Black-rimmed eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You said Jenny Smith?"
"Yeah," Adam said.
"What happened to the regular girl?"
"She got fired," Adam shrugged, fighting back his smile. He'd been warned that the people here were very serious about food.
The checkout girl looked him over with an unattractive squint, eyeliner settling into crow's feet and adding ten years to her face—somebody should give her some application tips. "Wait over there," she ordered, pointing to a corner of the shop out of the customers' way.
"I'm on a schedule," he reminded her as she disappeared through a set of swinging double doors. She didn't look back.
A couple behind him muttered about call-ahead customers, and Adam shuffled to the corner to give them some space. The shop was brightly-lit, the glass cases of entrées and pastries practically glowing with artfully displayed temptation. He looked away quickly for the sake of his willpower and ended up browsing a display of jars bearing simple, handmade labels. He leaned in closer to read: red pepper pomegranate jelly, apple jalapeño jelly, roasted garlic and onion jam…. Adam snorted. This was exactly why he never asked what Margot was eating.
His thumb brushed over the phone in his pocket, and he pulled it out to check the screen: no texts. He sighed and tucked the phone away, telling himself to forget about it.
"Pickup for Jenny Smith?" a man called, and Adam turned to the counter, hand raised.
Another skeptical employee—this one much cuter—was coming around the counter in a denim chef's apron. He stopped in front of Adam, a belligerent set to his jaw and his chest puffed out for a fight. "Name?"
"Adam Lambert," he gave his most charming smile. And then, before he could help himself, he leaned forward and whispered, "Or do I need a codename, too?"
It worked; the tension in the guy's shoulders eased, and he cracked a smile that rated up there with Margot's red carpet dazzler. "Nah, your real name's good enough for me. Sorry 'bout the attitude."
"No problem. But you know her schedule, so—"
"Of course! I have Ms. Smith's order ready; it'll just be another minute. Wait here?"
Adam nodded and didn't look too deeply into those smiling brown eyes. He did, however, check out his ass when he turned around—there was no harm in looking.
When he met the cashier's gaze, she was still glaring at him as though he were planning to rob the place. Now that he was in good with the cute chef, he felt safe rolling his eyes at her. This was lunch, not The Italian Job, for god's sake.
The chef came back with two stainless-steel canisters. "Okay, today she's having orzo salad and sole Florentine. I'm Kris, by the way," he added, juggling the canisters to shake Adam's hand. "She can add salt and pepper to the fish, but no lemon—there's already plenty in the salad. And these are thermal insulated, so the fish should stay hot, but if it isn't hot enough when you open it, you can pop it in the oven for a few minutes to warm it back up. No microwaving the fish."
Adam probably should have been paying attention to Kris's instructions, but there were brown smudges on his apron and something leafy and green in his spiky hair.
"You got all that?"
"Yeah, got it," Adam said absently, and reached out and plucked a bit of parsley out of Kris's hair, just above his right ear.
"Oh," Kris said, his eyes going wide and cheeks turning pink. And then he laughed. "I'm always a mess, don't worry about it."
"You work it, though," Adam smiled and dropped the leaf. "You give me what you've got in your hands and I'll get out of your hair, too." He took the canisters from Kris and stacked them, only to immediately have the top one snatched away.
"Don't do that!" Kris gasped. "This one's 145 degrees! If you stack them, some of that heat's gonna leach into the salad!" He stared Adam down like it was a matter of life and death.
Since Kris was considerably hotter than the cashier girl, Adam chose not to roll his eyes again. "Sorry. I won't stack them, I promise." He tried to look trustworthy.
Kris hesitated a long moment before relinquishing the canisters a second time, and Adam dutifully held them apart. "Ms. Smith said you'd take this more seriously than Felice," he said, and Adam read his disappointment loud and clear.
"Believe me," Adam said with complete sincerity, "I have no intention of ruining her lunch. I'd like to keep my dick attached to my body."
"You just missed it," June said as he joined her on the couch an hour later.
"Not the squat thrusts," Adam groaned.
"The squat thrusts," she confirmed.
Margot's personal trainer Frank was wearing the blue spandex number today, and Adam couldn't have designed a better outfit to highlight his assets. Each clench and shift of his perfect muscles was on display in the bright sunlight. And when he did squat thrusts…. "Son of a bitch," Adam moaned, and watched, disconsolate, as Frank guided Margot through a few reps of pushups. "Traffic on the PCH was brutal," he said.
June hesitated and then said, "You know, that was always Felice's excuse."
Adam knew. He had post-traumatic stress from witnessing Felice's late lunch deliveries and the rage of a sugar-crashing Margot. And he'd almost been late, himself—one more backup that morning and he would've been on the receiving end of her wrath. He gulped.
Outside, Frank was switching to crunches, and Margot's blond ponytail swayed in the breeze as he barked encouragement. They looked like one of those fitness infomercials, Adam mused, enjoying the aesthetics of the jewel-toned sky, red patio, two flawless bodies glistening with sweat, and the dark smudge of the Pacific Ocean beyond. Her pale purple sports top looked especially good in this light. He nodded, pleased with her latest purchase.
"So how was it?" June asked suddenly. "Was the cook as hot as Felice claimed?"
"He's cute," Adam allowed, and didn't elaborate on the charming accent, the snug t-shirt under the apron, and the firmness of his ass in those jeans as he walked away.
"Hey, I'm already spoken for," Adam said. "And so are you."
She hummed thoughtfully and cast him a side-eye. Adam ignored her and pulled out his phone to check. His sigh was a lot louder this time, and June echoed it. "Now what?"
"It's nothing," he mumbled.
"Honey, it's never nothing. Come on, spill. What'd that asshole do this time?"
Adam appreciated her support but wasn't in the mood to hear her badmouth Joel again. "Just the same old drama," he said firmly and stood up, checking the time. "She'll be done in five. I have to set the table."
When he was safely in the kitchen, he pulled out his phone again and started a new text…but closed it before he'd typed a word. It was Joel's turn to apologize, damn it, and Adam shouldn't be the one to cave this time. He couldn't.
He was half-way home, jaw clenched at the traffic, last night's argument running through his brain on loop, when his phone finally beeped. At the next red light he turned it over to find a new message: sorry.
Adam sighed in relief and put his phone away.
The PCH had been a nightmare on Wednesday, but that wasn't the only delay. Adam had already been late getting to the shop thanks to a massive pileup on the 101. Determined not to risk falling out of Margot's good graces over a simple lunch delivery (even if it that "simple delivery" meant driving from West Hills all the way into Downtown and then all the way back out to Malibu in L.A. traffic), he set out an hour earlier on Thursday.
So of course he arrived at the shop an hour ahead of schedule, and cute Kris had to come out of the back to say, "It isn't ready yet."
Better safe than sorry, Adam told himself, refusing to feel stupid.
Kris laughed awkwardly, "It's gonna take a while. You're…well, you're really early. You should probably have a seat or something."
Adam looked around at the bustling shop, his eyebrows rising as he failed to spot any chairs—just display cases and shelving. "Um?" he said.
Kris winced. "We don't really offer seating."
Adam hadn't seen any benches outside, either. "I can wait in my car…" and look like a parking lot creeper, he didn't say aloud.
"No, no, that's— I'm sorry, I can find you a chair, jeez." Kris shoved a hand through his hair, and Adam absolutely did not question the cleanliness of the hands that touched Margot's food. "Come on back."
Kris led Adam behind the counter to the kitchen doors, and Adam saw the cashier girl's well-plucked eyebrows shoot sky high. She was still wearing too much eyeliner. Adam bit his tongue.
The kitchen was a good ten degrees warmer than the shop floor and already crowded with two other cooks hurrying past each other in a narrow aisle between ovens and stoves.
Kris was still babbling. "I mean, it's not that I don't want to watch them eat, it's just…there's no room. If folks stuck around, there wouldn't be any room for anyone else. Plus, they'd want, like, utensils and napkins and drinks."
"What?" Adam said when he realized Kris was looking up at him expectantly. "Oh, yeah, that makes sense. You don't really want people hanging around if you don't have the space…." He looked meaningfully around the cramped kitchen, where—again—there were no chairs.
"I can always fit one more," Kris said cheerfully, and headed over to a wall of shelves stacked clear to the ceiling. He picked up a two-foot stool and carried it over to a steel counter covered with bowls, knives, and a large wooden cutting board. "Here, that's about as out of the way as we get back here."
Adam looked dubiously at the bustle around him and then at Kris's determined grin, and decided what the hell. "You're the boss," he said, and then Kris's explanation sank in. "Wait, is this your place?"
"This is my station," Kris said, gesturing to the steel counter proudly.
"No, the whole place. The shop."
Kris shrugged and said, not bashful at all, "Yeah."
Kris pushed at Adam's shoulders until he sat down on the stool. "Now, stay here. And if we start throwing knives at each other, no sudden moves." He winked and sashayed around to the other side of the counter, bumping into a petite brunette in a red apron. She didn't look up from the block of chocolate she was pulverizing with a wooden mallet.
Adam was stunned. This guy who looked at least a couple years younger than him—who looked Margot's age for god's sake—owned his own gourmet food shop in Los Angeles. Not just cooked in it, but owned it. Another over-achiever leaving Adam in the dust, he thought ruefully. And then he said, "So you know Jenny?"
