Excerpt

Just One Taste

Prologue

Market Restaurant, Manhattan


Wes Murphy stared down into the huge stainless steel stockpot and watched a single golden bubble pop to the surface of the soup. Time to add the vegetables.

The chaos of preparations for the evening’s dinner service whirled around him, chefs shouting to each other, cackling jokes about what they got up to at the bar after service last night, calling requests for help with one dish or another, but Wes’s corner of the kitchen was quiet.

A little apart from the crowd, as always.

Wes didn’t care. He was finding it hard to care about much, these days.

Thank God for Market, he mused, sweeping a wooden spoon through the simmering broth. Cooking might be all I’ve got left, but at least it’s something I can throw myself into.

A sweet, lightly accented voice floated through his mind.

When you cook, it is chance to draw out from yourself everything you are feeling. Yes? Add it to the food. Stir in a pinch of sadness and a spoonful of fear and what do you think! Something magical happens.

Wes felt one corner of his mouth kick up at the memory of Deidre Nickoloff’s soft, round face. Mrs. N. was the one who taught him to cook, sure, but she’d done more than that. She taught Wes about the kind of person he wanted to become.

He scooped up his diced butternut squash. The perfection of the cuts, each piece uniform and pristine, soothed something inside him. And as he added the squash to the broth, already rich with white wine and shredded chicken, Wes closed his eyes and remembered Mrs. N.’s cooking philosophy.

Shit. He hoped his painful regrets didn’t make the soup taste bitter.

Half an hour later, Wes was checking under the salamander broiler to make sure the crusty bread he’d spread with tangy herbed butter and parmesan cheese came to a nice golden toast color when a determinedly cheerful voice startled him out of his culinary haze.

“Hey, need any help with plating?”

Wes grinned up at the one guy who’d gone out of his way to be friendly since Wes showed up for this externship from the Academy of Culinary Arts.

Jess Wake smiled back, crisp and neat in his black and green server duds. The way he combed his dark auburn hair back before service made the kid seem older, somehow—or maybe that was the familiar ache of loss in his eyes.

Wes knew that look intimately. He’d surprised it on his own face more than once in the last six months.

“You’re a super trooper, man. Thanks.” Wes was extra grateful, considering Jess had been treating the kitchen like a quarantined zone ever since Market’s sous chef, Frankie Boyd, dropped him like a bad habit.

They dipped up the bowls of fragrant, steaming soup in silence, neither of them paying much attention to the kitchen hubbub. It was clearing out, anyway—the guys on the line had a sixth sense about when family meal was nearly ready, and they tended to congregate around the bar out in the dining room, like a pack of hungry wolves circling a lame sheep or something.

When the kitchen was empty, Wes felt some of the tension leave his friend’s slim frame.

“You don’t need to help me take it out to them,” Wes offered, taking pity on the guy. “I got it.”

“No, it’s fine.” Jess had his Brave Little Toaster face on, all straight shoulders and chin up.

Wes shrugged. If Jess wanted to torture himself, it was his prerogative. Not like Wes had a leg to stand on in the Making Healthy Choices department, anyway.

That’s probably why they’d fallen into this friendship, Wes reflected as they loaded the bowls onto two trays. They weren’t that close in age, and their childhoods couldn’t have been more different—but he and Jess were both Love’s suckers.

And they were both pretty good at acting like everything was fine. Wes was impressed with the matter-of-fact way the kid hefted one of the trays and carried it out of the kitchen, head held high and a grim smile on his face.

Wes followed him, ready to jump in and defend Jess if the wolves were ravening harder than usual—as a server, Jess was used to the more sedate, polite responses of restaurant guests to the arrival of food; he might not realize that if he was too slow handing off a bowl of soup to one of Market’s hungry line cooks, he was liable to draw back a bloody stump instead of a hand.

But by the time Wes joined him in passing around the goods, Jess had already emptied his tray and was turning to head back to the kitchen.

“Not going to stay and eat with us, then?”

Sous chef Frankie Boyd, resident Brit punk badass and Breaker of Young, Innocent Hearts, looked up from his ungainly sprawl against the bar. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips, bobbing as he thinned his lips.

“Not hungry,” Jess replied without looking around, so he didn’t see the expression that flashed over Frankie’s face. Wes did, though, and it was intimate enough, real enough, to make him look down and away, almost embarrassed to have witnessed such a private moment.

For a minute, the only sounds in the dining room were the bang of the kitchen door behind Jess and the noise of Wes’s kitchen comrades sucking down soup. The happy slurping was punctuated by occasional moans of pleasure.

Guess the soup wasn’t too bitter after all. Huh.

