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Authors: Ava Miles

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BOOK: French Roast
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Chapter 4

D
eputy Sheriff Peggy McBride cruised down
her
streets, as she now thought of them, heading home. She and her seven-year-old son had only been in Dare for a month since moving from Kansas to be closer to her brother, Tanner, and to take a new job, but it already felt like she belonged here.

The mountains had smothered the sun again in their daily contest, cloaking the town in an eerie twilight. She still hadn’t gotten used to nature’s majesty, so different from Kansas’ rolling prairie, where you could see storms coming miles away.

She was cruising down Adler Street when she saw Jill heading to her car, dressed like a woman who wanted to see some action. Peggy would bet her ass she was going to see Brian. She angled her car over and rolled her window down.

“You planning on doing anything illegal tonight, Ms. Hale?”

Jill’s eyes sparkled, a mischievous smile breaking out across her mouth. “I’m not sure I should tell an officer of the law.”

“I have to relieve the babysitter, but do you have time to come over for a minute and tell me all about it?”

Making friends wasn’t easy for Peggy. She understood the penis-carrying gender best. Peggy knew how to shoot pool—and a gun; she didn’t get offended when men belched or adjusted themselves; and she could play bad cop so well her buddies joked that she made their balls shrink. But she was trying to click with Jill, especially since Jill was her sister-in-law’s sister, a part of her new extended family.

Plus, no one entertained her like Jill, who always acted like she was on speed—but in a good way, not a get-your-ass-busted way.

Jill walked closer and lifted her sleeve. Even in the muted light, the electric purple watch dotted with fake crystals couldn’t be missed. “I was going to buy a new lip gloss, but I’m being neurotic. Pink passion is fine. I’d rather use the extra time for a girl chat. Thanks.”

A
girl
chat. What did people drink for that? Tea? “Okay. See you in a sec.”

Dare’s quiet streets drew her in as she drove off. Parents were coming home from work, greeting kids at their garage doors. Lights popped on in simple A-frame houses.

Jill was waiting by her front door when Peggy pulled up.

“How in the world did you beat me here?” Peggy asked, getting out of the car.

Her friend strolled over to her. “You must drive like an old lady. I thought one of the perks about being a deputy was never getting a speeding ticket.”

“Officers are expected to model
and
enforce the law,” Peggy said primly.

“Sounds like a bad deal. I love to speed.”

Peggy laughed and headed toward the house. “Let me pay my sitter. Then I’ll get your tea.”

“I hate tea.”

“Thank God. I was worried we might be reenacting
Little Women.

“I like
Little Women.

Peggy let herself inside. The immediate sound of pounding feet made her day—every day.

“Mom!” Keith raced around the corner decked out in a superman sweatshirt and blue sweatpants. His cheek was creased from his habit of watching TV with one hand under his chin. As she leaned down to hug him, he wrapped his arms around her waist.

“Jeez, I thought you’d never get here. Can we have pizza tonight?”

“No, we had it Sunday. Say hi to Jill.”

Jill stepped through the door after stomping her boots, crouched down, and held her arms out. “How’s my favorite guy?”

“Jillie,” Keith yelled like an incoming war party. He zoomed into her arms. It was a mutual love fest. Most people took easily to Keith. She didn’t know where he got the approachable spirit from—certainly not her or her ex, another cop.

“Mom, now we’ve
got
to have pizza. Jill, don’t you want some?”

“Can’t. I’ve got to head over to Brian’s soon. I’m just here for a girl chat. I like the digs,” she added, looking around. “You guys are settling in well.”

“Yeah, mom’s got everything up. I told her if the pictures were straight.”

Uprooting her son from Kansas had been an easy decision. No one wanted to be closer to Uncle Tanner than Keith. Okay, she was a close second. She loved her brother dearly. Hell, he’d practically raised her when their dad had left. And her ex was so out of the picture he barely remembered to call or send child support.

“The house looks great, but it could use more color,” Jill commented.

Peggy shuddered. “No way. I
like
white and gray.” She glanced at the landscape prints on the wall, thought of the train set she’d assembled after midnight. So, it wasn’t Jill’s style. Peggy craved order and clean lines—a safe haven for her and Keith. She couldn’t give him a father and a normal family life. Her ex’s cheating ways had blown that possibility to bits. She tried to make it up to Keith as best she could. She didn’t want him to think he was missing anything.

“Keith, don’t you want a pink room?” Jill asked.

His gagging sounds were a little too good.

