In high school, Gio Esposito was the handsome charmer every girl wanted and Rose Whitman couldn’t believe he chose her. Then she discovers Gio isn’t the man she thought he was and lets him go. Fifteen years later, Gio donates $10,000 to her charity, no strings attached. Maybe she was wrong about Gio all those years ago, but she can’t risk being hurt again.
Something went wrong for Gio and Rose, something he still doesn’t understand, and he’s determined to get answers. So Gio makes Rose an offer she can’t refuse—he’ll donate an additional $100,000 to Rose’s charity if she poses as his girlfriend at his sister’s New England destination wedding.
Soon, Rose is enjoying lobster, lighthouses, and laughter with Gio and his quirky family. She’s also questioning why she ever let Gio go. Will Gio convince Rose that he’s a man worth fighting for? And will Rose give Gio not just the answers he craves, but a second chance to win her heart?
And they said it wouldn’t last…
Gio Esposito smirked and mentally flipped off the collective “they” he’d been thinking of (pretty much his entire high school class) as he took in the beauty that was his girlfriend Rose Whitman. With shoulder-length auburn hair, big green eyes, fair skin, and a curvy frame, she looked like something out of a fairytale, but the way she moved to the music brought forth images of much more adult activities.
Wearing a pretty camisole and pair of shorts, Rose danced with her friends. She swayed to the music, and when she lifted her arms, she exposed a narrow strip of smooth, tan belly, flooding Gio with a familiar sense of possessiveness when he saw several guys from school staring at her with lust. Her effortless sensuality naturally garnered male attention but because she could be shy, most people didn’t get that she was so much more than a pretty face. She had a sharp wit, a wicked sense of humor, and an unpredictable boldness, and he liked that he saw that side of her when no one else did.
His Wild Rose.
The one who let loose in spite of her insecurities, just for him.
And if anyone deserved to let loose, it was Rose. She had a lot weighing on her considering her brother Michael, whom she adored, struggled with mental illness. She also had older parents who were constantly sick. It was why she wanted to be a nurse so bad, because she’d seen firsthand what hospital staff had done to help her parents and Michael, and she’d taken school seriously. Sometimes too seriously. Hell, just earlier today she’d given the valedictorian speech at their high school graduation. It wasn’t often she took time just for herself and he loved seeing her having fun.
Tonight, however, Gio was going to be selfish and whisk her away soon. He knew one of the reasons Rose was throwing herself into partying so fully tonight was to keep thoughts of their impending separation at bay. While she’d gotten into a local nursing program, he was all set to head back east for college. He’d reassured Rose that they could go the distance, that he loved her and that love wouldn’t change. He’d whole-heartedly believed it, but in the last week he’d come to accept it—he wasn’t leaving her. No way. Instead, he was going to make her his, completely.
He was going to propose.
Not tonight. Not tomorrow. But soon.
He didn’t care that they were young. He didn’t care that they’d only been dating six months.
No matter what the future brought, he just wanted to share it with Rose.
As she danced with her friends, Rose caught his eye and winked at him. God, she was fine as fuck, and she was all his.
As if reading his thoughts, Rose blushed and bit her lip, making him grin. Innocent Rose with that shy smile. Though granted, she wasn’t quite so innocent since Gio had taken her virginity just three weeks ago. It had been the greatest night of his life but soon it would jostle for position with another night—the night he hoped Rose would agree to marry him.
Suddenly, he was too impatient to wait anymore. He wanted to be alone with her. To hold her in his arms. He stood, about to join her and suggest they leave. As soon as he did, however, someone changed the music and played the opening strains of AC/DC. Everyone cheered instantly, recognizing the song—You Shook Me All Night Long. When the drum beats kicked in, hollers erupted, and a certain electricity fired through the crowd packed into their friend Sarah Robinson’s house. The whole place moved as one.
Rose was, like the song said, the best damn woman that he’d ever seen.
And suddenly, her friends were dragging her up on Sarah’s parents’ dining room table, in spite of her protests. At first, she just stood there, looking like she wanted to bolt for the door. But then, she caught sight of him. Without breaking eye contact, she began to sway.
