The Sweetest Seduction

The Kelly Brothers, Book 1


Crista McHugh

Chapter One

“Next time could you please ask my permission before you auction off my services?” Lia’s lecture was cut short as a deer darted out in front of her, forcing her to slam on the brakes.

“Of course, darling.” Her mother continued knitting calmly in the passenger seat. “I’m just overwhelmed by how much Maureen bid. She’s such a generous soul. But then, any woman who raised seven fine boys would have to have a giving heart.”

Lia rolled her eyes and tested the gas pedal. The real reason her mother had insisted she cook a meal for Mrs. Kelly and her family finally became clear. Odds were ten to one that the Kelly boys were all eligible bachelors. “This isn’t another one of your matchmaking schemes, is it?”

“Heavens, no.” Knit, knit, purl. “You’re a beautiful, intelligent woman who’s perfectly capable of finding someone on her own.” Although the words sounded supportive, the tone in her voice asked, “So why am I not a grandmother yet?

“Ma, we’ve gone over this before. Getting the restaurant off the ground is my number-one priority at the moment. I don’t have time to date.”

“And now that it has a waiting list a month out, you can focus on something else.”

Lia gritted her teeth, and it had nothing to do with the way a hidden bump in the road rattled her little four-door sedan. “No, it means I have to work even harder to make sure people keep coming back.”

“Whatever you say.” Her mother held her knitting project up to the light, examining the stitches before undoing the last row with a heavy sigh. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy.” For the last year and a half, La Arietta had been both her master and her mistress, consuming every aspect her life. But her hard work had paid off. It was now the hottest restaurant on the Magnificent Mile, packed for both lunch and dinner every day. Her culinary skills had earned her a place on the cover of last month’s issue of Food and Wine as one of the hot new chefs in America. As far she was concerned, her professional life was a fairy tale come true.

Her personal life, on the other hand...well, that was nonexistent, and she doubted any of Mrs. Kelly’s fine sons would be enough to tempt her away from her passion.

She rounded another bend in the road only to see more trees. Her mother’s instructions had been vague at best, simply telling her to go to Geneva Lake and then to make a right. “How much farther, Ma?”

“Just a little bit down the road.” The knitting needles resumed their steady click. “Maureen’s lake house is so quaint and intimate—the perfect place for a nice family dinner. And she called just this morning to say how much she appreciates you agreeing to drive up here.”

Nightmares of trying to cook a four-course meal in a rustic cabin filled Lia’s mind. She gripped the steering wheel and wondered why on Earth she’d ever agreed to this.

The trees finally parted, revealing a massive Craftsman-style home that looked like something Frank Lloyd Wright would’ve designed. Lia’s jaw dropped. “Quaint and intimate?”

“Yes, darling. You should see her home in Highland Park.”

So Mrs. Maureen Kelly had money. Lots of it. And Lia could only imagine how much she must’ve bid at the charity auction. Which begged the question of how her firmly middle-class mother knew this lady. “You said Mrs. Kelly goes to church with you?”

Her mother nodded and packed away her knitting. “She’s also part of my bridge club.”

Lia frowned as she parked the car at the apex of the curved driveway. She didn’t know her mother played bridge. What other secrets was she hiding?

“Hello, Emilia,” a tall blond woman called from the doorway. “So glad you and your daughter could make it today.”

A shaggy mass of white fur bolted past the woman. Lia barely had time to grab the door before it pounced on her, knocking her back into the car. A few loud sniffs sounded in her ear before a series of wet doggy kisses coated her face.

“Jasper, bad dog! Come back here.”

Jasper placed one extra lick on Lia’s cheek before obeying his owner and retreating back to the front porch. She wiped the slobber off her skin. When she’d bemoaned the fact that it had been more than four years since any male had swept her off her feet and kissed her, this was not what she’d had in mind. “Is he always this friendly with strangers?”

To her credit, Mrs. Kelly actually sounded apologetic for her dog’s behavior. “No. He’s usually so well behaved.”

“Must just be me, then.” Lia reached into her glove compartment and retrieved the bottle of hand sanitizer she kept for those unavoidable stops at highway rest areas. It was peach, her favorite scent, and matched the shower gel and lotion she used every morning. Once she’d rubbed it into every place Jasper had licked her, she made her second attempt to get out of the car and meet her hostess.

