All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel) (9 page)

BOOK: All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel)
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Oh, God, the sight of Nick Brennan still grabbed the breath right from her lungs.
“Hi.” For a second, he just stood there on the threshold of the door he’d swung open, staring at her with those dark, brooding eyes so at odds with the extravagant lashes framing them. His lean, muscular frame fit perfectly beneath his white T-shirt,
his broken-in jeans slung over his hips like they’d been born there, and just like that, Ava’s pulse surged with speed and heat.
“It’s freezing out there. Come on in,” he continued, his gaze detaching from hers to do a quick sweep of the periphery over her shoulder. She turned to mimic the movement, her common sense finally barreling back into place.
“Are reporters bothering you here too?”
she asked, swinging forward to follow him into the tiny foyer.
“No. I’m not listed, and none of them got ballsy enough to follow me home from work. At least, none that I know of.” He tilted his head toward the hallway, his shower-damp hair falling in an infuriatingly sexy tousle that would look sloppy on nearly anyone else. “But thanks for meeting me here. Reporters aside, Pine Mountain’s grapevine
is kind of notorious. I figured this way, we’d have a better shot at privacy.”
The idea skittered down Ava’s spine as she followed him further inside, but she kicked it back with a deep breath. Nick was her source. She was here for the story, period. “I don’t mind. It’s your interview, so you should be comfortable. Plus, coming to Pine Mountain gave me a chance to visit my brother.”
Nick’s
cross-trainers squeaked to a stop in front of his open-air kitchen. “Your brother lives here?”
“He runs the bakery on Main Street,” Ava said over a nod. She slipped a covert gaze around the small but tidy kitchen. Becoming a reporter had taught her to gather information from even the smallest details. Nick’s kitchen was sparse enough to offer the bare minimum—mostly clear Formica countertops,
small breakfast table with two sturdy chairs by the window, one house plant that had seen far better days—but the realization sent a wash of heat through her belly.
Ava would bet her annual salary he lived alone. Double or nothing he spent most of his time at the Double Shot rather than at home. His dishwasher still had the plastic protective covering on the push buttons, for God’s sake.
“Oh.” Nick delivered the word with a healthy dose of surprise. “I’ve been pretty busy at work. I haven’t had a chance to go down there and try it out yet.”
“Wow, that bar must do a ton of business then. The Sweet Life has been open for a year and a half,” she said, unable to keep the smile out of her words. Even though Pete had lived in Pine Mountain pretty much in name only until he’d met Lily
and they’d opened the bakery together, the town was more tightly knit than a trunk full of sweaters. Most of the locals definitely knew him now.
Of course, Nick didn’t seem to be like most locals. In fact, Ava didn’t know anyone who worked as much as he appeared to.
Present company excluded, anyway.
“Yeah.” He shrugged, shoulder muscles tightening beneath his white T-shirt as he pulled out
one of the chairs at the kitchen table for Ava before turning to sit across from her. “We did a huge street fair about six months ago, and added a new head chef. The Double Shot has been pretty popular since then.”
“Oh, right.” Recognition pricked at Ava’s memory. “I heard about that street fair on the radio. My friend Layla said it was a blast, actually.”
“But you didn’t come down from Riverside,”
Nick said, settling back against his padded seat cushion to look at her.
“No.” She’d felt guilty for two days about faking the headache that had gotten her off the hook from attending, but it had been better than telling Layla the ugly truth.
A street fair run by a local bar and sponsored by an up-and-coming brewery equaled the sixth level of hell for the daughter of abusive alcoholics.
“So you’ve worked at the Double Shot for two years.” Ava laced her fingers together, pressing the sides of her hands over the cool wood of the table, but Nick’s unexpected smile caught her completely by surprise.
“You’re pretty good at steering conversation. Changing the subject, that kind of thing.”
“I’m not changing the subject,” she said, hoping the burn on her face didn’t equal a visible
blush.
Nick snorted, but his smile didn’t fade. “And now you’re buying time.”
“I’m making small talk,” she argued, although she had to fight the urge to squirm. How the hell could he read her so clearly after seven freaking years?
“Gotta hand it to you, it’s a subtle tactic. Probably part of what makes you a good reporter.”
Shock barged through Ava’s veins. “How do you know I’m a good
reporter?”
“Because you keep asking all the questions.”
“You mean the ones you’re not answering?”
She clamped her mouth shut, a second too late, but to her surprise, Nick looked far from annoyed at her brash response.
“Touché,” he said slowly, borrowing a page from her buying-time playbook. “I offered you the story on the fire. It only seemed smart to read up on your past work.”
