Brooks Bend, Book 2
Release Date:

Sep 28, 2023

ISBN:

978-1-959988-95-3

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An Autumn to Remember

by

Robyn Neeley

Sometimes the secret ingredient is right under your nose…

Executive Chef Sloan Leary just received the invitation of a lifetime to create signature holiday dishes for a premier meal delivery service. If she wins the contract, she can finally expand her restaurant to Paris, fulfilling a promise to her late grandmother. But first she’ll need to complete her annual two-week culinary exchange. Sloan is shocked when she’s sent to a small-town diner in Brooks Bend, Connecticut. If that weren’t enough, she learns her audition is to create dog food for pampered pooches—she’s never even had a pet.

Ex-military handyman Alex Edwards knows plenty about dogs—his beloved labradoodle is also his emotional support companion. So he’s happy to help newcomer Sloan create a Thanksgiving meal fit for canine cravings. When Sloan encourages him to go all in with his carpentry business, Alex pulls back. He stopped taking risks a long time ago and is happy with his slower life…right?

As they work to find the right seasonings, can Alex and Sloan rewrite the meal plans for their futures…with each other?

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Chapter One

There was only one thing in life that could move Executive Chef Sloan Leary from zero to sixty in three seconds flat—the unfathomable horror of witnessing a slice of pumpkin cheesecake about to leave her five-star restaurant’s kitchen completely naked.

“Hold up!” She flew around the steel cooking island she’d spent her entire career and most of her childhood behind, ordering her new server, Lyndsey, to halt in her rubber-soled tracks.

The waitress spun around, her straight, black ponytail whipping across the long white whiskers she’d painted onto her cheeks, a totally appropriate look for Halloween.

The entire staff enjoyed dressing up for their shifts on this day.

Except for Sloan.

She straightened her white jacket over her black pants, not having the slightest interest in being anything but an award-winning chef of Seasons of San Francisco all three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.

Because that is what would move her one step further to achieving her goal of franchising her restaurant in destination cities all over the world.

Unwavering determination.

“I’m so sorry,” Lyndsey apologized. “Did I pick up the wrong order?”

“No, it’s the correct one.” Sloan’s panicked expression softened into a supportive smile as she bent down and retrieved the black cat ears headband that had fallen off the waitress’s head.

She handed back the cat ears in exchange for the slice. Right now was one of her favorite teaching moments.

“It’s not quite dressed for the party, but we can easily fix that.” Sloan picked up a small maroon bottle from the spice rack her grandmother had mounted in the middle of the island fifty years ago. “You see . . . every single dish we serve—from our Parmesan-butternut squash soup to the stuffing-crust turkey potpie—cannot leave the kitchen until it receives a generous sprinkle of seasoning.” She turned the bottle upside down and gently shook it across the dessert, beaming down. “Now it’s ready.”

She handed Lyndsey back the robin’s-egg blue plate with gold leaf etching along the rim, a pattern she’d driven three hours south down the winding California coastal roads earlier this year through the pouring April rain to purchase from an antique dealer.

It was the perfect plate pattern to show off her fall menu and well worth the drive.

“Thank you, Chef. I won’t make that mistake again.”

Sloan flipped shut the spice bottle’s lid and returned it to the rack. After five years leading the back of the house, she knew no evening was perfect. It never was. “Mistakes are always welcome in my kitchen. It’s how we learn.” She winked. “Besides, you have eight more lives left.”

The grateful waitress scurried out.

Sloan maneuvered to the double swing doors and pressed one open a crack. Nothing pleased her more than watching her customers take a first bite. Her knack for picking the perfect seasoning for each dish was what kept them coming back.

Whether they lived in the neighborhood or visited the Bay Area on occasion, they always returned.

The delight on the young woman’s face as she dug her fork into the cheesecake for another bite said it all.

Mission accomplished.

Grinning, Sloan turned back around and joined her staff, who’d already begun breaking down the kitchen. To some, it would seem insurmountable, but helping her team was often a nice bonding moment.

After it was done, she’d start packing up her spices for the much-anticipated Culinary Exchange program, an annual event sponsored by the Executive Chef’s Institute and the only reason she’d ever even consider abandoning her kitchen for two weeks.

The program was known for making careers.

All up-and-coming chefs knew that participating could not only sharpen their skills but was an amazing way to network and introduce their signature dishes to even more clientele.

Many of the big celebrity chefs with multiple restaurants all over the world had gotten their start participating in the Culinary Exchange.

And Sloan planned on one day being one of them.

