Aftershock - Page 1

Author: Sylvia Day


“THAT MAN IS seriously hot. He can take my order anytime.”

I scowled at the television in my hotel room as I unpacked my toiletries. God knew why I’d tuned in to a midday talk show, but I certainly hadn’t expected to see the man I loved on the screen...or to listen to the glamorous hosts dish about how hot he was.

“Maybe he’s going to put voting booths in every Pembry-backed restaurant,” the other one said.

Shaking my head, I headed into the bathroom. Jax’s investment in Pembry Ventures still stung. I wasn’t sure I’d ever forgive him for fucking me over like that. Maybe I shouldn’t take it so personally, maybe it was just business, but there were some things you just didn’t do to someone you love and screwing up their job—an adored job at that—was one of them.

I was determined to uncover the reason why. And I was going to make him pay. Being in love with him wouldn’t change that. I wasn’t sure it changed anything.

I’d just hung my makeup bag on the towel rack when the room phone started ringing. Knowing I probably took a lot more time than Chad did to unpack, I expected he was ready to head down to see the construction site of his restaurant in the very same hotel we were staying in. The Atlanta Mondego was being turned into a destination with a capital D, and I would soon have the dust on the soles of my Jimmy Choos to prove it.

Grabbing the receiver off the bathroom wall, I tucked it into the crook of my neck and said, “Hey. You settled in already?”

“Gia, damn it. Turn on your cell phone!”

Jax’s deep, sexy voice slid across my senses, bringing with it a rush of heated and beloved memories. Something inside me tingled with pleasure that he’d gone to the trouble of tracking me down. Jackson Rutledge was a busy guy with his pick of women. Following me around the country was entirely unnecessary. And really flattering.

I leaned against the bathroom counter. “Newsflash—I’m avoiding you.”

“Good luck with that.”

My jaw tightened. So what if he was an animal in bed? So what if I was happy to hear from him? I was still mad at him. “I’m hanging up now.”

“You can’t run from me,” he said tightly. “And you can’t pull that shit you pulled yesterday. We need to talk.”

“I agree, but that usually means you tell me I’m only ever going to be a fuck buddy to you and you don’t give me any reasons why. I don’t have the patience to run around in circles. Unless you’ve got real answers for me, I’m not giving you any more of my time.”

“You’re going to give me a hell of a lot more than time, Gia.”

A shiver of awareness moved through me. I knew that tone of his. It was his I’m-going-to-bang-the-hell-out-of-you tone. “You wish.”

“I’m about to land, Gia. I’ll be at the hotel within the hour and you’re going to see me.”

“What?” My pulse gave a traitorous leap of excitement. My sex drive had been revved since I’d left him the night before. It was all too eager to cross the finish line. “I can’t believe you followed me to Atlanta! How the hell did you know where I was?”

“Your sister-in-law.”

Denise was going to be hearing from me. She knew better, which meant she’d done it on purpose. “Well, turn around and fly home again. I’m working, Jax. I don’t trust you to be around my work.”

His sharply indrawn breath told me I’d scored a hit.

“Fine,” he snapped. “I’ll send a car for you. We’ll meet at my hotel.”

“I’ve got stuff to do today. I’ll let you know when I have a moment, and I’ll find a neutral place for us to meet.” A bar, maybe, or even a shopping mall. Someplace where intimacy wouldn’t be a problem. Sadly, I couldn’t trust myself around him now that I knew how he felt about me.

“My hotel, Gia,” he reiterated. “A public place won’t save you. We’re going to fuck, long and hard, wherever we end up. Better we don’t end up in jail and splashed all over the tabloids while doing it, don’t you think?”

“You’ve really got to do something about that ego.”

“Baby, I’ll crawl on my hands and knees if that’s what it takes.”

It was my turn to suck in a deep breath. He knew how to get to me, how to open me up and leave me defenseless. I tried to do the same thing to him. “Tell me you love me, Jax.”

There was a moment of silence. “Loving each other isn’t our problem.”

He hung up, leaving me holding on to an empty connection. As usual.

* * *

“It’s finally starting to feel real,” Chad said, looking around at the construction area.

I smiled. “Good.”

He reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze. He’d met me at the site, wearing an open-collar dress shirt tucked into loose-fitting jeans. His auburn hair was just barely overlong, with the bangs draping across his brow and framing his stunning green eyes. No doubt about it, Chad Williams was a hunk.

He’d drawn a lot of female attention on the way in, but he hadn’t paid any mind to it. I hoped he would stay unaffected at least until the first restaurant opened. I’d seen more than a few chefs get too cocky from attention overload, and their businesses quickly suffered as a result.

“So what happens next?” he asked, turning to face me.

“The Mondego was just waiting for signed contracts to begin serious construction,” I explained. “The architect will revamp the initial design to accommodate three chefs. When we agree it works for you, we’ll sign off on it and they’ll get to work.”

“God.” He blew out his breath and grinned. “I can’t wait to see them.”

