The Rules of Their Red-Hot Reunion by Joss Wood

CHAPTER TWO

LATERTHATMORNINGand back in her office at St Urban, Aisha stepped out of her heels and walked across one of the two Persian carpets in her office towards the bank of windows looking out onto the extensive vineyards. In summer they would be lush and green and in winter they’d looked like little old men resting their arms on wire strands. Right now the leaves were turning and falling, creating little pops of autumnal colour across the lands. Aisha knew Muzi’s company, Clos du Cadieux, rented the vineyards from Ro and she recalled reading about a rare, old country wine cultivar Muzi discovered on this property. St Urban, the property passed down to Ro by her infamous biological mother, Gia Tempest-Vane, was where Ro and Muzi fell in love.

It was a beautiful building, and the renovations to the centuries-old house were sensitively undertaken. When she brought the original handcrafted furniture back in, after having the pieces restored and French-polished, and replaced the cleaned paintings, the property would start coming to life. She could see it so clearly: luxury furnishings, amazing art, discreet staff on hand to fulfil the biggest or smallest wish, classical music piping through the common areas of the house, and the beautiful views of the vineyards and mountains enticing the guests to kick back and relax. She could make this place one of the favourite bolt-holes of the rich, famous, and stressed.

She just had to ignore Pasco Kildare while she created magic.

Aisha ran her hands up and down her arms, unable to stop thinking about Pasco. Man, he looked wonderful: sexy and strong. Ten years and a little maturity looked good on him. And just like that, she recalled his clever, mobile mouth on hers, the way he kissed. His large, skilled hands on her skin, how he could make her tremble with just one hot look. It had been so long ago, but it seemed like yesterday. She could still smell the scent of their small apartment when he cooked spaghetti bolognese, the rumble of their tired air conditioner, and the sound of taxis hooting at the crack of dawn.

Memories of their brief marriage bombarded her: their small apartment and the double bed they shared, the small desk tucked into the corner of the living room. Mismatched cutlery and crockery, the old, battered two-seater leather couch he’d found at a yard sale. The smell of his skin and the way his arms held her tight when they slept. He always groaned, then sighed when he slid into her always-willing body. He’d greet her, whether they’d been apart ten minutes or ten hours, by placing his hand on her lower back, pulling her into him—her shirt wrapped around his fist—as he plundered her mouth. He always kissed her as if he was never going to see her again and Aisha now wondered if he’d subconsciously known they would never last.

He’d been in love with his career and she’d been in love with the idea of being married, of being Pasco’s wife. At nineteen, lonely, insecure, and looking for attention, she’d desperately wanted to be at the centre of the family she and Pasco created, to walk through life with a teammate, someone who had her back, someone who made her the centre of his world.

She’d met him in a pub, immediately entranced by his innate confidence. He was the guy all the men wanted to be and whom all the girls wanted to be with. She hadn’t expected him to notice her, never mind spend the rest of the evening talking to her. He was a chef, he’d told her that night, but wanted his own restaurant, then a bunch of them.

She’d smiled at his ambition, liking the fact he knew where he was going and how he was going to get there. It took her a month to realise Pasco’s journey required fourteen-to sixteen-hour days, and another six months to acknowledge he was a workaholic and he had no intention of slowing down, not even for her.

Maybe things wouldn’t have been as bad if lack of time was their only problem, but she’d never been an equal partner in their marriage. Pasco didn’t play well in that particular sandbox. He refused to relinquish any control over anything. From finances to the future, Pasco had it all planned, and her input was either ignored or dismissed. And when she did push a point, he distracted her with sex or told her he was tired and didn’t want to fight, promising to make time for them to talk. He seldom, if ever, did.

It took a while, but she eventually realised they were driving Pasco’s car on Pasco’s highway and she was just along for the ride.

After a few dismal months of isolation and loneliness, interspersed with stunning sex, she finally realised she’d left one gilded cage to fly into another.

