A man yearning to explore his sexual tastes but afraid to turn up the heat, the woman who loves him but is hungry for more spice...and the chef who craves them both.
When Grace, Philip and Mark find a mobster's flash drive full of incriminating information, they are quickly embroiled in a dangerous situation. They stay together for safety, but proximity ignites the sparks they've long been fighting to ignore.
When three friends dare to succumb to their appetites, they find the perfect recipe for love.
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from With Grace by Samantha Wayland
Perched at the hostess stand, Grace Anderson surveyed Valentine's, one of the hottest bistros in Boston's South End, and smiled. Everything was exactly as it should be. Candles in cut glass and cleverly hidden light fixtures bathed the room in a warm glow. Ella Fitzgerald's sultry voice wove through the murmur of intimate conversations, while tempting scents from the kitchen stirred the appetite. It was decadent. Indulgent.
Settling back on her stool, Grace relaxed and let her eyes return to what she enjoyed watching most of all. While the job had a lot going for it, the single greatest benefit was that she had plenty of opportunity to ogle Mark, even if she often chastised herself for doing so.
Mark Valentine, owner and head chef of Valentine's, was her boss, her friend and her favorite innocent flirtation. Okay, maybe innocent wasn't exactly the right word. They were strictly friends, but the fantasies that ran through her mind were most certainly not friendly. Or rather, they were very friendly. Who could resist those broad shoulders? He was tall and lean but even his shapeless chef's jacket couldn't disguise the muscle definition hidden beneath. His dark hair curled against his crisp white collar, begging for her to run her hands through it and let the ringlets wrap around her fingers.
Even without his considerable physical assets, he was a joy to watch, for he was a master at working the room. He came out of the kitchen when he could, and by the time he finished visiting each table, every one of their customers would have a personal connection with Mark--and to Valentine's.
A pang of something shockingly like jealousy struck her when Mark turned his attention to the attractive woman at table nineteen. Under the glare of his full-wattage charm, the woman's eyes sparkled and a blush moved across her cheeks.
Lucky lady. Grace loved to be on the receiving end of that smile. Even seeing it from across the room, directed at someone else, no less, it sent a shiver down her spine and forced her to clamp her knees together before tightly crossing her legs.
What was it about Mark?
He had an uncanny ability to attract people. Take the nice-looking man who wasn't bothered in the least by his date gazing at Mark like he was the best thing on the menu. Or the older woman at table ten who had giggled like a schoolgirl when he'd bent to kiss her hand. Not a wonder why she was a regular.
With few exceptions, women wanted him. It could be in truth or in their fantasies, but it was real. It would have been threatening to the men around him, perhaps, except that men wanted him just as much--as a friend to go to the game with or for their own, more private, fantasies. Everybody felt some kind of attraction when they met Mark.
Grace was no exception, though their relationship was purely platonic. Recrossing her legs, she was forced to amend that thought. She wasn't immune to the sexuality that practically oozed out of him. She wasn't dead, after all.
Being the hostess at Valentine's was the perfect job for her. When she wasn't at work, she was finishing her PhD in nineteenth-century literature at Boston University. Someday she'd teach, lecturing about the rampant and fiercely suppressed sexuality of the Victorian era and how it manifested in some of the most famous and romantic books ever written. But for now she attended classes during the day and, since Valentine's served only dinner, worked in the evenings for Mark. When things got slow toward the end of the night, he'd often encourage her to work on her reading at the hostess stand.
Recently, though, there hadn't been as much time for that, as she'd accepted more and more of the responsibility of running the front of the house. She loved rising to the challenge of meeting Mark's standards. Valentine's was his baby. He lived and breathed it. Every ounce of its success was owed to his talent in the kitchen and his business acumen. That he trusted her to look after the bar, the floor and the door while he focused on the kitchen meant a lot. He obsessed about everything being right and now he trusted her to do that for him. And she did, every night, without fail.
At table twenty-three, Mark whispered into the ear of a beautiful woman seated with her equally stunning friend. Her response made him throw his head back and laugh, the sound reaching across the room. It was impossible not to respond. To smile.
