She hates to lose…
Competitive barista Brenna Kinkaid loves a challenge, and she’ll do whatever it takes to win, especially when it comes to her nemesis, Dante Caravicci. But when forced to team up to save their best friends’ wedding, Brenna recognizes that Dante might just be her ultimate win.
He plays to win…
Restaurateur Dante Caravicci won’t quit anything until he can claim success. He’s bided his time, but he’s used to taking big risks and surviving, so he figures he’s got nothing to lose by playing for Brenna.
Hearts at risk…
These two fall fast, and it looks like a win-win—until a competition pits them head-to-head and one of them goes way too far. A nudge from an improbable source may be the only way these two competitors will ever admit that the only way to win is to lose their hearts.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Love to Win by Lisa Ricard Claro, we are reunited with the Kinkaid and Walker families and also with Dante Caravicci, the gorgeous hunk who lives next door to Brenna Kinkaid and constantly annoys her. Brenna is waiting for Mr. Right to come along, the man who her late brother Jack said he gave her number to. But Jack has been dead for five years now, and the man hasn’t called. And then when a man does come along who claims to be the blind date Jack set up for her, Brenna is disappointed that it isn’t Dante. But things are not as they seem, and the blind date turns into a disaster. But then Brenna and Dante team up to save their best friends’ wedding, and the two decide that maybe there is something there, after all—until a competition puts them at odds with each other and threatens to destroy what they had begun to build. This was my favorite book in the series. I have always had a thing for Dante and thought he was such a great character.
The story is well written and shows how things can go from bad to worse when two stubborn people are involved. A heartwarming, heartbreaking story that will have you laughing, weeping, and sighing.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Love to Win by Lisa Claro is the third installment in the Fireflies series, and Claro doesn’t disappoint. Our heroine Brenna is an independent, self-confident, and stubborn young woman. She hates to admit she’s wrong, but she’s left with little choice when she discovers how wrong she has been about our hero Dante Caravicci. Dante has had the hots for Brenna since he first laid eyes on her just after her brother Jack’s death five years earlier. But he got off on the wrong foot with her from the beginning. Now as she gets to know him, she discovers that most of her first impressions about him were wrong. Brenna has been waiting for five years for a man her brother wanted to set her up with to call her. Then when he finally appears, Brenna is upset that the man isn’t Dante. But when she goes out with the man, she finds out that she has been betrayed and the date disintegrate into a nightmare. And it’s Dante to the rescue. As Dante’s life-long nemesis tries to throw a wrench into Brenna and Dante’s budding relationship, the two lovers are forced to make some hard choices.
Love to Win is a poignant and heartwarming story about a woman who takes competition too far and a man who believes that the only way to win is not to play—a thought-provoking and entertaining read that should appeal to romance fans of all ages.
“Take the Dare, take the Dare!”
The chanting of the crowd inside the Lump & Grind coffeehouse blasted through Brenna Kinkaid’s head. She blamed it for the rhythmic throbbing at her temples that reinforced her new hatred of Saturdays.
Brenna, owner of the Lump & Grind, stared at the scrubby slip of paper in her left hand on which one of her customers had scribbled: Truth–are you the one who got Mrs. Feinbacher high on pot brownies in high school? In her right hand she held a torn scrap of lined yellow paper daring her to kiss the first man who walks through the door. Neither owning up to the brownie incident–which she had certainly spearheaded, but for the love of God, Mrs. F, it’s been thirteen years, let it go!–nor kissing some random redneck stopping into the L&G for a cup of joe, held the slightest appeal.
Damn the mayor of Bright Hills and her Truth or Dare campaign, anyway. So what if it was for a good cause? Brenna thought it was ridiculous, but when every other shop owner in town had agreed to this harebrained idea, what could she do but be a good sport and go along?
The rules of play were simple enough. During the week, customers dropped suggestions into the Truth or Dare jars at their favorite businesses, along with a dollar for the privilege of doing so. Every Saturday, the business owner withdrew one suggestion from each jar and read them aloud. Patrons put money toward their preference, and whichever collected the most was what the owner had to do, resulting in often hilarious results. Last week the Truth had collected more money than the Dare, and Brenna had been forced to admit that her first kiss had taken place behind the Bright Hills Middle School bleachers with a boy named Hugh. Hugh, by happenstance, was seated at a table enjoying a vanilla latte with his boyfriend, Milton, and had regaled the crowd with his version of the kiss, teasing that it was the reason he decided to come out of the closet.
Yet, as ridiculous as this fundraising campaign was, it appeared to be working. Brenna had collected nearly three-hundred dollars in just six weeks, her weekend business had doubled, and the residents of Bright Hills, Georgia, were reaching into their wallets to support the drive toward having their own police department. Bright Hills was growing, and though the Truheart County Sheriff’s Department did a good job of patrolling, it was past time that Bright Hills had its own top cop. All the money collected in the Truth or Dare campaign would go toward this cause, and the business that collected the most money by the end of the fundraiser would win a trophy to be put on display in their place of business.
