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Just a TasteJust A Taste

New York Times Bestseller!

Book Seven of the New York Blades series
Berkley
042521897X

For delizioso pasta, go to Dante's. For a sumptuous Cordon Bleu, go to Vivi's.

To really heat things up, get them together.

Since his wife's untimely death, Anthony Dante has thrown himself into his cooking, making his restaurant, Dante's, a Brooklyn institution. So far, his biggest problem has been keeping his retired hockey star brother out of the kitchen. But now, a mademoiselle is invading his turf. And you know what they say: too many chefs spoil the neighborhood.

Stunning Vivi Robitaille can't wait to showcase her tastebud-tingling recipes in her brand new bistro, Vivi's. Her only problem is an arrogant Italian chef across the street who actually thinks he's competition. The table is set for a culinary war until things start getting spicy outside of the kitchen...



Excerpt

"Can't you picture it? Couples staring dreamily into each other's eyes over a bottle of Bordeaux? The scent of apple tartin as it bakes? Oh, Natalie, it's going to be wonderful!"

Vivi Robitaille hugged herself tight, giving a small twirl in the center of the empty candy store she and her half sister planned on turning into a small bistro. All her life she'd dreamed of cooking in her own restaurant. Now it was going to happen — and in America, to boot!

Vivi dropped her arms and danced over to Natalie, who had yet respond to her giddiness. "What? You can't imagine biting into a piece of my baguettes with creamed butter? Or ordering a bowl of my bouillabaisse de poulet?"

"Not as strongly as you can, obviously." Eyeing her surrounds critically, Natalie strolled the perimeter of the empty store, her high heels punching measured beats on the scuffed wooden floor. Unlike the high-spirited Vivi, Natalie was pragmatic, some might even say detached. Vivi was not surprised when Natalie concluded her stroll by asking, "Remind me again why we chose to open a restaurant in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan?"

"You know why," Vivi reminded her. "We—"

"You—"

"—wanted a small, intimate local place that would serve peasant food to regular working people, not some fancy haute restaurant catering to Manhattan's rich."

"You have something against the rich?" Natalie asked wryly.

Vivi blushed. "You know what I meant." She regarded Natalie with unabashed appreciation. "I could never do this without you. You know that."

Natalie cracked a small smile. It saddened Vivi to think it, but sometimes she wasn't sure whether she liked her half sister at all. A year and a half ago, they hadn't even known of each other's existence. Now they'd embarked on a foreign adventure together, Natalie putting up the lion's share of the money for Vivi's restaurant. Amazing. Some would say that was only fair, since Natalie had received the lion's share of papa's inheritance. But Vivi never felt entitled. Instead, she felt lucky to have Natalie here with her, both as a business partner and a friend, even though there were times a certain wariness could spring up between them. Vivi's mother claimed the beautiful, aloof Natalie was just running from her failed love affair, but Vivi knew better. Natalie wasn't running from, but towards. Both sisters wanted to reinvent themselves. What better place to do that than New York?

Still pensive, Natalie moved to look out the large front window, the one Vivi could picture with her own name stenciled across it in ruby script. Natalie's gaze remained critical as she peered up and down the street. "Not the most-how shall we say?—upscale area."

Vivi bristled. "That's the point."

"It's very bourgeoisie," Natalie continued as if she hadn't heard. "Very American bourgeoisie," she concluded with a small sniff.

"What's wrong with that?" Vivi said. The disdain many of her fellow French had for America puzzled her. She loved the place! Her aunt Solange had moved to New York when Vivi was a child, and every other summer, Vivi and her mother came to visit. America always left her dizzied—not only by the sheer scale of the place, but the energy, the inventiveness. Some of her countrymen saw Americans as crude, but not Vivi. She found them spirited and comfortable in their own skin; a people willing to take risks and dream big. This was exactly the place she —and Natalie— needed to be.

Natalie sighed. "I suppose if we fail, it's better to fail here, among the middle class, than in Manhattan."

"We're not going to fail."

Natalie eyed her with measured affection. "I'm amazed by your—what's the American expression?—pluck."

"You know what a great cook I am, Natalie. And you know how thoroughly I did my research."

"Just because this place is filled with 'average' people doesn't mean they'll want your food." She pointed out the window to the large, red brick restaurant across the street called Dante's Ristorante. "That's what they want: spaghetti, big fat meat balls...bah." She turned away in disgust.

"They'll want what I make, too," Vivi insisted stubbornly. "And if they don't, then the food will be good enough to draw people from Manhattan. I'm not worried. People want good, home cooked food at reasonable prices. They want to sit down and relax over a simple, hearty meal at the end of the day."

"I hope you're right."

"I am."

