“Amends?” she croaked, thrown by the sudden vulnerability that flashed across his face. Jude, vulnerable? She almost couldn’t credit her senses.
“Yes,” he said, firmly, before reaching out a hand to cover hers. Just that touch from him, and Miranda felt projected back to the three nights they’d spent together. She could have sworn she was over that, had been so sure she’d put it all behind her. But then she’d walked in and seen him, as devastatingly gorgeous as ever – and then he had to touch her. His fingers tightened on hers and she was forced to look up into his piercing aqua eyes. And couldn’t seem to look away.
“I went about things the wrong way,” he continued with a rueful shrug. “And found out to my self-disgust that I may just be as much the bastard as everyone says I am.”
“I don’t think you’re bastard,” she heard herself say. “Well, not recently I haven’t.”
“Thanks,” he said drily. “It took just one night with you – and I knew I’d played the wrong card. I shouldn’t have been gunning for a week – I should have been aiming for far, far more.”
“Trust me, anything more than a week of sex and you’d have been sick of me,” she joked, deliberately misunderstanding him as she tried not to quail underneath his melting smile.
“I honestly, truly doubt that,” he said, his thumb stroking over her knuckles caressingly. “So here’s the deal –”
“I knew it! I just knew there was a catch somewhere,” she said half in irritation.
“Will you shut up and listen?” he growled, eyes dancing. “There’s no catch, Miranda. I’m simply about to suggest that we start over. As friends. I know I’m your brother’s least favourite person in the world – and the same could go with your father – but I’m hoping that somehow, I can eventually get to warm up to me. In the meantime, we give ourselves time to get to know each other – without the intimacy this time.”
“What?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
“That’s right, Miranda, no sex. Just us working things out together, as a couple. I want to prove to you that it’s not all about the physical with me. I desire you as a woman, that’s a given, but I care about you as a person, too. And I want to prove that.”
Miranda bit on her lip in consternation. “I’m not sure what you’re requiring of me here. Are you asking me to date you, Mr. Jude Stone?”
His lips were wry. “Something like that. I know I’ve got a lousy track record in that department, but I’m thinking I’ve met someone who can finally change that.”
Whoa, Miranda thought, staring at him in amazement and still wondering if this was all just a very bad, very horrible joke.
“Well?” she heard him ask, and this time his smile was not so confident. “I’m dying here, Miranda. I need you to put me out of the misery I’ve been in since that morning your brother yanked you away from me. If you know how dearly I wanted to seize you right back -”
“But you didn’t; you let me go,” she accused. “I felt like such an idiot when you told me it was right to listen to Jeffery. I felt like I’d been cheated, somehow.”
Jude looked confused for a moment. “Cheated...? How...”
For a reply, she leaned forward to pressed her lips to his in a moistly aggressive kiss. She felt him stiffen, and then seconds later he was pulling her close, grinding his mouth into hers and almost crushing her with passion.
“You owe me three nights of abandoned, heedless sex, Mr Stone,” she said wickedly when she pulled back to look into his desire-hooded eyes. Both of them were oblivious of the fact that they were in the restaurant, drawing curious looks from the other diners,
“And then you’re telling me we’re going to be dating platonically? Hell no.”
“Well...some rules were made to be broken...,” he said musingly, and then shook his head firmly. “No. I – we need to be strong. We’ll have endless nights of passion ahead of us, but first...I want you to get to know the real me. My interests, what makes me tick – and I’m so interested in finding out the same about you. There’s the next several months to manoeuvre the deal for your company – and while we work together, we’ll always make time for play, too.”
“Looks like you’ve mapped it all out,” she said drily. “I just can’t help wondering how you got so smart when it comes to women, Mr Stone.”
“I’m not,” he said, grinning suddenly. “Not in your case, anyway. I’ve bungled things a lot since we met, Miranda. But this time, I got some outside help.”
“Carly?” Miranda asked intuitively, and when he nodded, she added with a smile of her own, “Looks like me and that PA of yours are going to get on famously, Jude...”
Six months later...
The celebratory gala had gone well. Her father and brother had been all-smiles throughout the evening. The champagne flowed as smoothly as the many speeches, which all had the same theme: success. The return of the company, now legitimately theirs again. It had been a long, hard road, but from the looks on their faces, Miranda was sure it had all been worth it.
Jude was standing next to her, a steady presence though in the backdrop – just like he’d been in the past few months. Playing a background role yet just as significant in the road up to where her family had reached. And best of all, he was still here, with her. They were still together. Now that was one more thing she wished to celebrate...
“Want to skip the rest of the party?” she leaned forward to whisper in his ear. He turned to her in surprise, saw her expression, and his eyes gleamed. It hadn’t been that long that they’d broken the pact of celibacy, and so far every moment they shared in each other’s arms was like the first time: mind-blowing, magical.
“I’m sure we won’t be missed,” he replied quite mildly by way of agreement. “Though I need to be sure exactly what you have in mind?”
“It’s got plenty to do with a certain leather paddle I had delivered just this morning,” she purred, downing the last of her wine and placing it on the nearby table. “And it definitely needs breaking in, or don’t you think?”
“Absolutely,” Jude said, his voice rough with barely reined-in enthusiasm. “You’re more than overdue for some discipline, woman. I didn’t like the way you were flirting with your last dance partner. I promised myself I would teach you a lesson for that.”
Miranda bit back a giggle, pleased with the unmistakable spark in his eye. “I know I shouldn’t love my punishment so much, but I do,” she confessed on a soft whisper, her lashes fluttering. Her hand slipped into the crook of his arm, as she added, “Alright, Mr Jude Stone...let’s go so you can show me what a bad, bad girl I’ve been.”
“With pleasure,” he growled, as he led his mischievous woman out of the room as fast as their legs would carry them.