Prodigal Prince Charming
Prodigal Prince Charming
THE CAMELOT CRIER
ABOUT TOWN: Newport News, Virginia
Recipe for Romance?
Camelot’s most infamous playboy has developed a sweet tooth. Cord Kendrick, second son of the Kendricks of Camelot, has been seen in the company of caterer Madison O’Malley. The innocent beauty, best known for her heavenly muffins, is a departure from the models and starlets Cord is known for romancing, and Newport News is a far cry from the jet-setting bachelor’s favored haunts. Although the Kendrick family has offered no comment on the simmering romance, sources say Cord has been seen spending an awful lot of time not only with Madison, but with her family, as well—a sure sign that things are heating up in any relationship. But is this sweet-as-sin chef more than Cord’s latest indulgence?
We’re smack in the middle of summer, which can only mean long, lazy days at the beach. And do we have some fantastic books for you to bring along! We begin this month with a new continuity, only in Special Edition, called THE PARKS EMPIRE, a tale of secrets and lies, love and revenge. And Laurie Paige opens the series with Romancing the Enemy. A schoolteacher who wants to avenge herself against the man who ruined her family decides to move next door to the man’s son. But things don’t go exactly as planned, as she finds herself falling…for the enemy.
Stella Bagwell continues her MEN OF THE WEST miniseries with Her Texas Ranger, in which an officer who’s come home to investigate a murder fins complications in the form of the girl he loved in high school. Victoria Pade begins her NORTHBRIDGE NUPTIALS miniseries, revolving around a town famed for its weddings, with Babies in the Bargain. When a woman hoping to reunite with her estranged sister finds instead her widowed husband and her children, she winds up playing nanny to the whole crew. Can wife and mother be far behind? THE KENDRICKS OF CAMELOT by Christine Flynn concludes with Prodigal Prince Charming, in which a wealthy playboy tries to help a struggling caterer with her business and becomes much more than just her business partner in the process. Brand-new author Mary J. Forbes debuts with A Forever Family, featuring a single doctor dad and the woman he hires to work for him. And the men of the CHEROKEE ROSE miniseries by Janis Reams Hudson continues with The Other Brother, in which a woman who always contend her handsome neighbor as one of her best friends suddenly finds herself looking at him in a new light.
Happy reading! And come back next month for six new fabulous books, all from Silhouette Special Edition.
Prodigal Prince Charming Christine Flynn
To Christine Rimmer, a wonderful writer and dear friend,
with thanks for the title of this book!
admits to being interested in just about everything, which is why she considers herself fortunate to have turned her interest in writing into a career. She feels that a writer gets to explore it all and, to her, exploring relationships—especially the intense, bittersweet or even lighthearted relationships between men and women—is fascinating.
“Madison O’Malley, this here’s the nicest thing anybody’s done for me all week.” Grinning like a young boy, the burly construction worker tipped back his hard hat and swiped a fingerful of frosting from the cupcake in his hand. The flame flickered and danced on the small candle stuck in the fluffy chocolate. “I can’t believe you remembered.”
“She remembers everybody’s birthday,” the rangy welder on his right informed him. “The cupcake she baked me for my birthday even had sprinkles on it.”
“Yeah? Did she put your name on it, like she did mine here?”
The shorter man nodded at the white icing loops that spelled out Tiny.
“She sure did. Didn’t you, Madison?”
“I sure did, Jake.” Madison’s smile came easily, her brown eyes sparkling with the pleasure it gave her to make one of her customer’s day just a little special. She baked birthday cupcakes for all the customers on her route, once she got to know them, and she always put their name and a candle on the little treat. “I just didn’t know if you liked chocolate or carrot cake better. If you’ll tell me, I’ll remember for next year.”
Tiny told her that what she’d given him was just fine, and walked off, still grinning.
The welder she knew only as Jake took a cellophane-wrapped muffin from the display on the side of the gleaming silver catering truck and handed her a dollar.
“Morning, Madison.” Another of the forty customers crowding toward her held out a five. “I’m taking two poppy seed and a banana.”
“I have coffee and a ham-and-cheese roll here,” a voice from behind him announced.
“Same here.” Another worker, this one unfamiliar, took Jake’s place. He handed her two five-dollar bills. “That’s for me and Sid back there.”
Madison glanced at the front of the newcomer’s white hard hat. Buzz was written in felt pen on the strip of masking tape centered above the brim.
Having been acknowledged by name, the new guy smiled and stepped back to be swallowed by the forward surge of others wanting to make the most of their morning break.
“Hey, Madison! Do you have those carrot-cake muffins today?’
“She only does those on Tuesday and Friday,” someone replied for her. “Today is zucchini and poppy seed.” Another dirty hand bearing dollar bills appeared through the sea of worn denim and work shirts. “I took one of each.”
A machinist with a streak of grease on his cheek held out a ten. “Same. And orange juice.”
Taking the men’s money, she made change from the small black pack she wore around her waist. The carefully arranged rows of muffins and cheese rolls she had baked herself that morning were quickly disappearing, along with iced cartons of juice and milk and gallons of coffee from her catering truck’s built-in urn.
She didn’t mind the dirt on the men’s hands and clothes. Most of the welders, electricians, steelworkers and laborers at this construction site—like the stevedores and dock workers she would feed next on her route—were salt-of-the-earth, hardworking men who knew the value of even harder work. They were much like the people in the neighborhood where she’d been born, still lived and would probably die. Some were even from her neighborhood, the Ridge, as those who’d grown up in Bayridge, Virginia, called it. So were some of the guys on the dock. She was one of them. She knew the value of hard work, too. Day in and day out. She couldn’t imagine living her life any other way.
“Hey, Madison.” The deep, self-conscious voice came from beside her. “What are you doing this Friday night?”
Her smiled moved to the strapping steelworker who’d asked the same question three weeks running. Eddie Zwicki was tall, cute, built and probably only a year or two younger than her own twenty-eight years. “Going to bed early. I have to get up to shop and clean my truck on Saturday so I’m ready for you guys again next week.”
“Don’t you ever go out?”
“Not with my customers,” she replied, her tone kind as she repeated the rule she’d adopted to save face and feelings. She didn’t date anyone, actually. As hard as she was working to build her business, she simply didn’t have the time. “But, you know what?” she asked, because he really did seem like a nice guy and there seemed to be so few single ones like that around. “I think you and Tina Deluca would get along great. I told her about you. The kindergarten teacher? Do you want her number?”
“Can she cook?”
“Your favorite oatmeal cookies are her mother’s recipe.”
“Yeah, but can she bake them?”
The guy was quick. “She’s learning.”
Someone behind Eddie gave him a shove. But even as he turned to frown at the guy who’d just passed him, he became distracted from his consideration of Tina’s lack of culinary talent. As the rumble of quiet conversations around them suddenly tapered to near silence, it seemed the other men were distracted by something, too.
Madison stood near the door of her silver truck with its side popped up to serve as an awning. Moments ago she had seen nothing but the men lined four to six deep waiting to make their selections. Now, those men were shifting, booted feet shuffling in the dirt as they parted like a denim-clad Red Sea.
“Morning, Mr. Callaway,” said someone from the back of the group.
“Hey, Mr. Callaway.”
“Hi, guys,” came the deep and cordial reply. “How’s it going this morning?”
The men’s replies to the question were now accompanied by an undercurrent of murmurs. Workers who weren’t talking simply remained silent and stared.
Madison immediately recognized Matt Callaway. He was the tall, commanding-looking gentleman in the suit and hard hat the others greeted with a certain deference. He owned the construction company building the enormous York Port Mall that was currently nothing more than acres of concrete slabs, rebar and steel girders.
He wasn’t alone.
With a curious jolt, Madison realized she knew the man with him, too. Of him, anyway. Just as tall, even more imposing, the man earning the stares that ranged from curiosity to envy was Cord Kendrick.
She had never seen him in person before. But there was no doubt in her mind who he was. Like nearly everyone else in America, she’d seen pictures of him in People and Newsweek, on Entertainment Tonight and in the supermarket tabloids her grandma Nona Rossini devoured like candy. His reputation for fast women and faster living continually made the news. Even people who didn’t pay attention to the lives of the rich and infamous knew of him. The entire Kendrick family was practically considered royalty by the press. His beautiful mother actually was royalty, or so Madison had heard.
She just couldn’t quite remember if Cord’s last scandal had been a paternity suit or a car wreck as she watched both men approach her. Certain her grandma would know, she settled her attention on the men’s boss.
“Morning, Mr. Callaway,” she greeted with her easy smile. “Do you want your usual?”
He was a bit of a celebrity himself, she suddenly remembered. His marriage to the oldest Kendrick daughter last year had caught half the nation off guard, since no one had even known Ashley Kendrick was dating anyone in particular. What Madison recalled most, though, was her own surprise when her grandmother had read the woman’s new husband’s name and Madison had recognized Matt as the very man who had given her permission to enter his site to sell to some of his workers.
The birth of his and Ashley’s daughter a couple of months ago had made headlines, too. It had also resulted in paparazzi lining the chain link fence surrounding the vast construction site trying to get shots of him.
“My usual,” Matt repeated, rubbing his chin. “I didn’t realize I was getting that predictable.”
“So you want zucchini, then? Or banana nut?”
