Flirting with Fire
Despite Gia's assurance she was fine, Nathan held her hand as her office was turned into a makeshift interrogation room for the NYPD. He couldn't hold her the way he wanted to, so he was settling—again—for being the steady friend.
"It appears somebody attempted CPR," homicide detective Carl Anderson prompted. "Was it you?"
Gia shook her head. "Jason and Dale. One of the waiters and the busboy. I made everybody take a class just after the holidays."
The detective flipped through a small notebook. "So you didn't touch the body?"
Gia's olive-toned skin went pale. "No."
"But you knew Elliot Craig."
The restaurant was now empty except for Nathan, Gia and the detective. The cops had arrived, supervised the removal of the victim, questioned everybody—employees and diners alike—then unceremoniously sent everyone out and locked the doors. Knowing Gia's commitment to her restaurant, Nathan figured she was struggling to decide if a dead body or an interruption of dinner service was more traumatic.
"He comes in every few weeks," Gia continued.
"For a review?"
"He'll write up the meal on occasion, but not always. Technically, that's skirting an ethical line. He eats for free when he's reviewing."
"But he ate free here all the time?"
Gia's lips turned up in a small smile. "No reason to piss him off."
"Pretty good gig," the detective commented, to which Nathan agreed.
Plenty of men would pay, and pay big, to see Gia's stunning face and eat her delicious food on a regular basis—in fact he was the president of that fan club. But since Craig had acted like a pompous jerk from the moment he walked in, Nathan doubted the critic was as lovestruck as Nathan himself. He probably just enjoyed being fawned over.
"Was Craig easily pissed off?" the detective pressed.
"A lot of people found him annoying."
Gia's eyes flashed with resentment, but Nathan doubted anybody who didn't know her well—or who didn't study her movements as closely as he did—would be aware of it. "He was aggressive and demanding, but a lot of food people are. He seemed to like eating here."
Raising his eyebrows, the detective propped his hip against the desk. "I've read the reviews. He wasn't all that complimentary."
"Elliot never complimented anybody if he could help it." Gia's half smile appeared again, sending sparks of need through Nathan's body. "But then I'm no Joel Robuchon."
The detective cocked his head. "Who?"
"A French chef of some renown," Nathan told him, tired on Gia's behalf of the seemingly pointless questions. "Could these questions wait until tomorrow? Ms. Sorabella has been through quite a lot tonight."
"You're the boyfriend?" Anderson asked, giving Nathan his full attention for the first time.
"No," Gia blurted before Nathan could speak.
Was he really that far from boyfriend material? Unsurprised by the pain that jabbed his heart, Nathan reminded himself that he hadn't exactly put himself out there with Gia. For a while, he'd simply been happy to breathe the same air she did. Lately he'd begun to want more—a lot more—but he could hardly push for it under tonight's circumstances. "I'm a friend," he told the detective.
Ignoring Anderson's question, Gia laid her hand on Nathan's knee and leaned toward him, whispering, "Sorry. I didn't mean…"
Her touch was akin to downing several tumblers of whiskey in a single gulp, and her closeness allowed him to indulge in the captivating, subtle scent that clung to her skin. "It's okay. I'm glad to be a friend."
"You always seem to be around when something crazy happens."
"Like two weeks ago when Franco came down with the stomach flu and I learned how to be a maître d' in ten minutes?"
Her grin blossomed full-out, the one that inevitably sent his fantasies spinning out of control. "Exactly like that."
"You've been there for me, too, though. Remember all those confessions of my romantic woes?"
He'd only known Gia a few weeks when he'd told her about his girlfriend, the one he'd followed to New York only to have her run off with a hot-shot navy pilot on leave two weeks later. They were now happily tucked away in Southern California. In turn, Nathan was left lusting after a stunning Italian restaurant owner he had as much chance with as he had of landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.
"I remember," she said, "but your crappy past doesn't remotely compare to mine. At least you had one great relationship."
"One I couldn't hold on to."
"Yeah, well, I'm zero for twenty—and that only covers my dates during the past year."
"They were all idiots."
"So was she."
Warmth infused him, both at her words and the understanding in her eyes. Moments like these gave him hope…though the timing couldn't be worse.
Gia squeezed his hand. "Thanks for sticking."
"Franco and the rest of the guys wanted to stay, too. I convinced them I'd take care of you."
"And why would you volunteer for that? I don't expect you to save me all the time, you know."
"But I like to."
Meeting his gaze, her eyes focused with determination. "Why?"
He scrambled for the right answer. If their relationship—such as it was—could be plotted with angles and measurements, he'd be on much firmer ground. Her importance in his life had grown exponentially with every word of welcome, smile and conversation. The shared confessions were absolute proof his feelings were much more than a crush and they weren't going away. Maybe if he drew a diagram of—
"Yo!" The detective slammed his hand onto the desk. "Could you wind up your personal drama so I can get on with my investigation?"
"Sorry," Nathan said, dragging his attention from Gia.
"Yeah, yeah, got the hots for each other." Anderson waved his hand. "Doesn't take a detective to figure that out. But back to the dead guy…"
Gia scowled—whether at the memory of a deceased customer or the idea of them having the hots for each other, Nathan wasn't sure. "I don't know what else I can tell you. Elliot started to eat his dinner, he gasped then collapsed. He probably had a heart attack. I'm sorry he died, but I don't see how we can do anything about it now." Rising, Gia faced the detective. "Have you eaten? I'm sure we have plenty of leftovers in the kitchen. I'd be glad to throw something together for you."
With a cold assurance that set Nathan's nerves on edge, Anderson shook his head. "I can't eat anything here."
Gia rolled her eyes. "As bribes go, it might be a good idea, but—"
"Neither can anybody else," Anderson finished. "Until further notice, you're closed."
"Closed?" Gia echoed, obviously confused.
"Yeah. I believe Elliot Craig was poisoned."