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Reinventing Ruby

by Deborah Blake

Reinventing Ruby
Deborah Blake

Copyright 2017 Deborah Blake

All rights reserved.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27


About the Author

Ruby’s Recipes

Chapter One

“Opal, stop ogling the stripper,” Ruby said directly into her sister’s ear to be heard over the loud music. “You know that thing’s not real.”

Her middle sister giggled and winked at the overly-muscled man currently gyrating on top of the table in front of them. “Oh, it could be. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

Ruby Tate winced at the sight of her youngest sister, Garnet, pushing a dollar bill into the improbably stuffed G-string, and tried to look like she was having fun.

This was the worst bachelorette party she’d ever been to. That was really saying something, considering that Opal had already been married and divorced three times. And the way her red-haired sister was eying the talent, it looked like she was seriously thinking about number four. Hopefully Garnet would stop with just one.

Ruby took a long drink of her cheap champagne and gazed at the glass a bit blurrily. It didn’t seem quite as bad as it had a couple of hours ago, so either it was getting better, or she was getting tipsier. Still, at least it made the dismal “canapés” they served here almost edible. Almost.

She sniffed at one dubiously and put it back down. Ruby had tried to convince her sisters to have the party at her restaurant, Jewels, where the food would have been a thousand times better and the ambiance considerably calmer. But Garnet insisted that calm was the last thing you wanted at a bachelorette party, so they’d ended up at The ChaChaCha, a tacky bar on the edge of Manhattan specializing in both pre-and-post-wedding celebrations of the wilder sort.

Still, Ruby loved her sisters, and if this was what made Garnet happy, then Ruby was willing to suck it up and deal with it, bad food and all.

Across the room, Ruby saw a group of men and women in formal wedding attire sitting at a circle of crescent-shaped tables surrounding an elevated stage where a female pole dancer strutted her stuff. That was clearly a post-ceremony reception, since the bride was wearing a fluffy white dress and sitting next to a trio of women in butt-ugly matching pink chiffon.

Bad enough the poor girls had to go out in public in those dresses; the fact that they had to watch their dates stare at a dancer during dinner just added insult to injury. Ugh. If Ruby ever got married, she’d rather elope than come here either before or after the ceremony.

Still, at least they had dates. In fact, glancing around the crowded bar, Ruby could see that she was almost the only one on her own. Everyone else seemed to be paired up, or well on their way to becoming so. Even Mindy, Garnet’s nearly six-foot tall maid of honor, seemed to have found someone to chat with, glowing with delight at a guy in a cowboy hat and well-worn jeans.

For a moment, loneliness hit her like a tsunami - stomach clenching, heart contracting waves of aching emptiness. Then Ruby reminded herself that she’d chosen to put all her energy into her restaurant. Men were just a distraction she didn’t have time for, and that was okay with her. Who had time to be lonely when they were trying to keep their dreams from going belly-up?

“You’re not having a good time, are you?” Garnet said with concern in her voice. Her short dark hair was the same color as Ruby’s, and they shared many of the same features. But on Garnet, they were cute and sexy, instead of Ruby’s more dramatic, less conventional good looks. Men had always adored Garnet. The dancer on the table above them swiveled his hips in her direction, hoping for another tip.

Ruby put a smile on her face, reaching up to tuck some money in the G-string while trying not to touch anything. “I’m fine,” she said, raising her voice to be heard over the rock and roll. “Just a little tired. I was up early to do some extra prep work in the kitchen so I could stay out tonight.” She glanced at her watch, wondering if she should call the restaurant to see if everything was going smoothly. Her sous chef was perfectly capable of handling one evening without her - especially these days when business was slow - but there were so many things that could go wrong when the head chef was away.

Her sister rolled her eyes. “You called them when we got here,” she scolded. “I’m sure everything is fine. You’re worse than Mary Lou, calling her babysitter every twelve minutes. Relax, will you? You’re paying for this, after all. You might as well try to have a good time.” She put the empty glass down on the table, grabbed one of her girlfriends, and headed back out into the crush after giving the male dancer one more appreciative look.

Ruby sighed. Why was everybody always telling her to relax? She was relaxed. Mostly. And why couldn’t Garnet understand that Jewels was her baby, to all extents and purposes? A very sick baby, too, if the finances were anything to go by.

Peering around, she saw the sign for the Ladies Room: a naked female silhouette wearing high heels and nothing else. Cute. She made her way through the noisy crowd, winding her way around tables full of people all seemingly enjoying the outlandish atmosphere. Her head buzzed from a combination of the alcohol and the commotion and she stopped outside the bathroom door to wonder if they were really all having as much fun as they appeared to be, or if some of them felt as out of place as she did.

Inside the bathroom, the decibel level dropped noticeably and she stepped into a stall with a sigh of relief. A few minutes later, Ruby heard the door open and recognized the voices of Garnet’s two bridesmaids. But before she could go out and join them, her name was mentioned. Hand on the sliding knob, she hesitated.

“I can’t believe they’re even related,” Cristal said with a titter. Ruby could visualize her standing in front of the mirror, reapplying her heavy makeup. “I mean, Garnet and Opal are so cool and Ruby is so uptight.”

“Oh, Ruby’s not so bad,” Heather replied. Inside her stall, Ruby’s mouth curved up and she started to open the door as the other girl came to her defense.

“Like, she’s paying for this whole party, when everyone knows that her restaurant is on the verge of closing.” Heather made the smacking noise that meant she’d put on lipstick. “Ruby’s nice enough; she’s just got no spirit. I think Opal and Garnet got all the bold genes in the family. Poor Ruby has never done one wild or impetuous thing in her whole life. She’s the safe one.”

