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.”
“My family just opened our second Rossi’s in Upper Saddle River.”
“New Jersey. Posh as hell. My brother Nico is spearheading it. Just passed the three-month mark.”
“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’d been working hard, leaving little time for socializing. I didn’t fool myself into thinking I would magically have immunity to Jax if I got laid, but it wouldn’t hurt. It would certainly take the edge off life in the interim, and Jax wouldn’t be staying in New York long. His life and work was split between D.C. and northern Virginia, and soon enough, another Rutledge would need him for something. He was the family fixer.
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 we’d all spent together. We’d been in New York on a quick weekend trip to introduce him to the family I talked so much about. We’d stayed long after the restaurant closed, eating and drinking and laughing with my brothers and my parents. They’d 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 mom got in their way, her smile wide as ever but proverbial feathers ruffled in full mother-hen mode.
I looked at Chad. “We could sneak out the back.”
He laughed, but his eyes were hard.
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.
Chad studied me for a moment. “He has your back.”
“That’s the Rossi way.”
“Stace and I used to be like that. Before Ian showed up.”
“Really?” I tried to ignore the sensation of Jax’s gaze. I could feel him looking our way. “What happened?”
He shrugged. “Hell if I know. It all went to her head. I don’t even know if she thinks about the food anymore. She’s too busy trying to be rich and famous.”
My mom came by with more wine, setting her hand on my shoulder as she refilled our glasses. I felt the gentle press of her beautifully manicured nails and heard the silent question: Are you okay?
I set my hand over hers and squeezed, answering. I wasn’t okay, but what I could say? I wouldn’t give Jax the satisfaction of refusing him service and neither would my family. He’d get excellent food, our best server and complimentary wine of his choice.
They’d pull out all the stops. Kill him with kindness. Show him that we weren’t petty and small. But oh, what it would cost us. All of us. My safe place felt invaded, his potent energy permeating the space and my senses. Every nerve tingled with awareness.
Lori, one of the waitstaff, came over to take our order. Chad and I decided to split the pasta for two. 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. He was subdued, too, his gaze staying firmly on his food or on my face, both of us studiously avoiding looking at other patrons.
In my mind, I was certain Jax was having a wonderful time just to spite me. Why was he taking Stacy out when she was Ian’s latest fling? Or was she freely available to both of them? After all, she’d showed no hesitation and a lot of pleasure in kissing Jax’s cheek when he first showed up.
Just before the main course was served, Chad excused himself to go to the bathroom, and I checked my smartphone. I’d missed a call from Lei. When Chad came back with a beer in hand, I smiled and said, “I’ll be right back.”
I headed toward the bathrooms, but ducked into the back office instead, 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?” I walked over to the far wall where a family portrait hung. I’d been around twelve years old in the picture with braces on my teeth and wild hair. Nico, Vincent and Angelo had been varying degrees of gangly. My dad was immortalized in his prime, as was my mother, who’d aged little since. “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 à la Olivia Pope.” And dating beautiful women... “As for Chad, he’s on board, but I think we’d be wise to get a new contract drawn up ASAP before something happens to change his mind. Jax isn’t going home gracefully. He crashed the dinner hour at Rossi’s, bringing Stacy along for the show.”
Lei laughed. “I’m sorry, but I like him.”
My mouth quirked ruefully. “Happens.”
“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.”
“We’ll hit it again fresh in the morning. Good night, Gianna.”
“You, too.” I set my phone aside.
We sized each other up for a long minute. He was wearing the gray sweater and slacks from earlier in the day, the casualness more familiar—and beloved. A lock of his dark hair fell over his brow, softening the severity of his beauty. 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.
“Stop asking me that!”
Jax straightened, and the office got even smaller. My breathing quickened, my gaze darting to the door at his back.
“It’s a valid question.” He 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, aware that I had been gone too long and Chad was waiting.
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. I smelled him, felt his warmth, was reminded of other occasions when he’d whispered in my ear.
Jax knew how to seduce and he never shirked the effort. Even when I’d been a sure thing, he’d get me hot long before he took me to bed. Giving me long, searing looks, touching me often, murmuring naughty promises that made me blush.
“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.”
The doorknob rattled, making me jump. “Gianna? Are you in there?”
Vincent. “Yes,” I called out. “Hang on.”
“Don’t fuck him,” Jax repeated, his eyes dark and hard. “I mean it, Gia.”
I shook free and fumbled the lock open, pulling the door wide.
My brother paused with the office key in his hand, then glared over my shoulder at Jax. “You got a death wish, Rutledge?”
Rolling my eyes, I pushed Vincent back. “Leave it alone.”
“Sniff around somewhere else,” Vincent went on, blocking the doorway as soon as I moved out of the way.
I briefly considered intervening, then decided against it. They were big boys. They could figure it out by themselves.
When I got back to the dining room, I found a large to-go bag sitting on the table in front of Chad, who stood when he saw me.
“What do you think about taking this back to the hotel and eating in peace?” he asked.
I looked around the dining room, easily spotting Stacy’s bright hair gleaming in the muted glow of the wrought-iron chandeliers. She was staring daggers at Chad and me.
“I’ve got a better idea,” I said, grabbing my belongings. “I know someplace we can go where no one will find us.”
I TOOK HIM to my sister-in-law Denise’s beauty salon in Brooklyn. She closed up shop, found some paper plates and we feasted on lukewarm-but-still-delicious ragù bolognese in the stylists’ lounge in back, away from the smells of dye and hair spray.