The brunch crowd inside the Valerian’s Root cafe had thinned out for the morning, and only a few customers remained scattered among the booths and tables. Through the order window, Chef Ariel Valerian spotted DeeDee Rhodes chatting with a customer as she refilled the man’s coffee cup. Back in the kitchen, Ariel piled a plate with scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns. She settled two wedges of golden brown toast on the edge and added a twisted slice of an orange as a garnish.
Plate in hand, she stepped through the double doors between the kitchen and dining area. She nodded at Sadie Lundquist, the cafe’s other waitress, as the woman stood behind the register at the end of the front counter, ringing up a customer’s check.
“Here you go, Jake.” She grinned down at the elderly man in dusty overalls -- one of the cafe’s regulars -- and set the plate on the table in front of him.
His pale gray eyes widened. “Thanks, Ariel.” He scanned the cafe before he returned his attention to her. “Haven’t seen your sister today. Where is Alayna?”
Ariel fought to keep the smile on her face. Jake hadn’t been the first customer surprised to see Ariel outside of the kitchen or to mention her older sister. She was sure he wouldn’t be the last when Alayna didn’t appear in the cafe to wait tables, ring up sales, or do any of the myriad tasks she normally did. Every time someone asked about her, Ariel bit back the angry words and the temptation to glare at the empty table closest to the counter near the kitchen doors, where Masters Dane and Logan -- proprietors of A Master’s Gift -- sat every day for lunch.
It was all that
blond bastard’s fault. Maybe both of those bastards. For the last six months the men had come in every weekday for lunch. Ariel might spend all her time in the kitchen, but she had seen the way her sister responded to the dark-haired guy, Master Logan. Then, just a few days earlier, the blond one -- Master Dane -- had left a card for her sister. An invitation to their facility that specialized in BDSM, kinky sex, and Dominant/submissive training, according to the research Ariel had done. Master Dane had tempted Alayna to go off to explore her submissive side. For a month. Thirty damned days. Ariel wondered if the two men would show up today now that they’d convinced Alayna to play at their little dungeon.
Jerks, buttheads, pricks. Why did they have to do this?
Ariel was sure there was more to Alayna’s invitation to A Master’s Gift than her older sister claimed; Ariel hadn’t figured it out yet, but she would. After Alayna told her she’d committed to thirty days of training at the facility with no outside contact, Ariel had done her homework on the men. In her mind, it didn’t make sense for two well-established businessmen to look for submissives to train. The possibilities had kept her from sleep most of the night. Thoughts of the two men skulking around, ferreting out secrets about her and Al’s finances, plagued her. Or perhaps they wanted to use Al’s sudden curiosity about bondage, leather, and whips to blackmail them into selling the cafe to an interested investor.
The more Ariel tried to reason it out, the more elaborate her imagination became each time it picked the whys and what fors. She just needed to figure out a way to get her sister to come home. Then everything could go back to the way it was supposed to be. Then things would get back to normal.
Her tone cheerful, she shrugged and replied to Jake’s query. “Al decided to take a little vacation. She’s worked so hard, she figured a few weeks at a bed-and-breakfast would help her relax.”
It wasn’t much of a lie, but Ariel didn’t intend to tell anyone Al had gone off to learn what life as a sexual submissive was all about. Grimm Dawson, a longtime family friend who verged on overprotective, would freak if he knew the particulars of Alayna’s time away. She doubted even the Douglases, a sweet septuagenarian couple who’d known her and her sister since they were children, would have understood Alayna’s need to experience her inner wild child.
And I’m the idiot who encouraged her to go. Talked up BDSM, submission, and various elements of the lifestyle -- not my smartest idea. I was even stupid enough to tease her with the possibility of shake-the-rafters sex with Master Logan. Like a Dom’s attention is worth having.
She shuddered at the thought of some man bossing her around. Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut? I should have --
The front door swung open, and Ariel stopped midthought. Her heart slammed against her ribs when she recognized the man who stepped through the front door. Dane Reese, the man her sister hoped would help around the cafe in her absence. Ariel could feel the heat enter her cheeks as her hands curled into fists at her sides. That bastard. Prick. Dom.
If he thought he’d walk in and bark out orders, she’d soon disabuse him of the notion. No way she’d knuckle under to some stranger. Especially him. She clenched her teeth and pressed her lips tightly together to keep from saying something she would regret.
