The Rules of Their Red-Hot Reunion by Joss Wood

CHAPTER THREE

FURIOUSWITH PASCO, and emotionally and physically exhausted, Aisha decided to leave St Urban and head into Cape Town, thinking that sharing a pizza with Priya would be more fun than spending the night in her new cottage and brooding.

After changing into jeans and a lightweight jersey, she tossed her jacket onto the passenger seat and pulled on her seat belt before plugging Priya’s address into her GPS. Although she and her third oldest sister talked often, she hadn’t seen her in real life for over five years. It was hard to meet when one of you bounced around the world and the other had two small children, a husband, and a busy career as one of the city’s best paediatricians.

She and Priya had always had a strong bond and Priya was the one who had knocked her other sisters back in line when she thought their teasing went too far. Priya had never given her Christmas gifts designed to fix her—self-help books, literary classics, or gym memberships—and had never called her the loser sibling as her other sisters often had. She was the one who Aisha had called when she’d needed a ride home during her rebellious phase, who had loaned her money when her parents had punished her by withholding her allowance, the only person who hadn’t made her feel like a complete fool when she’d asked for help understanding compound fractions.

After the huge family fallout five years ago, Priya was all the family she had.

It would be good to catch up, play with the kids, to get to know her husband, Oscar, a bit better. To feel as if she wasn’t completely alone in the world...

Aisha started her car, pulled away, and started down the tree-lined driveway. As she approached the bridge crossing over the small river, she saw the lights of another car approaching her and frowned. St Urban was private property—no one else was supposed to be on the grounds, so who was this person, and what did he want?

A little nervous, Aisha stopped and locked the doors to her car. She watched as the car stopped on the other side of the bridge and killed its lights. She watched as the car door opened upwards—fancy!—and sighed when she recognised the long-limbed figure climbing out of the vehicle.

Kildare.

Exactly the person she didn’t want to see. Aisha pushed her head into the headrest and sighed again. She knew she couldn’t avoid Pasco for ever, but she’d hoped for a little more time to get her head straight, her raging emotions under control. Nobody, before or since, had affected her the way Pasco did. He made her incredibly angry and sad, and horny and hot and frustrated...

Pasco stopped in the middle of the bridge, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, and stared at her, his expression unreadable. He wore black trousers, trendy trainers, and a soft-looking sweater the colour of thick clotted cream. The sleeves of the sweater were pushed up his strong, muscular forearms. He was strong and sexy and looked oh-so-unhappy to see her.

There was a time when his eyes warmed when he laid eyes on her, when his standard greeting was a no-holds-barred kiss, before gifting her with an I’m-so-damn-happy-to-see-you smile.

That was then, this was now.

He’d come halfway across the bridge and his actions suggested she needed to meet him there.

All she’d wanted to do was to go to her sister’s place, eat pizza, drink wine and chill, catch up. She did not want to go another round with Pasco Kildare.

But she couldn’t go forward—his car was blocking the road—and she couldn’t retreat because she didn’t want him to think she was avoiding him. Her only option was to leave the car and talk to the damn man.

She’d far prefer to drop a concrete block on her foot.

Sighing, Aisha picked up her jacket and left the car. The sun was setting, the temperature was dropping so she pulled on her leather jacket and wandered over to where he stood.

‘Things are dire when you have to block the road to get a girl to talk to you, Kildare,’ she told him.

‘Don’t flatter yourself. I was coming, you were leaving, and we can talk here as easily as we can at St Urban.’

Typical Pasco, she thought. The time and place suited him, but it didn’t suit her. ‘I’m actually on my way to meet someone so can we talk some other time?’ She turned to walk back to her car. Pasco needed to learn the days of her rolling over at his command were long over.

‘Got a date?’

A frisson of excitement ran up her spine at the hint of jealousy in his deep voice, and Aisha fought the urge to spin around. After counting to ten, then to twenty, she slowly turned and looked up into his moss-green, forest-deep eyes.

‘Yes,’ she lied without hesitation or a smidgeon of guilt.

Pasco’s jaw hardened and his lips flattened. ‘Tough.’ An owl hooted and he turned his head towards the sound, his eyes scanning the trees.

