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Authors: Sylvia Day

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BOOK: Afterburn
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Chapter 2

One year later...

“G
OD
,
THE
RUSH
,”
Lei said, her feet tapping beneath the dining table. “It never gets old.”

I grinned, having caught the bug from her over the months we’d been working together. We’d experienced a lot of highs, but today—a cloudless late-September afternoon—was special. After months of finessing and wooing, we were going to close a deal that would snag two of Ian Pembry’s brightest stars. Payback for what he’d done to Lei long ago and a major coup for us.

Lei had dressed for the occasion and so had I. Her Diane von Fürstenberg wrap dress was vintage and her signature red. Paired with black boots, she looked fierce and sexy. I debuted a dark gold shell snagged from Donna Karan’s fall collection and the cigarette pants the designer had paired with them. The ensemble was chic and reflected a new me, a Gianna who’d evolved a lot over the previous year.

Impatient to finalize everything, I looked toward the entrance of the hotel bar and felt a surge of adrenaline when the Williams twins appeared as if on cue. Brother and sister made a striking pair, with auburn hair and jade-green eyes. They were a great team in the kitchen, having made a name for themselves with down-home Southern cooking updated with gourmet ingredients. The package they presented sold deluxe books and cute little tins of seasonings, but the truth wasn’t so pretty. Behind the scenes, they hated each other.

And that had been Pembry’s fatal mistake with his dynamic duo. He told them to suck it up and make it work, because they were making millions off their sibling success story. Lei had offered them what they really wanted—the chance to split up and shine on their own, while still capitalizing on their supposedly playful rivalry. Her plan was to build a chain of restaurants with dueling kitchens in the world-famous Mondego casinos and resorts.

“Chad. Stacy,” Lei greeted, rising to her feet along with me. “You’re both looking fabulous.”

Chad came over and pressed a kiss to my cheek before he even said hello to Lei. He’d been flirting with me for a while and it had become part of our negotiations with him.

I’ll admit I’d been tempted to do more than flirt on occasion, but thoughts of his sister retaliating held me back. Chad wasn’t a saint by any means, nursing a fierce ambitious streak. But Stacy was a real piece of work and she hated me more than her brother. Despite all my friendly overtures, she’d taken an instant dislike to me and that had seriously hindered the whole process.

Personally, I suspected she was sleeping with Ian Pembry—or had been once—and was carrying a torch for him. I thought that was why she didn’t like Lei, either, but maybe she was just one of those females who hated other women.

“I hope your rooms are comfortable,” I said, knowing damn well they were. The Four Seasons didn’t have its five-star reputation for nothing.

Stacy shrugged, her glossy hair sliding over her shoulder. She had an angelic face, pale with a smattering of freckles that were adorable. It was disconcerting how someone so sweet and innocent-looking, with a syrupy Southern accent, could be such a raging bitch. “They’re all right.”

Chad rolled his eyes and held out my chair for me. “They’re great. I slept like a rock.”

“I didn’t,” his sister griped, sliding gracefully into her chair. “Ian kept calling. He knows something’s up.”

She slid a side glance at Lei, as if gauging the impact of her words.

“Of course he does,” Lei agreed easily. “He’s a smart man. Which is why I’m surprised he didn’t do more to keep you both happy. He knows better.”

Stacy pouted. Chad winked at me. Usually I didn’t find winking cute, but it worked for him. Part of his good-ole-boy charm that was tempered by how sexy he was. There was something about him that hinted he might spank you with a spatula as expertly as he cooked with one.

“Ian did a lot for us,” Stacy contended. “I feel disloyal.”

“You shouldn’t. You haven’t signed anything yet,” I said, having learned reverse psychology worked best with her oppositional nature. “If you feel that your identity as the Williams twins has more potential than being Stacy Williams, you should absolutely go with your gut. It’s got you this far, after all.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Lei’s lips twitch with a repressed smile. It gave me a thrill that she was pleased, since she’d taught me pretty much everything I knew about herding egos where we wanted them to go.

“Don’t be an ass, Stace,” Chad muttered. “You know this casino deal is a prime opportunity for us.”

“Yes, but it may not be the
only
opportunity,” she argued. “Ian says we need to give him a chance to deliver.”

