“’Bout damn time.”
Caleb Kirkpatrick was not a happy man. Shoving his arms into the sleeves of his heavy work coat, he left the warmth of the fireplace to confront his brother Josh. Once outside, Caleb stalked to the van his brother had parked near the main entrance of the Nebraska Sandhills ranch where they lived.
“Where the hell have you been?” Having waited hours for his younger brother’s return, Caleb had finally reached his limit of patience and worry. “Cell not working?”
“Well, hello to you, too.” Josh laughed and smacked Caleb on the shoulder after jumping free of the rented passenger van.
Caleb followed Josh to the luggage drawers under the vehicle.
“Cell is working just fine. Even called Holly a coupla times,” Josh added.
It took a lot of effort for Caleb not to deck Josh for such a smart-ass remark. Josh had called his wife but not Caleb. Josh hadn’t even answered Caleb’s repeated calls. It was late, and they lived on a desolate cattle ranch, miles from the nearest town. On the winding, hilly, gravel roads leading home, anything could have happened to them.
Caleb looked over to the large, sliding door on the side of the van just as the first passenger climbed out. Josh’s brilliant idea. Bring three women out here to the boonies of Nebraska and see which one could out-cook the other two. Reality shows, which forced people to compete for a certain prize, were the current rage on television. Josh thought that if they tried something like that out here in the boonies, it might add some excitement to their tedious lives. A television junkie, Josh watched or DVR’ed every reality show known to man—the goofier, the better.
After sifting through the short pile of online applications, Josh had invited three women, sight unseen. He’d talked with them via telephone, checked their references, and then went and got them, bringing them to the ranch for a month for the competition. Today, Josh had picked them up in a rented party van. He’d covered the whole state, starting in Omaha early that morning.
Would it add some excitement to their lives on the ranch as Josh had suggested? To have three women compete for employment? Caleb was doubtful but willing to give it a shot. He had nothing to lose and a cook to replace.
In the glow of the dome light shining through the open van door, Caleb could clearly see the first contestant. A skinny thing, she looked like the type who’d be more comfortable waiting tables in a sleazy nightclub than cooking stew on a cattle ranch. She wore a tight shirt and even tighter jeans, leaving little to Caleb’s imagination. Her heels were several inches high, making her almost as tall as him.
“Welcome to the Morning Glory.” He extended a hand, feeling uneasy. What had he let Josh talk him into?
“Hi.” She met his gaze, flashing him a toothy smile. Her grip tightened on his hand. “My name’s Angel.”
“Glad to have you here.” Caleb pulled away. “I’m Caleb Kirkpatrick.”
He didn’t have long to gawk at the sexy blonde. The second woman crashed down the steps. He rushed forward to catch her before she fell into the dust.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you.” A flush slowly spread across her cheeks.
When she regained her feet and moved aside, he studied her. The overdone, heavy makeup on her face clashed with her demure, modest clothing.
“I’m Phyllis Lamentine,” she added, without meeting his eyes.
He repeated the same line he’d given Angel but didn’t extend a hand, afraid he might scare her back onto the van.
He felt a little like the single guy on that one matchmaking show, where a limo full of beautiful women drives up to meet him. Except he wasn’t looking for a wife, and this was a far cry from a vacation home in Malibu.
When the third cook applicant poked her head out, Caleb stared, slack-jawed. He followed her journey from the van, one step at a time. Why was she here? The lady oozed class from head to toe. The way she carried herself, full of confidence and poise despite being out of her element, impressed him. This was clearly the woman from Chicago. Her dark black hair and startling blue eyes, along with a slightly olive complexion led him to believe she was Greek or Italian. A beauty for sure. How would she fit in here? Worse yet, if he was having this reaction to her, how would his employees act around her? Caleb gave himself a mental shake and looked away.
The women’s appearances didn’t matter, only their culinary skills. And really, if Caleb had a choice, he’d have his mother do the cooking. The idea of having three strangers in his house, especially three women, was more than a little unsettling.
She walked toward him, the third lady down, holding out her hand, a smile lighting up her face. “I’m Laura.”
