Finally warm and a little mellow from the wine she’d consumed, Christine sat back and sighed. “That was probably the best meal I’ve had in forever.” And that was saying something. As one of the top producers in her marketing firm she’d been courted by some of their best clients and taken to some of the best restaurants in New York. However, nothing could compete against Joe’s cooking. What a waste that he was holed up in Pinemarsh.
She studied him through the soft light of the fire burning in the grate, the only light besides the candles on the table. “Have you thought about taking this cooking thing on the road?”
He stilled. A moment ago he’d been as relaxed as she, kicked back in his chair, empty dinner plate pushed to the side, now suddenly he was a different person. “Why do you ask?”
She shrugged, uneasy. His shoulders were tense, his jaw muscle ticking, his blue eyes more like ice chips. “Because that’s the best food I’ve ever tasted and I think you could go far in a bigger city.”
For a long moment he didn’t say anything, just sat there staring at her. She got the impression he wasn’t seeing her. Had she said something she shouldn’t have?
She sat forward and moved her plate out of the way to make room for her elbows. “Forget I said anything. None of my business.”
She hated that she’d shattered the mood and the closeness they’d found, but it was also a reminder that she didn’t know this man very well. She’d like to get to know him but that wasn’t possible. Not now. Wrong place, wrong time. For once the saying made sense.
He stood and held his hand out to her. She stared at it, an internal battle waging inside her. The practical part of her, the sensible part of her, screamed that it was time to go back to work. The softer side of her, a side she didn’t even know existed until today, told her to take his hand and what it offered. She took his hand, the war lost before the first shot was fired.
He led her to the couch situated in front of the roaring fire. A huge, nearly nine foot Christmas tree was to their right, its hundreds of lights twinkling, festive packages beneath. Christine did the calculations. Christmas was three days away.
Joe pulled her down next to him and draped his arm around her shoulder, nudging her until her body was flush against his. She tried to ignore the fact that she fit perfectly in the space carved out for her, that his body was richly warm and his sweater so soft. He smelled good. Not of expensive cologne but of herbs and spices. She had an almost overpowering urge to tuck her legs beneath her and snuggle into him. A strange sensation washed through her and it took a couple of minutes to recognize it as contentment.
“Where do you live in New York?” he asked.
The tension slowly seeped from her body. The fire relaxed her to the point that she feared her bones were melting and he would have to scoop her off the couch. Vaguely she thought of her project and the cold apartment next door. Any thought of leaving vanished. She told him about the street she lived on and her tiny apartment that wasn’t decorated for Christmas because she didn’t have time.
“I know where that is.”
“You’ve been to New York?” Of course it wasn’t that far from Pinemarsh in miles but she was still surprised.
“I lived there for ten years.”
She craned her neck to look up at him. Mistake. The firelight illuminated all of the hard angles of his face and the softness of his lips. Her mind went to their kiss out in the snow, of the slight tremors that went through him when their lips touched. At first she’d attributed it to the cold, but in her heart she knew it was more than that because she’d trembled just as much and she hadn’t been cold at all. Just the opposite.
“You lived in New York?” She turned her thoughts from their kiss to his words. She hadn’t pegged him as a New Yorker. He was too laid back, too carefree.
He nodded, his expression serious, his eyes glued to the fire. She wanted to turn his head toward her, to press her lips against him and erase whatever it was that had his muscles tensing.
“I was a chef.” He named a very popular Italian restaurant that had her head reeling. She’d eaten there at the invitation of a client. One entrée was nearly half her monthly rent and well worth the price. It took months to get in and reservations were hard to come by.
Questions crowded her mind. Why’d you leave? What happened? And why are you in Pinemarsh? But she held them back, sensing his reticence, understanding that he needed to tell this in his own way and his own time. Biting back her questions she did what she’d wanted to do all night. She laid her head on his shoulder and snuggled into his side, resting her hand on his taut stomach. His arm tightened around her and he seemed to relax a little.
“I was very much like you,” he said. “I had a plan. I wanted success. I wanted people to whisper my name in reverence. I was good and I knew it and with that comes the inevitable arrogance. I could write my own ticket, forge my own path and people would gladly allow it. Restaurant owners were constantly trying to win me away. Businessmen wanted to back me if I started my own restaurant.”
