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The Missing Ingredient by Brian Lancaster (1)

Chapter One

 

 

FEIGNING sleep, Marcus Vine cracked an eye open when the warm male body next to him rolled away to perch on the side of the bed. Last night’s hookup sat there for a moment, his broad back on full display, lowering his head and pushing hands through dark oily locks. An ornately patterned tattoo of curls and thorns and flora decorated well-defined muscles of tanned silken skin. When he stood upright and moved toward the bathroom, his pert muscled backside and thick hairy thighs moved with the easy grace of a feline predator. After hesitating by the bathroom door a moment, he spun around and headed back toward the bed.

The view full frontal now, Marcus ogled the man’s sheer physical beauty. Perfect pectorals covered with a dusting of dark moss that trailed down in a line toward the generous cock nestled in a triangular bush of pubic hair. A little too trim actually. Did he manscape down there? And what if he did? Marcus chastised himself. A man should make the most of what he’s got. The hunk in question—what was his name again?—plucked his cell phone from the bedside cabinet and scooped up his clothes from the floor before heading back toward the bathroom.

As soon as the door closed, Marcus sat up and checked the time: 8:10. A whole morning before his lunchtime meeting. Part of him wanted to call someone close, a friend back in England to share his exploits with and get a second opinion. But there was no one, not anymore. That used to be the job of Lorraine Bradford—Raine—his best friend since high school. Just thinking about her elicited a pang of sadness. Almost a year to the day, they had lost her in a car accident, and then, at the request of Tom, her widowed husband, he’d agreed to give the family time to heal. Even if he’d never said the words aloud, he’d always believed that he and Raine would be a part of each other’s lives into old age.

But that was then, and if working in the restaurant trade had taught him anything, it was the importance of picking yourself up after any setback and moving forward. Nobody else would do it for you.

Perhaps he should make fresh coffee. Then again, maybe the guy would want to escape as soon as he’d finished in the bathroom. Or perhaps his inclination to overuse the word “like” would be just as prevalent in the morning. Why couldn’t Marcus meet a normal guy who had beauty, stamina, and a modicum of intelligence? Someone like Tom Bradford, who had all of those and more. At least this guy hadn’t indicated wanting anything serious. Marcus folded his arms and thought back to the night before.

Hindsight could be a pain in the arse. And not a good one. Alarm bells should have sounded when the conversation on their stroll back to his Manhattan serviced apartment became progressively one-sided. Then again, perhaps bells had already been ringing, but Marcus had been deaf to them, hypnotized by the man’s charisma and masculine beauty. Until they had settled back in the apartment, that is, when what’s-his-name had continued to bombard him in adolescent enthusiasm with stories about his budding modeling career, his disdain for the amateurism of America’s Next Top Model and other reality modeling shows, and the various countries he had been to and had yet to visit. At first the excitement had been endearing, almost infectious. And then the man had insisted on talking Marcus through two hundred and twenty-eight professional photographs of himself on his tablet computer. Admittedly some had been stunning, in various costumes, poses, and states of undress, but when he segued into photos of his three pedigree Persian cats, Marcus’s ardency had not so much waned as flatlined.

Thursday night drifted into the early hours of Friday morning. And the sex—once they got there—had been at best lackluster. A good word, actually, because the whole encounter lacked any kind of lust. The six-feet-four hunk turned out to be not so much passive as inanimate, rolling over, pushing his face into the pillow, and lying prone. Not once did he respond to kisses on the neck or caresses along the perfect ridge of his back, even to a gentle massage across broad shoulders and down the sides of his torso. Nor did he attempt to reciprocate in any way. So unmoving was he that at one point Marcus wondered if he should check for a pulse. Admittedly, the man—what the hell was his name?—had labeled his sexuality “fluid.” Maybe he meant fluid as in a tub of wet cow’s liver. Or maybe this was a modern generational thing, some kind of new millennial sacrificial sex. Eventually Marcus had sighed and given up, rolled to the other side of the king-size mattress, and fallen asleep.

But then the hunk had stayed until morning, so what did that mean? Maybe Marcus should turn off the spiteful critic in his head and cut the man—Freddie, his name was Freddie—some slack. Having someone that striking by his side couldn’t do his budding culinary career any harm. And the fact they were on different continents was absolutely perfect. Skype or phone relationships rocked. And then maybe his friends and workmates would finally get off his case about him being a die-hard one-night-stander. Bite the bullet, he told himself, and ask for Freddie’s number as soon as the moment felt right.

When he heard the shower running, he breathed a sigh of relief. Stretching out an arm, he grabbed his mobile phone and thumbed the ringer back on. As he peered at the phone display, he noticed a couple of long-distance missed calls from an unknown number. Ah well, he thought, if it was important they’d phone back.

Half an hour later, togged out in track bottoms and a simple white tee, he heard the bathroom door open.

