On the Steamy Side
Lower East Side, Manhattan
“I’ve got fantastic news! Prepare to congratulate yourself, yet again, on having the intelligence, and the money, to hire me.”
Devon Sparks squinted through the dark miasma of illegal cigarette smoke and the humid press of sweaty, raucous bar patrons to see his publicist, Simon Woolf, wrinkle his nose and give the stool beside Devon’s a swipe with a cocktail napkin before perching on it.
“You look uncomfortable, Si,” Devon drawled, amused. “You disapprove of my taste in dive bars?”
Devon caught Simon’s derisive sneer as he looked around the dingy, smoke-filled underground room. Propping his elbows on the scarred oak bar, Devon cocked his head and watched his personal publicity shark move his ever-present PDA fussily out of the way of a few crumbs scattered around the bowls of bar mix, popcorn, and wasabi peas.
Simon ought to see the place when the real after-hours crowd came out—kitchen crews coming off service, off-duty cops, and ER docs mixed with punk musicians and the avant-garde theater crowd.
Holding himself rigid to keep from brushing elbows with any of his fellow bar patrons, many of them pierced and tattooed and leathered up, Simon didn’t appear to appreciate the democratic nature of the scene.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t have met at your place.” Simon’s aggrieved tone had Devon rolling his eyes and holding up a hand to the bartender. Christian was an old friend, ex-employee, actually. He’d know what to fix Simon.
“Order something,” Devon told him. “You look like you could use it. And you know exactly why we’re meeting here.” Devon had just finished a grueling season of the fucking show, culminating in a week-long shoot at a chain fondue restaurant where no fewer than seven idiot servers spilled molten cheese or chocolate on him. “I’m fucking exhausted, and I wanted a drink.”
A silky note of malicious amusement threaded through Devon’s tone as he continued, “and you agreed because it’s your job to do whatever the hell I say.”
After the week he’d had, it was a balm to Devon’s soul to be back in the position of dealing with underlings who could be relied upon to twist themselves into pretzels to avoid pissing him off.
The premise of Devon’s show was that he would go into unfamiliar professional kitchens for a single night and cook any type of food, for any size restaurant, with tools and a staff he’d never worked with before. The tag line of the show was Anything you can do, he can do better.
The producers had sent him all over the place, from banquet halls serving shrimp cocktail to hundreds of guests, to tiny, hole-in-the-wall corner joints. It was the Cooking Channel’s top-rated program, watched by millions across the country. It was big enough to have spawned a series of spoof sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”
The fact that Devon was sick to death of it was his dirty little secret.
“No, it’s my job to keep you in the superstar stratosphere to which you’ve become accustomed,” Simon corrected, peering suspiciously at the martini glass Christian set before him. “What is this?” he asked, taking a tiny sip. Which turned into a longer guzzle. “Hey, it’s actually not bad.”
“Not bad,” Devon snorted. “Hey, Chris, you hear that?”
The bartender cut his dark gaze to Devon, straight, hippie-length brown hair swinging against his shoulders.
“I sure did, and boy, do I ever thank him for the kind words,” Christian drawled, tipping an imaginary cowboy hat to Simon. Devon wasn’t sure his publicist caught the sardonic edge Chris gave to the gesture.
Simon took another sip, brows drawn in concentration. “It’s clear like a martini, but it has a more complicated flavor, something I can’t place.”
Devon sat back on his barstool. This ought to be good.
“White peppercorn-infused vodka, junipero gin, dry vermouth, ouzo, and a dash of white crème de menthe. I call it a Fuck Off & Die.” Christian smiled, wide and insincere, before moving off down the bar to take another order.
Simon gaped after him for a moment, then shrugged, and took another drink. Devon sniggered into his glass of straight Kentucky bourbon—yeah, it was that kind of night—and Simon gave him a cross look. “What? It tastes better than it sounds.”
“It would have to,” Devon said. “Come on, spill. What’s so important you braved the perils of the Lower East Side to come and meet me? I know you’re not here for Adam’s going away party.”
If there were anyone Devon considered a friend, it was his former executive chef, Adam Temple. The other reason Devon had chosen Chapel for his post-shoot decompression was that Adam and his one true love were about to leave the country for an extended vacation. Tonight was Adam’s big sendoff. There was an outside chance it would be amusing.
Simon shook his head. “Right, my news. Are you ready?”
Devon raised a sardonic brow. “This better be the fabulous news you think it is, Si.”
In the past, they hadn’t always been in complete agreement on what constituted a wonderful career move for Devon. But then, Simon’s single-minded intensity of purpose was his biggest recommendation as a PR guy, so Devon supposed he shouldn’t complain.
