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If you can’t take the heat…
Chef Ashley Harris wants to own a restaurant – that’s why she attended culinary school, and that’s why she’s working for the world’s most lecherous restaurateur.
Raleigh Rockets third baseman Josh Cantor wants to launch his investment restaurant with the family recipes he loved growing up. Josh has been promised that treasure trove – but only if he can convince his grandmother that he’s dating again, after a traumatic divorce.
When a cooking reality show comes to Raleigh, Ashley and Josh must compete against each other to achieve their dreams – even when the flames in the bedroom roar higher than the ones in their kitchens. In the end, only one of them can win Who Wears the Apron. Will their relationship survive this trial by fire?
Third Degree, the fifth volume in the Diamond Brides Series, is available as an ebook and in print. (Each volume of the Diamond Brides Series is a stand-alone hot contemporary romance and can be read on its own, without the other short novels in the series.)
If you’d like to buy Raleigh Rockets gear, stop by Mindy’s Cafe Press Diamond Brides store! There are T-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, and more!
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
Sugar and spice and everything nice…
Ashley Harris slammed her meat cleaver into the chicken bones, severing the dark-meat quarter at its joint. With the efficiency of long practice, she shoved the resulting pieces to the side of her cutting board.
“Whoa!” said Dustin Parsons. “Remind me not to make you angry!”
“I’m not angry,” Ashley said. Whack. Another chicken quarter severed. “I’m working.” Whack.
Her fellow chef shifted his grip on his own knife, making short work of converting a yellow onion into perfect half-moons of eye-smarting crunch. “Of course,” he agreed as Ashley slammed her way through another innocent chicken leg. “You always grit your teeth when you work.”
“I’m not,” whack, “Gritting my teeth.”
“Ash, babe, I can hear you half-way across the kitchen.”
She paused in her chicken dissection for long enough to give Dustin a well-deserved glare. The man was absolutely unflappable. And that was a good thing, given the heat in the kitchen where they worked. Outside the restaurant, it might be a chilly November afternoon, but inside, the kitchen was already climbing toward ninety degrees—and that was before the giant pots of water were set to boil for the pasta dishes that were the mainstay at Mangia Italian Kitchen.
Ashley set her cleaver on her cutting board. “It’s November 3rd,” she said.
“Excellent!” Dustin crowed. “I knew working near the university would rub off on you! And they said you’d never master reading the calendar!”
She twisted her lips into a frown to show her dissatisfaction with her colleague’s sarcasm. “I was supposed to hear from Wake Up Wake County by the first.”
Dustin’s mouth framed a comical O. He could tease all he wanted, but Ashley had her heart set on competing in Who Wears the Apron. The most popular morning viewing in Raleigh, Wake Up had been promoting its first-ever cooking contest everywhere, with ads on TV and radio, even on the sides of city buses.
Dustin recovered by asking, “I thought you had a Master Plan?”
The Master Plan. She’d worked her way up through local Raleigh restaurants—busing tables in high school, working as a hostess and server in college, progressing from salad chef to line chef to head chef in the seven years since graduation. She’d planned on staying three years at Mangia, learning the ins and outs of the restaurant business, mastering recipes as the head chef while she observed all the front-of-house operations. After all, Raleigh scion Duke Throckmorton was the owner, and he believed in quality cooking; he was willing to spend money on fine ingredients, even costly out-of-season treasures like copious amounts of basil in November.
Alas, he also believed that hiring Ashley to cook in his kitchen gave him the right to put his hand on her ass every time he walked by. He brushed against her boobs, too, whenever he thought he could get away with it—the guy was oblivious to the danger of a freshly-sharpened chef’s knife. Just that evening, he’d caught her by the fry station, and she’d seriously contemplated adding his octopus hands to the neat rings of cornmeal-dusted calamari.
But that would have been a disaster, if the health inspector stopped by.
