Authors: Alexis Morgan
As soon as she asked the question, she wished she hadn't. “Sorry, Tino, that was thoughtless of me. You weren't exactly on a pleasure cruise.”
He set his plate to the side. “No need to apologize. I was in the army for close to ten years, and not all of it was in combat situations. When I was stationed in Italy, I did use some of my leave time to visit other parts of Europe. I also spent some time in Japan. When I was stationed stateside, I found it interesting to see how other folks live even here in our own country.”
She couldn't imagine the life he'd lived, such a far cry from anything she'd ever known. “Considering your dad was in the army, you must have also bounced around a lot as a kid, too.”
“Yeah, I did.”
As he spoke, an odd look flashed across Tino's face. It was gone too quickly for her to make sense of it, but maybe she'd only imagined it. “Did you always plan to come back to this area when you got out?”
“Pretty much. Except for my younger brother, my family is all here. And he comes home on leave whenever he can.” Tino took a long sip of his drink before continuing. “Unfortunately, my father passed away last year, which was the deciding factor on whether or not I reenlisted. I wanted to be close by for my mother's sake. None of us wanted her to be left alone while we stayed scattered all over the world.”
Interesting. Natalie's father took great pride in tracing his family's history back to the Revolutionary War, but he never talked about any of his relatives with the same degree of warmth she heard in Tino's voice when he mentioned his brothers and mother. “You're a nice man, Tino Gianelli.”
Did ex-soldiers blush easily? Because right now his cheeks looked a bit flushed even though his olive complexion made it hard to tell for sure. “I'm glad you think so, but I'm pretty sure my brothers would both take great delight in proving you wrong on that point. They could tell you stories that would curl your hair.”
Then he gave her unruly locks a pointed look. “Wait a minute. You haven't already been talking to them, have you?”
She'd always had a love-hate relationship with her hair, but she couldn't remember anyone ever teasing her about it with such genuine good humor. Twirling a strand around her forefinger, she gave him a smug look. “I'll never tell. On the other hand, maybe talking to them would have the opposite effect on me and actually straighten my hair. If I thought that would actually work, I'd be hunting down your brothers even as we speak. Where did you say they live?”
“I didn't. Besides, I like your hair just fine the way it is.”
Normally, she would have doubted that. God knows, Benton used to hint that there had to be something she could do to tone down her curls, but the sudden spark of heat in Tino's eyes made her think he might just mean what he said. A slow flutter of awareness danced along her nerve endings. What would it feel like to have his fingers tangle in her hair as he kissed her senseless? With luck, she might just find out before he took her home.
Whoops, she got caught lusting. Tino met her gaze head-on. “Keep looking at me like that, and we might not make it to that movie after all.”
Her eyes flared wide as his deep voice washed over her. She had the strangest feeling that he'd reached across the table to caress her skin with the lightest of touches. The sensation left her aching in certain places and hungry for more of the same.
Once again fate in the form of their waiter intervened. She wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed. “Here are your salads. Would either of you like freshly grated cheese or cracked pepper?”
She said yes to the cheese and no to the pepper; Tino asked for both. While the waiter took care of their requests, she decided she was glad for the distraction he provided. Just as she and her grandfather had discussed, she wasn't given to impulsive behavior. Even so, she was pretty sure Tino's picture was now next to the word
in her own personal dictionary.
And that thought added its own special spice to the meal they were sharing.
In the end, they lingered over dinner until it was too late to make the last showing of the film Tino had picked out. He was just as glad. Jack had been right about him hating subtitles, not that he would have admitted that to either his brother or Natalie. If it turned out that she had a thing for foreign films, he'd adjust somehow.
After the huge meal they'd eaten, wandering along the waterfront held more appeal. Walking hand in hand, they strolled along the sidewalk and watched the waves roll in on the beach below. Tino smiled down at Natalie. “You were right about the desserts, by the way. That lemon torte was amazing. I almost couldn't finish it, but it would have been a crime to let something that good go to waste.”
“Maybe I'll try it the next time.” Then she laughed. “Who am I kidding? I've never been able to resist the chocolate bread pudding.”
Time to step out on a limb. “That looked good, too. Maybe we can order one of each next time and share.”
“We could, but I'm not sure I could bring myself to share the chocolate.” She gave him a considering look. “Well, since it's you, I might be able to spare a bite or two. Little ones, though.”
Okay, then. At least she wasn't slamming the door on any future dates. That pleased him far more than it probably should. “Fair enough. Little bites of lemon for little bites of chocolate.”
She looked at him in mock disgust. “But you said you'd split your torte with me. Half your torte for two bites of my chocolate.”
When was the last time he'd laughed so much on a date? Maybe never. “Lady, you drive a hard bargain, but it's a deal.”
He realized she was shivering a bit from the chill of the night air. She'd put on a lacy sweater when they left the restaurant, but it clearly wasn't doing the job. He let go of her hand long enough to shrug off his sports coat and draped it over her shoulders.
“Is that better?”
She tugged the collar closer to her neck, clearly glad for the extra warmth it offered. “Yes, but don't you need it?”
“I'm fine for now. Besides, we should probably head back to the car pretty soon if I'm going to get you home at a reasonable hour.”
Not that he wanted to take her home at all. Well, unless she invited him in, but he suspected that wasn't going to happen. As disappointing as that might be, he wouldn't rush either of them into something they weren't ready for.
They stopped by a low wall to look out toward the water. A thick blanket of fog had rolled in from across the Sound, and the deep rumble of the foghorns on the ferries echoed across the water. He casually put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. “I've always loved that sound.”