He chuckled but there was no humor in the sound. Gone was the fun-loving man of this afternoon. “I started to believe my own press,” he said. “I thought I was invincible. I had the world by the horns and I was determined to wrestle it to the ground. I published eleven cook books by the time I was thirty-five. I had the richest, most powerful men seeking me out. I was at the top of my profession. Everything I’d worked for was in my hand and yet I wanted more. Nothing was good enough. No one worked hard enough for me.”
He lapsed into silence, overtaken by his memories while she remained still, digesting everything. This was not the Joe she knew. Granted she’d only known him a few days but the citizens of Pinemarsh loved him and she couldn’t see these good people loving the man he claimed to be.
How wrong she’d been when she thought him aimless—a party man with no drive to succeed.
When the silence was too much to bear she touched his hand. “What happened?”
He seemed to shake himself from his thoughts. “I just about killed myself.”
She sucked in a breath. Her hand tightened around his arm and she shifted to get a better look at his face but there was nothing to see. His expression was stoic, almost severe.
“I would reach my goal but that was never enough. I never took time to enjoy myself or what I was doing. My thoughts were constantly on the next goal, the next level.” He cleared his throat. Took a deep breath. “One night I was in the kitchen of the restaurant, creating a new dish for my next cookbook. It was late. The place had closed hours ago but it was the only time I had to experiment with my recipes. I don’t remember much of what happened, only what people told me. Apparently I left and headed to my apartment. I owned a sweet Ducati.” He lapsed into silence again.
Tense, Christine waited, dreading what he was going to say.
“Anyway, I woke up in the hospital a hot mess. Broken leg. Broken collar bone. Cuts and bruises all over. The doctors said I was lucky. They also said my blood pressure was through the roof and I was headed for a heart attack.” He took a deep breath. “It was my come-to-Jesus moment. I realized I wasn’t on the fast track to stardom but more like destruction. I knew if I didn’t change, if something didn’t change, I wasn’t going to last long. I came home to Pinemarsh to recover and I’ve never left.”
Christine was a sales woman, she was used to pitching her ideas and selling herself and the company she worked for, but in this she had no words. Emotions crowded her, made her mouth dry and her eyes sting with tears. Joe’s fingers that were draped over her shoulder moved back and forth, a comfort to her but she wasn’t the one who needed comforting.
She’d been so wrong about this man. So horribly wrong. He wasn’t a playboy or a partier. He wasn’t aimless or lazy. She did the only thing she could think of. She leaned up and kissed him. At first he seemed surprised. His shoulders stiffened and he didn’t kiss her back but she was relentless, needing to give comfort. Or maybe she was the one who needed the comfort.
His reticence didn’t last long. He kissed her back with a ferocity that both surprised her and excited her. He turned her, lifted her until she was sitting on his lap, her arms draped around his shoulders, the fire at her back, heating her. If she were honest, though, it wasn’t the fire heating her but Joe.
He pulled away, breathless and with a smile. “If I’d known that would be your reaction I would have told you my story a lot sooner.”
She laughed and it felt good to laugh, felt good to know that Joe could laugh about it as well. His hands were on her hips, anchoring her in place in case she decided to move. She wasn’t going to. Not anytime soon, at least.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “About your accident.”
He looked deep into her eyes, searching for something. She didn’t know what but she knew he didn’t find it when his darkened in disappointment.
“I’m not.” His voice was husky, sexy. “Sometimes things happen for a reason. It may take a while to find that reason but it’s there. I was meant to return here to my family. This is where I’m happiest. All those goals, all those plans, they didn’t make me happy like I thought they would.”
She pulled back. Just a little because he didn’t let her get far. She swallowed the lump in her throat and tried to breathe through the tightness in her chest. She didn’t begrudge him his happiness. How could she when he had to come through a near deadly accident to find it?
No, what brought tears to her eyes was the fact that however perfect this day was, whatever feelings were evolving inside her for this man, none of it mattered. This was where Joe Rossi was meant to be and New York was where she was meant to be.
He nudged her closer, his lips brushing against hers. “No more thoughts tonight,” he whispered, his voice so husky it sent shivers up her back. “Tonight’s just about us, okay?”
She nodded, thoughts of work drifting away on a sea of need.
Christine woke to the smell of coffee and burrowed under the covers, not yet ready to face the world. But when she realized the covers weren’t from her bed and there was no way coffee would be brewing unless she got up and brewed it herself, she sat up and looked around.
Joe’s bed. Joe’s apartment. Joe’s coffee.
Joe standing in the doorway with two steaming mugs, low slung jeans unbuttoned but zipped and nothing but a smile on that gorgeous face.
