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of Contemporary Women's Fiction, Romantic Comedies, and Historical Romances


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Kiss the Cook
Chapter One

    Melanie Gibson eased her beat-up, rusted-out, lime-green Dodge into the circular drive of the soaring office building at One Atlanta Plaza. This was her last delivery for the night and she prayed she'd find an open parking space. She craned her neck, peered around and sighed. Not a parking spot in sight. A solid row of cars lined both sides of the wide driveway.
    She looked at her watch. Ten past seven. If she didn't deliver the order of food in the next five minutes, the customer wouldn't have to pay for it. That was the guarantee of the Pampered Palate--Gourmet Food To Go.
    "If we don't deliver on time, it's on us," Melanie muttered under her breath. "Since I was clearly insane when I came up with that slogan, I'm making an executive decision to change it tomorrow to 'You'll get your food when you get it, and be damn glad about it'."
    She glanced at the large warming container of food in the back seat and made another executive decision. If she pulled around to the back of the building and parked in the lot, she'd never make it in time. Almost two hundred dollars worth of food. She could not afford to be late. She pulled up alongside a dark blue Mercedes and double parked.
    "I'll only be upstairs for a few minutes," she rationalized, hauling the heavy red and white striped warmer into her arms. "Besides, whoever owns the Benz will be here 'til midnight, working overtime to afford it."
    She slammed the car door with a thrust of her hips and awkwardly maneuvered herself and her ungainly package through the revolving door. She'd certainly be glad when she got her bank loan and could buy her catering truck. Then she could use the special delivery entrances and forego this double parking/revolving door ordeal.
    When she entered the lobby, a blast of air conditioning greeted her and she almost groaned with pleasure. Atlanta was into the second week of a record-breaking July heat wave and the Dodge's air conditioning consisted of rolled-down windows. After scribbling her name on the security roster, she rushed into an open elevator car and pushed the button for the thirtieth floor. No way was she going to be late. No way. The elevator zoomed upward then opened with a quiet ping. Melanie stepped out with a sigh of relief.
    "Whew! Made it!" She placed the box on the carpet outside the outer glass doors leading to Slickert, Cashman, and Rich, Attorneys at Law. Great name for a bunch of lawyers. Kinda like the way her gynecologist's name was Dr. Seamen. She raised her hand to ring the bell and froze. Leaning forward, she stared through the glass with disbelief. Her stomach fell to her toes.
    The digital clock in the reception desk glowed in the deserted waiting area. It read 7:40.
    She looked at her watch. It still read 7:10.
    "Damn, damn, damn!" She shook her wrist and held the timepiece up to her ear. Nothing. Zip. Nada. She slapped the watch's face. No signs of life. Like the Wicked Witch of the East, her watch was not merely dead, it was really most sincerely dead.
    But how could that be? She'd just bought the blasted thing last month--a twenty-eighth birthday present to herself. I suppose I could have spent more than a buck forty-nine. The ole' K-mart special had just cost her two hundred dollars in food. Two hundred dollars she couldn't afford to lose.
    She glanced down at the box at her feet and suppressed an urge to kick it. Fifteen gourmet dinners, all the condiments, plates, cutlery--everything for a Pampered Palate meal. And if she announced herself to Slickert, Cashman, and Rich, Attorneys at Law, the meal would be on her.
    She eyed the food, tempted beyond all endurance to gather up the heavy box and slink away, but she knew she couldn't. If she didn't live up to her promises, her fledgling business would suffer. She'd worked too hard and too long to risk her reputation with one of her best customers. Besides, a ravenous Cashman or a starving Slickert might slap her with a lawsuit.
    Nana always said the only way to swallow a bitter pill was to do it quickly and get it over with, so Melanie took a deep breath and rang the bell. She tapped her foot, waiting, mentally cursing Mike, her delivery man. Of course it wasn't Mike's fault he was sick, but having to make this batch of deliveries herself had turned a bad day into the day from hell.
    The day started when her alarm didn't go off, and she woke up forty-five minutes late. Then there was no hot water for her shower. In her haste, she got shampoo in her eye, burned her fingers ironing her shirt and ran her stockings. All before she arrived at work--an hour late.
    Speaking of late, where are these people? She rang the bell again and knocked on the glass door for good measure. Another minute went by with no response.
    Great. They'd probably given up on her and left. A weary sigh escaped her. Now what? She wasn't about to leave the food here in the hall. What if they'd all left? If they weren't there to get their food, she was going to bring it home. Why leave it for the mice?
    Hefting the heavy warmer into her arms, she struggled back to the bank of elevators. I'll go down to the lobby and call the lawyers. If they don't answer, I'm outta here. The elevator door shushed open and she shoved in the box with her foot. When she stepped in after it, her heel got caught in the narrow space between the doors. She gave her stuck foot a heave and the heel snapped off cleanly.
    Jeez. Calgon, take me away. Far away. Yanking the broken heel from the crack, she limped onto the elevator and jabbed the "L" button with her broken shoe. She sagged against the wall, closed her eyes and wondered what she'd done to bring the wrath of God down on her head. Must be her tendency to speed in the Dodge, she decided. Or maybe the fact that she'd kicked Tony Pasqualio's shin in the third grade had finally come back to haunt her.
