Authors: Holley Trent
He followed at a respectful distance, and leaned against the opposite counter once she’d settled in one place. “Nothing. You look gorgeous. I’m feeling a bit underdressed. Typical for me, though. My slovenliness is legendary. I even had a grunge phase you should be happy you missed.”
“You look fine,” she lied with a shrug. He looked better than fine. Stylish, even, in spite of the obvious lack of care he’d given to assembling his attire: a cerulean ringer tee, jeans slung low on his hips, and the abused Chucks he’d donned in Ireland. He looked as if some designer had made geek a trend. “I dressed up a little because I felt like a slob the last time you saw me.”
“That’s funny, I don’t remember what you were wearing.”
She scoffed and thrust a plate bearing two
out to him. “Thanks a
. Nice to know I’m not memorable.”
“Oh, you’re plenty memorable, darlin’,” he said with that grin. “I remember the shape of you, but not necessarily the packaging beyond the jeans. Lucky fucking jeans.” He set down his drink and took a bite of one fried fritter.
She froze, holding her breath as he chewed.
“Jesus Christ, what is that?”
Maybe they were too much. I should have kept it simple.
“Don’t like it?”
“Are you crazy? It’s delicious, but God, it’s rich.” Rich or not, he rolled several more onto his plate and walked away as if he feared she’d take them back.
“Well, these are ham ones.
, they’re called. A Cuban thing. They’ve got some onion and all kinds of nice stuff, all patted together and rolled in cracker meal.”
“God bless you Cubans.”
Her pulse, which had ratcheted up at his first bite, came down to a healthful level and her head felt less swimmy. Was she really trying to get this guy’s approval of her cooking? Hadn’t that been one of the things she’d told her mother she didn’t need or want?
“Glad you like ’em. Don’t fill up, though. That’s just the appetizer.”
“Why’d you make so many?”
She smiled as she peeked inside her
pot. She knew it then. It was because she had the care-for-you sickness like her mother. Fucking genetics. “Don’t know. Maybe I thought you were kind of skinny and needed fattening up.”
“You trying to plump me up for the slaughter or just trying to get me through the long winter? Either way, good luck. I’ve got the metabolism of a racehorse. Besides, I’m fat where it matters.”
It took a moment for the innuendo to settle in. Yes, he
. She giggled and turned down the flame under the food.
What the hell is wrong with you? Get it together. He’s just a geek.
She cleared her throat. “Uh, anything you
“I’ll try anything once, assuming it’s not being recommended by Seth. Never eat anything that man has been holding, by the way. You’ll regret it. His adventurous streak is wider than his sense of self-preservation.”
“Yikes. I’ll remember that. Uh…”
She was way out of her league. She’d never done much entertaining of men aside from Tate. He’d gotten to her when she was so young; there hadn’t been time for anyone else. Whenever he’d come over she’d beg him to take her out, because if they stayed home, his hands would be all over her. A few years into their so-called relationship, which was only exclusive on one end, she started feeling a lot like a blow-up doll. There was no substance, which made sense given how they’d met. Somehow, though, she’d thought their superficial early connection would become deeper.
It hadn’t. Although they’d broken up seven years ago, he’d still show up on her doorstep late nights looking for a thrill. And sometimes she was weak enough to let him in. She’d never felt so at peace until she’d taken sabbatical. Being away from him was the
vacation, one she was trying to make permanent. But right now, her concern was with her pleasure, for once. Not deep things. Deep was an unreasonable expectation.
“You want to sit at the table? I’ll bring you a little bit of everything.”
Curt pushed his glasses up and shrugged. “Sure.” He heaved himself up from the sofa, seeming very tired with the way he rolled his shoulders, and started for the table.
She willed her tone to be nonchalant and somehow managed. “I should have asked before so I’d know what to do about breakfast. Are you spending the night?”
He raised both eyebrows, a reaction that informed her unequivocally that he had given it absolutely no thought.
