|Genre: Contemporary Romance, Foodie, Series|
|Read about Book 1: Once Burned|
The best chef wins…but their hearts could lose the prize.
Close to the Heat, Book 2
Chef Lee Solomon is so going down.
How dare he call a tow truck on Chef Ginger Danielle’s customers just because they might have been parked in front of his restaurant while dining at hers? So what if he’s gorgeous, successful, and a master of gourmet cuisine, it doesn’t mean he can do as he pleases.
When he suggests they settle their differences with an underground cooking competition, Ginger is all in. Her feel-good comfort food against his fancy fare? Game on!
Lee has tried to ignore how badly he wants to see Ginger in his bed, but he’s finished fighting it. Their antagonism—and their mutual lust—is at an all-time high; when it comes to this particular battle, he has no intention of losing. He’s set on seducing the petite chef, no matter what the cost to his profession.
But when it comes right down to it, his pride whispers that there can only be one winner. Does he give up the competition… or give up the girl?
Warning: Features a dirty talking chef, thousand-calorie recipes, and a very private menu of delicious seductions.
“It had chemistry, smoking hot love scenes, and parts that made me lol…Cravings was just short, sweet and mouth watering delicious. It’s one book you’ll want to savor.” 4 Stars, Colette, A Buckeye Girl Reads
Lee Solomon drizzled the thick balsamic reduction over curls of charred golden onions scattered among grilled carrots and bright slices of persimmons. By the time he sprinkled them all with julienned apple mint, the dark droplets of vinegar had separated into individual rounds of art. An enticing aroma immediately drifted up from the plate as warm vinegar met cooled fruits and vegetables, and he inhaled it with relish. He scanned the plate’s surface with a practiced eye as the stark plate beneath the myriad of colors made the food seem that much brighter. A final swipe of an unfortunate fingerprint, and then he released the delicate china onto the stainless steel counter.
“Service,” he said evenly with cool detachment while dragging his gaze up from the food and onto his surroundings.
The food expeditor stepped to the counter, removing the plate with the same precise care Lee’d used to put it there in the first place. He’d expect no less from the young man, probably not much older than twenty or so. Another year or two of proving he could handle the plates without destroying the tableaus Chef Lee and his team created and maybe he’d be allowed to help with food prep.
Lee took a moment to follow the plate’s progress into the dining room only a few yards from where he stood. He’d designed the layout that way. Every patron could watch while cooks prepared their food. His staff would also maintain the utmost propriety as they were similarly observed. No whining about rude customers, bad tips or slow service when everyone within earshot could listen in.
No, here there would be refined order. It included gleaming silverware, starched linens and the quiet hum of hushed voices extolling the loveliness of his food. Of his restaurant. Of him.
A subtle nod to his sous chef had Cherise abandoning her position to take over for him. Most of the evening crowd had begun to dissipate, and he had a new menu to design. She’d worked as his second for more than four years now and knew his likes and dislikes probably better than he did. The rest of the evening would be turned over to her, until and unless she needed his assistance. Which she wouldn’t, because she was a damned good cook. He wouldn’t have hired her otherwise.
One last sweep of the room, ensuring all of the customers looked entranced by the service and food, by the ambiance and by…shit.
Lee took a deep breath as the five-foot-nothing woman came tearing into his restaurant. Eyes narrowing, jaw clamping down, he tried like hell to keep the irritation from his face. The racing heartbeat, the heat that swirled in his belly, were harder to control.
“Are you seriously calling a tow truck on my customers? Seriously?” Ginger Danielle, a chef in her own right and owner of the shack next door, dared to cross his threshold. Blonde hair spiked in sixty different haphazard points almost detracted from at least half a dozen earrings trailing along the rounded arches of her ears. The signature man’s T-shirt she wore shouldn’t make him breathe a little harder by looking at it, but the lush lines of her body beneath it certainly did. And that ass—Christ, that ass! She threw out hips, thighs and ass for miles.
How many different times had he imagined her on her knees looking up at him with those bright blue eyes while sucking him off? And that wasn’t the only position in which he’d conjured her. He’d come up with at least a dozen. Possibly more. But his favorites always had her beneath him, willingly taking what he offered. A few of them involved a bit of consensual manhandling, always with the understanding that in the end they’d both enjoy the final result. It was almost obscene the way he pictured her draped across a table, ass up, as he plowed into her. Her persistent attitude, the take-no-shit bossiness, made him want to do things to her. All sexual.
He tried like crazy to ignore his body’s lust for her, but damn it all to hell, it would not be tamed. Every time he saw Ginger—every single time—he went hard as he studied her lips, her tits or her ass. And then she had to make it worse by being funny, smart and sassy. Fucking deadly combination.
