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Authors: Marie Ferrarella

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Dangerous Disguise

BOOK: Dangerous Disguise
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“You’re not much of a liar, Maren Minnesota.”

“I don’t get much practice.”

“That’s good.” The softly whispered words hung between them. “Honesty is a very sexy quality in a woman.” Jared brushed a soft kiss against her hair. He felt his heart aching. He hated this tangled web.

“You make me want to do things, Maren.” He framed her face in his hands, his heart speeding up and beating wildly in his chest. “Wild, insane things.”

She could feel her breath backing up in her lungs. She wanted to believe him, believe in the moment, in what was happening between them, even as every sane bone in her body begged her to run for cover. But she wasn’t listening to sanity, she was listening to the rush of desire as it overtook her.

“Such as?”

He didn’t want words any longer.

He wanted her.

Dangerous Disguise

MARIE FERRARELLA

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MARIE FERRARELLA

This RITA
®
Award-winning author has written over one hundred and twenty books for Silhouette, some under the name Marie Nicole. Her romances are beloved by fans worldwide.

To
Mark.
Nothing is impossible,
as long as you
believe.

Chapter 1

H
e was too good-looking.

The thought telegraphed itself across Maren Minnesota’s mind the moment she walked into her office. Tucked away behind the kitchen, the small, windowless room was crammed with not one desk, but two since she shared the space with Joe Collins, the accountant for both branches of Rainbow’s End and the man she regarded, for all intents and purposes, as her father. Two of the walls were lined with shelves that housed books, knickknacks, and an antiquated stereo system.

The man sitting in the chair by her desk made the rest of the room fade away.

She was running a few minutes behind, which was unlike her. Maren had completely forgotten that she had an appointment to interview a Jared Stevens and that said Jared Stevens was waiting for her in the office. If it hadn’t been for April, the salad girl, prompting her, who knew how long the man would have gone on waiting. He was interviewing for the position of assistant chef, a job that had suddenly become vacant.

As manager of Rainbow’s End’s main restaurant, she’d seen three candidates so far in the last two days and none had impressed her as particularly right for the job. She knew she was being too fussy. In her experience, it took a certain zest to cook creatively, a certain passion for food, a flair for color to make an outstanding chef. The other people she’d interviewed—two men and a woman—had résumés that were decent enough, but she didn’t quite have the feeling that they could offer as much dedication as was needed.

It was her goal to make this particular branch of Rainbow’s End the best.

But this man, who had brought over Papa Joe’s chair and angled it beside her desk, well, she detected a little too much passion to suit her. More than likely, that passion wouldn’t be strictly aimed at the vegetables and meat.

She knew this because her breath had caught in her throat when their eyes met. Jared Stevens had turned in his chair when she’d opened the door. His incredible green eyes made instant contact with hers, as if their meeting had been preordained somewhere in some vast eternal book.

If she had been a battleship, she would have immediately been sunk.

It took her half a second to recover.

He reminded her of Kirk. And that was a bad thing. A very bad thing.

Kirk Kendell had been almost mind-numbingly good-looking, too, with the same jet-black hair and green eyes, the same chiseled, sexy looks. That would have been the only way she could describe it. Mind-numbing. Because, during their relationship that occurred the last two years she was in college, her mind had certainly been numbed. Or, more accurately, missing in action. On the occasions that she allowed herself to look back, she silently referred to that time frame as her stupid period.

She didn’t like being reminded of it.

Which gave Jared Stevens a very big strike against him.

“Is something wrong?” The deep voice filled the room and rolled over her like a warm desert wind. It made her think of chocolate, deep and rich.

Still standing in the doorway, she took a breath. Took control. She became the epitome of efficiency as she willed her legs to move. “No, why?”

He was smiling now and she felt her stomach lurch, then tighten. He had the kind of smile that whispered “seduction.”

“Because you’re staring,” he told her as he rose to his feet.

At least he has manners, she thought.

Maren cleared her throat and walked into the room, purposely leaving the door open behind her. Air tended to become scarce in the small office at times and, right now, she needed all the air she could get.

She said the first thing that popped into her head. “Just trying to envision you in a chef’s hat.”

He looked surprised and somewhat bemused. One dark, perfectly shaped eyebrow raised itself higher than the other. “Then I have the job?”

“No, you don’t.” She did her best to sound professional and not curt. “I was just jumping ahead.” It was a lie, but she wasn’t at her most creative right then.

