The last person on earth I want to be stranded with is Gianni Lupo.
But thanks to the blizzard of the century, I’m trapped in a roadside motel room with that cocky bastard for two straight days.
With one small bed.
Some women might thank Mother Nature for delivering a polar vortex that maroons them with six feet of solid muscle, those deep blue eyes, that sexy grin--but not me. I’ve known Gianni Lupo all my life, and he’s never brought me anything but bad luck and trouble.
So when the tension between us explodes with enough fiery heat to melt my icy defenses, I should have known what the disastrous end result would be--
A big fat plus sign.
After the snow melts, I’m left with more than just memories of the night we spent keeping each other warm. And he might be a rising star on the culinary scene, but he’s got no idea how to handle this bun in the oven.
He says he wants to do the right thing, but I’m not about to spend the rest of my life feeling like someone settled for me.
But just when I think I’ve got Gianni Lupo all figured out, he gives me a taste of the man he could be, of the family we could become, of the way he could love me if I let him.
I’m terrified of falling for him.
But one taste might be all it takes.
Release date: March 7, 2022
Print pages: 310
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I didn’t have to go through the tasting room at Abelard Vineyards to get to the kitchen—in fact, it was out of my way—but I never missed an opportunity to mess with Ellie Fournier.
Sure, she was the boss’s daughter and our moms had been best friends forever, but I’d been pushing her buttons since we were six years old and didn’t see any reason to stop just because we were now adults and co-workers.
If anything, it was even more fun now that the restaurant her parents had hired me to open at their winery was up and running. Since she was in charge of the wine list and worked the floor as sommelier, she had to put up with me every single day.
Believe me, I made the most of it.
And I always got a rise out of her. You’d think she’d just ignore me by now, but no—she consistently gave me the satisfaction of a scowl, a dirty look, a barb hurled in my direction. But I couldn’t help myself. There was just something so irresistible about getting under her skin—I was a kid in a candy store around Ellie Fournier.
I took the steps down to the lower level and found her in the usual spot behind the tasting room’s long wooden bar, inspecting wineglasses with a critical eye, lifting them up to the light to ensure they were each perfectly clean. It was Monday morning, which meant the tasting room and restaurant were closed. Although I loved a crowd, the quiet was kind of nice. Even in January, weekends here were jam-packed. Etoile, with only eight tables, was booked out every Friday and Saturday night for months. We had phenomenal reviews for everything from the food to the wine to the setting to the service. I’d like to take all the credit—and sometimes around Ellie, I did, just to bug her—but the truth was, much of it had to be shared with her.
She was fucking dynamite on the floor every night. Smart and energetic and approachable, with an innate talent for pairing food and wine. And she never came off as stuffy or snobby like a lot of sommeliers did—she was genuinely friendly and welcoming to everyone.
“Morning, princess,” I called as I approached the bar. Since it wasn’t technically a workday, I was surprised to see her wearing charcoal dress pants and a black blouse that tied in a bow at the neck. I swear she had that blouse in every color of the rainbow—she never wore anything low-cut. Her long, reddish-brown hair was neatly pulled back into a ponytail, the way it always was on the job
“Could you please not call me that?” She frowned at a smudge on the glass in her hand and set it aside. “I’m not a princess.”
“But you were.” When we were kids, Ellie used to compete in pageants, and I never got tired of teasing her about them. “And old habits are hard to break.”
I could tell from her tone and expression she was already in a mood. “What’s the matter?”
“Boy trouble? Need me to bust some kneecaps?”
She rolled her light brown eyes. “If you must know, it’s the weather forecast.”
“What about it?”
“They’re predicting a ton of snow later tonight.” She picked up a white linen napkin and rubbed the rim of a glass. “Like a solid ten inches.”
“Yes. They’re calling it the blizzard of the century.” She put the glass in a quilted storage box. “How have you not heard about it? It’s all over the news.”
“I never watch the news.”
“Do you ever feel good after watching the news?”
She thought for a second. “I guess not.”
“That’s because it’s all bullshit created to scare you into watching more news, so they can solve the problems they made up in the first place.”
One of her brows peaked. “Says the guy who starred on a reality TV cooking show called Lick My Plate. Talk about bullshit.”
