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What A Man's Gotta Do
By Karen Templeton
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEddie King never had understood what it was about him that seemed to shake people up. Not that the pregnant lady frowning at his r�sum� on the other side of the cluttered, pockmarked desk seemed particularly shook up, exactly. But Eddie was hard-pressed not to notice that Galen Farentino hadn't yet quite looked him straight in the eye, either, even though she was the one doing the hiring.
He supposed a lot of people thought he was a bit on the eccentric side, if not at least worth keeping one eye on. For one thing, old Levi's and cowboy boots didn't fit most folks' expectations of what a five-star-quality chef was supposed to look like. Then when you factored in his refusal to get riled up about much, his preference for keeping to himself, the way he kept flitting from job to job after all these years ... hell, in somebody else's shoes, he'd probably keep one eye on him, too.
Eddie linked his hands over his stomach, thinking how much the cramped office tucked behind the restaurant kitchen still looked pretty much like it had two decades ago. His peripheral vision caught the photo on one corner of the desk, a wedding shot of his prospective employer and some huge, dark-haired man in a tux. One of the man's arms possessively encircled hisbride's waist, while the other supported a tiny blond girl on his hip. All three of 'em wore sappy grins.
Eddie glanced away, like the picture hurt his eyes.
He idly scratched his prickly cheek, thinking he needed a shave, bad, after that long drive from Florida. It was crazy, coming all the way up here when this job wasn't even in the bag yet. And why he'd been led to come back to Spruce Lake, he'd never know. Molly and Jervis had both passed away years ago, so it wasn't like he had any real ties to the place. And anyway, Eddie usually steered clear of small towns, much preferring the anonymity of the big city. But that ad in the trade rag on his former boss's desk had just kinda leapt out at him, and since the thought of spending the winter someplace where they actually had winter was not altogether unattractive, he'd figured what the hell. Since it'd been years since he'd applied for a job he hadn't gotten, he wasn't too worried about getting this one. And if he didn't? No big deal. He'd just move on.
He was real used to moving on.
"Your references are very impressive, Mr. King," the redhead now said, more to his r�sum� than to him. He guessed her to be around his age, but she mustn't've been in Spruce Lake back then, since he didn't recognize her. Then she looked up, reluctantly almost, her face not much darker than that white turtleneck sweater she had on underneath her denim maternity jumper. She'd said on the phone that both her doctor and her husband had ordered her to go easy for the remainder of her pregnancy, and that she then intended to take at least six, possibly eight, weeks maternity leave after that. So the job would last four, five months at the outside. Which suited Eddie fine.
As if reading his mind, she said, "I couldn't help but notice you've worked in -" she glanced again at the r�sum�, then back at him " - eight different states in nine years."
"Yes, ma'am, that's true."
Her head tilted. "Yet every reference I contacted said they were sorry to see you go. In fact, the owner of La Greque in New Orleans told me he offered you quite a handsome salary to stay on."
"He sure did." Galen's eyebrows lifted, encouraging an explanation. Eddie shifted in the same seventies-era molded plastic chair his butt had warmed during more than one lecture all those years ago. "They were all temporary jobs, ma'am. Fill-ins, just like this one. Which is the way I like it, seeings as I don't like getting tied down to one kind of cooking for too long."
The phone rang, cutting off further interrogation. Galen mouthed a "sorry" and took the call. Eddie crossed his ankle at the knee in the don't-give-a-damn pose that Al Jackson, Eddie's septuagenarian boss back when this had still been the Spruce Lake Diner, had seen straight through. An odd, rusty emotion whimpered way in the back of Eddie's brain; he frowned slightly at the scuffed heel of his boot, concentrating instead on the early season snow snicking arrhythmically against the office's tiny, high-set window. He hadn't mentioned his former ties to the place to his prospective employer - what would be the point? - but now that he was here, this odd, unsettled feeling kept nagging at him, like maybe there were answers here to questions he'd never bothered to ask before. Never wanted to.