No one expected the collections to fund a police department, but it was a start toward community awareness and involvement.
And, as with everything she did, Brenna intended to win.
“Hold on, hold on. Just give me a minute and let me think about this.” Brenna lifted her gaze from her hands to regard her patrons, all of whom had shown up for their Saturday purchase of designer coffee and to watch her squirm. “Unless one of you wants to toss in more money to break the tie, I have to decide which one of these is the least likely to scandalize my mama.”
“I believe your mama wants to know if you’re responsible for the brownies.” The gruff voice belonged to a shrunken crone in purple stretch pants and an orange smock with a row of geese embroidered across the front. Her lips formed an uncompromising line, and she hid what Brenna suspected were disapproving eyes behind a pair of cat-eye sunglasses, embellished with faux gemstones the color of lime Jell-O.
Brenna ignored the woman, much as she had done while suffering through her chemistry class in high school.
“Here’s another ten bucks for the Dare jar.” A man waved the bill over his head and stepped up to the counter.
Brenna forced a smile when he stuffed the bill into the plastic collection container. One of her regular customers, he sported a bushy beard and John Deere cap snugged over his balding head, and Brenna thought it would be nice if the big lug would look at her eyes instead of her boobs for a change.
“Thanks for your donation, Duke.” Eyes up here, asshole.
He lowered his voice and leaned toward her. “Maybe I can step out and then step back in again, be the first man to walk through the door.” He leaned his apish forearms on the counter and forced his eyes upward for the purpose of giving her a broad wink.
Brenna held her smile, and temper, in check. Beating the hell out of a customer via a verbal tongue lashing would be bad for business, and if there was one thing Brenna protected, it was her business.
She leaned in as he had done and sugared her tone. “I don’t think your wife would approve.”
Duke blinked and dropped his gaze back to Brenna’s chest. “She wouldn’t care.”
Brenna gritted her teeth.
“I’ve got another five for the Dare jar.” Brenna’s childhood friend, Raelynn, who had grown up to be the best hair stylist in the county, stepped up to the counter and moved Duke out of the way with a solid body chuck. She adjusted her pink-tinted bangs with a toss of her head. “Moron.”
Duke made a show of adjusting his cap before he shuffled away to wait for Brenna to make good on her Dare.
“You ever think about playing hockey?” Brenna asked.
Raelynn grinned. “How many more Saturdays do you have to do this?”
“Through the end of July.” Brenna waved at the crowd to quiet them down and raised her voice to be heard. “There is no longer a tie. The Dare jar collected the most, unless anyone wants to put fifteen dollars into the Truth jar to tie it up again, or twenty to beat it.” She raised her brows at Mrs. Feinbacher who deepened her disapproving frown and clutched her patent leather purse close to her chest. Brenna sighed. “No? That’s it then. I guess I’m kissing the next yahoo that walks in.” The crowd clapped and whistled, and Brenna lowered her voice and said to Raelynn, “Honest to god, honey, this every Saturday morning Truth or Dare thing is getting old fast. And you should see some of the suggestions I have to throw away. What’s wrong with all these people that they come out and actually pay good money for this?”
“Bubba-Jo’s has a big crowd, too, and Dante’s Bistro is packed right now, thanks to this Truth or Dare thing.” Raelynn’s dimples popped out when she smiled. “Last week Dante’s Dare won, and he had to prank call the mayor. Omigod, it was hilarious. He called her private number, put on a Northern accent, and pretended to be a Boston detective trying to solve a murder.” Raelynn laughed, a boisterous sound that traveled above the chatter of the Lump & Grind crowd. “He really played it up.”
Brenna frowned. Raelynn, like everyone else in this town, thought the owner of Dante’s Bistro was all that and a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s. Why, she couldn’t understand, because she thought he was as annoying as an eye tic. “What did he pull out of the jar this week?”
“No idea. I ran over here when I saw Mrs. Feinbacher coming in.” She cast a glance at the old lady and looked back at Brenna when Mrs. Feinbacher wagged a finger at her. “She’s scary. And she has a memory like an elephant.”
The bell on the L&G door jingled and the crowd whooped and clapped. Brenna looked past Raelynn to see who had come in, and her chest constricted. Of all the men in Bright Hills, why did he have to be the first one to step through her door?
“Speak of the devil.” Raelynn fanned her face and gave Brenna a look. “As Dares go, you could do a whole lot worse than kissing Dante Caravicci.”
The man in question glanced around at the noisy crowd. It was apparent that their delight was aimed at him, and he played it up and gave them a bow worthy of a royal court.
“Hey, Caravicci, the Dare won. You have to kiss Brenna!” someone called out.
