HUSBAND SERIES Book 4
Fritha Wynde is the free-spirited friend, sleeping with whoever grabs her fancy, especially if the grab feels good! She has work that she loves, friends who will let her wear rainbow-colored bridesmaid dresses, and girlfriends’ babies to cuddle. There’s not a thing about her life that she wants changed, until trouble walks into her feel-good teahouse,Bohemian Brew.
Trouble is a six foot two restaurant critic—Max—who has the audacity to ridicule the Banchee Tea, her signature brew, in his annoyingly sexy Brit accent. It’s time to retaliate and a low blow is in order—below the belt to be exact—but when Max discovers how delicious Fritha is, he’ll do anything to have her, including rolling over and playing dead.
Prude meets promiscuous in the fourth book of the Husband Sit Series, bringing all four girlfriends together as Fritha tortures the one man who grabs her fancy along with her heart.
Read an Excerpt
©Copyright 2016 Louise Cusack
Because they’re happy until you cry. And when the vows are over, there’s way too much alcohol and time to think about how everyone else is married. Like, literally. Everyone.
I glanced up from my empty table to find the bride’s cousin Kamal looming over me—Kamal Sutra as I’d called him during our weekend fling.
Unfortunately, like every other man I’d met in the last two years, he hadn’t followed up on the sex.
So I had to be doing something wrong.
Instead of asking him about that—which I would require serious inebriation—I said, “S’up?” intending to sound cool. Unfortunately, because I was nervous, the word came out slurred and his frown deepened.
“Are you drunk?” He wasn’t much taller than me, but his Mumbai hipster stubble and trendy groomsman tuxedo were Bollywood cool.
“Give me time.” I tried for the sort of glare my friend and fellow bridesmaid Louella had patented, but I suspected from the slight shake of Kamal’s head that I was coming off lame.
He pointed at the dancefloor. “We’re supposed to be part of the bridal waltz.”
I glanced over and saw my three best girlfriends dancing. Two of them were with the hot, hunky men who had fallen head-over-heels and married them—one, only an hour ago. The third, Louella, was partnered with the shockingly handsome brother of the groom and her fiancé Nick was watching them very closely—yet another hot, hunky man who was head-over-heels in love.
Which begged the question: Where was my sexily-ever-after?
Kamal interrupted my envy with, “It’s not too late.”
See if you feel like that when you’re thirty-five!
I usually loved that fact that he was a spunky little munchkin, but he was in his late twenties with no biological clock at all. He would be the last person to settle down, so there was zero value in trying to explain my dilemma.
“Fritha?” he said again, as if he thought I was deaf.
I tried to shake off my maudlin thoughts with a shrug. “They won’t miss us.” But I had to look away from the dancefloor because my eyes were prickling with a shitty need to cry. Again. I glanced around for my glass, hoping to distract myself, but it was empty. “More wine?” I raised it in Kamal’s direction. Maybe getting drunk wasn’t such a bad idea.
“What’s the matter?” He sat down beside me and the prickling eyes came back.
He took my hand in his, but it was clearly a first-aid gesture, rather than anything sexy. He tilted his head to inspect me more closely and said, “Is this an ‘Always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ thing you’ve got going on?”
“If it was…” I snatched my hand back. “…I don’t think patronizing me would help.”
Could you have been this intuitive when we were in bed together?
Always nosing out your secrets when you least wanted them to. He was clearly aiming for ‘caring’, but his timing annoyed the crap out of me
“S’up?” Nick Aston, Louella’s hunky ex-bodyguard and soon-to-be-husband slid into a seat across from me. He must have wanted a distraction from watching her dance with the best looking man in the room.
“S’up with you?” I bantered back. He’d learned s’up from me, and said it to tease me whenever he could.
“Nothing,” he replied, ever the poker face, but the fact that he had his back to the dancefloor spoke volumes. A bodyguard would always keep his attention on his charge, and though Louella was no longer in danger, the habit would have become ingrained. He must be feeling some major jealousy to ignore it.
“Well, I’m being harassed.” I pointed at Kamal who only shook his head, looking even more patronizing if that was possible.
