Jo Davison impatiently tapped a finger on the tabletop. Tricia was late. Again.
Sighing, she used her tapping finger to wipe at the beads of water that had accumulated on the glass of soda with a twist. She tilted her head as if she was intent upon what she was doing, but instead, she managed a quick glance at the man sitting at the end of the bar. He was looking back at her.
Jo picked up the glass and took a sip. Then another. I’m not going to do this, I’m not.
However, the man was irresistibly attractive. She’d noticed him as soon as she walked in. He was the sexiest man she had seen in a long time. At least 6’ tall, dark haired, and dressed all in black, which would have been a cliché on most men, he exuded an understated elegance most could never achieve in their wildest dreams.
Jo looked at her watch. Tricia was expected to be late by 15 or 20 minutes and her friends always took that into account. They had arranged to meet here at Casey’s at 7 and it was now 8:00. This was late, even for Tricia. This time Jo drummed all four fingers on the scarred wood.
How long was she supposed to wait? They had planned to meet for a drink and a bite to eat before going home. Jo had laundry to do, plants to water, TV to watch. She and Tricia had been best friends since kindergarten, but Jo was tired of always waiting for her. Time to teach the girl a lesson.
Jo reached for her purse. When Tricia finally showed, she could do the waiting. Chances were, Tricia had forgotten all about their plans to meet. She was probably already at her apartment, settled in for the night, glued to the TV show Jo should be watching right now. Jo paused. That wasn’t like Tricia, though. She always ran late, but she never forgot.
Unthinking, she looked in the direction of the hunk and froze. She hadn’t wanted him to know she had noticed him. She didn’t want to encourage any attention from him. After Noah Blakely, she didn’t think she’d ever look at a man again, but now that she’d found one to look at, she didn’t think she was ready to deal with it. But the past six months had been lonely and—
Stop it! Jo settled back in her chair.
He smiled. Not a shit-eating grin, as Tricia would call it, the kind that said, oh, baby, I knew you couldn’t resist me. No, this grin was small, mysterious, a little tilted to one side. Then he inclined his head, a nod that said he noticed her noticing him.
Jo’s heart jumped in her chest. Other body parts reacted, too. It was unthinkable that one little grin from a stranger could make her pulse race, her breathing deepen, and her body throb—things she had managed to suppress or ignore for nearly six months now.
She really wasn’t ready to play the dating game again, but how many more lonely nights could she take?
One more, anyway. Just as she had for the past six months, she took them one night at a time. This man was too much of a stranger. She knew everyone else in Casey’s. If she didn’t know them personally, she knew of them. In a place like Casey’s, a stranger stuck out like a neon light.
Jo had never seen him before and that was reason enough to stay away from him. She didn’t return the smile. Clutching her purse, she stood.
Before she could take a step, the front door swung open and who should enter but Noah Blakely and his new girlfriend, the bimbette he had dumped Jo for. It had been six months…well, longer than that because he had been seeing the bimbette on the side for who knew how long. Jo had never asked and didn’t want to know. Secretly, she had hoped it wouldn’t last, but they were still together. Jo already knew this. In a town like Shadow Valley, word would have reached her if they’d split.
Even though Noah had been a jerk about the whole thing, Jo couldn’t help but think of all the plans they’d made. They had wanted a spring wedding, three children three years apart, and if they kept to a budget, they could open their own business within five years.
After a time, she had come to realize that those were her plans and Noah had just gone along with them. Why had he pretended to share her dreams when all he wanted was a blonde bimbette with dark roots and a bad boob job on his arm?
The saddest part was that she hadn’t bothered to move on. It had hurt so badly, she never wanted to chance being hurt again. Now, six months later, Noah was enjoying his life, and Jo was stagnating in the past.
No man on her arm either.
She had been incredibly lucky up until now in that she hadn’t run into Noah. He had never liked Casey’s and felt that the establishment was beneath his station in life. She should have known her luck would run out one day. How could she walk across the room, knowing that Noah and Bimbette would think she left because of them? How could she move in any direction without drawing attention to herself and the fact that she was alone?
Movement at the bar caught her eye. The hunk had stood and set aside his half-filled glass.
Jo turned in his direction and plastered on a big smile. She hurried to the end of the bar and when she drew near, his black brows rose in question. He looked startled. Next, he would look shocked. Laughter bubbled up inside her. She had never done anything as impulsive and daring as what she was about to do.
She threw her arms around him and leaned in close, whispering in his ear. “Play along, please. I’ll explain later.”
Then she kissed him.
He might have been shocked, but he kissed her back.
