Dan Kingsland’s mind should have been on business. The catered outdoor buffet at the construction site of One Trinity River Place was to celebrate a huge accomplishment not just for his own architectural firm, but four of his closest friends. Grady McCabe was the enterprising developer who’d put it all together. Travis Carson was the contractor building the three block office, shopping, and residential complex in downtown Fort Worth. Jack Gaines owned the electronic and wiring company that would install all the networks, phones and satellite systems. Nate Hutchinson helmed the financial-services company leasing seventy-five percent of the office space.
Instead… all Dan could think about was the incredible lunch being served, picnic style, to the 150 high-profile guests, milling around outside the sleek stone and glass skyscrapers culled from Dan’s imagination. The food commemorating the end of Phase 1 was literally the best he had ever tasted. And it was all being prepared by one woman, using three portable outdoor stoves and what looked to be an equally portable sub-zero fridge.
Dan savored another bite of perfectly seasoned potato salad.
Maybe if they could eat like this at home….
Grady McCabe gave Dan a wry look. “We all know what you’re thinking. Emily Stayton is not the answer to your problems.”
Dan Kingsland turned his gaze back to the dark-haired beauty in jeans, boots, and traditional white chef’s coat. The young culinary artist certainly looked like the solution to his dilemma. He’d lived in Texas all his life and had never had barbecue this good. The fact Emily Stayton was literally glowing with happiness while she worked made it all the more amazing
Dan shrugged. “The woman can cook.” More important, she handled the multiple demands on her time and attention with aplomb, bringing good cheer and relative calm to the hungry crowd at the portable buffet tables.
“Of course she can cook—she’s a chef,” Travis said, lifting a brisket sandwich to his lips. The father of two preschoolers, he was always stating the obvious.
“She worked in the best restaurants in the area, before deciding she wanted more flexibility in her schedule and then she struck out out on her own as a personal chef,” Jack Gaines added with the factual precision of a guy who had founded an electronic systems company and was single-handedly bringing up his seven year old daughter, with seemingly none of the problems Dan was currently having with his own irascible brood.
“Great,” Dan said, already imagining what it would be like to have this woman in his kitchen, whipping up one incredible meal after another. “That ought to make it all the easier to convince her to come and work for me.” At this point, money was no object. He just wanted a solution to the problem that seemed to be growing larger every day. And if he had to think outside the box to get it, well…wasn’t that what he always did? Solve problems in whatever creative way necessary?
“Not so great,” Nate Hutchinson held up a cautioning hand. The only one of them with no pressing familial obligations, he made it his business to know all the beautiful, unattached women on the local social scene. And their caterer fit the bill, if the lack of wedding ring on her left hand was any indication. “Emily’s leaving Fort Worth.”
Frowning, Dan glanced back at the white catering van with the bright blue Chef For Hire logo on the side. “When?”
“By the end of the month. She’s closing her business here this week,” Grady McCabe replied. “She wants to move back to the Texas hill country, where she grew up. This was her last gig in the Metroplex.”
Dan wasn’t deterred by the stumbling block. He merely resolved to move around it. “Fortunately,” Dan said, scraping up the last of the ranch-style beans, “she hasn’t relocated yet.”
Having learned early in life that timing was everything, Dan finished his meal and waited patiently until the lunch crowd dispersed and clean-up was underway. He ambled over to the banquet tables where Ms. Stayton was busy packing up. She was not only beautiful, but her eyes were a gorgeous blue. Not that this had anything to do with his interest in her. He wanted a chef, not a wife. He was definitely not looking to get married—or even involved--again.
“I hear you’re leaving Fort Worth,” Dan said casually.
The wry glance she gave him said she had noticed him studying her—and completely misinterpreted why. She stacked empty serving dishes into a large plastic container, then went to the next banquet table to collect some more. “Yep, I’m headed to Fredericksburg.”
Admiring the delicate, feminine shape of her very capable hands, Dan edged closer. “What’s there?”
A mixture of anticipation and delight sparkled in her smile. “An orchard I’m in the process of buying.”
As she bent over the table, to reach an item at the other end, the hem of her white chef’s tunic edged up, revealing the taut underside of her buttock and shapely upper thigh.
Dan tore his gaze from the delectable sight, and forced himself to concentrate on the important matter at hand--her skill as a chef. “So you haven’t closed on the property yet.”
With a determined expression, Emily secured the top of the plastic box with a snap. She straightened and hefted the heavy container. “I will, as soon as I get paid on this gig and secure financing on the property next week. Then I’ll be out of here.”
Dan took the box from her and carried it to the back of the catering van. He set it where she indicated, then turned back to her, noting she was about six inches shorter than his own six-two. “What about Chef For Hire?”
Emily shrugged one slender shoulder and pivoted back toward the banquet tables. To the left of them, two guys from the company that had supplied the outdoor cooking appliances loaded the equipment onto their truck. “It was fun while it lasted,” Emily said.
Dan followed lazily, trying not to notice how nicely she filled out the starched white tunic top. As he neared her, he inhaled the orange blossom scent, clinging to her hair and skin. The November sunshine glimmered in the mahogany strands of her hair, highlighting the hint of amber in the silky strands.
“You’re going to quit, just like that, to do something else.”
“Run an orchard,” she said as she gathered and folded the linens covering the tables. “And yes, I am, Mr….?.”
Embarrassed he’d forgotten to introduce himself, he extended his hand. “Dan Kingsland.”
She accepted his grip with the same ease she did everything else. “Nice to meet you, Dan. I’m Emily Stayton.”
Surprised by how soft her hand felt, given the kind of work she did, Dan released his hold on her reluctantly. He stepped back before he could think of her as anything but a potential employee. “Lunch was great, by the way.”
Her soft lips turned into an appreciative and accepting smile. “That was the plan, but… thanks.”
Dan carried a stack of linens back to the van for her. “Since you haven’t left yet… how does one go about hiring you?”
Her dark, elegant brow furrowed. “For a party?”
More like… every evening. But figuring they would get to that, Dan looked her in the eye and cut straight to the chase. “I can’t remember the last time my family sat down to a good dinner. Not that it was ever that great, given the lack of culinary skill in the family, even before their mom and I divorced a couple of years ago. But now, with the older two in high school, and my youngest in elementary, it seems like the dinner hour has become downright impossible.” He sighed heavily. “The kids are always fighting about what we’re going to eat. Whereas their great Uncle Walt, who lives with us, just wants hot, home-cooked food and plenty of it.”
She gave him a compassionate look. “Sounds stressful. But I’m not sure how I--”
He held up a hand, urging her to let him continue. “You see, I watched you today, juggling everything that had to be juggled to feed such a large group under less than ideal circumstances. And I thought, if she could do that for us—help us figure out how to get back on the right track at meal times—maybe we’d have a chance to be a happy family again.” Dan paused. He hadn’t meant to reveal so much, hadn’t expected anywhere near the sympathy and concern he saw in her pretty eyes.
Not sure what it was about this woman than had him putting it all on the line like this, he forced himself to go on. “So what do you say? Will you help us out?”