Excerpt: Too Darn Hot

 

Chapter One

 

“Hey, Joy. Do you smell smoke?” Lina Holland glanced over her shoulder at the closed door to the restaurant’s kitchen. A surprise flambé, no doubt.

The door swung open and the frazzled waitress darted out, performing a tricky balancing act with four laden salad plates. Before the door slammed shut, Lina caught a brief glimpse of the chef, an imposing, white-clad figure gesturing animatedly and barking orders at his small staff.

Joy pushed away her wilted salad and sniffed the air. “Jeepers! I don’t know what’s going on tonight. It’s like the place has just…fallen apart.”

Lina raised an eyebrow. “You told me this restaurant’s outrageous.”

“It is! Usually.”

“You told me this restaurant belongs in Greenwich Village, not out there in the boondocks of Rocky Bay, Long Island. You told me—” Lina raised a finger “—and I quote: ‘The Cookhouse is a buried treasure just waiting to be unearthed.’ Well, as far as I’m concerned, this is one treasure that—”

“Don’t say it,” Joy groaned.

“Should’ve stayed buried.”

The Cookhouse did have one thing going for it. It was a feast for the eyes, if not the belly, styling itself as a combined cooking school, restaurant, and art gallery. On the white walls of the three small dining rooms hung the cheerful work of a local Long Island painter. Daisies in charming, one-of-a-kind bud vases adorned the white-draped tables, along with whimsical salt and pepper shakers. Lina found herself toying with the set on her table, shaped like a gun and holster.

She’d been impressed and, yes, hopeful when she first arrived. Perhaps, she’d thought, Joy was actually on to something here. Stranger things had happened.

Unfortunately, the favorable first impression promptly went up in smoke—literally. The food and service were lousy. End of story. The Cookhouse could fill its walls with Van Goghs and Vermeers, for all she cared. No little pretties ever saved a lousy restaurant.

And no one knew that better than Lina Holland.

Joy said, “Eric—that’s The chef, he owns the place—figures that in a few weeks when the beach season starts, things’ll pick up. I mean, when the bridge and tunnel people discover this gem in their own backyard—”

“Joy, we’re the bridge and tunnel people.” Lina’s roommate still talked like a Manhattanite, though she now lived in Queens. “And the only thing I want to `discover’ about this place is the exit.”

“Come on, Lina, give it a chance.”

“I did. Let’s go.”

“Hi, Joy.”

Lina looked up at the blond youth filling their goblets with ice water.

“Hi, Adam,” Joy said. “What’s burning?”

“Lamb chops. And I’m Daniel.”

“I’ll have to take your word for that, won’t I?” To Lina she said, “Twins.”

“Adam’s in there—” he gestured with the pitcher toward the kitchen “—washing pots.”

“Lucky you. So what gives? Your dad shorthanded tonight?”

“Oh man, you can say that again. First Chrissie doesn’t show, right?”

“Chrissie’s the other waitress,” Joy informed Lina.

“Then Joe does show—falling-down drunk. Dad had to kick him out—”

“Young man, we’re still waiting for water,” called a diner at the next table.

Joy turned to Lina as Daniel moved on. “Joe’s the dishwasher.”

“Fascinating. Let’s go.” Lina started to signal the waitress for the check, and Joy grabbed her arm.

“We can’t leave yet. You haven’t met Eric.”

“What’s the point? I’m outta here.”

“Oh, Lina, please—at least try the main course.”

Lina stared pointedly at the cracked, dried-out rolls and the pitiful excuse for a salad. “Just thinking about the main course scares me.”

Out of six entrées listed on the menu, only two had actually been available: braised duck with Oriental plum sauce, and lamb chops Provencal.

Daniel elbowed the kitchen door open and disappeared through it. Lina heard a deep male voice, agitated but controlled. Reflexively she swiveled toward the sound, just as the door closed.

“Lee-nahhh…”

She turned back to her roommate. “Joy, you’ve whined at me for thirty-four years. Have you ever known it to work?”

“On occasion.”

Lina tossed her napkin on the table and stood, smoothing out her blue silk sheath dress. “This place should stick to art. You can stay and wallow in this new masochistic streak you’ve developed. I’m getting a pizza. With everything.” She watched her friend ruffle her bangs with a fierce exhalation—something else she’d been doing for thirty-four years. “And I’m not saving you any.”

The flushed, overworked waitress appeared out of nowhere and unceremoniously plunked two duck dinners on the table.

“MynameisBetsyenjoyyourmeal,” she gasped. Before they could ask her to remove the uneaten salads, Betsy was a memory.

