I’m happy to annouce that my debut novel, Cooking Up Love, is now available for purchase as an eBook on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com. Yes, I know I originally said May 24th and actually that date is still true for All Romance eBooks, but I was so excited about Shelbi and Justin’s story, I wanted to share it now. Below is chapter 1. Feel free to tell all of your girlfriends who like to read fun, flirty and sexy romance novels.
“This is so delicious. Do you think they’ll let me have another one?” Shelbi Arrington asked the waitress at Chow Bella’s Italian Restaurant after she took the last bite of the tiramisu, savoring every sweet, sinful taste of the delectable dessert her hips needed to stay away from.
The waitress gave a sneaky look around the restaurant, then leaned over and whispered to Shelbi, “I’ll see what I can do.” She winked and hurried to the kitchen.
Satisfied with the response, Shelbi placed the to-go bag, which held the rest of her uneaten lunch, on the chair next to her purse. She had a habit of leaving her doggie bags and made an effort to remember this one. Her uneaten portion would serve as lunch tomorrow. She took out her iPhone and typed a few notes before tossing it back into her purse.
Shelbi rested her elbows on the checkered red-and-white tablecloth, making mental notes of the patrons and the decor. A few wrinkled their noses, one couple called a waiter over in disgust, and a group of businessmen checked their watches as they waited for the check. A party of eight in the corner booth was being serenaded with “Happy Birthday” by the waiters. Her favorite scene was of a small boy talking louder than anyone else, yet his parents still conversed and neglected to quiet him. The customers seated near gave the couple frosty stares, but they never noticed.
The waitress returned with a small bag, which she set on the table along with the check. She winked, and Shelbi winked back. She eased the smaller bag into the larger plastic one and tied the handles into a tight knot.
“Ms. Arrington, here’s the check. Your lunch is on the house, but the manager thought you may want it in case you need the information for your article.”
“Thank you very much, Lizzie.” Shelbi took the slip of paper from the black leather receipt holder.
“You’re quite welcome, Ms. Arrington. I feel honored to have served a famous food critic,” Lizzie said before leaving to serve another customer.
Shelbi laughed. As a contributing food critic for Food for Thought with The Memphis Tribune, she was nowhere near famous. Some of her articles were featured in the newspaper and on their website. Plus, she had a large number of followers on her personal blog, Food Passions, which she started during her undergrad years at Spelman, but she wasn’t famous.
She pulled her last five-dollar bill from her wallet, as well as all of the quarters at the bottom, and placed the money on the table.
Checking her watch, she had five minutes to dash to the next trolley that would take her home to her loft apartment at Central Station. There, she could kick off her heels, sip a latte, and eat the other tiramisu—sure to go straight to her hips—and type the article on the Italian restaurant and the other one from a few days ago.
Once at the trolley stop, Shelbi realized she had given all of her quarters to Lizzie. She dug around her purse for some loose change or a dollar, but all she found were eight pennies, her checkbook, and a half-eaten bag of Skittles. It was a fifteen-block walk from the trolley stop to her loft. She’d made the trip several times in tennis shoes with her jogging partner, but never in her sister’s Christian Louboutins and a dress.
The red trolley stopped in front of her, and the door slid open. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the trolley driver who had a crush on her and gave her free rides whether she had money or not. She hoped the driver would have pity on her.
“Good afternoon…um…”—she glanced at his nametag—“Mike. It seems I have given all of my change as a tip to the waitress a few minutes ago. All I have are these few…” She stopped to hold out her hand. “Pennies.”
The driver tilted his head to the side and looked down at her hand. “All you gave the waitress was some change?” he asked in a harsh tone.
Stunned at his remark, as well as embarrassed at the line of people behind her groaning impatiently, Shelbi didn’t know what to say or do. She checked her wallet, hoping she had a dollar hidden somewhere.
“Move it, lady!” a man behind her shouted.
“Hurry up!” a lady with a crying baby screamed.
“I have a slice of tiramisu you can have,” Shelbi whispered. “Never mind.” She turned to go before she said something rude, or worse, cried from embarrassment.
“I’ll take care of it,” a deep, concerned voice to her left said. A whiff of intoxicating cologne floated by as the considerate stranger dropped a one-dollar bill into the trolley’s money slot.
“Thank you.” Shelbi looked up to see a chiseled, handsome face and a sexy smile that caused her breathing to stop. When their eyes met, an immediate rush of sensual excitement washed over her skin. She glanced at his hand that had just placed the money in the slot. No wedding ring, but it didn’t mean he was single. A man as chivalrous as him probably had women chasing him all over Memphis.