“Hey, I’m not saying Lick My Plate wasn’t bullshit, but at least it wasn’t pretending to be anything but entertainment.” I took a sip of my coffee. “And I was very entertaining. My tagline was ‘too hot to handle.’ And whenever I was onscreen, they played that old song called ‘Fever.’”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said, turning away with a shrug. “I never saw it.”
“Really? Because your mom told me you guys never missed an episode.”
She picked up another glass and held it to the light. “I may have been in the room when it was on a couple times.”
My grin widened at the lie. “Anyway, what do you have against getting a solid ten inches tonight? Sounds like a good time to me.”
“Spare me the juvenile dick jokes, please.”
“Does that mean I can make adult dick jokes?”
She set the glass on the bar with a clank and glared at me. “This is serious, Gianni. If I can’t get to Harbor Springs tonight, I’ll lose my opportunity to meet Fiona Duff.”
Something about the name was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Who’s Fiona Duff again?”
“She’s the chief editor at Tastemaker magazine, and she’s married to Malcolm Duff, some big-shot ad executive who’s also a wine collector. They hired me to do a tasting at their vacation home tonight.”
Ellie sighed. “I’ve been talking about this for weeks, Gianni. You don’t listen.”
“Sorry,” I said, because it was true that listening was not a great skill of mine. My mind tended to wander—usually to food or sex. But in my defense, Ellie could talk the hind legs off a donkey, and it wasn’t like she often stopped chattering to ask my opinion on anything.
Plus, her face sometimes distracted me from what she was saying.
Ellie was beautiful, with an awesome curvy body she usually kept fully covered with those librarian blouses and dressy pants. She did sometimes wear fitted pencil skirts that came down to her knees, and even though I consider myself more of a miniskirt man, I had to admit I liked the way they clung to her hips and thighs.
Her grown-up hotness had sort of surprised me, because as a kid, she’d been short and scrawny, with curly pigtails that begged to be pulled, know-it-all eyes, and a pouty round mouth—which she used to tattle on me all the time.
Although, to be fair, I was a little shit.
I’d steal the perfectly sharpened colored pencils from her desk. I’d take one bite from the cookie in her lunch box but leave it in there. I’d chase her on the playground while she screamed . . . even though the worst thing I ever did when I caught her was untie her shoelaces. For some reason, that drove her nuts.
But she was just such a perfect little goody-goody—she never did anything wrong. Teachers adored girls like her, and I was constantly in trouble. My mom was always saying shit like, “Why can’t you be more like the Fournier kids?” because they were all so well-behaved, and my younger brothers and I were fucking devils.
By high school, I’d let up on Ellie somewhat—I was more interested in girls who let me put my tongue in their mouth or my hand up their shirt, and it was crystal clear she was not ever going to be that girl—but I can’t say I ever missed an opportunity to torment her.
Or to fantasize about what her mouth might feel like on my lips or my chest or certain other parts of my anatomy.
It was like a perfect, luscious little plum.
I tore my eyes off it and forced myself to focus. Setting my cardboard coffee cup on the bar, I perched on one of the stools. “Tell me about it again.”
She closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath, like she needed it for patience. “Someone I went to Michigan State with works as an assistant editor at Tastemaker. The offices are in Chicago, and she texted me that she heard my name being tossed around in a meeting as a possible candidate for one of the 30 Under 30 spots, and it was right around the time I got hired to do the tasting.”
“Don’t get mad, but what’s 30 Under 30?”
“It’s a feature in the magazine. Every year they name 30 people under age 30 who are doing cool things in the food, beverage, or hospitality industry. Evidently, they heard about the thing I did with the QR codes on the labels.”
“Oh yeah? Congrats.” Ellie had convinced her dad to add QR codes to Abelard’s wine bottle labels, which directed people to a landing page where they could learn more about the winery’s history, its methods of production, and what went into each bottle. There were also pairing suggestions, recipes, and a video featuring Ellie herself giving tasting notes alongside an ASL interpreter.
“It’s too early for congratulations, but if I got a spot,” she went on anxiously, wringing her hands together, “the media attention would be great for Abelard, and for Michigan wines in general. There are small wineries doing such great things here, and no one knows about them. We spend too much time fighting the misconception that we make mediocre wines rather than talking about what really matters.”
