The Marcelli Bride

Page 16

Her machine beeped, freeing her from its torture. She patted her face with the towel she’d brought, then moved to the bench by the weights. It was in the perfect position, allowing her to see Joe from not only the front but also the back, which was reflected in the mirror.

“Missed you at dinner last night,” she said as she picked up two ten-pound weights and raised them to shoulder height. “Grammy M stopped by, which meant Grandma Tessa was in a snit. She wasn’t talking, but no one could tell because Ian babbled on and on about college and his studies and where he and Mia have been. He made Vegas sound boring, something I didn’t think was possible.”

Joe picked up the pace on the treadmill, which she took to mean that he was really enjoying their conversation.

“I’m here because of the pasta,” she continued. “It’s going all to my stomach, which is bad enough, but I know the next stop is my thighs.”

“You’re lifting wrong.”

She paused in midpush, the weights just above her head, her elbows bent.


“Start with your palms facing in, then turn them out as you push up.”

She dropped the weights to her lap because it was too complicated to change position in midexercise. For a half second she considered ignoring his instructions. If she did it wrong again would he abandon the treadmill to sit next to her and show her how? Would he put his large, masculine hands on her damp, hot body and—

Whoa—stop that fantasy train right there. No more sexy thoughts about Joe, she told herself firmly. He wasn’t for her. He didn’t even like her. One kiss did not a relationship make.

She did a set of ten presses, then switched to bicep curls. He continued to run at a grueling pace designed to make her hurt just watching him.

“Why are you mad?” he asked.

“I’m not.”

“You’re scowling.”

She glanced in the mirror and realized he was right. She instantly relaxed her face and tried to think happy thoughts.

“Not a morning person?” he asked.

“I’m fine.”

“You haven’t had coffee yet.”

She didn’t ask how he knew. “I couldn’t fit into my pants. I figured I’d better start working out.”

“You need to gain weight.”

“Thanks for the news flash, but you’ve already berated me for that. You don’t get to do it again.”

He grinned. “It’s not like you can stop me.”

She felt the scowl reappear.

“Yell at me,” he said. “I can take it. Are you sleeping?”

“I’m not talking about that with you.”

“But it’s an interesting topic.”

He was trying to make her mad, and he was succeeding. “Let’s talk about you,” she snapped. “I may be a skinny insomniac with post-traumatic shock or some such crap, but at least I don’t go around hurting my grandmother’s feelings.”

“Good point.”

It didn’t feel like a good point. If anything, Darcy would say it felt small and mean-spirited. “I, ah…” Apologize, she told herself. The thing was, she didn’t do it very often, so she wasn’t very good at it. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Why not? It’s true.”

That stunned her, but the shock was nothing when compared with what he said next. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. The food-is-love connection. You might be right.”

If she’d had any rhythm, she would have stood up and done a little victory dance. Instead she contented herself with a smug smile.

“Gee, thanks for the endorsement. I won’t let it go to my head. Besides, the concept is hardly revolutionary. Most mothers show love with food, mine always did. The Marcelli family is Italian, so they have that gene in spades.” She considered his past. “Didn’t your adoptive mother do the same thing?”

“I don’t remember. I was a kid when my parents died. I barely remember what they look like.”

The sadness inherent in the statement made her want to walk over and hug him. Both the jogging and her visceral reaction to him made that action impossible. Still, an ache settled in her midsection and made her more determined than ever to help him connect with his family.

“I’m sure she did the same thing,” Darcy told him. “I’m not sure we as women can help it.”

“Maybe,” he admitted, with obvious reluctance. “My ex used to make cookies for her kids when they had a bad day.”

“See?” She instantly wanted to ask more questions about his previous marriage but thought her obvious curiosity might destroy the moment.

She set down the weights and stood. “I know you’re ambivalent about your family, but what I don’t know is why. They only want to love you, Joe. What’s so bad about that?”

He hit the Stop button on the treadmill and glared at her. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

She shook her head as the moment died. “It’s too important.”

“Why do you care?”

“I’m a compassionate person, and don’t you dare laugh. It’s true.”

Joe didn’t doubt it. He might not enjoy his current assignment, but it wasn’t because of Darcy. Somehow the press had become convinced she was a prima dona bitch with an attitude, and they slanted all their stories that way. But it wasn’t true. Oh, sure, Darcy could use sarcasm like a weapon and she was verbally deadly when she was angry, but at heart, she was a complete pushover.

He wiped his face and neck, then stepped off the treadmill and headed for the mats covering the floor at the rear of the room.

“Come here,” he said.

Her expression turned suspicious. “Why?”

He held in a grin. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Not as much as you might think.”

“I know I can’t ask you to change the subject. For some reason you’re convinced you can heal me and make me want to bond with my family. So I’m trying to distract you.”

“Uh-huh. How?”

He crooked his index finger, beckoning her over. “Come on, Darcy. You know you want to.”

