Stay A Little Longer: A Small Town Family Romance
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~USA Today Best-Selling Author Erin Wright
Athena Reynolds is a goddess in the kitchen, and she's got her Michelin-starred restaurant Olympus to back it up. Darling of the Chicago restaurant scene, she's flying high—until a betrayal leads to her sudden fall from grace. Furious and reeling, she heads home to the solace of family in Tennessee.
Logan Maxwell has his hands full keeping his organic farm thriving and in the black. He doesn't have time to do more than wonder about the prickly mystery that is Athena Reynolds and relive their one passionate night together. Her life is in Chicago and his is irrevocably tied to his land. But that hasn't stopped him from craving more.
But small towns are like small kitchens, everyone's constantly bumping into each other and sooner or later something's bound to boil over. Maybe that's why Logan finds it so hard to resist Athena. Well, that and the fact that he's never been able to walk away from a woman in distress. An unexpected confidant, Logan reminds Athena of her roots, and in turn, she begins to question everything she's spent years working for. They just might hold the keys to each other's salvation—but when her old life comes calling, can love win out over the temptation of redemption?
Release date: January 18, 2019
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 251
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Stay A Little Longer: A Small Town Family Romance
“The port syrup and pear were simply an exquisite pairing with the Hudson Valley foie gras. But my favorite…my favorite was the ricotta and chard ravioli with the garlic cream sauce.”
Chef Athena Reynolds listened as the man with the balding pate and paunch hanging over his belt continued to gush about her food, praising the flavor combinations and hypothesizing about her inspiration and influences as the meal itself turned cold and the carefully perfected sauce began to congeal. A muscle ticked in her jaw at the travesty unfolding before her. She wanted to simply turn and stalk back into her kitchen. She despised this part of the job. The food should speak for itself. She shouldn’t have to. But the investors who’d made her dream of opening her own restaurant a reality insisted that she trot out like a show pony to shake hands, smile, and be gracious. That was far more her oldest sister Pru’s natural inclination. She was the nice one, who’d played peacemaker among their ragtag collection of foster siblings. Athena was…well…her talents lay elsewhere, usually managing sharp things—from her favorite knives to her tongue—with alacrity. She could filet this douchecanoe with just a few, choice words…
But the voice of Jayson Straker—her boyfriend and one of the powers that be—rolled through the back of her mind.
You’ll catch more flies with honey than with your acerbic wit.
It was easier to take that kind of criticism while lingering in bed after excellent orgasms than it was to hear it from any of the other owners. Almost everything about working at Olympus had gotten easier since Jayson bought out one of her original investors. He believed in being on-site and involved in the day-to-day running of things. She’d fought him at first. Fighting was what Athena did best, next to cooking. But it turned out that they shared a vision—one that would capitalize on her James Beard win and the Michelin star she’d earned and catapult them both into the stratosphere of the foodie world. She just had to be patient and make it through this round of ass kissing without maiming or insulting the guy so she could get back to her natural habitat.
“And those glazed cipollini onions with the merlot reduction.”
It’s a cabernet reduction, you asshat. Athena started to say just that and stopped herself.
The nicer you play, the more customers come, and the closer you are to being able to buy out a controlling share in Olympus.
That was her ultimate goal. One she’d expected to be closer to achieving by now. But there had been complications and expenses and other necessary diversions of those funds. And then there was the fact that she hadn’t been able to create anything new in months. She’d been skating by with the help of her well-trained kitchen staff and her sterling reputation as a chef. But that would only take her so far. So here she was, standing in the dining room in the middle of a mad dinner service, listening to this pretentious asshat wax rhapsodic, as if he knew a damned thing about her food, when he didn’t seem to grasp the essential point that it should be eaten when it was served. At the perfect temperature. So help her, if he completed this indignity by pulling out his phone to immortalize the now ruined meal on Instagram, she was coming after him with her chef’s knife.
“I simply can’t wait for the chocolate soufflé. I’m sure the spiced plum sauce will be simply inspired! Though surely peach would be better.”
The smile Athena had fixed on at the start of his recitation felt brittle as glass. She hoped it didn’t come off as the grimace it really was. “Well, that’s certainly—” She searched for something positive to say. “—a well-considered opinion. I appreciate your patronage of Olympus.” Before he could do more than open his mouth to speak again, she rushed on. “I’m so sorry, but I need to be getting back to the kitchen.”