“I hear you. Kind of like when I was featured in People magazine’s special issue: The Sexiest Chefs Alive. Everyone knows that what really matters is how sexy a chef is.”
“Gianni, I’m being serious.” Her voice took on a desperate tone. “They usually feature people working for big-name wineries or Michelin-starred restaurants. I just want a chance to have that kind of reach. To be seen and heard by a wider audience. But it won’t happen if I can’t get there.”
“Who’s doing the food tonight?” I asked out of curiosity, picking up my coffee and taking a sip.
Ellie shrugged. “I assume Fiona. She loves to cook and throws fabulous dinner parties.”
“Why didn’t they ask me?”
“I don’t know. Not everything is about you, Gianni.”
“Yeah, but the food’s better when it is.”
She rolled her eyes and picked up another glass, getting back to work. “I don’t know why I bother talking to you about this stuff. You don’t understand.”
I was going to argue with her, but she looked so upset I decided against it. Maybe she was worrying for no reason—it wouldn’t be the first time. Ellie liked everything just so. Setting down my coffee cup, I pulled out my phone and checked the radar app, prepared to tell her she was making a big deal out of nothing, just like TV news people did.
But that shit looked bad.
I trusted my instincts, and something about that mass of grayish white moving across the upper Midwest on the screen made my gut a little uneasy. “I don’t know, Ell. I’m not sure you should be on the road tonight.”
“You sound like my dad, who’s texted me twice already from France telling me to cancel.”
“That’s probably a good idea. This storm looks big.”
“Didn’t you just say the news was full of made-up problems?”
“Yeah.” I flashed the screen at her. “But this isn’t a made-up problem. This is a polar vortex.”
She lifted her chin. “I’m not canceling.”
“Ell, I get that the opportunity is important to you, and that you love to disagree with me whenever possible, but it’s not worth spinning out on an icy highway or sliding into a ditch.”
“I’m going.” Her eyes blazed with determination. “The snow isn’t supposed to start until ten or so anyway, and the tasting is at six. I’ll probably be back home in my pajamas with a cup of hot tea before we get an inch or two. I don’t even know why I mentioned it.”
But I heard the shaky note in her voice and looked at my phone again. According to my weather app, Ellie was right and the worst of it wouldn’t reach northern Michigan until later tonight—but that could change. Weather was unpredictable. “I still think you should reschedule.”
“Well, you’re not the boss of me.” She folded her arms. “And if something was this important to you, I know you’d find a way to get there.”
“It’s really that important to you?”
“Yes!” She threw her hands in the air. “I can’t explain it, but I just know that somehow, tonight will change my life. Look, I know this place doesn’t matter to you like it does to me, and Etoile is just a temporary diversion for you while you weigh your next big Hollywood career move, but this is it for me, Gianni. This is my dream and my family legacy, and I want to give it everything I have.”
“Abelard matters to me too,” I said defensively. “Just because I don’t want to spend my life or career in one place doesn’t mean I don’t care.” I made a split-second decision. “I’ll take you tonight.”
The scowl was back. “No. I don’t need a babysitter.”
“I’m not letting you drive more than a hundred miles north in a blizzard tonight by yourself, Ellie. In what car?”
“Your little Honda? That thing looks like a toy. I had Matchbox cars bigger than that.”
“Not all of us can afford a fancy new SUV.”
“My SUV isn’t new or fancy, but it does have good snow tires. I’m driving you.” I stuck my phone back in my pocket like the matter was settled.
Ellie continued to glare at me. “This is you not listening again, Gianni. I don’t need you to protect me.”
“Yes, you do. Remember Tommy Tootag from grade school?”
“What about him?”
“He stole your Scholastic book fair money in third grade.”
“Gianni, you stole my Scholastic book fair money in third grade. Then you gave it back to me because I threatened to tell on you.”
I shook my head. “The money I gave you was mine. Tommy Tootag took yours.”
She looked at me skeptically. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because Tootag was a fifth grader and he was fucking huge—he had a beard already.” I shrugged. “And you were crying. I felt bad.”