Olive branch time.

“Coffee?”

“Caffeine’s poison. Got guava?”

“Juice?”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry, no. There’s orange juice in the fridge, I think.”

“Fresh squeezed?”

“Probably. Before the manufacturer added sugar and chemicals and shit and poured it into a box.”

“No, then. Talk about death by fructose. I’ll, like, get something natural on the way to the dance studio. In fact, I should get going.”

And suddenly Marcus remembered why they had connected. Not only did the man look after himself physically, but he cared about what went into his body. Yes, maybe this was somebody he could have around—albeit at a distance.

“So before you go, Freddie, I wondered if I could get—”

“What did you just call me?”

“Freddie,” said Marcus, faltering. “Isn’t that your name?”

Oh. Em. Gee. That is so not my name.”

“I’m sorry. It was loud in the club last night. I must have misheard.”

“Repeat after me. Fair.”

“Sorry?”

“Fair!”

“Oh. Fair.”

“Red.”

“Red.”

“Deek.”

“Uh, deek.”

“Fer-ed-dique.”

“Fereddique.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

“Three syllables, not two. Emphasis on the second. Was going to run with Red, but that’s, like, too tacky and common. Now whenever you read the name on a billboard, you’ll know it’s me. So what were you about to offer? You, like, asked if you could get me something.”

Marcus stared at his phone display, praying for divine intervention. “Can I get you a cab?”

“Heck no,” said Fereddique, effortlessly pulling on a chestnut corduroy jacket and flipping his ebony curls back from the collar. “I’ll walk. Studio’s, like, only ten blocks from here. That’s why I stayed over.”

Aaaaand the cruelest cut of all. Oblivious to the coup de grace, Fereddique appeared completely at ease, finishing off the ensemble by deftly tying an eggplant wool scarf around his throat, doubtless to ward off the chill February air.

As soon as he’d finished, he paused to scrutinize Marcus before coming over and pulling him into the briefest of hugs, the kind of antiseptic endearment Marcus’s pious aunt favored. With a step back, Fereddique left his hands on Marcus’s forearms.

“I’ll see myself out,” he said, smiling at Marcus before letting him go and heading for the door. About to depart, he poked his head back into the apartment and said, “And good luck with your cooking thing, Magnus.”

Marcus accompanied the closing of the door with an indignant huff. Not that he minded the faux pas with his name—he’d made the same mistake—but cooking thing? Back in London he had made a name for himself as a rising culinary virtuoso. Okay, so nowhere near the same league as Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay—neither did he want to be—but Marcus had resurrected traditional British recipes using organic, untreated, and fresh local ingredients. His grandparents—Gaelic and Celtic on his father’s side and Anglo-Saxon on his mother’s—had trained him to whip up a range of almost forgotten dishes. During college and beyond, Marcus had spent weekends scouring bookstores and markets for old recipe books, and worked hard to bring them up-to-date and, moreover, make them healthy. Now both of his London-based Old Country restaurants had achieved hard-won critical acclaim in the eyes of the capital’s fine diners and the ever-judgmental media.

Not bad for a thirty-year-old. And if his manager, Tina, ever got her way, he would be strutting his stuff on a cable network television cooking channel. So far, however, that was one battle she had not won and, if he had his way, never would. Marcus enjoyed his anonymity, having his minor celebrity status confined to the restaurant or an occasional newspaper article in one of the national dailies.

“Breathe and let it go, Vine,” he told himself aloud. As usual, he had a split second of disappointment that came and went like a lick of sherbet, before comforting thoughts settled in. Apart from being moderately successful, he still had everything to live for, nothing and no one tying him down. Not anymore. Maybe the solution was to stop paying attention to his friends and colleagues, most of whom translated their shackled lives of debt, petty arguments, sleepless nights, and nappies into the more acceptable term of wedded bliss. Maybe he should get a dog or a cat? But then apartment living would not be fair to them, especially with the hours that Marcus worked. A goldfish, then? Self-sufficient, no poop to scoop, no yapping or meowing, and something his neighbor Ruth might be happy to feed while he spent time away. A goldfish for companionship. One-night stands for sex. Done deal.

Thirty minutes later, after he’d washed and dressed, his telephone rang. Tina’s name and face popped up on the display. Not a good photo with her scowling at the camera—she had been with him the day he bought the device; hers had been the first photo he’d taken—but it tended to make him smile before he answered. Ignoring the trill, Marcus took his coffee and strolled over to the floor-to-ceiling window, where he perched on the arm of the sofa before taking the call.

“Mrs. Adebayo-Cruickshank,” he said, and then took a sip of the coffee, nodding his approval to the Manhattan skyline. “How are you this morning?”

