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"Dad, the caterer's here. She's coming up the walkway." Paul Castlewood glanced up from the computer screen in his home office and looked into his daughter's smiling face, so like his own. Her slanted dark eyes were the only feature she had inherited from his ex-wife.
He closed the document file and began shutting down his computer. "Thanks, honey. Please show Ms. Chapman in."
Heather turned to leave. "And she's not bad looking either, Dad," she added. "Real pretty."
Paul shook his head. It wouldn't be the first time his daughter had tried to get him interested in a woman. He always found it amusing, because most literature he'd read said that when it came to single fathers, daughters were notorious for being territorial. Not true for his kid. She would marry him off in a heartbeat if she could.
But that wasn't going to happen.
He'd been married once and it had left a bad taste in his mouth. Heather had been barely five when Emma had decided she no longer wanted a husband or a child and had packed up her things and left. Her actions should have come as no surprise. She hadn't wanted a baby and had blamed him for her pregnancy.
Heather, who was now a few weeks shy of sixteen, had seen her mother only twice since she'd left, and sadly, the occasions had been the funerals of her maternal grandparents. Even eleven years later, Paul still couldn't understand how a woman could turn her back on a man who loved her and a daughter who needed her.
It had taken him long enough to stop trying to figure Emma out, and to just accept things as they were and move on. It hadn't been easy when juggling his job as a marketing analyst and that of a single father, but raising Heather on his own had been rewarding. His parents had helped out some in the early years, but since retiring six years ago they had become missionaries and spent most of their time in other countries.
He could hear the door open and the sound of his daughter's voice as she greeted their visitor. Michelle Chapman had come highly recommended as the best caterer in Lake Falls, and he was eager to have her take on Heather's birthday party.
He and Heather had moved from Atlanta to the quiet, historical Georgia town six months ago when the company he'd worked for had downsized, and he had accepted a nice buy-out settlement. Only a skip and a hop from Savannah, Lake Falls was everything he wanted. Even Heather hadn't complained about the move from the big city to a small town. She had quickly made new friends and had remarked a number of times that what she enjoyed the most was that he was around more often now that he'd set up his own website-design company at home.
He stood and crossed the room to glance out the window. Moss-draped oak trees lined the pretty cobblestone-paved street. He had stumbled across Lake Falls, a town many referred to as "Little Savannah," a couple of years ago when he had taken a detour off Interstate 95 during road construction. Like Savannah, the small, historic Southern town was the site of many famous Revolutionary and Civil War battles, and Lake Falls could also boast it was once the summer residence of noted novelist Louisa May Alcott.
The town was a step back into time. The old brick-and-stone homes had retained a lot of their original beauty and charm, and the local residents were so passionate about preserving these resplendent old buildings that an ordinance had been passed requiring city council approval for any new home construction in this section of town.
The house Paul had purchased, like the other homes on the street, had been built in the eighteenth century, with a wraparound porch and stately columns. He had fallen in love with it the moment the Realtor had shown it to him, and Paul considered it as one of the best investments he'd ever made.
As he walked out of the office, he could hear his daughter chatting excitedly with Ms. Chapman, something that didn't surprise him given the purpose of the woman's visit. Heather's sweet-sixteen party would be held here in their home with some of her friends from school and church. Deciding it was time to rescue the caterer before his daughter talked her to death, he hurried toward the living room.
When he rounded the corner to the foyer, he stopped dead in his tracks. Heather had been right. Michelle Chapman was a looker, and he had definitely taken notice.
"Ms. Chapman, this is my dad."
Michelle turned and met the eyes of the man who was leaning against the doorjamb and staring straight at her. She caught her breath when she felt a surge of something she hadn't felt in a long time. Physical attraction.
He was absolutely stunning. Tall-probably at least six foot two-and lean, with dark impressive eyes and caramel-colored skin, he was more handsome than any man had a right to be. He looked comfortable and at home in his bare feet, jeans and a T-shirt that accentuated his muscular physique.
