Three huge stockpots simmered on back burners. The scent of garlic and sausage filled the air. One cook chopped vegetables for salads while another sliced meat for the sandwiches and antipasto platters.
"Hey, Dani," one of the cooks called. "Come taste my sauce."
"That's not what he wants you to taste," another cook yelled. "She's too pretty for you, Rico. She wants a real man like me."
"You're not a real man. The last time I had your wife, she told me."
"If my wife saw you naked, she'd laugh so hard, she'd hurt herself."
Dani smiled at the familiar insults. Restaurant kitchens were usually loud, crazy places where the constant pressure meant everyone had to work as a team. The fact that the majority of workers were men meant a challenging situation for the average woman. Dani had grown up hovering around the kitchens at the various Buchanan restaurants, so she was immune to any attempts to shock her. She waved at the guys, then checked the list of specials Nick had posted against the menu inserts for that day.
"The panini sounds delicious," she told the head chef. "I can't wait to try it"
"I have something better for you, sweet cheeks " one of the guys said.
Dani didn't bother turning around to find out who was speaking. Instead she picked up one of the large carving knives. "I have a set of these myself."
A couple of the guys groaned.
Nick grinned. "As long as you know how to use them."
That would back the cooks off for a while. She knew that as long she did her job and they learned they could depend on her to respect them and not do anything to make their work more difficult, they would come to respect her. It took time to build a good relationship with a kitchen staff and she was more than willing to put in the effort to make that happen.
"You want to make any changes to the specials?" Nick asked casually.
Dani wanted to laugh at the ridiculous question, but kept her expression carefully neutral. Nick didn't really want her opinion. If she tried to give one, he would rip her head off…probably just verbally. The division of labor was very clear. The head chef ran the kitchen, the general manager ran everything else. Dani's position of authority stopped the second she stepped through the swinging doors.
"No," she said sweetly. "They look great. Have a good lunch,"
She pushed through the doors, back onto her turf. She and Nick had to work together. Either of them could make the other's life a living nightmare. As the new kid, it was up to her to prove herself, which she was happy to do.
One of the advantages of her new job was how it helped her focus. After her meeting with Mark Canfield, she'd found herself unable to concentrate, until she'd come to work. Alex Canfield had gotten to her, invading her brain on a regular basis. She tried to tell herself that he was completely uninteresting, not the least bit attractive and not someone she would waste her time on but she knew she was lying. There was something about him that compelled her. The fact that he was her biological father's adoptive son added a level of confusion that told her she needed to run in the opposite direction. Considering the past year in her romantic life, it was advice she should listen to.
She walked through the dining room to her office. On the way she passed the wine cellar, where she did a quick spot inventory on two different wines. The number of bottles in the bin matched the number on the list from her computer.
"Excellent," she murmured as she stepped back into the hall. So far working at Bella Roma was a dream. There was nothing she wanted to-
She turned and saw her brother Walker. She grinned. "Here to figure out how to do things right?" she asked as he pulled her close and kissed the top of her head.
Walker, a former Marine, had recently taken over the Buchanan empire, such as it was. He ran the corporation that owned the four family restaurants. He'd been pushed into the leadership role when Gloria, the Buchanan matriarch and grandmother to Dani's three brothers, had suffered a heart attack and broken hip. Weeks into the job, he discovered it was his calling.
Dani was happy for him. Walker was a hell of a guy and he was doing a great job. She never actually wanted to run the business, she'd just wanted to have a chance to prove herself running one of the restaurants. While Gloria had put her in charge of Burger Heaven, she hadn't let her move up at all. After years of trying to please a woman who actually seemed to hate her, Dani had been told the truth. In blunt terms, Gloria had explained that Dani wasn't a real Buchanan. That her mother had had an affair and Dani was the result.
With Gloria as the matriarch of the family, Dani wasn't related to her at all. As Gloria had only ever been critical and distant, Dani should have been relieved.
But she wasn't. "Despite their lack of blood connection, Dani knew Gloria would always be her grandmother-at least in Dani's heart. Gloria's past behavior meant being close was unlikely.
