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Under Pressure (Blue Collar Alphas)

By:Aria Cole

ONE

Jean-Luc

“Get these out the door. Come on, guys! It’ll be fucking cold by the time it reaches the table!” I belted, pushing two elegantly decorated plates into the hands of the next server that walked into the kitchen.

She looked at me, eyes wide as she struggled, nearly dropping one of them.

“Table twelve.” The growl that vibrated from my throat must have done its job. She spun, racing right back out the doors she’d come through without a word.

“Fuck, who does the hiring around here?” I shoved a hand into the deep pocket of my apron and pulled out my pack of cigarettes. I was supposed to be quitting, one last habit I hadn’t quite been able to shake. “I’ll be back in five.”

I waved, leaving the kitchen staff to handle the firing of a new round of dishes. Sometimes I imagined what my life would be like if I went somewhere else, cut and run on this little venture, but I couldn't, because it was my little venture.

I groaned, shoving through the back door to the alleyway and leaning against the cold brick as I lit the stick in my mouth. I took one long, slow inhale, letting the smoke evaporate my anxiety, feeling it coil through my body like an instant muscle relaxer. No wonder I couldn't quit these little babies; my life was too damn stressful at éloïse not to have a few vices to get me through.

“Chef?” My sous chef, Nero, pushed through the crack in the door.

“Fuck, what, man? I can’t take any more shit tonight. I’m going to start taking the hiring away from Frank. I can’t carry the front and the back of the house by myself.”

Nero’s eyes widened before someone stepped out from behind him, almost smaller than he was, as if that were possible. She was barely five foot two and had enough curves to get a man lost for days.

“Who’s this?” I drew on my cigarette.

“This is my niece. Frank hired her as the hostess, but she’s got some experience expediting.” Nero nodded. “She grew up in my father's restaurant, knows her way around things real well.”

“How old is she?” I tried like hell to keep my eyes off her oversized ocean-blue ones. Christ, why did she keep looking at me like that? Like she was seeing inside my soul. Every goddamn dark corner I kept hidden, she shone a light on. It made me uncomfortable, made me kinda fucking itch. I sucked another lungful of cancer into my body and exhaled, trying to shake the feeling, praying the nicotine would do its job and relax my muscles into submission.

“Just turned twenty-one,” Nero finally answered. I knew his family came from a long line of chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs. They were an accomplished family in their own right, and that’s why he was my right-hand man. Also, because he knew me, inside and out. Every shameful secret I had, Nero knew. He was one of the few people who knew everything about me that I actually kept around—and only because he was a damn good cook. I couldn't run this place half as well without him, and I paid him top dollar to show my appreciation. Fucker deserved a gold mine for the hell I put him through.

I’d met Nero years ago, during a time I’d rather forget. That guy had seen me at my worst. And now that we were both in a better place, it’d only made sense that I bring him on when I finally cajoled investors and was able to open my own restaurant. Whoever sank two million into the startup of éloïse had to be a little crazy, and Frank was no doubt that, but he also saw something in me no one else had: passion. Food was my life, and it was the only thing that saved me all those years ago when I was destitute on the street.

But that was the past, and hell if I liked lingering there.

Éloïse, home of seasonal local dishes that evolved on a daily basis, was my baby. All plates curated by me, Chef Jean-Luc Martel. Food & Wine had rated me #1 up-and-coming chef to watch when I was twenty-two. I’d had a rocky road the first half of my thirty-two years, but the second half I’d made count.

The one thing I apparently did not have?

A decent waitstaff.

“Tell Frank I want to chat with him about hiring,” I shot to Nero, tossing my cigarette in the butt tray then finally catching the eye of the blue-eyed beauty who’d been cowering in the shadows before now. “What do I call you?”

She took a step into the light, eyes narrowing before her lush lips opened. “Delaney Thomas.” I swore when she said her name a lightning bolt cleaved my heart in two. “Can’t wait to work with you, Chef.”

Christ, I was in deep water with this one.

My gaze ate up and down her form. “How loud do you holler?”

Her eyes flared with surprise as Nero’s laugh pulled me from Delaney Thomas. “I’ll catch you later, Lane.” Nero patted Delaney on the back, shaking his head at me before putting up a finger. “Go easy on her, Chef.”

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