“No problem.” He placed his hand at the small of her back. “Let’s go sit down.” The warmth in his voice and his kind gesture made Shelbi forget about her embarrassing moment.
While on their walk, Shelbi assessed his at least six-foot-one muscular frame, curly yet wild black hair, and a fair complexion with a slight tan as if he had just come from the beach. He wore jeans with a rust-colored corduroy jacket and a cream T-shirt, perfect for the first day of fall.
Shelbi was used to the take-charge kind of guy thanks to her dad and her two overprotective brothers. However, the way the stranger glanced down at her, giving her a comforting smile, made her heart skip a beat or two and was anything but brotherly.
Once settled in their seats, Shelbi turned toward him and once again was blown away by his strikingly handsome face. Her breathing unsteady, she tried to concentrate on the woman holding a baby the next seat over. Instead, her eyes were drawn to the good-looking stranger with dark, thick eyebrows and a neatly trimmed mustache with a slight beard growing in. He was sinfully delicious. If he were dessert, she would’ve devoured him right then and there.
“Thank you so much for paying my fare. Where are you getting off? I can pay you back.”
He chuckled. “Baby, its only one dollar, but did I hear you say you have a slice of tiramisu?” He pointed toward the to-go bag in her lap.
“Why yes, I do, and you’re more than welcome to have it.”
“I’m teasing, but it’s nice to know you were willing to give it to me.”
Their eyes locked on his last four words. A heat wave rushed over her at the thought of giving it to him. Shocked at her thoughts about a stranger, she tried to stay focused.
“Well, you saved me from walking fifteen blocks in five-inch heels.” Laughing, she stretched one leg for him to see the heels on her shoes—well, her sister’s shoes.
“Hmmm…very nice…um, shoes,” the gentleman said followed by a wink and a slight biting of his bottom lip.
Shelbi raised her eyebrow as she caught his curious eyes perusing her toned legs before they settled on her face.
“So what’s your name?”
“Shelbi Arrington. And yours?
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Richardson.”
She froze when their legs brushed as the trolley turned a corner, unleashing goose bumps all over her skin. She pretended to look out the window to hide the heat she felt rising in her face. She’d experienced these types of emotions before, but never within a five-minute time frame. In a few more moments, she would be at home, even though she really wanted to ride the trolley all afternoon with the handsome Mr. Richardson.
“I haven’t seen you on the trolley before. Are you new to the area?” he asked, studying her face carefully.
“I just moved downtown about four months ago. Before then, I lived in Nashville.”
“What brings you to Memphis?”
“I accepted a job at The Memphis Tribune as one of the food critics for Food for Thought.”
His thick, dark eyebrows rose slightly. “You’re a food critic? Critique any good restaurants lately?”
“As a matter of fact, I have. I went to Chow Bella’s for lunch today, and a few days ago, Lillian’s for dinner.”
He nodded. “So, did you like Lillian’s?”
“I can’t answer your question. You’ll have to buy a newspaper or go online to read my article on next Thursday,” she said, smiling at him.
“Witty and beautiful. I like that. But I’m sure there’s something you did or didn’t like about Lillian’s.”
Shelbi hesitated for a moment. She really didn’t want to tell a complete stranger, even though he did just rescue her from embarrassment and sore feet.
“Well, I was quite impressed with the atmosphere, and the food was delicious overall.”
“Overall? What was wrong?”
“Nothing really. A few things could’ve been better. The barbecue sauce tasted a little bland, even though it’s supposed to be the chef’s special recipe. It seemed store-bought, and they don’t serve pork, but this is Memphis, for crying out loud. Where’s the pig?”
“Um…well, maybe the chef wants to try a healthier angle. Pork isn’t good for your system. It isn’t easy for the body to digest.”
“I’ll remember your tip the next time I cook bacon.”
“So…” He stopped midsentence as Shelbi stood.
“This is my stop,” she said disappointedly.
“Too bad. I really enjoyed talking to you.”
“Me too. Thank you so much again for paying my fare.” She stepped off the trolley and hesitantly glanced over her shoulder to see the fine-looking man one more time.
Justin watched Shelbi saunter toward Central Station, a historic apartment building through which the Amtrak train ran. He strained his neck as far as possible as the trolley pulled away to steal a last glimpse of her lethal honey-coated body. Her red wrap-around dress revealed curvy hips, a plump bottom, and a small waist he wanted to wrap his hands around. She seemed refined, yet down-to-earth, with a naturally sexy air. He wanted to know more about the food critic whose sweet perfume still lingered in the atmosphere, making him high. A grin crossed his face as he remembered her flirty smile and the way she moved her shoulder-length brown hair behind her ear, making her little button nose even more adorable. He couldn’t think of a time during his thirty-two years when he had met a woman like her before.
