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The Trouble With Cowboys
By Melissa Cutler
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Melissa Cutler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChefs the world over loved to riff about ingredients as inspiration, about tender leaves of fresh-picked basil or fall's first crop of apples sparking the creation of whole menus in their minds. For many chefs, food spoke to them like muses, guiding forces of creativity. Not Amy. She felt the life in each pot, the potential in every pan. In the way the light reflected off stainless steel and the hiss of a gas stovetop. And no matter which kitchen she cooked in, from Los Angeles to Paris, she carried with her the most invaluable inspiration of all—her knives.
Specifically, her nine-inch MAC SPK-95 Classic chef knife. Standing at the counter in the kitchen she grew up in, she withdrew it from its canvas bag and moved it over her arm, relishing the perfectly balanced weight of the blended steel tool.
"Hello, baby," she crooned.
Airport regulations had required her to stow the MAC in her checked bag yesterday for the flight to New Mexico, a rule she followed grudgingly, and this morning was their first reunion. Being that this was her first time back in Catcher Creek since the Ultimate Chef Showdown debacle and with an afternoon lawyer meeting on the horizon, she needed this moment more than ever. She needed to dice.
With practiced ceremony, she sharpened the knife with a pass along a honing rod. The zing of metal sliding over metal sent chill bumps crawling over her skin. A second pass over the rod, and this time, the vibrating zing of steel tightened her nipples. She smiled, a secret, wicked smile, as her stress evaporated. She adjusted her grip on the hilt of the honing rod, set the base of the knife against its shaft, and pulled.
Who cared that for her thirty seconds of fame as a reality TV star she was the laughingstock of the nation? She didn't have to face the vicious gossip of Catcher Creek's locals anytime soon if she didn't want to. She was no coward, but today was going to be hard enough without their judgment.
Zing. Damn, she loved the feel of friction sliding up her arm.
Who cared about the pressure she'd piled on herself in returning home—the suffocating stress of her sisters counting on her to save them all from disaster? She wouldn't crack. Unlike her mother, Amy didn't have that luxury. Which was why, for a few quiet minutes, she needed to lose herself in knife work, in the mindless task of dicing perfect cubes of celery.
She flicked the tip of the blade with her finger and licked her lips. Lethally sharp, just the way she liked it. The MAC was ready for action. As was Amy. She placed the knife on the cutting board and moved to the refrigerator. She had no idea the sort of produce her sisters kept on hand, but certainly they'd stocked celery, knowing how important dicing vegetables was to regulating her stress levels.
She opened the refrigerator door and gasped. Except for a bottle of ketchup and a gallon of milk, every shelf and both crispers were empty. She slammed the door and raced to the pantry. Empty. Not even a potato. She glanced sideways at her MAC, which sat impotently, waiting for her. And just like that, her usual anxiety returned with a vengeance.
The Quick Stand was roasting inside. Whoever set the thermostat either had a poor understanding of electronic devices or the misfortune of being born cold-blooded. Sure New Mexico was experiencing a cold snap, but nothing justified heat this sweltering. The refrigerator display cases whirred nonstop, and Amy debated the merits of staging a citizen's arrest of the leathery-skinned farmer at the coffeepot who'd forgotten to apply deodorant. Then again, that would mean stepping out of the line she'd already invested ten minutes of her time waiting in.
She glanced around. Busy place for a Saturday, probably because it was the only store open before ten o'clock for twenty miles—a fact she'd learned the hard way. With each padlocked door and darkened store she'd driven by, the more viciously the day's stress seized up in her belly.
When her turn arrived, she took a deep breath and stepped to the checkout counter. A niggle started in her throat, like a first tickling of hysteria. She swallowed it back. Please, please, please have celery.
Charlene Delgado, who'd been the cashier for as long as Amy remembered, smiled in surprise. "Well, if it isn't the famous actress home from Hollywood. I watched you on that television show. A shame, what happened with that cowboy contestant. He played you bad, for sure, but your tantrum"—she whistled—"that was one for the ages."
