Authors: JT Schultz
“I know right—who knew I’d rock khaki shorts with a button down blouse for a guy?” She whimpered and stared at the array of vegetables. “I have 300 salad recipes from casual to high end cuisine and I’m standing here stressing out over a salad to go with steak? What if I make something he doesn’t like?”
“We should change the subject,” Kayla encouraged.
Toni released an exasperated sigh. “You wanted me to talk. I’m talking. My husband-to-be is hotter than Hell—in summer!”
She was losing her mind and her calm. Time to focus. This was a prison sentence, not a judicial dating site. She was screwed and considering the circumstances—not literally.
“I never thought I’d actually be attracted to him—now I’m terrified he has allergies and I’ll send him into anaphylactic shock and kill him—and because Judge Masters is as much of an ass as our fathers, he might actually nail me on murder one.”
Kayla covered her mouth and shook her head. “Toni! Shut up!
—no more talking.”
“I maybe could, but I don’t even know if he likes pecans or almonds—or has an allergy to nuts in general.” She whimpered and remembered the sparkle in his blue eyes when they stood in his office. “I’m so afraid of falling for him.”
Kayla shook her hands out in front of her. “Shut-up, pretend you’re mute.”
Toni didn’t understand Kayla’s behavior. “For Christ sake, is he standing behind me or something?”
Kayla closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands. This was bad. She’d always wondered what the seventh layer of hell felt like—something told her—she was about to find out.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m home.”
She knew the sexy baritone better than her own heartbeat, the one that currently beat rapidly out of control. “Oh! Hell, no!”
Kayla peered over her fingertips. “Most definitely.”
A strange whimpering sound filled the room and it took about thirty seconds too to realize the sound had come from her. “Love a duck!”
Richard rounded the island across from where she stood. “Considering the circumstances, I’m letting that one go.”
“Good idea or I’ll be late to your family dinner due to quality time with father Giordano.”
She darted a quick look to Andrew who grinned and shook his head. “I let him in since I knew you and Kayla were busy.”
“Oh,” Toni smiled and focused her attention on Richard. “Well, welcome.” Her stomach fluttered with butterflies.
“Uhhh, Kayla.” Andrew hesitated. “I packed those boxes in the SUV. You should look. You’re the better packer than me…maybe we can get more stuff in.”
“Sounds great! I can offer suggestions,” her best friend in the world exclaimed and practically ran out of the kitchen.
“Ah, bless the rats,” Toni mumbled. She was now officially alone with Richard.
“Let me guess, the rollercoaster you’re on is called
Toni met Richard’s sapphire gaze. “Would I be horrific if I said yes?”
“Definitely human and blatantly honest.” Richard studied the beauty before him. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head indicating she wasn’t.
He wrapped his hands around her bare wrists gently. “I don’t have allergies. None food related.” He already felt heat transferring between them and cascading over his flesh. He glanced at the two bags of nuts sitting on the counter of the island. “Are those salted or candied pecans?”
Toni met his gaze. “I am serving the salad with raspberry vinaigrette, so candied of course—unless you don’t like raspberry vinaigrette.”
“I do actually, but use the almonds on the salad.” He flashed the beauty before him a grin and swiped the bag of pecans, reluctantly letting her go. “Because God knows I’m having them with my beer. Andrew said it was in the fridge?” He opened the bag and reached in for some of the pecans.
She smiled and nodded. “Top shelf. Other than Andrew, you’re the only beer drinker I now officially know.”
“I drink scotch and bourbon too.”
“I’ll make a mental note. It’s so weird that we are being forced into this and we don’t know anything about each other.” She started cutting vegetables again and Richard had to admit she was right.
He stepped over to the fridge. Richard withdrew a beer and glanced at her. Her hair was in a clip and off her face, giving him a great view of her pretty features and long lashes. Relief washed over him. They were actually getting along. However, hearing her blatant admission of her attraction to him had kicked his libido completely out of whack. “I wish we’d met under different circumstances.”
“Me too.” The defeat in her voice wasn’t hard to miss. He shut the fridge door and stepped over to the island where Toni worked. Richard studied the woman who had captivated him in mere days. “Can I tell you a secret?”
She lifted her gaze and nodded. “Sure.”
He couldn’t control his smile. “I’m attracted to you too.”
The smile she offered—he knew it was just for him and it stole his breath. “I think we’re going to be okay. As far as the mutual attraction. We both know we can’t give into it.”
“Not if we want an annulment,” she offered, confirming they were still on the same wavelength. “We’re both smart—most of the time—professionals. This should be easy, now that we’re getting along, right?”
Or make things twice as difficult.
She debated and a thoughtful expression covered her pretty face. ”Please don’t tell me we have to associate with Hank too much.”
“He holds the same position as me.”
Sadness filled her dark gaze. “I see.”
No. This feels completely wrong.
She opened a drawer, pulled out a bottle opener and passed it to him.
She nodded and resumed cutting.
He sipped from his beer and remembered the incident in the office and how Hank had reacted to her. “You don’t like him?”
She sighed and a gamut of emotions crossed her face. “No.”
He digested this and studied her. “Why?” For some reason her answer mattered.
She glanced down at the cutting board as he reached into the bag of candied pecans. Toni thought a moment and then looked up into his eyes. “He weirds me out. I also know he’s a partner and, as soon as we return from our wedding, I’m starting work on your office. I have no choice; I’ll have to see him every day.”
Richard took her words to heart. Something deep inside startled him. He’d known Hank almost half his life—yet—one introduction and Toni didn’t like him. He also knew, from their earlier encounter, that Hank made her uncomfortable. “I’m sorry.”
