DINNER CONSISTS OF a big bowl of popcorn and a glass of wine.
Over the last three months, this has become habit. And I rather like the ease of popping a bag into the microwave and then uncorking a bottle.
Truth be told, I might have gone to culinary school, but I’m not much of a cook. While I had exceled in restaurant management, food preparation courses weren’t my forte. Honestly, I’ve just never loved cooking.
With my sweatpants on and my brown hair twisted in a knot on top of my head, I turn on the fireplace and blow my bangs from my eyes. My hair is in bad shape. I really could use a bang trim.
The ill state of my hair aside, I sit at the kitchen island with my laptop in front of me and begin to peruse alternative properties for rent. Any of the places within a semi-decent distance of Magnificent Mile are all way too expensive. Besides, more than likely Mathias Bigelow owns them, and God knows what his markup or punishment tax will be for me to rent an alternate one of his other properties.
I take a sip of wine and start adding up the costs to renovate the property I’m interested in, and then the increased monthly lease payments the ruthless bastard wants to charge me. The amount is almost doable. Almost. So close that it’s like a tease. So close and yet so far. I simply don’t have the money to stretch myself that thin. And I have to say, it’s probably a good thing. I don’t scare easy. I pride myself on the fact I can take care of myself. Still, he made me nervous.
And with that thought in mind, I realize I’m right back where I started two weeks ago when I started looking around . . . nowhere with nothing.
By the time I hear Nick’s Range Rover pull into the driveway, that one glass of wine has somehow turned into three, my worries have quadrupled, and the popcorn bowl is nearly empty.
Nick had taken Max over to Jace Bennett’s house right after pre-school pickup. Jace is Ethan and Nick’s college buddy.
It’s a Friday night tradition for Max.
You see, Jace is recently widowed. He lost his wife of seven years last year to a tragic illness. Not only has he been left a widower at the age of thirty, but he is also a single father to a little girl about six months younger than Max. Let me tell you, Scarlett is the cutest redhead you’ve ever seen, and she is the spitting image of her mother.
Jace owns Flirt Enterprises, a huge conglomerate of social media dating sites. From what Fiona has told me, between his job and his daughter, Jace has no time left for himself. Knowing exactly how that feels, she takes Scarlett on Friday nights so that the boys can watch a hockey game, shoot some hoops, or just sit around and drink beers.
Nick, previously unbeknownst to me, is obviously a part of the boys, and decided not to cancel Friday night altogether. But rather, he went to his friend’s house to spend the evening with him and the kids. I have to admit, spending his Friday nights with married men isn’t very playboy like.
He’s such a contradiction.
Nice when you thought he wasn’t.
Helpful when you had no idea he even knew the definition of the word.
What is it they say—don’t judge a book by its hard, chiseled, exterior? Well, not quite, but something like that.
“Hey,” Nick says softly as he comes up the stairs. Max is already in his pajamas and sound asleep resting his head on Nick’s shoulder.
“Hey,” I respond quietly, jumping to my feet and almost fall over from the wave of dizziness that hits me. “Let me help you.”
Nick shakes his head as he crosses the room. “I got this.”
Wanting to assist in removing Max’s outerwear, but wondering if I can actually make it up the stairs without stumbling, I decide to sit back down and will the spinning room to stop. I know I’m not drunk. Two glasses of wine and then some isn’t enough to intoxicate me.
Nick’s strides are quick, and he is up the stairs even quicker.
I close my laptop and shut my eyes, pressing the heels of my palms to my forehead in order to concentrate on gaining my stability.
Minutes pass, and then suddenly the overhead lights flick on. I hadn’t realized I’d been sitting in the dark. I move my hands away from my face and blink. My vision blurs and then finally clears.
“Rough night?” Nick asks, taking his coat off and hanging it in the closet near the front door.
“Shitty day,” I tell him honestly, and quickly add, “But the night hasn’t been so bad.”
He’s standing beside me in a moment and pointing to the bottle. “I can tell,” he says with a smirk. “Mind?”
Surprised he drinks wine, I fight a smile as I push it his way. “Help yourself.”
When he reaches for a glass from the cupboard, I can’t help but notice how long and lean he is. I’ve seen his bare torso, I’ve seen his bare ass, but I’ve obviously never paid enough attention to how good he looks in suit pants and a white shirt.
Pouring the last of the wine into first my glass and then his own, he dips his chin toward the empty bottle. “So, tell me Tess,” he says, in that authoritative manner I used to think was condescending, but now know is just the way he speaks, “why was your day so shitty?” The note of concern in his tone strangely makes me feel like my blood is on fire.
Ignoring this very wrong illicit reaction, I glance up a little too fast and have to grab the island I’m sitting at for support.
Like lightning speed, his glass is down, he has one hand on my shoulder, and the other lifting my chin to look into my eyes. “Hey, Tess, are you okay?”
It’s odd but there is this hot, thick feeling inside me that I become aware of almost instantly when his warm skin touches mine. I write it off as too much wine. “Yes, I’m fine. I think I’m just tired.”
Letting go of my shoulder, he points to the nearly empty bowl beside me. “Have you eaten anything besides popcorn today?”
Feeling like a fool, I suddenly know why I’m out of sorts. Obviously drinking on an empty stomach is very irresponsible of me, and I have to own up to my stupidity. “No, I haven’t,” I admit. “But I’m fine now.”
Instead of chastising me, or worse, calling me on my irresponsibility, like I probably would have done if the tables were turned, he simply responds with, “Yes, I can see that,” and then strides toward the refrigerator.
Curious as to what he is doing, I twist in my stool. “How was your night?”
Bending, he rummages through the contents before him. “It was a good time. We ordered pizza, the kids played, and Jace and I watched hockey.”