Amy ground her molars together and painted a pleasant smile on her lips. She'd wondered which Catcher Creek resident would be the first to bring up Ultimate Chef Showdown and Cowboy Cook Brock McKenna. In town less than twenty-four hours, she hadn't been kept waiting long. And how fitting that Charlene, the leader of the local gossip brigade, delivered the initial blow.
Charlene was spot-on about Amy being shamed, even if she got the details wrong, but she wasn't about to point out that the show filmed in New York City, nor that Amy was a chef, not an actress. If she'd been anything of a decent actress, that tantrum would've never happened. She pushed her smile as wide as her lips would stretch. "Thank you for watching the show. The support of my Catcher Creek neighbors has been such a blessing." If one counted deafening silence as support.
"What can I do for you, dear?" Charlene asked.
"Does the Quick Stand carry celery? I couldn't find any and I really, seriously, need some this morning." Like a turning of the screw, thinking about her futile celery search across the county twisted her belly into a tighter, more painful knot.
"Celery? You cooking some sort of gourmet breakfast, like that time on Chef Showdown where you had to make a dessert using vegetables? Wait ... you're pregnant, aren't you? You have a craving for celery."
"No ... NO! Nothing like that. It's just—"
A woman in line conspicuously cleared her throat. Amy froze. And so it began, the whispers and stares she'd faced all her life in this small community, the disdain she faced for being a Sorentino. Her cheeks heated, but she didn't dare turn. Let them all look. Let them whisper to each other behind their hands, Like mother, like daughter. Amy had gone up against worse bullies and survived. Not always with dignity, she amended, thinking about Ultimate Chef Showdown, but she'd survived nonetheless.
"It's just that I'm a chef, and I need celery," she finished, forcing her smile wider.
"I wish I could help you, but we don't carry celery."
"How about onions? I could make do with onions."
Charlene shook her head. "We don't carry any produce here."
Charlene trudged to a refrigerated bin and removed a Styrofoam snowman from the top. She fished something out, waddled to the checkout stand, and slapped a three-ounce bag of baby carrots on the counter.
Cringing, Amy poked at the bag. "Fine. Give me everything you've got."
The woman in line cleared her throat again, followed by a muttered "Those Sorentinos...."
This time, Amy whipped around. "Is there something you want to say about my family?"
The woman's eyes widened in shock and, Amy liked to think, a healthy dose of fear. Yeah, that's right, lady. Don't mess with a Sorentino. I might go all crazy on your ass.
A man stepped forward, his expression placating. "Now, ladies. Let's stay calm. No need to get riled up on this fine morning."
Amy cursed under her breath. A cowboy. Just perfect. She was already primed with need from her knife-sharpening session, pent up with nervous tension that needed releasing. She'd tried to take the safe route to stress relief by sticking to celery, but it looked like the universe had different ideas, throwing a cowboy into her path.
Dark brown hair curled beneath his dust-coated cowboy hat and his long legs ended in scuffed, aged boots that settled a familiar, heavy ache between her thighs. True, she was the only woman she knew who got hot and bothered every time "Desperado " played on the radio, but there was something about boots, snug jeans, and a worn-in Stetson that flipped a switch in her. And this particular cowboy— oh, Doctor. She pictured him tossing bales of hay into a truck bed, his burly biceps bunching, his broad, strong back flexing, his brow sweating from the effort.
Snapping her gaze away, she mentally shook herself. The last thing she needed in her life was another cowboy, especially after Brock McKenna, even if this one clocked in at an eleven on the hotness scale.
She looked at him again with fresh eyes, this time registering his patronizing grin. Amy hated to be patronized. Brock had done that on Ultimate Chef Showdown and it was as grating to her nerves now as it had been then. The longer she thought about it, the more she wanted to smack the arrogant smirk off this new cowboy's sexy, stubbled jaw with her bag of baby carrots, then stuff it down his throat. How dare he barge in on her stressful day with his tight jeans and T-shirt that showed off the muscles beneath like he was God's gift to women? Snatching the bag from the counter, she gave a little practice swing with her three ounces of whoop-ass.
