Secret Ingredient: Love, страница 1
SECRET INGREDIENT: LOVE
by Teresa Southwick
T he way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
As she finished cleaning her kitchen, Fran Carlino thought about the nightly phone call and her mother’s final irritating words. Fran wasn’t looking for the way to a man’s heart. She wasn’t looking for a man. Period.
She turned the light out before flopping in her favorite worn chair in her apartment living room. She was tired. It had been a long day. A trained chef, she was finishing up her contract to develop natural baby food for a national company. That was good. Except it meant that she had to line up something else. Soon. She liked what she did, but freelancing was unstable and insecure—especially when it was time to pay bills.
Consulting was only a temporary divergence, a choice she’d made because she’d learned the hard way how tough the food service business was on a woman. In cooking school, she’d been flattered when the best looking guy picked her to romance. But it turned out that he’d been using her to further his career. He’d only wanted the secret ingredient to a recipe of hers that had impressed the teachers. One bruised, battered and filleted heart later, she had vowed that love was an ingredient that had no place in any kitchen. Or in her life.
Her ultimate goal was a restaurant of her own, where she called the shots.
Pulling out the Sunday classifieds, she flipped through, then stopped at the restaurant listings. After spreading the sheets out on the ottoman in front of her, she grabbed her red pen from the glass-topped table beside her. She started marking the want ads, although nothing very exciting was available.
“That’s okay,” she said to herself. “Something will turn up.”
The doorbell rang, startling her. She wasn’t expecting anyone.
She stood and hurried to the front door, pulling over her step stool to see out the peephole. The man was tall, dark-haired and carrying no weapons that she could see. Must be a salesman. She decided to answer, because it felt rude to ignore someone even if she wasn’t buying what he was selling. And—her father would have used this as an example of why she needed a man to take care of her—he was wearing wire-rimmed glasses.
She got off her stool and opened the door as wide as the latched chain would let her. In spite of what her father thought, she wasn’t a complete airhead just by virtue of being a woman. “Yes?”
“Fran Carlino?” the stranger asked.
“I’d like to talk to you.”
“That’s what all the serial killers say,” she an swered. “Or salesmen. I’ll cut to the chase, the part where I tell you I’m not interested in what you’re selling. And I don’t want to waste your time when you could be talking to someone who is interested. Goodbye,” she said, closing the door.
He stuck his foot in the way. “Wait. I’m not a salesman. I have something to give you.”
“Like I said, that’s what they all say.” She met his gaze. “Now let me close my door or I’ll—”
“I’m Alex Marchetti.”
“Good for you.” The name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it.
In her narrowed field of vision, he held out a paper shopping bag from a well-known department store. “My sister, Rosie Schafer, asked me to return these jars.”
Rosie was her bookstore-owner friend who was test-marketing her baby food on her daughter, Stephanie. Her son, Joey, was still nursing. Rosie had mentioned her brothers, but she’d never said a word about how good-looking this one was. Fran was about to remove the chain from her door when that last thought stopped her. The phrase “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” flashed through her mind. Alex was Italian and holding baby food jars, but the same warning applied.
“You didn’t have to bring them to me,” she said. “I told Rosie I’d stop by the store to pick them up.”
“Technically, I haven’t actually given them to you. If you’ll open up, I could do that.”
“Just leave the bag in front of the door,” she said. Fran couldn’t decide whether to curse or bless her father for the years of cynicism conditioning that was now second nature to her. Her own unfortunate expe rience had reenforced his message, making her wary of men. “I’ll get them later.”
“You’re not afraid of me, are you?”
Yes, she thought, but not for the reason he meant.
“How do I know you’re who you say you are?” she asked, stalling.
“Instead of trying to tell you, I’ll go straight for a positive ID and show you.” He pulled out his wallet and handed her his driver’s license through the small opening.
The Department of Motor Vehicles picture definitely matched him, not to mention that it was better than most people took with a professional photographer. But it was hard to miss with such great raw material. The description said he was six feet two, a hundred and ninety pounds, with dark brown hair and brown eyes.
“You’re definitely Alex Marchetti.”
“So are you going to open the door and let me do my good deed? If that’s not enough to convince you, I’ve got a proposition.”
“My father warned me about stuff like that.” About a hundred million times he’d warned her. And where Leonardo Carlino left off, her four brothers began.
“I was referring to a job.”
That piqued her interest. She did remember Rosie saying that her family owned a chain of restaurants. Since she was going to be out of work soon, what did she have to lose?
“Okay. We can talk. But you have to move your foot first.” When he did, she shut the door long enough to unlatch the chain, then swung it wide. “Come in.”
“So talk to me,” she said, shutting the door behind him.
“My sister says you’re a trained chef with a flair for picking just the right ingredient to enhance a recipe,” Alex began. He set the bag of jars down next to the door. “She claims that you can even make Brussels sprouts palatable.”
