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This was it. This was the day she finally killed him.
Snow Harrison stared in horror at the mess that was her couch. Her beautiful, baby-blue couch that she’d saved two months worth of her salary to purchase was no longer beautiful. No, it wasn’t. The poor thing was peppered with chunks of partially digested food and a nasty-looking, thick liquid, as if someone had hurled directly onto it. Even worse was the smell that permeated the room; the rancid eye-watering stink of fermenting alcohol merged with the stomach-turning odor of vomit to form a concoction that was lethal enough to make a woman’s eyes bleed.
Oh, Charlie was definitely dead today.
She swiveled on her heels and started for the bedroom but a frantic knocking on her front door made her change direction. She opened the door to find Lauren from next door and her six-year-old daughter, Elsie standing at her doorstep. It was immediately obvious that Elsie had been crying. Her round, plump face was tear-streaked and her mouth was drawn in a pout.
Snow forced a smile to her face. “Hi, Lauren, Elsie. What can I-”
“Uh-uh. Don’t even try that smiley-smiley nonsense with me,” Lauren snapped, dispelling any illusions that she was here for a friendly cup of tea. The black-haired, voluptuous woman ordered, “Come to the parking lot.”
“Come to the parking lot and you’ll see.” Gripping Elsie’s hand tight, Lauren strode away from the door.
From the woman’s tone, Snow guessed that she wasn’t being invited out there to see something good, but she followed the pair out to the parking lot anyway. The scene that met Snow’s eyes more than explained why Lauren was as livid as she was. Charlie’s silver, sports-car was parked carelessly across both Lauren and Snow’s parking spaces as if he’d stopped his car without bothering to make sure he was in the right space. But what caught Snow’s attention was the mangled remains of Elsie’s purple bike beneath the front tires of Charlie’s car.
Snow’s hands flew to her mouth. “Charlie did this?”
“Is that a real question?” Lauren retorted angrily.
“I’m so, so sorry,” Snow apologized.
“Look at what your husband did.” Lauren jabbed her finger at the sports-car. “Just look.”
“He’s not my hus-” Snow started to correct but the irate look in the other woman’s eyes was enough to make her snap her mouth closed.
“I’ve had it up to here with you two.” Lauren pressed her fists to her waist as she raged on. “What is wrong with you? Last time it was my flowerbed, today it’s Elsie’s bike. What will it be next time? Elsie?”
At the mention of her name, Elsie let out a pitiful sniff.
“I’m so sorry,” Snow tried again.
But Mother Dearest wasn’t done with her tirade. “Have you ever bought a bike? Do you know how much that one cost? It was Elsie’s birthday present and now look at it. Look at it!”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sor-”
“Uh-uh, uh-uh. No sorrys.” Lauren shook her head. “I just want to know when Elsie’s new bike is coming.”
Snow started, “I don’t kn-”
“Today evening.” Lauren cut her off. “If we don’t have a bike by this evening, I’m suing both you and Charles. Let’s see how you explain this mess to a judge.”
With that threat hanging behind them like smoke off a car, Lauren and Elsie stormed away leaving Snow stiff with both anger and anxiety. If it was any other person, the threat would’ve had less bite. Unfortunately, when Lauren wasn’t being mother-of-the-year she was an attorney with a reputation for winning every case she touched.
Snow watched the retreating mother and daughter team for a moment more before she angrily strode back into her house. She headed to the kitchen and snatched a garbage bag before making her way to the bedroom. The smell of stale alcohol was even more pervasive in the small room. Though the drapes were drawn, the dim light in the room was enough to illuminate the fully dressed man sprawled face-up on her bed.
Even drunk as a skunk and with his mouth partially open, it was hard to deny that Charles Dumas the Third was attractive. Six feet tall, thick lips with an attractive evening stubble surrounding them, muscular body and skin that was a smooth shade of caramel courtesy of his black and Filipino genes. Add in his family background and hefty trust-fund and he was a catch by most women’s standards. But those women didn’t know him well. Years of Charlie’s bullshit had erased the stars in Snow’s eyes. Now, she saw him for what he was; a boy who refused to grow-up.
This fool! She glared at him. He didn’t even have the decency to kick off his dirty shoes before plopping over her white comforter.
Indifferent to whether she woke him up or not, she strode to her closet and thrust open the doors. They banged so loudly against the wall that she thought the sound might wake Charlie. It didn’t. All he did was snore loudly before turning onto his stomach to continue his beauty sleep. Kissing her teeth, Snow grabbed an armful of his clothes from the closet and stuffed them into the garbage bag.
The clothes and toiletries he kept at her place were few enough that it barely took her ten minutes to pack them all up. Once done, she strode to the windows and with one rough yank pulled aside the drapes to let in the morning’s brilliant sunlight. Charlie groaned and turned his face away from the windows but didn’t wake up.
Anger leading her, Snow strode closer to him and plucked his wallet from his back pocket. A glance inside it revealed a significant amount of cash and a few credit cards. That should be enough to buy a new bike for Elsie. Snow tossed the wallet into her bedside drawer before hauling the garbage bag over her shoulder.
Then she swung it.
It met his back with a satisfying thump.
“Ugh.” Charlie jerked upwards and turned his head in her direction.
She waited until his bloodshot eyes were staring at her before ordering coldly, “Get out.”
