The Subject Was Rose is available from Siren-Bookstrand HERE.
THE SUBJECT WAS ROSE
The Sunset Palomino Ranch 2
Copyright © 2013
Last Chance, California
“Rose. Gentleman at Table Fourteen has a complaint.”
The waiter stood innocently in the kitchen holding an empty tray. Guests were always “gentlemen,” even if they were complaining that the beef stew en casserole had lettuce in it—it was supposed to—or their Perfect Manhattan wasn’t so perfect.
“Goddammit.” Rose swore and swiped her too-long bangs from her eye. “Do you know what he’s bitching about?” She had glimpsed Table Fourteen for just the briefest moment while peeking out to survey her empire—the dining room at the Cavern on the Green, the elegant mid-century supper club attached to the Searchlight Motel. All she’d seen was a distinguished older, well, gentleman. His short, almost crew-cut silver hair gave him the look of a banker or lawyer in his Rodeo Drive suit. Rose had been executive chef at The Stick and Fiddle in Los Angeles, earning them their third star from Michelin. And that was after graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute at Hyde Park, New York. She’d never had a single tiny complaint until coming to this regentrified burg near Palm Springs. People must not be very hip to the ever-changing cuisine scene out here.
That soup had been served hours ago. Earlier, Table Fourteen’s silver fox had been with a couple of business associates, but now he was alone, so he was her culprit. Rose had no choice but to suck it up and paste a grin on her face. Wiping her hands on her apron, she took a few deep breaths, reminding herself it was almost eleven and everyone would soon be gone.
Rose went obsequiously around the side of the table, even bending her knees a little to gain more eye contact with the gentleman. Oh, my. He was stunningly beautiful and not really a silver fox at all—could a man of only forty be classed as a silver fox? He must have just been barely grey and chose to let it go—another point in his stunningly beautiful favor. His straight, pointed nose led the eye to his perfectly sculpted, bowed lips. The lips were thin and stern, though, and his dark brown eyes seemed to have no pupil as he regarded her with disapproval. His cheekbones were so sharp you could skin a deer with them.
“Hi, I’m Rose Britton, executive chef. You found fault with the pepper pot soup?” She had a feeling she knew what the “fault” would be. She was attempting to reintroduce a 1950s comfort food kitsch item that not many people remembered, ironically or otherwise.
“Yes,” said the gentleman, sneering at a nonexistent soup bowl on the table. “What was that awful rubbery stuff in there?”
Once his eyes moved up Rose’s torso though, as expected, his eyes dilated with pleasure.
Rose knew she was pretty. She could always see the pleasure wash over men’s faces when they first viewed her. She had never lacked for dates or suitors, even though her nose was too wide and piggish and her eyes always looked puffy and tired. Her honey blonde hair could look delicious and whipped when it behaved—or tinged with a nauseous green from her high school swimming days in Florida.
But right now that didn’t matter. Rose was tired of men. Men were dogs, and it enraged her even more to think this cultured man would insult her soup even worse if she had been more overweight than her pleasantly curvy, or had her nose been even more piggish. She kept her hands folded in front of her filthy apron and said civilly, “You must mean the beef tripe. That’s an ingredient many people aren’t familiar with.”
He frowned. Rose knew his sort. They had to know everything, and the worst insult was to infer that they didn’t. “Of course I’m familiar with tripe,” he said imperiously. He had really broad shoulders. Rose mentally slapped herself for wondering if he worked out. Rose imagined she could see pectorals rippling under the suit jacket as he made a little pile of his linen napkin on the table top. “I was just wondering why it had to be so damned rubbery. So damned repellant.”
He had gone back to disliking her because she had questioned his know-how, and that was fine with Rose. She just wanted to get back into her kitchen, oversee the cleanup, schedule workers for tomorrow, and get the hell back to her room at the Searchlight Motel. She found herself eager to please him, and she told herself it was just to hurry things along. She had a sneaking suspicion, though, that she might just sincerely want to please the asshole. “Well, that’s kind of the nature of tripe, sir. Maybe next time the vichyssoise or turtle soup would be more to your palate.”
His eyes flashed with anger. He dropped his credit card on the table as though it was a turd. “Aren’t you a bit young to be an executive chef?”
“Well, this is a small establishment. I do a lot of the hands-on cooking here myself.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Including the pepper pot soup?”
Rose sighed. “Including the pepper pot soup.”
He snorted. “Well. If there is a next time, I’ll definitely stay away from your soup.” He stabbed the credit card with his steely glance, giving Rose the unmistakable picture.
“Oh! I’ll take your bill to the cashier.” Rose gave a little bow, and got the hell out of there without having to endure another acerbic word from that asshat.
“Asshat,” she said under her breath as she handed the cashier the black billfold.
“Yeah,” said the other woman. “He’s gorge, but he’s sure got ’tude. He sent back his Clams Casino appetizer because it was too buttery.”
“It’s supposed to be buttery. Who is he, do you know?”
The hostess shrugged. “I’ve never seen him before. But they were talking about steers and registered cattle, so I guess he’s in the ranching business nearby.”
