If I were a vegetable, I would be… kohlrabi. Mildly difficult, but not overly so. A little spicy. Versatile. And highly underestimated.
Also, kohlrabi starts with a K. Like my name—Kaya.
Basically, it’s my spirit vegetable.
These were the thoughts that occupied my mind at the end of a hectic night of service as I watched the braising parsnips with sniper-like sharpness.
Earlier tonight, I’d already decided that if I were a fish, I’d be a sea urchin.
And if I were a fruit, I’d be a jackfruit.
I was a little concerned that every persona I picked had bumps or spikes of some kind. Obviously, I’d picked the sea urchin for its cool factor. And because it was one of those dishes that people either loved or hated. I was so that kind of person. Uni and I connected on a level even higher than spiritual.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Uni was basically the gonads of a sea urchin. That part I couldn’t relate to at all.
And I connected to jackfruit because of its versatility. It was also high in fiber. So. There was that.
Shaking my head, I pulled the pan off the flame and decided not to think too hard about my choices. It didn’t hurt that most children would be afraid to touch any of the items I picked. And even adults were afraid to eat them. That didn’t mean anything. This was a dumb game to pass the time since I’d been shuffled to the sides station tonight, instead of my favorite station—protein.
As the sous chef in one of the hottest kitchens in Durham, North Carolina, working the sides station was a major insult to my talent and I needed something to entertain and distract myself.
None of this mattered.
Except that my parsnips looked fantastic and they were ready to finish. I scooped them out of the boiling water and added them to a bowl, so I could salt them before tossing them with the maple syrup reduction.
My lips pressed into a frown aimed at the parsnips and stayed there while I plated them. Adding chopped candied pecans, I rethought my life choices—at least my food-as-soulmates choices.
If I were a dessert, I’d be… ice cream.
There. Not spiky.
Liar, my inner voice taunted.
Shut up, I spat back. I love ice cream. Ice cream is my favorite.
Which of course was another lie.
Key lime pie is my favorite. The tarter, the better.
Again, I decided to ignore whatever direct implications that had on my personality and focused on work.
Handing over the parsnips to one of my coworkers, he added a sloppy looking chicken roulade to finish the dish.
If it had been an hour earlier, I probably would have called him on his crap preparation of the protein, but I was too tired at this point. And it was past the hour food bloggers and critics would have a table. Or at least I hoped it was.
My boss leaned in and studied the plate like it held the secret cure for cancer. If only he could read the signs in the parsnips, we could save the world.
I swallowed the urge to clear my throat and get his attention. It wouldn’t lead to anything good. I had a sneaking suspicion my true intention was to flash my middle finger at him because of how he glowered at my handiwork. And the extra few seconds he took to wipe the edges of the plate as if I had done a poor job of it myself.
Of course, he didn’t notice the roulade. Why would he? That eyesore was prepared, cooked and finished by a good old boy. Someone he could rely on strictly because they sported uni and egos the size of North Carolina.
Tart was an understatement. If I were a key lime pie at this point in the night, those limes would be downright bitter.
Wyatt Shaw placed the plate on a tray and called a waiter forward to take it.
“Charlie forgot to take out the toothpicks,” I said in a relaxed tone that could have been mistaken for a suggestion instead of a warning.
Wyatt kept his back to me, his shoulders stiff, his body rigid. He didn’t critique me out loud this time, but I felt his disdain as it hung heavily in the air. The waiter shifted the tray toward Wyatt, so he could remove the toothpicks and save the diner from accidentally impaling the roof of their mouth.
Once finished, he jerked his chin down in a subtle cue for the waiter to disappear. The waiter did, scurrying to the dining room with perfect parsnips and mediocre chicken roulade. Wyatt watched him go without bothering to turn around and thank me for noticing what could have been a terrible mistake.
That was okay. There was no need. I was much better at having that conversation in my head anyway.
Crisis averted, asshole. You’re welcome.
