Read an Excerpt
Holding her birthday cake high, Chloe Baxter backed through the restaurant pass door, grinning in advance at how delighted her friends would be when they tasted what she'd made.
She whirled, then froze, startled by the sight of Riley Connelly in a nearby booth. She'd missed his arrival and so had Sadie, her fellow hostess, who'd threatened to drag him to the birthday celebration if he showed at Enzo's tonight.
He'd showed all right, and he'd stopped Chloe dead. The pass door whapped her on the butt and she jolted forward, looking ridiculous, no doubt.
Riley flashed a grin, knowing and sexy and so kissable that Chloe melted like the candles she would soon blow out.
Jeez, Louise, the man merely smiled and she dissolved? She should get out more. She should get out, period. And she should certainly get laid.
She smiled back, hoping her face didn't look as hotly red as it felt. She had such a crush on the man.
Walking toward her party table, Chloe felt light-headed. Part of that was the champagne Enzo insisted they tap from the bar's stock. She rarely drank, but in honor of her birthday, she'd downed an entire flute of the bubbly gold.
At the table, everyone exclaimed over her cake, which she set at her place, midtable, right across from the booth where Riley, who mouthed happy birthday to her, sat.
She nodded her thanks, wishing she were bold enough to do somethinganythingmore than smile and nod at the man.
At least Sadie had been too busy lighting Chloe's candles to notice Riley and mortify Chloe by inviting him over. Sadie said he was hot for her, too, but Sadie exaggerated everything about sex, including how much Chloe needed it.
Chloe droppedher gaze to her cake, where twenty-five candles sent up hopeful little flames.
Twenty-five. A quarter of a century and what did she have to show for it?
Not much. Her hostess job and her own car. But she still lived at home to look after her father. She rarely dated, even more rarely had sex, and she'd saved only seven thousand dollars toward her dream of culinary school.
At least now that her sister Clarissa was finally settled with her husband in California, Chloe could sock away more cash. All she needed was time and no disasters. She lowered her face to wish for that, the candles warming her cheeks.
"Not yet! Don't wish yet!" Enzo's wife, Natalie, waved at Chloe from down the table. "Enzo! Give it to her." She tugged her husband's sleeve.
Enzo pulled an envelope from the dinner jacket he always wore when he appeared at his beloved restaurant, and passed it down the row with a somber nod.
"We know your dream is cooking school," Natalie said as the envelope reached Chloe. "So practice on us!" Natalie was ten years younger and far livelier than her husband.
Puzzled, Chloe tore the envelope flap.
"We want you to be our cook!" Natalie burst out.
The card inside offered a too-generous salary for cooking for the Sylvestri family. "This is too much just to cook," Chloe said.
"So we add some light housekeeping." Natalie beamed at her. "I finally talked Delores into retiring. It was frozen foods and takeout every night. Come save us, Chloe. Will you? Please?"
"But my job here " she said, stunned by the offer.
"We'll fix the schedule," Enzo said. "No trouble."
"Save your money and you'll be in cooking school before you know it," Natalie added. "That was your wish, right?"
Exactly. "I don't know what to say "
"Say yes and blow out your candles."
How could she turn them down? The Sylvestris had treated the Baxters like family since the Chicago days. "Yes," she said softly. "Thank you so much."
"Now make a new wish," Natalie commanded.
"Okay," she said, leaning down to the glowing cake.
"Wish for Riley," Sadie murmured. "Quick, before he escapes. Last chance for a b-day lay."
Chloe glanced up to see Riley putting his wallet away, ready to leave. He caught her gaze and saluted her before he turned to go.
"He's getting away," Sadie said. "Go get him."
"Forget it," she said. She couldn't chase after the man. Not even for a date, let alone sex.
But that would sure be exciting. Different. Kind of crazy. When was she ever crazy? Never. She did the practical, responsible thing at every turn. She looked down at her candles, melted to stubs in hot puddles, the flames flickering fiercely, fighting going out with all their waxy might.
Maybe it was time to try something different. Something wild and fun and just for her. Why not, now that she had a quarter century under her belt?
Yeah. So, instead of a wish, she made herself a promise: The next time Riley Connelly walks through that door, I'll ask him out.
She blew out all twenty-five candles to cheers from her friends. Now came the best partserving her cake. "This is called the Surprise Cake," she announced to the group. "It's ten cakes in one. Every piece is different so we can pass them around and share."
