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"Oh, yeah, baby, that's good," she whispered. So good that she wanted more. She couldn't help herself, she'd never been known for having much self-control.
Not when it came to chocolate. Isabella Manchelli loved desserts, all of them.
Which was why she was talking to them. Licking the last of it off her spoon, Bella then tossed the spoon into the sink, nodding in satisfaction and pride at the tray of little chocolate Genoese sponge squares she'd created. She wasn't sure of much, but she felt quite positive that the little cakes were her personal best to date. She went to work making up a second batch, knowing her boss, Willow, owner of Edible Bliss Cakes and Pastries, would be clamoring for more for her customers as the day progressed.
And the day had a lot of progressing to do. By the very nature of her job, she was routinely up before dawn, baking, and today had been no exception. At just the thought, she yawned.
That's what you get for staying up way too late last night…
Having her absolute last one-night stand.
Her last, because as much as she enjoyed the occasional social orgasm, she never got much pleasure out of the morning after. The slipping out of bed, hunting down her clothes from off the floor, carrying her sandals so as not to wake him up…
No, none of that ever felt good as good as the night before.
Even if this time, her first in a damn long time, now that she thought about it, the night before had been so admittedly terrific that she suspected she was still wearing a grin advertising just how terrific…
She angled her stainless-steel mixer so that she could use the appliance as a mirror and turned her head right and then left, inspecting herself.
Ridiculous grin still in place.
She couldn't help it. Mr. Tall, Dark and Drop-dead Sexy had really had it going on. She'd met him through the local rec center's singles club, when Willow had somehow talked her into signing up for their Eight Dates in Eight Days. Tall, Dark and Drop-dead Sexy had been her eighth date, and the only one she'd let so much as kiss her.
The kiss had been shockingly…wow. Which had led to one thing or another, and some more wow, along with a good dash of yowza, and then…the whole morning-after thing.
He'd caught her in mid-tiptoe and off-kilter; she'd decided to go with her standard protocol for such situations.
She'd told him she was moving to Siberia, and then she'd left.
No feelings hurt, no strings. Just the way she liked it.
So why she felt a little hollow, a little discontented, she had no idea.
Probably it was all the chocolate on an empty stomach. Or possibly not. Possibly, the impossible had happened, and her mother's mantra—it's time to settle down, Bella—was right.
And how disconcerting a thought was that.
Bella didn't settle well. After growing up one of many in a huge family, she'd taken off soon as she'd been able, loving being alone. Loving the adventure of silence, the lack of planning ahead. It'd been bliss. She still felt that way, still preferred to roam the planet, touching down here and there as it suited her, never staying in one spot too long.
Except this time.
This time she'd landed in Santa Rey, California, the latest stop on the Bella's Train of Travels, and she loved the small beach town. Loved the job she'd taken on as a pastry chef at Edible Bliss, in the heart of a most adorable little downtown, only one block from the beach.
She'd been working here for a month now, and things were good. She had a roof over her head, she had pastries to make, and best yet—she'd gotten that orgasm last night.
Make that multiple orgasms…
She took a moment for a dreamy sigh. It really was a shame that she'd forced herself out of Tall, Dark and Drop-dead Sexy's bed after such a fantastic night, because he'd been both sharp and fun, her two top requirements in a man.
He'd also been focused and quietly controlled in a way that suggested cop or military, making her want to break the rules of the Eight Dates in Eight Days contract and ask him what he did for a living. But they'd been forbidden from discussing details like their vocation or age of residence until a second date, if a second date came to be.
He'd been the only one to spark her interest. He'd certainly been the one and only to get her to a bed, and in fact, if things had been different, he might even have had a shot at being that elusive keeper everyone talked about.
With a sigh, she moved through the front room of Edible Bliss, straightening tables and chairs, making sure everything was perfect before she opened them up for business.
She was raising the shades on the windows when she thought she heard a scraping sound from the kitchen's back door. She headed that way, thinking maybe it was Willow a little early. But today was Tuesday, and on Tuesdays Willow took a drawing class at the city college. It was male-model day. Nude-male-model day.
It wouldn't be Willow then, no way.
Maybe it was Trevor, the rangy, sun-kissed cutie who worked part-time bussing tables and serving customers.
Walking through the kitchen, Bella peeked out the window in the back door—no one.
So now she was hearing things. Seemed that's what sleep deprivation did to a person. Good to know. Maybe next time she was faced with the prospect of some seriously fantastic sex, she'd say, "No, sorry, I can't, it appears wild monkey sex causes auditory hallucinations in me."
Shaking her head at herself, she checked the Can-noli batch she had in the oven, waving the heat blast from her face. Needing air, she went to crack open the back door, but it caught on something. She pushed, then squeezed through the space onto the back stoop to take a look, and tripped over—
It was a guy, in jeans and a T-shirt, a small bouquet of wildflowers clutched in his fist.
Heart stuck in her throat, she dropped to a crouch and put a hand on his shoulder. "Hello?" There was an odd stillness to him she didn't want to face. "Are you okay?" Beneath her fingers, he felt warm, but she couldn't find a pulse. Panic caught her by the throat, choking off her air supply, as did the sight of the blood pooling beneath the man. "Not okay," she murmured, horror gathering in a greasy ball in her gut—which did not mix well with all the chocolate already there.