I was also very good with passive aggressive texts. We were supposed to be a united front in the kitchen, a dysfunctional mom and dad to all our little bastard children. Since Wyatt was the head chef and I was his second in command, I found it easier to communicate all my angry thoughts via SMS.
Not that Wyatt was an amateur. He knew his way around insulting emojis better than anyone I knew.
For instance, much earlier today he’d texted to remind me to be early for deliveries, something the two of us usually handled together. I had texted back that I remembered all on my own. He had hit me back with the surprised cat face.
His texts always riled me up and earlier in the evening I wouldn’t have held my tongue. I would have poked the bear out of need to rile him back, forced him to say what he was biting his tongue not to say—which wasn’t thank you by the way. But it was so close to quitting time now, I didn’t have the energy to fight with Wyatt. He could be disappointed in me all he wanted, I wasn’t the one that forgot about the toothpicks.
Plus, my parsnips, just like all my side dishes tonight and every night, were perfect. I’d made over a hundred and fifty of them in the last several hours, and not one complaint had made its way back to the kitchen. At least not about me.
Scowl until your face is full of wrinkles, Wyatt, those parsnips kicked major five-star ass.
Arching my entire body backward, I stretched my arms over my head and released some of the tension curling like a tightened fist in the center of my back. My feet ached. My legs had gone numb an hour ago. There was a migraine crawling up the back of my neck into the base of my skull. And I smelled like duck fat and cilantro. It was time to go home.
I loved my job. I loved it more than anything in this world. Except for maybe Wyatt’s job. I felt fairly confident I would love running this kitchen as executive chef. I mean, really, really love it. But, there wasn’t any difference in the physical part of that job and my current job. Executive chef responsibility wouldn’t change how often I had to stand on my feet or how exhausted I would be at the end of the night.
Wyatt currently looked like he’d been mugged at some point tonight, and then dragged through a carwash backwards. Not even his tall chef’s hat could hide the unruliness of his dark hair.
Anyway, I loved my job, but I also loved going home at the end of the night. There wasn’t anything better than working your absolute hardest for a solid fourteen hours and putting your feet up at the end of the night when you knew you had absolutely nothing left to give.
Which I planned on doing in T-minus forty-one minutes.
As I started to let the blissful daydream of a shower fill up my head, Wyatt’s deep voice boomed through the noisy kitchen, snatching my hopes and dreams from the air and shoving them into his filthy pockets. “A friendly reminder that we’re deep cleaning tonight, so nobody take off until your station has been checked out.”
“Son of a bitch,” I growled at the still dirty pan in my hand. Now that Wyatt had said something, I vaguely recalled getting an email about this two weeks ago. But in my current exhausted state, I’d chosen denial and daydreams about a hot shower and a cold bottle of beer the second I got home. Yes, both. Simultaneously. Shower beers were basically what I lived for.
“There go my plans for the night,” the sassy blonde to my left, who had also clearly forgotten about our monthly kitchen ritual, mumbled beneath her breath.
I looked at my friend Dillon and quirked an eyebrow. “I’m sure Mr. Random Stranger will be happy to wait for you.”
She stuck out her tongue before crouching to wipe the bottom shelf of a stainless-steel counter that was already pristinely clean. “Aren’t we judgy tonight, Ky?”
Letting out a frustrated sigh, I leaned on the counter next to where she worked diligently. “I wasn’t being judgy. I was… reassuring you that you’re worth waiting for.”
She blinked up at me. “Bullshit.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Fine. I was being judgy. But only because I’m jealous of your steady stream of action.” The admission tasted like dirt as I forced myself to speak the truth I preferred to ignore, deny, and convince myself wasn’t true.
It was a hard thing to admit you were envious of your friend’s sex life. Especially since mine had a neon vacancy sign blinking into the dark night like a dilapidated country motel everyone avoided. Because they were afraid they’d get sliced and diced by the local serial killer.
Not that I was a serial killer. Just a serial relationship ruin-er.
Okay, that was a little harsh, seeing as I’d only had one long-term relationship in all of my twenty-seven years. But man did I do all that I could to destroy that one. Straight up annihilated whatever happiness and trust we’d managed to build together.
