He’s the man she left behind but never forgot...

Laurel Moore might have had to leave her prized job as an assistant chef in one of NYC's swankiest restaurants to take care of her brother and mother after her father’s death, but she’s not giving up on her dream. Nope. She’s going to turn her father’s debt-ridden, greasy spoon bar and restaurant into a destination gastropub that will bring life back to her small, struggling town. Laurel faces resistance on all sides, but it’s running into her first love, reformed bad boy Jonah Gardiner, that really throws her off her stride. Worse, he’s more tempting than ever.

Spurred on by Laurel’s rejection a decade ago, Jonah cleaned up his act and became an academic and psychologist, who helps everyone understand their feelings except himself. He can think of a million reasons why he and Laurel need to stay at arms' length, but when she shares her new recipes with him, it seems like foreplay. And that’s just the beginning…

Can he and Laurel seize a second chance, or will she destroy the peace he's worked so hard for?

“Laurel stop!” a deep voice shouted from above her.

Laurel Moore jumped about a foot, dropped one of the catering-size tomato cans in her arms on her toe, yelped, and looked up. The can rolled into the road, where a bus drove exactly where she’d been about to run. Its left rear tire squashed the can like a juicy tick, sending sauce flying everywhere, landing on her white chef’s scrubs and oozing into her working clogs.
“Shit!” she shouted, distracted from trying to find the source of the voice. She looked like a crime scene from the waist down. Glancing up, she saw people in the back of the bus, gazing at her as though she were an interesting stop on a tour.
“Hold on!” came the voice again, turning her attention to the building across the street. Laurel had grown up across from this building. She’d thought she knew everything about it, from the real estate office and café on the corner to the uniform set of windows and old-timey fake roofline above. But she’d never really considered who lived there.
She couldn’t see more than a shadow beyond the window screen. All she could do was back up from the sidewalk into the alley, so she wouldn’t be run over by commuters heading to the train station two blocks over—and who were looking at her with curious expressions, damn them—and wait, her last precious can of tomatoes still pressed to her breast.
The door sandwiched between the realtor’s office and the lawyer’s opened, and a tall, slim man with dark red hair and a short beard loped out and jaywalked across the street to her. He was wearing a button-down blue check shirt with the sleeves rolled up, dark khakis, and suede boots. As he got closer, she saw tattoos on his exposed forearms and snaking out of the collar of his shirt.
Yep. If the hair and beard didn’t brand him, those tattoos sure did. Jonah Gardiner. Town bad boy. The one her mother had always—and uselessly—warned her about. “That Jonah Gardiner,” she’d told Laurel in high school. “You stay away from him. He’s no good. Getting into everything bad, he is. He’ll be in jail or dead from drugs before he’s twenty-five, mark my words.”
Laurel, being a good girl had stayed away from him in high school. In college, however…
All she could do was stare at him as he joined her in the alley. What was he doing across the street from her father’s bar?
“You okay?” he said.
“Yes!” she squeaked. Because she certainly didn’t want Jonah Gardiner, of all people, to witness any more of her stupidity than he already had.
Jonah raised an eyebrow. “Sure?” He looked behind her. Laurel belatedly remembered the laden SUV, back hatch and doors open, crooked piles of food filling the inside. Her feet squelched softly in her shoes.
Well, she’d had to start saving somewhere. Her beloved, flawed father had died and left her with all the bar’s accounts in arrears and no one but her to fix them. The delivery charges from the local wholesaler had seemed like a good place to start.
She was strong, wasn’t she? She regularly hauled and butchered entire sides of beef, didn’t she? Her hands could knead enough dough for a whole restaurant, and she’d spent so many hours on her feet as a chef that sitting down was an anomaly. A carload of cans should have been a piece of—well, a can of—cake. Or something.
Yet somehow, the cans hadn’t known this. The cardboard had buckled as she pulled one case out of the teetering pile on the passenger seat. Every one of the eight cans had slithered out of her grasp and onto the ground, making popping sounds as they landed, then rolled away.
Laurel had managed to save two of them by clutching them painfully against her chest. Two rolled under the truck—she considered them lost. But she was damned if she was going to lose the rest. Sauce was money, and apparently the patrons of Sullivan’s Bar and Grill—Grill? That was a laugh; nothing in that restaurant had been anything other than reheated or fried in years—needed their mozzarella sticks to come with sauce, or there’d be an uprising.