Plus, working in a new five-star restaurant was a ton of fun. Being the executive chef and owner of Seasons of San Francisco, she simply had no time for vacation, let alone to leave the city. The Culinary Exchange scratched an itch to take in a new scene.

So what if it involved slicing an eight-inch blade into a thawed chicken breast at the start of each day and ending her nights more often than not exhausted and covered in sauce stains? It was her ritual, and she loved it.

Each year, she looked forward to traveling to a new place. Now in her fifth year, she’d asked her longtime agent, Erika Palmer, who brokered the exchange, to look for opportunities to match her with a Parisian restaurant.

It aligned perfectly with her goal to open up a Seasons of Paris as the first restaurant in her expansion plans. She’d spend every single minute soaking up the city, the people, and the fine dining culture.

A spotless kitchen later, Sloan made her way through the front of the house to chat with her last two customers before packing up her spices. Norman and Lucy Banks were seated at their usual table in front of the beautiful picture window. The couple lived a few blocks away and often finished out their week with a stroll along the pier before dining in her restaurant.

It was her nightly ritual to spend a few minutes chatting with her last customers, just like her grandmother had done each evening, until she couldn’t walk anymore.

She’d taught Sloan that ending the day showing kindness and gratitude was the only way to end it.

“Thank you so much for coming in tonight.” She grinned down at the empty soup bowls and plates. “I hope you enjoyed the pumpkin sage soup.”

Lucy rested a bony hand over Sloan’s, her fingers shaking ever so slightly. “It was almost as good as your grandmother’s.”

She’d take that compliment. Her grandmother’s signature fall soup had been second to none. “I’ll keep working at it. I’ll see you both when I get back in two weeks.”

Norman slid up his glasses. “Who will be running your restaurant this year?”

“Good question. My agent was supposed to stop in tonight with the big reveal.” Sloan reached over and centered the bright-orange and yellow flower arrangement on a nearby table, looking out the window as a Frankenstein passed by with his bride. “Maybe her broomstick is in the shop.”

“I hope it’s not another chef like last year’s.” Lucy wrinkled her nose, taking a sip of her after-dinner espresso. “Nice man, but the catfish he served us could have stayed in the ocean.”

“You mean bayou, love,” Norman quipped, giving his wife a gentle pat on her arm.

Lucy set her cup down and touched her cloth napkin to one corner of her bright-red lips and then the other. “I’ll stick to a good old-fashioned Dungeness crab, thank you very much.”

Sloan laughed. She’d received dozens of texts last year from her frantic staff, begging her to come home early.

While she’d thoroughly loved last year’s exchange that took her to a popular Gulf-to-plate restaurant in New Orleans, her routine customers were less than pleased to find a menu full of catfish.

“Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Banks. I’ve left instructions to keep three Sloan Leary fall specials on the menu each night, just in case.” She chuckled, adding, “I promise, only Bay Area fish, and all the Dungeness crab you can eat.”

That seemed to appease the couple. She said a final good night and crossed the room to the front door, pushing it open. A cool crisp breeze greeted her as a Little Red Riding Hood raced by in shrieks, followed by a Big Bad Wolf, who stopped in his tracks to howl at the bright full moon before chasing her down the sidewalk.

“How was tonight?” she asked Connor, her sous chef, who on a normal night was her steady second-in-command, but he’d worked so hard on the green-and-purple makeup for his warlock costume that she didn’t have the heart to ban him to the kitchen all night. Instead, he’d spent his shift next to a large black cauldron, doling out Sloan’s ginger-cinnamon apple cider.

“Some potion for you, Chef.” He dipped the ladle into the green mixture, thanks to the generous amount of food coloring they’d added in earlier and offered her a cup.

“Don’t mind if I do.” She began to take a sip but stopped, inching up a playful eyebrow. “Unless it’s cursed?”

That got a wicked chuckle out of Connor. “I cast only one spell, and it was on an old boyfriend who walked by an hour ago. He should be turning into a toad any minute now.”

“Oh my. I hope he doesn’t get stomped on by this crowd,” Sloan joked back and took a sip, the ginger spice filling all of her tiny taste buds to their brims as she peeked into the cauldron. “I can’t believe how much you have left.”

“Well, the little ones aren’t fans. Your scarecrow cinnamon twists, on the other hand . . .” He bunched his fingers and brought them to his lips for a kiss. “Perfection. I ran out hours ago.”

“Why am I not surprised that bread coated in cinnamon and butter would be a hit?” She tilted her cup and drained it. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”

The ghoulish fun continued all around when a woman’s voice rose high above the crowd, admonishing a ghost for not watching where it was going.