And as Wes watched the savory steam curl up from the bowls, he thought again of Mrs. N., her plump cheeks flushed pink with the heat of the ancient stovetop in the tiny, functional kitchen of Heartway House.

Those bad feelings, you put them in the pot and the cooking transforms them into nourishment for the body. And the parts that cannot be transformed, those escape into the air as smoke and mist, gone from the body forever.

Gathering up his empty tray, Wes followed his friend out of the dining room.

Jess looked up, surprised, when he swung open the door. “You’re not having dinner with the crew?”

Wes balanced the tray on an empty corner of counter. “Lost my appetite.”

“Hmm.” Jess’s blue gaze was entirely too sharp as he surveyed Wes. “I know why I don’t want to break bread and shoot the shit with the cooks. What’s up with you?”

Wes tensed the way he’d been taught, under his skin, deep down where it wouldn’t show. He could lie to Jess, easy as breathing. He could say something partially true—always the most convincing sort of story—such as how he didn’t feel totally accepted by the other cooks, how they were suspicious of externs after what happened with the last wacko culinary student to invade their kitchen. He could even give up a real truth, like the master of misdirection he’d been trained to be, and say he was worried about what would happen once his externship was over and he had to leave Market.

But as Wes stood at his station and stared at the closest friend he’d ever managed to keep, he knew he didn’t want to lie to Jess.

Sucking in air heavy with the scents of seared meat and roasting vegetables, Wes said, “I told you before about the woman I left behind at the Academy.”

“One of your professors.” Jess nodded, no judgment showing anywhere on his earnest, young face. “I know you miss her. Hey, at least once the externship is up, you can go back and see her again.”

Wes’s lips twisted. “Yeah. What I didn’t tell you was . . . well. The way I left?” He shook his head, heart thudding hard and achy in his throat. “I can pretty much guarantee she’s not going to want me anywhere near her.”

“What? Why? I thought you had this hot and heavy thing.”

Hot and heavy didn’t really cover it. “We did. And now she hates me.” He laughed, but it hurt, so he stopped. “The worst part is, I can’t even blame her because I did it on purpose. I made her hate me. And then I ditched her.”

Wes crossed his arms over his chest and waited for Jess’s condemnation. After all, what Frankie did to Jess was pretty similar to what Wes had done to Rosemary, now that he thought about it.

Love ’em and leave ’em—easier said than done, he thought wearily. Who’s the Breaker of Young, Innocent Hearts, again?

But all Jess said was, “I think you’d better start at the beginning. The real story, this time, Wes.”

So Wes told him. All of it. And hoped that when he ran out of words, he’d still have a friend.

The worst of it was, Wes knew that if it came right down to it and he had to choose again—between his happiness and protecting Rosemary—he’d make the exact same decision.

Even if it meant hurting both of them in the short run. Because in the long run? She was definitely better off without him.

Sorry, Mrs. N., but there ain’t enough soup in the world to transform all the crap inside me into anything good.


Chapter 1

Six Months Earlier . . .

“I came here instead of Dartmouth specifically to avoid classes like this one. The horror. The humanity! Where did I go wrong?”

Wes shook his head at the plaintive tone. He thought about laughing, but he didn’t want to throw fuel on the fire. Once Nathaniel Goodwin started bitching, it took an act of Congress to get him to stop.

True to form, Nate was undeterred by the lack of response. “No, seriously. I’d rather be in a class on serving techniques or whatever, front-of-the-house waiting tables type stuff,” he said, naming every culinary student’s least favorite learning track. “I’d be all over it. I’d be down. But no.” He shuddered theatrically. “It’s chemistry. My dad always wanted me to be a doctor. Dude, I could be pre-med right now if I wanted to take a bunch of chemistry classes.”

Wes stuck his tongue in his cheek to keep from saying what his dad wanted him to be. Also to keep from popping the snot-nosed kid a good one.

Sometimes it royally sucked to be the oldest guy in every classroom. Most of these kids were here at the Academy of Culinary Arts fresh out of college. Some were even younger. The only school Wes had ever attended regularly was Hard Knocks U, or as his father liked to call it, the School of Experience.

Trust a con man to put a good spin on a life of petty crime and ignorance.

“At least you’re not failing,” Wes said, wincing at the memory of his last exam score. He didn’t know why he couldn’t seem to grasp these concepts; it was as if his brain simply refused to see food as a collection of molecules. “Quit whining, princess. You just have to get through it and ace the final in a few weeks. Then you can ditch this popsicle stand for the bright lights of Atlantic City and your choice externship gig.”

“Externship,” Nathaniel breathed, in tones normally reserved for spiritual revelation. “God, that’s going to rock.”

