Home > Seduced(4)

Author: Lili Valente

She grins. “My mom, too. And mushroom Wellington is the challenge. It’s like beef wellington, but with extra mushroom moisture, guaranteed to ruin the surrounding pastry if you aren’t a true master of your craft. Only the best of the best can master the shroomy Wellington.”

“Oh, I’ll master it,” I say. “And I’ll bring a sample of my masterpiece to our date Sunday night. Prepare to have your socks knocked off.”

“You’re cocky.”

“Only when it comes to food.”

“Understandable,” she says, leaning in to add with an earnestness that makes it clear she’s not kidding, “But don’t bring a sample on Sunday, okay? Not unless it’s truly good. I’m kind of a jerk when it comes to food. I will share my honest opinion, even if it’s that your Wellington is soggy and uninspired and needs more dill.”

“I would expect nothing less,” I assure her. “And in my book, that’s not being a jerk. That’s giving constructive feedback, which is always appreciated. How else am I going to get good enough to leave my stressful job behind and own a restaurant of my own, someday?”

She rolls her eyes, but she’s grinning as she says, “Ugh, you’re a chef, too. I should have known. Every man I want to pounce like a feral she-beast turns out to be a chef.”

“You want to pounce me like a feral she-beast?” I ask, grinning as I lean in to press a kiss to her lips before whispering, “That’s nearly as hot as throwing down the recipe gauntlet on the first date.”

“But not as hot as the way you kiss,” she says, brushing her lips softly back and forth across mine, making the already uncomfortable situation in my jeans even more…uncomfortable. “Let’s do more of this on Sunday.”

“Absolutely,” I promise, kissing her again and again, until the bartender clears his throat and asks if we want another drink—or a private room in the back.

But sadly, it’s time for Natalie to go.

I call her the car I promised and kiss her one last time before shutting her into the gray SUV and watching her be whisked away toward First Avenue. But I’m not too broken up about it—I have her number in my phone, and I get to see her again in just six days.

And if our second date goes as well as our first, my days of pounding the NYC dating pavement might soon be over.

The rational part of my brain knows it’s too early to be thinking girlfriend thoughts about a woman I barely know. She didn’t even give me her last name, for fuck’s sake, and she might not be looking for something serious. She might have dark, dangerous secrets or a jealous streak I won’t discover until she freaks out about how gorgeous my roommates are or loses her mind when I don’t text her back right away while I’m at work.

And then there’s my own secret…

Natalie seems like a cool person, but even cool people are often weirded out by the fact that I’m still a virgin. I have my reasons, of course, but most women don’t care about the backstory. They focus on the virgin revelation and start planning their exit strategy long before I can prove to them that I know exactly what to do with my hands and my tongue and that I’m pretty sure my dick will catch up fast.

But Natalie is thirty-four. She probably hasn’t messed around with a virgin for over a decade. Maybe more. She might hear the V word and bolt faster than she did from that kitchen full of crickets.

There are still a host of things that can go wrong.

I know this.

But I confess I’m still flying high the next morning.

I’m so excited about the incredible woman I met the night before that I’m barely stressed about meeting my new boss—even though rumor has it our new owner/executive chef at Crave, Cristina Natalia Barbu III, is a high-strung, OCD-riddled task master who eats station chefs for breakfast.

She’s especially brutal with the fish station, having fired an average of three chef de partis per year at her last post. But she was the head chef at Boulangerie in San Francisco, not the owner/executive chef. In her new position, as the manager of the entire Crave enterprise—from budgeting to advertising to staffing to approving menus and paying all the bills—she shouldn’t be in the kitchen much at all.

Hopefully that will be good news for our team chemistry and poor Betsy on fish, who does struggle with salmon on nights when Wendall wants it skinned before pan-searing.

Wendall, our nearly seventy-year-old head chef, and the only cook above me in the hierarchy, is a true culinary veteran. He started his career cooking on a Navy ship and spent ten years in Bangkok at a luxury hotel frequented by the mob. He survived the wild, cocaine-fueled 1980s in New York and the early 2000s obsession with soggy, cheese-smothered risotto and Chilean seabass.

He also shielded the rest of us from Pierre, the former owner’s wrath on a regular basis. I have no doubt that he can handle anything this woman dishes out and still put out the best food in the city.

Yes, this is a change, but not necessarily a bad one. And who knows, maybe the tales of Cristina Natalia Barbu III—she’s apparently descended from Romanian nobility or something—are exaggerated. She might not be the pint-sized hellspawn the industry gossips have made her out to be. And I’m an easygoing guy, who plays well with others. Even if she’s gunning for the fish station or out to annihilate other weak links in our kitchen, I’m not anything close to a weak link.

This is going to be fine.

Better than fine! This could be the start of an epic and amazing season of change. Last night I met a game-changer of a woman and today I’m going to meet my game-changing new boss.

By the time I swing through the staff entrance door into the locker room, I’m actually excited.

And I stay excited right up until the moment we gather at the back of the dining room for the staff meeting and she descends the circular staircase from the executive chef’s office on the second floor.

Until the moment I realize Cristina Natalia Barbu III, my boss, and Natalie, the woman of my dreams, are the same person, and that I am well and truly fucked.

I know that, even before Natalie’s gaze locks on mine across the sea of staff and her eyes widen with horror for a beat before her professional mask falls back into place, and she booms in a surprisingly robust voice, “Okay, team, first things first. If you’re dating someone in this kitchen, stop it. Now. From now on, Crave has a strict, zero-fraternization policy. I need your focus on the food not the cute guy or girl down the line, and I won’t hesitate to dismiss those who break the rules. Do we understand each other?”

Fuck, I think again as I murmur, “Understood,” along with the rest of the anxious-looking staff.

Fuck, as I listen to Natalie—or Cristina or whatever the hell she wants to be called—detail all the changes coming to the kitchen and announce that she’ll be delaying the reopening until the end of January, when we’ll hopefully have “adapted to the new protocols.”

Fuck, as I hear that Wendall, our fearless leader, has been put out to pasture and that Natalie herself will be serving as head chef for the foreseeable future.

Fuck, fuck, and more fuck, and still, I can’t help thinking about how good her lips felt against mine and how much I want to kiss her again.

I want it so much that for a split second I consider handing in my resignation and looking for another job, thereby eliminating any conflict of interests or “fraternization” fears.

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