“Ahh?” She laughed uncomfortably. “Which means…”
Tick-tock goes the biological clock.
“You look very young for your age.”
She narrowed her eyes in doubt.
“You do,” he insisted.
“So do you,” she countered. “Where were you born?”
The non sequitur threw him, almost more than the question. He’d answered “Esher, in Surrey” for the first thirty-three years of his life. He squeezed the lemon too hard and lied easily. “California.”
“Are your parents there still?”
They were in London…where he should be. “No, I’ve lost them both. What about you?”
She smiled at the smooth switch. “This is your interview, Mr. Brown.”
“Please call me…” He damn near stumbled over the name, but covered by looking right into her eyes and letting her think that was what threw him. “John. And can’t it be a conversation instead of a hostile examination?”
“I’m not hostile and, honestly, I promised Lacey I’d ask all the questions, sample your food, and call your references.”
Would she talk to Henry or one of his lackeys?
He turned to snag a plate from the rack. “Is Lacey your boss, too, then?”
“She’s my best friend,” she answered. “But I guess as the owner of the resort, she’s technically my boss. You’ll work for her, too.”
He grinned at her. “I like the sound of that.”
“Because you don’t want to work for me?”
“Because it sounds like I got the job.”
She smiled. “I haven’t tasted the soup. Did you go to college?”
He feigned interest in the avocado shell he’d be using as the bowl for his soup, but his mind reeled with the truthful answers to her questions. University of Cambridge to earn a degree in economics, followed by a rocket-ride career at Barclays Bank full of potential and promise.
All sliced into ribbons by the hands of the leader of one of London’s most notorious gangs.
“No,” he said, finally getting the shell to balance on a bed of lettuce. “Didn’t go to college.” The lie felt like grit in his mouth. “Just a few semesters at various culinary schools, never graduated.”
But don’t go looking for a paper trail, my friend, because the UK’s version of your witness protection program might not have produced those yet.
“What’s your best recipe?”
Okay, easier question. “Whatever I’m making right this minute.” He checked the consistency of the soup, then grabbed a clean spoon for a taste. Closing his eyes, he blocked her out and let the buttery texture and subtle tang hit his tongue. “And this is definitely on track to be my best.”
“Can you tell me about your personal life?”
He popped his eyes open, about to tip over this balancing act. “Look, you want to do a job interview, do it. You want to drill me down because of what happened in that bar, you can stop right there. My personal life doesn’t have a damn thing to do with how I cook. Wanna taste?” He held the spoon out to her, not even bothering to clean it.
She refused the offer with a tiny shake of her head. “You’re awfully defensive.”
She hadn’t seen anything yet. “Just trying to make it on the basis of my food, not my life story.”
“I didn’t ask your life story. We need to know you’ll be focused on work, not leaving early or taking off for weeks at a time, so these are legitimate questions. You’re not married, right?”
A slow burn started in his belly as he stirred the soup one more time. Why was she insisting on this? Every time he lied it was like Kate died all over again.
He dropped the spoon on the counter with a clatter loud enough to drown out his answer. “Nope.”
it. He stilled his hands on the stainless steel and kept his gaze down long enough to let the silence go way past awkward. Only then did he pin her with a deadly gaze.
“Obviously you’re interviewing me for some other job, which I’ve made achingly clear I don’t want.”
She drew back, as though his words had smacked her. Well that was too bad, he thought furiously, refusing to give anything remotely resembling a shit about her feelings. Because even
felt disloyal to his dead wife.
“I wanted to—”
“You wanted to pry,” he shot at her. “Because these questions don’t have anything to do with my culinary skills, my ability to manage a kitchen, or the menu I might be able to create for this resort.”
She lifted her chin, hurt ravaging her expression. “John, I’m asking legitimate questions that can affect scheduling. Do you or do you not have kids?”
Of all the lies, he hated this one the most. He despised speaking the words, wiping away the existence of the two most precious people in the world to him. He was a father like any other father, as proud as he could be, despite the fact that he hadn’t held Shiloh or Sam for three long years. That didn’t change the power of his love. No, time and distance made him love them more.