Without waiting for a response, she fled. With luck, Jayson hadn’t noticed that part of the exchange. He’d fuss. And if he did, she’d just cook him something that would shut him up. He always forgot everything else when he ate her food.
Back at the pass, she expected a pileup of plates waiting for her final inspection before being carted out to the dining room by servers. But there were only two dishes under the warmer. A quick glance at the carousel showed way too many tickets still waiting to be started.
“Where the hell is the steak for table seventeen? There should be three quails waiting to go out. And the scallops for table nine. And what about the lamb for table two?”
“Waiting on the entrees, Chef.” The brisk response came from Poppy Woolicott, one of her line chefs.
This was a disaster. The dining room was an absolute madhouse tonight. They couldn’t afford to be backed up.
Athena rounded toward the grill to lambast her sous chef for falling down on the job. But Mari wasn’t at her station.
“Where the fuck is Mari?” she demanded.
Moses Lindsey, her tattooed badass of a pastry chef, jerked his head toward the back stairs. “She rushed out of the kitchen a little after you headed out to the dining room.”
“In the middle of service?” Athena’s voice was quiet, measured. Deadly.
“She looked a little green. Like she maybe got some bad takeout.” This came from Cory Oliver, the newbie on her staff who’d graduated from dishwasher to making stock just two weeks before.
For just a moment, Athena closed her eyes and drew in a long breath, focusing on the sounds of running water, simmering pots, and sizzling skillets. A warrior preparing for battle. Then she was flying, moving through the kitchen toward the grill, shouting orders that had her staff jumping as if the sirens had just blared to warn of an impending airstrike. Which they had. As soon as they got through this mess, someone’s ass was getting smoked.
It had been ages since she’d been on the line herself. The unfortunate reality of the job was the head chef did little of the actual day-to-day cooking, but rather spent her time as a general coordinating the army and checking the quality of everything leaving the kitchen. Running the world was far more her sister Maggie’s purview, but Athena could sure as hell run her little piece of it. Still, she’d missed the actual preparation, the juggling of cooking multiple dishes and seeing them all to perfection. She lost herself in the rhythm of it, in the scents and sounds of the food. The harsh edge of frustration and the constantly simmering anger began to dull. This was her therapy. Her bliss. In this little corner of her universe, she controlled all.
By the time they hit a few minutes’ lull, Mari still hadn’t returned to her station. Mariana Grafton never dropped the ball. It was what made her an invaluable member of the team. One of the primary reasons Olympus was a success. She was a damned good sous chef. Second in command. She’d never bail in the middle of service unless something was horribly wrong. So because she was family—because everyone who worked in Athena’s kitchen eventually became family if they stayed long enough—worry edged out the anger as Athena went hunting for her friend.
“Moses, keep an eye on things.”
“You got it, Chef.”
She headed first to the bathroom down the hall from the kitchen, but the door hung open, the little room dark. The alley out back was likewise empty. Back inside, Athena jogged down the narrow stairs that led to the basement, which housed their wine cave and the offices. Not that Athena used the glorified closet assigned to her. But Jayson’s office, where he managed the financial side of things, was down here. It was where they usually shared a nightcap and deconstructed each service to decide what had gone well, what could be done better. It was also the only room outside the bar that had a landline, as Athena refused to have a phone interrupting the sanctity of her kitchen and forbade cell phones during service.
His door was closed. Beyond it she could hear the faint murmur of voices, then a sound like crying. Alarm cut through what remained of Athena’s temper. Was it Mari’s father? She knew he hadn’t been doing well these past couple of months. Mari had worried he’d been pushing himself too hard, that he was going to have a heart attack or a stroke. She’d been an absolute rock when Athena’s mother had died last year, picking up the slack when Athena had been almost too broken to function. Athena would sure as hell return the favor.
She opened the door. The words of support died on her tongue as she took in the scene on the other side. Mari sat on Jayson’s desk in her chef’s coat, her pants dangling to the floor from one ankle, her head thrown back. Jayson stood between her legs, his own pants around his knees, the ass Athena had always so admired flexed as he froze, right in the midst of driving into her sous chef.
