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Inside a fashionable apartment house on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sparks fly when tenant, Bess Cooper, as delectable as the desserts she whips up on her TV baking show, bumps into her gorgeous new neighbor Whit Bass. A well-known broadcast journalist, he’s locked in a hot and heavy embrace with a stunning model, like those who accessorize his every outfit, and boudoir. Whit, aka Mr. No Commit, is a smooth-talking womanizer. Bess is the kind of Happily Ever After girl you make the mother of your children. Yet, against their will, they’re drawn together as powerfully as the poles of a magnet. Will she have the fortitude to survive a shattered heart? Is Whit chasing a dream of success half a world away -- or running scared? Can scandal destroy everything Bess holds dear?
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SEDUCING HIS HEART
Manhattan Dinner Club, 2
Jean C. Joachim
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WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
A Moonlight Books Novel
Seducing His Heart
Copyright © 2014 Jean C. Joachim
Print book ISBN:9781517
First E-book Publication: February 2014
Cover design by Dawné Dominique
Edited by Tabitha Bower
Proofread by Renee Waring
All cover art and logo copyright © 2015 by Moonlight Books
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED:This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
This book is dedicated to Homer, my rescue pug. He is my muse, my constant companion and my friend. He has listened to the stories of every book I’ve written and finally made it into this one. Thank you, Homer for your patience and loyalty.
Many thanks for your help and support in the creation of this book: Larry Joachim, Marilyn Lee, Kathleen Ball, Sandy Sullivan, my Tuesday Tales friends, JJ’s Book Buddies, my editor, Tabitha Bower, my proofreader, Renee Waring, Sandy Sullivan, and to my readers.
Other books by Jean C. Joachim
FIRST & TEN SERIES
GRIFF MONTGOMERY, QUARTERBACK
BUDDY CARRUTHERS, WIDE RECEIVER
PETE SEBASTIAN, COACH
DEVON DRAKE, CORNERBACK
THE MANHATTAN DINNER CLUB
RESCUE MY HEART
SEDUCING HIS HEART
SHINE YOUR LOVE ON ME
TO LOVE OR NOT TO LOVE
HOLLYWOOD HEARTS SERIES
IF I LOVED YOU
RED CARPET ROMANCE
MEMORIES OF LOVE
LOVE’S LAST CHANCE
LOVERS & LIARS
His Leading Lady (Series Starter)
NOW AND FOREVER SERIES
NOW AND FOREVER 1, A LOVE STORY
NOW AND FOREVER 2, THE BOOK OF DANNY
NOW AND FOREVER 3, BLIND LOVE
NOW AND FOREVER 4, THE RENOVATED HEART
NOW AND FOREVER 5, LOVE’S JOURNEY
NOW AND FOREVER, CALLIE’S STORY(series starter)
SUNNY DAYS, MOONLIT NIGHTS
APRIL’S KISS IN THE MOONLIGHT
UNDER THE MIDNIGHT MOON
LOST & FOUND DUET (with BEN TANNER)
LOVE LOST & FOUND
DANGEROUS LOVE, LOST & FOUND
NEW YORK NIGHTS NOVELS
THE MARRIAGE LIST
THE LOVE LIST
THE DATING LIST
SWEET LOVE REMEMBERED
SEDUCING HIS HEART
Jean C. Joachim
Copyright © 2014
The ding of the elevator startled Bess Cooper. The doors opened, revealing a man and woman in a heated clinch, kissing as if the end of the world was imminent. Bess cleared her throat. The handsome man cracked an eyelid open and turned his head slightly. He eased the woman he was smooching away and cast a sardonic look at the Bess.
“Who the hell are you? If you’ve come to see the apartment, it’s been sold,” he said, straightening up.
“I live here. Who the hell are you?” Bess rested her fists on her hips.
“I live here, too.” The man pulled his tie loose and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt.
“So, you’re the new owner of fifteen B?”Tall, lean, gorgeous black hair. And those eyes. Wow. Familiar face.
“They told me a little, old lady lived in fifteen A.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his mouth.
“‘They’ is a real estate agent?”
“Big surprise. An agent who lies,” she sniffed, shifting her weight. “You’re my new neighbor?”