His pulse pounded as he watched her, undulating to the music, moving her ass in circles, hair sweeping on her shoulders.
A pixie. A tabletop-dancing, siren-smiling, sexy as fuck pixie.
The earth was quaking, my mind was aching, and we were making it, and you…Shook me all night long.
Mesmerized by her moves, Gio wiped his brow, telling himself for the hundredth time how lucky he was to have found her.
The song’s last refrains melted into the cheers, and when it finished, their friends applauded. He walked over to Rose and she smiled shyly down at him.
“Ready to go, baby?” he asked.
For an answer, she leaped. As he caught her, she wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist, and kissed him.
With a groan, he kissed her back. Wild Rose was officially in the building. A minute later, he pulled away, then abruptly shifted her in his arms. She squealed in delight as he cradled her against his chest.
I can’t wait to start our life together, he thought. Nothing is as important as this girl.
Fifteen years later…
“Watch where you’re going!”
The shrill command along with the accompanying blare of a horn had Rose looking up from her phone screen just in time to catch a face-full of icy puddle water courtesy of a passing Hummer and its asshole occupant.
She swallowed a string of curses as water sluiced down her cheeks, soaking the collar of her trench coat. “Oh my God, I was on the freaking sidewalk, you psycho,” she mumbled as she rubbed her phone against the dry inside of her trench.
She really shouldn’t have even been surprised. It had been one of those days from the start.
The kind that started with realizing she had forgotten to stop at the store to get coffee the night before, continued as she dropped a contact lens in the toilet, and only got worse when she’d happened upon a cat stuck in a tree. She’d spent fifteen minutes coaxing it down into her arms where it promptly flew into a damp ball of feline fury and managed to scratch the side of her face and shred the sleeve of her coat.
Now, after having spent four miserable hours pounding the pavement in the rain for corporate donations and coming up with a pathetic two hundred dollars, she was so over it.
Hey, look at the bright side, her inner wiseass chirped. You forgot to add in the sixty-three cents that well-meaning passerby dropped into your coffee cup earlier!
Right. Her still half-full caramel macchiato that she’d paid five bucks for, ruined because she looked so wretched, he’d thought she was homeless.
Which brought her grand total up to two hundred dollars and sixty-three cents if she didn’t subtract the cost of the coffee.
Move over, Bill and Melinda Gates. There’s a new charity in town.
She blew out a sigh and took a glance at her muddy, wet, blood-streaked clothes. Time to call it quits for the day.
But, as always when the word “quit” came to mind, so did her brother’s face.
Oh, Michael. How I miss you.
Of course, she missed her parents, too, but they’d been elderly and sick for a long time. Their deaths had been expected. But Michael… she hadn’t been expecting to lose him. And not the way she had.
She squared her shoulders, peered down at the walking directions on her phone, and pressed on. Her next stop was only a block away, if this map was right.
Twenty minutes later, lost and irritated, she barely resisted the urge to throw her phone in the sewer. Why would she have the right directions on this, a day manufactured by Satan himself?
As if it was conjured by her thoughts, a sign came into focus about twenty yards away.
Rose sucked in a breath even as her heart started pounding. Swiftly, her aching feet carried her toward the sign until she stood in front of a massive high rise, staring at a fancy bronze plaque.
Gio Esposito, Founder
Instantly, her mind flooded with a rush of memories and an intense, conflicted wash of emotions.
Gio. Her first crush. Her first love.
She swallowed the sudden knot in her throat as the heady sensation of his hands on her body came flooding back, as if it had been fifteen minutes instead of fifteen years since she’d last felt them. Memories bombarded her. Of infatuation. Laughter. Passion. And finally, betrayal.
Rose closed her eyes, feeling the loss of him all over again, but then she took in several deep breaths. That was half a lifetime ago. She had heard through the grapevine he’d come back to L.A. after finishing school back east, but she’d ruthlessly ignored every impulse she’d had to look him up on social media or see where he was doing business. To the best of her ability, once she’d broken up with him, Gio had ceased to exist for her.
