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Chapter One


 

“Men are scum. Absolutely, positively scum.” Mandy stated the fact to the half dozen blurry-faced women around her in the South Kihei Tiki Lounge. Reggae music filled the crowded restaurant-bar along with the party-happy voices of at least a hundred people.

A pair of thirty-something women, arms draped around each other, grinned and nodded. “Swore off them ages ago,” one of them said. She gave the other woman a kiss on the cheek.

“Scum, maybe.” A redhead with breasts struggling to stay inside a strapless dress smiled. “But they’re good for one thing…if you know what I mean.”

Mandy took another long drain of the Oh My Goddess drink someone had recommended and blinked at the fuzzy faces. Okay, maybe the faces weren’t actually blurry or fuzzy. It was probably her. She hadn’t drunk this much in months. This was a private celebration of being free, again. Not that she wanted to be “free,” but Chad did.

“Stupid jerk,” she grumbled at the thought of the latest disaster in her romantic history. She was swearing off men for good. Maybe she’d find a nice woman to…. No, not her thing. “I’ll just invest in more vibrators, get a nice variety. All they needed is batteries.”

“Sounds like a plan,” someone nearby commented.

Pleased with her decision, she drained the rest of her drink and licked her lips, sighing. Blueberries and pink lemonade. Yummmm.

“Another one?” asked the Hawaiian bartender in a bold island-style shirt, reaching for her glass. He studied her and frowned. “Maybe we should leave out the vodka this time.”

She jutted her chin up, although the quick movement made her dizzy. “Make it a double.” Did you make this kind of a drink in a double? Whatever. “Going to the ladies room,” she announced to nobody in particular.

The little band of groupies she’d acquired nodded and made room for her to get off the wicker-and-wood bar stool. She slid off, lost her balance, and landed hard on her butt on the floor. “Well damn.” She sat dazed and in shock, not quite sure how to get up with any kind of grace. The women around her just looked down at her and laughed.

She wasn’t amused. Her ass hurt. Annoyed, she raised an arm. “I could use a little help.”

The hand that clamped onto her arm was big, firm, and belonged to the handsome surfer-looking blond devil she’d seen watching her off and on from across the bar area most of the night. “Honey, you passed your drinking limit a while ago.”

“I’m just fine,” she said primly and tried to pull her arm free. “Never mind. I don’t need help.”

With a smirk, he let her go but didn’t move away. Her groupies stood around him, grinning like fools, enjoying the added entertainment to the night: her.

Irritated with them all, she wriggled around determined to get up off the floor. Her skirt was too short and she kept trying to tug it down to keep from showing things nobody here needed to see. Her noodle-like legs didn’t cooperate. This whole disaster could be blamed on stupid Chad. At least her older brother Drew wasn’t here to see the spectacle she was making of herself. He didn’t tolerate this kind of behavior. He’d haul her out of here and over his knee as soon as he could. Big, tough cowboy believed warming a woman’s butt was the answer to misbehavior. At least what he considered inappropriate behavior.

She snorted, grumbling, “I’m not misbehaving. I’m just having a hell of a bad night.”

“What did you say?” surfer boy asked.

Instead of repeating what he wasn’t meant to hear, she thrust her arm back at him. “I was wrong. I need your help.”

A sexy-as-sin smile slid into place and he pulled her up in front of him—faded jeans touching scandalously short dress. Even through the layers of clothing she felt an immediate hot flash. She noticed her women acquaintances all but eating him up with their hungry eyes. Except for the still-hugging ladies, although they looked him over good.

“Are you going to be okay now?” he asked still holding onto her. Striking blue eyes watched her with hints of both interest and disapproval.

“Perfectly fine.” Mandy tugged her arm free, spun to walk away, and her legs gave out proving her wrong.

He caught her under the arms before she landed on the floor again. “Maybe we have different definitions of ‘fine.’”

“Mandy,” the bartender said from behind them, “you need to go home.”

“I don’t want to go home.” Home was lonely, empty without Chad. Stupid, cheating Chad! “I’m cele… celebrating tonight.” She couldn’t seem to find any bones in her legs to stand on. Her brain was getting a bit fuzzy again.

“You’re done celebrating,” the bartender stated and walked away with her glass.

Evidently bored with her now, the groupies and others nearby watching her turned away. Fine. I don’t need any of you anyway. What she needed was to close her eyes and give in to the desire to crash for the night. It would be better not to do that here in the middle of the Tiki Lounge. She tried once more to make her legs work. Failed.

