Jodie wandered through the empty treatment rooms in her spa one last time before she headed upstairs to her home. She planned to take a bath, finish up the bottle of wine in her fridge, and blast Adele from her stereo. But first, she had to make sure everything was in place for the grand opening in the morning.
The spa’s décor was tranquil—pastel shades of green and blue with large potted plants to break up the space. She’d gone for ornamental bamboo and sculpted trees. Although a bright pink orchid sat on the reception desk. Every single thing was designed to make her customers feel relaxed and pampered. From the overstuffed sofas in the waiting area, with their hot-pink accent cushions, to the state-of-the-art lime-green treatment chairs she’d paid a fortune for.
“It’s looking good, sis.”
Jodie glanced over her shoulder from where she was fussing with the stack of fluffy white towels to find her brother, Deke, grinning at her. “It couldn’t be better, could it?”
“I don’t know a whole lot about spas, Jo, but it looks good to me.” He glanced around. “It looks professional, clean, organised, and girly. What more is there?”
Jodie patted him on the chest as she walked past him into the corridor. “And that is why I’m in charge of the spa side of things and you’re in charge of the kitchen. Girly? Really?”
“Are you going to turn that comment into a feminist rant? Because if you are, I’m out of here.” He followed her through to the restaurant area.
“I don’t rant. I educate.” As she had been doing to Deke for most of his life.
“Well, consider my education complete.” He pushed the double doors to the kitchen open and held them for her to pass. “I should get a graduation certificate.”
“For what? If you’re calling women girls, there’s obviously still work to be done.” She cast her eyes around Deke’s domain and smiled. He’d insisted that the kitchen open up into the dining area, saying he didn’t trust a kitchen he couldn’t see. He’d also done away with the usual stainless-steel surfaces of a professional kitchen and opted for wood and marble instead. The effect was one of beauty and function. “Are you ready for your opening night?”
They’d staggered the opening of different areas in the business just in case there were any problems and they needed to do some damage control. The restaurant was due to open the weekend after the spa.
“Got the menu sorted, produce ordered, and the bulk of the staff on board. I need to hire two more waitstaff, then we’re ready.”
The dining room faced the newly landscaped gardens, where a small gazebo sat decked in fairy lights—the focal point of the view. They’d kept the height of the main room in the old church, making a feature of the exposed beams and the stained glass windows that had once sat behind the pulpit. The smaller windows running the length of the room had been replaced with picture ones, providing views of the garden, but the rough stone walls remained. It was small, cosy, warm and unique.
“The McGregor brothers did a great job with the furniture.” Jodie ran a hand over the warm wood of a handmade table.
“Talented lot,” Deke agreed.
The brothers ran a local building business that covered everything from electrical work to carpentry. The eldest brother had made the tables from recycled wood taken out of the building before the renovations. The chairs were customised from old pews, cut to various sizes and fitted with luxurious cushions.
“I hope people like it,” Jodie confessed. “I want this to be a safe haven, not just for the staff but for the women who come to the spa and the people who dine here. I want this to be a place where you can escape the stresses of life and get some really, really good food.”
Deke chuckled. “I can promise the good food part anyway.”
As Jodie bumped her shoulder into her massive brother’s side, a wave of sentimentality washed over her. He could have taken any one of the jobs he’d been offered in London. Instead, he’d thrown his lot in with her.
“This is for Mum,” she said softly.
“Yeah.” Deke wrapped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “She’d be proud of what you’re doing here.”
“What we’re doing,” she corrected as she pressed a palm to her stomach. “I can’t remember the last time I was this nervous. I actually feel nauseous.”
“Well, damn,” a deep voice drawled. “Guess you won’t want the dessert I brought then.”
Jodie jerked out from her brother’s hold and spun towards the door, where Mitch stood grinning at her. Great. The sight of him standing there in his grey suit, tie loosened at his throat and hair messed from running his fingers through it all day, did nothing for her nerves.
“Mitch, good to see you.” Deke crossed the short distance, and they shook hands.
Jodie stood frozen to the spot, her mind running a mile a minute. Why was he there? They had an arrangement. One that didn’t involve seeing each other outside of his hotel room. She liked their arrangement. It was perfect. She didn’t need him messing with it.
