An Acquired Taste

by

Kelly Cain

May the best chef win…

After four years at the country’s top culinary school and several years as head chef in her mother’s restaurant, Rowan Townsend has built a notable reputation. Her farm-to-table collard greens have long been bringing everyone to the yard, but limits on the restaurant’s size have led to long waits. Looking to expand the restaurant, she enters a televised chef competition. The problem? Her infuriatingly-talented nemesis from culinary school also enters.

To the culinary world, Knox Everheart is restaurant royalty. As much as Rowan wants to deny it, he’s a gifted chef. Rowan knows her arrogant arch-nemesis is confident he’ll win—he’s certainly given her a run for her money more times than she’d like to admit. But this time, she’s ready to show him who’s boss.

Their rivalry soon sparks fireworks in the kitchen and, as the competition heats up, so does Rowan’s attraction to Knox. And somewhere between pasta and gumbo, they both need to decide what’s worth fighting for.

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Recipe for disaster.

We haven’t even opened yet, and the line is around the corner. Smothered in Love Restaurant? Pbssht, more like smothered in too many people and not enough kitchen space. Maybe Mama will let me rebrand with the more appropriate name. I shouldn’t complain—this is a good problem to have. Mostly.

I back away from the front window. When I stride back into the kitchen, the four people cooking today are bustling around, careful not to bump into each other in the assembly-line designed kitchen. Counters run the length of two of the walls, with appliances lining the others. Adjacent to the kitchen is a walk-in freezer and a storage room. To accommodate our increase in customers and service, we need twice the space.

The cooks are busy chopping onions, bell pepper, and celery, stirring pots of gumbo and étouffée, and measuring flour, butter, peaches, and various other ingredients for desserts such as sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. The air is thick with Southern comfort food.

Everyone’s busy except Wyatt, who’s leaning against a low counter, shaking his head and chomping on an apple. If my brother is eating instead of chopping, he’s stressed, but I need him to focus. We open in fifteen minutes.

I take my earbuds out, the sound of “You Can’t Cook Through A Buffalo Herd” still vibrating around my neck. “What’s your deal?”

He walks right up to me, a frown creasing his thick eyebrows, and now I’m breathing his fruity breath. “I don’t think you made enough greens. Did you see how many people are already here? Sundays are the worst. Especially right after church.”

After stepping back a smidge, I stretch to the five-foot nine height I took after Daddy so that I’m a bit taller than him. He got Mama’s height. “Wyatt Townsend, have you ever known me to not cook enough? I’ve been doing this for over six years. I think I know how to plan meals for this restaurant by now.”

He scoffs, and I say, more insistently, forcing a confidence I do not fully feel, “You just need to go over there and get those green onions chopped before Lillie gets in here and realizes she doesn’t have what she needs to finish her étouffée.”

Invoking Mama’s name does the trick every time. If nothing else, my brother is obedient.

Hannah glances at Wyatt, but only when she doesn’t think I’m looking. She’s called me opinionated and overbearing, but she’s also learned a ton from me. She hasn’t been able to afford culinary school, and I’m happy to mentor her, but her mixing business with pleasure—that pleasure being my brother—doesn’t quite work for me. He just graduated from college and needs to figure out his career path before even thinking about being in a serious relationship. She does seem to genuinely care for him, which is why I haven’t sacked her for insubordination. Okay, mostly she’s still here because she’s dependable and a damn good cook.

I peek into the pot of collard greens, biting the inside of my cheek. Is it enough? I thought so before Wyatt came along. Today I made nearly a fourth more than last week when we’d had just enough. It’ll be plenty… I hope.

Mama comes into the kitchen just as I balance the lid half on the pot. “Smells good, Rowan.”

Collard greens cooking never smell good.

“Thanks, Mama.” The swelling at her elbows is noticeable, but I know enough not to mention it.

“Those collards have all those people lined up out there, you know that don’t you?” She reaches up to pat my cheek, a sparkle in her hazel eyes, but the pain is lurking just beneath.

I grab her hand and hold it against my face, closing my eyes. When I open them, she smiles and takes her hand back without another word. She shuffles over to the counter where Wyatt is set on his task, concentrating on his knife movement, but keeping a protective eye on our mother.

Mama pats him on his arm. “You can leave those a little bigger if you want.”

“Okay, Mama.”

