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"You can't quit, Pr—" Corrine Sweetwater started to say "Private" but caught herself an instant before the word slipped out.
She wasn't a warrant officer anymore, and the young man with tattoos covering his arms, neck and forehead wasn't her subordinate. Too bad. A few days on garbage detail might improve his attitude.
"The hell I can't." Danny or Donny or Johnny or whatever his name was stormed out of the kitchen.
Her assistant cook, Gerrie, removed a steaming pan of lasagna from the top rack of an oversize convection oven. Closing the door with her hip, she hummed "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen.
Corrine had just lost her second dishwasher in as many weeks. Her third since arriving at Bear Creek Ranch, the guest resort owned by her family.
But who was counting?
Apparently Pat, the cook's helper and relief busgirl, was. "What's that make now? Three?"
In Corrine's opinion, Pat needed to get a hobby. "Have you cut up the salad greens?"
Corrine stood, waiting out of a habit she couldn't seem to break for a "ma'am" to follow that answer. It didn't come.
How long until she stopped expecting her subordinates— make that staff—to snap to attention when she entered the kitchen? Stopped thinking of her cousin, Jake Tucker, the manager of Bear Creek Ranch, as her commanding officer? Stopped demanding complete and unquestioning obedience from her dishwashers?
Seven weeks obviously wasn't long enough for her to adjust to civilian life.
"What are you going to do?" Gerrie asked, the barest hint of snideness in her voice.
Like the six, down from seven, coworkers busy at their various stations, Corrine's assistant cook had been employed here for a number of years. Their long-standing service to the Tucker family was probably the reason they hadn't followed Danny or Donny out the door. It certainly wasn't because they liked Corrine or, as Gerrie had put it when she didn't think Corrine was listening, her "anal retentive micromanaging."
"I'll figure something out." She finished wrapping the last of forty loaves of garlic bread in aluminum foil, and stacked it on a tray alongside the others. "Any of you interested in a little overtime?"
The excuses chimed one after another, sounding a lot like grade-schoolers' responses to attendance call.
"Figuring something out" would probably entail her working until midnight again—alone, unless she roped one of her sisters, parents or extended family into helping. They were getting tired of her asking—she could see it in their faces— and they no doubt wondered how Corrine had managed to feed thousands of soldiers, often under extreme conditions, but couldn't run a small kitchen with a staff of ten.
She wondered the same thing herself.
"Employees aren't soldiers," Jake had gently reminded her more than once. "And what motivates them to do a good job is different than what you're used to. If you want to win them over, you're going to have to modify your techniques."
And therein lay the problem. Corrine might have been honorably discharged after eight years of exemplary service, preceded by four years in the ROTC, but in her heart, she was still a member of the U.S. Army Corps and probably always would be. She'd lived a large part of her life in a world where orders were obeyed without question, and certainly without attitude. Respect was automatically given to anyone of higher rank. Duty and responsibility were placed above all else.
It was a world she liked and missed.
Jake was right when he said employees weren't soldiers. But Corrine didn't think expecting them to do the job and do it well was out of line.
A buzzing timer, signaling that the cherry cobbler was done, snapped her back to the moment. "Luke, go get the vanilla ice cream."
The lanky eighteen-year-old shuffled toward the walk-in freezer.
Gerrie mouthed to Pat, "She could ask nice," then blushed and averted her head when she realized Corrine had been watching.
Luke emerged a moment later toting a twenty-gallon tub of ice cream. He dumped it on the closest counter. "This is only a third full, and it's all we got."
"What do you mean? I ordered a new shipment last week. It was supposed to be here yesterday!"
"Guess it didn't come." Luke shrugged.
"Gerrie." Corrine whirled on her assistant cook. "Didn't you follow up like I told you?"
"Yeah." The other woman's defenses visibly shot up. "They said there was a snag and to expect delivery today."
"Well, it's today. Five in the afternoon to be exact, and there's no ice cream." Corrine pressed both hands to her head. "We have two hundred guests expecting cherry cobbler à la mode, and enough ice cream for maybe fifty of them." Her gaze landed on Gerrie. Hard. "What happened?"
"I…forgot. I'm sorry," she answered in a voice that shook. With chagrin? Embarrassment?
More likely anger, thought Corrine.
"Don't let it happen again," she said with a calm she didn't feel. The slip was inexcusable and deserved a reprimand. She didn't give it, however. She couldn't afford to have another employee walk out. Not today. "How much whipping cream do we have?"