The smile slid off Ruby’s face and she tried to scoot her feet in their sensible shoes even further into the stall. She couldn’t stand it if they figured out she was in here. Poor Ruby, indeed. Her restaurant was not on the verge of closing. Yet. And she’d done wild things. Right? She must have. Just because she couldn’t think of any now, under these particularly hideous circumstances, didn’t mean she’d never done anything adventurous.

“Oh, please,” Cristal said with a sneer in her voice. “There’s a difference between being safe and being dead from the neck down. Ruby is so boring she could suck all the air out of the room. Who would go out with that?” They giggled, and the door slammed behind them as they left.

Ruby emerged slowly from her hiding place and stood at the sink. After a moment, she washed her hands and splashed some water onto her burning face. Her reflection stared back at her from the mirror, a bit wide-eyed.

She bit her lip, trying to tell herself that the bright pink in her cheeks made her look healthy and vibrant. It wasn’t that she wasn’t an attractive woman, after all. She shared her sisters’ classic features and her light brown eyes had an interesting amber tint to them. Yes, her long dark hair was curled up into its usual bun on top of her head, but at least she’d stuck some decorative star-tipped bobby pins into it for the occasion. She wasn’t ugly, just…unexciting.

Ruby tugged at the square neckline of the white blouse she was wearing, and tried unbuttoning a couple of extra buttons. Did that make her look sexier, or simply like a woman who couldn’t remember how to dress herself? Her reflection shrugged at her. It had seemed silly to go out and buy herself a new outfit for the occasion, when the money would be better spent paying for all of Garnet’s friends to come to the party. Now she wished she’d let them go hungry, and splurged on a pretty top instead.

Ruby sighed and redid the buttons before leaving the bathroom. Who was she kidding, anyway? A boring girl in an undone shirt was still a boring girl.

Blinking rapidly as she reentered the noisy bar, she didn’t see the tall man until she’d bumped into him. Hard.

“Oof,” he said, putting out a hand to steady her. “Sorry about that. You okay? I didn’t mean to knock you over.”

“Oh, god, I’m sorry,” she said, ducking her head in embarrassment. “It was my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going.” Great. He probably thought she was drunk.

“Yeah, well, there really is no safe place to look around here,” he said with a grin. “I don’t blame you for keeping your eyes on the floor.”

His hand lingered for a moment on her shoulder, warm and comforting, before he moved off in the direction of the Men’s Room. For a minute, she was tempted to try and find some excuse to hang around until he came back out, but she couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t make her look like a stalker chick. She returned to her table instead. Maybe while she was sitting there pretending to watch the dancers, she could come up with an exciting new dish that would miraculously bring in hundreds of customers.

Five minutes later, she saw him across the room at the table with the trio of pink flamingo women. He glanced back and gave her a stunningly attractive smile. Her heart fluttered, beating fast and hard. For a minute, she couldn’t catch her breath and the ground seemed to shift under her feet. What the hell was that? She pushed her empty glass away. When a single smile from a good-looking man could make her whole body tingle, it was clearly time to stop.

Although he was gorgeous. She gave him a hesitant half-smile in return, not really expecting him to notice. His eyes crinkled as his lips curved upward even further.

She blinked, looking over her shoulder to see who he was smiling at. By the time she’d turned around again, he was standing in front of her, an open bottle of champagne dangling from one large hand. His dark suit fit like it had been made for him despite his broad shoulders and long torso. Other than the red tie, hanging slightly askew as though he’d been pulling at it, he looked like he’d just walked out of a boardroom or a bank. Best looking banker she’d ever seen. Best looking anything, come to think of it.

“You’re empty,” he said, sliding into the chair next to hers.

“Huh?” Ruby blinked, feeling like she could drown in his blue eyes. Get a grip, Ruby. And not on him. The dance music was so loud she had to lean in to hear him. And if that enabled her to sneak a whiff of his amazing cologne, well, that was just a bonus. Her heavy coil of dark hair threatened to slip out of its carefully wound bun and she absently pushed a bobby pin back into place.

He held the champagne bottle over her glass. “Your glass is empty. Can’t have that in a place like this.” He gave her another brilliant grin. “If you’re sober, you might taste the food.”

Ruby laughed. “It is terrible, isn’t it?” She meant to refuse the drink, but he’d already poured it by the time she could say so. At least it was a much better label than what they were drinking at Garnet’s table. No doubt his party wasn’t being thrown by an almost-broke restaurateur.

“I wouldn’t feed it to my dog,” he said with a disgusted look at the plate in front of her. His brown hair fell over one eye, giving him a boyish charm. Ruby’s fingers itched to push it back, but she wrapped them around the stem of her wine glass to keep them out of trouble. The last thing she needed was a businessman in a fancy suit; she already had one of those hanging around, and he was driving her crazy. Of course, this one was a lot hotter…

“So,” she said brightly, “you have a dog.”

He shook his head, pushing the errant lock out of the way with what looked like a habitual gesture. “No, but I might get one, just so I can not feed him this food.”

Ruby laughed. “It’s pretty disgusting. I can’t believe I’m paying for it.” She made a face and drank more champagne to drown the irony of it all. For a woman whose only passion was food, who had sunk every penny she owned into running her own restaurant, to be hosting a party that featured greasy bar snacks attempting to mimic gourmet cuisine…it was beyond ironic. Hell, it was just plain sad.

“Hey, it’s not that bad!” her companion said with alarm, probably afraid she was going to turn into one of those weepy drunks. He picked up one of the stuffed mushrooms, popping it into his mouth before Ruby could stop him.

A pained look crossed his face as he moved the chewy, tasteless morsel from one side of his mouth to the other, trying not to swallow it. Ruby took mercy on him and handed him a paper napkin.

