Chapter One

 

MICAH TRUVEEN shoved some grated raw apple into his mouth and chewed. It tasted sweet, with a little pucker. Umm, like a kiss. He stuck his hands in the mashed dates and nuts mixture, smooshed, scooped, and began pressing it into the pie pan he had sitting on the prep counter. Raw apple pie would follow raw zucchini lasagna with dehydrated onion tomato bread. What a perfect Valentine’s Day dinner. Dharmaram would be thrilled. Good nutrition made for hot sex, and Micah was ready for both. They’d been a little light in the sex department lately.

A musical voice came from behind him. “Hi, Micah. Can I have two ounces of wheatgrass, please? Also a small green juice and a side of red quinoa.”

Micah glanced out the serving window at Annie. Attractive, fortyish, dark-haired, she came to the Place every morning before she went to work at some big ad agency.

“Be right with you.” He set aside the pie to finish later. The morning rush was officially underway when Annie arrived. Seven a.m. and she needed her health fix. He rang the cash register. “That’ll be eight fifty.”

She handed over a ten, and he made change. She smiled and gave back all of it in the tip jar. “Are you going to do that Healthy for Life class soon?”

He flipped his flop of dark hair out of his eyes. “Yeah. I’ll post something on the bulletin board in the next couple of days. Wish you could come to the Raw Valentines class today.”

She shook her head. “Me too, but I have a meeting. Will you post some recipes?”

“Sure. Tomorrow.” The Place was literally that. Mecca for a lot of the Laguna Beach health-food crowd—and that was a big group. The bulletin board announced everything from vegan cooking classes to the latest yoga retreats. Micah always moved Dharmaram’s poster to the front on the board so everyone would see his yoga classes first.

Micah popped a large spoon in the vegetable barley soup pot, did a quick stir and turned down the heat, then went to the flat of wheatgrass he had propped on one of the deep refrigerator shelves. With a knife he hacked off two handfuls. He’d sell most of the flat to his regulars before noon. A lot of people in Laguna were serious about feeding and detoxing their cells with all those vitamins and chlorophyll.

He started the wheatgrass juicer. It whirred and squeaked as he fed it the bright green blades of grass. The place smelled like a mowed lawn in two seconds. Delicious. He scooped out the quinoa, then turned on the big juicer to prepare the green juice. Leaning out through the serving window, he handed Annie her wheatgrass. The Place only had about nine small outside tables and the same number inside, but it did a huge walk-up business.

Annie downed the intense green liquid in one swallow, made her usual face like she’d just chugged a shot of whiskey, and then smacked her lips. She sat on one of the benches, and he went to make her juice. Kale, spinach, broccoli, and a few carrots for taste. He called her a wuss for needing the carrots, but he admired her dedication to her diet. He was lucky to have such great customers. Some people called them Micah’s devotees.

He took down a small biodegradable container, packaged up the quinoa, and then put a top on the juice.

 As per his protocol, she’d wait an hour after her wheatgrass before drinking anything else to get maximum benefit.

He leaned out the serving window. “Here, Annie—what the hell?”

She looked up at him with big brown eyes. Her cheeks bulged hamster-like and the huge godforsaken cupcake she held poised in front of her face sported a large missing piece. Frosting clung to her lips like cocaine on an addict’s nose. “Mmmpfff.”

“What’re you doing? My God, you can’t follow wheatgrass juice with white flour and refined sugar. What are you thinking?”

She swallowed twice and finally got the massive bite down her throat. “It’s a Charismatic Cupcake, Micah. It’s a new shop down on PCH, and their cupcakes are, like, the best thing you ever tasted.”

He frowned. “I don’t care if it’s blessed by the Pope. You can’t eat it now.”

She grinned. “I bought two last night, and I thought I could resist this morning but, ummm, I just couldn’t. Oh God, it’s a combination of coconut and lemon and everything I love.” She took another bite. Damn, he should turn away. The woman was about to have an orgasm on his patio bench. His frown deepened.

She swallowed and sighed. “I figure the wheatgrass cancels out the sin.”

His eyebrows squeezed together even harder. “It doesn’t work that way and you know it.”

 “Lighten up, Micah. I’m good most of the time.” She flashed him a big smile. “Maybe you should try getting a little bad now and then.” She licked her fingers, grabbed her food from the counter, and blew him a kiss. “See you tomorrow, darling.”

