Foreplay, p.11
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       Foreplay, p.11
 

         Part #1 of The Ivy Chronicles series by Sophie Jordan
Page 11

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  With shaking hands, I tried to focus on spooning the thick red sauce over the noodles, but I was acutely conscious of Reece’s every move. The faint sawing sound of the knife as he cut the bread into slices. The girls’ silly chatter behind us. It was such a strange, domestic moment. I could almost fool myself that it was real . . . a peek into the life, the future, I wanted for myself.

  “I want three meatballs!” Sheridan announced.

  “Yeah?” Reece said as he carried the bread to the table. “I’m going to eat fourteen. ”

  Sheridan giggled. “You can’t eat fourteen!”

  My lips curved as I poured only a small spoonful of sauce over Madison’s noodles. Just enough to coat. Setting the girls’ bowls before them, I went back for mine and Reece’s.

  “Sorry,” I said, meeting his eyes as I sat between the two girls. “I couldn’t fit fourteen in your bowl. ”

  “There’s always seconds. ”

  My pulse spiked as he said this because for the barest second he looked at my mouth, and it was like he wasn’t talking about food at all.

  Sheridan provided a welcome distraction, tossing her head back in a fit of giggles. “You’re so crazy, Reece!”

  He made a funny face at her as he shook Parmesan over his noodles and then did the same over the girls’ bowls. Something inside my stomach flipped over. It was an odd thing, reconciling this Reece with the guy from the bar.

  I realized I didn’t know him. Not really. But this. This him. It felt . . . wrong somehow. Like trying to force two mismatched puzzle pieces together. He even looked different. No longer cast in the hazy amber glow of the bar, but in the warm yellow of the kitchen. There was no way to hide the faintest flaw in this bright light, and yet, believe it or not, he looked hotter.

  Sheridan stared at him with wide eyes. “Momma says you get a tummy ache when you eat too much. ”

  “What? This belly?” He sank back in his chair and patted his flat stomach. “No way. It’s made of steel. You should have seen what I ate for breakfast. My pancakes were stacked . . . ” Squinting, he held his hand two feet above the table. “ . . . this high. ”

  Madison smacked a hand over her mouth, stifling her gasp.

  “Sharks eat tires,” Sheridan volunteered loudly, and not entirely on topic.

  Madison nodded sagely in agreement. “Momma read that to us in my shark book. They found a tire in a great white’s belly. ”

  “I could eat a tire,” Reece replied with utter seriousness, popping a whole meatball into his mouth and chewing.

  More giggles erupted at this claim.

  Smiling, I twirled spaghetti around my fork and tried not to compare this to the dinners of my childhood, when I usually ate in front of the television. If I was lucky enough to be in a motel room. Often it was the backseat of Mom’s car. Either way, there was rarely a microwave handy so I ate a lot of cold SpaghettiOs straight from the can. “Eat up, girls. ”

  The girls obliged, slurping noodles into their mouths and making a general mess. Sheridan stabbed her fork into a meatball and lifted it to her lips for a bite. She ate about half of it before it fell into the bowl with a splat, spraying sauce.

  Madison proclaimed herself full after three bites, but I coaxed her into eating a little more, bribing her with the lure of bread. All the while, I tried to ignore Reece’s watchful gaze, hoping I was playing it cool as I wiped sauce off chins. Lowering the napkin, I glanced at Reece, only to find him staring back at me.

  Heat prickled over my face and I looked away quickly, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear self-consciously.

  “C’mon. ” I waggled a slice of bread at Madison. “One more bite and you can have this yummy yummy bread. ”

  Eyes glued to the bread, the toddler shoveled one more tangle of noodles into her mouth and then snatched the promised bread from my fingers.

  Sheridan was another story, happily devouring her spaghetti and moving on to her second meatball. I picked at my dinner as they polished off their milk. Everything I chewed sank like lead into my stomach. It was hard to eat with Reece across from me. Watching. Eating with gusto. Apparently he had no such troubles.

  “All right,” I instructed when the girls declared themselves stuffed. “Let’s hose you down and get in your pj’s and ready for bed. I promise to read to you if you guys don’t stall. ” I clapped once. “Chop chop. ”

  “Two stories,” Sheridan wheedled.

  “Um. ” I pretended to think hard. “Okay. ”

  “Three!” Madison shouted, holding up four fingers.

  Sheridan pointed at her. “Ha! You can’t count! You’re holding up four—”

  I closed a hand around the seven-year-old’s arm and lowered it to her side. “I think three stories sounds perfect. ”

  “Yay!” The girls cheered and climbed down from their seats, Madison unlocking her own booster strap in her eagerness.

  “Wait. Wash hands first. ” I led them to the kitchen sink and supervised as they stepped up on the stool and washed up. They raced from the kitchen.

  Turning, I faced Reece. He was watching me intently, relaxed in his chair, one arm reclined along the surface of the table. “You’re good with them. ”

  “I was thinking the same thing about you. ”

  He shook his head. “Not really. Just experienced. I grew up with a little brother who insisted on shadowing me everywhere. ”

  “That didn’t annoy you? I thought big brothers tortured their younger brothers?”

