“So…did you say yes?”
Towel drying herself, Sophia Nardovino paused to stare at her cell phone which was set to speaker on the bathroom counter, questioning if she’d heard her mother correctly.
“Sophia? Are you there?”
“Yeah, Ma.” She sighed. “Nothing’s changed. I told Gino no for tenth time, and I’m still here drying off.”
Her mother’s tsk echoed through the phone. “You’re too hard on that boy. What’s so bad about marrying him? He comes from a good Italian family.”
Unlike her mother, that wasn’t one of Sophia’s requirements for a husband. Nor was being a slick womanizer. Besides, she didn’t want to get married just yet. She was focused on building her set design portfolio for her career.
“It’s the perfect match,” her mother continued. “His family is into real estate. Your family is in construction.”
“Doesn’t make him the right fit for me.” Using her towel, she wiped the mist off the mirror of the master bath in a condo that used to belong to her college friend’s brother. Brandi told her Keiffer was now living in Harland County, Texas, near her, and insisted Sophia use the place while she was there building sets for her friend, Phoebe—a Broadway star who was opening her own theatre in the Poconos.
“Why doesn’t that make him right for you?”
She blinked at her mother’s question, and a snort rippled up her throat. “Well, for one, he’s an arrogant ladies man.” Something she’d never tolerate.
“So was your father before we started dating,” her mother pointed out. “You just need to give Gino a chance.”
A shudder ricocheted down her spine. “I did, Ma. Last year. Remember? I went on a date with him, because you, Dad and Gino kept badgering me.”
“Once isn’t enough to get to know someone.” Her mother’s tone was borderline scolding.
Sophia snorted again. “Believe me, one date with Gino was too much.” Bile raced up her throat at the memory.
The instant she’d opened her apartment door, she knew it was a mistake. A big one—with a slick grin and unexpected attitude to match.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
“What was so wrong with the date?” her mother asked, as if Sophia hadn’t told her several times already.
“The fact I couldn’t breathe, for one thing.” She shuddered again. “He wore so much cologne, Mrs. Switzer’s cat across the hall sneezed three times.”
“That’s her fault for snooping.”
Sophia lived in a well-maintained building in Queens, with nice neighbors. “Ma, her door was shut.”
“Then she shouldn’t have left the poor thing out in the hallway.”
She shook her head. “The cat wasn’t in the hallway. She was inside Mrs. Switzer’s apartment…behind a closed door.”
“That’s still no reason not to go out with the guy again,” her mother insisted.
“Yes, it is,” she insisted right back. “He killed my taste buds. Everything I ate that night tasted like his cologne. Then there was the lovely stop at a club where he danced with at least three other women, while I sat and watched.” Granted, that was after she’d refused to dance with him again. He’d lost that privilege after assuming it was okay to let his hands roam freely over her body.
There was only man she’d grant that privilege, but their fling was a long time ago. Ryder was probably married with several children by now.
She wondered briefly if she’d run into him while in the Poconos.
“Maybe he was trying to impress you with his moves, or something.” Now, her mother was reaching.
She laughed outright. “Trust me, Ma. You would be less than impressed with his moves that night.”
“What? Why?” Renata Nardovino’s tone rose an octave, never a good sign. “What did he do?”
Dammit. She shouldn’t have said anything.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle. If it had been a problem, I would’ve called the guys.”
Beyond overprotective, her three older brothers effectively scared away every single date Sophia had ever brought home while growing up. They most definitely would not have been pleased with Gino stealing a kiss at the end of their date, or the fact he’d grown extra hands, and used too much tongue.
Her reflection shook as revulsion shot down her spine. That had been nowhere close to the best kiss she’d ever received. A smile tugged her lips, and her gaze softened in the mirror as the memory of that incredible embrace washed over her.
It’d happen five years ago, right here in the Poconos, during the best New Year’s Eve of her life. Sophia had spent a few days with Brandi and her family. The fact her friend had four smokin’ hot older brothers was a plus, but it was a friend of one of the brothers who’d captured Sophia’s attention—and much more—that week.
Not only had Ryder been an incredible kisser, he’d had a way of making her body quiver with just a look. A look. It was crazy. No one had done that before, or since. Although, with her domineering brothers, she’d only had three lovers, none of which her family knew anything about. Ryder had been her second, and by far, the best. The sexy National Guardsman had kind of ruined her for anyone else.
The last guy hadn’t measured up, although, in truth, she’d shared quite a bit of wine with Ryder that night, so perhaps that played a part in her exuberant reactions to the man.
Yeah, that was probably it.
