The Queensbay Series by Drea Stein - Book 1 - Darby & Sean's Story

Chapter 1

Darby Reese looked at the box on the counter, disbelief washing over her. This could not be happening, not on her first day in charge. She had planned everything successfully down to the last detail, and now it was all going to fall apart because of one old man.

True, this wasn’t the first time Felix had made a mistake with a food order. But seriously, what was she going to do with a mix of shitake and oyster mushrooms when what she really needed was a simple box of white button caps? She’d lose money the first day if she made that kind of substitution.

            She sighed and tucked a loose strand of reddish-brown hair more firmly behind her ear as she put the box of exotic mushrooms off to the side. The deli had been doing business with Felix for over thirty years. Felix hadn’t been young back then, which meant he was now way past his sell-by date.

Still, she knew her dad always waved off Felix’s mistakes, not wanting to make a fuss or hurt his friend’s feelings. Some things were more important than business, her dad always said, which could explain why The Dory, her family’s deli, hadn’t changed in more than thirty years either. Darby had tried to coax her father into making changes, suggesting he update the menu, perhaps add a fresh coat of paint to the seating area, even going so far as to offer to take on the project herself. But he had always put her off, telling her that she shouldn’t worry about things like that. Focus on school, on getting a job.

And look where that had gotten her. She had played by all the rules, all right, and it had gotten her exactly where her dad wanted her to be. Unfortunately, it also made her miserable. Deep breath, she told herself. Today was the start of a new beginning, and she wasn’t going to second guess herself out of it.

            Going through the rest of the food delivery, she checked off the items against her printed list. She could have done it all in her head, but this was no time to be winging it. Her parents had left for their three-week trip to Italy yesterday afternoon and now, finally, fully, she was in charge—and she planned on running a tight ship.

            She hummed as she put the rest of the ingredients away. The sun was barely up, but she was happy to be here, to be surrounded by the comforting feel of the kitchen she had known all her life. Every pot and pan was familiar, every bowl in its place. Her dad, if not interested in the artistic aspects of cuisine, at least kept a tidy kitchen.

            He’d hemmed and hawed about her taking time off from her “real job” to help out at The Dory while he was away. Since this was exactly the opportunity she’d been waiting for, to have the place all to herself, she’d come up with a story to explain it: she was leaving one position and starting another, much more lucrative one. In the meantime, she had a whole month off, and there was nothing more she wanted to do than to spend it in Queensbay.

She sighed. At least the last part was true. She hoped her parents would forgive her a few white lies if it all worked out. After all, wasn’t that what parents were supposed to do? Even if you knew you were going to disappoint the hell out of them?

            Luckily, her dad had never searched the Internet to check her story. The law firm of Werther and Associates simply didn’t exist, and there was no job waiting for her anywhere because she hadn’t ever applied for a new one after quitting her old one. But all that wouldn’t matter if these few weeks went as planned.

            “You have got to be kidding me.” The voice was authoritative and, truth be told, downright accusatory.

            She looked up as a man stormed into The Dory’s kitchen.

            “Excuse me?” she said, blinking, not quite sure what anyone else was doing here at this ungodly hour of the morning. She glanced over his shoulder, saw that the back door was still swinging shut, and deduced that she must not have locked up after Felix had left.

            “How could you keep fish out like that? Are you insane? And is that raw chicken?” The man was tall, topping out at just over six feet with short, mussed, blondish hair, dark eyes, and impressively large biceps, which were not in any way disguised by the fitted black t-shirt he wore. She let her eyes do a quick assessment of the rest of his body, and yes, she was pretty sure that his muscles continued in a nice long, lean line underneath the shirt as well.

            She managed to draw her eyes back up, wiping her hands on the simple black apron she wore, wondering just what in the bloody hell someone with the kind of body seldom seen outside the pages of a magazine was doing in her kitchen first thing in the morning.

            “There they are.” Apparently recovered from the sight of fish and raw chicken, both of which had been on their way to the large, industrial refrigerator, the man focused on the box of mushrooms. “There are my babies,” he practically cooed, as he picked up the box of fungi and cradled them in his arms. “How dare you take these?” He turned fully to look at her.

            She was overwhelmed. Oh, god. Yes, there was no mistaking it. There he was. In the flesh. Sean Callahan, with his caramel-colored eyes and a deadly look on his face. What in the name of the kitchen gods was he doing here? She had to fight to keep her heart from beating a rapid-fire tattoo against her chest. She hadn’t seen him in months, and yet still she could feel her stomach heave and her palms start to sweat just being in his presence.

            “Take them?” She finally found her voice. She felt like a tornado had swept through the room, to say nothing of how her body felt like she had just stuck her hand in an electrical outlet. He hadn’t changed at all and, she was embarrassed to admit, he still had that effect on her, even after what had happened.

            “My chanterelles, my criminis? You ordered the button tops.”

            She took a step back. His tone was definitely accusatory, and she drew herself up. This was her kitchen, after all, and if there was one immutable law of the kitchen, it was the authority of the head chef. No matter what other chef might appear.

            “Yes I did, and I need them.” She hoped her voice didn’t betray any of the emotions that were currently flaming through her body. She had thought she was over—so over—any feelings Sean Callahan could ignite in her. “And until you can produce button mushrooms, you can just put those down.” She used her best voice, the one that successfully cowed opposing attorneys.

            “Ha, I threw them out. No one in their right mind would use button tops,” he said, with a flick of his hand, illustrating how quickly he’d consigned the poor, innocent mushrooms to the rubbish bin.

            He had taken a step closer to her, and she fought the desire to back down. Something danced in his eyes, and she wondered if he recognized her. Determined to show she was still in charge, she felt a lick of anger spit through her. This was the Sean Callahan she knew, the temper she expected. “You threw my ingredients out?”

            It was she who took a step closer to him this time, noticing his fine, dark eyebrows and the way his nose would have been classically straight and handsome if it hadn’t so obviously been broken.

            One of those eyebrows rose up a fraction, and a hint of a smile ghosted across his full, heavy lips. “Listen, sugar; you can put the knife down. I didn’t mean all that about the mushrooms. They’re just some fungi, right?” His voice had changed from accusatory to conciliatory.

            She glanced down. She did indeed have a knife—a small one—in her hand. She let it drop on the countertop. Sean Callahan, with his doe-like eyes, devilish grin, and quick temper, had strong opinions about most things - that she knew all too well - but she didn’t think he was going to hurt her

“They might just be ordinary fungi to you, but I need them for today’s soup,” she told him, searching his face for some sign of recognition. But she saw none of that, only that sassy, cocky grin. She wondered if it could really be possible, that he had no idea who she was. The thought should have calmed her racing heart, but it didn’t, and instead, she felt the warm prick of heat racing up her neck and onto her face.

            “Ahh, yes, and I need these for my stir-fry,” he said. Without really thinking about it, the two of them had inched closer.

            “Felix has been a bit off lately,” she said, her mind racing, her mouth and brain not quite connecting but feeling that she needed to offer an explanation—any kind of one.

            “Felix?” Callahan echoed, his eyes narrowing. His attention never left her, and she again saw the light dancing in them.