Toni shook her head. “Don’t be, I’ll be fine.”
Before him stood a beautiful woman who he’d overheard tell her best friend she was more than a little attracted to him. She didn’t know Hank any more than she knew the man in the moon. Yet, she didn’t like him. “Toni, if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable at the office please let me know.”
“I will.” She flashed a grin. “So, are you going to fill up on candied pecans or should I put the steaks on?”
Sassy, smart, beautiful and she could cook. Richard was screwed—unfortunately, that wouldn’t be literally.
Sunday afternoon Toni remained seated in the car until Richard walked around and got the door for her. He then offered her a hand, which she accepted as she stepped out onto the drive of his parent’s overly expansive home. She slid her hands down the front of her dress and sighed. Her stomach fluttered with nerves and she knew this would get easier. Usually she was quite outgoing, but today she felt nervous for some strange reason.
“Relax,” he whispered. “It’s only Sunday dinner and our two families.” His gaze wandered over her and the corners of his mouth turned up. “You look beautiful.”
Toni’s heart picked up speed a bit and she met Richard’s dark blue gaze. “Thank you.” She glanced around at the number of cars parked on the street and turned back to him. “Someone’s having a party apparently.”
“Thank God, it’s not my parents.”
She glanced at her parent’s vehicle and the two others on the driveway. “Who do those belong to—I mean that one is dads, but the other two?”
“My brother Erik and my sister Piper’s,” he answered and placed a hand at the small of her back. Every time Richard touched her, heat caressed her skin. Like the other day in the office, when his associate Hank got in her face, the simple gesture of his hand at her lower back soothed her.
“I really hope tonight isn’t as disastrous as it was the other night at Kayla and Andrew’s.” Her stomach knotted at the recollection and she had avoided both her parents like the plague since.
“I’m sure it’ll go better.” Richard guided her up to the front door then turned toward her. “It will be a lot easier considering you and I have stopped arguing and are starting to get to know each other.” He flashed her a reassuring smile. “Just watch out for my brother.”
Her brows furrowed. “Why?”
Richard laughed and leaned over to ring the bell. “Because I guarantee he will hit on you.”
“But I’m going to be your wife.” She blinked in disbelief.
He again flashed a killer smile and her heart beat a little faster. “He’s harmless but a wicked flirt and your amazing legs and killer body will make him relentless for a good hour or so.”
“Reassuring, I think my nervousness just escalated.”
His warm chuckle tickled down her spine. “It’ll be fine, just relax. Like I said, he’s harmless.”
The front door opened and his mother beamed. “Finally, you made it.” She pulled the door open wider. “Come in.” She turned to Toni and smiled. “Stunning, truly. Love the dress.”
“Thank you.” She stepped into the grand foyer and noticed the dual staircase and the large round table with the flower arrangement. She was grateful Richard stayed close to her or instinct would have her rearranging the flowers and baby’s breath just to calm herself down.
“Richard! Toni!” her mother greeted as she hurried toward them from somewhere deep in the house. “My beautiful daughter and my gorgeous soon to be son-in-law.”
“Mom.” She greeted, rather suspiciously.
“Come now, everyone’s waiting.” Mona purred and linked her arm through Toni’s and led her in the direction her mother had appeared from.
“Everyone?” She asked and glanced at Richard, who had her mother at his side.
He cast a skeptical expression and shrugged. “You mean the families.”
His mother laughed. “Not exactly, remember what I said about you making this believable or kiss the company good-bye?”
Oh ! That does not sound good.
“Mom, what did you do?” Richard asked with something in his tone Toni couldn’t identify. They stepped toward the end of the foyer to the edge of the great room entrance.
“Surprise!” a chorus of many people shouted. Toni startled and stepped back.
Richard reached out and caught her, to keep her from toppling over in her heels
“Love a duck!” she whispered.
“I’ll let that one go, because I think this is hell.” His voice was low enough only she could hear. His arm stayed around her waist and he glanced over at his mom. “What is this?”
Her mother laughed. “It’s an engagement party.” She smiled and exchanged a look with Mona then grinned up at Richard. “We know you both didn’t want to make a big production of things, so we only invited a hundred of our closest friends and a few of yours.”
Her mother hugged Richard then leaned in and embraced Toni tightly. “Congratulations on your engagement.” She turned to Richard’s mother. “Let’s leave the kids to mingle.”
The two women hurried off and Toni glanced at Richard. He shook his head and met her gaze then leaned in next to her ear. “I could kill our mothers.”
She spotted Kayla and Andrew. Her friend offered a small wave. “I’ll help you hide the bodies.”
He grinned and lifted his brows. “You might want to change your shoes first.”
Despite the absurdity of the circumstance and being put on the spot by the meddling parents—yet again, Toni couldn’t resist the laugh.
Richard chuckled. “This is past crazy.”
A flash went off. “And blinding.” She blinked trying to focus. “Well, honey we shouldn’t keep these good people waiting.”
He winked seductively and captured her hand in his. “By all means, sweetheart. After you.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
Wedded bliss is hit and miss!
Richard couldn’t believe the parents were back to meddling. He glanced around the room and was surprised his mother had gone this far. Things had been going well with Toni, however, it would be better if he wasn’t attracted to her as much as he was. The women he’d dated in the past all knew they were beautiful. It wasn’t that Toni didn’t think she was pretty; she just wasn’t hung up on herself. His gaze searched her out and found her talking with Kayla and Andrew.
She turned and met his gaze from across the room. A smile crossed her lips and he couldn’t resist. He started toward her as she excused herself and walked toward him. He was only a few steps away from her when Hank stepped in front of him.