Her expression softened—slightly. “Well, thank you for the book money, but I’m not eight anymore. I can take care of myself.”
When she turned around like the matter was settled, I changed tactics. “Stop being so selfish.”
She whirled to face me again, her mouth agape. “Selfish!”
“Yeah. Tonight is my night off, you know, and I had plans with my dad. But how am I supposed to enjoy them when all I’d be doing is picturing you shivering beneath an overpass, wishing you’d have listened to me?” I gave her a little performance just for fun. “Gianni . . . Gianni,” I moaned pitifully, “why didn’t I believe you? I’m sorry . . . you were right all along.”
“That is ridiculous.” But her lips were dangerously close to a smile.
“No, it isn’t. And I’d feel terrible. Your parents would never forgive me. In fact, I’d probably lose my job, and soon I’d be poor and homeless. Hot girls wouldn’t go out on dates with me, I’d never have sex again—for fuck’s sake, I might as well join the priesthood at that point. No one would ever taste my cooking again. And it would be all your fault, which is why I will cancel my plans in order to chauffeur your ass safely to Harbor Springs and back.”
“Give me a break. You would never join the priesthood.”
“What if you got a flat tire?” I persisted. “What if you ran out of gas? What if you were driving perfectly safe but someone skidded out of control and hit you?”
She chewed on her lip, and I could see her resolve start to melt.
“It’s safer to go together,” I told her with finality. “You know your dad would feel better if I took you. Go ahead and text him right now. See what he says.”
She didn’t even get her phone out because she knew I was right.
“I’m not asking you to do this,” she said quickly. “Just so we’re clear.”
“I know—it’s a gesture, Ellie. A nice, gentlemanly gesture, like giving you my Scholastic book fair money. Jeez.”
“Sorry. I guess I’m not used to your gentleman routine. And one good deed in twenty-three years doesn’t exactly make up for all the other mean shit you did.”
“Come on. I wasn’t mean, Ellie. I was . . . playful.”
“Playful? You called me a shrimp. You pulled my pigtails. You drew mustaches on my favorite dolls.” Her eyes narrowed. “You pinned me down, sat on my chest, and let drool ooze out of your mouth until it almost hit me before you sucked it back in.”
I laughed. “Fuck, I forgot about that. How about I let you sit on me right now? Can we call it even? I won’t even mind if there’s saliva involved.”
“And let’s not forget the Cherry Festival.”
“Are we still talking about that? Ellie, for fuck’s sake, it was six years ago. We were seventeen. And it’s not my fault you got assigned to the dunk tank—that’s where the reigning Cherry Princess has to sit. And it’s the God-given right of the townspeople to come and dunk their princess.” I could still picture her sitting in that dunk tank in her crown and sash, her smile big, her bikini small. The memory made me warm all over.
“You didn’t have to come back fifty times,” she seethed. “You humiliated me over and over again on purpose. Then instead of using the photo of me from before, when my hair was dry and my makeup was pretty, the newspaper used the one of us from after—I was plastered on the front page looking like a wet raccoon.”
“And I had a face full of whipped cream, since you got back at me for the dunk tank by throwing eight pies in my face.”
“You deserved it. And you got back at me later that night, didn’t you?”
For a moment, we continued to stare at each other, both of transported to a game of Seven Minutes in Heaven played in Tanner Ford’s basement.
That dark room. The door closed. The clock ticking.
“I got back at you? Is that really how you think of it?” I asked her.
She started polishing a wineglass again. “Actually, I don’t think of it at all.”
“Me neither,” I lied.
“It’s ancient history.”
“My point exactly. Maybe as a kid I sometimes did my best to antagonize you, and possibly there were some shenanigans that got out of hand when we were teenagers, but ever since I moved back here, I have been nothing but nice. Can’t you forgive and forget?”
“You get me to Harbor Springs and back in one piece tonight, and we’ll talk.”
“I will. Trust me.”
“Trust me, he says,” she muttered, zipping up the storage box.
“Yes, trust me.” I puffed up my chest, a little insulted. “My dad taught me to be a man of my word.”
“I do like your dad,” she conceded, as if that was the one thing I had going for me. “I guess I could trust you for a day.”
“Should we leave at two?”