Kris quirked a smile. "You don't have to keep using that name, you know."
"I thought it was a State Secret, or something. Felice made such a big deal about it—"
"Nah, that's just around the customers. The staff's cool. And we don't let customers back here, so you're doubly safe."
Adam couldn't help feeling a little smug at being allowed into the inner sanctum. "Okay. So you know Margot?"
Kris flashed an even bigger smile, showing off a set of positively-criminal dimples. "Sorry, you don't have clearance for that. It's strictly 'need to know.'"
Adam was man enough to admit when he'd been charmed. He grinned and started to shrug off his jacket. And then he shrugged it back on, because he loved how broad and powerful it made his shoulders look. But fuck, it was really hot in the kitchen. But Kris was really cute, and being around cute guys always made Adam want to look his best. But if he started sweating off his makeup, he was going to look like the tail end of a Las Vegas bender.
The jacket ultimately came off, folded carefully across his lap to prevent wrinkles and hide certain developing problems.
Kris had already settled into his work, slicing up a mountain of green beans, snapping off the ends between his thumb and one very sharp looking knife. His fingers were red, as though freshly burned, and moved with absolute confidence around the blade, as though it were no more dangerous than Adam's mascara wand. Adam tried not to find that level of competence sexy, but it took a good deal of arguing with his cock to keep it in line.
When he finally managed to look away from Kris's fingers, he found Kris watching him, not the flashing knife in his hands. Adam flushed at the attention.
"Do you have any allergies?" Kris asked unexpectedly. "We have almost everything back here, so if you're allergic to anything, I need to—"
"No allergies," Adam assured him.
"Thank goodness. Any dietary limitations? You're not vegan, are you? Kosher? Gluten-intolerant?"
Adam laughed. "My only dietary limitation is this 32-inch waistline."
Kris's eyes lit up and he bit at his full lower lip. "Perfect," he murmured.
Adam reminded his dick to keep its opinions to itself, thank you very much.
With the last batch of green beans trimmed and boiling in a huge pot on the stove, Kris upended a box of peaches out on his counter.
A dusky, pale-pink fruit rolled across the counter, and Adam caught it before it hit the floor. "I think you might need this?" he said…only it came out more like a purr, and seriously, he had a boyfriend, what the fuck was he doing?
Kris took it from his hand and thanked him, then pulled out a slightly larger knife, whipped it around the peach in a quick slice and twisted it apart, revealing pure white flesh and a starburst of red around the pit.
"Woah," Adam said, and leaned in for a closer look at the fruit. All that drama under its subtle, velvety exterior—it was deceptively stunning, like the best couture.
"White peaches. You ever had one?"
Adam shook his head.
Kris made another quick cut and handed him a thick slice. "I got these from Fresno. This is one of the last months for them."
Adam took a cautious bite and tasted pure peach sweetness with none of the sharp, tangy aftertaste he was used to. "Holy cow," he said, and licked his thumb as a drop of peach juice rolled free.
Kris had this expression—like a sultan showing off his treasure room. "They're amazing in desserts. Gretchen makes an out-of-this-world tart with white peach and pistachio. You'll have to try it sometime."
"Wow," Adam said again, and pretty much gave up then and there. There was nothing wrong with a harmless crush. Right?
"No, I mean, ridiculously hot. That cooking-fu is totally unfair! How is a guy supposed to resist that?"
"So does this mean you and Joel…."
Adam shoved at June's shoulder as they watched Frank lead Margot through her cool-down stretches. "Of course not; I'm still with Joel 100%. This is just a crush." Really, him and Joel were solid. The makeup sex last night had been their best yet. It was just…Kris's hands.
"You're bringing me photos next time—I can't wait to see this guy."
Ha, like that was going to happen. "Sure, I'll try to remember," he lied, concentrating on the marvel of Frank's ass in the shiny black track pants.
Shoes scuffed in the foyer, and Adam looked up to see a thin blonde shuffling in, juggling a Blackberry and two venti Starbucks cups. He nudged June again and jerked his chin toward the stranger.
"Oh, that's Naomi. Naomi, this is Adam. Shoot, I should've asked if you wanted anything before she left. You don't want coffee, do you? 'Cause she can go back out—"
"No, I'm good," Adam cut her off.
Naomi was beaming at June, her eyes bright and eager. Much like Felice's had been, he remembered bleakly—that smile would only last about a week before the bitch-work broke her spirit.
"Are you sure?" Naomi said, turning that shining earnestness on Adam. "I don't mind!" And then her eyes caught the movement out on the patio, and she let out a small gasp. "There she is," she breathed, sinking down on the couch next to them, her eyes glued to Margot's tall frame extended mid-Warrior stretch.
Adam watched Naomi's cheeks flush with a full-on girl crush, and he smiled indulgently. He remembered being that star-struck the first time he'd met Margot. She'd just gotten top billing in her second chick flick release, and with those perfect abs, flawless skin, and ridiculously long legs, she'd been everyone's favorite new Hollywood actress. (Albeit in desperate need of a style upgrade, he remembered with satisfaction. In the last year, he'd turned her into one of the trendiest starlets in L.A.)
Margot finished her stretches and bounded into the living room, dripping righteous sweat and glowing with endorphins. "Hi guys," she said. "Oh, you must be Naomi! I'm so pleased to meet you."
Naomi stood, trembling, to shake her outstretched hand, but Margot laughed her scene-stealing laugh and pulled her into a sweaty hug that nearly swallowed up the new PA. Naomi meeped and dropped her Blackberry on the rug.
"Hi," Margot said again, pulling back from the embrace and pushing wet bangs off her forehead.
Sweaty was such a good look for her; Adam made a note to send her jogging in public next week. Or cycling. Cycling was super-hot these days. Maybe Synergy Relations could arrange something with Matthew McConaughey….
"I'm so happy to have you on our team. Synergy has sent us so many great interns, so I know you're gonna do well. Just make sure the Terrible Two don't run you ragged." She shot Adam and June a faux-stern look. "Remember, I have to pay for her mileage, okay, guys?"
"Yeah, yeah," June said, and Adam blew her a kiss.
Margot's stomach rumbled, and she turned to Adam eagerly. "Is it ready?"
"And waiting," Adam assured her, and Naomi dropped onto the couch with a whoosh of breath as Margot dashed into the kitchen for her post-workout reward. He heard her distant "Yay!" from across the house and tried not to think about the smell of fresh-chopped mint and almonds, the citric tang of lemon, and the succulence of those white peaches, chilled and drizzled with olive oil. His stomach growled with jealousy.
This was why he'd never asked what Margot was eating.
"She's so beautiful," Naomi whispered.
"She's the most perfect woman in the world," June deadpanned, giving Adam a look that said oh great, another fan. "Just don't get between her and her calories after a workout. I doubt Synergy provides medical coverage."
"Okay, so what's on her schedule for today?" Adam asked June to distract himself from the scrape of fork on plate.
June whipped out her Blackberry and read, "Mani-pedi with Babe at 2:00, and an early dinner with Tim Stiggins at Spice."
Naomi cleared her throat and said, "Um, Jerry said he needs her to come in to look over the new contracts today."
June bristled at the mention of her arch-nemesis at the PR firm. "Well, if Jerry wants to get on Margot's busy schedule, he can damn well pick up the phone and tell me himself."
Naomi managed to keep her smile while backing away from June, escaping to the other couch.
"Okay, so she's free between the mani-pedi and Spice?" Adam clarified.
"Yes," June hissed, still glaring at Naomi.
"…which means Babe will drag her to Montana Ave for more antiquing." Talk about a challenging day to style.
Adam loved a challenge.
She couldn't go wrong with cropped black pants, some metallic flip-flops, and that new, oversized Hilfiger shirt. He could pack her a change of top for dinner—something sparkly and backless to show off plenty of skin while down-playing the abs. A plan already forming, he headed upstairs to start working on accessories. As he reached the top of the stairs he thought about Chef Kris again, personally preparing Margot's lunch every day for months, maybe even years. Maybe, Adam thought, he could tease the secret of their relationship out of her while he did her makeup.
He was only a half hour early to Kris's shop the next day; traffic on the freeway was a bitch and made him doubly glad he'd padded his schedule. This time the girl at the register smiled and waved him toward the kitchen before he even made it past the crowd at the deli station.
Kris looked up when he entered the kitchen, wrist-deep in a bowl of shredded carrots. "Hey, Adam. Have a seat," he called. The other two cooks didn't look up from their own work areas.
Adam pulled his stool out from under the counter and sat across from Kris. He was tempted to stare at the man, so he stared at the ingredients on the table instead. "What's cookin'?"
"For her, I'm making curried chicken with cucumber."
The air was a battleground, the musky punch of curry dueling for ascendancy over the heaven of fresh, hot bread when one of the cooks opened an oven door. Adam took a long sip of his Starbucks to hide his drool-response.
Kris kept tossing the shredded carrots, his fingers slip-shiny with oil, and Adam had never thought of cooking as so damn sexual. He crossed his legs and croaked, "And what's that?"
"Hmm? A sweet and sour salad. Carrots, apples, lemon and orange juice, some honey and cinnamon."
