Anxiety Girl, able to jump to the worst conclusion in a single bound!
Most of the time karma was a bitch, but every once in a while she could be surprisingly nice, even kind. Lanie Jacobs, way past overdue for both of those things, told herself this was her time. Seize the day and all that. She drew a deep breath as she exited the highway at Wildstone.
The old Wild West California town was nestled in the rolling hills between the Pacific Coast and wine and ranching country. She’d actually grown up not too far from here, though it felt like a lifetime ago. The road was narrow and curvy, and since it’d rained earlier, she added tricky and slick to her growing list of its issues. She was already white-knuckling a sharp turn when a kamikaze squirrel darted into her lane, causing her to nearly swerve into oncoming traffic before remembering the rules of country driving.
Never leave your lane; not for weather, animals, or even God himself.
Luckily the squirrel reversed its direction, but before Lanie could relax a trio of deer bounded out right in front of her. “Run, Bambi, run,” she cried, hitting the brakes, and by the skin of all of their collective teeth, they missed one another.
Sweating, nerves sizzling like live wires, she finally turned onto Capriotti Lane and parked as she’d been instructed.
And went completely still as her world darkened. Not physically, but internally, as her entire body braced for all hell to break loose. Recognizing sign número uno of an impending anxiety attack barreling down on her like a freight train, she gripped the steering wheel. “You’re okay,” she told herself firmly.
This, of course, didn’t stop said freight train. But though she’d been plagued with overactive fight-or-flight preceptors, all of which were yelling at her to run, she couldn’t.
Not this time. Which didn’t stop the dizziness or sudden nausea, or make her lungs work properly. And that was the hardest thing about these attacks that were new to her this year, because it was always the same fears. What if it never stopped? What if someone saw her losing it and realized she was broken? And the worst part . . . what if it wasn’t an anxiety attack? Maybe this time it was a seizure or a brain aneurism.
Or a stroke. Hadn’t her great-aunt Agnes died of a stroke?
Okay, stop, she ordered herself, damp with sweat now and doing that annoying trembling thing where she shook like a leaf. Breathe in for four, breathe out for four, and hold for four.
Repeat again, all while listing the meals she’d had yesterday in her head. Peanut butter toast for breakfast. Tuna salad for lunch. She’d skipped dinner and had wine and popcorn instead.
Slowly but surely, her pulse slowed. It’s all good, she told herself, but because she wasn’t buying what she was selling, she had to force herself out of the car like she was a five-year-old starting kindergarten instead of being thirty and simply facing a brand-new job. Given all she’d been through, this should be easy, even fun. But sometimes adulthood felt like the vet’s office and she was the dog excited for the car ride—only to find out the destination.
Shaking her head, she strode across the parking lot. It was April, which meant the rolling hills to the east were green and lush and the Pacific Ocean to the west looked like a surfer’s dream, all of it so gorgeous it could’ve been a postcard. A beautiful smoke screen over her not-so-beautiful past. The air was scented like a really expensive sea-and-earth candle, though all Lanie could smell was her forgotten hopes and dreams. With wood chips crunching under her shoes, she headed through the entrance, above which was a huge wooden sign that read:
CAPRIOTTI WINERY, FROM OUR FIELDS TO YOUR TABLE . . .
Her heart sped up. Nerves, of course, the bane of her existence. But after a very crappy few years, she was changing her path. For once in her godforsaken life, something was going to work out for her. This was going to work out for her.
She was grimly determined.
The land was lined with split-rail wooden fencing, protecting grapevines as far as the eye could see. The large open area in front of her was home to several barns and other structures, all meticulously maintained and landscaped with stacks of barrels, colorful flower beds, and clever glass bottle displays.
Lanie walked into the first “barn,” which housed the reception area and offices for the winery. She was greeted by an empty reception counter, beyond which was a huge, open-beamed room containing a bar on the far side, comfy couches and low tables scattered through the main area, and walls of windows that showed off the gorgeous countryside.
