It was Lissa Wilde’s birthday.
Her twenty-seventh, if you were counting, which she was not, and the celebration was in full swing.
A perfect celebration. All a girl could want was right within easy reach.
A gaily wrapped box of See’s Truffles. The one-pound box because, what the hell, this was a party.
A long-handled spoon standing in a just-opened pint of Cherry Garcia.
And a vibrator.
Not just any vibrator, but a pink one that had Pleasure Pleaser printed all over the tissue paper that enclosed it… Well, that enclosed it once you got it out of its plain brown wrapper.
Lissa patted the vibrator. “Soon,” she said. Then she tore the wrapping paper off the box of truffles.
What could be better than a birthday party planned by the person who knew the birthday girl best?
“Who, indeed?” Lissa said, fingers hovering over the chocolates.
Which would it be? White? Dark? Milk? Lissa shut her eyes, plucked a chocolate from the box, started to take a ladylike bite, thought the hell with it and popped the whole thing into her mouth.
Amazingly delicious, she decided, and she swallowed, took another piece from the box and bit into it.
A perfect party.
That was the thing about being the only guest. You could concentrate on what really mattered.
“You hear that, Pleasure Pleaser?” she said.
The vibrator didn’t answer. Not that she’d expected it to. In fact, that was the thing about vibrators. They knew their place in life. They never had to be told what to do or how to do it. Or so she’d heard.
The truth was, this was her first sex toy.
She’d walked by a shop just off Hollywood Boulevard maybe ten times before she’d made up her mind to go inside. She’d thought about wearing dark glasses and a pull-down hat and maybe even a trench coat until she’d noticed women going in and out of the place, not hesitating, not in disguise, and she’d taken a breath, opened the door and found herself in, well, in a sex toy wonderland.
Pleasure Pleaser had been in a case along with at least a dozen others, and by the time the salesclerk had finished taking them out, one by one, turning them on and pointing out the high points of each, not only had Lissa been relaxed, she’d also been giggling.
Selecting one had been about as difficult as selecting one chocolate. The only certainty had been that she absolutely didn’t want the one that was supposed to look like a penis.
For one thing, it made her burst out laughing.
For another, the less the thing looked like anything to do with a man, the better.
“I know what you mean,” the salesgirl had said. “Who needs a man to get between you and ground zero?”
Lissa ate another truffle.
Who needed that, indeed? The best thing about a vibrator was that after it did its job, it went away until the next time you wanted it.
But then, one way or another, so did men.
Lissa scooped up a spoonful of ice cream and sucked it off the spoon.
“Not ladylike,” one of the nannies who’d raised her would have said.
“Man, that is sexy,” one of the idiots she’d dated would have said.
Hell. What it was, was the best way to savor the taste of the Cherry Garcia. Nothing more, nothing less.
Lissa put her bare feet on the coffee table in her tiny living room, dug her spoon deeper into the ice cream and watched Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman gaze into each other’s eyes on the DVD. She had the sound muted. Who needed sound when you knew all the dialogue by heart and you could say it along with Ingrid and Bogey?
“But what about us?” Ingrid/Lissa said, and reached for another truffle.
Bogey’s mouth did that funny little twitchy thing it often did.
“We’ll always have Paris,” Bogey/Lissa said.
Ingrid wept. Lissa shoveled in more Cherry Garcia.
Bogey lifted Ingrid’s chin and they did another round of eye-gazing.
“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” Bogey/Lissa said.
Last line, blah blah, then fade to black. Lissa reached for a paper napkin, thoughtfully provided by Pirelli’s Pizza, the takeout place that had also thoughtfully provided the nutritious main course for her birthday dinner.
She wiped a tear from her eye and a streak of chocolate from her lip.
Stupid, to cry over a movie that was decades older than she was, to cry over a movie at all, because she knew damn well it had nothing to do with life, but maybe that was the point. Maybe what happened in movies or books or TV shows was the only way anybody could ever even come close to experiencing real, true break-your-heart love.
Not that she was stupid enough to want her heart broken.
Lissa dumped the tissue on the table, swapped the spoon for the remote, clicked the TV off and swapped the remote for the spoon.
It was just the principle of the thing. Feeling down, watching Ingrid fly off with the wrong guy, but then they were all wrong guys, when you came down to it.
Feeling weepy certainly didn’t have anything to do with spending her birthday alone.
Another hit of Cherry Garcia. Some of it dribbled on her What’s Cookin’? T-shirt. So what? That was another benefit of being alone. Yoga pants with a hole in one knee. A stained T-shirt. No makeup. No hairstyle unless dragging her not-blond-not-brown-who-cares-what-color-it-is hair into a ponytail was a style.