Maureen Kelly looked like one of those women that time stood still for—probably thanks to Botox. She had to be as old as Lia’s mother, but only her hands hinted at her real age. Everything else seemed to belong to a forty-something model from the latest L.L. Bean catalog. She smiled warmly while she held on to Jasper’s collar. “So nice to finally meet you, Lia. Your mother just goes on and on about how proud she is of you.”

Lia released the breath she’d been holding. So far, Maureen Kelly didn’t seem to be a snob, despite her obvious wealth. “So nice to finally meet you, too.”

“I really appreciate you coming all the way up here for dinner. My son is home for a week before going to Afghanistan, and I really wanted to do something special for him.”

And just like that, any resentment she felt for having to drive two hours north of Chicago vanished. “It’s no trouble at all,” she replied and reached for the twenty-gallon cooler in her trunk.

“Oh, don’t hurt yourself. Let my son get that.” Maureen turned around, Jasper’s collar still in her death grip, and called into the house, “Caleb, would you please be a dear and help out your mother’s friends?”

A moment later, a man appeared on the porch. He was about a head taller than Maureen, his short brown hair styled in the standard military buzz cut. He placed a kiss on his mother’s cheek before jogging down the stairs to Lia’s car. The afternoon sunlight twinkled in his bright blue eyes as he winked at her and grabbed the cooler. “Let me get that for you.”

Okay, so maybe Ma was on to something with Kelly boys, Lia decided after watching the muscles ripple under Caleb’s t-shirt. If the others were like him, they’d be a ten in the eye-candy department. But she wasn’t there to ogle them. Dinner wouldn’t make itself. She grabbed the remaining bags from her trunk and followed Caleb into the house.

“I wish all my boys could be home for dinner,” Maureen said behind her, “but they’re all grown up now and out on their own.”

“Yes, yes, Mom, we’re all horrible sons because we actually moved out of the house and haven’t given you any grandchildren to replace us yet,” Caleb replied from the kitchen.

Lia bit back a giggle. Seems like her mother wasn’t the only one who’d been hinting that her children needed to settle down and start reproducing. She shared a conspiratorial grin with Caleb when he glanced over his shoulder at her.

Any fears she had about cooking dinner on a camp stove vanished when she entered the Kelly’s kitchen. Sunlight poured in from the wall of windows that overlooked Geneva Lake. Granite countertops and stone tile backsplashes helped retain the natural feel of the lake house, balancing out the modern stainless steel appliances. “It’s a beautiful kitchen, Mrs. Kelly.”

“Please, call me Maureen.” She came into the room, Jasper-free. “I hope we have everything you need.”

And then some. This was truly a chef’s kitchen, one she couldn’t wait to test out. “It’s perfect.”

“Then we’ll let you get started.” She ushered her son out of the kitchen, leaving Lia alone to unpack the cooler.

* * *

Adam Kelly drummed his fingers on the steering wheel while he waited for Bates to answer his phone. As soon as he heard the click, he asked, “Any news yet on the Schlittler deal?”

“It’s Sunday, Mr. Kelly,” Bates replied in his ever-so-polite British accent. “Not much happens in the business world over the weekend.”

“For me, it does.” His Volvo C70 hit a pothole, earning a string of muttered curses about how his mother should have had that fixed years ago. “I have investors waiting for news, and I want to wrap this up as soon as possible.”

“I double-checked your downtown properties. You have a lease expiring in a few months at the top of your Michigan Avenue building, but—”

“Perfect.” The Magnificent Mile location would give Amadeus Schlittler the exposure he demanded. “We’ll deliver the notice to the tenant tomorrow morning.” The car dipped into another pothole, and he released another string of curses.

“On your way to your mother’s lake house, Mr. Kelly?” Bates asked, even though he clearly already knew the answer.

“Yes. She’s there with Caleb and guilt-tripped me into coming up tonight for some special dinner she won in a charity auction.”

“Your mother has always been such the philanthropist.” And thankfully, her donations helped lower the company’s annual tax bill. “In that case, I’ll leave you to enjoy her company.” Bates hung up before Adam had a chance to ask him anything else.