“I’ll go make some coffee,” Peggy said. The irony hit her. She was making coffee for a coffee shop owner. And she didn’t have anything but the super-saver brand the grocery store sold, nothing exotic from another country like Jill’s shop headlined. Maybe her friend wouldn’t notice if she added enough milk and sugar.

She paid the sitter, who had been waiting patiently in the kitchen, and doctored the coffee while Keith and Jill played tug-of-war with her scarf. After she set it on the kitchen table, with a paper napkin instead of the usual paper towel, she sent Keith off so she and Jill could talk. He zoned out again in front of the TV, watching
Toy Story
for probably the seven-thousandth time.

Jill sipped the coffee she’d concocted. Peggy caught her wince.

“Is it that bad?” she asked.

“It’s fine.”

“Please, I interrogate people for a living. Let me get you something else.”

“Is this instant?”

“No, but I have that if you’d prefer.” She laughed at the look of horror on Jill’s face. “I have good memories of drinking instant coffee when I was a rookie.”

“That makes me want to save cops everywhere.”

“When you’ve been on shift forever, you quit tasting it.”

“Stop. You’re making me tear up.” Jill pretended to wipe her eyes. “So, since I’m going on a
real
date tonight, what do you think of my outfit?” She jumped up and swung around.

Peggy’s mouth dropped open. Girls twirled for each other? Thank God she didn’t have a baton in the house.
This
is why she wasn’t comfortable with having female friends.

“I’m not exactly the fashion police.”

“Ha ha, but you can tell me if this works, right?”

Could she? She categorized what she saw as she would if she were giving a suspect’s description. “The green sweater matches your eyes. The jeans are pretty tight, if you’re going for that. And it’s got the whole…” She gestured toward the low V-neck. No way she was talking about boobs with her kid in the next room. “It looks…nice.”

Jill rolled her eyes. “That’s encouraging. Could I seduce a lawman into doing something illegal?”

She lifted a shoulder. “Cripes, what have you been watching?”

“Okay, next time I’ll drive up and ask Mere, but she and Tanner are still in honeymoon paradise, so I don’t like showing up unannounced.”

“Please, he’s my brother.” She so didn’t want to think about him like that.

“Point taken.”

“You and Brian must be getting serious if he’s cooking for you.”

Jill wacked her hand on the table. “Yes. Finally. We’ve been hanging out, but this is our first
real
date. I asked.”

“I don’t remember those. I’m a single mom. I watch cartoons, listen to kiddie music, and assemble toys late into the night.”

“You need to get out more. We’ll have to do a girls’ night at Hairy’s Bar. You can sit on the leprechaun’s lap.”

Peggy cracked her knuckles. “In your dreams. So tell me about you and Brian.”

Instead of answering, Jill stirred her coffee with a spoon. After a moment, she said, “When someone doesn’t want to talk about their past, it usually means something bad happened, right?” It was clearly something she’d been thinking about for a while. “Brian won’t give me a straight answer about why he came home.”

Peggy looked at the clock and realized she could serve Keith some macaroni and cheese in twenty minutes if she multi-tasked. She rose and pulled out the blue box.

“Why don’t you just ask him? I’m sure it’s nothing criminal. Maybe he’s still figuring out how much to share with you. You did give him a hard time when he first came back to town.”

Jill picked up a pan from the stove and filled it with water.

Peggy stopped in her tracks. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Helping.” Peggy turned around, the sense of awkwardness returning. She wasn’t used to help. She sure as hell wasn’t used to someone doing it without being asked. Well, except Tanner.

“I tend to be an all-or-nothing person,” Jill clarified. “I don’t know if I can be with him without wanting more…and that scares me.”

Peggy ripped the box open. “What does?”

“Getting hurt again. Brian was always an open book growing up. Then he broke my heart and left for a cooking school I didn’t even know he’d applied to.”

The macaroni dribbled into the pan, the impact turning the water cloudy. “You don’t trust him?”

“Not fully.” She bit her lip. “Plus, there’s this other thing I haven’t told anyone. I was with Brian on the night of the Halloween party when Jemma…”

The blush that broke out across her face made Peggy drop the spoon she’d been using to stir the macaroni. “You were
together?
she asked in a lowered voice.

Yanking on a curl, Jill said, “We were out on the porch. He grabbed me and kissed me, and it …got heated. I don’t know what would have happened if…” Tears popped into her eyes. “We heard people screaming Jemma’s name and ran inside. Part of me wonders if I would have been able to save her if I hadn’t been with Brian. I think it’s why we’ve kept things platonic even if we felt otherwise.”

