Friday, January 22, 2016



For a little change of pace, I thought we'd take a chapter out of the middle! Enjoy!

Two days later, Dom strode down the marble-floored hall to the double doors of his apartment. Since Rose had arrived, his home had become like a beehive. Where Ginny might be shy about creating a wardrobe, Rose had taken to the task as if she was born to it. Designers had been called in. Dresses and pants arrived for fittings. Two styles of wedding dresses had been chosen and Alfredo Larenzo, an Italian designer, had been hired to create them.

With a wince, he partially opened one of the two double doors, sticking his head in far enough to see into the living room. Which was, mercifully, empty. For a second, he hoped that Ginny and her mom had gone out for lunch, but his chest pinched. Since Rose had arrived, he’d also barely seen Ginny.

Not that he missed her. He didn’t really know her. They were in a fake situation. There was nothing to miss. The thing was, he liked seeing her. Usually, she was funny. After four-hour sessions in parliament, funny was welcome. So he didn’t miss her. He missed her silliness.

Comfortable with that assessment, he walked past the double sofas, over to the bar. When he turned to pour his Scotch, he saw the door to Ginny’s suite was open. And there she stood, in little pink panties and a pink lace bra. A short man wearing spectacles and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows had a tape measure around her hips. Her mom stood with her back to the door, obviously supervising.

Dom stared. He’d forgotten how perfect she was. With full breasts, a sweet dip for a waist and hips that flared just enough for a man to run his hand along, she had what most men would consider a perfect figure.

The short dark-haired guy raised the tape measure to her waist and Dom followed every movement of the man’s hands, remembering the smoothness of her shape, the silkiness of her skin. The tailor whipped the tape around and snapped the two ends together in the middle, right above her belly button and Dominic’s head tilted.

Right there…

Right below that perfect belly button…

Was his child.

His child.

His hand went limp and the glass he was holding fell to the bar with a thump.

Ginny’s head snapped up and she turned to see him standing there, staring. Their eyes met. And it hit him for the very first time, not that she was pregnant, but that the baby she carried was his.

His baby.

He’d created a life.

Rose turned, saw him and walked to the door. “Sorry, Dom. Didn’t realize you were home.”

And she closed the door.

Dominic stared at it. The whole thing about the baby didn’t floor him as much as the realization that the baby was in Ginny’s stomach. In a few weeks that flat tummy of hers would be round. She’d gain weight. Be miserable. Probably grouchy. Her feet would swell. She’d be clumsy—in front of millions. And then she’d spend God knew how long in labor.

Because of his baby.

Ginny’s suite door opened and she walked out, tying the belt of a pink satin robe around her.

“Was there something you wanted?”

He stared at her, his chest tight, his mind numb. Up until that very moment he hadn’t really considered how much Ginny was doing for him. Oh, he understood the loss of her job, but he suddenly saw the other things—losing her friends, living away from her mom, stretching her tummy to unknown limits, changing everything.

For his baby.


He shook his head to clear it. “Sorry. I’m taking a break and thought I’d come up and see if you’re ready for the formal dinner tonight with the ambassador.”

She angled her thumb behind her, pointing at her suite door. “That’s what the little guy with the moustache is doing. Final fitting for a dress Sally tells me your dad is going to have a fit over.”

A laugh bubbled up, but he squelched it. “You can’t always push my dad’s buttons.”

She shrugged. “I’m bored.”

His laughter died. “Really?”

“No! Absolutely not. I’m getting fitted for a billion dresses and three-point-five-million pair of jeans. I never realized how many clothes a princess was expected to have.”

“So you’re not bored?”

“No. I just have a style.” She shrugged and the pretty, shiny pink robe shifted over her sun-kissed shoulders.

He remembered biting those shoulders, nibbling her neck, rubbing his entire body over the length of her entire body.

“And, I swear, I’m not going overboard with sexy clothes. I’m just not going to dress like a grandma.”

He cleared his throat. “I get it about not wanting to dress like a grandma. But be careful.”

“You don’t think it’s time for someone to bring your dad into the twenty-first century?”

“If you can bring him in without the press having a field day, then give it your best shot.”

She smiled,  turned and walked back to her room. He watched every swish of the satin over her round bottom.

“Dinner’s at eight, right?”

She called the question over her shoulder, her shiny yellow hair flowing to the middle of her back, accenting that curved waist that led to her perfect butt.

Dominic licked his suddenly dry lips. “Yes, eight. But we need to be in my dad’s quarters at seven, so that we all arrive in the dining room together, long before the ambassador so we can greet him.”

“Piece of cake.”

She opened the door to her suite and walked inside, leaving him alone in the living room again.

He tugged his tie away from his throat. A year of celibacy with her was not going to be easy.

He threw back the shot of Scotch and returned to his office for a few hours of admin work. When he entered the apartment again, Ginny’s door was closed. He suspected she was getting ready for the dinner, so he went to his quarters, showered and put on the trousers and white shirt of his tux.

He managed the bow tie the way he could since he was eight, but the onyx-and-diamond cuff links, heirlooms with tricky catches, wouldn’t lock.

He looked at his door and smiled. For the first time in his life he had a woman. In his quarters. About to marry him. Why shouldn’t he take advantage?

Walking past the white sofas in the sitting room, he reminded himself that another man engaged to a gorgeous woman would find much better ways to take advantage of the situation, but he sought only help with cuff links. He was insane.

He knocked on her door.


“It’s me, Dom.” He sucked in a breath, suddenly feeling like a teenager trying to ask a girl to a dance. Idiocy. He cleared his throat and strengthened his voice. “The cuff links I’m wearing were gifts from the ambassador we’re dining with tonight. They’d been in his family for a century. The clasps stick.”

Before he could finish, her door opened. She stood before him in a pale blue satin dress. Sleeveless—strapless—it should have given him a delightful view, but she wore a little lace thing over it—sort of a jacket, but not quite long enough.

Her hair had been put up, but not in the grandma hairdo. It was more like a long, silky, braided ponytail with flowers woven through it.

She lifted her pretty face and smiled at him. “Heirlooms, huh?”

He said, “Yes,” but his voice came out rusty again. Except this time he knew why he was dumbstruck. She wore almost no makeup, yet she was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever met.

“Let me see.”

He held out his arm and she examined the cuff links that he’d slid through the buttonholes, but hadn’t locked. She took the first in her nimble fingers, her face pinching in concentration, and something warm and wonderful swished through him.

He told himself it was nothing but attraction, but when she finished closing and locking the cuff links, she glanced up and smiled at him, and he realized how nice she was. It was no wonder she was so good with the children of her high school. She was just plain sweet.

And he was a pampered ruler. Somebody so accustomed to getting his own way that he’d persuaded her to marry him. It was for the best, of course, but that was his pathology. Even if it hadn’t been the best for Ginny, if it had been the best for his country, he would have tossed her feelings aside and worked things to his benefit anyway.

The warm, fuzzy feeling she inspired shifted into cold, hard steel. Because that’s who he really was, and even as much of a bastard as he could be, he didn’t want to hurt her.

Not after she was doing so much for him.

Dom and Ginny left their apartment at ten to seven. He was the picture of kingly gorgeousness in his black tux.

When she told him that, he cast a sideways glance at her. “Thank you. You look lovely, too.”

Not twenty minutes before they had shared a happy moment over his cuff links. Now he was cool and distant? It didn’t make any sense.

They walked to the elevator, which opened as soon as they arrived. Neither spoke as they stepped inside and Dom pushed the button for the second floor.

A guest of the palace, Ginny’s mom was invited to join them for dinner, and she waited for them in the second-floor lobby, beside the elevator.

When they stepped out, she hugged Ginny. “Very pretty.”

Ginny displayed her newfound curtsy skills. “Thanks. Your outfit is gorgeous, too.”

Rose smoothed her hand along the soft beige satin. The king had offered the services of their clothier, and her pragmatic mom hadn’t had a qualm about using them. She had the tailor whip up a simple satin skirt and sequined top that sort of looked like a tank top. She’d swept her yellow and pink hair into a neat French twist. She looked simple, but elegant. More elegant than Ginny had ever seen her.

As Dom guided them in the direction of the king’s quarters, Rose whispered, “I could get used to this.”

Ginny’s eyes widened in horror. She had no idea why Dom had suddenly become distant, but hearing her mom say she could get used to luxury wouldn’t help things.

“Do not say that!”

“I was kidding! It’s stuffy here.” She glanced around at the paintings on the elegant walls. “Almost like a really fancy prison.”

Though Dominic hadn’t appeared to have been listening, he turned and said, “Protocols and security are necessary.”

“For protection and respect,” Ginny quickly told her mom, wanting Dom to see her mom hadn’t meant any harm. She simply wasn’t up to speed on the lives of royalty. “If somebody’s going to rule a country in a part of the world that isn’t always stable, they need to command respect.”

Dominic gave her a look of approval that helped alleviate the sense that she’d somehow caused his bad mood.

But her mom waved a hand. “Give me the good old-fashioned life of a commoner any day of the week.”

Ginny smiled nervously, as Dom shook his head. He’d been so cute when he’d come to her suite, asking for help with his cuff links. Now a world of distance seemed to be lodged between them. She wouldn’t tell him, but it had been nice to have a chance to touch him. And there was nothing more intimate than fixing a guy’s cuff links or his bow tie—as a wife would.

She told herself not to go overboard with those thoughts and knew she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to get hurt by spinning fantasies. Still, though she might be a fake fiancée about to be a fake wife/princess, she and Dom were in this together. She didn’t like the fact that he was unhappy. Especially if it might be because of something she’d done.