Looking a little apprehensive—and why wouldn’t he? Devon had more than earned his reputation for intolerance of incompetence both in and out of the kitchen—Simon cleared his throat. “Well. We should’ve asked that rude bartender if he stocks champagne behind the bar. Although, really, what are the odds? We’ll have to celebrate without the champers. You’ll love this! Here, take a look.” With a flourish, he produced a copy of Restaurant USA, a magazine that reported on news and trends in the food industry.
Devon took it and flipped idly through the first few pages. “What? Looks like the standard stats and stories to me. “Fewer Families Dining Out.” “Spain is the New France.” What do I care about that?”
Simon grabbed the magazine back and turned to a dog-eared page Devon hadn’t noticed.
“There,” he said, pointing a triumphant finger at the headline.
Devon squinted at the page and felt his blood congeal to the consistency and temperature of gelato.
“Cooking Channel Superstar Named #1 Chain Restaurant Operator.”
Was that weak bleat Devon’s voice?
“You bet,” Simon beamed. “The Sparks brand beat out every fast food chain in the country. They graded on profitability and name recognition, and you won!”
“Oh, God, there’s art with it,” Devon moaned, snatching the magazine out of Simon’s hand. There beside the article was one of Devon’s publicity stills. Devon stared at his intense blue eyes, his artfully tousled dark brown hair, the seductive expression on the face that had landed him at #23 on that big list of Top Fifty Hottest Men.
Then his gaze drifted to the right and landed on the maniacally grinning white-painted face of the beloved red-haired, yellow-jumpsuit-clad icon.
“You don’t look happy, Dev.”
Was that a hint of nerves Devon detected in his publicist’s voice?
It sure as shit better be.
“Not happy? I’m sharing the limelight with a fucking clown. I beat out the king, the colonel, and the little girl with the red braids. Wait till everyone I know sees this. They’re going to laugh their asses off! Simon. Christ. You’re supposed to be the best publicist in the city—that’s why I hired you. How could you let this happen?”
“This is a good thing,” Simon, ever the Spin Master, protested. He snatched the magazine back and snapped it shut, as if by covering up the evidence he’d derail the head of steam Devon was building up. “When people visit New York, or Miami, or Vegas, they want to eat at a Devon Sparks restaurant! You’re the go-to guy. This survey proves your effectiveness as a brand.”
“What if I don’t want to be a goddamn brand?” Devon shouted, uncaring of the heads that turned or the voices that began whispering.
Shouting felt good. He hadn’t let loose in a while. “I’m a serious chef, or at least I used to be. A real chef would be humiliated by this so-called honor. My restaurants serve haute cuisine, for Christ’s sake, cutting-edge molecular gastronomy. Not burgers and chicken nuggets! I’m going to be a laughingstock.”
“Now, Dev,” Simon said in the soothing tones reserved for lunatics and hysterical children. “You’re making too much of this. It’s not like this story is going to get picked up by the news media or anything. Restaurant USA is a trade pub; no one even reads it. Do you read it? I never read it. The girl at the office goes through and flags anything with your name, that’s the only reason we even know you’re in this issue—that’s how under the radar Restaurant USA is.”
Devon gritted his teeth against the urge to reach across the bar for a bottle to bean Simon with.
Just then the bar door opened, distracting Devon from his homicidal thoughts and admitting a swirl of laughing, shouting people. Giving them a quick glance, Devon stiffened. He knew them. Christ, he’d employed half of them at one point or another. The New York culinary world was not unlike major league baseball—there was a finite number of talented players, and the biggest managers traded them back and forth.
“Hey, Sparks,” one of them called out. “Congratulations on the chain, man. Should we start calling you Ronald?” And the crowd erupted in laughter.
“You know who reads trade publications, Simon? People in the fucking trade. That’s who. My peers. My friends. My goddamn employees.” He gestured at the crowd and lowered his voice. “This so-called ‘honor’ will be proof —to them that I’ve sold out, lost myself, ransomed my soul to the capitalist gods.”
That I’m not a real chef, and never will be again.
The worst part? Devon was starting to think they might be right.
“Whoa, enough with the drama,” Simon protested, nerves pitching his voice high and grating. “That Restaurant USA piece isn’t worth all this, Dev, come on.”
Devon stared at his PR manager. “Shit. You pitched the magazine, didn’t you? The whole thing was your idea.”
As soon as he said it, Devon knew he was right. It was exactly Simon’s style, aggressive and bold, heedless of the cost.
“Who, me?” Something in Devon’s face must have registered how much he wasn’t buying what Simon was selling, because the guy held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay! Maybe I did pitch them the chain thing. I thought it would be cool, show how successful you are! Success breeds success, Dev, you know that. I definitely never thought you’d get this bent out of shape about it.”
“You never think,” Devon said, his throat so full of hot anger he could hardly force the words out. “You just push and push, and you don’t fucking think about what kind of shit you’re pushing me into. Because I’m the one that has to swim in it, not you. Well, no more. I’m done eating what you shovel, Simon. You’re fired.”
