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Too Hot to Handle
By Tessa Bailey
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The road trip was definitely a bad idea. Having already flambéed her culinary career beyond recognition, Rita Clarkson is now stranded in God-Knows-Where, New Mexico, with a busted-ass car and her three temperamental siblings, who she hasn’t seen in years. When rescue shows up—six-feet-plus of hot, charming sex on a motorcycle—Rita’s pretty certain she’s gone from the frying pan right into the fire . . .
Jasper Ellis has a bad boy reputation in this town, and he loathes it. The moment he sees Rita, though, Jasper knows he’s about to be sorely tempted. There’s something real between them. Something raw. And Jasper has only a few days to show Rita that he isn’t just for tonight—he’s forever.
Miriam Clarkson, January 1
If you’re reading this, stop. Unless something bad has happened, in which case, screw it. I’m obviously not there anymore to stop you.
I hope I didn’t make a big deal out of dying. Hope there were no last minute confessions or wistful wishes that I’d seen more sunrises. If I did succumb to those clichés and killed everyone’s vibe, I’m sorry. If I didn’t? Well, bully for me. But I’m succumbing now, in this book, because I’ve had too much bourbon.
Oh, come on. At least pretend to be scandalized.
So, here goes. I love my kids. I love that I didn’t have to say it every day for them to know it. To be comfortable in it. But looking back—hindsight is more like 40/40 when you’re about to croak—I know I only fixed minuscule problems and ignored the mammoth ones. I never cooked family dinners, which is pretty damn ironic when you think about it. I am—or was—a culinary genius, after all.
People make dying wishes and their loved ones carry them out. That’s how it works, right? Well, I don’t wish to put that weight on my kids. But I have no such qualms with a cheap notebook I bought at Rite Aid. So here it is. My. Dying. Wish.
Please be patient and try to remember that I often have—or had, rather—a plan.
When I was eighteen, I spent a year in New York City. On New Year’s Day in 1984, I jumped into the icy waters of the Atlantic with the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. I was a guest of a guest of a guest, as eighteen-year-olds trying to make their way in New York often are.
Now here’s where shit gets corny—apologies to my daughter, Rita, who of my four children, will likely find and read this first. See? I paid attention sometimes.
As I was saying.
When I walked back up onto that Coney Island beach, dripping wet and exhilarated, I could see my future. It wasn’t perfect, but I glimpsed it. It glimpsed me back. I could see where I was going. How I would get there. Who would be beside me.
My life changed that day. If I had one wish, it would be for my four children, Belmont, Rita, Aaron, and Peggy, to jump into that same ocean, on that same beach, on New Year’s Day.
Knowing I’m right there with them.
And no, Rita, I’m not joking. How dare you question a dead woman.
The roof! The roof! The roof is…literally on fire.
Rita Clarkson stood across the street from Wayfare, the three-star Michelin restaurant her mother had made a culinary sensation, and watched it sizzle, pop, and whoosh into a smoking heap. Some well-meaning citizen had wrapped a blanket around her shoulders at some point, which struck her as odd. Who needed warming up this close to a structural fire? The egg-coated whisk still clutched in her right hand prevented her from pulling the blanket closer, but she couldn’t force herself to set aside the utensil. It was all that remained of Wayfare, four walls that had witnessed her professional triumphs.
Or failures, more like. There had been way more of those.
Tonight’s dinner-service plans had been ambitious. After a three-week absence from the restaurant, during which she’d participated in the reality television cooking show In the Heat of the Bite—and been booted off—Rita had been determined to swing for the fences her first night back. An attempt to overcompensate? Sure. When you’ve flamed out in spectacular fashion in front of a national TV audience over a fucking cheese soufflé, redemption is a must.
She could still see her own rapturous expression reflecting back from the stainless steel as she’d carefully lowered the oven door, hot television camera lights making her neck perspire, the boom mic dangling above. It was the kind of soufflé a chef dreamed about, or admired in the glossy pages of Bon Appétit magazine. Puffed up, tantalizing. Edible sex. With only three contestants left in the competition, she’d secured her place in the finals. Weeks of “fast-fire challenges” and bunking with neurotic chefs who slept with knives—all worth it, just to be the owner of this soufflé. A veritable feat of culinary strength.
