February is the month of love. And chocolate. And romantic dinners. Many couples go out for a romantic dinner on Valentine's Day. For some couples, cooking a meal together is romantic. My husband helps me in the kitchen, and, with a small kitchen, there are times he gets in the way, but most times, cooking side-by-side gives me a warm feeling, like a rich chocolate cake just out of the oven.
Below is an excerpt from my foodie romance, A Catered Romance. Under the title A Catered Affair, this was my first published book, a hardback from Avalon Books. Because my heroine Mary Beth is a caterer, this sensuous romance is filled with food references. Tom was Mary Beth's high school crush and the man who broke her heart. Now, years later, he's her new boss, and she finds she still has feelings for him. In this scene he helps her prepare a meal. I hope you like it. A Catered Romance is included in the set, Sweet Temptations Boxed Set, a collection of three foodie romances, including the Valentine's Day short story, Sweet Temptations, and the short story, A Taste f Romance.
Sweet Temptations and A Taste of Romance are available separately.
Breaking the connection, she glanced at the clock. “If I don't hurry and finish, there won't be a meal.” She grabbed her knife and began cutting the mushrooms she had set aside earlier.
“Where's Gail?” he asked.
“At Joey's school for a class party. She should be back soon. Gail usually acts as my sous-chef.”
“Give me an apron and tell me what to do.”
Widening her eyes, she looked at him. “You? Cook?”
He laughed. “Hey, give me credit for not being a complete slacker.”
She couldn't help smiling.
“You should smile often,” he said softly. “You look even more beautiful, if that's possible.”
Her face felt hot as the oven. “I'll get you an apron.” She went to the closet and pulled out a crisp chef's apron.
He donned the garment and rubbed his hands together. “I'm ready. What do you need done?”
She swallowed and stared at him. No man had the right to look that virile wearing a large white apron.
He frowned. “What do you need, Mary Beth?”
“Potatoes,” she said, fumbling in a drawer for a paring knife. “I need potatoes.”
“Okay,” he said. “That's a start.”
“Here.” She thrust the knife at him. “Can you peel those potatoes in that bowl over there?”
“Sure. I'm a whiz at peeling.”
Mary Beth turned back to chopping the mushrooms, needing the methodical, familiar task to help unravel her tangled emotions.
“You need all of these peeled?” he asked.
“Yes, please, unless you're not up to the job.”
“I think I can handle this,” he said, chuckling.
They worked in silence. The sound of her rhythmic cutting was broken by the occasional plop of a potato into the bowl.
She'd worked in countless kitchens with a multitude of partners, but never had such ordinary tasks like chopping and peeling been coated with the sensuality that crackled between her and Tom.
Mary Beth absorbed the heady warmth like exotic spices dropped in simmering broth. For just a little while she'd give in to the deep yearnings she'd long suppressed.
Oldies played on the radio and sunlight warmed the bright room. If she closed her eyes, she would be transported back in time. To chem lab, working as partners with Tom. He made her laugh so hard once they were both thrown out of class. She smiled. It was the only time she'd ever gotten into trouble in school.
Then there was junior year English. She shook her head at the memory. She had taken her job as tutor so seriously. Tom just wanted to have fun. That was the young Tom...fun, parties, laughter. He gave her a silver bracelet in thanks. She'd worn it every day.
He had been her friend, had always treated her with respect. Unlike the others, who snickered at her cheaply made clothes and called her cruel names. At the end, Tom had proven to be just like them. She had run home, her heart broken, and thrown the bracelet in her jewelry box, never to wear it again.
Too bad she couldn't have discarded her heart as easily. But Tom's betrayal had strengthened her, made her more determined to protect herself, to control her own destiny.
“I’m done peeling,” he said. “What else can I do?”
She shoved old memories aside. Tom was her boss now, nothing more. And someday he wouldn't even be that.
“Let me have the potatoes,” she said, turning to him. “I need to cut them up.”
He hugged the bowl. “I won't let you kill these like you did the celery.”
She couldn't help laughing. He could always make her laugh.
“Just give me the bowl.” She glanced at the clock. “We're running out of time. I wish Gail would get back.”
“What am I…chopped liver? I said I'd help.” He handed her the bowl. “You're the boss in the kitchen.”
The timer on the oven shrilled. She handed him two potholders. “You can take the roast out.”
“Sure, Chef,” he said, saluting.
Mary Beth rolled her eyes at him and grabbed a potato.
“You do nice work,” she said, holding up a perfectly peeled, white orb.
“I aim to please.” He set the roast on the stove top. “Smells great,” he said, inhaling deeply. “How about if I take a little chunk.” He looked at her, his hand poised over the meat.
“Don't you dare.” Mary Beth batted his hand away.
He laughed, making her smile.
“I got another smile out of you,” he said. “That's good.” His intense gaze weakened her defenses.
“I have to cut these potatoes,” she said in a shaky voice. She groped the counter for her knife.
“What's for dessert?” he asked.
“Lemon pound cake. It's in the refrigerator.”
He opened the refrigerator and peered in. “Wow! It's a work of art. Hanging around here could be dangerous.”
Not as dangerous as being around you. The thought leapt into Mary Beth's mind. She dropped the potato. It rolled on the floor. She bent to retrieve it.
“I'll get it,” Tom said.
Their heads collided. Mary Beth rocked back on her heels and rubbed her forehead. Tom crouched in front of her, concern in his eyes. He reached out and gently stroked her temple.
She swayed toward him, as if her body had a will of its own.
Tom's eyes darkened. “Mary Beth,” he whispered.
Fear filled her heart—fear of losing herself, of weakening. She jumped up.
“I'll-I'll wash this off,” she stammered, clutching the vegetable as if it could save her from her response to him.
She hurried to the sink and turned the faucet on full force. The power of the water almost knocked the potato from her hand.
Tom cleared his throat. “What else do you need?”
She needed him to leave so she could be in charge of her kitchen again and not be such a bumbling idiot. What she really needed was to take charge of her emotions.
“You can fill that with water,” she said, nodding toward the stockpot that rested on the counter.
She sidled away from the double sink to give him room, not trusting herself so close to him.
The muscles of his forearms flexed as he held the large pot under the faucet. A hard stream of water splashed into the heavy metal. Seeing him cradle the pot in his strong arms made Mary Beth ache with longing. She wanted Tom's arms around her, holding her. She leaned against the counter and closed her eyes, fighting for control.
The spicy scent of his cologne, so like his high school scent, but more subtle and expensive, teased her, provoking memories, and regret.
“Is this enough water?” Tom asked.
She gazed into his blue eyes and nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
A bemused expression crossed Tom’s features. He held the pot up. “Where do you want this?”
“Put it on the right back burner and turn the gas on high.” Her voice sounded thin.
Tom positioned the pot and turned on the heat. Flames licked the bottom of the ironclad pan.
“What next?” He stood directly in front of her.
His beautiful mouth was so close. She could just reach out a finger and…
“You have water on your face,” he whispered huskily. He smoothed his thumb gently along her cheekbone. The warmth of his touch melted her resistance. Need and longing wrapped themselves around her heart.
Part of her screamed to back away, to protect herself. But Tom's masculinity reeled her slowly into his net.
He bent his head toward hers.
“Hey, you two, what's cooking?” Gail's voice boomed from the doorway.
Mary Beth and Tom jumped apart. Mary Beth dropped the potato. It bounced along the floor, landing at Gail's feet.