I don’t give a goddamn how gorgeous the redhead across the bar is, she’s trouble. Even from a distance I can smell it on her. There’s no other reason for her arrival than to create havoc.
Although I’m the only one that knows who she is.
Gwen Johnson, restaurant darling of the Chicago scene. Her place, smack dab in the middle of restaurant row called Fulton Market, has a six-month waiting list and wins rave reviews.
I could do better. I won’t. But I could.
While her arrival may be a mystery to everyone else, I’d known as soon as she walked in she was here for me. I’ve been ignoring her ever since.
Whatever she’s selling I’m not buying.
“Another Bud.” She curls her over-glossed, plumped-up lips into a smile.
I grab the bottle from the cooler and pass it to her before walking to the register to get her change. She’s pretty enough. Certainly fuckable. I can tell by our brief conversation she’s one of those eager types that will do anything for approval. I can work with that. Best of all, she won’t be a hardship to leave in the middle of the night.
The top contender on my list of tonight’s entertainment.
I don’t claim to be a nice guy.
In fact, the most common words to describe me are cold-hearted bastard. They’re not wrong. But the hard facts are, for guys like me, being an asshole doesn’t get in the way of sex. If anything, it improves my odds. Here’s the truth, women don’t like to admit it, but bastard beats nice guy every time. Without fail.
Because every woman who crawls into my bed believes she’s the one to change my evil ways.
I never lie. Never deceive. The first thing I do before I kiss a woman is to lay out how our time together will go down. I tell her I will rock her world, make her come harder than she’s ever come in her life, but before the sheets have cooled, I’ll be gone. The only thing I promise her is that I’m a one-night stand. That this will be our first and last time together. Then I step away and give her a chance to walk.
They never do.
Not my fault they don’t listen. Women hear what they want to hear, but that’s not my problem. It’s theirs.
I make no apologies about the fact that I’m a stone-cold bastard. I’ll ruin them for other men and leave. That’s my MO. Everyone in a hundred-mile radius knows it, and I can still grab any female in the place and be fucking her in five minutes flat.
Because they all want to believe.
So yeah, the woman with the long red nails is a contender. Only…the nightmare that walked through the doors is pulling at me, like an insistent tug at my back. I glance in the mirror over the register, scanning down the bar until my gaze locks with Gwen’s.
Like it did when she walked in.
Like it did when I locked eyes with her five minutes before.
That hair of hers is pulled back off her face in a high ponytail and still falls heavy halfway down her back. Down, it has to go almost to her waist, and I immediately think of what it would look like spread across the white sheets used by the nearest motel where I’m guessing she’s staying. Hair like that could only have been designed by god, but unlike other natural redheads she’s not pale, her skin is a light golden color. Her eyes a piercing blue, her lips full, her cheekbones high.
Her body is long and lean, her legs are endless.
I’m not going to lie.
Which is why she’s trouble.
There’s only one reason why Gwen Johnson would be deep in the heart of central Louisiana looking for me, and it’s got nothing to do with my cock.
Our eyes are still locked, and I realize I’ve been standing here for a full minute with the change in my hand, unable to tear myself away.
I shut the drawer and swing around to the blonde whose name I can’t remember.
And just like that, she’s off the list.
In fact, they’ve all fallen off the list.
I hand over her change, and she gives me a smile that speaks of seduction, and a ten-dollar tip. As though her generosity will sway me into taking her to bed. “Thanks, honey.”
I walk to the middle of the bar and put it in the tip jar. My Uncle Beau, owner of this establishment, and I are supposed to share, but he hands them all over to me whenever I work, claiming they’re mine anyway. I don’t protest. I can’t afford to.
Oh, I’m going over there.
I glance in the mirror again. She’s looking to the side, her neck long, her profile patrician and sexy at the same time. Not sure how she manages that one. As though she senses me, her head turns and our eyes meet.
She raises her glass and toasts me before downing the rest of her drink in one gulp.
The woman is daring me.
Beau puts a bottle of Maker’s in my hand. “Try not to break anything.”
“No promises.” I don’t give a shit what she wants but I’m not above taking her to bed.
I don’t say a word, just come to stand in front of her, and put the bottle down in front of her empty glass.
Then, there’s nothing but silence.
It’s Saturday night, the bar is packed. Music blaring, you practically have to shout to be heard, but between us you could hear a pin drop. Her eyes are such a startling blue they are almost hypnotic. I can’t deny they suck me in.
I’m curious about her game plan. She’s hardly the first person from Chicago, New York or San Francisco to track me down and make me an offer they’re sure I can’t refuse, and I doubt she’ll be the last. People never seem to understand I left for a reason—and if I wanted to go back to that life, I’d make a few calls and have my choice of offers.
What they say about me is true. When it comes to cooking I’m just as much an asshole as I am when it comes to women. I’m that talented.
It’s a talent I’m wasting, but it’s my choice, and Gwen Johnson isn’t going to change my mind. I don’t care how hot she is. The only question I really have is on her approach. If she’ll be direct and honest, or if she’s going to try and play me.
