Authors: Jo Davis
Help her chooseÂ .Â .Â .
? Your vote will decide who wins Anna's heart!
Voting will be live on Facebook between November 19, 2013 and December 10, 2013.
Be sure to check out the results when Anna chooses her forever hero in REWARDED. (Available from InterMix March 2014)
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / October 2013
Copyright Â© 2013 by Jo Davis.
copyright Â© 2013 by Jo Davis.
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Anna Claire sipped her dirty martini and observed the restaurant from her soothing, darkened corner. From back here, nobody could see her slip off her Pradas under the table, stretching her aching feet.
But even if they did get a glimpse, no one would breathe a word. Floor Fifty-Five was her fourth restaurant and the culmination of her dreams. At the first two restaurants she'd utilized her business degree, managing them for other owners, and had done well. The third, a small upscale cafÃ© in Brooklyn, was her first success as an owner herself, and she'd enjoyed it for several years before selling and going for broke.
This place was her domain, her baby. Every stick of furniture, every glass, every fork, knife, and spoon, belonged to her. The staff moved as efficiently as a well-oiled machine under her ownership and also the direction of her brilliant head chef, Ethan Collingsworth. They respected her and were quite terrified of Ethan's wrath, an arrangement that suited her just fine.
She didn't need to be bosom buddies with her employees to be a success. Quite the opposite had proven true in her previous business experience. She merely needed intelligence, persistence, and lots of money.
Anna had plenty of all three.
Which didn't explain why she was sitting alone in a corner booth of her own high-end New York establishment, feeling sort of down when by all rights she should be basking in the glow of two years of hard work come to fruition, from conception to success.
Soft laughter and a tinkling of glasses drew her attention toward a table on the far side of the main dining room. A group of four was having some sort of celebratory gathering, and they looked happy as they toasted with champagne. At ease and on top of the world. A promotion perhaps, or the landing of a big account. An engagement or a pregnancy. Whatever the occasion, Anna couldn't help but feel proud they'd chosen her restaurant for their celebration. On the way to her own table, Anna had welcomed them and told them so.
But as she watched, a sense of melancholy stole over her. Nobody had ever really celebrated
accomplishments. Even her mother, whom she loved and knew loved her in return. It hurt that her own mother didn't get her, didn't understand what drove Anna to succeed, especially in the restaurant business. Margaret Claire was set in her ways and her thinking and never minced words. Like many parents, she had the power to make her daughter bleed from hundreds of tiny invisible cuts, even if she didn't realize it.
“You're not wearing
out to dinner with Mark, are you?”
Anna frowned at her mother. “What's wrong with nice jeans and a blouse?”
“Well, jeans don't do anything for your figure, you know that.”
She'd won that round. But had she, in the long run?
Her mother stared at her incredulously. “Let me get this straightâyou worked hard to make that little cafÃ© of yours a success, and now you're
going to just throw it away? Spend a ton of money to open a fancy restaurant in New York City?” The older woman sighed. “Honey, you were doing well as a manager, and then you went out on a limb with the cafÃ© and did all right. But this? I don't understand why you need to take a risk this big.”
Anna's heart froze. Was she kidding? “This restaurant has been my goal for as long as I can remember! You haven't listened to a word I've said!”
So unbending, her mother. Such a product of her own upbringing as the daughter of a steelworker and a teacher. Anna's grandparents were good, salt-of-the-earth people who worked hard and loved harder. But the fact remained that they were also narrow-minded in their views of what equaled successâand that typically involved punching a clock nine-to-five and earning a retirement after forty years or so of working for someone else.
She tried again. “Mom, did it ever occur to you that employees have to work for somebody? Someone intelligent who knows their business? And that the boss might as well be me?”
Margaret Claire had just stared at her daughter as though she'd spoken in tongues and sacrificed a chicken in the front yard.
To this day, not much had changed. But maybe, with her mother's upcoming visit and the five-star New York treatment Anna had planned, the woman's eyes would finally, at long last, be opened. She'd see her daughter as a successful woman in her own right and be proud.
