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But it worked. She nodded. “All right.”

It was progress.

—

When the limo pulled up to the club, Jonathan watched as Violet wrinkled her nose. “Your business is in a nightclub?”

“It is,” he agreed.

Sitting across from them, Cade gave Violet an easy smile. “I know it looks strange, but I assure you, we're not going to pick up women.”

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“I wasn't thinking that. Just . . . no more drinking, all right?” Her brows knitted with worry and she looked over at Jonathan.

“I won't drink again,” he vowed, and he meant it. He must have caused her a lot more concern than she let on. His Violet carried steel-plated armor around her heart because she'd been hurt so many times by the people she loved. And he'd hurt her again, it seemed. For that, he wanted to kick himself. The thought of drinking more alcohol while knowing it would upset her? That was the furthest thing on his mind.

She nodded, clearly uneasy.

He reached out to touch her hand on the seat, unable to help himself. “We'll be a few hours. I want you to wait with the car . . . for me.” He could call and get her a hotel so she could relax comfortably, but the thought of releasing Violet into New York made him anxious. He worried that if he turned his back, he'd find her gone.

“Stay in the car?” She clearly wasn't a fan of the idea and pulled her hand away from his. “How long are you going to be?”

“I don't know.” He pulled out his wallet and unfurled several bills, stuffing them into her grasp before she could protest. “Go shopping. Spend money. Something. Just stay with the limo, and I'll be back as soon as I can. I promise.”

She watched him for a moment, then nodded, smoothing the money he'd handed her. “I'll be here.”

“Thank you.” He wanted to reach over and kiss her again, but he didn't dare. Clenching a fist to keep himself from grabbing her, he nodded. “Wait for me.”

Then, he followed Cade into the club.

Every week for years on end, the Brotherhood had met in the basement of the dingy club. Their secret society had been formed in college and continued on ever since. If at all possible, each man tried not to miss a meeting, as it inconvenienced his brothers. Jonathan was pretty sure he missed more meetings than most, given his proclivity for rushing off to the far ends of the earth on another mission.

Tonight, he wished he'd done the same. He was twitchy even as he and Cade pushed through the busy, noisy club and headed to the back, then down the long hall toward the basement. Hunter's bodyguard was already there, standing to guard the door, and out of habit, Jonathan gave him the signal: he touched two fingers onto his shoulder and slid them over his arm down to where his tattoo was. Cade made the same gesture, and the man nodded and stepped aside.

Then, they headed into the smoky basement, the smell of cigars wafting through the air. As Jonathan stepped down the stairs behind Cade, he could hear one loud female voice above the murmur of the others. “Come on, flush! Momma needs a destination wedding!”

“That'd be Gretchen,” Cade said. “Again.”

Jonathan said nothing. Truth be told, he'd hated when Hunter started dragging his fiancée to all of their supposedly private meetings. It rather ruined the spirit of secrecy, but Hunter wouldn't be deterred; if he was there, Gretchen would be there. The other men's fiancées and wives knew about the club but didn't show up like Gretchen did.

Used to be, he hated seeing Gretchen's face across the poker table from him. Now? Now that Violet was back in his life? He got it. He understood that ravenous sort of possessiveness that made a man want to haul his woman to his side and never let her leave. Hell, he was practically itching to go and drag Violet out of the limo upstairs and bring her with him, but that would cause more questions than it would answer.

As they entered the room, Reese pulled his cigar from his mouth and gestured with it. “Well, well, if it isn't the missing pair. We were starting to wonder if you two would show up.”

“We had business,” Cade said easily, heading toward his regular seat.

Jonathan said nothing, heading to his own chair and taking the chips offered him. Already at the table sat the inner circle of New York's business elite. There was Logan Hawkings, billionaire conglomerate owner, who was currently staring at his cards with an impassive expression. There was Hunter Buchanan, a real-estate king who owned half of the eastern seaboard. His red-haired, disheveled fiancée Gretchen was currently perched in his lap, giggling gleefully over her cards as Hunter watched her with hungry fascination.

