Ready to Burn – Chapter 1

So…his life had come to this.

Del Westlake, sous chef at Cosset, one of the up-and-coming, hottest restaurants in LA, applying for a job flipping cartoon-shaped pancakes.

Make that Cosset’s “ex” sous chef.

His mom always warned that the bigger a person’s ego, the bigger the crash when he hit rock bottom. And Del had hit rock bottom. No job, a messed-up reputation, rent overdue on his Venice Beach apartment, and about to grovel for a position as line cook from a man who’d probably grill him to charred ashes.

Del snorted. Seated on the hotel foyer’s armchair, he scanned the entrance to the character dining restaurant then checked his watch. His knee bounced uncontrollably. Fifteen minutes until the interview—an interview he’d only gotten because one of Cosset’s servers, Larry, was a drinking buddy of the restaurant manager. When a month had gone by and no other reputable LA restaurant would touch Del, Larry called in a favor.

Shrill giggles stabbed Del’s ears from across the foyer. Some guy in a giant dog costume hammed it up with kindergarten-aged twin girls. Del winced, but at least it wasn’t from the mother of all hangovers. This morning the pounding head and sweaty palms were only due to the depressing thought of how righteously he’d screwed up.

The phone in his dress pants pocket vibrated. He fished it out and glanced at the screen.Mom…speak of the devil.

Could he ignore her? Nah, she’d keep trying until she reached him. Better to deal with her now.

He jabbed the talk button. “You’re up early, Mom—too much nasty fresh air down there?”

“Hello to you too, son. I assume you’re still on your morning break?”

Del’s knee jiggled again. He’d be on his morning break if he still had a job. Admitting his current unemployment status to Claire Gatlin would be the equivalent of waving an upside down crucifix at the Pope. And his mother had enough stress without knowing her youngest son’s career was in the toilet.

“Yeah. We’re pretty slammed, so—”

“I won’t keep you long, and I’ll get straight to the point. It’s your father.”

Del’s stomach plummeted like a freight elevator with its cables freshly cut. Mom had flown halfway around the world to New Zealand to look after her ex-husband after she’d found out his kidneys had packed up.

Was the old bastard dead?

Del surged to his feet and strode to a potted fern, tucking the phone closer to his ear. “What about him?”

“He’s getting worse.”

“Oh.”

What the hell else could he say? That he was glad the SOB who’d forced Del as a kid to go to LA with his mother still stubbornly clung to life?

“Shaye’s struggling with the workload now that Bill can barely put in any hours.”

Shaye’s name sent a ripple through his mind. Three years his junior, she’d been part of the gang of kids he hung out with in his hometown of Oban. But more than just being part of the gang, Shaye and her older siblings had accepted him and his brother, West, as part of the Harland family when theirs had broken down.

He stared at his shoes. Shaye had only been eleven when he’d left. A studious kid with stars in her eyes and a killer bowling arm when they’d played cricket on the island’s many beaches. She’d be nearly twenty-five now. Twenty-five was too inexperienced to run Due South’s restaurant solo.

Not his problem. He had more pressing matters to worry about. “You’ve advertised for another chef though?”

A sharp inhale from seven thousand miles away.

“Ahh…” He guessed the problem immediately. “Nobody wants to work at the ass end of New Zealand?”

“Delmar!”

“Sorry. I’m sure lots of people are dying to work in such a wild and beautiful jewel of the Pacific, yadda-yadda-yadda.” Del rolled his eyes over at the twins, who clung to the dog so fiercely it was a wonder the poor sucker beneath the fake fur could breathe.  “Mom, why are you calling?”

“Always so impatient. Can’t you hold a conversation without rushing?”

He had a scummy, beneath-him job to grovel for. “Now’s not a good time.”

“It never is.” She huffed out a sigh. “I want to ask you a favor. You-know-I’ve-never-asked-anything-of-you-before.”

Oh, shit. The Mom-Guilt favor. Nothing good ever came from those words.

“Bill refuses to let a stranger into his kitchen. Your brother posted an ad for a chef, but Bill pulled it. I heard him mutter something like, ‘Del should be here; it’s his bloody legacy.’”

Her meaning tumbled past his worries of how he’d get his career back on track, and knocked him on his ass. “Are you asking me to take over for Bill?”