"And oil," Adam blurted, and didn't miss the twinkle in Kris's eye or the twitch of his lips.
"Right. Oil is the essential ingredient." Kris pulled his hands out and rubbed his fingers together suggestively, and Adam was happy with Joel, he really was, but Kris was something else.
Kris smirked and stepped to the sink to wash his hands. When he came back, he stirred the strips of chicken sizzling in a skillet next to the counter, rolling and shifting them with a strong grip on the tongs. Adam flushed with the heat from the stove, not watching the way sweat beaded on Kris's temple and the back of his neck.
Kris was wearing a white t-shirt under his denim apron, and as the sweat slid down into the fabric, Adam could make out the Hanes stamp on the inside. Simple, unpretentious. Kris probably bought his shirts at Wal-Mart or something. Adam considered inviting Kris out clothes-shopping, trying to up his style a little, but the only visual he conjured was crowding against Kris in a dressing room, stripping him naked, and—
Shut up, he reminded his dick.
"So how'd she like the haricots verts?" Kris asked over his shoulder.
"The what? Oh, the green beans—she was crazy for them."
Kris's smile turned into something goofy, uncalculated. "Really?"
"Yeah. She raved about them all afternoon. Especially the peaches."
"She loves peaches," Kris said softly, still smiling, and Adam gratefully latched onto a safer train of thought.
"So…why do you cook for her, if you don't mind my asking?"
Kris thought about it for a moment, setting aside the tongs. "I love cooking," he said. When Adam opened his mouth to protest that non-answer, Kris held up a hand. "I'm not— I love making people happy. And the look on their face when they eat something that I made…it's a great feeling. Especially when it's the right person. I guess you could say I like to watch," he added, that impish twinkle coming back. "D'you ever cook for your friends?"
Adam blinked and considered. "I'm terrible at it. I tried cooking for my boyfriend once, and the kitchen almost burned down." God, that had been the worst third date of Adam's life, sitting on the front steps of his new apartment building while firemen stormed past, Joel breathing through an oxygen mask next to him. But he'd still been holding Adam's hand, and Adam found himself smiling at the memory.
"I hope that didn't kill the romance," Kris teased.
"Nope, we're still together," Adam grinned…but he thought he caught Kris's smile waver for a moment. Adam was definitely taking this crush too far, projecting emotions onto Kris. He had to get control of his imagination.
Kris cleared his throat and pulled out half a dozen cucumbers and a big knife. Adam leaned back when Kris's knife started flashing through the vegetables, reducing them to neat stacks of half-inch slices.
"So that's for the curry?" Adam asked, a little uncomfortable now that Kris was only focusing on the food in front of him.
"Yup." Wearing a thoughtful expression, Kris slid the cucumber slices into another bowl and poured in a creamy liquid and a handful of spices. "This is one of my favorite recipes. The crème fraîche is a little sour, the cucumbers just watery enough to lighten it, and the lemon juice for brightness."
"Lemon juice?" Adam asked, and almost fell off his stool when Kris squeezed half a lemon over the hot skillet, sending up a billowing cloud of fragrant steam.
Kris scraped at the pan with a spatula, moving the chicken strips around and releasing more wafts of citrus before dumping the bowl of cream and cucumber into the skillet.
"Oh my god," Adam said, seeing the ingredients come together and slowly rise to a simmer. "That looks so good."
Kris nodded and dipped a spoon in to taste. He added another dash of spice and stirred, then dipped his spoon again and held it out to Adam. "Care to try it?"
Hypnotized, Adam leaned forward and let his eyes slide shut. Kris's fingers came up under his chin, smelling of curry and cinnamon and black pepper, and he opened his mouth to taste.
He was only supposed to handle the lunch deliveries until Naomi got up to speed, but the following week, Adam found himself volunteering to continue the daily trek to Gourmet Foods On Figueroa. He had to stand his ground pretty firmly; Naomi seemed determined to volunteer for everything, as if it were her one goal in life to be the office bitch. June made the final call and officially gave the responsibility to Adam.
He may have bribed her with the promise of Margot's coral-colored Ferragamo flats. (He would be telling Margot to retire them after a few more wears, anyway.)
Before he started picking up lunch, Adam had enjoyed a reasonable 45-minute commute out of the hills and down to Malibu. And Margot never needed him before noon, which meant he could sleep in every day. So he had a hard time explaining to Joel why he now wanted to make those long drives downtown. Hesitant about how Joel might take his completely innocent crush on the hot chef, Adam lied—pretty convincingly, he thought—that the traffic gave him a lot of time for meditation.
Joel sighed unhappily when Adam left their bed at 7 a.m., but didn't press for more reasons.
Every morning, Adam walked into the kitchen, pulled out his stool at Kris's table, and settled in to watch him prepare Margot's lunch and the next day's specials. He met Gretchen the pastry chef and Dave the baker, and started dropping hints to Lydia at the register that gradually sank in; by his third week, she'd switched to a smoky-gray liner and was only drawing it on her upper lid. It took years off her face, and Adam congratulated himself on a job well done.
Adam picked at his mixed-greens salad and did not watch Margot devouring the tamarind-glazed turkey burger Kris had made for her that morning. He didn't remember watching Kris's face sheened with sweat as he sautéed the fresh ginger before boiling it in tangy-sweet tamarind and honey. Or how his fingers had kneaded the ground turkey, lovingly working mayonnaise and jalapeno powder into the meat and shaping it into a dozen symmetrical patties. Or the taste of exotic, spicy glaze Adam had stolen while Kris helped Dave pull out trays of cupcakes from the oven, and the knowing look he'd received when Kris caught him still sucking the spices off his finger.
How was Adam supposed to enjoy a limp, room-temperature salad when he knew—intimately—what Margot was eating right next to him?
But Margot earned those calories with two hours of personal training every day, maintaining the abdominal muscles that had launched a thousand magazine covers, while Adam sat in traffic for two and a half hours. Fair was fair, he supposed. (His D-Squared skinny jeans agreed.)
June sat across from them, eating her cantaloupe and cottage cheese and trying to coax Naomi into gossiping about "those assholes at Synergy." Naomi just smiled innocently and peeled the plastic film off her Lean Cuisine microwave lunch.
Margot rolled her eyes at June's bitching and told Naomi, her mouth full of burger, "Hey, I need you to tweet a happy birthday to Beth from Don't Date Him."
"Who's Beth?" Naomi asked automatically.
"One of the extras I met. Nice girl."
Naomi grabbed a napkin and scribbled down the instruction. "No problem. And hey, the cover of the new Glamour was released yesterday, and it's gotten a lot of traffic on the fashion blogs. Overall opinion is 85% positive on the dress, and 74% positive on the hair. I'll pull some quotes for you this afternoon."
"Outstanding." Margot licked her lips and then winced and said, "What'd you think?" looking to Adam.
He rolled his eyes. "I think I've told you ten times that ice-blue doesn't work with your skin tone. I don't know why you keep letting her dress you in it—"
Margot groaned. "I knew you would hate that."
"Then why'd you wear it?"
"'Cause it was Versace, duh."
"Duh," he parroted back, and poked at her lunch plate. "If you wanna play dress up that badly, I'll take you to Rodeo Drive tomorrow. We'll find some couture that actually compliments your complexion."
"Not tomorrow," June said, clicking through her BlackBerry. "You have the first read-through for Garry Marshall's movie."
Margot's face fell. "Oh yeah. Maybe Saturday?"
Adam didn't even blink at the imposition on his weekend. "It's a date. So where am I bringing lunch tomorrow?"
"No, the fire was the third date. If that'd been the first, he never would've moved in!"
Kris chuckled as he rolled out dough for the butternut squash raviolis. When Adam picked off a scrap of dough to pop in his mouth, Kris didn't slap his fingers away.
"Not that there really was a first date. I guess it was more of a hookup. We met that morning, signed the lease that afternoon, went out for drinks to celebrate, and ended up at my old apartment for a little…extra celebrating."
Despite Alisan's and Brad's accusations, Adam hadn't actually been looking for a boyfriend when he placed that ad on Craigslist last year. But Joel was the first guy to answer his ad for a roommate; it was pure luck that he had that boyish smile and wiry, cyclist build. When they toured the place Adam wanted to rent, they got along well enough for Adam to bear his company for twelve months. And by the time they'd moved in a week later, they'd agreed they only needed to bring one bed and to use the spare bedroom for extra closet-space and bike storage. And it had been so blissfully domestic, like winning the lottery the same day you got your dream job.
Kris was smiling, but his head was cocked slightly as he said, "I wouldn't have thought that was a good plan, hooking up with your future roommate. I mean, you barely knew each other. What if it didn't work out?"
That was Brad's favorite complaint, but Adam shrugged it off like always. "It was fate; I just knew I should go for it. And obviously it's working. So far." Even as he said those last two words, he wasn't sure why he'd included them.
"I'm glad," Kris said, and pulled a sizzling tray from a small oven behind him. Sweet potato fries spilled off the tray onto a baking sheet covered in wax paper. Adam leaned in and drooled over the browns and burnt siennas, Fall Fashion Week in carbohydrate form, and Kris cranked a sea salt grinder liberally over them.
"If those taste as good as they look…" Adam said, awed.
