When Angie Wilson realizes her best friend Max is planning on proposing to Miss Wrong on Valentine’s Day, Angie sets out to win his heart in ten days. From showing him her sexy side to a disastrous attempt at cooking dinner, her plan goes awry at every turn. One night, too much rum, and a hot time in Angie’s bed has Max rethinking his logical proposal to a woman who may look good on paper but isn’t the one who captures his heart like Angie does. But is he willing to risk losing his best friend in order to have the happy ending he secretly craves?

"It's a little too much. Big and ostentatious and screaming look at me," Angie said. "I'd go for something simpler. Something like this."  She pointed to a one-carat round stone set in a filigree-patterned white gold band. 
Max picked up the other ring and turned it in the light. "I like this one but I don't know if Betsy would. It’s hard to imagine it on her hand. Here, try it on for me."
"Oh, I can't. It wouldn't be--"
Max took her hand in his and slid the ring onto her finger. The protest died in her throat. "Look at that. It fits perfectly. Like it was made for you."
The soft white light in the store danced off the ring's facets and sent a shower of sparkles onto the carpet, Angie's sweater, and Max's steely features. "I...I..."
He laughed. "I don't think I've ever seen you speechless before. Must be your marriage phobia kicking in again."
"I don't...I'm not..." She tried to push the truth out but it stayed put, a stubborn lump caught between her brain and her gut. What if he didn’t feel the same way? What if saying the words made her feelings disappear? What if she was just caught up in the shock of Max settling down and leaving her as the lone single one in their group? So she laughed it off and caved to her inner coward. "Just thought I'd add a little realism to the moment. You know, the whole O-M-G effect. Do you want me to scream and faint too?"
He chuckled. "You don't need to go that far, Elizabeth Taylor. But since you're in the moment, let me try out the proposal. I'm so scared I'll screw it up."
"You won't. Everything you do is perfect."
Max grinned. "No need to butter me up, Ang. I already promised to take you to lunch for suffering through this with me."
She gave him half a smile. "You know me. Anything for a barbecue burger."
"A woman after my own heart."  Max cleared his throat, then met her eyes. His ocean blue gaze held hers for one long moment. Then he dropped to one knee, still holding her left hand. "Angie, you're the only one in the world who can make me laugh on the worst day of my life. The one person who always remembers I'm allergic to onions, and the one who once gave up her seat on a flight to Cancun to stay behind and nurse me through a man cold."  He grinned and the smile seared itself on her heart. "Will you marry me?"
"Yes," she said, the word a breathless, joyful whisper. "Yes."
Max got to his feet.  "Thanks. I'll come up with something better when I propose to Betsy, of course, since that was all about you."
"I thought what you said was perfect."
"Well, if we ever get engaged, I'll remember that."  He gave her a light jab in the arm. "Don't look so panicked. Your marital status is safely single still."
He slid the ring off her hand and handed it to the salesman. Angie had forgotten the guy was even there. She’d been so caught up in the moment, and in the fantasy of Max proposing.
"I'll take this one,” Max said.
"Certainly, sir."  The clerk left with measured soundless steps. 
She looked at Max, at his defined profile, the smile she knew as well as she knew her own, and realized this was no temporary feeling or a crazy impulse. No, she was definitely in love with him. Deep, soul-sucking love that was going to hurt like an appendectomy without anesthesia when she watched him marry perky Betsy. 
She opened her mouth to tell him, to say the words that were in her heart. Then she saw the anticipation on his face, the happiness that seemed to infuse his skin. Betsy had brought that to his life and right or wrong, Angie couldn't wipe that look from his face. God. This love thing sucked.
Instead, she said, "didn't someone promise me a burger?"

For Maria Pagliano, too much of a good thing has always been a problem. Whether it's men or carbs, she just can't say no. But that's about to change. For her high school reunion, Maria's vowed to reinvent herself as a woman who has her life strictly in order. No more pasta, bread, dessert, or dating--even if the menu offering is one sexy chef named Dante Del Rosso. Everything about Dante is off-limits. From his come-hither smile to his sultry way around the kitchen in his Boston restaurant, he's too much temptation... for her taste buds and her heart. Just being around the guy makes her crave more. The only thing to do is go cold turkey on Dante. But he has other ideas. Now, this devil is out to woo his dream woman using every spicy, sweet, and sinfully delicious weapon he's got. And once Maria gets a taste of the real thing, how can she possibly settle for anything less?

Manicotti with Ricotta

1 pound whole-fat ricotta cheese
1 egg
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, green as envy
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
Dash of nutmeg
12 manicotti noodles, cooked until tender
1 cup pasta sauce, homemade and tasty as sin
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano—only use the best for yourself

Mix the cheeses, egg, parsley, lemon rind, and nutmeg. Spoon into prepared noodles. Lick any excess from the bowl and your fingers ... slowly, enjoying every bit. Don't worry about the salmonella thing. This tastes too good to be bad for you.
Come on, admit the truth, feel a bit of pride. Tastes like heaven ... or even better, like temptation.
Drizzle the noodles with the sauce and admire the food for the scrumptious art that it is. Don't get angry about any mess it might make. Living in sloth can be very relaxing. Dust with extra Parmigiano, then bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, lusting after the dish while you wait to Remember, anything bad for you is best served hot.
Worry about the calories later. There's always tomorrow. Indulge today. Don't bother to share. Greed is good.

