Intercepting the Chef
ten months later
The heady, smoky aroma of sizzling steaks enveloped Stonestreet’s kitchen. Opening night and my first shift as an executive chef and I had my choice of preparing a special of bacon-wrapped meat loaf, coconut-crusted shrimp, or spaghetti and meatballs. Plus a whole slew of uninspired, run-of-the-mill offerings. Not exactly what I’d trained for at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. And not exactly what would make my chef and restaurateur father beam with joy.
I topped a seared filet mignon with butter and slid the finished plate across the pickup window into a server’s awaiting hands. He exited through the swinging door, the jazz tune being played by the live pianist filtering in from the packed dining room. Humming tunelessly along to the music, I dipped a teaspoon into the newest batch of béarnaise sauce warming on the stovetop.
Stephen would no doubt have a hearty laugh if he could see me now. But then what had I expected from a stereotypical athlete-owned restaurant? At least it was a job, one Chris had secured for me in my desperation, and in my hometown no less. And at least my name wasn’t on the signage to further smear my reputation. I only had to survive one year, maybe two, before the situation in San Francisco would be forgotten and I could start over somewhere better.
“Two wedge salads,” I called to the line cook at the cold prep station, a little piece of my soul dying. I’m classically trained, for heaven’s sake! Yet here I was, reduced to parroting dishes that’d been around since the midtier steakhouse boom of the 1990s. Somehow in the blink of an eye, I’d become the culinary equivalent of acid-washed jeans. All because Stephen had thought my talent blunted his knife.
“Yes, Chef,” the line cook shouted back, smothering half a head of iceberg lettuce with enough blue cheese dressing to render it soup with a side of waterlogged, flavorless greens.
“Here’s the kitchen. Think the locker room of the restaurant.” I recognized the voice—deep and commanding, the kind that only ever projected absolute confidence—before Logan Stonestreet waltzed into my domain, part of the Colorado Blizzards offense lumbering behind him. Logan looked like he strolled straight out of central casting for a Disney football flick and into the NFL. As quarterback of one of the hottest teams, he was tall, muscular, and athletic, capable of taking hits, breaking tackles, and torquing his body to deliver the ball with accuracy and velocity.
Logan led the group behind the counter, crowding the already-tight space. As if orchestrated, two rows of white-capped heads peered up, the entire staff scowling at the intruders before silently returning to their duties. Amazing how a bunch of life-sized sports figurines could suck the momentum out of a room.
“And here’s a serrated knife.” The high-carbon, stainless steel blade shined under the bright LED lights. “Touch anything and lose a finger.” I smiled sweetly at Logan, though I meant every word. He might be one of the best to ever wear the uniform and technically the owner of this establishment, but in my kitchen, Logan didn’t rank above dishwasher.
I needed him out. Immediately. A well-run kitchen was an organized machine. Precise, efficient, and entirely predictable. Life might be messy, but the kitchen never surprised me, never betrayed me. Logan’s mere presence threatened that.
“Dang, Logan,” Tony said, whistling. “Your chef’s a sassy one. It’s hot.”
Tony played right guard and was the size of the commercial refrigerator in the prep area. From everything Chris had shared and the media had confirmed, Tony was as powerful as a jet engine, more stealthy than a shadow, and the only guy a player needed to protect his blind side. And from what I had observed from television press conferences, he also seemed eternally upbeat, no matter the circumstances. I wondered how he balanced it all.
“Might want to watch what you say about my sister, dude, especially when she’s wielding a sharp object,” Chris cut in, shooting him a warning look. “Gwen’s known to get a little riled up.”
My sous chef, Amy, squeezed past them, the sauté pan of seafood risotto grazing his striped dress shirt, and I swore Tony was milliseconds away from dipping a pinkie into the creamy rice. My hand twitched, prepared to remove an appendage if necessary.
“You’re one to talk, Christopher. Your temper is as short as a matchstick,” I said, placing a steaming plate of roasted leg of lamb with pomegranate glaze on a tray. It was that temper, coupled with his explosive speed off the snap, that made Chris such an effective and irreplaceable wide receiver. “And I only get riled up when people infringe on my workspace. Now, unless you’d all like me to take this jagged edge to your soft spots, I suggest you get back in the dining room.”
“Aw, come on, Gwen, I thought we were friends.” Logan flashed that charming grin, the one that seemed to mesmerize every girl who crossed his path. Normally he was one part blond, blue-eyed wonder boy, one part relaxed casual—if he wasn’t such a damn good football player, he’d have raked in a killing modeling for the Gap. But tonight, he exuded sexual charisma in an expertly tailored Armani navy suit with a white-collared shirt partially unbuttoned and wingtip oxfords. The clean-cut side part and hair still long enough to comb fingers through certainly didn’t hurt his Adonis-like image.
“No, you and doofus over there are friends,” I said, gesturing to where my brother and Tony were examining the stability of an ahi tuna tower. Logan and Chris had been attached at the hip since peewee football. Back then, they’d both been scrawny runts pretending to be hotshot professionals. Who would’ve predicted that years later they’d be on the same team both gunning for a Super Bowl ring? “We”—I pointed the business end of my knife back and forth between us—“are acquaintances.”
