Read an Excerpt
Seducing the Playboy
A Hot Nights Novel
By Amanda Usen, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Amanda Usen
All rights reserved.
"Fresh meat in the kitchen."
"Put it away." Roman didn't look up from the pile of invoices in front of him. He had to find a way to shave food costs. This was another test, and he was going to ace it. How hard could it be to turn a profit in a tiny restaurant on Venice Beach?
His sous-chef, Max, dropped into the chair by the door. "That's not the kind of meat I'm talking about. Blond. Buttoned-up. Magnificent rack. Hair in the tightest braid I've ever seen. She said she has an interview. I checked with Linda and heard she was some sort of pastry whisperer. I don't care if she can whisper or not, but I'd like to wrap that braid around my fist and —"
"You go any further, I'll need brain bleach."
Max chuckled. "Rock-paper-scissors?"
Roman flipped the file shut and jammed it in the top drawer. "Hell no. If she's that hot and she can bake, she's mine. You got the last intern." They both knew he was kidding. He only had one hard-and-fast rule in the kitchen — don't sleep where you eat.
"Not an intern. Culinary Academy graduate. Work experience in France and Italy, and she wants to talk to you."
"We can't afford to hire anybody. Think she'll work for free?"
"Why are you sweating every penny, Roman? Your food cost is low, considering what's on the menu. You can't fly your fish in from Hawaii, your beef from Japan, and your chicken from a tiny, family-owned ranch in Iowa and expect to run on a shoestring budget."
"Then we need more vegetarian items."
Max snorted. "More heirloom, organic, vegetarian items? You know our produce costs more than the fish."
"Garbage in garbage out," Max taunted. "You get what you pay for —"
"Can your clichés before I make you eat them," Roman growled. "Pastry whisperer, huh?" Maybe if he hired her, they could make money on the desserts.
His mother never should have bought this overpriced shack, but somehow she expected him to make it as profitable as their other restaurants. Unfortunately, it took customers to make that happen and, in spite of his exquisite menu, they were barely filling the house each night. He refused to fail, not when she was ready to retire. He'd watched her work her ass off, until her back was bowed, her hands gnarled, and her face lined with the stress of constantly being in charge. He needed to get off this beach and start managing Gallagher Holdings.
Roman led the way out of the office. When they reached the kitchen, he saw his interviewee standing with her back toward them. She was petite, probably coming up to his shoulder, and as tidy as Max had described. Not a hair escaped the braid wrapped into a knot on the back of her head. Her coat was bright white and unstained. Even her chef pants looked like they had been ironed.
As she turned, eyes the color of burnt caramel met his and a shock zinged through him. His body reacted, tensing, stiffening. Instantly, he was transported back to the first time he'd looked into her eyes. Just as fast, he shut down the buzz of arousal. She might not be sixteen anymore, but it didn't matter. She was Cole Cooper's little sister, off-limits as long as he'd known the warm family that had opened their home to him so many times during culinary school. For a second, he was paralyzed by the memory of her playing basketball with them in a too-short school uniform skirt. Back then, it had been murder to ignore his raging hormones in the presence of her blooming beauty and knockout body.
"Roman? Aren't you going to say hello?" Her voice was amused. She took a half step closer and tilted her head to look up at him.
He cleared his throat. "Hey, kiddo, you surprised me." He braced himself and pulled her into a short, friendly hug. Her touch was like fire on his skin. He took two steps back to avoid further contact. "How have you been? How's Cole? Are your parents well?"
She nodded, eyes narrowing. "Everyone is great. They miss you. You haven't been back to Lambertville in years."
He cleared his throat again. "A lot to keep me busy here."
A golden glint shimmered in her eyes. "So I've heard. You've been working your way down the West Coast like a culinary Casanova."
Was she talking about the restaurants he'd opened? Or something else? His romantic reputation was greatly exaggerated. Mostly. Okay, not at all, but how did she know?
A very fake cough alerted him to the fact Max still stood behind him. Reluctantly, he said, "Jenna, this is my sous-chef, Max Benderson."
He'd seen that smoldering look on Max's face — right before he made his move.
"Knock it off," Roman warned. "This is my buddy's little sister, Jenna Cooper."
Max's smile went from hot to warm. "Oh, hey! Nice to meet you."
Jenna laughed. "Little sister, huh? I may be little, but I'm legal. Nice to meet you, Max."
She held out her hand, but when Max moved to take it, Roman stepped between them. "Not in this kitchen. In my kitchen, anyone who doesn't treat you like a little sister is fired. There is no way I'm going to explain to your big lug of a brother that someone took advantage of you on my watch."
"So don't tell him. Problem solved."
She gave Max a sly wink, and jealousy spiked through him. "Can we get back on topic? What are you doing here? Cole didn't tell me you went to culinary school. You followed in the family footsteps, huh?"