She’d been a needy, neglected, unseen teenager. And then she became a needy, neglected, unseen wife...

A bird flew close to the window and Aisha jumped at the sudden movement. She’d been lost in the past and she couldn’t afford to let that happen. She had to live in the world as it was, not how she wished it to be.

And that meant working with Pasco to establish Ro’s vision of a space to host fine-dining, pop-up restaurants. Ro was her client and keeping her client happy was how she was going to impress her boss and the board, and it was her path to promotion. Chief of Operations was as far as she could climb up the ladder of the family-owned business, and she’d be second in command. She could live with that.

For now. Aisha recalled Pasco’s demand for her to leave St Urban and snorted. His arrogance was breathtaking. But Pasco had never been shy to state what he wanted; his needs and desires were paramount. Ten years ago, his career took precedence over everything else, and she was expected to fall into line with his plans.

That wasn’t going to happen. She would not adjust her plans, change her course simply because he wanted her to, because he demanded it. She’d been raised in a passive-aggressive household—outright conflict was something the Shetty family avoided at all costs—but the subtle war of words, snide put-downs and coated-with-sugar insults had been just as brutal. In her years away from her family, and Pasco, she’d learned to be direct, say no, to push back and stand her ground.

She didn’t like confrontation, but neither did she avoid it.

Pasco wasn’t going to be able to manipulate her, manoeuvre her, distract her. She’d grown up, thank God.

Aisha tapped her lip with her index finger. This St Urban project was going to be trickier than most because the players in the game were all connected. Ro was married to the most influential winemaker in the country, someone who had an international reputation for excellence, and he was a close friend of the Tempest-Vane brothers. They were the billionaire owners of various companies, including The Vane Hotel, one of the best in the world. They’d used Lintel & Lily’s services before and were regarded as especially important clients.

And Muzi’s best friend was an internally acclaimed chef. And her ex-husband. Why was life punishing her like this?

Oh, and while she was questioning the universe, why couldn’t Pasco have lost his hair, got flabby and pasty? It was so damn unfair he was more attractive than he’d been as a young man.

At twenty-four he’d been rangy, a little thin, but some time in the last decade he’d packed on the muscle. His shoulders were definitely broader, his thighs thicker, his arms bigger and, yeah, sexier. The man worked out, that much was obvious, hard, and often. His light brown hair was sun-streaked, and he’d taken to wearing a couple of days’ growth on his lower face. Aisha wasn’t a fan of stubble, but Pasco’s scruff looked good on him.

His eyes, a deep, dark green and framed by short, dark stubby lashes, were as penetrating as ever. He was a harder, hotter version of his younger self and her body, dumb thing, wanted to get naked and roll around with him.

She was not going to be that stupid, she told herself. She would not jeopardise her career, her promotion, her dream for a man. She would never allow herself to be an afterthought, and she would put herself first. It had taken her years to become a confident and independent woman, and she’d never allow herself to be needy or insecure—unseen!—again.

If they were going to work together, and it was looking as if they were, they were going to have to decide on some rules. The first of which would be that she couldn’t fall for him again...

Number two would be for her to be an equal partner in the decision-making process, something she hadn’t been in their marriage.

Rules would give them boundaries, a box to work within, structure...

The trick would be to get Pasco, not a fan of being told what to do, to buy into the concept.

La Fontaine was Pasco’s second home and he adored Mimi, the woman who’d adopted Muzi when he was a kid, but, hell, he’d rather pull off his toenails with pliers than attend one of Mimi’s famous cocktail parties. But he’d promised her he would, and Pasco wasn’t one to break his promises.

Eight hours after running into his ex-wife, he parked his McLaren Artura—a gift from himself to himself—between a vintage Beetle and a classic Rolls, and rested his forehead on his steering wheel, fighting the urge to reverse and head back home. Or to go back to St Urban, find Aisha, and kiss her senseless. And then take her to bed.