“Well…yes. Yes, I am. Just until you can train Shaye up to speed or we can find a replacement. Ryan’s a wonderful manager; I’m sure you’ll both figure out what’s best for Due South.”

Ryan, who only answered to “West,” had taken over the running of Oban’s one and only hotel/pub/restaurant four years ago. West coped pretty well working alongside their father without cracking the old bastard over the head with a skillet. Del, however, would rather sauté his own nuts before stepping through Due South’s door again. He hadn’t been back to Stewart Island since he left thirteen years ago, and as far as he knew, hell hadn’t frozen over yet.

“Mom, I—”

“You’ve always wanted to run your own restaurant.”

He tipped his head back and it thunked on the wall behind him. “Yeah. But in LA, not down there in the bowels of the earth.”

“Head chef is head chef. Your father’s right—Due South is your legacy.”

“He’s lying. Bill would rather gnaw off his own arm than let me touch his precious restaurant.”

Del angled his face toward the hotel windows. His reflection, dressed in a white shirt, his dried-mud brown hair perfectly combed and his usually scruffy jaw freshly shaven, glared back. On a good day he’d get a pretty girl’s number with minimal effort. Not today. Today, he felt like three-day-old leftovers that some first year culinary student tried to pass off as cuisine.

“That’s no longer the case, Del. He needs you.” Oceans of emotions surged through his mom’s voice, but he didn’t care to dip his toe in those waters.

“Does Bill know you’re ringing me? Does West?”

“West knows.”

He imagined Bill would have something to say on the subject of his youngest son taking over his kitchen, kidney disease or no kidney disease. Not that it mattered. Del wasn’t that desperate.

Turning away from the window, he caught sight of the big dog posing for an obligatory photo. While the woman repositioned her camera for another shot, the dog pretended to nibble on one twin’s head. Her sister shrieked with mirth. Del shuddered.

“I have a job here—a good job.” He hunched a shoulder, waiting for God to smite him for lying to his mother.

“I know. I wouldn’t ask if there were any other way. You must have a bit of paid leave due—or couldn’t you take a vacation?”

A vacation? Who had time for a vacation when they were trying to get ahead in one of the most competitive, diabolically insane careers? Take a vacation and you may as well take off your fucking apron—permanently.

He flexed his fingers a few times and squeezed his eyes shut. Soft breaths puffed down the phone line, but his mom damn well knew silence worked best. Just as she knew there was very little Del wouldn’t do for her.

His eyes blinked open. A short ferret of a man with designer eyewear and dressed in an expensive suit, hurried across the tiled foyer toward him.

“I’ve got to go.”

“Just think about it. Due South needs you. I need you. West needs you.” A brief pause, then she added, “And Bill needs you most of all.”

Didn’t need me thirteen years ago. Del clenched his teeth until his molars ached. “I’ll think about it. Bye, Mom.”

He disconnected the call and shoved the phone back in his pocket.

Channelling his older brother’s infamous charm, Del stuck out his hand, donned a confident smile and prepared to eat a double helping of humble pie.

 

***

 

No one would ever guess the contents hidden inside the gold-stamped Flirt shopping bag. No one would believe what good-girl Shaye Harland had purchased from Invercargill’s exclusive lingerie boutique.

She hurried toward the Stewart Island ferry before it left on its last voyage for the day, grinning like a crazy woman. Picturing the shock on Piper’s face when she opened her hen night gift soothed Shaye’s twitchy stomach as she boarded. Her big sister would die—just fall out of her size nine combat boots after unwrapping Shaye’s carefully chosen selections.

After a quick thumbs up to one of the ferry’s pursers, Shaye scanned the backs of her fellow passengers at the boat’s rail. Three women and a tall, broad-shouldered man in a black wool pea-coat were on deck, facing the white-capped waves of Foveaux Strait. The often treacherous stretch of ocean separated the tiny town of Bluff on the mainland from Stewart Island. A cloud-covered haze hung in the distance. In a few weeks’ time, come the high season later in October, tourists would outnumber the handful of locals who normally used the ferry. Today, a Monday afternoon, the ferry would make the one-hour crossing at only a quarter ca-pacity.

Shaye slipped inside the enclosed passenger lounge and patted the shoulder of Mr. Peterson, who’d opened the door for her.

