"No way, Joel. No freaking way will I work with my ex-husband." Marissa Walker gripped her boning knife and pretended the chicken she deboned was Billy Walker's heart.
"Now don't fly off the handle." Joel took a step away from the prep area, probably for his own safety. "This is a business decision. Times are lean. It's gotten tougher and tougher to keep up with two locations. I told you a few days ago I've been entertaining offers for the Atlanta restaurant."
"And just like that the place is sold?" She slammed the knife down on the steel countertop and leveled an angry stare at her boss. How could he do this? She thought he cared about her. "Doesn't the new owner know that the chef makes the restaurant? He should be keeping Billy on there, at least for a while." The prospect of seeing the man who'd ripped her world apart made her gut tighten with dread. She'd never been able to resist him even though he was clearly bad for her.
Joel shook his head, folded his arms over his barrel chest. "The new owner has his own team he wants to install. He has several restaurants in Raleigh and Charleston."
She tried to concentrate on slicing the meat into strips, but she couldn't purge the image of Billy from her brain. His irritating crooked smile and that ridiculous wink, the amazing icy blue eyes and those biceps. Oh, Lord, those biceps. Tugging at her collar, she wondered if she'd remembered to turn down the air conditioner. Place was too damned hot. "Why can't you just let Billy go, then? How is it your responsibility to see that the guy is employed?" A tiny shard of guilt lodged in her heart, but she ignored it. "Maybe he can devote himself full time to his gambling habit if he doesn't have to show up for a real job."
"He swears he's through with that. Says he's a changed man." He sounded as if he were trying to sell her a snake oil cure.
She rolled her eyes. "My big Italian ass he's changed. Any idea how many times he made that very same promise to me?" Huffing, she laid thin strips of chicken in a glass casserole filled with marinade. Turning her back to Joel, she scrubbed her hands until they were nearly raw. "Every time I caught him in a lie, that's how many." She ripped a paper towel from the dispenser to dry her hands, then covered the chicken and carried the dish to the refrigerator. "You, of all people know what I went through with him."
"He's my cousin, sweetheart." Joel's doe-brown eyes softened. "How can I face my family if I yank the rug out from under him?"
She started to buck, but he firmly grasped her shoulders and held her still. "Marissa, you know damn well you need more help in the kitchen here. Billy has a great repertoire of healthy dishes he tried in Atlanta and he knows all yours better than anyone but you. You haven't seen him in a year. Give him a chance." He held her at arm's length. "This is the only way. It'll work out." A wicked grin lifted the corner of his mouth. "Your ass isn't big, by the way. Perfectly round and high."
"Since when do you look at girls' asses?" Twisting out of his reach, she swept an arm through the air. "This is my kitchen." She pointed to the colorful plaque over the door that her neighbor, Tina had given her last Christmas. "See? It says, 'Marissa's Kitchen,' not Billy's and Marissa's. He'll screw everything up."
"You are a bit of a control freak." His expression grew serious. "If memory serves me, I seem to remember that was also an issue in your relationship. His gambling was only part of the problem."
Gritting her teeth, she took a deep breath. If she were smart, she'd quit. But how could she leave this place, leave Joel? She'd built it into what it was today—Savannah's only gourmet restaurant that catered to the healthy living crowd. She'd remade loads of old Southern favorites without all the fat and calories. People lined up at the door to eat here and it was all because of her. Sure, she'd been Billy's Sous Chef the first couple of years, helping him create his own brand of light dishes. But the place had come into its own recently, since he'd been gone.
"I'm sorry," Joel said, breaking into her thoughts. "Your relationship with Billy is none of my business, but things at this place are my concern. Look at it this way; you won't have to work six days a week anymore."
Hardly much of a consolation. “I can’t work with him, Joel. I’d rather leave than have to see him day in, day out.” How could she create magic with her heart ripping in half every single day?
“Tell you what. Give it some time. If the two of you can’t make it work here, I’ll choose the best man … or woman for the job and find something else for the other. You know I have loads of connections. Fair?”
She eyed him suspiciously.
"Sweetheart, you're my best friend. I'd never do anything to hurt you. You have to trust me on this."
