The reality show, Lovely Ladies of L.A., should have launched Lizzy Apodaca’s catering company into solvency. Instead, when her carefully prepared appetizers mysteriously gave the cast on-camera food poisoning, she lost everything.
To make matters worse, her car breaks down in Salt Box, Colorado, a town not much bigger than a salt shaker. But maybe her luck is changing—the handsome owner of Praeger House, the town’s premier hotel, needs a kitchen assistant.
Clark Denham realizes his diamond in the rough is a polished gem when Lizzy steps up to save the hotel’s breakfast buffet after his temperamental head chef quits. It isn’t long before she’s winning his heart as smoothly and efficiently as she runs his kitchen.
Each book in the Salt Box trilogy is a standalone story that can be enjoyed in any order.
Book #1: Finding Mr. Right Now
Book #2: Love in the Morning
Book #3: Running on Empty
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Lizzy Apodaca's car rolled to its final stop just a few feet from the Welcome to Salt Box, Colorado sign. Lizzy tried cranking the motor again, on the off chance that the car had maybe decided to stop and catch its breath before venturing farther into town. Nothing. Clearly, she was going to stay wherever she was, at least for the foreseeable future.
More than likely the car was out of gas. She'd been riding the "Empty" icon for several miles, willing there to be a quarter of a gallon more in the tank. But fumes could only carry you so far in the end, and it looked like she'd reached that end.
Lizzy leaned her forehead on the steering wheel for a moment. She happened to know her purse contained a crumpled dollar bill and a handful of pennies — all that was left after she'd bought the candy bar she'd had for lunch. Now it looked as if she should have skipped the candy and saved her money for fuel. She also had a single credit card, but she was pretty sure it would be confiscated and cut to shreds if she bothered to try using it anywhere. The unpaid balance probably approached the number of miles she'd driven since she'd left LA.
Of course it wasn't like she was headed anywhere in particular. Denver had been a sort of hazy goal that she'd formulated somewhere west of Salt Lake City. But she didn't actually know anybody there. Or rather, she really hoped she didn't know anybody there. These days it was better for her to be a complete stranger.
Lizzy raised her head and took a quick survey of her surroundings. She might be inside the city limits of Salt Box, Colorado, but she didn't see much out here besides the sign. There were a couple of commercial buildings down the block and a city park on the left, complete with a playground. No children, though. Maybe they were still in school.
School. She paused, frowning. What day of the week was it, anyway? She wasn't entirely sure. She wasn't even sure what time it was at the moment. Given that she hadn't paid her cell phone bill in at least a month, she wondered if she'd even be able to see the time if she looked at the screen. Did they cut off your access to the date and time when they cut off your phone? Actually, it didn't much matter one way or the other. Her cell phone had lost its charge long ago, and since she'd been sleeping in the car, she didn't have anywhere to charge it up again.
Lizzy closed her eyes. If this isn't the bottom, you can probably see it from here. In a sense this was where she'd been headed ever since she'd left California. The place where everything ran out. Where she had to accept that she couldn't run any farther.
She looked around again. She appeared to be on the main street going into town, judging from the traffic that passed her. If she started walking, chances were she'd eventually reach the downtown area, such as it might be.
She tried to remember anything she'd ever heard about Salt Box. Ski town, she thought. Maybe some rich people around with second or third homes in the area. And where there were rich people, there were bound to be restaurants.
None of which will hire you. As soon as they hear your name, you're toast.
Actually, that wasn't exactly true. If they heard the name Annalisa Antonio, they might very well send her packing. Lizzy Apodaca, on the other hand, might have a fighting chance. Of course, Lizzy Apodaca had less of a track record and no references. Yet another of those lingering gifts from Teresa. Her biggest accomplishments, such as they were, had been under her professional name.
You're stalling, Lizzy. Yes she was. Absolutely. The minute she stepped out of the car and headed downtown she was committed. Salt Box, Colorado was it — end of the trail. But then again, since she had no money and no gas, that fact was pretty much a given.
She really should make an effort to clean up a little before she tried looking for a job. Unfortunately, since she didn't have any money for a room in which to clean up, her options were sort of limited. She checked the park again, trying to find the restrooms. Surely there'd at least be a sink available. The cement block building she finally found wasn't exactly reassuring, but beggars most definitely couldn't be choosers.
Fifteen minutes later, somewhat cleaner if no less rumpled, she headed back to her car. She checked around the street one last time, just to make sure she wasn't in a no parking zone. Having her car towed would be, basically, The End — the signal that the universe intended to grind her down to a paste. Her location looked more or less okay, however. She was parked at the side of the road, not blocking anything and not in any posted zones that she could see.
She pulled her purse over her shoulder, pushing the lock button on her car key. Not that anyone would really want to steal an eight-year-old compact that hadn't been that great when she'd first gotten it, but the fewer chances fate had to screw around with her the better.
