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When she was a good distance down the hall, I pulled the card from its stake and opened it.

Dinner tonight?

The blunt query was so typical of Jax, I couldn’t help but grin. But still, things had to be different the second go-round. He’d insinuated himself into my life so well that I hadn’t been able to escape the memories until I’d left Vegas, yet I had barely dipped my toe in his life. When he broke things off again, it would be the same in New York—I’d have memories of him everywhere. But he would be safe from my ghost.

That had to change. This time, I was going to haunt the man the way he haunted me.

I dug my smartphone out of my purse and found the number he’d called me from the night I’d taken Chad to Denise’s salon. I texted: Only if you’re cooking. Your place?

It took five minutes before my phone vibrated on my desk. His reply: What time should I pick you up from work?

The surge of triumph I felt brightened my day. 5:30. And BTW...TY for the flowers. Lovely.

Yes, you are, he sent back.

I typed out a quick response: Says the most gorgeous guy I know.

There was another pause, one long enough that I thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then he sent, Skin deep.

That lingered with me for a long time.

* * *

WHEN CHAD CALLED me back, I asked him to meet me at Savor’s offices. I thought it’d be good to remind him of just how successful Lei was. He showed up just before noon, looking handsome in khakis and a tucked-in dress shirt, with his collar open and cuffs rolled up.

I met him at reception and led him back to my desk under the guise of fetching my purse. I wanted to use it as an excuse to show him around again.

“I’m glad you called,” he said, walking beside me. “I’m really starting to have my doubts with all that’s going on here.”

“I’m sure you are. I mean, how many roadblocks can you hit before you take it as a sign, right?”

“Right.” He shot me a grateful smile. “You get it.”

“Of course I do. That’s why you’re going to trust me to tell you if the time comes to throw in the towel.” We reached my desk, and I stopped, facing him. “I’m not going to screw you over, Chad. I promise you that.”

He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I’m stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Ian and Lei, and I can’t help thinking that means no one but you is really paying attention to me. I could be anyone.”

“But you’re not anyone. You’re one of the most talented chefs in the world today, and I’m going to see that you shine.”

Leaning forward, he caught my hand in his. “Thanks.”

“Thank you. You’re giving me the chance to make this happen.”

He glanced at the lilies on my desk. “Nice flowers. You got an admirer? Do I have competition?”

“It’s not serious.”

“Hard to be serious when you’re working as much as we do.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” I caught the handle of my purse and shut the drawer. “I’m married to my fabulous career.”

Chad nodded. “I know how that goes. I’m glad we’ll be working together so much over the next few months—if everything pans out, anyway. Maybe we can carve out some time for fun. No strings.”

My mouth curved. “Maybe. Ready to roll?”

“Have been since I met you, sweetheart.”

Laughing, I caught his arm and we headed out.

* * *


I glanced up as Lei reached my desk. I’d been waiting for her to get back so I could tell her the good news: David Lee was going to work out. He’d hit it off with Chad right away. Plus, when I talked vaguely with David about our plans for Chad, he hadn’t been shy. He’d said outright that he was hoping for a similar opportunity to come his way, too.

“What about it?” I asked, rising to my feet.

“According to Isabelle, Rutledge Capital committed to a significant investment in Pembry Ventures. She says she spoke with Jackson Rutledge himself on Sunday and he confirmed it.”

A heavy lump of ice settled in my stomach. “Yesterday?” A weekend Jax had spent in my life. In me...

I sank slowly back into my chair.

Lei nodded grimly. “Ian offered Isabelle a fantastically lucrative signing package. She would’ve been a fool to refuse it.” She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “So stupid of him! And petty. Ian isn’t making smart moves. Neither is Rutledge.”

I’d slid out of Jackson’s bed, and he’d slid a knife in my back.

“We can get David Lee,” I said hoarsely. I had to focus on the immediate goal. It would happen if I gave it my all. “He likes the idea of a trio. Less pressure and heat while he finds his way.”