So, she’d run for the cans. Awkwardly, because of the two she still clutched to her chest.
And now Jonah Gardiner had seen her screwing up. Just great.
“It’s fine!” she said as breezily as she could while dripping. “My brother will be here any minute to help.”
Too late, she remembered that Jonah knew Brett. Possibly better than she did. Jonah would know that Brett was more likely to be sleeping off a hangover right now, not showing up on time to help his sister run the bar.
Jonah’s eyebrow returned to its proper place. Don’t pity me, don’t pity me, don’t pity me.
“Until he gets here, can I help you get these out of the car?” Jonah said.
Laurel really wanted to say no. Reeeeeally wanted to. Accepting his help would mean accepting that this had been a terrible idea—not just the fetching of the food herself, but the notion of relying on Brett. It also warred with her healthy feminism. She could carry everything herself. She just had to take it slower.
But she had lunch to prepare, other orders to place, suppliers to placate with promises of installment payments. And she was already sick of the sight of this so-called food.
“Don’t you have to… be somewhere?” She nodded at his neat shirt and khakis. Apart from the beard and the tattoos, he didn’t look the way she remembered. The wicked grin was gone. He was frowning at her a little. The wiry energy he’d had, the middle finger he’d pointed at the world ten years ago, had gone. With it, he’d been tempting and naughty. Without it, he was gorgeous. And frightening.
She pressed her remaining can harder into her chest. Not the time, Laurel.
“I have time,” he said and, walking to the back of the car, took a box of frying oil in each hand. Each box weighed over thirty pounds, but he picked them up as if they were helium balloons. He waved one of them at the passenger door of the car, which was blocking the way to the kitchen.
He’d been a part of her father’s life, a part that had destroyed Frank. But now he was… normal. And helpful. And, as she slipped past him to close the door, he smelled good. Freshly showered and groomed.
She was glad she’d already unlocked the kitchen door because she wasn’t sure if she could handle keys right now. Because of this can that your fingers are going into spasms around, you’re holding it so tightly.
She hurried through the door in front of him and dropped the can on the nearest, counter then turned around and shook her fingers out while she prepared to direct him to the pantry.
But for some reason, he’d paused at the threshold. He was looking at the doorframe as if he was afraid it was about to move, or bite him, or something.
“What?” she said.
He didn’t answer, and after another short pause, he stepped over the threshold and into the stainless steel and tile of the kitchen.
For a bar that didn’t serve a whole lot of food, the space was large, dominated by the long griddle along the back wall and the four fryers on her left. Sullivan’s was perfectly equipped for its patrons—the town’s drinkers, who drank, ate what would soak up the alcohol the fastest, and then drank more. Fried food ruled here, as shown by the pounds of expired frozen breaded chicken that Laurel had had to throw out when she’d taken over.
Stainless counters stood between them and the stove, and doors led off to the bar on their right. Jonah looked left, to where an old-fashioned, heavy wooden door led to the pantry and refrigerator.
“Over here?” he said.
“Yes,” she answered, following him through the door. “Just—” She slid past him, coming up close in the small space. She didn’t dare to look up at his face, and so got a full view of the vine tattoo snaking its way up, his neck, and his straining bicep as he held the frying oil. Well, no one ever said he wasn’t hot.
Laurel snapped to long enough to open the door, revealing a half-empty pantry and another door beyond. She indicated a spot close to the door for him to put the frying oil. Without the can in her arms, she suddenly felt exposed. Now when she dared to meet his eyes, she could see that he was observing her—checking her out. Let’s be honest. Ha, tough on him. The apron she was wearing hid most of her, only her arms and her neck and the nipping in of her waist with the apron strings visible.
His eyes slid off her again, and Laurel fought not to be insulted. He was only putting the frying oil away, after all. Did she expect him to gaze at her the whole time they brought the stuff inside?
Within five minutes he had the SUV emptied and the cans stacked. It would have taken Brett four times as long.
His job was done. He was supposed to be going… wherever he was going. To work, she assumed. And yet he leaned in the doorway as she slammed the tailgate down, the crack of it echoing in the alley. She reached up to rub her nose with the back of her hand.
“What happened to the regular delivery?” he asked. “Why did you have to go to the wholesaler?” He pointed up to the window he’d shouted to her from this morning. “Doesn’t the truck come almost every day?”