For one stunning moment, Athena couldn’t breathe. There were too many betrayals to process. Not only were her boyfriend and the woman she believed to be her best friend having an affair, they were doing it all but under her nose, in the middle of service, in the restaurant they’d all worked and slaved to make the best. The fragile trust she so rarely gave cracked under the weight of this new reality, and from the faultline poured rage.
“What the actual fuck?”
“Athena, I can explain,” Jayson began.
“Really? You think there’s any sort of explanation I’ll accept for how your dick happened to fall into my sous chef? Stay the hell away from me.” Athena rounded on Mari. “And you, don’t you dare step foot back in my kitchen. You’re fired.”
Mari made some sound of protest, but Athena was already turning, already rushing back upstairs as the two of them fumbled to put their clothes back on.
She couldn’t afford to lose her shit. Tonight was a full house. There were a myriad of important guests. But the fury built in her chest, so scorching hot and bright, she wondered smoke didn’t pour out of her nostrils like a dragon. Her staff paused for half a second when she reappeared.
“You all have work to do!” she barked.
No one said a word. They just leapt back into motion as she crossed to the carousel and yanked down the next ticket. Poppy knew better than to interrupt when Athena elbowed her out of place and began to dice the vegetables herself. This wasn’t how things were done, but she didn’t give a good damn. This was her kitchen. Her world. She needed to find some control over something right this minute or the heat in her chest was going to go nuclear. So she diced onions with vicious speed and precision, her favorite Damascus steel knife a comfort in her hand.
He’d cheated on her. That was bad enough. But she realized Jayson had sent her out to schmooze with that pompous prick to get her out of the way so he could have a quickie with her best friend—or maybe not so much of a quickie given they were still going at it when she’d found them. And they’d done it here. In her restaurant. Her haven. Her dream. The image of the two of them was burned into her retinas. The arch of Mari’s neck. The straining muscles of his arms as he gripped her hips and—
“Athena.” Jayson’s voice sounded pained.
She didn’t think, didn’t even hesitate before she whirled and hurled the knife. Someone screamed. Jayson dove to the floor, seconds before the wickedly sharp blade dug into the wall, an inch from where his head had been.
“You bastard,” she snarled. “Get the fuck out of my kitchen.”
“Are you crazy?” he demanded, rolling to his knees and staring at her as if he’d never seen her before.
“I’ll show you crazy, you lying, cheating son of a bitch!” She grabbed up another knife.
Jayson lunged for a huge, stainless-steel bowl full of greens, holding it up as a shield and spilling salad everywhere as she advanced on him.
And then her feet were flailing as big, strong arms wrapped around her from behind, lifting her off the ground. “Drop the knife, Chef.” Moses’s thick rumble of a voice came at her ear.
“Let me go!”
“Not until you drop the knife. You can beat his ass with your fists if you want, but the knife ups the charge. You don’t wanna go where they’d send you for that, whether he deserves it or not,” Moses murmured. “Drop it, Athena, before you do something you’ll regret.”
She’d already done so many things she regretted. What was one more?
But she did as he ordered, opening her hand and listening as the blade clattered to the floor. Moses set her down, hesitating before releasing her. Her breath sawed in and out like a bellows as she stared at her former lover and realized he’d permanently tainted what was hers. So there was grief boiling up beneath the anger as she fisted her hands and retaliated in the only way she had left.
“I quit. Good luck running Olympus without me.”
* * *
“He’s gorgeous! Those big brown eyes and all that glossy red hair.” Ari Reynolds-Bohannon pressed both hands to her heart and fell back against the front seat of the truck with a gusty and dramatic sigh. “I’m in love.”
Logan Maxwell suppressed a sigh of his own, grateful the girl was talking about the latest gelding to be added to his stable instead of Sebastian, his new stable master. At fourteen, that could go either way. Better he encourage the horse crazy over the boy crazy. “Chestnut. That coat color is called chestnut.”
“Chestnut,” Ari repeated.
Logan’s muscles ached, reminding him he’d been in the fields since dawn and awake with livestock an hour before that. Spring planting was in full swing around the farm, and his days were filling up. But he’d been carving out time to teach Ari to ride in exchange for her help around the barn with the horses. She had the makings of a good little equestrian, and he got a kick out of her enthusiasm. So he dug up a grin as she continued to chatter on about the horse’s many virtues.
“He’s gonna need a barn name, you know. Think you can come up with one?”
