About the book
A man who lost his future…
Macon Miles knows what it means to make sacrifices for his country. Married to his high school sweetheart, he once had a promising future in the military and everything seemed complete. All that changed when a routine patrol in Afghanistan turned into a nightmare. When the dust settled, Macon had lost his career, his wife, and his leg. Lost and alone, his only comfort comes from his newfound love of cooking. When his estranged brother, Adam, offers him a new home and a chance to work at a friend’s restaurant in Dallas, it’s an offer he can’t refuse.
A woman searching for the past…
Allyson Jones made her foster mother a deathbed promise. She would find out what really happened to Ronnie in Afghanistan. Ally doesn’t believe the Army’s reports about her foster brother’s death, and she knows only one man can tell her what really happened—Macon Miles. Following him to Dallas, she gets a job working alongside him at Top, Sean Taggart’s decadent new restaurant. She is sure Macon is hiding something about Ronnie’s death, and she’ll do whatever it takes to unravel the mystery.
When circumstances force Macon and Ally together, their chemistry is hotter than any dish at Top. But when Ally’s deception is exposed and the truth about Ronnie’s death is revealed, will they be able to reclaim the love they’ve lost?
Macon watched the new girl. He couldn’t help himself. She was luscious. Like a chocolate soufflé. She would require very careful handling in order to bring her to fruition. One wrong move and a woman like that would fold, wilting or falling away, or simply telling him to fuck off.
He really didn’t want her to tell him to fuck off.
Ally. Allyson Jones. She had dark hair and a curvy figure that filled out her black slacks and white dress shirt in a way no one else on the waitstaff managed. She bent over, collecting the menus. That was the singular juiciest backside he’d ever seen. It was fucking spectacular, and he could feel his cock hardening.
It was not helpful to his current work situation, but he still couldn’t force his eyes to move. It was like they were laser focused on that lush ass.
He moved the pastry blender over and over, forcing the ingredients to mix into something new. Butter, flour, sugar, shortening, salt, and ice water. His perfect piecrust. Simple and yet so complex since he’d learned it required something beyond merely following the recipe. There was a harmony required most people never figured out, a certain Zen that came with giving over to the dish, allowing it to be what it would.
“Don’t let that sit too long.” Timothy Gage looked down his patrician nose at the bowl. “We have reservations for a hundred tonight. If that crust isn’t perfect, I’ll see you go back to washing dishes.”
Macon took a deep breath and forced himself not to correct his obnoxiously pretentious boss. He’d never washed dishes. When he’d been hired at Top, he’d been brought in as a garde-manger, prepping salads and helping with small plates. That had lasted two weeks. Then one day the chef’s brother had walked in. Ian Taggart was a massive slab of muscle with a taste for lemons. Timothy didn’t do requests. He was an artiste, or at least that’s what he called himself. He was mostly an asshole who took himself way too seriously. Sean Taggart, the man who owned Top, had tried to talk his brother into being reasonable. Macon had quickly made a lemon pudding.
He’d moved from salads to assistant pastry chef that day, and he was also Big Tag’s hookup. The big guy’s wife had been pregnant at the time and mad about coconut. He’d made coconut cookies, cream pies, and cakes for the lovely Charlotte.
It was good to be needed. It was good to make something that made someone else happy.
“That is one hot piece of ass.” Timothy leaned against the wall, his eyes on Ally.
There were times he really didn’t like the man. All the time, really. He was full of himself, but he was also trained by some super-fancy school in Paris. Sean had introduced him as a big deal and explained that Macon could learn a lot from him. So far he’d really learned that Timothy liked to duck work and take all the credit, and he drank on the job.
Ally looked up and her dark eyes caught on his. He hoped he wasn’t staring like a crazy stalker guy, but it was hard to look away. She smiled and joked and he could still feel the aura of loss that surrounded her. He wanted to know what made her seem so sad at times, like there was a wall between her and the world. He wanted to tell her she didn’t need that wall. It was a stupid idea. He couldn’t take care of himself much less anyone else, so he’d kept his distance.
Still, since the moment she’d walked through the doors, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her.
She gathered the menus close to her chest as she started for the door. She stopped in front of the pastry station. The barest hint of a smile crossed her full lips. “What’s on for tonight?”
