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Authors: C. C. Koen

Unlikely Allies (8 page)

BOOK: Unlikely Allies
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Unwanted fantasies kept him revved up, an auburn beauty stuck in his head. The black-haired siren he’d used as a replacement already forgotten. Fire flared in his stomach and other parts of his anatomy. His eyes were closed, but he didn’t need to look down. His angry erection rubbed along his thigh as he shifted to the right and left, trying to get the jet stream to hit him where it hurt most, and hopefully beat the damn thing into submission.

Disgusted with himself, he shut off the water and toweled down in quick swipes. Semi-dry, he headed toward his bed, a bright yellow figure pulling him to the nightstand. The duck, and everything it embodied, mocked him. Yanking the drawer open, he tossed the irregular, ragged shape inside.

Out of sight, out of mind.

He rolled onto the mattress, threw the covers up to his chest, and an arm over his eyes. The darkness hadn’t helped a damn bit. Flashes of his new acquaintances bounced around in his head like a riptide about to suck him into the depths of a boundless sea: Maggie, the freckle-faced bombshell; and Cece, the bubbly, rambunctious preschooler.

Caught in his torrential thoughts, he spun onto his side, punching the pillow and tossing his weary head from one bumpy spot to another in a lame attempt to settle down. Forcing his brain to count sheep, repeat algebraic equations, and the Chinese alphabet he picked up traveling overseas, through it all, his mind games betrayed him and failed miserably.

One sheep, two sheep, three sheep—duck.

y + 9 = 13, 2n = 12—34, 24, 36.

= a, 比= b—Cecily + Max.

and pistachio truffle pâté were placed on the tray. Maggie wiped the blood orange sauce off the edges, ensuring perfection before delivery. She nodded to the waiter, and he served the patrons their meals. Curriculum lunch sessions at Le Gourmet brought a huge smile to her face. A designated time for culinary students to showcase their skills. Although she had little input about what would be prepared, the instructors expected the students to create their own specialty entree or dessert. A dozen master chefs tasted the samples, and if up to their standards, added a select few to the menu for a week.

Her mother’s Russian Torte made the cut as a featured dessert. When Antonio, her supervisor, told her she got the seal of approval, she about peed her pants. Even though the school focused on international cuisine, she didn’t know whether the worldly experts would accept a homemade recipe. Her family had taught her everything about ethnic-inspired cooking and baking, compliments of her grandfather’s Greek heritage and her grandmother’s Russian background. The earliest memories she could recall were of her toddling along at her mother’s side, mimicking her actions in the kitchen at home and at her grandparents’ restaurant. Mama would pick up her and Kat from school, drive them into Houston to Stavros’s, a four-thousand-square-foot dining establishment and catering service, and after they filled their tummies and finished homework, assumed their roles as little helpers. Kat couldn’t care less and often goofed off, hunkering down behind the register building towers out of wrapped silverware or shredding menus to paper mache glasses and mugs. But Maggie delighted in the grown-up atmosphere and took her job seriously. Over the years, the complexity increased from setting orders on trays when she was in kindergarten, to dressing Greek salads throughout her primary grades, and then assisting Mama with layering nuts and fillo for baklava and other desserts at the intermediate stage, until she advanced to chef alongside Baba and Pappous. She never stopped until she left town. Those moments were some of the best of her life. She’d cherish them forever. And now that she lived so far away, she kept her mom and grandparents close in thought with every recipe she prepared, each meal she set on a plate, and every dessert she lovingly whipped up.

“Hey, Maggie, how’s it going?”

With the temperature switched to medium, she added the duck breast skin side down to sear, then turned around to greet the familiar voice. Matt sat at one of the five chef’s tables, a two-person marble-top bar situated alongside the students’ stainless steel prep station, promising personalized attention. Designated for the apprentices whose recipes were featured, the primo spots were in high demand and often required reservations. “Well, boss man, decided to take me up on the invite, huh?”