Wes scowled. “I can’t believe we’re on different rotations. You get to leave in three weeks, you scumbag. I have to wait another six!”

The Academy of Culinary Arts schedule wasn’t structured like an ordinary university; students entered on staggered rotations all through the year. Every student completed two full years of study, eighteen months of academics with six months of externship sandwiched in between, but there was a new crop of graduates and a new batch of incoming newbies every three weeks.

“That’s right,” Nathaniel crowed. “I’ll be working in a real restaurant, learning from the best, while you slave away here writing book reports and stuff. Suck it, bee-yotch!”

“It’s not fair. They ought to schedule it by age—old timers like me should get first dibs, since young’uns like you are barely mature enough to handle doing your own laundry for the first time.”

“Half a year in a top restaurant,” Nathaniel mused, focusing in on the fun part of the conversation with his usual laser precision. “Hot damn, I’m glad I’m gonna be a chef. This beats med school all to hell.”

“Come to think of it, the externship’s not all that different from a med student’s residency, except without the hospital. Unless you slice off a finger or something, which I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. Klutz.”

“Speaking of which, have you heard back from any of the restaurants you applied to?”

Externship slots at top restaurants were few and therefore were fiercely coveted. The Ivy Leaguers had nothing on culinary school kids when it came to fighting and backstabbing for a chance to scrub floors in the kitchens of the greats. Wes had thrown his hat in the ring for Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, and Devon Sparks.

“Nothing yet.” Wes shrugged, tried to act casual. “I’m not worried, something will come through. Maybe not my top choices, but I’d be happy anywhere in New York City, really.”

“Dude, you should totally apply in A.C.! Then we could hang after dinner service.”

Wes suppressed a wince. Nate was a nice enough kid, but, unlike him, Wes had more on his mind than having a good time and pissing off his old man.

That second part was more in the nature of a perk, as far as Wes was concerned. Mostly, he wanted a real life as a real chef, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get there.

Including Food Chemistry 101. The bane of his existence.

“What’s up, bitches?”

Nathaniel’s face lit up like he just got parole. “Hey, Sloane’s here!”

The lanky brunette rolled her eyes and slid onto the stool next to Nathaniel. She immediately started giving him a hard time, which he grinned at and ate up like she was doing dirty talk or something.

Wes tolerated their schoolyardish brand of flirtation for about half a minute before he was forced to tune it out in self-defense.

“Hey, did either of you ladies hear anything about the new prof?” she was asking.

Wes and Nate exchanged clueless looks. “What happened to Prentiss?”

“Gone,” Sloane said. “Some kind of medical emergency or something.”

“Wow.” Wes blinked. The implications swirled around his head. “Who the hell did they find to replace him on such short notice?”

“Our illustrious president didn’t have time to search around much, that’s for sure,” Sloane said. “God only knows who we’re going to end up with this late in the term. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Todd the Janitor up there talking about carbohydrates and lipids.”

“Awesome,” said Nate. “Bet Todd won’t give us any homework.”

Wes hooked his long legs around the bottom rung of his stool and frowned. He was already not doing so great in this class—would a new instructor make his life harder or easier?

Wes wasn’t used to getting bad grades at the Academy. He worked hard, he excelled, he went above and beyond. He was at the top of his rotation.

Food Chem might change that. If he didn’t bring up his grades in this class, he was looking at the number two slot, which could affect whether or not he got one of his top choices for the externship.

It was the subject, he mused. Food Chemistry . . . such a cold, distant way to look at something as vibrant and full of life as the magic that happened in a kitchen.

He shrugged to himself. Didn’t seem likely that a new instructor was going to make much of a difference, one way or the other. Wes would just have to work that much harder.

He leaned his elbows on the high table to watch the rest of the students trickle in, yawning and slouching. Food Chem wasn’t held in the lecture hall, with its auditorium seating and cooking demo capabilities, nor was it in one of the class kitchens lined with cook tops and ovens, sinks and racks and counter space.

It was just a room, with windows along one wall that looked out over the tranquil lawn rolling down from the academy’s front doors. Four long metal tables were set up facing an honest-to-God chalkboard. It was like being back in high school.

What Wes could remember of his sporadic public school attendance, anyway. Which wasn’t much.

He and Pops hadn’t really stayed in one place long enough to formulate what you might call good study habits.

Wes frowned, thinking about his dad. He tried to calculate how long it had been since he’d heard from the old man—at least a year. Which meant it wouldn’t be too much longer before Pops popped up again to try and pull Wes back into the life with a well planned investment fraud or a watertight piece of identity theft. He sighed. Or maybe just a request for a little ready cash to tide him over until the next big score.

