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Take one 75 million dollar lottery win. Toss in a struggling restaurant and a weasel of an ex-husband. Spice heavily with one true love. Is it a recipe for disaster or the recipe of Temple’s dreams?
Winning the lottery will help Temple turn her restaurant, GIRLS WHO DISH into a world-class establishment. Except, everybody wants a piece of lotto pie: her mother, her daughter, her best friend . . . and the furious staff members who lost out and sue for their share.
As Temple struggles with a case of MILLION DOLLAR BLUES, she is blindsided by the return of her first love, James LeShan. Now a successful lawyer, James will help Temple out of her legal mess . . . but he has something much more personal in mind for the two of them.
Her kitchen staff was having a meltdown.
“How long until I get more soup?” Temple yelled as she plated two orders of pistachio-crusted sablefish.
“Three minutes, Chef.”
“I need it in two. And another order of crab cakes.”
The sous chef dropped an F-bomb and flipped her the bird. The line chef looked over and glared. A panicked waiter pacing in front of the grill told her to hurry up.
“Relax, guys. We’re almost done. These are the last few orders.”
“Thank Christ for that,” a busboy muttered.
Temple laughed. “Are you kidding? This is the best thing that’s happened to us in months.” A single tweet from Epicurious about Seattle restaurants to watch, and within an hour the phones began to ring. By noon, the dining room was full. Thirty minutes later, they were turning people away at the door. Suddenly they were the Hot New Thing. It was the miracle Temple had been praying for, and she was thrilled.
She added phyllo crisps, a few sprigs of cress, and her signature swirl of balsamic reduction to the fish. Like Matisse on a plate, that tweet had said. “Order’s up.” The waiter swooped down and whisked the plates away.
High on adrenaline, Temple sailed through the rest of the lunch rush. She was still smiling thirty minutes later when she walked out of the kitchen and into the dining room of GIRLS WHO DISH.
“You’ve got a call on line one,” Farah said. “The phone’s at the hostess station.”
The sweat and sacrifice had been worth it, Temple thought, hurrying past tables littered with dirty plates, empty glasses, and soiled napkins. GIRLS had finally been recognized. It would only get better from here.
She picked up the phone. “Temple Freeman.”
“Temple? Finola Coburn here.”
Her smile dissolved; the day suddenly went to hell. Amazing the power of a bank manager.
As she listened to the woman’s spiel, Temple stared into the dining room at the last few customers smiling over dessert and coffee. Their enjoyment fed her soul like little else. About the only thing she loved more than cooking for people was being with Zoe, but lately time with her daughter had been at a premium.
“Temple, are you there?”
Temple pulled off her chef’s hat and ran a hand through her thick, black hair. “I’m here, Ms. Coburn, and you’ll have your sixty thousand, I promise.” The lie slid out like she’d rehearsed it for days. It wasn’t a complete lie. She’d get her the money. Eventually.
“You and your partner, Gretchen, have been avoiding me for weeks,” the manager said. “Why should I trust you now?”
The receiver was slick with sweat. Temple changed hands, rubbed her palms on her chef’s whites. “Because things are different now. Business is picking up and—.”
The bank manager interrupted her. “There will be no more extensions. If you don’t deposit sixty thousand by close of business Friday, there will be no money for payroll.”
Temple’s stomach bottomed out; fear soured the back of her throat. Twenty-eight employees depended on her; she couldn’t let them down. She heard Sean let loose with another F-bomb back in the kitchen. Her sentiments exactly. “You’ll have your money.”
“I hope so. I would hate to see you shut down.”
Panic snapped at Temple’s empty stomach as she watched a busboy reset a table for dinner. Her staff was like family. She’d hired every single one of them. They counted on her. “That won’t happen,” she promised before disconnecting.
Restaurants were demanding. She’d known that going in. They sucked money faster than a drunk sucking vodka at a two-for-one happy hour. She wasn’t a gambler or a risk taker. Her belief in her ability to cook and provide a unique dining experience was absolute. But between their bank debt, the money they owed the IRS, and the fact that it was taking too long to build a clientele, Temple was up against it.
And the crushing machine was bearing down.
In the kitchen, the lunch rush was over. The cooks were taking a break. One sat in the corner snacking on leftover crab cakes; the other smeared aioli over a slice of focaccia. At the salad station, Sean was yelling at the driver from Earth-to-You Organics.
“I don’t want this nasty-ass shit!” He shoved the crate of salad greens at the gangly driver. “That’s twice this week you’ve tried to pawn your crap off on us.”
