Authors: Brenda Novak,Jill Shalvis,Alison Kent
But she’d already lain back and put the hat over her eyes. “See you at dinner,” she said.
LAIRE HEARD WALT’S
steps recede and breathed easier when he was gone. She’d had it with the pain, the rejection, the whole emotional devastation of their separation. And she was tired of crying. After last night, she’d decided she’d never cry over Walt again. They’d spent the best part of their lives together. If he wanted to throw that away for someone like Regina, she couldn’t stop him.
Adjusting her hat to provide more shade, she slid her sunglasses to the bridge of her nose and gazed down at the legs she’d worked so hard to tone and tan. She’d been knocking herself out for months, trying to become more attractive, hoping to convince her husband that he was making a mistake. But watching April with Gunner had made Claire wonder if pleasing Walt was the real issue. Maybe it was time Claire started thinking about what
wanted. Lord knew it wasn’t another tattoo. She already regretted getting the first one. She’d chosen a butterfly to symbolize her freedom, but it symbolized her desperation and stupidity instead.
“I’m done scrambling for his affections,” she muttered.
“Excuse me? Did you say something?”
Claire lifted her hat to see a man, somewhere in his early thirties, settle in the chair next to her. He was muscular and attractive in a pair of swimming trunks and nothing else, but the toothy smile he flashed simply reminded her that she was twenty years too old for him.
“No, nothing important,” she replied.
“It is beautiful here, yes?”
She admired his European accent. “Yes.”
“Beautiful like you.” His dark eyes twinkled in the sunlight, and she couldn’t help smiling back.
“May I buy you a drink, lovely lady?” he asked.
Claire knew that because of her hat and her dark glasses, he probably couldn’t judge her age. A few days earlier she would have exploited his ignorance by flirting with him, hoping he’d continue to pursue her just to prove to Walt—and herself—that she was still desirable. But she refused to prop up her self-esteem in such a false way anymore. She’d learned that making a fool of herself didn’t help.
Taking off her hat, she lifted her glasses so he could see her clearly. “No, but thank you.”
He pressed a hand to his chest despite the fact that he had to realize, by now, that she was too old for him. “Are you married?” he asked.
“Then have a drink with me.”
She stood and gathered her wrap and hat. “Because I have a thirty-year-old daughter, and it’s time I start acting my age,” she said with a sad smile. “But I’m flattered. Have a wonderful day.”
NDERWEAR SHOPPING WASN’T
the same without Gunner. April forced herself to buy a few things, because she’d set out to do it and pride dictated she finish. But her afternoon wasn’t the good time she’d envisioned. And dinner when she returned was even worse. She wore a wrap-style dress that, with her new push-up bra, definitely made the most of her small bust. Her hair she curled and piled loosely on her head, the way her mother had been trying to get her to style it for months. And she wore her contacts instead of her glasses and even a little bit of mascara and lip gloss. But if she looked nice, Gunner didn’t seem to notice. He sat beside her at the table and talked mostly to her parents.
By the time she’d finished dessert, April was feeling disgruntled. She hadn’t done anything to upset Gunner. She hadn’t done anything to change their relationship at all. So what was his problem? He was supposed to be nice to her for five more days.
“The wind’s died down,” her father said to her
and Gunner as they started to go their separate ways. “Shall we put on our suits and get in the outdoor Jacuzzi by the big pool?”
Gunner shot April an uncertain glance but agreed. April tried to say she was too tired, but her father insisted the experience would be good for her. Then Walt surprised everyone by turning to Claire. “Would you like to join us?” he asked.
Her mother’s eyes widened. “No, thank you. I think I’ll go read a book.”
April couldn’t believe Claire had just turned her father down. Recognizing the opportunity to finally get them to socialize, she quickly changed her own mind. “Actually, I’ll bet the water will feel good,” she said.
“Then have fun, dear,” Claire responded. She’d just started to walk away, when April caught her by the arm. “You’ll come along, won’t you, Mom?”
Claire hesitated but finally nodded when April tightened her grip.
“Great.” April smiled at Gunner and her father. “We’ll just go put on our suits.”
ACUZZI TURNED OUT
to be no improvement over dinner. Gunner watched April covertly—she could sense his regard even when he was talking to
her father or mother. But he didn’t speak to her directly, and he certainly didn’t apologize for his behavior in town. After a few minutes, he got out, gave her a cursory nod good-night, no more personal than the one he gave her parents, and excused himself.
Then Walt and Claire looked at her as if to say,
What’s happened between you two?
and April grew so angry with Gunner that she couldn’t stay in the Jacuzzi a moment longer.
