Authors: Nicola Marsh
“That’s about it,” he said, focusing on chasing bacon bits and chili flakes around his plate rather than see her simple, innocuous actions morph to obscene in his filthy mind.
“How many hearts have you broken?”
“Millions,” he said, forcing a smile, unsure where she was heading with this line of questioning.
“A million and one.”
Her blunt declaration hung in the silence between them and he wished now more than ever he could ditch this job and head back to Sydney, far from her astute observations and subtle seduction.
“All teenagers get their hearts broken. It’s mandatory,” he said, deliberately flippant. Last thing he needed was to get into some D&M about their past.
“Good to know I made such an impact on you.”
Her dry humor increased his admiration. Another thing he remembered and liked—her directness. She didn’t use cunning ploys or play coy games. She said what she meant. Usually to his detriment, because it was stuff he didn’t want to hear—like how she’d wanted him back then, how she wanted him now.
“You made an impact and you know it,” he said, his begrudging admission making her laugh.
“Sure? Because the way you tell it, I was just a naïve teenager getting her heart broken all over the place.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to admit the truth.” Her eyes lost their mischievous sparkle as she leaned forward, eyeballing him with the brand of bluntness only Jess did so well. “I want you to admit you reciprocated my crush. I want you to admit the attraction between us now is just as powerful as back then, if not more so.”
“Anything else?” It took every ounce of skill to keep his response laconic in the face of her brutal honesty.
“Yeah.” She hauled in a deep breath that made her chest expand. “I want you to admit you’ll give us a chance on the island.”
“No.” He shook his head, pushed back from the table and stood. Time to gather dishes. This dinner was done.
“Then I’ll be forced to take drastic action.”
“Go ahead.” He shrugged and started piling crockery onto the dirty plates. “Idle threats.”
Her eyes narrowed to burnished copper slits of defiance as she picked up the remains of a French stick.
“You don’t want to push me,” she said, her tone lethal and deathly quiet.
“Really? What are you going to do?”
He only just ducked as she flung the bread straight at his head. It bounced off the wall behind and landed in a spray of crusty crumbs at his feet.
“Throwing food? Really?” He stepped over the bread and headed for the sink. “Isn’t that a tad childish?”
“Not as much as this.”
He turned, his reaction time seriously hampered by the dishes in his hands as she scooped a handful of Matriciana sauce and smeared it down the front of his shirt.
“Oops.” Her pretend pout accentuated her lips and resurrected instant memories of how they’d felt a few hours earlier. “Too bad. Now you’ll have to take your shirt off.”
He laughed. He couldn’t help it. Jess beguiled and bewitched—sweet one moment, sassy the next. He liked how she’d developed from a shy teen to a brash woman, knowing what she wanted and not afraid to go after it.
Pity her sights were set on him.
“Where’s the bathroom?”
She pointed over his left shoulder. “Down the corridor. Last door on the left.”
He’d barely taken two steps before her syrupy sweet response came. “Want me to help?”
“You’ve done enough for one evening,” he said, whipping his shirt off as he stalked down the corridor, only just catching her murmured, “not nearly enough,” before he slammed the bathroom door.
Jess danced around the kitchen, flinging her arms wide, kinking her hips, swinging around an imaginary pole.
Tonight had gone far better than expected. And the bonus? She’d got to see Jack with his shirt off.
Okay, so maybe that last move had been too spontaneous and totally underhanded but he’d really riled her with his pompous pretense. They were attracted; he had to acknowledge it, even if he had no intention of doing anything about it. Not to worry, she had plans to do enough for the both of them.
With a final exuberant butt wiggle, she stacked the dishwasher and wiped down the counters. The best part about tonight? They’d reconnected on a level that went beyond the physical.
For all his denials and glibness, Jack still cared. His insouciant responses may be harsh but the fleeting tenderness in his expressive eyes told her far more than words ever could.
She’d been able to read him pretty well a decade earlier too, despite his jibe at her naivety. She may have been innocent sexually back then but there’d been nothing wrong with her heart.
She’d known, deep down, that Jack could’ve been a world-changer for her.