She reached for a zucchini muffin and an empty cup for him to fill himself.
“And for you?” she asked, finally glancing toward the man she just realized would now be his brother-in-law. She had heard that the Kendrick family owned the mall project. That association alone could explain how the owner of the construction company had met Cord’s sister. It would also explain Cord Kendrick’s presence on the job site.
Grandma Nona was going to be terribly impressed that she’d seen them both today. But the only thing that truly impressed Madison herself was that Matt Callaway looked right at home in his silver hard hat, while the man with the admittedly gorgeous blue eyes looked more as if he were modeling his for GQ. The cut of his jacket was definitely designer. Italian, probably. The sweater under it looked too soft to be anything but cashmere.
His blue eyes crinkled appealingly at the corners. “I’ll have his usual.”
“One poppy seed. Coffee?” she asked, trying to ignore the jerk of her heart as his glance skimmed over her.
There was nothing the least bit subtle about that glance. He was checking her out, boldly, bluntly and quite thoroughly. He apparently liked what he saw, too, as his glance moved back up the length of her long, denim covered legs, over the maroon turtleneck tucked into them and up to where she’d pulled her dark hair up and back with a clip.
His beautifully sculpted mouth moved into a knee-weakening smile.
Photographs truly had not done the man justice. That expression packed enough charm to fascinate nearly anyone in a skirt.
“Cream. No sugar.”
“You’ll find cream down by the coffee.”
“What kind is it?”
“The kind from cows.”
“The coffee,” he said, hitting her with that smile again. “Jamaican? French roast?”
“Folgers,” she replied, politely. “That’ll be a dollar and a half.”
“I’ll get it,” Matt said.
“Already got it,” Cord replied. Pulling a money clip from his front pocket, he peeled off a five-dollar bill and nodded to the logo on her driver’s-side door. Mama O’Malley’s Catering was stenciled in a shamrock-green arc.
“So, who’s ‘Mama’?” he asked.
She darted a smile past his arm as another worker took a muffin and handed over his money. “That would be me.”
One appraising eyebrow shot up. “You?’
Cord watched the tall brunette with the long, lanky body and the face of an angel hand over a cheese roll that the man behind him couldn’t reach. She wasn’t being especially rude or cool to him. Her tone even held the same hints of kindness he’d heard when she addressed everyone else. She just wasn’t giving him the same bright smile she’d seemed to manage for every single one of the other guys.
She didn’t seem interested in conversation with him, either.
He could always get a woman talking. Young. Old. In between. Especially in between.
Hating to think he was losing his touch, Cord skimmed a glance over her once more. “You don’t look anything like my idea of a Mama O’Malley,” he confessed, slowly shaking his head. She didn’t look like anyone’s mother. She had incredible eyes, skin so smooth it begged to be touched and a mouth that made his water just looking at her. And those legs. They went on forever. “Why do you call your business that?”
“Because O’Malley is my last name and I liked the alliteration. Hi, Bob.” There was the smile. All five hundred watts of it. It wasn’t for him, though. It was for the guy with the belly and a welder’s mask tipped back on his head. “What can I do for you?”
“Come on.” Matt nudged his arm. “Let’s get back to work.”
Cord stepped back. “Thanks,” he called to her, giving it one last shot.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, still polite, and turned her focus to the other men demanding her attention.
Cord felt his forehead pleat as he turned around himself, and started to walk away. Her eyes seemed to light up for everyone else when she smiled. Just not for him.
He glanced back, saw her look down as she made change from the pack around her slender waist. He wondered if they’d met before. If maybe he’d run into her at one of the local nightclubs and if he’d done something to offend her. He made it a point to never offend a woman if he could help it. He’d discovered the hard way that a woman scorned could not only be furious and hellish to deal with, but downright expensive.
The woman he’d heard the other men call Madison didn’t seem at all familiar, though. He would have remembered the name. He definitely would have remembered that smile. It lit her eyes, made her seem friendly, approachable, as if she glowed warmth from within. Without it, she was just another pretty face.
“Does she come here every day?”
“Who?” Matt glanced behind them. “The gal with the snack wagon?”
“We have a couple of trucks that come through here,” he said, looking as if he were trying to recall the specifics of this one’s owner. “I think she’s been around pretty much since we broke ground.” A quarter of a muffin disappeared, totally muffling his “Why?”
Cord shrugged. “Just wondered,” he said, and sank his teeth into a bit of heaven that tasted of sweet butter and lemon and had him closing his eyes in pure bliss.
Madison watched the two big men in the silver hard hats walk away, devouring her muffins as they headed past a huge pile of steel beams and a bright-orange crane that sat still and silent while its operator drank coffee and smoked a cigarette. The workers only had fifteen minutes for a break. They usually cleaned out a third of her stock in five. That gave her ten minutes to pull her restock from the storage compartment at the back of the truck, fill in the gaps in the three tiers of muffins, cookies and rolls, consolidate the fruit so it didn’t look picked over, and change the coffee grounds in the built-in urn so there would be two freshly brewed gallons by the time she reached her next stop on the dock twenty minutes away. She had another stop farther down the dock a half an hour after that. After a quick stop at a small tool-and-die operation, it would be back home to restock with the sandwiches and desserts she’d already made for the lunch run that started at 11:15 a.m.
Male laughter drifted toward her as she set her empty stock box in the back, flipped the switch to start the coffee and closed the stainless steel door. As she did, she consciously kept herself from looking around to see if Cord was still anywhere in sight. She hated the thought that he might catch her and think he had made any sort of impression. And he hadn’t. Not really. Not in any way that mattered.
She had never before met a man anywhere near his social or economic stratosphere, or one whose presence seemed quite so…large. She was around his basic type a lot, though. The attractive irresponsible type whose sole goal was to get into a woman’s pants and be gone before breakfast. She’d met plenty of them coming and going from her friend Mike’s pub, since she happened to live upstairs from it and routinely borrowed his kitchen to prepare her food. And men like them, even if they were rich and famous, weren’t worth the time it took to give them a second thought.
She didn’t think about him, either. Not until twenty-four hours later when she found herself in the same spot she’d been twenty-four hours before, doing pretty much the same thing she did at that same time every Monday through Friday.
Cord Kendrick had so slipped her mind that she hadn’t even remembered to call her grandma last night to tell her she’d met him and given the dear woman the opportunity to demand details.
The only reason she was thinking of him now was because Matt Callaway’s secretary had just called her on her cell phone to order a dozen muffins of the sort she’d given Cord yesterday, along with six large coffees. She wanted them delivered to the construction trailer, which Madison could see parked a city block away toward the middle of the work site.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Madison replied, going through the same motions she had a thousand times before as she closed the back of her truck and started to close the side. “I’m on a schedule, so I can’t make individual deliveries. If you can send someone,” she suggested, being as accommodating as she could, “I’ll have it ready when they get here. I won’t be leaving for another couple of minutes.”
The harried-sounding woman asked her to hold on, which Madison did while pulling six empty cups and lids from the dispenser and popping open a cardboard tray to set them in. A half a block ahead of her the huge orange crane started up with a rumble and a roar. Break time was over.
A rustling sound came over the phone.
“I understand you don’t make deliveries.”
The voice on the other end of the line was suddenly much deeper, much richer and carried a faint hint of challenge. She recognized that disturbing voice in an instant. That threw her, too. She didn’t want to think that anything about Cord had made an impression. She especially didn’t want anything about him messing with her heart rate.
Had the secretary come back on the line, Madison would have caved in and run the order over. It sounded as if the woman could have used a break. Since it was Cord, Madison’s soft streak succumbed to self-preservation. “It would throw off my schedule.”
“You don’t ever make exceptions?”
“I’m not in a position to do that,” she replied, pretty sure Cord Kendrick didn’t eat many meals from a catering truck. If he had, he’d have some idea of how important it was to stay on time. “I have people who will be waiting for me for their break.”
“What about the people here?” he asked with the ease of a man who knew exactly which buttons to push. “We need a break, too. But we’re in a meeting no one can leave and we really need coffee. We need those muffins, too.”
“Isn’t there a coffeemaker in the trailer?”
“It’s broken. Look,” he said, having failed to elicit her sympathies, “I’ll give you a fifty-dollar tip. Just bring the order. It won’t take that long. Okay?”
Madison could practically feel her back stiffen as she set down the cardboard box she’d started to fill and glanced toward the long white trailer. It was as clear as the patches of blue in the early May sky that Cord Kendrick felt whatever he was doing was far more important than her schedule. It seemed just as apparent that he felt his money would get him anything he didn’t want to bother getting by persuasion.
For a moment she was sorely tempted to tell him he was just going to have to go without today. As she let her more practical nature take over, she grudgingly admitted that, just this once, she could be bought.
Ever since she’d started her catering business, she had dreamed of expanding it. In the past six months, that dream had become an obsession. She wanted to cater parties. Big ones. Little ones. Maybe even weddings, where the food she presented could be elegant rather than everyday. She’d done a couple of small events already. Not that a birthday party for the McGuires’ nine-year-old could be called an event, but the Lombardis’ oldest daughter’s engagement party had been rather nice. She desperately needed equipment, though. Having to rent serving pieces ate up all her profit. And fifty dollars could help buy the professional double chafing dish she had her eye on.
Aside from that, if she hit the lights right on Gloucester, she usually had a couple of minutes to spare.
