“I suppose this ‘thing’ with J.D. has gotten a little out of hand,” she sniffed reluctantly. “You’re right—I should be the better person in this.” She smirked. “That shouldn’t be too hard in comparison to J.D.”—she caught Laney’s look— “is exactly what Edgy Payton would’ve said. But the New Payton won’t go there.”

Laney tipped her coffee mug approvingly. “Good for you. To the New Payton.”

“The New Payton.”

Payton clinked her mug to Laney’s, wondering what she was getting herself into.

Five

BE THE BALL.

J.D. focused intently. His eyes never left the tee.

Be the ball.

He pulled back, then—swoosh! His swing was effortless. With one hand raised to block the sun’s glare, he watched as the ball landed on the green 240 yards away, within inches of the hole.

J.D. smiled. God, he loved this sport.

Hearing the whistling and clapping coming from behind him, he turned around to face his companions.

“Nice shot,” Jasper called out in his lazy Southern drawl. “A man who bills three thousand hours a year shouldn’t have time for a swing like that.” Their three companions, representatives from Gibson’s legal department, nodded in agreement.

J.D. walked over and took the beer Jasper held out to him. “Does this mean we’re talking business?”

Jasper grinned. He had the bold smile of a man completely at ease with the power he held. He glanced down at his beer, then took in the beautiful tree-lined scenery of the eighth hole. “Tell you what. Wait till the fifteenth hole. Then we’ll talk.”

Following Jasper’s lead, J.D. soaked in the warmth of the blue-sky summer day while admiring the view of the river that flowed just beyond the green. He tipped his bottle at Jasper. “Make it the seventeenth.”

Jasper chuckled. “A man after my own heart. But are you sure you want to wait? I heard the back nine of this course brings a man to his knees.”

“Maybe a lesser man, Jasper.”

Jasper laughed heartily at this. “I like your style, Jameson.”

Grinning, J.D. took a sip of his beer. So far, his afternoon with the Gibson’s team had been going very well. He was comfortable here, in his element—which undoubtedly was one of the reasons Ben had chosen him for this assignment. J.D. had grown up around men like Jasper all his life and was familiar with the “good-ole boy” routine. He understood the lingo, the game, the role he was supposed to play. Ben wanted to do a little showing off—that’s why he had specifically asked J.D. to bring the Gibson’s team to this course. He was trying to impress them, but didn’t want to look like he was trying to impress them. The fact that J.D. just so happened to have a membership at one of the most exclusive clubs in the country was the perfect way to accomplish this.

The only blemish on the afternoon was the nagging feeling he got whenever a vision of Payton sitting back at the office popped into his head. He kept trying to brush these feelings aside. Why should he feel guilty that she had been left out? After all, he was just doing his job, what Ben had asked him to do. And, had the shoe been on the other foot, he was quite certain Payton would’ve had no problem leaving him behind.

There was another image J.D. had a hard time shaking: the look Payton had given him when he’d told her that the club didn’t allow women. For the briefest moment, he’d seen something in her eyes he hadn’t seen before. A slight crack, a falter in her usual armor of confidence. For some reason, it had bothered him, seeing that.

Realizing that one of the Gibson’s lawyers was asking him a question about the course, J.D. pushed all thoughts of Payton from his mind. He couldn’t be distracted right now. He needed to be on, to be charming and professional. And, no less important, he needed to mentally prepare for the upcoming ninth hole—a ruthless par four that was one of the narrowest holes he had ever played.

Besides, as he knew full well, Payton Kendall could take care of herself.

PAYTON SAT AT the bar, waiting. She had agreed to meet J.D. and the Gibson’s team at Japonais restaurant at seven thirty. She was familiar with the restaurant, as was pretty much every other single woman in Chicago over the age of twenty-five. Trendy and expensive with a modern, ambient-lit decor, it was one of the most popular locales in the city for a first date.

Not that she’d had all that many first dates lately. It took time to meet people. It took time to date them, to get to know them, to figure out whether you liked them and whether they liked you. And time was something she didn’t have a lot of these days. So unless the mythical Perfect Guy fell out of the sky and landed smack-dab on her doorstep, dating was something she needed to put on hold until after she made partner.

Payton swirled her wineglass as she sat at the bar, thinking back to the last first date she’d had, with an investment banker she’d met at a local wine tasting. It had been at this very restaurant, in fact. Her date had polished off eight of the restaurant’s Mukune sakes by ten. By ten fifteen he’d fallen over in his chair while standing up to go to the bathroom and by ten fifteen and fifteen seconds—when Payton ran over to help—he’d slurringly confessed that he was having “a bidge of trupple” weaning off of his manic-depressive medication.

Nice.

“And these are the guys who are out there,” she had later groaned to Laney. Her friend had no such troubles, having of course married her frat-boy college sweetheart.


Tags: Julie James Romance
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