Tim stepped up. “Citrus tarts and a mango sorbet. But if you like I could whip up something chocolate for you. I know the staff tends to have a limited palate. I’ll fix that right up for you, sweetheart.”
Ally frowned and looked back at Macon. “Well, it looks good anyway. See you later.”
Macon nodded her way and then turned to Timothy. “Is there a reason you insulted her?”
Timothy waved him off. “Like she knows what a palate is. Had I really known who I would be working with here, I would have stayed in Europe.” He took a sip of coffee that Macon knew was drowned in whiskey. “The whole place is full of washed-up idiots. Taggart has too soft a heart to really make it in this business. He’s a brilliant chef. He simply doesn’t have a proper staff around him. It’s one thing to use his Army buddies to wash dishes. It’s another to pretend they can actually cook.”
Yes, this was what he got to listen to. It was so much better when Timothy worked on what he considered proper desserts and he left Macon alone to prepare the secondary. Unfortunately for tonight, the mango sorbet was already done, so he got to listen to Timothy’s rants.
He sucked it down. He wasn’t about to fuck up this job. He owed Adam too much. Adam had introduced him to Sean. Adam had gotten him this job. He couldn’t lose his temper.
He went back to his crust.
Timothy drained his mug and slapped Macon on the shoulder. “You finish that up. I’m going to go deal with a problem I’m having.”
He stepped out and Macon could breathe again. He let the sounds of the kitchen wash over him. He loved it here. With the singular exception of Timothy, he got along with everyone. Sean Taggart liked to hire vets. Chef Taggart was a former Green Beret and his kitchen staff came from all the arms of service. The sous-chef was a former SEAL, the saucier a former Air Force pilot. The line chefs were all Marines. Even the sommelier had spent time in the Coast Guard. Only Timothy and a few of the servers were civilians.
He fit in here. He wasn’t the only scarred fuck-up.
His life had taken on a pleasing rhythm. Wake up, exercise with his brother and Jake, lunch with his sister-in-law, who asked an insane amount of questions, work, and sleep. He had PT three days a week and saw the shrink twice. He was getting comfortable telling Kai Ferguson things he’d never told another person.
The only problem was Kai thought he was holding back and he was. There was one thing he couldn’t tell anyone. Not ever. He would take it to his grave.
He shoved the thoughts aside and concentrated on the individual crusts.
“You coming out with us tonight?” Eric Vail’s white apron was still pristine at this point in prep. The sous-chef was a lean man of roughly forty, with a jagged scar running from above his right eye to his jawline. He also was the best freaking chef short of the big boss. Eric’s sea bass rocked Macon’s world.
Macon had decided that men who’d been forced to live on MREs for most of their life took food seriously.
“I’m going to close tonight.” He liked closing on Sundays. Yes, it took longer because they weren’t open on Mondays, so he ended up helping Sean with the accounting. He liked it because he was learning how to run a business. Once he’d offered to help with the books, Sean had been thrilled to teach him. He helped with accounting and payroll. Sean’s wife, Grace, had spent hours teaching him how to use the accounting software. He loved baking, but he also loved the sense that he had a hand in the working of the business.
Eric shook his head. “You are crazy, my brother. I’ll drink some tequila for you. Or maybe not since I saw that you’re closing with the lovely Ally. It has not escaped my notice that you watch her.”
“I’m not stalking her or anything.” Not really. He just liked the way she moved when she didn’t think anyone was watching. After close, they would turn on some music and she’d move to it, her feet finding a rhythm as she mouthed the words to the songs she knew.
Eric’s emerald green eyes rolled. “I didn’t say that. I said you obviously have a thing for her. I think you should ask her out.”
He wasn’t so sure about that. “I’m not in a place to take care of a girlfriend.”
Eric frowned and leaned in. “If you give a crap about that girl, maybe you should rethink your position.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve been talking to Deena.” Eric was cozy with the hostess. She was a pretty blonde who didn’t seem to give a shit that Eric was scarred. She beamed when he walked in the room. “No one knows where Ally lives. A couple of the guys have asked and she puts them off with that smile of hers.”
He wasn’t stupid. The waitstaff was tight. They watched out for each other. Even after a few weeks, someone should have been to Ally’s place. Eric was right about that smile though. When she did smile, it kind of lit up the room. “Maybe she’s staying with a friend.”
