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She was back. And Ashling Fitzgerald hadn't changed a bit in eight years, had she?
Gabriel Burke had known exactly where she was since she'd made her grand entrance to her parents' equally grand party just late enough to be 'fashionable'dressed in a pale pink sheath of a dress that lovingly skimmed the curves and flat planes of her now near perfect body. He'd felt the hair on the back of his neck tingle, his eyes had found her in a matter of seconds and he'd watched with hooded eyes from the periphery of the large room as she worked the crowd with a smile constantly in place, her eyes shining as bright as the jewels sparkling around her neck.
Oh, she was something all right.
More polished than he remembered, maybe. But he'd lay odds she was just as much trouble underneath that newly acquired sophistication as she'd been before.
'Well, you certainly scrub up well in a tux.'
Gabe smiled as her brother Alex joined him in the doorway. 'Don't you have a girlfriend somewhere you need to persuade that you're a funny guy?'
'She's chatting to her favourite rock star.'
From his advantageous height Gabe could see Merrow
across the room, laughing at something the older man was saying. 'You wanna be careful thereshe looks like she's enjoying his company more than yours.'
'Nah.' Alex grinned. 'You met him when you quoted the hotel renovation; he's about forty years too old for herand, anyway, I'm even better looking in a tux than you are. Why would she trade down?'
'You gotta work on that, y'know; it's sad you haven't outgrown all that shyness in your old age.'
Yes, because that one month made all the difference in the world when they were boththirty.
They surveyed the room in comfortable silence for a few minutes while Gabe forced himself not to look for Ash in the crowd again. What she got up to wasn't his problem any more; he didn't need to keep tabs on her.
Then Alex helped no end by asking, 'You seen Ash?'
'Talking to your cousin Richard.' And he'd known that a tad too quick, hadn't he?
'I meant since she got home.'
Course he did. Gabe pursed his mouth for a second; rolling the couple of olives he had left in his hand back and forth before he shrugged. 'Nope.'
'Looking well tonight, isn't she?'
Well wasn't the word Gabe would have used. Hot would have been more accurate if he'd chosen to be honest. Because that was how she looked to anyone who didn't know what lay beneath that beautiful exterior. Gabe knew. And she could be as hot as the face of the sun and he still wouldn't think she was worth the trouble she'd brought his way last time.
Didn't stop his gaze from straying across the room again as she lifted a fine-boned hand to tuck her sleek hair behind one ear, though, did it?
Alex continued, 'She's fired up about this gallery of hers.
You should tell her you're doing the renovation work on it that'll get you both talking again.'
No hurry necessary with that one, Gabe felt, and he wouldn't even have taken on the damn job if it weren't for the fact Alex had asked him to as a personal favour. 'She'll find out soon enough.'
Alex nodded. 'I know you rarely take on the physical part of it these days. And just in case I haven't mentioned it alreadyI appreciate it. The family is keen to have her stay home this time so, the sooner the place is up and running, the better.'
Gabe shrugged again. 'Be a good chance to make sure I can still do the work. No good yelling at crews when they mess up if I haven't lifted a power tool in years.'
'The benefits of being the boss old pal.' Alex grinned as he patted his shoulder.
Some days it didn't feel like much of a benefit to Gabe, but he didn't say that to Alex, because Alex probably wouldn't get it. He'd always worked at what Gabe considered the 'clean end' of the business. An architect might get the satisfaction of seeing his visions come to life, but there was nothing quite like building something, literally, as far as Gabe was concerned. Childhood building blocks, only bigger, Alex would rib him but meet and greet and make the deals just didn't have the same sense of satisfaction, Gabe would argue back. He was a hands-on kinda guy.
'Your parents are headed for your girlfriend.'
He chuckled as Alex disappeared, then settled back to watch the rich and famous interacting in their natural habitatwondering how they all managed to look so at home in their fancy clothes with their glasses of expensive bubbly while he still had a deep-seated urge to loosen his bow-tie, dump his jacket over
the back of the nearest chair and go find a bottle of beer. A reflection of his background, he supposed.
Still, at least while he stood on the periphery he didn't have to make small talk; that was something.
But the peace and quiet didn't last long. The hair at the back of his neck tingled in warning first, his spine automatically stiffening when a familiar melodic voice sounded right beside him in tones that somehow went straight from his ears to his groin.
'I thought I saw Alex with you.'
'Do you know where he went?'
He could hear what almost sounded like an edge of nervousness in Ash's voice, and a single glance from the corner of his eye confirmed it. She couldn't look him in the eye, could she? Score one to the home team, then.
Turning, he leaned against the door frame, folding his arms across his chest. And I'm s'posed to keep an eye on all the Fitzgerald children now, am I?'
Her hazel eyes narrowed a little when she glanced up at him. 'Picking up where we left off, are we?'
'I'm just not as easily fooled by this new version of you as the rest of the room appears to be, that's all ' he leaned his face closer to hers, his voice lowering ' but then I know you better, don't I?'
She faltered for a second before clamping her lips together and glancing around the room. Then she stepped in closer, the scent of her expensive perfume teasing his nostrils as she lowered her voice the way he had, looking up at him from beneath long lashes.
'You know the old me. But I'm not going to argue with you about it in the middle of my parents' party so maybe we should just discuss the weather for now?'
'It's Irelandit's been raining.'
He watched as the corners of her moist lips quirked, 'O-kay that was a short conversation. So what do you want to try next the economy? Politics? I'm open to suggestion '
'Picking a topic kinda suggests I want to make small talk, doesn't it?'
She cocked her head to one side, a curl of dark blonde hair bobbing against the tip of one breast. 'Still hate these parties, then, I take it?'
'Depends who I get to talk to at them.'
'YesI missed you too, Gabe.'
