Tension hung in the air like primordial swamp mist. Nathan Cameron, owner and CEO of Cameron Industries, was here to choose one of the employees from this Chicago branch office to go with him on an assignment in Key Largo, Florida. Shannon, my supervisor, was interviewing with him now, while the other admin assistant and I traded nervous looks across the room. Too wound up to sit still, apparently, Becca sauntered over and parked her butt on my desk, narrowly missing my coffee. I grabbed the mug and moved it. "What do you think? Up or down?" She lifted her perfect hair up, then let the shiny locks fall down to frame her perfect face. I glimpsed my own mane, reflected in my computer screen. Frizzed-out today, since a heavy gray mass of yuck and rain had moved in, making early November extra bone-chilling cold and nasty. "It looks awesome either way. Tell me about Nathan. You've met him in person. What's he like?" I talked to him on the phone and we worked together a lot, but I'd never seen him except on a video conference call. He was in his early-thirties, I knew that, and kept a low profile. Very few pictures of him surfaced on the Internet. I'd devoured all the information I found on him and his company as soon as Cameron Industries hired me. Good to know the people who sign your paychecks, I always say. "He is one fine-looking man. Great butt. He must work out. A lot." Becca finger-combed her hair. "Nice to know. But what about his personality? He's always pleasant to me when we talk, but he could be faking that." "Nathan is cool when he comes here. He doesn't stay long and doesn't chat much, but he never gives us any trouble. We get paid on time, not like other places I've worked, so I figure he's got his act together." She stood. "What are you going to do if he picks you, Amber? You all ready to go to Bay Paradise Resort?" She gave me a sly grin. I'd probably keel over from shock, that's what I'd do. And no, I wasn't ready to go to a tropical island. "You're the one he'll choose. You've been with Cameron the longest." "Yeah, but he always wants to talk to you when he calls here." Nathan did seem to request me more often, but I figured that was because Becca and Shannon were busy with their more advanced projects. "Even if he picks me, I wouldn't go. I can't leave my mom." "She's got a nurse to take care of her, right?" My pulse rate increased as it did whenever the topic of my family came up. "I can't travel all the way to South Florida for a whole week. Mom would miss me." "You need to get out more, sweetie. You're looking kind of faded. Want to borrow my lipstick?" She pulled a tube out of her pocket and waved it at me. "No thanks. Nathan's not married, right? No kids?" "Single, no kids. He was engaged once, but what I hear from headquarters in Los Angeles, he dates now. Nothing serious. All the women there go crazy over him, but he never socializes with anyone from the office." Shannon burst into our cubicle area. "Lordy, I'm glad that's done. Interviews make me sweat like a basketball player. Nathan says give him ten minutes, then you're up, Amber. Good luck." My stomach knotted tighter. I grabbed my notes that outlined all the fabulous reasons Nathan should choose me. One more glance before I presented. Oh crap. Did I write that? I was a "people person?" Blerg! How cliché. I crossed it out with a red pen. Ten minutes. Should I make another bathroom stop? Check my outfit one more time? Nah. I knew what I looked like. A large woman, wearing an outdated skirt and blouse a size too small. I'd polished my seldom-worn heels and did the best I could with my face and hair. I'd have to dazzle Nathan with my charm and my smarts. He wouldn't pick me, but I had to give it my best shot anyway. Standing outside the office he was using for interviews, I gave my hands a quick wipe down the side of my skirt, gripped my notepad tight, and walked in. Nathan was pacing and talking on his phone. OMG. Becca hadn't lied. He certainly was fine in person. Tall, slim, wearing a suit that had to be custom made it fit him so well. Don't look at his butt, don't look at his butt. I looked. Yep, that ass had seen one or two workouts. It took a moment, but he finally noticed I was there and turned to face me. Those eyes; dear Lord. I'd seen his face on a computer screen, but in person, they radiated power and passion. I froze in the middle of the doorway, as though caught in the headlights of a semi-truck. He stopped in mid-sentence on his phone call and stared at me, with this intense look on his face. Uh-oh. Was something wrong? Did I have a poppy seed stuck in my teeth? Becca would have told me. Or not. My mouth. It hung open like a car door. I closed it and made my lips smile. Calm down. This is a nice guy who likes to work with me. "I'll call you back." Nathan put his cell phone on the desk. "Hello Nathan. It's good to meet you in person. I'm Amber." I moved towards him, smacked my hip into the corner of the desk, and bit back a curse as pain shot through my leg. Do not drop the F bomb. Smile still in place, I stuck out my hand, praying it wasn't damp. He kept staring for another second, then kind of shook his head and smiled back. "So nice to meet you too, Amber. I've enjoyed working with you long distance." He took my trembling little paw and shook it. Wow. What the heck was that tingle running up my arm? His grip was firm, but not like he was crushing me. By the way his eyes widened, he felt something too. Maybe I'd picked up static electricity walking across the room. Not real likely, on tile floor, but I couldn't think of any other reason for this surge of energy. We stood there for an awkward moment while he studied me, then he dropped my hand. I wanted to glance down to see if there were scorch marks, but I grabbed it with my other hand and clasped them both in front of me. Before they did something silly, like reach up and stroke the slight shadow of a beard on his face. "Sit down, please." My legs shook as I took a seat in the chair across from the desk. What was I, a love- struck teenager meeting a rock star? Jeez, this was Nathan, the guy who laughed at my corny jokes and liked the pictures of my cat I emailed him. Why did a wave of heat flood my body, particularly in my girl parts? Because he was hotter than hell in person that's why. I didn't get that energy, that piercing awareness, when I talked to him on the phone. And I sure never smelled him. Kind of woodsy, with a bit of musk layered in. A hint of spice too; bay leaves, or cardamom. From his slightly messed up hair to his shiny Italian loafers, the guy radiated sex appeal. And those laser-beam eyes. No. I gave myself a mental bonk on the head. I had zero interest in his hotness. I had no time to think about men, with my jobs and my family situation. And anyway, gorgeous billionaires like him didn't look twice at plus-size girls like me. "So Amber, tell me why you'd be a good candidate for this position." Right down to business. I'd hoped for a few minutes of small talk to help me loosen up. "I'm detail oriented, as you know from working with me. On this job at Bay Paradise, you want your assistant to take accurate notes and prepare reports. That's one of my specialties, summing up information and presenting it concisely." Okay, so far so good, I guess. He had given none of us much information as to what he wanted an assistant to do in Key Largo. We'd all discussed it and the only thing we knew was, Cameron Industries bought the hotel recently and wanted to keep it going. He nodded at me to continue. "After looking at so many properties this past year at Cameron, I feel I can effectively evaluate the pros and cons of a place." "This is a resort. You've been working on the residential side." "Well, I assisted Shannon with two of her commercial projects. Not like she couldn't do them herself," I added quickly. "It's just, I had spare time, so I asked her if I could help." Shoot. I hope that didn't get her, or me, in trouble. Nathan smiled slightly, so I took a deep breath and continued. "I enjoy working with people. I can talk to others easily and get them to talk to me. I feel that would be an asset for this project." Do not say "people person." Nathan nodded again, glanced at his phone and tapped it briefly, then scribbled on his notepad with his Montblanc pen. Talk about owning the finer things in life. I'd ordered that pen for his visit and about fell over