The Rules of Their Red-Hot Reunion by Joss Wood

 

CHAPTER ONE

WALKINGDOWNTHEstone pathway bisecting the emerald green swathe of grass, Aisha Shetty sent Ro Miya-Matthews’s huge stomach a worried look. They’d just left the St Urban manor house, which would, under Aisha’s direction, become a six-star boutique.

Enchanted that this amazing two-hundred-year-old building was going to be her base for the foreseeable future—six months, maybe more—Aisha couldn’t wait to see what else St Urban had to offer. She just hoped her new boss didn’t go into labour before they reached the old wine cellars, the next stop on their tour of St Urban.

The woman was waddling like a duck...a very pregnant, about-to-pop duck.

‘How long to go?’ Aisha gestured to her stomach, shortening her long stride to accommodate Ro’s waddle.

Ro pulled a face. ‘Eight weeks. I’m carrying twins, boys, and they are, apparently, huge.’

Aisha’s eyebrows flew up. ‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously,’ Ro replied, placing her hands on her hips and arching her back. Her stomach lifted and, underneath her tight T-shirt, Ro saw her stomach ripple. Ro placed her hand on the bump, her blue eyes soft and full of joy. ‘I promised Muzi I’d start taking it easy, so I’m thrilled we managed to finalise your contract and that you are here.’

Aisha thought about the contract she’d signed and had to physically stop herself from dancing on the spot. As one of ten consultants working for Lintel & Lily, an international company dedicated to designing, decorating, renovating, and establishing boutique hotels all over the world, she’d been awarded the contract to implement Ro’s ambitious vision for St Urban.

The building renovations were all done and the house stood empty. From wallpaper to the waitstaff uniforms, labourers to the layout of the gardens, it was her job to take this now structurally sound, empty building and turn it into a super-luxurious home away from home.

And if she was successful, she would be in the running for a promotion to Chief of Operations when Miles Lintel, her direct boss, became CEO when her famous and wealthy father retired at the end of the year.

The title of Chief of Operations would come with more pressure, a huge jump in salary, and stress, but she’d finally be able to have a home base, buy a home, create her nest.

She’d been working out of hotel rooms and rented accommodation for nearly ten years, and she wanted to sleep in a bed she’d purchased, look at art she’d chosen, cook in a kitchen she’d designed.

She was tired of being a professional vagrant, a wealthy world wanderer. She’d still have to do some travelling, but she’d have her own home, roots, a city she could call hers. Established in South Africa, the now international company of Lintel & Lily had headquarters in both Johannesburg and London, and either city was an option for her home base.

Since her family—parents and four sisters—lived in Cape Town, she was probably going to choose London. She and her family tended to get along a lot better when there were ten thousand miles and a continent between them.

‘Do you like the manager’s cottage, Aisha?’ Ro asked her, sounding a little worried.

Aisha thought of the two-bedroom cottage tucked into the trees at the back of the property with its amazing view of the toothy Simonsberg mountain. It was the beginning of autumn and the weather was still lovely, but winter was wet and cold in the Western Cape. Her cottage had a wood-burning fireplace, a cosy lounge, and a soft queen-size bed. It was beautifully, tastefully decorated and she’d be fine there.

‘It’s lovely, thank you,’ she told Ro.

Ro’s phone buzzed and she excused herself, turning away to take the call. Aisha looked around. Similar to the house, the wine cellar was a whitewashed stone building with a modest gable above its entrance, with oak barrels in a temperature-controlled, cavernous room beneath the ground floor. It was situated on the other side of a grove of oak trees, the leaves of the trees turning gold and orange. The grounds of St Urban were extensive, and a small river ran between the vineyards and the buildings. It was romantic and lovely and there were worse places to spend the next few months.

But Aisha still couldn’t wait to settle into her own house, a place that was completely hers, surrounded by the things she’d spent the last ten years collecting. She’d take her time to find her perfect home, her first real home.

She couldn’t believe eleven years had passed, give or take a week or two, since she’d last lived in the Cape. Over a decade since she met Pasco, ten years since their divorce. Five years since she last spoke to her parents...and she couldn’t remember when last she spoke to three of her four sisters.

