I remember how put out she sounded on the phone, her voice full of irritation. The first indication I’m most likely going to screw this up.
Hell. I cannot screw it up.
And then there’s the stupid bet. Matt sends me the occasional email asking on my dating situation. Hell, he haunts my Facebook page, probably just waiting for me to change my status from “single” to “in a relationship”.
As if I ever would do that. I know his ass is watching. I won’t give him the satisfaction.
The front door opens, letting in a gust of cold air that chills my skin, sends a rush of awareness through me that nearly steals my breath. She enters the dimly lit restaurant, windblown and gorgeous, her curvy body covered by a black coat. I greedily drink her in as Ivy pushes wild strands of long dark brown hair away from her face, her gaze searching the room before those pretty hazel eyes light upon me.
I work to keep my expression neutral, my mouth curving into a subtle closed-lip smile, but inside I burn.
She smiles in return, though it’s faint, and the sight of it is like a punch to the solar plexus. I wait impatiently as the hostess takes Ivy’s coat before leading her to my table.
The way Ivy moves captivates me. Sinful and sexy yet with an innocent air, her h*ps sway as she heads toward me, the skirt of her black dress swishing about her legs. The dress covers her completely, but I know exactly what it’s hiding beneath the clingy fabric. All I can think about is slipping my hands beneath her skirt so I can touch her thighs. I remember the first time I touched them, how they trembled. How smooth her skin was . . .
“Sorry I’m late,” she says as she sits quickly, not giving me time to stand and greet her like I want to, with a hug. I wanted another chance to get my hands on her again, however briefly.
Ivy smiles up at the hostess as she pushes the chair in for her before hurrying away. “My meeting took much longer than I anticipated,” she explains apologetically. Always polite, though I see the strain around her mouth, in her entire expression. She’s uncomfortable being with me. I get it.
I don’t like it, but I get it.
“Trying to keep me on my toes?” I raise my brows and she frowns.
“I didn’t do it on purpose, Archer.” She exhales shakily. “I’m not interested in playing games with you.”
“I don’t want to play games with you either, Ivy,” I say. God, I wish I could reach out and touch her. Rest my hand on hers. Tell her how much I miss her.
She sounds breathless, which makes my body twitch. Reminding me how breathless she’d been the last time I saw her—naked. How she begged for more when I had her pinned beneath me, her body shaking as I made her come with my name falling from her lips.
Having her sitting in front of me after not seeing her for a month is like a shock to my system, leaving me tongue-tied. Frozen. She picks up the menu, oblivious to my dazed stupor, and smiles when the waitress approaches, ordering a glass of wine.
“Want another beer, sir?” The server’s cheerfulness grates.
“Yeah,” I bite out, scowling at the waitress just before she hurries away. I catch Ivy sending me a secret smile as she shakes her head. Makes me wonder if she thinks I’m some sort of joke or something. The way she looks at me, like I amuse her.
Better than sending me the cold glare of death, which I suppose I deserve after how I’ve treated her since we were together.
“You look good,” I say, my rough voice startling her from her quiet perusal of the menu.
She flicks her gaze up, those pretty eyes meeting mine. “It’s . . . nice to see you too, Archer.” Her voice is the stuff of my wet dreams, low and melodic. “Have you already ordered?”
“I was waiting for you.” Damn, does she think I’m a total rude bastard or what?
Most likely—you are, after all.
“Oh. Well isn’t that sweet of you.” She checks out the menu again, biting her lip as she looks over her options. The restaurant’s packed, the buzz of conversation a low hum that falls away the longer I watch her.
What would it take to get back into her good graces? What do I have to prove?
The waitress reappears, snapping me from my thoughts, and I order the steak while Ivy orders seared scallops. The server takes our menus, promises our drinks will be ready in minutes and then leaves us alone.
Ivy watches me expectantly as she takes a sip of water, the delicate gold bracelets on her arm jingling with the movement. “So tell me about this job and why you need me so badly,” she says, getting right to the point.
I toy with my empty beer bottle, unsure how to start what will surely be an awkward conversation. It’s going to take everything I have not to blurt out why I really want her to work for me. “I’m opening a new location.”
A little smile teases the corners of her lips. “I saw.”
“Where? Ah, let me guess. Online.” Her gaze meets mine and I stare at her, probably looking like a lovesick fool. She nods in answer, her gaze cutting away from mine, and I feel oddly defeated. “It’s in Calistoga. I’ve been in negotiations on the property for a while and at one point it almost fell through. But I finally put the deal together and we’ve been doing a quick renovation on it the last few months.”
“So you knew about this when you—when you showed Hush to Gage and me?” Her smile disappears when I nod. “Why didn’t you tell us about it?” She sounds shocked.