Dante straightened and shot a bemused look over the collection of people, then modified his expression into a comical leer. “Reaaally?” He wriggled his brows and twisted an imaginary mustache. The group went wild, clapping and whooping.
Brenna rolled her eyes. Why, oh, why, oh why? But she wanted to win this thing, and winning meant playing along and having every possible person in this town on her side, so she brightened her expression, came around the counter, and put her hands on her hips. Vamping it up for the best Mae West impression she could muster, she flashed her dark-lashed dusky blues at Dante. “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
Dante dropped his head back and laughed along with Brenna’s customers. The infectious humor seeped into her, and she found herself laughing with them, feeling both ridiculous and pleased that her supporters were getting such a kick out of her goofy role play. This would translate into a bigger crowd next Saturday, and Brenna would never complain about more people coming into her little place to order their designer brew.
“Well, c’mon.” She wriggled her fingers in a come here gesture. “The Dare is that I have to kiss the first man who walked in, and that’s you. Let’s get this over with.”
Dante stepped up to Brenna and smiled down at her. “I’m taking Cal to lunch to keep him busy before the wedding. I just dropped by to see if you need any help.”
“Thanks, no. You just keep Caleb out of our hair. He’s not allowed to see Maddie before the ceremony.”
“I know. Maddie already gave me my marching orders.”
“You gonna kiss her, or what?” someone hollered.
“Keep your pants on,” Dante said over his shoulder and, a moment later, he grabbed Brenna and swung her into an unexpected dip.
Brenna gasped and clutched his shirt while the Lump & Grind exploded with approval. Wide-eyed, she watched his face lower toward hers, and panic whooshed through her. She didn’t want to kiss Dante Caravicci. She especially didn’t want to suffer through it in front of an audience. Never mind that the man was a special kind of eye candy. He had the whole sexy-Italian-male thing going for him, the bastard–hair and eyes the color of rich espresso, and olive skin that made him look like he’d just enjoyed a few hours at the beach. At the moment, the lower half of his face bore just enough growth of beard to tell her he’d shaved that morning, but too early in the day to keep him smooth for the evening wedding. His Mediterranean heritage, she figured, was to blame for the sexy stubble.
Damn it, she hated giving him a positive critique.
When he was close enough to hear her lowered voice, she said, “Listen to me, Neanderthal. If you stick your tongue in my mouth I’ll bite it off. Understand?”
Dante smiled and shook his head. “You have no faith in me at all, Brenna. Relax and enjoy making your customers happy.”
“Don’t you dare–”
“I would never,” he assured her in a silky voice that sounded a lot to her ears like a promise that, Oh, yes, he absolutely would.
Dante touched his mouth to Brenna’s, a mere hint of a kiss, a feathery whisper. She clutched his shirt tighter and braced herself for what she expected to follow. And how would she handle it?
Make the decision now whether you’ll let the jackass have his kiss and please the crowd, or follow through on the threat to make him bleed.
Kissing Dante Caravicci was not something Brenna had fantasized about. Much.
She didn’t like the man, whom the Fates had decreed would live next door to her, and then made them neighbors again with their downtown businesses located on opposite ends of the same block like a pair of mismatched bookends. A perfect metaphor, she’d often thought, for their relationship. They’d been at odds right from the start, and no matter how good looking he was, or how his lips moved over hers now with a skillful pressure that raced tingles across her skin, he was still the jackass Neanderthal who irritated her beyond reason just by breathing.
Breathing. Hers faltered when he captured her lower lip between his and increased the pressure, drawing it in ever so slightly for one, two, three seconds before releasing her mouth altogether. He executed one more tender brush of his lips against hers and, a moment later, she was upright again, shaky, and surprised that he’d not pressed his advantage.
Smiling down at her, he took her hand in his. Following his lead, and to the delight of her customers, they took a flourishing bow.
“Encore, encore!” someone yelled.
Everyone laughed, and then that became the chant. Brenna wagged her finger at the crowd, included a negative shake of her head, and moved back behind the counter.
“Sorry, y’all, but Truth or Dare is over for this week. Be sure to drop in suggestions for next Saturday.”
Dante rested his arms on the counter. “So you’re all set, then? You don’t need anything from me?”
Just the sight of you walking away, she thought, but her mama had raised her better than to say something rude like that, especially since the man was being so pleasant. She allowed more agreeable words to claw their way past the sarcasm. “No, but thank you for asking.”
“You sure? Stuff for the cake? Something else for the reception?” He leaned closer and flashed her a sexy grin. “Or I could kiss you again, but do it up right this time.”
Though the mischievous gleam in his eyes softened his deliberate leer, her kind view of him fled. “And there you go, reminding me why I think you’re a jerk. No, I don’t need anything. Tell Cal I said hello, and I guess I’m stuck seeing you later.” So much for manners.
