Authors: Erika Kelly
YOU REALLY GOT ME
“Lovable characters and pulse-pounding chemistry make this one of my favorite reads of the year!”
âLaura Kaye,New York Timesbestselling author
“A poignant tale about uncompromising loveÂ .Â .Â . Kelly really brings these multidimensional characters and world aliveÂ .Â .Â . A no-holds-barred tale of drunken nights, an alpha rockstar, and a charismatic heroine.”
“[A] no-nonsense, gritty story line about the uglier side of rock and rollÂ .Â .Â . There are destructive moments of anguish and heartbreak followed by intense passion and provocative love. Erika Kelly will captivate your imagination.”
âThe Reading Cafe
“An entertaining and wild ride as Emmie and Slater learn what's important while fighting their fears. Erika Kelly created an interesting portrayal of the music industry and some lovable characters.”
“A really interesting look at how hard it is to be a whole person, let alone be in a relationship, and also be a celebrityâor an aspiring oneÂ .Â .Â . This is an author to watch.”
Titles by Erika Kelly
YOU REALLY GOT ME
I WANT YOU TO WANT ME
TAKE ME HOMETONIGHT
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT
A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with Suzanne Kaufman Kalb
Copyright Â© 2016 by Erika Kelly
Excerpt fromYou Really Got Meby Erika Kelly copyright Â© 2015 by Erika Kelly.
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eBook ISBN: 9781101987230
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / April 2016
Cover photos: portrait of a sexy male model Â© CURA photography / Shutterstock; piano keyboard Â© BlueSkyImage / Shutterstock; electric guitar (tattoo) Â© Andrei Krauchuk / Thinkstock.
Cover design by Rita Frangie.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book is dedicated to Sharon,for talking me down and building meup.ACKNOWLEDGMENTSMy hero, my best friend, the love of my lifeÂ .Â .Â . . Superman, I think we're rockin' the empty nest.Joshua Path, phenomenal singer-songwriterÂ .Â .Â . with a heart full of gratitude, I thank you for being my consultant on all things music-related in this series. Your help has been invaluable throughout, but on this book? I couldn't have written it without you.I have lucked out with my publishing team. Thank you, Leis Pederson, for seeing every tree in the forest. Rita Frangie and the art department, you guys knocked my covers out of the park. Yvette Grant, Joan Matthews, and Ryanne Probst, thank you for such great support!Of all the agents in all the land, I got the best. Thank you for being so awesome, Kevan.Sharon, you are the best friend and critique partner a girl could ask for.You are always hugely helpful, Olivia, but on this oneÂ .Â .Â . you saved the day.There is no community as supportive and generous as romance readers and writers. The Dreamweavers, mychaptermates at CTRWA, COFW, CoLoNY, and WRW, and all the wonderful people I've met along the wayâthank you for your friendship, advice, and support. (Like, for example, Laura Kaye, who came up with the title for this book!) And the blogs? Don't get me started. Obsessed with Romance, About That Story, Reading in Pajamas, Herding Cats and Burning Soup, Guilty Pleasures, Cocktails and Booksâjust to name a fewâyour passion for stories and support of authors is inspiring. And a special shout-out to Kristy DeBoer and Kathy Pageâyou ladies rock!ContentsPraise forYou Really Got MeTitles by Erika KellyTitle PageCopyrightDedicationAcknowledgmentsCHAPTER ONECHAPTER TWOCHAPTER THREECHAPTER FOURCHAPTER FIVECHAPTER SIXCHAPTER SEVENCHAPTER EIGHTCHAPTER NINECHAPTER TENCHAPTER ELEVENCHAPTER TWELVECHAPTER THIRTEENCHAPTER FOURTEENCHAPTER FIFTEENCHAPTER SIXTEENCHAPTER SEVENTEENCHAPTER EIGHTEENCHAPTER NINETEENCHAPTER TWENTYCHAPTER TWENTY-ONESpecial Exerpt fromYou Really Got MeAbout the AuthorCHAPTER ONE
“I love you, Slater fucking Vaughn!” The zealous fan tossed her panties onstage, and the band launched into its next song.
Oh, I love this one. Closing her eyes, Mimi Romano let herself float away on Slater's sexy, emotional voice and wildly romantic lyrics.
Her phone vibrated in her hand, jerking her back to reality. She whipped it up so fast it leapt into the air, and she scrambled to catch itâit was like trying to wrestle a live fish. Thankfully, she caught it before it hit the ground.
Calm down, you freak!She had to laugh at herself. She'd auditioned, what? Eight hours ago? No way would she get a response so quickly.
Mimi swiped the screen. Even though she knew it was too soon to hear back, her spirits still plummeted when she saw a text from her mom.
She'd go out of her mind if people kept bringing it up.I love you but please don't keep asking! It'll make me crazy.
Her mom responded right away.Sorry! Excited for you.
Promise to let you know.
She knew her mom didn't like being on the other side of the world while Mimi pursued this amazing opportunity. But, of course, Mimi hadn't even applied when her mom had decided to spend three months in Australia with her boyfriendâwho just happened to be the band's A&R guy.
After dropping her cell phone into her clutch, Mimi looked up to find her friend Violet standing beside her with a hopeful expression. She shook her head. “I'm sure I won't hear for a few days.”Gah.The wait would kill her. An interview, a debate, pitching a proposal, anything business-related, she could crush. But a cooking competition?
What were you even thinking?Why had she gone after something so outside her wheelhouse?
“What was that?” Violet asked.
“That face you just made. Like you just realized you forgot to put on pants.”
“Oh, that?” She laughed. “You mean that moment of blind panic?”
Her friend smiled warmly. “Yeah, Meems. That.”
“Well, I meanÂ .Â .Â . fuck a duck.” She let out a huff of breath. “Ireallywant to get on this show. I know it's ridiculous. Obviously, I should be looking for a real job instead.”
“You'vebeenlooking for a job. Eleven months, Meems. That's a long time. And you've hit more than your share of dead ends. I think you're amazing for trying something different.”
Hope reared its head, but she stomped it back down with the toe of her sling-back sandal. “Half of me's shaking my pom-poms, totally believing what you say, and the other half is like, âGirl, are you nuts? You don't stand a chance.' I mean, come on, I auditioned for a cooking competition with an MBA.”
“You're way more than an MBA. You're the chef for anup-and-coming rock band, and you're Dino Romano's daughter. You grew up in the restaurant business. And if that still doesn't get them, your amazing personality will.”
Her friend was absolutely right.Soright that hope wriggled back upâand stuck its tongue out at her. A rush of emotion had her enveloping Violet in her arms. “Thank you.” She'd needed to hear that.
“Oh, honey, you're shaking.”
“I have to get this, V. I have to.” Because scoring a spot on a nationally televised cooking show?Thatwould fast-track her way onto her dad's payroll. God knows nothing else had.
Okay, really, she had to stop thinking about it. It was out of her hands at this point. She turned around to watch the band.
She'd met Blue Fire while living on Violet's wildflower farm at the tip of Long Island. When one job after another hadn't panned out, she'd wound up helping her mom and Violet develop their wildflower-based products. They sold tea, soap, candles, and potpourri to high-end gourmet and specialty shops in New York.
She loved living with the band, and watching them perform never ceased to thrill her. They werethatfreaking good. Never in her life had she seen a hotter lead singer than Slater Vaughn. With the sculpted physique of an athlete and a striking face that had graced the cover ofGQ, he'd already hitPeople Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue.
But for all his hotness, she had to admit, her gaze always slipped right past him and onto her favorite distraction: Blue Fire's temporary keyboard player.
Calix Bourbon was a total badass. Dark, tall, brooding. The kind of guy that made a girl think of uninhibited, pull-my-hair-when-he-takes-me-from-behind sex. Not that she wanted him, of course. Calix wasn't the type to have a girlfriend. Just the kind a woman had filthy thoughts about. Harmless.
As he threw his whole body into playing, his dark hair shook, gleaming in the lights, and his thick biceps flexed and bulged.That man is sexy as fuck.
Violet bumped her shoulder. “Since when is a rocker dude your type?”
Oh, crap, had she said that out loud? She slapped a hand over her mouth, hiding her smile.
“Unless you're imagining him waiting for the 2 train wearing an Armani suit, a pair of leather cap-toe oxfords, and carrying a Ferragamo briefcase?”
“You think I'd wrap that body up in a suit? But thank you for not cutting his hair off in that scenario.”
“Oh, it would be criminal to cut Calix's hair.”
Right then the song transitioned to the swoony part. “Ilovethis.” She held her breath as Slater belted out a note so wrought with emotion it twisted around her heart.
As always, though, her gaze wandered to the keyboard player. At six-four, Calix had the hard, ripped body of a fullback. Add in his mess of shoulder-length hair, facial scruff that framed a generous mouth, and unusual ink all over his body, and the man was pure, smoking-hot badass.
Just then his head tipped back, and it felt almost lurid to watch his intensely sensual expression. As if she'd walked in on him in the throes of sex.
Hot, sweaty, uncivilized sex.
“Why won't he just join the band already?” Concern tightened Violet's brow. “It's not like he has anything else going on. What musician wouldn't want to be with these guys?”
And see? That was why Calix was nothing but a fantasy. A session musician at age twenty-six, he didn't have an ounce of ambition or drive. She didn't know him wellâhe came to the studio when called and left the moment he was no longer neededâbut if she'd met him in college, he'd have been the quintessential frat boy with a cigar in his mouth, a girl's ass cheek in his hand, and a perpetually sloppy grin on his devastatingly handsome face.
Not her typeat all.
Now, a man in a suit, a sharp watch on his wrist, intelligence in his eyes. Yeah, that.
Her phone buzzed, sending a jolt through her body. Could this be it?
Quickly swiping the screen, she found a text from her dad.
Meeting just ended. Heading back to the city.
Wait, seriously? He'd been out in the Hamptons all weekend, and she hadn't seen him once.
Let's just get a drink before you go.
Better not. Have an early meeting.
She tried to ignore the pinch in her heart.Hey, now. If I can't get those crespelles you promised me, you can at least buy me a drink!She'd planned on sleeping over at his house, but the deal he'd been working on for months had blown up, keeping him in the city until Saturday afternoon.
She knew not to take it personallyâof course her dad loved her. He was just super busy.
Tough weekend, tesoro.
One drink with your daughter could be just the thing.
When he didn't immediately respond, her body went tight. He wouldn't blow her off, would he? Not when she'd put herself out there.
But then her phone vibrated, and relief sped through her.
You're right. It will be just the thing. I'm turning onto Main Street. I'll park and we'll get a drink at La Plume.
Let me say good night to Violet. Meet you outside.
But when she turned back to the stage, her gaze caught on Calix. His hair shimmied with his passionate playing.Completely absorbed in the music, he had no idea how much sex he was having right at that moment. Every woman in the room had to be thinking about dragging him off to the bathroom and licking a path from his pecs to hisâ
“And I thought rockers weren't your type.”
Mimi just smiled at Violet. “I'm just surprised he can play when I'm pulling his hair as hard as I did in my mind just now.”
“You dirty girl.”
“Listen, my dad's outside. I'm going to go.”
A crash of drums hurt her ears. In the following moment of silence, Slater Vaughn pulled up his T-shirt to wipe the perspiration off his handsome face, and women screamed and threw more panties onto the stage. Ben, the drummer, tossed his sticks into the crowd.
Applause broke out, and she allowed herself one last look at Calix. A shock of awareness hit when his gaze met hers across the crowded room. He gave that half smile of hisâmore a smirkâthen disappeared from the stage. Mimi turned to go, when Violet reached for her.
“Let me know if you hear anything.”
“Of course. See you at the house.”
Making her way through the crowded club, she pushed out the door and stepped into the cool April air. She didn't see her dad's car out front, so she checked for him down the street. Lined with bright blue awnings and black wrought iron benches, the sidewalk was quiet at this late hour.
For eleven months, she'd had nothing to share with him but one failure after another. She'd love more than anything to give him good news tonight.
“Amelia,” her dad called from across the median. Typing away on his phone, he stood under an old-fashioned streetlamp.
She'd just give her e-mail a quick check. Pulling her phone from her clutch, she logged into her account and waited for it to load.Please, please, please let there be an answer.
Her skin tightened when she saw a message from NBC. She opened the e-mail.
Dear Ms. Romano,
We are happy to welcome you as a contestant on our five-week cooking competition on theVerna Bloom Show. This is a huge achievement, as over 750 finalists auditioned for the six spots.
The competition begins in one week, so please show up promptly at 11 A.M. on May 2 for makeup and wardrobe.
Holy crap. Holy freaking crap. Mimi wanted to scream and jump up and down. Instead, she raced across the street and threw herself into her dad's arms.
He laughed, hugging her so tightly her feet lifted off the grass. “Tell me, my love. Tell me the good news.” Even though he'd been in America since he was a boy, he still retained a hint of his native Italian accent.
She pulled back, finding it hard to speak through the wild pounding of her heart. “Dad, oh, my God. I made it. I got on the show.” She shoved the phone at him.
He pulled his reading glasses out of the pocket of his sport coat to read the screen. His handsome features pulled into a scowl, and he handed the phone back. “Okay.”
Confusionâand disappointmentâslammed her. “Okay?”
“Come, let's get a drink. We can talk about some ideas for you.”
Wait, why was he being so dismissive? “Didn't you read it? I made theVerna BloomShow. Oh, my God, Dad. I made it. There were thousands of applicants, and I made the show.”
“Amelia, stop.” He looked at her like she'd suggested they do body shots.
“You're not doing this show.”
“What do you mean I'm not doing it? Of course I'm doing it.” Where was this coming from? “You knew I'd auditioned.”
“Why would I take it seriously? It's ridiculous.”
“There's nothing ridiculous about it. Oh, my God, I can't believe it. I did it. I'm going to be on the show.” God, VernaBloom was the hottest cooking show host in the country. “Do you know what an amazing opportunity this is?”
“To do what? Make a fool of yourself on national TV?”
She couldn't have been more stunned if he'd shoved her. “I'm notÂ .Â .Â . why would I make a fool of myself?”
“Because you're not a chef. You have no training.”
“I might not have formal training, but IÂ .Â .Â . I cook.”
Her dad lowered his chin and raised his eyebrows in a familiar expression that made her feel like the ten-year-old girl who'd told him she could make acroque-en-bouchewithout a recipe. “Standing on a chair beside me as I makecrespelleis not the kind of training necessary for a career in the culinary arts.”
“I'm not looking for a career in the culinary arts.” She lifted her arms in a gesture of,What the hell are you talking about?“What is the matter with you? You want me to have real-world experience. Well, here it is.”
“That's enough. I don't want to talk about this anymore. Come, let's get a drink.”
“I don't understand why you're acting this way.”
Those dark eyes narrowed on her. “You want me to take you seriously, then take yourself seriously.”
Her mind shorted out, and she felt momentarily disoriented. “Of course I take myself seriously. I've spent the last eleven months killing myself to get a job. Why would you say that?”
“Because you're talking to me about reality TV.”
“Amelia, for goodness' sake, do you really want to be Verna Bloom'sapprenticeâis that how you see yourself?”
“I see myself as an educated, competent woman who's trying to get the kind of experience that will make her father hire her.”
“Why the hell would I hire Verna Bloom'sapprentice?”
“Because she got chosen out of thousands of applicants to audition. And then she beat out seven hundred and fifty people to land a spot on the show. And then she slammed five other contestants towin. You hire winners, right, Dad?”
“I don't hire reality TV imbeciles.”
The blow rendered her speechless. She turned away from him so she could calm down enough to think. She wanted to point out the difference between a cooking show and the Kardashians, but that didn't seem the point. Not to her. “I don't know what you want from me. I've done everything you asked. You said Ivy League, and I did it. But you didn't hire me. You said I had to get an MBA first. So I got it. But it still wasn't enough. No, you had to throw out the real-world-experience hoop. I tried to get a job, Dad. You know that. Do you not want me to work for you? Is that the bottom line here? Because that's making a whole lot more sense than anything else right now.”
“Amelia Oriana Romano, for God's sake. You think I'm stupid? I'm a stupid man? Is that what you think?”
“No, Dad.” She couldn't believe he was getting worked up. She'd just landed an amazing opportunity and instead of being happy he was demeaning her.
“You are not only going to work with me, you're going to take over the company. You think I've built this business just to put it in someone else's hands? Your whole life I've taught you everything I know so that one day you'll step into my shoes.”
Yes. That was what she wanted with all her heart.
“But those shoes are too big for you today.”
“Too big? I'm sorry, are you saying my magna cum laude degree from Cornell in hotel administration isn't good enough to work at Dino Romano and Associates? My Columbia MBA isn't quite up to snuff? How about my three summer internships with the Hazard Groupâyour biggest competitor, who, by the way, wouldn't hire me because they thought I would feed deal information to you?”
“Your education is outstanding. But if you came to work in my office, you would be seen as nothing more than my daughter.”
“What are you talking about? I'm going to be your daughter no matter when you hire me. And I'll earn their respect. You know I will. I'll do anything. God, Dad, I'll make coffee every day if that's what it takes to get started.”
“Did you ever wonder why I have so few people working for me?”
“Uh, because you're frugal? Because you came to America with nothing but the clothes on your back? Because nonno was a tailor and nonna a seamstress, and you grew up in the two rooms in back of the shop? Because you put yourself through college washing dishes? And built this business with your own two hands?”
He chuckled. “Well, yes, all of that. But also because I hire only the best. And the nature of the best means there are very few of them. And, Mimi, my team? They're the major players in the restaurant industry. And they won't have respect for the owner's daughter hired right out of college. Trust me on this. You need to earn your way in this business before you come to them as an equal.”
“So does that mean you're not hiring me until I'm forty with fifteen years of experience under my belt?” Because if that were the case, he could forget it.
“Of course not. It means you need to work for a hospitality development company so you can learn all aspects of the business. My firm is small,tesoro.Everyone knows a little bit about everything.”
“Well, I've run out of job options in New York City. So, I'll earn their respect after my gig on theVerna Bloom Show.”
“After you've made a fool of yourself on national television, they'll view you as the pampered socialite daughter of Dino Romano.”
A prickly heat raced through her body. “Is that what you think of me?”
“Don't be ridiculous. But what do you think the world will think of you?”
“I don't care what the world thinks. I care what you think. You want me to have exposure to every aspect of this business? Well, that's what the winner of this competition gets. As Verna Bloom's sous chef for a season, I'm going to learn about cooking and the management of a kitchen. I'm going to make invaluable connections.” She leaned in. “And I think you know better than anybody that the restaurant business in New York is all about connections.”
“You should care very much how the world will see you because the show will depict you as a fool. They chose you for ratings.” Her dad practically shouted at her. “Because you won't know what you're doing, and you'll cut yourself with a knife, and your sugar won't turn to syrup, and you won't present clean plates, and you'll be shoutingFuck a duckevery time you get flustered.”
Her body sank into a pit of hot, steaming mortification. She could see it. Everything he said, she could see happening.
And so she had to stop listening to him. No matter what, she was doing this showâthere were no other optionsâand shelikedthis one.
His negative thoughts had the power to sink her, so she couldn't be around him right then. Taking out her phone, she turned and headed down the street. She'd call a cab and go home. Or maybe she should go back to the club. Get a ride with the band. No, they'd have to schmooze, do some press. She wanted to go home now.
At the intersection, she searched her contacts for the cab company. But she couldn't see through the blur of tears. More than anyone else's on the planet, she'd wanted his support.
“Amelia, sweetheart.” She hadn't even noticed her father had followed her. “I love you, and I want the best for you. And I'm telling you right now this show is a mistake. I'm not trying to upset you. I'm trying to save you.”
“Okay, but youareupsetting me. I have to do the show, Dad. I have nothing else, and if I don't do it, what then? What other options do I have?”
“We'll come up with something. There are always options.” He gave her that determined look of his. The one he got when he tried to bend her to his will. “The kind that won't make you look like a fool.”
Hurt pulsed with every beat of her heart. “I've been cooking for the band for four months. I grew up in kitchens. I'm not going to choke.”
She was totally going to choke. She didn't know the first thing about culinary arts. But really, screw him.
“You've been making sub sandwiches and spaghetti andmeatballs.” He grew serious. “You'll be the laughingstock of the show.”
She took a step closer to him. “You're my father. And even if you're worried about me, you should still support me. Do you realize you haven't even said the one word I needed to hear?”
“What word, my angel?”
Just as her finger hovered over the cab company's number, a motorcycle roared down the street. With his long, dark hair fluttering out the half-shell helmet, the unmistakable figure of Calix Bourbon came cruising down the asphalt in a black and chrome Harley.
“I can't say it.” Her dad shoved his hands into his pockets. “I can't tell you what you want to hear when I know the truth. And you know why? Because I love you. With all my heart, I love you, and I want the best for you.”
“I'm doing this show, and I'm going to win.”
“You are so much better than reality TV.”
“So much better than theVerna Bloom Show, but not good enough to work with you? Cool, but where does that leave me?” She stepped into the intersection, forcing the bike to stop.
“Amelia.” The concern in her dad's tone almost made her turn back to him.
Calix's big boot hit the ground. He watched her with those intense, dark eyes.
“Can you give me a ride?”
His heated gaze took a slow, predatory slide from her eyes to her mouth to her breasts, all the way down to her hips.
“Melie.” The two syllables fired like pellets out of her dad's mouth. “What the hell are you doing?”
But she ignored him and approached the bike. She'd never ridden on a motorcycle. How could she straddle it in her tight skirt?
Without a word, Calix pulled a combat foldout knife from the pocket of his jeans and flipped it open. The loud flick excited the hell out of her. Leaning in, he looked up, a question in his eyes. Heart pounding, she nodded.
With the tip of the blade he pulled the skirt away from her legs.
“Hey.” Her dad charged into the street. “Donottouch her.”
But Calix didn't even look at him. He kept his inquiring gaze on Mimi.
She gave him a nod. In one swift flick of his wrist, Calix slit her skirt nearly up to her lace boy shorts.
“Are you out of your mind?” her dad shouted.
Instead of answeringâand really, maybe she was a little out of her mindâshe hitched up the material and threw a leg over the seat. With her hot pink panties exposed for all the world to see, she leaned forward, closing the distance between her and Calix's big body.
“Amelia, I don't know what the hell you're doing, but acting like a rebellious teenager is not going to encourage me to hire you.”
“So far nothing I've done hasencouragedyou.”
Calix pulled off his helmet and handed it to her. Once she had it on, she wrapped her arms around his incredibly hard, warm waist.
“I told you I'll come up with an idea for you, but if you get on that bike, I won't help you with anything.”
“Then I guess it's up to me to take it from here.”
Calix's big hand settled on her thigh, giving it a squeeze.
She understood the question. “Go.”
With a roar, the engine blasted between her thighs.
She never looked back.CHAPTER TWO
Heavy cloud cover and the speed of the bike made the world around her a blur of shapes and scents. Mimi knew the area well enough to make out scrubby oaks and pines and clusters of small buildings as they passed from one hamlet to the next. Her eyes stung, and she tucked in closely to Calix's back. He smelled goodâreally goodâand the worn leather of his jacket felt soft against her cheek.
He turned off Sunrise Highway, sped down country roads, and all the while Mimi just held on, leaning with him as his bike tore through the black night. And then he eased into a long, winding driveway that led to a sprawling one-story house. He stopped and cut the engine. Her legs felt shaky, and the roar of the machine still vibrated through her body.
His gruff voice prompted her to actually get off the bike. “Oh, sorry.” One foot hit the ground, and she had to hoist the other leg over the seat without kicking him. She stumbled from the awkward angle, but he grabbed her arm, steadying her until she found her balance. “Thanks.”
“Give me fifteen, and then I'll get you home.” He took the helmet, set it on the seat, and then strode toward the house.
The air smelled amazing. Not sweet like Violet's wildflower farm, but a mix of damp earth, pine, and salty ocean breezes. And those sounds? Tinkling, mixed with deeper notesâan actual clanging. A symphony of wind chimes.
“You coming in?”
His deep voiceâwith a hint of a growl in itâhad her hurrying to join him at the front door. “Yes, of course. Sorry.”
Once inside, he flicked on the hall light. His boots thudded across the lightly stained hardwood floors. Framed photographs lined the broad hallway, but she didn't have a chance to look at any of them as she followed him deeper into the house. Too bad, because she really wanted a glimpse into this elusive man's life.
Turning on another light, he entered the kitchen. “You want anything?”
Holy shit, Calix Bourbon had a gorgeous cherry red Aga oven. Where the wood beams on the low ceiling and the tiled island gave the room a cozy feel, the bright blue, red, and grass green pottery displayed in a pie chest made it cheerful.
“Magic,” she murmured.
“Your kitchen. It's magical. Do you cook?”
Impatience in such a big man came off a little scary. “Yeah, I cook. You good in here?”
“Of course. Yes. Thanks.”
He towered over her, all big, imposing man. His shoulder-length hair was a tousled mess, his black T-shirt looked wrinkled and stretched out, and his jeans probably hadn't hit the spin cycle in weeks. He gave her a chin nod and said, “Fifteen.” His deep, slightly raspy voice sparked in her feminine core.
Striding out of the kitchen and across the living room, he punched the handle on the French door, slipping out into the night.
Mimi pulled a chair out from a large barnwood table and collapsed into it. God, she hadn't even had a moment to celebrate tonight's stunning victory. It was huge, right? Ittotally was. She pulled out her phone and typed a group message to Violet and her mom.
I got it!
A flurry of texts came, making it hard to keep up. But she couldn't stop smiling at their enthusiastic response. She wanted to tell them what her dad had said, but that would let his voice in. And with one week to pull this together, she couldn't afford negativity.
Like hell she'd be the joke of the show.
Her phone rang, and she tensed when she saw her dad's name. She knew him, though. He might have strong ideas about how to do things, but he loved her, and he always came around. He'd apologize, and then he'd help her. Maybe even set her up with lessons from a chef at one of his restaurants. “Hey, Dad.”
“What the hell's the matter with you, taking off like that? Who was that man? Where are you?”
“I'm with Calix Bourbon. He's with Blue Fire, and I'm at his house.”
“You can't behave like that, Amelia. Can you imagine someone on my team running off like that?”
She got up, headed to the sink, and looked at her reflection in the window. The hair she'd painstakingly blown out and twisted into a tight bun was now an unruly mess. She smoothed the loose pieces behind her ear. “Dad, unless you're going to be happy for me, I'm going to hang up. I love you, but when we don't see eye to eye, you get too pushy. You can't bully me out of this competition.”
“Now is not the time to be stubborn. You've been out of school for a year. You must get a job if you're to be taken seriously.”
Okay, totally not budging. Which only kicked up her anxiety. Time to come up with a game plan. She'd find a pen and paper and start brainstorming ideas. She'd definitely watch some cooking shows, but she wondered if she knew any chefs she felt comfortable enough with to ask for help.
“I think you know I've exhausted the job opportunities inManhattan.” In a little enclave by the laundry room, she found a built-in desk. She picked up a pen but didn't see a notepad or Post-its or anything.
“I've got an idea.” He sounded pleased with himself. “Over dinner tonight, I was talking to my colleagues about the Camarillo Group. They're doing some exciting work. Monday morning, I'll give Monte Camarillo a call.”
Mimi's hand tightened on the pen. “The Camarillo GroupÂ .Â .Â . aren't they in Miami?”
“You want me to move?” The words came out as weightless as dandelion fluff.
“I want you to gain the kind of experience that will enable you to fit with my team.”
She turned, resting her bottom on the edge of the desk. “In Miami?”
“If that's what it takes.”
No way. He didn't mean this. He was just bullying her into seeing things his way. She pushed off the desk, tossing the pen down. “Come on, you'd miss me if I moved away. Who would you makecrespellefor?”
“A few years, Amelia. That's all. It's a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride.”
He wasn't provoking her. He meant it.
“Work with Monte's head of development, and I'll hire you.” He sounded excited about this brilliant idea to ship her off to another state.
Did he even realize he'd just tossed yet another hoop for her to jump through? “No.”
“What do you meanno?”
“If I build my relationships in Miami, then I'm building my career there. I want to build it in New York. Where I live.”Where you work.Besides, what if she went to Miami and hestilldidn't hire her? Forget it.
“MelieÂ .Â .Â .”
“Nope. I'm sticking with my plan. And if you can't support me, then I really can't talk to you. Good night, Dad.”
“Amelia.” She heard the warning in his tone, but she ended the call anyway.
Tossing her phone, she watched it skid across the white tile counter. Panic crawled across her skin. She hated that her dad had given voice to her fears.
But she wouldn't listen. Because she couldn't win with negativity in her head.
And by all that was holy, she was going to kick some TV ass.
All right, enough. Time to get back to the farm and get to work. Mimi glanced out the window. What was taking Calix so long? She should probably call a cab so he didn't have to bother with the long ride back to the farm.
She'd go find him, let him know he didn't have to worry about her. Heading out the same way he'd gone, she found herself in the living room.
Low ceilings and a color palette of cream and pale blues gave the impression of a cozy beach cottage. But she'd seen it from the outside, and this place went on and on.
Eager to learn something about Calix, she stepped closer to the framed family photographs that took up most of the wall space. Looked like four kids, with Calix the oldest. The youngest might have Down syndrome. In every single picture that boy was in the center. An arm hugging him tightly to a broad chest, a hand tousling his dark hair, a kiss pressed to his cheek. So much love in this family.
SoÂ .Â .Â . Calix Bourbon, badass tatted biker, lived athome?
And, boy, what a home. Where the apartment she'd grown up in had modern art pieces placed strategically by a decorator, this one had craft projects the kids had made over many years.
Her heart gave a little pull because she'd have given anything to grow up in a home like this one. As an only child whose parents were rarely around, she didn't have candid pictures. She had professional portraits and yearbook photos. She'd had no siblings to play with, and laughter had been a rare commodity.
Something was off, though. All the joy in these photos didn't make sense against the stillness, the stuffiness of this otherwise beautiful home. It almost felt like time had stopped.She wanted to throw open the windows, let some fresh air in. Make some noise.
A door creaked, a hushed voice, a wet sob. Mimi stilled. She should make her presence known. A young woman peered into the living room, strappy sandals dangling off a finger, makeup smeared under her eyes. She tucked her phone into a black beaded clutch.
“Who're you?” The girl's eyes widened as she took Mimi in.
Right. Total stranger standing in her living room.Awkward. Mimi strode over, extending her hand. “Hi. Mimi Romano.”
“Hi, I'm Leonie.” She hunched a shoulder adorably. “Lee.”
“I'm friends with Calix.”
“You are?” Her incredulous tone made Mimi a little self-conscious.
Yeah, okay. With her conservative pencil skirt and silk blouse, she wasn't exactly Calix's type. I get it.She laughed. “Not that kind of friend, of course.”
She gestured to Mimi's skirt. “Are you okay?”
She'd forgotten about the slit Calix had made, and her hands lowered to cover the gap. “Oh, God. Yes, fine. Your brother had to cut my skirt so I could get on his bike.”
“Is he here?” She crept closer, peering around.
“No, he had to do something. He should be back any minute.”
“Okay, well.” She started to go, but then came back around. “Can I get you something? Water?” And then she smiled, taking in Mimi's skirt. “Leggings?”
“I'm okay, thanks. I'll be leaving soon.” Hard to look at a woman with mascara running down her cheek and not want to help. “You all right?”
“YeahÂ .Â .Â . justÂ .Â .Â .” She shook her head, like she wasn't too happy with herself. “Bad taste in men.”
“You, too, huh?” She hadn't had a ton of relationships. Well, of course, she always chose the competitive, driven guys who put work before girlfriends. Daddy complex much? “I guess we have to wade through the frogs to get to our princes.”
She sighed. “But what if we're only attracted to frogs?”
Mimi laughed. “Well, that would suck.” Slater's wife, Emmie, had thought she wanted a stable guy, and she'd wound up with a groupie-bait lead singer. And Violet? She looked more like a posh art gallery owner than the future wife of the inked, long-haired bass player in a rock band. Her friend would never have considered dating a guy like Derek if she hadn't worked for the band on their last tour. “I don't know. Maybe we have to change it up. Give a different kind of guy a chance. The kind of guy we didn't think we were attracted to.”
Lee didn't look convinced.
“Yeah, okay, maybe not. All I know is we're too young and fabulous to give up. I don't know about you, but I'm holding out for my prince. Let's agree that we won't settle until we find him. Because we totally deserve the best, right?”
