Her mouth fell open. Bats-from-hell, he didn’t remember her name! He had no idea who she was.
Mr. Toad pulled a thin cheroot from the inside pocket of his jacket and jammed it into the side of his mouth. He narrowed his eyes at Jaci. “You two together?”
Jaci knew that she often pulled on her Feisty Girl mask, but she’d never owned an invisibility cloak. Jaci opened her mouth to tell them to stop talking about her as if she wasn’t there, but Ryan pinched her side and her mouth snapped shut. Mostly from indignant surprise. “She’s my girlfriend. As you know, I’ve been out of town and I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks.”
Weeks, years... Who was counting?
Leroy didn’t look convinced. “I thought that she was leaving.”
“We agreed to meet in the lobby,” Ryan stated, his voice calm. He brushed his chin across the top of her head and Jaci shivered. “You obviously didn’t get my message that I was on my way up, honey.”
Honey? Yep, he definitely didn’t have a clue who she was. But the guy lied with calm efficiency and absolute conviction. “Let’s go back inside.” Ryan gestured to the ballroom.
Leroy shook his head. “I’m going to head out.”
Thank God and all his angels and archangels for small mercies! Ryan, still not turning her loose, held out his right hand for Leroy to shake. “Nice to see you, Leroy, and I look forward to meeting with you soon to finalize our discussions. When can we get together?”
Leroy ignored his outstretched hand and gave Jaci another up-and-down look. “Oh, I’m having second thoughts about the project.”
Project? What project? Why was Ryan doing business with Leroy? That was a bit of a silly question since she had no idea what business Ryan, or the amphib, was in. Jaci sent her brand-new boyfriend an uncertain glance. He looked as inscrutable as ever, but she sensed that beneath his calm facade, his temper was bubbling.
“I’m surprised to hear that. I thought it was a done deal,” Ryan said, his tone almost bored.
Leroy’s smile was nasty. “I’m not sure that I’m ready to hand that much money to a man I don’t know all that well. I didn’t even know you had a girlfriend.”
“I didn’t think that our business deal required that level of familiarity,” Ryan responded.
“You’re asking me to invest a lot of money. I want to be certain that you know what you are doing.”
“I thought that my track record would reassure you that I do.”
Jaci looked from one stubborn face to the other.
“The thing is... I have what you want so I suggest that if I say jump, you say how high.”
Jaci sucked in breath, aghast. But Ryan, to his credit, didn’t dignify that ridiculous statement with a response. Jaci suspected that Leroy didn’t have a clue that Ryan thought he was a maggot, that he was fighting the urge to either punch Leroy or walk away. She knew this because his fingers were squeezing her hand so hard that she’d lost all feeling in her digits.
“Come now, Ryan, let’s not bicker. You’re asking for a lot of money and I feel I need more reassurances. So I definitely want to spend some more time with you—” Leroy’s eyes traveled up and down her body and Jaci felt as if she’d been licked by a lizard “—and with your lovely girlfriend, as well. And, in a more businesslike vein, I’d also like to meet some of your key people in your organization.” Leroy rolled his cheroot from one side of his mouth to the other. “My people will call you.”
Leroy walked toward the elevators and jabbed a finger on the down button. When the doors whispered open, he turned and sent them an oily smile.
“I look forward to seeing you both soon,” he said before he disappeared inside the luxurious interior. When the doors closed, Jaci tugged her hand from Ryan’s, noting his thunderous face as he watched the numbers change on the board above the elevator.
“Dammittohellandback,” Ryan said, finally dropping her hand and running his through his short, stylishly messy hair. “The manipulative cretin.”
Jaci took two steps backward and pushed her bangs out of her eye. “Look, seeing you again has been...well, odd, to say the least, but you do realize that I can’t do this?”
“Be my girlfriend?”
Ryan nodded tersely. “Of course you can’t, it would never work.”
One of the reasons being that he’d then have to ask her who she was...
Besides, Ryan, as she’d heard from Neil, dated supermodels and actresses, singers and dancers. His old friend’s little sister, neither actress-y nor supermodel-ly, wasn’t his type, so she shrugged and tried to ignore her rising indignation. But, judging by the party in his pants while he was kissing her, maybe she was his type...just a little.
Ryan flicked her a cool look. “He’s just annoyed that you rebuffed him. He’ll forget about you and his demands in a day or two. I’ll just tell him that we had a massive fight and that we split up.”
Huh. He had it all figured out. Good for him.
“He’s your connection, it’s your deal, so whatever works for you,” she said, her voice tart. “So...’bye.”
Ryan shoved his hand through his hair. “It’s been interesting. Why don’t you give him ten minutes to leave then use the elevators around the corner? You’d then exit at the east doors.”
She was being dismissed and she didn’t like it. Especially when it was by a man who couldn’t remember her name. Arrogant sod! Pride had her changing her mind. “Oh, I’m not quite ready to leave.” She looked toward the ballroom. “I think I’ll go back in.”
Jaci saw surprise flicker in his gorgeous eyes. He wanted to get rid of her, she realized, maybe because he was embarrassed that he couldn’t recall who she was. Not that he looked embarrassed. But still...
“Interesting seeing you again, Ryan,” she said in a catch-a-clue voice.
A puzzled frown pulled his brows together. “Maybe we should have coffee, catch up.”
Jaci shook her head and handed him a condescending smile. “Honey, you don’t even know who I am so what, exactly, would be the point? Goodbye, Ryan.”
“Okay, busted. So who are you?” Ryan roughly demanded. “I know that I know you...”
“You’ll work it out,” Jaci told him and heard him mutter a low curse as she walked away. But she wasn’t sure if he would connect her with the long-ago teenager who’d hung on his every word. She doubted it. Her mask was intact and impenetrable. There was no hint of the insecure girl she used to be...on the outside, anyway. Besides, it would be fun to see his face when he realized that she was Neil’s sister, the woman Neil, she assumed, wanted him to help navigate the “perils” of New York City.
Well, she was an adult and she didn’t need her brother or Ryan or any other stupid man doing her any favors. She could, and would, navigate New York on her own.
And if she couldn’t, her brother and his old friend would be the last people whom she’d allow to witness her failure.
“Then how about another kiss to jog my memory?” Ryan called out just as she was about to walk into the ballroom.
She turned around slowly and tipped her head to the side. “Let me think about that for a minute... Mmm...no.”
But hot damn, Jaci thought as she walked off, she was tempted.
Jaci slipped into the crowd