I moved around a lot as a kid. Air Force brat. Worse-officer’s brat. I’ve lived in the North, the South, the middle, and even in Germany for a bit. Hell, I never attended the same school two years in a row. By the time I was eighteen, I was worn-out by my mobile lifestyle. When I told my Lt. Colonel father I didn’t want to join the military, he hid his disappointment well. When I told him I wanted to be a chef-well, his less-than-enthusiastic response left him hoarse for a week.
I pulled some local gigs for awhile, and even had a pretty good job as a sous chef in Manhattan. But I wanted the brass ring, and Mom’s old recipes weren’t gonna cut it if I wanted my own place. So I decided to go to the Culinary Academy.
Plus, it was a great place to pick up chicks.
Case in point, the very first day there, these pretty young things were giggling at me. Okay, I’d been out in the world for a little while and I wasn’t exactly a spring chicken compared to these eighteen-year-olds, but they must have seen me as a father figure or something. And let me tell you, there were a few who had Friday night pastime potential.
But then she walked down the hall.
She was tiny-the proper term is petite, but short covers it-with flame-red hair and freckles. On paper, that doesn’t sound attractive, but it was more than just the way she looked. She walked like she was ten feet tall. And her eyes-man, her eyes. They sparkled, even in the tacky fluorescent light. I had to get to know this one.
I’ve been around a couple blocks in my time. I have some go-to lines that work pretty well. So, in my most suave and debonair manner, I said, “Puff pastry?”
Puff pastry? Puff freaking pastry? This was my smooth line. What a bonehead.
Good one, numbskull. “Um, I was asking if you’re signed up for the puff pastry class.”
She smiled. She looked like she thought I was nuts, but maybe I could make some time with her. Maybe.
“Yes. I am.”
Time to get a grip on my mojo again. “Good. Then I already know a friendly face here.” I stuck out my hand to shake hers, and that’s when I saw it-a wedding ring. Crap.
“I’m Kevin Best.”
God, even her name was cute.
“You from around here?” Obvious much? What the hell is wrong with me? “Sorry. That sounded like a pickup line. We’re in school, not a bar.”
She laughed, and those eyes twinkled. A little devilishly, actually. Man, she was something.
“That’s okay. I take it you’re not from around here.”
“South Texas,” I said. “By way of Colorado and Florida. But I was born in Birmingham.”
“That’s the one.” That’s me. King of the snappy comeback.
And why was I still acting like such a goober? She was married, for God’s sake. I had no shot in hell with this woman. And even if she weren’t, she was just some chick in my puff pastry class. Nothing spectacular. I’d made women much prettier than her swoon without tripping over my tongue. So why couldn’t I put together a coherent sentence?
I decided to get my act together and give up on the redhead. There were other fish in this little sea. But I couldn’t help watching her in class. She was amazing. Brilliant with food, and diligent, too. What she didn’t know, she learned, and what she hadn’t perfected, she practiced. She was way more together than the giggling cupcakes, even if she had a self-depreciating streak.
And then she became my partner.
It was obvious she wasn’t thrilled about it-even tried to get Chef Ratchett to reassign her. I knew it. I’d blown it with her on day one. Not that it mattered. Married.
How come I had to keep reminding myself of that?
But I thanked my lucky stars that day. Not only was she rapidly wriggling her way under my skin, she was the only other student in the class who showed any actual talent. Well, aside from the weird Cuban guy who kept claiming he was Hemingway’s long lost grandkid. And he was obviously a nut case.
We worked well together. Incredibly well, as a matter of fact. It was like she could read my thoughts-which was kind of scary, since I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering to what it would be like to have her in my bed.
But I wanted more from her than to get in her pants. Yeah, shocked the hell out of me, too, but Maggie was just so damned smart. Except when it came to that husband of hers. Something wasn’t right there. Something was off, and I was pretty sure she knew it deep down. If someone would just point it out to her…
But it was none of my business.
Working so closely together, we had no choice but to become friends. I was finally able to keep my mind out of the gutter and on my work long enough to do pretty well in class. Still, every time I saw Maggie, every time my hand brushed hers, every time I watched her concoct a new recipe, I was tempted. And every day I could see something wearing on her, pressing heavier and heavier on her shoulders. I didn’t know details-and didn’t dare ask-but I had a suspicion I knew who was at the root of the problem.
And then came that night I bartended for a buddy down at the Mermaid Club…