She was alone. And happy.
“I am Alone,” she said. “And I am Happy.”
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t done the people-and-party thing in the past. She had. The Family Birthday, definitely in caps, at El Sueño, the family ranch, all her brothers, brother-in-law and almost-brother-in-law in attendance, all her sisters and sisters-in-law fussing over her. She’d done the semi-friends and co-workers version, too, where you had the crap embarrassed straight out of you when the who-gives-a-damn staff warbled a painfully loud and generally off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” over a slab of cake they probably kept in the back for these occasion, because surely nobody was ever dumb enough to actually eat that cake.
And, of course, she’d done the BFBE. The Boyfriend Birthday extravaganza. Fancy restaurants where she’d tried not to think about the fact that if she were the chef, she’d have cooked a better meal or done a better presentation. And then, after the meal, the gift-giving ritual—an expensive but schlocky piece of jewelry that had actually been selected by the BF’s PA—Jesus, the world was loaded with initials—or if the BF had bought it himself, maybe a frothy bit of lingerie that would have better suited a hooker than a girlfriend.
Lissa reached for another truffle.
Not that she’d been anyone’s girlfriend for a while.
Catholics gave up stuff for Lent, but you didn’t have to be Catholic and it didn’t have to be Lent for an intelligent woman to give up men for the duration.
“And more power to you, kid,” she said, lisping her way through another bad Bogart imitation.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like men. She did, as a concept. Men could be fun. They could be charming. Some were amazingly easy on the eyes. They were handy for emptying the occasional mousetrap, fine at holding an umbrella high enough over your head that you didn’t get wet running from your door to a taxi or to a car.
And, generally speaking, they were OK in bed.
Mostly, though, they weren’t worth the trouble they caused.
They became proprietorial. They became possessive.
Another mouthful of ice cream, and who was she trying to fool?
She’d heard other women talk about those things as a problem. She was never with a guy long enough for him to get all riled up about staking his claim.
The trouble with men was that they lied. They cheated. No matter how they seemed at the start of a relationship, they ended up as one hundred proof SOBs one hundred percent of the time.
Lissa plunged her spoon deep into the Cherry Garcia. It came up empty. Amazing. Were they downsizing the containers?
She’d planned ahead. That was the thing about being a trained chef. You know how to manage your supplies.
There was a pint of Chunky Monkey stashed in the freezer.
How could a woman be smart enough to hide ice cream and not smart enough to know that men were not worth her time and trouble?
Well, her brothers, brother-in-law and almost brother-in-law excepted, of course. Jacob. Caleb. Travis. And now, Marco. And, soon, Zach would join the ranks.
Great guys, all of them.
Lissa rose to her feet and went to her tiny kitchen.
Maybe there was a planetary limit on the number of decent men available. Maybe Earth’s quota had been reached. Maybe the Wilde men and the Wilde-Men-by-Proxy were it.
“Maybe you need that Chunky Monkey,” she said, dumping the empty Cherry Garcia container in the trash and opening the door to the freezer.
She’d never had any luck with men. Not even with boys. Look at the Tommy Juarez fiasco and yes, that had been kindergarten and no, it wasn’t foolish to go back that far because lesson were lessons no matter when you learned them.
Tommy had planted a kiss on her cheek while the whole class was playing Duck, Duck, Goose. The very next day, he’d called her a turd bird and kissed Deanna Hilton instead.
Lissa peered into the freezer.
And what about Jefferson Beauregard the Third in high school? Quarterback. Captain. A total hottie. Her steady for eight months until she’d caught him in the girls’ locker room—the girls’ locker room—screwing the brains out of one of the Becker twins, and what a stupid description that was because neither of the Becker twins had brains to be screwed out of and if that sentence had a dangling participle or whatever, she just didn’t give a shit.
Where was that Chunky Monkey?
“Come out, come out wherever you are,” Lissa said, poking past frozen chicken stock and frozen herbs and frozen something-or-other that she hadn’t labeled and who knew what in hell it was now?
How she’d ever gone steady with a boy named Jefferson Beauregard the Third was beyond her. She surely hadn’t loved him.
Yeah, but he’d said he loved her.
And of course, who was she kidding? She’d loved him. Puppy love, but still…
And she’d given him her virginity.
Well, OK. She’d been eager to give it to somebody.
Her sisters had clung to theirs as if they were characters in a Victorian novel instead of modern-day Texas females. Not her. She’d been ready, willing and eager to find out what sex was like, and—
“Gotcha,” she said triumphantly as she took the pint of Chunky Monkey from where it had been hiding behind a loaf of oatmeal bread she’d baked last week.
