Authors: Janet Tronstad
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Religious
Published by Steeple Hill Booksâ¢
This book is dedicated with love to my nieces
Marcy Enger MacDonald
ust because he's rich doesn't mean he's crazy.” Jenny Black pressed the cell phone to one ear and stood on her tiptoes to look at another dusty shelf in the old pantry. Her sister should stop worrying about Robert Buckwalter's sanity.
She should worry about Jenny's instead.
Jenny was the one who was crazy.
What was she thinking? Trying to cater a black-tie dinner in a place like Dry Creek, Montana. Right now Jenny was in the pantry of the town's small cafÃ© and she was desperately looking for paprika.
Jenny had made a big mistake. She should never have promised hors d'oeuvres to go with the lobsters she was serving tonight.
The ranching community of Dry Creek, tucked up close to the Big Sheep Mountains in southern Montana, was absolutely delightful. But any sane chef would have insisted the menu be switched to chili dogs and corn chips the minute she discovered the only store in town sold ten kinds of cattle feed and not one single thing for a human to eat.
Jenny had not been able to buy any of her last-minute supplies.
She'd turned for help to the couple who ran the cafÃ© but they were only set up to serve hamburgers, biscuits and spaghetti. They had sugar packets, squeeze bottles of honey and those plastic packets filled with ketchup. There was not one obvious hors d'oeuvre in sight.
She was doomed.
Jenny heard an impatient grunt on the other end of the phone.
“Sorry, but if you ask me, Mr. Buckwalter is so sane he's almost comatose.” Jenny had tried earlier to make conversation with the man. No luck. “Stuffed-shirt kind of sane. Think Dad.”
“But Dad's fifty years old!”
“Well, Robert Buckwalter acts like he's a hundred.” Jenny still felt a twinge of pique. The whole world knew that her employer's son, Robert Buckwalter, was a ladies' man. He was supposed to flirt with all women.
Jenny had expected to dodge a compliment or two on the flight over. But the man had sat in the pilot's seat next to her the whole flight and not said anything at all once he'd made sure she'd fastened her seat belt. For which, she told herself firmly, she should be grateful. And she should be fair to the man. “Of course he's most helpfulâespecially when he's got an apron around his waist.”
“He's got an apron on!”
“Well, he's helping me with the hors d'oeuvres. We've got a hundred people coming for dinnerâMaine lobstersâand I've had to improvise with the hors d'oeuvres.”
was putting it lightly, Jenny thought. Try egg salad on toastâwhich wouldn't be so bad if she could at least find something to sprinkle on top of it.
“Robert Buckwalter the Third is cooking for youâand he has an apron on!” Jenny's sister couldn't let go of that thought.
“Well, it's only some carrot stubs. It's not like he's whipping up a soufflÃ© or anything complicated.”
“But he doesn't even grill. It says that in his bio. My word, do you know how much money the man has?”
The question was obviously rhetorical and Jenny didn't answer.
She had enough to do pushing aside spice tins hoping for some paprika.
The Dry Creek cafÃ© had been abandoned years ago and left empty until a couple of teenagers had reopened it this past December on the night of the town's first annual Christmas pageant. The original owners must have decided some supplies weren't worth hauling out of Dry Creek because stray cans and tins had been left behind to sit quietly, collecting dust, for all those years.
“A little kitchen work never hurt anyone,” Jenny said. You'd think she was exploiting children or something. The idle rich were not a protected species.
“You're not bossing him around, are you? Please tell me you're not bossing him around.”
“Good, because he
Robert Buckwalter the Third.”
“Give me some credit. I know how it is with the rich.”
Jenny didn't have to remind her sister that, when they were kids, it was the fancy cars of the rich people who had always come to the suburban area near them to drop off their unwanted pets.
Apparently her sister not only remembered the cars, she also remembered that Jenny had been the one to shake her fist at the drivers as they sped away. “Look, Jenny, it's important that you're niceâyou know, give him a chance to like you.”
“Well, maybe he'll talk to you. Tell you things. I could use some help here. I think the only reason I got my job is because you are working for the Buckwalters and my boss thought you'd be able to tell me stuff for the paper. Like this list of one hundred bachelors we're working on. Buckwalter's at the top, so far, and I'm counting on you to tell me about him.”
Jenny sighed. “You shouldn't have taken the job then. It's not right. Besides, I don't have anything to tell. I hardly know the man.”
“He answered your phone.”
“This isn't my phone. It's the Buckwalter business phone. It's supposed to be for business calls only. I'm surprised the main office gave you the number.”
A dim lightbulb hung down from the ceiling and Jenny had to squint to see the top shelf where restaurant-size spice containers were shoved behind several cans of what must be lard even though the labels were so faded they were hard to identify.
“Well, I may have said something about businessâ”
a business question. Something's wrong. I've been working it out. The man is either crazy or secretly married. He's always been in the tabloids. I knowâI almost crashed my computer doing a word search on him. Dozens of pieces. This party. That woman. The next party. The next woman. And thenâbingoâit all stops. Our top sources couldn't even get the man to return a phone call! And they're his friends.”
“His friends spy on him?”
“Well, you know how it is with the rich. They all do that. But that's not the point. The point is that no one's seen him. There's been nothing for the last five months.” Jenny's sister paused and then continued. “I'm hoping you know why. My editor is getting nervous. We need to decide if we're going to make Robert Buckwalter number one on our bachelor list. Do you know what that means to be number one? Men would kill for that spot. You can make a million just endorsing stuffâshaving cream, shoes, clothes. It's a gold mine. But we certainly don't want to give the title to Buckwalter if he's wacko or married. We'd look like fools who didn't even know what was going on in the world.” She sighed. “Do you really think he could be married?”
