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Chef Grace Torres had inherited her Irish mother's fiery nature and her late father's impressively thorough knowledge of Spanish swear words, both of which were about to boil to the surface on this gloomy February morning.
"I can't believe you two!" Grace gripped the edge of the stainless-steel workstation so she wouldn't do anything stupid, like start throwing plates. The restaurant had enough financial burdens without having to replace dishes.
Ben's and Victor's nervous expressions might have been funny under different circumstances. Both of her brothers were older than Gracewho'd been an unplanned souvenir from her parents' fifteenth-anniversary cruiseand they each stood close to six feet. Not that Ben could stand right nowhe'd been injured during an arson investigation and would be in a wheelchair for another few weeks. Grace was the runt of the Torres family and claimed to be five-three, which was true when she wore heels. In height, she'd taken after her aunt, small but fierce Tia Maria, instead of her parents.
"Now, Graciela.. " Victor was the oldest, and his tone bordered on patronizing.
Her already simmering temper began to bubble and pop.
"We know you love this place," Ben quickly interrupted, secure in the knowledge that his broken leg and still-mending ribs would keep her from smacking him upside the head with a rubber spatula. "We all love it, but"
"Ha! You love eating here, trying out new specialties before I put them on the menu and bringing your dates to woo them with the nostalgia factor. But you don't The two of you have never" She broke off, eyes burning, and spun abruptly, turning her back on her brothers. I will not cry in front of them. It would be such a cliched girl thing to do.
She battled the threat of tears with a stream of words that would have made her dad grin and her mother threaten to ground her from the kitchen. Colleen Torres had once said Grace was the only teenager in Texas who got more upset about losing cooking privileges than being forbidden to go to the movies with friends. Grace and her friends had rarely gone to the theater, though. They'd had movie nights at her house, where Grace prepared a menu of snacks themed to go with the rented DVDs.
"Guess I should brush up on my Spanish," Victor said behind her. "I consider myself bilingual, but I only understood half of that."
"I got all of it," Ben said. "Trust me, you're better off not knowing."
When she faced them again, Grace was calmer. "I realize you're both going through difficult times."
Ben, the lawman, was on medical leave, and Victor, who worked for a local bank, had recently separated from his wife of nine years.
"But let's not panic," she continued, "and do something we can't take back." Like sell the restaurant, her heart and soul. My home.
Of all the things she'd inherited from her family, The Twisted Jalapeno was what she most cherished. The modest restaurant nestled in Texas Hill Country was a Torres legacy. It not only kept her close to the beloved father they'd lost three years ago, the Jalapeno gave her an opportunity to develop her own talent, putting her stamp on the place. She had big plans and hoped to bridge the gap between the past and a bright future for generations of Torreses to come.
Victor sighed, running a hand through his inky-black hair. All three siblings had the same dark hair and eyes. Colleen, a pale redhead with ethereal features, used to laugh at the surprise on people's faces when they realized she was their mother. "It's not only Ben and I who have hit bumps in the road," Victor pointed out gently. "You think we're so preoccupied with our problems that we don't see how hard everything's been on you? Putting in crazy hours here, breaking up with Jeff last week, the situation with Mom."
Grace winced at mention of their mother, recalling the stab of guilt when she'd gone to visit Colleen yesterday. The woman had been confused about where she was and how she'd gotten there, asking her daughter, "Are you here to take me home, Gracie?" I hope we did the right thing. Grace and her brothers had agonized over the decision to move their increasingly disoriented mom from her longtime home to an apartment in a supervised facility.
Instead of dwelling on that, Grace focused on the far less painful split with her boyfriend. "It was fun for a few months, but Jeff clearly doesn't understand me. He was mad I wouldn't make huge Valentine's Day plans with him because I needed to be here. He should have been more flexible! February 14 is a number on the calendar, not a test of loyalty. We could have been just as romantic together on the fifteenth."
Ben held up a hand, his expression pained. "I'm gonna stop you there. Don't really want to hear about my baby sister's romantic escapades."
