Kaiti let out a frustrated sigh and yanked her cell out of her bag. “This crap isn’t gonna fly. I need to call the city and find out why our water isn’t turned on. I’ll be right back.” She stormed out the back entrance of the future bakery, her black heels clacking against the floor, her cell phone plastered to her ear.
Alone, Halley inhaled a slow, steady breath. She stood in the center of the large empty space, just breathing in the possibilities. Closing her eyes, she let her imagination run wild. She may have been standing amidst the dusty remnants of what was once a clothing boutique, but her mind pictured a bustling café. A top-notch pâtisserie, pushing out the finest cassata, pasticciotti, and cannoli money could buy. Located on Columbus, in the heart of San Francisco’s North Beach, Zeppoli’s Bakery would be the place to go to get your sugar on. In just a handful of weeks, the dream she’d been holding on to for so long would finally become a reality. And oh yeah, baby, she was giddy with excitement.
The corners of her lips pulled up into a smile as she pictured a large refrigerated display case full of pastries, cakes, and desserts. The image of a shiny new commercial-grade convection oven filled with biscotti sent her mouth watering and her mind racing with possibilities. Most women got excited about new shoes, expensive designer purses. Not her. Throw a commercial-grade mixer in front of her, and she’d salivate all over the thing. The name KitchenAid was an aphrodisiac.
“Daydreaming, are we?”
Halley jumped, her high-pitched yelp bouncing off the dust-covered walls. She wheeled around, her hands automatically reaching for her injured neck and chest as she backed away from -- Mr. Blue Eyes?
“You...but...what...” Flustered, she shut her mouth before she made a bigger idiot of herself. What was he doing here? How on earth had he found her? Her heart hammered against her rib cage, and her hands got all hot and sweaty the moment she laid eyes on him. “What are you... Why are you here?” Shut up, Halley! Don’t bug him about why he’s here. Just be happy he is.
Fidgeting in place as though he were uncomfortable, he shoved his large hands into the front pockets of his faded jeans and winced before crossing his arms in front of his chest. His knuckles were an angry red, bruised, and swollen. Avoiding her eyes, he waved a hand through the air and spun in a slow circle, making a show of checking out the empty space. “Thought I’d...uh...check things out before I start working.”
Damn. He looks more uncomfortable than I am.
This, of course, was a surprising revelation. Nervous around anything with arms, legs, and a heartbeat, she’d armed herself with her bottle of happy pills, expecting anxiety to rear its ugly head at some point during the day. Yet, here she was, alone with Mr. Blue Eyes who stood just a few feet away, with no visible signs of panic. Aside from the normal nervous, giddy feeling she got whenever she came across a good-looking guy, she felt surprisingly okay. Looked like her happy pills were doing their job. Or maybe her Good Samaritan had a calming effect on her. She wasn’t going to question it either way. The lack of anxiety felt damn nice.
A little dizzy, Halley sucked in a quick breath and enjoyed a good, long look at her silent and brooding hero who had busied himself with inspecting a nearby wall.
A plain black T-shirt hugged the muscled expanse of his broad chest. A faded, battered pair of jeans rode low on a narrow waist, showing off a Grade A, top-choice ass. As impressive as his physique was, it was the dark swirling ink crawling up his right arm that drew her attention. Magnificent was the only way to describe it. Well, magnificent and sexy. A flush crawled up the back of her neck, down her front, and settled in nice and good. Had someone turned up the heat? Even more powerful than her body’s attraction to him was the sense of safety she felt now that he was in the same room with her. The tension in her shoulders eased, and she finally felt like she could breathe. Holy hell.
She didn’t have the urge to bolt. She wasn’t afraid of him.
Apparently satisfied the integrity of the wall was sound, Mr. Blue Eyes turned and faced her once more.
She licked her lips, stared down at her hands for a moment, and then met his eyes once more. The electricity sparking through the air was almost tangible. Thick, full of anticipation and words unspoken. The sensation was new and foreign yet exciting at the same time. Hell, if she could bottle the magnetic, exhilarating, almost love-drunk feeling, she’d be rich. Halley opened her mouth to speak, but Mr. Blue Eyes beat her to the punch.
He shifted in place. “I work for David Nichols. My partner and I are here to meet with the owners of Zeppoli’s Bakery.”
His eyes are so blue. I wonder if they’re contacts. And that jaw...
Her breath caught, and she glanced away for a moment. Nervous, Halley chewed on the inside of her lip while she searched for her missing voice. She stepped forward. “It’s nice to finally meet you. It’s Mr. Ackart, right?” Her voice shook and sounded like someone else. Damn. Great, Hal. You sound like a dying cow.