She swung again, this time catching him right in the head. “Get out.”
“Snow, what are you-”
“Get out.” She swung again but this time Charlie had the good sense to roll off the bed and the full garbage bag landed on the bed instead.
With agility that was surprising in his current state, he sprung to his feet to stand beside the bed and glare at her. “What’s going on?”
“What’s going on is that I’m done with your bullshit.” She tossed the garbage bag to him and it fell at his feet. “Get out of my house and take your crap with you.”
“Is this about last night?” Charlie rubbed his eyes and face. His voice gruff with sleep, he explained, “I know I told you that I’d pick you from work but something urgent came up.”
Yeah, urgent like a drink with the boys. She wanted to yell at him that responsible men in long-term relationships put their girlfriends before their boys. A responsible man would’ve bothered to call if he was going to be late, and he certainly wouldn’t have come home drunk, let alone left a trail of vomit in his wake. But she’d had that same conversation with him too many times to count. She wasn’t doing it again.
She snatched a pillow from the bed and hurled it at him. “I said get out.”
He blocked the pillow with his arms as he took a step towards the door. “Baby, we can ta-”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Get out.” She snatched his car keys and tossed them in his direction. They fell at his feet with a loud jingle.
Charlie stared at the keys but didn’t pick them up. Rubbing his temple, he glared at her. “It’s too early for this crap, Snow.”
He was damn right. It was too early for his crap. She grabbed the bedside lamp. “Get out.”
Charlie guffawed. “You won’t throw it.”
She plucked the lamp’s chord from the socket and lifted the lamp higher threateningly.
“You won’t throw it.” This time his voice held a note of doubt.
Snow gave him a narrow-eyed glare that said ‘won’t I?’ better than any words could.
“Fine. Fine. I’ll go.” Charlie rolled his eyes as he bent to grab his keys. “We can discuss this when you’re sane again.”
It took everything in Snow to keep from tossing the lamp at his back as he exited the room. With self-control she didn’t know she possessed, she sucked in a deep breath and set the lamp back on the bedside table. A moment later she regretted that action because Charlie reappeared at the door.
His expression was shocked as he asked, “Hey, did I do that to your couch?”
Who did he think had done it? If glares were daggers, the one she sent him would’ve skewered him to the wall.
“Damn, I must’ve been really out of it.” Charlie gave her a sheepish smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll send Marion to come and clean it up.”
“Be sure to.” Though she was angry, she wasn’t enough of a masochist to refuse an offer for free clean-up.
Charlie gave her a blinding smile. “We’ll talk later, right?”
“No need,” she bit out. “You and I are done. We have nothing more to talk about.”
“Aw, come on, Snow. Just cause I was drunk?”
His words were enough to snap the thin thread holding her temper. She didn’t know when she grabbed the lamp – one second it was still on the bedside table and the next it was flying towards Charlie’s head. Charlie was damn lucky that he could move fast because if it wasn’t for his quick duck, his pretty face would’ve ended up a bloody mess.
“Fuck!” he yelped as he took several steps back. “Are you crazy?”
Snow was so angry it felt like her whole body was on fire. “Get the hell out my house.”
She started towards Charlie, intent on causing bodily harm, but before she could reach him, Charlie scampered out of the room. “Okay! Okay!”
She followed him but by the time she got to the living room, the front door was already slamming behind him. Only a lack of interest in putting on a show for the neighbors kept her from following him outside. She stood in the living room taking in deep breaths to calm herself. Moments later, she heard a car starting then a loud screeching as Charlie made his exit. It was only once she was sure he was gone that she took her first easy breath of the day.
God! Charlie was truly an expert at ruining her day. Why? Why? Why couldn’t he be the kind of man she could depend on to come home on time and sober? The kind of man who didn’t make her worry about his safety? Snow still remembered their days in high-school when his ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ ways had seemed so sexy, so exciting, so bold. Those days when she still imagined that she was a sorceress who could change her bad boy into Prince Charming.
Hah! What a delusional idiot she’d been.
Well, she was done with the delusions. Twelve years was enough to give to a man who only took. This time, she was really done wasting her days on him. Done! Done! Done!
Apparently, Snow was an open book because the moment she got to work everyone noticed that something was going on with her.
“What’s wrong?” Alvina ‘Vina’ Song, Snow’s best-friend, asked as they stood side-by-side prepping for lunch service. Snow liked to tease Vina that she was her living anime doll because she was so… cute. It was hard to believe that the Korean chef was all of thirty-years-old. She was barely five feet tall and had child-like pretty features complimented by slanted eyes and long black hair that brushed her waist. Most people assumed she was still a teenager and proceeded to treat her that way. Not for long though because Vina was the mistress of cutting down people to size.
When Snow didn’t answer her question, Vina repeated, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Snow said curtly as she vigorously chopped a carrot.
Vina’s eyebrows shot up. “Then why are you trying to kill those carrots? Stab them any harder and we might have to organize a funeral.”
Snow didn’t have any chance to answer because Oscar, another one of the chefs, called out from behind them. “I bet it’s because she and Charming broke up. Again.”
The way he said that ‘again’ made Snow turn her head to glare at him. Oscar responded to the glare with a derisive chuckle. Oscar had what Snow liked to call the ‘my-mother-might-have-been-a-meth-head’ look about him. The thirty-something chef was tall, extremely pale and scarily skinny with a full head of dark, curly hair that highlighted his gaunt face and ostrich neck. But judging from the self-important smirk he loved to wear and how he constantly hit on anything in a skirt, one would’ve thought that he was Channing Tatum in disguise.