when I saw it cost over seven-hundred dollars. But when you have as much money as he does, you can afford the best of everything, I suppose. "Thank you, Amber. That will be all." He stood and picked up his notepad. "My driver is waiting downstairs. I have business in the area, but I'll be back today at four o'clock to announce my decision. Please pass that on to everyone." I stood also. Wait. We couldn't be done already. "Um, I have spreadsheets here, showing the results of several of my projects, and my six-month review from Shannon. I can…" "That won't be necessary. Thank you, and I'll see you at four." He came around the desk, did not bash his hip into it, and strode out of the room. Well hell. Was that it? He'd spent at least a half-hour with the other two women and five minutes with me. Maybe he needed to dash off to another appointment, or really had to pee, or something like that. Or maybe, I sucked big time. Fighting tears, I went back to my desk, aware that Becca watched me. I didn't even look in her direction, just sat down and sent a notice to everyone that Nathan would return at four. Then, I dove back into work. It didn't matter. I couldn't go to Florida anyway, so there was no reason to be disappointed. But even though I couldn't take the job, part of me desperately wanted to be asked. I always did my best at everything I tried and enjoyed a challenge. Being picked for the position would sure boost my ego. And maybe, just maybe, I'd find a way to go. Getting out of this cold town, basking in the sunshine and ocean breezes…I'd be reborn. Becca was right; I looked, and felt, pretty faded. After the longest day in the history of mankind, Nathan returned. He'd texted Shannon from the lobby and asked for the three of us to gather in the break room. Becca, Shannon and I made silly small talk. I kept a smile in place and practiced my "congratulation" speech to whoever won. Please, just let this day end. My skirt was cutting off my circulation and the dressy shoes pinched my feet. I wanted to get home to my sweat pants and Pumpkin the cat. She loved me, no matter what. "Thank you for speaking with me today. You all have excellent qualities and skills. If not, you wouldn't be working for me." I nervous giggled. I couldn't help it. He looked so solemn, but I'd seen from our correspondence, beneath his serious outer layer, a fun guy lurked. One I suspected he didn't allow too many people to see. Nathan rocked on the balls of his feet. "It was a difficult decision, but Amber will be assisting me in Key Largo." I stopped breathing. Really and truly, just stopped. I heard wrong. But no, I was the one getting the congratulation speech from my coworkers. He picked me. Through my astonished haze I realized Nathan was talking, and I should probably listen. "Contact my assistant and make your flight arrangements. You'll arrive this coming Sunday the eight. I'll send you further information about the project this week. Thank you all again." He turned and strode from the room. Still in a daze, I wandered back to my desk. I did it! I got the assignment. Me, the big girl with the frizzy hair. Too excited to concentrate on work, I tapped out a quick text to my BFF Jennifer, who lived in New Jersey. Hey, guess who got the job and is going to FL next week? Squee! Jen stayed glued to her phone, so I got an immediate response. Sweet! Tell me more later. Wrestling the kids right now. Good going! Jennifer and I didn't talk much. Between my busy schedule and hers with her twins, we had little free time. But we shot each other a text now and then, and neither of us worried if it was brief. One of those solid friendships I treasured. The day finally ended, on a much better note than it had started. Since it was my week to tidy up, I was the last one out. As I shut off the lights in the office Nathan used, I saw an object on the desk. His pen. I picked it up, turning it over in my hands. What made this writing implement so special that a guy didn't mind spending seven-hundred dollars for it? It was kind of pretty, but not that beautiful. I tucked it in my pocket. I'd give it to him next week. As I shoved in the chair closer to the desk, a slight whiff of his scent hit me, making a shiver tickle my spine. No. I would not think of him in any way, shape or form in the romantic sense. I wouldn't think of that delicious tremor that heated my insides when we'd touched, or the way his eyes had lit up when he smiled at me. Key Largo would be a business trip, nothing more.
I would have bought an airplane just to watch the sunset from high in the sky. As much as I traveled, I needed private, fast transportation anyway, but the view from on top of the clouds really did it for me. I always turned off my phone for at least fifteen minutes on a flight, to enjoy the scenery and decompress from a trip. On stressful days I added a shot of whiskey to the routine, but not after this Chicago run. It went well, better than expected. As much as I would have liked to stay in the area longer, other business took priority. The trip to Bay Paradise Resort would be here too soon. Not that I wasn't looking forward to time in Key Largo. There was no place in the world like the Florida Keys. The water, the breeze, the laid-back attitude. That last part concerned me and prompted me to add an assistant to this trip. I needed to find out which employees to keep on at the hotel, and which ones to let go. There would be no slackers at Bay Paradise Resort. I like to play as much as the next guy, but when it's time for work, I don't put up with laziness. The Keys are notorious for their relaxed way of life, but I know how to run a business. Come to work, do your job. When it's time to go home, then the fun starts. Which is why I wanted Amber to be my assistant on this project. From the moment she started working at Cameron Industries, I could tell she was driven. She gladly worked overtime whenever asked, even on a couple of Saturdays. I don't take advantage of my employees, but I appreciate one who knows the meaning of hard work. Along with that drive was a sense of warmth and fun. The first time she sent me a picture of her cat, hanging off her couch, I cracked up. She apologized, said she hit the wrong key and didn't mean to send that to me, but I liked it, told her to keep them coming. So she did, adding witty captions and sometimes cleverly slipping pictures or cartoons into whatever we were working on. I knew she'd be the perfect assistant to talk to the staff, that they would open up to her. Just like she said in her interview. From her work I determined, she was smart and good at problems solving but damn, something I didn't expect, hotter than hell. Speaking of staff…I adjusted myself, still semi-hard. The minute I saw her, I had to think about baseball, quick, to distract me from that sweet, curvy body. Even though she wore a suit that looked ten years old and didn't fit worth a shit, she turned me on big time with those delicious tits and an ass that begged to be grabbed. By me. While I stood behind her and… I shook my head to clear the image. Nope. Not going there. Never again. No way would I get involved with an employee. I learned my lesson the hard way with Tanya, my ex-fiancé. I still paid for that mistake. Every time I smelled that pricey perfume she loved, or heard the song we first slow-danced too, my heart cracked. This project was important. Not just from the monetary angle, but because if I succeeded here, a group of investors would join me in another venture I had in mind. I possessed the money to buy the property, but I was looking at a huge endeavor, developing an island off the coast of Florida. To make it what I wanted, I'd need help, from a lot of different factions. Keeping Bay Paradise Resort not only running but turning a nice profit was my goal. Anyway, Amber was a sweet, quiet girl, and would never get involved with a guy like me, devoted to his company and nothing else. She'd find a nice man with a steady job, settle down in the suburbs, pop out a baby or two. Her excitement, organizing play dates for her kids. No big drama in her life. So I'd use her organizational and communication talents in my business, and enjoy her pleasant company. Amber would bring the exact blend of enthusiasm, friendliness and efficiency I needed to interact with the employees at Bay Paradise Resort. That's all I needed from her, no matter what my cock said.