“Oh, Mags, you know I have a weakness for that torte. When you told me it’d be on the menu, I couldn’t resist.” He patted his flat stomach. “It’s all your fault I gained an extra five pounds too. My wife doesn’t mind though. She said the extra cushioning is nice when she lays her head there.”

She snorted. “Yeah, right. There isn’t an ounce of fat on you. Sophia told me you’re a workout fiend, running five miles a day, and she has to drag you out of your home gym every night.”

He chuckled and unwrapped the bundled silverware, setting the napkin on his lap. She placed a menu in front of him, and he tilted his head to the empty stool to his left. “Can I have another of those? A business associate is joining me.”

“Sure.” After she set another down, she picked up the next ticket and prepared several more dishes. Matt asked her a few questions as she chopped and diced, sautéed and flipped, and plated a service for four. Wiping her brow with her sleeve, she reached up for a clean pan and almost dropped it as an exasperated male voice snapped from behind her.

“This place is packed. Why’d you pick it?”

Lodged in her brain for several weeks now, Mr. Stone’s guttural tenor replayed in her daydreams and in her sleep. She inched around performing a mental countdown from ten to zero, which helped cool her off when Cece pushed her buttons, and by some miracle she hoped would work in this instance too.

A steel gray oxford, no tie, and slim-fit pants with the same sheen as his button-down vest produced an unnatural reaction. Her tongue rolled to the roof of her mouth and withheld the groan his arousing professional attire and fresh-air scent planted in her head.

“Uh . . .” Mr. Stone narrowed his eyes at Matt and clamped a hand on his shoulder. His flushed face resembled the cherry red that often tinted joggers’ cheeks. “Buddy, you didn’t tell me Maggie would be here. Thought you said this was a business lunch.” He waved a folder and tossed it on the table.

Matt’s grin flashed toward her and then to his friend. “You do realize she’s cooking, right?”

Just then Mr. Stone’s gaze drifted across her chest, becoming transfixed for a while on the crisscrossed fork, spoon, and knife emblem at her left breast and then darted up to her face. If possible, his skin reddened even more as he dropped onto the wooden stool, an impact that scraped the chair back a few inches, rocking him into Matt’s shoulder.

“Let’s order. I’m starved.” An elbow shot given to his buddy, Matt knocked Mr. Stone’s bent arm off the edge of the table and pointed to the menu. “Pick something, fast. I need to get to dessert before it’s all gone.”

Using a similar mocking tone like Matt had earlier, Mr. Stone scanned the room while he spoke. “You realize we’re in a restaurant that has loads of food.”

She got a chuckle out of the amusing banter. Normally, she and Kat rubbed each other the wrong way. It was good to see the ribbing happening to someone else for a change.

“No, smart ass. Maggie’s extra special, sweet treat. There’s a limited amount.”

The menu forgotten and dropped onto the table, Mr. Stone set his chin in his hand and repositioned his arm where it had been before Matt knocked it down. In a seductive murmur he asked, “What sinful goodies do you have for me, Maggie?” Extended across the counter, his hand cupped hers from underneath and gripped it like a beggar pleading for anything and everything she could give.

She yanked her fist away, and it smacked against her thigh as she jolted back several steps to escape the heat, ramming right into Antonio. He picked up the same arm, pried her fingers apart, and inspected her uninjured palm. “You okay?” His other hand settled on her hip as he stood behind her. She hadn’t answered or looked at her superior. Instead her eyes wouldn’t move away from Mr. Stone’s, which kept darting between her and Antonio.

“I don’t see anything.” Antonio brushed his thumb along a line in the center, skimming a vein on her wrist too. Tickles raced across her skin and up her arm, but the zing had nothing to do with his touch. The electrical charge in the air came from Mr. Stone. As if in some out-of- body experience or mist-filled dream, she became super aware of his every move. Slow and reserved, yet full of raw energy, he eased up from his chair, rounded the counter and strutted over to them. Antonio’s hold at her hip stiffened, yet he didn’t let go. Instead his body pressed closer and straightened behind her, an apparent protective mode.

