Authors: Nicola Marsh
“Famous last words, mate.” Jack stood and held out his hand. “Means a lot, your approval. Thanks.”
As they shook hands, Jack thought he’d got off lightly with Reid.
He hoped Jess would be as amenable.
Jack strolled along the beach, sticking to the resort perimeter, following the voices drifting on the breeze.
Reid had said she’d been heading to join the party by the pool and Jack hoped he could lure her away. For a variety of reasons.
To tell her the truth, to discuss future plans, to ravish her. An added bonus having Reid know about them; they could spend the night together without fear of being busted.
He crossed a bridge over the main lagoon, skirted the Zen garden and slipped under an arch leading to the pool area.
Most of the crowd was centered at the poolside bar, looking like a picture perfect ad for beautiful people in exotic locations around the world. Skimpy designer clothes. Spray tans. Plenty of bling. He scanned the glitzy women. No Jess.
Wondering if she’d headed back to her villa, he took the path to the left, his tread softening when he heard her voice up ahead, where he spied her seated on a rattan bench with Adele.
“Can’t believe I’ve pulled this off.” Jess tapped her chest. “Me. The girl who’s spent her life in dead-end Craye Canyon, coordinating the glamorous wedding of the century.”
Adele spread her arms three foot wide. “If Zazz keeps praising you any more, your head will end up this big.”
Jess laughed. “She said she’d recommend me to all her friends, Dorian’s too. Would back me any way she could if I wanted to open my own wedding planning business.”
“Zazz has a big heart, but she wouldn’t blow smoke up your ass unless she meant it.” Adele elbowed her. “You did good.”
Jess leaped off the bench, flung her arms wide and spun around. “This is just the beginning. New life. New me. Adventurous. Spontaneous. Doing what I want when I want without anyone’s expectations weighing me down.”
Jack’s blood chilled as she spun faster and faster before collapsing in a laughing heap next to Adele.
“Speaking of new beginnings, remind me to introduce you to my brother Reid.” Jess winked. “He has a thing for redheads.”
Adele blushed and muttered something he couldn’t hear. But Jack had heard enough.
He and Jess had always had bad timing. This time round it sucked.
He was ready to settle down; she was ready to cut loose, and no way would he be the one to tie her down.
She deserved to have adventures, to explore life outside Craye Canyon. Hell, hadn’t that been the motivation behind her seduction? A little experimentation after being shackled to an arrogant asshole?
He turned and walked away, the agonizing ache in his chest indicating the depth of his feelings.
Yeah, he loved Jess.
Loved her enough to let her go.
Burlesque Bombshell Basics
Polka dots, ruffles and bows are never out of style
Jess was counting down the hours until the wedding finished.
Not that she hadn’t enjoyed every moment, and the many accolades heaped on her from guests and bridal party alike. But she’d managed to snatch five hours sleep last night before waking at dawn to ensure every detail had been covered, and considering she’d had none the night before and an hour the one prior to that, courtesy of Jack…yeah, she was in serious need of a little R&R.
And in serious need of Jack.
She missed him. Irrational, considering they’d spent their initial time on the island together sparring before finally connecting, but she did. In a way that terrified.
She’d dropped by his villa last night on the way back to hers but he hadn’t been there, and she didn’t want to disturb him while he was working. So she’d settled for a concise text saying
C U @ the wedding
and he’d responded with an equally brief
C U then
The terseness niggled, but she’d excused it as lack of sleep and an obsession to get the job done right.
Something they’d achieved if the constant gushing was any indication. From the decorations to the table settings, the cake table to the food, the guests were overly effusive with their praise to the point where Jess understood why her mom did this for a living.
Sure, it had been hard work coordinating everything and pulling it all together, but the final result was worth it. And to see an ecstatic bride and groom…yeah, not many jobs provided this much satisfaction. She’d never been on a high at the end of a day at the library, that’s for sure.
Not that she wanted to do this full time but planning this wedding had taught Jess something. It wasn’t so scary expanding her horizons. Trying new things. And she’d never, ever settle for anything less than her dreams again.