Two or three blocks along Main Street, Salt Box began to look a lot more like a resort town. Lizzy saw a couple of Italian restaurants serving something other than pizza and a gourmet deli with a cheese tasting in progress. She considered going in and scarfing up a few samples, but she had a feeling they'd see through her pretty quickly. Given that she'd slept in the clothes she was wearing last night, she probably didn't look like anybody who'd be purchasing expensive cheese any time soon.
There were also coffee shops on almost every corner, but she figured that was par for the course in a cold climate. At least she'd be able to get the occasional caffeine fix. She kept watching for "Help Wanted" signs, but nothing showed up. She'd run an espresso machine for a while in the past — she could do the barista thing with no trouble, although potential employers might not believe that just from looking at her.
She could see the mountains looming above the town now, and the ski area, the dark green tracks of the runs lined with gold and red aspen trees. At any other time in her life, she would probably have been blissed out by the beauty of it all. At the moment, however, she regarded them as king-sized hills blocking any possible escape.
Of course, they weren't the only thing blocking her escape. There was the matter of her total lack of funds to consider.
Lizzy glanced to the right and stopped dead in her tracks. The building at the end of the side street was one of the most striking places she'd ever seen. Like some kind of English manor house transported to the Rockies, it spread across an immaculate green lawn, perched on a shallow ridge. There was even a turret toward the back, giving it a slightly medieval look, sort of like Dracula's castle reimagined as Downton Abbey. A white graveled drive curved in front of what was probably the main entrance.
She turned down the side street, drawn by the utter calm of the place. She could use a little calm right now. As she moved closer she could see tubs of purple and magenta flowers flanking the steps. A long gallery stretched across the front of the building, dotted with white wicker furniture. An elaborately lettered sign hung on a wrought-iron fence at the lower end of the drive: "Praeger House."
Lizzy blew out a quick breath. Maybe it was some kind of school. Or maybe an apartment house. Maybe, oh maybe, a hotel. If it was a hotel, there was at least a chance they had a kitchen where they might need a hand. She wondered if she should walk in the front entrance or check for something in the back. The place looked way too grand for someone in her current condition.
She moved carefully up the steps, trying not to draw any undue attention. If fate wasn't through with her yet, she might get thrown out on her rear, although the place looked far too well-bred for the employees to actually do that. They'd probably just wither her with contempt.
She stepped inside the massive front door, blinking in the sudden dimness of what looked a lot like a lobby. Okay, a hotel. And the restaurant would be located ...
"Can I help you?"
The masculine voice made her jump, her heart hammering in her throat. Crap, crap, crap. Probably the manager, who'd be the one to throw her out — unless he delegated the whole thing to the janitor or something. She turned toward the man who'd spoken and got her second shock.
The man was probably the janitor himself. Very big, somewhat shaggy in terms of hair length, wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans. In LA he'd be typecast as a mountain man. Or the Unabomber.
She licked her lips. "I ... I'm looking for the kitchen? For the job?" Hopefully if she looked pitiful enough he'd just tell her to move along rather than make any throwing-out moves in her direction. Unless, of course, they actually had a job available. Could the fates stop screwing with her long enough to provide one?
Grizzly Adams narrowed his eyes. "The kitchen assistant job?"
Thank you, fates. "Yes, sir. The kitchen assistant job."
"C'mon." He started down the hall alongside an open great room with a massive fireplace at one end. The walls were paneled with knotty pine. The pillars at the corners of the room looked like pine trees themselves — very, very big pine trees. Above the great room she could see what looked like railings. Probably a second-story balcony overlooking the fireplace.
The Praeger House looked like the most opulent mountain cabin she'd ever been in.
Ahead of her, Grizzly pushed open a door on the side, then stood waiting for her to walk through. The room on the other side of the door was, in fact, a dining room, lined with more knotty pine, the floor covered in moss green carpeting. Four tops and two tops were scattered around, along with a longer banquet-size table at the side.
"Clarice," Grizzly yelled across the room. "You in there?" Some unidentified clumps and clangs sounded from beyond a swinging door at the side. Grizzly waited a couple of minutes, then pushed the door open, grumbling.
Lizzy stayed where she was. Let Grizzly work it out. Besides, if it was a kitchen, it was probably best that she stay back here in the shadows. Not that she was trying to hide, but ... well, yeah, in reality, she was trying to hide.
The door swung open again and Grizzly re-emerged, followed by a solid-looking woman in a black chef's coat and beanie. She wiped her hands on a towel and gave Grizzly a very pronounced stink eye.
Grizzly waved in Lizzy's direction. "She's here to apply for the kitchen assistant job."
The chef shrugged. "Okay. Have her fill out the paperwork." She turned back toward the kitchen door again.
Grizzly bared his teeth. If he'd been a real grizzly, Lizzy would have headed for the hills. "Jesus Christ, Clarice, you're in charge of the kitchen. You're supposed to interview job applicants to make sure they're qualified."