“Well, I deserve better than what I've gotten, I'll say that.” She drew in a breath, shook her head at Mimi's skirt. “Come on, let's find you something to wear.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Theorange glow of the cigar flared in the dark garden.
Calix Bourbon wanted to check on his mom, figuring she'd worked right through dinner, but seeing his dad all alone like that gutted him.
He didn't want to keep Mimi waiting, but he had to spend a little time with his dad.
“Hey.” He dragged an Adirondack chair around to face him. The overcast sky did little to illuminate his old man's features, but Calix couldn't miss the tension around his eyes. “How's it going?”
“Just fine.” But his dad had never been good at disguising his emotions. Something troubled him. “How'd it go today?” He flicked ash onto the slate patio.
Calix leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Like every other day. Total cluster fuck.” None of his friends were musicians, so he appreciated his dad's insights about what went on in the studio.
“Why don't you guys say somethin' already?” His dad'sgravelly voice rumbled from deep within his chest. “Doesn't sound like he knows what he's doing.”
“Irwin hired him, so no one questions him. He's Dak Johnson, a hit maker. And with Irwin off in Australia, no one's checking up on his progress.” He ran his fingers through the scruff on his chin. “The guys think they lucked out scoring Irwin, the biggest A&R guy in the business. But what they don't get is that it'stheirbandâtheir name on the album.”
“You tell 'em that?”
“Not my place. But I don't know why they give two shits what success Dak's had with other bandsâhe's not gettingthisone.”
“You been with 'em, what, couple months now? Seems like it could be your place.”
Eight months, actually. He'd started with Blue Fire last August, when their keyboard player had entered rehab. After finishing out the summer tour, Calix had jammed with them. He'd even cowritten some of the songs they were recording now. Eight months was a long time with one band.
A cool, moist breeze whipped through the garden, giving him chill bumps. “I won't be around much longer.”
His dad blew out smoke. “Irwin heard any tracks yet?”
“Nope. And the label thinks Dak's such a genius they give him free rein. But I can tell you this. Four months into this project, and he's changed their sound. Shit we're doing isn't what we worked on in Violet's barn.” He glanced to his mom's art studio, imagining her perspiration-dampened T-shirt and the intense concentration on her exhausted features. “Whatever. Not my issue.”
His dad dropped the cigar onto the slate and crushed it with the toe of his flip-flop. “They still pushin' you to join?”
He nodded. It didn't look like the original keyboard player would be coming back. The guy had bailed on his second attempt at rehab. And since they'd be hitting the road as soon as this record was done, they'd need a permanent member sooner than later.
Which meant he needed to line up his next gig.
His dad leaned forward, as he lowered his head into his hands.
Damn, but he hated seeing his dad so twisted up. “You sure you're okay?”
He looked up, trying for a smile. “Yeah, sure.”
“She all right?”
“Same.” But then he turned serious. “You seen your brother today?”
Now they were getting to something. “No. We went straight from the studio to the gig in Southampton. Why? What's up?”
“Nothing. JustÂ .Â .Â . he's gettin' restless.” Calix could see the strain around his dad's eyes and mouth. “Lee snuck out again tonight.”
Calix separated the braided leather band from the other bracelets on his wrist. “She's twenty-two. She doesn't need to sneak.”
“That's my point.” And the firmness of his tone finally clued Calix in on his dad's concerns. Three grown kids still living at home. Things were starting to pull apart at the seams.
He forced himself to look more relaxed. “Don't worry about it, Dad. We want to be here.”
His dad looked at him like he wasn't buying it. But then, by Calix's age, his parents had toured the world and were on their way to accumulating more platinum records than any other punk rock act in history.
“Been thinking. Probably time for you kids to move on.”
Well, sure. Gus was twenty-three, Leonie twenty-two. None of them should be living at home. “Nah. We're good.”
“That's the thing.” His dad scrubbed his face with both hands. “We're not. Nearly three years, and it's not getting better. It's all right for me, she's my girl. But not you guys.” He patted his T-shirt pocket, but he wouldn't find any cigarettes. Old habits died hard. “It's all kinds of messed up.”
Seeing his dad lost like this tore strips off his heart. It killed him to know his parentsâonce inseparable and so affectionate it'd almost been uncomfortable to watchâhadbecome distant. His mom had pulled so deeply into her shell of grief she'd flat-out abandoned her husband.
In his gut he knew she'd be healed when she let her husband back in. “It won't be forever. She'll be back to herself soon enough. In the meantimeÂ .Â .Â .” He fingered the leather band. “We've got it pretty good out here. No complaints.”
Too much pain in his dad's eyes. It had to destroy him not to be able to reach his wife.
“Look.” Calix stood up. “As long as we'reÂ .Â .Â .”Her reason to live.He dug his hands deep into his pockets, curled his fingers around his keys, looking for the right words. “So what if I'm not in a band and Gus didn't finish college? If it takes another five yearsâtenâtill this family gets back on its feet”âand his mom got back in his dad's bedâ“who gives a shit?” A sharp pain in his hand made him realize the teeth had cut into his skin. He dropped the keys. “We're not going anywhere.” He wouldn't leave his mom alone. Not yet.
His dad, a giant of a man, got up slowly, and Calix could see pride smoldering in his eyes. He clapped a huge hand on Calix's shoulder. “You're a damn good man.” He pulled him in for a bear hug. “Love you, son.”
Emotion punched up into his chest. He closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath. His dad smelled like cigar and the damp earth from his garden.
Clucking had him pulling away. Fifi strutted toward him, her neck muscles working overtime to propel her along. Calix scooped her off the ground, giving her the firm strokes she liked from the top of her head down her back. Her wings flapped, but she settled quickly enough.
“Lookin' just about plump enough for Saturday night dinner,” his dad said.
Calix laughed. Family joke. They kept chickens for the eggs.
The sizzle and crackle of his mom's welder cut through the quiet night, and he couldn't take it anymore. “I'm gonna check on her.”
His dad nodded, his features turning impassive. “See you inside.”
He thought of Mimi, all alone in the house. “Oh, hey, there's a woman in there. Mimi Romano, a friend of the band.”
“You got a girl?”
He thought of Mimi, that fiery hair, that lush mouth. The press of her breasts against his back as he'd driven home. “No. She needed a ride. Try not to scare her, okay?”
His dad grinned so widely the deep grooves around his eyes furrowed. “You never let me have any fun.”
Opening the coop, Calix dropped his very vocal hen inside, closed the latch, and headed down the path. He entered the refurbished barn slowly, the whine of the welder harsh in his ears. The metal pieces of his mom's found art sculptures filled every corner and table. Wind chimes of all shapes and sizes hung from steel pipes stretched across the ceiling.
Covered in an enormous helmet and thick gloves, his mom stood on a stepladder as she welded together two giant pieces of scrap metal suspended from the ceiling with chains. He came around so he faced her across the worktable and waved to get her attention.
The machine shut off, and she flipped up the plastic eye protector. He should be used to it by now, but her ghostly complexion and the dark circles under her eyes still shook him up.
“Hey, Ma.” He scanned for evidence of dinner, and sure enough, on the table closest to the door he found a microwaved bowl of something that might've been macaroni and cheese.
Damn.Now he wished he'd swung by home on the way to the gig.
Of course she hadn't eaten. His vibrant, intelligent, progressive mom loved fresh food. Before Hopper's passing, she'd loved cooking. Every meal was a bounty of the produce from his dad's garden, the eggs from the coop, and the fruit from the orchard.
Of course she wouldn't eat microwaved meals.
Calix gestured to the mac and cheese. “Looks nasty. How about I make you something?”
She rallied with a weak smile. “Thanks, babe. Not hungry. I want to finish this.”
He came around the table. “Okay, Mom. I see how it's gonna be.” He gently pulled the helmet off.
“IsaidI'm not hungry.”
“Easy to say right now. But wait'll you smell my cooking.”
“Don't want anything fancy.”
“How about some eggs? You can come into the coop with me and choose your own.”
Her smile withered for a moment, but she found the strength to agree. “Okay, you little shit. You win. Let's pull some eggs out of Fifi's ass.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Freneticbeats poured out open windows, and laughter rang out into the night. His mom slowed on the patio. “What's going on?”
“No idea.” Both hands filled with warm eggs, he used his elbow to pop the handle on the French door and his boot to push it open. “Come on,” he said more forcefully. “I'm feeding you.” He waited for his mom to pass through, but she stood still, anxious.
He got it. For one terrible moment he'd felt it, too.Home.
Music, laughter. This was what his home used to sound like.
And in the center of it all, Hopper. All of it had died with him. So, yeah, it hurt.
Only, unlike his mom, it gave him hope for what they could be again. Because, yes, Hopper had died, but the rest of themâall five of themâwere still alive. He just hoped that having her family around her would draw her back out until she was ready to be the heart of it again.
He offered his mom an easy smile. “Stand there much longer, and I'm gonna have a whole litter of Fifi juniors in my arms.” Shouts of laughter came from the kitchen. “Grab some basil and tomatoes and whatever you want in your omelet.”
When she stood this close, he couldn't miss the way she'd aged so drastically in the past three years. And it cut him to the bone. Not just the random streaks of gray in her hair, but the loss of elasticity in her skin.
When she caught him watching her, she flashed a quick smile. “On it.”
He hoped like hell she didn't wind up going back to the studio or her bedroom.
As soon as he got inside, he used the toe of his boot to draw the door shut, and then he stalked into the kitchen.
Calix stopped in the doorway. In front of the stove, Mimi shook her candy-cane-covered ass to the electronic music coming out of his brother's laptop. Her hair, all sleek and straight, whirled like streamers as she spun around. The hanging lights over the island made the normally deep red tones gleam like the orange in the heart of a fire.
His sister held a towel in each hand as she danced around the kitchen, and Gus looked like a DJ in a club, rocking out, while manipulating the buttons and job wheels of the controller attached to his laptop.
Gus. Leonie. Laughter, music.
Swear to God, Calix could feel Hopper as vividly as if he'd been pressed up next to him.Thiswas what had made Hopper happy. His family hanging out like this had brought him joy.
And then he remembered his mom's face, the anxiety. He nudged Gus aside and lowered the volume.
Everyone turned to him, wide-eyed and confused.
“Why'd you do that?” Gus reached for the controller.
He lifted his arms to draw attention to the eggs. “Making Mom some dinner.”
Gus looked beyond him to the French doors. “She here?”
“She's getting herbs for her omelet.”
His brother closed the laptop. “Didn't know that. Sorry.”
Calix gave a quick shake of his head, not wanting his brother to feel bad about it.
Leonie threw the dishtowels onto the table. “I got it.” She relieved him of four eggs, bringing them to Mimi. “Perfect with sausage.”
“Is Calix a sausage eater?” Mimi asked with a strange lilt to her voice.
What the hell? But then Lee and Gus burst out laughing, cluing him in to their private joke.
When Mimi saw Calix wasn't laughing, she sobered. “You in for some eggs andÂ .Â .Â . you know?”
Gus tucked his laptop under his arm and said, “Sausage.” The three of them broke out laughing again, as his brother headed out of the kitchen.
Hang on. How long had he been outside if Mimi had cooked dinnerâand he could see not just the skillet on the stove, but the salad bowl on the table and the plates stacked on the counterâand bonded with his brother and sister?
And look at her. When he'd brought her home, Mimi had been in a tight skirt and silk blouse, something a corporate attorney would wear. Her hair had been wound into a bun.
This woman, with her hair down and wearing his sister's red and white striped leggings and red SUNY Stonington T-shirt, looked like a college girl. With a mouth made forâ
Yeah, not going there with Mimi Romano.
She studied him for a moment, and he could read the question in her eyes.Is this okay?“There wasn't a whole lot in the fridge, but we defrosted some sausage and got enough vegetables out of your garden to make a salad.”
“And now we've got eggs.” Lee came up beside him. “Is Ma coming in?” she asked quietly.
“I hope so.”
“I brought dinner out to her.”
“Yeah, Lee, I saw.” His sweet, kind sister gazed up at him with a guilty expression, so he gentled his voice. “Guess she wasn't hungry.” Getting to work, he reached for a mixing bowl. “You want to chop an onion?”
“Sure.” She pulled a cutting board out of the cabinet under the sink and a knife from the block.
Spatula in hand, Mimi came up beside him. “I feel like I stepped into something here.”
He had a good eight inches on her, so he had a view of his sister's T-shirt stretching in places it didn't normally stretch. When she gazed up at him with concern in her green andgold-flecked eyes, something in his chest give a painful kick. “No worries, sweet pants.”
“Sweet pants?” She arched a brow.
He tipped his chin down toward her leggings.
“Oh. Right. Your sister loaned them to me.”
“Figured that out.”
“Look, I obviously don't understand the situation, but if I messed up, please tell me.”
“If, by messing up, you mean throwing a party in my kitchen, then yeah, total fuckup.” Yanking open the drawer, he pulled out a whisk and started beating the eggs.
As he watched a slow smile spread across her pretty features, warmth spread through him. With one more lingering gaze, Mimi turned back to the stove. Calix added salt and pepper to the batter and then whisked some more.
“So, are you in fashion or something?” he heard Mimi ask Lee.
Reasonable question. Even just hanging around at home, his sister wore a crazy mix of styles that somehow worked on her petite frame.
“I wish.” Lee dumped the chopped onion into a skillet. When it sizzled, she lowered the flame.
“A designer? Because you have flair. I mean, your room? God. I don't think I've ever paid attention to the color of my walls or what goes on them.”
“Nah,” Lee said.
Dumping the sausages onto a plate, Mimi set it on the table. “So, what do you do?”
Lee never looked up from the pan. “I run the philanthropic arm of the family business.”
Mimi looked interested, but before she could say more, his dad bustled into the room with an armful of produce from his garden. He looked from person to person, his smile dimming. “Where's your mom?” He set the peppers, onion, and a handful of herbs on the counter.
All the things his mom liked in an omelet.
After a moment of tension, his dad's disappointment palpable, Calix stepped toward him and grabbed some of the vegetables. “This is great, Dad.” He set them down.
His dad held Calix's gaze, heavy with the question,She coming in?
He hated to let him down, but what could he say? He gave a slight shake of his head. With a pained look of defeat, his dad let out a breath and turned to Mimi.
“Hey.” He stuck out his hand. “Terrence Bourbon.”
“Hi. Mimi Romano. I hope you don't mind me commandeering your kitchen.”
“Not one bit. Calix says you're friends with Blue Fire?”
“She cooks for them.” Calix pulled another skillet off the rack, set a low flame under it.
“The band has a chef?” His dad seemed surprised.
“Before you start imagining limos and private jets,” Mimi said, “they only hired me as a favor.”
“A lot of people coming and going, crazy hours,” Calix said. “They need the help.”
“True, but I'm not some trained chef. Althoughâha!âbelieve it or not, I just got a gig on theVerna Bloom Show.”
Leaning into the fridge to grab the butter, Calix shot her a look over his shoulder. She was leaving them?
“Are you serious?” Lee asked.
Mimi's smile lit up the room. “You know it?”
“Duh,” Lee said. “Who doesn't?”
“She's running a five-week cooking competition, and the winner gets to apprentice with her next season. Somehow I have to pull off being an actual chef.”
“What kind of competition?” his dad asked.
“It's like that showChopped. They give you four random ingredients, and then you get thirty minutes to make something out of it.”
“What about seasonings, oil, flour, stuff like that?” Terrence asked.
“We've got access to Verna's pantry and refrigerator.”
“But you're not a chef?” Terrence asked.
“You cook for the band,” Calix said.
“I make the food I'm familiar withâmy nonna's meatballs, my dad's fettuccineâbut basically, I follow recipes, you know? I don't know what flavors work welltogether, the chemistry of cooking, important stuff like that. And the show starts in a week, so I've got a ton of research to do.”
“What kind of research you got planned?” Terrence asked.
“I'll watchChoppedto see how the contestants work with what they're given, and then I'll get some cookbooks, learn about measuring and different techniques, cooking times and temperatures. You know, basic stuff like that.”
“More recipes, huh?” Lee said with a teasing smile.
Terrence gave Calix a chin nod. “Calix can help you out.”
He shot his dad a hard look.What the hell?
Mimi must've seen it, because she laughed. “That's okay. I've got it.”
“No, seriously, Meems,” Lee said. “Calix is a great cook.”
“Cook.” He gave her a quelling look. “Not a chef.”
“You guys, he's got enough on his plate with the band.” Mimi waved her hand, as if to dismiss the whole idea. “Dak's driving them nuts with his crazy schedule.”
“Oh, my God, let him,” Lee said. “I mean, watching shows and reading cookbooks is great, but there's nothing like a teacher. And trust me, we were homeschooled, soeverythingwas a learning experience. Cooking was basically our science lab. But Calix took it to a whole other level. He's just, I don't know, intuitive in the kitchen.”
As Lee continued to talk to Mimi, Terrence joined him at the stove. “Want this girl in our house.”
With a hunch of his shoulders, he gave his dad a look that said,Why?
“My bet, you give that girl lessons right here in our kitchen, your ma's gonna get involved.”
Calix's hand on the knife stilled. His mom kept strange hours. Insomnia had her sleeping till noon most days. Then, she'd head out for a walk along the beach, regardless of the weather. Since she avoided family meals, she could be counted on to sneak into the kitchen around three, grab a yogurt from the fridge or a granola bar from the pantry, and then hide out in her studio.
The heart of her home didn't beat anymore.
So for three years, he'd tried to get his family to sit downto dinner in the hopes it'd draw her out. It hadn't. Nothing had. But giving Mimi cooking lessons in his mom's kitchenÂ .Â .Â . would that work?
“You got time tomorrow?” his dad asked.
Mimi whipped around toward him, startled out of her conversation. “What? No, seriously. You don't have to do that.”
He knew Mimi's schedule. Knew she had time between meals. He supposed he could give it a shot. “Be here at two?”
“But you have to be in the studio.”
Why was she fighting him on this? “Only in the morning.”
“You already know that?”
He gave her a hard look, hoping to end the conversation. “He's laying down vocals with Slater in the afternoon.”
She bit down on that lush bottom lip, brow tight with concern. “You really don't haveâ”
“You gonna be here at two?”
A wash of pink covered her clear, smooth complexion. “Okay, sure. Thank you.”
Focusing on his mom's dinner, Calix lifted the pan from the flame, shoved the spatula under the omelet, and flipped it. The three of them continued to talk, and Calix couldn't help glancing toward Mimi, who stood with her hip against the counter, one bare foot on top of the other. He did a double-take on her toenails. Tomato red withÂ .Â .Â . yellow smiley faces?
In the club tonight, packed with rockers, she'd looked like a businesswoman. He'd had no idea underneath her tight skirt and silk blouse, she hadÂ .Â .Â . color. Personality. Made him wonder what kind of lingerie she wore.
A flash of Mimi on her back, that deep red mane of hair spread across his pillow, grabbed him by the balls and squeezed.
Oh, hell, no.He shook his head free of the image and grabbed the skillet with sautÃ©ed onions and peppers. He spooned the mixture on top of the omelet.
“I think I figured out why there's so little in your fridge,”Mimi said. “You guys live off the land. Are you, like, Amish or something?”
Lee laughed. “Not atall.”
“Okay, but all this fresh stuff, I think it would give me a heart attack if I tried to eat it.”
“Don't like vegetables?” his dad asked.
“Can't stand them. Total carnivore. Some days I'm just not human until I bite into a thick, juicy steak. I swear, in the zombie apocalypse, I'll have no problem eating the brains of my neighbors.”
His dad burst out laughing, and Calix felt a pain lance through his heart. This laughter. If only his mom could be part of this.
“Give me a week,” his dad said. “I'll bring you over to our side.”
“Like my mom didn't try to get me to eat broccoli? Are you kidding? I remember this one time she pulled the wholeYou're not getting up from this table until you eat your broccolithing.” She pretended to gag. “I mean, seriously, the first person to look at asparagus and think about putting it in his mouth had to have done it on a dare.” More gagging faces. “Brussels sprouts? Are you kidding me? Did cavemen try eating rocks, too? Fistfuls of sand? Just because it grows in nature doesn't mean we're meant to eat it. Anyway, I'm stuck at the table, and I'm telling you nothing short of waterboarding would've gotten that stalk in my mouth. But then my mom had some meeting to get to, and my housekeeper tossed me a Twinkie and let me go. And that was the end of theLet's get Mimi to eat her vegetablessaga.”
His dad looked at Mimi with concern. “You an only child?”
Mimi nodded, some of her enthusiasm waning. “Which, of course, meant a lot of broccoli to eat by myself.”
“It's all in the preparation,” his dad said. “Tell you what. I'll bring some vegetables by the house tomorrow. Give you some tips for cooking with them.”
“That would be awesome. Thank you. JustÂ .Â .Â . no hurt feelings when I spit them out in a napkin, okay?”
His dad's laughter filled the kitchen, and Calix couldn't keep the smile off his face.
Maybe it would work. Maybe Mimi would draw his mom back into the kitchen. He grabbed the plate. “I'm gonna get this to Mom.”
Calix headed down the hall to the guest bedroom. Footsteps had him whipping back around to find Mimi chasing after him with a bowl in one hand and a bottle of salad dressing in the other.
“Would she like salad?”
Alone in the hallway, he got to see that creamy complexion and expressive mouth up close. Her expensive perfume surrounded him. Not heavy, not thick, but rich and perfect for her.
When he realized she was standing there waiting for him to respond, he said, “Sure, thanks.” He reached for the bowl. But when she thrust the bottle at him, and he had no other hands to take it, she laughed and shoved it under his arm instead.
She didn't say another word, but there was something in her eyes. An understanding, and that, accompanied by a gentle smile, nearly undid him.
“Thanks.” His voice came out gruff. He started to turn when she held a napkin out to him. From the heft, he realized she'd put in a fork and knife. Unnerved, he caught it between two fingers and set off in search of his mom.
My bet, you give that girl lessons right here in our kitchen, your ma's gonna get involved.
Yeah, his dad might be right.
He'd sure as hell give it a try.CHAPTER THREE
By the time Calix got back to the kitchen, his family had gathered around Gus's laptop, the live version of his parents' hit “Can't Get Enough” playing. He hung back, watching.
Mimi looked over at him, eyes shining with delight. “I can't believe your parents are 100 Proof.” She turned to Terrence. “How come no one knows you live out here?”
“No one cares,” his dad said.
“They've been here close to thirty years,” Gus said. “People're used to us.”
Calix needed to get Mimi home. “You want to get going?” Leonie and Gus shot him nasty looks. “What? It's late.”
Right then the door opened and Shay breezed in. With her long limbs and straight blond hair, her beckoning eyes and a mouth that had pleased him more times than he could count, she walked right into his arms.
“Hey, babe.” As she pressed her lithe body up to his, she got up on her toes to place a kiss on his cheek. She smelled like an ocean breeze, and her skin was cool to the touch.
She headed over to Gus and gave him a fist bump. “S'up, guys?”
“Hey, Shay,” Lee said.
“Surf's ridiculous right now.” Shay took in the food on the table.
“That's right.” His dad shut off the music. “Storm's offshore.”
Shay grabbed a fork and speared a sausage. “You guys in?” she asked his brother and sister before biting off the end.
“Hell, yeah.” Gus shut down his laptop.
She set the fork down. “Get your wetsuits. Let's go.”
As soon as Gus left the room, Shay took in the scene. It seemed to take her a moment to process a table full of food and dirty dishes, the family gathered around at midnight. “What's going on?” And then her gaze settled on Mimi. She pushed away from the table. “Who're you?”
“Mimi Romano.” She motioned to him. “A friend of Calix.”
The easy smile faded. “How do you know Calix?”
“I'm friends with Blue Fire.”
Shay thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Cool.” She snagged a slice of red pepper out of the salad bowl. “You surf?”
“Uh, no. Not at all.” Mimi waved a hand. “But don't worry about me. You guys go. I'll call a cab.”
“No,” Calix said. “I'm taking you.”
Gus came back into the room, wearing an unzipped wetsuit, his top half bare. “Let's do this.” He jammed his feet into some flip-flops in the mudroom by the back door.
“Is it safe to surf at night?” Mimi asked.
“We've surfed here our whole lives,” Gus said. “We know the breaks.”
“But it's so cloudy you won't be able to see anything.”
Shay's tongue took a slow sweep across her lips. As teenagers, she'd make Calix hard all the time doing shit like that. Every move, every expression, every touch, every damn thing about her used to make him think of sex.
“It's a blast on nights like tonight.” She picked a tomato quarter out of the salad and popped it in her mouth.
Lee brought her plate to the sink and turned on the faucet. “You should come down to the beach anyway. There'll be a bonfire, and not everybody will be surfing.”
He stepped forward, digging his keys out of his pocket. Mimi hanging out with his friends? He didn't think that'd be her scene. “I'll take her now.”
“Where to?” Shay turned her sultry eyes to him.
“Eden's Landing,” Mimi said.
“Oh, forget that,” Shay said. “That'll take an hour, there and back. You'll miss all the best swells. Let her take a cab.” She looked at Mimi. “You okay with that?”
“I just said I was. It's no big deal.”
“Come on, Mimi. You really want to go home now?”
The meaningful look his sister gave Mimi made Calix think about the man she'd argued with outside the club. The way they'd acted around each otherâthe man's concern, and Mimi's defianceâhe'd figured it had been Mimi's dad. Dressed in slacks, a sport coat, and a big, fancy watch, the man had a full head of salt-and-pepper hairânot red, like Mimi'sâbut he had the same expressive features and hands.
“Quit talkin' and let's go,” Gus said. “How often do we get swells around here?”
“You in?” Lee asked Mimi.
“Sure. Sounds fun.”
“I'll get my wetsuit,” Calix said. “Meet you down there.”
Shay set a hand on his hip, gave him a lazy look. “I'll come with.”
He held her gaze, wishing he had somethingâanythingâto give her. But he just didn't. He turned and left the room, not even looking to see if she followed.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Paddlingagainst a rough current, sea spray pelting his face, Calix angled his board toward the pocket. He popped up to a crouch and held a rail into the wave face, but at the bottom of the trough he got sucked up and over the falls.
The churning water holding him down, he stroked hard until he broke the surface, taking in great gasps of air. With another huge swell approaching, he had to duck under again.
That's it. I'm out. He powered toward shore.
Once his feet hit sand, he bent over and ripped the Velcroof his ankle leash. He turned back to watch his friends get beat up and battered by the thrashing sea.
Catching his board under his arm, he headed for the bonfire. Gusts of wind battered his exposed skin, making him shiver.
“Fuckin' hard to drop, man.” His friend came up beside him.
“Too much blow back.” Calix swiped the hair out of his eyes, his body still humming. Setting his board down, he unzipped his wet suit, leaving the top half dangling off his hips.
“That was awesome.” Another of the guys jogged up from the ocean. He high-fived Calix. All three of them headed toward the bonfire.
“Calix,” someone called.
He looked up to see his friend with one hand digging in a cooler, the other tossing him a beer. He caught it. “Thanks.” Standing just beyond the circle gathered around the fire, he grabbed his towel and swiped his face and chest. Pulling his T-shirt over his head, he wondered where Mimi had gone.
Hopefully, Lee was looking out for her. But then he saw his sister with a group of her friends, and Mimi wasn't among them. Had she left on her own? With the competition a week away, he imagined she'd want to get right to work. Probably in her room right then, watchingChoppedand scouring the Internet for cooking tips. Ambitious woman like her? Yeah, she wouldn't be hanging around when she had a show to do.
Laughter rang out, and Calix looked over to find a group of his buddies clustered together, Mimi right in the middle of them. With her animated expression and gestures, she looked like she'd known these guys for years.
But she didn't know them at all. And while she might be having fun right then, she probably wouldn't want anything to do with them in about an hour. After surfing, they'd smoke some weed and drink beers, and then they'd start hooking up.
He should get her home.
With the next burst of laughter, her gaze caught on his and the smile faded. Something crackled in his chest. It had been a long time since a woman had affected him like that.
Mimi got up, swatted the sand off her ass, and headed toward him. Her brow creased the closer she got. Just before reaching him, she swiped a clean towel off a stack by the cooler.
“Hey,” she said softly.
He didn't answer, just took a pull from his beer. Something about her made him go all quiet inside. She didn't look at him the way most women did. Nothing flirty or suggestive about her. She looked like she was trying to figure him out.
Waste of time, really. He wouldn't be around her long enough to matter. He looked toward shore.
But her soft hand cupped his cheek, turning him back to her. When he jerked away, she looked at him in confusion and then laughed. “You've got some blood on your cheek. At least I think it's blood. Here.” She took the edge of the towel and wiped.
It stung, so he guessed his board had scraped him on that last dunking. “Leave it.”
“Don't be silly. Come here.” She wrapped her hand around his wrist and tugged him toward the big white cooler. Leaning over, she dug out a water bottle, and then dropped to her knees. She motioned for him to sit beside her.
He went to rub the scrape but was startled to feel an incision. Before he could give it another thought, her hand grabbed his board shorts and pulled. He settled beside her on the cool sand. “You're making a big deal out of nothing.”
“I'm wiping blood off your cheek. Not using urchin spikes and sea grass to stitch you up.”
He tried to hold back his laughter and failedânot many people hit that particular spot in him. When the wind whipped her long hair around her face, he surprised himself by pushing it back. The touch of her creamy skin sent a buzz of awareness through him.
He pulled his hand back. “I should get you home.”
“Hang on. Let me clean this up first.” Uncapping the bottle, she poured some water onto the towel and dabbed the wound. It burned, and he sucked in a breath.
She pulled her hand back. “Okay?”
Her gentle patting, along with the rustle of beach grass, settled him down. For as bold as she could be, Mimi Romano had a surprisingly gentle touch.
“I can't believe I didn't know your parents are 100 Proof. That's crazy.” When he didn't respond, she pulled back to look at him. “Why'd they stop playing?”
“They wanted a family.”
“They couldn't play and raise a family?”
He didn't want to get into it. “Didn't want to raise kids in that lifestyle. They wanted something more wholesome for us.”
“And look at you, all up in the music industry.” Gently, she dabbed at the wound, the wind whipping all that sleek hair around her face. “Way to stick it to the 'rents.”
“Yeah.” She'd meant it as a joke, obviously, but the simple comment sliced across his heart.
“This place is amazing.” Her voice was soft, gentle. “You must've loved growing up here.”
A cold burst of wind sent sand spattering against his ankles. The next time she reached out to his wound, he noticed goose bumps on her arm. He pulled the towel from her hands, shook it out, and wrapped it around her. “Was that your dad you bailed on tonight?”
She nodded, drawing the towel more tightly around her, like she was snuggling into it.
“Seemed pretty pissed.”
“Him or me?”
“You seemed pissed, but your dadÂ .Â .Â . looked like he was worried about you.”
Her hands settled in her lap. “We disagree on how to run my life.”
“Aren't you twenty-four?”
“Exactly. But he's set in his ways. And while I respect his opinion, it's not like his way is theonlyway. I just wish he'd be proud of me when I don't listen to him. You know? I mean, do you sometimes feel like you have to jump through hoops to make your parents happy?”
“Well, okay, then.” She laughed. “In any event, my dadthinks I'm making a huge mistake by being on theVerna Bloom Show.”
“Because I'm not a chef, and he thinks I'll make a fool of myself on national television. But I can't let him get in my head. I need to stay positive. I mean, look what happened when I told your dad about it. First thing out of his mouth was, âWhat's your plan?' And the second thing? âCalix can help you.' That's what I wanted my dad to say.”
He nodded. His dad was a good guy.
“To be honest, though.” She worried the edge of the towel. “It hurt because everything he said was right. I mean, I have an MBA. Whywouldthey choose me to be on the show?”
“'Cause you're beautiful. And smart. And you light up a room.”
Her eyes widened, her lips softly parted, and she seemed at a loss for words. “Um, thank you. IÂ .Â .Â . I didn't know you even noticed me.”
“Hard not to.”
She kept her gaze on him, as though trying to figure him out.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing. I justÂ .Â .Â . I'm surprised to hear you say that.” She shook her head. “Whatever. It is what it is. I'm doing the show, and I'm going to kick ass.”
“I don't know what your dad was talking about. You're not a ditz. How could you make a fool of yourself?”
“He thinks they chose meâDino Romano's pampered princess socialite daughterâfor the ratings.”
“That's harsh.” And totally wrong.
“Yeah. But there's truth in it.”
“Are you a pampered princess socialite?”
“Of course not. But he's saying they'll spin it that way. He's thinking it's reality TV.”