Shaking her head, Grace turned her back and focused on the reservation book. Her awareness of Mark diminished, but only so much. He was still behind her, the barest tickle at the base of her spine. She knew he'd end up at her side. He'd claim he was checking on things, which might be true, but he wouldn't be able to resist making one of his outrageous comments. The man would flirt with furniture if he thought he could get a reaction. And god knew she couldn't stop herself from giving him one.
She ought to be appalled by some of the things he'd said to her, the way he made it his mission to see her blush. Not that there was much challenge there, given her fair complexion. But the truth was, she loved it. The double entendres were sexy, sometimes suggestive, but never lewd. His teasing looks were hot, if harmless. He had no way of knowing how he filled her head with the most delicious images. Or how many times he'd sent her home with her panties soaked from the daydreams he'd inspired.
It worried her a little that one of these days, Philip might figure out that her frequent state of arousal when she got home from work in the evenings wasn't all about him.
Philip. Her boyfriend. She shoved aside a pang of guilt. Screw that. Philip didn't believe he was the only sexy man on Earth and he didn't expect her to believe he was, either. Why should she feel guilty? Mark had no idea what he did to her, how easily he worked her up, and she would never be unfaithful to Philip, so there was no harm. Mark was a fantasy, a tasty treat to dream about. Philip was her scrumptious reality.
Speaking of Philip... She checked her watch. Eight thirty. He'd called a half hour before to say he would soon be leaving his office at the small downtown law firm where he worked. His promise to stop in and kiss the woman of his dreams on the way home had made her stomach flutter. The woman of his dreams. Imagine that. Sometimes Grace couldn't believe she'd found him.
She loved Philip completely. She'd never felt this way about any man before. Never been more sure that she wanted to spend her life with someone. They'd started to do things that signaled a longer commitment, like planning next spring's vacation, even though it was only late summer now. Like last night when Philip had hinted about how much easier life would be if she moved into his apartment.
She wanted to move in with Philip. And not because of convenience. His place was four blocks from Valentine's and not far from school, but none of that mattered. She wanted to move in with Philip because she wanted to spend as much time with him as she could. Between her classes, his long hours at the office and her working nights, there was never enough time.
She might bring up the whole moving-in thing tonight, after she'd unveiled her little surprise.
Just thinking about it made her heart pound. What if it didn't work? What if Philip was horrified? Her stomach roiled thinking of what might happen. She reminded herself to be optimistic. It might just turn out as she hoped. Or better.
The image of Philip Marsten, attorney-at-law, abandoning control and tossing her on the bed burst unbidden into her mind. Oh god, please. That's what she wanted. Uninhibited passion. Their sex life was great, but she wanted more. And she had a plan to get it.
The possibilities of what might happen made her nipples pebble until they hurt.
Yikes. She needed to get a grip. Hunching her shoulders, she leaned over the reservation book, hoping the long fall of her hair would disguise her flushed face.
It startled her when Mark's laughter rang out and for one moment, she imagined Mark tossing her on the bed, falling on her as Philip watched. Or better yet, as Philip joined in. Sucking in a deep breath, she wrapped a hand around the edge of the hostess desk, grasping it until her knuckles whitened. The very idea was outrageous. And ridiculously hot. She could feel her body swelling. Begging.
Good grief. That fantasy was too delicious. And one that, regardless of how things went with Philip tonight, she highly doubted she would ever share with him. More the pity.
As if conjured from her thoughts, Philip strode through the door.
"Hi!" she said, sliding from the stool and standing, her heart doing the funny dance it always did when she first saw him. She'd almost gotten used to it, but was smart enough to cherish each flutter anyway. His eyes sparkled, his mahogany skin a distinct contrast to his starched white shirt. His chalk-striped wool suit flattered his build, emphasizing his broad shoulders, flat belly and lean hips.
"Hello, beautiful." Philip's smooth deep voice whispered across the hairs on the back of her neck, making each one stand up.
She lifted her face, expecting his usual quick kiss on her cheek.
Her breath caught in her throat when his hand slid behind her neck, tilting her head back before capturing her mouth with his. She let her eyes drift closed when his lips brushed across hers softly, rubbing and enticing her, his tongue gently teasing her mouth open for a taste.
