The Chef's Choice

The Chef's Choice

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by Kristin Hardy

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Ian and Amanda McBain didn't raise a fool

Their daughter Cady could spot a player a mile away…and Damon Hurst was a textbook player. What the hell was a celebrity chef doing in Grace Harbor, anyway? True, he was trying to save the family business, but helping her family didn't give him carte blanche to Cady. She'd heard the rumors: the


Ian and Amanda McBain didn't raise a fool

Their daughter Cady could spot a player a mile away…and Damon Hurst was a textbook player. What the hell was a celebrity chef doing in Grace Harbor, anyway? True, he was trying to save the family business, but helping her family didn't give him carte blanche to Cady. She'd heard the rumors: the parade of pop tarts, the raunchy parties. She wouldn't be another notch on his cutting board.

Damon was no stranger to women, but this fiery, caramel-eyed tomboy was unlike anyone he'd ever met. The chef might be accustomed to having his own way, but, this time, could he have bitten off more than he could chew?

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McBains of Grace Harbor , #1919
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Mind the front desk? Me?" Cady McBain looked up from where she was planting a flowering kale to stare at her mother plaintively.
"Only a few hours. Just until your father and I get back from Portland," Amanda McBain added hastily.
Cady almost smiled. McBains had run the Compass Rose Guest Quarters for four generations. For her parents and even her brother and sister before they'd moved away, tending to guests at the Maine inn was second nature, effortless.
For Cady, it was usually excruciating.
There were times she was sure there'd been a mix-up at the hospital when she was a baby. Give her a hedge to trim or pansies to plant, and she'd go at it with gusto. She kept the grounds of the Compass Rose impeccable, from the flower beds to the trees to the emerald back lawn that ran down to the lapping waters of tiny Grace Harbor. Cady could make sense of plants. She understood them, they were predictable.
She couldn't make heads or tails of people.
It wasn't that she didn't try—although dealing with guests was right up there with root canals on her list of fun things to do. Somehow, though, she always said or did the wrong thing.
"Where's Lynne?" she asked now, thinking of the brisk, efficient woman who worked as their desk clerk.
"She called in sick but we can't reschedule your father's appointment."
"Didn't Dad go to the doctor last week?" Cady rose, brushing the dirt off her hands.
"He did, but Dr. Belt wanted him to have some tests."
"Tests?" She frowned. "What kind of tests?"
"You'll find out after you turn fifty," Ian McBain said darkly as he walked up behind them. "Suffice it to say you'll never look at fruit juice the same way again. Anyway,it's all a waste of time. I'm as healthy as a horse."
"And we want to keep you that way." Cady smoothed his hair where the morning breeze off the water had ruffled it. "Go to your appointment."
"I hope we're not messing up your schedule too much," her mother said.
Cady shrugged. "I was planning to work the grounds all day, anyway. I can keep an eye on the place." She didn't add that she'd anticipated spending at least half of it in the gleaming greenhouse she'd put up earlier that spring at the back of the property, the heated greenhouse where bedding plants for her fledgling landscaping business were already stretching their heads aboveground.
Ian looked from Cady to Amanda. "You're leaving her in charge?"
Amanda raised a brow. "You have a better idea?"
"Cancel my appointment?" he offered hopefully.
"Nice try." She turned toward the house.
"You're not going to run off all our guests, are you?" Ian gave Cady an uneasy look. "We do actually need to make some money. That new roof isn't going to pay for itself, you know."
"Leave it to me, Daddio," she soothed. "I'll take care of everything."
"Why do I get nervous when you say that?" he asked, but he slung an arm around her shoulders as they walked up the steps to the back deck of the inn.
The Compass Rose Guest Quarters had been built in 1911 to provide rooms for the clientele of her great-great-grandfather Archie McBain's main business, the marina next door. For four generations, the sprawling white clapboard inn had perched at the edge of Grace Harbor. The original neo-Colonial style had long since been obscured by almost a century's worth of additions. Now, the building stretched out in all directions, rising three stories to a roofline festooned with dormer windows and red brick chimneys. It should have been a fright, but wrapped by a broad porch and softened by rhododendrons the height of a man, it somehow managed to look warm and friendly and welcoming.
Family lore held that it had been Archie's wife, Jenny, who'd planted the maple that spread its branches over the little spit of land at the back, and Donal's wife, Manya, who'd added the white gazebo. Donal's son, Malcolm—Cady's grandfather—had contributed the quartet of four-room guest-houses that clustered around the main inn. There, guests who wanted more privacy could enjoy their own decks overlooking the harbor.