She had heard through the grapevine that Paul Castlewood was absolutely gorgeous, but she had refused to believe the wild tales. Seeing was believing. The new guy in town was definitely hot. Michelle figured he must be in his later thirties, and as far as she was concerned, he was the epitome of male perfection.
"Dad, this is Ms. Chapman."
Heather's voice intruded on Michelle's thoughts and reality came crashing back. She was here because he needed a caterer for his daughter's upcoming birthday party. He was a client and therefore off-limits.
Putting on her professional face and wiping any inappropriate thoughts from her mind, she smiled and crossed the entryway as he shoved away from the door frame. She extended her hand. "Mr. Castlewood."
"Ms. Chapman. And I prefer that you call me Paul."
"And I'm Michelle."
He regarded her silently for a moment, not letting go of her hand. That gave her time to decide that the gold-rimmed glasses framing his dark eyes made him look ultrasexy versus brainy.
"We can meet in my office, Michelle," he said, finally releasing his grip.
"Do you need my input?" Heather asked, smiling sweetly at her father and reminding them both that she was still there.
Paul rolled his eyes heavenward and then said, "Definitely not. I want to stay within the budget I've established. The menu is something Michelle and I can decide on, but I'll make sure you have the final okay."
"Fine by me, but if you change your mind "
"But if you do," Heather said, grinning, "I'll be in the kitchen working on my biology project." She turned and sashayed toward the back of the house.
Michelle glanced up at Paul and he smiled. "Sometimes I wonder why I keep her around," he said jokingly.
"Because you love her," Michelle said easily. That was how things had been between her and her own dad. They'd had a special relationship. In Michelle's eyes, Prentiss Chapman had been everything a girl could want and need in a father, and even now, six months after he'd passed away, she was still trying to get over her loss.
"Yes, that I do," Paul responded, directing her down a long hall. "She's a good kid. She works hard, makes good grades in school and is respectful. However," he added as they entered his office and he turned to face her, "on the downside, she will talk your ear off if you let her."
Michelle couldn't help but laugh. "Have you lived in Lake Falls long?" he asked, offering her a chair. She glanced around. The office, like the rest of the house that she'd seen so far, was tidy and neat. There was no clutter anywhere.
"All my life, except for the time I moved away to attend college, then worked in Memphis for a few years. In fact, I grew up in a house right around the corner from here."
"Your parents still live there?"
"No. My mom died eight years ago while I was away at college, and my father died six months ago."
"I'm sorry for your loss."
"Thanks." She felt there was no need to go into any details about why she had turned down the promotion of a lifetime at the corporation in Memphis where she'd worked to return home to take care of her ailing father. How could she explain that those two years together had been both uplifting and sad?
"I didn't expect you to be so young."
At his appraising glance, she felt a warm rush of blood through her veins. She was attracted to him and that wasn't good. She found herself struggling to remember that this was a business meeting. "I'm here to break the myth that only older women know how to cook these days."
"So who taught you how to cook?"
"My grandparents. They owned a restaurant in town for years and I worked for them. That's where I learned to peel my first potato."
"Do you mind if I asked how old you are?" he asked.
She wondered why he wanted to know but answered anyway. "Twenty-eight." Deciding they needed to begin talking business, she said, "I have a couple of suggestions for your daughter's party."
"Okay, what are they?"
Opening the folder she was carrying, she placed several colorful documents on his desk and pointed at one. "This popular treat is called a pizza porcupine and will serve as part of the main course. The number of teens you're inviting and whether the majority are boys or girls will determine how many I need to make. Guys tend to have bigger appetites."
"I wouldn't doubt that," Paul agreed. He had meant to go over a guest list with Heather last week. However, she had been a little under the weather after coming down with a slight cold. She was feeling better now but was trying to play catch-up with that science project.
"I'll double-check with Heather to determine the number of friends coming. It'll be less than twenty, I would think."