He had to stop thinking about her; if he didn’t, he might go completely off his rocker. He didn’t want to be here, and neither was he in the mood to talk to his friends.

He most certainly didn’t want to smile and be the charming, successful billionaire restaurateur with a bunch of Michelin stars under his belt, the chef with the reputation for innovative food and the pursuit of perfection.

People looked at his life and thought it was wonderful, and it was, but, damn, they didn’t know what he’d sacrificed to be this successful, to attain his wealth...

They didn’t know he sometimes wondered—mostly in the early hours of the morning when he couldn’t sleep—whether it was all worth it.

A couple of years ago, Luka, his first mentor, passed away and Pasco flew home to attend his funeral service. He remembered his daughter’s eulogy, surprised to hear that Luka had questioned whether his long hours spent at the restaurant were worth it, whether he’d make the same sacrifices again to pursue his ambitions. His words hit home and Pasco started to think something was amiss in his own life. When he returned to Manhattan, the feeling grew stronger. He was no longer happy in the fast-paced city, his creativity was stunted, and he was going through the motions, stuck personally and professionally.

He thought that maybe it was time to pare back, slow down, try something else. Believing he might be burned out—so many years of working his ass off in the industry would do that to one—and sick of New York City, he’d sold his extremely successful and famous restaurant in Manhattan, expecting to feel better.

He hadn’t.

After taking a month off, bored as hell—deeply concerned he was living off his capital and wasn’t earning money—he started to regret selling Pasco’s, Manhattan. When Digby Tempest-Vane suggested he establish a fine-dining restaurant at The Vane, he jumped at the opportunity. Not content, he then launched a kitchen accessory line. Thinking he wanted to travel, he agreed to a six-part series to explore cooking cultures of the world and he’d thought visiting new places like Mongolia, Morocco and Réunion would make him feel whole.

It hadn’t. He had everything he wanted, but he still felt as though something was missing; something hovered just out of his reach.

Maybe he was the type of guy who would never be fulfilled, who constantly needed a new challenge to keep moving forward. Having a goal and working towards it was what he’d been doing since he was a kid, desperate to be the exact opposite of his completely useless father.

They looked exactly alike, and Pasco was often referred to as his dad’s mini-me. He was an almost carbon copy of him and Pasco hated it.

His father was why he was so driven, so desperate to prove himself, utterly determined to ensure he never placed the people he loved in a situation even remotely similar to the one Gerald had put them in.

With their doctor mother, and stay-at-home dad, they were seen to be a stable, solidly middle-to-upper-class family, but few people saw past the facade his dad showed to the world.

At some point in his childhood, Gerald decided to re-enter the workforce. But it wasn’t in his father to take a job, and to stick and to stay. No, he wanted immediate and quick success, a shedload of money in the bank as fast as he could get it.

And because he was impatient and impulsive, he reached for every shiny object that passed him by, latched on to anyone who could provide him with the opportunity to make a quick buck. If there was a get-rich-quick scheme out there, Gerald tried it, always using his wife’s salary to fund it. He also opened up numerous credit cards in her name, maxed them out, and then remortgaged their house. They lurched from crisis to crisis and Pasco remembered living with low-grade anxiety as a kid, constantly worried the sky would fall in.

As Pasco hit puberty, Gerald became increasingly desperate and massively irrational... And then everything fell apart.

Pasco pushed the memories away and rubbed his face, the back of his neck. His father had been good for one thing, he reminded himself. Every time he looked in the mirror he was reminded of what he didn’t want to be.

He’d vowed he’d never be poor, that he’d create a life of complete stability for everyone he loved. That he’d work hard for every cent he earned and he’d stay out of debt. His houses were all paid for, so were his cars, he had no credit-card debt. He had business debt, but it was manageable, under control.

Control was of paramount importance to him, and he did not trust anyone else to make decisions about his life or business.

He’d learned from his own and his father’s mistakes, and he’d never, ever repeat them. Failure was not an option.

