With three successful TV series under her belt, including her cousin Kandy’s, executive producer Stacy Peters is ready to helm her own show. But to make that happen, she has to do her network boss one favor first—spend two months on a ranch in Montana wrangling the notoriously difficult director of Beef Battles. Apparently, he eats producers for breakfast. Yet all Stacy can think when she meets the lean, rugged man is how hungry he makes her . . .
Dominic Stamp—Nikko to his very few friends—has had enough interference from TV newbies. And when Stacy climbs out of the car in Montana, he’s not convinced she’s even old enough to drive, much less produce his show. But he can’t deny that the long-legged blonde with the stubborn will and the dazzling smile whets his appetite. And as Stacy proves her talent with the crew and the budget alike, Nikko vows to prove to her that love is on the menu for both of them . . .
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"I can't believe I let Teddy Davis talk me into this," Stacy Peters mumbled as she riffled through her underwear drawer. "I could be on a tropical beach right now, sipping some exotic, fruity drink, instead of packing for a trip to Hell." She tossed two bras into the open suitcase on her bed.
"I wouldn't classify where you're going as Hell," her cousin, Kandy, said from her perch on the bed. While Stacy threw a few panties haphazardly into the suitcase, Kandy removed and neatly folded them.
"What do you call being stuck on a sweltering, smelly cattle ranch in July with a director who has the temper of an erupting volcano?" Stacy flung open the doors to her closet.
"A strategic career move?"
Stacy's hands stopped in the middle of hauling out a blouse, turned, and frowned at her cousin. "This isn't funny, Kan."
"I know, sweetie, but just think how much Teddy will owe you if you do this for him."
"Oh, he owes me, all right. Big-time. Before I left his office he green-lighted Family Dinners."
One of Kandy's perfectly sculpted eyebrows rose a fraction. "Really? That was fast. I hope you got it in writing."
Stacy moved from her closet back to her dresser and dug through her humongous work purse. "You bet your sweet ass, I did."
She pulled a folded piece of paper from her wallet, opened it, and said, "I had him write and sign this before I agreed to go and had his personal assistant witness and date it. She had a conniption fit. Here," she handed it to her cousin. "Read it."
"I, Theodore Davis, network programming chef for EBS, agree to green-light Family Dinners for Stacy Peters to develop and produce, and give her carte blanche for the hiring of a series director, star, and staff, after she acts as executive producer for the upcoming Beef Battles contest for EBS, under the directorship of Dominick Stamp." Kandy set the paper down on her lap. "Wow. He really does want you in Montana. Director and star choice is yours. That's unheard of even with the most senior of executive producers."
"I know. His assistant was hyperventilating when she read that part, but I pushed hard for it and said I wouldn't go if he didn't agree to it." She rolled a pair of socks, but stopped before throwing them into the suitcase when she spied the folded pile Kandy had made.
Drawing a huge breath, Stacy plopped down next to her cousin. "Tell me I'm not absolutely crazy to be doing this. Please?"
Kandy took the socks and tucked them into the suitcase, then tossed an arm around her cousin's shoulders and squeezed. "You're not crazy, Stace. I think I'd classify what you're doing as a huge step, career-wise."
"Kinda feels like professional suicide to me." She stared down at her empty hands.
With another squeeze, Kandy rubbed her free hand along the younger woman's forearm. "You have been a primary producer before. It's not like you don't know what you're doing. Your track record is exceptional. Teddy knows that and is banking on you. Trust me, it won't be so bad."
"You're not the one who's going to be stuck on some godforsaken prairie for two months with a director who eats television producers as an appetizer, Kandace Sophia."
Ever since Teddy Davis had called her into his office that morning, his cryptic summons telling her he had something that needed her immediate attention, Stacy's stomach had been rolling.
Just a week ago she'd sent him her proposal for a new reality food series she wanted to create and produce called Family Dinners, and had been waiting anxiously for his answer. Her concept, she knew, was sound, had the potential to be a big hit for the network, and was a show that required relatively little in the way of funding. The budget she'd proposed was minor, something she knew the money-conscious programming chief would appreciate.
When Teddy's assistant had called requesting her presence, Stacy had been filled with equal parts joy and dread. To respond to a production idea in such a short time frame meant he was either thrilled with the concept or hated it. When she'd arrived at his office and then been told what he wanted from her first, Stacy had spent a long moment in panicked fear, and then a quick second on devising a plan that would benefit them both.
She hadn't grown up with a successful businessman for a father or a cousin who managed a multimillion-dollar cooking empire and not learned a thing or two about negotiation. When presented with her ultimatum — because that's what it had been — Teddy had, at first, been reluctant to agree. When Stacy insisted, he'd finally acquiesced. She knew it wasn't standard protocol for a show producer to have such a high level of control, especially for a program that hadn't been test-marketed yet. In all honesty, she'd thought he'd tell her to forget it, he would find someone else to go to Montana, and then shove her proposal back into his to be determined box. Stacy couldn't tell who was more surprised when he agreed to her demands: his assistant or her.