White sailboats still bobbed at the docks of the Grace Harbor marina next door, but it was owned these days by Cady's uncle Lenny and run by her cousin Tucker. She saw Tucker on the docks, dark and lanky, and raised an arm to acknowledge his wave before they stepped inside.
"Now, we've only got three rooms full at present," Amanda told her, crossing the lobby to the Dutch door that served as the inn's front desk. "Six guests."
Cady didn't miss the frown that flickered over her father's face. In early May, the Maine tourist season was weeks away, but they still should have had at least double the number of occupied rooms. Especially with the new roof, her parents needed every penny they could get.
The clank of spoons on china had Cady glancing down the hall off the lobby in the direction of the morning room. "What about breakfast? Where are you at there?"
"Just started," Amanda said. "One couple is eating, the rest are still in their rooms. Everything's set up, though. All you need to do is keep an eye on things, stock up whatever needs it. Make nice, clean up afterward. You know the drill."
"For about the past twenty-seven years," Cady agreed.
"Fresh," her mother said.
Cady's lips twitched. "This is a surprise?"
"They're a pretty easy bunch,"Amanda continued, ignoring her. "With any luck, things will be quiet while we're gone."
Ian's snort sounded suspiciously like a smothered laugh. It was an inn. Things were never quiet, Cady knew, unless it was empty, and often not even then. Hope could spring eternal, though.
"Anyone coming in today?" she asked.
"One guest. He's not due until after we get back."
"Where's his registration, just in case?"
"His paperwork and keys are right here." Amanda opened the Dutch door and went into the tiny office and kitchenette behind to pull an envelope from a wicker organizer. "You shouldn't have to deal with him, though."
"Perish the thought," Ian muttered.
Amanda elbowed him. "Hush, you. She'll do fine. Won't you, Cady?"
"I'll be the milk of human kindness," she promised, tongue firmly in cheek. "Now get going or you're going to hit traffic."
She followed them outside and watched them walk toward the parking lot, hand in hand, like always. Since she'd been a child, the two constants in her life had been the inn and her parents' quiet love for each other. For an instant, she felt a tug of wistfulness. She'd always assumed that someday she'd find a love like that, at least until she'd hit high school and discovered that what guys wanted were curvy, blond cheerleader types with Pepsodent smiles, not opinionated, auburn-haired tomboys.
Well, she was who she was, for better or worse. The day she'd given up looking for romance with a good-looking charmer had been the day she'd finally started to get comfortable in her own skin. And at twenty-seven she wasn't about to change for anyone.
She washed her hands and tied on an apron. Even though the Compass Rose boasted a separate restaurant, breakfast had always been in the morning room of the main building. Despite the fact that the inn's restaurant employed a half-dozen cooks, responsibility for breakfast had always fallen on Amanda and Ian and the front desk staff.
And on that particular day, the front desk staff was Cady.
She sighed. It wasn't that she couldn't be polite, exactly, it was just that she had strong opinions. And maybe her patience was a teensy bit limited. Okay, maybe a lot limited. Her father, now, he could be interested in just about anyone for as long as they wanted to chat.
Cady tried—sort of—but somehow it never worked. The problem was her face. It always showed exactly what she was thinking, and if she was thinking that the person she was talking with was a bore or a fool, well…
It could be a problem.
Shaking her head, she pasted a smile firmly across her face and walked into the morning room to begin refilling the stocks of coffee, hot water, muffins and fruit. One pair of the missing guests had arrived and were tucking in with gusto. A little too much gusto, she realized—the orange juice pitcher was nearly empty. Unfortunately, so was the carton in the little refrigerator tucked back in the office.
Perfect. An hour left to run on breakfast, one pair of guests still to arrive and her with no orange juice. Time to get resourceful, she thought, grabbing the carton and hurrying out the door.
Outside, the air smelled of the sea and the pines that grew up around the cedar-shingled restaurant building. Cady slipped stealthily through the back door to the pantry and dishwashing area, heading toward the walk-in refrigerator. She'd just liberate a little juice, enough to refill, that was all.
"Don't you be tracking dirt on my clean floor," a voice said.
Cady jumped and looked guiltily through the doorway to the kitchen. "Roman, what are you doing here?"
"Writing my memoirs." The young, mocha-skinned sous chef glanced over from where he was mincing onions. "There's nothing to eat here. Go over to the breakfast room if you want food."
"That's where I just came from. I'm on desk duty."
He stared. "You?"
Cady rolled her eyes. "Yes, me. Lynne's sick, Mom and Dad are out for the morning. I'm pitching in. I can do it, you know."
"Your parents gotta get some more help." He resumed chopping, shaking his head.
"The way I hear it, you're the one who needs more help," she countered as she ducked into the little passage that led to the walk-in.
