"Wow, I can't believe what I'm hearing. You're blowing me off tonight—for a man?"
Zienna Thomas heard a smile in her friend Alexis's voice, which made her feel a lot less guilty for canceling their dinner plans last minute.
"I know, and I'm sorry." Not since she was in her twenties had Zienna canceled on a friend for a guy. "It's just that Nicholas said he really needed to see me tonight. I'm on my way there now. Something about how he created the best new dish for his restaurant and he wants me to try it before he loses his inspiration. You know Nicholas. When he gets excited, he's like a dog with a bone. I couldn't tell him no."
"Maybe not, but you could tell him that your best friend has taste buds, too…"
"I could have," Zienna agreed. "But he's at the new restaurant, testing out the facilities before the grand opening, and he's sensitive about only one person trying—"
"I'm just giving you a hard time," Alexis interrupted her. "I know how Nicholas is. If he wants only you to sample something, he'll be mad if I show up wanting a plate."
"Ain't that the truth." A soft smile touched Zienna's lips as she thought of Nicholas's quirks. He was set in his ways when it came to how he did business, and in the five months she had been dating him, he had deemed her his food tester. And he wanted only one person to give him an unbiased opinion on his creations before presenting them to the public.
"Plus," Zienna went on, "I kind of get the sense…" Her voice trailed off. The thought that had occurred to her suddenly seemed foolish.
"Sense that what?" Alexis prompted.
"I don't know. Kind of the way he was stressing that I had to meet him tonight, that tomorrow wouldn't do… He mentioned a few days ago that a best friend of his was coming back to town. I'm not sure why, but I wouldn't be surprised if he wants me to meet him tonight."
"Wow, so this is really getting serious," Alexis all but sang.
"I don't know." Zienna's stomach tickled at the thought. "Maybe. But if his friend does drop by, it's not like he's introducing me to his parents or anything."
"But a best friend—that's just as critical. He obviously likes you."
Zienna's heart swelled. "I know. And I like him, too."
"I did good, didn't I?" Alexis asked, and Zienna could picture the huge smile on her face.
"Yes, you did good." It was Alexis who'd met Nicholas at his restaurant, and struck up a conversation with him with the sole purpose of introducing him to Zienna. "Things are going better than I ever expected."
"Go have fun with your man. I won't hold it against you that you're blowing me off. Don't worry about me, wasting away on my sofa.. "
"Look at the bright side. You can finally catch up on the latest season of Criminal Minds that you've got stored on your PVR."
"Ouch. No sympathy at all."
"There are worse ways to spend an evening than watching Shemar Moore."
"This is true. Now if only I could get him to come to Chicago, help me nurse my broken heart."
Zienna didn't bother to comment as she maneuvered her car into the parking lot of Reflections on the Bay, the restaurant her boyfriend was about to launch. Alexis's own relationship of two years had recently ended, but she was the one who'd crushed Elliott's heart by calling off their short engagement. According to Alexis, Elliott was a great guy, but something vital was missing from their relationship. Getting engaged had made her realize that she couldn't settle for a guy who was only good enough.
"Look, Alex, I just got to the restaurant. So I'll talk to you later, okay?"
"Sure," Alexis replied. Then, hurriedly, "Hey, if Nicholas's friend does show up and he's sexy, give him my number."
"Whatever." Zienna laughed. "You're supposed to be wasting away on the sofa, remember?"
"Actually, you're supposed to be encouraging me to jump into bed with a random stranger so that I get over Elliott."
"Talk to you, Alex," Zienna said.
"Fill me in later!"
Zienna ended the call and shook her head. Alexis had always been talking about finding someone new—even before she'd finally dumped Elliott. Someone who didn't know her might wonder what more she could want in a guy. She'd been in a serious relationship for two years, and unlike a lot of other women involved with men that long, she had secured an engagement ring. But once she'd gotten engaged, she had done a one-eighty with her emotions, saying that Elliott was too safe, too predictable…and for that reason, ultimately boring. And the last thing Alexis wanted was to marry a guy who didn't excite her.
