Authors: Nicola Marsh
The revue venue channeled a bordello with its crimson walls and filmy curtains and muted lights. And then there was Jess, standing in front of a mirror holding a pair of pasties to her nipples…
He stumbled and kicked out at a stray lead from a pink-fringed lamp tucked into a blind corner.
Wasn’t Jess’s fault he’d taken one look at her with those frigging pasties and imagined her modeling them, naked. He’d been hard in an instant, his cock’s betraying response catapulting him back a decade when all he had to do was look at the naïve Yank to get a hard-on of crippling proportions.
Looked like nothing had changed.
He’d acted like a jerk to cover his reaction, to ensure she backed off before he did something stupid like haul her into his arms, back her up against the velvet wall and enter her.
She’d caught him off guard. His excuse, he was sticking to it. Anything to ease the guilt burning his gullet like acid at the hurt bewilderment he’d glimpsed in her expressive brown eyes.
He’d lashed out deliberately, an instinct that had served their tension-fraught relationship well during her one month vacation in outback OZ ten years ago.
For as much as he’d wanted the refined, softly spoken girl with the shy smile and steady stare, she’d been off-limits. Way out of his league.
He owed Reid Harper, big-time. No way would he screw up with Reid by screwing his sister.
So he’d lied. Pushed Jess away. Done everything he could to stop her hanging around him.
She hadn’t listened. Somehow she’d seen through his act, had seen down to his soul sometimes. And they’d talked and laughed and eventually kissed.
It had been inevitable.
Now he had to march back into that barf-worthy frou-frou room and apologize. Because Reid had asked him to cater Dorian’s wedding as a favor and Dorian had said he had to meet the wedding planner here today at five.
Which only added up to one thing. He’d be working with Jess to ensure this wedding went off without a hitch.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. It did little to alleviate the pressure building there. Along with Reid, Dorian had had a hand in launching his career into the stratosphere.
What Reid had seen in a lowly outback station cook he’d never know, but the guy had secured him an apprenticeship under a Michelin starred chef in Sydney and he hadn’t looked back.
Dorian had been the first to invest in him too, with a sizable financial chunk that enabled him to set up Cookie’s, his own restaurant, and build a cult following.
Jack owed these two men everything.
He couldn’t let them down.
Muttering a string of inventive curses under his breath, he squared his shoulders and marched back into the room.
To find Jess dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. That sight more than anything she’d said earlier hit him like a punch to the gut.
Feeling worse than a dry-mouthed and desperate blue-tongued lizard slinking through the Simpson Desert, he strode toward her.
“Jess, I’m really sorry—”
“Screw you.” He admired her feistiness as she stared him down and flipped him the bird. “Newsflash. If you can’t take a little heat, get out of the kitchen.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “You’re using cooking puns to get rid of me?”
“I’ll use anything I goddamn like to get rid of you,” she said, a flash of fire darkening her eyes to ebony before she blinked and the telltale cool he remembered returned. “We can’t work together.”
He held up his hands in surrender. “You’ll get no argument from me.”
“Okay then.” She nodded. “You leave, I’ll invent an excuse, something along the lines of your rotten green peppercorn rib-eye gave the entire eastern seaboard of Australia food poisoning.”
“Picking on my signature dish is harsh, don’t you think?”
“No harsher than deliberately pushing away someone who cares about you.”
Wow. She’d never been this outspoken back then. He liked the new sassiness. Very sexy.
Not helping the hard-on situation, dickhead
leave? We’re in Vegas. There’s a wannabe wedding planner on every corner.”
“I can’t. Zazz trusts Chantal implicitly, and my cousin’s from my hometown.” She plucked at her sleeve cuff, a vulnerable tell he irrationally remembered. “Mom’s the best wedding planner around but she’s sick so I’m it.”
“How’s Pam doing?”
“Driving the physical therapists nuts at rehab. Bossing around the nurses. Making life hell for the doctors.”
He laughed. “Reid said the same.”
Her eyebrow rose slightly. “You guys still close?”
“We hang out when our schedules tee up.”
“Because he never mentions you.”
