Excerpt | Baby, Not Tonight
Books - Baby, Not Tonight - Excerpt
Sometimes Milla McKool felt like a volcano that was only dormant for now. The probable timing of when she might erupt kept her tense and on edge.
From the kitchen, loud salsa music blasted into her cramped tiny office next to the walk-in refrigerator. She was barely able to hear herself think over the blare of trumpets, the sound of pans clanging, and Jake yelling, “Let’s shake and bake, caballeros. I needed those fucking shrimp yesterday!”
The band tightened around her head. Today’s headache rated maybe a five on the Headache Richter Scale, she decided, exhibiting minor tremors with only sporadic shifting of the tectonic plates.
So much for working on tomorrow’s prep list. Peel potatoes … season chix … was as far as she’d gotten.
Dispiritedly she eyed the coffee she’d picked up from Zukor’s Deli around the corner from her apartment. Caffeine was supposed to help with headaches, but this coffee tasted like somewhere rusted-out metal parts went to die. If Columbians grew these beans, I hope they had better success with their other crops.
Then she remembered those crops.
Hell. Scratch that. What she really wanted was relief. Against her better judgment, and probably FDA guidelines too, she took another sip of the rancid coffee, only to discover it was lukewarm, which did nothing to enhance its flavor.
With a grimace she set aside the recycled cup, her gaze caught and held like flypaper on the photo peeking out from the other papers on her desk. Compelled by her inner demons—which admittedly were gaining the upper hand lately—she picked it up. She’d dreamed that damned dream again last night, probably stoked by her recurring insomnia and the couple shots of Amaretto she’d imbibed to make herself sleep. In her dream, Jean-Luc and Sasha were making love in vivid Technicolor. They were copulating like wild dogs on the savanna, only with Sasha on top, a cigarette dangling from her carnelian-red lips, which seemed incredibly brazen and French, not to mention the impressive display of multitasking.
When Milla woke, she found some minor satisfaction, at least, in thinking about Jean-Luc sucking up all that second-hand smoke.
Something silver landed with a heavy thud on her desk. Startled, she dropped the photo, watching it float to a soft landing next to the coffee cup. “What the—”
“I confiscated it from Ramon,” Jake said, leaning against the wall beside her desk and folding his arms across his starched white jacket, his slashing smile showing white teeth. “He’s accusing Enrique of defiling his sister and threatening to cut off his huevos rancheros.”
She picked up the switchblade knife, the balanced weight of the metal cool against her palm. “Maybe Enrique deserves to be castrated.”
“I know you think every guy’s a crap weasel right now”—Jake reached over and retrieved the knife—“but I know Ramon’s sister. If anyone was violated, it was Enrique.”
“I’ll hold on to that,” she said.
“Don’t make me regret this.” He laid the knife on her desk.
Eyes narrowed, she studied him. “So just how well do you know—”
“Let’s not go there. I was tanked, and, from what I can remember, I think she convinced me to play vice squad. There were handcuffs involved and a body cavity search and—”
Milla held up her hand to stop him. “You’re right. I don’t want to know.” Most of the time she loved her scurrilous largely immigrant male kitchen crew, she reminded herself. Just not so much today. “Send Ramon home to cool off,” she ordered. “Tell him not to come back if he can’t stay out of fights.”
Jake nodded. “So how many res do we have on the book?”
“Fifty-four. I’ll work the hotline. Manny can expedite.”
“Your call.” Helping himself to her discarded coffee, he peeled off the plastic lid and took a sip. “God damn,” he said, rolling the two words together so it sounded more fluid and somehow less profane. “This stuff tastes like shit.” Then he took another sip as he poked his head over her shoulder and examined the photo in front of her on her desk.
“Doesn’t look like a serial killer to me,” he remarked. “You look hot though. When was it taken?”
“Five years ago.” Without emotion she studied her younger self. The sun-streaked brown hair fluttering around her face, the long coltish legs on display beneath the tiny denim miniskirt, the sappy smile on her face.
