Thursday, November 2, 2017

RELEASE BLITZ: Pen & Xander by Laekan Zea Kemp

It's a book birthday celebration!!! That's right!!! We are celebrating the release of Laekan Zea Kemp's Pen & Xander just released on October 31st! To celebrate this release, we have a Chapter One excerpt and teasers... We even have a blitz-wide giveaway to share! So... Check it out and grab your copy now!

Young Adult
Contemporary Romance
Publish Date:
October 31, 2017

Pen Prado has a passion for cooking. Specifically, cooking her father's food in her father's restaurant. It's the heart of their immigrant neighborhood, a place where everyone belongs, and second chances are always on the menu. Except for Pen. Despite the fact that there's something almost magic about her food, her father can't imagine anything worse than her following in his footsteps. And when Pen confesses to keeping a secret from her family, he fires her, ensuring she never will.

Xander Amaro is undocumented but that doesn't stop Ignacio Prado from offering him a job at his restaurant. For Xander, it's a chance to make amends and to sever his toxic relationship with the druglord, El Cantil--a man whose been like a father to him since his own disappeared. Soon after, his mother abandoned him too, leaving behind a void that not even his abuelo can fill. Until he meets Pen.

Both seeking a place where they feel like they truly belong, they end up finding each other, and in the face of tremendous fear and self-doubt, they end up finding themselves.


Chapter 1:

