|Genre: Contemporary Romance, Interracial, Foodie|
Temptation never tasted so good.
Close to the Heat, Book 1
With a chance to win a cooking competition that will advance her career, the last thing food truck chef Pepper Joseph needs is a distraction. Except she’s got a heaping helping of it in the form of fellow chef Darien Priest, the man who broke her heart.
It’s been years, and she tells herself she’s over his betrayal, but to her irritation, she finds she still has an appetite for his steel-gray eyes, clean-shaven head, and sleeve tattoos.
Darien regrets the single, juvenile act that ended it with Pepper, but he’s never found the courage to apologize. Now that they’re in close quarters, something’s steaming and it’s not just the saucepots. One toe-curling kiss proves there’s the potential for more than just a guarded friendship, and he sets out to prove he’s grown into an honorable man.
Until he discovers she’s pulled a seasoning switch that could have ruined one of his dishes. Now it’s on. There’s ten thousand dollars on the line, but if they don’t surrender to another chance at love, one—or both—of their wounded hearts could get singed.
Warning: “Scorching hot” doesn’t refer to the food. Contains two chefs who’ll inspire cravings of the very carnal kind. Includes one delicious recipe guaranteed to blow any diet out of the water.
“A quick and easy read, Once Burned will have readers rooting for the scorned and strong Pepper, while still hoping for the sexy, bad-boy chef to prove that some matches are meant to last.” Starred Review, Judy Garner, Library Journal
“If you like Chopped or any cooking competition show you should read Once Burned by @dee_carney . It’s like Chopped with sex.” Rebekah Weatherspoon, author, via Twitter
“Darien is smooth when it comes to trying to get Pepper to talk about their past, she is passionate about not listening, blended together is an exquisite combination. Wonderful story.” 4 Stars, SensualReads.com
“Little did I know that not only did this book have MOUTH-WATERING food descriptions (*Penny pats drool on chin*), but it also had super intense, sexy chemistry between the H/h and a cool interracial love affair. This was my first interracial erotica, and I thought it was handled perfectly.” B+, Penelope’s Romance Reviews
“This is one of those rare contemporary romance books that I devoured…This book just had everything you could ask for. A hot alpha male, a strong, independent heroine, lots of sizzle and chemistry between the main couple.” 5 Buckeyes (Amazing, Stayed Up All Night Reading), A Buckeye Girl Reads
“A spicy, enticing romance, this book will appeal to a large crowd…I’d definitely recommend this book and found it a great way to add a bit of heat into an otherwise rainy weekend.” 4 Stars, Long And Short Reviews
“Due to Dee Carney’s evocative writing Once Burned truly made an impact despite its shortness: both the scenes full sexual innuendos and banter between Pepper and Darien that crackled with sparks as well as the scenes where they each were busy perfecting their creations for the contest were made memorable in how they came together in the perfect mix of cuisine and seduction, while not lacking emotional rawness and vulnerability.” 4 Stars, Stella, Book Lovers Inc
Flames licked higher and higher across muscles glistening with sweat and dancing with precision movements. The reds and oranges stretched between black lines of ink too far away to discern in true detail. Not like it mattered. Regardless of what the images actually formed, Pepper itched to trace every single one of them with a finger. A tongue. Her lips. Any or all three would do.
The best part?
Darien Priest had two full sleeves of tattoos worth memorizing.
Damn, did he have to look so good every day? And those tattoos… Bands of color and brilliance always on proud display drew not only her attention but the gazes of potential customers. They enthralled those who chose to eat from his food truck and watch him at work. Which would be fine and dandy if he didn’t choose to set up shop right across from Pepper’s own food truck. Every. Day.
“Still ogling him?” Jen asked.
Pepper snapped her gaze to the napkins resting outside of their own window. “What?” she replied casually. They still had some time to kill before the lunch crowd would start converging. “Just noticed that we need to do some restocking for the rush.”
Jen laughed, traitorous witch. “Come off it. Whenever Priest’s got his back turned or is busy, you’re checking him out. The second he thinks you’re not looking, he’s scoping you out. Why don’t the two of you just admit out loud that you’ve got it bad for each other?”
Pepper snorted. “What would I want with a bald white guy who’s covered in tattoos?” Other than to run the bald head all over her naked breasts. Maybe lower. Or see how far those tattoos extended down his toned body. Maybe as far as his crotch?
“Listen, you racist melon farmer,” Jen snarled while pointing a chef’s knife at Pepper, “you’re not fooling me.”
