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Six years with temperamental chefs in kitchens around the world had not prepared Cassidy Preston for this.
Like fingernails on a chalkboard, the scraping of steel against steel scratched through a blue-gray fog. Smoke swirled within her throat, filling her nostrils with the acrid stench ofporridge? Cassidy wrinkled her nose to block it from her lungs.
Wincing at the painful din, Cassidy stepped across the littered room and grabbed the battered pot from the man's hand. She then scanned the kitchen, found and flicked a wall switch. The exhaust fan wheezed to life and the smoke cleared, allowing her to peer into eyes so richly blue she might have been back in Greece, staring into the Aegean.
"Certainly." Long, elegant fingers dropped the slotted spoon he'd been using as a pot scraper. He pressed a hip against the center island, tilted his head to one side. "You're excused. Now may I have that back?"
"It's a saucepan."
"Yes, I know." Amusement bubbled through his words.
"Which is for making sauces. Cooking. Things like that." Cassidy slid her nail tip over the charred bottom. "In my experience, saucepans are more effective if you don't fossilize your meal in them. That way you can use them again."
He didn't respond. Instead he studied her with the lazy, relaxed manner of a man who had all the time in the world to lounge around. And he might well have.
But his silence offered Cassidy time to note his mussed jumble of almost-curls that framed a face made for the stubbled look. The Romanesque nose didn't diminish his appearance, nor did the dimples at the sides of his mouth. A faint scar on the edge of his chinonly enhanced the chiseled jawline.
He was gorgeous.
But Cassidy wasn't here to admire handsome men. In fact, she would only be here long enough to work off her debt to Elizabeth Wisdom.
He crossed one long, lean leg over the other, stubbed a booted toe against a mark on the tile floor as if scraping one blob of scorched food from its filthy surface would make any difference.
Cassidy cleared her throat.
He lifted his head, blinked incredibly long lashes. Said nothing.
She raised her eyebrows expectantly.
His eyes danced, amused by her impatience.
"Tell you what. Since I belong here and you don't, perhaps you'd better tell me who you are."
Cassidy didn't think he belonged here. Not in a kitchen. Not in that white shirtsilk if she wasn't mistaken. The jacketa designer brand for sure. Probably Italian.
No. He didn't look like he belonged in this mess.
But he did look like trouble.
The tall, rich and handsome kind of trouble.
"You do have a name, don't you?" he asked.
Add sense of humor to his assets.
"Of course I have a name. It's Cassidy." She tucked a lock of hair behind her left ear. "Cassidy Preston. Elizabeth Wisdom sent me. Apparently I'm to be the chef here for the next six months."
"You're the cook?" Sapphire deepened to impenetrable cobalt. The dimples vanished. He unfolded from his lazy stance and straightened. "Oh."
Not exactly the welcome she'd expected. He loomed over her, a few inches above six feet with perfect wide shoulders.
Just right for a girl to tuck her head against.
Not going to happen. A lying boss and a cheating fiancé had only reinforced what Cassidy had already learned from her father that men were not to be trusted.
No need for a refresher course.
Even his voice was good-looking.
Cassidy blinked back to awareness, shook her head to silence her brain's warm hum. The straight-cut ends of her hair swung free, tickled her nose then fell right back into place against her jaw, which was exactly what she expected from her hairstyle. If only her life would work out that way.
Again, the man peered at her with that questioning stare, as if he'd said something and now awaited her response.
"Uh, yes, I'm the cook. Chef," she corrected. "Which is how I know saucepans need a little more care than this one's had. I'll need to use it. Preferably without charcoal."
He shook his head in mock reproof, eyes twinkling.
"We're not going to harp on a little burn, are we? At this rate, we'll never get anything done."
She cast a dubious glance at the mess surrounding them. "You've actually done something here?"
"Breakfast. Before that I was assessing." His left eye wrinkled into a rogue's wink while his lips curved upward in a lazy grin. He ambled toward her with the supreme confidence of a man fully in control of his universe. "It might not look difficult but it's really draining, trust me."