Now, it was Jo’s turn to be shocked. His lips willingly slid over hers and his tongue delved between them, sweeping through her mouth. He went above and beyond the call of duty when his arms encircled her waist and his hands slipped down the small of her back to cup her rear, fingers pressing into her flesh. He drew her closer with one sharp tug, her hips buffeting his, and she shuddered at the intensity of her response.
Her body melded with his. She was all too aware of his erection, hard and hot, pushing into her, seeking entrance between her thighs. Jo felt as if he was making love to her right there, in front of Noah and everybody, through their clothing.
“Jobina? Is that you?”
The sound of Noah’s high-pitched question, as if he couldn’t believe he’d found her in the arms of another man, brought her back to her senses.
The use of her full name annoyed her. She preferred Jo and Noah knew it. Slowly, she pulled away from the stranger and unlaced her fingers from his hair. She licked her lips, savoring the lingering taste of wine and something salty she couldn’t identify.
He loosened his hold enough for her to turn, but he didn’t release her. She looked at Noah and Bimbette.
“Oh. Hello, Noah,” Jo said, leaning into the stranger, one arm still curled around his neck, her fingers playing lazily with his long, ink-black hair.
At first, she was only aware that something was missing, that she felt lighter and happier than she had in a long time. Then it hit her. She was looking at Noah with his arm around Bimbette and she didn’t feel anger, confusion, or hurt. The only thing she felt was the loss of the 3 years she had wasted on a man who cared nothing for her.
The petite blonde, nestled under Noah’s arm, was looking at the stranger as if she wanted to swallow him whole. No doubt she did. She’d already taken one man away from Jo, but it wasn’t going to happen again. Jo’s protective instincts came out. “Hello, Bimbette.”
Her beady eyes narrowed and her lips thinned as she turned to Jo. “My name is Babette, as you well know. Let’s go, Noah.”
Bimbette, Babette. Close enough, Jo mused silently, biting her lip to keep from giggling.
“Just a minute, honey buns. It wouldn’t be polite to leave before we’re introduced to Jo’s friend,” Noah said. He wore the fake smile, the one Jo recognized as a cover for his anger.
What did Noah have to be angry about?
Jo glanced up at the stranger. He seemed bemused by the exchange. One of his hands rubbed her lower back, an intimate, possessive act. She’d have to thank him for that later. If he wasn’t too upset over how she’d put him on the spot, she would like to thank him over and over again. All night long.
The thought of spending the night in his arms created an unbearable wet heat between her thighs. It was all she could do not to squirm against him.
“Vincenz Cristescu.” The stranger’s voice was as rich and smooth as warm, dark chocolate, and lightly accented.
Jo smiled up at him. He was better than any man she could have fabricated to get back at Noah—tall and gorgeous with a sexy accent. She forced herself to look away from the mysterious depths of his intense dark eyes. They were darker than brown, but not the black of his hair or clothing. A hint of amber edged both inner and outer rims of the irises.
“This is Noah Blakely, an old friend, and Bim-uh, Babette Warren,” Jo said.
Babette shot daggers at her, but Noah eyed Vincenz as if to take his measure. “Vinchen- What kind of name is that?” he asked abruptly, frowning.
“Vincenz Cristescu.” Vincenz pronounced the words slowly, as if Noah were mentally challenged. “A very old name.”
“Hmmph,” Noah intoned and wrinkled his nose distastefully. “Been in America long?”
Another mysterious smile curved Vincenz’s lips, as if he were amused by a private joke. “Yes, many years.”
“How long have you lived here in the Valley?”
“Noah, really,” Jo admonished.
“Well…” Noah drawled, taking the hint. “Babette and I stopped by to have dinner. Why don’t you two join us?”
Jo shook her head. “I don’t think—”
“Jobina and I have other plans for the evening.” Vincenz ran his other hand lightly down her arm, then entwined his fingers with hers. The gesture and the tone of his voice implied those plans were for them alone. “Don’t we, my love?”
He didn’t say anything more. It took a few seconds for Jo to realize he was waiting for her answer. They all waited for her answer.
“Oh, yes,” Jo agreed, looking up into his amber-black eyes again. She added impulsively, “And it’ll be a long evening...”
“We thank you,” Vincenz said politely. “Perhaps another time.”
“Perhaps,” Noah echoed sourly.
Babette pulled on Noah’s sleeve even though she couldn’t take her eyes off of Vincenz. “Let’s go, Noah. Now!”
“Please do, Noah,” Jo said. “We don’t want to keep you from your dinner.”
“Well...” Noah drawled again, as if he was reluctant to leave Jo alone with this man. “I guess.”
“Noah, they said no. Let’s go,” Babette snapped, but her eyes flashed invitingly at Vincenz.