“Wanted to thank you for the meal you dropped around last week, Miss Shaye,” he said. “That veggie casserole sure worked a treat. Better than the time Ben unblocked my kitchen drain.”

Not the kind of image a woman wanted in her head while holding a bag of sexy-fun-time lingerie. If Mr. Peterson caught a glimpse of her goodies the scandal would clean him out quicker than her big brother’s plumbing heroics. She hugged the bag tighter against her chest.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’d better grab a seat while there’s still one free.”

“Shouldn’t be a rough crossing today. Nothing too bad to scare off the loopies, eh?” He nodded to a young couple seated by the ferry’s salt-spray stained windows, a matching set of hikers’ backpacks at their feet.

The loopies—or non-locals—glanced up at Mr. Pe-terson’s bugling voice. As usual, the man had forgotten to put in his hearing aid. Shaye patted his arm again and smiled apologetically at the young couple while she found an empty spot in the last row of plastic seats.

The ferry’s engine powered up, and the craft pulled away from the wharf. An hour on the boat was do-able. Easily do-able. She’d made the same trip hundreds of times, and unlike Piper, she didn’t suffer from seasick-ness. But after thirty minutes of Mr. Peterson loudly detailing his health issues to the hikers who’d had the misfortune of choosing the seats next to him, Shaye needed fresh air and alone time.

Tucking her shopping bag close to her body—like heck would she leave it on her seat for some sticky beak to peer inside—she pushed open the outside door. A stiff breeze wrapped her cute 1960s kick-pleat skirt around her legs as she closed the door. Spray stung her calves as she turned toward the deserted stern deck—

A rogue splash of sea water hit her directly in the face.

Blerk!

Air and salt droplets sucked down into her windpipe, both lungs contracting into fists for two endless seconds before the first brain-hemorrhaging coughs exploded from her chest. Nothing like a coughing fit to ruin a girl’s poise and—dammit, not alone after all. The wool pea-coat guy spun away from the deck railing and strode over.

“Are you okay?”

Her vision blurred as the effort of hacking salt water from her lungs made her eyes tear up. She fumbled with her handbag clasp and extracted a crumpled tissue to press to her eyes. Like trying to stop a river in flood with a bucket and spade. Hah.

A hand touched her shoulder. “Can you breathe?”

Her skin heated, and she didn’t dare look up as she nodded. What a spectacle she was making, hunched over and spluttering.

An unopened water bottle appeared in front of her. “Here, sip this.”

A lull in the sound of the boat’s engines took the man’s voice from generic male tone to a voice that melted along her frazzled nerves. Boy, a woman could fry eggs on a voice that hot.

Shaye blinked and reached for the water. Paper han-dles slipped off her fingers and the bag plummeted to the deck. A set of fur-lined handcuffs, hot-pink crotch-less panties, and a pair of nude briefs guaranteed to hold her wobbly bits in place under a bridesmaid dress spilled out of the bag.

Oh, crapola!

“Let me get that—”

Cheeks igniting like a gas hob, Shaye dropped to her knees. Ouch…rough decking on bare skin—and double ouch…her forehead collided with a rock-solid object.

“Fuck!” said the rock-solid object bent over oppo-site.

Shaye clamped a palm over her throbbing forehead and moaned. Blinking back tears, she focused on two black and white man-sized Converse sneakers. Then lifted her gaze to denim-covered calves leading to mus-cular denim-covered thighs, and, since the pea-coat had parted, the bulge of a denim-covered—

She covered her eyes, the pretty colored flashes dancing on the backs of her lids almost blotting out the memory of that bulge. Almost. It’d been a looong time since she’d been up close and personal with that part of a man’s anatomy. Shaye groaned again. Wasn’t this mortifying enough without ogling the poor guy she’d head-butted?

“Are you okay?”

The second time he’d asked and the answer re-mained the same. She cracked open an eye and peeped between her fingers. Grazed kneecaps? Check. Empty Flirt bag? Check. And oh, fudge! Handcuffs? Crotch-less panties? Ugly support knickers? Check, check, check.

So not okay…

But in his concern for her wellbeing, her Good Sa-maritan might’ve missed the items from her shopping bag. Maybe she could scoop everything back into said bag before she suffered any further humiliation.

“I’m fine.” She peeled the hand from her face and inched her fingertips across the deck.