Afterwards, there had been a series of bad decisions in an effort to forget and move on. Those had also ended terribly. The worst of which I was still forced to work with.
Fast forward to today, when my closest relationship with a man was the maintenance guy at my apartment complex because of how often I needed him to unclog my drain, and it was easy for me to feel like the damage I’d done all those years ago had some lasting effects on my current dating life. Or lack thereof.
Dillon knew me well enough by now to know my apology was sincere. She stood and nudged my elbow with hers. “I’m sure Mr. Random Stranger has a friend if you’re for real. No need to be jealy of my social life. You could have one of your very own if you didn’t work yourself to the bone every single night.”
My heart dropped to my stomach from the weight of disappointment, because that wasn’t going to happen. But I didn’t want to turn down Dillon yet again. We’d been inseparable since she started working at Lilou with me eight months ago. Our friendship was new, but strong, in the way only those friendships you wait your whole life for are strong. We had obviously been destined to meet since the beginning of time.
I might not have had luck meeting a guy, but I’d been lucky enough to find my friend soulmate and that was good enough for me.
Dillon was a rising star in the kitchen. Her brother, Ezra, was our boss. Like the top boss. He’d put her in his five-star, Michelin award-winning kitchen shortly after she’d graduated culinary school.
I’d immediately wanted to hate her. I’d assumed she was everything I loathed in the female world. Ridiculously gorgeous. Unfairly tall. Impossibly skinny. She had family money, family connections, and family that loved her and wanted the best for her.
Undoubtedly, she was everything I wasn’t. I had expected her to be spoiled rotten. But more than that, I had wanted her to be dangerously green in the kitchen and completely untalented. I hadn’t wanted competition. And I really hadn’t wanted a friend. Somehow Dillon turned out to be both, in the very best way.
On the flipside of the coin there was me. I didn’t think I was ugly, but most of my days were spent with a bandana over my short-ish curly hair. I wore zero makeup, and always dressed in greasy work pants. I wasn’t tall. And therefore wasn’t model-thin. I was short and curvy, and a ballbuster thanks to a lifetime of working my ass off to get my foot in the door of one of the toughest, most competitive industries, in one of the best restaurants in the city.
Nobody handed me this job out of charity or familial loyalty. I’d had to fight my way past cocky assholes who thought they were better than me—men that would chew me up and spit me out if I gave them even a millimeter of room—and the constant stereotyping of a tiny, intelligent woman that could cook circles around anyone that wanted to go toe to toe.
So when Dillon walked through the door, practically glowing with nepotism and natural beauty, it was no surprise I despised her immediately. That lasted approximately five minutes.
She’d set her things down next to mine and said, “I think I’m going to puke.” When I’d turned to look at her to see if she was being serious or sarcastic, she’d ripped open her chef coat and started fanning her armpits. “Look!” she’d said with bugged out eyes, her gray undershirt drenched with sweat at only ten in the morning. “This job is going to kill me!”
“You’ll be fine,” I had tried to reassure her.
She’d stepped into me and winced. “I’m a total basket case. My one goal today is to not slice my thumbs off.” She’d winced again. “I need my thumbs.”
I hadn’t been able to stop myself from laughing. “Didn’t you just graduate from Charlotte? And doesn’t your brother own this place? You’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, I just graduated. And I was perfectly excited about getting a job at Applebee’s and then my stupid big brother was all, you can’t work there! And I was like, watch me. And then he was like, I own a bunch of restaurants, dummy. And then I was like, I hate you. And then more stuff happened that I can’t totally remember and here we are.”
It was her armpits that had endeared her to me. She wasn’t the plastic Barbie I’d pegged her as. She was sweating, nervous, and real. I had suffered the same way my first day at Lilou.
Okay, to be honest, I had handled myself way better than Dillon, but I never had that choice. I was forced to suck it up and face the kill-or-be-killed environment, especially since I didn’t have a boss-brother to run to. Not that Dillon would. She was all about making a name for herself without relying too heavily on Ezra.