Kris wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, face flushed red from the heat, and picked up a spear of sweet potato and held it out for Adam to try. "You tell me," he challenged, and Adam met his eyes and leaned forward to blow on the tip.
"Mmmmph," Adam moaned, sinking his teeth through the crispy, salty exterior to find fluffy-sweet clouds of miracle inside. "Oh my god, seriously. This is so going in my top ten. I think you just bumped spaghetti carbonara off the list."
Kris's eyes were glowing, fixed on Adam's mouth. "You mean it? You really like it?"
"Are you kidding? I wanna have these at my wedding. People should eat these at my funeral."
Kris gave a gleeful laugh and popped the rest of the fry into his own mouth. "Thank you," he mumbled, his head ducked down with modesty.
"Thank you," Adam corrected him.
He kept smiling like Adam had made his whole week and said, "So what's number one on your list? I have to know what my competition is, if I'm gonna top it."
"My mom's blueberry pie," Adam said, and stole another fry off the tray, promptly burning his fingers on the hot grease. "Ow!" he yelped and dropped it. "How the hell can you pick that up?" he demanded.
Kris picked up the molten fry between thumb and forefinger, leaning in to brace his elbows on the counter as he considered it. "Years of cooking over hot stoves and dipping fingers in sauces. I think my hands are oven-tested to 150 degrees by now. Here, I'll hold it for you," and he held it out so Adam could eat from his fingers again, bottom lip caught between his teeth and his wicked eyes alight with a temptation Adam couldn't resist.
Kris saw through his pasted-on smile the moment he sat on his stool.
"Rough morning," Adam said, waving his hand for Kris to forget about it.
Kris didn't forget about it. "This doesn't look like traffic-rough, or even they-forgot-the-nutmeg-in-your-cappuccino-rough. What's up?"
"Roommate stuff," Adam reluctantly admitted.
Kris's eyes narrowed. "You mean 'boyfriend stuff'?"
"No," Adam said quickly. "Roommate. It was just an argument about the bathroom—domestic arrangementy stuff." He didn't want to think about how quickly it had gone from his penchant for leaving hair products on every available surface to Adam hating the restaurants Joel loved, and Joel not wanting to go to Danielle's birthday party next week. It was the same old drama that blew up every other week, but it was getting…exhausting.
And the worst part was that Adam knew he'd just get more and more stressed from worrying about it unless he relented and apologized soon.
Kris hmmed like he was going to share an opinion on Adam's living situation, so Adam cut him off.
"What're we making today?"
"We?" Kris asked, eyebrows raised. "I'm making pumpkin and apple soup."
"Now there's something you won't find in a Campbell's can," Adam said.
"Exactly. This tastes at least 5% better."
"Well, I don't mean to brag but…I've heard 10%."
"Your modesty is inspiring, Kristopher."
"So is your hair," Kris quipped back, and Adam preened a little, glad someone appreciated the hour he'd spent getting his hair up in a three-inch pompadour that morning.
They grinned at each other, and then Kris sliced into one of the ten onions waiting on his counter.
Five minutes later, Adam returned from the bathroom without swathes of mascara dripping down his face. "That was mean," he said.
Kris said, "Sorry? I was going for cathartic."
"Tell me the onions are gone, or I'm waiting in the parking lot."
"They're already cooking; they can't hurt you anymore."
Adam approached cautiously to find that Kris had moved on to grating ginger over a skillet of yellowing onions. "Not only do you work in a sweat lodge," Adam whined, "but you're gonna make me break out the waterproof mascara from now on. You don't know how clumpy that stuff is."
Kris shrugged and handed him a bottle of cold water. "It's only until your tear ducts shrivel away."
"Holy shit, does that actually happen?"
"No. Now come back over here and tell me about your mom's cooking."
Adam talked for half an hour, stopping for breath when Kris ran the blender, puréeing batch after batch of the thick soup and dishing it into small plastic containers, a sprig of rosemary floating on top of each serving, just enough accessorizing to make the rich color pop. Adam caught a thick bead of soup that dribbled down the outside of the blender and tasted the honey and sautéed cloves in it, behind the stronger cinnamon and pumpkin. The apple had completely disappeared, except for the slightest hint in the aftertaste. It was mellow and fragrant and hot, reminding him of Novembers in San Diego, the air chilly around the beach bonfires at night. Just that one taste was enough to warm up the last bit of bitterness in Adam's day.
Kris looked at him from under his eyelashes and asked, "Can you taste the love?"
"My grandma taught me that food only tastes good if it's cooked with love. You have to care about the people you're cooking for; if you don't, it shows in the flavor or the texture, something that's out of harmony. And then the specials fall flat, and your customers abandon you for Monsieur Marcel on West Third."
"A little bit, yeah," he said, unabashed.
"So you always cook with love?" Adam asked.
"I try, but it's hard," Kris admitted. "I'm back here all day; I never see the people I'm cooking for. It's easier when I know who they are, like Margot—and you. You make it easier."
Adam snorted. "I've never thought of myself as a cooking-muse."
Kris laughed. "Not quite like that, but…you should look for that, you know? See if you can taste the love in the foods you eat. If it's not there, it's not worth your time."
Adam suddenly got the feeling they were talking about something other than food, but he deflected with a laugh and said, "Well, I definitely taste the love here, no worries."
"Good," Kris said. "Then you won't mind when I pack two lunches today."
Despite Adam's protests, he ended up leaving with two thermoses hot under his arm and strict orders to report back on how he liked it.
The soup was obscene. Adam cradled the warm ceramic bowl and moaned between mouthfuls, way past caring about calories. He didn't even remember the latest fight with Joel until he'd packed Margot off to her costume-fitting and gotten in his own car for the long drive home.
While the pans of chicken au champagne roasted in the ovens, Kris found two whiskey glasses and filled them from the last unopened bottle on his counter.
"Is this a special occasion?" Adam asked.
Kris smiled enigmatically. "I got a new shipment in from my importer. You're gonna help me sample the merchandise."
"You want my help?"
"Why not? You have excellent taste in food."
Just because he now indulged daily in Kris's gourmet cooking didn't mean he could tell the difference between Kobe pastrami and what he got at the Jewish deli in Van Nuys. "I like your food," he hedged.
"Exactly," Kris said, as though Adam had just proven his point, and continued unpacking cheeses and meats and jars of fruit spread. He commandeered a baguette straight out of the oven and sliced it thin, scenting the air with the aroma of fresh-baked bread, a smell that went straight to the pleasure center of Adam's brain and shut down any remaining self-preservation instincts.
Defenses lowered, Adam sipped his Veuve Cliquot and didn't fight when Kris held out the first slice to him, topped with sweet fig spread and a soft piece of buttery Belletoile. "This is cruel and unusual punishment," he whimpered after the first, insidious bite. He didn't care if the cheese was French, Italian, or Canadian—it tasted like sin; he could practically feel it going straight to his waist and ass.
Kris just smiled at him.
Kris was thoughtful enough to offer a cup of coffee after Adam had gorged himself on carbs and alcohol, the memory of that last, salty ("Argentinean," Kris had explained fondly, "from the Jura mountains") goat cheese still tingling on his tongue.
"It's only a matter of time," Adam insisted, slightly tipsy from the two glasses he had drunk. "Felice got sick of it after, like, ten days. Naomi's got a good game face, but all the grunt work's gotta be getting to her. She's too smart for that minimum wage internship crap. She should be making real money in an office somewhere, not driving all over L.A. for our coffee and dry cleaning. I don't understand half the numbers she gives Margot, and she can sure as hell spell better than any of the other social media interns we've had."
"Then why is she still playing the game?" Kris asked. He was doing erotic things to the half-roasted chickens, rubbing them down with herbs, hands greasy like the second time Adam had watched him cook.
Adam tried to think of unsexy things—cardio, road rash, medicated chamois cream…. He shuddered, victorious.
"I think it's the cult of celebrity. She goes all starry-eyed every time a celebrity replies to one of her tweets—well, one of Margot's tweets, since it's Margot's account. But she's so caught up in it, I think she likes to pretend they're talking to her."
"'Cause you're totally jaded and wouldn't stammer at all if, say, Brad Pitt walked in here," Kris teased without looking up from his work.
"Well, I'm not saying I wouldn't pop a hard on, but I definitely wouldn't stammer. And I certainly wouldn't blush."
"So you're jaded toward the Hollywood elite and you're a fashion genius. Wow, if only there were a way to make a career off that."
"It's not that easy," Adam sighed. "I do all of her styling—which kicks ass, by the way—but she goes to that over-hyped harpy Tina Gordon for the photo shoots and red carpet looks. And that's what I really want to do. But I don't know how to get there. I mean, how am I gonna get my hands on a Versace gown that hasn't even hit the runway yet?"
"It's a pickle," Kris said.
"I'm hoping if I get photographed shopping with her enough times, and if she drops my name in the right circles…. Hell, I don't know. But it's gonna happen, I know that much."
"I know it will," Kris said, tipping his head to Adam.
Adam sipped his coffee and said, "So what about you? How did Kris Allen from Arkansas end up owning Gourmet Foods On Figueroa?"
Kris laughed. "Well, it's a funny story…."