"I know Dominick Stamp has a volatile reputation when it comes to his work," Kandy said, "but he really is a top-notch technical director. You're going to learn an awful lot from him."
"If I survive." Stacy sighed.
Kandy laughed again. "You will. Guaranteed."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because, Estella Elizabeth" — Kandy grabbed her hand — "you're a natural survivor. Of all of us, you're the strongest of Sophie's grandkids."
Stacy's mouth flew open in shock.
"You know you are," Kandy said with a nod. "No one. No one I know could have survived what you did and still grown into the amazing, smart, and wonderful woman you are. No one. Of us all, you're the most like Sophie."
Tears threatened behind her eyes. "I can't believe you think that. I've always thought you were the one who was the most like Grandma. In every way."
"I may have gotten the cooking gene," Kandy said, "but you got the backbone. Believe it. Just be your usual efficient, calm, and totally kick-ass self and all will be well in Montana. Now, let's get you packed. What time does your flight leave?"
"Five-thirty. I've got a car coming at four," she added with a swipe at her eyes. "How you get up every day at that god-awful hour is beyond me."
"Years of practice."
An hour and three packed, oversized suitcases later, Kandy gave her cousin a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Text me if you need to vent or be talked off a ledge," she said with a grin. "Use our code word."
With a laugh, Kandy nodded. "Anytime, okay? I'm always available for you."
"I know it, cuz." Stacy squeezed back. "Thanks for everything."
Alone in her apartment, Stacy dragged a hand through her hair. From her mental to-do list she ran through what she needed to still get done before she could crawl into bed so she'd be able to get up and out the door on time.
After throwing out all the food in her refrigerator that stood to spoil for the next eight-plus weeks she'd be gone, she paid her rent online, notified the post office to hold her mail, and emailed her parents to tell them where she'd be for the foreseeable future.
She crawled into bed at 8:30 with the two-inch-thick binder Teddy had given her, detailing all the information she needed to come up to speed on the show she was now in charge of producing.
Beef Battles was slotted as a headliner for the upcoming midseason schedule and the network was betting on it winning its slated Wednesday-night time slot. Ratings were the name of the game in television broadcasting and the EBS network had been slowly growing in popularity ever since Stacy's cousin's show, Cooking with Kandy, had soared to the top of the Nielsen ratings and stayed there three consecutive years. When it ended, Stacy, who'd been Kandy's assistant throughout the run, had been approached by Teddy Davis to act as assistant producer for another of the network's reality shows. That program had been having internal troubles, but with Stacy on board, it had turned around and after one season had climbed up in the ratings.
Knowing he had someone who could get along with any personality and who could remain calm during the most trying of times, Davis had given her another opportunity, this time to executive produce one of the network's most challenging programs, Bake Off. The hosts of the show were continually at personal and professional odds and the series was in danger of being cancelled due to overtime costs. Stacy came in, evaluated and identified the problems, and then turned the once combatant cohosts into on-air besties, pulling the show out of its dull ratings and into the top twenty.
It was during this time Stacy had come up with her own idea for a show and had researched and written her proposal. Now, with confirmation her idea would take off, she snuggled down under the covers and opened the binder.
Within two minutes she bolted upright in bed, fury heating her cheeks.
She reached across her nightstand for her cell phone and was all set to call Teddy and back out of the job when her brain cooled down her emotions, forcing her to take a few deep, cleansing breaths and calm down. He hadn't told her that two producers had already quit before filming even began, citing personality conflicts with the director, or that Dominick Stamp's list of requests had already thrown the proposed budget to hell. And he'd failed to mention, or even hint at, the unusual living arrangements agreed to by the ranch's host in an effort to cut production costs.
Stacy fell back onto her pillows and closed her eyes. Pulling in air through her nose and gently blowing it out through her lips, her pulse slowed, and when her body relaxed again, she opened her eyes.
Grandma Sophie always said if you made a deal with the Devil, there'd be a heavy toll to pay. That statement had just been proven true. If she wanted her own show she had to dance with the Devil, or in this case, Dominick Stamp in Lucifer's guise.
With another heavy sigh, Stacy reopened the binder and read it from beginning to end.
Eighteen hours and two planes later, Stacy exited the jetway at Billings Logan International Airport, tired and cranky. And if the email she'd received from Teddy's assistant was to be believed, she still had a two-hour car ride to get to the ranch. Add in the time-zone difference and Stacy could feel her internal clock begging to be turned off.
A quick escalator ride down to baggage claim found her waiting for the carousel to spit out her luggage.
Stacy positioned herself as close to the metal carousel as she could and was just about to close her dry and tired eyes for a moment when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Turning, she found herself looking into an opened-collared, sun-drenched neck covered by a deep copper colored, long-sleeved shirt. She took a step back and lifted her chin.