Still, I couldn’t blame her. Lilou was an intimidating kitchen with competent, experienced chefs. Ezra probably thought he was doing her this big favor and she knew better than anyone that she wasn’t ready for a kitchen of this caliber.
Luckily, she had me. I’d shown her the ropes and helped her get settled in. Now she was catching up to the rest of us at lightspeed, a slightly terrifying thing to watch.
She was good at this. Hungry for it. One day she might even be better than me if I didn’t continue to bust my ass. That was another quality I loved about her and that helped cement our friendship. She pushed me to be better, to get better, to not ever get comfortable with what I’d already accomplished. And she would never, ever let me settle for mediocrity.
Despite how much Dillon and I loved and supported each other, we couldn’t have been more different. Other than our noticeable physical differences, Dillon was the bubbly socialite, and more importantly, a kind, generous human. I preferred to keep to myself and sleep in my bed as opposed to some random stranger’s that I’d met at a club two hours earlier.
And I was not kind. I mean, I wasn’t necessarily mean. But there was a reason other chefs kept their distance. I could be… prickly. Like a porcupine. Except with my very select few friends.
Fun fact: Do you know what a group of porcupines is called? A prickle. My girls were my prickle. And that was enough for me.
Most of the time.
“No worries,” Dillon assured with a casual shrug. “The only man waiting for me tonight is my brother. Molly wanted me to come over to their place after work and hang for a while before they leave on their trip.”
For some reason my stress level dropped back to normal. I came off snarky and sarcastic, and obviously I had my own set of issues, but I really was worried about my friend. Dillon was the most trusting human I’d ever met. If I wanted to hook up, I had an entire checklist the other party needed to fill out. Including an appointment at the local clinic to ensure I wasn’t going to catch something gross and permanent. I was basically one step away from a full-on background check before second base made it to the table for discussion.
Dillon was the opposite. And that scared me for her and her liberal choices of bed partners.
“I thought they were morning people.” The words came out with a clear tone of disgust that she matched with a nose wrinkle and eye roll. When you worked our hours, morning was a curse word you didn’t use lightly. But Molly and Ezra kept normal working hours. Er, Molly did. Ezra basically worked all the time. They went to bed at what some might call a decent time, to ensure they could wake up at the butt crack of dawn and get all those worms the early birds were always talking about.
I preferred tequila worms after midnight myself. But hey, to each their own.
“Usually,” Dillon agreed. “But they’re taking four weeks off for vacation and they wanted to hang out before they left.”
“Four weeks? Holy cow. Where are they going?”
She let out a longing sigh. “Somewhere tropical. And warm. And doused in piña coladas.” She paused so we could both take a minute to reflect on how nice it would be to have Ezra’s money and Molly’s flexibility—she worked for Ezra, managing his PR and marketing. They were one of the most perfect couples I had ever known.
I was friends with Molly and I liked her a lot. I was mostly terrified of Ezra. But that was because he was legitimately terrifying. Together though? They were disgustingly adorable.
“An entire month somewhere tropical? I want to be them when I grow up.”
“Right?” Dillon laughed. “Ezra’s never taken a vacation before. Can you believe that? Never. Not once! So Molly is making him cram a lifetime of missed opportunities into one big shebang. I’m house sitting for them while they’re gone. They’re supposed to show me everything I need to know.”
An obnoxious pang of helpfulness punched through my gut. “You should go then. I’ll cover your station.”
Her blue eyes bugged. “You can’t do that. It will take you forever to get out of here!”
I shrugged, letting her know it didn’t matter. “Put in a good word for me with Ezra, yeah? Tell him how amazing I am. And how competent. And that I could totally run this kitchen by myself.”
Dillon’s gaze slid sideways toward Wyatt. “You totally could.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” I refused to look at him, knowing it would only make me angry. “Pretty please tell your brother?”