Actually, Roman deliberately stayed off the subject of his best friend's sister when they talked. Cole had made it clear he didn't want Roman anywhere near her, and there'd be hell to pay if he knew about Roman's impure thoughts. Cole knew he didn't do relationships. He did fun. He did sex, lots of it, but short-term only. Jenna, with her small-town values and parents who had been married for thirty-plus years, deserved someone who could give her that.
"I'd like to work here in exchange for —"
She grabbed his arm. "Why not?"
About a zillion reasons. "No job here." Not when the sight of her made him want to break his own rule. He shrugged out of her grasp.
She frowned at him. "Even if you don't hire me, you need a new pastry chef. Your desserts suck."
"How do you know?"
"I came in for dinner last night."
"And you didn't let me know you were here?"
She snorted. "I was spying. Your gelato is icy. Your pie crust is rubbery and salty. And don't get me started on your chocolate sauce. It came out of a can, didn't it?"
He heard a noise from Max that sounded like a cough but he knew damn well was a laugh. "I've been making the desserts," he said tightly.
Her nostrils flared, as if she were trying not to laugh, too. Then a giggle escaped, hitting his nerves like a playful slap. Her eyes filled with mock pity. "Oh, Roman, how could you do that to innocent desserts? They never did anything to you."
Max slung an arm around him. "I've been trying to tell him, but he's pretty stubborn."
The two of them were bonding over his lack of pastry skills? Unacceptable. "I'm standing right here," he reminded them, shaking off Max's arm.
Jenna reached up to pat his cheek. "Yes, dear. We know. And we want what is best for you. In your heart, you know you should stick to the savory side of the kitchen. Give me a chance, Roman. You won't regret it. I did the culinary program at the Academy, but I love to bake. Give me a couple of hours, and I'll knock your socks off."
She'd always knocked his socks off. That was the problem.
He took a deep breath to say no, but her fingers slid down his arm into his hand and he forgot how to speak. She squeezed, and he stopped breathing, immobilized by a flash fantasy of how her fingers would feel wrapped around another part of his anatomy.
"Let me bake for you, Roman. What have you got to lose?"
* * *
Jenna's heart pounded. A bead of cold sweat ran down her arm, so she pressed her elbow into her side, hoping her jacket would absorb the moisture. She'd forgotten how being near Roman made it difficult to behave normally, but there was no way she'd let her nerves betray her. She needed his help. Badly.
"Good God, man! Don't stop her." The sous-chef shot her a wink.
She grinned back. "Can I take that as a yes? Come on, Ro ... you owe me this much for not telling Dad about the time you and Cole drank half his favorite bourbon and refilled the bottle with water."
A small smile tilted Roman's full lips. "I forgot about that. Did he ever figure it out?"
"Not yet," she threatened, wondering if Roman remembered what had happened after the bourbon. She certainly treasured the memory of their almost-kiss.
Roman held up his hands. "Fine. You win. You can test cook." He looked at his watch. "You've got four hours. Don't expect me to take it easy on you because we're friends."
"I'd be disappointed if you did." She held his gaze. "But I hope you're hungry, Chef. I don't make idle promises. You're in for a treat."
Roman stared back at her for long enough to make her fear he was going to change his mind, then spun on his heel and walked out of the kitchen. Max gave her a thumbs-up and another grin before he followed.
As soon as they were gone, she surveyed the tiny space, assuming they wouldn't be gone long — there was nowhere else to work. She whipped through the shelves and dish room looking for baking pans. Then she rifled through drawers and cabinets for spatulas and whisks. Swiftly, she blazed through dry storage, the reach-ins, and the walk-in, gathering butter, eggs, and heavy cream as she went. When she found flour, sugar, good chocolate, and an entire case of parchment paper, she knew she was in business. It was late August, so that meant there was plenty of great produce, too, although there was probably always good produce in California.
When she returned to the line with an armload of ingredients, Roman was peeling shrimp at the sink. "Okay if I use this stuff?" she asked.
He gave her a curt nod and turned back to the sink.
Overwhelmed by curiosity, she had to ask, "Aren't you a little overqualified for peeling shrimp?"
"Prep cook is a surfer. I took pity on him. Epic waves on the Venice Breakwater today, or so he said."
Jenna nodded and pulled a notebook and pen out of her toolbox, glad she'd packed her favorite pastry utensils and brought them with her. She hadn't spotted a single palette knife in the kitchen, and she doubted she could find a matched set of measuring spoons to save her life. Her thoughts spun, arranging ingredients into different combinations. She wanted to make at least three desserts, but they had to be things that could be served warm or at least room temperature. She couldn't make ice cream unless she served it soft, but she could make crème anglaise. Whole layer cakes weren't possible — no time to cool. But she could bake super-thin layers of cake ... or cupcakes.