“You told him?” her brother snapped, scowling. “For fuck’s sake, the decision isn’t just yours to make! This is my goddamn career, too!”

I shot a worried glance at Lei, but she just gave a nearly imperceptible shake of her head. I couldn’t believe how cool and unruffled she looked, considering this deal would be the one to finally even the score between her and her mentor-turned-nemesis.

The Hollywood eateries Ian had pulled out from under her went bust when the celebrity investors got over the novelty of it and went looking for other tax shelters that didn’t involve personal appearances. And two of his heavy-hitter chefs had gone back to their home countries, leaving a lot riding on the young shoulders of the Williams twins.

“The Mondego deal is exclusive to Savor, of course,” Lei said. “What’s Ian offering you?”

What the hell had gone wrong? I glanced between the two siblings, and then at my boss. I had the contracts in my lucky satchel under the table. We were in the home stretch and suddenly our prime bet was backing away.

Later on, I’d recognize the ripple of awareness that shimmered across my skin for what it was. At the time, I thought it was foreboding, my instincts warning me that the deal had tanked long before we’d sat down at the table.

Then, I saw him.

Everything in me stilled, as if the predator couldn’t see me if I didn’t move. He came into the bar with a sultry stride that made my hands curl into fists beneath the tablecloth. That walk of his was easy and smooth, confident. And yet it somehow signaled to the female brain that he was packing heat between those long, strong legs and knew how to use it.

God, did he.

Dressed in a gray V-neck sweater and dress slacks of a darker hue, he looked like a successful man with the day off, but I knew better. Jackson Rutledge never took a day off. He worked hard, played hard, fucked hard.

I reached for my water glass with a shaking hand, praying he wouldn’t recognize me as the girl who’d once fallen hopelessly in love with him. I didn’t look the same. I
wasn’t
the same.

Jax was different, too. Leaner. Harder. His face made more stunning by the new sharpness in the angles of his jawline and cheekbones. I took a deep, quivering breath at the sight of him, reacting to his presence as if I’d been physically struck.

I didn’t even realize Ian Pembry was walking beside him until they stopped at our table.

* * *

“W
HAT
ARE
THE
chances Jackson Rutledge is related to Senator Rutledge?” Lei asked with silky evenness as we slid into the backseat of her town car. “Or any of the Rutledges for that matter?”

Her driver pulled away from the curb and I fumbled with my tablet just to have an excuse to keep my gaze averted. I was afraid to reveal too much, that her perceptive eyes would see how shaken I was.

“One hundred percent,” I said, my eyes on my tablet screen and the gorgeous face I’d thought—
hoped
—I would never see again. “Jackson and the senator are brothers.”

“What the hell is Ian doing with a Rutledge?”

I’d been asking myself the same thing as the deal I’d worked so hard on fell apart in front of me—we’d come with contracts and pen in hand and left empty-handed. Unfortunately, I’d lost track of the conversation the moment Jax had allowed Stacy to press an exuberant kiss to his cheek. The roaring of blood in my ears had drowned out everything.

Lei’s crimson-tipped fingers tapped a silent staccato on the padded door handle. Manhattan spread out all around us, the streets crawling with cars and the sidewalks with people. Steam billowed sinuously from the subways buried below, while shadows claimed us from above, the sun kept at bay by towering skyscrapers that choked out the light.

“I don’t know,” I answered, slightly intimidated by the energy she radiated, that of a tigress on the hunt. Did Jackson have any idea what he’d stirred by getting in Lei’s way?

“Jackson’s the only one of the Rutledge males not serving in political office somewhere in the country,” I continued. “He manages Rutledge Capital, a venture capital firm.”

“Is he married? Any children?”

I hated that I knew the answer to that question without looking it up. “Neither. He plays the field. A lot. Prefers pedigreed blondes in public, but won’t turn down a roll in the hay with something...
flashier
in a pinch.”

I couldn’t help remembering how Jax’s cousin-in-law, Allison Kelsey, had once described me.
You’re flashy, Gianna. Guys like to fuck flash. Makes ’em feel like they’re banging a porn star. But that’s what turns them off, too. Enjoy him while it lasts.