Survivor’s guilt was the prime bitch, but Peggy knew how to deal with it. She walked closer to Jill and looked her directly in the eyes. “There was nothing you could have done. I know it’s hard, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you could have saved her. When someone has an undetected heart murmur that acts up, there’s not much anyone can do. Not without an AED, anyway. It’s tragic, but it’s not your fault.”

Jill’s sniff had made Peggy’s knees lock. She hated seeing people cry. She reached for the napkin and handed it to her friend.

Jill’s sigh came out shaky. “Part of me knows that. The other part can’t accept it yet.”

“You will. And listen to the professional here. This tragedy is something else that you and Brian share. On top of everything else between you, it’s a hell of a lot.”

“You’re right.”

“And you want to start a new business, together” Peggy said, shaking her head. “You’re taking on a bunch.”

Jill’s shoulder lifted, and her blush faded. “I always do. I
need
to move forward. Work fulfills me, and it will help to have something new to focus on.”

“Then do it—with or without Brian. Have a great date, but listen to your gut and try to take it slow. Deep down, if you don’t trust him, there might be a good reason.”

“Thanks, Peg.” Jill squeezed her shoulder. “I need to run. Keith, come kiss me goodbye.”

Peggy’s son rushed in, grinning like crazy as Jill planted a kiss on his cheek. Jill didn’t hug her at the door. Peggy was glad. That
would
have been too girly.

“Be careful,” she said as Jill waved on her way out.

“I’m planning on it.”

When the door shut, Peggy studied her mud-brown hair and eyes in the entryway mirror and had to wonder—not for the first time—other than having girl parts and a kid, what really made her a girl?

Chapter 5

B
rian’s unhurried perusal of Jill’s outfit left her with no illusions about how charged this night would be. Sexual tension sizzled along with whatever was crackling and popping on the stove.

His navy V-neck sweater showcased his strong shoulders while his faded jeans snugly fit his muscular butt and legs. Her mouth watered from more than the smell of food.

“Hi there,
he drew out, pulling her flush against his hard, warm frame.

Whoa! The slow kiss caught her by surprise, but yearning and lust sparked through her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and dove into the kiss. His tongue slid between her lips without preamble and explored her mouth with the same leisureliness of his heated gaze. She moaned deep in her throat. After years of fantasies, she was putty in his arms.

He broke the kiss and buried those warm lips against her neck. What in the world had gotten into him? She took a moment to quiet her panting. Jeez. She needed to go to kissing boot camp to get into shape for all this action. When he pulled back, she raised an eyebrow.

“Aren’t you supposed to kiss me
after
dinner?” she asked although she hadn’t dared to expect that.

“I couldn’t help it.” His wink was playful. “Cooking for you kept you on my mind all day. What you might like. What textures might delight you. How you’ll respond when my food hits your tongue.”

If she didn’t have a good grip on him, she probably would have slid to the floor.
Oh. My.

“I see,” she managed to say with a dry throat, trying to banish Peggy’s cautionary words—and her own—from her mind so she could enjoy the moment.

“It’s also a
I’m glad you’re not in jail for the stunt on the fire truck today
kiss.”

She cleared her throat, praying he wouldn’t say anything more—like he knew she was a stalker and needed serious medication. “Me too.”

He helped her out of her coat, brushing errant curls down her back. Then he took her hand and led her into his loft-style apartment. It had high industrial ceilings, and the main floor boasted a family room and kitchen area separated by an island surrounded by bar stools.

She reached down to say hello to his bulldog, Mutt, who lay drooling on the rug, as they passed the leather sofa. Like everything in his trendy loft, the walls were black, white, and gray. Brian clearly didn’t mess with color. Even his artwork had a monochromatic feel. She felt the urge to add a bop of red paint to the wall-size landscape of a foggy Paris bridge.

The kitchen was serious business with stainless steel appliances, black granite countertops, and a mega-industrial stove. He had canisters meticulously printed with the names of herbs and baking ingredients. Man, he had four kinds of flour—pastry, white, wheat, and rye.

He tugged her over to the stove. “I made chicken fricassee, potatoes with a beurre blanc sauce mixed with fresh parsley, and a watercress salad with orange segments and honey bourbon pecans.”

She’d thought she was putty in his arms? Try a puddle at his feet. “Wow! You’re going to spoil me.”

“Come taste.”

The smell of onions, wine, and herbs blended with roasted chicken wafted up at her, making her mouth water. He held the wooden spoon to her lips and placed a gentle hand on her waist. She opened her mouth, acutely aware of his touch, feeling a little off balance. He was feeding her like they were characters in a silent film about the Roman Empire, sans the succulent grapes.

The creamy sauce just about exploded her taste buds. “Yumalicious.”

“Is that a Jill-ism?”