Dante left her, his laughter trailing behind him, and with the Truth or Dare challenge satisfied for the week, the bulk of the L&G crowd dispersed. Brenna took her place at the register and smiled at the customer who stepped up to place an order.
Brenna whirled with a startled yelp when someone touched her shoulder from behind.
“Sorry.” The young woman’s silver labret flashed like a diamond against the chestnut hue of her skin. “I know you have to get out of here for the wedding, and I didn’t mean to be so late, but my babysitter’s mother was–”
“No big deal. We only just finished the Truth or Dare.” Brenna brushed off the remainder of Shaniqua’s explanation. “You’re here now, that’s all that matters. Ed and Stan are on until two, and then Joy and Kaitlyn work till close.” Brenna moved out of the way so Shaniqua could take over the register. “I appreciate you working on a Saturday. You’re a gem. I owe you.”
Shaniqua waved her away. “Yeah, yeah. Get out of here. Tell Caleb and Maddie I said congratulations. They sure got a beautiful day for an outdoor wedding.”
It was just after one o’clock. Brenna still had a ton of stuff to do before the ceremony at six, and she had promised Maddie she’d arrive at the house to set up the cake no later than three. She should have had the good sense to give herself the whole day off, but she intended to win the Truth or Dare challenge, and disappointing people, even for one Saturday, was not the way to ensure victory.
She eased her Audi from the parking space and folded back the roof with the touch of a button, unconcerned with the battering her hair would take from the wind. On a day like today, with the beaming sun drawing into the air every nuance of the pungent aromas inherent to the north Georgia mountains, Brenna couldn’t imagine shutting herself inside the car. She would have to later, after she’d dressed for the wedding, but not now.
If God wanted to advertise for the glory of June, she thought, He’d look no farther than this little slice of heaven.
The drive from Bright Hills’ quaint downtown to Brenna’s townhouse was a ten minute breeze. She zipped into her driveway and exited the car in a series of fluid moves designed for speed. She glanced toward the cluster of townhomes to her left, noted the empty driveway next door, and jogged into her house.
Dante was probably already on his way to collect Caleb for their man lunch and to keep Cal occupied before the ceremony. She supposed they’d do whatever men did to entertain themselves before one of them took the Big Scary Plunge. Drink beer and watch baseball. Play poker. Whatever. God only knew why men did anything, and Brenna didn’t want to know, especially if Dante was involved.
The big Neanderthal.
She detoured through her kitchen to grab a bottle of water from the fridge, texted Maddie to tell her she’d arrive as close to three as possible, and headed for the shower. An hour later, hair and makeup completed, she stood in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom clad in a lacy bra and panties set, her dark brows pinched.
“Oh. My. God.” She turned sideways to inspect her body profile and groaned.
She knew that since taking ownership of the Lump & Grind she had gained a wee bit of extra weight. Who wouldn’t, spending twelve hours a day in a place like that? A steady diet of creamy lattes and sugary cinnamon buns accompanied by a dearth of green vegetables would do that to any woman. But, oh, honey, until this very moment, she hadn’t realized just how generous her caloric intake had been.
“How did I let this happen?” She hissed the words aloud to her mirror image, gulped, and turned sideways once again to regard her bottom and thighs in dismay. Like watching a bad B movie in the middle of a sleepless night, she couldn’t stop staring.
‘Step away from the mirror, meatball!’
Brenna imagined the snarky voice in her head to sound like her younger brother, Jack. A ridiculous notion, since Jack was dead.
True, Jack’s widow, Maddie, had claimed for years that Jack communicated with her, and was convinced he had played matchmaker and was responsible for her romance with Caleb Walker, the man Maddie was marrying later today.
And, also true, Brenna’s older brother, Sean, was positive that it was Jack who intervened with sage advice when things between Sean and his now wife, Rebecca–Caleb’s sister–went South earlier in the year.
Still, all of that was nonsense. Dead was dead, after all, and wishing someone could offer help and advice from the Great Beyond was a far cry from having them actually do it. Though down in the deepest recesses of her soul, when she was being honest with herself, she believed that if anyone could cross the Wide Divide to help his loved ones, it would be Jack.
‘Focus on what you can control today,’ Jack’s voice commanded, ‘like something that covers your big, fat–’
Brenna strode to her closet. She bypassed the clingy dress she had chosen for today as she had purchased it before her bust and butt had burgeoned to their current unexpected proportions, and opted instead for a cocktail dress with a fitted bodice and silk skirt that flowed like a frothy dream to an inch below her knees. If she could just zip the damn thing, it would be perfect.
She wrestled her curves into a spandex body shaper and stepped into the dress, then drew a deep breath and exhaled to the fullest extent possible, a little technique to deflate her body that she’d learned in college when her Alpha Delta Pi sorority sisters had entered her into the Best Butt on Campus contest, and she’d had to squeeze herself into a pair of jeans meant for someone the size of Thumbelina. She’d lost the contest to an elfin Delta Zeta girl, but survived the wearing-of-the-jeans and added a valuable tool to her arsenal of Things a Bodacious Girl Needs to Know.
