“Want to help?”
She dug her nails into her palm to give herself a reality boost. “Sure. What are we having?”
“Fettuccini Alfredo with shrimp, garlic bread, and a salad.”
A distressed moan escaped her lips. “Oh God, you’re mean.”
“You don’t like the menu?”
“I like it too much. I’ll just have the salad.”
He shot her a disgusted look over his shoulder. “I’m tired of females who order a salad, then look as if they deserve a medal. A good meal is a gift.”
She clenched her fingers harder. “Well, thanks so much for that smug viewpoint of the female population. For your information, I can appreciate good food better than you. Did you see the appetizers I ordered for our wedding? Didn’t you see how much I ate? Dammit, it’s just like a man to put a rich, fattening meal in front of a woman and get offended when she won’t eat. Then you seem shocked in the bedroom when you’re looking at her hips and wondering how she put on ten extra pounds!”
“Nothing wrong with curves on a woman.”
She bolted out of her chair and grabbed the ingredients for salad. “I’ve heard that one before. Let’s put this to the test, shall we? How much does Gabriella weigh?”
He didn’t answer.
She threw a red pepper on the table next to the Romaine lettuce and snorted. “Oh, are we tongue-tied now? Is she one hundred pounds or is that considered fat nowadays?”
When he spoke, his tone was less cocky. “She’s a model. She has to retain a lighter weight.”
“And does she order salads when she goes out to dinner?”
A cucumber rolled over the counter and stopped at the edge. “Ah, I guess that means yes. But I’m sure you appreciate her discipline when you rip her clothes off.”
He shifted his feet and kept his attention on the pan sizzling with shrimp. “Gabriella is a bad example.” He definitely sounded uncomfortable.
“I have another puzzle. Maggie said you tend to date only models. Seems you like skinny women and accept them eating a salad.” She rinsed the vegetables, grabbed a knife, and started hacking. “But if it’s someone you’re not thinking of sleeping with, I guess you don’t care how fat she gets as long as she keeps you company at meals.”
“I happen to detest going out to dinner with most of my dates. I understand they’re in the business, but I enjoy a woman who likes good food and isn’t afraid to eat it. You’re not fat. You never were fat so I don’t know where this obsession comes from.”
“You called me fat once.”
“I did not.”
“Yes, you did. When I was fourteen, you told me I was filling out in all the wrong places.”
“Hell, woman, I meant your breasts. I was a snotty teenager who wanted to torture you. You were always beautiful.”
She looked up from her task and her mouth gaped open. In all the years she’d known Nick Ryan, he had teased, tortured, and insulted her.
He had never called her beautiful.
Nick busied himself with whisking the cream and kept his tone casual. “You know what I mean. Beautiful in the sense of sisterly. I watched you and Maggie go through puberty, and grow into women. Neither of you are ugly. Or fat. I think you’re being hard on yourself.”
Alexa understood what he meant. He didn’t think of her as a beautiful woman, more like as an annoying younger sister who grew up to be attractive. The difference was monumental, and she ignored the sharp sting of hurt. “Well, I’m going to eat this salad and I don’t want to hear any more comments about women.”
“Fine. Would you open a bottle of wine? There’s one chilling in the fridge.”
She uncorked an expensive chardonnay and watched him sip it. The citrusy scents of wood and fruit rose to her nostrils. She battled for one minute, then surrendered. One glass. After all, she deserved it.
She poured herself a glass and took a sip. The liquid slid down the back of her throat, the taste both tingly and dry. She uttered a low moan of pleasure. Her tongue licked the edges of her lips and her eyes closed as the flavor pulsed through her body.
Nick started to say something, then stopped cold. The sight of her sipping and enjoying her wine put every muscle in his body in a lock. The blood pounded through his veins and his groin shot to full alert. Her tongue licked her lips with such delicate strokes, he wished she tasted something other than the wine. He wondered if she made those throaty sounds when a man was buried deep inside her wet, clinging heat. He wondered if she’d be as tight and hot as her mouth, closing around him like a silky fist, milking every last drop of his reserve and still demanding more. Those stretchy pants revealed every curve of her body, from her sweet butt to the luscious length of her legs. Her sweatshirt had ridden up and flashed him with a strip of bare skin. And obviously she’d ripped off her bra, not thinking of him as a man who wanted her, but more like an annoying older brother without male urges.
Damn her for starting to make things complicated. He dropped the bowl of pasta on the table and quickly arranged the place settings.
“Stop drinking the wine like that. You’re not in a porno flick.”
She gasped. “Hey, don’t take things out on me just ’cause you’re cranky. I can’t help it if business was more important to you than a real marriage.”
