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He took my mouth, kissing me deeply, his tongue rubbing along mine. His hips circled slowly, making me feel every throbbing inch of him. The leisurely, deliberate stroking over tender nerves kept me hot and edgy. He remembered me well, knew just how to keep me revved and needy.

“I missed you, Gia,” he whispered into the kiss. “Did you ache for me, too?”

When I didn’t reply, he brushed the wet tendrils of my hair away from my face and searched for the answer.

My sex rippled along his length. His eyes closed and his lips parted, his body tightening. “Not yet. I’m not coming yet.”

“Please...” I was begging and I didn’t care. I just wanted him to come. I wanted it more than my next breath.

“I’m not rushing this.” He reached behind him to grab my wrist, bringing my right arm up and over my head. His other hand pushed beneath my buttock, lifting me into a smooth, easy thrust. “Umm...perfect. It’s always been perfect.”

I wanted to tease him, to play the game as coolly as he was, but I couldn’t.

“Stop thinking and feel, baby,” he murmured, nibbling on the corner of my mouth. “Let me make you feel good. That’s all I want. To make you feel good.”

Turning my head, I caught his lips and let him.

* * *

NICO EYED ME as I slid onto a bar stool at Rossi’s after closing and I knew he saw my makeupless state, which betrayed the shower I’d taken just a half hour before. He had been cleaning up the bar, but he stopped and pulled out a beer, popping off the top before sliding the bottle over to me.

“Forgot how much I like Jax,” he said conversationally.

I nodded. I liked Jax, too. Thing was, I didn’t know which Jax was the real one.

“You two going to work it out?”

“No, it’s temporary. But this time, I know the rules.”

“Maybe I don’t like him so much.” Nico popped open a second beer and took a long pull. “He’s in love with you, you know.”

“He’s in lust,” I countered drily, picking at the label on the bottle. “And that’s okay, I can live with that. It’s the other stuff—the way he talks to me sometimes, as if there’s more, and the head trip I’m on about why he left and came back—that’s hard for me to deal with.”

“My offer to knock some sense into him still stands.”

I smiled. “Might be easier and more effective to knock sense into me.”

“Can do that, too.” He tapped his bottle against mine. “But you’ve got plenty of sense. You know what you’re doing. You just wish you weren’t doing it. He obviously doesn’t have a clue or else he wouldn’t risk letting you get away. He’ll never find better.”

“Ah, God, don’t get sappy on me now. I can’t take it.” I wasn’t entirely kidding. I felt weepy and emotional. Sex with Jax did that to me.

Nico grinned. “Fine. Get off your ass and help me clean up so we can get the hell out of here.”

With a sigh, I slid off the bar stool. “Shit. I should’ve stuck with sappy instead.”

* * *

AN INSISTENT POUNDING on Nico’s door woke me Sunday morning. I rolled off the couch with a curse, stumbling over with the intention of bitching out whoever it was.

When I blinked wearily through the peephole, however, I saw beloved faces.

Pulling off the security chain and turning the dead bolt, I opened the door to my brothers and Denise. “What the hell?” I groused.

“Yeah. What the fuck?” Nico wandered in from the bedroom wearing sweatpants that barely clung to his hips. Brother or not, I could still appreciate what a good-looking man he was. “You know what time it is?”

Vincent came in first. “Time to get up.”

Angelo followed Denise in, holding her hand in his. “You put Gianna on the couch? Seriously?”

“I offered her the bed.” Nico crossed his arms. “She wouldn’t take it.”

“Don’t blame her,” Vincent said. “If that bed could talk, it’d have its own reality show.”

“Don’t be jealous,” Nico returned. “I’m sure your bed will see some action eventually. Despite everything, you’re still a Rossi.”

“What are you doing here?” I interjected. I was really happy to see them. Having my family around brought back normalcy I’d lost the night before in Jax’s bed. I was back to feeling like Gianna Rossi—and not absolutely sure I was the writhing, moaning, clawing woman who’d enjoyed a half-dozen orgasms in a matter of hours. It was as if I were two different people.

