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Tamara Rayne's high heels clacked impatiently against the cobblestones as she strode towards Ambrosia, Melbourne's hippest restaurant, a gourmet's delight and the place where she was trying to get her life back on track.
Her favourite butterscotch boots, patent leather with a towering heelimpractical yet gorgeousnever failed to invoke the stuff of her surname as plump drops splashed down from the heavens and lashed her in a stinging sheet.
With her laden arms and no umbrella, she needed a mythical knight in shining armour. She'd thought she'd had him once in Richard. How wrong she'd been.
Blinking back futile tearswasted tears, angry tearsshe pushed on Ambrosia's door with her behind, staggering with her load, almost slamming into her knight.
More of a pirate, really, a corporate pirate in a designer suit with rain-slicked dark hair, roguish blue eyes and a devilish smile.
'Need a hand?'
Definitely devilish, and used to great effect if the constant parade of women traipsing through Ethan Brooks's life was any indication.
She hadn't meant to sound so frosty but then, what was he doing? Flirting? She barely knew him, had seen him three times in the last year out of necessity, so why the familiarity?
'Too bad.' He shrugged, his roguish smile widening as he pointed to the bundle in her arms. 'Do you want help with that?'
Quashing the urge to take her load and run, she nodded. 'Thanks.'
He grunted as she offloaded the bag perched precariously on top of the rest. 'What's in here? Bricks for the new tandoori oven I've ordered?'
'Almost as heavy.'
Her voice wobbled, just a tad, and she swallowed,twice. It was the mention of the tandoori oven that did it.
Her mum had loved tandoori chicken, had scored the chicken to let the spices and yoghurt marinate into it, had painstakingly threaded the pieces onto skewers before grilling, while lamenting the loss of her real oven back in Goa.
Her mother had missed her homeland so much, despite living in Melbourne for the last thirty years of her life. It had been the reason they'd planned their special trip together: a trip back in time for her mum, a trip to open Tamara's eyes to a culture she'd never known even though Indian blood ran in her veins.
Thanks to Richard, the trip never happened and, while her mum had died three years ago and she'd come to terms with her grief, she'd never forgiven him for robbing her of that precious experience.
Now, more than ever, she needed her mum, missed her terribly. Khushi would've been her only ally, would've been the only one she trusted with the truth about Richard, and would've helped her reclaim her identity, her life.
Hot, bitter tears of regret stung her eyes and she deliberately glanced over Ethan's shoulder, focusing on anything other than the curiosity in his eyes.
'Can you take the rest? My arms are killing me.'
She knew he wouldn't push, wouldn't ask her what was wrong.
He hadn't pushed when she'd been detached and withdrawn following Richard's death while they'd sorted through the legal rigmarole of the restaurant.
He hadn't pushed when she'd approached him to use Ambrosia six months ago to kick-start her career.
Instead, he'd taken an extended business trip, had been aloof as always. There was a time she'd thought he disliked her, such was his distant demeanour whenever she entered a room.
But she hadn't wasted time figuring it out. He was Richard's mate and that was all the reason she needed to keep her distance. Ethan, like the rest of the planet, thought Richard was great: top chef, top entertainer, top bloke.
If they only knew.
'Sure.' He took the bulk of her load, making it look easy as he held the door open. 'Coming in?'
She didn't need to be asked twice as she stepped into the only place she called home these days.
Ambrosia: food of the gods. More like food for her soul.
It had become her refuge, her safe haven the last few months. Crazy, considering Richard had owned part of it, had been head chef since its inception, and they'd met here when she'd come to critique Melbourne's latest culinary hot spot.
For that alone she should hate the place.
But the welcoming warmth of Ambrosia, with its polished honey oak boards, brick fireplace and comfy cushioned chairs that had drawn her here every Monday for the last six months was hard to resist and what better place for a food critic determined to return to the workforce to practise her trade?
Throw in the best hot chocolate this side of the Yarra and she couldn't stay away.
As she dumped her remaining load on a nearby table and stretched her aching arms, her gaze drifted to the enigmatic man lighting a match to kindling in the fireplace.
What was he doing here?
