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Salina Brown knew well and good that you should always trust your instincts, and indeed she had done that through her entire twenty-seven years. She was smart enough to know that if your gut said something was wrong, you should pay attention. And yet this time, she had ignored her gut, told herself that there was no way the legendary Donald Martin would do anything out of line.
Even before she got on the train in Brooklyn and headed to the Upper East Side for what Donald Martin had said would be "the opportunity of a lifetime," Salina had had a niggling doubt, the odd sensation that perhaps things weren't as Donald said they were.
But he was the expert chef with an endless list of clients. Who was she to question if someone had hired him to prepare a special dinner at a private residence? The Upper East Side address made it clear that whoever had hired Donald had money, and didn't wealthy people love to host dinner parties at their lavish residences? Especially during the holiday season. Despite her reservations, Salina had no doubt that Donald catered such private dinners all the time, and for him to offer her the chance to work with him tonight
well, how lucky was she?
That was the thought Salina concentrated on as she headed to the address where she would be helping Donald to cater the dinner. That and the fact that she would be gaining invaluable private contacts, the kind that would only help her own business grow one day.
Two months earlier, she had been lucky enough to meet the legendary chef at a charity event her sister's law firm had been involved in. And wonder of all wonders, after talking to him, he had offered her the chance to work with him. It had been a dream come true for Salina, whose latest passion was to become a chef. Being able to apprentice with one of New York's greats in the business would surely help fast-track her own path to becoming a chef with her own restaurant one day.
Salina glanced up at the mid-rise condo building overlooking Central Park, her heart beating a little faster. She was nervous, she realized. Nervous about doing her best and proving to Donaldand to herselfthat she had what it took to succeed in the competitive world of professional chefs.
Salina approached the beautiful old building, where the immaculately dressed doorman greeted her with a smile and opened the door for her. Inside the building's foyer, the concierge asked her who she was here to see, and she told him what Donald had instructed her to saythat she was his guest.
"Ah, yes. Mr. Martin told me to expect you." Salina had never been greeted by a doorman back in her native Buffalo, and not in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lived with her sister. Of course, she had seen exactly this on television and in the movies, and she couldn't help thinking that this was a taste of what her own life would be one day. That by following her passion, she would be able to live at this kind of exclusive address.
Not that she needed all the frills of a lavish lifestyle. Rather, she believed that by following her passion success would come. Every person she admired whose story she had heard or read, all said the same thing. That while not necessarily seeking monetary success, it came when they followed their heart's passion, and Salina was determined that she would be no different.
Indeed, it was why she was here, wasn't it?
"I'll let Mr. Martin know that you're on the way up," the concierge said pleasantly.
Salina nodded and then headed toward the elevators. Soon she was on her way up to the penthouse floor. By the time she was glancing down the hallway to determine in which direction she was supposed to head, she saw a door at the end of the hallway on the right open up. Donald appeared, smiling widely, and gestured to her to come.
Salina made her way down the hallway to him, loosening her scarf as she did. There was no snow outside, but it was frigid, and she was glad she'd thought to wear a scarf to help protect her face from the cold.
"Hello, Donald," Salina said as she reached him.
"Good evening," Donald responded, and held the door open wide for her to enter. As Salina stepped into the apartment's foyer, he added, "Let me take your coat."
Salina gazed around the immaculate residence. While the building itself was a prewar establishment, this unit had been renovated to reflect the design style of the 21st century. Sleek, white leather sofas, polished mahogany hardwood floors and modern art on the wallsthe place could easily be featured in a home decor magazine.
"Did you have any trouble finding the place?"
"None," Salina said. "Your directions were perfect."
"Good." Donald took Salina's coat and hung it on the nearby coatrack. As he did, something suddenly struck her as peculiar.
There were no other coats on the rack except for one.
"Where is everyone?" Salina asked. "Or are the residents not arriving until we have the cooking complete?"
"Follow me," was Donald's reply.
Salina frowned. That wasn't the response she had expected. In fact, she suddenly got that odd feeling again. The one that said something wasn't right.
Because if she had come here to help with the cooking, then why did she smell the aroma of food? And not just any food, but Donald's famous spicy curry chickenthe very meal she had told him was her favorite.
Salina's feeling intensified when she followed Donald around the corner toward the dining room and saw that the table was set with two place settings. A bottle of wine sat in a carafe between the table's head spot and the one to its immediate right.
Donald stopped walking and turned to face her. As if he had sensed the direction of her thoughts, he said, "I prepared the meal you said was your favorite. This one is your favorite, isn't it?"
Salina knew that what she was about to ask was somewhat silly, because her mind already understood what was going oneven if her heart wanted to deny it. "Didn't you want my help in doing the cooking?"
"Ah, yes. I did tell you that I wanted you here to help me prepare a meal." Donald smiled devilishly. "I admit, I told you a little white lie."
"A little white lie?" Salina asked, her tone implying she was still in the dark.
"There are two place settings here," Donald said, gesturing to the table. "One for me. And one for you."
"B-butwhat about the guests? What about the dinner party?"
Now Donald chuckled softly. "That was the little white lie. You're the only one I'm expecting."
"Ththis is your place?"
He had lied to her, told her he needed help in catering a Christmas party. All because he wanted to get her here for a romantic evening?
"I wanted to spend some time with you," Donald went on. "Alone."
