Temptation never tasted so good.
Close to the Heat, Book 1
With a chance to win a cooking competition that will advance her career, the last thing food truck chef Pepper Joseph needs is a distraction. Except she’s got a heaping helping of it in the form of fellow chef Darien Priest, the man who broke her heart.
It’s been years, and she tells herself she’s over his betrayal, but to her irritation, she finds she still has an appetite for his steel-gray eyes, clean-shaven head, and sleeve tattoos.
Darien regrets the single, juvenile act that ended it with Pepper, but he’s never found the courage to apologize. Now that they’re in close quarters, something’s steaming and it’s not just the saucepots. One toe-curling kiss proves there’s the potential for more than just a guarded friendship, and he sets out to prove he’s grown into an honorable man.
Until he discovers she’s pulled a seasoning switch that could have ruined one of his dishes. Now it’s on. There’s ten thousand dollars on the line, but if they don’t surrender to another chance at love, one—or both—of their wounded hearts could get singed.
Product Warnings“Scorching hot” doesn’t refer to the food. Contains two chefs who’ll inspire cravings of the very carnal kind. Includes one delicious recipe guaranteed to blow any diet out of the water.
Copyright © 2012 Dee Carney
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Flames licked higher and higher across muscles glistening with sweat and dancing with precision movements. The reds and oranges stretched between black lines of ink too far away to discern in true detail. Not like it mattered. Regardless of what the images actually formed, Pepper itched to trace every single one of them with a finger. A tongue. Her lips. Any or all three would do.
The best part?
Darien Priest had two full sleeves of tattoos worth memorizing.
Damn, did he have to look so good every day? And those tattoos… Bands of color and brilliance always on proud display drew not only her attention but the gazes of potential customers. They enthralled those who chose to eat from his food truck and watch him at work. Which would be fine and dandy if he didn’t choose to set up shop right across from Pepper’s own food truck. Every. Day.
“Still ogling him?” Jen asked.
Pepper snapped her gaze to the napkins resting outside of their own window. “What?” she replied casually. They still had some time to kill before the lunch crowd would start converging. “Just noticed that we need to do some restocking for the rush.”
Jen laughed, traitorous witch. “Come off it. Whenever Priest’s got his back turned or is busy, you’re checking him out. The second he thinks you’re not looking, he’s scoping you out. Why don’t the two of you just admit out loud that you’ve got it bad for each other?”
Pepper snorted. “What would I want with a bald white guy who’s covered in tattoos?” Other than to run the bald head all over her naked breasts. Maybe lower. Or see how far those tattoos extended down his toned body. Maybe as far as his crotch?
“Listen, you racist melon farmer,” Jen snarled while pointing a chef’s knife at Pepper, “you’re not fooling me.”
She stifled a grin at her blonde business partner and one of her best friends. “One day, I’m going to teach you how to curse properly.”
“One day, I’m going to see you two hook up. Just think of how cute your babies would be!”
Pep pretended to gag by sticking a finger down her throat before turning back to the onions sautéing in a pound of butter. Nothing like that particular scent to draw customers in. She used it every day to her advantage, despite most prep work being done in a real kitchen. The final cooking happened in the belly of her beast—the food truck she’d spent two years saving for.
A quick glance through the serving window and she found herself gazing into Darien’s eyes. Two lanes of traffic separated them, but she swore she could discern the flecks of blue and silver glinting deep within gray the color of an early morning before the sun rose. Her heart lifted a fraction as she waited to be gifted with his brilliant white smile, the same one he used to send teenage girls twittering. His lips did part in a quick grin, but it was for the horde already starting to gather before him.
Jen brought over a tray of creamy spring onion Jack cheese. “Any hint from the judges about the final dish? Last challenges are tomorrow, and you haven’t told me a thing. I’d hope they’d give us a little clue so we can start planning. Any ideas brewing?”
Pepper sulked, turning her attention back to her friend. Stirring the onions helped keep some frustration at bay. “Not a clue on what we’ll be serving or types of dishes to focus on. We appeal to the vegetarians and the yuppies, but kids and men want burgers. And Priest’s got those.”
“Doesn’t help they’re incredibly good, either,” Jen grumbled. “But who doesn’t like grilled cheese? Gourmet, not-yo-mama’s grilled cheese.”
True, both women were trained chefs, capable of cooking anything from home-style meat loaf all the way up the epicurean ladder to beef Wellington with paté de foie gras. But the rules were the rules. Since they served gourmet grilled cheese from Pepper’s truck, they were required to continue serving their truck’s signature item for the competition.
Most of the other chefs she knew specialized in a single type of cuisine in their trucks. Priest’s sliders smelled like heaven on a grill every day, but her sandwiches could make a person practically orgasm from a single bite.
“He’s got mass appeal,” Pepper admitted. Sexual, lip-wetting, throat-drying appeal. The kind that made her weak in the knees whenever he stood close. “Priest in a wife-beater, tats from here to next week, and he’s got them all hook, line and sinker. He’s the bad boy mothers warned girls about but the guy most everyone wants to be near.”
Everyone, including her. Naturally. They’d come close to being an official couple once before, but that ship had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, never to resurface again. He’d been a dick; she’d never forgiven him. They could be friends of sorts, but more than that? Not likely.
But in one of life’s little twisted jokes, she had to keep an eye on him by staying close. Both chefs were neck and neck, in competition for a ten-thousand-dollar grand prize.
Jen had a slightly different reaction.
“Hey, Sol.” Her lips curved up at the corners. “What’s happening over in burger land?”
Priest’s sous chef placed a hand over his chest and staggered back. “I’m dying a lonely death over there without your presence to keep my heart beating. What say you and I do something naughty together this weekend to make up for lost time?”
Pepper turned just enough to let Jen see her mock-shove another finger down her throat. Twice in five minutes might be a new record.
Sol was bad news by proxy. Anyone who chose to work and hang out with Priest couldn’t be good for either of them. Jen disagreed by dating him. “Name the time and place, sweet cheeks, and I’m there.”
“Righteous. But hey, yo, got some salt we can borrow?”
Wait, what? Hell, no.
Pep hip-bumped Jen out of the way. Sol turned hesitant brown eyes toward her. She could tolerate Sol, but this was business. Not personal. “Um, no.”
“No.” Arms folded across her chest, she stared him down. “Tell Priest if he needs salt, he’d better get his tail over to a grocery store. Or try the judges. Not his competitor.”
“C’mon, Pepper,” he whined. “Be a good sport.”
“No. I mean it.”
“Jeez, Pep. Don’t burn our bridges,” Jen said beneath her breath. “We might need their help one day.”
Doubtful, but it was a good point. “Fine,” she grumbled loudly enough for Sol to hear. He started to smile, but she cut it short with a harsh look. “But you tell Priest he has to come over here and ask for it himself.”
The man would probably rather chew razor blades. She’d pay good money to see either. No, it wasn’t very nice or very sporting, but with ten thousand dollars hanging in the balance, she needed whatever leverage she could find. Having him owe her a favor could prove useful.