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Let go of the past to have any chance at a future...I'm shocked when Rafael Menendez de Aviles -- my first love, my one downfall -- appears at my business, offering to save it from bankruptcy. I'm even more stunned when Rafael, looking hotter than ever, makes a proposition: spend the next month together, allowing him to do anything he desires with me.And make no mistake: he will demand everything, and make me submit.If I agree to his indecent proposal, my business gets everything it needs -- and I get almost everything I desire. But is Rafael only back in my life to show me what I've missed all these years? Is he out for revenge? Or something more dangerous -- like love? I'm not sure, but I know this: I'm powerless against his touch, his kisses, his body.Opening our hearts and giving our bodies to each other a second time may destroy us forever...especially when the pain of the past and difficult choices for the future collide.PRAISE FOR Constant Craving:"If you are in the mood for some smart smut, Constant Craving checks of a lot of boxes: diversity, second chance romance, a hero you love to hate, a kinky heroine..." - Scandalicious"This erotic romance is the perfect read for when even chocolate can't satisfy your cravings." - Buzzfeed"The sex scenes are gloriously, thigh-squeezingly detailed. Rafael is gloriously, thigh-squeezingly detailed. Hot Romance Novel lovers, you will enjoy this book." - Vox Libris"Constant Craving is more than just an erotic novel. It is about soul mates who never stopped loving each other." - Cheryl's Book Nook
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Copyright © 2017 by Tamara Lush
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
To newspapers, my first love
1. The Distant Past
2. A Steamy Morning
3. Save Me From You
5. The Business of Desire
6. The Hum of Sex
7. A Kiss in the Rain
9. In His Arms
10. Tears and Memories
12. The Mind of Love
13. Plundering and Pillaging
14. The Indecent Proposal
15. A Tease
16. Slave to Love
17. Wicked Game
18. Watching Me Fall
19. Never Enough
20. Let’s Go to Bed
21. Tears of Love’s Recall
22. Playing House
23. Love Will Tear Us Apart
24. Something Must Break
25. It’s Called a Heart
26. How Soon is Now
27. Only One Thing
30. Ghosts of the Past
31. A Gift, A Kiss, and the Truth
32. Daylight Chasing the Night
35. Valentine’s Day
36. The Darkness and the Light
37. Blessed and Cursed
38. Everything Counts in Large Amounts
39. A Storm on the Sun
41. Slowly, Madly, Deeply
TELL ME A STORY
CRAVING MORE STORIES?
About the Author
Tengo hambre de tus ojos, de tu boca, de tus besos…
Those were the first words I heard Rafael say.
I hunger for your eyes, your mouth, your kisses …
On a warm October day, he stood at the front of the University of Miami classroom, reciting a poem in both Spanish and English. It was the second week of school, and he’d transferred into Public Speaking 101. He’d missed a few classes already and because of that, everyone noticed him on the day he read aloud.
All the girls couldn’t stop looking at him. Neither could I.
Rafael was tall and wore faded jeans and a plain black T-shirt. The dark stubble on his face, combined with his black eyebrows, dark eyelashes, and short black hair, made him look like the devil’s best student. A flashing red hazard to my heart.
As he spoke, Rafael stared. At me. I was sitting in the second row. His eyes were so filled with possessive desire that I longed to kneel at his feet and beg him to do anything he wanted with my body and soul.
When he finished speaking, Rafael watched me, his mouth open in a half-smile, one that held the promise of pleasure.
I was breathless. Hypnotized.
“Thank you, Mr. Menendez. Ms. Lavoie, you’re next,” the professor called out, startling me enough that I hurriedly gathered my papers. One fell to the floor, and I scrambled to retrieve it, scooping it up with shaking fingers.
Stepping to the front of the room, I passed Rafael as he took his seat. I swallowed hard when our eyes met for a quick second. My mouth was uncomfortably moist, and I folded my arms. I was aware of how my vintage, black-and-rose-printed Betsey Johnson slip dress and black flip-flops rubbed against my skin and would’ve liked to strip everything off. Rafael’s gaze made me feel naked. Made me want to be naked. With him.
“Please tell us the title of the poem you’re reading,” said the professor.
“I’ve selected ‘Sonnet Seventeen,’ by Neruda,” I replied in a thin voice, staring at the ground.
“Uncross your arms. And you’re going to have to speak louder. Remember, this is a public speaking class, not a public whispering class.”
The few students who bothered to pay attention laughed, and I raised my eyes toward Rafael. He slouched low in his chair, his long legs sprawling and taking up space in the front row. His lips curved upward and built into a sensual smile. I tucked my wavy hair behind my ear.
With a deep breath, I began.
Rafael consumed me with long, slow glances as I recited the poem. His lips parted, and I caught sight of his tongue in the corner of his mouth. By the time I reached the second sentence, I smiled. A secret, just for him. It was as if we were the only two people in the room.
When class ended, I hurried outside into the white-bright Florida sun, shivering with restless longing. A hand gently grabbed my wrist, and the fine hair on my nape trembled.
“Justine?” he asked, his voice gentle and flecked with a slight Spanish accent.
I was nineteen and inexperienced. I’d only kissed a few guys, maybe gone a little further. I was pretty shy back then. And I stayed away from guys who looked like Rafael, mostly because I assumed they wouldn’t be interested in a girl like me.
“Where are you from?” My small wrist looked so fragile in his big hand.
Rafael’s grin revealed dimples under the stubble.
“So, Justine from St. Augustine,” he said, rhyming and stealing my heart. “What are you doing this weekend? Are you going to that party everyone’s talking about, the Fantasy Fiesta costume party? Isn't that a stupid name? Are you dressing up?”
I laughed, temporarily mute. My best friend Diana had told me about the party and was urging me to go. I’d said no, thinking that yeah, it was a pretty stupid name.
But if Rafael would be there, maybe I would go. My skin flared with heat, as if I had spent a day at the beach in August. His eyes were the most unusual color, a rich, deep copper, and they glinted in the sun.
“I don’t have plans,” I murmured.