After battling the zipper into service, Brenna stepped back to the mirror.
Okay, so breathing was constricted, she admitted with a gasp, but the resultant display of boobage was not the least bit tawdry, and the loose skirt skimmed her butt without accentuating a thing, praise the sweet little baby Jesus.
Brenna performed her breathe-deep-and-exhale routine and sat on the edge of the bed to slip into her strappy heels, a marvel of modern design that lifted her height from five-foot-two to a respectable five-foot-seven, made her calves look spectacular, and boosted her confidence level in a way no sensible flats had the power to do. If they pinched in the process, so be it.
In front of the mirror for a final review she smiled, pleased at last with her appearance. Classy and confident, just the way she liked to roll.
A few minutes later she grabbed her purse from the kitchen counter, as well as a tote containing all the tools she would need to construct the three-tiered cake on Maddie and Caleb’s dining room table. The three cake layers were in Maddie’s fridge waiting for Brenna to put them together. It would be beautiful–glorious, even–and taste like a dream.
Maddie deserved the best and Brenna intended that she have it.
Back in her Audi, she closed the roof and windows, turned on the air, and pointed herself in the direction of Maddie and Caleb’s. She glanced at the time on her cell phone, pleased that in spite of her rushed morning she would arrive with ten or fifteen minutes to spare.
She did a double take as a Harley blew past her, going in the opposite direction. It disappeared around the corner.
Twenty minutes later Brenna turned onto the dirt drive that led to Maddie and Caleb’s house. Caleb intended to pave the entire half-mile length in the fall, and Brenna applauded his decision. The dirt road, though graded and well maintained, still suffered from potholes and mud in the spring from winter thaws and rain, and Brenna dreaded the teeth-clacking unsteadiness of the ride. Still, it was a pleasant trek through the forest, if one overlooked the uncomfortable jouncing along, and then came the payoff when the old farmhouse Maddie and Caleb called home came into view, a postcard-perfect picture of tranquility set against the breathtaking backdrop of the North Georgia Mountains.
Brenna pressed the brake and stopped to admire the view. Edie, Brenna’s mother and a landscaping maven, had helped Maddie with colorful plantings around the yard and a multitude of plants on the wraparound porch, both hanging and standing in large urns. That, along with the improvements Caleb made to the house and barn with his architectural and building expertise, had transformed Maddie’s little place into a comfy dream home–assuming what one wished for was an isolated spot in the middle of nowhere. But there was no denying the place was warm, inviting, and beautiful. Very much, Brenna thought, like sweet Maddie herself, and the perfect spot for Maddie and Caleb’s intimate and unpretentious wedding.
Before going into the house, Brenna made a circuit of the yard. First she inspected the barn, repurposed for occasional outdoor entertaining. The DJ would set up there and dancing would commence. Maddie’s barn cats, five in number, had made themselves scarce and would remain so, Brenna supposed, until the festivities ended. She went next to the wedding tent where two of Dante’s catering employees were setting up tables. She paused to chat a moment, satisfied that the Neanderthal’s staff had things under control.
The Neanderthal, her neighbor and owner of the popular Caravicci’s Pizzeria, as well as the new Dante’s Bistro in town, was responsible for the wedding buffet, and Brenna had to admit that when it came to Italian cuisine, the irritating man knew what he was doing. She offered thanks to his two worker bees, help if they needed anything, and headed for the house.
She entered the kitchen by way of the side porch and gave a fleeting thought to the odd construction of the home, positioned in such a way that it did not invite one to enter by the front door. “Coming in through the kitchen is so much friendlier,” Maddie had once said, “especially when you’re hot and ready for a tall glass of sweet tea.”
Brenna’s heels clicked on the travertine tile, and she tamped down envy at the size and design of Maddie’s kitchen, the result of a renovation last year that had led to today’s nuptials. Caleb, the groom, was the carpenter Maddie had hired to do the renovation.
Brenna spun toward the voice. Maddie’s mother sat at the kitchen table with her nose pointed at her cell phone and her thumbs scrolling.
“Hi, Phyllis.” Brenna waited for a response, sighed when it became apparent none was forthcoming, and marched through the dining room and up the stairs.
Phyllis had flown in three days prior and spent every waking moment texting her Spanish boyfriend, Arnaldo, who, by all accounts, awaited her return to his yacht docked in Miami. At least the woman had cared enough to show up. The same couldn’t be said of Maddie’s father, who claimed an inability to take the time from his job as a blackjack dealer in Vegas. Maddie had confided to Brenna that she suspected he just didn’t want to be in the same room with her mother, no matter the reason.
How, Brenna wondered now, did two such dysfunctional parents manage to raise the grounded and awesome Maddie?