And, she thought, popping the lid and tossing it into the sink, she’d found out what sex was like.
It was OK. All right. Fine. Just, well, just no big deal.
It still was and there was nothing wrong with that; it was only that she’d kind of expected it to be mind-blowing, the way books and movies said it was, the way her very own sisters said it was, not that Jaimie or Emily actually talked about what sex was like with their guys, but when Em spoke Marco’s name, when Jaimie spoke Zach’s, you could almost hear the sizzle.
Lissa headed back into the living room and sat down on the sofa.
Sex was what it was, and she was fine with that.
What she wasn’t fine with was the BS that went with the sex.
With being involved with a guy.
Which took her straight back to the lies. Oh, the lies! I adore you, baby. I don’t ever want to be with anyone else. You are incredibly special.
That was what Rick had pretty much said to Ilsa, but he’d let her go anyway. Well, for the right reasons, sure.
Still, Ilsa had flown into the night. And Rick had moved on to deal with his life.
Lissa crammed a truffle into her mouth.
She’d been living in Los Angeles for three years. La La Land, her brothers said. Home to Gorgeous Guys, her sisters said. And both definitions were true. This was the Land of Dreams as well as the Land of Heartthrobs.
She knew that, firsthand.
She’d come here with the dream of becoming a chef. A top chef, one who could put her brand on a restaurant and make it dazzle.
She hadn’t come here to find a man, but the men were as plentiful as sand on a beach. Good-looking men. Great-looking, in fact. Who could resist the temptation?
Lissa reached for another truffle. Her stomach gave a delicate roll. Maybe it was time to stick with the Chunky Monkey.
She’d been here three years and she’d been involved with three different guys.
All hot-looking. All fun to be with. All charming.
A synonym for dirty, rotten bastards.
“For God’s sake, Melissa,” she muttered into the silence of the room, “you are either incredibly stupid or incredibly slow.”
Truly, she was.
How long should it have taken her to figure out that if men lied, actors—actors fabricated, and even if the words meant the same thing, actors were the worst. Why wouldn’t they be? Actors lied by profession. What else would you call acting?
Acting on screen was one thing. Acting in real life was another.
In real life, if you saw an actor’s lips move, your best bet was to turn and run.
Lissa stuck the spoon into what remained of the ice cream, tucked the container into her lap and sat back.
If only she had.
But what woman could resist having a six-foot movie god like Carlos Antonioni come back to the kitchen of The Black Pearl the night the regular chef had been down with the flu to seek out her, the sous chef, lift her hand to his lips and say that he had expected to find a kitchen goddess but not Aphrodite.
“Why are you not in the movies?” Carlos had said. She’d heard the line before—men liked her looks even though she thought of herself as Typical Texas, meaning she had long legs and big boobs and was, if you liked the type, cheerleader pretty—but coming from a heartthrob like him…
Her knees had gone weak.
He’d wined her and dined her and when he’d made his move, she’d let him. Whatever it was Em and Jaimie were experiencing, Lissa figured she’d like a try at it, too.
With a man this studly, the sex would have to be earth-shaking, wouldn’t it?
Nothing. Not even a tremor.
Maybe the sex would have gotten better. Anything was possible…except what had turned out to be most possible was that Carlos’s interest had lasted about as long as the shelf life of a soufflé.
So, OK, she’d learned her lesson. Don’t be swayed by flattery. By good looks. Get to know the real man.
That was when Jack came along.
Jack Rutledge, every woman’s dream, that face that body, up there on the big screen. If Carlos had been gorgeous, Jack was spectacular. He played small roles, sure, but he was on the move—mostly to the nearest mirror so he could gaze at himself in admiration, except she hadn’t really noticed that until it was too late.
The earth hadn’t trembled after she’d slept with him, either. Once again, the glassware and crockery were safe.
Not that it mattered.
Turned out that she’d been perfect for quiet evenings—This is the real me, baby, not the Hollywood guy people see—but once Jack landed a part in an upcoming Channing Tatum movie—I’m in four scenes, he’d said excitedly, four entire scenes!—she’d discovered that the real Jack was, after all, that Hollywood guy he’d so disparaged. Sorry, baby, you’re a treasure, but I gotta be seen with names now, like, starlets, you know what I’m sayin’?
Lissa licked a dollop of Chunky Monkey from the spoon.
Her heart hadn’t exactly been broken. It had been dinged, along with her ego, and OK, L.A. was the kind of town that could make you feel really lonely, especially when your brothers, whom you adored, were falling heads over heels in love, which was what had been happening back in the real world.
Then Emily found Marco.
And, at almost the same time, The Black Pearl closed.