“My name is Halley Davis. I’m part owner of Zeppoli’s.”
He stared at his feet and inhaled a deep breath. When he looked up, it was like the sun broke out through the clouds on a rainy day, filling the room with warmth and light. His smile was radiant, and it warmed the bone-cold chill, which had refused to go away ever since the attack. His presence calmed her, eased her. Who is this guy?
“It’s nice to meet you, Halley. And yeah, the last name’s Ackart, but you can call me Nick.”
* * * * *
Nick glanced down at his shoe, trying his damndest to fight back the raging hard-on that filled his pants the moment he walked into the empty building. Dammit, why? Why couldn’t he escape her? Fate.
The word kept nagging at his head, wouldn’t go away. Screw fate. Fate was yanking his chain, and if it didn’t stop, he was gonna yank back -- hard.
He’d wanted to turn around and run in the opposite direction the moment he walked into the bakery and found her daydreaming. Self-preservation took over, his brain screaming at him to get out, save himself from heartache. But something inside him, his gut maybe, glued his scuffed work boots to the dusty floor, anchoring him in place. The pull he felt toward her was magnetic, irresistible -- and frustrating as hell.
She hadn’t heard him enter the shop, and he was thankful. Damn, she was lovely. His little jaunt around the interior of the bakery had given him ample opportunity to sneak a few glances at her magnificent form. The maroon sweaterdress she wore was striking against her pale skin. And her legs -- Christ, he’d never wanted to be a pair of gray leggings more. Those bad boys hugged a pair of slender legs and a round, firm ass his hands begged to squeeze. And dammit if those legs weren’t topped off by another pair of wicked, sexy boots. He wanted to crawl up under that pretty sweater, wrap those boots around his waist, and sink himself deep into her warmth. Pound out his need until there was nothing left.
Rein that shit in, numbnuts. She was just assaulted.
He tried to think of something, anything to deflate the painfully swollen rocket ready to fire in his pants. Shit. Why didn’t I take lit classes in school? Oh yeah, because I fucking hate poetry. Crap. Do some math, asshole. Recite the square root of pi. Pie... I wonder if she’s bare? Fuck, not working!
Yeah, he was a total douche bag. Fantasizing over a fragile assault victim. He’d hit an all-time low.
Feeling like a jackass for ogling her while she daydreamed, he’d opened his mouth and ended up scaring the crap out of her. Her eyeballs practically shot out of her head when she jumped. Idiot.
Of course she’d be skittish.
And when she finally spoke, well, he felt like he’d died and gone to heaven. Either that or the sky opened up and some winged creature started singing. Halley
. Her name fit, and the way it rolled off her tongue with that soft, musical voice of hers made his pulse race and his balls ache with need. Yeah...he totally needed to get away from her. Princess was a choice helping of prime rib, and he was on a relationship fast. Scratch that. If women were meat, his ass was vegan. Regardless of how attracted he was to Halley, she was off-limits. He wouldn’t use her for meaningless sex, and a relationship was out of the question. Falling for someone so soon after losing... God, it almost seemed like a betrayal. Besides, he had nothing left to give.
“Thank you.” Her smooth voice floated across the air like a melody, breaking the silence between them. “You know, for what you did, for saving me.” She stepped forward, slow and tentative, her hand shaking like she was afraid, but her face full of gratitude and determination. Her brows furrowed. “Your hands.”
A jolt of electricity shot up his arm the moment her fingertip inadvertently grazed the top of his right hand. Holy shit.
He waved her off, tearing his hand away from her touch, and crossed his arms again, hiding the angry red reminder of the attack. “I’m fine, and you’re welcome. Anyone would have helped.” Of course, that was a lie. This day and age, most people were more likely to turn their heads and walk away than get involved. Self-involved losers.
He couldn’t fathom the idea of not
getting involved, not
He stood motionless, tethered in place by an undeniable need to soak up her intoxicating presence while she inched forward, slow and unsure.
Her eyes zeroed in on the whirling black ink etched into his skin, indecision splashed across her face. Brows furrowed and lips mashed into a thin line, she held her tiny, shaking hand over his arm as if she were afraid to touch him on purpose this time.
Hell, he couldn’t blame her for shying away, not wanting to get close. After what happened to her, he was surprised she could tolerate being alone in the same room with a stranger.
She let out a tiny gasp, then... Oh shit.
She laid her hand just above his right elbow and gave a gentle squeeze.
The same spark that shocked him before lit up his arm, sending a powerful surge of lust straight to his johnson.
