Authors: Ava Miles
Tags: #romance, #contemporary, #small town, #New Adult, #foodie romance
He leaned in to kiss her, his lips brushing hers like she was a crème brûlée-coated spoon. Chances were good Brian wouldn’t disappoint her in bed like her only other lover, who’d brought new meaning to the saying zero-to-sixty…as in he hadn’t lasted more than sixty seconds. Still, he didn’t know her experience quotient was worse than a farm team’s batting average. Would he freak if she told him? She didn’t want him to turn away from her again.
He swiveled on his barstool. “Are you sure you want to explore going into the restaurant business with me, Jill? I want this, Jill, and I need you to be sure. The Chop House is a…temporary plan for me. My plan has always been to have my own place someday.”
She thought back to Mac Maven’s call again, but pushed it to the back of her mind. Infusing her voice with more certainty than she felt, she said, “Yes, I think we should explore it.”
“Is being with me the only reason you want to open a business together?”
He’d always been able to read her. “Well, I won’t lie. I want you to stay.” Hadn’t he just said his current job was temporary? “But I also think Dare is ripe for a new restaurant that’s geared toward the Californians and the student/professor crowd. I need a talented chef to make it shine.”
“Then I’m your man.”
The vision she had of the restaurant rose to mind. The food would cater to their small town with its farm-to-table simplicity while serving a streamlined menu of
cuisine for the more adventurous. Brian would give the job everything he had. Together, they could create something truly spectacular, and working together would give them the opportunity to combine their love for their work with their friendship and interest in each other.
“Let’s do it.”
He took her hand. “Deal.” His palm stroked hers. Their warm skin ignited fires in her body again. He pulled her closer and caged her against his body, taking her mouth in a wild kiss. He pressed her against the counter. It dug into her back, so she pushed forward. Off balance, he grabbed her and sidestepped them to the couch. He lowered her while caressing her all over with his hands and lips. Her neck, shoulders, waist, hips.
When he tugged her sweater off, she tensed for a moment at the newness of his touch, but then his hands covered her breasts, and the sensation made her writhe and moan. God, it felt good. Before she knew it, he had her bra open, his mouth tugging one nipple and then the other. Her chest rose, seeking deeper contact. The tug and the pressure sent electric shocks down her toes and up her spine. Jill gave another anguished moan.
He pulled his sweater over his head and threw it aside. Her mouth dropped at the sight of his six-pack abs, and when he brought their bare chests together, the heat and sensuous slide of their skin made her clench with pleasure. He thrust his hand in her hair, pulling her mouth to his and stroking her with his tongue, nibbling her lips with his teeth.
Her body turned to water. Thundering, forceful, rushing, always rushing, like a mountain-fed stream. A new longing had her running her hands down his back to his butt, fitting her hips close to the hard bulge of his groin. God, the feelings inside her. He let out a throaty groan and undulated his pelvis in a way that made her fight for breath and call out his name. She pressed against him, seeing starbursts behind her eyes. The current inside her could go anywhere, do anything. It was so much…
“I want you, Jill,” he whispered as he sucked on the skin where neck met shoulder.
The hot breath and the incessant rhythm of his hips had her wanting more. But when he dipped a hand into her jeans, she pushed him away. Took a few shaky breaths to clear her head even while her body thundered.
She wasn’t emotionally ready for this.
His blazing eyes scorched her. Years of understanding passed between them. After a moment, his face fell. Her heart clamored in her chest, making it hard to breathe. Tears burned her eyes. He looked away. Took a few deep breaths. Then met her gaze, the pulse pounding in his neck.
“It’s okay, sweetheart.” He stroked her cheek with a finger. “That was pretty fast.”
She disengaged from him with a lump in her throat and stood there blushing. Her body pounded with unmet desire. She covered her breasts and watched the muscles in Brian’s stomach clench with each ragged breath.
He stood, his mouth pinched. “I need a moment. After all these years…Jill, I can’t look at you right now without touching you.”
Her pulse pounded in her neck. She eyed her sweater and bra on the sofa. “I’ll get dressed and take off. I can’t eat anything else now.”
“Me either,” he agreed, his voice strained.
Her hands fumbled with the bra strap, but after three attempts it finally hooked. She tugged on her sweater and stumbled to the door.
“Thanks for dinner,” she rasped, jolts of electricity still igniting in her thighs.
