Her lips flattened, and the cherries that had tasted so good just minutes ago now felt like little round bricks in the pit of her stomach. She worked to keep her voice steady. “So that’s why you asked me here for pie? To see if I would consider representing your product?”
His eyes searched her face for a long moment, and she could see his sudden confusion at her cool reaction. She could almost read his mind, the way he was asking himself how he could have misplayed things with her already.
Especially when he clearly thought he needed her to make his dreams come true…
“Mary?” Jack shook his head, the tips of his hair moving over his broad shoulders. “No.” He shook his head again. “Yes, but it wasn’t the only reason.”
Of course he had to say that. With as much elegance and pride as she could still muster, considering she’d been gazing at him like a love-struck teenager when he’d simply been calculating his potential gains all the while, she carefully slid out of the booth. “Thank you for the pie and coffee.”
Jack reached for her hand before she could take more than a step away from the table. She looked down and saw how tanned his skin was against hers, how large his hand was as he held hers.
“Please, Mary, don’t go.”
God, it was pathetic how much she wanted to stay, even now that she knew the real reason he’d wanted to meet her. It now seemed as if the idea that she could eventually convince him to want more than that was mere fantasy.
But that wasn’t how love worked. She’d learned over and over throughout the years that there was no point in wishing for a miracle…even at Christmastime.
“Today was my last shoot. I’m not modeling anymore.” She didn’t owe him any explanations, but she hated to come across as a spoiled princess who was storming out because she hadn’t gotten her way…or because he’d inadvertently hurt her too-delicate feelings. “I’m sure you’ll find someone perfect to represent your product.”
She waited for him to lift his hand from hers, but he only gripped her tighter. “I already have found somebody perfect, Mary.” She couldn’t help but lift her eyes to meet his as he said, “You’re perfect.”
It was what she’d fought so long—the false perception that she was perfect. “I’m not.”
She steeled herself for his protests. The last thing she expected him to do was smile at her and say, “You’re right. How could anyone be perfect with ice cream and cherry juice on her face?”
He brushed the corner of her mouth with the tip of his index finger and so much warmth flooded her from the tiny touch that she was amazed all of the ice in the diner didn’t melt into a puddle right then and there just from the heat being generated between the two of them. And then, in the most shockingly sexy way, he brought his finger to his own lips and ran his tongue over his fingertip to lick off the cherry juice and ice cream.
“Please, Mary, let me start over and get things out in the right order this time.”
They’d been standing by the side of the table for long enough now that people were starting to stare. A few of them pointed to her and she heard her name in loud whispers. But none of that mattered.
Only this man standing before her did.
He’d had her at the surprisingly sweet comment about cherry juice and his gentle touch to her lips, but she would never forgive herself for folding that easily. “The right order?”
He nodded and moved closer, his body lean and muscled and warm against hers. “My invention isn’t the only reason I wanted to take you for pie and coffee.”
“You’ve got to understand, Angel, a man like me looks at a woman like you and it’s inevitable that I’m going to screw things up.”
He had no right to make up a nickname for her or to say it in such a warm and inviting voice. And she had no business enjoying both those things.
But, for all her vows to protect herself from men like him who only wanted her for the improvements she could make to their bottom line, instead of walking away from him, she found herself saying, “It is?” in a breathless voice that hardly seemed to belong to her.
He nodded, his eyes growing darker still as they dropped to her lips for a split second, then moved back to meet her gaze again.
“You’ve got class. Beauty. Intelligence.” He gestured to himself. “All I’ve got is a degree that took me too many years to finish and a dream that I’m praying will finally become real one day.”
If he had gotten down on one knee to praise her beauty, if he had rhapsodized about her “charms,” she would have forced herself to slip her hand from his and walk away.
But talk of dreams?
Dreams were the one thing she’d always understood, how they could take hold of you and make you risk everything.
Besides, she thought as she studied him, she had a feeling that once Jack Sullivan made up his mind about something, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. And the truth was that the reason she hadn’t chosen a new direction for her career yet was because she wasn’t terribly excited about any of the opportunities that had come her way.
Representing a new technology like this would be fresh. Exciting. Yes, it might fail, as models and technology had rarely been paired successfully. But Mary hadn’t let herself step into a position to fail in a very long time.
Maybe, she thought, it was time to take a risk again.
The biggest question remaining was whether the risk would be strictly professional…or personal, too? Because when he’d called her Angel, the sweet endearment had warmed her in places she hadn’t realized had grown so cold.