Authors: Brenda Novak,Jill Shalvis,Alison Kent
He supposed there was a first time for everything.
“April?” he said, throwing off the covers.
She opened the shutter-style doors that separated the in-room Jacuzzi and the rest of the bath area from the beds, and smiled brightly at him, wearing the boxer briefs and T-shirt he’d lent her to sleep in. “I was hoping you’d wake up soon.”
He glanced at the clock. Six forty-seven. “Last I heard we were on vacation.”
“I had trouble sleeping after all that chocolate. Must’ve been the caffeine.”
The empty Godiva box sat on the nightstand, along with the pile of other wrappers from the candy bars she’d polished off while they were watching
“Do you always eat so much junk?” he asked.
“Not always. Just on an occasional weekend.”
“How do you stay so thin?”
“I go to work and forget to eat.” She shrugged. “Sometimes I even forget to go home at night.”
“Oh, yeah. That happens to me all the time.” He rolled his eyes and dropped back on the bed, then realized that the water he’d heard running wasn’t in the sink.
“What are you doing?” He leaned up on one elbow to see her adjust the knobs on the tub.
“Put on your suit. I thought we could use the Jacuzzi.”
“What are you going to wear?”
“Nothing.” She smiled slyly.
His heart skipped a beat, or maybe two or three. He stretched to see how she was doing with the water. The bath was nearly full.
“Why the sudden change of heart?”
“Last night I was only willing to play strip poker when I knew there was no real risk that I’d have to disrobe. Which got me thinking.”
“Those inhibitions you mentioned.”
“Right, the inhibitions,” he said, playing along.
“My mother actually agrees with you. She says I’m not taking advantage of everything life has to offer.”
“And I’m going to start opening myself up to new experiences. I figure if I can take off my clothes in front of you, I can take them off in front of just about anyone.”
Somehow he wasn’t bothered about her waking him up so early anymore…
“I mean, what could a little skinny-dipping hurt? Most people do it long before they reach my age.”
He felt a moment’s guilt because he didn’t seem
to be a very good influence on her. “Are you sure you’ve thought this through?”
She wasn’t listening. “I’m slowly realizing that there’s more to life than work, and if I’m not careful, it’s all going to pass me by.”
His conscience was bothering him a little, but not enough to stop her. “I’ll put on my suit,” he said, hoping to hurry things along before she lost her nerve.
The telephone rang.
He planned to ignore it, but he didn’t communicate his wishes to April quickly enough. She answered the extension in the bathroom. “I’m fine, Mom,” he heard her say. “Nothing to worry about… No, I’m just about to go skinny-dipping with Gunner… Of course I’m serious… So? Maybe I’m ready to take a few risks… I’ve got to go…Okay, see you this afternoon.”
“What did she say?” he asked.
“‘It’s about time.”’
“I don’t think mothers are supposed to agree with something like this. Sort of takes the fun out of it.”
“Not for me,” he said.
her bare backside to the bedroom wall and tried to peek around the corner into the bathroom. Gunner was waiting for her in the tub, just like she’d asked. His hair was wet and curling around his ears, and the steam rising from the water made his chest gleam. He looked gorgeous, of course, but he was getting a little impatient. Probably because he’d been sitting in that hot water long enough to start sweating.
“April, are you coming?” he said.
She considered backing out, but the memory of her mother laughing skeptically and saying, “I’ll believe
when I see it,” wouldn’t let her. She could be bold and daring….
She just wished bold and daring didn’t make her feel as if she was about to faint.
Maybe she needed to do this by degrees. That concept was used for conquering all kinds of difficult challenges, right? Today she’d go topless. Tomorrow she’d take it all off.
But a compromise wasn’t easy to arrange because she didn’t have anything of her own she could wear into the tub. Her sarong wouldn’t work, and her panties were the kind that screamed,
I have no love life.
She’d rather go naked than wear those panties in front of Gunner.
So she opted for his boxer briefs. Boxer briefs were sexy. Women were wearing them on billboards all across America, advertising perfume.
“April?” he called again.
“I’m coming,” she said as she pulled on the boxers. They rode low on her hips, falling well below her navel, but a glance in the mirror told April that was a good effect. She almost didn’t recognize the woman peering back at her—but that could’ve been because she didn’t have her glasses on.
“What did you say?”
Somewhat reassured to be wearing at least one article of clothing, she headed to the bathroom.
“Here goes,” she said, and stepped into the open.
Gunner looked up at her, and she felt her stomach plummet to her knees. Her first instinct was to cover up. But she refused to chicken out so completely. She was what she was, she told herself. It didn’t matter that he’d seen better. She was breaking out of her humdrum life, tossing away routine, overcoming her fears….
“Say something,” she said, her heart thumping wildly when his gaze dropped immediately to her breasts and his mouth fell open.
“You—” He cleared his throat. “You did it.”