Damn him, he wasn’t keeping up his end of the bargain!
Getting out, she threw on the sheer cover-up that went with her suit and marched after him. She was leaving her estranged parents in the Jacuzzi by themselves, but she figured they’d just have to deal with it. She had something to say to Gunner Stevens, and it couldn’t wait.
When she arrived at Gunner’s room, she knocked loudly. He took his sweet time answering, so she banged more insistently and when he finally appeared, he was wearing only a pair of boxer briefs like the ones she’d borrowed this morning. “Can you give me a minute to get changed?” he asked.
She didn’t care that he was standing in the doorway in his underwear, looking like a dream. There was the matter of his behavior to address, and she planned to do that here and now.
“Are you backing out on our deal?” she said. “Is that what’s going on?”
He peered down the hall, then shoved the door wider. “Come inside.”
She stalked into his room.
“Want to sit down?” he asked.
“No. I want to know why you’re upset with me.”
He scowled and pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms. “I’m not upset with you. Our agreement was founded on something that isn’t turning out to be true.”
“What’s that?” she demanded. “I painted a very realistic picture of what was going to happen here. I never lied to you.”
“You said neither one of us would get hurt, April.”
it? You think I’m going to get hurt? I’m not stupid, Gunner. I know I’d be crazy to think for a second that—”
“I was talking about me,” he said.
It took a moment for his words to sink in. When they did, April felt as though he’d just knocked the wind out of her.
His eyebrows drew together, and he suddenly seemed irritated or impatient or both. “Never mind. It’s over, okay? You’re handling Keith Bodine just fine, your parents are getting along better than I
ever imagined they would, which is really all you can ask, and if your father wants to sell me the company, he’ll sell me the company. We don’t need to keep up this pretense.”
He opened the door and gestured out with his free hand. “Good night, April.”
UNNER COULDN’T HAVE
been serious. That was the thought that kept passing through April’s mind as she walked numbly down the corridor from his room. Women were a dime a dozen to him, remember? She’d seen the front pages of the tabloids. She knew his reputation with the ladies. Besides, she was so different from the leggy blondes he typically dated. Was he playing some sort of new game with her?
When she reached the lobby, she hesitated. She wasn’t ready to face her mother’s wrath for abandoning her in the Jacuzzi with Walt. So she headed out a side door to avoid the crowded lobby bar and walked down to the water.
An hour came and went while she sat on the cold sand, watching the black waves roar up onto the beach and thinking about Gunner. He confused her, threw her out of her element. She couldn’t make sense of their relationship no matter how many minutes slipped by, so she decided to go back in
side, where it was warm. What did seem clear was the fact that she was capable of caring on a deeper level than he was. Which meant, if she allowed herself to trust him, to trust
him, she’d be the one who was disappointed.
She thought of Bill Sossaman and was afraid that this affair would end the same way.
But what about her desire to break out of her staid, safe existence and start living? Someone, somewhere, had said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and she believed it. She just wasn’t sure she had the courage to take such a
gamble right now. Gunner Stevens, of all men. Surely she’d have a better chance at happiness with someone who wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous and devilishly charming. Someone like—
She glanced up to see Keith Bodine and some of the other guys from Ashton Automotive standing at the edge of the bar she’d avoided earlier. A television was on in the far corner. It looked as though they were watching sports highlights.
“Hi,” she said, trying to pump some cheer into her voice.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.
She started to tell him no, then imagined returning to her room before her mother was quite asleep,
and reconsidered. Why not? She never drank because alcohol gave her such a nasty headache. But she felt she could use a margarita tonight.
OUNDING AT HIS DOOR
jerked Gunner awake.
“Gunner? It’s me. I want to talk to you.”
April. Shoving himself out of bed, he opened the door to see that she was still in her swimsuit, which suggested she probably hadn’t been back to her room since she’d left him earlier.
“It’s nearly two o’clock,” he said, growing worried. “Where have you been?”
“Downstairs in the bar.”
That he could believe. From the slurring of her voice, she was more than a little tipsy.
“I’ve been talking to Keith.”
Gunner couldn’t help the flat tone that entered his voice. “What did he have to say?”
“That sometimes, when your heart’s really committed to something, you have to go with it.”
“Do I get to hear the rest of that conversation?”
“No,” she said, but when she looked up at him, he could see that her eyes were filling with tears.
He leaned against the doorjamb, watching her. “Do you cry every time you get drunk?”
“How should I know?” she asked. “I never drink anymore. It gives me a headache.”
“Why is tonight any different?”
“I needed clarity.”