Security guards opened the gold doors to the king’s quarters and Dom invited Ginny and her mom to enter before him. The foyer ceilings had to be three stories high. Everything from lamps to picture frames was trimmed in gold.

Her mother immediately recognized a Monet. She gasped. “Oh, this is delightful! One of my favorites.”

“I’d be happy to give it to you as my wedding gift to you.”

All heads turned as the king entered the foyer.

He kissed Ginny’s hand, then Rose’s.

Rose frowned. “First, I do not have the kind of security I’d need to put that in my home. Second, I’m not the bride. I don’t get gifts.”

“It’s our custom to give parents of people who marry into our family a gift…something like a welcome to the family.”

Her mom’s eyebrows rose as she glanced over at Ginny, who shrugged slightly.

She leaned toward the king and whispered, “We’re really not going to be in your family long.”

He bowed. “A custom is a custom.”

Rose nodded. “Point taken. Do I have to get you a gift?”

King Ronaldo unexpectedly smiled. “Do you wish to welcome me to your family?”

Rose laughed noisily. “Well, honey, I guess I do. Except you have to come to my house to get the gift.”

The king directed everyone to the door again. “Maybe I will. But right now we’re going to the formal reception room to meet the ambassador.”

The king took Rose’s arm as Dominic tucked Ginny’s hand in the crook of his elbow.

She’d never seen her mom flirt. Not even after her dad had died. Not with anyone. Ever. The sight of her mom and the grouchy king—well, flirting—made her want to say, “Aw,” and shiver with revulsion simultaneously.

King Ronaldo peeked over his shoulder at Ginny. “By the way, Ginny, I approve of the dress.”

“This old thing?”

He smiled patiently. “I know you’re coming to understand our customs and our etiquette, so you can’t tease me anymore by pretending you don’t understand. Were I you, I would have said thank you.”

Dominic gave her a look and, suddenly, desperately wanting to please him, she took a quick breath and said, “Thank you.”

“I’m hoping your entire wardrobe and wedding apparel will follow a similar pattern.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. I appreciate that you’re allowing me so much say in the wedding plans.”

“Thank your future husband,” the king said as the reached the door of the reception room. “He pleaded your case. Something about pink roses and your friends as bridesmaids lending authenticity to the whole thing.”

Two guards opened the doors. The king walked into the room and led her mother to a discreet bar.

Ginny turned to Dom. “So, you pleaded my case?”

He glanced back at his father. “Saving an argument.”

She reached up and tightened his bow tie. “Well, I appreciate it.”

He caught her hand. “That’s fine. My tie is fine.”

She nodded quickly, annoyed with herself for the intimate gesture and for upsetting him again. “I guess I’m just getting a little too comfortable with you.”

He caught her gaze. “You shouldn’t.”

Ginny stared into his dark, dark eyes, suddenly realizing he wasn’t angry with her. But if he wasn’t angry with her, that left only himself. Was he angry with himself? For asking her for help with cuff links? Or because asking for help with his cuff links proved they were getting close? Becoming friends?

She saw that as a good thing. Within the cocoon of their conspiracy, for the first time in her life, she was taking the initial steps of trusting a man. She didn’t have to worry about consequences. There were none. She knew they were getting divorced. There was no way he could hurt her. And the little bit of intimacy with the cuff links had been warm and wonderful.

But obviously, he didn’t feel the same way.

The ambassador arrived and Ginny played her role exactly as Dom wanted her to play it. They had a toast with the ambassador and his wife, Amelia, who then toasted the newly engaged couple and wished them happiness.

The ambassador then handed them a small box. Dominic opened it, smiled and handed it to her.

She glanced inside and her gaze jerked to the ambassador. “Emerald earrings.”

Amelia said, “Our country’s gift to you on your engagement.”

She said, “Thanks,” but her stomach tightened. She hadn’t considered that kings and ambassadors and entire countries would give her gifts. But really? What wedding didn’t attract gifts?

At the end of the evening, when the ambassador and his wife retreated to their suite, she and Dom also took their leave. Rose had decided to stay and have one more drink with the king and Ginny’s head spun.

When they got into the elevator and the door closed, affording them their first privacy of the evening, she turned to Dominic. “I don’t know if I should apologize for my mom flirting with your dad or groan over the fact that we’re going to get expensive wedding gifts that we have no right to.”

“We’re getting married. We have every right to get gifts and well-wishers have every right to send us gifts.” He frowned slightly. “Haven’t you seen the stack of presents that have already arrived?”

Her mouth fell open. “We’ve already gotten gifts?”

“Many. The protocol is that they stay with Sally until she has an appropriate thank-you card printed up on the royal family’s stationery.”

“We don’t write our own thank-you cards?”

He smiled briefly.

Ginny held back a groan. No wonder he didn’t want to be friendly with her. She was more than a commoner. She was a bumpkin.

She swallowed. “What are we going to do with the presents?”

“What do you mean, what are we going to do with the presents? The same thing other newlyweds do.”

The elevator door opened and he walked outside. She stood frozen, feeling odd—feeling horrible, actually. While she was learning to trust him, he was walking away from her. She might be a bumpkin, but he was the one who had his protocols out of order if he wanted to keep gifts they didn’t deserve. Technically, they were at the center of perpetuating a fraud. They would benefit from a lie.

She scrambled after him. “So we’re going to keep these things?”

He stopped, spun to face her. “What would you suggest? That we tell our guests no gifts? That we all but let them know we plan on divorcing. Get your head in the game, Ginny!”

His tone was like a slap in the face. She took a step back, then another. “I’m sorry.”

He cursed. “Why are you saying you’re sorry! I’m the one who just yelled at you! Do you have to be so nice? So honest?”

“You’d rather I be dishonest?”

“I’d rather that your sanctimonious attitude not make me feel like I’m doing something wrong all the time.”

He turned to the white double doors, marched over, opened them and walked directly to the bar.

She scampered after him. “Wait! What?”

“You’re so nice. You spar with my dad, then say something so respectful he knows you’re coming around. You didn’t want a new wardrobe until we insisted. You’re nice with Sally. You’re happy your mom is here and it’s clear she loves you.” He stopped, sucking in a breath.

“You’re mad at me because the situation is working out?”

“I’m mad at you because every day it becomes clearer and clearer that I’m going to hurt you.”

She tilted her head, not quite understanding what he was getting at.

“You say you don’t want to get drawn into this life and I believe you. But you and I…” He downed the shot of Scotch and poured another. “We sort of fit. You feel it as much as I do. It’s not something we plan or intend to do. It’s that thing that happens at odd moments. The times we’re on the same page or thinking the same thought and we know it with just a glance.” He walked from behind the bar to stand directly in front of her. “And pretty soon we’re going to start remembering how good we are together in other ways, and then we’re going to be sleeping together.”

Her heart thumped. He was feeling the same things she was. That unexpected trust. That sense that everything was going to be okay. “You thought we were good together?”

“You know we were good together.”

“And you think we fit?”

“I see those little things happen every day. You liked fastening my cuff links. I like fighting your simple battles over things like jeans versus white suits.”

She searched his gaze. Ridiculous hope filled her chest to capacity. They really were getting to know each other and in knowing each other, they were beginning to genuinely like each other.

For once, having more than a surface relationship didn’t scare her. Maybe because she knew it had a time limit. She could get close, make love, get married, have a baby with Dom, knowing it was going to end. Secure in the fact that they would part amicably, she wouldn’t suffer the pains of rejection. She would simply move on. And she would have had a chance she never thought she’d get: a chance to really be in love. To know what it felt like to share. To be part of something wonderful. All under the protection of the knowledge that it wouldn’t last forever. She didn’t have to be perfect forever. She didn’t even have to be good forever. Or to suit Dom forever. She only had to make this work for a little over two years.

“And you don’t think it’s a good thing that we get along?”

“I have a job to do. I’ve told you that if you get in the way of that job, I will always pick the kingdom over you.”

She swallowed and nodded, knowing exactly what he was saying, but her stomach fluttered. When they first decided to marry he had been sure he’d always take the kingdom’s side over hers. But this very argument proved that he was changing. And he clearly wasn’t happy about that.

“Is this the part where I say I’m sorry?”

He sniffed and looked away. “Sorry again? Why this time?”

“Because I think I tempt you. I think that’s why you’re really mad. I think knowing me has made you feel that you’d like to be a real boy, Pinocchio.”

“So I’m a puppet?”

“No. I think you’d like the freedom to make up your own mind, to make your own choices, but you’re afraid of what will happen to your kingdom.”

He caught her gaze. “You make it sound like an idiotic dilemma. But it isn’t. We might be a small kingdom but we’re an important one.” He slid his hand across her shoulder and to her long ponytail. He ran the fat braid through his fingers as if it were spun gold. “One woman should not change that.”

Even as he said the words, he stepped closer. He wrapped the braid around his knuckles and tugged her forward until they almost touched, but not quite. The air between them crackled, not with memories of how good they’d been together but with anticipation. If they kissed now, changed the terms of their deal now, the next two years would be very different.

And she wanted it. Not just for the sex. For the intimacy and the chance to be genuinely close to someone, even as she had the magical out of a two-year time limit.

He lowered his head slowly, giving her time, it seemed, to pull away if she wanted. But mesmerized by the desperation in his black eyes, she stood perfectly still, barely breathing. He wanted this too, and even though she knew he was going to kiss her, she also knew he fought a demon. He might want to be king, but he also wanted to be a man.

When his lips touched hers she didn’t think of that night two months ago, she thought of this moment, of how he needed her, even if he didn’t see it.