Galen hung up the phone, picked up a pen and started twiddling with it. Her plain gold wedding band glinted in the flat light. "If I hire you, can I trust you won't leave me high and dry?"
He kept his gaze steady, almost sighing in exasperation as a telltale blush swept up the woman's cheeks. All he was doing was looking at her, for God's sake. And if it was one thing Al had drummed into him, it was that if you want respect - if you want folks to take you seriously - you had to look them in the eye when you talked to them, a philosophy only reinforced by four years in the Marines. "I may not be in the market for anything permanent, ma'am, but I don't leave people in the lurch. I'll stay as long as you need me to."
After a moment, she apparently decided to believe him. "Glad to hear it," she said, then awkwardly pushed herself up from her chair. Eddie stood as well, ducking underneath the still too-small door frame as he followed the woman back out into the immaculate kitchen, where a half-dozen assistants were preparing for the evening rush. The restaurant/pizzeria had taken over the building next door as well, making Galen's twice the size of the original diner, but the kitchen didn't look much different than it had. Oh, some of the equipment had been updated - a bigger, fancier stove, a pair of new Sub-Zero refrigerators - but otherwise, it, too, was just like he remembered. A shudder of d�j� vu traipsed up his spine; it was right here that an old man had cared enough to show a displaced Southern boy with a two-ton chip on his shoulder how to channel all that resentment into making apple pie and hamburgers and beef stew and real milk shakes.
To do something with his life, instead of bitchin' about it.
He realized Galen was looking at him, her smile slightly apologetic. "You know, we don't have to do this right now," she said. "I mean, you probably want to find someplace to stay first, get settled in?"
Eddie shoved back his open denim jacket to hook his thumbs in his pockets. "Already did that, as a matter of fact. Got a room in a motel right outside of town. Figure I'll look for a furnished apartment or something, once you hire me." When she didn't take the bait, he added, "I can cook in my sleep, ma'am. So now's as good a time as any."
"Well, if you're sure ..."
"Okay, then. Well, we agreed on three dishes, right? Your choice, except that one of them needs to pretty standard - red spaghetti sauce, lasagna, ravioli, something like that. I don't care about the others, as long as they're Italian. If they pass muster -"
" - if they pass muster," Galen repeated, "you can start tomorrow."
Eddie stuck out his hand, quickly shook Galen's. "Deal," he said, then shrugged off his jacket, shoved up his sweater sleeves and slipped into the only world he trusted.
* * *
This morning, it had been nearly sixty and sunny. Now, at four-thirty, it was barely above freezing, and had been spitting snow for two hours already. And Mala Koleski, whose thirty-seven-year-old body's themostat didn't take kindly to sudden temperature changes, was freezing her hiney off. She wished.
"Come on, guys," she said through chattering teeth as she hustled the kids down her mother's ice-glazed walk and into Whitey, her ten-year-old Ford Escort, blinking against the tiny snow pellets needling her face. She usually tried to meet the school bus herself in the afternoons - a definite advantage to working from home - but it had taken her far longer than she'd expected to unearth last month's receivables from the garden center's new computer program after one of their employees decided to be "helpful." So now she was running late. And freezing to death. And grateful she'd gotten away from her mother's before the woman could scrutinize her for signs of physical and emotional decay.
"I need to stop at the restaurant for a sec," she said, yanking open the back door, "then we've got to get home or else there's gonna be a couple nekkid Pilgrims in the school play tonight. For God's sake, Carrie - button your coat!"
"I'm not cold," her seven-year-old daughter announced through a toothless gap as Mala practically shoved them both into the back seat.
"Why can't I sit up front?" Lucas whined.
"B-because it's not safe," she said to Lucas, clutching her sweater-coat to her chest. Her nipples were so rigid, they stung.
"Carrie. Now. Button up."
Underneath a froth of snow-kissed, coppery curls, a pair of big blue eyes blinked back at her. "No."
Excerpted from What A Man's Gotta Do by Karen Templeton Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.