Her smile was bright and grateful. “I will. I promise.” She leaned over and kissed my cheek. I’d gotten used to her ways. And I endured the flashy display of affection because it was Dillon and I loved her. Before she all but fled the kitchen, she paused and asked one last time. “You’re sure? I mean, super sure this is okay?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes. Go!”
“You’re the best!” she called over her shoulder as she made a beeline for the exit.
“I know!” I hollered at the big metal door that was anything but quiet when she pushed on the handle.
The kitchen was always hot, sweltering. But when Wyatt realized Dillon was in the process of abandoning her post for the night, the temperature dropped at least thirty degrees. A chill crept down my spine as I watched his sharp gaze snap from me to her.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he growled as the door closed. He jerked around to face me. “Where is she going?”
Moment of honesty? Sometimes Wyatt scared the living hell out of me. We grew up in this kitchen together. It was the first job either of us had in any kitchen. He beat me by four years, but he was hardly farther along in his career by the time I arrived. We’d both started right out of culinary school. It wasn’t fair that he was four years older than me.
We’d been working side by side for five years now and we’d been through a lot together. But that didn’t mean we’d bonded over our struggles. Or that we even knew each other at all. Even as head chef and sous chef our relationship was decidedly strained.
I would love to say that since we’d worked together for so long I knew everything about him. But the truth was, Wyatt had always kept to himself. He’d always been private and mysterious and a bit of an asshole. Sure, before he was my boss, we were friendly-ish. But he was the kind of guy that kept his cards close to his vest. It made sense, because it would suck to be forced to make friends only to end up stabbing that person in the back on his way up the ladder.
And with me, he was totally standoffish to avoid hurting our friendship. Or at least that was what I liked to believe. I was the only one in the kitchen that could compete with him. I was his major competition. That was why he kept his distance, why he always went out of his way to avoid or ignore me. Or bark at me over text.
Competition or no, he had a few things I didn’t that catapulted his career ahead of mine. Mostly they appeared in the form of industry connections. And he had no issue cashing in on them.
It had paid off for him. Killian Quinn, the Michelin decorated, James Beard award-winning, and former executive chef of Lilou, had named Wyatt his successor. That pushed Wyatt even farther from my orbit.
Now, he was way, way up there. And I was still on the ground fixing his mistakes and making sure he got all the credit.
The culinary world had been downright apoplectic over Lilou’s fate after Killian left. And Wyatt was more than happy to step into shoes that were way too big for him and claim the glory for himself.
Most of the time, I found him irritating. And difficult. And rude. Honestly, I was the same. Especially to him. But when he was like this—a sudden thunderstorm, lashing out, lightning flashing and thunder rolling— even my knees trembled.
“She has a thing with Ezra,” I answered, purposefully name-dropping our boss. “I told her I’d cover for her.”
“You’re not responsible for her station,” he snarled. “Now it’s going to take you twice as long to finish and get out of here. That means I’ll have to stay here twice as long to make sure you do a good job. And Benny will have to stay here twice as long waiting on me to make the nightly deposit at the bank. And Endo will have to stay twice as long because he can’t do his work until you finish yours. Next time you want to do your friend a favor, why don’t you try thinking about the rest of us.”
See? Irritating. Difficult. And definitely rude. “Or you could clean her station for me. Then nobody has to stay late. Win-win.”
He took a step toward me, and I knew it was a subconscious, slightly murderous response to my taunt. He wanted to strangle me. He wouldn’t obviously—at least not with so many witnesses present. But he wanted to. “Excuse me?”
“Before the pay raise, that was your job, Shaw. Or don’t you remember?” I refused to call Wyatt chef. It was his rightful title, earned and owned by the position he occupied. But I could not bring myself to say the word. And that pissed him off more than anything else I said or did.
His jaw ticked once, and I savored that visible angry flex that always gave him away. I loved pissing him off. But he also had a ridiculously attractive jawline, and it looked best when he was furious.
Okay, after everything I’d said about him, I knew that sounded crazy. But Wyatt was one of those people that no matter how much you hated him, he was still very attractive.
