“Next time could you please ask my permission before you auction off my services?” Lia’s lecture was cut short as a deer darted out in front of her, forcing her to slam on the brakes.
“Of course, darling.” Her mother continued knitting calmly in the passenger seat. “I’m just overwhelmed by how much Maureen bid. She’s such a generous soul. But then, any woman who raised seven fine boys would have to have a giving heart.”
Lia rolled her eyes and tested the gas pedal. The real reason her mother had insisted she cook a meal for Mrs. Kelly and her family finally became clear. Odds were ten to one that the Kelly boys were all eligible bachelors. “This isn’t another one of your matchmaking schemes, is it?”
“Heavens, no.” Knit, knit, purl. “You’re a beautiful, intelligent woman who’s perfectly capable of finding someone on her own.” Although the words sounded supportive, the tone in her voice asked, “So why am I not a grandmother yet?”
“Ma, we’ve gone over this before. Getting the restaurant off the ground is my number-one priority at the moment. I don’t have time to date.”
“And now that it has a waiting list a month out, you can focus on something else.”
Lia gritted her teeth, and it had nothing to do with the way a hidden bump in the road rattled her little four-door sedan. “No, it means I have to work even harder to make sure people keep coming back.”
“Whatever you say.” Her mother held her knitting project up to the light, examining the stitches before undoing the last row with a heavy sigh. “I just want you to be happy.”
“I am happy.” For the last year and a half, La Arietta had been both her master and her mistress, consuming every aspect her life. But her hard work had paid off. It was now the hottest restaurant on the Magnificent Mile, packed for both lunch and dinner every day. Her culinary skills had earned her a place on the cover of last month’s issue of Food and Wine as one of the hot new chefs in America. As far she was concerned, her professional life was a fairy tale come true.
Her personal life, on the other hand… well, that was nonexistent, and she doubted any of Mrs. Kelly’s fine sons would be enough to tempt her away from her passion.
She rounded another bend in the road only to see more trees. Her mother’s instructions had been vague at best, simply telling her to go to Geneva Lake and then to make a right. “How much farther, Ma?”
“Just a little bit down the road.” The knitting needles resumed their steady click. “Maureen’s lake house is so quaint and intimate—the perfect place for a nice family dinner. And she called just this morning to say how much she appreciates you agreeing to drive up here.”
Nightmares of trying to cook a four-course meal in a rustic cabin filled Lia’s mind. She gripped the steering wheel and wondered why on Earth she’d ever agreed to this.
The trees finally parted, revealing a massive Craftsman-style home that looked like something Frank Lloyd Wright would’ve designed. Lia’s jaw dropped. “Quaint and intimate?”
“Yes, darling. You should see her home in Highland Park.”
So Mrs. Maureen Kelly had money. Lots of it. And Lia could only imagine how much she must’ve bid at the charity auction. Which begged the question of how her firmly middle-class mother knew this lady. “You said Mrs. Kelly goes to church with you?”
Her mother nodded and packed away her knitting. “She’s also part of my bridge club.”
Lia frowned as she parked the car at the apex of the curved driveway. She didn’t know her mother played bridge. What other secrets was she hiding?
“Hello, Emilia,” a tall blond woman called from the doorway. “So glad you and your daughter could make it today.”
A shaggy mass of white fur bolted past the woman. Lia barely had time to grab the door before it pounced on her, knocking her back into the car. A few loud sniffs sounded in her ear before a series of wet doggy kisses coated her face.
“Jasper, bad dog! Come back here.”
Jasper placed one extra lick on Lia’s cheek before obeying his owner and retreating back to the front porch. She wiped the slobber off her skin. When she’d bemoaned the fact that it had been more than four years since any male had swept her off her feet and kissed her, this was not what she’d had in mind. “Is he always this friendly with strangers?”
To her credit, Mrs. Kelly actually sounded apologetic for her dog’s behavior. “No. He’s usually so well behaved.”
“Must just be me, then.” Lia reached into her glove compartment and retrieved the bottle of hand sanitizer she kept for those unavoidable stops on highway rest areas. It was peach, her favorite scent, and matched the shower gel and lotion she used every morning. Once she’d rubbed it into every place Jasper had licked her, she made her second attempt to get out of the car and meet her hostess.
Maureen Kelly looked like one of those women that time stood still for—probably thanks to Botox. She had to be as old as Lia’s mother, but only her hands hinted at her real age. Everything else seemed to belong to a forty-something model from the latest L.L. Bean catalog. She smiled warmly while she held on to Jasper’s collar. “So nice to finally meet you, Lia. Your mother just goes on and on about how proud she is of you.”