“I never said Jean-Luc was a serial killer.” Her lips compressed. “I said he was a serial seducer of women.” She turned her accusing gaze on Jake. “Serial seducers don’t kill their victims. They just maim them and leave.”
“Whoa.” He held up his hands in a gesture of mock surrender, her coffee still held captive in his right. “I don’t leave women. They leave me.”
He had a point.
His mom had left him to foster care when he was eight, Milla suddenly remembered. He’d learned early that women don’t stick around. His last girlfriend had even cleaned out his apartment when she left. Jake had hired a retired-cop-turned-investigator to locate her. After a couple days on the job, the guy had recovered most of Jake’s stolen property, except for the state-of-the-art sound system his ex had apparently bartered away for tickets to see some heavy metal band called Wasted Tracks.
And that was one of Jake’s better relationships.
“That’s because you pick the wrong women,” Milla said, suppressing her sympathy because he didn’t need it. “Bar sluts and biker chicks and foodie groupies.”
There were always women. Jake attracted them like bait with his wonderfully mobile face, saved from being pretty by the heavy shadow of his beard. He had reckless dark eyes and a renegade smile which, along with the diamond stud in his ear, should have clued women in that he was unstable. Only when his regular features fell in repose were the hard years of living revealed.
He grabbed the end of her long braid and tugged on it. “I don’t need fixing, doll.”
She yanked her braid out of his grasp. “No, you just need better taste in choosing women,” she said. “Next time try using your big brain instead.”
“That was harsh,” he said, not noticeably wounded if his easygoing grin was any indication.
“Sorry,” she said anyway, pinching the bridge of her nose. “It’s this damned headache. … You don’t think it’s a brain tumor or an aneurysm or something?”
“For Christ’s sake, Mille, you haven’t had sex in eight months.” He let his exasperation show. “If I went that long without getting laid, my head would explode.”
“I don’t think men and women have the same physiological response to a lack of sex.”
“You’re the one with the headache, Mille.” His voice was firm.
She shook her head. “I’m not ready. Not yet,” she said, and heard the panic in her tone. “Besides, in another four months, I’ll be a born-again virgin. I don’t want to lose my recertification.”
“You can’t cuddle up to a piece of paper,” he said with inexorable logic. “You come to work, and then you go home to an empty apartment. You live alone. That would depress anyone.”
“You live alone too.” She felt discomfort beneath his critical gaze, like something better left hidden was being exposed.
“Yeah, but I have a dog.”
“Maybe I could get a dog,” she muttered.
“You don’t like dogs, remember?”
“I don’t dislike them. I’m just nervous around them.” Anyone sane would be a little cautious after a vicious schnauzer took a sizable chunk out of her leg when she was seven. She still had the moon-shaped scar on her right calf.
“C’mon. You never had a dog? Not even when you were a kid?” Jake looked incredulous.
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. No pets of any kind.”
“Whoa. What does that say about your childhood, do you think?”
Milla frowned. “Nothing sinister.”
He returned her frown, raising it by half. “Speaking of sinister, if someone named Yuri calls, I’m not here. Okay?”
“Yuri? Sounds like one of the Russian mob.” It was an automatic response she didn’t really think about.
Until Jake avoided her gaze. “I can handle it.”
Her eyes widened. “You mean he really is the Russian mob?”
“Why would I be involved with the Russian mob?” He turned away and tossed her coffee cup in the trash. “Just don’t say I’m here.”
“I was drinking that,” she said in protest.
“Then you should thank me for throwing it away.”
You’re telling me. But a stray memory had been teasing her brain, and now it came into focus. “I did too have a pet once,” she announced with satisfaction at finding proof her childhood wasn’t as stunted as it appeared. “It was a hermit crab, and I named it Scooter.”
Jake rolled his eyes at her. “Jeebus, Mille. That story has so many layers of pathetic I don’t even know where to begin.”
