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He didn't have time to look for a wife.
Joe Riley stifled his exasperation when his mother cut him off midsentence. She meant well, but her manipulation drove him nuts. He didn't have time for this phone conversation, either. A glance at the in-box on his desk confirmed that. "Mom, I can find my own dates. Stop interfering."
In the heavy silence that followed, the memory of his mother in CCU came into his mind, tubes and machines keeping her alive. He swallowed, pushing away the thought. Trying to be cautious regarding her health, he'd become so indulgent the situation had gotten out of handor, rather, out of his hands and into his mother's.
"Ever since I had that heart attack, I've been"
Joe tuned out her emotional blackmail. He didn't need a reminder of the scare that had made him move to his parents' town just north of Kansas City, Missouri. He did need a plan to stop his mother without upsetting her and endangering her health, and he needed it soon. Last week would have been good.
"And," she continued, "I'm concerned you're heading down the same path as your dad. You work even more than he did. You don't go out and enjoy life."
"You don't have to worry about me." He unlocked his jaw to speak. "I date all the time."
"That's what worries me. You're always dating, never courting."
He laughed. "Courting?"
"You know perfectly well what I mean. You need to settle down. Stop wrapping your work around you at night and get a wife to keep you warm."
"I'm plenty warm, believe me."
"Don't you talk smutty to me, young man."
Joe's face heated. He felt like a hormonal teenager rather than the president of his own firm. "I didn't mean it that way."
"Don't try to sidetrack me, either. I'm going to find you a good woman."
He rolled his eyes. A good woman. Just what he didn't want. He had to do something. Last week, she'd told his secretary she planned to meet Joe after dinner but had forgotten the name of the restaurant. After getting the information, she'd sent the daughter of a friend to meet him. Unfortunately, he'd been closing a deal, not just dining. Besides embarrassing his "date," the incident had jeopardized an important contract. He'd done some fast talking to save the deal and the woman's feelings.
He thought of the women he'd dated in the past few months. Due to the demands of getting Riley and Ross Electronics relocated to the Midwest, too few came to mind. Since he hadn't felt a connection with his dates, he hadn't seen any woman more than once. Work kept him extremely busy.
Desperate sons required desperate measures. Joe took a deep breath. "Look, I wasn't going to say anything yet because I didn't want to get your hopes up. But I guess you've left me no choice."
"You never could keep a secret from me."
He smiled as memories of his teenage years flashed through his mind. If she only knew. "I'm seeing someone. Regularly."
"Oh?" Skepticism laced her tone. "Just how often is 'regularly' with your work schedule?"
"We've been dating for three months. It's not easy to find time to get together, but she's worth the effort. So you don't have to call all the young maidens in the neighborhood. I'm perfectly happy." Joe nodded, pleased with himself. That ought to do it.
"I'm not worried about you being happy, Joe. I want you to be married."
He chuckled. "I have to choose? I couldn't be both?"
"Are you telling me you've proposed?"
He groaned. The woman played hardball. "No."
"So you're not really serious?"
"These things take time."
Joe frowned. He could sense a trap coming, but without knowing what form it would take, he couldn't evade it. "How long for what?"
"How long do you have to date to get serious enough to propose?"
If he could just buy some time to reassure himself about her health He wanted a wife eventually, just not on his mother's timetable. Once the company got firmly established, he'd enter Wife-Hunt in his PDA under Things to Do. He squinted in concentration. How long had he said he'd been dating this imaginary woman? A couple of months? He was almost certain he'd said two.
"Five months," he said. "Five months just to know, another to ask her, a couple for her to decide. I'll let you know when it's official."
"What kind of woman takes a couple of months after the proposal to decide to marry you? Maybe your father and I had better meet her."
Joe pulled the receiver from his ear and stared at it. He'd sprung from this woman's loins? No wonder the electronics world considered him a shark. She was cunning and relentless. He couldn't help but admire the trap she'd set.
Still, he had to get out of it. "I can't, Mom," he said. "Work, you know."