“I’m proud to say that I haven’t had a baby complain yet,” she quipped.
He grinned and Fran nearly lost her balance. The wattage in his very attractive smile could put a twenty-four-hour-glow in a girl’s heart. Maybe even forty-eight, she thought, absorbing the warmth. Correction: any girl but her. But even she had to admit that he was a walking, talking poster boy for tall, dark and handsome. He made the glasses look macho—sexy, in fact. He even made his wrinkled, pinstriped slacks and rumpled white dress shirt look good. Especially because his long sleeves were rolled up, revealing wide, strong forearms sprinkled with dark hair. It was a look that she was especially vulnerable to. And Alex wore it better than any man she’d ever seen.
Because of her very powerful feminine response to him, she was about to thank him for returning the jars, then politely ask him to leave. But he hadn’t told her about the job yet. “I was just going to have some tea. Would you like a cup? Or are you a coffee kind of guy?”
He followed her through her living room to her small kitchen. The U-shaped work area included a bar. Alex stood on the other side of it while she put on the teakettle. From the corner of her eye, she watched him look around. The Marchettis owned a very successful chain of restaurants. Her small but cozy surroundings had to be a world away from wherever he hung his hat.
He put his hands in his pockets. “My sister tells me that you’re a food consultant. She says the baby food you’ve developed is great. My niece loves it.”
“I have to take her word for that. Unfortunately, I don’t get direct feedback—you’ll pardon the pun—from my little consumers.”
Behind her, Alex cleared his throat. “That you have good taste.”
“How nice of her.” Fran turned around in time to see his lowered gaze size her up from top to bottom. That and the appreciative look in his eyes made her wonder if brother and sister had been discussing food at the time. It also made her heart skip into an escalated rhythm. Setting her sugar on the counter, she said, “Do you concur?”
“I haven’t tasted your cooking,” he said, his voice husky. “But your apartment is charming.”
“Thank you,” she answered, annoyed at the breathless quality that had crept into her own voice without warning. “I tried to give it touches that reflect myself. Why do I get the feeling that Rosie wasn’t talking about food or furnishings when she said I had good taste?”
One dark eyebrow rose. “She didn’t mention how perceptive you are. As a matter of fact, she launched into a Fran Carlino monologue, including that you’re five feet two, but no eyes of blue. Instead they’re…” he met her gaze “…cocoa-brown. Rosie said they’re big and gorgeous, and I’d have to concur. She also said you’re concise, and curvy and cute as a—”
“If you say button, I’m going to have to throw you out,” Fran interrupted.
“Okay. Although she did, and that was when I asked what all of that had to do with your cooking.”
“So she did actually tell you about my cooking.”
He nodded. “She said that the baby food you’re developing is simple and pure, for children prone to allergies. I was just wondering if you’d done anything else?”
“I worked on a line of fat-free muffins. After that I developed recipes for dry soup mix. I also did some frozen vegetable stir-fry, just add beef or chicken.”
“What about preservatives in the baby food?”
“It’s pretty easy to prepare without additives, then freeze. To test-market, I gave it to Rosie in jars, but we’re working on the packaging this week. So far the advance reports are good. The secret is simplicity. I don’t get too free with spices that might be disaster to their immature systems.”
“Sounds like a smart move. Too many sleepless nights with a baby battling indigestion could generate some pretty negative publicity.”
Fran put a cup and saucer on the counter, then added a tea bag. “Do you know a lot about publicity?”
He nodded. “I’m vice president in charge of marketing as well as R and D for Marchetti’s Inc.”
“Research and development,” she said, feeling an “aha” moment coming on. “So there is an actual job? And Rosie really did send you over?”
“Sort of. But it’s more in the category of a double whammy,” he said, without batting an eye.
“Double. As in two. I’m intrigued. What’s whammy number one?” she asked.
“I’m looking for just the right person to oversee my latest research and development plan for Marchetti’s Inc. Rosie tells me you’re an excellent chef.”
“I went to culinary school,” Fran said. “Right now I’m doing freelance work. But you already know that.”
He nodded. “I need a food consultant to develop a line of frozen foods. I want to take the Marchetti’s menu into as many homes across America as possible.”
The teakettle shrilled and she lifted it off the stove, then poured steaming water into her cup. Fran looked at him. “That’s an exciting proposition,” she said.
He nodded. “I intend to carve a niche in frozen foods for the company. Are you aware that it’s a four-billion-dollar-a-year industry?”
No, but she was aware of how incredibly good-looking he was when he turned earnest and intense. “That’s a lot of frozen peas and carrots,” she conceded.