She closed her eyes on a wave of dizziness, doing her best not to throw up her sponge squares. "Hang on, I'll call 911."
But even as she hit the buttons on her cell phone, even as she stumbled back and stuttered her name and address for the dispatcher, she knew.
The man on her back stoop was beyond needing help.
After being assured by the dispatcher that an ambulance was on its way, Bella practiced the breathing techniques she'd been learning in yoga.
She went to visualization next, trying to imagine herself on the beach, with the calm waves hitting the shore, the light breeze brushing her skin… She had a lot of beaches to choose from, but she went with the beach right across the street because there was just something about Santa Rey's long stretch of white sand, where the salt water whooshed sea foam in on the gently sloping shores, and then whished it back out again. She swallowed hard, telling herself how much she loved the contemplative coves, the blufftop trails, the dynamic tide pools, all off the beaten path. Here she was both hidden from the world, and yet doing as she loved. Here, unlike anywhere else in her travels, she felt as if she'd come home.
But then she opened her eyes and yep, there was still the dead guy on the concrete at her feet.
At least he hadn't gone belly up in the kitchen, she told herself, taking big gulps of air. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration probably frowned on dead guys in an industrial kitchen.
Legs weak, she sank to the ground, feeling weird about being so close, but also like she didn't want to leave him alone. No one should die alone. She set her back to the wall and brought her knees up to her chest to drop her head on them. She was a practical, pragmatic woman, she assured herself. She could survive this, she'd survived worse.
She could hear the sirens now, coming closer. Good. That was good. Then footsteps sounded from the front of the shop, heavy and steady.
Paramedics first, two of them, tall and sure, dropping to a crouch near the body. One of them reached out and checked the man beside her for a pulse, then shook his head at the other.
Behind the paramedics came a steady parade of other uniforms, filling the small pastry kitchen, making Bella dizzy with it all.
She answered questions numbly and eventually someone pushed a cup of water into her hands. One of Willow's pretty teacups.
She answered more questions. No, she hadn't heard any gunshots. No, she hadn't recognized the victim, but then again, she had yet to see his face. No, she hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary, other than a noise that she'd barely even registered much less investigated.…
How could she have not have actually opened the door when she'd heard that odd scraping sound?
After the endless questions, she was finally left alone in the kitchen, by herself in the sea of controlled chaos. She backed to the far wall, attempting to be as unobtrusive as possible. Her legs were still wobbling, so she sank down the wall to sit on the floor, mind wandering.
She wished she'd never gotten out of her bed.
Correction: Tall, Dark and Drop-dead Sexy's bed.
If she'd only broken her own protocol and stayed with him, then she wouldn't be here now. And she might have, if she hadn't been so surprised at how badly she hadn't wanted to leave his bed.
That didn't happen often—hell, who was she kidding—sex didn't happen for her often, and certainly not during Eight Dates in Eight Days. She cursed Willow for talking her into doing it, but what was done was done. Besides, it wasn't as if she'd been finding her own dates since she'd put down anchor in Santa Rey.
Date one had been nice but a snooze.
Dates two through seven had been pleasant but nothing to write home about.
But date eight? Holy smokes. Date eight had blown all the other dates not only out of the water, but out of her head, as well.
She knew him only as Jacob, since last names hadn't been given. They'd agreed to meet at a new adventure facility on the outskirts of the county. He'd been there waiting for her, leaning against the building, tall and leanly muscled, with dark wavy hair that curled at his nape and assessing brown eyes that reminded her of warm, melted chocolate when he smiled, which he'd done at first sight of her.
Flattering, since though she was five foot seven and curvy, she knew she was merely average in looks. Average brown hair that was utterly uncontrollable. Average eyes. Average face…
In comparison, Jacob had been anything but average, oozing testosterone and sex appeal in a T-shirt and board shorts that emphasized his fit, hard body. Sin on a stick, that's how he'd looked.
For the next two hours they'd bungee jumped, jungle canopied and Jet Skied, none of which were conducive to talking and opening up, but she hadn't cared.
They'd flirted, they'd laughed, and she'd been in desperate need of both, even knowing he would be nothing but trouble to her heart. She'd had a blast, and afterward, her car had sputtered funny in the lot.
Jacob had said she had a bad spark plug and that he was a car junkie and had extras at his place. If she wanted, he could either follow her home to make sure she got there okay, and then return with the plug to fix her car, or she could follow him home and he'd fix it now.
She'd looked at him for a long moment, ultimately deciding that no guy who looked as good in that ridiculous bungee protective gear as he had—and he had looked good—could be a bad guy.
Naive? Not really. Just damn lonely. Besides, she assured herself, she knew just enough self-defense moves to feel comfortable. She could always knock his nuts into next week if she had to.
And then there was something else. He had that air of undeniable control, that raw male power radiating from him that made her feel safe in his presence. Safe from harm, but not necessarily safe from losing her mind over him. She might not know his last name or what he did for a living, but she knew she wanted him.
So she'd followed him home.
She'd called her own number and left a message. "If anything has happened to me, check with Jacob, sexy hunk, and mystery date number eight."