Read an Excerpt
Dishing Up Desire
By Barbara DeLeo
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Barbara DeLeo
All rights reserved.
Blake Matthews stepped from the elevator into the cool basement of Hart Corporation and sucked in a lungful of air. The sweet smell of something toasted and warm assaulted his nose, filled his mouth, and confirmed that Kirin Hart, America's fallen-angel chef, was close by.
Hands slung in his pockets, he strode down the bare concrete corridor toward the enticing smells and cooking sounds, ready to meet the challenge of fixing the public image Mrs. Hart had so spectacularly annihilated.
Because she'd broken the last consultant who'd tried to tackle this mammoth assignment, he'd stepped in to minimize catastrophic fallout to the PR company he was about to buy. The board of directors had given him fourteen days to prove he had what it took to preserve the integrity of their company or they wouldn't sell to him.
He'd turn the situation around in ten.
A photograph from the file his investigator had put together reeled through his mind — the focused woman carefully disguised beneath homely outfits, pastel cardigans, and blond hair in a sweet plait. She'd certainly crafted the look of dependable domestic goddess well. Pity she'd been accused of sexually harassing a male staffer ten years her junior, thereby smashing that image, and the public's love for her, to smithereens. Confidence pumped sweetly through his veins. He'd never failed at a job this big, and didn't intend to start now, especially with the expansion of his business at stake. He'd overhaul Mrs. Hart — beige trouser suit and all — and be back home in New York in no time.
At the end of the corridor he stopped in an open doorway.
Behind a long stainless steel counter strewn with cooking paraphernalia, a woman had her back to him as she stirred something on an enormous industrial stove. He leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb, the low roar of overhead fans sucking away steam allowing him to watch her unnoticed. He made the most of the sight.
A loose blond ponytail, falling from beneath a small black hat, rested between narrow shoulders. His gaze tracked lower to where the strings of a black chef's apron fell down the back of a plain tan skirt hugging a perfectly rounded bottom. He took a step into the room but still she worked, backward and forward. Her movements were sexily hypnotic — stirring and shuffling implements, occasionally dusting a hand across the curve of her hip — oblivious to the fact he couldn't pull his eyes away.
Still unaware of him, she leaned to the back of the stove, dipped a spoon into one of the pans, and steadying a hand beneath, lifted it to her face and blew. As she opened her mouth and slowly slid the spoon between dusky lips, the secret intimacy of it caused his stomach muscles to clench, and on reflex he cleared his throat. When she spun around, the spoon clattered to the floor, her moist mouth forming a perfect O.
"Can I help you?" She reached for a cloth to clean up the liquid splattered across the counter and all down her front. "You must be lost."
He took a step into the room. "Not lost. I was looking for you. Don't stop what you're doing, I was enjoying it." He moved forward. "Blake — "
"How did you get in? This is a restricted area." Her eyes flicked to her apron and back at him, the creamy skin at her jaw tightening as she wiped away the mess.
"Through the door." He tried a grin but she dropped her gaze.
"But I have security."
The chilly reception wasn't surprising. Angela Jenkins, the original consultant on this job, had described Kirin Hart as defensive and suspicious — and that was before Kirin had told her that she didn't need their services anymore. "Might want to check on that security." He stepped around a stack of cardboard cartons. "I told your doorman who I was and he let me come straight down."
Finally, sparking caramel eyes focused on him and she stopped still. "What can I do for you?"
He pulled up an industrial looking stool and sat. "If you're not going to continue cooking, best turn the stoves off. This could take a while."
She laid both hands on the counter and hooked him with a "give me orders if you dare" look as her chest rose then fell. "The expansion might've fallen through but I still need these new stoves." The mask was edged with hard-assed determination and was even more of a turn on than watching her cook. Her tongue peeped out and she moistened her lips. "I'll downsize the chillers, though, so you can take the large one in the next room. It was the last you sent."
She began to remove the apron and her body was revealed. A cream blouse in soft fabric skimmed her breasts and sat lightly across a gently rounded stomach. It had a V-neck but must have had two dozen tiny pearl buttons all down the front and reminded him of a particularly uptight Sunday school teacher he'd once had.
At her throat, a thin gold chain lay against her milky skin with the letter K in a flourishing script. "We won't be needing the new office furniture you delivered last month either. You can take that back." She waved a delicate hand and thin gold bracelets tinkled on her wrist. "I'm sorry but I don't have time to discuss this right now." She turned back to the stove. "Make an appointment with my P.A. and she'll coordinate with you. I'm sure you'll find your way out."
He raised an eyebrow, intrigued by her ball-breaking attitude and the fact they'd had an entire conversation without him saying a word.