Natalie leaned her head against the side of his chest. “Me, too. I don't like driving in the fog, but I was out on the ferry once when it was really thick. It was as if the rest of the world had disappeared. For that moment, nothing existed other than the boat and its passengers. Then all of a sudden, the lights of the ferry dock appeared out of nowhere. I tried to snap a few pictures, but they didn't do the moment justice.”
“The same thing seems to be happening right now.”
She looked around. “You're right. We can't even see the restaurant from here now.”
Which meant he was alone with a beautiful woman, the fog cocooning them from the rest of the world.
“I know we need to be leaving, but there's one more thing I want to do before we go.”
She asked the question, but the fact that she was staring wide-eyed at his mouth meant she already knew the answer and didn't mind. “I'm going to kiss you. If you don't want that to happen, you'd better speak up. Otherwise, brace yourself.”
Natalie laughed and immediately put her hands firmly on his waist. “Okay, I'm ready.”
He liked that she went along with the playful, no-pressure tone he'd hoped to set for this first kiss. In fact, he liked everything about her, another reason to keep things light on this first date. It was important not to scare her off by coming on too strong.
Going slow and savoring the moment, he brushed his lips across hers. She smiled and patiently waited for him to get down to business. Instead, he took another slow-motion trip from one corner of her mouth to the other. She moaned and rose higher on her toes, the movement bringing the two of them into closer contact. Her breasts settled against his chest and seriously undermined his self-control. Damn, he'd give anything to get his hands on those plump curves, to learn their weight and shape and, beyond that, their sweet taste on his tongue.
Rather than give in to that urge, he firmly anchored his hands right where her waist flared out to her hips as he deepened the kiss. When he teased her lips with the tip of his tongue, they immediately parted, opening to offer him a warm, wet welcome. She tasted like heavenâa mix of the wine they'd had with dessert, a hint of chocolate, and a whole lot like sweet, sweet woman.
Their tongues came together in a dark rhythm where they each took turns leading in the dance. Her fingers slowly worked their way up the front of his chest to find his shoulders. There, they dug in, pulling him down to her level and pushing him closer to the precipice. Despite his own resolve, his hands had somehow found their way to cup her bottom, the fit perfect. He cursed the layers of clothing between them that prevented him from exploring the silk of her skin firsthand.
But standing out here on the sidewalk certainly wasn't the place for that. The two of them might be alone for the moment, but there was no way of knowing how long that would last. They could always find someplace a helluva lot more private, but once again he reminded himself that it was too soon. He gently applied the brakes, slowing them down, banking the fires but still enjoying the heat from the coals. With luck, Natalie would taste his reluctance right along with his pleasure.
When they finally broke off the kiss completely, he briefly tucked her head against his chest, both of them breathing hard. He was at a total loss as to what to say next.
wasn't quite right, but neither was
Can we go somewhere else and pick up where we just left off?
Thank goodness Natalie stepped up to bat. “I'm really glad you told me to brace myself. Otherwise, I'm not sure my legs would still be supporting me right now.”
Her grin and peek-a-boo dimples hit just the right notes, telling him she'd enjoyed the kiss but that it was also time to move on. He did his best to match her lighthearted response.
“Come on, Cinderella, let's get you home. It will be the pumpkin hour before you know it.”
She slipped her hand into his as they made their way back to the restaurant parking lot, which was now deserted except for his car, another reminder of how late it had gotten. The drive back to her house was over all too soon. Tino accompanied Natalie up to her front door, each step of the way wishing like hell that he wasn't just seconds from walking away alone. Not to mention hard and hurting.
Natalie dug out her keys. “Thank you again for the wonderful evening, Tino.”
“You are welcome. I had a great time.”
And they could have an even better one if she'd invite him in. Maybe she was a mind reader, because she brought the subject up herself. “It's tempting to ask you if you'd like to come inside forâ¦well, you know for what.”
She paused to bite her lower lip before continuing, frowning up at him, her pretty eyes worried. “Not to give you my entire history, but I recently broke off an engagement to a man I went with for several years. You're not the first man I've gone out with since that happened, but you are the first man that I've considered inviting in.”
He took that for the compliment that it was and hushed her with a fingertip over her lips. “It's enough to know you were tempted.”
Then he kissed her again, deliberately keeping this one more happy than hungry. “Get some rest. I'm guessing you probably have a long day ahead of you and then that obligation you already had scheduled for tomorrow night.”
Damn, he hadn't meant to let that last part slip out. He had no right to ask what plans she had that precluded her from spending that time with him.
Once again, she answered the question he wouldn't ask. “I have to go to a cocktail party at an art gallery that's featuring a new artist whose work my mother really likes. To be honest, I'd just as soon give it a pass, especially when I have to be at the community center bright and early on Saturday, but I promised her.”
Tino brushed a lock of her hair back from her face. “The things we do for family.”
She unlocked her door and stepped inside. Tino hated even the thin barrier of the door coming between them. He needed to know for sure that she really did want to see him again, even if it was only because he knew how to patch drywall.
“Sorry about the cocktail party. Maybe it won't be all that bad. I also meant to tell you that if everything goes as scheduled tomorrow, I should be able to lend a hand at the center on Saturday. That is, if you want me to come.”
To lighten the moment, he waggled his eyebrows and added, “I could bring some other power tools for you to try out.”
Natalie's bright laughter rang out. “You sweet-talking man, I'll be counting the minutes.”
“I'll see you then.”
As he started back down the sidewalk, she called after him. “But for the record, Mr. Gianelli, I'd want you there even if you'd never picked up a hammer in your entire life. See you on Saturday.”
Okay, then. He'd be counting down the minutes, too. The only problem would be telling Jack that they had to finish up the job tomorrow come hell or high water. They should make it if they started early and stayed late. His brother would bitch and moan, but too damn bad. There was no way Tino was going to miss out on spending Saturday with Natalie even if he had to share her with all the other volunteers who showed up to help.