She pressed her lips into a thin line. Roman might be slumming in Venice Beach at the moment, but the man was an LA legend. He'd eaten the best desserts the city had to offer, probably off the bodies of his naked celebrity girlfriends. And he still thought of her as Cole's little sister. There was no way she was going to bake him a goddamn cupcake.
I can't do this.
The uncertainty she'd banished the moment her plane touched down in Los Angeles the week before crashed over her in a suffocating wave. She hadn't allowed herself to think about how much it would suck if she crashed and burned. The thought of Roman just patting her on the head and sending her home made her feel like passing out.
I'm going to fail.
She dropped her pen on the cutting board and walked out of the kitchen. She could feel Roman's eyes on her back, but she kept going. When her shoes hit sand, her panic doubled and she skidded to a stop. If she ran away, she'd have no chance at all.
She kicked off her clogs and dug her bare toes into the sand, refusing to take another step away from the Beach House. She only had four hours to pull this off — she didn't have time to freak out. Jesus, this was exactly what her parents expected of her.
You're only twenty-two. Let us handle this. Selling the restaurant isn't the end of the world.
But it was, and they all knew it. The bank had given her parents only four months to catch up on payments. Selling the restaurant would kill her father. Her parents would never ask her brother to give up the new life he'd built. They were proud of him for becoming a corporate chef, and glad he'd escaped the grind of working nights, weekends, and holidays. They didn't even want Cole to know Cooper's was in the red, so it was up to her to find a way to keep it.
She had trained so hard for this — going to the Culinary Academy, studying in Italy and France with chefs who ran her ragged, graduating near the top of her male- dominated class — she refused to give up.
Cole would kill her if she asked Roman for money, but knowledge was power, too. Roman had a Midas touch with failing restaurants, and she knew he'd help her family. She was counting on it. But helping her draw up a plan would cost him time he might not have, at a price she couldn't afford, so she wanted to offer him something in return, especially after she'd seen the unimpressive Beach House dessert menu online. Creating a new pastry menu for him was the perfect solution. It would give her time to pick his brain about ways to revitalize Cooper's failing business while improving the Beach House desserts — but clearly Roman still thought of her as a kid, just as her family did. It was past time to prove she'd grown up and could pull her weight in the kitchen. She'd make pastries so incredible, Roman would beg for her help, and then she'd ask for his. With his expert advice, she knew she could preserve the Cooper legacy and carry on the family tradition. Not only that, she'd finally earn her family's respect.
"Jenna? Are you all right?"
A shiver shot up her spine at the sound of Roman's voice. She turned, heart pounding. "Just taking inspiration from the ocean," she lied, drinking in the light of the sun on his face. His eyelashes were golden at the root and dark at the tips, giving them a sexy glint. She wanted to run her finger over the reddish stubble on his cheeks. To trace the outline of his sensual lips. To sink her hands into his sun-streaked hair and tug him down for the kiss she'd been dreaming about forever.
"I understand completely," he said.
She blinked hard, stifling a sigh. Too bad he was talking about the ocean.
"Coming?" she asked, picking her way back toward the Beach House. When she reached the Boardwalk, she brushed off her feet and jammed them back in her clogs. She heard Roman stomping behind her.
They entered the kitchen, and she washed her hands before returning to the ingredients on her cutting board. Butter, flour, sugar, and eggs — simple things. But if she combined them in exactly the right way, he'd have no choice but to accept her help — and hopefully offer his in return.
A slow smile spread across her face as she decided to make cupcakes after all. Adult versions of kid desserts were all the rage these days, especially in restaurants like this one. Her desserts were going to be decadent and sensual. Salted caramel. Oatmeal cream. Hot chocolate heaven. She would jog his memory, and then she would blow his mind.
Her smile turned into a full-blown, wicked grin, picturing doing the same for the rest of him, and she laughed softly as she began to crack eggs. Roman Gallagher wasn't going to know what hit him.
* * *
Roman took a seat in the dining room and eyed the desserts on the table in front of him, wondering what the hell she'd been thinking. He had to admit he was disappointed. She'd promised great desserts, but these pastries looked ordinary, pedestrian ... boring. A cupcake, hot chocolate, a plate of cookies, and a piece of cake? The cake looked fancy enough to suit his customers, but the rest was pure snooze. So what if his mouth was watering? Just because he had a thing for warm chocolate chip cookies didn't mean they belonged on his menu.
He turned to Jenna. "Looks great, kiddo ... but not Beach House material."
She crossed her arms and smiled. "Wrong."
Excerpted from Seducing the Playboy by Amanda Usen, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2014 Amanda Usen. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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