But if he didn’t lie, he could be putting his children in harm’s way, and he was like any father in that regard, too. He’d die before he’d let them get hurt. He opened his mouth to say the words:
I don’t have any kids.
But for some reason, that particular lie wouldn’t roll off his tongue. Instead, he looked into those earthy brown eyes and all he wanted to do was tell Tessa the truth.
If that wasn’t the stupidest fucking thing, he didn’t know what was. He couldn’t take chances like this. Not with his life, and definitely not with his kids.
He settled on something that wasn’t a lie. “I fail to see how that has anything to do with getting this job.”
“We’re a family here at Casa—”
“I don’t want to be a family,” he growled, the words harsh enough to make her flinch. “I don’t want you in my business. I just want a job as a chef. Yes or no?”
She studied him for a minute, scouring his face as if she could find answers there. She’d better not. “The last person left because she had huge personal demands and couldn’t work the hours we needed.”
“I can work twenty-four/seven. In fact, I’d like to.”
“Why?” she asked him.
Irritation skittered over him. “None of your fucking business.”
“Why are you so hostile about this? What aren’t you telling me?”
it. He shoved the plate across the stainless steel to her, splashing some soup over the edge of the avocado shell. “We’re done here.” Before she could answer, he stepped away and went right out the door he came in.
No job and no woman was worth the risk of the truth.Chapter Six
Of course it was the best flipping soup she’d ever tasted in her life.
But the creamy, dreamy liquid caught in Tessa’s bone-dry, tightly closed, very painful throat, making swallowing nearly impossible. Okay, the “interview as a way to dig for personal information” was a cheesy technique, but what was he
? And she’d been unnecessarily snippy, but that happened when someone was so abrasive.
With a little tremble in her hand, she scooped up another spoonful of soup, letting the delicious flavors of avocado and lemon linger on her tongue. If Lacey tasted this soup she wouldn’t care if he was hiding the Holy Grail. She’d hire him in a heartbeat.
“Did he bolt?” Marcus asked, nearly launching himself next to her the minute John was out the door.
“He really couldn’t answer the most basic questions,” she said.
Marcus grabbed another spoon and practically stabbed the soup, slurping some noisily, then grunting with pleasure. “But he killed the most basic of soups. Shit, that’s good.”
“He’s not right for the job,” she said, as much to convince herself as Marcus. “We can’t count on a guy like that. In fact, I think we dodged a bullet.”
Marcus took some more soup. “No kidding. What the hell kind of loser has a bug on his neck? What was that, anyway?”
Marcus lifted his eyebrows as he sucked in another mouthful. “Dude’s inked up pretty good.”
“I saw the thorns on his arm and that swirly black thing down to his hand and God knows what else on the rest of him.” Well, God might know, but Tessa wasn’t going to find out because she was too smart and mature and together to look twice at an evasive, deceitful, tattoo-covered—
“Damn.” Marcus thumped his chest on the next swallow. “I don’t suppose you caught the recipe before he left.”
“Nothing special. Avocado, lemon, dry vermouth.”
Marcus grabbed the bottle of booze. “Who would have thought of—” He caught himself. “Hell, yeah. Who can’t make soup?”
“Exactly. We’re really better off without him.” And his secrets.
“We sure are,” Marcus agreed. “You think Mrs. Walker’ll give me the job?”
She could encourage that thinking and then he’d support her position that they were lucky to lose this chef, but she knew better. “You know you need more time.”
He exhaled softly. “She hates me because I’m a dropout.”
“She does not,” Tessa assured him. “She wouldn’t let you work here if she had an issue with you not finishing school.” She didn’t mention that the chef who’d just left was a dropout, or so he said. Who could believe anything that came out of that sexy-as-sin mouth?
“Why’d he blow out, anyway?” Marcus asked.
“I don’t know,” she said vaguely.
Marcus gave her a slow smile. “I know why he left, Ms. G.”
