The realization that Jax still affected me so strongly was a jagged pill to swallow. He’d only been part of my life for five short weeks two years ago. But now he was back. Walking into a deal I’d worked hard to close. And God, he was magnificent. His eyes were a brown so dark they were nearly black. Thickly lashed, they were relentless in their intensity. Had I really thought they were soft and warm? There was nothing soft about Jackson Rutledge. He was a hard and jaded man, cut from a ruthless cloth.
In that moment I understood how badly I wanted to unravel the mystery of Jax. Bad enough that I didn’t mind how much it was going to cost me…
Never mix business with pleasure. Never bring politics into the bedroom. In a way I did both when I took Jackson Rutledge as a lover. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
Two years later, he was back. Walking into a deal I’d worked hard to close. Under the tutelage of Lei Yeung, one of the sharpest businesswomen in New York, I had picked up a thing or two since Jax walked away. I wasn’t the girl he once knew, but he hadn’t changed. Unlike the last time we’d drifted into each other’s lives, I knew exactly what I was dealing with… and how addictive his touch could be.
The inner circle of glamour, sex, and privilege was Jax’s playground–but this time, I knew the rules of the game. In the cutthroat business world, one adage rules all: keep your enemies close and your ex-lovers closer…
Sylvia delivers the debut novel from Cosmo Red-Hot Reads from Harlequin, and the first in a provocative duo culminating in Aftershock.
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Afterburn debuts on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Thank you, readers!
It was a breezy fall morning when I entered the mirrored glass skyscraper in midtown Manhattan, leaving the cacophony of blaring horns and pedestrian chatter behind to step into cool quiet. My heels clicked across the dark marble of the massive lobby with a tempo that echoed my racing heart. With damp palms, I slid my ID across the security desk. My nervousness only increased after I accepted my visitors badge and headed to the elevator.
Have you ever wanted something so bad, you couldn’t imagine not having it?
There were two things in my life I’d felt that way about: the man I’d stupidly fallen in love with and the administrative assistant position I was about to interview for.
The man had turned out to be really bad for me; the job could change my life in an amazing way. I couldn’t even think about walking away from the interview without nailing it. I just had this feeling, deep inside me, that working as Lei Yeung’s assistant was what I needed to spread my wings and fly.
Still, despite my inner pep talk, my breath caught when I stepped out onto the tenth floor and saw the smoked-glass entrance to Savor, Inc. The company’s name was emblazoned in a metallic feminine font across the double doors, challenging me to dream big and relish every moment.
Waiting to enter, I studied the number of well-dressed young women sitting around the reception area. Unlike me, they weren’t wearing last season’s styles secondhand. I doubted any of them had held three jobs to help pay for college, either. I was at a disadvantage in nearly every way, but I’d known that and I wasn’t intimidated…much.
I was buzzed through the security doors and took in the café-au-lait walls covered with photos of celebrity chefs and trendy restaurants. There was a faint aroma of sugar cookies in the air, a comforting scent from my childhood. Even that didn’t relax me.
Taking a deep breath, I checked in with the receptionist, a pretty African-American girl with an easy smile, then I stepped away to find a bare place against the wall to stand. Was my scheduled appointment time—for which I was nearly half an hour early—a joke? I soon realized that everyone was set for a brisk five-minute audience, and they were marched in and out precisely on time.
My skin flushed with a light mist of nervous perspiration.
When my name was called, I pushed away from the wall so quickly that I wobbled on my heels, my clumsiness mirroring my shaky confidence. I followed a young, attractive guy down the hall to a corner office with an open, unmanned reception area and another set of double doors that led into Lei Yeung’s seat of power.
He showed me in with a smile. “Good luck.”
As I passed through those doors, I was struck first by the cool modern vibe of the decor, then by the woman who sat behind a walnut desk that dwarfed her. She might’ve been lost in the vast space, with its stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, if not for the striking crimson of her reading glasses, which perfectly matched the stain on her full lips.
I took a moment to really get a good look at her, admiring how the strip of silver hair at her right temple had been artfully arranged into her elaborate updo. She was slender, with a graceful neck and long arms. And when she looked up from my application to consider me, I felt exposed and vulnerable.
She slid her glasses off and sat back. “Have a seat, Gianna.”
I moved across the cream-colored carpet and took one of the two chrome-and-leather chairs in front of her desk.