“Sounds fun. It certainly looked like Max enjoyed himself.”
Setting a carton of eggs, a bag of cheese, and a gallon of milk on the counter beside the stove, Nick glances over at me. “Are eggs okay?”
More than a bit surprised by his question, I start to protest, “You don’t have to cook—”
“Tess, how do you like your eggs?” Nick asks, cutting me off.
Somewhat bewildered, I stare at him. Not sure how to answer that. It’s weird, but in all the years I was with Ansel, I don’t think he ever asked me what I preferred to eat. I always just ate whatever new recipe he had decided to try out.
The skillet clanks as it hits the stovetop. “Do you want them fried or scrambled?” he presses.
It takes me a moment, but finally I answer him. “Scrambled, please.”
With a nod, Nick grabs for a glass bowl.
“How’s Jace?” I ask, still surprised he’s cooking for me.
Nick shrugs as he cracks the eggs. “Honestly, not great. He’s struggling to do everything that needs to be done, and refuses help.”
My heart hurts for Nick and Ethan’s friend. I can’t imagine what he is going through. “Maybe he just wants to keep busy,” I suggest.
“I’m sure of that, but he can’t keep going at the pace he is for much longer. He gets up, takes Scarlett to a daycare near his office, goes to work, leaves the office by six to pick her up, and once she is in bed, he works until God knows what hour. I swear, the dude never sleeps.”
I watch Nick with an odd curiosity as he competently whisks the milk in his egg mixture, shakes in some salt and pepper, and then adds a handful of cheese. He knows what he’s doing. There is no show, or fancy moves though. It’s all done quick and efficiently, with the intent to get to the finished product. “Have you suggested he hire a nanny to help with Scarlett?” I ask.
Nick pours the contents of the bowl into the hot skillet and starts to whip the liquid around with a fork. “Me?”
“Yes, you. Maybe someone needs to let him know it’s okay if he can’t do everything himself.”
“No, I haven’t, but I’m sure Fiona must have.”
“But he’s your friend, so maybe if you suggest it, he’ll at least consider the idea,” I say optimistically.
Nick smirks at me as he puts some bread in the toaster. “Maybe.”
“What?” I ask.
“When did you become little miss sunshine?”
I put my hand to my chest. “I beg your pardon, but I have always been a glass half full kind of girl.”
With a snicker, Nick scoops the eggs onto two plates.
“I have,” I stress.
The toast pops up. “Whatever you say.”
“Nick, I’m serious.”
“I’m sure you are,” he mumbles under his breath.
His smirk remains in place as he grabs the hot slices of bread and quickly drops them to the plates. “Do you remember the night,” he says, waving his hand as if he burned it, “of Fiona and Ethan’s rehearsal dinner,” he goes on, “when I suggested we take the Polar Bear Plunge and you shot me down?”
Torn between watching him make me something to eat and arguing with him, I decide why not do both. “Yes, I do remember, and the idea was just ludicrous.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“Yes, it was.”
“Tell me why, Tess?”
This takes me a moment and I feel slightly tongue-tied when I try to explain it. “Just because Ethan and Fiona were taking the plunge, didn’t mean we should all strip down to our underwear and jump in the freezing water to take the plunge too.”
“But why not? It was funny, and a fantastic idea,” he says as he butters the toast.
“Because,” my voice raises, “it was stupid, and more than likely we’d all catch cold.”
Nick raises a brow. “This said by the glass half full kind of girl.”
I say nothing. He has a point. Perhaps in hindsight maybe whenever he’s been around I have been somewhat of a Debbie Downer.
With a plate, silverware, and napkin in each hand, he walks toward me. I can’t help but notice how his muscles ripple beneath his crisp, white shirt. How his biceps bulge when he moves his arms. The shape of his forearms showing beneath his rolled up sleeves. How square and strong his shoulders are.
While staring at me, he sets everything down.
I find myself staring back into those brilliant blue eyes that must capture the attention of every woman he looks at.
He pushes one of the plates closer to me. “Stop staring and start eating,” he commands.
“Yes, sir,” I joke, ignoring the fact he caught me, because after all, he was staring first.
Nick raises one sexy brow. “Will you call me master if I get you some juice?”
The moment ruined, as usual, I purse my lips and roll my eyes. “Dream on.”
Despite my behavior, he pours us each a glass of juice. Once he sits down, he looks at me, as if waiting for me to comment.
As soon as I finish chewing the bite of eggs of my mouth, I blurt out, “These are really good.”
Nick lifts a piece of toast to his mouth. “Eggs, grilled cheese, and spaghetti and meatballs are my specialties.”
“I’m impressed,” I respond with sincerity.
Wiping his mouth with a napkin, he says, “Oh, yeah, why?”
“I just never thought a wealthy, eligible bachelor like you would know the first thing about cooking.”
He laughs. “I practically raised my younger brother, and at the time my father barely made enough to put a roof over our heads, let alone have enough money for me to buy much when it came to food.”
Forking some more eggs, I pause. “Where was your mother?”
His eyes flicker. “She left us to go back to her first husband when Lucas was just a baby. I was ten.”
My preconceived notion that he was a trust fund baby suddenly seems ridiculous. Why hadn’t Fiona told me? I guess I’d never asked. When had I concocted that misconception in my mind? Perception I suppose. Boy, was I wrong. “I’m sorry, I honestly had no idea.”
Nick shrugs. “I did what I had to do. It’s not like I could leave a little boy to fend for himself. Now finish your food, Tess.”
I give him a nod and finish the eggs and toast, realizing just how very hungry I am with each and every bite.
Too bad that hunger doesn’t seem to be waning.
It’s as I watch Nick drink his juice, pick up his fork, and chew his food, that I realize I’m not sure it’s food I’m starved for.
What the hell?