She pushed a little harder and this time he stepped back. “Thanks for the omelet,” he said.
She pulled out the eggs, cheese, broccoli, and a red pepper. Grabbing a pan, she turned on a burner. “Oh, I almost forgot. I have something for you.”
His gaze went hooded, and she felt herself blush. She wasn’t sure what he thought she might be offering, but given what she’d said about the gun in his boxers, it was probably far more than she’d meant to offer.
“There,” she said, gesturing with her chin to the envelope on the kitchen table. It was the cash equivalent of three nights’ worth of rent. Last night, tonight, and hopefully tomorrow night as well.
Optimism. Guess her mom wasn’t the only Winters with that particular trait after all. The fact was that she’d hoped to get into a place tomorrow, but he’d just shut down her two current options.
He didn’t make a move for the envelope, a fact Ali ignored as she began cutting up the pepper and grating cheese while he just stood there looking rumpled and sleepy and on edge. “Ironic, don’t you think?” she asked.
“That you’re more at home in my kitchen than I am?”
“The fact that we’re complete strangers, and yet we’ve already seen each other in our underwear.”
“Yeah.” He stole a piece of cheese and popped it into his mouth. “I noticed that you didn’t hand me a sweater like I did for you.”
She smiled. Her first of the day. Maybe of the week.
He actually smiled back, which had to count for something, especially since he had a pretty great smile. She flipped the omelet and then a moment later transferred it to a plate, placing a few small broccoli spears on top before handing it to him.
He stared down at the broccoli. “I don’t like broccoli.”
“Because it’s green.”
“When was the last time you tried it?” she asked.
“I don’t like it,” he repeated, as if this answered her question.
“Eat around it.”
He stood there eyeing the offending vegetable like it was a bomb, and then his stomach grumbled loudly.
Kicking out a chair, he sat. “Thanks,” he said around a mouthful. “I hate to cook.”
She smiled. “My mom always said I should know how to feed a man. She says most women assume a guy’s most critical body part is considerably lower than his stomach, but they’re wrong. She says it’s a man’s stomach that does his thinking for him, not—” She broke off and felt herself flush. “Anyway, cooking is how she caught all her boyfriends.”
“Was your dad one of those boyfriends?”
Ali’s dad lived in Tacoma, and last she’d heard, he was a bartender. By all accounts, he was an effortless charmer who meant well, but she knew him as the guy with all the unfulfilled promises. Long gone were the days where she’d wait by the phone for the call he’d promised, but the memories still made her ache a little bit. “He didn’t stick around. The first boyfriend who did was a dentist.” She let out an involuntary shudder. “He was a pincher.”
“A pincher?” Luke asked.
“Yeah.” She opened and closed her first finger and thumb together a few times to demonstrate. “Whenever we annoyed him, he’d pinch. Always where the bruise wouldn’t show too. Hurt like hell.”
Luke didn’t show much in expression or body language, and he had a way of staying very still. But his eyes had gone hard, pissed off on behalf of a young girl he’d never known.
“Your mom let him touch you?” he asked.
“Oh, we didn’t tell her,” Ali said. “She liked him so much, it would have killed her. But one day we were shopping and she saw a bruise on my sister in the dressing room.”
“I hope she kicked his ass,” Luke said.
“She took a baseball bat to him.” Her smile faded because Mimi had cried for a week when he’d moved out. “She didn’t bring another guy home for a long time after that.”
“Good.” Hooking his bare foot in a chair, he pushed it toward her. “Sit with me.”
She put the pan in the sink and sat, shaking her head when he offered her a bite.
“So you learned to cook so you could catch a man?” he asked.
“No. I learned to cook because I like to eat,” she said, “not because I want a string of boyfriends. Because I don’t.” Not until she figured out how to pick them anyway. She watched Luke work his way carefully around the broccoli. “Broccoli has almost as much calcium as milk,” she told him, amused. “It gives you strong bones.”
His gaze slid to hers, and she felt her face heat again. He had strong bones. And as they both knew, a few minutes ago, he’d had one particularly strong boner to boot. But mercifully he let the comment go.