And then her bastard fellow contestant had hip-bumped her oven, causing the center of her divine, worthy-of-Jesus’s-last-supper soufflé to sag into ruin.
What came next had gotten nine hundred forty-eight thousand views on YouTube. Last time she’d checked, at least.
So, yes. Pride in shambles, Rita had overcompensated a little with tonight’s menu. Duo of lamb, accompanied by goat-cheese potato puree. Duck confit on a bed of vegetable risotto. Red snapper crudo with spicy chorizo strips. Nothing that had existed on the previous menu. The one created by French chef and flavor mastermind Miriam Clarkson. Had the fire been her mother’s way of saying, Nice try, kiddo? No, that had never been Miriam’s style. If customers had sent back food with complaints to Miriam’s kitchen, she would have poured bourbon shots for the crew, shut down service, and said, Fuck it…you can’t win ’em all.
For the first time since the fire started, Rita felt pressure behind her eyes. Twenty-eight years old and already a colossal failure. Not fit to compete on a reality show. Not fit to carry on her mother’s legacy. Not fit, period.
In Rita’s back pocket, Miriam’s notebook burned hot, like a glowing coal. As if to say, And what exactly are you going to do about me?
A hose-toting fireman passed, sending Rita a harried but sympathetic look. Realizing an actual tear had escaped and was rolling down her cheek, she lifted the whisk-clutching hand to swipe away the offender, splattering literal egg on her face.
“Oh, come on.”
Denial, fatigue, and humiliation ganged up on her, starting in the shoulder region and spreading to her wrist. Secure in the fact that no one could hear her strangled sob, she hauled back and hurled the whisk, watching it bounce along the cobblestones leading to Wayfare’s entrance.
She felt Belmont before she saw him. It was always that way with her oldest brother. For all she knew, he’d been standing in the shadows, watching the flames for the past hour, but hadn’t felt like making his presence known. Everything on his terms, his time, his pace. God, she envied that. Envied the solitary life he’d carved out for himself, the lucrative marine salvage business that allowed him to accept only jobs that interested him, spending the rest of his time hiding away on his boat. When Belmont sidled up beside her, she didn’t look over. His level expression never changed and it wouldn’t now. But she couldn’t stand to see her own self-disgust reflected back in his steady eyes.
“They won’t save it,” came Belmont’s rumble.
Her oldest brother never failed to state the obvious.
He shifted closer, brushing their shoulders together. Accidental? Maybe. He wasn’t exactly huge on showing affection. None of the Clarksons were, but at least she and Belmont had quiet understanding. “Would you want them to save it, if they could?”
They were silent for a full minute. “That’s a million-dollar question.”
“I don’t have that much cash on me.”
His deadpan statement surprised a laugh out of Rita. It felt good for two-point-eight seconds before her chest began to fill with lead, her legs starting to wobble. The laugh turned into big, gulping breaths. “Oh, motherfucking Christ, Belmont. I burned down Mom’s restaurant.”
“Yeah.” Another brush of his burly shoulder steadied her, just a little. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
Exasperated, Rita shoved him, but he didn’t budge. “And they call me the morbid one.”
Belmont’s sigh managed to drown out the sirens and emergency personnel shouts. “She might be dead. But her sense of humor isn’t.”
Rita once again thought of the journal in her jeans pocket. “You’re right. She’d be roasting marshmallows over there. Starting a hot, new upscale s’more trend.”
“You could start it yourself.”
No, I can’t, Rita thought, staring out at the orange, licking flames. She’d already started quite enough for one night.
* * *
Rita and Belmont were sitting silently on the sidewalk, staring at the decimated restaurant, when a sleek white Mercedes with the license plate VOTE4AC pulled up along the curb, eliciting a sigh from them both. Rita shoved a hand through her dyed black hair and straightened her weary spine. Preparing. Bolstering. While Belmont’s modus operandi was to hang back, take a situation’s measure, and then approach with caution, her younger brother, Aaron, liked to make a damn entrance, right down to the way he exited the driver’s side. Like a Broadway actor entering from stage left into a dramatic scene, aware that eyes would swing in his direction. His gray suit boasted not a single wrinkle, black shoes polished to a shine. His golden-boy smile had made him a media sensation, but for once it was nowhere to be seen as he approached Rita and Belmont.