‘I’ve decided to help set up the restaurant and am considering Ro’s offer to be the guest chef for three months when it opens. I’ll send you an email as soon as possible concerning the kitchen equipment specs, what decor I want, the layout.’

Again, he was making assumptions without her input, just as he used to do when they were married. ‘That’s not going to work for me,’ she told him, lifting her chin.

‘Why not?’ Pasco demanded.

‘I’m not your lackey and I don’t take orders from you. Secondly, I don’t want to work with you,’ she told him. ‘I’m going to convince Ro to find another chef to consult on the restaurant.’

Pasco’s frustration-filled eyes collided with hers. ‘You will do no such thing.’

‘Newsflash, you’re not the boss of me.’ Really, who did he think he was trying to boss her around? His sous chef? One of his waitstaff? Arrogant jerk!

‘Ro is stressed and being stressed isn’t good for her or the twins. When she hears we can’t work together she’ll worry and then Muzi will rip off my head.’

‘I don’t really care what happens to your head,’ Aisha told Pasco.

‘But you do care what happens to Ro,’ Pasco quickly responded.

Dammit, he had her there. Though she’d only just met her, she liked Ro and she didn’t want any harm coming to her or her babies.

‘Look, I want to work with you even less than you want to work with me, but Muzi is my best friend and Ro means a lot to me. I try not to disappoint the people I love.’

His words were an arrow straight through her heart. ‘Except that you had no problem hurting me!’

As soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she could pull them back. She sounded every inch the wronged and bitter wife. Dammit, she shouldn’t be feeling anything for him, not after such a short relationship so long ago!

‘Hey, you were the one who left me!’ Pasco told her, his voice rising.

‘And it was so easy for you to let me go!’ Aisha retorted.

What was it about this man that made her temper bubble, her tongue fly? Her childhood home was a shouting-free zone—her professor parents preached dialogue and discussion—and she never lost her temper at work, but Pasco managed to blow every one of her fuses. How was she going to be able to work with him if all they did was shout and/or snipe at each other?

Aisha folded her arms against the chill of the autumn night and looked up at the swathe of stars above her head. It was a beautiful night, and she was in the company of a beautiful man, but one who despised her.

She couldn’t blame him for that—she did walk out on him without warning, leaving him a note explaining nothing. If he’d done that to her, she would still be angry too.

At the time she’d known that if she’d tried to explain her thoughts and feelings, explain that he didn’t see her, that she needed time with him, he’d either kiss, charm, or persuade her into staying. She’d tried to talk to him, but he always deflected the conversation or distracted her before she managed to convey the depths of her unhappiness. And on the rare occasions she had managed to get her point across, he’d made no effort to give her the time she’d so desperately needed.

Talking and staying was a habit, and she’d broken that cycle with a note and by actually leaving.

The past was the past and nothing could be changed. But she could get a handle on what was happening now. Especially since the stakes were so damn high. If she did a good job at St Urban, she’d get a promotion. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t, and she’d stay where she was, spending months and months in strange countries. Another shot at promotion wouldn’t come any time soon, if it came at all.

Just calm down, Shetty...and think!

Ro is your client, and she wants Pasco to work with you. You can’t ask her to choose between the two of you because, if you did, you’d probably lose. Pasco is her husband’s best friend and it seems Ro and Pasco genuinely like each other.

If you want to work at St Urban, then you have to work with Mr Annoying. Also known as Mr Annoyingly Sexy.

Shaking off the thought, Aisha decided she had to treat Pasco as she would any other consultant.

But with stricter rules.

‘We need to establish some goalposts, guidelines...’ God, what was she trying to say? ‘We need to work out the rules.’

‘Rules?’ Pasco asked, his expression derisive.

Aisha dropped her hand to nail him with a hard look. ‘Yes, I know, you are a hotshot chef who doesn’t think rules apply to him, but with our history and if we are going to be working together, then we need some.’

‘There’s only one rule...’ Pasco told her, hands on his hips. ‘Do what I want, when I want it, and we’ll get along fine.’

