Three years ago... March
“And the winner of this season’s The Competition is… Bethany Thorne!”
The entire restaurant erupted into cheers.
Waitresses, kitchen staff, and all the customers that were gathered to watch the live Sunday night finale of the cooking show featuring our sous chef were jumping for joy and raising their glasses in the air. While our hostesses hugged and celebrated, I moved behind the bar to grab the bottles of champagne we pulled to celebrate with.
Everyone was so happy for her, so proud of our hometown girl. Bethany had made Simmer famous, and because of this, I was sure tomorrow this place would be packed with locals and tourists alike, all wanting to see the restaurant where this season’s winner got her start.
But no one is more excited for Bethany than I am. I love that girl. This was what she and I had so desperately wanted for her and now, after some serious hard work, she was going to take the culinary world by storm.
I popped the cork on the first bottle as I glanced at one of the TVs. Confetti was raining down on Bethany as she shook the hands of the judges who had crowned her the winner. She was glowing with pride and accomplishment. I could see it in her hazel eyes and rosy cheeks. She looked amazing in her black chef’s jacket with the winner’s medal around her neck.
I grabbed the plastic flutes and poured as the sweet bubbles overflowed their cups. The competitors this season had been tough and, a few times, Bethany had called me in tears. She could never tell me everything that had happened, though, and we only got the producer’s version of events when the shows aired. There were times when she looked tired and sometimes distraught, but still she was a fighter.
Now, she was the victor.
The waitresses picked up the glasses I had placed on the serving trays and began to pass them around to the adult patrons while our youngest customers were celebrating with sparkling apple juice.
After everyone had a glass in hand, a couple of guys helped me quiet the rowdy crowd with a few wolf whistles while I moved to the middle of the crowd and climbed onto one of the chairs.
“Hey! If I could get everyone’s attention for a moment, please?” I shouted. The voices lowered and I smiled. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for being here to watch our girl win tonight!” Another round of cheers, whistles and applause went up in the room. “The management and staff of Simmer are so proud of Bethany. So damn proud. I’m sure if she was here, she’d want me to thank all of you… but hey, wait a minute. Bethany, are you here, babe?”
I saw the TVs flicker as she came on screen. “Well, yes, I am! Hello, Simmer!” The loudest commotion I’d ever heard almost lifted the roof off the restaurant. We had set up a Face Time live feed and connected the laptop to the system in the restaurant. Bethany was waving at the crowd and laughing. After a couple minutes, we got the group to settle down again so we could hear her talking.
“Y’all, I can’t talk long. I’d love to sit and party until the sun rises, but my crew there needs to clean up the mess sometime tonight,” she mentioned with a chuckle. I could hear the crew groan, and I laughed along with them. “But before I go, I wanted to say thank you to all of you for everything. Your encouragement, your messages, everything. I hope I have made you proud,” she wobbled out with emotion in her voice and her hand over her heart. More shouts of congratulations went up, along with the champagne flutes. I watched my girl wiping joyful tears from her eyes. My heart was ready to burst; I was so full of pride for this incredible woman. So talented and so resilient.
And yes, all mine.
“Okay, everyone! I have to go, people are waiting for me here. Thank you again, and I love all of you! See y’all soon!” She waved goodbye and the screens went dark. I knew I would get to celebrate with her privately when she got home in a couple of days, and I planned to enjoy every single moment with her.
But after we celebrated on every surface we could at the hideaway or my house, we were going to have to make some very serious decisions.
She would be tied to a contract that would keep her in New York for at least a year. I had been offered a chance to run Simmer as general manager and hopefully, an opportunity to earn my way into owning it—something that I haven’t had a chance to tell Bethany about. I want so much to go with her and support her as she pursues her dreams. But there were other reasons I needed to stay in Savannah, and Simmer wasn’t even half of it.
With those thoughts alone jogging through my mind, my mood plummeted and worry rushed in.
I loved Bethany too much to let her lose this chance but fuck, I didn’t want to lose her, either.
I shook my head and took in the restaurant with a weary glance. We were way past close, and we needed to get the restaurant ready for business tomorrow. I couldn’t let my crew see my worry, but I knew that Jamie would call me on it. We had been best friends for way too long for him not to know what was on my mind.
The crowd started to thin as we cleaned up. People were heading home in festive moods, clearly proud of a Savannah girl done good, by all the laughter ringing out and the honking horns in the parking lot.
Now it was time to start getting our house in order. The wait staff had tried to stay ahead of the party mess, so the cleanup was looking to be much easier than I thought it would be. It only took around thirty minutes to clear out the stragglers and get the doors locked. After checking on progress in the kitchens, I moved to the offices to get started on the night’s paperwork.
