Bonus short story:
March 14

Bonus short story: "Small Bites with Scarlett" by Catherine Lane

Celebrity chef Scarlett treats relationships like appetizers. Her blind date, Kristina, is looking for something more, a full meal. Is this a recipe for disaster or a hookup that will change what’s on the menu for both of them?

Find out in "Small Bites with Scarlett"—and get the backstory for two secondary characters from Catherine Lane's new release, LEAN IN TO LOVE, available now everywhere books are sold.



Small Bites with Scarlett

© 2024 by Catherine Lane


Episode One: My Little Dumpling


“You need to eat.” My brother’s voice spun out of the speaker on my work phone.

“I brought a sandwich from home.” I fingered the turkey and cheese sitting in Saran Wrap on my desk. Actually, it had never made it to the staff fridge that morning. I had come in early to check over payroll as a favor to my managing partner, and I had been lost all morning in the annoying intricacies of setting up a movie production in four states.

“You need to get out, Kristina. You’re wasting away in that office. You can’t trade people for numbers.”

“That’s not what I’m doing.” My voice was firm, but we both knew I was lying. Ever since my breakup with Andi six months ago, my hours at the office had almost doubled.

“Look, join me for lunch. I’m in your neck of the woods. It can be quick. We haven’t seen each other for ages.”

“Barry, a week is not an age, and I can’t. I’m way behind—”

“Come and I won’t tell Mom that you were fine when you told her you were too sick to go to Sharon’s dance recital.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“I would. I’ll text you the address. Don’t be late.” He hung up without another word. He already knew he had won.

My little brother. He was the youngest of us four kids and from an early age, had learned to turn our family dynamics to his advantage. As contradictory as it sounded, he was also a genuinely nice guy and my best friend, so I always gave in way too easily.

An hour later, as I handed off my car to the valet at Happy Noodle, I began to reconsider that goodwill. As promised, the restaurant was close, but it had absolutely no parking and a line out the door. Quick, my ass. “Shit,” I said under my breath as my irritation rose.

Turning around on the sidewalk, I looked for Barry. I should have seen him right away; men in our family were as tall as basketball players, but there was no blond crew cut bobbing above the crowd. I sighed. I didn’t have time for this. My afternoon was booked with preparing depreciation schedules for a GAAP audit, and the financials, like a growing alien virus, had already taken over half my desk.

“Kristina?” A woman with sparkling brown eyes and messy hair that had probably taken her hours to achieve stood before me. Her eyebrows arched with the question.

“Yes?” Did she work here? Surely not, unless the Chinese restaurant dressed their employees in expensive, geometric-patterned slacks and bright green shirts. “And you are?”

“Scarlett.” When I didn’t react, she thrust out her hand. “You know, Barry’s friend?”

I sucked in a quick breath. Son of a gun. This wasn’t lunch with my brother. This was a good old-fashioned bait and switch, a fucking blind date!

She laughed softly. “He didn’t tell you about me, did he?”

She was fast on the uptake. I gave her that. I shook my head, too mad to speak.

“Hmm. Well, this is awkward.” Her gaze dipped down my body, lingered here and there, and popped back up to my face. “I’m hungry, and this is one of my favorite places on the west side.” She smiled, and her eyes lit up. “I say we go for it. It’s just lunch.”

My stomach clenched. I didn’t do well with spontaneous. “Um…Scarlett, is it?”

She nodded.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but I have this crazy afternoon ahead of me, and I don’t have time to wait for a table. I—”

“Kristina, Scarlett? Party of two?” A man dressed in the black and red of the restaurant’s logo circled in the crowd, calling our names loudly and clearly.

“Ha. Problem solved.” When my brow furrowed, she added, “Your brother stopped by earlier to put our names in. I thought he was just being unbelievably thoughtful. There’s always such a long line here, and they don’t take reservations, but now I see it was all part of his master plan.” She raised her hand, and the host crossed to us immediately.

“Ready for lunch?” He smiled as if we had won the lottery, and from the number of people milling around waiting for tables, maybe we had.

“I don’t know.” Scarlett swiveled toward me. “Are we?”

The host turned as well, and with both of them staring at me with very different expectations, I caved under the combined weight. Besides, Barry really would rat me out with Mom given half a chance.

“Sure.” I sighed again and followed them through the crowd and up a long flight of stairs. The smells of garlic and ginger and something bold and peppery welcomed us, and my mouth began to water. At the top, we stepped into a huge room with floor to ceiling windows on the back wall. The view of the city, even midafternoon, was stunning. Glowing glass sculptures that mimicked gigantic sea anemones in both color and shape dangled from beams above our heads and gave the room a cool, artistic vibe.

I glanced ahead to Scarlett, who was chatting with the host as if they were long-lost friends. She was curvy without being soft, and there was a grace in her step as she glided around the tables. I had to admit she was sexy, maybe even really sexy. Barry certainly knew my type. But I was still mad. At him for sure. I wasn’t ready to seriously date again. He knew that Andi had broken my heart into a thousand pieces when she’d cheated on me. And honestly, I was a little mad at Scarlett, too. She seemed to accept my brother’s deception way too easily for my liking.


She was right.

It was just lunch.

“Have you been here before?” she asked as we scooted into a booth for two.

I shook my head, and she reached over to flip my menu to a page near the front.

“They’re known for these.” She pointed to pictures of delicate balls of dough in bamboo containers.

“Soup dumplings?” I read the name off the menu.

“Yeah. They’re amazing. Do you eat pork?”

“I do.”

“Then let’s order the snow crab and pork ones. I don’t want to say any more. You need to experience them when they come.”


She laughed again, revealing a dimple on one cheek. “You’re going to love them, but we can order some fried rice if that makes you feel safe, and oh, they do amazing sweet and sour ribs here. All crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.” As she spoke, she ticked off our choices on the form that had come with the menu. When she had looked it over twice, she slid it to the edge of the table and gave me an expectant look.

“And how do you know my brother?” I couldn’t get over the fact that he had set me up.

“I play poker with him at Ryan’s when I’m in town.”

Ryan was Barry’s college roommate, a sous chef at a celebrity restaurant in Beverly Hills. His games were apparently legendary. “Do you win?” It was a possibly rude question, but I had nothing to lose.