She slid her arms around his neck as he released her braid, letting it swing across her back. With his hand now free, he brought her closer still. The press of her breasts to his chest knocked the air out of her lungs, as his lips moved across hers roughly.

He was angry, she knew, because she was upsetting his well-laid plans. The irony of it was he’d been upsetting her plans, her life, from the second she’d met him. It only seemed fitting that finally she was doing the same to him.

Standing on tiptoe, she returned his kiss, as sure as he was. If he wanted to talk about unfair, she would show him unfair. The only way she could be intimate with someone was knowing she had an out. The inability to trust that her dad had instilled in her had crippled her for anything but a relationship that couldn’t last. She wouldn’t share the joy of raising children. She was lucky to get a child. She wouldn’t grow old with someone. The best she would get would be memories of whatever love, intimacy, happiness they could cobble together in the next two years. And even as it gave her at least slight hope, it also angered her mightily.

They dueled for a few seconds, each fighting for supremacy, until suddenly his mouth softened over hers. His hands slid down her back to her bottom, while his mouth lured her away from her anger and to that place where the softness of their kisses spoke of their real feelings.

Like it or not, they were falling in love.

And it wasn’t going to last.

But it was all Ginny Jones, high school guidance counselor from Texas with the alcoholic dad, was going to get in her lifetime.

So she wanted it. She wanted the intimacy, the friendship, the secrets and dreams.

The only problem was she had no idea how to go about getting any of it.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Chapter One
“We sold the flower shop to the Donovans.”

“You what?” Isabelle Cooper gaped at her

parents in absolute horror. “Why?”

“To fund our retirement.” Her tall, slim, nearly bald

father caught her hand. “Sweetie, you’ve proven you can run

the place on your own. But then the three of us would have

to share the monthly income. This way, your mom and I cash
out and you still have a job. A job with a salary, not just a

percentage of unstable profits.” He smiled proudly. “I took

care of all of us.”

She combed her fingers through her long, straight red

hair, pushing it off her face. “All right. Okay. I think I get it.”

From a fiscal standpoint, her dad really had taken care of all

of them by selling their family business to Donovan, Inc. He’d

gotten enough money for him and her mom to retire in the

south so they could escape Harmony Hills, Pennsylvania’s

cold, cold winters as they’d always dreamed, and a salary for

Isabelle as manager of the town’s flower shop.

It made perfect sense, and was not only responsible but

also sweet that he’d done his manly duties for the family—

until you factored in that she’d always had a crush on Devon

Donovan, oldest of the Donovan brothers. The man who

managed the reportedly one billion dollars the family had

inherited from their maternal grandfather.

The man who was her new boss.

And the problem wasn’t just that she had a crush on

him. She’d very stupidly walked up to him right after he’d

returned from Afghanistan and asked if he’d like to go with

her to her prom. He’d looked at her as if she was crazy, said

no, and walked away.
Now she knew how stupid that had been. He was a

grown man who wouldn’t want to go to a school dance. He’d

also just returned from a war. But from the time Isabelle

was fourteen, she’d thought he was the handsomest of the

Donovan brothers. Tall, dark, brooding. Seeing him in his

uniform, looking so brave, she’d lost her breath and her

crush had formed. But four years later, watching the way he

rarely spoke to anyone and kept to himself, she could see he

was a man who held secrets. A man who needed her love.

Steeped in her infatuation, and a high school girl with a huge

crush and very little experience, she’d asked him to her prom

and made a complete fool of herself.

When you factored that in, her working for Devon now

seemed like the first level of Hell.

“He told us that once we talked to you, we were to have

you go to his house—”

Isabelle’s pretty blonde-haired mom tapped her dad’s
forearm to stop him. “Not house.” She sighed. “Well, it is his

house. But he’s got a great big office in the back. It’s not like

he’s a spider saying ‘come into my web.’”

Her face flamed. If her mother only knew. She might

have taken a few side roads in her crush on the oldest

Donovan brother, but when he’d permanently returned

to town last year—still tall, still dark, still brooding—her

crush had returned full force. She’d gladly enter any web of

Devon’s. But he’d never ask. And now she had to work with


She rose from the sofa. “Maybe I’ll just get another job.”

Her dad looked appalled. “You can’t! You were part

of the deal. We sold them on taking over the florist shop

because they wouldn’t have to do a thing, touch a thing.

Buds and Blossoms virtually runs itself.”

“It doesn’t run itself, Dad. I run it.”

“Exactly my point.” Her dad beamed. “Go see Devon.

He’s expecting you.”

She left her parents’ big craftsman-style house through

the bright white kitchen with new hardwood floors, stainless

steel appliances and a pale green, white and shiny silver

backsplash, suddenly realizing they’d probably remodeled

the kitchen in anticipation of selling the house—which

meant they’d had this planned for a while. Stepping out into

the sunny June morning, she walked across the perfectly

paved parking spaces in front of the garage where she’d left

her Hyundai, an ordinary, but surprisingly comfortable, car.

She waited until she was behind the locked door to

curse. Working with Devon Donovan? That had disaster

written all over it. The possible awful situations that could

arise were too numerous to contemplate. However, two or

three effortlessly sprang to mind. Like getting breathless,

drooling and tripping over her own feet if he got too close.

He could mention that she’d asked him to her prom. He

could laugh about it. Or, worse, apologize.

Still, there was always the possibility that nothing

would happen. At least not anything anybody would see.

He worked in the huge mansion-like house that he’d had

built for “the family” a few months after they’d inherited

all that money from their grandfather. He didn’t really hang

around town, so if she did drool over him, it would be in

private. And why would he remember that she’d asked him

to her prom? Seriously. She’d been a kid. He’d just come

back from a war. He’d undoubtedly had more important

things on his mind. It was more likely that he’d forgotten the

whole darned thing. Nine chances out of ten, he’d bought

the flower shop as a favor to her parents, and his decision

had nothing to do with Isabelle. He probably intended to

tell her that she could manage the blasted thing the way she

always had, and her salary would be based on how much

money the business brought in—a way to give her incentive

to keep it productive.

So she wouldn’t have much contact with him. She’d

see him, maybe, once a quarter to review her books. She

did not have to worry about ogling him, drooling when he

was around, sighing with longing in his presence or being
embarrassed that he’d turned down her stupid, stupid, stupid

prom invitation.

She would be fine.

Confident, she drove up to “the house.” Two stories, with

white siding and black shutters, an attic with dormers that

probably also had living space, a four-car garage and wide

front porch, the thing sprawled out over a half acre.

Staring at it in awe, she got out of her car.

She supposed that if she suddenly became a billionaire,

she’d build a grand house too. And it was wonderful that

though the entire Donovan family didn’t live in “the house,”

they all had stayed in small town Harmony Hills. Devon’s

brother Finn and his wife Ellie were beloved local business

owners. Middle brother Cade and his wife Piper had run the

grocery store together at one time. Everybody knew and

loved the Donovans.

Isabelle just loved one Donovan a little too much.

Still, she would be fine.


She strode up the brick walk with her head high. This

was not a big deal. She’d be working for him daily, but only

seeing him once every few months for debriefing sessions on

the business she ran. No. Big. Deal.

Two hits of the knocker brought the sound of footfalls

on the other side of the door. As it opened, she braced

herself to be face-to-face with gorgeous Devon. But his

mom, LuAnn, stood before her.

“Izzy, sweetie.” Short, blonde, once dowdy LuAnn was

now a beautiful woman. She folded Isabelle in a hug. “It’s so

good to see you.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Donovan.”

“How are your parents?”

“Fine.” She winced. “Better than fine. Apparently they’re
wonderful since they can now live their dream of moving

south because they’ve sold the flower shop to you guys.”

LuAnn laughed. “They have always wanted to move to

Myrtle Beach and play golf all winter. I’m glad we could

help. And you’ll like working for us. We’re nice people.”

Indeed they were nice. Unfortunately, one of them was

particularly fine.

“My parents told me Devon would be explaining the

particulars of our situation to me this morning.”

LuAnn’s smile got even brighter. “Great! He’s in the

office. Right this way.”

They walked through an open-floor-plan downstairs

with gray walls trimmed in white wood and nearly black

hardwood floors. The sitting area had a white leather sofa

and black-and-white print club chairs. White upholstered

chairs surrounded a shiny black dining room table. Accent

pillows, floral arrangements of yummy yellow roses, fat

fuchsia peonies, orange blossoms and irises, and artwork,

provided splashes of color.

“Holy cow. This house is amazing.”

LuAnn peeked at Isabelle. “Devon had a decorator

come in.”

“Well, she earned her keep.”

“I know!”

Even as LuAnn spoke, Bob Bailey came running down

the back stairway. When he saw Isabelle, he stopped.

“Hey, Izzy.” His gaze ambled over to LuAnn’s.

LuAnn said, “You know Bob.”

Though Harmony Hills had about five thousand

residents, it was hard not to know the guy who’d been chief

of the volunteer fire company for the past twenty years.

Still, Isabelle didn’t even blink at the odd introduction.

“Hey, Bob. Nice to see you.”

“You too.” He smiled at LuAnn. “I’ll call you this

afternoon about dinner.”

LuAnn nodded and Bob left. Isabelle didn’t ask LuAnn

about Bob. She didn’t have to. A man racing down the

backstairs of a woman’s house, who told her he would call

about dinner that night, had probably slept over. Given that

LuAnn had been in a miserable marriage for decades and

Chief Bob had lost his wife a few years back, Isabelle figured

they were both due a little happiness.

LuAnn motioned down a hall and they entered an area

of the house where a couple of smaller rooms were walled

off. The theme of black hardwood floors, white trim, and

gray walls followed them back so far they almost reached

a pair of French doors through which Isabelle could see a

sparkling blue pool, an outdoor kitchen, and enough patio

furniture to be its own department in Ikea.