Horror flashed in Simon’s eyes, and the denials and cajoling started at once, but Devon had zero trouble tuning them out. All he felt was a bone-deep sense of relief.
It wouldn’t fix everything, but it was a start.
“You can’t do that,” Simon protested, aghast.
Devon bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. “Haven’t you heard the hype? I can do anything.”
“I wrote that hype!” Now Simon was shouting, too, his purple cheeks clashing with the deep brown of his Zegna suit and the artful highlights in his dirty blond hair.
“What are you going to do,” Devon asked, grinning. “Sue me for copyright infringement? Give it up, Sy, it’s over.”
“We’ll see about that,” Simon said, clambering down from the bar stool. “I’ve worked hard for you, Dev, you know I have. And now that things are finally coming together, now that you’re finally living the life you said you wanted—you’re going to throw it all away? And for what? No, I refuse to accept it. I’m leaving now. I’m going to give you some time to think about this before one of us says something he’ll regret.”
“Don’t hold your breath expecting me to change my mind.”
Spittle flew from Simon’s mouth. “I’m Simon Woolf. I don’t sit around hoping for things to happen, I make them happen. I made you!”
Simon threw his arms wide, forgetting about the cocktail still sitting on the bar. The drama of his exit was heightened considerably by the shattering martini glass and spray of Fuck Off & Die all over the woman standing behind him.
The woman, unsurprisingly, squawked in unhappy surprise as several ounces of chilled liquor cascaded over the back of her head.
“What on God’s green earth?” the woman sputtered, the words thick and smoky with the cadence of the south. Her brown ringlets dripped with Simon’s cocktail.
Devon got a brief glimpse of bright green eyes and round, pink cheeks before she turned on Simon, hands on curvy hips, sneaker-clad toe tapping.
“Do you mind?” Simon snarled. “We were in the middle of a private discussion.”
Even viewed in partial profile, Devon was impressed by the expression of affronted shock that came over her face. Holy shit, Devon though, Simon better run.
A fizzy feeling of intoxication better than anything he’d ever found at the bottom of a bottle was still coursing through Devon’s veins. He was riding high on life, grooving on the idea of having his life back, not being indentured to the producers and DPs and makeup artists, and oh yes, publicists required by the show. He was nearly perfectly happy right now to sit back and watch the bonus surprise floor show.
“I most certainly do mind,” the woman informed Simon with icy civility. “Maybe you didn’t notice, sir, but you just doused me with your drink.”
Vibrating with anger, Simon looked around and pointed to a stack of cocktail napkins halfway down the bar. “There. You’re closer to them than I am. Now, Dev, as I was saying . . .”
The woman interrupted Simon once more by tapping him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said to Devon. “I hate to interrupt, but I need to speak with your friend, here.”
Simon glared at him in an angry appeal for help, but Devon spread his hands wide and said, “How can I deny such a polite request?”
The woman turned those glowing green eyes on Devon for the first time. One white, long-fingered hand swept the dark brown curls off her forehead and revealed a fresh-scrubbed, pink-cheeked face. The face wasn’t so much beautiful as it was interesting. Her chin was too pointed, her dark brows a touch too heavy for her face, and her skin was too pale, making her brilliant green eyes appear almost startling. This woman spent zero time at the spa getting buffed, plucked, and tanned. She looked nothing like the perfect, sophisticated women he usually dated, models and socialites and actresses, but there was something compelling about her, some mysterious allure in her sweet, wide-eyed gaze that kept Devon’s attention.
Even when he knew, instinctively and immediately, that she was way too nice for him.
“Thank you,” she said in that husky voice that somehow carried over all the combined chatter and hubbub of the crowded bar. “You’ve restored my faith in Yankee mothers—I was starting to think none of you boys up here had any home training whatsoever.”
Too nice, maybe, Devon amended silently, but she was no fragile flower.
An opinion confirmed when she poked one stiff finger into Simon’s chest and faced him down like a scrappy terrier. “You, however, ought to be ashamed. What would your momma think if she saw you treating a woman this way? Hmm? Throwing a tantrum like a little baby and soaking my shirt, which is probably ruined now, and all you can do is point out some nappies? Which is about as useful as a pogo stick in quicksand.”
Simon smoothed back his sandy hair, tightened his tie, and tried for a charming smile. He held out one of his embossed ecru business cards.
“Please feel free to send the dry cleaning bill to my secretary.”
“No, thank you, that won’t be necessary,” she said with a disdainful sniff.
“Then what do you want?”
The woman gave Simon a look that bordered on pitying. “Merciful heavens, you really don’t know, do you? An apology.”
Devon leaned one elbow on the bar, getting a certain amount of perverse pleasure out of watching the slippery bastard wriggle.