Now, she shrugged as Dustin shifted his attention from onions to mushrooms. “The Master Plan is one thing—I’ve been salting away part of my paycheck for months. But winning Apron would put me ahead by years. One hundred thousand dollars… Do you know how long it’ll take for me to save that? And a year of consulting with Gerald Brown is worth that much again.”
The famous expert on restaurant management had taught at Mid-Atlantic Culinary Institute, the cooking school where Ashley had pursued an advanced degree after college. He’d been ancient then, teaching all his classes from an armchair at the front of the room. Who knew how long the genius would remain in the business? But Apron promised his services for one lucky winner—for an entire twelve months.
And all she’d had to do was complete her application, double- and triple-check the forms where she listed her past experience in restaurants, provide evidence of her undergraduate degree in business management, present her course work at Mid-Atlantic. She’d drawn up a menu for a multi-course meal, focusing on traditional Southern foods that she’d spiced up with her own unique flair.
But Wake Up was now two days past its own deadline. Ashley was fast losing hope that she’d be one of the ten lucky women to compete against ten men, preparing a single dish for the next round of the contest. This opportunity was going to fall apart the same way culinary school had become a disaster.
Well, not the same way. She hadn’t slept with anyone connected with Who Wears the Apron.
She’d learned her lesson at cooking school. Then, she’d welcomed the physical attention from star chef and professor Martin Davies. Those sly touches, the unexpected encounters that heated up the walk-in freezer, the hidden caresses that led to late-night dinners, to wild nights in bed, and more…
Crap. They’d also led to her leaving Mid-Atlantic in disgrace. She never should have fallen into the habit of spending the night at Martin’s place. She never should have been caught there when the dean of students stopped by for a morning consultation on curriculum. Her dalliance with Martin had cost her a diploma, and it had changed the way she thought about all men in her life. She’d take a tumble in the sheets if she liked a guy well enough, but she wasn’t about to spend the night. Not when the cost could be so high.
If she could just launch her own restaurant, she wouldn’t have to deal with any of this crap—grabby Throckmorton, the lingering shame of Davies, the frustration of working in someone else’s kitchen, of cooking to someone else’s requirements.
“Well,” Dustin said gamely. “You don’t know they told the winners on time. Maybe it took them longer to review the applications than they thought it would.”
Ashley shook her head. “It’s a good thing you’re a great cook,” she said. “Because you’re a really lousy liar.”
One of the waiters spun through the kitchen’s swinging doors. “They’re heeere,” he chanted, announcing the first paying customers of the evening. Ashley turned her attention to Mangia’s traditional Italian meals, setting aside her dreams of a New Southern feast all of her own making.
* * *
Six hours later, Ashley was finally sitting on one of the high barstools at the counter that passed for a table in her own apartment’s kitchen. She’d poured herself a glass of pinot noir and flipped through her mail, which consisted entirely of paper flyers that the mailman shoved into her mailbox. Shaking her head at the ads for products she’d never use, she reached for her laptop.
Sure, she hadn’t had any email when she got home. But that had been fifteen minutes ago. Anything could have come in since then.
There was a message waiting. A message with impossible good news.
She blinked hard and read the words again. Another gulp of pinot, a hard shake of her head. The email stayed the same.
“Congratulations! Wake Up Wake County is inviting you to Round 2 of Who Wears the Apron!”
Ashley glanced at the time on her phone. It was well after midnight. Too late to call any civilized friend. Well, Dustin wasn’t civilized. She punched his number and waited for his weary answer.
“I could have sworn we just said goodbye half an hour ago.”
She laughed. “And I could have sworn you were wide awake, sitting with your feet up on the coffee table, even though you know Sheila would be furious if she was up too. You’re drinking a Blue Moon, and you’re watching porn on your computer.”
“Ah, friendship,” Dustin said. “You know me so well. What’s up?”
“Listen to this: ‘You are one of ten women competing in our contest, which will air in a series of special segments on our usual morning television show. You have been randomly assigned to present your first dish, which can be any course from any menu, to our judges on Friday, November 14. On that date, our judges will also announce the five men and five women who will move on to Round 3. Please see the attached document for all rules and regulations related to Who Wears the Apron! Congratulations and good luck!’”