“Great job, Sis.” Reid draped an arm across her shoulders and squeezed. “Mom would be proud.”
“How is she?”
“The same.” Reid rolled his eyes. “Terrorizing the rehab staff. Demanding to be discharged. Threatening to botch the weddings of every staff member’s kids.”
Jess laughed. “Have to admit, after doing this, I have a newfound respect for Mom.”
“She thinks the world of you too.”
The last thing Jess wanted right now was to get into a deep and meaningful conversation about their narcissistic, boisterous mom. So she settled for the best distraction technique possible.
“Have you met Adele?”
“Which one’s she?”
Jess elbowed him in the ribs. “The redhead in the floor-length black halter. Two o’clock.”
Reid removed his arm from her shoulders and turned slightly to the right, his gaze searching the crowd. Jess knew the moment he spotted Adele because her brother stuck a finger between his tie and collar, a tell he’d had for years.
Jess laughed and snagged his hand. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
A few minutes later, after leaving her ga-ga brother with an adoring Adele, Jess scouted the crowd for Jack.
Desserts had been served, the cake had been cut and the resort staff was clearing away dishes, so he should’ve been out here by now.
Intent on finding him, she headed for the kitchen, only to be waylaid by the groom and his distant cousin, demanding to know the background behind the burlesque wedding because she wanted one just like it.
On the verge of making her excuses, Dorian squeezed Jess’s arm and murmured in her ear, “If you spend five minutes with my dotty cousin Merla, I’ll get Jack to meet you down on the beach in ten.”
“Deal.” Jess nodded at Dorian, who melted away, before she pasted a smile on her face for his cousin.
“So tell me, Jess, is it true burlesque started in France?”
The last thing Jess felt like doing was giving Merla a history lesson but with the promise of meeting Jack at the end without wasting valuable time searching for him, she’d do it.
“Yeah, the original Moulin Rouge was a cabaret in Paris dating back to the late eighteen hundreds. Courtesans conducted their business there and an audience watched the then-notorious Can-Can performed.”
Merla nodded. “Fascinating. Is that why this wedding had a red and black theme?”
“Uh-huh. Encapsulates the Moulin Rouge era perfectly.”
Merla glanced around, before leaning closer. “But isn’t burlesque another word for stripper?”
Jess placed a finger in front of her lips. “Ssh. Don’t let my cousin Chantal hear you say that. She runs the best burlesque venue in Vegas and she hates it when people assume it’s a strip club.”
Merla puffed up as if she’d been insulted. “Well, isn’t it?”
Annoyed she’d had to give this spiel to several townsfolk back in Craye Canyon, the same ones who constantly berated Chantal for
bringing disrepute upon herself and the town
, Jess said, “Burlesque is a style of tease and dancing turned into an art form. Maybe you should visit Burlesque Bombshell one night and see a show?”
Rather than running screaming into the night as Jess half expected, Merla merely squared her shoulders and nodded. “Maybe I will. I want to spice up my engagement and I reckon some of those feathers and tassel thingies should do the trick.”
Before Merla could divulge any more of her proposed boudoir props, Jess said, “Will you excuse me?” and headed for the beach.
If Jack wasn’t there she’d personally hunt down Dorian and make him listen to his cousin’s diatribe of her soon-to-be marital paraphernalia.
Jess slipped off her sandals at the edge of the beach and stepped onto the sand, savoring the squelch of grains between her toes.
She hadn’t had any time to enjoy this stunning stretch of ocean and considering she was flying out tomorrow afternoon with the rest of the guests, she wouldn’t get a chance.
Not that she cared. If she had her way there’d be plenty of beaches around the world to explore. With Jack by her side.
Fire-lit torches edged the sand’s periphery and she followed the faint trail they cast, increasingly concerned with every step. If Dorian had told Jack she wanted to see him, why hadn’t he stayed closer to the wedding reception area?
Unless he was hung up over Reid finding out about them, which would be moot soon.
She rounded a rocky outcrop and spotted him, standing at the water’s edge, staring at the ocean. In his tux pants, white dress shirt rolled up to the elbows and bow tie hanging askew with the top button undone, silhouetted by moonlight, he looked like every bad boy fantasy come to life.