Soft summer sunlight shone through the windows and glinted off his sun-streaked blond hair. Despite its short length, she could see the way it curled around his ears and along his nape. His sapphire blue eyes took in the customers and two waitresses in the cafe, then shifted to rest on Ariel. Their bright color highlighted his darkly tanned skin. His high cheekbones; strong, clean-shaven chin; and sexy smile pushed him past movie-star handsome into thigh-quivering, panty-creaming hot
As she watched him step toward her, she fought the urge to pick up Jake’s half-eaten breakfast and dump it over the smug son of a bitch’s head. If I could reach it.
It only took a glance to notice the twelve- or fourteen-inch difference in their heights. She yanked the black bandanna from her hair and twisted it in her hands. Her knuckles went as white as the skulls and crossbones on the cloth square.
“Ariel Valerian?” He held out his hand. “I’m Dane Reese. Your sister --”
“Get out,” she snapped before she stepped away from Jake’s table and turned her back on the newcomer.
DeeDee’s mouth fell open, and her blues eyes went wide as Ariel stalked past her. Beyond DeeDee, Ariel saw Sadie blink in surprise at her reaction to Mr. Reese. Their stunned looks mirrored the expressions on the faces of several of the regular customers. Ariel winced at the attention her out-of-character behavior drew.
A firm hand landed on Ariel’s upper arm, halting her in midstep. “I don’t think you understand, Miss Valerian. Your sister, Alayna, asked me to come here --”
Ariel spun around and glared up at the man, then fought to ignore the interest his looks stirred deep inside her. “No, you listen to me, Mr. Reese. I know exactly who you are. You may have convinced my sister you’re here to help, but you aren’t welcome.” She pulled her arm free of his loose grasp and pointed at the door, unconcerned with the shocked audience watching the exchange. “Now there’s the door. Don’t let it slap you in the butt as you leave.”
She spun around and stomped into the kitchen. Her fingers shook as she retied the bandanna in place over her hair. Snickers, gasps, and rapidly whispered conversations followed her, but Ariel was still too pissed to pay attention to them. If that bastard thought he could casually stroll into her cafe after he had convinced her big sister to run off for a month of wild, wicked, freaky sex, she’d make sure to correct his assumptions. “He won’t have another chance to --”
“Wrong, Miss Valerian. I’ll have plenty of chances to talk to you about your sister’s instructions and my presence here for the next month.” Dane stood in front of the double doors, arms crossed over his broad chest, legs braced apart as he watched her.
Outrage burned in her chest as she spun around to face him. When he started to move farther into the room, she glared at him and held up her right hand. “Stop right there.” Her command halted him in his tracks. She stomped back toward him and didn’t stop until she’d practically plowed into his chest. “This is my kitchen. You aren’t allowed --”
“Your sister asked me to help while she’s at --”
She reached up and clamped her hand over his mouth, stopping his words and dragging his gaze down so it clashed with hers. The spicy scent of cardamom and rosemary tickled her nose, but she ignored it.
“Don’t you dare say it out loud, you bastard,” she hissed, her tone quiet so it couldn’t be heard beyond the kitchen doors. The warm brush of his lips against her palm sent tingles through her breasts. Traitors.
She snatched her hand back and rubbed it against the hem of her white chef’s coat. “She’s on vacation
. I don’t want anyone to know she went off to your little dungeon playground,” Ariel whispered and crossed her arms over her breasts.
He watched her for a moment, his face without expression. “I was under the impression you wanted your sister to explore her interest in Dominant/submissive relationships. That you were in favor of it.” He followed her lead and kept his tone soft so it didn’t carry. Dane lowered his hands to the pockets of his trousers. He offered a tentative smile, probably an attempt to encourage her to fess up to her culpability in her sister’s decision to leave.
“And what makes you think I’m not?”
Ariel smirked. “Well, what do you know? You’re smarter than your average blond beach bunny.”
She passed the largest of the freestanding islands anchored on the sea of white tile in her kitchen. It held a stainless steel counter where she assembled and disassembled dishes and food items on one side and the grill on the other. She rounded it and headed for the long counter beneath the pick-up window where bins, bowls, and containers held the various garnishes and condiments she used. No damn way I’ll let him know how irritated I am with myself that I told Al to go for it.
She looked over her shoulder at him.
Only his narrowed gaze hinted at his possible irritation to her taunt. “If you didn’t want her to go, why did you tell her it was okay?” His attention roved around the wide area as he came farther into the room. Like a thief casing a potential mark, he seemed to note the three entrances: double doors from the dining area, back door from the alley behind the building, and a third swinging door with a porthole-type window three-quarters of the way up that led into the hallway and faced the office Alayna used.