A gust of wind caught the Flirt bag and scooped it into the air before dumping it into the ocean. The gust also flicked up the scrap of lace and ribbon masquerad-ing as panties, which she’d paid nearly thirty bucks for, and blew them in the same direction. The Good Samari-tan pounced like a giant cat, darting past her to snag the panties before they disappeared into the Foveaux Strait.

Meanwhile, the handcuffs hadn’t teleported into her purse. And neither had her new panties, which evident-ly were constructed of industrial-strength fabric capable of holding out against wobbly bits and errant wind gusts. Both items sat in plain sight, just out of reach. No way in hell the man now standing behind her hadn’t seen them.

Shaye’s chin sagged toward her chest. Suck it up, Buttercup. At least once the ferry disembarked she’d never see him again.

A warm grip on her elbow. “Need a hand?”

“Thank you,” she muttered, her throat sill raw from coughing. She let him help her to her feet.

Shaye staggered two steps across the deck, snatched up the handcuffs and panties, and stuffed them into her purse. If the man had any sort of decency, he’d return the pink ones in silence and allow her to slink away.

She turned back to him, pasting on a let’s just ignore this embarrassing situation smile. Pale blue eyes stared straight at her—eyes belonging to a nearly six foot tall, brown-haired, unsettlingly familiar male.

It couldn’t be.

Shaye’s heart ping-ponged around her chest. Could it be…?

Her Good Samaritan grinned, exposing straight white teeth—except for one slightly turned out front tooth missing a tiny chip. A chip she’d created bowling a cricket ball at him fifteen years ago.

It could be. It totally could.

He chuckled, a low and dirty laugh that made her scalp prickle. “Well, well. If it isn’t little Shaye Harland, all grown up.”

Shaye glanced down at the scrap of pink lace peep-ing out of his fist.

Fudge. What a perfect way to be reintroduced to Del Westlake, her future brother-in-law.

She gawked at him. The skinny fourteen-year-old boy she’d known had transformed into a too-good-looking-for-his-own-good man. Good looking, but not drool-worthy—like, say, Due South’s bartender, Kip, or a shirtless Joe Manganiello. Not her type at all. So why couldn’t she drag her gaze away?

Shaye smoothed down her skirt while she wrangled her tongue into action. “Hello, Del. What brings you back to the bowels of Middle Earth?”

He folded his arms, the panties vanishing under his coat. “Lord of the Rings, right? Still can’t keep your nose out of a book?”

“Probably no more than you can keep your hands out of a cookie jar.”

Or out of a woman’s panties…Oh yeah, a certain type of woman would be drawn to Del Westlake like an ant to sugar.

“Been a while since I’ve raided a cookie jar.” A dimple appeared in the crease of his cheek.

A woman susceptible to the Westlake’s charm might’ve gotten a little tingle down in her happy-place. But not Shaye. She’d worked with Ryan “West” Westlake for too many years.

She sniffed and tossed her ponytail over her shoul-der. Limping slightly, she crossed to sit on one of the benches beneath the hand rail. She brushed grit off her knees, and Del eased down a few feet away. His as-sessing gaze roamed over her like laser beams, and her shoulders knotted into little rocky beads. Judging from Stewart Island’s green hills in the distance, she had at least another twenty minutes to suffer in his company.

Company she wouldn’t have suffered in at all, if the man hadn’t captured her panties. Piper’s hen-party panties, she silently amended. Shaye’d wear underwear like that the day she started baking muffins from a box mix.

Granny knickers and handcuffs and crotch-less pant-ies…oh myyy. Why, why, did it have to be Del? Play it cool, Shaye. Just play it cool.

She leaned back and tugged her handbag closer to her side.

“So. Stewart Island’s a long way from Hollywood.”

Well, duh. So much for playing it cool.

“Thank God for it.”

Her hands bunched into fists around the hem of her skirt, stopping it from flapping up in the wind. No loy-alty left from his New Zealand childhood, obviously. She brushed away a twinge of irritation. It made no dif-ference to her. She expected West’s only brother to at-tend the wedding—Piper told Shaye that West had al-ready asked Del to be best man. But given that Del worked as some hot-shot chef in LA, what was he do-ing here a month before the big day?

“You’re a little early for the wedding.”

“I am.” He shoved his hands into his coat pockets, tipping his head to stare at the sky. “Change of plans.”