Grease hisses and pops beneath the staccato drums bleeding from the speaker above my brother Angel’s head. The song fades beneath the clank of metal and the sound of his voice calling orders across the kitchen.
Glass bowls full of garlic and cilantro and guajillos slide across the counter, crashing against the faded Spanish labels pressed to jars of canela, anise, and comino.
Sang, the only person who’s been at the restaurant almost as long as my brother and I, grazes the glass jar of cumin with his elbow. It tumbles, exploding against the concrete floor like a flash of orange gunpowder.
The impact ignites a thousand memories. My father’s pipe speaking in tobacco apparitions. Charred meat bleeding over mesquite. The shrill clank of steel knives, the knock and twist of the molcajete, the slap of my mother’s bare feet on the kitchen floor. Volver Volver low and stretched like dough as my father hums it over the sound of the radio. I taste flames and clay and citrus. I feel ancient and safe and new.
“Comin’ in hot!” Angel slams a slab of meat down on the cutting board.
One of the platers, Lucas, draws two serrated knives. “I need somebody on the clock.” The sharp points are poised over the grill lines but he needs an audience.
Sang shakes out his cumin-filled dishtowel over the trash. He wipes his brow. “Clock starts in three, two, one…” Sang slaps the cowbell above the doorway to the kitchen. He’s the only one who can reach it.
Lucas is a human battery, charged by every face pointed in his direction as he begins to shred. He’s also the restaurant’s resident bookie, not just collecting the bets but designing the events and (usually) starring in them too. He’s currently the reigning Churro Throwing champ three years in a row.
“I need runners!” Angel slaps the counter, summoning the waiters, sweaty and trying to remember to smile.
But that’s hard to do when you’re slammed and short staffed. Not to mention the fact that the number of free meals my father’s been doling out has nearly doubled, which means no tips but twice the work. We lost two waitresses just last week—they thought they could make more money in the delivery business. Until those deliveries were intercepted by the police. But who did they call at two AM to post bail? Not their own fathers but mine. 
Glass shatters and I rush into the dining room. Gabby, the new girl I spent six hours training this week, is on all fours. When she sees me she cowers. I don’t just forget to smile. When I’m at the restaurant my face is physically incapable.
She scrambles to scrape up the broken plate and slices her hand. She sucks in air but I’m not sure if the tears are from the pain or my proximity.
My other half, Chloe, abandons the hostess stand and steps between us. “Try using a broom next time.” She helps Gabby get to her feet before trading her hand for the broom.
Then she drags me to the front of house before I can tell Gabby that next time she better not drop the plate in the first place.
“It was an accident,” Chloe says, reminding me that these kinds of things do indeed happen and also that I should defer to her in these moments requiring human compassion since she is much better equipped for them than I am. Which also reminds me why she’s my best friend. “Besides, half the people in here are so drunk they didn’t even notice.”
Chloe’s right. We’d reached that point in the night where we were slinging more drinks than tacos, the Frankenstein monsters on our menu I’d created specifically for the inebriated or post-inebriated flooding the line.
She pushes up her glasses, using her shirt to dry the bridge of her nose. Then she heaves a stack of menus into my arms. “Patio. I already had one of the waiters push two tables together.”
It’s an order, but because she’s the only person who can give me orders, I know she really must be swamped.
I seat a bachelorette party. Our second tonight. They hang on each other, giggling. When they reach their chairs, they fall over the backs, flailing like tethered balloons.
The bride straightens her plastic tiara, batting her eyelashes. They look like they’re about to fall off and I wonder how many free drinks they’ve already helped her get tonight. “Do you have some kind of bachelorette party discount?”
I count the necessary five seconds before the alcohol she’s already consumed wipes the question from her memory.
Her second in command is a little less drunk but just as cheap. “What about birthday discounts?”
“Show me an ID and you can get free chips & salsa.”
Our chips and salsa are always free but since I’m not really their waitress and therefore I care more about the actual food than customer service I don’t tell them that.
A few of the girls fiddle with their wallets but the truth is, it is no one’s birthday and they finally settle for ordering more alcohol. I bring back a round of margaritas—six frozen, three on the rocks, six with salted rims, two without, one salted on only half the rim, four with an extra shot of tequila, and five with extra limes. They order our signature queso, fresh guacamole, a plate of nachos, and one of every dessert.
I pawn off my table on Gabby—give her a chance to redeem herself—and head back to the heat of the kitchen.
On my way I’m stopped by one of our neighbors, Mr. Cantu. His baseball cap is covered in paint and that’s when I notice the spray cans in each hand.
“Pen, is your father here?”
“He’ll be back in the morning. Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Cantu?”
He deflates. “I’m here to paint the sidewalk. He said he’d pay me fifty bucks.”
I look from him to the crowd outside the entrance. The sidewalk’s full of people. “Tonight?”
“Well, tomorrow morning. But it’s just that I could really use the money now.” He motions to the parking lot. “My wife’s right outside. She had the stencils made and everything. We can get started right away.”
Mrs. Cantu can draw almost anything—caricatures, animals, flowers. She turns her sketches into stencils and her husband paints them into custom house numbers. Last week they painted Mighty Mouse—my father’s favorite childhood cartoon—on the corners of our driveway.
I didn’t know my father had commissioned them to paint the sidewalk outside the restaurant but it doesn’t surprise me. There’s someone doing odd jobs around here almost every day, not because we need the help but because they do. 
“We’re really busy tonight, Mr. Cantu. I’m sure my father asked you to do it in the morning so you’d actually have room to work.”
“I can set up cones. I can work around the crowd. Just give him a call,” he pleads.
I lead him back toward the entrance. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cantu, but he’ll meet you in the morning. Like he promised.”
He stops. “Then an advance. You pay me now and I’ll get to work as soon as the sun comes up.” He’s got a death grip on both paint cans, his eyes red like he hasn’t slept in days. “Please, I have to have the money tonight.”
I lower my voice. “Or what?”
He lowers his too, glancing at the faces nearby. “Or he’ll take something else.”
The look in Mr. Cantu’s eyes spurs my pulse, then my feet. I make my way to the bar, knocking on the counter where Java, one of the bartenders, is flirting with two of the girls from the bachelorette party.
“Excuse me, ladies.” He winks. “Duty calls.”
They giggle and I roll my eyes.
“I need fifty from the cash register.”
He furrows his brow, considering asking what for.
I motion towards Mr. Cantu. “Another side job.”
“What about when I come up short tonight?”
I sigh, taking the cash. “I’ll figure it out.”
