Too Hot To Touch
The dining room was deserted, the cracked red leather of the banquettes sagging sadly over the snowy white, tablecloths.
From here, she couldn’t tell that those linens were all fraying at the edges, but she could see every chip, every indelible scuff mark, in the gorgeous black and white tiles covering the floor.
Jules Cavanaugh peered out the round glass window cut into the kitchen door and remembered another night when Lunden’s had been empty, just like this. Only tonight, there was no blizzard. No storm. No snow.
And no customers, either.
Mind full of the worries that had become all too common over the last year and a half—is it time to talk Gus into shutting down lunch service? Do we really need four servers on Thursday nights if we don’t get more than ten covers all night long? What am I going to tell Gino when he calls about next week’s beef order? They’re not going to extend our credit forever, even if Gino’s great-grandfather supplied the first steaks ever cooked at Lunden’s—Jules had managed to tune out most of the commotion behind her.
A kitchen full of chefs with nothing to do was a recipe for trouble, and the Lunden’s crew was no exception.
The long, dull nights of boredom and inactivity, interspersed with pockets of chaos and action when a customer did happen to wander in wore on the men and women who kept Lunden’s back-of-the-house operations going.
Well, mostly men, Jules acknowledged, turning around to survey her ragtag makeshift family.
It was quite the sausage fest in the Lunden’s kitchen, she mused. And sure, it was weird for her sometimes, being the lone hen in a crowd of cocks, but mostly she felt like one of them.
Winslow Jones, always the first to get bored, was entertaining himself by trying to con, charm, and weasel personal info out of their newest hire. Chef Beck, first name unknown to anyone other than Gus, who’d presumably seen his paperwork, gave Win back the stone faced, crossed arms routine he gave everyone—but Jules thought she detected a slight softening around his eyes.
She sympathized. It was hard not to soften up around Winslow, who had the kind of infectious good humor that was so sorely lacking around here, these days. Even Phil hadn’t been able to—...Jules cut off the thoughts of her ex before they could begin.
“How long do you think they’ll stick around if Dad can’t make payroll?”
Jules jolted free of the endless circle of worries and fears and slanted Danny a glance. “Don’t talk like that. We’re not there.”
Danny gave her the look that meant he heard everything she wasn’t saying, loud and clear, but he let it go.
Twisting his hands in the white cloth looped through his apron strings, Danny slumped against the kitchen door beside her, his head dropping forward so all she could see was the pale, vulnerable back of his neck. Danny always took so much on. Too much, and he refused to lean on anyone. Only Jules got to see the exhausted, careworn side of him—and that, only when he was too tired to hide it from her.
“Your dad has a plan,” Jules reminded him brightly, ignoring her own misgivings.
Danny hissed out a sigh, lifting his head to bang it once against the door. “Judas priest. Don’t remind me.”
“The Rising Star Chef competition could be the answer to all our problems,” Jules argued. “Every restaurant that’s ever won it has turned in a huge sensation—reviews, publicity, and most of all, customers. Think about it, Danny. All the business we can handle, and then some!”
“You sound just like Dad.”
Jules bit the inside of her cheek for control. “I believe in Gus. Wherever he leads, I’m going to be right behind him. A hundred per cent.”
“Even if what he wants is for you to follow Max?”
Damn it. Danny knew her too well. Meeting his watchful gaze, Jules admitted, “Okay, maybe ninety per cent. You know I don’t think we need Max to win this thing.”
He knocked his head against the door one more time in agreement, a twist to his mouth that tugged at Jules’s heart. “Mom’s calling him today anyway, whether we like it or not. But hey, the good news is, he probably won’t come home. How could home be more fun than backpacking around Asia, living by his wits and a wok? And Dad doesn’t want Max to know about...how bad the restaurant’s doing.”
Danny’s moment of hesitation was like flimsy aluminum foil covering a heavy pot full of boiling, seething, steaming resentment, worry, love, and worst of all—fear. Jules knew, because she felt the same way.
It wasn’t only the restaurant’s dire straits Gus intended to hide from his oldest son.
Facing forward and pretending to watch Winslow tease Beck, she cleared her throat and said, “How’s your dad feeling? Better?”
“He insists he’s fine,” Danny murmured. “He doesn’t want to talk about it.”
They lapsed into silence. Jules took in the demoralized kitchen crew leaning against their cold, empty stations. She thought about Gus and his hopes for the restaurant, and Danny, trying desperately to hold everything together, the weight of his own legacy bearing down on his shoulders. She remembered that snowy night six years ago, and how much she owed this family.
She’d do anything she could to save Lunden’s Tavern, up to and including working side by side with the guy who’d occupied most of her teen fantasies.