She still doesn’t speak, still doesn’t look away. A woman that looks like she does is used to guys salivating all over her and I’m ninety-five percent sure she’s waiting for my line to decide her strategy. So I refuse to give her one.
After we silently stand off for a good couple of minutes, and tension, so hot it’s almost tangible, thickens the air between us I pick up the bottle, pour her a drink, then turn away.
I expect her to stop me.
I’m looking for him to come work for me. To lure him back to the culinary world, attraction has no part in my proposal.
Back in Chicago, before I’d set out on this quest, I’d done my research. I’d scoured every inch of Google, looking for information on Jackson, learning everything I could about the man. Since he’s gorgeous, he’d been constantly photographed, and I’d seen a lot of pictures.
Not one had done him justice.
At six-four, his broad shoulders filled out the faded gray T-shirt he wore before tapering down to narrow hips. His jeans had molded to him like they’d been custom made for him.
And while his body rocked, it was his face that held me. Whiskey-colored eyes, high cheekbones, full lips, and dirty blond hair.
But his genetically blessed features aren’t supposed to matter.
Once hailed as one of the culinary masters of my generation, Jackson had worked under some of the top chefs in the entire world, including three star Michelin restaurants, before deciding, for some unknown reason, to drop out of society and become a bartender in the small town he grew up in.
The general consensus is that he’s a complete asshole, has a god complex, and is, unfortunately, a genius.
I didn’t get where I am in life standing by and waiting, so I’d come straight to the source.
Since I’m a planner, and I’d prepared for everything.
I’d prepared for his looks.
Prepared for the oozing sex appeal.
The bruising testosterone.
This is business. Hormones have no place in business.
Unfortunately, I did not prepare on my hormones disagreeing.
The sounds of music and the crowd at my back, I walk out into the gravel parking lot and take a deep breath, slowly exhaling into the night air.
Okay, I am not off my game. I just need to think for a second. Figure out my best strategy now that I’ve seen the devil in his eyes.
The devil I can handle, but that’s not all I saw.
I saw us. Tangled in sweaty sheets, and sex. So much sex.
Why is the universe messing with me? I need this guy to come work for me. How can I accomplish that when looking at him messes with my head? How can I control him and be his boss when looking at him makes me want to do filthy things?
Well, that’s not entirely true. I thought about hauling him across the bar and demanding he take me.
And that man has an effect on me. Too much. Completely out of proportion and illogical.
I need to talk. To figure this out. I pick up the phone and press Jillian Santoro’s number. She’s my best friend and knows every single thing about me; she’ll help me set this straight.
“I wish.” At the sound of her voice, I relax a little. She always settles me.
“So, how’s it going?”
I lean against my rental car and put my hand to my forehead. “Jillian, I’m in so much trouble.”
“What's wrong?” Her voice turns urgent. “What happened? Are you hurt? Do I need to come get you?”
“What about him?” She knows my plans. She told me I was crazy and helped me plan anyway. That defines our friendship that began as mischievous toddlers and has stood the test of time. She’s standing by me in this crazy scheme of mine, just like I stood by her when she was fixated on her now husband Leo even though I believed she’d never get him to cave. When he finally submitted to the attraction between them, I cheered her, happy to be wrong.
We’re cut from the same cloth, both prone to impossible dreams and we support each other despite logic.
I blow out a breath. “Oh my god, Jilly. I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
“What is happening?”
There’s ten seconds of complete silence before she slowly says, “What?”
“I can’t explain it but I took one look at him and my brain went haywire. I want him. I want him bad.”
I hiss. “It’s not funny. This messes everything up.”
“Gwen, you knew how hot he was—” Jillian lets out a sudden yelp and she yells, “Stop that!” There’s more rustling and another sharp cry before she comes back and says in an exasperated voice, “Sorry. Leo’s decided to take offense at me calling another guy hot.”
Since Leo is one of the most confident men I’ve ever met, I suspect he’s really in the mood to smack Jillian’s ass. They have a rather kinky relationship that’s quite interesting to watch. I’m pretty sure I haven’t gone to dinner with Jillian and Leo where she hasn’t had an orgasm at some point over the course of the meal.
I’ve gotten used to their shenanigans, but this isn’t the time for games. This is the time for focus. “Is he done? Because this is serious.”
“He’s done. I went into the bedroom.”
“You have my undivided attention, I promise. Tell me what happened.”
“Nothing happened.” How do I even explain this?
“Did you talk to him?” She still sounds far too amused for my liking.
“Um…” I roll my eyes at the ridiculousness of this situation. “Not exactly.”
“We kind of—well—stood across the bar and stared at each other for five minutes. Then we turned away and I called you.”
“That’s…” She pauses as though searching for the right word. “Weird.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” I shake my head. “It’s like when I look at him my ovaries take over my brain. Like something chemical.”
“Ah, chemistry. That is a problem.”
“I’ve done chemistry, this is stronger. A force to be reckoned with.”