By the time I got home, I knew I couldn't go. What was I thinking? I couldn't leave Michelle alone. Michelle, my sister, not my mom, like I told people. Before I even changed out of my work clothes, I fired up my laptop and sent Nathan an email. He texted a lot, I knew from working with him, but I wanted my refusal to be more detailed, more personal. Nathan, I'm very sorry, but I have to decline your offer. My mother's health has become increasingly poor, and I don't feel I can leave her for a week. I'm sure one of the other women will work out fine for the position, and while I very much appreciate being accepted, I won't be able to go. Thank you. There. Nice and polite. I gave him my reason for refusing so he shouldn't take it personally. And it was true; Becca or Shannon would be perfectly able to do the job. I kicked my shoes into the closet, then peeled off the too-tight skirt. Crap. A seam that was stretched to the limit now expanded even further. Not many miles left on that. Stress and constant work for the past year had turned my eating habits upside down. I desperately needed to change my diet. Another reason not to go to Florida. Nothing to wear. This was the right decision. I glanced at my email and saw Nathan already answered. I'd never ask you to abandon your family duties, but I wish you'd reconsider. I didn't want to discuss this in front of everyone, but I'll be paying a generous bonus with this assignment. There will be an extra one thousand dollars added to your paycheck for the week. If I need you for future traveling work, there will be more bonuses. Holy shit! One thousand dollars. That would make a nice addition to my hire-a-private- detective fund. I paced my small living room. What to do? That's very generous. I'll consider it. May I let you know tomorrow? Yes, that's fine. Please say yes. I need you and your talents for this job. Me and my talents. What was so special about me? Should I ask? No. He'd think I was digging for compliments. He'd already given me the ultimate, picking me as his assistant for this trip. Anyway, time to get started on my freelance editing assignments, after I called Michelle's caregiver, Vicky. The CNA was older and not real big on "the texting thing," so we talked on the phone. "Hi hon. Michelle is fine today. She ate well. We played a game of cards." I shouldn't call the poor woman so often. Vicky would get in touch if any problems came up. She wanted to report better news for the past year and a half, other than what I already knew. Michelle remained physically healthy, mostly responsive, but terrified to leave her apartment and unwilling to talk to others. Since she'd been attacked over a year ago she shut herself away, turning into a recluse. She spoke to me, Vicky, and our mom and that was it. The rest of her time she spent in front of the television or her computer. "Listen, I hate to bring it up again, but I'm going to need more money starting next year. Gas has gone up, my insurance is higher, everything is. I'm sorry." My shoulder blades tightened. "I understand, really. Don't worry. Thank you, Vicky, you're an angel." She was. If not for her visiting Michelle five days a week, I didn't know what I'd do. Vicky checked to make sure her vital signs stayed stable, brought her groceries and cooked meals, and did light housekeeping when needed. Things I did twice a week, but couldn't get to every day with my jobs. I'd have to find the extra money to continue to pay her. I headed to the kitchen to grab an apple and peanut butter and smacked the thermostat on the way. Crap, would I have to wear gloves tonight? The heating system in my apartment behaved like a spoiled child, working fine one day and not at all the next. Numerous calls to my landlord produced zero results. Snack in hand, I sprawled on my couch with my laptop, trying to find a position that didn't hurt my back. If I bought a better sofa my spine would quit screaming so loud, but I didn't want to spend the money. Thrift store furniture would have to do for now. I dove into my work for two hours and quit when my eyes crossed and Pumpkin, my Tortie cat, pawed me incessantly and meowed in my ear. Time to eat. Cat food and a crunchy treat for her, warmed up chili for me. Then I got my lunch and clothes ready for the next day and looked longingly at my Kindle. I was in the middle of a delicious romance and really wanted to find out what happened after the couple got trapped in that cabin together, but I should get in another forty minutes of editing. The sooner I completed one job, the sooner I moved on to the next one and could keep that extra money rolling in. I could probably do at least one while I was in Florida… Hmmm. While I'd been busy, my subconscious had too. I wanted to go to Florida, and I could make it work, damn it. I would say yes to Nathan and leave for Key Largo in one week. No. Don't go. Trouble! Ignoring the screaming little voice in my head, my Bratty Inner Child I called her, I settled in and put my attention on the document in front of me. I'd have a chat with BIC later, calm her down. Give her chocolate, maybe. Her job, I'd figured out, was to keep me safe and not let me put myself in danger. That's why she yelled when I made decisions that might rock the boat. But sometimes, the safe path wasn't the best one. This time, I had to take that risk.
