Darryl loved spring, and it was definitely in the air. Pulling his front door closed, he looked up at the blue sky and inhaled deeply. The air smelled of pear blossoms, and as he walked toward the car, a breeze filled the air with white floating petals. Deciding it was too nice to drive, Darryl turned and began walking down the sidewalk, turning onto the main street of town. Heading toward the business district, he passed stately Victorian mansions, most turned into apartments, but many retaining the opulent look of a bygone era. As he continued walking, Darryl couldn’t help looking between the buildings to catch glimpses of the old cemetery and its bronze statue marking the grave of Molly Pitcher. God, he loved this town. Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had been founded by William Penn in the mid-eighteenth century. As Darryl approached the square, he looked at the large church on the corner with its cherry tree in full bloom behind the sign that reminded everyone that George Washington had worshipped there in 1794.
He let his gaze travel around him as he waited for the light, looking up past the immense columns with scars from the Civil War, duly marked, to the clock on the old courthouse. As the light changed, he crossed the street and walked the remaining half block to his restaurant, pausing outside to look a few seconds.
Café Belgie was his dream. Darryl had spent almost a decade working in other people’s kitchens until he’d managed to scrimp and save the money to open his own place. He’d chosen a Belgian-themed restaurant because that was what he loved. Good, simple food with a certain flair. Besides, it gave him an excuse to carry the most wonderful selection of beer. Stepping to the door, he gazed one last time up the street at the trees filled with blossoms that rained down on the sidewalk.
Reaching for the door, he tugged lightly, not at all surprised that it opened easily despite the closed sign in the window. His pastry chef, Maureen, was already at work-like always, the first one there.
“If you think I’m going to take that shit, you’re crazy, woman!“ Sebastian, one of his servers, was upset, and his voice carried out into the street and drowned out the sound of traffic. “I’m not working the lunch shift alone. Darryl will just have to call someone in to help.“ God, the man could wail, and Darryl felt it like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Darryl stepped inside and let the door close with a thud as he saw Maureen throw her hands up and walk back into the kitchen. “It’s a Wednesday and lunch is always slow, so what are you bitching about?“ Darryl said, raising his voice, his good mood from the walk vanishing in an instant. “Quit being such a drama queen and get ready for service.“ He walked to the server’s station. “You’ll need more napkins folded, and make sure all the tables are ready.“ Darryl glared at the tall, almost elegant young man. The customers loved him and he was a great server, but his attitude sucked. “You’re not going to slough off the work on someone else so you can make all the tips.“
Darryl watched as Sebastian put on his innocent face, pushing out his lower lip in a pout that would have been cute if Darryl hadn’t already known it was completely fake. “But Darryl, we’ve already got a reservation for a party of ten.“
Fuck, he was adorable when he did that. And if Darryl hadn’t already experienced a Sebastian tantrum at least once a week for the past three months, he might have been tempted to take the man home and fuck him within an inch of his life. Darryl had no doubt Sebastian was very talented, if even half of what he said was true, but it just wasn’t worth the aggravation. “Then you’d better get the table set up and ready.“ He checked his watch. “We open in less than an hour, and you’re going to move your ass.“ Darryl looked down his nose. “That is, if you want a shot as the front-of-house manager.“ Without another word, Darryl walked through the dining room, looking at everything as he did, checking that the tables were straight, floors clean, even that the pictures on the wall weren’t crooked, before entering the kitchen, his domain.
Maureen was still fuming as she walked back to her workstation, slamming one of the cooler doors. “The little shit,“ she muttered as she cut butter into one of the mixers and turned it on.
“What’d he do now?“ Darryl asked as he took off his shirt and shrugged into his chef’s coat before getting to work making the sauces and turning on the grill. He had a lot to do in an hour. Checking that the fryers were clean, he turned them on to get up to temperature. He heard the kitchen door open and close. “Morning, Kelly,“ he said without looking up.
“Morning, Darryl.“ She got her coat on and went right to work. “I’ll get the fries cut and precooked. I made curry ketchup and the mayonnaise last night just before I left, so we should be good.“
“Wonderful.“ Sometimes he wondered what he’d do without her. He gave his prep cook a smile, then turned his attention to Maureen. “You gonna tell me what’s eating you or make me guess?“
“He“-she tilted her head toward the dining room-“tried to sweet-talk me into filling the salt and peppers for him. Seems he forgot to do it at the end of his last shift, and when I told him no, he got all pissy. Damn queen.“ Darryl glanced up and saw her shake her head. “If he wasn’t otherwise good at his job, I’d kick his ass into traffic.“
“I know,“ Darryl said. He continued working, wishing Sebastian would show the rest of the staff the same courtesy he showed the customers. The kid was like a switch, throwing himself on “happy“ whenever he smelled a tip.