Like her parents, who were university professors, the Shetty sisters were all academically brilliant and unbelievably perfect. But Aisha was only on speaking terms with Priya, the only family member to stand up for her all those years ago. Priya, always the peacemaker, was overly excited about Aisha being back in the Cape and kept dropping hints about her rejoining the family flock.

‘You can’t be the black sheep for ever, Aisha.’

Aisha responded by telling her to hold her beer...

Being the only non-brilliant sibling, and the youngest, she’d always stood on the outside of the family circle, the one who never quite fitted in. At school, she’d been referred to as Hema’s, Isha’s, Priya’s or Reyka’s sister, and she doubted any of the teachers knew her real name. Academically average, she walked in their shadows, blinded by their light, constantly falling short of her siblings’ many successes.

She’d been their sister, her parents’ daughter, and then Pasco’s wife. It had taken a teenage rebellion, a crap marriage, and a heartbreaking divorce, working demon hours to establish her career—basically, a long, long time—to become Aisha, and she was damned if she’d put herself in any situation that would make her question her self-worth or her place in the world.

So...no. Throwing herself back into those piranha-infested waters wasn’t something she was keen to do.

‘As I mentioned, we asked various landscape designers to submit their landscaping ideas and I’d like to sit down with you to discuss them,’ Ro said after ending her call. She walked down the side of the building and stopped where the building ended. ‘We need to get the plants in so they will be established by the time we open.’

The St Urban boutique hotel was due to open in November, a scant five and a half months away. And there was still so much to do: staff to hire and train, rooms to decorate, a marketing plan to activate. And it was her job to make St Urban picture perfect so that things ran like clockwork from the day St Urban opened its two-hundred-year-old doors to paying guests. Ro Miya-Matthews was paying L&L big bucks to make St Urban one of a handful of six-star boutique hotels in Africa.

She’d established a hotel on the edge of the Virunga National Park, in Rwanda and the Bahamas, in Goa and Bhutan. Despite her being the family dunce—her parents and sisters had genius IQs—she’d done very well for herself, thank you very much. In her eyes, not theirs.

Establishing St Urban as a boutique hotel was a challenge, but one she was more than up to. Especially since there was the possibility of a promotion at the end of the project.

‘I’m happy to look at your landscapers’ plans,’ Aisha replied as they resumed walking. ‘Are all the building renovations done?’

Ro rocked her hand up and down. ‘The tilers are just finishing up the bathroom in Suite Ten and Suite Five is being painted. The builders have told me they’ll be out by the end of the week.’

Aisha was glad to hear it as she was expecting her decorating team, and the steady stream of furniture, to arrive over the next few weeks and months.

They walked around to the back of the building and Aisha immediately noticed one third of the brick wall was missing and had been replaced with floor-to-ceiling windows. She didn’t recall any alterations to the cellar in the stack of documents she’d been sent.

‘Ro?’

Ro turned to look at her, her stomach leading the way. ‘Mmm?’

‘This is new,’ she stated, stepping up to the wood-and-steel structure. She cupped her hands around her face and peered into the small room through the dusty window, seeing craftsmen sanding the gorgeous yellow wood floor.

‘What’s going on in there?’ Aisha asked her, dropping her hands.

Excitement flashed through Ro’s deep blue eyes. ‘Ah, that’s a bit of a last-minute project.’

‘What’s the project?’ Aisha asked, hoping whatever Ro had planned for the space wasn’t too off the wall and wouldn’t add numerous items to her already mammoth to-do list.

‘I want a high-end, fine-dining restaurant in this space and plan on inviting exciting, interesting chefs to run the place for a limited time.’

A restaurant? For fine dining? What the hell was Ro thinking? And did she know how much work that would involve? Aisha hadn’t planned to open a restaurant, for God’s sake! It wasn’t in the budget either.

Not that money was a problem—thanks to inheriting her biological parents’ massive estate, Ro could easily add another million, or five, to the budget.

