Is lasting love on the menu?
Hotelier Harper Fontaine only wants one thing in life: to take over her family's business empire. And she won't let celebrity chef Ashton Croft screw up the new restaurant in her Vegas showcase. Getting the adventurer to meet deadlines is hard enough, but turning down the flame on their uncontrollable chemistry soon proves impossible!
Ashton has traveled the world but has never encountered a delicacy as delicious as Harper. Sure, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but will Ashton stay for Harper especially when the chips are down and she suddenly stands to lose it all?
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As soon as Harper Fontaine stepped from her lively casino into her stylish new restaurant, she checked near the door for a rolling black leather duffel. Ashton Croft's go bag. She loathed the thing. It represented everything that drove her crazy about the celebrity chef. His tendency to show up without warning. The way he thrived on excitement, and when none could be found, his knack for either stirring it up or heading out of town on some adventure or another.
But she needed the bag to be there because it would mean that Ashton had shown up for today's head chef interview. Batouri's grand opening was two weeks away. When the original deadline for the opening of the restaurant had come and gone without it being ready, Harper had questioned the wisdom of asking an unreliable television personality to start a restaurant in her hotel.
True, the buzz about the grand opening had drawn all eyes and scads of publicity to her hotel, Fontaine Ciel, but was the attention worth the stress Ashton had heaped on those in charge of making the restaurant a success? Carlo Perrault, the restaurant's manager, wasn't sleeping and had grown irritable these past two months. Harper was grinding her teeth at night. The headaches induced by this behavior had forced to her seek medical help. She now wore a mouth guard when she went to bed. Slipping the awkward plastic device into her mouth, she would lie on the mattress and wish she had some idea what happened to Ashton's initial enthusiasm about the restaurant.
The longer the filming of The Culinary Wanderer had gone in Indonesia, the more difficult she'd found working with him to be. They'd had to postpone Batouri's launch date twice because of scheduling conflicts with his travels for his wildly popular television series.
Which was why Harper refused to delay again. The restaurant's black floors were polished. The chandeliers had been hung from the high cove ceiling. Their light illuminated the white napkins and crystal wine goblets on the black tables. Ten days earlier the painters had completed the metallic gold treatment on the three wide pillars down the center of the room. Near the fully stocked bar, the assistant manager was putting the waitstaff through their paces.
But for two things, Batouri was ready to open. Two key things. It lacked a head chef and a menu.
And seeing that Ashton's go bag wasn't in its usual place, it looked as if that menu was going to have to wait. Harper glanced at her watch. It was exactly four in the afternoon. She'd told Ashton the interview would happen at three to make certain he arrived on time. Playing these sorts of games wasn't in her nature, but she was at her wits' end in dealing with the celebrity chef.
She dialed her assistant. Mary picked up on the second ring.
Harper got straight to business. "Did Ashton Croft call to say he'd be delayed?"
"And his plane was supposed to land in Las Vegas at one?"
"Yes, I confirmed his itinerary this morning."
Damn the man. Two weeks ago Ashton had promised Harper his full attention starting today. She should have known better. "Thank you, Mary. Let me know if you hear from him."
"Sure thing." Harper was on the verge of disconnecting the call when something Mary said caught her attention. " in your office."
Carlo Perrault emerged from the kitchen, a scowl on his handsome face. The forty-six-year-old restaurant manager was known for his composure, but even he was showing signs of stress at all the things that still needed to be done. "We have a problem."
"I'm sorry, Mary. Who did you say was in my office?"
"My mother?" Surprise kept her from guarding her tone. Aware of Carlo's scrutiny, Harper turned her back on him and stepped away to give herself some semblance of privacy. "Did she say what she was doing in Vegas?"
"No, but she seems upset."
"Just upset?" Harper mused.
Penelope Fontaine wouldn't have left her elegant condo in Boca Raton to fly two thousand miles to visit Harper unless something was seriously wrong. And if it was, why had Penelope come to Harper? Usually Penelope took her problems to her father-in-law, Henry Fontaine.
"You once mentioned she smokes when she's agitated," Mary said. "She's starting her second cigarette."
"She's smoking in my office?" Harper pinched the bridge of her nose. She wanted to insist Mary tell her mother to put out the cigarette, but knew that would be asking too much of her assistant. "I'll be there in five minutes."
"You can't leave," Carlo protested. "Croft has started the interview without you."
