Home > Seduced(6)

Author: Lili Valente

“Crave is already a success,” he says, his own shoulders rolling back, making him tower over me.

At five feet and a smidgeon of an inch, most people tower over me, but Cam is especially tall. And broad-shouldered. And possessed of far larger biceps than most chefs I know. He would be physically intimidating if it weren’t for his warm, gentle energy, the one I can still feel vibrating in the air around him even when he’s clearly a little pissed off.

“We make the Best of the City list every year and have two Michelin stars,” he continues. “This isn’t some struggling steakhouse you need to drag into the twenty-first century. All you have to do is jump in, find your rhythm as head chef, and keep the magic going.”

Crossing my arms over my chest, I tilt my head back far enough to hold his gaze. “I’ll decide what I need to do, Chef Brennan. And I regret to inform you that I don’t share your rosy view of Crave’s current or future prospects. Your menu is dated and your purchasing methods out of step with sustainable practices and the growing farm-to-table movement. You have maybe one to three years before you become redundant and fall out of favor with critics and diners alike.”

I force a smile as I continue, “And even if I’m wrong about that, which I’m not, I’m not here to ride Pierre the Prick’s coattails. I’m here to make Crave by Cristina Barbu something even better. I’m going to make this restaurant the legendary stuff of legends, and anyone who creates friction along the way is gone. That’s it. Call it tough love, call it a bad case of perfectionism, call it me being a grade A bitch, I don’t care. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I learned a long time ago to stop listening to anyone’s criticism but my own.”

I pull in a breath and let it out slowly, as my heart bounds and a frantic voice in my head insists that I can’t fire my sous chef on the first day. But if Cameron won’t get on board, I’ll have no choice. I refuse to end up in a toxic relationship with a man again, even if it is just a work relationship.

I had enough of that with Phillip, and my escape from him is far too fresh in my mind for me to risk a repeat performance of that kind of dynamic again.

I’m bracing myself to calmly ask Cameron to turn in his apron and show himself to the door when he suddenly breaks into a big grin that makes my anxious stomach tremble, but not in a bad way.

Then he laughs and says, “Pierre was a prick. And I’m totally on board with making Crave the legendary stuff of legends.” He holds out a fist. “Let’s do this, Chef Natalie. Let’s level the fuck up and rule the New York restaurant scene. You’ve got some great people here, and I’ll do whatever I can to help you put them to their best use.”

Breath rushing out, I nod. “Okay. Great.” I grin and bump his fist with mine with a laugh. “Sorry. My daughter is obsessed with fist bumps at the moment. Fist bumps before bed, fist bumps for pizza dinner, fist bumps good-bye in the morning.” I shrug and add in a softer voice, “And yeah, I have a daughter. She’s four. And gorgeous and sweet, but also wild and stubborn and allergic to sleeping through the night. So…probably not what a twenty-four-year-old chef out to enjoy his glory days in the big city is looking for in a relationship, anyway. You dodged a bullet by being my employee. Seriously.”

He smiles as he leans down to add in an equally soft voice, “I’m going to have to ask you to stop talking about my dating life, Chef Natalie. According to my extremely intense and capable new boss, it’s inappropriate in a work setting and…you have no idea what I’m looking for.” He pulls back, his eyes locking with mine in a way that sends my thoughts back into my panties. “If, however, you change your mind about your no-fraternization policy and would like to find out, let me know. Until then, I’ll be focusing on knocking your socks off in the kitchen and keeping my thoughts on talented, gorgeous women and their likely equally incredible kids to myself.”

“Oh, o-okay,” I stammer, flustered by the feel of his breath warm on my cheek. And the sweet things he said. And the way he smells like soap and citrus and warm, sexy man. I swallow hard and nod. “Good. That sounds good.”

“Good,” he agrees. “Good is good.”

“That’s why it’s called good,” I agree, my cheeks burning with mortification. I’m blowing it! Blowing my “tough chef with a heart of Teflon” reputation mere minutes into my reign as the new boss.

I have to pull my shit together and get my focus back where it belongs—on the food and the flow and all the ways I can take Crave to the next level. I just need a second to get control of my heart. And my panties.

I jab a thumb over my shoulder. “I’m going to grab my tablet so I can take notes. Let’s aim to start our fake brunch service in ten minutes?”

“Perfect,” he says, brushing past me. “I’ll go rally the troops.”

I wait until he disappears into the kitchen to let my shoulders sag away from my ears and slap a hand to my face. Fuckery, duckery, dock, I’m in trouble. And when in trouble, the best antidote is advice from a trusted friend.

Pulling my cell from my coat pocket, I jab out a text to Henri—Happy hour? Five o’clock at Ferdinand’s? I can already tell I’m going to need a martini.

He almost instantly writes back—Off to that good a start, eh? How much of the staff are you going to scrap? Fifty percent? Sixty?

It’s too soon to tell, I reply. There’s only one staff member I’m worried about right now. Remember that guy I met at cricket class?

Henri shoots over a crying-laughing emoji. The Cutest Boy in the World! Of course, doll. It was just last night. I’m old, but not that old. Don’t tell me, he’s a busboy at Crave!

I cringe as I type. Worse. He’s the sous chef. My number two! And he’s already tempting me to do stupid things. Therefore, I will need martinis and wise words from you at your earliest convenience. If happy hour doesn’t work, you can join Crissy and me for fancy mac ’n’ cheese and fennel salad at seven.

Another laughing emoji appears and then, I’ll see you at happy hour. No offense to you and your precious loin fruit, but if I never eat mac ’n’ cheese again, it will be too soon. You two need to switch up your dinner repertoire. You’re a professional chef, sweetheart. You have to expand Little Miss Fussy’s palate before you lose all street cred.

I sigh. I’ll work on that after I relaunch this restaurant, make sure the new nanny is as good as she seems so far, and find a hot, sexy, age-appropriate boy toy to keep my mind off how much I want to wrestle my sous chef naked in a vat of warm maple syrup.

This time Henri chooses a wide-eyed, shocked emoji. You have the strangest sexual fantasies, honey. Really. I know a lot of straight people and none of them are nearly as weird.

Thanks, I type with a grin.

You’re welcome, he replies. Now get in that kitchen and kick ass and take names. I’m headed into a casting session at the new job, but I’ll be around at lunch if you need to vent. We’ll get through this transition together and claim our rightful places as East Coast powerhouses. No doubt in my mind.

I say goodbye, wish him the best of luck at the casting session—Henri is a model scout and fashion show organizer and already killing it in his new job with a major, NYC-based brand—and head to the bathroom. I splash cold water on my face, tie my hair back in a low bun, and pull on my lucky black chef’s cap before heading into the kitchen armed with my tablet and a no-nonsense vibe.

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