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"Mr. Hammond was very explicit that he wanted us there on time. Successful men are like that." The catering van took a right turn so sharply that Marlo Mayfield grabbed the handle above her door and hung on tightly. Marlo and her business partner, Lucy Morten, rushed to set up tonight's catering job.
"Stop signs are not a suggestion, Lucy. They are an order." Dressed in a pale blue blouse, with a Dining with Divas logo on it, Marlo tentatively let go of the handle and hoped for the best.
She studied the neighborhood through which they were driving. Lucy was right about their client's success. No one lived in a neighborhood like this without a thriving business, a spot on a professional sports team or a hefty trust fund.
They drove up to a huge, castlelike English Tudor home. Sloping lawns led away from the house toward a maze of low shrubbery and a man-made pond. Statuary fountains of maidens carrying jugs were pouring water into the pool. There were seating-area vignettes scattered around the velvety grass, teak chairs and tables with brightly colored umbrellas and wrought-iron sets decorated with vases of flowers.
This was her dream home, Marlo marveled, the one she'd drawn sketches of in the backs of her notebooks as a child. Of course, in her drawings, a knight in shining armor always stood guard at the front gate. And she'd always depicted herself entering at the front of the house, not the service entrance, where they were headed.
"Are we serving outside? The lawn looks like a movie set." Marlo expected F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby and his gang to stroll by any moment.
"No. The party is on the main floor of the house. Not every yard is a lawn ornament graveyard like yours," Lucy commented absently.
Marlo had inherited a plaster donkey pulling a cart full of fake geraniums, and a windmill that tipped over in every breeze, from her great-aunt Tildy, who didn't like them well enough to leave them in her own yard.
"You must really love your aunt a lot," Lucy commented. "I wouldn't keep that stuff around, even for my own grandmother!"
"She's like a second mom to me," Marlo said.
Marlo didn't mention to Lucy how flattering it had been to be told that she resembled her aunt Tildy when she was young. That was the highest compliment someone in Marlo's family could receive. Tall, slender, gorgeous, and with a figure anyone in senior living would give a molar to have, Tildy was the classic independent spirit. Marlo, her father often said, was the mirror image of his sister when she was young. Tildy, according to family lore, had more than once literally stopped traffic with her looks.
"Aunt Tildy has flair. She marches to no one's drummer but her own."
"She sounds a lot like you." Lucy spied the door she was looking for and made a sharp left, nearly pitching Marlo into the driver's seat. Then she slammed the brake to the floor and the van stopped with a shudder by an open wooden door. Ivy crept up the bricks around it and through the screen Marlo could see the stainless steel accoutrements of a professional kitchen.
As they carried the first trays through the open door, Marlo stared at the commercial quality appliances, granite countertops and the glass doors on the Sub-Zero refrigerator.
There were really only five things in life that Marlo longed for—a close relationship with God, a life partner, a successful business, to make a difference in the world—and a kitchen like this one.
But this was no time for daydreams. She immediately began to organize multitiered platters of finger foods, tarts and hot trays for wings and sausage-stuffed mushrooms. Lucy finished the dessert buffet.
"Can you imagine what we could do if we had this kitchen?" she asked rhetorically, not expecting Lucy to answer. "The business we could generate?" She loved making new plans for their catering business. Some worked, some didn't. Offering a dessert buffet was a hit with their clients. The sushi to go? Everyone loved it. Fiber-rich chocolate cake? Not so much.
She walked across the room to where a series of framed black-and-white photos hung over the banquette in a small sitting area on one side of the kitchen. That and inviting, red, upholstered wing chairs, plush red, black and cream area rugs and stately porcelain horse sculptures seemed to be waiting for the master to arrive home after the hunt. An open Bible—obviously well read—lay on a mahogany end table, a sight that warmed her heart.
She moved gracefully into the niche, running a finger over the soft leather of the banquette. "I'd sit here to choose recipes for the night's dinner—scampi maybe, or a nice tortellini with red sauce…."
While Marlo drifted into her Barefoot Contessa fantasy, Lucy stared at the photos on the wall. "Magnificent," she breathed. "Absolutely magnificent."
