Tastes So Sweet

by

Kelly Cain

Forbidden fruit has never tasted better…

After losing her parents in high school, Ryan Landry grew up fast, solely focusing on supporting her younger twin sisters. With the twins now preparing for college, the financial stakes are raised so Ryan enters a restaurant manager of the year contest. Her chances for the grand prize are strong—after all, she’s the executive manager of Everheart Bar and Fine Dining, which is as famous for its exemplary service as it is for its mouth-watering food.

The only thing standing in her way? The restaurant’s Michelin star patriarch chef. Ryan meets his near-impossible challenges, except this creates another obstacle—increased temptation with her best friend and pastry chef Weston Everheart. She’s fought to keep Weston in the friend zone, because romantic fraternization means immediate firing, and she needs her job and the prize money more than ever.

But when she realizes Weston has also been in love with her for years, it becomes impossible to maintain business as usual. Will Ryan play it safe or finally listen to her heart?

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These dang Everhearts will be the death of me. I swear.

I rush down the hall from my office, passing the large storage room filled with kitchen equipment on one side and the employee break room opposite it. I catch the weeping employee heading toward the back door of the restaurant before he can open the exit. “What happened? Where are you going?”

He takes in a deep breath, makes a valiant effort at quelling his emotions, then releases another sob before pulling off his chef’s hat and hiding his face behind it. “Mrs. Landry…”

“Ms. And please, call me Ryan.”

“Ryan, I don’t think this is going to work out.”

I don’t need to ask why because this is the third chef who’s departed through this same back door in the month since the second of Flynn’s three sons unceremoniously quit. I’m all for Knox and Declan venturing out on their own paths, but it would have been helpful if they could’ve spread their departures over some time, like two or three years instead of weeks. Heck, even months would have been helpful.

I offer the man a small smile. “I’m sorry to hear that, Chef. I’d hoped with your Michelin experience, you would understand our special circumstances.”

He lifts his hazel gaze to mine, bright with tears, and hiccups, then places a hand on my shoulder.

I resist the urge to pull away from both his touch and his intense, unwavering stare, understanding this is more a comfort for him than me.

“I’ve worked with Michelin chefs who overstrained and corrected me to no end. Their training made me a better chef. This is something different.” He squeezes my shoulder and glances up at the ceiling, sucking in a raggedy breath. “Chef Everheart’s goal is total denigration, and I value my health—both physical and emotional—too much to be subjected to his unearned punishment. I see why his sons left.” With one more squeeze of my shoulder, he storms out the door without a backward glance.

I take a deep breath to steel myself, then trudge to the kitchen. Before picking up the abandoned knife, I wash my hands and don the white jacket I pull from the dish-washing area. There’s a chef’s jacket in closer reach, but I don’t dare. This one is close enough.

Flynn marches my way, his fair white skin turning almost purple, chef’s hat askew.

After putting the knife down, I place a hand on my generous hip and narrow my eyes. “You can’t keep running off the chefs I hire. Pretty soon, we’ll need to start looking outside Austin. Maybe even the state at this rate.”

He scrunches his thin lips together and takes a moment to calm before speaking. “If you’d hire someone worthwhile, they wouldn’t run as soon as I explain how I want something done. I’m a Michelin-star chef. Surely you can attract better quality personnel to work under my wing.”

“You’re a Michelin-star chef who won’t give anyone a chance. You’re lucky we’ve been able to retain the ones we already had. They’ve been here long enough to know you’re not normally this over-the-top, but if you continue, we may be in a bigger hole than either of us will be able to dig out of.” I pick up the knife again and wave it at the seating area of the restaurant. “You forget you’re on display. At some point, our customers will tire of the show.”

He opens his mouth, then shuts it and glances at the nearby chef’s table that separates the kitchen from the front of house. When Flynn designed his restaurant, he wanted to show off, calling attention to himself and his ridiculously handsome chef sons. Now that he is down to one offspring, the one he often forgets about, he’s probably rethinking his life choices. Flynn’s parting rebuff from under his breath floats back my way. “We’ll discuss this later.”

I go back to chopping because while I need to contact the next person up, there is an immediate need for a pile of sliced onions and as short-staffed as we suddenly find ourselves, there’s nobody else to do it.

When the restaurant closes and the staff initiates the nightly ritual, I finally trudge back to my office and turn my monitor back on so I can print out the list of chefs we’ve already interviewed. I only had time to press the button underneath the screen before rushing to head off our wayward now ex-employee. Leaving my laptop on and accessible is a huge faux pas, but it couldn’t be helped.