She stifled a grin at her blonde business partner and one of her best friends. “One day, I’m going to teach you how to curse properly.”
“One day, I’m going to see you two hook up. Just think of how cute your babies would be!”
Pep pretended to gag by sticking a finger down her throat before turning back to the onions sautéing in a pound of butter. Nothing like that particular scent to draw customers in. She used it every day to her advantage, despite most prep work being done in a real kitchen. The final cooking happened in the belly of her beast—the food truck she’d spent two years saving for.
A quick glance through the serving window and she found herself gazing into Darien’s eyes. Two lanes of traffic separated them, but she swore she could discern the flecks of blue and silver glinting deep within gray the color of an early morning before the sun rose. Her heart lifted a fraction as she waited to be gifted with his brilliant white smile, the same one he used to send teenage girls twittering. His lips did part in a quick grin, but it was for the horde already starting to gather before him.
Jen brought over a tray of creamy spring onion Jack cheese. “Any hint from the judges about the final dish? Last challenges are tomorrow, and you haven’t told me a thing. I’d hope they’d give us a little clue so we can start planning. Any ideas brewing?”
Pepper sulked, turning her attention back to her friend. Stirring the onions helped keep some frustration at bay. “Not a clue on what we’ll be serving or types of dishes to focus on. We appeal to the vegetarians and the yuppies, but kids and men want burgers. And Priest’s got those.”
“Doesn’t help they’re incredibly good, either,” Jen grumbled. “But who doesn’t like grilled cheese? Gourmet, not-yo-mama’s grilled cheese.”
True, both women were trained chefs, capable of cooking anything from home-style meat loaf all the way up the epicurean ladder to beef Wellington with paté de foie gras. But the rules were the rules. Since they served gourmet grilled cheese from Pepper’s truck, they were required to continue serving their truck’s signature item for the competition.
Most of the other chefs she knew specialized in a single type of cuisine in their trucks. Priest’s sliders smelled like heaven on a grill every day, but her sandwiches could make a person practically orgasm from a single bite.
“He’s got mass appeal,” Pepper admitted. Sexual, lip-wetting, throat-drying appeal. The kind that made her weak in the knees whenever he stood close. “Priest in a wife-beater, tats from here to next week, and he’s got them all hook, line and sinker. He’s the bad boy mothers warned girls about but the guy most everyone wants to be near.”
Everyone, including her. Naturally. They’d come close to being an official couple once before, but that ship had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, never to resurface again. He’d been a dick; she’d never forgiven him. They could be friends of sorts, but more than that? Not likely.
But in one of life’s little twisted jokes, she had to keep an eye on him by staying close. Both chefs were neck and neck, in competition for a ten-thousand-dollar grand prize.
Jen had a slightly different reaction.
“Hey, Sol.” Her lips curved up at the corners. “What’s happening over in burger land?”
Priest’s sous chef placed a hand over his chest and staggered back. “I’m dying a lonely death over there without your presence to keep my heart beating. What say you and I do something naughty together this weekend to make up for lost time?”
Pepper turned just enough to let Jen see her mock-shove another finger down her throat. Twice in five minutes might be a new record.
Sol was bad news by proxy. Anyone who chose to work and hang out with Priest couldn’t be good for either of them. Jen disagreed by dating him. “Name the time and place, sweet cheeks, and I’m there.”
“Righteous. But hey, yo, got some salt we can borrow?”
Wait, what? Hell, no.
Pep hip-bumped Jen out of the way. Sol turned hesitant brown eyes toward her. She could tolerate Sol, but this was business. Not personal. “Um, no.”
“No.” Arms folded across her chest, she stared him down. “Tell Priest if he needs salt, he’d better get his tail over to a grocery store. Or try the judges. Not his competitor.”
“C’mon, Pepper,” he whined. “Be a good sport.”
“No. I mean it.”
“Jeez, Pep. Don’t burn our bridges,” Jen said beneath her breath. “We might need their help one day.”
Doubtful, but it was a good point. “Fine,” she grumbled loudly enough for Sol to hear. He started to smile, but she cut it short with a harsh look. “But you tell Priest he has to come over here and ask for it himself.”
The man would probably rather chew razor blades. She’d pay good money to see either. No, it wasn’t very nice or very sporting, but with ten thousand dollars hanging in the balance, she needed whatever leverage she could find. Having him owe her a favor could prove useful.
Had nothing to do with the fact she wanted to see him up close. Nope. Nothing to do with that at all.
