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  Jacob moved through the cafeteria toward the locker room. There he received a few whistles and catcalls, and when he got close to his locker, he saw why.

  A pair of black satin panties hung off the lock.

  “Another thong.” Jon, one of the doormen, stood at the locker next to Jacob’s, changing for his shift. He was young, in his early twenties, and staring at the panties as if they were a choice cut New York steak. “It must be two times a week you get them,” he said, bemused. “All I ever get is dumped.”

  Jacob gingerly removed the thong and tossed it to him. “Merry Christmas.”

  “Seriously, Chef, I want to know.” Jon looked down at the satin in his hands. “What’s your trick? I mean you get phone numbers, presents…give up the secret, man.”

  Jacob opened his locker and said nothing. There was nothing to say. After all, he didn’t purposely do anything to gain women’s attention—it just happened. A lot. He’d enjoyed it far more when he’d been young and stupid, when he’d happily worked his way through the line of women that had come his way.

  He still enjoyed a woman’s touch, her scent, her body, her everything, but lately, something had changed. He didn’t seem to have quite the same patience for the game.

  Was he getting old at thirty-four? Scary thought.

  “I mean, I’ve done everything right,” Jon said. “I call a woman when I say I’m going to. I listen to her ramble on and on and on. I take her dancing. I sweet-talk her.”

  Jacob grabbed his gear, shut his locker and then looked at Jon. “I’m going to sound like a first-class ass here, but the truth is…no. Never mind.”

  “Tell me. Whatever it is, I can do it.”

  “Okay, but listen. I should add a disclaimer here. I really don’t recommend—”

  “Dude. Just tell me.”

  “You’re trying too hard.”

  The kid stared at Jacob. “Huh?”

  “I know.” Jacob lifted his hands. “It doesn’t make any sense, but women seem to go for the guy who steps all over them, a guy who doesn’t call, doesn’t listen—”

  “That’s your secret?” Jon asked in disbelief. “Treat them like shit?”

  Jacob shrugged. “I didn’t say I condone it. I’m just giving you my observation.”

  “Wow.” The young doorman stared down at the panties in his hands. “Wow.”

  Jacob patted his shoulder and took the stairs back to the main level, entering the leaded glass doors of Amuse Bouche from the lobby.

  Fresh flowers had been put out, as they were every day, making the place look warm and welcoming, and casually elegant. Unlike anywhere else, he never tired of being here, of the familiar black tables and funky black chairs bathed in the soft pink light, the gorgeous art deco paintings on the walls.

  Inside his kitchen, he did as he always did—took a moment to survey his domain, the best money could buy in both design and appliances. No complaints here, either. The place had been cleaned during the wee hours of the night, to a spotless, disinfected, lemony-smelling shine that he never failed to marvel at. He could probably serve his food right here on this floor. Hell, he could probably serve out of their trash bin and still pass code, the place was so immaculate.

  He marveled at that, too. There had been years when he would have happily eaten off this floor, or gone through the trash for scraps to fill his aching belly. Long, lean times, his growing-up years.

  And now here he was, sous-chef of all things, reporting only to the executive chef who showed up on-site maybe once a week, leaving Jacob to handle the day-to-day operation of the place.

  A slow, satisfied smile crossed his face. Not bad for a street urchin who’d grown up wild and feral, who’d wandered his way across the South in his youth, living hand to mouth, lucky to have a shirt on his back half the time. God, he’d been such a little shit, a real know-it-all. The one time that social services had managed to get hold of him, their diagnosis had been attachment disorder, which had cracked him up. Attachment disorder, bullshit. He could have attached. He’d just chosen not to.

  Still did.

  In any case, it was true that Amuse Bouche was everything he once would have scoffed at: posh and sophisticated, valuing quality over quantity. Odd then how very happy he was here, when his surroundings were far more elegant than he could ever be.

  Ah, well. There it was. And eventually, he knew, the wanderlust would take over, as it always did, and he’d shrug and move on, never looking back.

  But for now, things were pretty damn fine. He had all this incredible space, with the best equipment available, and the freshest ingredients money could buy. In a couple of hours’ time the dining area would be filled with people wanting to taste his food. His.

  Yeah, not too shabby, for a hard-ass punk kid from Podunk.

  He moved toward the three industrial-grade refrigerators, thinking there were two things worth doing well in life. Both required passion, concentration and skill, and both gave him great pleasure: cooking and seducing a woman. Combining ingredients to create a masterpiece had always been a great source of entertainment. In the same way that the weather changed, without rhythm or plan, he liked to adjust his menu.

  Women were no different. Same as a good recipe, they were meant to be played with, thoroughly explored, and devoured, but would undoubtedly spoil if kept too long.

  So he never kept anything too long.

  It simply wasn’t in his nature. It was why he held the sous-chef position instead of executive chef, which he could have had if he wanted.

  He didn’t want.

  He liked keeping his options open, liked keeping one foot out the door, liked knowing he could pack up and go at a moment’s notice.

  Hell, he didn’t even have to pack if he wanted, he had nothing that couldn’t be replaced in another town, another restaurant.

  But for now, for right this very minute, Hush was a good place to be. A very good place. He smiled as he remembered the episode in the elevator, with his pretty stranger and her mind-blowing kiss.

  “What are you grinning about?” This came from Pru as she entered into the kitchen behind him. She was Amuse Bouche’s sommelier. The wine expert position fit his friend to a tee, given that she was a complete snob and had been since her first day here, even though, like Jacob, she’d arrived in New York with only the clothes on her back.

  But she was extremely sharp-witted, and never failed to amuse him. They’d bonded immediately, of course, recognizing kindred spirits. The two pretenders, they called themselves.

  Oddly enough, they hadn’t slept together.

  A first for Jacob, being friends with a woman, not lovers. But though Pru, with her curvy, lush body, creamy porcelain skin and startlingly blue eyes, was exactly his type on paper, in reality she batted for another team entirely.

  An all-girl team.

  After the initial disappointment, Jacob hadn’t cared. He liked her, and that in itself was enough of a novelty that he put up with her less attractive traits—such as the one that made her get some sick enjoyment out of constantly trying to set him up with “the one.”

  The one. Why did there have to be just one?

  “Do I need a reason to be grinning?” he asked.

  “Yeah, when you’re smirking like that.” Pru studied him thoughtfully, her dark brown hair carefully contained in some complicated braid. “You’re thinking about sex.”

  He laughed. Caught. “Why do you always assume that?”

  “Because guys think about sex 24/7. You’re probably thinking about that poor woman you accosted in the elevator.”

  “I didn’t accost her.” Nope, after a brief startled moment on her part, she’d kissed him back. Quite eagerly.

  “Who was she?”

  A stranger, one who happened to be at the right place at the right time. A stranger by whom, for those sixty or so seconds, he’d been transfixed. As for who she was, he had no idea. He could have found out, of course, but it had been just a kiss.