Trust him? Not with those daredevil eyes.
In spite of that resolution, Cassidy's breath logjammed as a whiff of his cologne tickled her nostrils. She'd always been a sucker for citrus. Ignoring this man was not going to be easy.
"I'm Tyson St. John. Ty to my friends. I am, or will be, the director of this place when it's up and running." He thrust out one hand, grasped hers. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Cassidy Preston. Will it cause you grief if I suggest the saucepan is beyond repair?"
The touch of his skin against hers ratcheted up Cassidy's respiration. Her knees turned to chicken noodle soup. Score ten for that killer smile.
Was this what they called charisma?
He cannot be trusted.
The warning that had carried her safely through the past popped up and jerked her back like a safety harness. She could not trust him.
Cassidy fought free of his magnetism. Why couldn't her new boss have been a sweet, chubby old man with bow legs and a face like a prune?
Her fingers tingled. She glanced down. Their hands were still melded together.
"Are you all right?"
Define all right. She had to survive six months of him. Judging by her overreaction, it wasn't going to be a cakewalk. Dragging her fingers from his grip, Cassidy backed up two steps, inhaled a cleansing breath.
Cassidy completed a quick visual inspection of the room. "I don't know what to call this."
"Try chaos." An amused smile twisted his lips.
"Have you considered a cleaning service?"
"All part of my assessment." He waved a hand in front of his face, then coughed. "Besides a new kitchen, I guess we also need a new exhaust fan. That one sounds bad."
At last, something about which she could speak intelligently.
"They work better if they're clean. Most things do." Her brain took in what was there and its condition, ignoring the hot plate he'd used. "This place will need some refurbishment. Has the budget been set yet?"
"The Wisdom Foundation has been very generous." An infusion of starch altered his lazy manner. "This building wasn't cheap, but it's in the perfect location, and I think it's exactly what Gail would've wanted."
The moment the word left her lips, his eyes froze. Tyson St. John didn't have to say a word. Any fool could guess from his reaction that Gail was someone special. His wife?
"I'm sorry. It's none of my business."
"Don't be. It's only"After a moment's pause he grudgingly offered details. "Gail was the one with the view for this projectthe Haven, that's what she wanted to call it." He tilted his head just the slightest degree, as if to hide his expression. "She saw it as a place where the hungry could come for a decent meal, where the homeless could find a bed and some warmth. A kind of community center."
"Well, there's certainly enough room to do all that in this old school. It's huge."
Tyson St. John remained silent while she navigated the kitchen, opened sticky cupboard doors and peered into the dingy storeroom. He said nothing when she checked the interior of the ancient cooler and hastily backed away from the odor. He didn't even comment when she rattled the doors of the cast-iron monstrosity that had served as a stove in some previous lifetime.
Cassidy didn't say anything, either. But her heart sank faster than a stone thrown into Lake Michigan. It looked like nothing had changed since the building had been built. When she saw the narrow darkness of the receiving staircase she couldn't suppress a groan. "What's wrong?'
"Transporting supplies up and down that will be a killer." She pushed open the door to an adjoining room and walked inside. Remnants of cafeteria tables and chairs lay all over the place.
"The dining room," he said from behind her, as if she hadn't already figured that out.
"Any idea how many people you expect to serve?"
Tyson St. John's shoulders went back. His brows drew together. He swallowed then shook his head.
"I'm, um, that iser, I don't think we're that far yet. We only received possession of the property two months ago."
Two months? Surely his assessing should have been finished.
Frustration nipped at Cassidy's nerves, winching them a notch tighter. She'd expected to walk in here and get right to work, but with the kitchen not even ready to boil water, she foresaw her time extending exponentially.
"Mr. St. John"
"Ty," he insisted.
"Ty. Since I'll only be here just six months," she emphasized softly, "I'd like to get to work as quickly as possible. Do you have a schedule for start-up?"
The welcome in those clear blue eyes frosted up. Goodbye sense of humor.