She’d been surprised, but not shocked. Restaurants had a half-life of maybe twenty months, plus or minus, even the ones that people raved about. A place was hot one minute, not just cold but dead the next. So, no, she hadn’t been shocked by The Black Pearl’s closing.
She’d been shocked that the owner had given neither her nor the staff any warning.
Lissa took a deep breath.
Right about then, she’d met Raoul.
Jesus. Raoul. Hadn’t she learned anything about names back in the days of Jefferson Beauregard the Third?
But Raoul was different.
He was—surprise, surprise—an actor, but with a difference. Good-looking? Yes. Sexy? Sure. He was also well-educated. And rich. Mega rich. They met at a party, he took her for drinks afterward and they talked. And talked. And talked. He was interested in her opinions. In the places she’d traveled as a kid, places he had also lived.
That night was followed by others. They went to dinner. They went to a movie premiere. He held her hand, kissed her goodnight.
And that was it. No moves. No sex. He respected her. She could tell.
He was giving her time to get to know him.
It was the best six weeks she’d spent since moving to the West Coast.
One night, sitting in her living room having coffee after a quiet meal she’d prepared, Raoul told her that he’d been dreaming of something for a long time.
Lissa’s heartbeat had quickened.
He’d reached for her hand.
“You won’t laugh?”
She’d assured him that she wouldn’t.
He’d drawn a deep breath.
“I want to open a restaurant.”
She remembered blinking. And saying something really brilliant like, “Huh?”
“A restaurant,” he’d said. “The best in Los Angeles. The best in Southern California.” He’d brought her hand to his lips, just as he had that first night. “And I want you to be my executive chef.”
She’d almost fainted at those words.
Sure, she’d been a sous chef at The Black Pearl. She’d been the sous chef; her responsibilities had been enormous, but executive chef…
It would make her career.
She’d be responsible for absolutely everything that happened in the kitchen, from purchases to creating dishes and planning menus. She’d be able to put her stamp on things.
People would know her name.
It was the opportunity she’d dreamed of. Tough to come by, especially for a woman, a twentysomething, good-looking woman in a town bursting at the seams with good-looking women.
Even Lissa’s agent had been worried about her looks and yes, you needed an agent if you wanted to hit the top.
“Are you serious about a career in the kitchen?” Marcia had asked. “You’re sure you won’t give up cooking if some producer offers you an acting role?”
It had been an honest question. Ninety-nine percent of the female population between the ages of nine and ninety were in La La Land because they wanted to become stars.
“I’m a chef,” Lissa had said. “That’s what I studied to be and what I intend to be.”
Now, thanks to Raoul, the dream she’d had since she’d baked a batch of pretty decent cookies at age seven had been about to come true.
He would not be her lover, he would be her partner. Well, more or less her partner. She wouldn’t have any ownership in the restaurant—he was going to call it Raoul’s—but together, they would create something grand.
Raoul asked for her input in the design of the kitchen and dining room; he shared his long-term plans for the place. In return, she shared what she knew about the best suppliers of fish, of meat, of produce. She shared with him the much-coveted names of artisans who baked breads to die for, crafted chocolates to kill for, made cheeses to send your taste buds to heaven. She contacted kitchen and wait staff that she knew, from experience, would be excellent workers. She gave him a list of influential people who’d been regular patrons at The Black Pearl so he could invite them to their big opening night.
He told her how grateful he was, that he couldn’t have even dreamed of opening a top-notch place without her help and she said no, no, that wasn’t true, except they both knew that it was.
And still, he didn’t make a move on her, but there was something in the way he looked at her that said he liked what he saw.
She liked what she saw, too.
She even had a couple of steamy dreams that starred Raoul. Nothing unusual in that; she had steamy dreams sometimes, dreams that were always better than reality.
Maybe, just maybe, this was her Marco. Her Zach. Maybe Raoul would be the guy who’d make the earth move.
There was more to it than that, though not even torture would have dragged it from her, but lately there were times she felt…
The world seemed full of twosomes and here she was, a lonesome.
And so, Lissa did what she had never done before. She played the What if? game. She fantasized, not just about sex but about life.
About—did she dare think it? About love.
The more she thought about Raoul, the more convinced she was that he was too much a gentleman, too committed to their friendship to make the first move. She’d have to do it, nothing elaborate, maybe ask him to have a drink after closing once the restaurant had been open a couple of weeks.
Thinking back, she snorted at her stupidity.
Opening night, everything looking perfect, eighty high-profile patrons out front including two food critics trying to look inconspicuous, her staff moving in harmony, each plate leaving the kitchen looking like a painting. Towards the middle of the evening, her phone rang.