Why were his palms sweaty? He’d been near plenty of attractive women, so why did he feel anxious in this one’s presence? He took her hand and shook it briefly. “Caleb. Your boss.” He felt like an idiot the minute those last two words flew out of his mouth, especially when her smile faltered and she pulled her hand from his grasp.
Caleb retreated as quickly as he could to where Josh continued unloading their bags. If he continued talking to Laura, he’d probably say something else stupid.
“So, what do you think?” Josh spoke quietly. “Some nice eye candy.”
“That’s not why they’re here.” Caleb shoved his hands into the pockets of his heavy work coat, chilled by the late-September air. “They’re here to cook, and that’s it.”
“Okay. Be that way.” Josh winked at Caleb and carried two bags into the house.
Caleb turned back to the women with a sigh. Be pleasant. “Welcome to the Morning Glory. Follow me?”
He turned on his heel and headed inside the main entrance of the lodge. Conner, his young son, stood inside the reception area, wearing his pajamas. With all the commotion, Caleb forgot the boy was waiting to be tucked in.
“Are these the ladies, Dad?” Connor whispered, moving next to Caleb’s side.
“Yep, sure are.” The look of awe on his son’s face made him grin.
Caleb looked back at the women. Did they feel like lambs going to slaughter? They didn’t speak, didn’t even look at each other.
Angel stared at him, an unmistakable invitation in her eyes. Shy, maybe even embarrassed, Phyllis refused to make any eye contact.
Laura seemed to be studying every inch of the room. Was she impressed? What did the place look like to an outsider? Of the three, she looked the least likely to fit in. With her tailored clothing and high-heeled sandals, she looked as if she belonged on Madison Avenue, not standing in his ranch’s dusty kitchen.
“As I said, I’m Caleb Kirkpatrick. This here’s my son, Conner.”
“I’m six.” Conner waved to the women.
“Josh manages the ranch.” Caleb nodded toward his brother, who stood on the fringe of the group. “He oversees the men. You ladies will be working under me.”
He realized what he’d just said when the blonde smiled and winked at him.
“Working for me, that is,” he amended.
Angel would give him a run for his money. He could tell that already.
Caleb set down their luggage and rubbed his hands together. Why were they staring at him? “Josh’ll show you to your rooms, give you a chance to freshen up. I’ll put Conner to bed and meet you back down here in a half hour for some general information.”
Just picked up a bag in each hand. “This way, ladies.” Josh bobbed his head toward the stairs.
Laura lagged behind and acknowledged his son. “Night, Conner.”
Conner waved back and giggled. “She said goodnight to me, Dad.”
Caleb watched her leave, feeling like giggling himself. The lady had something special about her.
* * *
“What the hell am I doing in Nowhere, Nebraska, population fourteen?”
Laura fell back onto the large bed situated smack-dab in the middle of the spacious, comfortable room she’d been assigned. She kicked off her mules and sank her toes into the plush carpeting, relieved to have a moment of privacy.
You needed to disappear, she reminded herself, closing her eyes and placing an arm over them.
And earlier that morning, at Eppley Airfield, that’s exactly what had happened. When she’d found Josh Kirkpatrick holding a sign with her new name on it, she’d realized life as she’d known it was over. Sabrina Marconi had died; Laura Marshall had been born.
The whole thing was crazy. Running from the mob, refusing to enter the protection program after getting shot at by thugs of the Garbaldo family, leaving everything and everyone she knew behind….
Standing with a sigh, she sniffed away the tears that threatened. Wasn’t she done crying? She removed her jacket and tossed it across the wingback chair at the window. She dug inside her luggage, found her favorite running hoodie and matching leggings, and slipped them on. Slippers were next, and soon, she felt like she was at home—almost. If she had a home.
“Time to start the competition.”
She drew one more deep breath, took a quick glance in the mirror, and then she left her suite.
Laura was determined to win. Call it her competitive nature. Call it desperation. She had to stay hidden from the eyes of the underworld. And where better to do it than a place that didn’t even register on MapQuest?
At this point in her life, all the money she’d squirreled away since starting her restaurant was irrelevant. Safety was her only concern. As much as it had sickened her to leave her Chicago life; her friends, her family, and her career behind, she had little choice. When the mob orders a hit, the best thing to do is simply vanish. Which is what she had done.