The muscles across Laurel’s back tensed up. She’d had to make so many decisions in the last few weeks based on spotty information, but she’d seen the delivery charges from the catering warehouse and had freaked out. “It was too expensive,” she said.
“Easier on your back, though,” Jonah said. “And your clothes.”
Then she remembered her dripping apron. A blood-like trail led from the sidewalk to the kitchen, her hands were sticky, and her feet were sliding around in her working clogs. She made a tchah! sound of disgust. At her clothes, but also at him. “You wanna maybe not question my decisions before eight-thirty in the morning?” she snapped.
“Sorry,” he said, backing up a step. Wow, was she that scary? Cool.
But her eyes focused on the car that was now empty because of his help. There was a line of dirt across the middle of his shirt, where the cases had hit him. She sighed. “Look,” she began again. “Thank you. You saved my bacon.” She waved behind her at the kitchen. “You want a brownie? I just made them.”
His eyes widened. “You made brownies and went to the store already today?”
Finally, Laurel felt that she was cutting a slightly more impressive figure—slippery feet notwithstanding. “Chef’s life,” she said with a shrug.
“Are you serving the brownies later?”
“Uh-huh.” Sullivan’s had hardly cared about dessert before. Fluorescent, store-bought lemon meringue pie packed with high fructose corn syrup, and tasteless imitation-vanilla ice cream had been about its limit. Yet another thing Laurel was going to change. “There’s plenty. Least I can do,” she added grudgingly.
“Thanks,” he said and smiled at her. “I’ve heard you’re an excellent cook.”
“Chef,” she corrected at once, though his smile was appreciative and made the morning less overwhelming, somehow. He’d known what kind of a cook—chef—she was ten years ago, but he had no idea how much she’d improved. “Come on through.”
Again, he seemed to hesitate at the door and didn’t come far into the room. The brownie trays were cooling near the door to the bar, so Laurel brought a pan and a knife over to him. She cut a chunk out and looked around for a plate.
“Whoa,” he said, looking at the brownie. “That’s huge.”
It was also satisfyingly gooey and rich in the middle, just as she wanted it. “I’m sure you’ll be able to lift it, those big biceps of yours,” she replied.
And then the room got very hot. I should not have said that.
“Uh,” she said, not daring to meet his eyes. “Let me get you a plate.”
“I don’t need one. I’ll just—” And he lifted the knife that was under the slab of brownie so that he could take it out of the pan without touching the rest, put one hand under the other, and brought the rich, dark food to his lips. And Laurel knew all this because she watched every. Single. Movement.
The metallic, slightly greasy tang in the kitchen was suddenly hidden by the heavy scent of chocolate. This was why Laurel’s fingertips were tingling, right? Not because when she followed the brownie up to Jonah’s mouth, she saw that his eyes were darkened and his pale skin betrayed a hint of a blush as well?
His eyes slid off hers to look at the brownie. “Oh, God,” he said.
Precisely. “Is it good? There’s a little coffee in it.”
“Oh. God,” he repeated more forcefully, and took another bite, closing his eyes and chewing slowly. Saved from being observed, Laurel noticed that her lips were parted, and the tingling had gotten a lot worse.
A thump from upstairs, of a door closing and then feet on the stairs that led to Laurel’s family apartment, snapped them both out of it, judging by the way Jonah’s eyes opened and his blush deepened. Laurel shut her mouth.
“Um,” he said. “I have to go.”
The moment had happened; she knew it had. But the man in front of her had morphed back into Jonah Gardiner, erstwhile bad boy, now in a button-down and khakis he would have laughed at ten years ago. Not a combination Laurel wanted to be touching with a five-foot hoagie.
“I have to get back to work too,” she said as if he’d been stopping her. “Thanks again.”
There. That sounded sufficiently dismissive, didn’t it? Apparently, it worked, because Jonah turned around without another word. Laurel was left to watch the movement of his back muscles under that damn button-down as he pushed open the heavy exterior door.
“Jonah?” Shit. There weren’t enough stairs on that staircase.
Jonah turned around to face her brother. “Hi, Brett,” he said, his voice low.
“What are you doing here this early? What are you doing here at all?”
Jonah paused before he answered. “Your sister needed a little help getting the delivery in.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m here.” Brett sounded immediately on the defensive. “I was coming. Jesus.”
“Okay. It’s all yours.”
“Wait,” Brett said. “You’ve been in the bar? You told me you’d never go back.”