            “From Gourmet Deliveries,” she explained. “I assume we share the same food delivery service. Felix must have mixed up the mushroom order.” Half of her brain was working quite rationally, in the precise, ordered way that had made her a successful lawyer. The other half was noting that her body had not recovered from the instantaneous reaction it seemed to have any time Sean Callahan was around.

            “Ah, yes, that must be it.” He hadn’t blinked, and she found herself almost mesmerized, stupefied by him, until she had to drop her own eyes to break the connection.

            “We haven’t met, have we?” Sean asked, his voice thick with the question, smooth and dripping with charm.

            She reared back, not sure whether or not to be offended that she’s made no lasting impression on him or to a happy dance that he did not remember their last disaster of a meeting.

            “I feel like we met somewhere? The South Beach Food Festival? No? Then at the party that the Food Network gave?”

            She froze. He had moved closer to her, so that their hands, leaning against the large butcher block counter, were close together. He shifted his weight, and in a move so smooth, his head was almost touching hers. He lifted his hand and oh-so-casually brushed the top of hers, sending an electric thrill straight through her—and sending her stomach into backflips worthy of an Olympic gymnast.

            “None of those places?” He raised one eyebrow.

            She felt her pulse thud into overdrive.

            “Well, perhaps I can cook you dinner sometime? I’m kind of a chef, you know. Maybe you’ve seen me on TV?” He leaned in and was practically whispering in her ear. His warm breath stirred her hair, and she felt her legs almost give way.

            Suddenly she sniffed. “Oh no,” she cried, springing into action. She brushed past him, barely managing to push him out of the way. Faint, gray smoke streamed from her oven, and the unmistakable smell of burning baked goods filled the air.

            Grabbing a kitchen towel, she yanked the oven door open, and a snake of smoke wrapped around her. She pulled the tray out and dumped it on the counter so hard that all the cookies, browned as they were, did a little dance in the air before settling back down.

            “I forgot to set the timer,” she said to herself before she remembered that she wasn’t alone.   

            He was still there, arms crossed as he looked at her with one eyebrow quirked up and a self-satisfied smirk on his face. He was obviously waiting for the answer to his question, and she was almost certain he thought it would be a yes.

Had she just been about to fall for one of the oldest lines in the book? From a smug, arrogant jerk of a man who had no idea who she was? What, did he think that just because he was Sean Callahan, that anyone he batted those big brown eyes at would just drop their panties for him?  At least the impending disaster of burning cookies had brought her to her senses.

“I know exactly who you are,” she said, through gritted teeth, “and unless you can bring back my mushrooms, you can get the hell out of my kitchen.”

“Look, sugar, I’m very, very sorry about your cookies. But perhaps we can get together for coffee, maybe compare recipes some time.” His voice still had that gravelly quality, the one that sent little whispers of anticipation up and down her back. Okay, so he was a really attractive, arrogant ass.

            Steeling herself, telling herself to be strong, she said, “Get out. I open in thirty minutes for breakfast. So get out. And don’t call me sugar.”

She turned on her heel. The cookies were an experiment, and not essential to today’s menu. But in another forty minutes, the morning rush would be here for coffee and egg sandwiches and, hopefully, for her light-as-air scones, which she had made and had managed not to burn. She didn’t have time to argue over the comparative value of mushroom varieties.

            There was the sound of something suspiciously like laughter, as she heard the door in the back of the kitchen open, then bang shut.

            She glanced over at the counter where she had been unpacking the delivery. Sean Callahan was gone, without even an iota of recognition on his part. And sure enough, the mushrooms were gone as well. Groaning, she realized that would just be one other thing she would have to handle today. Welcome to life in a restaurant.

 

Chapter 2

The appearance of Sean Callahan in her kitchen that morning had unnerved her, but it had also inspired Darby. After all, this was a man who had once cooked for the President. Suddenly, simple button mushrooms were no longer good enough for her, nor was plain beef soup. Her father had said that she was free to come up with her own daily specials, as long as they were, in his words, “not too fancy, and didn’t cost an arm and a leg.”

Taking that as all the license she needed, she had pulled out one of her favorite recipes, one for wild rice and chicken soup, with a touch of cream and baby Portobello mushrooms. If she were going to make a splash with The Dory while she was in charge, she might as well start off right.

            As she worked, her mind wandered. Sean Callahan. What was he doing here in Queensbay? Up until recently, he’d been a hotshot New York City chef, running one of the hottest kitchens in town and starring in a cooking segment on one of those late-night shows. He’d taken the food world by storm in just a few years, rising from virtual obscurity to managing some of the finest restaurants in town, cooking for celebrities to becoming one himself. Well, you had to be a foodie, really, to know who he was, but among a certain segment of the food-loving public, Sean Callahan had been the man. And it didn’t hurt that he was just plain yummy to look at.

Unfortunately, among the people who worked in the industry, he had a developed a reputation for having a bit of a temper. But since the end result was usually too good to pass up—great food, great press, and celebrity diners—everyone had turned a bit of a blind eye, and his star kept rising.

And then all of a sudden, he’d just dropped from view. Like a day-old dinner special. She’d figured he’d have landed somewhere, but it was indeed odd for the former chef du jour to wind up in Queensbay of all places. Sure, the village was a beautiful place to visit, especially if you liked boating, but he’d come here to cook, not sail; otherwise, why would he be so concerned about his mushrooms?

            She took a deep breath, trying not to remember the way he had looked—confident, arrogant even—in the tight black t-shirt that had shown off those well-muscled biceps. While not quite bulging, they certainly showed a dedication to a regular exercise routine—or just excellent genes, she mused as she chopped some fresh tarragon. It just wasn’t fair that a face and body like that could belong to someone with such a terrible personality. Or maybe that was exactly fair, she thought.

            He hadn’t recognized her, of course. She couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or more salt rubbed in the wounds of her humiliation. Apparently, her last encounter with him had made much more of an impression on her than on him. But then again, he’d been Sean Callahan then, at the apex of his career, and she was just Darby Reese, another nameless culinary student. No reason he should remember her the way she remembered him.

But today, he’d walked into her kitchen and, unless her radar was totally off, she was fairly sure Sean Callahan had been putting the moves on her. His eyes had held hers so intently, that it had made her heart hammer in her chest. Ugh, she had to be a total glutton for punishment if she was even thinking of going there. And besides, Sean Callahan was a known player. It seemed like every other day there had been a story linking him to another actress or model.

So there was no reason why his caramel eyes should have lit up in recognition at seeing her, no reason why his pulse should have matched her racing one. Girls like Darby, good girls, who followed the rules and played it safe, didn’t make pulses quicken and hearts flutter. She’d been told that more than once by her last boyfriend. Nope, Sean had just been making the moves because he probably tried it on just about every girl he could.

She sighed. Of course, he put the moves on everyone. He was Sean Callahan, the infamous Chef Sexy and for all he knew, she was just some girl working in the kitchen of the village’s favorite greasy spoon. He was probably looking for just another notch on his ladle.

“I got the heavy cream and those mushrooms you needed,” Caitlyn Montgomery said, breezing in through the back door of The Dory’s kitchen with a cloth shopping bag slung over her shoulder and her phone in one hand. She was apparently trying to text, her thumb moving furiously over the screen, and talk to Darby at the same time. Predictably, she did not succeed. “Hell’s bells!” she yelled as she hit her hip bone on the pointy edge of a stainless steel prep counter.