"We have a rough plan. My thought was that we would get your input before we made a decision on any big changes in the kitchen."
"My input." She seized the opportunity. "All right then. Do you have a pen?"
When he blinked Cassidy knew he wasn't prepared for her list. She'd give it to him anyway. They couldn't afford to waste time deciding who did what. January in Chicago was frigid and the homeless people would need a place to come to.
She removed her coat, pulled a black marker out of her purse, picked up a hunk of cardboard from the floor and laid it on the counter. As she wrote, she spoke.
"Most of the money will have to go toward the big-ticket items. Cooler, freezer. We'll need a new stove. I can manage with the pots and pans that are here. Now for small wares." She checked the cupboards, shrugged. "Not bad. I bring my own knives, so we can manage for now. I am going to need a mixer though."
She kept going, printing the things she needed clearly and legibly so there would be no mistake about her requests.
Cassidy froze at the barked order, peeked over one shoulder at her boss. His eyes gaped; he looked stunned.
Sympathy rose. She did tend to get carried away sometimes.
"Don't worry, I can adapt to minimal conditions. Now in regard to helpersI'll need two. Full-time.
Strong, willing to learn, not afraid of correction. It's important"
"Ms. Preston, would you please stop?"
"Yes. Stop." The relaxed demeanor had vanished, replaced by the deportment of a man used to giving orders.
The change in him made Cassidy catch her breath. Angry or teasing, he was still very good-looking, even when his eyes hardened to glacial chips and the steel in his voice warned her he wouldn't easily relinquish control.
"I realize you are a fully qualified chef, Ms. Preston, and that this must be a bit of a comedown for you. But the Haven is not"
"Hey, Ty!" The yell was punctuated by the echo of an elephant herd tromping downstairs. A boy burst into the room. Well, not quite a boy. A preteen? "You'll never believe what I found."
Tyson St. John sighed as he raked a hand through his hair.
"No, I probably won't. Jack, this is Ms. Preston. She's a chef. Elizabeth Wisdom sent her to cook for us." His mouth tightened as he drew the boy forward.
"This is my nephew, Ms. Preston. Meet Jackson Dorfman."
Cassidy found the introduction stilted, but had no time to dwell on it as Jack jerked away from the contact and frowned at her. "A cook, huh? What kind?"
He was testing her. That belligerence, the bottom lip jutting out, the glare from those bittersweet brown eyesall characteristic signs of onset teenager-hood. Two younger sisters had educated Cassidy in the challenges of that particular age very well. It was not an experience she yearned to repeat.
"It's nice to meet you, Jack." Cassidy met the glare head-on. "What kind of cook do you want?"
"I-I don't know." He seemed surprised by the question, not quite ready to back down, a bit curious.
"You're not going to make things like liver pâté, are you? Or those things like clams that slide off slimy shells? Ty ordered them when we went for a fancy dinner one time."
She swallowed her laughter, kept her face straight. "Do you mean oysters?"
"Yeah, I guess. They were gross!"
Ty, good humor restored, winked at her before turning Jack to face him.
"I think I can safely assure you that Ms. Preston will not be offering oysters on her menu. Am I right?" he asked, glancing her way.
"I'm afraid so." She kept her face straight through a gargantuan effort. "At the Haven we will have to settle for things like beef stew, hot dogs, maybe some hamburgers. Once in a while, we might have to have roast beef, or maybe fried chicken. Unfortunately, I might even be forced to include pizza occasionally."
Out of the corner of her eye, Cassidy could see Ty's shoulders shake at her sad tone. She ignored him.
"That won't be too awful, will it, Jack?"
"Mom always said God answers prayer." Like lightning, the subject changed as Jack grabbed Ty's arm and yanked on it. "You've got to come see what I've found. It's the weirdest mirror. Come on!"
"Okay, okay, I'll be there in a minute." Ty shook his head at the burst of pounding footsteps overhead.
"Remember, Jack," he called. "Be careful."