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When he'd come to Thunder Canyon five months ago looking for his biological parents, Shane Roarke never expected to find out that his father was in jail for stealing from the town. So far his mother's identity was still a mystery, but maybe that was for the best. Did he really want to meet the woman who'd shown the bad judgment to hook up with a criminal? And what did that say about his own DNA?
He'd arrived a city-slicker chef with a list of questions about who he was. Now he had half the answers and a lot to lose if anyone else found out. The information and what to do about it weighed heavy on his mind.
In June he'd taken the executive chef position at The Gallatin Room, the fine-dining restaurant at Thunder Canyon Resort. With successful restaurants in L.A., New York and Seattle it had been a career step-down, but necessary for personal reasons. Now he was the definition of a man in conflictpart of him wished he'd never come, while the other part really liked this town. "Oh, you're still here"
Shane looked up from the glass of wine in front of him to the redhead who'd just walked into his kitchen. Gianna Garrison was a waitress and part-time bartender on his staff. In the big cities where he'd worked his name had been linked to models, actresses and celebrities, but he'd never seen a more beautiful woman than the one in front of him now, looking like a deer caught in headlights.
"I'm still here," he agreed.
"Like the captain of a ship."
"The last to leave." He smiled.
Gianna was wearing the black slacks and long-sleeved white shirt all the waitresses wore but it looked better on her. The tucked-in blouse accentuated breasts, not too big or too small, which only left just right. Her waist was trim, her legs slim and that curly, shoulder-length red hair always got his attention even from across a crowded room. Close-up was even better.
"Sorry to bother you." She started to back out of the room. "I'll just be going."
She wasn't bothering him. In fact she'd done him a favor. Shane realized the last thing he wanted was to be alone with his dark thoughts.
"Wait. We were a waitress short tonight." Pretty lame stating the obvious, but he'd just switched mental gears and it was the best he could come up with to stop her from leaving.
"Yeah, Bonnie has a bad cold. Coughing, sneezing and breathing germs on that party of ski executives from Switzerland seemed counterproductive to the goal."
Shane nodded. "Convincing them that Thunder Canyon has the snow, slopes and service to make it a winter vacation destination for Europeans."
"Right. And have you seen any of those movies on the flu pandemic and how disease spreads? We wouldn't want Thunder Canyon identified as ground zero by the Centers for Disease Control. The Swiss would probably hear about it."
"That wouldn't be good. Bonnie was wise to call herself off."
The humor sparkling in her eyes made them almost turquoise. He hadn't noticed that before, which wasn't surprising. Between work, looking for his birth parents and feeling guilty about it on account of his real parents who loved him unconditionally, he'd been a little preoccupied. Now she was only a couple of feet away and he noticed that her eyes were wide and beautiful, like the Caribbean Ocean. If he wasn't careful, he could drown in them.
"So one waitress less means you worked twice as hard," he said.
She lifted one shoulder in a no-big-deal gesture. "I just moved faster, smiled more and dazzled them with the Garrison wit, hoping they had no idea it was taking just a little longer to get their orders delivered. The complimentary bottle of wine you sent over to the table didn't hurt, either. By the way, they raved about the food and seemed surprised. You'd think the invention of Swiss cheese entitled them to culinary domination of the universe."
"I'm guessing you didn't say that to them."
"No." She grinned.
"The head of the delegation complimented me on the food and service before they left. He promised me maximum stars, diamonds, happy faces, thumbs-up, however they designate their rating. Without you I couldn't have pulled that off, Gianna."
Her wit wasn't the only thing about her that dazzled. When she smiled, her face lit up like the town square decorated for Christmas. "I'm flattered you noticed."
"I make it my business to notice. It crossed my mind to come out to help serve, but I couldn't get away."
"Cooking is what you do. Delivering what you cook is my job."
"There's more to it than that. Even when the food is good it's not always easy to keep the customer happy. But you make it look easy. Tonight you did a fantastic job."
"I just handled it," she said modestly.
"You always do. You're one of my best waitresses. Thanks for all your hard work. I appreciate it very much."
"No problem. It's what you pay me for but it's nice to hear you say it." Gianna backed up a little more. "I'll just be going now."