A little bitchy still hung in the air at work. Of course. Shannon and Becca had to be disappointed. But they were far too professional to let it affect our working relationship, and by the end of the day, we were good. That was one of the things I loved about this office. We all got along really well and helped each other. I was lucky to have this job. I'd emailed Nathan early and told him I was on board, after I made sure Vicky could work the Wednesday and Sundays I'd be away. By the afternoon, he'd sent me an itinerary of what he wanted to do at Bay Paradise Resort. Dang, I'd better buy a pair of sturdy tennis shoes. I'd be running nonstop. Good. The more I worked, the less time to dwell on my problems Speaking of clothes…I dusted off my credit card. I'd have to go shopping. My office attire consisted of slacks and tunic tops. Somewhat dressy, mostly casual, loose enough I didn't feel self-conscious about my size. Something more professional might be called for on this trip. Should I wear suits? No, too formal. I'd visit the consignment stores, see what caught my eye. Just as I was going online to check my credit limit, I got an email from Nathan. I'd like for you to go to Unique Uniforms today and be fitted for your uniforms. I'll be changing the dress code at Bay Paradise Resort and want you to wear the new style while you're there. All will be paid for by the company. Uniforms. Okay then. Good. One less thing to drain my bank account. During my off hours, I'd wear lightweight yoga pants and t-shirts, not the heavy sweats I'd been lounging in here. I checked the weather in Key Largo. Eighty-one degrees during the day, sixty-four at night. Hot damn! Compared to our mid-fifties and high-thirties, that sounded like heaven. For the first time, a thrill of excitement tingled through me. I might actually have some fun! I wanted to talk to Shannon and Becca about the trip, but thought that might be rubbing it in. Instead, I snuck out to my car for a break. Hopefully, I'd reach Jen on the phone. "Hey there! How's it going? What's up with this great job in Florida?" Her voice instantly put a smile on my face. I loved Jennifer. I heard kid noises in the background, but knew she would spend at least a few minutes talking to me, no matter what her rambunctious children were up to. I filled her in on the details while she made appropriately happy sounds. "So about this Nathan guy. He's hot, right?" "Yeah he is. But I'm not the least bit interested. I'm not touching that." "Oh, you don't have to touch, you can just look. But it might not hurt you to think about touching, you know?" I rolled my eyes at her tone. A lecture was on the way. "It's been a while since you had a guy in your life. Don't you think it's time to get a little action going in the romance department?" "No. I have enough action working two jobs and taking care of Michelle. I don't need a guy to complicate my life. Anyway, this trip is about business. I would never, ever, mess with the owner of my company, for one thing. And another, Nathan can and probably does, date super models, not large girls from Illinois." "You're not large. You're perfectly average, according to many studies. You've just put on a few extra pounds this last year with all the shit going down in your life. And you're really pretty, too. Don't argue with me, like I know you're going to. Get your hair trimmed, have one of those cosmetic girls at the department store show you how to make your eyes shine, you'll be a knock-out. Trust me." A shriek in the background signaled the end of our conversation. Saved by the wild kid. I promised to text her more details and lots of pictures, then hung up and climbed out of my car. A blast of cold air tried to push me back in. Yeah, ocean breeze would feel super good. Key Largo, here I come!
"Say what?" I looked at the scrap of material the sales lady at Unique Uniforms held. "That's a pair of shorts." "Yes. You were expecting?" She furrowed her brow and looked me up and down. Sharon, her embroidered name tag said. I'd never been professionally fitted for anything, ever. That's what brides and rich women did, and so far, I hadn't been either one of those. I did step in as a last-minute bridesmaid once, back in high school. One of my friends begged me to fill in at her sister's wedding, for a relative who couldn't make it. She said I would fit the dress nicely. I did, with a little altering by her mom. I had a sturdy, full body in my teens and even back then, I longed to be thin. "I was expecting pants. That come down to my calf, at least. I don't wear shorts." I never showed that much skin. "You do in Key Largo. Apparently. I've never been. This is what Mr. Cameron ordered." My stomach tightened. "Is that all he ordered? What about shirts?" "Let's see." Sharon pulled out a piece of paper. "Two shorts, three pants, four shirts." Pants. Good. "Here's a picture of the clothing. It's a nice line. You'll like it." Perhaps. "I wear my clothes loose. Please don't make anything too tight." Sharon ran her gaze over me again. "I'll make them to fit you perfectly, show off those sassy curves." "I don't want to show off my curves." Sassy. Yeah right. Sharon grinned. "You are a hot mamma. You don't like your body?" "It needs a little work right now." She shook her head and made tsking sounds. "You young girls, so concerned with your weight. Boys like some padding, you know? Something to hold onto, keep them warm at night." Oh Lord, please don't let her start a conversation about sex. I so did not want to have this discussion. She threw back her head and laughed, like she read my self-conscious little mind. "Don't worry, I will make your uniforms perfect. You'll see. Strip to your under things and step up here so I can get your measurements." Strip? Measurements? Why not just parade me naked down the street? A thousand dollars. I needed that money, bad. And maybe future bonuses. I couldn't be squeamish undressing in front of a stranger and I could certainly put on a pair of shorts. I grit my teeth and took off my clothes, then stepped up on a platform, willing the blush to stay off my cheeks. And hoping I'd worn underwear without holes. I watched in amazement as Sharon whipped her measuring tape around and finished in minutes. Nathan had to be paying Unique Uniforms a butt-load of money to work so fast. He'd decided to bring along an assistant on this trip at the last minute, he said. I guess that's the way they worked in his world, making decisions quick, paying whatever it took to have things done in your timeframe. "I'll have the uniforms ready for you by Friday. We close at five." Sharon wrote on a receipt, handed it to me, and angled her head. "You know, I've got a great hairdresser. I understand the humidity in Florida is crazy. You might want a trim before you go." What was it with people and my hair? I pocketed the card she handed me. Okay, I could take a hint. I'd make an appointment for tomorrow. This week would fly by. I had to stock up on cat food and treats because my neighbor downstairs, who loved Pumpkin and said she would have no trouble watching her, didn't drive. Then I had to finish my freelance assignments. I'd be able to take on one or two once I got to Florida, I hoped, but I knew I'd spend the first few days getting acclimated and didn't want to be overworked and stressed. Vicky was fine with working more days, especially since I promised her a bonus on top of the extra pay. I was getting a good one from Nathan, and believed in spreading the love around. So, most of the important items for this trip were dealt with, but I still had a million details to handle. I had to organize my projects at the job and get Becca up to speed to work on them, stop my mail, make sure my bills were paid ahead of time… Sitting in my car, I realized I was gripping the steering wheel like it was a life preserver. Stop. This will all get done. Make a list, focus on one thing at a time. That's what I was good at. Organizing. One reason Nathan chose me, and I wouldn't let him down.