“Here,” she said, smiling for maybe the third time all night. “If I had a dog, I wouldn’t make him eat it either.”

He turned his head and disposed of the mushroom as neatly as possible. “Okay, I take it back. They are that bad. What was that made out of, rubber?”

She rolled her eyes. “I know. The mushroom should be firm and meaty, with a stuffing that lends a light and subtle flavor complementing the earthiness of the mushroom; something like crab, mixed with fresh breadcrumbs, and finely chopped dill, and topped with a dollop of crème fraîche right before serving.” She spoke with authority, feeling happier just thinking about cooking. Maybe she’d ditch the party and go back to Jewels to mix up a batch.

The good-looking man perked up at her description. “You know your food,” he said with a grin. “I love a woman who likes to eat. Too many women these days are on some kind of bizarre diet and refuse to so much as taste anything with more than two carbs.”

He held out one hand with the fine, tapered fingers of an artist. “John,” he said, shouting a little to be heard. Or maybe he said “Don.” Ruby couldn’t be sure, what with the noise, but it didn’t matter. After tonight she’d never see him again. The thought was strangely freeing. Or maybe that was the champagne on a mostly-empty stomach.

“Ruby,” she said back, shaking his hand and finding calluses she didn’t expect.

He scooted closer as the volume went up on the next song. “Did you say Ruthy?” he asked.

“Sure, whatever.” Ruby took another swig of champagne. “This is great stuff. It’s a shame to waste it on the hideous food here. It should be drunk with something like lobster, or a nice rack of lamb.” Her face glowed at the thought of real food.

Definitely time to leave. The party had been going on for long enough; it was likely no one would even notice she was gone. Other than her sisters, she hardly knew anyone there. And she knew what her sisters’ friends thought of her now: boring. No one would miss her as long as she picked up the tab.

“Boring,” John said.

“What?” Ruby looked up; shocked that he’d somehow read her mind.

“Lobster,” he said with a grin, showing a dimple she hadn’t noticed before. Damn, she was a sucker for dimples.

“Lobster is nice,” he added, moving even closer and slinging one arm around the back of her chair. “But it’s boring. I’d much rather drink my champagne with a lovely duck, roasted with oranges and figs until the skin is so crispy it crackles in your mouth.”

Ruby closed her eyes, almost able to taste it. Figs, she thought. I never would have thought of figs. “Duck’s good,” she said. “What else ya got?”

He thought for a minute, then ran one finger lightly down the back of her hand, sending shivers to other parts of her body. “How about a spinach salad with pomegranate seeds, glazed walnuts, avocados, and a balsamic vinaigrette?” The hand slid slowly up her wrist to caress her arm.

“I love pomegranates,” Ruby sighed. “They’re so beautiful and vibrant, bursting into your mouth like passion made manifest.” She opened her eyes again to see her companion staring at her.

“What?” she said indignantly. “I love food. And I’ve had a lot of champagne.” So if she waxed more poetic than usual, it was at least partially his fault. She took another swig of wine, feeling a surge of something like electricity where he’d touched her.

* * * * *

Jonathan shook his head, bewitched by the sudden, almost magical connection. He couldn’t believe that the woman who kept her lush curves hidden underneath a long dark skirt and plain white sleeveless top had such a zeal for good food. The contrast between her conservative clothes and the way her voice got husky and her eyes sparkled when she talked about food intrigued him like nothing else had in a long time. Ah, Ruthy, my treasure; you’ve piqued my interest, he thought. You might look like an uptight school teacher, but you clearly have some fire buried in you somewhere.

He had wandered over more out of boredom with the group at his table than any real intention of trying to pick her up, no matter how striking her face, with its wide mouth and arching brows. She was a little too unusual looking to be pretty, but she might just be beautiful if she would smile more. His hand stroked higher, reaching her shoulder. “I think you might surprise yourself if you let yourself relax a little.”

Of course, he was one to talk. This was his first night back in town in weeks, and he was spending it at this crappy bar, eating crappy food with people he hadn’t seen since school - and hadn’t missed - all because he hadn’t had the sense to say no when his old buddy asked him to attend his wedding. The truth was - he’d much rather be working. And what did that say about him?

He probably needed to relax, too. But who had the time? He’d devoted the last ten years to building his career and he was finally on top; he’d met all the lofty goals he’d set for himself. Which should be great. But once you’d made it, the last thing you could do was stop. There was always someone nipping at your heels, waiting to take your place if you slowed down for even a second.

Jonathan took a deep breath, trying to let go of the discontented feeling that had been dogging him for the last couple of months, sneaking up when he least expected it. His life was perfect, or nearly so. He should be happy. So why wasn’t he?

He turned his attention back to the woman next to him sipping his expensive champagne, focusing on her sparkling amber-brown eyes. Now here was a challenge he could enjoy. Maybe he could figure out a way to get them both to lighten up. He grinned at the thought, an unaccustomed heat flooding his veins. Something about her intrigued him, making him want to get closer. A lot closer.

* * * * *

“Strawberries dipped in dark chocolate,” her companion’s deep voice said into Ruby’s ear. She shivered, feeling the timbre of his tone echoing down to her toes.

The dimple flashed at her again. “Nothing goes better with champagne than fresh strawberries and a creamy dark chocolate glaze, with a hint of espresso powder to give it a little kick.” Slender fingers played with a dark curl that had somehow escaped its pins. “Sometimes a little kick is good, don’t you think? Food should be unpredictable, surprising you with its hidden pleasures.” At the word “pleasures,” he leaned in further and kissed her neck; soft, feathery kisses that barely touched her skin, but still sent tiny sparks racing through her bloodstream.