“Or maybe she’s staying in that piece of shit Ford that’s always parked down the street on the nights she works. I walked by after Deena mentioned it. There are a couple of blankets and pillows in the back. I’m telling you if you like the girl, you better make your claim because someone’s going to take an interest sooner or later. The minute Sean Taggart figures out one of his employees is living in her car, he’ll take over. We don’t call it Top for nothing, brother.” Eric put a hand on his shoulder. “You have some time. Figure it out.”
Top was a play on words. It hadn’t taken long to figure that out. His brother had explained that most of his friends, including Chef Taggart, were into the BDSM lifestyle. They played around for the most part, but there wasn’t a single one of those men who wouldn’t take responsibility for a female in need. They would step in and help because it was the right thing to do.
He kind of liked his brother’s friends.
Eric walked away and Macon was left with a dilemma.
He wasn’t good for Ally. There was no question about that. He was only now starting to deal with his responsibilities, and taking on another one might not be the best idea. He was kind of toxic.
But wasn’t toxic better than homeless? She was sweet. She was sad. She worked her butt off every night and he’d noticed she helped her coworkers when they struggled. When the front was slow, she came back to the kitchen and tried to help them. Shouldn’t someone watch out for her? He’d heard she didn’t have any family left. She always turned down going out at night, preferring to work late. Maybe she was trying to save money for a place of her own.
He didn’t like the thought of her sleeping in her car. It was dangerous.
The guesthouse had two bedrooms. His brother’s guesthouse was bigger than most people’s actual houses. Adam had done well for himself. Adam wouldn’t stop him from bringing a stray home. Hell, they would likely welcome her with open arms. The Dean-Miles family liked to take in strays.
He finished with the crusts and went to wash his hands. Maybe it was time to ask Ally a few questions.
Maybe it was time to give a shit about someone other than himself.
* * * *
Ally dropped off the new menus. They changed nightly because Sean Taggart liked to use fresh ingredients. Top was farm to table. He negotiated with local farms for whatever he could, and as far as Ally could tell he was one hell of a chef. She’d been raised on whatever her mom had a coupon for, but she’d discovered she really liked sea bass and polenta, and god she could eat risotto all day.
And Macon’s pastries. Oh, Timothy the Ass took credit, but she watched Macon work. Macon made the fluffiest crust, the richest chocolate mousse.
He was also the damn dreamiest man she’d ever seen, and she wasn’t a woman who used the word dreamiest lightly.
In the few weeks she’d worked at Top, she would swear she’d gained ten pounds. After service was over, staff got to eat. She’d had some of the best food of her life here. She’d also had some really good times. She’d thought she only ever fit in with her mom and Ronnie, but this place was starting to feel like home.
“Hey, you. I heard we’re going to Deep Ellum after work tonight.” Deena took the menus and placed them in the basket by the hostess station. She was an infinitely competent woman in her early thirties, with a ready smile and a warm personality. She kept the front of house running like clockwork. “Tell me you’re coming with us. We need to dance.”
Oddly, the idea of going clubbing held no appeal. She was young and single and had no ties to anyone, and yet all she wanted to do was have a place to go to with a TV and a warm bed and a Macon Miles to cuddle up against.
Damn it. She couldn’t think that way. Macon was the target. Macon was the only one who could tell her what really happened to her brother. The report didn’t make sense. She knew the Army could cover up deaths, and she was sure that was what happened with Ronnie.
Had Macon killed her brother? Somehow she didn’t think so. She certainly didn’t want to believe it. She’d walked into Top with the full intention of confronting him. She’d meant to sit down with Macon and force him to talk to her. Then she’d actually seen him. When she’d knocked on the back door, he’d opened it. He’d wiped his hands on his apron and given her the sweetest smile she’d ever seen, and when he’d asked what she needed her brain and her mouth hadn’t worked at all in sync. She’d stumbled and told him she was looking for a job, and she’d started waiting tables that night.
How would he feel if he knew she had an ulterior motive? She promised herself every single night that she was going to tell him the truth, and every night she put it off. Now she was in too deep. She was caught in a trap of her own making.