"Great," she muttered. "How long has he been here?"
"Long enough to taste everything Chef Cole has prepared." Carlo's dour expression was enough to tell Harper that this interview was going the way the other seven had.
"Mary, looks like I am going to be a while. Get my mother settled in a suite and I'll visit her as soon as I'm done here." Harper hung up and turned to Carlo. "If he messes this interview up, I'm going to kill him."
Carlo offered her a tight nod of understanding.
The hostility in the two male voices hit her before she'd reached the food pass area.
"There's nothing wrong with the sear on these scallops," one of the men protested, his tone both arrogant and simmering with hostility. "And the sauce is not under seasoned."
"It's obvious the only thing worse than your culinary skills is your wretched palate."
Pain stabbed Harper's temple as she recognized the voice of the second speaker. Ashton Croft had been interviewing head chefs for two months, rejecting one after another for failing to live up to his exacting standards.
Harper snapped her vertebrae into a stiff line and stepped into the meticulously organized, stainless-steel kitchen. As was her habit, her gaze swung immediately to Ashton. He dominated the room with his presence. Tall and imposing in his chef whites, he stood glaring at Chef Cole, muscular arms crossed over his broad chest.
He hadn't yet noticed her, hadn't turned his Persian-blue eyes her way, hadn't noted her slight breathlessness. His passion for food sent his innate charisma soaring. She cursed the hero worship that she couldn't completely squash despite her professionalism. She was unequal parts frustrated with the restaurateur and enamored of the dashing adventurer.
His travels fascinated her. Some of the things Ashton had eaten made Harper shudder, but he boldly consumed whatever he was offered. She'd spend her entire life knowing exactly where she was going, and the way he allowed random opportunities to push him into unexpected and sometimes startling discoveries both unnerved and captivated her. Watching his television shows had made her realize just how safe her world was. And a seed of restlessness had sprouted inside her.
With effort Harper ripped her gaze from Ashton and turned her attention to the other chef. Taking in the interviewee's blazing eyes and clenched fists, she donned her most diplomatic expression and entered the war zone.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen." She stepped into the middle of the clash with calm authority. She wanted Chef Dillon Cole to run Batouri's kitchen. He was an excellent chef as well as a strong, organized leader. Harper restrained a weary sigh. Of all the candidates, he'd been Harper's first choice for head chef. It was why she'd saved his interview until the last. This close to the restaurant's already delayed grand opening, she had the leverage she needed to force Ashton's hand. "I stopped by to see how things are going."
"Taste this," Ashton commanded, pushing the plate in her direction without ever taking his eyes off Cole. "Tell me if you think it's up to Batouri standards."
The first time he'd done this she'd been flattered that he wanted her opinion. After the third candidate had been rejected, she'd realized he was merely using her to drive home a point. If someone with no culinary experience could taste the inferior quality of the entrées, the chef who'd prepared the dish had failed.
Harper made no move to do as he'd asked. "May I speak to you privately for a moment?"
"Can it wait?" Ashton never took his eyes off Chef Cole.
She fought to keep her frustration on a tight leash. How would it play out on social media if the general manager of Fontaine Ciel was recorded shrieking empty threats at the famous Chef Croft?
Her conviction came through loud and clear, snagging Ashton's complete attention. His laser-sharp blue eyes scanned her expression. Sexual interest flared low in her belly. It traveled upward, leaving every nerve it touched sizzling with anticipation. She cursed silently. Her body's tendency to overreact to the man's rakish good looks and raw masculinity had distracted her all too often. She was not her professional best around him.
Once again Harper reminded herself that the flesh and blood man standing before her was unreliable and unconcerned with how his priorities impacted those around him. The dashing adventurer he portrayed on television was entertaining to watch as he charmed locals by listening attentively to their stories and sampling the regional specialties. But when it came to the routine matters necessary to start a restaurant, he easily became distracted.
Lips tightening, Ashton nodded. "Excuse us," he said to Chef Cole, and gestured for Harper to return to the dining room. "What's so important?" he demanded as soon as they'd exited the kitchen.
"The restaurant opens in two weeks."
"I'm aware of that."
"The press releases have gone out. There will be no further postponement."
She tamped down her irritation. "We need a head chef."
"I will take charge of the kitchen."
If only that were true. "I need someone I can rely on to be here every day."
His nod indicated he saw where she was going. "You want me to hire Cole."