It was warm and inviting and . . . empty. Well, except for the huge mountain of white and gray fur sleeping on a dog bed in a corner. It was either a Wookie or a massive English sheepdog, complete with scraggly fur hanging in its eyes. If it was a dog, it was the hugest one she’d ever seen, and she stilled as the thing snorted, lifted its head, and opened a bleary eye.
At the sight of her, it leapt to its four paws and gave a happy wuff. At least she was hoping it was a happy wuff because it came running at her. Never having owned a dog in her life, she froze. “Uh, hi,” she said, and did her best to hold her ground. But the closer the thing got, the more she lost her nerve. She whirled to run.
And then she heard a crash.
She turned back in time to see that the dog’s forward momentum had been too much. Its hind end had come out from beneath it and it’d flipped onto its back, skidding to a stop in front of her.
She—because she was definitely a she, Lanie could now see—flopped around like a fish for a few seconds as she tried to right herself, to no success. With a loud woof, the dog gave up and stayed on her back, tail wagging like crazy, tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth.
“You’re vicious, I see,” Lanie said, and unable to resist, she squatted down to rub the dog’s belly.
The dog snorted her pleasure, licked her hand, and then lumbered up and back over to her bed.
Lanie looked around. Still alone. Eleven forty-five. She was fifteen minutes early, which was a statement on her entire life.
You’ll be the only human to ever be early for her own funeral, her mom liked to say, along with her favorite—you expect way too much out of people.
This from the woman who’d been a physicist and who’d regularly forgotten to pick up her own daughter after school.
Lanie eyed the sign on the reception desk and realized the problem. The winery was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and today was Monday. “Hello?” she called out, feeling a little panicky. Had she somehow screwed up the dates? She’d interviewed for a two-month graphic artist job here twice, both times via Skype from her Santa Barbara apartment. Her new boss, Cora Capriotti, the winery office manager, wanted her to create new labels, menus, a website, everything, and she wanted her to do so on-site. Cora had explained that they prided themselves on being old-fashioned. It was part of their charm, she’d said.
Lanie didn’t mind the temporary relocation from Santa Barbara, two hours south of here. She’d actually quit her permanent graphic design job after her husband’s death. Needing a big change and a kick in her own ass to get over herself and all the self-pity, she’d been freelancing ever since. It’d been good for her. She’d accepted this job specifically because it was in Wildstone. Far enough away from Santa Barbara to give her a sense of a new start . . . and an excuse to go back to her roots. She’d grown up only fifteen minutes from here and she’d secretly hoped that maybe she and her mom might spend some time together in the same room. In any case, two months away from her life was exactly what the doctor had ordered.
She pulled out her cell phone, scrolled for her new boss’s number, and called.
“We’re out back!” Cora answered. “Let yourself in and join us for lunch!”
“Oh, but I don’t want to interrupt—” Lanie blinked and stared at her phone.
Cora had disconnected.
With another deep breath that was long on nerves and short on actual air, she walked through the open great room and out the back French double doors. She stepped onto a patio beautifully decorated with strings of white lights and green foliage lining the picnic-style tables. But that wasn’t what had her frozen like a deer facing down the headlights of a speeding Mack Truck.
No, that honor went to the people crowded around two of the large tables, which had been pushed close together. Everyone turned to look at her in unison, all ages and sizes, and then started talking at once.
Lanie recognized that they were smiling and waving, which meant they were probably a friendly crowd, but parties weren’t her friends. Her favorite party trick was not going to parties.
A woman in her early fifties broke away. She had dark brunette hair liberally streaked with gray, striking dark brown eyes, and a kind smile. She was holding a glass of red wine in one hand and a delicious-looking hunk of bread in the other, and she waved both in Lanie’s direction.
“Lanie, right? I’m Cora, come on in.”
Lanie didn’t move. “I’ve caught you in the middle of something. A wedding or a party. I can come back—”
“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that.” Cora looked back at the wild pack of people still watching. “It’s just lunch. We do this every day.” She gestured at all of them. “Meet your fellow employees. I’m related to everyone one way or another, so they’ll behave. Or else.” She smiled, taking away the heat of the threat. “In any case, welcome. Come join us. Let me get you a plate—”
“Oh, that’s okay, I brought a salad.” Lanie patted her bag. “I can just go sit in my car until you’re finished—”
“No need for that, honey. I have lunch catered every day.”
