Authors: Melissa Whittle
Tags: #aa romance, #series, #small town, #ptsd, #grief, #bakery, #coffee shop, #Alpha Hero Romance, #business partners, #Melissa Blue, #contemporary romance, #multicultural romance
“We’re not that unbalanced.” Emma shifted.
“What’s your excuse?” Sasha brushed the eye shadow in the corner of Emma’s eyelid.
“I thought it was Sean,” Emma said. Something Abigail and Sasha had stated many times before when a man didn’t meet her expectations.
Sasha pulled back and frowned at her, and then leaned forward to apply more shadow. “It’s not all Sean.”
It was and it wasn’t what happened with her parents. To be frank, she didn’t know what held her back. Fear? No. She thought about it and finally settled on one theory.
“Men just not living up to their hype,” Emma said. “Things look so good on the first date. The second date isn’t so bad, and then on the third the closet filled with skeletons is left partially open. I get a peek and I’m just not going to commit to what else might be in there. That’s not a personality flaw. It’s not fear of commitment. It’s common sense to know what you can and cannot deal with.”
“He could be the man for you.” Abigail had the hard sell tone. “The one that is so perfect for you, but you don’t give him the chance.”
“Men do it all the time.” Emma made sure to keep still while Sasha applied liner. “Take one look at a woman and then think nah. It should be my right to get to know a man better and think he’s not worth the trouble. I don’t want his baggage. Mine is heavy enough.”
“Maybe you should put down your baggage.” Sasha had the large brush and was blending in the make-up. “Open.” She smiled. “Hush for a moment.” She applied a stain, and then gloss to her lips. “Now hair.”
Emma turned around. “I don’t have a lot of baggage.” But the words felt heavy with the weight of them. “I know what I do and don’t want.”
“Makes you picky.” Abigail’s tone hadn’t changed from the hard sell, but she scooted off the bed and moved closer to the pair. “It’s the one thing I always liked about you.” She smiled. “Otherwise, you would have just been too nice.”
Emma snorted and touched Sasha’s arm. “I wanted to be like you guys. Languid and mysterious, outspoken and so open about everything.”
“Yeah, well, I still think you’re wrong about Tobias.” Abigail paced the room as if the energy inside her couldn’t let her be still.
“You just have a soft spot for a bad boy.” Sasha pulled the hair at the nape of her neck. Emma winced, but already her oval-shaped face had an angular appearance.
“I don’t think he’s ever broken a rule in his life,” Emma said.
“The bad boy thing is about the sense of danger.” Abigail sighed as she explained. “Now if you find one that makes you feel safe all the better. I think you’ve found one.”
Emma tried not to fidget as Sasha stuck in pins to keep her hair in the tousled, bed-head style. “Did I tell you what he said to me after that first and only mind-blowing kiss?”
“What?” they both asked.
“Why are you naked? Does that sound like a bad boy type? Dangerous and Tobias are antonyms, which is fine. He is who he is. That’s the guy I want to sl—be friends with and date occasionally. That’s it, why should I have to commit to forever because he’s nice?”
“No one said you had to,” Sasha’s voice was soothing. “There.”
Sasha had applied eye shadow that made Emma’s eyes look amber. “I think you went into the wrong field. You should have been a hair and make-up artist. Thanks, hon.”
Irritation spiked through her chest. “Can we get through the first date before you marry me off?”
“I’m harping.” Abigail worried her lip. “I’m sorry. I’m seeing happily ever afters everywhere I look and hoping that when I look really hard at my relationship, I’ll know it and see it.”
“Does he make you happy right now, today?” Emma cut to the heart of the matter.
“Is the relationship getting that sour stale feel?” Emma said.
“Then there’s nothing for you to worry about.” She flitted her hand up and down. “Move in.”
“You’re going to be late.” Sasha gave her a little push. “I’ll deal with the neurosis. You have fun with your straight-arrow bad boy.”
Emma grabbed her purse from the floor where she’d dropped it earlier. “That’s an oxymoron.”
“Go,” they both said.
“You look nice,” Tobias said though his gaze said something else entirely.