"The last time I was in Chicago I ate at his restaurant. It was excellent. I was looking forward to tasting what he'd created today."
"You didn't miss much."
Harper spent a minute studying Ashton. There was something different about him today. Usually he breezed in, found something wrong with the construction or the fixtures and then stirred up everyone associated with the project before coming up with a fix for whatever he perceived wrong. Working with him had been stressful and invigorating, but in the end the restaurant was far better for his interference.
Today he seemed to be creating trouble for the sake of drama rather than because he had real issues with Chef Cole.
"Is there something going on with you?"
Her abrupt change in topic startled him into a moment of uncertainty. "Not a thing. Why?"
"Because you were on time for a change."
"I believe I was an hour early."
She gestured toward the door, making no effort to correct him. "And there's no go bag."
"Go bag?" he echoed.
"The black leather bag that you bring with you everywhere."
"You mean my rolling duffel?" He pointed toward a far corner of the restaurant where the bag sat beside a semicircular corner booth. "Why do you call it a go bag?"
"Because it's your crutch."
Amusement narrowed his eyes. "My crutch."
"When things get too tedious you make some excuse, grab the bag and head off in search of greater excitement."
"Leaving you behind to clean up after me?"
She let a brief silence answer his question. "You've interviewed and rejected seven head chef candidates."
He cocked an eyebrow. "What's your point?"
"I need you to hire someone. Chef Cole is that person."
"You didn't taste his entrées." When it came to food, Ashton was a creative genius. She wasn't surprised he couldn't find someone who was capable of living up to his demanding criteria. "I found them lacking."
"He has the experience and the organization to run this kitchen the way I expect it to be run"
Ashton interrupted. "When you came to me about opening a restaurant in your hotel, I thought you understood that I had the last and final word on all creative."
"Creative, yes, but this is about the management of the kitchen." Which was why she was determined to get her way. She'd been able to control costs and manage the construction schedule, working hard to manifest Ashton's vision for the restaurant without exceeding budget.
In that respect their working relationship meshed.
"But the kitchen is where the magic happens."
"Except there's no magic happening because we don't have a menu or a head chef to work with the kitchen staff." Pain shot through her head. She winced.
"We will be ready for the opening." His absolute confidence should have shut down all her worries.
"Trust me." His deep voice broke into her protest, his soothing cadence catching her off guard.
"I do." That's not what she'd meant to say.
But she knew it was true. They might have had completely different philosophies on how to accomplish something, but he had proven time and again he was as capable of getting things done as she. Deep down she knew he'd plan a fantastic menu and win the love of customers and critics alike.
That it would happen in the frantic last hours before the door opened was what made her crazy.
Famous dimples flashing, he countered, "No, you don't. From the minute I showed up here I've rubbed you the wrong way."
Harper stared at him in helpless fascination. This was the Ashton Croft she'd been dying to get to know. The man who charmed smiles from people who'd seen nothing but hardship and violence. The dashing adventurer who'd on occasion gamely hiked into dangerous surroundings to share a meal with locals and educate his viewers about what was unique to the area. It was always intriguing and often stuck with her long after the credits rolled.
"If you knew that, why didn't you try rubbing me the right way?" Harper regretted the words the instant they left her lips. They sounded like flirtatious banter. "What I meant was."
Ashton shook his head, stopping her flow of words.
Not once since they'd first met nine months ago had she given him any hint that her interest in him went beyond his skills in the kitchen. Plagued by unruly flashes of lust for the uberprofessional businesswoman and not wanting anything to interfere with the negotiations for the Las Vegas restaurant, he'd ignored his disobedient hormones and kept things strictly business.
But as they neared the date for the restaurant opening, he found it harder and harder to stop seeing her as an attractiveif too seriouswoman.
It made him crazy that he couldn't accept that she wasn't interested and move on. This was Vegas. There were thousands of women arriving every day looking to have a good time. Perfect for a frequent flier like him. He rarely stayed in the same location for more than a few days. The time he'd spent in Vegas these past few months was the most settled he'd been since leaving New York City ten years earlier.
A low chuckle vibrated his chest. "Please don't try to explain it," he said. "I think it's the first honest thing you've ever said to me."
"That's not true." But she went no further.
"I think it is."
Ashton had watched her walking the line between frustration and diplomacy with finesse and grace these many months. He wasn't completely oblivious to how hard he'd made her life.