Lia released the breath she’d been holding. So far, Maureen Kelly didn’t seem to be a snob, despite her obvious wealth. “So nice to finally meet you, too.”
“I really appreciate you coming all the way up here for dinner. My son is home for a week before going to Afghanistan, and I really wanted to do something special for him.”
And just like that, any resentment she felt for having to drive two hours north of Chicago vanished. “It’s no trouble at all,” she replied and reached for the twenty-gallon cooler in her trunk.
“Oh, don’t hurt yourself. Let my son get that.” Maureen turned around, Jasper’s collar still in her death grip, and called into the house, “Caleb, would you please be a dear and help out your mother’s friends?”
A moment later, a man appeared on the porch. He was about a head taller than Maureen, his short brown hair styled in the standard military buzz cut. He placed a kiss on his mother’s cheek before jogging down the stairs to Lia’s car. The afternoon sunlight twinkled in his bright blue eyes as he winked at her and grabbed the cooler. “Let me get that for you.”
Okay, so maybe Ma was on to something with Kelly boys, Lia decided after watching the muscles ripple under Caleb’s tee shirt. If the others were like him, they’d be a ten in the eye-candy department. But she wasn’t there to ogle them. Dinner wouldn’t make itself. She grabbed the remaining bags from her trunk and followed Caleb into the house.
“I wish all my boys could be home for dinner,” Maureen said behind her, “but they’re all grown up now and out on their own.”
“Yes, yes, Mom, we’re all horrible sons because we actually moved out of the house and haven’t given you any grandchildren to replace us yet,” Caleb replied from the kitchen.
Lia bit back a giggle. Seems like her mother wasn’t the only one who’d been hinting that her children needed to settle down and start reproducing. She shared a conspiratorial grin with Caleb when he glanced over his shoulder at her.
Any fears she had about cooking dinner on a camp stove vanished when she entered the Kellys’ kitchen. Sunlight poured in from the wall of windows that overlooked Geneva Lake. Granite countertops and stone tile backsplashes helped retain the natural feel of the lake house, balancing out the modern stainless steel appliances. “It’s a beautiful kitchen, Mrs. Kelly.”
“Please, call me Maureen.” She came into the room, Jasper-free. “I hope we have everything you need.”
And then some. This was truly a chef’s kitchen, one she couldn’t wait to test out. “It’s perfect.”
“Then we’ll let you get started.” She ushered her son out of the kitchen, leaving Lia alone to unpack the cooler.
Adam Kelly drummed his fingers on the steering wheel while he waited for Bates to answer his phone. As soon as he heard the click, he asked, “Any news yet on the Schlittler deal?”
“It’s Sunday, Mr. Kelly,” Bates replied in his ever-so-polite British accent. “Not much happens in the business world over the weekend.”
“For me, it does.” His Volvo C70 hit a pothole, earning a string of muttered curses about how his mother should have had that fixed years ago. “I have investors waiting for news, and I want to wrap this up as soon as possible.”
“I double-checked your downtown properties. You have a lease expiring in a few months at the top of your Michigan Avenue building, but—”
“Perfect.” The Magnificent Mile location would give Amadeus Schlittler the exposure he demanded. “We’ll deliver the notice to the tenant tomorrow morning.” The car dipping into another pothole, and he released another string of curses.
“On your way to your mother’s lake house, Mr. Kelly?” Bates asked, even though he clearly already knew the answer.
“Yes. She’s there with Caleb and guilt-tripped me into coming up tonight for some special dinner she won in a charity auction.”
“Your mother has always been such the philanthropist.” And thankfully, her donations helped lower the company’s annual tax bill. “In that case, I’ll leave you to enjoy her company.” Bates hung up before Adam had a chance to ask him anything else.
He pulled up to his parents’ lake house and checked his e-mail once more, hoping to see an message from the acclaimed Austrian chef accepting his proposal for a Chicago restaurant. Until he knew the deal was settled, he’d be popping Tums like M&Ms. Unfortunately, his 4G coverage ended about twenty miles down the road. He threw his phone down in the passenger seat and got out of the car. Dinner couldn’t be over quickly enough for his liking.
A deep bark greeted him from the front porch. Jasper, his mother’s Great Pyrenees, lifted his head and thumped his tail in welcome. Adam paused to ruffle the dog’s thick fur. “Been staying out of trouble, boy?”
Jasper woofed in reply and jumped to his feet, darting through the door as soon as Adam opened it. He tried to catch the dog, but his fingers barely grasped the collar before Jasper jerked free. Jasper went straight for the kitchen, his paws skidding out from under him when he rounded the corner. Adam chased after him. A metal pan clanged in the kitchen, followed by a sharp cry.
