She wailed, “Worse. Way, way worse. When Janie hired me, I told her the only time I see my kids is over Thanksgiving. Every year I fly to Texas on the Wednesday before and come home the Monday after. Janie said it wouldn’t be a problem. But today when I asked who was cooking the big meal next week and filling in for me the days I’m gone, she got mad. She didn’t remember I’d asked for the time off and then said there’s no way I can go with a lodge full of people here next week.” More tears runneled down Dodie’s cheeks. “I already bought my plane ticket. I love this job, but that’s my family time. I’m probably gonna hafta quit.”

So if they couldn’t find a temporary replacement for Dodie, then they’d be looking for a permanent replacement. Tierney patted Dodie’s arm. “We’ll figure something out. Take a break.”

Renner and Janie’s argument ended abruptly when Tierney approached. “I’m hoping you’re discussing cranberry sauce recipes for next week while Dodie’s on vacation.”

“Vacation?” Janie repeated derisively. “It’ll be the first week of her unemployment, not a vacation.”

“You are not gonna fire her to cover your own ass,” Renner warned. “Why won’t you admit you made a mistake?”

“I didn’t make a mistake,” she shot back. “Dodie did, thinking she could pull one over on us.”

Tierney made the time-out sign. “It’ll be a huge problem if we let Dodie walk. We need her. In case you haven’t noticed, Muddy Gap doesn’t have a huge employment pool to pull from.”

Renner said, “Finally. The voice of reason.”

Janie’s gaze winged between them. “You two actually agree on something? I’d be flipping cartwheels if we weren’t so seriously f**ked. This just proves my point.” Her voice dropped. “Dodie is manipulating us. If we give in this time, what happens at Christmas when she pulls the same crap?”

“You think Dodie, the woman who offered to repay us for the pies she burned, is a master manipulator?” Tierney snickered. “If that’s true, I’ll eat my spreadsheet. With relish.”

“For the record, I agree with Tierney,” Renner said. “Dodie stays. However, we still have the problem of getting fifteen meals cooked while she’s gone.”

“Okay.” Janie blew out a breath. “Maybe I overreacted. It’s just everything is going along great and then something happens to throw a wrench into our plans. We’ve advertised the meal as a traditional dinner with all the trimmings. So I suppose if push came to shove, between me, Harper and Tierney, we could get something together.”

Renner looked appalled—and he was looking directly at Tierney.

She poked him in the chest. “Not a word about my lack of culinary abilities, Mr. Jackson. Not. One. Word.”

“I wouldn’t dream of bringing it up, Miz Pratt,” he drawled.

Janie frowned. “How do you know about Tierney’s cooking skills?”

“I don’t,” he lied. “I guessed.”

Tierney looked away from the mirth in his eyes. She’d tried to cook for him a few more times, always with disastrous results. But the suggestion about pitching in gave her a great idea. “I have to check on a couple of things, but I think I can get some of the meals for next week handled.” This would be a true test of her people skills.

Renner and Janie exchanged a look. “When would you know the details?”

“Later this afternoon. Then we can figure out if we’ll need a caterer to fill in the gaps.”

“Sounds good to me,” Janie said. “Renner? You trust us to handle this while you’re gone?” She winked at Tierney. “If I don’t allow Tierney in the kitchen?”

He nodded. “You did bring up a good point about Dodie. We need to get someone else in the kitchen working with her. Someone other than her cousin Lou-Lou. Someone who can fill in, if Dodie gets sick or something. So be on the lookout. Now apologize to Dodie, soothe her hurt feelings. Assure her that she’ll still have her job when she gets back from her family vacation.”

Janie saluted and marched to the kitchen.

As soon as Janie was out of sight, Renner towed Tierney around the corner. “Lookit you. Showing off your mad people management skills.” He kissed the curve of her jaw. “It’s a serious f**kin’ turn-on.”

“Everything is a turn-on for you, Renner.”

“Definitely everything about you is.” His mouth wandered. “Wish I had time to drag you into the closet for a quickie.”

“Me too.” She rubbed her cheek against his, loving the scratch of his whiskers against her skin. “I’m going to miss you.”

Renner eased back and looked at her strangely.

“What?”

“Just surprised to hear that from you.”

“Why? Because you think I’m calculating in business that I’d be that way in my personal relationship too?”

“So you’re admitting we’re in a relationship?”

“Yes.” Paranoia made her blurt, “We are, right?”

“Definitely. I understand why we’re keepin’ it under wraps, but there are times, like now, when I’d really like . . .”

“You’d really like what?”

His eyes were oddly fierce for an instant before he smiled. “Never mind. It’ll keep.”

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