He stepped back to let her into his home. There was a short hallway that opened into a living. Outside of the dark gray carpet and the white walls, everything had a black on black motif, with, maybe, a touch of red. There was also a huge painting that covered most of one wall. White canvas with splotches of red. It was an astonishing vocal point.
Emma smirked at him and handed over the pie. “You seem to like black.”
A corner of his mouth started to lift but he only shook his head as he took the dessert. “I promise the other rooms have color.”
With his hand on the small of her back, he guided her through the living room into a kitchen that made her gasp. There wasn’t an island in the middle of the room, but a limitless amount of counter space made up for it. And the
She stepped forward and had to stop herself from getting closer just to play with the bright, polished steel knobs. The walls were painted a soft yellow, but black and white and some sepia pictures lined the empty spaces.
“Furniture?” she asked.
“My dad was a craftsman.” He put the pie on the counter. “My mother was a photographer. He’d make her something and she’d capture the feel of it. They had a longstanding love affair with each other’s work. Wine?”
“Yes, but not too much. I’m driving.”
“I’ll call you a cab if it gets to that, but relax.” He pulled out a chair at the table in the dining room. She sat down. A bouquet of daises were arranged with care in a blue vase on the cherry wood table. “I’ve made a roast,” he said. “Now I’ll make a light pasta. You’ll be well fed and half asleep before you know it. How was lunch?”
“Trying, but I’ll have the papers to you by tomorrow.” She clasped her hands together. “Crap, I forgot your jacket.”
“Told you that was fine. Why trying?” He disappeared behind the refrigerator and came back with an apron that stated
Men don’t cook, they grill
“But you did cook,” she said.
“Nope. Foil is truly man’s best friend.”
Tobias moved with comfort around the kitchen. Before long he poured the wine in two glasses and brought her one. Back in the kitchen area, he filled a shallow pot with water. He went to the refrigerator and steadily took out all he needed and closed it with a swift kick.
“Trying?” he asked again.
Emma pursed her lips considering how much to say about her lunch date. No, there wasn’t anything more between them than a comforting friendship. Yeah, he sometimes looked at her like she should be dessert, but talking about another man wouldn’t be too much of a faux pas.
“I wanted to get those papers looked over. You got them to me quickly and I wanted to return the favor. I know one attorney I trust to give it to me straight. We dated before I found out he was an ass, but he’s a great attorney.”
“He hit on you.”
“That’s an assumption.” She laughed at the irritated look he gave her. “I made it clear we wouldn’t go anywhere.”
“But you agreed to a lunch.” He continued to spread out bowls and food on the counter. “That says to him you’re still open.”
“It could mean I’d like to eat lunch while he took thirty minutes to go over the contract.”
“Men don’t think like that, especially not with attractive women. Matter of fact, men don’t think at all when an attractive woman is involved. If there is a give or angle, they will do their damndest to get in anyway they can.”
“You tried to angle with me?”
“I had myself convinced I would do the right thing and keep our relationship professional. Sex and money rarely mix well between friends, but that third button had a gravitational pull that sucked me in.”
Her hands trembled slightly, and she balled them into fists. For a man so solid and steady, he kept her on edge. “Are you regretting asking me to dinner?”
“Only if you think this attorney guy still has a chance.”
“No further explanation needed for why the lunch was trying.” He pulled out unbaked pasta from a container. “What did he do?”
She straightened. “It could be simple incompatibility.”
“Your mallow is showing.”
She took a sip from her wine. The red would go well with the roast. “It is, but your being able to read a situation before hearing all the details is off-putting.”
“My job was to people watch, in essence, and pick up subtle clues,” Tobias said. “Though, ‘God, no’ is a pretty clear indicator you’d chew your arm off if it meant getting away from the man.”
“Practically had to. I wanted to pay him. He declined. Then I suggested that I at least pay for lunch. Again, he declined, angling for a date. I can’t blame him too much, because I say I don’t want anything to do with him, but then something comes up and I think maybe he wasn’t as bad as I remembered. We go out. I come to the conclusion, no, he wasn’t as bad as I remembered. He’s worse. He thinks women were born to be babysat by the men folk.”
