Gia Gallo is officially in bridesmaid hell. Stranded in New York with her best friend’s wedding dress, Gia has six days to make it to Florida in time for the ceremony. And oh-so-charming best man Bennett Buchanan has taken the last available rental car. Looks like she’s in for one long road trip with the sexiest—and most irritating—Southern gentleman she’s ever met…
Bennett’s pretty sure that if there was ever a woman to break his “no flings” rule, Gia would be it. Sure, she’s stubborn. She’s also funny, smart, and the attraction between them is getting hotter with every state line they cross. While Bennett doesn’t do casual, Gia doesn’t do “relationships.” But if they break the rules, this unlikely pair might discover that their impromptu road trip could turn out to be the best ride of their lives.
SIX DAYS BEFORE THE WEDDING
The woman throwing a hissy fit at the gate had to be Gia Gallo. She looked the part: tall, thin, and in possession of one of those huge, ugly handbags that cost more than most people’s rent.
She was also stunning, but that wasn’t relevant.
Helming a successful Manhattan restaurant in an increasingly hip neighborhood meant that Bennett Buchanan had encountered his share of models. The funny thing about models was that they usually weren’t that good-looking up close. They were all angles and bones and overly exaggerated features that photographed better than they came across in real life.
Gia, though, with her shoulder-length, wavy, honey-brown hair, her heart-shaped face, and her plump pink lips, was almost unnaturally beautiful.
Or she would have been, if she hadn’t been using that gorgeous mouth to yell at the poor beleaguered gate agent who had just announced that their flight to Tampa was canceled.
Bennett didn’t go for entitled. He’d seen enough spoiled princesses in his old-money southern youth to last a lifetime. New York might rub him the wrong way a lot of the time, but one thing it had going for it was that debutantes were few and far between. Or at least their New York equivalent, the society ladies, didn’t make their way up to his little Cajun place in Washington Heights.
“Listen to me,” the bad-tempered beauty said to the gate agent as she held up a garment bag. “This is a wedding dress. It needs to get to Florida now.”
Yep, that was definitely Gia, one of the bridesmaids in his friend Noah’s wedding.
Bennett got up from where he’d been sitting and headed over to the desk to try to run interference.
A second agent had joined the first. He looked as if he had a lower bullshit threshold than his colleague and was rolling in to play the role of Bad Cop Gate Agent. “A bridezilla. My favorite kind of customer,” he said under his breath, but not really, because Bennett, who was still a few
feet away, could hear him.
“I am not a bridezilla,” Gia said.
“Honey, that’s what they all say.”
“I am not a bridezilla, because I am not the bride. I am a bridesmaid, though, so if you want to call me a bridesmaidzilla, go right ahead. I will totally own that.” She leaned over—she was taller than both the agents—and got right in the face of the one who’d called her a bridezilla. “This is my friend Wendy’s wedding dress. Actually, it’s her dead mother’s wedding dress. And Wendy? She hasn’t had the easiest time of it. So I have made it my personal mission to make sure her wedding goes off without a hitch. This dress will make it to Florida if I have to walk it there myself.” She sniffed and straightened to her full, imposing height. “And don’t call me honey.”
“Well, you’d better start walking, honey, because they’re about to close the airport.”
“What part of don’t call me—”
“Gia?” Bennett interrupted, pasting on his “the customer is always right” smile. “Are you by chance Wendy’s friend Gia?”
She whirled on him, and she was pissed. Her eyes, a gorgeous amber that reminded him of his nana’s cinnamon pecan shortbread, narrowed. They were topped by long lashes and heavy eyebrows. The powerful brows contrasted sharply with pale, flawless skin marked by two blotches of angry pink in the centers of her cheeks. Jesus Christ, that kind of beauty was a shock to the system, equal parts invigorating and painful, not unlike when you burned yourself in the kitchen in the middle of a manic dinner shift.
“And you are?”
The question dripped with disdain, which was good because it reminded him that the karmic scales tended to balance beauty with sourness. She was like the abominations northerners called peaches: vibrantly pinky yellow and fragrant on the outside, hard and woody and unyielding
on the inside.
Still, he would do what he could to rescue these poor gate agents from her clutches. The monster storm bearing down on the eastern seaboard was going to make their lives unpleasant enough without the addition of an indignant model who believed that the laws of nature didn’t apply to her.
He stuck his hand out. “Bennett Buchanan at your service, ma’am.” He let his drawl come on strong. That always charmed people.
Gia was not charmed.
She rolled her eyes.
But she did step away from the counter, enough that the next customer in line took her place.
“You’re Noah’s friend.”
“Don’t call me ma’am.”
The thing was, he was pissed, too. She wasn’t the only one whose flight had been canceled. She wasn’t even the only one who had been charged with transporting an item essential to the wedding ceremony.