“It’ll take me at least five minutes to get there,” she finally said.
“You’re less than a minute away if you drive.”
“It’ll take me that long to close up and drive around the cordoned-off area across from where you are.”
“Forget going around. Just pull up to where it’s barricaded and park across from the stack of trusses. Ignore the sign.”
“The one that says No Admittance. And bring one of those coffees with…”
“Cream,” she completed, then sighed because she rather wished she hadn’t just let him know she remembered that. “Does anyone else take anything in theirs?”
She heard him ask. Then she heard him tell her they had sugar and powdered cream there before he thanked her and hung up.
She didn’t know why his thanks surprised her. Maybe it was because he seemed a little impatient this morning. Maybe it was because it seemed pretty clear that he expected his wishes to be met so thanks weren’t necessary.
Suspecting that not many people did deny him what he wanted, annoyed that she’d just done what everyone else probably did and caved in to his expectations herself, she finished boxing up the muffins and filled cups, closed the side of her truck and drove it at a crawl past girders rising from huge concrete slabs and the giant orange crane now swinging its boom toward a stack of steel beams.
Because she was always careful to park only in areas where she and her customers would be safe from traffic and heavy equipment, she was very conscious that she was going where she normally wouldn’t go. She was now close enough to the actual construction to see individual sparks fly from welders’ torches and feel the vibration of a back-up horn blaring as a churning cement truck edged toward massive wood forms. A forklift rolled past, carrying a large blue drum on a pallet.
Ahead of her, wooden barricades blocked vehicle access to the construction trailer. Assuming that the cars parked near the trailer had entered from the street on the other side, which she had originally thought to do herself, she looked around for the sign Cord had mentioned. She couldn’t see it, but the stack of trusses that would eventually be part of a roof was impossible to miss.
Parking across from them, she shook off the niggling feeling that she shouldn’t leave her truck there and slipped out, carefully balancing the box so she wouldn’t tip the coffees. She would only be gone for a minute. Two max, she thought, stepping around the barrier.
It was then that she noticed the sign. The wording on the barrier faced the trailer and its parking lot. From there, the words No Admittance Without Authorization and Hard Hat Area practically screamed at her to go back.
Turning, she picked up her pace, her athletic shoes leaving curvy little patterns in the dirt and the three wooden steps that led up to the long white trailer’s door.
She didn’t have to knock. The door bearing a plaque that indicated the trailer to be the construction office opened before she could even decide if she needed to.
Cord’s big body filled the doorway. Yesterday’s designer Italian had been replaced with designer American. Aware of the Ralph Lauren logo on the sweater pushed to his elbows, she glanced from the wall of his chest past the lean line of his jaw. She had no idea if his smile was for her or for what she carried, but he looked tired, handsome and definitely anxious to get his hands on caffeine. “Am I ever glad to see you,” he murmured, and relieved her of the box. “Come on in.”
He turned away, leaving her to stare at his broad back a moment before she stepped inside. As she did, Matt Callaway rose from a long blueprint-covered table where three other men gathered. All seemed to be talking at once. A middle-aged woman wearing the look of a harried den mother cradled a phone against one shoulder while she pulled incoming faxes from the machine behind her desk and fed them directly into a copy machine. The smile she gave Madison was quick and decidedly grateful.
While one of the other men retrieved the copies and passed them out, Matt reached for his wallet. “Thanks for bringing this,” he said to her. “It’s not a good morning for the coffee machine to be out of commission.” He nodded to where Cord and the others were lifting foam cups from the box. “We have a little problem this morning and none of us can leave right now.” A good-natured note entered his voice. “There are also some of us who had a late night last night and are a little more desperate for caffeine than the others.”
“Hey, I was here on time,” Cord defended, his tone as affable as his friend and business partner’s. Lifting a cup toward the secretary to let her know it was hers, he set it on her desk. “If I’d known you wouldn’t have coffee here, I’d have brought some myself.” He reached into his own pocket. “I’ve got this,” he insisted. “I owe her a tip, anyway.”
Stepping in front of Madison, Cord held out a hundred-dollar bill. “Keep the change,” he said.
Madison blinked at the face of Benjamin Franklin. Beside her Matt had already turned to pick up his coffee and was asking one of the men about some sort of design change. The others were peeling the lids from their cups as they looked over the pages coming from the copier and talking about variances and bearing loads. The numbers and phrases they threw around wouldn’t have made any sense to her even if she hadn’t been so distracted by the man watching her from an arm’s length away.
She caught hint of his soap, and of aftershave lotion laced with citrus and spice. Two relatively fresh nicks on the underside of his carved jaw indicated a close and hurried encounter with his razor.
“You said fifty,” she reminded him, not wanting to notice such personal things about him. It sounded as if he’d had a late date last night. Rushing to make his meeting on time could easily account for why he’d missed breakfast. “With the muffins and coffee that’s only seventy-one dollars.”
There were slivers of silver in his compelling blue eyes. She didn’t want to notice that, either.
Someone’s cell phone rang. Across the room the fax machine beeped. “Consider the difference a delivery fee.”
Her voice dropped. “That’s very generous.”
“I’m very grateful,” he said, echoing her phrasing as she took the bill and slipped it into her waist pack. “You have no idea how I’ve fantasized about those muffins.”
His smile was all the more dangerous for the hints of fatigue that might have tugged at any other woman’s sympathies. But his notorious charm was wasted on her. She’d heard too much about it. It also had nothing at all to do with the jolt that had her flattening her hand over her heart.
An echoing boom shook the trailer from ceiling to tires. Windows rattled. Conversation died. Surrounded by the vibrating cacophony of crunching metal and something heavy collapsing just beyond the trailer’s walls, Madison wondered for a frantic second if they were having an earthquake. But just as suddenly as the sound hit, it stopped.
The men began speaking at once. Two engineer types headed for windows. The rest headed for the door.
Cord reached the door first, throwing it open so hard that it bounced back on its hinges. Matt was right behind him, hard hat in hand and shoving Cord’s at him as soon as his feet hit the dirt.
Caught in the surge of bodies as everyone else now rushed out, Madison found herself hurrying down the steps then stepping aside so she wouldn’t be in the way or get knocked over in the ministampede of foremen and the secretary coming through the doorway. Everyone else seemed to realize that whatever disaster had caused the noise was man-made rather than natural, but Madison barely had a chance to hope that no one had been hurt before she looked to where the wall of men now blocked the No Admittance sign.
They couldn’t go any farther.
The crane that had been lifting long steel I-beams had lost its load. Right on her truck.
Utter disbelief kept Madison rooted right where she stood. Mouth open, too stunned to speak, she stared at the pile of crisscrossed beams that had just annihilated her vehicle. Other than those twenty-foot-long, two-ton girders of tempered steel, she couldn’t see anything but part of the white cab’s cratered roof and a spray of glittering glass shards that had been its windows and headlights.
Her first thought as she screamed, “My truck!” and panic sent her into motion was to save what she could of her food. As she darted toward the men, her second was that she smelled gasoline.
Shoving her way past the barrier of bodies and the barricade, intent on saving what she could, it vaguely occurred to her that the gas tank had ruptured.
“Hey, lady! Stay back!”
“Somebody stop her!”
She had no idea who’d yelled at her. “That’s my truck!” she cried again, only to feel something hard clamp around her arm.
That iron grip stopped her cold.
Disbelieving, distraught, she whirled to see Cord holding her back as the other men slipped past the barricade.
“What are you doing?” she screamed, struggling to break his hold.
“I’m saving your neck!” The heat of his palm burned into her, his grip as unyielding as his tone. “That claw is still swinging up there, and the beams it dropped aren’t stable. If one lands on you, it’ll break half the bones in your body.”
Even as he spoke, a long, heavy girder slipped from the top of the pile. It slid to the dirt with the groan of metal and a resounding thud that had men jumping back as if they’d been jerked by strings. Someone yelled for someone else to put out his cigarette. Overhead, the huge black claw that had held the beams swung from its cables like the pendulum of a clock.
Madison’s glance fell back to what was left of her truck and the dark pool slowly seeping from under it. With a shiver, she realized a single spark could turn the pile of collapsed metal into a bonfire.
“You’re lucky you were bringing the coffee,” Cord muttered above her. “If you’d been inside there, you’d have been history.”
Shock turned to incredulity.
“You think my bringing you breakfast saved me from being hurt?” Adrenaline surged as her eyes collided with his. “Are you delusional? If I hadn’t delivered that order, I would have been halfway to my next stop by now. That’s clear over by the docks, miles away from that…that…thing,” she concluded, waving her free arm at the crane.
“Hey,” he soothed. “Take it easy.”
Easy? “How am I supposed to do that?” she demanded, offended that he would even suggest it. “Because I did deliver that order, I’m not going to make that stop or any of my other stops. My truck has been reduced to a manhole cover, and the food I got up at three o’clock to make is mush. That truck is my livelihood, Kendrick, and the people at my stops depend on me to be there on time.”
Her outstretched arm reminded her that he still had her other one shackled. Not caring at all for the patient look he had the nerve to give her, she jerked back. Hard.
Suspecting that she hadn’t freed herself so much as he had let her go, not liking the idea that he held power over her in any form, she spun away, only to spin right back. He actually thought he’d helped her?
