Dani walked through the main dining room of Bella Roma. The tables were set for lunch with the white linens in place and fresh flowers on the tables. She paused to randomly pick up a couple of glasses and held them to the light. They sparkled the way they were supposed to.
She’d only been working at the restaurant a couple of weeks, which meant she was still on the steep side of the learning curve. The good news was Bella Roma was a well-run restaurant with an excellent staff and a great menu. The better news was that her boss, Bernie, was a terrific guy to work for.
After setting down the glasses, she walked into the kitchen where low-key chaos reined. The real activity wouldn’t begin before they opened for lunch in twenty minutes. For now there was the prep work. Penny-her sister-in-law and possibly the best chef in Seattle, not thatshe would ever mention that to Nick, the head chef here-always said that a kitchen lived or died by its prep work.
Three huge stockpots simmered on back burners. The scent of garlic and sausage filled the air. One cook chopped vegetables for salads while another sliced meat for the sandwiches and antipasto platters.
“Hey, Dani,” one of the cooks called. “Come taste my sauce.”
“That’s not what he wants you to taste,” another cook yelled. “She’s too pretty for you, Rico. She wants a real man like me.”
“You’re not a real man. The last time I had your wife, she told me.”
“If my wife saw you naked, she’d laugh so hard, she’d hurt herself.”
Dani smiled at the familiar insults. Restaurant kitchens were usually loud, crazy places where the constant pressure meant everyone had to work as a team. The fact that the majority of workers were men meant a challenging situation for the average woman. Dani had grown up hovering around the kitchens at the various Buchanan restaurants, so she was immune to any attempts to shock her. She waved at the guys, then checked the list of specials Nick had posted against the menu inserts for that day.
“The panini sounds delicious,” she told the head chef. “I can’t wait to try it”
“I have something better for you, sweet cheeks ” one of the guys said.
Dani didn’t bother turning around to find out who was speaking. Instead she picked up one of the large carving knives. “I have a set of these myself.”
A couple of the guys groaned.
Nick grinned. “As long as you know how to use them.”
That would back the cooks off for a while. She knew that as long she did her job and they learned they could depend on her to respect them and not do anything to make their work more difficult, they would come to respect her. It took time to build a good relationship with a kitchen staff and she was more than willing to put in the effort to make that happen.
“You want to make any changes to the specials?” Nick asked casually.
Dani wanted to laugh at the ridiculous question, but kept her expression carefully neutral. Nick didn’t really want her opinion. If she tried to give one, he would rip her head off…probably just verbally. The division of labor was very clear. The head chef ran the kitchen, the general manager ran everything else. Dani’s position of authority stopped the second she stepped through the swinging doors.
“No,” she said sweetly. “They look great. Have a good lunch,”
She pushed through the doors, back onto her turf. She and Nick had to work together. Either of them could make the other’s life a living nightmare. As the new kid, it was up to her to prove herself, which she was happy to do.
One of the advantages of her new job was how it helped her focus. After her meeting with Mark Canfield, she’d found herself unable to concentrate, until she’d come to work. Alex Canfield had gotten to her, invading her brain on a regular basis. She tried to tell herself that he was completely uninteresting, not the least bit attractive and not someone she would waste her time on but she knew she was lying. There was something about him that compelled her. The fact that he was her biological father’s adoptive son added a level of confusion that told her she needed to run in the opposite direction. Considering the past year in her romantic life, it was advice she should listen to.
She walked through the dining room to her office. On the way she passed the wine cellar, where she did a quick spot inventory on two different wines. The number of bottles in the bin matched the number on the list from her computer.
“Excellent,” she murmured as she stepped back into the hall. So far working at Bella Roma was a dream. There was nothing she wanted to-
She turned and saw her brother Walker. She grinned. “Here to figure out how to do things right?” she asked as he pulled her close and kissed thetop of her head.
Walker, a former Marine, had recently taken over the Buchanan empire, such as it was. He ran the corporation that owned the four family restaurants. He’d been pushed into the leadership role when Gloria, the Buchanan matriarch and grandmother to Dani’s three brothers, had suffered a heart attack and broken hip. Weeks into the job, he discovered it was his calling.
Dani was happy for him. Walker was a hell of a guy and he was doing a great job. She never actually wanted to run the business, she’d just wanted to have a chance to prove herself running one of the restaurants. While Gloria had put her in charge of Burger Heaven, she hadn’t let her move up at all. After years of trying to please a woman who actually seemed to hate her, Dani had been told the truth. In blunt terms, Gloria had explained that Dani wasn’t a real Buchanan. That her mother had had an affair and Dani was the result.