Marriage? Tried that and failed. He’d fallen in love with Aisha and after her parents freaked out about their marriage—she was too young, it was too soon, she needed to finish her studies first!—he’d vowed to protect her. Everything he did, every decision he made, was to ensure she had a stable life, that she was financially secure, and would have a husband she could be proud of.

But, after hearing about his fantastic promotion, she’d thrown all his hard work into his face and killed their marriage with a three-line note.

He’d thought they’d be together for ever, but his instincts and judgement were flawed. Trust someone again, trust his instincts when it came to love? Not a chance in hell. As for working with Aisha? Well, when hell froze over. Muzi and Ro had pots of money, and, as Aisha had suggested, they could hire a new chef consultant, it didn’t need to be him. He and Aisha had had no contact for ten years so it would be easy to avoid each other for the next six months.

Pasco jumped at the thump on his car window and whipped his head around to see Muzi’s face staring at him through the glass. Sighing, he hit the button for the electric window and waited for it to descend. ‘What?’ he demanded, scowling at his oldest friend.

Muzi placed both his hands on the sill of the car and stared down at Pasco. ‘How did it go with Aisha? Everything sorted?’

That would be a hard no. ‘Not yet,’ Pasco replied.

‘Hell of a thing, running into your ex-wife...the wife you kept from your closest friends and, I presume, from your family.’

Pasco heard the bitterness in Muzi’s voice and winced. He pushed his hand through his hair, knowing he owed Muzi and the rest of his friends an apology. ‘Her parents reacted badly to our news, so we decided to keep it to ourselves for a while. We knew we’d catch flak for being impulsive, for marrying so young, be questioned about whether we’d done the right thing. It wasn’t something I wanted to disclose over the phone and that year was hectic for all of us, and we never made it back to the Cape. By Christmas we were divorced, I was living in London and I just wanted to put it behind me.’

‘And did you?’ Muzi asked.

He’d thought he had, but on seeing her again, hot and inconvenient attraction had come rushing back in, bold and bright. Aisha, then and now, affected him in ways no other woman managed to. And he didn’t bloody like it.

Muzi stood up and ran his hand over his face, still looking irritated. ‘You and I don’t keep stuff from each other, Kildare. That being said...

‘Look, I get seeing Aisha again is not ideal, but Ro needs both of you to get the restaurant up and running. She’s stressed, overworking herself. Her blood pressure is up, and the doctors and I are trying to get her to slow down, to relax. She won’t do that if she thinks you and Aisha are at odds, if she has to find a new executive chef or a new consultant to get St Urban up and running,’ Muzi added, his words coated with a layer of worry. ‘It sounds like Aisha is going to stick and stay. I need you to do the same.’

Uh...crap. ‘I know of at least three chefs who would jump at the chance to be involved in a pop-up restaurant at St Urban.’ Pasco machine-gunned his words.

Muzi bent down again and narrowed his eyes, his lips curling into a feral snarl. ‘Do not even go there, Kildare. You promised my wife your help and involvement and she’s counting on you. I’m counting on you. I’m already pissed off with you for not telling me you were married. Do not compound it by letting my pregnant-with-twins, stressed-out wife down.’

Ah...dammit. Muzi knew exactly what buttons to push. He started his car and sent Muzi a sour look. ‘Tell Mimi I’m sorry, that something came up.’

Muzi grinned and tapped the roof of his car. ‘Will do. Tell Aisha it was nice meeting her earlier.’

Yep, Muzi knew what buttons to push. Pasco’s father had let him down a hundred times in a hundred different ways and Muzi knew he’d never do that to the people he loved. And that was the only reason he was heading back to St Urban to talk to Aisha, to figure out a way for them to work together.

Returning to St Urban had nothing to do with him wanting to see her again, to let his eyes feast on her, to feel the pounding in his head, and groin. It had nothing to do with wanting to inhale her gorgeous scent, to discover all the ways she’d changed and the ways she hadn’t.

Nothing at all.