Against the scarlet background was a neck to mid-thigh photograph of a curvy and airbrushed nude woman. In place of the slim black censor bars you would see on network television, there were a couple of strategically located food items—luckily nothing as cliché and truck-stop stripper as a whipped-cream bikini. The pictures were starker and more suited to my hot recipes. For instance, the single digitally enlarged habanero serving as a fig leaf. If it had been even a millimeter to the left or right, they would have to sell my book in a plastic wrapper.
I sighed. “You don’t look at it and think, porno with peppers?”
At Amanda’s snort of laughter, Todd paused in his trek to the back storage room for more ice, sending a brief worshipful glance over his broad shoulder. She ignored the adoring expression, much as she had the other nine million I’d witnessed in the month he’d worked here.
“It’s not pornographic,” she said when we were alone. “I thought the picture had an artistic simplicity. There are people who would pay good money to hang that in their homes.”
“Yeah, but there are people who like instant mashed potatoes, too.” No accounting for taste.
She rolled her eyes, handing me a stack of napkins. “Here, make yourself useful.”
I began restocking the clustered metal holders Todd would place on the tables throughout the bar’s large one-room interior. Maybe Amanda was right about the artwork being tasteful, excuse the pun. The sensuality in the picture could be viewed as understated…in a bright red, naked kind of way.
“What did you think the book was going to look like?” Amanda asked reasonably.
I ran a hand through my hair. “I hadn’t got that far yet.” Some days, I couldn’t even believe what I’d written, much less imagine it in bookstores across the country.
Ever since I’d received the call that my recipes would be published—actively promoted, according to the in-house publicist scheduling my upcoming appearances—I’d waffled between pride and the fear that no one in the restaurant community would take me seriously again. Which would be a real problem if the escalating tension at work led to my looking for a new job. Trevor and I had not transitioned well from lovers to platonic employee and employer. We had, however, mastered the intricacies of platonic employee and horse’s rear end.
Maybe I should quit, but head-chef jobs don’t drop into a woman’s lap. And why the hell should I walk away when I’d invested as much as he had in the restaurant? Granted, not in the monetary sense, but in more personal ways. I just hadn’t anticipated his recent petty acts of emotional sabotage and passive-aggressiveness.
Now that he no longer had any input on the cookbook, he’d done his best to distance himself from the project. After he’d heard about the racy concept through the industry grapevine, he’d assured me—wearing his best Poor Baby face—that my culinary skills were enough to gain back my reputation if the book flopped and made me a laughingstock. In front of my kitchen crew, he treated me with exaggerated courtesy, giving others the impression that I might still be grief-stricken by his defection and should be handled with kid gloves, which undermined my authority. And he was dating a young blond chef who had worked at a Charleston inn until the place had been mismanaged into a temporary closing, due to reopen in the spring. Clearly Blondie had the image Trevor sought for his love life…and maybe in his restaurant?
“Miriam? Are you aware you’re grinding your teeth?” Amanda asked.
I stopped abruptly. “Sorry. Thinking about Trevor has that effect.”
Amanda set down her knife, her gaze as sharp as the blade. “Why are you even wasting thoughts on that cad? I know I don’t have a lot of experience with sustained relationships, but you can’t tell me there was anything there worth missing.”
“No, that’s definitely not the problem.” Miss him? Ha! The more I was around him and his current attitude, the more I wondered how I had allowed myself to go out with him in the first place. It was like looking back on some flavorless, overprocessed, disgustingly fatty junk food you prized as a kid that would turn your stomach if you tried it as an adult.
“So what’s up, then?” Amanda prompted. “Come on, talk to me. It’s what people do in bars.”
I was under the impression people drank in bars, but I’d learned my lesson with that months ago, when I’d woken up with a hangover and the outline for a book I was currently second-guessing—half sex advice and half cooking manual. At the moment, I was second-guessing a lot of things. “I’m a little worried that I handed him a golden opportunity by taking off the next few weeks.”
My publisher wanted me to plug the book’s release with signings in the southeast and a few cooking segments on talk shows. It might not be a full-fledged book tour, but the regional appearances were daunting to someone who had never done any television. Joan assured me a consultant she knew in Atlanta was coming to work with me on media preparation. He’d be here tomorrow. The hope was that, if he did his job right, my public appearances would help sell even more copies, justifying his expenses and paving the way for my as-yet-untitled sequel.
It was all great visibility for me…unless the book tanked and I’d repeatedly linked myself to it up and down the coast.
“What? That toad owes you vacation! You worked nonstop through the holidays.” Amanda balled up her fists on her shapely hips, her eyes narrowed and full of the light of battle. Despite any personality differences, she was extremely loyal to me. Might have made life simpler if I could just date her. “Not to mention the eighty-hour weeks to help get that restaurant of his up and running. Besides, he can’t fire you when he approved the time off. Did he give you crap about it?”
“No, he was eager to approve the time.” That’s what worried me. “Blondie’s gonna be filling in. You think they’re edging me out?”
“The place wouldn’t last a week without you.”
“I suspect he’s trying to prove otherwise.”
After a moment of silent fuming on my behalf, she shrugged. “You should move on, anyway. Sever all ties with Trevor, date more.”
“I’ve dated.” There had even been a couple of kisses good-night over the last six months, but that paltry statistic was more likely to incite Amanda than appease her.
“Barely! I could probably count your dates on one hand, and one of them was nothing more than meeting for coffee. I think working for your ex is hindering your love life.”
Funny. I thought being me was hindering my love life. My hours were weird, I’d been busy writing the second book—or at least telling myself I should be writing it—and most of my social circle was comprised of couples Trevor and I had spent time with. Besides, I wasn’t the kind of woman who had new guys beating down my door. Even though men say they’d love to find a woman who isn’t into constant talking and emoting, many of them are unsettled when they do find someone more reserved.
“Well, we can’t all be romance goddesses,” I answered lightly.
“Better not tell that to your reading public.”
Yeesh. She was right—a certain persona was expected. Even the picture for the dust jacket had been an ordeal. The publisher definitely hadn’t wanted a headshot of me in a white toque. No, I’d been wearing makeup that made my skin feel heavy, and my mousy hair had been teased into big poofy curls I personally hadn’t found any more flattering than my normal do. At least I’d successfully vetoed the photographer’s suggestion that I be nibbling suggestively on a piece of chocolate-dipped fruit.
What would the image consultant be like? Just someone who walked me through the basics of a television appearance, or another person who encouraged large hair and fondued strawberries? If so, I hated him already.
“Maybe I’m not the right person for this,” I mused aloud.