Dani told herself she didn't care. At least there was a bright side.
Now that she knew Mark Canfield could be her real father, she had a whole new family to bond with. The downside was she'd spent her whole life as a Buchanan and she didn't want to be anyone else.
Walker released her. "How are things going?"
"Great. I love it. Bernie's the best and the kitchen staff is only terrorizing me a little. That means I'm starting to win them over. Of course if they weren't terrorizing me at all it would mean that they hate me, so it's a delicate balance. What are you doing here? Looking for a decent meal for a change?"
The slam made him grin. "You think pasta with red sauce can compete with anything Penny can come up with?"
Penny had married their oldest brother, Cal. She was an extraordinary chef and worked at The Waterfront, the seafood restaurant in the Buchanan stable.
"If you're going to put it like that," Dani grumbled, knowing Penny was a genius. "But we have a lot of great stuff you don't offer. Now that I think about it, we need to open an Italian place. It's very popular and the profit margin is fantastic."
Walker stared at her. "I'm not here to talk business."
"But an Italian restaurant is a great idea."
"An excellent one, if you want to ignore the fact that you're trying to talk me into competing with your current boss."
Oops. Dani glanced around to see if anyone had overheard her. Damn. When was she going to remember that she wasn't a Buchanan anymore? That she didn't owe them any loyalty and that she should be putting all her energies into Bella Roma?
"Okay" she muttered. "Point taken. So if you're not here for the garlic bread, what's up?"
"It's Elissa," he said.
Dani grabbed his arm. "Is she okay? Did something happen?"
"She's fine. We're moving forward with the wedding plans. She wants to have a fairy-tale wedding with lots of flowers and twinkle lights. I want her to be happy."
Until this minute, Dani would have had a hard time imagining her big, tough brother talking about twinkle lights with a straight face. She would have bet he didn't even know what they were. But since falling for Elissa, he was a different man. More open, more connected, more aware of twinkle lights.
"I’m sure the wedding will be beautiful," she said.
"She wants you to be in it. She's not going to have a maid of honor. Apparently it's too complicated. So she'll have a lot of attendants and she would like you to be one. But she didn't want to pressure you, so she asked me to ask you so you'd be more comfortable saying no."
Dani smiled. "Really? She wants me in the wedding?"
"Of course she does. She likes you. Plus, you're family, and don't say you're not. I'm tired of that conversation. You're as much a Buchanan as any of us. You're my sister. You could be an alien dropped off by the mother ship and you'd still be my sister"
His fierceness might have worried someone who didn't know him, but Dani recognized it as his way of saying he really, really cared. She might not be sure of her place in the universe or her last name, but she was clear on how much she mattered to her brothers.
"You're not getting rid of me," she said. "Don't worry."
"I have to worry. I'm older. It's in the job description. So do you want to be in the wedding or not?"
"So smooth," she told him. "So persuasive. So elegant in your communication."
He scowled. "Was that a yes?"
"It was a yes. I would love to be one of Elissa's attendants."
"Good. How was your meeting with the senator?"
She led him to a table and sat down. "It was interesting. Strange. I didn't feel a connection or anything."
She told him about how Mark had been willing to accept her story.
"Alex is insisting on a DNA test, which I think is a good idea. Then we'll both be sure."
"Alex is his son?"
"Adopted, but yes."
"Is he a problem?"
Dani grinned. "You offering to take him out if he is?"
"I'll run interference."
She liked the gesture, even if she couldn't take him up on it. "I can handle Alex." She thought about the determination in his eyes. "Or at least make a good run at it. Besides, I don't want you beating him up just yet. He's kind of hot."
Walker winced. "I don't want to know"
"Don't worry. Nothing will happen. I've learned my lesson. No more relationships for me. Still, he got my attention. Not that it matters. He thought I was a bug. An inconvenient bug who could screw up his father's presidential campaign."
"What do you think?"
"That he's making too big a deal out of things. I just want to know if Mark Canfleld is my father or not. If he is, I'd like to get to know him. That's where it ends… although Mark did invite me over to dinner tonight to meet his wife."