Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Sami Lee.
All rights reserved.
“Your cargo’s arrived.”
Cassie Dalton—Cassiopeia to her parents but to no one else, ever, no way, no how—glanced up from the shelf of supplies she was currently raiding to quirk an eyebrow at Tilly Steen. “A full hour early? They must be keen.”
“He,” Tilly corrected. “Intimidating type. Good looking in a rough kind of way. The wife hasn’t arrived yet.”
“I guess I’ll go say hello then.” Cassie dumped the items on the sales counter. A couple of new rod holders in case the happy couple turned out to be keen on fishing, some spare U-bolts, cleats and other deck hardware that came in handy from time to time on a yacht. Not to mention her own private stash of Snickers bars. Could never have too many of those.
Tilly rang the items up and added the total to Cassie’s account. She had a thirty-day payment plan with Steen’s Chandlery, and thank God for it. She’d needed the grace period more than once over the past year. Yacht-charter businesses in the Whitsundays had once thrived, but recently a spate of “extreme weather events”, as they liked to call them on the news, had turned a lot of tourists off traveling to the Australian tropics.
Fortunately, Mr. Robin Sherwood and his wife weren’t concerned about being washed away in a cyclone. They’d booked the entire week with all the bells and whistles. The premier package included daily gourmet meals washed down with fine champagne, snorkelling lessons and guided tours of the islands on their route through the passage if they so required them. In other words, Cassie could look forward to six days and five nights of kissing butt. She didn’t mind. The cash infusion the Sherwoods would inject into her charter business was desperately needed right now.
She stepped out of the chandlery and into the warm morning sunshine. October in Airlie Beach was a beautiful thing. Cloudless blue skies and intense cerulean water unmarred by whitecaps. Multitudes of white-hulled yachts rested peacefully at Abel Point Marina. The aroma of salt air, sunscreen, and lush native foliage. Cassie inhaled gratefully. She’d missed this area while she’d been away. Nothing in the hustle and bustle of Sydney could compare.
Nothing except the joy of resting peacefully in Reed’s arms as they fell asleep together after a round or two of hot sex.
Damn it. It had been almost twelve months since she’d laid eyes on him. Twelve months spent trying not to remember how it felt to be with him, to be the centre of his world, if only for a few moments. Sometimes she even managed to push the memories aside and convince herself she’d done the right thing in returning here. Leaving him.
Other times, she wondered if she should have worked harder, if somehow their break up had been her fault even more than his. She’d probably never know for sure. Talking things out in an open and honest manner was not Reed Dalton’s style.
It was approaching eight a.m. by the time Cassie traversed the wharf, passing other charter boats and some private vessels. When she came to a stop beside The Rendezvous—the forty-one-foot mono hull left to her by her Uncle Shane—Robin Sherwood was nowhere in sight. All that was visible on the jetty was a pair of size ten sneakers.
Cassie frowned. He’d already boarded The Rendezvous? That was incredibly rude. It was like walking into someone’s house when they weren’t home, all yacht owners knew that. However, her guest wasn’t a yachty, Cassie reminded herself. She was thankful he’d at least he’d had the sense to take off his shoes.
“Mr. Sherwood?” Cassie slipped off her own shoes and climbed over the stern rail. She rested her bag of purchases on the seat in the cockpit and headed to the open cabin hatch. She’d been aboard already this morning to do some necessary preparation for her new guests, and she’d left the hatch unlocked. Still, that wasn’t an open invitation for a stranger to waltz right inside. Cassie disliked this Sherwood character more with each second. She hoped the liberties he’d taken so far didn’t set the tone for the rest of the trip.
“Mr. Sherwood?” she called again as she went below deck. “Are you on boar—?”
The rest of her question was lost on an oomph as she collided with someone coming up the stairs. The sun had been bright outside, and for a few seconds the contrasting darkness in the cabin played havoc with her vision. As her balance wavered, she reached blindly for purchase. She found herself gripping a hard biceps with one hand, a trim waist with the other. Her face came to rest in the curve of a man’s neck and he curled an arm around her. His face was clean shaven and Cassie could feel the smooth skin caressing her temple. He smelled good, like woodsy aftershave and plain soap.