“Enough to keep going. I like a challenge.” She winked at me conspiratorially. What had Barry said to her?

A server appeared at our booth. “Welcome to Happy Noodle.” He picked up the ticket, scanned it, and rattled off what Scarlett had ordered. He nodded as if he approved and prepared little bowls of dipping sauce with the condiments already on the table. Only then did he disappear back into the depths of the restaurant.

“I know Ryan from when we both worked at the Garlic Bistro.”

“You’re a chef?”

“I was. Now, I have a show on the Food and Flavor Network. Small Bites with Scarlett. It’s about finding that one perfect bite.”

Of course, with her expensive haircut and clothes, she had to be on TV. You couldn’t throw a stick in L.A. without hitting someone in the industry.

“We go to restaurants and food trucks, even home kitchens, and search for the best amuse-bouche,” she continued. “You know, that little tidbit that keeps you happy until the main course comes along?”

“I know the term. It literally translates as mouth teaser, right?”

“Exactly. One taste that excites all your senses.” Her gaze drifted to my mouth. She licked her lips. Hungrily? No, that would be crazy, but heat flashed along my cheeks nonetheless.

Her look, whatever it had been, turned thoughtful. “Barry really didn’t tell you anything about me?”

I shook my head.

She jiggled the small dish of soy sauce, vinegar, and ginger that the server had prepared. The pale ginger swirled in the dark liquid, and a smell, both salty and sour, rose between us. “Do you want to hear what he told me about you?” she asked.

I nodded. I shouldn’t have. But, God help me, I did want to know why a TV personality had agreed to meet a boring CPA in the first place. I took a sip of water and relaxed my forehead, trying to look like I didn’t care.

“He said you had a bad breakup a while back. He’s worried about you and said you needed some fun. I like fun. Actually, I specialize in it.”

A thousand different ways to kill my brother flashed through my mind. But…if I wanted fun, Scarlett would be a good choice. She was awfully cute and didn’t seem put off by my grumpiness.

“And he said that you were hot.”

I nearly sprayed a second sip of water all over her. “He said that?”

“Not really. But a picture is worth a thousand words.” She picked up her phone, tapped the front a few times, and spun it around.

On the screen in full HDR, I sat poolside at my parents’ house, my head tilted back and my eyes closed. My hair, longer than I wore it now, tumbled down my back and caught the golden light of the afternoon sun. I wore a striped one-piece bathing suit, which I still had and was actually quite demure. But in this photo, it slid off my shoulder, revealing a little too much of one breast, and it also rode high on my hip. My legs stretched, long and lean, into the water. I looked like a blond bombshell from a 40’s pinup calendar.

What the hell? What was Barry thinking sending a picture like this over the internet to a stranger, not to mention, how the fuck did he have it in the first place? Andi had sworn she had deleted it years ago.

Scarlett spun the phone around and took another glance. “You look twice as good in person, by the way.” Tilting her head up, she locked gazes with me. “You’re much prettier with shorter hair.”

Son of a bitch, hunger was definitely what swirled in her irises. There was no doubt about it. Much more than lunch was on the table.


The server saved me by placing a round bamboo basket between us. He lifted the lid, and a cloud of steam rose into the air. Inside were little pockets of dough, pleated and sealed at the top.

“Thank you.” Scarlett smiled at the server as he slipped a laminated sheet labeled How to Enjoy the Happy Noodle Dumpling by the basket.

“Oh my God, there’re instructions?”

“It’s not that hard. Let me show you.”

I nodded, and she plucked the plastic chopsticks off the napkin. My brow must have furrowed—I had never been good with chopsticks—and Scarlett, quick on the uptake with this, too, quickly dropped them back to her napkin. “Let’s do it the easy way.”

She grabbed a white soup spoon with its short thick handle and positioned it over the basket. With her other hand, she plucked a dumpling from the container and deposited it into the deep indentation in the middle of the spoon. “Your turn.” She nodded at me.

I, too, took a spoon, reached out for a dumpling, and hesitated. “Where’s the soup?” I asked, staring into the basket. All I saw were a dozen dumplings shaped like teardrops on parchment paper.

“That’s the surprise.” She wiggled her spoon at me. “Take one.”

I grabbed a dumpling by its pleats; it was surprisingly heavy for a little thing. The dough felt soft and warm under my fingers, and I held it for a beat before dropping it into my own spoon.

“Okay, now you take a little bite out of the top.” She bent her head to the dumpling and raised her spoon.

I was transfixed as her mouth curled over the morsel. Her lips were full and probably very soft and definitely the color of pink lemonade in the middle of summer. She bit the dumpling in a way that was somehow both delicate and forceful.

And I felt it all. It was the weirdest thing; my mouth began to tingle as if she was caressing my lips. Goose bumps rose on my arms. My toes curled ever so slightly in my loafers.

“Mmm. Delicious.” Her voice was low and husky.

A jolt hit me below my gut.

“Now you do it.” She fixed her gaze again on me. I looked away. Did she have any idea what she was doing to me? Did I?

I swallowed hard and raised my spoon. My lips brushed the top of the dumpling. It was silky and warm. Slowly, I took its nipple into my mouth and nibbled. The folds of its skin opened. Swirling upward, steam escaped and caressed my lips. A symphony of aromatic smells tickled my nose.

“Now suck on it. Just a little.” Scarlett’s voice drifted to me through the haze of my heightened senses.

I did. An explosion of rich, hot broth hit my taste buds, completely unexpected but delightfully exciting. I relaxed into the moment and let the soup swirl over my tongue. Finally, hesitantly, I met Scarlett’s gaze.

I feared she’d be laughing at me. My reaction was too naive or too intense, almost comical. But, no, she looked at me with excitement in those sparkling brown eyes as if she, too, had just eaten something delicious for the first time. Heat spiked through me, and desires that had been dormant since Andi left sprung to life.

A smile curved on those delectable lips. “That’s the surprise. The soup’s inside.”

“It’s like magic,” I replied, unsure if I was talking only about the dumpling.

She nodded as if she understood both meanings. “Finish it. Take the whole thing into your mouth.”

