Lani pushed at Baxter’s chest, then pushed harder when he leaned down and kissed her again. “All right, all right,” he said, both of them laughing. He looked at Riley, that spark still flashing in his eyes, and she felt a surprisingly sharp jab in the center of her chest.
“So, here’s the deal,” Lani was saying, but Baxter pulled her into a face-planting hug, muffling her voice against his chest as he grinned at Riley over her head.
“We’ve seen your amazing work in
,” he told her. “In fact, Lani looked it up right after you arrived. We discussed talking with you about this on the last cookbook, but you were new here, and had just left Chicago behind. We ... didn’t want to intrude. But we had trouble getting the photos for the second cookbook; we struggled a great deal with the team we ended up working with.”
Lani, laughing and pushing at her husband, managed to squeak free just enough to blurt out, “So we pitched your previous work to Baxter’s editor—who I guess is our editor now,” she amended quite gaily. “We wanted a green light before even talking to you.” She grabbed Baxter’s hand when he laughingly tried to subvert her again. “We want you to be the food stylist for the cookbook!” she said in a rush, then looked smugly up at Baxter, before lifting on tiptoes and kissing his pouting bottom lip.
Baxter retaliated by pinching her backside, which prompted a wolf whistle from Dre and an eyeroll from Charlotte.
“I believe there should be a new rule, effectively immediately,” Charlotte said. “No hanky-panky in the kitchen unless we all have equal opportunity hanky with our own personal panky.”
“Says the only other person in the room who happens to have a panky,” Dre grumbled.
“What’s a panky?” Alva wanted to know.
It was all a buzz in Riley’s ears, because she was still trying to digest what Lani had blurted out. Style food again. For a cookbook that was a surefire bestseller even before it was written.
“Would you be willing to consider it?” Baxter asked.
“Obviously you’ll have a lot of questions, but ... would you?” Lani lifted up on her toes, clasping her hands together under her chin, much like Alva had earlier, but looking far more winsome. “At least consider it?”
“Wow,” Riley said on a nervous laugh, skating along the edge of hysterical laughter.
Were they kidding? Consider it?
“When would we start?
“Is that a yes?” Lani squealed.
“We’d get a production meeting set up, then figure out the filming dates,” Baxter said, far more reasonable, but looking nonetheless equally thrilled. “As soon as we can swing it. A month at the most.”
“Don’t you have to plan it all out, test the recipes, and all of that?”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “It will take some time to complete the whole project, but we need to put together a sampler, something for marketing purposes for the publisher, as soon as possible. They have some other events they want to be able to promote up front, so there will be a lot of work to do, straight off.”
“We know you have other commitments,” Lani added. “But, being as it’s now almost October—and winter is a slow time for you, typically, right?—we were hoping—”
“I only have one winter under my belt here, but yes, it was slow last season. Given how spotty things have been already coming into this fall, I think it’s a safe bet this season will be the same. I’m sure I can work around my staging jobs.” Riley’s brain was spinning, but she couldn’t catch her breath enough to really let it all sink in.
“Actually, we’d want to have you on board full-time, for the duration,” Baxter said. “Naturally, you’ll be given prominent credit.”
Lani elbowed him. “Don’t overwhelm her.” To Riley, she said, “We’ll talk this all over, professionally. Hopefully tomorrow or as soon as you can make time for us. But right now, I say this is cause for a double celebration!”
The timer for Riley’s cupcakes went off exactly at that moment, and everyone jumped. Their laughter filled the room.
A bottle of champagne was produced from somewhere in Lani’s office, and Dre retrieved paper coffee cups from the front of the shop. “Franco is not going to be happy he missed this,” she said, coming back into the kitchen.
“I’ll talk to him tomorrow. He’s helping Carlo and me with the fall charity ball.” Charlotte smiled her little demure-but-devilish smile as she poured the champagne. “Besides, I don’t think he will be too upset that he’s not here.”
“Is he entertaining his new young man again?” Alva inquired.
