Just re-released the sequel to Hard-Ass Is Here. It used to be called Hard-Ass Christmas, but it really isn’t a holiday story. Phillip drags Taylor up to Big Bear for the holiday, but the story is about how the two of them learn to trust and take the next step.
He’d dropped the subject of my father like a good host. I was happy. Talk about a buzzkill. Discussing my old man was not conducive to a romantic evening. I suppose it was touching that Phillip thought he wanted to know about my past. Maybe he’d seen too many Hallmark movies.
Phillip cooked the steaks on the built-in grill in the kitchen while I sliced plump red tomatoes and settled for drinking wine and keeping him company. It grew dark outside. The mountains were black silhouettes against the fading light. The last time I’d checked, it was still snowing, and the forecast promised more tonight and tomorrow.
“How do you like your steak?” he asked, flipping one of the warm brown fillets.
“I prefer it when the plate doesn’t resemble a bloody murder scene.”
His laugh was rich and husky. “I’ll do my best.”
He continued to give the meat his full attention, and I gave the wine mine. I enjoyed watching him cook, his tan, slender hands so practiced and assured. A silky raven lock of hair fell across his forehead, and his thick lashes rested on his angular cheeks. He glanced up and caught me watching him.
“I’m starving. How about you?” he asked.
“Can you pass me the Worcestershire sauce?”
I handed him the dark bottle. He slathered the steaks with the sauce and scooped them off the grill onto pretty blue plates. He dipped into another pot and spooned red potatoes onto the dish.
My phone vibrated in my pocket, startling me. I pulled it out and could see the number of the person texting me. Gregory. It flustered me to see his name, and I gave a guilty glance toward Phillip. I stuffed the phone back in my shirt, a nervous fluttering in my gut as I heard the little beep reminding me I had a message.
“If you put the salad on the table, we can eat,” he said, unaware of my dilemma. He carried two plates to the big, knotty pine table on the far side of the living room.
We settled into our chairs across from each other. Phillip topped off his wine and mine. The steak was perfect. It melted in my mouth with a rich, tangy burst, and the potatoes were firm and buttery.
“This food is so good,” I mumbled.
“Sometimes I think instead of the brilliant financial wizard I am, I should have been a chef.”
“Yes, you’re such a slacker.”
“I hope it’s not too late to leave my mark on the world.” He looked like he was holding back a smile.
“You’d really make a killing right about now if you owned a snow shovel company.”
“That’s a great idea.”
“I can picture the sign, Daniels Shovel Company.” I grinned. “Your jingle should go something like: ‘Nobody shovels it better than Daniels.’”
“I love it,” he said. “Smart-ass.”
I helped myself to salad, drizzling some dressing over the green leaves. “I’ll handle the phones. I have such stunning people skills.”
“I think it might work. We make a great team.” He was smiling, but he kept his gaze averted.
I dropped my gaze to my food, giving it my full attention. I could get used to this. Nice meals, laughter, and someone who seemed to care. But after my failed experiment in domesticity with Gregory, it was best to take this budding relationship with Phillip one day at a time.
I was chasing a tomato around my plate when everything plunged into darkness. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the light from the fireplace and candles.
“I guess that means no movie tonight,” Phillip quipped.
“We lost power?” It was a stupid question.
“We did indeed.”
“Good foresight to have a candlelight meal.”
Phillip’s gaze glittered in the half-light. The wind howled outside around the eaves of the roof. It was silent without the background noise of things like the refrigerator or the heater.
“I had a big night of needlepoint and karaoke planned. Now it’s all shot to hell.”
“I guess there is a God,” I said, putting my hands together in mock prayer.
His white teeth were visible in the darkness. “It should come back on in about an hour.”
“The important thing is, I can still see the wine.”
“Should we tell spooky stories?” he asked in a ghoulish voice.
“The one about the babysitter and the guy calling from inside the house; that one always freaked me out as a kid.”
“That one was creepy,” I said, my eyes wide.