She looks around the kitchen and nods at each person in turn. “I better get out front and make sure everything is ready to open. Darlene called in sick earlier, but thankfully Leonard was able to come in. Looks like we’ll need all six waitstaff scheduled today.” Before she walks through the kitchen door into the dining room, she bends to rub her knees. “Wyatt, how’s that new bartender working out?” She’s through the door before he has a chance to answer. I imagine in her mind, her question distracted us enough to not notice what she was trying to cover up.

Wyatt frowns. “Does she think we can’t see she’s in pain?”

I turn back to the stove and stir her étouffée, taking a moment to gather myself. Wyatt’s younger than me by five years, and although technically a grown man, there’s only the two of us. I still have the need to be the stronger one and take care of him. “She must not be taking all her steroids.” Sometimes she cuts them in half. I’ve seen them in the bottle split in two. She’s known others with lupus who’ve had to get knee or hip replacements in their thirties. At almost fifty, that’s got to be on her mind. She only got the diagnosis less than two years ago, and it’s been a difficult adjustment for us all.

Hannah walks her petite self over to Wyatt and rubs his shoulders, her rosy-porcelain hand a contrast to Wyatt’s russet-brown neck. I roll my eyes and turn back to the stove. “He’s fine, Hannah.” She may be a great cook, but I’m still not convinced about this girlfriend business.

She ignores me and continues comforting my brother. Which is fine, but I do know she better wash her hands before she goes back to cooking.

Mondays mean Smothered in Love is closed and I can relax without worrying what’s going on there without me unlike on my scheduled days off. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, there’s no rest for the weary, so I still end up driving to downtown Austin to pick up some new plants for our garden behind the restaurant. I’ve been keeping an eye out at the nursery closer to home in Round Rock, but they haven’t had the okra plants I’ve been looking for.

I’m blasting the latest School of the Eighteen Horse album through my Bluetooth when I turn onto Red River, and the Everheart Bar and Fine Dining sign practically slaps me in the face. God, why did I come this way? Fucking Everhearts. Must I be reminded of their wealth and privilege at every turn?

I zoom past and cross under the freeway, pulling into the nursery parking lot just east of downtown. This place is occupying some prime real estate. I’m surprised they haven’t been gentrified out of this part of town yet. Lord knows people are doing their best out our way.

This time of year has lots of folks out in the balmy days of spring, the smell of fresh flowers flowing freely through the air. I pass some healthy-looking juvenile lemon trees and bend to rub the leaves, inhaling the heady citrus smell. Lillie Townsend would kill me if I brought home another lemon tree. They’re my weakness. When I straighten, a long shadow passes over me and I jump a bit.

“Hey there, Rowan. I thought that was you.”

Ugh, an Everheart. At least it’s the okay one. I fix my face before looking up. He’s the tallest one too, although they’re all vertically blessed. Not the only thing they’ve been blessed with. They’ve got good looks in spades, dirty bastards. Something I can begrudgingly admit while looking at the nice one I haven’t seen in some years. Thank goodness he’s alone. “Hi, Weston. What’s shaking?”

“Oh, nothing much. We’re just looking for some herbs my dad wanted us to pick up.”

We. Us. Crap! “Oh okay. I’m looking for some plants too.” Real sharp, Rowan. You’re in a frickin’ nursery. “I mean there’s some okra plants I want for our garden.” As nonchalantly as I can, I peek around him, looking to see who makes us we. No way am I asking him.

He frowns, pulling his eyebrows together, placing his hands on his hips. “I don’t think I’ve had okra. I’ve definitely never cooked with it?” He puts a question mark on the end of his sentence even though he isn’t actually asking a question. An irritating habit of his I thankfully only had to endure sparingly over the four years I spent with his brother in culinary school. If that was all I’d had to endure from the Everhearts…

“Considering you’re a pastry chef, I wouldn’t imagine you have.” I smirk and glance at my Fitbit for the time, hoping to move along before another less-savory Everheart shows up.

“That’s a good point. Definitely more up Knox’s alley.”

“What’s up my alley?”

And there he is. Knox Asshat Everheart, fresh out of the oven, ready to eat. Fucker.

“Rowan.”

“Knox.”

Why couldn’t it have been obstinate Declan? I would’ve even settled for the old man with his prickly self even though I see enough of him at quarterly culinary school alumni meetings.