How bad could it be, right? After all, she was completely over him. Over men, in general, after Phil. So there was nothing to worry about. Not a thing.
Beck began to show signs of irritation with Winslow’s increasingly hyper bouncing. But as Jules moved in to rescue him, glad of the distraction, she couldn’t help but notice that the shiver running down her spine at the mention of Max wasn’t all dread, or even resignation.
It was anticipation.
The streets of Tokyo were a blur of dizzying colors, sounds too loud to understand, and smells that usually made Max Lunden want to tackle the nearest vendor for a taste of whatever mysterious meat on a stick was putting out that rich, fragrant smoke.
Today, though, Max’s normally ironclad stomach was too jumpy to risk street food. Ducking out of the swift, relentless current of foot traffic into an arched stone doorway, he looked down at his cell phone for the hundredth time, making sure it was on, had full bars, was ready and waiting to receive the most important call of his life.
For the last hour, Max had been elbow-deep in dough the first two times, struggling to learn how to cut perfectly straight, even ramen noodles, and sucking at it because all he could concentrate on was his silent phone.
Once he finally gotten his hands free and clean, and apologized to a very grouchy Harukai-sensei for being so distracted during his lesson, Max took to the streets to try and walk off his frustration.
He kept his finger wrapped around his phone inside his pocket, so he’d feel it the instant it started to vibrate.
Ring. Ring. Ring, for shit’s sake!
As if by magic, he felt a buzz against his fingertips, followed by Steven Tyler’s unmistakable, if tinny, voice singing about living on the edge.
Heart in his mouth, fingers suddenly slick with sweat, Max got the phone free of his pocket with only one near-catastrophic fumble. Centering himself with a deep breath, Max hit the button and lifted the phone to his ear.
Silence, punctuated by a bit of static and some breathing.
Cursing himself, Max cleared his throat. “Si? Pronto.”
They were the magic words, unleashing a volley of rapid fire Italian Max had to struggle to wade through.
“Si. Si. Si,” he kept saying, feeling like a moron and not sure what he was agreeing to, until the gruff voice on the other end exhaled sharply.
“Italiano. You learn. Fast. I teach nothing until you understand my language.”
Max’s ribcage expanded with joy like a helium balloon. For a moment, he was honestly afraid his chest would pop open and spill his heart onto the street.
“You’ll teach me, then?” He had to clarify, had to be sure this wasn’t a mistake or a misunderstanding.
A long pause. “When you came to see me, two summers before...you were not stupid. Not completely. I think you can learn.” Vincenzo Cotto’s thick, accented growl went even rougher and lower. “So long as you learn to speak...and more important, to listen, in Italiano.”
“I’ll learn,” Max promised. “I swear, I’ll be fluent by the time I see you.”
“Hmph. You have four weeks.”
Calculating frantically, Max immediately started listing in his head all the things he’d have to do—finish his lessons with Harukai-sensei, pack up all his gear, find a place to stay in the tiny Italian village that housed Cotto’s famed macellaio, the butcher shop where he sold his award-winning cured meats and sausages, and also occasionally took on an apprentice.
Very occasionally. Rarely, in fact, so rarely that Max could hardly believe the last two years of intermittent campaigning by letter and visit had finally paid off.
Once he’d learned what Cotto could teach him about prosciutto, pancetta, and fresh pasta, Max would be versed in the skills of every major cuisine. And a lot of the minor ones, too, since he tended to veer off course whenever curiosity beckoned, but this final piece of the puzzle?
Max had waited a long time to slot it into place.
“Four weeks,” he repeated, like a vow. “I’ll be in Le Marche in a month.”
Cotto grunted again, sounding satisfied, and hung up, leaving Max to stare out at the rushing river of pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, and buses that clogged the Tokyo steet.
He was moving on again, on the to the next new thing, the next challenge—and maybe this time, it would be enough. Maybe he’d find the place where he could stop for a while, and feel at ho—...
His phone rang again, almost vibrating itself right out of his hand.
Shit. Did Cotto change his mind already?
Dread clutching at Max’s heart, he thumbed the phone on and said, “Pronto.”
The uncertain voice didn’t belong to a mercurial Italian butcher savant.
“Mom! I’m so glad it’s you. I was just about to call, I’ve got amazing news.”
“Do you?” The alarm in her voice sliced neatly through Max’s euphoria. He frowned.
Something had wigged his normally un-wiggable mother.
“Mom? What’s up?”
“Nothing, honey, tell me your news.” The clear nerves in her voice twisted Max’s tension a notch higher.
“Mom, you’re freaking me out, here. What’s going on?”
“Max. You need to come home.”
