“GOOD EVENING, sir. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your table.”
Liam Walker glanced around the dining room of the Overlook resort with a professional eye. The decor was rustic with heart-of-pine floors and exposed wooden beams in the ceiling, everything warmly lit by polished copper fixtures. It wasn’t a huge room, but it was tasteful and comfortable, and Liam relaxed as he followed the maître d’ to a small table for two next to a wide window. The scenery outside was similar to that from his small private cottage on the resort grounds, a spectacular view of the valley nestled in the Smoky Mountains, which were backlit by the last rays of the setting sun.
He took his seat and accepted a menu from the maître d’ with murmured thanks, but he didn’t look at it, opting instead to check out the other patrons. There weren’t many, which was a surprise, considering the resort was in a prime location and the price he’d been quoted for his last-minute reservation had been quite reasonable. In fact, only three of the thirty or so tables were occupied, all of them by couples who seemed more absorbed with each other than their surroundings or their food. Giving a snort of disdain, he opened the menu and read it with the careful consideration of a professional chef.
“Good evening, Mr. Walker. I’m Lydia, and I’ll be taking care of you this evening. What can I bring you to drink?”
Liam glanced up into the smiling face of his waitress. She seemed absurdly young, though most likely she was a college student on summer break. He wasn’t interested in socializing, so he nodded curtly and ordered a sweet tea. She went off but returned quickly with the drink.
“Are you ready to order?” she asked, pulling a pad from her brown apron and giving him another bright smile.
One of the problems with being in his line of work was that Liam tended to be unimpressed by most places when he dined out, but he was willing to give a new place the benefit of the doubt.
“Are the prawns fresh?” he asked, pointing to one of the items on the menu.
“Oh, yes, sir,” she assured him. “Everything we serve is fresh.”
“Fine, then I’ll have a Caesar salad, light on the dressing, the garlic prawn skewers with rice, and asparagus,” he replied. After Lydia took his order and assured him she’d be back with his food quickly, Liam once again turned his attention to the view, watching the fiery sky beyond the ridge of dusky mountains fading to tones of purple and black.
Once the light had faded, however, he was left with only his own reflection in the dark glass, and he turned away, not wanting to see the lines of strain on his face. This was his first real vacation in eight years, and it was probably long overdue. But he’d wanted to be a success and make a reputation for himself in the culinary world, and that demanded focus, attention, and overwhelming dedication. He’d worked hard to put himself through one of the best culinary schools in the country, working part-time first as a server, then as a sous chef wherever he could find employment. After graduation, he’d worked his way through some of the finest restaurants in New York City, learning what he could from every chef as he developed his own particular style, and he moved up the culinary ladder slowly but steadily.
Then he’d gotten a lucky break. Marco Cabrisi, a celebrity chef with a chain of restaurants, had toured the kitchen where Liam had been working, and he’d been impressed by Liam’s work. That had led to a job offer as sous chef for the big man himself, which had been the most incredibly demanding job Liam had ever had. But Marco had an eye for talent, and after two years, he’d offered to let Liam take over one of his flagship restaurants, Deep Blue. It had been exhilarating, and at the age of twenty-eight, Liam had found himself riding high. Not bad for a self-made man from a small town in Texas who’d started with nothing more than a love of cooking. Liam was proud of what he had accomplished, and his large extended family congratulated him on “makin’ it” in the big city.
Then a restaurant critic for the New York Times had posted a scathing review, claiming that Liam was unoriginal, and that his success was due to riding Marco’s coattails and not based on his own minimal ability. Liam had been so furious that he’d punched the critic at a big charity gala, breaking the smarmy asshole’s nose and causing a huge scene. He’d been arrested, but perhaps the most humiliating thing of all was that the critic had graciously refused to press charges, which made Liam look like a total dick. Liam was well aware he had a full measure of the temper he’d inherited from his father’s side of the family, but he’d been able to keep it in check until that night, when all the pent-up tension of watching his years of hard work and dedication being belittled by a man who probably couldn’t boil water had caused him to lash out.
It had been little more than a blip on the radar of restaurant dramas, but it had eaten at Liam until Marco, who by now was as much a friend as a mentor, had told him he needed to get away and find some perspective. So here he was, in a resort he’d picked at random from a list given to him by a travel agent, hoping that a couple of weeks of hiking mountain trails and kayaking down rapids would clear his head and give him the ability to once again focus on his career and remove the blot from his reputation.
“Here’s your salad. I hope you enjoy it,” Lydia said, placing a bowl in front of him.