“Okay, even if he's right, which doesn't make sense to me, I still say it can't go down that way. Ten minutes into the first show they'll see the truth about you. No question.”
“You're absolutely right. Funny how I let him get into my head like that.”
“I can see you on TV.” For all the months he'd known her, he'd kept his distance. Something about her made him uncomfortable. But just then, being so close and really noticing her, he got it. She had a natural sensuality that belied her businesswoman demeanor and had him thinking of her in ways he shouldn't. She worked with the band. Off-limits.
“Fuck a duck.” He said it in the same exercised tone she used.
She eyed him questioningly, like she thought he was making fun of her.
“First day I met you.Fuck a duck.”
She smiled, and even in the moonlight her pale skin flushed sweetly.
“First words that came out of your mouth.”
“I'm a delicate flower.” She grinned. “What can I say?”
“You'd just quit your job. Said the guy who hired you didn't have any use for you if he couldn't have access to your dad's bank account.”
“Hard not to.”
“What does that mean?”
“You make an impression.”
“Oh. Yeah, well, believe me, so do you.”
He drew back. He hadn't meant to flirt with herâjust tell her the truth. He hoped she didn't read into it. Because whatever the attraction, he wouldn't hook up with a friend of the band. “I'm guessing that's why they chose you. You make an impression.”
Looking down at her hands, fingers steepled, she blinked a few times. He didn't want her to get all emotional, so he changed the subject. “You gonna stop cooking for the band?”
She snapped up. “Of course not. It's only five competitions. And they tape once a week, so I'll just miss five dinners. And the apprenticeship doesn't start until next season.”
“Yeah, but you said you need to get up to speed for the show.”
“I do. And I will. But I'm not bailing on the band.”
“See? There you go being a pampered princess socialite.” He slowly shook his head.
She threw him a smile so dazzling he had to look away. “Hey, they were nice enough to give me a job when I didn't have anything. I'd never bail on them. Besides, they're the closest thing I've got to a family.”
Well, that was just sad. “Your mom lives on the farm. You've got family.”
“Of course. I just meant, you know, outside my mom and dad.” Her gaze drifted to the shoreline, where a bunch of guys were just coming out of the thrashing sea. She stretched her legs out, curling her toes.
His gaze tracked from her polished toenails to slim, bare ankles, and up her nicely shaped candy-cane-covered calves and thighs.
“Is it okay for me to ask where your mom was tonight?”
Ripped from the low hum of attraction, he let the question tear through him. Of course she'd want to know. The moment he'd come in, he'd shut off the music. The mood had changed. Weird shit from an outsider's perspective. But he wasn't sure what to say, so he turned to watch his friends laughing and smoking weed by the fire.
“You don't have to talk about it. It's okay.”
He sure as hell didn't want to talk about it. But any irritation dulled when she touched his arm. And when her thumb stroked the sensitive skin under his wrist, a slow burn spread along his nerves.
“You have interesting ink. I've never seen anything like it before.”
Her gaze snapped up to him. “Sorry?”
“He died. Three years ago.”Fuck.When was the last time he'd said those words out loud? Or even thought them? It felt awkward, like putting on a pair of brand-new, unwashed jeans, stiff and ill-fitting.
She sucked in a breath, forehead crimping in pain. “The youngest?”
“I wonderedÂ .Â .Â . he's so obviously missing.”
“Yeah. So, when my mom heard the music tonight, sheÂ .Â .Â . it's hard for her. What our home used to be likeÂ .Â .Â . the music, laughing, everyone all togetherÂ .Â .Â . she justÂ .Â .Â . it's hard.”
“I'm so sorry, Calix. I can't even imagine your mom's pain.”
“What you did tonightÂ .Â .Â . it hasn't been like that sinceÂ .Â .Â . before.”
“No, it's a good thing.”
“Not for your mom.”
“No. Not for her.” And then he realized she needed to know the truth. If she was going to be involved, she should be aware. “Full disclosure.”
She tilted her head questioningly.
“The cooking lessons? My dad thinks they'll draw my mom out. The kitchen. That's her domain.Was. She used to love cooking.”
“Ah. I wondered why you'd be so willing.”
“I probably wouldn't have.”
She pulled the towel around her like a shawl. “No. I didn't think so.”
“But I've tried everything and so far nothing's worked. AndÂ .Â .Â . this seems like it could work.”
“Hey, I'm not going to complain. If helping me can help your mom, I'm in.”
“Yeah.” He tapped his fingers on his knee. “Used to be everyone hung out at our house. My mom was always cooking, music playing. And now it's been three years of silence. No one comes around anymore. Until you showed up tonight. And youÂ .Â .Â . well, it made me think.”
Her smile, it gave him all the room in the world to justÂ .Â .Â . be. Not explain or come up with shit to say. She justÂ .Â .Â . gave him space. “I don't want to overwhelm her, butÂ .Â .Â .”
“I get it.”
Fucking hell, she was beautiful. And patient. And kind. And nothing like what he'd thought.
“Your brother looked like the most loved boy in the world.”
Jesus. It was like she'd grabbed hold of his heart and squeezed. “He was.”
“Can you tell me how he died?”
His heartbeat kicked up so hard and heavy, it made his head spin. He hadn't talked about it since right after it happened. At all. To anyone. Even his family. They just didn't talk about it.
“You don't have to. I'm sorry I asked.”
Strangely, he wanted to. And where the hell did that come from? “We had a gig at a festival in upstate New York. We were playing with some pretty big bandsâ”
“We? You mean your family?”
“I was in a band.”
Her chin snapped up. “Oh. I had no idea. I thoughtÂ .Â .Â .”
“You thought I've always been a session musician?”
“You seem toÂ .Â .Â . I don't know. I thought you were just a free spirit, doing what you felt like doing, flitting from one job to another.”
“A free spirit?” He barked out a laugh. “Good one.”
“So, your band was successful?”
“Getting there. We were playing a big festival, and I'd asked my parents to play, too. Do their own set. Seemed like a great idea at the time. And my dad, he's not like my mom. Not as scarred by the shit that went down over their time in the business.”
He flashed her a look, always a little uneasy talking about his family. So why was he? Maybe because she had this patienceÂ .Â .Â .no, you know what it is? She's strong.Mimi Romano had a fuck of a lot of inner strength.
And it fed right into him. “My dad's got a lot of energy. He's one of the most creative guys you'll ever meet, and retirement sucked for him. But what could he do? He'd bought into the whole compound thing, the homeschooling. He was in. But I could see he needed more. I even had him producing some of our songs. And then I suggested they play with us. Just the one event. My mom said she did it for my dad, but I saw her. She loved it, too. They love music. They love performing. It's a rush, you know?”
She smiled warmly, encouraging him to go on.
“Yeah, so, of course, they brought Hopper.”
“Did he love music, too?”
“Oh, yeah. Nobody loved music more than him. Whenever we jammed, Hopper was right in the middle of it.”
“Did he play?”
“He played everything. He sang. But no. He had some disabilities.”
“I saw the pictures. God, you can feel how happy he was.”
Calix tipped his head back. She was killing him. “He was. Happy. He wasÂ .Â .Â .”
Her warm hand covered his. “He was the luckiest boy in the world.”
Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.Why was he having this conversation? Whyher? “Yeah, until he overdosed.”
“While I was getting my ass kissed by the guys from Voltage Records, he wandered off. We spent the whole night looking for him. My mom wasÂ .Â .Â . she was a mess. We all were.” He blew out a breath, pulled on his beard. “They didn't find him till the next morning. OD'd on some band's tour bus.”
The bindings around his chest yanked hard, making it hurt to breathe. All his senses narrowed to the whistle of the wind, the roar of the sea, and the thick knot of pain lodged in the center of his chest.
Fuck, what was he thinking bringing this shit up with her? The impulse to run took hold. He needed to ride. Ride until his anxietyâhis sorrowâhisguiltâdrained away. So why the fuck couldn't he move? His legs felt weighted down by sandbags.
She got up on her knees, moved behind him, and pressed her soft, warm body into his back. Resting a cheek on his shoulder blade, she didn't say a word. Just held him like that.
Her body heat penetrated his skin, warmed his tissue through to his bones.
And while his mind slowly settled and his thoughts stopped scattering, her warmth was the only sensation getting through.
A few drops of rain splattered on his wetsuit. And hesurprised the hell out of himself by saying, “I was torn.” She didn't prod him for more. Didn't move. And for some strange reason, it enabled him to continue. “I wanted to see my parents onstage. It was a big deal, them performing again. And my dad, he's crazy. But the Voltage guys had been coming to our shows, and I knew this was itâthey wanted to sign us. So they were kissing my ass. Making me feel like the next Bon Jovi. And I loved it.” He fisted a handful of sand so tightly the grains burned in his palm. “I did. I loved the attention.”
Her hold tightened around his waist.
“My parents' friend was supposed to be watching Hopper during their set. It's not his fault,” he hurried to explain. “It's no one's fault. He justÂ .Â .Â . you know, I don't know if the guys from Death Tab thought it'd be funny to invite the Down syndrome kid onto their bus, or if Hopper just followed along. He trusted everyoneâwhy wouldn't he? The guys swear no one offered him anything. But they had drugs and booze all over the place. Hopper didn't know. He was the most trusting kid you'd ever meet.”
“I could tell. From the pictures. He didn't know anything but love.”
“Fuck.” He said it softly, his voice rough and shaky.
Her hand never moved, but her fingers lightly stroked his arm. “I doubt anyone on this earth had a better childhood than he did.”
He reached for her hand, gave it a squeeze. “You're right.”
The moment he turned to look at her, he knew he shouldn't have. Something about this womanâso vital, so strong, so realâgot to him. Dug right down into the man he used to be.
Her features softened, and she licked her lips. And suddenly what he wanted more than anything was to close the distance between them. Get his hands in that silky hair and feel the soft heat of her mouth.
But he wasn't that man anymore. And he didn't have room for anything until his family healed.
So he stopped looking at her mouth and those pretty green eyes that didn't seem to miss a thing. “I'm gonna get you home.”
“I appreciate the offer.” She pulled away, releasing him. “But I'll take a cab. Stay with your friends.”
“Not gonna happen.”
Feet pounding on sand caught his attention, but before he could see what was going on, two of his friends flung themselves at him, piling onto his back and laughing.
“Play for us.”
“Jax brought his guitar.” The smell of reefer clung to their clothes.
Just then lightning split the darkness. The girls shrieked. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and raindrops splattered on his skin.
“Oh, my God,” one of them said.
The other took off. “Let's go to Calix's. Come on, you guys.”
“Oh, crap.” Mimi lifted the towel so it covered her head.
“It's just rain.”
“Until you spend forty minutes a day blow-drying your hair straight, you don't get to mock.”
“Forty minutes? Who has that much extra time?”
“Women with crazy hair.”
“Calix, come on,” someone shouted.
A crack of thunder made Mimi jump. The rain turned from steady to a downpour.
“Dude!” someone shouted.
Calix grabbed her hand. “Come on.” He led the way to the stairs.
“Calix!” Shay jumped on his back, her knees tucking in against his ribs. “Give me a ride.” Letting go of Mimi's hand to grab hold of Shay's legs, he hitched her higher. They all raced up the narrow trail, bracketed by bushes that led to a flat parcel of grass. Climbing the stairs to his cottage, he took a glance at the roiling sea before setting Shay down.
As music and lights flipped on, he did a quick scan for Mimi. Found her pushing the hair out of her eyes and holding the drenched towel. He took it from her. “I'll change into some dry clothes, and then I'll take you home.”
“No problem. Take your time.”
He dumped the towel on the laundry room floor beforeheading down the short hall. Opening the linen closet, he pulled a stack of towels off the shelf.
“Oh, my God, I'm freezing.” Shay reached for one, gazing up at him with those hooded eyes and soft lips.
“You want to bring these out there for everyone?”
“Sure, babe.” She gave him a lingering look before taking them and heading back out to the living room.
Since Mimi didn't seem to be in a rush, he figured he'd grab a shower. He tossed his wetsuit on the floor of his bedroom as he headed into the bathroom. Turning on the water, he stepped into the warm spray, one hand braced on the tiled wall as his cold skin burned with the hot water.
A rush of cool air had him turning to find Shay, naked, hair streaming down her slender body, stepping into the stall with him.
“I'm so cold.” She huddled up to him.
Maybe it was because he'd gotten stirred up from being with Mimi or maybe he just hadn't gotten laid in too long, but his body responded to her in a way it hadn't in a long time.
Her gaze dropped to his semi, and she reached for his hips, pressing kisses to his chest.
Yeah, he was horny, and yeah, he could go for a blow job.
She glanced up at him, eyes hungry and needy, and he took a step back.
But not from Shay.
When she came closer, he reached for her shoulders, tipped her chin. “Shay, no.”
She tried to hide it, but there was no mistaking the hurt in her eyes. “You sure about that?”
“Yeah, I am. Let me shower. I'll be out in a minute.” He hated hurting her, but he'd hurt her worse by using her. Bracing his hands on the tile, he let the hot water stream down his body.
“I get it, you know.”
His muscles tensed, but he kept his head lowered.
“You can't get close to anybody right now. I know. I was there. I saw you shut down. You're not gonna open your heart again, not for a long time. And I love that you don't want touse me or whatever. But it'sme, Calix. It's me. Youcan'tuse me.”
When she touched his back, he straightened, the heel of his hand slamming on the faucet. “Gotta get Mimi home.”
“She said she'd take a cab. Just let her. Stop trying to take care of everyone. Letmetake care of you.”
He got out of the shower and yanked the towel off the rack. Handing it to her, he drew in a breath. “Shay, listen, we've been friends a long time, and I don't want to screw that up.”
“You can't screw it up. Nothing can ever mess us up. I'll always be here.”
“I don't want you waiting for me.”
“Oh, my God, would you stop worrying about it. It'sus. I don't expect anything from you. I just want to make you feel good.”
“Come on, Shay. Of course you expect something from me. Not now, not in a month or maybe even a year, but you do expect me to get back with you. And I don't want that. I don't want any expectations at all. I've gotâfuck. I don't want anything from anyone. Don't wait for me, okay? Don't hope. Because it's just not there. It'snot there.”
She ran a palm up his chest. “It'll always be there for us. First love is a powerful thing.”
He'd never had to think about it before, but right then he knew he hadn't been in love with Shay. He'd been obsessed with fucking her. She was hot and willing, anytime anywhere. But love? No, he hadn't loved her. “I don't love you like that, Shay. I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you, but I'm not gonna lie. And I'm not gonna use you just so I can get off. I've known you a long time, and we're always going to be in each other's lives. So, I'm not gonna go there with you again.” He hated spelling it out. “That part of our relationship ended a while ago.”
Calix turned from her, swiping the towel from the hook on the back of the door.
With a raging hard-on he strode back into his room, his thoughts turning to what T-shirt or sweats he could find that would fit Mimi. He figured he'd find plenty of clothes hisfriends had left behind in his laundry room, so he'd just grab something for her.
Mimi stood in his doorway, looking between him and Shay, who stood right behind him. “I'm so sorry. IÂ .Â .Â .” She gave a little laugh. “Ah. Never mind.” Her creamy complexion burning a fiery red, she turned and fled.CHAPTER FOUR
Hitting the rise in the road, Calix braced for the impact.
A riot of wildflowers exploded onto the scene. Brilliant blues, purples, yellows, oranges, and reds. It went on forever.
Just beyond the fields sat a bar of frothy gray ocean. And above that, a bright blue sky with golden streaks of sunshine lancing through the fat, cotton ball clouds.
This view would never get old.
As he neared the farmhouse where Mimi and half the band lived, he started to regret coming early. He'd wanted to make sure he and Mimi were cool, but he'd picked a bad time. She'd be making breakfast. She wouldn't have time to talk about his dick.
And she'd seen it. In all its glory.
He assumed she'd gotten a cab, because when he'd gone to find her with some clean, dry clothes, she'd already gone.
Pulling his Harley into the gravel driveway, he cut the engine and dropped the kickstand. The earth was wet from last night's rainstorm. A gauzy white curtain pressed against the screen of an open window, and he heard someone shout, “I'm up, asshole.” Boots tramped down stairs, and conversation floated from the kitchen. Amid the outdoorscents of damp gravel and sweet wildflowers, he got a whiff of coffee and baking bread.
With a quick rap of his knuckles against the back door, he entered the laundry room.
“Calix.” Emmie sounded happy to see him as she reached into a cabinet and pulled down a mug. “Coffee?”
She poured from the carafe, handed him the mug, and gestured to the creamer and sugar bowl. “I'm so glad you came for breakfast.”
At the table, Slater, Ben, and Cooper shoveled eggs into their mouths. Derek had Violet pressed against the counter, standing between her legs. Whatever he said, as he nuzzled her ear, made her fingers curl into fists in his flannel shirt, and she tipped her head against his chest with a shy smile.
“Mimi around?” he asked.
“She's here somewhere.” Emmie peered into the oven, an oven mitt covering one hand.
“Got any more biscuits?” Ben called.
“Get 'em yourself,” Slater said.
Emmie laughed. “Five more minutes.”
Not interested in food, Calix wandered into the living room. Eight months ago, he'd come here for the first time. The place had been filled with old furniture and the kinds of vases and figurines collected over a lifetime. Now, though, with Derek, Ben, and Cooper living here, shoes, clothes, and all kinds of instruments were lying around.
He didn't see Mimi but figured she'd be watchingChoppedor doing research on her computer. Whatever. He wasn't about to look for her upstairs, so he'd just head outside. Walk down to the beach, while the guys ate breakfast.
The moment he turned, he saw her.
On the covered porch, the early morning sun tipped its light onto her, turning her russet hair a fiery mix of golds, reds, and light browns. She usually wore her hair straight and sleek. This morning it tumbled around her in a bounty of curls.
Huddled over the table, she focused on her project. Wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and pajama pants, face free ofmakeup, she looked like an ethereal creature, and it made him want things he couldn't have.
The sound of his boots on the hardwood floor should've snagged her attention, but her intense concentration never broke.
Leaning against the doorway, he watched her use tweezers to carefully place a tiny yellow petal in a pulpy mess of crap covering a screen. The frame of the screen was set over a pan of more of the pulpy stuff immersed in water. Around the room drying racks held sheets of paper the size of notecards. He leaned farther in to get a better look and discovered she'd made scenes out of the delicate and colorful petals.
“This is beautiful.” His voice cracked the silence, and she jolted.
Looking up, the palest pink blush spread across her cheeks. “Oh. Hey.” And then she smiled before going back to work. “Thanks.”
On the face of the card a bride and groom, arms linked, heads tilted toward each other, smiled broadly. The woman held a stunning spray of wildflowers in her hands. It wasÂ .Â .Â . well, hell. It was remarkable.
“Wedding invitations,” she said quietly.
He'd come for a reason, but she was so fucking beautiful he couldn't pull his thoughts together. “I thought you'd be jumping all over that cooking show stuff.”
“I've been up since four watching episodes ofChoppedon YouTube. I needed a break, and I have to finish the invitations anyhow.”
She nodded. Her loyalty impressed him. A lot about her impressed him. “You left last night.”
“Yeah. I called a cab.”
“We didn't know. Lee was worried.”
“Lee was, huh?” Mischief glittered in her eyes as she perched her wrist on the edge of the table.
“Yeah.” Maybe it was the soft morning light or maybe it was her hair all wild like that, but arousal kicked in, strumming his nerves.
“That's a sweet cottage you've got.”
“Yeah, it was the original home on the property. My parents didn't want to live so close to the water. They wanted more privacy.” Her soft, feminine scent filled the small room, and he needed to get the hell out. “You still coming over at two?”
“I'll be there. But if Dak needs you, just let me know.”
He gave her a tight nod, set his mug down, and then darted for the door like a pit bull was at his heels.
“Taking a walk.”
“But you just got here.”
As he moved behind her, he got a whiff of her shampoo and a glimpse of the pale skin of her slender wrists. His pulse quickened.
“Calix?” Emmie called from the kitchen.
“Yeah?” Hand on the screen door, he waited for more from the disembodied voice.
“You want something to eat before you head into the studio?”
“Nah. I'm good.”
“Okay, well, they'll be heading over in about ten minutes.”
“Got it.” He gave a curt nod to Mimi, his hand twisting the knob.
“You don't like my food?” Mimi asked.
“Your food's fine.”
“Then how come you never stay to eat it?” She set the tweezers down, giving him a look that said,After all we shared last night? You're going to be distant again?
Well, yeah, last night he'd said too much. He shrugged, gazing out the screen door.
“You know, it's pretty fun around here. How come you never hang out?”
“Got other shit to do.”
Again, that knowing look. “You got so much shit to do right this minute you can't have a biscuit with the guys?”
Why was she pushing it?
“Just sit with them. Come on, did you eat breakfast?”
He shook his head.
“Well, lucky you, because I found an awesome recipe forhuevos rancheros. Some chiles, a warm corn tortilla. Splash of sour cream. It's pretty delish, if you ask me.”
“I'm good.” He opened the door. “Just gonna take a walk before being shut in the studio all day.”
She got up. “We should just say it, you know? We're going to be around each other, and we don't want it to be weird.”
“Last night.” Her gaze dropped to his package. “I saw your wiener.”
For a long moment, they just stared at each other, and then he burst out laughing. “You weren't the first.” He stepped through the door. “And you won't be the last.” And then he jumped off the stairs and took off across the grass, heading for the ocean.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Rarelydid a band work together so well, so perfectly in sync with each other, that it made playing a crystal pure joy. But that was how it was with Blue Fire. Calix closed his eyes, blending into the music, letting it flow into and through him.
The guys had a pretty good gig out here. The studio was right in Slater and Emmie's backyard, their house not even a mile down the road from Violet's.
After the last note faded away, Ben tossed his drumsticks into the air. Everyone looked at each other, faces impassive, and then all of a sudden, they broke into laughter.
This band had a lot of moments like thisâthey liked each other. Really connected. And, he had to admit, it felt good. Really fucking good.
If he could join a band, it would be this one. But he couldn't. Not yet.
So it wasn't worth thinking about.
“That was great, you guys,” Sam, the recording engineer, said into the talkback mic.
Coop pulled off his headphones. “You think he toned down some of that reverb on the backing tracks like we asked?” He lifted his shirt to wipe the perspiration off his face.
“I think we'll just have totrustthat heknowswhat he'sdoing,” Ben said, imitating Dak's patronizing voice, going heavy on the Valley Girl accent. Though Dak didn't sound quite like that, he still placed a strange emphasis on certain words.
Calix found Derek watching him. The bass player shook his head.
“What?” Calix asked.
“Dude, you were scorching on keys.”
Calix turned to find his water bottle. “Thanks. Yeah, good session.”
Slater came out of the isolation booth, the only one not smiling.
“You got a clothespin on your sac, man?” Coop joked.
“It was off, right?” Slater opened the door to the control room. “How'd that sound?”
Dak didn't even look up from the mixing board.
“Dak, man,” Slater said. “How'd it sound?”
The guy shoved his messy, dark blond hair out of his eyes and pushed his black glasses up his nose. “Huh? Oh, cool, yeah. I think I want to try it with Calix on vocals.”
Derek set his Fender in the stand and joined them in the control room. “What're you talking about?”
“We're going to slow it down. It's not working as a rock song. I want to try it as a ballad, and Calix has perfect pitch.”
“So does Slater,” Ben said at the same time Coop said, “That song is not a ballad.”
“We'll try it that way and see,” Dak said.
With a frustrated expression, Coop squared his shoulders. “It's clearly not a ballad.”
“I want to hear it with Calix,” Dak said.
“Guys.” Calix pushed through them to stand in front of Dak. “I'm a session musician. This isn't my band. Not my place to do lead vocals.” He brushed past them.
“Hang on. Where you going?” Slater followed him out of the control room and into the lounge.
“I'm gonna let you guys figure it out.” He pushed out the door into the bright sun of midmorning.
“Look, I think it's time we have a band meeting,” Slater said. “Nothing feels right with this album, and we have to figure out what to do about it.”
“Makes sense.” Wet grass flattened under his boots. He noticed his dad's truck at the side of Slater's house and couldn't miss his big body in the kitchen with Mimi.
“What're we gonna do about this asshole?” Derek asked, joining them.
Leaving them to discuss it, Calix leapt up the steps to the back porch. They had no fucking idea how hard it was for him to just play keys. No idea. He was used to having total control. As singer for his band, he'd played lead guitar. All his life in his home studio, he'd played and arranged everything.
“Calix, hold up,” Slater said. “What do you think of Dak?”
He stopped before opening the door and faced them. “I think if you're not happy with the tracks, you should say something. It's your band. Your sound.”
“The problem is that we haven't heard anything,” Derek said. “We don't knowwhatwe've got.”
“Guys.” Sam stood outside the studio and called from the doorway. “Need you back in here.”
“Hang on.” Slater's tone had her jaw snapping shut. Turning back to Calix, he said, “You've got more experience at this side of things, so I'm asking for your input. This is important.”
“Yeah, it's important. So, like you said, have a meeting. Figure out what you want. You don't want to lose control of your sound.”
“Every time we bring it up, we're told we're supposed to trust Dak.” Derek looked frustrated.
“Why?” He knew he sounded impatient, but come on. It was their band. Why weren't they fighting for their songs?
“Because he's fuckin' Dak Johnson,” Derek said.
“Which worked out great for Pitstop and the other bands he's worked with. But is it working for you?”
Derek and Slater shared a look, some kind of private communication going on. Derek looked uncomfortable. “No.”
“Then do something about it.”
“You think we haven't?” Slater said. “You see what he does when we challenge him.”
“Do youwantme on lead vocals on that song?” He wouldfucking love to sing that damn song. He and Slater had written it together, and he felt that song in his bones.
“Then talk to him. If he won't back down, get Emmie involved. Let her handle the hard conversations.” They needed to make more use of Slater's wife. She was a formidable manager.
“He's right,” Derek said. “We've put up with enough of his shit. Let's talk to her right now, before we go back in there.”
Slater stopped him before he took off. “She's at a doctor's appointment.”
All the anger and frustration fled, and Derek smiled. “Yeah? That's today?”
Slater whacked his arm with the back of his hand, cutting him off. He tried to hide his obvious happinessâbut failed. “Yeah.” He looked away. “We'll see.”
The guys shared a lookâboth of them unable to contain their smiles.
Calix had no idea what they were talking about, so he went inside. He found his dad and Mimi at the kitchen counter. “Dad.”
“Hey, son. Takin' a break?”
He nodded. “What's up?”
Mimi took a step back, a lock of hair falling across her rosy cheek. She pushed it aside with the back of a flour-dusted hand. “Your dad brought me a crate full of the dreaded green matter.”
Terrence laughed, pulling a bright yellow squash out of the crate. “She's either color blind or she's not giving me a chance here.”
Mimi lifted a thinly sliced wedge of eggplant. “Oh, we're doing it. Lunchanddinner.” She tried again to push that piece of hair off her face. “But I'm making Terrence stay so when the guys come gunning for me, he'll take the brunt of the blows.”
“Violent group you got here.” His dad's big grin was infectious.
And goddamn, it felt good to see him happy like that.
Raised voices outside had them all looking out the window.In the middle of the yard, the band stood in a semicircle facing Dak and Sam. The conversation grew heated.
“Looks like things're coming to a head,” his dad said quietly. “You talk to 'em?”
His dad clapped him on the shoulder to show his approval.
“What's going on?” Mimi asked.
Sam broke from the group, jogging back to the studio. It'd taken months to convert the old barn into a state-of-the-art facilityâand Slater had spared no expense. He wasn't just a rock starâhe was a musician. He'd be making music the rest of his life.
And that was one of the best things about these guysâit was all about the music for them. Not the fame or rock star lifestyle. Calix hadn't worked with many bands that got it the way these guys did.
“Things aren't working out with Dak,” Calix said.
“So why aren't you out there with them?” Mimi asked.
Because he couldn't get more involved. He wrote and arranged songs, played with themÂ .Â .Â . He practically lived with them. He had to draw the line somewhere.
He could feel his dad's smile but refused to look. “Not my place.”
She made a sound of exasperation. “You've worked with them a long time. They think the world of your talent. Of course it's your place.”
He stepped closer to her, counting on his size to quash her attitude. “Not my band.”
Didn't work on this one, though. Mimi tipped her chin to look at him. “They need you.” That hair slid forward again, and she blew out the side of her mouth to push it away.
He tucked the hair behind her ear, stroking it a few times to secure it. Her eyes widened, her lips softened, parted.
“I said my piece.” He spoke quietly. “They'll work it out.” She was so fucking beautiful. His body hummed with a desire that was growing harder to tamp down.
“Looks like they're coming in,” his dad said.
Stepping back to the counter, Mimi dredged the eggplant in the flour mixture, then dropped it in a skillet of hot oil.“Better get this in the oven. They'll probably want to eat lunch earlier. How long will it take to cook?”
“Forty minutes,” his dad said.
“Oh, that's perfect. I'll put some snacks out in the meantime.”
“They're not coming in to eat,” Calix said as the door banged open and the whole group stomped inside.
“That's just bullshit, man,” Ben said. “It's our fuckin' music.”
“You haven't even heard the tracks yet.” Sam sounded exasperated. “You know, you're not the first band he's worked with that thinks they know better than him. But until you listen to what he's doing, you really don't know.”
“He's trying to change us,” Cooper said.
Sam kept her cool. “He's trying to turn good songs into hits. That's what he does. You have to trust him to do that. And before you roll your eyes, why don't you guys give it a listen?” She held up a thumb drive. “Play this, and you'll get it.”
“We'll listen,” Coop said. “But we're not pulling Slater off lead vocals.”
“Listen to the track.” Sam offered the disk to Derek.
Movement out the window had Calix turning around to see Dak slamming out of the studio. “Where's he going?”
With his messenger bag slung across his shoulder, Dak stormed down the driveway and disappeared around the side of the house.
“Throwing a tantrum,” Ben said. “But at least we're done for the day.”
Slater brought a laptop to the table. “Let's give it a go.”
Derek inserted the disk. A few moments later, the music started, and Calix felt that same energy returning. It was a great song. Until the vocals kicked in. Slater definitely sounded a little strained.
Over the music, Terrence said, “Song's in the wrong key.”
Slater shut off the music. “What's that?”
“This song's in C sharp, right?”
“Isn't that too high for you?”
“Yeah,” Slater said. “I told him that.”
“You should try it in A.”
The guys looked at each other. A simple adjustment that Dak hadn't considered.
“Let's change it,” Slater said.
“Right now?” Sam pulled out her phone, started texting. “I can see if he'll come back.”
“I don't give a shit if he comes back,” Derek said. “I want to hear it in A.”
Sam looked up from her phone. “You want him back or not?” A text came in, and she opened it. “Oh, wait. That's him.” She read it. “Okay, he's just talked to Irwin. He wants a listening party.”
Cooper slapped his hand on the counter. “Fuck yeah.”
“About time,” Ben said. “Let Irwin hear the shit we've been working on.”
“How soon?” Derek asked Sam.
“Soon as we can get it together,” Sam said.
While the others continued talking, Calix cornered Mimi. “How soon can you pull off a party?”
Those raspberry lips parted, and he wanted to nudge aside her hair with his nose and breathe in her sweet, sexy scent.
“I don't even know what a listening party is.”
“This isn't for press or fans, so it's nothing flashy. We're not showing anything off. It'll just be people from the record company. We'll keep it simple.” He shrugged. “Like a clambake.”
“A clambake? Calix, I've only ever been a guest at one of those. They should hire an event planner.”
“The more opportunities you have to cook, the better. Cooking for an event, shit goes wrong, you've got to improvise. Just like during the competition.”
The creases in her forehead relaxed, and she grinned. “Wait a second. Are you looking out for me?”
Energy crackled between them. He could feel the pull right in the center of his chest, drawing him to her. “You in or out?”
“I don't know. I'd hate to blow it for you guys.”
“I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't think you could do it.”
“You've got a lot of faith in me.”
That spark in her eyes? It lit a fuse in him. Something that hadn't happened in years. “We'll help you.”
“You're going to help me plan a clambake?”
She sounded a little flirty, and he didn't want her getting the wrong impression, so he shifted gears. “Between me and my mom, yeah. We'll help you.”
“My wife's probably done fifty of 'em.” Terrence joined them. “You got this.”
Mimi looked at them both but settled her gaze on Calix, as though needing his support.
He gave a firm nod.