“Here we are.”

LuAnn pointed into a room with a desk in front of one

wall and a sofa and chair beside another. Isabelle dutifully

followed her as she walked toward it. After a tiny hall,

LuAnn knocked on a closed door.

Devon said, “Come in.”

His deep, masculine voice ran over Isabelle like warm

water, and her heart tumbled. Dear God. She was going

to be in the same room with the man she’d had a crush on

almost half of her life, discussing her future, hoping he didn’t

remember her dumb-ass prom invitation. Should she faint?

Was she allowed to faint? Could fainting actually get her

out of this?

LuAnn opened Devon’s office door and Isabelle

blinked. For all the stark black and white throughout the

house, Devon had chosen warm mahogany for his office.

Though the trim was still white, the walls were a soothing

tan. A brown leather chair sat behind the desk. A soft beige

sofa and matching chair took up the right corner.

Looking out the wall of window in the back of the room,

at the sparkling pool and the ancillary patio department

of Ikea, stood Devon. His dark hair had been cut in a nononsense

businessman’s style. A neat and tidy white shirt

slid over broad shoulders and across muscles of a chiseled

back. Gray pants caressed a perfect behind.

When he turned, his intense, almost black eyes caught

her gaze.

All the air disappeared from the room.

LuAnn brightly said, “Izzy’s parents told her you wanted

to see her.”

“Yes, I do. Come in, Izzy.”
Izzy. Yeesh. She felt five again. Here she was with the

most handsome, sexy man she’d ever met and he called her

Izzy? She’d had the nickname since she’d ridden her tricycle

up and down the Maple Street sidewalk in front of her

parents’ craftsman. When someone called her Izzy, even she

saw herself toothless with freckles and red pigtails.

Oh. Sigh. Would she ever be allowed to grow up in this


LuAnn grabbed the door handle and began backing out

of the room. “I’ll just let you two alone now.”

When the door clicked shut, Isabelle turned to Devon.

His probing black eyes. His full lips. His broad torso that

made sport of the shirt trying to hide all those glorious


“So, Izzy…”

“Actually, I prefer to be called Belle.”

His eyebrows rose. His serious eyes clouded with

confusion. “Belle?”

Sure. Why not? Considering that she’d had about a

second and a half to choose a new name, Belle wasn’t a bad

choice. “I’m not five or ten or even eighteen anymore.”

His gaze took a quick trip along her sunny yellow T-shirt

and threadbare jeans, making her breath stutter.

“No, I guess you’re not.”

That out and out froze her lungs.
Devon pointed to the seat in front of his desk, indicating

Izzy…Belle…should sit, as he fell to his seat, not quite

sure what was happening. He’d bought Buds and Blossoms

as a favor to the Coopers. Newly rich, the Donovan family

was finally able to do things for their friends, and Brooke

Cooper had stood by his mom in the first year after she’d left
his dad. Now here he was sitting across from a woman who

sort of looked like their teenage daughter Izzy, except more

mature. And she wanted to be called Belle.

Hunting for her college transcripts, he fumbled with the

papers on his desk as he surreptitiously raised his gaze and

took in the way her breasts filled out her T-shirt with the big

sunflower on the front, and her butt made ordinary jeans

look…fantastic. She definitely wasn’t eighteen anymore, as

she’d said. Or twenty, even. She’d graduated from college

and gotten her MBA.

Where had the time gone?

Finding her transcripts, he cleared his throat and caught

her gaze again. Her gorgeous green eyes surprised him. How

had he never before noticed they were so green? He shook

off the thought. It didn’t matter. She was his employee now,

and she hadn’t really changed all that much, just grown up.

She’d always be tomboy Izzy to him.He set the transcripts

on the desk in front of him and folded his hands on top of


“You have a master’s degree in business.”

“I do run a business,” she countered, as if he were an

idiot not to realize that, and that was the typical Izzy he

remembered. Straightforward. Practical. “I’d gone to school

knowing that the flower shop would be my life. So I prepared

to do a good job managing it.”

“You over prepared.” He smiled. “Which is why I don’t

want you running the flower shop.”

Her emerald eyes bugged out. “You’re firing me?”
“I’m promoting you.”

“To what? There’s nowhere else to go in a flower shop.

You either make the bouquets, run the register, deliver the

flowers, or manage the bloody thing.”

“Exactly. You’re too educated to run the register. Rumor

has it that driving…” He chose his words carefully. “Isn’t one

of your strong points, so you won’t be able to deliver flowers

once my insurance company sees your records. And you’ve

already proven yourself as manager. It’s time for you to

move on.”

She gaped at him. “This is Harmony Hills. There’s not

a lot of room for upward mobility. You bloom where you’re


He leaned back in his seat. “Agreed. And Donovan,

Inc. is where you’re going to be planted. You have a

master’s degree. I am coordinating a fortune. I’m smart and

experienced, and even educated, but you’re the one with the

MBA. And someday I’d like to slow down. Work a day or

two a week while someone else ‘minds the store.’”

Her eyes got even bigger, if that were possible. “You’re

hiring me to run your family’s fortune?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” He sat forward again,

confused about why she was reacting so badly to what was,

essentially, a lucrative offer. “I’m hiring you to assist me. At

some point, I’ll be bringing other people into the mix. I’m

not saying one person is going to take over for me. What I’d

really like to do is build a team. I would manage the team

and you would be one of the members. Probably my go-to

girl because, as my first hire, you’d be the most experienced.

Are you on board?”

“I’m the first?”

“You’re the first.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Where would I work?”

“There’s an office right outside this door.”

She frowned. “Then where will the other people work?”

“I have four offices back here, but someday I might need

a full office building in town.”

“Okay. What’s my salary?”

“About four times what you made at Buds and


“Holy cats.”

He leaned back, glad this conversation had finally found

its footing. “This is a totally different situation than the

flower shop. You’ll work with me to choose from the projects

or investments available for the family’s money. Directly

with me.”

She leaned back, too. “Oh.”

He fought the odd thought that she was trying to get

away from him. “You don’t want to work with me?”

Her smile suddenly looked fake. “No. No. It’s fine.”

But he had the distinct impression it wasn’t fine. She

seemed to be the opposite of what he’d expected. He’d

thought she’d jump for joy. Yet here she was hesitant.

“So our first order of business is to replace you and

your parents at the flower shop. You don’t happen to have

résumés on file?”

She sniffed a laugh. “In Harmony Hills?”

His decision to keep the business of investing his family’s

money in Harmony Hills was fraught with problems like a

very small employee pool. Still, he wasn’t sorry he’d done it.

The family was together, without their abusive dad, who had

moved to Arizona. And finally the Donovans had a chance

to experience real family life. He wouldn’t trade that for

ease of finding employees.

“No. I suppose you don’t have résumés.”

She carefully met his gaze again. “I can write a ‘help

wanted’ ad and have it in tomorrow’s paper.”

“Okay. Go out to the desk and do that now.”

She rose. “No time right now. I’ll have to do it in between

flower arrangements. My parents might have already

mentally moved to South Carolina, but I have a wedding on

Saturday and two funerals.”

“Oh.” He rose too. “There’s no one else at the flower


“It really only took my mom and dad and me to run it.”

“So you can’t start working for me until you’ve replaced

all of your staff?”

“Don’t be hasty.” Her eyes narrowed as if she were

thinking. “My neighbors, the Benjamin Brats?” She gave

the nickname the town had bestowed on the children of her

neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Benjamin, because, well, their

kids were brats. “They owe me a favor. I can use them to

help out. They can take orders and run the register while I

make the bouquets and deliver them.”

“You’d leave them in charge of the shop?”

“Get them in the right mood and they’re surprisingly


“And who’s going to help you with the bouquets?”

She gave him a strange look. “No one.”

“You’re going to do a wedding and two funerals alone?”

“I’ve been doing it since grad school.” She laughed and

the sound filled him with warmth. Filled the whole office

with warmth. The real Izzy was back. “Actually, I can do all

this and still give you a few hours tomorrow, Thursday, and

Friday morning.”

She caught his gaze. Smiled.

“What time do you want me to start?”

“How early do you need to be here to be able to get a few

hours of training in and still get all of Buds and Blossoms’

work done?”

She mentally calculated her answer, her eyes narrowing


“Let’s say seven.”

“Okay, seven it is.” In the same way he ended all business

meetings, he extended his hand to shake hers. “We’ll see you

tomorrow morning, then.”

She took his hand. Her smooth pink palm met his callused

hand. She was incredibly soft, prettier than he remembered,

and an adult now. Not cute little Izzy who worked in her

parents’ flower shop. But Belle. A mature woman with an

MBA who was his first employee.

He intended to make this work. That probably meant

getting her to admit whatever it was that made her so

standoffish with him. But he could do that. He was an expert

with people. He just had to find the right time. Maybe get her

alone someplace more comfortable than his office so they

could have a more relaxed, more personal conversation.

That’s what he’d do. Get her alone somewhere relaxed.

Like maybe a booth at Petie’s Pub, where it was dark and

quiet. Surely that would loosen her up.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Chapter 1

Italy had to be the most beautiful place in the world.

     Daniella Tate glanced around in awe at the cobblestone streets and blue skies of Florence. She’d taken a train here, but now had to board a bus for the village of Monte Calanetti.

After purchasing her ticket, she strolled to a wooden bench. But as she sat, she noticed a woman a few rows over. Stunning with her white-blonde hair and slim build, the woman stared out into space. The faraway look in her eyes triggered Daniella’s empathy. Having grown up a foster child, she knew what it felt like to be alone, sometimes scared, usually confused. And she saw all three of those emotions in the woman’s pretty blue eyes.