He chuckled despite his concern. “Hell of a way to achieve it.”
“I’ve been talking to Keith.”
“You mentioned that.”
“He’s a very nice man, a good friend.”
Gunner’s jaw tightened. “Glad to hear it.”
“He said some things are just meant to be and we have to face them squarely.”
“Sounds like words to live by.”
“Yeah.” A tear slipped past her lashes and ran down her cheek, and he couldn’t resist reaching over to wipe it away.
“What’s wrong?” he said, softening when she closed her eyes at his touch. God, there was something about this woman that had gotten into his blood. They had absolutely nothing in common. He’d barely heard of quantum physics; she knew zilch about racing. She was serious and intense; he was always trying to rile somebody. She lived a celibate’s life; he felt more comfortable raising hell. They’d never be able to make a go of it. Yet she was the first thing, the only thing, to interest him since his mother had died and he’d lost his desire to race.
She sniffed but didn’t answer.
“What do you need, April?” he pressed, cupping her cheek.
More tears pooled in her eyes as she looked up at him. “You.”
OR A SPLIT SECOND
, April felt as though she’d just dived off the edge of a cliff into total blackness. She’d done it. She’d opened her big mouth and confessed all. Next came the part where Gunner apologized and told her she was mistaken if she thought he wanted her to care about him. Just like Bill Sossaman.
She squeezed her eyes closed, free-falling through space, picking up speed, plummeting faster and faster and faster toward—
She never found out because suddenly Gunner was there, taking her into his arms and pulling her close. She felt him kiss the top of her head, heard him murmur that everything was going to be okay. Then he carried her to his bed, and she fell asleep with her cheek against his chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart.
PRIL WOKE UP
in Gunner’s bed. Sometime in the middle of the night, he’d taken off her cover-up and the top of her bikini—or she’d done it herself. Her breasts were against his bare back, and she had one arm wrapped possessively around his waist as if she thought he might try to get away during the night.
But he was still wearing his pajama pants, and she was still wearing the bottom of her swimsuit. Which meant she hadn’t missed too much.
A good thing, she decided. If she and Gunner ever made love, she’d want to remember it.
Sliding away from him, she started to get up to brush her teeth. It was her first time waking up in a man’s bed. She had to vanquish her margarita breath—even if it meant pirating his toothbrush. But the slightest movement made her head threaten to explode, so she shifted gingerly onto her back and tried to figure out how she could get hold of a bottle of Tylenol, and then a toothbrush, without having to move
He rolled over a moment later and opened his eyes. “Hangover?” he asked, taking one look at her face, which she knew, from the way she felt, had to be ashen.
“Tylenol,” she said.
He chuckled at her one-word answer and called the front desk to request a bottle of painkillers and some soda water. Then he called room service and ordered a plate of steak and eggs and a stack of pancakes. “It’ll help if you eat something.”
“Maybe you could do me a favor and just shoot me now.”
“Want a massage?”
“Is that how I lost my top?”
“Don’t look at me,” he said with a shrug. “You
took it off. You were practically begging me for more intimacy lessons.”
“Would I lie to you?”
“Well, maybe I would. But you were drunk, and I was a total gentleman.” He let his fingers slide lightly over her stomach, raising goose bumps. “If you want, we could start advanced classes as soon as we get rid of your headache. I’d like to repeat yesterday morning’s get-naked experience—and have it end with a little less frustration.”
April would have laughed, except the mention of “advanced lessons” had triggered a Bill Sossaman flashback. “Um…I’m afraid I have some bad news,” she said, finding some of that clarity she’d been searching for.
He sat up, his expression guarded. “What kind of bad news?”
“The kind you won’t like.”
“Does anybody like bad news?”
bad,” she said.
“Then give me the good news first.”
“I care about you and I’m willing to trust you enough to risk my heart.”
He seemed to think that over. “So what’s the bad news?”
“I believe in waiting.”
She could tell from the blankness in his eyes that he didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. “Waiting for what?”
Suddenly he straightened, and she knew her meaning had just registered.
“For a ring?”
She winced at his incredulous tone. “I know it sounds old-fashioned to want to see if a commitment develops before we make love, but…”
“We’ve only known each other for a few weeks!”
“Exactly. And you’re probably not the marrying kind. I’m honestly not pushing for anything you’re not ready to give. It’s just that, well, there are a few things I need in my own life, Gunner. And I’m simply not cut out for casual relationships. You might have noticed.”
He didn’t answer. He was still looking shocked. And then the phone rang. Dragging his gaze away from her, he answered—and sagged against the headboard as if his morning had just gone from bad to worse. “Hi, Dad.”