Lina slumped back into her chair and stared sullenly at the half duck before her, ignoring the crisp slices of roasted potato and the mélange of spring vegetables. “I hate duck.” She poked it with her fork, refusing to admit that the meal looked pretty good. And smelled better. “Almost as much as I hate lamb chops.”

“Well, I like duck,” Joy pronounced, digging in.

“And a good thing, too, ‘cause you’re getting the whole bird.” Lina pushed her plate away.

From behind her came a distinctive male voice—raspy-soft and kissed with a touch of laughter. “You picked the wrong night to bring someone new, Joy.”

Lina had never heard a voice quite like that. Not exactly husky. More like…like honey and smoke, she thought.

She felt knuckles brush her shoulders, and sensed the weight of someone leaning on her chairback. A large someone. A warm someone.

Joy perked up. “Hi, Eric.”

Lina twisted in her seat to look up. It was the man she’d spied through the kitchen doorway—the chef and owner of The Cookhouse. He appeared just as formidable close up.

Joy commenced introductions. “Eric Reid, this is—”

“Lina,” she interrupted, offering her hand, deliberately forestalling her friend’s use of her full name. No point in letting Chef Reid know she was Caroline Holland.

“Welcome to The Cookhouse, Lina.”

As Eric’s big, callused hand closed around hers, she couldn’t help but notice the subtle flex of some pretty impressive deltoids under his double-breasted chef’s whites. The welcoming grin he bestowed involved his entire face, from the tired-looking dark brown eyes framed by laugh crinkles, to the generous furrows bracketing his mouth. His lashes and thick eyebrows were several shades darker than his wavy reddish brown hair.

She returned his warm smile and gently withdrew her hand when he seemed in no hurry to release it. She wondered if he was checking her out. Did Chef Reid make it a habit to scout out fresh meat in the dining rooms?

“Are you a teacher, also?” Eric asked.

“Uh, no, I…”

“Lina’s a writer,” Joy supplied.

“I’m a writer.” Don’t ask me what I write, she silently pleaded. Her smile remained frozen for an awkward moment while she cast about in her mind for something to compliment.

“Lovely place, Eric. The decor is exquisite. Elegant but fun.”

“Thank you.”

His eyes were the color of black coffee, she thought. No, make that espresso. No—coffee liqueur. Yes. Two deep, fathomless pools of coffee liqueur.

After a few moments, it dawned on her that he was waiting for her to continue. She turned to her companion. “Isn’t that right, Joy? Elegant but fun?”

Her mouth full, Joy nodded and, with a negligent wave of her hand, urged Lina to continue.

Thanks for nothing, she thought.

Nodding toward the wall, Lina summoned her most worldly mien while her fingers began pleating the napkin in her lap. “I’ve been admiring the paintings.”

Eric crossed his long arms over his chest. His sleeves were rolled up nearly to the elbow, revealing well-developed forearms with a generous sprinkling of dark hair. A brief flash of gold caught Lina’s eye, and she noticed for the first time the heavy, barrel-shaped gold ring. On the third finger of his left hand.

A wedding band.

Figures, she thought, then mentally scolded herself. Of course he’s married—the man does have twin sons, for heaven’s sake. And anyway, she’d never mix business with pleasure. That particular rule was hardwired into her cerebrum, after what happened to Mercy Litton.

Eric’s Kahlua eyes briefly lit on the artwork she’d praised. He waited for her to continue.

What were they talking about? She cleared her throat. “A…unique combination. Restaurant and art gallery. It…works, you know?”

Long, silent moments later, she turned a help-me-out-here smile on Joy, who was engrossed in dismembering her duck and took no notice.

Damn you, girl. Get with the program.

Watching her friend devour that bird with such unrestrained gusto brought to mind the pizza she’d threatened not to share. It had been ten hours since she’d put anything in her stomach. Without warning, that treacherous organ rumbled softly.

She shot a quick glance at Eric. He hadn’t heard. Well, thank goodness for small favors.

“You sure you don’t want yours?” Having inhaled her own meal, Joy now commandeered Lina’s. With each forkful, her eyes rolled in delight. She moaned and grunted and hummed in gustatory rapture. “Mmm…I can’t believe you don’t love this.”

Uh-oh.

Lina’s stomach responded with a yowl of indignation—mercilessly loud and prolonged, and spanning an impressive range of octaves.

The man at the next table looked up from his lamb chops.

Wide-eyed, Joy hurriedly swallowed a mouthful of duck. “Cool. Sounds just like the brakes on your old Honda. Can you do it again?”

Eric bit back a chuckle.

He was laughing at her! The talentless chef with the splendid deltoids was laughing at her for succumbing to starvation in his own lousy restaurant.