But Sebastian was no match for Maureen. The woman might be small and slight, but she didn’t take crap from anyone. She’d been Darryl’s best friend for years. Maureen had worked at the bakery that supplied the desserts to the first restaurant he’d worked in all those years ago, and when he decided to open Café Belgie, there was no one else he’d wanted making his desserts, particularly since she had the flair to make authentic European-style desserts that complemented his food. “There are times I want to wring his neck“-Darryl looked up at his kitchen staff-“but if he’d tone it down just a bit, he’d be fantastic.“ Darryl knew it was true, he just wasn’t sure Sebastian was capable of doing it. That was what the young man needed to prove to him as well as to the rest of the staff.
“Are you really considering giving him the front of the house?“ Kelly asked as she fed potatoes through the cutter while the first batch was cooking. They were known for their traditional pommes frites; anywhere else they might have been called French fries, but not in Darryl’s restaurant! They were cooked twice-once to cook them through and once to crisp them-and nobody, including Darryl, could do it as well as Kelly.
“Only if he steps up.“ Darryl continued working, finishing the preparations for lunch. “And only if you agree as well.“
The kitchen got silent as the other two stopped moving. “Are you kidding?“ Maureen asked as she went back to filling chocolate cylinders with mint mousse. “You want us to decide?“
“We’ll all decide.“ Darryl had just hit on this idea, and it just might get Sebastian to change his attitude. “You can feel free to let him know that as well.“
“Damn, boss,“ Kelly said, laughing over the crackle of the fresh oil, “you’re one smart cookie.“
The sound of another screech from out front made all of them laugh, and Maureen set down her pastry bag. With a smile of sheer delight, she left the kitchen to have a talk with Sebastian. The door swung outward and then back in, and Darryl heard a “What!?“ at the top of Sebastian’s lungs. The door settled to a close before banging open, hitting the stops and swinging back toward a glaring Sebastian, who dodged it easily. “You’re letting them... you’re not serious?“
“Of course I am, so drop the diva act and step up.“ Darryl checked his watch. “We open in fifteen minutes, so make sure you’re ready.“ Darryl almost laughed when he saw the pout again, followed by a tilt of the head. “Flirting won’t help, either. It’s time you put up or shut up.“ Darryl glared at him and saw Sebastian’s face firm and his back straighten. “You need to prove you can do the job.“ Letting his expression soften, Darryl stepped from behind the line to where Sebastian stood near the doors. “I know you’ve got what it takes, you just have to prove it to all of us.“
Sebastian looked at him, and then his eyes traveled to Kelly and Maureen, who, to their credit, looked serious and businesslike, even though Darryl knew they were both delighted as hell that they had something that would keep Sebastian in line, if only for a while. “I will, Darryl.“ With nothing more, Sebastian turned and left the kitchen.
Just before opening, Darryl made one final inspection of the dining room. Every table looked perfect. Utensils and glasses set, menus ready, and the vases filled with fresh flowers. It looked great-up to the standards he set. “You ready?“ he asked Sebastian, before propping the door open and putting out the specials board. Walking back through the restaurant, he turned and saw the first customers already walking in and sitting down.
The lunch service was unexpectedly busy, to say the least. The kitchen filled with the sounds of work: orders being called, questions answered over the sounds of cooking, and banging dishes. To the uninitiated it might look and sound like complete chaos, but to Darryl and his staff, it was nearly as graceful as a ballet. “That’s the last order,“ Sebastian called as he stuck his head inside, and Darryl could hear his server’s breathlessness. The few times he’d had a second to peek, he’d seen the customers running Sebastian ragged. Leaving Kelly to finish the last order, he walked out front and saw Carter, one of the bussers, clearing the tables as Sebastian helped him. The dishwashing area would be busy for another hour, but everything had gone well.