Noah and Wendy had spent the last six months traveling. They had a system in which they jetted to a far-flung locale for two weeks and then spent two weeks at home in Toronto, where Wendy’s aunt was recovering from a car accident and Noah, who was moving to Canada to be with Wendy, was studying to transfer his legal credentials.
It was like a honeymoon in reverse—the final trip would be their wedding in Florida. They’d dropped in to New York a few months ago for dress and ring fittings and had left the properly sized final products in the custody of their friends. He wasn’t really sure why they hadn’t done that stuff in Toronto, but he didn’t ask questions. He did as he was told.
Which meant he had the rings in his pocket. He, however, was not throwing a hissy fit over this fact.
So, yeah, he was pissed.
And cold. So freaking cold.
Top of that list of things about New York that rubbed him the wrong way?
You can take the boy out of the South . . .
Damn, he hadn’t realized how much the idea of getting on that plane and emerging in a few hours into the warm, humid air of a civilized climate had gotten its hooks into him.
But unlike Gia, he was capable of holding his temper when things didn’t go his way. He was an adult. A fact of which he reminded himself as he checked the impulse to start calling her honey-ma’am.
“The wedding isn’t for a week,” he said. “We’ll be able to rebook. Let’s head back to the city, and we can try again when this storm passes. We can share a cab.”
Which was the last thing he wanted to do, but if they were closing the airport, taxis would be in short supply, and Bennett was a nice guy.
Well, okay, he wasn’t a nice guy, but he’d grown adept at faking it. And if he could behave, so could she.
Instead of answering him, Gia elbowed her way back to the counter and started demanding a hotel voucher.
“We don’t give vouchers for weather delays,” the first agent said.
“Good luck finding a hotel room anyway,” said Bad Cop Gate Agent. “Storm of the decade, they’re saying.”
Gia puffed up her chest and opened her mouth. Bennett cringed. What did she think? That they could wave a magic wand and, like Harry Potter, repel the foot of snow that was set to be dumped down on them?
He would just leave her to her little tantrum, then. He could only fake this nice-guy shit for so long.
But before he turned away, something interesting happened. Something subtle that probably no one else noticed. Gia’s body, which had clearly been ramping up to escalate her fight, just sort of . . . deflated. Her chest sagged as her spine rounded, and her chin came to her chest. He didn’t miss her eyes on the way down. They were filling with tears.
When someone needs help, you help. That’s what separates men from monsters.
Chef Lalande’s refrain echoed through Bennett’s brain. His mentor’s mantra was a giant pain in the ass most of the time, but it was the philosophy that had saved Bennett and that Bennett had embraced. Pay it forward and all that.
It wasn’t a philosophy that could be invoked selectively—that was the pain-in-the-ass part. When you changed the kind of person you were, you had to be all in.
“Hey, hey, Gia. It’s going to be okay. I promise.” He moved toward her, compelled to touch her for some insane reason, but he checked the impulse.
“How can you promise that?” The belligerent tone from before was gone, replaced by resignation. “Can you make this plane go?”
“Look.” He pulled a small velvet pouch from his pocket. “I have the rings.” He wasn’t sure what his point was other than that he was on the hook for getting there as much as she was.
Whatever point he was making she ignored anyway.
“Can you divert this storm?” She started walking.
He followed. “It can’t snow for a week. Worst thing that happens is we miss a few days of lying on the beach.” Which was a goddamn tragedy—he shivered thinking about heading back out into the winter—but it was what it was.
She started walking faster. She was almost as tall as he was, yet he had to hoof it to keep up with her.
“Can you make a hotel room magically appear in an overbooked New York City?” she snapped as she pulled out her phone. The pissiness from before was creeping back into her voice.
“No,” he said sharply, suddenly done with her—he tried, but even on his best days, he was half the man Chef Lalande was. He wasn’t responsible for this woman. “I can do none
of those things.” He stopped walking.
It took a few seconds before she realized he wasn’t with her anymore. She stopped and turned. Looked back at him.
Then she did that deflating thing again. She reminded him of a pizza oven. You opened it and a blast of heat escaped and the temperature inside dropped by several hundred degrees.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t even know why I’m being like this. I’m just so . . . ”
Mean? his mind supplied. Arrogant?
“ . . . hungry.”
He barked a surprised laugh. “Well, ma’am, that I can fix.”
Gia wasn’t really sure why she was letting this man she’d never met before shepherd her out of the airport. Sure, he was Noah’s best friend and former neighbor—Wendy had told her they’d be on the same flight—so he probably wasn’t going to ax-murder her, but was she really going to just let him take her home without even throwing up a pro forma protest?
