Authors: Amanda Usen
Copyright © 2011 by Amanda Usen
Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Claire Brown
Cover images © Edward Weiland Photography, Getty Images
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For Ben, as always, my hero, my inspiration, and my world.
Marlene Bennet eased the water bath of crème brûlées out of the oven and ignored the ominous sounds of all hell breaking loose on the hot line. Her palm ached to wrap around the handle of a sauté pan. Her fingers itched to grab a pair of tongs and take control of the grill, but that wasn’t her job anymore. She ruled the bakeshop now, and really, it was better this way. She gritted her teeth and kept her hands steady on the steaming hotel pan, taking slow, measured steps toward the baker’s rack to avoid sloshing hot water on top of her custards.
She slid the tray home, smiling a little. Even though the urge to take action on the line traveled through her veins like napalm and nearly made her head explode, it couldn’t detract from the pleasure she felt at the sight of a dozen beautifully set custards.
“Marlene!” Olivia’s harsh shout turned her small smile into a grin.
She checked the croutons in the other oven and set five more minutes on the bakeshop timer. Croutons were sneaky. It was dangerous to leave them alone for too long.
“Marly! Get up here! I’m in the weeds!”
Marlene dodged around her rack and the stainless steel prep table, hung a sharp right, and scooted through the narrow hall. The dry heat smacked her in the face as she stepped behind the line, and she took a deep breath, tasting the air to see if anything was burning. The heat of the grill brought a welcome looseness to her tight muscles and a happy flush to her cheeks. Olivia, her boss and best friend, stood staring at a long line of tickets.
Marlene reached across her line of vision to set the timer in the hot-line window.
“What’s cooking?” Olivia asked, olive-green eyes curious behind too-long, stick-straight bangs. She had the rest of her blond hair confined in a neat braid down her back. She was a straight-up kind of girl in most ways, actually. Her body was lean, her posture excellent. Even her earnest expression gave the impression of candor and linear thinking. The only thing to escape rigid control were her bangs, and Olivia did everything she could to contain them.
Marlene pulled a pair of tongs off the oven door, soothed by the feel of the familiar tool in her hand. “Croutons. Where’s Keith?” She asked the obvious question. The board was full of tickets, but Olivia’s husband was nowhere in sight. She kicked a pile of slick grilled vegetables, compliments of Keith no doubt, under the floor mat for later sweeping.
“Don’t know, don’t care.”
“Yeah, right.” Marly stuffed her craze of multi-colored brown curls beneath her toque. Her hair corkscrewed in five different directions on a tame day, and it was safe to say one or two pieces of cheesecake weren’t going to help or hurt her figure. Luckily, lush was coming back in.
Olivia threw onions and peppers into her sizzling pans. “I’m not dragging Keith’s sorry ass back up here today. He’s working tonight. I only asked him to come in for lunch because Danny called in sick.” She ducked to check the lone steak sizzling in the oven, and Marly hoped it was sweat, not tears, she wiped out of her eyes.
Her crouton timer buzzed, and a second later the one in the bakeshop went off too. “Hang on.”
When she returned, Olivia picked up their conversation. “What are you doing tonight? Can you meet me at the bar after service?”
“At this pace, we can walk over together.” Marlene flipped three chicken breasts on the grill, checked the board, pulled two pieces of salmon out of the cold drawer, seasoned and oiled them, then laid them on the hot side. The flames rose up, but she was already pulling down hot plates for the next table.
“Nah. We’ve only got sixty on the books tonight. I’ll leave as soon as we plate the last reservation. Keith can close.”
“If you can find him,” Marlene said dryly, but not without sympathy. Not entirely.
Olivia pushed a plate into the window with a little more force than necessary and had to wipe the rim.
“You can’t work double shifts forever, Olivia.”
“I know. Neither can you. Just meet me at Johnny’s around ten. I have a surprise for you.” A smirk replaced her frown.
“I hate surprises,” Marlene reminded her.
“You’ll like this one.”
Marlene narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms, leaning against the counter. She glanced meaningfully at the smoking grill and began to count backward from ten.
Olivia caved in time to save the salmon. “Joe Rafferty is coming through town tonight.”
