Read an Excerpt
"Jeb. I'll come out and look at this tractor you want to fix. but it'll have to be later today. I have interviews this morning for a cook. In fact. the first applicant ought to be coming up the road any minute now."
Beneath a broad-brimmed black Stetson. Ryan Del-aney's brown eyes gazed into the distance. Jamming his hands into his pockets. he listened for the sound of an approaching vehicle while he stood on the wraparound porch of his West Texas ranch house.
"It's kinda early for a city woman to get out here for an interview." Jeb said.
"This one wanted an early interview. She's driving in from Dallas. so she's been on the road the past three or so hours."
"Gets up early-good sign. What about her husband? What job is he interested in?"
"There is no husband."
Jeb's eyes narrowed. "I thought you had a policy with that agency that you only hire couples to work in the house."
Jeb was right. but somehow Martin Clayburne at the agency had talked him into this interview. promising he wouldn't regret it. Ryan figured it'd be a quick one. "I told Martin not to send a young single woman out here. I'm just interviewing her long enough to show her the door. No way will I hire her."
"Well. come look at the tractor when you can. When you see the problem. you'll agree fixing it is better than buying a new one." Jeb said.
"I'll look. but you find out what fixing it will cost. It might be more economical to get a new one." Ryan heard an engine and turned to see a spiral of dust on the road moving toward the house. He turned back to talk to his foreman. whose wide-brimmed tan hat was pushed back on his head. revealing neatly combed graying brown hair. "Another thing-when will the two new mares be delivered?" Ryan asked.
"I'm picking them up tomorrow afternoon."
"Stop by the house and I'll look at them." Ryan said. glancing at the corral and breathing a deep sigh of satisfaction. He enjoyed ranch work more than his work at the drilling/energy company he owned. Though he wished he could be here all the time. he at least spent one week out of each month here. He wanted to be a part of everything that went on at the RD Ranch. This was the life he loved.
"They're fine horses. You'll like them." Jeb pushed his hat farther back on his head and gazed beyond Ryan.
"My. oh. my. Would you look at that." Jeb said in a voice filled with awe.
Ryan turned as a car sped up the drive. Staring in surprise. he took in a shiny fireengine-red convertible sports car sweeping around a curve and parking a hundred yards from the porch. A blonde cut the engine and picked up her purse.
"Holy Holstein." Jeb said. "Ry. I'm willing to bet my paycheck she can't cook toast. Not that it will matter." the foreman added.
"I'm not taking you up on that bet." Ryan answered. his gaze never leaving the red car and its driver. The door swung open and she emerged from the car. She wore a light blue summer suit with a skirt short enough to reveal long shapely legs. The matching blouse had a low-cut V-neckline.
"Make you another bet-you'll hire her whether she can cook or not."
"You'd lose that one." Ryan replied.
"Hire her anyway. I'll teach her to cook."
Ryan couldn't stop looking at the woman. but he smiled at Jeb's offer. "I'll keep that in mind. She would pretty the place up. though. I'd be shocked if she's ever had a job cooking before. She's movie-star or model material. not a cook buried on a West Texas ranch."
"I'll get out of here."
"Stay and I'll introduce you in case she's hanging out in any of the local watering holes." He glanced again at the car. which looked new and incredibly expensive. and gave voice to his thoughts. "What's she doing applying to cook when she's driving a car like that?"
"I can't imagine any possible reason." Jeb said. sounding dazed.
Ryan knew enough women to know that the clothes she wore were also expensive. As she approached the front steps. he went to meet her. Climbing the steps. she displayed more of her long legs and he couldn't keep from staring.
She smiled. flashing white. even teeth and revealing a dimple in her cheek. He walked faster and held out his hand to shake hers. The moment he made physical contact with her soft skin, a current sizzled down to his lower extremities. When he met her crystal-blue gaze, he felt as if he were sinking in a sun-dappled sea.
"Mr. Delaney, I'm Jessica Upton. I'm here to interview for the position of cook," she said in a mellow voice that he could listen to the rest of the day.