“You’re welcome. I’ll call you.” He didn’t move from where he stood, his bare chest all hard grooves of sinew and bone.
Her last glimpse of him stole her breath. She opened the door and ran down the hall. So much for being on the path to liberation.
t was pathetic to wear a jacket with a pocket in it just so you could carry your phone around waiting for some stupid guy to call. After her evening with Brian had ended so abruptly a week ago, pathetic pretty much summed it up. Brian had texted her, but he hadn’t called. Hadn’t popped by, either. Without anything else to distract her, she had dived into the plans for the restaurant, wanting to have something more concrete to share with him. She’d convinced Morty Wilson to allow her some time alone in the furniture store he was selling so she could assess it as a possible location.
In a low blow, when she’d asked Brian to get together to discuss some of her new ideas for the restaurant, he’d begged off, saying he had too much work. She’d started to doubt herself, them, everything.
But today was Valentine’s Day! And she’d had so many dreams about spending it with him growing up. This was her chance, or so she’d thought. She’d hoped he would send her a card or something, even if it was super early in their relationship. Maybe they didn’t have a relationship. God, she was becoming neurotic. No, she
“You sulking?” Meredith wrapped her arms around her from behind as she finished making a latte.
“What makes you think that?”
“Your face is as long as your hair. It’s Valentine’s Day. Why aren’t you happy?”
“Because I don’t have plans.”
“I’m sorry. Maybe something will turn up. Tanner’s taking me to a lovely cabin up in the mountains. Roaring fire. Nice bottle of wine and—”
“Someone needs to put a lid on it. There are single mothers around here who might break down and cry,” Peggy announced, stepping up to the counter and shrugging out of her coat.
Jill and Meredith turned, greeting Peggy in unison.
“I need a jolt to get through this
love brings out the worst in people
day. I’ve already had to pick up one peeping Tom who blubbered all over me about how he couldn’t live without his ex-girlfriend. After seeing all his surveillance equipment, I think the girl did the smart thing.”
Jill handed Peggy her regular. “That makes me feel better. I forgot that it’s a field day for stalkers. At least I don’t have to worry about that.”
“Like you’d be upset if Brian stalked you,” Meredith quipped, grabbing a chocolate from the red and white cupid bowl.
Peggy assumed what Jill thought of as The Police Position, hands on hips, legs planted wide. Her forest-green button-down shirt with the Sheriff patch and Eagle County logo emblazoned on the shoulder screamed authority, while her tan slacks begged for help from
What Not to Wear.
The police belt holding her radio, gun, mace, and handcuffs looked like it weighed a ton of bricks. “You got problems with the guy?”
“No.” Jill shoved away thoughts of the other night. “He’s working.”
Meredith rested her hand on her shoulder. “It’s a big day for The Chop House. Heard it’s booked solid up to 10:15.”
Jill snagged a chocolate—the consolation prize for girls everywhere who had no V-day plans.
“Why don’t you have lunch with us?” Meredith asked. “Peggy, you can take off, right?”
“I have an hour.”
“Okay,” Jill agreed. “I’ll get my purse and coat. Margie—”
“We’ve got it, boss,” her barista responded without missing a beat, filling the machine with more beans.
When Jill reemerged, Peggy was talking with Margie. “Where’s Meredith?”
“She’s warming the car up.”
“What a wimp. It’s gorgeous outside. If I didn’t have to work, I’d head up to the canyon, maybe eat outside.”
“You must be nuts. It’s winter! The sun appears for a second, and you people wear shorts.”
She handed a cookie to Peggy. “This is for Keith, since I really do want to marry him someday.”
“Thanks. He’s mastered the farting armpit sound this week. I’m so proud. Oh, he made you a card.” The red paper had glue globs of glitter in star shapes. “You ready?”
Her hand mimed the royal wave, eliciting a laugh from Margie and the customers. She pulled her sunglasses on as she stepped onto the street. Her whole body froze when she saw Brian standing next to her sister—all decked out in winter gear.
“You ready for some cross-country skiing and a picnic, Red?”
Her hand thumped her heart. “You…you…”
“At a loss for words? That’s a first.” He produced a bouquet of red roses. “You thought I forgot? That’ll teach ya.”
Her eyes burned. Meredith and Peggy smiled. People stopped on Main Street to watch.