Lina aimed her most malignant scowl at him. This was a look that could melt the suet off a side of beef. It had been known to reduce officious food editors and hapless restaurateurs to quivering, sputtering wrecks.

It was, needless to say, a useful expression.

Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect on Chef Reid, who took one look at Lina and loss the battle to contain his laughter.

Obviously this particular restaurateur was either too foolhardy or too stupid to respond appropriately. Then she remembered that he didn’t know who she was. She had the sudden wicked urge to enlighten him, just to see the look on his face.

The impulse shocked her. Never before had she even been tempted to flaunt her status.

Joy took a breather. She put down her fork, leaned back in her chair, and patted her lips with her napkin. “Or was it that big old Chrysler—”

“Shut up and eat your damn duck,” Lina growled as the last of Eric’s snickers died away.

“Actually, that’s your damn duck, Lina,” he informed her. “Why aren’t you eating it?”

Flamenco dancers began to stomp out a rhythm behind her eyes. “I. Don’t. Like. Duck.” She twisted in her chair and glared at Eric. “Okay? Satisfied? I don’t like duck. Don’t you have some lamb chops to cremate or something?”

“Lina!” Joy smiled an apology at Eric. “She doesn’t like duck.”

“Then why did she order it?”

Lina shot to her feet. “She didn’t have much of a choice, did she?”

Now that she was standing, Lina found herself looking up, and up some more, to make eye contact with the chef. She estimated him to be six one or two—he had eight or nine inches on her own five five. Her three-inch heels weren’t much help in bridging the gap.

Her voice rose in pitch and volume, despite her efforts to keep it level. “I have been sitting here for an hour and a half, and I can’t get anything to eat. Correction. That’s not true.” She lifted a roll and attempted to tear it—an exercise in futility. She gesticulated with the leaden loaf. “I can get all the wilted lettuce and…and hockey pucks I want.”

She tossed the roll into the bread basket, but missed. The thing bounced off the table and skipped across the floor, unscarred. “How do you have the—the nerve to—to—” At a loss for words, she gestured helplessly at her surroundings. Then she planted her hands on her hips and faced Eric head-on as if daring him to defend his establishment—to her and to a roomful of curious diners who’d stopped eating to listen.

Her eyes mere inches from his face, she saw the shadow of stubble on his firm jaw, a faint scar on his bottom lip…and the chagrin in his eyes. The deep laugh crinkles had smoothed out. He looked weary and tense and disheartened.

Lina blinked. What was she doing?

Humiliating the man in front of his customers and his employees, that’s what, a little voice said. Ashamed, she tore her gaze from his and took a step back. She cleared her throat.

“I, uh, shouldn’t have…” she murmured. “I was…That was…”

His voice was suddenly more smoke than honey—and frigidly polite. “As Joy can tell you, you’re not seeing The Cookhouse at its best, Lina. Excuse me.”

She watched the kitchen door swing shut on his stiff back.

Oh, hell.

Lina sank into her chair and glanced sheepishly at Joy, who gaped at her for long, torturous moments.

“Well. Why don’t you just insult the man, Lina? Jeepers!”

She groaned and cradled her face in her hands, massaging her throbbing forehead. “I’m hungry, Joy,” she whimpered.

“Give me a break. This isn’t like you. I haven’t seen you that irate since that Chef Rudolfo guy at The Golden Goose offered a night of unparalleled ecstasy if you’d agree to review the place.”

“Shhh!” Lina glanced around, hoping no one had overheard. “You didn’t tell Eric who I am, did you?”

Her friend rolled her eyes. “I know the rules.”

“Good.” She didn’t need that kind of complication. Joy had given The Cookhouse a big buildup and begged Lina to consider featuring it in her magazine column. A glowing Caroline Holland review could spell extraordinary success for a restaurant.

But as for The Cookhouse, it was a lost cause. Lina didn’t bother reviewing bad restaurants. What would be the point in devoting an article to trashing some dreadful eatery? That was done in other publications all the time, of course, but not in Bon Vivant, the slick monthly gourmet magazine she wrote for.

Her readers were interested in learning about places they’d want to patronize. Yes, she detailed the shortcomings as well as the strengths in her review, but each restaurant she covered had to offer, in its own way, a quality dining experience.

“Anyway, as for Rudolfo,” Lina said, “as I recall, I displayed remarkable restraint.”

Lowering her voice, Joy leaned across the table. “Restraint? Lina, you dumped a bowl of vichyssoise on the guy. No, two bowls. Yours and mine.”

“Well. At least it was cold. Lucky for him he wasn’t serving French onion soup that day.” She leaned across the table and whispered fiercely, “Any man dense enough to try to bribe the New York restaurant critic for Bon Vivant magazine with a `free ride on Mr. Johnson’ deserves a lot worse than a lapful of cold leek soup.”