‘The restaurant will accommodate up to fifteen people at a time, and I want an innovative, expensive, talk-about-it-for-ever food experience. A place that will be so exclusive, so amazing it will take months, perhaps even years to get a reservation.’

Oh, dear God. This was worse than she’d thought. One of her first solo projects was the establishment of a fine-dining restaurant in Hong Kong and it had been a job from hell. Thanks to that nightmare, she and Miles now had an agreement: she’d work her tail off for Lintel & Lily and Miles kept her away from restaurants and picky, demanding, arrogant chefs.

The Hong-Kong-based chef had reminded her of Pasco: like her ex, he’d been arrogant, pushy, and extraordinarily self-confident.

Aisha placed her hand on her sternum, trying, as she always did, to push away the spike of hurt, the burst of resentment. Her brief marriage—nine months from the time they met to the time they separated, a year until their divorce—wasn’t something she liked to think about. But St Urban was situated in Franschhoek, Pasco’s home town, so she supposed it was natural thoughts of him kept crossing her mind.

Aisha didn’t keep track of him; in fact, she actively avoided articles about him. But she knew he had a restaurant in Franschhoek village and spent most of his time in New York, overseeing his Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan.

The young sous chef she’d met in Johannesburg the year after she left school was now a household name, and a multibillionaire thanks to his restaurants, his range of food and kitchen accessories, and his wildly successful travel and cookery show. He was one of the younger, hipper and better-looking celebrity chefs and was regarded to be a rock star in the culinary world.

He’d created the life he wanted, had achieved more than he’d said he would. Aisha couldn’t help wishing he’d put a fraction of his considerable energy and drive into their relationship and marriage. If he’d given her a little of the attention he’d given his career, she wouldn’t have walked out on him with a sliced and diced heart. She’d thought he could fix the wounds her family inflicted, but he’d just deepened them, then poured acid into her bleeding cuts.

To find herself, to become whole, to heal, leaving him had been oh-so-necessary. Ro patted her arm. ‘Miles told me you’d be fine with this, especially since you’ll have help to get the restaurant off the ground.’

What type of help?

‘I have someone who will give input into planning the space, and on what equipment will be needed. He’s an old friend of my husband’s and we trust him implicitly.’

Aisha just managed to hide her wince. Who was this guy and how much did he know about luxe dining restaurants? There was absolutely no point in spending a hundred million plus to establish a hotel for it to be let down by a less than spectacular restaurant.

Establishing an on-site restaurant was an excellent idea, in concept. She could see a tasting restaurant here...small, exclusive, lovely. But the design and the concept had to take inspiration from the hotel, as she explained to Ro.

‘I understand that, I do. But my guy has a huge amount of experience and knows what he is doing.’

Aisha saw the stubborn tilt to Ro’s chin and sighed. She’d come back to the subject of her consultant chef later. ‘Do you have any architect plans? Have you consulted with an interior designer? One of Lintel & Lily’s or anyone else?’

‘No and no.’

Damn.

Aisha far preferred to work from detailed plans and briefs and she wasn’t a fan of freestyling. She didn’t like imposing her design preferences on a space that wasn’t hers—too much could go wrong!—and chefs, in particular, were a nightmare to work with. They didn’t take orders, or even suggestions, well.

What to do? How to handle this?

Aisha heard the low rumble of male voices coming from the side of the building. She watched Ro, standing at the corner of the building, turn and heard her release a long quiet sigh. Her eyes softened and her mouth curved, and a look of pure bliss crossed her face.

Aisha recognised that look, knew it well. It was how a woman in love looked at her man; it was the way she’d looked at Pasco a lifetime ago. She’d loved him completely, as much as any woman could love her guy. She’d thought that if she made him the centre of her world, she’d become the centre of his and he’d give the love and attention she’d been missing all her life.

But Pasco’s job was his first love—his only love, his mistress, and his reason to wake up every morning. She’d come, maybe, a distant fourth or fifth, or tenth, on his list of priorities.

A tall man wearing expensive chino shorts and a yellow T-shirt, a perfect foil for his dark brown skin, hurried over to Ro and laid a possessive hand on her stomach and covered her mouth with his. He pulled back and tucked a strand of Ro’s hair behind her ear, his expression chiding.