Memories from the night before assaulted her and had her cheeks heating. He hadn’t had to coerce her too much to spend the night and wow, what a night it’d been.
He crawled onto the bed and handed her one of the mugs. She took it gratefully and sipped. The caffeine hit her system with the power of a steam engine.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Ten. You were fast asleep and I didn’t want to wake you. I get the feeling you don’t sleep much.”
Ten? She’d never slept until ten. She pushed the blankets off and hopped out of bed. Those bright blue eyes of Joe’s looked her up and down, appreciation and amusement bright in them.
He tipped his head to the end of the bed where her robe was draped across the footboard. “Hope you don’t mind, but I went to your apartment and brought back a few things.”
“Thanks.” She snatched the robe up and put it on, her thoughts muddled but one thing perfectly clear. She’d wasted an entire day playing with Joe when she should have been working. Her project was due in seven days and she had nothing to show for it. Panic leached away the warm contentment she felt just moments ago.
Joe snagged her hand and held on. “Hold up, Christine.”
She looked at him absently. His brows were pulled down, the amusement and appreciation long gone from his eyes, leaving in its place disappointment.
“Don’t go running off just yet,” he said softly.
Her stomach clenched. She looked at the bed, at the rumpled sheets probably still warm from the night before. Then she looked at Joe. Joe with his bright smile that was conspicuously absent. Joe with the contagious laugh she’d yet to hear this morning and her heart turned over. He needed someone more like him. Someone who embraced life instead of charged at it.
She pulled her hand from his to touch the stubble on his cheek. She smoothed the worry lines from his brow and smiled sadly. “I can’t do this, Joe. I have work to do. A deadline to meet. If I nail this ad campaign and the company likes it, it opens doors for me that have previously been locked.”
His lips thinned and he nodded, a short, terse nod that instantly put barriers between them. She’d hurt him and it killed her that she’d hurt him, but what was she supposed to do? Forget everything she’d worked so hard for? Forget her career?
She stepped back, creating more distance between them. Distance that couldn’t be reversed by merely stepping forward again. For the first time she questioned her motives, her drive to succeed. Before Joe she had a clear-cut plan and was determined to meet it. She couldn’t deviate from that now. Not because of one night of sex. One, very wonderful, magical night of lovemaking.
The silence settled on her shoulders, weighing her down as she collected her clothes. Before leaving the bedroom she looked at him one last time.
“I’ve been where you’re headed,” he said. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“I understand that, but I have to try.” She blinked away the tears that suddenly appeared, blurring him to the point where she could barely see him.
“Joe. I…” She wanted to say she was sorry but the words were so inadequate and she didn’t want him to think she was sorry for last night when that was far from the case.
He slid off the bed and padded toward her. Unable to move, she looked up at him, at the face she’d learned intimately the night before. He touched her cheek with his knuckles, skimming them down to her throat. “Don’t go back to your apartment. Work here. With me.”
She released the breath she’d been holding, wanting nothing more than to stay here with him even if she was working. But she knew as well as he did that no work would get done and suddenly it would be tomorrow and she’d be another day behind.
“I promise I’ll let you work,” he said.
How was it that he knew what she was thinking?
He took a step back, breaking contact and those tears she’d fought, came back. Why now? Why’d she have to meet the man of her dreams now, when her entire career was finally falling together? Where was the fairness in that? For so many years she’d dated men like herself, driven to succeed. Men with a goal. She’d walked away from each relationship unfulfilled and frustrated.
With Joe she wouldn’t walk away unscathed. They’d only known each other a few days but already she understood what they had was different. Better. Deeper. And so much more difficult.
He took her hand and gently pulled her into the living room where a fire burned brightly in the grate and the Christmas tree twinkled with its thousands of lights. Her laptop sat on the couch and all the papers that had been in her apartment. Instead of being angry that he went through her apartment, she was touched that he knew how important all of this was to her. He wasn’t asking her to forget her deadline or her job. He was merely asking her to work here. With him.
“I have work to do too,” he said. “Recipes to transfer onto my computer. My agent’s been harassing me and my deadline is quickly approaching for the next cookbook.”
She looked at him in surprise. “I thought you were finished with all of that.”
“I’m finished with the big restaurants, but not with cooking. Never with cooking. It’s not just what I do but who I am. Creating dishes makes me happy and it’s a good way to earn money.” He smiled and it lit the room more than the fire and the Christmas lights.
Christine’s insides clenched. She was in big trouble here.
“Stay with me, Christine.”