“He’s not gonna like that, Pepper. I’m already here. The judges will be by before too long, and we’re not close to prepared yet.”
“Then you’d better hurry over there, huh?” She pointed her chin toward their truck. “Go on. Get.”
Sol sighed but turned and trotted across the street. Pep went back to filling up the food station with necessities. Anything to keep her attention on their side of the road and away from the two men. Neither Jen nor Priest would let her live it down if they discovered she wanted to know every single word he and his assistant exchanged. Anyway, like Sol had said, people in suits would be filing out of businesses any second now. The judges would also be inserting themselves into the lunch crowd. Tomorrow they were being forced to a new locale, per the contest’s rules, but today they would be keeping their regulars happy. If the judges thought that requiring the contestants to work on competition food while still doing regular service would put her off her game, they obviously didn’t know Pepper. This was a cakewalk.
She scooped up the golden-brown onions, her mouth watering as she set them aside to cool. Eyeing loaves of yellow challah bread, she also remembered to retrieve some smoked Gouda out of the chiller. The sweet smell of mango chutney seduced her as she spooned it into a container, but shock shoved it aside when a familiar male voice drifted through the window soon afterward.
“How’s it going, Jen?”
Darien Priest. More good looks on one man than should be allowed by law.
“Hey, Darien. Hear you’re having some problems over there.”
“Nothing we can’t handle.” His voice smoothed down Pepper’s skin, licking at her as if it were a warm tongue. She wanted to purr. “Pepper. How goes it?”
So, yeah. The biggest problem with making him come over was the fact he made her weak in the knees and the ability to speak vanish into thin air. Poof!
“Any chance we can borrow some salt from you? What I have is all clumped up. Trying to avoid having to leave and come back. Wouldn’t want to lose my spot.”
Pepper leaned forward, bringing her face closer to him. The glass separating them kept her lips from caressing his. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? Poor Sol thought you might be upset.”
His arms came to rest on the bar, and his stunning gray eyes darkened. “Upset for the opportunity to come over here to talk to you? Not a chance.”
Truth was, Darien sought any excuse to get close to Pepper. He’d lusted after her as a kid in high school and somehow had managed to gather the balls to ask her out. Then had royally fucked that up. Royally. Beyond all redemption.
Now, as a man, he planned on making amends, big-time. She called to him like no other woman had, and knowing they shared the same passion for food was almost enough to make him hard.
Every day, he studied her from across the street. And every day, he came up with plan after plan on how and when he’d ask her out.
None had ever come to fruition.
For some reason he couldn’t figure, they always managed to focus on their roles as rivals. Then they’d been roped into this insane competition, and things had only gotten worse. He wasn’t about to give up on ten grand, but he sure as shittin’ wasn’t going to mess up with Pepper again. All of which made for an interesting dilemma.
Even now, as she handed him a container, her brown eyes glittered. They sat above a button nose and full lips he’d spent hours memorizing. “Here you go. Don’t add too much.”
His fingers brushed hers as he took the salt, a purposeful stroke that spread heat through his hand. “No worries. There are two things I’m very, very good at. Cooking is one of them.”
Pepper glanced at where they still touched. “And the other thing?”
He wanted to say, perhaps you’ll find out one night. Instead, he ignored her question and simply said, “Thanks for this.”
After a reluctant pivot, he tucked the salt into his palm and walked away. He swore he felt her gaze on him as he moved. Somewhere near his ass, if the sensation meant anything. As soon as this competition ended, he’d find his balls and confront her once and for all. Enough was enough. Pepper Joseph was his to claim.
“And Priest?” she called.
“Yeah?” Turning to view her one more time through the truck window made his pulse go from a slow jog to full-blown gallop. Pepper epitomized lethal sensuality.
“May the best woman win.”
He laughed, not bothering with a response. Right now, he had to turn down the lust and get ready for the judges. They may have taken a shine to some of his previous sliders, but today’s challenge meant coming up with a new recipe with a limited amount of ingredients. None of them any he would have chosen.
“You know she just wanted to give it to you herself,” Sol muttered when Darien stepped inside his own haven. He headed for the sink and washed his hands, readying for the day’s final prep.
“I wish you were right, man. Since high school, she’s never really been interested in me as more than a friend.”
“I’m right. Jen tells me things.”
