A Beauty for the Billionaire
There was nothing Hogan Dempsey loved more than the metallic smell and clink-clank sounds of his father’s garage. Well, okay, his garage, as of the old man’s death three years ago, but he still thought of it as his father’s garage and probably would even after he passed it on to someone else. Not that he was planning on that happening any time soon, since he was only thirty-three and had no one to leave the place to. His mother had been gone even longer than his father, and there hadn’t been a woman in his life he’d consider starting a family with since…ever. Dempsey’s Parts & Service was just a great garage, that was all. The best one in Queens, for sure, and probably the whole state of New York. People brought their cars here to be worked on from as far away as Buffalo.
It was under one of those Buffalo cars he was working at the moment, a sleek, black ’76 Trans Am—a gorgeous piece of American workmanship if ever there was one. If Hogan spent the rest of his life in his grease-stained coveralls, his hands and arms streaked with engine guts, lying under cars like this, he would die a happy man.
“Mr. Dempsey?” he heard from somewhere above the car.
It was a man’s voice, but not one he recognized. He looked to his right and saw a pair of legs to go with it, the kind that were covered in pinstripes and ended in a pair of dress shoes that probably cost more than Hogan made in a month.
“That’s me,” he said as he continued to work.
“My name is Gus Fiver,” the pinstripes said. “I’m an attorney with Tarrant, Fiver and Twigg. Is there someplace we could speak in private?”
Attorney? Hogan wondered. What did an attorney need with him? All of his affairs were in order, and he ran an honest shop. “We can talk here,” he said. “Pull up a creeper.”
To his surprise, Gus Fiver of Tarrant, Fiver and Twigg did just that. Most people wouldn’t even know what a creeper was, but the guy toed the one nearest him—a skateboard-type bit of genius that mechanics used to get under a car chassis—and lay down on it, pinstripes and all. Then he wheeled himself under the car beside Hogan. From the neck up, he didn’t look like the pinstripe type. He looked like a guy you’d grab a beer with on Astoria Boulevard after work. Blonder and better-looking than most, but he still had that working-class vibe about him that was impossible to hide completely.
And Hogan should know. He’d spent the better part of a year when he was a teenager trying to keep his blue collar under wraps, only to be reminded more than once that there was no way to escape his roots.
“Sweet ride,” Fiver said. “Four hundred and fifty-five CUs. V-8 engine. The seventy-six Trans-Am was the best pony car Pontiac ever made.”
“Except for the sixty-four GTO,” Hogan said.
“Yeah, okay, I’ll give you that.”
The two men observed a moment of silence for the holy land of Detroit, then Fiver said, “Mr. Dempsey, are you familiar with the name Philip Amherst?”
Hogan went back to work on the car. “It’s Hogan. And nope. Should I be?”
“It’s the name of your grandfather,” Fiver said matter-of-factly.
Okay, obviously, Gus Fiver had the wrong Hogan Dempsey. He could barely remember any of his grandparents since cancer had been rampant on both sides of his family, but neither of his grandfathers had been named Philip Amherst. Fortunately for Hogan, he didn’t share his family’s medical histories because he’d been adopted as a newborn, and--
His brain halted there. Like any adopted kid, he’d been curious about the two people whose combined DNA had created him. But Bobby and Carol Dempsey had been the best parents he could have asked for, and the thought of someone else in that role had always felt wrong. He’d just never had a desire to locate any blood relations, even after losing what family he had. There wasn’t anyone else in the world who could ever be family to him like that.
He gazed at the attorney in silence. Philip Amherst must be one of his biological grandfathers. And if Gus Fiver was here looking for Hogan, it could only be because that grandfather wanted to find him. Hogan wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He needed a minute to--
“I’m afraid he passed away recently,” Fiver continued. “His wife, Irene, and his daughter, Susan, who was his only child and your biological mother, both preceded him in death. Susan never married or had any additional children, so he had no other direct heirs. After his daughter’s death in a boating accident last year, he changed his will so that his entire estate would pass to you.”
Not even a minute. Not even a minute for Hogan to consider a second family he might have come to know, because they were all gone, too. How else was Gus Fiver going to blindside him today?
He had his answer immediately. “Mr. Amherst’s estate is quite large,” Fiver said. “Normally, this is where I tell an inheritor to sit down, but under the circumstances, you might want to stand up?”