It was just that she was so tired. God, it felt as if she’d been working for months nonstop. Of course, her last job had only lasted three days, but it had been miserable. It was an editorial shoot, a feature on summer dresses—for Vogue, which was great, because those kinds of jobs were
becoming fewer and further between. But damn, it had been a punishing gig. Long days—they were always long, but these had bordered on abusive—and the dress they’d wanted her in was too tight on her ass and she’d had to swap with Lily Alexander, the modeling world’s seventeen-year-old wunderkind. Which had thrown a huge wrench into the proceedings because it had been one of those stupid “dress for your age” features that showed a woman in every decade. So Gia, who’d been cast as the “thirties” model, had to swap with Lily, which meant the “twenties” dress ended up being tea length and the “thirties” dress ended up being strapless, God forbid.
Throw in an extra-bitchy art director and an extra-dickish photographer, and you had a perfect storm of toxicity.
But when you were twenty-nine years old and your job was to be a human coat hanger, you didn’t complain. Not when there were any number of younger, skinnier human coat hangers—witness Lily Alexander and her small-enough ass—nipping at your heels. Many of them would take the laxatives offered by bitchy art directors and the sexual harassment dished out by dickish photographers, too.
Gia had gone right from that horrible job back to her hotel to retrieve Wendy’s wedding dress, which the hotel had been storing for her, and then on to the airport. If only she’d been smart enough to hold on to the room for one more night, just in case.
But she hadn’t been smart enough. So here she was. Instead of on a plane bound to join her best friends at the wedding site, she was on a shuttle to the Newark Airport train station—there were no taxis to be had—with the best man.
She was so hungry.
The other thing she should have been smart enough to do was grab something to eat on their way out of the airport. She could let up on herself a little bit. The job was over, and she’d booked a month off after the wedding. Though maybe she shouldn’t have. It wasn’t as if it were raining
high-quality jobs these days. Regardless, she needed this little problem of hers to stay little. To not become a thing.
While they waited on the platform for a city-bound train, she called last night’s hotel and pleaded her case up to and including the grossest kind of name-dropping, but they were resolute about being full. Several more places said the same thing.
She had options. She could call her agent. He would figure something out. Or she could call any number of models—or bitchy art directors, or dickish photographers—she knew who lived in the city and find somewhere to bunk for the night. But the logistics of it suddenly seemed so incredibly, bone-crushingly daunting.
So instead she was apparently going home with Mr. Mint Juleps and Moonshine here, at least for now.
Bennett Buchanan, though? Seriously? Who named their kid that? Gia was Canadian, so admittedly, her impression of southern American culture was based on Duck Dynasty and the William Faulkner novels she’d read in her one year as a literature major, but this dude, with his drawl and his falsely pretty manners, sounded like he belonged in a rom-com romancing Reese Witherspoon.
He kind of looked like it, too.
He had a ridiculous smile, to begin with. Smug, slightly arrogant, and studded with perfectly straight, sparkly white teeth, it was the kind of smile people in her industry paid big money for. He had short black hair, too, and deep-blue eyes that looked at everything, including her, several seconds longer than seemed necessary.
And the drawl.
Oh, the drawl.
But the world was full of good-looking guys with charm to spare. And Gia had seen a lot of the world, so she could make herself immune to any man, even one whose voice sounded like slightly scratchy honey. Which wasn’t a thing, but whatever.
So, deflector shields engaged, she would go home with Bennett Buchanan long enough to get her bearings and make a plan. She would eat something, because half her problem right now was blood sugar.
She would not sleep with him.
“Put this on.” He shrugged out of his parka and placed it over her shoulders—she had not been prepared for the storm. Then he produced a baggie. It was full of pecans. He opened it and held it out to her.
Her mouth didn’t just water; it did this weird gushing faucet thing. She actually had to sort of suck up a big pool of spit so as not to drool on the floor.
She bit into one, and flavor exploded on her tongue. It was unexpectedly spicy. But after the burn, underneath it, there was something else. A deep, caramelized, smoky sweetness that felt like a reward.
He shook the baggie to indicate that she should take some more.
All right, who was she kidding? She probably would sleep with him. If they were going to be snowed in, what else were they going to do?
“Did you make these?” The baggie, and the absence of an artisanal tin from some SoHo gourmet shop, suggested the answer was yes.
That was. . . interesting. Reese Witherspoon’s southern rom-com boyfriends usually had monogrammed hankies in their pockets, not pecans.
By the time they reached Penn Station, where they changed to the subway, she’d eaten the whole baggie. Sixty-seven pecans to be precise—she’d counted. A plain pecan contained ten calories, and who knew what was in the magical elixir he’d coated them in.
She refused to think about it. She had some breathing room. She was on vacation. And she felt better for having eaten.
Because that was how food worked. Your body needed fuel, and food was that fuel.
She almost fell asleep on the subway, lulled by the infusion of calories and the rumbling of the train.
“Next stop is us,” Bennett said, seemingly minutes but actually almost an hour later.
She shook her head to rouse herself as he hoisted his duffel bag onto his shoulder and reached for the handle of her suitcase.