Brian’s silver mirrored glasses reflected her face’s shock as he sauntered forward. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Jill.”
She wrapped her arms around him, their parkas making a sound like cicadas. “I thought…I thought…”
He kissed her head. “Keep working at it. You’ll get it out.”
The loving sarcasm stopped her stuttering. “I thought you had to work.”
“Tonight. No getting out of that. But we have the afternoon to ourselves. Okay?”
He framed her face and kissed her gently on the lips. In front of the whole town.
“You’re making quite the public declaration here.”
“Like it’s a newsflash that I want you.”
Her stomach clenched as she thought about all the ways he wanted her. Her breathing hitched.
He leaned closer to her ear. “Get your mind out of the gutter, Red.” And he kissed her smack on the lips again.
Meredith hefted a bag forward. “I brought your gear. Brian already has your skis stowed. Go inside and get changed. Margie’s taking care of the shop.”
“You were all involved?”
Peggy shook her head. “Yeah, Jill. Duh.”
“Oh, my God!” She stumbled back into the coffee shop to change, realizing she might float off the mountain if her skis didn’t keep her grounded.
Brian savored familiar motions: snapping cross-country skis into place; planting poles into the snow; feeling the sunshine beat down on him, warm and bright; sliding along the glaring white banquet Mother Earth had laid out in Mountain Laurel Canyon. And best of all, Jill was right there with him. The basin stretched out in front of them, flanked by mountain laurels, aspens, endless rows of pines swaying in the breeze, and rugged mountains dotted with white swirls, making him think of whipped cream.
He’d missed afternoons like this in New York, where everything was quick and cramped and the streets were all dirty concrete.
The drive hadn’t dimmed Jill’s happiness, but she’d recovered her powers of speech. Damn if he wasn’t pleased with himself. Who said women were the more romantic sex? The
run-up had totally worked. After all the Valentine’s Days they’d missed spending together, he wanted to make this a day to remember for both of them.
Brian cast her a glance. “Remember how we used to come up here and drink in high school?”
A roll of her eyes. “I seem to remember a few falls on the way back.”
“Good times. Everybody was so happy back then. So alive.”
When she looked away, he caught the tear running down her face. “You missing Jemma?” he asked softly.
Her sniff was audible. “Yeah.”
He could see her now in his mind’s eye—that emerald green snowsuit she’d always worn and her crazy, hand-knitted purple hat, complete with ear flaps. “Me too,” he said, “come here.”
Leaning over awkwardly, he pulled Jill into a hug. The sparkling snow, the sunshine, and the punch of the evergreen trees had his heart expanding. An eagle flew overhead, casting a majestic shadow.
“That gives me goosebumps,” she whispered.
His arms squeezed her tightly as they watched the eagle.
She skied alongside him for a few miles on the flat stretch, a comfortable silence descending between them. The scissor movement only accentuated her legs’ graceful length. She might have felt awkward about her height growing up, but he thought she was perfect. He couldn’t wait to have those long legs wrapped around him.
Okay, McConnell. No need to get heated this early.
Their destination loomed ahead. The large boulder sported one of the best vistas in the canyon and was as high as they could ski cross-country. Plus, they could sit on the rock and not freeze their asses off. The stone wouldn’t be much warmer than the white stuff, but it absorbed the sun’s rays.
Her pace increased. “Up for a little race, McConnell?”
The grin just about split his chapped lips. “You got it, Red.”
Firming her shoulders, Jill shot forward. He planted his poles deeper and used his strength to add length to his stride. But then she crossed into his path.
“Hey!” He veered to the right.
Her laughter echoed loud and clear across the valley. “You must be out of practice if that throws your panties in a twist.”
The crazy woman continued to zigzag in front of him, making it impossible to pass her without causing a collision. “You always did play dirty.”
“Please. It’s like NASCAR. Once you take the lead, you keep the other guy behind you.”
“Like you’ve ever watched NASCAR.”
Her legs slid across the snow smoothly. He skied through her tracks and looked for an opening. Brian’s heart was pumping like crazy, while she didn’t even seem to be breathing hard. God, was she in better shape than him?
“Jemma and I used to watch it together. The men are so hot—especially in those tight suits. Kinda like you look now.”
“Okay, that’s it.” He dug his poles in even deeper and shot forward. She smiled when she saw him coming and stuck out her tongue. He headed right at her. Why wasn’t she veering?