“Oh,” she said drily. “Is he really that humble?”

“It’s a strategic move. He’ll want to cut loose eventually, sooner rather than later, but we can get a couple years out of him, I think.”

She gave an elaborate sigh. “I went ahead and signed Inez before Ian got to her. It’s contingent upon a deal with Mondego, but it shores us up.”

“So we’re back on track.” I glanced at the flowers on my desk. If Jax were planning on saying goodbye tonight, he was in for a surprise. I wasn’t going to let him just stroll into my life and screw everything up...again.

Paybacks were a bitch. So was I, when the situation called for it.

“You okay?” she asked, studying my face.

“I’m good,” I said calmly, feeling the chill in my gut spread and numb me. “We should sign David as soon as possible.”

“Agreed. I’ll take care of it.”

“And we should probably take Chad back on a site tour of the Mondego in Atlanta. Let him get the sense that things really are moving forward.”

“You want to do that.” It wasn’t a question.

“I think I could use a few days away.”

Lei leaned her hip against the front of my desk. “Away from Jackson?”

“I’m having dinner with him tonight, actually.”

Something in my tone must have given my thoughts away, because her lips curved wryly. “That should be interesting.”

“You can bet on it.” I exhaled the hurt I couldn’t contain and let the anger spread. Worry followed swiftly. “You don’t have a problem with me seeing him, do you?”

“I haven’t forgotten why I hired you, Gianna.” Lei headed toward her office. “Don’t worry, I’m good and you’ll be fine.”

I would be. But I wasn’t there yet.

* * *

FIVE O’CLOCK ROLLED around and my excitement ratcheted up. Not just because Chad had agreed to head to Atlanta the next day and I was ready to get out of town. The truth: I was ready to see Jax and deal with him. I had to force myself to slow down when I saw him waiting at the curb for me after work, act as if nothing were wrong in my world and I had time to spare.

He lounged against a black McLaren, a car I recognized because one of Lei’s chefs had bought one to celebrate the five-year anniversary of his first restaurant. Jax’s arms and ankles were crossed, his pose relaxed and sexy. Sunglasses shielded his eyes from the glaring reflections cast by the towering skyscrapers around him. He was dressed in black slacks, a white shirt and gray tie. His dark hair was tousled, like he’d run a hand through it and let his styling efforts go at that.

Women stared at him as they walked by, their heads turning to keep their eyes on him even as their feet moved. Men glanced his way and altered course some, instinctively recognizing an alpha male at rest. Jax always had that effect on people. When he entered a space, he immediately took it over.

Squaring my shoulders, I pushed through the revolving doors and walked straight up to him. I wore a black Nina Ricci sheath. It was an elegant, classic piece that I’d paired with the nude peep-toe Louboutins my brothers had collectively given me for my last birthday.

I looked like the kind of woman who would be seen with Jackson Rutledge. Better yet, I felt like it.

Keeping my stride, I marched up to him, fisted his tie in one hand, and stretched up to kiss him. Hard.

A low rumbling sound was my reward, followed by the rapid unfolding of his big body. He got me before I could pull away, catching me by the nape and hip, holding me to him as he deepened the kiss into a full-blown melding of our open mouths.

Standing on the street, with cars and people streaming by, we kissed as if we were alone.

“Hello, gorgeous,” he said gruffly when I broke away to pull air into my tightened lungs. He nuzzled his cheek against mine.

I broke free with a quick twist and slapped him across the face.

His head turned with the blow, his breath hissing out between his teeth. Rubbing his jaw, he looked at me with hot eyes. “I’m guessing you’re not looking to play rough.”

“You fucked me over, Jax. Right after you fucked me literally. Did you take a shower first? Or were you still smelling like me when you made the call?”

“Get in the car, Gia.”

“You’re an asshole.” I tamped down my simmering anger at him. At me. At the entire situation. But mostly at him.

