Authors: Jennifer Crusie
“I’m supposed to be here.”
“So am I.” Darcy’s stomach knotted as she started putting the pieces together. “Oh, God. Please tell me you’re not J.P.”
“Only to Kevin. Back in the day, he knew three Jakes, so he called us by our first and middle initials—J.P., J.D. and J.R.—and I guess it stuck. Not a fan, but he never cared.” After a short pause, he muttered a curse. “You work for Kevin.”
“I’ve worked at Jasper’s for years. Paulie and I were there before he bought it.” Her voice sounded surprisingly normal considering what she really wanted to do was plant her knee in his balls before making a grand exit.
“So you’re here to help me launch Jasper’s Pub.”
Really? That’s what he wanted to talk about? He’d held her hand and made love to her and kissed her goodbye with promises of a phone call and he wanted to talk about work. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
She was going to get back in her car and drive back to Concord. The three-hour trip would give her plenty of time to come up with an excuse to give Kevin about why she couldn’t do him this favor, after all. Maybe she could tell him she startled a Dumpster-diving bear and she was too traumatized by the encounter to stay in bear country.
Jake blew out a hard breath and tossed the towel onto the counter. “We can make this work.”
Darcy sighed. She was a nice person, really. People described her as cheerful and happy and a few of the regulars called her Sunshine. But under the sunny personality, she had a really low tolerance for bullshit. And she’d already had a shovelful from Jake Holland.
“I don’t think so.” She turned around and went back down the stairs.
* * *
into his boots before he went after Darcy, but he didn’t take the time to grab a shirt or coat. She was halfway across the parking lot before he caught up to her. “Darcy, wait. Please?”
He couldn’t let her go. After weeks of thinking about her and beating himself up for not putting her number in his phone right away, he couldn’t let her leave without trying to explain. Upstairs, his mind had been trying to work out the business implications of her arrival, but right now he was just a man trying to catch the woman who had slipped through his fingers once already.
“I’ll tell Kevin I’m afraid of bears,” she said in a flat voice, reaching for the door handle of her car. “He doesn’t need to know we’d met before.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you.”
That stopped her. “Whatever. We both knew you weren’t going to call.”
That pissed him off. He wasn’t that kind of guy, and maybe she didn’t have any way of knowing that, but a little benefit of the doubt wouldn’t hurt. “My jeans got wet and the ink ran.”
“Funny how often that happens to guys.”
“I swear, Darcy. I wanted to leave a message at the bar where we met, but I couldn’t remember the name of the place. I even called the car garage where I saw the trivia night flyer to get the name or number off it, but they’d thrown it away. I didn’t know how else to find you.”
“You haven’t been back in the city since then?”
“I’ve only managed to get down there once, since the contractors screwed up the HVAC plans and we had to scramble. I drove around a little, but a lot of those streets look the same and all the buildings look the same and I couldn’t find the bar.”
She wasn’t allowing herself to believe him. He could see it on her face. “Look, Jake, it doesn’t matter if you were going to call or not. We can’t work together.”
“Why not? If Kevin sent you, it means you’re damn good at what you do. I’m damn good at what I do. There’s no reason we can’t open Jasper’s Pub together by February.”
“I thought being roommates with a man I’d never met would be weird.” She shoved her hands in her coat pocket. “This is worse, I think.”
Jake wished he had a coat to shove his hands into. When it was cold enough to see your breath when you talked, shirtless wasn’t a great fashion choice. “I’m not going to lie to you. You being here feels like a second chance to me, but—”
She shook her head, but he pushed on, anyway. “
this restaurant and my partnership with Kevin are important to me. Important enough so I can set aside any personal stuff and keep it professional.”
“You look cold.”
“I was, but the numbness is setting in now, so it’s not so bad.”
“You should go inside.”
“Kevin wants you in his corner on this project, Darcy.”
“I know he does, and trust me, that matters.” She was wavering.
“Let’s try it for a couple of days and see how it goes. If you still want to leave, you can tell Kevin I’m an asshole and I’ll take the heat for it.”
“I’m not here just because Kevin’s a good boss and he asked me. It’s an interesting opportunity and I was excited about it.”
“It’s still an interesting, exciting opportunity.”
When she sighed, blowing out a frosty cloud, relief seeped through his frozen veins. She was going to stay long enough for him to make things work professionally. Personally? That could come later. Especially since it would probably be at least a week before his body thawed enough to even think about misbehaving.
“I’ll stay. But if it’s too awkward, I’m going to move to the motel and waste your money. If it’s still awkward after that, I’m leaving.”
“We’ll be working too hard for awkwardness.”
“I’ll bring up my bags.”