The man still holding her upright asked sounding resigned, “Where do you live, honey?”

She bristled. “I’m not your honey. I’m nobody’s honey!” Pain pinched her heart and she blinked back sudden tears. “I was. Now I’m not.”

“Where do you live?” he repeated, more gently this time.

Her thoughts were becoming more muddled. Where do I live? A vision of a small log house on a ranch flashed into her mind quickly followed by a high-rise apartment building somewhere, and then a bedroom overlooking a white sand beach. She blinked and looked around her. “Where exactly am I?”

“I should have cut you off an hour ago, Mandy.” The bartender walked around the bar to look down at her in concern. Then he focused on the man holding her up. “She has a condo somewhere about a half mile up the beach. She walks here most nights when she’s on the island. Doesn’t usually drink this much.”

Mandy’s head was getting heavy and she could barely keep her eyes open. “Tired.”

“Sleeping Beauty here isn’t walking home tonight.” Then somehow the man with the beautiful blue eyes and sleepy-bedroom voice managed to scoop her up into his arms. She needed to remember that she’d sworn off men. But, jeez, he smelled so good.

 

Erik studied the dead-to-the-world woman he’d laid down on his bed. Gorgeous, with a capital G. Brunettes weren’t usually his type or women who partied so hard they lost all touch with reality. But according to the bartender, this wasn’t her norm. Still, here she was…passed out and in a strange man’s bed. She was damn lucky he was the “strange man.” If ever a woman needed a spanking for being foolish, it was this one.

Shoving that thought aside, he yawned. He wanted nothing more than to crash for the night. The flight here today had been long. He’d had phone call after phone call from his “think tank boys” back in LA all excited because the realtor he’d chosen to use had found some amazing properties to consider for their new office building. At least amazing according to his “boys.” He wasn’t in the mood to deal with any of that. The craziness of his rapidly growing business was what had brought him here to Maui. He needed to get away from all of it, veg on the beach, do some surfing, find a willing woman…. Which brought him back to the problem at hand.

He sighed and shook his head. What might have been a “willing woman” now lie drunk and out for the count on the only bed in his rental beach house. He’d watched her most of the night, which had surprised him since there had been about a dozen pretty, flirty blondes like he preferred in the bar. More than a few had approached him. For whatever screwy reason, he’d rebuffed them, content to observe this Mandy Whoever drinking, laughing, and turning away one man after another. There had been a couple of clear lesbians in the group hanging with her, but he knew instinctively she didn’t lean that way. But he’d heard her “men are scum” ranting when the liquor had really gotten to her. It made him curious. Especially after her mumbled response of not being anyone’s “honey” now. He’d seen the sheen of tears in her eyes, too. Some man had hurt her and, even though he didn’t know her, he hated the idea.

She moved on the bed, shifting to her side and pulling one leg up. The skirt that had only reached to mid-thigh now bunched around her crotch. He saw the patch of curly dark hair and realized she wasn’t wearing underwear. Lust tore through him. Again. He’d gone steel rod hard the second he’d picked her up. Still was, he’d just been trying to ignore the problem.

Cold shower. Now. She was probably uncomfortable in the dress, but no way could he take it off and find the restraint not to do something he shouldn’t. Shower. Focus. And not on her.

*********

Mandy rolled over, blinked an eye open, and sun shining in a pair of sliding glass doors nearly blinded her. “Oh gawd,” she groaned and turned her head the other way.

Several things happened at once. Her head threatened to explode from the quiet groan alone. Her stomach promised immediate payback for a night spent drinking too much liquor. And she gaped in shock at finding Surfer Stud looking back at her from where he slept naked except for a pair of navy boxers. She could easily imagine him full a ‘la carte yummy without the boxers.

“What are you doing here?” She barely got the words out before she scrambled off the bed, hand to her mouth. Then she realized this wasn’t her bedroom. Panic swept over her. She needed to find the bathroom ASAP.

The same man who had come to her rescue last night came to her rescue again. He was beside her in a flash and pushing her out of the bedroom and into the bathroom. Before she could protest, he caught up her long hair and bent her over the ceramic stool. She heaved up everything in her, wanting to die of humiliation.

“Better now?” As she slowly straightened, he released her hair.

She couldn’t find the strength to face him. “I think so.” Heat seared her face. “I’m so embarrassed.”

He wet a wash rag and handed it to her. “Been there, done this.” To her relief, he left the room and closed the door.

Gawd, what he must think of me. She was never going to drink another Oh My Goddess. Maybe she wouldn’t ever set foot in the Tiki Lounge again. Maybe she could just drown here in this strange man’s shower and end all of her problems.