“Dammit, Jill!” He had two more yards, and he’d be on her.
Her laugh trilled out again. She angled sharply toward him. His right pole stuck in ice-crusted snow, and he lost his balance, toppling like a bowling pin. His skis came off as he somersaulted—his pack digging into his back. He spit out snow, sat up, and wiped his face off.
Her shoulders shook. “You really
out of practice.”
“And you hate to lose. You crushed our picnic.”
Her ski pole waved like Gene Kelly doing a dance. “At least you didn’t blame me winning on carrying that
His snort carried across the distance. “As if. I also won’t say you weigh less and move like a gazelle.”
Her hand reached for his. “A gazelle? Really? That’s probably the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
He tugged her forward.
“Hey!” Her long frame fell in an inelegant heap next to him.
“If you think that’s the nicest thing I’ve ever said, I clearly need to work harder.” He flipped her, looming over.
Her mouth opened in surprise as he kissed her. Long and deep and hot, his heart racing from their contest and from how much he wanted her. Her gloved hands clenched him. With their snow suits on, he couldn’t touch the curves he dreamed about, so he concentrated on kissing her senseless. His body nestled between the V of her legs, his hips moving against hers, their suits scraping. He sucked her tongue into his mouth and heard her groan.
The angle of her jaw called to him when she turned her face. Pressing a kiss there, he went lower, running his tongue above the bare skin over her yellow scarf. Her mouth glistened in the sunlight, so he sucked on her lower lip. Elegant fingers played at the back of his neck, while her tongue danced against his. Her hand moved down his back and fell away. Then it slid back up, igniting a string of fire until he felt snow slide down his neck. He darted back.
“Shit, that’s cold.”
Her laughter gusted out as he tugged his glove off and dug out the snowball. When he turned back, his breath caught. She looked like a winter goddess lying there in the snow—her long, lithe frame, the red hair trailing out of her yellow hat, her lips swollen from their kisses.
“You’re so beautiful.”
The smile he loved seeing faded. “You’ve never said that.”
Yeah, because growing up, he hadn’t wanted to lose her. She’d been an anchor in his life. And he’d seen from his parents’ ugly divorce how horribly wrong romantic relationships could go.
Razor-sharp guilt rose. He tugged his glove on and then hunched over her, pushing his sunglasses up. It was important for her to see his eyes. “I may not have said it, but I always thought it.”
“I’m glad,” she said in a small voice, which told him she didn’t believe him, not really. “So, have we a squashed picnic?”
“I only made macaroni and cheese.” He pushed off the snow so he could stand and help her up. “Let’s eat.”
They brushed snow off each other and skied to the spot he’d picked out for them. She unclipped her skis and planted her poles. He followed suit and trudged through the white, shrugging off the pack, trying to cool down.
While Jill took care of business behind a tree, he spread a white cloth on the boulder. They couldn’t have candles and flowers, but he could still plate her food. He popped the champagne, poured, and buried the bottle in the snow. Ice crunched, signaling her return.
“You totally lied! Macaroni and cheese, my ass. Is that champagne?” She trudged through the snow and sank down beside him.
“Like I’d make you mac and cheese. Jesus, Jill, what do you take me for?”
She kissed him. “A genius. Oh, I adore tapas! Let’s see. Marinated mushrooms, chorizo, and olives. Oh my God, is that ceviche?”
“It loves to be cold.”
“Tell me that’s Man-chengo,” she said, popping a wedge in her mouth. “Yep.”
“If you’re referring to the cheese, it’s Manchego.”
“Not like Jemma and I…used to call it. We dubbed it the Man-chengo.”
Ah, that wicked sense of humor. Hadn’t he always loved it? “Why?”
“Because it’s a funnier name—and really nutty.” She kissed him again, deeper this time. “You did all this for me?”
She tore her sunglasses off. Her green eyes outdid the lush pines snaking up the mountain. His heart shifted, and it felt like it was falling clear out of his body. He didn’t want to tear his eyes away from her. Realized he could gaze at her forever.
His insides shook. God, he so didn’t want to screw things up between them. And after his parents, he wasn’t sure he could ever have a
with anyone. Even her. Time for a toast, he decided, grabbing a glass, cursing himself for thinking about his parents at a time like this.