Man Candy: A Real Love Novel, page 19
The second I unlock the door, the office phone rings. I grab it and save Grace the hassle.
There’s a beat of silence, but I hear someone on the phone.
My heart hits the bottom of my stomach as I recognize that soft voice.
“Hi.” She laughs nervously. “So. There’s only one McGreevy’s in Columbus. Still, I didn’t expect you to answer. I thought you were rarely there.”
“I’m never here,” I agree. “You happened to catch me. I’ve been at my new place, fixing it up.”
“You bought it?”
“I bought it.”
“That’s great. You’re probably so busy.”
I have a premonition of doom like she’s dancing around bad news, but I can’t put my finger on what it could be.
“Barrett and I have been remodeling. It’s coming along.” Inviting her out to see it is on the tip of my tongue, but she called me. If she has news to deliver, I’m going to let her do it before I shove my size-twelve boot in my mouth. “How are you? How’s the menu coming along?”
“Great! Better than I would’ve thought.”
Snippets of our last night together crash into my brain mercilessly. Her breath in my ear. The stars above, shining bright. Tears streaming down her cheeks and the bone-aching love we both felt in that moment. Improbable after just two weeks together, but there nonetheless.
It was there. It was real. And because I know how real it was, I know how fake this conversation is. How forced.
We didn’t used to have to force it.
She lets out a sigh I hear through the phone.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m . . . leaving. Tennessee.” Her voice wavers and the laugh that follows is more nervous than the last. “I’m going to move back to New York. I might go to culinary school. I have a friend of a friend who needs a roommate. She’s a sommelier at a really fancy restaurant and said she can get me a job there. I had a long talk with Tad, but he’d already figured out I was ready to leave. He said I didn’t seem happy here, and he’s right. I’m not happy.”
I’m not happy either. I press my lips closed to keep words like “I miss you” and “What we had was real” from tumbling out. I press them tighter when I’m tempted to admit that I might still love her.
No, fuck that. There’s no “might” about it. I do love her.
I was in denial until I heard her voice. Now that I’m numbly holding the handset of the piece-of-shit desk phone to my ear, I know.
I love her, dammit.
And she’s leaving Tennessee yet again.
“Is that what you want?” I finally ask. I should congratulate her, but I can’t get the word out.
“Yes.” To her credit, she doesn’t hesitate. She doesn’t say, “I think so” or “Maybe” or even “Yeah.” She says a clear, concise, absolute affirmative. Yes.
“I wanted to call you before I left,” she says. “You were important, Dax.”
Were. I caught the past tense.
“I appreciate that,” I say, my chest caving in.
“Hey, we’ll always have cabin thirteen.” Her casual tone is false. There’s not a note of sincerity in it. I wonder if she’s as miserable as I am, and then I figure she’s not. She’s the one who called me to tell me that she’s heading off to new horizons. She’ll have new experiences. New relationships.
A long, awkward pause precedes her asking, “Did you put the quesadilla on the menu?”
“Yeah. Here, at McGreevy’s. It’s a big hit.” I debate telling her, then decide it doesn’t matter and tell her anyway. “I didn’t name it the Cabin Thirteen, though.”
“No? What’d you call it.”
I swallow hard and then say, “I call it the Princess.”
“Oh.” The word is so quiet I almost miss it.
Meanwhile, either I’m experiencing cardiac arrest or that crackling feeling in my chest is my heart suffering an irreparable split. I’m not a total selfish bastard, so I say something supportive.
“You’re going to do great things, Becca. You’re bigger than Grand Lark. Go get ’em.”
I swear I hear her sniffle before she chirps, “I’m so excited.”
“You should be. You deserve an amazing life.”
“So you keep telling me.”
Fuck, this hurts.
It hurts too much for words. So much that I forgo the farewell and rest the handset on the cradle.
I don’t sit on purpose—more like I lose the ability to hold myself up. Or, hell, maybe I’m tired from the long day.
That’s what I tell myself.
That’s what I’ll keep telling myself.
For as long as it takes to get over Becca Stone.
The Next Day
I’m facedown in the bathroom sink—a sink filled with ice water. The frigid water is burning my pores. I emerge, mouth open as I gasp for air. Lara, next to me, hands over a towel and then inspects my eyes as I pat the water from my face.
“Definitely better. Nothing gets rid of the crying puffies from the night before like ice water. Maybe one more dunk?”
“Forget it.” I shudder. “That’s my fourth dunk and I can’t feel my eyeballs.” I toss the towel into the hamper. “It doesn’t matter if everyone at work knows I’ve been crying. I’m leaving anyway.”
A tear trickles from my itchy eyes, hot against my hypothermic cheek.
“Becca.” Lara comes toward me in hug mode, her arms out. I grip her wrists to stop her.
“Please. Don’t hug me. I’ll dissolve.” After I hung up with Dax last night I felt three simultaneous emotions. Longing. Love. Regret.
I messed up. I’m a ginormous chicken. I called not to tell him that I was fleeing to New York but to ask if he’d reconsider my living in Ohio. Then he answered the phone and after only a few seconds, I could tell it’d never work. I felt the distance between us. He might as well have been on Mars.