It was Raoul.
“Lissa. I’m in my office. Do you have a minute?”
She didn’t, not really. She told him that.
“We ran out of fish stock,” she said. “Nothing serious—I made more, but I hope it comes out right. I like to let my stock refrigerate overnight, but there isn’t time to do that. I tasted it and it seems OK, but—”
“Tell you what,” he said. “Bring it with you. I’ll taste it, give you a second opinion, and we can take care of a small management issue all at the same time. It won’t take long—I promise.”
So she poured some of the broth into a small bowl, told her second-in-command to hold down the fort, and she hurried to Raoul’s office, tucked into a corner of the basement.
The door was closed. She knocked.
Smiling, she’d opened the door.
“Raoul. It’s crazy up there. And I know I’m being silly, worrying about this fish stock—”
The rest of what she’d intended to say caught in her throat.
Raoul was standing directly in front of her, leaning back against his desk, wearing his tux. He was as impeccably groomed as always: hair brushed back from his temples, his handsome face calm. His arms were folded over his chest.
The only jarring note was his hugely-erect penis pointing at the ceiling with urgent importance from his unzipped fly.
“Just shut the door,” he’d said, “get down on your knees, and be quick about it.”
Lissa had always been an instinctive cook. In that fateful moment, she became an instinctive compendium of rage and anguish.
But not defeat.
One quick twist of her wrist and Raoul was wearing the fish stock. Her last memory was of him jerking back, mouth open in shock, fish bones glinting on his tux…
A fish head first balancing, then sliding off his rapidly-deflating erection.
Lissa groaned, lay her head back against the couch and shut her eyes.
It was also the last memory of her career.
She hadn’t been able to land a job, a real job, since that night.
She’d been doing prep work from kitchen to kitchen, filling in for salad men and sauce men, and one hideous week, she’d even waitressed, something she hadn’t done since she’d paid her way through Le Cordon Bleu.
It was mortifying.
That whole week, she’d kept praying she wouldn’t wait on a table filled with people she knew. Waitressing was honest work, but it would have been a brutal admission of failure in a town that revered success.
That was the same reason she’d flat out lied to her family when she’d gone home for Em’s wedding a couple of months ago.
You didn’t admit to failure if you were a Wilde.
Wildes were all successful. Incredibly successful. Jacob the rancher. Caleb the attorney. Travis the financial wizard. Her sisters were at the top of their games, too, Emily working with her husband as his VP in international construction, Jaimie holding down the CFO spot at her soon-to-be husband’s upper-echelon security firm. Her sisters-in-law, all three of them great moms, were also the best in their fields of law, management and psychology.
Add in the Wilde patriarch, four-star general John Hamilton Wilde, and failure was not an option.
When they’d asked about the fancy restaurant she was working at, she’d said that oh, she wasn’t at a restaurant anymore, she was working “on location.”
They’d figured she meant on a movie set.
Well, that was better than telling them that she was working at Grandma’s Finger-Lickin-Chicken Coop. Eight hours a day, she pulled chicken parts out of a huge box, rolled them in a batter that had the color and consistency of cement, then dumped them into a vat of bubbling lard.
It wasn’t a job; it was an extended journey through hell. She needed a kitchen again. Responsibility. Creativity.
She needed to cook.
The ice-cream container in her lap tilted. She grabbed for it. Too late. It tumbled to the floor.
Amazing, how great Chunky Monkey looked in a carton and how less than appetizing it looked in a puddle on a faded rug.
Lissa shot to her feet, got a handful of paper towels from the kitchen, cleaned up the mess and dropped everything into the trash, even the chocolates.
She couldn’t live on what she earned at Grandma’s. She had car payments to meet and a car wasn’t a luxury in L.A., it was a necessity. A roof over her head was a necessity, too. So was food on the table.
So was restarting her moribund career.
Maybe she’d call her agent. She hadn’t heard from Marcia in weeks, but there had to be some kind of decent job out there, and wasn’t that what an agent was for? To get you a job? You’re developing a somewhat difficult reputation, Marcia had said the last time they’d spoken, and she’d come within a breath of telling her that it wasn’t true, that Raoul had fired her for being a prima donna, which was the rumor he’d spread, but the truth was so ugly, so humiliating…
Lissa glanced at her watch. Eleven o’clock. Who’d be phoning at this hour? Not her brothers. It was one in the morning in Texas. Besides, they’d called her on Skype early this morning, singing “Happy Birthday,” telling her how much they loved her.
“Even if you’re gettin’ old,” Jake had said, and she’d laughed the way she knew they expected even though the truth was that she’d felt maybe a day short of one hundred.