“Hush!” she said. “If you wake Sheila now, she’ll really be pissed.”
“She’ll be thrilled she gets to share your news!”
“Seriously, Ash. That’s great! What are you going to make for Round 2?”
And that was the hundred-thousand dollar question, wasn’t it? What was she going to cook? “Any suggestions?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t bother to stifle his yawn “I’ll have about a dozen for you. Tomorrow, when I see you at work.”
“Okay,” she said. “Be that way.”
“You’re not going to sleep, are you?”
She was already opening up the vast collection of recipes on her computer. “Of course I’m going to sleep. It’s late, and work was exhausting!”
“Don’t try to con a conner. You’ll be up all night, and you’ll be a bitch at work tomorrow.”
She laughed. “But you’ll love me anyway.”
Dustin agreed and signed off, and she dove into her files, trying to find the one dish that would guarantee her victory in Round 2.
* * *
Josh Cantor brought his grandmother a fresh old-fashioned. “You know, Angel, some people would say it’s too early to be drinking.”
She plucked the orange slice from the rim of the glass and ate the juicy triangles of fruit before she used the rind to point at him. “And some would say you’re too young to be correcting your elders. I waited until 5:00 yesterday.”
She probably hadn’t. Angel wasn’t remembering things very well these days. At least not the things she didn’t want to remember.
Josh folded himself onto the rattan loveseat. He was sweating like he’d just finished a full workout in the gym at Rockets Field, even though it was the first week of November. His grandmother insisted on outfitting her deck with massive space heaters, the sort that should have been used on a restaurant patio. Angel had lived in Raleigh her entire life, but she still refused to admit that North Carolina experienced winter weather. In fact, Angel refused to admit anything that didn’t agree with her view of right and wrong—a view that was increasingly narrow as she grew more frail.
He passed his grandmother a cut-glass plate with the deep-fried olives he’d made for her that morning. “Can I get you anything?” he asked. “A napkin? Something else to snack on?”
Angel cocked her head. With her outrageous flowered scarf wrapped around her forehead, she looked like a pirate with a passion for poppies. “I’ve got a napkin from the first three times you asked, boy. And I don’t need you to fatten me up with anything else. Are you going to ask me for a favor, or just wait for me to doze off so you can take what you want?”
Angel always could see right through him. He looked at his scuffed shoes and wiped his palms against his jeans. Christ. Alzheimer’s or no, she was going to toss him out on his ass if he didn’t man up. He looked her right in the eye and said, “Angel, I want your recipe book.”
He didn’t just want it. He needed it. He’d gotten the email yesterday—he was one of ten men selected for Who Wears the Apron. The contest couldn’t come at a better time—November was the off-season so he had time to compete, time to fight for the hundred-grand purse and a consultant who could help him turn his dream of a successful investment gig into a reality. But all the time in the world was nothing, if he didn’t have Angel’s recipes to back up his bid for success.
“What are you going to do with a bunch of tidewater receipts?” She plunged her thumb and forefinger into her drink and pulled out the first of the three cherries Josh had given her.
“Use them for my restaurant,” he mumbled.
“What’s that?” She put down her glass and eyed him like a fox considering a chicken dinner. “I could have sworn you just said you wanted to use Cantor family recipes for that money pit you’re planning.”
“It’s not a money pit!”
“How much have you sunk into it so far?”
Shit. He was going to lose this argument. But he didn’t have any other option, so he said, “It wasn’t my fault the lease fell through.”
“On how many places?”
God, he should have waited until she had a couple more drinks in her. Maybe an entire bottle of whiskey. “Three, Angel. But there were circumstances beyond my control.” He could recite all the details for her, explain why it was so goddamn hard to set up a restaurant while he was busy with his real job.