“My parking lot, my grass, my privilege,” Lee replied. Somehow his voice remained steady, not betraying the annoying excitement of seeing her again.
Every instinct urged him to lift his gaze a fraction, to see how the customers were reacting to this little drama unfolding before them, but he knew better than to take his attention away from his curvaceous spitfire.
Ginger rolled her eyes. “I swear to God, Lee, I swear to God you do these things to get a rise out of me.”
Might be somewhat true. “No, I do these things because your so-called customers have no business anywhere near my place. They’re impeding on my profit.”
“Asshole,” she grumbled, almost beneath her breath but certainly loud enough for him to hear. “You just don’t like the fact that you reside over here in hoighty-toighty land. Hell, if a person eats escargot with a salad fork, someone’s likely to hand out a citation.”
“And over there, forks are nonexistent. Got indoor plumbing yet?”
She smiled big, a silly grin that made his lower abdomen tighten, but he watched those hands ball into fists and settle on her hips. Damn, he loved those hips.
The smile died. “I expected better out of you. Now you’re not just coming after me, you’re driving away my customers. I cannot allow you to do that. Cannot.”
He suffered a twinge of guilt. It was a knock to the back of his head about having to put his business first. Why couldn’t they be residential neighbors arguing about whether the flourishing papaya tree sat on his property line or hers? Or two people at a supermarket, each reaching for the same ripe pineapple? Or just plain, simple fuck buddies?
No—they had to be restaurant owners competing for customers. Each trying to stay afloat in a rough economy where people held their money close to their chests. The chefs’ cuisines couldn’t be any more opposite, but he’d seen for himself that his customers ventured toward her place on occasion, where she offered simple, everyday comfort food. On the rare occasion, one of hers moseyed over to see how the other half lived, which was a good thing. He didn’t care how he got his business, so long as he got it.
“Come with me,” he said. Enough of dealing with this situation where they made themselves a spectacle. When talking—arguing—with Ginger, they needed a much more intimate space for their wheeling and dealing.
A loud exhalation hissed out of her, but Lee didn’t wait to find out if she’d follow. She would.
He knew better but would have loved to turn and ask her to lead the way. To give him the opportunity to watch the curve of her ass beneath black slacks that hugged it just this side of decent. If she’d donned stilettos instead of clogs and a silk wrap instead of a cotton T-shirt with those same clinging pants, she’d have been ready for an evening of fine wine, exceptional food and sultry music. Better yet, replace the slacks with a skirt barely touching the tops of her knees…convince the staff to clear out three hours early…turn the lights down low…and he’d have her over that table in no time. Not just a simple fuck, but pure seduction, starting with trailing his tongue down the curve of her spine. Skimming the surface of her skin with his fingertips. Finding the spots that made her smile. The ones that made her sigh. Or moan.
“Are you even listening?”
Pulled out of his too-vivid thoughts, pushing aside the imagined taste of her, Lee glanced over his shoulder. “What?”
Ginger rolled her eyes. “I said I didn’t come over here for this. Don’t have time for it. I just want you to stop harassing my customers, or I will have to do what’s necessary.”
Lee pulled open the door, stepped back and waited for her to enter before him. She’d always viewed his chivalry with a suspicious glance, but for once, she entered without a sidelong look directed at him. Besides the restrooms, this was the only room in the restaurant with a door. Oh, the things he could do with her now if she’d only let him. “And exactly what would that be? Although on second thought, I doubt there’s much you can do. My customers do not dare cross your threshold for fear of typhoid, ebola and other such contractibles.”
Amusement shone in her eyes before they narrowed, a new fire shimmering forth. Despite what came out of her mouth next, she’d kind of liked his barb. Not that she’d admit it aloud. But he knew, and these moments, when a smile skated microseconds from curving those sensuous lips, kept his wit and tongue sharp.
“Last chance,” Ginger said. “You do not want to be on my bad side.”
“Darlin’,” Lee said, pausing mid-step to lean his mouth closer to her ear. “Are you sure about that?”
A delicious shiver trailed down Ginger’s back. It traveled low, sparking bits of excitement along the way and waking up parts that shouldn’t be allowed to brighten when in Lee’s presence.
There was no denying the heat that arced between them, but she hated his prissiness, his up-in-the-air haughtiness and his general way of looking down on her. Just because she didn’t eat—or cook—things like dandelion greens topped with smoked-butter beurre blanc beside Kobe beef tartare didn’t mean he outclassed her. She’d simply discovered a long time ago that there was more to life than keeping up appearances. She’d rather keep things simple, clean and just plain ol’ good.