Acquaintances. The universal definition for the awkward relationship born out of too much cheap beer, a high school party my senior year, and a clichéd teenage crush on my brother’s best friend. Acquaintances meant we’d made out in a pool house during the football team’s end-of-season gathering, moved past it—and we had moved past it, I reminded myself—and didn’t need to discuss it again.
Frankly I wished I could forget the whole him-touching-my-boob thing had ever happened, how exposed and vulnerable he’d made me feel. Too bad it was never that simple. Not when it came to Logan Stonestreet.
There’d always been something magnetic that drew me to him. The way his smile, almost perfect in its crookedness, lingered on his face, suggesting devilish possibilities. The crinkles that formed around his eyes when he laughed, lending a sort of boyish playfulness to his vibrant, and often cocky, personality. The helmet tan line that was like a tattoo on the back of his neck, the one I’d pretended not to notice when he’d sauntered down the halls in school, students and teachers alike transfixed by his every move.
Even now, standing in the last place he belonged, I couldn’t rip my gaze away from the sharp cut of his jaw, the honey-blond fleck of five o’clock shadow that should look sloppy rather than handsome. I couldn’t help but picture how it’d feel if those huge, capable hands grabbed my waist and set me on the countertop. I blamed the sudden swell of heat coursing through me on the Viking range behind me—and definitely not on the eight different ways I wanted to violate the health code.
But engaging with Logan outside the restaurant owner/executive chef partnership was out of the question. Until tonight, we’d been communicating via email and voice messages, since he was busy with training camp and preseason, but with the main season about to start, I feared he’d be around more frequently. Something I wasn’t sure my heart could afford.
“Move along, Wonder Bread. Certainly there are guests waiting to be schmoozed, napkins primed for autographing, press writers to pander to.” I attempted to bump Logan out of the way with my hip but managed only to nudge him a little.
Leaning against the counter, he crossed his arms and his legs at the ankle, one side of his mouth quirking up. “Gwenie, remember how you agreed to stop using that nickname if I bought you the industrial mixer you wanted?”
“I said I’d try to quit calling you Wonder Bread. Not my fault it’s so appropriate.”
“Why, ’cause I need more UV rays?” he asked. “You should speak for yourself. I bet if you styled your hair in two braids instead of that low bun, you’d be a dead ringer for Wednesday Addams.”
“Clever,” I said as my eyes raked over the sun-kissed skin peeking out from under his shirt. Even in the harsh kitchen lights, he glowed golden perfection. Jerk. “But no. It’s because you’re All-American, boring, and as usual, full of crap.”
At my response, Tony burst out laughing. “Ain’t that the truth,” he said, slapping my shoulder with enough strength it threatened to knock the toque off my head.
“You should probably take Gwen at her word, Logan,” Chris chimed in, stepping to the side so Amy could pass me the crab cakes still bubbling from the broiler. I transferred them to a white platter, added the rémoulade sauce, then popped the finished dish into the pickup window.
“Why are there green bits in the crab cakes?” Logan asked, scrutinizing the appetizer with more attention than something so basic deserved.
“From the diced jalapeños,” I said, studying several plates ready to head out onto the floor. “Your version was bland, so I modified it.”
Logan raised an eyebrow. “You changed my mom’s signature dish?”
Guilt twisted my chest at the realization. Kind, stoic, and charming, Jane had been the bedrock of the Stonestreet family with a soothing melodic voice and Jackie Kennedy beauty. Ovarian cancer had claimed her life too soon, only weeks after Logan had been drafted to the Blizzards. Sports analysts and critics alike had thought the loss would affect Logan’s game, but instead it had seemed to push him to play harder, better, echoing his legendary NFL quarterback father who’d won three Super Bowl championships and had a mall in Seattle named after him.
“I just spruced it up a bit,” I said. “Gave it a little personality.”
“The recipe was fine—”
“Yes, yes. Chock-full of crabmeat, mayo, bread crumbs, and overinflated seduction,” I said. “I can only imagine how many times you’ve used it on a girl to round third base on your way to home. Though how something with so little flavor ever did you any favors, I’ll never know.”
“That’s what the sauce is for,” Logan said, the tips of his ears turning pink.
“The what?” I asked, annoyed that in order to work around him, I kept brushing up against him. Definitely no participation trophies where he was concerned.
“Fred’s Five Pepper Insanity.”
For the first time that evening, I came to a complete and total standstill. Hot sauce from a bottle? Oh, hell no.
“It tastes great on anything,” Logan continued. “It’s written right on the label.”
I ground my teeth. “Get. Out. Now.”
“Sassy chef’s about to gut you worse than you did to Detroit’s defense last week,” Tony hollered, still happy as ever even though in his most recent preseason performance, he’d uncharacteristically given up three quarterback sacks.
“What’d I do?” Logan asked, his expression pure bewilderment.
Chris grabbed Logan by the back of the neck and marched him toward the swinging door. “Bottled sauce? You idiot.” He patted Logan on the cheek, shaking his head in bafflement. “I know you two haven’t spent much time together recently, but it’s like you’ve never met Gwen.”
The minute they were out of sight, the familiar rush of a busy kitchen flooded back, and I could breathe again. Damn Logan. So many years away from him and he still had the ability to steal the oxygen from the room until my emotional intelligence dropped to the level of cheerleader wannabe heading up the bake sale.
I needed to remember why I was in Denver and what had landed me here.
And above all, I needed to remember what happened when I let personal and professional collide.