Lucy usually saved that kind of praise for cakes with rolled fondant icing, so Marlo was surprised to peer over her shoulder and realize that she was looking at the black-and-white portraits of gleaming, powerfully built—and, yes, magnificent—horses.
There were horsey things subtly scattered elsewhere: a needlepoint pillow on one of the chairs boasted a muscular black horse; embroidered delicately onto hems of the luxurious red-and-cream curtains was a stylized rendition of the head of a stallion.
"I always wanted a horse," Marlo said wistfully. "But we lived in the city and there was never any money to board a pony back then. My bedroom was papered with pictures of horses I'd cut out of magazines, drawn or colored. Mother said I preferred whinnying to talking and wanted to eat oatmeal three times a day after I learned horses ate oats. Can you imagine?"
"You must have been a very odd child."
"My sister and I were both odd children, if you ask me. When I wasn't thinking about horses, which I knew little or nothing about, we lived in a world of pink castles, party dresses and charming princes. We were the most girly girls you'd ever want to meet. We played dress-up and walked around on the arms of imaginary princes."
Though she didn't admit it, those childhood fantasies had made a lasting imprint on her view of the world. She still believed that handsome, gallant princes did exist—somewhere. Unfortunately, she hadn't run into any of them yet.
"In a six-year-old mind, what qualities does a good Prince Charming have?"
Marlo grinned and her eyes sparkled. "Mine always smelled like oatmeal-raisin cookies."
Ever since Marlo and Jenny had seen the movies Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they'd played a private little game about the traits they each would require of their own future Prince Charming. In their tween years it was things like a driver's permit and playing on junior varsity. It was a silly childhood joke that she and her sister still occasionally revisited, tongue in cheek. To the list of requirements for their ideal man, they'd since added a 401K and health insurance.
"We called it 'the Cinderella List.'" Marlo smiled at the memory of those two little girls, pencils in hand, somberly devising the List. "It's changed a lot over the years. When I was a kid, my Prince Charming had to have enough money to buy me candy, be able to ride a two-wheeler and wear a baseball cap.
"As a teenager, I wanted him to have a cool car, play football and get along with my parents. As I matured, so did my list. I still remember the last list Jenny and I concocted. It was pretty good, if I remember correctly."
"And you're still looking for a man with the qualities on that list?"
"Like I said, it was a good list. Too bad I didn't use it a few years ago." Marlo obliquely referred to her former Prince Charming, who turned out to be a royal toad. "By now we've refined the list so much that a man doesn't exist who can fulfill it."
"I'm going to ask Jenny about this."
"You've got better things to do, Lucy, like figuring out where to place the ice sculpture. By the look of this house, we should have ordered one in the shape of a horse. Most people have pictures of their children on their walls. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
Marlo sank onto the arm of one of the big chairs. Her expression grew pensive and her large blue eyes unfocused. "I like daydreaming about the people who own the houses in which we work. What are their interests? How did they get where they are? Are they happy?"
"You spend too much time with your head in the clouds." Lucy grabbed a dish towel and began to wipe the counter. "Still, that creative part of you comes in handy. It amazes me how you can toss the most unlikely foods together and make them taste so good. It's an art."
"I imagine a taste on my tongue, and then I work backward until I find the right combination of food and spices to make it happen, that's all."
The expression on Lucy's features implied that it was a strange gift Marlo enjoyed.
Marlo ignored her, to concentrate on dishes of olives and pearl onions. Then the door opened and suddenly the fantasy man, the personification of the List she and Jenny had imagined for her all these years, walked into the kitchen.
He was gorgeous. Literally.
Here he was, the personification of that tuxedoed dream man she and Jenny had concocted, smiling and casually sampling a deviled egg. In her dreams, Marlo's perfect man always wore a tuxedo. That, according to her father, was her mother's fault. Mrs. Mayfield had watched a lot of old Cary Grant movies while she was pregnant.
She could feel her heart pounding and her throat went dry. The response was so abrupt and powerful that it almost frightened her. Even when she'd discovered Jeremiah had betrayed her, her body hadn't reacted as strongly.
Marlo considered herself generally coolheaded but this…this was the guy on the white horse, wearing the armor, rescuing her from the dragon. Suddenly the joke she and Jenny had shared all these years didn't seem quite so funny. Of course, she'd never expected the man from her imagination to turn up before her very eyes.