“Yep,” Nick replied. “I can see how tormented you are.” Then he said to Kamal, “Is she drunk?”
“I think so,” the little bastard replied. “She won’t dance.”
Nick shook his head, adding to the chorus of disappointed men.
I had to get back on top, so I leant across the table and said to Nick, “Fuck you for coming up with the idea of eloping with my bestie. That’s cheating.”
“I’m impatient. What can I say?” Nick shrugged his wide shoulders and those bottomless blue eyes gazed into mine so directly, it made me wish all over again that I’d tried harder to nail him at Jill’s wedding, when he hadn’t even kissed Louella. Although, from the way he’d looked at her back then, it was pretty clear to all of us that no one else was putting their Jimmy Choos under his bed.
Thankfully my inappropriate regrets were interrupted by Kamal standing up. “I give in,” he announced.
He was leaving so I waggled my glass at him. “Wine?”
He just shook his head and walked off.
“I like the dress,” Nick said, clearly trying to distract me.
Which he did.
I sat up straighter to look down at my bridesmaid gown. At the last wedding, Jill had given me free rein, so I’d worn layers of rainbow tulle. This time, the bride had put her foot down. Angela wanted a pink satin theme, so the version I’d been given was a pink satin floor-length skirt with a cute bow at the waist—not sexy—and a tight rainbow beaded bodice which did have a V-cut to the waist.
That should have been sexy, but breasts weren’t my best asset. B cup at best. Legs were my ticket into a man’s pants, and in a long gown they weren’t getting any attention.
So I was basically screwed when it came to…getting some.
I could have felt melancholy about that too, but instead I pulled on my cranky pants and pretended to glare at Nick. “Don’t bother pretending this ‘intervention’ is motivated by warm and fuzzies.” I pointed at Louella and raised my voice to annoy him. “You’re just here so you don’t have to watch her dancing with the best looking man in the room.” Soldier boy Cal was hot, from the top of his crew cut, down past all those sculpted cheekbones to military muscles that practically burst out of his tuxedo.
All that gorgeousness had made his we hardly know each other rejection all the more painful. And yes, I probably shouldn’t have come right out and said I was available for sex. I ‘got’ that it weirded some guys out, but I frankly didn’t have time for courtship. Or maybe even foreplay. In my misery, I wanted plain, old, sweaty-between-the-sheets sex and I didn’t understand why it was so damn hard to come by—excuse the pun.
Nick tilted his head in acknowledgement of the obvious—he couldn’t bear to watch Louella dancing with someone else. To his credit, however, he managed to frown as if he was concerned when he said, “But I’m also worried about you.”
A waiter came past and I helped myself to a glass of champagne off his tray. “No you’re not. Louella sent you.”
“Louella sent me,” he agreed, snitching the drink right out of my hand and putting it out of my reach. “But I owe you for bringing me to the wedding so I could propose to her. Technically, I am your date.”
“Well then…” I narrowed my eyes, wondering just how far I could milk this. “If you plan to sleep with Louella—”
“Then you better set me up with someone else.”
It took him a few seconds to say, “Seriously?”
As if his disappointment knew no bounds.
But this wasn’t all about emotional neediness, it was…tradition, and he clearly needed educating, so I tapped a pink fingernail down onto the table. “Bridesmaids always get laid at a wedding. It’s law.”
“Louella didn’t at Jill’s wedding,” he countered, and he would know, because despite the fact that he was stuck at look-but-don’t-touch back then, he would have been watching her every move. “And neither did Angela,” he added, nodding at the bride in her beautiful gold sari, waltzing with another hot man I’d never get to bed—her hunky outback cowboy husband Jack Davenworth.
So what was wrong with me? Where was my hot man?
“Fritha?” Nick said, as if he was worried I’d drifted off.
Which I may have.
But belligerence saw me raising my chin. “Then I must be the only slut,” I said succinctly.
Nick only smiled, which infuriated me further. “You’re not a slut. You’re just promiscuous. Currently. And didn’t you tell me you were in a long-term relationship once with…Alex…?”