“I haven’t—”
He swore he’d never come back? Even when it meant denying Dad a friend?
That was why he’d hesitated at the doorstep. Yet he’d broken his promise, to help her. As far as the kitchen, anyway.
Then why the hell does he still live across the street?
“Dad missed you, for some reason,” Brett went on.
Another pause. “Does it help if I say I missed him too?” Jonah said. “But that’s what it does, Brett, it messes with your head—”
“Oh, don’t get all on your high horse with me, Gardiner.”
Jeez. A lot had changed. Brett had always idolized Jonah.
“Brett!” she said, unable to let the insult lie. She stepped closer to Jonah, not even realizing she was doing so. “Jonah was here when you weren’t. How did I know when you were planning on showing up?”
“It’s all right,” Jonah said, putting out a soothing hand to her. To her! When she’d been sticking up for him! “Thanks for the brownie,” he added, while she fumed. Then he turned back to her brother. “I’ll see you, Brett.”
And with that, he was gone. She followed him to the door and watched him jaywalk back across the street, presumably to change into another straitlaced, button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Laurel swallowed.
“Not if I see you first,” Brett mumbled when he was out of earshot, and pushed past her into the kitchen. He was of medium height, like Laurel, and had her strawberry-blond hair and wider build. His cheeks and eyes looked puffier than usual this morning.
“Hey, Sis,” he said, his face going from thunder to sunshine in a moment. “Here I am, ready to work! Are those brownies? Got any coffee to go with them? My head’s killing me.”
“The coffee’s upstairs. No brownie until you help me clean up this mess.”
“I just came from upstairs.” He held out his hands, clasped together in supplication, and batted his eyes at her. “Would ya do me the biggest favor and get me a cup, Sis? I promise I’ll work for it.”
She could tell him to get it himself, but if he went up there, she wasn’t sure when he’d come back down. So Laurel went up, poured him a mug of coffee, black, no sugar, then brought it down and microwaved it for him. Brett began to complain about the microwaving, but one eyebrow lift from Laurel and he stopped.
When the microwave beeped, Laurel went to the cleaning supply closet. She threw a cloth and cleaning spray at him, narrowly missing his mug and eliciting a curse.
“Cleaning? Don’t you want me to set up in the bar?”
Laurel sighed and got her own spray and cloth. “Of course not, Brett. I don’t want you anywhere near that bar.”
Brett pouted, squinting at her through his headache. “It’s my bar, too, you know.”
“Yeah, and Mom’s. And she never comes downstairs and you’re beginning to drink the profits away just like Dad did!”
Laurel hadn’t meant to snap, but Brett never did know when to shut up. As if he didn’t know that she’d had her dream job in New York City and had had to give it up to come here and take over the bar when their dad had died, because she was the only one who knew how to do it. As if he didn’t know that her mother was buried in grief and no help to her at all. As if he didn’t know that Laurel couldn’t even take over the kitchen properly, because she’d spent the month since Frank’s death going through his papers to find out how much they owed, and negotiating with the debtors.
“Look,” she said, trying to calm down. “You’re welcome to help me with any part of the bar, except standing in front of those bottles. You know I could use your help in the office.”
Brett took a sip of coffee, presumably to hide how little that idea appealed to him.
What did he want out of life? Younger than Laurel by seven years, he’d been the surprise baby, the much-loved boy who looked exactly like his father and had learned all his lessons, good and bad, from him.
Maybe from me and Mom, too. Laurel turned her back on him. Mom never did keep the apartment liquor-free.
In her teenage, and most self-righteous, years, Laurel had tried this once. She’d seen, real panic on Frank’s face when she’d dramatically poured a bottle of single-malt down the sink and added the six bottles of wine Gail kept for special dinners. That look had haunted her; it was then she’d really seen the reliance her father had on the stuff. And later that night, after his shift in the bar, she’d lain in bed and heard him lumber slowly and as quietly as he could up the stairs, and cursed herself for her naiveté. What had been the point of throwing out two hundred dollars’ worth of liquor, when Frank could take his pick of thousands of dollars’ worth right downstairs?
Since high school, Brett had done nothing but take a few courses at the community college and work with a landscaper for minimum wage. As busy as she’d been with her career in the city, Laurel had allowed herself not to worry about him. Now, he was as much a responsibility to her as her mother and the bar.