    But couldn't those evils be canceled out by some good stuff? She loved animals and kids, and she was kind to senior citizens. I always hold the door open for strangers, I feed stray cats, and I don't cheat on my taxes. She looked down, groaned, and squeezed her eyes back shut. Her toes were sticking out of a gaping hole in her hose. Apparently third grade shin kicking carried more weight with higher beings than holding doors open.
    The elevator stopped on the twenty-fifth floor. Melanie peeked her weary eyes open a crack and caught a glimpse of masculine tassel loafers stepping into the elevator. By the time she opened her eyes all the way, the man had turned his back to her and re-pushed the "L" button.
    Just as well. She was too exhausted to make conversation. Her eyes drifted shut, traveling down the man's back as they did so. Tall. Suit jacket flung over one arm, burgundy leather briefcase. His white dress shirt fitted across broad shoulders. Her gazed dipped lower. Charcoal grey suit pants to match the jacket. Nice butt. She inhaled deeply and caught a whiff of spicy-clean cologne. Whoever he was, he smelled great. A lot better than she did. She smelled like fried chicken and caesar salad. Her eyes settled again on his backside. Yes, indeed, he had a really great butt.

* * * * * * *
    Christopher Bishop stepped into the elevator, barely noting the fact that another person was in the car, and pushed the "L" with a sigh of relief. He was tired. Bone weary. He glanced at his watch. Seven forty-five. Another fourteen-hour work day. He rolled his aching shoulders and sighed. Since he'd made partner at his accounting firm, his work load had become murderous. He couldn't wait to get home, ditch the suit and tie, get into his sweats, grab a beer and relax. And food. Something to eat would be real nice.
    While he watched the lit numbers drop, he became aware of an aroma...a mouthwatering, drool-inducing aroma in the elevator. Fried chicken. His nostrils twitched and his stomach let loose a ferocious growl.
    He turned his head and noted the woman leaning against the back wall. Her eyes were closed and she looked about ready to drop. His gaze traveled over her, noting her disheveled reddish-brown hair, wrinkled white man-tailored blouse, short black skirt, shoe? She stood kinda lopsided, but she had great legs. Really great legs, even though her bare toes stuck out of a hole in her hose. The words Pampered Palate were embroidered on the pocket of her shirt and printed in red block letters on the sides of the large box that sat at her feet. He'd obviously found the source of the tantalizing aroma.
    Pampered Palate. Now why did that sound so familiar? He'd probably ordered an eat-it-at-your-desk lunch from there. A frown scrunched his brow. No, it was something else. He searched his mind, but his exhausted brain cells refused to function. It would come to him--eventually.
    The elevator pinged and the door slid open. Almost groaning with relief, Chris hastily crossed the marble-tiled lobby.
    "Thank God it's Friday," he muttered with a weary nod to the security guard. A whole weekend to rest. Sleep late. Read the paper. Do the crossword puzzle. Fifteen minutes. He'd be home in fifteen minutes. His car was right out in front--he'd left it there when he ran back up to his office to pick up some forgotten papers. He pushed his way through the revolving doors, debating if he wanted to watch the Braves game or a Titanic documentary. The thought had no more than entered his head when he stopped dead.
    Someone--some idiot--had double-parked and blocked him in. He strode over to the offending vehicle and peered in the window of the dilapidated Dodge.
    The car was empty.
    "Terrific. The owner probably abandoned this junk-heap." He straightened and blew out a long breath. "What else can go wrong today?" No sooner had the words passed his lips than a huge raindrop landed smack on his nose.
    Chris closed his eyes and shook his head. "I had to ask."
* *  * * * * *
    Lugging the heavy warmer, Melanie limped in one shoe across the lobby to the security desk. The guard dialed Slickert, Cashman, and Rich, and handed her the phone. She let it ring twenty times. No answer. She hung up and called the Pampered Palate.
    "Pampered Palate," a gravelly voice said at the other end. "Gourmet to Go. It's on time or it's on us. May I help you?"
    "Nana, it's Melanie. I'm--"
    "Melanie! Thank goodness you called," Sylvia Gibson said. "The lawyers canceled their order not five minutes after you left."
    Melanie huffed out a breath. "Great. I'm here now. What happened?"
    "I don't know. Some emergency. They all had to leave. Looks like we'll be eating chicken for awhile."
    "I guess so." Melanie blew her hair out of her eyes. "How are things going there, Nana? Is everything all right?" Melanie worried that her seventy-five-year-old grandmother would overwork herself.
    "Everything's great. Mike's brother came in to help out with the deliveries, and Wendy's manning the front register."
    "Good." She glanced at her watch, forgetting it was broken until she saw it still read 7:10. "I'm leaving now. I'll see you within half an hour."
    "Take your time, dear. All's well here. The evening rush is over."
    Melanie hung up, thanked the guard and hefted the heavy box into her arms. She limped across the lobby then struggled with the revolving door, maneuvered herself around, and stepped outside.
