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a dash of salt

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“I said it needs a dash of salt, Montague, not sass.”

“You’re bringing enough salt to this baking fiasco, Capulet. I don’t think we need any more.”

“Oh, because you’re all sugar and spice,” Rosaline muttered, folding a ripple of melted cocoa into the batter. “Look, I’ve baked this cake every year since I was six. I know what I’m doing.”

“Trying to break our cousins up?” At her unimpressed look, he backtracked. “Not that I’d blame you. A three-week relationship isn’t worth braving the annual Montague holiday shitshow.”

“Is anything?”

“I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”

Family hell? Now that she could relate to. Her frustration softened along with her voice. “Salt?”

Benvolio bent to scan the rack on the counter. “Are you sure you’ve made this before? Even I know it ruins a recipe to mix up the salt and sugar. Or have you never seen a sitcom?”

“I think I’m stuck in one.”

Sidestepping him, she ran her fingers over the spices, searching rows of uniform wooden canisters with hand-carved labels. If anyone named “Montague” had touched so much as a jar, she’d eat the disaster of a cake Juliet had baked before calling in reinforcements.

Spotting the salt the same second she did, Benvolio snatched it up.

“Seriously?” Resisting the urge to plant her hands on her hips, she held out her hand, palm up.

He ignored her, prying off the lid and turning the salt cellar this way and that to catch the light.

“Fine, keep it.” She stepped back to the bowl and seized the spoon, not entirely sure if she wanted to work out her frustrations on the batter or smack him in the face with it. “But you get to explain to your cousin why Juliet doesn’t have the famous Capulet chocolate cake he roped her into baking.”

“Hey, get your story straight. She offered.”

“Because he’d already told his dad about it.”

Benvolio fell back against the counter. “This is stupid. It doesn’t matter you bake a cake or not; my uncle’s going to complain about it either way.”

That she believed. From the snippets of gossip she’d heard, his uncle was about as hard to please as hers and twice as rude about it. Which explained why she was stuck in a stranger’s house baking a secret family recipe with the help of an obnoxiously hot (and flat out obnoxious) guy she’d met exactly twice.

Squaring her shoulders, she resolved to wrestle the salt away from him if need be, but he was a step ahead of her. Pinching a generous portion of salt, he met her eyes and dropped it deliberately into the bowl.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Capulet,” he said with a smile, as if she’d actually meant it.

Her eyes rolled toward the ceiling, but her irritation softened like butter in a hot pan. He set the salt cellar by the mixing bowl, and she hastened to drop another pinch of it into the batter.

“Oh, come on!” Planting his elbows on the counter, Benvolio leaned back, measuring first her expression, then the salt shimmering in the bowl. “Is there something wrong with my salting skills, or do you just have to do everything yourself?”

“I said a dash, not a pinch.”

“And there’s a difference?” he asked skeptically.

Amusement tugged at her lips, warming the wry look she aimed up at him. “There’s a difference.”

“Hmm.”

Remarkably he didn’t argue, just leaned forward to watch her fold the crystals into the chocolate. When she hoisted up the bowl, balancing the base on her ribs, he caught an edge, tilting it so she could scoop batter into the mold.

“Okay, I can’t bake,” he admitted finally as she jiggled the cake form to settle the batter, “but you’ll be glad I’m around when it’s time to decorate.”

She glanced up at him. Maybe he wasn’t just hanging around to get in her way. “I didn’t realize you had a talent for piping.”

“You’ll find I have a lot of talents.”

Her eyes narrowed at the sudden resurgence of his swagger. Somehow, over the last hour or so, she’d started to learn his tells. “And cake decorating is one of them?”

He opened the oven door for her, waiting until she slid the cake onto the rack to admit, “. . . not exactly. But I’ve been decorating canvases my whole life. It won’t be hard to figure out.”

“Uh huh. So you’ve never decorated a cake before, but I’m supposed to be grateful for your help?” She made to stand, but gravity took his side; she unbalanced and Benvolio caught her arm, pulling her to her feet.

“Yes, you should.” He looked entirely too pleased with himself. “You’ll find I have impeccable taste.” And maybe it was their sudden proximity messing with her head, but she thought his eyes flickered toward her mouth.

Turning abruptly, she reached up to set the timer on the microwave. The high-pitched tones cleared her head, helping her refocus on the task at hand, namely, making sure Juliet survived her first meal with a room full of Montagues.

Glancing around the messy kitchen, Rosaline busied herself stacking unused measuring cups, dusting flour and cocoa off the bottoms. Benvolio reached over her shoulder to grab the measuring spoons, nestled together on their ring, and deposited them into the dirty mixing bowl with a faint clatter of plastic. The heat of the oven hit her all at once as he lingered, gathering up the whisk and a handful of other tools she hadn’t even used.

Rosaline cleared her throat. “It enhances the flavor.”

“What?”

“The salt. It makes the cake taste sweeter.”

He hummed, considering. “That explains a lot about you, doesn’t it, Capulet?”