Maria Pagliano was serious this time.
No-holds-barred, no-prisoners-taken, no-cheese-allowed serious. She had eight weeks to do what she'd never been able to do before—lose twenty-five pounds.
This time, she vowed, was going to be different. She wasn't going to cheat and fall victim to her own desires. But in order to stick to her plan, she needed a little help, which was why she had come here on a Tuesday night.
To a meeting of the Chubby Chums support group.
In the lime green basement of a tiny church in Boston's North End, a dozen or so people sat on folding chairs in a circle. Above them, a fluorescent light flickered and hummed like a pathetic disco ball. Maria crossed her legs, pantyhose swishing in the quiet, trying very hard not to think about the lone manicotti from Guido's Italian Cafe sitting in her apartment refrigerator.
"Welcome, group!'' A woman in tight jeans who looked like she'd never been tempted by a bowl of ravioli in her life stepped into the room and opened her arms wide, in an all-encompassing group hug. "And how are my Chubby Chums tonight?"
"We're peachy with light syrup!"
Maria looked around at the group, all laughing at their practiced pun. Had she accidentally stumbled into the Lunatics with Heart Support Forum?
The pixie leader's name badge said, Hello, my name is: Stephanie, with a smiley face and an exclamation point. Stephanie took a seat in one of the chairs, thrusting out her hands. The group copied her, becoming a human circle of joined palms. A portly guy—his tag declared his name was "Homer"—grabbed up Maria's left hand with a sweaty palm, giving her a smile that lacked a few teeth. "Jillie," a middle-aged sniffling woman, put down her stash of tissues to take Maria's right hand in a floppy fish grip.
Then, as if on cue, the group dropped their heads to their chests and began to recite: "God grant me the serenity to accept my goal weight, the courage to resist anything with more than three hundred calories, and the wisdom to check the fat grams before I open my mouth and insert a fork."
Goosebumps rose on Maria's arms. Bunch of lunatics.
She should leave. But...
Mary Louise Zipparetto had gone from a size twenty to a size two, with the help of the Chubby Chums. Mary Louise had told her mother, who'd told Maria's mother, who'd told Maria over a cheese danish, that Mary Louise would be wearing a sleeveless Band-Aid of a dress to the class reunion to show off her new figure.
No way was Maria going to let Mary Louise be the best-looking woman in the Sons of Italy hall. All her life, Mary Louise had been the one to compete against. The first one to get an "A" in Mr. Marcetto's impossibly hard geometry class. She'd run for class president and won— two out of four years in high school. The other two, Maria had taken the top spot and made Mary Louise serve as Veep.
And now, Mary Louise was skinnier and planning on taking the spotlight at the reunion.
Over Maria's dead bruschetta-fortified body.
Maria straightened in her seat, yanked her hand away from Homer, who let out a sigh of disappointment, and started paying attention. Stephanie's hands danced around her head as she talked, dramatizing her clear joy at being among a crowd of wannabe-thin people.
"Let's get started with a little bit of sharing! Tell us the last food you ate today and then name an animal you'd most like to be."
Mary Louise Zipparetto. In a size two.
Starting today, Maria intended to leave the double digits behind for good. She'd been okay with herself as a ten, but as twelve edged toward fourteen, she'd begun to dread shopping. Getting dressed. Looking in the mirror. But most of all, she now dreaded dating and the inevitable getting naked part. For a woman who enjoyed sex as much as pasta, that presented a few problems.
Then the invitation to her ten-year class reunion had come in the mail, followed by a phone call that had sent her pulse—and her diet dedication—into overdrive.
Antonio Lombardi, captain of the football team in high school and God's gift to a sex-starved woman, had asked her if she was coming, and if she was still as pretty as the rah-rah cheerleader he remembered. He'd said something about letting him see her in just the pom-poms and she'd babbled some kind of agreement. It was, after all, Antonio, and she'd never been able to say no to him, not even on prom night.
Over the course of her life, she'd done every diet— the seven-day grapefruit plan; the all-the-meat-you-can-eat regime and the starve-yourself-until-the-dress-fits desperation diet only to make a mad dash to Macy's and buy the next size up. Nothing had worked. Inevitably, she gave in to the first thing with tomato sauce and cheese, her diets failing faster than a one-hit-wonders second album.
But now, there was no turning back. Hanging in her closet was a little black—and very expensive—dress from Saks in a size eight that she'd bought this afternoon. The dress, and the thought of Antonio eyeing Mary Louise at the reunion instead of her kept Maria rooted to her seat.