"No, not really. Me and two friends from culinary school, we decided to come out west and make a go of it. We borrowed money from our parents and bought this place together." He gave a final pat to the chicken before glancing up to meet Adam's eyes. "I dropped out of business school so I could go to culinary school. And now I'm running my own business." He shook his head and headed for the sink to scrub his hands.
When he came back to the counter, Adam jerked his chin at the other two chefs. "Gretchen and Dave?" he asked.
"What about them?" Kris looked over his shoulder and then turned back, understanding. "Oh, no. Those guys left. We had a couple great years, but they wanted to try the restaurant business. I bought them out with a bank loan last year and brought in Dave and Gretchen to help me cook."
"No restaurant for you? I thought you loved cooking for people."
"I like cooking what I want to cook, when I want to cook it. I'm my own boss, here. I don't take orders from anybody."
"Not even Margot?" Adam asked, angling for a bit more information on that front.
Hands on his hips, Kris snorted, "Have you ever heard her call in an order?"
"…I guess not." Adam thought about that—about being free to make all his own decisions. "Sounds like you ended up with exactly what you wanted."
Kris opened his mouth and hesitated before saying, "Yes…and no."
"Margot?" Adam asked again.
Kris smacked his shoulder with a towel. "Stop that. And no, that has nothing to do with it, really. It's just…hard, sometimes. Chuck and Bo, they liked to party. They came to L.A. for the excitement. But we figured out pretty quick you can't go to clubs when you're opening a kitchen before dawn every morning. They missed the nightlife, and their restaurant lets them have that."
Kris was frowning again, and Adam frowned right along with him. "What about you?" he asked, wondering what it felt like to be left behind like that. But Kris had chosen to buy them out; he should have been happy.
"I go to bed at eight every night," Kris shrugged. "I don't miss the nightlife. But it is kind of hard to date with those hours."
"Oh," was all Adam could say. Kris was trying to look nonchalant, but he could see the frustration in his shoulders, the disappointed tightness around his mouth.
"Chuck has a fiancée now," Kris said, forcing a laugh. "I haven't got past four dates with anyone in…years. I heard L.A. was shallow, but damn."
Adam made a sympathetic noise, no idea what to say to Kris's loneliness. He'd had Joel's sweet kisses in bed that morning, after staying up half the night watching classic, romantic movies, snuggled together on the couch like an old married couple. So he said nothing and drank his coffee, offering silent support as Kris started prepping the meatballs.
When he left for Margot's, he let Kris pack an extra lunch, just to see him smile.
Alisan threw Dani's surprise party at her favorite club in WeHo, and they all got completely smashed and danced for hours, hanging off each other when the dance floor started to thin out. Adam couldn't remember having that much fun in a long time and he made the mistake of saying that aloud. Which was when all his friends decided it was bitch-about-Joel time.
Joel is boring, Joel makes Adam boring, Joel hates them, Joel is a bitch, Adam is always miserable whenever they see him—
He ended up being the first to call it a night, sick of listening to the insults and whining.
They didn't understand; they didn't see the good times. They fought, but all couples fought. Joel was just a little more dramatic than most. It wasn't "unhealthy." It was fine.
Anyway, the hateful little part of his brain that tracked the date whispered, there were still four months left on the lease. Did Adam really want to come home to a messy breakup every night for the next four months?
June had been bitching for weeks about Jerry, trying to get Naomi to gossip about the PR agent like Felice used to, but the girl refused to say a bad word about anyone or anything. Adam had spotted a few cracks in her perky façade—the wrinkle between her eyebrows when she dodged questions about her personal life, the way her voice quavered slightly when June mentioned trying to get pregnant. Still, she never complained about the errands and she whistled as she washed the lunch dishes and thermal canisters Adam refused to clean.
Not even the L.A. traffic got her down, which blew Adam's mind. He didn't actually hate his own long drives, but only because he had time with Kris to make them worth it. Naomi had nothing but ambition and Margot's occasional smiles of approval. Adam got a ticking time bomb vibe off her some days, like when she really lost her shit, it was going to be epic. He kept the feeling to himself, though. June's meddling would only make it worse.
He should have called out, he scolded himself as he stomped into the shop on Monday. He should have had Naomi do the pickup today—anything rather than inflict his horrible mood on Kris.
He grunted to Lydia and ignored her smile and "Good morning." He shoved through the swinging doors and winced at the clang of an oven door slamming shut. Fuck, he was totally early—there was time to find a Starbucks and get a few more shots of caffeine in him….
He was just turning around to leave when Kris took his elbow in a tight grip and said, "Hey, taste this," and pressed something against his lips.
Adam opened his mouth, and Kris popped in a small, powdery truffle that immediately melted into sweet milk chocolate. "Oh," Adam sighed, and let Kris tug him over to his stool and sit him down.
Kris squeezed his shoulders, looking him up and down. "Yeah, definitely a chocolate day. What are your feelings on chocolate-covered espresso beans?"
"You," Adam said around the silky, hazelnut truffle, "are my hero."
Kris beamed at him and disappeared, returning with a small pile of espresso beans, which he insisted on feeding to Adam, one by one, while Gretchen scolded him for stealing her garnishes.
Adam stopped him at the third bean, catching his wrist and laughing, "Enough, I can feed myself."
Kris rocked back on his heels and said, smug, "So you can smile!"
"Shut up," Adam said, and swatted at his ass until Kris retreated to his own side of the counter. "And thanks."
"Don't mention it. And you don't have to mention what the problem is, either, if you don't want…."
He didn't want to mention it—the fight from Friday night that they still hadn't apologized for two days later and how much it was killing him to leave things so tense between them. But he knew he couldn't be the one to apologize this time. He just had to wait for Joel to realize the same.
After a long moment of silence, Kris sighed. "I'm making acorn squash stuffed with wild rice today. It's nothing fancy, but it looks like it is. My old instructor used to say we eat first with our eyes, then with our mouths, so if the food looks spectacular, we're already winning the diner over."
"What does that mean?" Adam asked.
"It means," Kris said, "that if you're feeling like crap, it might help if you made yourself look truly spectacular. Maybe fool yourself into feeling better."
Adam shot him a guarded look, because where did Kris get off giving Adam styling tips? Was he implying that Adam looked like shit today?
But then he remembered that yes, he did look like shit. His makeup, hair, clothes, everything was perfect…except for the bags under his eyes, the slump of his shoulders, his frown.
"That actually makes sense," Adam admitted.
Kris grinned and shuffled his feet a little. "Thank god. I kinda thought I sounded like an idiot."
It was painful, but Adam straightened up on his chair and tried to give a matching smile. He couldn't have done too badly, because Kris smiled even harder and nudged the beans closer to his side of the counter.
By the time Adam escaped the kitchen with their lunches, he was feeling a little better. And it didn't hurt when Kris pressed a small bag with more truffles into his hand and said, "Whatever you do, do not let Margot know about these. She'd kill me if she knew I sent chocolate into her home."
Adam was all too aware of her strict, no-chocolate diet. "Scout's honor," he said, even though he'd already told Kris the story of his expulsion from the Cub Scouts in 4th grade.
Kris rolled his eyes and shoved him out the door.
"…and they're all going to Memphis for the location shoot from the 6th to the 20th."
Kris diced a heap of prosciutto, marbled orange and red and white. "So that means I'm off the hook?"
"Yeah, unless you've been slowly poisoning her and she needs to keep eating your food or she'll die. We're both on vacation."
"Hmm. So what are you gonna do with your vacation? Anything exciting planned?"
Adam crumbled a piece of Pecorino Romano cheese off the block and chewed on it thoughtfully. "Definitely go to some clubs—prove to my friends I'm not completely boring. And Joel and I are gonna take a long weekend somewhere romantic. Maybe Catalina?"
"I'm glad to hear you two are doing better," Kris said.
Better, but not perfect, Adam didn't say. They both knew they needed to put in more effort to make it work, and a long weekend seemed like the best chance for them to focus on each other. If this couldn't fix things…. Adam refused to finish that thought.
"But you're missing out; Memphis is awesome."
Adam laughed, surprised. "Of course you would think so."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're a Southerner. You have to defend your own."
That turned out to be the worst thing he could have said, because Kris launched into a lecture on his favorite parts of Memphis, and all the things Adam would be missing by staying in boring-old-Los Angeles. Adam couldn't stop laughing the entire time, and the asparagus almost boiled out of the pot in protest.
Naomi's spirit finally broke the following Wednesday.
Half of Margot's wardrobe for the Memphis shoot was already laid out on the bed in completed looks, ready to be photographed with strict notes on what activities would and would not be appropriate for each. Adam was deep in her closet picking out the second half when someone knocked on the door behind him.
"Um, Adam?" Naomi said, her smile at an alarming half-mast.
He stifled the impulse to hug her; this had been inevitable, he reminded himself. "Hi, what's up?"
"Um, I need to ask you a favor."
Adam hung the flannel vest back on the shelf—it was only to be worn ironically in ultra-swank boutiques on West Third—and gave her his full attention. "Sure, do you need a reference or something?"
"No, it's…bigger." She took a deep breath and blurted, "I need you to go to Memphis for me."
He blinked. "Go to Memphis."
"Because I can't. I can't go, but June says I don't have a choice. So I was thinking…if you go, then they wouldn't need me."