“I can’t. I’m closing.” It was a perfect excuse and one she liked using. She took all the extra shifts she could. Besides needing the money, she liked the quiet after the restaurant was closed. She enjoyed the way Sean turned on music and everything seemed to slow down. They would sit and have a late dinner. Sometimes Sean’s wife Grace would join them and she could watch how much they loved each other. If Grace brought their daughter, she could play with the baby.
“You’re always closing.” Deena frowned her way. “Some day you’ll have to join us and have some fun.”
“Of course.” She handed Deena the eraser for the features board. “One day I won’t be the new girl.”
She put the working-late excuse on being the new girl. She couldn’t explain that she didn’t have enough cash for a deposit on an apartment and wouldn’t for a while. She still had to make payments on her mother’s hospital bills. Her mom had been so proud. She couldn’t let it go, couldn’t let her sink into bankruptcy even though she was gone.
Deena sighed. “Can you take the trash out? The bathrooms are clean, but the lobby trash is full. I swear Javier cleans out that truck of his with that can. I’ve told him twenty times to take it out back.”
She nodded and walked to the front of the house. The entry trash was only about half full, but it was best to start with a clean slate. She quickly pulled the bag. There were several more beneath, always ready for a quick change. She fixed the new bag and closed the old.
“Thank you, darlin’!” Deena winked her way. “You’re the best. I’m going to give you all the high rollers tonight.”
Ally grinned and walked toward the back. She moved through the kitchen, enjoying the smells of the prep and the hum of activity.
She’d worked a few jobs before. Before her mom had gotten sick, she’d worked in the local fast food place. That had been pretty nasty, though she’d enjoyed the camaraderie. She’d worked two jobs after high school, saving every dime she’d made for four years. After Ronnie had gone into the service, she’d felt odd about leaving their mom alone for too long. She’d changed over to working part time for the church.
She pushed out of the back door and took a deep breath. Where had all those years gone? Why couldn’t her mother have passed on before she knew Ronnie was gone? It seemed kinder. But the universe hadn’t shown a hell of a lot of kindness to Ally’s family.
With a heavy heart, she opened the bin and dumped the trash in. It would be dark soon and time for dinner service. For a few hours she could lose herself in work and not think about all the problems she needed to solve.
Macon Miles wasn’t who she’d thought he was. Somehow she’d made him a monster in her mind, the one who survived when it should have been Ronnie. He’d taken her brother’s place. She knew in her rational mind that wasn’t fair, but it was how she felt at the time.
Macon was a big bear of a man. He was also well educated and, if rumors were true, he came from a wealthy family. She’d met his brother. Adam Miles was elegant and well spoken. They were the types of men who married women with college degrees and fancy careers and social connections. Three strikes and she was out. He was exactly the type of man she should shy away from because he would never get serious about a girl like her.
So why did her eyes trail toward him constantly? What was it about those big, strong hands molding delicate treats that made her daydream about impossible things?
Macon wasn’t her type. Not even close. She didn’t really have a type now that she thought about it. She’d only dated a couple of guys seriously and they were all willing to look past her shady family history. It wasn’t easy to grow up in a small town where everyone knew about her father’s crimes.
Ronnie hadn’t cared. She could remember the first and only time she’d tried to run away after Carla Rowe had taken her in. Ronnie had run after her, still in his pajamas. He was a gangly kid. All arms and legs and big sad eyes. Everyone teased the hell out of him, but he’d sworn if she was leaving then he was, too. She was his sister, after all. He couldn’t let her go alone, but he’d asked her to reconsider because the next night was mac and cheese night. He loved mac and cheese.
Another deep breath quelled the rising tide of emotion. She didn’t need this. Ever since that day in the cemetery, it always seemed close to the surface, as though her subconscious knew that her other tasks were over and now it was time to deal with all that ugliness that lay beneath.
Well, it wasn’t over. She had to stop dreaming about Macon Miles and find out the truth. If there was one thing she’d learned it was that even the sweetest of surfaces could hide something nasty. Soon she’d have enough money saved to hire the private investigator again and she would try to get the real reports, try to force them to tell the truth.
She was simply keeping an eye on Miles in the meantime. She wasn’t falling for him. Nope. That would be stupid and she wasn’t stupid.
