Authors: Ella Brooke,Jessica Brooke
Not that she’d let him know.
Asam was also a rat bastard who ran off with the first shiny thing he saw. Someone who had gone from being so friendly with her and truly seemed to care about their conversation to just running off with a stripper when Kelly had gone to get a drink. He’d tried apologizing since, but she didn’t understand his motives. Just because her best friend and his brother were married didn’t mean anything. They were both godparents to Gabriel, but that didn’t require them to be lovers. It didn’t even mean they had to be friends. All they had to do was not actively fight on the rare occasions both of them were in front of Gabriel together. Since that happened once in a blue moon, it shouldn’t be too hard.
Except Asam, sex god incarnate, was sitting before her nursing a Scotch. He smelled like a brewery already. He must have had a long night and, by extension, an even longer morning.
“Seriously, what in God’s name are you doing here?”
“A guy can’t get a drink?”
“A guy can’t stalk me.”
“I’m not, that would imply a concerted effort, and I’m not famous for those,” he said.
“Then there are hundreds of cocktail lounges in Vegas, and you don’t need to be on my turf,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. She was only 5-foot-4 and unlikely to be intimidate him, but a girl could dream. She was already having an very shitty day, and it wasn’t even noon yet.
“I was just around,
,” he said.
“I thought you were setting up that hotel and shopping complex back in Al-Marasae?”
He flashed a grin at her. “So you do care. You must have asked after me with Alana.”
“Sometimes things come up in conversation. I know Faaid’s wife is expecting their third, and that your mom has foot surgery coming up. Don’t feel flattered.”
He stood, towering over her. He easily had eight to nine inches on her. His smile widened, and he reached out to stroke her hair back from her face. “You should be flattered. I came here to see you. I’ve missed you, Kelly.”
“Between dating that actress from
and your parade of models who make Giselle look like a heifer?”
“None of them appeal to me like you do,
“Well, as charming as you are even with dragon breath and circles under your eyes, I have a huge meal to plan for a demanding boss. So, I’m going have to take a rain check. In fact, maybe it’ll be for the rest of this century.”
Asam surprised her by kissing her. He didn’t ask. His tongue tangled with hers, and she felt arousal flare through her warm and piercing. When he pulled back, his expression was pure smug self-satisfaction. “I think you’re more interested than you let on.”
“Maybe you’ll learn to breathe underwater or invent nuclear fusion too. Those possibilities are about as likely.”
His eyes flashed with a hint of the irritation. “You’d do well not to defy me, Kelly.”
“Aww,” she said, heading toward the exit. “And here I thought that was what you liked best about me.”
“You want me. Stop pretending you don’t.”
“I want a lot of things, and you’re not even on top of the list, Asam,” she replied before scurrying out of his way.
“So I balanced out the couscous with an eggplant and asparagus roasted medley. I feel the saffron and a hint of paprika add more to the dish to eliminate blandness or the potential for it. I have a similar concept I’m playing with for a tofu dish so we can have additional protein in it as well,” she said, trying to stay upbeat and honest when she put the dish before Monique.
The mogul chewed thoughtfully and swallowed two to three bites, which might’ve been a record for Ms. Dawson. Kelly suspected she’d be on the treadmill an extra half-hour just to compensate. “It’s still a bit dry.”
“I can work on that. Perhaps I could roast the eggplant and asparagus mixture instead of grilling it.”
“Or maybe you’re not good at cooking anything that doesn’t require loads of butter and cream,” her boss said, pointedly. “Look I accept that someone who looks like Melissa McCarthy isn’t going to understand the need for a healthy, vegan lifestyle…”
Kelly took a few deep breaths and reminded herself for the thousandth time that day that she needed this job, even if her boss was an insulting ass. Besides, she was only a size ten. Sure, that wasn’t tiny, but there was no need for her boss to insult her.
Okay, maybe after the latest trip to Al-Marasae and all the delicacies of the palace, she was more like a twelve, but still... Not that the double-zero mogul would know the difference.
“I can retry my approach. It’s more challenging with vegan, but I know I can do this. I have a few colleagues back in New York that I’m planning to visit in order to get their input on their own approach to this. If I had a week or two to revamp and not six hours’ notice, I could create the healthy fusion menu you’re looking for.”