The chef, Clarice, gave Grizzly another killing look, then stomped across the dining room to the corner where Lizzy stood trying not to quake. She narrowed her eyes, surveying Lizzy head to toe, then shrugged. "Two arms, two legs, an apparently functioning brain. She's qualified." She turned back toward the kitchen again.
Lizzy exhaled slowly, letting her shoulders relax a bit. If anyone was likely to recognize her, it would probably have been the chef.
"Goddamn it, Clarice," Grizzly started, but the chef had already disappeared into the kitchen again. He turned back to Lizzy, glowering.
Lizzy managed not to wince. Smiling at him would have been a nice gesture, but all she could offer was a slight tightening of her lips.
"Looks like you're hired," he said through gritted teeth. "You'll need to fill out the payroll forms. I'm Clark Denham, by the way. This is my place."
Lizzy blinked. Grizzly owned the hotel? At least he could give her the job. On the other hand, she still had a few problems where payroll forms were concerned. Might as well get it out now. "Okay. I don't actually have an address yet, though."
Denham narrowed his eyes. "Huh?"
"I ... um ... I just got here this afternoon. So I don't have an address yet. I ... heard about the job and thought I'd come by to see about it before I found a motel." Geez, she was probably the worst liar in the entire Apodaca clan, and that was saying something. Of course, she didn't have as much experience lying as other members of the family.
His eyes stayed narrow. "You need a place to live?"
She nodded. If she kept her mouth shut, maybe she wouldn't sound so much like someone with something to hide.
He sighed, running a hand through his thick brown hair. "Okay, there's a staff room at the end of the corridor here. It's not much, but it's a place you can stay until you find something permanent. We need kitchen help starting right now."
Lizzy blinked. This was beginning to lurch into the Too Good To Be True category. Which meant there had to be a catch. The fates couldn't just turn like that. "What's the rent?"
Denham gave her a thunderous look. "Jesus, I don't know. Ask Colleen when she's at the front desk. She's in charge of the rooms. You can park in back." He gestured toward a small paved lot she could see through the windows on either side of the back door.
Park. Right. "I ... um ..." She took another breath.
His eyes were back to narrow.
"My car ran out of gas at the edge of town, and I'm not sure I can get it started again." She said it all in a single breath.
In the ensuing silence, she could hear the dim clang of pots and pans in the kitchen. She was willing to bet the chef was not a happy camper at the moment.
Apparently, Denham heard the clangs too. He sighed. "Come on. I'll drive you to your car and get it started. Then you can come back and fill out all the forms before you go into the kitchen and do whatever the hell it is Clarice wants you to do." He turned on his heel and headed for the back door.
Lizzy closed her eyes for a moment, blowing out a long breath. The whole thing was still Too Good To Be True, but it was also apparently real. At least for now. Who knew? Maybe her luck had finally begun to change.
"Come on, damn it!" Denham snarled from the doorway. "I don't have all day for this."
Clark sat on his barstool at the Blarney Stone and watched Ted Saltzman keep an eye on his new barmaid. Ted owned the Blarney Stone and he was normally a study in efficiency of movement. He managed to serve as both manager and chief bartender, with a chef who kept plates full of high octane snacks rolling out of the kitchen while his waitresses spread beer, wine and margaritas among the customers packed into the booths and tables. At least somebody had an efficient kitchen.
The Blarney Stone was an extremely successful operation, a lesson to anyone in Salt Box who wanted to handle the tourist trade. But everything depended on the intricate parts of the setup fitting together and performing seamlessly. Currently, one particular part was showing its seams spectacularly.
Ronnie Ventura was gorgeous. Her golden blonde hair spilled down her shoulders in silken waves. Her body was nicely curved in all the right places. When she smiled, her dimples almost seemed to sparkle, even in the dim light of the Blarney Stone.
Of course, she was wearing platform sandals that made it difficult for her to walk in a straight line, let alone walk in a straight line carrying a tray of beers on her shoulder. Clark watched her wobble toward a table across from the bar. The beers on her tray were perilously close to slopping over.
Ted watched too, his forehead furrowed in concern.
"So tell me again — why exactly did you hire her?" Clark took a swallow of his beer. Very nice.
Ted shrugged. "Ronnie needed a job. She wanted to stay here in Salt Box instead of going back to California. She's looking for a new start."
That Ronnie would want a new start at least made some sense. She'd been featured in a reality show that had been shot in Salt Box. And the show had not ended well. On the other hand, of all the people involved in the show — which had centered on Ronnie choosing a potential mate from a motley crew of bachelors — Ronnie had come out looking the best. For some reason, however, she'd chosen to stay in Salt Box rather than pursuing a career as a reality star.
Excerpted from "Love In The Morning"
Copyright © 2016 Meg Benjamin.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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