Marly laughed in delight as she flipped the fish. She had only seen Joe in person once, at Olivia’s wedding, but she had paged through the wedding album countless times just to imagine him naked. Tall, dark, and delicious
even in two dimensions
Joe Rafferty had the kind of lethal sex appeal that made her think dirty thoughts, apparently not an uncommon reaction among women. According to Olivia’s culinary school stories, he had slept with every available female, a few unavailable ones, three mail clerks, and at least one chef instructor during their two years at the Culinary Arts College. With rolling admissions twelve times a year, the number had been getting up there by the time he graduated. She imagined a night with Joe would be an experience to remember. Fondly.
Olivia brought her back to the present by sliding four hot plates in front of her. “He’s on his way to California, but he’s going to visit his dad in Kentucky first. Since New York’s on the way, he’s stopping in Norton. Think of it as a gift.”
“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but it took you long enough.”
“The opportunity didn’t present itself. I don’t know why you’re complaining. You have plenty of local guys to torture. You know Danny hasn’t dated another woman since you slept with him, right?”
“Not my fault. Strip poker. I lost. What could I do?”
“Marly, you only lose on purpose, and poor Danny just works here to be near you.”
Marlene shrugged, unrepentant. “You shouldn’t have hired him.”
“I would have been stupid not to hire him. He’s a darn good grill cook. Do me a favor and stop having sex with him, though.” Olivia gave her a censorious look. “That’s what people usually do when they break up with someone. It’s considered humane.”
“Aw, but he looks so sad, and he asks so nicely.”
“Hence Joe. Joe is not nice. You can’t break his heart, and since you don’t seem to have one, I don’t have to worry about him breaking yours either. You guys are two sides of the same coin.”
“How do you mean?” Marly put the plates in the window and buzzed the waiter for pick-up.
“Joe moves around the country like you move around Chameleon. He gets bored easily too.”
Marly laughed, then realized Olivia was serious. “Are you kidding me?”
“What?” Olivia asked. “You aren’t going to tell me you’re sick of the bakeshop now too, are you?”
Marlene stared at her friend, deeply regretting that she had made up that lame excuse for quitting the hot line. How could Olivia not realize what was going on? They’d known each other for almost half their lives. No matter what Marly had said six months ago, Olivia should know better. Cooking was her life, and Keith Watson was a no-talent hack. Marly shook her head. “You know I love the bakeshop.” And the restaurant. And her friend, although at the moment she wanted to strangle her.
“Good.” Olivia stretched until her spine popped. “I’ve got to get prepped for tonight.”
“Keith’s coming back for his shift, right?”
Olivia nodded uncertainly. “You don’t have to stay. Like I said, there’s only sixty on the books.”
“Sixty will turn into a hundred, and you know it,” Marlene warned.
“Anthony can help.”
“The salad boy? Yeah right. He’s been working here, what? A week? Admit it. You need me.”
Olivia sighed. “I’ll get you out as soon as I can. Thanks, Marly. I know you don’t want to be on the line, and I appreciate your help.”
don’t want to be on the line with Keith.
Marlene forced a smile to her lips but didn’t say what she was thinking because her salmons were done and it was time to fire the next table. She was afraid she’d lose if she forced Olivia to choose between her and Keith. Wasn’t that the way it always worked? Staying out of the fray in the bakeshop was getting more difficult by the day, but sharing the line with Keith was not an option. Despite his culinary degree, the man could not cook, and Olivia stood by her husband, seemingly oblivious. Marlene stopped that line of thought before it could hurt and concentrated on the orders.
Right here, right now, for this table, she could make it right. Her world would steady itself for the moment too, thanks to the satisfying lunch rush. She’d get her fix.
“Fire table six,” Marlene said, taking control of the board as another flurry of tickets hit the spike.
When the rush died down, Marlene returned to the bakeshop with a happy buzz of anticipation rolling around her brain. Joe Rafferty was coming through town tonight. How perfect was that? No fuss, no muss
just a good time with no expectations of commitment. Some might call that shallow, but her absentee dad and three stepfathers had taught her that low expectations were rarely disappointed. She brushed crouton crumbs into the trash can and wiped down the butcher-block table with hot, sudsy water, scrubbing at hardened chocolate residue as she tuned in to the late-afternoon waiter chatter.