Natalie studied her nails. "I still don't see why you insisted on renting an apartment here rather than in Manhattan with me."

"I want to live where I work, Natalie," said Vivi, tired of having to explain again. "I want to know the names and faces of my neighbors and future customers, and I want them to know me. Besides, getting into the city won't be a problem. I'll just hop on the Metro."

"Subway," Natalie corrected. "And it's filthy, by the way." She shuddered. "Degountante."

"What are you saying?" Vivi teased. "That you're only going to travel by cab? Or hire a limo, perhaps?"

"Now there's an idea..."

Vivi furrowed her brows, worried that Natalie might be serious. Natalie caught her expression and chuckled.

"Don't worry. You concentrate on getting this place up and running, and making Vivi's the best it can be. I'll worry about the dollars and cents."

"If you say so."

Vivi took another tour of the space. The sweet smell of candy still lingered, bringing back pleasant memories of childhood. She'd been a happy little girl, never more so than when maman let her help out in the kitchen. Even as a small child, standing beside the old gas stove on a step stool, stirring potato soup under her mother's watchful eye, she knew she was destined to be a chef. Some people likened the clang of pots and pans to a headache, but not Vivi. To her, it was like church bells pealing in her ears, reminding her of her calling.

"Quick!" Natalie called from the window. "Come look!"

Vivi hustled to join her. Together they watched as a broadly built, dark haired, handsome man unlocked the door of the restaurant across the street, slipping inside.

"The owner," Natalie deduced.

"No doubt." Vivi tugged Natalie's sleeve and began pulling her towards the door. "Let's go introduce ourselves."

Natalie looked appalled. "What, now?"

Vivi blinked. "Yes, why not?"

"Let's wait half an hour or so. Otherwise, it will look like we were standing here spying on him."

"We were!"

The sisters laughed.

"Half an hour, then," Vivi agreed. Then she'd get to meet the first of her neighbors. She couldn't wait.

*

"Hello. Can I help you?"

Vivi smiled at the handsome, rugged man standing in the doorway of Dante's Ristorante. He seemed slightly shorter than the man they'd seen enter just half an hour before. His expression was typically American: open and friendly. She felt reassured that her decision to open a bistro here rather than Paris, or even back home in Avignon, was the right one.

Vivi shot a quick, sideways glance at Natalie to see if she wanted to field the man's question, but it was obvious from Natalie's ram rod posture Vivi would be the one doing the talking. She was glad. Natalie could come across as imperious at first. Better she handle the initial introductions.

"My name is Vivi Robitaille, and this is my ha—my sister, Natalie. " She pointed across the street. "We purchased the old candy store, and we just wanted to introduce ourselves."

The man looked delighted. "You're French, right?"

"Oui," said Vivi.

"I love your accent." The man extended his hand. "My name's Michael Dante. I'm half owner of this place with my brother, Anthony."

Vivi hesitated slightly. "Is he the tall man who arrived earlier?"

Michael laughed. "Yeah, that's Ant, all right. He's the head chef."

"I'm a chef, too!" Vivi said excitedly. "I would very much love to speak with him!"

"Come on in," said Michael, holding the door open wide. The inside of the restaurant surprised Vivi; it was much larger than it appeared from the outside. There were various size tables and a long, sleek wooden bar. Beyond the sea of tables was yet another dining room, probably used for private parties. Vivi took it as a good sign a restaurant this large was thriving in the neighborhood. Natalie would say it was because it served Italian food in an Italian enclave, but Vivi had been working in restaurants long enough to know there was more to it than that. For a place this large to do well year in, year out, the food had to be outstanding.

Michael pointed to an empty table for four. "Have a seat. I'll go get my brother."

"Actually, could I see the kitchen?" Vivi could feel Natalie's eyes chastising her for being so pushy, but she didn't care.

"Sure, no problem. Just don't be surprised if Anthony's got his head stuck in a pot of sauce and he's less than cordial. He can be a little intense sometimes."

"All chefs are," Vivi said simply.

Michael looked thoughtful. "I guess you're right. You couldn't even talk to our father when he was in the middle of 'mangia making,' as he used to call it. He'd either bite your head off, or give you a chore and tell you to get busy."

Vivi laughed. "Sounds familiar."

Michael smiled, motioning for Vivi and her sister to follow him. Vivi ventured another quick glance at Natalie, who was clearly displeased that they weren't remaining in the dining room.

"Ten minutes," Natalie whispered in a warning voice. "That's it. I know how rapturous you get at the sight of industrial sized gas ranges and Sub Zero freezers! I don't want to be here all day!"