“He couldn’t take the heat in the kitchen.” His grin widened. “Sparks were flying even though there wasn’t a flame, if you know what I mean.”
Was it that obvious? “You were in the dining room, Marcus.”
“Actually, I was around the corner.” He tipped his head toward the back pantry. “You were so busy jonesing for his life story that you didn’t even hear me come back in.”
Oh, Lord. Yes, it was really better John Brown was gone. “Then you heard him dance around anything personal. Fact is, we don’t need someone working here who can’t be honest about the simplest things.”
Marcus looked down, concentrating on the soup. “What are you going to tell Mrs. Walker?”
“The truth,” she said quickly. “I’ll go find her now and tell her we ferreted out a phony.”
Outside, Tessa took a minute to regroup and look around for any sign of John Brown. But there was none, giving her heart an unwanted dip. There were a few more people on the beach and a woman sitting in the chaise right where the shell had been.
Still, Tessa took a few steps closer, just to check. But there was no shell.
“Hey, where’s lover boy?”
She pivoted at the sound of Zoe’s voice, her disappointment at losing the shell mixing with a splash of irritation. “Don’t call him that,” she said, walking away from the shore to reach Zoe. “And the fact is, he’s gone. Out of the running, and we should all be glad for that.”
“Why? Lacey said he really knew what he was doing in the kitchen. What did he make?”
He made me crazy.
“Some kind of green soup. Not that great.”
Zoe flipped a stray curl over her shoulder. “You’re such a craptastic liar.”
Zoe gave her an elbow. “I came through the kitchen and talked to Marcus. He was inhaling what was left of chilled avocado with caviar and vermouth. Or, as some call it, green soup. But between spoonfuls, Marcus told me you two basically started a kitchen fire.”
“Marcus has a colorful imagination. Fact is, I asked Mr. Brown a lot of questions that he evaded and avoided and twisted and refused to answer.”
“Bet you loved that, Queen of the Secret Haters.”
“Precisely. I can’t work with someone who isn’t honest or hides his past.” Tessa brushed her hands as if she were ridding herself of the pesky, lying chef.
“Maybe he didn’t want to get personal in his interview. That’s understandable.”
Not to her. “Either way, he bolted mid-interview. He’s gone and that’s good.”
The low hum of the electric golf cart stole their attention, the sight of Lacey at the wheel talking animatedly to three women passengers bringing their conversation to a halt.
“Who’s that?” Zoe asked.
“Must be the group booking she went to talk to.” Tessa started to walk away, but Lacey slowed the golf cart and waved wildly.
“Hey, you guys, come here for a second.”
Zoe eyed Tessa. “Lucky you. A governor’s reprieve.”
Not much of one. “I have to tell her sometime.”
“Not now,” Zoe said through a smile, waving back at Lacey. “She probably wants us to impress the potential guests.”
Tessa glanced at the three young women chatting animatedly in the golf cart.
“You are not going to believe who’s here!” Lacey’s voice was unnaturally bright, a forced enthusiasm edged with high-strung nerves. “The AABC board members!”
Tessa slowed her step as one crisis melted into a new one. The American Association of Bridal Consultants represented possibly the most important group booking they’d ever had. Except they weren’t due here until July, eight months from now.
Lacey scrambled out of the golf cart, turning so the three women passengers couldn’t see her face but Jocelyn and Tessa could. Her eyes were wide, her jaw open, and her whole expression screamed for help.
Then she gestured for Tessa and Zoe to come closer and the women to climb out of the golf cart. “Ladies, I want you to meet two of my partners and closest friends, Tessa Galloway and Zoe Tamarin.”
They were younger than Tessa had imagined, a blonde, a brunette, and a…
? The blonde in the middle led them forward, hand extended to Tessa. “Hello, I’m Willow Ambrose, president of the board of directors for the American Association of Bridal Consultants.”
Tessa took her hand and accepted the powerful handshake that screamed a Type-A alert, the woman’s demeanor reminding her very much of her mother when she was in all-business mode. “Hello, Willow.”