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Mr. Judson said that his guests want to meet the cook."
"Excuse me?" Darcy Parrish's throat nearly closed up with dread as she addressed the young serving girl who had delivered the message.
"I said that Mr. Judson's dinner guests want to meet the cook." Such simple words. Such a simple request. Why then were Darcy's hands shaking? No question.
"That's impossible," Darcy said. "Tell him no." She looked at the young woman's astonished and horrified face. To tell the truth she was a little horrified at her audacity, too. She had only been at Judson House a week. She'd been hired by the housekeeper while Mr. Judson was out of town and had never actually met her boss. But she knew about him. She knew a lot about him.
More than that, she knew that he didn't know about her. At least not some important details.
"I'm sorry, I can't do that," the young woman, Olivia, said. "It would be my job. Unlike some people, I need this work. I don't have charity to fall back on."
Anger burned within Darcy even as she conceded that Olivia was right. It wasn't fair to hurt another person to keep from hurting herself.
"I'm sorry, Liv," she told the girl. "Really, but I can't go out there. You don't know how it feels to be on display, to be like a bug under a microscope I just can't."
Olivia sighed. "I'm sorry, too, but he asked, Darcy. What can I say?"
"Say that I'm covered in flour."
"But you're not."
Darcy wanted to groan. Olivia was so young and so honest. She hadn't learned the convenient little lies that helped protect a person from life's blows. And being paraded out in front of a millionaire's guests like a pet performer would be a blow, especiallyonce they realized her situation. Pity always followed. She wasn't going through that.
"Well then, say that I'm in the midst of making dessert." That wasn't completely true, either. The dessert only needed whipped cream on the top.
"Dar-cy," Olivia drawled.
"O-liv-i-a, please. I can't. I won't," Darcy said.
"Is there a problem of some sort?" The deep, male voice echoed through the huge kitchen, and Darcy spun in her wheelchair to face Patrick Judson, her new boss, the man who had financed the group home where she was staying.
To be honest, having been assigned this job by his housekeeper, Darcy had never actually seen her boss, but who else could it be? Entering through the door nearest the dining area, he was dressed formally for dinner in stark black and white and he looked a lot like the pictures she'd seen in the newspaper. With those broad shoulders, dark, longish hair, green eyes and a granite jaw, he might have stepped right out of a magazine or a romance novel. He was definitely the kind of man that women made fools of themselves over, even beautiful, women with working appendages, serious pedigrees, money and no flaws. He was Heathcliff in twenty-first century clothing, and he was also very tall.
Darcy had always been slightly shorter than average. Tall, imposing men had always made her feel squat even when she'd been able to get around well on two legs. Now, in a wheelchair, she felt even shorter, more at a disadvantage. But she'd been a fighter all her life and she'd never been one to let her fears show.
"Mr. Judson, I appreciate the offer to meet your guests, but I'm afraid that's not possible. I have to finish the dessert." Okay, that was her story and she was sticking to it.
Patrick's gaze passed around the room, and Darcy wished she could rush over and cover the obviously finished crystal glasses of chocolate mousse. But he said nothing about that. Instead he turned to Olivia. "If the coffee is ready, why don't you serve that, Olivia?"
The young woman nodded, gathered the coffee cart and rushed out, clearly glad to be spared the storm to follow.
Now Patrick turned those dark green eyes on Darcy. "How long have you been here?" he asked. "I don't remember you."
But he was studying her so intently that Darcy knew he wouldn't ever forget her. She could no longer be totally invisible the way she liked things. She fought the urge to brush away the trace of chocolate that had dripped onto her left breast. She wished she could get up and make herself tall so that she was the one towering over someone.
As if he had read her mind, Patrick pulled up the nearest stool and sat down.
Darcy's eyes widened. The man had guests, yet he looked as if he intended to settle in for a long visit!
Now, she did give in to the urge to fidget, clutching the armrests of her chair. "I've been here a week," she said. "My name is Darcy Parrish."
