Page 104 of We Were Once

“Says the chef. Anyway, I’m a pro at messing with you—Oh, shit!” Guess he’s pulled his eyes off that grill long enough to get a good look at me. “What happened?”

Chloe Fox happened.

I don’t say it, but it would be the truth. It’s not worth the fuckery I’d have to put up with though, so I go with what works best for the time being. “Some asshole decked me out of nowhere.” See? That’s the truth. No lies told today.

“It wouldn’t surprise me in New York.” He flips two chicken breasts and then asks, “But out of nowhere?”

My story isn’t sticky enough for him with the lack of details. He knows me too well. “Come on,” I say, slipping on my chef’s coat. “You know me. He was fucking with me and decided to introduce me to his fist.”

I scan the kitchen, ready to have the crew prep the stations for the dinner rush. Clapping my hands, I ask, “What are we waiting on? When we’re slammed? Get busy, people.” After getting the crew going, I move to the cooking stations to start the specials for the night. Todd eyes me long enough for me to know he’s on to me. He says, “I do know you. This is the old Josh, not the new. What really happened?”

Concern from my friends is the same as disappointing them, and I don’t like either. Todd took a leap of faith and came to New York City with me to go to culinary school. Cooking wasn’t his dream, but it’s been a steady gig for him. What he lacks in skills, he makes up for in style and commitment. That made it easy to get him hired at Salvation, especially since it’s my restaurant. I took my inheritance and sunk it in my dream.

Todd’s the only one who works here that knows I own it. Lola was hired and built the front of the restaurant team, none the wiser. With a degree in hospitality and training under some of the most revered restauranteurs in the city, she brought what I lacked. We stick to our fortes, but our paths cross at every turn.

“You’re going to scare the customers, Josh,” she says, her tone light as she pushes through the door. Her black dress is skintight, short, and the heels give off a maneater vibe. She can back it. She’s not shy, but a bull in a china shop when she’s passionate about something.

Chopping asparagus, I reply, “That’s why I plan to stay back here.”

She comes around, her long black hair swinging to the side as she leans against the metal cabinet next to me. Plucking a piece from the board, she plops it in her mouth, and asks, “What happened?”

“A fist ran into my face.”

Running her fingertips over the small bandage, her expression is critical. “Did you do this?”

I duck out of her reach, not wanting to replace the earlier touch that cared for me, and tack on a gentle but firm response, “No.” I have no desire to share more about the situation, steering as clear as I can from Chloe. That would be like feeding red meat to a tiger. I’m not in the mood to go through the details of my life that don’t concern the restaurant, or her. I almost made that mistake once. I won’t put myself in that situation again. “I heard the house is packed.”

“We are.”

“Good.” I go to the walk-in to pull out the ingredients for the special. The freezing air feels good against my bruising skin. When I return, she’s vacated the kitchen.

Todd plates two dishes, and then asks, “Why aren’t you fucking her again?” The other guys start chuckling, except for Karen, but she never laughs about anything. “She’s all over you, and damn, she’s hot.”

I’ll be an asshole to get the attention off me. It’s a skill I honed in jail. “Because she’s already all over me. Imagine how’d she be if I gave her the goods.” I fall short of grabbing my dick. I don’t because I’m not fifteen, but really, it’s because I like Lola. Who says men and women can’t be friends? I don’t view her as more than that, which is why nothing ever happened between us.

“It’s not an image I want in my head, but a solid point.”

Using a butcher knife, I slam it down. Sure, it’s for show, but it’s a great tool to use to lay down the law as well. “Less talking and more cooking.”

Todd laughs. “You used to be fun.” He’s not wrong. But for two years and seven months, I had to be angry. Sullen. Intense. Aggressive. It was the only way to survive behind bars.

I used to be a nicer guy too, but with all the shit I’ve been through, I lost that side of myself.

Tags: S.L. Scott Romance