“I never should have listened to you,” she insisted, her chin up, her voice quavering with anger and the anxiety that got a firmer grip with each passing second. “I should have stuck to my schedule and not paid any attention to anything you offered or anything you said. You’re the one who told me to park there. Right there. In that very spot,” she reminded him, poking her finger toward the pile. “You even told me to ignore the warning sign. So, don’t you dare act like you’ve done me any favors.”
She was furious. She was distraught. She clearly blamed him and him alone for what had happened.
She also looked as if she could go for his throat because she’d done what he had asked. Fearing she might do just that, anxious to avoid a scene, Cord ignored the lack-of-sleep headache brewing in the base of his skull and started to reach for her again.
She immediately stepped away. Since calming her down by touch didn’t appear to be an option, he made his manner as placating as he could.
“You’ll get another truck,” he assured her. “I’ll buy you a new one and you’ll be back in business in no time.”
Her eyes flashed at his attempt to appease. The bits of gold in their liquid brown depths reminded him of flame. “I need to be back in business now,” she informed him. Her hand darted toward the pile of rubble again “Throwing your money at this isn’t going to fix it. You can’t replace a catering truck the way you can a car. New ones have to be ordered.”
“So I’ll order one.”
“It took me three months to get that one! What am I supposed to do in the meantime?”
Cord opened his mouth to reply. Having no idea what to say that wouldn’t just add fuel to her fire, he shut it again. Jamming his hands into his pockets, he watched her walk off. Stalk, actually, though even angry, she moved with a feminine grace that held his focus on the slender line of her back, the gentle flare of her hips, her long, long legs. She did more for cotton knit and denim than most women did for cashmere and silk. Definitely more than many of the women he’d met over the years. Especially the models. There was a softness about her curves that told him she at least had some meat on her bones.
With her luminous brown eyes and her incredible mouth, Madison O’Malley looked like pure temptation. Or would have if she hadn’t gone off the deep end about who was responsible for the state of her truck.
Feeling another publicity nightmare coming on, willing to do anything to avoid it, he followed to where she’d made it past two engineers in hard hats scratching their heads over how best to move the beams. He wanted coffee. He wanted food. He wanted to finish his meetings here, get ready for the sailing race in Annapolis next week and forget he’d ever laid eyes on the spitfire now arguing with the site supervisor.
Unfortunately, what he wanted wasn’t possible at the moment.
Madison wasn’t arguing.
She was begging.
“Just let me see if I can get the storage door open. Please,” she asked the weathered-looking man in a chambray shirt blocking her way. “I just want to salvage whatever is left of my food.”
“I keep telling you, ma’am, it’s too dangerous.” He motioned to the driver of a forklift, far less concerned with her problems than his own. Progress had just come to a screeching halt at this section of the huge project. “You saw that beam slip a minute ago. That one there could go next,” he said, pointing to one hovering at eye level. “Let us get this cleared out, then you can do what you need to do. You shouldn’t be here without a hard hat, anyway.”
His glance moved past her shoulder. “I told her she shouldn’t be here, Mr. Kendrick,” he called. “She’s just not listening.”
“It’s okay,” Cord called back, walking toward them as if he owned the place—which, she supposed, he did. “I’ll take care of this.”
It was as obvious as the supervisor’s relief that no one was going to let her near her truck, much less inside any part she might be able to squeeze into. Realizing that, Madison looked from the crossed lengths of steel and frantically switched gears. If she couldn’t save some of her inventory, then she needed to focus on transportation. She needed some way to get to her other stops and tell her customers…
Tell them what? she wondered, deliberately turning from Cord’s approach. That she couldn’t feed them today? That she couldn’t feed them the rest of the week? The month?
Only once in her life had she failed an obligation. That had been years ago, yet she still lived with the consequences of that failure in one form or another every day of her life. She had diligently met every responsibility ever since. The thought of not meeting her commitments now added anxiety to pure distress.
She needed a vehicle. Something large. But her thoughts got no further than wondering whose vehicle she could borrow when she realized her mind was turning in aimless circles, too overwhelmed to think at all.
The staccato beep of a back-up horn joined the shouts of men and the clang of metal as she sank down on a stack of cement blocks. Not sure if she felt bewildered or simply numb, she propped her elbows on her knees and dropped her face into her hands.
She couldn’t phone ahead to her next stop. There was no one in particular to call. It was simply a spot where she parked on the pier between dock 23 and 24. As soon as she arrived, some of the men who unloaded the cargo ships or tended their repairs would start swarming toward her. There were other catering trucks that serviced the area. But each had its own spot and its own loyal customers. Her customers would be waiting for her even now.
The thought that she was letting them down put a knot the size of a muffin in her stomach.
A large hand settled cautiously on her shoulder.
“Hey,” Cord murmured. “Are you all right?”
Beneath his palm, he felt her slender muscles stiffen. He knew she wasn’t okay. Even as insensitive as he’d been accused of being, he could see that. He just hoped she wasn’t crying. He never knew what to do when a woman did that. If she was, though, he’d deal with it—simply because he couldn’t let her walk off without taking care of what had happened.
His hand slipped from her shoulder. He could argue that he was no more at fault for the present condition of her truck than she was. After all, she had made the decision to accept the order and deliver it. And she was the one who’d made the final decision about where to park her vehicle.
He could also point out that the true culprit here was the crane or its operator, both of which belonged to Callaway Construction. As upset as she seemed, he doubted that she’d care about that logic, though. As for himself, all he cared about was avoiding headlines. The last thing he needed was more bad publicity. He especially did not need another woman suing him. His father would disown him for sure.
“Here.” Tugging at the knees of his slacks, he crouched in front of her. Relief hit when she glanced up. Her golden-brown eyes were blessedly clear. Not a tear in sight. As he pulled off his hard hat and pushed his fingers through his hair, he thought she looked awfully pale, though. And more than a little upset. Not that he could blame her. Her truck was scrap metal. “You need to wear this.”
Lifting the silver metal hat, he sat it on her head, tipping it back so he could see her eyes. “It’s the only way Matt will let you stay in this area.”
“What about you now?”
He shrugged. Following rules had never been his strong suit.
“Look.” He clasped his hands between his spread knees. “We can work this out. I’m going to make sure everything is all right. Okay?”
She said nothing. She just stared at him as if he were speaking some language she didn’t comprehend, while someone shouted for the laborers who’d wandered over to get back to work.
The way her delicate brow finally pinched made him think she might ask how he was going make everything right again. She didn’t seem the type to accept a man’s word on blind faith. His word, anyway.
Instead she asked, “What kind of car do you have?”
“What do you drive?” she clarified.
He nodded toward the closest of the vehicles on the other side of the barricade. “That Lamborghini over there.”
Madison glanced at the squat silver car. As low and flat as it was, it looked as if something heavy had landed on it, too. “Of course,” she murmured.
Taking a deep breath, she shook her head as if willing it to clear. Her fingers trembled as she lifted her hand to her forehead and nudged back the hat’s hard plastic inner band. “I need something bigger.” Curling her fingers into her palm, she lowered her hand to hide the shaking. If she was going to fall apart, it wasn’t going to be where anyone could see it. “I have my lunch restock at the pub. If I can get a van or something of that size and some ice chests, I can get my customers their lunch today and let them know I won’t be there for them tomorrow.”
“A van,” he repeated.
“Your insurance should cover the cost of renting one. I can’t turn this in on my policy.” She’d already had two minor fender-benders. “My premiums are high enough as it is. Something like this will send them through the ceiling.”
Cord held out his hand to quiet her. He needed to keep her calm. He also wanted very much to keep settlement as simple as possible. “Your insurance won’t have to pay a cent,” he assured her, not bothering to add that he would be writing the checks himself to make sure of that.
He wanted to keep insurance companies out of this completely. Hers, Callaway Construction’s and especially Kendrick Investment’s. If insurance carriers were involved, that would mean they would need her statement. There was no reason for his name to appear on the incident report Matt would have to file to satisfy site and government safety regulations. But if she mentioned in a claim statement that he’d told her where to park—and to ignore the warning signs, to boot—that would be all it would take for his name to leak out somehow and for the press to start dragging it through the mud again.
He could see the headlines now.
Prodigal Prince of Camelot Destroys Working Girl’s Livelihood.
There were times when he couldn’t win for losing. All he’d wanted was breakfast.
“Just tell me what you need and I’ll see that you get it. How many ice chests?”
“Enough to hold two hundred sandwiches, a hundred cans of soda, and two hundred cartons of milk and juices.” Doing a quick mental inventory of her normal lunch run, Madison decided she’d have to forget coffee. She had no way to make it. “I can put desserts and fruit in boxes.”
“How soon do you need it?”
Ten minutes ago, she thought. “An hour and a half,” she replied, because that’s when she normally would start her lunch run.
She thought for certain that the man crouched in front of her would tell her there was no way that would happen. At the very least, she expected him to point out that the paperwork alone could take that long. Yet, he gave no indication at all that he expected her needs to be a problem.
Looking very much like a man who never expected needs of any sort to be a problem, he rose with an easy, athletic grace and offered her his hand.
She had no idea why the gentlemanly gesture caught her so off guard.
“Consider it done,” he replied, taking her hand when she didn’t move. He tugged her up, promptly let her go. “An hour and a half,” he agreed. “Where do you want the van delivered?”