“…a few years ago.”
“Fucker.” I was not getting into a discussion about being cheated on. That would feel worse than the whole stuck-on-the-shelf thing.
I shook my head and felt something slide down my back. Hair. My updo must be unravelling. Why did that always happen? Bloody red curls. I hated when they fell in my face and got in the way of drinking.
“In any case,” Nick went on, unbothered by my hair malfunction. “Sex and alcohol are not helpful anesthetics, at least not in the long-term. Voice of experience.”
I shook my head at him. “I only drink at weddings.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“…or whenever things are shitty.”
“…and also when I’m sad.”
“So are you sad right now? Or are you shitty?”
He sounded as if he really cared, and that was too much. My stupid eyes started stinging again, and I lurched up from the table. “Toilet,” I blurted, and turned on my very high heels, catching the edge of a chair leg and careening straight into Rosie Tatts who happened to be walking past.
She grabbed my arm and steadied me, then said, “Bathroom?”
I nodded, more curls falling out of the hairdo Angela had planned so carefully. But I couldn’t think about that, because it would only add to the burden of sad, so instead I let Rosie lead me through the tables, trying not to gawk at her. She was Angela’s super-hip singing agent, a celebrity in her own right, and as big in LA as she was in her hometown of Sydney.
Plus, she looked the part in a white-lace straight skirt and matching crop top with some sort of white fur around the knee-length hem and the neckline. She was impossibly cool with her lilac ankle tattoo of a boxing kangaroo and sky-high heels that matched her mauve cropped hair.
“You’re stunning,” I said, stating the obvious as we walked arm in arm.
She grinned, and I wished then that I was bi, because she was gorgeous. Only, I’d tried girl-sex and it was all soft and meh. So I put that thought out of my head and concentrated on not falling down because I may have twisted my ankle. It was certainly wobbly.
Either that or my three glasses of champagne were actually catching up with me.
“Here we are,” she said as she got me into the ladies’ room, then she steered me toward a cubicle.
“Thanks,” I said, and let her go to transfer my grip onto the toilet door, not trusting my balance. “It’s not a good look when you pee your pants.”
I heard her laughing as I shut the door and rearranged my skirts so I could pee.
“Especially not in a bridesmaid’s dress,” she said from the other side.
“Pale pink. Stupid color for drunks.” I shook my head. A darker color would hide a multitude of sins. Not that I was expecting to pee my pants. I hadn’t done that since I was five, but if there was a spilled drink, I’d be near it, that was for sure. I mumbled on some other rubbish about wondering what a woman had to do to get laid in this place, etc. Then I flushed and let myself out of the cubicle, surprised to find Rosie still standing there.
I must have had a quizzical look on my face, because she shrugged. “Thought you’d like an escort back.”
I washed my hands and flapped them under the air dryer, trying to think of something dismissive to say that wasn’t rude. Because I seriously needed to lose myself in some sweaty, meaningless sex, and having a stunner like her around would cramp my pick-up ability. No man would look at me if she was within range.
But when I turned back to the mirror, I suddenly realized she was the least of my problems. My hair was catastrophic!
“Fuck,” I said softly. One of the tight plaits that had been braided around my curls to hold them against my nape was loose and sticking out sideways with a waterfall of red locks poking past it and down my back. I looked like Pippi Longstocking on drugs.
“We can fix it,” Rosie said.
I shook my head in horror. “I look like a moron. More of a moron,” I amended, because even on my best day I resembled a stick insect in Doc Martens.
“Nonsense,” she said briskly, and pointed at the padded stool to one side of the hand basin that had a makeup bench and power points in front of it. “Sit,” she demanded, and I did as I was told.
Five minutes later the pins and braids were out, and my hair was fluffed around my head like a lopsided orange poodle. “Shiny,” I said and shot her my best sarcastic glance in the mirror. But she ignored that and pulled a miniature hair straightener out of her tiny clutch purse.
She held it up and gazed at me in the mirror. “I will fix this,” she promised, “If you will stop drinking.”
“Just tonight. Not forever,” she clarified, clearly assuming, as Nick and Kamal had, that I was drunk.