A whirlwind of realizations hit her at once. She was clutching the man like she’d drown if she let go, enjoying the way his solid body made her feel steady and safe. Safe? She shouldn’t feel safe in the embrace of a strange man. She shouldn’t be inhaling his scent, especially as he was married. Married and her guest for the week. It was so inappropriate. Yet, she couldn’t prevent herself from breathing in again.
There was something odd about Robin Sherwood, and by odd Cassie meant familiar. That aftershave, those arms… With a shocked gasp, she yanked herself out of his embrace and clutched at the railing for support. Although the marina waters were calm this morning, Cassie felt as though she’d been tossed into a stormy sea without warning.
She was staring into the face of a married man, all right. Only this one was married to her.
“Hi, Cass,” Reed Dalton greeted with an air of casualness that didn’t fit the situation at all. His lips eased into the ready grin she hadn’t seen since she’d fled Sydney. “Miss me?”
Miss him? Was that meant to be a joke? His navy-blue eyes held hers, the audacious sparkle in them so familiar it made her heart actually ache with yearning, with an unwelcome regret for the year they’d spent apart. The word miss didn’t cover the emptiness she’d had to live with since she’d left him, left their marriage.
Your choice, Cass. The smart choice. The only choice. Logically, she knew she’d done what she had to. Emotionally, seeing him again was a brutal reopening of a wound she’d spent months trying to heal.
Cassie simply stared at him, at his dark-brown hair cut into a no-nonsense style, those sparkling blue eyes, the strong shoulders and the toned physique he maintained at the gym. He was gorgeous, this man who was her husband—in name only, anyway.
Unless he’d come here to tell her he’d signed the papers she’d had her lawyer send. That thought made her stomach roil. What if he’d signed them? What if he wasn’t her husband anymore?
Instead of the relief she’d hoped to feel when this moment arrived, numbness took over. She’d wanted out of the marriage, hadn’t she? She had to assume Reed felt the same way, seeing as he’d never come to see her, never even tried to work on their issues. Yet maybe some part of her had held out hope that sending the papers would finally get his attention, force him to act.
He is acting, Cassie. He’s here to tell you it’s over.
Reed opened his mouth to say something. Before he could utter a word, Cassie swung her hardest right hook at his face.
Reed saw the punch coming in time to stop it with his open palm—just. She’d almost got the better of him, which would have ruined his track record entirely. He’d been attacked by a long line of junkies, dealers, pimps, gang bangers and other assorted lowlife grubs without ever having received a blow to his face in the line of duty. Other parts of his person hadn’t fared so well. Lately, he’d noticed his thirty-two-year-old body was telling him with ever-increasing aches and pains that he’d spent over ten years working as a city cop.
Aches and pains aside, there was no way he would have let his guard slip to the point he almost got punched in the face by a slender woman if he hadn’t been so pole-axed by…well, by the slender woman he’d come face to face with. Cassie was beautiful, that he remembered. Her sleek brown hair, once the colour of dark chocolate, had caramel highlights in it now, probably from all the time she’d spent in the sun the past year. Her green-gold eyes were as wide and hypnotising as ever. Her lips, parted now as angry puffs of breath escaped between them, were a temptation he’d never been able to resist. Even now, when her eyes threw daggers at him and the fist she’d wanted to slam into his jaw was still balled in his hand, Reed’s first instinct was to kiss the hell out of her.
No, he’d never forgotten how beautiful she was. He still had several pictures of her he couldn’t bring himself to delete. What he hadn’t recalled or counted on when he thought up this plan was the brain-scrambling affect her mere presence had on him.
When Cassie’s left fist came at him, Reed swore in surprise. If she’d been a southpaw, he would have been in real danger of collecting a bruise. But her left-handed jab didn’t stand a chance. Even caught unawares, Reed blocked it as effectively as he had the first.