“Every day?” She didn’t realize she’d spoken out loud until Cora laughed.
“It’s our social time,” Cora said.
At Lanie’s last job, people had raced out of the building at lunch to escape one another. “That’s . . . very generous of you.”
“Nothing generous about it,” Cora said with a laugh. “It keeps everyone on-site, ensures no one’s late getting back to the job, and I get to keep my nosy nose in everyone’s business.” She set aside her bread, freeing up a hand to grab Lanie’s, clearly recognizing a flight risk when she saw one. “Everyone,” she called out. “This is Lanie Jacobs, our new graphic artist.” She smiled reassuringly at Lanie and gestured to the group of people. “Lanie, this is everyone; from the winemaker to the front-desk receptionist, we’re all here. We’re a rather informal bunch.”
They all burst into applause, and Lanie wished for a big black hole to sink into and vanish. “Hi,” she managed, and gave a little wave. She must have pulled off the correct level of civility because they all went back to eating and drinking wine, talking among themselves.
“Are you really related to all of them?” she asked Cora, watching two little girls, possibly twins, given their matching toothless smiles, happily eating chocolate cupcakes, half of which were all over their faces.
Cora laughed. “Just about. I’ve got a big family. You?”
“Yes.” Lanie’s current relationship status: sleeping diagonally across her bed.
Cora smiled. “Well, I’ll be happy to share my people—there’s certainly enough of us to go around. Hey,” she yelled, cupping a hand around her mouth. “Someone take the girls in to wash up, and no more cupcakes or they’ll be bouncing off the walls.”
So the cupcakes were a problem, but wine at lunch wasn’t. Good to know.
Cora smiled at Lanie’s expression, clearly reading her thoughts. “We’re Californians,” she said. “We’re serious about our wine, but laid-back about everything else. In fact, maybe that should be our tagline. Now come, have a seat.” She drew Lanie over to the tables. “We’ll get to work soon enough.”
There was an impressive amount of food, all of it Italian, all of it fragrant and delicious-looking. Lanie’s heart said definitely to both the wine and the lasagna, but her pants said holy shit, woman, find a salad instead.
Cora gave a nudge to the woman at the end of the table, who looked to be around Lanie’s age and had silky dark hair and matching eyes. “Scoot,” Cora said.
The woman scooted. So did everyone else, allowing a space on the end for Lanie.
“Sit,” Cora told Lanie. “Eat. Make merry.”
“Oh, and be careful of that one,” Cora said, pointing to the woman directly across from Lanie, this one in her early twenties with the same gorgeous dark hair and eyes as the other. “Her bad attitude can be contagious.”
“Gee, thanks, Mom,” she said with an impressive eye-roll.
Cora blew her daughter a kiss and fluttered away, grabbing a bottle of wine from the middle of one of the tables and refilling glasses as she went.
“One of these days I’m gonna roll my eyes so hard I’m going to go blind,” her daughter muttered.
The twins ran through, still giggling, and still looking like they’d bathed in chocolate, which caused a bit of commotion. Trying to remain inconspicuous, Lanie pulled her lunch out of her bag—a homemade salad in a container, sans dressing.
“Are you kidding me?” Cora’s daughter asked. “Do you want her to come back here and yell at us for not feeding you properly? Put that away.” She stood up, reached for a stack of plates in the middle of the table, and handed Lanie one. “Here. Now fill it up and eat, and for God’s sake, look happy while you’re at it or she’ll have my ass.”
Lanie eyeballed the casserole dishes lining the center of the tables. Spaghetti, lasagna . . .
“Don’t worry, it all tastes as good as it looks,” an old man said from the middle of the table. There was no hair on his head, but he did have a large patch of gray steel fuzz on his chest, which was sticking out from the top of his polo shirt. His olive complexion had seen at least seven decades of sun, but his smile was pure little-boy mischief. “And don’t worry about your cholesterol either,” he added. “I’m seventy-five and I’ve eaten like this every single day of my life.” He leaned across the table and shook her hand. “Leonardo Antony Capriotti. And this is my sweetheart of fifty-four years, Adelina Capriotti. I’d use her middle name, but she refuses to sleep with me when I do that.”
