Fire In the Kitchen

Donna Allen

 

Chapter 1

A dozen pairs of eyes watched as Cassidy put an apron over her bright pink top and zebra-patterned pants and tied the strings behind her. She welcomed her visitors with a smile that came as naturally as breathing. “Hi, guys,” she said. “Glad you could make it. Tonight’s class is all about coffee appreciation and exploring what makes a good coffee great.

She tapped and blew on an imaginary microphone.

“My name’s Cassidy and I will be the tour guide on your coffee adventure this evening. Before we begin, may I have your booking vouchers, please?”

The guests handed over their vouchers, introducing themselves in turn, all except the tall, dark-haired man standing to one side. Cassidy was not usually lost for words when meeting an attractive man, but she was silent as she took in his striking Italian features. Something pleasant warmed up her pheromones, not unlike gently heated honey. She knew this man. She knew him well. And yet she didn’t.

“Do you always keep your customers waiting, Miss Summers?” His tone was brusque and held a hint of a sexy accent.

Cassidy had never been one to ignore a challenging customer, so she walked over to him.

Ciao,” she said, smiling. “Do you have a voucher?”

The smile didn’t leave her face as her other students became background pastels. Who was this guy?

Ho la moneta, non ho il documentazione.” he said.

Cassidy held her palms up to show she didn’t understand him. “Ciao in Italian is my full repertoire.”

“Can’t I pay cash?” He reached into his back pocket for his wallet.

“Cash works,” she said, “particularly if it’s of the Australian variety.”

“How much is your coffee adventure worth?”

She remembered her other clients and nodded conspiratorially at them before looking back at him.

“I’m afraid it’s full price for you, kind sir. You didn’t book ahead. We’ll talk about payment later, and if you want to sign up for the series, you’ll get a discount.”

He looked around the room, as if he weren’t really part of the group. Cassidy’s gaze followed his, and she admired the room’s centerpiece: an old hills hoist she’d painted yellow and purple and cemented into an oversized flowerpot containing fake flowers. Hanging on the line were bags of her blended coffee for sale.

The Italian man scrutinized her mosaic artwork on the wall.

“Coffee beans in the shape of a coffee bean?”

He tapped his lips, as if trying to interpret an art gallery piece for the hidden meaning of life, and then slowly looked Cassidy up and down, as if she were also a piece of artwork on display.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Cassidy said in mock seriousness. “I thought about painting the beans, but I didn’t want to lose the integrity of the piece.” She hoped her normally fair face hadn’t turned the color of a beetroot.

His gaze met hers and held. “Van Gogh you are not,” he said, “but you have an interesting style.”

She hoped they were still talking about her mural. “You like the place?”

He shrugged. “I’ve never seen a room like it. Very individual, in a bohemian kind of way, I suppose.”

“Thanks,” she said and then hesitated. “I think.”

“Bit different to your new restaurant, Dante?” a middle-aged woman asked him in a saccharine voice to match her dress.

Cassidy realized how she knew him. He was Dante Cristiani, the popular celebrity chef who’d built his new restaurant at Cottesloe Beach. Of course. She didn’t actually know him, she just knew of him and what she’d seen in the media. What on earth was he doing here? She looked around for hidden cameras.

He gave the woman a charismatic smile.

“Ah, but we’re here to talk about coffee, aren’t we?” So the charm is on tap. Damn, this guy is good.

It was time to start. Cassidy invited everyone to sit down and drew their attention to a bowl of coffee beans on the bench. She picked it up, lifted a handful of the raw green beans, and momentarily closed her eyes as she inhaled their herbaceous aroma. She let them cascade through her fingers and tinkle back into the bowl.

“The journey of a good cup of coffee starts with these beautiful berries.”

She invited her mother’s fiancé to examine them. He’d been to all her classes to show his support. “What do you think, Gary?”

He pushed out his chest. “It’s like cultivating a good wine: where the plants are grown, the way they’re cared for, and the surrounding environment all play a big part in the end result.”

“You’re an excellent student,” Cassidy said. She wished he didn’t feel the need to try so hard with her. He loved her mother; Cassidy would eventually grow to love him. He’d never be her dad, but he made her mum happy. It was enough.

“Anyone else?”

Dante spoke up lazily. “What about the way they’re roasted? Is dark roast considered to be the best?”

“Excellent question, Dante, and equally important.”

Cassidy was delighted to see her small class was leaning forward, ready for her answer.

“A lot of people think fully roasted beans give the most robust flavor, but they’re denying their taste buds because the subtle varietal differences have been lost. In my opinion, they’re drinking burnt coffee. Medium roast is the way to go.”