Had he changed at all? If she had to judge by that comment, then he hadn’t, not even a smidgen. Aisha clenched her fists, her fingernails digging into her palms. She hoped he was teasing her, but in case he wasn’t she couldn’t back down, be seen to be weak. If she did, Pasco would gobble her up and spit her out. Not happening. ‘You really should see somebody to talk about your delusions of grandeur, Kildare.’

She saw a gleam in his eyes she didn’t like but decided to ignore it. ‘That tongue of yours has got sharper, Aisha Kildare—’

‘Aisha Shetty. I dropped your name as soon as I could.’

Pasco responded with a mocking smile. He slid his hands into the pockets of his trousers and raised his dark eyebrows. ‘Why did you come back here, Aisha?’

‘What do you mean?’ Aisha asked him, confused by the swift change of subject.

‘Did you do some research, find out that I am good friends with the Miya-Matthewses and apply for the job to establish St Urban to edge your way back into my life?’

Aisha snorted, amused. But then she realised he was being heart-attack serious. Seriously? ‘Why on earth would I be interested in doing that?’ she demanded, her tone terse.

‘Ten years ago, you left me because I was a poor sous chef, and couldn’t give you the life you wanted, the life I promised you, but I’m not poor any more. And I have contacts within the hospitality industry that would be valuable to you, people like the Tempest-Vanes, and other hoteliers all over the world. Hooking back up with me would be a smart move.’

Did he really believe she left him because they lived in a tiny flat and because money was tight? How could he think that? She would’ve lived in a tin shack with him, anywhere in the world, if he’d given her a little attention, some of his time. She opened her mouth but yanked the explanation back. The statute of clarifications had run out a long time ago.

‘So, I’m back for your cash and your contacts,’ Aisha mused. ‘Interesting.’

Seriously? Could he be any more arrogant if he tried? She didn’t think so.

Aisha felt the long roll of annoyance, the slow, acidic burn of anger. But because she knew disdain was far more effective than screaming, she sent him a below-zero smile full, she hoped, of pity. ‘Yes, of course, I’m here because of you. And only you. My being here has absolutely nothing to do with the fact I am Lintel & Lily’s best consultant, on track to be the youngest chief of operations ever appointed. Obviously, my studying my butt off to get my MBA and the years I spent in the field gaining experience in establishing hotels all over the world was all because I have this decade-long master plan of returning to the Cape and sliding back into your life!’

She patted his arm, happy to see his eyes widen in surprise. ‘You’re so clever for working that out, Kildare. How on earth did I manage to live this long without you and your asinine opinions?’

If he responded with a sarcastic comment, she’d kick him in the shins with the pointy end of her sexy shoes. She held her breath, waiting for his reaction. She expected either a blistering retort or maybe, if unicorns existed, a subdued and quiet apology...

What she did not expect was him to take two quick steps to reach her, standing so close Aisha could feel the heat of his body, see the faint scar bisecting his right eyebrow, a tiny birthmark on his right temple. His car lights fell on his face and his stubble held shades of brown and blond and his eyes were a deep, dark mysterious green, the colour of kelp beds off the Atlantic coast. She could see the passion in his eyes and felt her own bubbling inside. A part of her wanted to turn and run, but her feet were glued to the ground, her body demanding to know his again. She needed to taste him again, to run her hands through his hair, across his broad shoulders.

She shouldn’t be feeling this transfixed, so fiercely attracted, but she was. Dammit.

He opened his mouth to speak, but instead of forming words, his mouth covered hers in a hot, frustrated, kill-me-now kiss. She tried to remain unaffected, told her body to stay statue-still, but after ten seconds, maybe twenty, she sank against him, her defences crumbling under his skilled mouth.

He tasted like whisky, felt like home. His tongue twisted around hers and she was back in their apartment, nineteen again and in love, desperate for his hands to skim her body, his mouth to explore her skin. Her hands danced across his back, skimmed over the dip of his spine. She sighed at the hard layer of muscle under his clothes, the softness of his hair as it slid through her fingers.

God, the man could kiss, a heady combination of confidence and competence, desire, and a hint of desperation. Nobody, before or after, came close to the way he made her feel...all loose and lazy yet hyped and heady.

She loved what he did and hated the way he made her feel.

