Authors: Zara Stoneley
SPICE IT UP
An erotic novella
Published by Accent Press Ltd – 2013
Copyright © Zara Stoneley 2013
The right of Zara Stoneley to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The story contained within this book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be copied, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Xcite Books, Suite 11769, 2nd Floor, 145-157 St John Street, London EC1V 4PY
‘I can’t, I just cannot.’ Ellie Chiltern dropped her head in her hands, but felt more like banging it on the table. She peered through her fingers at the plate of food and squinted, hoping that would make it look more appetising. It didn’t.
When she had been in Barcelona, it hadn’t taken long to discover the addictive tapas bars that were scattered across the city, and the
in particular had been her downfall. A staggering variety of tastes she found it almost impossible to say no to; each glorious taste bud tempter attached to a small round of the freshest bread she knew would melt in her mouth, then hit her waistline with a clunk like it meant to stay. But who cared about a few extra inches if it meant she got to taste food like that?
No problem of that here. Cheshire’s answer to the Spanish delight wasn’t exactly crying out to be eaten; in fact, it seemed to be screaming “run away fast before I choke you”.
Ellie had always loved food. She’d been a trainee chef until a TV producer had spotted her talent for dressing a plate and tempted her away to a career in marketing. And when her talents for coming up with a tagline had been spotted, it seemed she had it made. Until the double dip recession had hit a third dip and they’d “let her go”’. More like depression than recession. At least she’d got this job, but sometimes commenting on other people’s food was a hell of a sight harder than cooking it yourself. A lot harder when the food was unmitigated crap and you were the type of person who always tried to find a good word for everybody and everything.
Still, there had to be something positive she could say about the place, just had to be. She straightened in her seat, raised the tapas up to eye level, and studied it: a chunk of bread topped with a small meatball and a blob of slowly congealing orange sauce – neatly skewered through with a cocktail stick. Her best friend, Kate, grinned. ‘You eating that, or critiquing it?’
‘How am I supposed to critique something that is this crap and not sound nasty? I mean, the most appetising bit is the stick.’
‘And a very nice stick it is too.’ Kate was obviously fighting a battle to be serious, and failing from what Ellie could tell; there was a definite wobble in the tone of her voice and a glint in her eye that spelled mischief. ‘But, hey, this is
best pincho bar in the North-west, you know.’
‘The only pincho bar, and I think we just found out why.’
‘Go for it, Miss Grumpy, you know you can.’
She turned the piece of bread with neatly manicured fingers. It looked just the same from any angle. Bad. ‘Spain, the home of tapas –’
‘And pinchos, you said they were pinchos.’
‘Shush, nearly the same thing. Now, where was I? The home –’
‘So what’s the difference?’
‘The bread, the pincho has the bread.’ The sigh escaped before she could stop it. ‘Shall we just give up and go home?’ There had to be an easier way of earning enough money to pay the bills. Well, there was, she knew there was; this job was just a means to an end. All she had to do was stop being a wuss and get to the end.
‘No way, go on do your food critic stuff. Please?’
‘OK. Home of the tapas, each one a mouthwatering explosion of flavour that transports you instantly to the land of sunshine and dreams, of freshness and vitality.’ She paused and peered over the piece of bread at Kate.
‘Go on, don’t stop now. I like it when you come over all flowery.’
‘God, why am I doing this?’ She could be at home with a nice glass of wine watching some old film on the TV.
‘Because you’re good at it, go on.’
‘I can’t. I just cannot write a review on this place.’
‘Go on, don’t stop.’ Kate nodded in the direction of the tapas that Ellie had dropped back onto the plate, and she reluctantly picked it up again. ‘Anyhow, you’ve got to do it, or you don’t get paid.’
‘Thanks for reminding me.’ And reminding me about the pile of unpaid bills and the job I loved and lost. She looked at the piece of bread again. Still, lost was lost, the past was just that. Working in marketing had been good, fast moving, and every day a fresh challenge to come up with new pictures, new words that were snappy enough to grab the headlines. New clients to excite and motivate. Until a few – well, nearly all of them if she was honest – had been forced to cut down on their budgets. Personally, she thought it was a false economy. Surely when you were short of customers it was the time to dig deep and search out more, not give up and keel over. But who was she to judge? Just one of the ones who had lost a job, which she supposed made her slightly biased.