Oh God,
he was serious. “You’ve read my articles?”
“The online archives aren’t too difficult to access with a subscription to the
Daily
. Nice coverage of the Turnip Festival, by the way. I think it was your best piece.”
Indignant heat snapped in her chest, launching a retort on a direct path from her brain to her lips, but she caught the words just short of delivery. The scowl she’d grown accustomed
to was suspiciously absent from Nick’s face, having been traded in for a black-coffee stare that pinned her with something softer and wide open.
Nick wasn’t being hurtful or looking down at her. He was being honest.
“Um, thank you.” Ava managed to layer a smile over her surprise. “I take all my stories seriously. Telling them well is important to me.”
The corners of Nick’s mouth lifted just
enough beneath his dark goatee to form a slow and sexy half smile that traveled directly to Ava’s belly.
“Guess I picked the right person for the exclusive then.”
“I’m glad you feel that way.” She held on to their eye contact even though it did nothing to dissipate the heat brewing between her hips, and oh God, she wanted his mouth on hers. His hands, strong and callused and oh so capable,
were only inches away on the table, close enough for Ava to feel the heat of them on her fingers. It would take a bare flick of her wrist, just a small hint of movement, and her hands could be on his, tugging him forward, eliminating the space between them in less than a breath.
Her rational voice served up a stern reminder that she needed to say something, to sit up straight in her chair and
work this story like a professional. But then Nick leaned forward, his gorgeous dark brown eyes dropping to her lips, and both the story and her professionalism were the last things on Ava’s mind.
Chapter Nine
Brennan was going straight to hell if he didn’t get a handle on himself and dig up some control right fucking
now
.
“Are you hungry? I can make lunch,” he blurted, clearing his throat as he shifted back from the table with an awkward
thump.
Christ, he was the worst sort of idiot, but if he didn’t change the subject and reboot the rational part of his brain, then he was going to
pull Ava right out of her chair and kiss her into next week.
And if he kissed her once, he was going to make up for all that lost time by kissing her again. And again. Everywhere.
Without even leaving the kitchen.
“Oh. Um, sure,” Ava said, yanking her hand over the table to straighten the already even hem of her sweater. “What can I do to help?”
“Well, it’s not glamorous, but I’ve got
some stuff for sandwiches.” Brennan sent up a silent prayer of gratitude for a task to keep his mind busy and his dick from doing any independent thinking, then another that he’d had the foresight to stop at the market in Riverside after his PT session this morning. “There’s bread in the cupboard over there.”
“Got it.” Her boots clacked softly over the scuffed but clean floor, covering the space
in a handful of strides. He moved around her, pulling some turkey and a container of coleslaw from the fridge, and damn, it felt a little too natural to have Ava in his space.
Food. Plates. Breathe.
“You mentioned your sisters the other night. How are they all doing?” Ava asked, and although the question took him by complete surprise, his answer flowed out with unexpected ease.
“They’re
good. Carrie, Jill, and Marissa all live in Fairview with their husbands, and I’ve got three nieces and a nephew between them. Ellie went rogue and moved a whopping ten minutes away to South Valley. She’s getting married on Christmas Day.”
“Are you kidding me?” Ava placed the bread on the counter between them with a laugh, slipping by him to wash her hands at the sink. “The last time I saw her
she was still in high school. How is she old enough to get married?”
Brennan lifted his hands in a nonverbal version of
you got me
, trying to focus on the food in front of him rather than the memory of the weekend Ellie had come to visit Sapphire Island seven years ago. Of course, Ellie had loved Ava nearly as much as Brennan had.
“I have no idea,” he said, falling in behind her to wait for
a turn at the sink. “But apparently it’s going to be the event of the holiday season. Her fiancé is an attorney with the biggest firm in Fairview and he just made partner, so they’re socially obligated to invite half the planet.”
Because going back to Fairview and seeing his family in person for the first time in two years wasn’t going to be hard enough. At least with all the focus on Ellie
and Josh, Brennan would be able to stick to the shadows until he could get back to Pine Mountain.
The spotlight in Fairview hadn’t liked him the first time around. And God knew he’d learned to dodge it like a pro.
“Oooh. Sounds high profile. And very fancy.” Ava stood at the slim stretch of counter space by the refrigerator, shooting him an impressed glance before taking a visual inventory
of the ingredients he’d assembled.
Brennan shrugged, but his shoulders felt overstarched and tight. “I guess.”
“Still not a suit and tie kind of guy, huh?” Her sassy smile chipped away at his unease, and just for a second, he relaxed.