But Angel had never followed baseball a day in her life. She didn’t care that he was a Gold Glove third baseman for a team that had missed the playoffs by one game. She didn’t give a damn about his batting average or his on-base percentage. In fact, Angel only cared about one thing, and he was a little surprised she hadn’t mentioned it yet.
“Just like it wasn’t your fault that nice girl broke up with you over the summer. You told me she was the one, Josh. You said you were going to marry her.”
Ding, ding, ding! “Perfect, Angel. I thought we might actually talk for five minutes before you got around to that.”
“I thought you might actually follow through on a promise that you made me! You’re turning thirty on March1st. Your father was married on his twenty-first birthday!”
And dead by his fortieth.
But Josh wasn’t cruel enough to say that out loud. Sure, he’d lied to Angel about Shelby. He’d made things sound a lot more serious than they were. What the hell else was he going to say? She’s moved on to a hockey player now.
She’s only turned on by cock in a uniform, Angel. If she can’t screw in a locker room, she can’t come.
Yeah. Angel might be losing her short-term memory, but he was pretty sure she’d remember that. He settled on a vague excuse: “Things didn’t work out with Shelby.”
“And they didn’t work out with Chelsea before that. Or Madison. Or Paige.”
Shit. Maybe her memory was better than she let on. Better than Janice claimed anyway. The home health aide always had looked on the dark side. “What do you want me to say, Angel?”
“I want you to say, ‘I married the woman of my dreams yesterday, we had mind-blowing sex in the honeymoon suite, and your first great-grandchild is due in nine months.’”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Josh Cantor. I’ve got a bar of Ivory in the front powder room, and I’m not afraid to use it on that mouth of yours.”
Great. His senile grandmother was ready to pimp him out to any woman with a womb, but she’d wash his mouth out with soap for a little swearing? He took a deep breath and reminded himself he wasn’t a rebellious kid any more. Time to get this conversation back to where he needed it to be.
“Come on, Angel. How about it? Will you give me your recipes?”
Her lips tightened into a thin white line. “I’m giving them to Beau Dumont.”
“Beau Dumont is a cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch with a stick up his—”
“But Angel! If you give him your recipes, he’ll just convert them into some low-fat, low-calorie, no-taste cardboard to serve in the dining rooms of that nursing home of his.”
“And I’ll be living in that home, sooner rather than later.” She waved off his protest. “No, you don’t need to lie to me. I’m getting worse. Just yesterday, I left the stove on until the copper teakettle glowed green. It’s only a matter of time before Janice won’t be enough.”
“Then we’ll hire someone else.”
Angel’s fingers scrabbled on his wrist. “Josh, love. I understand that you want to take care of me. You want to do what’s right. But we both know I’m going to end up in Beau Dumont’s home.”
“Even if that’s true, you can’t give him your recipes!”
She took a healthy swallow from her old-fashioned and looked at him slyly. He recognized the new look; she’d been using it for the past few months, when she was bargaining for something she really shouldn’t have. “I’ll tell you what, boy. I’ll give you my recipes when you give me a great-grandbaby. Get cracking. I want you married by March 1st.”
Jesus. Had she slipped that much? She was babbling nonsense. “Now, Angel—”
“I want to hold another newborn, Josh. I want to know the Cantor name will go on, even after I can’t remember it.” She startled him by cupping his chin with her hand. “I want you to be happy, boy. All women aren’t like that Harpy.”
Harper, he started to correct her, but there wasn’t any reason. Hadn’t been since the judge stamped his divorce decree. He’d had no reason to think about Harper since he’d turned over two sets of house keys, his car keys, and the lion’s share of his bank account. The last alimony check was due on December 31, and he couldn’t wait to sign his name.
The judge had declared her a corporate spouse, a good woman devoted to doing anything, everything, to making Josh’s baseball career a success. In the court’s eyes, Harper had sacrificed early and often, giving up her own possibilities for career advancement so she could help Josh move up the ladder of major league baseball.