“Hear you’ve been seeing my sister.” Deke folded his arms, making those army muscles of his bulge.
Mitch, wisely, didn’t reply. He just gave Jodie a smile that made her blood heat. Not a good situation to be in when her baby brother was busy poking his nose where it didn’t belong.
“I told you to butt out of my personal life,” Jodie reminded her brother. “It has nothing to do with you.”
The idiot just laughed. “Now, what kind of a brother would I be if I didn’t take an interest in the guy my sister’s dating?”
“The kind that lives a long life?” she told him.
“We’re just friends,” Mitch said. But the way he said friends made it clear there was a whole lot of something else going on.
She glared at him, and he widened his eyes in faux innocence.
“Friends?” Deke asked, practically challenging her to deny it.
“Just friends. Nothing more,” she confirmed.
An alarm went off in her head when Mitch smiled in triumph. Why the hell was he pleased she was agreeing with him? He was the one who insisted they were more than friends. What was he up to? She narrowed her eyes at him.
“So…” Her annoying brother would not shut up. “If you’re just friends,” he said to Mitch, “there’s no chance of you breaking my sister’s heart.”
“None at all,” Mitch agreed.
“Great.” Deke’s smile was cold. “Then there’s no chance of me breaking your legs.”
“Deke!” Jodie grabbed a handful of her brother’s olive-drab shirt and dragged him towards the door. “Time for you to go. I’ll deal with you later. We’re going to have a talk about all the ways I’ll be butting my nose into your business from now on, since that’s apparently what we do now.”
Deke held up his hands in surrender as he backed towards the door. “You should know,” he said to Mitch, “my sister gets violent when she’s cornered.”
“Yeah, I figured that out for myself.” Mitch sounded far too amused for her liking.
“Out!” Jodie snapped at her brother.
“I’m going.” He pushed through the door. “Don’t mess up my kitchen while I’m gone. Those surfaces are pristine. Keep them that way.” And with that, he disappeared.
Jodie spun to see Mitch smothering a smile. “Good to know you have family looking out for you,” he said.
“I don’t need him looking out for me. I can look out for myself. What are you doing here?”
“Dessert, remember?” He held up a bag.
Jodie waved a hand, indicating the room they were in. “We own a restaurant. I have food.”
“But you don’t have the best cheesecake in the Highlands. For that, you need me.” Mitch put the bag on the counter. “I have connections.”
Against her will, Jodie began to soften towards the man. He oozed charm with every word, and he was far too handsome for his own good. That was why they needed to keep their interactions to the bedroom. In the dark. In silence.
“Mitch, seriously, what are you doing? We have an agreement. You shouldn’t be here.”
“What I’m doing here is bringing you a treat to help you unwind at the end of what has been, no doubt, a very busy day. And to wish you all the best for the start of your new business tomorrow. I’m sure it’s going to be a hit.”
Again with the melting. Jodie took a step back. She didn’t need to melt. She needed to be strong. Compartmentalize. That’s what she needed to do. And right now, Mitch Harris had to be shoved back into his compartment.
“That’s nice of you. Honest. But this isn’t what we agreed.”
“No?” Mitch rounded the counter and checked shelves until he found a plate.
He put a huge slice of chocolate cheesecake on the plate then rooted around in the drawers for a fork. Jodie’s mouth watered at the sight of the cake. She was a sucker for cheesecake, especially chocolate. She groaned when he pulled a small container from the bag and poured chocolate sauce over the top of it. All it needed was a scoop of vanilla cream, and she’d be in seventh heaven. Another tub came out of the bag, and Mitch spooned cream onto the plate. It was as though he could read her mind.
Jodie dragged her eyes away from the plate, which was pretty damn hard, and looked at the man. “No. We agreed to a friends-with-benefits arrangement. No relationship. No romance. Nothing.”
“Exactly.” He pushed the plate towards her. “This is me invoking the complete agreement. This is me, being your friend.”
Oh, this wasn’t good.
Mitch leaned over the counter, picked up the fork and scooped a piece of cake. He waved it in front of her. Tempting her. Just like the snake did to Eve. And look how that turned out.
No, no, no, no.