She turned, ready to go back to work. Ally gasped as she came up against a hard chest.
“Hey, I was hoping to catch you alone.” Timothy stared down at her. He was a good half a foot taller than she was. He didn’t move back or give her any space at all.
She felt the hard metal of the trash bin at her back. God, she hated being crowded. “I need to get back to work.”
His hand came up, blocking her from moving to her left. “I think they can spare you for a few minutes. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
He was a perfectly made man with movie star good looks. Tim had fashionably cut blond hair. His face was quite lovely, but she’d always seen the hardness beneath his pretty exterior. He was a man who sneered instead of smiled, who only seemed to find humor at the expense of others. She’d heard him making fun of Macon when he stumbled one day, calling him a one-legged wonder.
Yeah, she didn’t like Timothy. Her instincts told her to fight. She should push the asshole back and tell him she would rip his balls off if he touched her again.
But he was important here at Top. He was a European-trained chef and she was an easily replaceable waitress. She was well aware of how the world worked. If he wanted to, he could likely get her fired in a heartbeat. Sean would be sweet about it, but he couldn’t take an unskilled laborer over a man who studied in France. From what she’d heard, he’d given Timothy a nice signing bonus when he’d agreed to work at Top. Sean was invested in this man. She had to be careful.
She inched to her right. “That’s nice, but some other time. Deena needs me to help out with setup.”
His other hand came down and she was trapped. “I think she’s fine. She can certainly spare you for a few minutes. I’ve been watching you.”
Yes, she was well aware. She’d been able to feel his lecherous stare like a spider crawling slowly across her skin. “I can’t imagine why.”
He moved in closer, until he was close enough for her to smell the liquor on his breath. God, she hated that smell. “I think you can.”
Her stomach dropped. As much as she liked her job, she wasn’t willing to let this idiot paw her over it. “Not really. I need to go back inside now.”
He didn’t move an inch. “I think you’ve been sending out signals.”
Why did guys have to be jerks? “The only signals I’ve been sending out are for you to back off.”
His lips curled up in that sneer he was always sporting. “So you want to play hard to get? I can understand that as long as you understand that the ending is going to be the same. I’m more than ready for you, sweetheart. Let me have a taste.”
She was done. It was time to fight her way out. She brought her hands up, pushing against his chest. “Let me go.”
He pushed back, proving how weak she was. “I will. Once I’ve got what I want.”
Tears started to blur her vision. She hated this feeling. So weak and useless. Pathetic. “Let me go and I won’t tell Chef what you tried.”
He chuckled but it was a nasty sound. He pressed his body to hers. “You really think Taggart is going to listen to some two-bit whore over me? You’re a dime a dozen. He can replace you in a heartbeat.”
She hated that word. What she hated even more was the way some men used their strength against women, as though being bigger gave them rights. She brought her knee up as hard as she could, but she was too close. She caught his thigh and it only seemed to make him madder.
His right hand tangled in her hair, pulling and making her scalp ache. Pain sizzled along her skin, making her grit her teeth. “You’re going to pay for that, bitch.”
And then she could breathe again. Timothy was gone in a flash and she heard a strangled shout before her eyes could process what was happening in front of her. She fell back against the Dumpster, only barely managing to stay on her feet.
Macon was here. He’d pulled Timothy off of her, but it seemed he wasn’t satisfied with breaking them apart. He punched Timothy squarely in the gut and the older man hit the concrete. “You want to pick on someone your own size, asshole? Or do you get your kicks off raping women?”
Her hands were shaking, her whole body aflame with shock. They weren’t alone in the alley anymore. It seemed like the entire staff of Top had come out to witness her humiliation. Tears poured from her eyes. They would all know what kind of trouble she’d gotten into. They would probably side with the man.
“The bitch wanted it,” Timothy managed to squawk, holding his gut. “She asked me to come out here for a quickie. I’m going to sue the fuck out of you, you one-legged freak.”
“Did he really say that?” Eric grinned. He was standing next to one of the line cooks, a big guy named Drake.
Drake shook his head. “I think so. Go on, Macon. Beat the little shit to death with your prosthetic.”
“He doesn’t need two legs to kill you, asshole,” Eric said. “He could do it with no legs and one hand tied behind his back. I suggest you shut your trap.”