“Okay. Let's do it.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Carefulto keep her fingers away from the flame, Mimi charred the red pepper while watching Calix lean into the refrigerator. The muscles in his biceps bulged as he moved things around, and his jeans cupped the tight, round globes of his ass.
He was so freaking hot, she could barely stand it.
Who would ever have thought the man who'd once played a starring role in her fantasies was now teaching her how to cook? That she'd be standing beside him and breathing in his clean, masculine scent, feeling the heat of his very big, hard body, and gazing into those dark, deeply probing eyes?
A shudder rocked through her.Lucky bitch.
Straightening, he removed butcher-paper-wrapped packages from the refrigerator and dumped them on the island. Tearing one of them open, he set a strange clump of meat on a plate.
Reality stripped away her fog of lust. “What isthat?” A funny smell reminded her to turn the pepper to keep it charring evenly.
“It's a ham hock.”
“And things were going so well.” In just a few short hours, Calix had taught her that changing up the type of fat usedâbutter, beef fat, walnut oilâtransformed the flavor of a roux. He'd taken a basic recipe for vegetable broth and changed it markedly by adding lemongrass. They'd even tried usingroasted vegetables instead of the typical raw carrots, onions, and celery, which had given it a much deeper, richer flavor. “Clearly, they've taken a turn.”
He continued opening the other parcels.
“Where on earth did you find that stuff?”
He studied the contents. “I asked the butcher to give me whatever body parts he had left over.”
“To freak me out?”
Calix laughed. “I thought you've been watchingChopped?”
“I have.” But she hadn't believed theVerna Bloom Showwould use shock-value kinds of ingredients.
“Then you know the kind of shit they give the contestants.”
“Wait, didyouwatch it?” When would he have done that? Between having sex with his surfer babe girlfriend and showing up at the farm at 8 a.m.?
Yeah, okay, that was a little bitchy. But if watching him from afar had fueled her nighttime fantasizes, imagine what seeing his massive hard-on had done. That man wasbeautiful.
And Shay was perfect for him. Her easy sensuality to his dark intensity.
“I haven't, but my mom has. She told me what to expect.” He held up a package. “You're gonna have to figure out how to incorporate whatever crazy shit they give you.” His thick, shoulder-length hair gleamed in the overhead lights.
A woman entered the kitchen. “You talkin' aboutChopped?” With her height and long dark hair held back in a ponytail, she had to be his mom. She did a quick sweep of Mimi and the kitchen, before heading straight for the refrigerator.
“Yeah. Hey, Ma. This is Mimi Romano.”
“Mimi.” His mom gave her a nod. “Jo Bourbon.” And then she bent low to reach inside a drawer.
“She cooks for the band.” The way Calix watched his mom so intently reminded Mimi of the plan to get her interested in the cooking lessons.
“I'm a contestant on a cooking competition. For theVerna Bloom Show. Calix is helping me prepare for it.”
“It's gonna be likeChopped?” She closed the refrigerator,holding a yogurt container and a bag of baby carrots, and then went to the silverware drawer.
“Similar format but not exactly the same.” Mimi watched her grab a spoon, then head to the pantry. “It's less about cooking skills and more about our ability to think on our feet. How we handle the pressure of a kitchen. And it's not focused on us the entire time. While we're cooking, Verna's show continues. She just checks in with us now and then. Oh, and also, it's based on points. Three judges giving us points for three different categories.”
“What're the categories?” Calix asked.
“Quick thinking, innovation, and presentation.”
Jo stopped at the table to peel back the butcher paper. “What're you gonna do with this?”
“Not sure yet.” Calix folded his arms across his chest.
“What kinds of dishes are you making each episode?”
The woman was definitely interested. “There're five rounds. Appetizers, soup and salad, side dishes, entrÃ©es, and dessert. I've totally got dessert. That's my thing.”
Jo nodded. “Got any plans for that offal?”
Jesus God. Offal?Offal.“I'm working with organs?” Mimi looked up from the stove, moving the pepper away from the flame. A sick feeling swept over her. “Seriously, I don't think this show is like that. On the application it said we didn't need to be professionally trained. The winner will be her sous chef, so we'll learn everything from her. Giving us weird thingsÂ .Â .Â . I mean, what would be the point?”
“Shock value,” Calix said. “Ratings. You should be prepared for it so you don't choke.”
“What kind of shit are we talking about?” she asked.
“I don't know. A snail, squirrel guts. Eyeballs.”
Panic had her heart pounding. “They're not going to give us stuff like that.”
Jo gave her a dull look. “Look, babe, you're not gonna make it past the first round if you get squeamish over guts or eyeballs. You wanna be laughed off the show, be the chick who's freaking out.”
Well, that settled her right down. “I don't want to be laughed at.”
His mom set the yogurt down before heading into the pantry. “What's the prize? Besides being her sous chef, what do you get if you win?”
“We'll work with her off the show, as well. We get to learn everything there is to know about the food and restaurant business.”
“Okay, so they're not looking for chefs. They're looking for an assistant. Someone with personality who can work under pressure.” She came out with a granola bar. “That means you gotta be prepared for anything. It's not your culinary skills, but how you react to things. How creative you can be under pressure.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. And I can totally do that.”
“Then you gotta handle the offal,” Calix said.
Jo nodded. “Do it. Touch the offal.”
They both looked at her with serious expressions, and she didn't want to let them down. Didn't want to be the joke of the show. Besides, she could do this. She could do anything.
Setting the pepper down on a plate, she headed for the offal. As she peered into the white paper, she forced herself not to make a face, but God, the shiny, dark redâalmost blackâmass ofâ“Whatisthat?”
Calix snatched it away, and they both burst out laughing.
Great. They were teasing her. “Thanks, guys.”
“Looks like you got a challenge here, Calix.” With her three itemsâyogurt, carrots, and granola barâJo started out of the kitchen.
When Calix tensed, she plunged her hands into the slimy mess. Just to keep Jo's interest.Oh, my God, it's disgusting. “What could I do with this?” She turned to Jo. “What wouldyoudo with it?”
“Make a broth,” Jo answered easily. “If it were me, I wouldn't give a judge anything to eat I wouldn't eat myself. Use it for a sauce or a broth. A gravyâand then strain it. Don't make them eat an eyeball or anything that'll make 'em gag.”
“You're so right. I would never have thought of that. Thank you.”
Jo looked pretty exhausted, as she gave a nod to Calix, and then headed out of the room.
Worried she'd let him down, she tried again to hold on to Jo's attention. “Can youâ” But Calix's hand closed around her arm, and he shook his head.
“That was great,” he said quietly. “A good start.”
“You're right. I'm an all-or-nothing kind of girl. But you're right. It's our first day, and she definitely showed interest.”
He didn't immediately drop her hand, and the warm pressure made her pulse kick up. Slowly, one side of his mouth curled into the most delicious smile. It made her breath go shallow and her heart flutter.
But then he let her go and headed to the French doors. “Hey, Ma?”
Mimi waited, listening.
“The band's gonna have a listening party. Thought we'd do a clambake. You good to show Mimi how to do it?”
Mimi didn't hear his mom's response, but she couldn't miss Calix's deep, sexy voice. “Cool, thanks. Tomorrow?” And then he came back into the kitchen.
Holy mother of God, when Calix smiled, her heart nearly exploded. He came right up to her and gave her a swat on the butt.
“This is good, Meems. Real good. And she won't have to do anything in the kitchen. It's outside, on the beach. That'll make it easier for her.”
“I'm glad.” She pretended to rub her butt. “Now leave my ass out of it.”
Standing beside her, he leaned back, peering down at her ass. “Not possible.”
“Calix Bourbon, are you flirting with me?”
And just like that, his good humor switched off. “Nah. Just playin'.”
“I know. I've met your girlfriend.”
“Uh, Shay?”The woman you were massively excited about?
He pressed his lips together, giving her a stern look. “She's not my girlfriend.”
“Not what you thought.” He reached for the charred pepper. “Let's get back to work. This is perfect. You want to peel it?”
“Sure.” Why'd she have to go and bring up the whole girlfriend thing? She liked playful Calix.
“So, let's talk about what happens when things go wrong. Like when you've got thirty minutes to make a dessert and the cream curdles.”
“Oh, I've got desserts down. That's the one thing I know how to cook. Besides, we don't do desserts until the fifth episode.”
“I'm not talking about dessert specifically. Just about understanding how things work. The chemistry. I was using dessert to illustrate a point. You with me?”
“Totally.” The burned bits peeled off, she set the juicy red pepper back on the plate and rinsed her hands.
“You know why cream curdles?”
“No. But it makes me nervous not knowing when it's going to go from almost perfect to ruined.”
“Exactly. You don't want shit like that happening on the show when you've got thirty minutes to get something done and plated. If you understand what's going on, you won't screw it up.”
“When you beat the cream, you're creating air bubbles. As it's whipping, the fat's distributed among the bubbles, and that causes them to stick together and create foam. Make sense?”
“Good. So the fat particles need to be cold in order to stick together. So what do you do to make sure you don't ruin the whipped cream? The minute the clock starts, you put the beaters and bowl in the fridgeâor freezer, given the time. You put the cream at the back of the fridge.”
This was such good information. She wouldn't have known to do that. “Got it.”
“Hey, you guys, how's the lesson going?” Lee stood in the doorway. With her platinum hair and petite frame, she looked like a princess who'd gotten kidnapped by a biker gang. Terrence came in behind her, carrying burlap bags.
“Calix?” Terrence's tight expression led Mimi to believe he was less concerned about the lesson than his wife's response to it. When Calix grinned, his dad's features relaxed, and he looked a hundred times less intimidating.
She stepped toward them. “Hey, Lee. Terrence.” She gave each one a hug. “This guy's been amazing. You can tell your mom all that homeschooling stuck. And if that's not enough, he convinced her to show me how to do a clambake tomorrow.”
Terrence's gaze slid to Calix, and the two of them shared a deeply relieved and hopeful look. It melted her heart to see both of these huge men turn soft over their fervent interest in Jo's recovery.
“You guys wanna beat it so we can finish?” Calix said. “I gotta get Mimi back to the farm so she can make dinner.”
“I'm starving,” Lee said. “Haven't eaten all day. What do you have here?” She headed to the counter with the butcher paper packages of ham hock and offal.
“Got some real tasty treats for you, Lee.” Calix swiped one of the bags up before she could see it.
“I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him,” Mimi said.
Lee eyed her brother warily. “I think I'm gonna go with Mimi on this one.”
“Smart girl.” Calix picked up a kidney and waved it in front of Lee's face.
“You're disgusting. Get that away from me.” Lee shrieked and took off, Calix chasing after her with the organ.
Mimi turned to find Terrence watching her with an expression filled with warmthâand maybe even gratitude.
She smiled back, hoping very much she didn't let him down.
But, really, what could go wrong? It was just a few cooking lessons.CHAPTER FIVE
A strong breeze rippled the ocean as Mimi watched the horizon turn from pale yellow to a deep, bruised peach. Cold water rushed around her ankles, catching the fabric of her maxi dress and tugging it.
“Got some more.” Lee scooped seaweed from the water and trudged toward shore.
Farther away, Jo worked in silence, scouring the sea.
A shrill whistle had her turning around to find Terrence waving at them from the pit they'd dug. Mimi gathered her kelp and hauled it over to their encampment.
“Good stuff.” Terrence relieved her of her load. “Now we're gonna lay it out on top of these stones.” His deep, hoarse voice sounded like it hurt to speak. That, and his intimidating size, made a strange contrast to the gentle kindness in his eyes.
Together they stretched the heavy, wet plant out in strips across the steaming stones. She loved that he'd take the time to do this clambake with her. Why hadn't she and her dad done projects together like this?
Fear plucked at her heart. What had she been thinkingrejecting the Miami job? He'd made it clear what she needed to do to get hired, and then she'd refused to even consider it.
Well, she'd been thinking she'd already done everything he'd asked her to do, and after all these years, it still hadn't resulted in a job.
So why wouldn't she try a different path? She didn't believe for a second his team would think less of her for doing the competition. But even moreâshe wanted to do it. After a lifetime of doing things his way, she wanted to forge her own path.
In her gut, she believed it would lead her to her dad.
“Perfect.” Terrence sat back on his heels to examine their work.
“Make sure you get the guys to dig the hole and heat up the stones.” Dropping her load of seaweed, Jo wiped her hands on her jeans. “You'll have enough to do with decorating and preparing the food.”
As Jo dropped into a beach chair, Mimi studied her. While she could tell the woman had been pretty in her younger days, the map of creases on her skin revealed a life lived hard and fast.
But Mimi knew this project had sparked something in her. Jo's normally dull tone had grown livelier as she'd shown Mimi how to wash the clams and prepare the cheesecloth nests of food. And her husband? Terrence had been there every step of the way, his love for his wife clear in the way he looked at her. And he'd made it funâcracking them all up as he showed Mimi how to debeard mussels.
“I'm starving.” Lee collapsed into a beach chair. “Haven't eaten all day.”
Mimi shot her a look over her shoulder. “Grab something from the cooler.”
“She never eats,” Jo said.
“Uh, you should talk,” Lee said right back.
Jo's eyes rounded, clearly ready to get into it with her daughter, but Terrence broke the tension when he burst out laughing. “She got you there.”
“I don't even understand not eating,” Mimi said. “I'm Italian, and I eat like every meal is Thanksgiving.”
“Believe me,” Lee said. “I eat.”
“I'll tell you why she doesn't eat,” Terrence said. “She's waiting for someone to make her something.”
“Are you serious?” Mimi asked.
Lee kicked up a little sand with her toes. “What? So I don't cook.”
“Spoiled, more like.” Terrence grinned at his wife. “Her mom made her breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of her life.”
“Hm, maybeyoushould be the one taking the cooking lessons,” Mimi said.
“Forget it.” Lee tipped her head back, opening her mouth wide.
“What the hell're you doing?” Jo said.
“I'm a baby bird, waiting for you to feed me.”
Jo leaned over, stuck a hand in the basket, and pulled out a baguette. She tore off the end and tossed it to her daughter. “There. You're fed.”
“Thanks, Ma.” Lee bit into the bread. “Yum. What else you got?”
“See for yourself.” Jo slid lower in the chair and closed her eyes.
Reaching into a straw basket, Lee hauled out plastic containers of hummus and sliced vegetables.
“Let's get the food on here now,” Terrence said.
Jo pulled a clear plastic bag of Quahog clams out of a cooler. Her long, shaggy hair spilled forward, and she tried to whip it back with a toss of her head. While she took out a bag of mussels, Terrence made his way around the pit to stand behind her, gathering her hair into a ponytail. Jo flinched at his touch, and Terrence froze, hurt momentarily gripping his features.
Mimi looked away, hating to see the man's touch rebuked. But then Lee pulled an elastic off her wrist and tossed it to her dad. He caught it in his huge palm and tied back his wife's hair. Smoothing a hand down the ponytail, Jo thanked him, then got up and brought the bags to the pit.
After spreading out the cheesecloth bundles of potatoes, onions, and carrots, they added another layer of seaweed.Then, the four of them spread out the shellfish, topping it with more kelp. Finished, they covered the pit with a tarp.
“Shame we don't have corn on the cob,” Terrence said.
“Wrong season.” Jo sat back in her chair. “Besides, we're just showing her how to do it.”
“Looks good,” Terrence said in his grumbly voice.
“Hey.” Gus came down the stairs, carrying his laptop. “So, listen, I think I got the Zaranov Vodka account today.” His bare feet kicked out sand as he headed toward them.
“Good.” Terrence's big body landed in a beach chair.
“Oh, yeah, it's awesome.” Gus sounded frustrated. “My first contract in months.” He wore his dark hair shorter than Calix's but long enough that a lock fell across his eyes. No question he was as handsome as his older brother with those dark eyes and caramel-colored skin, but he didn't have the same intensity. He didn't smolder.
“Good thing we're not looking for the income.” Terrence gave his son a hard look, and man, if he'd looked at her like that, she'd have gotten the message to shut the hell up.
“Cool, but I've got to do something other than get turned down.” Gus snapped his laptop closed. “I don't know why I waste my time.”
“Not wasting time,” Terrence said. “There's more to do than merchandising and licensing.”
“You know that's the bulk of what I do each day.”
“I'm sorry, what exactly do you do, Gus?” Mimi sat cross-legged in the sand, facing the Bourbons. “You're, what, twenty-three? Around my age?”
“Where'd you go to college?”
She couldn't miss the snap of tension between his parents and Gus. Oh, crap. She'd stepped in it again.
“He started at Julliard,” Terrence said.
“I dropped out.”
Three years ago he'd have been twentyâah, of course. He'd dropped out because of Hopper. And, oh, crap, that would explain why Lee wasn't doing fashion or decorating.
Life had come to a screeching halt for this family.
“So now I run the 100 Proof LLC.”
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“I take care of all the business things that still go on from my parent's music. Licensing, merchandising, stuff like that.”
“That sounds interesting. I guess you're not a musician?”
“I play, but I like the technical side more. Mixing and spinning.”
“And you're good at it. What you played me last night was really cool. Can you do that for a career?”
“There's a lot I could do.” Gus leaned forward, his eyes alight with excitement. “I could be a DJ or work in a studio.”
Plenty of clubs in the Hamptons used DJs. And, of course, the obvious solutionâSlater's studio was half an hour away on the North Fork.
She shot Terrence a questioning look. Seemedtooobvious, so she should probably keep her mouth shut. Wait, what was she thinking? Calix worked at the studio every day, so it had to be all right. “Why don't you work with Blue Fire?”
He had boyish good looks, but in that moment he looked like a kid holding a present in the shape of what he'd asked for. His excitement leveled, though, and he looked at his laptop. “I'm not trained at anything. I only mess around.”
“Don't they already have a recording engineer?” Lee asked.
“Yeah, but she actually works with Dak,” Mimi said. “So, once Blue Fire finishes thisâ”
“They'd never hire me. I don't have the skills they need.”
“Would you want to be a gofer? That way you'll learn some skills, get some experience.”
“Hell, yeah. You think they'd let me do that?”
“I don't see why not. I can ask them when I go home.”
“Will you?” Gus looked so excited she had to smile. Funny, how they were nearly the same age, but he had the exuberance of a much younger man.
“Of course I will.” But when she looked to the others to share her amusement, she found nothing but tension. Oh, crap. But Calix worked with the band. He worked in the studio every day. How was Gus doing the same thing bad?
“You got a business to run.” Terrence's tone indicated the subject was closed.
Mimi fixed her attention on Jo, who'd gone perfectly still, the beer bottle clutched in both hands.
“I can do both at the same time,” Gus said. “I want to do it.”
“You wanna get coffee for the guys?” Terrence asked. “Fetch Dak his slippers? From what I hear, the guy's a dick.”
“Stop trying to talk me out of it. I want to do it.”
“You guysâ” Lee began.
“Let him do it.” Jo got up.
Terrence watched his wife with concern.
“Let him do it.” Jo said it more softly this time. Pain spread like a slow leak across her features. And then she lowered her head. “I need a smoke.” She headed down the beach.
“Damn.” Gus got up, starting after his mom.
“It's okay. I got it.” Terrence gave his son a tired smile and then went after his wife.
“Dad,” Gus shouted. Terrence turned to him. “Can I do it?”
His dad drew in a heavy breath and rubbed his chin with a hand. “Yeah, boy. You can do it.” He started to go, but he turned back to his son, stabbing a finger at him. “But don't you fuck this up, you get me?”
“Yeah. I get you.”
“This isn't about partying. It's about learning. We clear?”
Gus nodded, barely containing his enthusiasm.
Mimi sat there, not quite sure what she'd done but wishing she could take it back.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Benwas in the pocket. From the control room, Calix watched the drummer shred. Perspiration dripped down his face, as his arms stroked, head thrashing, replaying the same beat for the tenth time that day.
Beside him, Derek sorted through a stack of papers, smirking when he found the one he wanted. Pressing it to the laminated glass, he waved to get Ben's attention.
“Let me see it,” Cooper said.
“Hey.” Dak shifted the headphones off one ear. “Don't interrupt him.”
But Calix knewâalong with the other guysâthat Ben was wasting his time in there. Dak gave too many conflicting instructions.Try it this way, no, no, try it that way, no, that's not right. Jesus, how had the guy ever done a successful album?
As soon as Dak had the headphones back on, Derek flashed the sheet of paper to the others. Everyone burst out laughing at the crudely drawn image of a confused faceâtwo oval eyes, a half-circle mouth turned upside down, and a question mark sticking out the top of the head.
Cooper waved to get Ben's attention, as Derek plastered the sheet to the glass again.
Ben halted mid-thrash, as he focused on the paper. Tossing his sticks, he gave the finger, threw off his headphones, and shoved his kit back as he got up.
He burst into the control room. “This sucks.”
Dak stood up, shrugging off his headphones. “Grab some water. We'll break for ten then try it again.”
“Trywhatagain? I don't know what you want me to do. It's all fucked up in my head.”
Someone rapped on the door. “Hey.” Gus peered into the control room and then entered.
What the hell was his brother doing in the studio?
“Got the screens,” Gus said to Dak. “They should be here in about ten days.”
Dak barely looked up at him. “I need them now.”
Eagerness turned to concern. “Okay. I can rush delivery, but they don't have the five-panel acrylic screen in stock. Rush might get them here in seven days instead of ten.”
Dak shot him a challenging look.
“On it.” Gus fled the control room, and Calix took off after him.
He caught up with his brother in the lounge. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gus pulled out the chair and sat down in front ofthe computer. He tapped out a few words and thenAcoustic Screens Soundproofing Solutionsfilled the screen.
“What's going on?”
“Mimi got me a job here.” He looked happier than Calix had seen in a long damn time. “I'm a gofer.”
“What're you talking about? How'd that even come up?”
“Mom was doing that clambake yesterday, and Mimi asked why I'm not DJ-ing or something.”
“Okay, but what does that have to do with workinghere?”
“Come on.” Gus got up so swiftly, the chair shot back. “My job is bullshit, and you know it. What kind of licensing deals do you think I'm getting on a band that broke up twenty years ago?”
“Hey, I get it.” Of course it wasn't right that Gus got stuck doing a job he didn't want. That he hadn't gotten to finish college.
“Look, I'm not going anywhere.” Gus leaned forward, like he needed Calix to understand. “I'm not bailing on Mom, but how much longer are we supposed to put our lives on hold?”
“I don't know. I don't look at it like that. I just want her to get right in her head andÂ .Â .Â . stay with us, you know?” He sought out Hopper's leather bracelet, fingering the bumpy braid. “Until then, I mean, nothing else really matters. It'sMom.”
“Fuck. I get that, I do. I justÂ .Â .Â . Jesus.” He ran his hands through his hair. “Think about it. All this time, you're playing. You're keeping up your connections, doing your thing. So when things are better, when Mom's strong enough, you're all set. You start up a band again, and you're back. But me? It's all passing me by.”
He couldn't argue with that logic. It was all true. He didn't think any of them had imagined the situation would go on for three years.
“By the time we all decide Mom's strong enough, I'm gonna be too old to do what I really want to do, and I'm gonna be stuck doing this business bullshit when I'm fifty.”
Everything his brother said made sense, but that didn't stop the current of anxiety from running through him. Because, wellÂ .Â .Â .Mom.
“And I'm not talking about moving to the city. I'm talkingabout working part-time in a studio half an hour from home. Just like you.”
“Gus, I get it. You don't have to explain anything to me.”
“Really? Because you're the one who makes a family dinner every night. You're the one who comes home to check on Mom. And you're the one who foundÂ .Â .Â .” With a pained expression, Gus looked away.
But he didn't need to finish the sentence. Calix lived with the image every minute of his life.
Gus turned back to him. “The thing is, man, she hardly ever eats with us.”
“Yeah, so? That doesn't mean I'm gonna stop trying.”
“No, I know. I don't want you to.” Gus let out a rough exhalation. “Look, I don't want you to think I'm giving up on her, but I gotta do something for myself or I'm gonna go out of my mind.”
Obviously, he understood. He only knew his mom couldn't handle another son getting hurt by an industry she perceived as debauched and soulless. And even with guys as cool as Blue Fire, the partying got pretty intense. All the hangers-on, the record label parties and club eventsÂ .Â .Â . a hell of a lot of temptation.
“Besides, Mom told me to do it.”
“Well, what do you think she'd say? Obviously she doesn't want to hold any of us back.” And that was the thing. She'd love it if they all left. Shewantedto be alone.
And that was the fear that compelled himâevery minute of every dayâto drive out the terrible desire lying in wait in his mom's heart.
He could see Gus working through it, his frustration turning to resolve. “I'll live at home and run the LLC. I'll eat dinner with you guys when I can, but I'm going to do this job. Because when she's okay, when our lives go back to normal, I need to be ready to DJ or run a studio or whatever the hell works out for me. Okay?”
“Yeah, of course.” And he supposed if his brother had to be in the music industry, working at a private studio at the tip of Long Island was the safest place to be. “JustÂ .Â .Â . you gotta be cool. You can't get into any bad shit, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. I already heard it from Dad.” He let out a breath, smiling. “Don't worry. I got this.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Withthe sun in his eyes, Calix strode across the damp grass to Slater and Emmie's house. Knowing what she knew about his family, why would Mimi offer his brother a job without running it by him first?
Leaping up the stairs, he pushed into the kitchen. It smelled of spicesâMexicanâbut the counters were wiped clean and dishes piled in the drying rack.
In the downtime between breakfast and lunch, Mimi had likely gone back to Violet's farm. Probably for the best. He shouldn't talk to her when he was pissed, but then again, maybe he should. She shouldn't have inserted herself in his family's business.
“Fuckity fuck.”Mimi.Where was she? “Noooo.”
The door to the laundry room was ajar. Water flowed from a tap.
He crossed the kitchen, pushed open the door, ready to confront her, when he found her topless, leaning over a sink and holding a white shirt under the faucet. In her black yoga pants, black patent leather ballet flats, her pale skin practically glowed in the late morning light.
He tried hard not to look, but the skimpy pink lace bra wasÂ .Â .Â . well,fuck. Her breasts wobbled with her exertion, and it ignited a flash of lust in his dick. “Shit. Sorry.”
“Calix.” Her hands jerked the sopping wet shirt to her chest. Water flowed down her stomach and sank into the pants. As if it were on fire, she flung the shirt into the sink, and then stepped back, arms open wide, looking down at the water dripping off her body. “What're youdoinghere?”
Calix swiped a towel out of the laundry basket and tossed it to her.
She mopped her chestâclearly having no idea she was making her luscious breasts jiggle. “Thank you. Crap, what a mess. I got mole sauce all over my shirt, and there's no way it's going to come out.”
Making a quick assumption, he opened the cabinet overthe washing machine, scanned the various cleaning supplies, and pulled down a spray bottle of stain removal.
“Oh, good. Thanks.”
He also pulled a T-shirt out of the basket and tossed it to her. She caught it, set the bottle down, and pulled the shirt over her head. It hung down to her knees.
And now he had the answer to what lingerie she wore under her business suits.
Hot, feminine, sexy as fuck bras. Did the panties match? All the restraint in the world couldn't have stopped him from checking, and Jesus, he didn't see any panty lines under those stretchy pants. Which meant if he pushed his hand under the elastic waistband, he could cup her bare, round ass.
Desire slammed him hard.
“Sorry, were you looking for me?” She gazed up at him as if she hadn't dropped a bomb into his already vulnerable family.
He'd worked hard to make his mom feel safe again. He didn't like Mimi coming along and threatening it. “Yeah, Mimi. Not sure what you were thinking, getting Gus a job in the studio. I told you how Hopper died.”
“I wondered about that. I'm sorry.” She stepped toward him, looking remorseful. “I wasn't sure if I should say anything, but then I figured since you worked here, it'd be all right.”
“I sure as hell hope it will be.”
She seemed genuinely worried. “It just seemed so obvious, you know? The studio's right here. But after I suggested it, I saw how upset your mom got, and I wished I hadn't said anything. I'm really sorry.”
He blew out a breath. Hard to stay angry when he saw her point. And maybe it would work out all right. He justÂ .Â .Â . the idea of trying something new unnerved him. The risk was too great.
She touched his arm. “You're right. I should've kept my mouth shut.” She looked wistful. “You should've seen his face, though. When I suggested it? I mean, he got so excited.”
“I'm sure. Trust me, I know how messed up the situation is. Of course Lee should be in fashion. Hopper died thesummer before she was going to start at FIT. And Gus? Come on, you don't think I know how talented he is?”
“He needs this.” She said it quietly, sweetly, making it impossible to be pissed off.
Unfortunately, their needs didn't come first right then. “There's more at risk than you understand.”
“Okay. I'm sorry. I am.”
He knew she meant it. He also knew she hadn't done anything wrong. Gusâwith all his energy and happinessâwho wouldn't want to help him out? Calix had no doubt Mimi had acted out of the kindness of her heart.
And fuck, she had a big heart. And a sexy mouth. And underneath her conservative, expensive designer clothes, the lingerie of a sex kitten.
He had to get out of there. “JustÂ .Â .Â . stay out of our business.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Rainhammered the roof of the truck as Calix idled in front of Slater and Emmie's house.
Gus reached for the handle. “Sorry about this, man.”
“No problem.” He didn't need to come into the studio today, but his brother's truck was in the shop, so Calix had given him a ride. “Text me when you're done.”
“Nah, I'll get a ride. Thanks, though.” His brother darted out of the cab, slammed the door, and raced toward the studio.
He waitedâand not for his brother to get inside. He was thinking about Mimi. Her first show taped today. Hopefully, she'd listened to the weather report and gone into the city last night.
She had to know about the flooding. It was all over the news. Well,localnews.
Shifting into Drive, he stepped on the accelerator. The wiper blades whipped back and forth across the windshield, giving him brief glimpses of road. Jesus, it was pouring. When a car backed recklessly out of a driveway, Calix slammed on the brakes.
It was just going to nag at him, so he'd text her. Make sure she knew.You in the city?
But as he continued down the road, unable to think aboutanything else, he decided to go in and make sure she'd already left.
Turning around, he drove as far up the driveway as he could. He left the engine running as he jumped out and ran up the stairs to the kitchen.
Throwing open the door, he found Mimi alone at the kitchen table, stuffing things into a big black bag. Wearing tight skinny jeans, ridiculously high-heeled sparkling sandals, and a magenta rocker T-shirt, she looked fierce. “You're still here.”
In a quick sweep, she took in his rain-soaked body, her gaze lingering at his shoulders. But before he could get the idea she was just noticing the water dripping off the ends of his hair, her lips parted, her eyelids lowered, and a look of pure, erotic heat filled her eyes.
And now he knew what she'd look like on her back, gazing up at him while he fucked her.
Holy hell but she turned him on.
The low thrum of energy in the base of his spine snapped him out of it. Not getting hard for Mimi in Slater and Emmie's kitchen.
Her attention went back to her bag. “Um, yeah, just waiting for Violet to take me to the train.”
“You're taping in those shoes?”
Pulling a pair of Chucks out of the bag, she waved them at him. But then her gaze landed on the microwave clock, and her brow furrowed. “I don't want to miss my train.”
“LIRR's got delays. I guess you haven't been listening to the news?”
“What? What news?” She looked stricken. “What does that mean?”
“Flooding's shut it down.”
“Oh, my God. Are you sure?”
“Heard it on the way over.”
“Fuck me with frosting.” She pulled her laptop out of the bag, opened it, and hit the power button. “Come on, come on, come on.”
“What're you doing?” Calix stood beside her, aware of her perfume, the shine of her hair in tight, very cute braids.
“If I can see where the flooding is, I can figure out which train station to go to.”
He watched her bring up the Long Island Railroad's webpage.
“You ready to go, Meems?” Violet came into the kitchen, looking all fresh and sweet.
“Train's down. Flooding.”
Her friend glanced at the clock. “Oh, no.”
“It's okay. I'll call for a car.”
“What time do you have to be there?” Calix asked.
“I've got five hours. I planned to go early, so I should be fine.” But he could see by the way she clutched the edge of the table that she wasn't fine at all.
“How long will it take a car to get out here?” Violet said. “Maybeâ”
“I'll take her.” Calix snapped her laptop shut. “You ready?”
“You don'tÂ .Â .Â . you can't take me.”
He hated the anxiety in her eyes. Even though she had to get into the city, she didn't want to go with him. Because he'd been a dick to her yesterday in the laundry room, telling her to mind her own business. She'd done a nice thing for his brother, and he'd shut her down.
And because he'd always kept his distance, always made her think he didn't give a shit about her. So what if he was attracted to her? It was his problem, not hers. “Look, sweet pants, you want to argue or you want to get to your competition on time?”