The world stopped.
“Did something happen?” Max forced out through numb lips.
Nina’s pause was enough to get Max’s heart jackrabbitting in his chest, but she said, “No, of course not. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, honey.”
Max’s lungs jerked into motion again. Relief made his voice sharp. “If everybody at home is fine, then what’s this all about?”
“Don’t take that tone with me.”
Max winced. Nina rarely busted out the steely grim, but when she did, no one was dumb enough to cross her. “And you’d better not be saying the only way you’d come home is if someone’s dead or in the hospital.”
Mad worked at smoothing out his tone. “No, of course not, Mom.” Although that was kind of true, wasn’t it? His conscience reared its ugly head, but Max sat on it. He’d left home for a reason, and he hadn’t looked back.
“So you’ll come home.”
“Mom. Seriously. Do Dad and Danny even know you’re calling me?”
Her overly bright confidence set off Max’s bullshit meter. “Oh yeah?”
Her sigh was clearly audible, even over the somewhat crackly reception he got on his international cell phone. “Your father wants you home. Your brother’s not thrilled about it, but deep down, he knows I’m right. We need you, Max.”
Max sighed. It was entirely lame, but for one brief, glittering moment he’d actually allowed himself to contemplate the possibility of his family being ready to forgive and forget.
Sure, he’d talked to his family since he left home—casual, careful conversations, chit chat. It was okay with Dad, if stilted. With Danny, though? Not so much. The kid knew how to hold a grudge. Every conversation was an emotional minefield.
“Sounds like nothing has changed,” Max said, trying to keep his heart open and yielding, rather than bitter and shielded. It was harder than usual. “And I don’t have time to come home—I have to be in Italy in a month.”
Even in the midst of arguing with his mother, anticipation thrilled through him.
“What? Honey, that butcher you’re always going on about? The one who never takes on an apprentice.”
“Almost never,” Max clarified, grinning into the phone. “I need a crash course in Italian, because I’m going back to Loro Piceno in four weeks. And this time, I’m staying until I learn everything Vincenzo Cotto has to show me.”
“I’m proud of you. I know you’ve wanted this for a long time,” Nina said, and she did sound happy for him. Her urgency had dimmed somewhat. Max hoped he’d made his point.
“So you get it? I’d love to come visit, Mom, but I can’t miss this opportunity. Vincenzo Cotto is the best in the world, and he picked me.”
As if it could be that easy.
“A month is all we need.” Nina rallied quickly. “You’ll be back on the road before you know it.”
“Maxwell Gerard Lunden. You had better not be thinking about hanging up that phone.”
Max hesitated. The note of steel had re-entered his mother’s sweet voice. Nina Lunden might look like a cream puff, but she was filled with sterner stuff than vanilla-flavored pastry cream, for sure.
“If I show up at the restaurant,” he said, trying to be reasonable, “it’s going to be a fight. You know I’m right.”
“It’s not right for you and Danny to be at odds. You’re brothers. It’s past time to fix things between the two of you. And your father might surprise you. Besides, we don’t need you to work at the restaurant—where we need you is on the team for the Rising Star Chef competition.”
“What?” To Max’s knowledge, Lunden’s Tavern had never participated in any culinary competitions, let alone the largest, most prominent one in the United States.
“We’ve put together a team, and we could really use your competition experience. Your father’s even willing to give you his spot on the team for the first leg of the competition—that’s how serious he is about winning.”
Max leaned back against the wall, trying to take it all in. Sure, he’d been making his living for years by entering culinary challenges around the world, winning enough cash prizes to give him the freedom to apprentice himself to whatever master of the local cuisine could teach him the most. But those were single competitor challenges in small cities and even villages, not a huge national competition like the RSC.
And the idea that his father could admit, even obliquely, that Max might be better at something...Max couldn’t help the grin that spread over his face.
As if sensing a weakness, Nina immediately segued into wheedling. “Come on, honey. I’m sure after so many wins, you must have lots of tips and tricks you could share, strategies that could help your brother and the others!”
Max laughed. “You’re laying it on a little thick,” he told her.
He heard the smile in her voice. “Is it working?”
Sighing, Max knocked his head against the rough wall behind him. “Kind of,” he admitted. “I’d do anything I could to help you, and the chance to make things right with him, with Dad—I won’t lie. It’s tempting. But...”
Nina wouldn’t be reasoned with. “Things change, honey. People change.”
“In our stubborn family? No. Not really.” If Max knew anything, he knew that. He’d given up on hoping for more a long time ago.
