Seducing the Playboy ONLY

a Hot Nights novel by Amanda Usen

Seducing the PlayboyThe best desserts are worth the wait…

Pastry chef Jenna Cooper crushed hard on playboy chef Roman Gallagher when her older brother brought him home to share their family Christmas six years ago. Now she’s old enough to do something about it, and she won’t take no for an answer—for anything.

Out of the frying pan into the fire…

Roman has one hard and fast rule—don’t sleep where you eat. But he can’t say no to Jenna’s plea for him to help her save her family business. Soon she’s working for him, and their scorching chemistry melts Roman’s resistance.

If you can’t stand the heat…

Jenna knows Roman has reservations about enjoying the heat between them, but she’s got a plan. She’s going to keep this sexy man so satisfied in—and out—of the kitchen, he won’t regret a thing. But Roman has his own ideas. He wants more than a few hot nights, and he’s going to teach Jenna a lesson about playing with fire.



Title: Seducing the Playboy
Series: Hot Nights
Author: Amanda Usen
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 214 pages
Release Date: May 2014
ISBN: 978-1-62266-326-2
Imprint: Brazen
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.


An Excerpt from:

Seducing the Playboy
by Amanda Usen

Copyright © 2014 by Amanda Usen. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Chapter One

“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—”

“Not possible.”

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.”

Studying her offerings again, he wondered if she understood he was trying to attract celebrities, millionaires, and gourmets. His target customers would not be satisfied with something a PTA mom would whip up for a bake sale. He swallowed the saliva pooling in his mouth. His fingers twitched, and it took a conscious effort to keep from grabbing a cookie. He crossed his arms and sat back in his chair, deciding to humor her. “How do you figure?”

“I sat here in the dining room last night feeling uncomfortable, but not for the reason you probably think. I couldn’t resist a quick trip out to the beach when I got here, and when I sat down at my table, I was a mess.” She giggled and he saw a flash of the mischievous teenager submerged beneath her professional veneer. “I thought your manager was going to have a cow, but she just gritted her teeth and led me to a table with an amazing view of the ocean. Sitting there, I was jealous of the people I could see on the beach, but I doubt a single one of them was jealous of me. No one wandering on the beach would be allowed in here wearing jeans or a bathing suit.” She raised an eyebrow, mocking him. “Taste one. I dare you.”

He forced his hand to move slowly as he picked up a cookie. He took a bite, and it was so good, his eyes slid shut. When he opened them, she was smirking. She picked up a cupcake and turned to face him. His heart skipped a beat, and he waited, wondering what she would do.

She raised it to his lips.

He opened his mouth and took a bite, holding her gaze. Cinnamon teased his memory as his teeth penetrated the cake, firm and filling. Smooth marshmallow cream surprised his tongue. Oats reminded him of mornings in the Cooper kitchen. He took another bite. After he swallowed, he said. “You made an oatmeal cream cupcake.”

“Little Debbie ain’t got nothin’ on me.” Her eyes glowed. “What do most customers say when a server mentions dessert?”

He thought for a moment and then snorted. “Check, please.”

“Exactly. What if your server suggested dessert to go and a walk on the beach? What if one of the desserts was this?” She pressed the hot chocolate into his hand. “Let’s call it the Beach Warmer. It’s windy out there.”

“What about their fancy shoes?” he asked, playing devil’s advocate but already seeing the possibilities.

“They can leave them at the door. Or you can give them some cheap flip-flops with their check. Nobody comes to the beach to get dressed up and eat fancy food, but you’d make a killing if you sold gourmet burgers and exclusive craft beers.”

Something clicked into place inside his mind, and he knew she was right, so right. For the last week he’d been thinking about making the place more casual. This was the perfect way. Amazing what a fresh pair of eyes could bring to the table. His mouth fell open, and she pressed her advantage, popping a bite of cake between his lips. His lips closed over the fork. When the flavor of caramel hit his tongue, he was gone, so gone. “Your mother’s Kentucky Jam Cake?” His voice was rough.

“With salted caramel icing.”

The layers were thin and moist, flavored with clove and nutmeg. It brought to mind Christmases spent at the Cooper house, evoking a sense of belonging, of holidays, and home. It made him want things he couldn’t have. “Not going to work.”

She leaned forward to take a bite of cake, and the deliberate familiarity of sharing a fork made him hard as steel. He froze in place, caught between the desire to take her in his arms and the need to get the hell away before he pinned her to the table.

She chewed slowly, swallowed. “I expect you to tell me why.”

Her thigh brushed his as she shifted her chair a few inches away from the table, breaking his trance and making it possible for him to remember his excuse. “Your desserts are good, but I already told you they aren’t right for the menu.”