"We won't be," Vivi promised, though nothing would make her happier. She could the anticipation building inside her as Michael nudged open the swinging, stainless steel doors of the kitchen with his hip. Vivi held her breath, her mouth falling open at the sight of the huge, well lit, well ventilated kitchen. It was as though St. Peter had just permitted her to pass through the gates into heaven.

"Company, Ant," Michael announced.

The large man Vivi and Natalie had seen enter the restaurant earlier looked up from where he stood at the stove, peering into a large, stainless steel pot of sauce as if scrying. Vivi closed her eyes a moment and inhaled deeply, trying to pinpoint the individual ingredients making the sauce smell so inviting. Fresh garlic... basil...carrot...perhaps the slightest hint of nutmeg? Interesting.

"This is Vivi and Natalie," Michael continued as Anthony wiped his hands on the front of his apron. "They're the ones who bought old man Garlasco's candy store."

At the mention of the candy store, Vivi thought she saw a small smirk play across Anthony's lips. Arrogant, she thought, though on a certain level, she understood completely; all chefs were wary of new competition. Out of habit, her gaze was drawn to Anthony's hands. They were beautiful in the way a chef's hands should be: strong and slightly nicked and scarred. Her eyes traveled back to his face. He was handsome, and judging from the slight upward tilt to his head, proud. She stole a quick glance at the prep cooks assembled in the kitchen, all of whom had greeted her and Natalie with a pleasant smile when they walked in. They seemed happily focused on their tasks. Of course, it was still early in the day. She knew that by the time the restaurant opened, nerves would be a bit frayed and a mild frenzy would prevail. She also knew the minute she and Natalie left, they'd be back to chatting and gossiping, using the foulest words they could find where appropriate. Restaurant kitchens were not for the faint of heart, especially when it came to pressure and indelicate language.

Anthony joined the semi circle where Vivi, Natalie and Michael stood by the kitchen door. "I hear you're opening a restaurant." His voice had a deep, rich timbre. He sounded self assured, and a little too cocky for Vivi's taste.

"Yes," Vivi answered, giving her head the same proud tilt as his. "A bistro."

"A bistro," Anthony repeated stonily. "Now there's an original concept."

"Anthony," Michael murmured under his breath, sounding embarrassed.

"You are afraid of some competition, maybe?" Vivi purred, teasing out the words slowly for maximum effect.

Anthony tilted his head a fraction higher. " I've got no competition. I'm peerless."

"Egocentrique," Natalie sniffed.

"And damn proud of it."

The enticing smell of the sauce on the stove was driving Vivi crazy. She had to know what, exactly, was giving it that wonderful tang. "Excuse me: is there nutmeg in that sauce?"

Anthony looked surprised—and impressed. "A little."

"Chianti, too, yes?"

Anthony frowned. "Of course there's Chianti. Who ever heard of making gravy without Chianti?"

Vivi and Natalie exchanged glances. "Gravy?"

"It's Italian slang for pasta sauce," Michael explained.

Anthony, meanwhile, seemed to be appraising Vivi suspiciously. "So, you're the chef, huh?"

"Yes," Vivi said. She glanced at the kitchen again in wonder. "This is a beautiful kitchen! So much room!"

"It started out strictly as a pizza joint," Anthony started to explain proudly, "and my folks built it up from there—"

"To the friggin' headache it is today," Michael joked.

Vivi blinked. Friggin'? A curse word?

"Speak for yourself," Anthony told Michael.

"Where did you train?" Natalie asked Anthony.

Anthony looked confused. "Train?"

"What cooking school did you go to?" Vivi clarified. She was glad Natalie asked, since she too was curious.

"You want to know where I trained?" Anthony pointed to the bank of stoves behind him. "Right there."

Vivi covered her surprise. "You didn't go to cooking school?"

"I didn't need to go to cooking school. Good cooking comes from here"—he tapped his chest over his heart- "not here." He tapped his forehead twice.

Against her better judgment, Vivi found herself impressed. "I guess…if one is nurtured young…cooking school isn't strictly necessary."

"Then why did you let Papa send you to Le Cordon Bleu?" Natalie asked snappishly.

Vivi was dumbstruck. What business was it of Natalie's whether their father paid for her culinary education? Perhaps sensing the tension, Michael Dante smiled brightly and asked, "When are you ladies hoping to open?"

"About nine months from now," said Vivi.

"Why Bensonhurst?" Anthony asked.

"Why not?" Natalie retorted.

Vivi stared at her sister, wide eyed. Why was she being so rude? First the egocentrique comment, now this. Was she trying to show these brothers they weren't two fluffy little mademoiselles? Vivi was interested in making friends, not enemies. Anthony's wariness towards them seemed to grow with each of Natalie's waspish comments.

Vivi smiled at Anthony. "Maybe you could recommend some contractors to us? What suppliers you use?"