We finished off the meal, laughing about the scary stories of our childhood. Then we cleared the table, setting the dishes in the sink until morning. The fireplace glow didn’t reach quite far enough to clean the kitchen to Phillip’s standards.
I sat on the couch in front of the hearth. Phillip brought over the wine and our glasses.
“Well, this is quite nice anyway,” he said. “Who needs electricity?”
He settled in next to me, and we put our feet up on the coffee table.
“My mom would be irritated with me right about now.” He laughed.
“Would she scold you?”
“Yes.” He sipped his wine. “Then she’d have turned it into a joke.”
The shadows flickered on the walls with the occasional pop from the fire. The wine made me groggy, and I snuggled against Phillip’s warm shoulder. I didn’t feel the need to move away and find my own space at the moment. Maybe later I would, but for now it felt okay.
“Are you happy at Peterton Financial?” I asked.
He turned to look at me. “I am. Why?”
The alcohol was making me feel less guarded than usual. “I know regionals move around a lot.”
“I don’t plan on going anywhere if that’s what you’re asking.”
“You’re so smart. No wonder you’re the boss.”
He chuckled. “You can ask me stuff, you know. I’m private, but not with people I…care about.”
My heart lurched. Don’t get ahead of yourself. You can care about a parakeet.
“I could ask the same of you. Are you happy at Peterton?” he asked.
“I am, and I will say I enjoy work more than usual at the moment.”
The fire crackled and danced near us.
“For reasons of full disclosure, I should tell you they did offer me another position in New York,” he said.
I felt like he’d kicked me in the stomach.
“Are you going to take it?”
“Didn’t I just tell you I wasn’t going anywhere?”
“Why the hell do they move you guys around so much? It creates instability within the local branches.” I scowled.
“It’s not an orphanage. It’s a brokerage.”
I laughed. “I know, but any company should have stable management. How do you create a team environment if the players keep changing?”
He rubbed my thigh. “To be fair to them, I used to ask to be moved around.”
I absorbed that for a moment.
“When I was first with Peterton and going through my divorce, I got restless easily.”
“When you were living in Japan?” I asked.
“It was when I got back from Japan. That’s when I decided to stop torturing Mary by living a lie.” His lips were pursed, and his expression in the firelight was brooding.
I covered his hand with mine. “You did the right thing.”
“Took me long enough.”
“Can I ask you something?”
He turned his sharp features toward me. “I encourage it.”
“Were your parents accepting of…?” I stopped.
“It’s such a cliché, but they wanted me to be happy. Whatever my choices.”
“You’ve led a charmed life, my friend.”
He shrugged. “It was up until my parents died.”
I felt like a heel. I needed to try and remember other people loved their parents. Most people didn’t consider their mother and father to be simply sperm and egg donors like I did. “Sorry.”
He stroked my hand. I guess he forgave me.
“I’d love to take you to Japan someday.”
The idea excited and stressed me. Vacationing together in another country would be a whole new level of intimacy. I wondered if I could handle it. “There’s an interesting thought.”
“I lived in Tokyo when I worked for Frandin Finance. There’s this place called Kabukicho. It’s this little area, can’t be more than six hundred square meters, but it’s the largest entertainment district in East Asia. I think I heard last count there are four thousand businesses crammed in there.”
“It can be. But it’s a fun place. There are tons of bars and fast-food places.”
“So I could still get me a burger while I’m there?”
“I hate to break your heart, but it will taste different,” he said.
“They shouldn’t mess with my beef.”
“It has a different sauce on it or something.”
“That does it. I’m never going to Japan,” I said, laughing.
“We’ll see if I can persuade you when the time comes.” His tone was gentle. He leaned over and kissed me. It was soft, searching, and my stomach buzzed with desire. He took the glass from my hand and put it on the coffee table. Then he turned back to me, the light of the fire reflected in his gaze. “I want to fuck you on the floor, in front of the fire,” he whispered.
I glanced over at the expansive, furry bearskin rug near the hearth.
He displayed a wide grin. “Yes. Let’s defile the damn thing.”
“I am when it comes to you.”