Setting down his fork, he opened the envelope she’d left on the table, staring in surprise at the cash she’d carefully counted out. “What’s this?” he asked.
“What I owe you for a few nights’ stay. I prorated what I was paying monthly. I hope that’s okay.”
He was quiet for a full sixty seconds, and when he spoke, his voice was low. “I got the impression you were hard up for money.”
“Not that hard up.”
He looked at her for a long moment, then set the envelope back on the table and pushed it toward her with one finger.
She slid it back. “I pay my debts.”
“How much does it leave you?” he asked.
She felt a small smile curve her lips. “Worried I won’t have enough to find another place?”
She laughed softly. “Don’t be. I’m not your responsibility.” She wasn’t anyone’s responsibility and hadn’t been in a long time.
He went back to eating. When a tiny piece of broccoli found its way on his fork, he gave it a look, but shoved it in his mouth.
She waited, but he just shrugged.
“Don’t overwhelm me with praise or anything,” she said dryly.
He flashed a quick grin. “It’s good,” he said. “Really good. You’re holding up your end of the bargain.” His smile faded. “But I’m not taking your money, Ali.”
Bossy alpha. She got up and loaded the few dishes into the dishwasher, trying to pay no attention to the silent man behind her. Hard to do when he rose and put his dish in for her.
A neat, bossy alpha.
“You should go back to bed,” she said softly. “You look beat.”
He gave her a long look, which she decided was best not to decipher, before walking away, leaving her alone with her thoughts.
Ali didn’t sleep well and got up before dawn. With several hours before she had to be at the shop, she quietly made her way to the garage. She pulled on an apron that said Florists Do It with Style. Retrieving fresh clay from her storage bin, she worked it for a few minutes, trying to lose herself.
From the other side of the garage door, she heard a car pull up, but it didn’t really register until the doorbell sounded. Startled at the early hour and pissed that another reporter might have found Luke, she wiped her hands on her apron and left the garage, moving quickly through the house to the living room. Prepared to kick some ass, she opened the front door, shocked to find two police officers standing there, flanking Teddy.
“Are you Ali Winters?” one of the cops asked.
“Yes, yes, it’s her,” Teddy said impatiently.
“Is something wrong?” Her heart dropped. “My mom? My sister, Harper? Are they okay?”
“This isn’t about your damn family,” Teddy said in disbelief. “It’s about the fact that you stole that money to fuck me over. You’re that pissed at me, that you had to try to ruin me?”
Ali shook her head in confusion. “What?”
“Ma’am,” one of the cops said, “we need to bring you down to the station to ask you some questions.”
Her heart stuttered to a stop just as someone came up behind her. Luke. She could feel the warm strength of him at her back.
“What’s the problem here?” he asked calmly.
“Who the hell are you?” Teddy demanded.
Luke ignored him and waited for the officers to speak.
“We have a situation in regards to a theft that occurred at the town offices over the weekend,” the first cop said. “A briefcase of money went missing from Ted Marshall’s office.”
Ali felt the horror fill her—they thought she’d stolen the money?
“It didn’t go missing,” Teddy said. “She stole it to get back at me for breaking up with her.”
“Hey,” Ali said, “I broke up with you!”
The officer went on as if neither of them had spoken. “The missing cash was from Friday night’s town auction. According to several eyewitnesses, you were the last one in his office.”
“Twice,” Teddy said. “You were let into the office first by Gus on Saturday and then again by Aubrey on Sunday. Christ, Ali, how could you do this to me? I thought we were friends, at least.”
“Friends don’t sneak out in the middle of the night,” she said, hating that they had an avid audience soaking up the exchange. “And I didn’t steal anything.” She recognized one of the cops. He’d been in the shop to buy flowers for his girlfriend. She spoke directly to him. “I’ve never stolen anything. Not once in my whole life.”
Well, except she had. She winced. “Okay,” she said, “so maybe one time I took a lip gloss from the drugstore, but I was twelve and stupid and my mom made me take it back. I had to work there for free for a whole day to make up for it. I haven’t stolen anything since.”
The second cop was rubbing his temple. Men did that a lot around her. Apparently she gave good headache.