“Oh. Okay.” It wasn’t bad advice when I had tears so close to the surface. Besides, being comatose wasn’t the best way to experience sex although, embarrassingly, I had been there in the past.
“Sit still,” she said and I obeyed. Over the next ten minutes while other guests came and went in the bathroom, she straightened my waist-length red hair a section at a time with that tiny straightener, before scraping it back into a high ponytail and redoing my smudged makeup with some seriously smoky eyeshadow.
When she was done, I looked like a different Fritha. A sexier, edgier version of myself. She’d even added blusher to highlight my cleavage so I looked like I had more than I was packing.
She winked at that. “Skinny girl’s secret weapon.”
“Thank you.” If I couldn’t get laid now, there was something fundamentally wrong with the world.
She took my hand and helped me up. “Thank you,” she replied. “You’ve distracted me from some very maudlin thoughts. Weddings!” She shuddered.
I shook my head. “I thought I was the only bad fruit nobody buys.”
“Oh, I’ve got a husband,” she replied. “Or at least, I think I have.”
A beat of awkward silence followed while I frowned.
“He has affairs,” she said softly, even though the bathroom was empty except for us. “But please don’t tell anyone. I’m not even sure why I’m telling you.”
“Jill is the blabber. Don’t tell her,” I warned Rosie. “But I can keep secrets even when I’m drunk.” Which I wasn’t, and in fact, I was feeling soberer by the moment. “So why do you stay with him?” Not that it was any of my business.
She looked like she was regretting her disclosure, but at last she said, “We have daughters.” Then she shrugged, clearly trying for nonchalance but her eyes were dark and tragic. “He’s a fabulous father.”
“And a terrible husband.” Why wasn’t she angry about this? “Have you cheated on him?”
She shook her head, definitely embarrassed now. “But I work long hours. I’m away from home a lot.”
Was she justifying his behavior? “So while you’re off breadwinning, he’s rooting around?”
“When you say it like that—”
“He’s a shit, and you shouldn’t put up with it.” I couldn’t say it any plainer. “And not only that, by staying, you’re being a bad role model for your daughters.”
Rosie blanched, and I had a moment of thinking I’d gone too far. I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings, but I also didn’t want her to go on accepting his bastardry.
Jill’s father had been a cheater and I didn’t want Rosie’s girls to grow up with trust issues like Jill had. But I also didn’t know Rosie very well, so I said, “I’m sorry. It’s shit having kids stuck in the middle of that. But you don’t want them growing up thinking it’s an okay way to be married. Because it’s not,” I added, in case she’d somehow managed to convince herself it was some version of normal. After all, a lot of celebrities were unfaithful. She moved in that world.
Instead of being insulted, however, Rosie’s scarlet lips quirked into an almost smile. “Angela told me you were a straight shooter.”
I gave her a look.
“Okay, they told me you were embarrassingly frank.”
“Is that why we’re talking in the ladies’ room?”
She shrugged. “I have no idea why, but you’re the first person I’ve admitted that to—that Dave is cheating on me.” We gazed at each other for a moment before she went on. “I came in here to distract myself from feeling sad about romantic dreams not coming true. But…” She shrugged. “You’re easy to talk to.”
That deserved a hug so I pulled her in, but she was stiff and maybe surprised. “And you’re going to help me get laid,” I told her.
She laughed at that and pulled out of my arms, blushing, which surprised me. I’d thought she was so cool that nothing would faze her. Clearly a girl-hug was outside her comfort zone which was a pity for her. If I hadn’t had girlfriends to hug, I’d have gone nuts way before now.
“And how am I doing that?” she asked, repacking her tiny clutch purse.
“Find me a slutty man and point me in his direction.”
She laughed again. “Pimping. I see,” she said primly, but she opened the ladies’ room door and held it for me as I exited, managing to stay straight on my heels. “And what do I get in return?”
“Dinner at Bohemian Brew.”
It would be nice to get to know her better.
“Ah,” she said, smiling. “You’re the manager, that’s right. Nice décor. I saw the YouTube video of Angela singing there with Noah Steele.”
