The bell dinged and broke Ember from her morose thoughts. Plastering on her best please-buy-my-food-and-come-back smile, she smoothed the front of her apron. Three people sat clustered at a table near the door, all hunched over the menus and talking quietly. She always hated interrupting, but she had a job to do. “Hi, I’m Ember. Can I help you?”
The trio looked up, and she had to catch her breath. These weren’t her usual customers; by now, she’d learned exactly the kind of people who came into her restaurant, and she wondered what had happened to bring these three in.
Besides, men as attractive as the one staring a hole through her did not show up here. Ever.
“Actually,” he said, “I’m really intrigued by the menu. What would you recommend?”
Despite herself, she grinned. Until now, she’d been cooking Maori food in the hope that her sisters would come home. Now someone wanted her opinion? “How hungry are you?”
An unexpected heat zipped through her chest. Of course, he had to be gorgeous, with sun-kissed, wavy blond hair; cheekbones that could cut glass; and the bluest eyes she’d ever seen on another person. Approachable, but still… Gorgeous. “I’d go with the stew, then.”
She took the rest of their orders and disappeared into the kitchen for a few minutes before grabbing their drinks. He’s a cute customer. That’s all. Though she’d met attractive men in the café before, usually they were with their girlfriends or wives or college drinking buddies, but they had come in. And a few men in Casper had caught her fancy. Her lifestyle hadn’t prevented her making a physical connection, just…. She didn’t believe in soul mates or any of that romantic nonsense. Still, something stirred in her that never had before, like her soul finally had a purpose.
Breathing deeply, she returned to the front and poured two sodas and an iced tea. When she dropped them off at the table, he smiled at her in a way that was far more than polite, almost seductive. “I like your restaurant. Whatever you’ve got cooking back there smells amazing. What is it?”
“Lamb,” she replied. “It’s kawakawa-encrusted.”
He quirked up his eyebrow. “I’ve never had kawakawa.”
“It’s very peppery. Gives the lamb a beautiful flavor. I could bring some out for you.” Never before had she offered that, but then again, no one had ever asked.
With a grin, he said, “I would love that.”
“I’ll be right back.” Giddy, she returned to the kitchen. Someone wanted to learn about her food! She wanted to skip or dance back to the kitchen. When she opened the oven, the full scent of the lamb enveloped her, and she breathed it in, calming herself down. Who was this man? Did he love food as much as she did? She didn’t want to seem rude, but she wanted to find out everything she could about him. Starting with his name.
Ember only wants two things out of life: to be reunited with her sisters, and to see people come back to her café. Catering to people she never sees again, she experiences a loneliness that can’t be filled. As one of the last Whakamanu—a descendant of the Maori bird-god Tane—she has to hold on to the secrets of her tribe. Family first.
Gourmet TV personality Austin Garten, host of the popular show Back Road Eats, needs more in his life than Breadbasket America grilling. He’s tired of the safe routes, the easy and dependable foods that the Network loves to display. When his RV breaks down in Wyoming, and he learns about Kai, a Maori restaurant outside of Casper, his interest is piqued. Once he meets the proprietor, he realizes he’s wants more than just her food. He wants her.
Ember isn’t too sure. The Solstice, the Maori New Year, is fast approaching, and with the heat in her kitchen ratcheting up, she knows she can’t keep her secret for much longer. But will Austin be able to accept her? Or will her secret drive them apart?
Catherine Peace has been telling stories for as long as she could remember. She often blames two things for her forays into speculative fiction—Syfy (when it was SciFi) channel Sundays with her dad and The Island of Dr. Moreau by HG Wells. She graduated in 2008 from Northern Kentucky University with a degree in English and is still chasing the dream of being super rich and famous, mostly so she can sit around in her PJs all day and write stories. When not being a slave to the people in her head, she’s a slave to two adorable dogs.