"I'm twenty-six." She rolled her eyes. "Plenty old enough for escapades."
But her grumbled words were a matter of form, not a declaration of interest in dating. Truthfully Jeff had been right about her priorities, which was why she'd kindly told him he should find someone else. Once the restaurant was back on its feetand her brothers weren't hounding her to sell itshe could worry about romance.
"I was saving this for Sunday dinner," she said, "but since you two decided to ambush me." She strolled out of the kitchen with no further explanation, confident they'd follow.
Grace really had been planning to share the big news with her family this weekend. Even before they'd moved Colleen into one of the assisted-care apartments, they'd gone to the complex on Sundays to have dinner with Tia Maria. The wizened seventy-four-year-old woman had outlived both her husband and her younger brother, Grace's father. Unlike Colleen, Maria's mind was still as sharp as her tongue had always been. She'd moved into the apartments willingly after breaking her hip one year, claiming she liked the smaller living space and the twice a week housekeeping help. Grace took some comfort in knowing Maria visited her sister-in-law every day and helped soothe Colleen when she became confused.
Inside the tiny office adjacent to the storeroom, Grace opened the bottom drawer of the scarred wooden desk and withdrew a manila envelope with her name on it. Just seeing it made her heart beat faster in a combination of exhilaration and nerves. She took a steadying breath while she waited for Ben to roll his way into the office. Victor walked behind his brother.
"This better be good," Ben said. "It's not a piece of cake to wheel down that hallway."
She shoved away her remembered horror at hearing he'd been hurt, keeping her tone light. "Oh, quit your whining. Wheeling yourself around is probably good for your upper body strength." She waved the envelope. "Behold, the next step in my plan to revitalize the restaurant."
Ben widened his eyes in a comical attempt at fear. "We're still trying to adjust to your last step. You know she has people drinking something called a blueberry tequila sour?"
A couple of months ago, Grace had hired Amy Win-throp, a mixologist from Austin who'd been adding signature twists to traditional cocktails. Some of the regulars had been shy about trying her more outlandish margarita flavors, but Amy was slowly winning them over, just as Grace was gradually winning fans with her fusion dishes. The restaurant still served some of the classics that had been on the menu since her grandparents first opened the doors, but there were a thousand places from here to the border where a person could order a burrito. Grace wanted the Jalapeno to stand out.
And my brothers want to sell it. The three of them owned it jointly, which meant Ben and Vic held the majority vote. She had to convince them she could do this.
Her gaze swiveled from Ben in his chair to Victor in his suit and tie. "I realize you guys watch ESPN and that Wall Street show, not Food Network, but even if you've never seen them, you have to know there are a lot of cooking shows on the air. There's a new one called Road Trip that focuses on different regions of the country, hosting multiepisode competitions in each location. In March, they're spotlighting the Texas Hill Country Food and Wine Association and filming challenges at Frederick-Fest." The ten-day annual festival was always a major draw for both tourists and culinary professionals.
"And guess who made it through the selection process and is one of the semifinalists!" Despite her best efforts to demonstrate businesslike competence, her voice squeaked with excitement.
"They picked you?" Victor asked.
"Of course they did." Ben winked at her. "They'd be fools not to! Way to go, hermanita."
She beamed. "Thank you."
Victor was not as caught up in his siblings' enthusiasm. "I assume this televised competition is going to take a lot of your time next month. How are we going to keep the restaurant running smoothly? In a perfect world, Ben and I would cover it, but he'll be on crutches. And I have a full-time job at the bank, not to mention meetings with lawyers and trying to schedule time with my own children."
"Plus," Ben inserted, "neither of us can cook."
Victor ducked his head. "That, too."
"Temporarily we can cancel the lunch shift and open only for dinner. Plenty of places around here do that," she added in a rush. "It wouldn't be forever, just long enough for us to snag all the free publicity the competition will bring. One of the judges is an editor whose food magazine will do write-ups on the contestants and the show's website will run streaming videos of cooking demonstrations and other footage. This will be great for us!"