"It's nice to meet you. This is my foreman, Jeb White," he hoped he said. He was lost in her dazzling smile. He felt a slight tug and looked down to see he was still holding her hand, so he released her swiftly and reluctantly.
Jeb shook hands with her. "Real nice to meet you, Ms. Upton." Jeb turned to Ryan. "I'll be going now. See you later at the garage."
"Sure," Ryan replied without taking his eyes from Jessica. Her smile must have short-circuited his brain, because he asked, "Was your husband unable to come this morning?"
He received an even bigger smile that made him weak in the knees. Hands down, she was the most beautiful applicant he'd ever interviewed.
"There is no husband, because I'm divorced."
"But you're wearing a wedding ring," he said, noticing the wide gold band with a row of diamonds and an engagement ring that had to be four carats. Her red nails were long and well shaped, indicating the care of a professional.
"I'm not ready to date anyone," she said, losing some of her sparkle. "I thought the wedding ring might head off unwanted invitations."
He seriously doubted it would head off all of them, but he merely nodded.
"I heard about this opening from someone I know in
Dallas and I talked the agency into letting me have this interview. Please don't be angry with them. Sometimes I can be persuasive."
"Oh, yeah. I'm sure he couldn't say no." The remark came out before Ryan could stop it. Where was his professionalism? It was getting blown out of the water by someone so enticing that she dazzled him and made him feel sixteen years old again.
He should reinforce that he hired only couples and send her away now. The thought was fleeting. He wasn't going to hire her, but he did want to interview her. Heck, he wanted to date her.
"Come inside to my office."
"Here's a résumé," she said, handing him a manila folder. "I mailed a copy after I inquired about this job."
Tucking the folder beneath his arm, he held the door for her to enter. He hadn't looked at her résumé, tossing it because the agency he used handled the screening of applicants.
When she entered the house, Ryan inhaled a sweet, enticing scent. As she passed him, he couldn't help noticing the sway to her hips. He took another long look, noticing her pale blond hair, which had a slight wave and swung across her shoulders with each step she took. Her silky hair was pinned up on the sides of her head.
Wisdom told him to send her packing. She shouldn't even be here and he shouldn't be showing her to his office. She might be nothing but trouble and she didn't look as if she had ever worked for anyone a day in her life. Despite all that, he followed her inside, where she turned to look expectantly at him.
"My office is in the study down the hall. Come with me. Did you drive from Dallas this morning?"
"I stayed with friends who know you-the Jimsons. Pru and I have been friends for a long time. They told me you're looking for a cook and the agency to contact. The agency highly recommended you."
"Where's your home, Ms. Upton?"
She smiled at him. "Please, just call me Jessica. Ms. Upton sounds as if my mother is nearby."
Smiling in return, he nodded. "Sure, Jessica. You can call me Ryan."
"I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and that's where my family is."
"Here's the study."
He waved his arm and let her precede him into a room with dark walnut walls and a handwoven Navajo area rug with a red-and-black design on a white background. She crossed the room to stop at one of the brown leather wingback chairs facing his desk.
He turned the other leather chair slightly to face her. "Please be seated."
Sitting, he glanced briefly as she crossed those fabulous legs. Unless he stopped looking at her, he was never going to resist the temptation to hire her.
"Where have you worked before?" he asked.
"I haven't held a regular job, but I have done a lot of volunteer work for charities. I have them listed in my résumé."
He opened the folder in his lap to glance at it and was surprised by the amount of time she had given to volunteering. "You've done a lot of charity work."
"Why do you want this job, Ms. Upton?"
"At this point in my life, this is a perfect job. I've been through a bad divorce. An emotional one. I want to go someplace new and quiet and for the coming year do something entirely different from what I've always done."
Ryan thought about her answer. Everything in him said to get rid of her politely and quickly. If he kept her around. he would seduce her and eventually. when he was ready to say goodbye. it would be difficult. And they would say goodbye. His relationships were always over at some point. He had never had a serious relationship and this was not where or when he would start.