Sean’s insecurities were legend. Her sous chef had to one-up every supplier he met. Having worked together for years, Temple understood him. She was both boss and benevolent mother, cutting him slack as she did with so many of her staff. But as she hurried over and peered into the crate, she realized today Sean was right. The salad greens were mostly slime.
“And this?” Sean waved a limp, malformed stalk of asparagus in the air. “This looks like the Jolly Green Giant’s had his dick run through the blender.”
The kitchen erupted into laughter.
The driver flushed. “The field’s saturated with all the rain we’ve been having. It’s the best we can do. I can substitute radicchio for the greens.”
Sean exploded. “I don’t need goddamn radicchio.” He glared at Temple like it was all her fault. “I don’t know why you don’t fire his ass and go back to the major suppliers. These small producers are a waste of time.”
The small producers were the only ones still offering them credit and Sean knew it, but Temple had more important things to worry about.
“You can complain at the next staff meeting, Sean. Right now I want you to get on the phone and see what’s available around town. Worst case scenario, send Claire to Safeway for whatever produce is on sale.”
Sean’s lip curled. “Nobody’s going anywhere unless you get rid of the scum that’s collecting out there.” He pointed.
Temple didn’t have to look over her shoulder to know. Ernie was back. The homeless man had been sleeping by the dumpster since this morning.
After instructing the Earth-to-You driver to take away the greens and adjust the bill, Temple poured two cups of coffee, grabbed some bread and cheese, and headed outside. She needed a few minutes to regroup, refuel, and come down from the lunch rush before finding Gretchen and figuring out what to do. Where was her partner, anyway?
After weeks of sleety rain, the sun had returned to Seattle. Temple breathed in the calm of the Crayola blue sky and felt her spirits lift at the dizzying froth of pink on the flowering plum down the alley. Spring had arrived virtually overnight. Even Ernie, who was plastered to the side of the dumpster, had thrown off his threadbare, army-issue green blanket.
She nudged him gently with the toe of her work shoe. “Come on, Ernie, time to get up. You can’t stay here.”
He answered with a drunken moan.
She leaned over and tugged on his sweatshirt.
“G’way!” Grimy hands flapped feebly in her direction.
“Watch it, Ernie. Don’t beat the hand that feeds you.” She’d been slipping Ernie leftovers every day for months, but he was supposed to crash at the shelter, not at GIRLS WHO DISH. Unfortunately, he preferred the restaurant, alternating between the front and back entrances. Given the Epicurious endorsement, she didn’t need Ernie in her doorway, turning people off.
She waved a cup of coffee under his nose.
A bloodshot blue eye cracked open. Then another. “I thought it was an earthquake,” Ernie slurred. “But it’s you, angel girl.”
“It’s me, all right.” She was twenty years from girlhood and lifetimes from sainthood, but Ernie had called her angel girl from the moment he’d seen her wearing chef’s whites. He probably wouldn’t recognize her in street clothes. “Let’s go.”
Clutching her arm, he pulled himself unsteadily to his feet. A lifetime ago, he’d been a stockbroker in Seattle. At least that’s what he claimed. But somewhere between then and now, he’d ended up bent, broken, and living on the street. Unfortunately, his preferred location was St. Germaine Place, an up-and-coming two-block stretch on the edge of downtown and home to GIRLS.
While he drank his coffee, Temple retrieved his cart from the other side of the dumpster. It was stuffed with plastic bags, cartons of empty beer cans, and an old transistor radio.
“Thanks.” He belched and handed back the brown mug. “I needed that.” His eyes narrowed as he studied her. “You’re feeling overwhelmed again.”
Ernie was unusually astute; trying to pull one over on him never worked. “True.”
“I see money all around you.”
If wishes were horses . . .
“You don’t believe me.”
She thought about lying. But that was the thing about Ernie. He tended to know. “No.”
“I know stuff.”
So did Temple. She knew she had to find sixty grand fast. “Here, I brought you some bread and cheese.”
He pounced on it with a hunger that was embarrassing, stuffing his mouth so full he couldn’t speak. Temple sat on one of the upturned plastic pails that passed for the outdoor smoking pit, drank her own coffee and tried not to stare. Someone at the shelter had told her Ernie was in his forties. With those sunken cheekbones and the deep lines framing his eyes, he looked sixty.
When he was down to his last piece of cheese, Ernie said, “I told you about your daughter, remember?”