‘Sweetheart, you’ve been on your feet all day. You need to rest.’

‘Don’t fuss, Muzi,’ Ro told him. She gestured to Aisha.

‘Meet Aisha, our get-it-up-and-running manager,’ Ro told her husband, pulling a face at Aisha. ‘Sorry, I’ve forgotten your official title.’

Aisha grinned. ‘Officially, I’m a hotel management consultant, but what you said works just as well,’ Aisha said, shaking Muzi’s massive hand. ‘It’s nice to meet you, Muzi.’

‘And you, Aisha,’ Muzi said. He looked over her shoulder and jerked his head. ‘Ah, he’s done with his call.’

A tall man stepped around the corner of the house, and Aisha felt the blood drop from her head, her brain short-circuit. The world faded in and out, and Aisha heard a roar in her ears, the sound of an incoming train coming in to flatten her. This couldn’t be happening to her...

It could not be happening.

‘Aisha Shetty, meet Pasco Kildare.’

Oh, man, it was absolutely happening.

His first thought was, There she is, the second was that she looked amazing and the third, roaring in behind the others, was that he still wanted her.

When his brain restarted, Pasco, who’d had more practice at hiding his shock than Aisha—hers was the most expressive face he’d ever encountered—stared at her, hoping his expression remained impassive.

But, God, his ex-wife looked good. No, that was a ridiculous statement, she looked spectacular. She was tall and still slim, with a pair of legs that made his mouth water. A tangerine and white dress, her small waist highlighted by a thin leather belt, skimmed her slim frame and ended two inches above her pretty knees, the backs of which were ticklish.

Her hair was longer than it was when she was younger, pulled back from her face and hitting the middle of her back in a tumble of sable-black curls. Her triangular face was, achingly, the same. High and defined cheekbones, a full, lush mouth made for kissing and big black eyes framed by mile-long eyelashes.

He’d thought her lovely at nineteen; she was exquisite now. This stunning woman had once been his wife. He’d made promises to her, she to him, promises neither of them had been able to keep. They’d failed, he’d failed, and failure wasn’t something he spoke about or advertised.

Pasco ran his hand over his face, thinking back on their impulsive decision to marry, three or so weeks after they first met. He’d needed to return to Johannesburg to start work as a sous chef under one of the country’s best chefs and hadn’t been able to see how, with his long hours, they’d manage a long-distance relationship. She’d told him her parents would never give permission for her to leave Cape Town, or for them to live together. Not wanting to lose her, he’d suggested they get married.

She’d surprised him by agreeing and a few days later they’d said their ‘I do’s in a dingy courthouse.

On a sexual and emotional high, with her reeling from a brutal fight with her parents, they’d left for Johannesburg and moved into his small flat. It had taken him less than a week to realise he was no longer responsible for just himself, he was now responsible for her: her safety, security, and well-being were in his hands. By signing that marriage certificate, he was now a husband and was under contract—in his mind at least—to provide her with stability, a home, and a decent lifestyle.

Remembering his up-and-down childhood, the famines and the feasts, he’d had a mini panic attack at the thought.

All he’d known back then was that he couldn’t be like his dad, hurt Aisha the way his dad had hurt his mum. He’d known what it was like to live with uncertainty, to be scared of what tomorrow could bring, and he’d vowed, lying on their small bed in their rabbit-hutch apartment, that he’d be the husband his dad never was. He’d work as hard as he could, be successful, be a man she would be proud to call her husband. He’d show his dad, wherever the hell he was, what true success looked like. How to have it all...

In that small bed, her half lying on him, he’d vowed to give her everything. He’d never give her an excuse to leave him, a reason to walk away, leaving tornado-like devastation behind.

But, ironically, that was exactly what Aisha did.

‘Hello, Aisha,’ he said, rocked off his feet when her eyes slammed into his. ‘It’s been a while.’