No, he thought. Her dazzle kept the dark away and he wasn't ready for it to come back yet. He wanted her to stay. Saying that straight out might make her nervous, think he was hitting on her. That wasn't his intention. The pleasure of her company was his only goal; the question was how to achieve it.
All Shane could come up with was a delaying tactic. "Did you want something?"
"Why do you ask?"
"You came in the kitchen."
"Oh, that. It's just, you know" Her shrug did interesting things to her breasts. "Tonight's special looked and smelled amazing so
"You're hungry." Of course. What other reason would she have for coming here when her shift was over. After a mental forehead slap, he said, "Doing the work of two people didn't leave time for a dinner break."
"It's my own fault. I missed the staff meal before service started. I'll just grab something on the way home."
"No." He stood and walked over to her. "The least I can do is feed you. And there will be a glass of wine involved."
"Don't make a mess on my account. The dishwasher and prep crew already cleaned up."
"But I'm the boss. I have a nice Pino Grigio already uncorked and it pairs well with the spinach and crab ravioli." He led her to the stool he'd just vacated then pressed gently on her shoulders, urging her to sit. The slight touch ignited a need in his belly and the instinct to pull her against him was unexpectedly powerful.
It was his business to notice workflow in the restaurant and he had. Just because it wasn't his job to be attracted to someone working the flow didn't make the attraction any less real. But he still wasn't hitting on her. This was just a gesture. A happy staff didn't quit and contented workers kept things running smoothly. Training a new waitress was time consuming and costly.
"I was going to have something myself. Please join me."
"Okay, then. Thanks." She rested her heel on the metal rung of the stool and crossed one leg over the other.
The movement was graceful, sexy, and it was an effort to pull his gaze away. On his first day at The Gallatin Room, Gianna Garrison had caught his eye, but for professional and personal reasons he'd resisted the impulse to act on the temptation. Until tonight.
Just before Thanksgiving he'd received conclusive proof that Arthur Swinton, the most hated man in Thunder Canyon, was his biological father. The information had weighed on him over the last couple of days and he was low on willpower. That was the best explanation he could come up with for this lapse in professional judgment. It was time to do his chef thing and take his mind off other things.
While he worked assembling plates, warming food, pouring wine, Gianna chattered away. He let her, liking the sound of her voice, the warm honey with just a hint of gravel. Then something she said tapped into his dark mood again.
"The Thanksgiving dinner you prepared last week for military families was amazing. Everyone in town is talking about it. Angie Anderson and Forrest Traub told me how thrilled the families were, how special and appreciated they felt for their loved ones' sacrifices."
He'd been more preoccupied than usual since that night. People had looked at him like he walked on water and he felt like a fraud. How could he be a walk on water type when Arthur Swinton was his biological father? The man had been convicted and sent to jail for embezzling public funds. Not only that, he'd perpetrated a conspiracy to ruin the Traubs, one of the most prominent families in town. If there was someone who didn't hate Swinton, Shane hadn't met them yet.
Gianna smiled at him. "They said it really helped because of missing their loved ones overseas so much, especially around the holidays."
"I know something about missing family," Shane whispered.
"What's that?" she asked.
He slid hot food onto two plates, then looked over his shoulder. "You're missing something if you don't eat this while it's hot."
"It looks wonderful and smells even better."
He put the two steaming plates on the stainless-steel countertop, then pulled up another stool and sat at a right angle to her. "Dig in."
"Okay." After she did, her gaze met his. "This is sinfully good. I don't even want to think about the calories."
"It's a little-known fact that when you do the work of two people calories don't count."
"Thank goodness. Because this tastes even better than it smells and it smells very fattening." She licked a drop of white wine sauce from her lower lip.
For a second, Shane thought he was going to choke on his own food. The look on her face was the most unconsciously erotic thing he'd ever seen.
A sip of wine kick-started his brain again and he managed to say, "I'm glad you like it."
The words almost made him wince. He had a reputation for being charming but tonight he wouldn't win any awards for witty repartee. It was a miracle that she didn't make an excuse and run for the hills.
"How do you like Thunder Canyon?" She took another bite and chewed.
"Actually, I love it."
"Seriously?" She stared at him as if he had two heads. "Cross my heart. If it's not at the top of my list, it's very close."
"But you've been all over the world, no?"
"Where did you go to culinary school?"
"Does that mean you could tell me but you'd have to kill me?" The corners of her full mouth turned up.