He hadn’t meant anything by it. In fact, what he had meant was me. Next stop is me.
What must it be like to have a house—or an apartment, or whatever? When Gia was working, she lived out of hotels. When she wasn’t, she went back to her parents’ place or stayed with her friends in Toronto. But that was a far cry from having an apartment you came back to so frequently and repeatedly that the nearest subway stop was “yours.”
They emerged on 181st Street, and holy crap it was snowing.
It hadn’t started yet when they’d left Newark under a white sky—which was why she’d been so annoyed at the airline. Why cancel a flight when there wasn’t a speck of snow on the ground?
As they’d trained in, though, it had started—big, fat flakes falling leisurely against the windows, so pretty that Gia had half wished she could open the window and stick out her tongue to catch them, let the cold, metallic taste of them merge with the spicy sweetness of the pecans. And, judging by how much was accumulated on the sidewalk, it must have really started coming down in earnest while they’d been underground on the long subway ride to Bennett’s.
Gia loved snow. When she was a kid, snow had meant escape. She’d bundle up and go outside, which was one place her mother, ever concerned about ruining her makeup, wouldn’t follow. And when Gia was bundled up, she was just one of the kids. What she looked like didn’t matter—in their small Ontario town, they all wore the same face-concealing uniform of hat and scarf.
So snow lifted her spirits, usually. And this was pretty snow. Clean, insistent, country-like snow. Snow that wasn’t messing around.
She probably would have started twirling like Maria von Trapp: Maria Takes Manhattan Edition if she hadn’t been so worried about getting Wendy’s dress to Florida.
And, you know, if she hadn’t been trailing along behind good ol’ boy Bennett Buchanan.
“Damn, that took forever.” He stopped in front of a restaurant. “You must be starving.”
“I’m sorry I ate all your pecans.”
“Plenty more where they came from.”
She glanced up at an awning bowing under the weight of half a foot of snow. They were at a restaurant called Boudin.
“We don’t have to eat out,” she said. “We can just go to your place.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted them. She’d only meant that she didn’t need a fancy restaurant meal—she’d be perfectly happy to hit a bodega and hunker down at his place while she called around to figure out where she was going to stay tonight.
Or, you know, decided whether she was going to sleep with him.
Honestly, it was the path of least resistance, and that was usually how it went. Some dude would make advances, and if she had the itch, she would assess suitability. If the guy in question was being too over the top about her beauty, or about the fact that she was a model, she might deflect, but sometimes not, because really, beauty was what she had going for her, and there was no point in pretending otherwise. She had learned her lesson on that front. What do they say? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Gia wasn’t the kind of person who needed to be fooled twice.
But she didn’t want to make it sound like she was entertaining the notion of sleeping with him, so Forget the restaurant; let’s go to your place probably hadn’t been the smartest thing to say.
He didn’t seem to take it the wrong way, though, just held the door open for her and said, “This is my place.”
“Oh. You live here?” She craned her neck—there did appear to be apartments above the retail level.
“Nope, but if you want food, we’re better off here than at my apartment. I think I have tea and mustard in my fridge there, and that’s pretty much it.” When she didn’t answer—she was confused—he said, “Come on. We’re letting the snow in.”
She obeyed, and was hit with a wall of the most wonderful smell. It was some kind of garlicky roasting meat, maybe, mixed with . . . something kind of herby and green?
A hostess approached. “Welcome to— Chef! I thought you were in Florida!”
Ah, everything suddenly made sense. His claim that this was “his place.” The incredible pecans.
“Flight was canceled.” He shoved his bag and Gia’s suitcase to one side of the vestibule. “Can you get one of the guys to take this stuff downstairs?” He took the garment bag Gia had been carrying and handed it to the hostess. “And make sure they hang this up?”
Bennett scanned the room, his eyes moving back and forth like he was reading something that required his utmost concentration. Gia followed his gaze. The place was narrow and deep—home to maybe twenty tables along a banquette that ran along one side of the place as well as a bar. It was dark and cozy, lit only by candles. And that smell. Oh, God, that smell. Gia wanted to bottle it so she could spritz it around at will.
“What the hell is Eddie doing behind the bar?” Bennett called after the retreating hostess.
“Blanca called in sick.” She shot him an anxious look over her shoulder.
“Blanca called in snow, you mean.” His pacifying tone from the airport was gone, replaced by something rigid and sharp and unforgiving. The hostess grimaced, and he waved her on.
“Come on.” He gestured for Gia to follow him into the restaurant’s dim interior. At the bar he pulled out a stool for her. Then, eyeing her handbag, he pulled out another one. “I think that bag is going to need its own stool.”
She shrugged. “I like big bags and I cannot lie.”
The corners of his mouth turned up. She was proud to have made him smile. Which was strange. Usually it was the guy making lame jokes at her.