“Sounds good. I’ll pull my car up at one-thirty and help you load it.”
TWO“I don’t need your help.”
I shook my head. “Why are you so stubborn?”
“Why are you so bossy?”
“Because it’s fun.” Grinning, I slid off the stool and headed for the door, but at the last second, something made me glance over my shoulder. When I caught her staring, she stuck her tongue out at me.
“You’re going to miss me when I’m gone,” I told her with a grin, which would be sooner rather than later if I accepted the offer my agent in L.A. had just dangled in front of me.
She squawked with laughter. “Fat. Chance.”
Whistling “Fever,” I turned around and headed for the kitchen.
I watched Gianni leave the tasting room, refusing to look at his butt in his jeans.
Okay, I looked.
But in my defense, Gianni’s backside is one of the best parts about him. It’s round and muscular and looks like it might be fun to grab onto—not that I’d ever thought about doing that.
But if I can see his butt, he’s probably not talking to me, and that’s when I like Gianni best—when he’s not talking to me. Actually, if he would just not speak at all, I’d like his face more too. I’d never tell him this, because he’s cocky enough as it is, but Gianni is undeniably, unreasonably hot.
It’s infuriating. Truly.
When we were in grade school, I didn’t think he was cute at all. He was tall and wiry, his dirt-brown hair was usually a mess, and his nose was crooked because one of his brothers broke it during a fight. His pants always had holes in the knees, his sneakers were always filthy, and he had this way about him that always made me think he was laughing at me.
And nothing was safe around him—not your fresh box of crayons or your neatly tied shoelaces, the homemade treat in your lunch box or the brand new book you were reading, which he’d take from your desk and hold over your head so high you had no chance to reach it. I couldn’t stand him.
But he grew up to look a lot like his dad, whom I call Uncle Nick and have always had a bit of a secret crush on. He’d gotten his dad’s strong jaw and sculpted cheekbones, the dimple in his chin and those thick black eyelashes. The only difference was that Gianni had his mom’s blue eyes, while his dad’s were dark.
I’d actually had a super sexy dream about his dad once as a teenager, which I’d never told anyone about because it was so embarrassing. For like a year afterward, I could hardly look him in the eye. But I blamed Gianni for that, since it was right around the time of the Cherry Festival and that stupid game of Seven Minutes in Heaven the summer after our junior year.
That night had messed with me. Badly.
Maybe it had messed with him too, because after that, he seemed to lay off me a little. We spent our senior year mostly ignoring each other, and then he’d left almost immediately after graduation for New York City, where his dad—who was also a chef—had gotten him a job washing dishes in some famous restaurant kitchen.
Of course, I loved his cooking, but who didn’t? Gianni talked a big game, but he had the talent to back it up. And he hadn’t ridden on his dad’s coattails—he’d made his own way, worked his way up from the lowest jobs in the kitchen, impressing even the most tyrannical chefs with his talent, his work ethic, and his tenacity. Occasionally his big mouth got him in trouble—I was pretty sure he’d been fired a couple times for insubordination—and he still loved to break rules, but at twenty-three, he was already making a name for himself in the industry. Mostly because of that ridiculous show, but there was no denying he’d been the standout star.
Despite what I’d said to him, I’d seen every episode—twice.
Okay, three times.
I’d also read all his press, which was how I knew so much about his career over the last five years and how in-demand he was. In fact, I’d been shocked when he returned to Michigan last summer and then accepted the job offer from my parents last fall.
I’d sulked like a toddler at the prospect of having to deal with him, his ego, and his constant poking at me day in and day out. But my parents had been thrilled, not only to have his name attached to the opening of Etoile and his expertise in the kitchen, but to have someone they considered family at the helm.
“This is better than we could have hoped for, Ell,” my dad said while I pouted. “Beyond Gianni’s skill and name recognition, he’s someone we trust. That means everything when you’re investing in a new business.”
I’d had no choice but to accept their decision. And since my parents were now empty-nesters—my older brother Henri was in grad school and my younger brother Gabe was a freshman at college—they’d decided to spend some extended time in France, where my dad had been born and where they’d met. Living there had always been their dream and I was happy that hiring Gianni had allowed them the peace of mind to achieve it, but he still drove me nuts.