"I don't know how I feel about you pinning all your hopes on this," Victor said slowly. Ever since the woman he'd planned to be with till death parted them had told him they were no longer compatible, he'd been a lot more pessimistic. To be fair, though, as the person who kept the books for the Jalapeno, he knew better than anyone that they were barely scraping along. "You could work for someone else, Grace, and have all the joy of cooking without the responsibility of everything else. We didn't suggest selling the place because we don't believe in you."
"I don't want to sell," she said mulishly.
"I miss Dad, too." Victor's voice started to rise. "But sinking all our time and money into this old restaurant won't bring him back!"
She flinched, too stung to form a response.
"Whoa," Ben interjected. "Let's everyone take a second. Getting a little tense in here."
Lowering her gaze and her voice, Grace said, "I need this. I can win!"
Just as softly, Victor rebutted, "You don't know that. No one's disputing your talent, but competition is like owning a restaurant. There's a lot of luck involved and timing and"
"If I lose, you can sell the restaurant." Grace hadn't known she was going to say the words until she heard them. But rather than add to her anxiety, the impulsive promise wrapped around her like a soothing hug. I can do this.
Once again, Ben and Victor exchanged glances, an entire conversation passing between them with nothing said. Finally Victor nodded.
"All right, you have a deal." He paused, holding her gaze a long moment before adding, "Good luck."
Sunlight rippled across the surface of the water. Not a single cloud marred the expanse of blue overhead. Country music piped through discreet poolside speakers, accompanied by the melodic rush of a small landscaped waterfall that ran over natural-looking rocks. The shirtless man drifting lazily on an inflated lounge chair grinned. It was a damn good day to be Ty Beckett.
"But then," he drawled aloud, "every day is a good day to be me."
From the nearby patio table came a grunt. "Don't get too comfy," his business manager cautioned without looking away from his laptop. "We have to clear out soon. You have an interview with an entertainment reporter from the Statesman at three-thirty and that restaurant opening tonight."
"Too bad we couldn't invite the reporter here to Cody's place and do the interview in the pool. Did you see the picture with her byline? Bet she looks smokin' in a bikini." At his manager's reproachful silence, Ty added, "I'm just sayin'."
Ty sighed. "You are no fun, dude. Not that you ever were, but you're even less so lately."
Stephen Zigler glared over top of his sunglasses. "You mean now that I'm married and have a baby on the way and generally choose to act like an adult? I swear, if Donna wasn't plagued by round-the-clock cravings for that secret-recipe potato salad of yours, I'd drop you as a client."
"When we're on the verge of hitting it big? No, you wouldn't." Ty stuck his hand into the water and paddled toward the steps. Despite the bright sun, the early-March temperature would be too brisk for swimming if the pool weren't temperature-regulated. He climbed the stairs, glancing around at the sculpted yard and Cody Black's million-dollar Barton Creek mansion. "Someday I'll have a place like this."
Stephen turned, his expression startled. "You sound serious."
"Yeah, but it's you. Sounding serious. I didn't think you knew what the word meant."
Ty ignored the gibe. Despite Ty's devil-may-care persona, his manager knew better than anyone how hard the celebrity chef worked. Well, not a full-fledged celebrity yet. But he was definitely on the right path. Last night, for instance, he'd been hired to cook for the three dozen closest friends of country music star Cody Black, who'd wanted to celebrate his fortieth birthday with an "intimate" dinner. As her gift, Cody's wife had booked them a European vacation before his next tour started; they'd left this morning. Cody had invited Ty to stick around for a few hours and enjoy the pool and high-tech game room.
Nathan Tyler Beckett, the skinny kid who'd grown up in a series of south Texas trailer parks, wouldn't have even believed a house like this existed.
"I'm gonna grab a shower," Ty said, "and make sure all my stuff's packed up from the kitchen. Then we'll hit the road."