“My dad didn’t like animals,” she said, feeling defensive. “I won a kitten once, and he made me get rid of it.” Come to think of it, he didn’t much like me either, she thought, but he had to keep me.
“One of you cooks want to check out this order?” yelled the new delivery guy from Santoro’s Produce from outside her office. Rudy, Roy … she couldn’t recall his name.
“I’ve got this one.” Jake grabbed the clipboard off the hook on the wall and left.
Milla scowled at his retreating back. She suspected he was fleeing before she could probe further about this Yuri character.
Then Jake’s face reappeared in the open doorway, silencing her unflattering thoughts. His expression serious for once, he said, “Take my advice, doll. It’s time to put on your big-girl spurs and get back on a horse.” Then he disappeared again.
“Easy enough for you to say,” she shouted after him, annoyance threading her voice. “You’re a horse!”
It’s too soon. Her brain skittered away from Jake’s suggestion like mice fleeing a sudden bright light. Safe down here in the darkness, she didn’t have to think about opening up herself emotionally again. Her heart was a cold, dead thing in her chest.
It was much better that way.
But Jake wasn’t talking about a lifetime commitment, she argued with herself. And if she was being totally honest, she missed hot, sweaty, curl-your-toes sex—the kind where a woman fell asleep still entangled with her partner because she was too limp and satisfied to identify which limbs belonged to her.
She missed the hell out of that.
Jean-Luc hadn’t been good for much, but he was good in bed. Stellar, in fact. What they said about Frenchmen as lovers was true.
She looked at him in the photo. You almost destroyed me, you son of a bitch. Pressure was building in her chest, making it hard to breathe. Picking up the switchblade from her desk, she flicked it open and, with deliberation, sliced through the glossy paper, separating Jean-Luc from herself.
She tossed Jean-Luc’s photo into the trash.
The pressure eased a little. She glanced down at the photo of herself again. Five years ago when it was taken in Paris, she’d been high on living. She could read it in the wide hazel eyes glowing with an eagerness to embrace every new experience.
Eight months ago when she’d fled home in a state best described as dumb animal misery, it had been Jake who found her this job working as an executive chef—Jake, who ruthlessly raided the best restaurants across the city for her kitchen crew; Jake, who came on board as her sous-chef to watch her back. Through it all Milla had been passive and inert, barely alive.
What happened to that intrepid young girl who’d flown off to a strange land armed only with a newly minted culinary degree, a small amount of savings, and three years of high school French? She knew the answer. The girl had discovered it was dangerous to dream too big. The depth of the drop had made the inevitable fall that much harder.
Love wasn’t worth it if you lost pieces of yourself in the aftermath. She couldn’t even recognize the woman she’d become.
Maybe Jake was right. Even if she did find just a temporary lover, at least that would reaffirm she was still alive, in control of her own destiny. Clearly she couldn’t go on the way she was, and, even though the value of Jake’s advice was suspect—she was pretty sure he thought sex was the cure for everything—it beat doing nothing and losing the rest of herself.
* * *
By the end of the lunch rush, pain hammered away at Milla’s temples like sadistic tiny carpenters with power tools.
Men. Who needed them? she asked herself as she dug around in a drawer of the reception desk in the dining room searching for aspirin—or any other drugs for that matter. When a woman was down in the trenches, where was the guy? Standing up on the ledge of the hole, watching her dig, and giving unwanted instructions, that’s where. In fact, the more she was exposed to the male half of her species, the more single-cell reproduction made sense to her.
Still she couldn’t get Jake’s words out of her head. So what if he was right? After five years in a relationship, she wasn’t even sure she remembered how to attract a man.
The insidious thought made her head ache more. She slammed closed another drawer.
Note to self: don’t ask Jake for advice again.
“What are you looking for?” Irina finally said, in her throaty accented English.
“Aspirin.” Milla yanked off the red bandanna she wore in place of the traditional toque when she cooked. “My head is killing me again.”