Duh. That’s because Jack had made certain of it all those years ago, telling Reid about Jess’s crush on him and how he didn’t want it to affect their friendship.
Reid had respected him for it. While Jack had felt like a heel, lying to the guy who’d soon become his best mate.
For Jess’s crush hadn’t been one-sided. They’d had some serious chemistry. Their one explosive kiss had been testament to it.
Exactly why there could never be a repeat. Jack had spent his childhood and teen years making mistake after mistake, being shunted from one foster family to the next, being a screw up.
No way in hell would he stuff up the lifeline Reid Harper had offered him. Even if it included pushing away the one woman he’d ever let get close enough to seeing the real him.
“Guys aren’t real big on chit chat,” he said, gesturing for her to take a seat.
Standing this close, he could smell lilacs, the memories of the way it had clung to his skin making him want to touch her so badly he ached.
“Yeah, so I’ve learned.”
Her slumped shoulders made him want to shake the defeatist out of her and bring back the sass.
“I presume you’re talking about your ex?”
“I’d rather not talk about him at all,” she said, the slightest quiver in her neutral tone belying her control.
“Reid said the guy was an uptight prick.”
“Reid says a lot of things he shouldn’t.” She shook her head. “I won’t discuss this with you.”
“Might help to get it off your chest.”
Poor choice of cliché as his gaze strayed there and bam! The nipple pasties were front and foremost in his mind again.
“Reid was right.” She sighed, a wistful sound that reached deep into his chest and tweaked at his hardened heart. “Uptight prick sums up Max nicely. Along with mid-life-crisis, philandering bastard.”
Jack’s hands curled into fists. “He cheated on you?”
She nodded, the wobble of her bottom lip reaching out to him like nothing else could. If she cried again, he was toast.
“We’re done and I’m glad.” She sucked in a deep breath. “So, where were we? That’s right, you heading back to Sydney.”
Grateful for the change of topic so he could regain control of the irrational rage coursing through his body at the thought of any asshole being dumb enough to cheat on Jess, he leaned back in the armchair and draped an arm across the back of it.
“I’m not leaving.”
Her chin tilted up. “Neither am I.”
“Hundred bucks says you can’t last an hour working alongside me.”
“A thousand says you won’t last a day.” She thrust out her chest for emphasis.
Damn, she didn’t play fair.
“Low blow, Jess.” He shifted in his seat. “You can’t go using your sexiness as a weapon.”
Her eyes widened and her delectable lips parted a fraction. “You think I’m sexy?”
If he hadn’t heard her tentativeness with his own ears he wouldn’t have believed it. For all her bluster and teasing earlier, she sounded exactly like she had a decade earlier: unsure, hesitant, innocent.
“Hell, you want me to make a damn list?” His gaze roamed her body and he wrenched it back to her face with effort.
How could one whispered word slug him harder than a knockout punch he’d sustained in his last foster home before he’d run away to the outback?
He shook his head. “I can’t play this game with you.”
“Why not?” She deliberately focused on his lips, licked hers.
“Because I’m not a dumbass twenty any more and you’re no longer a naïve eighteen.”
Rather than backing down as he expected, she did the one thing guaranteed to make his libido sit up and howl.
She placed her hand on the top of his thigh, one inch shy of his crotch.
“Don’t sweat it. I’ll have a week on the island to change your mind.”
“What frigging island?”
Her teasing, sweet smile filled him with dread. “Didn’t you know? Dorian’s flying us to the wedding venue, his private island in the Caribbean, so we can finalize details.”
Fire sparked her eyes to caramel. “Fine. If you’re not up to the challenge…”
Her fingertips edged closer to detonation zone and he leaped to his feet.
“Dorian and Zazz are counting on us.” Her smug smile as her gaze zeroed in on his hard-on made him want to haul her over his knees and spank her. Hard. “You can’t say no.”
His cock twitched in agreement.
He was so screwed.
Burlesque Bombshell Basics
Seamed stockings elongate the leg and draw a man’s eye to the thigh, where lace-tops or garters are guaranteed to have him salivating
“One week all expenses paid jaunt to the Caribbean and you look like this?” Chantal stuck her pinkies in the corners of her mouth, screwed up her nose and threw in a cross-eyed grimace. “Are you for real?”