With Gloria as the matriarch of the family, Dani wasn’t related to her at all. As Gloria had only ever been critical and distant, Dani should have been relieved.
But she wasn’t. “Despite their lack of blood connection, Dani knew Gloria would always be her grandmother-at least in Dani’s heart. Gloria’s past behavior meant being close was unlikely.
Dani told herself she didn’t care. At least there was a bright side.
Now that she knew Mark Canfield could be her real father, she had a whole new family to bond with. The downside was she’d spent her whole life as a Buchanan and she didn’t want to be anyone else.
Walker released her. “How are things going?”
“Great. I love it. Bernie’s the best and the kitchen staff is only terrorizing me a little. That means I’m starting to win them over. Of course if they weren’t terrorizing me at all it would mean that they hate me, so it’s a delicate balance. What are you doing here? Looking for a decent meal for a change?”
The slam made him grin. “You think pasta with red sauce can compete with anything Penny can come up with?”
Penny had married their oldest brother, Cal. She was an extraordinary chef and worked at The Waterfront, the seafood restaurant in the Buchanan stable.
“If you’re going to put it like that,” Dani grumbled, knowing Penny was a genius. “But we have a lot of great stuff you don’t offer. Now that I think about it, we need to open an Italian place. It’s very popular and the profit margin is fantastic.”
Walker stared at her. “I’m not here to talk business.”
“But an Italian restaurant is a great idea.”
“An excellent one, if you want to ignore the fact that you’re trying to talk me into competing with your current boss.”
Oops. Dani glanced around to see if anyone had overheard her. Damn. When was she going to remember that she wasn’t a Buchanan anymore? That she didn’t owe them any loyalty and that she should be putting all her energies into Bella Roma?
“Okay” she muttered. “Point taken. So if you’re not here for the garlic bread, what’s up?”
“It’s Elissa,” he said.
Dani grabbed his arm. “Is she okay? Did something happen?”
“She’s fine. We’re moving forward with the wedding plans. She wants to have a fairy-tale wedding with lots of flowers and twinkle lights. I want her to be happy.”
Until this minute, Dani would have had a hard time imagining her big, tough brother talking about twinkle lights with a straight face. She would have bet he didn’t even know what they were. But since falling for Elissa, he was a different man. More open, more connected, more aware of twinkle lights.
“I’m sure the wedding will be beautiful,” she said.
“She wants you to be in it. She’s not going to have a maid of honor. Apparently it’s too complicated. So she’ll have a lot of attendants and she would like you to be one. But she didn’t want to pressure you, so she asked me to ask you so you’d be more comfortable saying no.”
Dani smiled. “Really? She wants me in the wedding?”
“Of course she does. She likes you. Plus, you’re family, and don’t say you’re not. I’m tired of that conversation. You’re as much a Buchanan as any of us. You’re my sister. You could be an alien dropped off by the mother ship and you’d still be my sister”
His fierceness might have worried someone who didn’t know him, but Dani recognized it as his way of saying he really, really cared. She might not be sure of her place in the universe or her last name, but she was clear on how much she mattered to her brothers.
“You’re not getting rid of me,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
“I have to worry. I’m older. It’s in the job description. So do you want to be in the wedding or not?”
“So smooth,” she told him. “So persuasive. So elegant in your communication.”
He scowled. “Was that a yes?”
“It was a yes. I would love to be one of Elissa’s attendants.”
“Good. How was your meeting with the senator?”
She led him to a table and sat down. “It was interesting. Strange. I didn’t feel a connection or anything.”
She told him about how Mark had been willing to accept her story.
“Alex is insisting on a DNA test, which I think is a good idea. Then we’ll both be sure.”
“Alex is his son?”
“Adopted, but yes.”
“Is he a problem?”
Dani grinned. “You offering to take him out if he is?”
“I’ll run interference.”
She liked the gesture, even if she couldn’t take him up on it. “I can handle Alex.” She thought about the determination in his eyes. “Or at least make a good run at it. Besides, I don’t want you beating him up just yet. He’s kind of hot.”
Walker winced. “I don’t want to know”
“Don’t worry. Nothing will happen. I’ve learned my lesson. No more relationships for me. Still, he got my attention. Not that it matters. He thought I was a bug. An inconvenient bug who could screw up his father’s presidential campaign.”
“That he’s making too big a deal out of things. I just want to know if Mark Canfleld is my father or not. If he is, I’d like to get to know him. That’s where it ends… although Mark did invite me over to dinner tonight to meet his wife.”
“What is she going to think about you?”
Dani winced. “I have no idea, but I doubt it will be good.”
