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Authors: Sami Lee

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BOOK: A Man Like Mike
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“I never said that.”

“I have a feeling you’ve thought it. So I think it’s about time I educated you.”

Something about the way he said that made heat stir in the pit of her stomach. “What do you mean…” she cleared her throat and pulled her short pony tail out of Bailey’s grasp, “…educate me?”

“I mean, I’ve seen where you work; now you should come down and see me on the job. Tonight.”

Chapter 6

Eve thought Mike’s suggestion was ludicrous, so it was with no small measure of surprise that later that evening she found herself standing in the vast, white and stainless steel kitchen of
The Rusty Marlin
, chopping salad ingredients and generally trying to stay out of everyone’s way.

What had finally convinced her to go along with Mike’s idea was his rather facetious threat to take Bailey into Nathan Shore’s office and let him loose in
his
dustbins if she didn’t. Not being entirely certain he wouldn’t follow through, Eve agreed to accompany him to work for an hour or so that evening, just to get him out of her office so she could get some work done.

Barry McClusky, the head chef of the pub’s popular restaurant, was married to a bubbly girl named Sally, who was enthusiastic about the idea of watching Bailey in the children’s area while Mike took Eve to the kitchen and conducted his little experiment. She was given an apron and a less-than-stylish hair net and sent to the food preparation section with the two apprentices, Ellie and Ross, whom Mike firmly directed to ‘take care of her’.

Eve didn’t know what she had expected, but being put so hastily and exhaustively to work was a surprise, as was the skill required for the simple task of chopping a tomato the right way and the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the kitchen, which didn’t allow time for idle chatter or room for margin of error. Barry was a hulking man of well over six feet who looked like a refugee from a bikie gang with his shaved head and neatly trimmed goatee. When he gave an order, he did it loudly, and everyone scattered to do his bidding.

Everyone except Mike, who seemed intent on doing his own thing and more often than not acted as a buffer between Barry’s brusque yelling and the younger team members’ intimidated rushing around, diffusing what would otherwise have been a tense environment with his usual affable humour. When Barry directed a criticism to a young chef working directly with Mike about a mix-up with an order, Mike told the larger man to bite him on an area of his anatomy that had Eve stifling a laugh.

“I wouldn’t let Barry catch you laughing,” Ross, who was all of eighteen and obviously in awe of the head chef, told her under his breath. “He’ll kick you out of here so fast you won’t see it coming.”

“He’ll have to get through me first.”

Eve looked up and saw Mike standing not five feet away, placing an order on the serving counter and ringing the bell that would summon the waiter. He turned and sent her a wink, making Eve’s breath catch.

He’d donned a white chef’s coat over his T-shirt, and chequered pants and a red and black bandanna. So clothed, covered with a sheen of sweat from working in the hot kitchen, he shouldn’t have looked so darn good to a woman who was used to seeing men impeccably presented in suits and smelling of Calvin Klein after-shave. But oh, boy, he looked great.

The distraction caused Eve to lose her concentration. She winced and let out a yelp as the chopping knife came down across her knuckles.

Mike was there in a matter of seconds, rounding the counter separating them and taking her hand in his. He swore at the slow release of blood from her skin.

Ross took a look at her injury with the speculative curiosity of one who’d suffered many just like it. “Doesn’t look too bad.”

Throughout the evening, Mike had been nothing but patient and supportive of the eager apprentice, but now he sent Ross a look that made the young man blanch. “She’s not used to getting her fingers chopped to pieces, kid,” he pointed out before returning to his examination of Eve’s hand. “This needs antiseptic.”

The sharp pain had been a shock, as had the red slash of blood, but the painful sensations were already starting to recede, and Eve had bigger concerns. She was suddenly aware that Mike was holding her hand in one of his, his other grasping her wrist lightly around her pulse point. Her pulse sky-rocketed in response to his touch, and she made an attempt to pull away. “I can do that. Just show me where it is.”

But he wouldn’t release her. “I’ll take you.” Turning to the apprentice and giving him some quick instructions, followed by a suggestion to “Holler if Barry tries to kill you,” Mike led Eve out into the service hall behind the main cooking area.