So had half the female population of the planet. When a hunky Aussie actor with that sort of Hollywood clout gets caught in an impromptu duet with a pretty young diva like Angela, women lap it up. “The two of them singing together was my idea,” I bragged shamelessly.
“Good promo.” She nodded approvingly, then she glanced around the room, frowning in concentration.
I followed her gaze, dismissing Angela’s three brothers out of hand. I’d grown up with the Patel boys, and even if they hadn’t been married, I wouldn’t sleep with any of them. They were bullies and I certainly didn’t want a reprise of the black eye I’d suffered last year from another bully—a low moment in my resume.
“Hmmm. Not bad,” Rosie said softly, and a second later we both stepped out of the way so someone could pass us into the bathroom.
“Where?” I followed her gaze as the next song kicked in—a slow nineties ballad, and Rosie leant in to whisper against my ear.
“The crewcut.” Her perfume was subtle but sexy, and I had a moment of wondering what I smelt like? Not wine, I hoped. “Bridal table,” she added.
I wanted to sigh in defeat. The groom’s brother Cal. I could only see him from the back, but I shook my head and said—probably too loudly, “Tried there. He’s too picky.”
She frowned and turned back to me. “He hasn’t seen you like this.”
I had to admit I did look different now. Sleeker. Maybe sexier. But, “I propositioned him and he turned me down flat—some shit about we barely know each other.”
Rosie frowned in commiseration. “At least he was tactful.” She glanced back at him for moment, then whispered in my ear again. “You offered me gratuitous advice, so I’m returning the favor. Don’t proposition men. Just look sexy and wait for them to come to you.”
I pulled back gave her a look. “Because I’m not desperate at all.”
That made her bark a laugh, but before she could respond I felt a hand on my arm and Jill was pulling me away. “Bridesmaid conference,” she said apologetically to Rosie who waved us off.
I let myself be tugged along, saying “Yes, boss,” which I knew annoyed Jill. She owned the café I managed, Bohemian Brew, courtesy of a stint of husband sitting which had also provided her own gorgeous husband Finn. But she wasn’t a bosses’ bootlace. She barely responded to the financials I sent her and was happiest if I made all the decisions, which I have to admit suited me. Her main contribution was supposed to be online promo, but most of her time went into pinning glamorous shoes on Pinterest.
“Angela wants us,” she said, and before I could wonder if the bride was okay, we entered a small anteroom and I saw her beaming smile. She pulled me into a patchouli scented hug and I knew it had been pointless to worry. Angela Lata—nee Patel—had just married the man of her dreams who was also the father of her unborn child, a hunky, spunky, cowboy whose family just happened to own the eighth largest cattle station in the country.
Plus, if Jill’s speculation was true, our good friend Angela now had orgasms on tap.
What was not to like?
She pulled back and I had my first up-close look at her gorgeous golden bridal sari with its tiny baby bump at the front. Her mother had shooed us away in the morning when we’d wanted to help her prepare, and seeing as it was the last time the bossy old Mumbai hen would have her little chick under her wing, we’d begrudgingly agreed.
“So,” Angela said, pointing at my new sleek ponytail and smoky eyes. “A change of plan?”
I shrugged. “Hair malfunction. Rosie helped me.”
“I like it,” she said and nodded, looking from me to Jill to Louella. “You all look so sexy.”
“And you don’t?” Jill cut in.
Angela held out her arms. “Group hug.”
The three of us stepped in, and Louella, in her Grecian pale-pink satin gown didn’t falter as I hugged her close. I was still getting used to the fact that her personal space was no longer a no-go zone. Falling for Nicholas had changed her so much. The bristly Miss Missionary Position—as Jill used to call her—had morphed from ice queen to blond bombshell almost overnight.
She still listened more than she spoke—unlike me—but happiness had softened her in so many ways I couldn’t count them. Nicholas suited her very well, and I struggled not to be envious of that.
“So,” Angela said and kissed each of our foreheads in turn while she had us in a hug. “This is the last time I’ll see you guys for a while…”
We pulled back but held hands, a circle of friendship that went back twenty years.