What plans? Oh, of course—Bill.

Her stomach lurched sideways. “Your mum rang to tell you about your dad?”

“Yeah.”

Del jerked up from his slouched position and hunk-ered forward, his hands dangling between his thighs—hands empty of the lacy panties. Damn. They must still be in his pocket. Shaye wriggled on the hard bench, her gaze drawn from his coat to the tanned skin on his wrists and hands. A couple of fine white scars criss-crossed his fingers, and across his knuckles was an an-cient burn mark, probably caused by a brush with an oven element—she should know; she had one like it on her pinkie finger. A chef’s badge of honor.

“Is he working at all?” he asked after a long pause.

“Three mornings a week on light prep, the rest of the time he’s bugging suppliers on the phone and doing pa-perwork.”

Del grunted—not quite a laugh, not quite a sneer. “Bet that doesn’t go down well.”

“No.” And it hurt to see her mentor struggle to keep up the pretense of coping with kitchen duties while still making the weekly trip to Invercargill hospital for dial-ysis.

If Del had come to see his father after thirteen years of silence…then Bill must be worse than she knew. Maybe Del had arrived early to go through the neces-sary medical rigmarole to see if kidney donation was a possibility. Her throat felt scratched raw, as if she’d swallowed an unpeeled kiwifruit.

“He’ll be glad to see you.”

Del twisted his head toward her. His eyes, so pale a blue they were almost steel grey, pinned her still.

“I doubt it.” The flat tone of his voice masked any emotion.

Well. That was odd…

Del must feel something about seeing his father again after so many years. But being a guy, he’d think confessing to emotions other than the acceptably mas-culine happy, bored, or horny meant turning in his man-card.

But did she want to pry further into the mine-laden fields of this man’s ego? No, she did not. She had a bit of a reputation as an eternal peace-maker, but not today, ladies and gentleman. She wouldn’t get in the middle of the Westlake family reunion if someone threatened her with one of her knives.

Del shifted positions again, arching his neck to glance past her at the rolling hills of Stewart Island. Then he checked his watch—because her company was just that stimulating—and shoved his fists into his pockets again. Which reminded her…

She stuck out a hand. “Can I have them back now? Please.”

Del’s brow creased over his baby blues. “What?”

The man really did have pretty eyes, but seriously? Making her ask?

“The underwear. For Piper’s hen party.” Don’t-blush-don’t-blush. She dropped her gaze from his eyes to his mouth…perfect lips circled with a trace of stubble. Just as pretty as his eyes.

Ah, not helping the anti-blushing efforts, Shaye-Shaye.

“Oh? They’re not for you?” He tugged the panties out of his pocket and held them up. There wasn’t much to hold, and the breeze caught the scrap of lace and wrapped it around his fingers.

“They’re a gift.”

“Like the handcuffs?”

“Yes. I thought they’d be funny, considering Piper’s previous job.”

Funny at the time…not so funny now that panties and handcuffs were subjects of discussion.

“That’s right, she’s an ex-cop. West mentioned it.”

Shaye launched into a defense of Piper’s credentials as the first female member of the New Zealand Police National Dive Squad.

“And the ugly brown panties?” Del interrupted. “Another gift?”

“None of your damn business.” She wriggled her fingers. “Now, hand them over.”

He tilted his chin, highlighting a small cleft. For a moment, she thought he’d dangle them out of reach. Instead, he leaned over and dropped them into her palm.

“Too practical for pink lace? You always were the sensible one.”

Yep. That was her. The youngest Harland sister—practical, sensible, dutiful, and in the minds of men like Del, b-o-r-i-n-g. Not that it mattered if the man thought she was dullness personified—he sure wouldn’t appear on her Mr. Perfect checklist either. Men like him weren’t perfect for women like her.

And she needed perfect.

With as much dignity as she could scoop up from the toes of her boots, Shaye shoved the panties into her handbag and stood. “Nice to see you again, Del. Enjoy your visit.”

She turned and walked toward the passenger lounge door. Give her Mr. Peterson’s bowel problems any day.

“Shaye—” The wind caught the rest of his words and tossed them into the whitecaps.

They’d be docking soon, and she’d be able to avoid the pain in the rear behind her.

At least until her sister’s wedding.

(c) Tracey Alvarez 2014

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