“And I told you your menu is a disaster.”

He scoffed. “Fresh out of culinary school and you think you know everything. I know my customers.”

“Roman Gallagher, you are full of crap. I’m right and you know it. I can see it in your eyes. I bet you’ve already rewritten half of your menu while we were sitting here. You’re probably planning to knock out a wall, so you can offer a beachfront walk-up window for truffled garlic fries in a parchment cone with designer ketchup and Kobe beef sliders. Or maybe this.” She handed him the last dessert on the table. “I didn’t have time for ice cream to set, but I think milk shakes would sell like crazy. This one is blackberry and pistachio swirl…with chocolate ganache chips.”

He gritted his teeth. She was right about everything, including the wall. He was going to need to refinish the back deck and buy tables for outside seating, too, but no matter what great ideas she came up with, he couldn’t afford to have her around. “I can’t hire you, Jenna. Not if I knock the wall out. Renovations are expensive.”

She put her hands on her hips. “Roman, you’re loaded. Do you expect me to believe the pile of shit you are shoveling?”

“When did you get such a filthy mouth, Goldilocks?” He knew the childhood nickname would annoy her.

“In kitchens—duh. I can curse in three languages. And don’t call me Goldilocks.”

“Too hot. Too cold. Too salty. Not enough spice,” he teased. “I’m not surprised you hate my menu. Are you as picky as you used to be?”

She looked away for a minute before she said, “It’s not my fault I have good taste, and stop trying to change the subject. You need me.”

“No, sweetheart, I don’t. Even I can make cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies, but I appreciate the consult. I think you’re right about the menu, and you saved me some time and money, both of which I need, regardless of what you might think.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’re going to steal my ideas? I’m not sure whether to be furious or flattered.” Instead of the anger he expected, her voice was thoughtful. “Go right ahead. I love it when cooks try to bake. By the way, I made enough desserts to get you through the night.” She glanced toward the open kitchen, where he saw Max glaring at him from the doorway, probably assuming Roman was trying to escape final prep details.

The front door opened, and they watched the first well-dressed customers of the night mince their way into the dining room. Now that she’d pointed it out, the contrast between the casual setting and the dressed-to-the-nines diners was ridiculous.

She snickered. “I told you so.”

“Shut up.”

“Shut up isn’t nice,” she sing-songed in a dead-on impersonation of her mother.

His heart lurched. It was really good to see her. Maybe he couldn’t hire her, but… “There’s a party on the beach tonight, if you want to come back around eleven. We could catch up on old times.” The words flew out of his mouth before he could stop them.

“Yes. We’ll talk then.” Her smile took his breath away. “It’s a date.”

What the hell did I just do? I can’t be around her.

She stood, and he smelled sugar and cinnamon when she leaned down to press a swift kiss on his cheek. “Enjoy the shake.” She meant the ice cream, but he watched the confident sway of her hips as she headed back into the kitchen. His memory filled in the shape of her perfect ass beneath the boxy chef coat. The low-rise jeans she used to wear had killed him, and the one time he’d seen her in a bathing suit had made it impossible for him to get in the water with her. Stop thinking about Cole’s little sister. But his mind disobeyed, remembering the feel of her body when he hugged her. Firm, but soft, too…stop.

This was just the sort of thing that would get him in trouble. He needed to fix the Beach House and get the hell back to Hollywood and Gallagher Holdings where he belonged. Impatience tightened his nerves, and he blamed it on inactivity. After all, he’d been banished here for a month now, and he’d kept a low profile. No big parties and no famous women to land him in the gossip columns. Actually, that part had been a relief. He didn’t miss the endless chatter and constant photo ops, but he did miss the sex. He stared at the milk shake on the table, knowing he was putting off the inevitable. He had to taste it. It was going to be fantastic, and he was going to have an erection all night.

He picked up the spoon, resigned to his fate, and dug in.

A groan ripped from his throat as the tart, sweet blackberry melded with the nutty pistachios. Of course it had to be pistachios, his favorite. He took another bite, uncovering a chocolate chip the size of a quarter. He dug to reach it, moaning softly under his breath at the sheer goodness coating his tongue. It was an incredible combination, inspiring and invigorating. The blackberry was lively. The pistachio was mysterious. The purple and green looked killer together and the chocolate added just the note of satisfying richness to make it a perfect dessert, his perfect dessert. She’d made this for him. Brat. He might be able to whip up some cookies but Jenna knew damn well he didn’t have time to fool with making homemade ice cream. That’s probably why she’d made it, so she could lord it over him and try to force him to hire her out of sheer gluttony. He’d kill to have one of these milk shakes waiting for him at the end of every shift.