Corporate spouse, my ass. Harper had been a supportive spouse about the same way he’d been a faithful, dedicated husband. But she’d been a hell of a lot smarter than he had. She’d hired an investigator and gotten pictures.
Snapshots and a sympathetic judge, and Josh was poorer than he’d ever been in his life.
If he’d listened to everyone—Angel included—and signed an ironclad pre-nup before marrying Harper, he might not need a restaurant for investment income. He might have a decent retirement plan in place, a balance sheet that reflected his worth on the field and off. He might not be worried about how he was going to pay his own mortgage, plus the cost of Angel’s looming nursing home, along with her medical bills.
But Harper’d had him by the balls when he’d proposed to her. By his dick at least. He’d been stupid enough to think he was in love when they got married, and he’d refused to let any legal bullshit ruin that. He’d been an idiot.
Angel shook her head, as if he’d admitted his remorse out loud. “You’re scared, boy. And it’s my job to break you of it. That might be the last thing I do for you.”
He didn’t want to think about Angel being gone, so he growled, “I’m not some horse you can train to saddle.”
She snorted. “You’d be a lot easier to handle if you were. When you broke your arm sliding into second in Little League, I made sure you got out there the very next season. When that aluminum bat broke your nose in high school, I got you to the doctor, had you fitted for a face mask, and got you back in time for the college scouts to see what you had. I’m not letting you throw away the rest of your life, just because that creature hurt you.”
“So let me get this straight. I need to find a woman, marry her, and get her knocked up by March, or you’re giving your recipes to Beau Dumont.”
She frowned but didn’t call him on his language. “I can live with a wedding. The baby might take a little time to catch. I’m not unreasonable.”
Of course not. Angel was the goddamn voice of reason.
She went on. “For now, you can have the recipes, one at a time. For every week you’re dating the same girl, I’ll give you another recipe.”
“Right, Angel. And what am I supposed to do? Have that girl sign a goddamn affidavit?”
“Language!” she tutted. But then she said, “I’ll accept a photo as evidence that you’re courting.”
Maybe it was the disease, but she sounded perfectly reasonable. She was honestly talking about trading recipes for romance, and he was supposed to act like that was normal.
But what other option did he have? He needed Angel’s leather-bound recipe file. “I get to choose which recipes.”
She eyed him steadily. “Of course.”
“And you’ll be reasonable about proof, at least for the first few weeks. Any decent woman would be frightened off in half a minute, if she knew you were blackmailing me.”
Angel didn’t react to his accusation. “I always know when you’re lying to me, boy, so don’t even think about trying anything. But yes, I’ll be reasonable.”
Shit. What else was he going to do?
He took her glass as she held it out for a refill. He measured out sugar and bitters, added a teaspoon of water. The steel muddler was heavy in his palm as he took out his frustration on the ingredients.
He’d gotten through the first round of Who Wears the Apron on the power of his ideas. All right, his ideas, and maybe his name. The TV station probably liked the idea of bringing a local celebrity into the competition. But now he’d have to up his game. Now he’d have to prove he could cook.
He couldn’t lose Who Wears the Apron if he had Angel’s recipes. So he’d just have to see what he could do about finding a bride. Or at least a woman whose picture he could deliver into Angel’s eager hands. It was the least he could do for his grandmother. It might be the last thing she remembered.
* * *
Ashley walked into the green room at the television station, reminding herself to breathe. She’d gotten home from Mangia at midnight and immediately set to work on her entry for the cooking contest. After a shower at four in the morning, she’d gotten dressed, slapped on makeup to try to imitate a living, breathing human, collected her food, and headed down to the studio.
It only took her a moment to discover her major mistake: she hadn’t worn her chef’s whites.
She’d thought about it, of course. She had a clean uniform at home, the white pants, the long tunic with its buttons marching down her chest. She’d even considered donning a pleated toque.
In the end, though, she’d decided it was presumptuous to wear the costume. She’d settled for sleek black pants, a soft green blouse that picked up the color of her hazel eyes, conservative pumps that pinched her toes but would make her look a lot more attractive than the clunky, comfortable shoes she wore to work.
