Authors: Ava Miles
Tags: #romance, #contemporary, #small town, #New Adult, #foodie romance
rian watched Jill stride down the street like she was taking on the blustering north wind in the boxing ring. She wasn’t even wearing a coat. Shit, he thought, tugging his hair. This was bad.
Simca’s fingers, those delicate instruments that could filet a twenty-pound fish or make a man beg himself hoarse, caressed his collarbone. He pushed her hand aside.
“What are you
here?” He felt as loopy as when he’d taken a baseball against his temple in junior year of high school.
Those pouty French lips didn’t lose their small smile, but her sherry eyes narrowed a fraction. “Correcting the worst mistake of my life.”
Her sultry accent alone had made a slave of him back in New York. It had made him understand why so many people chose to study abroad. A book dropped on the floor, making his head turn. Customers were literally leaning forward on the edge of their seats to get a better look.
“Let’s take this backstage.” He brushed his hand under her elbow, knowing she would dig her heels in if he manhandled her. Simca led. Men followed. It was a rule of the universe.
“Margie, I’m using Jill’s office for a minute.”
He escorted her back there, the itch to follow Jill climbing up his spine. This could ruin everything. The explosive colors in the office added to his headache. Red door. Yellow walls. A new modern art landscape, vibrant with blue and orange.
are you doing here?” he asked, sitting on the edge of Jill’s purple desk.
“I called you. Didn’t you listen to my voicemails?” She closed the door, leaning against it like a starlet. “My divorce is final. You were right. Andre didn’t love me.” The ghost of a smile flickered across that movie-star face. “But you do,
“What?” He almost fell off the desk. “You have a hell of a nerve to show up after all this time and say shit like this to me.”
“Don’t be mad at me. I wanted to contact you when Andre fired you, but my divorce lawyer told me it would hurt my settlement. The minute my divorce was final, I called. I want to be with you again. I want to work with you again—and make amends.”
His mind buzzed from total shock. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Jesus!” Brian paced. “Why didn’t you help me when he accused me of stealing his recipes? You didn’t say a word!”
“Yes, I did!” she said, raising her voice. “I told the police you couldn’t have done it. That you were with me.”
That revelation deflated some of his anger. It explained why they’d dismissed the charges so quickly. “He black-balled me, Sim. Said I was a thief. I couldn’t find a goddamn good job anywhere.”
“I know. That’s why you had to come home. I’m here to change all that. Think of me as your Food Fairy Godmother.”
When she pushed off the door, her eyes liquid with desire, he held up his hands. “Give me a damn minute here. This is a lot to take in.” He took a shaky breath.
“But of course,” she politely murmured.
It was weird, seeing her in Jill’s space—it was like his two worlds were colliding, and he was caught among the debris. “I came home to rebuild my life, and I’m doing a damn fine job of it.”
“I am so sorry for everything,
” Simca twirled her bracelets in a nervous gesture. “I want another chance. I want to open a place together. We were so good together,
In the kitchen and in bed.”
He had to shut her down fast. “The girl you met. I’m with her now.”
“I see. Is it serious?”
His rubbed his tight chest. “Yes, it’s headed that way.” He realized it was the truth even as the ever-present fear of what that meant stole his breath. “We’re thinking of opening a place together.”
Her brow rose. She watched him gently. Hadn’t she always listened? The ongoing disagreements with Jill about their conflicting visions flickered through his mind. “We’re still working out the details.”
“You don’t sound convinced. This is a small market. What would you say if I told you I want to open the place we always talked about? I have the capital now from my divorce.”
His heart skipped a beat. God, he could be part of a Michelin-star restaurant again. His dream. Even though he’d returned to Dare to rehab his rep, he hadn’t been sure how long it would take to get back to that level. And now it was within reach. Now. Plus, he and Simca never disagreed when it came to work—that aspect of their relationship had always been pure harmony. “I don’t know. Jesus, Sim. I was so mad at you. Still am.”
“I don’t blame you. I want to help. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Her determination had always matched his. His fingers drummed the desk. “I was serious about what I said before. I’m with Jill now. What if I can only work with you in a professional capacity?”
She caressed her throat. “I would be very disappointed, but would still want to work with you. We French are practical about sex and business.”
Yes, he’d seen that firsthand. God, could such a thing even be possible? His mind conjured up the restaurant they’d discussed. Trendy lighting, monochromatic décor with simple geometric patterns, an eclectic seasonal menu. Was he really thinking about returning to New York or another big city? And Jesus, what did it mean for him and Jill? Could they do the long distance thing?