The last time he’d seen her was when he’d left for work on an early autumn morning, thinking he’d see her later, if not after the lunch service, then when he was done for the day. He clearly remembered the night before she left, how excited he’d been to tell her he’d been offered big money to take an executive chef position at a new exclusive restaurant in London. They were on their way...

He’d brought home a bottle of champagne and he’d guzzled it, telling her of his plans, how he’d use this opportunity to look for investors in his own place. She’d have to stay in South Africa for a few weeks, maybe a month or two, while she waited for her visa, but he’d find a home for them, set it up so it was ready for her when she arrived.

She’d congratulated him, they’d made love and he’d finally fallen asleep, excited about their future. This was his big chance, and he couldn’t wait. Life was finally looking up.

He’d returned to an empty flat that night. Initially, he’d thought she was out with friends, a little concerned she was out so late. At midnight he’d been worried, by one a.m., he’d been frantic. At two a.m., he’d considered phoning the police. At two-ten, he’d found her note on his pillow...

The words were still printed on his brain.

Congratulations on your job offer but this isn’t working and we both know it. I can’t do this, us, any more. Set London on fire, Pas. A.

‘Hello, Pasco.’

Muzi’s sharp eyes bounced between them. ‘You two know each other?’

Pasco couldn’t help his cynical smile. ‘We were married for about ten minutes a long time ago.’

Muzi’s eyebrows lifted. ‘You were married? Seriously? And why the hell didn’t I know?’

Pasco looked at Aisha, who was rocking from foot to foot. At Aisha’s insistence, he’d waited in the car while Aisha told her family she’d married him and then left the house, lugging a massive suitcase and cradling a heavy box under her free arm, her brown-black eyes wide with anguish. Her parents hadn’t taken the news well, she’d told him, and she didn’t know if she’d ever be welcomed back into their house.

They’d planned to visit his parents the same day, but Aisha, upset and emotional, hadn’t been up to it and they’d left Cape Town without telling anyone else about their court marriage. Not wanting to break the news over the phone, he’d thought he’d tell his folks when they made one of their trips to Johannesburg, but for some reason they never made a trip that winter. Thinking they’d tell his friends and family when they returned to Cape Town at Christmas—maybe even have a church ceremony and a wedding reception—he never imagined that by September they would be separated, and divorced by Christmas.

Before Pasco could answer Muzi, Ro walked over to Aisha and placed her hand on her shoulder. ‘I am sorry, I had no idea you and Pasco were married—’ Ro tossed him a hot glare ‘—and this must be a bit of a shock for you. Let’s meet again in a day or two and we can talk about the restaurant, his involvement, and you two working together then.’

He was about to speak when Aisha held up her hand. Her skin was paler than her normal shade of light golden brown, her eyes as hard as a chunk of coal. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve lost you. What do you mean?’

Ro wrinkled her nose and gestured to the renovations. ‘You’re going to be working with Pasco to get the restaurant up to world-class standards,’ Ro told her, looking uncomfortable. ‘He’s my chef consultant.’

Aisha briefly closed her eyes, and Pasco counted to ten, waiting for her to lose her cool. Aisha was fundamentally unable to step back and look at a situation through an unemotional lens.

‘Whether or not Pasco and I were married has absolutely no bearing on my ability to do my job. I am one of the best and most experienced consultants in the company and a quick relationship so long ago will not affect me in the least.’

Both Muzi and Ro released a relieved sigh, and Pasco scratched his neck, surprised at her unemotional response. He couldn’t help admiring the way she pushed back her shoulders and straightened her spine. She’d grown up, he thought, become more resilient. But a quick relationship? God. Her words pissed him off and he felt like a fly she’d brushed off her sleeve.

‘I’m a professional and I’ll deal,’ she told them. ‘On the scale of disasters, this doesn’t even blip on my radar.’

Good for her, but he couldn’t work with someone who made his heart race, his mouth dry, and who’d derailed his life. He wasn’t scared of hard work, relished a challenge, but expecting him to work with his ex-wife—the woman who walked out on him—was asking him for more than he could give. She’d disrupted his life once and he’d never give her, or any other girl, the power to do that again.