He tripled his pace, his lungs tightening, his jaw clenched. The damn dog is going to kill someone one day. He drew to a stop when he came to the kitchen, his fear evaporating into laughter.
Jasper was standing on his hind legs, his front paws on the shoulders of a petite woman who was pinned against the center island, his tongue lapping as fast as his wagging tail.
She tried to push the hundred-pound-plus dog away. “Enough, Jasper.”
He managed to wedge his arm in between them. “Sorry about that. I—” His voice cracked when he got a glimpse of her face.
Eyes that green couldn’t be natural.
“It’s okay,” she said with a laugh. “Apparently, Jasper seems to be overly fond of me.”
Adam couldn’t blame him. The woman had lips that would make Angelina Jolie jealous. They parted, the good-natured mirth in her smile changing into a sultry invitation that he would be a fool to refuse. He leaned in closer.
That’s when Jasper decided to pounce. The dog’s paws connected with his back, the full force of his weight shoving Adam forward against the woman. He braced his arms against the counter to protect her, but the soft “umph” that rose from her chest told him he wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped. “Sorry again.”
“No, it’s quite all right. I—” Now it was her turn to suffer a vocal cord failure. Her body grew still under his. The dark centers of her eyes grew larger, intensifying the green ring around them.
Jasper’s hot, panting breath bathed the back of his neck, but Adam couldn’t care less. Right now his attention remained focused on the stranger in his mother’s kitchen. Her soft curves pressed against him, sending all the blood toward his cock in a painfully pleasant rush. It had been months since any woman had aroused him like this, and none had ever done it as quickly as this damsel in distress. If they’d been alone at his place, he’d be picking her up right now and carrying her to the bedroom where he could savor every inch of her luscious beauty in privacy.
Instead, he was at his mother’s lake house, slowly getting soaked by her drooling dog while his family watched this embarrassing situation from the doorway of the kitchen.
“Jasper, bad boy!” his mother said in the same tone she’d used on Adam and his brothers when they were children. It had the same effect on the dog as it did him, and they both backed away.
Adam grabbed Jasper’s collar before he could assault the poor woman again. “Now I know why you were on the front porch,” he said to the dog.
“How many times have I told you not to jump on people?” his mother chided, the anger fading from her words with each wag of her finger. Of course, Adam had been the one a little too eager to jump on his mother’s houseguest just seconds before. Maybe the dog had the right idea, after all. “Adam, please take him out before he does any more harm to poor Lia.”
Lia. So that was the woman’s name. She straightened, a slight tremble lingering in her hands as she smoothed back the golden brown curls that had fallen around her face during the ordeal. The pink flush of her cheeks deepened. “I’m fine, Mrs. Kelly. I was more startled than anything else.”
She looked at him once again, the heat in her gaze confirming his suspicion that she’d been just as affected from their close contact as he’d been. Then she turned around and began cleaning up the chopped vegetables that’d been scattered across the island.
“Come on, you overgrown lap dog.” It took several tugs before Jasper obeyed and left the kitchen with his tail between his legs.
After he’d safely deposited the dog outside, two of his younger brothers ambushed him in the hallway. “Not too shabby, eh?” Dan asked.
“Yeah, Mom might have actually struck the jackpot this time,” Caleb added.
Adam shoved past them. “What are you two talking about?”
“As if it wasn’t obvious.” Laughter laced Caleb’s words. “I’m sorry, Adam, but I don’t think Lia’s on the menu.”
“Now be fair.” Dan crossed his arms in an attempt to look serious, but the twinkle in his eyes was anything but. “I don’t think Adam stands a chance, what with Jasper ready to hump Lia the second he gets near her.”
“True. Adam’s a bit out of practice with the ladies.”
“Let me check what the magic die has to say. You need at least a seven to compete against Jasper.” Dan pulled out the twenty-sided piece of red plastic he’d kept in his pocket since they were kids and rolled it across the floor. “Ouch. A five. Not much hope for you to get lucky tonight.”
“Yeah, yeah, boys. Have a laugh at my expense.” He peered into the living room where his mother chatted away with another woman with the same full lips as the woman in the kitchen. “Let me guess—Lia is the daughter of one of Mom’s friends.”
“Bingo,” Caleb replied. “I’m trying hard to figure out how they were able to cook this one up, though. Somehow Mom won her at an auction.”
“And of course, what would be a better way to make one of us see her as a potential wife than to have her wow us with her cooking?” Dan added.
Adam rubbed the back of his neck. As the eldest, he’d fallen victim to his fair share of his mother’s matchmaking schemes. He jerked his thumb back to the kitchen. “Is she in on it, too?”