"You're from Able House."
She raised her right eyebrow. "How could you tell?" Her tone was slightly mocking and okay, that was stepping over the line in more ways than one. Of course, he knew where she was from. Everyone in this neighborhood had fought to keep the assisted-living facility for those with spinal cord injuries out of this posh neighborhood. All except Patrick Judson, who had sponsored Able House, fought for it and made sure that it was luxuriously furnished and stocked and had every technological and administrative advantage available. Darcy was gratefulmore than grateful for the chance to live in a place that catered to her needs and made her feel less dependent, but she also knew that being from Able House, being an example of Patrick Judson's largess made her a marked woman and an object of pity.
For a second Patrick looked nonplussed. Then a small amused look lifted his lips. "How did I know? It's stamped on your wheelchair," he said.
Darcy looked down. "I don't see it." Of course. He had made it up.
"It's on one of the spokes."
She bent over and read the half-upside down letters on the fat, black spoke. He was right. When she looked up, her gaze met his. Those sleepy green eyes looked right into her ordinary brown ones and she felt as if she had been sucked up into a tornado of sensation. She felt helpless.
Darcy hated feeling helpless. She had been in situations where she had no control or was at the mercy of the more powerful or advantaged too many times in her life. She had been the object of Good Samaritanism gone bad before, too, and she'd certainly been forced to deal with admiration turned to pity. The times that had happened she didn't want to remember. Not any of them. She would have none of that in her life again. Pride mattered, and she knew enough to shield herself. But now dammit, she liked this job. Moreover, she needed this job.
Ever since her accident had killed her dreams of being a police officer, she had been spiraling out of control. For the second time in her life, the first being a dark period of her childhood she didn't like to think about, she had had to rely completely on the mercy and goodwill of others, and the very thought scared her to death. But here in the kitchen, with her newfound skill? She ruled. She had discovered her talent and she totally ruled. What if she lost that just because she couldn't keep her big mouth shut?
"I'm sorry about disappointing your guests," she said, trying for a humble and deferential tone.
Now, Patrick raised his brow. "Is that so?"
Okay, she had lied enough. Besides, she never lied about things that really mattered. A person's attitude mattered. "No, not really. That is, I don't want to go out there and meet them, But, I also don't want them to be disappointed in the meal."
"They're not. That's why they wanted to meet you. To tell you how much they enjoyed it."
"I I'm sorry, but I really don't like to be on display. I just can't do that."
He nodded curtly. "That wasn't my intent."
"You didn't know I was in a wheelchair, did you?"
"I don't know you at all."
"No reason you should. I'm just another employee." Even though she knew that was a lie. When she applied for this job, Mrs. D., the housekeeper, had noted that she was from Able House, and Darcy was almost certain that the woman had favored her because of that. Not that she didn't have the talent to do the task, because she did, but this was Chicago. Talent in the kitchen abounded, and a man with Patrick Judson's money and social standing could hire the best. He wouldn't have had to give preferential treatment to a woman just because she lived at the institution where he was the chief benefactor.
But he had. Or at least his housekeeper had.
Darcy sighed. "I'm grateful for the work."
He didn't smile. Indeed, his look was grim. "If you couldn't do the work Mrs. D. wouldn't have hired you. But I have to warn you, it's a very temporary position."
Yes, she knew that. She'd been trying not to think of that. She'd been hoping that temporary meant not temporary.
"But for now?" she asked.
Patrick leveled a look at her and she knew this was a man who was used to getting his way. "For today," he stressed, "I'll make your excuses. But that's a one-time reprieve. I'm leaving Judson House soon and I'll be gone long-term. When I go, every employee here will have a new place to work. That's my promise to myself, and I can't place employees elsewhere if they are insubordinate or insist on hiding their talents. If Able House is going to succeed beyond this generation, its inhabitants have to be willing to be beacons and let their lights shine, at least in some small way. They have to be examples of success stories themselves. You and I are going to work on this, Darcy."