I did. The tastes of savory pork and crab burst in my mouth, and the leftover broth caressed my tongue. Small bites with Scarlett. Suddenly, I knew what lunch was all about…or could be, if I didn’t change the channel.

I didn’t really remember the rest of the meal. The other dishes appeared on our table, and we must have eaten them because when the check came, there was nothing left on our plates. We threw cash on the bill folder, and next thing I knew, we were outside handing our tickets to the valet.

Rather than make small talk, I shuffled my feet on the sidewalk. God, I’d had a full lunch and was still ravenous. I didn’t want this to end, but I had no idea what to do next. I glanced quickly at Scarlett. She stood there, easy and relaxed, arms swinging freely at her sides as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

So sexy.

And so intimidating. What was I thinking? I couldn’t even remember what to do when I was attracted to someone.

Maybe I could—

What if—

My car arrived at the curb, and the moment was gone.

“Okay, then…” I gave her half a wave and moved to the driver’s side.

She followed, reached around me to shut the car door with a thud, and leaned in with her whole body.

“Should I stop?” she whispered low enough that only I could hear.

Unable to speak, I shook my head.

She smiled and pinned me up against the car’s side. Her hands pushed at my hips, and her breasts crushed into mine. Another jolt started in my gut with her touch, but this time, the electricity spread to my whole body.

The world around me receded. The crowd outside the restaurant, the puzzled valet, the cars whizzing down the street—all gone. Nothing but my hunger for Scarlett remained. She leaned in until our lips were only inches apart.

“I’m the tidbit that keeps you happy until the main course comes along.” And with that, her mouth crushed into mine. The kiss was fast and fierce and just a quick taste of all the pleasures yet to come. “We’re doing this again, right?” she whispered against my lips.

“Yes,” my answer was more moan than speech.

Right then and there, I decided. Next time, it would be dinner. And with a little luck, I’d feast on all her little dumplings.

I wasn’t ready to fall in love again. But I was ready for what Scarlett was offering.

After all, Barry was right.

A girl’s got to eat.


Episode Two: The Oyster Po’Girl Sandwich


Or did she?

Standing outside of Scarlett’s adorable California bungalow two weeks later, my stomach churned as if it was a high-end blender. I had never been so nervous about having dinner, ever. The texts that had flown between us since lunch at Happy Noodle had been very clear about what would really be served up tonight. The first one had pinged my phone only days after our lunch.

Come to dinner Sat nite. At my house. I’ll cook.

Love 2. What can I bring?

Just yourself.

I have to bring something!

You are bringing something.


You. You’re dessert.

Sitting behind my desk, safe and alone, I had giggled with delight. I had never met anyone so sure of themselves and what they wanted. And unbelievably, what she wanted was me! The texts were cheesy, for sure. But I liked cheese. And Scarlett, she was intoxicating, beyond sexy, and God help me, almost magical. I almost felt brand-new and alive again. Somehow, I was now the kind of person who dashed across town for a no-strings-attached sexcapade.

It’s a date! I had texted back.

As an appetizer before the dinner date, I had binged her show on my newly downloaded Food and Flavor Network app. She had been sexy there, too, playing to the camera like a lover. But it was more than that. She talked about food with a sensuality that was palpable even on my tiny phone screen.

Now, a week later, I was only a knock away from a starring role in my own episode of Small Bites with Scarlett. I took a deep breath and willed my stomach to be quiet. Still nervous but more excited than anything. I marveled that this night could be the beginning of a new, more adventurous me. A me who could leave Andi behind once and for all. I rapped on the oak door.

“Come in,” Scarlett called from inside.

The front door swung open to reveal a great room with a prominent hearth and lots of built-ins. Wood trim, wainscoting, and Craftsman style accessories gave the house a hip, designer look.

“Hi!” Scarlett waved from the kitchen which was just beyond the great room. Framed by two tapered columns, she gave the impression, even at home, that she was on a stage. It suited her. I waved back and met her smile with one of my own. “I’m so glad you came.” Her voice was happy and excited.

“Me too,” I said and much to my surprise, I actually meant it. This felt right. My nerves, like the tide at the beach, receded. “This is for you. I had to bring something.” I slid my standard hostess gift, a medium-sized houseplant with a braided trunk and bright green leaves, onto the counter. “It’s a money plant. It’s supposed to bring good luck and money to the receiver.”

“Oh, cute. It’s not often that a CPA brings cash to the table.”

My heart fluttered. “Exactly.” Usually, I had to explain the joke but not to her. I didn’t think it possible, but she was even sexier now.

“I’ll try not to kill it. No green thumbs here.” She held up her thumbs as if to prove it. Then, she pointed to a barstool at the island in front of her. “Do you want to sit? Or help?”

“Oh, I’ll help.” Cooking lessons had always been on my bucket list.

“Great.” Her eyes sparkled as she made room for me on her side of the island. “You like seafood, I hope?”

“I do.” Although I didn’t love poke or anything else that was raw. But she was standing in front of a cast-iron skillet on a burner, so I hoped I was safe.

“Good. We’re having oyster po’boy sandwiches with barbequed shrimp remoulade.”

“Oh, wow.” I dropped my wallet and keys onto the counter and pushed up my sleeves. “Okay. You’re going to have to give me explicit instructions if you want it to turn out right.”

“Oh, I think it’s going to turn out great, but let’s have dinner first.” She laughed, clearly misunderstanding me on purpose. “On second thought, I like the instructions game. Come over here.”

Doing what I was told, I rounded the counter and stopped about a foot away. She pulled an apron out of a nearby drawer and unfurled it with a snap. Stepping closer, she draped it over my head and smoothed it down my body. Her touch was electric. Her hands ran lightly down my sides, giving my breasts a wide berth, which of course, only made them ache for contact.

I wasn’t one to rush things, but I really hoped we might be starting with dessert.

She slid the ties around my back and leaned in to loop them together. Her warm breath caressed my neck as her hands fluttered at my back. Touching but not touching me. Never had putting on more clothes been so sensuous. It was all I could do not to melt right there at her feet.

“Okay,” she said a little breathlessly and pulled away. “I was about to put the shrimp on.”

