Authors: Raine Thomas
Tags: #FICTION / Romance / Contemporary
“Mornin’, Ray,” she said with a smile, slipping into the more casual speech she used with the kids. “You out helpin’ your ma?”
“Yeah. Just finished our drive. Need help?”
“Wouldn’t turn it down.”
As they worked on the drive, she asked him about school and his little sister, Jayden. Ray’s mother worked two jobs to make ends meet, so Ray was often responsible for caring for his six-year-old sibling. He did it without complaint, though. Everly felt a strong kinship to him.
Together, they cleared the driveway and the sidewalk within twenty minutes. Then they helped Mr. Duffy two doors down, since he was outside, too. Giving Ray a high five as they finished, Everly turned to walk back to the shed.
“You wanna come in for a few?” she asked.
“Naw. Jayden’s watchin’ cartoons. Gonna sit wit’ her.”
“All right, little man. Next chance you get, cookies are on me.”
She waved as he headed home, then she walked to the garage and put the shovel away. While she was there, she grabbed a couple of wrenches, some plumber’s putty, and plumber’s tape.
It took her a couple of hours to fix the leaky pipe under the sink and get the house clean. She managed to fit in a couple of loads of laundry, as well, before she had to get ready for lunch. She only thought about Cole about fifteen times all morning.
Okay, fifteen times per hour. Give or take.
It took a while for her to decide what to wear. She wanted to look professional—it was a business meeting, after all—but she also wanted to look attractive. This
Cole Parker, for heaven’s sake.
Just a business meeting, she told her racing heart. Then she set out her most flattering pair of jeans, a thin, soft turquoise sweater with three-quarter cut sleeves, and a tailored navy suit jacket. She’d dress it up with heeled boots, colorful jewelry, and the coordinating turquoise purse she’d picked up at Marshall’s last year on Black Friday.
Decision made, she hit the shower. As she weighed her limited choices among her scented body washes, she pondered what she and Cole would discuss during their meal. It wasn’t as though she could conduct a physical assessment of his shoulder in a restaurant. She wasn’t sure he should start any exercises at home without her around to monitor him. Not yet, anyway. The suggestion that he rest his arm surely wouldn’t go over well. He struck her as an active person.
She fretted all through the shower and blowing her hair dry. She fretted more while getting dressed and doing her makeup. She couldn’t decide whether to wear her hair up or down, and ultimately settled on something in-between, using a silver and turquoise clip to pull her hair back at the temples and leaving the rest down. Then she couldn’t decide how much makeup to wear. Too little and she risked looking like she hadn’t even tried. Too much and she’d resemble a regular on the Metropolitan Parkway ‘ho stroll.
And dear heaven—was that a pimple?
By the time she walked out to the family room to tell her grandpa goodbye, she was a heap of nerves. She prayed her antiperspirant worked as well as advertised. If this kept up, she’d break a nervous sweat somewhere between here and the restaurant.
Her grandpa looked up from his recliner when she entered the room. A smile spread across his face. “Well, don’t you make a pretty picture?” he said. “That boy won’t know what hit ‘im.”
“Pee Paw,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’m not trying to hit him. This is just business.”
“So you’ve said ‘bout twenty times today. Did you even eat breakfast?”
The question made her pause. She realized she had been so busy trying not to think about Cole and getting through her chores that she hadn’t remembered to eat anything. That probably wasn’t helping her low-level headache.
“You know, I didn’t. Guess it’s a good thing I’m going to this
lunch.” She smiled when he chuckled and then she bent down to kiss his cheek. “Now wish me luck.”
“Lookin’ ‘n smellin’ as nice as you do, you won’t need luck,” he said. “But I wish it to you anyway. You know where you’re goin’?”
“Pretty much. I’ve got my cell and I plugged the address into Google Maps. It’s not even ten miles from here.”
“All right, then. Have fun and be safe.”
“Thanks. I’ll be home soon.”
Thirty minutes later, she finally arrived at the restaurant. Between traffic and the unfamiliar area of town, it took her longer than she expected to get there. She thought she had given herself extra time, but she was still five minutes late. When she pulled up, she found herself at a valet stand. Rolling down her window, she flagged the valet who eyed her car as though it had just broken down at his feet. He approached with notable reluctance.