An hour later, with the deposits finished, the inventory counted for tomorrow’s orders, and the restaurant spotless, what was left of the night crew made its way out the back door of Simmer as the alarm beeped. They were tired but still smiling.
I stood by my car to make sure everyone was safe and secure in theirs, like I usually did. As headlights turned on, I slipped into the driver’s side of my truck, and we all headed out. I made my way home in the silence, and the decisions that needed to be made and had been avoided came back full throttle, weighing heavy on my shoulders. I rolled down the windows and let the breeze and night sounds of Savannah fill the cab. Praying that the silence would bring me answers.
What if I just left it all and took a chance with Bethany? I wanted a life with her. She’s everything that I needed.
Who would be here for Mom? Sure, Galen was here and yeah, he was finally getting his head on straight; he was still not stable. With my father gone and her health issues, my mother desperately needed stability. My brother, who was five years younger than me, still had a ways to go, but he had Maxi. Thank God. She seemed to be the reason he was making an effort to be a better man.
Still, I just… I just didn’t know.
My phone started to chime as I rounded the corner into my neighborhood. Looking at the screen, I saw Bethany’s beautiful face and felt those same flutters in my stomach I’d felt since the first time I saw her smile. She was everything; my fucking soul was hers, and I knew I had to let her go. I had to. Her future was so bright, and mine was so uncertain. I can’t hold her back.
But for tonight, and for the next few weeks, I had her, and I was going to savor every moment.
Picking the phone from my middle console, I was ready to personally congratulate this season’s winner of The Competition.
A week later...
Bethany was finally in Savannah after being away filming The Competition for close to two months. We were celebrating her return and her victory in New York in the best way—in my bed; though it had taken us some time to get upstairs. We had stopped on the kitchen counter, the couch in the den, oh, and the stairs on the way here.
“My God, you are fucking incredible. Are you ready? Tell me,” I pleaded, already knowing the answer.
“Gideon… baby… so close,” she moaned in my ear.
I was sitting up against the headboard while Bethany was riding my cock so hard the bed was shaking. My hands were full of her delicious curves, pushing up into her tight pussy as she was grinding down on me. Her arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders and I could feel her walls beginning to clench around me. I fought back that tingle in the base of my spine, even though I was ready to let go and pound every inch of my throbbing cock into her until she was screaming my name.
Watching her beautiful heart-shaped face, with those hazel eyes that were almost golden now, her flushed cheeks, and her sexy red lips parted in ecstasy made me question my restraint.
Those lips that met mine just now weren’t the only ones swollen and bruised from every kiss I had given her since I walked through my door and found her waiting in my kitchen in nothing but one of my Simmer polo work shirts.
Her front teeth bit into her bottom lip and God, the sight only made me harder. Sexy. So fucking sexy. She threw back her head, her auburn hair damp as curled locks were clinging to her forehead. We were drenched in sweat, and yet, I still couldn’t get enough of her. She’d been gone for too long, and I wanted to remind her who she belonged to.
She may be leaving me soon and moving on with her life now that she was achieving her dreams, but she was always going to be mine—and she would have my marks to prove it.
My hand landed on her right ass cheek, and she let out a stuttered groan. Her nipples, stiff against my chest, had to be sore from my lips and teeth and abraded from the hair on my chest. Her breasts were gorgeous covered in the little nips and tugs I had given them.
I kept right on thrusting. I had her. Her movements stilled for a moment and then she began to shudder. With my head in the crook of her neck and shoulder, I bit down gently, knowing she would call my name with the next breath she took.
“Giddy! Ohmygod! Oh, fuck!”
The sound of her release rang in my ears as her nails left marks of their own on my back. I didn’t care. In that moment, she could do her worst, and I would wear those little half-moons with satisfaction.
“Oh yeah, that’s my girl.”
With the last of her orgasm, Bethany’s body fell limp against mine. I took the opportunity to quickly turn us so that my body covered hers. I wrapped her silky legs around my waist, and her ankles locked together in the dimples on the small of my back. The head of my cock pressed against her waiting slit and I eased inside, even though she was swollen and tight. She was soaked, and she whimpered as I settled in to finish what we had started in the kitchen a few hours ago. I placed my arms on either side of her head and gazed again into those golden eyes, burning with so much love for me but with just as much lust and desperation. She grabbed my biceps as I lifted my lips in a dirty smirk.
“I’ll give you that one, little winner. But you know the next one you’re going to have to beg for.”
She gave me a surprised look before she lifted her brows with a smirk of her own. “Oh, Gideon Alexander. Do your worst.”
I let loose an evil snicker and she bit that lip again. Sass… so much sass. I swear I was going to fix that.
The tingle was back and spreading. I took a hold of her thighs and slowly moved my hands around to her backside. I lifted her hips slightly and then spread her cheeks apart. I thrust back in, long and deep.