A soft smile graced her lips. “No. Most people wouldn’t have jumped into the thick of it like that, so thank you.”
Indecision ping-ponged through his brain. His first instinct was to take her in his arms, inhale her sweet, sugary scent, and never let her go. Not really appropriate, since they’d only just met. Maybe he could touch her. She’d laid a hand on him, and damn, he’d love to reciprocate.
A muffled chirping filled the empty space, and just like that, the moment was gone.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry.” She dug around in her bag, brows furrowed, searching for her cell phone.
She held up a finger and flashed him an apologetic smile as she held the phone to her ear. “Hello.” Her eyes narrowed in frustration, and her jaw clenched before she pulled the phone away and shook her head. With an irritated sigh, she chucked it back into her bag.
What the hell was that all about?
“Not in a talking mood?” Nick teased.
She shook her head, the left corner of her mouth curling up. “No. It’s not that. Someone keeps calling me and hanging up. It happened twice at my place, and this is the second time they’ve called my cell. To be honest, it’s creeping me out.”
Nick opened his mouth to speak when a cool breeze rushed in, and Damon burst through the front door of the empty shop. The sassy pixie he’d seen Princess with Friday night followed close on his heels, along with his boss, David Nichols.
“So, an Italian bakery in the heart of Little Italy, eh? Real original.”
Damon’s deep voice bounced off the empty walls of the shop, making Halley jump.
A twinge of something that felt an awful lot like worry tore through his gut the moment she reacted. Those slender arms and tiny hands of hers trembled as she clutched her bandaged neck, and her frightened eyes spoke volumes. She was more than skittish from the attack. She was downright scared, and it tore at his insides.
The pixie brushed past Damon with a haughty glare and stood in front of Halley. “You okay?” When Halley gave her a nod, she turned and spoke through clenched teeth. “Let’s all try and use our indoor voices from now on, shall we?” She glared up at Damon with a serious look of “keep it down or ima beat you.”
Damon crossed his arms and puffed out his chest as he met the pixie’s glare with a scowl of his own. His excessive display of posturing was pure crap. Nick would put money on the pixie any day and twice on Sunday. Girlfriend could take all two hundred fifty pounds of him easy.
“Enough, Damon.” David stepped forward, placing himself between the guerilla warriors who continued throwing angry eye darts at one another. “Why don’t we introduce ourselves and get down to business? I’m sure the ladies have better things to do today than be mean-mugged by an idiot Greek and his bald companion.”
Nick did a double take and feigned innocence. “Hold up. How’d I get included in his crap? And what’s wrong with my hair?”
The soft sound of an angel laughing filled Nick’s ears, tearing his attention from the idiot Greek and his boss.
A nervous smile crossed Princess’s mouth but didn’t reach those emerald orbs of hers. As amusing as it must have been to watch the three men bicker back and forth like Larry, Curly, and Moe, he knew deep down she was still rattled by Damon’s abrupt entrance. Baby girl did a bang-up job at hiding her discomfort. Not only did she sound like an angel, she looked like one too -- ethereal, beautiful, and almost like a dream.
David cleared his throat. “Let me just go ahead and apologize for my men before we get started. The tall, dark one, Damon” -- he pointed in his direction -- “tends to stick his foot in his mouth on a regular basis. And the bald pincushion over here” -- he gave a nod in Nick’s direction -- “is Nick. He’s got a mouth that would put a sailor to shame. They’re crass, loud, and full of themselves, but they’re the best at what they do, they work fast, and will build you a damn fine bakery.”
David stepped forward and quickly extended his hand toward Halley. “David Nichols. It’s a pleasure to work with you, Ms. Davis.”
Princess flipped a complete emotional one-eighty. One minute she stood smiling, giggling, the next her body stiffened, froze ramrod straight. She stared at David’s hand like it was the spawn of Satan. Hesitantly, she reached her hand out, her gaze darting back and forth between David’s hand, the floor, and the pixie who stood staring at Damon like he was the Second Coming. Abruptly, she dropped her hand to her side with a nervous gasp. The moment was long, drawn-out, and awkward as hell.
“Sorry,” she said, forcing a polite smile.
David was a cool guy. Smart and successful, he didn’t lack in the sensitivity department. Obviously realizing Halley was spooked, he stepped back and cracked a wide smile. “Not a problem.”
“So, you the businesswoman or the chef?” Damon asked, apparently done playing “who’s got the meaner mug” with the pixie.
The fear that riddled Halley’s body dissipated and was quickly replaced with a swell of pride. Her shoulders, which had fallen forward and inward, straightened and rose as she took a relaxed breath. “The chef,” she said with a glorious smile.