A sense of empowerment brought a victorious smile. She’d never dreamed she’d see that stunned expression on any man’s face—least of all Gunner Stevens’s. “I told you I can overcome my inhibitions,” she said, and stepped into the hot water.
ITH AN EFFORT
, Gunner closed his mouth and lowered his lids so that he was watching her from under his lashes. Just when he felt he was getting the best of his innocent little opponent, she unwittingly pulled out a trump card like this one and changed everything—like his image of the “perfect” female body. He’d thought bigger breasts were sexier. He’d always preferred his women with more curves. But now that he’d seen April, he knew he liked his women slender, with breasts the size of his cupped hand and toffee-colored nipples that puckered to perfection whenever he looked at them.
“You’re making some real strides,” he said to encourage her.
She took a seat directly across from him, slightly flushed from the heat and the daring of what she’d done. “I know. Isn’t it great? The people at my
work wouldn’t even know me. Last night I played poker. Today I’m skinny-dipping.”
“You’re wearing my boxers,” he pointed out. “That’s hardly skinny-dipping.”
“I’m doing this by degrees,” she said confidently.
That sounded hopeful. “You planning to go another degree today?” he asked.
She bit her lip thoughtfully, then shook her head. “No.”
HE HADN’T EVEN
let him touch her. She got into his Jacuzzi. She got out. That was it.
And now, three hours later, Gunner was still thinking about those few moments and aching for more.
Claire was golfing with the party ahead of them. He returned her wave and placed his ball on the tee of the eighth hole, feeling decidedly morose. He’d never played such a poor game of golf. April was hell on his concentration. Every time he heard her laughing or talking, which she seemed to be doing quite freely with the other two members of their group—her father and Keith Bodine—he pictured her half-naked and out of reach, and hacked his ball into the rough or overshot the put.
This hole he managed a little better. His ball
dropped just inside the green instead of landing in the surrounding desert.
Walt took his turn and managed to get fairly close to the flag. Then Keith made them both look bad by putting himself in position to birdie.
“My turn already?” April said when her father called her to the tee.
Gunner pulled the bill of his hat a little lower as he watched her step up in her sleeveless golf shirt and formfitting white shorts. His mood darkened further when she tossed a grin at Keith Bodine simply because the man had wished her luck. Given Bodine’s lovesick expression, Gunner was fairly sure
was the plant manager April had wanted to avoid. But she didn’t seem too worried about keeping her distance from him now. Bodine had been helping her at every opportunity, choosing her club for her, showing her the right way to hold it, demonstrating a good swing. She was cutting her flirting teeth on him, and the poor bastard didn’t even know it.
HEN THEY RETURNED
from golf, April talked Gunner into taking her shopping. But as he followed her through the open-air bazaar in town, he didn’t have much to say. “You seem kind of grumpy today,” she complained. “Is something wrong?”
He told her there wasn’t, but April had noted a distinct change in him since their Jacuzzi experience and was a little mystified that he wasn’t more pleased with her progress.
“Are you tired?” she pressed.
“Why were you flirting with Keith Bodine if you’re not really interested in him?” he asked.
She blinked in surprise. Gunner sounded almost…jealous. But he
be jealous. Which meant he really believed she’d been unkind or irresponsible in some way.
April reflected on the afternoon and couldn’t come up with a single comment she’d made that might lead Keith to believe she was interested in anything more than being his friend. Gunner had been there, posing as her boyfriend, for Pete’s sake. She’d just been thrilled that at last she felt in charge of her love life and her sexuality, that she felt confident enough to offer poor Keith a kind word and a smile.
“I wasn’t flirting.” She weaved through showcases of silver jewelry and tables bearing T-shirts, tequila shot glasses and Cabo San Lucas bags, mugs and key chains. “I was merely being nice.”
“Nice includes letting him put his arms around you?”
She struggled to remember when Keith might have put his arms around her and finally it came to her. “Oh, that.” She dismissed his words with a shake of her head. “He was only helping me with my swing.”
“He was doing a lot more than that,” Gunner muttered.
April didn’t really understand why Gunner had a problem with how she’d behaved today, so she shrugged it off. Propping her hands on her hips as they came to the last row of merchandise, which was very similar to what they’d seen in at least a dozen displays so far, she sighed. “They don’t have what I need. I guess I’m going to have to ask someone for directions to a store that sells what I want.”
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“You didn’t bring enough?”
“I didn’t bring the right kind.” She grinned. “This is part of my transformation. I need to buy some underwear that reflects my new liberated self.”
She started toward the woman who ran the stall, but Gunner caught her by the shoulder. “What kind of underwear are you talking about?”
“I don’t know yet. That’s why you’re here. You have to help me pick out something that really appeals to a man.”
“I can only pick out what appeals to
” he said hesitantly.
She nodded. “But there’s bound to be some crossover, right?”
The fact that she didn’t particularly care whether she pleased him or someone else grated on him.
“I’m thinking a couple of thongs might be fun, if I can get used to wearing them,” she confided.
