Home > Seduced(9)

Seduced(9)
Author: Lili Valente

“Her daughter’s four, so not really a baby,” I say, fishing a chunk of bok choy from the noodles and studying it through the smoke rising around it. “You did a good job with these. Give them just a few more seconds in the blanching bath next time and they’ll be spot on.”

“I don’t want to talk about bok choy, I want to talk about you being a stepdad to a four-year-old,” Evie says, her green eyes almost comically wide. “That’s a big responsibility, Cam. Huge. Like…the biggest ever. And no offense, but you only do laundry once every two weeks.”

I frown. “I’m not sure what that has to do with being a stepdad. But like you said, it’s way too early to be thinking about that sort of thing. First, I have to convince her to go out with me again.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Evie says, her brow furrowing. “I mean, I know you really liked her, but it sounds like you’re at two different places in life. And with the work conflict mixed in…”

“Nope,” Jess says, cursing beneath her breath as she slurps another too-hot noodle. “He should go for it.”

Evie huffs. “Two minutes ago, you were just saying he shouldn’t.”

“Yes, but that was before I knew she already had a kid, so she shouldn’t be as rabid to reproduce right away. Also, Cam’s eyes went dead inside when you said that.”

“No they didn’t,” Evie says, glancing back to me and wincing. “Oh, yeah, they did a little. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel dead inside.”

I smile. “I’m not dead inside. But yeah…the thought of giving up on Natalie without a fight doesn’t sit right. Seriously, I’ve never experienced anything like last night. The moment I laid eyes on her, I couldn’t look away. There was just this instant connection, this intense…excited feeling. Like I’d finally found the person I’ve been waiting for.” I exhale a tight laugh. “And yeah, I know how that sounds. You can make fun of me now. Go ahead.”

“We’re not going to make fun of you.” Evie’s lips turn down. “Come on, you know us better than that.”

“But you don’t believe in love at first sight,” I press.

“Not for me, I don’t,” Evie says. “But maybe for you. I mean, love works in strange and mysterious ways.”

“I believe in it,” Jess says, surprising us both, if Evie’s double take is anything to judge by. “What?” Jess asks with an uncomfortable bob of her shoulders. “I’m a secret romantic. Sue me.” She winces. “No, don’t sue me. If I’m going to quit my job, I won’t have the money for a lawsuit.”

Evie clasps her hands together at her chest. “Oh my God, really? You’re seriously thinking about quitting? Oh, Jess, I’m so proud of you.”

The conversation circles back around to Jess’s work situation. As we discuss the pros and cons of her staying to finish the project versus bolting now, before she’s any more worn down, I’m grateful for the distraction.

I’m not ready to shine a spotlight on what I feel when I’m with Natalie.

Not yet. First, I have to make her see what a mistake it would be to give up on this without giving it a chance to see if it’s more than a crush.

And what better way to start convincing her I’m too good to let slip through her fingers than by blowing her fucking mind with my unique take on mushroom Wellington?

 

Ninety minutes later, I pull the fragrant, stuffed pastry from the oven to find a troubling puddle of water sitting at the bottom of the pan. A taste test reveals a nearly raw pasty interior beneath the crispy, golden shell, and soggy, flavorless onions swimming in mushroom juices.

“It’s okay,” Evie says, bravely shoveling in another bite of the disaster. “There’s potential here. The dill and garlic are super yummy.”

“It’s fucking awful,” I say, tossing my fork onto my plate in disgust.

“It’s not fucking awful,” Evie says. “It’s a work in progress.”

“It’s awful,” I insist, “and probably a portent of doom.”

Evie laughs. “Now you sound like Jess.”

“No he doesn’t,” Jess calls out from the couch, where she’s back to coding, having decided to push hard for two more weeks and make her decision then. “I only see portents of doom on the news or walking through Times Square. And I know better than to eat gross things like mushrooms.”

I snort. “Says the woman who licks cheddar cheese powder off her fingers in public.”

“Cheddar cheese powder is too good to go to waste,” Jess says with a soft chuckle. “Maybe your meal would taste better with some cheddar cheese powder to soak up the mushroom pee.”

I sit up straighter. “Cornstarch. A sprinkle of cornstarch and a few more minutes in the pan on higher heat before I wrap the pastry would probably make a big difference.” I push back my chair. “Thanks, Jess, I’m going to try it.”

Evie’s brows shoot up. “Right now? It’s nearly eight o’clock.”

I shrug as I gather my plate and utensils. “What else do I have to do tonight? And I don’t have to be at work until noon tomorrow. The first day of training went so well Natalie told us all to sleep in before reporting for fake lunch service.”

“I like her already,” Evie says with a tired smile. “Speaking of sleep, I’m going to shower and turn in early. I have to be on campus at seven tomorrow to help set up for Papier-mâché Day. We’re making full body casts of three models. It’s going to be a hot mess, but it’s what we do for the love of art.”

Her words hang in the air after she’s gone.

For the love of art and for the love of love, I stay up until two a.m.

By the time I pull my fourth perfectly browned, magazine-shoot-worthy mushroom Wellington from the oven and garnish it with a sprig of fresh rosemary, my vision is blurry and I’m pretty sure I’ll never get the smell of onions and thyme out of my sweater.

But it’s worth it. My dish is fucking gorgeous, but even more importantly, it tastes like a dream.

Like a revelation.

As the golden, buttery pastry and the earthy flavors of the filling dance on my tongue, accompanied by the occasional pop of sweetness from the pecans I added on impulse, I swear I fall a little bit in love with myself. If this doesn’t start Natalie down the road to a change of heart about co-worker dating, I don’t know what will.

I wait for the pastry to fully cool before wrapping it tightly in a layer of parchment paper and another layer of foil and tucking it into a paper bag I place into the fridge for easy transport the next morning.

Then I shower, shave, and brush my teeth before falling into bed, where I dream victorious dreams, my poor subconscious having no clue that my seduction plan is about to go catastrophically awry.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

Natalie

 

 

I arrive at Crave half an hour early, determined to get my head in a professional, boss-type space after a morning spent chasing Crissy around the playground near our new apartment.

It was barely forty degrees outside, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way she ran and played and climbed and begged for five more minutes until her cheeks were so pink from cold I worried her freckles might fall off.

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