She would’ve left Craye Canyon and crossed the Pacific to be with him if he’d asked. Yeah, she’d been that head over heels. But he hadn’t and she’d returned to Nevada, pretending to chalk her outback interlude up to experience and goofy first love, when in fact her connection with Jack had gone far deeper.
Was he the reason she’d dated sparingly? She’d blamed her reticence when it came to men on her mom, Pam’s exuberance around the male species a surefire way to make her want to be the opposite. But what if blaming her mom was too trite? What if no other guy had ever measured up to the larger than life Aussie who’d stolen her heart without trying?
Too fanciful. And bordering on the soppy romances that peppered the erotica she read. She shook her head to dislodge the ludicrous idea but once it had taken hold she couldn’t dismiss it.
Had that been the reason why her relationship with Max had been doomed from the start? They’d never had the buzz that Jack made her feel with a simple glance. She’d never smoldered for Max. And certainly had never been brave enough to haul him into an alley or kiss him spontaneously or smear him with pasta sauce.
Sure, she’d been a different person back in Craye Canyon, had been living a sedate life, doing the expected thing like accepting a marriage proposal after the requisite year of dating the town darling, the mayor-to-be. Content to hold hands and head to the movies and have regulation five-minute sex that never got her off.
She’d been the epitome of the happily engaged woman, smiling and decorous and planning for a future. That increasingly terrified her the closer they came to setting a date.
She should’ve known by her reluctance to commit to an actual date how wrong her engagement to Max had been. It had almost been a relief when he’d cheated on her, because it made him the scoundrel and her the aggrieved but sanctimonious fiancée. She’d garnered town sympathy; he’d practically been herded out of town.
Sure, she’d dredged up all the hurtful things he’d said when they broke up, had wallowed in sadness and self pity for a while. But secretly she’d been dreadfully, immensely relieved.
Jack could push her away all he liked but his appearance in her life at this time? Almost a sign from the Big Guy Upstairs.
Out with the old Jess, in with the new.
For the first time in her life she wanted to
, rather than behave and act.
Jack was the guy to help her do it.
“I don’t like that feral gleam in your eye,” he said, stepping into the kitchen wearing one of her nightshirts, a long cotton T emblazoned with Kiss My Ass. It had been an impulse buy an hour after she’d dumped Max.
“That’s a good look for you.” She pointed at the T-shirt and tapped her bottom lip, pretending to ponder. “Because if that’s an offer—”
“Cut it out,” he said, his gruff response tempered with a semi-smile. “I’ve tossed mine in the dryer. Should be done in ten minutes.”
“Then you’re out of here?”
She waved toward the door. “Run all you like. Can’t hide forever.”
“Wanna make a bet?” He leaned against the doorjamb, the simple action stretching the cotton across his broad chest.
Heat flushed her cheeks. She could blame it on the oven but the damn thing wasn’t turned on. Unlike her.
“Shame, really.” She picked up a dishcloth and started drying a pot lid, when she should use it to fan her face. “If the sauce had been on your pants, you would’ve lost those too.”
He laughed, a genuine, loud, belly laugh that made hers clench with need.
How she wanted this guy. Naked, skin to skin, in her, around her, intimate.
“Got to hand it to you, Jess, I’ve never had a woman use that trick to get me naked before.”
“Hey, I’m inventive.”
“Really?” His eyes sparked. “How inventive?”
“Uh-uh, you can’t do that, Mister.” She wiggled her finger at him. “No flirting if you can’t follow through.”
“True.” His wicked smile could’ve made her panties shuck off. “But that deliberate time-out in the bathroom, courtesy of you, made me think.”
“Hope you didn’t get brain strain.”
His smile morphed into something so wondrous it snatched her breath, reminding her in vivid detail exactly why she’d fallen for him a decade earlier. “This newfound sass? Is it just me who cops it or are you like this all the time now?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” She flicked the dishcloth at him and he sidestepped.
“Actually, I would.” His smile faded as he took a step closer, invading the kitchen, invading her personal space. “I did do some thinking back there and realized something.”
“Go on,” she said, unable to tell from his modulated, all too rational tone if she wanted to hear what he had to say or not.
