Man Candy: A Real Love Novel, page 17
Shit. I totally understand where he’s coming from.
“Anyway,” he says. “I’m giving you more responsibility. I’m upping your salary by six thousand dollars a year, giving you a management position and title, and I’d like you to work on the menu here as well, if you’re interested.”
Good thing I’m sitting. This is too much to absorb standing up. Almost too much for a sitting position. Maybe I should lie down.
“Will you write a few recipes for the kitchen? You can hire an assistant for the office work or another kitchen guy—whichever would help you more. Anytime I’m not at Grand Lark, you’ll be in charge. But I’ll be here for you every step of the way.”
“Tad, I . . . don’t know what to say.”
“Say yes. You’ll have a respectable full-time job that hopefully you’ll love, now that I’m not breathing down your neck about every minute detail. I trust you, Bec. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”
Plus six grand more a year? It boggles the mind.
“I can afford to get my own place,” I say, the idea taking root.
“You can. It’s a good gig if you’re going to stay. Will you stay?”
I’ve been putting off making that decision for five months. I would’ve continued to put it off longer if Tad hadn’t offered me the sweetest position available at Grand Lark—one I create.
“Are you sure about the raise?” It’s almost too good to be true.
He considers, then shakes his head. My stomach tightens until he says, “Make it a ten-thousand-dollar-a-year raise. I can afford it. You’re going to bring in more business now that I’m giving you more responsibility. Everyone likes you. Maybe we’ll put you in our next TV commercial.”
“I can’t believe this.” I blink quickly as tears pool in my eyes. “Thank you. Can I . . . think about it, though?”
“I want you to think about it.” Tad nods easily, which is as surprising as every other thing he’s said so far today. “Carefully. If you’re not going to stay—if this isn’t where you want to be—let me know and I’ll fill the management position. Maybe Dom wants it, I don’t know.”
“Dominic.” His best friend since childhood would make so much more sense. “Why didn’t you ask Dominic?”
“You’re my sister, Becca. My first choice.”
Oh, my heart.
“I want you here,” Tad continues as my heart swells. “I trust you more than I trust anyone. But I won’t obligate you to stay if it’s time for you to go elsewhere. Like, say, to New York to be a dancer?”
I regard my shoes. “That was silly.”
“No. That was brave. Just because it didn’t work out doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do. Lots of things in life are like that. Jobs. College. Relationships.”
“I thought you didn’t like Dax.” We both know that these past few weeks with Dax is the closest I’ve come to a relationship in years.
“I like him now that I know you’ve got him by the balls.” Tad shuts his eyes like he’s trying to disrupt that mental picture. “Not literally.”
“You can handle yourself, can’t you?” His features soften.
“Yes. I just handle myself differently than you handle yourself.”
He leans down and kisses the top of my head. “One of your best qualities is that you’re not me. Don’t ever forget it.”
With a wink, Tad leaves me with a lot to think about.
I’ve struggled for so long to get him to trust me with more, now that he’s offering it’s . . . jarring. I can handle it. Without a doubt. But I don’t want to accept, then change my mind. I’m sort of known for my wild urges to flit away and try something new. Putting down roots—permanent roots—would be a huge change. A good one?
I tap a few figures into the calculator on the desk and jot them down on a Post-it note.
If I stay, the first order of business is to move out of Tad and Lara’s house. They have a family to raise, and while I love helping out, it’s time to give them the space they deserve. If I’ve learned one thing about relationships, it’s that two people involved is plenty. Tad and Lara have their own lives to lead, separate from me.
I consider my path before I moved here. Consider that I’ve tried nearly everything. Being a student and working side jobs. Waitressing and teaching Zumba. But recipe creation—being in on the development part. Being in control of what a kitchen serves . . . Every organ in my body leans forward in anticipation.
I want that. Badly.
And my brother is handing it to me. In a place I already work. Close to my family. Under his tutelage. I’d be helping him out, helping myself out, and it wouldn’t involve the risk of going with Dax to Ohio.
Tad and Grand Lark are the sure thing. Dax isn’t.
I decide to sleep on it, but while I’m waiting . . . it wouldn’t hurt to look around at a few available apartments in town. Biting my lip, I tap another couple of numbers into the calculator.
Or . . .
I could buy a house—another dream I never allowed myself to have.
Fresh out of the shower, I’m scrubbing the towel over my hair when I hear a knock. I figure it’s Becca. I’ve been expecting her, since it’s my last night here.
Though you could replace “expecting” with “hoping for.”
Looping the towel around my hips, I walk barefoot to the front door and pull it open, pleased when her eyes widen and she takes me in from face to feet. I like how much she likes me, even though I wish she liked me just a bit more.
“Hey, Princess.” I lean, one arm high on the door.
“Hi. Dax. Hi.” She’s dressed in a tight, tight pair of jeans that taper at the ankles and the heeled sandals she was wearing the first night we were together. The ones with the tiny straps held together by tinier buckles. “Um. Yeah. So.” She raises a plastic bag holding two foam containers. “I made you dinner for your last night. Unless you ate?”