She’d thanked them for their gifts. Wonderful, thoughtful gifts: an autographed copy of Joël Robuchon’s version of the Larousse Gastronomique, a first edition of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, a signed and framed photograph of Julia Child and Simone Beck grinning into the camera from a table at a Paris bistro.
Her sisters had Skyped her next, singing “Happy Birthday” the same as her brothers had done.
“Except,” she’d told them, “you guys sing on key.”
They’d laughed and she’d thanked them for all-expenses-and-then-some weekend they’d arranged for her at, as Jaimie described it, “a super-deluxe-oh-how-amazing-you’ll-never-want-to-leave” spa just outside San Diego.
“We left the dates open,” Emily had added. “We know how busy you are.”
Busy frying chicken parts, Lissa had almost said, but hadn’t.
Even her father had phoned from wherever he was. Well, not exactly. An aide had placed the call for him. “Hold, please, for General Wilde,” an impersonal voice had intoned, and then her old man had said Hello, Lissa, how are you, happy birthday, did you get my present? and she’d said Hello, father, I’m fine and yes, I got the Tiffany’s gift certificate, thank you very much, and she figured she deserved bonus points for not telling him precisely what he could do with that certificate and all the personal warmth it brought with it.
Where had she left her cell phone? It was right where it should have been, in the rear pocket of her jeans. She grabbed it and glanced at the screen.
Talk about coincidences…
“Marcia,” she said brightly, “you must be telepathic! I was just thinking about you.”
“Haven’t heard from you in a while,” her agent said briskly.
“I know. Well, the last time we spoke—”
“Listen, I know it’s late, but I have something for you and I need a quick yes or no.”
Lissa sat up straight. “Something good?”
“You want some blunt advice, toots? You’re not in any position to be asking me questions like that.”
“Meaning this isn’t something good?”
“Meaning, how about if I ask the questions? Did you ever do any real cooking?”
“What are you talking about?”
“See, you’re approaching this the wrong way. What’s with the attitude? It gets you in trouble all the time. Mouthing off to Raoul What’s-His-Face like you did—”
Mouthing off was precisely what she had not done, Lissa almost said, but it was too late for the truth.
“Never mind. It’s all water under the bridge. Just answer the question. Can you do everyday stuff? Forget the edible flowers, the sprigs of rosemary, the goat cheese tarts.”
“I have never done a goat cheese tart in my—”
“Lissa. Answer the question. Can you do roasts? Stew? Stuff like that.”
Recipes danced through Lissa’s head. Poulet rôti aux herbes. Pot-au-feu.
“You still there?”
“Yes,” Lissa said quickly, “of course I can.” She cleared her throat. She could feel hope rising within her, but she wasn’t going let it get to her until she knew more. “What are we talking about here? An American-style restaurant?”
“American food. Exactly.”
“Upscale, right? Because, you know—”
“Because you attended Le Cordon Bleu. Trust me. I know. The thing is, this place needs a cook who can do things with locally-produced ingredients.”
Oh God! Lissa felt her pulse beat quicken. Alice Waters. Wolfgang Puck. Tom Colicchio.
“Can you do that? Cook natural?”
“OK. Fine. I’ll tell them you’ll take the job.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like what? They need a cook. You need a job. Put ’em both together—”
“No tryout? No interview?”
“They need a cook, fast. You need a job, fast. You wanna waste time with nonsense?”
Like most good agents, Marcia knew how to get to the point. It was just that this was so far from Lissa’s past experiences…
In the exalted world of haute cuisine, meaning meals that cost what some people paid in rent, you met the restaurant’s owner or his rep, you sat for an interview, talked food, talked finances and recipes and customer tastes and management expectations. Then you cooked a meal for the owners, perhaps for a small, exclusive group of steady patrons.
“I need an answer. Yes? No? What’s it gonna be?”
Lissa rolled her bottom lip between her teeth.
“What about money? Contract terms?”
“Month-to-month? That’s not standard. I don’t usually—” She didn’t usually go jobless, either, Lissa reminded herself. “OK. I guess they want to be sure they’re hiring the right person. See, that’s why an interview would be—”
“I’m waiting. You in or out?”
A long breath. “What are they paying?”
Marcia snapped out a number. It was a decent one.
“Lissa? I’m still waiting.”
“Yeah. OK. I guess that’s the good thing about working month to month. We can renegotiate at the end of thirty days. What about bennies?”
“Standard stuff. Medical. Dental. Sundays off.”
“They’re closed Sundays?”
“You could say that. One other weekday, you’ll work it out with the boss. Two weeks of vacation after six months if you last that long. Plus room and board.”
