping a kiss on her temple or on her cheek, he squeezed her shoulder. ‘I’ll let you know when we can meet again.’

Aisha watched, annoyingly tingly and turned on, as he walked out of her back door. Taking, she noticed, the short route back to his house.