Aisha put her hands on his chest and pushed him away, desperate for some distance between them. He was too attractive, too magnetic, and, despite his being an utter ass a few minutes ago, she wanted him.

So, nothing much had changed in more than a decade, then.

Dammit.

She lifted her head, saw triumph and pure male satisfaction blazing in his eyes. ‘You still want me,’ he stated, sounding more than a little cocky.

The arrogant, presumptuous, conceited ass! She opened her mouth to blast him and saw him lift one, just one, supercilious eyebrow. He was expecting her to lose her temper, was goading her to do exactly that. He wanted her to be a shrew, to throw a slap, to lose her temper...to make a fool of herself.

She was damned if she would give him the satisfaction.

Right, one of them had to be the adult and she’d drawn the short straw. She straightened her spine and pushed back her shoulders.

When their eyes connected, she folded her arms across her chest and tipped her head to the side. ‘I’ve always known you are a determined, driven guy who likes getting your way, but tonight you’ve been the absolute worst version of yourself. I hope that’s an aberration and not who you are now. But understand this, Pasco...

‘You were talking nonsense earlier and you know it!’ She waited for a beat, making sure she had his full attention. ‘Hear me clearly, Kildare. Nothing you can do or say will stop me from working with Ro, from establishing St Urban as one of the best boutique hotels in the world. And if Ro wants a tasting restaurant on the premises, that’s what she will get, with or without your cooperation. We had a very unequal relationship in the past, but I’m not the same meek, mild, and easily led girl I was before. Do not be in any doubt about this...if you bite, I will bite back.’

By the end of her soliloquy, she was shaking, and Aisha hoped Pasco was too mad to notice. Gathering her wits, and her pride, she turned around and headed back to her car, slid behind the wheel, and slammed the door shut. Without looking at him, she executed a quick three-point turn and drove back up the road to St Urban.

Nothing to see here, folks. She’d only kissed, argued with, and lectured the only man she’d ever loved, the man she’d once promised to share her life with.

It had been, by anyone’s standards, a hell of a day.

Pasco owed Aisha an apology, a huge one.

He’d been way out of line last night and he felt like an utter ass. She’d been right to call him out and her cool lines, delivered so disdainfully, had cut through all his BS.

He had been arrogant in his dealings with her, and the high point of his idiocy had been suggesting she’d returned to the Cape to be with him. Even more annoying was his small wish that it were true.

Pasco, dressed in his oldest pair of jeans, and his most comfortable boots, walked up the road towards St Urban, looking up at the branches of the oak trees forming a leafy canopy over the road. The trees were flaunting their beautiful colours, red and gold, and bronze, and now and again one drifted down to the road, dancing on the light breeze. His property, a smallholding he’d bought on selling his restaurant in New York, had once been part of St Urban and bordered Ro’s place to the east. His house wasn’t far from her new abode, the manager’s cottage situated in the corner of the property. Instead of walking for a good forty-five minutes, he could’ve hopped a couple of fences, crossed a paddock, navigated his way through a vineyard, and reached her place in ten minutes.

But the long walk had given him time to think and, God, he knew he needed every moment to work out how he could apologise without sounding like a complete moron.

On returning to his place last night, he’d headed straight for his home office and fired up his state-of-the-art laptop. He’d never, not once, done an Internet search on Aisha in all the years they’d been divorced. He didn’t believe in looking back, or torturing himself, so he’d kept his curiosity tightly leashed. He’d initially typed ‘Aisha Kildare’ into the search engine and couldn’t understand why he came up with no results or, to be accurate, nothing relating to her. He realised his mistake and with a thumping heart typed in her maiden name and various images and results jumped out at him. There were testimonials about her work as a consultant—all five stars—a write-up stating she was one of the hospitality sector’s most exciting and innovative consultants, and he came across a series of articles she’d written for a trade magazine. Then he visited the Lintel & Lily website and, under their ‘Meet Our Team’ tab, read the write-up on his ex-wife. She had, indeed, received her MBA, graduating near the top of her class. She’d set up hotels in far-flung, sometimes inhospitable places and was respected for her cool head and her practical streak. She was fast, efficient, and smart, and a valued member of the Lintel & Lily family. Her employees and clients adored her.