An announcement for boarding the next bus came over the public address system. An older woman sitting beside the blonde rose and slid her fingers around the bag sitting at her feet. The pretty blonde rose too.

“Excuse me. That’s my bag.”

The older woman spoke in angry, rapid-fire Italian and the blonde, speaking American English, said, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying.”

But the older woman clutched the bag to her and very clearly told the American that it was her carryon.

Daniella bounced from her seat and scurried over. She faced the American. “I speak Italian.” Then she turned to the older woman. In flawless Italian, she asked if she was sure the black bag was hers, because there was a similar bag on the floor on the other side.

The older woman flushed with embarrassment. She apologetically gave the bag to the American, grabbed her carryon and scampered off to catch her bus.

The pretty blonde sighed with relief and turned her blue eyes to Daniella. “Thank you.”

“No problem. When you responded in English it wasn’t a great leap to assume you didn’t speak the language.”

The woman’s eyes clouded. “I don’t.”

“Do you have an interpreter? A friend coming to meet you?”


Dani winced. “Then I hope you have a good English-to-Italian dictionary.”

The American pointed to a small listening device. “I’ve downloaded the “best” language system.” She smiled slightly. “It promises I’ll be fluent in five weeks.”

Dani laughed. “It could be a long five weeks.” She smiled and offered her hand. “I’m Daniella, by the way.”

The pretty American hesitated, but finally shook Daniella’s hand and said, “Louisa.”

“It’s my first trip to Italy. I’ve been teaching English in Rome, but my foster mother was from Tuscany. I’m going to use this final month of my trip to find her home.”

Louisa tilted her head. “Your foster mother?”

Dani winced. “Sorry. I’m oversharing.”

Louisa smiled.

“It’s just that I’m so excited to be here. I’ve always wanted to visit Italy.” She didn’t mention that her longtime boyfriend had proposed the day before she left for her teaching post in Rome. That truly would be oversharing, but also she hadn’t known what to make of Paul’s request to marry him. Had he proposed before her trip to tie her to him? Or had they hit the place in their relationship where marriage really was the next step? Were they ready? Was marriage right for them?

Too many questions came with his offer of marriage. So she hadn’t accepted. She’d told him she would answer him when she returned from Italy the first of March. She’d planned this February side-trip to be a nice, uncomplicated space of time before she settled down to life as a teacher in the New York City school system. Paul had ruined it with a proposal she should have eagerly accepted, but had stumbled over. So her best option was not to think about it until she had to.

Next month.

“I extended my trip so I could have some time to bum around. See the village my foster mother came from, and hopefully meet her family.”

To Daniella’s surprise, Louisa laughed. “That sounds like fun.”

The understanding in Louisa’s voice caused Danielle to brighten again, thinking they had something in common. “So you’re a tourist too?”


Dani frowned. Louisa’s tone in the one simple word suddenly made her feel as if she’d crossed a line. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”

Louisa sighed. “It’s okay. I’m just a bit nervous. You were kind to come to my rescue. I don’t mean to be such a ninny. I’m on my way to Monte Calanetti.”

Daniella’s mouth fell open. “So am I.”

The announcement that their bus was boarding came over the loudspeaker. Danielle faced the gate. Louisa did too.

Dani smiled. “Looks like we’re off.”

“Yes.” Louisa’s mysterious smile formed again.

They boarded the bus and Daniella chose a spot in the middle, believing that was the best place to see the sights on the drive to the quaint village. After tucking her backpack away, she took her seat.

To her surprise, Louisa paused beside her. “Do you mind if I sit with you?”

Daniella happily said, “Of course, I don’t mind! That would be great.”

But as Louisa sat, Daniella took note again that something seemed off about her. Everything Louisa did had a sense of hesitancy about it. Everything she said seemed incomplete.

“So you have a month before you go home?”

“All of February.” Daniella took a deep breath. “And I intend to enjoy every minute of it. Even if I do have to find work.”


“A waitressing job. Or maybe part-time shop clerk. That kind of thing. New York is a very expensive place to live. I don’t want to blow every cent I made teaching on a vacation. I’ll need that money when I get back home. So I intend to earn my spending money while I see the sights.”

As the bus eased out of the station, Louisa said, “That’s smart.”

Dani sat up, not wanting to miss anything. Louisa laughed. “Your foster mother should have come with you.”

Pain squeezed Daniella’s heart. Just when she thought she was adjusted to her loss, the reality would swoop in and remind her that the sweet, loving woman who’d saved her was gone. She swallowed hard. “She passed a few months ago. She left me the money for my plane ticket to Italy in her will.”

Louisa’s beautiful face blossomed with sympathy. “I’m so sorry. That was careless of me.”

Daniella shook her head. “No. You had no way of knowing.”

Louisa studied her. “So you have no set plans? No schedule of things you want to see and do? No places you’ve already scouted out to potentially get a job?”

“No schedule. I want to wing it. I’ve done a bit of research about Rosa’s family and I know the language. So I think I’ll be okay.”

Louisa laughed. “Better off than I’ll be since I don’t know the language.” She held up her listening device. “At least not for another five weeks.”

The bus made several slow turns, getting them out of the station and onto the street.

Taking a final look at Florence, Dani breathed, “Isn’t this whole country gorgeous?” Even in winter with barren trees, the scene was idyllic. Blue skies. Rolling hills.

“Yes.” Louisa bit her lip, then hesitantly said, “I’m here because I inherited something too.”


“Yes.” She paused, studied Daniella’s face, as if assessing if she could trust her before she said, “A villa.”

“Oh, my God! A villa!”

Louisa glanced away. “I know. It’s pretty amazing. The place is called Palazzo di Comparino.”

“Do you have pictures?”

“Yes.” She pulled out a picture of a tall, graceful house. Rich green vines grew in rows in the background beneath a blue sky.

It was everything Dani could do not to gape in awe. “It’s beautiful.”

Louisa laughed. “Yes. But so far I haven’t seen anything in Italy that isn’t gorgeous.” She winced. “I hate to admit it, but I’m excited.”

“I’d be beyond excited.”

“I’m told Monte Calanetti grew up around Palaazzo Chianti because of the vineyard which is part of the villa I inherited. Back then, they would have needed lots of help picking grapes, making the wine. Those people are the ancestors of the people who live there now.”

“That is so cool.”

“Yes, except I know nothing about running a vineyard.”

Daniella batted a hand. “With the Internet these days, you can learn anything.”

Louisa sucked in a breath. “I hope so.”

Daniella laid her hand on Louisa’s in a show of encouragement. “You’ll be fine.”

Louise’s face formed another of her enigmatic smiles and Daniella’s sixth sense perked up again. Louisa appeared to want to be happy, but behind her smile was something…

Louisa brought her gaze back to Daniella’s. “You know, I could probably use a little help when I get there.”


“I don’t think I’m just going to move into a villa without somebody coming to question me.”


“And if it’s soon, I’m going to be at a loss if they’re speaking Italian.”

Dani winced. “Especially if it’s the sheriff.”

Louisa laughed. “I don’t even know if they have sheriffs here. My letter is in English, but the officials are probably Italian. It could turn out to be a mess. So, I’d be happy to put you up for a while.” She caught Dani’s gaze. “Even all four weeks you’re looking for your foster-mom’s relatives – if you’d be my translator.”

Overwhelmed by the generous offer, Daniella said, “That would be fantastic. But I wouldn’t want to put you out.”

“You’ll certainly earn your keep if somebody comes to check my story.”

Daniella grinned. “I’d be staying in a villa.”

Louisa laughed. “I own a villa.”

“Okay, then. I’d be happy to be your translator while I’m here.”

“Thank you.”

Glad for the friendship forming between them, Daniella engaged Louisa in conversation as miles of hills and blue, blue sky rolled past them. Then suddenly a walled village appeared to the right. The bus turned in.

Aged, but well-maintained stucco, brick and stone buildings greeted them. Cobblestone streets were filled with happy, chatting people. Through the large front windows of the establishments, Dani could see the coffee drinkers or diners inside while outdoor dining areas sat empty because of chilly first of February temperatures.

The center circle of the town came into view. The bus made the wide turn but Dani suddenly saw a sign that read Palazzo Di Comparino. The old, worn wood planks had a thick black line painted through them as if to cancel out the offer of vineyard tours.

Daniella grabbed Louisa’s arm and pointed out the window. “Look!”

 “Oh, my gosh!” Louisa jumped out of her seat and yelled, “Stop!”

Daniella rose too. She said, “Fermi qui, per favore.”

It took a minute for the bus driver to hear and finally halt the bus. After gathering their belongings, Louisa and Daniella faced the lane that led to Louisa’s villa. Because Dani had only a backpack and Louisa had two suitcases and a carry-on bag, Daniella said, “Let me take your suitcase.”

Louisa smiled. “Having you around is turning out to be very handy.”

Daniella laughed as they walked down the long lane that took them to the villa. The pale brown brick house soon became visible. The closer they got, the bigger it seemed to be.

Louisa reverently whispered, “Holy cow.”

Daniella licked her suddenly dry lips. “It’s huge.”

The main house sprawled before them. Several stories, and long and deep, like a house with suites not bedrooms, Louisa’s new home could only be described as a mansion.

They silently walked up the stone path to the front door. When they reached it, Louisa pulled out a key and manipulated the lock. As the door opened, the stale, musty scent of a building that had been locked up for years assaulted them. Dust and cobwebs covered the crystal chandelier in the huge marble-floored foyer, as well as the paintings on the walls and the curved stairway.

