Authors: Christine Warner
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #romance general, #Contemporary Romance, #Bachelor's Special, #Christine Warner
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
2013 by Christine Warner
. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
Visit our website at
Edited by Karen Grove
Cover design by Danielle Barclay
Manufactured in the United States of America
The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:
, Happy Bunny, Google,
Danger, Will Robinson, danger.
(Quote from 1960s TV series,
Lost in Space
), Lincoln Town Car, Jacuzzi.
To Mom and Dad,
I LOVE you always and miss you every day.
Jill pulled the whisk from the bowl of frosting and licked the tip.
She checked the time, then slid the chocolate marble cake toward her and applied the finishing touches. She’d only been with Creations for fifteen months, and it was a huge compliment that the head chef had asked her to take the lead on these two big parties.
Everything needed to be perfect. Jill had worked too hard to earn her position as sous-chef at the age of twenty-five.
“Sam, do you have the ice cream cart ready to go?” Jill eyed the nervous apprentice that she’d entrusted to help her with the final course for the Renwick birthday celebration. She’d had him organize an old-fashioned ice-cream cart on wheels, with an assortment of flavors. A wave of excitement fluttered her stomach. This would be the crowning glory to the eightieth birthday party celebration in the main dining room.
“All set, Chef.”
Jill’s shoulders tensed as footsteps approached from behind. She put her smile in place and turned, expecting to greet the executive chef. But the man who approached looked far out of place in the kitchen—hell, he appeared to have stepped from the pages of
. Dressed to perfection in a black suit—his tie slightly askew—this man’s penetrating dark eyes would melt ice cream stored in a deep freeze. A flush burned across her flesh as his attention focused on her.
Tiny dots of sweat spread along the back of her neck. She dusted one hand down the side seam of her immaculate white chef coat, then rolled her shoulders in an attempt to put herself at ease, even though she was far from calm.
A twinge of regret that she wasn’t dressed in something more flattering flitted across her mind. Free of make-up and wearing a chef coat with her hair piled beneath a flat chef cap wasn’t the best way to make an impression.
You’re not here to attract men,
Jill chastised herself. From the day she’d graduated culinary school, she’d promised herself she’d never let her dreams of romance interfere with her work. She wouldn’t start now by allowing a man obviously out of her league to distract her from her duties.
Something about the man seemed oddly familiar. But if she’d met him before she’d remember. Of that she was certain. She swallowed, holding her smile in place, hoping he hadn’t come back to complain on behalf of one of the parties.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Are you the chef?”
“I’m the one in charge tonight. Is there a problem?” Jill licked her lips, fear grinding through her. But no. She didn’t have to be afraid. Each dinner party had been prepared and cooked to perfection. She wouldn’t let doubt eat her layer of confidence away. Not tonight. She stood tall, ignoring the quiver riding the length of her legs.
The dark-haired man didn’t answer right away, instead he studied her face, and the harsh lines around his mouth disappeared. He’d come in looking all business, but the seriousness that shrouded him upon entering the kitchen eased and Jill relaxed. His eyes softened and his mouth curved into a small smile. A smile that turned her bones to gelato.
“Everything was perfect. I wanted to meet the chef who managed to not only have everyone in our party cleaning their plates but knocked my grandmother speechless—at her birthday celebration no less.” He laughed and the sound tickled her senses and sent a flare of goose bumps across her flesh.
“Thank you.” Relief squared her shoulders.
“My grandmother wants to meet you. Would you mind?”
“I’d love to.”
“How about I arrange the candles on your grandmother’s cake and carry it out personally?”
“You’d make her day.”
She grabbed the decorative candles from their boxes and placed them in the center of the cake with shaky hands, all too conscious of the man beside her. Even with delicious aromas filling the kitchen, she couldn’t help but drown in his sandalwood scent. Her tummy somersaulted as she picked up the cake and turned toward him.