“Check the upper left-hand drawer.” Irina polished the glass goblet with a soft cloth before she set it down on the antique rosewood sideboard, one of several high-end antiques decorating the Executive Dining Room at ACTLife, an international insurance conglomeration headquartered in NYC.
Surrounded by mahogany wainscoting and a collection of sporting prints and paintings mounted on the walls, Milla felt transported to some midcentury English gentleman’s club. She kept waiting for the butler to appear. Mr. Prudhomme, the chairman of the board and CEO of the firm, was responsible for the decor. Apparently he was an active member in some safari hunt club which, from what she had gleaned, was mostly a group of white men with too much money and time on their hands who flew around the world searching for something to kill.
“You know, if you would just let me do a reading for you, maybe I could tell you if it’s anything to worry about.” Suggestively Irina fingered the crystal that hung from a gold chain into the deep shadowed V of her white silk blouse above a truly impressive cleavage.
“And you know I don’t believe in that stuff.” Milla rummaged around in another drawer and found a plastic bottle of ibuprofen. Twisting off the cap, she added wryly, “Besides, if it’s an inoperable brain tumor, I’d rather not know.”
Muttering something indecipherable in her native Russian, Irina’s glowing auburn head was bent as she filled a goblet from the antique silver water pitcher. She held out the goblet to Milla and said, “You are afraid …”
Milla definitely understood that part but didn’t respond. Instead, she changed the subject as she took the glass Irina offered. “Any feedback from lunch?”
“Mr. Prudhomme liked the tuna.”
“Great. I’ll make a note.” Milla tried to sound enthusiastic. After all, the ahi tuna with glazed onion sauce had been one of her better inspirations lately.
Irina lifted her shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. “The pork loin, not so much.”
About to pop three pills into her mouth, Milla paused. “What was wrong with the pork loin?” she asked, her tone sharp.
“I think maybe the cherry relish was over the top.”
“You tasted it. What did you think?”
Irina flipped the clean white linen cloth over the table with a practiced flick of her wrists. “The cherry relish was over the top.”
“Now you tell me.” Milla tossed back the pills with a healthy swig of water.
“You’ll live. A few failures every once in a while are good for you.”
“I’ll settle for staying employed.” It was a pretty good job, Milla thought, with grudging acknowledgment, providing her the choice of her own menus and a food budget that allowed her to use the freshest, highest quality ingredients. The private dining with a personal chef on site was a perk for the company’s executives. As opposed to most of the chefs she knew, she worked regular hours with no weekends, which even permitted her free time for a personal life.
Too bad she didn’t have one, a thought which reminded her of Jake and made her scowl.
Forget Jake. “Was it really that awful?” she said. “I got the idea from an old English cookbook I found. From the forties. I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition of flavors.”
“Yes, that’s what we are all looking for in our food.”
“At least they liked the smoked tomato soup.” She knew that because of the empty bowls returned to the kitchen.
She’d bought a small smoker two months ago from a mail order catalogue. The smoky flavor of the vegetables lifted what was ordinary tomato soup to a higher plane. And that was what she was always looking for as a chef: a combination of flavors that burst in the mouth and traveled straight to the pleasure center—
“Hello, gorgeous,” Frenecki, their linen delivery guy, said to Irina, parking the trolley loaded with canvas bags filled with soiled linens next to the reception desk. Trussed up like a Victorian maiden in an elastic back brace, instead of an hourglass figure, he was shaped more like a Bartlett pear.
“When are you and me going out on the town?” he asked Irina.
Hands on her rounded hips, slowly she looked him up and down. “As soon as Mrs. Frenecki gives you signed permission.”
He grinned. “Hell will freeze over first.”
“Too bad, Frenecki.” Irina gave him a smoldering glance from beneath heavily mascaraed lashes. “It would have been magic between us, I know.”
Frenecki’s Adam’s apple bobbed like a buoy lost in a tropical storm. “That’s too much excitement for an old man. You trying to give me a heart attack?”