Of course, her ability to erase Gio sucked. Keeping thoughts of him from her mind had never been successful. It had gotten better over the years, but she still thought of him, particularly at night when she had no distractions and she remembered how safe she’d felt when he held her. Only that feeling of safety had been an illusion and everything she’d thought him to be had been a lie. He’d claimed to love her, claimed to care for her brother, too, but when push came to shove, he’d failed them.
When she opened her eyes, she felt calmer. More in control. And as she stared at his name on that plaque, it dawned on her, maybe this was kismet. Her, walking down the sidewalk, wet, bedraggled and miserable, thinking of Michael. Gio, obviously hugely successful. Had time made him more compassionate to the plight of others? Would he be willing to make a charitable donation?
She hesitated, not sure if she could do it. If he hadn’t cared about her brother all those years ago, why would he care about Michael’s Way now? Plus, could she really handle seeing Gio again after all these years?
Two hundred dollars and sixty-three cents, her conscience bleated.
What you shared with Gio was a long time ago, it added. He was a kid back then and had likely matured. Do it for Michael.
With a deep breath, she ran a hand over her damp hair in a sad attempt to fix it and then strode toward the glass double doors. She could do this. She wasn’t the shy, insecure girl she’d been in high school, wondering why Gio was with her and waiting for the time he grew bored and left her. She was a confident woman now and she had important work to do.
The slick marble floor looked expensive, and her cheeks burned as her sensible shoes squish-squish-squished over it, but she pressed on, all the way to the empty reception desk.
A sign read, “Please sign in and take a seat. Someone will be with you shortly.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the buttery, leather chairs in the waiting area and shuddered.
Not going to happen.
She was already leaving a trail behind her like some sort of garden slug. She wasn’t about to leave a wet butt-print on one of those five-figure chairs if she could help it. After all, she was mad, but she wasn’t insane.
With a furtive glance around and a silent prayer, she rushed past the desk to the elevator. No point in asking permission when she could ask for forgiveness later.
Besides, this was all for a good cause. This was for Michael. It wasn’t like she wanted, needed to see Gio again, just one more time, was it?
Her disturbing thoughts were derailed as she stared at the elevator buttons.
Stood to reason the boss would be on the top one, right?
With a trembling finger, she jabbed at the button and waited as the doors smoothly slid shut.
As the elevator glided slowly upward, sanity began to return in fits and starts.
What the hell was she doing here? She was going to sneak her way into Gio’s office, throw her grubby self at his feet and beg him for money for a cause she already knew full well he didn’t give two craps about? And he was going to say yes because he still cared about her even after he broke her heart? In hindsight, it seemed like a long shot.
Such a long shot that even the most skilled sniper in the world couldn’t have made it. Worse, though? It seemed like the recipe for certain and abject humiliation. And she’d had her share of that already today.
The elevator had just started to slow when she began frantically stabbing at the “close door” button.
“Come on, come on…” she muttered. But despite her efforts, the doors slid open and she found herself staring at the glaringly white, opulent nineteenth floor…
And straight into the eyes of Gio Esposito.
* * *
“Gio? I was asking if you were bringing a date to the wedding or not? Did I lose you?”
Gio ignored his Nana’s voice on the other end of the line and stared at the woman in front of him.
Jesus fuck, he hadn’t seen her in fifteen years, at least not in person. He’d been nuts about her. Hell, he’d been working his ass off to buy an engagement ring for her. Then she’d broken things off with him—on the fucking phone—telling him she wanted someone else. When he’d stopped by her house, refusing to leave until he saw her, her elderly father had gotten so upset Gio had thought he was going to have a heart attack, and he’d had no choice but to leave. Of course, he’d tried again and again to see her, to find out what the hell went wrong, but eventually he’d had to accept it was over.
She’d broken his heart, and now here she was—in his building. But why?
His eyes narrowed when she frantically stabbed a button in the elevator. Was she trying to close the elevator doors?
Oh hell no.
Automatically, he reached out and grabbed a door to keep the elevator open.
At the sound of his Nana’s voice on the phone, Gio blinked, then said gruffly, “I’ll have to call you back, Nan. Something urgent has come up.”