“Sophia? Are you still there?” Her mother’s voice brought her back to the present.
“Yes, Ma, sorry. I was towel drying my hair.” Which she immediately started to do, so it wasn’t a complete fib.
“I asked if you ran to the Poconos to get away from my meddling?” Anxiety had crept into her mother’s tone.
“No,” she quickly replied. “And I didn’t run away. I’m here because Phoebe asked me to help with the first few productions at her new theatre, remember? You know I love working with Phoebe.”
“I know you do,” her mother said, sounding relieved. “And Mandy said she’d be happy to fill in for you at work.”
This was a discussion Sophia already had with her sister-in-law a few days ago. The sweetheart was eager to pick up a hammer and stop answering phones for the family’s multi-million dollar construction company. She always thought Mandy’s talents were wasted in their office, and this was the perfect way to prove it. Plus, it helped elevate some of Sophia’s guilt for leaving on such short notice.
“I just hope I’m not the reason you left. That I didn’t push you away,” her mother continued.
She frowned at her reflection. “You could never do that, Ma. I love you, but I would appreciate it if you’d please stop trying to find me a husband.”
“Sophia…mio Dio…you’re twenty-nine already. I had two children by that age, and my family is my greatest joy.” Her mother’s tone turned wistful. “I just want that for you, too.”
Although she could do without the age reminder, Sophia knew her mother wanted what she thought was best for her. “I know, Ma. And I want a family, I do―but on my terms. If you stopped finding me dates, and my brothers stopped scaring away the ones I found, I might’ve been married by now.”
A sigh rustled through the phone. “All right, I’ll back off, but if you don’t have any viable prospects by the beginning of September, I’m stepping back in.”
Great. A three-month reprieve.
“Thanks, Ma.” Smiling, she ran a comb through her wet hair. “I should probably go and finish getting ready. I’m supposed to meet Phoebe in less than an hour.”
She should probably check in with her first, though.
“Okay, dear. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Before she could reply, or groan, her mother hung up.
Hopefully, she wasn’t going to call every single day for the next three months.
Still, better than being in the Big Apple and under their microscope, she thought to herself as she put in her contacts. It hadn’t been a total lie. Coming to the Poconos was job related, and although Sophia would do anything for her family, she also needed a break from them and their well-meaning interfering.
Other than her mother’s daily phone call, though, she was pretty much free during her stay. A smile spread across her lips and an invisible weight lifted from her shoulders. There was no one around to keep tabs on her here. That brief visit, all those years ago, had instilled a sense of freedom she never forgot, another reason Sophia always longed to come back to the Poconos. It was that feeling of autonomy she desired…not the mind-boggling orgasms from a certain sexy Guardsman.
Wrapping the towel around her taller-than-average frame, she noted it barely covered her nether bits. At five-feet-nine-inches, she was a giant compared to the females in her family. Heck, compared to some of the men, too.
With another grin on her lips, she opened the door and headed into the bedroom to get dressed. She was halfway to the closet where she’d unpacked her clothes last night, when a man walked into the bedroom.
Gasping, she stopped dead as her heart leapt into her throat.
“Oh…sorry,” he stammered, halting near the door, brows lifted in shock. “Ethan didn’t tell me someone was in here.”
Ethan was Phoebe’s husband. Sophia relaxed, not because the man knew Ethan, but because the initial shock had worn off and she recognized the intruder.
Damn. The years had been kind.
Still tall and lean, he seemed broader, with muscles that stretched his shirt to its limits. Memories of licking a younger version of all that lay underneath flashed through her mind, sending a flutter of heat through her belly. She took in the way his well-worn jeans creased in the best places. And be still her heart…a tool belt hugged his trim hips. The men she worked with wore them, but none ever made her want to strip them naked.
Good Lord, he was hot.
Brown hair, worn a little longer on top and lightened by the sun, emphasized those mesmerizing, sky blue eyes she swore could see straight into her soul. He must’ve left the Guard, because his hair was a bit too long to be military. Without the haircut restrictions, he had a little sideburn thing going on that accentuated his perfect features and strong jaw.
The man was sexy before…now he was freaking sexy-as-hell. She knew he had a supermodel sister, but wow, he could easily grace the cover of men’s magazines.
“Hello, Ryder,” she finally said, realizing he was waiting for her to reply.
His head jerked back and he narrowed his gaze. “Do I know you?”
Disappointment rocked her heart.
“Only in the biblical sense.” Shoot. When was she going to learn not to speak before running it through her brain first? But since it slipped out, she might as well own it, and squash down the disillusionment and pain ripping through her chest at the knowledge their incredible time together had only been memorable on her end. She tipped her head and held his gaze. “I’m Sophia. Brandi’s friend.”