But God, something about the man made her ache in such a yummy way…
The first time she’d met him, a moment sparked when she knew studying Lee for just one second more would be an epic disaster, but the sensation disappeared in a flash of brilliance. The longest lashes she’d ever seen framed incredible honey-brown eyes that drew her in. Somehow her gaze managed to break free of the magnet and slide down a little to the bone-straight nose decorated with freckles. To the thin lips she couldn’t wait to see parted in a smile. The soul patch just beneath the plumper lower lip loaned him another notch in the sexiness department. A small hint of gray glinted in the dark hair, but it accentuated his youth rather than detracted from it. When Ginger managed to stop focusing on the individual components and take in the entirety of his face, an achingly long moment when her breath seemed to catch and her heart stuttered occurred all at once.
Yes. Girly parts did very dangerous things when around Lee. Like now, the way her nipples hardened as another shiver stole over her. A man’s warm breath on the sensitive skin of her neck shouldn’t be able to do that, right?
She shook it off, putting the needs of her baby—the restaurant she’d started without help from anyone—first. A step took her away from the temptation of kissing Lee and moved her instead toward throwing verbal jabs. “Is that supposed to be a threat?” It came out way breathier than it should have. “If it’s supposed to be, let me tell you right now that you’ve got the wrong one.”
“Really, Ginger, do you think I’d threaten you? It’s so…base.”
“Yeah, heaven forbid you do something so base.” She rolled her eyes.
He must not have caught on to her derision. Lee moved closer, closing the gap she’d created, stopping only once she was forced to lift her gaze. Those honey-brown eyes glittered, the hint of a smile almost hidden behind perfect lips. “Exactly. And I don’t do base. What I do is frontal assault. I guarantee you’ll see me coming when it happens.”
She could pretend not to understand his meaning. She could. She’d look like a completely naive virgin if she did, but she could raise her eyebrows in confusion, stare back at him with blinking, innocent eyes. Only someone innocent could mistake the shadowed weight beneath his voice, lending him a baritone that rippled through her in shivery waves. And the way his gaze focused on her mouth, tracing over it in a slow caress she could almost feel. Hell, it took everything in her not to lick her lips now, just to test if she could taste him through that invisible touch.
While one part of her brain screamed to back up again and return to a safe zone—namely her own restaurant—the other, louder part of her brain insisted that she be brave. Take one for the team and show him she would not be cowed by his good looks. Or the way he smelled. God, he smells good. Like unadorned maleness. No spicy colognes or flowery aftershaves. Just Lee.
Chin lifting in the air, she gathered her fortitude. “You’re bordering on harassment.”
His brow knitted into a frown, and he had the decency to step away from her, circling the desk until he could sit behind it. Tension lined his tightened jaw as he yanked open a drawer, withdrew a Snickers candy bar and tossed it onto the paper-littered surface of the desk. The familiar brown wrapper drew her attention while her rumbling stomach reminded her she hadn’t fed it much more than a few cups of black coffee all day.
The frown deepened. “When’s the last time you ate?”
“Never you mind. Let’s stick to the business at hand.”
“Honestly, I’m not real sure why you’re here,” Lee said. “Other than to voice your displeasure about your customers being called out on their illegal behaviors.”
“If I thought for a second that this was about my customers, then I probably wouldn’t even be here. But no, this isn’t about them. It’s about you and me.” Whether in agreement or annoyance, her stomach rumbled again.
Lee ignored its protest. “I have nothing against you.”
She made a rude noise. “You despise me.”
“Very much true. You hate the fact that I’m doing better than you, with much simpler fare.”
“And most of all, you hate the fact that I’m a much better cook than you are.”
A beat of tension strung the air around her tightly. Ginger paused, all too aware that she might have said the wrong thing to Lee. Didn’t make the accusation any less true, but while to think it suggested cruelty, to say it aloud to the proud man toed the line. What she’d said… They were fighting words.
Lee stood, shoving the chair away from him with his legs. He looked huge. The overhead lighting drew attention to the angles on his face so that the places left in shadows made him appear mysterious. And gorgeous.
Still, she didn’t like the hint of danger in his harsh stare. Ginger took his sudden silence and dark expression as her cue. She whirled to find the door, saying, “Stay away from my customers, Lee. Otherwise, my next response won’t be so civil.”
Hand on the doorknob, Ginger went still at the sudden presence of him at her back. He didn’t touch her, but the weight and heat of him boxed her in. She didn’t know how he’d managed to get around the desk so quickly to stand behind her, but it thrilled her to her toes to feel him so close.
Turning around to face him would be a bad idea. Their mouths would be within kissing distance, and even the simple act of speaking might take them from sparring partners to making out like teenagers in a heartbeat. Instead, heart thudding, she waited for him to make the next move.