And I’d be trapped in a car with him for hours tonight.
How the hell had I let him con me into that?
I was still brooding about it when Winnie MacAllister popped into the tasting room. Winnie, who’d been my best friend since kindergarten, had taken over for my mother as guest services manager and event planner at Abelard, and I loved working with her—it almost made up for the fact that I was stuck with Gianni Lupo too.
Right behind Winnie was her older sister Felicity, who’d recently moved back from Chicago. Last night, she and a friend had had dinner at Etoile.
“Morning,” Winnie said brightly
“Good morning,” I said, smiling at them both. “I didn’t know you were working today, Win.”
“I’m not. I’m just showing Felicity around.” Winnie glanced down at her sweatpants and sneakers, then touched her messy bun. “Can you imagine if your mom saw me at the front desk in this?”
Laughing, I set the final storage case on the bar and unzipped it. “She’s in Paris. Even Mia can’t see sweatpants across an ocean.”
“Doesn’t matter. I feel like she’d sense it in the ether that I was not perfectly put together.”
I snickered. “Yeah, and she’d give you that look I got during my rebellious phase when I tried to sneak out of the house on a school morning in ripped jeans.” I imitated my mother’s voice. “Ellie, you have a closet full of beautiful clothes. Do you have to dress like you just rolled out of bed or put your pants in the blender instead of the dryer?”
“Oh, I remember that phase,” Winnie said with a grin. “It didn’t last long.”
“Nope. Which Mia was quite relieved about. Although she still loves to blame my teenage years for her seven gray hairs and two wrinkles. And probably the worst thing I ever did was get a B on a French test!”
“You got a B on a French test?” Winnie asked in surprise.
“Once.” I shook my head, angry at the memory. “Fucking subjonctif plus-que-parfait.”
Felicity laughed. “Were your parents that strict about your grades?”
“They weren’t strict exactly, they just had high expectations. I felt like I had to be perfect—I mean, I felt like I wanted to be perfect.” I placed two more wineglasses into the box. “I liked the way it felt to bring home good report cards or keep my room perfectly neat or hear my dad say he was proud of me. And I wanted to be just like my mom.”
“Really?” Winnie blinked at me. “I’ve never heard you say that. I always thought she drove you crazy.”
I shrugged. “She drives me crazy because she’s perfect. She’s never made a misstep in her life. It’s like she made a list when she was young—go to college, start business, find soul mate, fall in love, get married, have three children, build dream home, never look a day over thirty—and she just keeps checking all the boxes.”
Felicity laughed. “I’m sure she’d tell the story differently.”
“Maybe, but sometimes I feel like I’ll never live up.” What I didn’t say was that I had my own list too—I’d inherited my mother’s obsession with them—and so far, I’d only checked off one box: graduate college. Next on the list were things like, eliminate chemicals from our farming methods, grow brand awareness for Abelard, increase retail sales, prove to my parents I could run this place when they retired . . . At some point I was hoping to meet the man of my dreams and have a family too, but I wasn’t in a rush. I was only twenty-three, and I figured that could wait until I was closer to thirty.
That’s why it really wasn’t too worrisome I hadn’t been on more than a handful of dates in the last six months, and all of them had ended with me alone on my couch in my pajamas, eating M&M’s off a spoon I’d dipped in peanut butter, and watching reruns of Friends.
“Anyway, how was your dinner last night?” I asked Felicity.
“Oh, it was amazing—thank you so much for getting us in.”
“You’re welcome.” I smiled at her. “I’m happy you enjoyed it.”
“The food was just incredible,” she gushed. “The friend I was with is a pretty influential food blogger and photographer, and she was really impressed.”
“Oh, nice! What’s her name?”
“Her name is Kate, but her blog is called The Side Dish.”
“Oh my gosh! I’ve seen it—she takes gorgeous photos.”
“Doesn’t she?” Felicity laughed. “It’s like food porn. I don’t know how she makes broccoli look sexy, but she does.”
“I didn’t realize she was from around here,” I said.
“She’s not—she lives in Chicago, but I begged her to come up and take some promo photos for me.”