Waving at the twenty-dollar valet fee posted on a nearby folding sign, she asked, “Is there self-parking?”
“No, ma’am,” he replied stiffly.
She swallowed and nodded, getting out of her car so he could park it. She only had twenty dollars in cash, and she had intended to pay for her lunch with it. She knew the bank account was low until she got paid again on Friday, but she’d have to risk debiting her meal. Why hadn’t she thought to set some parameters when Cole suggested the restaurant?
Her headache ballooned as she hurried through the front door of the restaurant and looked around without spotting Cole. Frowning, she approached the maître d.
“Miss Wallace?” he greeted her.
Surprised, she nodded.
“Welcome. Mr. Parker is waiting at your table. It would be my pleasure to escort you there. May I take your coat?”
Damn. She probably couldn’t even afford the free bread at this place.
Giving the maître d a wan smile, she shrugged out of her coat, putting her gloves in the pockets and wrapping her scarf around one of her purse straps. She was sure she was imagining it, but she swore the maître d held her Target-brand garment a few inches away from his body as he turned to hand it off to whoever guarded the coat room.
Shifting uncomfortably when he gave her a quick once-over and lingered disapprovingly on her jeans, she took a deep breath and followed him into the dining room. There wasn’t anything she could do about how she was dressed, was there?
Lord, what a hot mess this was.
As she spotted Cole across the dining room at a table with a beautiful view of the outside terrace, another thought occurred to her. How should she greet him? Should she shake his hand since this was a business meeting? Go in for the awkward hug since she was good friends with his brother?
Bow because he looked like a god in his simple black V-neck sweater and gray pants?
She caught his gaze when she was still about ten feet from the table. A variety of expressions crossed his features, so many that she couldn’t read them all. She definitely caught irritation, though, and was puzzled when he ended up smiling.
He stood up. The maître d deposited her with a slight bow, so she ruled out that form of greeting. Then it was just her and Cole.
“Hello, Everly,” he said, his voice as smooth as a buttered biscuit.
Had that been her voice that came out all breathy? She prayed it hadn’t sounded as ridiculous as she thought.
She started to lift her right hand for a shake, then realized he was tilting in for the awkward hug. To avoid hitting him in the crotch, she adjusted her trajectory. He smoothly used his left hand to continue her forward motion so that her hand ended up encircling his neck.
Then before she knew what was happening, her lips were pressed against his.
Sweet baby Jesus.
She was kissing Cole Parker
Only after a second or two did she realize that he had stiffened. His lips were frozen against hers. Horror swept through her.
He hadn’t intended to kiss her!
When she started to jerk back, he held her in place. Then he responded, turning the kiss into a melt-your-legs-off sizzler with just a few brushes of his lips against hers. In an instant, she was a living, sighing Hallmark card with imaginary birds fluttering around her head. When he leaned even closer and touched his lips to her earlobe, she almost sank to the floor.
Lord, he smelled divine.
“Guess we’ll have to rule out passing you off as a distant cousin,” he murmured.
He’d intended to greet her like a relative, she realized, so people wouldn’t question their association. Her humiliation knew no bounds.
“I-I’m sorry,” she managed to say.
No amount of antiperspirant was going to save her from this. She wondered if a quick exit out the bathroom window was at all an option.
“Don’t be,” he said, pulling back and grinning. “Any time I can steal a kiss from a beautiful woman, I’m happy to.”
He lifted her hand and brought it to his lips. Another gesture, she thought, to convey a romantic connection to any onlookers. Although she knew it was a pretense, the action made her heart flutter.
Flutter, for God’s sake.
“Shall we sit?” he asked.
She nodded. He pulled out her chair for her, making her heart stumble again. Although something in the back of her mind kept chanting
, she felt that part of her mind should be laughed out of the restaurant.
When they were seated, he stared at her for a long moment in silence. She couldn’t meet his eyes, so she picked up her water. Would her face ever stop burning?
“Did you run into traffic?” he asked at last.