Fiver didn’t have to ask him twice. Hogan’s blood was surging like a geyser. With a single heave, he pushed himself out from under the car and began to pace. Quite large. That was what Fiver had called his grandfather’s estate. But quite large was one of those phrases that could mean a lot of different things. Quite large could be a hundred thousand dollars. Or, holy crap, even a million dollars.
Fiver had risen, too, and was opening a briefcase to withdraw a handful of documents. “Your grandfather was a banker and financier who invested very wisely. He left the world with no debt and scores of assets. His main residence was here in New York on the Upper East Side, but he also owned homes in Santa Fe, Palm Beach and Paris.”
Hogan was reeling. Although Fiver’s words were making it into his brain, it was like they immediately got lost and went wandering off in different directions.
“Please tell me you mean Paris, Texas,” he said.
Fiver grinned. “No. Paris, France. The Trocadéro, to be precise, in the sixteenth arrondissement.”
“I don’t know what that means.” Hell, Hogan didn’t know what any of this meant.
“It means your grandfather was a very rich man, Mr. Dempsey. And now, by both bequest and bloodline, so are you.”
Then he quoted an amount of money so big, it actually made Hogan take a step backward, as if doing that might somehow ward it off. No one could have that much money. Especially not someone like Hogan Dempsey. Except that Hogan did have that much money. Over the course of the next thirty minutes, Gus Fiver made that clear.
And as they were winding down what the attorney told him was only the first of a number of meetings they would have over the next few weeks, he said, “Mr. Dempsey, I’m sure you’ve heard stories about people who won the lottery, only to have their lives fall apart because they didn’t know how to handle the responsibility that comes with having a lot of money. I’d advise you to take some time to think about all this before you make any major decisions and that you proceed slowly.”
“I will,” Hogan assured him. “Weird thing is I’ve already given a lot of thought to what I’d do if I ever won the lottery. Because I’ve been playing it religiously since I was in high school."
Fiver looked surprised. “You don’t seem like the lottery type to me.”
“I have my reasons.”
“So what did you always say you’d buy if you won the lottery?”
“Three things, ever since I was eighteen.” Hogan held up his left hand, index finger extended. “Number one, a 1965 Shelby Daytona Cobra.” His middle finger joined the first. “Number two, a house in Ocean City, New Jersey.” He added his ring finger—damned significant, now that he thought about it—to the others. “And number three…” He smiled. “Number three, Anabel Carlisle. Of the Park Avenue Carlisles.”
“You’re my new chef?”
Hogan eyed the young woman in his kitchen—his massive, white-enamel-and-blue-Italian-tile kitchen that would have taken up two full bays in his garage—with much suspicion. Chloe Merlin didn’t look like she was big enough to use blunt-tip scissors, let alone wield a butcher knife. She couldn’t be more than five-four in her plastic red clogs—Hogan knew this, because she stood nearly a foot shorter than him—and she was swallowed by her oversize white chef’s jacket and the baggy pants splattered with red chili peppers.
It was her gigantic glasses, he decided. Black-rimmed and obviously a men’s style, they overwhelmed her features, making her green eyes appear huge. Or maybe it was the way her white-blond hair was piled haphazardly on top of her head as if she’d just grabbed it in two fists and tied it there without even looking to see what she was doing. Or it could be the red lipstick. It was the only makeup she wore, as if she’d filched it from her mother’s purse to experiment with. She just looked so…so damned…
Ah, hell. Adorable. She looked adorable. And Hogan hated even thinking that word in his head.
Chloe Merlin was supposed to be his secret weapon in the winning of Anabel Carlisle of the Park Avenue Carlisles. But seeing her now, he wondered if she could even help him win bingo night at the Queensboro Elks Lodge. She had one hand wrapped around the handle of a duffel bag and the other steadying what looked like a battered leather bedroll under her arm—except it was too skinny to be a bedroll. Sitting beside her on the kitchen island was a gigantic wooden box filled with plants of varying shapes and sizes that he was going to go out on a limb and guess were herbs or something. All of the items in question were completely out of proportion to the rest of her. She just seemed…off. As if she’d been dragged here from another dimension and was still trying to adjust to some new laws of physics.
“How old are you?” he asked before he could stop himself.
“Why do you want to know?” she shot back. “It’s against the law for you to consider my age as a prerequisite of employment. I could report you to the EEOC. Not the best way to start my first day of work.”