At least being a food critic meant she could still write, even if she did have to be a bit more verbose, and it did mean she got to actually
good food instead of just watch it being photographed. Sometimes. She grimaced; it was the other times that were a pain in the arse, when the words “good” and “food” did not want to go together, didn’t even want to inhabit the same continent.
‘Come to Pinchos Bar and watch every Spanish dream dissolve before your eyes. Mouthwatering becomes eye-watering, your succulent pork will be from a piggy that has surely been to hell and back.’ Kate sniggered, and Ellie went on, ‘Every last bit of moisture and taste sucked from the tender meat with unerring precision so that the word “dried” takes on a whole new meaning.’ She turned the food slowly like some exotic exhibit, trying to ignore the giggles and keep a straight face and even tone. ‘Piquant sauce blended to a tasteless puree that has drawn every last trace of the sweet vine from the tomato, adding nothing back, and –’
‘And?’ The soft, male voice at her shoulder made her jump. She’d been concentrating so hard on proving her point to Kate that she really, really couldn’t write a sensible food review on the place that she hadn’t noticed the waiter sneak up on them.
She looked up instinctively and almost wished she hadn’t as he walked round into full view. No one had ever looked at her quite that hard before, and it made her feel jumpy, and nervous like she was some naughty schoolgirl about to get spanked. Spanked? Where the hell had that thought come from? And the image in her head of him holding her firmly across his lap; not that anyone had ever done that to her. Not that she’d ever wanted anyone to. She swallowed hard and tried to ignore the sizzle of heat that was burning her face up, and a few other parts as well – more precisely, somewhere right in the middle, and she couldn’t blame it on spicy food. Any hotter and she’d be more than capable of cremating the meat herself just by looking at it.
How could a man staring at her make her knickers wet? She was losing it, seriously losing it. She glanced down, to avoid the look, which meant eyeing up his body instead. OK, she didn’t want to think about the food, but this was taking avoidance to an altogether new level. She tried not to squirm on her seat, because she was pretty damned certain that would make it worse. And it might be a good move to shut her mouth before he took the “oo” as an invitation, or worse, she started to drool.
He cleared his throat and she started guiltily; hell, she’d been staring at his crotch, hadn’t she? Positively staring, and there was a good chance she’d been licking her lips. But when she looked up and met his steady gaze she could have sworn he couldn’t decide whether to laugh or be annoyed.
Looking back up made it worse, though. Those eyes were so – well, scrutinising, almost unnerving enough to stop you noticing the rest of his face. Almost, except you’d have to be a saint or celibate, and meaning to stay that way, to ignore the rest. He was exactly as she’d imagined Heathcliffe when she’d been a romantic teenager, without the cravat and baggy trousers. Dark curls brushed his collar; he had a long, straight nose, and a deep cleft in his chin that drew your gaze straight to his lips. Well, yeah, everyone had lips but these were just full enough, with a hint of a sardonic curve. She bit the inside of her cheek and tried to ignore the fact that the temperature in the room had reached furnace level. And that she was still staring. But at least not at his crotch right now.
OK, stop it, Ellie, and concentrate, she told herself. He might be the next Antonio Banderas, and he might be making her blush up the colour of a ripe tomato, but if he thought he could intimidate her he had another thing coming. And that’s what this was: the scary sex scenario was all in her imagination, all on her side. He was just trying to shut her up so she didn’t scare off the customers. Not that there were many to scare off; everyone else had obviously heard about the food.
She matched him stare for stare. Where had she got to in her spiel? ‘And each solid lump of bread hewn with the hand of a chef possessing a delicacy that owes more to Michelin tyre than Michelin star.’ There was a harumph from Kate that could have been muffled giggles, or choking. And a raised eyebrow from the man who seemed to be the only authentic piece of Spain in the bar. In fact, quite an attractive bit of Spain; underneath that shirt she was pretty damned sure there was something very toned and tanned. There had to be.
‘What the hell’s that supposed to mean?’ Kate prodded the back of her hand with a cocktail stick to get her attention back and she dragged her gaze off the interloper reluctantly. ‘Michelin tyre, Ellie?’
‘Sorry.’ She shrugged. ‘Dunno, just seemed to run off the tongue, I’m improvising here. OK, erm, Pinchos, an experience that is guaranteed to have more pinch than ohs.’ Concentrating on the food was probably a good idea, before her sex-starved imagination went completely into overdrive, but it was bloody difficult not to look at him.