“Guilty. And you’re the little, old lady?” His cool gaze traveled her length and back in a heartbeat. A slow grin curled his perfect lips. “Remarkably well-preserved.”
Bess chuckled in spite of herself, covering her mouth.
“Hey, Whit…” The brunette in the elevator tugged on his lapel.
“Whit? Now I remember where I’ve seen you. Whitfield Bass. You do the news, right?”
He smiled and executed a half bow. “Again, guilty as charged.” He placed his palm on the lower back of the woman with him, and they stepped out. “This is Candy Wayne. And you are?” At the mention of her name, the rail-thin woman with short, dark hair snaked her arm around Whit’s waist, moving up against him.
“Bess Cooper.” She extended her hand.
Whit shook it, but Candy remained glued to his side, treating Bess to a frosty stare.
“Nice to meet you both,” Bess said.
“I’ve seen you before.” Whit stroked his stubbly chin.
“I model. What do you do?” Candy asked.
“I cook,” Bess replied.
“Oh, you’re a housekeeper.” The brunette looked down her nose at Bess.
“Got it!” Whit snapped his fingers. “Not a housekeeper, a baker. On TV.Baking with Bess, right?” His face lit up.
Bess blushed. “Guilty.”
“Aren’t you a little chubby for TV?” Candy raised thick, fake, black lashes to shoot a disapproving glance at Bess’s hips.
“Not according to my producer.” Bess entered the elevator and pushed the button for the lobby.
“You don’t look chubby to me,” Whit commented, resting his gaze on her chest. “Just right,” he said, as the doors closed.
Bess chuckled as the car descended. When she reached the first floor, her favorite doorman, Crash, was manning the desk.
“’Morning, miss.” He tipped his hat.
“Got a new neighbor. What’s your opinion, Crash?” She sidled up to the man in uniform.
"Not too friendly. Dates those fashion models. Just another celebrity to me, miss.”
“Is he a serial dater?”
“Yeah. This guy gets around.” Crash blushed at his own words.
Bess cocked an eyebrow. “Doesn’t surprise me. Famous newscaster. Handsome guy.”
“Now, don’t you go falling for him, Miss Bess. He’s a player. You’re a nice gal. Hate to see you get hurt by his type.”
She patted his arm. “Thanks, Crash, that means a lot. I’m immune. Besides, I’ve got Terry, and I’m not a serial dater.”
He chuckled. “No, ma’am. You stick to one guy. At least one guy at a time.”
Now, it was Bess’s turn to flush. “I try, Crash.”
“This guy. The cop. He’s okay. I like him.”
“Glad you approve. I’m off to buy groceries. See you later.” Crash smiled and tipped his hat again. Bess stepped out into the pleasant, mid-September, morning air.
Her brow furrowed as she wondered what it would be like sharing the hallway with a man who had hot and cold running women.Probably at all hours, too.While the image of his straight jaw, clear eyes that seemed to strip her naked, and great body swam through her brain, an alarm sounded.He’s a womanizer. Stay away.
She straightened her shoulders as she proceeded up Central Park West to 81stStreet then West to Zabar’s.I have Terry. I don’t need him. Whitfield Bass, you can keep your womanizing ways. Don’t darken my doorstep.
Entering the gourmet food store, she headed for the coffee section. After buying small quantities of several brands, she picked up an assortment of teas. She had filled two grocery bags by the time she was finished.
Bess picked them up, surprised at how light they were.Tea weighs nothing.She marched down the street, lost in thought about what to make with each beverage.
Crash opened the door to The Wellington, and Bess nodded to him as she continued on her way upstairs. Her mind on her baking, she didn’t see Candy Wayne barreling toward her until the model had landed. The skinny young woman plowed into Bess, knocking her bags to the ground, the contents scattering.
“Broken heel,” Candy said, holding up half of a four-inch spiked pump before she teetered onto the elevator. When Bess swore under her breath, her pug, Dumpling, began to bark.
She looked disheveled, top half-tucked in, skirt askew. “Sorry. Sorry,” the model mumbled as the doors shut. The elevator went on its way. Bess heard scratching at her door as the one down the hall opened. Whit, wearing nothing but a fluffy white terry robe, stuck his head out.
