Nathan Pearce's desire for Gia Sorabella has been on a slow burn ever since he first walked into her restaurant several months before. Since then, they've become friends—and not the kind with benefits. But if he had just the right situation, he could prove to her that they belong together—in bed and out of it. He just never imagined that situation would be when one of her customers is murdered.
Gia has devoted her life to making her Manhattan restaurant a success, and murder is never good for business. Turns out it's not so good for her sanity, either. Luckily Nathan is there, as he's always been…only this time he's offering her a whole lot more than his shoulder. But Gia can't afford to give her focus to anything except her restaurant. Surrendering to Nathan—no matter how delicious he looks—would be flirting with fire.
Her stomach in knots, Gia Sorabella stared in disbelief at the stoney-faced paramedic. "You're sure?"
Considering the siren-blaring, light-flashing truck he'd arrived in, plus the crew and equipment he'd brought in, she was fully aware her question was stupid.
But she fed people for a living. Deceased diners weren't her forte.
"How?" she asked.
The paramedic shrugged. "Can't say."
"A heart attack."
"Could be. I called it in."
"Called it in to who?"
Gia's pulse spiked. "For a heart attack?"
The paramedic shrugged again as he turned away.
Pressing her fingertips to her pounding temples, Gia's thoughts raced over what to do next. Her 8th Avenue restaurant was full of customers who'd been first startled by the choking gasps from a fellow diner, then understandably alarmed by the medics' abrupt entrance. Adding the cops wasn't going to boost her weekend reservations.
At least her staff had handled the whole thing with their usual professionalism. They'd calmly assured the customers that the guy had had a bad reaction to a pine nut, even as her bus boys moved an accordion-style panel to block the corner booth where the diner had keeled over into his pesto capellini.
All this for a man who is—or was—a complete ass.
Not that she'd wanted Elliot Craig, influential restaurant critic and legend-in-his-own-mind, dead. His reviews of Sorabella's were okay, if not exactly glowing. She supposed she should feel fortunate, since the man ravaged almost everybody.
As a man had just died in her restaurant, however, it wasn't her blessings on her mind.
"Don't let anybody leave," the medic ordered over his shoulder.
Franco, her maître d' and assistant manager, squeezed her hand as he said, "Free wine?"
Not trusting her voice to be steady, she nodded.
"Surely it's a heart attack," Franco whispered before he headed toward the cellar door.
Surely. Elliot hadn't exactly been the picture of health. He was short, wide and aggressive, and Gia doubted he spent his days at the Manhattan Fitness Club, even though his nights were filled with indulgences in rich food.
"Gia? Is everything all right?"
Glancing in the direction of the calm, strong and familiar voice, Gia had the crazy urge to throw herself into Nathan Pearce's capable embrace. "Yes, thank you." She worked up a smile for her good friend and one of her best customers. "Finish your dinner. Franco's bringing around some wine."
Behind his glasses, Nathan's dove-gray eyes turned skeptical. "The man in the booth across from me collapsed."
Damn his attention to detail. She supposed, being an architect, precision was a necessary trait for his job. Just now, though, with a restaurant full of customers, that quality was going to be a problem. "He's being taken care of."
"Good to know." Nathan slid his arm around her. "I don't need wine. But you look like you could use a drink."
Before she could gather her wits to protest, he'd led her to his booth. He smelled great, a warm, woody-leather scent reminiscent of her grandfather, yet with a spice that was sensually enticing. Her head buzzing, she acknowledged the familiar sensation of heat that washed over her whenever they touched. Which was exactly why she avoided further intimacy with her friend. She'd never get to the top of the restaurant scene with him distracting her.
"Sit," he said gently but firmly. "I'll be right back."
Gia did as he directed, figuring she had to be in shock to take his demand without question. She was supposed to be the one in charge.
Gathering her wits, she absorbed her surroundings, so familiar, so treasured. As typical in Manhattan, space was at a premium. Beyond the front door and hostess stand were a few booths. The bar was in the back, where the restaurant hooked to the left, leading to a dining room of twelve tables. The modern decor contrasted with her traditional Italian menu. While the walls were dark, mirrors reflected ceiling and floor lights. The tables were antique mahogany, and the candles resting in the center were surrounded by amber glass, casting a soft, golden glow on the diners.
Named for her family, opened on a loan from her grandfather and featuring her Tuscan grandmother's recipes, Sorabella's was her baby—her life, really. She had an obligation to be a success, to carry on the dreams of her immigrant heritage.
The image of Elliot's florid face, his limp body splayed on the table, flashed before her. She closed her eyes, only to have the vision intensify. Fresh pesto sauce splattered across the white tablecloth. An overturned wineglass, deep red liquid dribbling across his fleshy hand.
The next thing she knew, Nathan was sliding into the booth next to her and pressing a heavy crystal glass into her hand. "Drink it."
In a daze, she did. After a sip, she coughed. "What the hell?" she asked, her throat burning.
"Whiskey. Feel better?"
She whipped her head toward him. "No, I—" Her gaze collided with those lovely gray eyes of his, turning her instantly into a marshmallow. "Thanks."
Over the past few months they'd shifted from restauranteur and customer to good friends, confidantes in the hectic world of dating in the city. With his golden blond hair, tailored suits and impeccable manners, he was attractive and nice, but not her usual type. Not that her tendency to try to rehabilitate bad boys was working out, either.
At first, she'd tried to treat Nathan with strict professionalism, even though he'd eaten in her restaurant at least three times a week since he'd moved to the city four months ago. But eventually she'd found herself in deep conversations with him late at night, after restaurant traffic dwindled. He was smart and insightful, caring and generous. Far from the boyfriend mistakes of her past.
But she'd been turning to him for advice and hanging out with him when she should have been doing inventory or planning marketing strategies and menus. She had to make a success of Sorabella's—both for her bank account and her family's pride. Nathan Pearce was a temptation she couldn't afford. She cleared her throat, which still sizzled from the whiskey. "Mr. Craig appears to have suffered an allergic reaction."
"But the paramedics aren't working on him," Nathan pointed out. "He's dead, isn't he?"
"No, of course—" Gia stopped mid-lie. Nathan deserved better. "Yes."
"I suspected so," he said, his shoulders sagging. "I rushed over to help, but when I got there, Jason and Dale were already giving the guy CPR."
Despite the gravity of the situation, she wanted to laugh at the idea that Nathan knew not only the waiter's name, but the busboy's as well.
Elliot Craig had never taken the time to notice anybody.
Ridiculously, she wondered if the critic had liked the pesto. Maybe he'd at least died happy.
"My brother's a firefighter in Cincinnati," Nathan added. "I used to volunteer. I've witnessed a bad scene or two."
"Right. You're from Ohio." And she definitely wasn't. A lifetime New Yorker. Brooklyn, until last year when an Italian movie icon had declared her marinara sauce the best in the city, allowing her to barely afford a move to the high-rise island of Manhattan. "I appreciate your help, as always." Impulsively, she laid her hand over his. "The police are going to question you."
His thumb slid across her knuckles, and the promise of something much more carnal than a consoling friend would offer moved through his eyes. "I don't mind."
She pulled her hand back. "I doubt you'll say that an hour from now."
As she scooted out of the booth and stood, he followed her. "Bet I will."
Gia indulged in his smile briefly, then her hostess appeared beside her. "The police are here."