Dante applauded her quietly. She felt like a teacher who’d just been given an apple by her favorite student.

“Shall we continue?”

Whenever Cassidy shared her barista knowledge with coffee devotees, time passed quickly. She was pleased at the group’s questions and their thirst for knowledge.

After her lecture, she gave everyone individual attention as she made them their preferred types of coffee. Then she invited them to savor their beverages together at the nearby café tables while enjoying each other’s company.

Gary kissed her on her cheek and told her he was going home to see her mother. She watched him leave and returned her attention to her class.

Realizing she must have left Dante for last on purpose, Cassidy watched him walk around to her side of the bench and move closer in order to watch what she was doing. Although there were a dozen people at the nearby tables, they were socializing with each other and it was almost as if she and Dante were alone. Their shoulders didn’t touch, but she could feel him through the invisible distance, as if they’d made contact.

“What can I make for you today?”

“How about a ristretto?” he asked, as if giving her a challenge. “And maybe a piece of your shortbread that’s been beckoning me?”

“Costs extra for customers who give me a hard time.”

“I’ll pay you double if you make me a half-decent cup.”

Cassidy smiled as she placed one of her biscuits on a saucer and put it to one side. She busied herself at the coffee machine and melted as he leaned closer. “Coming right up,” she said.

“Do you have any idea how many coffee makers don’t know what a ristretto is?” he asked with a hint of a smile.

Cassidy shrugged. “A half-decent barista should know.”

“I like a woman who knows her coffee.” He raised his eyebrows, ever so slightly. “Do you really know yours?”

Cassidy wagged her index finger to silence him.

“Strong and powerful?” she replied, filling the portafilter with two clicks of aromatic coffee. She tamped it down with just the right level of force and gave it a quarter-turn twist. “How am I doing so far?”

“It’s not always how you get there, it’s the end result,” he said, shrugging.

“Actually, when it comes to making a half-decent coffee, it’s all about how you get there. Weren’t you listening to anything I said before?” She frowned, wondering why she was defending all the baristas in the universe. “There’s a lot you have to take into consideration,” she continued. “Leave the coffee too long in the basket before you extract it and you’ll burn it, use the wrong grind and the extraction is bitter; the humidity in the air affects the taste.”

“Well, you can talk the talk, but let’s see if you can put your money where your mouth is.”

Cassidy decided it was time to put aside her initial attraction and offer a less-than-playful response. Their conversation no longer seemed light; it had lost its flirtatious edge. She felt like she was being tested for a part she hadn’t been auditioning for. He’d become a tad too intense, perhaps even a touch pompous.

“It’s not about the money for me,” she said. “It’s about making my customers happy. But for you, I’ll make an exception and just aim for satisfaction.”

She finished preparing his coffee and placed the cup on the saucer next to the biscuit. She pushed it toward him with too much force and was relieved when it didn’t spill. To cover up her impatience, she wiped down the bench.

Instead of trying the coffee, he picked up the biscuit and took a bite. “Is this really made with local, homemade butter, as the sign in your window promises?”

“Only the best and freshest,” she said, raising her hands to the ceiling as if it had come from up above. “I should know, I made the butter myself this morning.”

“Excellent. Lavender’s a nice touch, not too much or it would’ve been overpowering. I might’ve added a little less zest, though.”

“Well, good for you.” Cassidy exhaled. The breath seemed to take forever, drawing out in a long stream. She needed to finish her class because she was worried about how tired her mother had been earlier, but she couldn’t do anything until she’d proven he could put his money where his mouth was. Then I’ll shove it back at him, down his shirt. She couldn’t let him think his opinion was important to her, she wouldn’t even admit it to herself. He picked up a piece of paper he’d written on earlier and started scribbling furiously on it. She felt anger bubbling in her chest. “What are you doing?”

Startled, he looked up, his pen poised in the air. “Is there a right answer or should I be afraid you’ll punish me with a bad beverage?”

“What were you writing about? Had enough of your recent bad publicity, have you, and now you’re trying to find something new so the public will love you again? Trying to copy our original recipes?” She reached across the bench and snatched the piece of paper, shoving it in her pocket.

“Are you serious? You think I’m here to steal your shortbread recipe?”

Instead of being angry at her outburst, he laughed. He put his palms out at his suddenly interested audience and gave her his attention again.

Cassidy’s anger turned to shame at her erratic behavior. He must’ve been taking notes about coffee making, as the others had been doing and had every right to do. Spies from the new nearby café had only last week copied her chocolate chip cookies with fresh mint icing. It had left her paranoid. She couldn’t help how much this place and all the plans she had for it meant to her. But he must think she was a nutcase.