She couldn’t believe he was being so cooperative. She didn’t believe, either, that he could pull off such a miracle. “Mike’s Pub on Lexington and Hancock in Bayridge,” she said, wondering if Mike Shannahan could be bribed into letting her borrow his pickup. Mike loved his truck. He polished and pampered it as if the thing had a soul. Maybe if she promised to cook him dinner every night for a month, he’d let her use it. “It’s about five miles southeast of here,” she added, on the outside chance that miracles actually did happen.
Reaching into the front pocket if his khakis, Cord pulled out his money clip and slipped out a twenty-dollar bill. “Have Suzanne in the construction office call you a cab,” he said, as she stared at the money.
“What about my truck?”
“I’ll take care of it. You just do what you need to do with the van. Hey, Matt,” he called, and left her staring at the hat dent in the back of his golden hair as he walked away.
It took nearly an hour for a cab to arrive. Madison spent most of that time pacing between the trailer and the barricade and trying to reach Mike on her cell phone. Mike had been four years ahead of her all through school, so she’d actually known his sisters better when they were all younger, but Mike had always been like a big brother to her. Since she rented the apartment above the pub from him and used the pub’s kitchen to prepare her food, he was also her landlord.
She couldn’t reach him, though. The pub didn’t open until noon and he wasn’t answering his home phone.
When the cab arrived, she was trying to think of who else had a truck and wouldn’t be at work that time of day. Twenty minutes later she had concluded that even if she did locate a truck, it would take forever to borrow the ice chests she needed. Still refusing to give up, because giving up simply wasn’t something she did, she decided to rent ice chests and was mentally calculating how long it would take her do that when the cab rolled to a stop.
Mike’s Pub, with its familiar green awnings, leaded-glass windows and angled, corner door, sat on a narrow street that reflected the very essence of the Ridge’s roots. There wasn’t a building or business in the Ridge that hadn’t been there for as long as Madison could remember. Corollis’ Deli sat next door to the pub. Next to the deli, the beauty shop still turned out women with perms and blue hair, but had recently updated to add weaves. Across the street, below two stories of apartments, Reilly Brothers’ Produce anchored one corner, the Bayridge Bookstore the other. In between were sandwiched the pharmacy and an Italian bakery that had been run by three generations of Balduccis.
Surrounding them all was the neighborhood, with its tree-lined streets, tidy houses, cracked sidewalks and bicycles lying on neat lawns.
All Madison noticed after she paid her driver was the white van parked near the corner mailbox.
A young man in a blue mechanic’s uniform met her as she stepped from the cab. After confirming that she was Madison O’Malley, he handed her the van’s keys, told her there were ice chests and ice inside it, and left in a beige SUV that had been waiting nearby to give him a lift back to wherever it was he’d come from.
As she stared at the keys in her hand, it took her a moment to realize she could stop worrying about how she was going to make her lunch stops. Cord had actually done what he’d said he’d do. And with time to spare.
Madison had even more time to spare a few hours later. And spare time wasn’t something she usually had.
She usually finished her lunch route by 12:40 and returned to the pub near 4:00 p.m. With her normal routine seriously shot, she found herself back an hour early because she had no truck to gas up and clean, no leftovers to drop off at the seniors’ center and no idea how she was going to salvage her business.
As she pulled up behind the silver Lamborghini parked at the curb, she also had no idea why the fates had seen fit to throw Cord Kendrick into her path.
Three animated preteen boys hung around the racy car in front of her. Only one seemed able to tear his glance from all that horsepower when she walked over to see what they were up to. Sean Bower’s focus, however, had already turned back to the wide black tires when he spoke.
“Isn’t this way cool, Madison? It must go a hundred miles an hour!”
“Way cool, Sean,” she replied, unable to help smiling at the wide-eyed awe behind his little glasses. The Ridge was a Ford-and-Chevy sort of neighborhood. A car that probably cost more than any of their homes necessarily drew attention. Particularly the attention of the juvenile male variety. Personally, she still thought the thing looked as if something heavy had sat on it. “And I’m sure it does.” She ducked her head to see Sean’s face. “You might want to back up so you don’t get drool on that fender.”
Backing up herself, she glanced toward the ten-year-old Balducci twins. She’d never been able to tell them apart. It didn’t help that they both always wore blue navy SEAL baseball caps. “You boys all keep your hands off the car. Okay?”
The one on the right, Joey, she thought, put his hands behind his back. “We didn’t touch anything.”
“Yes, you did, Jason,” his brother insisted, proving that she’d gotten them wrong again. “You breathed on the rearview mirror and made your nose print on it.”
“Boys?” Madison called, stopping with her hand on the pub door’s ancient brass handle. “Wipe the print off. Okay, Jason? And keep your hands to yourself.”
She didn’t wait to see if the boys would comply. Had Cord’s car been parked a couple of miles farther south, she would have reason to be concerned about the safety of his hubcaps. The kids from this neighborhood, though, rarely caused real trouble. When everyone knew who you were, knew where you lived, who your parents were or who your teacher was, it took considerable creativity to stray too far from the straight and narrow.
When she walked through the door, the sounds of the boys’ animated voices gave way to the voice of a sports announcer coming from the wall-mounted television above the bar. Rumor had it that, except for the TV, the neon beer signs and a new mirror behind the bar, Mike’s Pub hadn’t changed much since the first Michael Patrick Shannahan had opened it a hundred years ago. Four generations and four Michael Patricks later, lace curtains still hung over the front windows, dark wood booths still lined the walls, a dozen scarred wooden bar stools still lined the long, brass-railed bar, and pints of beer still flowed from the taps along with the bartender’s sympathy for whatever injustice or woe a patron had suffered that day.
Her eyes were still adjusting to the dimmer light when the men sitting at the bar ahead of her turned to see who’d joined them. Usually when she arrived home, the place was packed with dock workers who worked the seven-thirty to three shift and stopped for a cold beer and conversation on their way home. Since she was a little early, only Ernie Jackson and Tom Farrell were there.
“Hi, Madison.” The craggy-faced Ernie gave her a toothless smile. “Finish up early today?”
“How’s it going, Ernie?” she asked automatically.
“Can’t complain,” he said, and turned back to the beer he’d probably been nursing since noon.
Tom, newly retired from the docks, lifted his coffee mug to her. Madison suspected he was there escaping Mrs. Farrell. According to Grandma Nona, Tom’s wife of forty-three years had drawn up a “honey-do” list a mile long and had harped on him since his first day off to get started on it.
From behind the bar, Mike caught her eye and tipped his head toward a booth near the front door. With his deep auburn hair, green eyes and infectious smile Michael Patrick V was Irish to the core. His smile was missing, though. All she saw in the big man’s freckled features was curiosity.
“You have someone waiting for you,” he said.
She already knew that. “Thanks,” she murmured, and glanced behind her.
Had she not seen Cord’s car, she would have taken the outside staircase to her upstairs apartment as she usually did and, alone and in private, faced the panic clawing at her stomach. Given that she had an audience, she staved off that panic as best she could and walked over to the large and faintly cautious-looking man rising from the booth next to the last.
The way Cord stood at her approach spoke of manners that were more automatic than practiced.
It was a fair indication of how upset she was that something that might have impressed her barely registered. She was too busy thinking that Cord Kendrick looked as out of place in the working-class establishment as his car did out on the street—and wishing she had never laid eyes on his too-handsome face. She structured her entire life around the work that kept her running sixteen hours a day, six days a week. The thought of any part of that structure collapsing had her stomach in knots.
Assuming he wanted the van back, she held out the keys. “Thank you. Very much.”
Rather than taking the keys, he asked, “Did the van work out?”
“It got me where I needed to go.”
“Then, keep it until a new truck can be delivered. That’s what I want to talk to you about,” he said, motioning for her to sit down. “I have no idea what it is you’ll want, so we need to arrange for you to order it yourself.”
Preferring the isolation of the high-backed booth to being the day’s entertainment for the guys at the bar, she slid onto the green Naugahyde bench seat. Cord slid in across from her, his long legs bumping hers.
“Sorry,” he murmured.
As if hoping to coax a smile from her, he smiled himself. It was sort of a half smile really, an expression that held a hint of contrition and male appeal that would have had the hearts of most women melting.
In no frame of mind to be charmed, definitely in no mood to smile, she simply watched him push aside the beer he’d ordered and hadn’t touched.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“Tell me where you want to order the truck from.” Leaning forward, he clasped his hands on the dark and scarred wood, his voice low enough that the men gave up trying to listen and turned their attention back to ESPN. “I’ll get a letter of credit to the dealer. I also need to settle up with you for the food you lost this morning and your lost profits for the day. They took your truck to a salvage yard a few miles from here. I told the owner of the yard not to do anything to it until he heard from you. I don’t know what you had in there that might be of personal value to you, so you might want to check it out. All I was able to get were these.”
He pulled her sunglasses from the inside pocket of his beautifully styled leather jacket, along with his checkbook. The pen he also withdrew looked suspiciously like real gold.
