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Marcos Mendoza knew better than to allow his anger to show on his face. Especially in front of people who were more than familythey were his employers.
But there was no denying that he was angry. After proving over and over again to his aunt and uncle, Maria and Jose Mendoza, that he had the business savvy to run Red, their wildly successful restaurant in Red Rock, Texas, his opinion had been completely discounted. Worse, it had been ignored to the point that neither one of them had even asked him for it.
If they had, he would have gladly told them that hiring Wendy Fortune was as bad an idea as serving their loyal patrons five-day-old salmon.
Never mind that the twenty-one-year-old heiress was as beautiful as a Texas June sunrise, that she had long brown hair, sparkling brown eyes and a figure that could make a grown man babble like a two-year-old when it was set off to its best advantage. Marcos knew a flirt when he saw one, and this barely-out-of-her-teens woman was a flirt with a capital F-L. She was also trouble.
He was well acquainted with her type.
Marcos had to admitsilentlythat a woman as attractive as Wendy would have definitely piqued his interest on an after-hours, social level. But as a non-productive member of his crew, well, that was an entirely different matter.
He'd been exposed to her type more than once and was well aware of the ingrained flaws that were as much a part of someone like Wendy Fortune as her high cheekbones and her expressive eyes.
The youngest sibling of the Atlanta branch of the Fortune family wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouthshe'd had an entire place setting.
He keenly resented being saddled with this fluff of an employee just because her parents were friends with his aunt and uncle and had asked the pair to indulge them with this one favor. The productive rhythm at Red was being threatened because the senior Fortunes were desperate to teach their college-dropout daughter some kind of work ethic.
Let her be a dead weight somewhere else. Not in my restaurant, he thought grudgingly.
It wasn't as if the Fortunes didn't have a great many other businesses scattered around the state and beyond. He'd heard via the grapevine that their darling daughter had already failed miserably at the Fortune Foundation's office in Red Rock. But why didn't they send her to one of their other places of business? He'd nurtured and babied Red for the last year as if it were a beloved extension of himself. His ultimate goal was to learn all he could about the business end of running a large restaurant and then, one day, to open up a place of his own.
He'd worked hard for his opportunities, Marcos thought dourly. Someone like Wendy, a young woman born to privilege and surely demanding more of the same, couldn't possibly measure up to his standards. Every man had his breaking pointand he had this uneasy feeling that she was going to be his.
Struggling to keep his intense displeasure under wraps, Marcos faced his aunt and uncle. It wasn't often that they both came in to deliver newsthey obviously knew this was not going to be received well.
And they were so right, he thought.
He leveled his question at both of them. "What am I supposed to do with her?"
Other than the obvious, he couldn't help adding silently. Wendy Fortune had "party girl" written all over her. He sincerely doubted that the woman even knew what it meant to do real work, which was probably why the foundation, created in the memory of the late Ryan Fortune, had sent her packing.
"You put her to work, of course, Marcos," Maria answered, employing her sharp, no-nonsense voice. She was apparently not happy about this arrangement, either, but indicating as much to Marcos would not help. She'd always believed in making the best of any situation. Complaining about it never helped.
This time, Marcos couldn't keep the frown from his lips. "No disrespect intended, Tla, but I do the paperwork on a regular basis and file it away. I have no need for a five-foot-two paperweight."
Maria raised a sharp eyebrow in response to the sarcastic remark. "Very funny, Marcos. If your tlo and I decide to have a comedy night at the restaurant, I will be sure to ask you to perform." And then she softened, remembering what it was like to be young and feel that you had no say in anything that directly affected you. "I know we are asking a great deal of you. You have done a wonderful job here with the restaurant"
Striking now was his only hope, Marcos thought. "And I'd like to keep it that way."
"I am sure you do and you will," Jose told his nephew, an understanding tone weaving through his words. "A man as good as you are at your job will find a way to turn a social butterfly into a hardworking ant," he said with confidence as he placed a compassionate hand on Marcos's shoulder.
Marcos knew a snow job when he encountered one. "Only saints can perform miracles, Tlo. And I am not a saint."
Maria laughed. "We are well aware of that, my dear."
Maria looked at him knowingly. She knew all about Marcos's reputation, both on and off the job. He had an excellent work ethic, but he was also a man who made no secret of the fact that he enjoyed the company of beautiful women. Many beautiful women.
"You might recall," she continued, "that your tlo and I once took a chance on an untried, handsome young man who was more than just a little wild. We were told we should be prepared to be disappointed, but we decided to follow our instincts and not listen to the advice from well-meaning friends." She gently ran her hand along Marcos's cheek. "And, I'm happy to say, we have not been disappointed."
"We would like you to give Wendy the same chance," Jose told him.
How could he turn them down after that? They had played him.
But before he could say anything, the teeth-jarring sound of a tray meeting a tile floor on the far side of the empty dining area had all three pairs of eyes looking in that direction.
The young woman in the short black pencil skirt and four-inch heels flashed an apologetic smile in response. With the grace of a ballerina, she bent down to pick up the tray.
"Sorry," Wendy called.
"She's sorry?" Marcos said under his breath, shaking his head. His dark eyes darted from his aunt to his uncle. "She's not even working here yet and she's already knocking things over. Think of the damage she could do if your hire her."