Tina Adebayo had been his business partner for the best part of the past five years. Second-generation Nigerian, she stood at an intimidating six-two. In meetings, she mesmerized. A razor-sharp mind together with her deep, rich voice never failed to widen the eyes of any opponent. Always on the same side of the table as her—thank heavens—Marcus had come to enjoy watching the blanching of faces opposite him.

“Oh my God,” she groaned. “I still can’t get used to hearing that name. Doesn’t sound right, does it?”

Tina and her longtime boyfriend, Mel, had finally taken the plunge last year. Marcus had catered the small wedding reception, not something he would normally offer, but for Tina he had happily made an exception.

“I don’t know. I quite like it, actually. Has a nice ring to it.”

“Anyway, don’t get me sidetracked,” she interrupted. “What time did you leave the club last night?”

“Not long after you, around ten thirty.”

“Uh-huh. And did you get a good workout with poster boy?”

“Who? Oh, don’t even,” he sighed, and rolled his eyes for effect even though she couldn’t see him.

“But that chunk-of-hunk was so—Oh. Em. Gee!”

“Fereddique. His name is Fereddique. And please don’t ever use that acronym again in conversation with me.”

“Really? But he was built like an Aberdeen Angus rib eye steak.”

“Tina, if I had to compare last night’s liaison to a particular food, it would not be beef. I would pick uncooked, unseasoned, flavorless tofu. Sat unmoving on a plate like cold blancmange. Packing lube and condoms turned out to be completely unnecessary. If only I weren’t so shallow when it came to my type.”

“Finally.”

“What does that mean?”

“I can’t remember the quote exactly, but it goes along the lines that having both happiness and beauty would simply be too good to be true.”

While Marcus mulled the words over, Tina clarified. “Walter Benjamin, I think. German poet and critic. Anyway, down to business.”

“No, hang on a moment. You can’t just throw out bumper sticker philosophy like that and expect me to be quiet. What do you mean?”

“I mean you go for a certain… type. And from what I can tell, they’re rarely keepers.”

Oh Lord, thought Marcus. Here we go again. First lecture of the day. “So what are you telling me? Tall, dark, good-looking, and fit are bad things now?”

“Of course not. But you could try for something a little less….”

“Less what?”

“Less—shallow.”

“You think he was shallow?”

“As a mouse’s grave. Unless you’re going to tell me otherwise.”

The snuffled chuckle down the phone at his hesitation sent a trickle of annoyance through him. Why did everybody find him so transparent?

“So what’s on the agenda today?” he said irritably. “Let me guess. More endless meetings and bear-in-a-cage appearances.”

“Four small meetings left for early next week, with the big one on Wednesday. And yes, still awaiting confirmation, but you possibly have a cooking demo Monday morning on a local cable network channel, where you will unashamedly plug your soon-to-be-released cookbook, your London success story, and mention the likelihood of opening a restaurant here in the nation’s darling. And tomorrow evening we have dinner with the main investment candidates. You won’t be expected to rustle anything up at that one, but I do need you to bring your best game—”

“Strip poker?”

“And try to appear charming, sociable, and above all marketable.”

“Can’t I just cook?”

“That could be arranged. But I should let you know that Kurt Bruckmeyer has specifically asked to be seated next to you.”

“Has he now?”

Kurt Bruckmeyer was the twenty-seven-year-old son of Arnold Bruckmeyer, New York socialite and billionaire. He had caught Kurt checking him out a couple of times across the boardroom table. Not that Kurt was his type—too waspish and formal, too thin and groomed, the kind of man who looked completely at home in a tightly buttoned-up designer suit but awkward in anything even vaguely casual. Who ironed pleats into their jeans these days, for goodness’ sake? Still, if push came to shove and it helped his budding career, he could take one for the team.

“Wednesday’s meeting is the biggie. We’ll know by the end of that one if we have the big green apple light. And then we’ll catch the first flight home Thursday morning.”

“Thank the heavens.”

“I wouldn’t count your blessings just yet. You’ve got an interview with lifestyle journo Donald Kitter from the Observer, and the agents have come up with half-a-dozen potentials for your UK Birmingham site. We’ll need to arrange a trip soon. So make the most of your downtime in America’s very own Elysium.”

America’s Elysium. New York. Still with the phone stuck to his ear, he scanned the room. His investors had spared no expense in romancing him, giving him the star treatment. And of course he was flattered—who wouldn’t be? The beige, gray, and gleaming chrome two-bedroom apartment in the East Village—stylish, spacious, and tastefully furnished—must have been showcased in a real estate magazine or six. On two floor-to-ceiling windowed sides of the main room, the city views alone, both day and night, were nothing short of stunning. Framed in the narrower window, beyond old and new buildings he couldn’t name, flowed the East River, and through the main window that faced north, the instantly recognizable Empire State Building. Sometimes he wished he had someone to share it all with—but then again, maybe not. Eight days away from home and more to come, he ached to be back to the routine of the kitchen. Both sous-chefs—handpicked by Marcus—were perfectly capable of managing on their own, but punters who had waited months for a booking often wanted a glimpse of the man himself. And if Marcus was going to be completely candid, he loved the attention. On his own terms, on his own turf, in his own world. Absently, he took another sip of his coffee.

