I called Chad Williams as soon as I passed through the turnstiles in the lobby. “Hey,” I said, when I heard his smooth Southern drawl. “It’s Gianna.”
“I was hoping you’d call.”
“Do you have dinner plans?”
“Ah, I can break them.”
I smiled, feeling a little guilty about preempting whoever was going to be ditched but it felt good to have a little ego-stroking. My confidence had taken a beating from seeing Jax again.
I couldn’t forget how he’d been with me long ago. Frisky, teasing, affectionate. If I closed my eyes, I could still feel him come up behind me, sliding my hair out of the way to press his beautiful mouth against my throat. I could still hear the way he’d groan my name when he was inside me, as if the pleasure were too great to stand.
“Gianna? You still there?”
“Yeah, sorry.” I started pulling out the pins that restrained my straightened hair into a sleek chignon. “I know a charming Italian place. Cozy. Casual. Excellent food.”
“You’ve got yourself a date.”
“I’ll call the car service. I can pick you up in about fifteen minutes. Will that work?”
“I’ll be waiting.”
True to his word, Chad was standing on the sidewalk when the car pulled up. He wore loose-fitting black jeans, boots and a dark green Henley that went great with his eyes. As far as dates went, he was prime.
“So,” I began, “I have to confess…”
“Hope it’s sinful.”
“Uh, no. I’m taking you to my parents’ place.”
His brows rose. “You’re taking me to meet your folks?”
“Yep. They own a restaurant. We won’t have trouble getting a table without a reservation – usually impossible on a Thursday night – and they won’t rush us off, either.”
“You planning on keeping me around a while?” he teased.
“I’d like to. I think we could work really well together.”
Chad nodded, sobering. “Stacy knows what you’re offering is exactly what we need, but…she’s sleeping with Ian and it’s screwing everything up.”
“I figured.” Ian Pembry was a suave and distinguished fifty-year-old man, with silvery gray hair and striking blue eyes. He wasn’t handsome in the usual sense, but he had charisma and a bank balance that made a lot of women overlook his flaws. Stacy had her work cut out for her; since Lei, he’d never stayed with any lover long. “What’s he offering you to stay with him?”
And where does Jax fit in? Had seeing me knocked him for a loop at all?
“Ian says he can put something together like you’ve presented and he can do it better, because Lei doesn’t have what it takes. That’s why she’s poaching his talent.”
“You know that’s crap.”
“I do, yeah.” He smiled.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime, Chad. Don’t let Stacy take it away from you.”
He looked at me, his gaze searching. “Give it to me straight, Gianna. You’ll say anything to close this deal, won’t you?”
I thought about Jax and what he’d said about business not being personal. For me it was always personal. I cared.
“I’ve got my reasons,” I admitted, Jax now being one of them. I’d worked too hard to have him stroll in, toss his money around and ruin everything. “But I wouldn’t screw you over. It doesn’t get Lei or me anywhere if you’re not successful. I promise you, I won’t disappear as soon as the ink is dry.”
“And now I’ll know how to track you down through your folks,” he said, relaxing.
“Over thirty years in the same location.”
“I guess that’s as good a guarantee as anyone can get.”
My family pulled out all the stops when we got to Rossi’s, deducing who Chad was from my previous descriptions. We were seated at a corner table and everyone came by to introduce themselves, giving Chad a heaping dose of Rossi hospitality.
Over a toast, he said, “You’re right. This place is great.”
“I’m never going to lie to you.”
He laughed and I enjoyed the sound. It was a bit wild, a lot free. Very much like the man himself. I was attracted to him on a comfortable level. Nothing like the explosion of body and mind I’d felt from the very first second I’d laid eyes on Jax, but then no one elicited that reaction but Jackson Rutledge.
“Smart bringing me here,” he said, running his fingertip around the lip of his wineglass. I suspected he’d prefer beer, but he didn’t ask for it. “Making me see you’ve got the business in your blood, too. It’s not just a job. So why not hook your family up with the Mondego?”
“It’s not what they want. They want this...” I gestured around the restaurant with a sweep of my hand. “Community. Franchising was never their dream.”
He studied me. “You make it sound like your dreams are different.”
I sat back. “I suppose they are. I want to help them get what they want, but I want something different.”
“I haven’t found it yet.” Although I thought I had. Once upon a time… “I figure I’ll know it when I see it.”
“Maybe I could help you pass the time while you’re waiting,” he suggested boldly.
I smiled. “It’s an idea, isn’t it?”
Maybe he was what I needed. It’d been too long since my last boyfriend. I didn’t fool myself into thinking I would magically have immunity to Jax if I got laid, but it wouldn’t hurt.
I leaned forward, opening myself to the possibilities.
Chad’s mouth curved in a very male smile, the slightly triumphant one of a man who knew he was going to score. He reached for my hand, his gaze drifting over my shoulder in a lazy way. Then he stilled, his brows lowering in a scowl. “Fuck.”
I knew who he was looking at before I turned around.
An all-too-familiar charge swept over my skin. I decided not to turn and give Jax the satisfaction of seeing my face, which probably showed my surprise, frustration and irritation.