“Oh, have a brownie,” she said. “You need the sugar. Then get to scrubbing.”
He grinned and forked up a huge slice with two fingers. Laurel looked away while he stuffed half of it in his mouth. “Thanks, Sis,” he said, his mouth full. “You’re the best, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah. I know.” Laurel pointed at the cleaning supplies and went out to close up the car.


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When past and present collide…
When Piper Mahoney and Lucas Richardson randomly run into each other in the lobby of a NYC hotel that Piper manages three years after they shared one steamy, impossible-to-forget afternoon together, the attraction is tangible. Neither feels ready to act though. Piper has left friends and family in Boston to reboot her life after a difficult loss while Lucas is vying for a promotion at the DA’s office and handling his own personal problems with his ailing mother. Impulsively Piper reaches out. Lucas can show her his favorite haunts in the city this summer while they enjoy a friends with benefits fling.

Lucas is tempted. He hasn’t relaxed or had fun in forever and Piper was always the one woman who got under his guard.

Can he keep Piper’s no-strings bargain even as he falls in love or will their pasts strangle any hope for a future?

Justin slammed a hand onto the desk. “You can’t do this!”
“Three cars, Justin,” Piper Mahoney said, looking up at him, her heart thumping. Three months into her new job and she already had to fire someone. Someone she’d hired.
“Accidents!” he shouted. His pale skin had turned bright red in his fury.
“You’ve cost the hotel twenty thousand dollars in damages,” she said in her calmest voice, while she pressed her shaking hands onto her thighs under the desk. “You inconvenienced the guests while their cars were fixed. That pillar you nicked with the Mercedes cost twelve thousand dollars to repair. My predecessor would have fired you after that one, you know.”
“Take it out of my wages!” he yelped.
Piper sighed. He’d be paying it back until she became a Yankees fan. “Justin, go find another job. One that doesn’t involve driving in tight spaces.”
He was sweating with rage and his voice cracked with panic. “Where am I supposed to get another job if you don’t give me a reference, you stupid bitch?”
Well, she’d accept the stupid part since she’d hired him. “The point is, you do your job well, you get good references. That’s how it works. Not calling your boss names also helps.” Piper stood up, putting her an inch or two above him, thanks to her four-inch heels. “Go clean out your locker. Now. Security will meet you there. We’ll mail you your final check.”
Justin strung together a few choice words regarding Piper’s ancestry, but he had turned his back on her, and, within a few seconds, she was alone in her office.
She sat down again on shaky legs, the adrenaline racing faster through her veins now that she didn’t have to put on an act for anyone. She put her hands into her hair and covered her eyes with the heels of her palms.
Was it that different here? Employees like Justin existed in Boston, too. This is your job. She peeked out from behind her hands at the blond wood and burnished nickel of her office. You supervise. You fire people. Justin was a liability to the hotel—if you hadn’t been his boss, you would have been yelling at whoever was to fire him.
It wasn’t the job. It wasn’t even Justin’s invective. It was the faces on the people she would have to see when she got out into the break room. Piper hid her eyes again. No one wanted her here. To them, and to one of them in particular, she had swooped down from Boston and taken the front desk manager’s position right from under their noses. The worst of them had made it clear, on her first day, he had wanted her job; that he’d been doing it fine for the month it took her to finish up in Boston and move down here. Everyone else had wanted him to have her job, and they were not pleased the hotel had gone outside to find someone. Never mind that he had only three years’ experience and she had twelve. Or that he had worked in New York for all of two of those years, and she had experience of a large city full of tourists that spanned more than a decade. To her employees, she was foreign; she didn’t belong. Square peg, round hole, etc.
The problem was, she agreed with them. This hotel, this city. The impossible crowds of people. Piper knew crowds, she knew attitude. She was used to people stopping in the street for no apparent reason. She was used to random cursing from cars, from homeless men, from Botoxed women on their cell phones. These things she had lived through in Boston.
She was getting used to the Yankees caps everywhere now; they hardly even made her flinch anymore. She was used to the way the subway worked, drawing her in from her Williamsburg apartment every day to the noise and hustle of Manhattan. She had her local bodega, a cashier who was beginning to get to know her and had begun smiling at her when he saw her. She was getting used to the walking shoes she had to wear for her commute, though she changed them as soon as she could each day for the heels that were the only holdover from her previous wardrobe.