“I’m not sure I want to at all,” she said, but she began to move toward him. “Are you going to teach me some new exercises?”

“Nope. I’m going to teach you a few moves to ward off would-be attackers. Your Secret Service team should have done it already.”

“I’ve been to a few self-defense classes.”

“Not good enough. I’m going to teach you to fight dirty. Stand here.” He positioned her in front of him. “I’m going to grab you. I want you to try and break free.”

He leaned forward and wrapped both arms around her. The second he did, he knew he’d made a huge mistake.

She was hot and sweaty from her workout, which should have been a turnoff, but instead it made him think of other kinds of activity that could work up a sweat. He instantly pictured them rolling around together in bed, bodies sliding together, hands reaching, them both straining to—

He shook off the thought and did his best not to react. In nylon shorts there was no way he could hide a hard-on.

Focus, he told himself. He had to remember what was important.

“Elbow me in the midsection,” he said. “As hard as you can. And don’t worry, you can’t hurt me.”

She sucked in a breath, then rammed her elbow into his midsection. He barely felt it.

“Harder, Darcy. I’m the bad guy. Do it like you mean it.”

She hit him again, but it wasn’t much more than a slight blow. Her security wrist band barely moved. He released her. “Are you even trying?”

She huffed. “Yes. And let me say for the record—ouch.” She rubbed her arm.

He couldn’t help chuckling. “That was it? That was your big power play?”

Fury darkened her eyes and determination pulled at her mouth. Even all blotchy and damp, she was still pretty, he thought, amused by her temper. The sports bra and shorts left nothing to the imagination. She might be all female, but she was sadly lacking in curves. Still, he wanted her. Funny how it didn’t matter that she wasn’t his usual type.

“I want to do it again,” she said, turning her back to him.

He obliged her by stepping close and grabbing her. One of his hands was right below her left breast. He felt the heat of the modest swell, and it was all he could do not to reach up and cup the feminine flesh. Would her nipple get hard right away? Would it—

Bam! She nailed him hard in the gut, and he’d forgotten to prepare. Her bony elbow connected painfully with a rib. At the same time she stomped down hard on his foot, then turned to face him, both hands raised in fists.

“Better,” he said, ignoring the pain. “But don’t take on your attacker. Run like hell. My point is, you can’t use conventional methods to hurt a man who’s bigger and stronger. That’s what I wanted to demonstrate.”

She looked disappointed. “I didn’t hurt you?”

He ignored the fading pain in his midsection. “Do I look hurt?”

“I guess not.”

He pointed to her face. “Go for the eyes. Or the base of your palm to the base of the nose. Push hard, toward the eyes.” He explained a few other vulnerable points.

“What if there’s more than one?” she asked when he’d paused. “What do I do then?”

He remembered the attack that had brought her here in the first place. “How many were there?”

“Four. They grabbed me and tied me up before I could do anything.”

He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. “You’re not going to win against four guys, Darcy. There’s nothing you could have done.”

“But you could have held off four guys?”

He shrugged. “I have years of training.”

“Could I learn?”

Would it help? Would it make her feel safer? “If you wanted to. First you need to get some muscle on your body. Those weights you were working with are fine to tone up, but you need to be pushing yourself.” He glanced over her frame. “You should be able to bench-press a hundred pounds and leg press double that.”

Her eyes widened. “Are you crazy? I’ll look like some kind of freak.”

“You won’t bulk up. Women don’t. Besides, muscle makes you tight and defined.” He shook his head. “What is it about women and looking muscular?”

“It’s cultural. As the half of the species rewarded for being bigger, you wouldn’t understand.”

“But you look fine.”

“You said I was too skinny.”

“You are.”

She sighed. “Let me guess. You like lots of curves on your women.”

He sensed this was a dangerous conversation and didn’t respond with more than a shrug.

“I knew it.”

“You look perfectly okay,” he said.

“Oh, wow. I can hardly breathe from the excited beating of my heart. What a compliment. I’ll treasure it always.”

He didn’t think she was upset, but he wasn’t sure. “You know you’re attractive, right?”

“I guess.”

Her unenthusiastic response and the way she averted her gaze made him wonder if she did. He moved a little closer.

“Darcy, you are. You have a pretty face, great eyes, and when you smile, it’s like you’re sharing a secret with the world.”

She ducked her head. “Thanks. I appreciate you saying that, but in my family, Lauren’s the pretty one. Not that I mind,” she added hastily.

“You need to get over your sister complex.”

She looked at him and rolled her eyes. “Gee, Dr. Larson, thanks for the psychological evaluation. But it’s not that simple. Life keeps getting in the way. For example, the first guy I ever slept with turned out to not be interested in me at all. He suffered through our relationship simply to get an invitation home for winter break where he hit on my sister. Lauren, being Lauren, refused to have anything to do with him, but that didn’t take away the sting.”

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