Another grin, this one wicked. I had never seen such long eyelashes on a man.
“Do you know what you should be for Fantasy Fiesta?”
I shook my head again, and he stared at me for a smoldering beat.
FIFTEEN YEARS LATER
I am standing on a sidewalk next to a pirate.
“Seriously?” I say out loud.
I flick my hand at the man sprawled in front of my newspaper building. A black hat with a purple feather hides most of the guy’s face.
“A drunk pirate? Today?”
We’re the only ones on the street, but he doesn’t hear me. Because he’s out cold. If his belly weren’t rising and falling, I’d take him for dead. Dirty green pants, black boots, and a black vest. No shirt. His torso is fish-belly white, naked and flabby. The sour stench of beer hits my nostrils, and my nose wrinkles instinctively. A thin sigh escapes my lips. The guy had probably gone on a bender over the weekend during the city’s annual pirate festival. He’d run out of steam and stamina here on the concrete in front of the St. Augustine Times, the final stop on the Sunday night parade party route.
A strand of green beads hangs limp around his neck, and I curl my lip in disgust.
Because it’s the city’s biggest tourist draw, my newspaper celebrates the ten-day soiree of stupidity with a snappy headline. As it has for every pirate festival, every year, for decades. Hell, I even wrote the headline this year because, as publisher of a small paper, sometimes you have to step in when your city editor’s on vacation.
Pillage the Village: Like Mardi Gras! With Pirates!
I snort out loud. Pirates. Tourists. Florida.
Now it’s Monday morning and I—the youngest female newspaper publisher in America—am the cleanup crew. On the day I’m supposed to look gorgeous, sound sharp, and make a case for salvaging my business.
“Hey. Excuse me? Hey!” I shout in the guy’s direction, and he doesn’t move. I don’t need this, not today. Taking a few steps, I prod the pirate’s forearm with my black, pointy-toed stiletto that’s already rubbing my heel raw. He’s not budging.
Larry, the newspaper’s security guard, opens the front door and peers down at the slumbering man. I take a few steps back and grimace. It’s all I can do to contain my annoyance that Larry didn’t deal with this when he arrived that morning. I wave my hand at the drunk.
“We need to do something. Now. Call the cops. We can’t have a potential investor stepping over a passed-out pirate on their way into the paper this morning.”
Larry ducks back inside, and I pace, the skin of my left heel eroding with every step. I check my watch. It’s eight-thirty, and the morning air is as putrid as the beer that’s in the plastic cup sitting a few feet from the pirate. Already a bead of perspiration is trickling down the back of my thigh.
I pause on the corner, trying to figure out if we can somehow drag the drunk out of sight, near the loading dock where the circulation crew tosses newspapers into the trucks at three every morning. Moving the guy ourselves might be quicker than relying on the local sheriff’s department, which hasn’t been thrilled with me since the paper did a kickass exposé six months ago on a string of officer-involved shootings in the city’s black neighborhood.
I sweep my long hair off my neck, hoping to cool off, then let it fall to my shoulders in a thick, sticky curtain. Why had I taken the time to blow it straight when I could have slept for an extra half-hour? I hate wearing my hair down when it’s this hot. My natural waves are fighting the humidity already.
The humidity’s winning.
Maybe I should retreat into the air-conditioned comfort of my office, twist my hair in a bun, and pretend I never saw the drunk. Feign ignorance when the vice president from the private equity investment fund shows up for our meeting at nine.
No. Can’t do that. It’s too cowardly. A real woman looks a challenge in the eye and winks.
I tap my foot faster. The guy’s beefy, and I doubt if Larry and I could handle him on our own. Who else can help? Is anyone even in at this hour? Over the past few weeks, since rumors about our impending bankruptcy started to swirl in the city’s alt-weekly newspaper and on a local blog, reporters and editors and ad salespeople have been coming in a few minutes later each day and leaving a few minutes earlier every night.
My gaze falls on the newspaper’s building, a four-story concrete-and-stucco behemoth built by my great-grandfather. To me, the building always had its own personality. Imposing. Serious. A place of importance.
It takes up an entire block. It’s an ugly building, but it’s my ugly building and I’m trying like hell to save it.
I sigh. Crap, I forgot to tell maintenance how I’d driven by the previous evening and the light of the letter s on the building’s sign no longer illuminated. The Time, it said in bright green letters. Add it to the long list of broken things at the paper.
I’m item number one on thatlist.
Diana, the paper’s chief finance officer and my oldest friend, bursts out the front door, belly-first. She’s pregnant. Very, very pregnant. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a ponytail, and her tanned skin—I keep telling her to use sunscreen or else she’ll look like an alligator in ten years—is shiny with sweat.
“Hey. Watch out for the pirate.” My hand instinctively goes to my forehead, and my thumb circles my temple. I shouldn’t have had that second glass of chardonnay last night while preparing for today’s meeting.
“Oh, hell.” She steps around him and rushes to me, breathless. Why is she in such a hurry? She’s never in a hurry, pregnant or not.
“Yeah, we need to get him out of here. Do you know if Larry’s calling the cops?”
“No idea. Did you see the Wall Street Journal this morning?”
She flips a copy of the paper at me. It’s folded twice to a manageable rectangle.
“No. Only had time to read our paper, get ready, and guzzle a gallon of coffee. And stress about today. What’s up?”
“What about it?” I snatch the paper from her.
“Read the article.”
“Later. The meeting’s in fifteen minutes. I’m waiting for the VP to show up. I don’t want him to see that drunk—”
“I know when the meeting is. That’s why you need to read this.” She points to the bottom of page one with a chubby finger. Pregnancy and humidity have conspired to make her fingers look like sausages, but I won’t tell her that.
Squinting, I read the first sentences aloud. “In a surprise move, MDA of Miami has agreed to buy a majority stake in Florida Capital. As part of the $800 million cash deal, MDA will assume all of Florida Capital’s investments and continue to expand its acquisition of media properties and other companies throughout Florida and Latin America. Assets under MDA are valued at $18 billion.”