“…I’ve finished the latest album so I’ll be staying at the farm now until the baby is born.” Her eyes were damp and shiny with love. “And I’ll miss you so much, but I need to make this new family I’m in solid.”
Jack had adopted his little nieces when his sister had died and they were as cute as pigtailed puppies, but they were also work, and Angela wasn’t the sort to hire a nanny. She’d waited all her life to be a mother, so it was completely understandable that she’d want to focus on that.
“We’ll visit,” Louella said, and glanced at Jill and I.
“Of course!” We spoke over each other and then laughed. It felt so good. Inside this circle was all the love in the world. More love than I could ever need. I felt like an idiot for my loneliness while I’d been watching them dance. They’d never let me be Nigel No-Friends. So even if I turned into Crazy Old Aunt Fritha who visited and taught their kids bad habits, I’d always be welcome in their lives, and that meant so much.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the whole empty-bed melancholy that came over me from time to time—prompting ill-advised one night stands—I’d be crazy happy.
Or at least that’s what I told myself.
“So let’s stay in touch online,” Angela ordered, pretending to be bossy when she was the marshmallow of the group. Then she tuned on Jill. “I want to hear pregnancy news from you Mrs. Walters as soon as you fall.”
Jill turned on Louella, “And we want a post-wedding celebration with you and Mr. Tattoo,” she demanded, “If you’re still going to elope.”
Louella raised a perfect blond eyebrow. “Let me think.” She let us go and hefted both hands as if weighing something in each palm. “Elope to Maui with Nicholas, or stage a wedding for my parents which will end up being not good enough no matter what I do.”
We laughed and I said, “Well when you put it that way, I vote for eloping over demanding parents. Having Angela’s and Jack’s mothers in the same room has done my head in.”
Angela shook her head ruefully, frowning under her glorious Indian bridal head-jewelry. “I don’t know what’s worse. My mother’s Country Woman’s Association one-upmanship, or Mrs. Davenworth’s patronizing comments about grandchildren of color.”
Jill’s hand fell out of mine as her mouth dropped open. Immediately she snapped it shut to say, “She didn’t!” As if she was preparing to march out there and give Jack’s mother a piece of her mind.
“She’s right,” Angela said simply. “My parents are from Mumbai. Jack’s ancestors are from England.” She shrugged. “Daisy and Charlotte are blond, and their new sibling will be brown. But there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“Nor should you,” Louella said quietly. “You’re creating a family, not matching linen. Color is irrelevant where love is concerned.”
Silence fell over the four of us because there was no arguing with that. But eventually Jill said, “Listen to you, talking about love. Nicholas has changed you.”
I smirked. “She’s in touch with her emotions.” Then I glanced at Jill and we both laughed.
“Yeah,” Jill said, “It’s always about the sex.”
“Good sex,” Angela added, putting in a three musketeers hand.
“Great sex,” Jill bragged, slapping her hand on top.
Louella raised an eyebrow again but she placed a graceful hand over Jill’s. “Unforgettable sex,” she said softly, upping the ante.
The three of them looked at me, but my smirk was gone and I suddenly didn’t want to lie. “Not so much,” I said and shrugged, despite the fact that I’d worked my way through all my male staff and half the suppliers of the teahouse. “Although I’m open to new experiences.”
Angela smiled at me, but it was an odd expectant look. “Then I may have just the right man for you. A friend of Tug Dunn…” That was the television interviewer who’d given her a spot on his morning show. “…A British food critic who’s agreed to visit Bohemian next week on his Colonial Kitchens documentary series.”
Jill was smirking as if she already knew, but I was clueless.
“Food critic?” I asked.
Angela smiled and said two words I never wanted to hear in conjunction with Bohemian Brew.
“Max Banks?” I barely got the words out.
Angela was looking at me as if she’d just given me chocolate, and even Jill was smiling, but…Max Banks!
I shook my head. “Why would you…” I shook it again, trying to quiet down my bubbling hysteria. “He’s a bastard. He only ever says bad things about restaurants. That’s what he does. Why would you inflict that—?”