Charlotte’s hand wobbled the champagne bottle, and Dre ducked her head to keep from being seen with a totally uncool smile, so it was left to Riley to respond. “Yes, Miss Alva, I believe he mentioned something about a dinner.” She shot the other two quelling glares, then smiled back at Alva. “I gave him one of my recipes for pan-seared duck.”
Alva smiled approvingly. “He’s being a thoughtful host. Setting a good table. Good boy. I do hope they practice safe sex.” She took the coffee cup from Charlotte just then, which was a good thing. Otherwise it might have ended up straight in her lap.
Riley thanked Char as she took the next cup and hid her smile behind the rim. Alva was such an odd amalgamation. None of them ever knew quite what to expect from her. Just when they thought she couldn’t shock them, she’d say something like that.
“To Baxter and Lani,” Charlotte said, lifting her glass. They all sipped, then Lani lifted her glass again. “And to Riley, who is going to make our cookbook look like a million bucks!”
Everyone sipped again and the room devolved into excited chatter as a dozen questions were aimed at Baxter and Lani. Riley took the moment to turn and get her cupcakes out of their pans to finish cooling on the racks. She worked by rote, her mind reeling in so many different directions, no single thought sustained itself for more than a few seconds.
She didn’t have a single tool of her trade, she’d have to talk to Baxter about meeting with the photographer; she wondered how he’d feel if she suggested they talk to Chuck and Greg. It was vital that the relationship between stylist and photographer be simpatico if they wanted shots worthy of a glossy coffee-table book, no matter the finished scale of the book itself. Richer was always better.
So lost in her thoughts was she that she jumped slightly when Baxter touched her elbow. “I know this has to seem like an avalanche of information, but Lan and I are so pleased you’re considering it. Please know that, when we get the chance to discuss all the logistics, if it’s not something you want to commit yourself to doing, we’ll understand.” He smiled. “Pout, throw a tantrum or two—”
Riley laughed. “I do have a lot of questions,” she said, being honest. “I know you’ve done two of these now, so it’s a process you’re familiar with, but I have my own style and process, too. We’ll really need to go over every detail before any of us should commit to doing this together. Friends and business, you know what they say—”
“You can trust your friends.” He looked over at his wife. “I married my best one.”
Riley’s smile softened, even as that tweak pinched her heart again. “That you did,” she managed. “I don’t have any bookings tomorrow, and my appointment with the new bed and bath vendor canceled, so if you’ll be staying on the island—or did you need me to go to Savannah?“
“No, this isn’t part of my television production. We can handle this from my office here on Sugarberry. I don’t have to be back on set until the first of next week to begin editing, so if we can manage it before then, that would be great. Actually, I’m getting the creative director I used with the first book, along with some of the production team, to come this way over the next few days.”
“Okay, well, good. I should be able to sit down whenever you want me. Why are you bringing the entire crew here? Are you going to want to do the book shoot here?” Riley thought, given the theme, maybe he planned to use Lani’s bakery kitchen, or perhaps their home.
Lani slid underneath Baxter’s arm and tucked herself next to him. “Did you tell her yet?”
“Was just about to.”
“Tell me what?” Riley asked.
“I had one of those brochures from when you styled the bungalow,” Lani said. “I showed it to Baxter a month or so ago, because I thought about maybe leasing it for that amazing kitchen space.”
“I’ve been thinking of perhaps filming some of the next season here on Sugarberry instead of in Savannah,” Baxter said. “But I can’t take over Leilani’s kitchen, and our home isn’t suitable for filming purposes.”
“So, on his way back here tonight, Baxter thought about how the bungalow with that amazing kitchen would be perfect as a backdrop for the preliminary stuff we need to shoot,” Lani interrupted excitedly. “It’s upscale, modern, but reflects island life, our life. It would be great neutral territory, not disrupting either of our regular day-to-day work spaces. If it all works, who knows, maybe we’ll do the whole book there.”
Lani’s words turned into a buzzing inside Riley’s head that only got louder when Baxter ended with, “I’ve already had a brief chat with Quinn about setting up a meet, just to see if the logistics work. I don’t know how long he’s leased the place, but he’s probably not going to be staying around for a long time, so if it works as well as we think it will, we’ll just arrange another short-term lease after he moves out.”