As quickly as he'd approached, he retreated. She was slow to open her eyes, savoring his touch, taking in his smile and heavy-lidded gaze, all of which spoke of the promise of more. She sucked in a lungful of brain-restoring air when he drew his hand from under her hair and brushed it down her arm.
"What was that for?" she asked, wondering at her husky voice.
Philips raised one brow. "What can I say? You look good enough to eat."
Her heart sped up. Yes. "I was just thinking about you, but the real thing is way better."
"Good. What time do you think you'll be home tonight?" His voice was soft. Intimate. There was no mistaking the direction of his thoughts.
A burst of confidence rushed through her. Philip never put his needs on display, but tonight he seemed different. More aggressive. She knew without a doubt this Philip was going to love her surprise.
Arousal spread through her body like smoke filling a bottle. She pitched her voice low, so as not to be heard by the nearest tables. "I'm supposed to lock up tonight."
Philip moved closer, dropping his head so his cheek brushed along hers before pulling back. When his nostrils flared, she wondered if he could smell her cream coating her thighs. He didn't say anything, instead rolling his hips forward, pressing the full length of his erection against her hip. Words were not necessary.
"I'll come home as soon as I can."
Philip's laugh was the sexiest thing she'd ever heard.
Jesus. Who was this Philip? And when could she rip his clothes off?
Grace and Philip were going to light the front of his restaurant on fire. Mark watched the couple surreptitiously, filled with a mixture of desire and raw envy.
As was his habit, he'd been chatting up each table, slowly working his way to Grace. He didn't need to visit the front of the house every night. Grace could handle whatever needed handling and he knew she wouldn't hesitate to call for him if it were ever needed. But he couldn't resist her. Her smile. Her face. He wanted to touch the soft strands of her dark chestnut hair where they lay against her back. To brush his hand down the soft curve of her cheek and over her delicate, pert nose. Her skin was like milk, a hint of pink roses warming her pale cheeks.
Well, pink roses until he said something to make her blush, then she was all American Beauty. He would watch in fascination as the deep red stain moved across her skin. Not just on her cheeks, but up the long column of her neck and, if her blouse was unbuttoned just a little, sweeping across her chest, warming the lightly freckled skin above her breasts.
It drove him bat-shit crazy that she hid her lush little body under tidy silk blouses and tailored slacks. Didn't she know they only served to emphasize her long legs and the glorious curves of her breasts and hips? And that ass...
Christ, he wasn't usually such an idiot. And in this case, he really was a complete and total idiot. Anyone could see she was in love with Philip.
But of course, that was the other problem, Mark thought with something between a laugh and a grimace. Philip. He couldn't remember if he'd ever been this attracted to a man. There was something about Philip that just flipped his switch.
It had been years since he'd taken a male lover--not for any particular reason other than starting a new business had pretty much killed his social life in general. The few women he'd found time for hadn't been serious or lasted long. Valentine's had become his job, his hobby and his life partner all rolled into one.
Until a couple months ago, it hadn't bothered him in the slightest. Still didn't much--he loved his work. His restaurant. He'd busted his ass to get it where it was and he was damn proud. He still had so many things he wanted to do, like opening for lunch and Sunday brunch. Once he'd conquered that, he might like to open another restaurant. But that was way off in the future. For now, Valentine's was more than enough.
Only, Mark thought as he rubbed his hand over the hollow ache beneath his sternum, these days it wasn't enough at all.
Sighing, he forced his attention back to table twenty-two.
He'd kept half an eye on Grace from the moment he'd come out of the kitchen. He knew she watched him work the room. He always wondered about her smile. That look in her eye. He'd learned to tune it out after the third or fourth time a patron was forced to repeat a question because he'd been so zoned out of the conversation and zoned into Grace.
He'd seen Philip arrive. Had watched them kiss and wondered if something was up. Philip didn't usually go for public displays of affection while Grace was working. Or ever, from what Mark could tell.
He was an arm's length away from where Grace and Philip stood, quietly murmuring to each other. He barely said a word to the couple at the last table, instead transfixed by Philip's cock tenting the front of his suit pants. When Philip pressed against Grace, Mark almost walked away from his guests mid-sentence. Thank god his chef's jacket covered a multitude of sins, including the biggest sin of all--his now painfully hard erection pressing against the front of his kitchen pants.