When he’d noticed her flushed, embarrassed face on the trolley, his protective side emerged. With music playing through his iPod, he hadn’t realized there was a commotion until he looked up to see the cute side profile of a frustrated woman. He’d taken out his earbuds and heard her pleading with the driver about a tiramisu. The mean rants from the passengers outside of the trolley angered him and prompted him to help her. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to ask for her number.
While sitting with Shelbi, he’d missed his stop off of Beale Street, but it didn’t matter. He was the boss, who was supposed to be on vacation, but surprising his employees and making sure the restaurant ran smoothly was on his agenda. He’d visited some friends in Pensacola Beach, Florida, for a few days, but now it was time to get back to work.
Moments later, Justin strode casually into his restaurant’s front door, which should’ve been locked. It was four o’clock, so the restaurant was closed, preparing for the Friday dinner crowd at five o’clock. Normally, the servers would be setting their tables for the evening, but they were already immaculately set, which meant the waiters were in the locker room, chatting and playing around, but he didn’t mind. They were hard workers who had helped his restaurant become a fine establishment.
Gold brocade toppers adorned black tablecloths under glass overlays and silverware rolled in gold napkins. Wineglasses and a candle in the middle elegantly finished the inviting table scene. The hardwood floors, original to the old building he renovated, shone brilliantly, and he smiled at the beauty of the main dining area. The brick walls rose two stories, ornamented with abstract pieces from local artists. The upstairs dining area was usually reserved for private parties or overflow on Friday and Saturday nights. The chandeliers shined brightly on him like a spotlight.
Even though Lillian’s Dinner and Blues Club was a year old, he still had to pinch himself as a reminder—his dream was now a reality. A master chef, he had worked in gourmet restaurants around the United States and other countries over the past ten years, investing most of his money to open his restaurant in his hometown of Memphis.
Using his and his late mother’s recipes, he turned Lillian’s into a premier spot on Beale Street. He prepared Memphis Southern soul food, barbecue, and healthy gourmet dishes.
He sighed and gazed around his restaurant again as he remembered his mother’s beautiful, warm smile and caring nature. She would’ve loved the decor and been pleased at the way he kept everything elegant and neat.
“I know you’re smiling down on me, Mama.”
“Um…excuse me, sir,” a familiar male voice with a hint of sarcasm said behind him.
Justin turned to face his general manager and best friend, Rasheed Vincent.
“Back so soon, Jay?” Rasheed walked to the immense bar stocked with just about any liquor a patron would request. He sat on one of the barstools, and Justin joined him one barstool down.
“Looking good in here, Rasheed.” Justin nodded his head and gazed around the restaurant. “I was expecting chaos.”
“Man, you know I run a tight ship around here.”
Justin chuckled and looked around once more. “Well, the fire department didn’t call me, so I guess everything is fine.”
“You know it is, man. Stop sweating. Have I ever disappointed you?” Rasheed’s cell phone buzzed. He looked at the display and laid the unanswered cell phone on the bar.
“Well, I could think of a few…”
“Naw. Don’t answer that question.”
Justin nodded approvingly at his friend. “So, I’m impressed the dining room is ready. Where’s Brooklyn?”
“Oh, she’ll be out in a sec. Had to take care of some business or something.”
“Really? And why is the main door unlocked? It shouldn’t be unlocked until ten minutes till opening.”
“Damn, man. I didn’t realize…” Rasheed looked guilty as he walked toward the double glass doors.
“I already locked it, but please make sure it’s locked in the future. If Brooklyn were here, it wouldn’t be a big problem, but she’s not. She knows it’s Friday. Where is she, Rasheed?”
“Man, I don’t know exactly. Somewhere in the back.”
Justin didn’t want to become frustrated with his best friend, but when he hired Rasheed’s sister for the head hostess position a few months ago, he expected nothing but professionalism. He walked behind the bar and pulled a bottle of water from the mini-fridge below.
“Going to my office.” Justin untwisted the cap and gulped a deep swig of the chilled water.
“Are you hanging tonight?”
“Yep. I may stick around for a while and do some work on my barbecue sauces for the competition.” Justin couldn’t believe the food critic told him his sauce was bland and tasted store-bought. It was his mother’s recipe. He’d changed it slightly over the years and was working on a few others as well.