Anna snapped to the present and blinked at the man standing in front of her table. She'd expected to see one of her waiters, but instead was greeted by a tall man dressed in kitchen whites. In the dim lighting it took her a moment to focus on his features.
He was a big man, fit and broad-shouldered, and she could only guess at the muscles hiding under the drab required uniform. His short golden-brown hair was mussed in that sexy just-rolled-out-of-bed look that turned her on when a man knew how to pull it offâand this one did. Full lips quirked upward, and she found herself wondering, not for the first time, how he would taste. Brows that were a bit darker than his hair arched over expressive blue eyes that conveyed a very male interest he couldn't quite hide, or hadn't bothered to, from day one.
The last idea intrigued her in spite of herselfâwhat kind of man would hit on his boss? One who was either very stupid or very confident.
Anna had always found confident men to be extremely sexy.
“Mr. James? What can I do for you?” She made it a point to know the name of every single employee, so his came effortlesslyâand the question emerged more flirtatiously than she'd intended.
Grayson James, the new prep chef, was one rung on the ladder above the janitor of this building. At age thirty-three, he was a bit long in the tooth if he hoped to make head chef one day, but he'd come highly recommended from Le Cordon Bleu, one of the most prestigious cooking schools around. That and his letters of recommendation from the senior partners at his former law firm had been enough for Anna. She'd hired him on the spot, despite a few reservations Ethan had voiced.
Who was she to hold back someone determined to follow his dream?
“Chef sent me to see if you wanted anything special for your dinner,” he said in a smooth, deep voice.
A radio voice, her mother would say if she were here. Anna toyed with her martini glass, trying to ignore the warmth that pooled in her middle at the sound and traveled south. The man was an employee, and she had no business drooling over him, much less playing this flirtatious cat and mouse game with him for the past few weeks. But she supposed what he didn't know wouldn't hurt anyone.
She cocked her head, lips curving upward. “I highly doubt Ethan did any such thing.”
He made a face. “Busted. But how else was I supposed to get away to talk to the most beautiful woman in the whole place?”
Pleasure curled through her insides. “You've got a big, steely pair, Mr. James. I like that.”
Something hungry, predatory, flared in his eyes, and he leaned over slightly. His voice was husky as he parried her thrust. “Do you? That's good, because I happen to like a woman who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to grab it.”
“I'm afraid of very little,” she said, eyeing him with appreciation and not bothering to hide it.
“And yet I sense you're holding back with me.”
“I'm careful in every aspect of my life. A little common sense is a good thing.”
“Not when it interferes with the fun of living, I think. I guess I'll have to make it my mission to loosen you up, boss lady.” Her brows shot up, but he didn't wait for a response. “Would you like to order something?”
You. Naked. On a platter with an apple in your mouth.
“What's Ethan's special tonight?”
“The duck over a bed of sautÃ©ed greens with a mushroom wine sauce drizzled on top.”
“Sounds fantastic. I'll have that.”
“Wise choice.” The man actually winked at her and grinned. “Ethan does get testy when the patrons don't follow his recommendations.”
Damn the man for having the most alluring dimple on the left side of his mouth.
“Everything he creates is beyond compare. Our diners can't go wrong no matter what they order.”
“True. I'll let him know your choice.” He waved a hand at her glass. “Another?”
She debated, then nodded. “I think I will.”
He laughed. “So long as you're able to walk at the end of the evening, that's fine.”
She barely managed to keep her mouth from falling open at his forwardness. If any other employee had made that remark, she would've reprimanded him. When it came to Gray, however, she couldn't be upset when his playfulness was edged with genuine concern. “Thanks, but I'll be fine. I won't be behind the wheel, and I only live five blocks away.”
“But you could stagger in front of a tour bus,” he said innocently. “Then who would sign my paychecks?”