She was a hell of a cook, knew that she could win this job…that she needed to win this job. She had to be almost invisible to avoid the wide, creeping tendrils of the underworld.
She padded down the carpeted stairs and returned to the now empty main room. It was a gathering place of sorts, filled with leather couches and comfortable chairs. She felt like cheering when she saw the note taped to the fireplace inviting her into the kitchen for food.
“So, where is the kitchen?” Should she be worried that she was talking to herself so much? She chuckled and shook her head. Laura walked down the lighted hallway, hoping the kitchen would be at the end.
A veritable smorgasbord lay upon the kitchen counter. She looked at the spacious room briefly but, starving, having avoided food all day because of her nervous stomach, she now focused her attention on the food. Tomorrow would be soon enough to play with the knobs and buttons on the oversized and recently updated stainless-steel appliances. Food was a priority. She greedily filled a paper plate and took a can of diet pop before leaving the kitchen and finding a spot on the dark, fine leather couch in the main room. She dug in, realizing her last meal had been almost nine hours earlier.
“Hungry?” Angel, the sexy-blonde-cook-wannabe, walked in, her hands resting on her thin hips, a sneer marring her face as she scanned the food on Laura’s plate.
Laura ignored the woman’s jab and continued to eat. She liked food. So what?
“Where’s the chow?”
“Kitchen’s down the hallway.” Laura pointed.
Angel left her, and Laura sighed. That woman would be a difficult one to get along with.
When Angel returned a short time later—with enough on her plate to satisfy a small rabbit—she plopped down onto a wingback chair next to the fireplace. “How long ya think this is going to take?”
Laura rolled her eyes. After picking up Angel, what had so far been a pleasant drive to the ranch had turned into three hours of hell filled with her whining and complaints. Laura had never met someone so impatient in all her life.
“Just long enough.” A deep male voice answered from the doorway.
“Oh. Hi.” Angel perked up, a flirty smile on her face.
“Hi, yourself.” Caleb returned her smile.
Laura grimaced. Why are men so dumb? Angel had flirted with one of the new ranch hands on the van ride here. Now, Caleb was falling prey to her charms. Maybe? Or maybe he was happily married and just enjoying the brief attention from the blonde.
“Your name’s Angel, right?” Caleb sat in the chair opposite her, next to the fireplace.
“Yes, it is.” She leaned forward, displaying her cleavage. “That’s only my name though.” Her voice had dropped seductively.
Laura coughed, covering a laugh.
He shifted his attention to her.
“Yes,” Laura said.
He folded his hands in his lap and leaned back without any reaction toward her, not even a smile.
She returned his stare, studying her potential employer. What kind of boss would he be? It had been so long since she’d worked for anyone else; Laura hoped she remembered how to follow orders without questioning.
“Am I late?” Phyllis paused right inside the doorway.
“No, just getting started now.” Caleb leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. “Welcome, again. I hope you like your rooms. My son and I live in the east part of the downstairs.” He pointed out the door they’d come through.
“Josh didn’t say nothing about babysitting.” Angel frowned.
Caleb opened his mouth and then shut it. He tried again. “My mother takes care of him.” A phone rang in the distance. “I have to get that. Phyllis, go ahead into the kitchen and get some food. When I get back, we’ll visit.”
So, no mom around. Only Grandma. Poor kid.
Caleb sauntered from the room, his Wranglers hugging him in all the right places. His legs were slightly bowed, giving him a distinctive swagger she could only describe as…stimulating.
“Nice place, huh?” Angel asked when they were alone.
“Yes, it is. Bigger than I expected.” Laura took a bite of her sandwich.
“All ranches are big in Nebraska. Well, the ones whose owners have money anyway.” Angel leaned forward and lowered her voice. “This guy smells like money. He’s a fine piece of ass, too.”
Laura stared at the girl, wondering what kind of life she’d led before making her way out here. Laura would never admit to thinking what Angel just said, much less saying it out loud to a stranger.
Phyllis joined them with a plate full of food. They sat, waiting in stagnant silence, only broken up with the occasional crackle of wood in the fireplace. Would they turn into friends in the coming weeks—or enemies? Laura hoped the first but believed the second was a more likely outcome.