And you’re mad at Jax for having two sides....

“We’re waiting for you to get dressed so we can grab some breakfast,” Denise answered. Her hair was pulled into pigtails that framed her pale face. She’d matched her lipstick to the pink in her hair, making her look like some sort of anime superheroine. “I’m starving.”

“Something’s wrong with you people,” Nico muttered. “It’s too fucking early for food or anything else.”

“It’s nine o’clock,” Vincent pointed out.

Nico shot me a look and drawled, “As I said.”

* * *

BY NOON, WE’D eaten and hit the basketball court at Nico’s apartment complex. Not to brag, but I was pretty good at the game—enough that I’d gotten a partial scholarship to UNLV for my skills. Of course, I’d learned everything I knew from my brothers.

I had just cleared a three-pointer and was waving off the usual good-natured taunts and ribbing when I caught sight of Jax walking up. I stopped right where I was, admiring his long legs in shorts and his loose-fitting T-shirt. He wore shades and twirled his keys around his finger. When Nico bounced the ball to him, Jax caught it up and dazzled me with his dimpled grin.

“Hey,” he said, coming to me first and pressing his lips to my flushed forehead.

“You found us.” A hot rush of pleasure surged through me. He’d picked me up and dropped me off at Rossi’s, so finding Nico’s place had taken initiative and effort.

“I missed waking up to you,” he whispered against my skin.

His damned sunglasses made it impossible to read him. I took the ball and backed up so I could breathe.

“Rutledge,” Angelo greeted him, bristling.

“Kick back, killer,” Denise admonished, rising from the chair her husband had dragged over from the pool area. “Hi, I’m Denise. Angelo’s wife.”

Jax shook her hand. “A pleasure.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said. “None of it good. I hope you prove the guys wrong.”

Jax glanced at me with raised brows.

“Oh, she doesn’t talk about you at all,” Denise qualified, making me smile. The woman knew how to get her digs in.

Vincent and Angelo both reluctantly shook hands with Jax, then Vincent said, “Are we playing or what?”

“I’d like to jump in when there’s a chance,” Jax said, surprising me.

“Shit.” Nico ran a hand through his hair. “Take my spot on Gianna’s team. I’m wiped, thanks to some too-fucking-early-in-the-morning visitors.”

“Pussy,” Angelo muttered.

“Whatev. We were kicking your ass.”

“We were going easy on you,” Vincent answered, catching the ball when I tossed it his way. “So we wouldn’t have to hear you bitch.”

“You wouldn’t hear me if you’d stayed home.”

“Shut up,” I told them. “Let’s do this.”

“There’s my girl,” Jax said with a smile.

We started the game. Jax was good. Really good.

I’ve played hoops now and then. Nothing like you. Never gave it the time.

I remembered those words of his from before, whispered into my hair while he cuddled me after sex. Clearly, he’d given it time since we parted.

Had he done so because of me? Was I reaching by making that connection?

Jax passed the ball and I made the shot.

If only figuring him out were as easy.

Chapter 9

MONDAY WAS A day like any other, yet it felt so different. It took a lot of work to avoid thinking about Jax. At least until I got to the office.

I arrived a half hour early, but Lei was already there. She sat at her desk, dressed in a black skirt and blazer embellished with red. Her hair was up, her red-framed glasses perched on her delicate nose. She glanced up when I stepped through the open doorway, her painted mouth set in a hard line.

“Ian got to Isabelle over the weekend and signed her.” She pulled her glasses off.

“What? How did he know?”

Lei sat back. “That’s a good question.”

I felt a flutter of unease in my stomach. “I haven’t told a soul. No one.”

She nodded grimly. “I believe you.”

“Would Isabelle leverage you against Ian?”

“It’s possible.” Leaning back, she gestured for me to settle into one of the chairs in front of her desk. “Ian is better known than I am.”