            “Caitlyn,” Darby said, gritting her teeth. Her friend’s exclamation had been loud enough that several customers were staring back into the kitchen with interest. It was also enough to pull her out of her obsessive Sean Callahan thoughts.

            “Fine, fine,” Caitlyn huffed, and there was a clatter of plastic and keys as she threw her stuff down on the prep area.

            “Not here,” Darby hissed, trying not to get raw onion on Caitlyn’s expensive phone in its even more expensive Italian leather case.

            Rolling her eyes, Caitlyn took her keys, purse, and phone back to the counter that Darby had designated just for that purpose.

            Satisfied that at least someone was listening to her today, Darby turned her attention back to the pile of onions.

            “Okay, so you needed cream, mushrooms, this long stem wild pilaf rice . . . .” Caitlyn clacked back over to the prep area in her elegant sandals and started to pull items out of the grocery bag.

            “You’re a lifesaver. Thanks for picking that stuff up. I know you’re on your way to work.”

            Caitlyn Montgomery, with hair so dark it was almost black, and cool, gray eyes, stood there in her summer-weight business suit with her arms crossed and an interested expression on her face. She was a year or so older than Darby and almost like a big sister to her. They’d grown up in Queensbay together until Caitlyn had left for college and later London. She’d only recently returned to the States, and she and Darby had reconnected as if no time had passed.

“What’s that?” Caitlyn said as a phone vibrated. “Oh, it’s yours.” She picked up the phone from the shelf where Darby had placed it, glanced at the screen, and said, “Uh oh, it’s your dad.”

            “What is he saying?” Darby asked. She spared a glance for Kelly, the longtime employee who was working the front. It was past the morning rush, and most of the customers were ordering muffins and scones with their coffee, instead of egg sandwiches.

            “Don’t forget to rest the freezer on Tuesday, the invoice from Felix needs to be paid, you’re low on chicken broth—you know, all the exciting stuff.”

            “Nothing about the view, the food?” Darby said.

She had gotten one message from her mom, soon after her parents had landed in Milan. Her mother had immediately sought out chocolate hazelnut gelato and texted Darby a picture. But the trip, after all, had been her mother’s idea: a three-week-long tour of Italy, including a stay in an authentic Tuscan palazzo. It was the trip of a lifetime, a promise her father had made to her mother years ago but had never made good on.

Truth was, Reg Reese would much rather have been keeping watch over Queensbay Harbor and sneaking out early for an afternoon of fishing and beer than sipping Chianti under the Tuscan moon. But Aggie, Darby’s mother, had finally found a “great deal” and had Reg reluctantly packing his bags.

            “Nope. Just instructions. I did get one from him, too, asking how you were doing,” Caitlyn said, finding one of the thick, plain white mugs and pouring herself a cup of coffee from the carafe Darby had set aside.

            “And what did you say?” Darby said, trying to keep her voice neutral.         

“The truth.”

 

Chapter 3

The knife slipped, and Darby almost cut her knuckle off as she searched Caitlyn’s face. “How could you—”

            “Got you,” Caitlyn said with a laugh, her gray eyes dancing with mischief, “and watch it with that knife. I thought that was the first thing they taught you in those fancy cooking classes, how to handle the sharp, pointy things.”

            “You’d better watch it,” Darby said, as her heart rate returned to normal, and she continued to add to the pile of onions in front of her. “I can debone a whole fish in thirty seconds.”

            “Oh, I’m scared,” Caitlyn said, her black eyebrows rising above the rim of the white coffee cup.

            “Well, what did you tell him?” Darby asked when she could no longer stand the suspense. She had thought her dad was above spying on her, but at least he had gone to someone friendly to her point of view.

            Caitlyn shrugged. “That you’re doing fine. It’s only the first day, after all. I mean, how bad could things go on the first day, right?” Caitlyn’s eyes were no longer dancing, and instead, she shot a long, considering look at Darby.

            There was a pause; the only sound the jingle of the bell above the door and Kelly’s voice as she called out goodbye to a customer.

            “What is it?” Darby had long ago learned to read into Caitlyn’s silences.

            “Are you sure about this, chucking your career? You spent three years in law school, two in practice.”

            “It was three years in practice. And I hated every minute of it,” Darby felt her voice explode in frustration as she remembered every moment of that soul-sucking time.

“But you seemed to be doing well at it,” Caitlyn said.

Darby sighed, tried to keep her temper in check. No one had said this plan would be easy, which was why she had stopped sharing it. But it seemed as if today, the world was aligned against her. First uber chef Sean Callahan had burst into her kitchen accusing her of theft and now Caitlyn, one of her oldest friends, was questioning her meticulously drawn up plans.

“I thought you were on my side.”

Caitlyn held up her hands. “I am, of course. You know I’m always on your side.”

Darby sighed, into another one of Caitlyn’s silences. “Well, what is it now?”

“It’s just your dad’s so proud of you. I mean seriously, every time he gets a chance to slip it in, he does . . . ‘My daughter, the lawyer.’ Ugh. It would be obnoxious if it weren't so cute,” Caitlyn said, then took a sip of her coffee.

Guilt rose up in Darby. Unlike Caitlyn, she had a close, loving family that was invested in her every success. This was part of the whole problem, why something so simple just wasn’t. She threw down the knife and scrubbed a hand over her face. “It’s just . . . It’s that I can’t do it anymore. Sitting in an office, behind a desk all day, looking over papers. It’s killing me. I want to cook, and I know it was never something my dad wanted for me, but it’s what I want. I know how proud he is, but I can’t spend all my life living out someone else’s plan. You, of all people, should understand that.”

Caitlyn searched her face and then gave a single nod of her head. “You’re right; I do understand that.”

            “So you’ll keep it under wraps for a while longer?” Darby asked desperately. Queensbay wasn’t exactly a small town, but it operated like one. Nothing stayed secret for long.

            Neither of her parents knew that she had ditched her job for an intensive course at the New York Culinary Academy last fall. After that, she’d done an internship in the kitchen of an upscale French-inspired restaurant on the Upper East Side where she had been yelled at, had food thrown at her, and generally been belittled, all in the name of haute cuisine. She’d taken it since she considered it crucial training for her next big step.

 She had always loved to cook, but doing it in a professional kitchen was a whole new experience. The temper, the passion, the excitement—they were like nothing she had experienced in law school, where everything was dry and dull, reduced to simple black and white. She had absolutely loved it and knew she couldn’t go back to her old life.

            Cooking was all about the nuances and flavors. Sure she had worked in restaurants as a waitress all through high school, college, and law school to make her spending money. But it was only in the last year—as the realization that a life working at a big law firm lay ahead of her—that she knew with a fierce certainty she had to get out. She even had a plan. After all, her dad wasn’t getting any younger, and The Dory wasn’t going anywhere.

“Look, I tried to tell my dad what I wanted to do. I even made him an offer to buy him out. He just laughed at me. Said that I was meant for ‘better things.'”