I’m just about to kick off my shoes and massage my aching insoles when Flynn barrels into my office, still spry considering the long night. “You need to get me someone competent.”

“Working on it, Chef. Next time, try to give the new person at least a couple days before you jump down their throat. Maybe we can retain someone.”

He shoves a hand into his pocket and jangles the coins within. Who actually carries real money around anymore, less known change? Old-school Michelin-star Chef Flynn Everheart, that’s who. “We wouldn’t need to retain anyone if you’d done your job to begin with.”

Here we go again. “Your sons leaving the fold is not my fault.” I raise my eyebrows, daring him to counter.

“Perhaps if you’d given me notice when you found out, I could have stopped it.”

I’m not usually a rolling-my-eyes kinda gal, but if this conversation continues down this path, I may have to change my policy. “Perhaps if you hadn’t tried to strong-arm your sons into working for you, they’d still be here.”

And now we’re heading back to purple skin. “That is none of your business. But keeping me in the loop on kitchen personnel changes are in your wheelhouse, isn’t that true?”

I throw my hands up in surrender because he’s right. I should have told him. I never thought his sons would abandon him without a heads-up. “You don’t pay me enough to jump in the middle of you Everhearts. I have enough to do without navigating your family drama, Chef.”

And therein lies the problem. He pays me nearly thirty percent lower than my counterparts because I didn’t have the same level of experience coming into this job. It doesn’t matter that I’ve proven myself over and over again the past four years I’ve had this job. It’s why we have this contentious relationship, though, and why he allows me to speak my mind. Sure, he could fire me, but he’d be hard-pressed to replace me. He earned that Michelin star during my tenure here. Not that I don’t believe he wouldn’t dismiss me if I went too far or broke one of his golden rules. But now I do have the experience. I only stay because my salary puts me in a good position when it’s time to fill out the financial aid forms for my twin sisters. And I only have one more year before they go off to college. I just need to hang on until then.

“Back to your compensation, I see. Do you really want to go there? Especially now?”

May as well. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? After all, it’s the principle of the thing. “My assistant general manager earns nearly as much as I—”

“That’s your issue, not mine. You have free reign to pay your staff as you see fit.”

“Right. And I compensate them at the market rate so we retain our high level of excellence. Just like you pay your chefs. I’m the only one getting the short end of the stick here.”

“Your compensation package is in line with the market for your experience, Ryan. I’ve explained that to you before.” He sighs and pulls his hand out of his pocket, readying his stance for his exit. “Just ensure that we are properly staffed. Night.”

I watch his retreating back, completely dumbfounded. Not that I thought he’d magically give in all of a sudden, but because of how cavalier he is about it, then ordering me to dig even deeper.

That’s all I do these days. Dig deeper here and at home. The time to pay the piper is coming up soon, and I need to solidify my plans.

I smell Weston before I see him. A slightly sweet and yeasty scent meets me at my open door. Soon his big body shadows across the hood of my car, his smiling face leaning down to catch my eye. “Do you need some help, Ryan?”

Giving up on the heavy crate I’m attempting to pull out of the back seat of my SUV, I pass it to him instead. “How’d you know?”

He shrugs and easily balances the box under one strong arm.

I smile and shake my head. I’m certainly no small person, but the box is not only heavy, it’s bulky. Where I struggle to wrangle it with two hands, Weston makes it seem like a small box of packing peanuts. “Thank you, Chef.” I can’t help the title when he’s decked out in his gear for work. We established long ago that it is a visceral reaction rather than a conscious decision. He finally relented and just goes with it.

“Anything for you?”

Most of the time I can tell when he’s really asking a question rather than ending his sentence with a curious-sounding lilt, but only because we’ve been such close friends for so long. Without Weston, I’m not sure I would have been strong enough to persevere those first few months of managing the restaurant. Knox was nice enough but busy, and Declan was…decent most of the time, but Weston really went out of his way to help.

“Thanks, Chef.”

We walk to the door in the rear of the building, the same one Weston just came through. The more potent Weston-smell catches me right in the nose and jets down to my stomach. “What in the world are you making?”

“Zwetschgendatschi.”

I frown and glance in the direction of the kitchen. The restaurant won’t open for another couple hours, but the crew is already well into prep work for lunch. Thankfully we are fully staffed for the next two days, giving me a little time to find another chef. “Switch-Dutch-who now?”

Weston laughs, a bright twinkle in his gleaming blue eyes. “It’s a German cake made with Italian plums. I thought it would be a nice addition to the dessert menu.”

