“My, my, how the tables have turned. ”
“I swear, by all that’s holy, that if you don’t wipe that smart-assed smirk off your face, I will pound you to a bloody pulp!” Rafe thundered as he looked at his best friend, Shane.
“Wow. Aren’t you cranky? Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” Shane wasn’t the least bit intimidated by Rafe’s outburst. Of course, part of that could be because his best friend was securely behind bars.
“Yeah, you’ve had your fun, Shane. Now pay the damned bail and get me the hell out of here!”
“I don’t know if I can afford it, since this is the second time in two months…”
“Shut up, Shane! This isn’t the time to be a jackass. They won’t let me pay the bail myself, and I want to go home!”
“Maybe if you stopped picking fights at clubs, you wouldn’t get locked up,” Shane said as he came closer to the bars.
Rafe’s hand snaked through the opening and grabbed hold of Shane’s shirt in an iron-tight grip. “Get — me — out — now!”
“OK. OK. There’s no need for violence,” Shane said, unable to control the laughter spilling from him. “We wouldn’t want you to be thrown back in jail before you even get out. ”
Once Rafe released him, it didn’t take long for Shane to post bail, and then he was leaving county detention with a very irate Rafe. “That wasn’t amusing the first go-around, Shane, and certainly not this time,” Rafe growled as he climbed into Shane’s sleek silver Porsche.
“I seem to remember that you found it quite amusing when the shoe was on the other foot and I needed to be bailed out. ”
“That was different,” Rafe muttered, rubbing his eyes. He hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours, and he smelled like stale tequila and sweat. He didn’t want to analyze the other odors drifting from his clothes.
“We need to get out of this town. One month in Italy wasn’t long enough for Ari to forgive you, and you’ve been back for two months doing nothing but causing trouble. I think the best thing you can do is give the woman space. I’m scheduled to leave next week for South America because your unbelievably stubborn sister still won’t speak to me. Let’s take the hint and get away for a while. ”
Rafe stewed silently as he considered his best friend’s words. The Gli Amanti Cove project was on hold because of environmental disputes, so they were stalled there. Rafe felt like crap, and for the first time in his life he had no motivation whatsoever to find the next big acquisition. Maybe he should just leave for a while. It would give him time to pull himself together. He didn’t even know who he was anymore.
He hadn’t seen Ari in three months and it was taking its toll on him. Every time he tried to speak to her, she would hang up the phone. He’d had gifts delivered to her new place, but she just returned his packages. The one time he’d cornered her, she’d coolly told him he wasn’t ready yet.
Yes, he’d screwed up, but didn’t people make mistakes? What was so wrong with liking sex? Was he that bad a man because he knew what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to be with women who weren’t intimidated to explore their sexuality? He didn’t see it that way, but Ari apparently thought his actions were unforgivable. He’d even tried to enter into other satisfying sexual liaisons — not romantic, of course — but those had fizzled before they had even started.
He couldn’t seem to forget one bright-eyed blond woman who’d stolen his breath away.
“I’ll go with you. ”
Shane turned in surprise; his car swerved slightly into the next lane and almost clipped a station wagon. If Rafe had been in a better mood, he would have chortled at the look of terror on the father who was driving the old Volvo. The poor man had probably peed himself.
“Seriously?” It was obvious that Shane had never expected Rafe to walk away from the business world so easily.
“Yes. I need to get away before I do something incredibly foolish. ”
“Like you already haven’t,” Shane said with a laugh.
Rafe glared at him before replying. “I’m serious. I’m ready to do this. ”
“What about work?”
“I thought you were the one trying to talk me into this in the first place,” Rafe said with a frustrated sigh.
“I am. Really. I just want to make sure you aren’t going to get there and then turn around and leave in two weeks. These people are really counting on us. ” Page 2
Rafe knew that Shane was right. The homes and businesses they built in Third World countries changed lives. Rafe was surprised by how much he wanted to be a part of it. He’d grown anxious, bored, and frustrated with his life.
“I’ll make some calls. My manager can run things from here. I’m ready to leave. ”
Assessing Rafe for several moments, Shane finally spoke. “Good. Pack up, because we’ll be gone at least six months. ”
“What if you get called away?” Rafe asked.
“We’ll cross that bridge,” Shane said. He was used to being yanked away, and he always came back as soon as the task was finished.
This was a brilliant idea. Some hard physical labor was sure to take Rafe’s mind off of Ari. He just needed to get away from this mess for a while. His infatuation with one woman was out of character; hell, it was completely insane. But it was all in his head and he’d be over Ari before he knew it!
Two Years Later
“All right, class, I want you to take out your books and turn to page one hundred and four. ” Ari took a deep breath as she looked out at the sea of students before her. Don’t let them see your fear. They will eat you alive.
No matter how many times she chanted this in her head, she could feel the sweat beading on her brow, and what felt like ten-pound weights sitting on her chest. What if she messed up? What if she threw up? What if everything just went black and she face-planted in front of the entire room?
