Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Sami Lee.
All rights reserved.
Trying to relax on the pool lounger and soak up the tropical sun, Sophie Edison was already regretting her decision to come on this trip. Back in Wisconsin it was the depths of winter, and the idea of traveling south of the equator to lie indolently by the pool, making no more important decision than whether to order a margarita or a daiquiri had held enormous appeal. Now she wondered what on earth she’d been thinking.
The place was full of couples. Of course it was. Pandanus Lagoon Resort was a place meant for lovers looking for a romantic getaway—not newly single women desperate to escape what had become a stressful, meaningless and starkly empty life.
She tried not to dwell on the thought that when she’d booked this trip, almost six months in advance as usual, Sophie had still been part of a couple. She’d made the reservation in good faith that she and Brad would enjoy themselves as they had the two previous times they had come here. She hadn’t counted on him falling in love with a paralegal who worked at his firm and dumping her too close to their departure date to permit a refund.
“Will it sound like a line if I ask if this seat is taken?”
Sophie looked up at the man who had spoken, her pulse hitching at the breadth of shoulders and the ridged expanse of haired chest, which was muscled and damp and smelling of the ocean. He wore nothing but a pair of denim cut-offs that clung wetly to his slim hips.
“Nick,” she said and snapped her gaze back to his face. Dominick Dufour, the owner of this casual little resort off the beaten track on Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji.
“You remember,” he noted, and Sophie gave herself a mental kick for letting it show. In the past, she’d gone out of her way to treat him with polite aloofness, the best way she could think to handle a man who looked at her in ways men weren’t supposed to look at women holidaying with their significant others. “It’s good to see you again, Sophie.”
He had never called her Miss Edison, always Sophie, even though she had never invited him to use her first name. She had let it slide as a trick of the casual atmosphere of the place before, even when he had continued to refer to Brad as Mr. Winslow.
She couldn’t dismiss the sound of her name on his lips as casual now. There was something too quietly intimate about the way he said it, not bothering to hide the fact he remembered her from her two previous visits here.
“Can I get you another drink?”
“Now, that sounds like a line,” she told him, glad she had recovered her senses enough to sound droll.
His smile was utterly unapologetic. “Sorry.”
She should refuse. She certainly shouldn’t encourage him. But she thought—what the heck? She was on holiday and had every reason to drown her sorrows. “A strawberry daiquiri, thanks.”
He signaled to the bartender before taking a seat on the lounger adjacent to her and stretching out his long legs. They were carpeted with soft-looking, shiny black hair, the muscles of his thighs and calves taut and strong. Her attention snagged on the juncture of his thighs, her eyes taking on a will of their own. Good grief. Had she really just checked out his crotch?
She pushed her gaze back to his face. It was enigmatically handsome, not in an Armani suit, corporate kind of way but in a just-come-in-from-the-sea, hadn’t-shaved-in-a-week kind of way. There was a dark shadow of growth along his chin and across his top lip that didn’t exactly qualify as a beard but went far beyond stubble. His hair fell in silken ebony curls to his shoulders, and his eyes were a fathomless, mysterious obsidian. When he smiled his teeth were a white slash in his swarthy face.
“Fear of Flying?”
“What? Oh.” Sophie dragged her attention from his face and looked down at the book she had open, spine up, against her belly.
“Must be great in-flight reading.”
“It’s not actually about a fear of flying, it’s about…” a woman in search of the ideal brief erotic encounter. That smile of his would surely turn sinful if she told him that. “It’s a classic that I never got around to reading before. I figured I’d have time on this trip.”
“Because stodgy-pants isn’t with you?”
Sophie looked at him, her brows hiking. “Are you talking about Brad?”
“You’d better tell me you’ve broken up with him for good, or I suppose you’ll tear strips off me for that stodgy-pants crack.”
“We’ve ended it.” No way would she admit it was Brad who had ended it in the most humiliating of ways. “About a month ago. I was too late to get my money back for the trip so I decided to come alone. I guess that seems pathetic.”