“That brochure was a double bonus, because Baxter’s publisher loved what you did styling the place. That and your work at
, and she was completely sold on bringing you on board.” Lani took Riley’s arm and squeezed. “Isn’t it exciting? It’s all falling into place, like it’s meant to be.”
Riley nodded, suddenly feeling a bit light-headed. In the span of one evening, she’d gone from firmly deciding not to pursue things with Quinn, to having to play poker in his home, to feeling jabs of doubt about her choice, and now ... working around him. For who knew how long. “Yeah,” she managed weakly. “Meant to be.”
uinn couldn’t type the words fast enough. When he was writing introspection, or action elements, he had to sit and work through the right thoughts or staging dynamics. But when it came to the dialogue and byplay between Joe and Hannah, it flew fast and furious. It was a challenge to write as fast as the words filled his brain.
His hands were cramping, his back and shoulders tight; he had no idea when he’d eaten last. The music he’d put on earlier had stopped some time ago, but none of that registered.
“Bam!” he grunted, hitting the final period on the keyboard. Flinging himself back in his chair, he whistled out a long, slow breath, feeling as if he’d just completed a marathon—which he had, of sorts. A mental marathon. It felt good to stop worrying about recording every word as it came into his head before it vanished, to give himself a mental break from thinking. Only then did the growling stomach, aching shoulders, and echoing silence filter back in.
He looked around and noticed the sun was already past zenith, casting long shadows across the back patio. He liked the cooler nights and lower humidity now that autumn was finally beginning to make itself known. He was probably the only one who didn’t mind the days growing shorter. He wrote better in the winter, for some reason. Something to do with hibernation and cave mentality, he was sure. But it was easier to focus.
He pushed himself out of his chair, then leaned forward and snapped his laptop shut. No more tonight. But he smiled. It was a good feeling to know that he was tempted, that he had more to say. Already ideas were waltzing around in his mind, snippets of conversation, thoughts his characters needed to have. He even started to look for a pad and pen to make additional notes, but forced himself to turn and walk into the kitchen.
“It’ll all be there tomorrow,” he told himself, then grinned. For once, he knew it would be. Right now, though, he wanted food. A glass of wine. Maybe sit on the deck to eat, pipe some music from the house, read a chapter or two of something written by somebody other than him. “Get a life,” he added to the list.
As he wandered into the kitchen his thoughts traveled straight to Riley. With her silence the past two weeks, she had made her choice clear. He really needed to stop those thoughts from getting on that train anymore. Mercifully, his new fictional friends were taking care of that for large portions of the day, but when writing time was over, his thoughts did wander.
He stared past the open door into the fridge, and thought about heading into town for dinner at Laura Jo’s. He’d been doing more of that and less of breakfast lately, as he’d pretty much hit the ground running, writing almost as soon as he opened his eyes in the morning. By the time he came up for air, it was lunch. More often than not, he spent that time hitting the beach for a good mind-clearing run.
And, if he were being honest with himself, a slim hope that a certain behemoth of a dog would accost him again. And bring his lovely owner along for the adventure. So far, no such luck.
He closed the fridge door. He didn’t feel like cooking. “Diner it is.” Grabbing his wallet and keys from the foyer table, he pulled the door open just as Riley was lifting her curled fist to knock on it.
Startled, she stepped back, then belatedly lowered her fist.
“Sorry,” he said, almost too stunned to speak. “I didn’t know you were there.”
“Of course, how could you have?” she said, trying for dry humor. The dark splotches of pink in her cheeks, and along the sides of her neck, gave away the true state of her nerves. He didn’t think he’d ever seen her that red.
“What can I do for you?” He leaned casually on the doorframe, pretending his heart wasn’t racing a thousand miles per second. Or that he wasn’t ridiculously happy to see her. All of which made him foolish and pathetic.
Shut it down, Brannigan. What part of thanks, but no thanks, didn’t you get?