“Enjoying yourself?” Max’s mocking voice brought him out of his reverie. “I could use some help in the kitchen tonight.”

Roman didn’t look up. “Bugger off. I’m busy.”

“I see that.” Max snagged a cookie and took a bite. “Mmm.”

Roman tugged the plate away from him. “Mine.”

“Uh-huh. I gathered that from your territorial behavior toward our newest employee. You all but peed on her leg. Really, bro, I get it. I’ll wait until you’re done with her, but you can at least share her cookies.”

Roman shot to his feet, milk shake in hand.

Max grinned, neatly snagging the plate of cookies from the table. “God, you’re so easy,” he said over his shoulder as he headed back toward the kitchen.

Feeling a little foolish, Roman followed. On the way, he caught the gaze of a server and jerked his head toward the table covered with Jenna’s desserts. “We have new desserts tonight. Make sure everybody tastes them and if you have any questions, ask them in the next fifteen minutes.” From the looks of the rapidly filling dining room, they might actually be busy tonight.

Jenna stalked out the back door of the Beach House and headed for the water. She dropped her toolbox on the sand and ripped her chef coat open. The cloth buttons easily gave way, and she shrugged out of it, dumping it on top of her box as she bent to roll up her checked pants. She stepped out of her clogs and walked toward the ocean.


She’d nailed those desserts. Why had he said no?

She strode back to her toolbox, opened it, and extracted a purloined, parchment-wrapped cupcake. She held it up to her nose. Cinnamon, oats, butter, and the too-sweet scent of marshmallow took nostalgia to a whole new level. She’d been eating an oatmeal cream pie for an afternoon snack when Cole had brought Roman home the first time. They’d slammed through the door, and her mouth had been full. She’d swallowed too quickly, embarrassed to be caught snarfing junk food by the golden god suddenly appearing in her kitchen. Her face had blazed and she’d been sure her freshly erupted chin zit was a swelling beacon of uncoolness. It hadn’t mattered since he’d barely noticed her. They’d shot out the back door, taking the box of treats with them. She heard the bounce of a basketball in the garage, then fading up the street toward the park.

She took a bite of the cupcake, relishing the sweet sting of hopeless love. She’d been blindsided that day and many days thereafter when he’d come home with Cole. She took another bite, evaluating the cake, the streusel, the filling, wondering if it wasn’t quite as good as she had first thought. She found it satisfying in every way—which brought her back to square one. Why hadn’t he offered her a job when her desserts were way better than the crap he was serving on the menu?

She refused to believe it was because of money. He had plenty. More likely he saw her as nothing more than Cole’s little sister instead of an accomplished chef.

Jenna sighed. Maybe professionalism had been the wrong approach altogether. Given his reputation, she should have waltzed in the door wearing nothing but high heels and a smile. Maybe that would have convinced him.

She slid her cell phone out of her pocket and sent a short text to Lila and Betsy, her culinary school soul sisters. Crashed and burned.

The rapid ping of responses made her smile through her tears. She wasn’t as alone as she felt. Lila’s response was typically supportive. Not possible. Betsy, as usual, wanted more information. What happened?

He doesn’t want my desserts. Nothing else to bargain with. Suggestions?

Fresh out. She wasn’t surprised. Lila had her hands full creating a menu for a soon-to-open New York restaurant while torturing the jackass chef as much as possible.

Did you tell him about Cooper’s? Which is what Betsy had been suggesting all along.

He turned me down before I got the chance.

You have to tell him. And then make him an offer he can’t refuse. Naked? Betsy’s response suited her hometown of New Orleans and was curiously in sync with the thought that had just crossed her mind…

This ain’t over yet. I’ll keep you posted.

She tucked her phone into her pocket and lifted her face to the breeze, filling every corner of her lungs with the scent of salt, and wet, living things. The sun was heading for the horizon and the beach had a warm glow. Her spirits lifted as the last rays of the day warmed her face, chest, and arms. In a minute, the breeze would overwhelm the sun, and she’d have to put her jacket back on, but for now, she would revel in the freedom of being far from home and facing the infinity of the ocean. She might be a long way from Lambertville and the banks of the Delaware River, but with her feet rooted in the sand and the endless waves of the Pacific rolling up to kiss her ankles, she felt anything was possible.

She’d been shaken by his refusal, but she wasn’t giving up.

Naked, huh? Her heart fluttered and she bit her lip. She had another opportunity to convince Roman to hire her at the beach party tonight. If she could just get him alone, she could give it another shot…and make damn sure he never thought of her as Cole’s little sister again.