“Well, alright, dear. I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Yes, talk soon.”
Gio ended the call before pocketing his phone in one, smooth motion. Then, reaching inside the elevator, he gently took Rose’s arm. With no resistance from her at all, he guided her out. As soon as he touched her, memories of their time together, the happiest time of his life, threatened to swamp him, but he pushed them away.
No memories equaled no disappointment. No loss. No longing for something that never could be.
As the elevator doors closed, they stared at one another.
“Rose…it’s been a long time. You look…” He’d seen nothing but those glass-green eyes and that perfect bow of a mouth at first, but now, as he searched her face and took stock, he realized she looked like she’d crawled out of the sewer. A sick feeling rolled through him. “Holy shit, have you been mugged?”
She winced, and twin flags of scarlet stamped her cheeks. “Hey, Gio! Nope. No mugging,” she replied with a tight smile, “but that’s probably in the cards for my walk home given how things are going today.”
He shook his head, still in shock, unable to believe she was standing before him. Finally, he gathered his composure. “Can I get you something? A towel or—” he broke off before offering the use of his office shower. He’d already spent the past decade and a half trying to forget about her. Knowing she’d been in his shower would pretty much obliterate any progress he’d made.
Even now, an image of her under the spray, rubbing soap all over that silky skin, made his cock swell.
“Thanks, but no,” Rose said. “I shouldn’t have even come. I don’t want to bother you so I’ll just head back down the way I came and get out of your hair.”
He stared at her in surprise. “You came here to see me?”
“Not intentionally. I mean, I did come intentionally, but I hadn’t planned to come. I just wound up near the building, saw your name and thought I’d stop by. There was something I wanted to ask you, but you were clearly on your way out so truly, forget I even came.”
Her bottom lip trembled and he realized with a start that she was shivering. “I wasn’t going anywhere important and you’re here already and clearly freezing in this air conditioning all wet. Let’s go into my office where it’s a little warmer at least and we can talk in private.”
Not about to take no for an answer and far more curious than he wanted to be, he took Rose’s hand, noting that once again she didn’t resist his touch, then led her from the elevator down the corridor.
“How have you been?” he managed to say, struggling to seem unaffected by her sudden appearance. “Other than today, of course,” he added.
She was wearing some oversized glasses and yeah, she was kind of a mess, but underneath all that, she was the same Rose. Clear, smooth skin. Pert nose with a smattering of freckles. And those copper waves, tumbling over her shoulders. He could still remember how they looked when her head was thrown back and she was crying out his name—
“Why are we stopping?” Rose asked, clearly nonplussed.
He cleared his throat and gestured to his office, not even aware that, lost in his memories, he’d come to a complete halt. “This is me right here.”
He led her in and gestured to the seat in front of his desk as he made his way to the bathroom.
“Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you a coffee?” he called as he rifled through the selection of towels and pulled out two of the softest. “My assistant had to leave early today and I can’t work the machine well enough to make the fancy ones, but I can definitely brew something up.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass. I don’t want to take up too much of your time.”
“Take all the time you need.” He handed her the towels and then took his seat behind his desk as she laid one towel on her chair before sitting and swiped haphazardly at her face and hair with the other.
“This really was a total whim and this isn’t how I usually do this, but now that I’m here…” her husky voice trailed off as she let the towel drop to her side. “Do you remember my brother Michael?”
“Of course.” How could he forget? Rose and Michael had been close, so he’d seen him quite a bit when he and Rose were dating. When he’d found out that Michael had killed himself a few years back, he’d almost reached out to Rose, but she’d made it pretty clear she wanted a clean break.
“He, um, he passed away five years ago after he took his own life.” The pain rolled off her like waves of sadness but all he could do was nod. She lifted her chin and met his gaze. “Anyway, after that, I started a charity organization in his name. Michael’s Way. It’s a non-profit that helps educate families about mental health issues affecting the young people they love and it provides help and services to those who can’t afford them.”
“That seems like a really great cause. I commend you for doing that. I’m sure he would be very proud of your efforts,” Gio said. “Your parents as well.”