She looked up at him, cautious. “You can't take that much time out of your day for me.”
Fuck him, those green-gold eyes, that lush pink mouth. How did he crush this attraction?
“Mimi?” Violet's tone let her know she was crazy to argue.
And finally, her features relaxed. “Yeah, okay, thank you.”
Sucked for him because truthfully? He wanted to take her.
There wasn't anywhere else he'd rather be than with her.CHAPTER SIX
Sheets of water arced out as his truck practically glided down Route 25.
Mimi pulled her phone out of her bag. Started fiddling with it. “Okay, looks like you can drop me at Hicksville. I can catch the train from there.”
He nodded. Wouldn't argue with her.
He was taking her into the city.
She tucked the phone away. “Dak doesn't need you today?” Worrying the piece of paper in her lap, she folded it into neat squares, her fingers smoothing the edge with each fold.
“Dak's having another tantrum. Wants to put things on hold until the listening party.”
“You worried about losing him?”
“Not at all. Best thing that could happen.”
She rolled the paper into a tube.
He reached out, put his hand over hers. “You're gonna be fine today.”
“We don't really know that. I mean, we have absolutely no idea what to expect. But I'm good.”
He tugged on the tube.
Stuffing it into her bag, she laughed. “Yeah, okay, I'm a little nervous. So, I probably shouldn't say this, but have you ever considered replacing Dak with your dad?”
A spark flared in his gut, and he tamped it down. “As producer? For Blue Fire?”
“Yeah, sweet pants.” His fingers flexed on the wheel. “Bad idea.”
“I know. None of my business.”
Itwasa bad idea. A terrible idea. But his body vibrated with how great an idea it was. His dadÂ .Â .Â . Jesus, his dad would come alive. And he'd be the best damn producer for Blue Fire. No question about it.
“Just seems kind of an obvious fit. Would your dad like that?”
“More than you know.”
“No. Not now.”
“Okay, sorry.” She flipped down the visor, opened the lighted mirror. “It's enough for him, gardening and stuff?” She rolled her lips together, smearing the dark red lipstick.
“No, Mimi. It's not enough for him.”
His sharp tone had her snapping around to face him. “I'm not trying to piss you off.”
“I'm not pissed. I'm frustrated. Obviously, hiring my dad would be the best thing for him. And for the band.”
“But you're worried what it'll do to your mom.”
A curt nod was his only answer.
“She'd flip, huh?”
“No. She wouldn't flip at all. She'd shut down, making it impossible to read her.” And then how could he look for the signs?
“But maybe she wouldn't. Maybe, since it's pretty safe out in Eden's Landing, it'd make it easier to readjust. I mean, you, Gus, Terrence, this is your life. Music is your passion.”
“It isn't the music that worries her. It's everything that goes with it. The decadence. She's seen it all, and she doesn't want it for her kids.” It cost her a son.
“Well, obviously you'd know that better than I. Just seemsa shame, you know? I mean, no matter how hard she tried to shield you, you and your brother are both totally into music. It's in your DNA.”
“See, now, if we all follow our blissÂ .Â .Â . if my dad becomes a producer, Gus gets a job as a sound engineer, and I form a band againâoh, and Lee? If Lee's at FIT, what happens to my mom? When she's all alone in that big house filled with ghosts, what's gonna happen to her?”
“I don't know, Calix.” Her challenging tone surprised him. Thanks to his size, most people backed down from him. “All I know is I'm on the outside looking in, and I can see a lot of frustration in your family. Lee's quiet, and she puts up a good front, but I don't think she's all that different from Gus. Or you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You're all really passionate, creative people. And you're suppressing it. Of course, I'm not suggesting everyone abandons your mom. ButÂ .Â .Â . I don't know, do you ever think maybe she feels pressure when you guys watch her so carefully?”
“I think it reminds her that we're there, and that we need her.”
“But what if she's so busy trying to be what you want her to be that she can't grieve in her own way? Do you know what I mean? It's not my family. I'm not saying I know her better than you, but I can't help wondering if you guys got back to your own lives, maybe she'd be able to adapt to the loss. Maybe she'd find her way back to herownpassions.”
“Her passion is her children.”
“Was. You're adults now, so I would guess it makes her uncomfortable knowing her adult children are living at home putting off their lives because of her.”
“We're not gonna take any chances leaving her alone. Just not gonna do that.”
“You know best. But you might want to look a little closer at her reactions.”
He wanted to reject everything she was saying. Wanted to say she didn't know the whole truth. The real reason his family kept such vigilant watch over her.
But he couldn't when everything she said made sense. And if it did, what the hell was he supposed to do about it?
Because they'd done it beforeâgone back to their lives and left her alone.
And look how that had turned out.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Calixdouble-parked in front of the studio.
He waited as Mimi glanced up at Rockefeller Center, the imposing skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. Pedestrians raced in both directions, cars honked, and the whine of an emergency vehicle faded into the distance.
She bit down on her bottom lip, before turning to face him. She gave a mock terrified expression. “This is it.”
“This is it.”
She drew in a deep breath, held it, and then slowly let it out. “I'm really gonna do this.”
“And you're gonna kick ass.”
“Yeah?” Smiling, she tugged the bag from the floor and dropped it on her lap. “Thank you so much for driving me. I hate that I took so much time out of your day.” She started to open the door.
With each movement away from him, his chest tightened. Given the amount of rush-hour traffic, leaving for home at this point would be a waste of time. He should sit it out.
Which meant he could walk her in. Give her some support.
Not that she needed him. She could handle anything.
The door opened, and she slid off the seat.
And it felt like the rope unraveling had run out of length. “You want me to come in with you?”
The hope that lit her beautiful features confirmed he'd made the right call.
Until that hope faded. “No, you've spent enough time on me. Thanks, though. That was nice of you to ask. You should get back to your family.”
“I'm gonna be sitting in traffic anyway. Might as well wait it out.” No point in arguing when he'd already decided to stay.
She studied him, like she didn't trust that he actually wanted to be with her. “I've taken enough of your time.”
“Mimi, what do you want?”
And just like that she cracked, her vulnerability shining through. “I want you to come with me.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Thestudio was much smaller than Calix had imagined. Not that he'd ever watched theVerna Bloom Show. Stadium-style seating held maybe a hundred audience members. Overhead lights crowded the ceiling and boom mics bracketed the rectangular stage.
“You a husband or something?” A woman stood beside him holding a clipboard and wearing a Bluetooth headpiece.
“Just a friend. Am I in the way?”
She went from businesslike to friendly in two seconds flat. “Not at all.” She thrust out a hand. “I'm Beth, one of the production assistants. We've got about an hour until we tape, do you want to come to the green room? We've got food, coffee. All kinds of goodies.”
Backstage, huh? He'd like to see Mimi, make sure she was holding up. “Sounds good.”
The woman talked at him the whole way. Within fifteen minutes, he'd found out she'd gone to Purdue, majored in communications, had always dreamed of being a television producer, and loved living in the city. He scanned each room he passed as he headed down a long hallway, watching for that deep red hair.
“Green room's right down here.”
She came to a stop in the hallway. “You want to see makeup?”
“All righty then. Come on.” She stopped again when they came to a brightly lit room. Two people sat in chairs facing the mirrors while stylists with brushes, lipsticks, hair dryers, and eyeliner pencils attended them. No Mimi.
And then that familiar burst of laughter rang out, andCalix swung around to find her in the room directly across the hall.
Features animated, hands moving, Mimi talked a mile a minute, entertaining the stylists and the guy in the chair next to her.
This was nervous Mimi. He willed her to look at him.
“She your girl?” the woman asked.
“No.” It came out too abruptly. “A friend.”
“If that's how you look at your friends, where can I sign up?”
Calix kept his focus on Mimi. He wanted to talk to her, reassure her. When she made a big gesture, as if describing a bomb exploding, her gaze snagged on his and she stilled.
He wanted her to feel calm. Wanted her to know she had this. And when she sank back into the chair, when her features relaxed, he knew he'd given that to her.
And then that lush mouth formed a single word,Hey, and it ignited a slow burn of intense, powerful awareness.
He wanted to be alone with her, wanted his hands on her. He wanted his mouth on that creamy skin. His heart thundered when he imagined all that hair sliding through his fingers as he kissed her.
“Excuse me.” Some guy pushed him aside and entered the room.
“I think yourfriend'sgoing to need a smoke after that,” Beth said. “Come on. Let me get you to your seat.”
He gave Mimi a chin nod and then followed Beth down the hall.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Calixchecked his phone again, waiting for a response from his mom. Still nothing. Probably in the studio. But he wanted to know for sure, so he texted Lee.You got dinner for Mom?
You bet. Me n Dad r making it together. You coming home soon?
Need me?She didn't reply right away, which set off a low buzz of worry.
Finally, his phone vibrated.
Dad seems happy.
She still hadn't answered the question.Yeah? Why?
Dunno. Think he spent some time with Blue Fire today. Think it makes him happy to be around music again.
Of course it did. For three years, his dad had poured his creative energy into his gardens, but it couldn't possibly satisfy. Not the way music did.
Damn Mimi for bringing up the obvious. His dad would be a great producer for Blue Fire. He had no response for his sister so just wrote,Yep.
When will you be home?
I can leave right now if you need me.The audience broke into applause, and the contestants filed out onto the stage.
When she didn't respond right away, Calix grew uncomfortable. He could've been nearly home by now, and instead he'd chosen to hang out with Mimi. Suddenly, his choice seemed pretty stupid, considering he'd had only that one moment with her backstage.
He texted again.Can be home in two hours.
His phone vibrated.You'd be hitting worst traffic. Just stay.
In her studio. I'll bring her dinner. No worries.
Yeah, but that was the thing. There were always worries.
Mimi didn't know about them, but they were always there.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Standingalongside the other five contestants, Mimi had to wonder what attributes the producers had been looking for since the six of them had absolutely nothing in common.
After meeting and chatting briefly backstage, she'd learned that Pedro ran a popular food truck in the city, making grilled cheese sandwiches. Quiet and intense, he'd hardly interacted with the others, giving only brief responses to their questions. Frazzled Alena worked in her family's Russian bakery in Chicago, and Deborah, who looked scrubbed clean, ran the kitchen at a new age spa in Arizona. Joey, who smelled faintly of weed, owned a beach shack restaurant in Florida, and funky Eleanor ran a tea and coffee cafÃ© in Missoula, Montana.
Since she was being billed as the chef for a rock band, she'd dressed the part in her rocker heels and T-shirt. If only they knew.
The video introducing each contestant ended, and the audience clapped.
“Great group, right?” Verna Bloom, the petite, dark-haired host of the show, took center stage. “So, let's introduce our judges.” She pressed her hands together, talking to the camera. “Our first judge, from the popular New York restaurant of the same nameÂ .Â .Â .” A drum roll gave way to a crash of cymbals, as the curtain whooshed open and out walked a portly gentleman in a suit.
The audience clapped wildlyâbecause everyone in New York knew Chef Alonso's popular restaurant on the Lower East Side, featuring classic Italian dishes. Okay, so this judge expected culinary talent. Which, for her, would be a problem.
Verna hugged him. “Chef Alonso is one of the most beloved and innovative chefs not only in the city but in the world. We're thrilled he's able to join us on our show.”
The chef smiled, bestowing his warm smile on the audience. “Eating?” He shrugged. “Discovering new talent?” He shrugged again. “How could I refuse?”
The audience laughed.
“Okay, our next panelist is an award-winning teacher at the Institute for Culinary Arts right here in the city.”
Oh, hell. Technique would matter to this one. “The lovely, the talentedÂ .Â .Â . Chef Zoe Burke.”
This one didn't get quite as enthusiastic a response. But then she had a very austere and stern presence.
“Isn't she gorgeous, you guys?” Verna hugged the tall, slender woman who wore her hair in a severe bun. “Do you eat? Can I fix you something?” The audience laughed at that one, but Zoe didn't crack a smile.
Mimi suspected winging it wouldn't work with this judge. Palms damp, she swiped them on her chef's jacket. She needed to calm her racing heart. She cut a glance to Calix, third row, first seat off the aisle. He held her gaze with an intense look that beamed pure, high-grade confidence. He was telling her to believe in herself, and it zapped her good and hard in the gut. He was right. If she didn't believe in herself, she'd bomb. It was the whole reason she'd kept contact with her father to a bare minimum this past week.
Zoe took her seat, shaking hands with Chef Alfonso. She sat rigidly, hands clasped on the table.
“And finally, you're not gonna believe who we scored for this show, you guys. I am so darn pleased to introduce our third and final judge. I don't even know how we got so lucky, but ladies and gentlemen, the founder of the Food Channel himself, the incomparable innovator, Mr. Aaron Simmons.”
Mimi watched as a white-haired gentleman in black slacks and a gray cardigan strode out. Doubt came roaring back. As the founder of the Food Channel, he'd expect brilliance in the kitchenâwhy not? He was surrounded by it.
She was so screwed. Her gaze flicked toward the audience, seeking out Calix's. He beamed confidence her way. And she took it. Sucked it in greedily.
You know what? I'm going to own this show.
“.Â .Â .Â quick thinking, presentation, and innovation.” Verna's tone had a hint of finality, drawing Mimi back to the moment. “Ready, contestants?”
“Ready, Chef,” they all murmured.
Mimi repeated the last words.Quick thinking,presentation, and innovation.She said them again, slowly, absorbing each one. It mattered. What they were looking for. It was all about her ability to think on her feet, the presentation on the plate, and using the ingredients in an unusual way.Got it.
“Then please reach under the table and bring up your shopping bags.”
Mimi hauled up her recyclable bag, dropping the heavy weight on the counter.
“Each bag contains four items. You'll have thirty minutes to make a dish using all four of them. You'll also have the use of items in my pantry and refrigerator. Think you can handle this? Because this is what it'll be like working on my show. We cook fast, with style, and a whole lot of fun.”
Mimi couldn't resist one last glance at Calix. His smile radiated assurance.
Warmth suffused her, loosening her, allowing confidence to stream back in. She was smart, she was a quick thinker, she was creativeÂ .Â .Â . She had this.
“Ladies and gentleman, thirty minutes on the clock. ReadyÂ .Â .Â . three, two, oneÂ .Â .Â . open your bags and go.”
Verna took her place behind her own kitchen counter and resumed the show, while the contestants worked at a long table on the side of the stage.
As Mimi fumbled with the bag, she couldn't help noticing Pedro had already dumped out his contents. An apple rolled toward her, but he snatched it, even as he tore open the plastic covering the small ham. Yeah, he worked a food truck. The man had skills.
Block it out. Focus.
She reached into her bag and pulled out a tube of crescent rolls, a small cooked ham, an apple, and an unwrapped wedge of cheese. When her attention wandered to Alena on her other side, she remembered Calix's advice to shut out what everyone else was doing. Twenty-seven minutes.Focus.
These ingredients seemed more obvious for dessert than appetizersâexcept for the hamâso she had to shift her thinking. Black pepper. Okay. An image of a tart came tomind. Cheesy. Apples. Oh, caramel drizzle. Could she put pepper in a caramel sauce?
And here's where Calix's training kicks in. Because she had no choice but to rely on her instincts.
Without a recipe in hand, she had to close her eyes, smell the ingredients, and imagine how the flavors would work together.
Pepper with caramel didn't seem right. Maybe some chili powder? Did chili powder work with apples, though? No, not at all. ApplesÂ .Â .Â . nutmeg, cinnamon. Mint. She associated apples with pork chopsÂ .Â .Â . so, rosemary.
She was getting it now. She could do this, go on instinct and not second-guess herself. Wait, how long did crescent rolls need to cook? She checked the tube. Fifteen minutes, so that was half the allotted time. They needed to go into the oven immediately.
As she preheated the oven to three-fifty, she visualized the crescent rolls and apples. And then cheese. Oozing out of the crust.Yes. Tearing open the tube, she dumped the rolls out, slicing each almost completely in half, but still leaving them connected. If she diced the cheese, it might not melt evenly, so she'd have to grate. She sniffed the cheeseâGouda?
What about the caramel drizzle? She should get that going. But she'd need to whisk it while it cooked, and that would take most of her time. Okay, whatever, just go for it.Move.Less thinking, more acting.
Mimi thinly sliced and diced the ham, peeled and chopped the apple, drizzled olive oil on the mixture and added salt, pepper, and thyme leaves. Stuffing the crescent roll crust with shredded Gouda, she pressed her thumb down, making a well. Into it she started to add the ham and apple mixture, but she stopped. Flavor. It was all about flavor. What went with ham, apples, and Gouda? Cloves. Pinch of nutmegÂ .Â .Â . and cinnamon. Yeah. That made sense. And rosemary, right? A good amount of coarse salt. She wasn't going to skimp on the salt. Mixing it well, she pinched an apple and popped it into her mouth. Mm.Good.
She spooned the mixture into the wells. Then, just beforesetting them in the oven, she sprinkled a few bits of Gouda on each of the three rolls. So, cheese in the crust, cheese on top. Wait, no, she'd cook the tarts first, then put the cheese on top. Otherwise the cheese would burn.
Great. Now, quickly, the drizzle. Racing to the refrigerator, she grabbed butter and a container of half and half, dumped both into a pan, and set a low flame. Measuring brown sugar into it, she started whisking. Oh, salt.Flavor, Meems. But just a sprinkle.
No freaking idea what I have here.In all likelihood, they'd call her out for making a dessert, but she had to go with her instincts. It wasn't like she could pull a recipe off her laptop. As she stirred, she glanced at the other contestants. Pedro worked like a machine, in constant motion, attending to multiple stations at once. Impressive. The guy had total command of his workspace.
She shot a look at Calix. Finding his gaze on her so intently delivered a shock to her system. He didn't even smile. Just gave her that intense, steadying look.
Shelovedit. Loved his attention.
“Okay, friends, you've got five minutes on the clock. Five minutes to finish cooking and plating.”
Her syrup wasn't thickening. Not going to panic.You know what? I don't need this much sauce.She dumped half of it in the sink and set it back on the stove. Better.
With so many scents competing in the kitchen, Mimi couldn't get a sense of her rolls. She didn't want to leave her drizzleâwhy the hell had she gone with a caramel sauce? It wasn't even necessary. But her gut told her it was, because the tarts alone were too basic.
Time to check the rolls. In a whirl of motion, she swung around, opened the oven, saw the mixture cooked to perfection and the rolls nicely browned, and pulled the cookie sheet out. She sprinkled cheese on top and spun back to the drizzle, which had just started to bubble.
“Two minutes, friends. You've got two minutes on the clock.”
Pulling three clean white plates off the stack in the middleof the table, Mimi set a tart on each one, while continuing to whisk.
“One minute. You've got sixty seconds left.”
With a spoon, she drizzled her sauce over the tarts. It looked divine, smelled delicious, butÂ .Â .Â . crap. They looked plain and boring. What could she do?
She picked up each tart, drizzled sauce on the plates, and set them back down. Herbs littered her work station, so she made a pretty design with the rosemary on either side of the tart. Simple, but pretty.
“Time is up.” The timer dinged. “Stand back.”
They all threw up their hands and took one step back from the table.
Holy shit. Adrenaline crashed through her system, and perspiration trickled down her spine.
She'd done it. She'd completed the assignment. Whether or not they liked her dish was out of her hands. But she'd done it, and that made her damn proud.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Tenminutes later, the contestants stood before the judges. It was down to Pedro and Mimi. Pedro, standing one step in front of the other contestants, waited for one last judge's assessment.
“Holy cow, buddy, you move like lightning.” The audience applauded, and Chef Alonso had a look of disbelief. “Gotta give you a five for quick thinking, and invite you to join my kitchen.” Chef Alonso paused while the audience laughed, but he never took his eyes off Pedro. “I give you a three for flavor because brushing the dough with butter and coarse salt just made it taste like a pretzel. I didn't like that. And I give you a two for innovation because, while I think it's clever that you cut the ham into tubes, I just don't find pigs in a blanket all that special.”
“Thank you, Chef.” Pedro stepped back.
Mimi's turn. Anxiety turned her skin clammy.
“Okay, and now for our last contestant, Mimi Romano,” Verna said. “Judges, let's start with Mr. Simmons.”
“Let me just say that this tart was absolutely delicious,” the older gentleman said. “If I could, I'd give you a five for flavor.”
As the audience exploded with applause, she relaxed. This was good. Really good.
“I'm giving you a three for quick thinking, but that might just be an unfortunate comparison to Mr. Speedy over here.” Again, they laughed, and Pedro took a bow.
“A four for innovation. It wasn't enormously clever to create a tart, but the way you turned what might've tasted like a dessert into a mouthwatering appetizer was just sensational. And a three for presentation because the drizzle was the same color as the tart, so nothing really popped.”
“Thank you so much.” It took everything she had not to look for Calix and pump her fist. But she kept her focus on the judges.
“Chef Alonso,” Verna said.
“You're a star.” The man beamed at her. “Just a star. Calm under pressure. I'm going to disagree with my esteemed colleague on the quick-thinking part, because I watched you make very quick decisions. And in order to pull off these flavors, you had to have relied on your instincts as a chef.”
Yeah, so not a chef. But he didn't need to know that. “Thank you.”
“So, I give you a five for quick thinking, a five for presentation, and a three for innovation because, as Mr. Simmons mentioned, a tart wasn't enormously clever.”
She nodded her thanks. So, that made twenty-five out of thirty. One judge to go.
Please don't be too hard on me.Zoe seemed to relish her role as bad cop. She'd already called out Pedro for making grilled cheese sandwiches.Do you know what to do with an herb? What, exactly, do you hope to gain from apprenticing with Verna?And she'd shredded Joey.Basically, you flip burgers. Do I have that right? You stuff clams into white buns?And when she'd asked what he hoped to achieve from working on Verna's show, she'd eviscerated him when he'd said he thought a fast-food cooking show would be a hit. Not everyone wants to “cook gourmet,” he'd said. And Zoe's lip had curled in disdain. Joey wasn't long for this show.
Mimi girded herself for a tough critique.
But something roiled under Zoe's icy demeanor. “Let me ask you a question.”
“Mimi Romano. Any relation to Dino Romano?”
Where was she going with this? “He's my father.”
“So, then, I'm curious why you'd choose to be on this show when you've got a world-renown restaurateur for a father. Are you bored? Looking for some attention?”
Looking for attentionâwhat, like Paris Hilton? Okay, hang on. She couldn't let herself get all worked up and jump the gun. She had to stay calm and think.
Alena was keeping her Russian bakery in Chicago afloat in order to support a large, extended family with health issues. Pedro worked his food truck eighteen hours a day seven days a week to send money back to his family in Guatemala.
So, yeah, Zoewaspainting Mimi with the pampered princess brush.
Oh, it's on, honey.“I love cooking, and I'm excited for the opportunity to work with Verna Bloom.”
“Surely you've had the opportunity to work with the finest chefs in the world, given the restaurants your father either owns or invests in?”
“I grew up in and around kitchens, but I've had no formal training, if that's what you're asking.”
“And you've got an MBA from Columbia.”
“So, no formal training, an MBAÂ .Â .Â . are you just playing around with this competition? You've got all the connections you need to follow in your father's footsteps. In fact, looking at your rÃ©sumÃ©, you've groomed yourself to do just that. You're a businesswoman who doesn't have to knock down any doors. Why cook on national television?”
“I love cooking. I grew up in the kitchen with my grandmother and my dad.”
“That's sweet, Ms. Romano. But with all that hard work at Ivy League schools, I'm asking why you'd want to be an apprentice on a cooking show?”
“My grandfather was a tailor, and my grandmother a seamstress. My father put himself through college washing dishes and delivering food. Just like the others in my family, I'm going to forge my own path using my intelligence, my creativity, and my resourcefulness.”
“That doesn't answer the question, but all right. Let's get to it.” She looked down at Mimi's dish. “I give you a two for quick thinking. Unlike Chef Alonso, I couldn't read your thoughts, so since I could only go with your actions, I found your execution of basic tasks a bit plodding. I give you a two for innovation. I'm just not finding salt, pepper, and a few herbs all that innovative.”
Oh, crap. She couldn't afford these low numbers.
“Frankly, it tasted like a dessert that you tried to masquerade as an appetizer with the use of pepper. And I give you a one for presentation because a tart with two sprigs of rosemary?” Zoe remained completely unapologetic, which was so strange since the other judges had the humanity to at least look sorry for delivering a low score.
Five out of fifteen points. Dammit. This could sink her.
“Thank you. I always appreciate constructive criticism.” She took a step back, her legs shaky. She'd blown it. Everything Zoe had said was right. A tart was hardly innovative.
“Okay,” Verna said. “When we come back, who will stay in the game to be the next Verna Bloom apprentice?”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Themoment the show ended, Calix fought his way backstage. A crush of people made it difficult to get to her, but he got a glimpse of those dark red braids and pushed through.
She chatted with the other contestants, her vibrant personality making her stand out among the crowd. He was so damn proud of her. In spite of Zoe's low scores, she'd made it to the next round.
That judge had tried to make her seem undeserving. Like some pampered rich kid who was just playing around, but she'd failed. Because Mimi rocked.
The more he watched, the more he noticed her attentionwasn't really on the conversation. She kept looking away from the group, her gaze scanning. And when she saw him, relief washed over her flushed features.
Calix ploughed through the crowd. As soon as he neared her, he reached out and pulled her into his arms. “You're fucking amazing.” It came out a growl.
The way her arms tightened around him, the way she leaned into him, giving him her weight, let him know she'd had enough. He pulled her out of the fray, guiding her down a hallway. His big body shielding her, he tipped her chin. “You did great.”
She gave him a wobbly smile. “That was crazy. A total and complete rush.”
“You want to get out of here?”
“I want to say good-bye to Pedro. I don't think he deserved to be eliminated, but yeah, I really want to go home.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Asthe revolving door spilled them out onto Avenue of the Americas, Mimi turned to him, and he knew right away he wasn't going to like what she had to say.
“Hey, thank you so much for bringing me out here and being this huge source of support for me. But I know you need to get back to your family, soÂ .Â .Â .” She shrugged.
“You getting rid of me?” She'd given him a good excuse to go. And, yeah, he should take it. But he didn't want to leave her yet.
“I'm totally wired, and at the same time, all I want to do is curl up on my couch, order take-out, and watch movies. I think I'm just going to walk home.”
Right. He could head back. “Okay, then.”
Both stood awkwardly, tires driving through pools of water the only sound. “You going to your dad's?” he asked.
“No, I kept my apartment in the Village since I'll be back in the city once I get a job. Or, hopefully, this apprenticeship.” She blew out a breath, looking down the street, as if contemplating her walk home. “I'm at 12thStreet and Second Avenue. Near NYU.”
“That's quite a walk.”
“Well, if I crap out, I'll catch a cab.”
He looked into those green eyes and felt himself tumble into her.
Was it weird that he could feel his skin when he was with her?
All the more reason to get his ass home. “Okay. I'll see you tomorrow.”
She didn't smile, didn't respond, just held his gaze. Like they were the only two people in New York City. She gave a sharp intake of breath, and then her tongue peeked out, swiping along her bottom lip. “Right, so, thanks again. You were awesome today. Bye.”
He watched her walk away, and he felt it. Every step she took made his pulse spike harder and faster. Until it became unbearable. “Hey. Sweet pants?”
She turned back around, a flare of hope in her eyes.
“Want me to walk you home?” He'd leave his truck in the parking garage. Catch a cab back uptown later.
She drew a sharp breath. “It wouldn't suck.”CHAPTER SEVEN
Calix wasn't sure why he was boarding the elevator in her steel-and-glass high-rise, but he'd come this far. He might as well get her to her apartment.
The moment the doors closed, she leaned against the wall, and a slow bloom of satisfaction spread across her pretty features. “I did it,” she said quietly. “I freaking did it.”
Somehow standing so close to her in this dimly lit box made him forget all his reasons to stay away from her. He wanted her. Plain and simple. There was something irresistible about this girl. He caught her hand in his, brought it to his mouth, and kissed her open palm. “You did. You were fantastic.”
“You helped me.”
“Don't think they'll be giving you offal.”
“Not that.” She touched his arm, like she needed his attention. “You were the voice in my head, reminding me to trust my instincts. You gave me confidence. Every time I started to freak out, I looked at you in the audience, and your badass energy picked me up. Every single time. I needed that.” Her smile was filled with affection. “You made me feel like I could do it.”
“You could. You did.”
She didn't look tired anymore. Her features softened, her lips parted. A crazy energy spun through him, throwing out imagesâthose sultry eyes looking up at him, her mouth wrapped around his cock. He could picture it so vividly, his fingers touching her lips as she sucked him deep, and an explosion of erotic sensation burst in his chest.
The car landed, and the doors opened. Mimi took one step forward and winced.
He stopped her. “You okay?”
“Just a blister.”
That was all the invitation he needed. He scooped her off her feet and stepped off the elevator. Lowering his nose into her sweetly scented hair, he breathed her in. Need rocked through him, and he held her more tightly to his chest.
“Calix.” But she didn't pack any fight in her tone.
He carried her down the hallway. “Which one?”
Instead of answering, she tucked her face into his neck and clasped her arms around him. “Thank you.” Her breath was warm on his skin, and her fingers curled in his hair.
Something hot and alive moved through him. “Gonna run out of carpet in a minute.”
“Is it terrible to say I don't care? I think I want to stay like this forever. You feel so good, and I'm so tired.”
“Come on, sweet pants.”
“Fine.” Big, dramatic sigh. “Six twenty-two. See that crystal chandelier?” She didn't even lift her head. “My door's closest to it.”
She started to pull away from him, but the loss of her touch made him tighten his grip. When he didn't let go, she lifted her head to look at him.
They'd never been this close. Close enough to see the pale nick of a scar right at her cheekbone, that expressive mouth, and the question in her eyes. Need burned through him, sending electrical impulses down his spine and through his dick. He needed her bare, warm skin against his. Needed the wet heat of her mouth, the slick tangle of her tongue. He neededÂ .Â .Â . oh, fuck him.
His mouth settled over hers, and sparks fired in his blood. Her body turned toward him, fingers gripping the back of his shirt. The hunger took over, and he swept his tongue across her lips, licking inside her mouth.
With a sharp intake of breath, she was kissing him back. And holy hell, this wasn't some gentle exploration. This was mouth-fucking.
She clutched the back of his neck, her tongue stroking his, and raw desire streaked though him, setting him on fire.
Keeping his arm firmly around her waist, he set her down. But if she thought he was letting her goânot a chance. He just repositioned her so he could lift her against the wall and spread those legs around his hips. Nothing could stop his body from pressing into her and taking that mouth he'd fantasized about for months.
Her tits, her hands, the way she writhed against him, spun him into a frenzy. “Jesus, Mimi.” And then she was making noises, hot, hungry purrs deep in her throat.This feels so fucking good. He ground his cock against her stomach. Heat blistered through him.
“God.” The back of her head hit the wall, and she fought to pull her legs out of his grip.
It took him a moment to shift gears, but he slowly lowered her to the floor. She looked as shaken as he felt. His knees barely supported him, so he braced both arms against the wall to hold himself up.
He needed a moment to cool down. Jesus, he'd never had a kiss like that.
All he could hear were her exhalations as she fought to catch her breath. She fumbled in her big black bag. Her hand shook as she pulled a set of keys out of the inside pocket. After the third attempt to stab the keyhole, he took the key and unlocked the door.
The moment they stepped into the entryway, she dropped her bag and kicked off her sneakers.
His heart still hadn't calmed down. And his dickâhis dick needed relief in the worst way. “I'm gonna use the head.”
“Bathroom, sweet pants. Gonna take a leak.”
“Right. Okay.” She moved into the living room of the small but tidy apartment. “It's just right there.”
To the left sat a plain galley kitchen. White walls, white cabinets, small stainless steel appliances. To the right, a short hallwayâmore like a vestibule with two doorways. One went to her bedroom, the other to the bathroom.
Shutting himself inside the good-sized space, all chrome, white, and dark red, he was immediately assailed by her scent. The tiled shower stall held a loofah brush hanging off the faucet by a rope. The corner pockets were wide enough to hold a couple bottles of hair products and one of body wash. Two ruby red bath towels hung neatly over a rack by the door.
Calix caught a look at himself in the spotless mirror. His body was still coming down off the high of that kiss. Sure, he'd had quick and fiery hookups before. Obviously. That was the fun of it. But what had he expected to happen with Mimi?