“Lissy is starting her own food blog and catering business,” Winnie said proudly, putting an arm around her sister’s shoulders.
“Really? That’s great!”
“Thanks.” Felicity pushed her glasses up her nose. “I’m still in the early stages of putting a business plan together, but I’m excited.”
“What’s your blog going to be called?”
“I want to focus on plant-based recipes, so right now my favorite is The Veggie Vixen.”
I laughed. “I like it. You went to culinary school, right?”
“Yes. And I worked as a sous chef in Chicago for a couple years before veering sideways into food science. Which was interesting—I liked the test kitchen, and I learned a lot—but I missed being in a real kitchen, creating food from real ingredients that people would enjoy eating just for pleasure. Beyond that, I discovered that I don’t love working for a big corporation. I’d like to work for myself.”
I smiled. “I don’t blame you.”
“But that sort of means starting from scratch,” she said with a laugh, self-consciously tucking her straight dark hair behind one ear. “So here I am, age twenty-seven and living at home again, saving up money and trying to get a business off the ground.”
“I think it’s awesome,” I said. “And don’t feel bad. I still live at home too.” When I’d first moved back last year, my parents had let me stay in one of Abelard’s guest cabins, although my mother had reminded me daily how much that was costing us since it couldn’t be rented out to paying guests. Last fall, I’d moved back into my former bedroom in the main house, which I was trying to view as a smart financial decision rather than a backward move.
But it was so convenient—I worked a lot of late nights, didn’t have to drive home, and with my parents in France and my brothers away at school, I had plenty of privacy . . . not that I used it for anything fun. But a long dry spell was perfectly normal when you worked as much as I did, right?
“I told Felicity she could stay in the second bedroom at my place, but she turned me down,” Winnie said.
“Um, and listen to you and Dex going at it on the other side of the wall every night?” Felicity laughed and shook her head. “No, thanks.”
“It’s not every night.” Winnie blushed. “Just . . . most nights. But he and I could always stay at his place.”
Felicity poked her sister’s shoulder. “From the stories you’ve told me, I’d probably still hear you.”
I laughed—Winnie had fallen in love with the guy who’d moved into the condo next to hers last summer, and they were disgustingly crazy about each other.
“So will you work out of the kitchen at Cloverleigh Farms?” I asked Felicity. Their dad had been CFO at Cloverleigh Farms for as long as I’d known their family, and their stepmom’s family owned it. Like Abelard, Cloverleigh was a winery and an inn, although it was much bigger, with a large restaurant and bar on the premises, and soon they’d be opening a spa.
“In the beginning, yes,” said Felicity. “I have an arrangement worked out with Alia, the head chef there—I’ll use the kitchen during the hours between lunch and dinner at Cloverleigh for now, since I don’t want to step on Alia’s toes. But speaking of chefs, Gianni Lupo is incredible.
I wrinkled my nose. “Yeah. I know.”
“Kate is a huge fan of Lick My Plate, and she was dying when he came over to the table to chat with us.”
That was something Gianni did at the end of every night, and I found it a bit show pony, but customers seemed to love it. I had to admit, Gianni could charm the fuzz off a peach. Many of our best reviews raved about the way he took the time to talk with people and ask about their dining experience. In a place as tiny as Etoile, it was possible to greet each table personally.
“His family is still here, right?” Felicity asked.
“Yes,” Winnie said. “I’ll have to take you to his dad’s restaurant too, Trattoria Lupo. It’s so good.”
“So is Gianni back in this area to stay?”
I crossed myself. “God, I hope not.”
She laughed. “You don’t get along?”
“There’s some . . . history,” said Winnie with a grin. “Gianni was sort of a rascal growing up.”
“Yes, and since our mothers have been besties for a hundred years,” I said irritably, “I was forced to spend time with him.”
Winnie’s blue eyes gleamed. “And when we were seventeen, they spent seven minutes in a closet, but neither of them will admit what happened in there.”
Felicity’s jaw dropped as she looked back and forth between Winnie and me. “What happened in there?”
“We don’t talk about it.” I sniffed, carefully lowering another glass into the box before changing the subject. “How did you like the Pinot Noir Reserve last night?”
“It was delicious. And you were right—it paired perfectly with the mushroom risotto.”