Liam glanced down, and his eyes widened as he stared at the mass of wilted romaine. Even though it appeared the dressing was indeed light, the scent of garlic was overwhelming with a bitter edge to it, as though it was on the verge of going bad. There was an anemic amount of grated cheese on the top—not the appealingly thin slices that would have graced a salad in his own restaurant—and the croutons had obviously come from a box. He frowned as he picked up his fork and poked one of the croutons. They were stale, and he shook his head.
“This is unacceptable,” he told Lydia, keeping his tone even. He knew it wasn’t the fault of a server when the chef was inadequate, but she should have spotted the condition of the lettuce before bringing it to the table. A proper dinner service required the servers to be as attentive as the kitchen staff.
“Sir?” Lydia appeared puzzled as she looked at the salad. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Please tell me you do know how a Caesar salad is supposed to look,” Liam said, raising one eyebrow. “I assure you, limp, brown-edged romaine isn’t one of the ingredients. The croutons are stale, and your chef needs to check his garlic cloves, because from the smell, they’re going rotten.”
“That can’t be,” she protested. “The dressing comes from a bottle.”
Liam rolled his eyes. He should have known better than to expect a properly made salad with freshly prepared dressing, but that didn’t excuse the rest of it. He bit back a sharp retort and decided it wasn’t worth arguing about.
“Take it away,” he said, pushing the bowl to one side. “Just bring me the main course.”
“Yes, sir.” Lydia didn’t look happy, but she picked up the bowl and carried it off.
Drawing in a deep breath, Liam told himself to relax. He couldn’t expect Cordon Bleu cuisine from a rustic inn in the North Carolina mountains, so he needed to relax his standards or he was going to wind up more frustrated than when he’d left New York. At least the sweet tea was good, so he focused on that as he waited for the next course.
It took quite a while to arrive, and Liam was growing impatient by the time Lydia returned to his table. Given the dining room was practically empty and that prawns took only a couple of minutes to prepare, he was pretty certain the chef and sous chef were both slacking off.
“Sorry for the wait.” Lydia was a bit breathless, but she beamed as she placed a plate in front of him. “Here you are. Enjoy!”
Apparently Lydia had no interest in finding out his opinion on this course because she left quickly, and when Liam looked at the plate, he realized why. The prawns on the skewers were charred on one side, and the bed of rice they rested upon was lumpy and an unappealing grayish color. The asparagus, which should have been crisp and bright green, lay limply on the side of the plate, and it was the same shade as a martini olive.
“Oh, hell no,” Liam muttered. He leaned down and sniffed gingerly at the food, and he shook his head at the scent of charred shellfish. Lydia had disappeared, but Liam didn’t let that worry him. He stood up and stalked over to the maître d’. He could relax his standards, but he wasn’t about to abandon them entirely.
“I want to know why, in a dining room with only a half-dozen diners present, I’m being served swill worse than what I’d serve to a hog,” he demanded, thumping his hand down flat on the maître d’s stand and making the man jump.
The maître d’ gulped, seeming taken aback by Liam’s scowl. “I’m sorry, sir. Would you like something else?”
“No! At this point, I’d be suspicious of anything coming out of that kitchen,” Liam retorted. “What I want is to see the manager or whoever is in charge of this mess. He needs to be warned before someone becomes ill and sues the resort.”
“Yes, sir.” The maître d’ scurried away, and Liam crossed his arms over his chest, frowning as he waited.
Less than five minutes later, the maître d’ returned with a man who appeared not much older than the waitstaff, and Liam found it difficult to believe that such a young man was the manager. His youth aside, he didn’t look the part. His unruly dark curls were too long, and rather than a suit, he wore tan pants and a light blue button-down shirt with loafers, but he carried himself with authority, and he approached Liam with a polite smile.
“Sam says you had an unpleasant experience with your dinner. What seems to be the problem?”
Liam felt an unexpected curl of attraction. The manager’s eyes were dark and thickly lashed, and his jawline made Liam want to brush his fingers along it to feel the rasp of stubble. Pulling himself up sharply, Liam scowled harder to make up for the direction of his thoughts. They were pointless, anyway, since it was unlikely the manager was gay, and the reaction probably stemmed more from the long dry spell in Liam’s social life.
“It is completely unacceptable,” he said. “In fact, if it were much more unacceptable, I’d be calling the health department.”
The man’s chocolate brown eyes flew open wide as he stared at Liam in alarm. “What?”