“Chef?” said the man behind the bar, presumably Eddie. “Oh, thank God. Everyone keeps asking me how oaky the chardonnay is and shit. The only reason I haven’t totally ruined your rep is that it’s pay-what-you-can night, so the bar is lower.”
“The bar is not lower on pay-what-you-can night,” Bennett said sharply, and there was so much barely tethered ire in his voice that Gia winced on the bartender’s behalf.
“Right. Sorry, Chef.”
Bennett walked behind the bar and rolled up his sleeves. “I imagine they’re behind back there without you?”
Bennett sighed and hitched his head toward the rear of the restaurant, which was all the urging Eddie needed to hightail it back to the kitchen.
Then he turned to Gia. “What are you drinking?”
“This is your restaurant,” she said, stating the obvious, because standing behind the bar with a sense of ease that couldn’t be faked, he looked like the king of the castle.
“Yep.” He must have decided he wasn’t going to wait for her drink order, because he reached for a bottle of wine from a rack above the bar and set to work uncorking it.
“I need those juleps, Eddie.” A frazzled-looking server set a piece of paper down on the bar, not realizing Eddie wasn’t bartending anymore. “And two glasses of sauv blanc.”
“You got it.” Bennett set a wineglass in front of Gia and poured a generous amount of ruby liquid into it.
The server looked up, startled. “Chef?”
“Hey, Tosha. We’re a bit behind here, but I’m gonna get us caught up.”
“You’d think we’d be dead in this weather,” Tosha said.
“Nah. Not on pay-what-you-can night. Do me a favor and put in an order of the boudin—straight up and balls—for me, will you? Tell them to rush it. I’ll have your juleps up by the time you’re back.”
“Pay-what-you-can night?” Gia asked as he produced a bowl of the magical pecans and slid them across to her. “What does that mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. You order, we feed you, you pay what you’re able to. If you can’t pay, that’s okay—you can still eat.”
He set a bunch of other stuff in front of her, too: a cutting board, a bowl of limes, and a small knife. “Some people—like you—pay in labor.” He took one of the limes and demonstrated what he wanted her to do—cut it into sixths but cut off the pointy ends first, and then spear a cocktail skewer through each of the resulting wedges. His hand moved fast, producing six perfectly shaped wedges in a matter of seconds.
She opened her mouth, but then she closed it when she realized she had no idea what she meant to say. Her impulse had been to object, but why? The place was clearly slammed. And if the rest of whatever he was planning to feed her was as good as those damned pecans, she’d gladly work for her supper. This was certainly more interesting than the usual “You’re so gorgeous; I can’t believe I’m out with an actual model” date.
Not that this was a date.
She took a drink of her wine. She wasn’t a connoisseur, but as with the pecans, there was a layered complexity to the wine that was both startling and delightful. It started out tasting like berries but deepened into something darker, almost smoky. It was an unexpected juxtaposition. It was also utterly delicious.
Well, hell. She took another drink—tried not to make it too obvious a gulp—and picked up a lime.
They worked in silence for a few minutes, Gia chopping, Bennett . . . dancing. It was really the only word for it. He moved quickly but with laser-like precision, every reach, pivot, and pour perfectly calibrated to achieve his aim with both economy and grace, his concentration unshakable. He was utterly in control of himself and his surroundings.
When she finished with the limes, she pushed the cutting board forward slightly—not more than an inch or two. But he noticed and wordlessly replaced the limes with a bowl of lemons with one hand while he garnished a margarita with the other.
She paused for a moment, part of her still feeling like she should be objecting to being put to work like this, but when she cast around for a reason, she couldn’t come up with anything, so she picked up the knife again. She was probably still on the defensive from the shoot, where she’d had to accommodate all manner of unreasonable requests, from “Can you try to stop shivering, because your nipples are showing” to “Can you stand on one foot while we do this next section of shots because your one leg looks weird like that and it will be better if it’s not in the shot.”
Bennett was already back to his work anyway, so the window for her to object had closed. He’d made an astonishing number of drinks in the ten minutes they’d been here. Currently he was methodically dividing a bunch of mint he’d muddled among four glasses.
This would be perfect for today’s picture. On the train she’d thought idly about taking a picture of the snow later, but suddenly she wanted to capture the image of his calm, masculine grace at the center of all the kinetic energy of the restaurant.
She dug in her bag for her camera, looked through the viewfinder, overrode the flash so he would be lit only by the candlelight, and took her time waiting for the perfect shot. She would only have one chance, because that was how her system worked but also . . .
“Did you just take a picture of me?” He turned to her, his brow knit in bewilderment.
. . . because you couldn’t be stealthy with a Polaroid camera. Especially this old-school one—it sounded like an old man wheezing when it took a picture.
“Yep.” She stuck the camera back in her purse and set the photo on the bar.