While Zienna didn't necessarily agree that her friend should have dumped Elliott, she understood only too well her sentiments. Zienna had once been crazy about a guy who was sexy as hell, with an edge that never failed to electrify her. But Wendell didn't want to get married—ever—and had moved away four years ago. Since then, Zienna had come to realize that part of the thrill with him had been the chase. The way he'd kept her on her toes by never completely giving her his heart.
She had had to work for his time and affection, which had been exhilarating and fun. And the prize—superhot sex—had always been worth her efforts. The men she'd dated after Wendell had been dull and hadn't challenged her. Not to mention that they couldn't compare in the bedroom.
But finally, Zienna had met Nicholas, and he was different than the duds she'd dated in the past. Though he'd made his attraction to her completely clear, so she wasn't challenged in that regard, Zienna didn't find herself getting bored with him. Maybe it was because she'd grown up and could appreciate a man who was willing to hand her his heart on a platter, instead of play games.
Games only led to pain.
Zienna had been crazy about Wendell, but ultimately devastated by him. Yet foolishly, even as the years passed, she had often hoped he would return. Tell her he'd made a mistake by leaving her. How insane was that?
Thankfully, she was older and wiser now. In her mid-thirties and definitely more mature, she had come to realize that she'd never really had a relationship with Wendell at all. Oh, he had given her great loving, which had left her craving more of him. But he had never promised her tomorrow, not with words, anyway. Zienna had been dumb enough to believe their incredible sexual connection meant he must have loved her.
People said that time healed all wounds, and it was in the last year that she had finally started to let go of the residual feelings she'd had for Wendell. Which, she knew, was the main reason she hadn't been interested in the other guys she'd dated—she'd still carried a torch for a man who hadn't returned her feelings. But once she'd been able to put Wendell in her rearview mirror, she had been willing to open up her heart to someone new.
That person was Nicholas. They'd been dating for only five months, but Zienna was really into him.
And it felt good.
She lowered the car's visor and checked the mirror to make sure she still looked as presentable as she had before she'd gotten behind the wheel of her Hyundai Sonata. Located north of Chicago's downtown core near the Belmont Yacht Club, Reflections on the Bay was the sister property to Reflections, a restaurant Nicholas had been running for eight years. He had wanted a location that overlooked Lake Michigan, so was elated when he'd been able to get this property. The fact that it had a parking lot for guests, unlike the location in the theater district by the Loop, was another bonus.
Satisfied that she looked good, Zienna exited her car. Turning, she faced the lake, which was a spectacular sight at night, with the moon's rays dancing on the ripples. The tables for the patio had already arrived, and she had no doubt that the outdoor seating area would be a preferred spot for many customers in summer.
She grinned. The place was coming along nicely. The sign bearing the establishment's name was now illuminated, glowing orangey-red just like its sister location. The doors were set to open in a couple weeks, on May 4. Zienna couldn't help feeling a sense of pride for Nicholas.
His car was the only other vehicle in the parking lot. That meant she'd been wrong about her suspicion that he wanted to introduce her to his friend.
She opened the door to the restaurant and stepped inside. Unlike at Nicholas's first restaurant, Reflections, where the lights would be dimmed to create ambience for the diners, the lights here were fully up. This restaurant was almost identical to its sister establishment in terms of decor, with the exception of some of the lighting fixtures and framed photographs on the wall. All the photos here and at Nicholas's other location were black-and-white, and reflected moments in Chicago's history—hence the name.
"Hello?" Zienna called out. A delectable aroma of some sort of fish wafted to her nose, and her stomach grumbled in response. Nicholas must be in the kitchen. She couldn't wait to sample his new dish.