The article jumps onto another page, and I don’t bother to search for it. I look up into Diana’s wide, blue eyes and shrug. “So? Sounds like this is good news. They’ll be more likely to take a chance on giving us money. Score!”
She takes the paper and smacks my arm with it. “Read the rest.”
I shove the paper toward her. “I need to deal with this pirate. Do you think you, me, and Larry can haul him across the street? Wait, no. You can’t. You’re too pregnant. Is anyone in the newsroom?”
“A couple of guys. But keep reading. Second paragraph. Top left column.” Diana’s lilting Southern accent is uncharacteristically blunt.
“Okay, Jesus, you’re pushy today.” I grab the paper, flip it over, and read fast, out loud in a buzzy voice. “Founded just one year ago, MDA backs midmarket companies in a variety of industries, including media, consumer and business services, consumer products, distribution, and financial services. MDA is owned by Florida’s wealthiest man and number 275 on the Forbes 500, Miami condo king Rafael Menendez de Aviles…”
My voice trails off, and my chest tightens. My eyes read the name five times. I haven’t said it aloud in years.
“Oh God,” I whisper. It’s suddenly hotter than hell and half of Florida. I fan myself with the newspaper and look around. My headache erupts with a vengeance. “Oh God.”
“I think it’s the same Rafael.”
“Thanks. Of course it’s the same Rafael.” For a second, I suspect a vein in my temple is going to burst. I inhale.
This is bad. Worse than bad. Disastrous.
Diana frowns. “He probably doesn’t know you approached Florida Capital, but I thought you should read that before you sat down with someone from the company. If you still want to sit down with someone from the company.”
I nod and gulp in a few breaths. “Right. Okay. Yeah. I’m sure he has no idea. We’re pocket change to a company like his, yeah?” My voice sounds tight, strangled.
“Mmm. I hope.”
I’m nearly hyperventilating. I try swallowing, but my mouth is dry and the swallow sticks in my throat. The coffee is burning a hole in my stomach.
Rafael Menendez de Aviles. I glare at the newspaper again. My hands tremble. This is what seeing his name in black-and-white does to me.
“I’m sure everything’ll be fine.” Her tone isn’t convincing. She turns to squint into the morning sun and at the pirate.
“Yeah.” I draw out the word. “Just. Peachy.”
We stand in tense silence for a few minutes, me with shaky hands, fanning my face with the paper, Diana staring at the drunk and rubbing her belly. My earlier resolve to drag the pirate away is gone. It doesn’t matter if there are a dozen passed-out drunks sleeping in front of the building.
If Rafael now owns the private equity firm, there’s no way he’ll—
Diana interrupts my dismal thoughts. “Every year, it’s always the fat, old guys in the puffy shirts and eye patches who end up at our building after the parade. It’s never a dude who looks like Johnny Depp.”
Now she’s trying to calm me by cracking a joke.
The newsprint has gotten on my fingers and mixed with my sweat. I pass her the paper and wipe a moist, grimy palm on my black pencil skirt. “Whoever thought the St. ARR-gustine Pillage the Village Fest was a good idea a hundred years ago should be drawn and quartered. Or made to walk the plank. Or shot.”
“How long do you think the cops will take?” Diana asks.
“Who knows? Not soon enough. Guess I should’ve scheduled this meeting after the festival was over. Or not scheduled it at all.”
We’re verbally dancing around the real issue.
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault that a guy’s using the sidewalk to sleep off his buzz. Not like we didn’t pillage the village back in the day. Remember the time I dressed like a glitter pirate princess?”
I groan. Now she’s really trying to make me feel better, bringing up our wilder moments from our teenage years. Bless her heart.
Pressing my hand onto my hip, I tap my foot faster on the sidewalk. Now I’m sweating everywhere and not because it’s so stupidly, unseasonably warm for February in Florida. I’m sweating because the very idea that the most important man of my past could eventually be in charge of my future—and my company’s future—is impossible to comprehend.
“So I guess the VP of Florida Capital—or MDA or whatever the company’s called now—will see our business, warts and all. We’re a newspaper. We traffic in truth. Why try to gloss over the ugly?” I shrug casually as panic pools in my midsection.
Diana shoots me a sharp look. “Come on. We’re not that bad of an investment.”
“There’s a lot of ugly right now at the St. Augustine Times.” I spit out a laugh. “I wish I’d stayed a reporter.”
Diana sighs. “You were a great reporter, and I know that was easier than being publisher. But what is it that you said to me when your dad died? This is your legacy. You love this. Fighting for what’s right. Being the voice of the community. Upholding the First Amendment. It’s in your blood.”
“Lofty, ivory-tower bullshit,” I mutter.
“Stop being grouchy. You believe in this paper. Otherwise, why try to save it?”
I grunt. She’s right. I love this place, this business, even with all the problems. I still think we can make a difference in this fucked-up world. When I’m having a bad day, I often think of a quote from my favorite dystopian comic book character, Spider Jerusalem: “Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.”
Trouble is, my gun’s been dropped, kicked, and crammed with mud. If it even fires, it might blow my head off.
Diana’s eyes soften. “The building alone is worth what you’re asking for the loan.”
I roll my eyes. The building is the only thing of value, and that’s what’s heartbreaking. And Diana knows it. As the CFO, she’s aware of how dire things are. Everything hinges on this meeting. My career. My newspaper. My entire life. The Times has been my family’s heirloom to the city for nearly one hundred and fifty years, and its future is uncertain.
And now, Rafael is standing in between me and success.
The enormity of it all leaves me at once unsteady and detached, as though I’d been plucked from my safe world and plopped into a different dimension altogether, one where the laws of sense and sanity don’t exist.
Larry pokes his head out the door again and calls to me in a loud voice, “Justine, the police said they’d be here in five or ten minutes.”
“Thanks, Larr.” I smile without showing my teeth and wave. He’s worked at the Times for longer than I’ve been alive and is only a couple of years from retirement. Sweet, white-haired Larry, who used to buy my brother and me Rocket Pops off the ice cream truck when we were in grade school and were forced to spend afternoons at the paper with Dad during summer break.