Basically, if someone wanted to set up a hospitality-based operation, Aisha Shetty was the person you hired to do that. Ro had employed the best of the best.

And he was, as she’d said, an ass.

An ass who needed to apologise.

Pasco pushed his sunglasses up into his hair and rubbed his tired eyes with his thumb and index finger. Sleep, always elusive, had been non-existent last night. He’d sprawled out on his couch in front of his large-screen TV, watching reruns of old international rugby games, but his full attention had been on the hot-as-fire kiss they’d shared. They’d always had chemistry, but their kiss last night had gone beyond that; they’d been radioactive. Her body, slimmer than it had been when she was younger, had fitted against his perfectly, and her scent, edgier now, had invaded his nostrils and settled in his brain. And her mouth, God, her mouth...her taste. It kicked up a yearning in him to know her again, to discover all the ways she’d changed. And the ways she’d not.

Pasco kicked a stone with his boot and watched it skitter into the grass. Taking Aisha back to bed was not a good idea, in fact, it was a comprehensively disastrous one. They’d tried once, they’d failed. He wasn’t into reliving the past, revisiting mistakes. So, no, jumping back into bed with his ex was not a good idea. But he still wanted her, goddammit.

Impulsively, Pasco veered left and ambled down the path leading to the cellars. He walked around to the back of the building to look at the renovations for Ro’s restaurant. He slipped through the unlocked door and, standing on the newly sanded floor, looked at the unpainted walls and the magnificent view.

This...

A restaurant like this was his unspoken, deepest, never-spoken-of dream. A small kitchen, doing most things himself. Growing as much produce as he could in his own gardens and orchards, picking it in the morning and using the ingredients for lunch and supper, his entire focus on creating excellent food in a non-pressurised environment, forgetting about stars and rewards and reviews.

In a perfect world and alternate reality of himself, he’d ditch his high-pressure restaurants, his travel shows, and the persona of being the country’s first international celebrity chef. He’d read, work on a cook book, wander about in a greenhouse he built, raise chickens and goats, make cheese. He wouldn’t run from business to business, project to project, dealing with staff and suppliers, making sure the steep and exacting standards he set were consistently exceeded by himself and his staff.

He was tired, dammit.

But whenever he considered closing down his restaurants, leaving his high-powered life, he felt his heart rate speed up, a hand squeezing his lungs. He knew what it was like to lose everything of value, houses and cars and, yeah, money, knew how devastating it was to have his life flipped upside down in the blink of an eye. Living a simple life, free of pressure and ambition, was a lovely idea, but it was a pipe dream, a mirage.

He needed different eggs in a variety of baskets so that if one venture failed, another would keep him afloat. He needed the pressure, the accolades, the five-star reviews, and the attention because it put distance between him and his father, reminded him he was nothing like the man who was so determined to have the easy life while putting in little to no work. Growing up, all he’d heard was how like his father he was, that they looked the same, talked the same.

He might be his father’s mini-me, but working hard, moving fast was his way of showing the world that, below the surface, he wasn’t his father’s son.

He had pots of money but one bad decision, one financial misstep, could wipe a business out. That was why he had backup plans for his backup plans, ten different slush funds, and why he diversified. If something went wrong with Pasco’s at The Vane, he could rely on income from Pasco’s, Franschhoek and his share in Binta. If they all went belly up, he could expand his travel and cooking show. He would not be like his mother and be blindsided.

No, stepping back, having a small restaurant, pottering really, was a nutty dream. And he was anything but daft. He’d satisfy those cravings for a small restaurant by helping Ro set up hers and, possibly, running it for a month or two. That would have to be enough.

Pasco left the cellar and headed for the path that would take him to the manager’s cottage, conscious of the spark of excitement burning in his belly. Since he seldom felt excited about much any more, he reluctantly admitted he was eager to spend more time with his ex-wife. His all-grown-up, now feisty, occasionally fierce, ten times more attractive than she had been, kissed like she was on fire, ex-wife.

Pasco sighed. God, he was up the creek, his paddle was long gone and hungry alligators were snaking on his ass.

Excellent.