Again and again and again.
I was brushing that spot that was quickly turning my girl into a thrashing, quivering bundle of flesh and bones. Bethany was mumbling incoherently and clutching onto me so tightly that it hurt but it was so good. Her eyes were closed as her head rocked back and forth. When she wasn’t gripping my arms, she had her hands balled up in sheets.
All that mouth, all that sass was gone, as she gave herself over to me one last time. All that was left was this incredible sensuous creature. This woman. My woman.
Those perfect breasts were on display for me once more, and I leaned down to suck a nipple into my mouth. She threw her head back into the pillows, offering more of her breasts to me. I sucked a little harder, grazed my teeth against her tightened bud. Needy moans from her parted lips told me that we were so close.
“Give me your eyes, Bethany. I want to see them when I let you come.”
She stopped thrashing her head and slowly opened her eyes. She was drunk on us, and it was amazing to see everything we felt for each other reflecting in those golden orbs. It humbled me, empowered me, and made me feel like the luckiest man on this earth — all because of her. It all barreled in at once and there was no way to stop what was coming.
“Ask me, Bethany. Beg me. Tell me what I want to hear,” I demanded from her.
With her eyes on me, she begged… with her mouth, she pleaded… “Gideon, please. Oh God, please!”
I was picking up the pace. Closer.
“Please what, little winner?” I whispered in her ear as I trailed kisses down her cheek.
“Please let me come!”
Closer still. “Whose are you, beautiful Bethany?”
Her arms tightened around me, and it was time. “I am yours,” she whispered in my ear.
“Yes, you are. Always mine. Let go, beautiful.”
Her body relaxed. I heard my own voice shout her name as I came so hard the sensation traveled from my toes to the top of my head.
One last tremble and we sailed back to reality. We were panting heavily as she nuzzled into my chest. A contented sigh left her lips and I kissed the top of her head, smelling the familiar scent of camellias. Always camellias.
I loved her so much… so fucking much.
“Welcome home, Bitty.”
“What do you mean, you can’t go with me?”
I wasn’t ready to have this conversation with her. I wasn’t ready to let her go, but Bethany had been home for the last week and we had been putting this conversation on the back burner. She had tried a few times to bring up the move to New York, but I just couldn’t muster up the courage to be honest. Blistering kisses and mind-numbing sex can be great distractions.
But Bethany knew me too well, and she could see straight through my bullshit. I was about to let the best thing that ever happened to me go.
God, how the hell was I going to do this and not lose my mind?
“Sweetheart, you know why I can’t go. I can’t leave Savannah right now.”
“Okay, so you can’t come with me this weekend. That’s fine, babe. I’ll just stay, and we can go up next week. Do you need to finish out your notice? I hope the crew wasn’t too mad when you told them you and I both was leaving,” she chuckled.
“Bethany, I’m not leaving Simmer,” I told her. The next part would be the hardest, the part I would have to explain to her, after all the plans that we had made. “I was offered the GM position, and I took the job.”
Her eyebrows furrowed as she squinted at me. Emotions played across her face. Confusion… disbelief… and finally, anger.
Her beautiful eyes filled with tears and I watched, helplessly, as they tracked down the freckles on her ivory skin and fell into her lap. The anger I could handle. The anger would fuel her and motivate her to show me just how wrong I was to walk away from her and the dreams we had, the plans that were in already in motion.
“What do you mean, you took the GM offer? Gideon, you better tell me what is going on, and you better tell me now.”
“The owners of Simmer are aging. They want to travel, see the world, all that. They came to me with an offer to run the restaurant and later, have the first shot at owning the place. There aren’t many opportunities like this, Bitty.”
“In Savannah? Maybe not. In New York? Daily. I don’t believe this. I really don’t believe, after everything that we have gone through, everything we have sacrificed…”
She jumped up in a spurt of raging energy, pacing back and forth in the tiny office and gesturing wildly with her hands. She was still so stunning, even in her anger. She had every single right to be angry.
“Galen is moving into your house this weekend. We have an apartment in the city that’s waiting for us. You have interviews coming that will almost guarantee you an apprenticeship with some of the finest pastry chefs in the world. This is your chance, Gideon. It’s yours for the taking! You’re an artist, and one of the most talented pastry chefs I have ever seen. Those idiots at J&W I was in class with were nothing compared to what you do in those kitchens here at Simmer every day. Are you telling me that you’re going to walk away from everything that we’ve planned to be a manager? Are you walking away from me too?”
“Baby, the interviews, the apartment… it’s all exciting. For you. I want more than anything to do this with you, be by your side for this incredible chance. It’s a chance that you’re prepared for. You need to chase this dream and move on. Don’t fight this, Bethany. Please. I’m trying to do what’s right. I can’t leave. My family needs me here. I can’t let you walk away from your chance to the next star on The Culinary Channel to stay in Savannah. You’re too talented and too dedicated to your craft to walk.”