"Maybe."

"Of course we will," Michael said graciously, shooting his brother an annoyed look, which Anthony pointedly ignored.

Vivi gestured towards the stove. "Your sauce is done, I think. It smells done."

This time Anthony didn't hide his smirk. "It does, huh?"

"Yes," Vivi maintained primly.

"I'm pretty sure it's got five minutes or so to go before all the flavors have peaked."

Vivi shrugged. "It's your kitchen."

"That's right."

"But I still think it's done," she insisted. She could hear her mother's scolding voice in her head: Don't be such a know-it-all when it comes to food, Vivi! But she couldn't help it. Food was her passion, preparing it perfectly her obsession. Judging from the look of begrudging respect mingle with annoyance that flashed across Anthony Dante's face, he understood exactly where she was coming from, even if he didn't like it.

"Tell you what," Anthony challenged. "When it's your kitchen and you're making the gravy, you can decide how long it cooks. Capisce?"

Vivi regarded Anthony politely. "I'm sorry if you feel I insulted you. It's just important to me that things turn out right."

"I've been making the gravy since I was ten," Anthony replied. "I think I know when it's done."

"And I think—"

"Oh, my." Natalie looked at her Cartier watch and began nudging Vivi towards the door. "Look at the time. We've got to get going."

It was the last thing Vivi wanted. She wanted to wait and see whether she'd been right about the sauce. She wanted to chop, peel, flambe, roast, seer, blanch, fry, boil, bake, mix, blend, simmer. But most of all, she wanted to make it clear to Anthony Dante that she knew her way around a kitchen just as well as he did, if not better. Men! They always thought they knew better, they always thought—

Natalie began dragging her towards the doorway. "Au revoir, neighbors, au revoir."

Vivi shook Natalie off. "Perhaps we can talk sometime," she said to Anthony.

He looked dubious. "About what?"

"Food." Bold though she knew it was, she plucked the pen held in place at his waist by the drawstring at the front of his apron. "Here's my address and cell phone number," she said, rummaging through her purse for a piece of scrap paper, upon which she scribbled furiously.

"Look, you can stop in here any time you want," Michael offered graciously. This time it was Anthony who looked irked, not the other way around.

"I don't want to be a pest," said Vivi, holding out the paper with her address and phone number on it to Anthony. Their eyes locked. For a split second, it looked as if he might refuse, prompting a surge of anger within her. But then he reached out and took it, holding the paper into a careful square before tucking it into the back pocket of his pants.

"Au revoir," Natalie trilled desperately one final time, practically dragging Vivi by the hair.

"Nice meeting you," said Michael. "Right, Ant?"

"I've gotta go check the gravy, Mikey," is all Vivi heard as Natalie propelled her through the kitchen doors. Vivi smiled to herself. He was second-guessing himself, worried that perhaps she was right. Which she was, of course.

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Praise for
Just a Taste...

"Taking a break from hockey, Martin turns her attention to the restaurant side of the Dante family. A warm hearted romance with in depth characters, this story will leave you satisfied, salivating, and ready to try one of the recipes included. A real treat."

-Bunny Callahan
RT Book Reviews

"I'm glad Ms. Martin has returned to the Dante family for another story. The romantic tension starts immediately...she had a gift bringing relationships, both romantic and familial, to life, using humor frequently. The dialogue is wonderful. I love this story and recommend it to anyone who likes a little humor with their romance."

-Maura Frankman
Coffee Time Reviews

"JUST A TASTE captures your heart and takes you to a tender place. It will make you laugh and melt your heart at the same time. Don't miss this wonderful and newest chapter in the Dante family. It's another winner."

-Suzanne Tucker
Fresh Fiction

"Ms. Martin does a terrific job in writing dynamic characters you will come to know intimately and care for... I thoroughly enjoyed this book, enthusiastically recommend it, and anxiously await future books by Ms. Martin."

-Keisha Hudson
All About Romance

"This sequel to FAIR PLAY is wonderful contemporary romance. The hero's efforts to keep his retired hockey player sibling Michael, out of the restaurant adds humor to this entertaining culinary romance."

-The Best Reviews

"JUST A TASTE is delightful! Romantic, funny, and fast paced...a great story that pulled me in from the beginning..."

-Kay James
Romance Reader At Heart

"I absolutely adored JUST A TASTE. This engaging tale will keep readers entertained to the very end of the story. Ms. Martin has written a winner with this one."

-Dottie RomanceJunkies.com

"JUST A TASTE is a humorous story that shows the cultural clash between a native New Yorker and a transplanted French chef...Pick it up for a tempting read you won't want to put down."

-Patti Fischer Romance Reviews Today

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