He had cast-iron balls to come into Rossi’s after the way he’d broken my heart. My family would remember him; remember that last night at Rossi’s we’d all spent together. My family had fallen in love with him just as I had. That was the night I’d come to believe we were in it for the long haul.
I hadn’t seen him again until he’d walked into the bar at the Four Seasons.
Chad looked at me. “You invited Stacy, too?”
“No.” Confused, I finally looked over my shoulder. Seeing Jackson helping Stacy out of her jean jacket made my teeth grind. Chad hadn’t known where we were going, but Jax had guessed.
And sure enough, he made a beeline toward us with Stacy. My mum got in their way, and my brother Angelo came over. “Is he meeting you?” he asked, jerking his head toward Jax.
“No…” I looked at Chad. “They don’t have to sit with us.”
“Good.” He sat back, glaring. “Talk about keeping the wrong company. Stace can go ahead with Ian’s deal, if she wants. I’m sticking with you and the Mondego.”
“All right.” Angelo looked at me. “I’ll make sure they’re seated somewhere else.”
I took a gulp of my wine as my brother walked away.
Lori, one of the wait staff, came over to take our order. All through the appetizer and salad courses, I was expecting Jax to come over. I was terribly aware of him, unable to give Chad the attention I’d been able to before.
Finally I excused myself and ducked into the back office, closing out the noise when I shut the door behind me. I speed-dialed Lei and set the phone to my ear.
“Gianna,” she answered. “I have to applaud you for your choice in men.”
“Can I pick ’em or what? How’d it go?”
“As expected. You guessed right, by the way. Jackson said he’s stepped in as a favor for someone.”
“I haven’t had a chance to dig for more details, I’m sorry – I’ve been with Chad since I left – but it’s probably a Rutledge. When Jackson’s not gambling with millions, he’s cleaning up after family members.” And dating beautiful women…
“Oh? How’d that go?”
“He asked if I’d see him tonight.”
“Ah. Maybe that’s why Jax has Stacy. Babysitting duty.” Irritatingly, that filled me with relief.
“Could be. I said no in any case. I feel like our men are circling the wagons, which means we need to keep doing what we’re doing. Honestly, I haven’t had this much fun in years.”
Our men. I snorted and turned in time to see the door opening…and Jax appearing. “I have to go, Lei, but I’m here if you need me.”
I set my phone aside.
We sized each other up for a long minute. He had his back against the door, his hands in his pockets, his legs crossed at the ankles. But only an idiot would fail to sense the predatory alertness in him. His hooded gaze was watchful and knowing, seeing way too much.
“I miss the curls in your hair,” he said finally.
I backed up to my father’s desk, resting my butt against it. I crossed my arms. “That’s a seriously delayed response.” A couple years too late…
“You were closing in on the kill when I got here. Are you thinking about fucking Chad Williams because you want to, or because you want him to sign on the dotted line?”
Some other woman might have held her tongue because the question didn’t deserve an answer. I didn’t say anything because I was too hurt. I’d never seen Jax deliberately mean or cruel – he’d just disappeared from my life.
“Don’t call me that.”
“What would you prefer?”
My foot tapped restlessly. “I’d rather not see or hear from you.”
“I would think that’d be obvious.”
His wonderfully sensitive mouth tightened. “Not to me. We know each other. We get along well. Very, very well.”
“I’m not fucking you again!” I snapped, feeling the walls close in on us. He’d always had that effect on me. When he was with me, I didn’t register anything else.
“Why not?” Jax engaged the lock without taking his eyes off me. “Tell me why you’re so angry.”
A surge of panic got the better of me. “You fell off the face of the earth!”
“Did I?” He took a step toward me. “Are you saying you didn’t know how to find me?”
I frowned, confused. “What are you talking about?”
“It had to end, and it did.” He came closer. “Quietly. No messy scenes. No ugly memories. We…”
“Neat and tidy.” I sucked in a sharp breath, more wounded than I could say. I lashed out in self-defense. “So why rehash and screw it up?”
“Can’t we be friends?”
Jax stepped into my space. “Can’t we do business together?”
“Nope.” I unfolded my arms, feeling the need to take the defensive. “You made this personal from the get-go.”
He smiled, flashing that damned dimple. “You’re sexy as hell when you’re mad at me. I should’ve pissed you off more often.”
“Back off, Jax.”
“I did. It didn’t take.”
“Actually, it did. Go back to your world and forget me again.”
“My world.” The smile faded along with the light in his eyes. “Right.”
He’d stopped his advance, so I skirted him quickly.
Jax caught my arm, his hand flexing around it. He spoke in my ear. “Don’t fuck him.”
I shivered. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing in opposite directions, which mirrored our entire relationship.
“Are you celibate, Jax?” I retorted.
“I will be, if you are.”
A harsh laugh burst out of me. “Yeah, right.”
He held my gaze. “Try me.”
“I’m not interested in playing games.”
To buy a copy of Afterburn head to harlequinbooks.com.au/cosmo.