Aaron shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “Fuck. Right?”
“Yep,” Rita said, swallowing hard.
Her politician brother did a scan of the dire scene, brain working overtime behind golden-brown eyes inherited by all the Clarksons. Except Belmont, whose eyes were a deep blue, on account of him having a different father. A fact that Rita forgot most of the time, since Belmont had been there—an unmovable presence—since the day she was born. Aaron had come later. The second coming.
“Are you all right?” Aaron asked her abruptly, a suspicious twinkle in his gaze. “You must have been in there a while with the smoke. The soot around your eyes—”
“Hilarious, dickhead.” Her heavy black eye makeup and general fuck off appearance were a constant source of amusement for her clean-cut younger brother. “You have a funny way of showing concern.”
“Thank you. What do I need to handle?” Aaron adjusted the starched white collar of his shirt. “Did you make a statement yet or anything?”
Rita allowed the steel to leach from her spine. “I’ve been kind of busy just sitting here.”
“Right.” Aaron feigned surprise at finding Belmont on the sidewalk with them. “Jesus. I thought you were a statue.”
“You smell like the ocean.”
“You smell like the blood of taxpayers,” Belmont returned.
“Well.” Rita finally found enough presence of mind to yank the smoky apron over her head, chucking it into the street. “I think I just remembered why we haven’t hung out since Mom died.”
Truthfully, even before that rainy afternoon, the time they’d spent together as a family had felt mandatory. Organized by their mother and fled from in almost comical haste.
“Oh. My. God.”
At the sound of their youngest sibling, Peggy’s, voice, all three of them cursed beneath their breath. Let the family reunion officially begin. It wasn’t that they didn’t love their baby sister. And in many ways, Peggy, a personal shopper to San Diego’s elite, was still a baby at twenty-five. Her big Coke-bottle curls and cheerleader appearance guaranteed that she got away with just about everything. Including neglecting to pay her cabdriver, if the irritated-looking man following her with a receipt clutched in his fist was any indication.
“How did this happen?” Peggy hiccupped, playing with the string of engagement rings dangling from her neck, as Belmont wordlessly paid the cabdriver. “I just had dinner here two weeks ago. Everything seemed fine.”
Rita battled the compulsion to lie down on the sidewalk in the fetal position. Oh God. Her mother had bequeathed her an award-winning restaurant and she’d burned it down. On Rita’s first day back.
Aaron was busy scrolling through his phone, the screen’s glow illuminating his perfectly tousled dark blond hair. “Look at the bright side, Rita. Now you can pursue your dream of being a Hot Topic register girl.”
Rita barely had the strength to flip him the bird. “Jump up my ass.”
When Peggy approached Rita couldn’t look her in the eye, so she focused on her younger sister’s toes, which were peeking out of strappy silver sandals. “Hey. I’m glad you’re okay.”
Rita’s throat went tight. “Thanks, Peggy.”
“I’m sorry about the restaurant, too. I know how much you loved it. How much Mom loved it.” Her youngest sibling nodded and cast a discreet glance over her shoulder, turning back with a charming half smile. A smile responsible for four marriage proposals over the past three years. “Mom probably would have wanted me to talk to those firefighters, though. Am I right?”
Rita groaned up at the sky.
Meet the fucking Clarksons.
Unable to stand the undercurrent of blame radiating from her siblings any longer, Rita came to her feet and walked toward what remained of Wayfare. She hesitated for the barest of seconds when she reached the yellow tape, but shrugged and ducked beneath it. Her Doc Martens crunched in the charred debris, which had cooled overnight as they sat across the street, watching the smoke dissipate. Even demolished, she knew which rooms she walked through, exactly which table numbers the black metal legs belonged to. She toed aside a burned piece of wood and spied the wrought-iron Bonjour! sign Miriam had brought back from Paris on one of her many trips.
Rita turned at the sound of footsteps behind her. Her siblings were wading into the restaurant’s remains with varying degrees of caution. Aaron followed behind Peggy, giving her a quick poke in the ribs then pretending he hadn’t done it when she whelped. Where Rita and Belmont had quiet understanding, Aaron and Peggy—the two youngest—made merry when together. They weren’t necessarily close, but they liked one another and had developed a way to show it without sliding into dreaded emotional territory. They made it look so effortless.