"The Culinary Institute of America. Hyde Park, New York. About two hours from Manhattan."
He nodded. "I got a degree in Culinary Arts management because I always wanted to open my own restaurant. But I went to Paris to learn baking and pastry arts. I've traveled to Italy and Greece to experience various cooking techniques like liquid nitrogen chilling, and experience different cuisines. CIA also has a campus in Napa where they specialize in a different area of food preparation and wine pairing."
"So you've got a well-rounded culinary education."
"Yes. My parents are well-to-do. I didn't have to worry about student loans and could indulge every aspect of my curiosity about business trends and cutting-edge themes in the food-service industry."
Her eyes filled with a little wonder and a lot of envy. "That sounds so exciting. How can the town square in Thunder Canyon, Montana, compare to the Eiffel Tower? The Louvre? Theeverythingof France?"
"Paris is something to see. No question. But it's not fair to compare places in the world. The favorites just speak to your heart."
"And Thunder Canyon speaks to yours?"
"Yes." It was true, but she probably thought he was a poetic idiot.
He didn't understand his instant connection to this small town in Montana so far off the beaten path. It crossed his mind that the answer could be in his DNA, but that didn't make sense. Not really. Arthur Swinton was a greedy opportunist who only cared about himself and that had nothing to do with the place that filled up his son's soul.
"I'd like to hear about you," he said. "Are you from here?"
"Born and raised. My mother, father, sister and her family are still here." She put the fork down on her empty plate. "After getting a business degree, I went to New York."
"And?" He poured a little more wine in her glass. "What did you do there?"
"I opened a travel agency."
"So, you took a bite out of the Big Apple." Brave girl. He was impressed. His first business venture had been close to home in L.A. She jumped right into the big time. "Apparently I'm not the only one who's been all over the world."
She lifted her shoulder, a noncommittal gesture. "I was pretty busy getting the company off the ground."
"It's a lot of work, but incredibly exciting turning a dream into reality."
"Speaking of reality," she said, clearly intending to change the subject. "You certainly turned your appearance on that reality cooking showIf You Can't Stand the Heatinto culinary success."
"I was lucky."
"Oh, please. If you call talent, charm, good looks and a clever way with a wooden spoon luck, then I'm the Duchess of Cambridge."
He laughed. "So you think I'm not hard on the eyes?"
"Are you kidding? You're gorgeous." She looked a little surprised that the words had come out of her mouth. "But, for the record, really? That was your takeaway from what I just said?"
It was better than wondering where his looks had come from. "Beauty is as beauty does."
"What does that even mean?"
"You got me. Do you have someone running the travel agency?" Which begged another question. "Why are you here in Thunder Canyon?"
"Personal reasons." The sparkle disappeared from her eyes and she frowned before quickly adding, "I'm only here for a little while. Not much longer."
Shane understood personal reasons and the reluctance to talk about them so he didn't ask further. "Are you anxious to get back?"
"Who wouldn't be?" She took the stem of her wineglass and turned it. "There's a rumor that your contract here at The Gallatin Room is only six months."
"Yeah." He'd thought that would give him enough time to find out what he wanted to know, but he'd only found out half of it. Now the question was whether or not to keep going and what to do with the information he already had. "So it seems both of us have a time limit here in town."
It was weird, probably part of the pathetic, poetic streak kicking in tonight, but talking to her had made him realize that since coming here he'd been a loner. And suddenly he was lonely. But the last thing he needed in his life was a long-term romantic complication. She was beautiful, funny and smart. He wanted to see her again and she wasn't staying in town. That made her the perfect woman.
"I guess you could say I have a time limit here," she agreed.
"Then we shouldn't waste any time. Have dinner with me."
She looked at his empty plate. "Didn't we just do that?"
"Sassy." He grinned and added that to her list of attributes. "I meant something away from work. Monday is the only day the restaurant is closed and every place within a twenty-mile radius is, too. How about I cook for you at my condo? It's not far, here on the resort grounds."
"I know. But"
"It's just a home-cooked meal. How does six-thirty sound?"
"I don't know" Her expression said she was struggling with an answer.
That's when he gave her the grin that reality show enthusiasts had called his secret ingredient. "Doing double-duty tonight deserves a double thank-you."
"When you put it that way. How can I say no?"
"Good. I look forward to it."