She had avoided mentioning the part where Adam would have to take on her responsibilities, from errand-running to tidying Margot's hotel room. Smart girl. Still, it wasn't even a possibility to consider. "Sorry, honey, I can't. I'm on vacation."
"I know," she insisted, "I know, it's a huge thing to ask, but I…." Her normally bright voice splintered into shrill pleading, "I can't be gone for two weeks. I just can't. You have to go for me, please!"
That wasn't just exhaustion or resentment. "Honey, what's the matter? Talk to me." He reached for her arm, but she took a hasty step back, almost tripping on the Lanvin leopard-print leather wedges. Those would be ideal if Margot got invited to a barrel-racing competition, he thought, and then refocused on Naomi's problem. "Is something wrong at home—"
"No," she said firmly, shutting down his offer of a confidant. "You just have to believe me. I need you to go for me. You have to. God, please, I am begging you."
She was on the verge of tears, but there was nothing Adam could do. He'd already booked the hotel in Catalina, and Joel had requested two days off work. This vacation had to work, or he'd be even worse off than she looked. "I'm really sorry, but I can't. I have plans. I'm sorry."
It looked for a moment like the dam would burst and the full waterworks would pour down her face right there in Margot's closet, but Naomi found some scrap of self-respect and managed to hold it in. She nodded shakily, not meeting his eyes, and backed out of the closet and out of sight before he could try to hug her again.
Adam bit his lip and tried not to feel guilty about looking out for him and Joel.
Catalina was off.
Fuck, the whole relationship was off. Adam slammed out of his—their—his apartment at midnight two days later, itching to punch someone. Joel's words rang in his ears as he jogged down the steps: "never gonna work," "not worth it anymore," "easier to just," "can we not," "you're always so…."
He pushed through the heavy doors out into the parking lot and bit back all the words he wanted to scream into the silence: About fairness, about blindsides and ambushes, about the betrayal of just giving up like that. He held those in, because they hadn't done any good the first time. And he had new words to worry about—words no one had spoken yet but were inevitable as soon as he called any of his friends.
I told you so.
Adam snarled, threw the car in reverse, and backed out of his parking space, headed anywhere that wasn't home.
Headlights flashed over him as a car pulled into the lot. He looked up, momentarily blinded, and hoped it wasn't the cops. Getting arrested for loitering would be the crowning glory on a night of epic shit.
A car door slammed, and Kris said, "Adam?"
The frantic tension he'd been carrying around all night eased a little. "Hey," he mumbled as Kris sat beside him on the curb.
"What are you doing here? Are you okay?"
"No," Adam said and leaned his chin down onto one raised knee. His back felt stiff from hunching for hours, the chill had settled into his ass and hands and nose, and he didn't want to think how pathetic he looked, sulking outside Kris's shop at 4:30 in the morning.
Adam felt fingers brush his sleeve before Kris asked, "Roommate trouble?"
"Boyfriend trouble," Adam grunted, and then corrected himself, "ex-boyfriend."
"Oh." A hand settled firmly on Adam's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
A dozen bitchy replies stacked up behind Adam's teeth, but he bit them back and said, "Whatever."
"Do you…." Kris paused, and Adam knew if he looked, he'd catch Kris biting his lower lip; Kris Allen was so easy to read. "Come inside, huh? I'll make you some coffee."
He didn't give Adam a choice, fisting a hand in his jacket and tugging him up off the curb. Not that Adam would have resisted; Kris was exactly who he'd wanted to see—the only friend who wouldn't rub his face in it, wouldn't tell him they'd seen this coming and warned him from the start. Kris wouldn't say any of that—hell, he couldn't.
While Kris unlocked the back door, Adam leaned against the bricks to watch the sparse traffic flying by on the highway. Kris hummed under his breath—the new Britney Spears song, Adam thought—as he opened the padlock and deadbolt and entered ahead of Adam.
Adam didn't need any more invitation, not with the familiar smells of the kitchen spilling out to greet him. There was the ever-present fresh bread, an unpleasant charred smell from the grease traps, and fresh fruit and herbs from Kris's work space. And there, just hinted at under all of it, was the tease of cinnamon, earthy and warm. The scents wrapped around him and led him in by the nose.
Kris flipped switches and turned dials on the ovens, still humming with a subtle dance-hitch to his steps. Adam watched, amused despite the roiling misery in his chest, until Kris finished his dance and turned to confront him with a spatula. "Bacon or sausage?" he demanded, the spatula jabbing into Adam's stomach and forcing him to take a few steps backs.
"I don't…" Adam said.
Kris shook his head. "What am I thinking? Both, obviously. Go sit down." He and his spatula marched off to do battle with the walk-in.
Adam retreated to his stool at Kris's counter, trying not to get his hopes up at the thought of breakfast. The last thing he'd eaten had been takeout lo mein for dinner, and the two last-call shots of tequila in Van Nuys still burned in his empty stomach.
Kris dropped a stack of pans and ingredients on the counter with a clatter. "Coffee's on the way, and I'm about to cook you the best breakfast you've ever had. You don't have to say anything, if you don't want to. But if you need the excuse at any point, just let me know." Kris picked up a knife and held it poised over a large white onion.
Adam recoiled at the memory of stinging eyes and melting mascara. "You're a dick," he snorted when Kris chuckled.
"I do my best," Kris said, and Adam noticed the unfamiliar sharpness in Kris's smile, in the way he rattled the pans, gripped the handles too tight.
It was reassuring, having someone automatically on his side. Adam acknowledged it with a solemn nod. "That's what I came for: your best."
"Not my worst?"
"If I wanted the worst, I'd have called Brad or Alisan or Dani. Or just gone home." He'd had plenty of time to think, sitting out there on that curb. The thought of going home to a locked bedroom door and a pillow and blanket waiting for him on the couch felt like a slap to the face.
Kris was watching him when he emerged from his thoughts. Adam made an effort to smile for him, but it didn't turn out well judging by Kris's scowl.
Adam shrugged and looked away, toward the jumble of ingredients. "You're not gonna use the onion, are you?"
Kris shook his head and rolled it aside. "No onion. It would murder the recipe. This is more delicate; I'm using shallots."
Adam wouldn't have expected something "delicate" to involve half a stick of butter and a huge wedge of cheese, but he swallowed his concerns about fat content and cholesterol and started talking as Kris melted the butter over two skillets. Kris shredded the imported cheese, flipped the cherrywood-smoked bacon, and fried the maple-infused sausages with a reassuring ease, as though there was no risk of burning or ruining the food over the high heat, as though today was a morning like any other. His familiar movements, his hums of acknowledgement and distracted smiles whenever Adam paused for breath, made it easy to open up, to trust Kris to listen with one ear while Adam bitched about how it had gone down.
The back door opened while Kris was folding the mushroom omelet over mounds of Gruyère cheese, and Adam saw Dave's double-take when he noticed Adam in the kitchen six hours early. Adam met Dave's eyes, but continued telling his story to Kris until Dave shrugged and picked up an apron from a hook by the door.
Adam looked at Kris again and realized Kris wasn't wearing his apron. He must have been completely thrown off his routine, to be cooking without it. There was a dark spatter of oil soaking into Kris's red t-shirt, low over his stomach, and Adam had a moment to think about the color-safe stain remover he kept in his car, and then another moment to think about helping Kris out of that shirt, before Kris slid a plate in front of him. Adam blinked and took in the omelet, bacon, sausage, and thick, buttered toast—and then the parsley garnish Kris added as Adam stared.
"How's that for a five-star breakfast?" Kris said, folding his arms across his chest, and Adam wasn't sure where to look: his mouth-watering plate or the mouth-watering view he had been missing under that apron.
Kris's toned pectoral muscles flexed, stretching the fabric, and Adam said, "Wow," to both. When Kris held out a knife and fork, Adam blurted, "You're not gonna feed me?"
Kris snorted, Adam blushed, and Dave started whistling loudly as he checked the ovens. "You're a big boy," Kris smirked. "I think you can feed yourself."
Adam stuffed his mouth with bacon before his foot got another chance.
And then he died a happy man. It was a private consultation with Sally Hershberger and a massage at Tranquil Springs served up together on a Diane von Fürstenberg brass charger. He inhaled the entire plate, oblivious to everything around him, savoring the feeling of being pampered. He didn't stop until he'd swiped his finger through the streaks of maple-infused grease to lick it off with guilty pleasure.
Gretchen murmured nearby, "Remember to crush half a cup," and Adam looked up to find her already in her apron and standing at Kris's elbow.
"I know what I'm doing, jeez. Next you'll be telling me to redo the crust," Kris huffed, his hands submerged in a bowl of blueberries, already coated in sugar.
Gretchen tickled his ribs while he couldn't defend himself, and Adam idly noted which spots made Kris squirm as she said, "That depends whether you're gonna prebake on automatic pilot again. You're not making a blueberry quiche, you know."
"Hey, you're the one who called out on a Friday. I think we all learned a valuable lesson that day."
"Yeah: you should keep clear of my pastry station."
Kris flicked his fingers over his shoulder, getting sticky sugar in her hair. She backed away, and Kris grinned down at the bowl he was still mixing.
"Um," Adam said.
"Hmm?" Kris asked, mischievous eyes meeting Adam's.
He cleared his throat. "Are you making a…."