Riley’s brows knitted together as she noticed the keys and wallet in his hand. “I’m sorry, were you heading out? Did they change the meeting time? Isn’t it supposed to be at seven?”
She frowned fully. “About the setups for the first shoot? For the cookbook? You and Baxter did agree to shoot some preliminaries here tonight when you spoke a few weeks back? Maybe I got the date wrong.” Another splash of color joined to the rest.
Quinn frowned along with her, then the lightbulb went on. Baxter. Cookbook. “Oh. Right. Is it Friday already?”
She smiled, a bit as one would when looking at a crazy person. “All day.”
“Good thing I didn’t leave for the diner then.” He stepped back and motioned her inside, feeling discombobulated and anything but smooth and in control. “That would have been rude. Come on in. Let me get you something to drink.”
Riley waited until he stepped out of the doorway before she moved into the foyer. “I’m fine, that’s okay. I’ll just ... I can wait in the kitchen until they get here.” She turned back as he closed the door. “In fact, if you want to head out to eat, I can let everyone in and show them what’s what. You won’t need to stay.” Her voice trailed off a bit as she added, “You know, if you’d rather not.”
Just like that, it was awkward. He wasn’t sure which thing he hated more, the awkwardness or the fact that Riley hadn’t once met his direct gaze.
rather me not.”
She sighed and looked more defeated than he could recall ever seeing her. In fact, he’d never seen her defeated. “I should have called you. Come by. Something.” Riley finally looked at him. “I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think straight when I’m with you, and I was—”
“Afraid I’d talk you into something again.”
“You didn’t talk me into anything. I made my own choices. I was just trying to do what I thought would be better for us both, down the line. I really ...” She shrugged. The helpless look that accompanied it was worse than the defeated one. “You were right. I can want what I want, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to handle what I’ll get.”
“That’s fair, and the only reason I haven’t turned up on your doorstep with Brutus bribes and a list of reasons why I think you should give us a chance.”
She gave a flicker of a smile at that, and a few small pieces of his heart shifted back into place. He was sad, and sure, he was hurt. Maybe even a little angry, not at her, but at the gods, or fate, or whoever thought putting her in his path had been a good idea in the first place. But none of that was her fault. She’d been trying to tell him all along that she wasn’t ready.
“I appreciate that. I’m not sure I deserved the consideration.” That tiny hint of smile resurfaced when she added, “Just make sure Brutus never finds out what I just turned down.”
Quinn made the lock and key motion over his mouth, as she had that day on the beach.
Her expression softened then. For just a moment, real warmth crept into her eyes, mixed in with what looked like regret, or maybe he was just seeing what he wanted to see.
“What are you doing for the cookbook?” he asked, searching for the right tone, the right balance. The longer she stood there, the harder it was starting to be. He wanted to do the right thing by her, especially when the last person she’d let in had done so wrong. He still knew none of the specifics, nor had he tried to find out. The aftermath was all he needed to see, to know.
“You mean, why am I here? Oh.” That seemed to set her back. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. Wow, that just makes this even more awkward,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean to make it a surprise. Thought it was all—anyway, I’m styling the food. For the prelims, and if that goes how we hope it will, for the whole book.”
He smiled. It was something of a relief to have an honest and sincerely happy moment between them. “That’s great. I mean, I’m assuming it is. You said you loved your work.”
“I did. And yes, this is a dream come true. Totally out of the blue and, well, pretty exciting.”
He was happy for her. But he wasn’t happy about how she was trying to downplay it, as if being happy in his presence was somehow rubbing it in his face. “Riley, it’s okay to be happy, to be excited. I’m truly excited for you. I’m sorry, about the us part, okay? But that’s all I’m sorry for.”
She didn’t speak right away; then she took in a steadying breath, and let it out slowly. “Okay. Thank you. That’s ... good.”
And still so damn awkward he wanted to scream.
“How is the book coming?” she asked, always the trouper, trying to make things okay for everybody else.
“Flying. Editor’s happy, publisher’s happy, I’m happy, the characters are happy.”
Her lips curved, and she finally looked comfortable and not so tense and jumpy. “That’s great. Really.” She pointed to herself. “Reader is happy.”