The older woman next to him was teeny-tiny, her white hair in a tight bun on her head, her spectacles low on her nose, her smile mischievous. “Gotta keep him in line, you know. Nice to meet you.”
Lanie knew from her research on the company that it’d been Leonardo and Adelina who had started this winery back in the seventies, though they’d since handed over the day-to-day reins to their daughter, who Lanie now realized was her boss, Cora. “Nice to meet you both,” she said.
“Likewise. You’re going to give us a new updated look and make me look good,” he said. “Right?”
“Right,” she said and hoped that was actually true. No pressure or anything . . .
He smiled. “I like you. Now eat.”
If she ate any of this stuff, she’d need a nap by midafternoon. But not wanting to insult anyone, she scooped as little as she felt she could get away with onto her plate and pushed it around with her fork, trying to resist temptation.
“Uh-oh,” Cora’s daughter said. “We have a dieter.”
“Stop it,” the woman next to Lanie said. “You’ll scare her away and end up right back on Mom’s shit list.”
The other one, whose shirt read: LIVE, LAUGH, AND LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE, snorted. “We both know that I never get off the shit list. I just move up and down on it. Mom’s impossible to please.”
“Don’t listen to her,” the other woman said to Lanie. “I’m Alyssa, by the way. And Grumpy-Ass over there is my baby sister, Mia.”
Mia waved and reached for the breadbasket. “I’m giving up on getting a bikini body, so pass the butter, please. Grandma says the good Lord put alcohol and carbs on this planet for a reason and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Him down.”
Her grandma toasted her.
“Mia and I work here at the winery,” Alyssa said and gently patted the cloth-wrapped little bundle swaddled to her chest. “This is Elsa, my youngest.”
“Elsa, like the princess?” Lanie asked.
“More like the queen,” Alyssa said with a smile, rubbing her infant’s tush. “She’s going to rule this roost someday.”
“Who are you kidding?” Mia asked. “Mom’s going to hold the reins until she’s three hundred years old. That’s how long witches live, you know.”
Lanie wasn’t sure how to react. After all, that witch was now her boss.
“You’re scaring her off again,” Alyssa said and looked at Lanie. “We love Mom madly, I promise. Mia’s just bitchy because she got dumped last night, was late for work this morning, and got read the riot act. She thinks life sucks.”
“Yeah, well, life does suck,” Mia said. “It sucks donkey balls. And this whole waking-up-every-morning thing is getting a bit excessive. But Alyssa’s right. Don’t listen to me. Sarcasm. It’s how I hug.”
Alyssa reached across the table and squeezed her sister’s hand in her own, her eyes soft. “Are you going to tell me what happened? I thought you liked this one.”
Mia shrugged. “I was texting him and he was only responding occasionally with ‘K.’ I mean, I have no idea what ‘K’ even means. Am I to assume he intended to type ‘OK,’ but was stabbed and couldn’t expend the energy to type an extra whole letter?”
Alyssa sucked her lips into her mouth in a clear attempt not to laugh. “Tell me you didn’t ask him that and then get broken up with by text.”
“Well, dear know-it-all sister, that’s exactly what happened. And now I’ve got a new motto: Don’t waste your good boob years on a guy that doesn’t deserve them. Oh, and sidenote: no man does. Men suck.”
Lanie let out a completely inadvertent snort of agreement and both women looked over at her.
“Well, they do,” she said. “Suck.”
“See, I knew I was going to like you.” Mia reached for a bottle of red and gestured with it in Lanie’s direction.
She shook her head. “Water’s good, thanks.”
Mia nodded. “I like water too. It solves a lot of problems. Wanna lose weight? Drink water. Tired of your man? Drown him.” She paused and cocked her head in thought. “In hindsight, I should’ve gone that route . . .”
A man came out onto the patio, searched the tables, and focused in on Alyssa. He came up behind her, cupped her face, and tilted it up for his kiss. And he wasn’t shy about it either, smiling intimately into her eyes first. Running his hands down her arms to cup them around the baby, he pulled back an inch. “How are my girls?” he murmured.