“Fine, but situations change. If you don’t join the team...Max, we can win. We have a good team, but they’re green. It’s imperative that we pass the initial qualifying rounds and get chosen to represent the East Coast. Once we’re over that hurdle, I think we’ll be okay, but to get there, we need your help. I’m pulling the mother card here, Max. Give me some credit; I haven’t seen my oldest son at home in six years, but have I nagged you about visiting? No. I’ve even flown out to see you a couple of times. But now I’m not asking, I’m telling. Whatever it takes, whatever happens after you get here, we’ll work it out. I just...you need to come home.”
Max’s throat tightened in defense against the almost undetectable quiver in his mother’s voice. Not so steely, now, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard her sound like that. Maybe when his grandmother died. Something was up, something more than this sudden obsession with winning the Rising Star Chef competition. And whatever it was, it was bad enough to make the strongest woman Max had ever known sound like she was about to cry.
“Just for the qualifying round?” Max clarified, wanting to be sure he understood what she was asking. “I get you a spot in the competition, and then I’m on a plane to Italy.”
“That’s all I’m asking,” she said, cautious hope coloring her voice.
Gripping the phone tightly enough to make his fingertips go numb, Max breathed in the hot, wet air of Tokyo, heavy with the scents of fog and car exhaust, and said, “I’ll be on the next flight out.”
Stepping off a plane and into the bustle of weekday New York City was like being tossed headfirst into a raging whitewater rapid.
Good thing he remembered how to swim, Max mused as he tossed the single, beat-up duffel that held all his worldly possessions into the backseat of a cab, and climbed in after it.
He’d been navigating the furious, thrilling, dangerous waters of Manhattan since he was old enough to sneak under the subway turnstiles and hop a train going wherever.
No matter how far he traveled, or how many exotic foreign cities he saw, nothing from London to Marrakesh could compare with the sheer jolt of electric excitement straight to the nervous system that was New York.
God, he’d missed it.
The cabbie swerved to avoid being cut off by a bus as they merged onto the Long Island Expressway, swearing violently in Bengali.
Max grinned as the guy cursed the bus driver’s ancestry, homeland, and manhood. “Bastard son of a motherless goat,” Max agreed when his cabbie stopped to take a breath.
The guy’s eyes in the rearview mirror lit up with surprise and pleasure to hear his native tongue from the random, scruffy white guy in the back of his cab. He launched into a stream of rapid Bengali, all liquid vowels and harsh consonants, that Max had no hope of following.
Holding up his hands in surrender, he said in English, “Sorry, man. I pretty much shot my wad with that one sentence.”
Having worked in kitchens around the world, Max could order food—and curse a blue streak—in more than a dozen languages. His polite vocabulary, on the other hand, was decidedly lacking.
The cabbie didn’t seem to mind. He switched to English, too, and they spent the last fifteen minutes of the cab ride comparing notes on the places they’d both been in Bangladesh, how beautiful it was, and how much they missed it.
It seemed to be Max’s lot in life to always be missing the amazing places he’d lived. He almost wished, sometimes, that he could be happy staying in one place.
Until he remembered that staying in one place meant expectations, responsibilities, and the inevitability of disappointment. Whether his, or someone who counted on him, Max would take a pass.
As long as he could make a good life for himself out of cooking his way around the world and winning the occasional culinary competition, he’d keep on rolling and gathering no moss.
Weird fucking phrase, anyway. He was never sure if gathering moss was supposed to be a good or a bad thing. But he’d always loved the Rolling Stones.
He was impressed when the cabbie got them through the rabbit warren of narrow Greenwich Village streets to the corner of Barrow and Grove without needing any directions. The restaurant loomed in front of the windshield, as stolid and unchangeable as ever. Max felt everything inside him tensing up like he was heading into a hotly contested war zone. Stuffing it down, he paid the cabbie and hefted his duffel onto one shoulder.
Enough stalling, Max.
He breathed out, long and slow, then inhaled another deep breath through his nose, imagining himself filling up with peace and serenity.
He had a feeling he was going to need it.
The restaurant dining room was empty of customers, but the place wasn’t really open yet. The front-of-house staff was starting to get set up for lunch, going through the familiar dance of clean white tablecloths and gleaming glassware. Max didn’t recognize any of them; not surprising, considering the high turnover rate among servers in Manhattan. They looked up curiously as he strode between the tables, but Max tipped them a nod and kept moving toward the kitchen.
He’d always found that a confident stride and a straightforward gaze kept people from questioning his right to be places he had no real business being.
Making it to the kitchen door with no hassling, Max blew out a breath and braced himself, then pushed it open.
Here goes nothing.
The kitchen wasn’t as active as Max remembered—only a single lone chef seemed to be doing prep. Max frowned. Was there a lunch service today? There ought to be at least three prep chefs busily chopping vegetables and making stock. Where was everyone?
