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"I think I've finally figured out who the guest of honor is," Arlene Williams said from the kitchen door, where she was peeking into the Hendersons' well-appointed dining room.
Babs and Denby Henderson regularly entertained powerful lawmakers, renowned academics, award-winning playwrights and European nobility at their Park Avenue soirées. Emily Merit, who'd been their caterer of choice for the past five years, didn't doubt tonight's guest of honor was any less impressive.
"Well, don't keep me in suspense," she replied, tongue-in-cheek, as she plated the evening's desserts.
Her sous chef shot her a black look before saying, "I think he might be the hunky model in those underwear ads."
Emily glanced up at that. "The ones that are plastered all over the city's bus stops and subway stations?"
"And you claim to have sworn off men." Arlene grinned.
"I have, but those ads are impossible to miss."
Arlene peeked out again and her tone turned thoughtful. "Or he could be the actor who plays the CIA operative on Restless Nights. They both have that same sensual mouth."
Emily rolled her eyes. Where she'd sworn off men, she couldn't keep track of the number of guys Arlene had drooled over in the past month alone. "Get away from the door already and give me a hand with dessert."
"Uh-oh. He's…he's coming this way."
Emily frowned. Great. Just what she needed, an audience. She didn't like people in her kitchen when she worked, especially if they were only coming in to flirt with her assistant. Technically this wasn't Emily's kitchen, but the same principle applied.
"He's with Mrs. Henderson," Arlene added and let the door swing fully closed.
Emily relaxed a little upon hearing that. She figured she knew why they were coming to the kitchen. She'd met Babs five years earlier through her then-boyfriend, Reed, who had a business relationship with Bab's husband, Denby. One day when a catering company left the Hendersons in the lurch just hours before a dinner party, Reed had volunteered Emily's services. At the time, she was just out of culinary school and her only catering jobs had been casual gatherings for family and friends. She'd been scared to death, to put it mildly. But her cooking that evening was a huge hit, and the Hendersons proved to be the launching pad for her career.
As a client, Babs could be flighty and trying, but she knew lots of people whose pockets were every bit as deep as her own and—bless her—she'd made it her mission to introduce them to Emily. Thanks in part to the Henderson's patronage Emily had been able to renovate the kitchen in her otherwise modest East Village apartment without dipping into her savings for the restaurant she dreamed of opening one day.
The older woman was probably bringing her guest in for an introduction. In Emily's book the title of potential client was more important than what he did for a living, even if he really was the hunky model with the ripped abs and buff biceps in those underwear ads.
Arlene hoisted the tray of desserts, leaving the kitchen just before Babs swept in with the mystery man. The older woman wore vintage Dior and was doused in her usual Chanel. Her high-piled hair prevented Emily from getting a good look at Mr. Hunky.
"Emily, my dear, you outdid yourself this evening," Babs proclaimed in her usual dramatic fashion. Her smile sparkled as brightly as the large diamond pendant hanging low in her décolletage. "All of my guests are raving about the herb-crusted salmon." She turned and tucked her hand into the crook of the man's arm then, drawing him to her side. "And that includes my very special guest, Sh—"
"Please, call me Dan," he inserted.
He wasn't the underwear model, but Emily's mouth dropped open anyway. She couldn't fault her assistant
for standing at the door half the evening gawking. God, he was gorgeous. Drop-dead so. The monosyllabic name, however, didn't suit him. It was too simple, too… Western.
Which was why she frowned and said, "Dan?"
"It is what you would call a nickname." His words were adorned with an accent she couldn't quite place, but its effect was potent. It had her hormones threatening to snap and sizzle like vegetables sautéing in hot oil. It bothered her that she wasn't completely immune. She wanted to be. God knew, after what had happened with Reed, she should be.
The man was saying, "I find that when I travel in your country it is easier for some people to pronounce than my given name."
That made sense, she supposed. Still, he didn't look like a Dan. Nor did he resemble the underwear model Arlene mistook him for, though he certainly had the body for it. He was tall with a lean, athletic build that accentuated the clean lines of the expertly tailored suit he wore. His face, however, was more angular and masculine than the male model in question, and slashes of dark brow set off a pair of enigmatic brown eyes. His hair was the color of onyx and cut short enough to be respectable, but still long enough to make a woman's fingers itch to weave through it.
She stretched out her hand, but only to shake his. "I'm Emily Merit."
His palm was warm against hers, his grasp light but not as condescendingly loose as some men's could be. She found it easier to concentrate on his grip than the bizarre reaction her body was having to the benign contact. It now felt as if her sizzling hormones had been placed under the broiler.
When the handshake ended, Emily smoothed down the front of her mannish chef coat. Normally she wasn't vain, but his physical perfection made her painfully aware that her hair was pulled back in a severe, net-covered chignon and what little makeup she'd applied that morning most likely had worn off.
Babs spoke up then. "As I told you earlier, Dan, Mr. Henderson and I wouldn't dream of letting anyone else cater our gatherings. As far as we're concerned, she's the best in Manhattan."
Dan nodded and offered a smile that was every bit as warm as his hand had been. Forget broiler, her temperature was reaching kiln status. "Then I must have her."
Was he aware of the double entendre? His bland expression made it difficult to be sure. Emily certainly was. Before she could stop herself, she sputtered ridiculously, "But I… I don't even know your last name."
"Allow me to remedy that. It's Tarim." His expression was no longer bland. The corners of his mouth turned up and laughter lit his dark eyes. He was amused. Definitely.
Emily wasn't since it came at her expense. God, what was wrong with her? This was completely out of character, not to mention unprofessional. Though it shouldn't have been necessary, she reminded herself that she was a respected and sought-after chef who had graduated from one of the country's best culinary schools. She wasn't some silly schoolgirl conversing with the football team's star quarterback.