Marcia gave a gusty sigh. “Didn’t I mention? This is a ranch.”
“A ranch. Horses. Cows. Whatever the fuck wanders around on a ranch.” There was a tiny pause. “In Montana.”
“Forget that. I’m not—”
“It’s a big place. Several thousand acres. You grew up in ranching country, right?”
Lissa had grown up on El Sueño, a ranch the size of a small nation that had belonged to Wildes for generations, and she’d left it as soon as she could because ranching and ranches were definitely not her thing.
“I did. And I don’t like—”
“Nobody’s asking you to ride the range.”
Lissa chewed on her lip again. “What is this place? A dude ranch? A resort?”
“Listen, I don’t have time for Twenty Questions. I got to get back to these people. I promised them an answer tonight.”
Lissa had never been to Montana, but she knew a lot about it. Montana was the western state where the mega-rich played at being ranchers. They bought enormous spreads of land, spent fortunes duding them up, visited once in a blue moon and pretended they were cowboys.
And they entertained.
Hollywood glitterati. Directors. Producers. People who could afford to play at being John Wayne for a long weekend. That explained the question about basic cooking. She’d be expected to provide supposedly down-home meals that were actually elegant ones in disguise, and she’d have the pleasure of using mint and haricots verts and kale straight from the garden, eggs fresh from the henhouse.
Best of all, she could make contacts, maybe even connect with guests who’d be so taken with the idea of basic elegance that they’d want to fund a restaurant— and that would be what she’d call it, Basic Elegance…
“Lissa? I’m waiting. You in or not?”
“What about staff?”
“What about it? You’ll work that out with the owner.”
Lissa drew a long, steadying breath.
“OK. I’m in. Just tell me where to be and when.”
“They’ll send a plane for you. Seven tomorrow morning, at LAX.”
“I’ll take my car. I’ll need wheels once I’m there, Marcia.”
“It’s a sixteen-hour drive.”
“I’ll have them add a car to that list of bennies. You good with that?”
A decent salary. A roof over her head. A car. A chance to establish herself. And no more I-adore-myself actors littering her life.
“Yes. I’m fine with it. Where at LAX?”
Marcia told her. Gave her the details. And then, just before she hung up, she said something completely out of character.
She said, “Good luck.”
* * * * *
The phone at the Triple G Ranch rang at the same time the wheezing grandfather clock in the hall struck half past eleven.
Nick Gentry, sprawled on his belly on an ancient leather sofa, groaned in his sleep, felt blindly for a throw pillow and jammed it over his head.
The phone and the clock pealed again.
“Goddammit,” Nick snarled, rolled over—and landed on the floor.
He cursed again at the sharp pain that radiated through his leg. It’ll get better, the physical therapists said. Yeah. Right. Maybe in a century or two.
Where the fuck was he? He opened one eye, saw the moose head hanging on the wall, the glassy-eyed grizzly pawing the air in the corner, the mounted bass that had to have been on steroids doing its eternal swim beside the moose, and groaned again.
He was in the den at the Triple G.
Jesus, how he hated this place!
A big wet tongue slobbered across his face.
Nick shoved aside the big-as-a-pony black Newfoundland that went with the tongue. He struggled up on his ass, then felt in the pockets of his jeans, his quilted vest, his plaid wool shirt, and finally found the phone.
“This better be good,” he said as he put it to his ear.
“It’s Marcia Lowry, Mr. Bannister.”
The dog licked at him again. Nick grabbed the huge muzzle and moved it aside.
“Marcia Lowry. The agent. From Cooks Unlimited?”
Nick closed his eyes, then blinked them open. What he’d meant was, who was Mr. Bannister? For a minute there, he’d forgotten the name he’d used when he’d phoned Cooks Unlimited. Hell, he’d more or less forgotten he’d phoned Cooks Unlimited to start with.
“Yeah. Right. So, you have somebody for me?”
“I do, Mr. Bannister. In accordance with your instructions, I told her your plane would pick her up at LAX tomorrow.”
Nick grabbed a crutch and staggered to his feet. Bad move; it made his head feel as if it might explode, never mind what it did to his leg.
“What’s with the ‘she’ business, Lowry? I told you, I wanted a man. This isn’t a place for a woman.”
“I made several calls on your behalf, sir. I’m afraid this was the best I could do on such short notice. If you’d contacted me sooner or if you could just give me another week—”
“I have half a dozen men to feed here. I gave you the same notice my last cook gave me.”
“I understand that, Mr. Bannister. And you have to understand that the only person who showed any interest in this job was Ms. Wilde.”
Nick found his way to the kitchen, hobbling, bumping against things in the dark, the Newf damn near plastered to his side.