“When we hung out in OZ, we enjoyed each other’s company. We laughed and joked around. We talked for hours.” He dragged a hand through his hair, his tell he was a tad rattled. Damn, she even remembered that, when she couldn’t remember how Max preferred his coffee. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together on the island for work so I figure it’ll be easier if we get along—” she opened her mouth to intervene and he rushed on, “—as friends.”
He gripped her upper arms and she could’ve sworn her skin sizzled, her reaction to him undeniably strong. “We can’t be anything more. It’s that simple.”
Bull. Whatever they shared was far from simple but she could handle being friends. For now. Because while Jess had never seduced a guy, she knew from their interactions so far that put them together for some serious one on one time? Jack wouldn’t hold out for long.
“Friends flirt, right?”
“Yeah.” His easygoing smile was back, making her exceedingly glad he’d come this far.
“Friends hug, right?”
Before he could move she eased into his arms, wrapped her arms around his waist and squeezed. Close enough to tantalize, close enough to feel exactly how much he wanted her despite his ‘
No surprise he pulled away first; a tortured twist to his mouth and she bit back a laugh.
She snagged his hand. “And friends can be bonking buddies, right?”
“Wrong.” He frowned, but the censure didn’t reach his eyes. “That’s where I draw the line.”
“You shouldn’t. Because I might see that as a challenge and leapfrog right over that line.”
She chuckled at his warning, squeezed his hand and released it, exalted by how tonight had turned out. On the island? He’d fold like a concertina door. “Don’t worry, your virtue’s safe with me.”
“It’s not mine I’m worried about,” he muttered, and she patted his cheek, tweaked his nose and headed for the laundry.
His shirt should be dry by now and the sooner she got rid of him, the sooner she could slip into those sexy samples Chantal gave her today and practice a few moves.
Let Jack believe his ‘
; she’d lull him into a false sense of security. Then whammo, hit him with every weapon in her—admittedly limited—seduction arsenal.
Oh yeah, Jack baby didn’t stand a chance.
Burlesque Bombshell Basics
Channel the femme fatales of the 1920s. Bobbed hair, plum shade bee stung lips, smoky eyes, pale ivory skin
The next morning, Jess strolled into Chantal’s office with a bag of bagels, cream cheese, lox and two banana smoothies.
She owed her cousin, big time.
Those outfits she’d tried on last night after Jack left? Wow. For a girl who’d spent her life feeling plain, they transformed her from pussycat to sex kitten.
She’d paraded in front of the mirror unable to believe how raunchy she looked. Like a woman in control. Like a woman not intimidated by her sexuality. Like a woman who knew how to snare a guy and keep him.
Not that Jack was a keeper. She knew that. But for however long they had together, she wanted to prove to herself that she wasn’t some frigid cow—that she had what it took to bring a guy like Jack to his knees.
The satin corsets sliding against her skin, the rasp of lace bras against her nipples, the caress of sheer silk stockings against her legs, had heightened her feeling of decadence.
She’d been transformed and transfixed and incredibly horny. Thirty minutes with her newly acquired vibrator—another post-Max gift to herself—hadn’t helped. She wanted the real thing. She wanted Jack.
“’Morning.” Chantal breezed into her office wearing a killer ebony pinstripe suit and four inch stilettos. She moved with the grace of an ex-dancer and Jess always felt gauche and awkward next to her confident, successful cousin. “How’d it go last night?”
“What do you mean?”
Chantal shrugged out of her jacket and hung it on the back of her chair, before grabbing a smoothie and taking a long sip. “I saw you follow a certain hottie chef when he headed out.”
Sheesh, and Jess thought Craye Canyon had a gossip grapevine.
“I wanted to shake things up a little.”
Chantal smirked. “Did you? And if so, I want details.”
“Jack’s an old friend—”
“You know him?” Chantal squeezed her Styrofoam cup too hard and quickly placed it on the desk before she wore the smoothie. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Didn’t know he was the chef catering the wedding ‘til he strutted in here yesterday.” And later, when Chantal had prompted her to take the samples to seduce Jack, she hadn’t wanted to divulge their past, scared talking about it might jinx her endeavors. Dumb? Yeah.