“What the hell is that racket?”
“My dog. When she hears me, she barks.” Bess was on her knees, sweeping boxes of tea and bags of coffee together.
“What have you got in there? A Rottweiler? A shepherd?”
Bess laughed. “A pug. Shethinksshe’s a Rottweiler.”
“A pug?” He chuckled. “Do you need a hand?”
“Did Candy do that?”
Bess clamped her lips together into a fine line and continued to scoop her purchases up. Dumpling kept barking.
Whit padded barefoot out of his apartment and knelt down next to Bess. He picked up several items and read the labels. “Chai tea, Kona coffee, Loganberry jam…”
Bess plucked each container out of his hand one-by-one and whisked it into the bag. “I’m doing some research on coffee and tea.”
“How interesting. My research involves sifting through dry, boring article after dry, boring article on the Internet.”
“That’s why you do what you do, and I do what I do.”
As she stood up, he handed her a package of black licorice. “Bet we’re the last two people in the city who like this stuff,” he said.
“I doubt that.”If he thinks he’s gonna sweet talk me into bed. Forget it.But as he leaned over, his robe parted, and she got a good view of his chest. It looked totally touchable, firm, but not bodybuilder hard. Black chest hair in moderation made her fingertips tingle at the thought of running them up his pecs. With a huge effort, she ripped her gaze from his body and directed it to the cartons of food still on the floor.
“Thanks,” she said, reluctant to be beholden to him, even for the retrieval of one item.
“It’s the least I can do after Candy barged into you.”
Bess nodded curtly and headed for her door. The minute it opened, the small pug came racing out. She headed straight for Whit, barking her head off. He laughed, but backed up.She’s a ferocious little beast.
“I hate clichés, but aren’t you going to call off your dog?” he asked, his back to the wall.
“Dumpling! Dumpling, come, baby girl.” Bess called. The pug closed her mouth and turned to look at her mistress. After casting a suspicious eye at Whit, the dog retreated, panting, and obeyed orders. “She wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Really? Are you sure she knows that?” The crease in his forehead eased. He tucked his robe together and tightened the sash.
“Your girlfriend needs a lesson in manners,” Bess said, picking up a bag in each hand. Dumpling watched Whit, but stayed beside Bess.
“Oh, she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Oh?” Bess raised her brow. “Could’ve fooled me.”
“In fact, that was only our second date. A long one, perhaps, but only the second. I play the field.” Again, he shot her a look that made her feel bare. Instinctively, her arm covered her chest.
“Good for you. Watch those STD’s, they can be nasty,” she said.
“Speaking from experience?” He cocked an eyebrow at her.
Heat rose through her cheeks as her temper flared. She dropped both bags, causing Dumpling to start barking again. “You’ve got a lotta nerve.”
“You’re the one who brought it up. Not me. I’m a great believer in safe sex. Are you?”
“That’s none of your business.” Bess gathered her belongings and whistled for Dumpling, who quieted down immediately and followed along.
“Will I need to use hand sanitizer every time I pass your door?” He smirked.
“Hilarious! Can’t understand why you didn’t go into stand-up comedy instead of the news. Let’s see…maybe because you’renotfunny?” She stepped back into her apartment and slammed the door. His chuckle was loud enough for her to hear.
How obnoxious. He can sleep with every woman in New York, but he’ll never get me. I hate womanizing men.She lugged the food into the kitchen with Dumpling trotting behind her. The dog curled up on her small, fluffy bed and was snoring before Bess got everything unpacked. She brewed a pot of coffee and sat down with a pad and pen.
The buzzer broke into her thoughts. She picked up the intercom and okayed the visitor with Crash. Her assistant, Ned Lester, walked right in. She never kept the door locked, figuring, with such vigilant doormen, she’d never need to.
“Where have you been? I’ve left ten messages. Did you need me to pick up anything on my way over?”
“Got everything myself. I was in the hall. Damn new neighbor. His snotty girlfriend plowed right into me. Then, he came out to help pick things up.”
Ned’s eyes lit up. “Was he cute?”
“Aren’t you taken?”
“You didn’t answer my question. Not for me. For you.”