Coffee. He needed coffee, black and strong.
The coffeepot was empty.
He tucked the phone between his shoulder and his ear—that was one of the things he hated about cell phones, how tough it was to tuck the fuckers between your shoulder and your ear and what in Christ was he supposed to do with the crutch? It took a few seconds before he managed to juggle the crutch, the phone and the kettle, but finally he turned on the water and filled it.
“She knows we’re in the mountains?”
“She knows you’re in Montana, sir, of course.”
“She knows she’ll be cooking for a bunch of misfits?”
“She is a trained and experienced chef, Mr. Bannister.”
“I need a cook, not a chef.” Nick plugged in the kettle and reached for the coffee canister. The Newf nosed his thigh and Nick sighed, dug his hand into a tin of dog biscuits that stood on the counter and held one out.
The biscuit vanished into a wet, eager maw.
“She’s up for this job?”
“Why what, sir?”
“You said she’s a chef. So why does she want to work here?”
“She needs a new position.”
“Meaning what? Nobody else will hire her?”
“Meaning, sir, you need a cook and Lissa Wilde needs employment.”
Nick started to measure out the coffee, thought the hell with it and dumped the coffee into the Chemex straight from the canister. The pot was the one affectation he’d held on to, the one link he still maintained between the man he’d been and—let’s be blunt, Gentry—the cripple he’d become.
“Bravely spoken,” he said. “But I’m telling you right now, if this Liza Wile doesn’t work out, I’m going to drag your sorry ass up here and hand you a frying pan and a spatula.”
“It’s Lissa, sir. Lissa Wilde. W-i-l-d-e.” Marcia made a sound that might have been a chuckle. “And, believe me, Mr. Bannister, with all due respect, I’d sooner labor in the fires of hell than go to the ass-end of nowhere and cook for a bunch of cowboys.”
Nick laughed. The sound was rusty, but he hadn’t been doing much laughing lately.
“I told her you’d provide her with an automobile.”
“Do I sound like a car dealer?”
“You sound like a man who needs a cook. I thought we’d already established that. Sir.”
Nick ran his hand through his hair. What the hell. There were half a dozen vehicles parked around the ranch. Giving the new cook the keys to one of them wouldn’t be a problem.
“Yeah. Right. OK, Lowry. I’m gonna hope this works out.”
“The same here. Good night, Mr. Bannister.”
Nick disconnected. The kettle gave a thin whistle and he picked it up and poured boiling water into the Chemex.
The last cook had simply up and left two days ago.
“This ain’t no ranch,” he’d said, “it’s a hellhole. And you is one nasty son of a bitch to work for, Gentry.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” Nick had said, “and the name is Bannister.”
“The hell it is, but frankly I don’t give a crap what you call yourself. I ain’t workin’ for you no more. I’d rather go to Billings and put in time at a McD’s.”
Nick looked for a clean mug and found none. No problem. He grabbed one from the sink, gave it a quick rinse, then depressed the plunger on the Chemex.
The woman flying in tomorrow had to be desperate for job. That was pretty obvious. Well, he was desperate for a cook. If she could fry eggs and grill steaks, they were halfway to success.
He’d been away from this part of the country for years, but he’d grown up here. Cooks who worked this kind of itinerant life tended to be old or ugly or drunks, or maybe all three.
Nick poured the coffee, jammed the crutch under his arm, picked up the mug and somehow made it back to his office. The night’s bottle of bourbon was on a lamp table. He put the mug on the table, picked up the bottle and added a hefty slug to his coffee.
This Liza or Lisa or Lissa Wilde could be homely enough to scare small children. She could be old enough to have mothered Methuselah. What she couldn’t be was a drunk because one drunk per falling-down ranch was enough.
And wasn’t that a laugh?
Nick sank onto the sofa. The Newf sank down at his feet and laid his massive head on Nick’s foot.
“You’re a stupid dog,” Nick said, “you know that? Hanging around me. You’d be better off picking on some other sucker.”
The Newf looked up and gave a gentle woof. Nick sighed, reached out and scratched him behind the ear. The dog sighed, too, in ecstasy. “Stupid dog,” Nick said again, but without any heat.
What did dogs know about winners and losers?
“Nothing,” Nick said, and drank some of the bourbon-laced coffee.
Once upon a time, Nick Gentry had been a winner. The Clint Eastwood of the Twenty-First Century, some stupid blogger had called him.
How about a new title? Nick Gentry. The Drunk of the Decade.
“Don’t leave out Gimp,” Nick said, raising his mug in salute.
Hell, nobody could leave that out. Not when one of his legs was about as useless as tits on a bull.