“Always have been,” he agreed grimly. He straightened and opened the passenger door, which involved pulling the door out then pushing it upward. “Took you a long time to figure that out.”

I stood there a moment, staring at him. He stared back, his eyes hidden behind the damned sunglasses, his mouth an unyielding line.

“Don’t lose your confidence now,” he taunted softly.

My mind spun as it had all day. Why did he want me to go with him? Why the flowers and the invitation to dinner? “You angling for a kiss-off screw?”

“I’m not ending things. I want you. That’s not news.”

His brusque, unapologetic attitude made my teeth grind. It was like he was daring me to be the one to walk away.

I slid into the seat and clicked my seat belt into place.

Jax ducked his head down. He looked at me over the rim of his shades. “For future reference, the slap was overkill. You had me down for the count with the kiss.”

He straightened and shut the door.

I smiled grimly. In the boardroom and the bedroom, Jackson Rutledge was going to learn a thing or two about playing with me.

* * *

JAX PULLED INTO the subterranean parking garage of his apartment building and two valets greeted us. As one of the bow-tied guys helped me out of the car, I was struck again by the financial gulf between Jax and me. I wasn’t intimidated by his wealth, but it was possible the disparity was a bigger problem for him.

It didn’t improve my mood to think of it.

Reaching for my hand, Jax linked our fingers and led me to an elevator. I’d half expected him to fly us out to Virginia or D.C., and realized abruptly that I had never allowed myself to consider the likelihood of him living at least part-time in New York, too. But of course it made sense that he would have a place in the city, which was the financial center of the country.

The elevator doors closed behind us, and he immediately pulled me into him. I let him. He leaned back against the brass handrail, spread his legs, and urged me to stand between them, his hands running up and down the length of my spine.

It’d been so long since I’d been held with such intimacy and tenderness.

He’d been in New York the whole time....

I closed my eyes and absorbed the warmth of his body, the smell of his skin, the soft caress of his breath against my temple. I’d denied myself the comfort of a man’s touch for too long.

“How was your day?” he murmured.

“Busy. How was yours?”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”

I closed my eyes, holding fiercely to my wrath. It was a harder task than it should’ve been.

He laid his cheek against my temple. “I’m sorry, Gia.”

“For what? Helping Pembry screw the deal I was working on?”

Jax sighed. “You knew the score. We talked about this.”

“That doesn’t excuse you. I don’t accept your apology.”

“I don’t blame you, but you’ll find a way to handle it. This is a minor setback you’ll have no problem overcoming.”

I met his gaze. “You’re damned right.”

The elevator dinged, announcing our arrival on his floor. When I turned around and saw a small foyer and double doors, I realized Jax lived in a penthouse apartment. Which explained why the elevator hadn’t stopped in between the parking garage and what I now knew to be the top floor.

Grabbing my hand again, Jax led me across gold-veined marble tiles and unlocked the door by placing his palm against a wall-mounted security pad.

“I bet your dates love this James Bond stuff,” I said as the thick walnut door swung open automatically. I managed to say the words casually, but envy ate at me as I imagined him with other women.

“What do you think of it?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at me.

“Ah, well, I’m a simple girl at heart.” My gaze raked over the sunken living room with its snow-white carpet, black-leather-and-chrome chairs and sapphire-blue area rug. A sterile, bluntly masculine bachelor pad.

I frowned. “This isn’t you.”

The door shut behind us. “No?”

I’d expected warm colors, varied textiles, colorful modern art—decor that reflected the vibrant, slightly rough-around-the-edges, occasionally quirky man I loved.

Stepping deeper into the room, I struggled with a profound sense of disappointment. Had I really been so wrong about him?

“Would you like a drink?” he asked quietly, coming up behind me. He stood so close I could feel the warmth radiating from his body.


His dimple winked at me. “You won’t throw it in my face, will you?”