“I need to talk to Jill.” It would be like lighting dynamite. “And I need some time to decide what to do.”
He could feel the walls closing in. If he took her up on her offer to set the record straight, everyone in Dare would know what he’d done.
would know. He sat down, exhaustion deflating him like an undercooked soufflé. “Look, no one here knows what happened.”
“I won’t say anything if you don’t want me to.”
The picture on the wall of Jill with her family made his stomach hitch. They’d been everything to him growing up, and it had hurt like hell to lose them. They wouldn’t understand. No one would. “For all its trendiness, Dare is a small town. What we did was wrong. I’ve grown up.”
“So I see. It only makes you more attractive.”
She approached him with a natural shimmy, and the notes of her specially blended Parisian perfume of hyacinth and frankincense consumed him. Few women could carry off a perfume so exotic. She was the embodiment of a sensual goddess, and she knew it.
“Think about it. I’m staying at The Kenilworth Inn.”
“Okay.” He walked to the door.
Her hum lingered in the air like her fragrance. “
see you soon
haunted him as he left the coffee shop to find Jill, his mind awash with new possibilities—and what they might cost him.
he snow-covered cemetery looked like a sheet of paper from death’s typewriter, gravestone markers pounded into the ground by its destructive keys, dotting the land with painful stories of lives ended short, long, and somewhere in between.
Jill walked carefully down the slippery sidewalk, needing her best friend—even if she wasn’t
anymore. The pine trees waved a forlorn greeting, whispering about nostalgia and grief. A fresh bouquet of yellow daisies and pink roses decorated Jemma’s grave. She tucked her arms around herself to ward off the chill. In her haste to get the hell out of Don’t Soy With Me, she’d forgotten her coat. Another smart move.
Jill knelt and traced the angel on the tombstone, summoning Jemma in her mind. Short blunt hair. Wickedly narrow eyes. Petite frame. Animated hands. A laugh as light and airy as cotton candy.
“Dammit, Jem. I need to talk to you like we always did.” The wind blew her hair away from her neck, causing her to shudder. “Brian lied to me, and just when everything seemed to be coming together so well. He had a lover in New York. An
French woman. She’s like something out of a Fellini movie—except she’s French, not Italian. God, it hurts.”
She gripped the stone, her skin burning from cold. “How could he lie about something like that? Did he think I’d freak out about him being involved with some older chick?” She sniffed. “Of course I am. She’s even hotter than Kelly Kimple. I was going to sleep with him tonight, Jem. I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life.”
She sniffled and wished she had a Kleenex. “Did the French chick dump him? Was he too devastated to tell me? Maybe she changed her mind. It sounds like they’ve been talking. Doesn’t that mean he wants her back?”
She thought of the familiarity of that woman’s heated kiss, and how Brian hadn’t exactly sprung away. He might as well have diced her heart with his chef’s knife. “What am I going to do?”
Being here made her feel a bit better. It was almost as if she could see her friend staring at her with bright eyes, pushing her bangs out of her face like she always did when she listened. Jill’s knees protested the freezing cold, so she sat on nearby bench. Her body felt like peanut brittle ready to crack.
She heard a car pull up. Pete Collins—Jemma’s betraying, scum-sucking ex—walked toward her. He held a bouquet of pink, orange, and yellow Gerbera daisies, the flowers he’d always given Jemma before he’d told her he wasn’t ready for marriage, dumping her a few scant months before she died. Jill brushed away her tears, turning her back to him.
“I was just going to leave these,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Why the hell are you here?” She pointed to the bundle, which was identical to the other bouquets she’d seen at the gravesite over the past few months. “If you think that wipes away your guilt, you’re dead wrong.”
He laid the flowers down and drilled her with an icy stare. “I’m not going to argue with you.”
Her rage bloomed like a mushroom cloud. “You made her last months miserable.”
“Stop this,” he said, shoving blond hair out of his eyes when the wind gusted. “I’m grieving too. I know you don’t want to believe that, but just because Jemma and I broke up doesn’t mean I stopped caring for her. Jesus, Jill.”
She trudged around the grave, her shoes sinking into the snow. “You broke her heart in two, and then you just had to show up with a new girl at the Halloween party to shove it in her face. That’s the last memory Jemma had, Pete.”
He thrust his gloved hand in the air. “Believe me when I say this: If I had known what would have happened that night, I never would have come. I can’t talk about this anymore.”