He stared after her as she walked down the steps to her car parked at the curb. Most of the time? She was good most of the time! Shit. He felt like someone just hit him in the head with a baseball bat. Good nutrition wasn’t about most of the time. Jesus. The body constantly produced new cells. Give them one excuse to alter that DNA negatively and you were on your way to disintegration. Annie knew that. He’d taught her in classes and conversations over kale and spinach juice. You are what you fucking eat. It was just that simple. Cupcakes weren’t food! God, kill me now.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and glanced at the screen. Okay, smile. Deep happy breath. Dharmaram hated it when he ranted. “Hi, sweetie.”

“Hi, Micah. Uh, what time are you coming home?”

Hmm. He really wanted to go buy a great Valentine’s Day present for Dharmaram after work, unless he could get off earlier. “I’ll probably be a little late. I’ve got the cooking class. I’ll let Jennifer close the Place, but I have some errands to run.” Man, he loved Valentine’s Day.

“Oh, okay. See you later, then.”

“See you. Kiss, kiss.”

“Yeah.” Dharmaram disconnected.

What could he get Dharmaram that would be special?

What he really wanted was a Rolex, but that was a bit rich for Micah’s wallet. He did okay with the Place, but he gave a lot of money to charity. Saving whales and big trees and rhinos cost a bunch. He sighed. He loved buying presents for people. Yes, he knew it was his subconscious making up for all the things his mother never bought him—Dr. Shapiro had told him that a million times—but he loved it. Still, spending that kind of dough on a watch was irresponsible. Even if it was for the kind of love of his life. Dharmaram probably wouldn’t buy him anything. He’d plead poverty. It always seemed like his yoga studio did okay, but whatever. Maybe he’d just take Dharmaram shopping for new clothes. He always loved that.

Micah glanced at the serving window. Three people stood in line.

“Hey, boss.” The voice came from behind him.

He glanced back at Jen, one of his six employees who kept the Place going. “Hi, Jen. Perfect timing. Want to take over here while I handle the inside tables? I need to set up for the class later.”

“You bet.” She pulled off her jacket, revealing skinny, tattooed arms in her tank top. It might have been February, but cooking in the kitchen and serving the walk-up customers made for hot work.

Micah walked through the door at the back of the kitchen that led into the small interior restaurant. Most of his customers chose the outdoor tables if the weather was nice. He didn’t have a view or anything—the ocean was two blocks away—but it was a really pleasant spot to eat, with big umbrellas over the tables and heaters for when the air got cool. By comparison, the inside space was a little darker but still cheery and comfortable. He held his cooking classes there too.

Right now the dining room sported pink-and-red decorations on the tables that the girls had thought up. Three customers lingered over herb tea and smoothies.

Micah looked around. “Anybody need anything?”

Tim Croner shook his head and kept staring at his tablet computer. The man spent way too much time playing online, but he didn’t seem to care that the radiation could affect his DNA. Oh well.

Micah started putting out utensils on the counter at the back of the room where he did his demos.

Two hours later, he’d served about ten customers in the back of the restaurant, plus made up the ingredients for the raw Valentine’s dinner he planned to teach his students. He set out chairs around a long table where the raw foodies could experiment and taste.

“Hey, Micah.” Allie, one of his best customers, filed in for the class.

“Great to see you. Take any seat.”

Jill and Bill came in holding hands. Yes, their names were a joke and, at fifty-some years married, they’d heard it a lot. Micah smiled as they grabbed two of the seats with their backs to the window. The three pals everyone called “the girls” laughed their way through the door. Molly, Song, and Consuela formed their own United Nations and a great cross-section of California ethnicities, but they were all Valley girls at heart.

Song giggled. “So I said, like, what the hell. I mean, like, what did the guy want from me? It was, like, our first date, you know?”

Consuela flashed Micah a big white-toothed smile. “Hey, baby.” She knew he was gay, but that didn’t stop her flirting. People always told him that his customers had crushes on him, which he thought was plain funny considering he was a skinny gay guy.

“Hey, guys. Get comfortable and I’ll go get our stuff, okay?”

Song looked up. “Ooh, what are we making?”

He grinned. “Raw lasagna. It’s delicious. You’ll love it.”

“One of your mama’s recipes?” She nodded to the picture of his mother on the wall.

“Oh no, not really.” He glanced at the photo of an attractive, dark-haired, youngish woman he kept there for inspiration. He just didn’t tell his customers that she was an inspiration for what not to do.