She twisted the knob on the stove, and the gas ignited with a whoosh under the pan, as if it wasn’t hot enough in the kitchen already. She handed me a plate of seasoned shrimp. “Here, just drop them in when the oil begins to sizzle.”

I washed my hands and did as I was told. The shrimp, at first pale against the black pan, began to turn a deeper red as they bubbled in the oil.

“Let them sear for a minute more, and then flip them.” Her voice was all business, giving directions as if we were on her show, but when she handed me a fork, our fingers brushed. We both froze at the contact. She chuckled, probably because we were acting like schoolgirls, and threw me a knowing look.

When the shrimp was done, she brought me a cutting board and knife. She pulled a shrimp out of the skillet and cut the tip off one as a demo. “Make them all this size. The tails should just slide off.”

“I can do that.” I began to chop the shrimp.

“And then you can make the remoulade.”

“That I’m pretty sure I can‘t do.”

“Yes, you can. Look.” She opened the fridge and pulled out another long cutting board. Little pots of ingredients were already measured along its length. Mayo, whole grain mustard, capers, and pickles, all in their own little bowls.

“Wow.” She had made cooking completely foolproof. “I guess there is a first time for everything.”

“Yes.” She met my gaze head on. “I hope this is a night of many firsts for you.”

I bit my lip rather than answer, but the heat spreading across my cheeks probably said it all.

She dropped a larger empty bowl by my side. “It all goes in there when you’re ready.”

We worked for a while in silence. I stirred all the remoulade ingredients into the bowl. The sharp and tangy smell of the pickles and capers mixed with the sweetness of the shrimp made my mouth water, and for the first time that night, I was actually thinking about food.

Scarlett built the dredge for the oysters in an even bigger bowl. Without measuring a thing, she tossed in flour and panko bread crumbs, onion and garlic powder, some red spice that could have been cayenne, paprika, creole seasoning, or something else altogether.

She glanced at my bowl and nodded approvingly. A warmth spread in my belly. “That looks great.” She took the bowl from me, placed it back in the fridge, and pulled out a large pan of oysters on ice. They were still in their shells. “Ready to work for your dinner?”

“I thought I already was.”

“This is a little harder.”

“I’ve never shucked an oyster,” I said, impressed that I actually knew the word for it.

“A night of firsts. Remember?” Her voice was low and sultry.

I nodded.

“And instructions. So let me show you how.” She set the pan on the counter and grabbed a pair of rubber gloves. “Hold out your nondominant hand.”

I raised my right one.

“Oh, a lefty. I’ll remember that later.” She raised her eyebrows with the promise. She took my hand and began to slide on the glove. More foreplay for sure. If this kept on much longer, I would be horny as hell and clothed from head to toe several times over.

“I didn’t know what we were going to make tonight.” She slowly threaded the glove over my fingers. “But the second I walked into Palisades Seafood, I saw these babies, and I knew. Fresh from Morro Bay just this morning. I love the Pacific golds. They’re briny and sweet and a perfect mouthful.” She raised her gaze to meet mine. Were we still talking about the oysters?

“Gulf oysters,” she started up again, “are traditional for the po’boy, you know. But I go for whatever is freshest.” She slid the glove over my wrist. “Okay. I’ll show you how.” She turned my gloved hand over and placed an oyster in the middle. “Hold it securely.” She gave my hand a squeeze. “Now take this.” She put a short knife complete with a green hand guard into my left hand. “Take the narrow end of the oyster and slide the knife into the hinge.”

She wrapped her right hand around my left and tried, unsuccessfully, to maneuver the knife inside the oyster.

“Shoot, this isn’t going to work,” she said. “I’ve never done it left-handed or from this angle. I think I need to mimic you. Do you mind?”

She moved behind me, her front to my back, and wrapped her arms around me or almost did. They hovered off my own arms by inches. We were so close again but not touching at all. The feeling was novel and exciting. Her body heat or psychic energy or sexual tension, fuck, I didn’t know what it was, reached out for me. It was all I could do not to lean back and fall into the excitement she was offering.

Scarlett sighed softly, stepped in, and wrapped her arms around me. Her right hand held mine and the oyster, and her left encircled my hand with the knife. We had melded almost into one person. Her embracing me was just as intimate as a kiss, even more, maybe.

She squeezed my right hand. “Look there at the bottom. The thickest part. That’s the hinge, the opening. You need to slide the knife up and in.” She guided the knife that was the width of a finger into the oyster. In her concentration, her breasts pressed lightly against my back. “Don’t go in hard. Softer is always better. You need to feel the way the oyster responds under your touch.”

I sucked in a breath. I couldn’t help it. Her words should have been corny and off-putting. But as she spoke, her breasts, both firm and supple, pushed into me. I almost didn’t hear the words. Scarlett totally had my number.

“Now, when you’re inside, move it back and forth. Like a key finding the lock.”

I twisted the knife, but the flesh inside held firm.

“You’ll get the hang of it. You’re looking for the sweet spot that opens everything up.” She cupped my hand tighter and guided my motions. Under her touch, the shell loosened, and the knife slid in farther. Together, we swept the blade back and forth, trying to get the shell to release. Finally, the top popped off and revealed flesh in different shades of brown, gray, and black nestled in a porcelain white shell. Something like a sea breeze filled the kitchen. So fresh and briny, it was as if the ocean was lapping at our feet.

“Perfect.” Scarlett sighed in my ear. “Now we need to take it home.” She tapped the knife against the side of the shell. “Like this.” She pulled the knife in a simple upward motion, starting at the bottom right corner. The oyster contracted and then relaxed as it separated from its shell. Still guiding my hand, Scarlett dumped the meat and the seawater into a plastic container nearby.

“There, we’re done,” she said.

“With one.” I looked with horror at the full tray. At this pace, we wouldn’t be eating until midnight.

“Let’s do a few more together, and then I’ll take over.”

I still had no idea what to do, but Scarlett turned it into a sexy game. Her arms wrapped tightly around me, her breasts still squeezed against my back, we would slide the knife in, pop the oyster shell, and dump the juicy bite into the container.

“You have to find the exact spot to make it all go right.”

“Like a G-spot,” I said, surprising myself at my audacity.

“Yes.” She laughed. “Hard to find but totally worth it when you do.”