Dawning straightened his brow and cleared the confusion from his eyes. “New Year’s Eve.” He smiled, and dammit, the transformation to friendly stole her breath. “Sorry I didn’t recognize you, Sophia. You look a lot different than I remember.”
True. Since their long ago…tryst, she’d gone up a cup size, pants size, and her hair was no longer short and choppy with blue streaks. Her rebellious period had long passed. Now, her hair was her natural mocha brown, one length, and fell well past her shoulders.
“Are you wearing contacts?” he asked, stepping closer.
That was her biggest difference. “Yeah.” She nodded.
“Why? Your eyes were amazing.”
A wave of warmth rushed through her at the compliment. “Thanks, but not so much for a freakishly tall Italian.”
As if her height wasn’t a tough enough cross to bear, she’d been born with heterochromia—a difference in the color of the iris. She had one brown and one blue, but with the wonderful invention of colored contacts, she now preferred to go all brown. Just like her family.
Although, surprisingly, they were always trying to get her to stop wearing them.
“Well, I thought your eyes were perfect the way they were.” A smile tugged his mouth, and as his gaze dropped to her feet and slowly rose back up, she remembered the only thing covering her freshly showered body was a towel.
A too-small towel.
Heat rushed into her face, and she barely refrained from crossing her arms over her chest. Why bother? He’d seen her naked—and then some—once upon a time.
His gaze returned to hers a second before the phone in his pocket started to ring. The appreciation in his eyes disappeared as he straightened his shoulders. “Sorry for the intrusion, Sophia. I’ll give you your privacy now and come back later,” he said, fishing the cell from his pocket.
Nodding, she stood there, watching him leave, noting the width of his shoulders and how his torso tapered into a vee above his exceptional butt. Heat skittered through her belly. It was official. His back view was nearly as gorgeous as his front.
“Seriously? They out-bid us again?” He closed the door behind him, and it muffled the rest of his conversation.
But she understood the aggravation in his tone. It sucked when you spent hours working on an estimate, trying to figure out how much you could afford to trim costs in order to secure a bid…only to have someone swoop in and steal it from you.
It had forced her father to expand their working territory in hopes of lining up more jobs. She was lucky enough to still be able to work close to home, so she could also do the occasional set design on the side, but her brothers were working the new territories, somewhere in the western part of New York.
Her gaze remained on the closed door. Ryder was a smart guy. He’d figure something out. Right now, she needed to get dressed, then find out how to get to Phoebe’s.
Last night, she’d arrived too late to see her friend, so she grabbed the key Phoebe had left at the front desk, and used the outside entrance to the condo. But apparently, her brilliant designer friend Brandi also built in another entrance through a hallway that connected all the family condos to the main residence where Phoebe lived.
Must be how Ryder had gained access.
Awareness tumbled down to her toes. Stupid body. The guy wasn’t even in the condo anymore and yet he still had a lingering effect on her.
But it didn’t matter. She wasn’t in Pennsylvania to reconnect with the guy. No, she was there to work. So, despite the fact he hadn’t sported a wedding ring—which she…uh…unintentionally noticed—Sophia pushed him to the back of her mind.
Her focus belonged on designing and building sets for Phoebe’s summer productions. They would be a welcome addition to her resume and portfolio, before her big meeting with two Broadway producers in the fall. Her preliminary designs for a major spring musical had garnered her a callback. She had a few changes to make per their request, but she was determined to bring her A-game to that meeting. Getting distracted by a sexy fling from her past was not smart.
With a shake of her head, she pushed Ryder to the back of her mind, and quickly opened the closet. Since today was a discussion day, she slipped into a comfortable sundress and sandals, before calling Phoebe to confirm their morning meeting.
“Hi, Sophia,” her friend said, a smile evident in her tone. “The front desk told me you were here.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I got in late and didn’t want to wake you. So, I’m checking to see if we’re still on for this morning.”
“Absolutely. If you’re ready, why don’t you come to my place now? We can look at your designs over coffee. I’m so excited,” Phoebe said, all in one breath. “The main residence is through the door at the end of the hall. It’s unlocked, so just come in and head down the stairs to the kitchen. You can’t miss it.”
Never one to pass up coffee, she agreed, before hanging up, then grabbed her laptop and purse on her way out of the condo.
In the hall, she passed three other doors like hers. What a great way for the Wyne family to enjoy the resort, while retaining their privacy from guests. Her friend Brandi was a genius.