    That's when she discovered it was raining.
    Actually, rain could not describe what was coming down. It was Pouring. Pouring as if to make amends for a century-long drought. Torrents of water rushed from the canopy protecting the doorway. The rain fell in a veritable sheet, large drops that splashed up a good six inches once they hit the sidewalk.
    "It figures." Of course her umbrella was in the car. Even though the Dodge was close-by, Melanie knew she'd be drenched by the time she reached it. Looks like I'll be getting my bath sooner than I wanted.
    She kicked off her one unbroken shoe, tossing it and its heel-less mate into a trash can. Drawing a deep breath, she made a run for it.
    A deluge of stinging rain pelted her, soaking her before she'd taken a dozen steps. She scurried across the cement like a squirrel gathering nuts, intent on reaching the sanctuary of the Dodge. While struggling to balance the box and unlock her door, she heard a car door slam.
    "It's about time you got here," a deep voice said.
    Melanie paused and looked up. A tall man stood under a big black umbrella. He'd obviously come from the Mercedes she'd blocked in. He frowned at her over the roof of the Dodge.
    Uh-oh. Mr. Mercedes looked pretty pissed. She squinted through the wet darkness and shook her streaming hair from her eyes. No smile, bunched-up eyebrows, set jaw, possible teeth grinding. He sounded pissed, too. Hopefully he didn't harbor latent homicidal tendencies. She wished she hadn't abandoned her shoes. The only weapon she had was a fried chicken leg. Well, she'd beat him to death with it if she had to.
    She lifted her chin. "I beg your pardon? Are you speaking to me?"
    "You should beg my pardon. I've been waiting out here for almost fifteen minutes." He peered at her through the rain. "Where I come from, people who double-park run the risk of getting their tires slashed."
    "Must be a lovely neighborhood," she muttered under her breath. Realizing he had a legitimate complaint, she said, "Look, I'm really sorry. I only needed to run upstairs for a minute--"
    "Since I've been waiting for fifteen minutes, that's not really true, is it?"
    Melanie's anger flared to the surface. Well, excuuuuuse me, Mr. Mercedes. She had already apologized. Did this bozo want a blood oath?
    "Like I said, I'm sorry. I'll just get in my car and toddle on home." Suddenly wondering if Mr. Mercedes was angry enough to turn violent, she opened the car door, shoved the box of food across the seat and slid in, quickly slamming and locking the door. She looked over and was relieved to see him get back into his car.
    Melanie stuck the key in the ignition and turned it. A weak grrrrrr sounded and nothing else. She tried it again. An even weaker grrrrr came out. On the third try, nothing. Nada. Zip. She thunked her forehead on the steering wheel.
    "This day has to end...this day has to end...this day has to end!" She turned the key again, but only silence met her ears.
    A tap sounded on the driver's window and Melanie yelped in fright. She looked up and saw a face peering at her from beneath a black umbrella. Touching her palm to her beating heart, she took a deep breath. Mr. Mercedes. She rolled down the window an inch.
    "I don't mean to harp on this," he said in a distinctly sarcastic tone through the crack, "but when you said you were leaving, I sort of assumed you meant sometime tonight."
    Ha, ha, ha. Very Funny. Mr. Mercedes was a veritable Jerry Seinfeld. Smothering a groan of annoyance, Melanie turned the window roller to lower the window further.
    The knob came off in her palm.
    She squeezed her eyes shut and mentally cursed the Dodge in six languages. Pulling herself together, she looked up at Mr. Mercedes. She couldn't see much through the crack in the window, but what she could see didn't scream 'serial killer'. At least he didn't have crazed murderer tattooed on his forehead. He was just a tired businessman trying to get home from work. Of course, he seemed a tad irritated, but who could blame him? She was a bit out-of-sorts herself. Deciding her choices were face Mr. Mercedes or rot in the Dodge, she opened the door. He backed up to give her room to get out.
    "Look," Melanie said, standing under his umbrella, trying to keep her impatience under control, "I'm really sorry about this, but now it seems that my car won't..."
    Her voice trailed off as she got her first look at Mr. Mercedes. Good grief. Melanie stared at him and her breath deserted her body in a whoosh.  Must be a trick of the light, and the sheen of the rain. No man could be that gorgeous.
    He stood at least six two, and his face looked like something out of a Ralph Lauren ad. All sculpted planes, bedroomy blue eyes and a firm, square jaw complete with sexy five o'clock shadow.
    A stark white dress shirt contrasted with his ebony hair and accentuated his broad shoulders. He'd loosened his conservative paisley tie, and his shirt sleeves were rolled back, exposing tanned, muscular forearms. Dark gray dress pants hugged his lean hips. Her eyes traveled back up his long length. No doubt about it. The good-looks god had clearly favored this guy. He had to be married. She looked at his left hand. No ring. Probably gay.
    "Your car won't what?" he asked, bringing her thoughts back to her present problem.
    Melanie snapped her gaze back up to his face. He was staring at her, frowning, his annoyance evident. "Start," she replied. "My car won't start."
    "Are you sure?"