From all accounts, Ethan was unpredictable, blew hotter and colder than a Melbourne spring breeze. His employees enjoyed working here but never knew when the imperturbable, ruthless businessman would appear.
She'd been happy to have the place to herself the last six months, other than the skilled staff and eager patrons who poured through the door of course, had been strangely uncomfortable the few times she and Ethan met.
There was something about him an underlying steeli-ness, a hard streak, an almost palpable electricity that buzzed and crackled, indicative of a man in command, a man on top of his game and intent on staying there.
He straightened and she quickly averted her gaze, surprised to find it had been lingering on a piece of his anatomy she had no right noticing.
She'd never done thatnoticed him as a man. He was Richard's business partner, someone who'd always been distantly polite to her the few times their paths had crossed, but that was it.
So why the quick flush of heat, the flicker of guilt?
It had been a year since Richard's death, two since she'd been touched by a man, which went a long way to explaining her wandering gaze. She may be numb on the inside, emotionally anaesthetised, but she wasn't dead and any woman with a pulse would've checked out Ethan's rather impressive rear end.
'If I get you a drink, will you tell me what's in the bags?'
Slipping out of her camel trench coat, she slung it onto the back of a chair. She didn't want to tell him, didn't want to show him the culmination of half a year's work.
She'd come here for privacy, for inspiration, and having him here intruded on that. Ridiculous, considering he owned the place and could come and go as he pleased, but something about his greeting had rankled, something about that damn smile.
'I'd kill for a hot chocolate, thanks.'
'Coming right up.'
His gaze lingered on the bags before meeting hers, challenging. 'I won't give up until I know what's in there so why don't you just tell me?'
He stared at her, unflinching, direct, his persistence indicative of a guy used to getting his own way, a guy who demanded nothing less.
She fingered the hessian holding her future, mindyour own business hovering on her lips. His authority niggled, grated, but he'd given her the opportunity to relaunch her career by using this place and she should be civil if nothing else.
'If you throw in a side of marshmallows, I'll show you.'
With a half salute and a twinkle in his eyes, he strode towards the bar.
Ah the pirate was in top form today. Full of swagger, cheek and suave bravado. She was immune to his charm, of course, but for a split second it felt good, great, in fact, to be on the receiving end of some of that legendary charm.
While he headed for the espresso machine behind the bar she plopped onto a chair, stretched her legs and wiggled her toes. She loved these boots, she really did, but they were nothing but trouble for the weather, her feet and her back, which gave a protesting twinge as she sat up.
Though that could be more to do with the ten-ton load she'd hefted up the street, but she'd had no choice. She held her future in her handsliterallyand, despite the gut feeling she was ready for this, it wouldn't hurt to get Ethan's opinion on it. If anyone knew this business inside out, he did.
'Here you go. One hot chocolate with a double side of marshmallows.'
He placed the towering glass in front of her, a strong Americano in front of him, and slid into the chair opposite, fixing her with a half-amused, half-laconic tilt of his lips.
'I've kept my side of the bargain, so come on, what's in there?'
'A girl can't think without a sip of chocolate first.'
She cradled the mug, inhaled the rich chocolate-fragrant steam, savoured the warmth seeping into her palms and, closing her eyes, took a deep sip, letting the sweet luscious-ness glide over her taste buds and slide down her throat.
Ethan made a strange sound and her eyes flew open, confused by the flicker of something darker, mysterious in his eyes before he quickly masked it.
'Right. One sip, you said.' He tapped the nearest bag. 'Now, let's have it.'
'You hotshot businessmen are all the same. Way too impatient.'
She placed her mug on the table, unzipping the first bag and hauling out a folder.
He tilted his head on an angle to read the spine. 'What's that?'
A list of every restaurant in Melbourne. The new list I've been compiling over the last six months.'
Her tummy quivered as she glanced at the folder, at what it meant for her future.
His eyes sparked with understanding and she wondered how he could do that. He'd read her mind, whereas Richard hadn't a clue what she'd been thinking after three years of marriage. Then again, considering what he'd been up to, he probably hadn't cared.
'You're going back to work?'