Standing beside Babette, Noah couldn’t see all the flirtatious signals Babette was giving off. Jo felt a sense of smug satisfaction. Noah had gotten what he deserved.
“It was nice meeting you,” Noah said stiffly. He had manners, but Noah was obviously peeved.
“The pleasure was mine,” Vincenz said with not a hint of anything but courtesy. His manners were impeccable and Jo beamed.
“Jo, it was good to see you again.”
“You, too, Noah. Babette.”
Babette pulled a face at Jo, flashed another beguiling look at Vincenz, then pulled Noah away. Noah kept glancing back at them as they walked to a table. Jo looked up into Vincenz’s eyes. His mouth was kissably close to hers. She was tempted.
“I suppose you can let me go now,” Jo said instead.
Vincenz looked over her shoulder then deeply into her eyes again. He ran a finger down the side of her face, along her throat. “He’s still watching, but I can if you want me to.”
Jo didn’t want him to. She thought she wanted to stay in his arms forever. She thought forever didn’t sound nearly long enough.
“I’m sorry about all that. It’s a long story, but Noah and I were engaged at one time.” She took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. The whole thing seemed so unimportant now. “He broke our engagement because he’d been seeing Bimbette, I mean Babette on the side.”
“I thought it must be something like that. Do you think they were duly impressed?” he asked, but there was a hint of laughter in his tone and his eyes sparkled.
“If they weren’t impressed, they should be. I know I was.” Jo wrinkled her nose. “I know it’s silly. When I saw them walk through the door, I didn’t feel like facing them alone. I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologize. It was my pleasure to rescue a lady in distress. Shall we leave now?”
They walked across the room and out the door, and Vincenz’s arm never left her back. It was a little thing, but not even Noah had been that attentive.
Outside, the refreshing air promised rain, and Jo drew in several deep breaths. The night sky was barely visible because of bright street lights, but she stared overhead, watching dark clouds roll and tumble as a storm gathered. She didn’t want to, but she moved away from his touch. She could think more clearly with distance between them.
“I was waiting for my friend Tricia. We made plans to meet for a drink and quick dinner, but I guess she forgot. She usually runs late, but not this late.” Jo finally turned to look at him. “Thank you for playing along inside. It was a silly thing to do and seems pointless now.”
“Pointless?” Vincenz echoed, and his voice was even smoother and dreamier than it had been inside. “If your ex-fiancé hadn’t come in, you would have left without giving me a chance to speak to you. I owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Jo was glad of the night because the heat rose in her face and he wouldn’t be able to see her blush. He took a step toward her and this time the back of his fingers lightly brushed her cheek. If he felt the extra heat infused in her skin, he didn’t say anything. She closed her eyes and moved into the pressure, like a cat would arch into a petting hand.
Abruptly, Jo pulled away. He had been helpful, but he was a stranger. Visions of spending all night in his bed disappeared. She didn’t sleep with strangers. Since Noah, she didn’t sleep with anyone.
“I don’t think Noah would appreciate the obligation,” Jo said.
“Let’s forget Noah, shall we?” Vincenz took another step closer and their bodies were separated by a mere inch. Maybe less.
She looked up at him. He was tall, but so was she. He was tall enough that she could look up into his eyes, but their mouths were still close enough to kiss without strain for either of them. Noah was about the same height as she. Shorter if he was barefoot.
Jo gave herself a mental shake. Vincenz was right. She needed to forget Noah and concentrate on the gorgeous man in front of her.
And then Vincenz kissed her and all coherent thought fled her mind. It was a slow, sultry, sexy kiss, unlike the brazen display inside. This kiss promised intimacy, romance, passion, everything her heart desired. Vincenz’s kiss was all she’d ever wanted and more.
And that was why she pulled back before she was swept too far into the promise.
“I don’t know you,” she said, the only excuse she could think of. She couldn’t tell him she wanted all the things his kiss told her she could have, but she was afraid.
“Vincenz Cristescu,” he said and bowed. “Pleased to meet you.”
Jo laughed. “I’m Jobina Davison, but please call me Jo.”
“Jo. A boy’s name.” He eyed her up and down, and it felt like a caress. “You are certainly no boy.”
She laughed nervously. “Vincenz. Are you ever called Vince? Vinnie?”
“Never,” he said solemnly.
“Is it Italian?”
“Oh.” Jo shook her head and sighed. “Jo Davison is about as Anglo-Saxon as it gets.”
“Now, we have been introduced, we know one another’s heritage, and we have kissed. Twice. May I take you to dinner?”
“That sounds like a great idea. But not here.”
“No, not here. There’s a nice place on the other side of town.”