He tapped lightly on the door. “There are extra towels in the linen closet. Feel free to grab a shower. It’ll make you feel better, trust me.”

Trust him? She didn’t know him. How could she strip naked and take a shower? “I just need to go back to my place,” she protested, holding her still uneasy stomach. “Or die.”

He chuckled, the sound rich and rumbly. Sexy. “I’ll find you a pair of shorts and a T-shirt to change into.”

“This dress is….” She glanced down and discovered she’d managed to tear a side seam in her squirming around during the night. It was slit up the side almost to her waist. “Oh damn.”

Her face flamed even hotter knowing he’d seen so much of her. He could have seen even more if he’d undressed her, which, thank God, he hadn’t. She took a second to determine whether he’d done the naughty with her. She didn’t think so. Again, thank God. What an absolute idiot she’d been.

“Shorts and T-shirt?” he asked, interrupting her miserable musings.

“Yes,” she answered in a wary squeak.

A half hour later showered except for her long hair, dressed in his borrowed jogging shorts that hung baggily on her and a T-shirt, Mandy drew in a steadying breath and emerged from the safety of the bathroom. She followed the smell of coffee to the kitchen. Her handsome host wore cut-off jean shorts, no shirt and no shoes. He was tanned male perfection with a hairless chest and just enough upper muscles to show he worked out in some way. His legs were long and his thighs muscled, but not overly so. She liked the whole package. Although his collar-length, blond-brown mixed hair could stand a trim.

When he sensed her presence, he turned and those sky blue eyes found her. “Better now?” He nodded at the coffee pot. “Want some?”

“Normally I’d say yes.” She held a hand over her queasy stomach. “Think I’ll pass on it this time.”

He leaned against the marble-topped counter and studied her while sipping from his coffee cup. “I’m Erik Mallory, in case you were wondering.”

“Mandy Weatherford,” she responded then walked over to sit on one of the bar stools by the island in the middle of the kitchen. As she settled in place, she noticed how his gaze had zeroed in on her breasts. She hadn’t worn a bra or panties with the skimpy dress last night and now she felt almost naked in front of him. For sure her nipples had hardened with his intense scrutiny and she tried to pluck the white T-shirt more loosely around her.

To give him credit, he forced his gaze away from her and concentrated on his coffee again. She relaxed a bit. “I don’t even know what to say to you about last night…about bringing me here…about, well anything.” She ran a finger along the edge of the butcher block top. “Nice place.” Didn’t that sound really lame?

“It’s okay. I’m just renting it for a week. Needed some time away.” He glanced at her, one brow raised curiously. “The bartender made it sound like you don’t live here on Maui all the time.”

Awkward conversation. She needed to go back to her place. “I travel a lot; don’t really have a permanent home. But I’m thinking about changing that.” Why was she telling him this? Why would he care?

“Sales?” he asked, setting his cup down to focus on her alone. His gaze moved over her, brushing longer on her breasts once more.

“Would you please stop that!” She fought covering her excited nipples. “I’m not ogling you.”

He chuckled and amusement danced in his eyes. “You sure did some serious ogling when you walked into the room. I saw your face reflected on the coffee pot.”

She hated that he’d caught her but at least she hadn’t been actually drooling. “Fine. We’ve both been ogling one another, but I’m done with that.” She eased off the stool. “Actually, I need to get back to my place. Unfortunately, I have no idea where I am right now or if I can walk there from here.”

“I’ll drive you.” He straightened but didn’t look ready to move more than that. “Are you sure you’re up to leaving now? You’re welcome to hang out here with me for a while. I don’t have any plans today. Other than scoping out the beaches, looking for some good surfing spots.”

“Surfer. I knew it.”

He gave her an irritated glance. “You say that like it’s something distasteful.”

“Not really. It’s just not something I’ve ever been around. I always thought it was a California kid’s thing.” Boy, that sounded stupid and like she was putting him down. “Sorry. I’m just a good ol’ girl from the Midwest.”

He leaned against the counter, crossing his legs at the ankle. Relaxed. “I am a California kid, grown up.” He gave her a crooked grin. “Most of the time anyway.”

She was back to checking him out, fool that she was. What had happened to swearing off men? Whatever. Her hands practically ached to smooth across that gorgeous chest. He had a lot of things going for him and no doubt had women falling all over him wherever he went.

“I probably messed up your plans for last night.” She flicked her gaze back to the butcher block bar, much safer territory.

“Didn’t have any plans.”

