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  The sommelier looked Eric over with hopeful curiosity. “Really?”

  Eric, as confused as Em, nodded.

  “Well…” The sommelier glanced down at the card in her hand, then back up into their faces. “You could come in, meet Chef. He’d have to approve this, of course, which, truthfully, he’s not likely to do. He doesn’t work with strangers,” she said, though her gaze turned bemused when she looked over at Em.

  “Oh, we’re not strangers to Chef,” Liza said with a smile.

  Em added her own weak smile. Nope, not strangers.

  “Just a sec.” The sommelier shut the door.

  Em turned to Liza. “What are you doing?”

  “A favor for a favor. We do something for Chef, and then he’ll do something for us.”

  “Liza, those are not equivalent favors!” Em cried. “One day of Eric’s services is not going to make Jacob come across the country—”

  The kitchen door opened again, and there stood Jacob himself, looking tall, big, and gorgeously rumpled in his battered jeans and boots and a T-shirt that said Smile, It Confuses People.

  “Em,” he said in surprise, for one brief beat his face unguarded, allowing her to see the pleasure before it was gone in a blink, carefully masked.

  It made her sad to think that what they’d shared last night was going to be just a distant memory.

  “Chef,” Liza purred. “Eric’s an amazing chef. He’s offering to help you out today.”

  “Thank you,” he said. “But I don’t need—”

  “It’s a Friday. We both know what this place is going to look like tonight, and that’s full to the gills. You can’t do it alone.”

  Jacob looked at Eric. “You cook?”


  Jacob turned to Em. “What’s the catch?”

  Em looked into his eyes and felt her throat tighten. He knew she was here for some reason, and not the goodness of her heart. All his life he’d had to scrap and fight to get by, nothing had ever been handed to him, not friendship, not love, nothing.

  She wouldn’t do the same thing. She wouldn’t do this Nathan’s way. “No catch.”

  He crossed his arms, disbelieving.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “Coming here was a mistake.” And grabbing both Liza and Eric, she turned away.


  She went still, then turned back.

  Gaze still inscrutable, he’d relaxed marginally, and she knew with a sudden clarity that he’d lied to her. Last night hadn’t been the norm for him, it had been just as special, just as amazing, as it had been for her.

  And he’d pushed her away because of it. It had been his right to do so, and she understood it all too well.

  “Help would be welcome,” he said, surprising her.

  Eric shoved up his sleeves. “Just tell me where and what.”

  Em nodded and took a step back to let Eric through. “Okay, then. Good luck tonight—”

  “Where are you going?” Jacob asked.

  “Out of your hair.”

  Jacob rubbed his nearly hairless head. “No worries there.”

  Em stared at him. “What are you saying?”

  “I think he already said it,” Liza said, looking at Jacob as she rolled up her sleeves. “He needs help. From all of us.”

  EM ENDED UP with a ponytail keeping her hair back and a white jacket over her clothes. But it was the knife in her hands concerning her as she contemplated a stack of vegetables that might as well have been Mt. Everest.

  Jacob was moving around, lifting big pots, wielding equipment, working near the hot, open flame, mixing up something that smelled like heaven. Eric was on the other side of the kitchen at the open flame, smiling and joking with Pru, while Liza surreptitiously watched them from her corner, mouth grim.

  They’d promised Jacob an hour of prep work. Correction. She and Liza had promised an hour. Eric would stay as long as Jacob was needed, the rest of the night if necessary, because, as he said, the experience would be fun.

  From the range, Eric laughed at something Pru said.

  Liza pretended not to notice.

  Em wasn’t as good at pretending. Ignoring what had happened between her and Jacob last night, even for an hour, was beyond her, but she gave it the ol’ college try as she reached for a carrot and began slicing. How could he look at her and not remember?

  Even as she thought it, Jacob glanced across the room at her, nothing showing on his face.

  Was he thinking about what they’d been doing only a few hours before? How he’d touched her, kissed her? How when he’d been buried deep in her body he’d met her gaze and had been unable to tear his away?

  Eric laughed again.

  Liza set down her knife and walked toward them, a look of intent on her face.

  Eric turned to her, smiling until he saw her expression. Then his changed, softened, filled with a look of such hope Em wanted to turn away, but she couldn’t.

  At the look, Liza suddenly broke into a smile, as if Eric was her everything.

  Eric returned it.

  Pru moved away, and Eric gently touched Liza’s face, kissing her softly before going back to his station.

  Liza brought her hand up to her lips, sighed, then went back to her station, as well.

  And Em swallowed the inexplicable urge to cry.

  “You trying to lose a finger?”

  When she nearly jerked out of her skin, two arms reached around her, hands settling over hers. “Easy,” Jacob murmured.

  Easy? Was he kidding? She could feel his warm, hard chest against her back, his heat, his strength. And she could smell him, some complicated mix of soap and man that was so intoxicating she felt dizzy. “What are we making?”

  “Spicy Szechuan noodles with grilled Indonesian tiger prawns for the first course, snapper with tamarind-coconut sauce and bamboo rice for the main course. Then tempura bananas with caramel sauce for dessert.”

  She didn’t even know what half of that was. “Sounds interesting.”


  Craning her neck, she looked up into his eyes. Despite the tension in his body, his eyes were smiling.

  “Do you ever just make burgers?” she asked.


  “Burgers tonight would be good,” she said. “I could forgo chopping all these veggies.”

  “Would you rather pick cilantro leaves for garnish?” he asked. “It’s easier. Or you could prep spinach leaves for salads.”

  She’d had no idea how much work went into being a chef, the long hours, mostly on your feet, lifting heavy pots and pans, working near dangerous appliances at high temperatures. “I can handle this.”

  “I bet you can.” His arms were still alongside hers, his hands guiding her fingers into the right position on the knife. “This way, Em, so you’ll keep all your fingers, see? Nothing wrong with your way, other than I don’t like blood in my kitchen.” He spoke casually, showing her exactly how he meant for it all to be done, making it look easy. And having him surround her like that was, well…nirvana. It brought it all back, what it had felt like to be skin-to-skin with him, face-to-face, sharing their bodies, and more. Wanting to see him, to gauge if he was feeling any of the overwhelming emotions she was, she tipped her head up to look at him.

  His eyes were on the knife and the carrot but they swiveled to meet hers. “You going to watch what you’re doing? Or me?”


  His eyes swirled with heat. “Em.”

  “The things you said to me this morning.” She took a quick peek at the others. No one was paying them the slightest bit of attention. “I don’t think you meant them.”

  “I never say anything I don’t mean.”

  “Jacob.” She pushed the carrots away and turned to face him directly. “We made love. We fell asleep together. And it was out of this world. I might not be all that experienced, but I know that much.” He didn’t say anything, and the first bits of doubt crept in. “Or I thought I knew tha