It wouldn’t have been fair to ask to intrude on his life. I bet he would’ve said yes. He lived with his mom for months to help her clean out the house and be there for her while she grieved her late husband—Dax’s father. Dax let Barrett move in, and I found out last night he still lives there. Dax has a habit of putting what he wants on the back burner to make everyone around him comfortable. Why would I be any different?
I can’t do that to him. I can’t ask him to put me first and ignore what he wants. He said I deserve great things—well, so does he, dammit.
Realizing I’d lost him for good cut like a thousand razor blades. And when I said that final goodbye . . . trust me, it was final.
“New York will be a great beginning for you.” Lara doesn’t hug me, but she’s unable to keep from stroking my arm in sympathy. “You never know, Bec. Maybe your true soulmate is in NYC. You could meet the man of your dreams. What’s meant to be will be. Right?”
“Right.” I’m not sure I believe that, but I have to hold onto hope or I’ll curl into a ball and cry enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, and honestly, who has the time?
“Are the tears done completely? I’m not bothering to do your makeup until they’re dried up.”
“Dry.” I sniff mightily and square my shoulders. “Mojave Desert over here.” I gesture to my eyes. “Waterproof mascara just in case, though.”
“Oh, that was never not an option.”
I sit on the closed toilet seat. While Lara applies my makeup, I busy my brain with recipes and ingredients. I mentally slice, dice, prepare, and plate them.
Anything to avoid thinking of the phone call last night.
To avoid thinking of Dax at all.
The Day After That
“Here they are.” Tad strolls into th
I lift the front-only menus, running my fingers over the thick paper and the words I wrote.
Two of my recipes. Served in my brother’s restaurant. It’s monumental.
“I thought I was done crying yesterday,” I tell him, my voice watery. “I’m leaving you high and dry after I promised I wouldn’t! I’m a horrible sister. The worst.”
“Bec. We talked about this.” Tad sits in his usual spot at the corner of the desk. “Your food isn’t good. It’s beyond. You’re wasting your talents serving this sort of high-end fare to hillbillies in the sticks, like me.” His smile is one of good humor.
“You’re not a hillbilly in the sticks.”
“I want you to be happy. I can’t pin this on you. This is my business. My responsibility. Plus, Dominic about shit himself when I asked if he’d like to have more responsibility and more money.”
“Thanks for that visual.”
“Hey, I’m the lucky one who will profit off your amazing creations. Those fried cheese nacho thingies?” He makes an “okay” symbol and kisses his fingers. “Superb.”
My smile is real for a change. Lately real smiles have been few and far between. “Thank you, Tad. For everything.”
“Don’t act like you’re not coming back to visit. You will. Your old room will now be our guest room. Limited time, though. Lara and I have restarted our baby-making endeavors.”
“Eww.” I’m kidding. Tad and Lara make beautiful babies. And if they give me another niece or nephew, I’ll be overjoyed.
“What time do I need to have you to the airport tomorrow?” he asks.
“No, no. I can’t ask you to do that. I can take an Uber. It’s not a big deal.” I’m flying in for an interview at the restaurant in New York and taking a few suitcases to my new shared apartment. I’m scheduled to fly back a day later, when I’ll rent a U-Haul and hook it to the back of my Toyota and take the rest. I can’t believe it. Back to the city. I blink, but my eyes are too dry to cry any more tears.
“It is a big deal,” Tad argues. “My baby sister is chasing her dreams. Again.”
I sock him in the arm at the dig, but follow it by standing from my chair and embracing him in a huge hug.
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out like you wanted, Bec,” Tad tells me, his hand rubbing my back.
There are more tears. Fabulous.
“You didn’t like him anyway.” I pull away and swipe the hollows of my eyes, trying like hell to hold myself together.
“I like him less now. He broke my baby sister’s unbreakable heart.” Tad gives my shoulders a squeeze. “I’d better get back out there. Dom is behind the bar, but Anna called in. We don’t have a server today.”
“I can help.”
“We’re okay for the moment, but I’ll let you know. Since the mountain’s full, we may have a dinner rush.” He strolls out of the office and I set aside the menu I helped create.
Two hours later, I take a break from incoming bookings and cancellations to stretch my arms overhead.
“Need you, Bec.” Tad sticks his head in the doorway.
“Are we full?”
“Filling quickly. Can you help bring food from the kitchen?”
“Absolutely.” I steal a drink from my largely ignored water bottle and lock the office door behind me, hustling to the kitchen to find Steve and Eric buried. Baskets of food with tickets on top line the shelf.
I deliver basket after basket to the dining room, helping relieve the kitchen, and Tad too.
“Take this special order to table thirteen for me.” Tad takes the fish-and-chips basket out of my hands and swaps it with a different one.
“Sure.” In get-er-done mode, I dart from the kitchen to the dining room, my mind on autopilot as I stride to table 13.
I stop short as I spot the hulking figure sitting at table 13.
He’s rugged. Even from behind, he has a presence.