At some point, I reluctantly eased out of her arms, and Scarlett went to work in earnest, and soon, the tray was empty and the container full. She handed me a metal mesh strainer and a bowl and dunked the oysters in the panko-flour mixture. She dropped them into the strainer.

“Shake them gently. Not too much, just enough to get the excess off.”

I did, and we moved to the deep fryer that I hadn’t noticed before on a back counter. No surprise, she worked it well and was all business as she fried the pieces in small batches until they were crispy brown. She grabbed a long French roll, lightly toasted from the oven, and cut it in half. We slathered the shrimp remoulade on the inside, pushed in the crispy oysters, and topped it off with bright red radicchio lettuce. Hers looked a work of art; mine, not so much. But man, they both smelled good.

My stomach rumbled. With all the sexual tension flowing between us, I didn’t think I would be hungry. But now, I couldn’t wait to taste the fruits of our labor.

“We need to eat while it’s hot,” she said as if she had read my mind.

In no time at all, we were sitting at a small table on a covered balcony off the kitchen. White wine was already in an ice bucket, and somehow, a raw spinach salad appeared as if by magic. I swear, it was only the blink of an eye before I was wrapping my mouth around the sandwich. I bit down. Simultaneously, I got that crunch that was almost an emotional need with fried food and a burst of flavor from the remoulade.

I rocked back into my chair. “Oh my God.”

Scarlett held her sandwich; she hadn’t yet taken a bite. “You like it?”

“It’s delicious. Seriously, beyond anything I was expecting.” I flinched as I realized how she could take it, as if I hadn’t expected her cooking to be top-shelf.

“Good. I’m so glad.”

I should’ve known she’d only take it in the best way possible. I was beginning to realize that Scarlett was the real deal, and I was actually glad my brother had meddled in my life for once.

“I wouldn’t want to disappoint you,” she said.

“As if. I couldn’t imagine you disappointing anyone.”

“You’d be surprised. That’s why I like to keep things simple. With my food and my women.” she said lightly and tucked in. “Mmm. This is good.” She winked at me over the table. “We make a good team.”

I smiled shyly. More at myself than her. X-rated images of exactly how we’d be a good team later rolled through my mind. I had always taken instruction well, and thanks to the foreplay of how dinner came together, I already had a few ideas. Crazy ones. Sizzling ones that I would’ve been embarrassed by a couple weeks ago. I liked the new me.

“You know,” she said breaking into my thoughts, “the po’boy has a really interesting history. Do you know where it got its name?”

I shook my head and drove the after-dinner activities from my mind.

“The sandwich hails from New Orleans, of course.” Her tone dropped and took on the flirty, conspiratorial inflection of her TV show. “Back at the height of the Great Depression, the streetcar workers weren’t getting paid, so they went on strike. These two guys who owned a café and grocery store found out. They told the workers to come on down, show us your badge, and we’ll feed you for free. When a striking union member walked in, one of them would call out to the kitchen, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’”

“You love all this, don’t you?” I asked, impressed by the passion in her voice.

A flush crept across her cheeks. “I’m absolutely a culinary nerd. Last year, we did a couple of shows down in New Orleans, you know the whole creole, Cajun, soul food thing. I spent every lunch hour chasing the best po’boy sandwich around town and soaking up the atmosphere.” She shrugged. “That’s why I love cooking. Food is culture and community you can taste. It connects us to the past and each other and, God, so much more.”

Right there on her balcony, I truly saw her for the first time. My mother—God bless her—was a terrible cook. Family dinners were never an integral part of how I grew up. We had different traditions. Five-thousand-piece puzzles, summer camping trips, Sunday treasure hunts around the neighborhood. But never food. In fact, until the Happy Noodle, I just ate to live, but I could see that Scarlett lived to eat. “Food is culture and community you can taste,” I repeated under my breath. I wanted to really embrace the idea.

“On my show, I try to find the heart and soul of the people in one little bite.” She paused and bit her lip. “I’ve never really told anyone that before. I’m not sure if people really get me as a chef. Food and Flavor Network just wants me to flirt with everyone I meet. Women, men, vending machines. I get high ratings only because I’m sexy on screen.” She still stared at her plate.

“No, you don’t,” I said with a little bit more emotion than I should’ve.

She glanced up, a puzzled expression on her face.

“No, I mean, yes. You’re sexy, really sexy. But that’s not why your show works. Scarlett”—I reached across the table and took her hand—“your love of food…and people comes across loud and clear in every show with every single bite. It’s there for anyone who wants to look. And believe me, I’m looking. But at you, as a person full of passion and life. You’re so much more than your show.”

She met my gaze head on with an unreadable expression in her eyes. She pursed her lips and nodded ever so slightly, as if I had proved that the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus actually existed. Seemingly, being more than her show was something she wanted to believe but thought maybe she shouldn’t. The realization hit me out of nowhere. I wasn’t the only one at the table unsure of myself. “You watched my shows?” Her voice was soft and quiet.

“I did.”

“You’re the first woman in a long time who’s cared enough to watch the show.” She relaxed as if she had stepped off the stage. It was just a subtle difference, a drop in her shoulders. A smile rising to her eyes. “Thank you,” she said and looked at me with a new intensity. And I was suddenly way of my depth.

“They make you flirt with vending machines.” I tried to lighten the mood. “What’s up with that?”

“Ah, we did a couple of shows about the crazy things you can get out of vending machines. Salads, burritos, caviar.”

“Caviar? From a vending machine?”

“You bet. At the mall in Century City. Isn’t that where you buy your caviar?”

I laughed. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“I know. That show was a complete sellout, but product placement totally paid my salary that week.” Scarlett pushed back from the table. “You done? Let me just put a few things away, and I thought maybe you’d want to see my garden?”

My breath caught. Here we were. Okay, I was ready, wasn’t I?

“No.” She laughed, no doubt seeing my discomfort. “I mean my real garden. It’s out back. I’m very proud of it. Plus, the night air and a short stroll will be good for us. The po’boys were a little heavy.”

“Oh, okay.” I didn’t know whether I was relieved or upset.

She must have seen that, too, for she quickly added. “Don’t worry. Afterward, we’ll come back in for dessert.”