Because he was raised right, Jake willed the impending hypothermia away and helped her carry up her luggage, but he threw on a thermal shirt and a flannel shirt
his coat before he went back down for the boxes and bags she had crammed in her trunk.
On his third trip up, he realized both bedroom doors were closed and she was hovering over the growing pile of her belongings as if she wasn’t sure what to do with them. “I was greedy and took the room with the queen bed, but we can switch if you want.”
“Are they both as brown as the living room?”
“Then it doesn’t matter.”
“Then that room’s yours,” he said, pointing to the door on the left. “At some point down the road we’ll redo this apartment, but right now all the time and money are going into the pub’s launch.”
She shrugged, picking up a suitcase to bring into her room. “Doesn’t matter to me. I won’t be here after the launch.”
“I’m not sure what I’ll be doing. It’s open-ended right now. After it opens, we might turn it over to a manager. But if I like it here, I might stay.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Connecticut. But I’m a Red Sox fan, not Yankees. Connecticut goes both ways, but I was born in Mass.”
It wasn’t until she turned and glared at him that he realized that while they’d been talking, he’d followed her into her bedroom. He took a couple of big steps backward, until he was on the living room side of the doorway.
“This space is mine and you absolutely are not allowed in here,” she said firmly. “I’m here to work, Jake. Nothing more.”
“Don’t call me ma’am.”
“Mistress?” Now, there was a word he liked. He let his gaze wander down the body his hands itched to touch again, dressing her up in his mind.
“Darcy’s fine, thank you very much.” She frowned at him. “Are you picturing me naked right now?”
“I’m picturing you in thigh-high, black leather boots, wearing one of those corset things that pushes your boobs up.”
She snorted. “That sort of thing turn you on?”
“Never did before, but being punished by Mistress Darcy wouldn’t hurt. Much.”
“I think you’re too bossy in bed to let a woman take charge.”
“I think we should stop talking about this while I can still walk.”
She slammed her bedroom door in his face, which was probably a good thing. One of them had to set boundaries because the last thing he wanted to do was tell Kevin their plan for Jasper’s Pub was screwed because he couldn’t keep his hands off the one woman he’d sworn he wouldn’t touch.
to get out of bed, even though she’d been awake long enough so she really needed to pee. But she waited out the sounds of Jake making coffee and taking a shower and the smell of slightly burnt English muffin. There was a horrible grinding sound, as if he’d thrown a bunch of rocks in the blender, and then, finally, the door closing and his heavy footsteps on the outside stairs.
She should have gotten in her car, driven back to Concord and fed Kevin the scary bear story. Even while she was telling herself the chance to be in on the opening of a new and hopefully successful restaurant was a golden opportunity, she knew deep down in some sappy part of her that she hadn’t wanted to walk away from Jake so quickly.
Which was stupid and she knew it. He was a player and he’d played her. And now he was probably playing her some more to get done what needed to be done and save face with his business partner.
But when he was standing out there shivering, covered in goose bumps, but looking at her with those eyes, she’d felt just like she did before he kissed her as if he’d been waiting his entire life to kiss her and she hadn’t wanted to leave.
So here she was, hiding in her bedroom to avoid the awkward sleepy morning moments like who got the bathroom and dancing around each other in the kitchen. Sure, this was going to go well.
After she showered, Darcy turned the toaster setting down slightly and made herself an English muffin and a coffee. He’d washed his mug and the knife, along with the blender, so there were no clues as to what he’d been mixing. Maybe some kind of weird protein drink or something, which would explain the abs.
No thinking about his abs, she reminded herself as she washed her few dishes and set them next to his to dry. Then, dressed in jeans and a Jasper’s Bar & Grille polo shirt with her hair in a ponytail, and feeling a little more like her work self, she went down to face the day.
Because she was only going outside long enough to get down the stairs and in the back door, the key to which she’d found labeled and sitting on the counter, she skipped putting on her coat. She arrived for her first official day on the job half-frozen and cursing the unexpected windchill.
What seemed like acres of stainless steel greeted her. She wasn’t a cook and didn’t know a lot about the different equipment, but it seemed as if Kevin and Jake had spared no expense when it came to outfitting the kitchen. What really mattered to her was on the other side of the double swinging doors.
Of course, the first thing she saw when she pushed through them was Jake. He was standing in the middle of the dining room, scowling down at something on the floor. When he heard the swish of the doors, he looked up and gestured her over.
“Take my hand,” he said when she reached him.
“I’m guessing you haven’t read the Jasper’s sexual harassment policy.”
“What?” Clearly distracted and annoyed, he held out his hand. “No. Just let me hold on to you and I want you to walk in front of me.”
