“Hey, Gavin, can you take table three?”
Gavin Luciano turned to face his younger brother, Brando.
A familiar combination of pleading and rebellion shone from dark brown eyes as Brando shifted from one foot to the other. “I’ve got a crisis in the kitchen and you want me to play waiter? I thought we agreed that would be your responsibility?”
The rebelliousness won over the pleading. “I gotta go to the bathroom.”
Gavin lifted one brow.
“I’m sure table three can wait another ten seconds.”
“Then I need to call Tracey. I told her I’d call at six.”
“Hmmm. I can always count on you to romance your women at prime dinner time.”
“Give me a break.”
Gavin hid a smile. He wondered if his younger brother knew he was capable of blushing. “Text her. I’ll take this table while you go the bathroom.
Tracey can wait another hour.”
A scowl settled over Brando’s face but he decided not to argue. This time. “Fine.” Brando raced from the kitchen.
Gavin tried to remember if he’d ever been that young, where every lustful thought had been carved into his features and his body overruled his mind.
Probably not. He couldn’t remember when he’d been willing to give up a business deal for a romantic afternoon in the park. Of course, that was probably the reason the family restaurant was going under. Pop had no problem throwing a sign on the door—Gone Fishing— even during peak lunch hours.
He shook his head. It was going to be a hell of a night. Another waiter had called in sick, and his normally stable chef believed his wife was having an affair. The man seemed to have a heavy hand with the pepper and seasonings tonight, almost as if he imagined he served his new wife’s lover.
Gavin hoped everyone ordered the special. The sea bass was easy to prepare without screwing up the spices.
His progress halted as Dominick, the bartender, blocked his path. “I need a smoke. Can you cover the bar?”
He grabbed for his patience and reminded himself he was here to save a restaurant, not kill his staff. “No. I told you the new rules. Smoke on your breaks.”
Dominick twitched and clapped him on the shoulder.
Since they’d grown up together, it was difficult playing the boss.
“Come on, dude. I’m dying here. The crowd’s taken care of for the next few.”
Gavin gave him a look that made many young interns quake. “Don’t push me, Dominick. I’m already playing waiter, and I’m not getting behind the bar. If you don’t want me to fire your ass, get it back in your spot.”
The mutinous look almost made him feel guilty. Almost. “You need to get laid, man.” Dominick trudged back behind the bar, cigarette still in hand.
No wonder Mia Casa never made a profit.
Gavin had three months to turn the Titanic, and he’d already run out of lifeboats.
Pumping an obscene amount of money into the renovations would help, but if they didn’t get a schedule together and solid, sparkling reviews for the food, God himself couldn’t hold back the icy waters.
He fought a shudder, clawed deep for calm, and headed toward table three.
Then he saw her.
He stopped short and stared. A swirling array of emotions slammed through him like a hurtling freight train, and for one brief moment, he was in another time and another place. The last image of her flickered before his eyes, an image he’d been trying to fight since he had returned home.
She was with the same man as he’d seen her with a few weeks ago. The pathetic reminder of his lovesick spying twisted his gut but he greedily gorged on her appearance.
She took off her raincoat and threw it over the back of the chair. One hand reached up to shake the moisture from her hair, causing a couple of loose curls to escape the constraints of her perfect French twist.
Titian-red strands slid over her neck and shoulders.
He remembered those curls used to tumble down her back in wild gypsy waves.
Used to feel like fire trapped in satin when he would thread his fingers through them. The single candle on the table flickered and illuminated the pearl sheen of her skin, left bare by the low- cut black dress.
A pair of trendy black- framed glasses now shielded jade green eyes.
And something else, something intangible he couldn’t grasp yet. Almost as if there was a wall built around her that screamed look, but don’t touch.
He wondered if her companion ignored the signal. He wondered why the thought bothered him so much.
The woman reached for her menu and laughed at something her companion said. The sound drifted across the room, shot-silk amidst the clatter of china and glasses, and still heady enough to settle in the pit of his gut and squeeze. Hot enough to remind him of a sip of age- old whiskey. With a sting.
Out of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she has to walk into mine. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if a piano player named Sam burst into “As Time Goes By.”
Gavin dragged in a lungful of air and paused for a beat. Then he walked toward table number three.
… Miranda Storme scanned the menu with an ease of an expert, her mind automatically making mental notes of prices and cuisine. She wondered if she’d have enough time to order the special.
“Uh-oh, you’ve got that look on your face.”
Miranda glanced up.
Andy Carson pulled his brows into a frown. “The critic look. Can’t we enjoy one meal without whipping out your notepad? Let’s be rebels tonight. Let’s order a plain bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and forget about testing the chef’s skills. I’m tired of working every time I pick up a fork.”