“Hey!” Jill grabbed both my flailing hands. “I’m the one who agreed. Don’t blame Angela, and this isn’t his Worst Restaurants of Europe series. He’s only featuring restaurants he likes. This could be huge.”
“He’ll hate us,” I whined, remembering that stubble-framed sneer and those cold pebble eyes from late night television, imagining him disdaining the contents of my cake cabinet and throwing quiches at my customers. “We have Himalayan alpaca tea cozies and crystal teapot stands for Chrissake. He’ll make us into a quaint joke.”
Angela was frowning in earnest now, and I suddenly realized I was spoiling her wedding day. It took a wrench to turn my rant around, but I managed to stop myself cold, then even produce a weak smile. “Listen to me,” I said. “As if I’d care what anyone thought. And besides, what’s not to like about BoBrew?”
“Exactly,” Jill said, and turned to Angela with a beaming smile of her own, showcasing her glorious tan against those super-white teeth. “It will be amazing for the shop. Thank you so much for organizing it.”
It took Angela a few more seconds to catch up with my belated enthusiasm, but then she gave us a tentative smile back. “So long as you’re sure.”
“One hundred percent,” Jill said for the both of us, then she gave my hand a squeeze when I didn’t respond.
“For sure!” I added a touch too enthusiastically. “I can’t wait to meet him and show him around. I’m sure he’ll love the place.”
“I hate it.” Maxwell Banks turned on his heel in a slow three-sixty swivel to take in every Moroccan lamp, Persian rug and framed Mandala in Bohemian Brew. He was so out of place in his elegant black suit and crisp white shirt, he looked like a time traveler. “Who designed this? A backpacker from Nepal?”
I expected his tiny blonde assistant to snort, but when I flicked a glance at her she had a non-expression on that smooth, boyish face, as if she and her impressive biceps couldn’t care less what happened in my teashop.
I was less serene, breathing in slowly through my nose, keeping my lips tightly pressed together so I couldn’t tell him to Piss off and take his stupid Brit accent and his muscly sidekick in her black singlet and jeans with him.
“Beanies?” He plucked a multicolored Alpaca wool specimen off the shelf beside the cake display and twirled it between two fingers before letting it fall back.
“Tea cozy—” I said from between gritted teeth.
He barked a laugh that sounded very much like derision.
“—because it is a Tea House,” I added.
In case you hadn’t noticed, you supercilious twit!
He shook his head, clearly appalled, and flicked a glance over my row of staff lined up behind the counter, some of whom immediately straightened. They wore clean and tidy uniforms of either harem pants or a skirt in an earthy tan color, teamed with a loose white shirt. Not one of them had a hair out of place, not even our dreadlocked chef Sammie, whose personal standards had dropped since I’d slept with him a month ago.
Typical of my managerial style, I couldn’t care less if his shirt was ironed, as long as his creations were superb, but today I wanted everything perfect. Luckily for me, it was. From my newest waitress to my front-of-house cashier Desiree who’d been with me from the start, they were all united in their terror of Maxwell Banks, and as a consequence they were turned out impeccably.
If anyone was looking less than professional it was me, and that was pure rebellion. Instead of my usual uniform of tan and white, I’d worn pink because I’d read somewhere that the high and mighty Maxwell Banks found that particular color childish. Louella had bought me a designer pink sundress during our holiday in Rome, and I’d teamed it with teal high-heeled sandals and masses of silver bracelets. My hair was down, but it was clean and combed into the loose ringlets that occurred naturally.
I’d even worn makeup which wasn’t like me, but I was damned if I was going to look like a country hick next to him, and seeing the stylishly cropped black hair and sartorial elegance he’d brought to my tiny regional town, I was glad I’d bothered, although I hadn’t been quite sure I was doing the right thing.
After breakfast I’d sent Jill a selfie to check, because I didn’t want to let her down—Bohemian Brew was her investment—but she’d told me I looked ‘classy’. That didn’t particularly match the laidback style of the teahouse, but Mr. Snooty Banks hadn’t sneered at me, so I assumed I was up to scratch, even if my restaurant wasn’t.