He was about to tell her it could be her last day of work, too, if she was going to be like that, but she must have realized what he was thinking and intercepted.
“If you fire me now, after asking me a question like that, I could sue you. You wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on.”
Wow. Big chip for such a little shoulder.
“I’m curious,” he said. Which he realized was true. There was just something about her that made a person feel curious.
Her enormous glasses had slipped down on her nose, so she pushed them up again with the back of her hand. “I’m twenty-eight,” she said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
Chloe Merlin must be a hell of a cook. `Cause there was no way she’d become the most sought-after personal chef on Park Avenue as a result of her charming personality. But to Hogan’s new social circle, she was its latest, and most exclusive, status symbol.
After he’d told Gus Fiver his reasons for wanting to “buy” Anabel that first day in his garage—man, had that been three weeks ago?—the attorney had given him some helpful information. Gus was acquainted with the Carlisles and knew Anabel was the current employer of one Chloe Merlin, personal chef to the rich and famous. In fact, she was such a great chef that, ever since her arrival on the New York scene five years ago, she’d been constantly hired away from one wealthy employer to another, always getting a substantial pay increase in the bargain. Poaching Chloe from whoever employed her was a favorite pastime of the Park Avenue crowd, Gus had said, and Anabel Carlisle was, as of five months prior, the most recent victor in the game. If Hogan was in the market for someone to cook for him—and hey, who wasn’t?—then hiring Chloe away from Anabel would get the latter’s attention and give him a legitimate reason to reenter her life.
Looking at the chef now, however, Hogan was beginning to wonder if maybe Park Avenue’s real favorite pastime was yanking the chain of the new guy, and Gus Fiver was the current victor in that game. It had cost him a fortune to hire Chloe, and some of her conditions of employment were ridiculous. Not to mention she looked a little…quirky. Hogan hated quirky.
“If you want to eat tonight, you should show me my room,” she told him in that same cool, shoulder-chip voice. “Your kitchen will be adequate for my needs, but I need to get to work. Croque monsieur won’t make itself, you know.”
Croque monsieur, Hogan repeated to himself. Though not with the flawless French accent she’d used. What the hell was croque monsieur? Was he going to be paying her a boatload of money to cook him things he didn’t even like? Because he’d be fine with a ham and cheese sandwich.
Then the other part of her statement registered. The kitchen was adequate? Was she serious? She could feed Liechtenstein in this kitchen. Hell, Liechtenstein could eat off the floor of this kitchen. She could bake Liechtenstein a soufflé the size of Switzerland in one oven while she broiled them an entire swordfish in the other. Hogan had barely been able to find her in here after Mrs. Hennessey, his inherited housekeeper, told him his new chef was waiting for him.
“Your room is, uh… It’s, um…”
He halted. His grandfather’s Lenox Hill town house was big enough to qualify for statehood, and he’d just moved himself into it yesterday. He barely knew where his own room was. Mrs. Hennessey went home at the end of the workday, but she’d assured him there were “suitable quarters” for an employee here. She’d even shown him the room, and he’d thought it was pretty damned suitable. But he couldn’t remember now if it was on the fourth floor or the fifth. Depended on whether his room was on the third floor or the fourth.
“Your room is upstairs,” he finally said, sidestepping the problem for a few minutes. He’d recognize the floor when he got there. Probably. “Follow me.”
Surprisingly, she did without hesitation, leaving behind her leather bedroll-looking thing and her gigantic box of plants—that last probably to arrange later under the trio of huge windows on the far side of the room. They strode out of the second-floor kitchen and into a gallery overflowing with photos and paintings of people Hogan figured must be blood relations. Beyond the gallery was the formal dining room, which he had yet to enter.
He led Chloe up a wide, semicircular staircase that landed on each floor—there was an elevator in the house, too, but the stairs were less trouble—until they reached the third level, then the fourth, where he was pretty sure his room was. Yep. Fourth floor was his. He recognized the massive, mahogany-paneled den. Then up another flight to the fifth, and top, floor, which housed a wide sitting area flanked by two more bedrooms that each had connecting bathrooms bigger than the living room of his old apartment over the garage.
Like he said, pretty damned suitable.
“This is your room,” he told Chloe. He gestured toward the one on the right after remembering that was the one Mrs. Hennessey had shown him, telling him it was the bigger of the two and had a fireplace.