The restaurant's head chef, Nathan Eberhardt, had moved on three weeks before, leaving Roman to run things in his stead. While Roman was both a talented line cook and a tireless worker, he was barely twenty-three. He hadn't anything like enough experience to be suddenly managing the complicated dance of running a kitchen. To his credit, that hadn't stopped him. He'd kept things going, mostly by dint of practically living at the restaurant.
"You've got assistants for prep," she called over her shoulder. "You're running the joint, Roman. Delegate. Either that or you're going to drown in it."
"Still breathing air, last time I checked," he grunted. "And anyway, I might—wait a minute, what's that noise?" He came around the corner in his chef's whites. "What the heck do you think you're doing?"
"Just getting some orange juice for breakfast." Cady hastily stepped out of the icy refrigerator.
"Oh, no, you're not. Get your own."
"It's not for me, it's for the breakfast bar. Come on, it's just a little juice," she wheedled.
"I got twenty pounds of salmon to marinate. No such thing as a little orange juice." He shook his knife at her.
"I brought you tomatoes yesterday," she protested.
"Don't think that gets you off the hook." For a big guy, he moved fast.
Lucky she was small and faster. "Think of the headlines. Juicing Chef Offs Plucky Desk Clerk." Cady made a break for the door. "What will Malika do while you're in jail?"
"Buy her own orange juice, I hope," Roman growled, but she saw his grin before she escaped out the door.
She'd say this for working the desk: the time went quickly. She'd blinked once, maybe twice, and it was going on one in the afternoon. Of course, time had a way of flying when you were lurching from crisis to crisis.
Every time the door opened, it seemed, it heralded another person with a problem or question or emergency for her. As always, living a bit of her parents' life only increased her respect for them. Roman was right; they needed more help, whether they could afford it or not. A few hours into one of their days and already she was worn-out.
She'd cleaned up breakfast dishes, folded bedspreads and sheets in the laundry, vacuumed the lobby, baked scones for afternoon tea. She'd handed out directions, jumped the car of a guest who'd left her dome light on all night and calmed the hysterics of a maid who'd found a mouse in the linen closet. Smiling, always smiling, even talking to the guest who'd plugged his toilet trying to flush a washcloth.
A washcloth.
What was it about people in hotels? she wondered for the thousandth time as she hurried back to the office behind the reception area to call the plumber. They did things that they would never do at home. What kind of ninny put a washcloth down a toilet? And now, here she was with another maintenance bill to further stretch the inn's budget, already strained to its breaking point.
Like her patience.
The door jingled again and she flinched.
"Anybody home?" A man's voice carried in through the open top of the Dutch door. Cady could hear his boot heels thud on the lobby floor with each step. Not one of the staff. It didn't sound like one of the guests she'd packed off to go shopping in Freeport or Kennebunkport, either, which probably meant that it was the day's arrival. Perfect. The fact that check-in was clearly listed as 3:00 p.m. never stopped guests from showing up an hour or two early and blithely expecting to be shown to their rooms, whether the maids had finished their cleaning rounds or not.
"Just a minute." Suppressing the urge to snap, Cady walked to the opening. "What do you—"
And her voice died in her throat.
His was the face of a sixteenth-century libertine. Lean and angular, with razor-sharp cheekbones, it was a face that knew pleasure. She could imagine him dueling at dawn or seducing high-born ladies. She could imagine him slashing paint over canvas in an artist's garret or bending over a keyboard, pounding out impassioned blues in a smoky, late-night club.
His dark, straight brows matched the wavy hair that flowed to his shoulders. He hadn't bothered to shave that morning and the shadow of a beard ran along the bottom of his face like the artful shading of a charcoal sketch, drawing attention to the line of jaw, the strong chin, framing his mouth.
His mouth.
Temptation and mischief, fascination and promise. It was the kind of mouth that offered laughter, the kind of mouth that offered an invitation to decadence.
And delicious, lingering kisses.
Sudden color flooded her cheeks. Look at her, standing there staring at him like an idiot.
Get it together, Cady.
She cleared her throat. "Welcome to the Compass Rose. Are you here to check in?"
"Kind of. I'm looking for Amanda or Ian McBain."
"They're not around just now, I'm afraid. I'd be happy to help you, though."
The corner of his mouth curved up a bit. "My good luck."
It was said with the casual ease of a guy who turned every woman he met into putty, the kind of guy who charmed as second nature. Her eyes narrowed. She wasn't big on good-looking guys in general, and she was in no mood to be charmed, not after the morning she'd had. "Your room's probably not ready this early, but I'll check with housekeeping." When she got around to it. "Here's your paperwork, anyway. It's Donnelly, right? Scott Donnelly?"
"Hurst," he corrected. "Damon Hurst.