"Enough for the cobbler." Gerrie had regained her composure.
"Snap to it."
A second employee jumped in to help.
Corrine opened the oven, squeezing her eyes shut against a blast of hot air, and put in a dozen loaves of the garlic bread. She chided herself for the tiny twinge of remorse she felt over her treatment of Gerrie. Her assistant cook had failed at her task. Not only had she forgotten to follow up with the late delivery, she hadn't told Corrine about it.
Two strikes. In the army…
Employees aren't soldiers.
Corrine swallowed the painful lump that had formed unexpectedly in the back of her throat. She refused to cry. Not here. Not now. Not in front of the employees. Forget her pride; this dinner was too important.
The Tuckers were welcoming a special guest tonight, someone who would be staying with them for six weeks over the summer: Greg Pfitser, professional fisherman, bestselling author and star of the hit cable TV show Fishing with Pfitser.
Bear Creek, which ran through the three hundred acre ranch, offered some of the best trout fishing in Arizona, if not the entire southwestern United States. It was stocked from nearby hatcheries and fed by mountain springs, and record-breaking rainbows and Apaches were pulled from its waters on a regular basis, making the ranch a favorite recreation spot for amateur and professional fishermen alike.
Personally, Corrine wasn't all that impressed with their celebrity guest, but the trout-fishing tournament he was hosting in early August would give the ranch a much-needed boost. Twelve years away hadn't diminished her love for her family, and Corrine would do almost anything for them, including biting her tongue.
"Hey, there's a dog in here!" Luke appeared in the pantry doorway, a fifty pound sack of sugar in his arms.
"A dog?" several people echoed.
"It's in the garbage."
Corrine flew across the kitchen, following the same winding path she'd taken earlier. "How the heck did it get in here?"
"Dimitri must have left the door open."
"The guy who just quit."
"Yeah, right." Dimitri? Where had she gotten the name Donny?
Corrine reached the pantry and came to a halt. She stared at the floor, horrified. There was a dog in her kitchen. At least, she thought it was a dog. A stubby tail attached to a pair of short black-and-white legs stuck out from a spilled bag of trash. A bag that should not have been left by the back door to be tripped over or ransacked by small scavengers.
"Where'd it come from?" one of the helpers asked.
"I don't know." Because of the danger from wild animals that occasionally wandered into the ranch, or the possibility of being kicked or trampled by one of the horses, guests weren't allowed to have pets in their cabins. "It must be a stray."
"A hungry stray." Luke dumped the sack of sugar on the nearest counter.
"Hey," Corrine said sternly to the dog's backside. "Get out of there."
The stubby tail wagged in response.
"Luke, grab him."
"We can't have a dog in the kitchen. The health department will shut us down."
"I ain't grabbing no strange dog. What if it bites me?"
Corrine was about to rephrase her order with more authority when Jake's gently delivered advice came back to her. If the dog did indeed bite Luke, there would be more than a workmen's compensation claim to pay. He could sue the ranch, the Tuckers and Corrine.
Definitely not the army anymore.
"Fine. I'll do it."
She reached down, clasped the dog by its middle and pulled. The animal's toenails scraped across the linoleum floor as she did, raising the hairs on the back of her neck. Fortunately, it didn't seem inclined to bite. How could it with a plastic bread bag halfway down its throat?
"Don't eat that." With one hand on the dog's collar—it definitely wasn't a stray—Corrine ripped the bag from its mouth. "You'll choke and die."
In a flash, the dog twisted around and went for her hand— to lick, not bite. She couldn't resist and gave its head a good scratching. Until she'd left for college, she and her three sisters had always owned a dog or two and a couple of cats.
"That's one ugly dog," Luke said, with more emotion than Corrine had heard him display in all the time they'd worked together.
She had to agree. Rounded mouse ears sat atop a wide, squished-in face with loose, floppy lips and bulging eyes. The dog opened its mouth to pant, and a huge pink tongue fell out the side.
"I think it's kind of cute," another helper said.
"All right, people, back to work. We have a dinner to serve in fifteen minutes."
The staff returned to their tasks, and Corrine bent to lift the dog, intending to shut it in the employee restroom and then phone maintenance. One problem. It didn't want to go, not when there was more trash to investigate. While she attempted to get a solid hold around its middle, the animal nosed through broken eggshells and an empty half-gallon can of cherry pie filling.