“Zoe came down with chicken pox, Ernie, not the plague.”
“Close enough. You got money coming. And big, big trouble.”
Temple suppressed a sigh and drank her coffee. He was half right.
“Thanks, that was good.” Ernie rubbed his stomach. “Almost as good as the pork chops I dreamed of last night.”
“Huh.” Temple dreamed of pork chops on occasion too. But in her dreams she was grilling them with rosemary and there were orders backed up on the rack and the servers were yelling and the meat supplier was at the back door screaming that her last check had bounced and Zoe was on the phone complaining that Temple had forgotten to do the laundry and she had no jeans left to wear.
Somehow she didn’t think Ernie’s dream was quite the same.
“They were cooked in cream of mushroom soup.” He smacked his lips together.
Poor guy. Talk about a nightmare from the 60s.
Ernie peered into the kitchen. “Any cookies?” he asked wistfully.
Sean was glaring in their direction. Temple drained her mug and stood. “Not today, Ernie. That’s the best I can do. I’ve got problems.”
“You’ve got problems, all right.” He gestured to the open door. “He’s a mean sonofabitch. Better be careful around him.”
“Sean’s insecure, but he’s a damned good cook.”
“Not him. The guy with the black hair.”
Temple followed his gaze. Ernie was looking at Brad, their bartender. Temple prided herself on treating everyone well, keeping the atmosphere at GIRLS positive. But Brad made it hard. He was forever nitpicking; Temple was forever biting her tongue. “The customers love him.” Gretchen said it was his bad boy looks. Temple wondered if he was overpouring drinks. “Besides, he’s got problems like everyone else.”
“You spend too much time looking out for people,” Ernie said. “You gotta watch your own back once in a while, angel girl.”
She didn’t need to watch her back, Temple thought as Ernie pushed his shopping cart down the lane and she headed back inside. She needed to find sixty grand.
Gretchen Marks was in a hurry. Her lash and brow tint had ended on time, but it had taken forever to pick up the centerpieces for tonight. The Madrona Garden Club had booked their entire back room and had preordered a five-course meal for forty. It was the restaurant’s first major booking; proper centerpieces were mandatory. Unfortunately, there was nothing proper about the fluorescent apricot roses the florist had tried to substitute for the pale sandalwood ones she’d ordered.
Cutting across two lanes of traffic, Gretchen whipped her black Lexus into the Shell on Rainier. She jerked to a stop in front of the pump; the flowers skidded across the back seat and thumped against the door. Cursing, she reached around to straighten them. When she turned back, Noah’s face was inside the window; his nose practically indented her cheek.
“Hey, doll,” he breathed. “Can I fill you up?”
Just her luck. Last week’s mistake was on duty. She gave him the same “don’t mess with me” smile she’d given the florist. “The tank, yes. Me, no.” She grabbed her purse and reached for the door handle, but Noah didn’t budge.
“You’ve been avoiding me.” He stared down the deep V of her peacock green blouse. “Why?”
Because sex with Noah had seemed like a good idea at the time (thanks to a few too many Scotches at the tasting, his open appreciation of her body when she’d stopped in for gas afterward, and those killer dimples when he smiled). But it was a booty call she regretted. If Stefanos hadn’t been away, if the batteries hadn’t died on her Diving Dolphin . . . if, if, if. The story of her life.
“It’s been crazy at the restaurant.” Noah knew that. He was friends with Brad, their bartender. She tried to open the door; he didn’t budge. “Look, Noah, you’re a great guy. We had fun, but that’s all it was. Fun.”
His hazel eyes narrowed. “It was more than that and you know it. Dammit, that was the single best night of my life.”
Christ on a bus, he was young. And so easy to please. “The sex was awesome. You really are something.” There was nothing quite like the exuberance of a twenty-two-year-old guy. Especially one who obviously worked out. “But there’s the age difference and—”
He grinned. “Ten years is nothing.”
It was fifteen, but why count? A sleek green Volvo pulled up to the pump beside them. “You’ve got a lineup here, Noah, and I need to buy some lottery tickets and get to work.”
He snapped his fingers; his pimply-faced assistant came running.
“Fill this baby up,” Noah told him. He turned back to Gretchen. “I’m going to the Biff Naked concert at the Key Arena in a few weeks. I have an extra ticket I could sell you cheap.”
Exactly why Gretchen preferred men over sixty. Young guys never treated. And their taste in music sucked. Older guys knew the Grateful Dead was a band, not a state to aspire to.