Darby shook her head. She had hoped that offering money would show her father how serious she was, how she wanted to be part of the family business, take it over from him, even buy it outright if that’s what it took.

            Caitlyn was rooting around for a chocolate chip cookie, prying off the lid of the airtight plastic container Darby had placed them in. She’d had to bake a new batch after Sean Callahan had ruined the first.

            Caitlyn took a bite of her cookie, eyes closed as she savored the way the chocolate mixed with the sugar, butter, and flour to create the perfect melt-in-your-mouth flavor.

            Darby knew this because the cookies were her specialty—a giant confection of chocolate and sugar and fat that no one could resist.

            “Man,” Caitlyn said, “I swear these are the best yet. What could he possibly mean by ‘better things’ when you can make these?”

            Darby smiled. She knew at the end of the day she could count on Caitlyn, even if her plan was sneaky, underhanded, and just this side of crazy.

            “Your dad is going to flip when he comes home and finds that you’ve changed the entire menu around on him,” Caitlyn said.

            “Look, if he doesn’t see things my way, then he can always change it back.”

            “And what will you do?” Caitlyn stopped chewing and looked at her.

            “There are other storefronts in town.”

            “With commercial kitchens, a half block from the marina?” Caitlyn pointed out.

            “Well, no, and I would hate to compete with my dad, but I’m prepared to play dirty.” Darby looked at her friend. “I quit my job; I gave up the lease on my apartment. I dumped my boyfriend because he thought I didn’t have the guts for it. I’ve saved every penny for years to make this happen, even when I didn’t know what I was saving it for. Come hell or high water.”

            “Fine,” Caitlyn shrugged, not letting Darby finish. “I get it. You’re playing for keeps. Just remember, you have just about three weeks for your grand plan. Plus, I’ll make you a bet.”

“What kind of bet?” Darby asked. Caitlyn was a born gambler. The stakes could have been anything, from a dollar to a hundred, the bets ranging from tracking down a cute guy’s number to something crazy like jumping into Queensbay Harbor in the middle of winter.

“I bet that if you can increase The Dory’s revenue by, say, fifty percent, in the three weeks he’s gone, then maybe, just maybe, your dad won’t go ballistic when he finds out you quit your promising career to keep the populace of Queensbay in baked goods.”

“Okay?” Darby couldn’t exactly see how this was a bet. “So, if I win, I get to work at The Dory and preserve family harmony, and you get to eat cookies for the rest of your life?”

“Correct,” Caitlyn said, smiling.

“Well, what do you get if I lose?”

“Your secret cookie recipe,” Caitlyn said.

Darby’s eyes widened. “It’s a secret for a reason.”

“Well, then, don’t lose,” Caitlyn said, as she grabbed her stuff and started to sashay her way out of the kitchen.

“I don’t see how you can lose—either way, you get cookies,” Darby called after her.

“Exactly!” Caitlyn said. Just before she went through the door, she called out, “Your dad wanted me to remind you to go to the Chamber of Commerce meeting today. It’s at the Village Hall.”

            The door slammed, and Darby swore. She had forgotten about the Chamber meeting. Just another thing that would keep her out of the kitchen. She glanced up at the clock and realized she had only an hour before the lunch crowd started to come in. She’d better get moving if that soup was going to be ready.

Chapter 4

He looked at his assembled collection of basil, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil. Pesto. He’d been trying to teach one of the line cooks the right way to make pesto, but somehow he found himself staring at the dark green of the basil and thinking about eyes.

Not just any pair of eyes, but the ones belonging to the woman who’d been in the kitchen at The Dory, the little deli where someone had suggested he might find his mushrooms. He’d barely noticed it on his first walk through town, but when he’d approached, he’d been struck by its good location. Not too far off the water, in a sturdy brick and wood building, just as quaint as all the others in this typically quaint town.

 The inside space was a decent size, with a serving counter and some tables, but the place could have used a paint job, inside and out. He’d gone through the back—force of habit when he entered a kitchen—and been pleasantly surprised to see that, if not modern, it had at least been clean.

            The woman standing there had been plainly taken aback to see him, her mouth drawn into a startled O that had quickly turned to annoyance. Her eyes had flashed, and he had immediately thought of the green of fiddlehead ferns. Or the green of dried sage. Not brilliantly green, but a dusky, earthy green. They had stared at him quite hotly, rightly annoyed at his intrusion.

            He’d been so disconcerted by the eyes, by the way, she had looked, that he had forgotten to use any of his charms. “Roguishly charming” was what his kindergarten teacher had called him, and the description had been apt, since all his life he’d relied on that charm to keep him out of trouble. But there had been something about her that had rendered him speechless or, worse yet, incapable of polite speech. So he had done whatever he did when he felt like he needed to get a handle on the situation—go on the offensive.

            Okay, so maybe, when it had just been about the mushrooms, he’d been rude. But then he had seen her eyes, and what? He’d needed—no, he had been overwhelmed by the sense that he knew this woman, that he had to get to know her. So, what had he done?

            He shredded the basil efficiently, still thinking. He’d tried to find out where he knew her from. But she had just stood there, silent, eyes boring into him until he had tried one of the oldest lines in the book. Real smooth move.

No wonder her eyes had hardened with anger and those cute little lips had grown tight and thin. He didn’t think she was a woman that responded well to pick-up lines. There had been something distinctly elegant about her long, lean body and fine-boned features. Classy types like her usually didn’t want to give him the time of day.

            “Excuse me, Chef?” The voice was hesitant, and Sean turned to see one of his line cooks standing there. “Was this what you were looking for, the broth?”

            He looked. “I said beef, not chicken.” The line cook’s hand shook, and Sean sighed, resisting the urge to yell. After a rocky start at the restaurant, he’d done his best to be nicer because - hell, he wanted to be a nicer, better person. He didn’t want to be that guy, the one the whole world already thought they knew.      

And this was his chance. His shot at redemption, his chance to get back into the big leagues. He couldn’t mess this up. He’d made a promise to himself that he would do whatever it took to get it all back.            

“I don’t think we have any more,” Kevin, the line cook, managed to say.

            Sean suppressed his second sigh. The entire kitchen staff of the Osprey Arms had been a pretty sorry lot. Well, he supposed sorry was too harsh a word. They were rather average, and that’s just what this restaurant was, too. Or had been. He’d been here almost three months and was whipping them into shape, but there was still a lot of work to do.

The restaurant had an amazing location, nestled right on the edge of Queensbay Harbor, and was the first dining establishment anyone who tied up at the busy marina saw. But until recently, its specialties were baskets of fried shrimp and frozen cod. That was, until Chase Sanders, a local businessman, had bought the whole complex, a marina, hotel and restaurant combo.

Sean had met Chase a few years ago, and he had been the first person Chase called when the deal on the Osprey Arms closed. Chase had offered him the chance to be a full partner in developing an upscale steak and seafood place. At first, Sean hadn’t been interested, not wanting to leave the rush of the big city for a small town in Connecticut that no one had ever heard of.