What must that be like?
Aaron’s usually smirking mouth moved into a grim line. “It’s safe to say rebuilding is off the table.”
Belmont drew even with Rita, kicking aside some splintered wood to pick up the Bonjour! sign. “Just tell me what you want. I’ll tell you if it’s possible to save it.”
“Right,” Rita said quietly. “This is what you do, salvage man.”
“Remember when I got the job working for Senator Boggs? Mom threw that cocktail party and invited three of my ex-girlfriends, who quickly figured out there’d been some relationship overlap.” Aaron crouched down and tugged a wedged picture of Miriam standing in the French countryside from beneath a charred produce crate. “She laughed as I ran out the door.”
“We were all laughing,” Rita corrected, moving toward the remains of Wayfare’s former world-class kitchen.
“Thanks.” Aaron’s response was drier than dust as he set the photograph back down, his movements brisk. Dismissive. “She called me later that night and said, ‘There’s your first lesson in politics, son. Everyone you’ve fucked over shows up at the same party sooner or later.’ She was right.”
Rita stopped beside a stainless-steel oven range, kicking it with the toe of her boot. Barely having spoken to her siblings in the last year, opening up to them took a fair bit of effort. But something about the funeral-esque feel of the burned-down restaurant erased that no-contact year for just a moment, bringing them back to a time when conversation came more easily. When they were still uncomfortable with one another but at least they were accustomed to it. And since someone else arranged time together—namely Miriam—they were saved from appearing to have made an effort, because God forbid, right? “I, um, I made my first osso buco on this big boy,” she said, nodding at the oven range. “It came out like shoe leather. Mom ate the whole thing, chewing every bite while the crew watched. And then she said, ‘Thank God that sucked. If you’d gotten osso buco right the very first time, I would’ve had to step down as head chef. And I like being the main bitch too much.’ Then she took a shot of bourbon and rattled off that night’s specials.”
While I stood there like a naked teenager on the first day of school.
“Ooh. My turn.” Holding Aaron’s shoulder for balance, Peggy stepped up onto an overturned steel refrigerator and spun in a pirouette. “After I broke my engagement to Harry, I didn’t want to leave my apartment…didn’t want to work. Nothing. But Mom picked me up and brought me to Wayfare.” Another ballerina-like move that had Aaron reaching without looking to steady her. “She sat me down in the dining room— at the center table in front of everyone—and gave me a skillet full of cherry clafoutis with a lit candle stuck in the center. She said, ‘There. Now it’s a real pity party.’ I went back to work the next day.”
A wind blew through Wayfare’s ruins, swirling ashes around Rita’s boots. Despite the distance between them, having her brothers and sister there was providing actual comfort. But that comfort turned to thorns with Aaron’s next question.
“What will you do, Rita?”
Her mother’s journal had turned to stone in her back pocket, creating a heavy downward pull. The Clarksons were not a family of oversharers. In fact, they weren’t even sharers, which is why she hadn’t yet told them about the journal Miriam had left for her to find. Their individual problems—and they each had plenty to boast about—were their own. While Miriam had occasionally broken through those walls to make a point, she’d been just as comfortable with her children being solitary entities. Dysfunctional islands that occasionally passed in the night. Her illness had knocked them all on their collective asses, because it was fact that the Clarkson siblings loved the shit out of their mother, but they’d never talked about it. Never grieved as a unit. As far as Rita was concerned—and she suspected she wasn’t alone—that suited her just fine.
But with the journal came responsibility. Her siblings deserved to know about Miriam’s final wish. A wish Rita was now determined to see through. Perhaps she was grasping at any excuse to leave California and her numerous fuckups behind, but the promise of a new beginning sounded better than melting butter. No more cooking. No more failing. She could finally indulge that secret fantasy of going back to school for anything but working in a kitchen. If Miriam’s journal gave her the excuse she needed, she would thank her mother and take it. Without or without her siblings in tow.
“I’m going to New York. The way she wanted. You’re welcome to come with me, but I won’t fault you for saying no. Just…here.” Rita slid the brown moleskin book from her jeans and held it out to Belmont. “Bel, can I borrow the Suburban? Sort of…indefinitely?”