What will happen to Larry’s pension if this deal doesn’t go through? He disappears inside. I could be the one to tank Larry’s pension. The hole in my stomach spreads into a crater.
I tug my tight pencil skirt down past my knees, then inspect my thumbnail. My red polish hasn’t chipped. Yet. I stand with my back to the street, and Diana’s elbow nudges my forearm.
“Don’t sweat it. Rafael won’t show up today, Justine. He probably doesn’t know this meeting is even happening.”
“Yep. It’s a big enough company that he probably doesn’t keep track of all the requests for funding, especially so soon after the acquisition. Besides, it sounds like he runs a real estate investment company and owns God-knows-what else in Miami. I wish someone had let on that this was about to happen when I applied for the loan.”
“Maybe it’ll even work in our favor.”
I shrug, but my shoulders stay hunched somewhere around my ears. “Maybe. Anyway, I’ll bet Rafael’s forgotten I even exist. It’s been, what, ten, twelve years since we’ve seen each other?” I know exactly how long it’s been, because I occasionally do the calculations in my mind.
Eleven years, two months, and three days.
Not that I keep track or anything.
Diana clears her throat while looking at the drunk. I wince when the pirate scratches his belly in his sleep.
“Fuck my life,” I mutter.
Precise footsteps sound on the sidewalk behind us, and my heart thrashes against my ribcage. I’m about to turn around when there’s a pause in the steps and a beat of silence. My heart hammers in time with the throbbing pain in my head. Is it possible for a thirty-four-year-old woman to have a stroke and a heart attack simultaneously?
“So, corazón, I’ve heard the news business is going through some tough times. I didn’t expect skid-row drunks, though. Wait. Is that a pirate?”
My breath hitches, and a sudden heat spreads through my body. That tone. Sardonic and sexy. I haven’t heard it in so long, but it’s as familiar and seductive as the humid breeze that inspires the Spanish moss to sway in trees all over the city.
Rafael Menendez de Aviles.
I spin around fast enough that my long hair tumbles over one shoulder. After all these years, the sound of that man’s voice is capable of taking my breath away.
My posture stiffens as I stare into his face. His flashing, near-black eyes sear into mine while my breath settles near my collarbone. All the memories flood my brain in that moment, memories that leave me dizzy with lust and longing and, most of all, regret.
“Rafael.” I cross my arms tight over my breasts, trying to hide the emotion in my voice.
What am I trying to hide exactly? Surprise? Anger? Desire?
All three, truth be told. And so many more.
“Rafael.” I repeat myself, louder this time, sharper. The pain in my head has vanished, replaced by a troupe of angry hummingbirds in my stomach.
He doesn’t respond, just allows me to stare at him. Does he see my face getting warmer and sweatier and probably red?
I blink several times, hoping he’ll shimmer into the morning humidity like some kind of sexy man-mirage.
The short, black hair. The thick, dark brows and long eyelashes framing those stunning eyes. The prominent nose with a slight bump in the middle, the bump I used to kiss softly when he woke in the morning and before he fell asleep at night. It’s the only imperfection on an otherwise model-handsome face. His full lips hold a tiny smile. No, it’s a smirk. A ridiculously sexy smirk twisting into a cruel line.
He doesn’t vanish. His eyebrow quirks upward. I lick my dry lips out of nervousness and desire and immediately hate myself for feeling both at once.
But how could I not?
At six-feet, three-inches, he’s exactly a foot taller than me. God, he looks delicious. Better than he did when we were in college.
This isn’t good.
His charcoal-colored suit jacket is tailored to highlight his broad shoulders and arms, and yet it seems to barely contain his muscles. He’s got on a white shirt underneath, unbuttoned at the top. No tie, because I suspect he wants to project a rakish, doesn’t-give-a-shit attitude. As if he happened to show up at my business by chance.
Rafael never does anything by chance. At least, he didn’t when I knew him.
He thrusts his hands in his pockets and doesn’t blink. Rocks back and forth on his heels while staring at me while I gulp for air like a grouper out of water. My throat is parched.
Is he laughing? And what’s with him looking down at the sidewalk, then back into my eyes? Like he’s bashful or flirtatious or nervous? It’s an act. I know it. His eyelashes are still long. Dammit. He looks at me and blinks.
The lashes. I stop myself from groaning out loud in agony.
He blinks again, and the corners of his mouth quirk upward.
Oh, I’m certain he’s aware of the effect he’s having on me.
I draw a long breath, trying to regulate my erratic heartbeat. I glance over at Diana, who’s staring at us, slack-jawed. She knows what kind of chemistry we possessed together. She knows how much I’d loved him and how he hurt me.
And now she looks more than a little terrified of what is about to go down.
What is about to go down? It’s as if time has stopped. A heavy feeling settles in my stomach. The troupe of hummingbirds has dropped dead.
His smirk spreads into a big, sexy smile. “Buenos dias.”
I shoot him my best, well-practiced, bitchy resting face. “Well. What a surprise.” My voice is the opposite of the air this morning. The opposite of what I’m feeling in my gut. Instead of hot and thick, my tone is pure ice.
“I know how much you love surprises, Justi.” The dimples in his cheeks deepen, the glint in his eyes grows more feral, and I stop breathing for a few seconds.
No one ever called me Justi, except Rafael. It was the nickname he used to whisper in my ear whenever he tipped my body into a spiral of mind-blowing orgasms.
And whenever he told me he loved me.
I’d bite my bottom lip so hard I feel a searing pain.
“Rafael,” I say in a sharp voice.
“You still like saying my name, don’t you? You’ve said it three times now.”
Damn him. My nostrils twitch. “I thought my appointment was with a senior VP, what’s his name, Jonathan. That’s who I spoke with on the phone. Of course, when I contacted the Florida Capital a month ago, I didn’t know that you’d be buying it.”
He licks his lips, as if he’s trying keep himself from saying something, and then grins a little. “Your appointment was with my VP. But I decided to handle the account instead.”
I fold my arms. “I wouldn’t think the new owner of a multibillion-dollar equity firm had the time for such a miniscule request from a struggling newspaper publisher.”