“We’ll get to look at the existing plans tomorrow, which should give us a good idea of how it’s going to be laid out. When we get back to New York, we’ll bring you, Inez, and David together to start hashing out the dueling menus. It’ll be good to come up with some regional variations based on hotel locations.”

Chad nodded. “How much say will they have in the whole process?”

“In their menus, a lot,” I said honestly. “We picked them for their talent and we need to let them do what they do best. But outside of that, you’ve got the ultimate say. You’re the celebrity chef here. They’re riding your coattails for now.”

His mouth twisted ruefully. “I hope that doesn’t cause any problems.”

“I suspect it’ll be easier than working with your sister.”

“Ha! No doubt.”

He joked, but I saw a hint of sadness in his expressive eyes. Things would’ve been better all around if Stacy had followed through and undertaken this endeavor with him. Jax had contributed to that breakdown between the siblings, which was ironic considering how much he did for his own family.

“Have you called her since the news broke about Rutledge Capital and Pembry Ventures?” I asked gently.

His mouth thinned. “Why? So she can gloat?”

“So you can congratulate her. You know, extend an olive branch.”

“She’d be an ass about it.”

“Maybe.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “But you’ll feel better if you do. And later on, when she comes around, you can hold it over her.”

That coaxed out a huff of a laugh. “I’ll think about it.”

“In the meantime, are you hungry?”

“Starved. Let’s eat.” He held his arm out to me and I took it. “There are a lot of great fried chicken and waffle places around these parts.”

“Waffles and fried chicken? At the same time?”

“It’s a delicious combination, sweetheart. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried it.”

“Sounds like it’ll kill me, though. Or at least help me pack on another ten pounds I don’t need.”

Chad lifted my hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles. “In that case, I’d help you take them back off.”

“You are a naughty man, Chad Williams,” I admonished, but with a smile. His harmless flirting was a nice contrast to Jax, who was entirely dangerous in every way.

As if he read my mind, he said, “For what it’s worth, Lei gave me the heads-up that you’ve got a thing going with Jackson Rutledge.”

I tensed, surprised, then realized Lei was right to have done that. Better to deal with any issues now than to have Chad find out later and feel that we deliberately kept something from him. “We saw each other briefly a couple years ago.”

“And now?” He glanced at me. “Is he the guy who sent you the flowers?”

“Yes. Now he’s...” I thought of him in his private jet, flying after me. Wanting to see me. Sleep with me. “He’s back in my life and involved in my business, which I don’t appreciate.”

“Which part? The life? The business? Both?”

“My business is my life,” I said as we exited out to the front drive and signaled our desire for a cab. “He can’t cause any more trouble for you, Chad. You, Inez, and David are set with Mondego. We’re rolling ahead.”

“Can he cause problems for you?”

“Don’t worry about me.”

He threw his arm around my shoulder and tugged me close. “Of course I’m going to worry about you. You’re my lucky ticket.”

I bumped my hip into his. “To what?”

“As if you don’t know, Gianna darlin’. Fame and fortune.”

* * *

I had to admit, the Southern fried chicken and waffles were damned good. I ate more than I should have and felt as if I practically waddled back up to my hotel room. The urge to take a nap was strong, but Chad and I were meeting with the hotel manager at three-thirty and I was worried I’d still be shaking off sleep fog. It wasn’t a major meeting, just a courtesy meet and greet over coffee, but business was business.

I opened my laptop and sat at the desk, sifting through my emails. I answered two from Lei about David Lee before opening the one from Deanna Johnson that I’d spotted the moment my inbox opened. I pulled my phone out of my purse and powered it on, punching in the cell number listed in the reporter’s signature line. I ignored the notifications of voice mails and texts from Jax.

“Deanna Johnson,” she answered briskly.

“Hi. It’s Gianna Rossi.” Her LinkedIn profile was open in one of the tabs in my browser and I switched to it, looking at her photo. She was a pretty brunette with long hair and dark eyes. She and Vincent had made a good-looking couple when they were dating, their dark coloring making for a visual sync. They hadn’t lasted long, but then, Vincent’s relationships rarely did. He liked having a steady girlfriend, but with the hours he worked at Rossi’s, he wasn’t a steady boyfriend.

“Gianna, hey. How are you?”

I leaned into the headrest and stretched my legs out, kicking off my heels. “I’m good. You?”

“Chasing a story, as always.” Deanna’s voice changed, became more focused. “Vincent says you wanted me to look into something...?”

“Jackson Rutledge.”

“Right. That’s what he said.” She blew out her breath. “Care to tell me why?”

“We’ve been...seeing each other.”

Deanna laughed softly. “An enigmatic millionaire with more secrets than dollars? I know the type.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose, knowing it’d be better for my sanity if I walked away. Also knowing I wouldn’t. “I just want to get a better handle on him. I need to know if I’m wasting my time even thinking about trying to make things work.”

“Probably,” she said bluntly. “What are you looking for? I’m not a private investigator, and there are a lot of books out there about the Rutledge family and its various members. Things like ex-girlfriends you can find with a Google search.”

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