“Oscar, don’t you have something better to do with your time other than eavesdrop on other people’s conversations?” Vina said coldly. “Like learn how to cook?”
Ignoring Vina, Oscar teased, “Come on, Snow. Tell the truth. Did you and Charming break up again?”
“Mind your own business.” Snow gritted between her teeth.
“So that’s a yes?” Oscar’s smirk broke into full grin as he turned to face the rest of the kitchen. “Ladies and gents, I’m taking bets. Place your bets on how long this ‘breakup’ will last. I’m putting twenty on a week.”
He turned away from the two ladies just as Snow snatched a pan from the counter. If it wasn’t for Vina grabbing Snow’s wrist, Oscar would’ve found himself nursing a nasty bump on the back of his head.
“Asshole!” Snow shouted at his retreating back.
“Correction – entrepreneurial asshole,” Oscar retorted with another grin before heading out of the kitchen.
“You should’ve let me bash his head,” Snow muttered as she glared at Oscar’s retreating back.
“Then you would’ve been in jail,” Vina said matter-of-factly. “And you know I don’t pay bail money.”
“Why not?” Snow stared aghast at her. “I’m your best-friend.”
“Hey, you did the crime. You pay for it.”
Snow shook her head. “Your generosity astounds me.”
Vina laughed. “I try.”
A moment later, April, Snow and Vina’s other partner in crime and the restaurant’s hostess appeared at the kitchen’s doorway. “Hey Snow, why is Oscar out there collecting bets about when you and Charlie will get back together?”
“Because he’s an asshole.” Snow brushed carrots from her cutting board into a bowl.
“That’s not what I meant.” April, like Snow, was black but her skin was a much lighter shade and she had that willowy, slender look that models starved themselves for. As if her looks weren’t enough to leave any woman frothing with jealousy, she was so stylish people often asked if she was an actress or model. She was the kind of woman other women loved to hate, and if she wasn’t so nice, Snow would’ve probably hated her too.
April’s eyes were filled with concern as she strode towards Snow’s station. “Please tell me you and Charlie didn’t break up again.”
“Okay, I won’t tell you.” Snow grabbed several more carrots.
April sighed loudly, her disappointment echoing through the kitchen. “What did he do now?”
Snow didn’t look up from the carrots she was chopping. “Came home late and drunk, trashed my neighbor’s bike, puked on my sofa… the usual.”
“Oh!” It was sad how both April and Vina showed no surprise.
“At least you didn’t have to pick him from lock-up this time,” April said.
“Is that supposed to make it better?” Vina asked before turning her attention to Snow. “Please tell me that you’re cutting him loose for good this time. That man is wasting your good years.”
“You’re being too harsh,” April cut in before Snow could answer. “Charlie just needs a guiding hand.”
“Are you serious?” Vina gave April a disbelieving look. “He’s twenty-seven. Not seven?”
“Whatever!” April waved a dismissive hand at Vina before turning back to Snow. “You two have been together for twelve years and gone through worse stuff. Can’t you forgive him for this?”
Snow shook her head. “No, this time I’m-”
“Since when did my kitchen become Dear Abby?” A deep voice cut into her words.
All three women spun around to face the kitchen’s new entrant. Snow’s heart bumped against her ribs when her gaze met that of Greyson Teller, Executive Chef and owner of Tellers. The air in the kitchen snapped with tension as all three women stiffened and straightened to their full heights like soldiers caught slacking off while on-duty.
There was no doubt that Greyson was strikingly handsome. He had dirty blond hair long enough to need tying when he was in the kitchen, ocean blue eyes, and stood at a commanding and muscular six foot two. But it was hard to swoon over him when he was always so serious. Furthermore, those same attractive features turned spine-chillingly fierce when he was annoyed that all Snow could think of was how to keep from shaking in her boots.
His piercing gaze swept over each of the three women before it settled on Snow. It almost felt like he was cutting her with his eyes as he asked, “You three know that we’re supposed to be serving lunch in three hours, right?”
Even though he didn’t yell, the ice in his tone was enough to draw a rushed, “Yes, Chef,” from all three women.
“Then why are you standing around like you have nothing to do?”
“Sorry, Chef.” Snow and Vina turned back to their stations while April scrambled out of the kitchen.
“Where are Oscar and Ed?” Greyson asked no one in particular.
“Oscar’s out in the dining-room, and I think Ed’s in the break-room,” Snow said.
“Go get them,” he ordered.
“Yes, Chef.” Snow traded a sheepish look with Vina before skirting past Greyson to get out of the kitchen.
After the heat in the kitchen, the dining-room’s spacious layout, cooler temperature and relaxed ambience were a welcome respite. The room’s large windows framed a view of Santa Barbara’s bustling streets, and its walls were wooden to match the color palette of the potted plants spread around the room.
Snow swept past several square tables covered in white tablecloths to reach the table where Oscar was seated. A few servers and bussers were gathered around him, most of them holding money.
“Snow!” Someone’s hushed whisper swept over the gathered staff. Immediately, bills were stuffed back into pockets or crunched within fists. A few made a hasty escape while others stayed curious to see whether she and Oscar would get into it.