“I give my clients personal attention, Justi.”
“Personal attention from you? What luck.”
His eyes flicker to my mouth. “Si. Que suerte,” he murmurs, probably recalling that his Spanish was always a turn-on for me. “Yes. What luck.”
He appraises me coolly, and I step toward him, my hand outstretched. I’m trying to be professional, but really, all I want is to feel his skin on mine. His eyes widen for a millisecond.
“You won’t even shake my hand?” I ask in a soft voice.
His grin fades. Neither of us blink as our fingers clasp one another. Even though I’ve spent years rehashing our relationship, cursing him, hating both of us for what we did to each other, every moment has led to this.
My delicate hand gripping his larger one. The way the palm trees seem to stand still and the parrots overhead stop screeching. Our inescapable, explosive chemistry. My mouth waters a little when I remember how his skin tasted, and even now, I still suspect he’s the only person in the world who can truly see me for who I am.
Which scares the hell out of me.
“Don’t you also have a real estate empire to run in Miami?”
He drops my hand when he detects the snark in my voice. For a fraction of a second he looks wounded, like the young man I once knew. But the look vanishes when he releases that predatory grin again. His eyes bore into mine, and I inhale unsteadily as he talks in that smooth-as-caramel voice of his.
“I do still have my real estate business. It’s nice to hear you’ve been keeping up with my career. But I can run my companies from anywhere. Even here. I assume a dying newspaper has Internet access, correct? Or have things gotten so bad that the utilities have been shut off?”
“No, things aren’t that bad.” I roll my eyes and point at Diana. We’ll get to the humiliating situation with my business soon enough. “You remember Diana, right? She’s now the paper’s CFO.”
He turns and peers at her for the first time. “Yes. Of course. I haven’t seen you since graduation.” With controlled ease, he nods toward her large stomach. “A new baby is a blessing. I’m happy for you. When are you due?”
“In about a month. You look great, Rafael, I’m impressed. You must be working out.”
Sighing, I put my hand on Diana’s back. “Okay. The reunion’s over. Let’s go inside.”
Rafael chuckles. I turn to lead him and Diana into the building, feeling Rafael’s eyes on my every move. I glance over my shoulder at him and flick my hair behind my shoulder. “Please excuse the, um, pirate.” I step gingerly around the sleeping man. “Every idiot with an eye patch and a bottle of rum came to St. Augustine this weekend for the pirate parade.”
When we’re on the bottom of the three steps into the building, Rafael reaches up and around my body in an attempt to open the door for Diana and me. His warm fingers graze my bare arm, and I jerk away from the jolt of desire that surges though me. He can feel the electricity, too, I can tell.
“I’ve got the door,” I say sharply, lunging for the handle. I yank hard.
Rafael’s expensive-looking wingtip slips on the final step leading into the building, and he comes close to stumbling. I lob a grin back at him, batting my own long lashes in his direction.
I always knew exactly how to make him come undone.
Once inside the newspaper, we stop in a large, nearly empty room. I’m still sweating and suddenly detect a moldy smell in the air. What fresh and hellish problem is this? It’s not coming from where the roof leaked over the copy desk a couple of months ago. Why haven’t I noticed this before today?
I glance at Rafael, whose nose is wrinkling. Adorably. His lip curls. Adorably. He looks down, and his face contorts. Yeah, that’s adorable too.
When the smell of onions wafts in my direction, I look down as well. Someone has left a greasy piece of pizza in an open box atop a two-drawer, beige file cabinet. The slice has a single bite taken out of the tip.
Journalists are pigs.
I clear my throat, wondering if the night editor used his own cash for the pizza or if it came out of the newsroom budget. I’m going to kill him if it’s the latter.
“Rafa,” I say, using my old nickname for him because two can play this game. “Maybe you remember this. Or maybe you don’t. It’s the newsroom.”
For a beat, he winces when I call him Rafa. I sweep a hand in the air, in the direction of two editors and a reporter. They’re all guys, and they look identical, as if they’ve only ever worn poorly ironed, blue button-downs, drank cheap draft beer and read the AP Stylebook for fun—which they probably have. It’s a little shocking that they’re even at work at this hour, truthfully. They perk up when they spot us.
Rafael’s too well dressed for this crowd. And I usually never wear heels. We’re attracting attention. We’ll definitely be the topic of discussion for the rest of the day, and I’m certain that people will think I’m selling the paper.
“Welcome back from vacation, Derek,” I say, smiling, keeping a cool, professional tone in my voice as I address the crusty old city editor who looks like he hasn’t showered in three days. I suspected he’d spent his vacation at the local dog track.
“Got a job interview, Justine?” he replies, grinning and pointing at my shoes. My dad hired him twenty years ago, and despite his unkempt Jimmy Buffet-meets-skid-row drunk fashion sense, he’s a brilliant editor.
Had I still been a reporter, I’d have given him the finger, because in a newsroom, it’s generally acceptable for coworkers to be wildly inappropriate with each other. But I’m in charge now, so I need to act like an adult.
I spin toward Rafael. He flicks his wrist to check his watch. I fight the urge to shake him into paying attention.
He raises his eyebrows. “How many staffers does the Times have now, Justine? Surely this isn’t everyone?”
“A couple dozen in the newsroom, many more in other departments. Most of the reporters are out on assignment.” Or, I decline to explain, they haven’t rolled in yet because they’re too hungover or are busy sending résumés out to the three available public relations jobs in the city.
A smile dances on his lips. “A couple dozen? That’s a big drop from a decade ago. Things have changed a lot, haven’t they?”
“Some things have,” I mutter. “Other things haven’t changed. We still strive for quality journalism. And we achieve that on most days.”
Our eyes meet for another long second. An unexpected rush of emotions passes through me, making my skin tingle. My eyes water ever so slightly, and I blink rapidly. When was the last time a man made me feel tingly?
How can one fleeting look unravel my composure? I’m being irrational. Emotionally disorganized. Sweat pricks the back of my neck. I need to get my shit together and fast. Just because Rafael and I were college sweethearts doesn’t mean we can’t do business together. Just because we ended miserably doesn’t mean we can’t be professional.