“I doubt itâsurely, he'd tell his friends if he got married.”
“Not if she was unsuitable.”
Jenny paused. She remembered she wasn't the only one to protest those rich cars when they were kids. Her sister was there, too. “You don't need to worry. It's not like he married a kitten who grew up to be too much trouble. Even the rich don't treat their wives that way.” Well, usually not, she added silently. “Besides, I thought that anything goes with the rich these daysâlook at that blond singer. Underwear in public. Pierced tongues. There's not much left to be unsuitable.”
“She could be poor.”
Jenny's lips tightened. “If that bothers him, then he shouldn't have married her in the first place.”
“Is he wearing a wedding ring?” her sister asked.
“I don't think so.”
“Don't you know? Goodness, Jenny, don't you even look anymore? Talk about him being comatose. You're turning positively ancient yourself.”
“I am not! Twenty-nine is young.”
“If you don't look at the ring finger, believe me, you're old.”
“Well, I'm pretty sure he didn't have a ring. I remember giving him the knife, and I always check for ringsâsome people like to take them off so they don't get wet.”
“You're getting him wet! Robert Buckwalter the Third.”
“Even rich people need their vegetables washed.”
Her sister was silent for a minute before continuing. “Wait a minute. Are you sure this is Robert Buckwalter the Third? Maybe there's been some kind of a mixup. A kidnapping or something. This just doesn't sound rightâvegetables and aprons. He doesn't even know how to make coffee. It says that, right in his bio.”
Jenny smiled. “So far, he hasn't made coffee, and his mother seems to believe it's him.”
“Well, what does she say about him being gone all that time? Is she worried he's married?”
“She hasn't said a thing. And I don't know why you think he's married. Just because he kept to himself for a while, doesn't necessarily mean he's been to the altar. Maybe he's just tired,” Jenny said as she spied the can of paprika and reached for it. “Five months isn't so long to rest if he keeps a social schedule like the one you've talked aboutâit sounds grueling.”
“I never thought of that.” Her sister was horrified. “Maybe he's worse than tiredâmaybe he's sick.”
“Oh, I doubt he's sick,” Jenny said as her hand wrapped around the can of paprika. She'd have to taste it to see if it was still good. “But I wouldn't know for sure. I just work for himâwell, really for his mother. I'm the chefâI'm in charge of parties like this one tonight. That's it. It's not like I know the man personally.”
“You must know something about him.”
“I know what he eats.” Jenny looked through the pantry door into the kitchen at the man in question. “Heavy into vegetables and meatsâbeef, lamb, duckâhe likes them all.” That certainly didn't sound like a man who was sick.
She suddenly remembered that she did know more about Robert Buckwalter than what he ate. But her sister wasn't interested in the fact that some man had an odd aversion to her hairnet, which was a perfectly fine hairnet and required for food handlingâeven if it did make her look like a monk.
“There's got to be more. Think. This is important.”
Jenny wiped the dust off the can of paprika. She'd been more mother than older sister to her three siblings and it seemed like one or the other of them always had something important that needed her help even though they were all over eighteen by now and should be adults.
She stood in the open doorway and studied the tall man that was causing her sister so much worry.
The light in the kitchen came from two bare bulbs hanging directly over the long counter that divided the square room. The kitchen walls were white. The sink and refrigerator were both forty years old and chipped. It was a humble kitchen.
Now that her sister mentioned it, Jenny wondered why the man had volunteered to help. She certainly hadn't expected it of him. No one else had, either. Even his mother had looked up in pleased surprise when he'd demanded a knife and a bunch of carrots.
Jenny studied his profile, looking for answers.
At first glance, the man was the classic movie star ideal. The kind of actor that always wore the white hat. The aristocratic nose was perfectly balanced. The glossy black hair was combed stylishly in place. The cheekbones closely barbered. He looked like a luxury car ad. Definitely your playboy kind of a guy.
But as she looked closer, Jenny noticed some fraying. He had a bruise on the side of his forehead. It was faint, but it was there. His hair was nicely combed, but there was something off center and a little ragged about the cut. And his tan was uneven, like he might have been wearing a capânot a designer cap with the bill turned to the back like a baseball player, but an old-fashioned cap like a farmer would wear.
My word, Jenny thought, my sister might be on to something.
Jenny didn't think the man was sickâhis cheeks looked too healthyâbut Robert Buckwalter certainly had the neglected air of someone who was letting himself go to seed.
He might just be married at that.
That would certainly explain the plane trip over here. The man had insistedânot offered, but flat-out insistedâon personally flying Jenny and the lobsters from Seattle to Dry Creek in his fancy plane.
Jenny had been surprised he was going to Montana. He had just arrived at his mother's house in Seattle from some trip that he wouldn't explain. He looked tired and was limping. The housekeeper had his suite of rooms made up and ordered the customary orchids for his bedside table. Then the housekeeper put in the standing order for extra staff to handle the usual parties.
Robert Buckwalter hadn't been home for twenty minutes before he canceled the orders. The housekeeper said he walked into his rooms and looked around as though he didn't know where he was or why he was there.
Then he announced he was going to fly to Dry Creek to talk to his mother. He must have had something urgent to tell herâlike maybe that he had a wife. Jenny wondered how the older woman would take the news of a strange daughter-in-law.