When she finished her food, she took her plate into the kitchen and nabbed a chocolate brownie. Caleb was back in the main room when she returned, handing out pieces of paper. She glanced at hers briefly, noted it was a contract, and reclaimed her spot on the sofa next to Phyllis.
“I’m going to go ahead and talk while you finish eating. I’m sure you will all want to get to bed, like I do.” Caleb leaned against the fireplace and rested his elbow on the mantle.
Laura caught Angel’s smirk. Was the blonde picturing herself in bed with Caleb?
Lord, why am I thinking like that? Cooking was all Laura needed to be concerned about. That, and staying hidden from the eyes of the underworld. The last thing she needed was to think of Caleb as anything other than a boss.
But if Angel planned to use seduction to gain an advantage, Laura had to be ready for the fight. She would win the cook-off, no matter what.
She had nowhere else to go.
“Josh gave you all the basics when he invited you three to come out for the month. I decided tonight I would go over the main house rules.”
Laura stared at his face as he spoke, distracted anew by his looks. When she’d seen him outside, he’d looked older. Now, in the firelight, the angles of his face were softer. He was older than her twenty-eight, maybe in his mid-thirties, unless he’d faced lots of stress in his life, worries that would have led to the stray grays at his temples and the lines around his eyes. His jawline was strong, squared off; he had a small cleft in his chin, and lips that looked….
“First of all, no men upstairs.” The sharp tone in his voice made her focus on his discussion again. “If anything needs to be fixed, you come to me.”
“Aren’t you a man?” Angel asked in a throaty murmur.
Laura closed her eyes and rubbed her hand over her face, fighting the urge to howl in laughter.
“Yes, ma’am.” Caleb nodded. “But I’m also your employer.”
Chastised, Angel focused on her candy-apple-red nails.
“Second rule,” he said.
Caleb cleared his throat and then shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Was he nervous or had Angel’s comment rattled him that much?
“I don’t want any direct contact between you and the men. They don’t need the distraction.”
“What about Josh?” Angel asked.
“He’s married, Angel,” Caleb answered. “Happily married.”
Laura caught the icy gleam in his eyes and was thankful she had not been the one to elicit that response.
“I meant, can we hang out with him?” She rolled her eyes.
“If you have time to do that, then you are not working hard enough.” He leaned against the fireplace. “This last thing I ask of you is the most important to me.” He placed his hands on his hips and moved away from the fireplace. “Morning Glory is dry. No alcohol or drugs anywhere on the place. I don’t employ drunks or stoners.”
Minutes passed with no one speaking. When it was obvious he was done talking, Laura lifted the paper resting on her lap.
“Is that all listed in here?” she asked.
“Yep.” He nodded. “Plus, it lists the salary for the month. All of you are guaranteed that amount unless you break one of the rules I mentioned. Even if your cooking is awful, I’ll pay you for the month.”
“No childcare, right?” Angel asked again.
“I answered that earlier.”
Tension hung on the air. Laura studied the contract. Phyllis did the same. The rules seemed simple enough. Laura liked wine but could certainly do without her occasional glass. And men? Well, she wasn’t here for that. Safety was all she was seeking, in a place she could still continue to bring people pleasure through food.
“Cleaning, laundry, housework?” Phyllis rattled off.
“You’ll be expected to do all that, yes.”
“Josh never said—” Angel started to argue.
“I’m sure he mentioned housework,” Caleb told Angel. “The title of the job you three are competing for is Guesthouse Manager. When we start getting guests after the first of the year, more staff will be added. But for now, you’re it.”
Josh hadn’t mentioned housework to Laura either, but she wasn’t about to admit that, not the way Caleb was staring at her. Why was he issuing her a challenge? What about Angel? She was the one being difficult.
“Go ahead and read it. The lawyer in town put it together for me.” He grabbed pens from the fireplace mantle and handed them out. “Think about it. If you sign it, hand it back in the morning. If not, I’ll have Josh run you home tomorrow.” He backed out of the room, pausing at the entry. “My mother will see to your breakfast. I’ll meet you afterward, seven-thirty or so.”
“That early?” Angel griped.
“Early to bed, early to rise. Save anymore questions until then. ’Night, ladies.” He saluted them, turned, and walked from the room and into the hallway, back toward the kitchen.
Laura sighed. Let the games begin.