Ever bold, Oscar smiled at her as he tapped a wad of cash on his palm. “And here comes the bachelorette herself. Would you like to put money on yourself?”
It took everything in her to keep from slapping his smug face and to say coolly, “Greyson wants to see you in the kitchen.”
“Oh, shit!” Immediate panic flared in Oscar’s eyes and he scrambled off the table. “He’s in the kitchen?”
Without answering, Snow started towards the stairs leaving Oscar and his minions scrambling towards their various duties.
“Do you think Chef saw us?” “No. No, he couldn’t have. Otherwise we’d already be fired” “What if that’s what he’s calling Oscar for?” “Oscar, man, you’re in trouble.” Their panicked words were enough to make Snow smirk as she climbed the stairs and entered the break-room.
The staff’s break-room was a roomy space with a large table flunked by two benches right in the middle. Several lockers lined the wall and two doors led into the ladies and men’s changing rooms. A white-haired, thickset man wearing the Tellers trademark black chef-coat was seated on one of the benches, with his head propped on his arms on the table.
“Ed,” Snow called out as she edged further into the room. “Eddy.”
When there was no response, she closed the space between them and stopped beside him. Immediately, the strong scent of alcohol sent her staggering a few steps backwards. Phew! Ed smelled like he’d bathed in vodka or at least used it as a deodorant.
It should’ve been a surprise that he was reeking of alcohol at this time in the morning. Sadly, it wasn’t. Everyone knew that he had a problem with alcohol but no one ever said anything because frankly after going through all the bullshit he’d been through, Ed deserved a break.
Snow would’ve said that Greyson kept Ed because of pity and a sense of obligation because the older man had given him a job when he still owned his own restaurant. But the truth was that even in the throes of an alcoholic stupor, Ed had never missed a day of work. Furthermore, the man could whip up a tiramisu that was so good it could tempt the gods from their perches above.
“Ed, Eddy.” She shook his shoulders a couple of times. “Edward, wake up.”
“What?” He came awake with a groan. Time had not been kind to Edward. Several wrinkles lined his tired face making him look much older than his fifty-years and his eyes were red, bleary and swollen.
“It’s prep-time.” Snow strode to her locker and rummaged through it to come up with a medicine-bottle filled with painkillers and a bottle of half-drunk water. She set them on the table in front of him. “For your hangover.”
“Thanks, girly.” Ed gave – or rather tried to give her a smile before he shook out two pills.
Moments later, the two of them made their way to the kitchen to find that Greyson, Vina and Oscar had now been joined by Roman Teller, Greyson’s cousin and business partner.
Though Greyson and Roman were about the same height, that was where the family resemblance ended. Roman was the black hair to Greyson’s blond. The gray eyes to Greyson’s blue. The cheery face to Greyson’s stoic demeanor. But just as devastatingly handsome. However, most of the ladies at Tellers ranked him higher on the attractiveness scale because he was a former pro-baseball player and had more money.
As soon as Roman spotted Snow, his eyes lit up. “So Snow, is it true?”
“Is what true?” Snow made her way to her station.
Roman followed her. “Are you and Charming over?”
“Roman!” Greyson barked before Snow could answer. Folding his arms over his muscular chest, he glared at his cousin. “Don’t you have a restaurant to manage or something?”
“Later,” Roman replied flippantly before turning back to Snow. “So you’re single now, huh?”
“Roman. Out.” Greyson’s tone was more forceful this time, enough to make everyone in the kitchen quake – everyone but Roman.
Grinning, Roman backed away from Snow with his hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. I’m going.”
As soon as Roman left, Greyson turned to Snow with his eyes narrowed in anger. “Keep your personal life out of my kitchen.”
Immediate anger seared through her. She wanted to protest that she hadn’t brought up the topic of her break up. She wanted to tell him that she held no control over his gossipy staff. But he was her boss so she bit out, “Yes, Chef.”
* * * * *
LUNCH SERVICE FLEW by in a whirlwind of organized activity. Tellers was like a well-oiled machine. Food moved out of the kitchen and to the dinners with head-spinning speed and the diners were full of compliments. Greyson would’ve loved to say that it was all him, but the truth was that he had the best staff his money could buy. Sure, sometimes they were lazy and arrogant, and sometimes they acted like high-school kids complete with the bickering, gossiping and forming cliques. But when push came to shove they always came through for him. He was definitely upping their end-of-year bonuses.
Things cooled down at around three allowing Greyson to take his first break of the day. Letting his staff deal with the last minute stragglers, he took a seat at a table on the far corner of the dining-room.
“So what are you going to do about it?” Roman slipped into the seat across Greyson.
Greyson arched his eyebrows. “What am I going to do about what?”
“About her breakup?” Roman motioned with his eyes towards the kitchen’s open doorway.
From his position, Greyson could see what – or rather who, his cousin was looking at. Snow. She was at her station, her expression intent and her attention fully on the scallops she was sautéing.
Roman said, “Snow White and Prince Charming are no longer together. What are you going to do about it?”
“How many times has she told you people to stop calling them that?” Greyson hedged even as his gaze remained locked on Snow.