He pushed off the door frame. 'Have you met Alex's new girlfriend yet?'
She extricated her elbow when he attempted to guide her into the crowd. 'You don't need to make introductions for me. I've struggled my way through enough of these over the years to know how to behave.'
'Ah, but the last social events I saw you at were ones I was rescuing you from before the gards arrived, so I wouldn't know how you manage at a grown-up party, would I?'
Ash sighed at his side. 'Can I just remind you that your superhero tendencies in those days were voluntary? I never asked you to'
She stopped to chat to a couple of women who greeted her with the air kisses that always bugged the holy hell out of Gabe. But after eavesdropping on the words 'wonderful' and 'fabulous' at least a half-dozen times each, he'd had enough. And having seen Alex steer his parents away from Merrow, he saw an opening. So he wrapped his long fingers around her elbow again, smiling inwardly with an almost petty sense of satisfaction when she jumped in reaction, before he leaned in with one of his most charming smiles to inform the others, 'I just need to steal Ash for a bit.'
One step and she had her elbow free with another twisting
movement, robbing his fingertips of the heat warming them from baby-soft skin.
'You don't need to take on the role of escort for meseriously, I can manage.'
'Merrow's on her ownso try being nice for once. Your brother will thank you for it. Consider it an attempt to prove you've actually grown up enough to consider other people.'
Ash sighed again, deeper this time, and Gabe tried to ignore how it lifted her perfect breasts against the deep 'v' of her halter neck or how her nipples were two distinct beads against the soft material. But of the very many things he was, he wasn't either blind or any kind of a eunuchthe sight garnering a very basic male response in him, which he wasn't the least bit pleased about, damn her.
But then the fact he'd noticed her 'attributes' once they'd hit puberty had been half his problem, hadn't it?
'Auburn-haired girl in the gorgeous dress, right?' Ash stated.
'How in hell would I know? It's a dress.' And noticing one dress entirely too much as it was, not to mention everything beneath it, had translated into an irritated tone in his voice and he knew it. So he took a calming breath before adding, 'But if it helpsyes, she has auburn hair.'
Ash stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes checking around them before she scowled. 'So are you planning on either glaring at me from across the room or shadowing me like some kind of chaperon all night long?'
He leaned down to answer closer to her ear, his eyes on the crowd so he wouldn't look down the front of her dress. 'Depends. Are you planning on getting into some trouble I should know about so I can be prepared to smuggle you out of here for old times' sake?'
When he leaned back Ash smiled briefly at someone she knew, and then turned her face towards him, her voice low.
'Look, I get that your memories of me aren't good ones, but can we at least try and?'
And the disbelief must have shown on his face judging by the reply he got after she searched his eyes. 'We can't avoid meeting up at things like this, so maybe we should try t'
'Didn't anyone tell you men and women can't just be friends, Ash?'
'You actually believe that?'
'I know from experience. So unless you're suggesting making up with me another way '
The colour on her cheeks deepened as she lifted her chin an inch before turning away, and Gabe smiled a larger smile at her back. Because having the upper hand on Ash wasn't a bad feeling, especially when she'd run rings round him for so many years. And she wasn't messing around with a boy dependent on the approval of her family any more, was she? He'd paid his debts.
So if she wanted to try messing with him again she might find herself in a little deeper over her pretty little head than she planned for
He watched the sway of her hips as she walked away, the floor length dress moving like silken liquid against her body, her long hair cascading down between her fine shoulder blades, curled ends bobbing as she swung round to greet her brother's girlfriend with a vivacious smile in place.
Yup, she was still the piece of work he remembered but she was also all-grown-up and then some. And normally a feisty, strong-willed woman wrapped up in as sexy a package would have encouraged him to play, wouldn't it? Add the temptation of a little 'payback' too and well
He got to Merrow's side in time to hear, 'I'm Ashling
Fitzgerald, Alex's sister. But you can call me Asheverybody does.'
Leaning in towards Merrow on his way past, he muttered an addendum, 'When they're not calling her a pain in the ass.'
He then lifted one of the olives he'd been carrying in his palm, tossing it into his mouth before smirking smugly at Ash in the way he knew had always bugged her most as he walked by.
Ash waved one hand in dismissal while she shook Merrow's with the other, throwing out a retort just loud enough for him to hear. 'Pretend he doesn't exist. I've been doing it for years.'
So Gabe took a step backwards, whispering the words for her ears only. 'Except for that one time. Seems to me you knew fine well I existed when you were kissing me. And who knows what we might have done if your friends hadn't interrupted us?'
The flush reappeared on her cheeks as she turned to look up at him, her eyes narrowing in a way meant to warn him off, while Gabe's gaze purposefully dropped to her mouth as she whispered back, And we never will, will we? 'Cos even if we were the last two people left on God's green earth it's safe to say that'll never happen againever.'
She bit her teeth briefly against her bottom lip as she carefully enunciated the word 'ever', but one glance up into her eyes, where gold flecks in the hazel blazed at him in anger, Gabe found himself quietly laughing as he walked away. He couldn't help it, because, whether she'd meant to or not, she'd just laid down the gauntlet. The word ever suddenly was a challenge to him. He might just have to see about that
Ash didn't get too far in forming a new friendship when her nemesis returned, forcing her to take a deep, calming breath as she caught the low undertones of his cologne when he appeared with a plate practically groaning under the weight of food from the buffet table.
'She recruiting you to her campaign of terror, then, Merrow? I hope you have a good solicitor.'
Oh, he could try goading her all he liked, but she wasn't getting into a full-blown argument with him when she was doing such a good job of working the room the way she'd been instructed to. So she nudged him hard enough in the stomach to make him lose an hors d'oeuvre to the floor.
'The only solicitor I'll need these days will be to get a restraining order to keep you away from me.'