“I guess you could say he’s good looking enough. If you like that sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing?” Ned perched on a bar stool at the counter, his pad ready, pen in hand, and his blue eyes directed at Bess.
“I mean, black hair, gray eyes, good bod.”
“Wow. Better than Serge?”
“He was annoying.” Bess returned to the coffeemaker and poured a cup for Ned.
“Now, you’re lying. I can always tell. You get a little twitch under your left eye. Only for a second. But it’s there.”
“Okay. He’s gorgeous. But he’s a womanizer. Besides, I have Terry.”
“Do you? Isn’t that still once a week and no overnights?”
“So?” Bess sipped her brew.
“Seems you two are kinda stuck.”
“I like him. He’s a cop. Makes me feel safe. I’m happy with it the way it is.”
“Are you?” Ned stared, but Bess avoided his eyes.
“Let’s get to work. How to frame this? Best desserts for coffee and best for tea?”
“That way, maybe we can get two shows out of this idea instead of only one,” he said, scribbling away.
“Good thinking. Hmm, what does go best with coffee? Anything chocolate.”
“Oh, God. Chocolate. Here I go. And, by the way, you’re not fooling me. I’m letting you change the subject…for now.” Ned grinned.
Short with brown hair and blue eyes, Ned was attractive, but out of Bess’s reach, as he was gay. He kept himself in top physical condition, dressed beautifully, and took good care of her.If I had a little brother, I’d want him to be exactly like Ned. Well, maybe not quite so nosy.He kept her secrets and shared her love of food. Ned was more family than her real family.
Bucking to become her sous chef, Ned would have been the perfect choice, but then Bess hated the idea of breaking in a new assistant. While she was dying for him to be promoted, she dreaded it at the same time. She relied on his support, and he never questioned her judgment. They were the perfect team.
Ned perused the one hundred cookbooks on her shelves, seeking the ones that specialized in desserts. Within half an hour, she was immersed in discussing and selecting recipes with him. The episode was taking shape, and she had forgotten about the devastatingly attractive Whit Bass and his parade of willing women.
They made a shopping list. Ned went out to the store while Bess took a break. She strolled to the window with her mug. Dumpling stretched then padded over to join her. Her choices of possible desserts were numerous enough that she was certain there would be a few outstanding ones to suit the show.
Her mind turned back to her new neighbor.Why am I thinking about him? He’s trouble for any single woman. I want to have kids someday. Can’t do that with a guy like Whitfield Bass. What about Terry? I don’t even have him twice a week.She chewed a nail then stopped, horrified.
“How many times have I told you to stop that disgusting habit?” Ned entered, carrying two bags.
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Your hands and nails show. You can’t be ripping at them with your teeth.” He gently slapped her hand then raised it to kiss.
“You’re right. I forget. Worrying about how I look on camera is the worst part of this job. When will I be able to bite the hell out of my nails and no one’ll care?”
“When you’re unemployed. Since that day’s not here yet, cut it out.” He retrieved the package he’d dropped at the door and carried it into the kitchen. As he began to unpack, he chattered away. “What were you so wrapped up in when I came in?”
“Ah, good try. Nothing. Thinking. About life.”
“Butt out, Ned. Now, let’s melt this chocolate with the European butter and see how they blend. We’ll need some salt, because the butter is sweet. Only a whisper,” she said, sliding her apron over her head and tying it behind her back.
* * * *
Grinning, Whit closed his front door.What a spitfire across the hall. Little old lady, yeah, right. Bet she’s great in bed, once she gets over that bad attitude. Great body, too. Supermodels are okay, but bony as hell. No meat. Nothing to squeeze.
Sexually satisfied from his morning romp with Candy and freshly showered, Whit dressed for work. Before his mind became tangled up with news stories and a book he was working on in his spare time, he stopped to check his calendar to see who’d be decorating his arm that evening.
Hmm. Katarina. Italian movie star. She’s got a temper. Dinner. Dancing? Then sex?He smiled to himself. Having a stable of available women was perfect. He never had to dine or sleep alone. The one thing he swore he’d never have on his bucket list was marriage and kids.Never. Not gonna put some poor kid through the same hell I had. No way.