“Sure.” If the animal worked out like he hoped, he’d be Ari’s new mount. Not that he was telling her that yet.
“That’d be awesome! I’ll make a list.”
Of course she would. He chuckled. “You do that.”
“Can I come out again tomorrow?”
“That’s something I wanted to talk to you about. You know we’re about to be hitting the real busy season around the farm. I’m gonna be tied up a lot more as we get closer to harvest.”
Ari’s face fell. “Oh. Well, I understand. Maybe we can pick back up in the fall?”
That instant acceptance of disappointment just killed him. A former foster kid, Ari had been adopted just before Christmas by his friend Pru and her husband, Flynn. They were a devoted, stable family, who’d gone through hell to make sure the girl didn’t get sent back into the system after the death of her foster mother—Pru’s own mom, Joan, who’d been taking in foster kids for twenty-five years. Not for the first time, Logan wondered what Ari’s life had been like before she came into the Reynolds family.
“No, that’s not what I meant. I was thinking, if it’s okay with your parents, you could maybe spend a little more time at the farm this summer. Take a bit more responsibility with the horses.”
The teenager’s eyes went round. “Really? What about Sebastian?”
The ex-Army ranger was technically the one in charge of the horses. Which was to say, he lived in a little cabin on the farm and managed the daily feeding, care, and training of the half-dozen rescue animals Logan had somehow acquired simply because there’d been a need and he had an empty barn. But that number would probably be rising soon, and they’d need more able bodies to do all the work.
“He could use a hand, and mine will be full. You’ve proved yourself capable and a quick learner.”
Ari clasped her hands and widened those big brown eyes in an expression that reminded Logan of his baby sister, Laurel. “Will you come in and talk to Mom and Dad about it? Please?”
He really hadn’t had the time to drive all the way into Eden’s Ridge to drop her off. The tractor had crapped out again, and if he didn’t get the damned thing running for tomorrow, he wouldn’t get the north field plowed and the broccoli seedlings in the ground before the rain hit this weekend. He’d had enough trouble working around the extra wet spring to get seedlings planted. But Pru had texted that something had come up and begged. Since riding lessons for Ari had been his idea in the first place, here they were, piled in his truck and nearly to her house. If he went in, he’d get drawn into a visit because that’s how life went in the south. But hell if he could resist that face. He needed a break anyway. It was getting on toward dinner time, and he was optimistic enough to hope he’d score an invite so he didn’t have to scrounge for his own supper tonight. Cooking took energy he didn’t have.
“Yeah, all right.”
“Yes!” She pumped her fist and he swallowed his chuckle. This kid was a trip.
The late April sun still rode high, slanting through the trees to dapple the big Victorian house that Pru and her sisters had turned into a bed and breakfast last year. The Misfit Inn nestled among the trees, perched on top of a bluff overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains. Off to one side, work trucks surrounded the converted barn that now housed the day spa. He wasn’t sure exactly what they were doing over there, but the Reynolds sisters were nothing if not ambitious.
Parking in the circular drive, Logan climbed out of the truck, trailing Ari up the steps and following her through the front door without preamble. She made a beeline for the kitchen, toward the babble of voices that made it clear the gang was all here. He wondered if he was inadvertently interrupting a family meeting.
“Athena!” Ari’s joyful squeal had Logan’s step faltering.
But it was too late to hide. He’d already made it to the doorway.
The sight of her was a sucker punch, as it always was. Even with lines of fatigue bracketing her eyes—typical after the full day of travel it usually took her to get here from Chicago—she was the female equivalent of a shot of top shelf tequila. Her long brown hair was caught back in a tail that trailed over one shoulder. The mouth he was used to seeing curled in a sardonic smile bowed up as Ari grabbed her in an enthusiastic hug, but she didn’t quite pull it off. There was something, some chink in her usual armor that had his curiosity piqued. Athena wasn’t one to show weakness of any kind, and it had him wondering what that vulnerability was about.
Athena wrinkled her nose. “You smell like horse.”
“That’s because I’ve been grooming them all afternoon.” Beaming, Ari swung around. “Look who’s here, Logan!”
Athena’s gaze snapped up, catching sight of him in the doorway. In an instant, she pokered up. “Hey Logan.”