    "Positive. I don't know much about cars, but I know when one won't start. It growled at me twice then died."
    His gaze shifted over her shoulder to look at the Dodge. "No offense, but it looks like it was time for it to go."
    Melanie took immediate umbrage. Nobody insulted her car. She drew herself up to her full five feet eight inches. "Hey, this car is a classic. It's in perfect condition. Almost. It might not be as fancy as your wheels, but it gets me where I've got to go...or at least it did until a few minutes ago."
    "Mind if I give it a try?" he asked. When she hesitated, he looked skyward. "Listen lady, I'm not about to steal your car, okay? I'm tired, I'm hungry, I'm soaked from the knees down, and I'd like to get out of here sometime before midnight. Until that piece car gets moved, I'm stuck."
    Sheesh. What a grouch. And at least he was only wet from the knees down. She was soaked through to her skin. "Be my guest," Melanie said, sweeping her hand in a grand gesture toward the driver's seat.
    "Thanks. Here," he said, passing her the umbrella. "Hold this."
    He slid into the driver's seat and yelped in pain, pushing up his hips as high as the steering wheel would allow.
    "Watch out," Melanie warned. "There's a couple of broken springs in the seat."
    He sent her a withering look. "Thanks."
    "No problem."
    He turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. "You said it growled at you?" he asked, looking up at her.
    "Twice. Then it died."
    "Well, I'd guess that your battery is dead. Do you have jumper cables?"
    Melanie shook her head. "'Fraid not."
    He muttered something under his breath that Melanie didn't catch, but based on the look on his face, she decided that was probably for the best.
    "Maybe the person who's parked in front of you or behind you will show up," she suggested, hoping it was true.
    "Based on the day I've had, they've probably gone on vacation and won't be back 'til Christmas." He took a deep breath. "I might as well jump you--"
    "Whoa, buddy. Hold it right there." Melanie backed up several steps. "If you touch me, I'll scream. I've got chicken legs and I'm not afraid to use them."
    He stared at her as though she was an escapee from the home for the criminally insane. "What the hell are you talking about?"
    "If you think I'll stand here and let you jump me--"
    "Your car. I'll use my jumper cables to jump start your car."
    Melanie felt her face flush with embarrassment. "Oh. Right. I knew that."
    He muttered again and shook his head. "I'll just pop the hood." He slid across the seat, got one leg out of the car and stopped. Melanie stared down at him and waited. He jerked forward a few times but didn't move.
    "What's wrong?" she asked.
    He looked up at her with an unreadable expression. "You said something about broken springs in the seat?"
    Melanie nodded. "Yeah. Why?"
    "It seems my pants are...snagged."
    "I'm stuck."
    "What do you mean?"
    He sent her a potent glare. "Which word are you having trouble with--I'm or stuck?"
    "Sheesh. There's no need to be sarcastic."
    He wiggled his butt a bit. Melanie could almost hear his teeth grinding together. "Stuck. Caught. Trapped. I can't move."
    Melanie shook her head in sympathy. "Bummer. But I know just how you feel. I've ruined a dozen pair of hose on those darn springs."
    He stuck his hand under himself and yelped. "Jesus! Look at this! I'm bleeding!" He withdrew his hand, and held up fingers smeared dark red. "I'll probably get tetanus from this rattle trap."
    Melanie bent over, grabbed his hand, and peered at it in the dim interior light. Then she sniffed. "Barbecue sauce."
    "Excuse me?"
    "This isn't blood. It's barbecue sauce. A stray packet from a previous delivery order, no doubt. Here." She reached under the seat and handed him a wad of paper napkins.
    He wiped his fingers and scowled at her. "So, my pants are ripped and barbecue stained."
    "Seems so. Hope you know a good dry cleaner."
    "Great. That's just great."
    Melanie considered pointing out to him that the barbecue sauce wasn't doing her upholstery any good, but it didn't seem like something he would appreciate hearing.
    "I think I could use a little help here," he said testily.
    "Oh. Sure." Melanie rested the umbrella between the open door and the car roof and leaned in across him, trying to see where his pants were caught. "Sorry," she mumbled, pushing her way in. "Gotta crawl over you. Passenger door doesn't open."
    Chris stared down with disbelief at the woman sprawled across his lap. Her short skirt was hiked up and barely covered the essentials. Since her backside was practically in his face, he couldn't help but notice the curve of her hips. She had a great butt. At the moment, however, her long, lean legs, encased in ripped hose, stuck out the open door, dangling in the rain. He prayed none of his co-workers happened by. This definitely did not look good.
    Something pinched his rear and he sucked in a breath. What the hell was she doing to his ass?
    "Hey, lady," he said, annoyed to be placed in this awkward spot, "if you're so anxious to cop a feel, I'd rather find a more private place."
    She pushed herself up and glared at him. Her head was only inches from his and with the aid of the interior light, Chris got his first good look at her face. Her hair was half plastered to her head, half sticking up at crazy angles. She looked liked she'd stuck her finger in an electric socket.