Supermodels fit the bill. They were so absorbed in their ambition and their careers that marriage was not on their radar. The thought of ruining their shape with a pregnancy made his bed partners nauseous. So, he had to forego companionship, devotion, and friendship, so what? His life was regulated. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and with whom he wanted.Most men envy me.But it wasn’t enough, and Whit didn’t know why.
Katarina had been difficult the last time they had gone out. She had been demanding, criticizing the five star restaurant he had taken her to, and a chilly partner in bed.Time to trade her in. No, not for Bess. Too close. Never start something with someone who lives on the same floor. All I need is a stalker across the hall.He grinned.She doesn’t seem like the type to stalk me. Slap me, maybe. Stalk me? Doubt it.
He’d started down the hall when a heavenly aroma assaulted his nose.Chocolate? Fresh coffee?His stomach rumbled.Yum.A vision of spreading warm chocolate with his fingers on certain parts of Bess’s body then licking it off made his groin twitch.I’ll bet she knows everything there is to know about sweets. And I know lots of ways to consume them she probably hasn’t even tried.
The ding of the elevator brought him out of his reverie. He sighed and traveled to the ground floor. Raising his hand in a half-wave to the doorman, Whit directed his feet down Central Park West to the television studios of Eagle Broadcasting.
While he walked, he wondered about Bess.Will great smells always be coming out of her place? Will she invite me in to eat, at least try, some of her stuff?A salacious chuckle escaped his mouth as he imagined a tasting at her place where she was the dessert.
Once he was immersed in his work, he forgot about Bess and the chocolate. He worked hard, trying to nail down the details of a story from Asia. He’d applied toNew York News Reviewfor a job as a foreign correspondent.What better way to avoid attachments than to be out of the country?It would be the perfect job for him. He was hoping for Hong Kong.The farther away from home, the better.
He took particular care over stories from the Far East, figuring each one was like a job interview withNY News Review. When he finished his broadcast, he checked his watch, caught a taxi, and met Katarina on the East side.
Dinner was a long and tiresome affair. Whit tried to focus on her rantings about her manager and the director of a movie she wanted to do, but his mind kept wandering. Her screeching criticism hurt his ears. He longed for something softer and more soothing after an intense day. Something like a cup of exquisite hot chocolate or a piece of sinful devil’s food cake…something to nourish his body and soul.
The vibes from Katarina weren’t good.Bed? With this complainer? Not tonight. Not ever again.While her body wouldn’t quit, he decided he would.
Over coffee, she made eyes at him. “So, we go back to your place or mine?” she cooed.
“Not tonight. I’ve got an early day tomorrow,” he lied, signaling for the check.
Katarina stuck out her lower lip in a most unattractive way. Her pouty face confirmed his decision to get far away from her.
“But I was counting on it,” she whined.
“Sorry. Another time.”Another lie. Get me outta here.
He paid the bill, put her in a cab, and hopped in one himself. On the way to his apartment, Whit stopped and sniffed. The faint smell of chocolate and coffee lingered in the hallway. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes, and was practically knocked down when Bess barreled out of her place with Dumpling in tow. The baker bounced off his chest.
He grasped her arms, to keep her from falling. She looked up into his eyes. Her large, blue orbs drew him in. He froze, his fingers digging into her. Then, Dumpling barked before assaulting him, sinking her teeth into his leg and pulling, throwing her head from side-to-side rapidly.
“Dumpling!” Bess yelled, tearing her gaze from his. Her eyes widened as she watched her dog tear a hole in the bottom of his pants. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry.” She jerked on the leash, and the pug dropped the cloth and backed up.
“It’s nothing,” he said, reluctantly releasing Bess.
“She’s ripped your pants! I’ll replace the suit.”
“Don’t worry about it. Really.”
“She’s my dog, and I’m responsible. Let me get my checkbook.” She turned.
“Please,” he said, placing his hand on her arm. “I can have it fixed or get a new one myself.”
“It’s an expensive suit.”
“Even so. I never walk away from my responsibilities.”
“Honestly,” he waved at her. “Forget it.”
“How much?” She narrowed her eyes and rested one hand on her hip.
He sighed. “Three thousand dollars.”