“I lied,” Ariel admitted and then turned away from him. Through the order window she spotted the two waitresses and Jake as they hovered on the other side of the tiled counter, trying to peek into the kitchen. Her glare was meant to discourage them as she covered the garnishes, spreads, and condiments in the prep station.
Ariel looked back at him. He sounded almost amused at her confession. That only irritated her more. What the hell kinda reaction is that?
“Yeah. Just what kind of sister would I be if I didn’t encourage Alayna to explore the BDSM lifestyle if she was curious about it? It would be selfish of me to keep my sister from doing something she wanted simply because I don’t agree with her choice of the place she’s gone to.”
She wondered what he saw as he glanced around the kitchen. With a rack of pots, pans, and smaller cooking trays to the right of the double doors and another set of shelves to the right of the back door stacked with to-go containers and plastic trays and boxes for the desserts and pastries she sold, the kitchen might seem a bit disorganized. But she knew every inch of the place better than she knew her name.
He seemed to mull over her comment as he walked toward the smaller central island set a foot or so from the grill. “If you kept her from doing something you didn’t approve of, at least you’d be honest.” He pulled a stool from beneath the island and sat down. “I’m sure Alayna would have wanted to know the truth. And perhaps you need to learn the truth about the Dominant/submissive lifestyle and BDSM instead of assuming you know what they’re really about.”
“You don’t know shit about me and my sister, Mr. Reese.” She stomped back toward him. “Don’t presume to tell me how to deal with Al. We’ve gotten along fine without a home wrecker like you screwing with things. As for learning about your kinky sideline, I know all I want to know about it, thank you very much.”
“Home wrecker?” His eyebrows rose on his forehead, but his face remained devoid of expression. “Kinky sideline?”
“Exactly. What else would you call a person who intentionally introduces a separation that attempts to undermine the bond between family members?” Ariel cursed her attraction to the man. To her immense irritation, it sent a swirl of heat from her core to the flesh at the apex of her thighs. The heavy cotton chef’s coat she wore at least hid the peaks of her breasts from discovery, but the gleam in his gaze hinted he might be aware of the sensation she fought.
“I get the impression you don’t like me very much.” The grin on his lips suggested he wasn’t bothered by the prospect of her dislike. Or he felt his charm could change her mind.
With the way her body felt, it would be a hell of a battle to keep from betraying her interest. Why now? Why him?
But the questions weren’t enough to distract her. There was more to his selection of Alayna to be a master’s plaything than simply a means to help Al find her inner sub. There had to be some benefit he stood to gain. And I’ll figure it out, eventually, whether he wants me to or not.
Until she got to the truth, she intended to keep as much distance as possible between herself and him. First things first, she needed to get rid of him so Al would come back home where she belonged.
“You’re not worth the time it takes to like or dislike someone. All I want is for you to leave and let me run my cafe without any help.” Ariel propped her hands on her hips as she waited for his response.
Dane shook his head. “Sorry, but that isn’t what will happen.”
She hoped he could see the irritation flare in her eyes. The heat stole into her cheeks and the way she pressed her lips thin should have been clear evidence of her irritation with the man. When she drew a deep breath and then exhaled in a slow, frustrated sigh, his lips quirked at the corners. Like he wanted to grin. Bastard.
“How much?” she asked.
“How much what?” The sudden bland disinterest on his face and narrowed eyes were a strong indication her words had hit their mark.
If the man wouldn’t leave because she asked him, maybe money would do the trick. After all, he and his buddy, Logan Abram, could be two-bit hustlers trading on her sister’s sexual curiosity. Maybe it was the cafe they were after. No way would she let Dane Reese anywhere near the restaurant’s books. Let him think she was pissed about his interference in the running of the cafe; she knew there was more to the situation than he was telling. If all they wanted was to make a buck, perhaps she could cut to the chase.
Determined he understood her offer, Ariel said, “What’ll it take to get you to go away? How much money do you want?”
“Nothing, Ariel,” he assured her, his voice cool. “I promised your sister I would help out with the paperwork while she was away, and that’s what I intend to do.”
She stepped close and smiled up at him. “The day I let you touch the books here, surfer boy, is the day I’ll get in line with all your other brainless bimbos waiting to be told what to think, tied up, and fucked by a narcissistic control freak.”
The smile he returned held as much determination as she’d put into hers. “I keep my promises, Ariel. For the record, hon, if your promise included you tied down to one of the tables out front, I might be inclined to let you cut to the head of the line.”