“I love strawberries,” she answered, closing her eyes again. Her head swam, but she couldn’t have said if it was from the alcohol or the magnetism of the man who sat so close she could feel the heat coming off his body like a furnace. “And chocolate.”

“I’ll tell you what, Ruthy, my angel,” John or Don said slowly. “I think we should blow this joint and go eat some strawberries.” More light kisses trailed up the side of her face. “I live a few blocks from here. We could go share some chocolate and maybe talk a bit without having to scream over bad music. What do you say?”

Ruby said, “I’d love to.” Then sat up in shock at the words that had come out of her mouth. Was she really considering going home with some man she’d only just met? That was something Opal or Garnet might do, but never her.

She couldn’t. The wine might have made her a little giddy - well, maybe more than a little - but she wasn’t drunk enough to justify doing something so out of character. Even if a part of her really, really wanted to. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so attracted to a man. She’d never believed in chemistry, but now she wanted to reach out and wrap herself around him, right here in public.

No, Ruby, she said to herself reluctantly. Just say no.

A snicker from across the table made her glance up. Cristal and Heather were staring at her and her gorgeous companion, twin looks of amazement and disbelief on both their faces.

Dead from the neck down, my ass, she thought.

She smiled; a wide toothy grin of rare rebellion. “I’d love to,” she said more firmly. “Bring the rest of the champagne.”

Chapter Two

The three blocks to her new friend’s apartment passed in a blur of kisses and caresses; long slow French kisses stolen in the doorways of closed shops, quick embraces up against the brick walls of a doctor’s office, a psychotherapist’s, and a palm reader’s. Ruby thought she probably needed to see all three, but at the moment, she just didn’t care. She’d never experienced such wanton, reckless lust before and she intended to make the most of it.

Once they got to his place, he fumbled to unlock the door without dropping the bottle he’d tucked under one arm or letting go of her. Inside, he flicked on a light, closed the door behind them, and said, “Well, here we are.”

Ruby caught a glimpse of masculine décor - long brown leather couches, lots of dark wooden shelving, and a serious sound system - as he tugged her across the floor in the direction of what she assumed was the bedroom. But he stopped in the doorway and gazed into her face searchingly.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “I wouldn’t want it said that I took advantage of a lady. We can still just go into the kitchen and eat strawberries.” The gleam in his eyes made it clear which choice he preferred, but the gallantry of his gesture and his obvious willingness to stop if that was what she wished made Ruby want him even more.

An unaccustomed giggle escaped her lips. “I believe we can both see that I’m no lady,” she said breathlessly, gazing past him to the king-sized bed that took up most of the space in his bedroom. A brown velvet comforter was turned down invitingly, as if waiting for them to come inside, and a dim light burned in a lamp next to it. “We can eat strawberries later.” She reached up and kissed him again, leaning into his chest. “Much later.”

He laughed back at her. “You’ve got it,” he said, a little short of breath himself, and pulled her willingly after him to that huge bed, plunking the champagne down on the bedside table so he could take her in both arms.

They stood next to the bed and Ruby started to unbutton her blouse, eager to feel his skin against her own. But he reached out one hand to stop her.

“Wait,” he said. “Wait.”

His fingers slid up to her head, scattering bobby pins everywhere, and dark hair poured down over her shoulders, reaching to the middle of her back in a cascade of wild curls.

John took an involuntary step back. “Oh, my god,” he said. “It’s so beautiful. Why on earth do you wear it all tied up like that?” He ran his hands through the brown mass, catching his fingers on a tangled bit.

“It gets in my way,” Ruby said, thinking about the kitchen. “It’s just easier to put it up.”

He shook his head. “Darlin’, easier doesn’t always mean better.” Stooping a little because of the difference between their heights, he moved his lips across hers softly, making her shudder with need. Wrapping his long arms around her, he deepened the kiss, sliding his tongue inside her mouth and then out again in a way that mimicked the act to come. She pressed her body against his, overwhelmed with heat, feeling his hardness pressing into her thigh.

When he stopped kissing her and stepped back again, she gave an involuntary sigh and tightened her fingers on his shoulders. But he was only giving himself the space to slowly unbutton her blouse, one teasing button at a time. With each one, he kissed her gently - on her mouth, on her cheek, on her eyelids. When the shirt dropped to the floor, he nibbled her earlobe. When her bra followed it, his lips slid down to her neck and into the hollow of her throat. She sighed again, overwhelmed with sensation.

She’d been with men before, of course, but had never understood why other women waxed so enthusiastic about sex. It was okay, but nothing to shout about. But she felt like shouting now. Or moaning. Or screaming. Or something.

Long arms reached down to unzip her skirt and he knelt briefly to pull it and her panties down over her knees and past her ankles. On his way back up, he laid soft butterfly kisses up the length of her leg, up her abdomen and torso. When he finally reached her breasts she thought she would implode, but he only curled his tongue briefly around each nipple and returned to capture her mouth with his once again.

With shaking fingers, Ruby slid his suit jacket off of those broad shoulders, unfastened his shirt, and started to unzip his pants. With a low chuckle, he gently removed her hands and replaced them with his own.

“You’d better let me get that,” he said. “I’m afraid there’s not a lot of extra room in there at the moment; wouldn’t want to catch it on anything.” He lowered the zipper carefully and shook the pants off to join her clothes on the floor.

She tried not to stare at his naked body and failed. It wasn’t just the size of him, although that took away what little breath she had left. He was simply perfect. She’d never seen a man so beautifully proportioned; lean and muscled without being bulky, with a light sprinkling of soft hair on his chest. He was like a feast for the senses, and for tonight at least, he was all hers.