At this particular moment, no one would’ve called her sexy. She wore no make-up, her face was oily from being in the heat too long and several strands of her curly hair had messily escaped the control of her cap. To make matters worse, her chef-coat had several food stains, while the jeans and clog combo she wore beneath the chef coat did nothing for her voluptuous body. And yet every muscle in his body tightened with each second he stared at her, his heart began to knock in excitement and blood rushed from his head to his lower body.
“You’re avoiding my question.” Roman cut into Greyson’s errant thoughts.
“I’m not avoiding anything.” Greyson forced his gaze away from her and back to his cousin. He found Roman’s eyes dancing with laughter.
“Yeah, right!” Roman let out a snort of disbelief.
Greyson wasn’t surprised that his cousin didn’t believe him. To most people, Greyson was cool and unreadable. Roman was the exception. They’d been friends, cousins and brothers for too long not to know each other. If there was anyone who’d know Greyson’s type of woman, it would be Roman. And Snow was definitely his type.
From the moment she’d stepped into Tellers three years ago, he’d been attracted to her. How could he not be? Her eyes were large and a deep brown that sucked one right into them. Her lips were lush and oh, so kissable. Her skin was a rich shade of cocoa brown, silky and so smooth that it begged a man to touch. The curves on her were enough to make a grown man cry. Then there were those dimples. Jesus! Whenever she smiled, Greyson’s heart stopped in its tracks.
If it was only her looks that made her so attractive, he wouldn’t have been smitten. But when working with her, he’d discovered that she was bubbly, driven, competent and caring… everything he was looking for in a woman. It was too bad that she was spoken for.
Roman set his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “This is your chance. Get in there while he’s still in her black-book and tattoo yourself on her. You know how she and Charming are. If you drag your feet while waiting for her to get over him, he’ll just worm his way back into her life and your window will close again.”
Greyson watched Snow for a long moment before shaking his head. “Nah. It’s probably not a real break-up anyway.”
Roman said, “How do you know it’s not a real break-up?”
“Psh!” Greyson snorted. “This is Snow and Charlie.”
The two were like a boomerang; they kept coming back to each other. Greyson had stopped counting at breakup number seven – and that was while she was working at Tellers. God only knew how many ‘breakups’ they truly had under their belt.
“Maybe this time it’s real.” Roman shrugged. “And you won’t know how real it is until you throw your hat into the ring.”
Greyson snatched another glance at Snow who was now plating the scallops she’d been cooking. “She’s probably not ready for a new relationship. I’ll just end up as her rebound.”
“So what?” Roman countered. “Some of the best relationships start as rebounds. She can get over him while she’s with you.”
“Name one relationship you know that started as a rebound?”
“Mom and Dad’s,” Roman countered.
Greyson’s lips twitched in a reluctant smile. “Aunt Patty stole your dad from her sister. I don’t think that counts as a rebound.”
When they were younger, Greyson and Roman had always wondered why their aunt, Hannah, always got drunk during the holidays then conveniently ended up in Roman’s mother and father’s bed. Their questions always led to sharp looks traded between the older folks then swift slaps at the back of the head. They’d quickly learnt to mind their own business, and it was only once they were older that they’d unraveled the whole tangled story behind Aunt Hannah’s shenanigans.
“Still, they just prove that there’s never a perfect time for a romance,” Roman retorted.
Greyson chuckled. “I never knew you were such a romantic.”
“I’m not.” Roman jabbed his finger at his cousin. “But you are.”
“Me. No way!” Greyson protested.
“You haven’t looked at another woman since sweet Snow White walked into your office.”
“I’ve looked!” Greyson defended himself.
His cousin responded with a derisive snort.
Greyson watched Snow for another long moment. “I’m not her type anyway. She seems to like trust-fund, pretty-boys.”
Everyone at Tellers knew that Snow came from a wealthy family. All you had to see was the car her stepmother drove. Greyson didn’t know why Snow lived like a regular girl but it was obvious by Charlie’s presence in her life that she hadn’t cut her ties to that world. Compared to her and Charming – sorry, Charlie – Greyson was the definition of a serf. His background was as poor and disadvantaged as they came, and everything he had he’d fought, clawed and dug up with only his two hands.
“Are you waiting for me to reassure you that you’re a catch?” Roman asked, astutely picking up on his cousin’s insecurities. “Fine! You’re a catch.”
Greyson shot him a sharp glare. “One of these days someone will staple your smart mouth shut!”
“I’d like to see them try,” Roman retorted cheekily. “So are you going for her?”
Greyson’s eyes wandered back in Snow’s direction. Maybe Roman was right. Maybe it was time to throw his hat in the proverbial ring. “On one condition?”
“What condition!” Roman protested. “Hey, I’m doing you a favor by hooking you up with Snow. I don’t need to follow any conditions.”
Greyson continued anyway, “I’ll make my move on Snow, if you do the same with her.” He looked past Roman to fix his gaze on April, who was standing by a table a few feet away chatting with the diners there.
“Who?” Roman turned in his seat to follow Greyson’s gaze. When he saw April, his brow immediately creased. “My stalker? Why would I make a move on her?”
“Because you’re into her.”
“No, I’m not,” Roman huffed as he turned back to face Greyson.
“Yeah, right!” Greyson mimicked his cousin’s earlier snort.
It felt good to turn the tables on Roman. Sure, Roman always acted like April’s crush was one-sided and that it annoyed him, but it was all bullshit. Greyson knew Roman just as much as Roman knew him, and he was sure that if Roman truly believed that April was a stalker he would’ve swatted her away by now. The only reason he kept her within ‘stalking’ distance was because he had a thing for her.