Katherine Canfield walked into her house through the garage, with her former daughter-in-law on her heels. As always, Fiona was beautifully dressed in a suit that flattered her slender figure and perfect red hair. Katherine glanced down at her own designer suit. Despite an aggressive exercise routine and constantly watching what she ate, her body had begun to change. She’d never minded the thought of getting old, but when faced with the reality of a thickening waist and the unpleasant realization that gravity was not her friend, she thought longingly of the easy resilience of youth.
“I have the guest list prepared,” Fiona said efficiently. “All but three of the designers have confirmed and I’m going to keep pressuring the last three until they cave. I’m determined we top last year’s proceeds by at least twenty-five percent.”
“Both the hospital and I appreciate your enthusiasm,” Katherine said as she stepped out of her shoes. She’d been presenting their plans for the fashion show fund-raiser, then had worked the subsequent late-afternoon tea. She’d been on her feet for hours and they were letting her know about it- another sign of getting older. When she’d been Fiona’s age, she would have been able to do that and then go dancing all night.
“We should just send a check,” Katherine said as she poured herself a glass of water, then offered one to Fiona. “Much less work.”
Fiona smiled. “You always say that, but you don’t mean it.”
“You’re right.” While Katherine’s charity work filled much of her days, she loved knowing the money raised would make a difference.
The sound of someone running caused her to turn. Anticipating the greeting, Katherine set her glass on the counter, crouched down and held out her arms.
Seconds later Sasha burst into the room and flew across the hardwood floors.
“Mommy, Mommy, you’re back. I missed you so much. Yvette read to me and Bailey and I watched princess videos and I had mac and cheese for lunch, then Ian read us a story and did the voices.”
Katherine straightened, hugging the little girl close. “You had a good day.”
“I did.” Sasha smiled.
She was just five, with caf? au lait skin and dark eyes. Her hair hung in a tangle of curls. Katherine suspected her mixed heritage and classic bone structure meant the little girl was going to grow into a real beauty. She and Mark were going to have trouble with boys far sooner than they wanted. But for the next few years, they only had to worry about their baby growing up strong.
“Do you want to say hello to Fiona?” Katherine asked.
Sasha wrinkled her nose slightly, then dutifully said, “Hello, Fiona. How are you?”
“I’m fine.” Fiona smiled at the girl. “You’re getting so big.”
Sasha didn’t answer. For some reason, she’d never gotten along with Alex’s ex-wife, which was odd. The child was exceptionally loving.
Yvette walked into the kitchen. “I knew your mama had to be home, the way you went tearing off. Tell me I did not hear you running down the stairs.”
Sasha grinned. “You did not.”
“Good. How was the presentation?” Yvette asked Katherine.
“Exhausting, but successful. And here?”
“Wild, crazy, loud.”
“You know how your children are,” Yvette told her with a grin. “They’re going to make me old before my time.”
“You’re younger than me,” Katherine teased. “I get to be old first.”
“We’ll have to see.”
Yvette held out her arms and Sasha went willingly. The petite dark-haired woman carried her out of the kitchen.
“She’s so good with the children” Fiona said. “You were lucky to find her.”
“I know. She’s the reason Mark and I could adopt so many children.”
Without help, they would have been forced to stop at three or four children. Katherine didn’t even want to think about that. She loved all eight of her children and couldn’t imagine her world without even one of them.
“You have a perfect life,” Fiona murmured.
Katherine thought about her aching feet and the hot flash that had kept her awake for two hours the previous night. “Not perfect, but it makes me happy.”
“Your children are such a blessing.”
Katherine glanced at Fiona and saw the pain flash in her eyes. Her chest tightened in sympathy. By now Fiona should have a child of her own. Maybe two. If all had gone well… But it hadn’t. Everything had changed when Alex had announced he wanted a divorce. He’d never told Katherine why and Fiona claimed to be equally confused by his unexpected change of heart.
Katherine knew there had to be a reason. Alex was her oldest and the child of her heart. They had been through so much together. He wasn’t the sort of man to simply walk away without a reason. He was far from heartless or cruel. So why had he left his wife?
Katherine wanted to say something to comfort her friend, but she couldn’t think of what that would be. Fiona smiled bravely.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to get emotional. I know you’re already in an awkward position and I don’t want to make things worse. I just want you to know that I so appreciate you allowing me to help out with the charity work. It means everything to me. You could have easily cut me out of your life.”
“Never,” Katherine told her. “Whatever happens between you and Alex has nothing to do with our friendship.” She continued to hold out hope that her son would realize what he’d done and go back to Fiona.