She laughed. “Andy, you get to eat for free, and I don’t even make you write the column.”
“I don’t care. I had a Big Mac yesterday and I couldn’t enjoy it. I kept trying to figure out exactly what was in that special sauce.”
She bit her lip. “Okay.
Since you’re nice enough to suffer through the opera with me, I’ll order the spaghetti.
An Italian restaurant can’t screw it up, and we can make the performance in time.”
His face lit up as he closed the menu. “Perfect.
Anyway, we’re not on an official review tonight and —what’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
She watched the man approach her table and heard a strange roaring in her ears. Long strides closed the distance between them with the same ruthless determination he’d shown years ago. It had been part of him she’d fallen in love with.
Until he had used that same determination to walk right out of her life.
As the deep, gravelly voice stroked her ears, Miranda controlled a shudder. Slowly, she lifted her gaze to meet his, and was grateful she still felt numb. Steel-blue eyes met and held hers. Piercing in intensity, as if he could see right into her soul. Once, he had. She’d sworn to never make the mistake again.
“Hello, Gavin.” She kept her tone even, as if running into your first love occurred on a daily basis.
“How are you?”
“Fine.” The polite, cliché conversation made her shudder, but no original words rose to her lips. His probing gaze released her and studied Andy. He seemed to take inventory, as if checking for weaknesses that could be used later to his advantage. An awkward silence settled over the table.
“I take it you two know each other,” Andy said.
Miranda re-gathered her composure.
“Andrew Carson, this is Gavin Luciano.” The two men exchanged nods. “Gavin and I dated many years ago. He was an up and coming advertising executive at the time.” She forced a smile. “I’m sure he’s been quite successful.”
Miranda’s head swung back around. “You left?”
“Yep.” He rocked back on his heels with a satisfied look. “I moved into a different field.”
“What are you doing now?” she asked.
The tiny smile turned into a full-fledged grin. She sucked in her breath at the sight of that slow smile flashing a perfect row of white teeth.
Totally confident. Overwhelmingly arrogant.
Devastatingly masculine. “This,” he said.
Gavin whipped out a pencil and notepad from his jacket. “Can I take your order?”
She blinked. She took in his appearance, which consisted of a black turtleneck, khaki slacks, and a sport jacket. “You’re a waiter?”
“Tonight I am. I’m the owner.
This is my restaurant.”
A rush of memories flooded through her. Dear God, she’d known Mia Casa sounded familiar.
How could she have picked his family’s restaurant? Not that she’d ever been invited here when they dated. Other than it was Italian and located in Manhattan, Mia Casa was just another common name of another place to dine.
Her stomach tilted. “You always said you never wanted anything to do with your family’s restaurant.”
Darkness settled over his features, then disappeared.
“I was wrong.” His voice dropped to an intimate pitch. A shiver ran down her spine.
“About a lot of things.”
Her hand shook as she reached up to slide the glasses back up her nose.
She was so not going there. Having a chatty conversation with the man who dumped her would only ruin her appetite. She took a deep breath and briskly closed her menu.
“How intriguing. Well, I think we’re both ready to order.”
Andy sat back in his chair and waved one hand in the air.
His face reflected growing amusement. “Miranda, you order for me. You know what I want.”
She registered Gavin’s frown with relish. It would have been unheard of for Mr. Macho to let a woman order for him. For once, she succumbed to her evil side and deliberately leaned toward Andy. Her hand slid over his as she played with his fingers. His shocked expression almost ruined her moment, but she kicked him under the table and ignored his wince. “Darling, would you like to go traditional tonight?”
He blinked and remained silent. Her heel dug into his ankle.
“Oh, yes, sweetheart. Traditional is fine.”
Her professional critic training kicked in and she relaxed into her familiar world of food. “I think we’ll start with the calamari, and bring some bruschetta with that. The spaghetti and meatballs as the main course.
What’s your vegetable?”
Did he wince, or was she imagining things? “Tonight we have broccoli rabe. But I recommend the salad instead of the vegetable.
We have a wonderful house dressing to accompany it.”
“Broccoli rabe, please.”
“We’re known for the stuffed artichokes. I think you may enjoy that, instead.”
Oh, yeah, he really didn’t want her to have the broccoli. She’d been to enough restaurants to know when a waiter was told to push certain items.
Giddy satisfaction flowed through her veins. “No.”
He shifted his weight.
“As you wish. May I suggest the special tonight, instead? The chef has been preparing it all evening and it’s quite extraordinary. Chilean sea bass over a bed of polenta served with—”