Authors: Louisa George
‘And the worst. I didn’t make a big splash on the documentary scene by finding the nicer parts of people’s stories. Sadly, dirty laundry sells.’
‘And there seems to be a lot around.’ She nodded. ‘Sometimes people plain forget that I’m there in their homes. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve seen and heard.’
‘You want to bet? I’ve been on the road with rock stars. I reckon I can beat you hands down in the shock stakes.’
Slowing her pace, she looked at him, that teasing and breathy voice becoming harder to ignore. ‘Oh? Try me. A gory story smackdown. Excellent.’
Now this could get interesting. ‘What does the winner get?’
She looked up at him for a few moments, blue eyes piercing, as if trying to read his mind. Oddly disconcerting. Because he could have sworn that she understood exactly what he was thinking. ‘Winner gets...the satisfaction that they won?’
‘I tell you, there is no competition. I’ll win.’
‘You like to win? You do seem the type.’ Her mouth curled up at one corner. ‘And you have that self-satisfied look already. How about this? Once I was serving dinner in a famous actor’s house. But he was having it away with a guest upstairs, while his wife was downstairs tasting my crème brûlée.’
She tapped her nose. ‘My secret. Confidentiality. I’m like a doctor with the Hippocratic Oath. Only not as clever. Or as...doctory.’
He couldn’t help the laugh bubbling up from his chest. She was...well, she was just surprising. Warm and soft and smelling like a candy shop. ‘Doctory? A technical term?’
‘Obviously. My eldest sister, Suzy, is training to be a surgeon and she’s very doctory. You know—bright and dedicated and compassionate.’ They stopped at a crossing and waited for the red light, turned right past an old church on to tree-lined cobbled streets. One of the older and prettier parts of the area, a little more rundown than his mews, but nice enough. ‘Okay. Your turn. Beat that.’
He sifted through the tales and memories of the last few years. Difficult to pick one that was funny and shocking but not too sordid. ‘Threesomes, foursomes, wife-swaps. Drugs and alcohol. You name it, I’ve seen it or heard about it. But the strangest? I was once on tour with a band and the lead singer developed an explosive habit.’
‘What do you mean? Drugs?’
‘No. He blew up—literally detonated—something in every venue. Toilets, drum-kits, seats. He liked the poeticism of shards, apparently.’ Jack shook his head. ‘Okay, yes. Probably drugs.’
‘Really? Blowing things up? Bizarre.’
‘I don’t know; I’m thinking. I must have something to beat that. Foursomes? Really? I don’t even want to know how that works out.’ Finally she came to a halt outside a row of neat terraced houses with window boxes that had brightly coloured plants trailing over them. A vivid splash in an otherwise unimaginative backdrop. Kind of like her.
She rooted in her satchel, tutted. Dropped it to the ground and spilled the contents out, handing bits of paper, a can opener, lipgloss to him as she searched, her fist getting lost amongst tissues and things he barely even recognised and surely should not be in a woman’s bag. Was that a spanner? Eventually she pulled out a bunch of keys. ‘Got them! Right. This is me. Number twelve. First floor. It’s not much but it’s home.’
These were renovated apartments in a decentish part of town. No wonder she was struggling to find the rent. ‘You live here on your own?’
‘Yep. It was always meant to be a work-from-home kind of thing with... Never mind.’ Her shoulders hitched.
‘Are you talking about paring knife man?’ And why the hell he’d even asked and burst the first pleasant bubble of conversation they’d managed all evening, he didn’t know. It was none of his business and in his haphazard personal life he always—
—stayed away from backstory. Unlike in his films, where he liked the present to be filled with regret and melodrama and lost chances. People searching for the whole happy-ever-after lie that littered cheap novels and rom-com films. The pursuit of all that filled his subjects with a hope that was rarely realised. Hell, it made addictive TV. Won awards.
She bit her bottom lip, then flashed him another of her smiles. This one was unconvincing. ‘Okay, well, thanks for walking me back. I’ll be fine from here. Have a safe walk home.’
‘He broke your heart?’ She’d already changed the subject but he wouldn’t let her get away with it.
Cassie sighed as she shoved everything back into the Tardis-like bag. She blinked away a wisp of bitterness or sadness or just plain hurt and hid behind that enduring mask of cheerfulness. ‘Absolutely not. He broke my bank balance and that’s a whole bigger sin in my book. I’m over it and, make no mistake, I’m never going there again.’