Before I knew it, we were in the cool night air of the backyard. Her land was mostly hill, but she had leveled out a space for raised vegetable beds covered in netting. Leading me around counterclockwise, she pointed out every edible plant and flower and told me about the little bites they might inspire.

Outside the garden boxes, there was a bunch of plants growing wild, trailing up the hill. She pulled a few of the bright green leaves off and raised her hand to my mouth. “Here. Taste.”

I made to take them from her, and she brushed my hand gently aside. With a featherlight touch, she ran the leaves over my lips, sending shivers down my spine. I opened my mouth with a moan, and she slid a few inside. Cool and sweet flavors burst over my tongue. “Mint?” I rolled the leaves around my mouth. “Spearmint!”

“A woman of fine distinction. Most people would have stopped at just mint.” She popped some into her own mouth to chew.

I almost laughed. Scarlett was clever. She had given us mint to clean our breath and had turned it into wonderful foreplay as well. I inched closer to her until our faces were only a breath apart. Here went nothing. “You may be known for small bites in the kitchen, but I hope you like second and third helpings in the bedroom. If you get my drift.”

She laughed huskily and slid her other arm around me. “Loud and clear. I’m going to kiss you now if that’s okay.”

I nodded. But the new me didn’t wait for her to lean in. I jumped first and pressed my mouth to hers. Her lips were warm and still tasted like mint. A lovely tingling sensation played against mine. She drew me closer.

Our lips moved unhurriedly, languidly, as if we had all the time in the world to explore each other. I took in the soft feel of her mouth, the way the mint seemed to be everywhere all at once, and her little moans of delight when I touched her tongue with mine. She pressed her body against me, and my stomach flip-flopped in response. As if she could feel it, too, she claimed me, kissed me back with the authority and confidence I had seen in the kitchen. Her hands slid up my back, playing with the top of my bra strap under my shirt.

If this was just the beginning, what was the rest of the night going to be like?

“Should we go inside?” she asked softly against my mouth.

Every part of me ached to. I couldn’t imagine anything I wanted more. Ever.

That was why what happened next was so utterly shocking. “I can’t,” I said. The words registered in my mind only once they were out of my mouth.



She said it, and I thought it simultaneously. I almost spun around the garden to see if there was someone else here. Surely, that hadn’t been me.

Scarlett stepped back, her arms still loosely around my waist, and scanned my face. “Seriously? I thought…”

There was surprise in her voice, for sure, but also discomfort and hurt. I got it. I totally did. I had misled her as well as myself. All evening, no, actually for weeks, I had been telling myself I wanted this. If I could fall into a wild experience with Scarlett, I could prove to myself that I was over Andi. That I wasn’t the kind of person who let another’s betrayal define me. But fuck me, I wasn’t over Andi. That had to be the reason for all this, didn’t it? What else could it have been?


I looked deep into Scarlett’s big brown eyes and sighed. “I’m so sorry. I’m not coming in.”

She flinched and tried to disentangle herself from me. In the process, she stepped on the mint, and its fresh, aromatic scent filled the air. What had been so tantalizing only minutes before now smelled like crushed dreams. I gripped her arms lightly as she tried to pull away.

“What the fuck?” she said not unkindly and shook her arms free.

“Look, I am so sorry. I thought I could. I want to, believe me, but…”

“But what?” The surprise had faded, leaving only hurt.

“But…but…” The bare beginnings of understanding whirled in my mind. What the fuck was right! It wasn’t Andi that was stopping me. No, son of a gun, it was Scarlett! “You…this…tonight…” I rubbed my forehead as I tried to gather my thoughts. “Back at Happy Noodle, you said you were the tidbit that would keep me happy until the main course comes along, right?” I didn’t stop to get confirmation; we both knew that was what she had said. “And that’s what you meant? All you’re offering me is a small bite?”

“Well, I was…” Confusion had crept into her voice.

“I am so sorry. I can’t do it. When I came over tonight, I came for that sexy TV host. The one who can flirt with a vending machine. But at dinner, when you were talking about cooking and culture and I could see how much you love it, I caught a little glimpse of the woman behind the camera. I didn’t realize it until right now, but that’s who I want. And not for an amuse-bouche but for the main meal.” The puns and double-entendres that had been so fun all evening felt worn and terribly stale.

She glanced at the trampled mint. “That’s not who I am,” she said so softly, I barely heard her.

“I know. But it’s who I am. If I came in tonight, you would shatter my world. Just by that one kiss, I know you would. And sure as I am standing here, I also know I would be a wreck tomorrow.” I had lived like that for the last six months and had no intention of stretching it out to another six. They might have been different women, but the outcome would be the same.

Head still down, Scarlett rubbed the back of her neck. She was listening. She just wasn’t responding.

“Believe me, I want to be the kind of woman who jumps in and out of your bed as easily as trying a new restaurant, but I’m not. I’m the kind of woman who reads the Yelp reviews and studies the menus in advance.”

Still, she said nothing. Time to go for broke.

“I could fall in love with you in one night. I might already be halfway there. I can’t stay if this just is a one-time thing.”

Finally, she glanced up, her eyes distant and empty, and shook her head. “See, I knew I would disappoint you.”

“Oh, God, no,” I said, “I’m the one who’s disappointing you. The rules were clear. I just want more than one bite.”

She reached out to rub my cheek with the back of her hand. Probably the least sexy thing she had done all night, but somehow, it touched me to my core. Her hand dropped, and we stood silently looking at each other. “Okay.” Her shoulders slumped, as she took a step back. “Let’s get you on the road. Your things are inside, right?” Not waiting for an answer, she headed back to the house. The evening was over.

I sighed into the empty air. Before I followed, I bent to pull a few mint leaves and slipped them into my pocket. The fried oyster loaf should have been called the po’girl. Because honestly, even though I had money in the bank, no poorer girl had ever driven home…alone.


Episode Three: Those Morning Sticky Buns


Three weeks later on a Sunday morning, I sat in my favorite coffee place. Creature of habit, I came every Sunday like clockwork. Actually, Cuppa Joes was more bakery than coffeehouse. The coffee was decent enough, but their caramel walnut sticky buns had people lining up on weekends.