That was it. Gunner was tired of letting April Ashton beat him at his own game. Tonight he’d seduce her on the beach, touch and taste her everywhere, make her shudder in his arms while murmuring his name. He’d show her he wasn’t interchangeable with any other man.
Except that his breath grew short and his body hard at the very thought of making love to her. And for the first time in his life, Gunner was afraid he’d be the only one enslaved by the experience.
“You can pick out your own underwear,” he said. “And you can do it later. Let’s go back to the hotel.”
She seemed hurt by his gruff tone, and definitely surprised. “I’m not ready to go back.”
“I am, but I can’t leave you here alone.”
“I’m not sure it’s safe.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m an adult. I shop here by myself almost every year.”
“Fine.” He started to go, but she stopped him.
“Have I done something to offend you?” she asked, obviously bewildered.
He wasn’t sure even
understood what was happening to him. He certainly wasn’t ready to explain it to her. “No.”
“Then what? Are you bored with our friendship?”
Gunner tilted up her chin with one finger and kissed her, battling a sudden longing to pull her against him and whisper things he’d never said to a woman before. “This has nothing to do with boredom or friendship,” he said. Then he caught a cab and headed back to the hotel.
ALT SHOVED HIS HANDS
in the pockets of his chinos and stared out to sea. He loved Cabo, owned a home on the mountain just north of town. But during the company trip, he’d chosen to stay at the Hacienda Del Mar with everyone else. There wasn’t any reason not to. The Hacienda Del Mar was a five-star premier resort and was more than comfortable. And he liked being in the middle of the action instead of twenty minutes away.
The only thing missing from this trip was a companion, he decided. He should’ve brought Regina for times like this, when he had a couple of hours
to kill. If he’d known April was going to be so preoccupied with Gunner, he would have.
Reminded of his daughter and her new boyfriend, Walt shook his head. Who would’ve thought the race-car driver whose ability he’d long admired would be able to see what so many men had missed—that his daughter was a rare jewel? Walt hadn’t expected a relationship to spring up between them, but he was encouraged by the possibilities.
Nodding hello to Nora Phelps, his company controller, who was passing by with her husband, he started down the brick-and-cement steps. He was heading for a seat by the pool when he spotted Claire. Wearing a purple-and-gold swimsuit cut high on the leg and low in back, she was just getting out of the water.
She looked great for fifty-two. He could see why so many men, even younger men, found her attractive. He would’ve found her attractive, too, if he’d remembered to
at her. He’d been so busy building Ashton Automotive, over the past three years especially, that she’d finally faded into the woodwork. No wonder they’d drifted apart. And then he’d gotten involved with Regina.
He veered off to the left, hoping to avoid Claire and the mixed emotions she stirred in him. She was the mother of his daughter. She’d once been the love of his life. Yet he’d broken his marriage vows
in a weak stupid moment and caused more damage than he could ever repair. Now he was fifty-five, getting a divorce and having heart surgery.
He glanced up to make sure he’d escaped her notice and caught her staring right at him.
She immediately dropped her gaze and busied herself spreading out a towel on her lounge chair, and he knew she wouldn’t bother him. He wasn’t sure why he’d been worried about that in the first place. She’d pretty much stopped trying to initiate conversations. Now they handled most everything through their lawyers. But April couldn’t be handled through lawyers, and Walt had a few questions he wanted to ask about their daughter.
Changing directions, he rounded the pool. By the time he reached Claire, she was lying on her back with a straw hat covering her eyes. She lifted the hat the moment his shadow fell across her.
“What do you think of Gunner Stevens?” he asked without preamble, because the awkwardness between them made it difficult to begin a conversation any other way.
Her face registered surprise. “I think he’s the best thing to happen to April in years,” she said.
“You’re confident she won’t get hurt? A man with that much money and fame typically goes around the block a few times before settling down.”
“Gunner seems to have a good head on his shoulders. And April’s a bright girl. You know that.”
“But she’s not very worldly-wise, is she?” He was voicing his worries because he knew that Claire, of all people, would understand how he felt.
“I think she’s getting educated,” she replied. “She spent last night in his room.”
Walt’s eyebrows shot up. He wasn’t sure he was pleased to hear this information. “If he hurts her—”
“Have some faith in April,” Claire interrupted. “It’s time she started experiencing life. She’s thirty and never been in love. And she’s tougher than she looks. She’s your daughter, remember?”
Walt couldn’t help smiling at that. He
a tough old coot. But Claire had always been able to handle him, had always reminded him of the things that were really important. Until he quit listening to her. Until he got sidetracked by something that seemed to have substance but soon turned to smoke.
“I guess you’re right,” he said.
An awkward silence ensued, but Walt found himself strangely reluctant to leave. There was an open chaise next to Claire. He thought about sinking into it and telling her all about his heart problems and the surgery and his concerns about what might happen to the company if he didn’t recover. He wanted
to let her know he’d decided to sell so he could cash them all out at the peak, to provide for those he’d leave behind if he didn’t make it.