His bewilderment turned to amusement as he bent over the photo, which was doing its wonky slow-mo developing thing. “Why?”
Usually people commented on the Polaroid aspect of things, the retro novelty of an instant camera.
“I do this thing where I take one photo a day.”
“And what do you do with the pictures?”
She dug around in her bag and extracted a Sharpie. Careful not to touch the still-developing image, she wrote the date on the white bottom part. “I do this, and then I stick it in my bag. I keep meaning to get organized and get a scrapbook or something, but I’m not very crafty.” She chuckled, thinking back to her friend Elise’s wedding. Maybe she should get the Queen of Pinterest on the case.
Bennett was back to work, pouring shots of whiskey into the mint- and ice-filled glasses. “So is your bag one of those bottomless Mary Poppins–style ones?”
Her bag was legendarily large, and there were a lot of photos rattling around in there, but her Polaroid habit was pretty new. She’d stolen the camera from a job about three months ago. It had been another unpleasant shoot. The photographer had been going for a retro look, so in addition to the regular setup, he’d been shooting “candids” with the Polaroid. But when “candids” turned out to also mean creeping on the girls while they were changing, he’d suddenly discovered his camera had gone missing.
The server called Tosha reappeared at the bar, and as if on cue, Bennett garnished the last of the mint juleps he was making for her and set it on a tray with the wine she’d ordered.
“How are they doing in the kitchen?” he asked.
She just rolled her eyes, said, “Pay-what-you-can night,” hoisted the tray of drinks, and took off.
“So,” Gia said, “how often do you do pay-what-you can night?”
“First and third Sundays.” Bennett wiped his hands on a towel and leaned over the bar to look at the still developing photo.
She turned to take in the full room. “So all these people can order whatever they want and pay you literally nothing.”
“Sounds like an excellent business plan,” she teased.
He was still hunched over looking at the picture. “It’s not business. It’s charity.”
Huh. Of course it was charity, but honestly, she’d expected him to have some other angle. Everyone had an angle in this city—or at least in her slice of it.
“But not of the bullshit, society-pages variety,” he added, his lip curling up in a sneer. “Not that kind of charity.”
“What kind, then?”
He looked up suddenly and met her gaze. His stillness, after he’d been in motion for so long, was jarring. His attention was jarring.
The candles on the bar bathed his face in warm light. He looked like he belonged in a painting. “‘If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?’ That kind.”
Was he . . . quoting the Bible at her?
Bennett craned his neck toward the kitchen. “Where the fuck is the boudin I ordered?”
Yeah, there was no “probably” about it anymore. She was definitely going to sleep with him.
Bennett shouldn’t have come back. He should have just taken Gia to the Mexican place two doors down. It was better that he not know what a shit show his place became in his absence, despite the fact that they’d gone over and over how everything was going to operate while he was out of town.
And the way everyone kept saying, Oh, well, it’s just pay-what-you-can night.
Fuck that shit.
Someday Boudin would be a full-time pay-what-you-can restaurant—a place where anyone could come for a meal, regardless of their ability to pay. A community restaurant. He had to believe that. He forced himself to keep the faith even when it seemed like no matter how much money he managed to save, it would never be enough to make it happen. It was what he’d been working for all these years. Why he was living in one room. Why, Noah’s wedding aside, he never went on vacation.
But until then, he was doing this high-low thing, where he hosted fancy people most of the time and opened the doors to everyone a couple of times a month. The juxtaposition made for some snobbish remarks, even from his own staff, which made him irate.
When he’d caught up on the drink orders, he burst through the doors to the kitchen and shouted, “I ordered boudin, y’all. Where is it?”
“Shit—that was for you?” said Izzy, the kitchen’s expediter, whose job was to stage-manage the employees during rushes.
“Yes. And I also want a large house salad.”
Without waiting for a response—he tried not to be as much of a dick as most chefs, but he knew how to keep a kitchen in line—he picked up a couple of plates that were ready to go and headed back out.
He pasted on his game face. Years of practice had enabled him to tamp all his shit down and present a calm, welcoming face to customers.
“Gumbo.” He set the first dish down in front of a man who didn’t meet his eyes. “And the snapper.” The man’s companion was a thin woman with deep lines around her mouth and eyes.
“Thank you,” she said, the two words infused with more feeling than the usual throwaway expression of gratitude. When he let go of the plate and started to retract his arm, she laid her hand on his forearm and said it again. “Thank you.”
He knew how she felt. He knew that when you were hungry and someone did you a solid, it felt important to thank them.
He also knew his response should be casual, that he shouldn’t call attention to the charitable aspect of the evening. “You’re most welcome. I hope you enjoy.”
He noticed that neither diner had a coat warm enough for a regular February day in New York, much less this particularly nasty one.
You know who else hadn’t dressed for the weather?
Not to mention seemed like she hadn’t had a decent meal in a week, given the way she’d demolished his pecans?