She didn’t miss the appreciation filling his eyes as their gazes locked in what she could only term as eye-sex. Never had she felt so attracted to a man. Her skin flushed and burned under his stare. If she had a free hand, she’d have swiped the heat from her forehead. Jill’s hands shook and the cake platter shifted several degrees to the left.
As they each tried to catch the slipping cake, Jill knocked the dessert into the crisp cotton of his white shirt peeking through the V of his finely tailored jacket.
“Oh my God…”
Then the rest of the cake that wasn’t attached to his clothes hit the floor with a thump of finality. Her heart sank and a loud buzz filled her ears. Her attention moved from the heap of mashed cake at their feet to the man’s face.
“What have I done?” Jill cried. “I’m so sorry.”
He delivered a lopsided smile, telling her it wasn’t a big deal. As if a cake smashing into his chest was an everyday occurrence. But Jill couldn’t match his smile as the fear she’d pushed aside moments ago fisted her throat. She’d lose her job for sure. Dropping a guest’s cake, on a guest no less—
Maybe she could do some damage control. In a trance-like stupor, she pulled out the bar towel tucked into her pocket and dabbed at the frosting covering the front of his immaculate suit. A frosted flower clung precariously from one of his buttons and she plucked it between the folds of her towel before continuing to swipe at his shirt. But instead of clearing away the dark frosting, she only ended up smearing it across more of his chest.
Tears burned the back of her eyes and filled her throat, strangling her ability to apologize. The night that started out with such promise had just disintegrated into a pile of mangled cake and plops of frosting at her feet. She would be in so much trouble when the head chef found out about this—and for sure he would. She swallowed the lump lodged in her throat just as the man whose suit she ruined lifted her chin with his thumb.
“It’s only cake.” His gaze still burned—in fact the heat surrounded her and snapped in the air between them.
“B-but your suit. The cake…” A single tear rolled down her cheek, quickly followed by another.
A brief gasp escaped her lips as the man gripped her shoulders between his strong hands and dragged her against his solid length.
The warmth of his mouth touched hers lightly, and she anchored her hands in a tight grip around his lapels before he pulled her in tight, swooshing the air from her lungs.
All reason fled, and her vision tunneled. She closed her eyes as his mouth crushed into hers. Any tears remaining dried on her cheek. His tongue ran the seam of her lips until they parted, and then he thrust his warmth inside.
With the cake forgotten at her feet, a strange, unexplainable recklessness possessed her. She ran her palms the length of his chest, pausing over the erratic beat of his heart. A surge of adrenaline overpowered her, and she curled her fists into his jacket. She didn’t know this man, but she thrilled at the passion between them, enjoying the effect she had on him as much as the effect he had on her.
His hands slid from her shoulders to glide down her arms and smooth around her side to melt against the small of her back. He sighed against her lips…or was that her sigh?
She’d never been so lost in a kiss before.
What the hell are you doing?
She shoved her nagging inner voice aside, then slipped her hands beneath his jacket. His muscles rippled against the expensive fabric. They stumbled backward into the wall, or maybe she pushed him? Nothing mattered as she melded into his solid strength. Jill could neither make sense of nor stop what was happening. She accepted the craziness of it all and sank further into his warm arms, moving her hands up to his shoulders and digging her nails in as he pulled her even tighter, nearly lifting her off the floor.
She’d never been kissed so thoroughly in her life.
Fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, Jill Adgate nervously pressed her thumb into the beading of her small evening purse until it hurt, then pulled the slip of paper from inside to verify she had the correct restaurant along with the right date and time.
Unfortunately for her, she did.
She should never have allowed Mel to set this up. Better yet, the moment Mel had whipped out the glossy photograph featuring the familiar knee-shaking smile of her future brother-in-law and declared, “he’s the perfect man for you,” Jill should have stood and run from the room.
Instead, shocked speechless, she’d done nothing more than smile, nod, and agree to a date with a man who shared blame for her termination from the coveted sous-chef position at Creations.