From a first-aid cabinet on the wall, Mike pulled out cotton wool, bandages and antiseptic cream with one hand, holding fast to hers with the other. When he started cleaning the slice in her skin with a tender concentration that only increased her heart rate, Eve made another attempt to pull her hand away. “Really, Mike. I can do this myself.”

Ignoring her protests, Mike held her fingers in place and said, regret clear in his tone, “This is going to hurt.”

Eve let out a yelp when the antiseptic hit her open wound. Mike winced. “Aw, I’m sorry, Eve. I guess it was a dumb idea after all, bringing you here.”

“No, it wasn’t.” She was glad she’d had the chance to see what Mike did at night, although she was embarrassed at the lack of understanding she’d had about his job prior to tonight. She had actually thought he stood around with a bunch of guys telling bawdy jokes and occasionally throwing something under the grill.

The intricacy of the relationships between kitchen staff, the rigid adherence to procedure that was required to maintain quality, safety and speed of food service—not to mention the sheer physical nature of the work—all made being a chef far more demanding that Eve had ever guessed it would be. And Mike was not just good at his job—he was excellent. Being a person who sometimes assessed the work performance of others as part of
her
job, Eve appreciated how rare and special the kinds of qualities Mike possessed were. A strong work ethic, leadership ability, attention to detail. She had little doubt he was a big part of what kept that kitchen running smoothly, and he’d been working here less than a week.

“I shouldn’t have let you do any of the chopping,” Mike said in self-recrimination, still concentrating fiercely on tending her wound. “I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“It’s clear to me you can’t have anyone standing around in there if they’re not contributing. I had no idea how busy a kitchen like that would be.”

Mike looked into her face, his so close there was no mistaking the spark of triumph in the devilish green of his eyes. “Had enough, have you, Evie?”

Eve pursed her lips, ignoring the way her heart jumped at the inflection he placed on her name. “Gloating doesn’t become you.”

Mike laughed. As he still held her injured hand in the narrow space between them, Eve felt his chuckle reverberate through her, washing her with warmth. “With you, I think I should take every point I can get. That in mind, do you suppose you might want to go on the record as saying you don’t think I’m a good-for-nothing lay-about?”

“I never said you were.”

Mike’s smile sobered a fraction. “I bet Derek did.” He searched her face and Eve found herself suddenly unable to meet his eyes. “Thought so,” he concluded with a sigh, making quick work of applying the adhesive bandage to her hand.

Remembering the few times she had heard Derek talk about his brother, Eve now found it difficult to reconcile the image of the irresponsible, thoughtless rogue his laughing comments had conjured with the hard-working, attentive man who had just dropped everything he was doing to patch up a simple cut because he felt responsible for her condition. “Derek didn’t know you very well, did he?”

Mike’s smile hinted at a wealth of regret. “It takes more than one person to maintain a relationship. Derek was just so focused on his goals he didn’t have a lot of time or understanding for anyone who didn’t share them. And I didn’t have the inclination to justify my career choices at every turn.”

“I guess it was hard, growing up in his shadow. He was such a high achiever.”

“Sometimes … but it turns out I’d give anything to feel that shadow on me again. The sun can be pretty hard to take when you’re not used to it.” He caught her eye, the flash of grief she saw so acute it was as though it lanced through her as well. “You know what I mean?”

Eve thought of Jacinta, of how she had always looked up to her. How—while she may have seemed to others like a dowdy dishrag in comparison—she’d take life in her best friend’s shadow over a world without her any day. Finding herself unable to speak, she merely nodded. A moment of understanding passed between them, something that felt good yet frightening because it somehow seemed irreversible. Like a connection that wouldn’t be broken.

It seemed an eternity that they stood there, staring into each other’s eyes, Mike holding her hand almost to his chest. If she’d chosen to, Eve could have reached out her fingertips and touched him where his heart beat, find out if his was racing as out of control as hers.

Searching for something, anything, to distract her from that thought, she said, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. About Derek.”

He merely looked at her in curious silence until she spoke again. “He loved Jacinta. Adored her. And as in-control as he was in every other area of his life, when it came to anything Jacinta wanted… Well, Jacinta once joked that Derek was like putty in her hands, but I don’t think it was really a joke.”