“Three thousand dollars! Oh my God. Is it made of spun gold?” Her eyebrow shot up.
“That’s how much a good Italian suit costs. I told you, don’t worry about it.”
“You think I don’t have money to burn? I can afford it. No sweat.”
“I didn’t say that. No reason for you to shell out three grand for a tiny hole made by…what’s the dog’s name?”
Whit doubled over with laughter. He grabbed his stomach and laughed until he cried.
“It’s not that funny,” Bess huffed.
“Oh, yes it is! Sheisa little dumpling, too.”
“She can be pretty ferocious. Don’t underestimate her. Look what she did to your pants.” Bess pointed.
“World’s tiniest hole made by world’s smallest dog,” he said, gasping for breath.
Whit knelt down and held out his hand. Dumpling eyed him suspiciously before she inched closer to sniff him. He stayed still, waiting for the okay from the pug before he petted her.
“She’s adorable,” he said, giving her a gentle scratch behind the ears.
“I think so.” Bess smiled. Dumpling licked Whit’s hand, officially declaring him a friend.
“I’ll take these to the tailor, and, if you want, you can pay to have them re-woven. How’s that?”
“What were you cooking before? I swear I smelled chocolate and coffee.”
“Good sniffer. I made both.”
“Making some chocolate desserts…and coffee…combining them. Mocha. But you’re not interested in the experiments of a lowly baker when you have world affairs on your mind.” She turned toward the elevator. “And I still have to walk my dog.”
He grabbed her arm. “But I am interested. I find dessert a lot more fascinating than world politics. Do you ever have tastings or samplings or whatever at your house?”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Are you wangling an invitation?”
“Any time you need a guinea pig, I’m here.”
She chuckled. “I’ll remember that. See ya.” She stepped into the elevator with Dumpling, and the doors closed. Whit went inside and removed his pants to examine the hole. It was small. He smirked.Gives me another reason to see her. Talk to her. Ring her doorbell. Maybe I’ll get some of those desserts she’s preparing. Worth a try, anyway.
The next morning, he donned running gear. As he was about to go for a spin in Central Park, his phone rang.It was Elsa.
“Absolutely.” He leaned against the wall and envisioned the tall, cool blonde naked. His mouth watered.
“Vunderful. See you then.”
Whit put his cell away and made a face.Another vegan meal. Ugh. What’s so wrong with steak, anyway? Hell, a date’s a date.He shrugged his shoulders and hit the street. After his run, he headed for the tailor’s before stopping at the drugstore to refill his supply of condoms. While he didn’t expect much stimulating conversation from Elsa, he did expect to get laid.
I wonder if Bess ever cooks steak. Her program is about baking. How about the best dessert with steak? How about inviting me over for a taste? How about tasting together, naked?He shook his head.Stop thinking about her. She’s the wrong kind of girl. Probably wants to find some nice, quiet guy and settle down. Have two point five kids. House in the ’burbs. Picket fence.He shuddered.Stay away from her. She’s a potential disaster.
His taste buds cried out for steak. Whit stopped at the deli for the best Philly cheesesteak in Manhattan.Bet she can’t cook this. No one makes it like these guys do.
“Hey, Mike. Got any bones back there?”
The man behind the counter stopped what he was doing. “Bones?”
“Yeah, like for a dog? A small dog?”
“What do you mean, sick? No one gets sick in September,” Bess paced.
“Well, I am,” Ned said, sneezing into the phone.
“Hey, keep that to yourself.”
“Thanks for the ton of sympathy.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll make chicken soup and have it delivered.”
“That’s more like it,” he sniffled.
“But I’m making the mocha pie, the pudding, and the cake. I need you here to taste it.”
“Even if I was well enough to come over, I can’t taste shit, babe.”
“I’m sorry, Bess. You’ll have to rely on your own taste buds.”
“I hate to do that. I’m prejudiced. I always prefer cake to pudding.”
“Then find someone else. How about Terry? Or that sexy neighbor?”
“Terry! What a good idea. And he loves my baking.”
“Oh, I’ll bet he does.” Ned snickered.
Bess felt herself blush. “Thanks for the suggestion. Feel better. Call me if you need anything.”