He made his way in that direction, opened the door and entered far enough to give Chloe access. The room was decorated in dark blue and gold, with cherry furniture, some innocuous oil landscapes and few personal touches. Hogan supposed it was meant to be a gender-neutral guest room, but it weighed solidly on the masculine side in his opinion. Even so, it somehow suited Chloe Merlin. Small, adorable and quirky she might be, with clothes and glasses that consumed her, but there was still something about her that was sturdy, efficient and impersonal.
“There’s a bath en suite?” she asked from outside the door.
“If that means an adjoining bathroom, then yes,” Hogan said. He pointed at a door on the wall nearest him. “It’s through there.” I think, he added to himself. That might have actually been a closet.
“And the door locks with a dead bolt?” she added.
He guessed women had to be careful about these things, but it would have been nice if she hadn’t asked the question in the same tone of voice she might have used to accuse someone of a felony.
“Yes,” he said. “The locksmith just left, and the only key is in the top dresser drawer. You can bolt it from the inside. Just like you said you would need in your contract.”
Once that was settled, she walked into the room, barely noticing it, lifted her duffel onto the bed and began to unzip it. Without looking at Hogan, she said, “The room is acceptable. I’ll unpack and report to the kitchen to inventory, then I’ll shop this afternoon. Dinner tonight will be at seven-thirty. Dinner every night will be at seven-thirty. Breakfast will be at seven. If you’ll be home for lunch, I can prepare a light midday meal, as well, and leave it in the refrigerator for you, but I generally spend late morning and early afternoon planning menus and buying groceries. I shop every day to ensure I have the freshest ingredients I can find, all organic farm-to-table. I have Sundays and Mondays off unless you need me for a special occasion, in which case I’ll be paid double-time for those days and—”
“And have an additional day off the following week,” he finished for her. “I know. I read and signed your contract, remember? You have Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Thanksgiving off, with full pay, no exceptions,” he quoted from it. “Along with three weeks in August, also with full pay.”
“If I’m still here then,” she said. “That’s ten months away, after all.” She said it without a trace of smugness, too, to her credit. Obviously, Chloe Merlin knew about the Park Avenue chef-poaching game.
“Oh, you’ll still be here,” he told her.
Because, by August, if Hogan played his cards right—and he was great at cards—Anabel would be living here with him, and his wedding present to her would be a lifetime contract for her favorite chef, Chloe Merlin.
Chloe, however, didn’t look convinced.
Didn’t matter. Hogan was convinced. He didn’t care how many demands Chloe made—from the separate kitchen account into which he would deposit a specific amount of money each week and for which she alone would have a card, to her having complete dominion over the menus, thanks to his having no dietary restrictions. He was paying her a lot of money to cook whatever she wanted five days a week and letting her live rent-free in one of New York’s toniest neighborhoods. In exchange, he’d created a situation where Anabel Carlisle had no choice but to pay attention to him.
Actually not a bad trade, since, if history repeated—and there was no reason to think it wouldn’t—once he had Anabel’s attention, they’d be an item in no time. Besides, he didn’t know what else he would do with all the money his grandfather had left him. It was enough to, well, feed Liechtenstein.
Hogan just hoped he liked…what had she called it? Croque monsieur. Whatever the hell that was.
Chloe Merlin studied her new employer in silence, wishing that, for once, she hadn’t been driven by her desire to make money. Hogan Dempsey was nothing like the people who normally employed her. They were all pleasant enough, but they were generally frivolous and shallow and easy to dismiss, something that made it possible for her to focus solely on the only thing that mattered—cooking. Even having just met him, she found Hogan Dempsey earthy and astute, and something told her he would never stand for being dismissed.
As if she could dismiss him. She’d never met anyone with a more commanding presence. Although he had to be standing at least five feet away from her, she felt as if he were right on top of her, breathing down her chef’s whites, leaving her skin hot to the touch. He was easily a foot taller than she was in her Super Birkis, and his shoulders had fairly filled the doorway when he entered the room. His hair was the color of good semolina, and his eyes were as dark as coffee beans. Chloe had always had a major thing for brown-eyed blonds, and this man could have been their king. Add that he was dressed in well-worn jeans, battered work boots and an oatmeal-colored sweater that had definitely seen better days—a far cry from the fresh-from-the-couturier cookie-cutter togs of other society denizens—and he was just way too gorgeous for his own good. Or hers.