“Simple solution.” He turned to put the pasta in the boiling water. “Scroll to his name on your phone and give it to me.”
Curious to see what he’d do, Emma got up, took him her phone. She sipped the wine as he frowned at Roger’s entry. There was a lot of the backspace button. She assumed he deleted the number, but then he started to type. When finished he handed her back the phone and went to drain the pasta in the sink. Roger had been replaced with U Remember, Worse Than and the email address was filled now with [email protected]
“Hand me that bowl,” he said.
When Tobias wrote it he hadn’t even cracked a smile. Her shoulders were shaking from pent up laughter, but she handed him the bowl, and didn’t move back to her seat. She didn’t think he would mind that she was in his space.
“I’m not sure if I should thank you,” she said.
“Not necessary.” He shrugged. “From the way you describe him, it’s a public service. Your hair looks nice, too.”
Emma couldn’t keep up with him and had to admit she liked that. “Where’d you learn to cook?”
“My mom. You didn’t wait at the table with your fork at the ready. Helped that my father served in the military and started off as a cook. They were a team in everything.”
She softened. “You miss them.”
“They made me who I am.” He didn’t say it with a contemplative look, but as sure as he was that the sun would rise. “Who made you, Emmaline?”
The question was far from simple, but it put her at ease. “My grams bought me a ready-bake oven I detested.”
She pursed her lips with uncertainty over the confession. “Everything that came out of it was crap.”
“Sounds like you were a food critic even then.”
“No. Discriminatory with my tastebuds.” She paused watching his hands cup around the cheese he had chopped into fine slithers. “She taught my mother how to cook and my mother taught me the basics.”
“A man of few words, but plenty of actions that said he loved his family. Even when he got dirty looks, he’d hold a door for a woman.”
He nodded. “Why the gentleman thing gets to you.”
“I get my soft from him. He’d look at my mother and you could see he thought she was his everything. They bought the house I live in now when she was pregnant with me. Forty. They had a good fifteen years together before I came along and I never felt like I didn’t add to their marriage.”
She could see him doing the math in his head. “They married a bit late for the time.”
“My mother took some convincing. Dad had his mind set that no one else could make him happy. Mom always said, ‘damned if the man wasn’t right.’” She smiled at the memory.
“You miss them.” The tenderness in his voice washed over her.
She swallowed, because they were gone. They were gone because they loved her. Dark thoughts for a light evening, so she pushed them away. “You put a pound of mayo in that stuff.”
She watched him add vinegar to the pasta and the carrots still needed to be grated. “Want me to help?” she asked
He gestured to the cabinet next to him. “Grate two and just leave it in the bowl. It’s only a cup of mayonnaise.”
“I could be allergic to eggs.”
“You wouldn’t be a baker, otherwise you’d be screwed,” He pointed out and then added, “Relax.”
She took another sip of her wine. “I am.”
He stopped and looked at her. “You keep eyeing the exit.”
“No, I’m not.” Though she had been. Emma rinsed the carrots before picking up the grater. “I’m pointing out all the things you seem so sure about. I’m actually enjoying myself.”
“You can be tense.” His gaze went to her mouth and Tobias didn’t have to say what he wanted to do with her bottom lip. “And still enjoy yourself. You can also stop looking for a possible exit route. You can go for the drive and when you’re ready to get off, one will magically appear. I promise you.”
He had a point. Right now she was enjoying the ride. “How big?” She picked up the grate.
She saw the light spark behind his gaze. “The smallest grate.” His laugh was soft and barely audible when the tense moment passed. “Thought I’d say something else?”
Heat rushed into her face and she took out her embarrassment on the carrots by grating the hell out of them. He reached around her for the bowl, placing his body behind hers. Without thought, she arched back, wanting to press against the hard length of him. Need curled in her belly and weakened her resolve.
His lips brushed her lobe when he said, “Have a seat. I’ll serve you.”
Her jaw dropped down. He
to know how that sounded. She glanced over her shoulder. He’d already moved to the stove.
. She eyed him for another moment, and then sat down at the table. He made no grand gestures when he pulled out the roast beef that had been cooling in the oven, nor when he plated the pasta. He should have because the beef was well done and still fell apart on her fork.