Allison’s melodious voice and cruel words echoed in my mind, reminding me why I straightened my naturally wavy dark hair and had stopped maintaining the French-manicured acrylic nails that had made me feel sexy. I couldn’t do anything about the genetics that gave me an overly generous ass and big boobs, but I’d toned the rest of myself down, striving to be classy instead of
flashy.

Lei looked at me sharply. “You got that from a five-minute search?”

“No.” I sighed. “I got that from five weeks in his bed.”

“Ah.” Her dark eyes took on an avid gleam. “So he’s the one. Well, this just got interesting.”

* * *

D
URING
THE
REMAINDER
of the ride back to the office, I braced for Lei to tell me the conflict of interest was a problem. I scrambled to find a way to downplay it.

“It wasn’t serious,” I told her as we rode the elevator up.
At least not for him...
“More like an extended one-night stand. I don’t think he even recognized me just now.”

And hell if that hadn’t stung. He hadn’t even looked at me.

“You’re not a woman a man forgets, Gianna.” She looked thoughtful. “I think we can work around this, but are you up for it? If this is going to get personal for you, we need to talk about that now. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I also don’t want to put my business at risk.”

My first instinct was to lie. I wished Jax had meant as little to me as I had to him. But I respected Lei and my job too much to be untruthful. “I’m not indifferent to him.”

She nodded. “I can see that. Glad you’re honest about it. Let’s keep you on this for now. You’ll throw Rutledge off balance and we’ll need that. And you’re my in with Chad Williams. He likes doing business with you.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. She was wrong about Jax, but I wasn’t going to blow my shot by pointing that out. “Thank you.”

We exited onto our floor and were buzzed through the glass doors. The receptionist, LaConnie, raised her brows at me, obviously picking up on our agitated vibe. We should have returned triumphant, not frustrated.

“Any idea why Rutledge would have a sudden interest in the restaurant industry?” Lei asked, returning to her earlier question as we headed to her office.

“If I had to make a guess, I’d say one of the Rutledges owed Pembry a favor.” That was the way the Rutledge family operated. They worked together like a tightly knit team, and even though Jax wasn’t a politician, he still played the game.

Lei went directly to her desk and took a seat. “We’ll need to figure out what chip he’s cashing in.”

I caught the undercurrent of annoyance in her voice and understood it. Ian Pembry had been undermining Lei in countless ways for years, but Lei had bided her time—it had been a study in patience that she admitted had made her a better businesswoman. She was determined to prove she’d learned his last lesson in betrayal well and I was determined to help her.

“Okay.” I knew a little of what she felt. It still made me angry that I’d jumped into bed with Jax. I’d known who he was, knew his reputation, yet I’d thought I was sophisticated enough to take him on.

Worse, I’d deluded myself into thinking he cared. He lived in D.C.; I was in Vegas. For five weeks he’d flown out to see me every weekend and the occasional weekday. I’d told myself a guy as beautiful and sexy as Jax wouldn’t go through all that trouble and expense just to get laid.

I hadn’t considered how rich he was. Rich enough to find it entertaining to jet cross-country for a piece of tail and cautious enough to find it convenient that his inappropriate mistress was far away from both the public eye and his family.

My desk phone started ringing, and I hurried out of Lei’s office to answer it. My station was set up just outside her doors, making me the last barrier visitors faced before they had an audience with her.

“Gianna.” LaConnie’s voice came clipped and quick through the receiver. “Jackson Rutledge is in the lobby, asking to see Lei.”

I hated the way my heart gave a little kick over hearing his name. “He’s here?”

“That’s what I said,” she teased.

“Have him sent up. I’ll be around in a minute to show him to the conference room.” I placed the receiver carefully back into its cradle and then walked back into Lei’s office. “Rutledge is about to arrive at reception.”

Her brows rose. “Is Ian with him?”

“LaConnie didn’t say so.”

“Interesting.” She glanced at the diamond-encrusted watch on her wrist. “It’s nearly five o’clock. You can stay for the meeting with Rutledge or head out, your choice.”

I knew I should probably stay. I was already feeling like I’d lost ground by freaking out at the Four Seasons. I’d been too shell-shocked by Jax’s unexpected appearance to grasp how the situation with the Williams twins had changed. Sadly, I wasn’t in any better shape now.

BOOK: Afterburn
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