"Miss Peters, ma'am?"
Stacy nodded as she stared up into the face of a man a few birthdays younger than her own twenty-nine. A broad and open smile lit the tanned face shaded under a white Stetson. Eyes so pale, Stacy blinked twice before she realized they were blue.
He stuck out his hand and said, "I'm Beau Dixon, Amos's son. I was sent to bring you back to the ranch."
Stacy took the proffered hand, and despite her sudden exhaustion, found enough energy to respond to his open and friendly smile with one of her own. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Dixon."
"Just call me Beau, ma'am. 'Bout everyone does."
Nodding, she said, "And I'm Stacy. Ma'am makes me feel like my grandmother."
His smile widened and he shook his head. "Well, we can't have a pretty little thing like you feeling like that, now, can we?"
The carousel alarm beeped and the metal rotors started their accordion movements, various luggage pieces suddenly rotating around them.
"I've got three bags," she told him.
With a nod, he said, "You just point 'em out and I'll grab 'em."
"I was told it's a two-hour drive from here to your ranch," Stacy said, while he lifted the first piece she indicated.
"Probably more like two and half, three, with this midday traffic. Once we get out of the city proper, though, it'll go fast. Don't you worry."
As soon as all three pieces of her luggage had been obtained — Beau carrying two of them as if they weighed no more than a piece of paper each — he led her out of the building. Dry, hot, and arid air slapped her in the face as soon as they came through the revolving doors.
Get used to it, she told herself. This is what you're stuck with for the next two months.
A luxury town car waited at the curb, its hazard lights flashing.
"I didn't expect to see a car like this out here," she said while he stowed the baggage. Realizing a moment later how elitist that sounded, she added, "I mean, I just figured a truck would be the standard vehicle."
"I left the pickup at the ranch," Beau said, opening her door so she could slip in. He'd left the car running and the cool, refreshing air-conditioning blasting through the dashboard vents was refreshing and welcome. "Daddy thought this would be a more comfortable ride for you than in the cab of my truck."
He pulled them out into traffic and turned to grin at her. "Besides, he never lets me drive this beauty and I leaped at the chance when he offered."
Stacy grinned back. For several minutes he wove them through the busy traffic until they were onto the highway. "If you're tired, you can just lay your head back and take a little snooze," he told her. "I expect with the time difference and the travelin' you're about bushed."
"In all honesty I am, but if I take a nap now, I'll never sleep through the night and tomorrow I'll be even worse. Why don't you tell me about your ranch? I've only been given the basics about it."
There was unmistakable pride in his deep voice when he launched into a speech about the cattle ranch. The cursory description Teddy's assistant had slipped into her binder was adequate enough for her to get a picture of the business. But Beau was a wealth of knowledge about the intricacies involved in running it day to day.
"Now since we're almost into July," he told her after speaking almost nonstop for an hour, "most of our herd is out grazing, getting fat, and just waiting to either be sold or bred."
"Who makes that determination?" Stacy asked, her tired brain now spinning with all the facts and figures he spewed as if he were merely reciting the alphabet.
"My father and our veterinarian, Doc Burns." Beau tossed her a grin she was coming to think he was never without. "He's quite the character. Him and Daddy have been friends since they were boys."
A sound remarkably like a foghorn blasted from him. "Don't know that anyone has ever had the notion to call Cal Burns sweet, but he sure is entertaining."
"My notes say you've got two older brothers and their wives, plus you and your father all living at the main house."
He nodded. "Hopefully pretty soon that number will increase by one."
Something moved across his face while she watched him drive; something eager, expectant, slightly bashful.
"Well, you see, I've been planning —" He stopped and snuck a quick sidelong glance at her before turning his attention back to the empty highway.
He took in a huge breath, pregnant with anticipation and then, after he expelled it, said, "There's this girl. Jessie. Jessica. She's ... we've ... well, she's my girl, see? We've been together since grade school."
"Again, that's just sweet."
"Yeah, well, I'm gonna ask her to marry me."
"Thanks, but it's not a done deal yet. I need a ring. I need to ask her daddy, 'cause she's old-fashioned that way, you know?"
"I do." Stacy smiled. Her heart sighed at the thought of being young, in love, and having a shared future in front of you. Not that she considered herself old, but love wasn't something she'd ever felt for a man. Instead, she'd concentrated on moving in and out of every day, secure in the knowledge she'd made it through another twenty-four hours without the dark and miserable thoughts of her younger years breaking through and overtaking her once again.
It had been a long, hard-fought internal battle against her many demons to get where she was today emotionally, spiritually, and physically and she'd come to terms with the fact a lasting, happily-ever-after wasn't in the cards for her.
Beau pulled the car off the highway.
"We should be at the main house in about fifteen minutes. All this land you see is Dixon land."
Excerpted from "Can't Stand the Heat"
Copyright © 2018 Peggy Jaeger.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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