“Yeah, but as soon as I gave a price you jumped. I bought you just as much as you bought me.”
She grabbed the pasta bowl and filled her plate. “Who are you to judge me? You’ve had everything given to you your whole life. You got a Mitsubishi Eclipse for your sixteenth birthday. I got a Chevette.”
He stiffened at the memory. “You got a family. I got shit.”
She paused, then grabbed a piece of hot garlic bread dripping with mozzarella. “You got Maggie.”
“What happened to you guys? You used to be close.”
He shrugged. “She changed in high school. Suddenly, she wouldn’t talk to me. She stopped letting me in her room for our talks, then shut me out completely. So, I let her go and concentrated on having a life of my own. You lost touch with her for a while back then, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. I always thought something happened, but she never talks about it. Anyway, my own family was screwed up for a while, so you weren’t alone.”
“But now it’s like the Waltons in there.”
She laughed and crammed a mouthful of pasta into her mouth. “My father has a lot to make up for, but I think we’ve managed to heal the cycle.”
“The karmic cycle, when someone screws up really bad and hurts you. Our first instinct is to hurt back, or refuse to forgive.”
“Ah, but now the cycle of hurt and abuse continues. When he came back, I decided I only had one father, and I’d accept whatever he could give. Eventually, he gave up the booze and tried to make up for the past.”
Nick made a rude sound. “He took off when you were young and left his family behind for the bottle. Abandoned your twin sisters. Then he shows up asking for forgiveness? Why would you even want him in your life?”
She forked another shrimp and let it hover right before her lips. “I made a choice,” she said. “I’ll never forget, but if my own mother learned to forgive him, how can I refuse? Family sticks together no matter what happens.”
The simplicity of her ability to forgive shook him to the core. He poured more wine. “Better to walk away with your head held high and your pride intact. Let them suffer for all the pain they caused.”
She seemed to think his words over. “I almost did. But I realized besides being my father, he’s just a human being who screwed up. I’d have my pride, but I wouldn’t have a father. When I made my decision I broke the cycle. He ended up getting sober and rebuilt our relationship. Have you ever thought of contacting your father?”
His emotions slammed into hyper-speed. Nick fought past the old bitterness and managed a shrug. “Jed Ryan doesn’t exist in my eyes. That was my decision.” He prepared for pity but her face only reflected a deep empathy that soothed him. How many times had he craved an actual beating or a punishment from his father instead of neglect? Somehow, the not caring burned deeper and festered.
“What about your mom?”
He concentrated on his plate. “She’s shacked up with another actor. She likes when they’re in show business. It makes her feel important.”
“Do you see her often?”
“The idea of an adult son reminds her of age. She likes to pretend I don’t exist.”
The words were simple but straight from the heart. Nick looked up from his plate. For one second, awareness and energy and understanding pulsed in the air between them, then slid away as if it had never occurred. His lopsided smile mocked his own confession. “Poor little rich boy. But you’re right about one thing—that was a hell of a Mitsubishi.”
She laughed and changed the subject. “Tell me about the deal you’re working on. Must be something big in order to remain celibate for a year.”
He let the smart-mouthed comment slide, but shot her a warning look. “I want to involve Dreamscape in a bid to build down by the waterfront.”
One brow arched. “I heard they want to build a spa, along with a few restaurants. Everyone’s buzzing about it. People used to be afraid to go near the river.”
He leaned forward with eagerness. “The area’s changing. They’ve beefed up security, and the few bars and shops already there are doing well. This will break the area wide open to both residents and tourism. Can you picture lit pathways along the water, with outside lounges? How about a huge spa that overlooks the mountains while you get a massage? It’s the future.”
“I also heard they only want the biggest companies in Manhattan to bid on the job.”
His body clenched in an almost physical need. His dream was right before him and he’d let nothing stand in his way. His drilled out the words out like a mantra. “I’m going to get that contract.”
She blinked, then slowly nodded as if his own belief secured hers. “Can Dreamscape handle such a job?”
He took a sip of wine. “The board thinks it’s too ambitious, but I’m going to prove them wrong. If I succeed, Dreamscape will rise to the top.”
“Is it about the money?”
He shook his head. “I don’t care about the money. I want to make my mark, and I know how I want to approach it. Nothing too citified. Nothing to compete with the mountains, but a structure that bows to nature and blends, rather than fighting back.”
“It sounds like you’ve thought about this for a long time.”
He sopped up the last piece of bread in the remaining sauce, then popped it into his mouth. “I knew the city would make this decision soon, and I wanted to be prepared. I’ve been thinking about designs by the river for years. Now I’m ready.”