I walk down the hall to my office with Weston trailing behind, carrying my burden. “You can just put it over there on Nancy’s desk, please. She won’t be in today.” I place my purse in the bottom drawer and turn back to Weston. “The cake sounds delightful, but did you run it by your father? You know how he is when any of you try to slip in anything Italian around here.”

His shoulders slump and he bows his head, having the nerve to look ashamed when we both know he isn’t. “Why bother, Ryan? It’s not like he’ll notice anyway.”

“Oh, he notices everything that goes on in his restaurant, trust me. You can’t keep changing the dessert menu.”

He bends forward, balancing his forearms on the chair facing my desk. “When I added the chocolate brioche, he didn’t even mention it.”

“He most certainly did. Why do you think I had you switch it to the triple-chocolate mousse cake?”

His mouth drops open in disbelief. “Ryan, how could you? You said it was your favorite?”

I shrug and switch on the monitor topping my desk and connect my laptop. “Two things can be true. Flynn nixed the brioche.”

“As if you don’t have enough to do. I don’t understand why Dad can’t just tell me himself. Does he have you making any other menu decisions?”

“I’m sorry. It wasn’t my decision. I was just the messenger.” We both know why Flynn doesn’t tell his only remaining son about the dessert menu. He’d have to remember Weston existed first.

Good-naturedly as usual, Weston straightens up and grins. “It doesn’t matter anyway. The fruit is only in season this month.” He gives me an eyebrow wiggle. “Speaking of which, isn’t your birthday coming up?”

My heart beats a little faster. “You know it is.”

“Calm down—you’re turning blue.”

I do a quick check on my phone camera and examine my skin color. Still medium brown, but I can agree it has paled some. I smooth my closely cropped curls over my ear. “I am calm. You know I don’t want to talk about my birthday.”

“Come on, Ryan. Can’t this be the year we celebrate your special day? You never do?”

“That’s a firm no.”

“But why? At least let me make you something special.”

“You’re already making my favorite, remember? And the way you make it with a hint of raspberry really sets it apart. I’ll just grab a slice of that.”

His friendly smile doesn’t falter, but he does run long fingers through his wavy black hair. His fair olive skin reddens ever so slightly, and his usually bright eyes dim. “We’ll table this until later. I haven’t given up.”

“I won’t change my mind.”

He tilts his head to the side and purses his lips, then snaps his fingers. “I almost forgot. I heard what happened last night. Sorry I missed it?”

“Be glad you did. Your dad is not making my job any easier. Pretty soon word will get out and I won’t be able to pay someone to interview.”

“I wish I could help, but all my friends from culinary school have great jobs. Nobody wants to come here.”

“It’s okay. I plan to ask your brother for help. I already texted him this morning.”

Weston’s eyes widen considerably. “Uh, Ryan. Not the brother I think you’re talking about.”

I suck in a deep breath. “I already know, but I’m desperate. Your dad will just have to deal with it. At least we’ll have someone worthy of Knox’s replacement.”

“I’m not sure anyone will ever be able to replace Knox. Especially in Dad’s eyes.” His expression doesn’t change, which is even more heartbreaking because he’s so used to his father’s snubs.

I soften my expression, giving Weston a small smile. “Your father thinks the world of all of you. He misses Declan, too, and if something were to happen and you left, that would create a big hole. You’re the best pastry chef around.”

He smiles brighter, but his eyes stay the same. Clearly placating me.

Although Knox was the star chef in the family, I really do believe Flynn misses Declan being here to bounce investment ideas off and would truly feel Weston’s loss if he were to leave. He just has a terrible way of showing his love for his sons. But that’s not my business.

“Are we all still heading over to Lady Bird Lake tomorrow?”

“As far as I know. Restaurant’s closed, so I’ll be there for sure. The twins may come after school if we stay long enough and the others said they would meet us there, but I’ll check with them later to verify. I already told you Lisa can’t make it. That’s it for the cousins.”

Weston claps his hands and releases a high-pitched sound. “I’m so excited. We haven’t all been together in ages.”

I could catch up on my rest, do some cleaning, and maybe even read a book tomorrow, but it’s totally worth going to witness Weston’s glee. “Me, too.”

“Okay, I better get back to the kitchen. I also want to get a little writing in before the rush starts. See you later, Ryan?”

“See you later, Chef.” I watch him stroll through the open door and smile how lucky I am to have such a great friend like Weston.

End of Excerpt

Tastes So Sweet is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-956387-94-0

August 9, 2022

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