Quietly, he asked, “What are you getting at?”

“I think the decision to entrust guardianship of Bailey to me was almost wholly Jacinta’s,” she told him. “It’s entirely possible Derek considered you the best person to raise Bailey, but Jacinta had a way of getting Derek to do whatever she wanted. He probably agreed just to please her, not because he didn’t trust you.”

He gazed at her for a long moment, a wry smile slowly curving his lips. “Thanks for saying that, but Derek wouldn’t have been entirely out of line if he didn’t trust me to the task. I accept that. I have been living like a rolling stone for a good many years. If he didn’t think I was a stable choice, that’s hardly surprising. Besides,” his eyes grew earnest, “I think they both made the right decision. You’re really good with Bailey.”

“You’re
great
though. It seems so easy for
you
.”


Easy?
” He shook his head. “You’ve got it all wrong. Most of the time I have no clue what I’m doing. When I’m stuck I just sing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in a funny voice and it seems to make him laugh.”

Picturing that made
her
laugh. “Why ‘Stairway to Heaven’?”

“Why not? It’s one of the best ever classic rock songs. Someone’s got to teach Bailey about
real
music.”

“Is that some kind of crack at my musical tastes?”

He gave her a grave look. “I’ve seen your collection of ’80s power ballads. I figured I had to intervene before you infected Bailey with a terminal dose of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’.”

“Also a classic song.”

He shook his head solemnly, clucking his tongue. “I can see I’m going to have to educate you about music, as well as cooking. Maybe I could play you a few of my old CDs this weekend.”

All jesting fast flew out of their conversation. His offhand suggestion sounded almost like a plan for a date. Eve found the idea of spending a lazy afternoon with Mike listening to CDs and debating the finer points of musical style altogether too tempting, but she couldn’t afford to spend any more time with him than she already had. It was getting too difficult to keep him at arm’s length.

Speaking of which
. “Mike?” Eve was dismayed at the thready quality of her voice. “You’re still holding my hand.”

He didn’t look away from her face. Nor did he release his hold on her. Instead he brushed his thumb ever-so-gently over her injured knuckles. “I know.”

“This is a—”

“I know,” he recited. “It’s a bad idea.”

Instead of freeing her hand, he deliberately brought it to rest against his chest. She could feel the strong thump of his heart. He brought his other hand up to trace a line over her cheek with his knuckles, from her ear to the corner of her mouth. Eve felt her tongue go dry.

Slowly, he blew out a breath. It teased a tendril of her hair that had escaped the hair net. He said in a tone charged with meaning, “I’m sorry, Evie.”

Eve swallowed, her heart hammering. “For what?”

“For this,” he said, and lowered his mouth to hers.

Eve gasped into his mouth. His lips were warm, firmly mobile on hers. He smelled like myriad spices and hard, honest man. He coaxed her lips open with a gentle pressure that was part request, part demand, his tongue slowly exploring.

Her pulse raced as she leaned into him and gave all he asked for. She had wanted him to kiss her that first night over the dirty dishes, and again beside the kitchen counter in the middle of that tension-filled night when she’d had to calm Bailey. Yet she had denied him, denied herself, the promise of pleasure, for the sake of reason, to maintain the control she needed to exert in order to move from day to day through the extraordinary situation in which she found herself. Now, here they were—in
another
kitchen—and Eve wondered what was so darned important about being sensible.

As Mike worked a sensual magic on her with his mouth, with the gentle touch of his hands on her face, Eve couldn’t for the life of her remember.

“Where the hell are you, Wilcox? I need your arse back in here!”

Stilling, Mike groaned against her lips before reluctantly pulling back. Belatedly, Eve’s eyes fluttered open to see Mike’s brimming with stormy emotions she couldn’t fathom. She couldn’t fathom her own emotions yet. She couldn’t even think.

She managed to step back somehow, feeling wobbly on her knees. The head chef was looking at them from the kitchen doorway. His eyes on Mike, he said, “We’ve just had a table of ten walk-ins put in an order. Shake a leg will you?” He glanced at Eve, a knowing smile playing on his lips that tempered his irascible demeanour. “I apologise for the bad timing.”

BOOK: A Man Like Mike
8.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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