Irina gave him the kind of smile a shark gives before opening its jaws and feeding. “Just letting you know what you are missing.”
He shook his head. “Don’t I already know it,” he said cheerfully. “See you on Wednesday, gorgeous.” He waved and grabbed the handles of his trolley.
“How do you do that?” Milla asked after he left. No one knew Irina’s age—somewhere between forty and forty-five, Milla guessed—but the dining room hostess was attractive, fun-loving, and possessed the kind of take-charge personality you’d expect to head up the conga line on a cruise ship.
“Make all those men drool over you.” Irina always had a date Friday night. Sometimes she had two. She didn’t believe in limiting her favors.
“Ah.” Irina nodded. “You want some man to drool over you.”
“That’s a disgusting visual, but I think so. … Maybe. … Yeah.”
“So now you actually want my advice, yes?” Irina fingered the crystal again.
Milla sighed. “Okay. I know this is going to cost me. I’ll play along. … Tell me, all-seeing one, will my headache go away?”
“You took the pills?”
Milla threw her a disgusted glance. “Some psychic you are.”
“Oh, please. I need a challenge. Don’t insult me. … Let me read the cards for you.”
“No cards. They give me the creeps.”
Milla saw little upside in knowing the future. When someone was already depressed, bad news clued them into the fact that things were unlikely to get better anytime soon. Good news was equally depressing because, no matter what was going to turn around for them in the future, they were still stuck with a crappy life for now.
Irina pulled out one of the chairs from the table. “Sit,” she ordered.
“Now give me your hand,” Irina demanded.
Fair was fair, so with reluctance Milla held out her hand.
Irina grasped it firmly, turning it palm side up. With her other hand, she clasped the crystal hanging around her throat and closed her eyes in concentration.
Wonderful, Milla thought. What she’d had in Paris was a rich life, dense with exotic flavors and colors, friendships and bonds with people who shared her interests. Her life had dimension. Now she had friends like Irina, a nymphomaniac Russian psychic.
She could feel her palm growing warmer, but that was probably from the fever that sometimes accompanied her headaches, she assured herself.
“This is odd,” Irina muttered with a frown, her amber eyes still hooded.
“It’s a brain tumor, isn’t it? I knew it.”
“Silence!” Irina opened her eyes wide, her gaze soft and unfocused. “I see a package, a box of some sort.”
“What kind of box?”
“That’s not important. I’ve got a very bad feeling about this box. … Don’t open it.”
Startled, Milla stared down at her palm trying to see what Irina was channeling there. “Why? What’s in it?”
“That I cannot see.”
Milla jerked her palm away. “Do you have any idea how many boxes are delivered here every day?”
“I see what I see.” Irina lifted her hands in a fatalistic gesture that was distinctly Russian. “That is all I can tell you for now.”
“Well, that was enlightening. … Who was your spirit guide in his previous life? A teamster?”
“Now I’ll tell you my secret with men,” Irina said, ignoring the provocation.
“Only if it doesn’t involve a full moon and a chicken’s entrails.” Milla was still annoyed. “I don’t think I can go that far just to get a date.”
“Then listen. Men are by nature hunters. They will shoot at whatever is available. Part of the thrill for them is the kill. … You understand?”
Milla nodded, although none of what Irina had just said made much sense to her. She was still preoccupied with the mysterious box.
“But if the game are plentiful that year, men don’t always drag the fur they skinned home and mount it on the cave wall. … First you make it easy for him. Flirt with him a little but then be a little cold. Don’t let him take you for granted.”
“I don’t want to be mounted on the wall,” Milla said. “I just want to fool around in the back of the cave, then leave.”
Irina dismissed this with a wave of her hand. “Remember, you want to be the rare exotic tiger that’s hard to track and kill, not a rabbit.”
Milla found herself staring at the sporting print closest to her where a group of hunters were field dressing a deer.
“I think maybe you’ve been working in this dining room too long,” she told Irina, a wry edge in her tone.
“What makes you say that?”
“Call it a hunch.”