He turned, taking a moment to study the model at his bar.
The difference between Gia and his customers this evening, though, was that her situation was entirely self-inflicted.
Which was not something he had a lot of sympathy for.
But Lalande would have fed her just the same, so Bennett would, too.
He and Tosha walked up to the bar at the same time. Bennett hitched his head toward Gia, and Tosha set down the plate of food in front of her. Bennett went back behind the bar to refill Gia’s wineglass and to pour himself a glass of tea.
“I can’t possibly eat this all,” Gia protested.
“You don’t have to.” He produced a side plate from behind the bar. “I’m going to help you.”
He was starving. He stabbed a ball and took a bite. There it was. Things might be a little unbalanced in terms of the service this evening, but the food was absolutely up to snuff. His shoulders relaxed a little.
“Meatballs?” Gia peered at the plate like it was rotting roadkill. “And. . . ” She furrowed her brow. “Some kind of pâté?”
“Kind of. It’s all boudin, which is a traditional Louisiana sausage.”
“Same as the name of the restaurant.”
“Yep. We serve a few different kinds. It’s all based on a pork-and-rice filling.” He pointed to what she’d thought was pâté. “This is boudin blanc. Loose sausage—no casing—which is how it’s traditionally eaten.” He picked up a piece of baguette. “You spread it on bread. Maybe add a little mustard if you’re into that. Which you should be because we make our own, and it’s pretty amazing if I do say so myself.”
“And these?” She pointed to his most popular menu item.
“Boudin balls. Deep-fried sausage balls, basically.” He picked one up and broke it in half to show her the darkly hued interior. “Made from our boudin noir.”
“You dye them?”
He barked a laugh. He would personally murder anyone he caught with food dye in his kitchen. “Nope, the red is from pig’s blood.”
He eyed her. Was she going to be the kind of person who would happily eat one part of an animal but blanch at eating another?
Yes, yes she was, judging by how quickly the fork that had been on its way to her mouth reversed direction.
“Deep fried isn’t really my thing.” She pulled the fork out of the meatball and made a fake apologetic face. “Kind of a job hazard.”
He tried not to sneer as he turned to fill a new drink order, but damn, he had no time for people who were afraid of real food. “I ordered you a salad, too,” he said, forcing his tone to be neutral. “It should be here soon.”
“It’s here now.” Ruben, Bennett’s sous-chef, came up behind Gia and set down the restaurant’s house salad, which was Bibb lettuce, roasted beets, shaved fennel, and some of the pecans Gia had hoovered earlier, with a creamy tarragon dressing served on the side.
Ruben wasn’t wearing his whites, and he stepped behind the bar. “Everything’s under control back there now. Let me do the bar, and you can enjoy your evening.”
Bennett didn’t argue. Ruben had been with Bennett for years—he’d come up from New Orleans after Bennett opened Boudin—and was a trusted deputy. He wouldn’t jeopardize the evening’s service by bailing on the kitchen if he was needed there.
“Thanks.” He came around to sit next to Gia. “Ruben, this is Gia, one of the bridesmaids in Noah’s wedding. Our flight was canceled.”
“Oh, shit!” Gia said, cutting off Ruben’s attempt to greet her. “We should be on the phone trying to rebook!”
She whipped out her phone, and Bennett saw Ruben stiffen. Ruben knew how Bennett felt about phones in his restaurant. All his staff did. He made them go stand out back when they wanted to use theirs.
“I’m not picking up a cell signal,” Gia said. “Must be the storm. What’s your Wi-Fi password?” She didn’t look up as she asked, so she didn’t see Ruben grimace.
“No Wi-Fi,” Bennett said mildly.
She did look up then, her face composing itself into an expression that would have been a more appropriate response to his confessing he murdered puppies in the kitchen. If he’d entertained the notion that someone who carried around a Polaroid camera might be refreshingly low-tech in other ways, that look of hers crushed it. “You don’t have Wi-Fi here?”
“Nope.” Bennett speared a bite of her salad and swallowed it along with his anti-Wi-Fi rant. It would only fall on deaf ears. Cute ears, he noticed, as Gia tucked her hair behind one of them—it was small and perfectly shaped and sported a tiny ladybug earring that was completely incongruent with her prickly personality.
Ruben moved aside and pointed behind him to a sign that said, “Wi-Fi Password: Eff off and talk to each other.” Everyone always thought it was tongue-in-cheek, but Bennett was dead serious about it.
“Wow.” She blinked several times. “Wow.”
He took pity on her and got out his own phone, but he had no service, either. “I have a landline at my apartment. Finish your dinner, and we can call when we get home.”
She looked for a moment like she was going to argue some more, but then she stabbed a beet and popped it into her mouth.
“Oh my God.” She blinked rapidly. “This is a beet? I’ve never tasted anything this delicious. What did you do to it? Give it a hand job?”
