Authors: Ava Miles
Tags: #romance, #contemporary, #small town, #New Adult, #foodie romance
Abba continued to play as she snuggled into his arms, and when he came back to himself, he made love to her with a sweetness that stole her breath away.
An hour later they were reclined on the couch well sated, watching TV, her head in his lap.
“So,” he commented conversationally, but with an edge, like he was testing the water he’d set to boil for spaghetti.
Even though her whole body was a ribbon of relaxation, her muscles tensed.
“PolarFest is next week,” he continued.
The mention of Jemma’s annual party ruined her easy mood, and she wondered if he’d purposefully waited until after sex to bring it up.
She and Jemma had created PolarFest together after drinking too many margaritas one night during a blizzard, wishing they were in the tropics. They’d decided to celebrate winter with an annual party so they wouldn’t have to bitch anymore about February being the most
month of the year. Hence PolarFest.
“I’ve heard,” she responded, wishing Brian would stop talking so they could just lie here in peace. Pete hadn’t even run his plan to host it by her. Granted, she didn’t want to speak to him, but still. She’d thought about doing it herself, but in the end, she hadn’t been able to face it.
“Pete wanted to keep the tradition alive since everyone loves it so much. He asked me to help, so I’ll be…doing that.”
“Great,” she answered, staring straight ahead. Their easy mood seemed to have evaporated. She was back in the thick of anger and grief and confusion.
His mouth flattened. “Look, I know it will be tough without Jem, but I want you to come with me.” He cleared his throat and looked back at the TV. The lights flickered across his tense face.
God, she so didn’t want to see Pete, but it would be a good place to bring Mac. He’d be able to hobnob with the professor set from Emmits Merriam.
“Is this going to be a problem?” he asked.
They’d had such a great night, and she wasn’t about to spoil it. “Nope. I’ll be there. Yay!”
He snorted, obviously picking up on the sarcasm in her voice. “Great. Let’s get some sleep.”
She had trouble settling down once they were in bed. Thoughts of the past kept swirling in her mind. Perhaps it was the earlier talk about high school dances, but she found herself missing Jemma more than ever. The grief welled up. Tears spilled over.
He slid on his side and pulled her against him. “Hey, what’s this?”
She clutched his hands. “Jemma,” she said simply as the hurt spread.
“Shh,” he whispered. “It’s okay, baby. I miss her too. Cry it out.”
And she did, soaking his chest. He tightened his arms around her and didn’t try to stop her like some men might have. When she finally finished crying, totally hollowed out, her gratitude toward him for comforting her overwhelmed her.
“I love you.”
He laid his cheek on hers. “I love you too. Come here.” He turned her gently. When he took her mouth, she gave him everything. He did too. Grief shifted into comforting caresses, long kisses, throaty murmurs, soft sighs. The rawness changed into something else—love and a sense of belonging so sweet and encompassing she didn’t want it to end. They loved each other slowly, deeply until they came apart in each other’s arms, shaking. When he rolled away and came back to the bed moments later, he fitted her against him again.
With his arms around her, she realized it was time for her to start wearing the necklace he’d given her after graduation.
She fell asleep to the now familiar rise and fall of his body next to hers, realizing that everything in life was easier when they shared it.
Being with him was exactly as she’d imagined.
rian slid the strip steak marinated with adobo sauce into the fridge and kicked the door shut. He was meeting Pete at Hairy’s for a beer, and he was already running a little late, so he hustled out the door.
Hairy’s happy hour crowd talked raucously. With St. Patrick’s Day just a couple of weeks away, the bar was proudly displaying two blinking signs in orange, white, and green. A leering leprechaun had a female draped over his body, her boobs spilling out with the subtitle,
Sit On A Leprechaun’s Lap. Ask About His Pot of Gold.
Brian smiled as a blond chick asked Mike, the bartender, what the other sign meant:
Tell the Man Póg Mo Thón.
She giggled when he translated, “Kiss my ass.”
Mike pulled him a Guinness. He took a sip. Scanning the crowd, he spotted Pete chatting up some dewy-eyed grad student in the corner. Brian headed in their direction. If Pete waved him off, he’d play darts. He wished Jill was here to play a game with him. She loved playing and beat him more often than not. Still, he liked watching her green eyes narrow and her mouth purse right before she launched her shot. It was yet another sign he was toast.
Pete signaled him, so he moved through the crowd, greeting the people he knew. There was new speculation in their eyes when they looked him. The scrutiny made him uncomfortable.
“No luck?” he asked Pete as the girl moved on.
“She had to get back to her friends. I got her number though.”
“She’s cute.” He leaned against the wall, careful not to knock the drunken green-haired fairy picture off the wall. The dark foam tickled his lips when he drank. The meaty brew called to mind hops and chocolate. After drinking half the glass, he settled it against his chest. “So, when are you going to shop for the party stuff?”
“Thursday. It’s cold enough to leave everything outside.”
“My meat needs to be defrosted, Pete. It’ll be hard as bricks in this weather, and I don’t want it to burn on the grill.”
Pete slapped him on the shoulder. “Oh, lighten up. Hey, your future in-laws just walked in.”
The beer almost slipped from his hand. In-laws. Jesus, he thought, as he spotted Tanner and Meredith.