She stared at his broad shoulders and short, military style flattop. He was the sort of man everyone looked up to and not only because he was six and a half feet tall. He was a real standup guy. Joel had never lied to her, always been there for her. Meeting his gaze, she knew he truly believed what he said. Her heart thawed a little. If he weren't gay she'd … no. Even if Joel were straight, she'd never dare risk their friendship with something like an affair. He meant too much to her and besides, she sucked at love.
He touched her hair, tugged on a curl that had worked free of her hairnet, then released it and watched it spring back toward her head. "He was a fool to take you for granted, you know."
She swallowed back the lump in her throat. "Yeah, you're right."
He started toward the swinging door to the dining room.
"Joel?" she called.
Glancing over his shoulder, he lifted an eyebrow, waiting.
"How long do I have before he arrives?" She hoped she'd at least have some time to acclimate to the idea before Billy reentered her life.
"He'll be here in the morning. Sorry for the short notice, but I didn't want you to worry yourself to death. You know how you are." With that bomb dropped, he left.
In the morning? Grabbing the edge of a counter, she gasped for breath. She needed time to prepare her armor for his seductive arrows. The ring of her cell phone snapped her back to life. She fished it out of her pocket and studied the unfamiliar number. "Hello?"
"Hiya, babe." Billy's honey voice set her heart thumping. "Long time no speak."
Words caught in her suddenly bone-dry throat. She raced to the water cooler for a drink.
"I know. You're thrilled to hear from me." Typical Billy. Egotistical sarcasm. "I wanted to make sure it would be okay if I crashed at your place tonight."
She sucked water down so fast she gagged on it. Had he just said what she thought he had? Slapping her chest, she coughed and sputtered, tried to get a word out, one word—no!
"Choked up at the thought of seeing me, huh? Me, too. I'm leaving Atlanta in about two hours, so I'll be there this evening. Love ya, babe." And the line went dead.
This couldn't be happening. How could he be so damned presumptuous? That bastard! Life as she knew it was headed straight to hell.
From the moment Marissa met Billy when she was hired as his Sous Chef, she found everything about him delicious. Between his tall, muscular frame, his thick black hair and his piercing blue eyes, she couldn’t resist her hunger for him. His Crepes Suzette weren’t too bad, either! They created memorable dishes in the kitchen of the Savannah gourmet restaurant where they worked and eventually memorable heat in the bedroom as well.
After several years, though, Billy’s addiction to gambling destroyed the trust in their relationship. When the marriage went sour, he left Savannah and went to work at their boss’s Atlanta restaurant. A year later the owner closed the Atlanta location, and just in the nick of time for Billy. Right before he leaves Atlanta, his bookie shows up demanding Billy settle his debts. When Billy explains he doesn’t have the money, the bookie’s henchman roughs him up. Billy swears he’s starting a new job and will have the money soon. The men knock him out. When he awakens, he starts toward Savannah, but quickly realizes he’s lost his cell phone. Not giving that much thought, he buys another, then continues on his way to Savannah to reclaim his old job and his ex-wife.
When he shows up on Marissa’s doorstep expecting to stay there, she’s furious, although deep down, she finds him just as tasty as ever. When she sees Billy is injured, though, she relents and allows him to stay. Knowing she won’t be able to resist him for long, she insists they compete for the Head Chef job, rather than work together on a permanent basis.
Their boss calls and explains a magazine food critic will be paying the restaurant a surprise visit soon. He asks that they work together rather than compete, but Marissa assures him the competition will bring out their creative best. The boss then sweetens the pot with a ten thousand dollar bonus to the winner. Since that’s the amount Billy owes his bookie, he’s more determined than ever to win. If he wins, he can move on with his life. He truly wants to quit gambling and get back with Marissa, but will the demons from his past allow him to reclaim what he lost?
As Marissa and Billy ramp up the competition in the kitchen, the intense attraction heats up as well. Marissa softens her resolve, but can she trust him not to fall back into the destructive behavior that sank their relationship the last time?
To My Readers: After a recent trip to Savannah, I was inspired to set a story there and draw on the rich southern tradition that makes it such a romantic place. Billy and Marissa were characters dying to come out and play. What better playground than a gourmet restaurant in the heart of the historic district where anything is possible.