Brenna knocked on the door of the master bedroom, but let herself into the room without awaiting a response. Maddie stood staring through the window, dressed in ratty cutoffs and a stretchy tee, but her hair and makeup were done, and she turned and greeted Brenna with a wide smile.
“I knew you’d get here. You’re never late for anything.”
Brenna hugged her friend and grinned. “You have no idea what I went through to be on time.”
“Have you set up the cake?”
“I wanted to see you first. How are you holding up? Nerves get to you yet?”
Maddie shook her head. “I’m not nervous. Just excited.”
“Your hair looks fantastic,” Brenna said. “And who did your makeup?”
“Is it too much? I thought it might be too much. You’re right, I should probably–”
“I didn’t say it was too much, now did I? I asked who did it for you.” Brenna held Maddie by the shoulders and gave her a once over. “You look perfect, honey. Beautiful and perfect.”
“Oh.” Maddie sighed. “Oh. My mother did it. It feels like a lot of goop.”
Brenna smiled, pleased to learn Phyllis had done something worthwhile. “Well, two thumbs up. You look gorgeous.”
Maddie’s phone buzzed on the dresser and she dove for it, read her text, smiled, and tapped a reply. “Caleb,” she said, her face luminous. “He’s ready for the honeymoon to start.”
“No doubt,” Brenna said. “Listen, honey, I better go and take care of that cake before it gets any later.” She tilted her head to the slamming of the screen door from the kitchen, and then the sound of multiple voices talking and laughing carried up the stairs.
“Sounds like all the parents are here,” Maddie said. “And TJ,” she amended, when Grandpa Boone’s deep voice boomed, “Keep those damn dogs outside, and make sure they don’t tear anything up.”
Brenna shook her head. “Why aren’t the dogs at Sean and Rebecca’s?”
“I want them here.” Maddie’s cheeks grew pink. “I know it sounds silly, but Pirate and Belle are part of the family, too.”
Brenna shrugged. “It’s your wedding.” She strode to the door and laid her hand on the knob. “Mothers incoming.” She opened the door and waited. A moment later Brenna’s mother, Edie, along with Caleb’s mother, Sada, appeared at the top of the stairs. “The bride is in here, ladies.”
“You look lovely,” Edie said to Brenna, “but what happened to your new dress?”
“I’d rather not discuss it, Mama.” Brenna patted her butt and accompanied the gesture with a meaningful arch of her brows.
“Ah.” Edie nodded and kissed Brenna’s cheek. “You’re built like the Kinkaid women, my darling. All tits and ass.”
“Mama!” Brenna’s eyes flew wide, her surprise followed by immediate laughter.
“Be grateful,” Sada said. “The rest of us would love to have your hourglass shape. Look at poor Rebecca, five months pregnant with twins and she barely fills out a B cup.”
“Sean doesn’t seem to mind.” Maddie’s observation brought chuckles all around.
“Those two.” Sada shook her head and made a lame attempt to look disgusted, but her lips curled with amusement in spite of her words. “Like a pair of randy teenagers all the time. That daughter of mine has no decorum where your son is concerned, Edie.”
“I know.” Edie’s smile blossomed. “Isn’t it grand? They’re so happy together. And twins!” She clapped her hands, giddy. “We’re having twins!”
All eyes turned to Maddie, and Brenna smirked. “You’re next in line to produce adorable offspring. I hope you and Cal don’t plan on waiting too long to procreate.”
“Oh, sweet Lord,” Maddie said. “Let’s just get through the wedding ceremony, okay? I can’t worry about babies today.”
“On that note, I’ll leave you ladies.” Brenna blew kisses across the room. “I’ve got a cake to make glorious.”
“You sure you’re not nervous?” Dante asked Maddie’s husband-to-be before taking a bite out of a slice of pepperoni pizza.
“I’m not nervous.” Caleb ripped open a sugar packet, dumped it into a tall glass, and stirred the beverage with a straw. “What makes you think I’m nervous?”
Dante grinned. “Because you just put sugar in my Coke.
Caleb’s eyes widened and he stared at the glass. He released the straw and ran his hands over his face. “Okay, maybe a little nervous.” He grabbed his phone and shot off a text, snatched it up when it buzzed a few seconds later.
“Maddie? What’s she say?”
“Nothing I can repeat to you.” Cal smiled and relaxed back into the booth. “Her crazy mother taught her how to sext. I never know what to expect when Maddie texts me now. Yesterday she sent me a picture of–you know what? Never mind.”
Dante laughed and shook his head. “Lucky bastard.”
Cal grinned and tugged a slice of pizza from the tray. “How are things going with the Bistro?”
“Fantastic. We’ve been busy as hell since we opened. I knew I’d pull people in for dinner, but it turns out the bar is where I’m making my money.”