Ruben burst out laughing.
“They’re lightly smoked, then roasted.” Bennett tried not to smile, but damn, Gia was funny. “Glazed with a little raw macadamia oil.” At least she had good taste in root vegetables.
“Try the dressing,” Ruben said, because in Bennett’s restaurant, even a lowly salad dressing was given the star treatment. But what did you want to bet Miss No Blood in My Sausage wasn’t into fatty, creamy dressings with her beets?
Gia speared another beet and barely dipped one end of it into the dressing. It emerged with the tiniest speck of dressing on it, and she ate it. It would be enough, though. As if on cue, her eyes widened. “Oh my God. That is good.”
She redipped the beet—more generously this time—but then said, “Oh, sorry. If we’re sharing, I shouldn’t be double-dipping.”
Bennett made a “go right ahead” gesture. “We take double-dipping as a compliment around here.” They ate in silence for a minute, until he remembered the photo, which was on the other side of her. “Hey, can I see that picture? Is it done developing?”
She slid it over to him. He was at the center of the image, in profile. The focus on everything else was soft. The candle flames at the edges looked like small, fuzzy, yellow suns. It was hard to say why, but the picture evoked energy and activity.
He liked seeing himself this way, at the center of this place he had built. Inhabiting this life he had made out of nothing.
He wanted to ask if he could keep the photo, but that would be weird. Anyway, she’d already labeled it. It was destined for her bag.
“So you gonna make it to this wedding?” Ruben asked, drawing him from his thoughts.
“We have to,” Bennett said. “I’ve got the rings.”
“Eh,” Gia said dismissively. “They can buy cheap stand-ins for the ceremony. I have the dress.”
“And they can’t buy a cheap stand-in for that?”
“No, because the whole point of a wedding dress is that you wear it at your wedding. That’s its one and only function. The rings you wear forever.”
Bennett opened his mouth to argue, but actually, she was right.
“Besides,” she said, “the dress belonged to Wendy’s mother. Wendy’s parents are both dead. And Wendy is . . . well, she’s one of those people who really had to work for her happily ever after, you know what I mean?”
“If she’s anything like Noah on that front, I do know.”
“You’ve met her, right?”
“Yeah—a couple times. Noah was a regular here before he hit the road with Wendy, and we lived in the same building, too.” Bennett missed Noah. He hadn’t really realized how much he’d relied on him until he was gone. They had a similar outlook on life, because they’d both had to work hard to get where they were. Neither of them took things— or people—for granted.
“Actually,” Bennett went on, “the first time I met Wendy, she was sitting right where you are.” He chuckled, thinking back to the night Noah first brought Wendy in. Anyone with eyeballs could see that they were perfect for each other, but Gia was right about their happily-ever-after being hard won. It had certainly taken them long enough to catch on to how well suited they were. He looked down at the untouched sausage plate. “She ate an entire order of the boudin balls, in fact.”
“Aren’t Chef’s balls amazing?” said Ruben, who had been following their conversation. But then, belatedly, he grimaced as he realized he’d phrased the question awkwardly.
But it was too late. Gia did not miss a beat before calmly informing him, “Actually, I haven’t tasted Chef’s balls.” Then she paused ever so slightly before adding, “Yet.”
Bennett laughed even as a flare of heat traveled through his body. “Well, you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted my balls. They’re legendary. They get rave reviews.”
He thought it would stop there—that was probably about enough suggestiveness, given that he and Gia didn’t really know each other—but she looked right at him and said, “I bet they do. Engorged with all that blood.”
Damn. Was she . . . propositioning him? He would think so, except for the fact that she’d spent the previous several hours of their acquaintance acting like she was barely tolerating him.
He had to admit, she was tempting. Despite her appalling lack of taste—she hadn’t even tried any of the sausage. And her appalling manners—he thought back to her behavior at the airport.
She was just so goddamn pretty. Pretty and picky and entitled.
It was more than pretty, though. Beauty was ultimately superficial. There was something else about Gia that pulled him in, something hard to put into words. It was like there was a mystery simmering under the surface, a restlessness—like she was floating above the world rather than actively participating in it. He wanted to know why. Even her deadpan humor, as funny as it was, seemed a way for her to keep the world at arm’s length.
It would have to remain a mystery, though, even if she was hitting on him. Bennett didn’t do casual. Not anymore.
But Jesus Christ, when she picked up a boudin ball—with her fingers, not her fork—and slowly brought it to her mouth, her eyes on him the whole time?
He kind of wished he did do casual.
She licked her lips before the ball made it to her mouth. He expected her to take a bite. His balls were pretty big—ha. But no. She opened her mouth wide and carefully placed the whole thing on her tongue.
And gasped as her eyes widened.
“Oh my God,” she said, the phrase barely recognizable through the mouthful. “Oh my God.”