I smiled, zipping up the last box. “Good.”
“Ell, what are you packing up for?” Winnie said, eyeing the storage boxes.
“My tasting tonight in Harbor Springs. The guy’s a wine collector, so he might have enough glasses, but I always bring extra just in case.”
“Oh right, the editor’s dinner party,” she said, because she listens to me when I’m talking. “I hope the roads will be okay. Your car can’t be much better than mine in the snow—Dex is already on me to get better tires.”
“Dex is on you every chance he gets,” I teased. Not only was Dex a former Navy SEAL, but he was a firefighter, dad to two young girls, and a dozen years older than Winnie, so protectiveness ran through his veins.
Winnie blushed. “But seriously, want me to ask him if he’ll drive you? He’s off work today and tomorrow, and the girls are with their mom. We could take you up there.”
“Thanks, but I actually already have a ride.”
“Gianni.” I frowned. “He was in here bothering me already this morning, and when he heard I was planning to drive up there alone, he went all Italian caveman and insisted that he needs to drive me.”
“That was nice of him,” Felicity said.
“I know. I’m highly suspicious.”
“Oh, come on,” Winnie scolded. “I know you two bicker like cats and dogs, and he does have a bit of an ego—”
“A bit of an ego?” I shrieked. “Has he told you about his Lick My Plate tagline—too hot to handle? Or how they played ‘Fever’ any time he was onscreen? Or perhaps you’ve seen him featured in People magazine’s Sexiest Chefs Alive issue?”
“Okay, but at heart he’s a decent guy.” Winnie wouldn’t give up. “He offered to drive because he cares about you.”
“He didn’t offer, Winnie—he informed me he would drive. He was bossing me around.”
“You could have said no,” she pointed out.
“I did say no!” Then I hesitated. “At first. But he scared me with all these terrible things that could happen, and I thought about being alone out there on the road in the freezing cold because no tow trucks could get to me. And apparently he has good snow tires on his big macho SUV.”
“I mean, he’s not wrong.” Felicity lifted her shoulders. “It will definitely be safer if you’re together.”
“Maybe it’ll be fun.” Winnie’s voice was full of optimism. “Maybe you guys can work through some of the tension in your relationship.”
I shook my head. “The tension in our relationship stems from the fact that he walks around here like he owns the place, and he knows it makes me crazy.”
“That’s the thing,” Winnie said. “You make it so obvious that he gets to you. Why can’t you just ignore him?”
“I don’t know!” I threw my hands up. “I tell myself that all the time. I wake up and say, I will not give him the satisfaction today, and somehow I forget that once he’s around me, and I end up all . . .” I fidgeted, trying to think of a word for the way Gianni could make me feel—something close to the truth without being the actual truth, which I didn’t even like admitting to myself.
“Hot and bothered?” suggested Winnie.
“Let’s stick with bothered.
“Wow, he’s really got your number,” Felicity said.
“He does,” Winnie confirmed. “And personally, I have always thought all that heat and friction between them would make for a good time, if you know what I mean.”
“Not even if it was the end of the world and he was the last man on earth,” I said, grabbing one of the storage boxes. “Now you can make up for putting that horrible thought in my head by helping me carry these upstairs.”
Winnie giggled and grabbed one of the boxes. “I’m just saying, it’s kind of a shame all the sparks that fly when you’re in a room together can’t result in something other than frustration. Maybe if you guys just went at each other one day, you’d get along better.”
“She might be right,” Felicity said, taking the third box in her arms. “And he’s so passionate about food, I bet he’s passionate in other places too. And probably excellent with his hands.”
“Yeah. Just ask him,” I muttered, leading the way out of the tasting room.
But truthfully, I did like Gianni’s hands. After his butt, they were probably my favorite part of him.
For a moment, I imagined them skimming across my stomach or sweeping down my hip or sliding up my inner thigh.
A memory gripped me so tightly it stole my breath.
I opened my eyes and realized I’d stopped halfway up the stone staircase leading from the cellar and tasting room into Abelard’s lobby. “Sorry.”
I started moving again, offering no explanation and doing my best to shove the memory and the thought of Gianni’s hands on my skin from my mind.
It could never happen again.
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