On some deep level, she could admit to being scared by his overbearing behavior, but if she searched a little deeper, going a tiny bit further into her psyche than might have been comfortable, she could also admit it turned her on too.
His arm grazed her waist as he reached for the knob, covering her hand with his own. She couldn’t tell if he intended to keep her there or encourage her to go. When he didn’t turn their hands to open the door, her heart hammered even louder.
Would he lower his mouth to the skin of her nape, gently kissing his way across her hairline? She swore she could feel his breath there now…
What if those gentle kisses turned into something hungrier, nips intended to prickle her excitement? It was all too possible she’d be unable to stand it, turning to find his lips with her own, their mouths crashing together as they tasted one another.
“Put your money where your mouth is.”
Yanked out of her thoughts, she almost whipped around to face him. Surely she hadn’t heard him correctly. Something about their mouths?
“W-what?” she stammered, her heart now pounding somewhere in the vicinity of her neck.
Eyes narrowing, Ginger withdrew her hand from his grasp, immediately missing the warmth. She couldn’t focus on that, though. Instead, she slowly turned, mentally daring him to do anything more than explain himself. Staring into his eyes, she asked, “Are you serious?”
“Absolutely. You and me at Food Fighters. Loser permanently gives up six prime spaces in their parking lot, graciously allotting the land to the winner.”
Six additional spaces on a busy night would go a long way toward making her customers happy. A wager she had a hard time turning down. “Deal,” she answered before her brain thought of reasons why this might be a bad idea.
“Monday night work for you?”
She thought fast. “That place is packed for months in advance. There’s no way we can get in there that quickly.”
“Let me worry about that. You’d just need to show up with your best. Can you hang?”
Jesus. Food Fighters.
Chefs showed up at the restaurant of Max Pelletier for one-on-one competitions, surrounded by fellow chefs, foodies and friends. Someone early on had dubbed the chefs who dared to show up “food fighters”, and the name and tradition had stuck. While it might be just friendly competition, with only an hour to prepare their best dishes, the chefs worked with an intensity bordering on insanity. They focused on their craft while dealing with an unfamiliar kitchen, only the reward of being known as the better chef spurring them on.
Winning Food Fighters against Lee Solomon would be perfection for her career.
Feeling smug, she dialed back the hormones and amped up the competitive streak. “Monday night. Let’s do what we do best. I win, and you back off. Leave me, my restaurant and my patrons alone. And I get six spaces from your parking lot, up front.”
He smirked. “As you wish.”
“You can wipe that look off your face, because you’re darn right, as I wish.” Gathering her mental skirts and fortitude, she managed to get the door open without him interrupting. That he let her go unmolested unsettled her; she wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved.
Heading toward the front of the restaurant, she tried not to ogle the diners wearing Armani and Cavalli, Chanel and Leger. So different from her place, where the most designer label might be Levi’s. Here, the silverware shone so brilliantly it might have come off the factory line yesterday. At her place, most people were too busy wiping their hands on the paper napkins crumpled besides their plates to worry about the pattern on the ends of the knives and forks.
She and Lee couldn’t be any more opposite in their approaches if someone had drawn them that way. Yet the simmering heat bouncing between them wasn’t one-sided. She recognized those flares in his eyes when he watched her. And she wasn’t foolish enough to believe her own gaze didn’t soften whenever it found him. They hungered for each other…but it just didn’t seem right. Like it would never work. How could they be lovers at night and restaurant rivals by day?
Simple. They couldn’t.
Ginger delicately pushed through the waiting throng in the lobby until she could break free outside. She inhaled deeply, tasting the ever-present brine lingering on Florida nights. With brilliant stars dotting the night sky, the evening proved idyllic, perfect for a date.
Ginger’s mind again brought up a lazy image of Lee, and she had to shove it to the side. “Get real, girl,” she murmured. The man really didn’t have anything endearing about him other than his looks. Trying to pursue a relationship made no sense whatsoever.
By the time she crossed the parking lot, she’d managed to keep thoughts of him at bay. A smile touched her lips as the sounds of happy diners drifted toward her, and she took a moment to enjoy it. Once inside, she’d have one of the guys whip up a late-night snack for her before rejoining the line. Then, after service was over, it would be a long night of bookkeeping, inventory management and payroll. Ugh.
On second thought, maybe she’d stay out here just a moment longer.
She shoved her hands into her pockets, the fingers of her right hand brushing against paper. Brow furrowed, a frown turning her mouth down, she withdrew the package. Before she’d even laid eyes on it, she recognized the shape of the candy bar previously on Lee’s desk, and all thoughts of Lee flooded back. He’d known she’d been hungry and did his bit to assuage it.
He might be a jerk, but he was a sweet jerk. Kind of made not liking him just a little bit harder.