She stifled a groan. "On what?"
"On your fear of coming out of the kitchen and meeting people."
It wasn't exactly fear of being around people that was her problem. True, she didn't like being stared at, but she wasn't a complete hermit. She just steered clear of anything that brought her undue attention, and even then her fear was much more than that. "I don't want to be anyone's project," she said.
"Too bad. It's just become a condition of your continued employment. You're mine now."
Darcy tried to ignore the sudden quickened beating of her heart as he stood up and started to walk away.
Darcy rolled forward. "Mr. Judson. I"
Patrick Judson turned. "Trust me on this, Darcy. I'll make sure you have security, a good job and the means to survive without being beholden to anyone before I go."
Oh, yeah, like she hadn't heard those kinds of promises before. But in the end she was the only person she had ever truly been able to count on.
"I don't need security." A total lie.
He paused. "What do you need?"
Darcy didn't hesitate. "I need to finish making dessert."
"Chocolate mousse? Is it good?" he asked, a teasing tone in his voice.
"Practically orgasmic," she said. Okay, that was over the top. The tendency to speak her mind was a good trait for a policewoman, but it could only get her in trouble here. She opened her mouth to take back her comment, but her boss had raised one dark eyebrow.
"Well, that will be entertaining, at least," he said. "I guess I owe you, Darcy, and so do my guests. That was a most spectacular meal. My taste buds are still humming. Thank you." He smiled.
She couldn't help it. She smiled back. How did he do that? Most likely he did that with every woman he encountered.
"My pleasure," she said. But inside, she was trembling. Patrick Judson was everything she could never have had even before her accident. The things she knew about him and the things she knew about herself oh, yes, he was off-limits to a woman like her. So, she really couldn't do anything that implied that she was even mildly attracted. Talk about an impossible situation!
No, it was just too irritating that her new boss was so attractive and compelling. That kind of thing was just going to end right here and now.
Except the darn man was going to turn her into some sort of hobby, a cause.
Her blood ran cold. She could barely think.
"I have to concentrate on the dessert and only on the dessert," she muttered. And this time she meant every word.
She could not even allow herself to think about letting Patrick Judson turn her into a project. But how was she going to stop him?
Patrick woke up the next morning thinking about Darcy Parrish's dark, hot rebellious eyes. There had been something magnificent and defiant about her even though he could tell that she was scared and bluffing beneath the bravado. Having raised three sisters he knew the signs.
Still, he had no business dwelling on the woman despite the fact that there was something compellingly beautiful about her. He'd found himself wondering how long her wheat-colored hair would be when freed from its ponytail and what she was wearing beneath that red apron. He could see that she was slender, but
"Stop it," he muttered. This was completely inappropriate. She was his employee. For now, anyway, and he had sworn to help her.
Patrick nearly let out a groan. Why had he done that? His life was too busy right now and he was halfway out the door to a trip around the world. Now that his youngest sister was going off to college he was free to pursue his own interests for the first time since his parents had died and left him a guardian at age nineteen.
This trip was all he had wanted for years. He intended to grab opportunity with both hands, and nothing was going to sidetrack him, including a pair of lovely brown eyes. At twenty-nine he was still single and he had yet to sow any wild oats. He was going to do just that. Soon enough he would marry someone like himself, from his world with his goals. He would raise his own children. Angelise would be a perfect choice for a wife, and she seemed to feel the same about him. Not that they'd actually discussed marriage, yet. That would happen in time.
But for now, the family sporting goods business offered the perfect opportunity to do all the things he'd been wanting to do. The prospect of a multi-continent trip to promote the business while engaging in adventure sports for charity loomed large. No more avoiding the reckless pursuits he craved. No more being responsible for another person's well-being. He wanted that new life, badly, and it was almost in his grasp.
Except there were just a few loose ends. Able House was one, and apparently Darcy Parrish was another.
"You're an idiot, Judson," he told himself. "She doesn't even want your help.