“What are you drinking?”

“Coffee.”

Down the phone came a sharp intake of breath.

“Not that wonderful spicy Kenyan concoction?”

“What else?”

“Bugger. Wish I was there now.”

“Come up, then. You’re only a floor down.”

“In a one-bedroom shoe cupboard.”

“Stop complaining. You could have stayed here. There are two bedrooms. What do I need with two bedrooms?”

“You’re the talent, sweetie. Not me. And anyway, you’d only end up moaning about my constant stream of telephone calls,” she said as she grunted, clearly taking some effort to do something at her end. “Americans like to impress their stars, not the help. Hence the palatial suite. We ought to market that coffee mix, you know? And I just love the way you go about preparing everything. So effortless. Would look great on—”

“Television. Honestly, Tina, you’re as see-through as shrink-wrap.”

“Only looking out for you. You’re thirty. Ramsay wasn’t that much older when he opened his own restaurant and stepped in front of the cameras. At a time when the viewing public were hungry to see how professionals worked in the kitchen. Nowadays those types of cooking shows are ten a penny no matter where you are in the world.”

“And your point is?”

“The public wants newcomers who have something fresh and original to dazzle them with, people who go one step further. Like Heston Blumenthal. And if you don’t crank up your career now, you might miss the boat.”

“Why do you think I’m in New York?”

“You’ll still be in the kitchen.”

“I’m a chef. That’s where I’m meant to be.”

“Darling. With your good looks and charm, you need to be in front of the camera.”

Oh heavens, thought Marcus, here we go again. “My good looks and charm couldn’t even get me laid last night. Move it along, Tina.”

Right then his phone buzzed with another number.

“What’s that noise?”

“Another call coming through.”

“I’ll let you go, then. Be ready at ten thirty.”

Before Marcus had a chance to pick up the call—once again the display only provided the single word “unknown”—the caller rang off. He issued a deep irritated breath, which froze and turned to wonderment while he stared out the window at the mix of iconic new architecture and historical buildings. All too often his English associates had smiled politely at their American colleagues, who crowed on about their pint-size heritage and culture, but just standing there looking at the nouveau classic New York skyline took Marcus’s breath away. No question about it, his life was charmed. Even if he did bemoan being away from home, working extraordinarily long hours, and feeling a very occasional pang about not having someone to share his life with, everything he touched businesswise seemed to turn to gold.

Maybe he would have liked to have his family more present in his life, to share his successes with. But Colin and Debs—they had given him strict instructions as soon as he was old enough never to use “Mum and Dad” labels—were nothing short of an inspiration. Both in their fifties, they still had their careers in the theater that kept them busy, still loved each other like nobody else he knew. Fuck, their love for each other could inspire a best-selling self-help book. Not that they didn’t love him to bits too, but their passion for each other transcended everything and continued on after their sole offspring had left the nest. And if he ever needed them, he knew unshakably that they would be there for him.

And that was just how he wanted things, wasn’t it?

Before Raine passed, he had wanted more, would have seriously considered a family of his own, with the man of his dreams by his side. Not impossible, because Raine’s family had been the perfect model, a little piece of heaven, a sanctuary in an unpredictable world. And ironically, the only man who had ever come anywhere close to his ideal had been Tom Bradford, Raine’s husband and father to their two daughters.

Just then the phone rang again and Marcus quickly tapped his thumb on the screen. If this was somebody trying to sell him anything, he would give them a piece of his mind.

“May I speak to Marcus Vine?” came the professional voice of an older woman, a voice that sounded vaguely accented, French perhaps.

“Speaking.”

“Marcus, this is Cherry Labouche from Paris Match. Were you aware that this year’s Michelin Guide is being published today?”

“I was aware it was this month. But I thought it wasn’t until next week.”

When the possible implications behind the call finally hit him, he took a deep breath and held on tight.

“Yes, well, our publication is able to call in a few favors where publishers are concerned. So I am sure you will be extremely pleased to hear that your Edgware Road Old Country restaurant has been nominated for a Michelin Rising Star Award, which means that you may very well qualify for one star in the near future. I wondered if you would be interested in providing an exclusive interview for our magazine? With photographs, of course, and the article to be published next month?”

Michelin star? After Marcus had pulled himself together, he accepted—of course—on the proviso that Cherry talk to his manager to arrange details, even though the next person he picked the phone up to call would be that very one.

Yes, he thought, so life had thrown him a couple of curveballs over the past year. But then someone up there clearly wanted him to be successful. So what if he didn’t have all the other trappings life gave others?

Marcus Vine was going places.

Everything else could wait.