Even hearing the strain in his voice, she couldn’t forgive him. He shouldn’t have wanted anyone else.
“What the hell are you doing here without your coat?” He pulled off his North Face jacket and shoved her into it. “You’re freezing.”
“Just leave…me…alone.” Her teeth chattered.
“You can give my jacket to Brian,” he said as he took off down the path, not looking back. His Jeep fishtailed around the corner a few moments later.
“Oh, Jemma. Pete gave me his jacket.” His kindness—a reminder of the friendship they no longer shared—snapped the ribbons of control. The sobs rushed up her chest and out of her throat with a roar. She clutched the tombstone and held on.
“Jill,” she heard Brian say as he rounded the bench. His strong hands lifted her and pulled her into his warm body. “Don’t cry.”
The arms holding her were giving her the gentleness she’d craved. Yet she pushed back. “Leave me alone.”
Brian took note of the daisies and Pete’s jacket. So Jill and Pete had had a run-in, too. As if things weren’t bad enough. Jill had a huge heart, but it was a two-sided coin. When her emotions were positive, they were as inviting as the Ferris wheel. When they went negative, they were like a class-5 hurricane.
He was about to get the ass-kicking he deserved.
He planted his feet and hunched his shoulders against the brisk wind coming down from the mountain. “We need to talk about—”
“Your French lover? You lied to me
She lifted her chin, a proud move at odds with the mascara streaking down her face. “How could you? I thought we were getting close.”
“We are.” He took a deep breath. Her obvious pain deepened his guilt. “I’m sorry, okay? I don’t know what else to say. Let’s go somewhere and talk. You’re freezing.” She stepped away when he reached for her, making his gut clench. “Jill, please don’t turn away. We’ve come so far.” His mind flashed to those dismal months after graduation when she wouldn’t accept any of his calls. Panic descended.
“Have we? From where I’m standing, you wouldn’t have lied to me if we’d
come so far.
How could you not have told me about her?”
“It wasn’t relevant to us.”
“I asked you point blank, and you don’t think it’s relevant to us?” She hit her forehead. “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you take everything too seriously,” he stormed, his frustration with himself and her blurring what was right and wrong. “I was with Simca in New York. It was…complicated.” Her mouth formed a thin, straight line so he rushed on. “I told you I wasn’t a monk. It ended before I came back here.”
“I’m not mad you were with someone, but you lied about there being anyone
Her green eyes cut into him like lasers. “It was serious enough for her to come here. Have you been in touch with her?”
It hadn’t occurred to him that she’d think that. He took her shoulders and rubbed them briskly. “No! I didn’t answer any of her calls or texts. I had no idea she was going to show up like this.”
“And you didn’t think to tell me your ex-whatever was trying to reach you? When did it start?”
Shit. He looked away. “A few weeks ago.”
“So, when we were ‘involved.’ And you didn’t think to mention it to me? Wasn’t it bothering you?”
His shoulder lifted. “I ignored her. I thought she’d give up.”
Her laugh was bitter. “Yeah, well that clearly worked. I saw how she kissed you. And it sure took you a long time to push her away.” She wrapped her arms around her middle and rose to her feet.
“That’s not true.” He thrust his hand out to stop her from leaving. “I was in total shock. She was the last person I expected to see.” Brian rocked back on his heels, squishing snow. “I told her I’m with you.”
Jill snorted. “Great, problem solved.” She pressed a hand to her chest, her wet eyes making his chest hammer. “If it were over, you would have told me about her when I asked. We’re supposed to be friends—first, last, and always. The rest of it…” Her voice broke.
He ducked his head, not knowing how to respond. Telling her the full truth would be the stupidest thing he’d ever done. She would shut him out again, and he couldn’t go through that again.
“So what does she want? ‘Cause you don’t come to Dare by accident.”
His cough couldn’t clear his throat. “She wants me back. I told her I’m not interested.”
She wiped her nose with her sleeve. “I hear a ‘but’ coming from a mile away.”
He took off his gloves, grabbed her hands, and put them on her.
“Oh, Bri.” She rested her head on his chest and sniffed.
His arms wrapped around her and he kissed her hair, wanting to make the anguished sounds cease. His eyes burned when her tears plopped against his coat. “Jillie, please don’t cry. I’m sorry.”
“Tell me exactly what she wants.”
He could at least tell her that. He tucked her close. “She wants to open a restaurant together.”
