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Just One Taste

By:Lexi Blake


Eric Vail stared at his boss’s office. The door was closed but he knew what was going on. There was no doubt in his mind that Kyle Hawthorne was giving his stepdad the news. The question was whether Sean Taggart would think it was good news or bad news.

Maybe now wasn’t the time to ask his boss for a favor.

The door to the kitchen opened and the reason for his favor breezed through. Deena Holmes. She was already dressed for work, wearing the white shirt and black slacks all the servers wore. Her dark hair was up in a neat bun, her makeup understated. She didn’t need it. She was perfect the way she was. She would be perfect naked, with her hair flowing around her shoulders and no makeup on. Not that he’d seen her that way except in his dreams. And if he didn’t ask for his favor, he likely never would.

She’d recently gone back to her natural brunette color. He’d liked her blonde, but she was devastating with dark hair.

“Hi, Eric,” she said with a generous smile. “How are you today?”

So sweet. So polite. She’d been giving him that glowy smile for a year and for a year she’d been putting him off with polite excuses. He’d almost given up. Maybe she was simply polite and glowy to everyone. She was the girl who lit up a room and breezed through making everyone feel happy and at home. He’d almost decided she was the girl who would be kind to the grizzled-looking dude with all the scars but she would end up with the handsome lawyer.

Until he’d finally figured out that her handsome lawyer had turned out to be a shitbag who’d ruined her life and she needed a grizzled dude who would look out for her. He might not have some fancy degree, but he also wasn’t a dirtbag who would let his wife work her ass off to put him through school and then dump her for another lawyer at his firm.

He would treat her right. He would take care of her the way she needed.

“I’m good, sweetheart. How are you?” He wanted to reach out for her and drag her into his arms and welcome her properly, but it wasn’t time for that yet.

Her eyes widened at the endearment. He hadn’t used it before. She recovered nicely, her smile barely faltering. “I’m great, of course. I saw the menu for tonight. Can’t wait.”

They all sat down for dinner after service was done. It was one of the perks of working at Top. A gourmet meal every night.

Was it the only meal she got sometimes? He’d seen the kitchen in her neat but tiny apartment. There had been very little in it. She’d needed a ride to work because her car had broken down. Had she asked him? Of course not. She’d asked Tiffany. He’d managed to work it so he’d been the one to show up on her doorstep and while she’d finished getting ready, he’d snooped.

He’d found out she either hated having groceries in her place or didn’t have the money to buy them. He’d also found out that apparently in her spare time, she enjoyed doodling his name. He’d found a notebook on her dining room table with some phone numbers and jotted down information and his name with hearts.

It made him feel less like a stalker.

He wasn’t. She didn’t know it yet, but he was the knight in slightly tarnished armor waiting for the princess to wake up. The fact that she was doing something like doodling his name was a good sign. From what he could tell, she’d been completely shut down since her divorce. She hadn’t dated, hadn’t had any crazy hookups, though that wouldn’t have bothered him. She could have played around with a whole football team and he wouldn’t care. She deserved to have some fun after what she’d gone through. Now it looked like she was ready, but that time had closed for her. Any fun that girl was going to have now would be with him.

“I’ll make sure to save you some of the brisket enchiladas. I know how much you love them.” Top served elevated comfort food. The brisket enchiladas were something he’d suggested and he loved watching how much she enjoyed them.

“Thanks.” Her eyes wouldn’t quite meet his.

“Are you going out with the group tonight?” He knew damn well she wasn’t. He kind of wanted to see if she would tell him what she was doing.

She gnawed on that full bottom lip of hers. “No. Not tonight. I’ve got some school stuff.”

Little liar. He gave her a nod. “Hope you do well on that. Let me know if there’s anything I can help you with.”

Her lips curved up. “Know a lot about accounting? Because I have a test coming up and it’s a killer.”

“I could snipe your professor,” he admitted. “That’s pretty much the extent of my help in that class.”