“Better hope Olivia cooks it,” she heard Shane, her favorite server, declare as he breezed into the back room, closely followed by Beth, his new trainee.
“Cooks what?” Marlene automatically asked.
Shane dropped his tray in the adjacent wait station and began pulling lunch salads from the reach-in while Beth filled two sidecars with the house dressing. Beth was eager and very young, dewy even, but Marlene liked her anyway.
Shane lounged against the table while Beth began to slice bread for the baskets. “Keith is out front chatting up the tables again. I was telling young Beth here that if the customer wants
, she better hope Olivia cooks it.” He paused. “Tuck your thumb in. I don’t have time to take you to the emergency room.” Beth moved her thumb out of the path of the serrated blade and blushed.
“Be nice,” Marlene chastised him.
“I’ll be nice as long as I don’t have to wait for my plates. But that ain’t gonna happen. ’Cause Keith is off again, and this time I don’t think he’s in the dining room, if you know what I mean.” Shane gave Marlene a loaded look. “Oh well, at least my paella won’t taste like a shoe on fire, even if I do have to make my own drinks.”
“What do you mean, Shane?” Marlene gave him her own meaningful look, an evil dominatrix glare no gay man could resist.
“Let’s just say I’d stay out of the dry storage room if I were you. Wouldn’t want to catch something nasty.” Shane swept toward the dining room, enjoying his exit line, carrying salads, bread, and a confused Beth along with him.
That floozy bartender had been trouble from the minute she walked in the door wearing fake eyelashes and bright pink lipstick. Every time Nikki walked by, Marlene expected her platform heels to light up like stripper shoes. Keith wouldn’t dare fool around while his wife was on the premises, would he?
Marlene wiped her hands on her rag and slipped out of the bakeshop.
She could hear Olivia safely calling back orders from behind the line, and the late servers were busy watering tables. No one witnessed her slick, Pink Panther–esque tiptoe down the back hall. She stepped around the dry goods delivery and silently opened the door to dry storage.
Spices, garlic, and just the faintest hint of damp, earthy potatoes perfumed the air. The small room was divided into three sections by tall, stainless steel, commercial shelving. Above the onions and potatoes on the bottom shelf, large cans of tomato puree, clam juice, and just about everything else under the sun blocked Marlene’s line of sight. She edged forward. In the split second before she stepped around the last bank of shelving, she hoped the rhythmic bumping sound she heard was the dish machine echoing down the short hallway.
No such luck.
Keith was hip deep all right, boning away, his checked pants around his ankles. Nikki was braced on the broken ice machine with her eyes shut and her mouth open, holding on for dear life as her high heels clacked together behind Keith’s back.
Marlene couldn’t stifle a snort. He still had his chef coat on, for God’s sake. Now
was lazy. “Zip it up, buddy. You are so busted.”
Nikki’s eyes snapped open, and Keith’s butt tensed. They froze, mid-bump, which made Marlene laugh until she heard a sharp intake of breath behind her left shoulder. Her heart dropped into free fall as Olivia’s quiet voice cut the sudden silence.
“You’re fired too, Keith. And homeless. Get out of my restaurant. Get out of my house. I’m so finished with all of
.” Her disgusted wave encompassed the sweaty pair, the dry storage room, the restaurant, the whole damn state of New York. Marlene swallowed the sudden lump in her throat and blinked away the flash of hot tears. She felt guilty for being fiercely glad Keith had finally done something Olivia couldn’t ignore. Without Keith, things would get back to normal around Chameleon. The restaurant had suffered enough under his hands and, damn it, so had Olivia, whether she knew it or not.
Keith scrambled to yank up his pants, eyes wide over his shoulder. “Livy, you’ve got it all wrong
” he began.
Olivia shook her head slowly. “Don’t even start. I’m not stupid, and I know this isn’t the first time. But I am done. Just get out. I’d rather do every goddamn job in this place by myself than pretend you’re not a waste of space for one more minute. I mean, you couldn’t even wait until service was over?” She checked her wristwatch. “You couldn’t keep your dick in your pants for another hour, give or take your smoke breaks? It’s asking a lot, I know. Well, don’t let me stop you now. You two can finish in the parking lot”
her hard gaze swung to Nikki
“which is where I’m sure you’ve had most of your experience.”