I shake my head and step aside. “I didn’t eat. And fishing was a bust. I now know why they refer to it as drowning worms. Come in.”
She does, both hands on the takeout and her purse hooked on one shoulder. Her shirt is a button-down and I remind myself to do some finger stretches to limber up. Every time she’s with me, I take her clothes off. I don’t expect tonight to be different.
“I’ll get dressed.” I lean down and kiss her, but she goes up on her toes and makes the short peck last longer. We part and her eyes search my face, for what I’m not sure. “Back in a sec,” I tell her, then I go to the bedroom and get dressed.
I come out in jeans and a tee to find Becca has kicked off her sandals. She’s sitting at the table, one long leg crossed over the other, a foam container at each place setting with plasticware and a beer for her.
“I helped myself.” She lifts the beer bottle. “Want one?”
“Yeah.” She starts to stand, but I stop her with a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll get it. You’ve done plenty.” Beer in hand, cap off, I take my first drink and let out a beer-ad-worthy sigh. It tastes damn good. “What’d you cook?”
“Well.” She sucks in a breath and holds it. “Two new recipes. I wanted your opinion on them.”
Time to regroup.
Is she reconsidering my offer to help with the menu? Is this meal going to include a pitch and a bill for my using them at my bars? Whatever she charges, I already know I’ll pay it. I haven’t tasted a single meal by Becca that hasn’t been amazing.
I sit and place my beer bottle on the table next to the foam container.
“The first,” she starts, her voice an excited chirp, “is a pepper jack and prosciutto panini with arugula and roasted red peppers.” She flips the top open on the container in front of me to reveal a sandwich with perfect diagonal grill marks nestled in a bouquet of seasoned fries.
My mouth is a waterfall.
I lift the sandwich, take a hearty, crunchy bi
“Damn,” I say when I’m done chewing. “That’s fucking delicious.”
She nods with exuberance as I shove a few fries in my mouth.
“It’s the sauces. The Dijon is on one slice of bread, and I slathered raspberry jam on the other with a bit of freshly cracked pepper. Good, right?”
I shake my head and swallow a drink of my beer. “Not good, Princess. Perfect.”
I take another bite of the sandwich as she flips the top on her other container. Her voice rises with excitement.
“This one is an appetizer. Cubes of pepper jack cheese rolled in panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried, and topped like nachos. Seasoned black beans, Tad’s chili—which cannot be improved upon—lettuce, tomato, sour cream. The usual.”
I grab the fork and stab a cheese cube, scooping up toppings with it. Imagine nachos but with gooey, spicy cheese as the bed instead of chips.
God. It’s incredible.
I finish one bite, take another, and follow it with one more bite topped with a pickled jalapeño she thoughtfully included on the side. Only then do I put down my fork.
“One question.” I swipe my mouth with the napkin. “Did you bring yourself anything to eat?”
Her grin is incomparable. Beautiful.
Fuck, I’m going to miss that smile.
“This is all yours,” she says. “I tested it several times and ate some of each one. Dominic ate the castoffs.”
“And you brought the final products to me.”
“I trust your palate.” She clasps her hands together and takes a deep breath. “I have something to tell you.”
“I’m all ears.” I’m proud of her already and she hasn’t even said anything.
“Tad offered me a higher salary and a change in title. A management position here at Grand Lark. He also wants me to add to the menu. Anything I want. He’s giving me room to hire office or kitchen help to fill in the gaps wherever needed. He said he trusts me. That he was wrong.”
Her eyes mist over as she tells me the news. I imagine it’s because she’s grateful her brother finally quit being a prick and gave her the respect she deserves.
“That’s great,” I tell her, because this isn’t about me. It is great news that she’s finally being recognized for her accomplishments and valued as a person. Becca deserves to have her talents rewarded. She deserves to thrive.
“That was this morning. He’s giving me time to turn it over, so I agreed to sleep on it. Nothing’s final, but the idea of creating a menu at Grand Lark . . .” She beams, her eyes dancing with joy. “As soon as he mentioned it, the ideas came bursting out of me.”
Everything is suddenly crystal clear. Diamond hard. Becca is definitely not offering me the use of these recipes. She’s not reconsidering my offer to run my bar back in Ohio, either. I didn’t realize how high my hopes were until just now.
I nod my approval anyway. “It’s amazing, Becca.”
“It’s a great opportunity. An opportunity I might not even have without your encouragement.” She places her hand on my arm and squeezes. “The chicken quesadilla recipe is yours. No take-backs. Anything I create for Grand Lark will be fresh. I meant it when I said I wanted you to have it.”
Sounds like she doesn’t need to sleep on it. Her mind is made up.
“It’s chicken and cheese, Princess. I don’t have the right to patent it.”
“It’s yours,” I correct. At one point I thought we’d collaborate on a menu—at another point I thought we’d collaborate on more than that. Now that we’re not going to, I refuse to take anything away from her. “I’ll come back and order it sometime.”
Her smile turns sad. “Promise?”
“Promise.” I put my hand on top of hers, feeling the finality of the moment. But I’m not staying in that zone for my last night here. “Seriously, I can eat all of this? Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.”