Michelle nodded. "Here are some other choices I'd suggest, because they're usually big hits. Hamburgers and hot dogs are always popular with teens, and chips are a favorite with practically any kind of dip."
"Everything looks good," Paul said as he scanned the papers.
"My job is to make sure it tastes good, as well. Once you give me the go-ahead, I'll come up with a menu that I think will work and present it to you by the end of the week. And I suggest you do run it by Heather. She'll know what her friends like."
"That sounds wonderful. I've hired Ravine Stokes as party planner. She'll be responsible for working out the music and games."
Michelle smiled. "Ravine is a high-school friend of mine and she and I have worked together on a number of projects. By the time they finish all the activities she'll have lined up for them, they'll be ready to eat. And I'll make sure they have lots of snack foods when they first arrive. I'd like to drop off some sample treats tomorrow."
"You don't have to do that. You came highly recommended by both Ravine Stokes and Amy Poole. And I understand Ms. Amy's word is gospel in this town."
Michelle chuckled as she stood. In a way, she was grateful the meeting with Paul was coming to an end. She found it hard sharing the same space with him. "It is. Ms. Amy has been around forever and has made herself a spokesperson for the town's welcoming committee."
He was about to open his mouth and say something when his brows drew together in a worried frown and he quickly got to his feet. "Heather! Baby, what's wrong?"
Michelle turned in time to see his daughter stumble into the room, gasping for breath. Michelle immediately recognized the signs of an asthma attack, since she had suffered from a number of them throughout her childhood. She rushed out of her seat and made it to Heather's side the same time her dad did.
"Get her inhaler," she ordered, starting to loosen Heather's blouse.
"What?" Paul asked in a frantic voice as he helped his daughter to the sofa. "She doesn't have an inhaler. She hasn't had an asthma attack in years, not since she was around five. She outgrew her asthma."
Michelle glanced up at him. It was obvious he didn't know that a person didn't outgrow asthma. "Grab my purse." She pointed to the chair where she'd been sitting. "We can use my inhaler."
For a split second she could sense Paul Castle-wood's hesitation, and then, as if he'd decided to trust her with his daughter's life, he did as she asked. Michelle continued to hold the young woman, who was still fighting for breath.
"Everything is going to be fine, Heather," she said softly. This attack was relatively mild compared to others she'd seen. Her own, when she did have them, tended to be more severe. But Michelle knew mild attacks could quickly become life threatening, and was taking no chances.
"Here." Paul thrust her purse into her hands. She pulled out her inhaler and immediately sprayed four puffs into the air. It was now primed and ready to deliver a full dose. "Relax, Heather. Try breathing out gently. We need to empty your lungs as much as possible."
Luckily, the teen was calm enough to follow orders.
"That's right," Michelle said, putting the inhaler in place. "Now I want you to start breathing in slowly and as deeply as you can."
"I don't understand," Paul said. "Heather doesn't have asthma. Why is she having an attack?"
It wasn't until then that Michelle realized just how close he was standing beside her. She turned her head and looked directly into his eyes. "It's quite obvious, Paul. She does have asthma."
His expression was one of disbelief. "But that's not possible. Like I said before, she had asthma as a child but over the years she's outgrown it."
Michelle shook her head. "You never outgrow asthma. It stays with you for life. Symptoms may go away for long periods of time and then come back when something triggers it again, like right now."
"Something like what?"
Michelle quickly assessed Heather. The girl was breathing more deeply now, though she still looked frightened. Michelle gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze before turning back to Paul.
"Several things. Pollution, changes in the weather, allergies, colds or flulike symptoms, and-"
"She had a cold last week. But she's had them in the past and this has never happened. That doesn't make sense."
Michelle wished she could explain to him that nothing about asthma really made sense. It was a condition that affected more than fifteen million people in North America, and was the primary reason for most hospital stays. One good thing was that it could usually be controlled enough that a person could live a normal and active life.as she was trying to do.