Icing the Competition – Excerpt

Peri unfolded the elaborate menu and perused the options. Her last visit to Chelsea's had been when Jacqui had been married to Tyler, and she had announced her pregnancy.

As awkward as that evening had been, Peri was ready to make new, better memories with Shawn. Starting tonight, with their first official date. She glanced surreptitiously over her menu, enjoying the way Shawn's dark hair was tousled. Like he'd just slid out of bed. Her bed.

His clothes, however, had obviously been chosen with more care. His dark blue shirt clung to his chest beneath the black dinner jacket, the silver striped tie a nice counterpoint. She'd never seen him in a tie before. As good as he'd looked in his fire suit, he looked even yummier now.

The waitress came by, took their order, and filled their water glasses, then left them alone. A small ensemble had gathered in the corner of the parquet dance floor, and light jazz flowed through the restaurant.

Shawn guided Peri onto the dance floor. Her full skirt swirled around his legs as he pulled her into a warm embrace. His lead was a simple box step, and she followed by instinct. The song ended too soon. Peri was breathless as he led her back to the table, but she couldn't decide if it was from the dancing, or just being held in his arms.

Dinner went better than she anticipated. His voice was well-moderated, and she enjoyed surprising him with her knowledge of cars and engines.

"I'm curious," he said after the waitress served their entrées. "Why don't you eat beef?"

"Personal preference." She shrugged, taking a sip of water. "I don't like the flavor. It's no different than not liking broccoli or brussel sprouts."

"Fair enough." He grinned. "Coincidentally, I happen to enjoy brussel sprouts."

Peri giggled. "Me too."

Shawn cut into his prime rib and stabbed a piece with his fork, bringing the bite to his lips. "What else do you like?"

"Cars and racing." She mentioned the obvious. "I also love to read, and I have a lot of fun celebrating Halloween."

"The skeleton on your front door gave that one away."

Peri rolled her eyes, letting the comment slide. "I mentioned at the gallery that I love live theater. I have tickets for Jekyll and Hyde at UNC."

"I remember." He ate another piece of steak. "What else?"

Her pulse raced. "I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty." She let that comment perk as she dug into her salmon, using her knife to push a flake onto her fork and bring it to her mouth.

He chuckled, and the sound floated over her like a caress. Her cheeks grew warm, and his heated gaze wiped out all negative thoughts of the last time she'd visited the restaurant.

"What kind of movies do you like?" he asked, eating another bite of his steak.

"Horror and thriller." She grinned. "I love scaring myself silly with movies like Pet Sematary and A Nightmare on Elm Street."

His eyebrows rose. "The lady has taste."

She turned the tables on him. "What movies do you like?"

"I'm more of an action guy. Days of Thunder and The Fast and the Furious are among my favorites."

"Why am I not surprised they're racing flicks?" She took a sip of water. "What else?"

His brown eyes gleamed. "The Notebook, P.S. I Love You, Steel Magnolias."

"Chick flicks?" Peri checked her squeal of laughter before it disturbed the other diners.

"Shh!" Shawn put his finger over his lips, casting furtive glances around the restaurant, and lowered his voice. "Don't let the cat out of the bag."

"What?" She looked around with him, knowing it was remote that she'd see someone she knew. "Do you think there's some reporter just waiting to pounce on a juicy piece of gossip?"

He shrugged, still straight-faced as he speared another chunk of steak with his fork. "Stranger things have happened."

Peri sobered a bit in remembrance of the reporters that had invaded Jacqui's Bakery last December. Tyler had given an interview that had almost cost Jacqui her relationship with Nick. Peri shook off the memory. "Are you—" The impish twinkle in his chocolate eyes cut off her question, and she giggled. "You jerk."

He took a sip of his beer. "I had you going."

"Yes," she conceded. "Yes, you did." Her grin turned cheeky, and she propped her elbow on the table, cupping her chin in her palm. "Just so you know, turnabout's fair play."

He straightened in his chair. "Yeah?"

"When you least expect it, Sheldon," she warned, "I will get you back."

"I look forward to it."