“Thank you,” she murmured, taking the glasses. Considering how flat the cab of her truck had been, it amazed her that they were still intact. He amazed her a little, too. A few hours ago she hadn’t been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt about much of anything. She had to admit now, that the man seemed to be doing whatever he could.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” she said, voice calm, insides knotted. “And I appreciate the use of the van. But I’m going to lose more than just today’s profits. There are state laws regulating businesses like mine. I can’t meet the refrigeration and sanitation requirements with the van, and I’m not going to risk having my food preparation license pulled. All I’ll be able to sell now is baked goods, fruit and soda,” she told him. “I can’t even sell coffee because I don’t have enough thermoses, and I wouldn’t have any way of filling them on the road. That’s only a third of my business.”
“Baked goods and sodas.”
His broad shoulders lifted in a dismissing shrug. “Then, I’ll pay you the other two-thirds for every day you’re without the right kind of truck.”
He clearly didn’t see a problem. He also seemed to think that all he had to do was open his checkbook and her little crisis would be solved.
Wondering if life was always that easy for him, and suspecting it must be, considering who he was, she forced patience upon her growing unease. “This isn’t just about money. Money isn’t going to feed my customers or get me my work back,” she explained, needing him to understand that dollars couldn’t begin to replace the structure of her carefully ordered life. “I get up at three o’clock in the morning to do my baking and make sandwiches. At eight-twenty I load my truck and leave for my first stop. I finish my breakfast-and-break run, come back for lunch restock and finish the lunch run by twelve-forty. After that, I gas up my truck, drop off leftovers at the seniors’ center, stop at the produce market and come back here so I can clean up the truck, refill the dispensers and get my dry ingredients mixed up for the next morning’s baking.
“All I’m going to be able to do now is a breakfast-and-break run,” she continued, only now allowing herself to consider what tomorrow would bring. With all she’d had to deal with that day, she had managed to avoid that prospect so far. With her sense of anxiety growing, she truly wished she could avoid it now. “That means I won’t have to bake nearly as many cookies and I won’t make sandwiches at all. And I won’t have my lunch run to make, or my truck to take care of when I get back, so that means I won’t have nearly as much to do when I get back in the afternoon.”
She shook her head, wondering how many hours that left unfilled. Not wanting to know, self-recrimination lowered her voice to a mutter. “If I hadn’t wanted the money for that stupid chafing dish, everything would be fine.”
Cord watched the pretty, sable-haired woman across the booth from him rub her forehead. Her short, neat nails were unpolished, her slender fingers ringless, her dark and shining hair pulled back and clipped casually at her nape. Her lush mouth was unadorned, free of the shiny sticky gloss worn by so many of the women he knew. There was a freshness about Madison O’Malley that wasn’t terribly familiar to him, a lack of studied polish that spoke of interests beyond the hours he knew some women—his own mother and sisters included—spent being manicured, pedicured, highlighted, waxed, masked and massaged. On the other hand, it didn’t sound as if she had time for such fussing. From what he’d just heard of her schedule, she barely had time to sleep.
That she also now seemed as upset with herself as she was with him wasn’t lost on him, either.
Overlooking the fact that anyone else would be grateful for the break, and hoping to cash in on the blame she seemed to be feeling toward herself, he focused on the chafing dish she’d just mentioned. He had no idea how it figured into what had happened, but he’d buy a gross of them for her if it would help fix this little mess.
“This chafing dish,” he said, ducking his head to see her eyes. “Is it something you need for your business?”
“It’s one of a lot of things.” Absently pulling a napkin from the holder, she lifted her head. “I’m trying to expand my catering business, but I don’t have the equipment and serving pieces I need for parties. If I’d had a couple of good double chafers I wouldn’t have had to turn down Suzie Donnatelli’s wedding last week. Not that she asked,” she admitted, sounding as if she were talking more to herself than to him as she rolled the napkin’s edges, “but I know she would have if I’d told her I could do it.
“That’s why I took the coffee and muffins to the trailer,” she hurried on, her racing thoughts leaving him in the conversational dust. “It wasn’t worth being off schedule for twenty dollars worth of coffee and food, but a fifty-dollar tip would make a serious contribution to my equipment fund. As it was, the tip you gave me would almost buy the blasted thing, but it wound up costing me my truck.”
For a moment Cord said nothing. He just sat there wanting very much to keep her away from her last thought.
“Okay,” he said, buying himself a few seconds while he weighed the new information she’d more or less given him. If he read this woman correctly, she was actually more upset about having time on her hands than she was her loss of income. She also had something more she wanted to do, but hadn’t been able to because she hadn’t had the extra income to do it with.
“If I get you equipment and catering jobs, would that help?”
Madison opened her mouth, blinked and closed it again.
“I can buy you whatever you need,” he said, thinking that anything he had to pay would be a bargain compared to what it would cost him if he couldn’t make her happy enough to stay away from insurance companies and lawyers. “And I know lots of people who entertain. You can work on that end of your business until your new truck gets here.”
His expression mirrored hers when her eyebrows pinched.
“What?” he asked, needing to stay up with her, if not one step ahead.
“It’s not just the equipment I lack. Not exactly,” she confessed, sounding as if one set of concerns had just given way to another. “It’s the experience. I’ve done a few small parties,” she explained. “I’ve just never done anything of any size that wasn’t just hors d’oeuvres.” Suddenly looking a little self-conscious, she dropped her voice another notch. “I’m sort of still in the planning stages.”
Cord drew a slow, deep breath. When he’d walked in, he had thought that he could write out a couple of checks, make sure she got an even better truck than the one she’d had so she would have no cause for complaint, and hope that would be the end of it. There was also the little matter of getting her to sign a release of claim for Callaway Construction, but there were details to iron out first.
“You can practice on me,” he concluded, tightening his grasp on the only negotiating tool he’d been able to find. “I’m having a few people in this weekend. Saturday night. Nothing formal,” he assured her, since that seemed to be a concern. “I’m not a formal kind of guy.” That was his family’s forte. He could hold his own with a wine list, and he enjoyed the finer things as much as the next man. He just didn’t like having to put on a tux to do it. “I thought I’d call a restaurant and have them deliver, but the job is yours if you want it.”
When Madison felt excited, nervous or uncertain, she needed to move. Needing to move now, she slid from the booth, took a step away, then turned back.
“You want to hire me?” she asked, looking incredulous, sounding doubtful.
“It works for me, if it works for you.”
Madison promptly started to pace. Three steps one way, three steps back. Cord Kendrick had connections in circles it would take a miracle for her to enter on her own. And there he was, his impossibly blue eyes following her every move while he waited for her to accept or decline the offer of her lifetime.
His mother had been royalty.
His older brother was the governor of the state.
His father was related to the Carnegies or the Mellons. Or maybe it was the Vanderbilts. All she knew was that he’d come from old money that had made tons more.
Granted, from what she’d read, the Kendrick family had little to do with Cord himself, but the circle he reputedly ran in wasn’t that shabby, either: Grand Prix racers, supermodels, platinum recording artists. Owners of large, multimillion-dollar construction companies.
“I don’t know,” she murmured, pacing away from him. “I’d planned to practice more on my friends first.” It was one thing to help them out with their parties. She knew what it took to please them. But catering was all about referrals. “What if your dinner is a disaster? If I’m really not ready, I could end my career before I even get started.”
Because she kept turning away, and because her voice was still low, Cord was having trouble catching what she said. Wishing she would stand still, he levered his long frame out of the booth and caught up with her two empty booths down.
“You’ll be fine,” he assured her.
“How do you know?”
“I’ve tasted your cooking.”
Her tone went flat. “You had a muffin,” she reminded him over the scream of race cars on a motor oil commercial. “That’s not exactly chicken Florentine.
“Can you make chicken Florentine?” he asked as she paced the other way.
“I can make lots of things.” She tried out new recipes and new twists on old ones on her family all the time. “There are just some things I’ve never made for more than four people.”
“This will only be for seven or eight. And Florentine would be great. Throw in some pasta, a salad and something for dessert and you’re home free.”
Her uncertainty remained as she turned back. “What kind of pasta?”
He shrugged, took a step closer. One dinner party disaster would hardly be the end of the world for him. But if it wasn’t a disaster and he could help her get more business, he would have made up for the loss of work she was so upset about now. “Something northern Italian. White sauce, not red.”
She started pacing the other way. Grabbing her arm, he turned her right back. “Will you stand still?”
Her faint frown met his. “I think better when I’m moving.”
“Well, you’re making me dizzy.”
“Hey, Madison. Everything okay over there?”
Apparently grabbing her hadn’t been the wisest thing to do. Dropping his hand, Cord turned to see the burly bartender scowling at him from the other side of the bar. The two men bellied up to it weren’t looking too friendly toward him, either.
“Everything is fine,” Madison assured the man. “We’re just talking.”
The ledge of Mike’s brow lowered with the glance he gave Cord before looking back to her. “You just let me know if you need anything.”
“Honest, Mike. Everything’s okay.” A smile smoothed some of the strain from her delicate features as she glanced toward the other men. “Thanks, guys.”
Cord watched the customers turn back to the mirror, where they could keep an eye on his and Madison’s reflections. As if to be sure she truly wasn’t being harassed, the guy she’d called Mike kept a more direct focus on them. At least, he did until the ring of the phone demanded his attention.
The quick concern of the men for her had seemed almost brotherly. As if they regarded her as…family. He’d had that same impression from some of the men around her truck at the construction site, too.
