Copyright © 2013 Shelley Munro
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Are we in agreement?” Julia asked after running through the final items on the list she’d made during the day.
“Brilliant,” Susan said with a trace of awe. “I love the idea of branching out into classes and doing hen’s nights is a stroke of genius.”
Christina nodded. “Are you sure the burlesque will work? Are there other places that do it or are they strictly strip clubs along K’ Road?”
“I did a bit of quick research online. There are no places offering burlesque performances in the area, but it’s big overseas. I thought burlesque might widen our appeal and get more women in the place,” Julia said. “What’s taking Connor so long?” She took two steps toward the door and came to an abrupt halt. Her pulse roared in her ears like a thundering train, shock threatening to buckle her knees. She staggered a couple of steps before reinforcing her shaking limbs enough to bear her weight.
“Ryan?” she croaked.
“Julia!” Ryan crossed the room in seconds flat and grabbed her into a tight embrace before she could react. His familiar scent rolled over her, masculine with a hint of spicy green and the outdoors. He pressed her head to his chest, apparently content to hold her against his trembling frame. For long seconds she let him, too stunned to react. Then her shock gave way to fury, and she lashed out with her foot, kicking him in the shin.
“Ow!” He released her abruptly, an aggrieved scowl distorting his pretty face. “What did you do that for?”
Cripes, she’d broken her foot, not that she’d admit it to him. She gathered the pain and hurled it back in harsh words. “You can’t come waltzing back after nearly a year and expect me to welcome you. Didn’t you receive the divorce papers?”
“I don’t want a divorce.” His blue eyes bored into her. Determined. Steady. He glanced at their avid audience. “Maybe we should take this somewhere private?”
Julia dug in her heels, feeling contrary. He had no right to burst into her life again. And as for orders—forget it. She squared her shoulders and glowered at him. “They’re my friends. They can hear anything you have to say to me.” Aw, heck. Ryan. She’d thought she’d hate him… No! She did hate him. “You cheated on me.”
“When did Julia get married?” Susan asked.
Curiosity buffeted Julia in waves, coming at her from all directions. Great. Just great.
She lowered her voice, steeling herself against his charisma. One look at his dark hair, blue eyes and strong runner’s body and her willpower seeped through the soles of her favorite high-heel pumps. Go figure.
“I can’t talk to you now. We should discuss this with our lawyers present.”
A total contradiction of her previous words. Off-balance, surprise and a tinge of outrage ran hotly through her veins, yet she wanted to grab him and lay one on his sexy lips. She wanted to lick along the tail of the dragon winding around one biceps and explore the scaled body tattooed on his shoulder. How could he do this to her?
“I’ve never cheated on you.” Her fault this was playing out publicly, his determined expression told her. He’d wanted to do this in private. The stubborn man didn’t move an inch, didn’t shift his intent gaze from her. “I haven’t slept with a woman since our last time together.”
“That’s a lie.” She’d seen the pictures of him with other women, heard the gossip. Hell, the husband-stealing slut had even spoken to her on the phone. Ryan’s cell phone. Anger and betrayal pumped through her again, the wound as fresh as the day he’d broken her heart.
“Caleb, tell her,” Ryan said, without moving his gaze off her.
Caleb stepped forward, tall and dark and so much like Ryan they were often mistaken as brothers instead of friends. Heat suffused her cheeks, memories of the three of them cavorting in bed blindsiding her.
Julia closed her eyes, hoping the two men were a fanciful mirage.
Unfortunately, her life lacked magic. When she opened her eyes, Ryan and Caleb still stood right in front of her, silent, stubborn sentinels.
“Why would I believe him?” she demanded. “He’s your best friend. He’d lie if you asked him.”
“You haven’t met Neil and Jeff.” Ryan pulled out his phone and pushed speed dial. “Ask them your questions.”
“It’s true,” Caleb said. “Ryan acted like a monk for our entire tour. Now I know why,” he added. “We had no idea you were married.”
“Hey, Neil. It’s Ryan. I’m going to put Julia on the line. Can you answer her questions?” He paused. “You don’t need to know who she is.” Another pause. “Hell, I don’t know. It’s not multi-choice. Just answer whatever she asks you. Tell the truth.”
Julia accepted the phone from Ryan, humoring him. “Hello.”
“Go on. Ask them anything,” Ryan repeated.
She glared at Ryan as she spoke. “Is Ryan a man-slut?”
“Jesus, Julia,” Ryan snapped.
“Where’s the popcorn?” Maggie asked the room at large. “This is better than a movie.”
“Shush,” Connor whispered to his wife. “I don’t want to miss anything.”
Julia glowered at both of her friends and received unrepentant grins in return. “Well? Are you going to answer my question?”
“The truth?” a low, gravelly voice asked.
“Of course.” She wanted to know the truth, didn’t she? The pit of her stomach seemed to fall away in the few moments she waited for Neil to speak again.
“Before this tour, Ryan used to have a lot of women. Women are always throwing themselves at him. This tour was different. He still went to the parties, but he didn’t leave with anyone. He didn’t let any of the women drape themselves over him unless it was a publicity shot. Nothing too personal during the parties either, even before the mugging.”
“What mugging?” Julia asked.
Ryan reached for his cell phone. “Satisfied?” He studied her, silently enforcing his will. “Thanks, man. Yeah, I’ll explain when you get back to Auckland.” He ended the call.
Julia stared at him for an instant longer. “Who was mugged?”
“That’s what I want to know,” Christina said, nosy interest in her tone.
“I have never cheated on you. Do you believe me?” Ryan’s face was devoid of his normal humor, his eyes darker and more intense. She studied him doubtfully, taking in the details she hadn’t noted due to her initial shock on seeing him. He’d lost weight, his skin bearing a pallor that was in stark contrast to Caleb’s healthy tan. When she studied him more closely she noticed his jeans hung on him and the corners of his eyes bore lines she was sure hadn’t been present during their last meeting.
“What about the woman who answered your phone?”
“Ryan was mugged and someone stole his phone and wallet,” Caleb said. “Maybe the thief answered your call.”
The excuse seemed too easy, too pat, yet a streak of worry jumped into her mind. He’d been hurt? “When? What happened?”
Ryan grimaced. “It happened about a month after we got to Europe.”
A burst of emotion choked her throat. Around about the same time she’d lost the baby. She’d cursed him because he hadn’t been there for her when she needed him.
Could he be telling the truth?