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Tate Darnley was later than he'd planned getting to the house Wednesday night and a little bit tipsy. Victoria's father and some of Tate's colleagues had thrown a little cocktail party in honor of their upcoming wedding, and the champagne had flowed freely.
He came in through the side door leading past the servants' quarters and the kitchen, as he always did, hoping to avoid any friends and family members who might have already arrived for the long weekend, looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet before things got too crazy for the wedding.
What he'd hoped would be a small, family-only affair had turned into an extravaganza, and Victoria, normally the epitome of calm and grace under pressure, now seemed like a woman trying to steer the Titanic through a vast, bottomless ocean, fraught with all sorts of confusion and peril.
It was a little disconcerting, but not overly so. Tate had always heard weddings made just about everyone crazy. It would all be over soon, and he and Victoria could get on with having a life together, which he expected to be nothing but smooth sailing—two intelligent, hardworking people with the same goals, same values, who'd known and respected each other for years. How could they go wrong?
Tate checked himself for any twinge of impending nerves, happy to find none. He was even whistling a bit, striding down the back hall when the most amazing smell hit him.
Tangy, citrusy…lemons, he decided.
Something sweet, too.
Lemons, sugar no doubt and…some kind of berries?
He groaned, it smelled so good.
Someone preparing food for the wedding, he supposed, and yet, he didn't remember anything that smelled that good at the various tasting menus they'd sampled, at Victoria's insistence.
He lingered in the hallway, thinking if he couldn't get a bit of that sweet lemony thing right now, who could? After all, he was the groom. So he turned around and headed into the big, open gourmet kitchen, finding a slender young woman clad in a starched white apron, her copper-colored hair tied back in a braid, testing the firmness of a plate of lemon bars she'd just pulled from the oven. That luscious smell was even more irresistible here in the kitchen.
A boy of maybe seven sat on a high stool beside her, pouting for all he was worth. "One?" he asked. "Come on, Mom. Just one?"
"Max, you already had two from the earlier batch. Any more and you'll be sick, and I can't have you sick this weekend, because I can't take care of you and cook for all these people."
"No." She didn't let him get out another word, as she slid her lemon bars one by one onto a waiting cooling rack. "Now stay here, and guard these for me. I just used the last of the powdered sugar, and I have to search the pantry for more."
The boy pouted mightily but held his tongue.
Tate waited until the cook disappeared into the butler's pantry and the even bigger pantry closet in back of that and then strolled into the kitchen, saying, "Wow, that smells amazing."
The kid looked up and frowned. "Yeah."
Just then, from deep inside the pantry, Tate heard a woman's voice call out, "Tell me you're not eating those, Max? Because I counted them already. I'll know if you do."
The boy sighed and looked resigned to following that order. "I'm not."
"Just not fair, is it?" Tate said quietly to the boy.
The kid shook his head. Judging by his expression, he was trying to convince Tate he was a poor, abused child, left to starve among all this bounty.
Tate finally got a good look at the things. Lemon, indeed, and something pinkish mixed in. "Lemon and strawberry?" he guessed.
"I dunno. They just taste really good."
"I'm sure," Tate agreed, sniffing again. "Raspberry. That's what it is, isn't it? Do you remember?"
"I think so," Max said, looking none too sure of himself. "Mom calls 'em sugar daddies."
"Oh." Tate nodded. Interesting name. "Because she's going to sprinkle powdered sugar on top of them?"
"'Cause of Leo," Max said.
Surely the kid didn't mean what Tate was thinking? "So, Leo is…your dad?"
"No." Max shook his head. "A friend of mine and my mom's. She cooked for him and stuff, and he liked her a lot."
"Oh." Tate didn't dare ask another thing.
"She got to go to cooking school 'cause of it," Max said, obviously a talker. "She always wanted to go to cooking school. And I get to go to school, too, someday. I mean, I didn't really want to, but Leo left me some money for that, too. Not cooking school, but…the big place? You know?"
"College?" Tate tried.
Max nodded. "I guess I have to go."
"So…Leo was a good guy, I guess," Tate said, at a complete loss as to what else to say to the kid about that particular arrangement.