Rose looked at the man over her shoulder. He irritably slapped a cowboy hat against his knee, but he wasn’t tan enough to be the actual rancher. He must be the owner.
“Oh, whatever,” Rose said, irritable herself now, and sped off to the ladies’ room. In the hallway, she had to turn sideways to make room for a man exiting the other restroom. Like the asshat, he was dressed in a nice suit and he bore more than a slight resemblance to Mad Men’s Don Draper. He smelled like expensive cologne, too, and once again Rose’s feminine sensibilities were all atwitter.
“Well, hello,” Don Draper said, looking directly at her bosom.
“Hello,” she whispered in that dismissive, polite way used when one doesn’t want to encourage an entire conversation.
But Don was determined. “You work here? I have to congratulate you on a superb meal. The trout almondine tasted like it was freshly caught.”
Rose was always a sucker for flattery. “Why, thank you. Are you by any chance in the same party with that gentleman…” Rose pointed, although they couldn’t see the asshat’s table from here.
Don seemed to know who she meant, though. “That rancher? No, I’m not, though I know he’s the new owner of the Shining Lands Ranch.”
“Oh, Shining Lands Ranch, eh?” Rose didn’t know the Shining Lands Ranch from the Ponderosa Ranch, having only been in Last Chance a month now. Hell, she was still living in the Ocean’s 11 Room at the Searchlight. She adored being surrounded by this kitschy mid-century Desert Modernist style. Everything was decorated in brightly patterned blocks, clean smooth lines everywhere. There were rumors this motel had once been a bordello. Rose stumbled upon signs of it every once in awhile. “Well, we’re both new in town, then. Are you new?” Rose, stop talking to nice, strange men. Only bad has ever come of that.
Don Draper laughed handsomely. “No, I’ve been stuck here it seems forever. Burt Macklin.” He shook Rose’s hand. “I run the local BLM field office.”
Rose had no idea what a BLM was either—it sounded like an airline. He was some sort of executive, in any event. “Well, nice to meet you, Burt. I’m Rose Britton. I’m—well, the executive chef of this Cavern.” She lowered her voice. “I’m glad you’re not with that rancher. He’s not very nice.”
Don—Burt Macklin, rather—seemed concerned about this. “Really? That’s too bad, because I think I’ll be stuck working with him soon. I knew his father, Sam Stinson.”
“Well, I feel sorry for you,” giggled Rose. She realized she was flirting. She seriously did need to pee, so her behavior was ridiculous. “He practically had me drawn and quartered for putting tripe into the pepper pot soup.”
Burt frowned in commiseration. “Well, that’s just not called for, is it?”
Rose motioned at the ladies’ room door. “I’d better…”
“Of course,” said Burt, and they parted ways.
Things had quieted down back in the kitchen. A stab of anxiety pierced Rose’s heart when she saw Willow Paige, the owner of the entire establishment, chatting with Carl Bogart, the motel manager. Carl, a swinging bachelor, often came in late at night to get a free meal, but since things had seemed under control it was odd to see Willow. You moron. How could she have heard about the pepper pot asshole already? Or could she have…
Carl started right in on her, not even pausing to swallow his mouthful of Imperial Deviled Crab. He pointed at Rose with his fork. “I seen you flirting out there with Drake Stinson, getting all girly and giggly. I’m disappointed in you, Miss Britton!”
Rose frowned something fierce. She grabbed a cantaloupe that had been quartered and hefted it like a bowling ball. “Who the hell is Drake Stinson?”
Carl’s jaw hung open and it wasn’t an appetizing sight. Willow beat him to the punch. “You mean you didn’t know who that billionaire cattle rancher was at Table Fourteen?”
Carl swallowed hastily. “Don’t tell her he’s a billionaire, Willow! Then she’ll just join the mile-long line of silly airheaded intelligent women who become as stupid as a shoe in the presence of that douchebaggy mail-order cowboy. Admit you were flirting, woman.”
Carl was a far west sort of guy who spoke colorfully, and Rose laughed at his depiction of Drake Stinson. “Don’t panic, Carl. I wouldn’t flirt with that douchebaggy cowboy if you paid me.”
Carl glowered. “Mail-order cowboy. That means a fake one, one from back East, a greenhorn who doesn’t know the true cowboy ways.”
“I figured, Carl. You know I have no interest in men, cowboy or otherwise.”
Carl persisted. “Well, if you’re determined to have nothing to do with me, I sure as hell don’t want you around that pilgrim.”
“If it’s any consolation, I didn’t like him from the get-go.” Rose figured she may as well confess to Willow, to let it be known she had nothing to hide. “He called me over to bitch me out about the ‘rubbery’ tripe in the pepper pot.”
Willow waved away the rancher’s existence. “You’re going to get that a lot, Rose. We’re dealing with recreating a mid-century retro menu but with half the fat and cholesterol. You’re going to get a lot of people that don’t understand our goals.”
“Spam,” said Carl happily. “It’s the miracle meat.”
