Feel the Heat, Chapter 1

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She should have been safely ensconced in the apartment above her family’s restaurant, scarfing down leftover pasta and catching up on the reality show glut bursting her DVR. Instead, Lili DeLuca was considering a 3:00 a.m. stealth mission down a dark alley, wearing shiny blue Lycra hot pants and a star-spangled bustier. As ideas went, this one was as smart as bait.

Peeling off her Vespa helmet, she sent a longing look up to her bedroom window, then peered once more into the alley leading to the kitchen entrance of DeLuca’s Ristorante. The door was still propped open. Light streamed out into the night. Brightness had never looked so wrong.

A busy Damen Avenue could usually be relied upon to assure an unaccompanied woman that she was not alone. Wicker Park, formerly a low-income haven for underfed artists and actors-slash-baristas, had grown into a dense jungle of expensive lofts, chic eateries, and shi-shi wine bars. Between those, O’Casey’s Tap on the corner, and the regular influx of suburbanite good-timers, the streets were always full and safe.

But not tonight.

The bars had dribbled out their last drunks an hour ago, and by now, the 708ers were snoring soundly on their Sleep Number beds back in the burbs. Despite the stifling ninety-degree June heat, her neighborhood had never appeared so stark and cold. Living so close to work might have its perks, such as a thirty-second commute and the best Italian food in Chicago, but it was hard to see the upside in the face of that damn kitchen door, open like a gaping maw.

Maybe it was Marco. Her ex liked to use her family’s business as his playpen, adamant that his investment accorded him certain privileges. A bottle of expensive Brunello here. A venue for an after-hours poker game there. Even a chance to impress, with his miserable culinary skills, the latest lithe blonde he was wearing. He’d cooked for Lili once. His linguine had been as limp as his ...

Sloughing off those memories, she refocused on her current problem. Six hours ago, the Annual Superhero Extravaganza had seemed like a harmless way to rehabilitate her social life and get out there (oh, how she hatedthere). Guilting her into living was a favorite pastime of Gina’s, and her cousin had persuaded her to attend with honeyed words.

Time to get back in the game, Lili. No, your thighs don’t look like sides of beef in those shorts. The Batman with the wandering digits? He’s not fat—he’s just husky.

A husky Batman might come in handy right about now.

Leaving behind the safe hum of traffic, she crept toward the door. The garbage stench stung her nostrils. Something furry scurried behind one of the Dumpsters. A raucous riff from the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” swelled and filled the space around her. Insanity had its own soundtrack.

You might be dressed like Wonder Woman, but that doesn’t mean you should play the hero. Just take a look, then call someone.

She sneaked a peek around the door. Expensive kitchen equipment—her equipment—lay strewn with serving dishes, pots, and pans on the countertops. Renewed alarm streaked through her. This didn’t look like the handiwork of Marco, who thought a bain-marie was the name of a girl he’d like to date.

So much for the plausible explanation. Some shithead was burglarizing her restaurant to the strains of Jagger and Richards.

The next move should have been obvious, but her cinder-block feet and racing brain warred all the same. Call someone. Anyone. Her father. Her cousin. That cute chocolate-eyed cop who stopped in for takeout on Fridays and insisted she give him a buzz at the first scent of trouble. She swallowed hard, desperate to stop her heart from escaping through her throat. It settled for careening around her chest like a pinball.

A cautious sniff caught an astringent blast of bleach that competed with the lingering basil aroma of Friday night’s dinner service. Trembling, she nestled her camera, an eight-hundred-dollar Leica, inside her Vespa helmet, then squeezed her phone out of the tight pouch at the side of her shorts. She started to dial. Nine. One ... 

Her twitchy finger paused on hearing something more eerie than heart-stopping. From inside the walk-in fridge, a voice bounced off the stainless-steel interior. High-pitched. Indeterminate gender. Singing at the top of its lungs. It was also completely out of tune.

She repocketed her phone, pulled open the screen door, and quietly stepped inside. Damn feet had never known what was good for them.

Frantically, she searched for a weapon, and her gaze fell gratefully on the cast-iron frying pan resting on the butcher’s block. She swapped it out for her helmet, appreciating how the new heft almost worked to stop her hand from shaking. Almost. Her blurred and frankly ridiculous reflection in the fridge’s stainless steel should have given her pause; instead it emboldened her. She was dressed for action. She could do this.

Rounding the walk-in’s door, she took stock of the enemy in a millisecond. Built like a tank, he had his back turned to her as he reached up to the top shelf for a container of her father’s ragù. For the briefest of seconds, the incongruity gnawed at her gut. A tone-deaf, ragù-stealing brigand? So it didn’t exactly gel, but he was in her restaurant.