Stepping further into the kitchen, Max stared at the one guy over in the corner, who seemed to be working industriously enough for ten chefs. His head was down, only a hint of short brown hair peeking out from under the bill of his backwards baseball cap. Max grinned at the familiar Yankees logo for a second before realizing with a start that he was looking at his younger brother.
Tension shot through him, but he plastered on a grin and repeated his mantra.
You gotta give love to get love.
“Danny! How long has it been, man?” Max dropped his duffel and walked over to drape an arm around his kid brother’s shoulders.
Despite the mindfuck of being home for the first time in six years, despite the lingering hurt of not hearing from the kid for all that time, Max found himself sincerely happy to see Danny.
“Too long,” Danny said, barely sparing him a glance as he shrugged Max’s arm off.
Apparently, the reverse wasn’t true for baby bro. Okie dokie, then.
Danny’s hands hadn’t paused in their machine-gun fast knife work, the rat-a-tat-tat of his blade turning a few big pieces of candied ginger into a perfectly uniform pile of honey-amber cubes sticky with sugar. Max stepped back to watch, impressed by the kid’s precision and concentration.
Although he really wasn’t such a kid anymore, Max reminded himself. “Dude,” he said, as easy and casual as could be, “I know it’s been a while, but hey, the phone works at both ends.”
Danny snorted, unimpressed.
“Or you could’ve come visit me when Mom did. You would’ve loved Morocco.”
There it was, the flicker of an eye that told Max he had his brother’s interest piqued. “Oh yeah? Better than Tokyo?”
“Different. The air is hotter, drier. Heavy with spices. And some of the desserts—you should’ve tasted them, they would’ve given you so many ideas...”
Whoops, wrong thing to say. Whatever headway he’d made in loosening Danny up was lost; the guy’s shoulders tensed up practically to his ears, and his voice was rough with some suppressed emotion when he said, “I don’t need new ideas. The desserts we make here have been good enough for people like Frank Sinatra and Rudy Giuliani—I don’t see any reason to change. Besides, there’s only room for one person in this family to be a carefree world traveler, and it ain’t me.”
The slice of guilt was quick and deep, but Max muscled through it with the ease of practice.
“Well, Danny boy, you might not have missed me, but I sure missed the hell out of you.”
He wrapped his arm back around his brother’s shoulders and squeezed, but Danny stayed stiff and resistant, at a distance.
Taking in a deep breath of calm and serenity, Max started, “Look, Danny. I never really got a chance to say goodbye to you, but...”
“It’s fine,” Danny said, stepping away to grab the white plastic tub of granulated sugar. “Don’t worry about it.”
It very obviously wasn’t fine, but Max had a feeling he wasn’t going to get any further with his brother right then. Calling on the patience he’d worked so hard to hone and deepen, Max gestured around the mostly empty kitchen. There were a few guys working the line, but Max didn’t recognize them. “Where is everyone?”
“Dad likes to give the team the day off when we’re practicing at night.”
“Sure, so they can’t hand him any lame excuses about being tired from service,” Max nodded, familiar with his father’s wily ways of extracting peak performances out of his employees.
“But you, he cuts no slack, whether you work lunch or not. Am I right?”
Danny’s shoulders went rigid as he hunched over his cutting board. “Don’t start, Max. Forget what I said before, about the world travel and all that bullshit. I’m here because I want to be.”
Max scowled. “Sure. Because your dreams have never extended beyond the confines of this one restaurant.”
Instead of whirling to face him, Danny hunched over the board and sped up his knife cuts, turning a peeled apple into julienned strips so thin they looked like the translucent fringe on a Moulin Rouge dancer’s costume. Max watched him for a long moment. “How much pastry you doing these days, anyway?”
“Plenty,” Danny said, but the words were strangled, forced out through a clenched jaw. “That’s my position on the team, after all.”
“Right, the team, the team.” Max sighed. “I guess you’d better tell me the deal with that, since I’m supposed to be jumping in and leading it to victory.”
Danny snorted. “If you want to lead, you might have a fight on your hands.”
“No dice,” Max said, backing way the hell off. “I’m not Fearless Leader Guy—I only meant what Mom said, about handing out tips and tricks for dealing with competition. I’ve got no interest in calling the shots.”
“Yeah, you’ve made that crystal clear.” Danny didn’t say anything else, but then, he didn’t have to. They both knew what he meant.
Danny loved baking—since they were kids, the guy’d been doing stuff with chocolate that wasn’t natural—so all he’d ever wanted was to take over as pastry chef at Lunden’s Tavern. Whereas Max, the elder son, the all-around chef who loved coming up with new recipes and trying new techniques—he was supposed to be the executive chef after their dad retired, and carry on the family tradition of being boxed into the stifling, rigid prison of The Way Things Have Always Been Done.