They were so hot. So fucking beautiful. He couldn't decide who he wanted more. He could imagine himself sinking into Grace's welcoming wet heat just as easily as he could envision himself pounding into Philip's ass. Or his mouth. Or have Philip take his ass. Or...
Oooookay. Time to stop that line of thought before the nice lady sitting in front of him noticed what he hid not ten inches from her head.
He ended his chat as quickly and politely as possible and moved to the hostess stand just as Grace and Philip pulled apart and Philip hid his gorgeous erection behind the tall desk. Neither of them seemed to notice him.
Mark took a moment just to look. To enjoy them. He respected them individually and as a couple. Counted them as friends. He admired their beauty and their commitment to each other.
And, goddamn it, it absolutely wasn't his style to interfere in something like that. It just wasn't cool and never would be. But even knowing this, he couldn't resist stealing a moment with them.
When had he become such a complete masochist? So stupid.
Easing up behind Grace, he noticed how her hands clenched the stool seat by her thighs, her arms locked to her sides. A rocket about to go off.
Philip was a lucky man.
Reaching out, he put his hand high on Grace's back, and let his thumb travel over the soft skin where neck met shoulder. He turned to Philip. "Am I going to have to get the kitchen extinguisher to put you two out?"
Touching Grace hadn't pulled her from her daze, but his comment brought her back with a start. When she jumped he ducked his head, his lips to her ear. "Don't even try to deny it."
He hadn't meant for his voice to be that husky, but when his lips brushed the shell of her ear, his throat had practically closed off. He was choking on temptation.
Grace snapped her head around, her mouth open with surprise and protest. They were so close their noses bumped, their lips only a breath apart, and for one electric second time stopped.
His need to taste her sent a spike of desire to his cock so powerful it was a wonder it didn't buckle his knees. It took every ounce of willpower he possessed not to move the fraction of an inch it would take to bring their lips together. Instead, he clamped down on his almost uncontrollable urge to kiss this beautiful woman. The moment drew out, the possibility hanging in the air around them.
Slowly, reality returned to his arousal-soaked brain.
Blinking, he stared down at Grace's upturned face. Her eyes were half closed, her lips parted as if waiting for his kiss. Her long lashes threw shadows across the coveted wash of color staining her cheeks.
He had no idea what had happened, but what he'd started as a simple tease had quickly spiraled into something else. And goddamn, he wanted that something else.
Which was not smart.
Then again, if he was smart, he'd be back in the kitchen minding his own business. Or, at the very least, in the employee bathroom trying to relieve some of the pressure in his balls. Not rubbing noses and almost lips with his hostess--and right in front of her devoted boyfriend to boot.
When Grace's eyes lifted to his, Mark hesitated to turn away, knowing he should. He didn't want to look at Philip. Dreaded it. His friend was going to be pissed. Philip might not go for public displays of affection, but the public displays of possessiveness had never been lacking.
Mark told himself he'd have to accept the consequences of his impulsive actions. Swallowing hard, he met Philip's steady gaze.
Philip's dark eyes were unfocused under heavy lids, his dark skin warm with a hint of flush.
Mark blinked. That wasn't right. That couldn't be right.
Philip looked...turned on.
Mark's hand tightened where it rested on Grace's neck. He had to be mistaken. Of course, he'd never asked, but since Philip practically screamed straight guy, he'd never thought to. What if...
He turned to Grace. Her eyes were thoughtful as she glanced between the two men, lingering on Philip's face. Goddamn, she saw it too. He didn't know if this was good news or bad, but at least he no longer believed wishful thinking had taken over his ability to reason.
Not that knowing it was real made it any easier. For the first time in more years than he could count, he didn't have one fucking clue what to do or say. His tongue, his entire nervous system, was locked up in a twist of need and rampant arousal.
The explosion of twenty pounds of his beautiful and expensive china crashing to the floor of the kitchen snapped Mark from his paralysis.
Sweet Jesus, someone was getting a bonus!