“Nope.” Caleb grinned. “In fact, I got the distinct impression she’s in the same boat as we are.”
At least he wouldn’t have to worry about Lia being some gold-digging debutante who grew cow-eyed over the Kelly family fortune. Not that all the women his mother tried to pair him up with were. But they all had a walk down the aisle on their agendas. Was Lia any different?
“What do you think of her?” He watched his brothers closely for any flickers of interest. It was an unspoken rule among the Kelly boys that none of them would go after a girl his brother wanted.
Dan shrugged. “She’s okay, but I’m too busy trying to survive residency to date anyone, especially not when there’s an ER full of hot little nurses I can have flings with.”
“No way. Have you seen Kourtney?” He held up his phone to show a picture of a woman with bleached-blond hair and breasts so large, Adam wondered how she was able to walk upright.
Dan’s brows furrowed together as he studied the same impressive features. “They’re fake.”
“Who cares?” Caleb snatched the phone back and slipped it into his pocket. “I’m just thankful she agreed to move to Utah with me.”
For the first time ever, Adam heard a wistful note to his brother’s voice. “Serious about this one?”
“Has Mom met her?”
The tips of Caleb’s ears turned red, and he refused to meet Adam’s gaze. “Um, yeah.”
Dan leaned over and whispered, “It didn’t go well.”
Adam’s breath caught. Growing up, he’d always known what was happening in his brothers’ lives. Why didn’t he know about this? “When did that happen?”
“A couple of months ago when Mom came down to Florida.” Caleb ran his fingers through his closely cropped hair. “Kourtney tried to impress her, but Mom was giving her a hard time.”
Based on the picture Caleb had shown him, he could only imagine the exchange between their high-society mother and the woman who looked like she’d landed the starring role in an adult film. “If you want me to try to smooth things over—”
Caleb silenced him by holding up his hand. “Don’t worry about it, Adam. I have this taken care of. You have enough to worry about with the business.”
The business none of his brothers wanted any part in running. Their father had built a fortune in Chicago real estate, but only Adam had shown any interest in taking over it when he died six years ago. The rest of his brothers went on to pursue their own interests, leaving him to shoulder the burden alone. It was what was expected of him, and the big brother role was never easy to shake off. “But if you need any help or advice, you know how to reach me.”
“Thanks, bro.” Caleb bumped his fist against Adam’s and gave him half hug. “But just to let you know, I’m not planning on proposing or anything to Kourtney until after I get back from Bagram. I need to keep my head straight over there, not answer e-mails about wedding shit.”
“Good plan.” Adam patted him on the back and followed his brothers into the dining room that overlooked the lake.
Lia was setting a platter on the center of the table. “Oh, you have perfect timing. I was just about to call everyone in for the first course.”
That uncomfortable rush of heat washed over him as she circled the table, adjusting each place setting. The gentle sway of her hips had his fingers itching the caress their curves, to grab hold of that pert little bottom and press her close to him once again.
“Aren’t you going to join us, Lia?” His mother came up behind him and sat at the edge of the table. It was only then that he noticed it had been set for five people, not six.
Lia paused at the door leading to kitchen. “Sorry, Mrs. Kelly, but I need to keep cooking if I want to get each course out on time.”
“Don’t worry, Maureen,” Lia’s mother said, sitting across from his mother. “I’ll make sure she takes a break and sits down at the table for a bit.”
Adam, however, welcomed the fact Lia would be spending most of the evening in the kitchen. There was no way he’d be able to eat anything if he had a continual hard-on throughout the meal.
He took a seat next to his mother and inspected the rectangular platter Lia had placed in the center of the table. Rows of bruschetta, olives, thinly sliced meats, and other Italian finger foods filled it from side to side. He held it out so his mother could choose what she wanted before placing a few items on his plate.
“What are those fried things?” Dan asked when the platter made its way to him.
“Squash blossoms,” Lia’s mother replied. “It’s a popular antipasto in Italy.”
Images of a heavy, pasta-laden dinner flashed through Adam’s mind, but the first bite of bruschetta caught him off guard. It was fresh and garlicky with a solid kick of spice at the end. Definitely not the boring Italian fare he’d had before.
“Like it, Adam?” his mother asked with a grin. “Lia is one of the top chefs in Chicago.”
Despite the fact this was another one of her obvious set-ups to introduce him to a “nice girl,” perhaps the meal itself would be enjoyable. He reached for a second piece of bruschetta before his brothers took them all. “Very good.”