“What gave it away?”
“Besides the totally pained look on your face, you mean?”
Oh, no. No way was he going to let her get away with teasing him like that,
even if it was easing his tension over going to Ellie’s wedding. “It’s not my fault that most neckties double as torture devices,” Brennan replied, pulling a butter knife from the drawer at his hip.
“Mmm.” Ava cocked her head at him, her hair spilling over one shoulder. “Spend six hours in Spanx and a strapless push-up bra. Then we’ll talk torture.”
The thought of Ava’s flawlessly round breasts
peeking out from a bright red strapless dress at Sapphire Island’s end-of-summer beach party invaded his memory, and the butter knife fumbled to the floor with a clatter.
“Shit,” he hissed, commanding his eyes to look anywhere other than the seductive curves beneath Ava’s body-skimming black skirt.
Too late
. Damn, she was still hotter than a six-story inferno in the middle of July.
“You
okay?” Ava asked, bending down to retrieve the knife as he tried to erase the hint of lace showing through her thin sweater from his vision, and Brennan nodded just a hair too vigorously.
“Yup! Yes. I’m great.” As long as
great
was synonymous with
a total flipping jackass
, anyway. How did he manage to lose his mind so thoroughly around this woman? “I was going to make Rachel sandwiches. Have
you ever had one?”
Ava’s eyes lit with curiosity. “It’s like a Reuben, right?”
“Same idea, different ingredients.” Brennan pulled a clean knife from the drawer, putting it to use on the bread and butter in front of him before he could go for round two in the dropping-things department. “They’re made with turkey and coleslaw instead of corned beef and sauerkraut.”
“Ohhhh.” She watched for
a minute as he placed a skillet over the small cooktop next to the prep space, letting the blue-tipped flames
whoosh
to life before turning toward the bread.
“Because the coleslaw already has dressing in it, you don’t really need a ton of ingredients for these sandwiches. That’s kind of the beauty of it. They’re easy to make
and
they taste great.”
“What about cheese?” Ava asked, nodding down
at the thinly cut turkey he’d just layered over the coleslaw and bread.
“There’s some Swiss in the fridge. Bet it would be a good match for these.”
She took the cheese from the refrigerator beside him, placing two lacy slices on each sandwich before finishing the assembly with the remaining bread. Brennan lowered both sandwiches to the prewarmed skillet with a soft sizzle, the sweet, heady
scent of melting butter and toasting bread filling his senses with a whole lot of
hell yes
.
Ava gestured toward the pan. “Looks like you found your calling, working with food. Those smell great.”
“Thanks, but as much as I like managing the Double Shot, food isn’t my calling.” He nudged the sandwiches with a spatula, blanking his expression over the words that had just escaped past his lips.
Of course, Ava was too quick not to catch his slip. “No?” She let the word hang on the unspoken question of what his calling really was, but Brennan just stared at the pan, pressing down on the sandwiches with his spatula even though Adrian always harped about it wrecking the flavors.
“No.” Silence threaded through the kitchen, punctuated only by the muted hiss of the bread as it went from
pale wheat to deep, golden brown. They might’ve made some headway with regard to what had happened between them seven years ago, but the later part of his past needed to stay where it belonged.
Some things just couldn’t be resolved.
“There are some napkins in the drawer over there,” Brennan said, kicking the thought to his emotional curb. “If you want to grab them, these are just about ready.”
“Okay, sure.” If Ava was bothered by his nonresponse, she didn’t show it, and the lack of discomfort in the quiet between them actually put Brennan at ease.
Telling her what had happened at Joe’s the other day might not be so bad,
he thought with a mental shrug. If the facts were going to come out regardless, he’d rather Ava tell them than anyone else—he’d meant it when he’d said she was a good
reporter. And anyway, once the article was printed and the story was there in black and white, the whole thing would likely die down within a week—this time for real. Then he could put his head down and
finally
get back to normal.
Only half paying attention to the familiar scoop-and-flip he’d learned ages ago at the Double Shot, Brennan slid the sandwiches onto a pair of simple blue plates he’d
pulled from the cupboard, turning toward Ava with a growing smile.
“I hope you’re hungry, because . . .”
But the rest of his sentence jammed in his throat at the sight of Ava standing frozen in front of the catchall drawer, her fingers firmly grasping the black and white photograph.
“You still have this?” The paper fluttered slightly in her hand, her lashes swept wide in an arc of shadowy
surprise.