His responding grin came fast and naturally, and so did the clutch in his chest. God, he wanted her back. He missed her so much, even though he’d never really had her. In his arms, his space, his bed ... his life.
He let that yearning show through on his face.
And she shifted her gaze away again. “So, do you want to go—”
They stopped, both faltered.
He motioned to her to go first.
“I was just asking if you wanted to go eat. If this works, the book, I mean, I’ll—uh, I can make up a schedule. Of when I’ll be here. Just so you know.”
“You don’t need to do that. And I wish you didn’t feel you have to tiptoe around or act like you’re at a funeral. I’m not fragile and I’m not dead.”
“I know, I know. I’m not good at hurting people I care about,” she said. “And I know I hurt you. Maybe not a deathblow or anything, it was just a kiss, but still ... it’s not something I ever meant to do.”
“I know that,” he said quietly. “You did exactly what you were supposed to do. You were honest with me. And yourself. No one can ask for more than that.”
She didn’t say anything, as her gaze wandered the foyer, then fell back to her hands, which clutched the small tote she was carrying in front of her in a white-knuckled grip. She remained silent for a long moment, as if trying to decide whether or not to say what was on her mind.
“Is there something else?” he asked. “No point in censoring your thoughts now.”
She looked up at that. “Part of me wants to tell you all the things I’ve been thinking about the past few weeks, so maybe you’ll understand how much I didn’t want either of us to be hurt.”
“And the other part?”
There was a hint of ... desperation, almost, in her eyes. But, she squeezed them shut, and dipped her chin. For the first time since she’d entered the house, he had to curl his fingers into his palm to keep from reaching for her.
He opened his mouth to tell her he would go to the diner for the duration, but her head shot up, and her eyes were open again. Huge and ... scared.
He stepped forward without hesitation. He took her arm, but stopped short of pulling her close. “What is it?” He was actually alarmed. “Is everything okay? Did something else happen?”
“Yes.” Her voice was shaky ... as was she. He could feel the tremors in her arm. “Something did happen.”
“God, I feel like a fruitcake or something. I thought I could come here, and do this. Okay, no I didn’t. I had no idea how I was going to work here, be here, around you. Just because I decided I couldn’t handle it doesn’t mean the want goes away. And now ... you’re going to think I’m ... well, whatever you think I am, I’m sure I’ll deserve it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The thing that happened was me trying to figure out how I’m ever going to bridge my past to get to my future. I watch Baxter and Lani, and Char and Carlo. Heck, Alva’s even been seeing Sam Shearin on the sly, though she thinks we don’t know about it. Franco has a new beau. It’s all around me. I can’t escape it, can’t stop thinking about it ... can’t stop wishing I had it.” She lifted her free hand. “I know, I know. I could have it. It’s staring me right in the face. All I have to do is grab for it.”
She lifted her gaze to his and his heart squeezed until it about broke in two when he saw those twin pools go glassy with tears. Her lip was quivering. “I want it so badly.” The words choked out on a hoarse whisper. “I do, Quinn. I do. And I haven’t, for even one second, stopped wanting it.” She was almost pleading with him. “But I’m so scared. I know it’s dumb, and I should be strong, but I’m just not. I’m not, and the fear is real and it’s big. It’s swallowing me up. I’m so ready to be happy ... but I don’t know if I can go through being hurt again. I want to make that grab, but then I think about last time, and how hard I’ve worked just to get to where I am now. And I don’t know how to get to what comes next.”
He felt her shoulders jerk and her body shake, and he tugged her hard and fast against his chest, folding her into his arms, wrapping her up tight. “It’s okay.” He pulled the tote she’d been carrying from her hands and blindly shoved it on the foyer table behind him, not caring about whatever it was he’d just shoved off the table to the floor, then pulled her more tightly against him. “I’m so sorry you were hurt.” It was the God’s honest truth, and the only part of the truth he could afford to let himself think about, or he’d get angry all over again and want to go asshole hunting. “I hate it. I wish like hell I could give you a guarantee that nothing will ever hurt you again—”