She lifted her hand to the top button of her jacket and twisted it, a gesture that served to remind her of things she normally didn’t need reminding of. But it did no good. Hogan was still commanding. Still earthy. Still gorgeous. Her glasses had begun to droop again, so she pushed them up with the back of her hand. It was a nervous gesture she’d had since childhood, but it was worse these days. And not just because her big black frames were a size larger than they should be.
“So…how’s Anabel doing?” he asked.
Of all the questions she might have expected, that one wasn’t even in the top ten. Although he didn’t strike her as a foodie, and although he’d already filled out a questionnaire she prepared for her employers about his culinary expectations and customs, she would have thought he would want to talk more about her position here. She’d already gathered from Anabel that her former employer and her new employer shared some kind of history—Anabel had tried to talk Chloe out of taking this position, citing Hogan’s past behavior as evidence of his unsophisticated palate. But Chloe neither cared nor was curious about what that history might be. She only wanted to cook. Cooking was what she did. Cooking was what she was. Cooking was all that mattered on any given day. On every given day. Chloe didn’t do well if she couldn’t keep every last scrap of her attention on cooking.
“Anabel is fine,” she said.
“I mean since her divorce,” Hogan clarified. “I understand you came to work for her about the same time her husband left her for one of her best friends.”
“That was none of my business,” Chloe told him. “It’s none of yours, either. I don’t engage in gossip, Mr. Dempsey.”
“Hogan,” he immediately corrected her. “And I’m not asking you to gossip. I just…”
He lifted one shoulder and let it drop in a way that was kind of endearing, then expelled his breath in a way that was almost poignant. Damn him. Chloe didn’t have time for endearing and poignant. Especially when it was coming from the king of the brown-eyed blonds.
“I just want to know she’s doing okay,” he said. “She and I used to be…friends. A long time ago. I haven’t seen her in a while. Divorce can be tough on a person. I just want to know she’s doing okay,” he repeated.
Oh, God. He was pining for her. It was the way he’d said the word friends. Pining for Anabel Carlisle, a woman who was a nice enough human being, and a decent enough employer, but who was about as deep as an onion skin.
“I suppose she’s doing well enough in light of her…change of circumstances,” Chloe said.
More to put Hogan out of his misery than anything else. Chloe actually didn’t know Anabel that well, in spite of having been in her employ for nearly six months, which was longer than she’d worked for anyone else. Now that she thought about it, though, Anabel was doing better than well enough. Chloe had never seen anyone happier to be divorced.
“Really?” Hogan asked with all the hopeful earnestness of a seventh-grader. Gah. Stop being so charming!
“Really,” she said.
“Is she seeing anyone?”
Next he would be asking her to pass Anabel a note during study hall. “I don’t know,” she said. But because she was certain he would ask anyway, she added, “I never cooked for anyone but her at her home.”
That seemed to hearten him. Yay.
“Now if you’ll excuse me…” She started to call him Mr. Dempsey again, remembered he’d told her to call him Hogan, so decided to call him nothing at all. Strange, since she’d never had trouble before addressing her employers by their first names, even if she didn’t prefer to. “I have a strict schedule I adhere to, and I need to get to work.”
She needed to get to work. Not wanted. Needed. Big difference. As much as Chloe liked to cook, and as much as she wanted to cook, she needed it even more. She hoped she conveyed that to Hogan Dempsey without putting too fine a point on it.
“Okay,” he said with clear reluctance. He probably wanted to pump her for more information about Anabel, but unless his questions were along the lines of how much Anabel liked Chloe’s pistachio financiers, she’d given him all she planned to give.
And, wow, she really wished she’d thought of another way to put that than He probably wanted to pump her.
“If you need anything else,” he said, “or have any questions or anything, I’ll be in my, uh…”
For the first time, he appeared to be unsure of himself. For just the merest of moments, he actually seemed kind of lost. And damned if Chloe didn’t have to stop herself from taking a step forward to physically reach out to him. She knew how it felt to be lost. She hated the thought of anyone feeling that way. But knowing it was Hogan Dempsey who did somehow seemed even worse.
Oh, this was not good.
“House,” he finally finished. “I’ll be in my house.”
She nodded, not trusting herself to say anything. Or do anything, for that matter. Not until he was gone, and she could reboot herself back into the cooking machine she was. The cooking machine she had to be. The one driven only by her senses of taste and smell. Because the ones that dealt with hearing and seeing and, worst of all, feeling—were simply not allowed.