But Chase was a patient guy. After Sean had found himself out of a job and out of favor, Chase had called again. Being a stand-up guy, Chase hadn’t changed the deal. A full partnership and the authority to design a new menu and run the restaurant the way Sean wanted. All of a sudden, what had seemed like a step down a few months earlier now appeared to be the perfect way to make the climb back to the top. Eventually, even his publicist had come around, and so far Sean had been here a few months, working hard to turn the restaurant into something unique—a high end, but still friendly place that served impeccably prepared gourmet food.

But in order to do that, he needed to raise everybody’s standards, and it started with the staff. That was one of the first lessons Big Mac had taught him back in the kitchen of that simple rib joint in Indiana. It all came down to how well your team worked together as well, as a team. You couldn’t serve over a hundred dinners a night flying solo, whether the dish was filet mignon or chicken and biscuits. And if it took some shouting to make it happen, well then so be it.

            “Well, then, add it to the list,” Sean said, pleased that his voice was calm. He almost went back to his chopping, but he turned. “Hey, kid, you from around here?”

            Kevin turned and nodded, plainly too scared to speak.

            “You know that deli up on Main?”

            “The Dory,” Kevin nodded, and Sean could see him relax a fraction. “Good sandwiches,” the cook added and then shuffled his feet as if aware that offering an opinion on food was a dangerous thing to do.

            “Who owns it?”

            “The Reeses. Owned it for years, I think, even when my grandmother was alive.”

            “Reese,” Sean said. “Thanks,” he added over his shoulder. Well, that girl hadn’t been more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight, so probably not the Reese who had owned it for years. She looked like she was in charge, though—Sean could always tell—so maybe she was a family member.

            There had been something in the way she looked at him. Or maybe it had been how she looked: short khaki shorts, plain white sneakers, a simple gray V-neck t-shirt, an apron around her waist. Her hair, that red-gold color, had been pulled back in a ponytail, but some of it had escaped, waving about her face. She had a nice, trim figure, the kind that begged you to touch and feel. She had even smelled good, like vanilla and flour.

            But the way she had looked at him, hand clenched around the handle of the knife. Like she had known exactly who he was, what kind of person he was—and hadn’t liked what she was seeing.

            He’d gotten used to that. The recognition. He knew, truly, that he wasn’t famous. But even a few appearances on late night TV, plus that flattering profile by the reporter who wanted a good table at his last restaurant had been enough to get him “recognized.”

And at first, it had been nice, the recognition. He had taken full advantage of it. He was a kid from a small town in the Midwest. The fame had been what he had always imagined it would be like, from the guys who were asking for a table at your restaurant, to the girls who wanted to get close to you. The money hadn’t been so bad either, but that had seemed beside the point when he’d been everyone’s darling. So what if he ran a tough kitchen. It wasn’t easy staying on top.

Then there had been a few of those not-so-flattering stories. About his late nights and how the food he cooked looked better than it tasted. And there had been the rumors of his temper. Greatly exaggerated for the most part. Okay, so maybe that was the one part they had gotten right. And his fall had been just as swift as his rise. All of a sudden, people had looked at him with, what—a certain kind of wariness, like they expected him to start yelling and throwing things.

            He’d seen the whisper of fear that ran through the staff at the Osprey when Chase introduced him. One of the waitresses had even quit on the spot, saying she wouldn’t work for a thug. Sean knew that he had a lot of work to do to repair his reputation. So far, things were coming along okay. His staff was starting to treat him like a normal person, and he found that he liked the pace here in Queensbay. He was calmer, and that meant that he yelled less. He was able to focus more on the food, and that made him happier than he’d been in a long time. And since he was a partner, it turned out the money wasn’t so bad either.

His last dinner was served by nine, ten at the latest. He’d been going to bed at a reasonable hour, had even started to get up and go for a run along the beach in the mornings. He’d been working on some new recipes and hoped to pull them together in a cookbook. The restaurant was starting to get a reputation for serving locally sourced, seasonal food. All things considered, life was going much better than he had hoped. So it made no sense that some girl who looked good in an apron should be occupying so much of his thoughts.

            “What are those?” Sean sniffed, as one of the waitresses walked by carrying a pink-and-white-striped cardboard box. The aroma had caused a stir in the restaurant as most of the staff gravitated toward her.

            “Cookies. From The Dory. Darby’s back in town while her parents are on vacation. She’s baking them for the store.”

            Kevin was the first to scoop one up. “These are amazing. Remember when she used to make them for the football games?” There was a general murmur of agreement.

            The Dory. Darby Reese. That meant she must be the daughter of the owners. Now that he knew a name, Sean tried to search his memory, to see if he could remember her. No, there was nothing. “Let me try.”

            The staff cleared a path for him.

            He looked in the box, saw it was piled high with chocolate chip cookies the size of his palm, studded with big, dark chips of chocolate. They were a perfect golden brown. He selected one and felt every eye on him as he took a bite. The chocolate and dough melted in his mouth. “Wow,” he said, surprised. “These are really good.”

            The waitress flashed him a relieved smile. “Darby knows how to bake ‘em.”

            “And she’s easy on the eyes,” said another waiter, a college kid with shaggy hair.

            There was a nervous ripple of laughter as Sean let a hint of a smile cross his face before he shut it down. “That’s enough. Back to work.” Somehow the thought of that pimply kid commenting on Darby’s good looks bugged him.

            The staff scattered, and Sean worked with them, helping them with their techniques, identifying the skills they needed to work on.

            After an hour or so of talks and making notes, he stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. There was a view of the water, even here, from the back door of the kitchen. Queensbay Harbor was a huge indent on the coastline of Connecticut, ringed by beaches and hills, with the village at the very apex of it and houses fanning up and out on either side. The harbor, even on a weekday, was busy with the hum of motorboats and the snap of crisp white sails.

There was the faint tang of salt and something else—seaweed, he guessed, because until he’d come to Queensbay, he’d never been this close to saltwater. The town was cute, hugging the Connecticut shoreline and filled with houses and stores that had been built over two hundred years ago and, except for new paint, looked like they hadn’t been touched. Everything had a look of prosperous self-assurance about it as if Queensbay and the people in it were sure of their place in the world. All in all, it had a simple and quiet feel and was just what the doctor, or rather his publicist, had ordered.

            Get out of the city, keep a low profile. Be successful, keep his nose clean and then, just maybe, he’d get another shot at the big leagues again. So far things were going according to plan. His publicist planned to have him back in the city by September, but now, standing here looking at the broad expanse of the harbor, at the dark green hills that ringed it and the sapphire-blue sky, he wasn’t so sure that he wouldn’t miss the place just a bit.

            He was about to go inside, thinking it was time to give the staff a lesson on mushrooms when his phone beeped. It was an alarm. Chase had asked him to go to the Chamber of Commerce meeting, something about getting more established as a businessman in town. Sean had seen right through that. There was no way Chase wanted to sit through a meeting on a glorious summer afternoon, so he was pawning the obligation off.

            He sighed. Another freakin’ meeting. He’d much rather be in the kitchen.

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Chapter 5

            Darby was running late, mostly because she had wanted to change out of her work clothes, but she couldn’t help taking a moment to enjoy the sunshine as she walked the few blocks that separated The Dory from Village Hall. She waved at people she knew, friends of the family, men, and women she’d known all of her life. She caught sight of a pair of cute earrings in the window of The Garden Cottage and made a mental note to pop back in later to try them on.