He’d been a Navy SEAL. College hadn’t been in the cards for him, but when he’d gotten out, cooking school had. He’d been the only six-foot-three-inch, two hundred pounds of muscle scarred vet in a class of people ten years younger and a thousand times less damaged than him.

Deena smiled that gorgeous, world-lighting grin of hers that made his dick tighten. “I think making him your enchiladas would go over better, but I’ll pass.” She looked up as Tiffany walked past her. “I should go help set up. Y’all rock the kitchen tonight.”

“Deena,” he said as she turned toward Tiffany. He used the same voice he would have used on his men or in the kitchen when he wanted to get someone’s attention, though he would admit he tried to add a silky edge that was only for her. He’d turned his military leader voice into his Dom voice.

It worked. She stopped in her tracks and turned back around, giving him her full attention. “Yes?”

“If that jerk comes back in, I want to know.” He gave her what he hoped was a stern glare so she understood this wasn’t a request. Though he technically wasn’t her boss, he was the number two at Top and he took the safety of everyone at the place seriously.

She flushed and rolled her eyes. “That was nothing.”

A customer had put his hand on her ass, causing her to drop a whole platter of drinks. He’d claimed it had all been an accident, but the guy was a regular and he always sat in Deena’s section and he always was alone. Yeah, he tried to keep an eye on that guy.

Tiffany shook her head as she stopped. “That guy’s weird and he’s totally got a thing for her. Not that having a thing for her is weird, but from that jerk, it is.”

Tiffany was infinitely more reasonable than Deena. He turned his attention to her. “Let whoever is the hostess tonight know that Deena’s section is full and will be all evening.”

“That isn’t necessary,” Deena said, her eyes widening.

“Will do.” Tiffany gave him a jaunty salute and a wink. “I’ll make sure that ass feels right at home.”

Tiffany turned and walked toward the front.

Deena shook her head. “I can handle Jerry.”

He cocked a brow. “I’m sure you can, but you don’t have to. I’m serious, sweetheart. I do not want to hear about you putting yourself in danger over a tip.”

“Fine. But only because he’s a shitty tipper.” She ran off behind her friend.

She could run but after tonight, he wasn’t letting her hide anymore. He would have watched over her, waiting until the time was right, but thank god she’d moved the damn clock up. He was dying. He couldn’t date because he didn’t want anyone other than her. And he was too old to hook up with women for sex.

He wanted more and he wanted it with Deena.

The door came open and Sean walked out first, Kyle second. Kyle stopped and shook his stepfather’s hand, his jaw squared.

Taggart nodded and said something to Kyle before Kyle turned.

Sean glanced around and then gestured for Eric to join him. His boss had a stern look on his face and Eric winced inwardly. Sean Taggart had been a Green Beret, but the man would have made a damn fine drill sergeant. Eric had to wonder if he was about to get a dressing down. He strode forward because he preferred to get the bad shit over as quickly as possible.

What the hell was he going to do if Sean wouldn’t help him? Could he go through with tonight’s class knowing he might have to watch the woman of his dreams with another man?

He walked into Sean’s office and waited for his boss to take a seat before settling himself into the big chair across from the desk.

Sean stared at him, those blue eyes of his steady in a way that would likely make most men look away.

Eric had been stared down by the best. He simply waited. Patience in all things. It was a motto of his.

“Do you know what my stepson just told me?”

Yes. He definitely knew the answer to that question. “Not the exact words, of course, but I suspect he informed you that he signed his enlistment papers yesterday.”

Sean sat back. “What gave you the right to talk him into joining the Navy, Eric?”

Damn. He hated disappointing his boss. Sean had given him a job when no one else wanted an almost forty-year-old, just-out-of-school chef who looked more like a mobster than a man who could cook. Sean had moved him quickly to the role of sous chef, training Eric in his own techniques and being one of the most sincerely helpful men Eric had ever met. Still, he wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done. Kyle had worked at Top for several months and they’d become friendly. “He asked my opinion. I gave it.”