Taking her chair, she motioned for him to sit down again. Maren picked up the résumé on her desk. Although she’d already gone over it once, she scanned it again. The names of his previous employers were far from run-of-the-mill or average. Valentino’s in New York and The Cattleman in Dallas. Both restaurants demanded perfection.

“Impressive,” she commented. Normally gregarious and bent on putting people at their ease, she held herself in check. There wasn’t an ounce of emotion evident in her voice. She raised her eyes to his. “You seem to move around a lot.”

“Not a lot,” he countered. She noticed no trace of a regional-defining accent in his voice. “Just New York City and Dallas. I always wanted to see them,” he added in a tone that seemed unsettlingly intimate, as if he was sharing a secret with her. “And a man has to eat.”

“That’s what we’re counting on,” she responded in her most crisp, distant voice.

The open door wasn’t helping. The air stood still today. His eyes looked as if he could see right into her thoughts, her sudden vulnerability.

She liked to think of herself as a confident woman. Despite everything that had happened in her life, or maybe because of it, she hung on to confidence as if it were a cloak. It shielded her from unsettling situations. She worked hard to make sure that nothing interfered with that confidence and sitting across from this man with the bedroom-green eyes made her feel anything but.

She wanted to have as little to do with men like Jared Stevens as humanly possible.

Outstanding résumé or not, hiring him as assistant chef wouldn’t be wise. She wasn’t given to agonizing over her decisions, but she wasn’t prone to snap judgments, either. Except in this one sensitive area.

Maren made up her mind without bothering to call either of the two highly regarded restaurants he had listed, or the names he’d included under references.

He wasn’t going to get the job.

She’d sooner go with the woman who had come in yesterday. The small, chatty blonde was fresh out of cooking school and eager. Eager could be molded and taught. She knew that firsthand. She’d been eager. Once.

Jared leaned over and broke the pregnant silence. “Would you like to give me a test run?”

Maren’s head jerked up as surprise blossomed all through her. Was the man propositioning her in exchange for a job? “Excuse me?”

“In the kitchen.” He nodded his dark head toward the area just beyond the office. “Would you like me to cook something for you? I can whip up anything you name.”

Arrogant, just like Kirk.

Maren shored up her beaches. Turning someone down for a job was always done best swiftly, like ripping off a Band-Aid from a wound. Going slowly only prolonged everyone’s agony.

“No, I don’t think that’s going to be necessary. I’m really sorry, Mr.—” Stumbling, Maren glanced at the top of the form again. “Mr. Stevens. But—”

She saw him open his mouth, undoubtedly to argue her out of her decision or perhaps to bargain his way into a trial period, but just then a blood-freezing shriek filled the air. Maren’s eyes widened as she turned her head toward the source.

The shriek came from the kitchen.

Before she could gain her feet, the would-be chef whose interview she was terminating was dashing toward the origin of the sound.

Right behind him, she saw it the second she crossed the threshold into the kitchen.

Flames shot up from within one of the frying pans on the stove. The blaze looked ready to cut loose and spread throughout the kitchen in less than a heartbeat. Max, the head chef, April, the salad girl, and Rachel, one of the dessert chefs, were all backing away from the stove. April had been the one to scream, and she was still screaming.

Only Jared was moving toward the fire.

It was a grease fire, Maren realized. She saw the man who’d just been in her office, the man she’d been ready to send away, grab a cast-iron lid and quickly drop it on the pan.

“Fire extinguisher!” he yelled to her. “Where’s your fire extinguisher?”

Rather than answer, Maren yanked it from the wall and rushed toward him. Jared grabbed the canister out of her hands and liberally sprayed directly at the flames that were trying to escape the pan. The sparks vanished, but he still sprayed all around the area. The fire was out in less time than it took to tell about it, leaving behind an awful smell that threatened to hang in the air for hours.

Jared switched on the two exhaust fans directly above the frying pan.

Lowering the now-empty canister, he glanced at Maren over his shoulder. “Is this what you call trial by fire?”

She could only shake her head. This could have really been a disaster. If it had gotten out of hand, at the very least, the fire could have forced them to close down for several weeks. Maren looked at the man with new eyes.

She wasn’t being fair to him, condemning him because of his face.

“That was quick thinking. Thanks. Just put it down out of the way,” she instructed when he offered to hand her the extinguisher. Max, April and Rachel had all come forward again, gathering around her. Relief was etched on each of their faces. Maren looked from one to the other. “What happened?”