I was nursing a latte at a back table. This early in the morning, the smell of gooey caramel hung thickly in the air, but it didn’t tempt me. I hadn’t really been hungry since dinner at Scarlett’s. Something leaden had grown in the pit of my stomach that night and hadn’t yet dissipated. I kept waiting. I thought that cutting the evening short would free me somehow—show me that I was in control of my own heart—but, in truth, leaving early had trapped me in even more disappointment. I wanted a real relationship, and sitting all alone on a Sunday morning wasn’t cutting it.

“Kristina?” a voice said behind me.

I knew that voice. Despite myself, a thrill spun through me, and I hated myself for it. I craned my neck around. Man, she looked good. “Hello, Andi,” I said slowly as my ex moved around the table to stand right in front of me. “What are you doing here?” Surprisingly, my voice sounded calm and easy, and I thanked a higher power for small favors.

“You still come here?”

“I do.” We had found Cuppa Joes together when we’d moved into the neighborhood years ago. This was our place. Until it was just mine.

“You know, I’m glad I ran into you.” She waved to the empty chair by my side. “This seat free?”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak again. What the fuck? Glad she ran into me? Last I’d heard, she had moved across town. What did she want? We had been over for months and months. Probably, if I was being honest, we were done before she had moved out. I hadn’t gotten all the details, just enough to break my heart. She had cheated on me with another doctor from the hospital. She hadn’t planned it, but as she’d told the story, stress and long hours in the emergency room had brought them together. One night, it had just happened. Then it had just happened a couple more times. She’d kept telling me how sorry she was as she’d packed her bags to leave.

And now, for some reason, she was here. Looking better, goddammit, than I remembered. Her hair fell past her shoulders. She wore it down rather than pulled back into a work ponytail as she usually did. It suited her. Softened her expression. She always had brought the tension and strain of her job home with her in the fine lines around her eyes and mouth.

She sat, dropped a metal stand with the number 18 on the table, and tilted her head to one side to consider me. “You look great,” she said after a long pause.

“You too.” And I added quickly so she wouldn’t think I was pining after her. “Tan, like you’ve been out in the sun.”

“I was.”

I waited for more, but she ran a finger absentmindedly around the metal stand on the table. Finally, she said, “I had some time off. So I went to Hawaii for a week.”

My hand jerked against my cup. Inside, the coffee sloshed. We had talked about going to Hawaii. First a tour of Pearl Harbor and then a week at some fancy resort on Maui. I wondered how Dr. Home-wrecker had liked the trip.

“So you finally found the time?” As if that was the only thing that had been stopping us.

“Yeah, I mean I’m between jobs and—”

“Between jobs?” I was shocked. She had never loved anyone as much as her rounds in the ER.

“Yeah.” Her lips pressed together in a slight grimace. Clearly, she didn’t want to talk about it.

Once, maybe, I would have let that deter me, but not now. “What happened?”

She was rescued by a server bringing out her usual breakfast: black coffee and steel-cut oats with fresh fruit, no butter, no maple syrup. No extra calories or fat. She ate as healthfully as she could. She wouldn’t have been caught dead with a sticky bun.

“Thanks.” She handed the server the number and touched her bowl without real enthusiasm. For some reason, Scarlett popped into my mind. She wouldn’t have been in this place ten minutes before she’d have had the whole story behind their famous sticky buns. But I pushed her out as fast as she entered.

“Why did you leave Mercy Vale?”

“Sherri and I didn’t work out. She had the seniority…and…and it just didn’t seem wise, you know, for my career and…other things, to stay,” she said in soft tones, as if it had happened to someone else.

“Oh.” I leaned back into my chair with the sudden and sure realization that Sherri had broken up with her. A taste of her own medicine.

She gave a half-hearted shrug. She looked so forlorn, I almost felt sorry for her. No, I did feel sorry for her. I wouldn’t have wished heartbreak on anyone. Maybe that was why she was softer around the edges. “Yeah, Hawaii was great and all, but you know, while I was there, I kept thinking of…” She trailed off as if she couldn’t find the next word.

It was weird. She usually wasn’t like this. I fell back into old habits and helped her out. “Of what?”

“Not what. Who.” She leaned in ever so slightly. “Of you.”

And there it was. She had been thinking about me? The very thing I had desperately wanted to hear since the second she’d shut the front door on our relationship. “Really?”

“Yes. It was kind of a surprise to me, too.” She laughed softly. “But there I was one night, standing on my balcony at that same hotel we had talked about going to. And I wished you were there next to me. Just like that.”

“Just like that?”

“Yep. I didn’t see it coming, but once it did, I couldn’t get you out of my mind. How you would have liked the hotel, the beach, the romantic restaurant. It had a thatched roof and sat over a lagoon. The floor was clear, and I could see fish swimming below my feet. You would’ve really loved it.”

“I’m sure I would.” It was hard not to get swept up in the reality she was weaving. After all, I had lived that trip as a fantasy so many times.

“So let’s go back.” She met my gaze.

My eyes widened, and she shrugged as if nothing could be more natural. “Together?” I furrowed my brows and waved my hand between us, maybe for emphasis, but probably out of nervousness. “Like, you and me, together?”

She grabbed my hand as I was throwing it around and intertwined our fingers. “Yes. You and me. Together. Look, you and I worked. You took care of me. There were no surprises. I was a better doctor when I was with you. I think we should get back together so I can go back to being myself.”

I had told Scarlett that I desperately wanted to be in a relationship. Here was the offer. I should have been ecstatic. Instead, my throat tightened, and I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was suffocating. Heat spun in my chest and rose to my face. I didn’t need a mirror to know that my whole face was on fire. Not with embarrassment but with…what exactly?

“Thank you,” I said stupidly. I needed time to think, and it was the first thing that jumped into my mind.

She sat back in her chair and a slow, satisfied smile rose to her lips. I knew that smile. She thought she was being magnanimous and selfless. Offering me our old life back as if it was a gift wrapped up in a golden bow. Only, I would tear the paper off to see that the present wasn’t for me. It was for her. Sherri had broken up with her, and she wanted to be the one in control again.

The realization came rushing at me like a tidal wave. Yep, if I went back to her, we’d be broken up in a few months, just when her insecurities had settled, and her head would turn, maybe not intentionally, looking for more excitement. There would be another doctor or a nurse or maybe even a patient this time. She’d be sorry all over again, and I would still be alone.