“Good morning,” I said, belatedly hearing a trace of my Brooklyn accent, which I’d practiced hard to suppress. She didn’t seem to pick up on it.
“Tell me about yourself.”
I cleared my throat. “Well, this spring I graduated magna cum laude from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas—”
“I just read that on your résumé.” She softened her words with a slight smile. “Tell me something I don’t already know about you. Why the restaurant industry? Sixty percent of new establishments fail within the first five years. I’m sure you know that.”
“Not ours. My family has run a restaurant in Little Italy for three generations,” I said proudly.
“So why not work there?”
“We don’t have you.” I swallowed. That was way too personal. Lei Yeung didn’t seem rattled by the gaffe, but I was. “I mean, we don’t have your magic,” I added quickly.
“Yes.” I paused to collect myself. “I have three brothers. They can’t all take over Rossi’s when our dad retires and they don’t want to. The oldest will and the other two…well, they want their own Rossi’s.”
“And your contribution is a degree in restaurant management and a lot of heart.”
“I want to learn how to help them realize their dreams. I want to help other people achieve theirs, too.”
She nodded and reached for her glasses. “Thank you, Gianna. I appreciate you coming in today.”
Just like that, I was dismissed. And I knew I wasn’t going to get the job. I hadn’t said whatever she’d needed to hear to make me the clear-cut winner.
I stood, my mind racing with ways I could turn the interview around. “I really want this job, Ms. Yeung. I work hard. I’m never sick. I’m proactive and forward-thinking. It won’t take me long to anticipate what you need before you need it. I’ll make you glad you hired me.”
Lei looked at me. “I believe you. You juggled multiple jobs while maintaining your honors GPA. You’re smart, determined and not afraid to hustle. I’m sure you’d be great. I just don’t think I’d be the right boss for you.”
“I don’t understand.” My stomach twisted as my dream job slipped away. Disappointment pierced through me.
“You don’t have to,” she said gently. “Trust me. There are a hundred restaurateurs in New York who can give you what you’re looking for.”
I lifted my chin. I used to be proud of my looks, my family, my roots. I hated that I was constantly second-guessing all of that now.
Impulsively, I decided to reveal why I wanted to work with her so badly. “Ms. Yeung, please listen. You and I have a lot in common. Ian Pembry underestimated you, isn’t that right?”
Her eyes blazed with sudden fire at the unexpected mention of her former partner, who’d betrayed her. She didn’t answer.
I had nothing to lose at this point. “There was a man in my life who underestimated me once. You proved people wrong. I just want to do the same.”
She tilted her head to the side. “I hope you do.”
Realizing I’d come to the end of the road, I thanked her for her time and left with as much dignity as I could manage.
As far as Mondays went, that was one of the worst of my life.
“I’m telling you, she’s an idiot,” Angelo said for the second time. “You’re lucky you didn’t get that job today.”
I was the baby of the family, with three big brothers. He was the youngest. His righteous anger on my behalf made me smile despite myself.
“He’s right,” Nico said. The oldest of the Rossi boys—and biggest prankster—bumped Angelo out of the way to set my meal in front of me with a flourish.
I’d chosen to sit at the bar, since Rossi’s was packed as usual, the dinner crowd boisterous and familiar. We had a lot of regulars and often a celebrity or two, incognito, who came here to eat in peace. The comfortable mix was a solid sign of Rossi’s great reputation for warm service and excellent food.
Angelo bumped Nico back with a scowl. “I’m always right.”
“Ha!” Vincent scoffed through the kitchen window, sliding two steaming plates onto the service shelf and ripping the corresponding tickets off their clips. “Only when you’re repeating what I said.”
The ribbing coaxed a reluctant laugh out of me. I felt a hand at my waist the moment before I smelled my mother’s favorite Elizabeth Arden perfume.
Her lips pressed against my cheek. “It’s good to see you smile. Everything happens—”
“—for a reason,” I finished. “I know. It still sucks.”
I was the only one in my family who’d gone to college. It’d been a group effort; even my brothers had pitched in. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d let them all down. Sure there were hundreds of restaurateurs in New York, but Lei Yeung didn’t just turn unknown chefs into name brands, she was a force of nature.
She spoke frequently about women in business and had been featured on a number of midmorning talk shows. She had immigrant parents and had worked her way through school, making a success of herself even after being betrayed by her mentor and partner. Working for her would have been a powerful statement for me.
At least, that’s what I’d told myself.