“Jeez, careful or she’ll suffocate,” Mia said.
“Hmm.” The man kissed Alyssa again, longer this time before finally lifting his head. “What a way to go.” He turned to Lanie and smiled. “Welcome. I’m Owen Booker, the winemaker.”
Alyssa, looking a little dazed, licked her lips. “And husband,” she added to his résumé. “He’s my husband.” She beamed. “I somehow managed to land the best winemaker in the country.”
Owen laughed softly and borrowed her fork to take a bite of her pasta. “I’ll see you at the afternoon meeting,” he said, then he bent and brushed a kiss on Elsa’s little head and walked off.
Alyssa watched him go. Specifically watched his ass, letting out a theatrical sigh.
“Good God, give it a rest,” Mia griped. “And you’re drooling. Get yourself together, woman. Yesterday you wanted to kill him, remember?”
“Well, he is still a man,” Alyssa said. “If I didn’t want to kill him at least once a day, he’s not doing his job right.”
“Please, God, tell me you’re almost done with the baby hormonal mood swings,” Mia said.
“Hey, I’m hardly having any baby-hormone-related mood swings anymore.”
Mia snorted and looked at Lanie. “FYI, whenever we’re in a situation where I happen to be the voice of reason, it’s probably an apocalypse sort of thing and you should save yourself.”
“Whatever,” Alyssa said. “He’s hot and he’s mine, all mine.”
“Yes,” Mia said. “We know. And he’s been yours since the second grade and you get to sleep with him later, so . . .”
Alyssa laughed. “I know. Isn’t it great? All you need is love.”
“I’m pretty sure we also need water, food, shelter, vodka, and Netflix.”
“Well, excuse me for being happy.” Alyssa looked at Lanie. “Are you married, Lanie?”
“Not anymore.” She took a bite of the most amazing fettuccine Alfredo she’d ever had and decided that maybe calories on Mondays didn’t count.
“Was he an asshole?” Mia asked, her eyes curious but warmly so.
“Actually, he’s dead.”
Alyssa gasped. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked—”
“No,” Lanie said, kicking herself for spilling the beans like that. “It’s okay. It’s been six months.” Six months, one week, and two days but hey, who was counting? She bypassed her water and reached for the wine after all. When in Rome . . .
“That’s really not very long,” Alyssa said.
“I’m really okay.” There was a reason for the quick recovery. Several, actually. They’d dated for six months and he’d been charming and charismatic, and new to love, she’d fallen fast. They’d gotten married and gone five years, the first half great, the second half not so much because she’d discovered they just weren’t right for each other. She’d not been able to put her finger on what had been wrong exactly, but it’d been undeniable that whatever they’d once shared had faded. But after Kyle had passed away, some things had come to light. Such as the fact that he’d hidden an addiction from her.
A wife addiction.
It’d gone a long way toward getting her over the hump of the grieving process. So had the fact that several other women had come out of the woodwork claiming to also be married to Kyle. Not that she intended to share that humiliation. Not now or ever.
You’re my moon and my stars, he’d always told her.
Yeah. Just one lie in a string of many, as it’d turned out . . .
Cora came back around and Lanie nearly leapt up in relief. Work! Work was going to save her.
“I see you’ve met some of my big, nosy, interfering, boisterous, loving family and survived to tell the tale,” Cora said, slipping an arm around Mia and gently squeezing.
“Yes, and I’m all ready to get to it,” Lanie said.
“Oh, not yet.” Cora gestured for her to stay seated. “No rush, there’s still fifteen minutes left of lunch.” And then she once again made her way around the tables, chatting with everyone she passed. “Girls,” she called out to the cupcake twins, who were now chasing each other around the other table. “Slow down, please!”
At Lanie’s table, everyone had gotten deeply involved in a discussion on barrels. She was listening with half an ear to the differences in using American oak versus French oak when a man in a deputy sheriff’s uniform came in unnoticed through the French double doors. He was tall, built, and fully armed. His eyes were covered by dark aviator sunglasses, leaving his expression unreadable. And intimidating as hell.