He still wasn’t convinced. ‘You sure about that? What about the gooey-eyed romance thing? The wedding catering? Isn’t it your job to believe in all of that?’
‘For someone else, sure. My sister. Your sister. Everyone else. But not this sister.’ Her finger pointed to her chest and he had no doubt that she believed it. Somewhere down the line she’d change her mind, but for now? He was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
The scent of her whirled around his head; the passionate tone to her voice, the fighting back, her chaos even, stoked something deep in him. The determined look in her eyes did nothing to dampen the fizz of something electric whizzing round his veins; if anything, it just made it stronger.
With a shock he realised he wanted to crush her against the wall and kiss her.
Turning to go up the steps, she waved. ‘So call me when you’ve spoken to Lizzie and we’ll sort out the menus.’
Like hell he was going to let her go that easily. ‘And so now you’re what? A nun? You don’t do this ever?’
‘Do what?’ She paused.
‘I want to claim my winner’s prize.’ Where in hell did that come from? He didn’t know or care. The need to feel her mouth against his swelled inside him.
‘What? We never agreed on a prize.’ But the heat in her too-blue eyes told him she was just as interested as he was. If not for that he’d have walked right away. If not for that? And the fact she was a beautiful woman. And he was drawn to her in a way he hadn’t been drawn to any woman in a long time. If ever. Which was why he should have taken her lead and walked away too. Put that sexy sway to the back of his mind, those pink lips, those dark navy eyes. The nagging feeling in his head that blared alarm bells.
He made it up the first couple of steps towards her. At her frown he stopped short. Her mouth was inches away.
All he had to do was reach out.
* * *
‘Jack.’ It was meant to be a warning. A definitive
. But it sounded like a whimper. Worse, it sounded like an invitation. And maybe it was. Cassie didn’t know. Didn’t know anything really except that this man had stirred something in her that had long been dormant. Which was equal parts thrilling and scary. Actually, it was scary as hell.
Before she could breathe again Jack was in front of her, all six feet plus of impressiveness, his scent of heat and man filling her nostrils. His hard body...there. The open-necked shirt revealing just a little of a tanned chest that she suddenly wanted to touch, his smile finally now almost blossoming.
The street seemed to fade out a little as her vision narrowed to just him. His hand was on her cheek, the lightness of his touch making her heart stutter. The intensity in his eyes causing her abdomen to contract with a need she hadn’t expected.
This was utter madness. A choc chip short of a cookie. How could she want to slap him and kiss him at the same time? He was pompous and a giant pain in the ass yet she wanted to kiss him.
No. No. No.
No. This couldn’t be happening. But the more he looked at her, the more intense this urge to taste him grew.
‘What’s this?’ His hand had moved across her cheek. She should have walked away, but that glittering in his eyes made her legs refuse to move.
She found her voice, but it wasn’t her usual one. This was filled with desire, reedy, coarse. Husky. And speaking was difficult through a throat so dry and a mouth so wet. She ran a finger across her face and looked at the sparkles on her fingertips. ‘It’s gold dusting from the fairy castle. Wait, I’ll just wipe it off. I can’t believe I’ve been wearing it all evening and you didn’t mention it.’
‘Fairy dust? I like it. Let’s just say for once I do believe in fairies. Even if they are a little on the manic side. And possibly crazy. And definitely disorganised.’ His fingers closed around her hand and he pulled it away from her face. Then he stroked the glitter on her cheek.
Blood pounded in her ears. She opened her mouth to speak but he shook his head, his finger touching her lips and stoking that need with an extra helping of urgency. His delicious dark voice whispered along her neckline, ‘I want to claim my prize and also win a bet with myself.’
‘Oh? What’s that?’
‘That just for one second you will be still.’
He stepped closer and the scent of him caressed her, the sound of his ragged breathing stoked a fire in her belly. The heat in his eyes connected with something feral, something wild inside her. Her mouth watered at the thought of how he might taste. She put her hands out to keep a distance but her fingers curled into his shirt as if manipulated by some weird instinct that she just could not fight. ‘I can do still.’