Smirking, Greyson repeated, “I’ll make a move on Snow, if you make a move on April.”
Roman glared at Greyson for a long time before that glare was replaced by a mischievous twinkle. He pushed back his chair and stood. “Or… I could make a move on Snow. She’s my type and we could be-”
Greyson’s hand shot out and grabbed Roman’s arm. “Sit your ass down.”
Grinning, Roman settled back in his seat. “You’re too easy.”
Being a Sunday, Tellers didn’t offer dinner so by four p.m. the staff began leaving the restaurant. Any other day, Snow would’ve been happy for the early let-off. Today wasn’t one of those days. Whenever she was feeling down and frustrated, cooking was her go-to therapy. Nothing could beat Tellers’ high-pressure, forget-your-problems-and-just-cook atmosphere, and she needed it today more than any other day. With a sigh, she trudged up to the break-room.
“Snow, there’s a reason Charming keeps breaking up with you,” Oscar said as they changed into their street clothes. His breath hitched as he bent to lace his sneakers. “You’re too headstrong, too ambitious, too independent.”
“Am I now?” Snow coolly shrugged out of her chef-coat then slipped it onto a hanger. Though she looked calm on the outside, on the inside she was simmering with tightly restrained anger. The whole day she’d been bombarded with questions about her dating status and she was just about done. From how ‘concerned’ everyone was, you’d have thought that her love life was their favorite soap opera.
“Mm hmm.” Oscar nodded. “Men like women who are more feminine, women who need them. Ask Ed.”
“Don’t drag me into your nonsense,” Ed grumbled from his prone position across the bench.
“Yeah, don’t get dragged in, Ed.” Vina who was unbuttoning her chef-coat laughed before asking Oscar, “Why do you assume Charming’s the one who broke up with her?”
“Have you seen Charming? He’s tall, dark, handsome, rich…” Oscar guffawed. “What woman would break up with him?”
His words were enough to snap the thin thread holding Snow’s temper. Swiveling to face him, she bit out, “If you love Charlie so much maybe you should date him yourself. I bet you can do feminine real well.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Oscar’s eyes flashed angrily. “Are you implying that I’m gay?”
Snow simply rolled her eyes while Vina and Ed chuckled. Everyone knew what a raging homophobic Oscar was.
“Take it back!” Oscar thundered.
Snow offered him a satisfied smirk before turning to Vina. “I’m passing by the mall before I head home to get Elsie a bike. Wanna come?”
The last place she wanted to go back to was her apartment because Charlie would probably be there with his fake-ass apologies. He’d already sent her a picture earlier in the day to show her that her couch was now clean, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine him turning up at her house and acting like everything was resolved between them. However, she didn’t want to wake up to Lauren’s subpoena tomorrow morning, so to the mall to buy a bike then straight home it was.
Vina shook her head. “Wish I could go with you but I’ve got another blind date.”
“You’re still going to those?” April asked as she emerged from the ladies changing room. Her black hostess-dress was gone replaced by a chic, blue, body-con dress.
“Mm, April. You’re looking fine,” Oscar butted into the conversation, his beady eyes doing a slow, creepy tour down April’s body. “Maybe you and I should go on a blind date of our own.”
“I’d rather gouge my own eyes out,” April retorted before turning to Vina. “I thought you were done with the matchmaking thing.”
“I wish.” Vina let out a frustrated sigh. “But my mother and grandmother threatened to come and talk to Greyson about my work hours if I don’t go.”
Both Snow and April burst into laughter. Ever since Vina had turned thirty, Mama Song and Grandma Song had been trying ardently to marry her off to a good Korean man. The last time she’d refused to go to one of the blind-dates they’d organized for her, they’d parked themselves at Tellers and refused to leave until she agreed to go for the date.
“Speaking of blind-dates…” Vina looked around the break-room. “Where’s Pepper? I need her ripped jeans and ratty wigs.”
That was enough to elicit another round of laughter. Rather than incurring the wrath of the older women in her family by refusing to go for dates, Vina’s new strategy was to make herself as unappealing as possible to her dates.
Once Vina left in search of the ripped jeans, Snow turned to April. “What about you? Want to come help me pick a bike?”
“I wish I could. You know how I love shopping.” April’s face fell. “Unfortunately, I’ve got to go home for Sunday dinner.”
“Ugh! That sucks.” Actually, Snow’s family was also having dinner together tonight, but she was already having a bad day. The last thing she wanted to do was spend the evening defending her career – or as her father preferred to call it; her ‘silly, little hobby’.
“Why don’t we postpone the shopping trip and do it tomorrow since we’re both off,” April suggested. “Then you can come with me for Sunday dinner. Everyone’s always asking when you’re coming anyway.”
“No, thanks,” Snow said quickly. Why would she go to someone else’s family dinner when she was missing her own?
“Don’t worry about it,” Snow reassured her friend. “I’ll pick the bike on my own.”
By the time Snow walked into the mall it was almost six p.m.. She could’ve gone directly to the supermarket to get the bike but she felt like poor Elsie deserved better than the low-quality stuff there. Unfortunately, since it was a Sunday evening most specialty stores in the mall were closed. She wandered around the ground, first and second floors but found nothing to her liking.