“Exactly. I think the time is optimum to branch out into another venue with the right product. Our father started the first Marchetti’s Restaurant. When he retired, my older brother, Nick, took over the company and expanded it, creating the present restaurant chain. I plan to do the same, just in a different direction.”
She leaned her elbows on the counter between them and rested her chin in her hand. “Second-son syndrome.”
“You’re suffering from second-son syndrome. In the Middle Ages, the first son inherited the castle and son number two played second fiddle, twiddling his thumbs because he had nothing to do. Nick took Marchetti’s into the fast lane and you’re saying, ‘Hey, notice me, too.”’
Alex frowned. “There’s only one thing wrong with that theory.”
“And that would be?”
“I’m the third son.”
“Ah. Any sons after one and two get paid to do nothing. That makes the syndrome twice as acute.”
Why did she feel this absurd desire to tease him? Maybe because he was so serious. A side effect of the glasses. But mostly because she found her almost instant attraction to him disconcerting. Whatever the reason, she couldn’t resist the urge to loosen him up a little.
“Did you say I’m twice as cute?”
Mission accomplished, she thought, watching him struggle to hold back a grin. “No. I said the syndrome is acute times two for son number three. You’re competing with two brothers for approval, affection and your rightful place in the castle dynamics.”
Alex watched as she dunked her tea bag. She wouldn’t blame him if he grabbed it away and stuffed it somewhere. Like in her mouth. This wasn’t the first time her mouth had gotten her into hot water. She had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last, either.
She put her soggy tea bag on her saucer. Then she stirred some sugar into the steaming liquid while she waited for him to respond to her last verbal barb.
“I think your theory is interesting,” he finally said. “And there may be a grain of truth to it.”
“Really?” she asked. She’d expected him to bristle and get angry. Not to semi-agree with her.
“If second-son syndrome means that I want my par ents and brothers to be as proud of me as I am of them, then I’m guilty as charged.”
“Hmm.” She could relate to that. She felt the same way. Only in her case it wasn’t likely to happen. She wrapped her hands around her mug and blew into the steam to cool off the liquid. “Good luck with your goal,” she said.
“Do you have siblings, Fran?”
“Do I have siblings?” She laughed. “Do four older brothers qualify?”
The corners of his very attractive mouth turned up. “No wonder you and Rosie hit it off.”
She nodded. “We did bond over the trials and tribulations of having a father and four stand-in bodyguards.”
“So you’ve been able to observe second-son syndrome firsthand,” he commented.
“Among other things.”
“Like marriage and kids. For women, it’s not much evolved from a feudal society.”
“How do you figure?”
She sipped her tea, then said, “Think about it. The woman works her fingers to the bone fetching for her husband and sons, and all she gets is a place to live, food and clothes.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?” he asked. “My mother and sister seem to find family, especially motherhood, very rewarding.”
“I’m exaggerating a little. But from my firsthand observations, it seems more servitude than satisfying. I keep after my mother to get a life, but she insists that she has one, thank you very much. But I don’t see that she’s receiving enough personal fulfillment for me to follow in her footsteps. Much to my father’s annoyance.”
“He believes a woman’s place is in the home. Her fulfillment is taking care of a husband and children. He even wanted me to be a teacher.”
“Why teaching?” he asked, the sad look chasing away the warmth in his dark eyes.
“Good career for a mom, because when you’re finished with work, your children get out of school. Same vacations.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“For starters, it was his idea, not mine. And—”
He held up a hand to stop her. “This sounds like a long, yet interesting story. Would you mind if we sat down?” he asked.
“Of course not. How thoughtless of me.”
She wasn’t usually so rude. But apparently her brain was on overload, filled as it was with good-looking Alex Marchetti. After that, there wasn’t a whole lot of room left over for rational thought, not to mention manners. Then she’d climbed on her soapbox, something that usually followed when the subject of her family came up. Everything else went out the window. Including courtesy.
She waved her hand toward the living room. “Please.”
He turned away and she couldn’t help peeking at him from the rear. For a while now, Fran had wondered about the hoopla, hype and hyperbole associated with men’s backsides. Movies, magazines and other media were full of it. And she didn’t get it. At least she hadn’t until this very moment. It was sort of comforting to know she wasn’t immune.
He filled out a pair of slacks in the best possible way. She would bet he was something of a phenomenon in a pair of worn jeans. Alex Marchetti probably sat behind a desk all day, and it wasn’t fair that he showed not a single hint of secretary spread. More proof that God was a man.
He sighed as he settled his very attractive rear end in her big, overstuffed chair. Her want ads still rested on the ottoman in front of him. “This is comfortable,” he said.
“I think so, too. It was my grandmother’s.” Fran sat on the sofa at a right angle to him. “She died a couple years ago.” She smiled sadly.
“I guess she was very special to you.”
Fran nodded. “My father’s mother. She visited all the time. We were very close. She financed my rebellion.”