“Still…I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble.” Trouble. Drew. She’d spend the day standing with a very sore bottom if he ever found out about this. “Good thing he won’t find out,” she muttered.

“Huh?”

She blinked at him; saw that he was staring at her…at where she’d moved her hands to, her bottom. She immediately moved them back to the counter. “Nothing.”

He looked curious for a second but didn’t press her. Instead he said, “Why don’t we go lie down and discuss how much trouble you are.” He winked at her.

Go lie down together. “In spite of how I behaved last night, I’m not easy. I don’t fall into bed with every man who catches my eye.” At thirty, she’d been in and out of several relationships, but she didn’t really play around. Although she couldn’t believe how strongly this man attracted her. She was almost willing to make an exception in his case. Almost.

He strolled toward her, looking yummier with each step he took. “So I caught your eye?”

“Well, ummmm.” He moved next to her, cupped her face and leaned close. He smelled so good, all musky man. “What…what are you doing?” she squeaked. Her heart raced and her clit was dancing in anticipation.

“Something I wanted to do from the moment I saw you last night across the bar. Kissing you.”

She thought about objecting, really. But what was the point? She wanted to taste those sensual lips of his, too. One touch and she was a goner. He had the softest lips, the most skillful tongue. She was lost to the wonder of this man.

Somehow her clothes disappeared, his shorts, too. Then she was on the tiled floor, legs spread wide, heart pounding as she watched him reach into a drawer. An instant later he’d slipped on a condom and knelt between her legs. Her conscience was screaming out warnings about being an idiot, about not knowing him, about…. Shut up!

The look on his handsome face was so tender, so filled with longing and yet he wasn’t just driving into her to satisfy his needs. Chad would have been. Now that she thought about her ex boyfriend, he’d seldom considered what she wanted. She hadn’t resisted him, because she liked sex. But she had a feeling if she actually said ‘No,’ Erik would back off. Chad wouldn’t have.

“Are you okay?” Erik’s face was tight with strain. He bent over her, one of his hands playing with her delighted clit and palming her mound. His cock head was at her entrance, pulsing against her tingling lips. “I know this isn’t all that romantic, but….”

She reached up and stroked his beard-roughened face. “Less talk, Surfer Boy, more action.”

“Thank God.” He grinned and buried his rod in a single long, strong stroke. His balls rubbed against her. “Soooo good.”

He filled her so well, perfectly. She flexed her inner muscles and took pride in his quiet groan. The look of pure pleasure in his expression made her bolder. She pulled him down, cradling his head between her breasts. Her fingers threaded through his soft, thick hair.

He pumped steadily but finally moved his hot mouth to one breast and then the other, licking and gently biting each nipple until she was crazy with desire. All the while he worked her, she worked him as well. She arched up to meet his thrusts. They moved together as if they’d done so forever. She didn’t hold anything back from him. He wouldn’t allow it.

She struggled toward release; her head rolling side to side, breathing in ragged pants. “Oh, oh, oh, oh!” She bowed her body upward a final time, holding still. Obligingly he held still, too, waiting for her. Then it was there. Her body exploded in climax.

The moment she steadied again, he threw his head back and thrust desperately three more times. His face was red, pinched in near pain and she began to worry about him. But he rammed deep a final time and growled out her name at the same time he spent inside her. Sweating, dragging in deep breaths, he collapsed atop her but only for a few seconds before he shifted off her.

“Can I say ‘wow’?” he rolled to his side, looking at her, beaming.

“Only if I can echo it.” She leaned over to kiss him, sensing something special happening between she and her surfer boy white knight. Things were moving seriously too fast. Yet she didn’t want to slow down.

*********

Mandy blinked her eyes open and stared up at the ceiling for several long minutes. She didn’t recognize it. Or the feel of the mattress beneath her. And she felt boneless, so sated she didn’t think she could ever move again. Boneless? Sated?

She jerked upward, heart racing, head throbbing. The sheet that had covered her slipped to her legs. With a moan, she put her palms to the sides of her head. A hangover, again. This was getting old. More importantly, where the hell was she? She glanced warily around the obviously expensive hotel suite. Las Vegas. Fountains. The Bellagio. She had a really bad feeling.

Confirming it, a familiar whiskey-warm, masculine voice said, “Good morning, Mrs. Mallory.” Erik stood in the doorway to a connecting bathroom, wearing a sexy grin and nothing else. And a certain part of him was waving with determination for her attention.