It would have to be a supermarket bicycle.
Lauren would probably throw a fit because of the low quality of the bike, Snow thought as she took the escalator down. But her reaction would be worse if Snow came empty-handed. Oh well, Snow could always get Elsie a better bike tomorrow. Charlie could afford it.
“Snow!” A voice cut into her errant thoughts.
She lifted her head to see Greyson coming up the opposite escalator. For a second, she was stunned by how good he looked. His hair was out of the band that usually held it away from his face when he was cooking, and a stray sun-burnished lock licked at his forehead. His chef-coat had been replaced by a black leather jacket over a navy t-shirt that stretched over his muscular chest, and his dark-wash jeans clung to trunk-like thighs before dipping to his black high-tops.
Pulling herself from her not-so-innocent perusal of him, she smiled. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he returned as he came up alongside her. “Shopping?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. As their respective escalators drew them further apart, she waved. “Later.”
Despite herself, Snow found herself turning to get one more glimpse of him as his escalator made its ascent. Those broad shoulders, the butt… her boss was definitely fine. Almost as if he could feel her checking him out, Greyson turned his head. Grinning, Snow hastily spun around to face forward.
What? There wasn’t any law against checking your boss out.
She thought that was the end of that but as she was approaching the supermarket, someone came up beside her. “Need any help?”
Surprised, she came to a screeching stop and turned her head only to find Greyson beside her. “Chef, you startled me.”
“It’s Greyson.” The slow, charming smile that accompanied his words was so impossibly wicked, so impossibly sensual, that her chest tightened strangely and her breath caught in her throat.
She somehow managed to murmur, “Hmm?”
“You don’t have to call me Chef outside the kitchen,” he clarified. “Just call me Greyson.”
“Oh. Okay. Um…” She dragged a deep breath to ease the tightness in her lungs. “I thought you were going up.” Her hand fluttered towards the upper floors.
“I was but the store I was going to is closed.” He started forward, forcing her to start walking too. “So I thought I’d pick up a few things from the supermarket.”
Even to her own ears, her voice sounded strangled as she said, “Oh, I see.”
What was this? Why was she suddenly so flustered by his presence? Why couldn’t she stop sneaking glances at him as they strolled towards the supermarket? She was acting like a teenager who’d unexpectedly found herself next to her crush.
No. No. This had nothing to do with crushes and attraction, she quickly reassured herself. She was just not used to being around Greyson on her own unless it involved business. Furthermore, other than occasions that involved their co-workers, she and Greyson had never socialized outside the kitchen. Anyone would be a little nervous in her position. Yes, that was it!
Greyson stopped at the supermarket’s entrance and pointed to line of baskets and carts there. “Basket or cart?”
She shook her head. “Neither. What I’m here for won’t fit in there.”
“Really?” Curiosity flitted through his blue eyes as he pulled a cart out for himself then led the way into the large store. “An appliance?”
“No, just a bike.” She pointed towards the upper floor of the store. “I think they’re up there.”
She expected him to say his goodbyes then go his merry way. Instead, he turned his cart in the direction of the moving walkway that led to the upper floor. “I didn’t know you bike.”
“I don’t.” Snow chuckled. “It’s for my neighbor’s daughter.”
There was no way to explain the circumstances that had led to her being forced to buy a bike without embarrassing herself, so she simply said, “Something like that.”
Greyson studied her as if he wanted to prod further, but to her relief, he changed the direction of their conversation. “What kind of bike are you looking for?”
Snow shrugged. “I don’t know – something pretty?”
Greyson grinned. “I mean beyond just its prettiness what specs are you working with? What’s your budget? How tall is she? Is she a timid or aggressive rider? Can she stop a bike with a coaster brake or is she transitioning from a balance bike? What’s her inseam, her weight… that sort of thing.”
Snow blinked, then stared at him. “I know you spoke English but all I heard was Greek.”
His grin turned to a full chuckle as he parked his cart beside the moving walkway. “Come on, I’ll help you.”
He led the way to the moving walkway but once she was standing beside him, he set his palm on her lower back as if to guide her. Instantly, a rush of electric heat swept through Snow. Startled, she jerked her gaze to his face but found him looking straight ahead. His features were the epitome of calm, even as the heaviness and warmth of his palm continued to sear through the thin fabric of her t-shirt and agitate her senses.
Couldn’t he feel that electricity? Or was it all in her imagination? But that didn’t explain why her pulse was suddenly racing or why she felt short of breath. It certainly didn’t explain why despite all these strange symptoms, she didn’t feel inclined to step away from his touch.
Once they reached the top of the walkway, his hand fell away from her back. Immediately, she felt bereft. It took everything in her to keep from edging closer to him so she could feel his body against hers as they strolled towards the aisle that held the bikes.
Stop it, Snow, she mentally berated herself. You’re here to buy Elsie’s bike. Not swoon over your boss.
As soon as they got to the bike-aisle, a shopping assistant approached them. “Can I help you out?”
“We’re looking for a bicycle for a-” Greyson turned his gaze to Snow. “How old is your neighbor’s child?”
“Six- year- years.” Snow cleared her throat. “Elsie is six-years-old.”
“We just got new stock from Berkshers.” The assistant started towards a set of bikes. “They’ve got quality bikes.”
