Before he’d moved to Las Vegas, JT had made quite a name for himself in Miami’s social scene. Going at life at a reckless pace whether it was fast boats, expensive cars or unavailable women, he hadn’t cared whom he hurt as long as he displeased his father.
He liked Violet too much to subject her to his unhealthy family dynamic. Besides, she wasn’t a good choice for him. Unlike the women he usually pursued, she would expect things from him. Things he couldn’t give her. Openness. Joy. Trust. In order to be with her he’d have to surrender the defenses that muffled his emotions and protected him from pain and disillusionment. She’d lure him out of his comfortable dark cave and require him to find happiness. How was he supposed to do that when his childhood hadn’t given him the tools?
His father believed anything that got in the way of business was bad. As a kid, JT had had that philosophy hammered into his head. His mother had been weakened by her hunger for love. Being ignored by the domineering husband she adored had made her life hell, and she’d started retreating into drugs and alcohol around the time that Tiberius left town. By the time he turned twelve, JT was used to being ignored by his parents, forgotten by his grandfather and alienated from his uncle. Nor was there any family on his father’s side. The only person who’d showed any interest in him was his grandmother and she split her time between Miami, Virginia and Kentucky.
Traditional family. Love. JT had never grown up with these things.
Being around Violet gave him a glimpse of what a normal personal life could be. The love she had for her sisters, her mother and Tiberius made him long to be included in her circle. But he couldn’t take the steps needed to put himself there. Nor could he leave well enough alone either. The need to connect remained. A tantalizing temptation. One of his deep, dark secrets.
So he visited Fontaine Chic night after night and sat in the bar. He craved a relationship with Violet, but had no idea how to go about having one. In casino terms, he was betting the minimum. He’d never win big, but he wasn’t going to lose everything either. Playing without risk was not how he lived. He got a rush from flinging his body into danger, but gambling with his heart was something else entirely.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” he responded at last. “Will you miss me if I go?”
The question caught her off guard. Her eyes widened and her lips parted, but no words came out. Usually their exchanges hovered on the verge of personal without either of them crossing that line. Tonight, he’d changed the game by giving her a glimpse into what was bothering him, by trusting her with his plans for the future.
“I’ll miss your business,” she retorted with a wry smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. She uncrossed her legs, signaling their conversation was at an end.
“Violet.” He caught her hand before she could rise. The casual contact created a complex chain reaction in JT’s gut. He wanted her. That had never been in doubt. But what lay below the lust was dangerous beyond belief. “I’m really sorry about Tiberius.”
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and released her. It rattled him how hard it was to relax his fingers and set her free. What he wanted to do was draw her into his arms and let her soak the shoulder of his suit coat with her tears. He knew it was impossible. They didn’t share that level of intimacy. The fact both relieved and frustrated him.
“Thank you.” Two polite words, but her tone carried a wealth of emotion. She dabbed at the corner of her eye, catching teardrops on her knuckles. “I’m such a mess.”
“I think you’re beautiful.”
* * *
Such a simple statement from such a complicated man. Unvarnished and without subtext, the words shook her. Needing a second to compose herself, Violet made quick apologies and headed for the bar to snag a couple of drink napkins to soak up her tears. Feeling steady once more, she returned to where JT now stood.
“Are you okay?”
The hard, unyielding businessman was back. As Violet nodded in response to his question, she breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever glimpse she’d had behind the curtain, however brief, made JT that much more interesting. And that was problematic.
Long ago she’d accepted that one look from him set her hormones off like Roman candles. Lust she could handle. She was a modern girl with a healthy appetite for sex. Maybe she didn’t indulge often, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t interested. Just cautious.
It was the way her heart sped up whenever she spotted JT that concerned her. Getting romantic notions about a man as emotionally unavailable as JT would only lead to heartbreak. And she’d seen the effects of that sort of misery up close. Violet’s mother had been abandoned by her married lover and left with a baby to support. Ross Fontaine had taken everything Lucille Allen had to give and moved on without a backward glance. Yet despite her heart being a shattered mess, Violet’s mother still loved Ross and would to her dying day.
No. Violet was way too smart to end up like her mother. The instant the uncharitable thought surfaced, Violet regretted it. She loved her mom like crazy. It was just that being Lucille’s daughter had forced Violet to grow up too fast. If not for Tiberius, she’d have had no childhood at all.
He’d adored Lucille. Taken on the responsibility for her and her daughter. They’d been his family. Not legally, of course, because even though he loved Lucille and wanted to marry her, she refused to give up on the hope that one day Ross Fontaine would return to her.
When Violet gave her heart, it would be to someone available, emotionally as well as legally. His reputation as a smart, fair businessman impressed the hell out of her, but when it came to personal relationships, he never went all in.
Not that he’d given her any reason to believe he thought of her as anything other than a competitor who’d stolen his favorite bartender. Tonight that had changed. Tonight he’d asked if she’d miss him if he left Las Vegas and made her believe his next heartbeat hinged on her saying that she would.
Violet brushed away her fanciful thoughts, but she couldn’t ignore how her pulse had hitched at the gentle strength of his hand on hers. This was just simple desire. Nothing more. The man was six-feet, one-inch of rock solid male. Handsome with his black hair and bold eyebrows. The slight downturn of his chiseled lips. The fathomless ocean blue of his eyes.
Her instincts said he was a man who could use some help and she was a girl who loved cheering on her teammates. Only he wasn’t on her team or even part of her circle. She would be wise to mind her own business where he was concerned. If she became too invested in offering him help that he did not want, she’d end up getting burned.
“I’d better get going or I’ll be completely off schedule,” she said, but couldn’t bring her feet to move. Something had changed between them tonight and walking away from JT was proving difficult.
“I’d better get going as well,” he told her, glancing at his watch. “If you need anything I hope you’ll call.”
More surprises. “Sure.” She couldn’t imagine what sort of help she’d turn to him for. Most of the time she was pretty self-sufficient. She’d had to be. Her mother was too easily overwhelmed by the least difficulty. Violet had learned to take care of herself from an early age, even when life had grown less challenging after they’d moved in with Tiberius when Violet was six. “That’s nice of you.”
For a brief moment his eyes softened. Before she could draw an unsteady breath he’d retreated behind his reserve once more.
“It’s not being nice,” he said, neutral and polite. “We’re family.”
His declaration was the cherry on top of a triple scoop sundae of surprises. “How do you figure?”
“It might not be the most traditional connection, but you were my uncle’s daughter.”
“Not legally.” Violet wasn’t sure how to cope with a connection of this