    Her mascara had run, forming black moons under her eyes. They were big, limpid, chocolatey brown eyes and they studied him with clear exasperation. She had creamy skin, and a battalion of pale freckles marched across her straight nose. Two deep dimples winked at him from the sides of her mouth. Despite his annoyance, his eyes lingered there for several heartbeats. She had the most incredible, lush mouth he'd ever seen.
    His gaze dropped. Her shirt was soaking wet and clung to her like a second skin, clearly outlining soft curves encased in a lacy bra. Pampered Palate was embroidered on the pocket. She was the woman from the elevator. He breathed in. She smelled like fried chicken.
    "Listen, you pervert," she said, her eyes flashing. "I was not copping a feel. I was trying to save your pants."
    She was breathing hard and every time she inhaled, Chris felt her breasts pressing against him. Soft, full breasts that made his groin tingle and his heart speed up. Jeez. I must be losing my mind. She looked like a drowned rat. This woman was nothing but a pain in the ass--literally. He was simply suffering from malnutrition-dementia. Of course he would be affected by a woman who smelled like chicken. It had nothing to do with the sexy curves plastered against him.
    Wanting her away from him as soon as possible, he said, "If you'll just move, I'll save my own pants."
    She scooted off him, stood and grabbed the umbrella. "Fine. But don't blame me if--"
    The sound of material ripping was unmistakable.
    "Uh-oh," she said.
    Gritting his teeth, Chris got out of the car. He peered inside and saw a good-sized piece of dark material on the seat. Hoping it wasn't what he suspected, he picked it up, dangling it between his fingers.
    Dark wool.
    Like from a man's suit. His suit. His brand new suit.
    "Oh boy. That doesn't look good," she said. "Looks just like my pantyhose did." She peered around at his backside then straightened. Her amusement was clear. "Hmmm. I see you're a boxer man."
    Chris mentally counted to ten. The sooner he jumped her car, the sooner she'd be on her way, and the sooner he could get home. Without a word, he popped her hood then walked to his car to get the jumper cables. He left the umbrella with her. There wasn't any point in bothering with it--his suit was ruined anyway, and the rain was tapering off a bit.
    She stood under the umbrella and waited while he attached the cables.
    "Okay," he said, several minutes later. "Turn the key."
    She slid into the car, turned the ignition and the engine coughed to life. Chris almost jumped for joy. He quickly disconnected the wires from both cars and replaced the cables in his trunk.
    "I think that should do it," he said, slamming the Dodge's hood.
    "Yes. Thank you very much." She smiled and two deep dimples winked at him. "My name's Melanie Gibson. But everyone calls me Mel."
    He stared at her. "Your name's Mel Gibson?"
    "Yup. What's yours?"
    He couldn't believe he was standing in the rain talking to a lunatic woman who thought she was Mel Gibson. "I'm Peter Pan."
    She looked him up and down then shook her head. "I don't think so. Peter Pan wore green tights." She waggled her eyebrows at him, Groucho-style. "I already know you're wearing white boxers."
    In spite of himself, Chris felt a chuckle rumble in his chest. He quickly smothered it. Why the hell did he feel like laughing? He was angry. Inconvenienced. Wet. Hungry. His suit was ruined, probably his shoes, too. I'm deranged from lack of food.
    "So are you going to tell me your name?" she asked. "Don't be shy. Believe me, it can't be worse than mine. No matter how hard I try, no one will call me Melanie."
    He held out his hand. "Christopher Bishop. Call me Chris." She shook his hand, and Chris immediately noticed how soft her skin was. And how cute her dimples were. A warm tingle zoomed right through him. Jeez, I'm really losing it. This woman was so completely not his type, it was laughable. He preferred small, curvy, blue-eyed blondes. She was tall, lanky, and dark-eyed. Not to mention a mess.
    But there was something about her--he had no idea what--that had all his senses standing at attention. He shook his head. Obviously the final stages of malnutrition were setting in.
    Her look turned serious. "I'm really sorry I blocked you in. And about your pants." She reached into her shirt pocket and withdrew a card. "If you send the repair bill to me, I'll be happy to pay it."
    He took the wet card and studied her closely. Now that home was again fifteen minutes away, his annoyance ebbed away somewhat. The rain had dwindled down to a mere drizzle. "I doubt they can be repaired, but thanks anyway." He leaned closer and sniffed. "I saw you on the elevator. You smell like fried chicken."
    She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Wow. Words I've always longed to hear."
    He laughed. "I meant I smelled you in the elevator and..." His voice trailed off and he shook his head. "Somehow that doesn't sound right, either."
    "That's okay. I smelled you in the elevator, too. You're wearing my favorite men's cologne. It smells much better than chicken."
    "Not if you're starving, it doesn't," he said. Almost as if he'd planned it, his stomach let out a loud growl.
    "Well, Christopher-call-me-Chris Bishop, you sound hungry, and I happen to have two hundred bucks worth of Pampered Palate food in my car. Could I interest you in a meal? As a way of saying thanks?" She smiled at him. "We make the best fried chicken in Atlanta."
    Since he was ready to eat the windshield wipers off the Mercedes, he didn't even consider refusing her offer. "Sounds good."