"Of course. Pie is part of a complete breakfast. At least on Figueroa."
"I didn't know that," Adam said, trying not to grin his head off. Kris was making him blueberry pie. In the last two months, he'd never seen Kris make pie, and now he was making Adam's favorite. For Adam.
Kris scooped up a double-fistful of blueberries and squeezed, dark skin and juice flowing between his fingers to drip back into the bowl. "I always have pie with breakfast. Starting with something sweet is the key to having a good day."
Adam was about to say something utterly predictable about starting the day with a blowjob instead, but then the enormity of the breakup flooded back in. He stared down the barrel of the ways his life was about to change, the uncomfortable, awkward, even hostile days ahead of him. There didn't seem to be a solution, short of crashing on a friend's couch for the next four months.
Which wasn't happening in this lifetime.
"You okay?" Kris asked. "Do I need to get the onion?"
Adam shook his head and took a deep breath. "I'll be fine. Eventually." In four months, he didn't say. "And anyway, I'll have pie to comfort me."
Kris forced a smile and went back to stirring the blueberries.
By the time the pie was bubbling in the oven, Adam had wrapped denial around himself like the leopard-print Snuggie he would never admit to owning. Everything was fine; he was in Kris's kitchen, surrounded by friendly people and amazing smells, hours still before he had to leave for Malibu, and even longer before he had to deal with the home situation. And there was a pie on the way.
"I'm gonna go," he said, before he'd even finished the thought in his head. By god, he was brilliant.
Kris looked up, his lower lip stained purple from tasting the blueberries. "What? Now? It's not even seven."
"To Memphis," Adam said. "Naomi needs an out, and the last place I wanna be is here, so…win-win."
Kris hesitated. "Get out of town for a couple weeks, I get it. But you'll be giving up your vacation."
"Yeah, a vacation I'd spend trying to avoid my boyfr— Ex-boyfriend. No thanks. I'll skip it."
"Then this is good," Kris said slowly. "Yeah. Good."
"Yeah," Adam said, glad Kris agreed. It would mean a couple weeks of being Margot's and June's bitch again—and wow, he hadn't missed that—but it would earn him some good karma for Naomi. And it would be infinitely easier to avoid Joel and the couch-conversation with two thousand miles between them. "Yeah," he repeated. "I'd better call June."
Kris smiled and offered, "I'll box the pie for the road."
Adam ate two slices of pie before he left. ("Doesn't top my mom's," he'd told Kris, then immediately added, "but a close second!" when he saw Kris's disappointment.) He dropped off Margot's lunch two hours early and headed home to pack, relieved to have the apartment to himself for a few hours while Joel was at work…fuck, it sucked thinking that way after months together.
Packing was usually one of his favorite things—Joel called it his excuse to play dress-up. Maybe it was, and yeah, he always had more fun when he had an audience, but they were his clothes, and he loved them all, especially the ones he didn't get to wear too often.
He pulled out a pair of skinny jeans with glittered back pockets. Brad called them his 'rhinestone cowboy' pants, which meant he had to have them in Memphis. Getting them on was a lot harder than he remembered. There was tugging, and jumping, and lying on his back kicking at the air. And when they were finally up, and the button wrestled closed, Adam took a shallow breath, stood in front of the mirror, and stared at the slight muffin-top the jeans had the temerity to give him.
Adam did not have a muffin top.
Adam had a 32" waist and he did not buy clothes that were this tight.
He turned to check out his ass; it looked fabulous under the tight fabric and glitter. But had it gotten bigger? He popped the button and pulled out a pair of dark purple jeans. They'd fit perfectly two months ago. Now they fit even worse than the rhinestone cowboys.
Reality hit him like a frying pan filled with butter. How could he have missed this happening? He looked at his laundry hamper, layered in his loosest jeans, leggings, and jersey pants. Well. Fuck.
Guilt churned in his gut. He hadn't thought he could feel any worse than he had last night, but here he was, single, hiding from his live-in ex, and fat again. He'd let himself go, abandoned his diet and spent his mornings hanging out with a gourmet chef. He'd let Kris feed him whatever was at hand. He hadn't eaten a plain salad in weeks. And he'd subconsciously hidden it from himself, dressing for "comfortable commutes" and eschewing the structured side of his wardrobe.
The jeans and fitted t-shirts taunted him, fierce fashions he wouldn't be able to wear until he lost at least five pounds. He gulped—maybe ten.
Bright side, he had to look on the bright side: this was the perfect time to leave town. He needed to get away from Joel before his pride got hurt worse than his heart. And he desperately needed to get away from Kris's cooking.
Travel days sucked. Saturday was a blur of airport terminals, star-struck tourists, and June's midair psychosomatic caffeine withdrawal after a venti she swore tasted like decaf. Adam got leg cramps from sitting in coach and went hungry rather than risk E. coli from the sprouts on the in-flight vegetarian option.
Margot was a dream as long as there were fans or cameras around, but once they touched down in Memphis, the strain started to show. The first stage of the countdown to tabloid-worthy rage-out was the expanding breadth of her gestures, her hands fluttering erratically as they waited to deplane. The second was the exaggerated head toss when she laughed or smiled as they waited for her town car outside the airport.
Before she reached stage three, where her Canadian accent would slip past expensively-modified vowels, Adam handed her a Red Bull from the limousine minibar. Margot downed the can, burped unapologetically, and slid into a quiet sulk for the rest of the ride. By the time they entered the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, flash-bulbs snapping at their heels, she had dialed it back to stage one.
Sunday was a little better—he went with Margot to tour the ranch and saloon locations they would be filming at and then spent the afternoon mapping the shortest route from the hotel to the Starbucks, the saloon, another Starbucks, and the ranch (no Starbucks). He picked up a stack of postcards from the hotel gift shop and spent his last few hours on Sunday night fulfilling his obligation to his friends. And to Kris. He'd promised, after all.
The international paparazzi were all over Margot on Monday morning, and Adam tried not to get within 35mm range of her. His personal styling was picture perfect, as usual, but the crippling self-consciousness about his elastic waistband left him cringing back. That night, with Margot settled into the hotel for her beauty rest, Adam forced his way into his rhinestone cowboys and hit the downtown strip looking for the least-country gay bar Memphis had to offer.
There were a surprising number of cowboy hats in the bar he settled into, but an hour later, with a hot guy backed up against a wall, Adam decided the hat was a plus. When he got the angle just right, all he could see was the guy's lips, a little bit of stubble, and it was fantastic, grinding against the guy in his tight pants—now genuinely too tight. The way the guy was squeezing his ass said they were still working for him, though. So Adam drank his vodka tonics and made out with an anonymous cowboy and felt fucking fabulous again.
The guy was game to be pushed around, and Adam wanted to push, wanted to bite at his lips, squeeze his hips too hard, pin his wrists just to prove he could. He needed rebound sex, and the cowboy seemed up for anything Adam wanted to do to him. Another drink, and Adam got a hand fisted in short hair, tipping the Stetson down over the guy's face and growling the invitation back to his hotel.
But when the cowboy nodded, brim of his hat bumping Adam's cheek, Adam recognized his jaw line, the slope of his shoulders, the wiry build…. He'd gone looking for an escape and he'd subconsciously picked up the spitting image of his ex. Adam shoved away, storming out of the club with a wilting cock, throbbing anger, and the button of his jeans digging a permanent dent in his stomach.
A package arrived at the hotel two days later. Adam smiled when he saw Kris's name on the box, but that warmth promptly gave way to panic. He was on a crash diet, trying to get back to his old weight as fast as possible; he couldn't afford to be sabotaged already….
Curiosity warring with dread, he got out his sharpest belt buckle and sliced through the packing tape.
Four bags of pastries and chocolates in tight formation stared him down, daring him to resist.
"Oh my god, I hate you," Adam groaned, and hid in the bathroom.
He was sitting in a booth in a corner of the saloon, stabbing at a salad from the craft services table. It was a forlorn collection of dull greens with austere vinegar dressing, over-accessorized with cucumber slices and shredded carrot as if trying to distract from its cheap, prêt-à-manger disappointment.
Margot clomped over to the booth in her cowgirl boots and slid gracelessly into the other side, heaving a big sigh.
Adam perked up immediately. "It's going great," he said with a supportive smile.
She waved toward the bar, where she and Trevor Dunne had been sipping colored-water drinks and exchanging numbers all morning. "No, that's fine. But this…." She looked down at her own salad and wrinkled her nose. "God, I miss Kris's cooking."
"Yeah," Adam sighed without thinking.
He looked up, unaccountably guilty, and met laughing eyes. "I see he's seduced you, too." Adam hesitated, not sure if she would feel territorial over her personal chef. "Oh, don't be like that," she swatted at his wrist. "He's free to cook for whomever he likes."
Adam shrugged, unwilling to commit.
She picked up a piece of spinach on her fork and considered it like a vintage bracelet she wasn't quite sold on. "I can't believe you're gonna let that go," she said to the leaf.
"You've been trying to wheedle details out of me for months, and you let an opening like that sail by?" She popped the leaf in her mouth and scowled. "Pathetic."
Adam stiffened on the bench.
"I meant the salad," she teased. "What's the matter? You've been down all week."