This wasn’t happening. Jodie liked things just the way they were; there was no need to mess with the status quo. Mitch had to realize that. She was more than happy to have the benefits without the friendship. And yes, that made her all kinds of slutty, but she was beginning to think she could live with the slutty part of her nature. Plus, it was the twenty-first century. Weren’t they past slut-shaming? What kind of feminist would she be if she slut-shamed herself? She was a woman. She had needs. She eyed the cake. Right now those needs were warring inside of her, telling her to take the cake and the man.
Be strong! She straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath. “Look, Mitch. Our arrangement—”
“States that we’re friends with benefits. Yeah, I know.”
When she ignored the forkful of cheesecake, Mitch brought it to his own lips. He moaned as he tasted it, his eyes fluttering closed. The sight made Jodie’s mouth water and not just for cake. For a moment, she lost track of her thoughts.
“Good, good cake.” His eyes opened, and he stared straight at her. “I was thinking about our arrangement and realized that we have plenty of benefits, but we don’t have much of the friend part. Now, as you’d know if we ever spent any time talking, I’m a lawyer. And as a lawyer, I know that having a deal that isn’t completely adhered to leaves a person open for all sorts of complications. A deal is a deal and should be fulfilled in its entirety by both parties. Otherwise, the agreement becomes null and void. That way lies anarchy.” He calmly ate another bite of cake, watching her while he did so, and she almost groaned at the sight.
Damn, he was killing her here.
If he thought she was going to be charmed by his ludicrous argument, he had another think coming. “Mitch, I don’t do relationships. I told you that. You can’t turn this into something more than it is.”
“Who said anything about a relationship? We’re talking about friendship. Without the friend part, we don’t have a valid agreement. Without the friend part, we just have benefits. And as much as I love those benefits, it would be dishonest to take part of the deal without fulfilling all of it. After all, an agreement is an agreement.”
“I don’t mind if we only keep half of the agreement.” In fact, it was exactly how she wanted things to be. “Maybe we should renegotiate the deal to get rid of the friendship part? We could just stick to the benefits.”
Mitch shook his head, slowly, as though resigned to his answer. “I respect you too much to relegate you to booty-call territory. Maybe when I was younger, but it seems a bit immature now that I’m in my thirties.” He heaved a sigh. “No, we’re better off with a mutually respectful arrangement that includes friendship with the benefits. And it has to be the whole arrangement, Jodie. I’m known for my honesty in business. If word got out that I only held up half of my deal with you, it would ruin my reputation.” He wiped his mouth on a napkin he’d also pulled from the bag.
“But I don’t want things to change. I like things the way they are. I hate to sound heartless, but I’m just in this for the sex.” She winced as the words came out of her mouth.
Mitch rounded the counter in a move that was pure predator and stalked towards her as though she were prey. Jodie backed up against the benchtop, and he placed a hand flat on either side of her, caging her in.
“You’ll still get your sex, I promise.” The words were a rumble that vibrated throughout her body, making her melt.
Mitch leaned into her, pressing his firm chest against her breasts, making them ache to be touched. He engulfed her in his warmth and scent, seducing her just by his presence. She clenched her fists at her sides to stop from tugging that pristine shirt from his pants and sliding her hands up the contours of his stomach. Damn, it was agony fighting the lure of him.
“Sex without the friendship?” she managed to say, hating that the words came out as a question rather than a firm declaration.
The man was interfering with her thought process. Muddying her mind with the way he moved against her and the memories of what he could do to her body. Getting physical with Mitch was like nothing she’d ever experienced. His entire focus centered on her, reading the sounds she made as though they were a how-to manual for giving her pleasure.
“Can’t do that, baby.” Mitch nuzzled the spot behind her ear that literally made her knees go weak. “Got to do the honorable thing.” His teeth tugged at her earlobe, and his rumbling drawl against her ear sent a shiver throughout her body. “You understand that.” As he nipped at the edge of her jaw, Jodie dimly noted that her eyes had closed and her hands were now fisted in his shirt.
“No friendship,” he whispered the words against her mouth so that she could almost taste them, “no benefits.” He bit the fullness of her bottom lip, and she couldn’t help the small squeak of need that escaped her. “And we don’t want the benefits to stop, do we?” His tongue soothed the slight sting in her lip. “Not when the benefits are so, so good.”