    She handed him the umbrella and leaned into the car, once again affording him a heart-stopping view of her long legs. She straightened and handed him two boxed dinners. "Here you go. Enjoy."
    "Least I can do. Well, I'd better let you get home to your dinner." She slid into the Dodge and waved to him. He nodded in return and walked to his car.
    Melanie clicked her seatbelt into place and pushed her wet hair behind her ears, trying not to watch him as he climbed into the Mercedes. Whooooeee. Christopher Bishop was, for lack of a better word, a complete hunk.
    He was gorgeous when he frowned, but when he'd smiled at her, he was downright devastating. Dry, he was beautiful. But wet he was stupendous. Looking at him, with his dress shirt molded to his muscular arms and chest, and his hair combed back by his hands, she got a clear image of what he must look like coming out of the shower. She thanked God she wasn't a cartoon character--her eyes would have bugged out two feet and her tongue would have rolled out onto the ground.
    Well, she'd never see him again. Good thing, too. Any guy who looked that good and smelled that good was a hazard to her mental health. She knew first hand that men who looked like Christopher Bishop couldn't be trusted. Brokenhearted women probably littered the sidewalks around his house. Yup, he had "girl-in-every-port" written all over him. She exhaled loudly. Been there. Done that. Never again.
    She put the Dodge in gear and pulled forward, driving to the end of the curved driveway. The moment her foot touched the brake, the car stalled.
    "Oh, no. Not again."
    Melanie turned the key. Growl, growl, silence. She turned it again. Growl, silence. One more turn. Silence. She looked around her. At least she wasn't completely blocking the driveway. Cars could get around her. She was just contemplating the wisdom of screaming and pulling out her hair when a horn tooted. She looked out her window and saw the Mercedes pull up next to her.
    She felt around on the seat for the knob to open the window. Finding it, she jammed it back on and rolled down the window. Christopher Bishop looked at her from the driver's seat of his car.
    "What's wrong?" he called.
    "I stalled out."
    "There must be something more wrong than the battery," he said, frowning. "Probably faulty spark plugs, or a wet distributor cap."
    "Oh." Faulty spark plugs. And her thingamabob was wet. Swell.
    "I'd try drying it off for you, but there's not much point as long as it's still drizzling."
    Melanie muttered a mild oath. Now what? It would seem a call to Nana was in order. She rolled up the window, opened the door and slid out. No point bothering with the umbrella. The rain was now nothing more than an annoying drip-drip, and she was soaked anyway. And barefoot. It seemed this day was just getting worse by the minute.
    She'd only taken two steps when she heard Chris yell, "Where are you going?"
    She turned. He stood next to his car, munching on a chicken leg. "I'm going to call someone to pick me up."
    He hesitated a second then said, "I could drop you off...but I warn you, it's gonna cost you some more food." He took another bite and grinned. "It's great chicken, by the way."
    Melanie considered his offer. Nana would have to close up shop to rescue her. Besides, her grandmother shouldn't drive--she was a hazard on the road. That's why Melanie had made the deliveries tonight--she'd been elected by default.
    Christopher Bishop seemed like a decent guy. He certainly wasn't hard to look at, he smelled great, and he hadn't made any untoward gestures when she'd been sprawled across his lap. Besides, she had pepper spray in her glove compartment. She'd bring it with her. One false move and the guy would be toast. Pepper toast.
    "How much more food?" she asked, walking back toward the Dodge.
    "How much ya got?"
    She laughed. "Okay, Christopher. I'll trade you a ride to the Pampered Palate for two more chicken dinners. It's just a few miles down the road. On Peachtree."
    "Deal. Let's go."
    While he transferred the heavy box from the Dodge to the Mercedes, Melanie grabbed her purse and stuck the pepper spray inside. Hey, a girl could never be too careful.
    She slid into the soft leather passenger seat of the luxurious Mercedes and sighed. A Billy Joel tune flowed from the CD player. "Nice car. It still smells new."
    "I only bought it two months ago," he said, easing his way into the Friday night traffic. "A present to myself for making partner."
    "You're a lawyer?" she asked, praying he wasn't from Slickert, Cashman, and Rich.
    "No. Accountant."
    "Ah. And you work in that office building?"
    "Yup. Twenty-fifth floor."
    She cocked her head towards the CD player. "You a Billy Joel fan?"
    "Everybody from New York is a Billy Joel fan."
    She stared at his profile. "You're from New York?"
    "That's not a crime, you know."
    "Of course it isn't. I'm originally from the Big Apple myself."
    "I thought I detected a bit of an accent. What part of New York?"
    "Long Island. You?"
    "Westchester." He looked over and smiled at her. "Seems like everybody in Atlanta is from somewhere else. What brought you down south?"
    "I couldn't afford New York. Atlanta's a happenin' place, the weather's great, and it's affordable. So here I am." She tapped her bare foot to the music. "Have you lived here long?"
    "Since high school. My dad was transferred during my sophomore year."
    She winced in sympathy. "That must have been tough."
    "At the time, I thought it was the end of the world." He shot her a sheepish grin. "I think I set a world record for complaining."