Salina looked at him as if he had grown two extra heads. "Why would you want to spend time alone with me?" Again, she was aware that she sounded silly, or perhaps that she was playing dense. But she simply didn't understand why Donald would invite her here for this kind of romantic dinner, to spend time alone with him, as he had said. "For God's sake, you're married."
"My wife wanted to escape to Barbados with the kids before Christmas," Donald told her, no discernable reaction at all to the fact that Salina had just mentioned his wife.
And then, without warning, Donald walked toward her and slipped an arm around her waist. He pulled her against him. "Come on," he whispered. "You know what's going on."
She wriggled herself free from his arms and stepped backward, away from him. "No, I don't. I don't understand this at all. Not one bit."
"I've prepared a special dinner for a very special lady." He took a step toward her and Salina instinctively took a step backward. Donald chuckled softly. "What's the problem? You don't like my grand gesture?"
"Are you for real?" Salina asked. "Are you seriously pretending that the issue here isn't that you're married?"
"My marriage is none of your concern."
"None of my concern?" Salina shot back. Was the man that foolish? Was he so completely arrogant that he thought she shouldn't care that he had a wife and kids?
"Let me rephrase that. My marriage
it's essentially over. It's been dying for a long time. And ever since I met you
well, I knew we could have something special. Yes, I was hard on you in the beginning. I'm sure you remember. I was fighting my attraction for you. But then it all became so clear to me. Why fight it? I met you by chance, was extremely attracted to you, and then it turned out that your desire was to become a chef. I saw that as destiny." Donald paused. "Our destiny. You and I, Salina, we can be a team."
Salina was flabbergasted. She couldn't even believe what she was hearing. "I don't know what you were thinking, but I do not get involved with married men. I don't know what you expected of me, and I'm sorry if you believe that I somehow led you on."
That wasn't what she believed, not in the least. She had simply worked hard for a man who, at first, had been incredibly demanding. She'd believed that he'd been testing her, making sure that she had what it took to work in the competitive culinary business. The tougher he was on her, the harder she had worked because she'd wanted to impress him, show him that he hadn't been wrong in taking her on as an apprentice. That meant working late into the night and not arguing when Donald expected her to be back at his busy midtown Caribbean restaurant the next morning.
But Salina would say what she felt was necessary at this moment, including taking the blame for his error in judgment, because the bigger goal was that she get out of the apartment without incident. She suddenly had no clue what Donald was capable of.
And she also didn't want to make an enemy of him. No, she would never be able to work for him again. But the New York culinary scene was relatively small. And Donald was famous. If he bad-mouthed her because she rejected his advances, that would be a hindrance to her achieving her goal of becoming a chef.
Donald moved toward her swiftly and once again drew her into his arms. "I already explained to you that my marriage is basically over. It's you I want."
And then he planted his mouth on hers and kissed her.
For one stunned moment, Salina couldn't move. But then she sprang into action and fought Donald off her with all of her might. She was disgusted with him, more disgusted than she had ever been with anyone, and she wondered how it was that she had not seen his true nature before now.
Or maybe she had. After his initial coldnessrelentless with his demands and coming off as a bit of a jerkhe had suddenly changed. Smiles and winks replaced his scowls. And there were little touches that she always found a bit too friendly
like the ones on her arm or upper back. And sometimes she'd catch him looking at her in a way that had her feeling distinctly uneasy.
But Salina had written it all off as harmless. Since he worked all day in a busy kitchen, she simply believed that he was the type of man who flirted as a way to ease the tension.
It was very clear now just how wrong she was.
Free of his embrace, Donald shot her a gaze of utter disbelief. Disbelief that soon turned to anger. He seemed unable to accept the fact that she was actually rejecting him.
"You'd better consider the consequences of your decision.
Because if you leave now, you'll never work in the restaurant business again."
And just like that, Salina knew that Donald would be the type of man who would be ruthless in his vengeance. He did not like to be rejected, and it was clear he would make her suffer for it. The fact that he would even want to continue with the dinner and whatever else he had planned if she caved to his threats spoke volumes about his unsavory character.
"If that's the way it has to be," Salina said firmly, "then that's the way it has to be. I've never slept with anyone to get anything, and I've never been afraid of hard work. If you can't respect me for that, that's fine. If my life is going to be a little more difficult in terms of achieving my goal because I won't sleep with you, then so be it. But I am about to walk out that door right now, and if you touch meI swear to God I will scream so loud everyone in this building will come running to see what's wrong. And then I'll press charges against you for sexual harassment. So don't you dare think you can threaten me."
Salina wasn't sure where she got strength to stand up to Donald like that. Perhaps it was the fact that she knew that if she stayed in his apartment with him and tried to play nice, it would end badly for her. Playing nice with a man like Donald Martin, whose ego was clearly larger than the state of New York, would only lead to more problems. She had to be firm, had to get out of the apartment immediately.
Donald was clearly shocked by her words, and Salina could see the anger on his face, but he made no move to walk toward her as she stepped backward one foot at a time, her eyes watching him carefully. When she reached the living room she turned and hustled to the foyer, where she grabbed her coat and scarf from the coatrack. She didn't look back as she scrambled out the door.
Salina left the apartment, running. She ran straight for the nearest exit sign instead of the elevator, and ran down sixteen flights on pure adrenaline.