You won’t believe what’s on the menu at this restaurant…
…feed your desires.
Nick Avery stared at the cloud-darkened sky, pulling his coat a little more tightly around him as the cold rain slapped the sidewalk in waves. It was eight o’clock at night. He’d just spent the day – hell, the past month – meeting with the top brass of some of the finest restaurants in San Francisco, and it had come to nothing. Now, he had just parked his car in one of the worst neighborhoods he’d been in since he was a kid, and was standing in front of a restaurant, wedged between a pawnshop and an empty storefront. The windows gleamed like a beacon of warm, welcoming light, as opposed to the cold neon of the adult theater down the street. He glanced up at the sign: a woman, winking, her finger to her full lips in a gesture of silence.
Welcome to Guilty Pleasures.
If his mentor from the Culinary Institute hadn’t specifically told him about this place, Nick thought, pushing the door open, he’d be getting back in his car by now.
The walls were painted in every color, all rich and vibrant enough to make the place explode with it. The chairs were cushioned and deep, the wine glasses uneconomically large, the dishes a riot of different patterns. From the furniture to the flatware, nothing matched. If there was a style, it seemed to be Early Garage Sale. Considering the muted, tasteful décor he’d been surrounded by at Le Chapeau Noir, the restaurant he’d worked at and managed for the past four years, it was something of a shock.
It’s not as much of a shock as getting fired was.
Nick gritted his teeth and walked up to the host’s podium, noting how empty the restaurant seemed for a Thursday night. He wasn’t going to think about Le Chapeau Noir, Phillip, or the whole ugly incident until he got the job. Then, only then, would he work on getting his reputation back.
And getting even.
A man in a tight navy T-shirt and black slacks gave Nick a once-over from the host’s podium. “Table for one?”
Nick shook his head. “I’m here to see Marion Salazar.”
“I see.” The man smiled slyly. “Come on. Kitchen’s this way.”
Nick followed him to the back of the restaurant. The man pushed the swinging door that lead to the kitchen open with a flourish, and Nick was barraged by the noise and clamor of an obviously busy kitchen. “Mari! Another one!”
“Another what, Mo?” a female voice emerged from the ruckus.
“Applicant for the cook’s job,” Mo replied. At that, the kitchen staff went quiet, staring at Nick with open curiosity. “A real yum, too,” the man added. He motioned to Nick to step forward, adding in a stage whisper, “Now everybody’s going to want a good look at you. Go on, work it.”
Nick walked with purpose toward the back of the room. Work it, like hell. What had Leon sent him into, anyway?
A woman with black hair pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck had her back to him, working over the grill, plating up what looked like meatloaf on a bed of mashed potatoes before drowning it in a savory looking brown gravy. It smelled promising. “Order up,” she said, sliding the dish into the order window with a theatric swirl. She turned to him. “So. You’re applying for the cook’s position, Mr….?”
He looked. No. He gaped.
She was wearing a black long-sleeved T-shirt instead of the requisite chef’s whites, and the slogan “Orgasm Donor” was printed on it in bold white letters. The snug fitting shirt molded her body like a lover’s hands. She seemed poured into the jeans she was wearing, as well – and filled that container very, very well. Her jet-black hair, now that he was looking at her head on, sported a streak of royal purple. Her face was a perfect ivory oval, and her exotic cat-like eyes were deep blue. Her lips reminded him of the full wickedness of the woman in the logo. The more he stared, the more he realized there was more than a resemblance.
She was the woman on the sign.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.” Her smile was friendly, perhaps a touch flirtatious.
“Nick. Nick Avery.” Mechanically, he held out a hand, trying to get his bearings. Her hand was warm in his palm. “And you’d be… Ms. Salazar?”
“Marion Salazar,” she said, sending him a wink that sent an unexpected zing through his system. “Mari to my intimates.”
The way she said intimates ought to be illegal.
Not what you’re here for, Avery. He had enough problems right now. Getting lustful about his potential employer was the last thing he needed.
She glanced around the kitchen. “I know we’re not terribly busy tonight,” she said, her voice a low drawl, “but isn’t there something else you guys could be doing?”
The crew quickly erupted into faux industry, the resulting noise almost deafening. Nick sighed. Mari smiled apologetically.
“Well, it’s way too loud out here. Come on, follow me to our spare office.” She pointed to a door at the back of the kitchen. It led to a little storage room with a cluttered desk in the corner. He glanced around. There were no chairs to sit on.