If he was a supplier of cooking equipment, or a repo man, he'd be throwing out some pretty choice expletives right now in response to an attitude like that. Lucky for her, he had a few more manners than she was displaying. No wonder she was such a PR disaster. He shrugged out of his suit jacket and finding nowhere to put it on the crowded counter, laid it across his knee. "I've come to discuss your contract with Dent and Douglas."
Her shoulders straightened. "My contract with Dent and Douglas is finished. I explained to Angela Jenkins that it wasn't working out." She turned and began to play with the strings of the apron. "If there are things to sign, my lawyer will take care of it."
She leaned closer and the K slipped beneath the fabric to a part of her he couldn't see.
He swallowed then refocused. Given her significant business troubles, the fight she still had left inside was admirable, and surprisingly sexy. "I'm Angela's replacement."
Her cinnamon eyes darted from the apron to his face. "May I see your card?"
Shit. His stomach clenched. He was going to have enough trouble making her come around if she thought he worked for Dent and Douglas. If she knew he was D and D's new buyer and that they wouldn't sell until he'd fixed her, she'd be the one in the driver's seat, and no way was that happening. His real identity could be saved for later. "I left my last card with your guy upstairs. Call him."
She turned as if looking for her phone then seemed to think better of it. "In case you haven't quite gotten the message, I've changed my mind. I don't want an image consultant anymore. Thanks for your time, I'm sorry it was wasted."
Good. She believed him. But he wasn't going anywhere. "No consultant? Why?"
There was that tongue again, slipping between her lips, and he found his eyes being constantly pulled there. "Because I need to get myself out of this mess." A flare of pain blossomed in her eyes.
So, there was a heart beating behind that tough shell. "And how do you intend to do that on your own? From what I understand, your brand's looking about as attractive as a high-speed train wreck right now. And you're the one who's still standing on the accelerator. Seems to me like you need a lot of professional help. Fast."
She pulled the hat from her head and tiny blond hairs stood up at different angles. The pain was still in her eyes and her face softened. "By working hard, cooking well, things I've done since the start of my career. No amount of PR speak and fancy outfits is going to do that for me."
He picked up some sort of metal cooking utensil and turned the handle. "I'd suggest it wasn't your cooking or your work ethic that got you into this mess so it's not likely they'll get you out. Your brother did the right thing hiring the best PR firm in town to turn your fortunes around. You'll never put this right on your own. From what I understand, if you don't act soon you're going to have a parade of removal men banging down your door. And they might not be as gentlemanly as me."
She'd rolled the apron into a ball and threw it to the side. "Flynn has a good heart but he has no clue about this industry." She rubbed her forehead. "Your colleague, Angela, started telling me what I should wear, how I should speak, who I should be associating with." Her eyes flashed as she spoke.
"All good advice which I hear you refused to take."
She laid a hand at her throat, her slim fingers stroking the pale skin that looked as silky as the fabric covering the rest of her top half. "What did you say your name was?"
"Matthews." He threw her his 'trust-me' smile. "Blake Matthews."
"Well, thanks, Blake Matthews but I don't require the services of Dent and Douglas anymore. I'm happy to handle this on my own." She picked up a towel and turned back toward the stove. "If you don't mind, I have a party to cater and you're holding me up." She knelt to look in an oven then pulled open the door.
"What's the party?"
She leaned in and put a skewer into the cake. When she drew it back he noticed her long, dark lashes as she surveyed the end. "It's for the daughter of a friend."
"Sweet Sixteen? Or twenty-first? You must be glad for the work. I've heard that the catering side of Hart Corp. has taken a big hit." He turned the handle on the cooking thing and a blade inside nearly sliced his finger off.
She shut the oven door hard and turned, skewer pointing toward him, cheeks flushed. "It's Maura's fourth birthday, and unless you want to lose a thumb, I suggest you put that down. There's a reason we don't let the public down here."
The public? Prickles rose on his neck for a second and then he reminded himself how much he enjoyed the challenge of getting people like Kirin Hart on his side. Two could play at her game.
He nodded slowly and placed the cutting thing gently on the counter. "How long have you been catering birthday parties for pre-schoolers? And is that sort of work going to stop your business imploding? Can't imagine there's a whole lot of profit in Jell-O molds and Twinkie cakes, or whatever kids eat at parties these days."
She sighed. "My business is none of your business, Mr. Matthews."
"Ah, but that's where you're wrong." He met the challenging spark in her stare and smiled slowly. He'd come from New York to buy Dent and Douglas — the jewel in his crown of image consultancies and PR firms — and suddenly they'd put a halt to the sale. The Kirin Hart debacle — and the resulting media circus — was destroying the reputation LA's most famous PR company had worked fifty years to develop. They wanted proof that Blake had the capacity to maintain the integrity of their name. And they wouldn't sell until he'd proven he could fix Kirin Hart and her image.
