"Temperaments and sharp implements," she said. "A dangerous combination. I once had a line chef threaten me with an electric whisk. "
Because dusk was falling, he lit the squat red candle she'd set on the table. "I had no idea there was so much danger and intrigue behind those swinging doors. "
"And sexual tension," she added, twirling linguini onto her fork. "Smoldering looks over simmering pots of stock, broken hearts shattering in the whipping cream. It's a hotbed. "
"Food's got all that sensuality. Flavor, texture, scent. This tuna's getting me pretty worked up. "
"So, the dish passes the audition. "
"It's great. " Candlelight suited her, he thought. It put little gold lights in those deep blue pools. "Do you make this st
uff up, or collect recipes, what?"
"Both, I like to experiment. When my mother. . . " She trailed off, but Zack merely picked up the wine bottle, topped off their glasses. "She liked to cook," Nell said simply. "And entertain. "
"My mother-well, we'll just say the kitchen wasn't her best room. I was twenty before I realized a pork chop wasn't supposed to bounce if you dropped it. She lived on an island most of her life, but as far as she was concerned tuna came out of a can. She's hell with numbers, though. "
"Certified public accountant-retired now. She and my dad bought themselves one of those big tin cans on wheels and hit the great American highway about a year ago. They're having a terrific time. "
"That's nice. " And so was the unmistakable affection in his voice. "Do you miss them?"
"I do. I'm not going to say I miss my mother's cooking, but I miss their company. My father used to sit out on the back porch and play the banjo. I miss that. "
"The banjo. " It sounded so charming. "Do you play?"
"No. I never could get my fingers to cooperate. "
"My father played the piano. He used to-" She stopped herself again, realigning her thoughts as she rose. "I could never get my fingers to cooperate either. Strawberry shortcake for dessert. Can you manage it?"
"I can probably choke some down, just to be polite. Let me give you a hand. "
"No. " She waved him down before he could rise. "I've got it. It'll just take me. . . " She glanced down as she cleared his plate, saw Diego sprawled belly-up in apparent ecstasy in his lap. "Have you been sneaking that cat food from the table?"
"Me?" All innocence, Zack picked up his wineglass. "I don't know what makes you think that. "
"You'll spoil him, and make him sick. " She started to reach down, scoop up the kitten, then realized that considering Diego's location, the move was just a tad too personal. "Put him down a while so he can run around and work off that tuna before I take him inside. "
"Yes, ma'am. "
She had the coffee on and was about to slice the cake when he came through the door with the serving bowl.
"Thanks. But guests don't clear. "
"They did in my house. " He looked at the cake, all fluffy white and succulent red. And back at her. "Honey, I've got to tell you, that's a work of art. "
"Presentation's half the battle," she said, pleased. She went still when he laid his hand over the back of hers. Nearly relaxed again when he simply moved hers to widen the size of the slice.
"I'm a big patron of the arts. "
"At this rate Diego's not the only one who's going to be sick. " But she cut him a piece twice the size of her own. "I'll bring the coffee. "
"I should tell you something else," he began as he picked up the plates, then held the door for her again. "I plan on touching you. A lot. Maybe you could work on getting used to it. "
"I don't like being handled. "
"I didn't plan to start out that way. " He walked to the table, set down the cake plates, and sat. "Though handling, on both sides, can have some satisfying results. I don't put marks on women, Nell. I don't use my hands that way. "
"I'm not going to talk about that," she answered curtly.
"I'm not asking you to. I'm talking about me, and you, and the way things are now. "
"Things aren't any way now-like that. "
"They're going to be. " He scooped up some cake, sampled it. "God, woman, you sell this on the open market, you'd be a millionaire inside of six months. "
"I don't need to be rich. "
"Got your back up again," he observed and kept right on eating. "I don't mind that. Some men look for a woman who'll buckle under, tow the line, whatever. " He shrugged, speared a fat strawberry. "Now, me, I wonder why. It seems that would get boring fast for both parties involved. No spark there, if you know what I mean. "
"I don't need sparks either. "
"Everybody does. People who set them off each other every time they turn around, though, well, that would just wear you out. " Something told her he didn't wear out-or wear down-easily.
"But if you don't light a spark now and again," he went on, "you miss the sizzle that comes with it. If you cooked without spice or seasoning, you'd come up with something you could eat, but it wouldn't satisfy. "
"That's very clever. But there are some of us who stay healthier on a bland diet. "
"My great-uncle Frank. " Zack gestured with his fork before he dived into the cake again. "Ulcers. Some said it came from pure meanness, and it's hard to argue. He was a hardheaded, miserly Yankee. Never married. He preferred curling up in bed with his ledgers rather than a woman. Lived to be ninety-eight. "
"And the moral of the story?"
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of morals. Just Great-uncle Frank. We'd go to dinner at my grandmother's the third Sunday of every month when I was a boy. She made the best damn pot roast-you know, the kind circled around with the little potatoes and carrots? My mother didn't inherit Gran's talent with a pot roast. But, anyway, Great-uncle Frank would come and eat rice pudding while the rest of us gorged. The man scared the hell out of me. I can't look at a bowl of rice pudding to this day without getting the shakes. "
It must be some kind of magic, she decided, that made it so impossible not to relax around him. "I think you're making half that up. "