He bumped the swinging door to the kitchen with his hip and grabbed the bowls and pans he’d use to make the raw lasagna mixture. Holding a stack in place with his chin, he used his free hand to pick up the bowl of raw zucchini and back his way through the door. “Okay, everyone. Get ready for a”—he turned toward the group—“ healthy and sexy Valentine’s—shit!”

Pans clattered and zucchini bounced on the polished concrete floor like so many green phalluses. “Molly, what in the hell are you doing?”

Molly’s wide eyes flashed unbridled innocence as she held the huge pink-frosted cupcake up to Song’s brazen red lips. “Me?” The squeak barely carried the two feet between them.

The clatter and mess had no effect on Song’s single-pointedness. She stuck out her tongue and swiped toxic, food-colored sugar and cream straight into her mouth. Her eyes closed, and she seemed to drift into an orgasmic haze strangely reminiscent of Annie that morning. She sighed. “Oh… my… God.”

Micah set down the rest of the pans on the table. “You’re not serious.”

Consuela put her hands on her hips righteously. “I told her, like, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t be eating cupcakes in front of Micah,’ but she wouldn’t listen.”

In front of him? “What does she eat when I’m not around?”

Consuela laughed. “Don’t even ask.”

Micah stared. That pink garbage disappearing into Song’s mouth looked obscene. Who the hell was leading his customers astray?

With a deep breath, he gathered up the fallen vegetables, went into the kitchen to wash everything again, and started the class. The group leaned over the table as he showed them the preparation of the raw ingredients and how to use spices to create unique flavors and mix ingredients so even the most dedicated lovers of animal products wouldn’t miss the cheese or the meat. Still, after two defections from righteousness today, it was hard to summon his passion.

“You okay, Micah?” Jill cocked her head at him as the others layered ground nut cheese and walnut meat over zucchini slices, then alternated a spinach layer.

He nodded. “Yeah. Fine.” She went back to layering. The words slipped out. “Have you ever tried those cupcakes, Jill?”

She gave him an indulgent smile. “I’ve gone into the shop a couple times, but I haven’t succumbed yet. I probably will for Valentine’s Day, though. They really are beautiful. If they taste as good as they look—”

Song sighed. “Oh, they taste even better.”

Jill laughed. “In that case, I’ll have to give in.”

Micah frowned. “Valentine’s Day is just another chance to show that you can make raw vegan food taste great.”

Consuela got her righteousness on. “That’s what I keep telling them.”

Molly shoved an elbow into Consuela’s ample midsection. “Oh, come on. You had all the frosting off that lemon cupcake when we were watching TV.”

“Did not.”

“Oh, then who ate it? The cat?”

Micah took a deep breath. They were just customers. They didn’t have to live like he did. “Where the hell did this cupcake store come from?”

Song looked up from her layering. “Quentin started it with his grandmother.”

“Quentin who?”

She shrugged. “Just Quentin. He owns the place.”

Consuela giggled. “He’s even prettier than his cupcakes.”

Song sighed again. “And when he bends over to get cupcakes from the case in those tight jeans, I mean… oh my.”

Micah tried to control his face, but no luck. “So you buy cupcakes so you can see this guy’s ass?”

Molly put her messy hands on her hips. “Of course not. The cupcakes are extraordinary. Magical, really.”

Song grinned. “Yes. And so is Quentin’s ass.”

Well, hell! Micah dragged himself through the rest of the class. The students went home with lasagna to serve at their Valentine’s dinner the next day. Yeah, with cupcakes for fucking dessert. It was stupid to feel so defeated and betrayed. He couldn’t expect others to live up to his standards. Dharmaram told him that all the time.

He took a deep breath. Time to go shopping. Maybe he’d just bite the bullet and buy Dharmaram that watch or some other extravagant piece of jewelry.

He stuck his head in the kitchen. Jen was almost finished with her shift, and Kathy had come on to take over. She was not only his best worker, but also his good friend. He smiled at her. “If you guys are okay without me, I’ve got some shopping to do.”

Kathy nodded. “I’m fine. Winter’s definitely here. No big rush. Can you pick up the juicer at the repair place while you’re out?”

He nodded. “Yeah. Good idea. See you tomorrow.” The afternoon sun made him squint as he walked out the back door. South Coast Plaza held many shopping treasures, and he was in the mood to buy them. His customers might have let him down, but he had the best boyfriend. Hell, you couldn’t put a price on love.