“Rafael? Is that you?”
It’s the creaky voice of Caroline, the seventy-something food and garden writer and doyenne of the newsroom. I’m not exactly sure how old she is, because she always says a lady never talks about her age or her weight. All I know is that she started at the paper when my grandfather ran the place and is like a mother to me.
She’s also the first person I introduced to Rafael when I brought him home our freshman year in school. It was as if I wanted her approval before even my father’s.
“Carolina, mi amor.” For the first time, Rafael’s voice seems genuine and not growly. He uses the Spanish pronunciation of her name and trills his r at the end of the word amor and sweeps the little woman up into a fierce hug while sporting a huge grin. That grin makes my chest ache for when he’d been genuine with me. The trilling of the r tugs at a different place in my body.
I need to stop remembering our good times. Or anything at all.
The smell of Caroline’s signature scent—YSL’s Opium, straight from 1985—surrounds me in a cloud. I love Caroline too much to take her off the part-time payroll, and these days, she only shows up at the office when she feels like it.
Of course, today has to be a day she’s working.
Rafael and Caroline hit it off from the moment they met, when I took Rafael on a tour of the newsroom that first Christmas break we’d been a couple. He used to say that Caroline and I were the only people he truly felt comfortable around.
Fifteen years have passed since that Christmas. Fifteen. Eleven since we’d broken up. I suddenly feel ancient. My hand goes to my lower back and rubs an invisible pain.
Diana shuffles up to me and whispers in my ear. “Oh boy. You’re screwed now. This is what she’s wanted for years.”
“I know. She’s going to totally think we’re getting back together.”
“Hmm,” Diana hums softly. “Well, that’s an intriguing idea."
“No way,” I hiss. I take Diana by the elbow and pull her a few steps away, near the city hall reporter’s desk, which is overflowing with files and probably a fire hazard. We’re out of earshot of Caroline and Rafael, who are chatting and patting each other and acting like the long-lost friends they probably are. As I watch them laugh, I idly wonder if they’ve emailed over the years and Caroline hasn’t told me.
“Don’t lie. You want him,” Diana whispers back.
“Shut up. I don’t want him. And we are not getting back together. This is strictly business.” I glare at Diana.
“Maybe not as a couple, but I’d place bets on you two getting horizontal together in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.” She turns her back to Rafael and Caroline and holds up her thumb and forefinger in a circle, and with the other hand, her index finger moves in and out of the circle.
I swear to God she has the mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. “Hell no,” I reply and sneak a glance at Caroline, who has a hand on Rafael’s cheek.
“My goodness, Rafa. You have gotten even more handsome,” Caroline gushes.
I stare and let out a snort. “Can she stop? He obviously doesn’t need any more ego-boosting. Christ. Do you see that suit? It probably cost more than my car.”
Diana shrugs. “He’s really filled out nicely. Remember how thin he was freshman year? Still sexy back then, but today? Sweet baby Jesus. Look at those shoulders.”
Now I loathe both Diana and Caroline. “Witch. You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“I am on your side. And I know that you haven’t been on a date since your last breakup. And you haven’t gotten laid since way before that since Jared wasn’t exactly stellar in that department, either.”
Diana’s withering assessment of my ex is spot-on. Jared Duncan, TV news personality, was a great guy. Funny, charming, and passionless. One who took his granite-carved jaw out of Florida and left a year ago for a job at a big station in Los Angeles. I’d met him at a Florida journalism event when he worked at a station in nearby Jacksonville and dated him for three years to pass the time. He was fun at parties and an excellent dinner companion, but in bed, he’d been about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.
On the plus side, my father had adored him.
I grunt and give Diana a sour look. “I hate when you’re right.”
Diana grins. “I’m always right.”
I ignore her and study Rafael. Caroline gazes at him lustily. “I’m so glad Justine finally came to her senses and called you. I never liked that TV pretty boy she was dating.”
I roll my eyes so hard I can practically see my brain.
Rafael glances in my direction and tilts his head. “Justine’s dating someone?”
“No, not anymore,” I say quickly, stepping toward him and Caroline. “And I didn’t call Rafael. I called Florida Capital. Which he bought, just the other day, according to the Journal. I didn’t know that it…he’d…” My voice trails off because I see Caroline’s gazing at Rafael adoringly and not listening to me at all. I sigh audibly.
“TV anchorman. Like Will Farrell?” He stares at me, and I can’t read his expression. There used to be a time when we seemed to be able to read each other’s thoughts.
He breaks out into a laugh and squeezes Caroline’s shoulder, which is encased in a hot pink cardigan. “I’m here to see if I can help Justine out. I’ll be in town for a while, staying at the Casa Monica. I can’t wait to take you out. Clear your schedule, Caroline. Wednesday, perhaps?”
Of course he’s staying at the nicest historic hotel in town.
Caroline lets loose a throaty laugh. He tells her she’s beautiful in a string of panty-melting Spanish and again lifts his eyes to mine. I scowl and put on a brave, fake smile and point toward my office.
“You two can catch up later. Let’s proceed with what you came here for, Rafa.”
Caroline flutters away. Rafael doesn’t smile. “Why do you think I came here, Justi?”
I ignore him.
“Dating an anchorman. Hmm.” He says this like he’s mulling something over.
I continue to ignore him and maintain my plastered-on smile. Why does he care? I mull this while glancing at his silver cufflinks in the shape of an X. I realize they’re probably not silver, but likely a more expensive platinum.
Once inside my drab office, my cheerful facade fades. With a grunt, Diana eases her pregnant body into a saggy tan armchair.
My back is to Rafael when I reach on my desk to grab a file folder, but I can feel his gaze on me. When I turn around, Rafael is glowering. I pass the file to him. Our fingers touch, and I can’t stop myself from feeling flush. My cheeks are probably tomato-colored.
“I put this together for the VP of Florida Capital, but maybe you want it. It’s a history of the paper, starting from when my great-great-great-grandfather founded it in 1866.”