Fiona drew in a breath. “I’m going to slip into your office for an hour or so, if that’s all right. I want to download fashion show menus for the past ten years. The last thing we want to worry about is a repeat entr?e.”
“Thanks for doing that. I’ll go up and check on the kids. Come find me before you leave.”
Fiona left. Katherine turned toward the staircase, but before she took a step, she heard the garage door. That could only mean one thing- Mark was home.
She knew it was completely foolish, but even after twenty-seven years, her heart still beat faster whenever she thought about seeing her husband. So many of her friends talked about the spark going out of their marriage-how nothing was ever exciting or fresh. It wasn’t like that for Katherine- it never had been. Her love for Mark had only grown. In the clich? of movies and TV, he was her handsome prince. While she loved her children, he was the one who truly claimed her heart.
She ran a hand over her hair, then smoothed the front of her jacket. There wasn’t time to freshen her makeup, so she bit her lips to make them redder and drew in a breath. Being pretty for Mark mattered. Seconds later the utility room door opened and he stepped into the kitchen.
He looked exactly as he had the first time she’d seen him. Tall and handsome with dark blond hair and deep blue eyes. Those eyes always crinkled slightly, as if he knew a really funny secret. He still took her breath away every time she saw him.
“Hi, sweetheart” he said as he moved toward her. “How are you?”
“Good. You’re home early.”
“I wanted to see you.”
Her heart quickened at his words.
He leaned in and kissed her. The second his mouth touched hers, the familiar wanting flared to life. She hid her reaction to the casual kiss-a trick she’d learned in the first few months of her marriage. But that didn’t make the need go away.
Years ago she’d read an article about relationships. The author claimed that in most marriages there was the one who adored and the one who was adored. She knew that was true for them. Mark loved her, but he didn’t worship her. He didn’t understand how deeply her feelings ran. She’d learned to control the wild, romantic and sexual feelings swirling inside of her whenever he was close, but she’d never been able to make them go away. He was the only man for her. At least she’d been lucky enough to marry him.
He took her hand in his and smiled. “Come on. Let’s go talk.”
“Don’t you want to say hi to the kids?”
“Later. I want to talk to you first.”
Mark was a typical guy. Despite his ability to chat with contributors for hours and never break a sweat, anytime
They went into his book-lined study. He shut the door behind them, then led her to the leather sofa. His expression was unfamiliar. Was he upset? No, that wasn’t right. More resigned. About what? Cold, hard fear knotted in her belly.
Was he leaving her?
Her brain pointed out that even if he was desperate to get away, leaving his wife while exploring the possibility of running for president wasn’t a good idea. Her heart whispered that of course he loved her. He’d been busier than usual lately, but that was to be expected. She should stop worrying about nothing. Still, her hands trembled slightly as she folded them in her lap and looked at him.
“What is it?” she asked.
She would guess that from the outside, she appeared totally calm and in control. That’s what Mark would see. What she wanted him to see.
“A young woman came to meet me today,” Mark told her. “Or maybe not so young. She’s twenty-eight. I guess that means I’m getting old. Are you still interested in being married to an old guy? After all, you’re the hot one in our relationship.”
He spoke easily, smiling, holding her gaze. She should have been relaxed. But she wasn’t. She was terrified and she couldn’t say why.
“You’re not an old guy,” she said, doing her best not to visibly tremble.
“I’m fifty-six ” she pointed out. “Are you going to trade me in for a younger model?”
“You’re the most beautiful woman in the world,” he told her. “You’re my wife.”
Soothing words that should have made her feel better. But they didn’t.
“So who is this young woman?”
“Her name is Dani Buchanan. Dani for Danielle, Alex told me later.”
“Alex? What does he have to do with this?”
“Not anything, really. He was there and he met her. Tried to run her off. Your son is quite the watchdog.”
“He cares about his family.”
“I know.” Mark touched her cheek. “Katherine, do you remember when we were engaged the first time? How you ended things with me?”
She nodded slowly. She’d been an only child from an old money East Coast family. Her parents hadn’t approved of her relationship with a brash young man from Seattle. Mark had charm and energy but no family to speak of and certainly no pedigree. Still, Katherine had loved him and had won her family over to her way of thinking. Mark had proposed and she had accepted. But six weeks after the engagement, she’d broken things off. She’d been unable to tell Mark the truth about herself. Rather than have him pity her, then leave her, she’d ended their engagement and he’d gone back to Seattle.
“I came home to figure out what to do with my life,” he said. “While I was here, I met someone. I didn’t mean for anything to happen, but it did.”