Catching his hands, she bounced lightly onto the bed, bringing him with her. They lay there for a moment, his long, slim body stretched out against hers as they joined together in a series of deep, soulful kisses. He raised himself up on one elbow to look into her eyes, a kind of worship reflected in his own.

“You are one spectacular woman,” he said softly. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Ruby breathed in, reveling in the musky scent of his maleness, mixed with smell of soap and a hint of some subtle aftershave. “I’m glad I’m here, too.” She moved closer, rubbing her thigh against his.

He countered by touching her - everywhere. First he ran his fingers gently over her erect nipples, then down her stomach, then slowly, oh so slowly, eased one finger into her softest, most secret spot. She tried not to moan, but a low cry escaped, muffled by her face pressed into his chest.

She moved against him, involuntarily seeking more. He responded by adding a second finger to the first until she thought she would explode, pleasure shooting through her veins like lightning. Unwilling to be the only one driven so wild, she reached out and closed her hand on him, reveling in the feel of him, large and hard beneath her exploring touch. She wanted him so much. Wanted him now. Wanted him inside her.

Instead, he pulled away from her grasp, leaving her empty.

“Hey,” she breathed, “come back here.”

He chuckled. “In a minute. Be patient.”

Patient? How could she be patient when her blood was boiling?

Ruby peered through slitted eyelids and saw John reach for the bottle of champagne on the bedside table.

“You’re going to stop for a drink now?” she gasped, wanting him to touch her more.

He shook his head, smiling a secret smile, and poured champagne onto her belly, where it pooled into the concave dip of her stomach. She shivered at the damp coolness of it, then shivered again as he put the bottle back and started to lick the wine off her body. Shivered as his tongue slid into her belly button and out again to run up and down her abdomen. Shivered as his mouth sucked and caressed and his lips move up and down. And down.

A moan escaped her as his teeth scraped lightly against her skin on the way back up to her swollen breasts and she couldn’t take it anymore. With unaccustomed assertiveness, she pulled him back up to her mouth, kissing him with all the fire she had. Wrapping herself around him, she flipped them over so she was on top, straddling his thighs. She laughed at the startled look on his face.

“Enough teasing,” she said breathlessly. “Now, I want you now.” She slid against him, her damp body sticking slightly to his.

He groaned deep in his throat, reaching out one hand. “Wait, I need to - ”

“You need to be in me,” Ruby whispered, and lowered herself slowly, carefully, and oh, so gratefully, onto him. He was almost too large, after such a long time alone, and for a moment she wondered if she’d made a mistake. Then her muscles relaxed and he slid inside as if he had been made for her. She gasped, then cried out, as electric shocks traveled through her, bubbling up like sparkling wine.

His teeth nipped her shoulder as she rocked against him, then he captured her mouth with his. She loved the way his eyes closed, his breathing labored, his body moved beneath her. Suddenly he rolled them over so he was back on top, thrusting deeply. Ruby cried out loud as she tumbled, exploding like the cork from a bottle, flooded with ripples of uncontrollable joy. And tightened her grip around him as he followed, groaning her name, or some facsimile of it.

They lay together on the bed, tiny aftershocks rippling through her. Finally, Ruby lifted her head onto his shoulder.

“Wow,” she said. “That was kind of spectacular.”

John looked at her with a bemused half-smile, his eyelids drooping in satiated afterglow. “Kind of? It seemed pretty spectacular to me.” He kissed her damp neck. “Was there something you thought was missing?” The spark in his blue eyes challenged her to come up with something else for him to do to her.

Ruby gave a low laugh, running one hand over his chest and then, teasingly, lower. “Actually, there was. Didn’t you promise me strawberries?”

* * * * *

Ruby recoiled as the dawn light pried through closed eyelids and into her pounding head. She tried to burrow deeper into the pillow, swearing that no matter how many more times her sisters got married, she was never going to another bachelorette party.

A sudden realization hit her and she opened one eye cautiously. Yup. Not a pillow. In fact, her cheek was pressed against a solid, lightly furred chest that moved slowly up and down with its owner’s breathing. She rolled over and looked at the evidence of last night’s debauchery and an uncontrollable grin spread across her face.

God, he was gorgeous. Like something out of a Greek myth.

Even with a headache the size of Michigan and a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, it was hard not to appreciate the man lying in the bed next to her. Not to mention the things he could do with that amazing body. She was a little blurry about the exact sequence of events, but her memories were clear enough to be able to say without question that she’d had the best night of her life.

She sighed, lifting her aching head up onto one hand as she looked around. There were signs everywhere of their wild night; clothes strewn around the room, covers tossed onto the floor, a half-eaten plate of strawberries lying on the floor where they’d tumbled off the bed.

Oh. My. God. What the hell had she done? Had she lost her freaking mind? She had to get out of here!

The impact of her actions finally hit her and her heart went into a jittery overdrive as she tried to figure out how to remove the muscular arm draped possessively over her without waking its gorgeous naked owner.

One lock of brown hair tumbled over his eyes, giving him the look of an innocent child. But he’d been anything but innocent. Their chemistry had been unmistakable, but she doubted that alone was responsible for the insanely great lovemaking. No question, the man knew what he was doing in bed. For all she knew, he did it every night with a different girl.

The thought made her sick to her stomach for a moment, and she almost regretted her impulsive departure from normalcy. Then she remembered that “dead from the neck down,” comment; at least she’d proven that untrue, if only to herself.

Last night had been wonderful; a fun and spontaneous adventure of the kind she never had. But it was time to get back to real life. And the real Ruby Tate, boring as she might be.

Ruby slipped out from underneath the sheet they’d managed to hold on to, rubbing a streak of chocolate absent-mindedly off of the top of one breast. She tip-toed around the room, gathering up her clothes and snagging her shoes on her way out the door. For a moment, she stopped, heart still beating madly, and looked back at the man on the bed.