Finally, through white lips and gritted teeth, Simon gathered enough of his customary sangfroid to choke out an unconvincing, “I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience. I’d just received a shock,” here Devon got another glower, “and wasn’t as careful as I might have been.
“Apology accepted,” the woman said graciously.
Simon managed a smile, then rescued his PDA from the bar, dusting it off compulsively and lovingly. Waggling it at Devon, Simon said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
He’d vanished into the throng standing three-deep by the bar before Devon could assure him he wouldn’t be changing his mind.
“Your friend could use a refresher course in manners.”
Devon looked back at the brunette. The shirt she’d been so incensed about was fit only for a consignment shop, as far as Devon could tell—brown and purple stripes in some dull fabric that looked scratchy. But when she plucked at the back of it, screwing her face up in distress at the cold cling of wet fabric, the front molded to high, generous breasts and a gently curved waist.
She glanced up and caught him looking, and the spark that struck when their eyes met was hot enough to ignite the alcohol she was drenched in.
Not at all his usual type, Devon thought. Then again, he’d just told the guy who made him famous to go take a flying leap.
Clearly, today was a day for embracing the unusual.
All of Lilah’s sass and bravado dried up under the scorching heat of this man’s eyes.
She swallowed, the clicking sound of her throat loud in her ears, and tried to remember what she’d been saying.
A trickle of moisture down her spine brought her back to herself.
Right. Rude friend, itsy bitsy altercation where timid, spineless Lolly let new, improved Lilah out to play, and the whole while, this one lounging back on his barstool, watching with a lazy smirk and the most intense ice-blue eyes she’d ever seen.
Now Mr. Rude was gone, and evidently he took Lilah’s gumption with him, because she was blinking at the vision of masculine perfection before her like he was the first bunny ever to hop into her briar patch.
And was he ever a hot one. Like, movie star hot, with the sardonic charm and sexy smile to match. Artfully tousled brown hair, knife-blade cheekbones, and a pair of eyes the same color blue as a blazing summer sky. And those eyes were trained on her like a bird dog with a duck in its sights.
Lilah wasn’t too used to being the focus of anyone’s attention. For most of her life, she’d tended to fade into the background, especially around extra beautiful people like this man.
Even her decidedly unglamorous and average-in-every-way ex-boyfriend took years to notice Lilah existed. Humiliating, considering they both taught at the same high school.
The man before her lifted his drink and gestured at the clammy shirt sticking to her skin. “That looks uncomfortable.”
Why are you still talking to me?
“Yeah,” Lilah said, fanning the fabric and trying to encourage air movement. “I don’t know about dry cleaning, but it could sure use a run through the wash. Me, too, I guess! I don’t know what the heck was in that drink, but I’m all sticky.”
Those intense blue eyes flashed darker, and he arched a brow. “What you need is a long, hot shower.”
Breathing fast and not really sure why, Lilah took momentary refuge in glancing around the bar for Grant. Her longtime best friend and brand new roomie had abandoned her upon arrival at Chapel. His boss and good buddy was about to leave for two weeks, so they were having some kind of goodbye boys’ pow-wow Lilah hadn’t really felt comfortable crashing.
“I don’t know where my friend has got to,” she said. “Or I’d head on home and hop straight in the bath.”
“You don’t want to go home alone?” His voice was like rough silk.
Lilah shivered, then laughed at herself. “I just moved here; I wouldn’t bet two nickels on my ability to navigate my way back to the apartment on my own.”
He smirked a little. Lilah had never much cared for smirking, but this guy had it down pat.
“In fact, I had divined that you were not from these parts,” he said. “You don’t hear a lot of pretty southern drawls like yours up here in the heart of Yankee territory.”
Lilah hoped it was too dim inside the bar for him to see her blush. “Well. When they were handing out the charm, you must’ve gotten all yours plus your friend’s portion, too.”
He smiled at her, sparkly, even white teeth bright against his tanned skin.
Lilah grinned back. She felt a little like Jane Russell trading barbs with Cary Grant. Was this bantering? She’d always wanted to banter! It was every bit as stimulating as she’d imagined.
He seemed to like it, too, because he was unfolding himself from his barstool and sauntering over to her, every move imbued with lithe grace. He came close enough to whisper in her ear. His breath was warm where it fanned through the curls at her temple.
“If you’re ready to get out of here, you want to come home with me? I’ll let you use my shower. I promise it’ll be good and hot.”
Holy cats, was this really happening?
Five days ago, Lilah was stuck in a boring town with her boring ex, teaching Shakespeare to a bunch of bored teenagers.
Lilah blinked hard to clear her eyes. Yep, still standing in a dingy, underground Lower East Side dive with the handsomest man she’d ever seen live and in person cooing unmistakably indecent—and undeniably enticing—proposals in her ear.
Moving to Manhattan might have been the smartest thing she ever did.
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