‘Show me.’ Then his tongue licked along her bottom lip—and heck if she wasn’t frozen in place under his touch. Just the merest caress of his skin against hers had her anchored to the spot. All logic fled her brain and her body took over. Her eyes fluttered closed as that need swelled inside her. Hands held her shoulders as he dipped his head, his tongue moving over her mouth, gently teasing it open. Slowly. Achingly slowly. Every cell in her body jumped and danced but she didn’t move, not one inch, save for a stuttering breath and a heart that threatened to pound out of her chest.
Then, unable to resist any longer, she opened her mouth to him. He tasted of danger. Intense, unfettered heart-pounding danger. And, as if that was all the encouragement she needed, she pressed against him, deepening the kiss, arms curling around his neck, breasts brushing against that hard wall of muscle. His hands cupped her face, his kiss urgent but soft, taking and giving. But it was far from sweet. It was rash, it was hot, it was everything she expected from him—and yet so much more. His tongue stroked against hers and deep in her gut she burnt bright white heat, her belly tightened.
This was purely physical. Nothing more. But for once it was so good to feel the warmth of strong arms holding her, making her believe that for a small selfish moment she didn’t have to face everything on her own. Making her forget everything. Apart from this. Him.
His mouth traced a trail of kisses to her neck and she heard herself moan. Then he pulled her closer, groaning against her neck. The heat intensified to molten lava coursing through her body.
‘Let’s go upstairs,’ he murmured.
Upstairs. The old Cassie would have jumped at the chance. She was on the verge of agreeing when cold reality slammed through her. She had to go upstairs to the flat she could barely afford and make her peace with her spreadsheet. She could not invite a man into her space to distract her from her goal. However good a kisser he was. However much her hormones rallied against her in some kind of sexual guerrilla warfare.
And then she was pulling away, her brain a muddled blur of wants and shoulds and reasons not to. That had been one hell of a mind-melding kiss. All rational thought had abandoned her. ‘No. Look, I can’t. I need to go.
‘Yes. Yes, of course.’ And to be honest he looked a little unsettled too. Which gave her the tiniest amount of pleasure. Who’d have thought a kiss could rumple a man like Jack?
She sighed, rather too seductively for her liking because that was so not her intention. ‘I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. It’s not the right time.’ And if she was ever going to get involved with anyone in some parallel universe where she could actually trust a guy, it wouldn’t be him. It would be someone who didn’t do brackets, someone less bossy. Someone...her heart squeezed...no one.
‘I’m not looking for forever.’ The heat in his eyes began to dim. Fading. Fading...
She shrugged, wishing the light would dim inside her too, but it blazed too brightly. ‘Me neither. But I’m also not looking for this.’
And the light was gone...over and out. Stepping back, he shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘You sure about that? A kiss? Some fun?’
‘I’m sure. Totally sure. Definitely. Absolutely one hundred per cent sure.’ Once again she was saying words and hoping that she’d damn well soon believe them.
He stood, mouth half smiling, with a bewildered look in his eyes which made him even more attractive. How easy it would be to take a chance. To say: to hell with everything. To kiss that confused look into something hotter and sexier and satiated.
So tempting to drag him up to her flat by the lapels and forget about the promises she’d made.
But she turned and forced her feet up the pale stone steps, let herself into her apartment and steadfastly refused to look out of the window to see if he was still standing there. Part of her secretly hoping he was still there—and wishing him gone at the same time. Pouring herself three large fingers of cooking brandy, she took a long drink to try to erase the delicious taste of him. Swallowed a handful of chocolate-coated cherries. The last delicious red velvet cupcake. Feta cheese squashed onto a cracker. God, if she carried on like this she wouldn’t fit into any of her clothes. Then she’d truly be the naked chef. Not a pretty prospect.
But it was no use. Jack was still there, with her, on her. There was no way she’d be able to make sense of those numbers on her spreadsheet now.
See? The infuriating man had messed up her timetable along with her resolve.
Looking around at her shabby but well-loved kitchen, she decided to do the only thing she knew that could relax her. So she set to work weighing and mixing, whisking egg whites and sugar and vanilla essence by hand until her arms hurt and she’d finally steadied her breathing. It took a while for her head to feel clearer and almost back to normal again as the scent of soft meringue cooking slowly in the oven filled the kitchen. But she knew it would take even longer to douse the heat zipping through her. She shouldn’t have let him walk her home. Shouldn’t have kissed him.