But she was alone and lonely in this city of eight million, and the word “homesick,” that she had banished from her vocabulary as soon as she’d arrived outside her new front door, pushed insistently at her, slammed its hand onto the desk as Justin had done.
Don’t be a baby. You can make it here. Frank Sinatra said so.
Frank was from New Jersey. What the hell did he know?
Frank’s logic had an inverse. If she couldn’t be successful here, where else could she go? She’d have to go back to Boston. And she couldn’t. Not now. Even though it meant leaving her parents, her brother and sister, and her best friend. No. She was stuck here, and she was going to have to figure it out. And little pissants like Justin weren’t going to stop her.
Piper gave herself a shake, sniffled, and took out her compact to make sure she hadn’t disarranged her makeup. Her blue eyes looked a little larger, a little darker, maybe, but her mascara was doing its job. The darkness could be because of her hair. Sensible, supervisor-ish brown hair. Managerial. That’s what you look like, that’s why you dyed your hair. Along with this sensible charcoal-gray suit and bank manager-teal silk blouse. You look like your mother.
Her mascara started to lose the fight.
She had to make sure Justin had left. Then she could get out of here. Ignoring the persistent headache that hovered behind her eyes these days, she reapplied her makeup blew her nose, reapplied again, gathered her things and left her office.
The valets switching shifts in the break room watched her pass with sullen expressions, though some, she noted with a small pleasure, looked a little scared of her. Good. That was the point of her position. Too many of these kids thought the job was there for them, not the other way around. She had to remind them what customer service meant, why the Clover was respected in this city. Whether or not she felt like it.
A couple of receptionists were also in the break room. They were holdovers from her temporary predecessor’s brief reign and weren’t sure where their loyalty should lie. They, too, said nothing as she went past the doorway.
“Good night,” she said into the room in an acerbic tone and got a couple of half-hearted good nights in return.
She slipped out into the lobby behind the reception desk. Like her office, the Clover hotel’s lobby was decorated in aggressively modern tones of Swedish maple and sleek brushed nickel. A magnificent chandelier made with hundreds of cylinders of clear glass and more nickel loomed over her head, reflecting the sun coming through the floor-to-ceiling windows and often blinding the receptionists and guests. The carpets were thick and soft in a pale gray that had to be vacuumed several times a day. The entrance to the hotel restaurant, a Michelin-rated space that the owners guarded jealously, was off to one side, not disturbing the calm with unseemly shows of hunger or thirst. The general impression was of a spa. Or, when Piper was grumpy—which she often was these days—a padded cell.
She liked to give the desk one last glance on her way home. It kept the receptionists on their toes. Those on duty gave her a quick glance but turned back without talking to her. God. She wasn’t that much of a tyrant, was she? She couldn’t even get a simple goodnight from them? Damn her predecessor and his childish backstabbing.
She was halfway through the lobby when the two men coming in through the revolving doors made her pause.
She knew one of them. Knew the set of his shoulders. Knew his walk. Had held the memory of it close to her for three years.
Even saying his name in her head made her heartthrob in her chest… and her chest throb against her blouse.
His dark curly hair was cut close to his head, showing the wide cheekbones and warm brown eyes she’d first seen what seemed like a lifetime ago. His suit was charcoal gray, with a white shirt and a dark green tie that highlighted the tawny-brown tone of his skin. She stayed frozen in place, remembering how he’d looked in the elevator three years ago, the day after they’d met. When they’d gone at each other as if it were their last night before deployment.
Okay, Piper, time to take a breath now.
This city had eight million people in it. She’d never thought she’d run into him.
He was with another man; they were about to head for the restaurant to her right. Business dinner. Look around. No, don’t look around. No, look around. Her hand twitched on her purse as she fought the desire to fix her hair.
She didn’t even look like herself anymore. He wouldn’t recognize—
He’d turned while his friend was talking to the maître d’. At first, his eyes slid away from her. This is a good thing. Go have your dinner. Come here.
He did a double-take and now he was walking toward her, throwing a word or two over his shoulder to his companion.
“Piper?” he said when he was closer. His voice was everything she remembered, low and intimate.
“Hi, Lucas,” she said, letting out way more breath than the phrase demanded.
“Wow,” he said, stopping a couple of feet from her.
Wow, indeed; his skin was luminous in the lights from the chandelier above them, the brown seeming to glow. She remembered the skin on his hip that day; the bite marks she’d left on it.