A new understanding sprinted after the first. She had never been the right woman for me, then or now. My throat loosened, and I pulled in fresh air. Panic. It had been panic earlier. “Thank you,” I said again. And this time, I meant it. She had given me a gift, after all.

Her smile deepened.

I shook my head. “But no, thanks. I know what kind of relationship I want, and I don’t think you’re offering what I need.”

Her smile died as if someone had slapped it off her face. I tried to pull my hand from hers. In response, she squeezed as if she wasn’t going to let it…or me…go. “It would be different this time.” A slight frostiness crept into her voice.

“Of course, how could it not?” With my free hand, I pried our fingers apart and interlocked mine tightly around the coffee cup. “And it wouldn’t work, just like last time. I’m not the person you left last winter. I’ve changed. I know what I want, and I’m not going to settle for less, now or ever again.”

“What is it you want?” She squinted, and those familiar fine lines hardened around her eyes. She had clearly expected an easier victory.

“I want—” The picture that popped into my mind stopped me cold. It wasn’t Andi and me walking on a moonlit beach in Hawaii. No, I saw Scarlett standing in her garden under a different moon, feeding me sweet mint leaves, a spark dancing in her eyes as she slid them into my mouth. I wanted her to walk up to me and say—

“Oh, thank God, I found you.”

My head jerked around, not sure if I had heard that voice in my head or in real life. To my gobsmacked surprise, not three feet from me was Scarlett, full of life and laughter, in that same bright green shirt she had worn to Happy Noodle. It was like a second coming.

“Your brother texted me you were probably here, and I’ve been walking around trying to find you. Long enough to get all these.” Her plate was piled high with an enormous sticky caramel bun, something else doughy tossed in cinnamon sugar, and a cherry Danish that hung precariously off one side. Following my gaze, she said. “I know. If these are as good as I think they are, I’m going to have to come back for the scones and the muffins. What a find!” Her gaze tilted upward, and for a delicious second, I was sure she wasn’t talking about the pastries anymore.

My heartbeat quickened, and my nerve endings tingled happily. This was what a proposition was supposed to feel like. At the same time, I realized that she was offering nothing.

Scarlett noticed Andi, who by this point had rocked completely back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Oh,” Scarlett said, “am I interrupting something?”



We spoke at the same time.

Scarlett raised her eyebrows, waiting for clarification, and I shook my head emphatically. “We’ve finished our discussion. There’s nothing more to be said.”

Andi huffed, but it sounded distant, as if it came from three tables over. All my attention and then some was glued to Scarlett. I probably wasn’t going to like the answer to the next question, but I had to know. “You were looking for me? Why?”

Another huff from Andi, a little louder this time. Hopefully, a new understanding was rolling over her, too. Maybe she saw the way I was leaning toward Scarlett, breathlessly waiting for her answer. My body trembled with excitement. I wanted to tell Andi that Scarlett wasn’t the reason I had said no to her proposition. No was actually saying yes to myself. I knew what I wanted, and I wasn’t going to settle. Truth be told, if Scarlett was here to reopen her offer of a night of fun, I was going to say no to that, too. I held my breath. Despite myself, hope that had seemingly withered in her garden blossomed once more.

Smiling, Scarlett slid the plate onto the table and pulled over an empty chair from the wall. “Perfect. I’m glad I wasn’t interrupting.”

I swallowed hard. She hadn’t answered my question.

Before she sat, she held out a hand to Andi. “Hi, I’m Scarlett.”

Andi shook it limply.

“Oh, you got the steel-cut oatmeal. I was tempted. Is it good?”

“No, not really. It got cold surprisingly quick.”

I shot her a glance, and her expression was as icy as the oatmeal.

Scarlett scooted her chair closer to me and directed her first comment to Andi. “Look, it’s clear I’m interrupting. So I’ll make it quick.” She turned to me. Her smile was soft and easy. “I can’t stop thinking about our last conversation.” She sucked in air through her nose and blew out a long breath. “Historically, I don’t do relationships. I’m not good at them. But I don’t think anyone has really looked at me the way you do. I mean, you were a little grumpy that first lunch, but at dinner at my house…” She laughed, and it was the kind of chuckle that was surprised. “People look at me all the time, but you really see me. The only way I can explain it is, everything I’ve cooked since dinner the other night, I want you to taste.”

She paused and licked her lips, never taking her gaze from mine. And just like the street outside of Happy Noodle, everything in Cuppa Joes faded into the background. The world was just Scarlett and me and the best moment of my life.

“I’m not saying I’ll be perfect,” she said. “We might have a lot of bumps along the way, but I really want to try, if you still want to. You’re going to find out sooner than later, I know jack about being in a relationship. But I thought we can start with one dinner date and then another, and when we’re ready, breakfast the next morning. No rush. It’s just that I can’t stop thinking that we might just the perfect recipe for happiness.”

I closed my eyes as her words surrounded me. A new warmth, the good kind, the kind that didn’t suffocate or cause panic, filled my chest and spread to the tip of my toes.

Oh, shit. Andi. I swiveled in my chair, but she was gone. When she had slipped away, I had no idea. Her chair was empty, and her oatmeal sat uneaten on the table.

I glanced around the café but didn’t see her. Silently, I wished her luck at her new job. I hoped she would find her way back to being the best doctor she could be. But that was on her, and I turned back to Scarlett, whose lips were slightly parted as she waited for my response.

“That’s why you wanted to find me?” I grasped the edge of the table, afraid I might float away with happiness. “To ask me out?”

She chuckled. Her laugh was an invitation I wasn’t going to refuse. “Yes. And I wanted to share my sticky bun with you. Want a bite?” She held out the pastry covered with caramel and walnuts.

“I have never wanted anything more in all my life.”

I brushed the sticky bun away, grabbed Scarlett’s shirt, and pulled her across the table. Pressing my lips to hers, the kiss exploded between us, igniting a fire in me that hopefully would burn for a long time. To my surprise, I didn’t need a commitment, just the promise to try.

Small bites with Scarlett.

With a little bit of luck, she was a meal I would be eating for a very long time.