He put his palms flat on the cool counter top. "I don't do failure, Mrs. Hart, and right now Dent and Douglas has a contracted client whose image hasn't been changed, whose fortunes haven't been turned around as they assured her they would be. Where I come from, we call that a dud rap. I don't do dud raps. In fact, I've never been involved in one, and don't intend to start now."
Kirin tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. "Angela spent her whole time suggesting I didn't know how to dress or do my hair. I'm a chef not a catwalk model, Mr. Matthews. Surely the decision about whether to carry on a contract is up to the client," she said, voice tight.
"That might be the case if that client wasn't the biggest image disaster in American history. The whole world and his PR machine know D and D took you on. Their reputation will be worth nothing if we don't see the contract through."
She took a moment before answering. "And why are you so interested in me? Are you the bad cop, the guy who tries to muscle in and rough up the client when she's not toeing the line?"
He adjusted himself on the stool, hooked by her candor and the way her breasts rose in defiance. He hadn't counted on her spitfire responses, or his responses to them. He'd dealt with a lot of people in his career, but no one had captured his fascination as quickly as Kirin Hart. This was a woman who believed in herself and her image so much she was prepared to fight to the death for it. Trouble was, the media was nailing the lid on her career's coffin hour-by-hour and unless something drastic happened, she'd have nothing left. And his plan to add the crowning company in his coast-to-coast empire would be finished.
"I'm no bad cop, and I'm not interested in you, Mrs. Hart, I'm interested in your image. They're two entirely different things. When you begin to understand that, we might start getting somewhere."
For a second something passed across her face, almost as if she'd been hurt by what he'd said but then she stood straighter. "I've told you, I'm not interested. I'll pay the contract break fee and be done with it. And please don't call me Mrs. Hart."
"You'll renege on the contract and just wait for everything to go up in a smoke of debts? All the things you've worked so hard and so long for?"
The skewer clanged as she dropped it on the counter top. "People have been taking from me since my husband died, Mr. Matthews." Her lip trembled before she cleared her throat. "In fact, since well before that and right up to the present day. I'm used to it, but I'm not going to let you do it, too."
This wasn't hurt, it was cold-blooded anger and he knew where it was coming from. "You mean Trent Bray."
Blood drained from her face and her eyes glistened. "You know about that?"
He crossed his arms. "Female CEOs being sued for the sexual harassment of their younger male employees aren't that common, Kirin. You want Bray to win? For everything you worked for before he came along to be worth nothing?"
"He's already won," she murmured and looked up at him. Her shoulders had slumped and the defeated look on her face stirred something deep inside. For the shortest second, her cultivated control was replaced with soft vulnerability, and the contrast was mesmerizing. She lifted her chin and whispered, "Hell, no."
"Then let me help you."
She picked up a knife and stabbed it through a piece of butter. "I've been relying on people for too long. It's time I took charge."
He swallowed, his heart throwing in an extra beat for her vulnerability. "I'm the best there is at turning around public images, Kirin. Come back on board and I'll have journalists phoning you for interviews, invitations to talk shows and A-list parties. I can have your image back on track, brighter than you ever thought possible, in no time."
She reached behind her for a small copper pot and put the butter in. "And what makes you so sure you can achieve this magic? Is a superhero outfit lurking under that smart suit?" Her first real smile flitted across her face and it dazzled. "A pair of underpants over the tights beneath? I don't need rescuing by you or anyone else, Mr. Matthews."
He didn't usually have to spell out his experience. Most people he dealt with had been on a waiting list for his services for months and knew every last detail. "I've been in the image industry for fourteen years. I started work at sixteen as an international model and quickly learned that the way you portray yourself can make, or cost you, millions. The image the public currently has of you, if I may be so blunt, is a seductress who's betrayed her roots. They bought that original, homely image of you hook, line, and sinker and now they feel cheated. Turning your situation around isn't going to be easy, and you certainly won't achieve it alone."
She was quiet for a moment then shook her head. "Thanks for your interest but I'm going to do this on my own. Now, if you don't mind, I have a hundred cupcakes to frost."
Blake reached into his pocket, pulled out his smart phone and pressed a button before sliding it across the counter to her. "How's this 'doing it on your own' working out for you?"
She looked down at the picture on the screen and a flush swept up her neck. "Not one of my finest moments."
Excerpted from Dishing Up Desire by Barbara DeLeo. Copyright © 2013 Barbara DeLeo. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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