Felix Pascual misses being someone’s boyfriend, which is why he’s willing to get set up by the only Hernandez he'll admit to liking (out loud)—Lola. But when he gets to the restaurant he finds that Lola has matched him up with none other than Joaquin Delgado, a man who has never shown one iota of interest in him.. And Joaquin doesn't seem any more open to Felix's unique charms this time around . . .
A SKEPTICAL SUITOR
Joaquin will do anything for his grandmother. Even give a foul-mouthed, flashy Puerto Rican caterer who gets on his nerves—and makes him thirsty all at once—a chance to run his kitchen after he’s injured. After all, it's just a few weeks. And he won’t be tempted since he’s given up on dating anyway . . .
A MATCH MADE IN SOUTH BEACH
But Felix won't give up without the satisfaction of getting Joaquin to admit that he wants him. Felix is stubborn, and his growing desire for Joaquin is about proving a point. After all, it can't possibly turn into something real . . .
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Felix Pascual stared at his half-empty closet, chagrined to find nothing he wanted to wear. He didn't want to be leaving his house, much less finding something in mesh that would bring all the boys to the yard.
He wanted his ex-boyfriend back.
The space that Roman had left behind when he'd cleared out a few months ago taunted him because Roman had left almost a year before he'd actually moved to Europe to open his new club. He'd just left his clothes and furnishings with the promise that things would get better until recently.
Felix sat down on the edge of the bed, shoulders hunched. He'd never been such a sad sack after a breakup before. But Roman had been his longest-term boyfriend. Years of his life he'd spent with this man. And sure, the terms of their relationship hadn't been ideal — Felix hadn't been interested in an open relationship, but he'd loved Roman so much that he'd agreed.
His ex was truly a dazzling man. When they'd met at an event Felix's brand-new-baby catering company had done the food for, he'd been shocked that the famous club owner had paid him any attention. At first, Felix had ignored the other man's overtures, figuring that he'd just been really into the canapés. But Roman had persisted, and Felix had given him his number.
It was kind of an old-fashioned and quaint meet-cute that belied the ugly ending of their relationship. The romance had really only lasted a few months, but Felix had hung on for years, both dickmatized by how hot the sex was and desperately in love with the man.
Now, he didn't know what he was doing anymore. Didn't know where he belonged. The only person he spoke with outside of work was his sister, and she was starting to worry. He'd lost touch with a lot of his friends, and she insisted that they go out clubbing.
She was waiting in the living room, and her patience was probably about to run out in the next ten seconds.
Sure enough, as soon as he flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, the clack of her shoes echoed along the floor.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
"You can't go out in sweatpants." She sniffed. "I know you don't actually care, but you have to dress like you care. Even if you're doing a good impression of Miss Havisham."
"Says the woman who pined over the same man for five years."
Maya sat on the bed and petted his damp hair. She'd always been his rock, and him hers. Now that she was married to the man of her dreams — the one she'd spent years trying to get over before Javi had gotten his shit together — Felix felt like their dynamic had changed. Before, it had been them against the world — mostly against their ghastly, abusive con artist of a father. But Maya had found her happily ever after with Javi Hernandez, and Maya didn't need her big brother as much anymore.
And he wasn't sure that he liked needing her more than she needed him. It made him feel weak and pathetic, even more than Roman leaving him had made him feel. He felt unmoored.
"That was different," Maya said. "Javi and I were meant to be. I don't think you and Roman ever were."
A thread of anger fought its way through the cloud of sadness floating over Felix's head. "You don't know what we had." He knew he sounded like a petulant child, but he didn't care. And he wasn't willing to admit that maybe everything with Roman beyond the first few months had been a huge mistake. Wasn't ready to give up on the almost-perfect life he thought he'd had.
"Roman was an asshole."
But he'd been his asshole. Felix sat up and stared at his sister. Her gorgeous face didn't hide the concern that had become a palpable thing in the last few weeks. "I loved him, and you — you out of anyone — you know what that's like."
"He never loved you as much as you loved him."
"You don't know that." He rubbed a hand over his hair, always unruly, but even more so these days when he spent a lot of time pulling it as though it would pull out the grief and sorrow he was feeling. "You didn't see how we were together at the beginning."
"That's why it's different, baby." His sister nudged his cheek with the knuckle on her index finger. "The beginning with Javi sucked. We both had to let go of the bad past to get where we are. You and Roman just kept building bad things from the past on top of bad things from the past until there was nothing left of the good stuff."
She was right, but that still didn't mean that she could just snap her fingers and he would be over it. Right now, it felt as though he would never be over the ache in his chest that Roman had left when he'd taken all of his clothes and half of his furnishings. The only room in the house that felt whole right now was the kitchen — the only room in the house that had ever fully belonged to Felix.