“Maybe he didn’t know that the going rate for bribe offers is—what?—a few thousand bucks, right?”

“Oh, I think he knew. He probably just figured his free ride was worth a few grand.”

Joy resumed her meal. “Well, at least he doesn’t have a self-esteem problem.” She grinned around a mouthful of potato. “Or he didn’t before you came along.”

Right. Lina peeked over her shoulder at the closed kitchen door. Caroline the Barbarian, annihilator of male self-esteem.

Joy continued, “Maybe if you’d used a little of that fiery temper on Steve…”

Sighing, Lina returned her attention to her exasperating friend. “Let’s leave ex-husbands out of this. Unless you’d like to talk about Gary?”

In response, Joy stuck out her tongue.

Lina grinned. “I don’t know how Gary could have accused you of being immature.”

“Beats me.”

The kitchen door swung open, and Lina found herself holding her breath. She let it out when the maitre d’, Cookie D’Angelo, emerged with two dessert-laden plates—respectable-looking bananas Foster—and delivered them to the next table.

Lina wondered how an Amazon like this—six feet if she was an inch—had ended up with the name Cookie. Her hair was a short platinum cap, her clothes an eclectic blend of colors and styles that thumbed its nose at Madison Avenue but somehow worked admirably on Cookie D’Angelo.

She stopped at their table. “Hi, Joy. How did you like the Middle Eastern class?”

Joy attended so many of the biweekly cooking classes held at The Cookhouse that she’d become something of a regular.

“I loved it. I’ve been practicing my falafel since Wednesday.”

“I can attest to that,” Lina muttered. Three days of her roommate’s attempts at falafel made even this lousy restaurant look passable. When it came to the culinary arts, Joy had more enthusiasm than talent.

“Why aren’t you eating your duck, Lina?” Cookie asked.

Lina closed her eyes. Lord, give me strength.

Cookie said, “The duck is one of the few things that’s good tonight.” She glanced furtively at the kitchen door and slid into a chair, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “This is hell night, pure and simple. Just when we think it can’t get worse—” from her mobile mouth came the sounds of a bomb whistling to earth and exploding “—another disaster.”

Joy said, “We already know about the incinerated pork chops.”

“Lamb chops, and you wouldn’t be smelling them if the range hood didn’t have PMS. On top of that, the dishwasher isn’t working.”

“That would be Joe, right?” Lina said.

“Well, that dishwasher isn’t working, either, but I meant the mechanical one. Chrissie’s a no-show, and Tommy and Deirdre had a fight and aren’t playing nice. They’re Eric’s assistants, a couple of local high school kids,” she explained to Lina. “Anyway, the bread is their responsibility.” As if to emphasize her point, Cookie plucked a roll from the linen-lined basket and thumped it soundly on the table. The thing was distressingly durable. “Great kids, but sometimes…” she growled, miming double strangulation.

Joy shook her head in amazement. “What a night!”

“It gets better.” Cookie’s body language signaled the coup de grace. “The storm yesterday knocked out our power for something like twenty hours, only we didn’t know it. The freezer… refrigerators…” She wrinkled her nose. “Everything spoiled. And our fish vendor—” she raised her palms in disbelief “—just plain doesn’t show.”

“Maybe he eloped with Chrissie,” Lina ventured.

“So we had to cancel all of the appetizers and most of the entrées on tonight’s menu. Then the new produce vendor brings us icky-poo veggies at the very last minute.” She grimaced at the sight of the two untouched salads. “Normally if that happened, Eric would just eighty-six the salads. But seeing as we didn’t have too much else to offer tonight…” She shrugged helplessly.

Joy shot Lina a look that said, See? I told you there was a logical explanation, which Lina answered with a look that said, Any decent restaurant should be able to handle the occasional crisis without falling apart, though her heart wasn’t in it. She knew that a disasterfest of this magnitude would have brought even the best-run restaurant to its knees. She had to admire Eric for having the grit to roll up his sleeves and forge ahead. No wonder the man looked exhausted.

She winced inwardly recalling her childish outburst.

Cookie rose and collected the salad plates, her clunky bracelets jangling. “Adam’s supposed to be busing tables, but since Joe’s had tee many martoonis, the poor kid gets to play galley slave for a night. I better give Betsy a hand, too, now that it’s slowed down out front.” She shrugged. “They call me the maitre dee, but sometimes I feel more like the maitre do. See ya.” She elbowed her way through the kitchen door.

Lina rose and, once again, flung her napkin on the table.

Joy frowned. “What are you going to do?”

“Attempt to pry my foot out of my mouth. Get the check.”


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