“It’s a long drive back, and I guess I didn’t think about how late you’d be here. It’s okay if you want to crash on my sofa–”
“Or in your bed?” he asked, voice flat, expression blase.
She opened her mouth, then closed it without saying a word. He hadn’t done anything beyond saying aloud what she’d been thinking. “If you want,” she managed.
“Only if you’re going to be in it with me, or have you forgotten you owe me certain carnal favors?”
“I haven’t forgotten. I just didn’t want to push you too fast. Wouldn’t do for you to wake up feeling like a slut tomorrow.”
Now he laughed so hard his shoulders shook and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened.
How old is he?
Suddenly, her guess seemed off.
“You gonna make me a slut, darlin’? Can’t wait to see what that involves.”
Air cleared, she relaxed a bit and continued loading plates, not that she thought she could eat a single bite.
“That looks wonderful,” he said as she set a plate in front of him. “Do you cook this way often?”
She shook her head and pushed her food across her plate rather than lifting it to her mouth. “Every now and then I get in the mood for some comfort food and I cook and cook and cook, then there’s so much waste. It’s nice to have someone to feed.”
“No family in the area?”
“No. Most of my US family is in Miami. Out of all my siblings, I really only talk to one of my sisters and even that’s dependent on how the stars are aligned. She likes to run her mouth to my parents, and frankly it’s none of their business what I…”
Are his eyes glazing? Shut up
“I ramble. Sorry.”
He stared wordlessly as he chewed, then set his fork down.
She held her breath, knowing down to her guts he was going to ask something she didn’t have the words to answer. Perhaps some follow-up about her isolation or a query about what wasn’t her sister’s business to spread around. He seemed to think better of it, though, because he raked his hair back from his eyes and retrieved his fork without comment.
She took his silence as a blessing, and changed the subject. “So, uh…math, huh? What do people do with that besides accounting?”
“Um.” He rolled the stem of his fork between his thumb and forefinger and stared at his plate. “The area of math I study is mostly about theory. Making predictions. That sort of thing.”
“Put it in dumb-dumb terms. I barely passed algebra.”
His lips quirked up and he returned his gaze to meet hers. “Okay. If given a specific scenario with a certain set of data, I can devise formulas which will predict a probable outcome. That may be in terms of money, population growth or decline, commodities. That sort of thing.”
“So…what do you want to be when you grow up? Stock analyst?”
That made him drop his fork and laugh. “Hell no. I didn’t really know what I’d do, specifically, until the university recruited me for my master’s studies.” He twirled the corner of his napkin between his thumb and forefinger as he mused. “I get my knack for math from my mother. She was an accountant. I’m more interested in consulting. Problem-solving.”
“What do you mean
? Is she…”
“No, no. She’s just...” He picked up his fork and dragged the tines through his rice. “She’s sort of between jobs right now.” Suddenly, his expression went dark.
Keep it light. Upbeat.
“How long does it take to earn a PhD in mathematics?”
He rolled his head back and groaned. “God. Whole bunch of factors play into that. Three years. Five. Ten. A hundred. I’ve been working on mine on and off for the past eight, nine years.”
“Wow. Are you kidding? I pegged you at around twenty-five. Little baby genius.”
“Hardly. I turned thirty-three in June.”
She stared at him, waiting for him to recant, but when he stopped staring at the ceiling and fixed his eyes on her once more, his expression was serious.
“You are not.”
“I am. Don’t look it?”
“Hell, no. You look
He tucked into his
with a shrug. “Good genes, I guess. My mother looks like a kid. Or maybe it’s all the alcohol. It’s probably preserving me from the inside out.”
“Oh!” She scrambled to her feet and hurried to her little bar to fetch another drink. “Sorry. Wouldn’t want you to go dry, especially since you’re not driving.”
He laughed as he accepted the drink. “You really thought I was that young, and you tried to pick me up anyway? You’re a bit young for a cougar, darlin’.”
“I don’t know what I thought. I was just…” She clamped her jaw before
could pass her lips.