“I’m not surprised. The only other bar is that place outside of town with the sawdust on the floors. What’s it called?”
“Boot & Spur Tavern.”
“That’s right, the Boot & Spur. Not exactly the same crowd as your place.”
“Christ, I hope not. Boot & Spur is a popular spot, though. I go sit at their bar sometimes just to get a handle on their clientele and how they manage things. They have line dancing on Wednesdays, a live band on Friday and Saturday nights. And their wings aren’t half bad.” Dante shrugged his shoulders and grabbed another slice, munched on a wayward piece of pepperoni. “I’m noticing a lot of bar business at my place after five, mostly suits stopping by for a drink on their way home. That’s what I didn’t expect. I figured on a lot of couples for dinner, especially on the weekends, but the barstools are full almost every night, right up till close.”
“Your bar manager might have something to do with that.”
“Ah, yes, the fair Roxanne.” Dante’s smiled widened. “I poached her from Chez Eloise. They had her working the hostess stand.” He rolled his eyes. “The woman attended a bartending school in Atlanta and her resume includes the Buckhead Ritz. I’m lucky to have her.”
“How are you handling both restaurants? Must be tough to keep so many balls in the air.”
“It is, but help is on the way. Trina is moving from North Carolina to manage the Pizzeria so I can focus on the Bistro.”
Cal sat up from his slouch and leaned on the table, his eyes gone wide. “Are you out of your mind?”
“What’s wrong with Trina? I thought you liked her.”
“I do. That isn’t the point.” Cal shook his head, blew out an exasperated laugh, slumped back in the booth, and regarded Dante with a bemused smile. “How is that even going to work?”
“It’s a business arrangement.”
“Does Trina know that?”
“Of course.” Dante gave Cal a look. “She doesn’t want to get back together any more than I do. It’ll be fine. We’ve been apart longer than we were together, and we’re friends. Anyway, she’s looking for work, and I can use the help. And she’s a top notch restaurant manager. Works her ass off.”
“And, if I recall, a very nice ass it is.”
“On that we agree.” Dante caught the attention of the harried waitress and motioned for her to bring the check. He looked around the dining room with a critical eye. “This place isn’t bad, but it won’t last. The pizza is run-of-the-mill, too much sauce, not enough cheese. Too expensive. Cleanliness, I’d rate maybe a five. Their kitchen is probably full of salmonella.”
“Well, that’s just great. Why did we come here if it sucks?”
“Scoping out the competition,” Dante said. “I do it all the time.”
“Well, I better not leave here with food poisoning. My wedding night plans do not include time in the ER.”
“You’ll be fine. I wouldn’t dare get you sick today. Maddie would kill me.” Dante picked up his Coke and caught himself before taking a drink, remembering that Cal had dumped sugar in it. He set it down and reached for the water glass instead. “So,” he began, hoping he sounded nonchalant, “is Brenna bringing a plus-one to the wedding?”
“Beats me,” Cal said. “You want me to find out for you, Romeo?”
Dante motioned to the waitress again. “She hates me.”
“The waitress? Nah. She’s just busy.”
“Not the waitress. Brenna. She–” Dante snapped his mouth shut when Caleb’s grin broke free. “You’re a dick.” Dante fired a balled up napkin at his friend’s face.
Cal caught the missile and tossed it on the table, laughing. “Why do you play games with her? You two are ridiculous, always competing over which one of you is better at everything.”
“If it weren’t for those stupid competitions, I’d get no action out of Brenna at all. I just told you, she hates me, and I can’t figure out why.”
“Have you ever asked her?”
“She gives me some crap about my garage light waking her up in the middle of the night, and she hates it when the neighbors come over and start a party in the yard on Friday nights. Not that there will be any more impromptu parties. I don’t have much downtime, not with both restaurants going full bore.”
“What’s with the light? What light?”
“When I’m working on restoring a car, sometimes I work in the wee hours. You know, if I can’t sleep.”
“And the light wakes her up?”
“So she says.” Dante fiddled with the discarded wrap from his straw, began tying it in knots. “But I don’t see how it’s possible. And the other thing she says is that I ignore the neighborhood covenants.”
“Well, do you?”
Dante shrugged. “So what if I do? No one cares but Brenna.”
Cal stared at Dante. “Are you in middle school, or what? You think sticking her pigtails in the inkwell will earn you play points? Stop deliberately annoying the woman, for Christ’s sake.”
“I’m nice to her. Even when we have our silly competitions, I go out of my way to be nice. But she treats me like a piece of gum on the bottom of her shoe. If I could just figure out why–really why, I mean. Because her reasons are just so much bullshit.”
“I think the problem is that she’s the only woman you’ve ever wanted that didn’t drop at your feet.” Cal pointed at Dante with his straw. “You’re used to winning. Maybe Brenna’s unwinnable. She’s your Kobayashi Maru.”