But she wasn’t a girl any more, she was a woman. In every sense of the word.

A very sexy, very remote, incredibly beautiful woman.

And he still wanted her with a desperation he could taste. One that scared him senseless. Another good reason for them not to work together.

‘I’m so glad to hear that, Aisha. Thank you,’ Ro said, smiling.

Muzi wrapped his arm around Ro’s thick waist. ‘If you don’t need Ro for anything else, Aisha, I’m going to take my wife home,’ Muzi said. When Ro didn’t complain, Pasco knew she was more tired than she let on. Or maybe they were trying to give him and Aisha some time alone. Who the hell knew?

His temper was simmering, and it wouldn’t take much to ignite. He wasn’t ready to be alone with Aisha or anyone, so he gestured to the path that would take them back to the hotel. ‘Let’s all head that way,’ he suggested, his words a few degrees below freezing.

Ro sent him a tentative smile. ‘Actually, I’d appreciate it if you could show Aisha the restaurant space, tell her what we are thinking,’ Ro said. ‘That would help me, Pas.’

Pasco turned to look in the direction of his car, wondering how long it would take him to reach it. He wanted to slide behind the wheel, crank the ignition, and rocket away. He didn’t need the complication of revisiting the past, wasn’t keen to dredge up old memories. To re-examine the past.

Ro waddled over to him—there was no other word for it—stood on her tiptoes and placed a kiss on his cheek. ‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’

What? He hadn’t said he would!

Ro told Aisha she’d touch base with her later and linked her fingers with Muzi. Pasco watched them go and, when they were out of hearing range, turned to look at Aisha again. Best to make things clear, here and now.

‘This is my town, my friends, my part of the world. I’m not interested in working with you and I’m sure your company can replace you without too much trouble,’ he said, his voice hard.

It took a few seconds for his words to sink in and, when they did, her eyes flashed and her nostrils flared.

‘My job, my career, and I’m not going anywhere,’ Aisha told him, her words coated with frustration and annoyance. ‘You leave and I’ll hire another restaurant consultant. I know more than a few and I don’t need you.’

Yeah, she’d made that abundantly clear when she left him. Pasco gripped the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger, trying to banish the headache that strolled in and settled down. ‘Ro is my friend and she asked me to consult on her restaurant, but I can’t work with you. If you need me to, I’ll talk to your boss. Give me his number.’

Her mouth dropped open and her eyes glittered with fury. ‘You arrogant ass! Who do you think you are? I do not need you to talk to my boss because I’m not going anywhere. And my boss is a woman, you patronising jerk!’

‘I just meant...’ Why was he explaining? Goddammit! ‘I need you to leave, Aisha. Just go.’

‘You go!’ Aisha whipped back, her temper turning her cheeks rosy. ‘I’d rather be bitten by a Cape Cobra than work with you. You’re the superstar chef, the one with various fingers in various pies. St Urban is my only pie, so leave it alone!

‘I signed a contract, and this job is important to me, crucial to my career,’ Aisha told him. She drilled a finger into his chest, so close he could see the subtle shades of colour in her black-brown irises, the tiny scar on the top of her lip. She’d changed her scent and now wore something sharp and sexy, head-spinning. Thoughts of restaurants and hotels receded and memories of her lithe and lovely body, naked of course, flashed behind his eyes. It took every shred of willpower he possessed not to lower his head, to cover her mouth with his, to drag her into his arms.

And if he did that, he might find himself on the receiving end of her right hook. She might look like the older version of the girl he married, but she’d grown up, become tougher, harder, more of a warrior.

He didn’t know whether to be furious or fascinated.

Oblivious to where his mind wandered, Aisha shoved her hand into her thick hair and seared him with a hot look. ‘I am staying here, and I will do my job, and that includes establishing this restaurant. If you decide to be a part of the process, you will treat me with courtesy and respect. Are we clear?’

When he didn’t respond other than to raise his eyebrows, she threw her hands in the air and spun away.

She took a couple of steps before stopping to toss a furious look over her shoulder. ‘I have work to do, Kildare, and you are wasting my time.’