            It felt nice, right, to be here, even if it was under false pretenses. For just a moment, she let the sun warm her cheeks and took in the sight of the harbor spread out before her. She had missed the water, she admitted to herself. Four years of college, three years of law school, and three more working—and every day, she had missed being able to see the water. It would be perfect to be able to wake up to this every morning. Surely, her dad would be able to understand her need to come home if nothing else.

            Queensbay had always been a summer town, a haven for boaters. They docked at the marina or anchored in the harbor, creating flotillas of party boats. Other sightseers came by train or car to grab a room at the Osprey Arms and spend a day or two poking around the antique stores and knickknack shops, exclaim over the neat, well-kept houses behind white picket fences, hear a live band play along the waterfront, and have dinner while watching the sunset over the harbor. Though small, Queensbay always felt just busy enough, never too small or too big.

And it didn’t end with summer. Fall was soccer and apple picking time, time for pumpkin carving and leaf pile jumping.  She loved autumn too, when you could build a crackling fire indoors when it was time to lay on the soup and casseroles, to hunker down and pull out the sweaters and cozy up. Queensbay was her home and everything that meant. Some part of her had known that she would always wind up here, no matter how many times her dad had told her to go off and spread her wings.

The town, too, was growing. It was no longer quite as sleepy as she remembered from childhood. The relocation of a few big companies and the expansion of the local hospital meant that more people were discovering the charming little village on the water. It was now home to folks year-round, both young families with kids and the double-income, no kid, executive couples.

Her dad complained about them, saying they were too fancy, with gourmet tastes. Suddenly, pastrami on rye with a side of slaw wasn’t okay anymore. These customers wanted fresh chicken with pesto mayonnaise on a crusty roll, topped off with a cappuccino and biscotti.

            She shook her head as she walked, noting all around her the signs that Queensbay was changing. There was a new designer boutique on the corner and a fancy ice cream shop that served a cone as big as a dinner platter.

She’d suggested to her dad that maybe it was time to update things a bit; fix The Dory up, add in a few new menu items. But he’d only sniffed and muttered, saying if his sandwiches weren’t good enough for them, then they could shove off. The Dory was the only deli in town and apparently had the profits to prove it, she knew her dad didn’t have much motivation to keep up with the times. Still, she hoped to show him that a little change could go a long way.

            Village Hall appeared before her, an impressive brick building that anchored the downtown portion of the village. Well over a hundred years old, the building was a familiar local landmark. All charm, however, ended at the front door. Inside, it was like any government building, with beige walls and gray carpet.

She took the wide steps up to the entrance, pushed through the double-height door and onto the first floor. She had to climb the stairs up to the second-floor conference room where the Chamber of Commerce meetings were held. The room was only half-filled, and she breathed a sigh of relief that she wasn’t late. Apparently, a Chamber meeting in the middle of a summer afternoon wasn’t on the top of anyone’s priority list.

“Well, well, Darby, you’re looking quite well.” Mayor Peyton came over and gave her both a kiss on the cheek and a handshake. He was about the same age as her father but with an impressive set of jowls that was a testament to his politician’s “man about town” status. Mayor Zander Peyton was the type of man who never cooked at home when he could eat out, who never drank alone when he could buy the room a round, and who never turned down a cup of coffee even if it meant hearing the gripes of the populace of Queensbay. He’d been the mayor for a record four terms and counting, and when not running the business of the village, he was a high school science teacher.

            “Thank you, Mr. Mayor. It’s nice to be back in town,” she said, genuinely glad to see him. He had been her science teacher too, and until he pointed out the comparisons between cooking and chemistry, she’d dreaded the class. Since then, she had appreciated the technical aspects of cooking as much as the artistic side.

            “Glad you could make it to our meeting today. It’s always nice to have some fresh, young voices around the table,” he said, giving her shoulder a final, friendly squeeze.

            Alone now, she surveyed the scene. The conference room had a gray-beige rug, a fake wood table, and serviceable chairs. The room was starting to fill up with the members of the council: all the men and women who owned businesses in the village proper and in the outlying commercial areas. More than a few nodded and waved to her.

            Joan Altieri, the owner of The Garden Cottage, came over to her, sliding into the chair one over from her, her hair bleached and styled in a pixie cut for the summer. “How are you holding up with your parents out of town?”

            Darby’s mom and Joan had been friends for years, and she was sure that her mom had asked Joan to check up on her.

“Just fine,” Darby answered. “Made it through the breakfast rush without a hitch.”

She nodded, trying to sound like she was in control. Lunch had been easy, too—slow, almost, compared to the crush she was used to from her jobs at restaurants in the city. And maybe, if she were honest with herself, a bit slower than the way she remembered lunch at The Dory had been. It might be time to look over the books at The Dory, to see if things were really as sunny as her father kept saying they were.

            “I keep telling Reg you missed your calling going into law,” Joan said.

            Darby froze. “What do you mean?”

            Joan squeezed her hand. “I hear you’ve been making your cookies again. I tell you, the whole town just waits until you get a chance to stop by and whip us up a batch. Seems like you could make yourself quite a fortune if you just concentrated on making those cookies.”

            Darby managed a nod, hoping that the panic she was feeling didn’t show in her expression. As a lawyer, she’d grown pretty good at keeping a poker face, but it was harder to do that around people she had known all her life. She certainly wasn’t ready to let anyone besides Caitlyn know that she had quit her job and was planning to convince her dad to let her join him in the family business.

            “Who knows? Maybe your dad will bring us back some new recipes. All of a sudden, I feel like Queensbay is becoming so cosmopolitan,” Joan said. “Why my sales are up twenty percent this season alone—and not just because I raised my prices, mind you. Used to be we had more browsers than tourists, but now I feel like we’ve got our own little bit of fancy. I mean, you’ve heard what they’ve been doing to the Osprey Arms?”

            Darby looked at Joan, whose eyes flickered behind her half-moon glasses. “What are they going to do?” she asked, her mind still thinking about what Joan had said.

            “You haven’t heard then? Chase Sanders bought the Osprey Arms and got himself a partner to run the restaurant. They want to turn it into a real steak and seafood place. No more baskets of fried shrimp.” Joan said it with a bit of a sigh like she was going to miss the old menu.

            Darby could almost agree. The Osprey Arms, like The Dory, was an institution, with a menu that never changed. People didn’t go there for the food, really; they went because there were white tablecloths and heavy-duty silverware and a bar where they could order real drinks, all while looking out over the water. She had celebrated her high school graduation at the Osprey Arms, where she had had a stuffed flounder filet, and her father had ordered the shrimp scampi with a side of pasta.

            “And it’s some chef . . . oh dear, I can’t remember his name, but my Ben tells me that he’s a hit with all the cool kids, or whatever you say.” Joan shook her head and continued. “I never heard of him or whatever show he’s on, but he’s quite something to look at. All dark eyes and blonde hair and boyish charm.” Joan nodded authoritatively.

            Darby felt her heart sink as she realized she’d just discovered why Sean Callahan was in her town. Her dismay turned to anger. The bastard didn’t even remember me; she seethed on the inside.