Chet Castle—at least she now had a name to go along with the handsome face from her past.
No wonder he’d looked familiar that fateful night. He could almost be the twin of Mel’s boss, Jared—the man her best friend was now engaged to.
Unbelievably, she’d played kissy-face a year ago with tonight’s blind date. If you could even term it a blind date at this point. She closed her eyes, reliving for the millionth time the way the man—Chet—had kissed her with such force, confidence, and passion she’d lost all track of time and place. Only to be fired.
Never mix business with pleasure.
She had broken her cardinal rule.
She’d been humiliated by her body’s betrayal to a man she’d only laid eyes on for sixty seconds—if that. What had gotten into her? She’d practically fallen into his arms with no introduction—hell, she
fallen into his arms with no introduction.
Unemployed. Fired. Little did she know it would be the first in a line of several terminations.
Jill shifted in her seat. Anxiety clawed at her stomach and she ran her fingers down the vintage, black Chantilly-lace cocktail dress, gaining comfort from the feel of the material. She’d gotten her wish—a place to wear the dress purchased from her favorite vintage clothing boutique—but the giddiness was short-lived as her nerves took over.
Funny how her dream of working in a fine restaurant such as this had changed in a year’s time to one where she owned a catering business. She sucked in a deep breath, filling her lungs with the tantalizing scents of everything from prime rib, seafood, and heavy sauces to delectable desserts. Crisp fabrics rustled in the background as discreet wait staff stood on alert, ready to cater to each diner’s needs. Soft candlelight cast subtle shadows around the room. Tiny specks of light, like fireflies flickering off the low ceiling, added a depth of intimacy and comfort.
Jill’s heartbeat calmed as she took in her surroundings. She’d always wanted to dine at Crosswinds, but this restaurant’s reputation guaranteed close to a six-month wait for reservations, even midweek. Yet one mention of a reservation in the name of Chet Castle and the distinguished gray-haired maître d’ had led her to a secluded section in a candlelit corner—an area she felt sure would be reserved for special clientele only.
Dots of perspiration lined her spine as she adjusted her position and sat tall. She’d almost changed her mind about coming tonight. Now she wished she had. What the heck was she doing?
Chet Castle would recognize her for sure.
Or would he? She’d been dressed in her chef coat and flat-top hat with her hair pulled into a tidy bun underneath. Now she wore a dusting of make-up and her hair cascaded down to mid-back with tiny wisps framing her face. With luck, twelve months and her fantastic vintage dress would alter her appearance enough.
The picture of Chet that Mel had tacked to Jill’s fridge with four plastic magnets, each depicting a different piece of colorful fruit, came to mind. Shivers raced across her flesh. No way could she deny her attraction. Even after a year, something about this man affected her to the point of irrational thought.
Hell, she’d let him kiss her within seconds of meeting him. What had possessed her to allow such a thing? She wasn’t that type of girl.
A large clap of noise from the kitchen pulled her from her musings. This was crazy. She shouldn’t be sitting here.
Calm down. It’s dinner. One. Simple. Non-obligatory dinner.
Who was she trying to fool? This wasn’t a simple dinner. Even if he didn’t remember her as the easy girl in the kitchen, there’d be no chance of a future between them, so this date was a waste of time. She’d have to fess up that they’d met before—and then he’d want to know where and when. Date over.
Jill gulped down the panic lodged in her throat. Besides, what would a man of Chet’s stature see in a girl like her? A man that rich wouldn’t be interested in a nobody chef who’d been fired from four jobs in the last twelve months and who’d used twenty of her last fifty dollars to put enough gas in her vehicle to meet him tonight. Unease gnawed at her from the heels up.
Time was still on her side. A nice apologetic note left with the ma
tre d’ and she’d be on her way.
Jill grabbed her purse and scooted back from the table. Halfway out of her seat, her world tilted as a man walked—correction,
—toward her. A man with eyes of melted dark chocolate.