Veins in Mr. Stone’s neck stood out as he leaned into them, coming inches from Antonio’s face. Clanging dishes and silverware, shouted calls for service, and a full house of patrons talking over one another didn’t disguise the whispered threat he launched. “Hands off.”

Antonio raised both arms but didn’t move away from her backside. “Ease up, buddy.”

“Okay, okay, we’re all good here.” Matt threw an arm over Mr. Stone’s shoulder, jerked his chin at Antonio and flicked a quick glance at her before mumbling something in his friend’s ear she couldn’t make out. Whatever he said did the trick, and both returned to their seats, skimming the menu as though nothing had happened.

“You have tickets piling up, Maggie. Get to them,” Antonio reminded and took off for the main kitchen.

Several minutes later, she filled their orders. Matt and Mr. Stone dove into the braised short ribs she delivered to them. Her typical ease in the kitchen switched to uneven dicing, shaky cutting that almost sliced a couple fingers off, and jerky tossing, causing bits and pieces to fly out of the pan and into the flames on the gas stove. Unsettled, her upset stomach flared and heat from the oven made it feel like she had a hundred four temperature. In the middle of a busy lunch service, she tried to concentrate on each order and ignore, for the most part, the two men devouring their meals at the table over her shoulder. It wasn’t common for her to be so rude. She just couldn’t get what she needed done correctly if she spent one more moment with
Any time those hazel eyes shot in her direction, they pierced her.

Whenever she got near him, his enticing sandalwood, lavender, and berries cologne wafted up her nose and caused her heart to thrum as if each scent pulsed through her veins, surged through the left and right ventricles, and flooded the rest of her organs.

At last, the time had come for their dessert, leaving her with no choice but to pay them a visit. She set two small plates with three pieces of Russian Torte on each in front of Matt and Mr. Stone. Instead of returning to her station, her feet remained glued to the wood floor. His opinion didn’t matter. It shouldn’t, she told herself. Yet she stayed and waited as Mr. Stone picked one up and inspected the layers.

“Meringue.” He shot a glance her way, waiting for confirmation.

She nodded.

“The orange stuff—tangerines, peaches, what?”

“Apricots,” she corrected.

“Nuts on the bottom? Please tell me they’re not prunes.”

Unable to contain her laughter, it rushed out, relieving some of the strain that had twisted her up earlier. “Oh, Mr. Stone, if I were a cruel person, I’d lie and tell you they’re the sweetest, most delectable plums, handpicked and dried especially for you.” The tease caught her by surprise. It sounded sensual in her ears and must have registered with him too, because his eyebrow rose to his hairline, challenging her.

As soon as her taunt had been uttered, his tongue darted out and slicked up the side of the four-tier, decadent morsel. “Mmm.” He murmured multiple times, along with a deep rumble along his throat and Adam’s apple. The side of his mouth curved up, right before he opened wide and plopped the entire thing inside. His cheek bulged from the fullness, and he hummed through each chomp. Those honey brown eyes with sparks of winter green, a shade that transformed depending on the lighting, remained stuck to her as he savored each bite.

“Rick, is that you?” A svelte, dressed-to-the-nines woman rested her hand on his shoulder and ducked down, brushing a kiss on his cheek and remaining on that spot a lot longer than a simple hello.

Mr. Stone rose from his seat, his lips dropping into a frown.

Maggie glanced toward Matt, but he just continued to eat, shoving the last piece in his mouth and removing the two from his friend’s plate, putting them on his own. He pressed a finger up to his lips in a silent “shh” and instead of being ashamed, he shrugged his shoulders and continued to gulp them down.

“I was wondering when we could get together again.” The hussy pressed a hand onto Mr. Stone’s chest, right on his heart, while the other cupped his cheek, swiping a thumb along the stubble. The fake blond bombshell stepped closer, not leaving a centimeter between them. “You sure know how to show a girl a good time. I’ve missed you.”

Mr. Stone grabbed her wrist and pushed her arm away from his face, returning it to her side. He scooted his chair with the backs of his legs and took several steps away from her. “That’s not a good idea.”

BOOK: Unlikely Allies
3.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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