Adam loved Margot, he really did, but he felt ashamed to tell a compulsive exerciser about his recent weight gain. And bitching about his home situation could accidentally result in an invitation to crash in her mansion; she'd done it before, for a costar from her last movie, and that had turned out awkward for everybody. "All right. What's the deal with you and Kris?" he asked, changing the subject.
"You are so not subtle," she tsked. "But fine. I've been dying to tell you for forever. You have to promise not to tell Kris I told you, though."
Adam blinked. "I thought he was keeping your secret."
She snorted. "Are you kidding? He's the one with the crazy allergy to fame."
"That…makes sense, maybe."
"Okay, brace yourself: we used to date."
That hadn't been his top theory, but it wasn't exactly shocking, either. Adam quirked an eyebrow until she rolled her eyes and continued.
"Fine, you're all jaded, I forgot. So we met at the Urban Outfitters in WeHo a few years ago—"
He winced at that reminder of her pre-Lambert-makeover 'fashion sense.'
"Shut up," she laughed, "that was before Girls' Night and Synergy and everything. And he was so cute; you know what I'm talking about. I mean, I never go for guys who are shorter than me, but he had this amazing, sexy vibe. So we went for a picnic. And he cooked." A haunted, hungry look appeared in her eyes. "The potato salad, Jesus. And the rhubarb pie."
It was hard to tell in the dim lighting of the booth, but Adam would have sworn she was blushing.
"It was love at first taste," she said, her fingers fluttering over her lips as though she could still taste it.
"Was there a second date?" Adam asked, intrigued.
"Oh yeah. And a fifth and sixth." Her smile slowly faded. "But we both knew something was missing; it wasn't gonna work long-term. It ended well, obviously. He's a total prince."
"Yeah," he agreed, trying to picture tiny Kris walking the red carpet next to Margot, who, of course, would be wearing the Roberto Cavalli heels that gave her an inch on Adam.
"And then the second I start getting interviews, Kris calls and says he doesn't want any press. It's like he's afraid of success or something."
That's where she was wrong, Adam thought. Kris wasn't afraid of success; he already had it.
"I told him he was crazy. That's no way to run a business."
"He dropped out of business school," Adam reminded her.
"Oh," she said, taken aback. "I didn't know that. But he's totally making bank now. You have no idea how much he's charging me for those lunches. Totally worth it, though. It's even worth all the working out I have to do." She sighed over her salad and then pushed the plate away. "What I wouldn't give for his potato salad right now."
Adam hesitated, told himself not to, and then thought screw it. He pulled an unopened bag of chocolates out of his tote—he'd totally planned to give it away to the other PAs…totally—opened it, and held it out to her.
Curious, she reached in and pulled out a truffle. Her first bite was followed by a squeal. "Holy shit, this is Kris's, isn't it! You have Kris-chocolate and you didn't tell me! Oh shit, I am so not supposed to have this. Frank's gonna kill me." She didn't put it down though, taking quick bites until it was gone and then licking her fingers, her smile carnal.
Adam didn't watch jealously. He didn't.
When the last of the truffle was gone, Margot looked up at him, eyes narrowed. "He sent you these?"
"Yeah," Adam said. There was no point lying about it now.
"Kris once told me this thing about how chefs put love in their food," she said.
He remembered: hot soup, Kris's flushed face and spice-stained fingers, fresh-baked bread and the too-warm kitchen. Adam felt a lump in his throat and tried to swallow it down.
"Food for thought?" she suggested, not subtle at all. And then she snatched another truffle, slid out of the booth, and twirled across the floorboards in her boots.
Adam pulled the bag closer to read the hand-written label: New recipe. What do you think? Fingers trembling, he reached into the crinkling plastic and pulled out a truffle, cocoa powder melting slippery-smooth on his skin as he made a last attempt to talk himself out of it.
What did he think he would taste? What was he looking for?
He pictured the kitchen again, letting himself remember the loud and hectic sounds, the intense pace, the unpredictable waves of smells, sour then sweet then spicy, the prickling of his skin from the heat of Kris's stove. Kris had made these truffles himself—he knew with absolute certainty that Kris hadn't sent him Gretchen's work; he cared too much. And imagining Kris making something special just for him, like breakfast, like the blueberry pie….
Adam licked his lips, almost teasing himself with anticipation now.
When he finally bit into the chocolate, he found what he'd been looking for: hazelnut (Kris catching his arm on a Monday morning, determined to cheer him up), cinnamon (Kris's fingers under his chin as he fed him his first taste of the curry), and everything Kris had been trying to say.
Lydia pushed open the swinging doors to the kitchen and yelled, "Pickup for Jenny Smith!"
Adam strolled in behind her, ready for the confusion and surprise on Kris's face…only to find Kris toweling off his hands and smirking at Adam, absolutely unsurprised.
"What took you so long?" Kris asked.
Adam frowned, "There's no order today. She isn't even home yet—"
"I know," Kris said, "but I had a suspicion you'd drop in. Thanks, Lydia, I'll take him from here." Kris winked at Lydia, who giggled before squeezing past Adam on her way to the front.
Adam looked around, flummoxed. How the hell could Kris have expected him? Adam had been in a taxi on his way home before he changed his mind and came to the shop. It wasn't like they'd talked while he was away…
Kris waved Adam over to his counter. "So how'd you like Memphis?"
…and okay, after getting that care package—which had been a declaration if Adam had ever heard one—he'd maybe expected a different reaction to his visit. Not that Kris was acting strangely—he was acting the same as always: with complete confidence. It was Adam who was different, nervous, like he felt uncomfortable in Kris's kitchen.
Kris beckoned him over again, wiping at the counter with a rag. Adam told himself to calm down and headed over. When he found his stool exactly where he'd left it two weeks ago, he finally felt himself relax. This he knew.
"So, Memphis?" Kris asked again.
"It was…kind of great," Adam admitted. "It definitely grew on me. I checked out some of the places you recommended, Sun Studios and the Rock N' Soul Museum."
"I saw," Kris sais, pointing to the three postcards taped on the wall next to his counter.
Adam grinned and stopped worrying altogether. "I ate at Rendezvous, too."
"Definitely. I haven't tried yours, though." He waggled his eyebrows.
"I don't take requests, you know," Kris said, but Adam could tell there would be dry-rubbed ribs on the menu soon. "And how's home? Have you figured anything out, yet?"
Adam nodded. "It's all settled; Joel and I texted last week." If he hadn't been watching closely, he would've missed Kris's subtle fidget, tweaking the row of knives laid out shiny and dangerous like the stiletto heels in Margot's closet. "He's already moved out. And he left me some extra rent money, so I can take a few weeks to find a new roommate."
Kris huffed out a surprised breath. "That's awesome."
"Pretty much." It had either been a demonstration of Joel's growing maturity or an unwillingness to deal with anymore of Adam's drama. Either way, it would be a relief to go home to an empty apartment.
"But…maybe don't sleep with whoever the next guy is."
Adam laughed. "No, definitely not. From now on, I'm gonna date the guy before I move in with him."
Kris glanced up at the postcards again. "You didn't tell me what you thought of the truffles." He said it off-hand, like it was just a stray thought that didn't mean anything.
Adam knew exactly what it meant. "Well," Adam drawled, watching the man across from him, "it would've been hell trying to fit it on a postcard."
Kris looked at him sharply, but didn't say anything, leaving it to Adam to answer or not.
Adam answered. He stood up and came around the counter, backed Kris into the corner next to the stove. "I thought…" he murmured, leaned down, and kissed him.
Kris made a soft sound and pressed up into the kiss, his hands cupping Adam's neck, fingers sliding over his cheek. Kris tasted like sugar, his fingers smelled like cinnamon and browned butter, and his mouth was more addictive than hazelnut truffles. Adam tucked his fingers in his apron strings, drank Kris in until he was out of breath, and then kissed him again.
When he finally lifted his head, Kris's lips were Cherry Balm red, his eyes twinkling with a hint of smugness. Adam nuzzled his cheek and whispered, "I heard all about your wicked ways from Margot. You've been seducing me with your cooking for weeks."
Kris's hands slid down Adam's chest. "Mmm, speaking of. Are you hungry?"
Adam was, damn it. (After five minutes of deliberation, he had decided not to play roulette with the airline's breakfast burrito.) Already dreading Kris's answer, he asked, "What've you been cooking?"
Kris pushed him back a step, turned to a stack of cooling racks, and pulled down a tray of pastries. "Blueberry hand pies. They should still be warm." Adam groaned in hopeless surrender. The puff-pastries were golden pillows of butter and fruit, crowned with shiny, granulated sugar like a diamond necklace topping a Swarovski gown. "Just so you know," Kris said, setting the tray down on the counter, "I'm the jealous type; I won't give up until I've claimed first place in your top ten."
Adam had to taste those smirking lips again, and didn't stop until Kris was gasping against his mouth, fingers fisted in his shirt. "All right," Adam said at last, throwing his diet plans out the window until Christmas…possibly New Year's. "But you'll have to cut it out at some point. Or else when my waistline hits 34 inches, I'll have to leave you and take up with a nutritionist. You know how shallow L.A. is."
Kris squeezed Adam's hips and grinned, unrepentant. "More of you to love?"
Adam pouted. "Maybe I can find a personal trainer for a roommate."
Kris laughed and lured him in for another taste.