Hesitating, she caught herself fantasizing about staying - learning his whole name, finding out about his life, trying to build something from their one night of passion and fun. Then she shook her head, hissing as the pain of the motion brought her back to reality. This had been fun. Hell, it had been astonishing, wonderful, a kind of miracle, even. But it wasn’t her, and it never could be. Better to take it as the gift it was than to try and make it isn’t something it wasn’t.

Besides, she had a restaurant to run. There was no time for men; not even attractive men with stunning blue eyes who could make her body tremble and shake with a wild hunger she’d had no idea she possessed. She gave herself time for one brief moment of regret, then dressed and left, closing the door quietly behind her.

Chapter Three

Jonathan stretched with a feeling of contentment that reached down into his bones. Yawning, he rolled over, expecting to find a warm body next to him. Instead, there was only the usual expanse of cool sheets that greeted him every other morning. His eyes flew open in confusion - had he simply dreamed her?

No, he could tell by looking around the bedroom that his waking instinct had been right; he’d spent the night with a woman, all right. And what a woman. Damn, he thought to himself, what a woman. He sat up, scratching his chest and finding a smear of crushed berry.

An involuntary grin spread across his face as he remembered the surprising passion that hiding underneath what seemed like a buttoned-down surface. The truth was, he wouldn’t normally have looked twice at the girl; his tastes tended more toward the blond, chic, and easy-going. But he’d been so bored at his buddy Clive’s bizarre wedding reception and that boredom combined with long days and lonely nights on the road had put him in an unusual funk.

Seriously - who has a formal wedding and then holds the reception in a strip joint? Even one aimed specifically at bridal parties. Jonathan figured there had to have been some major bride v. groom negotiations going on to arrive at such an odd arrangement, although with his old school roommate, it was always hard to say.

Still, everyone else in the wedding party seemed to think it was a fabulous idea, so Jonathan had shut up, sipped his champagne, and entertained himself by looking around the room with his entrepreneurial mind, trying to figure out how one would run such a business with a little more class and way better food.

That kind of thinking was what he got paid for, after all.

Jonathan Gautier was, if not exactly a household name, well on his way to becoming one. He’d opened three successful restaurants in New York City, earning a coveted Michelin Star before his thirtieth birthday. His first cookbook had been an instant best seller. So when producer Danny Falcon approached him with the idea of his own one-season TV show, Seven Worth Saving, Jonathan had jumped at the chance to help other restaurant owners and advance his career at the same time.

But after five months of trying to juggle the long hours of taping the show and still run his own restaurants from afar - not to mention the stubborn, ungrateful, and often untalented chefs he’d had to try and rescue from their own mismanagement - Jonathan was beginning to wish he’d never heard of the idea.

The show’s premise was simple: Jonathan would go into a failing restaurant and help turn it around. The program took an in-depth approach, and Jonathan was expected to spend three weeks on site at each place; working in the kitchen side-by-side with the chefs, brainstorming with the owners, retraining the wait staff, and if necessary, redesigning the restaurant from top to bottom.

When Falcon first presented the idea to him, Jonathan thought it sounded like fun. With three episodes devoted to each restaurant, he’d practically have to move in, but it would be worth it to be able to help his fellow restaurateurs to realize their dreams. Not to mention helping him to attain his own goal of becoming a rising superstar in the culinary world.

The execution was more challenging than he’d expected, however. Owners resisted his suggestions, preferring to stick to their own ideas, even when those ideas were driving their businesses into the ground. The chefs resented being told what to do in their own kitchens, and the wait staff either fawned over him or undermined his efforts.

He hadn’t anticipated how much he’d miss being away from home, and his own restaurants. All three were being ably run by chefs and managers he’d trained himself, but being in someone else’s kitchen wasn’t the same as being in his own. By the time they’d wrapped the fifth segment, Jonathan was having trouble working up the enthusiasm to be in any kitchen at all. And then he’d walked into restaurant number six, an upscale burger and steakhouse called Louie’s, located in beautiful downtown Dallas.

Louie should have been ashamed to have his name on the front of the building. Jonathan’s first impression had been less than favorable, and the surly owner hadn’t improved on things with his drawling nonchalance and insistence on mugging for the cameras. They hadn’t even been on site for two days when Jonathan discovered that the kitchen was infested with rats and brought the entire shoot to a screeching halt. He’d called the health department on his way out of town and had them shut the place down, and then he’d called Danny Falcon and told him he’d better start looking for another restaurant, like now. Louie’s was beyond saving.

So they’d moved the last location up by a month to give Danny more time to find a replacement. And Jonathan had finally put his foot down, and demanded that Falcon find their substitute near his home in New York City. It was bad enough he had to get back on a plane tomorrow, to Omaha Nebraska, of all places. When they taped the last segment, he wanted to do it from the comfort of his own apartment, and occasionally be able to spend some time in his own restaurants.

It occurred to him that in the day he had left before he had to leave, he could go looking for his mystery woman from last night. But as he wandered around the bedroom, tidying up, he realized he wasn’t even sure where he’d start. He only knew her first name, if he’d even heard it right over the blaring music. He had no idea what she did for a living, or even if she was a local, or only in town for whoever’s wedding party she’d been paying for.

When she’d just about knocked him over, he’d been intrigued by the contrast between her classical features, like something out of a Botticelli painting, and her purposely drab attire. Then when he’d looked across the room and seen her sneer so obviously at the food the other patrons had been devouring with seeming enthusiasm, he’d pegged her for a kindred spirit, and thought he might at least pass a few agreeable moments in seductive culinary wordplay.