As he sampled each item on the platter, he discovered how Lia had taken a traditional Italian dish and added her own twist. The prosciutto-wrapped melon concealed a hidden stick of cucumber inside, and the olives were bathed in citrus-infused oil. “This is fabulous. Which restaurant does she work at?”
“La Arietta,” her mother answered.
There was something familiar about that name. Perhaps one of his friends had mentioned it to him in the past, but it was definitely moving onto his list of places to try when he wanted to impress a client.
The platter emptied faster than he realized, leaving his mouth watering for more. It was the perfect excuse to go into the kitchen and learn more about the chef. He grabbed it and stood. “I’ll go see if she has any more.”
But the second he laid eyes on her, his tongue grew thick and clumsy. Frustration crawled up his spine. He’d dated models, met with high-ranking politicians, schmoozed with Chicago’s elite for years, and none of them had delivered a blow to his confidence. Yet here he was, struggling to find a way to tell Lia that he enjoyed her food.
Her back was to him as she stirred something in a pan, her hips swaying as though she were dancing instead of cooking. She’d pulled her hair up into a ponytail, but a few rebellious curls had managed to break free along the nape of her neck. The button-down shirt she’d been wearing earlier was tied around her waist, the underlying tank top allowing him a better view of her smooth, sun-kissed skin. She hummed as she worked, each flick of her spoon releasing the aromas of garlic and fresh herbs into the air.
She turned around from the stove and froze when she saw him. “Is something wrong?”
The platter grew heavy in his hands, reminding him of why he’d come in the first place. “I was wondering if you had any more.”
She grinned and carried her pan to the center island. “If you fill up on the antipasti, you’ll have no room for the prima.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembered that the prima course in Italy usually involved pasta. But the dish she was plating now resembled rice. He came closer to inspect it. “And is this it?”
She nodded. “Orzo con verdure estive arrosto.”
“Orzo with roasted summer vegetables.” She placed a small hill of the orzo pasta with chunks of summer squash, zucchini, artichoke hearts, asparagus, tomatoes, and mushrooms onto each plate before offering a spoonful to him. “Care to try?”
“As long as there’s no shrimp in it.”
“Mom mentioned that some of you weren’t big fans of shrimp. Don’t worry—this is completely vegetarian.”
A harmony of flavors sang on his tongue when he sampled it. Bright basil, rich parmesan, zesty lemon, and smooth olive oil all balanced each other out and left him wanting to grab the spoon and scrape the pan clean. She watched him expectantly, her assured smile tempting him to sample more than just her cooking. He stepped back before he lost control of himself. “It’s very good.”
“I know.” She placed the pan in the sink and drizzled some olive oil over each plate of orzo. “It’s one of my most popular dishes.”
He watched the way she wiped the edges of each plate clean before adorning the pasta with a few shavings of parmesan and a sprig of basil. “Did you have any special culinary training?”
“I spent three years in Italy, learning from my aunts first before finally getting enough courage to enroll in more formal classes there.”
“And is this what you’ve always wanted to do?”
“Not always, but once I discovered my passion, I’ve never been able to let go.” She looked up from her work, her smile widening. “Have you ever felt that way about something, been caught totally by surprise and never realized how deep you were into it until it totally consumed you?”
Before today he might have said his work consumed him, but it didn’t capture his attention and make his breath catch like Lia did. His pulse raced, not from stress but from excitement and anticipation, as she spoke of her passion. If he could only have a tenth of that passion…
He narrowed the space between them as though they were two opposite poles of a magnet, the force too strong for him to resist. “I think I might have an idea of what you’re talking about.”
She licked her lips, a seductive move he’d seen dozens of women practice in his presence, but with Lia it seemed to be unconscious. “Oh?”
God help me, does she have any idea what she’s doing? He was close enough now to catch the faint scent of peaches that rose from her skin. His cock throbbed. He hadn’t been this worked up about a girl since high school. He dug his fingers into his palms to keep from acting like a complete Neanderthal and kissing her right there.
A loud burst of laughter came from the dining as though his brothers could see his predicament through the wooden door. His desire doused, he took a step back, painfully aware of the confused set of her mouth as she watched him. “Let me help you carry the next course out.”
She blinked several times before she murmured a choked “Thank you,” and grabbed three of the plates.
He took the other two and followed her into the dining room, setting one in front of his mother before putting the other in front of his chair. His mind felt fuzzy, like he’d had too much to drink even though he hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol. Sweat pricked the back of his neck. As long as Lia was in the kitchen, he needed to stay out.
“You okay, Adam?” Dan asked from across the table, one brow raised.
“Yeah,” he replied, flicking out his napkin and placing it on his lap. “Just peachy.”