Rita waited for her older brother’s stilted nod before she turned and left them with the journal. She sat in her car, pretending to organize a pile of old mix CDs, watching as her family took turns passing around Miriam’s penned thoughts, reading the first entry she’d marked. Although she couldn’t hear them, Rita could vibe Aaron’s incredulity, Peggy’s nervous follow-up questions, and Belmont’s silent, tangible gravity, his unawareness that the other two watched and waited, hoping he would weigh in verbally. It took them only ten minutes to approach the car looking like some kind of mobile intervention.
Aaron rapped on the window until Rita rolled it down. “Look, it’s just not happening. Next year is an election year and campaign season is critical. I don’t have time to fly to New York and dive into the goddamn ocean.”
Peggy chewed on her thumbnail. “They just promoted me at the store. I’m up for manager next and Christmas is our busiest season. They’d ax me for sure.”
Belmont stayed quiet.
Rita was unsurprised by their reactions. If you’d asked her two days ago if a trip to New York was on the agenda, she might have sighed over the far-fetched fantasy of such a notion but scoffed nonetheless. Just then, however, looking out over the charred remains of her career, guilt a smoky cloud around her shoulders, she couldn’t remember a time when taking off wasn’t part of the plan. If it were feasible to begin driving that morning, she would have done it without wasting a second.
Rita gathered her hair on top of her head and let it drop, addressing Aaron’s statement first. “You know I don’t fly. I’m driving.”
Aaron cocked an eyebrow. “You’re actually going. On this weirdly specific mission to catch hypothermia.”
“Looks that way,” Rita answered, cranking the car’s air conditioner. Their scrutiny was making her hot, and San Diego’s elevated climate in late November allowed her to get away with the nervous action. Her heart was thumping in her chest, her decision cementing itself. Pride wouldn’t let her change her mind now that she’d said it out loud, in front of her brothers and sister.
Rita hid her inward flinch when Aaron and Peggy sailed off toward Aaron’s Mercedes, muttering to one another, Peggy throwing him the occasional shove. Belmont stood in the middle of the street, head down, but clearly halfway to bailing. Fine. She’d been without them for a long time. She certainly didn’t need them or their stupendous neuroses now. Add the dysfunctional Clarkson clan to the list of things she would gladly leave behind when she hit the road.
Starting the car’s engine, Rita was a second from throwing the car into reverse when she caught Aaron, Peggy, and Belmont closing back in, varying degrees of irritation etched into their familiar features. Without turning her head, Rita rolled down the driver’s-side window and waited.
“All right, look.” Aaron smoothed a hand down the front of his still-pristine dress shirt. “The front runner for the presidential nomination—Glen Pendleton—is going to be stumping at the Iowa primaries on December tenth. Senator Boggs already recommended me as a campaign adviser; I just need to make contact. If we can pause our little road trip long enough for me to meet with him and secure the position I want…” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I’m in.”
“I have a condition thingy, too,” Peggy chimed in, unable to stop herself from bouncing. “We stop at U of C between Iowa and New York. There’s an old friend I’ve been meaning to visit.” Rita narrowed her eyes at Peggy’s blush. As far as Rita knew, Peggy had mostly maintained contact with her cheer squad from the University of Cincinnati, but why would that turn her face red? “I’m only asking for one day,” Peggy added. “Maybe two, depending on how things…progress.”
Nothing with her family could ever be cut and dried, could it? She jerked her chin at Belmont. “What about you? Any special requests?”
Belmont’s gaze was locked on his shoes, but he tipped his head down in Peggy’s direction. “I need…I might need—”
“Sage,” Peggy supplied, surprising Rita. “You want me to invite Sage.” Belmont didn’t answer, remaining eerily still, but Peggy only nodded. “I’ll ask her if she can take the time off, big guy.”
Sage—as in Peggy’s wedding planner? Why would Belmont need his sister’s best friend along for the ride? Rita traded a baffled look with Aaron, but neither of them commented. Prying never worked with Belmont. He would only clam up more.
But they were actually considering coming along. There was a spark of gratefulness—maybe even reluctant excitement—in Rita’s chest, but she doused it. “Look, if you guys are doing this because you feel sorry for me and my burned-down pile of bricks, I don’t need your pity.”
“Does that sound like us?” Aaron asked.
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- On Sale
- May 17, 2016
- Page Count
- 336 pages