Authors: Nicola Marsh
Chantal’s perfectly kohled eyes widened. “There’s a story here. Spill.”
“Not much to tell.”
Chantal snorted at her faux innocence. “If you spare me any details, I’ll take back those samples.”
Jess rolled her eyes. “We met ten years ago when Reid took me on that holiday to Australia. Trawled the main cities like Melbourne and Sydney, then headed outback to a sheep station in the far north. Spent a month there.”
“And?” Chantal waved her hands, hurrying her along. “I don’t want the National Geographic version of your trip. I want Jess Does Jindaroo unabridged.”
Jess laughed. “Is there even such a place as Jindaroo?”
“Who freaking knows but it has a nice ring to it. Now get on with it. I want deets.”
“Okay, okay.” Jess wished she had half her cousin’s bossiness. Chantal never took crap from anyone. What Chantal wanted, she got. “He was the station cook. We kinda clicked, spent a lot of his downtime together.”
“Did you do the horizontal kangaroo hop?”
Jess grinned. “We kissed.”
Chantal’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s it?”
“It was some kiss.”
“Must’ve been, to put that goofy look in your eyes.” Chantal toyed with her straw, her astute gaze never leaving hers. “So how does his technique compare now?”
“Unbe-freaking-lievable.” The admission slipped out before Jess could stop it and predictably her cousin pounced.
“I knew it. You two did the dirty last night.” Chantal pointed to her face. “You’ve got a glow.”
“We didn’t. But we will.”
Chantal grinned and raised her cup in Jess’s direction. “That’s my girl.” She took a few sips, slurped at the end, then lobbed the cup into the trash. “Want to hear something funny?”
“Funnier than me wearing burlesque samples to seduce an old crush?”
Chantal nodded, pensive. “When you first rocked up here, I doubted you had the chutzpah to plan Zazz’s wedding let alone hook up with a guy. You were dragging your sorry ass around.”
Chantal shook her head. “To be honest, Cuz, I thought Crazy Canyon had sucked the life out of you.”
“It had.” Jess’s appetite vanished and she nudged her bagel away. “I’ve spent my life being a good girl: doing the right thing, wearing the right thing, saying the right thing—”
“Dating the right thing.” Chantal screwed up her nose. “That dweeb Max was plain nasty. Thank God you didn’t marry him.”
The sad thing was, Jess would’ve if he hadn’t cheated on her. She would probably be back in Craye Canyon now, planning their next dinner party for his friends, volunteering for the literacy program at the library, popping into the old folks’ home to take them the latest books and reading to them.
She would’ve floated through her perfectly orderly life with her perfectly suitable fiancé wearing her perfectly elegant clothes…and been emotionally dead inside.
At least she could thank Jack for giving her a jumpstart where she needed it most—her soul.
“I’ve led a pretty boring life…” Jess had never told anyone the rest. How could she, when she hadn’t mentioned her crush on the hot Aussie to anyone when she’d returned from her trip?
“And I often wonder if that’s the reason Jack ultimately rejected me all those years ago.” She sighed, amazed she’d articulated her insecurities after all this time. “Because I wasn’t hot enough or savvy enough in flirting and all that kind of stuff.”
“That’s bull.” Chantal swept her arm wide, encompassing her lush office. “When Jack first came in here to talk wedding food with Zazz, he scanned the pics and paraphernalia like any red-blooded guy would. But I didn’t see his eyes light up ‘til I mentioned he’d be working with you.”
Chantal nodded so hard her crystal chandelier earrings got tangled in her hair. “Yep. The guy morphed from laid-back, cool, Aussie dude to edgy and wound up.”
“Probably at the thought of working with the immature girl who’d had a not-so-secret crush back then.”
Chantal tapped her bottom lip with a crimson manicured nail. “You mentioned a kiss?”
“I’m assuming it wasn’t one-sided and he had to fend you off with a didgeridoo?”
“How do you know all this Aussie stuff?”
“Discovery Channel.” A tiny crease appeared between Chantal’s brows. “Answer the question.”
“The kiss was mutual.”
The kiss had also been exquisite and passionate and sublime.
“Then I’ve got two words for you.” Chantal held up two fingers. “Prince Island.”
Jess smirked. “Yeah, I kinda have a plan in mind.”
Jess didn’t trust the naughty twinkle in Chantal’s eyes.