“Darryl, we really need to think about hiring another server at least part time,“ Sebastian said as he approached him. “Lunch is getting busier, and I can’t handle it alone.“
Darryl smiled. “I think so, yes.“ Sebastian looked shocked, and Darryl let his smile increase. Maybe he could turn this into a lesson. “See, you get what you want when you ask, not shout.“
“So you’ll do it?“
Darryl nodded. “But you’ll need to train them and take them under your wing.“
“Then I have the job?“ Sebastian’s eyes widened hopefully.
Darryl let his smile fall. “I didn’t say that. But training and managing wait staff, bussers, and even the dish room are all part of the job.“ Darryl softened his face. “You did good today, but waiting tables is what you know. Let’s see how you learn new things.“ The front door opened, and more patrons entered. Darryl cut the conversation short and returned to the kitchen.
“I’m heading out,“ Maureen called as she gathered her things. “The desserts for tonight are all set, and you just need to sauce and plate them.“ Maureen opened the cooler door, the smell of mint wafting out as she showed him the trays of dessert and the squeeze bottles of sauce.
“They look marvelous and smell even better.“ She smiled at the compliment and bumped his hip.
“Flattery will get you everywhere.“ She closed the cooler door and smacked his shoulder. “Get out of here for a while and enjoy the sun,“ she called as she hurried out the back door.
“Yeah, boss,“ Kelly piped up with a smile. “I can handle things for a while. I just have to finish the orders for that last table.“ Darryl knew she’d been itching to show him that she could do more. After taking a peek to make sure there weren’t many people out front, he turned back to her.
“Okay. The show’s yours.“ He noted her smile. “But call me if you have any problems. I won’t be too long.“ She agreed, and he left the kitchen, walking through the dining room, out the front door, and into the spring sunshine. He needed this desperately; so many of his days were spent inside, arriving before the sun was up and leaving long after dark. The restaurant required long hours, but he loved it. Turning around, he looked up at his baby. The brick looked clean, and the windows sparkled. Sitting down on the bench in front, he turned so he could watch people walking along the sidewalk. He waved at the man from the men’s clothing store who was also taking a break, enjoying the sunshine. Darryl thought he was going to come and say hello, but a young man entered his store, and Darryl watched as he followed.
A few minutes later, the young man walked out again and walked into the next store, coming out again a few minutes later and repeating the process. Again and again, the man walked from business to business, and as he got closer, Darryl saw his face fall a little more each time. He must be looking for a job, and Darryl knew that in this market, they were hard to come by. As the man got closer, Darryl could see that he was younger than he’d thought, and he knew that eventually it would be his turn to be asked.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, he saw the young man walk past him and go into the restaurant. He really was young, but Darryl had to admire his determination. He came out a minute later and walked over to him. “Sir, the man inside said I needed to talk to you.“ The voice was soft and rhythmic, and damn young. “I’m looking for a job, and the man inside said you might be hiring.“ The hopeful look in his deep eyes tugged at Darryl’s heart.
“We might.“ Darryl looked the young man in the eye and felt as though he’d been punched in the gut at the jolt that went through him. “What experience have you had?“
“Not much, I’m afraid.“ Darryl saw him shuffle from foot to foot. “We moved here a few months ago, and I need a job real bad. I’ll work hard, real hard.“ The earnestness in his voice caught Darryl’s attention, even as the eyes bored into him with a pleading look. “I’ll do anything you need, wash dishes, sweep floors, clean tables.“
“The only position I have open right now is for a part-time server,“ Darryl replied, and saw the hope in the man’s eyes lift, but it was the fear tinged with desperation that made Darryl curious.
“I can do that. I’m a fast learner!“ His eyes brightened, and he bounced slightly on the balls of his feet. “All I need is a chance.“ God, the energy and excitement were catching, and the kid’s enthusiasm was encouraging.
“Okay. I’ll give you a chance.“ Hell, enthusiasm and energy had to count for something. “Come inside and you can fill out an application.“ Darryl stood up and the kid followed him like a happy puppy, his feet barely touching the ground. Darryl felt eyes on him and turned around. “By the way, how old are you?“
“Twenty-one,“ the young man answered quickly, and Darryl breathed a sigh of relief. At least serving alcohol wouldn’t be an issue.
He went right to his small office off the kitchen, fishing through the files for the proper forms. “Fill these out, and I’ll need to see your identification and social security card.“ Darryl handed him the forms and the kid’s hand shook, he had so much excited energy.
Darryl sat back and watched as, looking at the top of the form, William filled out the application. “Do you go by Will?“ he asked, trying to make him a little more comfortable.