    "Considering the way you carried on about being blocked in, I'm not surprised to hear it," Melanie teased.
    "Very funny. So, how long have you worked for the Pampered Palate?"
    "Ever since it opened six months ago." She hummed along to Uptown Girl for several seconds then added, "Actually, I own it."
    His brows shot up. "You own the Pampered Palate?"
    "Yes. Well, me and the bank. That fried chicken is our best selling item. It's Nana's secret recipe and she guards it with her life."
    "My Grandma Sylvia. I've always called her Nana. We live together and she helps out in the kitchen."
    "Do you usually make your own deliveries?"
    Melanie shook her head. "My delivery man called in sick at the last minute. Nana offered to step in, but as much as I love her, she's a menace on the road. Sort of a cross between Mario Andretti and Mr. Magoo. Anyway, we offer free delivery on orders over one hundred dollars. That's mostly corporate accounts." She slanted him a side-long look. "Our motto is,'If it's not delivered on time, it's on us'. That's why I double-parked." She jerked her head toward the back seat. "I had five minutes to get that box of food upstairs or I was out two hundred bucks."
    "Why do you still have it?"
    "The customers had some sort of emergency. They called and canceled the order, but I'd already left."
    "Who was it for?"
    "Slickert, Cashman, and Rich, Attorneys at Law. Thirtieth floor. I wonder what happened."
    "Walter Rich was rushed to the hospital," Chris said.
    "Oh no! Is he okay?"
    "I think so. He slipped and fell. His leg is broken and he might have cracked a few ribs. The ambulance came around seven."
    "How awful. Which hospital was he taken to?"
    "Piedmont, I think."
    "I'll have to call and find out how he is," Melanie said. "He's such a nice man, and one of my best customers. He looks just like--"
    "Santa Claus without the beard," Chris finished for her. "My firm audits them. Walter's a great guy."
    Chris maneuvered the Mercedes into the small parking lot adjacent to the Pampered Palate. "Here we are. I'll help you with the box."
    Melanie held the door for him and they walked into the small front room of the brightly-lit store. No one was there; only the glossy dark green granite counter, a vase of cheerful flowers, and take-out menus. The gleaming parquet floor lent the small space a cozy feel, while the cream-colored walls gave it a dignified air. No tables. The Pampered Palate was strictly take-out.
    When she saw him looking around, Melanie said, "I know it's small, but I'm hoping to expand. I want to buy a delivery truck and do private catering on the weekends, then eventually expand into a full restaurant."
    "Ambitious goals," he said, nodding, "but if your food is any indication of your talents, I'm sure you'll succeed."
    "Thanks." She set her purse on the counter. "I really appreciate the ride. It was very nice of you, especially considering the inconvenience I caused you."
    "What are you going to do about your car?"
    Melanie shrugged. "I'm not sure. The only person I know who knows anything about cars is my delivery man and he's sick."
    "You can't leave it parked in that driveway the whole weekend. It'll get towed."
    Towed. She hadn't thought of that. Just what she needed--another expense. "I'll think of something," she said.
    He set the box down on the counter and Melanie smothered a laugh. The rip in his pants was a good six inches across. A patch of white boxers stuck out, complete with a smear of barbecue sauce. She smiled and pulled out two dinners.
    "Hey, Melanie!" Nana's scratchy voice reached them. The energetic woman who walked in from the kitchen was a cross between Julia Child and Richard Simmons. She stared at Chris. "Jiminy Crickets. Who's the babe magnet?"
    Melanie coughed to cover up a laugh. "Nana, this is Christopher Bishop. I had some car trouble and he gave me a ride."
    "Sylvia Gibson," Nana said, sticking out a flour-encrusted hand.
    Chris shook her hand and said, "You make the best fried chicken in Atlanta, ma'am."
    Nana blushed and patted her short, frizzly, bright red hair. "Call me Nana. So, you after my granddaughter or what?"
    "She's a great cook and she's single," her grandmother continued, unrepentant. "Drives a piece of crap for a car, but she won't give it up. She's stubborn but goodhearted, and loves kids and pets." She peered at him over her bifocals. "So what do you think?"
    Melanie groaned and covered her eyes with her hands, but Chris just smiled. He leaned close to Nana's fire-engine red hair and said, "I think I'm going to charm her out of some more chicken, then see if I can talk her into parting with some cheesecake."
    Nana laughed and slapped her knee, sending her knee-hi stocking down to her ankle. "Well, good luck, son. Mel hasn't parted with any cheesecake in quite a while. I keep telling her to loosen up a little, but does she listen to me? No. All she does is work, work, work."
    She turned to Melanie who felt as if the fires of hell were burning in her cheeks. "I'd hold on to this one if I were you. He's cute, smart, and he's got a great butt. Needs some new pants though. I don't care for this fashion of lettin' your drawers hang out of holes in your pants. At least the hole's in the back, otherwise his--"
    "Thank you, Nana," Melanie broke in hastily. "Why don't you head back to the kitchen. I'll be right there."
    Nana fixed Chris with a stern glare. "You fix up those britches, young man, before you call on my granddaughter."