“You look… different,” he said. He lifted a hand as if he would touch the hair that rested on her shoulders, but he paused before he got there.
She wished he looked different, didn’t look so… appetizing. “Well, you know,” she said, trying to sound flippant. “Couldn’t do the Betty Grable thing forever.”
He was staring hard into her eyes now. “Okay,” he said. “The dark hair suits you.”
She gave a faint smile. “Thank you.”
“I knew you were here,” he went on. “I just didn’t know you were… here.”
Piper’s best friend was married to Lucas’s. She was sure Jessica and Adam would have told him about Piper cutting off all communication and moving to New York—emigrating, her family back in Boston called it. Jessica would have told him about Jay, about Piper’s engagement, and the baby and the loss of both.
If Lucas said one word about all that right now, though, Piper would burst into tears and her careful reapplication of makeup would be wasted.
His mouth—oh, God, his mouth—tightened and then relaxed. He nodded. He wasn’t going to say anything.
“Yep,” she answered, covering her thoughts with a veneer of playfulness. In her best customer-service voice, she went on. “Welcome to the Clover. Is there anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable?”
Instead of laughing at her weak joke, he frowned. In fact, now that she was over the first shock of his physical presence, she saw that he was, in fact, different. Three years ago his face had been open, friendly, his smiles easy and frequent. She’d learned he had dimples within seconds of meeting him. Now she saw two lines between his eyebrows and the dimples seemed to have been replaced by more lines bracketing his mouth.
“Are you still with the DA?” she asked, as the silence again threatened to lengthen.
Anyone would look haunted when they worked in the sex crimes unit of the New York District Attorney’s Office. She didn’t want to think about the stories he must have heard over the years.
Not the most cheerful of topics, Piper. Great job.
He nodded. The shadow remained on his face. He looked at her as if she were bringing him bad news.
Then she remembered the last thing she’d heard about him before she’d cut Jessica off—his mother, Sal, the only family he had, had early-onset Alzheimer’s. No wonder his eyes seemed so careworn.
A wave of compassion swept over her. She wanted to touch him, to smooth the lines between his eyebrows. To recall the thread that had connected them the day they’d met, the thread she’d allowed to break. She went as far as to raise a hand as he had done, almost to reach for his suit-clad arm.
The shadow on his face darkened. She pulled her hand back. The hell he was going through right now was closing him off from everyone.
Or, at least, her. Maybe he was going to talk about it right now with that friend, who was waiting over by the maître d’. And Piper was keeping him. Stupid that she would think he remembered that afternoon three years ago with as much fondness as she did.
“Well,” she said bravely, straightening her shoulders, “it was good to see you, Lucas.” And she held out her hand.
The dark glare stopped, replaced by raised eyebrows and a softening of the eyes. “You too,” he said, taking her hand in his.
This was no businesslike handshake. His palm was warm against hers and the simple touch sent a spark up her arm that she hadn’t felt in months. Perhaps years.
They stood for several seconds, hands joined, looking at each other, memory crashing between them.
“Lucas,” she said before she could think it through, “would you like to have dinner one night?”
His eyes widened but were soon hooded and shadowed again. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
Of course, it wasn’t. But now she’d asked, she wanted nothing more than an hour or two in Lucas’s calming presence. “Just as friends,” she clarified.
That brought the light back into his eyes, for a second. “I would find it very hard to just be your friend.”
Piper smiled and warmed and his hand squeezed hers.
But then he said, “Saying no to you doesn’t come easy, Pip, especially when you look at me like that.”
She smiled wider at his use of her nickname.
“But I have to anyway.”
Piper wanted to shiver at the sadness in his voice. “Of course,” she said. What did you expect?
“My life is too crazy right now,” he went on.
“I understand,” she answered, and hid her loneliness behind the brightest smile she could muster.
They were still holding hands. Lucas’s mouth twitched sadly, and he squeezed her hand one more time. “You take care of yourself, Piper.”
“You too,” she said, her voice gone.
Lucas went back to his companion. Piper stood on the spot, desire and sympathy warring inside her.
She was walking down the stairs to the subway before she realized she’d forgotten to change out of her heels.

Kimberley Ash is a British expat who has lived in and loved New Jersey for twenty years. When not writing romance or romantic women’s fiction, she can usually be found cleaning up after her two big white furry dogs and slightly less furry children. You can reach her at and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

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