That just made the fact that she’d felt a pull of attraction toward Sean Callahan all the more irritating. She knew he had a temper and a reputation as a bad boy. And there was no way, she, Darby Reese, budding business owner, was going to fall for the likes of Sean Callahan. Just because a guy had cute dimples and great upper body strength, didn’t make him eligible bachelor material. She’d learned that lesson the hard way. She was so over bad boys.

After all, when a guy showed up on a late-night talk show with his own segment, titled “Date Night Delight,” in which he taught whatever pretty young thing of the moment how to cook something, you knew that he had to be trouble. The subtext wasn’t all that subtle since that was how Sean had gotten his Chef Sexy nickname. If she just remembered that and focused on her own agenda, then she should be able to steer clear of Sean Callahan. No need for him to ever figure out where they’d met before.

             “Order, order.” Mayor Peyton had taken his seat at the head of the table and banged his small gavel. The room hushed quickly as people rushed to fill the seats.

            She only half-listened, trying to ignore her annoyance at knowing Sean Callahan had invaded her town by trying to remember where she had seen a recipe for an avocado salad. It might be something that she wanted to try out on the menu this week if only she could dig it up.     

            A murmur ran through the room, and she looked up to see him standing in the doorway, politely pushing his way into the room. Once again, Sean Callahan looked as if he’d walked out of an ad for a men’s clothing magazine rather than the kitchen. He still wore his black t-shirt, paired with dark jeans. She was suddenly very aware that his arms and the rest of his body were as well-muscled as his shoulders. His blondish hair was windblown, more disheveled than it had been that morning, and he wore a lip-curling grin on his face as he maneuvered around the legs of chairs and eased himself into the cramped space between her and Joan Altieri.

His dark eyes raked over her, and a shiver ran through her. It took her only a moment to recognize it for what it was and only a second longer to tamp it down and tell herself that it was just an obvious reaction to a man who had all the parts nicely arranged. There was no way she could ever be attracted to Sean Callahan, not after their history—even as forgettable as it was to him. Still, she was happy she had managed to run home and change out of her work clothes into something more benefitting a hopeful small business owner.

            Mayor Peyton, caught in the middle of discussing the pros and cons of a noise ordinance, nodded politely at the newcomer but kept on with his droning. She felt the familiar heat on her skin as Sean Callahan’s arm brushed against hers. She moved it quickly, but not before she knew that the red splotches of embarrassment were shooting up her arms, across her neck, and probably onto her cheeks. It was a problem with having the coloring of a redhead. Most of the time, she was able to minimize it, but her body’s internal temperature was spiking at her nearness to him.

            She felt his eyes on her, and she dared to turn her head quickly. He had the audacity to wear a smile—a comfortable, I-am-in-command type of smile. He gave her a quick nod and a grin as if the tirade in her kitchen—her kitchen!—had never happened.

            She tried for a frosty glare, but that only seemed to amuse him, as if he enjoyed the challenge. He looked at her for an instant, and when she didn’t return his smile, he gave her a wink and settled himself more fully so that his elbow brushed hers. She retracted her arm as if she’d been scalded, but that only made his smile grow even wider.

            She forced herself to look at the worn, scratched, faux wood surface of the table, trying to get her breathing to return to normal. So what if she was sitting next to Sean Callahan? So what if he had been on national TV teaching America how to properly cook coq au vin, chatting with pretty blonde actresses and flirting away? He was an ass. They’d met just twice, and both times, she’d been subjected to his bruising flak, and he still had no clue who she was—probably hadn’t even bothered to find out her name.

            Willfully, she focused again on what Mayor Peyton was saying, hoping that the minute details of village life would be an effective distraction from the way her body was reacting to the nearness of Sean. She sighed. It was no good. Her whole body was buzzing just from being close to him. Not knowing what else to do, she started to go over the articles of the Universal Commerce Code in her head, a truly boring piece of law that required almost total concentration on her part.     

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Chapter 6

The meeting had taken almost two hours. Well, one hundred and thirteen minutes, to be precise. And when a minute meant the difference between limp pasta and the perfect al dente bite, he knew that these were one hundred and thirteen he would never get back

Sean had been daydreaming. Well, not daydreaming so much as lost in his thoughts. He’d been trying to work through why his latest recipe wasn’t working, in an effort to distract himself from the palpable antagonism he felt rolling off of Darby Reese and directed toward him.

He had studied her when he thought she wasn’t looking, noticing the way her hands were small and delicate, yet with long fingers. Her nose was straight with just a slight turn at the end, and when her nostrils flared as his arm brushed against hers, he was hit with a jolt of attraction so sharp, he wondered just what it would be like to get her really angry.

One scowl was what she had given him, and he found himself not caring about the difference between a porterhouse and sirloin but instead thinking only about what it would be like to kiss those lips. He’d struck out big time with her before, but surely she’d be willing to give him a second chance? After all, they’d just met; he couldn’t have done anything wrong yet. Or could he have?

Somehow, between his not paying attention and being hyper-aware of her next to him, the meeting concluded, and it was time to go. Like a shot, Darby was out of her seat and headed for the door before he had a chance to react.

Sean got up in a panic and then tried to look cool. He knew where to find her. Still, he knew he needed to apologize. Sure, he’d said he was sorry this morning, but he needed to give her a real apology. No woman could resist that, right?

            Pushing through the crowd of people, with an easy smile on his face, he ignored the looks of people whom he knew wanted to talk to him. He was supposed to stop, say a few words. Chase had told him to be friendly, but now he was on a mission.

            He moved quickly. “Wait!” he called. She was down the stairs now, onto the tiled floor of the lobby. He picked up the pace, thought wildly for a second about using the wood-carved banister for a faster lift, but instead took the wide, shallow steps two at a time.

            He caught up with her on the walkway in front of the village hall. His arm reached out to catch her.

            She spun around, her hair blowing about her face, her eyes narrowed slits. “Don’t touch me,” she snapped.

            He took a step back, held up his hands. He’d just wanted to talk to her. What kind of crazy lady act was this? “Darby, right?” He put on his best, biggest smile, the one his publicist had told him to use when he was on TV and nervous as hell.

            Her hands were on her hips. She wore a pale pink halter top and a skirt striped like penny candy. Long, tan legs traveled down to a pair of strappy sandals. For a moment, he had a brief, hot vision of what they might look like wrapped around him, but then he willed it away.

There was a decidedly annoyed look on her face as she stood, waiting for him. He’d been right. Her eyes weren’t a bright green, but a dusky shade of dried sage. And her hair wasn’t brown, as there was too much red in it. Like chestnuts. He had to shake his head to stop the culinary comparisons. Thinking in food was both a benefit and a curse in his line of work.

“I’m Sean Callahan.” He stuck out his hand.

She looked at it, shrugged and said. “We met already, remember?”

            He did his best to keep smiling, but her hostility was wearing him down. “Yeah, about that.”

            “I assume your mushrooms worked out for you?” Her tone was frostily polite as she turned and began to walk.

            Surprised, he had to move quickly to keep up with her. “You know, I have plenty more,” he said, “if you need some. I didn’t mean to send you back to the store.” Friendly. If you were friendly, then someone else was supposed to be friendly back, right? Apparently, this one wasn’t going to give him an inch.