“I’m well aware of the Lavoie family history. Gracias. You can keep your file.”
“Fine,” I say sourly.
He sinks into a threadbare, brown loveseat. He looks almost comical, a broad-shouldered man on a small sofa. The furniture—actually, the entire building—smells like old printing ink and sweat and desperation. Rafael rests his hand on the sofa arm, then snatches it away when he spots a lingering stain. A features editor spilled coffee there a few weeks back, and I didn’t have the money for a professional cleaning.
Everything in my office looks cheap and tired under the fluorescent, overhead light. Rafael appears expensive and new, as if he’s burnished in a thin layer of diffuse sunshine and money.
I wheel my simple office chair from behind my desk. I refuse to look in his eyes and sit ramrod straight, my legs crossed demurely at the ankles. Projecting a cold exterior is essential, otherwise I might show Rafael any number of swirling, contradictory emotions.
Like annoyance. Like giddiness. Like lust.
I take a long, weary inhale. Taking charge of this conversation isn’t going to be easy because Rafael is staring at me in a way that makes me lose my train of thought.
He extracts a vibrating phone from the inside pocket of his jacket.
“Are you ready? Or do you need to take that call?” I ask in a cross voice.
He scowls and rises. “I apologize. I’ll be only a moment.” He stalks out of the room, and my eyes follow his long legs out the door.
Not wanting to make small talk with Diana about the thick tension in the air, I twist to face my desk and pretend to search for a pen, picking up papers and slapping them down noisily.
“Justine,” Diana says in a stage whisper. “You two need to have a serious talk. Clear the air. I don’t see this deal happening until you do.”
“I’m not talking about our past. We’re adults, here to talk about business. We’ve got nothing to discuss other than whether his company will give us a loan.” I grab a copy of the Times and place it on my lap as if it’s a childhood blanket. In a way, it’s soothing, the feel of the newsprint.
“I don’t want to talk about any of it,” I say softly.
Indeed, I have lots to say to Rafael, but this isn’t the place. There might never be enough time for me to unpack my complicated feelings for him and how we ended.
Diana’s eyebrows rise. “Why not? Maybe he’s here to apologize. He clearly didn’t have to come here today.”
I groan. “No, he sure didn’t. And I wish he hadn’t.”
“Well, he certainly looks like he wants you. Those eyes. God. I felt the tension from the moment he walked up. I can leave, you know. Give you some privacy.”
I shake my head and fold the corner of the paper. “Don’t you dare leave me alone with him.”
“Why not? You were together four years. That’s a long time. You loved him.”
I purse my lips and shrug. What can I say? What happened between us had been so complicated. One problem had morphed into another, and like falling dominoes, everything got knocked down. We were almost married. Almost parents.
We almost made it.
My chest constricts when Rafa walks back in and sits on the loveseat.
He smiles, and his X-ray stare is again fixed on me. “You have my undivided attention now.”
“How gracious. Thank you. You’re a busy man, and I don’t want to keep you here any longer than necessary. I’ll be blunt. The Times is in trouble, and we need money. I’m willing to discuss partial ownership or an outright purchase of the paper, but I’d prefer a loan. I’ve already met with two other private equity firms, and they’ve turned me down. I wanted to see what Florida Capital could possibly do for us.”
Rafa smiles and blinks slowly. Is he mocking me? Is he taking this meeting seriously? Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the other two failed attempts at funding, but something in his deep gaze forces me to spill my thoughts.
We tear our eyes away from each other and watch as Diana shifts uncomfortably, hoisting her big belly from one side of the chair to another. She cuts in. “I’ve been here for ten years, and the Times had financial difficulties even before Justine’s dad died. It’s the entire industry. Not our fault. Not Justine’s fault. We appreciate your interest—”
Rafael interrupts her and turns his smoldering gaze to me. “I read his obituary in the Miami paper.”
I nod curtly, folding the paper in my lap into a smaller rectangle. I take a deep breath. Even though he’s been gone a while, my feelings are still raw. Especially since I’m a failure at running the family’s business. “Daddy would not be happy about the state of things at the Times.”
“I’m sorry to hear about Edward,” Rafael says gently.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t fucking cry.
“We all are,” I say in a cold voice. Rafael’s not sorry at all. He could’ve sent flowers to the funeral. He could’ve picked up the phone. He could’ve comforted me in person instead of partying with models at a South Beach mansion. I know that’s what he’d been doing because I’d read about it in the pages of Ocean Life Magazine and cried myself to sleep that night. It had been the worst night of my life: my father had died, Jared had left for Los Angeles the month before, and I’d realized once and for all that Rafael didn’t care about me.
“Edward loved only two things fiercely: this newspaper and you,” Rafael muses, almost to himself, while looking around my dismal office. I glare at him. He’s right, of course, but the fact that he’s bringing up details about my personal life that only he knows throws me off-kilter. “He never gave anyone else a chance.”
Diana pipes up. “Well, Edward did adore Jared—”
I make a hissing noise out of the side of my mouth like a stern schoolteacher. Diana clamps her hand over her mouth. I shoot her a scowl after I notice a brief look of shock cross Rafa’s face.
“Pregnancy brain,” she mouths at me.
I turn my head and shut my eyes for a second, trying to gain composure. My father never liked Rafael. Thought he was a hustler. He’d even once told me that Rafael only wanted to mooch off our family money. His platinum watch sparkles in the wan light of my office. It’s probably a Rolex or something even more expensive.
How wrong you were, Daddy.
A sharp knock on my office door makes me open my eyes. I rise to answer.
It’s Ethan, the managing editor. He’s around my age, going bald, and annoyingly ambitious. He’s also sweating. I raise my eyebrows. “I’m in an important meeting. Can this wait?”
“No. Brian quit fifteen minutes ago. On the spot. Says he has a better job in Atlanta and needs to leave immediately.”
“Thank you. We’ll deal with this in an hour or so.” I go to close the door, but Ethan holds up his hand.