"You look different." Michelle glanced up from the TV. "Your hair. Any news?" "I had it trimmed today. You like it?" "Yeah, I guess. Did the detective tell you anything?" "No, I'm sorry. He didn't call." My heart bled a little, as always, when I said this. We both waited for news from Chuck Taylor, the detective assigned to her case. But news never came. She turned back to her program. "I brought you a salad from the deli. And more of those frozen lunches you like. And eggs. Hey, how about we make an omelet for dinner? Then you can have the leftovers for breakfast tomorrow." "I don't feel like cooking. You can." Her attention didn't leave the screen. Wanting to stomp into the living room and yank her off the couch, hating myself for even thinking it, I unloaded the groceries and pulled out a frying pan, then whipped up scrambled eggs and bacon, enough for us and two more meals. Vicky enjoyed my cooking and always thanked me when I made extra for her. It was nice to be appreciated. Michelle liked the food I prepared and ate every bite, but she never acknowledged my efforts. "Let's sit in the kitchen and talk while we eat. I need to tell you something." I looked her over as she plodded in. Thank the Lord, she still practiced adequate personal hygiene and wore decent clothes. Jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt today, neither article wrinkled or dirty. She and Vicky did laundry together. I'd made sure the apartment she rented came with a washer and dryer, since I knew Michelle wouldn't go out. The place was always clean, too. Vicky took care of running a mop over the floor and making sure dishes didn't stack up in the sink. I sent a thank-you prayer for the CNA's excellent skills handling my sister. Michelle wore her long hair either straight down or pulled back in a ponytail. Not dirty, but messy-looking. I studied her as I filled our plates, without being obvious. It looked like she'd lost weight. Maybe it was my imagination. I could never talk her into getting on a scale. "I'm going away for a week on a business trip, starting next Sunday. Vicky will come in on the two Sundays and the Wednesday I'm gone. I'll call you though, okay?" Michelle ate with her head bent over her plate, shoveling in the food. Today she had her hair down and used it like a curtain to hide her face. I reached out and gently pulled it back. "Hey, you in there?" "No, Michelle has left her body. She'll return your call soon." I dropped my hand and sat straight up in my chair. WTF? Had my sister gone loco? To my complete surprise, she giggled, then tucked those wayward hair strands behind her ear. "It's a joke, silly. Of course I'm in here." I whooshed out a breath of relief. "Very funny. Did you hear what I said?" Trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. "Yes, I heard you. Fine. Where are you going?" "To Key Largo. To assist the owner of Cameron Industries with a resort he bought. That's where I work, Cameron Industries." "I know that. The owner, Nathan Cameron, right? Rich guy, really cute." Well smack my ass and call me Sally. "How do you know about him?" "I remember him from the paper a couple of years ago. I looked him up as soon as you got the job at Cameron. He had trouble with his fiancé." Wow. My sister investigated Cameron? "I never saw that in the papers, and I checked out the company." "In my special papers; that's where I read it." "You mean those gossip tabloids? Oh, come on. They're full of crap." I should have known. Since Michelle had locked herself away for the past eighteen months, she'd devoured those magazines. Maybe she lived her life vicariously through the rich and famous, or imagined she might become one of them. Who knows? Even before her attack, she'd read those silly papers now and then. More often and more thoroughly than I thought, clearly. Michelle resumed eating, but I couldn't let the subject drop. For one thing, this was the most animated I'd seen her in a while. She made a joke! For another, a teeny little part of me wanted more info about Nathan. Gossip or not, there was usually a nugget of truth in those tabloid stories. "So, what about his fiancé?" "She died in a car accident a few years ago. Something about drugs. Not much got reported, I don't think. Guess they couldn't get a whole lot on him. He has a bunch of money, you know that?" "I figured. Cameron Industries does well." Hmmm. I might have to track that story down. Becca or Shannon must have details. "Anyway, you'll be okay here without me for a little while, right?" "I guess." The hair curtain was back in place. "You'll come back though, won't you?" Her voice trembled. My throat tightened and my eyes teared up. I put my hand on her shoulder, but she pulled away. "I will, I promise. And I'll keep trying to find that man. The cops will catch him soon, and put him away for a good long time. Right?" Silence. "Right?" "Right." A tired sigh. "Hey, look at me a minute." She tilted her head, and before I could stop myself, I stuck my tongue out and blew my lips. The confused expression on her face made me burst out laughing. "That's for teasing me earlier." A slow grin spread across her face. "You got spit on me." "I'll get more if you don't watch it. What do you want me to bring you back from Florida? You want some shells? I'll pick them right off the beach. And I'll even make sure no animals are inside them." The grin widened, and this time she let me touch her. I stroke her hair and vowed to earn the money we needed to help her. I wanted to bring back the woman I knew and loved, the one who smiled at me now with faith in her eyes.
How did last week fly by so fast? I sat in the airport, a bead of sweat rolling down my low back. I didn't even want to bring a jacket, but it was too chilly in Chicago not to wear an outer layer. It would turn into a blanket or pillow on the plane. Not like I could fall asleep, though. I was way too excited. Only a three-hour flight, nonstop, thank heavens. My nervous self didn't need to be roaming around another airport, running to make a connection. I'd fly straight into Miami, where a car would meet me (maybe a limo!), and then drive an hour to Key Largo. I managed to get everything finished on my to-do list over the last week, without going bat-shit crazy. I'd picked up my working uniforms on Friday and to my absolute relief, the shorts didn't look too terrible. Much better than the sample the saleswoman had shown me, these were cargo walking shorts and covered most of my thighs. The short-sleeve cotton-blend shirts fit nicely and so did the pants. Not as loose as I wanted, but not overly tight. Maybe the shorts were for outside work only. How much of that would I be doing? I heard Florida stayed humid, even in the fall. Imagine, being hot and sweaty outside in November. What a thing to be worried about! I'd spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday running around like a crazy girl to finish getting ready. I bought new underwear and a nice bra, even though I'd vowed not to purchase any more clothes until I lost weight. That hideous shopping session ended with a bottle of wine and a comedy movie, to dull the pain of having looked in full-length tri-fold mirrors for four hours under blazing bright lights. If I ever won the lottery, I'd open a department store for big girls, with a huge selection of clothes that fit right, soft, cheerful music playing, and no florescent bulbs. My phone chirped and reminded me, time to send my mom a text. Blerg. Best to get it over with or the guilt would nag at me like a hungry cat. Hi mom. I'm going to Florida on business for a week. Michelle is fine. Vicky will visit every day and report to me. Hope you're doing well. She wouldn't answer. She only did if it was important, if it concerned Michelle, and I needed something from her. After that awful night over a year ago, Mom did her own form of retreat. We'd never been terribly close anyway, and she pretty much shut down as far as communicating with me. I knew she was trying to protect herself, or so Thea the Therapist told me. (The counselor's real name was Theresa. I gave her the nickname to make the experience less stressful.) But it still hurt that Mom never talked to me unless I initiated the call. The scent of coffee tickled my nostrils and with an effort, I pushed away family thoughts. I'd been down that guilt path enough times to have worn a deep groove. I didn't need to go there now. I'd treat myself to a tasty drink, one with whipped cream on top, then on to enjoy my window seat and daydream about palm trees.