"We already have hired her," Jose corrected him. His tone, although sympathetic, left no room for argument. "She begins work this afternoon."
The tiny kernel of hope Marcos had been nur-turingthat he could talk his aunt and uncle out of hiring the flighty heiressdied an ignoble death. Forcing himself to swallow the bitter pill, Marcos inclined his head, resigned.
Maria couldn't say that she was encouraged by the look in her nephew's eyes. "I thought Wendy could begin as a waitress."
"A waitress," Marcos echoed. Why don't I just throw all the glasses and plates on the floor and break them now? "Of course," he acquiesced in an amiable tone that fooled neither of the two older people. "It's your restaurant."
"It will work out, Marcos," Maria promised the young man she had become so fond of. "It will just take a little patience, that is all."
There was patience, and then there was patience, he thought. But he did care a great deal for his aunt and uncle and they had been good to him. So he did his best to keep from giving voice to his extreme displeasure. Who knew? Maybe he was wrong about this Wendy Fortune.
And, on that same note, maybe pigs would fly. By tonight.
Resigned to making the best of a bad situation, he looked across the room at his newly acquired albatross. His expression was restrained and though he tried, he couldn't keep his displeasure from reaching his dark eyes.
Wendy Fortune stood reading the current menu posted behind the hostess desk. She shifted from foot to foot, waiting for this conference that rudelyin her opinionexcluded her to finally be over.
What was taking them so long? This was already supposed to have been settled.
She wasn't accustomed to being kept out of thingsat least, not deliberately and knowingly left out.
The fact that Channing Hurston had lied to her had left her incredibly shell-shocked. She was still trying, in her own way, to recover.
And to regain her ability to trust people. He'd robbed her of that, as well.
Prior to that miserable day, she had gone about her life, blissful in her ignorance that anything was wrong. She had just assumed that Channing, the blond, handsome, Ivy League young man whom she had known forever and had been her escort since before her debutant ball, would someday be her husband and the father of her children. It was just the way things were supposed to be.
Until the day he'd told her that he was marrying Cynthia Hayes.
What a surprise that had turned out to be, she thought bitterly. Cynthia Hayes. The unimaginative dolt couldn't even pick a woman with initials that were different from his own.
She could just see it all now. Channing and Cynthia would have bland, bland children and a bland, bland existence, hobnobbing with equally bland people and calling it life.
Or some dull facsimile thereof.
It wasn't that Channing had broken her heart with his sudden, unexpected about-face. She'd never been wildly in love with him. What she had been in love with, quite honestly, was the idea of living happily ever after with a Prince Charming type. And Chan-ning Hurston, somewhat empty-headed though he was, had filled that bill. But she wasn't devastated by this unforeseen turn of events.
What she was, she willingly admitted, if only to herself, was humiliated.
It was humiliating to be so publicly dumped. In the circles she traveled in, nothing was ever private, everything happened before some sort of an audience, no matter how small at the time. And word always spreadespecially when it was embarrassing.
After suffering such a humiliation, she couldn't seem to keep her mind on her studiesso she'd quit college. There seemed to be no point in getting a degree she never intended to use. Her parents, instead of being sympathetic and understanding, announced that they intended to ship her off, sending her from one set of relatives to another because they wanted her to "apply" herself.
They wanted her to "focus."
Just what did they think she was, a digital camera?
The whole idea was absurd. She didn't need focusshe was a Fortune. Which meant she had one. Well, okay, not exactly her own private fortune, but the family had money, which, in turn, meant that she had money.
And, since she did, why did she need to focus herself and work?
Wendy sighed, frustrated.
Still, she supposed she was better off here, in Red Rock, Texas, than back in Atlanta, where everyone would be talking about Channing and Cynthia's upcoming wedding. And how Channing had dumped that poor little rich girl, Wendy Fortune.
There would be no escaping that kind of talk if she was back home right now.
Still, her parents could have let her go on that world cruise, or sent her off to spend a season in Europe. Paris, perhaps.
Yes, Paris, she decided, warming up to the idea. Paris, where she could buy the latest fashions and arrive back home just in time to attend the wedding. Dressed to the nines to let Channingand the rest of their society crowdsee that he had settled for second best.
But instead of Paris, she was here, in Red Rock, for God's sake. Who names their town after a colored stone?
Wendy set her mouth hard. Her parents were decent people who meant well, she supposed, but they just didn't have a clue when it came to the needs of someone with her tastes and sensibilities.
How was she supposed to educate them when she was stuck in this town by their decree?
Wendy abruptly terminated her silent complaints when she saw the tall, dark and gorgeous man the Mendozas were talking to look in her direction and beckon for her to join them.
She wasn't exactly sure why, but for just a second, her breath caught in her throat. The next moment, she came into her own again. The little skip in her pulse was forgotten.
About time they called her over, she thought.
Wendy debated pretending that she hadn't seen the younger Mendoza's gesture in order to keep him waiting. She didn't want the man thinking he could just snap his fingers and she would come running, no matter how incredibly sexy he looked.
With an inward sigh, Wendy slowly made her way over to the three people. As she drew closer, she nodded politely at the older couple.