“Fine.” She grasped his hand and crossed in front of him.
On the second step, her foot shot out from under her and only Jake’s grip kept her from landing on her ass on the floor, or maybe even smacking the back of her head.
“I knew it,” he muttered, but he didn’t sound happy to be proven right about whatever he was talking about. “I crushed some ice this morning and put a few piles around the floor to melt. They told me this flooring wouldn’t be slippery when it’s wet.”
“In my boots, it’s fine. And in snowmobile boots, it’ll be fine. But when the snow starts melting off those boots, the servers wearing sneakers like yours will be going down like bowling pins.”
Darcy knew nothing about flooring and not much more about snowmobiling. “Do they make some kind of absorbent mats we could put under the tables? Maybe attractive ones that look like throw rugs?”
“Maybe we could lay down braided rugs. Homey feel and they’re absorbent.”
“And who’s going to deal with a pile of sopping-wet, heavy rugs every night at closing? It won’t be the wait staff. And they’d never dry completely.”
“Good point. I’m going to have to research options. The amount of snow that might get tracked in isn’t something I’ve ever had to factor into a restaurant plan before. Having a good mat inside the front door’s always important, but snow melting off sledding boots while people eat is a new challenge.”
Darcy was trying to pay attention to what he was saying, but somewhere around researching blah, blah, blah, she realized their fingers were still laced together. His hand was strong and warm and there was something incredibly comforting about the feel of it cradling hers. In fact, when she’d dreamt of him a few weeks back, it hadn’t been the sex her subconscious had returned to. She’d dreamed of walking down the sidewalk with him, hand in hand.
“I need to call Peterson,” Jake said. She knew Derek Peterson, of Peterson Construction, was handling the bulk of the remodeling and handling the various subcontractors.
His hand slid free of hers so easily as he walked away, she wondered if he was even aware they’d been linked. As he disappeared through the swinging doors, Darcy sighed and tried to shake it off. She had work to do, starting with exploring the waitress station setup and seeing how many different ways she was going to make him change it.
* * *
is not a cut of steak.”
He grinned at her over the slightly burned, formerly frozen pizza sitting on the table between them. It was a very late dinner, so he’d gone for easy. “Sure it is. What kind of steak does a man want? A big-ass steak, that’s what kind.”
“We’re not putting big-ass steak on the menu.”
“Bet you a hundred it would be our top seller.”
When she rolled her eyes and went back to sawing through the pizza crust, he laughed at her, but only on the inside. She was in a touchy mood and it was probably best she didn’t know how much he enjoyed pushing her buttons. It was payback for the list of things wrong with the front end of the restaurant she’d given him. Three full sheets from the legal pad she’d filched from his office. She even wanted the commercial coffee brewing station moved—claimed it was too close to the pass-through window and would cause traffic jams—which meant contacting the electrician about circuits.
“We’ve been at this an hour and all we have is the Jasper Burger,” she said. It was a crowd favorite at the Bar & Grille, so they’d put it on the menu and hope word of mouth spread that far north.
“And a big-ass steak.”
“What about a pasta dish?”
He chewed and swallowed another bite of cheese-and-sauce-covered cardboard, chasing it with a swallow of beer. Screw the pub’s menu. They needed to come up with a better meal plan for themselves. “I’m iffy on pasta.”
“Right, because men like big-ass steaks cooked so rare a good vet could save them.” She sounded on the verge of stabbing him with her fork, so he bit back the grin. “You’re too focused on the sledders. This area’s hurting for dining options, as we know since we’re eating frozen pizza, so some good, reasonably priced family choices will draw in the locals and help keep the place going year-round. The big-ass steak crowd may bring in the gravy, but it’s the spaghetti and meatballs and all-you-can-eat fish fry crowd that’s the bread and butter.”
“If the menu’s too scattered, we’ll go broke keeping all the ingredients on hand.”
“True.” She pushed her paper plate away and pulled her legal pad—which matched his—in front of her.
“How about you make a list of things you’d like to see and I’ll do the same and we’ll see where they cross over and go from there? We’ve both got the Jasper Burger and Jasper’s Big-Ass Steak.”
“Steak cut yet to be determined,” she said firmly.
He made a few notes on his paper. She was right about the fact that he’d been overly focused on attracting the sledders and maybe not enough on building a community restaurant. The residential area was so scattered he wasn’t sure they could sustain a steady business all year long, so his idea was to make as much money as possible during the snowy months and cut down to a skeleton menu and crew during the off-season. But maybe people would be willing to make the drive for a good, affordable night out.