“You have two weeks. Bring me twelve dishes and three desserts to be used as the new signature of Paradiso. I have to love them all, or I’ll find a real chef. Someone who doesn’t use cheese as their default ingredient.”
Kelly clenched her jaw but nodded like a damn bobblehead. If she didn’t want to be unemployed and in jail, it was the only thing she could do to keep herself from decking her boss, even if Monique deserved it.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, barely waiting for Monique to leave before she told Tina and Elan that she’d be starting her two-week trip to New York today. Anything to get away from this humiliation.
If her cheeks were a little wet as she rushed from the kitchen, those weren’t tears. She was too old for that, wasn’t she?
It might be a self-evident statement, but there were definite advantages to being rich. Even though he was too intoxicated to drive, he didn’t have to worry about it. The limo he’d rented at the airport was waiting for him at the side parking lot of the Paradiso. Despite logic, he’d stayed at the casino.
His time hadn’t been spent only nursing cocktails at the bar. He’d also gone to the high roller table for poker and lost several hands. If he had his inheritance for another six months, he planned on enjoying it.
However, after seven hours of drinking and playing cards, he was shuffling off to his limo. The last person he expected to see was a tearful Kelly Kentworth. The sight of tears rolling down her cheeks stabbed into his heart. The last thing he wanted was for her to be upset. He’d been kicking himself since he’d first seen her pain at Alana and Dharr’s wedding. It burned that he’d hurt her so long ago and hadn’t been able to make amends, but seeing her so distraught now bit him even harder, like fangs digging into his flesh.
Even though he had to be the last person she wanted to see, he couldn’t help but check on her to see if against all impossible odds that was something he could do to make her feel better.
, what’s wrong?”
She snorted and pushed aside a tangled strand of hair from her face. “Why do you care?”
“I care,” he said, stroking her cheek and grateful she let him. He’d enjoyed stealing the kiss from her earlier. After all, he was a sheikh and a Hassem on top of that, damn it. He had a right to whatever he wished, but with Kelly, it really was true. A big part of the thrill with her was the chase and her fiery spirit. “You look upset. Is this about me?”
“Don’t assume, Asam. After all, it makes an ass out of you and me.”
“Then it’s not from this morning?”
Kelly took a shuddering breath. “No, it’s not about you. My boss is someone the bitch from
The Devil Wears Prada
would look up to, and she’s decided to vegan-ize our menu. I only have a couple of weeks to research the right recipes, or she’s replacing me. In only five years, I built us up as the best Italian in Nevada. Let’s not even mention the way she talks to me. Sometimes it’s so hard being stared at and treated like dirt just because I’m a little heavier than some.”
He snorted and kept stroking her cheek. Her soft skin was so supple under his fingers. “You’re gorgeous, Kelly, and you know it.”
She stepped back from him, and he wanted to reach for her again. “Maybe not gorgeous enough. I don’t even know why I told you.”
“Because you trust me.”
“No, that’s not it. Maybe it’s because you’re the only one I have any ties to in town besides Jasper.”
He clenched his hands into fists at the thought of this Jasper. After all this time, had he been replaced? Had she finally found someone? “Who’s Jasper?” he asked, trying and failing hard to sound calm.
She smirked at him, the first expression she’d shown that wasn’t flat-out distress. “Oh he’s my rock—very reliable, sweet, greets me when I get home after a hard day.”
“You live together?” he asked. Frustration was roiling in his gut.
“Oh yes. He’s so strong and dependable.”
“So he’d be mad if I took you to a late dinner?”
“Well, he’d be mad if I don’t bring him any takeout tuna. Jasper’s my cat. I’m a living cliché, I’m afraid.”
Asam breathed a sigh of relief and hoped she didn’t notice. Kelly pursed her lips in response. He had to admit there was hardly anything that turned him on more. “So you were just playing with me. I will see you then,
. You’re quite the sly minx, aren’t you?”
“I’m a lot of things,” she said, hiccupping a little. He was glad she wasn’t actively crying anymore.