“Serge is in Italy. You wouldn’t happen to have a gorgeous hunk in your back pocket you could send over?”
“Ned! Unfaithful thoughts. Naughty boy. Stand in the corner for ten minutes.”
“I’m going back to bed. Alone.” He sighed.
“Take care.” Bess slumped down on the sofa. Dumpling jumped up to snuggle into her. She petted the dog and opened her cell. “Terry? What are you doing today?”
An hour later, cake was cooling on a rack by the window, mocha pie was in the oven, and Bess was stirring pudding on the stove. The air was rich with the scent of chocolate laced with coffee. Bess opened her windows and the front door to remove the fragrance.
She hummed one of her favorite tunes, Phillip Philips’s “Gone, Gone, Gone,”as she gently stirred, adjusting the burner temperature every minute or two.
“Does that invitation still stand?” Whit’s voice jolted her out of her reverie. Dumpling leaped up from her bed, barking furiously. She ran over to the door and sniffed Whit then returned to the living room sofa, making herself comfortable, before drifting off to sleep.
“Oh my God! You scared me to death!”
“Sorry. But you had the door open, and the aroma lured me in.”
“I’m airing the place out.”He looks amazing, standing there, filling the space.
“I’d give a fortune to have my apartment smell like this for even one day.” He walked in and turned left toward the kitchen. His gaze flitted from counter to counter, cabinet to cabinet. “This makes NASA look like kindergarten. Is there any gadget you don’t have?”
She shook her head. “Only what I don’t need for my work.”
He wandered through the large space, picking up an odd utensil here, a tiny bowl there, looking them over and clucking his tongue. “A man would have a tough time outfitting an expensive kitchen like this for his wife. What does all this stuff cost?” He looked at her.
“I didn’t need a man to buy this for me. I bought it myself. Over time. You accumulate stuff. Kitchen tools don’t wear out. Besides, it’s tax deductible. Most of it.”
“Still, this kitchen is worth a fortune.”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.” She straightened her shoulders. “Did you come to criticize my spending habits? What are you doing here, anyway?” She rested one hand on her hip.
“Your door was open, and the smell, divine. I thought maybe that meant you’d offer me a taste of whatever it is you’re cooking up.”
“Oh. In fact, I do need a taster. But, are you experienced?” She cocked an eyebrow at him.
Whit burst out laughing. “Honey, I’ve been eating for thirty-five years.”
“That’s not what I meant. I need a professional taster. Not some schmuck who wants free food. I need someone to tell me what the recipe needs, what’s too much or too little.” She shifted her weight.
“Hey, that’s okay. Lots of people don’t consider what I do work. They think I’m fooling around, for fun. Crap. This is work. And perfecting a recipe is not something everyone can do.”
“I apologize if I gave that impression. You’re right. This is work. And you must be very good at what you do to have your own TV show. I didn’t mean any disrespect. I’ve never had anyone ask me that before. The way you put it, guess I don’t have any.” He looked disappointed.
“Hell, any port in a storm. My taster, Ned, is home sick. I need someone to try these. Someone besides me. After a few dishes of the same flavor, sometimes my taste buds get confused.”
“Maybe you need a fine wine to cleanse your palate between tastes. I have just the ticket. It’s my favorite Cabernet—”
“That’s it! You’re a genius.” Bess clapped her hands together, waking her pug, then ripped open the door to her industrial-sized freezer and bent over, pawing through frozen packages on the bottom shelf. She sensed Whit’s eyes on her rear, but she didn’t care. She grabbed the icy container and stood up. “Lemon sorbet!”
“A light, fruity sorbet is a perfect palate cleanser.”
“How about my wine?”
“You can bring it, too, but this sorbet is better.”
“Be right back.” Whit returned quickly with a fresh bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Bess handed him a corkscrew, and he went to work. She poured the thickened pudding into small, white ramekins and placed them carefully on the rack by the window to cool.
“Third cabinet from the left, top,” Bess answered as she handled the hot cups.
Whit opened several before he found them. “I’m impressed with this kitchen. And it’s so well organized. I don’t know many women who have perfect kitchens like this.”
“Guess you don’t know many women who cook,” she said, under her breath.
