Joe Angelo shut the oven door and turned around when a thump sounded from the front porch. Even Elvis singing Blue Christmas on the classic rock station couldn’t drown out the eruption of barking that followed.
“What the heck?” Hurrying past the table in the large, open dining area, he reached the door and stopped. Tiger stood on the back of the couch in front of the window, his fur standing on end as he spat at the face staring through the glass. Lights from the Christmas tree in the corner flashed intermittently across the shaggy fur, giving the dog a, colorful, otherworldly appearance. Heavy panting fogged the image, but the cat wasn’t fooled into believing his adversary had left.
With a grin, Joe opened the door, flipped on the exterior light, and looked into a pair of hesitant blue eyes. “You changed your mind about the ribs?”
“You did offer.”
“Happily. Come on in.” He backed up a step when the huge Irish Wolfhound pushed past him. Isabel quickly followed, and he shut the door against the howling wind. “Uh, will he want to eat my dinner or my cat?”
“Lucky loves cats . . . but not because they taste good.”
Tiger swished his tail and stared at the beast, who was quivering with excitement.
“I’m not too sure Tiger will return his affection.”
“I guess I can leave him in the car.” She gripped the dog’s collar with both hands and tugged, sounding less than thrilled at the prospect. “He’ll be a little lonely, but he probably won’t freeze.”
“No, he won’t, but I’m not completely heartless. I’m more worried about Lucky than I am about Tiger, who has a bit of a temper when crossed. Let the two of them work out their differences in the nice warm house.”
Isabel released her grip, and the dog shot farther into the room. “Thank you. I simply couldn’t face such a long drive through that storm. Call me Chicken Little.”
“No, your decision was a smart move. Which makes you bright, not a coward.”
Dimples appeared in cheeks that were pink from the cold, and her blue eyes held a hint of amusement. “Very apropos since Bright is my last name. I’m glad I’m living up to it.”
He held out his hand. “Welcome to my home, Isabel Bright. I’m Joe Angelo.”
She shook his extended palm with a firm grip that sent a shot of electricity up his arm before the sizzle warmed a few other places. The woman was extremely fine, petite, pretty, and blond. He did his best not to notice the tempting curves beneath her fake fur jacket and failed miserably.
“Your name is appropriate, too, since apparently you’re my guardian angel tonight. If it wasn’t for you and your craving for ribs, I’d probably be spending the night in a ditch.”
He groaned. “No angel jokes, please. Growing up, do you know how often I got teased?”
Her eyes sparkled. “So, I shouldn’t tell you that, with those curls, you look just like cupid?”
“No, you shouldn’t.”
She covered her mouth with her hand but couldn’t hide a smile. “Definitely not serial killer material.”
“That’s a relief. Let me take your coat. The ribs are in the oven heating, and I have coleslaw and rolls to go with them. Not exactly traditional holiday fare, but—”
“Who cares. If they taste as good as they smell, I’ll think I’m in heaven. No pun intended.”
He rolled his eyes as he hung the jacket she handed him on the coat tree beside the door. Isabel glanced over at her dog, who sat near the Christmas tree, whining and thumping his tail on the hardwood floor. Tiger narrowed his eyes to mere slits in response but didn’t move.
“I really appreciate you taking us in like this, Joe.”
“You’re very welcome. I wasn’t looking forward to spending Christmas Eve alone, so you’re actually doing me a favor.”
She followed him as he headed back to the kitchen. “No family to visit for the holidays?”
“I run a veterinary clinic. Since I let my staff have the next few days off, I needed to stick around for any emergencies. Most of my relatives live down in Phoenix.”
“Nice of you to be so considerate of your employees.” She leaned on the counter while he lifted down a couple of wine glasses from a cupboard. After a moment, she asked, “There’s no Mrs. Angelo?”
“That would imply I actually have time to date. Would you like a glass of Cabernet with your ribs?”
“I’d love one.” She frowned at the pattern in the granite countertop while he poured the wine. “Dating is overrated, anyway.”
She nodded then sipped the wine he handed her. “Thank you. This is excellent. Men—well, not you since you’re an angel, but other men—are jerks.”
“Sorry.” Taking another sip, she grimaced. “I’m feeling a bit jaded at the moment, having just discovered the man I thought was crazy in love with me also loved—and I use the term loosely—two other women. At the same time. He didn’t see why I was upset when I found out. Unfortunately, we also worked together, so I kissed both him and the job good-bye. Metaphorically speaking.”
“I’d say you have every right to be angry. Obviously, the guy wasn’t worth your time, but job hunting is never fun.”
“I think I’ve had about enough of the political scene, anyway. That’s what this cross-country drive to Vegas was about, deciding if I want to remain in the D.C. area or get out of the swamp.”
“Where’s your family?”
“On the California coast. I’ll stay with my parents for a few days between the bachelorette party and the wedding since Amanda is getting married in Carmel. I’m hoping to have some sort of plan for my future by then.”
When the timer on the stove went off, he grabbed a couple of hot pads and pulled the roasting pan out of the oven. The aroma wafting up from the steaming ribs made his mouth water when he pulled back the foil. Turning, he nearly tripped over Lucky, who had deserted the cat in favor of food. Some fancy footwork on his part saved their meal.
“Nice try, buddy.” He set the pan down on the counter.
“Huh?” Isabel glanced up, and her eyes widened.
The dog laid his chin on the counter and stared at the ribs. Drool slid down the side of the cabinet.
“Stop that, Lucky. Go lie down. I’m sorry, Joe. I should get his food out of the car.”
“Right now, he can have a rib for an appetizer. It won’t hurt him, and I brought home plenty for leftovers.”
“You really are a nice guy.”
“Yep, that’s me. Nice and harmless.” He put the rolls and a container of coleslaw on the counter next to the ribs before getting out plates and flatware. “Which is a good thing since you took a huge risk by coming here alone. That wasn’t so bright.”
“Ha ha.” Isabel dipped a finger into the barbecue sauce and licked it off. Her eyes closed slowly. “So good. Yum. As to your safety lecture, it wasn’t that big a risk.” She pointed at the dog. “He isn’t just a pretty, slobbery face. If you tried to hurt me, he’d rip your arm off.”
“Good to know. Not that I have any intention of making a move on you.” He dished up their plates and gave her a quick grin. “Unless, of course, you ask nicely.”
She laughed out loud, her dimples showing. “Do you have any mistletoe hanging around?”
Joe handed Lucky a rib before following Isabel to the table with his plate. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“Then, I think you’re out of luck. I don’t ask on a first date, nicely or otherwise.”
“Is that what this is?”
“Seems like a date. We’re enjoying food and wine together, maybe a little harmless flirting. Since we didn’t know each other before tonight, this has all the makings of a blind date.”
She glanced up, delicately holding a messy rib between her fingers. “Yes?”
“If this is a blind date, I should have let my married buddies set me up years ago. I didn’t know what I was missing.”
* * * *