No. She wouldn't cause a scene. Her tattered reputation couldn't handle another public freak-out. Her gaze drifted over the crowd of people in the market. From those in line to the people doctoring up their morning coffee, all eyes in the place were trained on her.
Too late. She'd already caused a scene. The heat of her cheeks spread over her neck. She'd been seconds away from bludgeoning a man with a bag of carrots. Unbelievable. She should never be allowed out of the kitchen again. She counted down from ten before speaking in her calmest, most rational voice. "I'm not riled up. I'm buying carrots." She dangled the bag in front of her face. "See?"
Lifting his hat from his head, the cowboy's grin broadened. He ran a hand over his mop of hair as he moseyed her way, his boots clomping along the linoleum. She couldn't tear her gaze from him. The way he moved got her visualizing him swinging onto a horse, taking the reins, issuing a command. The prick of heat on her skin grew unbearable. She had to get away from him before she embarrassed herself even further.
"Perhaps we could step out of line to talk in private and let these good folks get on with their morning." His voice was a low, lazy drawl that turned her legs rubbery. She allowed him to take her arm and lead her to a rack of magazines in the corner, mostly because she wanted to feel those large, work-worn hands on her skin.
Get a grip, Amy. Remember rule number one.
She twisted her arm away. "What do you want?"
"Just trying to keep the peace, Miss Sorentino—Amy. You looked like you were ready to go postal on Linda Klauss. I had to do something."
She shook her hair back and lifted her chin. "Let's stick with Miss Sorentino. And who are you?"
"Kellan Reed, your neighbor."
Damn. Her morning just went from bad to worse. "You're Kellan Reed, owner of Slipping Rock Ranch?"
"At your service."
With the way he was looking her over, she bet he was. "I'm opening a restaurant here.You're on my list to call."
"Is that so?"
"I have a business proposition for you." She felt dirty saying the words, like from them he might divine that she was imagining how he'd look astride a horse. Shirtless.
Lordy. Maybe she could hand this particular negotiation off to Jenna.
"I look forward to discussing it with you, so long as you leave your bags of carrots in the car." Amy balked and he held up his hands. "I've got some time now. Why don't you follow me to my ranch and we'll talk about what it is you want from me? Business-wise, of course."
She chewed her bottom lip, considering. After Brock McKenna in all his cowboy glory played her for a fool on Ultimate Chef Showdown, she'd added a new number one rule to live her life by—resist temptation by steering clear of cowboys. Unfortunately, she was opening a restaurant that would feature locally grown food, and her success depended on securing contracts with the best ranches and farms in the region. Kellan Reed's cattle ranch sat at the top of that exclusive list because of its reputation for producing the most coveted, high-quality beef in the southwest. Not to mention the most expensive.
So if Kellan Reed offered her an invitation to talk business at his ranch, she had no choice but to take him up on it. The way she saw it, she had the drive from the Quick Stand to his property to strategize a way to convince him to sell Slipping Rock beef to her at an under-market rate. That was going to be a problem because, even now, she was having trouble stringing together a single intelligible sentence with him looking at her with those deep brown eyes—and they weren't even alone yet.
She would have to be strong. No going inside his house, no needless small talk. They could negotiate outside, where she had quick access to a getaway vehicle should she sense her self-control crumbling. After securing the beef contract, she'd thank him and be on her way like a reasonable, responsible adult. No problem.
She afforded him a terse nod. "It's a deal."
"Excellent." His dark eyes twinkled with lusty purpose— or maybe that was only a product of Amy's overactive imagination. "Char, would you put these on my tab?" He waved a candy bar and a bag of pretzels in her direction.
"Breakfast of champions?" Amy asked.
"More like lunch, I've been up so long. But if you want to call me a champion, I'm not going to argue." He winked.
Amy sucked in an unsteady breath, then tried to hide it with an indignant huff as she squeezed her thighs together. "Let's get on with it," she said, her voice coming out far huskier than she intended.