Well, that, at least, had turned out a whole lot better than he’d expected it to, and a more sentimental man than he might even convince himself that they’d made some kind of special connection. Something worth pursuing, if only for a while.

But Jonathan Gautier wasn’t a sentimental man; he couldn’t afford to be, with all he had on his plate, and his future career at stake. Besides, he had three restaurants to check on, laundry to do, suitcases to pack, and a producer to harass, all before getting on a plane at the crack of dawn tomorrow.

He didn’t have time to chase after some woman who clearly didn’t want to be found, since she hadn’t left so much as a card with her name on it, or even a glass slipper. In the end, the only thing he had to show for her brief presence in his life were a few small, glittery hairpins with tiny red stars on the ends and a lipstick print on the shirt he’d been wearing, in a shade that reminded him of ripe pomegranates.

* * * * *

After running by Jewels to set things in motion for the rest of the day, Ruby got home with just enough time to throw on the dress she was wearing to Garnet’s wedding and slap some makeup on her face. She was still hunting for a pair of pantyhose without a run in them when she heard the door to her apartment open and a cheerful voice call out, “Did you miss me last night?”

“Do the waves miss the shore?” Ruby answered, throwing another reject onto the floor. “Does Ben miss Jerry?” She gave up on the pantyhose search and walked out into the living room to greet her friend Meg, moving a little gingerly to accommodate the unaccustomed tenderness left behind by her energetic night.

The two had been best friends since high school, where Ruby was a constant fixture on the honor roll, and Meg was a constant fixture on the sidelines of football field. The class valedictorian and the cheerleader made a strange pair, but they’d found that their differences balanced them out. Ruby kept Meg from flunking most of her classes, and Meg kept Ruby from being, as she put it, a complete stick in the mud.

When Ruby verged on breaking down from the strain of having to mother her two younger sisters, keep everything running smoothly around the house, and still maintain her high grades, Meg was there to hold her up.

And when Meg had fallen madly in love with a handsome musician the year after they graduated, Ruby had been her maid of honor, and baked a triple-layer chocolate cake for the wedding. Four years later, when Meg was an abandoned single mother with a newborn infant and a deadbeat ex, Ruby had given Meg a job in her brand-new restaurant, and they’d sworn to make the place a success no matter what it took. Meg still occasionally threatened to kick Ruby’s butt with her size seven Doc Martens boots when Ruby got discouraged and thought about giving up. Once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader; that was her best friend.

Of course, after three years of helping run a restaurant that made less and less money all the time, even Meg’s effervescent spirit was starting to wear a little thin. Her daughter was four, and Meg spent as much time with her as possible, but she felt guilty sending little Nina off to preschool in the afternoons and leaving her with her grandmother during the six evenings a week that the restaurant was open. And Meg’s mother had ongoing health problems, which made the entire situation that much more difficult.

Ruby was always amazed that her friend managed to hang onto her positive attitude, considering all she had to deal with. Sometimes she wished some of that optimism would rub off on her. But one of them had to be the level-headed practical one. That someone was always Ruby.

“So how bad was it?” Meg asked with a smirk. “I’m really sorry my mom couldn’t watch Nina last night so I could go with you, but at least she’s feeling better today.” She plopped down on Ruby’s ancient couch, her petite frame and ragged-cut blonde hair making her look like a pixie, if a pixie would ever be seen wearing a red mini-dress with a pair of over-sized black boots. “What did I miss?”

Ruby rummaged through the sideboard, more so she could avoid looking her friend in the face than because she thought she might actually have stuck a pair of stockings in there. “Um, not much. Bad food, loud music, bad food, a male stripper, bad food. Opal behaved herself, more or less. It could have been worse.”

Meg snorted. “So - the food was bad?”

“Oh, you have no idea. Even all the champagne I drank couldn’t make it edible. You should be glad you weren’t there.” Ruby threw up her hands. “I don’t suppose you have a spare pair of pantyhose in that giant purse of yours? I swear; all of mine somehow developed holes just sitting in my drawer.”

Meg reached her hand into her bag and pulled out an unopened package in Ruby’s size. “I knew you wouldn’t remember to check to see if you had any.” She got up to hand them to Ruby. “But I’ll bet you made sure all the ingredients in the walk-in were fresh, didn’t you?” She chuckled, then took a closer look at her friend.

“What are you not telling me?” she asked. “Did something happen last night? What did Garnet and Opal do? Did your mother show up after all?”

“My sisters were fine,” Ruby said, avoiding Meg’s gaze. “And my mother wouldn’t go to a bachelorette party on a bet. She’ll be at the wedding, all nice and proper in one of her tailored suits, and no doubt spend the entire reception afterwards networking or talking on her cell phone.” She pulled on the hose and grabbed her purse from the table by the sofa. “Okay, let’s go. I don’t want to be late to Garnet’s wedding.”

Meg’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “We have plenty of time. What are you not telling me?” She yanked Ruby down to sit next to her. “Wait - something is different.” She sucked in a breath. “You met a guy, didn’t you? Oh, please, please tell me you met a guy.”

Ruby bit her lip. This was one of the drawbacks of being friends for so long. She could never keep anything a secret from Meg. The girl was practically psychic.

“Well, there was kind of a guy,” she admitted reluctantly.

Meg bounced up and down. “Kind of a guy?” she squealed. “What kind?”

How the hell did she describe him without sounding like a gushing schoolgirl? “You know; the usual. Tall, dark, handsome. Talked about food like he knew a kiwi from a kumquat. Cute dimples. Nice hands. A guy. Don’t make a big deal out of it.”