Thanks to the Hollywood-themed eateries she’d envisioned, which Ian had stolen from her. The irony was painful.

“But I don’t think so,” she went on. “One of the things that attracted Isabelle to working with us is that Savor is headed by a woman. Ian would’ve had to make an offer too good to refuse.”

“I wonder what it was.”

“I intend to find out. I’m meeting with Isabelle over lunch to see what I can coax out of her.”

I took a seat. “I should talk to Chad. Maybe take him out to lunch.”

“Yes, I was going to suggest that.” She studied me. “Did you see Jackson Rutledge this weekend?”

I hesitated a split second before answering, feeling as if a trap were closing in on me. “I did,” I confessed, “but we didn’t talk business. Not even in a roundabout way.”

“Do you trust him?”

“I...” I frowned. I trusted him with my body. I trusted him to know how much my family meant to me. Was there anything else? “With what?”

She smiled in a way that said she knew why I’d hesitated. “What are you going to do about him?”

Sitting back, I let the question really sink in. I’d been fielding variations of that same query all weekend, but I hadn’t given it much thought. What was I going to do? It struck me then that I’d never done anything when it came to Jax. He decided when our relationship began and ended, where we met, and when—and how—we had sex. All along, I’d just gone with his flow.

It was time for me to start making my own rules. Something beyond asking him to say goodbye when he decided we were over.

“I’m not sure yet,” I answered honestly. But I was going to work on it.

* * *

WHEN I GOT to my desk, I called the Four Seasons and left a message at the hotel’s front desk for Chad to call me. It was still early, and I didn’t want to risk waking him up. I needed him refreshed and sharp to go over our business plans.

Isabelle was gone. We needed a replacement. Quick.

I looked through all my notes, considering the chefs who’d caught my attention previously. There weren’t that many who specialized in Italian, mostly because my background made it really hard to impress me. Then again, going with another Italian was problematic—it would be hard to spin Isabelle’s defection in a way that wouldn’t make the new recruit feel like a second choice.

I tapped my pen against my jaw, thinking. “American, European...”

Lei walked out of her office.

“Asian!” I blurted.

She came to a halt, her brows raised. “Excuse me?”

I stood. “Chad represents American cooking. Inez represents European. I think we need to find someone to represent—”

“Asian.” Her arms crossed. “Do you have any idea how hard it would be to pull together a dueling menu with that combination?”

“Easier than convincing some chef he or she isn’t our last, desperate choice.”

Her lips pursed. “Good point. Do you have someone in mind?”

“David Lee.”

Lei’s mouth curved slightly, her eyes warming with a look of approval. “He’s good, but I’m not sure he’s ready.”

I nodded, very much in agreement with her. “That’s why I’m thinking I’ll take Chad out to the Asian bistro where Lee works. Introduce them. See how they hit it off. Or not. Chad could steer David along.”

“A mentor.” She nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll let you run with this and we’ll regroup after lunch. We’ll need to move quickly, but we have the rest of today to decide our plans.”

I was grateful for her trust and was determined not to let her down. “Thank you.”

Lei smiled. “I like your quick thinking, Gianna. I’m impressed.”

Smiling in return, I got back to it.

* * *

A BEAUTIFUL BOUQUET of starburst lilies in a lovely pink vase arrived shortly after ten. My breath caught at the sight of them being carried down the hall by LaConnie. I knew they were from Jax. They were my favorite flowers, and he knew it.

“Who sent you these, girl?” LaConnie asked, setting them down on my desk. “He might be a keeper.”

I wish.... I fingered the card, but didn’t want to open it in front of anyone. It felt too personal. “Someone with good taste.”

She shot a narrow-eyed glance at me before she backed away.

“I love your dress,” I told her, admiring the black sheath she wore that had an electric-blue piping to match her heels.

“Changing the subject won’t distract me from wanting to know who sent you those,” she warned.

“I’ll tell you later,” I promised.

She wagged her finger at me. “I’m going to hold you to that!”