‘I’m not sure about that last bit. You were doing well until then.’ She could see Kate’s face out of the corner of her eye, peripheral vision was something a food critic had by the bucket-load, and she knew that the tears her friend was dabbing at, and the catch in her voice, meant she was close to hysterical laughing. Not good. Especially when Mr Español was studying her with a gimlet stare that was actually starting to make her stomach swirl. Well, it was either the look or the food that was making her feel hollow inside. Or the thought of those almost definitely toned abs. No, the food, it had to be the food.
He lifted one eyebrow ever so slightly, probably because she was staring – straight into those brown-green eyes. ‘So, is everything OK?’
‘Apart from the crap food, crap wine, and lousy service?’ God, what had got into her? She wasn’t usually this rude; direct, yes, but not rude. But just the way he stood there was pushing her buttons, and he knew it. And there was something unnervingly familiar about him. Maybe he was Antonio Banderas, after all.
And he was keeping his face straight, but she was bloody sure he was trying not to laugh. ‘Nothing major then?’ The corner of his mouth curved ever so slightly, in a look she could imagine as he towered over her just before he …. God, she was going to be having X-rated dreams tonight, she just knew it. Things were going down the pan big time when she had to fantasise about the staff to avoid thinking about the food. And that’s all it was, a fantasy. He was just a waiter, a normal, average guy – who she wanted to imagine naked.
Kate leant forward across the table, tossed her hair – yeah, it wasn’t something she was imagining; her friend actually tossed her hair – and flashed the man a smile. ‘Nothing you can’t sort, I’m sure.’ Maybe she should just do a runner and leave the pair of them to flirt. And she could keep her own dirty thoughts safely locked up in her head.
For a moment, she really wished she could just head off somewhere. Preferably home. She didn’t want to be arguing with some macho male about the state of his restaurant, and she didn’t want to be writing about a place she hadn’t yet been able to find anything good about. Apart from the waiter, of course, and that only went as far as his looks. Deep down, he could be as useless as the food. Maybe.
‘The pincho aren’t good?’ He’d flashed a grin at Kate, but now that green-brown gaze was fixed firmly back on her again, and the red, red glow was back in her cheeks. She was sure of it. Any hotter and she’d be setting the subtle lighting to shame. But she was also sure that some smooth-talking Spaniard, with a body crying out to be manhandled, wasn’t going to change her mind about the place.
‘Have you actually tasted them?’ For a second, she could have sworn the confidence slipped, but it was gone in a flash and she’d probably imagined it.
‘I only got here a couple of hours ago, I’m afraid I haven’t yet. But I do intend to.’
She was tempted to say “don’t bother”, but that would be rude. Unprofessional. ‘Well, whoever slices the bread obviously has a job cutting doorsteps for a greasy spoon café in his spare time.’
‘I gathered that.’ The eyebrow rose a smidgen more, if that was possible, and the gaze became that bit more piercing. She was beginning to feel as skewered as the tapas. But in for a penny, in for a pound, as Gran used to say. ‘And this tomato sauce has died a death of blandness. You’d need more than a pinch of spice to rescue it; I mean, just look at the grease.’ She traced a trail with the little fork, watched the oil droplets spilt and reform into new speckles on her plate. But he didn’t seem to be looking. He seemed to be studying her. Still. And it was unnerving. ‘And as for this meatball, well, it gives the word “cremated” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?’ Ellie stabbed at what was left of the dry meat.
‘OK.’ That voice was annoying, very annoying, the soft slowness drifting straight into her bloodstream and making her want to listen to more, even though she was trying her best to be objective and angry. Yup, she was trying her best to stay angry because she’d known it was going to be a rubbish night and she’d been proved right. And she didn’t like it, and she didn’t like him, or at least the way he was looking at her and the effect it was having on her body. ‘And you’ve tried the
, and the
croquetas de jamón
?’ The way he said it, the way the words rolled off his tongue meant he was the real deal. And he was still making her all hot and cold inside without even trying.
? No way was that Manchego. I mean, that cheese and chorizo was like chewing Wellington boots.’ The corner of his mouth twitched, and she wanted to make him laugh for some unfathomable reason. ‘Cold Wellington boots. And the
–’ He was going to laugh any minute now, she was sure, and her stomach was flipping in a way that threatening to make her smile. ‘The
were flavourless, heavy dollops of something indistinguishable.’