Oh yes, she’d recognize him anywhere. To see him up close and personal after all this time set her body in motion. Her heart pounded, blood rushed through her ears, and her vision—once twenty-twenty—fogged over and tunneled.
His short brown hair with just a hint of a wave bounced with every step, drawing her attention to the fascinating arch of his eyebrows. So dark and well shaped, they were the perfect accent to frame the intense color of his eyes—such a deep brown that they appeared almost black.
His gaze swept over her, and hot, spine-tingling sparks coursed through her veins until she could hardly breathe. It was the same electricity she felt that night in the kitchen. This man exuded pure power, charisma, and
When her butt reconnected with the plush seat, she sat rigid, shoulders pinned to the back of her chair. She positioned her ankles around the chair legs as if holding on for dear life.
He stopped beside her and tucked his cell inside his pocket. Jill forced herself to look up so she wasn’t staring into the zipper of his trousers, although that was an awe-inspiring view.
He held out his hand, and somebody—it must’ve been her—placed her fingers inside his rough palm. Bursts of energy traveled every inch of her body. Senses she hadn’t experienced since they’d heated up her work station jolted her memories.
A swell of fear raced through her. Had he recognized her?
“And you must be Mr. Castle.”
Was that breathy sex-kitten voice hers?
“The one and only, but call me Chet.” He released her fingers and slid into the seat across from her. A slight flicker of apprehension—or recognition—filled his eyes, then was gone.
Maybe her overworked imagination saw things not there. She hoped.
“Jill.” She sought the linen napkin on the table, stopping herself just in time from picking it up to fan herself. Her memory, along with the photo on her fridge, didn’t do his features justice. His strong chin, perfectly proportioned nose, full lips—made for kissing—were molded from the strongest gene pool. He had it going on, no doubt.
She squirmed beneath his stare. His gaze traveled from her throat, following the golden chain of her locket to the heart-shaped neckline of her dress, and concentrated on the swell of her breasts. Damn.
Heat raced across her face, and she thrust her hand over her chest, clutching her napkin in a stranglehold to block his view. Maybe she should’ve chosen something with a higher neckline.
“So you’re friends with Jared’s receptionist-turned-fiancée.” His voice trailed ribbons of silk down her spine.
“Mel,” she choked out.
He nodded, one side of his mouth lifting in a ghost of a smile. “And like me, you were talked into a blind date.”
Jill cleared her throat. “Ever since they’ve become an item they’ve wanted nothing more than to set me—”
“—up on dates so you can be in love, too.” Sarcasm flecked his voice.
Not good. He wasn’t any more interested in this blind date than she. Of course, his reasons probably didn’t match hers.
“Exactly.” Jill folded her hands in her lap, squeezing her palms tight. Talk about awkward.
“How many setups does this make for you?” Chet leaned back in his chair, the picture of relaxation and confidence, or maybe a bored clock-watcher.
She almost laughed as he glanced at the platinum-colored watch on his wrist. “My first. You?”
“I think you’re either my fourth or fifth in the last few weeks.”
“You must be a tough customer.”
He chuckled, and the sincere rumble relaxed the tension binding her shoulders.
“Let’s just say I have trust issues, but all the others were Jared’s picks. Mel said you were different.”
“Oh.” Jill dusted her palms along her dress.
Thanks, Mel, for raising the expectation bar.
Too bad she hadn’t been able to make her getaway before he’d shown up.
He leaned in, studying her with an intenseness that sent shots of awareness through her. “Jill Adgate, hmm? There’s something about you. Have we met before?”
“I-I don’t think so.” Yep, she’d done it and lied. Missed the perfect chance to come clean and end this torture.
“There’s something familiar about you.”
Jill shifted in her seat, focusing her attention over his left shoulder to avoid eye contact. “I doubt we travel in the same circles.”