It was why he left home. Max wouldn’t give up his own dreams and ideas for the future—and Gus couldn’t accept it.
The Way Things Could Be Done. Max loved the thrill of risk and challenge that raced down his spine at the thought of shaking things up. Of taking his family’s West Village institution of a restaurant and making it...new. Fresh. An exciting blend of tradition and innovation.
Neatly sidestepping the emotional minefield, Max said, “So who’s on this crackerjack team of culinary studs? Anyone I’d remember from the old days?”
Because he was a good brother, Danny let him get away with it. “Maybe; depends how good your memory is. There are at least a couple of new guys, too.”
“Yeah? They any good?”
“One of them is the best fish cook I’ve ever seen,” Danny told him. "Brand new guy, just hired a few weeks go to replace...” A muscle ticked in Danny’s jaw, and his eyes went flinty enough to raise the short hairs on the back of Max’s neck.
“Not important. Anyway, Beck’s a killer in the kitchen. Hell, maybe out of the kitchen, too—no one knows much about the guy, other than that when he’s cooking, he runs his station like the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. He cuts no corners, accepts no shit off anyone, and takes no prisoners.”
“Oh good.” Max stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned against the counter beside Danny’s pastry board. “My favoritest thing ever! A tough guy. Lay you dollars to doughnuts he’s got a thick neck, a shaved head, and no sense of humor.”
“Uncanny,” Danny deadpanned. “How did you guess? Except for the part where you’re totally wrong. He’s a big guy, but his hair’s longish. And he doesn’t crack wise too often, but when he does, it’s extra hilarious. And speaking of hilarious, there’s Winslow Jones. He’s our prep chef.”
Max snapped his fingers. “I think I know him! Did he stage in Provence?” He’d met a guy named Winslow Jones—and how many guys with that name could there be?—when he was in Avignon learning how to make perfect ratatouille from a tiny, white-haired lady who spoke no English.
Winslow was doing his stage, a sort of unpaid culinary apprenticeship, at the ratatouille lady’s grandson’s restaurant, and Max had instantly bonded with the short, quirky, smack-talking chef. Maybe it was the ex-pat thing; there was something almost magical about reconnecting with another person from your own country when you were living amongst people who didn’t speak your language. But Max couldn’t actually picture anyone not liking the guy—he was funny as hell, and he kicked ass on the line the few times Max had invited himself over to the restaurant kitchen to watch them cook. What more could you ask for?
“Yeah, he mentioned having met you over there when Dad hired him.”
Max snorted. “That was a tactical blunder. I’m surprised Dad didn’t fire him on the spot.”
A muscle ticked in Danny’s jaw, but all he said was, “Win is solid. We’re lucky to have him—but not as lucky as we got with Jules.”
Max felt like a dog hearing a knock at the front door. All systems alert! Potential fun ahead!
“Jules. Jules. I seem to remember a Juliet hanging out with you, the two of you following me around, looking to get into trouble. Same girl? I bet it is. A chick on the team. Score. Come on, dish it up. Is she hot now? I bet she’s hot.”
Danny shook his head, amusement relaxing the tense line of his mouth. “Is that all you ever think about?”
“No! Sometimes I think about food. And beer. Scuba diving. Horse races. The color ‘cyan.’ I’m a complex and multi-layered flower, Danny.”
“Well, Jules isn’t for you.” Danny swept the flat of his knife across the cutting board and scooped up his carrot fringe, depositing it in a big rectangular plastic tub. “She’s a damn good chef, Mom and Dad adore her, and most importantly, we need her. The team can’t win without her—we’ll smoke the time challenges with Jules on board. You’ve never seen anything like this girl when it comes to knife work. Hand to God.”
Max hopped up on the counter. “Sooo...you’re saying hands off the merchandise? Keep my distance? No touchy, no feelie?”
Danny rolled his eyes. “She also happens to be a friend of mine. A good one, so lay off, okay? You must’ve banged a billion girls, from Paris to Sydney. Aren’t you done yet?”
“Never,” Max declared. “And I resent your slurs against my chivalrous character. My heart burns for the pure, sweet love of this paragon of virtue, this goddess of sweetness and light and the perfect brunoise, this...what did you call her again?”
“Jules,” said a husky, somehow familiar female voice from behind him.
Every hair on the back of Max’s neck stood up as if someone were blowing a warm breath over his skin.
When he passed through Bangkok, he’d learned to take note of that feeling—a couple of times, it was all that saved him from getting run down by one of the motorized rickshaws they called tuk-tuks.