"I feel like there's no good stuff left inside me." He felt empty, hollowed out. And he knew that going out and grinding on boys at the club — Roman's favorite pastime — wasn't going to make him feel full again. "Can we just cook dinner and get drunk here?"
Maya shook her head as her glossy hair brushed against her colorfully tattooed arms. "I get one night out without my husband bodychecking any dude who looks at me, and I'm going to use it."
"That's only because we're going to a gay club."
"Still, sometimes I want to get my dance on without Javi glowering at anyone who brushes my arm." The wistful smile on her face belied the fact that she loved how much her husband grumped about other men looking at her. Felix knew that she felt more secure when her man got all alpha on her and that she was strong enough to put Javi in his place if he ever stepped out of line.
Felix hated how straight people always projected their fucked-up gender roles on gay couples, but he couldn't help a tiny bit of jealousy at how his sister's man treated her. He couldn't help wanting that for himself, even as he realized that his ex had never been about giving him that.
"Fine. I'll go out." Even though his stomach sank at having to flirt and pretend that he was ready to move on, he could humor Maya. This wasn't his idea of quality time, but he would take what he could get.
* * *
Joaquin Delgado's restaurant, Cielo, was like a temple dedicated to haute cuisine. Felix was awed and a bit self-conscious just entering the doors. He was relieved that Maya had surprised him with dinner here instead of a night of clubbing. And definitely glad he wasn't wearing mesh.
Everything was white — the tablecloths, walls, floors, and chairs. Accents of blue-green here and there on menus and an accent wall distinguished it from similar restaurants in New York. Somehow the pop of color gave the whole place the distinctive feel of Miami. Felix had never worked at a restaurant like this. Since he'd never gone to culinary school, he'd never dreamed of working in a restaurant like this.
Like the restaurant, Joaquin Delgado had always awed Felix and made him feel very conscious of living in his skin. It wasn't just the wide shoulders and perfectly coiffed whiskers. It was the grim set of his mouth and the cool green eyes. Joaquin was different from any man that Felix had ever been attracted to; he filled up a room in a way he couldn't quite describe. His intensity had made Felix — usually not at a loss for words — choke up with a dry mouth the few times they'd met.
"What are we even doing here, Maya?"
She looked back at him and winked. "Eating dinner. What do you think?"
"I can't afford this place."
"Javi can." She shrugged. "And we deserve to treat ourselves."
"You sure seem comfortable spending your husband's money," he said as they arrived in front of the hostess.
"Hernandez." It was still weird to hear his sister using her husband's name. He never thought he'd see the day that his sister was a wife. She'd always vowed that she was stronger than her mother and would never let herself fall in love.
She'd been wrong about that, had been wrong about that since shortly after she met her now husband. And they'd both fought the powerful pull they'd instantly felt toward one another. It took them five years to finally give in, and they were blissfully — if not explosively — happy. Javi was lucky to have Maya. She loved more fiercely than anyone Felix knew.
He knew they were the same in that way, and that was why his breakup was hitting him so hard. Once he'd fallen in love with Roman, he wouldn't let himself feel anything for anyone else. He hadn't wanted to be like their philandering father, so he'd fought any attractions that had come up during his relationship — including his attraction to Joaquin Delgado.
There was something about entering this restaurant, this deeply intense and humbling space that just oozed the older man's personality. A shiver went down his spine thinking about how Joaquin had probably been exacting in every choice, from the menus to the specific table linens — each of which probably cost more than a car payment.
Maybe it was the precise way that Joaquin did everything that affected Felix so much. While he'd been with Roman, he'd ignored it completely. And even if he'd been single the whole time, he still would have left it alone. Dating someone in his sister's new family, no matter how distant, was complicated.
He'd known that agreeing to go out with Maya was a bad idea, but now it was feeling like an even worse one. The last thing he needed was to get pulled into another intense, dramatic infatuation right now. He had enough problems trying to forget about Roman; he didn't need to have Joaquin on the brain as well.
The hostess walked them over to their table, but someone was already sitting there — Lola Hernandez. She was Javi's great-aunt and Joaquin's grandmother, and he didn't know why they were having dinner together. He stared at his sister, but she wouldn't meet his gaze. She'd told him that they were going out, and he'd thought she'd meant to a club, dancing. Instead, they were eating the fanciest dinner that he'd have all year with one of Javi's relatives?
Maya had some explaining to do.
Still, Felix had manners, so he leaned down to kiss Lola on both papery cheeks before sitting down. Something in her smile had him squirming in his chair, but he wasn't about to give away his discomfort. Both his devious sister and the septuagenarian matchmaker were up to something, and he might as well just tell them that whatever they were planning wasn't about to work.
Because as affected by Joaquin Delgado as Felix was — every time they breathed the same air — the other man gave him absolutely nothing. Not a flirty wink or a stray touch, not even a covert once-over. Joaquin wasn't interested in Felix, and that wouldn't change.