“I’ve been keeping it a secret. I didn’t want anyone to know. Most details about the location are pretty limited and I made sure of that. I don’t want anyone to know what we’re offering to our guests until we open.” I shrug.
“So now the new resort is almost ready?” She’s studying me like I’m crazy, which I probably am.
“Two months, give or take.” I shrug.
“So why are you here when you should be back in Calistoga supervising the remodel?”
Here comes the tough part. The stuff I don’t want to admit for fear she’ll laugh in my face. “I wanted to meet with you,” I say, my voice stiff.
“You came here for the sole purpose of seeing me?” She sounds incredulous, visibly swallowing as she reaches for her water glass, her shaking hand making the ice rattle against the glass when she sets it down. She looks nervous.
Welcome to the club. I’m nervous. And women don’t make me nervous.
With the exception of Ivy.
“This project is important. I want you by my side, Ivy, working with me.”
“I—I don’t understand where this is coming from. You’ve never come to Paxton before. You haven’t even seen my portfolio.”
“I saw samples of your work online.” Everything’s online, both a wonderful and scary thing. “Your portfolio is on the Paxton website.”
“Oh,” she says weakly, settling back in her chair, her shoulders sagging, her lips parted as if she wants to say something but can’t come up with the words. She looks like she’s in a state of shock. “Wha—what did you think?”
“Of your work? It’s amazing.” Giving into impulse, I reach across the table and grasp hold of her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I know we’ll be the perfect fit, that you’ll be the perfect fit for Crave. Your sophisticated touch is just what the suites need.”
“I—I don’t know, Archer. What you’re proposing is coming so out of left field, I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know if I can answer.” She presses her lips together and shakes her head. “I have to talk to Sharon and see what she says, but I can already guess.”
“What do you think she’ll say?” It won’t matter. I want Ivy on this project and I will pay and do whatever it takes to make that happen.
“She won’t let me work on the project. She’ll want it.” Exactly what Gage pointed out, not that I’m surprised. In fact, I’m fully prepared, having already called Sharon and proposed my suggestion.
I’m not quite ready to admit the outcome of that conversation.
The waitress magically appears, interrupting what I might’ve said next by setting our drinks in front of us and I release my grip on Ivy’s hand. We both thank her, our smiles polite and false. I see the way Ivy sneaks glances at me. Like she thinks I might’ve lost my mind.
I probably have.
The tension that has been brewing between us returns tenfold the moment the server makes her escape.
If I wasn’t so damn agitated I might find it amusing, how Ivy took such a big gulp of wine, nearly draining her glass before she leans across the table. “You just can’t come out of nowhere and demand I work for you, Archer,” she whispers. “I answer to someone else. I just can’t up and do what you want me to at the snap of your fingers.”
“I already have approval from your boss.”
Her eyes widen in shock. “What?”
I nod slowly. “I spoke with Sharon earlier. Explained my situation, how much I appreciate and am inspired by your talent, and knowing how busy she is, I would love to hire Paxton Design to work on this project for me. With the sole purpose of having you lead it.”
She sucks in a harsh breath. “So I’m working for you.”
“She cleared your schedule for the next two weeks. It’ll be an intense, rushed job, but I know you can do it.” I do. She’s smart. Her employer had nothing but wonderful things to say about her, not that I’m surprised. Ivy is amazing.
So amazing, I can’t stop thinking about her.
“What if I don’t want to be a part of this project? What if I don’t want to work directly with you?”
Damn, not the answer I expected from her. “Does it bother you?” Pausing, I study her, drinking in all that dark hair waving past her shoulders, her beautiful but shrewd gaze, her lips pressed together as if she’s afraid she’s going to say something she’ll probably regret. “We’ve already done this, Ivy, and we were pretty damn compatible. Would it be such a hardship, having to spend time with me?”
Her jaw drops open, and she glances around as if she wants to make sure no one’s listening before she leans across the table. “If you’re implying that I’m going to have sex with you, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Been there, done that, don’t want to go through with it again.”
“Ouch.” I rub my chest, surprised by her words. Why, I’m not sure. I asked for them for saying all that. “Harsh.”
“It’s the truth,” she retorts, draining the last of the wine in her glass. “God, I need a refill.”
“I’ve made some mistakes. A lot of mistakes,” I correct myself when she narrows her eyes, looking ready to blast me. “The biggest one is how I’ve treated you. I’m sorry I haven’t called or contacted you since we were last together. I’ve been—busy.” And too chickenshit to make the first move.
She rolls her eyes. “Like I was sitting beside the phone waiting for your call. Please, Archer. Don’t flatter yourself.”