Reed let out a shocked laugh. “Jesus, Cass. Lucky for me you don’t have any more hands.”
She narrowed her eyes. Reed deduced what she was thinking, and before she could bring her knee up, he spun her around so her back was to him. If she’d been anyone else, he would have twisted the arm behind her to immobilize her, but that might hurt her, and he couldn’t do it. This was his wife. She might not want to be anymore, but in Reed’s mind Cassie was still the woman he’d sworn in front of a justice of the peace to protect and honour for the rest of his life.
Still gripping her wrists, he crossed her arms over her stomach and drew her tight against him. The soft curve of her bottom fit into the cradle of his thighs. A fire sparked in his loins, heating his balls and making his dick twitch. She might have murder in mind, but his mind was on another tangent, and if she moved even a millimetre, he was going to develop a full-blown hard-on.
Cassie struggled in his hold, wiggling her bottom in ways that didn’t help his situation at all. Reed clenched his teeth. “Cass, stop struggling, will ya?”
She ignored him and continued to writhe in his arms. “Let me go!”
“So you can try and deck me again? No, thanks.”
“I won’t, I swear.”
“Calm down and I might start to believe you”
Cassie issued a muted scream of frustration and stamped on his foot. She got in a good shot, and Reed winced as her heel connected with his bare toe. The momentary flash of pain was nowhere near enough to counter the impact of having her pressed so intimately against him. His cock stretched to its full size. Desire and frustration warred inside him, making every muscle in his frame tense.
“Damn it, Cassie. Stop struggling.”
She must have heard something in his tone because she at last grew still. She was panting with exertion, reminding Reed how she used to pant like that for other reasons, back when they’d shared a bed. After a year apart, he must have kidded himself her effect on him would have lessened. He hadn’t counted on being blindsided by this level of lust. If anything, his need for her had intensified, turning into something almost frantic.
Perhaps because he’d finally woken up to the fact he could lose her forever.
She remained immobile in his arms for long seconds, long enough for Reed to realize she must have become aware of the problem in his cargo shorts. She grew unnaturally still and her breathing shallowed. The raspy exhalations turned Reed on even more. Every part of him strained with the effort not to take her right where they stood.
It would be so easy. Slip a hand inside her shirt, use the other to yank down her shorts and his. He was so hard they wouldn’t need preliminaries, and Cassie hadn’t always needed them anyway. She’d so often been ready for him whenever he’d come to her, and something in the quality of her stillness made Reed think, despite her anger at first seeing him, that now would be no different.
Reed’s body shook with the need to claim her, a need he had to deny. She was pleading with him, once again, to release her, not to make love to her.
His heart laden, his erection throbbing, Reed let her go. Cassie immediately put as much distance between them as she could, given the cramped quarters of the cabin. “What are you doing here, Reed?”
She squared her shoulders and turned to face him. The haughty toss of her head and imperious question didn’t hide the fact her nipples were poking against the white cotton of her polo shirt. Reed let his gaze drop and linger, letting her know he was aware of her situation. When he raised his eyes to her face once more, her cheeks were flushed.
“I came to see you.”
Her expression was genuinely puzzled. “Why?”
“Why?” Reed parroted, incredulous. “Because you’re my wife and I thought it was about time I reminded you of that.”
As if I could ever forget. Not a day had gone by in the past year when some thought of Reed hadn’t come into Cassie’s head. Even with the time and distance, she’d never stopped thinking of herself as married, which was why she’d finally decided she had to do something to clarify her circumstances, once and for all.
Her body, apparently, wasn’t confused about anything. It still wanted Reed Dalton with a hot, pulsing force that made her heart gallop and her breasts tingle and ache. When she’d been trapped in his arms, it had reminded her too acutely of being trapped there willingly, of being held in all the ways Reed had held her during their three-year marriage. Tenderly, passionately, even forcefully.
Base want still coursed through her as the implication of his words set in. Her heart rate tripled. “Are you saying you didn’t come here to tell me you signed the papers?”