He strode directly toward her.
“Scoot,” he said to the table, and since no one else scooted—in fact, no one else even looked over at him—Lanie scooted.
“Thanks.” He sat, reaching past her to accept the plate that Mia handed to him without pausing her conversation with Alyssa. The plate was filled up to shockingly towering heights that surely no one human could consume.
He caught Lanie staring.
“That’s a lot of food,” she said inanely.
“Hungry.” He grabbed a fork. “You’re the new hire.”
“Lanie,” she said and watched in awe as he began to shovel in food like he hadn’t eaten in a week.
“Mark,” he said after swallowing a bite, something she appreciated because Kyle used to talk with his mouth full and it had driven her to want to kill him. Which, as it turned out, hadn’t been necessary. A heart attack had done that for her.
Apparently cheating on a bunch of wives had been highly stressful. Go figure.
“You must be a very brave woman,” Mark said.
And for a horrifying minute, she was afraid she’d spoken of Kyle out loud, and she stared at him.
“Taking on this job, this family,” he said. “They’re insane, you know. Every last one of them.”
Because he had a disarming smile and was speaking with absolutely no malice, she knew he had to be kidding. But she still thought it rude considering they’d served him food. “They can’t be all that bad,” she said. “They’re feeding you, which you seem to be enjoying.”
“Who wouldn’t enjoy it? It’s the best food in the land.”
This was actually true. She watched him go at everything on his plate like it was a food-eating contest and he was in danger of coming in second place for the world championship. She shook her head in awe. “You’re going to get heartburn eating that fast.”
“Better than not eating at all,” he said, glancing at his watch. “I’ve got ten minutes to be back on the road chasing the bad guys, and a lot of long, hungry hours ahead of me.”
“One of those days, huh?”
“One of those years,” he said. “But at least I’m not stuck here at the winery day in and day out.”
She went brows up. “Are you making fun of my job at all?”
“Making fun? No,” he said. “Offering sympathy, yes. You clearly have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into. You could still make a break for it, you know.”
That she herself had been thinking the very same thing only five minutes ago didn’t help. Suddenly feeling defensive for this job she hadn’t even started yet, she looked around her. The winery itself was clearly lovingly and beautifully taken care of. The yard in which they sat was lush and colorful and welcoming. Sure, the sheer number of people employed here was intimidating, as was the fact that they gathered every day to eat lunch and socialize. But she’d get used to it.
“I love my job,” she said.
Mark grinned. “You’re on day one. And you haven’t started yet or you’d have finished your wine. Trust me, it’s going to be a rough ride, Lanie Jacobs.”
Huh. So he definitely knew more about her than she knew about him. No big deal since she wasn’t all that interested in knowing more about him. “Surely given what you do for a living, you realize there’s nothing ‘rough’ about my job at all.”
“I know I’d rather face down thugs and gangbangers daily than work in this looney bin.”
She knew he was kidding, that he was in fact actually pretty funny, but she refused to be charmed. Fact was, she couldn’t have been charmed by any penis-carrying human being at the moment. “Right,” she said, “because clearly you’re here against your will, being held hostage and force-fed all this amazing food. How awful for you.”
“Yeah, life’s a bitch.” He eyeballed the piece of cheese bread on her plate that she hadn’t touched. It was the last one.
She nodded for him to take it and then watched in amazement as he put that away too. “I have to ask,” she said. “How in the world do you stay so . . .” She gestured with a hand toward his clearly well-taken-care-of body and struggled with a word to describe him. She supposed hot worked—if one was into big, annoying, perfectly fit alphas—not that she intended to say so, since she was pretty sure he knew exactly how good he looked.
“How do I stay so . . . what?” he asked.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that fishing for compliments is unattractive?”
He surprised her by laughing, clearly completely unconcerned with what she thought of him. “My days tend to burn up a lot of calories,” he said.
He pushed his dark sunglasses to the top of his head, and she was leveled with dark eyes dancing with mischievousness. “Such cynicism in one so young.”