Pete raised his brow. “So, all’s not well with Jill’s family? That’s gotta be tough. I know how much they meant to you while we were growing up”
He thought of them calling him out. “Yeah, it is.”
“Whoa!” Pete’s mouth dropped. “You’ve got a new problem. Hot French chick at five-o-clock headed this way. Man, anyone who ever thought you were gay for cooking French food is eating their words now.”
Brian elbowed him as Simca approached them, decked out as usual in a black pencil skirt, ice-pick boots, and a red cashmere pashmina shawl over a white silk shirt.
“Hello, Brian,” Simca said in her husky accent, but stopped short of giving him the French greeting of a kiss on either cheek. He smiled so she’d understand his appreciation.
Her mouth curved.
He shifted on his feet. Everyone was staring. A thread of discomfort slithered down his spine. He sipped his beer. How was he supposed to consider going into business with her in Dare if he couldn’t handle an innocent run-in at Hairy’s?
“I decided to explore more of this town since I might be staying here,” Simca said.
Pete coughed as he took a sip of his drink. “Excuse me?”
Well, great. Now he’d have to trust Pete to keep his mouth shut. Brian drilled him with a stare. “We might be opening a place here in Dare, but nothing’s been decided, so don’t say anything.”
“I won’t. Do you want to pinky swear?”
Simca put her hands on her hips. “You look pretty trustworthy. You’re Brian’s best friend, Pete, right?”
Pete’s eye twitched. “Yes, how did you know?”
“Brian talked a lot about you in New York.”
His friend looked about ready to slump to the floor from the attention. “Can I get you a drink?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Is the wine terrible?”
“Abominable,” Pete confirmed, shuddering.
“How about an Irish coffee? Thank you,
Pete stumbled away.
Another man under Simca’s spell, and she knew it. Brian looked over his shoulder. Tanner’s dark gaze didn’t even blink when their eyes met. Meredith shook her head in disgust.
Brian turned back to Simca, angling her into the corner. “Well, this is awkward.”
People around him had grown quiet and were leaning closer.
“I’m happy I ran into you.” She opened a designer black purse and handed him a manila envelope. “I drew up a draft menu to further our conversation. This one’s for Dare. I’m still working on the one for New York, depending on what you decide.”
He scanned both copies, his heart thumping in tune to the angry Irish band playing. “This is…genius. I love how you included game meats with the organic produce. Farm-to-table is a great selling point here.”
“I’m glad you like it.” She edged closer, taking him through the menu. The stares and whispers disappeared, eclipsed by visions of venison on a bed of Kale with white beans—a daring Western take on the French dish cassoulet.
He set his beer aside. “This is exactly what I envisioned.”
Their gazes locked. He saw the pulse beat in her neck.
She still had a thing for him—he could see it in her eyes, her body language. He took a step back.
“I’m not sure this is going to work, Sim.”
Her hand brushed his arm. “Let’s not decide that tonight. I’ll go find Pete and have my coffee. People are
aware of us, no? New York is so different. I’m not sure the locals will ever stop staring at us—even if we only run a restaurant together. And while I don’t mind attention, this isn’t the type I want.”
Bingo. “I know.”
“We’ll talk soon.” The crowd parted as she walked away.
He headed to the men’s room to get some air. No one could stare at him there without coming off as a perv. He tapped his head against the Kelly green tile wall. The concept and the menu were everything he could have hoped for, but she still had feelings for him, even though he no longer shared them. Jill wasn’t blind. If she saw Simca looking at him that way while they made a duck confit, she’d be jealous. And he wanted her trust above all things. Could Jill possibly support his partnership with Simca if he convinced her to trust him?
He firmed his shoulders to face down the stares. For a moment, he wanted to be in New York again, any big city where he could be anonymous. When he left the bathroom, Tanner was standing by Dare’s only remaining pay phone.
“I had to talk my wife out of coming into the men’s bathroom to ask you why you’re talking to that woman. That doesn’t make me happy.”
He put his hands on his hips, letting righteous anger cover the hurt he was feeling that the Hale’s didn’t trust him anymore. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You’re crossing the line with Jill’s happiness, and it’s starting to piss me off.”
Brian stepped into his face. “You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. Everything I’m doing right now is for Jill’s happiness.” Hadn’t he moved in with her? Wasn’t he trying to prove how much he loved her?
“Then you’d better be careful how you look at Simca.”
“You misunderstood the situation.” Brian fisted his hands to keep from shoving him. “Maybe Mere should mind her own business since she wasn’t privy to our discussion.”
Mouth curling like a wolf ready to defend his mate, Tanner said, “Mere is only looking out for her sister, which is also what I’m trying to do.”
The Guinness in his stomach burned like he’d drunk a half bottle of Irish whiskey. “You don’t need to. We’re fine. Leave us alone.”
He walked away. Meredith was waiting for him when he left the hallway to the restrooms.
“No,” he nearly barked. “I’ve already had it from Tanner. I’m outta here.” He would text Pete when he was outside. Pete would understand why he had to leave.
He weaved through patrons to the front door. When the cold smacked against his face, he welcomed it. Bracing his shoulders, he headed to Jill’s, well aware of the stares that followed him as he crossed Main Street and turned the corner.
How was he ever going to stay in this town with everyone waiting for him to fuck up?