Across the table from them was Griffin Verdi, a European viscount with an aristocratic pedigree and Jonathan's frequent co-funder on archaeological digs. He was simply shaking his head at Gretchen's antics. Next to him was Reese Durham, recently married playboy who'd also recently acquired a series of cruise lines.

It seemed like over the last year, they'd all gone from bachelors to either married or heading in that direction. All except him and Cade, of course. He thought of Violet again, and a surge of intense longing buffeted through him. He'd gladly give up his bachelorhood for her.

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“Looks like everyone's here,” Logan said. “This meeting of the Brotherhood is officially called to order.”

“Fratres in prosperitatum,”
they said in unison, raising their glasses. Jonathan raised an empty one for the toast. When Reese offered him a bottle of his favorite Scotch, he shook his head. Normally he had a glass just to be social, but the thought of it crossing his lips today seemed revolting. He wouldn't touch it, not with Violet waiting for him.

“So, boys, what's on the business menu tonight?” Gretchen picked up the deck of cards and began to shuffle, ignoring the looks the others sent her way. “World domination?”

No one said anything.

She sighed. “Eventually you guys are going to talk business in front of me. Eventually.”

“Not tonight,” Reese said, and only grinned when Gretchen flipped him the bird.

Impatiently, Jonathan tossed his ante into the pile. “So no business tonight?” Why had he come to the meeting, then? He thought of Violet, sitting out in his car, and he longed to be beside her, just drinking in her presence.

“Down, boy,” Cade murmured. “It'll do you good to give her a breather.”

Jonathan glared at him.

“Give who a breather?” Griffin asked, turning to them.

“No one,” Jonathan said before Cade could respond. His relationship with Violet was . . . private. Private and rather tangled.

Cade nodded in Griffin's direction. “How's that lovely Southern belle of yours? She still adjusting to being the next Viscountess Montagne Verdi?”

Count on Cade to say the right thing to distract the man. Jonathan bit back a smile as Griffin grimaced, swiping his cards off the table.

“We are having visitors this week,” Griffin said, tone clipped. “My town house is currently infested with ‘Mama and them.' They're helping Maylee pick a location for the wedding.”

“You trust them to do that?” Reese asked.

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“Of course not. That's why I hired a wedding planner to be at Maylee's side at all times. My lovely Maylee is kindness itself, but she has appalling taste in clothing.” For a moment, Griffin had a besotted look on his face, then shook his head and cleared his throat.

“Yeah, like you're marrying her for her taste,” Gretchen said with a snort. “I mean, she said yes, so we know her taste in
men
sucks.”

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Griffin ignored Gretchen's jab. “I'm just bloody thrilled she's no longer trying to get her hound to be the ring bearer.”

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Reese nearly spit his whiskey on the table. The others laughed, and Cade reached over and slapped Reese on the shoulders when he began to cough. It was no secret amongst them that Griffin was the latest to become engaged, to his polar opposite—a redneck southern girl who was as friendly as Griffin was aristocratic and reserved.

Again, Jonathan thought of Violet and her wry, reserved smile. She wasn't open like Griffin's Maylee. Maybe she had been, once, but the Violet waiting in the limo was guarded. Like she was just waiting for the next blow to fall, and she was positive it was coming.

He hated that he'd done that to her. What had happened to the wild girl with
Carpe Diem
tattooed just above her backside?

But he knew that answer now. She'd been abandoned while pregnant and then lost the baby. It had changed her, and he'd lost her for good.

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“You in?”

Jonathan stared at his cards without seeing them, his mind still on Violet. He'd give anything to make things right with her. Maybe being friends was a step in the right direction after all. Or maybe it was selfish of him and he needed to take himself out of her life again, cut out like a cancer. What was best for her? He didn't know, but whatever it was, he'd do it. Violet and her happiness was the only thing that mattered to him. Maybe someday he'd be able to show her that.

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A rough elbow gouged his arm. “Hello? Earth to Johnny-boy.” Reese shoved his elbow at Jonathan again. “You in or not?”

He blinked at Reese's grin without seeing it, then stared at his cards. A pair of kings. “I fold.”

After all, folding would give him more time to think about Violet.