    Chris gave a smart salute. "Yes, ma'am."
    "And clean that barbecue sauce off your ass," Nana said over her shoulder.
    Melanie smothered a chuckle, not sure what amused her more--Nana's remark or the look on Christopher Bishop's face.
    He cleared his throat. "Your Nana is..."
    "Outspoken? Irrepressible?" Melanie supplied.
    "Actually, I was thinking she was pretty great." He smiled, and it did odd things to Melanie's knees. "She reminds me of my mom. Keeps forgetting I'm not six years old."
    Melanie laughed, but her laughter slowly faded as she looked at him, really looked at him for the first time in the bright light. His good looks were no illusion caused by darkness or rain. He was a veritable DNA masterpiece.
    Whatever gene pool he swam out of deserved its own display at the Smithsonian. Thick, wavy, mahogany brown hair beckoned her fingers to ruffle through it. His dark blue eyes reminded Melanie of her favorite color from her childhood Crayola crayons, 'midnight blue'. His mouth was sensuous, his lips full and firm. An unbidden image of him kissing her flashed through her mind. Full-blown lust slammed into her so hard she gasped.
    "What's wrong?" he asked. "Do I have chicken stuck between my teeth?"
    An embarrassed laugh escaped her. "No. I was, er, just..."
    "Staring." He took a step closer to her, and Melanie's heart shifted into overdrive. "You were staring at me."
    Melanie averted her eyes, ready to deny his words when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass door. Her short, curly hair stuck up from her head at all angles--like hundreds of tiny vacuum cleaner hoses had sucked it up. No shoes, torn stockings, wrinkled shirt. And her face. Good grief, her face. No make-up, and her mascara was nothing more than big black half-moons under her eyes.
    Just her luck. Here she stood, looking like the creature from the black lagoon, with the winner of the GQ Man of the Year contest. Story of my life. I've got permanent when-my-ship-comes-in-I'll-be-at-the-airport syndrome, while he looks like he'd never miss the boat.
    "Are you okay?" he asked.
    Melanie shook her head. "I just caught a glimpse of myself. Yikes. I'm surprised you didn't run screaming from the store the moment we arrived."
    He stepped closer, and tilted his head, studying her like an art patron assessing a Picasso. "You look like a racoon," he pronounced.
    She pasted a sticky-sweet smile on her face. "Thanks. I guess I won't take offense since the source of that opinion is a guy whose ass is hanging out of his barbecue-flavored pants."
    "Touché." Laughing, he touched a single finger to the black smudge under her right eye. "I have three sisters. I'm used to this look." He smiled at her. "Besides, I bet you clean up pretty good."
    Melanie tried to swallow and couldn't. The moment he touched her with that single gentle finger, all the spit in her mouth just dried up and left her tongue feeling like dust.
    He glanced at his watch and frowned. "Listen, it's late and I need to go before I fall asleep on my feet." He picked up the two boxed dinners she'd set aside. "Thanks for the chicken."
    Melanie cleared her throat. He was the most gorgeous man she'd ever met, and he was leaving. She'd never see him again. Good. Fine. She didn't have time for men anyway. Men were nothing but pains in the tush. She knew that all too well. Yes indeedy. She could thank her ex-fiance for that lesson. Todd Jenkins had taught her all she needed to know about men. And the better looking they were, they worse they were. This guy probably had more notches on his bedpost than Mick Jagger. Yup, it was a good thing he was leaving. She wanted nothing to do with--
    He touched her arm. "Okay?"
    She stared at him. Clearly he'd been talking to her while her thoughts ran away. "Huh? Okay what?"
    "You must be more tired than I am. I said I have to go." He held out his hand. "It was, er, interesting, meeting you. Thanks again for the dinner."
    "Thanks for the ride."
    Melanie thought she sensed a momentary hesitation in him, almost as if he were reluctant to leave. She discovered she was holding her breath. Was he going to ask her out? Oh sure. I look like something the cats dragged in that the kittens wouldn't eat. Not that it mattered. She didn't want a guy cluttering up her life.
    "Good luck with your car." He flashed her a smile. "Brush your hair, okay?"
    Smart-alec. "Change your pants, okay?"
    He laughed. "Deal." Balancing the boxes in one hand like a professional waiter, he walked out the door. Melanie stood rooted to the spot for a good two minutes.
    "Jiminy Crickets," said Nana from behind her. "He's a real hunk."
    Turning around to face her grandmother's knowing eyes, Melanie adopted what she hoped was a casual air. "I suppose a certain type would find him attractive."
    "What type is that?"
    Melanie sighed. "The female type."
    "So why'd you let him get away?" Nana smacked her lips. "I woulda hog-tied that sucker and made him my love slave."
    Melanie couldn't help but smile. "I'm not looking for a love slave. I'm not looking, period. A man is the last thing I need."
    "Phooey. A man is exactly what you need. A little passion, a little lust, they're great for the soul."
    Maybe. But Melanie had a sinking feeling that a little passion and a little lust would not be the problem where Christopher Bishop was concerned.
    Thank goodness she would never see him again.
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