Before I could take comfort from that however, he snapped, “The lighting is shit,” and turned to face me.
“Lunch?” I asked as calmly as I could, and pointed to a booth at the back. “Perhaps you’d like to sit at the table where Noah Steele eats when he’s in town?”
Suck on that Mr. High and Mighty. You’re not the only celebrity we’ve had in here, and you’re far from the most important.
His pebble black eyes narrowed under those jet-black brows. “I heard you’d been lucky—”
“One visit is luck,” I cut over him. “Four visits means Noah is a regular.”
The blond assistant pulled a phone out of her pocket, and I immediately held out a hand to stop any texting she might do. If the newspapers got hold of this titbit, Noah would stop coming. I hadn’t even told Jill that he’d liked the lack of paparazzi so he’d come back. I’d thought I couldn’t trust a blabber like her to keep it secret, and now look at what I’d just done. I’d blabbed about it myself!
The blond with her slick ponytail glanced at Max, as though seeking permission, and I had a horrible premonition that the future of Bohemian Brew could collapse with a single tweet. I was blushing madly but I forced myself to sound calm as I lowered my voice. “Naturally that must be kept secret.”
Max’s arrogant expression hadn’t altered, as if it had been frozen onto his face in shock. I expected him to tell me off for my indiscretion, but he simply said, “Then perhaps you should tell me in future if there are ‘off the record’ comments, so we can speak…privately.”
He’d leant forward marginally to say this, and had also lowered his voice into a gravelly rumble, which did startling things to my stomach. It immediately started to quiver, and then as he held my gaze—seemingly to impress his statement on me—I smelt his aftershave and my lips dropped open.
He smelt like wood-fire and hot skin and…brandy? Something alcoholic and expensive.
Sweet baby Jesus, I’m thinking about sex. Shut it down! Stop looking at his lips…
But they were pursed, and sexy as sin.
“Mr. Banks,” the blond said in her husky voice, and he turned to her.
Just like that, the spell was broken and I sucked in a slow, shuddering breath as I watched them interact. She was pointing at something on her phone and their two heads—dark and light—were close together as they whispered.
No one was looking at me so I took the opportunity to check him out, starting at his glossy black hair that had been cropped in a classic manly style that I wanted to think of as ‘old school’ but which actually suited him perfectly.
He’d begun to frown, drawing together those dark eyebrows over eyes that suddenly didn’t look like black pebbles. They were softer, more…soulful. And sexy. Definitely sexy eyes. I’d woken up this morning wanting to hate the hell out of him, and I was suddenly realizing why women swooned.
Watching him on TV, I’d only thought he was a pretentious braggart and an arrogant know-it-all. But now I was thinking I wonder what those broad shoulders and slim hips look like out of a suit? I wonder if that hair is as silky and soft as it looks. Even worse, I wonder what you taste like.
“I’m not doing it,” he snapped, breaking me out of my sensual daze to notice he was pointing at her phone. “Tell them to go fuck themselves.”
I switched my attention to the assistant whose non-expression hadn’t altered, but it suddenly occurred to me, that could be the look of someone hiding their emotions.
“Certainly,” she said, as if he’d asked her to get him a coffee. Then she excused herself and strode off.
All I could think was, Bastard. He’d better not talk to me like that, conveniently forgetting that I swore like a trooper. It was reverse sexism, but I didn’t like it when men used bad language.
So I was feeling quite self-righteous when I said, “Actually…” and pushed my shoulders back, determined not to be cowed by a bully. “…I’m busy. So there’s the booth.” I pointed. “Make yourself comfortable and I’ll send over a waitress to take your order.”
I turned on my heel and was about to storm off when he said, “Join me.”
I kept my back to him, breathing through my nose again, acutely aware of all my staff watching me.
“Please,” he said softly, so softly they wouldn’t have heard him.
Surprise sent a shiver across my shoulders and I turned to see the soft look in his eyes again, along with an equally soft grumbling tone that added, “I’d like to discuss the suitability of your teahouse.”