Meet the Author

Kristin has been book-crazy her entire life. When her mom would tell her to go to bed, she'd hide in the bathroom just so she could read a few more pages. In the afternoons, she'd play with her dog, Misty, in the backyard and tell her elaborate stories of princesses and Indians, dressing the dog up to play the part.

She grew up in Anaheim, California, home of Disneyland. When she was 12, Kristin started her first novel about a boy growing up with a racehorse. She managed to get only about 10 pages into it, but the seed of ambition was planted. She wrote short stories throughout junior high and high school, and entered college as a creative writing major. Unfortunately, the pressure of writing literary short stories for a weekly college course was far different than writing one story a semester in high school, and that was the end of that.

Shortly after, now as a geology major, Kristin read about category romance in a Sunday supplement and decided to give it a try. Her first effort brought together an aviatrix and a cowboy and had a great scene in which the heroine airlifted a sick ranch owner in the midst of a thunderstorm. Unfortunately, it didn't have much else. A few years later, now as an engineering major, she decided to try again with a book about a lady architectural engineer and the gorgeous owner of a shipping company. This time, she had a cute meeting scene and a great kiss scene, but still no real plot or conflict. She tossed it after three chapters.

The next year, this time as a physics major, she came up with a plot about a firefighter and an engineer. Things were looking good when she thought about plot points and conflict and actually developed a solid story line. A couple of chapters later, though, she moved away to attend grad school in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. (Are we seeing a pattern here?) The manuscript moldered in her closet.

After graduation, Kristin worked in Connecticut on the mirrors for a NASA X-ray telescope now orbiting the earth. Writing kept calling to her, though. She quit engineering and moved to New Hampshire to join the editorial staff of an engineering trade magazine. There she met and fell in love with her husband. Suddenly all those romance novels made a heck of a lot more sense.

Plot possibilities followed her when she left the editing job to join a business-to-business dot-com (where she was an on-paper millionaire for a heady 30 seconds). Around that time, a publisher tried to recruit her to launch a print magazine for an engineering society. Driven by the conviction that it was time to finally finish one of those danged books, she took the job and negotiated a four-day workweek that would allow her time to write.

Her ambition coincided with the announcement of the creation of the Harlequin Blaze line. Inspired by a presentation at a writers' conference, she plotted out a Blaze novel on the plane home and wrote the draft of chapter one that night. Ten months later, she typed the words The End and did victory laps around her living room. My Sexiest Mistake sold to Harlequin's Blaze line for publication in June 2002. In 2004, My Sexiest Mistake became a made-for-television movie on the Oxygen network!

Kristin lives in New Hampshire with her husband, also a magazine editor, who is her critique partner, copy editor, web master, and master of her heart.

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Chef's Choice 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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