Daniella cautiously stepped inside. “Is your family royalty?”

Louisa gazed around in awe. “I didn’t think so.”

“Meaning they could be?”

“I don’t know.” Louisa turned to the right and walked into a sitting room. Again, dust covered everything. A tea cup sat on a table by a dusty chair. Passing through that room, they entered a room that appeared to be a library or study. From there, they found a dining room.

Watermarks on the ceiling spoke of damage from a second-floor bathroom or maybe even the roof. The kitchen was old and in need of remodeling. The first floor bathrooms were outdated, as was every bathroom in the suites upstairs.

After only getting as far as the second floor, Louisa turned to Daniella with tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize the house would be in such disrepair. From the picture, it looked perfect. If you want to get a hotel room in town, I’ll understand.”

“Are you kidding!” Daniella rolled Louisa’s big suitcase to a stop and walked into the incredibly dusty, cob-web covered bedroom. She spun around and faced Louisa. “I love it. With a dust rag, some cleanser for the bathroom and a window washing, this room will be perfect.”

Louisa hesitantly followed Daniella into the bedroom. “You’re an optimist.”

Daniella laughed. “I didn’t say you wouldn’t need to call a contractor about a few things. But we can clean our rooms and the kitchen.”


Raffaele Mancini stared at Gino Scarpetti, a tall, stiff man, who worked as the Maître D for Mancini’s, Rafe’s very exclusive, upscale, Michelin-star restaurant located in the heart of wine country.

Mancini’s had been carefully crafted to charm customers. The stone and wood walls of the renovated farm house gave the place the feel of days long gone. Shutters on the windows blocked the light of the evening sun, but also added to the old world charisma. Rows of bottles of merlot and Chianti reminded diners that this area was the home of the best vineyards, the finest wines.

     Gino ripped off the Mancini’s name tag pinned to his white shirt. “You, sir, are now without a Maître D.”

     A hush fell over the dining room. Even the usual clink and clatter of silverware and the tinkle of good crystal wine glasses halted.

Gino slapped the name tag into Rafe’s hand. Before Rafe could comment or argue, the man was out the door.

Someone began to clap. Then another person. And another. Within seconds the sophisticated Tuscany restaurant dining room filled with the sounds of applause and laughter.


They were enjoying his misery!

He looked at the line of customers forming beside the podium just inside the door, then the chattering diners laughing about his temper and his inability to keep good help. He tossed his hands in the air before he marched back to the big ultra-modern, stainless steel restaurant kitchen.


     He pointed at the thin boy who’d begun apprenticing at Mancini’s the week before. “Take off your smock and get to the Maître D stand. You are seating people.”

     The boy’s brown eyes grew round with fear. “I…I…”

     Rafe raised a brow. “You can’t take names and seat customers?”

     “I can…”

     “But you don’t want to.” Rafe didn’t have to say anything beyond that. He didn’t need to say, “If you can’t obey orders, you’re fired.” He didn’t need to remind anyone in his kitchen that he was boss or that anyone working in the restaurant needed to be able to do anything that needed to be done to assure the absolute best dining experience for the customers. Everyone knew he was not a chef to be trifled with.

     Except right now, in the dining room, they were laughing at him.

     The boy whipped off his smock, walked it to a laundry bin and headed out to the dining room.

     Seeing the white-smocked staff gaping at him, Rafe shook his head. “Get to work!”

     Knives instantly rose. The clatter of chopping and the sizzle of sautéing filled the kitchen.

     He sucked in a breath. Not only was his poor restaurant plagued by troubles, but now it seemed the diners had no sympathy.

     “You shouldn’t have fired Gino.” Emory Danoto, Rafe’s sous chef spoke as he worked. Short and bald with a happy face and nearly as much talent as Rafe in the kitchen, Emory was also Rafe’s mentor.

Rafe glanced around, inspecting the food prep, pretending he was fine. Damn it. He was fine. He did not want a frightened rabbit working for him. Not even outside the kitchen. And the response of the diners? That was a fluke. Somebody apparently believed it funny to see a world-renowned chef tortured by incompetents.

     “I didn’t fire Gino. He quit.”

     Emory cast him a condemning look. “You yelled at him.”

     Rafe yelled, “I yell at everybody.” Then he calmed himself and shook his head. “I am the chef. I am Mancini’s.”

     “And you must be obeyed.”

     “Don’t make me sound like a prima donna. I am doing what’s best for the restaurant.”

     “Yeah, well, Mr. I’m-doing-what’s-best-for-the-restaurant, have you forgotten about our upcoming visit from the Michelin people?”

     “A rumor.”

     Emory sniffed a laugh. “Since when have we ever ignored a rumor that we were to be visited? Your star rating could be in jeopardy. You’re the one who says chefs who ignore rumors get caught with their pants down. If we want to keep our stars, we have to be ready for this visit.”

     Rafe stifled a sigh. Emory was right, of course. His trusted friend only reminded him of what he already knew. Having located his business in the countryside, instead of in town, he’d made it even more exclusive. But that also meant he didn’t get street traffic. He needed word of mouth. He needed every diner to recommend him to their friends. He needed to be in travel brochures. To be a stop for tour buses. To be recommended by travel agents. He couldn’t lose a star.

     The lunch crowd left. Day quickly became night. Before Rafe could draw a steady breath the restaurant filled again. Wasn’t that the way of it when everything was falling apart around you? With work to be done, there was no time to think things through. When the last patron finally departed, and the staff dispersed after the kitchen cleaning, Rafe walked behind the shiny wood bar, pulled a bottle of whiskey from the shelf, along with a glass, and slid onto a tall black rot iron stool.

     Hearing the sound of the door opening, he yelled, “We’re closed.” Then grimaced. Was he trying to get a reputation for being grouchy rather than exacting?

     “Good thing I’m not a customer then.”

     He swiveled around at the sound of his friend Nico Amatucci’s voice.

     Tall, dark-haired Nico glanced at the whiskey bottle, then sat on a stool beside Rafe. “Is there a reason you’re drinking alone?”

     Rafe rose, got another glass and set it on the bar in front of Nico. He poured whiskey into the glass and slid it to him. “I’m not drinking alone.”

     “But you were going to.”

     “I lost my Maître D.”

     Nico raised his glass in salute and drank the shot. “You’re surprised?”

     “I’m an artist.”

     “You’re a pain in the ass.”

     “That too.” He sighed. “But I don’t want to be. I just want things done correctly. I’ll spread the word tomorrow that I’m looking for someone. Not a big deal.” He made the statement casually, but deep down he knew he was wrong. It was a big deal. “Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t have the week or two it’ll take to collect resumes and interview people. I need somebody tomorrow.”

     Nico raised his glass to toast. “Then, you, my friend, are in trouble.”

     Didn’t Rafe know it.

Chapter 2

The next morning, Daniella and Louisa found a tin of tea and some frozen waffles in a freezer. “We’re so lucky no one had the electricity shut off.”

“Not lucky. The place runs off a generator. We turn it on in winter to keep the pipes from freezing.”

Daniella and Louisa gasped and spun around at the male voice behind them.

A handsome dark-haired man stood in the kitchen doorway, frowning at them. Though he appeared to be Italian, he spoke flawless English. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’ll let you finish your breakfast, but this is private property.”

Louisa’s chin lifted. “I know it’s private property. I’m Louisa Harrison. I inherited this villa.”

The man’s dark eyes narrowed. “I don’t suppose you have proof of that?”

“Actually, I do. A letter from my solicitor.” She straightened her shoulders. “I think the better question is who are you?”

“I’m Nico Amatucci.” He pointed behind him. “I live next door. I’ve been watching over this place.” He smiled thinly. “I’d like to see the letter from your solicitor. Or…” He pulled out his cell phone. “Should I call the police?”

Louisa brushed her hands down her blue jeans to remove the dust they’d collected when she and Daniella had searched for tea. “No need.”

Not wanting any part of the discussion, Daniella began preparing the tea.

“And who are you?”

She shrugged. “Just a friend of Louisa’s.”

He sniffed as if he didn’t believe her. Not accustomed to being under such scrutiny, Daniella focused all her attention on getting water into the tea pot.

Louisa returned with the letter. When Nico reached for it, she held it back. “Not so fast. I’ll need the key you used to get in.”

He held Louisa’s gaze. Even from across the room, Daniella felt the heat of it.

“Only if your papers check out.” His frosty smile could have frozen water. “Palazzo Di Comparino has been empty for years. Yet, suddenly here you are.”

“With a letter,” she said, handing it to Nico.

He didn’t release her gaze as he took the letter from her hands, then he scanned it and peered at Louisa again. “Welcome, to Palazzo Di Comparino.”

Daniella let out her pent up breath.

Louisa held his gaze. “Just like that? How do you know I didn’t fake this letter?”

Giving the paper back to her, he said, “First, I knew the name of the solicitor handling the estate. Second, there are a couple of details in the letter that an outsider wouldn’t know. You’re legit.”

Though Daniella would have loved to have known the details, Louisa didn’t even seem slightly curious. She tucked the sheet of paper into her jeans pocket.

Nico handed his key to Louisa as he glanced around the kitchen. “Being empty so long, the place is in disrepair. So if there’s anything I can do to help--”

Louisa cut him off with a curt, “I’m fine.”

Nico’s eyes narrowed. Daniella didn’t know if he was unaccustomed to his offers of assistance being ignored, or if something else was happening here, but the kitchen became awkwardly quiet.

When Daniella’s teapot whistled, her heart jumped. Always polite, she asked, “Can I get anyone tea?”