“Maybe.”

The sauce’s seductive flavor only inflamed her desire for him—a lifetime of repressed feelings. She linked her arms around his neck again and brushed her lips across his, wanting more, needing it. She ran her fingers across the base of his skull, and he tilted his head to make the kiss deeper. A wooden spoon clattered to the counter. The stove’s heat only added to the rising burn in her body. She yanked her mouth free.

“God! I
love
kissing you.” The connection, the texture, the heat was even better than she’d remembered.

“Yeah,” he murmured against her neck, sending chilly bumps down her legs.

“And I’m going to absolutely
love
being able to do it any time I want.” Dating and kissing. Learning about each other. Peggy was right. Let things take some time. Evolve. She almost snorted. God, she sucked at that.

Those warm lips nipped her chin. “That’s not all I want to do.”

Her nerves came back, full force. She wasn’t ready to make love with him. There were things she needed to know first. His past. How he felt about her. Where he wanted this to go. Her mind wandered away from the kiss.

Brian must have sensed the change in her mood because he ran his hands up and down her spine and stepped back. “I know you don’t care much for wine, so let me grab you a beer. Then I’ll finish everything up.” He’d set the bar for two. Even stuck flowers in a clear blue vase. The cloth napkins surprised her.

“Can I help?” she asked when he placed a frothy beer mug in front of her after pouring an ale into it.

He turned, brow furrowed. “Ah…”

She made a slicing motion, shaking off her heavier emotions. “I…can…cut…bread,” she mimed like an ignoramus.

He snickered. “Sorry, I’m not used to…normal people helping.”

“So I’m a normal person now?”

He lurched forward and kissed her smack on the lips. Then he darted back to the stove. “No, you’re the least normal person I know. Which is exactly why I like you.” And he sent her another wicked wink over his shoulder.

The “like you” comment dropped her firmly in reality. Right, they were still getting to know each other again.

“How was your day?” He plated the food with flair. His right hand swept out like a painter with a paintbrush as he squirted sauce onto the dishes from a clear bottle.

Mac Maven’s call came to mind, but she didn’t want to go there, not when she was after Bryan to start a restaurant with her.

“Meredith, Tanner, and Grandpa came in the shop today, arguing about an editorial,” she said instead.

“Ah, the Trio of Truth strikes again. They’ve been sparking some lively debates lately. I’ve heard Tanner had them attend the evening journalist class he’s teaching at Emmis Merriam. The students loved it.”

“Grandpa gave me a hard time when I offered him a raspberry mocha. He said couldn’t believe someone would drink fruity coffee.”

Brian cleaned up the plates’ edges with a towel. “I love his descriptions. He’s eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world. I wonder what he’d say about them.”

“He’s probably on his best behavior at
those
places.”

“You know he was only kidding.”

She fiddled with her napkin. “Yeah, but it’s like a burr under my saddle sometimes. I’ve always wanted his approval.”

He set the towel aside. “Trust me, he doesn’t care that you’re not a journalist. He knows you’re happy running the shop. He’s proud of you, Jill. We all are.”

“Does it bother you, ever? Cooking in town, where people used to make fun of you for wanting to be a chef?” His family had been brutal about it. She still couldn’t believe all the horrible names his asshole father had yelled at him, especially after Brian’s mom had skipped town.

“Funny you should mention that.” His eyes narrowed. “I ran into Mrs. Thomilson today in the grocery store.”

That nosy old biddy, she thought, clenching her fists. “Whoever came up with the term battle axe had her in mind. Ignore her. She wouldn’t spend the money to eat at a nice place.” Jill dashed over and wrapped her arms around him. His back resembled iron. “Trust me, you’re the most smoking hot, manly man I know. All those people who used to call you terrible names can eat Spam.”

His laugh snorted out. “What a punishment. Thanks. Now go back to your chair and let me dazzle you.”

She stayed where she was and kissed the place between his shoulder blades. Let her fingers drag away slowly. Smiled at the hiss of his breath.

“You’re playing with fire.”

“Uh-huh.” But she did as he asked, watching the play of his back muscles as he finished adding the pecans to the salad.

He presented a finished plate to her.
“Voilà
.

“Incredible! Five stars all the way.” As she draped the white napkin in her lap, Mutt started audibly snoring. “Does he sleep all the time?”

“Pretty much. He’s my dog couch potato,” he replied, bringing over his white wine.

“You always wanted a dog.”

“Yep.” He gestured to the food.
“Bon appétit.

She responded with her best Julia Child imitation.

His hand slapped his forehead. “Please, don’t
ever
do that again. It’s like taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Like that bothers you.”