  “Not so much. We got on pretty well. Still do. ”

  “You’re lucky,” I murmured, trying not to let the envy creep in. But then who knew what would have happened if I’d had a brother or sister? They might not have survived my mother. I barely did.

  He angled his head. “Let me guess. You and your sister are still bitter rivals?”

  “No. Only child. ”

  “Oh. ” The teasing tone left his voice. He studied me again. I sank back into my chair and toyed with my food like I was still going to eat it. I stabbed at a meatball beneath his close scrutiny. “Never would have guessed it. You’re a natural with kids. Just a born mother, I guess. ” The way he uttered that, I didn’t feel complimented. It was almost like the observation disappointed him.

  “Thanks. ” I supposed someone raised in a retirement village (not that he knew that about me) wouldn’t necessarily be adept at interacting with children. But I understood children like I understood the elderly. Both were usually overlooked. They lacked control in their worlds. I understood what they needed. I gave them attention. Kindness. Respect.

  “I think I want to work with kids,” I volunteered, and then wondered why I said anything. He wasn’t interested in what I wanted to do when I graduated. He was a bartender. He wasn’t Emerson or Georgia. Or even Hunter. Especially not Hunter.

  The silence stretched between us, and his lack of comment only proved he could care less about my ambitions. Giving up on my plate, I used a napkin and started to clean up the spilled food on the table surrounding the girls’ bowls. Good excuse to avoid his gaze.

  Suddenly, he murmured, “You mean you’re going to Dartford and you’re not going to be a surgeon or some executive type?”

  I shot him a glance. “Are you stereotyping me?”

  He shrugged unapologetically.

  I had no right to be offended. Not when I’d singled him out because of the category I thought he fell into. I gravitated toward him because all rumors indicated he was an unparalleled player.

  “Thanks for letting me stay for dinner. ”

  Now I shrugged. “Of course. You did fix their garbage disposal. I’m sure they would have invited you themselves. ”

  Nice. It was like I didn’t want him to think I was interested in him—when I clearly was. Only further evidence of how unskilled a flirt I was.

  A loud crash followed by a squeal
drifted from upstairs. I shook off the spaghetti and crumbs I’d gathered into Sheridan’s empty bowl. “I better get them settled before someone loses a limb. ”

  His mouth twitched. “Sure. ”

  I exited the kitchen, the back of my neck tingling. I knew without looking that he was watching me walk away, considering me. If I were Emerson, I’d probably do that thing with her hips that she does. But I wasn’t Em. I was just me.

  Thirty minutes and three bedtime stories later, I returned to find him gone. I pulled up hard and looked around the quiet kitchen for him. As though he lurked in some corner. He’d cleared the table, rinsed and stacked the dishes beside the sink, but he was gone.

  Yeah. I was just me. Hopeless me.

  Chapter 9

  Why am I doing this again?” I stared at my reflection in the mirror. Tinfoil sheets covered the top of my head. Emerson sat next to me, similar sheets arranged in her much shorter hair. Only where mine were highlights of various shades of gold and copper, hers were chunky magenta streaks.

  She sipped from her iced coffee as we waited for our stylists to return and remove the foil from our hair. Hopefully the results wouldn’t make me want to wear a hat for the rest of the semester.

  Emerson lowered her drink and met my gaze thoughtfully in the mirror. “This will seal the deal. ”

  “How’s that?” I asked.

  “Well. Hottie bartender kissed you—”

  “Reece,” I supplied, flipping the page of a magazine I wasn’t really interested in. “And let’s not forget he bailed on me the other night without even a good-bye. So kiss aside, I wouldn’t say I’m close to sealing the deal with him. ”

  She waved a hand, continuing. “He’s still into you. He stayed and ate dinner with you and the girls, didn’t he? Trust me. He wants you. ”

  “He was probably just hungry,” I grumbled under my breath.

  “More importantly, Hunter is starting to finally come around—”

  “I never said Hunter was—”

  “Pepper, sweetheart, he’s interested. He wouldn’t offer to drive home with you for Thanksgiving if he wasn’t potentially even one teeny tiny bit”—she held up her fingers in the barest pinch—“interested in a you and him. A guy wouldn’t suffer a four-hour car drive otherwise. ”

  “Hmm,” was all I said, taking a sip of my water. Staring at my reflection, I hoped the combination of gold and copper highlights the stylist insisted would make my hair pop wasn’t a disaster. For what I was spending, it had better look nothing short of miraculous.

  Emerson leaned over and squeezed my hand. “I’m so glad you’re doing this. ”

  “Letting you make me over?”

  She shrugged. “It’s more than that. This is fun, Pepper. I mean, I love you and you’re a great study partner and all . . . and it’s nice that you’re always up for a movie night, but you’ve never been one to join me for a girls’ day at the salon followed by a night out. ”

  I resisted pointing out that my budget didn’t precisely allow for trips to the salon and manicurist. Emerson had never had to budget for anything in her life. Her credit card bill went straight to her father. Maybe if I thought she was perfectly happy, I would tease her about being a spoiled little rich girl, but I didn’t go there. Not knowing what I did—that she spent most of her holidays alone in an empty house while her father spent them with his current girlfriend. And I knew almost nothing about her mother except that she was remarried, and Emerson saw her maybe once a year. She was proof that money didn’t promise happiness.
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