Dante dropped his head back and laughed. “Seriously? You’re quoting Star Trek now?”
“Why not, when it fits?”
“You’re just saying that to throw down a challenge. I don’t believe in an unwinnable scenario, and you know it.”
Cal shrugged. “So, stop mooning after Brenna and either give it up or make a move. How long has it been? Four years? Five?”
Five, Dante thought. Five long and frustrating years since the first time he laid eyes on Brenna Kinkaid.
Dante would remember the moment forever. He’d been in his driveway, working on a beauty of a machine he’d picked up for peanuts from some old guy’s barn over in Dahlonega. The man had died, and the wife didn’t care what she had, just wanted it gone–a ’63 Corvair Monza Spyder convertible. Dante’s head had been crammed under the hood for half an hour, and when he looked up, there she was, standing in the driveway next door wearing heeled boots and a red dress that molded to her substantial curves like honey on bread.
Dumbstruck, he’d watched her shake her river of black hair over her shoulders, and he held his breath when she strode toward him with the confident swagger of a runway model.
“Brenna Kinkaid,” she’d said, and held out her hand to shake. “I’m your new neighbor.”
Blue. Her eyes were blue. Bluer than blue. Purple-blue. Was that even a color? It must be, because that’s what her eyes were. A man could drown in those eyes, never come up for air again, and die happy.
He shut his mouth, when he realized it was hanging open, and dropped his eyes to the sparkling necklace at her throat. A Celtic cross accentuated with diamonds, or something that looked like diamonds. What the hell did he know about gemstones?
Whatever, it was as eye-catching as the woman who wore it, and its intricate design, he noted with a shock of surprise, bore a close resemblance to the tattoo over his heart.
He wondered if a man had given it to her–husband, boyfriend? God, he hoped not.
“My eyes are up here, Neanderthal. Are you a mute?”
“Am I–what? Oh, sorry.” Dante reached out to shake her hand then pulled back at the last minute, holding his hands palms up. “Grease.”
Sweet mother of God, she was gorgeous.
What did she say her name was again?
“Your name is Grease?”
“What? No. Caravicci. Dante.” He laughed at himself and shook his head. He’d never been so flummoxed in his life. He knew he was acting like an idiot but had somehow been rendered powerless to stop. “Please let me start over. Dante Caravicci, and I’m covered in grease, so you probably don’t want me to touch you.”
“Why are you working on your car in the driveway like this? It’s on blocks. I thought that was against the covenants.”
“The neighborhood covenants. No junk cars in view of the street. Page four, paragraph six.”
“Are you serious, right now?” Dante laughed.
She didn’t laugh back. “I didn’t spend 200K on a townhouse just to have a junkyard next door.”
Dante bristled. “Junkyard? This baby is a ’63 Corvair, lady. She may not look like much now, but when I’m through–”
“Please move it into your garage where it can’t be seen,” she said, her tone prim. “Page four, paragraph six.”
Rendered mute for a second time, Dante stared at her, his jaw slack. No one had ever complained about his hobby before. He kept the vehicle covered when he wasn’t working on it. It didn’t constitute an eyesore. What was the big deal?
“Why do gorgeous women always fill their tanks with gallons of Batshit Crazy?”
Those beautiful eyes narrowed and darkened like a midnight storm. When she spoke again it was through gritted teeth. “And why am I stuck next door to a man with the manners of a Neanderthal?”
She’d turned and stalked away and, even through the red haze of annoyance, he’d had to admire her swaying ass.
Maybe he was a Neanderthal after all.
The waitress dropped the check on the table, and Dante snapped back to the present. She gave him an apologetic smile. “I’m so sorry you had to wait. I promise we’ll do better next time.” She flashed another smile and ran off.
“No, I’ve got it,” Dante said when Cal dug into his pocket. “It was your last meal as a single man. The least I can do is pay for it.” He dropped fifty dollars on the table and stood to leave.
“Hey, that’s more than double the bill. Don’t you want your change?”
“Nah.” Dante glanced at the waitress, now juggling a platter of pizza in one hand and a tray of drinks in the other. He regarded her with sympathy and shook his head. “Poor kid. She’s been the only server on the floor the whole time we’ve been here. She earned the tip.”
The two men walked out to the parking lot and climbed into a 1976 Pontiac Trans Am, a vehicle Dante had restored to damn near perfect.
“You ready to head back to the house?” Dante asked.
“I guess.” Cal wiped his hands on his denim-clad thighs. “I’m not supposed to see Maddie before the ceremony, but I don’t know how to avoid it. She insisted on getting married at home, and we both live there.” He shook his head and shrugged. “I’m going to end up getting in trouble for something I can’t do anything about.”
“That’s the curse of belonging to the Man Club.” Dante backed out of the parking space and regarded his friend. “We’re always in trouble for something.”
© 2016 by Lisa Ricard Claro