She perched on the desktop, letting her long legs dangle as she studied him. “So. Do you have a resume I can look at?” She grinned. “I’m assuming you have… experience.”
There it was again – that sly smile, the way that every word out of her mouth seemed to have two meanings.
He pulled his resume out of the portfolio. She wiped a hand off on the apron tied around her hips, and took the paper, scanning it. She let out a low whistle.
“Impressive. But I don’t think I can hire you.”
He blinked. She couldn’t have heard about what happened at Le Chapeau – Phillip wouldn’t have said anything that blatant, not to someone like this. Any other restaurant owner would be afraid of a lawsuit, for potential slander, but Phillip wouldn’t be – his family’s flesh-eating lawyers would make him feel pretty safe there. But it had only been two weeks. Phillip had already spread the word to the four-star class restaurants in San Francisco.
Even in the restaurant community’s hyper-speed grapevine, it would take longer two weeks to filter to an off-the-radar place like this.
“May I ask why?” he said, keeping his tone even.
“Graduated with honors from the CSA, helped open one of the most expensive and celebrated restaurants in the city, written up as one of the top ten hottest chefs in Bon Appetit and Saveur magazines?” She shook her head. “You don’t want a job here.”
“I wouldn’t apply here if I didn’t,” he said, not wanting to add I can’t get a job anywhere else at the moment, short of a diner. “I’m looking for a change.”
Her eyebrow quirked up expressively. “This isn’t a change, this is a step down for someone of your… stature.” Her tone was sarcastic. “And the job is a sous chef, not a head chef. We’ve already got one of those here.” She paused. “Me.”
He shrugged. Head chef or no, she could use a good second-in-command sous chef, from the looks of the chaotic kitchen. “I don’t mind.” It was just temporary, anyway.
“Well, I do,” she said, and her tone turned sharp. “I don’t need a chef who’s got a lot of credentials and just yells orders. I need a working line chef, somebody who can get it done. Not somebody who just looks good in a suit.”
“Leon Grunning sent me,” he drawled, keeping his anger at bay. “If I could work for him, I suppose I could manage to make myself useful.”
Her expression softened immediately. “Leon sent you?”
“He’ll give you a letter of recommendation if you need one.”
She shook her head. “I’ll just give him a call. I was going to call him at the end of this week, anyway,” she said, surprising Nick – Leon had been a tough sonofabitch as a teacher, and few students stayed in contact with him. He wondered when Mari had graduated – and how she herself had done in the “CSA’s” rigorous program.
“Okay.” She got up off the desk.
“Okay, I have the job?”
“Okay, you get a trial run.” She adjusted her apron. “Leon’s word means a lot to me… but the restaurant means a lot more. I see how you work with my crew first, then you’re in.”
Five years with a top-ranked restaurant, and here he was, trying out like some novice? Oh, man, if I didn’t need this job…
But he did need this job.
“When do I start?”
She looked him up and down. “Well, tonight’s as good a night as any.”
He stared down at his clothes, aghast. This was a Prada suit, for God’s sake! “Tonight? But I’m not dressed…”
She grinned, and he realized she was taking acute pleasure in his discomfort, so he shut his mouth. She was trying to prove a point. Well, he would pay for dry-cleaning. Hell, he’d sacrifice the suit if he had to. When his plans were finished, he’d be able to buy five more if he wanted. “Tonight’s fine,” he said curtly.
“Great.” She walked over to a cupboard, pulled out an apron and a chef’s toque, a smaller hat than he was used to. “You’ll be working the line… setting up the ‘meez’, expediting orders, whatever else I need you to do,” she said.
The “meez” or mise-en-place was the set up of basic ingredients. So she was going to have him chopping onions and the like, and calling out orders.
He’d show her, he thought.
He pulled off his coat off and placed it on the desk. Then he removed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves, pulling on the apron. “Where do you want me?” he said.
She smiled, a wicked, sensual smile that he was sure was unconscious, even if it sent a blast of heat through his system.
“I haven’t determined if I want you yet or not,” she said slowly, the smile mocking him. “But you’ll be the first to know.”
He was tired, too tired to play games. He stepped up to her until they were only inches apart, gratified by the way her blue eyes widened like saucers.
“Trust me,” he said, in a low voice. “You’ll want me.”
They stood like that for a moment, face to face, challenging. And could have cooked something just from the sudden, inexplicable heat between them.
She was the one who broke eye contact first. Her smile faltered slightly, then came back in full force.
“Well, then… stud,” she said. “Come on. Let’s see if you’re everything you think you are.”