You will not psych yourself out! You are Arianna Harlow, a strong, independent woman who just completed a master’s degree. That takes guts, determination, and stamina. Not everyone is cut out for a higher education, but you did it in the face of everything you’d gone through. This is nothing in comparison. A class of fifty students will not intimidate you.
OK, she was feeling a bit less faint as she dimmed the lights and turned on the screen projector. This was her first job and she was grateful to be teaching.
The last two years hadn’t been easy for Ari, but she’d worked hard, studying longer, jogging for miles upon miles to try to relieve the constant ache in her body, and spending what little free time she allowed for herself with her mother and friends.
The most difficult of times was being with Lia and Rachel. She loved them both so much, but they were a reminder of what she’d never again have.
It seemed that not a single day could pass without a thought of him fluttering through her mind. Time had lessened the ache but hadn’t removed it altogether. Love for a man like Rafe didn’t disappear overnight — apparently, not even after two years. She didn’t regret her decision to walk away — it was what she’d had to do — but still, she missed him. Missed his smile and his laughter, missed the way his hands had caressed her body.
The few dates she’d attempted since leaving him had been a joke. No man could measure up to Rafe Palazzo. Yes, he’d been controlling and had pushed her in ways she still couldn’t believe — he’d had her doing things she’d never thought she’d enjoy — but he’d also changed her forever.
She could never go back to that innocent girl she’d been. Rafe had opened her eyes to a new world, and it was a place she’d enjoy
Rafe was many things, but boring wasn’t one of them. No man had stirred her the way he had, and she missed him desperately, though she never admitted that — not even to herself. What good would it do her?
Shaking off the melancholy thoughts, Ari focused on the meticulously written out notes in front of her as she began her carefully planned-out lecture. Too nervous to focus on the students, she was relieved when class was nearly over and it came time for them to ask questions.
Please, someone have something to ask was her only hope in that moment. The next few minutes passed with several questions, and the stiffness eased from her body. Only a couple of minutes more to go and she could call her first class a success.
“Are there any more questions?” This she would soon regret asking.
“Yes. Will you join me for dinner tonight?”
Ari’s body stiffened and her face flushed. She would never, ever forget that voice — it haunted her in her dreams, making her wake up aching and empty. It trailed her as she walked the streets and heard a man’s laughter. It caressed her body when she lay in bed at night and ran through the various conversations they’d had.
Ari’s ears were ringing too loudly for her to hear the chuckling in her classroom as she lifted her head and her eyes locked with Rafe’s purple-and-blue gaze.
Sitting comfortably in the back of the classroom, he took her breath away with his confident grin. Two years since she’d last laid eyes on him, and he still looked deliciously perfect. Several students turned his way, the girls batting their eyelashes, the guys wanting to be him. It was obvious to anyone present that he was a man who would always get his way.
Some people you were drawn to simply because of their confidence. Rafe was one of them. There was nothing about him that shouted insecure. His command was obvious from his very demeanor.
No! She reminded herself. He didn’t always get his way. He’d wanted her, and she’d had the courage to walk away because he hadn’t been willing to give her what she deserved. He might have been a man in charge, but that didn’t lessen who she was. She’d stood up, been strong and hadn’t stopped her forward momentum for a single instant once she’d finally gained the courage.
Yes, her heart had shattered that day she’d left his home, then shattered again when she walked away from him at her college graduation. However, she hadn’t let it stop her. She’d accepted the pain, had felt it to the utmost, but she hadn’t let it define her. She’d moved on.
When she’d come to the realization that, yes, love could be magical but that magic was still only an illusion, her pain had eased. It took time and effort to make love last if you wanted it to go beyond that illusion, that vision. Rafe had expected to get what he wanted without putting in the effort. It was his loss.
Looking him straight in the eyes — showing him she wasn’t afraid — she spoke. “Are there any questions pertaining to the lecture?” Only the slightest bit of breathlessness entered her words as she forced her gaze from his in a deliberately measured way.
The room was silent, apart from a few remaining snickers.
“Very well, then. On Wednesday, upon your return, I want the questions at the end of the chapter done and turned in. We’ll be discussing the Civil War all semester, and I expect you to learn a heck of a lot more than who fought and the dates it happened. By the time you move on to your next subject, you should have a basic understanding of why this war took place, and the lives that it affected. Thank you. Class is dismissed. ”
Ari turned back to her desk and sat down, her knees shaky. Her hope was that Rafe would rush from the room with the rest of the students, but Ari wasn’t a fool. Rafe was there for a purpose and that she’d ignored him didn’t mean he’d simply turn and walk away. That wasn’t who he was.
Rafe would have his say, and she’d just have to bear up while he did it.