'Uh-huh. Thanks to your chef whipping up those amazing meals and letting me get my hand back into critiquing, I reckon I'm finally ready.'
She gnawed on her bottom lip, worrying it till she tasted the gloss she'd swiped on this morning.
'Think I'm crazy?'
His eyebrows shot up. 'Crazy? I think it's brilliant. Just what you need, something to focus on, get your mind off losing Rich.'
She hated the pity in his eyes, hated the fact she still had to fake grief, still had to pretend she cared.
Not since that first incident four months into her marriage when the man she'd married had given her a frightening glimpse into her future.
She'd thought Richard was the type of guy to never let her down, the type of guy to keep her safe, to give her what she'd always wanted: stability, securitysomething she'd never had since her dad had died when she was ten.
But Richard hadn't been that guy and, from the accolades of his adoring public and coworkers, she was the only one who knew the truth.
That Richard Downey, Australia's premier celebrity chef, had been an out-and-out bastard. And it was times like this, when she had to pretend in front of one of his mates, that an all-consuming latent fury swept through her.
If he hadn't upped and died of a heart attack, she would've been tempted to kill him herself for what he'd put her through, and what she'd discovered after his death.
'This has nothing to do with Richard. I'm doing it for me.'
Her bitterness spilled out in a torrent and she clamped her lips shut. He didn't deserve to bear the brunt of her resentment towards Richard. She'd wasted enough time analysing and self-flagellating and fuelling her anger. That was all she'd been doing for the last year since he'd diedspeculating, brooding over a whole lot of pointless 'what-ifs'.
What if she'd known about the affair?
What if she'd stood up to him and for herself, rather than keeping up appearances for the sake of his business?
What if she'd travelled to India with her mum when Khushi had first asked her years ago? Would any of that have changed her life for the better?
'I didn't mean to rehash any painful stuff for you.'
Shaking her head, she wished the simple action could wipe away her awful memories.
'Not your fault. It's not like I don't think about it every day anyway.'
He searched her face forwhat? Confirmation she wasn't still grieving, wasn't so heartbroken she couldn't return to the workforce after wasting the last few years playing society hostess to a man who hadn't given a damn about her?
What he saw in her expression had his eyes narrowing in speculation.
'You should get away. A break, before you get sucked back into the full-time rat race. Take it from me, a certified workaholic, once you hit the ground running you won't have a minute to yourself.'
She opened her mouth to protest, to tell him that as a virtual stranger he could stick his advice, but he held a finger to her lips to silence her, the impact of his simple action slugging her all the way to her toes. It had to be the impulse to tell him to shut up rather than the brush of his finger against her lips causing her belly to twist like a pretzel.
'A piece of advice. Seeing you six months ago, seeing you now, you've held together remarkably well considering what you've been through, but it's time.'
He dropped his finger, thank goodness.
'Time for you. Time to put aside your grief. Move on.'
He gestured to the stack of folders on the table between them. 'From what I've heard, you're a damn good food critic, one of Melbourne's best. But honestly? The way you are right now, the tears I saw when I made a simple flyaway comment about an oven, what you just said about thinking about Rich every day, holding down a regular job would be tough. You'd end up not being able to tell the difference between steak tartare and well-done Wagyu beef, let alone write about it.'
She should hate him for what he'd just said. It hurt, all of it. But then, the truth often did.
She knew it was the wrong thing to say to a guy like him the instant the words left her mouth, for it sounded like a challenge, something he would never back away from.
'Not by a long shot.'
Before she could blink, his mouth swooped, capturing hers in a heartbeata soul-reviving, soul-destroying, terrifying kiss that stirred her dormant body to life, setting it alight in a way she'd never dreamed possible.
She burned, swayed, as he changed the pressure, his lips coaxing a responsea response she couldn't give in her right mind.
But she wasn't in her right mind, hadn't been from the second his lips touched hers and, before she could think, rationalise, overanalyse, she kissed him back, an outpouring of pent-up passion from a shattered ego starving for an ounce of attention.
Her heart sang with the joy of it, before stalling as the implication of what she'd just done crashed over her in a sickening wave.