Cord hadn’t had a lot of experience with the sort of protectiveness he sensed here. And certainly not within his own family. Not that he could identify, anyway. But he had friends. More than he could count. There just weren’t many he truly trusted, and of those not a single one was female.
He had discovered long ago that women only wanted two things from him: a good time and his money. He’d never been opposed to a good time himself, and as long a woman was willing to play by his rules and keep her mouth shut around the press, he’d take her along for the ride. But this woman was nothing like anyone he’d ever met. She had workaholic written all over her, and she didn’t seem interested in his money at all. At least not beyond what it would take to replace her truck.
The thought of the press had him heading back to their booth and picking up his pen. After writing out a check, he used her curled-up napkin to write his address on.
“My home and cell numbers are on that, too,” he said, handing the napkin and check to her. “The check is for whatever food you have to buy for the dinner. You can give me a bill later for whatever you want to charge for your time.
“I have to go, but there’s something I need you to do for me,” he continued, his back to the bar as he glanced from his watch to the confusion in her expression. He hated to rush, but he had already bailed on Matt to take care of Madison, and he needed to get back to their meeting. Callaway Construction’s next construction draw hinged on the reports he had to review and sign. He tended to blow off responsibilities others imposed on him, simply because they were someone else’s idea of what he should do and not his own. The responsibilities he chose himself, however, he took quite seriously. He wasn’t about leave his best friend to cover paychecks and costs for materials from his own pocket.
Three other customers walked in, men coming in for a beer after work, from the looks of their grease-streaked clothes. They didn’t seem to notice him and Madison. Not yet, anyway. They were too busy bantering about the Lamborghini outside as they headed for the bar, and speculating about who it belonged to. It wouldn’t be long before they did notice them though. And the fewer people who recognized him, the better.
His voice dropped. “I need you to keep any conversation we have just between us.” He was going to take a chance that she was exactly what she seemed. A woman who just wanted her business back. She hadn’t said or done a thing that would lead him to believe that she was looking for a quick million dollars the way others had when they thought they had something on him. And she definitely didn’t appear to be interested in acquiring his money by showing any interest in him personally.
That part actually stung a little.
“Just between you and me,” he continued, pocketing his checkbook before the newcomers could glimpse much more than his profile, “I have a real knack for drawing bad publicity. It will be a lot easier for both of us if you don’t mention my name to anyone. Especially to the press. Just tell your friends that everything is being handled by Callaway Construction and that I’m its representative. Things are only going to get complicated if we don’t keep the details just between us.” He held out his hand. “Okay?”
Madison glanced from his hand to the odd intensity in his eyes. Despite his casually confiding tone, she couldn’t help feeling that her agreement meant far more to him than anything else they’d discussed.
Living in the Ridge, she knew how crazy things could get when other people started poking their noses into someone else’s business. She had never considered it before, but she supposed that poking its figurative nose in people’s business was exactly what the press did every time something went into print. It occurred to her that he routinely faced the nosiness of the Ridge on a global scale.
“Okay,” she said. Considering all he was willing to do for her, and having no desire to sabotage any of it, she took his hand. “Just between us.”
His grip tightened. “Thank you.”
Her heart did an odd bump against her ribs at his relieved smile. Not sure what to make of the little tug of sympathy she felt toward him, she slowly withdrew her hand.
“You have my number,” he continued, once more relaxed. “Call me with the name of the dealership for your truck and to set up a time for you to come to my place Saturday. I’d like dinner around eight.”
It occurred to her as she watched him give her a nod, go to the door, then hold it so two other customers could walk in before he walked out, that she hadn’t actually agreed to do his party. They’d only been in the discussion stages, and the last she remembered, she’d been balking because she truly didn’t feel ready. Yet somehow in the course of their conversation he had managed to let her know what he wanted, for how many and when, and walked out the door as if there had never been any question about whether or not she would take the job.
“Hey, Madison,” Mike called as, insides shaky, she headed for the door at the back of the bar. “Who was that guy? He looks familiar.”
“Just someone who’s going to help me replace my truck,” she replied, too excited about the opportunity Cord offered to feel railroaded, too apprehensive about it to overlook his knack for talking her into what he wanted.
Unfastening her fanny pack from around her waist, she took out the key to her apartment. She really didn’t want to go into details with Mike now, but she couldn’t leave him with only that. “It got totaled on a construction site.”
A dozen heads turned toward her. “You all right, girl?” old Tom asked.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she assured, pushing open the door to the kitchen. “I wasn’t anywhere near it when it happened. I just have to order another one now.”
Mike set the glass he’d just dried on the shelf behind him. “What about your route?”
“I have a van for the breakfast and break runs. I’ll tell you about it when I come back to make dough.”
She would mix up dough for her cookies and dry ingredients for her muffins after she dumped the ice chests, swept out the inside of the van and came up with a way to provide her customers with coffee. It relieved her to have those things to do. Being occupied kept her from thinking about things she didn’t want to think about. And right now what she didn’t want to think about was the man who had totally wrecked what had started out to be a perfectly pleasant day.
Unfortunately, her reprieve was short-lived. Word was already out about her truck.
News of Madison’s misfortune spread through the Ridge at roughly the speed of light. By the time she left for her modified route the next morning, she had heard from no less than a half-dozen people, her mother included, who felt she should sue Callaway Construction, the crane operator, the company that had made the crane and anyone else a good attorney could come up with to see that she got a decent settlement. After all, she could have been in that truck. Emotional distress was worth a fortune in court these days.
One of the Donnatelli boys, the one with the law degree, even volunteered his services. She found his message on her answering machine when she returned that afternoon.
A few hours later she ended the constant flow of advice, along with the fun everyone was having spending her imaginary money, when she told her grandmother, who told Mavis Reilly, who told everyone else, that she wasn’t going to sue anyone because she had parked where she shouldn’t. She had even seen, and ignored, a warning sign.
She didn’t mention who had told her to park there. Aside from the fact that she’d agreed to keep Cord’s name to herself, she had finally calmed down enough to remember that she’d had a feeling she shouldn’t have parked where she had. Since she’d done it, anyway, part of the blame was hers. Once everyone realized that she wasn’t merely a victim and that her truck was being replaced, the juice went out of the gossip—and she was no longer the topic du jour on the local grapevine.
That relieved her enormously. Though there were those around her who thrived on others’ problems and seemed to think it their duty to dissect, discuss and decide how best to handle them, Madison preferred to handle her life on her own. She had carved out a neat little niche for herself with her work and her family, and as long as her days were full and she took care of those who counted on her, she had nothing to complain about.
She just couldn’t stand to be idle. And with her work load cut, she would have been desperate to fill the time she now had on her hands had it not been for Cord’s dinner party. She could whip up batches of muffins and cookies practically in her sleep. She could chop, slice and dice the makings for chicken salad and tuna sandwiches while shuttling cookies from oven to cooling racks and wrapping muffins in between. On Sundays, when she cooked for her family, she breezily pinched and dashed her way through marinaras, braises, paellas and pastas. Her favorite bedtime reading was a good cookbook. Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines formed little towers on her coffee table and nightstand.
If there was anywhere she possessed confidence, it was in the kitchen. At least, she’d once possessed it there. The need to impress Cord’s guests resulted in three long afternoons of experimenting and tweaking. Yet, by the time Saturday rolled around, she still wasn’t convinced that what she planned to serve was absolutely, totally right.
The need to impress Cord himself only magnified the anxiety she was trying to hide when she pulled into his driveway twenty minutes early.
The directions the secretary from Callaway Construction had given her had been complicated. She had even been told that the house was apparently easy to miss. Afraid of being late, Madison had given herself an extra half an hour to get there. She was glad she had. She’d passed the single-story cedar-and-shake structure twice, secluded as it was in the forest of bushes and trees edging Chesapeake Bay.
Wanting everything to be as close to perfect as she could make it, she quickly checked to make sure her seat belt hadn’t wrinkled her white blouse and black slacks too badly before she pulled a cooler with the components of her appetizers and main course from the back of the van. Leaving the cooler by the front door, she returned for a box of utensils. She made a third trip for the large bag of fresh ingredients she’d shopped for that morning and the dessert it had taken her three attempts to get just like the picture in Cuisine.
Balancing the bag in one arm and her chocolate raspberry mousse torte in the other, she rang the doorbell with her elbow and drew a deep breath.
Thirty seconds later the breath came out, and she rang the doorbell again.
When no one answered after nearly a full minute, the anxiety she felt turned to a different form of unease.
Wondering if Cord was even home, she peered through the wavering lines of stained glass that framed the large door to see if she could detect any movement inside.
She hadn’t talked to Cord directly at all in the four days since the demise of her truck. He hadn’t answered his home phone when she’d called to give him the name of the dealer she’d ordered her first truck from, so she’d left the message on his answering machine. Within two hours, he’d left a message on her answering machine indicating that he was out of town, and telling her that Matt Callaway’s secretary would take care of everything in his absence. The next morning she’d received a call from the dealer, who told her he had a letter of credit in hand that would cover the cost of any truck in his fleet and to discuss the sort of vehicle she wanted.
When she’d called Cord the second time to thank him and finalize the menu and time for his dinner, she got his voice mail again. The message he left in reply while she was on her route said only that what they had discussed was fine and that he’d see her at six o’clock.