In the middle of the night.

Any hesitancy to act was wiped away by his stutter-step backward and the corresponding spike in her adrenaline. She hurled the pan and allowed herself a gratifying instant to confirm his head got the full brunt. Wolfish howl, check. Then she slammed the door shut on his thieving ass.

It had been quite a nice ass, too.

Good grief, where had that come from? It must be relief because a drooling appreciation of criminal hot stuff was so not appropriate. She loosed a nervous giggle, then covered her mouth, trying to smother that wicked thought along with her chuckle. Naughty, naughty.

Now what, Shiny Shorts? Time to call in the cavalry, but as she pulled out her phone again, another thought pierced her veil of giddy triumph. By now, Fridge Bandit should have been making a fuss or bargaining for his freedom, yet a full minute had passed with not a peep.

Confident that the broken safety release on the walk-in’s interior would keep him at bay, she laid her head and hands flush to the cool fridge door. Somewhere behind her, the music’s boom-boom bass meshed with the walk-in’s mechanical hum. Both now vibrated through her body while the thump-thump of her heart tripped out a ragged beat.

Still nothing from within that cold prison. New horror descended over her.

She had killed him.

Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—the panic of that dread conclusion was dislodged by the fridge door’s sudden jerk outward, sending Lili into a rather graceless meet-cute with the kitchen floor. Butt first, of course.

So someone had fixed that safety lock, then.

Her former comrade, the frying pan, emerged like a mutant hand puppet, soon followed by a wrist and a hairy arm before the whole package materialized. Vaguely, something big, bad, and dangerous registered in her mind. He held the pan aloft to ward off an imminent attack, but he needn’t have worried. Still grounded, superpowers severely diminished, she blinked and focused. Then she wished she hadn’t bothered, as the tight knot of fear unraveled to a cold flood of embarrassment.

“Jesus Christ, you could have bloody killed—” Fridge Bandit said. His mouth dropped open. Scantily clad superheroes flat on their butts often have that effect.

Thick black hair, green eyes flecked with gold, and a face straight out of a Renaissance painting were his most obvious assets. Lili postponed the full-body browse because she knew she was in trouble. Big trouble.

It was him.

He touched the back of his head, a not-so-subtle reminder of her transgression, and placed the pan down with all the care of someone disposing of a loaded weapon. His casual wave at the countertop behind her cut the music abruptly. Probably a skill he had acquired during an apprenticeship with the dark side of the Force.

“You all right, sweetheart?” he asked in the casual tone of one who doesn’t really care about the answer. He pocketed an iPod remote and made a halfhearted move toward her. She held up the okay-hand. Too late, buster.

Lowering her eyes to check the girls, she exhaled in relief. No nip slips. She jumped to her feet, surreptitiously rubbed her sore rump, then cast a glance down to her red knee-high Sandro boots for inspiration. Nothing doing.

You’re wearing a Wonder Woman costume and you just went all-out ninja on one of the most famous guys in the Western Hemisphere.

At last, she raised her eyes to his face, now creased in a frown.

“I’m Jack.”

“I know who you are.”

Lili figured anyone sporting a painted-on outfit like she was probably had, oh, a ten-second ogle coming her way. Her ego might have taken a shot along with her behind, but she knew she had started the evening looking pretty darn good. Hell, four out of the five flabby-muscled Supermen at the party had thought so. With her overweight teens firmly in the past, she’d since embraced her size 14 figure, and on the days she felt less than attractive—for every woman suffered days like those—she had enough friends telling her to own it, girl, revel in those curves.

So here she stood, owning and reveling, while simultaneously forging a somewhat unorthodox path for feminism with her own leering appraisal.

Jack Kilroy’s extraordinarily handsome mug was already branded into her brain. Not because she was a fan, heaven forbid, but because her sister, Cara, was constantly babbling about its perfection, usually while nagging everyone she knew to watch the cooking show she produced for him, Kilroy’s Kitchen. (Monday nights at seven on the Cooking Channel—don’t forget, Lili!) A hot-as-a-griddle Brit, he had risen to stardom in the last year, first with his TV show, then with his bestseller, French Cooking for the Rest of Us. And when not assailing the public with his chiseled good looks on food and lifestyle magazines, he could invariably be found plying his particular brand of brash foodie charm on the daytime talk-show circuit. He wasn’t just smokin’ in the kitchen, either. Recently, a contentious breakup with a soap star and a paparazzi punch-up had provided delicious fodder for the tabloids and cable news outlets alike.