The fear turned sharp, cutting her from the inside. She felt both cold and hot. Her whole body ached and still she sat there unmoving, determined to show nothing.
“You had a relationship with this woman?” she asked calmly.
“Yes. She was married. Neither of us meant for it to happen. No one knew, because of her husband. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. One day it ended. I never thought much about it again, until today. Dani is her daughter. My daughter.”
Katherine stood. Maybe if she moved, the pain wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe then she could breathe. But the white-hot pokers pricked her everywhere and the spacious study offered nowhere to hide.
“Obviously I didn’t know,” he said, as if unaware that anything was wrong. “Alex suggested a DNA test so we can all be sure. It’s a good idea. She seems like a great girl. She looks like Marsha mostly, but I see a little of me in her. With the campaign, we’ll have to be discreet, of course.”
Mark kept talking, but Katherine couldn’t hear him. He had a child. A child of his own. A child he’d met.
“I invited her to dinner,” Mark said. “I want you to meet her. We don’t have to tell the kids who she is right away. But eventually we will.”
She turned to him. Her face felt frozen. She wasn’t sure she could speak. “She’s coming here?”
“Tonight.” He stood and crossed to her, then took her hands in his. “I know you’ll like her. Didn’t you say you wanted another daughter?”
He couldn’t mean that. He couldn’t not know what he was doing to her. And yet he kept talking as if he thought everything was fine. As if she wasn’t devastated that some other woman had been able to give him something she, Katherine, never could.
Alex arrived early for dinner at his parents’ house. He’d thought about calling his mother, but had then decided it would be better to speak with her in person. His father might think she would take the news of Dani Buchanan in stride; Alex wasn’t so sure.
Before he could head up the stairs, Fiona stepped out of his mother’s study.
He remembered a Discovery Channel special on spiders. Fiona reminded him of a black widow, just biding her time until she could eat her mate.
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” he said.
“Meaning you wouldn’t have come home if you’d known?” Her green eyes widened with emotion. “Do you hate me so much?”
“I don’t hate you at all.” Hate would mean having strong emotions about her. He didn’t. He could look at her and acknowledge her physical beauty, yet feel nothing. In a perfect world, she would have disappeared from his life after the divorce. Unfortunately, he had a feeling she was never going away.
“The ice queen cometh.”
Alex turned and saw his brother Ian rolling toward them. Alex grinned and stepped toward him. He bent slightly so he and Ian could perform their complicated ritualistic greeting. Alex did most of the hand slapping and turning. It was easier for him. Ian’s CP limited his mobility. But what his younger brother lacked in physical prowess he more than made up for in brains and creativity.
“She’s always hanging around,” Ian told Alex. “I think she has a thing for me.”
Fiona shuddered visibly. She looked over Ian’s thin, twisted body as he sat in his wheelchair.
“That’s disgusting,” she snapped.
Ian raised his eyebrows. “But after last night… What do you think, Alex? You’re the expert on what turns Fiona on.”
Alex stared at his ex-wife. “Not as much as you’d think.”
Fiona seemed torn between fury and pleading. “Alex, you can’t let him talk to me like that.”
“Why not? Ian has a great sense of humor.”
“Something you wouldn’t understand, babe,” Ian said. “Humor is not your thing.” He turned and rolled out of the room. “Love ya,” he called over his shoulder.
Fiona drew in a breath. “I’ve never understood that boy.”
“You’ve never tried.” It had taken Alex a long time to figure out how Fiona felt about Ian, but he’d finally understood that she couldn’t stand to look at the kid. It was as if the variation on normal had disgusted her. That truth was only one thing on a long list of reasons he’d walked away from her and their marriage.
“Alex, I don’t want to fight.”
He crossed to the wet bar and opened a cabinet. After pouring himself some scotch, he faced her. “I’m not fighting.”
“You know what I mean.” She glided close to him and put her hand on his chest. “I miss you so much. There has to be something I can say or do to help you forgive me. It was only one mistake. Can you really be so cold and unforgiving?”
“I’m the bastard king,” he said, then took a sip. “Literally. Well, the bastard part anyway.”
She drew in a breath, as if determined to ignore his baiting of her. “Alex, I’m being serious. I’m your wife.”
“You were my wife.”
“I want to be again.”
He looked her up and down. On the surface, she was everything a man could want-beautiful, intelligent, an excellent dinner companion. She could talk to anyone, anywhere. Nearly all his friends had wondered how he had let her get away.
“Not happening,” he told her flatly.
“But I love you. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
He thought about that night nearly two years ago. When he’d come home unexpectedly. “No,” he said. “It doesn’t mean a damn thing.”