"I see the housekeeper left the door open for you. Dining with Divas, I presume?" Her fantasy dreamboat stood framed in the doorway, his elegant, chiseled features lit in the golden glow of lights in the other room, his back to the richly paneled room behind him where an honest-to-goodness butler was standing as straight and still as one of the Queen's guards.
As he stepped into the kitchen, Marlo could see more clearly the even profile and the amused grin that played on his lips. He wore his hair short, but not short enough to tame the natural curl that evidenced itself above his ears and at the nape of his neck. She gawked at the perfectly polished shoes, his strong hands and even, charming smile. Fortunately, he didn't appear to notice.
"Your catering business has a very good reputation." There was pleasant anticipation in his honeyed tone and his brown eyes twinkled. "I'm expecting great things tonight."
A pleasant shiver worked its way through Marlo as she recovered from her initial shock. Granted, this fellow looked like her dream man, but there was much more to her idea of the perfect mate than looks. She'd dated handsome men in the past and learned that the hard way. In fact, the most handsome man she'd ever loved had hurt her the most.
He looked at the women's dumbstruck expressions and smiled more widely still, his white, even smile appearing more amused than apologetic. "Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Jake Hammond. I'm part-owner of Hammond Stables. You're catering a get-together for some of our clients tonight."
"Stables?" Lucy's round, ingenuous face looked confused. "I thought someone from a place called HMD set up this engagement."
"HMD is Hammond, Mercer and Devins, an architectural firm. That's my day job. Hammond Stables is my hobby."
Horses, Marlo knew, were a hobby like sailing in the America's Cup—neither easy nor cheap.
He eyeballed a plate of Marlo's specialty, a hot artichoke dip, picked up a cracker and a knife and took a sample. Marlo watched raptly, glad she hadn't been skimpy with the artichokes. Who knew her hot artichoke dip would pass through the lips of an Adonis like this?
She couldn't tear her gaze from him. As an incurable romantic, enthralled with those Cinderella fairy tales even into her teens, Marlo had sketched dreamy renditions of a guy like this all over her high-school notebooks. And now here he was, come to life and eating her artichoke dip. Appreciates fine food. Check. It didn't get much better than this. He probably even smelled like oatmeal-raisin cookies.
"I-is there anything else you'd like us to do right now?" she stammered.
"You're doing just fine." He winked and Marlo's knees nearly liquefied. That debonair look combined with a playful smile, shades of North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief. "And no doubt you'll be as glad as I will to have this stuffy event over."
He's so handsome it should be illegal, she thought grumpily. Somebody should be prosecuted for looking like that, running around giving women heart attacks and all. Still, she didn't draw her gaze away.
"Jake, darling? What are you doing in the kitchen? The guests are arriving." A beautiful blonde woman in an strapless, emerald silk taffeta dress rustled into the room. Her skin was flawless porcelain and her lips full and pouty. She appeared coy, brazen and petulant all at once. "Your father, grandfather and his friends are looking for you. The Hammond triumvirate is to gather in the hall to welcome guests."
She looked at Lucy and Marlo, in their black-and-white serving clothes and sensible shoes. "You hired these people to take care of things. Now let them."
At first Hammond didn't seem inclined to jump to the beauty's bidding, but then thought better of it, and with a generous smile at Marlo and Lucy, he turned and held out his hand. The young blonde curled herself kittenishly around his arm as they walked out of the kitchen and returned to the party.
"He's too good-looking to be real," Lucy said, sinking into a chair. "I'll bet he's a hologram or something."
"You watch too much TV."
"Too bad he's taken." She looked slyly at Marlo. "You aren't seeing anyone right now. Unfortunately, that blonde had her paws all over him."
"They make a lovely couple."
"He'd be perfect for you. I wish you'd start dating again. You are simply too fussy about men. Charlie was a nice guy." Lucy scowled. "Maybe it's that dumb list of yours."
Lucy referred to Marlo's latest ex-flame. Marlo felt no regret at encouraging Charlie to date other women or the fact that he'd actually become engaged to one of them. They would never have made it as a couple.