That prickle saved him from getting his pocket picked in Rome, from a snake bite in Sao Paolo, and from dancing with a Yakuza’s girlfriend in a Tokyo club.
So when he felt it now, in the middle of this nearly empty kitchen in his family’s restaurant, he was understandably wary. Sliding off the counter, he turned slowly, hands loose and ready at his sides, pushing his weight onto the balls of his feet.
Prepared for anything.
It figured. Less than two months after swearing off men for good—and dating within her own kitchen in particular—the hottest chef Jules had ever seen stood in her own damn kitchen.
Max Lunden. In the unbearably delicious, sinfully tempting flesh, and wasn’t it a cleaver to the back of the neck that she even noticed how hot he was?
Not that it mattered. Whether she liked it or not, they were going to be working together, and that meant she couldn’t afford to notice anything about Max Lunden beyond his cooking skills.
In the testosterone-heavy world of professional restaurant kitchens, it was hard enough for a female executive chef to earn and keep the respect of the male chefs under her. Sleeping with them? Almost never a good tactic. If she’d learned nothing else from Phil the Phucktard, as Danny always called him, she’d learned that.
Max gave her a long, slow, sweeping glance like a head-to-toe caress. Not to be outdone or intimidated, Jules returned it.
God. She hated—hated!—the fact that he was still tall. Still broad in the shoulder and lean through the hips, all scruffy along the jaw and still with that casual disarray to his light brown hair that made him look like he’d perpetually just stepped off a sailboat.
Her fingers twitched involuntarily, itching to run through the soft cowlicks. Standing motionless and indoors, Max Lunden managed to look as if he had wind in his hair.
Because that’s who he is, she reminded herself. A guy in perpetual motion. Sure, he’s back—but not for good. Keep him at a distance, get whatever competition tips out of him you can, keep your promise to Gus, and everything will be fine.
She knew how to do this. She was a professional, damn it.
God knew, she’d always been better at that than at the personal stuff, anyway.
Jules let the dining room door swing shut behind her and hiked the nylon strap of her knife roll higher on her shoulder. She moved forward, hand outstretched, a determined smile on her face.
“Hi,” she said, going for calm and easy. It came out more robotic and weird, but there was no help for it—this was an awkward moment, at best. At worst? He’d remember the gangly teen girl with stars in her eyes whenever she looked at him. “I’m Jules Cavanaugh. Sous chef here for the past year and a half.”
Recognition lit Max’s blue-gray eyes, surprising Jules into dropping her hand.
“Well, well. Little Juliet, all grown up.”
She tensed, getting ready for a smart-ass remark about her stupid, schoolgirl crush. “I go by Jules now.”
“It’s so nice to see you again.” Max enfolded her proffered hand in both his large, warm palms, sending a strange shiver of electricity dancing up her arms. “Although, really. Nice doesn’t begin to cover it. Danny, for shame, keeping this loveliness all to yourself.”
Before Jules could overcome her confusion and jerk her hand back, he’d raised it to his mouth for a quick kiss. His stubble scratched the backs of her fingers, but his mouth was soft and hot. And when he glanced at her over their linked hands, that mouth was curved in a wicked smile that spoke volumes about the hot, sweaty, naked things he’d like to do with her.
Or maybe I’m just projecting, she thought dazedly as she snatched her hand away from him and put it behind her back. Because this bore a startling resemblance to the start of one of her better teen fantasies, where they met as equals and she gave him the cold shoulder, forcing him to work hard to win her.
Except this was real life, not some fantasy, and in real life, letting guys get away with playing grabby hands and winking at her never ended well.
Clearly she needed to keep her distance from Max physically. Which was maybe easier said than done when rubbing the backs of her fingers against the worn, ribbed cotton of her tank top couldn’t scrub the memory of his touch out of her brain.
Max rocked back on his heels, shoving his hands into his pockets, and said, “So. Juliet Cavanaugh. I assume my parents have been talking your ear off for the last however many months, telling you how awesome I am, and filling your head full of stories of my impressive talents in the kitchen.”
“Um. Not so much,” Jules said, shooting a glance at Danny, who shook his head and went back to his prep work.
“No? I should take this opportunity to set the record straight, then.” Max heaved a deep sigh. “It’s all true.”
“Everything they should’ve told you about me,” Max explained. “And I don’t know why they didn’t, because it’s all true. No exaggeration or family bias plays into it at all—I am the best chef in the entire world.”