Fuck. He lowered his head, closing his eyes. This woman brought shit out in him. Not good shit either. As evidenced by the fact he'd driven her to New York City. And stayed.
It was one thing to offer her a ride. A friend would do that. But to stay for the show? To walk her home? What was that?
When he came out, he found her on the couch in a pair of light blue sweats and a white sweatshirt. “I'm gonna head out.”
“Okay. Sure.” She didn't even get up.
“Great. I'm just going to order take-out and watch a movie.”
“Right. See you.”
Hand on the door, he felt this strange pull. He didn't want to leave her. And the fuck of it allÂ .Â .Â . it wasn't about blowing his nut.
“Yeah.” He didn't turn to face her. Didn't want to see that pretty hair she'd unbraided. The flush in her cheeks from their kiss that hadn't yet subsided.
“It's okay, what just happened. I mean, it's been a crazy day. It justÂ .Â .Â . happened. We're okay.”
Okay?He couldn't remember the last time a woman had gotten him so worked up.Go.He opened the door. “'Night.”
He hurried out before he turned back and did something stupid like cuddle with her on the couch.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Sittingon the edge of his chair in the studio's lounge, Calix typed out a text to his dad.You coming to the listening party tonight?
No.And then a second one came in a moment later.Keep an eye on Gus.
Yep.Wasn't much he could do. Gus was his own man. But Calix knew what his dad meant. Other than his two years at Julliard, Gus had lived at home. And he was restless. Anyone could see that.
“I'm just glad Irwin'll get to hear what we've been doing.” Cooper lay stretched out on a couch.
“No shit.” Ben reached for the water bottle on the table. “None of this would've happened if he'd been in town.”
“True,” Derek said. “He would've been out here, listening to the tracks. Four fuckin' months, man. What a waste.”
“Can't wait to see his face when he listens tonight,” Coop said.
Several Amoeba Records executives were coming out to hear the tracks. Irwin would listen at the same time and participate over Skype.Should be interesting.
“How long has Slater been in the iso booth, man?” Derek checked his phone.
“We should pull the plug before Dak destroys his vocal chords,” Ben said.
Derek got up. “I'll kill the session right now.”
“Tell him we're taking a break till Irwin hears the shit,” Ben said.
“Don't need to lie.” Derek headed into the control room.
Calix got up. “All right, I'm out. See you at the party tonight.”
“Check with Dak first, man,” Coop said.
“I'm only a half hour away. If he needs me, text.” As soon as Calix left the studio, he headed for his bike, unable to resist a glance through the kitchen window.
Disappointment at not seeing Mimi pissed him off. He was getting too caught up in her.
And kissing her like that last night? Not cool. She wasn't just some chick he could bang. Tonight at the party he'd apologize. Get them back on track.
As he neared his bike, he noticed the garage door was open. He heard a growl and then, “Fuck me in a teacup.”
Mimi.He smiled at the pure exasperation in her voice and headed toward her.
Sitting on a crate, features beet red, she held a half-inflated palm tree between her legs. She looked up when she saw him. “Is this what it's like to be stoned?” At least a dozen trees surrounded her. Not to mention plastic lobsters and clams and fisherman's netting.
“You've never gotten wasted?”
She shook her head. “Or like I sucked helium. Yeah, that's what it feels like. Does my voice sound funny?”
“Why're you doing this by yourself?”
“I'm sorry, should I have asked my valet to do it?”
“Your what?” He laughed. “No, you should've asked Emmie or Violet. I'm sure Lee would've helped.”
“Yeah, no thanks.”
“Why not?” He crouched before her and, without even thinking, stroked the hair off her damp forehead.
“I'm trying to stay out of all things Bourbon.”
“That's going to be hard to do.”
She looked up at him questioningly.
“Oh, you know. I'm good.” She looked away. “I got this.”
“Mimi?” He crouched in front of her. “I'm sorry about last night. I shouldn't have kissed you like that.”
“It wasn't the kiss that upset me.” Sometimes her sincerity, the pureness in her heart, flipped him out. “It was the way you left. You shut down.”
He wasn't used to people being so direct, but he found he liked it with her.
“I hate when you do that. You're all fiery and passionate one minute, and then hard and cold the next.”
“Won't happen again.” He didn't address which behavior he meantâthe kissing or the shutting down. “I still think we should continue the lessons. My dad told me about theclambake. He said my mom was into it. So, if it's good for you and good for herÂ .Â .Â .” He shrugged.
“Yeah, okay. I guess so.” She lifted the nozzle of the tree to her mouth, essentially dismissing him.
“How're you getting all this shit to the beach?”
She made a strange motion with her hand, and it took a moment to figure out she was pretending to hold a magic wand.
“Well, obviously, I'm carrying it.”
“No, the seven dwarves should be here any minute now.”
“Someone's feisty today.” He got up, knees cracking. “The guys are just sitting around the studio. I'll get them.”
“No, no. They're digging the pit and getting the fire going. And I've rented a tent and a bar, so all that's left is decorating. Believe me, I can handle setting tables and hanging lobsters.”
She went back to inflating the palm tree.
“How many more of those do you have to blow up?”
She nudged a box toward him with a bare foot, her toenails painted lavender with tiny black treble clefs on them. He pulled out the remaining bags of palm trees. “That's a lot of fuckin' palm trees.”
Pinching the base of the nozzle, she pulled her mouth off. “Go big or stay on the porch. That's how I roll.”
He looked at her, sweaty, flushed, surrounded by all kinds of decorations, and a rush of affection knocked him on his ass.
“You're a nut.” A beautiful, spirited, compassionate nut. He sat down and tore open a plastic bag.
She looked at him, surprised, and he tried to ignore those pink lips wrapped around the clear tube.
Yeah, that was not going to happen.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“Meems!”In a simple but sexy blue and white maxi dress, Violet wrapped Mimi up in a hug, her distinctive soft floral scent floating around her. “You did such a great job.”
“You really did.” Emmie joined them. While her sundressappeared basic, it molded to her curves in a fantastically sexy way. Funny thing about Emmie. Her girl-next-door good looks were deceiving. She was a knock-out. “This is amazing.”
“Thanks, guys.” Standing in the corner of the tent, next to the bar, Mimi took in her work. Burlap-covered metal pails of sand held cardboard cutouts of leaping dolphins. The blue and green glow sticks she'd inserted added a very cool ambiance in the dimly lit space. Calix had helped her hang nets from the ceiling. They'd loaded them with plastic clams, lobsters, and fish.
It did look pretty cool. And she'd surprised herself by enjoying it so much.
“Those desserts?” Emmie said. “To die for.”
“They're all her grandma's recipes,” Violet said with a note of pride.
“I recognize the tiramisu and the panna cotta, but what was the one sprinkled with confectioner's sugar?” Emmie's hand rested on her lower belly.
“Torta Barozzi. That's my family's favorite.”
“Well, it's mine now, too. Although I'm going to have to try all of them again just to make sure.” Emmie gave a mischievous grin.
“You do realize you're not actually eating for two, right?” Derek threw an arm across both his sister and his fiancÃ©e's shoulders.
Emmie gazed up at her brother. “Axl disagrees.”
“Axl?” Derek said on a laugh. “That's what we're calling him?”
“We don't know the sex.” Slater pushed between Derek and Emmie, tipped his wife's chin, and pressed a kiss on her mouth. “But for the record,” he said to Mimi, “we're not announcing anything yet.”
“Wait, she'spregnant?” Mimi turned fully to her friend. “You're pregnant?”
Emmie's smile was contagious. Slater's too.
“Yeah,” Derek said. “But they're waiting until they hit twelve weeks before telling people.”
“We're just gonna keep it between us, okay?” When Slaterlooked at her like that, all intense and serious, she had to fight the urge to look away. He was just so freaking handsome and charismatic. It was like being around a movie star.
“Thank you for trusting me with the secret. I won't tell a soul.” Sometimes she couldn't believe she'd breached the perimeter of this tight group of friendsâit filled her with a powerful sense of connection.
“Hey, so how'd it go?” Emmie stroked a hand up his chest, resting it over his heart.
Holy Mother of God, the look that came over himâand it wasn't just the heat in his eyes, it was the utter adorationâlike his wife was the keeper of all that was beautiful in the world.
God, she'd never even known love like this existed until she'd moved out to the farm and met these people.
“Irwin's talking to him now.”
“Kicked us out,” Derek said. “So they could talk privately.”
“Dude,” Cooper called, waving them over. “Derek? Slater? Come on. Pretty sure Irwin just fired Dak.”
“Gotta go, angel.” With a brush of his thumb across Emmie's cheek, Slater gave her one more kiss. “You eat for twoâor however many people you want.” And then he shot Derek a challenging look.
Derek just laughed, then pressed a kiss to the corner of Violet's mouth.
The guys took off, leaving Mimi slightly off-kilter. “Do you two know how lucky you are?”
“Yes,” Emmie and Violet said at once. They looked at each other and laughed.
“There isn't a minute during the day that I don't think it,” Violet said softly. “How lucky I am. And I can't wait to marry him.”
“Do you have a date?” Mimi thought about the invitationsâfinished except for date, time, and location.
“No, but if Dak's fired, it'll have to be soon. I think we'll probably get married before the new producer starts. Before it gets crazy.”
“That's smart,” Emmie said. “Once they get back in the studio, it'll be intense. They have to make up for a lot of losttime. And then they'll go on tour. And since you guys aren't doing a big wedding, you might as well do it sooner than later.”
Violet turned to Mimi with a concerned expression. “I know you're overwhelmed with the competition, but I was thinkingÂ .Â .Â . well, do you thinkÂ .Â .Â .”
“Just say it. I'll do anything for you, V. You know that.”
“You haven't heard what I'm asking.” Violet drew in a breath. “I promise to be actively involved, but I really want your help with the wedding.”
“Of course I'll help you. We'll all help you.”
“No, I mean planning it.” She knew how hard it was for Violet to ask for favors. “I want you to do my wedding. The whole thing.”
Mimi's pulse kicked up. “Wait, you want me to plan your wedding?” In her dad's office, he had all kinds of awards and framed certificates. Front and center on the wall hung Mimi's Presidential Achievement Awards, her magna cum laude degree from Cornell, and her Columbia MBA. She was a businesswoman through and through.
Yet here she stood in a tent for a clambake she'd catered. And now her closest friend wanted her to plan her wedding? When had her life taken such a strange and wondrous turn?
Soon she'd be back on track. She'd either apprentice for Verna Bloom or work a full-time job in the restaurant industry. Violet's wedding would fall right before that timeâso why not?
“Don't get the wrong idea. I still want it smallâjust us, our familyâand I want it as casual as possible. But seeing what you did here tonight, this”âViolet gestured around the tentâ“I want it magical. That's all I really know. Will you do that for me?”
“I would love to.” Mimi was gobsmacked. But truly, while waiting for her real life to begin, she couldn't think of anything else she'd rather be doing.
“I wish your mom were here to help,” Violet said. “But we'll keep it super simple.”
“I just don't know if you should trustmewith your most special day.”
“I want it to be awesome, for sure,” Violet said. “But it's not my most special day. Corny as it sounds, every single day is special. Every morning I wake up and realize all over again he's mine. Every time he walks into a room and looks for me and gets that intense look in his eyes as he comes right to me? That'sÂ .Â .Â .” She turned to Emmie. “Sorry, but your brother's hot.”
Emmie just smiled.
“The way he loves you is hot,” Mimi said.
“Sistah, I hear you.” Emmie looped her arm around Violet's waist. “We done good.”
“You guys make my teeth hurt,” Mimi said. “And you suck because you've got the only two hot guys with huge hearts on the whole planet.”
“Don't believe that for a second,” Emmie said. “You just keep on being all that you are, and he'll find you. You'll findeach other. Trust me on that. You've got more heart than anyone I know, so you'll attract the same. You'll see.”
A tap on her shoulder had her turning away from her friends.
“Excuse me?” One of the teenage servers she'd hired stood there uncomfortably. “That lady over there at the bar, the one glaring at me?”
“Excuse me, guys.” Mimi stepped away from her friends, peering over the girl's shoulder to see the woman in question. Ah, she'd seen that groupie many times before. This was a closed party, though, so she had no idea how the nymph had gotten in. “What's she doing here?”
“She says she's someone's girlfriend, and she's pissed because there's no room at the VIP table.”
“That's because there is no VIP table. Okay. I'll take care of it. Thanks, Katy. You're doing an awesome job tonight. I appreciate you coming in on so little notice.”
“Oh, any time. Not a hardship working an event for these guys.” She gave a mischievous shrug of her brows.
Mimi headed for the bar. She'd had plenty of experience with nymphs in the year she'd lived on the farm. Not just at the clubs, but their frequent visits to the studio. Slater andDerek might be taken, but Cooper and Ben weren't. And those two liked to party.
As she approached the womanâwho had to be in her early twentiesâshe took in her outfit. To a clambake, she'd worn a leather skirt so tight and short it looked like Spanx for the butt and hips. Her halter top was basically a silk scarf that draped over her nipplesâgaping on the sides to expose the rest of her large breasts.
“Hi, I'm Mimi Romano. What can I help you with?”
“There's nowhere for me to sit at my boyfriend's table.”
“And who's your boyfriend?”
Had someone just rung the crazy bell? Dak had been holed up in the studio with the band the whole night, which, of course, a girlfriend would've known. “I'm sorry to hear that. It might be best to work out your seating arrangement with Dak. Do you want to give him a call?”
“I'm not going to bother him with something so stupid. I just want to sit down and eat.”
“How about I call him? Let him know you're here.”
She rolled her eyes. “He obviously knows I'm here.”
“Problem?” Calix appeared at her side.
The woman's entire demeanor changed. She went from hard and snarky to soft and seductive. “Hey, there. About time you talked to me.”
He ignored her in favor of Mimi. “Everything okay?”
“This is Dak's dateÂ .Â .Â .” She waited for the woman to share her identity.
“Laney. Laney Morrison.” The nymph drew in a deep breath, effectively thrusting out her huge, wobbly breasts.
“Laney.” Calix took a step closer to the woman and towered over her. “I don't know what shit you're trying to pull, but this is a private party.”
“And I'm invited. Ask Coop. Ask Ben. They know me.”
“It's not that kind of party.” He waved to one of the servers, a tall, lanky guy Mimi was pretty sure she'd seen at the bonfire at Calix's place. The guy loped over with his easygoing grin.
“Hey, Bones. Need you to make sure this lady gets homesafely.” Calix held the guy's gaze a moment too long, until he nodded with understanding.
“You got it, dude.”
“I'm not going home,” Laney said. “I'm Dak'sdate.”
“Come on, babe.” With his amiable smile, Bones ushered the nymph away.
Mimi stood beside Calix, watching Laney walk, her hips swaying. The woman cast a seductive glance over her shoulder, mouthing,Call me.
“Oh, my God.” Why were these women so eager to spend one night with a rocker? When she looked up at Calix, she found him smiling. She swatted his shoulder. “You love this, don't you?”
He laughed. “What's not to love?”
“Skanky women throwing themselves at youÂ .Â .Â . they don't even know you.”
“What you call skanky, a guy calls hot.”
She loved the playful side of him. Too bad she rarely saw it. “And Laney's hot?”
“You're judging her by her clothes. A guy just sees a woman who's gonna get freaky.”
“See, that's the difference between us. I'd only get freaky with my boyfriend. Someone I trusted.”
He turned so that his body practically caged her in against the tent wall. “You get freaky, Mimi?”
With him standing so close and looking at her so intensely, she heated up. “When I'm comfortable with someone.”
His gaze narrowed, his expression turning carnal. “Mimi.” His voice sounded rough, demanding, exactly like what she'd want from him in bed.
He leaned into her, eyes filled with fierce heat. God, maybe she was crazy, maybe she was only seeing what she wanted to see, but sometimes it looked like he wanted to eat her up.
After the show, the way he'd come to her backstage, plucking her from the crowd, pulling her aside, he'd looked like he was going to take her right then and there. And holy crap, she'd wanted that.
But just like he'd done after the scorching kiss in herhallway, his smile faded, and he cleared his throat, breaking whatever lustful thoughts he might've had. He made a move for the bar. “You want something?”
“No, thanks. I'm working.”
“Anything left to be done?” He faced the room. Everyone had finished eating, so now they sat at tables or stood in groups drinking. Music played through speakers, but no one danced.
“I guess not.”
“You did a good job tonight. Place looks great.”
She'd projected images of waves crashing on the beach and then set fans at strategic angles to make the tent walls ripple. It made for a very cool effect. “Yeah, it does, doesn't it? Thanks for your help.”
His heated gaze made her breath catch in her throat. See, he was doing it again. Was she crazy? Or was he looking at her like he wanted to flip up her skirt and bend her over the nearest table?
A bolt of electricity ripped through her at the thought. Facedown, her hair wrapped in his fist, those powerful hips slamming into herÂ .Â .Â .damn, girl.
Well, you know what?He shouldn't look at her like that if he didn't mean it, because she was incredibly attracted to him.Look at him. That worn black T-shirt accentuated his broad shoulders and thick biceps. The leather wristbands and all that ink just screamed badass rocker.
And what kind of inkwasthat? She ran a finger over the colorful tattoo on his forearm. “One day you'll have to tell me about these. They're so unusual.”
When she glanced up, she found his expression almost feral. She pulled away. God, the way he looked at her made her want to climb him like a tree.Not even kidding.
“It's just ink.” A minute ago, he'd been playful. Now he was back to Mr. Stoic.
Nuh-uh. She wasn't going to let him shut down. Underneath that hard, impenetrable faÃ§ade was a deeply sensitive guy. She knew that from the way he cared for his family. And while she doubted many got to see him like that, she had. There was no going back. “Bullshit.”
And there it was, that tiny curl of his lip. He liked when she didn't put up with his crap. He turned toward her, giving his back to the party, making her feel like he was sharing a secret. “My brother liked to paint.” His voice was low, his words meant only for her. Her heart beat thickly. “He was always making pictures for us. I turned my favorites into ink.”
She fought the sting of tears. “Are you serious? God, Calix, that's so beautiful.” Talk about sensitive. She reached for his arm. “Can I see them?”
He didn't respond, just held her gaze.
She smoothed her fingers up his forearm, over the colorful ink, but she couldn't make out the images. “It's too dark in here.”
He held her gaze for a long moment and then turned away. Dammit, why did he always shut down? But when he got to the edge of the tent, he lifted it and waited for her to pass under.
She hurried over and bent low to slip outside. Fresh ocean air filled her senses, and cloud cover obscured the moon. She followed him to one of the tiki lamps she'd set out to illuminate the path.
Once under the flickering light, she lifted his arm to reveal the watery, colorful designs. “Oh, my God, these are so beautiful.” Her fingers skimmed over the ink until the image took form. “It's a guitar.”
“It's Hopper's rendition of my Fender.”
She traced another image. “This is you?” It was the mess of thick, dark hair, the set of broad shoulders, and curve of a generous mouth that gave it away.
He nodded. And then he lifted his T-shirt to expose his hard, muscular abdomen. “This is my mom.”
It took a moment to figure out the spill of hair. The woman had her face turned to the side, head tilting, so her hair flowed down Calix's stomach.
“When she sings, she loses herself. That's what she looks like.”
“She tilts her head like that?”
“Exactly like that.”
Her fingertips skimmed higher to the frenzy of color and movement. His skin pebbled under her touch.
“That's my dad's garden. Hopper liked to be out there with him. He'd talk my dad's ear off, about nothing really, but my dad liked to say it was a different kind of music.”
“Oh, Calix.” She let the fabric drop, smoothing it down. “This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.” She wanted to press against him and hug the pain right out of his body.
“He had some emotional issues. Depression, anger. And my mom tried to help him with it through art. She turned the barn into a studio just for him. She'd sit in there for hours, let him throw paint, smash clay, whatever he wanted. And as he got older, she'd take him to museums and galleries. She tried to channel the feelings he couldn't understand into art.”
“She's such a good mom.”
Her arms slid through his, and she leaned into him. When he remained stiff and unyieldingâvery unlike the man who'd ravished her outside her apartment the night beforeâit hit her that he didn't need her to comfort him over a boy she'd never known. That he'd had three years to live with the loss, and more than enough family and friends to share his grief.
He didn't want companionship or friendship outside his small world in Marsapeague. And he certainly didn't want a relationship with her. She pulled back.
But the moment she did, his arms shot up, banding around her. Candlelight flickered on the coarse sand, and she curled her toes in it, all too aware of how much she liked the way his big body felt and the lovely, clean scent of his clothes.
When she turned her head to press more fully against him, her ear to his chest, she heard the rapid beating of his heart. She chanced a look up at him, needing to see his expression. Hoping it reflected the same aching desire she felt for him.
Just the two of them under a tiki lamp, the night awash in soundsâthe hum of conversation punctuated with shouts of laughter from inside the tent, the steady crash and drag of the oceanâMimi felt herself melting against him. Into him.
For one hot, heavy moment, their gazes collided, and herbody tightened at the hunger and need in his eyes. But then his features shuttered, and he took a step back, letting her go.
She shook off the sticky web of desire clinging to her. He made her head spin, and not in a good way. She knew he was attracted to her, but if he wasn't going to act on it, then he needed to stay the hell away. “Hey, so, thanks for helping me today.” She spoke too quickly, a current of bitterness in her tone. “Couldn't have done this without you.” She stalked up the path, away from the tent.
“Where you going?” he called.
Wherewasshe going? She didn't know. She just wanted to get away from him because, frankly, it sucked being attracted to someone who flashed hot and cold. They worked together. It couldn't get complicated.
Then again, maybe she had it all wrong. She'd fantasized about him for nearly a year. It could just all be in her head. And if that were the case, she could imagine how uncomfortable she made him when she looked at him like she wanted to throw him down and mount him.Awkward.“I have to get more ice.”
Ice?Really,ice?She'd hired an event planner to set up the tent and work the bar. So, the ice situation was not on her. Still, she kept going. Where exactly? It wasn't like she was at her house. She was at Emmie and Slater's, so she couldn't lock herself in her bedroom and curl up on her bed andÂ .Â .Â . fantasize about running her hands all over that hot, smooth skin.
Grr. That image of her bent over the table, Calix's hand in her hair, hips thrusting into herÂ .Â .Â . Jeez, stop already.Hasn't this gotten you into enough trouble with this guy?
“You're getting ice?” He caught up with her.
“No, okay? I'm not getting ice. I'm going toÂ .Â .Â . do some food prep for tomorrow morning.” Yes, that was exactly what she'd do. What was she in the mood to make? Dough. Something she could knead, that yeasty smell in the air. Cinnamon rolls. She could picture the butter oozing out of them as they browned in the oven.
The path narrowed, and beach grass swished andwhispered around her. His heavy footsteps strode right past her. “Where are you going?”
“You're leaving?” She watched him stride across the scrubby land like a Viking.
“The band's in crisis, and you're leaving.”
“Not my band,” he said over his shoulder, leaving her behind.
“Eight months, and it's not your band? What is the matter with you?”
“Not a damn thing. I showed up, did my face time.”
She hurried to keep up with him. “That's all these guys are to you? A paycheck?”
“Yeah, Mimi, it's ajob.”
“And you need the money, right? That's why you're doing it. For the cash.”
“You got a problem with a man making a living?”
“You know I don't. But you could make a living as a bartender. Or hey, you could own a surf shop. Sell surfboards and sex wax. I'd bet you'd be a pro at selling sex wax.”
“How did we go from talking about earning a living to my sex life?”
“We didn't. But I guess that's the extent of what you've got to give. Your rented keyboard skills and your dick. What a wildly fulfilling life you lead.”
Why did he have to be such a jerk?
Worse, why did he have to be such a jerkandsuch a great guy?
Worst of all, why did she care?CHAPTER EIGHT
As she climbed the steps to the back door, she had to force herself not to chase after him and slap the attitude right off his face. “Have fun skimming over your life.” Asshole.
She threw the door open, aware of his boots clattering up the stairs behind her. Awareness burst on her skin.
“What the fuck's that supposed to mean?”
She'd never seen him so angry. “You live at home, you hang out with the same people you've known all your life, you go from one gig to another.” She shrugged. “Skimming.”
“Okay.” His tone said she was crazy. He spun back around. Waving over his shoulder, he said, “See you tomorrow.”
Oh, no, he didn't. “You didn't even go to thelisteningpart of the listening party.”
“I told you. It's not my business.”
“That's a stupid thing to say. Of course it's your business. You've been working with these guys for eight months. You're an integral part of their sound. Didn't you even write some of their songs?”
“What's your point?” He stopped at the bottom of the stairs.
“Seems a shame.”
He turned to her, looking exasperated. “What'sa shame?” But the challenge in his eyes told her he wasn't exasperated at all. He was fired up.
“That you're doing something you love, but you don't own it. Sounds pretty lame to me.”
“Lame? Are youÂ .Â .Â .” He tipped his head back, jamming his hands through his long hair. “I lost mybrother. I'm trying to rebuild our lives.”
“You're not rebuilding anything. You're in a holding pattern.” She threw open the door, wanting nothing more than to get busy making the dough for tomorrow's cinnamon buns.
He pounded up the stairs. “You don't know what you're talking about. You've never lost someone, so what gives you the right to get involved in shit that's none of your business?”
“This isn't about rights. It's about caring. It's what people do when they don't skim the surface of their lives. They get involved because they can't just stand there while the people they care about are hurting or screwing up. I don't know, maybe your world is so insular that you get away with skimming and no one calls you out on it. Maybe it takes someone from the outside to throw open the curtains and let some light in.”
“Uh-huh. And you're just a beacon of light.”
“You go ahead and make me out to be a pushy broad if that makes you feel better, but deep down you know I'm right.”
“Right aboutwhat? You don't know anything about me or my family.”
“You know that's not true. You just haven't let anyone else in before. And let's face it, your friends obviously let you get away with skimming.” She jerked open a cabinet and pulled out the flour and sugar bins. “And don't lie to yourself about rebuilding your life because that's not what you're doing. You don't want to go back to the world that once made you happy because deep down you think it cost you your brother.”
His big hand smacked the counter, rattling the pans in the drying rack. “Are you out of your fucking mind with the shit you say?”
She washed her hands at the sink, looking at his reflection in the window. His nostrils flared, his lips pulled back. She'd never seen him so angry. She should shut her mouthâit truly was none of her business.
But at the same time, he could've continued straight to his motorcycle and gone home. Instead he was here. Of his own volition. She'd hit on something.
Something he needed to hear. And she couldn't help it, but she did care.
Reaching for a towel, she turned to face him. “You loved him with all your heart, and you lost him in the most nonsensical way possible. Come on, Calix. On some level you have to think it's your fault.”
“I lost my brother, the heart and soul of my family. We're recovering. That's it. Nothing more, Mrs. Freud.”
“And you don't blame yourself? Not one little bit?”
He nodded, jaw muscle popping. “No, I don't. It was no one's fault.”
“I don't believe you. I see the look in your eyes right now.” He was utterly tormented. “I think you do blame yourself. And instead of dealing with it, feeling anything, you throw yourself into taking care of your family.” She watched him carefully. “Have you guys ever talked about it? Have you talked to your friends? Anyone?”
“There'snothing to say. We lost him, and now we're trying to keep my momÂ .Â .Â .” He looked away, swallowed. “Trying to get her back.”
“You keep talking about your mom. But what about you? Are you grieving? God, Calix, is anyone looking out for you?”
His body practically vibrated with anger. “Am Igrieving? Are you fucking kidding me? I miss my brother every day. But I can't bring him back. The only thing I can do is keep my family together.”
“Okay.” She knew it was time to back off. “But you matter, too. And if you can't talk to your family about it, you should at least talk to a friend.” She tossed the towel on the counter and came right up to him. “Maybe you should stop pushing it all away and just remember him. Go to the cemetery and sitwith him. Remember everything. Let it crash over you, because I just don't think you're ever going to get on with your life until you make peace with that day.”
Mouth set tight to the point of quivering, he stood rigidly before her.
She'd upset him enough, so she turned to the counter and reached for her measuring cups.
Bracing himself against the counter with an arm, he looked down at the hardwood floor. “He wasright there.” His words hung heavy and raw in the kitchen. “I don't blame myself. It wasn't my fault, but Jesus Christ, he was right there. If I'd just paid attentionÂ .Â .Â . fuck.”
Oh, God. He totally blamed himself. “I know. If you could just go back for one second, to that one moment when he walked awayÂ .Â .Â .”
He held her gaze with stark desolation.
His pain sliced her to the bone. “I know.”
“You don't know.” He lowered his head. “You don't fucking know.”
“Calix, everyone has those kinds of regrets. But you can't live your life thinking about the if onlys. You can't go back and fix it. You just can't.”
“And what was there to fix? You have to know it wouldn't have been possible to keep your eyes on Hopper every minute of every day.” She stepped closer to him. “It was a crazy night. Your parents were onstage for the first time in years. The record company wanted to sign you.” She gave him an imploring look, hoping he could see that, of course, he'd taken his eyes off Hopper.
But he shook his head harshly. “I ate it up. Voltage Recordsâthey were kissing my ass, and I loved it.”
Not only did he blame himself, but somehow his ambition had become the reason for his loss.
“They were working me over, making me out to be the shit. And I just fell for it, man. Just totally ate it up.”
“Hopper didn't wander off because you let some A&R guy's spiel go to your head. It was a crowded venue. People coming and going. Kids get lost in department stores andmalls, at beaches and festivals. Kids wander off. It happens all the time. Hopper wandered off.” She stepped closer to him, making him understand through her eyes, her voice, and her heart. “It's not your fault.”
He held her gaze, as if weighing her words. “You can say those words as many times as you want, but the fact is that I stopped paying attention to him. I got caught up in the bullshit from Voltage.” Despair twisted his features. “It eats me up. It fucking kills me. If I'd just turned around, done something to include him, Hopper would never have left.”
“No good will come out of reliving that moment. It's eating you alive. Nothing will change, because it'sout of your control. It happened, and reliving it, wishing you'd made a different choice in that moment, won't change it. You have to let it go.” She gripped his forearms. “Calix, look at me. You can't go back and change that moment. It's over, it's done. Now you have to move forward. There's no other choice.”
He straightened, looking at her like she held the answer he'd been desperate for.
She cupped his cheeks. “You're stuck in that moment.” God, she needed to get through. “And to get unstuck, you have to forgive yourself. You were a grown man, building a career for yourself. That's normal. You were doing exactly what you should've been doing.”
“I can'tÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â .” A shock of alertness had him straightening. “I can't get past it. I can't.”
“You can. Every time you go to that momentâthe one you can't changeâreplace it with a good memory. Bask in the good. I saw those photosâyou have a lot of good memories with your brother.”
“I do.” His voice sounded shredded.
“So, then let it go.”
“I'll never let him go.”
“Letitgo. That moment in time you can't take back. Let it go. There is no do-over. You can't fix it. But you're alive, and you're an amazing musician and the most loyal and devoted son and brother I've ever seen. So let it go. Andlive, dammit.”
She didn't know what happened, but suddenly his hands were on her hips, and she was in the air. Her ass landed on thecounter, his body shoved between her legs, and he was right in her face. Those eyesâGod, those dark, soulful eyesâso filled with emotion. Pain, yearning, confusion. A hand clamped on each of her thighs, and his fingers pressed hard into her flesh.
Her heart pounded. The blood rushed so loudly in her ears, it sounded like a waterfall. His fingers tightened on her thighs. He breathed roughly through his nostrils.
She could see his fight, feel the strain in his muscles, so she softened, letting her hands reach for his face, her fingers stroke the silky scruff of his beard.
And then he leaned in, his breath a sigh against her lips. He kissed her. Tentatively, at first. A sample, a taste. His lips brushed over hers, as if savoring a precious gift.
But she didn't go half-assed at anything, so she parted her lips, let her tongue touch his, and he moaned deep in his throat. And then he was kissing her.
As if the floodgates had burst open, his need crashed over her.
No onehad ever kissed her with such wild passion in her life.
His hands slid up her legs, rested right at the juncture, and God, the span of those fingers. His thumb brushed restless strokes on her inner thigh. He pressed forward, his hips flat against the counter, as he devoured her with his mouth and tongue.
He cupped her face, tasting her more deeply. Those big hands on her cheeks, holding her so firmly, gently, like she was precious, only made her heart ache from the tenderness of his touch.
His kisses turned hungrier, dirtier, and she clutched at his shoulders, hands sliding down his back to hold him to her more tightly. And then he caressed her neck down to her collarbone, the heel of his palm pressing into her breasts.