“I have another three words for you, Jessie girl.”
“Screw him good.”
Jess intended to. Real good.
If Jack had psyched himself up last night to keep his hands off Jess, it was nothing to the mental prep he had to do to face Reid.
The suave, confident Yank was one of his best friends. A good mate he could rely on. Someone who’d seen something in him when no one else had.
Even now, ten years later, he couldn’t quite fathom why the rich guy from a small town in Nevada had taken a chance on an Aussie drifter.
But Reid had. While they’d swapped stories in the outback, they’d also traded dreams. Reid had big plans. Places to go, people to meet. Politics. Jack could think of nothing worse, being surrounded by a bunch of backslapping pricks every day for work.
Ironically, when Reid had asked Jack what were his dreams, Jack hadn’t known. The only thing he could do remotely well was cook. So Reid had taken the idea and run with it. Used connections in the business world, called in a favor from an old family friend, set up an apprenticeship in one of Sydney’s premier restaurants and Jack had done the rest. Completed an economics degree part-time when he wasn’t working manic hours at the restaurant, building his own contacts in the culinary world, saving every cent he earned.
When he’d finished his apprenticeship, Reid had stepped in again, this time with an investor: Dorian. The rest was history. He’d launched Cookie’s and it quickly became the go-to place on Sydney’s North Shore. Had grown in stature, drawing crowds from across the harbor city, cementing him in culinary circles.
And he owed it all to Reid and Dorian. The faith those blokes had in him floored him to this day. If it weren’t for them…where would he be? Still drifting through the outback, cooking for a bunch of cattlemen and shearers? Content to have no home because he was too scared to put down roots considering the past he was running from? No ties to anyone, just the way he wanted it?
Not that he had many ties these days. Sure, he had acquaintances in the business world, mates he’d met over the years, but no one he could truly rely on, no one he trusted like Reid.
The guy whose sister he wanted to root senseless.
In all honesty, Jack didn’t know why he’d set up this meeting today. They’d planned to catch up over a beer tomorrow before he flew out to Prince Island. But Jack hadn’t slept well last night. He’d been plagued by thoughts of Jess: her beauty, inside and out.
No woman had got close to him, ever. Yet in twenty-four hours she’d crawled under his skin until she was all he could think about. At this rate he’d be serving barbecue shrimp and pavlova at the wedding, simple Aussie fare, because damned if he could come up with any new signature dishes in the state he was in.
He’d thought getting laid might solve the problem last night but now? Having a one-night stand with some transient woman wouldn’t ease what plagued him. He had it bad. For Jess.
Guaranteed thirty minutes with Reid would clear his head so he could focus on what was important for catering this wedding—providing the best damn food.
That was the plan. He’d better stick to it.
“Mr. Harper will see you now,” Reid’s PA said, gesturing toward his office.
“Thanks.” Jack ignored the appreciative smile the coiffed blonde shot him and headed for Reid’s office, where he knocked twice before entering.
Reid had a cell in one hand, a coffee in the other and was talking into a Bluetooth clipped to his ear. He nodded at the sideboard for Jack to help himself to coffee.
Jack didn’t need caffeine. He was wired without it, but he poured himself a cup of strong espresso and waited for the up and coming senator to finish winning friends and influencing people.
Reid mouthed ‘
’ as the call continued, giving Jack time to finish his espresso and check emails on his cell before Reid finally lost the corporate paraphernalia and came around the desk to slap him on the back.
“Jack, how’s it hanging?”
“All good, mate. You?”
“Same shit. Different day.” Reid poured a coffee and sank into a black leather L-shaped combo set up in the corner of his gargantuan office. “Sometimes I wonder why I chose this crappy career.”
Jack sat opposite. “Because you’re good at what you do.”
“Spin shit and expect people to believe it?” Reid sipped his coffee and grimaced. “Don’t think I’m cut out for the campaign trail.”
Reid shook his head. “Just the usual muck-raking pricks who expect you to kiss ass at functions after dragging you through the dirt earlier in the day.”
“Glad it’s you and not me, mate.”
Jack couldn’t stand the fake schmoozing that must be part of Reid’s job on a daily basis. He had his fair share in the restaurant business, and dealt with celebs on the TV circuit, but he didn’t take shit from anyone and they soon twigged to it.
“Anyway, enough of my whining. Have you seen Jess yet?”