“Everybody calls me Billy.“ He looked up and a smile split his face, radiating through the room. Damn, the kid was adorable, and as Darryl watched, he leaned forward in the chair and shrugged off his jacket. Long black hair flowed from beneath it, shimmering in waves to his shoulders. If he were a girl, he could have been a supermodel. The man was stunning with that long hair, big eyes, and lips.... Darryl dragged his eyes away and concentrated on the forms that Billy handed him.
“I’m Darryl Hansen.“ He held out his hand, figuring introductions were in order. “I’m the owner and chef.“ He glanced at the form. “And you’re Billy Weaver.“ Darryl checked over the form, and everything looked in order. Checking over his identification, Darryl smiled. “We’ll try you out tomorrow during lunch. Be here at ten and I’ll introduce you to Sebastian. He’ll show you around, and you’ll work with him for a few days until you get a feel for how we do things.“
Billy grasped Darryl’s hand, breaking into another smile as he pumped it vigorously. “Thank you. I won’t let you down. I promise.“ Billy grabbed his worn jacket and turned around, treating Darryl to a peek at the kid’s stunning backside. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Hansen.“
Darryl swore Billy’s feet never hit the ground as he rushed toward the door to the dining room, turning around to wave before disappearing. Darryl found himself watching the door, completely lost in thought.
“Darryl!“ Hearing his name, he turned to Kelly, who was standing in his doorway. “Geez, where were you?“ She didn’t wait for an answer, putting a plate in front of him before plopping into the only other chair. “I think we’re done for a while, so I made you something to eat.“ Darryl barely heard her, his mind still on the kid-er, Billy. “Earth to Darryl, are you there?“
“Sorry.“ He pulled his mind back to the present. “What’s this?“
“I made it for you. Tell me what you think.“ Kelly looked pleased as Darryl examined the plate. The presentation was good, and he sniffed at the food. The aroma was enticing without being overpowering. Picking up the utensils, he cut a bite and tasted it. “Very nice. A variation on veal Milanese.“ The breading was crisp but not too heavy, thin with a nice mouth-feel.
“Yes, except I breaded it, and instead of frying it, I sautéed it in a very little oil to keep it lighter.“ Kelly watched as he cut off another bite. Popping it into his mouth, he let the flavor run free. “Do you like it?“
“Yes. We’ll need to refine the process, but this could definitely work on the menu as a special. Let’s talk about it tomorrow; you can think about what you’d like to serve with it.“
Kelly practically squealed with delight as she hopped out of the chair, and Darryl smiled as he continued eating, his mind returning unbidden to a vision of Billy. Jesus, he needed to stop that. Yes, the kid fascinated him. He had energy and was absolutely adorable, but he was way too young. And besides, Darryl had a hard and fast rule: he never dated anyone he worked with. He was the boss, and that could open a kettle of worms he wasn’t interested in exploring. But damn, the kid seemed to push all his buttons. “Maybe it’s just been too long,“ he muttered to himself. Darryl tried to remember the last time he’d spent time with anyone and he realized he couldn’t. “Fuck, it’s been forever since I had any kind of sex that didn’t involve my right hand.“
He heard a soft knock and looked up to find himself looking again into Billy’s big, expressive eyes. “I forgot to ask how I should dress.“ Billy looked nervous, and from the look of the clothes he was wearing, Darryl surmised that he probably didn’t have much.
“Wear black pants, and I’ll give you a few Café Belgie shirts that you can wear when you’re working.“ Billy looked relieved and flashed Darryl another smile that raced through him.
“Okay, thank you.“
Again, Darryl watched him go and had to remind himself of his rule. The kid looked so young and innocent. Darryl usually liked his men more experienced, but there was something about Billy that got his attention, and it scared the fuck out of him. Shaking his head, he forced himself to finish his lunch. Nothing was going to happen, no way, no how. Besides, Sebastian was going to train him, and Darryl intended to keep as far away from the kid as possible. His first job had been in a kitchen with a very talented chef who had dated all the women who worked for him. What a mess that had been for everyone. No, he wouldn’t put himself in that position, even for a man as attractive as Billy. Jesus, I’m doing it again. Finishing his lunch, he took the plate to the dish room and got to work. That would take his mind off that bright smile, radiant hair, and tiny, tight butt. “Jesus Christ!“ He swore at himself.
“Is something wrong?“ Kelly asked, concerned.
“No,“ Darryl lied, forcing his mind onto his work.