It took her a minute to work out his meaning. When she did, she spun, already frowning over the near-permanent smirk she was sure to find smeared across his face. And there it was, soft and smug and faintly challenging. But his eyes simmered with a curiosity that quickly boiled over into wanting. This time, it was impossible to ignore his eyes on her lips.

“But you did just prove the danger of making assumptions.”

The air felt too warm all of a sudden, thick and heady with the sweetness of the cake. She scoffed at him, but it was too soft, almost breathy.

“With a line like that, assumptions are all you’ll ever make.” Her body swayed forward, betraying her, but Benvolio had already drawn back. Far from the bravado he usually armored himself in, his expression had unfolded into something open, almost unsure.

“Okay. How about this? I like being your sous-chef, Capulet.”

“Better,” she allowed, swallowing, because somehow her heart had made its way into her throat.

And then she was kissing him, and the only coherent thought she managed to form was, oh. She felt like the batter in the oven, soft and warm, bubbling from within. Expanding into a new state of being. He took his time coaxing her lips open, like she was something sweet after all, worth savoring. She pushed her tongue into his mouth, stoking the sensations that shimmered around her like heat haze in an open oven. Her hands kneaded the nape of his neck, sifting up through his hair.

Every touch felt painstakingly slow, like they’d taken a desperate encounter in the back of a bar and put it under a spotlight, making every second stretch endlessly under the heat of the beam. Not intimate, not quite, but absolutely maddening.

His hand fell from her face, fingers skimming down her neck, heading somewhere. She felt behind her for the counter, trying to climb it with a planted palm and a heel wedged onto a cabinet door. She felt a twinge of regret as his hand abandoned its journey, but it vanished when he hooked it around her thigh instead, hoisting her up. She slid onto the counter, already angled forward to take advantage of her new height, when something collided with her tailbone, clattering as it upended on the counter. She jerked away on instinct, relying on the solid mass of his body to hold her upright, and smacked her head on an upper cabinet. Her butt slipped off the granite and Rosaline skidded down his body, groaning, to thud onto the floor.

“Are—you—okay?”

“Fine,” she gasped.

“You sure?” He drew back, hand dipping into her hair to probe the back of her head. She chased his lips, mirroring his pose. Benvolio groaned against her mouth, held there by her insistent hand on his neck. He turned his head again, lips skating over her jaw, her ear. She shivered as his fingers rummaged through her hair.

“Seriously, Montague, it’s just a bump.”

“You could have a concussion.”

She dipped in for another taste of him, chasing that last bite, and then gave up, letting him turn her head as if he could see through to her scalp.

“I don’t want you seeing stars because of me, okay? You hate me enough already.”

She waited for the wink, the grin, the waggle of eyebrows, but his eyes were earnest and concerned. Only then did she laugh.

“A little late for that, don’t you think?”

Eyebrows climbed his flushed forehead, racing a self-satisfied grin, and h o l y hell, she was flirting with him.

A throat cleared, startling them apart.

“Benvolio,” said an unfamiliar man, disdain apparent beneath a thin veneer of resignation she recognized from her own holiday get-togethers, “how many times do I have to tell you? I don’t care who you screw, just don’t embarrass me with it at family gatherings.”

Benvolio went stiff. Rosaline bristled with outrage.

“Screw?” they said in unison as if they didn’t have chocolate and flour coating their clothes in some fairly compromising places.

The man went on as if they hadn’t spoken. “The staff already rearranged the table for Romeo’s new girlfriend; I won’t ask them to do the same for some girl you snuck in through the kitchen.”

“I’m not his girlfriend,” Rosaline protested at the same time Benvolio said hotly, “She’s not just some girl.”

The man paused, evaluating.

Benvolio straightened, stepping forward as if to introduce them, and somehow managing to half hide her from view, a happy accident she wasn’t about to complain about. “Uncle, this is Rosaline. Juliet’s cousin.”

“I was just leaving,” she added acidly.

“Rosaline . . . Capulet, is it?” The oven timer chimed as if to applaud the man for figuring it out. He nodded to himself. “Now that I think of it, the Grimaldis said their son can’t make it. I’ll have Maurizio rearrange the place settings.”

Rosaline made no effort to sweeten her tone. “Maybe you didn’t hear me. I said—”

“That you were leaving,” he interjected with the kind of smile that said he knew he was making trouble and relished it. “That’s very kind of you, but don’t worry, it’s no trouble at all. Dinner’s in an hour. I expect you both to be there.”

His gaze bypassed the dishes, upended on the counter, and fixed on their clothes, which hadn’t been dinner appropriate even before becoming victims of curious hands.

“Clean up first.”

And he turned on his heel and disappeared.

Rosaline fell against the counter, rendered speechless by his sheer audacity.

Benvolio cleared his throat, turning toward her. Resignation had dulled the curious wonder in his eyes, stoking her fury. But before she could decide how, exactly, to make his uncle pay for being such a royal asshole, his expression came alive again. He gave her a smile that might be smarmy if it weren’t brimming so unabashedly with hope.

“So, Capulet . . . want to be my date to the annual Montague holiday shitshow?”