“Eat, Jill. I want to see what my food does to you.”

That comment stopped all conversation and almost made it difficult for her to swallow the first bite of mouth-watering gastronomic magic. The cream sauce clinging to the juicy chicken held hints of garlic and thyme. The potatoes couldn’t have held less than a stick of butter. And together, they gave her a foodie power-packed punch. Her eyes closed in sheer delight.

“God,” she cried out, awash in a food stupor.

Even without looking, she felt his body tense beside her. Her lashes fluttered open. As she watched, his fingers flexed on his leg like he was itching to grab her. She cleared her throat in an attempt to get a grip. “Did you get Mutt in New York?”

His fork paused before it reached his mouth. Then he took a bite and chewed. “No. My work schedule was too crazy for a dog. The Chop House doesn’t stay open late, so I decided to go for it when I moved back. Plus, I can run home on my break to let him out. He’s pretty easy going, and he’s good company.” Brian speared a potato. “For a while, the only people I thought would ever talk to me in this town were Mutt, Jemma, and Pete.”

As she fiddled with the watercress, some of the magic of the night faded. Their past was a minefield, and if they were going to move forward, she needed to stop being afraid it would explode. “Bri, I need to ask you something,” she whispered. “Did you go to New York and not Denver because of me?”

His eyes narrowed as if he didn’t understand the question. Then he sighed. “How long have you thought that?”

“Since you left.”

“Are you sure you want to know the answer?”

Her heart fluttered like butterfly wings, fragile and slow. “Uh-huh.” Maybe. Not really.

He swiveled on his barstool and took her hand. “You thought that it would be perfect if we both went to school in Denver, but I knew that if I did, we would have gotten serious. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give you what you needed. I knew how demanding culinary training was going to be.”

“So that would be a yes.” Jeez, the sharp pain in her heart made her blink.

“We were so young, Jill. My parents married right out of high school and look how that turned out.”

They were nothing like his parents. A spurt of anger rose up in her. “We might have been young, but I knew what I wanted.” You.

He let go of her hand. “You didn’t know what you wanted to do for the rest of your life. Heck, you didn’t even really want to go to college. You figured things out just like I did.”

“And what did you figure out?” she asked, hoping that he would give her a straight answer.

The way those Bengal-tiger blue eyes studied her made her want to turn away. “I figured out I want to be a chef more than anything.”

The fiery determination made his eyes look like blue flames. “Why did you come back if New York was your oyster?”

Brian speared the chicken. “Because I missed my friends.” He cleared his throat and looked away. “I wanted
us
to be friends again. I couldn’t stop thinking about you, even after so much time apart. We were friends for eighteen years. It was hard to lose a relationship like that. I’d…never had what we had…with anyone else.”

God, she’d waited forever to hear him say that. “I missed you, too. I blamed myself for you leaving.”

He spun her around and pulled her against his chest before she could blink. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Jill, I needed to prove to everybody—and maybe even to myself after everything my fucking dad used to say—that there was nothing wrong about a guy wanting to cook French food. Hell, if they could feel the heat off the grill, feel the sweat dripping off them in gallons, hear the cursing, and heft the pots as heavy as dumbbells, they’d realize how much of a man’s world a restaurant kitchen is.”

His pine and musk aftershave tickled her nose. “You didn’t work with any women?”

His fingers tensed on her back. “Ah…some. Like I said, the kitchen’s mostly a man’s world.”

She let the sexist perspective go and drew back. “So you weren’t driven away by some mystery woman or anything?”

His head darted back. “Why would you think that?”

“Because you never talk about it.”

He lifted a shoulder. “There’s not much to tell. I went to school. Then I worked like a dog from the time I got up until the wee hours of the morning at a five-star French restaurant.”

Had his determination led to isolation? “Didn’t you have friends?”

“You make friends with people in the business, casual ones you drink with after a shift.” He ran his fork over a potato, making a train track.

“So you didn’t have a long-term girlfriend?”

He broke eye contact immediately and scooped up more watercress. The silence made her bounce in her seat.

“No, I didn’t have a girlfriend.” Another pause. “But I wasn’t a monk, Jill,” he finally said after taking a bite.

She looked down in her lap and fiddled with her napkin. She knew it wasn’t rational, but she didn’t like to think about him with other women. In fact, she hated it.

“What about you? Jemma never talked about your personal life.”

Her insides turned raw. “She wouldn’t.” Because there wasn’t much to tell.

He ran a hand down her back. “I know, but that doesn’t answer my question. Was there anyone serious?”

“No,” she replied, feeling her face grow warm.

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