A plate of cupcakes was passed down the table and Lanie eyed them, feeling her mouth water. She had only so much self-control and apparently she was at her limit because she took one, and then, with barely a pause, she grabbed a second as well. Realizing the deputy sheriff was watching her and looking amused while he was at it, she shrugged. “Sometimes I reward myself before I accomplish something. It’s called pre-award motivation.”
“Does it work?”
“Absolutely one hundred percent not,” she admitted and took a bite of one of the cupcakes, letting out a low moan before she could stop herself. “Oh. My. God.”
His eyes darkened to black. “You sound like that cupcake is giving you quite the experience.”
She held up a finger for silence, possibly having her first-ever public orgasm.
He leaned in a little bit and since their thighs were already plastered together, he didn’t have to go far to speak directly into her ear. “Do you make those same sexy sounds when you—”
She pointed at him again because she still couldn’t talk, and he just grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “I bet you do. And now I know what I’m going to be thinking about for the rest of the day.”
“You’ll be too busy catching the bad guys, remember?”
“I’m real good at multitasking,” he said.
She let out a laugh, though it was rusty as hell. It’d been a while since she’d found something funny. Not that this changed her idea of him. He was still too sure of himself, too cocky, and she’d had enough of that to last a lifetime. But she also was good at multitasking and could both not like him and appreciate his sense of humor at the same time.
What she couldn’t appreciate was when his smile turned warm and inviting, because for a minute something passed between them, something she couldn’t—or didn’t—intend to recognize.
“Maybe I could call you sometime,” he said.
Before she could turn him down politely, the little cupcake twins came running, leaping at him, one of them yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! Look what we got!”
Catching them both with impressive ease, Mark stood, managing to somehow confiscate the cupcakes and set them aside before getting covered in chocolate. “Why is it,” he asked Lanie over their twin dark heads, “that when a child wants to show you something, they try to place it directly in your cornea?”
Still completely floored, Lanie could only shake her head.
Mark adjusted the girls so that they hung upside down off his back. This had them erupting in squeals of delight as he turned back to face Lanie again, two little ankles in each of his big hands. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said into her undoubtedly shocked face. “I think it every day.”
Actually, even she had no idea what she was thinking except . . . he was a Capriotti? How had she not seen that coming?
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m one of them, which is why I get to bitch about them. And let me guess . . . you just decided you’re not going to answer my call?”
Most definitely not, but before she could say so out loud Cora was back, going up on tiptoes to kiss Mark on the cheek. “Hey, baby. Heard you had a real tough night.”
“You get enough to eat?” she asked. “Yes?” She eyed his empty plate and then, with a nod of satisfaction, reached up and ruffled his hair. “Good. But don’t for a single minute think, Marcus Antony Edward Capriotti, that I don’t know who sneaked your grandpa the cigars he was caught smoking last night.”
From his seat at the table, “Grandpa,” aka Leonardo Antony Capriotti, lifted his hands as if to say, Who, me?
Cora shook her head at both of them, helped the girls down from Mark’s broad shoulders, took them by the hand, and walked away.
No, Lanie would most definitely not be taking the man’s call. And not for the reasons he’d assume either. She didn’t mind that he had kids. What she minded was that here was a guy who appeared to have it all: close family, wonderful children, a killer smile, a hot body . . . without a single clue about just how damn lucky he was. It made her mad, actually.
He took in her expression. “Okay, so you’re most definitely not going to take my call.”
“It’s nothing personal,” she said. “I just don’t date . . .”
Actually, as a direct result of no longer trusting love, not even one little teeny, tiny bit, she didn’t date anyone anymore, but that was none of his business.
He looked at her for another beat and whatever lingering amusement he’d retained left him, and he simply nodded as he slid his sunglasses back over his eyes. “Good luck today,” he said. “You really are going to need it.”
And then he was gone.
He thought she’d judged him. She hated that he thought that, but it was best to let him think it. Certainly better than the truth, which was that the problem was her, all her. She inhaled a deep, shaky breath and turned, surprised to find not just Cora watching, but Mark’s sisters, grandpa, and several others she could only guess were also related.
Note to self: Capriottis multiply when left unattended.