Everybody started greeting him at once, but he was only half paying attention because Athena’s gray eyes were still on him and he couldn’t look away. Unbidden, his mind went to her sister Kennedy’s wedding last summer, when he’d met those eyes across the crowded reception. Her smile then had been flirtatious and playful, and the tension between them had been thick enough to strum, even from twenty feet away. Giving in to that electric need had led to the best night of his life. But that was all it had been. One night. And a handful of phone calls that made them…not quite friends but more than a simple wedding hookup. It had ended there, in that liminal space. Her life was in Chicago and by the time he’d seen her again at Christmas, she’d been attached to someone else, so his longing for a repeat performance had come to nothing. And that was for the best. He didn’t have time for…anything.
But as he stood at the edge of the big kitchen, with several of her family members and the big farmhouse table between them, he realized the electricity was still there, humming between them. He wished he’d taken the time for more than just changing out of his muddy boots before coming over here.
“Didn’t expect to see you here.” Logan Maxwell. Farmer and master of understatement.
If Athena was as affected as he, she didn’t show it. “The restaurant is under renovation, and I’ve got some time off, so I drove home with the idea that I’d help out with the inn. With Pru getting close to her third trimester, I didn’t figure y’all would turn down some extra hands.”
Pru rubbed a hand over her pronounced baby bump. “You are not wrong.”
“How long can you stay?” Ari demanded, draping an arm around her shoulders.
In the beat of hesitation, as she wrapped an arm around her niece’s waist, Logan saw Athena reach for something other than the truth. “Not sure, exactly. At least a couple of weeks. Probably longer. Renovations are so uncertain.”
“You’ve got that right,” Pru agreed. “You probably saw all the trucks. Porter’s been trying to work on the expansion for the spa around appointment times, and it’s driving me absolutely batty.”
As conversation turned to construction issues, Logan wondered about the lengthy stay and whether Athena’s boyfriend had likewise chosen to come to Tennessee during the renovation. He had something to do with Olympus, right? There was no sign of him in the kitchen, no other luggage piled in the corner but her single suitcase. What did that mean? Was he still in the picture? It wasn’t like he could ask in front of this audience.
“—stay for dinner?”
Logan blinked, realizing Pru was talking to him and he hadn’t been paying a damned bit of attention. “Sorry?”
“You should stay for dinner.”
“Xander will be here,” Kennedy added, referring to her husband and Logan’s best friend.
“Do stick around and help me balance out all the estrogen,” Flynn added. Pru shot her husband a mock glare, to which the Irishman responded with a smacking kiss and a spate of Gaelic that had her cheeks going pink.
For a moment, Logan considered it. He’d come hoping for food, and if he stayed, he might actually find out what he wanted to know. But what purpose would that serve? Even if Athena was single again, she’d never give up Olympus and he’d never give up his land. There’d be no picking up where they left off that hot summer night. And that was for the best because he wouldn’t want to stop with just one more taste. So better to let that attraction fade with time and distance.
“I really can’t. I’ve got a date with a recalcitrant tractor.”
Ari’s lip instantly rolled out in a pout.
Logan couldn’t stop himself from glancing at Athena to see her reaction. Not disappointment. Not relief. Maybe the pull was one-sided after all this time.
The weight of Pru’s speculative gaze made him want to twitch. Through circumstances he didn’t quite know the details of, she knew about his night with Athena. She’d kept the secret as a bit of quid pro quo because of the shenanigans she’d gotten up to with Flynn that night and had said no more about it. But he knew she thought of it every time he and Athena were in the same room.
Ignoring the look, Logan focused on the reason he’d come inside in the first place. “I really just stopped in to ask if it’d be okay if Ari did some more work on the farm this summer, with the horses. If you can spare her from the inn, that is.”
“Please, Mom? Please, please, please, please, pleeeeeeease?”
“It’d be minimum wage and more riding lessons for payment.”
“I’d get paid?” Those eyes lit up again. “This just gets better and better.”
“We’ll talk about it,” Pru promised.
Logan just nodded and took a step back. “I’m gonna leave y’all to visit. I need to get on back to work.” He was already turning away, as he looked back at Athena. “Welcome home.”
She inclined her head. “It was good to see you, Logan.”
He told himself again that it didn’t matter as he lifted his hand in a wave and walked away. But he knew he’d be puzzling over the mystery of Athena Reynolds the whole time he fought with that damned tractor.
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