Felix decided to play along and pretend that he didn't know what the women were planning. Even though he and Joaquin weren't going to end up together — as his sister and sort of tia were already planning — he could at least get a great meal out of the deal.
"I've ordered the tasting menu for all of us." Lola reached over and grasped Felix's arm. He would never get over how touchy the Hernandezes were, always grabbing his arm to get his attention. But he didn't hate it. It wasn't like his family, where his mother slapped him across the back of his head — affectionately — to get his attention. "There is a Cubano in the shape of a cigar, and it is heavenly."
"How often do you eat here?" He would also never get used to his sister's in-laws' wealth.
"It is my grandson's restaurant." She winked. "I eat here whenever I want."
"Did you order the wine pairings?" Finally, his sister piped in. For the important stuff.
Maybe they were bringing him here just for the food and planning to pawn him off on someone else? He scoped out the empty place setting, suspecting that this was a setup. He wondered who they planned to pawn him off on.
The server brought over water and smiled at him, but she was a woman, so not a matchmaking target. As she left to grab their first wine pairing, he looked around.
Just in time to see Joaquin Delgado bearing down on them, looking like thunder and lightning and thick thighs. The man made him think of filthy things even before he made him think of haute cuisine. He didn't even like the man. Joaquin was sort of aloof and seemed to look right through him. But he was dead sexy and didn't seem to know it.
"Your food isn't here." Joaquin's voice was a deep growl in the back of his throat and at the base of Felix's cock. It just wound him up how pissed the guy sounded. What was wrong with him?
"We just got here." God, why did he say that? The last thing he needed was for the other man to notice him.
"Still, that's not how I run my restaurant." Joaquin was doing that thing where he was saying that, while Felix might think a delay was acceptable, it wasn't okay in this rarified air. Then he put his hand out and snapped his fingers, and three servers appeared with plates so beautiful that Felix had to suppress a gasp.
He couldn't stop himself from grabbing a piece of the crudo with his fork, and then he had to stop himself from moaning. The man might be a prick, but he was fucking talented. And he was looking right at him. Expectantly, with his hands on his hips as though waiting for Felix to spring into song at the glorious, perfect flavor of the raw fish and accompanying sauce.
Partially because he was jealous, and partially because he wanted to see how Joaquin would react, he said, "It's okay."
Joaquin grimaced, which satisfied Felix more than it should have. Lola had a shit-eating grin on her face, but that was usual, and Maya snorted and covered her mouth with her hand.
Saying nothing, Joaquin walked away. And Felix felt as though he'd won a prize from the other man. Although he was sure that any victory would be short lived.CHAPTER 2
Joaquin Delgado stomped through his kitchen like an approaching storm. Tonight's service was going horribly, and no amount of yelling or throwing things would make it any better. God knew he'd tried that. His instinct was always to blow up because it made his subordinates — his lessers in the kitchen jungle — stop making excuses, mutter "yes, Chef," and get their heads screwed on straight.
When they were deep in the weeds, like they were tonight, there was no time to recount drinking stories and vastly exaggerated tales about their sexual exploits from after close the night before. They were here to cook perfect food and nothing else. And tonight had been anything but perfect.
Instead of expediting food and overseeing his army of chefs, he'd had to attend to matters in the front of the house. They had two servers quit without giving notice that day — one of them had called him on his cell phone at 3:00 a.m. to do it — and so the remaining servers were short of time and temper. The whole restaurant, from the line of people waiting for a table all the way back to the dishwashers, felt as though it was a tinderbox ready to go up in flames.
And then his grandmother had shown up trying to pawn Felix Pascual off on him. She simply wouldn't take no for an answer. If he'd thought that Felix was a competent chef, he would have asked him to come back and help in the kitchen, but the caterer probably didn't know a mince from a dice.
That probably wasn't fair, but Joaquin had never claimed not to be a snob. And it wasn't to say that the arepas that Felix had brought to the last Pascual-Hernandez-Delgado get-together weren't great. It just wasn't up to par for his restaurant. His training in some of the finest kitchens in Europe had given him the right to look down the culinary mountain at everyone else scraping and clawing to get up. Sure, he liked homey, simple food sometimes. But that was not what he did in his kitchen. No one else could do what he and his staff did in his kitchen.
Grabbing the knife out of one of the line cook's hands before she destroyed a filet of sea bass, he said, "Not like that." "Yes, Chef." Briony was one of his newest hires. She was deeply talented, and her last boss had sent her a glowing recommendation. But she hadn't been trained right. She'd only been in his kitchen a few days, so he hadn't yelled at her or fired her. But if she tried to do that to a piece of fish a month down the road, she'd be out on her ass.
Joaquin properly cleaned the fish and watched as she seasoned it — properly. He didn't offer her praise — she didn't deserve it for simply not fucking up — and he moved on past the fish station.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All Hours"
Copyright © 2017 Andie J. Christopher.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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