Rachel, the oldest, looked somewhat chagrined. “I don’t know, Maren. I was just preparing the sweet tarts and I must have knocked over the oil. The pan was still hot and…” Her voice trailed off as her thin shoulders rose and fell. “I’m sorry, Maren, I don’t know how that oil got there. I know I didn’t put it there myself—”

Maren raised her hand, waving away the apology before it made a reappearance. She wanted this behind them.

“That’s all right, nothing happened,” Maren said, her eyes shifting toward the man who had just possibly saved her from an incredible amount of inconvenience. Things could get out of hand quickly in a kitchen. “Thanks to Mr. Stevens.”

There was that smile again, the one that could melt concrete, she thought. “Jared,” Jared corrected.

Max looked him over. It was evident that the man regarded Jared as competition. “You the new guy?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Green eyes turned toward Maren. “Am I?”

That uneasy feeling was still there, making her feel as if she were searching for a door that had been there a moment ago but had somehow disappeared. The feeling was not unlike the one generated by similar dreams she’d had. It made her leery.

But after what he’d just done, added to the résumé that sat on her desk, it didn’t seem fair to turn him away. His only flaw was that he reminded her of someone she didn’t want to remember.

Jared Stevens was too good-looking, she thought again. Good-looking men tended to wait for things to be handed to them. Like opportunities. And hearts. She was being childish. As well as unfair. And Maren had always believed in being fair.

She dragged her hand through dark blond hair the color of gold nuggets at sunset. “After what you just did, it wouldn’t seem fair to turn you down without a trial run.”

She saw him breathe a sigh of relief. It made her think that he really needed this job.

“That’s all I ask, Ms. Minnesota.” His smile widened. “A fair chance.”

Something rippled through her. Maren looked away from her newest staff member. Unconsciously she ran her tongue along her lower lip. It was something she did when she was feeling less than confident about the wisdom of a decision. But she’d already hired him, albeit on a trial basis. His position was contingent on how well he lived up to the praise in his résumé and just as importantly, how well he melded with the staff. She prided herself on running a well-oiled machine.

“Can you start tomorrow?”

“Absolutely.” Genuine enthusiasm throbbed in his voice and she felt a little better about her decision. Maybe this would work out in the long run.

Jared put his hand out to hers. After a beat, she took it, sealing the bargain.

He grinned at her, releasing her hand a bit slower than she thought he should have. “My dad always said you could tell a lot about a person by their handshake.”

Said. She wondered if he was just using his words loosely, or if this meant that his father was deceased. At any rate, if the man was any more charming, she thought, charm would literally drip from his fingertips.

The specter of Kirk was difficult for her to shake. Kirk had been a charming manipulator, something she’d found out too late to save her heart.

She decided Jared Stevens was the kind of man who never truly “needed” anything. He got by on his looks and charm. And wits, she added, thinking of the fire he’d just averted. She supposed if he cooked as well as the résumé seemed to indicate he did, she could do a lot worse than having a man like him on the staff.

As long as he kept his distance.

But not for now. She looked back toward her office and straightened slightly. Business first, self-preservation later.

“Then come in, I have some papers for you to fill out and sign.” She offered him a perfunctory smile that remained strictly on her lips and didn’t reach her eyes. “On behalf of Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Rineholdt, welcome to Rainbow’s End.”
At least for now,
she added silently as she led the way back into the office.

Half an hour later, his fingers cramping from the writing he’d just done, Jared got in behind the wheel of the slightly less than pristine electric-blue Mustang the department had him driving these days.

He breathed a sigh of relief, glad that was over. Women didn’t generally prove to be an obstacle for him. But this boss lady hadn’t been as easy as he’d thought she’d be, he thought as he started up his car. It coughed and then rumbled awake. He missed his sporty convertible, but that didn’t go with the image he was trying to project. That of someone working his way up.

Backing out of the parking lot, Jared pointed his vehicle straight for his uncle’s house. He had a lot to do before tomorrow.

It was a lucky break that the fire had begun when it had, otherwise he wasn’t all that certain that the lady with the killer body and drop-dead long legs would have hired him. At least, not without a great deal more persuasion from him. She’d looked reluctant in her office before that girl had screamed. But then he’d always had more than his share of luck, he mused, turning up the sound on the radio. The station was playing a song he liked and he let the beat energize him.

BOOK: Dangerous Disguise
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