Knox looks at his brother and asks again, “What’s up my alley? My ears were burning.” He crumples the bag of potato chips he was eating and pulls out a stick of gum. For such a talented chef, I don’t understand how his palate can tolerate so much junk food. All during college, it was either packaged donuts, candy bars, chips, or whatever else he could get his hands on from the vending machines.

Weston hesitates, placing his hands in the pockets of his chino shorts. “You guys aren’t going to fight, are you?”

I laugh and turn toward the seasonal vegetable plants. “Not even worth my time, Weston. See ya.” Before I walk away, Knox’s eye color doesn’t escape me. Aqua. He’s in a social mood, not angry. Weston needn’t have bothered worrying.

I make it about five steps before Knox’s heavy footfalls mask mine. “I think you dropped something.”

I turn in time to see him pull a star-shaped ornament out of the pocket of his khaki shorts. A Michelin star. My face falls in spite of myself.

He grins. “Oh wait, sorry. This is mine.” His eyes have turned cornflower blue. Knox is petty as fuck.

My icy voice forms a retort. “It’s your dad’s, and if you ever make head chef, he won’t have that for very long.”

He shrugs and puts the symbol back in his pocket. “Come on, Amber, I’m only kidding around.”

Through tight lips, I barely grunt out, “Stop calling me that.”

Knox isn’t usually a close-talker like my brother, but he saunters right up to me and stops, stance wide, and bends his six-foot-two frame over so our faces are aligned. The smell of his gum climbs up my nose.

I don’t even flinch. Or take another breath.

“Let’s be friends. Put everything behind us.”

The sincerity in his voice doesn’t matter to me. “The day I become your friend, Knox Everheart, will be the day I’ve lost the last bit of my mind.” I arch my eyebrows, daring him to come with the snark.

Instead, he stands tall, pushing his sturdy chest out. “That’s a shame, Amber.” He winks and reverses course, heading back to his brother.

And just like that, Knox Everheart has ruined my day off, just like he ruined my entire college career.

As I check out with my wheelbarrow full of okra, tomato, pepper, and black-eyed peas plants, I glance around to ensure there are no Everhearts close by. I push the cart toward my car, but it’s wobbly with such a heavy burden. I came here for okra and ended up buying the whole nursery. We’ve already planted peppers and tomatoes, but it can’t hurt to have more, especially since business has been booming and we use so many of them in our cooking.

I get about halfway to my car when the wheelbarrow tumbles over, spilling dirt and greenery everywhere. I look up at the heavens and close my eyes. No sense standing here pouting—these plants aren’t going to magically jump back in the cart. Only, when I open my eyes, some have been carefully placed back inside. Knox is on his bare knees. Helping me.

No. Not today, Satan. “Thanks, but I got it.” I bend down on the concrete and grab a handful of soil, knocking his hands away. “You’ll scab your knees. Do you seriously think it’s warm enough to wear shorts?”

He sits back on his heels and stares at me. “Seriously? Yeah, I think so.” He gestures around with his hands.

I look where’s he’s pointing. Every white man in the place is wearing shorts. There’re only a couple Black people, and they’re all in long pants and shirts, just like me. All I can do is shake my head. I look right at Knox then. His inky-black hair is cropped close, more wavy than curly now. Nothing like when we were in college and he’d get chewed out by our professors for getting strands of hair in the food. I shiver. It was gross then and still gross today when I think of it. Thankfully he started covering it after the first few times.

I continue picking up my spilled plants.

“Hey, I was sorry to hear about your mom.” His voice is soft with concern.

“My mom’s fine.” I blow out a hard breath and face him. “How did you hear about my mom?”

He shrugs and stands. “My dad mentioned she was sick. I’m glad she’s doing well.”

For two families who want nothing to do with each other, we sure are up in each other’s business a lot. Too much.

“Like I said, she’s fine. You can tell your dad that.”

“You can tell him yourself at the alumni meeting next week.”

I roll my eyes in response. He knows full good and well I don’t talk to his father at alumni meetings. Ignoring Knox and his dad completely is the only reason I’m even able to attend.

He bends toward me and I freeze, inhaling his lemon-pineapple breath. “I know you hate me, but let me help you get these.”

I turn my head and breathe in a solid amount of cleansing air. “I won’t ever need your help.”

End of Excerpt