She threw her weight on the door. Noah had no choice but to move back. She grabbed her purse and stepped out of the car. “I don’t think the timing will work.”
“Baby, your timing always works.”
She suppressed a sigh. Older guys also had better lines. “I’m late for the lunch shift. Temple’s going to kill me.”
“Temple’s so damned uptight.” He followed her inside. “I can’t believe you two are partners.”
It wasn’t by choice. When Tom, her ex, had run off to Aruba, he’d avoided alimony by signing over his shares in GIRLS WHO DISH. She didn’t want a restaurant; she’d wanted to sell. Restaurants were far too much work. But GIRLS was so far in debt there were no takers. Sell when the timing is right, Stefanos had said.
Stefanos Angelis knew a delicious amount about timing.
He was an exciting lover. Rich. Married. Insatiable in bed. And she never had to worry about any morning-after awkwardness. It didn’t get any better.
Margie, the counter girl, was on the phone. “I’ll ring you up.” Noah walked around the counter.
Gretchen handed over her credit card; their fingertips brushed. When he flashed a smile, she glimpsed his tongue.
And he knew it too. His laughing hazel eyes played over her face before dipping lazily to her breasts. “Sure you can’t make that concert?”
Her nipples tingled. Damned kid had performed some kind of magic on her body. Three times. He had the stamina, even if he was a little fast. And he was hot looking, too. “I’ll check my schedule,” she murmured.
“Checking is good,” he said. “Maybe we can check things at your place after the concert.”
She smiled. Juggling two lovers was a complication she didn’t need, but being wanted was such a turn-on.
Noah handed back her credit card. She gave him last week’s lottery tickets along with the staff money for this week’s group buy. He rang up the ticket sales and then turned to last week’s purchases.
The lights on the lottery terminal flashed. “My God.” He looked from the terminal to Gretchen and back to the terminal again. He whistled under his breath. “I sold you these tickets, didn’t I?”
Tapping her fingernails impatiently on the counter, she thought back a week. “I think so, yeah.” She sometimes bought tickets at the corner store near her condo, but last week she’d bought them from Noah. “Why?”
Noah didn’t answer. He continued to peer intently at the lottery terminal.
She frowned. “What is it?”
“Hold on a minute.”
Just then, the Volvo driver stepped inside the station; Margie got off the phone.
“I’ll have a package of Player’s Light,” the woman said, coming up to stand beside Gretchen. Margie retrieved the cigarettes and began ringing in the sale.
Noah cleared his throat. “Uh, there’s something about these tickets.” He looked up at Gretchen; his face gleamed with the preorgasmic flush she remembered from last month. “Margie, we’re gonna use the office for a few minutes, ’kay?” He grabbed Gretchen’s wrist and pulled her down the hall.
Noah was playing with her. Teasing her. He’d done that in the elevator on the way up to his apartment too. Like anything else remotely sexual, Gretchen had loved it. Would love it now. Except, she had to get to work.
“I’m really short on time,” she murmured with an ever-so-slight raise of her newly bleached brows. “Can’t this wait until later?” The thought of later notched up her body temperature.
“Not a chance!” Noah pushed her into the office and slammed the door. He still clutched her wrist in a vicelike grip.
Gretchen bit back a laugh. Ah, the impatience of youth. “Look, I really am running late.” Timing aside, Gretchen had standards. And doing it at the service station didn’t meet them. Especially when people were listening on the other side of the wall. Exhibitionism had never been her thing.
“This is important.” Noah’s hazel eyes had morphed into a deep, dark brown. His breath was fast, thready.
He wanted her, right now. The thought sent Gretchen’s already healthy libido into overdrive.
Wiggling out of his hold, she framed his face with her hands and brought her lips to his. “Maybe if we’re fast,” she whispered. “And very, very quiet.” Standards be damned. She slid her tongue inside his mouth.
“This will change your life!”
Not likely. But it might make Temple’s anger when she walked in late easier to take. She deepened the kiss.
Noah pulled away and pushed her hands aside. His eyes were glazed; his lips were swollen. “You don’t get it.”
She fought back a giggle. Whatever role Noah was playing, he was so into it. “Oh, I do.” She nibbled his ear. His erection pressed into her thigh. “And I know it’s going to be very, very good.” If he would just get on with it.
“You’ve won,” Noah blurted. “On the lottery.”
“I can tell.” The bulge in his pants was proof. She fought with his belt buckle. “In fact, it seems to me we’re both gonna hit the jackpot real soon.”