But everyone else had gone with the chef clothes. The room shimmered with white. In the heat of so many bodies, she could smell starch. The pleats on some of those hats looked sharp enough to slice open an unsuspecting palm.
“Refrigerator needed?” asked a harried young woman.
“What?” Ashley forced herself to focus.
The intern, or whatever she was, checked a clipboard. “You’re Ashley Harris, right?”
“I—Yes. How did you know that?”
“You’re the last one to arrive. Do you need a refrigerator for your food?”
“No.” Ashley had planned her dish carefully, not certain there’d be a fridge, or a stovetop or oven, either. She didn’t want to take a chance that anything could go wrong—not when three bites of food stood between her and the career of her dreams.
“You can put your dish over there, then. We drew numbers at random before you got here. You’re last.”
That was good, wasn’t it? Leave the judges with her entry on their tastebuds?
Or maybe it was a disaster. They might have loved some of the earlier treats, might have ranked them so high there wasn’t any room left for Ashley’s work.
This was stupid. Ashley should have done something complex, something delicate and complicated, something that drew on every skill she’d ever mastered in any class at cooking school.
But what chance would that type of food have under studio lights? What chance would her work have to shine on a morning TV show, when any sane person was chugging down coffee and eating a bowl of cereal?
Well, there wasn’t any cereal in sight, but she could smell the coffee on the far side of the room. She deposited her covered plate on the table the intern had indicated, and she crossed the room for a dose of caffeine. She was just stirring in powdered creamer when a man reached in front of her for a cup.
“Looks like we’re the only two who didn’t get the memo.”
Ashley glanced up, prepared to paste on a smile and relinquish her spot by the coffee table to one of her competitors. Instead, she nearly dropped her cup of coffee. “Josh Cantor!”
The man next to her grinned and offered his free hand. She shook automatically, her lips moving by reflex to introduce herself. “I’m Ashley Harris.”
By a conservative estimate, she’d shaken about a million hands in her lifetime. The first had been her father’s, when he’d told her she needed to learn how to conduct herself like an adult. He’d taught her how to offer a firm grasp—not too hard, not dead-fish limp. He’d taught her to offer her hand first when the other person was male, to wait for an older woman to make the initial gesture. He’d taught her to look in the eyes of the person who stood in front of her.
But he never told her what to do if she started to drown there.
Josh Cantor had the most gorgeous eyes she’d ever seen. They were blue, but that was like saying that a ghost pepper was hot. They had gold flecks in them, glints that made it seem like he was laughing. At the same time, his gaze was attentive, direct, as if the famous ballplayer had focused every ounce of his concentration on her.
Or maybe that message was flowing with the heat that radiated from his palm to hers. She could feel the strength in his fingers, the taut wires that caught a baseball on the fly, that sent the red-stitched sphere flying across the infield with deadly accuracy. His wrist flexed, just the slightest tightening of his muscles, and she felt herself pulled closer to him, just a heartbeat, just a breath.
The corners of his lips curled into a smile, like he knew precisely what he’d just done, how he’d just captured her. The amusement was reflected in those amazing eyes, and she was trapped all over again. He practically purred, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
And she snorted. Just a little breath of amusement, an acknowledgment that the line was cornier than the ground meal in her pantry. She pulled her hand from his. “Really?” she asked. “You can’t come up with anything better than that?”
He shrugged and sipped his coffee. “I was going to try ‘What’s your sign,’ but I thought that was a little dated.”
“Taurus,” she said, and she refused to admit to herself how handsome he was when he laughed.
She’d studied Josh Cantor’s face, not six weeks earlier. Her best friend, Jamie Martin, had taken on a job with the Raleigh Rockets, photographing the baseball players for a promotional calendar. Ashley had looked over Jamie’s shoulder, helping to select the best shots. Now she felt a hot blush melt over her cheeks as she thought about those photos of Josh on a construction site, his biceps popping as he leaned on a baseball bat, the tight muscles of his thighs perfectly clear against his tight white uniform pants.