“Eat your fettuccine before it gets cold,” my mother said, gliding away to greet new patrons coming in.
I forked up a bite of pasta dripping with creamy Alfredo sauce as I watched her. A lot of customers did. Mona Rossi was closer to sixty than fifty, but you’d never know it from looking at her. She was beautiful and flamboyantly sexy. Her violet-red hair was teased just high enough to give it volume and frame a face that was classical in its symmetry, with full lips and dark sloe eyes. She was statuesque, with generous curves and a taste for gold jewelry.
Men and women alike loved her. My mom was comfortable in her skin, confident and seemingly carefree. Very few people realized how much trouble my brothers had given her growing up. She had them well trained now.
Taking a deep breath, I absorbed the comfort around me—the beloved sounds of people laughing, the mouthwatering smell of carefully prepared food, the clatter of silverware meeting china and glasses clinking in happy toasts. I wanted more out of my life, which sometimes made me forget how much I already had.
Nico came back, eyeing me. “Red or white?” he asked, setting his hand over mine and giving a soft squeeze.
He was a customer favorite at the bar, especially with the women. He was darkly handsome, with unruly hair and a wicked smile. A consummate flirt, he had his own fan club, ladies who hung out at the bar for both his great drinks and sexy banter.
“How about champagne?” Lei Yeung slid onto the bar stool next to me, recently vacated by a young couple whose reserved table had opened up.
She smiled at me, looking much younger than she had during our interview, dressed casually in jeans and a pink silk shell. Her hair was down and her face scrubbed free of makeup. “Lots of rave reviews about this place online.”
“Best Italian food ever,” I said, feeling my heartbeat quicken with renewed excitement.
“A lot of them say a great place got even greater over the past couple of years. Am I right in assuming that’s due to you putting into practice things you’ve learned?”
Nico set two flutes in front of us, then filled them halfway with bubbling champagne. “You’re right,” he said, butting in.
Lei caught the stem of her glass and stroked it with her fingers. Her gaze caught mine. Nico, who was good at knowing when to disappear, moved down the bar.
“To get back to what you said…” she began. I started to cringe, then straightened up. Lei Yeung hadn’t made a special trip just to berate me. “Ian underestimated me, but he didn’t take advantage of me. Blaming him would give him too much credit. I left the door open and he walked through it.”
I nodded. The exact circumstances of their split were private, but I’d inferred a lot from the reports in industry magazines and filled in the rest from gossip columns and blogs. Together they’d had a culinary empire comprised of a stable of celebrity chefs, several restaurant chains, a line of cookbooks and affordable cookware that sold in the millions. Then Pembry had announced the launch of a new chain of eateries bankrolled by A-list actors and actresses—but Lei hadn’t been part of that.
“He taught me a lot,” she went on. “And I’ve come to realize he got as much out of that as I did.” She paused, thoughtful. “I’m getting too used to myself and the way I’ve always done things. I need fresh eyes. I want to feed off someone else’s hunger.”
“You want a protégée.”
“Exactly.” Her mouth curved. “I didn’t realize that until you pointed it out. I knew I was looking for something, but I couldn’t say what it was.”
I was totally thrilled but kept my tone professional. I swiveled toward her. “I’m in, if you want me.”
“Forget about normal hours,” she warned. “This isn’t a nine-to-five gig. I’ll need you on weekends, and I might call in the middle of the night…. I work all the time.”
“I won’t complain.”
“I will.” Angelo came up behind us. All the Rossi sons had figured out who I was talking to and, as usual, none of them were shy. “I need to see her every once in a while.”
I elbowed him. We shared a sprawling, half-finished loft apartment in Brooklyn—all three of my brothers, me and Angelo’s wife, Denise. Most of the time we bitched about seeing one another too often.
Lei thrust out her hand and introduced herself to Nico and Angelo, then to my mom, who had wandered back over to see what the fuss was about. My dad and Vincent gave shout-outs through the service window. A menu was set in front of Lei, along with a basket of fresh bread and olive oil imported from a small farm in Tuscany.
“How’s the panna cotta?” Lei asked me.
“You’ll never have better,” I replied. “Have you already had dinner?”
“Not yet. Lesson number one—life’s too short. Don’t put off the good stuff.”
I bit on my lower lip to hold back a grin. “Does that mean I got the job?”
She held up her flute with a brisk nod. “Cheers.”
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