Grateful that he wasn’t making a big deal out of her enormous misstep, she picked up her menu and answered, “Yes, and I got lost. Twice.”
A server appeared at her side with a pitcher of ice water. He had a contagious smile and warm eyes. Everly liked him immediately.
“Good afternoon,” he said as he filled their water glasses. “My name is Roberto and I’ll be providing you excellent service today. Can I interest you in anything to drink besides our purified water?”
“I’d love some sweet tea,” Cole said.
“Just the water for me, Roberto,” Everly replied. “Thanks.”
His posture changed slightly. She figured he recognized her as a fellow food service worker since she addressed him by name and looked him in the eye. Few patrons did that.
He smiled again, this time more genuinely. “No problem, ma’am. Allow me to run through today’s specials.”
Everly listened with half an ear as she browsed the menu. Even the house salad was over fifteen dollars. Although she knew better, she turned the single placard over in hopes they had a lunch menu with lower prices. No such luck.
Roberto left to give them some time to review the menu. Everly surreptitiously glanced at other tables to see if they contained bread baskets.
Of course not.
“Is everything all right?” Cole asked.
“Fine,” she said, plastering another smile on her face. Now that she was seated and smelling the amazing scents of the restaurant, her stomach rumbled in protest. “Just comparing this place to Prix Fixe. You know how it goes.”
“So, how are you feeling this afternoon?” she asked, keeping the question general in case anyone was listening.
He grinned. “Better now that you’re here. It appears you can kiss my aches and pains away.”
Nope. No chance she’d stop blushing before lunch ended.
She leaned over the table toward him. “I’m sorry about that,” she whispered. “I hadn’t thought about how to greet you until I got here. Then we did the whole ‘handshake or hug’ thing and you leaned down…and, well, I panicked.”
He laughed and reached over to touch her hand. “I’m just giving you a hard time. We’ll call this your ‘coffee fist pump’ moment of the day.”
For a moment, she puzzled over his words. Then she remembered his coffee spill while they were talking on the phone.
“You went for the fist pump when I agreed to come to lunch, and you spilled hot coffee on yourself?”
“Scalding, boil-your-tongue coffee.”
Now it was her turn to laugh. Her embarrassment eased. “Thanks for that. Still, I think my misreading your brotherly hug is going to be a new focal point on my Humiliation Wall of Shame.”
“You have one of those, too?”
She laughed again as Roberto returned with Cole’s sweet tea. Then she sobered as she realized it was time to order.
“Do you have any questions about the menu?” Roberto asked.
“No,” Cole said, glancing at Everly. “I’ve eaten here before. Everything is great.”
She wondered if it was possible to feel more uncomfortable than she did just then. “I’m sure it is,” she muttered, staring at her menu to avoid meeting Cole’s eyes. “Roberto, is the house salad available as an entrée?”
The server was very good at his job. He didn’t bat an eye over the question. “I can do that, ma’am.”
“Are you a vegetarian?” Cole asked.
“The salad is small. You’ve got to try—”
“I’m not that hungry,” she cut in. Hopefully he just mistook her flaming cheeks as more embarrassment from kissing him. It took all of her willpower not to slouch in her chair.
Cole studied her for a moment, then looked at Roberto. “Scratch the salad. Let’s start with an order of the Hawaiian Hamachi and the Confit Foie Gras Torchon. We’ll get back to you on the next course, if that’s all right.”
“Of course,” Roberto said. “I’ll get that order placed for you.”
Everly couldn’t believe what had just happened. How dare Cole spend her money so carelessly? He didn’t even know what she liked. If she said she wasn’t hungry and wanted a salad, then she was damn well going to order the salad. What was he, a Neanderthal?
She sat in numb silence for about thirty seconds, processing his complete and utter arrogance. Then she decided the mouth that had accidentally kissed Cole Parker not even ten minutes ago was about to rip him to shreds.
* * *
“You know, you’re beautiful when you’re angry,” Cole said.
He meant it, too. Her eyes had deepened in color. Pink heat colored her cheeks. Her full lips were parted as she got ready to tear into him, making him think about their brief, much-too-tempting kiss.