White… Like the clothes preferred by all the chefs around them. What had he said when he approached her here at the coffee table? They were the only two who hadn’t gotten the memo?
She nodded toward his jeans and the plaid shirt he wore open over a plain white tee, managing to take in her own Dress for Success outfit with the same gesture. “We’re flat out of luck if they ask us to cook something out there.”
“But we sure manage to make a strong first impression.”
She sipped her coffee. Despite the creamer she’d added, it was bitter, nearly burned. “Not as strong as this coffee,” she said, twisting around for the sugar.
“So what do you think of the competition?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Those dates stuffed with bleu cheese were a huge hit on Monday. And all the judges raved about the cajun quiche.”
“You actually watched the other days’ contestants?” He sounded shocked.
“Sure. Didn’t you? Don’t you want to see what you’re up against?”
He could barely be bothered to shrug one shoulder. “Not really. I’m going to cook what I’m going to cook. Seeing other people’s food isn’t going to change what I can do.”
He grinned as he said it. She recognized that devil-may-care look, complete with the hair he hadn’t bothered to run a brush through that morning, with the slight crookedness of a nose that had been broken at some point and imperfectly set. Josh Cantor was a rebel. And she was willing to bet he was one hundred and eighty degrees away from her, at least where cooking was concerned.
Ashley couldn’t help but glance at the sheaf of papers she’d slipped into her purse as she hurried out of her apartment that morning. Over the past week, she’d taken careful notes of each competitor’s dish. She’d studied their ingredients, charted their food by cuisine. Her goal was to take the judges’ tastebuds by surprise—she’d wow them with her cooking, but also by her creativity, her sheer imagination.
Josh followed her gaze. “What have you got there?”
“Nothing,” she said too quickly. She snatched the papers out of her bag and folded them in half, the better to hide her analyses.
“Doesn’t look like nothing,” he said, reaching for them.
“Hey!” she exclaimed, tucking them behind her back.
He twitched his fingers against her side, the quick snap of a devilish older brother. She flinched and leaned forward, and he plucked the pages from her hand. He nodded as he studied them, his eyebrows coming together in fierce perusal. “Very thorough, Miss Harris. Very thorough indeed.”
“Those are private!”
“Really?” He grinned. “I think of something other than spreadsheets when I hear that word.”
That devilish smile took her breath away. She should be furious with him, taking her notes like that. She should be outraged that he’d touched her, that he’d darted those fingers against the silk of her blouse.
Then why was she trying to figure out how to get into a wrestling match with him, just to get her papers back? Why was she picturing him closing his fingers around her wrists to stop her? Why was she imagining him pulling her close to that bright white T-shirt, folding those plaid-covered arms around her and kissing her hard enough to—
“Josh Cantor!” That was the intern calling him.
He handed Ashley’s papers back with a lopsided grin. “Good luck,” he said, and then he stepped close—close enough for her to catch the scent of him, lemon covering a base of spicy pepper. Her belly swooped to her toes, and she realized he was going to kiss her. She turned her head to the side, offering him her cheek, and she felt the velvet heat of his lips near her ear.
“Your blouse is undone,” he whispered.
She threw her arms across her chest as he turned away with soft laughter deep in his throat. He didn’t look back as he collected a cardboard box from the table and headed after the girl with the clipboard. Ashley whirled toward the coffee maker, only looking down when her back was squarely to the room.
What the hell? Sure enough, the middle button on her blouse had slipped free. Humiliated, she could only see the soft folds of fabric, the green silk draping to cover her chest. But she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d glimpsed her bra. She’d purposely worn her most practical underwear—stiff underwire, boring taupe—and for just a heartbeat, she couldn’t decide if she regretted her practicality.
What a jerk! He could have said something to her earlier. He never should have teased her into a wriggling struggle over those papers. She wanted to melt into the floor, collapse into a puddle, and never look another human being in the face again.
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