Even the air in the Miami terminal felt tropical. I stood at the baggage carousel, grinning like an idiot. I texted the driver as soon as I got off the plane, and he would text me back when he arrived to pick me up. I imagined a guy in a spiffy chauffeur uniform, standing there to greet me with a sign, but with all the airport security now, that was just a movie dream. Not having to get a taxi or find other transportation was really enough of a treat. Once I got my luggage and piggybacked it with my carry-on, I headed outside, where Chris, the driver, said he'd pick me up. I was dying to get into the open air and let that sunshine kiss my face. The minute I stepped out the door, my entire body sang. Even through the vehicle exhaust, I smelled sea salt and flowers. Okay, probably, it was my imagination, but this was a whole different world. Everyone seemed so happy, and they smiled at me like I was a friend. Or maybe, I still had that goofy grin on my face and people found it amusing. Whatever, it felt good. My phone chimed. Chris, letting me know he'd pulled up, in a dark blue Rolls-Royce. Oh boy! My first time riding in a limo. I saw a driver get out of a car and wave at me. As I moved closer, I realized, it was a woman. "Are you Amber?" She popped open the trunk. Not a huge, stretch limo, but impressive looking anyway. Shiny, sleek, and I could already smell the leather. "Yes, that's me. You must be Chris." She tipped her hat. "I'll be your driver for your stay at Bay Paradise Resort. Welcome to Florida." She grabbed my bags and tossed them in the trunk like they weighed nothing. Trying not to stare, I checked her out. Though she wasn't huge, she had muscle under that uniform, and she moved smoothly, like she was comfortable with her large body. "There's a bottle of chilled water for you, and a choice of fruit and sandwiches." I climbed into the car and opened the small cooler on the floor. "Thank you so much." I'd been so excited I didn't even realize I was starving, until I saw the food. Unwrapping a sandwich labeled "tuna", I took a few bites. Delicious. I polished off half, took a sip of water (Evian!), then checked out the interior more closely. The seats were more comfortable than a couch, and I had to slip off my shoe to run my foot over the plush carpet. Even through my sock, it felt deliciously soft. I wanted to peek in all the compartments, but I didn't want Chris to think I was some kind of nosy, unsophisticated woman who'd never been in a fancy car. Instead, I leaned forward to talk to her. "Chris, how long have you worked at Bay Paradise Resort?" "Three years." "Do you like it there?" Kind of dumb question. She'd be gone if she didn't, right? "I love it!" She turned her head and flashed me a genuine grin. "I started working on the grounds crew, then laundry, now this. Along with front desk and concierge. I hop around." "Are you happy that Cameron Industries is taking over?" Blunt, but I hoped she would answer me honestly and not tell me what she thought I wanted to hear. "So far. The other company that ran the place, Mauldin Management, had a lot of issues the past year. Paychecks late, schedules changed at the last minute. I kept trying to get promoted, but no one ever listened. As soon as Cameron took over, I got bumped up to driver and the other positions real quick. Part-time for everything, while I go to school for my degree in hospitality management." From reading the reports, I learned Cameron Industries acquired the resort three months ago. Since then, they'd sent Toby Burns, an employee on staff with hotel experience, to be the initial general manager. Toby did all right, but Nathan wanted more. When Toby requested a transfer back to the United Kingdom to be with his family, they hired another manager, who would start at the end of November. In the weeks between, Nathan came down himself to spend time becoming familiar with the property. Bay Paradise Resort was an unusual place. Not a big hotel, not a small grouping of vacation rentals units. It couldn't exactly be called a luxury resort, but was a step above the cookie-cutter chain hotels. More like a boutique hotel. Accommodations consisted of four individual executive cottages and a two-story building of guest rooms. Nathan wanted to maintain that boutique environment, but have it run as efficiently and make the money that the chain hotels did, while keeping the room rates affordable. Hearing the happy tone in Chris's voice cheered me. Reading how well a place ran on paper was one thing. Talking to an actual employee told the true story. Unless Chris was telling me lies, she seemed content. "What do you want to do in the future at the resort?" "Be a manger, eventually. I know it's long hours, but I don't have a husband or children yet. I want to try it while I can." "Do you know Nathan, the owner of Cameron?" "Not really. I've seen him a few times. He's cute." She turned again and grinned. "The employees are aware he's staying for a few weeks, right? And why?" "Oh yeah, we know. He wants to check out the place before the new manager comes on board. Toby was good, I guess. He's the one that promoted me. Said my talents were wasted, that I should have a job where I interact with people." I had to agree. Chris was easy to talk to and extra friendly. "We'll be handing out employee surveys. Please tell everyone to answer honestly. They can stay anonymous if they want." "Will do." Chris tapped her fingers to her cap in a salute. "I'm going to check my email and enjoy the scenery. Thanks for talking to me." I leaned back and picked up the rest of the sandwich. I'd never been in a supervisory position and wasn't sure exactly what my role would be here. Nathan liked my take-charge attitude, but I didn't want to overstep my bounds. He told me he wanted me to talk to the employees, to get to know them and have them confide in me. When we had that email discussion, I'd phrased my response carefully. Lying's not my thing. I could never pretend to be a friend, then betray a confidence and tattle. Nathan assured me, he didn't expect or want me to do that. If someone told me information and asked it be kept private, as long as it wouldn't cause harm, he understood. He just needed a liaison between himself and the employees. Someone who wasn't management, exactly. He didn't come right out and say it, but I think he knows, he's kind of intimidating. Especially once I met him in person. Those laser-beam eyes seemed to look right into my soul. If I didn't know him, hadn't worked with him and heard him laugh at one of my silly jokes, I'd be pretty unsettled talking to him. So, my job here, be the intermediary between Nathan and the staff. A perfect use of my skills. Driving down the two-lane US 1 to get to Key Largo, I had plenty of time to gawk at the tropical scenery. And to learn a new curse word from Chris. "Hey you fuckass, go the speed limit would ya? Oh, shit!" She clamped her hand over her mouth. "Sorry, you're so quiet back there, I forgot you were in the car. I didn't mean to say fuck. Or ass. Or shit. I don't talk like this when I'm driving people. Really." I laughed. "It's okay. I've heard those words before. Did this car belong to Mauldin Management?" "Nope. Somebody told me, Nathan bought it and drove it here himself, from Orlando. But that could just be a story." From what I knew of Nathan, it sounded like something he would do and enjoy the hell out of. "This must be a tough stretch to drive." "Yeah. It's great when everybody moves along, but there's always one fuckass, I mean, one idiot who goes too slow. We only get a few spots with passing lanes, then you're stuck. Okay, I'll calm down now. There's no rush, right?" But I was anxious too. I wanted to see Bay Paradise Resort, get settled into my room, and get to work. And, to see Nathan. To hear what our plans were. "Do you live on Key Largo?" "Yes. I rent an apartment with two roommates. It's small, and one day I'd like a house on the island, but I don't know. They're so expensive!" "Most of the staff