“THIS IS Daniel Richards.” I spoke while showing off my best attempt at juggling my groceries. I nearly dropped the whole duck I had just purchased from the vendor at the Union Square farmer’s market, while hugging my phone between my ear and shoulder, and shifting bags of other produce around.

The seller was not impressed. She handed me my change with a frown.

“Thank you—yes, are you inquiring about private catering for Valentine’s Day?” I asked, while shoving the bills into the nearest pocket of my jacket.

February in New York City was still brutal, and I turned away as a gust of wind tore across the square.

“Right, yes, I’m sorry to say that I am completely booked for the holiday. No, well, no one has cancelled. Unfortunately I am unable to squeeze one more event into my schedule. I’m very sorry—yes, I highly advise booking with me two months in advance to any major holiday. Okay, you too, good-bye.”

I’m a private chef and, not to ruffle too many feathers, a damn good one. I’ve been successfully working for myself since my late twenties, after a failed attempt to join the corporate lifestyle with my business degree. Food is my passion, not quarterly sales projections. I handed in my suit and briefcase in exchange for an apron and knife, and despite the first few rocky months starting out, I have never looked back. Now I’m forty-four and a successful chef in one of the most cutthroat cities to cook in.

When you’re a sole proprietor, however, every spare second of your life is dedicated to your job. Balancing the books, the promoting, the cooking. It hadn’t left much room for anything else in my life.

That’s being generous.

It had left no room for anything else.

I suppose at my current age, I wish I had someone to come home to and that I wasn’t always cooking romantic meals for strangers. However, I had made a commitment to my profession instead of a significant other. I don’t regret it for a minute, but to have a man… it would be nice.

I scrolled through the notes on my phone for Mr. and Mrs. Weinstein, the last couple I was shopping for before all of the cooking madness began. The main course I had crafted for them was a seared duck breast with a spicy apple chutney, wild rice pilaf with toasted pecans, and a side of grilled asparagus.

Asparagus.

“Shit,” I muttered, pocketing the phone and turning back toward the vegetable stalls I had walked by prior.

The winter daylight was fading fast, and already several vendors were beginning to pack up. Stopping beside one table, I scanned the cabbage heads and bins of fresh beets.

“Asparagus?” I asked hopefully.

The young man, who stood on the other side, bundled up to keep warm, raised his face from his scarf and grinned. “No, I’m Keith.”

I stupidly stood there, mouth half-open in a failed attempt to respond.

Taking it as a cue for him to continue, the man pulled his hands from his pockets and motioned to the table. “I’m sure if you take a good look, something will turnip!” He laughed suddenly. “Get it? Turnip? Turn up?”

What a stupid—I started to laugh, despite myself. “Yeah. I get it.”

“Oh, good!” Keith said. He reached down under the table and lifted up a bin. “Lettuce see what we can find!”

I stared at him instead of the produce. Tall, broad shouldered, brown hair sticking out from under his hat, and with gorgeous eyes to match. He had a smile that was brighter than the Empire State Building at night.

“Sorry,” he laughed. “It’s a fun way to pass the time.”

“Thinking up vegetable puns?”

“I haven’t figured out one for kale yet,” Keith replied. He held my gaze for an extra heartbeat before speaking.

What was that? I know that I’m horribly, hilariously out of practice with guys, but did he just give me The Look? This hunk, who had to be half my age, was checking me out?

Hell no.

I had checked him out, though.

My heart did one of those quick skips that told my brain I was quickly succumbing to the charms of a vegetable seller on a Tuesday night.

“Are—you okay?” Keith asked.

“What? Yes,” I quickly said. “Kale you believe it?”

Keith cocked his head to the side before he started laughing. “That’s good! I like it! Can I borrow it?”

“Knock yourself out,” I responded.

He offered his hand. “Keith Maxwell.”

“Daniel Richards,” I said while shaking.

“Dan, how much asparagus do you need?” Keith asked next.

“No, not Dan,” I automatically replied. I had never liked being called Dan, but hearing it from Keith, whose voice was so lovely I’d use adjectives normally reserved for chocolate to describe it, it was quite acceptable. “I mean—Dan,” I awkwardly stated.

Keith paused before nodding. “All right, then.”

“Just two bunches,” I quickly added. “Of asparagus.”

“Dinner?” Keith asked while grabbing a bag and putting the produce into it.

“Yeah,” I said. “Oh, not me. I mean, for my clients.”

He smiled at me and seemed so genuinely interested when he asked what I did for a living.

“I’m a personal chef,” I said as we exchanged money and vegetables. “What about you?”

Shit. I had a hundred other things to be doing, and I was flirting—no, not flirting—maybe a little, but badly—with a guy who was way too young.

“Oh, a little of everything,” Keith said with a shrug. “Old friends from high school run a farm upstate, so I help them sell on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“You don’t live in the city, then?” I asked.

Keith grinned. “Dan, don’t sound so disappointed.”

“What? No—”

“I live in Brooklyn,” he laughed. “I work at Barnes & Noble part time,” he added while pointing across the street at the four-story shop. “Friday through Sunday if you ever want to buy a book.”

Again, I fumbled for something intelligent to say, and failed with flying colors. I had never been good at this part. I never knew what to say or how not to come across as awkward.

Keith bit his lip and laughed quietly. “You’re straight?”

“N-No,” I heard myself blurt out.

Keith arched a brow and scrutinized my face. “Taken?”

“No,” I said again.

“I’m coming on too strong, then,” he concluded with a nod.

“Maybe it’s more like, I’m about as strong as decaf coffee,” I replied.

“Gross,” he said.

I started to laugh. “Thanks, for the asparagus.” I took a step back. “Have a good night.”

Keith’s expression dropped, and he started to speak, but I turned away without listening.

That was not something I needed to pursue. My business was thriving; I worked just about every day. I didn’t have the time or the energy to commit to dating or even casually seeing someone. Especially not someone so young.

My heart did a little drop of disappointment to my gut.