“Pathetic isn’t the word I would use.”
“What word would you use?”
“Gutsy,” he said. Sophie was surprised at how much she liked the compliment. His teeth flashed. “Either that or stingy.”
Sophie felt her lips tug, trying to smile. “Actually I probably could have afforded to lose the deposit. But I had to get away.”
He regarded her seriously for a moment, his slight nod telling her he had experienced that urge once or twice too.
Their drinks arrived. Sophie watched him tip his Coke to his lips and take a long swallow, his throat muscles undulating. A droplet of condensation fell from the bottle to land in the mat of smooth hair on his chest.
Sophie took a long sip of her daiquiri, willing herself to tear her gaze away. Before she could Nick turned and caught her staring.
His gaze flickered over her sedate blue bikini, making Sophie feel like she was practically topless. Her skin flushed at his perusal, the intensity of her reaction disturbing her. It wasn’t as though she’d never had men flirt with her before, or give her the once-over. But for over four years Brad had been there like an invisible force field, protecting her from possible consequences. Now Brad offered no protection from this man—the only man in a long time who made Sophie feel like protection was in order.
His gaze came back to rest on her face and he smiled. Oh, but that smile could lead a perfectly sensible woman into reckless territory. To her astonishment, Sophie wanted to go there. Being dumped at the age of thirty-two by the man you’d assumed you’d one day marry had a way of seriously bruising the self-esteem. Being hit-on by an attractive, exciting male certainly seemed to be an effective antidote, if the spike of titillation she experienced was any indication.
“Have dinner with me tonight.”
It sounded less like a request than a command, and Sophie bristled. Already unsettled by her sexual response, her query came out sounding more terse than idly curious. “Tell me, is this your usual routine?”
“It hasn’t escaped my notice in the past that women here seem fairly open to the idea of being hit on by you.”
“I guess you’re saying you’re not.”
She didn’t want to answer that. “I think you’re avoiding the question.”
“It was a stupid question,” he told her, a surprising note of defensiveness creeping into his voice. “I don’t have a routine. If I see something I like, I say so. But if you have a problem with that, you don’t need to tell me twice.”
With that he swung his legs over the side of the lounger and rose to his feet. He tipped his dark head at her, his eyes mocking. “Enjoy your alone time, Sophie.”
* * * *
Nick cursed himself as all kinds of stupid later that evening when he surveyed the restaurant full of diners and realized Sophie wasn’t amongst them.
Shit. He hadn’t meant to make her avoid him. He hadn’t meant to sound like a petulant jerk. It was just that her opinion of him, which put him somewhere in the category of thoughtless Lothario, had stung like the devil.
He shouldn’t have tried to hit on her. It was pretty thoughtless, given she’d not long ago ended her relationship with that tight-ass Winslow. But three years—three Februaries—she’d come here on holiday and he’d been forced to admire her from afar, knowing a woman like her would never go for someone like him—boyfriend or no boyfriend. When his right-hand man, a Fijian native named Joe, had told him she’d arrived from the airport alone, his anticipation had gotten the better of him.
And now he’d blown his chance with her.
Despite resolving to give her a wide berth from now on, he was concerned about her skipping dinner. If all she’d done today was eat airline food and toss back daiquiris, she really needed a good meal. Nick asked his chef to serve up a plate of kokoda, a local delicacy of raw fish marinated in lime juice that he knew Sophie had ordered on previous occasions. He was stepping out the restaurant’s side door into the balmy evening air when he saw her.
She was wearing a simple ankle-length dress made out of some floaty white material. Thin straps held it on her shoulders, a long row of tiny pearl buttons closing it over the inviting swell of her breasts, the indent of her waist and the flare of her hips. Her thick, smooth hair curtained her shoulders, the honey-brown strands shining in the moonlight. When she saw him standing in the doorway her steps faltered, her big blue eyes widening.
“Evening. I thought you weren’t coming to dinner.”
“I’m sorry I’m late. Will the chef still make me something?”