His jeans are ragged at the bottoms and he’s wearing a pair of motorcycle boots with buckles on the sides.
I’m standing behind him, frozen in shock, when a guest behind me calls out, “Miss?”
That’s when the guy at table 13 turns his head.
He has a strong nose below a strong brow matching his firm, strong jaw.
Lips that I’ve kissed over and over tip into half a smile and his eyes go to the basket. I take my first real look at the food in the checkered basket liner and finding a quesadilla alongside a pile of fries.
“Looks like a chicken and cheese quesadilla.” I clear my throat and set down the basket in front of Dax. “Interesting choice.”
“You didn’t have one on the menu, so I made a special request,” he says. “I have this at my bar. I call it the Princess.”
“Miss?” the guest calls again.
“One second,” I call over my shoulder. Then to Dax, “What are you doing here?”
“Tasting the competition. Did you make this?”
“No. I didn’t know anything about it.”
“Well it’s not a fair comparison unless the chef in the kitchen has your recipe.” He stands from the table. Every lumbering, sexy inch of him.
“I gave that recipe to someone else, so I didn’t think it was fair to use it here.” I hazard a look at his silver-blue eyes filled with . . . Is that hope?
Oh, God, I hope it’s hope.
“You gave away your best recipe? That’s not very smart.”
“How do you know it’s my best?”
“I’ve had a few.”
“Those recipes made it onto Grand Lark’s new menu. They came in today.”
“No quesadilla on that one, either?” His low voice trickles down my spine.
“I meant what I said. That one was for you exclusively.” I swallow thickly.
Him being this close messes with my equilibrium.
“Are you really here to eat?” I’m half scared of his answer.
He shakes his head. Slowly. “No.”
I’m in his arms a second later. I’m not sure how I got here, but I’m relieved as hell that he’s holding me. Big, strong arms pull me close and cradle me against his impossibly broad chest.
I squeeze him tighter. I don’t want to let go.
“Don’t leave, Becca,” he breathes into my ear. “Don’t leave for New York. It’s a shitty thing for me to say, because I know you want it. I don’t want you to go there—it’ll feel like you’re on the dark side of the moon, and I can’t deal with that.”
I move my hands to his biceps. A shake works down both his arms.
“I’m selfish,” he says. “I tried like hell to fall out of love with you. I’m horrible at it.”
A tear-filled laugh escapes me and I cover my mouth with one hand.
“Just the worst.” His laugh follows and his eyes mist over, damp and filled to the brim with emotion.
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
I nod. “I’m probably worse at it than you are.”
“I don’t think that’s possible.” He lets go of me but we can’t stop looking at each other.
“I can’t believe you’re here.”
“Didn’t have a choice, Princess. You pulled the rug out at a time I was trying to find my footing.”
“You’re not selfish, Dax. I’m trying not to be selfish. I called you that night to ask if you still wanted me—in your life. Maybe in Ohio. But I didn’t want to ask more than you were ready to give. I didn’t want to be one more person in your life taking from you.”
“Silly girl.” He shakes his head before turning and reaching into a backpack sitting on his table. He pulls out a slightly wrinkled, folded sheet of paper. “I have an offer for you if you’re not one hundred percent sure about New York.”
He knows I’m not.
I unfold the paper and smooth it on my thigh, holding it up to read the bol
“North Street Bar. Menu by in-house chef, Becca Stone.” I blink up at him.
“I want you there. I want you, period. If you’d like , I’ll put you in charge of the place, which will be like having your own restaurant. It’s not in New York, and you’ll be settling, but . . . babe.”
I smile, remembering the first time he called me babe.
“Princess,” he corrects, and that’s even better. “You’re it for me. I love you just the way you are. I know value when I see it. You’re it,” he says again.
I must be in shock. My extremities are cold and my brain’s slogging through thoughts like thick mud.
“I’ll pay you whatever Tad is paying you here. I can’t open yet, but we’re close. I’ll pay you even though we’re not open. You can design the menu. Hell, design the restaurant. Whatever you want. As long as you’re there. With me. As long as you—”
I slam into him, my lips crushing his. I give him a bruising kiss and he kisses me back, holding me close. His tongue plunges deep, his teeth scrape my bottom lip, and my entire body weakens against his.
You’re it for me.
“I’ve got you, Princess,” he says when my body goes slack.
I steady myself by gripping his biceps. I still can’t believe he’s here. That he invited me to come back to Ohio. That he loves me.
“I’ve got you,” he repeats. “This time I’m not letting go.”
At that moment we both become aware of the palpable silence around us. Dax’s eyes slide to the side and my gaze follows. We’re surrounded by interested onlookers—the entire packed restaurant, Dom behind the bar, and Tad, who’s standing off to one side, arms folded over his chest. Come to think of it . . . .
“You knew he was here,” I tell my brother.
He dips his chin in a nod.
“And you didn’t kick him out.”
He shakes his head.
“I wouldn’t have left,” Dax says, his eyes trained on Tad. When he snaps his gaze back to me, his eyes are smiling. “Tad and I have an understanding.”
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