Be strong, she commanded herself as she heard the din of students’ voices fading. She greatly wished at that moment for another class to be entering, but it was the end of the night and she was teaching only one class a day, Mondays and Wednesdays.
Toying with the thought of running from the room, she knew she’d never make it. Plus, Rafe would get the satisfaction of seeing her try to escape. She refused to reveal how much he still affected her. She absolutely rejected the thought of showing weakness in his presence.
“I’ve missed you, Ari, more than you could possibly imagine. ”
The familiarity of his voice stimulated every cell in her body while his scent swirled around her, draining the strength in her knees even more, and she was grateful to be sitting. How could he still have such power over her? How could she have such strong feelings about a man who had shattered her heart, leaving her to pick up the pieces of her life, alone?
“You are wasting your time, Rafe. I would have thought you’d have moved on by now. Have you had trouble hiring your next mistress?” Finally, Ari peered up at him, prepared to see irritation on his features.
When a smile formed on his lips instead, she was taken aback. What was this new game he was playing? She hadn’t read the textbook on this one. Was he still upset that someone had walked away from him, even after so much time had passed?
Not even Rafe could be that determined to win.
“I want no other woman but you, Ari — and I’ve given you enough space. I made mistakes, and now I’m here to prove I’m a new man. ”
Ari’s mouth dropped open. Rafe Palazzo was admitting to being wrong about something. Had the world stopped turning? She had to be dreaming — this was just another of her fantasies, and she was going to wake up at any moment, alone in her small room. And then she would have to fight the pressure in her chest as she took deep breaths and once again banished him from her mind.
No. She hadn’t had an anxiety attack in a long time, and she wasn’t going to start with them again. She was a college instructor, something she’d dreamed about for a very long time. A man wasn’t going to unravel her — not even a man she had fallen hopelessly in love with.
“This is ridiculous, Rafe. We had our fling. It was great, but it’s over and done with. Nothing good can come from us even attempting to come together again,” she told him as she started to gather her possessions together.
She had to get out of that large classroom. Suddenly the walls felt as if they were closing in on her. She must get away from him before she did something foolish — such as actually believe what he was saying. Or, even worse, jump from her chair and wrap her body around his just to experience one more taste of his lips.
She wanted so badly to envision a happy ending with him that her heart was thudding at the possibility that he had changed — that his interest in her was now more than just really great sex.
“Ridiculous or not, I’ve decided to woo you. ”
For the second time in sixty seconds, Ari’s mouth dropped open. Did he actually just say the word woo? Who was this man and what had he done with Rafe Palazzo? It couldn’t possibly be the same person who’d forced her into an affair with him. She needed to remember what he’d done — what he’d demanded from her.
“I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not that same desperate girl who allowed you to make me go against everything I was brought up to hold important. ” There, that would show him.
Rafe came around her desk, turning her chair and boxing her in. She leaned back, but he followed, his face only inches from hers.
“I did some things I will forever regret, but I’ve had a lot of time to think since then. Yes, I forced your hand, but the night you walked away from me, you told me you loved me. I’m here to prove I’m worthy of that love. ”
“No witty comebacks, Ari?”
Leaning in even closer, Ari breathed in his masculine scent and felt her heart race, the sound of her blood rushing through her veins echoing in her head. Finally, snapping out of her trance, Ari lifted her hand and pushed against him, shocked when he responded to her unspoken request to stop and pulled himself away.
Hoping her knees would work, Ari grabbed her briefcase and stood. So far, so good. She’d resisted kissing his full lips, and when she’d risen from her chair, she hadn’t face-planted in front of him. Thank heavens for such small mercies.
“The girl who professed her love is long gone, Rafe. I’m following the path I want to be on, and I don’t have time to date. I appreciate that you thought of me, but it’s best if we both just move on,” she said over her shoulder as she began ascending the steps to the back door of the classroom.
She could feel him right on her heels as she reached the top of the stairs and walked into the quiet hallway. It was late, the school quickly emptying as most of the kids had finished their last class of the day. Summer terms had fewer students attending the school, anyway, and the campus was almost a dead zone when evening classes met.
Ari began walking toward the parking lot; Rafe moved silently beside her. There was no use in telling him to stop — he wouldn’t allow her to walk on her own, even though there were security guards patrolling the area. It was dark, and he was a man who insisted on escorting a woman to her destination, even if she hadn’t asked him to do so.
It should irritate her, but it was one of those old-fashioned actions that she actually liked. A gentleman should ensure the safety of a woman he cared about. Not that she was going to get ideas into her head that he actually cared for her.
Yes, she would admit that she was confused. How was she supposed to respond when he so suddenly popped back into her life? She obviously needed time to think. She certainly couldn’t keep a clear head with him right by her side.
Rafe had a way of causing her body to short-circuit. It was one of the things she both loved and hated about him. How could she trust what she was feeling when she couldn’t think straight? She was intelligent — far above average — but she felt like a ditzy schoolgirl when she was around him.