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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 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 that 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 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 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 is her last gig in the Metroplex."
Dan wasn't deterred by the stumbling block. He merely resolved to move around it. "Fortunately," he 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 crowd dispersed and cleanup was under way. He walked 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 knowing glance she gave him said she'd 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 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 for 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 and 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," she said.
Dan followed lazily, not for the first time noticing how nicely she filled out the starched white tunic. As he neared her, he inhaled the orange-blossom scent clinging to her hair and skin. The November sunshine glimmered in her mahogany 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 curved in an appreciative 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 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—"
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 that 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?"
Emily d thought Dan Kingsland was attractive when she met him earlier, but that kick of awareness was nothing compared to the sizzle she felt when she arrived on his doorstep at six that very evening for the agreed-upon "consultation."
The single dad of three answered before she could even ring the bell.
He was dressed in boots, faded jeans and a pine-colored pullover sweater that brought out the green of his eyes. His sandy-blond hair was cut in a rumpled, laid-back style that required little maintenance. His five-o'clock shadow only added to his ruggedly handsome appeal.
He looked a bit harried, but as their eyes met and he said, "I'm really glad you came," he gave her an easy, welcoming grin.
Emily wished she felt the same ease. She sensed that if you gave this man an inch, he'd take a mile, anything to get what he wanted. Which was, apparently, a path to family peace.
Attempting a laid-back cool she didn't feel, Emily thrust her hands in the pockets of her tailored wool slacks. These days, she avoided situations that felt too… intimate from the get-go. Plus, she was a chef—not a consultant—and it was clear from the sounds of rambunctious activity in the foreground that his family was in the midst of end-of-workweek chaos. But in this case, money talked. She needed the extra cash the gig offered to facilitate her move back to Freder-icksburg. So she'd taken it, even though she wasn't sure what Dan expected her to be able to do here tonight.
Oblivious to the conflicted nature of her thoughts, Dan led her through the foyer to the rear of the two-story brick home. A messy, hopelessly outdated kitchen was on one side, an equally cluttered breakfast room took up the middle and on the other side of the thousand-square-foot space was a gathering room, complete with an L-shaped sofa and large stone fireplace, with bookshelves on either side. There was stuff everywhere. Briefcase. Schoolbags. Jackets and shoes and caps.
In the midst of it were his three offspring. All had his long, rangy build, sandy-blond hair and green eyes. There the similarity ended, she realized after Dan's brief introduction. Ava, seventeen, had her nose in a book and was busy highlighting passages with a yellow marker. Fifteen-year-old Tommy was standing in front of the fridge with the door open wide, studying the contents. Eight-year-old Kayla was dividing her time between an easel and paintbrush, and a mess of rainbow-colored modeling clay. She seemed to be working on both art projects simultaneously. Everyone seemed to be in everyone else's way and not particularly inclined to do anything about it.
The little girl got up and rushed over to Emily, skidding to a stop just short of her. Washable paint dotting her arms and face, she demanded, "Are you here to cook for us?"
"Emily is here to consult with us and help us solve our problem," Dan explained. "She's going to give us some ideas on what we can eat for dinner that will make everyone happy."
"Good luck with that," Tommy grumbled. He grabbed a bottle of some sports drink from the fridge, guzzled half and started toward the door. "I'm going for a run."
Dan held up a hand. "You just got home from wrestling practice."
Tommy shrugged and plucked his sweat-dampened T-shirt away from his body. "I didn't get enough of a workout."
Emily gauged the flushed state of his skin and thought maybe he had.
"Not now," Dan repeated with paternal firmness.
Ava stood. "I don't have time for this, either. I've got to study." She picked up her heavy AP Biology textbook and highlighter.
On a Friday night? Emily wondered. Shouldn't the girl be going out with friends or just relaxing after a long week? As Emily had planned to do herself before getting waylaid by Ava's father?
Not to be outdone by her older siblings, Kayla tugged on Emily's blouse. "I've got to paint. Want to watch me?" She grabbed a brush so quickly she knocked over a jar of paint, splattering the table and floor.
Irritated, Tommy said, "Dad, make her get that stuff out of here!"
Kayla clamped her hands on her hips and tossed her long, disheveled blond hair. "I'm supposed to do my artwork in the kitchen, so I don't make a mess on the carpet!"
Ava looked up from her book long enough to put in her two cents. "Yeah, well, your stuff is in our way, as always!"
"Kids, that's enough," Dan reprimanded them just as a stiff-legged older man with a white buzz cut walked in. Dan introduced him to Emily as Uncle Walt.
Walt looked at Dan, perplexed. "I thought you were cooking tonight, Dan."
Dan shrugged. "Change of plans."
Emily looked at Dan. Had she been lured here under false pretenses?
He flattened a hand over his heart. "I wasn't going to try and rope you into it." Dan grabbed a roll of paper towels and knelt to mop up the spilled paint.
"Why not?" Uncle Walt argued, lending a hand, too. "If she can cook and she's here and it's dinnertime… Anything she makes would have to beat your cooking."
Dan took the ribbing with the affection it was given. "Thanks," he said wryly. Standing, he tossed the towel into the trash and went to wash his hands.
"It doesn't matter who cooks—meals around here suck," Tommy grumbled.
Which made Emily wonder if the kids liked the food anywhere. "What about with your mom?" she asked, curious as to whether Dan's ex had it any better when she had the kids. "What do you do for meals when you're with her?"
The room suddenly grew very silent. No one volunteered anything. Feeling like she'd plunged headlong into quicksand, Emily forged on, searching for information. "I gather meals are a problem there, too, then."
Another heartbeat passed. Then another.
Walt cleared his throat. "Didn't Dan tell you? My great-niece hasn't lived in the United States since she and Dan split up."
Emily only wished Dan had thoroughly filled her in before she'd accepted this gig. If he had, she would have known this was the kind of situation that tugged on her heartstrings. And hence, one she should avoid. Now, more than ever…
"Mom's in Africa," Tommy blurted out.
"Keep up, will you?" Ava scolded, shoving her glasses up on the bridge of her nose. "That was last week. She's in China this week."
"Whatever." Tommy shrugged, edging toward the back door again. "The point is, she's not here. She's never here."
Kayla picked at the rainbow-colored volcano she had built with her modeling clay. "Yeah, we wish she would come back to see us ' cause we miss having a mommy."
Walt grimaced. "My niece is a physician for the International Children's Medical Service, or ICMS."
Which meant, Emily concluded, that Dan had full custody of their brood, with all the attendant joys and problems. As well as his ex-wife's great-uncle. This was an interesting situation.
Dan paused, his expression filled with remorse. "I'm sorry if I wasn't clear about that."