"You're an attractive woman who could easily find a better-paying job in a big city where there are people and lots of things to do. You came from a city. Why would you bury yourself in a low-paying job in what is almost isolation out on my ranch?"
She smiled at him as if he were a slow learner and she was trying to encourage him. "Thank you for the compliment. I'm ready to be 'buried' somewhere with peace and quiet. I'm at a crossroads in my life and I need to think about my future and recover from my past. If I take this job. I can keep busy. earn some money. be away from everyone-namely my family and my ex-who would distract me while I try to chart my future."
Logical answer. but he didn't believe her. She was too pretty to need to bury herself. Memphis was big enough for her to escape her family and her ex. and if not Memphis. a lot of other big cities. She looked like a city person. not a cook on his ranch. where she wouldn't see anyone. including him. for days on end. A small inner voice still persistently told him to get rid of her. She would never fit in as his cook and all he would get would be one headache after another.
"I have a business in Houston and am only on the ranch about a week out of every month. I pay my staff whether I'm here or not, but for a lot of the time you'd be on your own. What would you do?"
He received another dazzling smile that made him ignore the persistent inner voice that told him to end this interview.
"I'll find some way to occupy my time," she said. "That's never been a problem and it will be even less of one now that I'm older."
He looked at her résumé again and saw when she'd graduated from high school. Calculating quickly, he was surprised. She was twenty-six. From her looks, he would have guessed twenty-two.
"A year can be a long time. Way before the year is over, you may want to date again. You'll meet only a limited number of men out here."
"I can live with that," she said with a twinkle in her eyes.
"Frankly, Ms. Up-er, Jessica, I don't think-"
"Give me a chance and I promise you won't regret it."
Her silky voice wrapped around him and he guessed very few men could deny what she asked. He couldn't imagine what killed her marriage.
He returned to reading the papers she had handed him, swiftly glancing over her transcript and looking more intently at her, trying to hide his surprise.
"You have almost a straight-A average and a degree in accounting. Accounting and cooking?"
"My dad steered all of his kids toward accounting. He said we could use it in whatever we do. I don't know about that, but it was not difficult for me."
"I'm impressed," he said. "Have you cooked for anyone before? I see here you've had some courses in cooking and you attended a prestigious culinary school in Paris."
"Yes. I love to cook and I guess that helps. You let me cook something for you and you'll hire me." she said. smiling at him. "What's your favorite dish?"
He was tempted to say "blue-eyed blondes." but he knew better.
"My favorite dessert is blackberry cobbler. My favorite dinner is roast beef and mashed potatoes covered with brown gravy-pretty simple stuff. No fancy French dishes."
"Ah. you're easy." she said. smiling slightly.
He had to clamp his mouth closed to keep from answering with the first thing that came to mind. His inner self was now jumping up and down. screaming to send her on her way. "I usually hire only couples." he said. At last he had turned a corner and was heading toward turning her down.
"You won't need two cooks." she said sweetly.
"Usually the wife is the cook and the man has another area where he prefers to work-chauffeur. gardener. handyman. Once I had a husband who was cook and his wife cleaned. It might be a little awkward having a young single female for my cook. Sometimes the two of us are the only ones in the house. I have a large staff who all live on the ranch. Also. the cowboys who work for me. but they're all off doing their own thing a lot of the time."
"No problem. You came with all kinds of recommendations and references and an absolute declaration that you would be totally professional."
He wanted to lean closer. speak softly and tell her he'd been questioning his professionalism since he laid eyes on her. And then he wanted to ask her out tonight. Instead, he stared at her résumé as if he were thinking deeply about it. "You're staying in Dallas?"
"I did last night. If you aren't interested in hiring me, I'm packed now and I'll just keep driving west. I'll find work somewhere, I'm sure."
"You should go to one of the modeling agencies. You'd have far better pay and a more interesting job."
She smiled as if he had made an impossible suggestion. "Thank you. I prefer to stick to cooking. It's something that I love."