From being on her own all those years, and even all those years with Tate, she’d learned it was absolutely possible to be depressingly lonely even when in the company of others. Sometimes, the loneliness was worse when she was around people. She’d even been lonely back in Miami in her family’s loud household. But, oddly enough, that pervasive feeling went away the moment two wild children knocked her on her ass in Maynooth. It’d taken that accidental, but genuine, interaction to wake her up, to make her want to engage. And this man with a devilish grin who didn’t want a damn thing from her called her on her bluff.
And that’s all it was, because Erica didn’t have a brazen bone in her body.
Now, there he was, and she enjoyed every minute of his company, but already the pretending made her tired.
What choice did she have?
“Are you serious? No, don’t!” Curt was too slow covering his face, judging by the way Erica had started giggling behind her camera. She’d gotten him in a shot.
He lay supine on her overstuffed sofa, full as a tick from her excellent cooking, and letting the low buzz of the television in the background put him in a pre-slumber haze. For him, it had been a damned good night. Of course he hadn’t noticed the minx sneaking away to fetch her camera. One minute she was at the sink washing the dishes she wouldn’t let him help with and he must have passed out for a moment, because the next thing he knew, there was a camera in front of him.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. You looked so relaxed.” She smiled down at her viewfinder, and it was a wonderful smile brought on by such a small thing. Even a misanthrope like him could admit it.
“It’s probably the only relaxing I’m going to get for a while. You regularly go around snapping pics of unsuspecting losers? Is that your ploy? Stuff ’em with food and then photograph them to within an inch of their lives? Then what do you do with the pictures? Is there some kind of fetish website? Overstuffed dot com, maybe?”
“No, believe it or not, I don’t really take too many candid shots of people I know. This is new for me. Also? I don’t like my fetishes to involve food.”
Nice to know she had some.
He sat up a bit and leaned against the sofa arm. “Oh yeah? How do I rate so high to get the special treatment?”
He guffawed. “Gorsh. If I got a haircut, would I cross over into the handsome realm?”
“What’s wrong with cute?”
“I’m thirty-three. Would you want to be called cute at thirty-three?”
She pursed her lips and stared at the ceiling’s acoustical plaster. “No. I think I might be too much of a diva.”
“See? And you’re not even thirty yet.”
“What would you rather I call you?”
Sitting up seemed a huge inconvenience and he groaned as he let his feet touch the floor. “How about
damned sexy beast
?” he said as he untied his shoes.
“I meant that.”
She fell into a fit of giggles that escalated to her covering her mouth with one hand and putting the camera down to spare it from injury.
Okay, maybe it was a little funny, so he grinned, too. He’d never met a woman quite like her. She was easy to read, shot straight from the hip. Didn’t play games. Her confidence was sexy as all get-out. Add that to the charm, the looks, the
. No woman had ever cooked much for him beyond the occasional pot of spaghetti, except Carla or sometimes Sharon. His mother burned toast.
His smile dissolved even as he thought of her back in Cork with Jenny. The furor had already started, and Jenny struggled to handle it. She wasn’t especially articulate and let the overly aggressive reporters trick her into answering questions she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to answer well.
He’d called her, just that afternoon, and told her to refer the journalists to him and to hang in there. They should get bored and go away soon, he figured. It’d felt like a lie even as he said it.
He pushed his shoes beside the chair and tried to expel thoughts of Mum. There was nothing he could do at the moment, and this visit was supposed to be about distraction. Sexy, violet-scented distraction.
When he looked up, he found Erica studying his face.
“You alright? You looked a million miles away.”
“Yeah, just…running numbers.” He tried for a smile again and found it wasn’t particularly difficult to manage, because the woman in front of him was just that spectacular. She’d make a good wife for someone. Hell, given enough time, she could probably whip
into shape, but he wouldn’t do that to her. It was a tall order.
“Do you want some dessert?”
He barked his laughter. “Fuck no, woman! Where would I put it?”
The pout was phony as hell, but he still hated seeing it on her. “Will it keep until tomorrow?”