Watching Louisa warily, Nico said, “I’d love a cup.”

Drat. He was staying. Darned the sense of etiquette her foster mother had drilled into her.

“I’ll make some later.” Louisa said as she turned and walked out of the kitchen, presumably to put the letter and the key away.

As the door swung closed behind her, Nico said, “She’s a friendly one.”

Daniella winced. She’d like to point out to Mr. Nico Amatucci that he’d been a tad rude when he’d demanded to see the letter from the solicitor, but she held her tongue. This argument wasn’t any of her business. She had enough troubles of her own.

“Have you known Ms. Harrison long?”

“We just met. I saw someone mistakenly take her bag and helped because Louisa doesn’t speak Italian. Then we were on the same bus.”

“Oh, so you hit the jackpot when you could find someone to stay with.”

Daniella’s eyes widened. The man was insufferable. “I’m not taking advantage of her! I just finished a teaching job in Rome. Louisa needs an interpreter for a few weeks.” She put her shoulders back. “And today I intend to go into town to look for temporary work to finance a few weeks of sightseeing.”

He took the cup of tea from her hands. “What kind of work?”

His softened voice took some of the wind out of her sails. She shrugged. “Anything really. Temp jobs are temp jobs.”

“Would you be willing to be a hostess at a restaurant?”

Confused, she said, “Sure.”

“I have a friend who needs someone to fill in while he hires a permanent replacement for a Maître D who just quit.”

Her feelings for the mysterious Nico warmed a bit. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all? “Sounds perfect.”

“Do you have a pen?”

She nodded, pulling one from her purse.

He scribbled down the address on a business card he took from his pocket. “Go here. Don’t call. Just go at lunchtime and tell Rafe that Nico sent you.” He nodded at the card he’d handed to her. “Show him that and he’ll know you’re not lying.”

He set his tea on the table. “Tell Ms. Harrison goodbye for me.”

With that he left.

Glad he was gone, Daniella happily glanced at the card in her hands. How could a guy who’d so easily helped her have such a difficult time getting along with Louisa?

She blew her breath out on a long sigh. She supposed it didn’t matter. Eventually they’d become friends. They were neighbors.

Daniella finished her tea, but Louisa never returned to the kitchen. Excited to tell Louisa of her job prospect, Dani searched the downstairs for her, but didn’t find her.

The night before they’d tidied two bedrooms enough that they could sleep in them, so she climbed the stairs and headed for the room Louisa had chosen. She found her new friend wrestling with some bedding.

“What are you doing?”

“I saw a washer and dryer. I thought I’d wash the bed clothes so our rooms really will be habitable tonight.”

She raced to help Louisa with the huge comforter. “Our rooms were fine. We don’t need these comforters, and the sheets had been protected from the dust by the comforters so they were clean. Besides, these won’t fit in a typical washer.”

Louisa dropped the comforter. “I know.” Her face fell in dismay. “I just need to do something to make the place more livable.” Her gaze met Daniella’s. “You saw the outside. It’s grown over. Inside, there’s dust and clutter…and watermarks that mean some of the bathrooms and maybe even the roof need to be repaired.” She sat on the bed. “What am I going to do?”

Dani sat beside her. “We’re going to take things one step at a time.” She tucked Nico’s business card into her pocket. “This morning, we’ll clean the kitchen and finish our bedrooms. Tomorrow, we’ll pick a room and clean it, and every day after that we’ll just keep cleaning one room at a time.”

“What about the roof?”

“We’ll hope it doesn’t rain?”

Louisa laughed. “I’m serious.”

“Well, I have a chance for a job at a restaurant.”

“You do?”

She winced. “Yes. Nico knew someone who needs a hostess.”


She ignored the dislike in her friend’s voice. “What better way to find a good contractor than by chit chatting with the locals?”

Louisa smiled and shook her head. “If anybody can chit chat her way into finding a good contractor, it’s you.”

“Which is also going to make me a good hostess.”

“What time’s your appointment?”

“Lunchtime.” She winced. “From the address on this card, I think we’re going to have to hope there’s a car in that big, fancy garage out back.”


Standing behind the podium in the entry to Mancini’s, Rafe struggled with the urge to throw his hands in the air and storm off. On his left, two American couples spoke broken, ill-attempted Italian in an effort to make reservations for that night. In front of him, a businessman demanded to be seated immediately. To his right, a couple kissed. And behind them, what seemed to be a sea of diners groused and grumbled as he tried to figure out a computer system with a seating chart, superimposed with reservations.

     How could no one in his kitchen staff be familiar with this computer software?

“Everybody just give me a minute!”

     He hit a button and the screen disappeared. After a second of shock, he cursed. He expected the crowd to groan. Instead they laughed. Laughed. Again laughter!

How was it that everybody seemed to be happy that he was suffering? These people – customers – were the people he loved, the people he worked so hard to please. How could they laugh at him?

He tried to get the screen to reappear, but it stayed dark.

     “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.”

     He glanced up to see an American, clearly forgetting she was in Italy because she spoke English, as she made her way through the crowd. Cut in an angled, modern style, her pretty blond hair stopped at her chin. Her blue eyes were determined. The buttons of her black coat had been left open, revealing jeans and pale blue sweater were neat, but worn.

     When she reached the podium, she didn’t even look at Rafe. She addressed the gathered crowd.

     “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said in flawless Italian. “Give me two minutes and everyone will be seated.”

     His eyebrows rose. She was a cheeky little thing.

     When she finally faced him, her blue eyes locked on his. Rich with color and bright with enthusiasm, they didn’t merely display her confidence; they caused his heart to give a little bounce.

     She smiled and stuck out her hand. “Daniella Tate. Your friend Nico sent me.” When he didn’t take her hand, her smile drooped as she tucked a strand of yellow hair behind her ear. But her face brightened again. She rifled in her jeans pocket, pulled out a business card and offered it to him. “See?”

     He glanced at Nico’s card. “So he believes you are right to be my hostess?”

     “Temporarily.” She winced. “I just finished a teaching position in Rome. For the next four weeks I’m sightseeing, but I’m trying to supplement my extended stay with a temp job. I think he thinks we can help each other – at least while you interview candidates.”

     The sweet, melodious tone of her voice caused something warm and soft to thrum through Rafe, something he’d never felt before – undoubtedly relief that his friend had solved his problem.

“I see.”

     “Hey, buddy, come on. We’re hungry! If you’re not going to seat us we’ll go somewhere else.”

     Not waiting for him to reply, Daniella nudged Rafe out of the way, stooped down to find a tablet on the Maître D stand shelf and faced the dining area. She quickly drew squares and circles representing all the tables and wrote the number of chairs around each one. She put x’s over the tables that were taken.

     Had he thought she was cheeky? Apparently, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

     She faced the Americans. “How many in your party?”

     “Four. We want reservations for tonight.”



     Flipping the tablet page, she wrote their name and the time on the next piece of paper. As the Americans walked out, she said, “Next?”

     Awestruck at her audacity, Rafe almost yelled.


He could easily give her the boot, but he needed a hostess. He had a growing suspicion about the customers laughing when he lost his temper, as if he was becoming some sort of sideshow. He didn’t want his temper to be the reason people came to his restaurant. He wanted his food, the fantastic aromas, the succulent tastes to be the draw. Nico had all but recommended this girl by giving her his card as an introduction. Wouldn’t he be a fool to toss her out?

     The businessman pushed his way over to her. “I have an appointment in an hour. I need to be served first.”

     Daniella Tate smiled at Rafe as if asking permission to seat the businessman, and his brain emptied. She really was as pretty as she was cheeky. Luckily, she took his blank stare as approval. She turned to the businessman and said, “Of course, we’ll seat you.”

     She led the man to the back of the dining room, to a table for two, seated him with a smile and returned to the podium.

     Forget about how cheeky she was. Forget about his brain that stalled when he looked at her. She was a very good hostess.

Rafe cleared his throat. “Talk to the waitresses and find out whose turn it is before you seat anyone else.” He cleared his throat again. “They have a system.”

     She smiled at him. “Sure.”

     His heart did something funny in his chest, forcing his gaze to her pretty blue eyes again. Warmth whooshed through him.

Confused, he turned and marched away. With so much at stake in his restaurant, including, it seemed, his reputation, his funny feelings for an employee were irrelevant. Nothing. Whatever trickled through his bloodstream, it had to have more annoyance than attraction. After all, recommendation from Nico or not, she’d sort of walked in and taken over his restaurant.


Dani stared after the chef as he left. She wasn’t expecting someone so young…or so gorgeous. At least six feet tall, with wavy brown hair so long he had it tied off his face, and gray eyes, the guy could be a celebrity chef on television back home. Just looking at him had caused her breathing to stutter. She actually felt a rush of heat careen through her veins. He was that good looking.

But it was also clear that he was in over his head without a Maître D. As she’d stood in the back of the long line to get into the restaurant, her good old fashioned American common sense had kicked in, and she’d simply done what needed to be done: pushed her way to the front, grabbed some menus and seated customers. And he’d hired her.

Behind her someone said, “You’d better keep your hair behind your ears. He’ll yell about it being in your face and potentially in his food once he gets over being happy you’re here.”

     She turned to see one of the waitresses. Dressed in black trousers and a white blouse, she looked slim and professional.

That was happy?”

     Her pretty black ponytail bobbed as she nodded. “Si. That was happy.”

     “Well, I’m going to hate seeing him upset.”

     “Prepare yourself for it. Because he gets upset every day. Several times a day. That’s why Gino quit. I’m Allegra by the way. The other two waitresses are Zola and Giovanna. And the chef is Chef Mancini. Everyone calls him Chef Rafe.”