            She looked at him, and he noticed she had a small smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheeks. “I managed to improvise.” Her tone was clipped, and it didn’t take a genius to deduce that she was pissed at him.

He ran a hand through his hair. Usually, he didn’t have to work this hard to get a girl to like him. Women seemed to find him charming, at least at first. Until they got pissed off when he decided it was time to move on. Unfortunately, Darby seemed to have moved straight on to the pissed stage, without even giving him a chance. Okay, so he’d not been on his best behavior that morning, at least until they had started to talk.

He turned on his high-wattage smile, the one that always worked, and tried his best bad-boy-turned-sorry look. “Sorry, sugar, it was a bit of a crazy morning. I hadn’t had my coffee yet. You know how that goes, right?”

            He waited. There was nothing, not a nod or the slowing of her step, so he had to lengthen his stride to keep up with her. He fell in beside her, enjoying the way her long, strong arms moved in time with her pace. This was no little mouse of a woman. He had the distinct vision of a lioness loping along the plains, as he matched her determined pace.

            “So,” he said, but Darby didn’t stop, “you’re the owner of The Dory?”

            “My father is. He’s on vacation. I’m running it for the rest of the summer.” She kept her answers short, staccato bursts of information.

            “Do you work with your dad a lot?” He tried again.

            “No,” she answered. They passed the fish market, the front like an open market stall, and the gray-haired woman behind the counter yelled out a hello. Darby lifted a hand in greeting but didn’t slow down.

            “So, are you between jobs then? I mean, I feel like maybe I’ve seen you before.”

            “You ask a lot of questions,” she said and shot him a look that he was sure was meant to intimidate. Instead, it made him more determined.

            “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be nosy, but it just seems . . . I don’t know . . . that you’re familiar. Sugar, you’re so sweet; I’m sure we’ve met before.”

            Darby gave him a withering look. “Does that line really work with girls?”
            He took a deep breath and decided to start over. He would find out where they had met before; he just needed to finesse her a bit. “So, you’re not a chef, but your cookies taste like they were made by a professional baker. Made me wonder where you were trained.”

He was hoping the compliment would disarm some of the hostility. Instead, it only seemed to enrage her.

“Are telling me you have no idea who I am?” Darby stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, her arms folded, glaring at him. He thought that anger made her look even more desirable, the way her cheeks flushed and her eyes danced with it.

     “Should I?” He kept his voice light, while his mind raced. Okay, so he was right. They had met before. But where? Seriously, looking at her, the long legs, tan, shaped arms, the angry eyes and blowing hair, he wasn’t sure how he, or anyone, for that matter, could have forgotten meeting her.

 Had he already tried to ask her out and been shot down? Or worse yet, maybe she had tried to hit on him, and he had—what would he have been thinking?—turned her down? There had been a lot of late nights in his past, and he couldn’t be sure he could remember every single one of them in perfect detail.

     He looked at her, taking in the red-gold hair, the splay of freckles across her cheeks, the sage-green eyes with the slight catlike twist to them and the pert nose that turned up just a bit at the end.

     “No idea?”     

     Baffled, he shook his head and held up his hands in defeat.

     In a huff, she turned on her heel and started away from him.           

     “Hey there,” he reached out and grabbed her arm lightly, but she shook it off.

     “Get your hands off of me,” she hissed, barely turning around.

     “Nope,” he said, and moved so that he was in front of her, blocking her way. “You’re not going to get away with that.”

     “Get away with what?” Her voice rose in indignation.

     “Teasing me like that,” he said, keeping his voice light. Two could play this little game. He was aware that they were in the middle of the sidewalk and that a few people, like the young girl who worked in the used bookstore, had stopped whatever they were doing and were watching them.

     “Teasing you?” Her voice dipped down into a snarl.

     If he’d been a smart man, he later thought, he would have backed down then and there, but curiosity and desire—desire to know more about her, to see what other reactions he could provoke from her—kept him marching forward.

     “You have some nerve,” Darby said.

     “Some nerve to what? You won’t tell me what you’re talking about.” Now he was the one who was pissed, and he knew his tone showed it.

     “Nice to know I’m so forgettable,” Darby said, her arms folded across her chest, her stance protective.

     “Forgettable.” He took a step, closing the space between the two of them. He could smell her. Cinnamon and sugar, like the baker she was. “There is nothing forgettable about you.”

     “Apparently, that’s where you’re mistaken.”

     “So you admit it, we have met before.” He moved closer, mesmerized by those eyes. The fire had quieted in them, replaced by a hint of ice, but as he moved closer, they opened in alarm.

     His hand touched her arm, and it was like an electric shock through them both, he could tell. She nearly took a step back, but recovered and stood her ground. Her lips were cherry red, drawn back in a slight O of surprise.

     “Please, enlighten me. Put me out of my misery because,” he dropped his head down, close to her ear so that he was sure no one else could hear them, “I can’t stop thinking about you.” As he said it, he realized that, while it sounded like just another cheap pickup line, it wasn’t—at least to him. She had been in his thoughts all day.

     “We have met. About a year ago.” Her voice was breathy, and he moved even closer to her, meeting no resistance. Her pulse fluttered at the base of her neck, and he desperately wanted to know what it would be like to touch his lips against it, to have his hands in her mass of red-gold waves, to feel her lips warm and soft beneath his.

     “A year ago.” One part of his mind raced to remember twelve months ago. As it was, he was having trouble remembering ninety seconds ago. The other part of his brain couldn’t think but for her.

     “The Culinary Academy, New York.”

     Something was coming back to him, and he maneuvered even closer to her. She didn’t rear back this time, and he could smell her breath, sweet like peppermint and oranges, as it fanned around him.

     “You were a guest instructor. The class was making a classic steakhouse dinner.”

     “Rib eye, onion rings, and creamed spinach.” His heart lurched as memories started to come back. So far, she hadn’t moved away from him, and he was so close that they were almost touching. But he knew where this ship was going, heading straight for the rocks, not a lighthouse in sight.

     “Exactly. Apparently, my spinach wasn’t up to snuff, which you made abundantly clear, in front of everyone.”

     “That was you. Under the chef’s hat.” It all came flooding back to him. He’d been under a lot of stress then and had taken it out on the students. In particular, her. He’d made an example of her. Her creamed spinach had not been bad; it had been awful. Too salty, as if it had been cooked in a bath of seawater. And what was even worse is that he was sure he’d been flirting with her just before that. No wonder she was mad at him.

     “But how could that be? I’ve tasted your food.” He was genuinely puzzled. There was no way that this Darby, the one who made cookies, so exquisite they were chocolate heaven, could be the same chef as that Darby who had ruined spinach. “What happened?”

     “Does it matter? The fact is you were an ass then and, judging by your behavior this morning, you’re still an ass, so you can just get out of my way.” She took a step back, their whispery, electric connection broken. Her eyes were like ice now, hard and angry, and she pushed around him, walking past him.

            All around him, people were enjoying the fine weather, eating ice cream cones, window shopping, but he ignored them all as they surged around him, watching the retreating figure of Darby Reese, feeling anger and shame at the person he had been.

 

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