Chloe cut through the butter-rich frosting, passed out the pieces to oohs and aahs and waited for her friends to taste.
"Ooh, cinnamon-nut?" "Yummy, cherry cobbler!" "Taste this. Is it raspberry cheesecake?" "Mine's peanut butter and toffee? Yeah, toffee, yum."
So it went as everyone nibbled and exclaimed and passed their plates to nibble and exclaim again. Chloe was thrilled. This was why she cookedto give this delight, made even more special when it was for people she loved.
After her guests declared themselves stuffed, she opened her gifta set of top-of-the-line knives they'd all pitched in for. "Thank you so much," she said, tears welling. "This means so much. And, Natalie and Enzo, the job will be amazing."
Just as she sat down, the door opened and a man entered. Riley? Could it be? She blinked away the happy tears to be sure. Yep. It was Riley striding to the hostess stand, where Glenda handed him a cell phone. He must have left it in his booth.
The next time Riley Connelly walks in the door
Was fate testing her resolve? How could she act with her party still going on? Next time. That was what she'd meant.
Dammit, no. She'd made a promise and the smoke had barely cleared from her candles before she was negotiating it away. She stood so fast her chair scraped the floor.
Everyone stopped talking and looked at her.
"Thank you, everyone. This has been great, but I need to I have to get my wish," she said, her face flaming, knowing everyone would watch her now. But if she didn't act, she'd regret it. It was past time to get on with her life.
She steadied her gaze on Riley, who looked puzzled, but waited to see what she wanted, his smile broader with each step she took toward him. She stopped inches away.
"Hello there," he said softly.
"It's my birthday "
"I gathered that."
"And when I blew out my candles, I promised myself the next time you walked in here, I would "
What? Ask you out? Not dramatic enough for her birthday high, for Riley's magical reappearance, for the hopeful crowd behind her. She'd already leaped off the cliff. Now it was time to fly. "Just this." She rose on her tiptoes and planted her lips on his.
For a second, she feared he'd break it off, but after the briefest hesitation, he tilted his head, deepened the kiss and pulled her into his arms.
His mouth was warm and firm, and he tasted of rich, dark coffee, and she was so glad she'd taken the leap.
Her friends roared and whistled, which finally made her laugh and she broke away. "Thank you," she whispered.
"No, thank you," he said, his smile wicked. He still held her at the waist.
Unsure of her next move, she was relieved when Sadie bustled over with her purse. "Go on. Have fun. We'll pack up your gift and whatever's left of that incredible cake."
"Are you sure?" she said.
"Yes!" the entire group said in unison. Their laughter trailed her and Riley out the door, as though they were new-lyweds off on their honeymoon.
Once outside in the sudden quiet of the spring night, Chloe became painfully aware she'd just kissed a man to whom she'd never said more than "Booth or table?" and "Your server will be with you in a moment."
"Thanks for going along with me," she said, stepping off the sidewalk between two cars. "It was out of the blue and a crazy sort of dare and I've had champagne and"
Riley cut her off with a kiss, pulling her into his arms and taking his time, exploring her mouth as comfortably as if they'd been lovers for years.
She relaxed into the moment, not wanting it to end. If this were a movie, the director would cut to a bed and their naked bodies in golden lamplight. There would be no tense seconds, no awkward fussing with zippers and clasps and discussions of prophylactics and blood tests.
She leaned back.
Honk...honk... honk... honk... honk. The car alarm she'd set off brought her back to reality. She was no screen star embracing the man of her dreams. She was Chloe Baxter, talented cook with a problem father, a flaky sister and a cranky cat. Her goofy birthday promise had her making out in a parking lot like a hormone-crazed teenager.
Riley laughed good-naturedly, not a bit thrown by the honking. "My house is close and I promise no alarms will go off." When she hesitated, he added, "It's reasonably clean, I swear. For a guy."
"It's not that. It's just "
"Your mama told you not to go home with strange men. I get that. But you know me, Chloe. I'm at Enzo's all the time. I'm harmless, I swear." He crossed his heart. "If I misbehave, my dog will pin me to the ground and gnaw my nuts off." He looked so sturdy and sweet and trustworthy, she could only laugh.
"You in?" he asked, his eyes twinkling in the moonlight.
"Let me see " She rose on tiptoe to kiss him again. His lips were strong, yet soft, his kiss slow and urgent, and she went boneless with desire. "I'm in," she breathed, hoping the kiss would prolong her courage.