The past few years, their interactions were a lot closer to loan applicant and bank officer than father and son.

It was always feast or famine with Pops and money. The man was damn good at swindling it out of people—but holding onto it? Not so much.

The classroom door opened, jarring Wes from his thoughts, and admitting a young woman Wes didn’t recognize. He frowned. Most of the students in his section had been in overlapping rotations together, through the thicks and thins of the grueling culinary arts program, for the past eight months. They’d wrestled with pasta dough together, learned basic hygiene and kitchen safety together, broken down flocks of chicken and fabricated countless fish and brewed up gallons of stock together.

He knew most of their secrets, their histories and their hopes, even if none of them knew Wes’s. Gathering potentially useful info like that was an early survival tactic that he’d never quite lost.

But this chick? Was so brand new she practically squeaked.

Or wait. That was her shoes.

Wes stared at her feet, realizing all at once what was so strange and different about her.

She was out of uniform.

The Academy of Culinary Arts had a strict dress code. The place was famously well run and hyper regulated; there were severe consequences for breaking any of the myriad rules and regulations set forth by the Academy’s president. Some of the worst penalties came from code of dress infractions.

Everyone at the Academy wore black pants, a white chef’s jacket, and regulation black leather kitchen clogs. Every single person, from the chef instructors to the students on up to President Cornell. No exceptions.

Except, apparently, New Girl.

Who was clad in what looked like regulation geek-wear. Baggy khakis that made her appear even shorter than she was, topped with a beige t-shirt featuring . . .Wes’s feet slipped off the rung of his stool.

Whoa. Is that a freaking Wookie?

And on her feet, squeaking against the sterile tile floor with a noise like she was wearing Styrofoam panties, were black Converse sneakers.

Wes stared in silence. In fact, the whole classroom went dead quiet, as one by one, the sleepy culinary students registered the stranger in their midst.

New Girl didn’t appear to notice, at first. Clutching a stack of notepads and papers to her chest, she shuffled quickly, head down and shoulders hunched, up to the front of the classroom. But instead of taking a seat at one of the student tables, she kept going.

Wes watched, fascinated by this tiny stick figure of a person, all jerky movements and shiny blond hair twisted into two messy braids down her back.

Until she reached the podium next to the chalkboard, where she paused, appeared to take a deep breath in, and turned to face the class.

And Wes got his first good look at her face.

Wide-set, blue-gray eyes. Her bottom lip was plumper than the top, giving her a permanent pout. And her nose . . . damn it. Wes had to swallow hard. Her nose was interesting rather than perfect, and it was enough to take her face from merely pretty to knockout striking.

Crap. She looked like the beautiful starlet they cast to play the smart girl; the one who transforms by the end into the gorgeous woman she always was, with the help of contact lenses and pants that fit.

And obviously, she was the newest addition to the teaching staff.

Wes stared. Food Chem had just became his favorite class.

“Oh,” she said, her wide eyes going even wider at the sight of the class sitting there, silently watching. It was as if she was surprised to see them. “Um. Hello. My name is Dr. Rosemary Wilkins.”

She paused, glanced at the chalkboard.

Wes knit his brows. Surely she wouldn’t . . . okay, maybe she would.

Dr. Rosemary Wilkins stepped to the board, grabbed a piece of chalk, and wrote her name in careful, looping script.

Dusting off her hands, she turned back to the class and continued. “I have a bachelor’s degree in Organic Chemistry from Yale, a PhD in Physical and Analytical Chemistry from the University of Virginia, and a PhD in Biological Chemistry from Bryn Mawr. I’m here at the academy to study food. By which I mean, of course, the chemical processes and interactions between ingredients under controlled conditions. The ACA has unparalleled facilities for the kind of research I’m interested in conducting . . . ”

She trailed off, mumbling something down at her notes. Wes was pretty sure he caught the words “wish I were there right now . . .”

Visibly bracing herself, Dr. Hot Stuff’s vague gaze found the class again. “At any rate, your previous professor had to leave unexpectedly, so I’m stepping in. To teach you. Somewhat . . . unexpectedly, as I said before.” She cleared her throat, eyes darting left and right. “So. What do you want to know?”

Wes looked around the room. He could practically hear the crickets chirping.

A wash of red suffused her cheeks, but she pressed onward. “I mean, here you are. At one of the premier culinary schools in the United States. From that, I infer that you all want to make good food. Don’t you want to know the reasons behind what works and what doesn’t? Unless . . .” She paused, looking uncertain. “Oh dear. You don’t think of cooking as a creative endeavor, as ‘art,’ do you?”