“I mean it.” Her smile is more cautious than before, but it’s no longer sad. I’ll take it. “Except for this fry.” She swipes a spud and nibbles as I dive into the sandwich again. I finish every bite of it plus the nachos, save for the couple of fries and cheese cubes she steals.
Leaves me wondering what else I would’ve let her steal if things had gone a different way.
Dax didn’t explain to me what we were doing before we climbed in his Jeep, only that he “didn’t get the chance to do it yet” and “we won’t go far.”
I discern quickly that we are, in fact, not going far at all. Back to the field behind the house, to the same campsite where we made a fire and made love in this very vehicle.
“Uh-oh.” I laugh as he drives out to the middle of the field and parks.
“Nothing.” The top is off the Jeep, so I reach up and untousle my hair. “I figured out why we’re here.”
Dax gives me a practiced look of confusion.
“To stargaze. Obviously.” The clear night sky above us is dotted with shining, bright stars. “That’s why I’m out here, Princess. Unless you have something else in mind?”
I laugh again. “Nope. You guessed it. I was planning on stargazing this whole time.”
He redirects his gaze heavenward. “It was cloudy the night we stayed out here, and I kept meaning to come out and look up but haven’t yet. Seemed like a good night to do it.” Without looking over, he grabs my hand and holds it. “And a good person to do it with.”
I ignore the lump in my throat and gaze up as well, resting my head back on the seat. Dax does the same, but we don’t let go of each other. I weave my fingers with his and sit with the comforting warmth of his palm against mine.
“Warmer tonight than it was then too,” I murmur after a long stretch of silence.
That’s all we say for a very long time.
“What do you know about astrology?” I ask out of the blue.
“I know that I’m a Cancer sign and that those three stars over there are Orion’s belt. That’s about it.”
“A sentimental crab is your sign? Not how I’d describe you.”
“Cancers are also tenacious.” He pegs me with dark eyes. “Persuasive.”
I nod. He’s both of those.
“And loyal,” he adds.
“Sounds like you,” I say barely above a whisper. “How do you know about your sign? Call me crazy, but I can’t picture you checking the newspaper for your horoscope every day.”
“Nah. I have an app,” he jokes. “A former girlfriend was really into it. She told me what I was and what my tendencies were. She focused a lot on the bad ones there at the end.” He frowns. “She said I was manipulative and pessimistic.”
“Sounds like bullshit.”
“She saw what she wanted to.” He shrugs one big shoulder and I consider the sensitive, thoughtful man inside the muscular, yummy package.
“I won’t ever say that about you, Dax.” His attention is back on me, and even though it’s a really vulnerable thing to say, I keep going. “If anyone asks me about this spring, I’ll only say that I met a man who was thoughtful and kind and encouraging. And if I’m not talking to one of my nieces, I’ll add that he was drop-dead gorgeous and second to none when it comes to sex.”
“Second to none,” he repeats, his smile hitching.
“So far you’re the only one I’ve been with who made me want to shout ‘yes’ repeatedly.” I squeeze his hand.
“When I’m asked about my vacation,” he says, “I’ll tell people I met an exciting, unexpected, rare woman who made food so good it was criminal. And if I’m not talking to my mom, I’ll add that she possesses the sexiest legs I’ve ever had the privilege to wrap around my hips.”
Shyly, I look down. Dax tips my chin.
“Never doubt your value, Becca. You’re the most genuine woman I’ve ever met. Ever. Don’t change that.”
I close the gap between us, resting m
Only it won’t.
I met Dax Vaughn and everything changed. For the better.
Maybe he should add “lucky charm” to his list of attributes. He’s been that for me. And more.
So much more.
“Dax. I have something other than stargazing on my mind.”
His nostrils flare and his fingers tighten at the nape of my neck.
“Once more before you go?” My heart pounds. What if he says no? What if this ends now? What if the time to have him has passed? What if I didn’t pay close enough attention the last time and my memories are doomed to be fuzzy?
There’s no need to worry about any of it, because Dax kisses me again. Harder this time. While removing my shirt.
On the open sleeping bag, under the stars, Dax settles in next to me. Slowly, attentively, he kisses down my body and back up, taking his time like he did that first night to carefully remove my shoes and clothes.
“Hope I didn’t pressure you with that ‘second to none’ comment,” I tease, my hands ruffling his hair as he swirls his tongue around my belly button.
“‘Pressure’? Try ‘challenge.’” He comes up to steal a kiss from my lips and whispers against them, “Remember, I’m tenacious.”
He looks at me, but his hands continue rolling my panties down my legs.
“Can I look at you?”
His brows pinch. “You are looking at me.”
“No, I mean really look.” It may be nighttime, but in the dashboard lights of his Jeep, and with the aid of the stars and the full moon, I can see plenty. I want to see it all.
On his knees in front of me, he fists his shirt and yanks it off, revealing the chest I’ve admired nearly every day for the last two weeks. I sweep my hand over his stomach and sit up when I can’t reach higher. Then I’m on my knees, almost eye to eye in front of him. I unbutton his jeans and notch the zipper down carefully.
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