Excerpt: Anything for You
In which Connor is dumped by a girlfriend because…well, he’s not really sure why. Because he looked at Jessica Dunn, which he didn’t realize was not allowed.
“Don’t bother, Connor,” Kim snapped, flicking back her beautiful hair. “You’ve never not looked at me the way you wouldn’t look at her.”
“Uh…how am I supposed to respond to that?”
“You saw her, and my God, the air just changed, Connor. So don’t bullshit me.”
He held up his hands in surrender. “She and I dated very briefly, and that was…I don’t know. Two years ago.” Twenty-seven months ago. “It didn’t work out.”
He wasn’t about to spill Jessica’s personal issues or family history. “She just didn’t think it was working.”
“Well, it’s clear you want to be with her, so good luck.” With that, Kim opened her car door and got in. “Nice knowing you.”
“How am I the bad guy here?”
“You just are. Deal with it.” She slammed the door, backed out of her spot, then rolled down her window. “You have no right dating someone when you’re in love with someone else.”
Then she gunned the motor, ran over his foot and was gone, tires screeching at the corner.
“Ouch,” Connor said.
He tried his foot. Bruised, maybe, but not broken. With a sigh and a curse, he went back inside, limping a little.
“Another one bites the dust, huh?” Colleen called.
“I hate women. Especially you, Dog-Face.”
“They hate you back, Troll Boy.”
Rafe was finishing up the last order. “I’ll clean up,” Connor said.
“I thought you were with your woman.”
“She dumped me. Get out, go home, have fun.”
“If you were gay, I think we’d make a really nice couple. Just putting that out there.”
“Don’t make me fire you.”
“That’s what I get for trying to be nice. Ciao, boss.”
Connor grunted. Got to work. Cleaned the mess from the entire night, shooed off the cousins, ignored Colleen.
When the place was empty, he started cooking. Lasagna. Vegetarian lasagna with sautéed red onions, portobello mushrooms and fresh baby spinach. Made a thick white sauce with whole milk, flour, ground pepper and lots of butter. He made the dough, cranked it through the press—pasta from a box tasted about as good as the box, whereas Connor’s could make an Italian grandmother weep. Ladled out the sauce, gently layered in the noodles, vegetables, sauce and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, not the fake American stuff, that he special-ordered a few times a year from the Italian market in Philly.
Jessica had no right to look at him like that, like she’d just been mown down. Two frickin’ years—twenty-seven months—and she hadn’t once indicated the wish to get back together. And then, with one look, she blew a perfectly nice relationship with a very nice woman.
“So, brother mine, you want to talk?” Colleen asked, coming into the kitchen from where she’d been stacking chairs in the restaurant.
Colleen didn’t say anything for a minute. Then, because it was physically impossible for her not to speak, she said.
“I’m sorry about Kim. She seemed nice.”
“Yep.” But he looked up. “Thanks.”
“See you tomorrow.” She punched him on the shoulder, just hard enough to hurt a little, and he flicked some white sauce into her hair. Then she left, and the quiet of the empty restaurant settled around him.
Cooking always grounded him. To be a good chef, you had to understand food, let it speak to you, inhale its scents, watch it cook. You had to feel the pasta, assess its stick against the wooden spoon, taste it, to know when it was done. You couldn’t just look at a clock. You just had to know when it was right.
Cooking was a way to stop time. To make a family take a half an hour and sit, relax, eat and taste. There was a Zen sense to it, a way of making a dozen separate ingredients into something transformative and new and special, something that would sustain and nourish and bring happiness to those who experienced it, at least for a little while.
Small wonder he’d started cooking when his parents’ marriage began to crumble, years before his mother knew anything was wrong.
He put the lasagnas in the oven and got to work cleaning the kitchen until every surface gleamed.
He loved this place. It was his true home.
And he didn’t like getting slammed in the chest at home.
By the time the six lasagnas were done, it was 1 a.m. He loaded them into his truck, drove to the soup kitchen—they’d given him a key when he opened O’Rourke’s, and he dropped by about once a week with this kind of take—And left five of the lasagnas in the fridge with a note on heating. Then he got back in his truck and drove to Jessica’s.
She answered faster than he would’ve expected. “Connor,” she said. “Is everything okay?”
“I brought you a lasagna.”
She frowned. “Uh…thanks. Why?”
“I’m mad at you.”
“No, I get that. The lasagna tells the whole story.”
Okay, sure, it was dumb. “My girlfriend didn’t like the way I didn’t look at you. So she broke up with me.”
“And clearly a lasagna…does what, exactly?” There was a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth, and Connor felt an answering tug in his chest.
“I don’t know.”
Her smile grew. “Would you like to come in?”
He followed her inside the house. The kitchen, though plain, was immaculate. On the table were an open textbook and a notebook. She closed both and put them on the chair. Message received: whatever I’m studying is none of your business.
He put the pan on the stovetop, turned and leaned against the counter.
Jessica Dunn looked beautiful in pajamas, even if the bottoms were green plaid and the top was a T-shirt that showed a cat wrapped in a tortilla. Purritto, it said. Funny.
“So why are you here, Connor?” she asked.
“My now ex-girlfriend pointed out that I’m still hung up on you.”
“Did she now.” Jess swallowed and looked at the table. Straightened the napkin holder.
And that, friends, made Connor very happy. She was nervous. For some reason, he knew that was a good thing.
“You ruined a perfectly good relationship.” He bit down on a smile.
“Yep.” He let his gaze wander over her. Her hair was down, and he loved her hair, the cool, smooth texture of it, the graceful swing. Her cheeks were flushed, and she was now fiddling with the drawstring of her pajamas. Double-knotting it, in fact.
Connor had always been good with knots.
“Do you want me to stop coming to O’Rourke’s?” she asked.
“Then what do you want?”
She went to put her hands in her pockets, then discovered she didn’t have any. Folded her arms, instead. “So you’re bribing me with lasagna?”
“Yes. Is it working?”
She shrugged. “A little. It smells fantastic.”
“Jess,” he said quietly, “you didn’t like seeing me with someone else. So be with me.”
She huffed. “I have no problem with you being with someone else, Connor. If you like her, that’s great. I’m glad.”
“You almost sound sincere.”
“I am,” she said.
The kitchen was quiet except for the hum of the refrigerator. He kept looking at her. The pulse in her neck was visible. And fast.
“She was right, you know,” he murmured. “I am still hung up on you.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
“No, you’re not.” He went toward her and took each of her hands in his. She swallowed again, her cheeks pinkening.
“Jessica,” he whispered, leaning down to kiss her cheek. She shivered. Didn’t pull away. “Be my girlfriend.” Kissed her jaw, then just below her ear. “You have to. I made you lasagna.” Her skin smelled like lemons and vanilla.
“I can’t…you shouldn’t…”
“Lasagna, Jess. All those layers. Homemade pasta.”
She laughed a little. “Connor, I’m sorry. I wish I could…I wish you were still with her. Your girlfriend.”
The comment seemed to hit her where she lived, because her beautiful green eyes softened, and her gaze fell to his mouth.
Connor didn’t wait for more of an invitation. He kissed her, slid his arms around her to keep her close, and there it was again, that locked-in perfection, like they were made to kiss each other…and only each other. Her mouth was soft and giving, and a small sigh came from her and he couldn’t wait any longer, because for crying out loud, they hadn’t been together for twenty-seven months, and he missed her, he ached for her, and no one else would do.