Erika! Sloan whipped around. Finally. “I’ve been waiting for you all ni—” She stared at her agent, who was dressed in an enormous, bright-yellow cardboard box, her long, black hair pushed off her face in a high ponytail. The neon-blue arms of her sweater stuck out and matched both her lipstick and tights perfectly.

What on earth?

“I’m sorry I’m late.” Erika waddled closer to Sloan, nearly being taken out by six football players and a referee jogging by. “Taking public transportation in this getup wasn’t my smartest idea.”

That wasn’t her smartest idea? Sloan cocked her head, reading the word Palate scribbled across the box in bright-blue cursive. As far as creative costumes went, she wasn’t sure this was going to win Erika any Halloween contest. “What are you supposed to be, exactly?”

“I’m your surprise.” Her agent stretched her arms out with her palms up. “Ta-da!”

Sloan studied the getup for a beat. “A box?”

“Not just any box. Oh, I forgot the props in my pockets.” Her arms disappeared, returning with an apple and a sweet potato. “Ta-da,” she repeated with even more gusto, holding the produce high in the air.

Sloan stared at her blankly.

“Ta—” She dropped the produce to her sides. “Oh, for Pete’s sake. I’m as plain as day.”

“Of course you are. You’re a . . . a . . .” Sloan thought for a second. Her agent was here for only one reason. “Am I going to be working in a place named Palate for the Culinary Exchange?” Sloan asked, racing through the vast restaurant directory she’d built up in her memory bank over the years but coming up short.

Wait a minute. Her eyes widened. Palate sounded French enough. “Oh my God. Is Palate a new Parisian restaurant?” It had to be. Her arms flew around her agent, not waiting for a response. “I knew you could do it. I’m going to Paris, aren’t I?”

Erika hugged her back, the sweet potato pressing into Sloan’s spine. “Better. Way better.”

Way better? Sloan stepped back. What could possibly be better than finally getting her dream culinary exchange?

“You, Sloan Leary, are going to spend the next fourteen days working on an audition meal for Palate.” Erika emphasized that by running the sweet potato under the word.

Sloan blinked. “What?”

“Palate, you know, the meal kit service.”

Of course, she knew Palate. Everyone did. It was only the most sought-after meal kit service, with billions of subscribers worldwide.

Her heart began to accelerate as she asked the next question. “Are they looking for a chef?”

Erika’s head bobbled up and down, nearly causing her to tip over. She regained her balance. “They’re looking for their next up-and-coming celebrity chef to create signature Thanksgiving dinner recipes.” She took a bite out of the apple. “Yours truly got you an audition.”

Sloan parted her lips. “No way.”

“Yes!”

“No,” she repeated, still trying to process the news. It couldn’t possibly be. Over the years, several chefs had partnered with the popular meal kit service, but they were way more established and internationally known.

She was a far, far cry from being one of them.

“Is there any alcohol in that brew?” Erika asked Connor. “Your hearing is just fine, Sloan, dear. You’ve got two weeks to plan a traditional Thanksgiving meal. The winner will have their recipes in next year’s Holiday Palate line.”

Holiday Palate line! Sloan’s hands went to her cheeks. “I can’t believe it.”

“Believe it. Thanksgiving meals by Sloan Leary will be on thousands of dining room tables from here”—she waved her hand in the air, pointing east—“to Maine. All you have to do is wow the judges panel, and I know you will.”

This was the moment Sloan had worked so hard for—her chance to finally step into the elite celebrity chef circle, which would elevate her further to realizing her goal of franchising, beginning with Paris.

“Wow. Palate.” Sloan couldn’t help but take a second to let it sink in.

Her agent had always looked out for new opportunities to elevate her culinary career ever since Sloan and her grandmother had signed with Erika to publish a cookbook, A Dish for Every Season, ten years ago.

Erika had been there, especially after Grandma Gabby passed away. It was she who had approached Sloan about the Culinary Exchange as a good opportunity to raise her profile.

Yes, Erika was a fabulous agent and friend. Still, there was one clarifying question that needed to be asked: “You really think I’m ready for this? You have other clients who are more established.”

Erika’s expression softened. “But I only have one Sloan Leary.”

That validation was all she needed. She clapped her hands. “I guess I should get started right away. My grandmother’s maple-ginger apple pie recipe would be so perfect for this.” She paused, adding, “I’m assuming this means I’m sitting out the Culinary Exchange this year.”

“Oh, you’re still participating.” Erika finished the apple and dropped the core in a trash receptacle next to the cauldron. “I’ve found the perfect place for you to cook up a storm. You’re going to love it.”