Jodie couldn’t think. She’d become one huge ball of yearning need. Yes! her body was screaming, the benefits are good. Don’t stop the benefits.
“You listening to me, Jodie?” He whispered the words between tiny kisses across her cheeks. “What’s it going to be? You want the benefits to stop? Or are we fulfilling the whole agreement?” His fingers threaded through the hair at the base of her head, and he angled her face up to him. “Look at me, baby.”
It was a whispered command, and in her lust-drugged state, she couldn’t resist obeying. Her eyelids heavy, she forced them open.
The dark look in his eyes stole what breath she had left. “You don’t want the benefits to stop, do you?” he whispered.
“No.” Not now. Not ever.
His eyes crinkled and warmed as he smiled. “Good, Jodie. That’s good. So, we’ll have a nice little friendship along with those benefits. But, don’t worry, nothing else is going to change. I’ll still give you what you need.”
Jodie found her eyes focused on his lips as he spoke. She heard the words, but she honestly couldn’t say she understood them. “Less talking, more kissing,” she demanded.
“Whatever you want,” he said before his mouth covered hers.
His kiss was dark and deep and swept away what little cognisance she had left. Without knowing how it had happened, she found herself sitting on the counter with Mitch standing between her legs. His body pressed against hers, the heat of it a seduction in itself. She felt firm muscle ripple as one hand threaded through her hair and the other caressed the curves of her back. Her hands were under his shirt. Fingers digging into flesh at the waistband of his pants. She could feel him, hard and ready against her. And she needed him. Badly. Now.
“Not on the counters!” The shout startled Jodie’s mouth away from Mitch.
He stayed where he was, breathing hard as Deke came into view. It took Jodie’s brain a minute to defog enough for her to realize her brother was glaring at her.
“What did I tell you about the surfaces?” Deke demanded. “This is a health and safety concern right here. We could get shut down over this shit.”
Jodie blinked at him, vaguely noting that Mitch hadn’t stopped holding her. “I’m not going to fall off the counter,” she said to her brother, sounding a little dazed.
“I’m not talking about injury,” Deke snapped. “I’m talking about sanitation. I prepare food on the surface your backside’s sitting on. At least you aren’t naked. For that, I’d need to bleach the counter. And my eyes. Now, off.” He pointed at the two of them. “And out of my kitchen.”
As Deke stomped over to the cleaning closet, all the while muttering about his sister acting like a horny teenager, Mitch curled his hands around her waist and lifted her down from the counter.
Jodie looked up at him. Part of her was ready to pick up where they’d left off and was trying to decide whether or not to invite him upstairs. The other part of her was wondering what the hell she’d agreed to in her lust-induced state. The man was a drug that dulled her common sense. Was that a thing? Was it actually possible to get high on male pheromones?
Mitch’s smile said he knew exactly what she was thinking, which made her scowl at him. As usual, it had no effect. Instead of running from her wrath, like any sane man would do, he tugged her shirt back into place, skirting her aching breasts as he did so. Asshole.
Cupping the side of her neck, he leaned in to whisper, “Don’t forget to eat your cake.”
Then, with a nod to Deke, he was gone. Leaving Jodie to stare after him with a mixture of desperation, frustration, and deep irritation.
“Friends my hairy backside,” Deke muttered as he bumped her out of the way to get to the counter.
Jodie frowned at the door Mitch had gone through. She’d been played. With a growl of annoyance, she turned to fetch her cake, only to find Deke with the fork in his hand and half of the cake missing.
“Mine!” Jodie snatched the plate and fork from his greedy hands.
“Great cake,” Deke said. “Wonder who made it.”
Of course, he’d been distracted by the food. Men. They only ever thought about one thing—food. Okay, well two things.
“I’m going to bed,” Jodie declared.
“Yeah, would have been nice if you’d decided that before you contaminated my kitchen.”
Jodie ignored him and stomped up the stairs to her flat, cradling her cake while wondering how she’d been bamboozled into making a deal with the devil. The man had just messed up their nice little arrangement, and now she had to work out how to get things back to the way they were. Like she didn’t already have enough to deal with without Mitch being difficult.
With a groan, she took her cake with her to run a bath. Deke was right. It was damned good.