Reed scoffed. “Now why in hell would I let you divorce me like that—without so much as a conversation?”
“Oh, now you want to have a conversation?” Cassie planted her hands on her hips. “Where was that willingness twelve months ago when I begged you to go to couples counselling?”
“Therapy is not a conversation, Cass.”
“What else was I supposed to suggest? You wouldn’t talk to me about anything. Not about your job or what was going on between us.”
“What do you mean, what was going on between us? We were fine, until you decided to run away and play skipper.”
“Uncle Shane died and left me the boat.” It might explain what had prompted her to fly back to the town of Airlie Beach where she’d grown up, but not why she’d decided to stay. She could have sold The Rendezvous, gone back to Sydney to be with her husband like a loyal wife was supposed to. But she hadn’t. She couldn’t go back to the three-way relationship she’d fallen into in Sydney—a relationship between her, Reed and his job. “And good sex isn’t proof that everything is going swimmingly.”
“We didn’t have good sex, Cass.” Reed let his gaze wander over her again, taking in her stubbornly hard nipples with an insolent quirk of his lips. “We had great sex.”
Cassie needn’t be reminded of that either. Her pussy fluttered in response to his words, to the memory of being held in his arms moments ago. For a second there, she’d wanted nothing more than for Reed to take her, without preamble, without asking, as he had so many times during their marriage. When he’d come home and she’d sense it had been a particularly gruelling day—or night—on the job, when he’d looked at her with such raw need in his eyes, she’d never hesitated to offer her body as comfort.
A memory, raw and graphic, of Reed ripping off her panties, bending her over the dining table and entering her with one solid thrust flashed through Cassie’s mind. Her blood heated farther, practically hitting boiling point. Their sexual life hadn’t merely been good or great. It had been intensely hot, so hot it had overshadowed their problems—for a while.
Cassie crossed her arms over her chest, willing her body’s eager response to Reed’s nearness to cool. “Even so, I needed more than a husband who came home only when he felt like it and thought sex was a substitute for communication.”
Reed pushed out a sigh and dragged a hand through his dark-brown hair until the ends spiked up. He always did that when they argued, and in the very beginning she’d thought it was cute. Cassie had once loved smoothing those abused strands back down before rising to her tiptoes and kissing her husband’s beleaguered face.
Unbelievably, that urge remained. Cassie had to clench her fists to keep from acting on it.
“I’m here now, Cass. And if it’s communication you want, that’s what you’re going to get,” Reed said. “We have six days to communicate, if that’s all you want to do.”
“Six days?” Cassie blinked in surprise. “You mean you really intend to charter The Rendezvous?”
“I made a booking, didn’t I?”
“For Robin Sherwood and his wife,” Cassie pointed out. “If I’d known who you were, I would never have taken the booking.”
“I figured that, hence the cover name.”
Now that she thought about it, Cassie couldn’t believe she hadn’t picked that name as fake. Robin Sherwood. Ha! At the time she’d taken the booking online, she’d been far too thrilled at the prospect of a full-paying customer to question it.
“If you don’t take me on the trip, I won’t pay your fee,” Reed told her. “And I figure you need the money, am I right?”
Cassie narrowed her eyes. Since she’d had the Sherwoods slotted in, she hadn’t been able to take any other bookings, and it was too late now. She couldn’t afford to take no income at all for the entire week. From the smug expression on Reed’s face, he knew it. It seemed she didn’t really have a choice but to spend the week in close quarters with the infuriating man, the one man who made her forget all common sense as easily as he smiled.
What if he really does want to talk, to really talk?
Cassie couldn’t prevent a seed of hope from germinating in her heart, even though she was deathly afraid she’d be disappointed with Reed’s definition of communication—whatever it was. Yet the hope was there, and she had to give it a chance—she had to give them a chance, one last one, before they decided once and for all if they had a future.
After all, he was still her husband.
“All right, Reed. You’ve hired yourself a captain.”