Who knew buying a child’s bike could be as complicated as buying a car. Snow was glad to have run into Greyson because without him she would’ve ended up picking the first pink bike she saw. Though she provided Elsie’s specs and preferences, Greyson was the one who did most of the heavy-lifting. He thoroughly inspected each of the bikes the assistant showed them for flaws.
“What do you think of this one?” Snow stopped beside a green and white bike.
Greyson edged towards her then crouched in front of the bike. He inspected the brakes. “Okay. It has color coded brake levers that will keep her from getting confused about which brake to use and the handlebars aren’t too low.” He checked the tag hanging on the handlebar. “You said that Elsie weighs about fifty five pounds, right?”
“Then no.” He lifted the bike up a few times. “This is too heavy for her.”
“Oh! I see.” Impressed with his expertise, she asked, “How do you know so much stuff about kids’ bikes?”
“My nephews and nieces,” he said simply. Snow didn’t ask for further explanation because she assumed he meant Roman’s older sister’s kids who were regulars at Tellers. Greyson moved on to another bike and crouched next to it. “Let’s see this one…”
There was something about a man who knew his stuff that was a turn-on. Snow couldn’t help watching him as he moved from bike to bike, couldn’t help admiring him. How come she’d never noticed how his eyes crinkled ever so slightly at the corners when he smiled? Or how long and elegant his fingers were? Or how deep and rumbling his voice was? Jeez, why did her throat feel so parched and why was her heart thumping so loud?
“Are you okay?” His voice cut into her erratic thoughts.
Her gaze flew to his as she stuttered a rushed, “Yeah! Yeah! Why do you ask?”
“You keep hitting your chest so I thought something might be wrong?”
“Huh?” She lowered her eyes only to find her fist poised over the section right above her left breast. What the hell? She hadn’t even realized that she was the one thumping her heart. She had no idea why she was doing it, so she quickly hedged, “Oh, I felt like I was choking. It’s nothing really.”
“You sure?” Concern streaked through Greyson’s eyes – those beautiful blue eyes.
Good God! What was wrong with her? When had she started to think of his eyes as beautiful? To Greyson, she said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” though she was beginning to think that she might not be so fine.
Thirty minutes later, they settled on a bike. While the attendant went to drop it off at the checkout counter, Snow and Greyson took the escalator back to the ground floor so he could shop for himself.
“Thank you so much for helping me out,” Snow said as they strolled down the toiletries aisle. “I know this is not how you planned to spend your Sunday evening.”
“No need to thank me. You saved me from a boring evening watching baseball.” Dropping two cans of deodorant into his cart, he added, “But I wouldn’t mind it if you bought me a cup of coffee once we’re done here.”
“Sure-” Snow started enthusiastically then remembered that Lauren was probably tapping her foot at her doorstep. “Sorry, I can’t. I have to drop the bike off.”
“Do you have a way to get it home?”
Damn! She hadn’t thought that far. If she owned a car this would’ve been so easy. Quickly improvising, she said, “I’ll just take a cab.”
“You don’t need to.” He stopped to pull a pack of eight rolls of tissue from a shelf. His eyes roving over the label on the roll, he suggested, “I can take you home.”
The offer was made so casually that at first Snow didn’t know how to respond to it. “What?”
“I’ll take you home,” he repeated as he dropped the tissue rolls into his cart then started to move again.
“You don’t need to do that,” she quickly refused as she trailed him. The last thing she needed to do was spend more time with him, especially not when her body was behaving so weirdly. “I can take a cab.”
“Why would you waste cash on a cab when we live in the same direction?”
“We do?” That was news to her.
“We do.” Greyson nodded, his eyes crinkling as if he was laughing on the inside – perhaps at her. “It’s been six months since you moved, right?”
“We’ve been going in the same direction since then.”
“We have?” She stared at him in wide-eyed shock for a few seconds before a realization hit her. “You’re telling me that for the last six months you knew that I live in the same direction as you yet you never offered me a ride? Wow, Greyson! I knew you were a little stingy but damn!”
“What?” His lips twitched as if he was holding back a smile. “You’re turning this on me now?”
“You’re damn right I’m turning it on you! I’ve been wasting money on buses and cabs while I could’ve been riding in your sweet Merc. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.” Resisting the urge to smile, she shook her head. “I’m so disappointed in you, Chef.”
“Well, if you were more observant, you could’ve asked for a ride yourself,” he countered.
“It is not my fault that I’m too distracted to notice what’s going on around me,” she retorted. “You’re the one who overworks me.”
“I overwork you?” His brows lifted and his lips quirked. “I spend half of every service trying to drag you away from your gossip girls.”
“Did you just call April and Vina gossip girls?” She threatened, “I’m telling on you.”
“Psh! I always knew you were a tattletale.” He bumped his arm against her shoulder.
Snow bumped him right back. “Keep insulting me and I’ll also tell Vina you said she couldn’t cook cause she’s a girl.”
“Okay! Okay, you win. No more insults,” he surrendered with a laugh, and just like that the ice between them was broken.
Snow had always thought of Greyson as buttoned-up and standoffish, but the next moments proved that he could be just as laid back as anyone else. By the time Greyson finished shopping, she was a mess of confused emotions. For one she felt flustered, like her body had discovered something about Greyson that her brain had yet to figure out. But at the same time, she felt more at ease with him than she ever had in their last three years of working together.
It was really strange.
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