“I know it.” There was only one other decent restaurant in town besides Casey’s. Jo had heard that’s where Noah and Babette frequented. By avoiding that place, she had avoided Noah until tonight. “I’d rather not. Noah and I used to go there. Too many memories, if you know what I mean.”
Vincenz nodded thoughtfully.
“Well, we can get Chinese take-out and...” Jo began.
That left the problem of where to eat. His place or hers. She would feel safer on familiar ground, but her place held memories, too. She should have already moved to a new apartment.
She should have already moved on with her life.
“You know, I’m really not hungry. Can’t we just go to your place?” she finished.
His mouth curved into that sexy smile, the one he’d given her at the bar.
“If you’re sure.”
It was time to make the leap, time to put Noah firmly in the past where he belonged. Even if the evening was nothing but conversation or a one night stand and she never saw Vincenz again, it would be what she needed to jumpstart her life.
Jo took a deep breath. “I’m sure.”
Babette Warren stared at the greasy, tattered menu and fumed. She wasn’t stupid. She knew why Noah had dragged her to this dump—Jo Davison. Jo avoided the Golden Circle, the nicest restaurant this hick town had, because Babette and Noah often ate there. And Noah was perverse enough to come to Casey’s and find pleasure in Jo’s discomfort. His plan had back-fired, though. Jo Davison had already found herself another man.
And what a man. Vin-whatever oozed sex. Babette got all hot and wet just thinking about him. How had she overlooked that delicious stud in this small town where you couldn’t help tripping over people you never wanted to see again? And how had that dull Jo Davison managed to snare him?
Taking him away from Jo would be as easy as taking Noah had been. Yes, she was certain the handsome hunk had looked her over once or twice even while he manhandled Jo.
Babette glanced at Noah. He wasn’t bad looking, but he was a mongrel compared to the pedigreed Vincenz. She thought maybe she’d been shortchanged in the deal.
“They acted like old lovers, but I know better,” Noah was saying. “I’d have been informed if Jobina had started dating again.”
Babette frowned behind the menu. Taking Noah away from Jo Davison had been easy enough. She wasn’t the first woman Noah had on the side during his engagement, and she wasn’t deluded enough to believe that if he asked her to marry him, he would be faithful to her. Noah was a means to an end. As long as she ended up with Noah’s wedding ring on her finger and access to his bank account, she didn’t care how many women he kept on the sly. Unfortunately, Noah hadn’t asked her yet, so she had to be very careful.
Noah grabbed her wrist and forced her to snap the menu down on the table. “Do you know anything about this character?”
“I have.” Noah frowned, but didn’t loosen his grip on her. “Vincenz Cristescu bought Shadow Manse six months ago.”
Babette hid her surprise. She should have known Noah would have already gathered information on any stranger who waltzed into the Valley throwing big money around. Noah liked to think he had his finger on the pulse of the town. He had people at all levels who kept him well-informed. Noah had lofty aspirations, intending to work his way up through politics at the local level, then the state level, all the way to the presidency.
She didn’t think he had a snowball’s chance in hell. But late at night, when she allowed herself to dream a little, she liked imagining herself as First Lady. Her little fantasy included a male intern in the same room where Bill did Monica.
“Did you know he drives a Maybach 57?” Noah asked, and Babette could hear the envy in his voice.
Noah let her go suddenly, and his face pinched into a look of disgust. “If only you knew as much about automobiles as you do the latest fashions.”
Babette knew clothes. She got down on her knees and thanked God every night for the internet and eBay. Without the world’s largest auction, she would never be able to have access to the expensive designer clothes her body had been tailored for. It was also the reason the family estate was mortgaged to the hilt and she was in debt up to her carefully tweezed eyebrows. All that would be taken care of when she married Noah.
“The Maybach 57 is made by Mercedes-Benz and retails for over three hundred thousand dollars.”
Babette’s radar went off the screen. Why was she diddling around with Noah when she could be rolling in some real money? Vin-whatever. Hell, she’d take lessons to learn to pronounce his name. She’d call him Vinnie and everyone could just call her Mrs. Moneybags. The first thing she’d do, though, is convince Vinnie to sell Shadow Manse and get the hell away from here. New York. Or L.A. London, Paris, Rome. Every city she ever dreamed of shopping in would be at her disposal.
“I’m going to keep digging around,” Noah said, his voice gruff with anger and jealousy. “Nobody can have that much money and not have something to hide.”
Babette reached over and patted his hand. “Don’t you leave for your insurance convention on Sunday?”
“Sunday afternoon. Why?” Noah asked suspiciously.
“It’s just that I miss you already, sweetie,” Babette cooed. Noah visibly relaxed, but Babette hardly noticed. She was trying to decide which designer dress Vinnie would like best.