Rose waved a limp hand, too. “Well, I wasn’t kidding, you guys. If it weren’t for pickpockets I’d have no sex life at all. And it’s going to stay that way for a while. I’m taking a long vacation from men. I’m going to try out a new lamb cake on the menu tomorrow.”
Willow wrinkled her nose. “A cake…made from lamb?”
Lamb was abundant in mid-century recipes, but not in this case. “No, in the shape of a lamb. With coconut flakes for the wool, of course.”
“Of course!” agreed Carl heartily. “And gumdrops for eyes. Keeping it classy.”
Now Willow frowned at her motel manager who went back to stuffing his mouth with crab. She took the melon from Rose’s hand and dragged her back toward the dining room. “The lamb cake sounds awesome, Rose, but I want you to meet someone.”
Rose practically clung to the wall when she saw only a lone man sitting at the indoor-outdoor poolside bar. She thought that Willow got the picture—she wanted nothing to do with men. Her whole life was her job. Her job was her life. “I’ve got a purchase order I need to finish and e-mail to—”
Willow practically pinned her to the wall with exasperation. “This isn’t a hookup, Rose. God! You’re so deathly afraid of men you can’t even say hi to one?”
“I’m not afraid of men, Willow. You know that. I’m just burned out on them, taking a vacation from them.”
Willow smirked. “More like a staycation.” Willow herself lived with two men in a glamorous remodeled desert oasis. As though it wasn’t difficult enough finding one man, Willow had to go and scoop up two of the most desirable men in Last Chance—hell, in the entire Palm Springs area. Not that Rose cared. “Listen, I just want you to meet Jesse because, now don’t laugh, but he’s just painted my portrait. Yes. I know it sounds egotistical, and it probably is, but Steffen and Amadeo insisted on it, and this artist is amazing. He does photorealistic portraits but with a definite Coachella Valley sort of air, sort of aura.”
“Why do I want to meet him? I don’t want my portrait painted.”
But Willow was already waving to the guy seated in the palm thatch-roofed cabana. “Jesse, hey!”
Turquoise light reflected from the swimming pool onto Jesse’s face. Rose nearly gasped, Jesse was so beautiful. The watery reflection lit up his blue eyes, so dazzling Rose had to squint. Yet his velvety skin had a baked caramel glow to it, as though he was part African-American mixed with something ethereally northern. He came forward, his smile lighting up his entire face, giving him a youthful radiance, although he was probably around the same age as Rose’s thirty-four.
Suddenly Rose didn’t recall that she’d sworn off men. Suddenly Rose was eager to meet this Jesse, to know more about him. I can have men friends, can’t I?
Rose knew she was taking her chances. Being this close so such a delicious man was tempting fate.
But when he shook Rose’s hand as Willow introduced them, suddenly he posed no threat to Rose anymore. He’s gay. Good. He was far too beautiful to be straight, he wore a diamond stud in one ear, and Willow was saying,
“This is Jesse Factor. Not only has he painted my portrait, he’s a well-known interior designer.”
Well, that just tears it. He’s no threat to me. Maybe we could even be friends. Rose took a tall stool next to Jesse and ordered a Harvey Wallbanger as Jesse said humbly, “Oh, I don’t know about ‘well-known.’”
Willow lightly shoved Jesse. “Oh, you are too well-known. He just came from designing one of Barry Manilow’s interiors here in town.”
Rose giggled. She didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing. “Well, Barry must spread the wealth fairly generously.”
Jesse was a bit too humble. He stared into his drink that glowed even more electrically under the groovy cabana lights. “Barry wanted everything in the Hollywood Regency style. You know, a lot of black and white and tomato-red lacquered finishes, mirrors, tasseled pillows.”
“That’s not your style?” Rose asked.
“Not ideally. My favorite is the Desert Modern style, like the way Willow redid this motel. That’s why I came to Palm Springs. But Barry wanted Grauman’s Chinese Theater.”
“Oh, yes!” cried Rose. “I love this style. I don’t know why, because I was born in seventy-nine, but this mid-century chic brings me back to a cozier, more comforting time.”
“That’s what it’s designed for,” said Willow. She was already walking away, toward a breezeway that led to a cottage where she stayed when she didn’t go home to her ranch. “To send guests back to a happier and simpler time when all you needed was a Pink Squirrel—”
“Or a Harvey Wallbanger.” Rose giggled.
“—a few boulders, and an egg chair to be blissfully, ecstatically unaware of how awful life can be. Rose, show Jesse the menu in the lobby. You can send the purchase order tomorrow.”
“A menu you designed?” Jesse stood as he swallowed the last few gulps of his electric drink. “You’re the chef, right?”
“Not that sort of menu,” Rose said slyly.
Rose already felt close to Jesse Factor as they skirted the sparkling swimming pool toward the lobby. He would be her first official male friend in Last Chance. Maybe he could introduce her to some of his other gay friends. Gay men weren’t threatening. There was no chance they would hurt her.
Jesse was harmless, but damn, was he beautiful. It was almost a shame he was gay.
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