Wait, what? Sloan bit down on her lip. How was she possibly going to work on her audition recipes while running an unfamiliar restaurant? To knock it out of the park, she really needed to stay here and cook in her kitchen with her utensils, not some stranger’s, never mind access to all of her spices. “I’m not sure I can do both—” she started.

“You can, and it’s already arranged. Where you’re going has a steady stream of customers but will also give you enough downtime so you can focus on creating your audition recipes. Plus, it’s in New England—the epicenter for all things fall—to really inspire you and get your creative turkey juices flowing.” Erika shook her arms to accentuate that point. “How marvelous is that?”

New England. Now was not the time to go clear across the country. “I don’t know . . .” Sloan’s voice trailed. Leaving her familiar kitchen to work on something so life changing seemed like a bad idea.

Terrible, really.

“I know it seems like a lot, but I really do believe I’ve found the best place for you to be,” Erika continued her pitch. “Think miles and miles of bright-orange, yellow, and red foliage as far as the eye can see; warm, apple cider donuts on every farm stand; and pumpkin spice everywhere.”

“Pumpkin spice everywhere,” Sloan repeated, inching an eyebrow up.

“Everywhere.”

“Well . . .” She’d always wanted to go to Boston, and cooking there in the fall would, no doubt, be a wonderful experience. With all of its fall foliage charm, it probably would inspire her. “Okay. Fine. I’ll go.” She could get a jumpstart by sorting out her Thanksgiving recipes on the long plane ride over.

“You’re going to love it, trust me. I’ve booked your flight for six a.m. tomorrow.”

“Oh wow . . . that early?” Being a chef who worked well into the night, to say Sloan wasn’t a morning person was an understatement.

That question got a supportive pat on her arm. “No time to waste. We’ve got to get you in the kitchen. It’s a quaint bistro in the heart of everything.” Erika looked down at her Apple Watch. “I’ve got to run, but I’ll e-mail your ticket and all the details later tonight.”

“Wait.” She reached for Erika’s arm. “Who will be working in my restaurant?” Given her team would be working with someone new, she should at least know who.

“It’s a lovely woman named Dee Dee Edwards, with more than forty years of restaurant experience owning a small bistro. The Executive Chef’s Institute raved about her and her chocolate-pecan pie. Apparently, it won some award. I talked to her this morning, and she sounds like an absolute delight. Your regulars are going to love her.”

Small bistro. Would Dee Dee be able to keep up with an upscale operation? She dismissed the question. Erika was clearly excited about this, and her agent would never hand over Seasons of San Francisco to just anyone—even if it was only for two weeks.

Plus, Connor would be here, ready to step up.

She’d check in on this Dee Dee in a day or two, see how she was settling in, and answer any questions she might have. Maybe they could set up a few video sessions. “So, Palate is really happening?” she asked, still not believing it was true.

“I didn’t dress up in this getup for nothing. You got this, girl. I’ll talk to you in a couple of days. Palate is going to send you a shipment with some of the ingredients they’d like you to use in your recipes.” She reached for Sloan’s arm, hooking hers around it. “Now do me a favor and help this meal kit to the curb.”

Sloan laughed and guided her agent to her Uber, then said a quick good night to Connor, before stepping back into her restaurant, reeling over the amazing news.

She had a bounce in her step as she crossed the dining room and pushed through the swinging doors. Her gaze rested on her favorite framed photo of her grandmother seasoning a Christmas pudding their first year cooking together after Sloan began working full-time professionally.

Her heart squeezed. Her grandmother would have been over the moon-excited about this opportunity. “Paris, here we come,” she said to the photo.

It wasn’t the way she’d planned, but if she won the Palate audition, she wouldn’t need the culinary exchange to get her there.

Her grandmother’s dream for a Seasons of Paris could be within grasp.

That thought spurred her into action as she began transporting spice bottles into the portable rack. “Get ready, my loves, we’re going on a big East Coast adventure,” she said to the amchur powder and juniper berries seasonings before placing them into the rack with all the others.

A few minutes later, she scanned her kitchen one last time, making sure she hadn’t forgotten anything, while trying to ignore the needling feeling that setting up shop clear across the country to work on an opportunity of a lifetime might not be the best idea.

“You love the Culinary Exchange,” she gave herself a pep talk before flipping off the lights. Plus, two weeks in Boston surrounded by beautiful fall foliage. How bad could it be?

End of Excerpt

An Autumn to Remember is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-959988-95-3

September 28, 2023

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