I shake my head. “I don’t know. He’s not the kind of guy you play flirty games with.”
“What kind of guy is he?”
I have an image of him pounding into me and I do my best to block it out and focus. I swallow hard. “He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t even have to talk and you’re already dropping your panties. He’s ridiculous. He’s got some sort of evil pheromones. I don’t think there’s a woman in the bar that wouldn’t let him do despicable things to her.”
“Oh, one of those types.” Her tone is all serious now.
“Yes. And you know I’m not that kind of woman.” I’m not. I swear to god I’m not. I will get control over this. Just as soon as I talk it out of my system.
“I know.” Jillian understands I’m all business, especially when it comes to my career. My restaurant, and growing my burgeoning enterprise comes first, always. It’s how I became so successful in the first place. Men are a fun dalliance but they don’t distract me from my goals and Jackson McKay is my goal.
Jillian continues, “Guys are usually like that about you, not the other way around.”
I don’t deny it. “Exactly. Which is how I like it. I don’t have time for this.”
“I’m sure it’s uncomfortable, but can’t you fake it? Pretend he doesn’t affect you?”
“That’s a problem at the moment.”
“Why? You’re a fantastic actress.” I can hear the hint of amusement in Jillian’s voice and it frustrates me. “Do you remember when you were heartbroken in college over Alex? You were so cold he was begging you to take him back in a week. Just pretend, get your business over with and come home.”
If I can regroup, collect myself and get my body back under control, it could work. Next time I see him I’ll be prepared. All my boundaries shorn up.
“Okay, you’re right. That’s what I’ll do. Pretend.” I lower my voice and turn to the side to prop my hip against the car. “I’d let him bend me over the hood of this car in the parking lot. It’s…crazy.” Desire is beating away at me. It’s infuriating.
There’s a muffling over the phone and I narrow my eyes. “Are you laughing?”
She clears her throat. “No, of course not.”
She’s a liar.
“If it’s that bad. You could abort your mission.”
“No!” I can’t quit. I never quit. I’ve come all this way. I haven’t even tried. I refuse to walk away at the first hiccup. And it has to be him. Since I first concocted the idea, I’ve been one-hundred percent sure he’s the one.
The rational part of my brain imagines working with him, day in and day out, day after day, hour after hour. The image quickly morphs and I shut that line of thinking down when I see me spread across a butcher-block island and him between my legs.
I straighten and blow out a breath. “There’s only one thing I can do.”
“Go back to the motel, masturbate for about five hours, and come back tomorrow when I’m sane.” I mean, really there’s no other way. Once I take care of…whatever this is I’ll regroup, arm myself, and be ready to attack tomorrow.
“I will.” I hang up and turn.
He’s standing right behind me.
I don’t make a sound—don’t gasp in surprise—because I’m not surprised. Some part of me knew I wouldn’t escape that easily.
While I’m drinking him in, his gaze travels the entire length of me.
Despite the thick, humid air, I shiver.
When he reaches the length of my legs he shakes his head before working his way back up to meet my gaze.
Then we just stare.
“Or we could just fuck for five hours.” His voice slides over me, making everything worse. More acute. His voice is low and deep and Southern. Like warm honey pouring over my skin. His accent isn’t as strong as the others, probably because of all the time he spent in cities, but it’s still there. Still thick enough to send a shiver down my spine. He takes another long, slow once over. “Maybe ten.”
Beads of sweat break out along the base of my spine. I think about my plans. My restaurant. How I want him to work for me. How I want to be his boss. How he’s the kind of man where business and pleasure don’t mix.
He narrows his eyes. “Probably not, darlin’.”
My knees actually weaken at the word darlin’, an endearment no city man can get away with, but on this man sounds exactly right. Like it’s designed especially for his lips to use on me and me alone.
The last bit of my rational brain tries to remind me that Jackson McKay is a notorious womanizer. That he likes sex but not women. But I can’t hold on to the thought with desire burning through me like a fever.
I try once again for sanity. “I should go.”
“You should.” He takes a step toward me, and when I don’t move, he takes another, and then another. I’m tall, five-eight to be exact, but he’s much taller. Much bigger. The heat of his body engulfs me. Rolling off him, lapping at my skin.
I can’t explain it. It’s like he’s a clawing need inside me.
He reaches for me, wraps his hand around my neck, and when he touches me it’s like an electric shock through my system.
He must feel it too because he mutters, “Christ,” under his breath. His gaze dips to my mouth. “Stop me or bent over this car is exactly where you’re going to be.”
I finally understand how a drug addict must feel.
All I can think is, the hell with it. I’ll be good tomorrow. This one little transgression won’t matter. Tomorrow I’ll get back to being a ruthless businesswoman, but tonight I need him.
In this moment my lust obliterates everything, making me believe if I can feel him inside me, my head will clear and I’ll get back on track. That I can either let this own me, but that by sleeping with him, I’ll own it. That one time is all I need to get back my control.
And, like every bad song and book ever written, I believe it.
I tilt my head, my lips part, and he lays claim to me.