Sometimes you got to know someone and if they had an awful personality they got uglier the longer you were forced to interact with them. But Wyatt was pretty much the opposite. The more I got to know him, the more I couldn’t stand him. And yet, he was so unbelievably attractive that his looks never seemed to diminish.
He was tall, at least six-foot-four, and even though his frame was thin—probably because of the whole height thing, a concept I was totally unfamiliar with—he was tightly muscled. I mean, muscles were everywhere. Long, sharp, cut muscles that wrapped around his body in sinewy bumps and bulges.
His hair was artfully styled in a hipster swoop with the sides recently shaved, and the longer top pushed to one side. His eyes were deep brow, like melted milk chocolate.
And then there were the tattoos. The ones that covered Wyatt from his wrists to biceps and his entire torso, front and back. Images even snaked up his neck in a visible display of eclectic individualism. His entire body was a work of art. One I wanted to paint or photograph. Or trace with my tongue.
He was everything I shouldn’t want, like, or notice. Not because of the tattoos. Or even because of the piercings he’d removed once he’d been promoted. He was the kind of guy I should have been able to ignore entirely because of how opposite we were, because of how much we hated each other.
This rivalry had been simmering for years, and if I’d learned anything in that time, it was that he didn’t change his opinion. Not ever. Once he decided something, that was it. And he’d decided a long time ago that he didn’t like me.
That should have been more than enough for me to keep my distance and my mouth shut.
But Wyatt had the kind of body and personality that demanded attention. And I was as helpless as everyone else. He walked into the kitchen and immediately we all stood up straighter, straightened our coats, focused on our tasks. And when he left, we exhaled gigantic breaths of relief.
For as beautiful as he was to look at, the man was a dictator in the kitchen. Rationally, I knew that was his right. This was his domain. He was the captain of this ship. Lilou lived and died by his direction.
There was even a part of me that was jealous of how he commanded so seamlessly. His decisions were calculated and well thought out. He’d stepped into Killian’s shoes and not once faltered. Even if he didn’t always make what I considered to be the best decisions, he never revealed regret or insecurity. He was almost entirely emotionless.
Except for anger and irritation. Usually directed at me.
Like right now.
“I remember, Kaya.” His voice had pitched low, causing goose bumps to scatter over my arms and the back of my neck. “Do you realize that it’s no longer my job?”
I swallowed a lump of resentment. He knew I had been gunning for his position. And if I’d had a little more time to prove myself, I could have made a good run for it. But Killian had left so suddenly that I never had a chance to throw my hat in the ring. One night I was dreaming of the day that Lilou would be mine, the day that Ezra Baptiste, the city’s foremost restaurateur, finally hired a woman to fill one of his executive chef positions, and the very next night it was gone. I was back at square one, looking at a position that would never open up again. At least not within an acceptable window of time.
Because of this man.
Because of this arrogant, obnoxious chef I was supposed to call boss.
Holding Wyatt’s sharp gaze, even though I desperately wanted to look away, I nodded. “It’s impossible to forget. You’re constantly reminding us.”
“Reminding you,” he countered. “You’re the only one in this kitchen who manages to forget I’m in charge.”
The kitchen fell silent as my coworkers turned to watch the drama. They loved when we went after each other. They loved the intrigue and gossip that came with it. Mostly they loved that Wyatt’s rage was totally focused on me and not them.
I shrugged, playing the indifferent, blasé part I knew drove him the craziest. Wyatt was all fire and brimstone. He had no patience for apathy. “Guess I’m a slow learner.”
His jaw ticked again, and my heart jumped with it. I could pretend I was unaffected all I wanted, but the truth was so opposite. My insides were tingling with adrenaline, my blood rushing through my veins at warp speed.
“Let’s hope you’re not as slow at cleaning.” He turned around, giving me his rigid back and stiff shoulders. “Get to work, Swift.”
Unable to stop myself, I threw up an exaggerated salute with my middle finger. “Aye, aye, captain.”