God, she craved him. Wanted to rip off her clothes and climb him, rub her bare skin all over his. Every cell in her body opened to him, letting all his heat, his intensity, sink deep into her. Her legs wrapped around his waist, her heels digging into the hard globes of his ass.
He cupped her breast, kneading it gently, reverently, hisbody feverishly hot and his kiss turning ravenous.Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. She pushed harder against him, arching into his touch.
When his thumb flicked over her nipple, electric heat shot straight to her core and she gasped, pulling her mouth off his. “God. We have toÂ .Â .Â .” She could barely catch her breath. “What are wedoing?”
His forehead pressed to hers, his breathing erratic and labored. Slowly, his body twisted away, foreheads still touching, until he pushed back from the counter.
“I think it's pretty obvious.” As hard as he tried to hide behind his Mr. Stoic mask, the fine tremble beneath his skin told her he'd been deeply affected.
“God.” She pushed him aside and jumped off the counter. “I wasn't going to sleep with you.” She went back to the sink to wash her hands again.
“Kind of the natural progression of things, babe.”
She slammed the faucet. “Excuse me?”
“You wrap your legs around a man's waistÂ .Â .Â . what message did you think you were giving?”
“It was akiss. I wasn't going to have sex with you.”
“You make way too big a deal out of sex, sweet pants.” He started for the door.
Way too big aâ“I'ma big deal.” Her tone must've startled him, because he stopped abruptly. “And I'm not having sex with someone I haven't even gone on a date with.”
She might as well have tossed fresh offal at him for the way his body recoiled. “I don'tdate.”
“Yes, I know that. Because you skim. So you just keep right on skimming. But you won't be getting any ofthis.” She ran a hand up and down her body like a game show host revealing the contestant's prize.
“Okay, Mimi.” His tone let her know that, once again, he thought she was being ridiculous.
“Haven't you ever taken a girl out on a date?”
“In twenty-six years, not a single date?”
“So your only interaction with women has been hookups.”
“Shay and I were together awhile in high school. But we didn't date.”
“You took her out, though, right? Before screwing her, you bought her a clam roll? Took her to a movie?”
“Not gonna talk about my relationship with Shay, but I'll repeat. Never taken anyone out on a date.”
Drying her hands on a towel, she turned to face him. “You've obviously never wanted anyone enough.”
“I've wanted plenty of women enough.”
“To bang them, sure. But not enough that youhaveto be with them. And that's what I want. A man whohasto be with me. Anything less is just a waste of my time.”
He sauntered back toward her, looking super pleased with himself. “Sounds like you're holding out for a lot of things.”
“What does that mean?”
“You graduated, when? A year ago? And you're still waiting for your dad to hire you. You don't have sex because you're waiting for some guy to fall madly in love with you. Maybe all this talk about skimming has more to do with you than me. Maybe you wish you could go deep, but you can't because you're too scared to go after what you really want.”
“What Ireallywant is to work for my dad. And if you're trying to talk me into hooking up, you can forget it.” She was done talking to him. “In any event, I'm sure you've got a list of go-to girls on your phone right now, so start dialing-for-a-bang. Or go to the beach. Yeah, that's it. Hook up with one of the girls you've grown up with.” She looked him in the eye. “We're done here.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Mimipulled the tray of cinnamon buns from the oven, closing her eyes to breathe in the delicious smell. Since Dak had been fired last night, the guys could sleep in. She'd just leave coffee brewing and the buns out for whenever they got up.
After the way Calix had treated her in the kitchenâlike some nymph he could bang at a partyâshe'd considered bailing on today's cooking lesson. But she needed his help to win this competition, and she wasn't about to let their issues get in her way.
JustÂ .Â .Â . no more kissing. It wasn't like it was allhisfault. She'd gotten just as caught up in their kisses as he had. It just meant something different to her.
Before she headed over for her lesson, though, she'd watch a few episodes ofChopped. Maybe talk to her mom about ideas for Violet's wedding. Hard to do that when Australia was fourteen hours ahead of the East Coast, but she'd catch her before she went to bed.
The grumble of an engine cut through the early morning stillness. With the guys sleeping in and no deliveries expected, she had no idea who'd stop by. She peered out the window to see Calix jumping out of a truck and leaping up the stairs.
He punched the screen door open, took a quick sweep of the room. “Gus here?”
“Haven't seen him.”
“Fuck.” He spun around, trampled down the stairs, and struck off toward the beach. His powerful thighs pumped hard in his worn jeans.
Worried, she ran out the door and took off after him. Racing down the dirt path, she caught up with him just as he headed toward the tent.
“What's going on?”
He pulled up the edge and ducked under it. She followed him in, the heat and fishy scent oppressive. After a quick scan of the place, he turned back around, brushing right past her. “Gus didn't come home last night.”
Oh, for crying out loud.“He's twenty-three.”
Ignoring her, he strode to the shoreline, long hair flaring out on a breeze. His jeans hugged the hard curves of his ass as he worked his way across the sand.
Again, she traipsed after him. “It can't be all that surprising that a twenty-three-year-old guy wouldn't come home.”
Standing on the hard-packed sand, he gazed first in one direction, then the other. Seriously, strip off his dark gray T-shirt, throw a loincloth around his hips, and he could be a warrior leading the charge of a marauding army.
“Fourteen hours.” He leveled her with a hard look. “That's how long we had to wait to find out about Hopper. Fourteenhours not having a clue where he was, who he was with, or whether he was breathing. You got any idea the kinds of scenarios we cooked up in all that time? So, yeah, Gus can do whateverthe fuckhe wants. But he's gotta let his mom know so she doesn't go through the same shit she went through three years ago.”
Oh, God. “Jo was up all night?” She guessed they'd all been upâlooking for Gus, sure, but mostly for Jo. Okay, she'd get right on it. Turning, she headed back to the house. “I'm sure you've checked all the usual places and friends, so I'll wake up the guys and ask them.”
Together, they headed back up the path. When they hit the grass, Mimi said, “When was the last time you saw him?”
“At a table with some of the Amoeba guys. That was about ten, before I left.”
“Did you try to get a hold of them? Maybe Emmie can make some calls.”
“Already talked to her. She said the Amoeba guys left together. Their drivers came around midnight.”
“You know, he could've crashed at a friend's house. It could be that simple.”
“I called his friends. He wasn't with them last night.”
“Okay, but that doesn't mean he didn't crash atsomeone'shouse. A friend of a friend. I'm just saying he's probably all right and doing what any other person our age would do.”
“Mimi. You don't know. You justÂ .Â .Â . don't understand.”
“I'm an only child, so if you mean I don't understand losing a sibling, then you're right. I don't. But that doesn't mean I can't understand your worries.”
“Worries? You think I'mworried? I worry about my mom not getting enough sleep. I worry about her not eating enough. This situation? What we're dealing with right now?” He gripped the back of his neck, rubbed it harshly.
She touched his arm, pulled him back. “What is it? Tell me.”
The tortured look in his eyes gutted her.
“What? Just say it. There's obviously more going on here than I understand.”
“She tried to kill herself, okay? My momÂ .Â .Â . this isn't just about Gus. It's aboutÂ .Â .Â .”
Shock ripped through her. “Are youÂ .Â .Â .last night?”
“No, about four months after Hopper died.”
Oh, God, this poor family. What they'd gone through. She thought of that house, the photographs, the memories that moved like shadows in every room. And in the short time she'd been around Jo, she'd seen it. A woman who had to fight to stay present, to stay engaged.
Mimi had felt the woman slipping away, retreating into herself, while her family kept trying to draw her out.
And yetÂ .Â .Â . she hadn't gotten the sense that Jo was suicidal. More that she couldn't bear the pressure of everyone's expectations for her.
But her perceptions didn't matter. Only Calix's did. And he lived every moment worrying he'd get the call that his mom hadÂ .Â .Â .Oh, God.
“I found her. I was heading out of town with my band, and I justÂ .Â .Â . I wanted to see her before I left. My mom told us she needed time alone to grieve, so we'd all gone back to our lives, but I worried about her. I couldn't helpÂ .Â .Â .” But he shook his head, as though cutting off that train of thought. “I came into the houseÂ .Â .Â . it was so quiet. And I found her in bed. She'd taken a bottle of pills. I can'tÂ .Â .Â .” He swallowed, took a breath. “I can't let it happen again.”
“No, of course not. But we'll find him. You know we will.”
“I've looked everywhere. I've been up and down the beach a dozen times. Every place he might've gone. I've talked to everyone he knows.”
And then she remembered the persistent nymph. “Do you know where Laney lives?”
“Why the hell would I know that?”
“Well, if you've had sex with her, you might know.”
“What?Are you fucking kidding me? Jesus Christ, I am not talking about this right now.” He stalked off toward the truck.
“She's slept with everyone else.” She picked up her pace across the grass.
“He wouldn'tÂ .Â .Â .”
But, of course, Gus would. “Let me get my phone. I'll find out where she lives.”
“We sent her home last night.”
“Yeah, she totally seemed the type to respect our boundaries. Look, you said you talked to everyone he knows, and you've been every place he would go. I don't think we should rule out Laney.”
As soon as they got to the house, she ran inside to grab her phone. She could feel his anxiety as he waited for her call to connect.
Coop's call went straight to voice mail. She got luckier with Ben.
“'Lo.” He sounded exhausted.
“Hey, Ben. Mimi. When was the last time you saw Gus?”
“Yeah, Calix's brother. The gofer.”
“Ben. Wake up. This is important.”
“Right. Yeah. Um, Gus. I don't know. Wasn't paying attention.”
“Do you have Laney's phone number?”
“Ben, listen to me. I need to find her. Do you know where she lives?”
He was quiet for a moment, but then gave a reluctant, “Yeah.”
She gave Calix a thumbs-up. “Text me the address, okay?”
“Don't know the address.” He cleared his throat. “You know that general store on Manhasset Road in Orient?”
“No. Hang on.” She lowered the phone. “You know the general store on Manhasset Road in Orient?”
“Yeah, we do.”
“Okay, well, her mom runs it. They live in the rooms at the back. If you go along the left side of the building, through the bushes, that's her bedroom. Last window. She leaves it unlocked.”
“Great, thanks. By the way, I made cinnamon rolls for you guys. Coffee's brewing. So, whenever you want it, it's here.”
“Fuck, Meems. How'm I gonna get back to sleep now?”
“Gotta run.” In her leggings and ballet flats, she had nowhere to stow her phone, but before she could give it another thought, Calix took it from her and slid it in his back pocket. “Let's go.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Situatedat the very tip of the North Fork, Orient Point wasn't far from Eden's Landing. Mimi watched out the window as Calix drove in silence.
She loved the early morning light out here. It softened the scrubby fields, turned ponds into watercolors, and colored the sand peach.
He cleared his throat. “I'm sorry for last night.”
She shot him a look.
“Shouldn't have kissed you.”
“I guess this means I should cancel the order for our promise rings?”
She thought she saw a hint of a smile curl his mouth, but it died quickly. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.
She turned her attention back out the window. On this lazy Sunday morning in early May, an elderly man ambled down the driveway toward his newspaper, and a trio of cyclists sped by, their forearms resting on the handlebars.
He let out a breath. “I know you're a big deal. Don't want you to think otherwise.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Would you have followed through? If I'd let you, would you have had sex with me right there on the kitchen counter?”
Tugging on his chin scruff, he said, “Probably not.”
“Then why did you treat me like that? Like there was something wrong with me for not being into hookups?”
He stuttered out a laugh. “I don't know. Because I can't keep my hands off you.”
Something hot flashed through her, and the part of her that entertained naughty thoughts about him said,Then don't. But nothing could come of it, so she let it go. “Okay, well, no harm.”
“I respect the hell out of you.” He let out a breath. “I'm sorry I made you feel I didn't.”
This sweet side of him made her keenly aware of his potential. One day he'd make an awesome boyfriend. “Actually, last night was a good wake-up call for me.” She looked down at her hands. The way to really be over him was to say it out loud. “To be honest, I've fantasized about you for a while now. You're really hot andÂ .Â .Â . I don't know, you seem like the kind of guy to just take what he wants from a girl in bed.”
He shot her a heated, almost feral look.He likes that.
But she was over him, so she wasn't about to fan that flame. “And onstage? It's incredibly sexy to watch you get lost in the music. Plus, watching the guys interact with you, that's hot, too.”
“How do they interact with me?”
“They respect you. They respect your talent. And that's hot.”
“So, just to be clear, what you're saying is, I'm hot?”
She laughed. “I guess if you boil it all down, then, yes, I think you're pretty damn hot. And that's led to some wicked fantasies. But now that I've gotten to know you, I won't be doing that anymore.”
She could see how that might've sounded offensive. “No, I just mean we're really different. We want different things. You know, reality kills fantasies.”
“No, I don't know. But you might want to stop right there.”
“Oh, come on, you know exactly what I mean. You see some super-hot girl in a club, and you imagine all the things you want to do to herâor in my case the things I wanted you to do to meâ”
“What did you want me to do to you?”
With a smile, she gently swatted his arm. “No, seriously, but then you get to know her and she's dumb or she's, I don't know, materialistic or whatever, and you stop seeing her as the hot girl. Once she opens her mouth, you can't fantasize about her anymore.”
“What did you want me to do to you?”
She shook her head. “Stop. We're not going there. I'm saying that I see you as a man now, not some fantasy. Last night our differences became really clear. Like the fact that you don't date. That separates us right there.”
“I've got some fantasies of my own.”
“You do? About me?”
“No, about a super-hot woman I saw in a club. Yes, of course, you.”
“You do not fantasize about me.”
He remained quiet, eyes on the road. Fingers tapping the steering wheel.
“What kind of fantasies?”
“I thought we weren't going there?”
She burst out laughing. “Okay, we'll swap. One fantasy. Go.”
“You like my mouth.”
“I really like your mouth.”
Automatically, her fingers went to her lips. “I had no idea. But I'm so not your type.”
“I don't have a type.”
“But I wear business suits to clubs.”
“Tight skirts, Mimi. Wrapped around that ass?” He gave a curt nod. “Shit-hot fantasy.”
A tingle skittered down her spine. “Really?I had no idea. You're always so indifferent around me.” Well, not recently. But he had been for the several months before she'd hopped on his bike.
“Oh.” In that moment she realized she couldn't tell him. “This isn't a good idea.”
“Therefore, I have the power to kill it.” She shrugged. “I'm killing it.”
“You are not killing it. I told you mine, it's only fair you tell me yours.”
She gave him a sweet smile. “Didn't your momma teach you life's not fair?”CHAPTER NINE
“WaitingÂ .Â .Â .” He shifted in his seat.
Should she tell him? This was too embarrassing. All he'd mentioned was her mouth and her tight skirts, neither of which was in the same league asherfantasies. On the other handÂ .Â .Â . “What the hell, right? We already figured out nothing's going to happen between us.”
He pointed toward the sign for Orient Point. “Running out of time here.” He turned right down Manhasset Road. The houses on either side of the street looked old and worn-out. Some had untended yards, while others had tidy gardens. The farther they drove, the denser the houses became, until they reached what clearly made up the heart of the town: a cluster of historical buildings with sagging porches and pretty window boxes.
“Okay, fine.” But as the image formed in her mind, she knew she couldn't say it out loud. Tell him she imagined him taking her from behind?Forget it.“I can't.”
“It's that filthy?”
“In general, no. But saying it out loud to you? Yes, it's that filthy.”
“MimiÂ .Â .Â .”
“No, I'm sorry. I never should've brought it up. I didn't mean to tease you, but it's way too inappropriate for people who have to work together.”
Calix pulled in front of the general store, closed at this early hour. When she opened her door, the air smelled musty.
“Go around back?” she asked as he met her on the sidewalk.
He gave a tight nod. “We're not done with this conversation.” And then he led the way along a gravel driveway to the back of the building. A collapsing garage filled with broken bikes and old surfboards sat at the back of the property. In the middle of the small patch of lawn was an umbrella-style laundry dryer that looked like a metal tree.
“Oh, we're done all right.”
But he was already at the back door. He knocked, the sound so loud in the early morning stillness that birds flew out of the nearby bushes. Paint peeled from the cedar siding, and the back lawn was a mess of strewn plastic toys that hadn't seen use in decades.
No one answered, so Calix knocked harder.
She pointed to the white lace curtain flapping out of an open window in the corner room. “That's Laney's.”
“How do you know?”
“Ben said to walk down the side of the house to the last window. That's the corner room.”
“I'm not peeping in her window.”
“You want to call home, see if Gus showed up?”
“Yeah.” He pulled out his phone and swiped the screen.
What had she been thinking, bringing up her fantasy of him? Like she'd ever tell him what he looked like when he got lost in the music. Or that she wanted to see that same expression when he was with her. More specifically when she watched him over her shoulder. On her knees, his hand fisted in her hair, as he slammed into her from behind.
Sensation flashed across her skin.Oh, yes.
Not only was he gorgeous, but he was a really good man. His intense loyalty to his family? His profound love for them? God, whoever won this man's love was going to be one luckygirl. She had a feeling when he did fall for someone, he'd fall hard.
Too bad it wouldn't be her. By the time his family healed, she'd be back in the city working for her dad.
“Okay.” Shoving his phone in his pocket, he knocked hard. “Not home, no word from him.”
Cupping a hand, he peered through the gauzy curtain covering the pane of glass. “Fuck it.” He jumped off the porch, boots squishing in the muddy earth, and strode along the side of the house. “He better not be boning her.”
“What if I've got it all wrong, and she's with some other guy? Can you imagine?”
“Thanks for that image, sweet pants. Unfortunately, I gotta check.”
She hated what his family had gone through last night, waiting to find out if Gus was lying in a ditch somewhere. God, how awful.
Everything made so much more sense now.Of coursehe didn't commit to a band. Of course he wasn't in a relationship. Every time he left the house, he probably pictured his mom with a bottle of prescription pills. Every time his phone vibrated, he likely dreaded opening the text. He lived on the edge of his seat, waiting for the inevitable news to come.
Her heart ached for him.
At the window, he pushed aside the curtain and peered in. “Gus?” He rapped on the frame. “Gus?” The word came out like a shot.
Voices murmured, and something crashed.
“What the hell?” Gus leaned out the window. “Jesus, Calix. What're you doing here?”
“Need to turn your phone on. Mom's worried.”
“Oh.” Hair a tangled mess, eyes bloodshot, Gus looked completely hungover. “Sorry, man. IÂ .Â .Â .” He scrubbed his face with both hands. “Fuck. I don't know what happened.”
“Text Mom. Let her know you're all right.”
“How'd you find me?”
“You're not exactly this chick's first Blue Fire conquest.”
A wash of color spread across his cheeks. And then he noticed Mimi. “Did you have to bring Mimi?”
“She's the one who found you.” Calix checked his brother out. “You stayin', or you want to come back with us?”
“I don't have a ride, so I'll come with you. Hang on a sec.” He pulled back inside.
“We'll be in the truck.” Calix hadn't even finished his sentence before a black boot flew out the window, followed by its mate.
Then came a jeans-clad leg. Gus landed on the patch of grass, shirt in hand. “Let's go.”
Calix started walking, casting his brother a disgusted look. “Put some clothes on.”
“You're not even gonna say good-bye?”
Gus snatched up his boots. “I just want to get out of here.”
Big, puffy clouds rolled across the sky, taking turns blocking the sun and making the world a patchwork of grays and bright yellows. By the time they hit the truck, Gus had his jeans buttoned and T-shirt on.
Calix fired up the engine and executed a quick turn, heading back toward the main road.
From the backseat, she heard a harsh exhalation. And then, “Sorry, man.”
Calix eyed him in the rearview mirror but didn't say anything.
“Mom upset?” Gus's voice sounded rough, unused.
“Yeah, man. She's upset.”
“Shit. I don't even have my phone.”
“You leave it at her place?”
“I don't know. I don't think so.”
“How'd you hook up with her? We sent her packing last night.”
“I don't even know who she is. After the party ended, a bunch of us made a bonfire. She was there.” He let out a defeated breath. “Guess I got pretty wasted.”
“Yeah.” Calix tapped his fingers on the wheel. “Look, we got a good thing going with Mom and these cooking lessons. This kind of shit works against us.”
Mimi turned around to find Gus's eyes closed, looking pretty miserable.
“Won't happen again.”
But if it did, Mimi suspected Calix would take it all on his own shoulders.
He'd never be free until he stopped blaming himself for what happened to his family.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Mimipulled the tray of scones out of the oven, breathing in the warm, lemony scent. This early time in the kitchen making breakfast, before everyone woke up, was her favorite part of the day.
With the album on hold until they found a new producer, she hadn't seen Calix or Gus since yesterday's rescue operation. What a night that must've been for Jo. She hoped the woman was all right.
The front door slammed. “Meems?” Derek's boots thudded on the hardwood floor.
“Kitchen.” She smiled, girding herself, because the rest of the crew wouldn't be far behind.
“Someone's got wedding fever.” Derek pointed to the kitchen table strewn with bridal magazines and cookbooks.
“Just getting ideas.”
“Smells good.” He snatched a scone off the cookie sheet but immediately dropped it. “Fuck, that's hot.”
She waved her pot-holder-covered hands at him. “Fresh from the oven.”
Derek flipped open a magazine. “You remember she wants simple, right?”
“I've rented out the Eden's Landing country club and sent out invitations to five hundred of your closest friends. I've put a deposit on a man in Arizona famous for making birds out of sugar syrup. Slater's got a call into Katie Perry's people to see if she'll perform. That simple enough?”
When Derek Valencia laughed, the earth moved under her feet. With his tats, shoulder-length hair, and facial scruff, everything about him screamed raw sensuality. He was hot and deep and one hundred percent devoted to his fiancÃ©e.
“Since Eden's Landing doesn't have a country club, I'm going to trust you're joking. And since you know my bridebetter than anyone else, I'm sure you'll give her what she wants.” He reached for a scone, tossed it to his other hand. “I, uh, I had an idea, though.”
There was nothing hesitant about Derek, so to see him uncomfortable made her feel tender toward him. She motioned for him to sit down. “Tell me.”
Instead, he leaned his hip against the table. “I want to build her a gazebo. A big one. Right in the middle of her wildflowers, overlooking the ocean.”
A rush of warmth spread through her. “That sounds amazing. Is that where you'll exchange vows?”
He nodded, looking uncertain. “You think she'd like that?”
“I think she could say them in her laundry room and be blissfully happy.”
“Yeah. Probably.” He gave an almost shy smile. “But what do you think of the gazebo?”
“I think the gazebo's a beautiful idea. Can't you just see her on a glider with her baby in her arms, nursing while looking out at the sea?”
Derek looked utterly stricken. She wondered if she'd said something wrongâmaybe he didn't want kids. But then he swallowed, blinked, and said, “Gazebo's a done fuckin' deal.”
“Good.” She smiled, her heart full, knowing her friend had found such complete happiness. A foster care kid, Violet had never experienced family or real love until she'd crashed into the unrelenting will of Derek Valencia.
The front door slammed again, so hard the windows rattled. Laughter and male voices filled the air.
“What smells so good?” Ben led the troops into the kitchen.
“Scones,” Mimi said.
“What kind?” Cooper asked.
“Blueberry lemon. With a crumble top.”
Grabby hands made off with more than half of them. “You guys. They're hot.”
“No shit.” Cooper practically juggled his.
“Someone wanna get the door?” A gruff, deep voice hadeveryone spinning around to see the big, hulking figure of Terrence Bourbon on the back porch, biceps bulging from the weight of a crate.
“Got it.” Ben popped half a scone into his mouth, while racing to let him in. “Fuck, that's hot.”
“Hey, Terrence.” Slater slid a thumb drive into the port of his laptop. Immediately, music began playing.
Terrence set the crate down right next to her. “Brought you some vegetables from my greenhouse.”
“You didn't need to come all the way out here. I'll be at your place this afternoon.”
He started pulling out produce. “You don't have a car, so I thought I'd deliver the goods myself. Look what I brought. Know what it is?”
“Ferns?You brought me a decorative plant? That's so sweet, because I know there's no chance you'd ever expect me to eat something that hangs in a macramÃ© planter.”
He burst out laughing.
“Terrence, they look like bugs. Green worms curled up into little balls. I can't do it.”
“You know, just 'cause you said that, I'm gonna make sure Calix uses fiddleheads in one of your challenges.”
“For the love of God, do you hate me?” she said with a warm smile.
“Jesus, this sucks,” Ben shouted over the music.
“We don't have shit to work with,” Cooper said. “There's not one track that's any good.”
Terrence glanced over his shoulder. “Get rid of the auto-tune.”
A chair scraped back, and Slater met him at the counter. “We kept telling him that, but he wanted us to wait till he finished so we could hear the vibe he was going for.”
“He acted like he had this big plan,” Ben said. “But Irwin could tell right away. This album sucks.”
“It isn't our sound,” Derek said.
“It's Dak's signature sound,” Terrence said. “And it worked with Ten09 and Pitstop, but it's not right for you.”
“No, it's not.”
“You got someone to replace him?” Terrence asked.
“Emmie's in the city right now talking to the label about finding us a new producer,” Slater said.
“But who wants to jump into another guy's project?” Ben said. “We're four months in.”
“You should have Terrence do it.” The moment the words left Mimi's mouth, she wished she could suck them back in. Especially when the guys jumped out of their seats with excitement.
“Would you?” Cooper asked.
“That would be awesome,” Ben said.
She could see Derek and Slater reining in their enthusiasm, giving Terrence the chance to respond.
Even if Terrence wanted to work with these guys, he'd worry about his wife. On the other hand, maybe it would give her peace of mind knowing all her guys worked together in the studio, looking out for each other.
“Let's not put him on the spot,” Derek said. “Terrence, I'll tell you straight up, we'd like to work with you. I think you get us. I like your style. But no pressure, man. None at all.”
“Let me sit on it for a while. Maybe Irwin's got someone else in mind.”
Slater shook his head. “Maybe. But we're taking back control. We're gonna have a say in the next producer, and we'd like to work with you.”
“I'll think on it and get back to you.” Terrence turned back around and finished unloading his crate.
She watched him, wondering if he was pissed at her for making the suggestion without checking with him first. “I'm sorry,” she said quietly. “I shouldn't have said that.”
“You got a big heart, Mimi. Nothing wrong with that.”
She was one hundred percent positive Calix would disagree.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“Today'slesson: Fun with Ferns.” Calix held up a fiddlehead.
“I'm not eating it.”
Her dead-serious tone made him smile. “It's a plant, sweet pants. Just like a Brussels sprout or asparagus.”
“It hashair. I don't eat anything with hair.” She looked into the colander like it was teeming with beetles.
“It screams, too.”
“Fiddleheads are bitter, so you gotta blanch 'em. And the minute they hit the boiling waterÂ .Â .Â .” He paused, just to draw it out. “They scream.”
The way she held his gaze, it was like she was trying to figure out whether or not he was joking. “I hope you're enjoying yourself.” She stood so close to him that her hair brushed over his arm. Soft, silky, and scented with something extremely feminine. The rise and fall of her breasts in her tight T-shirt sent him back to the other night in the kitchen when he'd had her up on the counter, the weight of her breast in his hand.
The beaded nipple against his palm, her shaky inhalationâfuck, electricity had arced through him at the touch.
“I am.” Her heels digging into his back, her fingers pulling his hair? So fucking hot.
Shit. What was the lesson again? “We're talking about techniques, and since my dad brought us the fiddleheads, we're going to blanch them. It kills the enzymes that make them taste bitter. It also seals in the vitamins if you do it right.”
“And what's right?”
“With fiddleheads, about four minutes.” He gave her the colander and watched as she dumped them into the pot of boiling water.
“Back at it, huh?” His mom came into the kitchen, heading straight for the refrigerator. “Ah, your dad's precious fiddleheads.”
“Hey, Jo.” Mimi smiled. “Terrence said they're only around for a couple of weeks.”
His mom grabbed a yogurt. “When's the next show?”
“You think they're gonna give you fiddleheads?”
“Not about the fiddleheads, Ma. It's about blanching and what to do withâ”
His mom gave Mimi an odd, yet interested, look. “Not a vegetable fan, huh?”
“Oh, God, no.”
And then his mom turned her focus on him. “She know the basics?”
Mimi cut in. “You know, to be honest, I really don't. I stick to recipes, and since I won't get to use any during the competition, Calix is teaching me to rely more on my senses and instincts. In my first lesson, he showed me some pretty cool things to add to a basic roux and broth. Last time we worked on cutting, dicing, zestingÂ .Â .Â . stuff like that, and today he's teaching me different cooking techniques.”
“Sounds good. Just think, given the tight time frame, you ought to learn the basics. Flour, eggs, sugar. So no matter what you're given, you'll have a sense of how things work.”
“That's exactly what he said we should do.” Mimi gave him an appreciative look, and it shouldn't have made him so damn happy.
So he focused on getting his mom involved. “What do you think we should work on?”
His mom went to the pantry and pulled out tubs of flour and sugar. Then, she grabbed butter and eggs from the fridge. She dropped them all on the island. “Five basics in the kitchen. Flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and leavening. Teach her what they do, so she can always put something together.”
“Hang on.” With a quick glance to the fiddleheads, Calix shut off the flame. “Let's get them in the ice water.”
His mom held up an egg. “See this? This single ingredient will bind, leaven, emulsify, thicken, clarify, and coat. It'll help you set the structure in your baked goods. It'll moisten and add richness. Whip it, and it'll become a leavening agent. Egg whites trap air in the bubbles.” She nodded toward her son. “He'll tell you all about it.”
After pouring the hot water into the colander, Calix dumped the fiddleheads into the ice bath. By the time he looked up, his mom had gone. “Damn.”
“That's okay,” Mimi said. “She's definitely interested, so that's good.”
Calix pulled out a skillet, turned on the burner. “Let's get some butter in there.”
Mimi hesitated. “I need to tell you something.”
He stilled, waited. She looked anxious, and that got his attention.
“The guys were listening to the tracks to see if they could salvage anything from the last four months.”
“Okay.” He definitely didn't like her guilty expression, but where could she go with this?
“Your dad told them to cut back on auto-tune. He said Dak was trying to give Blue Firehissignature sound. And the guys agreed.”
Folding his arms across his chest, he faced her. “Yeah. So?”
“So, I suggested your dad be the producer.”
He closed his eyes. His dad would love to get in the studio, work with a band. Especially Blue Fire, a band that was all about the music. “MimiÂ .Â .Â .” He blew out a breath. “Why would you do that?”
“I don't know. It just seemed obvious.” And then her tone softened. “Your dad said I had a big heart.”
“What you've got is a big mouth.” But he didn't pack any heat behind his comment because he knew her intentions were good. And the suggestion made sense.
His gaze dropped to the mouth in question. That sexy, expressive mouth with those raspberry lips that he'd already tasted. Desire stirred in him, and he forced himself to look away.
With butter melting and popping in the pan, Mimi dumped the fiddleheads in. “I'm not eating this. No matter how angry you are at me. No matter how nice Terrence is to me, I'm not eating a spore.”
He laughed. “You're crazy.”
She kept her focus on the fiddleheads. “I'm sorry for opening my mouth again.”
“Why don't you shut it right now?”
Her head snapped up. “That's not a very nice thing to say.”
“Remember my fantasy?”
“My mouth?” she whispered.
“Yeah. So, unless you want to stir shit up, you should focus on the damn ferns.”
“You're thinking about my mouth, not how I suggested your dad produce Blue Fire's album?”
“That's right, sweet pants.”
As she sprinkled salt and pepper over the ferns, he came up behind her. His chest leaning into her back, he squeezed the juice from half a lemon into the mixture. “Still waiting to hear yours.”
“My fantasy?” She tipped her head up to look at him. “Yeah, that's not going to happen.”
“You know what else you need?” His mom barreled into the kitchen, heading straight for the pantry. “Baking soda.” She set the tub on the counter. “I think you should make a quick bread.” Picking a fiddlehead out of the pan, she popped it in her mouth. “Perfect. Take it off the flame now or it'll turn mushy.”
Mimi turned off the stove and dumped the fiddleheads onto a plate.
“Try one.” His mom grabbed a clean fork out of the dishwasher and stabbed one.
“I'd rather blanch my eyeballs.”
His mom looked between the plate and Mimi. Then between Mimi and Calix. “She serious?”
“Oh, she's very serious,” Mimi said.
“You're scared of a fiddlehead?”
“You see how tightly it's coiled?”
“Yeah.” His mom's tone held a challenge.