“Man, I’m excited about the Pride of Tennessee Barbecue Sauce Competition! This could really put us on the map! I can’t believe they are upping the ante this year!”
“That’s why I have to win.” Justin leaned on the bar. “Just think, the grand prize will be a southeastern distribution contract, not just the state of Tennessee like last year. Glad I waited to enter this year’s competition.”
“Jay, you’re going to win. I mean, who wouldn’t like your sauce?”
Justin laughed sarcastically in his head. Well, apparently a sexy little food critic didn’t care for it. But what does she know?
“Say, were you here when a food critic from The Memphis Tribune stopped by a few nights ago for a surprise visit?”
A wide, devilish smile formed across his friend’s lips, which meant he was definitely present and had probably flirted with Shelbi.
“Yeah, man. Sexy little caramel-coated babe with hips…” Rasheed stopped to demonstrate with his hands exactly how wide Shelbi’s hips were.
A sudden tinge of jealously crept into Justin’s being at his friend’s description of Shelbi. He was surprised, considering he’d only just met her, but for some reason he didn’t want anyone else to think about her the way he did. Sassy. Witty. Cute. He wanted her all to himself, which surprised him even further. Though he had neglected to ask for her number, he was sure he could call the Tribune and ask for her.
“What did she order, and did she enjoy it?” Of all the times for him to be on vacation, a food critic made a surprise visit, and a sexy one at that.
“How did you know a food—”
“Don’t worry about that. Did you greet her? Offer her an appetizer or two, drinks from the bar, dessert? What entrée did she have, and who prepared it?”
“Slow down with the twenty-one questions, man. The copy of the receipt is on your desk. Anthony prepared her dinner.”
“Did she say anything?”
“Naw, man. She just typed some notes into her cell phone and took most of her food to go. I was the perfect gentleman in your absence.”
“You asked for her number, didn’t you?” Justin dreaded the answer.
Rasheed Vincent was a ladies’ man. Female customers always scoped out the bald mocha Adonis, hoping he would give them the time of day. An ex–professional basketball player, he had more women calling and texting him than Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have slept with. If Rasheed were a rock star, women would literally throw their panties at him, and he would happily catch each pair.
“Nope. Not my type.”
Good. Justin breathed a sigh of relief. He would hate to challenge his boy to a duel.
Justin was anxious to get back to his office to see the receipt, not because of the amount, but to know which of his recipes had touched her lips. He was disappointed he hadn’t been in town to make the meal himself. He would love to cook for her, watching her pouty, kissable lips taste a dish he prepared. Maybe she wouldn’t be so critical about his barbecue sauce and he could go into greater detail as to why he didn’t serve pork.
“Was she alone?” he asked with a tight feeling in his chest. A woman as fine and intelligent as her probably had a man. Lucky fellow to have all those damn hips to hold on to.
“A distinguished-looking dude was with her, but I don’t think they were a couple. He was too busy checking out all of the honeys, stealing my action.”
“What’s up, fellas?” The men turned to see their other best friend and restaurant manager, Derek Martin, stroll in. He joined them at the bar. “Just came back from the cardiologist.”
“Are you all right, man?” Rasheed inquired with a concerned face.
“I’m good. That’s why I go often, to make sure my blood pressure and cholesterol levels stay low. You know heart disease runs in my family, and yours too, Justin. You may want to go for an exam soon.”
“I’ll pass.” Justin turned to go. He had work to do.
Derek chuckled in a sarcastic way. “Exactly, you will pass if you don’t know you have a problem until it’s too late.”
“Derek, let’s not start this conversation again.”
“Man, I know you despise doctors, but…”
“Look, your mother didn’t die at the hands of a surgeon who didn’t try hard enough to revive her. Doctors don’t care whether or not a patient dies. So no thank you, but I’m glad to know you’re doing well.”
“No problem, Jay. I just want to make sure my boys are healthy. You know we’ve had each other’s back forever. You guys are like my brothers.”
Justin had promised his childhood friends when he was finally able to open his Lillian’s, they would be a part of it. Rasheed, the general manager as well as a part owner, and Derek, the business and financial manager, were the only people he trusted to help run his restaurant.
Once in his office, Justin noticed a business card paper-clipped on top of a receipt lying on his desk. He picked it up and was elated to see whose name was on it. The card was light pink with bold burgundy writing and Shelbi F. Arrington typed in a cursive font, but most importantly, it had her cell phone number. He turned it over and read a note, not so neatly scribbled: Have your executive chef call me soon for an interview.
Copyright: May 2012 by Candace Shaw