The camera might add ten pounds, but in the flesh, Jack Kilroy was packing the sexy into a lean six-and-change frame. The matching set of broad shoulders didn’t surprise her, but apparently the tribal tattoo on his right bicep did, judging by the shiver dancing a jig down her spine. It seemed so not British and just a little bit dangerous. Her gaze was drawn to his Black Sabbath T-shirt, which strained to contain what looked like extremely hard, and eminently touchable, chest muscles. Sculpted by years of lugging heavy-duty stockpots, no doubt. Long legs, wrapped in a pair of blue jeans that looked like an old friend, completed the very pleasant image.

Jack Kilroy was proof there was a God—and she was a woman.

“Is that your usual MO? Frying pan first, questions later?” he asked after giving her the anticipated once-over. He had used up his ten seconds while she had stretched her assessment to fifteen. Small victories. “Should I hold still and let you use your lasso to extract the truth from me?” He gestured to the coil of gold-colored rope hanging through a loop on her hip. If he expected her to act impressed by his knowledge of the Wonder Woman mythology, he’d be a long time waiting.

Maybe she was a little impressed.

“I thought you were stealing. I was about to call the police.”

“You’re telling me there’s something worth stealing around here?”

Her body heated in outrage at his dismissive tone, though it could just as easily be because of the way his dark emerald eyes held hers. Bold and unwavering.

“Are you kidding? Some of this equipment has been in my family for generations.” Right now, most of it had been pulled out from under the counters and was scattered willy-nilly on every available surface. “Like my nonna’s pasta maker.” She pointed to it, sitting all by its dusty lonesome on a countertop behind a rack of spices.

“That rusty old thing in the corner?”

“That’s not rusty. It’s vintage. I thought you Brits appreciated antiques.”

“Sure, but my appreciation doesn’t extend to food-poisoning hazards.”

A protest died on her lips. Her father hadn’t used that pasta maker in over ten years, so a zealous defense was probably unnecessary.

“So either I’m being punked or you’re Cara’s sister. Lilah, right?”

“Yes, Cara’s sister,” she confirmed, “and it’s Lil—”

“I thought you were the hostess,” he cut in. “Are frying pans the new meet-’n’-greet in Italian restaurants?”

It’s three in the morning! she almost screamed. Clearly, the blow to his skull had impacted his short-term memory. On cue, he rubbed his head, then gripped the side of the countertop with such knuckle-whitening intensity that she worried he might pass out.

“I’m the restaurant’s manager, actually, and I wasn’t expecting you. If I’d known Le Kilroy would be gracing us with his exalted presence, I would have rolled out the red carpet we keep on hand for foreign dignitaries.”

She sashayed over to the ice cabinet and glanced back in time to catch his gaze fixed to her butt like he was in some sort of trance. Oh, brother, not even a whack to the head could throw this guy off his game. With a couple of twists, she crafted an ice pack with a napkin and handed it to him. “How’s your head?”

“Fine. How’s your—” He motioned in the direction of her rear with one hand while gingerly applying the ice pack with the other.

“Fine,” she snapped back.

“I’ll say,” he said, adding a smirk for good measure.

Oh, for crying out loud. “Is that your usual MO? I can’t believe you have so much success with the ladies.” The gossip mags devoted pages to his revolving-door dating style. Only Hollywood fembots and half-starved models need apply. They clearly weren’t in it for the food.

For her insolence, she got a blade of a look, one of those condescending ones they teach in English private schools, which for some ridiculous reason they called public schools.

“I’ve had no complaints.”

She folded her arms in an effort to project a modicum of gravitas, which was mighty difficult considering what she was wearing. It didn’t help that every breath took effort in her sweat-bonded costume. “So, care to explain?”

“What? Why I’ve had no complaints?”

“I mean, what you’re doing in my family’s restaurant at this ungodly hour.”

“Oh, up to no good. Underhanded misdoings. Waiting for a superhero to take me down.”

Okay, ten points for cute. She battled a smile. Lost the fight. Palms up, she indicated he should continue and it had better be good.

“I’m doing prep and inventory for the show. Didn’t Cara tell you?”

Of course she hadn’t told her. That’s why she was asking, dunderhead. “I haven’t checked my messages,” she lied, trying to cover that she had and her sister hadn’t deigned to fill her in. “I was busy all evening.”

“Saving cats from trees and leaping tall buildings in a single bound, I suppose.”

“Wrong superhero, dummy,” she said, still ticked off that Cara had left her out of the loop. “You haven’t explained why you’re doing this prep and inventory here.” It seemed pointless to remind him of the lateness of the hour.