As she walked through the extensive bar area, she thought back to the first time he had brought her to Reflections, five months ago. He had given her the whole romantic treatment with the just the two of them there—the lights down low, candles on the table, and soft music playing through the sound system. It had been an incredible date. She'd quickly realized the huge benefit of dating a chef.
"Baby?" Zienna said.
Just then, Nicholas came out from kitchen area, his eyes meeting hers. And in that nanosecond, she took in his entire appearance and couldn't stop the jolt of heat. Dressed in black slacks and a black shirt open at the collar, his six-foot-three frame couldn't have been sexier. The white apron tied around his waist made him all the more appealing.
Seeing her, his handsome face lit up with a grin. He had the kind of earnest smile that brightened his eyes and could make a girl melt. That was the feature that had drawn Zienna in, but she was a woman who lusted over a hot guy just like anybody else, and loved Nicholas's lean and muscular frame, and his tight behind. With his shirt off, his golden-brown skin was flawless but for a dark circular birthmark over his heart. With his washboard abs and honed physique, he could have easily graced the cover of a sports magazine. He'd played football and basketball in college, and still had the body of an athlete.
Zienna had seen a college picture of him with long dreadlocks, something she could hardly have imagined, given that his hair was currently cropped short and his face clean-shaven. It was a look he preferred now, claiming it was more professional.
"There you are," Zienna said.
"Look at you." His eyes swept over her from head to toe. "Wow."
"This old thing?" she teased. She knew the black sheath dress and strappy four-inch heels she'd put on made her look like a knockout.
"You're not supposed to come in here wearing something I want to take off of you—"
Zienna giggled as he hugged her. "I figured I should dress to impress. No point acting like an old married couple already."
"I'm not gonna complain." Nicholas eased back. "Damn, girl. That dress fits you like a second skin." His eyes settled on her ample cleavage, his favorite part of her body.
"You'd better stop looking at me like that," she warned him in a low voice. "Unless you want to christen this place again." Which was exactly what she'd hoped for when she'd dressed earlier. Placing her hands on his chest, she leaned in close. "Because you are looking pretty hot yourself. I always was a sucker for a guy dressed to the nines…and wearing an apron."
Which truly was a turn-on. Nicholas knew how to cook, and had regaled her palate with mouthwatering entrees and scrumptious desserts.
"There'll be no christening tonight," Nicholas said. He placed his hands on her shoulders and squeezed gently.
"No?" Zienna pouted a little. They had done it on the counter in the kitchen, and both had reflected afterward that a booth would have been the smarter choice. "You sure I can't lure you over to a booth in the back?"
"Sorry, not tonight. Because in addition to me wanting you to try my latest dish, I have someone I'd like you to meet."
"Oh?" Zienna glanced around curiously.
"I told him to show up for eight, but he called about twenty minutes ago, said he'd be about ten minutes late. Which means any second now he should be walking through the door."
"Way to spoil a girl's anticipation." She again pouted playfully as she crossed her arms over her chest. "I was kind of hoping for round two." Their coupling in the kitchen had been out of the ordinary, and highly exciting for Zienna, who wished that Nicholas would be a little more spontaneous when it came to sex.
"Of course." A beat passed. "At least I have time to do this." Zienna tipped up on her toes, and Nicholas immediately encircled her waist with his strong hands and lowered his lips to meet hers.
Warmth spread through her entire body as they kissed, the only sound being their heavy breathing.
And then the door chimes sang, and Zienna quickly pulled her lips from her man's. Meeting Nicholas's eyes, she suppressed a giggle.
"I can come back," said a deep voice from behind her.
"My man," Nicholas said, another grin exploding on his face. He released Zienna and stepped past her.
She surreptitiously dabbed at her mouth to remove any moisture. Then, smiling sheepishly, she turned to meet Nicholas's friend.
And as her eyes landed on the familiar face, her smile went flat a moment before her stomach bottomed out.
Excerpted from Playing with Fire
by Kayla Perrin
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are
provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.