They weren’t reacting like she’d expected. There were no pitying looks her way. Eric gave her a reassuring smile.
“Let Macon handle it,” Drake said, nodding her way. “The big guy can take care of this. Don’t you worry.”
Macon ignored everyone, choosing to put himself between her and Timothy. He didn’t crowd her, didn’t back her into a corner, simply offered himself as a wall against the man who’d tried to hurt her. “You okay?”
“Yes,” was all she could manage.
“All right, let’s break this up. We’ve got service in less than two hours.” When Sean Taggart barked an order, every man snapped to attention. She’d heard rumors that Taggart had been a Green Beret. She believed them. The blond god of a man stalked out of the back door, gesturing for everyone to head back inside. He was six foot three, a bit shorter than Macon, but there was no question who was in charge. Chef Taggart had led men into battle.
He was also probably about to fire her.
Damn, but she’d liked this job. It wasn’t fair.
When everyone was gone, he looked down at his pastry chef. Sean stepped up and reached down, giving Timothy a hand up. “Are you all right?”
At least the crowd was gone. There would only be a couple of people to watch her get fired.
Timothy’s eyes narrowed as he allowed Sean to help him up. “No, I’m not all right and I have to insist that you fire that asshole. I was taking the girl up on her offer when that meathead came out and went berserk. I want the police out here. I’m having him arrested for assault.”
Oh, god, she was going to get Macon arrested. She couldn’t stand that thought. He’d tried to help her. “It wasn’t Macon’s fault.”
Sean turned her way, one brow arched. “Really? Macon didn’t rearrange this guy’s intestines?”
She shook her head. She had to cover for him. “I did.”
Macon stepped in front of her again, as though protecting her from both men now. “That’s utterly ridiculous. It was me, boss. He was…”
Sean held a hand up. “Don’t. I don’t need an explanation.”
“The cops will,” Timothy said.
“Yes, and if you call them, I’m going to give them one,” Taggart said before turning around and kicking Timothy squarely in the balls. Timothy groaned and fell back to the ground. Taggart turned back to her. “That is how you kick a guy in the balls, sweetheart. You gotta have a little space between the two of you and then you have to visualize your foot actually going into his body cavity. That way you put some power behind it. Don’t forget that for next time. Miles, you all right?”
“I’d feel better if he was dead,” Macon admitted.
Taggart gave him a sure smile. “He’ll wish he was tomorrow.”
“He’s going to call the cops.” Ally was still shaky. Sometimes cops didn’t believe victims.
Taggart winked her way and pointed to a security camera placed above the back door. “He can and then he can explain why he was trying to rape an obviously unwilling woman. But he’s not going to call anyone because if he does, I’m going to let Miles here take out his frustrations on him.” Taggart took a knee beside the moaning Timothy. “Because if he tries to call the cops, I’ll show him what we do to assholes who attempt to molest one of my female employees. Here’s a hint. It’s not pretty. We’ll give him a Taggart special. My big brother has been dying to murder someone ever since his club blew up. Miles, take her inside and finish up your prep. I’m going to have an exit interview with this guy. Can you handle a promotion?”
Macon stilled, as though processing his good fortune. He nodded slowly, but there was a satisfied gleam in his eyes. “I can do it.”
“Good because that’s the last time I hire some dude from France.” His eyes trailed to her. “Can you handle her? She’s shaky.”
“Yes, Chef. I’ll take care of her.” Macon reached out a hand.
She wasn’t getting fired? She wasn’t getting fired. The knowledge seeped into her like a warm blanket. She really should have tried harder. She would have liked to have been the reason Timothy had turned that peculiar shade of purple.
She looked at that big hand of Macon’s. It was callused and rough and it had defended her. Maybe he’d been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it seemed like years in the Army and hard work in the civilian world had toughened him up. He wasn’t the guy she’d thought he was.
“You don’t have to be scared of me, sweetheart,” he said quietly. “Let’s go and I’ll get you a drink and you can settle down. He’s not going to hurt you. No one’s going to hurt you here. Not while I’m around.”
She put her hand in his and the minute that massive slab of flesh closed over hers, she felt warmer, stronger than before. Safer.
She followed him inside, her fingers tangling with his.
Copyright 2015 Lexi Blake