“I have a waiting limo, my dear. Would you like to go to dinner? You pick. Anywhere and I’ll whisk you away.”
“My own Prince Charming on call.”
“You said it,” he purred.
“Then you have some lofty expectations, my sheikh,” she said before bursting out laughing. “I’ll take you someplace with food I bet you haven’t had before, then we’ll just relax.”
“Oh, I like that.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not what you think,” she said, shaking her head. “I need to vent about that monster I work for, but we’re not getting frisky. I haven’t abandoned all my standards.”
“I think I can help you with that part.”
Asam frowned down at his food. He enjoyed the plentiful mint juleps at Miss Carol’s Soul Food Shack. He’d eaten Southern American cuisine before, most notably down in New Orleans, but he’d assumed from that experience the food was spicy and often highlighted with sausage that he’d had to verify was substituted for the turkey version. He hadn’t expected to see a heaping plate of fried chicken with waffles. Now that was a new one.
“Are you serious?”
She grinned and sipped down her second mint julep of the night before asking the waitress for a shot of bourbon. “It’s a classic dish. You haven’t lived until you’ve mixed sweet maple-syrup soaked waffles with the richness of fried chicken. What? You’ve traveled all over and never had a little downhome cooking?”
“I’ve had gumbo.”
“That’s actually pretty specialized. Aw, I’m so hurt, Asam. I thought you were well-traveled.”
“I am, but I don’t get why you’re supposed to mix breakfast food and fried fowl.”
She grinned again and dug into her own plate. “Carol and I were a year or so apart at the culinary institute we attended in New York. We’re not exactly friends, but it’s always nice when a familiar face does well out in here in Vegas. This town can be tough and isolating. When anyone I know is around and offers a friendly smile, I call that a win. Besides, I’m just getting started. You haven’t lived until you’ve had her pecan pie for dessert with homemade whipped cream. I might be good, but what Carol can do with some shortening is a revelation.”
“So you say,” he added, jabbing at his waffle. Maybe if he ate each of them one at a time, then the combination wouldn’t seem so odd.
“I do. This is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at in my life, and I’ve been to a lot of places, always testing out what other chefs do. Seriously, my sheikh, you need to get a bite of waffle and white meat chicken on the same forkful. You’ve never had anything like it.”
He arched an eyebrow back at her. “I can bet that, but I’m still not so sure.”
“I’m definitely sure,” she said, preparing a fork for him that comprised of that exact, eclectic mixture. “Come on, you’ll do it for me. Humor a girl who’s had an utterly shitty and terrible day, won’t you?”
“I am not sure I can be…” She shoved the fork into his mouth in mid-sentence. Annoyed, he chewed and, oddly enough, had to admit the sweet waffle and the flavorful, moist taste of chicken did work well together. At least he should admit when he was wrong. “But are you really that alone here?”
“Sometime I work fourteen-hour days. It was one thing with Alana here. We were the dynamic duo in middle and high school. I was happy to reconnect with her after culinary school. But it’s one thing when you have a lifelong friend to hang out with you, and it’s something else entirely to make friends as an adult. Even if I did have the time, it’s not like I’m going to make buddies at yoga or a pottery painting class.”
“No, you just paint the already made pieces. They fire the kiln for you so the colors stick. It’s a little different,” she said, winking back at him.
She was already halfway through her bourbon, but he was far from one to judge considering his intake today. It loosened her up though, and this was the first real conversation they’d had since they first met. He’d never liked the posturing they did back and forth, especially all her cutting and bitter condescension. It was nice to be like this. If he had to get down on a prayer mat and thank hops and fermented grains for making this possible, then he certainly would.
It was a nice change of pace.
“I never get some of those preppy American hobbies. I figure if you have a craps table available or a bit of liquor, then you’re already having fun. Even going out to a club, get that blood pumping with some dancing.”
She snorted. “So that’s what they’re calling it these days.”
“Well, I never said spare the down and dirty on the floor. I’m far from strait-laced,
, but the idea of just sitting around painting pottery is so dull that I can’t even imagine how awful it is. If you’re going to make time for yourself and have friends, you might as well do something worthwhile.”