She jolted and tried to pull away. “But…” she said. He kept his grip firm. “Oh God, she wants you to go back to New York.”
Even now the shock gave him a headache. He tried to cup her cheek, but she jerked back. “Yes.”
“You had talked about opening a place together?”
His insides jittered. “Yes.”
Her face crumbled. “And New York is where all the action is. Not like boring ol’ Dare.”
“Don’t say that! You know I love being here with you.”
“But you’re considering it.”
“Well, I can’t just discount it… It’s my dream to run a big-name restaurant. Don’t you remember what I had to overcome to get where I am? All the bad names my dad and lots of other assholes called me? This is important to me, Jill.” He punched the air. “And, dammit, I’m pretty confused right now, too. I never expected this, never!”
She wiped at more tears. Seeing her wet, blotchy face and runny nose undid him. He took her hands. “I couldn’t stand to lose you again.” He kicked the snow so hard it flew like gunfire. “But the thought of forever still scares me, and the last thing I want to do is hurt you.”
She finally threw her hands up in the air. The wind blew her red hair behind her like a flaming kite. “Well, you already have. You top the list of
People Who Have Hurt Jill Hale.
You need to decide what you want because I can’t
be serious about you. I don’t know if I can do this anymore. It’s like high school graduation all over again.”
The panic hit him like a haymaker punch. He hadn’t even told her everything, and she was already pulling away, retreating to past hurts. He snagged her arm when she turned away. “Don’t say that.”
She sniffed, looking down at her feet. “You still look at her like there’s something you haven’t resolved. It’s why you came home, isn’t it?”
“Yes, partly.” He opened his mouth to tell her the truth. Fear strangled him.
She tapped her foot, waiting.
He cleared his throat. Tried again. But he couldn’t utter the words.
She would run away for sure if she discovered Simca had been married. He couldn’t take that. She was the only stable thing left. The only piece of Brian McConnell he still understood.
“There were lots of reasons,” he finally said in a shaky voice. Even to his ears, he realized how paper-thin that statement was. He grabbed her shoulders. “Jill, please give us a chance to work this out. I’ll tell you everything…in time.”
She raised her hands. “What? Like in installments? Do I look like a bank?”
“I need more time, Jill.” God, he couldn’t tell her now. Not when she was this close to walking away. “There are reasons, Jill, and they don’t affect only me.”
She put her hands on her hips. Pete’s coat gave her the appearance of a light green grape.
“They affect her, right?”
“Not just her.”
“You must have your reasons if you’re being this stubborn. So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?” Her green eyes met his, all drenched and entreating. “I told you earlier that I love you.”
The wind carried the cold straight into his heart. He knew what was coming.
“Do you love me, Bri?”
His heart stopped pumping. His mother had said she loved him, but she hadn’t hesitated to abandon him for some man. What the hell was love? He took in a ragged breath through a bone-dry mouth.
“Jill, I’ve known you…all my life. Of course…I love you.” Even the blue jay in the pine tree seemed to laugh at him. It was pathetic.
Her spiky, black-caked eyelids flickered. “That’s not very convincing. Let me know if you decide what you want to do. You just can’t keep coasting through life not making a real decision about anything. In the meantime, I’ll be looking into other options.”
He squeezed her arm. “What the hell does that mean? You plan on hooking up with some guy to get back at me? Jesus, Red, that’s not you.”
She ripped off his gloves and thrust them out. “No, it means I’ll be looking into other business options. All we do is fight about our plans anyway. My life is here. You’ve always wanted to be in New York. Maybe you should just go back there.”
And in that minute, he knew he could never ask her if she was willing to do something long distance.
He could live without them working together, but it shattered his heart that she would tell him to go. “You want me to leave?”
She bit her lip. “No, but I want…you to be happy. You’ve chosen your career over me before. Why should this time be any different?”
He stood rooted in place, his whole frame shaking. “Dammit, that’s not fair. Just give me some time to think things over. Then we can talk,” he promised. Maybe she’d listen once she cooled down a bit.
Her hands pulled at her coat, her distress obvious. “I was going to sleep with you tonight. Did you know that? Funny how your whole chef thing has messed everything up. Again.”
She ran off the path, punching holes in the hard snow. He watched her until she disappeared down a side street.
Why did he feel like she was disappearing from his life again? He rested his hand on their best friend’s tombstone, suddenly worn to the bone. God, he’d hurt her.
“Oh, Jemma, what am I going to do?”