She picked up the pace, the sand muffling her footsteps until she reached him and touched his hand. He didn’t flinch, didn’t move, didn’t take her hand and a sliver of foreboding sliced through her resolve.
She’d intended on outlining her future plans tonight, had hoped he’d be just as excited. But he could barely look at her.
He nodded and eased his hand away so they weren’t touching any more. “Absolutely knackered.”
“Yeah, know the feeling.” She hated this stilted conversation as much as his aloofness. “We’re the toast of the wedding apparently, after the bride and groom.”
“So I heard.”
He folded his arms, his defensive posture making him seem more closed off than ever. She’d seen this once before, ten years ago and now, like then, she wanted to grab hold of him and shake him silly.
“What’s up with you?”
“Nothing.” His jaw clenched, before he deliberately relaxed and turned to face her. Finally.
He didn’t have to say a word. Moonlight illuminated the coolness in his eyes. Gone were the passion and the heat. Gone were the laughter and the teasing.
Jack had reverted to type; a lone drifter who didn’t need anyone, least of all a woman who loved him.
And she did.
She’d known it all along on some subliminal level she refused to acknowledge.
Sure, she’d dressed it up as some flighty fling, unwilling to accept the truth. Had wanted to appease her bruised ego that had taken a battering at the hands of Max.
But the moment Jack had reached out to her, had touched her, had pleasured her that night in her villa without taking anything in return, was the moment he’d crept back into her heart.
And she’d stupidly let him.
“Nothing’s wrong?” She shook her head, her artfully tussled curls snagging on her necklace. She’d deliberately kept her hair down tonight when she always wore it up for formal do’s, enjoying the metaphoric comparison it made. Pity letting her hair down hadn’t been enough to capture Jack. “You always were a lousy liar.”
He recoiled as if she’d struck him. “I’ve never lied to you—”
“Bullshit,” she yelled, lowering her voice with effort. “You lied to me ten years ago when you said we didn’t share a connection, that I had a silly teenage crush I’d dreamed up in my own head.”
“Don’t do this—”
“What? Tell the truth? Something you’d do if you had the guts?” She stepped away when he reached for her, the resentment of being deliberately pushed away a decade earlier melding with her disappointment now to create an all-consuming anger that choked her throat and made her stomach ache. “We shared something special ten years ago and you know it. It’s why you were so goddamn scared to come near me this time around, because you thought it’d flare up again.”
She marched a few steps away and kicked at the waves lapping at the shore, sending a spray into the air and drenching him. Damn if the wet shirt look didn’t make him more appealing.
“And it did flare up. The attraction between us? Unstoppable. And so freaking hot I bet you’re hard now just thinking about it.”
She heard his muttered, “fuck,” as he semi-turned away.
“Look at me, damn you. Tell me I’m wrong.” She grabbed his shirt and tugged hard, yanking him around. “Go on, I dare you to lie to my face. Again.”
The pain tearing her heart apart intensified when she saw the same agony reflected in his tortured gaze. “I’m leaving in a few hours, Jess. Let’s not do this.”
His flat monotone, devoid of any emotion, scared her as much as the thought of losing him too soon before they’d had a chance to sort this out.
“You weren’t even going to say goodbye?”
His guilty glance away spoke volumes. “I thought it’d be easier that way.”
“Easier on you, you mean?” She released his shirt and stepped away. “I’m such an idiot. I thought…”
She started walking away, her feet dragging through the sand, every inch of her body aching, like she’d been flayed.
She didn’t owe him any explanations, not now, not after this, but if she walked away this time without really admitting how she felt, she’d regret it for the rest of her life.
Scrounging the last bit of courage from her weary and battered soul, she half-turned back. “I thought this time would be different. I thought you’d be man enough to admit your feelings. I thought you’d want to explore what we have and see how far it takes us. I thought you’d…”
She lost the battle against the grief clogging her throat, her voice a bare squeak as she said, “I thought that maybe you’d love me as much as I love you.”