Riley seemed to sense her doubts. "You call the shots, you know. You're the birthday girl. We can have a beer, watch TV, play cards or, hell, do you like Guitar Hero?"
She laughed, feeling surprisingly comfortable with the man.
"Or we could hit a bar if you'd rather."
"No. Let's go to your place." Something about this man and this moment made it right. She felt different. New. Ready for anything. Well, not anything. And not entirely different. Just enough for tonight. She shivered in anticipation.
"You cold?" Riley asked, running his hands up and down her arms as if to warm her.
"Just excited, I think."
"Good, then. Let's go." He gave her his address and she followed his vintage red Mustang the few blocks to his house, her heart pounding, her toes and fingers tingling, her stomach fluttering with a million butterflies. The champagne buzz was gone, so it had to be nervous excitement she felt.
Riley held her door for her, then led her up the walk, a gentlemanly arm around her shoulders.
At his front door, she stopped. "This isn't like me, you know. I'm usually cautious and careful and, I don't know "
He waited for her to figure it out.
"Boring," she said, realizing it was true. "Utterly dull."
"You're sure not boring me," he said, kissing her again, soft and coaxing and warm and sure.
When he opened the door, they were greeted by a barrel-chested dog with wispy black-and-white furan oversize Chihuahua on stilt legs who galloped around them, barking.
"This is the guy who's supposed to knock you to the ground if you get fresh with me?" she teased.
"Oh, you don't want to get on his bad side," he said, bending to the dog's level. "He's ferocious, aren't you, boy?"
She bent down, too, glad of the distraction. The sudden intimacy of being in Riley's home made her feel awkward.
"This is Idle," he told her.
"Nice to meet you." She patted the dog, who was remarkably ugly but had the warmest eyes. "He's sweet."
"He's usually shy with strangers, but he's taken with you. So am I." He leaned over the dog to kiss her.
Her lust surged again, telling her she wanted more from this man, this night, though she wasn't sure how much.
He helped her to her feet, holding both her hands, then led her to the sofa. "Would you like coffee to clear your head?"
"My head is clear. Or reasonably clear." She laughed, still a little uncertain how she'd gotten here. "I only had a little champagne really."
"A beer then?"
She stayed away from alcohol as a rule. She'd tested herself in high school to be certain she didn't have her father's disease, deliberately getting drunk to see if a craving commenced. She'd thrown up lemon Schnapps until she could hardly crawl. Even now, the smell of lemonade gave her a twinge.
"How about juice?"
"I've got orange." He headed to the kitchen to get their drinks. His dog followed him with his eyes, then stayed put. She patted him, trying to slow her thrumming pulse. What would happen? Would they just make out? Or do more? Have sex? Could she see herself going that far?
She shivered and looked around. This was a guy's place. No real decorating, generic furniture, though the brown leather sofa was remarkably comfortable. The cream walls held art postersa race car, a beach scene, a sepia print of a black jazz band. Shelves had books, DVDs, CDs and video games for the consoles that shared space with a fancy stereo and a plasma TV in the entertainment center. The cocktail table had car magazines and Popular Mechanics. But it was neat, as he'd said.
Riley brought the drinks in plastic tumblers and sat close beside her, handing her hers.
She sipped, then smiled, nervous again. "Your dog is so friendly. Nothing like my cat. She's feral. I named her Pepper Spray because if you get near she hisses and spits. Mostly she hides. I only know she's around by the shredded curtains and the empty food bowl."
"How did you end up with her?"
"She's a rescued cat. My friend has a shelter and couldn't find a home for her."
"So you took her?"
"Yeah. Every few nights, she tears around the house like she wants to escape. I don't know what it takes to convince her she's safe."
"Maybe find a farm that needs a mouser and get yourself a friendlier one."
"She's family." She shrugged. "I love her."
He studied her, as if puzzled by that admission. "So, I didn't count. How many candles were there?"
"Twenty-five. I can't believe I'm that old."
"That's not old. Try thirty-two."
"Wow, old." She laughed. "Just kidding. I guess I feel like I've been waiting for my life to start."
"Why is that?" He leaned back, ready to listen. He was easy to talk to. Maybe it was the kissing or her long-held crush, but she felt as if they'd sped through the usual getting-to-know-you steps and landed in more intimate territory.