"Joey," she said in an understanding tone that raised the hairs on the back of his neck to alert status, "this is why I worry about you so. Too much work. If this girl can't tear you away, maybe she's not the right one. I'll call my"
"No," he cut in. He didn't want to hear which friend or distant relative she'd call. He didn't want a surprise date at the next family dinner and especially not at his next business meeting. "It isn't just my work, Mom. It's hers. I'm trying to be an understanding guy, you know, respecting a woman's career."
"Mmm-hmm. What does she do?"
Joe glanced around his office, looking for ideas. He pushed aside some papers on his desk. What would satisfy his mother?
He flipped through some file folders. One had potential. "She's a caterer. She owns the business, so she has a lot of pressure and time constraints."
"What's her name?" she asked with doubt in her tone.
His mother might be convinced if he stuck with his story. He shuffled through the proposals. The hotel would handle dinner, but he'd decided to have dessert trays set up around the ballroom afterward. Pierre, Antoine, Lisa, Caesar "Lisa. She owns" he squinted at the paper "Goodies to Go." He just might accept this woman's bid to cater his company's year-end party out of gratitude.
"Did you say Goodies to Go?" his mother almost purred. "How extraordinary. She's catering our exhibit next week at the Garden Society. I'll have a chance to meet her, after all. Isn't that wonderful?"
Wonderful. The cold steel of her trap tightened around his neck. Knowing he'd stuck his own head in didn't help.
The doorbell rang.
In the bakery kitchen down in her basement, Lisa Meyer jerked, spurting pink icing across the countertop. Glaring at the chime box over her work space, she wiped her hands and ran upstairs.
She flung her apron on the counter as she passed through the family's kitchen. A quick glance in the mirror had her pushing stray blond hair behind her ears.
Marzipan and icing flowers called her from the basement, taunting her with their lack of completion. She answered the door on the off chance the children might have come home a little early, hands full of leftover pizza boxes. Abby and Bobby were with her best friend, Ginger, eating pizza and playing arcade gamesa treat Lisa could ill affordand weren't due home for half an hour. Hopefully, Bobby had behaved himself and this wasn't them coming home early due to one of his outbursts of temper.
A man stood on her porch, the chill mid-April breeze ruffling his hair. Lisa stared at him, instinctively wary of his good looks. A salesman, no doubt, and probably a good one.
Old Mrs. Winters next door would buy whatever he was selling just to gaze at his attractive features. Tanned skin, hair as dark as midnight, and deep blue eyes. He was tall, with broad shoulders and a body to lust after in a navy pinstripe suit. A light blue shirt stretched over his chest, bisected by a dark tie. If he had a voice to match her imagination, he'd be trouble.
Fortunately, Lisa could resist temptation. Whatever he offered, she had neither the money to buy it nor the time to listen to his pitch.
"Hi. I'm looking for Lisa Meyer."
A voice like roasted marshmallows. She firmly repressed a shiver of delight. "How may I help you?"
His smile widened, carving creases in his cheeks.
She swallowed, wishing she had some extra time and a little spare money. But she had neither, not to call her own, anyway. She straightened her spine and her resolve. "I'm rather busy."
"I don't intend to keep you long. I'm Joe Riley of Riley and Ross Electronics."
Her heart leaped. She'd tendered a bid for his company's function but hadn't expected a personal visit from the president. Thank goodness she hadn't been too rude.
Maybe she'd misjudged him. Just because he wore charm like aftershave didn't mean he had to be a slick conniver like her ex, Brad. Fixing a smile in place, she extended her hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Joe's hand encompassed hers, leaving an impression of warmth and strength. Lisa berated herself. Business, not pleasure, no matter how gorgeous the client. Besides, she'd learned from Brad that a handsome face could hide a devious heart. "Won't you come in?"
She closed the door and gestured to the couch. "Would you care for a drink? Or would you prefer to see my kitchen?"
"A cold drink sounds great."