Wes propped his head on his hand and watched her wring her hands. He couldn’t understand why the combination of her nervous speech and jerky gestures was hitting him right in the libido.

Out of simple reflex, his brain started cataloguing what he knew about her, sizing her up.

She looked about Wes’s age, maybe even a little younger. She certainly wasn’t older. Which meant she must’ve been in her teens when she got that first degree.

Dude. Prodigy alert.

One of the students, Bess, a plump blonde who’d proven multiple times over the coarse of this class that she was categorically not a prodigy, said haltingly, “Are you really a teacher?”

Wes winced. Well, at least she hadn’t asked if Wilkins was a real doctor.

“No.” Dr. Wilkins looked bewildered at the very idea. “I’m a scientist. I thought I already said . . .at any rate, this may be my first time in front of a class of real live students, but at least you won’t be stuck with me for very long, since this rotation is almost over.”

Another long silence. Wes watched their new teacher shift her weight from side to side, fingers gripping the podium so tightly they went white at the tips.

Wes studied her. He noted the curve of her pink cheek, the quickness of her breath. She was short, he decided, but perfectly proportioned. Her skin was like the porcelain tableware they used at La Culinaire, the academy’s student-staffed restaurant, creamy white and so fine it was almost translucent.

Not that Wes was any kind of expert on school, but even he could tell that little Miss First Time Teacher was bombing this class in a big, bad way. It was actually sort of painful to watch her try to untangle her tongue enough to get to the actual sharing of information, and his classmates’ deep and abiding silence wasn’t helping.

One good question would probably get her going, Wes thought. But when he sat up and raised his hand, he knew deep down that he didn’t deserve the grateful look she shot him.

As much as he wanted to tell himself he was heroically stepping in to save her from the humiliation brought on by her absent-minded professor routine, he couldn’t.

Because Wes had never been very good at lying to himself. And when he looked into his delectable new teacher’s blue eyes, he saw more than a brilliant, beautiful, painfully awkward woman.

He saw someone who held his grade—his future—in the palm of her little hand.

Shit, Wes, what are you doing? Don’t be that guy.

He dropped his arm hastily back to his side, but it was too late. She’d already zeroed in on him.

“You have a question?” she asked eagerly.

“Yeah,” Wes said, licking his lips. “Sure. What I wanted to know was what you meant by what you said earlier. About not seeing cooking as an art form?”

“Oh!” She looked surprised. “I’m not sure what you mean. Can you elaborate, Mr. . .?”

“Murphy,” Wes supplied, adrenaline buzzing up his spine. It was weirdly intoxicating to have her full attention. “I was interested because it seems like you don’t think there’s anything creative about cooking.”

“Well, wouldn’t you agree that the process you know as cooking is truly little more than the chemical reaction of ingredients to each other, to heat, etc.?”

“Sure, but there’s more to it than that.”

She frowned. “What did you say your name was?”

“Murphy. Wes. And I mean, I couldn’t tell you the chemical reasons behind it, but cooking is more than boring, set formulas playing out in some predictable pattern.”

“Chemistry isn’t boring.” She bristled, clearly stung. “Only an idiot would dismiss the importance of the fundamental building blocks of our world.”

Wes sat up straighter. “Hey, I’m not insulting the field of chemistry! I just meant—there’s more than the ingredients in the kitchen. There’s the chef, too, and that random human element messes up your clean chemical equations every time.”

The annoyance cleared from her expression like storm clouds scudding out over the ocean. “That actually brings up an interesting point . . .”

And she was off and running, spouting statistics about human error in experimentation and the degree to which every experiment was compromised by the simple fact of having been thought up by a human scientist.

After the initial scramble to haul out notebooks and pencils, the only noise from the students was the furious scratch of lead against paper as they struggled to keep up with the volume of information spewing nonstop from Dr. Wilkins.

Wes took notes in the shorthand he’d developed years ago and tried to ignore the eat-shit-and-die glares he was getting from his fellow students. So his question got her onto this topic—it’s not like sitting there in an embarrassed silence was that much more entertaining.

He did take a break occasionally to crack his knuckles and look up at the front of the classroom where Dr. Rosemary Wilkins paced slowly from one end of the blackboard to the other.

Beside him, Nathaniel was scribbling so hard he snapped his pencil point. “Shit! How many days are left in this term, again?”

Wilkins flipped one loose, golden braid over her shoulder and put her hands on her hips, shaping them into sweet curves beneath the concealing cloth of her cargo pants.

“Not enough, man,” Wes said, eyes eating up every motion of her pretty little body. “Not near enough.”


 

 
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