Entering the main house, Sophia’s admiration for her old college buddy increased as she walked down a gorgeous wooden staircase, into an open floor plan of a family room-kitchen combo. The décor was rustic and warm, with wooden floors and walls, and a huge stone fireplace, but the floor to ceiling windows were the highlight of the room. They let in a view of the lake sparking through the trees.
“Wow, this place is amazing,” she said, stepping off the last step, where Phoebe greeted her with a hug.
Her friend chuckled. “I know. I’m the luckiest woman ever. I’m married to an incredible man who has an adorable son, I live in this amazing home his sister designed, and now, I get to work out of a top-notch theatre that I get to design.”
A grin tugged her lips as she drew back. “You’re right. You are lucky. And, oh my God, that coffee smells divine.”
“Have a seat.” Smiling, Phoebe motioned toward the kitchen table. The epitome of cool and relaxed, she had her hair pulled back in a ponytail and wore a similar sundress. “I’ll get us some coffee.”
“Thanks.” She set her purse and laptop bag on one of the chairs and couldn’t help but note how content and happy the award-winning Broadway star was, playing domestic hostess. Warmth spread through Sophia’s body. It was nice to see her friend so happy. “Where are Ethan and Tyler?” she asked, taking a seat.
Phoebe’s husband was a guide at the resort he owned with his brothers, and Tyler was Ethan’s eight-year-old son from a previous marriage.
“Ethan’s working,” She replied. “A couple of guests signed up for a three-hour hike. And Tyler’s in Texas for the summer.” Sadness crept into her friend’s eyes. “He’s only been gone two days, but it’s weird. It feels more like two hundred.”
Sophia knew the woman loved the young boy as if he were her own flesh and blood. “That’s right.” She nodded. “Brandi mentioned her nephew was coming to visit when we Skype’d last month. I also got to see her sweet little baby boy.”
“Oh my God, I know. Isn’t Kyle just the cutest?” Phoebe gushed.
“He sure is.” Envy tightened her chest. Someday. She truly believed she’d find the right man—on her own—and have a family and a career she loved, too. But not right now. She had to work on the career part first.
“Before I forget, Ethan told me Ryder is supposed to stop by your condo to fix a few things.” Phoebe set a delicious smelling mug of coffee in front of her, before sitting down with her own. “I heard the two of you had a little bit of history, so I thought I should warn you.”
Reaching for her mug, she snorted. “Too late.”
Her friend sat up straight. “He stopped by already?”
“Yep.” Sophia sipped her coffee and wondered just exactly what she’d heard about her history with Ryder.
“So?” Phoebe leaned closer. “How’d it go?”
Another snort rippled up her throat. “Awkward.” She set her coffee down and sat back in her seat. “I’m just glad I decided to wrap a towel around me when I got out of the shower.”
“Oh my God...he walked in on you as you got out of the shower?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly. I entered the bedroom from the bathroom a few seconds before he entered from the living room.” An image of his startled expression floated through Sophia’s mind, followed by the memory of how that expression had turned appreciative a few seconds later.
“I’m so sorry,” Phoebe said. “Ethan spoke to Ryder about the condo yesterday morning. We didn’t know you’d arrive last night.”
“It’s okay.” She waved a hand and shrugged. “No harm done. It’s not like the guy hadn’t seen me wearing less, all those years ago.” As briefly as possible, she filled her friend in on her time with Ryder. “So, this morning was only mildly awkward. Besides, he didn’t’ stick around long. After apologizing, he said he’d come back later, then left.”
“Still, I feel awful. I’m sure that was not how you’d pictured running into him again.”
“I hadn’t pictured it at all,” she fibbed…a little. “Kind of figured he was married with children by now.”
Phoebe shook her head. “Nope. Single and unattached.” Her friend grinned over her coffee. “In case you were wondering.”
“No. I wasn’t.” Another fib.
The fact she had wondered didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Digging out her laptop, she held onto that thought. “I can’t wait to show you what I’ve come up with.”
A subject change, but the Broadway star turned owner/producer didn’t seem to mind.
“And I can’t wait to see your designs.” Phoebe rose to plop in a chair next to her, and rubbed her hands together. “I’m so excited.”
So was Sophia.
Helping to create memorable shows were just as important to her. It was her passion, too.
Work. Career. Leaving the family business. Those were the things she needed to concentrate on.
Not Ryder and his insanely good looks.
Or his wickedly talented mouth and hands.
Given that her attraction to the guy was still strong, she was definitely better off avoiding the sexy, single and unattached guy.