She saw no movement inside. Wondering if something had happened and that he hadn’t returned from wherever he’d been, she pulled back.
She’d taken two steps away when the latch clicked, the door swung wide and her heart bumped her breastbone.
Cord filled the doorway. He had one hand on the knob. The other secured the end of a black towel slung low on his lean hips. Another towel was looped around his neck.
She swallowed, opened her mouth to speak and found herself taking a deep breath instead. His broad shoulders, chest and arms looked damp and as hard and as sculpted as hammered bronze. Below the dark terry cloth around his hips, his powerful calves gleamed with droplets of water he’d missed in his hurried attempt to dry off.
Suddenly aware that she was staring, her glance jerked to the carved lines of his recently shaved face. He had rubbed the towel around his neck over his wet hair. The short strands stood up in spikes several shades darker than its usual sun-bleached wheat.
“You’re early,” he said, seeming totally unconcerned about his state of undress. Glancing from the flush coloring her cheeks, he nodded to the items she carried. “Give me those.”
Stepping past the threshold, he reached for the bag in her arms and the plastic cake carrier balanced against her hip. The back of his hand brushed her breast beneath the bag. As his other brushed her side, her lungs filled with the clean scents of soap, shampoo and the minty smell of toothpaste.
“Got ’em,” he said, his face inches from hers. Stepping back, he tipped his head toward the open door. “Come on in.”
Her box of supplies sat on top of the cooler. Wanting badly to match his ease, she grabbed the cooler by its side handles, determinedly ignored the odd tingling sensations where his hands had so casually brushed her body, and followed him into a wide foyer. The space opened to a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the bay that went on forever.
“Where did you go?” she called.
“To your right,” came the deep reply.
Peering around the box balanced high on the cooler, she glimpsed huge abstract paintings on the high walls, overstuffed leather furniture, lacquered tables and marble sculptures all perfectly placed. Beyond it all was that endless view of the bay.
Her glance had just settled on the mast of a sailing sloop moored at the edge of that view when she heard the quiet slap of bare feet on gleaming hardwood floor.
The box that had blocked part of her view suddenly disappeared. “The kitchen is this way,” he said, and left her to follow him once more.
“Did you get your truck ordered?” he asked as he slid the box onto a long slab of black granite counter. The built-in double refrigerator was stainless steel. So were the state-of-the-art appliances built into the counter that overlooked the living room and the water. A high, goose-necked faucet stretched over a stainless steel triple sink behind her.
“Yesterday,” she replied, looking around for a spot to set the cooler. She was almost afraid to touch anything. The closest she’d come to a kitchen like his—a house like his, for that matter—was pictures in magazines. “They have a used one they can refurbish with a propane coffee maker and cold section dividers like I had. It’ll only take about three or four weeks to get it.”
From where he turned to lean against the counter, Cord watched her set her cooler down by the pantry door. He had forgotten how pretty she was, he thought, watching her rise and brush back a strand of dark hair with her forearm. Or maybe when he’d seen her before, she just hadn’t been wearing the makeup that made her dark eyes look so sultry, her mouth so shiny and ripe. Dressed as she was in a crisp white blouse and slim black slacks, and with her dark hair swept up and away from her face, there was a natural elegance about her that hadn’t been quite so obvious in the cotton and denim.
He hadn’t noticed the hint of innocence about her before, either. For a few moments there, it seemed she’d actually blushed when she’d first seen him.
Watching her pull out pans and utensils from the box, he wondered now if the high color in her cheeks wasn’t there just because she was hurrying.
“Order a new one,” he told her.
“That’ll take longer.”
“Then rent the refurbished one to use until the new one comes in.”
“The beams didn’t land on a new one,” she pointed out over the dull clunk of a metal pan on granite. “I’m fine with the one I picked out. It’s the same model and year as my old one and I’ll have the same equipment.”
It seemed that she had no intention of taking more than she felt entitled to. She pulled a pristine white apron from the box. Turning from him, she looped it over her head and tied it around her narrow waist. “Do you have a cutting board?”
“I have no idea,” he admitted, not ready to drop the subject. He could see where the shorter turn-around on a used truck would hold a certain appeal. Getting back to her full route as soon as possible was important to her. He knew that. He just didn’t know another living soul who would refuse what he was offering her.
She glanced up. Deliberately avoiding looking anywhere but straight into his eyes, she murmured, “Excuse me?”
“I have no idea,” he repeated. He wiped at a drip running down his neck. “Except for the basics, I really don’t know what’s in this room. The designer I hired pulled this place together for me.”
The dark wing of her eyebrow slowly arched. “You don’t know what’s in your own home?”
“I’m hardly ever in this one. I bought it last year so I’d have a place to dock my boat while we’re building the mall. Most of the time, I live in Annapolis or Manhattan.” He wasn’t in those places much, either. The condo on the York River and the apartment across from Central Park were investments that happened to be handy places to crash when he came back from whatever challenge his restlessness drove him to conquer. There wasn’t any one place that he actually called home. Except, maybe, the family estate in Camelot. But that huge sprawling mansion with its private lake, tennis courts and riding stable had never felt like a place he belonged, either.
He didn’t care at all for the direction of his thoughts. Cutting them off with the ease of a man accustomed to burying what truly bothered him, he pushed himself from the counter.
“Tell you what,” he said, not totally sure why she looked so puzzled. “Help yourself to whatever you can find. Since the weather’s good, I thought we’d have hors d’oeuvres on the lower deck and dinner on the upper one. I had the housekeeper set up the bar and take the dishes out before she left, but you might want to check out everything first. I’m going to get dressed.”
Madison didn’t get a chance to do much more than nod before he lifted the towel from his neck and walked out, drying his hair. Staring at the muscles rippling in his naked back, grateful that the towel around his lean hips hadn’t slipped, she let out a breath of pure unadulterated relief.
She didn’t know which had been more unnerving. Trying to carry on a conversation while pretending to ignore all that beautiful muscle, or suspecting he knew how all that beautiful muscle rattled her.
She had seen men’s bodies before. In magazine ads for underwear that barely covered the essentials. On the beach, slicked with oil. She had just never been so close to one wearing nothing but terry cloth and a smile. And she mostly definitely had never been close to one who had turned her insides liquid at little more than the contact of his shower-damp skin when he’d relieved her of her load at the door.
She could hold her own with the men she knew. She could banter easily with the best of them. But her experience where men were concerned was limited pretty much to the intellectual and the verbal. When it came to actual physical contact, other than for a few less-than-memorable kisses with Tommy Webster under the bleachers in high school, she couldn’t claim more than the occasional brotherly hug.
She was twenty-eight years old, more talk than action, and she still clung to the idea that when she made love with a man, she would be hopelessly in love with him. The fact that a man with the reputation of an alley cat made her nerves flutter was simply a quirk of fate she would overlook. He had hired her to do a job. Considering that his guests were due to arrive in a little over an hour, she needed to focus on doing it.
Feeling a nervous need to move, anyway, she turned to the lovely cherry wood cupboards and cabinets. She had never in her life cooked in a kitchen as beautiful as the one she moved through now. Yet, as she started searching for a cutting board, her focus wasn’t on the overtly expensive and upscale surroundings, or on how intimidated she actually felt in them. Her attention was on what Cord had said about this house.
He had bought a house most people could only dream about simply to have somewhere to park his boat.
She assumed that the boat he’d referred to was the sailboat she could see moored at the dock beyond his multitiered deck when she hurriedly slipped out the glass dining room door five minutes later to check the deck’s layout. From her vantage point above the water, she could see scuba gear on one of the benches inside the long, high-masted sloop. A bright yellow canoe rested upside down on the wooden dock next to it.
It appeared that Cord was drawn to the water and what lay beneath its surface. She’d heard that he flew his own plane, too, and that he liked fast cars. He won and lost small fortunes gambling. He gambled his own life climbing mountains with names like McKinley and Everest.
Judging by his toys and his rumored pursuits, he was a man who thrived on thrills and adventure. He obviously possessed the considerable skills those pursuits required to have survived them for so long. But she figured he also had to have nerves of steel and lack any sense of fear to actually enjoy the reckless pursuits and behavior that earned him his headlines.
Or maybe what he lacked, she thought as she mentally worked through the placement of the dinner buffet, was common sense. She was a creature of habit. She thrived on routine and needed stability the way she craved air. She couldn’t begin to comprehend the need for such excitement, much less the need to deliberately seek it.
“Did she forget anything?”
Madison turned from the long blue-tiled serving area beside the built-in barbecue. Cord stood in the doorway, one shoulder against the doorjamb, his hands in the pockets of his casual beige slacks. His collarless blue pullover turned his eyes the color of a crystalline sea.
“She?” she asked, grateful to see him covered with more than a towel.
“No. No,” Madison repeated, unable to think of a thing the woman had overlooked. Silverware had been rolled in crisp burgundy napkins and secured with brass rings. Blue pottery dinner plates sat stacked beside their smaller version for dessert. “I’ll set the hors d’oeuvres down by the bar before your guests arrive.” She glanced at her watch, winced at the time. “While you’re having drinks down there, I’ll set out the buffet. I didn’t ask before,” she continued, slipping past him to turn on the oven so it would be ready for her first tray of shrimp-stuffed mushrooms. “Do you want me to stay after to clean up out here, too?”
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