Into the Fire (A Hot Nights Series Book) Online - Amanda Usen

Chapter One

Lila slipped away from the crowded graduation party, carrying her glass of wine out to the empty back porch. She felt ridiculous in her too-small, borrowed cocktail dress and couldn’t wait to kick off her uncomfortable heels. How much longer did she have to stay to justify all the work Jenna and Betsy had put into her hair and makeup? Getting dressed up had sounded like fun, but she couldn’t take a deep breath without risking indecent exposure, and her feet were killing her. Unlike her vivacious friends, she was never going to be the life of the party. She belonged in the kitchen, making the party happen behind the scenes. Or in her dorm room, going over her game plan for the culinary competition tomorrow.

The door opened behind her. Please, God, no more small talk. Pasting a polite smile on her lips, she turned. When Jackson Calabrese smiled back at her, her heart hammered. A blush burned at the roots of her hair and blazed its way down to the ground, just as it did each time she saw him.

He raised a bottle of wine toward her glass. “I brought reinforcements.”

“How on earth did you get a bottle of the Margaux?” she stammered.

He shrugged, giving her a wicked grin that made her feel faint. Of course. It was good to be a Calabrese at the Culinary Academy. The president of the school would probably put a case of the priceless wine in Jack’s car if he asked.

She took a sip to wet her dry mouth. “Are you ready for the big competition tomorrow?” she asked, figuring she might as well mention the elephant standing on the porch with them.

He grimaced, running a hand through his short dark hair. “I guess.”

She had expected him to boast and try to psych her out with trash talk. They were competing against each other, after all, and most of their class was betting one of them would take the top prize of twenty-five thousand dollars. The last thing she expected was for Jackson Calabrese, golden boy of the Culinary Academy, to sound uncertain. She cocked her head to the side and watched him take a large gulp of wine.

He tipped his head toward the house and shrugged. “It’s hard to be in there pretending I’m not nervous as hell. I’m already having nightmares.”

“Why are you nervous? It’s not like you need the money. I know that’s a tacky thing to say, but I can’t imagine you’ve got student loans to repay.” Winning the competition would put a big enough dent in her loans that she might only be in debt for half her life, instead of the whole thing.

He scowled. “No loans, as my father loves to remind me. Just the honor of the entire Calabrese family. The old man doesn’t think I’m going to win. In fact, he’s sure of it.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” She rolled her eyes. “Even I think you’re going to win.”

She raised the glass to her lips to hide a sigh. Her crush on Jack had been instant, epic, and excruciating. He was charming, utterly gorgeous, and so far out of her league it was ridiculous. For goodness sake, her father had mortgaged the house to pay for her abandoned art degree, but Jack was so rich there were buildings here at the school named after his family. Every time she passed the pub on her way to one of her part-time jobs, he was in there surrounded by an adoring crowd well-stocked with beautiful women from neighboring universities. Jack was tall, dark, and built like an underwear model, and she was…not. None of those discrepancies stopped her hormones from doing a mating dance, just like now, but she couldn’t afford to let him distract her tonight.

He smiled—not the charming grin she’d seen him use on the instructors during class when he was being, well…Jack. This smile was real, and it made her heart stop.

“Oh no, you don’t. You’re not going to use the poor little rich boy act to throw me off my game tomorrow. You’re not going to get me drunk, either.” She set her glass on the porch railing and crossed her arms, glaring at him. “Unlike you, I do have loans to repay. Big ones. You’ll have to forgive me for kicking your ass tomorrow.”

He didn’t react. In fact, he didn’t appear to have heard a word she said. His eyes roved over her body, finally settling on her breasts.

“Hey! Up here.”