"You ever have a sugar daddy?" Max asked.
Tate grinned, couldn't help it. It was like trying to have two completely different conversations at once. The kid was talking about his mom's dessert, wasn't he?
"No," Tate said. "I haven't had the pleasure."
"They're the best thing my mom cooks," Max confided. "And she didn't even have to go to cooking school to learn to make them. She already knew."
"Wow," Tate said.
Max leaned in close and whispered, "She won't give me another one, 'cause she thinks I'll get sick if I have one more. But I won't, really. Maybe she'll give you one, and you can…you know…share with me?"
Tate loved it. What a little schemer. Life would never be dull with this one around. He reached out and ruffled the kid's hair, thick and dark reddish brown and just getting to the unruly stage where it really needed to be trimmed.
"I'll do my best," Tate promised.
"So, did you ever have the other kind of sugar daddy?" Max continued.
Max nodded. "Like Leo?"
Tate cleared his throat to stall for time. "I…I don't think so."
"Know why mom called him that?"
"No, Max, I don't," he said carefully.
"'Cause he was so sweet, and he was like a dad. He took care of us."
"Oh." Tate nodded, thinking that was about as good of a G-rated explanation as he could think of. "Well, I'm glad for you. And your mom."
From their hiding place in the dining room, ears pressed to the wall shared with the kitchen, Eleanor groaned softly, throwing a horrified look to her friends and companions in meddling, Kathleen and Gladdy.
"Sugar daddy? Tate's going to think Amy's just awful!"
Kathleen, Leo's loving widow, sighed and admitted, "Okay, so it's not going particularly well at the moment."
"Well? It's a disaster!" Eleanor exclaimed.
"Not completely," Gladdy pointed out. "I mean, your godson is surely not going to think we brought Amy here to fix her up with him. Not from what he just heard from our dear Max."
"No, he'll think she's a gold digger! A kept woman, looking for her next sugar daddy to take over where Leo left off!" Eleanor could have cried right then and there.
The wedding was less than ninety-six hours away.
"Just give it a moment," Kathleen said, calm as could be. "See what happens. Your godson barely knows Amy, but he's clearly interested in her cooking and quite taken with Max."
"Why would he even want to know her now?"
"For the lemon bars, if nothing else," Gladdy said, sounding absolutely sure of herself.
Eleanor sighed, feeling doubtful about the whole mess, but stayed where she was, her ear pressed once again against the wall.
Amy found the powdered sugar, finally, but only after climbing on a rolling ladder that slid from one end of the tall pantry wall to the other and nearly climbing onto the top shelf to reach into the back and get it.
This was the most amazing pantry she'd ever seen. And the kitchen was a chef's dream.
She climbed back down the ladder, powdered sugar in hand, her nerves still zinging from the first moment she'd seen the house—mansion was a better word, castle not far from her thoughts when she'd first seen the giant, weathered stone building—and realized what she'd gotten herself into.
She didn't have the experience for this, having literally just graduated from her single year of cooking school last week. She'd gotten hardly any prep time at all, because she'd come in at the last minute, filling in for the unfortunate Adolfo. And just for fun, she hadn't been able to find a sitter with so little notice, so she'd had to bring Max. Eleanor swore that one of the three nannies expected to accompany various invited relatives would be happy to watch over Max, and that there was another seven-year-old boy coming for the long weekend wedding, so he'd have a built-in playmate, too.
At least Amy had gotten a good bit of the baking done tonight. Making the lemon bars—her favorites, her specialty—had helped calm her down.
She was opening the bag of powdered sugar as she walked back into the kitchen, hoping Max had actually listened to her and hadn't scarfed down another one, and there he was, sitting on his stool, guarding her desserts, with an absolutely beautiful man, dressed in what she was sure was a very expensive suit, talking earnestly with her son.
Amy paused there for a moment, unable to help herself. The man was standing in profile, dark blond hair, cut short and neatly, a bit of a tan on his pretty face, contrasting nicely with the stark white shirt and deep blue tie and suit. His whole image positively screamed of both money and privilege, and he looked like he'd been born to live in a place like this.
Completely out of her league, Amy knew in an instant.
Still, a woman could look every now and then, couldn't she?