He was very familiar with Rose’s efforts and pretty much everything else about her since he’d done his fair share of social media stalking, but he wasn’t about to tell her that. The last thing he wanted to do was to let her know how much he’d wondered about her over the years when she clearly hadn’t given him a passing thought.
“Thank you. Anyway, I work at St. Mary’s psychiatric hospital and one of our generous benefactors has agreed to match up to $100,000 in donations to Michael’s Way. I’ve taken a short sabbatical from work in order to secure those funds.” Her throat worked as she swallowed hard. “I was hoping you’d consider donating. It’s one hundred percent tax deductible and really is for a—”
But he didn’t need to hear more and cut her off with a wave of his hand.
“You don’t need to pitch me on the idea. I liked Michael very much and think this is a very worthy cause. I’ll donate.”
She frowned slightly, something like disbelief flashing in her eyes but before he could think too hard on it, her lips tipped into a sudden smile that stole his breath. “Wow, okay. I…thanks so much. Whatever you can give, I really appreciate it.”
He opened his desk drawer and pulled out his checkbook.
“Do you—do you make many charitable donations?” she asked.
“I try to help where I can. Every year we hold a fundraising gala. There’s one coming up in a few weeks for lung cancer research and—” Before he could continue, his office phone rang.
“Sorry, can you give me just a moment?”
She nodded and wet her lips with the tip of her tongue in a motion that nearly dragged a groan out of him.
Ridiculous. It had been far too long for him to still feel this way. Raw need flowed through him like lava and he wound up answering the phone with a snarl.
“I know you said you’d call me back, but your aunt and I need to go out. Can you talk now?” Nana’s voice was like a bucket of cold water to his nether regions and he scrubbed a hand over his face.
“Hey, Nan. I’m actually with someone right now, so can I—”
“A man or a woman?” she demanded.
“Are you with a man or a woman? Maybe they want to come to your sister’s wedding with you? If it’s a man, I won’t judge. Love is love, but you really should bring someone. Or not,” she continued. “Maybe even better if you don’t. A couple of the bridesmaids are pretty stacked. Do you know what that means, Gio? Michelle says it means they have really nice bodies. You’d like that in a wife, wouldn’t you?”
Jesus, help him.
“Look, Nan, I already told you—”
But before he got the rest of his ‘I love you but you need to mind your own business’ speech out for the hundredth time, he found himself staring into Rose’s glass-green eyes.
It was a crazy idea. Absurd. After fifteen years, she’d only sought him out because she wanted a donation for her charity. He was going to write her a check and then… What? She was going to leave and he’d never see her again?
The tightening in his chest, something resembling panic, told him he couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t just let her disappear from his life again. After she’d broken up with him, it had taken a while, but eventually he’d taken her words at face value. She didn’t want him anymore. She wanted a different guy. His heart broken, his pride smarting, he’d let her go. Sure, he’d tried to talk to her afterward, but in the face of her resistance, he’d quickly walked away. And he’d always regretted it.
Throughout the years, however, it had pricked at him—how her words didn’t quite ring true. How he couldn’t believe that the Rosie he’d loved so much, the same girl who had professed her love for him so often in return, had simply stopped wanting him. And how he’d been wrong not to fight for her.
It was probably too late for them now, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get some closure. Understand how things had gone wrong. And the only way he was going to get that was to spend time with Rose.
“You know what, Nana, let me call you back in twenty minutes. I won’t forget.”
He hung up the phone, leaned back in his chair, and met Rose’s questioning gaze. “Rose, what are you doing next week?”
“The whole week?” Rose stared back at him, brows furrowed. “Of the twenty-eighth? Nothing. Still fundraising probably, why?”
“I have a proposition for you. It would involve a week of your time. I’d like you to be my date to my sister’s destination wedding in Maine. And in exchange, I will make a sizeable donation to Michael’s Way.”
She paused, her mouth opening and closing wordlessly for so long, he wondered if she was having a stroke.
When she finally spoke, it was just two, simple words.
He set his hands on the desk and shrugged. In for a penny…
“The whole thing. 100K.”