"By all means, after you, ma'am."
"I know where Slipping Rock Ranch is. I'll meet you there."
"Fine with me." He replaced the hat on his head and tipped the brim low over his eyes. "And, honey, I know you're having a tough morning, but watch your speed on my property. Wouldn't want you to spook the horses." With another wave at Charlene, he left.
"Cowboys, ugh," she muttered. Still, her eyes tracked the swish of his tight jeans out the door and into the driver's seat of a run-down truck across the lot. Her rule book might forbid her from getting too close to cowboys, but it didn't say a thing about looking.
Kellan hadn't meant to boldly flirt with a member of the notorious Sorentino family at the Quick Stand. All he'd wanted was for the pretty girl at the counter to move along and stop disturbing the peace. He had a low tolerance for people airing their messy lives in public and the Sorentino family had the worst reputation in town for staging scenes wherever they went. He'd spoken up in an effort to run damage control for Charlene before a catfight erupted in the middle of her morning rush, but the minute he got up close and personal with Amy Sorentino, he changed his tune.
He'd heard plenty of talk about Amy. Nothing flattering. Nothing that hinted at her beauty or vivacity. Nothing that captured Kellan's interest the way the actual woman had with a toss of her hair and a few terse words. Not to mention that heart-shaped ass and the fire in her eyes as she gave him the once-over. She rubbed him the right way straight out of the gate.
Not that he was looking for a relationship with a woman with a screwed-up family and a penchant for public commotions. Once upon a time, he'd belonged to a dysfunctional family. He knew better than to let history repeat itself.
When she pulled up in front of his house, driving too fast like he knew she would be, he was waiting for her on the porch. From that angle, he was treated to a perfect view of her legs stretching from the car to the ground one at a time. She froze at the base of the porch stairs and fiddled with her car keys.
He hooked his thumb toward his front door. "Come on in. We can discuss your business proposition over coffee."
She took a step back and mumbled something that sounded like "rule number one."
"I didn't catch that. What did you say?"
"I said it's a beautiful day. Let's talk outside."
He kicked away from the wall, intrigued. Maybe he read her body language wrong at the Quick Stand. "Okay. How about you have a seat on the porch? I'll bring out the coffee."
Her mouth screwed up as she eyed the porch suspiciously. "Fine. I can handle that. No problem."
She perched on the edge of a wicker chair, wringing her hands. Maybe she'd heard talk about his no-nonsense business ethic and was nervous about entering into a negotiation with him. "One more thing," he found himself saying without giving it much forethought, "I grow celery. I give most of it away, but there's three bunches in my fridge right now. You're welcome to it if you want."
"That would be ... Thank you." Her hands stopped fidgeting, which he took as a positive sign.
"Okay. Good. I'll get the celery and coffee and be right back."
Bracing his side against the door frame, he tugged a work boot off and there was no mistaking her long hiss of an exhale. Interesting. When he started in on the second boot, he watched from the corner of his eye as her fingers smoothed over her skirt and locked on her bare knee.
Note to self—the lady's got a thing for boots.
"Rule number one," she said in a bare whisper.
"What? Something about a rule?"
"Huh? Me? I didn't say anything." She jumped to her feet, color staining her cheeks.
Kellan stifled the urge to brush his thumb over her pink-laced freckles. In the spirit of discovering what else turned the skittish Miss Sorentino on, he lifted his work hat from its peg by the door and dropped it on his head.
Amy's eyes turned dark. She bit her bottom lip.
That look alone was worth feeling like an idiot by putting on a hat to go indoors. Working hard to keep a triumphant smile off his face, Kellan swaggered into the kitchen, leaving the door open behind him. He busied himself at the coffeemaker until a long shadow materialized on the tile floor. Amy had moved into the doorway.
He glanced at her. "You want onions too?"
"Celery should be enough to get me by."
Excerpted from The Trouble With Cowboys by Melissa Cutler Copyright © 2012 by Melissa Cutler. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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