Mostly, though, he watched Darcy making her list. She was cute when she was lost in thought. He could do without the constant tapping of her pen against the paper, but the way she bit at her bottom lip made
want to nibble at that spot, and with her free hand she twirled curls into bits of her ponytail.
She hadn’t said anything earlier, when he’d forgotten to let go of her hand after the slippery floor experiment. She hadn’t pulled away or commented on the fact, and he wasn’t sure what that meant. To him, it just felt natural to hold her hand. But he couldn’t take for granted she felt the same because the last thing he wanted her to do was pack up and leave.
Damn, she’d caught him staring. “Nothing. Just staring off into space, I guess.”
She went back to her list and he forced himself to focus on the paper in front of him. It wasn’t working. “Did you know the potato famine lost Ireland about two million people, between death and emigration?”
Looking up from her paper, one eyebrow raised, Darcy shook her head. “No, I didn’t. Where did that come from?”
“Oh. I wrote down French fries.”
“Ah, potatoes. I get the connection.” She started tapping the pen on the paper again. “How did you get to be such a trivia guy, anyway?”
He shrugged. “It was just my mom and me growing up and she had to work, so after school I’d walk to the library and hang out there until she picked me up. After my homework was done I’d pull a random book off the nonfiction shelves and start reading. The almanacs were my favorites because there was a ton of information in little bite-size pieces.”
“You should go on
That made him laugh. “I don’t think so. Not a fan of being in front of an audience, and trust me, under pressure I forget every bit of useless knowledge I’ve ever picked up.”
“What happened to your dad?” As soon as she asked the question, Darcy’s cheeks flamed and she waved her had. “Never mind. I take that back. Not my business.”
“No, it’s fine.” He liked that she wanted to know more about him. “He took off when I was young enough not to remember him. I was in high school before my mom got married again, and he’s a good guy. They’re in Vermont, where my stepdad teaches, and I try to visit them a couple times a year. My mom and I have always been pretty close.”
She smiled and warmth rippled through him. Damn, she had a great smile. “My parents live in a small town about forty minutes from Concord. I wanted a little more excitement, or at least the ability to see a movie in an actual theater, so I moved to the city after school. I see them at least once or twice a month.”
“What do they think of you being up here for a month?”
“They’re excited for me. Proud that Kevin thought enough of me to ask me to do it. They weren’t quite as thrilled about me living with a stranger. I should probably warn you I have pepper spray.”
He laughed and scribbled on his pad of paper. “Making a note of that.”
“They like Kevin, so they decided to trust his judgment and not lock me in my old bedroom.”
“Do you think they’ll come up for the opening?”
“Oh. I don’t know. Maybe?”
“You should invite them to the big Valentine’s Day shindig.”
She pointed the pen at him. “I’ve heard you call it a shebang and a shindig and a
What, exactly, are you planning for the Valentine’s Day opening?”
“It’s a secret.”
“So, in other words, you have no idea.”
“You don’t think I have a plan?”
She smirked, which wasn’t quite as attractive as her smile, but was still cute. “Is it as good as your plan to serve up burned frozen pizza so I’ll take over the cooking?”
Busted. “I’m pleading the Fifth.”
“And I’m pleading exhaustion. We can work on the menus more tomorrow and we also need to talk about placing an ad. I think it might be good to get one or two really experienced servers in here before opening, and I think we’re going to be buried in applications.”
“I’ll be wrapped up most of the day with Peterson and the fire inspector and a few other things. I’ll try to sneak in some menu planning so we can talk about it over dinner. Which, by the way, is your turn tomorrow.”
“Whatever. Just throw the silverware in the sink and I’ll wash the dishes in the morning.”
While she was in the bathroom, he tossed the paper plates and dropped anything washable into the sink. As long as the day had been, he wasn’t ready to turn in yet, so he flipped on the television and tried to get comfortable on the couch. Thirty seconds later he turned the TV back off and made a mental note to call the cable company. Or a satellite dish company. Any company that could offer him a distraction.
“Good night,” Darcy said as she made the quick trip from the bathroom to her bedroom.
And then there was silence. It was late enough so there weren’t any cars driving by to make road noise that was just enough to drown out the slight creak of Darcy’s mattress as she climbed into bed. The rustle of covers. The small sigh as her head hit the pillow.
He knew she slept on her left side, with her arm tucked under her pillow, because he’d been lucky enough to wake up curled around her, and the memory was slowly killing him.
And it was only the second night.
* * *
in the morning by staying in bed until he’d left the apartment. The idea of having their morning coffee together, all sleepy-eyed and messy-haired, seemed intimate to her and she wanted no part of that. It was hard enough keeping their arrangement focused on the business.