“I heard that.”
“This isn’t a kitchen for family cooking. It’s my office. Think of it that way.”
Whit poured a glass and handed one to her. “I can’t seem to say anything right, can I?”
“Nope. But you’re gonna get to taste the mocha magic dishes, anyway.”
“Mocha magic? Is that what you’re going to call these?”
“Yeah. Kinda like the sound of it.”
“So do I. And so does my stomach.”
He was standing near enough for a spark to leap between them.Static electricity. He’s here for your food. That’s all.He wore a white, button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and navy blue pants. She stared at his forearms, the muscles lean and powerful, covered lightly with dark hair. His hands were slightly square with long, tapering fingers. He had no beer gut, and the scruff on his face was perfect. A shiver shot up her spine.
Eyes that had been cool at their first meeting were still a clear gray, almost translucent, but now they stared at her with a heat she didn’t expect. His gaze traveled slowly over her body, leaving the sensation of a caress from a warm hand.Does he have x-ray vision? I feel naked.
He raised his glass. “To the queen of mocha magic.”
Bess grinned and clinked hers with his before taking a healthy sip. “This is excellent.”
He smiled. “I prefer the best.”
“The best in wine, the best in women…what else do you prefer the best in?”
“Nothing I can discuss with a lady present,” he snickered, turning Bess bright red.
She took more of her drink then fished a handful of forks out of the drawer. She handed one to Whit. “Let’s get started,” she said. He followed her to the cake. She uncovered a small bowl and spread chocolate frosting over half. “We taste with and without frosting.”
“Interesting,” he said, nodding his head.
“The frosting is only chocolate.” She doubled back and scooped out two small portions of sorbet in little cups. Then, she sliced a piece of cake off with the fork and held it out.
He closed his lips over the moist confection and pulled it off the utensil. With closed eyes, he savored the morsel then gave his verdict. “This is the best cake I’ve ever eaten in my life.”
“Fine, but does it have too much coffee? Not enough? Is the flavor balanced?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Balanced?”
She sighed. “This is why I need a professional. Balanced—exactly the right amount of coffee and the right amount of chocolate to give you the perfect mix of flavors.”
“I think I need another piece to be certain.” He reached for the fork, but Bess snatched it away.
“Oh, no. I’ll give you another sample. You have to have a certain amount. You can’t shove half the cake in your mouth then give me accurate feedback. You can take some home later.” Again, she fed him. With his eyes closed again, he chewed then licked crumbs off his lips. Bess’s heart kicked up for a second.Focus. Concentrate. Take your eyes off his mouth.
“I’d say the balance between the flavors is perfect. I wouldn’t want even a tad more coffee or a tad less.” He grinned. “Is that what I’m supposed to say?”
“You’re supposed to tell the truth.”Not butter me up to get me into bed.
His eyes widened, and he frowned. “Thatisthe truth!”
She cocked her head slightly.
“Absolutely. Why would I lie? Believe me, I can be enough of an asshole to be completely honest. I wouldn’t spare your feelings for a minute, if it meant lying.”
“Look, which do you want? Tactful and dishonest or blunt and honest?”
“Can’t we do tactful and honest?”
He laughed. “You’re a handful,” he said, shaking his head.
“Okay. So, the cake is good. Onto the pie.”
She handed him the small dish of sorbet and a tiny spoon. He took some and followed her to the next confection. Bess placed the food in his mouth and waited anxiously for the verdict.
“It’s good, but it needs something,” he said, running his tongue over his lips.
Bess smiled and went to the refrigerator. She returned with a little bowl of hand-whipped cream. “How about this?”
His eyes lit up. “I can think of many uses for that,” he snickered.
She slapped his shoulder. “Focus.” She applied a dollop to the pie then fed him another taste.
Again he savored, eyes shut. “That’s it. Perfect. Exactly what it needed.”
“Yes, the pie is denser than the cake. It needs the whipped cream to lighten it.”
“You’re catching on pretty quick.” She took a healthy sip of wine.
“Thanks. Now the pudding?”
Bess handed him the sorbet dish, and Whit cleansed his palate.
“Wait! Let me add the whipped cream first this time.”
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