“Because this is where we’ll be taping the show, sweetheart. Jack Kilroy is going to put your little restaurant on the map.”

***

Good thing Laurent had stepped out, because if he’d caught Jack referring to himself in the third person, he’d laugh his derrière off. That shit needed to stop. It was worth it, though, just to get this reaction. Wonder Woman’s mouth fell open, giving her the appearance of an oxygen-deprived goldfish.

“Here? Why would you want to tape your stupid show here?”

Jack let the comment slide, though the snarky dig about his success with women had been irksome enough. Rather hypocritical, too, considering all that hip swaying and lady leering in his general direction.

“Believe me, it’s not by choice. This place is far too small and some of the equipment is much too ... vintage for what I need.”

Contrary to his comment about the size and age of the kitchen, Jack felt a fondness bordering on nostalgia. The nearest stainless-steel counter was scuffed and cloudy with wear, the brushed patina a testament to the restaurant’s many successful years. He loved these old places. There was something innately comforting about using countertops that had seen so much action.

Returning his gaze to Cara’s sister, he speculated on how enjoyable it might be to hoist her up on the counter and start a little action right here and now. That costume she was poured into had cinched her waist and boosted her breasts like some comic-book feat of structural engineering, creating an hourglass figure the likes of which one usually didn’t see outside of a sixties-style burlesque show. A well-packaged, fine-figured woman with an arse so sweet he was already setting aside fantasy time for later. His head throbbed, but the lovely sight before him was the perfect salve.

As intended, his “too small” and “vintage” comments set her off on another round of fervent indignation. The wild hand gestures, the hastily-sought-for jibes, the churning eyes. Beautiful eyes, too, in a shade of blue not unlike curaçao liqueur, and with a humorous glint that had him trying not to smile at her even though he was incredibly pissed off at what she’d done. A woman—a very attractive woman—in an agitated state got him every time.

“This kitchen is not too small. It’s perfect.” She jabbed her finger at the burners and ovens lining the back wall. “We get through one hundred fifty covers every Saturday night using this tiny kitchen, and we don’t need the Kilroy stamp of approval. We’re already on the map.”

“I never said tiny, but I’m full of admiration for how you’ve utilized the limited space.”

That earned him a response somewhere between a grunt and a snort followed by a surprise move toward a heavy stand mixer. Surely she wasn’t going to start cleaning up? He put a placating hand on her arm.

“Hey, don’t worry. I’ll put everything back the way I found it.”

She glanced down at his hand resting on her golden skin. By the time her eyes had made the return trip, she was shooting sparks. Back off. Hooking a stray lock behind her ear, she returned to her task—cleaning up his mess and making him look like an arse. A cloud of unruly, cocoa brown hair pitched forward, obscuring her heart-shaped face and giving her a distinct lunatic vibe.

It would take more than a death stare and a shock of crazy curls to put him off. Teasing her was too much fun. “I’m pretty fast, love, and if you can move with superhero speed, we’d get it done in a jiffy.”

Another push back of her hair revealed a pitying smile. “Don’t ever claim to be fast, Kilroy. No woman wants to hear that.”

Ouch.

Before he could muster a clever retort, the kitchen doors flew open, revealing Cara DeLuca, his producer, in full-on strut. Neither the crazy hour nor the mind-melting heat had stopped her from getting dressed to the hilt in a cream-colored suit and heels. Laurent, his sous-chef and trusty sidekick, ambled in behind her with his usual indolence and a tray of takeout coffee.

Cara’s sister grumbled something that sounded like, “Kill me now.”

Sibling drama alert. Unfortunately, with a younger sister determined to drive him around the bend, he was in a position to recognize the signs.

“Lili, what on earth are you wearing?” Cara gave a languid wave. “Oh, never mind.”

Lili. He had called her Lilah. Lili was much better. Lilah sounded like someone’s maiden aunt. This woman didn’t look like anyone’s maiden aunt.

Cara’s eyes darted around, analyzing the situation. His producer was nothing if not quick, which made her both good at her job and prone to snap judgments. The crew called her Lemon Tart, and not because she was sweet.

“Why are you holding your head like that?”

Jack cast a sideways glance at the sister. He wasn’t planning to rat her out, but to her credit, she confessed immediately. In a manner of speaking.

“I thought it was that gang of classic-rock-loving, yet remarkably tuneless, thieves that have been pillaging Italian kitchens all over Chicago, and as I was already dressed for crime-fighting, instinct just took over, and I tried to lock your star in the fridge.”