Damned if it took every ounce of Jack’s willpower not to slam the coffee cup onto the table and bolt.
“Yeah, we caught up at Burlesque Bombshell, had dinner last night.”
“Great. How is my sis?”
“Same as ever.”
Another massive lie. No way was the new, brash Jess anything like the quiet girl she’d once been. While it turned him on, big time, it also scared the shit out of him. He’d barely handled a shy Jess ten years ago. What hope did he have against a brash woman intent on seduction?
“Really? Too bad.” Reid shook his head. “I’d hoped living in Vegas for a while would help shake the funk she’s been in.”
“She seemed okay to me?” Jack ventured, intrigued to hear Reid’s take on how his sis was doing. Just because they couldn’t get physical didn’t mean he didn’t care about Jess’s welfare.
“Sure, she seems okay, but it’s like…”
Jack heard the concern in Reid’s tone. “Like what?”
“Like she’s so used to being the perfect daughter, the perfect fiancée, the perfect town good girl, she doesn’t know how to live any more.”
Interesting how Reid had echoed Jess’s reasons for cutting loose.
“I wouldn’t worry.”
Reid perked up. “Why? Did she say something to you?”
Jess had said a lot of things but none Jack could repeat to her brother.
“She seemed pretty jazzed to be planning the wedding. And I saw her out at that nightclub near the Bombshell.”
The tension in Reid’s shoulders visibly dissipated as he sank into his chair. “Good for her. Time she shook things up a bit.”
“Yeah.” Jack hoped his response didn’t sound as weak to Reid as it did to his ears. “She’s a good kid.”
Reid laughed. “You must be losing your touch if you think Jess is a kid.”
Flummoxed, Jack sat there, unsure how to respond. Was Reid implying he should notice Jess as a woman?
“Did she tell you we’re being flown to Prince Island to ensure the menu and rest of the wedding stuff is done?”
“No, we haven’t spoken this week.” Reid drained his coffee and set the cup down on a glass-topped side table. “Good to know she’ll be in safe hands.”
If Reid only knew…Jack’s hands were far from safe if they were wrapped around Jess.
The things he’d like to do to her…
“We’ll get the job done.”
“I have no doubt.” Reid stuck a finger between his tie and collar and loosened it. “Dorian would skillet you otherwise.”
Jack didn’t need reminding. Dorian Gibbs expected the best. In everything. Jack was convinced it was Dorian’s personal endorsement of Cookie’s that had kick-started his reputation and it had grown from there.
For the guy to fly him out here and give him carte blanche where the wedding menu was concerned? Dorian trusted him and no way would he repay that trust by screwing around with his wedding planner.
“We still on for that beer tomorrow?”
Reid shook his head. “Sorry. Meeting with my campaign manager has been slotted in. Can we have that beer at the wedding?”
“You mean you’re taking time out to actually go to that?”
Reid cocked his thumb and forefinger, and mock fired. “You’re just as much of a workaholic as I am, McVeigh.”
“Not as bad as you.”
“Makes for a shitty private life.” Surprisingly pensive, Reid rubbed the back of his neck. “You seeing anyone?”
Reid grabbed his cell, hit the calendar button and held it up. “With this schedule? No way.”
Jack could empathize. “Listen to us. A couple of sorry ass bachelors.”
Reid glanced at the calendar. “Unfortunately, this sorry ass has a conference call scheduled in five minutes.”
Reid stood and held out his hand. “We’ll definitely have that beer on the island, okay?”
“Done.” Jack shook his hand, wondering how willing Reid would be to have that beer if Jess’s plan to seduce him on the island worked. “See you in a fortnight.”
Reid looked blank momentarily before grinning. “That means two weeks, right?”
Jack snorted. “You’ve forgotten your Aussie lingo already. Going soft, mate.”
“Speak for yourself, big guy.” Reid held up his pinkie and let it droop.
Not that Jack would wish impotence on his worst enemy but he wished his cock wouldn’t stand to attention every time Jess glanced his way.
“Go schmooze some gullible Yanks, Harper.” Jack grinned and saluted.
“Go cook some Aussie bush tucker, McVeigh,” Reid said, his backslap reminding Jack of exactly how important this friendship was.
As he left the office, Jack’s resolve to keep his hands off Jess strengthened. He knew spending five minutes in Reid’s company would do the trick; would remind him it wouldn’t be smart to mess with something so solid and good.