Danny snorted in the manner of one who’d heard this line before. Jules narrowed her eyes at Max, who stared back innocently, an expression of pious truth on his face. She couldn’t help it—she knew he was kidding, he was practically winking and inviting her into the joke—but somehow, it caught her on the raw edge of the conversation she’d had the night before with Gus and Nina when they’d broken the news that Max was definitely coming home.
Max is a good boy, with a good heart, Nina had said, her softly lined face lovely when creased with a smile of pure joy and anticipation of her son’s return. He can be a little careless, sometimes. She’d shot a look at her husband, unusually subdued. Max doesn’t always think about how his actions will affect others.
Jules had to agree. Max clearly didn’t understand the effect he was having on her, right now.
“Best chef in the world, huh?”
“Yup. I’ve been all over the world to check it out myself, personally, and I’m here to tell you. No one can touch me in the kitchen.” He propped one lean hip on the counter, throwing his long-muscled form into stark relief, and grinned at her. “Well. You can, if you want.”
“No need,” Jules said, working to keep her voice even. “You might be the best chef in Europe, or wherever, but just so you know, you’re not the top dog around here.”
His eyes went a little wide when she didn’t pick up his flirtatious cues, but he shrugged. “Hey, no worries. I don’t need to be on top.” Pausing, he quirked one brow outrageously before continuing smoothly, “I like to be on the bottom every now and again.”
Jules wondered if there were some sort of daily sexual innuendo quota he had to meet. The danger of being misheard, her words misinterpreted, sent a cool wash of fear over her skin. She bit out, “As long as we’re clear. I’m in charge.”
Max’s eyes brightened. “Oooh, kinky! I think I’m in love. Juliet, I’m yours forever.”
Danny slapped his white kitchen towel down on his cutting board with a loud ‘thwap.’ “Get a room, you two.”
Heat flared in Max’s eyes, warming the blue to the color of the summer sky. Desire mixed with laughter looked good on him, Jules thought nonsensically, even as she fought the scorching blush streaking up her neck.
It had been a while since a guy affected her this much, this quickly. She didn’t like it.
But then, she had a history with Max’s smile—that same smile the Lunden men all shared. And the way Max laughed with his whole body, a sharp, emphatic bark that sounded a little bit surprised. Even though he laughed a lot, more than almost anyone Jules had ever met.
Well, he could laugh himself all the way back to Thailand or wherever, for all she cared. This was Jules’s house. Her home, her job, her life—and she wasn’t jeopardizing that for any hot piece of kitchen ass, no matter how flirty. And charming. And tall.
“It’s Jules,” she reminded him, before turning away abruptly and facing Danny. “Where are your mom and dad? Is Gus going to make it to practice tonight?”
“They were gone when I got up this morning; not sure when they’ll be back.”
“Dad’s not making it to all the practices?” Max interjected, frowning and glancing around. “Speaking of which, holy crap. It’s nearly time to open for lunch and he isn’t here. Wtf?”
Jules stiffened. Max’s bewilderment brushed right up against one of secrets she’d been asked to keep: the fact that the lunch ‘rush’ at Lunden’s, lately, was more of a ‘dawdle.’ They were all worried about it, but no one was more stressed over the restaurant’s falling numbers than Gus.
And if there was one thing they were all agreed on, it was that Gus didn’t need any more stress.
“He has a lot on his plate at the moment,” Jules said carefully. “Between the restaurant and the competition, and everything. It’s fine. We’ll soldier on without him.”
“Beck and Winslow should be rolling up in about an hour,” Danny said, shooting her a grateful glance.
“I’m going to get the demi-glace going,” Jules said, already heading to the sink to soap up, slinging her knives onto the corner of counter she’d staked out as hers when she first started working at Lunden’s Tavern.
“How about you, hotshot?” Danny asked, shooting a glare at his brother. “You want to hop onto the line and help out?”
Max grinned, that easy, crooked smile that Jules had to come up with a way to ignore. “No need for that,” she cut in sharply. She needed a little extra time to get her personal stuff under control, and bumping into Max in the narrow confines of the kitchen wasn’t going to help anything.
Instead of looking offended, Max laughed again, lighting up his whole face as he scooped up his duffel and headed for the back stairs. “Hey, I’d love to hit you with an assist, Danny boy, but the lady says you don’t need me, and I’ve got some studying to do. Catch you later!”
“Slacker,” Danny yelled after him, but Max just flipped the bird over his shoulder and kept going.
The instant the door closed behind him, it was as if all the air rushed back into the room, only some joker had switched the oxygen for nitrous oxide—only without the fun euphoria.
Jules’s head whirled, filled with nothing but the helter skelter of relief at being able to breathe again...and a sharp stab of fear that the return of the prodigal son meant the life she’d carved out for herself was about to change forever.
On Sale NOW!