     “He said you have a system of how you want people seated.”

     Allegra took Daniella’s seating chart and drew two lines dividing the tables into three sections. “Those are our stations. You seat one person in mine, one person in Zola’s and one person in Gio’s, then start all over again.”

     Daniella smiled. “Easy, peasy.”


     “That means no problem.”

     “Ah. Si.” Allegra smiled and walked away. Daniella took two more menus and seated another couple.

     The lunchtime crowd that had assembled at the door of Mancini’s settled quickly. Dani easily found a rhythm of dividing the customers up between the three waitresses. Zola and Gio introduced themselves, and she actually had a good time being hostess of the restaurant that looked like an old world farm house and smelled like pure heaven. The aromas of onions and garlic, sweet peppers and spicy meats rolled through the air, making her confident she could talk up the food and promise diners a wonderful meal, even without having tasted it.

During the lull after lunch, Zola and Gio went home. The dining room grew quiet. Not sure if she should stay or leave, since Allegra remained to be available for the occasional tourist who ambled in, Daniella stayed too.

     In between customers, she helped clear and reset tables, checked silverware to make sure it sparkled, arranged chairs so that everything in the dining room was picture perfect.

     But soon even the stragglers stopped. Daniella stood by the podium, her elbow leaning against it, her chin on her closed fist, wondering what Louisa was doing.

     “Why are you still here?”

     The sound of Rafe’s voice sent a surge of electricity through her.

She turned with a gasp. Her voice wobbled when she said, “I thought you’d need me for dinner.”

     “You were supposed to go home for the break. Or are you sneakily trying to get paid for hours you really don’t work?”

     Her eyes widened. Anger punched through her. What the hell was wrong with this guy? She’d done him a favor and he was questioning her motives?

Without thinking, she stormed over to him. Putting herself in his personal space, she looked up and caught his gaze. “And how was I supposed to know that, since you didn’t tell me?”

     She expected him to back down. At the very least to realize his mistake. Instead, he scoffed. “It’s common sense.”

     “Well, in America--”

     He cut her off with a harsh laugh. “You Americans. Think you know everything. But you’re not in America now. You are in Italy.” He pointed a finger at her nose. “You will do what I say.”

     “Well, I’ll be happy to do what you say as soon as you say something!”

     Allegra stopped dropping silverware to linen-covered tables. The empty, quiet restaurant grew stone cold silent. Time seemed to crawl to a stop. The vein in Rafe’s temple pulsed.

     Dani’s body tingled. Every employee in the world knew it wasn’t wise to yell at the boss, but, technically, she wasn’t yelling. She was standing up to him. As a foster child, she’d had to learn how to protect herself, when to stay quiet and when to demand her rights. If she let him push her around now, he’d push her around the entire month she worked for him.

     He threw his hands in the air, pivoted away from her and headed to the kitchen. “Go the hell home and come back for dinner.”

Daniella blew out the breath she’d been holding. Her heart pounded so hard it hurt, but the tingling in her blood became a surge of power. He might not have said the words, but she’d won that little battle of wills.

Still, she felt odd that their communication had come down to a sort of yelling match and knew she had to get the heck out of here.

She grabbed her purse and headed for the old green car she and Louisa had found in the garage.

     Ten minutes later, she was back in the kitchen of Palazzo di Comparino.

Though Louisa had sympathetically made her a cup of tea, she laughed when Daniella told her the story.

     “It’s not funny,” Dani insisted, but her lips rose into a smile when she thought about how she must have looked standing up to the big, bad chef everybody seemed to be afraid of. She wouldn’t tell her new friend that standing up to him had put fire in her blood and made her heart gallop like a prize stallion. She didn’t know what that was all about, but she did know part of it, at least, stemmed from how good looking he was.

“Okay. It was a little funny. But I like this job. It would be great to keep it for the four weeks I’m here. But he didn’t tell me what time I was supposed to go back. So we’re probably going to get into another fight.”

     “Or you could just go back at six. If he yells that you’re late, calmly remind him that he didn’t give you the time you were to return. Make it his fault.”

     “It is his fault.”

     Louisa beamed. “Exactly. If you don’t stand up to him now, you’ll either lose the job or spend the weeks you work for him under his thumb. You have to do this.”

     Dani sighed. “That’s what I thought.”

     Taking Louisa’s advice, she returned to the restaurant at six. A very small crowd had built by the Maître D podium, and when she entered, she noticed that most of the tables weren’t filled. Rafe shoved a stack of menus at her and walked away.

     She shook her head, but smiled at the next customers in line. He might have left without a word, but he hadn’t engaged her in a fight, and it appeared she still had her job.

     Maybe the answer to this was to just stay out of his way?

     The evening went smoothly. Again, the wonderful scents that filled the air prompted her to talk up the food, the wait staff and the wine.

     After an hour or so, Rafe called her into the kitchen. Absolutely positive he had nothing to yell at her about, she straightened her shoulders and walked into the stainless steel room and over to the stove where he stood.

     “You wanted to see me?”

     He presented a fork filled with pasta to her. “This is my signature ravioli. I hear you talking about my dishes, so I want you to taste so you can honestly tell customers it is the best food you have ever eaten.”

     She swallowed back a laugh at his confidence, but when her lips wrapped around the fork and the flavor of the sweet sauce exploded on her tongue, she pulled the ravioli off the fork and into her mouth with a groan. “Oh, my God.”

     “It is perfect, si?”

     “You’re right. It is probably the best food I’ve ever eaten.”

     Emory, the short, bald sous chef, scrambled over. “Try this.” He raised a fork full of meat to her lips. She took the bite and again, she groaned. “What is that?”

     “Beef brasato.”

     “Oh my God, that’s good.”

     A younger chef suddenly appeared before her with a spoon of soup. “Minestrone,” he said, holding the spoon out to her.

     She drank the soup and closed her eyes to savor. “You guys are the best cooks in the world.”

     Everyone in the kitchen stopped. The room fell silent.

But Emory laughed. “Chef Rafe is one of the best chefs in the world. These are his recipes.”

     She turned and smiled at Rafe. “You’re amazing.”

     She’d meant his cooking was amazing. His recipes were amazing. Or maybe the way he could get the best out of his staff was amazing. But saying the words while looking into his silver-gray eyes, the simple sentence took on a totally different meaning.

     The room grew quiet again. She felt her face reddening. Rafe held her gaze for a good twenty seconds before he finally pointed at the door. “Go tell that to customers.”

     She walked out of the kitchen, licking the remains of the fantastic food off her lips as she headed for the podium. With the exception of that crazy little minute of eye contact, tasting the food had been fun. She loved how proud the entire kitchen staff seemed to be of the delicious dishes they prepared. And she saw the respect they had for their boss. Chef Rafe. Clearly a very talented man.

With two groups waiting to be seated, she grabbed menus and walked the first couple to a table. “Right this way.”

“Any specialties tonight?”

She faced the man and woman behind her, saying, “I can honestly recommend the chef’s signature ravioli.” With the taste of the food still on her tongue, she smiled. “And the minestrone soup is to die for. But if you’re in the mood for beef, there’s a beef brasato that you’ll never forget.”

She said the words casually, but having sampled the food had the oddest effect on her. Suddenly she felt part of it. She didn’t merely feel like a good hostess who could recommend the delicious dishes because she’d tasted them. She got an overwhelming sense that she was meant to be here. The feeling of destiny was so strong it nearly overwhelmed her. But she drew in a quiet breath, smiled at the couple and seated them.

     Sense of destiny? That was almost funny. Children who grew up in foster care gave up on destiny early, and contented themselves with a sense of worth, confidence. It was better to educate yourself to be employable, than to dally in day dreams.

     As the night went on, Rafe and his staff continued to give her bites and tastes of the dishes they prepared. As she became familiar with the items on the menu, she tempted guests to try things. But she also listened to stories of the sights the tourists had seen that day, and soothed the egos of those who spoke broken Italian by telling stories of teaching English as a second language in Rome.

     And the feeling that she was meant to be here grew, until her heart swelled with it.


Rafe watched her from the kitchen door. Behind him, Emory laughed. “She’s pretty, right?”

     Rafe faced him, concerned that his friend had seen their thirty seconds of eye contact over the ravioli, and recognized that Rafe was having trouble seeing Daniella Tate as an employee because she was so beautiful. When she’d called him amazing, he’d struggled to keep his gaze on hers and off her lips, but that didn’t stop the urge to kiss her. It blossomed to life in his chest and clutched the air going into and out of his lungs making it stutter. He’d needed all of those thirty seconds to get ahold of himself.

But Emory’s round face wore his usual smile. Nothing out of the ordinary. No light of recognition in his eyes. Rafe’s unexpected reactions hadn’t been noticed.

Rafe turned back to the crack between the doors again. “She’s chatty.”

     “You did tell her to talk up the food.” Emory sidled up to the slim opening. “Besides, the customers seem to love her.”

     “Bah!” He spun away from the door. “We don’t need for customers to love her. They come here for the food.”

     Emory shrugged. “Maybe. But we’re both aware Mancini’s was getting to be a little more known for your temper than for its meals. A little attention from a pretty girl, talking up your dishes, might just cure your reputation problem. Put the food back in the spotlight instead of your temper.”

     “I still think she talks too much.”

     Emory shook his head. “Suit yourself.”

     Rafe crossed his arms on his chest. He would suit himself. He was famous for suiting himself. That was how he’d gotten to be a great chef. By learning and testing until he created great meals. And he wanted the focus on those meals.

The first chance he got, he intended to have a talk with Daniella Tate.