Opening her mouth to retort that he wouldn't have to worry about that if he were no longer working here, she was shocked when he turned his back and simply walked away. The arrogant bastard just left her sitting there, his carriage and attitude screaming that he wasn't the least bit intimidated by her position as owner. Any of the others, save Ethan, would bow, scrape, and stammer in her presence. But not this man.
That damned confidence she couldn't resist. Somehow, in the space of a couple of weeks, the prep chef had homed in on her weakness and fileted it like a sea bass in Ethan's kitchen.
The second drink and her duck were delivered with a flourish, but with no further sign of Mr. James. It surprised her to realize she was disappointed. That small exchange had left her feeling more charged than she had in a while. Almost like she'd been awakened from a deep sleep.
Her meal had never tasted better, and she wondered whether a certain sexy prep chef had anything to do with that. Thoughts of him replayed in her head as she ate, and by the time she was ready to leave she found her eyes straying toward the doors to the kitchen. Was she really so eager to get another glimpse of the man?
You're the boss. Just go in there and check on things. You don't need an excuse.
When she was finished, she did just that. But only because she needed to close her office and retrieve her purse, she told herself. Mr. James was hard at work chopping vegetables when she walked through, and he barely acknowledged her with a nod. There was no cocky grin this time, no heat in his gaze. No familiarity. But then she caught Ethan observing him and not bothering to hide it, so that made sense. The chef was his boss as well, and was much more stern and scary than Anna. No way would anyone in his right mind invite a tongue-lashing from him.
Grayson James, on the other hand, could give me a tongue-lashing of a different sort. A very welcome one.
Good God! Annoyed with herself, she went through some paperwork, studied some orders for fresh meat and vegetables. Then she left twenty minutes later, locking her office and passing through the kitchen without letting her attention stray to the object of her fantasies, and took the elevator down to the lobby.
“Good night, Joel,” she called to the guard on duty. The heavyset, middle-aged man waved and spared a smile for her as always.
Fatigue dragged at her as she pushed through the revolving door, and she suddenly wished she'd called a cab. But that was ridiculous for a mere five-block walk, even this late at night. At least the city never really slept, and there were cops on almost every corner this close to Times Square. These days, there probably wasn't a safer city in the United States for a pedestrian.
That's what she told herself, anyway, as the bright lights of her restaurant's block gave way to the lengthening shadows of a residential area with fewer people about. Though she was tired, her senses were on alert for any movement. Any person who didn't belong.
So she was jolted with terror when a hand grabbed her arm and yanked her into an alley between two apartment buildings. “Hey!” she yelled. “Stop!”
Another shriek was abruptly cut off by a palm clapped over her mouth as she was pulled backward, farther into the darkness. The hand was covered by a ragged glove with the fingers cut out, and they were digging into her cheek.
Every horror story she'd ever heard about women being abducted and assaulted flashed through her mind, and she exploded in movement, fighting him like a wildcat. Twisting and bucking, she managed to make him lose his grip for a momentâjust long enough to sink her teeth into the side of his hand as hard as she could through the glove's material.
“Ahhh! Fuck!” Jerking his hand away, he shoved her back into the side of the nearest building, then spun her around and pushed her face-first into the brick before she could glimpse his features or clothing. “Scream or bite me again and I'll snap your pretty neck! Got it?”
She nodded, heart slamming against her rib cage. “Wh-what do you want? Money? It's in my purse.”
“And where's your purse?”
She jerked her head as much as she could in the direction they'd come. “Over there. I dropped it.”
“Hmm. Maybe I'll go back for that,” he said in a low voice. “But I'm thinking the real prize is right here in my hands. Begging for a piece of this.” As emphasis, he ground his groin into her ass.
“Y-you don't want to do this,” she said, breathless with fear. “Someone will come and you'll be caught. Just take the money and go.”
“Nobody's coming. Why can't I have both?”
“People live here. You don't want to risk jail.”
“As if guys like me care about getting sent to Club Fed. Three squares a day, exercise, reading, and TV. Hell, I could even study for a trade, which is more than I get on the street.”
“Please,” she begged as his hand began to creep under the hem of her blouse. “Don'tâ”