“Wait. We don’t have any photographers now. We have assignments scheduled today. There’s a protest at City Hall at noon. And the city pool is hosting a dog swim event before it’s drained tomorrow. I’ve set aside a half-page for photos of that, and the web editor wants a slideshow, too. What should we do? Is there money in the budget for a freelancer?”
I glance back at Rafael, who is listening with interest. I narrow my eyes at Ethan.
“Tell reporters to take photos with their smartphones. Tell the web editor to go to the city pool for the dog event with her camera if no one else is available. Or you go yourself. You remember how to take a photo, right?”
With a wave of the newspaper in my hand, I shoo a grunting Ethan away and shut the door with more force than I intend, then turn to Rafael and Diana with a frown.
“That’s how bad things are here. Reporters now have to take their own photos.”
Twenty years ago, this would have been unthinkable. There were five photographers back then and three times the number of reporters. There are days when I wish I didn’t care about this stupid newspaper so much. Today is one of them.
“Why can’t you hire a new photographer?” Rafael asks.
“We instituted a hiring freeze. We’re not replacing people who leave. It’s an attempt to save money,” Diana replies quietly.
I shake my head and practically fling words at Rafael, as if he’s personally responsible for the demise of the American newspaper industry. “It’s like this business is dying from a thousand tiny cuts.”
“Calm down, Justi. Let me see if I can fix this.”
Rafael’s silky voice annoys me. It’s more likely he’ll cause problems for me, not solve them.
“Right. After all these years, you’re going to ride in on your white horse and be my knight in shining armor. Thank you.”
I shouldn’t sound so sarcastic to someone trying to help me. I can’t believe any of this is happening. There’s no way he’ll give me a loan, not after how we ended. My headache is back with a vengeance, and I’m throbbing with shame. I might as well stop the presses now, permanently.
I plop back down in my chair and fiddle with the newspaper as Diana rattles on about how the Times is uniquely poised to make a comeback despite a dismal newspaper climate, words that seem hollow in light of the fact that I acknowledged we can’t even afford to replace a photographer. There are options for papers, Diana claims, and I nearly snort out loud. Ending print delivery, shrinking the number of pages, layoffs. I only half-listen. I’ve heard all the possibilities for years, as paper after paper around the country dwindled in size and scope.
Rafael extracts a small, black notebook from an inside pocket and scribbles notes with a gleaming platinum pen.
I cut in. “We’ve been playing with different revenue streams lately. New ad rates, new subscription offers…”
“Oh?” Rafa asks, his gaze hitting me head-on, so intense I falter and flail in response. I used to get lost looking into his stunning eyes and am trying to stay grounded now. Trying and failing.
“We’re…now…running a promotion so people can subscribe to the paper digitally for twenty-nine dollars a year.”
Rafael blinks once and addresses me like I’m a four-year-old. He points the pen at me. “Twenty-nine dollars? That’s ridiculous. You’re giving your product away. It’s not good business.”
I sigh and roll the paper in my hands into a baton. No shit, I want to say. If I don’t look into his eyes, I can continue to muster anger and outrage.
Diana chimes in. “I thought it was great when Justine started calling the private equity firms for help. Florida Capital really turned around the papers in Key West and Punta Gorda.”
Rafael shifts to Diana. “Before I acquired the business, I did a deep-dive into the financials of those deals. Those were much smaller papers than the Times. They were weeklies, not a daily publication like yours. They have different ad rates, subscriber bases, and revenue streams. I’m actively looking for more media properties for my portfolio, though. The Times might fit.”
I shake my head a little. Rafa had always been incredible with numbers. I, on the other hand, still use my fingers and a few toes to perform simple math.
“Why are you here?” I blurt and point the rolled-up newspaper in his direction.
Rafael looks at me, startled. “Excuse me?”
“Why. Are. You. Here? Let’s get it out in the open. You’re the owner of a condo empire. You own lots of funds and businesses and half of Miami. And we had a…” I wave the newspaper wildly in the air as if I’m Indiana Jones fending off snakes in a cave, dimly aware I’m not making much sense. “…a past. Together. Why are you here? This is a pittance to you. Why didn’t you send someone from Florida Capital to get our information?”
Rafael rubs his lips together, as if he’s trying not to laugh. With precision, he slips the pen and notebook into an interior pocket of his jacket. Then he looks down at his hands, intertwines his fingers, and glances up at me. His face is amused and a little arrogant, and part of me wants to grin in mirthful response, despite the serious situation.
“When I acquired Florida Capital, I was briefed on the upcoming potential deals. This one stood out for obvious reasons. I thought it would be, ah, intriguing, to handle this myself.”
We stare at each other. I remember what it felt like to kiss him for the first time, and I stare at his full, beautiful mouth. My lips part and twitch a little.
“I wanted to help an old friend. I couldn’t let you suffer or fail, could I?”
My gaze plummets to the floor, and my entire body sears with a different heat. Flames of humiliation. Rafael is helping the Times and me out of pity. If there’s anything I loathe, it’s pity.
I have for years, since practically the entirety of St. Augustine pitied me when my mom and brother were killed in a car crash when I was in high school. Pity made me feel exposed and like a zoo animal, as if people were spectators of my grief.
And now, as much as I want to thwack Rafael on the head with the rolled-up newspaper and tell him I don’t need his money, I have to remain calm.
He’s the paper’s last hope.
“I have an idea,” Rafael says in a bright voice.
“Tell me.” I can’t look him in the eye, I’m so ashamed. He’d be the last person in the world I’d reveal my vulnerability to if I had a choice.
But I don’t.
Instead, I stare at his polished, black wingtips and wonder how much they cost.
“I have a list of some of the documents I’d like to forward to my analysts in Miami. Maybe Diana can begin gathering those this afternoon. And while she’s doing that, you can take me on a tour of the paper and we can catch up. We’ve got a lot to talk about, right, Justi? How does that sound?”
The fact I’m in the powerless position of needing Rafael hits me like a kick to the gut. I’d walked away from him years ago. Now, we’re sitting in the same room and I’m begging him to bail out my newspaper.
Begging for other things might easily follow, if I’m not careful.
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