“Things, huh?” Darien pulled the specialized blend of ground pork out of the fridge and set it on the counter. After a generous sprinkling of the salt he’d borrowed, he worked it in, gently using his fingertips to keep the meat from overheating in his palms. Somehow, he had to turn Hawaii into a burger. He hoped the judges appreciated sweet-and-sour sliders. “What else does she tell you?”
“Nothing I can kiss and tell about.”
“Aw, c’mon. You can’t tease me with a tidbit and not give me the rest.”
A quick grin from Sol. “I’ll tell you this. You’re in there. Just make a move. Promise.”
Darien spent the next few minutes mulling over the baiting hint Sol had supplied. Soon, though, the lunch crowd converged, and he had to set aside the way he wanted to lick every inch of Pepper’s pretty brown skin in order to focus on feeding his customers quality food.
When he noticed the judges’ approach, three men and one woman wearing bright purple name badges, he went into overdrive. With precision care, he spread a fine layer of pineapple aioli over the dollar rolls he and Sol had made that morning. The fruit would lend a subtle sweetness to the slider, while the aioli mayonnaise kept the succulent pork burgers from making the rolls too soggy. Shavings of prosciutto ham contrasted the sweetness of the pineapple with the perfect amount of saltiness. Pickled jalapenos didn’t exactly scream Hawaii, but they would mellow out all of the flavors.
He kept the sliders simple and made sure every ingredient reflected the theme state. They’d only had the opportunity to test the final product once, but, with a smile, Darien knew the specialty item would eventually be added to the truck’s regular menu.
His heart pounded as he handed over the composed sliders. “Chef,” he said to the first judge, a renowned restaurateur, while adding an obligatory smile.
“Chef Priest, remind me again of your theme?”
Darien’s gaze went to the female judge’s mouth as she bit into the burger. There was a flash of surprise in her big eyes as she chewed. Was that a good or a bad thing?
“Hawaii, Chef.” He watched the others too, noting the little frowns that accompanied each initial taste. “I made a pineapple aioli for each slider. There are also slices of imported prosciutto and… I’m sorry, but is there something wrong?”
His nerves couldn’t take the little glances the judges kept giving one another.
One of the men cleared his throat but, after a pause, replied, “It’s good. The pork isn’t as dry as I would expect, and the prosciutto heightens the flavor. I’d say you’ve made a burger something very elegant. But, in truth, it’s a little sweeter than I would have expected.”
Sweet? If anything, he expected them to complain of the fiery heat of the jalapenos. “Perhaps you received a little extra aioli on yours, sir.”
“No, mine too,” the woman answered. “It’s sweet. It’s good, but it’s sweet.”
Dumbfounded, not knowing how else to reply, Darien muttered an apology. “Less pineapple next time, perhaps.”
“No, Chef Priest. Don’t change a thing. It’s a damned good burger,” the woman said.
They wandered off, but Darien couldn’t stop staring at them. It took a second to get his sluggish brain to work, but then he grabbed the leftover pork and fashioned a small patty. Tossing it onto the grill took only a few seconds more.
He’d made the aioli himself. He’d made certain not to grill the pineapple for too long, to ensure the inherent sugar didn’t overpower the fruitiness. The fine layer of the spread was meant less for flavor and acted more as a barrier. How could they have all possibly gotten too much? It made no sense.
Pacing while the patty cooked on the second side didn’t make it cook any faster, but it made him feel a lot better. Finally, when he couldn’t take it anymore, he slid the patty onto the countertop.
Quickly, he assembled another slider just as he’d made for the judges. Without speaking, Sol handed him a knife. The tender burger gave way beneath the sharp blade, and he grabbed one half while Sol took the other. The moment he popped the still-hot sandwich into his mouth and began to chew, just as the judges had said, sweetness assaulted his taste buds.
“Son of a bitch, they’re right,” Sol muttered.
“Luckily, they’re also right in that it’s pretty good.”
There was one thing, though, that Darien noticed.
The unexpected flavor didn’t come from the paper-thin layer of aioli. No—the added sugar came from the burger patty itself. He mentally checked off the ingredients he’d used, one by one, trying to locate the culprit. While Sol went back to serving the lunch crowd, he’d gone through the list three times and was none the wiser.
Not until he turned and his gaze slid over to the container of salt he’d borrowed from Pepper Joseph. Three guesses as to what was actually in the container, and the first two didn’t count. Why on earth had she given him sugar instead?
Damn it, he would have never have suspected her of sabotaging him like that. He thought they were friends. They’d been good friends once upon a time.
So that was how she wanted to play it?
Well, baby, game on.