Tied to the TycoonBy: Chloe Cox
“I’m sorry,” she heard herself say. “You are going to have to explain this to me like I’m an idiot. What, exactly, do you think I’ve bet?”
“You heard me,” he said. “You’ve bet yourself.”
And before she could object, the man reached out, leaning over the table, his face still in the dark, and grabbed her hand. It burned where he touched her. He pulled her toward him, raking her breasts across the table, and whispered: “One week. If I win, I can have you for one week.”
Ava could scarcely breathe. She didn’t know how she spoke. She knew less why she said what she did.
“And do what with me?”
“Anything I want, Frida.”
Frida. The memories flooded her mind, too many, all at once, the exact ones she’d been holding at bay all night. She’d been struggling to hold up under the pressure of all those memories, and this last one, the heaviest of them all, added to the weight was just too much: Frida. Only one person in the world had ever called her that. Only one person in the world knew what it meant to her.
The man she’d been trying not to think about all night.
Of course, the first memories that came crashing through all of Ava’s heavily fortified defenses were the ones she’d tried hardest to forget: one incredible night together, after a long, simmering friendship, the first time she’d felt as though she didn’t have to be this carefully constructed new persona, when she’d felt as though she could just be herself without danger of being swallowed up or crushed, abused or forgotten, one night when she’d confessed her fantasies to Jackson and watched him react with horror and shame, and the way he hadn’t wanted to look at her…
That Jackson Reed, apparently now a member of Club Volare, was sitting in front of her, telling her she’d bet herself. Wanting a chance to win her for a week. Wanting a chance to do anything he wanted with her. Her brain almost couldn’t process it. And it was only because her brain couldn’t make sense of it that she said what she did. Obviously it wasn’t her brain doing the talking.
“I accept,” she said, and reached for the cards.
They definitely weren’t poker cards.
“Do you know how to play baccarat?” he asked, moving his chair to the side so she could finally see his face. He did look different. More confident, assured. He was still strikingly good looking, still chiseled from granite or whatever it was they said about men like him, still with that Greek god athleticism that had won him a football scholarship, but he no longer tried to hide it beneath scruffy hair and a slouched posture, like he had in college. He no longer tried to be anything. He simply was.
“No.” She tried hard not to sound foolish as she said it.
“You thought it was poker, didn’t you?”
He flashed her that grin that she’d always loved. Truthfully, she still loved it, even now.
“Then you’re just going to have to trust me, aren’t you?”
She swallowed. It was hard to look at him. It made her feel too many things all at once. She wasn’t used to feeling so much; she’d worked hard to avoid having to do so. Jackson Reed—of all people—should see that.
“I guess so.”
“Flip over your cards.”
She did. She saw that he did, too. She had no idea what any of it meant.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Now,” he said, that light drawl coming back into his voice, “now you’re mine.”
She felt her eyelids flutter. She had to look at him now. “That’s it?”
“That’s it. My cards total eight. You lost. You’re mine.”
Ava shook her head slowly. This was all so fast, an insane confluence of events, of feelings, of memories. It was almost more likely that it was a hallucination than that it was actually happening.
He reached across the table, this time letting his savage, handsome face fall fully into the lantern light, and grabbed her hand again. His thumb caressed her skin, his fingers dug into her flesh.
“I intend to collect, Ava,” he said, his grey eyes seeming to glow from within. “Starting now.”
For a second, Ava felt herself melting toward him, into the desire she felt flowing around her, into the burning touch on her hand. She might have lost herself completely, simply fallen into an uncharted abyss, except that that moment of falling, of suspension, terrified her so much that it jolted her back to reality. She snatched her hand back and fled the room.
Jackson watched Ava run through the glittering ballroom of Club Volare like a scared rabbit and was filled not with panic or worry, but with a sense of the inevitable. Of course she’d run. Just like she had years ago, when he’d woken up to find her gone. Not just gone from his bed, but gone. She’d moved out of her dorm room for the final weeks before graduation, hadn’t answered her phone by the time he got the courage to call, hadn’t even walked in the ceremony. Maybe he’d waited too long to reach out to her, but she’d made it impossible when he finally did.
And now she was running from him again. No, he thought, rising from his seat with slow deliberation, not again. He would not let her run away again.
He knew Club Volare. She didn’t. That much was obvious, from what he’d seen earlier. You didn’t stand around like a piece of mismatched furniture if you knew where you were. There were only so many places she could go, and the security guys would tell him if she left—for a price.
And if that didn’t work, well, he had money now. All that money bought a whole lot of private investigators, if it came to it.
Because Jackson Reed was not going to let Ava Barnett get away a second time. He owed her far too much for that. He had too many things to tell her, too many things to show her, too many things to do for her. Too many things to do to her.
He made his way through the increasingly buzzed couples, now all happily dancing to some kind of retro swing number, and found the door. The hall was deserted, but she’d made it pretty easy on him this time. The door to one room at the end wasn’t closed all the way.
He walked to it quietly, not wanting to startle her in her hiding place. He moved the door open a silent inch and peered through. She stood by a window, the city lights from below wrapping her in a soft nimbus of filtered blue light. She held herself, her hands visible on her sides, as though she was cold or in need of comfort. He thought he saw her shoulders shake. She might have been crying.
No. He wouldn’t let her get hurt again. He wouldn’t let them hurt each other, wouldn’t let them both spend another ten years like this. He hadn’t been able to take charge of the situation back then, but he was a different man now. And he had her to thank for that. He opened the door and stepped inside.
She heard him and stiffened, but didn’t turn around. He saw one hand disappear, move to her face, probably to wipe away tears. She wouldn’t want him to know that she’d been crying.
She spoke first. “I don’t think this is going to work out, Jackson,” she said.
“Man, can you hold a grudge,” he said, advancing another step. “Ava, trust me, I’m different. What happened then—”
“People don’t really change.”
“Bullshit. I have.” Because of you, he thought to himself. He didn’t think it was right to say it yet, wasn’t convinced that something that intense wouldn’t send her running off screaming into the night. But he had to remind himself.
“Really? Since when?” she asked. Her hand was balled in a tight fist at her neck while her eyes studied the glittering skyline. He could tell she wanted it to be true, but she would take some convincing. Well, he wasn’t one to beat around the bush.
“Since the last time I saw you naked.”
He could actually see the shiver run up her spine in that backless dress. He was suddenly struck by the fact that he hadn’t touched her in ten years. Ten years. He had waited all that time, but now he knew he couldn’t wait even one second more.