doesn't live on the island, do they?" "No, they take a bus to and from work. Where do you live?" "Chicago. The suburbs." "I've got a cousin who lives in Evanston." We chatted about Illinois for a while, then I let Chris return her full attention to the road, while I acted like a tourist, and put down the window to take pictures of the palm trees and water. We finally rolled in to Bay Paradise. The resort was on the bay side of the island, and I glimpsed the water behind the hotel as I got out of the car. Chris pulled up to the front door of the main building and much as I wanted to dash around back and see the full view, I figured I better go inside first. But my driver had other ideas. "Perfect! The sun is setting. Looks like a good one tonight. Hey Juan," she yelled at the man who stepped out to greet us. "Bring me and Amber margaritas, would you, out back to Tiki Largo? One of those kick-ass ones. Come on. We'll get your stuff later." I grabbed my purse from the car and hurried to follow her. The ground was a mixture of sand and rocks and I picked my way carefully along the driveway. Chris walked fast, swinging her sturdy arms, and I hurried to keep up. My jaw dropped open when we turned the corner of the building and I stopped. The sky was lit up with pinks, yellow, blues…so many colors I couldn't believe it. Clouds formed all kinds of shapes, lending an abstract effect to the show. Chris gestured for me to join her where she stood at a railing overlooking the water. "Over here. Nice view, huh?" "I'll say." I joined her, then took a quick look around, not wanting to tear my gaze from the spectacular show. The Tiki Largo bar was situated on a large patio. Several tables filled with guests occupied the wooden deck, part of it under cover and part open. Further out on the deck where we stood, more tables and chairs were positioned. A railing circled the entire area, and this is where we perched. "Is the sky like this every night?" "No, not always. Sometimes it rains or is cloudy. But we get a bunch of these awesome sunsets to enjoy. Hey Juan, over here. This is Amber. She's working with Nathan for a week. Amber, this is Juan Rivera, one of our best front desk clerks." "The best front desk clerk. But now off duty, so I'll share a drink with you." He put down the tray he held and handed us our glasses, then leaned on the railing. "Amber is from Illinois and they never get to see the sunset there." "Uh, yeah, we do, but it doesn't look like this." "Enjoy our free show. It's what keeps me here." Juan took a sip of his drink and smacked his lips. "That, and the margaritas. So, so good." "You stay on Key Largo for the sunsets and drinks?" "No, but the tourists do and that's why I have a job. To tourists, sunsets and margaritas." We all laughed, then clinked our glasses in a toast. Wow. I took another drink. This was a killer margarita. I'd never tasted anything better. "Our bartender makes a good drink, no?" Juan smiled. "No, I mean yes. It's excellent. A secret recipe?" "Yep. We've tried to get him to talk. Tortured him a little. He won't tell." "Enjoying your drink?" I'd been so caught up with the view and laughing with my new friends, I hadn't even noticed Nathan approach. I put my glass down and stood up straighter. "I am, thank you. I've just had this one, but I'm ready to work now." He looked at me with an odd expression. Damn, I shouldn't have had that drink. What was I thinking? I was here to work, not act like a tourist, guzzling alcohol. Juan stiffened, and I caught a scowl on his face from the corner of my eye. But Chris flashed Nathan an impish smile. "Don't blame Amber; it's my fault. I dragged her down here and insisted she taste a margarita. I believe Mother Nature is putting on an extra special show to welcome her. Isn't this the best sunset ever?" Nathan looked away from me, thank the Lord, and stared at the sky. None of us spoke. Most of the other guests were quiet too, caught up in the spectacular display. I snuck a glance at Nathan and my heart skipped a thump. The beginning of a smile curved his mouth, giving his whole face a deliciously sensual look. Those penetrating eyes softened, as though he gazed at something that gave him great pleasure. How would it feel to have that expression directed at me? No, no, no. Bad girl. Not going to think about Nathan like that. One of the guests started clapping, the rest of us joined in, and the spell was broken. "It's fine. You've had a long day and I don't expect you to work tonight. Chris is right, this has been a beautiful sunset. I'm glad you got to enjoy it. You'll be staying in an executive suite at the hotel. Juan can show you there, and Chris can take you anywhere you'd like to go for dinner tonight. Come to the conference room tomorrow morning at eight o'clock and we'll get started." He turned and walked away. "Man, that guy gives me the creeps." Juan did a fake full-body shudder. "Oh, he's not that bad. I saw him smile. Once." Chris did a fake-smile face that made Juan and I laugh. "What kind of food do you enjoy? There are lots of good places to eat." Chris nudged my arm. "I can show you our island night life too." A combination of travel-tired and the tequila snuck up on me like a prowling lion. Suddenly, I was exhausted. "I think I'll just get room service tonight and go to bed early. Is there room service here?" "You bet. There's a menu in your suite for Water's Edge Café. They serve until late, one o'clock. Come on Juan, let's get Amber settled in. She can take the grand tour tomorrow."
So much for a warm welcome to Amber. Not what I'd planned at all. I had intended to show her around the exterior of Bay Paradise Resort, then take her to watch one of our mind- blowing sunsets. With me. When I saw her on the deck, laughing, with Juan standing too close next to her, something in me tightened up. Stupid. What she did in her personal life didn't concern me. I didn't plan to be a dick about employees dating each other, as long as it didn't become an issue. So why this urge to pull her away from Juan and drag her to a secluded spot in the woods? Back her up against one of those gumbo limbo trees and see how that sweet body felt pressed against mine. Damn it. I pulled into the parking lot of my condo building and sat for a minute with the top down, letting the breeze cool my brain. I must have caught some kind of tropical fever, to be thinking that way about an employee. In Los Angeles, I dated, enough to keep me sexually satisfied. Mostly satisfied. Nothing more than casual, only women on the fast track like me, who had no desire to get serious. I didn't want more than casual from a relationship right now. I had too much to do. The real estate market was still hot here in Florida, and I intended to take advantage of it by purchasing several more rental properties. And my other large project would really suck my time and energy. I didn't need any kind of distraction, especially not the female kind. Not ready to head to my empty condo yet, I pulled up my email on my phone. A note from one of the lawyers that worked for us. Joel. Updating me on the status of a situation we'd been dealing with. An employee had been caught leaving his work site with a flash drive of sensitive material. He swore it was an accident, but in his division, management stressed over and over, no information was to be taken out of the building. We were well within our rights to terminate him. Or we could take his word, give him a warning, end it there. The final decision rested with me. I turned on my stereo and let the tunes roll out. Closing my eyes, I leaned my head back on the seat. So nice, to sit here and feel the breeze on my face, smell that ocean air. The perfect way to meditate and let my head clear out. After ten minutes, I picked up my phone to call Joel. Talking to lawyers was not my favorite thing to do on a Sunday night, but better to get it over with. "Joel, it's Nathan. I'll send you an email shortly, but I wanted to talk to you first. What's the consensus? Did the guy