Laughter erupted from deep inside him, although he was fairly positive she had just insulted his beautiful singing voice. A muscle twitched near the corner of her mouth. Not quite a smile, but he still felt the warm buzz of victory.

“Lili, you can’t go locking the talent up in a fridge,” Cara chided.

“Or hitting it on the head with a frying pan,” Jack added.

Cara’s head swiveled Exorcist-style back to her sister. “You did what?”

Jack rubbed the back of his head, heightening the drama. “I don’t think she broke the skin, but there’ll be a bump there later.”

Cara caressed his noggin and yelped like a pocketbook pup. “Oh my God, Lili, do you realize what could have happened if Jack got a concussion and had to go to the emergency room?”

“It might have improved his personality. He could do with a humility transplant,” Lili offered, again with that cute muscle twitch that he suddenly wanted to lick.

Laurent had been suspiciously quiet, but now he stepped forward, and Jack braced himself for the Gallic charm offensive. As usual, his wingman looked bed-head disheveled, sandy hair sticking out every which way. His bright blue eyes twinkled in his friendly face as he launched into one of his patented gambits.

“Bonjour, I am Laurent Benoit. I work with Jack.” It tripped off his tongue as Zhaque, sounding lazy and sexy and French. “You must be Cara’s beautiful sister, Lili.” He proffered his hand, and Lili hesitantly took it while the corners of Laurent’s mouth hitched into a seductive grin. “Enchantée,” he said, raising her hand to kiss it. This netted a husky laugh, which was a damn sight more than Jack had managed in the five minutes he had been alone with her. Man, that Frenchman was good.

“Now that’s an accent I can get down with,” Lili murmured.

Jack sighed. While his own British voice accounted for much of his success with American women, over the years he had lost more skirt to that French accent than he’d eaten bowls of bouillabaisse. Laurent—brilliant sous-chef, occasional best friend, and his most rigorous competition for the fairer sex—was the embodiment of the French lover. As good as he was in the kitchen, his talents would be just as well suited to tourism commercials. All he needed was a beret, a baguette, and a box of condoms.

Jack’s head still hurt and weariness had set in bone-deep. He was sure he had lost consciousness for a few seconds in the fridge, and now he battled the dizziness that threatened to engulf him. Coffee. That’s what he needed. Coffee and something to focus on. Something that wasn’t curvy and soft-looking and radiating man-killer vibes.

“Any chance we can get on with what we were doing?” he sniped at Cara, more brusquely than he’d intended.

“Of course, Jack, babe. We’ll let you continue.” Dragging her sister by the arm, Cara marched her out of the kitchen with a portentous, “Liliana Sophia DeLuca, a word in the office, if you please.”

Laurent stood with arms crossed, staring at the scene of departing female beauty. Jack eyed his friend. Here it comes.

“I think I’m in love,” Laurent groaned. “Is she not the cutest chérie you have ever seen?”

A laugh rumbled in Jack’s chest. “That’s the fourth time you’ve fallen in love this year and it’s only June.”

“But did you not see her cute little nose wrinkle up when I offered her my hand? And that lovely derrière. What I wouldn’t do for a piece of that.”

“She might have ‘zee lovely derrière,’ but she’s got a dangerous bowling arm.” His fingers returned to the spot where the frying pan had connected. A bump was definitely forming.

Jack followed Laurent’s gaze to the swing doors through which Cara and her sister had just exited. A sudden image of brushing his lips against Lili’s and watching the pupils of those lovely eyes magnify in passion flitted pleasantly through his mind. It wasn’t long before his imagination had wandered to stroking her inner thigh and inching below the hem of those tight, blue, shiny shorts.

Things were just getting interesting when the crash of a dropped serving pan knocked him back to the present. While Laurent muttered his apologies, Jack blinked to quell his overactive brain, the pain in his head briefly forgotten. Maybe he should apply that ice pack to his crotch.

Evie, his dragon-lady agent, had been clear. Think of the contract, Jack. Keep your head down and your nose clean. And whatever happens, do not engage the local talent. Right now, that imminent network deal was the rocket that would propel his brand into the stratosphere. No more rinky-dink cable shit. Instead he would spread his message of affordable haute cuisine to as wide an audience as possible and garner fame for all the right reasons.

Which meant grasping women were an unnecessary distraction, even a tasty piece like Cara’s sister. He needed to forget about smart-tart birds with eyes and curves that would lead a good man, or one who was trying to be good, off the straight and narrow. After his last disastrous relationship, he wasn’t looking to screw around with the help, even if she did have the best derrière in the Midwest.

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