“Er…slight overreaction…don’t mind me…carry on.”

“Been burned before?”

She rubbed her arm. “Mildly singed.”

“I can assure you, I have no interest in your originality, other than trying your coffee, about which I have heard good things.”

“You’ve heard good things about my coffee?” She felt stupid, which didn’t sit well.

“Yes.” He pulled his coffee closer. “Shall we try again? Without the theatrics?”

He examined his drink and nodded at the hazel-brown crema on its surface. “Eccellente.”

He swirled the cup gently and then lifted it to smell its aroma, as if it had come from a vintage crop. He put the cup down and smiled at her. Not just a smile a customer gives to say thanks, but a big full smile that was so sexy Cassidy wanted to nibble on his bottom lip. She was surprised at the turnaround of her opinion of him. He was not the type of man she should see out of work hours. For a moment, she allowed her thoughts to drift to an imaginary world where she allowed herself to do just that. She liked what she saw in her mind, but knew it could never be a reality. Men like that were not in her realm. Dangerous thoughts like these played havoc with her composure.

She picked up a damp cloth again and wiped the area she’d recently cleaned, scrubbing at an invisible spot. What’s so important about him that you have to seek his approval? Stop checking out the way he looks. His thick dark hair, his broad shoulders, his inviting full lips. Get a grip, invite your class back for part two of your coffee series next week, then send them home.

“Have you tasted it yet or are you happy to just admire it for the next half hour?” She sounded a tad harsher than she’d wanted to.

“I was waiting for you.”

So this is what it’s like to lose all control of your legs. Cassidy held onto the bench. Tightly.

“Sources tell me you are a famous barista of Fremantle.”

“Haven’t made television status like one of my guests today, but the locals know me.”

“Let’s see if you are worthy of the famous title,” he murmured.

He sipped his coffee, moaning as he swallowed. Cassidy felt a sensual tug that stayed there. Oh boy. He took another taste and something contracted inside her when she heard his sigh of pleasure.

No more coffee tonight.

Upstairs to your flat.

Cold shower.

Bed.

“Do I still get to wear my coffee-making tiara?” she asked quietly, using a voice of control, though she felt anything but in control.

His eyes glimmered. “Make it a crown.”

“You sure you like it? I know it’s supposed to be, but it’s pretty strong for most tastes.”

Her head tilted toward his cup. She was babbling, but she couldn’t stop herself. For a reason she couldn’t define, a compliment from this man had become important.

The pilot light in his eyes followed every curve of her and she felt the temperature of the room escalate several degrees.

“Excellent body, just the right balance to my taste, a pleasure on the senses,” he said.

Cassidy coughed to cut the sensuous innuendo.

“Brazilian Bourbon Santos.”

She scrambled for it and held up the foil packet of coffee beans she’d recently crushed into exquisite grounds.

“One of the best in the world. Took me a while to get it through customs. I think it was worth it though, don’t you?”

He put down his cup and shook his head. “No, no I don’t.”

“Why not?” She felt her spine stiffen as she watched him stand straight and push the coffee cup back toward her with his index finger. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Not my thing. It’s not that it doesn’t taste good, it’s the source of the blend that doesn’t sit well with me. Don’t take it personally.”

Cassidy wasn’t in the mood for a lecture from a self-righteous food snob. Particularly one who’d just rocked her world without even knowing it. “I don’t remember sending you a gilt-edged invitation to come here to taste it.”

“You won’t need one to get me to leave either.” He pulled several notes from his wallet and asked without looking at her, “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing. One-hundred percent satisfaction or no charge, that’s our motto.” Cassidy stopped herself from biting her lower lip and pointed to the sign she’d quoted from instead.

He shrugged and tossed the notes on the counter. “Interesting experience meeting you, Cassidy. Ciao.”

Feeling disappointed and unsure of what had just happened, Cassidy watched him leave with the others. The middle-aged woman wobbled on her high heels and he righted her, preventing her from falling. She held onto his arm for longer than was necessary, but instead of gently prying her hand off him, Dante didn’t seem to mind helping her to her car.

Everyone bade their farewells and promised to be back, all except for Dante, who turned to tip an imaginary hat at Cassidy and left.

She’d been tested by one of the nation’s best chefs and, for reasons unknown to her, had failed. Although it was one of her passions, she wasn’t a qualified cook, and she thought she was okay with that. But she did know her coffee. What she’d made for him was good. Very good.

So he could stick that in his “Chef’s pipe” and smoke it.