“Mel and Jared mentioned you’re a chef.” He smiled, but his eyes still bore into her as if dissecting her inch by inch.
“With plans to start my own catering business.” Pride echoed in her voice, even though it didn’t transfer to the nervous energy bouncing beneath her skin.
“Did you go through the accelerated culinary program?” The tenor of his voice tingled in her ears, and she pinched the inside of her wrist. “You don’t look old enough to be an accomplished chef, but Mel assured me you’re quite good at your job.”
The crease between his brow disappeared as he leaned in. “Maybe I’ve seen you at the restaurant where you work?”
Panic rippled across her tummy. “I’m between jobs while I work on my catering business.”
“What made you decide to become a chef?” His mouth twitched with a hint of playfulness.
In an instant, she relaxed. “Since I was a girl, I’ve always loved to cook. The way creating a dish involves all your senses. Sound, taste, smell. I like to incorporate variety. Music in the background, the subdued and sometimes pungent aromas of spices, the taste of a good glass of wine—”
“You have a lot more depth than I first realized, Jill Adgate.”
“Women are like that.”
He grinned. “Lesson learned.”
“What about you? Mel mentioned you run the family business?” She took a quick sip from her water goblet to moisten her dry throat.
“When my father retired I took the reins. It was rough going at first, but after several years things are back on track.”
“Your brother said you brought the family business back to life. That must’ve been a lot of long hours and hard work.”
“Running a business is definitely hard work. Are you sure you’re up to it?”
She lifted her chin. “I’m capable of handling a challenge.”
“Good for you.” He rested his elbows on the table, clasping his hands as if settling in for a long chat. “I like how passionate you are when you talk about cooking. Tell me more.”
Jill’s heart stopped and she sat back as he leaned in toward her. His nearness drew all oxygen from her lungs. “What would you like to know?”
Calm down. You can talk cooking in your sleep.
Then how come her heart had found a new home in her knees?
“When you’re in the kitchen, do you have one area you work at a time, as in the appetizer or the entrée, or do you jump from course to course?” That slight twitch at the left corner of his mouth drew her attention and her tummy somersaulted.
“Depends on your rank, and also the kitchen. Each one runs differently, depending on the head chef.”
“Does each kitchen have their own baker, or do they hire out the work to a bakery?” His eyes sparkled.
“Again, it depends on the kitchen and the restaurant.”
“Are you a chef who can manage both? Can you cook the appetizers and entrées as well as desserts?”
She grabbed the water glass from the table and took another shaky sip before lowering it back to the white linen tablecloth. Several droplets spilled over the edge, dotting her knuckles.
Their encounter involved a dessert. A cake, to be exact.
Coincidence? “Y-yes,” she squeaked.
“Even birthday cakes?”
Jill shoved her chair back. The sound, like fingernails on a chalkboard, dragged down her spine until she clenched her teeth.
Oh my God, he knows.
“How— What…?” Jill couldn’t think. She stood so fast she lost her footing, but before she tumbled into the table, Chet caught her in his strong arms. His heat smoldered through his jacket, sending darts of awareness across her body. She pushed at his chest with flat palms, but he didn’t budge. More than likely because her strength matched that of an overcooked noodle.
Lights overhead twinkled, fading from bright to dim. The ground beneath her quaked—or maybe it was her legs giving out. Jill squeezed her eyes closed when the room swam then spun in a dizzying motion. Unsure how much longer she could remain standing, she grabbed the lapels of his jacket for support.
“Take a breath.” He held her firm. His fingers dug into her flesh—not cruelly, but with a silent strength. He steered her to the chair and folded her into it.
Jill gulped for air, then felt, rather than saw, a glass of water thrust into her hands. When her fingers folded over Chet’s warm grasp, her stomach squirmed. She drank heavily from the crystal goblet. Cool liquid put out the fire burning its way up her throat.
“I’m sorry,” she choked out between puffs of air.
“For what?” His lips softened, curving into a lopsided smile.