“Taken care of,” he told her, gesturing toward the foil-covered plate resting on his upturned palm. “I was going to bring this to you.”
He shrugged as she studied him with open speculation. Had she thought he was delivering the meal with ulterior motives in mind? He was a little surprised the thought had never crossed his mind, a little disappointed that it had crossed hers. She really didn’t think much of him.
“Figured you’d get hungry,” he said brusquely. He gestured toward the only empty table left in the small restaurant, a two-seater on the deck overlooking the pool, rimmed now with burning torches that reflected fire in the glassy dark water.
He couldn’t help looking his fill of her backside as she walked in front of him. The white dress was sheer enough that he could see the G-string she was wearing beneath it. Shit, a G-string. His groin stirred to life. Why couldn’t she be a sensible granny-panties kind of woman if she was going to give him the brush-off?
He held her chair out for her and waited until she was comfortably seated before he plopped the plate in front of her. “Kokoda is one of the house specialties. Enjoy.”
When he turned to leave she said, “You’re not going to join me?”
Nick spun back and looked into her face. Her wide eyes were the color of the Coral Sea, her pink lips shimmering with subtle gloss. They were slightly parted, making Nick wonder what her mouth tasted like. He had to swallow down a surge of lust. “Is that an observation,” he asked carefully, “or an invitation?”
The way her eyes flickered indicated discomfiture but she kept her gaze steady on his. “An invitation.”
When he settled into the seat across from her Sophie observed, “You usually eat out the back with the staff after the dinner rush.”
“I’ve never seen you eat with any of the guests before. I mean the other times I was here with…Brad.” Redness tinged her cheeks. “Thank you for making an exception.”
Nick realized he would make a lot of exceptions for her, but held on to his reason enough not to say so. Instead he tried for a more flippant response. “I hate to see a beautiful woman eating alone.”
“I have no trouble eating alone. I’m a busy lawyer—it tends to become the norm.”
“What about Brad?”
“Brad and I didn’t live together. He preferred his own space—we both did.”
“So it was a long-term, not-living-together kind of arrangement then?” Fuck buddies, Nick wanted to say, but then had a hard time picturing the stick-up-his-butt, perfect-looking Brad being anyone’s buddy. Or fucking, for that matter. Not the way a woman sometimes needed to be fucked. Slow then fast. Soft then hard. Until the top of her head just about blew off.
He couldn’t imagine Sophie and Brad going at it like that. He didn’t want to. Now imagining himself and Sophie going at it like that was another story.
Nick shifted in his seat.
“We always intended to marry, one day.” She sounded defensive.
“So why didn’t you?”
The waitress came and put his meal down in front of him, forcing him to break eye contact. When they were alone again she had her defenses well and truly raised. “We changed our plans,” she answered in a clear evasion and concentrated on her meal.
They ate in silence for a while. Sophie commented on the quality of the food, how it rivaled anything found in the finest restaurants back home. She had no reason to be falsely polite with him, so Nick couldn’t help the burst of pride he felt. He’d come a long way from the kid everyone said would never amount to anything. All the way from the mean backstreets of western Sydney to a tropical island and his own slice of paradise.
Now that was a story and a half. His life story. He wondered if Sophie would be interested in it. Probably not. She was a lawyer, and he sensed the straight as an arrow kind. How forgiving would she be if she knew the truth about him?
“Listen, Nick.” Sophie twirled a cube of fish around on her fork. “I wanted to apologize for this afternoon. For being rude.”
“Nothing I didn’t deserve.”
“Still. I didn’t mean to suggest you sleep with all your female guests.”
His lips twitched upward. “Are you saying you don’t think I do, after all?”
“I’m sure it’s none of my business.”
“Well, just so you know,” he said, giving her a slow, heated smile, “I don’t have a policy against it or anything.”
He got a kick out of the way her lips curved and her face flushed. “Thank you for keeping me informed, Nick.”
Sophie easily picked up on the implication that Nick wasn’t only talking about keeping her informed. Heat infused her as the many possibilities of what he might be offering flickered through her mind.