The tears were falling harder down her face, and my heart was breaking from the pain I could see in her eyes. She didn’t bother to wipe them away. She would never look at me the same way, never believe any promise I would ever make. The walls I had finally crushed around her heart would only be built back higher and stronger than ever.
“You never planned to go with me, did you, Gideon?”
I couldn’t answer her. She and I both knew the truth. There was no way I could leave Savannah.
I closed my eyes and prayed to the Almighty for the strength to be honest with the woman who completed my soul. When I opened my eyes and gazed at her, the grim realization settled on her face. Her hands dropped to her sides, and she shook her head.
“You never planned to go with me. You lied to me.”
“I’m needed here, Bitty.”
“I need you! I don’t want to go without you. You know that, Gideon!” she yelled at me, with so much hurt in her voice. I felt the fissure in my heart widen just a little more, and it traveled to my soul when she picked up the first brick to rebuild that wall around her.
“Bethany, Mom needs me more. I can’t leave her here alone. She’s sick, and she needs to be taken care of. I just cannot go.”
“Don’t even put this mess on your mother. That woman is vibrant and strong and thriving. Galen is here. Her sister and my Aunt Rosemary are here for her, but she doesn’t need them. She has MS, Gideon, but it’s not killing her. She still drives herself all over Savannah. She still cooks and cleans her house. I know because I’ve tried to help, and she kicked me out! She sent cookies while I was in New York, for God’s sake. So don’t blame her. This is on you. You’ve gotten used to playing it safe. This is you being a fucking coward and walking away from everything Lynn Alexander would want you to have!”
I stared at this woman I adored. A look of disappointment and sad resignation crossed her face, and it was more than I could bear. She was right. Of course, she was. She knew it and fuck, if I didn’t. But right at that moment, all the anger and bitterness I had been holding onto just poured out of me. It was like someone opening up the floodgates, and all the emotions just flowed. Along with it, I felt the resentment of having my teenage years snatched away when my father died and having to grow up so much faster than I planned. Carrying my family on my shoulders, while dragging them along at the same time. It all came flying forward like a broken dam, and my head buzzed with it. I could taste the long-held rage, and I couldn’t hold the words back. I just couldn’t stop them.
“I’m a coward? A coward runs when shit gets hard at home. I stayed. I’m the one who has been taking care of my trouble-making brother since my father dropped dead in front of us. I’m the one who gave up my plans so that I could make sure my mother and my brother had a roof over their heads and food on the table. I did that because that’s the man Gordon Alexander taught me to be. But go the fuck ahead and call me a coward. I have always put my family first, and that included you. And you know it because you’ve been here to see it. How much of a selfish bitch are you to demand I give up my family, and then say I’m a coward?! Do you think it’s been easy? I’m the one who was there the morning my mother got that fucking diagnosis and fell apart. I picked her up, took her home, and did what I was raised to. I’m a son and a brother. I’m the head of this family. That’s who I am!”
Her tears stopped while I was yelling at her. All the emotion left her face, and she turned on the icy Savannah debutante exterior she’d used with only one other person in her life. She crossed her arms over her heart, as if she was trying to guard it against any more blows that I could land. The words were out and there was no way to take them back.
Bethany was never going to forgive me.
She straightened her spine, lifted her head and shook out her curls that I loved so much, and she lowered her arms again. My Bethany was gone as she laid the final brick in the walls around her soul. In her place stood the Bethany Thorne that was a survivor.
Leveling her gaze at me, she spoke in a calm, cultured voice.
“You’re all about putting everyone else first, Gideon. One day, you’re going to realize you should have put yourself first. Maybe you aren’t a coward, but you sure as hell are a liar. And you just broke my heart.”
My mouth dropped and a startled huff left my lips. All the anger drained from me, and I simply felt hollow. Hot regretful tears glazed my eyes, and I choked over the lump in my throat. My hands shook as I reached for her one last time, but before I could even touch her, she stepped out of my grasp with another shake of her head.
“I wasn’t lying when I said that I loved you. I wasn’t lying every time I kissed you or touched you. I wasn’t lying to you every time I bared my soul to you when we made love, and I showed you just how much you mean to me. You have to believe that I’m making the best choice for both of us, Bethany. I’m sorry.”
She stared at me for a beat, and then her eyes shuttered. She turned and grabbed her purse and her tool kit. When she turned back around, she kept her head down and moved for the door to the office.
“Please let the crew know that it’s been a joy to cook with them. Be happy, Gideon.”
Her last words to me. “Be happy.”
I just watched the only happiness I have ever known walk out of this office, out of Simmer, and out of my life.