“Oh God, what have I done?” She flopped back against the rumpled bed and groaned. Drank too much, that was obvious. A bad habit that was ending today. Liquor was never touching her lips again. But this time she’d really screwed up. “We’re in Las Vegas, aren’t we?” Say no. Say no. Say no. She already knew the truth, had remembered coming to the Bellagio. But she was desperate. Say no!

He ambled over, frowning a little, and sat next to her on the bed. Without a thought, he reached down to cup a breast, giving a gentle squeeze. “My favorite city in the whole world right now.”

It was hard to concentrate when her nipples were pebbling, when heat was settling lower in her body. But this was important. Remember. Remember what you did yesterday. As her fuzzy brain tried to sort through things, she recalled his greeting. “Mrs. Mallory? Oh, please, tell me I didn’t hear you right.”

His frown deepened and he pulled his hand away. She wanted to protest, bit down the urge. “You don’t remember going to that little chapel down the Strip? You don’t remember promising to love, honor, and obey me forever?”

Automatically, she countered, “I would never promise to obey anyone.” Then she squeezed her eyes closed, tried to ignore the jackhammer in her head. “Never mind that, it’s not important.”

“Yes, it is.” He sounded annoyed.

She ignored his comment. Instead she said, “I remember we decided to come here because I had a few days off from the airline. We played some roulette, played some slots.” She rubbed her forehead and envisioned sitting in a lounge. “We ran into some friends of yours. Went dancing, drinking.”

Mandy slitted one eye open and found him watching her, a vein pulsing in the side of his neck. She’d never seen him angry before, but he sure was now. “I’m never drinking again. I mean it. I do crazy things when I’ve gone over my limit, which is apparently very little.”

“Crazy things like going home with a strange man?” Now he looked oddly hurt.

“Well, actually, you took me to your home.” He didn’t appear to like her specifics.

“Admittedly, I did. But you certainly didn’t seem to mind being with me after that.” He stood, his cock at half-mast now in his annoyance with her. “We’ve been together almost 24/7 for the last two weeks. In Maui. In Los Angeles. Now here.”

“It was all great.” She attempted to soothe him. “I mean the sex was stupendous. And I enjoy being with you….” She shook her head. “But marriage? You and me? We barely know each other outside the bedroom.”

It hurt to think, but she finally remembered his friends, their ridiculous dare. Now she sat up again, irritation sparking through her. “It was a joke. We were all drunk. They were the ones supposed to actually get married. We just went along to make sure they did.”

“They didn’t. We did.” He held her gaze but she couldn’t determine exactly how he felt. But surely he didn’t really want to be married to her. They’d had fun…a lot more than that, in truth. Still…marriage?

“Oh shit.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Don’t cuss.”

“This is a cussing worthy situation.” She curled her hands around the sheet, suddenly very aware of being naked. Not that he hadn’t seen her naked a lot during these last weeks. But this was different. “So we end it.”

To her surprise, he shook his head. “No.”

“What?” She couldn’t have heard him right.

“I said ‘no.’ There can’t be an annulment, for obvious reasons. And I’m not agreeing to a divorce. At least not yet.”

“You’re kidding, right?” He had to be. Why would he want to stay married to her? Even worse, why did she feel saddened by the idea of divorcing him?

“You need to get up. We’ve got just enough time to grab some breakfast before we head to the airport.”
He walked into the bathroom.

“To the airport?” They’d only come here for the one day. She remembered that much now. And oh what a disastrous day that had turned out to be. She had a flight back to Maui to work tomorrow. He had some kind of business meeting, although she still didn’t know exactly what he did for a living. Another reminder of how little they knew about one another.

“Move it.”

She didn’t like being ordered around. Where was the teasing, laughing man she’d spent so much time with?  She wanted him back. She wanted her exquisite lover back.

“Let’s just go back to the way we were.” She climbed off the bed, searching for her clothes.

“We can still have that, but now we can have more, too.” He looked around the corner at her, his expression determined. “Give us a chance. Give me a chance.”

Her stomach tightened and something in her chest pinched. A part of her wanted to agree, to trust in him…to trust that maybe just this once she hadn’t made another horrendous mistake with a man. But a bigger part of her was scared to take the risk. Every other man had grown tired of her, tossed her away. She had a feeling that when Erik realized they had nothing in common, that she bored him outside of the bedroom… Well, it would hurt a whole lot more when he walked away.

“I can’t.” Tears trickled down her face and she turned away, jerking her dress on. “And I’m not going back to Los Angeles with you.” She swallowed a sob. “I’m going home to the ranch.”

To be continued…

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