He nods, relieved. Because I always do.
I find Mr. Cantu and hand over the money. “And you’ll be here first thing in the morning.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He shakes. “Thank you, Pen. Tell your father thank you.”
“You can tell him yourself when you show up tomorrow.”
After I get rid of Mr. Cantu I bolt back to the kitchen before someone else can stop me. In the heat, the steam slows my steps, the burn in my knees finally registering. Somehow my five-hour shift has stretched into seven.
I see Lucas clocking out and I strip him of his apron, tying it around my waist.
“Uh, Pen…?” He’s a good two feet away from me—the appropriate distance when I’m running a shift and we’re this slammed.
“Yeah, spit it out.”
“You’ve got me on for a double tomorrow, right?”
“You’re on the schedule. What’s that, your third one this week?”
He looks down. “Rent’s due. They cut my mom’s hours.”
Lucas’ mom works at a hair salon a few blocks away. They used to stay open until eight, then six, then two. Now their doors are closed more than they’re open. I want to ask Lucas if it’s him—the same person threatening Mr. Cantu. But I already know the answer. Lucas saying it out loud would only make it scarier and that’s something I don’t allow myself to feel when I’m at the restaurant.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says before I can respond.
“See ya.”
I take his place plating, my thoughts silenced the moment my desserts start coming up the line. I adorn them with mint leaves and powdered sugar, cinnamon and drizzled cajeta. I suck the Mexican caramel from my thumb, cheeks aching.
Someone knocks into me from behind, my chest smearing the coconut icing on the piece of cake I just plated. The cake I spend three hours every day baking fresh.
I can hear Struggles, resident dish boy, wheezing behind me, his shoes squeaking as he tries to tiptoe back to the dish pit. I spin, my ponytail whipping him in the face as he raises his hands, waiting for me to strike.
“I’m s-sorry…I was just—”
I grab him by the shirt collar, waiting for everyone else to turn and look. Like Lucas, I prefer an audience when I bite someone’s head off. Not because I like the attention but because I like the insurance. The scarier I am on the outside the less likely they are to see what’s underneath.
“Bring me another piece.” Struggles takes a step and I yank him back. “If you so much as breathe on it I will know and I will hurt you.”
He scampers away just as another crash ignites from the dining room. I scan the floor for Gabby. Instead, two guys are wrestling by the bar, their bodies knocking drinks off the countertop.
As I wind back through the dining tables, one of the bartenders, Solana, claws at the arm of one of the drunkards until it’s twisted behind his back. Java ducks behind the bar, groaning as he searches the shelves. I find what he’s looking for before he does, the air horn poised between the two brutes. Then I squeeze. They hold their ears, rolling like insects until Solana and a few of our regulars drag them outside.
I call out to Java, “Disaster Tax, stat!”
It’s his cue to bump up the price of alcohol for the rest of the night. It’s almost one AM, which means that everyone left in the bar will be too drunk to care. We’ll make back what’s currently stuck to the floor and then some.
Chloe already has a mop in hand and I whistle for Struggles to roll out the bucket. He lathers the floor. Gabby grabs a tray of food. She takes one step into the soapsuds and busts.
I find Angel through the order window. He rakes a hand down his face, calculations racing behind his eyes of every broken glass and plate; every spoiled piece of food.
By closing time I reek of tequila and onions. My shirt still has cake icing on it, the stains accompanied by dried salsa, grease, and a few other liquids I don’t recognize. But I can’t peel it off yet. Angel, the other closers, and I sweep the dining room before wiping down the kitchen. We have five hours before my father and the morning crew gets breakfast started.
But I know he’s already awake. His headlights creep up the mural on the back wall of the restaurant, settling over the guitar-playing skeletons as he puts his truck in park.
Java strips off his shirt on his way out the back door. “Sol, you’re still covering my shift tomorrow, right?”
She looks back at Angel. “I can’t pour drinks and plate at the same time.”
“New guy’s starting tomorrow so we won’t need you in the kitchen.”
“But we just got Gabby,” I say.
“Yeah, and we all know how that worked out,” Solana huffs.
“What’s with all the new hires?” Java asks.
I want to ask the same question, and more specifically, why our father hasn’t said anything about it to me.
“Struggles…” Angel slaps the dumpster out back. Struggles is half-way inside. “What the hell are you doing?”
Struggles climbs back out holding a crate of canned tomatoes. When he notices our looks of disgust he says, “They’re still good.”
“You mean they expired three days ago.” Angel tries to yank the crate from his grasp.
I step between them. “Which means they’re still good enough for Struggles.” I push the crate back in his arms and he races down the steps to his ride.
We wait for everyone to pull out of the parking lot and then we walk back around to our father’s truck. Angel pulls the door open, sighing as he slumps into the seat.
My back hurts, my legs burn, sweat painting my neck. I scrape my hair out of my face and find pieces of lettuce and dried enchilada sauce. Angel is just as filthy, the hours stuck to us in layers of grease while time has burrowed even deeper in my father’s skin.
He’s been waking up at three AM every morning for the past fifteen years. Cooking migas and tamales and pozole and carne asada. Cleaning up broken glass and spilled drinks and half-eaten food. Hiring cooks and bartenders and dish boys, firing them too. Wondering if people are going to show up that day, if they’re going to like the food, if they’re going to pay what it’s worth. And going to bed every night hoping that it was enough. To pay the bills. To raise four kids. To open the doors another day.
I can see those worries on his face, and even covered in filth, in food my father used to love, in sweat I can’t wait to wash off, there’s nothing I want more than to wear the same worry he does, to wake up with the same freedom.
“You smell like shit,” my father says.
“You mean I smell like money,” Angel corrects him.
My father almost laughs but then his eyes track to the rearview mirror. To the shadows lined up across the street. He backs out slow, the glow of the neon sign stamped against the hood of the truck. NACHO’S TACOS stretches to the curb, bleeding into the streetlights. The one across from us is just about to burn out, gasps of white drawing my eye.
“Just stare straight ahead,” my father says.
“How long have they been out there?” Angel asks.
Our father is quiet and I know it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been out there. All that matters is who they’re looking for.


**About the Author**
Laekan Zea Kemp is a writer and explorer extraordinaire who grew up in the flatlands of West Texas. She graduated from Texas Tech with a BA in Creative Writing and is the author of the multi-cultural New Adult novels The Things They Didn't Bury, Orphans of Paradise, Breathing Ghosts, and the Young Adult Paranormal series The Girl In Between. Her upcoming contemporary romance is slated for release during the summer of 2017!

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