Babs cleared her throat. "Well, if the two of you will excuse me, I should get back to the party. Promise me you won't keep him occupied for too long, Emily. My other guests are eager to spend more time with him."
"I'll shoo him out as soon as possible," she said with a tight smile. She meant it, too. She planned to get down to business and then usher him out. As soon as they were alone, she said, "So, what can I do for you, Mr. Tarim?"
"Dan, please. And may I call you Emily?"
"By all means." Her name, which she'd always considered plain and old-fashioned, sounded almost exotic when he said it.
"I'm planning a small dinner party before I leave Manhattan. I would like to repay the generosity of those who have hosted me during my stay."
"Is this your first time in the city?" she inquired politely, even as she sneaked a glance at her watch.
"No. I am here several times a year for business purposes mainly. In the past, I've used the services of someone else to cater my parties, but the meal you prepared tonight has caused me to change my mind."
"Thank you. I'm flattered."
And she was. His clothes screamed expensive, which meant he could afford to hire any catering company he wanted. She wondered which one he'd used, though she didn't ask him. She'd discreetly inquire later. It was good to know who her competition was. Good for business and, depending on the caterer, good for her ego. For the past several years, she had slaved and sacrificed to build a client base and solidify her reputation for high quality. Knowing that those efforts had paid off also made it easier to accept their high cost to her personal life.
She thought of Reed then. They'd dated six years. Everyone, including Emily, had assumed they would wed eventually. Looking back now, though, she could see the cracks that had only gotten deeper and wider as she'd pursued her dreams. When catering had been a hobby or merely a part-time job, he'd seemed proud of her. When it turned into a real career, pulling in serious money and creating enough buzz to land Emily a mention in The New York Times, his enthusiasm had cooled considerably. When she began to dream about opening a restaurant, he'd done his best to talk her out of it, quoting statistics on the number of establishments that failed each year. Finally he'd found someone else: Emily's sister.
"The guest list will be small, no more than six guests and myself," Dan was saying, pulling Emily back to the present.
"When were you thinking?" she asked, mentally flipping through her appointment calendar.
"The Saturday after next. The notice is short, I know."
His expression held an apology. "As I said, I usually hire someone else to handle my dinner parties. But I'm hoping you will find room in your schedule for me. As my gracious hostess said, you are the best."
His lips twitched charmingly, but this time, immersed in the details of business, she was able to ignore the pyre of heat.
Dan, also known as Sheikh Madani Abdul Tarim, wasn't one to settle for anything but the best. Thanks to his position and wealth, he'd never had to. Still, he didn't consider himself demanding so much as discerning. Tonight's meal was first-rate. He had to admit, though, he hadn't expected the chef who'd created it to be quite so young.
Or so attractive.
Even wearing mannish attire and with her hair scraped back in that hideous fashion there was no denying the tug of male interest he felt. Of course, he wouldn't act on it. With the official announcement of his engagement fast approaching, he wasn't in the market for a relationship, casual or otherwise. Still, Emily Merit almost made him wish his future hadn't been decided when he was still a toddler.
He blamed it on her eyes. They were a rich combination of blues and greens, and reminded him of the Mediterranean Sea near his family's summer home. Her gaze was direct and assessing, making it clear that she considered herself his equal.
He liked that. As it was, his title and position intimidated too many people—male and female. Perhaps that was why he hadn't allowed the hostess to formally introduce him. And why he had decided to tell Emily Merit his name was merely Dan. He preferred anonymity every now and then, if only to keep himself grounded. As his father often told him, when he became ruler of Kashaqra, Madani would need to look out for the interests of all of the country's people.
That didn't mean he didn't prefer to get his way. So, he prodded, "Well?"
"Unfortunately I'm booked to make the meal and cake for a child's fifth birthday celebration that day."
It didn't seem like a huge obligation to him. "Will it take all day?"
"In most instances, it wouldn't." Her tone turned wry. "But this particular party is an hour outside the city in Connecticut and the parents are insisting on an epicurean feast."
"You don't agree with their menu choices," he gathered.
She sobered and said diplomatically, "It's not my place to agree or disagree with a client's menu choices."
"But?" Raising his eyebrows he invited her confidence.
After a moment she admitted, "I just don't think the average kindergartner will enjoy what they have selected. After all, certain foods are considered an acquired taste for good reason."
Madani found himself chuckling, charmed by her honesty. "What have they ordered? Caviar blintzes?"
"Close." She smiled and he spied a dimple lurking low on her right cheek. It lent an air of impishness to her otherwise classical features. "At least I managed to talk the mother out of an appetizer of duck liver pâté in favor of ham rolls. Even so, I'm pretty sure there are going to be plenty of leftovers. She wouldn't budge on the veal marsala or the side of roasted root vegetables."
"I guess this means you won't be available."
She nibbled her lower lip. The gesture was uncomfortably and unaccountably sexy. "I may be able to accommodate you," she said at last. "I have an assistant I could leave in charge of the birthday party. Of course, a lot depends on the time of your gathering and what you would like to serve."
Madani wasn't sure if his relief came from knowing Emily would be preparing the meal for his guests or from knowing he would have the opportunity to see her again. "I can be very amenable when the situation calls for it. When shall we meet to discuss the details?"
"I'm free tomorrow morning if you are."
He had three meetings lined up back-to-back before noon, but he nodded anyway. As he'd said, he could be amenable when the situation called for it. This one did, though he refused to explore why he felt that way.
Emily went to retrieve a business card. Handing it to him, she said, "I'm an early riser. Feel free to call any time after nine o'clock."
The card was still in Madani's hand and a smile on his face when he met his driver downstairs.