She tried to clear the lump of tension from her throat as surreptitiously as possible. “I’m curious as to how you came about owning this place.” She was curious, and eager to bring the flirty banter down a notch or two. She didn’t think her nerves could handle it.
It was several moments before he replied. “Life takes you to some pretty unexpected places.”
When she realized he wasn’t going to elaborate, Sophie remarked, “That’s not exactly an answer.”
“I bet you make a great lawyer.”
“You see, you have me at a disadvantage. You know so much about me and I know essentially nothing about you.”
“Women like men of mystery, I’m told.” His enigmatic smile made her wonder who had told him so. More specifically, which woman or women had told him so. The bite of jealousy was a surprise, and entirely unwarranted. His past love life was none of her concern. “Besides, I hardly know anything about you, either.”
Sophie crossed her cutlery over her plate and started counting things off on her fingers. “You know my name, my occupation, my home address, my credit card number, my relationship status…”
He held up a hand, a plea for mercy. “Alright, lawyer lady, you win. My name, proper name, is Dominick Albert Dufour.”
“It’s French, right?”
“The family tree’s a little vague but yeah, I’m one-quarter French. Three-quarters mongrel.” His lips curled with wry humor, taking the sting out of that last statement. “Occupation you know. Home address, you’re looking at it. Credit card number—I hardly use it. I’ve always been partial to cash myself. As for relationship status, I’m not in one. Most women I meet are only passing through.”
Sophie rested her chin on her hand, enchanted by the way he’d managed to talk about himself without imparting much in the way of tangible information. He would have made a great lawyer himself. Yet it was impossible to imagine him in a suit and not the floral bula shirt and cargo shorts he was wearing. “And past relationships?”
“I should stay silent, lest I incriminate myself.”
“I’d be willing to bet you’re not usually concerned about incriminating yourself.”
Sophie’s smile widened because his distinct Australian twang rendered his French accent abominable. “Are you sure you’re one-quarter French?”
“Are you making fun of my accent?” His expression of mock offense was the last straw. Sophie’s smile gave way to laughter, real laughter that she felt all the way to the pit of her stomach. She had to use her napkin to dab at the moisture gathering in her eyes.
When at last she recovered her sobriety, she glanced across the table to see Nick watching her with an intense gaze that made her smile stumble and fall.
“Christ, Sophie,” he breathed at last. “You’re beautiful.”
The trio playing guitar and singing island songs finished their set and a smattering of applause broke out. Sophie couldn’t have torn her eyes from Nick’s if she’d even had the wherewithal to applaud. Her breath backed up in her throat. Her heart sledgehammered. Oh, how she wished she could believe he was delivering a well-practiced line. Somehow, the suspicion that he was merely being straightforward was doubly frightening.
“I’m not sure I’m up for this, Nick,” she burst out.
He didn’t ask what she meant. “Why not?”
With a monumental effort, Sophie tore her gaze away from the dark challenge in his. She looked down at the table and twirled her unused dessert spoon on the white linen tablecloth. “I’m a mess. Brad dumped me, actually. As for making a great lawyer? Not lately. I’m on extended leave from my firm because it’s obvious to everyone there my heart hasn’t been in defending the ‘wrongfully accused’ anymore.”
Having admitted it aloud, Sophie felt a weight lift from her. A weight that had become so familiar that without it, her shoulders trembled. She brought a hand up to her mouth and her fingers shook against her lips. The feeling that she had lost her footing in life assailed her, not for the first time. “The fact is I’ve stopped caring why criminals do what they do—tired of making excuses for them to keep them from being punished as they probably deserve to be. I don’t think I can ever go back to that life.”
It was a long time before she looked up. When she did, Nick was focused on her with a hard, impenetrable expression she had no idea what to make of. At length he reached across the table, taking her hand in a fierce grip. Holding her gaze so fast she couldn’t have pulled away for anything, he commanded, “Come for a walk with me.”
As though hypnotized, Sophie found herself nodding.