The last man in her life had been Max's father, and look how badly that had turned out. She'd been understandably cautious since then.
Max spotted her and called out, "Hey, Mom! Guess what? This is my new friend Tate, and he's never had a sugar daddy before!"
Amy stopped short, thinking she'd really done it with that name. At least the beautiful man in the hideously expensive suit didn't know the whole story behind it.
And then, Max, who just didn't know when to close his mouth, piped up and added, "Not one of your lemon bars or one like Leo."
Amy winced, closed her eyes tightly for a moment and cursed inside. She must have blushed at the same time, and then she started trying to explain, talking with her hands, as she often did, forgetting all about the powdered sugar.
It slipped from her hands.
She grabbed for it and so did the man, but they both missed.
The package hit the hard tile floor with a big thump, and the next thing she knew, an explosion of finely powdered sugar rose up into the air, in her and the man's faces.
Amy and the gorgeous man both froze, leaning over what was left of the bag, the cloud having enveloped them, sprinkled over their faces, their hair, getting in their mouths, even up their noses.
She blinked. Yes, there was a bit on her eyelashes, too.
The man coughed. Amy did, too, sending tiny puffs of white powder into the air.
Max laughed so hard he nearly fell off his stool.
It was like something out of a cartoon he would watch, this puffy cloud of sugar rising up and enveloping them like a sweet fog, coating everything in a fine sheen of white.
Max started to get down off the stool, but Amy stopped him. "No. Stay right where you are!"
"I've already made a huge mess. The last thing we need is you over here making the mess even bigger," she said, then turned to the man. "I am so sorry. I don't know what happened."
Okay, she did, but no way she was admitting it.
He didn't look mad. He looked ridiculous with sugar all over him, and no doubt, she did, too.
"Oh, my God, I've probably ruined your suit," she said, afraid it cost more than several months' rent on her apartment.
"Don't worry about it," he said.
Sugar drifted off him as he smiled and shook his head. Even his eyebrows were coated in white.
She couldn't help it. She reached for him, trying to brush some of the sugar off his suit. Not that it was really working. Powdered sugar was indeed the texture of powder, too fine to brush off, mostly just sinking into the grain of the fabric and leaving a faint imprint of white.
"I'm afraid I'm making it worse," she said, still trying anyway to get the stuff off him.
He held up his hands to get her to stop, which she did, feeling even worse about how she'd had her hands all over the man. Just trying to help, truly. She honestly feared the cost of the ruined suit.
"Sorry," she said again.
"I'll just take this off right here," he said, shrugging out of it, more powder flying as he did it.
"Wait, let me get you something to put that in, or you'll have powdered sugar all over the house." She pulled out a fresh kitchen garbage bag and held it out to him as he put the folded suit jacket into it.
He peeled off his tie next, depositing that in the bag, too.
Looking down at his shirt and pants, he brushed himself off as best he could, started to unbutton the shirt, but then quit when he had it half off. "Is this…do you mind?"
Amy shook her head.
Mind was not the word.
A more accurate one would be…
Appreciate the sight before her?
He had no way of knowing what she'd promised herself long ago, when Max was born. That one day, she'd have a man in her life again. First, it had all been about Max, overwhelmingly Max, and the work she needed to do to support them both. Then she'd gone to cooking school and had no time for anything but that and Max. But she'd promised herself that once she graduated, had a good job and things calmed down, got a little easier, she'd let herself… at least think about a man again.
She hadn't thought that would be any kind of problem. Her first and only real experience with men had been such a downer. But seven years had gone by. More than seven, since she really had a man in her life, and here she was, newly graduated, working her first real, if short-term, job and…
Maybe she was more ready than she knew, because he…
He just looked so good.
She groaned just a bit at the sight of him, lean as could be, and yet… Well, she hadn't seen such a perfect specimen of man outside of an advertisement for cologne or men's jeans in ages—maybe even her whole life.
He wadded up the shirt and put it in his bag of clothing, looked down at his pants and then smiled back at her. "I think I'll stop there."
Max laughed from his perch on the stool. "You have eyebrows like Santa."
The man looked from Max to Amy, puzzled.