“Uh, I . . .” For a split second, Brennan nearly gave in to the protective instinct screaming at him to clam up, to dodge the subject and pack away his feelings. But stuffing things aside was what had gotten them into trouble in the first place. He might not be willing to tell Ava about the career he’d left in pieces or the pain and addiction that followed, but damn it, she’d told
him about her shitty home life even though it had made her vulnerable. He could at least give her honesty about keeping the photograph.
“Yeah. I do.” Forgetting the plates on the counter, Brennan cut the space between himself and Ava to less than a foot. “Do you remember the day I took this picture?”
“Yes.” Her voice was barely a murmur, but she met his gaze without faltering. “We were at
Butterfly Cove.”
He nodded, calling up the memory as he reached out to run a finger over the top edge of the photograph. “You wanted to see if the place lived up to its name.”
Ava laughed, whisper soft. “I thought it was just a story all the guys had made up to get unsuspecting girls to sneak off to the secluded side of the island with them.”
“You were definitely cynical,” he remembered,
and God, he could still picture that look of sheer doubt on her face at the promise of the flower-covered meadow leading up to the lushly private beach cove. “But you’ve got to admit, I wasn’t wrong.”
Her nod was barely there, the slight dip of her chin edging her close enough for Brennan to feel the slow heat of her exhale. “You weren’t wrong. I’ve still never seen close to that many butterflies
in one place in my life. That cove was straight out of a movie, it was so beautiful.”
Something far, far outside his control closed the last breath of space between their bodies, and even after all this time, she still fit against his frame, belly to hips, shoulders to chest.
“Do you want to know why I still have this?” He captured the photograph from between Ava’s fingers, placing it face
up on the countertop before letting his hand coast over the warm cashmere on her shoulder.
“So you wouldn’t forget that night?”
A slow smile loaded with both irony and heat tugged at the corners of his mouth. She hadn’t been
entirely
wrong about his motivation for bringing her to that cove, and they’d taken full advantage of the seclusion offered by the exotic scenery. “If I live to be ninety,
I’ll never forget that night.”
“Then why would you keep the picture?” She shivered, and the move sent tiny vibrations over the pads of Brennan’s fingers as he slid them up the soft column of her neck and into her hair.
“Because, Ava. After seven years, I still couldn’t quite let you go.”
Somewhere in the dark hallways of Brennan’s calm, rational brain, a voice was telling him that being
this close to Ava was a five-alarm recipe for disaster. What he needed was to take a step back, to batten down the reckless want that threatened his ability to think objectively, and give her a nice, tidy interview so they could part ways, no harm, no foul.
Brennan kissed her without hesitation.
His mouth found Ava’s in a rush, the contact so warm and downright magnetic, he felt it on every
inch of his skin. She melted against him, rising on her toes to minimize the seven-inch height difference between their bodies, and the upward press notched her hips over his with agonizing friction that snapped his very last thread of control. Brennan parted her lips in a bold claim, drawing the sugar-sweet taste of her right back under his tongue where it belonged as the kiss became deeper, hotter,
more.
“This is crazy,” she murmured, the throaty whisper tumbling over his shoulder as he bent to slide his mouth down the plane of her neck. But Brennan had waited seven fucking years for this. Impulsive, daring, reckless, he wanted Ava right here, right now.

You
make me crazy.” He opened his lips over her throat, his tongue sliding wildly over her even wilder pulse as he hooked a thumb
beneath her chin for better access. Ava’s hands tightened on his biceps, the pressure both stinging and sweet.
“Keep doing that, and we’ll both be crazy together.”
Her mouth was back on his in a flash, her arms so tight around his shoulders that he had to bite back a groan. Everything that had made him want her in the past had grown brighter and multiplied, and when she swept her tongue over
the seam of his lips, there was no second thought. Thrusting his hands into the dark spill of her hair, Brennan held her fast against the kitchen counter, relearning the heart-shaped heat of her mouth with his lips and tongue.
“Oh.”
Her body was angled so tightly against his, Brennan felt the sigh collapse from her chest just as much as he heard the sexy half moan. Breaking from Ava’s mouth,
he edged his way down her jaw to her earlobe, and sweet Jesus, how could she taste so good everywhere?
On nothing more than wicked impulse, Brennan swung her around to press her back to the nearby wall, his aching cock demanding contact with the cradle of her hips. But before he could reclaim his position all the way against her body, Ava dropped one hand to the tiny fragment of daylight between
the lower plane of his torso and her belly. Her fingers coasted over the top of his jeans, sliding across one hip bone to the muscles lining his inner thigh, and holy shit, he was going to explode right here in his kitchen.
BOOK: All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel)
8.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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