“The last food I ate was a tofu burger for lunch, hold the bun, extra lettuce," said a slightly pudgy young woman in a tie-dyed shirt and frayed bootleg jeans. Her badge declared her name was Audrey, with a smiley in the curve of the "v." "And I'd most like to be a butterfly because they bring beauty to the world."
"Sweet people are better than sweet treats!" shouted another woman. Others in the group echoed her, a human wave of trite phrases.
A young redheaded man with the body shape of an apple leaned forward, draping his arms over his knees. From across the circle, Maria saw he'd written "Arnold" on his name badge in pink marker. "I did good today, Chums," he said. "I had a protein bar for lunch and a power shake for dinner. I think this is it. I'll finally be down a pound this week!"
" 'Down a pound': a sign on your way to the finish line!" the group shouted. Arnold blushed and sat up a little straighter.
Stephanie-with-the-exclamation-point gestured toward Maria. "I see we have someone new. Welcome"—she leaned forward to read the name tag slapped on Maria's russet velour T-shirt—"Chubby Chum Maria!"
Maria wasn't so sure she liked being called a Chubby Chum. Nor did she like the way the group's heads all swiveled her way, like some mass Exorcist wave. "Umm... hi."
"New Chubby Chums are awesome!" said the group, smiling at Maria.
"Why don't you share with us, Maria? Tell us the last thing you ate and what animal you'd most like to be."
"I forgot to tell my animal!" Arnold cut in.
Stephanie gave him a patient smile. "We'll get to your animal after our new Chubby Chum has a chance, Arnold."
Everyone in the room waited, silent and expectant Maria hesitated. She could lie. Say she'd had a salad with light dressing. But no, this was a support group. She was here to get serious and getting serious meant being honest "I had Guido's cheese manicotti for lunch."
A collective gasp went up from the people in the room. "But those are fattening," Audrey said. "Why would you eat one?"
The tempting image of the manicotti appeared in her mind, as beautiful as if it were laid out in Gourmet magazine. Stuffed and swollen, cheese trickling out of the sides, tomato sauce drizzled over the top, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese dusting the top.
Guido's manicotti are better than an hour of sex. If Guido were smart, he'd use that in his next ad campaign.
She'd bought two of them this afternoon for lunch before she'd bought the dress and thus, gotten serious. This time.
"Uh ..." Maria scrambled for an answer. Today's a holiday."
"And what holiday would that be?" Stephanie asked.
Her mind drew a blank. Then she pictured her day planner. Tuesday, March eighteenth. "Uh, Flag Day," she said. "In Aruba."
A heavy silence descended on the room, thick as a good Alfredo sauce. There was the squeak of a chair against the tile, then a slight cough from someone on her right.
"Maria," Stephanie said with the gentle tone parents used on slow-witted children, "did that manicotti give you satisfaction?"
"Well, yeah. It was from Guido's."
"Did it satisfy your soul?"
"It didn't hurt." But even as the words came out of her mouth, she had a feeling she was failing her Introduction to Chubby Chums test. She'd never been the kind of woman who felt out of place, or out of control, anywhere. But something about this group and their collective Borg-like minds had her off-kilter.
"Love yourself enough to eat healthy," Stephanie said, "and your soul will be filled when you reach your goal."
"I want to share my animal!" Arnold said. "When is it my turn again?"
"Arnold, Maria is struggling with her food choices. Let's give her some support and then we'll get back to you."
He slumped in his chair and pouted. "She shouldn't have had that manicotti. What kind of diet lets you eat manicotti?"
"I just started my diet this afternoon," Maria said.
Stephanie nodded her lips a tight line. "After the manicotti, right?"
"Did you tell yourself, 'Just this one more fix and then I'll quit?' Did you eat that cheesy pasta and say it was the last one like you said with all the noodles before?"
"And do you feel guilty about that choice now?"
"Yeah..." At least her head did. Her stomach, however, twisted and grumbled, urging her to get out of this uncomfortable, cold chair and knock over anyone who got between her and the manicotti awaiting her at home.
"Guilt won't make you thin, Chubby Chum Maria. Only you can make you thin."
"If it's to be, it's up to me!" the group chorused.
"I want to be a teddy bear!" Arnold yelled. Then he flushed and shrugged. "Sorry, Stephanie. I really felt the need to share."
That's okay, Arnold. We're here to support, not to judge." Stephanie patted his hand. "A teddy bear, though, technically, isn't an animal."
"But I want to be something cute and cuddly." Arnold's shoulders slumped. "So everyone will want to hug me, even if I'm ... I'm f-fat."
"Oh, Arnold, we’ll hug you, Chubby Chum!" The group surged forward, enfolding Arnold in a circle of platitudes and people.
Maria pushed back her chair and tiptoed out of the room. Screw Mary Louise Zipparetto and her Chubby Chums. She could do this on her own.
She was stronger than one manicotti. How hard could it be?

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