For Jess, this entire trip was all too real. “This isn’t what I want to do, you know that.”
Chantal snorted. “Give me a break. You’d seriously rather be stuck behind a desk with your nose buried in a dusty book in a dead-end town than head to the Caribbean with a hottie like Jack?”
“And play.” Chantal smirked as she swept a bundle of costumes off a chest in her office and dumped them on the desk in front of her. “Take your pick. Any one of these will guarantee he’ll play.”
“I’m not a dancer,” Jess said, her wistful gaze straying to a pale pink satin corset with ebony ribbon lace-ups. “And even if I did wear any of this stuff, I wouldn’t have a clue how to play with a guy like Jack.”
“So you do want to play?”
Jess made a zipping motion over her lips. Who was she kidding, denying she’d like nothing better than to get sweaty and naked with the delectable Jack?
He hadn’t changed a bit. If anything, the last ten years accentuated his rugged looks. He’d been big and bronzed in the outback: six-three, ripped and tanned. There may be a few more lines fanning the corners of his eyes and deeper grooves bracketing his mouth now, but with that lazy Aussie drawl, unruly dark blonde curls and wicked smile, one look at Jack had catapulted her straight back to the time she’d been crazy for him.
Then he’d taunted her, thrown down a challenge expecting her to back off like she had ten years ago, and something inside her had snapped.
She was sick of being good all the time. Sick of being the small town girl who always did the right thing by everybody: her mom, her cousin, even her rat-bastard ex.
Most of all, she was sick of how lost she felt. All the frikking time.
Inadequate and mousy and frigid—three harsh accusations Max had thrown at her when she’d confronted him with her suspicions. He’d been lashing out, trying to assuage his guilt and blame her for his infidelity. She knew that, but it didn’t stop those words echoing through her head like an old warped vinyl.
All it had taken was one word from Jack…
…and she’d known what she had to do.
She had to get laid.
By a guy so totally, mind-blowingly hot that he’d eradicate every nasty insinuation Max had ever made.
Max may have uttered the hurtful words but deep down in a place she didn’t want to acknowledge, a small part of her believed him. Their sex life had been tolerable. Nice. Nothing like the sizzling erotica she read in secret on her e-reader and nothing like the scorching tales she’d heard backstage here since she’d been helping organize Zazz’s wedding.
Her gaze drifted to the outfits strewn across Chantal’s desk and envy shot through her. No wonder the girls who worked here had hot sex. They knew what to wear, what to say and what to do to get noticed.
They flaunted their sexuality while she hid behind sensible business suits and low-heeled pumps and a prim ponytail.
“Whatever you’re thinking, I like it.” Chantal winked and pushed the scraps of satin and lace toward her. “These samples arrived today and I can always get more. You’re welcome to take your pick for playtime with Jack.”
With part reluctance, part fascination, Jess picked up an ivory corset with garter attached, savoring the slide of satin between her fingertips.
What would it be like to wear something this scandalous—to have Jack’s hands all over it—all over her?
Then reality set in. Even if they got to that point—and by the evidence of how much he still wanted her fresh in her mind from a few hours earlier by her bold hand-on-his-thigh move—what if she screwed it up by her inadequacies?
“Wish I could be like the Bombshells,” Jess said, replacing the corset on the desk and glancing at the framed pictures of the stunning dancers that graced the stage nightly.
Chantal snapped her fingers. “You can be.”
Jess didn’t like the maniacal gleam in her cousin’s assessing stare. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not leaving ‘til the end of the week, right?”
Jess nodded, her palms clammy at the thought of what she could potentially do with Jack on the island if she had the guts.
“Well then, you’ve got three days to brush up on your seduction skills.” Chantal scooped the outfits off the desk and dumped them in her lap. “Spend some time with the girls in rehearsal. Watch. Listen. Learn. Practice.”
Chantal wiggled her hips. “A little shimmy here. A little pole dancing there. You’ll have that poor guy falling at your feet.”
Jess’s first reaction, an instant rebuttal, was quickly replaced by something else.