“Don’t make a big deal out of it?” Meg rolled her eyes. “You’re kidding, right? You haven’t had a date since your dentist tried to take you out to Taco Bell six months ago. And before that…hell, I can’t even remember who was before that. Your whole life revolves around the restaurant and your family. You never do anything for yourself, Ruby. It is about time you got a boyfriend.”

“I didn’t get a boyfriend,” Ruby protested. “And you’re one to talk. You’ve hardly dated since Nina was born.”

“That’s different,” Meg said. “When you have a kid, you have to be more careful about getting involved with someone. You, on the other hand, are footloose and fancy-free. If you don’t count your love affair with Jewels.” She gave Ruby a measured glance. “So. Tall, dark, handsome and he knows food. And dimples. You’re a sucker for a guy with dimples. So what was wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” Ruby said, trying not to sigh. “Not a damned thing. Truth be told, the man was damned spectacular.”

Meg’s mouth dropped open. “Oh. My. God. You slept with him! Ruby, you hussy!” She enveloped Ruby in an enthusiastic hug. “You go, girl! How was it? Spill, baby. I’m living vicariously through you here.”

Ruby tried unsuccessfully to wipe the grin off her face. “I told you - pretty damned spectacular.” She shoved her friend away gently. “I didn’t know sex could be like that; I think my toes are still curled. But don’t get all excited. It was just a one-time thing; a moment of weakness. I’m not starting a relationship with the man or anything.”

“Why on earth not?” Meg asked, crossing her arms over her chest. “He sounds wonderful. And it’s not that easy to find spectacular sex, honey. I dated most of the football team in high school, so I know what I’m talking about.” She glared at Ruby. “I realize you feel like you have to devote every waking minute to keeping Jewels going, but you’re allowed to have a life too.”

Ruby swallowed hard, her headache suddenly returning. She could feel a blush creeping from her chin up to her ears. “I, um, didn’t exactly catch his whole name,” she admitted reluctantly. “And when I left his apartment this morning, I was in such a rush to get away; I just grabbed the first taxi that came along. I’m not even sure where he lives, except in a general kind of way.”

Meg shook her head. “Good grief. I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed.” She winked at Ruby, making it clear which way she was leaning. “Oh, well. At least you actually relaxed for a change. You did relax, didn’t you?”

Ruby blushed even harder and hauled her friend up off the couch. “Yes, Meg, I relaxed. Hell, if I’d been any more relaxed, I wouldn’t be able to walk.” She steered them both in the direction of the door.

“Ha!” Meg said. “Now that’s more like it.” She hitched her gigantic purse higher on one shoulder. “Okay, details. I want details. What did he do? What did you do? And more importantly, how many times did you do it?”

As they left the apartment, Ruby said, “Well, there were these strawberries…”

Chapter Four

Six weeks later, Ruby stood in the silent early-morning kitchen at Jewels and mixed white flour, whole wheat flour, soy flour, brown sugar, melted butter, salt, and yeast together to make her special no-knead bread. Adding the water and sifting it all together with her bare hands, she reveled in the silky feel of the flours running through her fingers. As always, she found making bread to be a sensual experience, but this time it brought on a vivid erotic flashback to that wild night - something that had been happening on a regular basis ever since her unaccustomed fling.

The pungent yeasty smell of the dough and the joy of taking seemingly unrelated ingredients and joining them together into something wonderful; these were old pleasures, often enjoyed. The tendency to associate such things with her one night of abandon and debauchery…that was new. But it seemed to happen a lot lately. The odor of strawberries, the hint of musk in a man’s cologne, and suddenly she was back in that big bed, kissing and touching and -

For God’s sake, get a grip on yourself, Ruby! she scolded herself as she molded the dough into a sticky ball and placed it into a large blue and white pottery bowl. It was one night. He was just a guy. Albeit a wonderful lover, a man who clearly appreciated food, and women, and her…

Her thoughts trailed off again and she shook her head at her own silliness. There was no reason he should keep coming back into her head, and yet, there he was. She’d cook a special dish and find herself thinking, “I wish I could have made this for John.” Or Don, or whatever his name was. Or she’d look out the window at a particularly beautiful day and think about what it would have been like to share it with him.

She laughed at herself as she pulled a clean cloth out of a drawer to cover the bowl. It had been the best night of her life; little wonder she kept returning to it in her mind. If nothing else, it was a lovely distraction from the stresses of running the restaurant. And those stresses were many these days.

She loved being in her kitchen, with its ranks of professional stoves in their gleaming stainless steel glory, the rows of ovens below and above. Soft beige walls and marble countertops felt comforting and safe to her - nothing too bright or garish, just the orderly tools of her trade; knives, mallets, pots and pans and container after container of tasting spoons. The chef who let food leave her kitchen without tasting it didn’t deserve to wear an apron.

But it didn’t matter how good the food was, if no one came to eat it. And business at Jewels had been dwindling, with fewer and fewer customers every month. If Ruby didn’t figure something out, and soon, she would lose her beloved kitchen and everything in it.

Ruby bent down to put the bowl on the warming shelf to rise, only to be swamped by a wave of dizziness as she straightened up. She had to lean against the counter for a minute, both hands braced against its solid stone surface to keep from falling. The room spun around in lazy circles and her stomach did flip flops to rival any circus acrobat. Clammy fingers gripped cool marble like a lifeline.

Damn. Double damn. With raisins.

This wasn’t the first dizzy spell she’d had in the last couple of days. She must be fighting a bug. Hell - she didn’t have time to be sick.

Of course, Meg would probably tell her she’d been working too hard, and blame it on stress, then nag her about her old illness and tell her to stop pushing her body so hard. But to Ruby, running Jewels wasn’t work - it was an act of love. And the stress, well, she was doing the best she could, under the circumstances.

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