“How many bugs do you think are lodged in there?”
His mom stared at Mimi. “Are you fucking with me?”
“I am in no way fucking with you. I'm not eating that. If an alien spacecraft slammed into Earth destroying the ecosystems, leaving us with nothing but fiddleheads to eat, I'd go all-out cannibal. No remorse.”
For one strange moment, his mom seemed to take in all that Mimi had just said. And then she threw her head back and laughed. A deep, throaty laugh.
A sound he hadn't heard in three long, painful years.
“You're a riot.” She shook her head. “All right, screw the fiddleheads.” She picked up the baking soda and slammed it back down on the counter. “Focus on this. The point of making a quick bread is so you get the chemistry of what's happening here. Baking soda combined with an acidâand that could be cream of tartar or buttermilk, yogurt, or vinegarâcreates bubbles from the carbon dioxide gas that the two produce.”
Calix smiled. His mom had loved homeschooling them.
“So, that's why the bread rises,” Mimi said.
“That's right. And since the baking soda reacts as soon as it hits the liquid, you're going to add it to the dry ingredients first. Okay, so let's talk about what goes into a quick bread.”
Calix leaned back against the counter, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and texted his dad.Mom's giving Mimi a cooking lesson.
His dad responded right away.Yeah?
Mimi told me what she said. You as producer.
Thinking on it.
You think Mom can handle it?
I'll talk to her tonight.
But do you think she can handle it?
Think she can handle anything.
He didn't know about that, but he did think his dad should take the gig with Blue Fire.
Because Calix would be around. He wasn't going anywhere.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Intheir home studio, Calix and his brother jammed to Robert Johnson'sCrossroads. The pads of his fingers hurt from not having played guitar in too damn long, but he hadn't had this much fun with Gus in years.
Watching him, Calix realized Mimi was right. Gusbelonged in the music industry. Nothing made him happier. And what better way to give him exposure and experience than a studio that was half an hour from home? Therewasn'ta better opportunity.
The door opened. For some reason, he'd expected to see his dad, ready to jam with them. Which would've been awesomeâanother thing that hadn't happened in years.
But it was Mimi. Her mouth moved, but he couldn't hear her. When he lowered the volume, he heard his brother singing in a strained and raspy voice. Fuck, man, it felt good to see Gus lost in the music.
He gave Mimi a chin nod. “What's up?”
“Hey, sorry to bother you. Iâ”
“Oh, hey, Meems.” Gus swiped the hair out of his eyes.
“You don't have any dark rum, so I wonder if I could borrow your truck to go to the store?”
“You drive?” Gus's tone was teasing.
“I drive a little. I just don't have a car because I live in the city.”
“You've been living on the farm for a year.” Calix had always wondered about that.
“Yeah, but it's temporary. Just until I get a job. So, can I borrow your truck?”
“What do you need rum for? Isn't your lesson over?” He'd told his mom he had shit to do, so she could take over. But the lesson should've ended a while ago.
With a proud smile, she said, “I'm showing your mom how to make my nonna'stiramisu. Without a recipe, I might add.”
“Don't you have to cook dinner for the band?”
“What's your problem?” Gus smacked him on the arm.
“What? She's got a job.” He knew how seriously Mimi took her cooking gig.
“She's working withMom.”
“Yeah, I know that.” But Mimi mattered, too. Whatever. He dug into his pocket for his keys. “Here.”
“She doesn't drive.” Gus got up.
“No, Idodrive.” She sounded tentative.
“When was the last time you got behind the wheel?” But Gus just laughed. “It's cool. I'll go. You need anything else?”
“No, just rum. You don't mind?”
“Nah. I got plans anyhow, so I'll just pick up the rum and drop it back here real quick.”
“Okay, thanks.” Mimi gave him a warm smile.
Calix set his Les Paul on the stand. “What plans?”
His brother gave him a defiant look. “With Laney.”
“Laney? Thought you couldn't wait to get away from her.”
“Yeah, well. I've been talking to her. I like her.”
“You can't be serious. She's been with everyone.”
“Fuck you.” His features flushed, and he set his guitar in the stand.
Calix grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “She's trouble. You know that.”
“She's fun.” Muscles strained in his neck, Gus gave him a challenging look. “And she lets me do anything to her.” He shot a sheepish look to Mimi. “Sorry, Mimi.”
“No, don't be. I'll leave you two.”
“Don't bother.” Gus stalked toward the door. “I'm out of here.”
“Gus, come on. You can have any girl you want.”
“Yeah? That's great. Because I wanther. And another thing you should know. She's got a friend in a band, and they need my help. I'm going to do some mixing for them.”
“As soon as Blue Fire finds another producer, you'll get your job back.”
“Yeah, okay, cool, but until that happens, I'm gonna help this band out.” Gus reached the door.
“Gus.” Frustration had him snapping. “Hang on.”
In that moment, he could see his brother's resolve to break out on his own. Long overdue, but still. Worrisome. Because, frankly, it was one thing to work with Blue Fire, another entirely to work with the kinds of guys Laney would hang out with.
“I love you, bro. I love Mom,” Gus said. “But whatever we're doing here? It isn't working. And I'm gonna fuckin' blow my brains out if I don't start doin' something that matters to me.” He gave Mimi an apologetic look. She rubbed his arm, gave it a squeeze, and then he was gone.
With an uncomfortable sense of foreboding, Calix shut down the stereo. Arms wrapped around him from behind. And just that simple gesture made him want to lean into her, share some of this terrible weight he carried. Because he was torn.
His brother was wrong. Itwasworking. Their mom was alive, wasn't she? Every night he found her working in the studio was a victory.
But Gus was also indisputably right. Because in three years nothing had changed. She still avoided family time. Still slept in the guest bedroom.
So what the hell was he supposed to do?
Mimi's scent floated around him, and it made him want to lose himself in her.
“Calix,” she whispered.
That voiceÂ .Â .Â . Jesus, he wanted nothing more than to turn in her arms, strip off her clothes, and fuck her until they both collasped.
And as long as he was being honest, no one else would do.
“I was wrong.” She tightened her hold. “You don't skim at all. You go deeper than anyone I know.”
She was treading on dangerous ground. He tried to pry her arms off him, but she wouldn't let go.
“You're so deep into your family, there's nothing left to give. Not to your friends, or women, or even to music.”
“Nothing else matters.”
“Yeah, it does. You don't see it because you're so consumed with blaming yourself. But you have to know shutting down your lives isn't helping your mom. It's not giving her a reason to live. Howcouldit?” She pulled backânot letting him go, but shifting to face himâand cupped his jaw. “Calix, please listen to me. It's not your fault.”
She didn't get it. “We've already talked about this. I don't blame myself.”
She tapped his temple. “In here you don't.” Then, she patted his heart. “But in here you do. Look, I can only tell you what I see. And I see a man who's doing penance for destroying his family. You think it's on you to single-handedly keep everyone together because you took your eyesoff Hopper. But it's not working, because thereis nopenance to do. He didn't die because you were talking to a record company executive. He didn't die because you brought your parents to that music festival. He died because bad things happen.”
He turned away from her. “Yeah, I got that. We all get that.”
But she grabbed him back. “No, you don't. Because if you did, you'd be living. You're stuck in that one moment you can't take back.”
“You don't know what you're talking about. If we all go back to our lives, then what's my mom's reason to get out of bed?”
“No offense, but you're not the reason she gets out of bed. She can barely stand to be around any of you. And not because she doesn't love you, but because she's in pain. She wants to crawl into a cool, dark cave and just grieve.”
Yes. The truth in her words stripped him raw. Sleeping in the guest bedroom was his mom's cave. How had he never seen it like that before?
“But she can't. Not while you're constantly coaxing her out.”
“If you think I can walk awayÂ .Â .Â . I'm telling you right now you can forget it. If anything happened, I couldn't live with myself.”
She took a deep breath, gave him a serious look. “Hopper would hate the silence in this house. He'd hate the way everyone stopped living. Do right by your brother and live your life. If you believe in heaven or an afterlife or any kind of enduring soul, live the life that would bring that beautiful smile to his face.”
She started out the door, and damn it all to hell but he could not let her go.
Swinging around, he lunged to catch up with her and caught her arm. “Why won't you just mind your own damn business?”
“I don't know.” Her tone sounded pleading. “I know I should, but it hurts me to see you like this.” She took in a shaky breath, the tips of her fingers touching her mouth.
“Goddamn that mouth.” No matter how hard he tried to keep his distance, this woman had gotten in. In a way no one else ever had. He hauled her against him and kissed her.
And fuck, did he need her. That mouth, so warm, so soft, Jesus, he wanted to sink inside her and never come out. She tasted like vanilla, and she smelled like elegance. He had to have more. Had to. His hands slid down her back, curving over her ass and squeezing. She gasped as his cock pressed into her stomach.
But he couldn't stop. He needed more, so he lifted her and pressed her back against the wall. Her legs wrapped around his hips, and she ground against him. Mimi Romano. Fuck him, she made him wild.
Desire spiked so hard and fast, he got swept under. Their hips rocked in a rhythm that worked him into a frenzy of need. And that lush mouth, so soft and warm and wet, turned his bones to liquid.
When he thrust up high and hard, striking right at her core, she pulled her mouth off his. “Okay, okay.” She struggled to get out of his hold. “Stop. Calix, God. We have to stop doing this.”
Stop? Yeah, he'd tried that. But he couldn't. He just couldn't get enough of her. “Date me.”
“You don't date.”
“I want to dateyou.” He pressed another hot kiss on her mouth. “I need more.”
She gazed up at him with a wary expression, but his resolve never wavered. Her hands slid into his hair, cupping the sides of his head. “Yes.”CHAPTER TEN
Every time Mimi remembered the kiss, a zing shot through her. God, he was so intense. He kissed her like he couldn't get close enough, deep enough. And she loved it.
As she walked along the side of the road, careful to mind the ruts in the grass, she kept thinking about what he'd said.I need more. He had no idea how happy that had made her.
She just didn't know what this date meant to him. Nothing between them had been casualâeach kiss had ripped her wide open, each conversation had been deep and rich and real. But what if a date just meant sex?
Wouldshe have sex with him? Knowing he didn't want a relationship, knowing he had nothing to give beyond one single hookupâor even a couple hookupsâwould she be okay with that? She'd have to look at it as fulfilling a fantasy.
Yeah, no, that wouldn't work for her. Sex to grow closerÂ .Â .Â . definitely. But Calix didn't want to explore feelings. Sex was a distraction for him. She didn't want to be someone's distraction.
A truck roared past, music blaring, girls laughing, and she moved farther onto the grass. She loved her walk to work. Inthis second week of May, the air had grown warmer, which meant more people were out jogging and riding bikes.
In Eden's Landing the pier and the small town around it were the hub of the neighborhood, so all traffic tended to move in that direction. A very cool coffeehouse, an old school grocer, an artist's co-op, and an appliance repair shop made up the bulk of businesses on Main Street. In warmer weather, local vendors sold their wares on the pier.
What would a date with Calix look like? An uneasy feeling snaked through her when she imagined hanging out with his friends at the beach. That wasn't really her idea of funâdrinking, getting high, hooking up. But then he wouldn't enjoy her idea of fun, now would he?
Only, what was her idea of fun these days? Her days of clubbing and dining out had ended months ago. And funny thing, she hadn't missed them at all. She loved living out here with the band. They hung out, jammed, had dinners on the beach. They liked each other and didn't need much more than their instruments to have fun.
Imagine if Calix joined Blue Fire. Him, his dad, Gusâif both worlds merged. That would be awesome.
As she headed up Slater and Emmie's driveway, she wondered about the trucks parked in front of the house. A bunch of people jammed on aluminum lawn chairs outside the open garage.
She saw Gus among them and waved. He handed his guitar off to the woman next to him and headed toward her with a huge grin. “Hey, Meems.”
“You guys are back at work?” she asked.
“Just for a few days.”
“Who're those people?”
“My dad thought it'd be cool to add a tumbao drum pattern to a couple of the songs, so they're trying it out.”
“It's an Afro-Cuban drumset groove.”
“How fun is that?”
“Very. Actually, it was Calix's idea. He suggested my dad step in for a few days, record some tracks. See if he fits with the band.”
“That's a great idea.” Damn, Calix kept surprising her. “Well, you have fun. I'll see you at lunch.”
She loved that Calix sincerely wanted what was best for his family. He didn't have some hidden agenda, wasn't some kind of control freak. His sole focus was on healing his family, and he'd do whatever it took.
As she climbed the steps to the back door, she felt a pinch in her heart. She was in trouble. She was falling for himâhardâbut all those qualities she loved about him? They were reserved for his family. She got to witness all that intense loyalty and devotion, his kindness and generosityâhis deep, powerful loveâbut she didn't think he'd ever shine it on her. Yeah, he couldn't keep his hands off her when they were in the same room, but the moment he got away from her, he cooled. He had time to remember what mattered to him.
Would she ever matter to him? She hadn't even turned on her phone this morning for fear she'd find a text telling her about some plans he'd “forgotten about,” blowing off their date.
She opened the back door, kicked off her flats, and tossed her jacket on the table. The kitchen smelledÂ .Â .Â . well, like a flower shop. She stepped into it andOh, my God, there were flowers everywhere.
Maybe Emmie and Slater had announced their pregnancy. Slater was such a sweetheart to do this for her. God, he loved his woman.
She needed to get cooking, but she didn't want to disturb the flowers. What if Emmie hadn't seen them yet? She pulled out her phone to take a picture.Holy cow, look at this.It was fantastic. Wildflowers in all kinds of blues, purples, and pinks were scattered on counters, on the island, all over the kitchen table. It was gorgeousâand the display was incredibly artistic. Slater had obviously taken time to arrange them just so.
Setting her phone on the bay window behind the sink, Mimi turned her thoughts to the day's agenda. Since she had another lesson with Calix that afternoon, she thought she'd make a boeuf bourguignon in the slow cooker. She hoped they had a nice Bordeaux around.
As she plugged in the Crock-Pot, she noticed a vase witha spray of fragrant beach roses. A white card propped up against it.
Wait a minute. Someone had done this forher? Before opening it, she held it to her chest, taking in the flowers covering every surface. She dared to hopeÂ .Â .Â . Calix? She unfolded the card.
When I wake up I'm wondering when I'll see you
When I'm working I picture your smile
When I'm with you I can feel my heart beating
And before I fall asleep I wish like hell I hadn't skimmed over you
I don't want to skim. Not with you.
I want more.
Will you give me more?
Mimi closed her eyes, letting the words sink in. She got swept back into the hunger of his kiss and the urgency of his hands pulling her closer.
Now that she knew himâthat he was locked down, heart, mind, and soul, from that one single moment when Hopper wandered away from him backstage at the concertâthis dateâthis gestureâmeant everything to her.
As hard as it was for him, he was opening, letting her in. And she wanted to honor that. To be so good for him.
Yanking open the desk drawer, she pulled out a pen, tore a yellow Post-it off the stack, and wrote,
Yes, yes, yes!
Could he do it, though? Stick with her and not shut down? Because she'd give him everything she hadâshe just didn't know how much he could give in return.
Time spent with her tripped his anxiety. Made him feel like he was taking his attention off his familyâleaving his mom vulnerable.
As much as she wanted to throw herself in, she had to hold back. Because Calix Bourbonâhe was a risk to her heart. A big one.
Butcome on. He was a risk she had to take.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Mimiwound up getting to the Bourbon house early so she and Lee could brainstorm ideas for the wedding. All she'd had to do was mention the event for Lee to jump right in and offer to help. Which was a big relief, given the short time frame.
Laptop open on the table, they sat side by side searching for menus.
“Okay, magical food to go with magical decor.” Lee typed the words.
“Really? We're puttingmagical foodinto a search engine?” When Lee shot her a look, Mimi said, “What do you think is going to come up, exactly?”
“Well, see right here.” Lee tapped the screen. “Anchovies, artichoke, asparagusâall these ingredients draw on magical elements to make your wishes come true.”
“Uh, yeah, Lee. Look a little closer. Those ingredients draw lust.” That was something she most definitely didn't need to know how to drawâshe had loads of it. No, she needed to find actual menus. She was doing double-duty here. Planning the menu all while learning as much as she could for the competition.
“Exactly. And lust is totally magical.”
“At a wedding reception? Wouldn't that be called an orgy?”
“Oh, look, bananas draw sex.”
“Really?” Mimi reached for the fruit basket. She pulled a banana off the bunch and peeled it, taking a huge bite. She chomped loudly, openmouthed, and moaning. “Oh, mm, yes, yes, yes!” She slapped her palm on the table.
“See? It works.” Lee laughed, grabbed it from her. “Told ya. Let's eat everything on the list so we can get lucky tonight.”
Actually, she might be getting lucky anyway. But she wouldn't tell Lee about her date. Not yet anyway.
“Okay.” She dragged the computer toward her. “I think we're done with magical foods.”
Lee stabbed a finger at the screen. “Wait. Look, whipped cream is joy and celebration. We're totally serving pears and bananas with whipped cream. It's like Utopia in a bowl.”
“Give me the computer. You've lost any tech cred you might have had.” Mimi typed inwedding reception menus.
Lee made a snoring sound. “There's nothing magical about a garden salad and chicken marsala. Bo-ring.”
“We can take a basic dish and turn it into something amazing. Besides, Violet's not talking about the menu. She wants the dÃ©cor to be magical.”
The creak of a door let her know Jo was back from her walk.
“Okay, forget menus for the moment.” Lee pushed the laptop aside. “Let's start with the basics. Do you want a sit-down meal?”
“That seems too fussy, don't you think?”
“Not if we put Hobbit ears on the waitstaff.”
“Oh, my God, you think maybe you're taking this whole magical idea too far?”
“It's literally the only thing you gave me to work with.” Lee bumped shoulders with her. “You're doing Italian desserts, why not just do Italian food? Make it the theme.”
“Okay,” Mimi said in a fake happy voice. “And everyone will wear togas and gladiator sandals.”
Lee pinched her. “You don't have to be a brat. It's a wedding. Shouldn't weddings have themes? Color schemes?”
“That's horseshit.” Jo stood behind them.
“Say what you really think, Mom.” Lee sat back in her chair.
“Just because you're doing Italian desserts doesn't mean you have to serve Italian food. What do they like? The bride and groom?”
“The only information we have from Mimi is that the bride wants a magical wedding.”
Jo headed for the refrigerator. “Well, that narrows the field.”
“If we show you some menus, will you give us suggestions?” Lee asked.
“No.” She sounded bored, yet she grabbed her yogurt and came right back to them.
“Come on, Mom. You're good at this stuff.”
“I've never planned a wedding in my life. Your dad and I eloped.” She grabbed a spoon out of the silverware drawer. “You don't need to look at menus. Keep it simple. Good, clean food.”
“Like what?” Lee asked.
Jo sighed, like she was put out, but she dragged a chair closer. Mimi and Lee scooted over, making room for her. Once seated, Jo angled the computer in her direction. “You got pictures of them?”
“The bride and groom? Yep.” As Mimi logged into her Facebook account, the front door banged shut. Boots pounded on the hardwood floor.
“Ma?” Calix called.
A wave of excitement rolled through her, but Mimi stayed focused on her laptop.
“Kitchen,” Jo said.
Keeping her cool, Mimi pulled up pictures of the band at a picnic dinner last September. Jo leaned closer as Mimi clicked through them. “Anything else?” Jo asked.
“Yeah, sure.” Mimi opened an album from last Christmas when Derek had proposed to Violet. The band had gathered around to sing her a song. It was the most romantic proposal Mimi had ever seen.
Calix came into the kitchen. “Hey, Ma.” He squeezed her shoulder. When his gaze landed on Mimi, heat unfurled from her core, spreading in a slow climb up her chest.
That big, dark-eyed man leaned forward, right across his mom, and brushed a soft kiss on Mimi's cheek. Holy hell. Mimi thought she'd go up in flames.
Lee's eyebrows lifted practically to her hairline, and she pushed the half-eaten banana toward Mimi, who laughed,shaking her head. But her cheeks still felt heated. She couldn't believe Calix would show her affection in front of his family.
Her heart fluttered wildly. More than anything, she wanted this kind of intimacy with him. To behis.
But did he want that?
He'd made it clear hedidn't. So what was he doing?
Hang on. Just because she went all in didn't mean everyone did. She had to give him a chance. Reaching into the back pocket of her jeans, she pulled out the note she'd written him.
“Ready for your cooking lesson?” he asked.
“In a minute,” Jo said. “She's working on a menu for the wedding.”
“Did they set a date yet?” he asked.
“That's in two weeks,” Jo said. “Is that enough time to get everything done?”
“We're going to keep it simple,” Mimi said. “Violet doesn't want a big production.”
“No, she only wants magic.” Lee gave Mimi a teasing look.
Calix stared into the refrigerator. While he looked like he was deciding what he wanted, she suspected his attention was trained on his mom and her interest in the conversation.
“Then we'll have to keep the ceremony short and sweet.”
Mimi cut a glance to Calix at his mom's use of the wordwe. He turned at the exact same moment. A hint of a smile on his beautiful mouth made her soar.
She wanted so much more than sex with him. She wanted love.
Her skin tightened at the thought of Calix letting her in all the way. Pouring all that devotion and loyalty on her. That love. She wanted that so much.
Calix pulled out a glass container of the leftover gnocchi she'd made for dinner the night before.
“Hey, that's mine.” Lee got up and tried to snatch it out of her brother's hands. He just laughed and held it over her head. “She brought that over for me.”
“Uh-huh.” He shoved it in the microwave.
“You make that from scratch?” Jo asked.
Mimi nodded. “It's one of my nonna's recipes.”
Calix popped the door open before the gnocchi could heat through. Stabbing one with a fork, he shoved it in his mouth. “Damn, this is good.” He leaned against the counter, long legs crossed in front of him.
Done with the computer, Jo sat back in her chair. “So, here's my suggestion. I'd have comfort food. That's what I get from looking at those pictures and hearing you talk about them. Make it a homemade kind of event, a buffet. Mac and cheese, brioche rolls, slow-cooked tenderloin, stuff like that.”
“I like it.”
“Where's the magic in mac and cheese?” Lee said.
“The magic's in the mood, babe.” Jo's chair scraped back as she got up. “The dÃ©cor. And that's what you should be thinking about. Let Mimi take care of the foodâthat's what she's good at.”
She was? Mimi felt ridiculously happy to hear Jo's confidence in her.
But at the same time she couldn't help thinking about her dad. It was so easy for this family to jump in and support her. Spend all this time helping her. But her own father couldn't?
“Hey, Ma. Got a question.” Calix set the gnocchi down. “Since we went over the five ingredients yesterday, I thought today we'd give her a challenge that'll make her use them.”
“Okay. You got any ideas?” Jo asked.
“Not really. Do you?” Calix seemed to hold his breath, all his hope for his family tied up in his mom's interest in coming back to the kitchen.
And Mimi could see how much Jo wanted to please her children. But she could also see a woman who desperately needed to be left alone. And unless Mimi was reading this all wrong, no one was letting Jo grieve in her own way, in her own time. Trying to please her family was possibly draining her of whatever energy she had left.
And suddenly this whole plan felt very wrong.
“Yeah, sure,” Jo said. “I can help.”
For one moment, Calix just stood there, his vulnerability as clear as a little boy's. “Great. Let's do this.” He steppedaside as his mom leaned into the refrigerator and started pulling out ingredients.
He came up behind Mimi, giving her hip a hard squeeze. She smiled, refusing to take away from his moment of victory.
And that's when she remembered the note. She handed it to him.
He opened it, read it, and then his features bloomed into a genuine and unfettered smile. It was beautiful.
Needing to help Jo, she started to pull away, but he took both her shoulders, turned her toward him, and planted a hard kiss on her mouth.
“Tonight,” she whispered.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Lyingside by side, gazing up at a sky full of glittering stars, they held hands.
He makes it so damn hard for me to hold back.
He'd shown up at the farm with his hair still damp from a shower and a box of homemade truffles and driven her out to the lighthouse in Montauk. Since the park closed at four thirty in May, they'd parked along the side of the dark road and walked in with their blanket and picnic basket.
For a guy who didn't date, Calix had created an award-winning one.
But hope was a dangerously compelling drug. The naÃ¯ve girl in her was jumping up and down on her bed, screaming into a pillow.He's totally into me!But the experienced woman warned her that he could only give so much before turning back into Mr. Stoic.
She didn't come first.
UnlessÂ .Â .Â . maybe this date meant they were past that now?
Stop worrying about it and just be here now.
With the taste of dark chocolate still on her tongue and the steady crash of waves as background music, Mimi rolled to her side to face him.
“So, why homeschooling? Why not public school?” His family seemed isolated enough on all that land. She'd think his parents would want to socialize their kids.
He turned toward her with a mischievous smile. “Oh, I started out in public school. It lasted until second grade.”
“Ah, so the deviant behavior started way back then, huh?”
“How do you know it wasn't my superpowers that set me apart?”
“Ooh, I love a man with superpowers. Especially if he's like Captain Marvel. I always wanted to date a dude with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Please tell me that's your real identity?”
“Thanks, Meems. Way to emasculate a guy.”
“Oh, don't worry. You've got a superpower. Believe me, I've seen it.”
“Yeah?” He made a show of adjusting his dick. “Is that why you went out with me? To get some of this superpower?”
When he smiled like that, the dimples bracketing his mouth came out. And made her go all gooey inside.
Can I kiss him yet?
“Okay, Shazam. Settle down. Back to the homeschooling story.”
“I think you can guess why. Shit my parents saw.” He paused. “They lived hard and fast, and bad things happened. They wanted a safer world for us.”
“By bad things, do you mean sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll?”
“Sure, but it's easy to put that stamp on it. The reality, thoughÂ .Â .Â . the reality's they lost their friends to overdoses, AIDS, all kinds of shit. I think the worst, though, was the bus crash.” He looked at her, as if asking whether she knew about it.
“Happened back in 'ninety-two. One of their tour buses ran off the road. Four roadies and their manager died.”
“Yeah. Up until that, they'd had bad experiences. Accountants taking advantage of them, betrayals, a close friend OD'ing. But the crash, that was it for my mom. She wanted out. A clean slate. They moved out here and basically reinvented themselves.”
“And created this world for their children to grow up in.”
God, and then she'd lost her boy. But Mimi didn't want to darken their date, so she steered the conversation in a different direction. “I wanted a big family like yours. You know how when you're little and you blow out the candles on your birthday cake? And your parents are all, âMake it a good one, make it matter'?”
He grabbed her hand and brought it to his thigh. “No. In my family we don't make wishes. We make shit happen.”
“Is that on the Bourbon family crest?”
“If we had one, it would be.” Another of his toe-curling smiles. “So what was your wish? Unless you can't tell me because if you do, it won't happen.”
“It's too late for that. It already didn't happen.”
“What'd you wish for?” He rolled onto his side, tucking an arm under his head.
“I'd close my eyes and wish with all my might for a big, happy family. That's all I wanted. Every time I went to the playground, I'd spend more time watching other families than playing. Or at the beach, I'd be building a sandcastle with my mom or my nanny, and all around me kids were playing together, fighting, crying. But they had each other, you know?”
“Yeah. I know.” His voice whispered across her skin like a caress.
“I remember being on my perfectly clean beach blanket with my little take-out containers from Mirabelle's. And next to us was this huge encampment, a couple of moms and all their kids. One kid cried because he had sand in his sandwich, another squirted her juice box at everyone, making kids scatter and moms yell. And I was so freaking jealous. I just wanted to be in the middle of that chaos, because I imagined that when they got home, they'd curl up on the couch together and watch a movie, sharing popcorn, getting into bed with each other and telling secrets. I hated going to bed. Hated it. I'd be all alone in my bedroom with a head full of thoughts I was dying to share.”
“You seem tight with your mom.”
“We're close now. But I think she spent too many years trying to figure out her place in the world. She married my dad right out of college and got pregnant right away. She never got a career going. As soon as I started school, she had all this time to fill. Lunches and tennis, that wasn't her thing. So she joined boards and committees, trying to fill the void. But I guess she didn't figure out until later that, once you get locked into those roles, they become all-consuming. And I think she felt pretty crappy about it since she'd wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. She was just all kinds of unhappy. And, you know, she wasn't home much. My dad wasn't either, so it was just really, incredibly lonely.”
The pity in his eyes made her regret going off like that. “Am I an awesome date or what?” She smiled. “I think I'm supposed to show you how I can tie a knot in the stem of a cherry with my tongue.”
“I never got that one. Is the message that she can do the same thing with my dick?”
“Nobody ties Shazam's dick in a knot.”
“See, right there? You give good date conversation.” He reached for a lock of hair that spilled across her cheek and tucked it back behind her ear, his fingertips lingering on the shell. “I like talking to you.”
Her skin hummed under his gentle touch. “Yeah. Me, too.”
“I like you.”
She could not get over how gorgeous this man was. “Yeah?”
Eyes bright and intense, he looked as if his whole body vibrated with emotion. “It's been a hard three years, and I've been holding on so tight. But then you come along and give me a different spin on things. Part of me wants to stick with what I've been doing because I'm so fucking scared my mom's gonna knock back another bottle of sleeping pills. But the other part of meÂ .Â .Â .” He let out a breath. “I know it's not working. I see her face when I make her come inside for dinner.” He closed his eyes. “I didn't get it before, but you're right. It'snotworking. Family dinners and all that aren't making her feel loved. It's making her sneak around. I've been going about it all wrong.”
“No, you haven't. You've tried one thing, and it's not working. So now you can try something different.” She cupped his cheek, caressing his chin with her thumb. “She knows you love her.”
“What if I try something different and it doesn't work?”
“Have you guys seen a therapist? Maybe it would help to talk to someone.”
One side of his mouth curled into a wry smile. “Bourbons don't roll like that.”
“Okay, then, have you at least talked to your mom?”
He had this dismissive expression, like she was crazy, and it made her laugh. “It never once occurred to you to ask your mom how she feels?”
“She doesn't want to talk about it.”
“Men.” She made a show of rolling her eyes. “All your worries could be put to rest if you just talked to her. Ask her what she wants. Tell her your concerns, and let her address them.”
“You're so beautiful, Mimi Romano.”
“Are we talking about my mouth again?”
“No. I meant in here.” He pressed his palm to her heart. “So fucking beautiful.”
The heated look he gave her filled her with want. And then he hooked his hand around the back of her neck and drew her close, giving her the softest, sweetest kiss. The slow tangle of his tongue, the wet heat of his mouthÂ .Â .Â . it was beautiful.
She ran her fingers through his chin whiskers and up his jaw until they sifted through his long, silky hair. He pushed closer to her, his body hot and hard, his kiss voluptuous.
His hand slipped under her shirt, gliding up her stomach to her breast, and he gave it a gentle squeeze. With a thrust of his hips, his erection hit her stomach. Lust speared through her, and she hooked a leg over his, binding their bodies together.
His hand pulled out of her shirt, slid around to her ass, and cupped it hard. “Jesus, Mimi.” His deep voice sounded rough as he squeezed her. “I gotta have you.”
When he came to the button of her jeans, he looked at her, asking permission, and she found his mouth again, giving itto him. The moment he had her jeans unzipped, his hand pushed down, cupping between her legs. She moaned, rocking into him. His finger stroked lightly over her underpants, and when he touched her clit, she gasped at the shower of fiery sparks.
With each flick over her sensitive nub, electricity pulsed through her. She needed more. She kissed him with her whole body, hands in his hair, leg hooked around his thigh, drawing him against her, tongue slow dancing with his. God, she was burning up, her legs trembling. His arm between them kept his erection from her, and she was going out of her mind with the need to feel him.
She pushed between their straining bodies, running the heel of her palm up his very hard length. He pulled his mouth off hers. “Fuck.” He dove back in for a kiss, taking her bottom lip into his mouth and sucking on it, as his hand shoved under the elastic of her panties and his finger found her slick heat.
Her back arched, and she gasped as he swirled around her nub. God, oh, God, she was writhing against him, the pleasure so intense. She couldn'tâoh, Godâ“Calix.” Her body clenched and then a moment later burst in pure sensual release. His strokes didn't let up, and she kept cresting and peakingâoh, yesâuntil she shuddered and collapsed against him. “Oh, my God.” She'd need a moment to catch her breath after that.
And, God, he smelled so good. She breathed in the distinctive scent of his skin and clean cotton of his T-shirt. She started to pull away, but he tightened his hold, grinding his erection into her stomach. She smiled into his neck when she remembered his fantasy.