"I'll be right back." Lisa strode from the room, planning a side trip to the bathroom to do a little primping. She needed to resecure her hairto comply with health code restrictions, not to impress Joe Riley.
She headed for the kitchen first to get their iced tea. Footsteps on the linoleum tapped right after hers. She looked over her shoulder.
Joe smiled at her. "I thought I'd help."
She shook her head as she retrieved glasses from the cupboard. "This isn't the right kitchen. My business is downstairs."
He walked over to the wall of windows and gazed out at her overgrown backyard while she got out the tea. "I didn't come to inspect your bakery."
"You're welcome to. I'm in the middle of a project right now, but you'll find my set up immaculate."
"I'm sure it is." He turned, and his smile deepened, making those enticing creases reappear.
"I'll show you downstairs after we've talked."
His expression smoothed out, displaying a facade she instantly mistrusted. His eyes remained serious, making him look thoughtful at best, if not downright calculating. Brad all over again, but this time she wasn't blinded by love. This time it was only business. "Shall we sit in the living room?"
Joe took the tray with the pitcher and glasses. Lisa enjoyed the novelty of having someone carry things for heruntil he came to a dead stop and she crashed into him. He made a gallant save of the glassware.
"What's the matter?" she asked, moving in front of him. She expected to find a toy on the floor, but the path lay clear.
He gestured toward her refrigerator with the tray. "You have kids."
Lisa glanced at the refrigerator, covered with drawings, baton and soccer reminders, and handcrafted magnets from Abby and Bobby. She didn't understand why her having children threw him off guard. She raised her eyebrows in question.
He shrugged. "I just Running a business from your home seems more difficult with kids underfoot."
"I based my business at home because I have children. It's more convenient and saves money on babysitters. We have strict rules regarding their presence in my bakery."
"I'm sure you do." His gaze flicked to her bare left hand.
Lisa drew herself straighter. "Children, but no husband. Not anymore."
Joe's tanned skin darkened. "I'm sorry."
It hardly seemed businesslike to think of a potential client as cute, but his blush endeared him to her. Lisa led him toward the living room, feeling his gaze on her. Every nerve along her spine prickled with awareness. Settling in a chair across from his, she poured their drinks. She handed one to him and said, "I assume you're considering Goodies to Go for your company's party."
Joe glanced at her, then studied his glass. "Yes, we are. I'm arranging the event myself because I want it to be special. We've had a profitable fiscal year so far, and we want to reward our staff." He took a sip of tea. "A few of them uprooted their lives to follow us from California. Hopefully, the celebration will help our new employees feel more like part of the team."
"I've read about the success of your company. You've created quite a stir in our little town." She raised an eyebrow. "Why did you locate in Howard?"
"My partner, Dylan Ross, is from here. I grew up just east of Kansas City. We worked for the same company in California and became friends as the token Midwestern boys. Later we left and formed our company."
He shrugged. "After my dad retired, my parents remembered Dylan's stories of its small-town charm and moved to Howard. We could relocate the business here because the universities nearby provide an educated workforce. It's small enough for comfort, but not too far from Kansas City to entertain."
"You may have forgotten how precarious summer can be in Missouri, weatherwise. Have you decided on an indoor or an outdoor event?"
He took a long drink. "I'm still looking into both options, although with the humidity, we'll probably opt for indoors. I'll make a decision after I analyze costs." He set his glass on a coaster on the end table. "But I'm actually here today to discuss a different matter."
Lisa's heartbeat quickened, and she eyed him with interest. Did he want her to cater a second party for his company? That would really help alleviate some of the debt Brad had left her. It came to over a million dollars, if she counted the double mortgage on the house, and since the bank counted it, Lisa had to, as well. She needed as much work as she could drum up.
She took a calming breath. Easy, girl. Wouldn't want to appear too eager. "Would this be for your company?"
"Not exactly. Maybe I'd better start at the beginning."
"Okay." She wouldn't get her hopes up, she told herself, but, oh, how she needed the money.
"You're catering the Howard Garden Society's annual show next weekend, correct?"