Brighter Than the Sun Page 59

He smiled. “Finally. I wasn’t sure if you were going to avoid looking at me all night.”

She blushed furiously and ducked her head. But he tucked his fingers underneath her chin and nudged it back up so their gazes met again.

“Don’t do that, beautiful. Whatever you’re thinking or feeling, let it go. Can you do that for me tonight?”

She smiled, slowly relaxing in his presence. “Yeah, I can do that.”

His eyes were warm and tender and his smile was gentle. His smile broadened with her agreement.

“Yeah? Good deal. Let’s go eat then. Fish are all cleaned and prepped and ready to fry. Even the hush puppies are mixed.”

“Sounds good. I’ve never been able to eat fish I’ve caught myself,” she said ruefully.

“Well, thanks to you, we both get to eat tonight,” he said, giving her a warm smile again.

She found herself seated on a bar stool at the kitchen counter where Joe poured her a glass of wine before instructing her to sit back and relax and keep him company while he cooked.

She sniffed appreciatively as the smell of frying fish and hush puppies soon filled the air. She’d been so petrified about this evening after the debacle of last night, but she felt none of the unease she’d imagined. It was as if last night hadn’t even happened. Joe was still . . . Joe. The same guy he’d been over the last three days. He was funny and sweet and unfailingly conscientious of her every need. And the way he looked at her sent the already present butterflies into flight mode as they scuttled round and round in her belly and chest.

When he was finished taking out the last of the fish and hush puppies, he set the tray down on the counter before refilling her wineglass and filling his own, and then he walked around to slide onto the stool beside her.

He reached for one of the headless fish—thank God it was headless—and put it on her plate but held on to it.

“There’s a little trick to eating it but nothing difficult,” he assured. He pinched his thumb and forefinger over one of the fins while holding the rest of the body steady. Then he lifted and easily removed the fin, creating a horizontal dividing line in the meat of the fish. Then he turned the fish over and repeated the process with the lower fin as well. “Now you’re ready to peel off one of the filets,” he said triumphantly.

He carefully pulled down with his thumb, sliding a thin slice of meat that was breaded on one side but bare on the inside. Steam rose from the white flesh and Zoe noticed little tiny black squiggly markings through it.

“Now, just because I peeled away the filet doesn’t mean there might not still be a few tiny bones around the edges, especially toward the top where the ribs were located. You have to chew carefully and if you feel anything hard or sharp, maneuver it onto your tongue and simply reach in and pluck it out or spit it into a paper towel,” he added with a grin.

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously at him. “Is this an attempt to dupe me into some fish-out-of-water city-girl trip where I do or say something completely ridiculous that results in you laughing yourself silly over how totally out of my depth I am?”

His brow furrowed and he looked confused at first. A rush of shame and regret washed over her, heating her skin and reddening her cheeks until they felt like they were on fire. He stared intently at her, his eyes seeming to penetrate right through her barriers so he saw to the heart of her. As if he saw how much she feared being the butt of his—or anyone’s—joke.

“Zoe, sweetheart, that seriously pisses me off,” he said in a growl-laced voice. “Not that you questioned my intentions. You’re absolutely allowed to do that anytime you want. I’ll always be honest with you about my intentions. I swear it. What pisses me off is whatever bastard trained you to expect the worst from people. And it pisses me off even more that you’re speaking from personal experience.”

She shifted uncomfortably, fingering the still-hot piece of meat she hadn’t even tasted yet. The last thing she wanted was his pity. And she had a feeling if she apologized it would only piss him off all the more, so she said nothing and instead gingerly bit into the fish, blowing around the edges of her mouth so it didn’t burn her tongue.

Paying heed to his warning, she chewed carefully, feeling for anything that felt like a piece of bone. The delicious flavor burst onto her taste buds and her eyes instantly widened.

“This is really good,” she blurted.

He smiled. “Would I lead you wrong?”

She took another bite, chewing quickly. Then she picked up one of the hush puppies, noticing that Joe was dipping his into ketchup. She frowned, but he hadn’t been wrong yet. So she followed suit, dipping her hush puppy into his ketchup since she hadn’t poured any onto her plate yet, and then tentatively took a small bite of the fried cornbread.

Again she was stunned.

“Good?” Joe asked in amusement.

But she was already stuffing the rest of the hush puppy into her mouth, waving him away imperiously with her free hand.

He burst out laughing and then quickly deboned a few more pieces of fish and piled them onto her plate along with several hush puppies. He even squirted a generous amount of ketchup onto her plate and then sat back, watching as she continued to eat with enthusiasm.

She halted when she realized he wasn’t eating. He was just staring at her. She paused in the act of putting more into her mouth and turned to look at him.

“What? Why aren’t you eating?”

He smiled that bone-melting, heart-wrenching smile that made her want to cry and smile all at the same time. It was a smile that had the most confusing effect on her. Her knees went weak and her nipples immediately puckered. How could he make her think of sex simply by smiling?

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