"Don't your owners ever feed you?"
She had its back legs suspended in midair when the door to the kitchen banged opened. Corrine wasn't sure which of them, her or the dog, jumped higher.
"I see her," called a high-pitched voice. "She's in here."
"Hurry," said a second voice.
From the sound of the pounding footsteps, Corrine guessed that young children were about to converge on the kitchen. Great. What else could go wrong today?
She grunted and stood, the squirming, licking dog locked firmly in her grip. With a sense of triumph, she spun, ready to deliver a tirade to the careless juvenile owners about dogs on the ranch. The words died on her lips.
The children, two bright-eyed, grinning cherubs, weren't alone. A man was with them. A very tall man. Corrine had to tip her head back to get a good look at him.
"I see you found Belle," he said with the laziest, sexiest drawl she'd ever heard.
Not since her sophomore year in high school had a member of the opposite sex disarmed Corrine. Handsome faces and broad shoulders didn't impress her. She'd seen plenty of them in the army and knew what was inside a man counted for a whole lot more, especially if lives were in the balance.
She handed the wiggling dog to its young owners. "Belle?" she asked.
"It's French for beautiful." Matching dimples cut into the man's ruggedly chiseled cheeks. A lock of dark, wavy hair refused to lie flat and fell charmingly over twinkling brown eyes.
"Which confuses me. Don't take this wrong, but your dog is ugly."
"Not to everyone."
Corrine's gaze went to the children, who were obviously overjoyed at being reunited with their pet and just as obviously indifferent to its Peter Lorre-like features.
"And, since she's a French bulldog," the man added, "the name fit."
Did he ever stop smiling?
Corrine's shield, the one she'd honed long before joining the army, dropped into place. "I'm sorry to inform you, but guests aren't allowed to have dogs on the ranch. You're going to have to keep it—her—in your cabin until you can make other arrangements."
"I do apologize for the mess she made, but here's the thing," he said smoothly. "The owners gave me permission."
"Really?" Corrine drew back. She didn't remember any such exception to ranch rules being raised at the last family business meeting. "And who was that?"
His smile widened rather than diminished, proving that, unlike most people, whether soldier or civilian, he wasn't the least bit intimidated by her. "Jake Tucker and Millie Sweetwater."
Hmm. Corrine's cousin and mother. She'd have to speak to them and find out what was going on.
"Well, I'm one of the owners, too. And I don't remember giving my permission."
"You are? " He took in her disheveled appearance with the same aggravating laziness. "I'm Greg Pfitser," he said, and extended his hand.
The professional fisherman. Their guest of honor at tonight's dinner. The pieces fell suddenly into place. No wonder her family had bent the rules in order to accommodate him.
To her great annoyance, she'd have to bend them, too. Except where her kitchen was concerned.
"Corrine Sweetwater." She accepted his outstretched hand and liked that he returned her grip with equal strength. Weak handshakes, in her opinion, were a sign of weak character. "Welcome to Bear Creek Ranch."
"Thank you." He released her hand only when she gave a slight tug. "Any relation to Millie?"
Corrine didn't like that she needed a moment to collect herself before answering. "Guilty as charged. I'm her daughter. The ranch is family owned and operated."
"These are my kids, Annie and Benjamin."
"Ben," the boy corrected, while craning his neck to avoid slobbery dog kisses.
Corrine looked down at the children. She remembered someone telling her they were twins and…what? Five years old?
"Permission aside, you are going to have to keep the dog on a leash at all times when outside your cabin, and away from public areas. Which includes the kitchen." When they didn't immediately get the message, she clarified, her tone authoritative, "Take the dog outside now."
When they still didn't respond, their father said calmly, "Go on, now."
The twins all but ignored him, apparently more interested in fighting over which of them got to carry the dog outside.
"Hurry," he reiterated, in a tone only marginally firmer.
Through sheer willpower, Corrine kept her mouth shut. Her family wouldn't be happy if she offended their all-important guest by criticizing his parenting skills. Finally, the children left, each carrying one end of the dog.
"Please excuse me," she said, backing away. "We have a dinner to serve." A quick glance told her her staff was nowhere close to being ready. Everyone was too busy gawking at Greg.
Dinner would be late again.
"Will I see you in the dining hall?" His brows lifted inquisitively.