take the flash drive on purpose or not?" "Nate, I'll tell you. I don't know. The prick could be lying, could be telling the truth. My recommendation? Fire his ass, just as an example. Maybe bring theft charges against him too. Bet no one else walks out with company property in that department ever again." I grit my teeth. I liked to keep things casual with everyone who worked for me, but no one calls me "Nate" and I remembered why Joel pissed me off. He had a vicious streak in him that made my stomach sour. "We'll do this instead. Let him go, make it a layoff, give him a year's severance pay." Silence for a moment. "Yeah, that's a great idea. He won't cause trouble if you do that. We don't need any negative publicity." Joel was also an ass-kisser. I started to clarify, that wasn't my intention. The employee had a family to support. He was a good technician and I knew if we let him go, he'd find work in his field. Since we weren't one-hundred percent sure of his innocence or guilt, I wouldn't punish him unnecessarily. But I couldn't have a man working for me that I didn't trust. The therapist my sister Karen insisted I see after Tanya died told me I had "trust issues." So maybe I did. When you have as much money as I do, people treat you differently. You don't know who to trust. Don't know who likes you for yourself, or who wants you for your money. Don't know if an employee made on honest mistake, or thinks he's entitled to a little more from the rich guy and wants to sell company information. I decided not to waste my time explaining my reasoning to Joel. I said goodbye and hung up. My phone chirped, and I looked at a text from Karen. Wanting to make sure I'd be at home, her home in Sacramento, for the Thanksgiving holiday. Shit, was that coming up already? Yeah, it was. I checked my calendar, to make sure I had nothing scheduled on that day. A note popped up, from my assistant, Dwayne. This is a holiday. Do not work. Spend time with your family, eat food, watch sports. Have fun. I smiled. Dwayne kept an eye on me, helped me keep my shit together. Best assistant ever. Karen and her husband, Paul, liked making a big thing about the holidays with their extended family. Being around them and their kids was kind of fun, and they liked having me join them. So I went. Restaurants closed, and being alone on Thanksgiving and Christmas, brutally depressing. I shot her back a quick reply. I'll be there. Tell me what time and what to bring. Come at noon so you can help Paul set up the Christmas tree. And bring a date. Are you dating anyone? The usual question. And she'd get my usual answer. Not dating anyone. How about food? We've got plenty of food. Any of your friends are welcome to come, you know. You don't have to be engaged. Don't you have any special person who would enjoy a home-cooked meal? We always make so much. I cursed whoever came up with talk-to-text. Karen used to keep our convos short, since she lacked the patience to type much on her phone. She could go on forever now. Just me. Got to go. See you in a few weeks. An image of Amber, sitting at the dinner table surrounded by my family, suddenly popped into my head. She wore a tight sweater with some sparkly holiday shit on it, and jeans that hugged her ass. Her hair was pinned on top of her head and she'd be a little sweaty, because Karen always kept the thermostat cranked up way too high. She was passing around her phone with pictures of her cat, laughing. I rested my head on the steering wheel. What the hell was wrong with me? Maybe I should have picked one of the other women from the Chicago office to be my assistant. All three were excellent employees, one reason I chose that branch. If one left, the other two would keep up with the work. But I had my mind set on Amber from the start. She'd be perfect for the job, I knew. I wasn't going to fuck up this project. I could keep control of my dick for a week, could act like she was just another employee. No problem.
So this was how the other half lived. I'd never stayed in an executive suite. Damn, I could get used to it! I bounced on the king size bed. So soft. I slept on a blow-up air bed at home, which worked fine. Sort of. I bought it because I didn't feel like dragging a frame and mattress up to my apartment. And because it was cheap. My move to the small place was supposed to be temporary, but it all depended on Michelle. If, no, when she got better, we'd get a house together again. A large dresser and flat-screen television filled the bedroom portion of the suite. A couch, coffee and end table, and dining table with chairs occupied the next section. In the kitchen area there was full-size refrigerator, a sink, microwave and even a two-burner stove, and plenty of counter space and cabinets. Good. I didn't want to eat out every meal. Being able to prepare food in my room would be perfect. I dug out my planner and made a note to ask Chris to take me to the grocery store soon. Checking over Nathan's itinerary, tomorrow would be busy until five o'clock. After that, he'd put TBA. Hmmm. To be announced? I wasn't sure if he was kidding or not, so I didn't make a joke about that. I got the impression, Nathan worked pretty much nonstop. Determined to keep up with him, I vowed not to get sucked into playing around while here. Florida was vacation- land, especially the Keys, but I was here to work. To earn that bonus, and maybe more. But I would enjoy the awesome view. Shoving the curtains open, I sighed out loud. Just enough light remained for me to see out over the Bay, a huge expanse of water, stretching endlessly. What would it be like to look at this every day? Pure heaven, that's what. And the weather? Darn near perfect. Cool and breezy right now, but from the forecast, we were in for sunny, warm days. After I found the room service menu and placed my order, unpacking went quick. The uniform shirts, pants and shorts traveled well. There was an iron in the closet but if there was one domestic chore I hated, ironing topped the list. Michelle used to love to iron our dad's work shirts. I remember her singing at the top of her lungs as she'd stand there and press those shirts expertly. Dad would kiss her and tell her what a great wife she'd make one day. Speaking of Michelle, I had to call her before I fell asleep. Her phone rang, and I left a message, like I always did. Sometimes she picked up if she was near the phone. She never made a special effort to get to it. Hey there, I'm in Key Largo. It's beautiful! You would love it here. I watched a sunset that looked like something from a painting. Maybe we can come here together sometime. Okay, call me if you need anything. Vicky will be on her usual schedule, except you'll also see her Wednesday and next Sunday too. Bye. Talking with Michelle, I had to maintain that fine line between keeping it upbeat and simple, but not treating her like she was stupid. She didn't have any brain damage, the doctors said, though sometimes I knew I fell into the habit of acting as though she did. I tried to push her as much as possible, to make her activate her mind, and want to get out of the pit of depression where she lived. But if I pushed too much, she became agitated. Which was why we didn't live with each other. We tried it after her attack. We moved into an apartment because she wanted to totally leave that house. But my presence seemed to get her wound up after we were together too long. I think I reminded her of the attack. I don't know. My naturally perky attitude might have got on her nerves, too. She saw one therapist, in the hospital, then once she got home, refused to go anywhere. So, I hired Vicky, and I visited twice a week, keeping the visits short. Mom had her hands full with her new husband and his family, and she got down from Wisconsin to visit three or four times a year. Blerg. The holiday season was coming up. I used to love holidays, starting with Halloween all the way to the end of the year. I'd decorate, make cookies, and hang lights, the works. Last year, I had to almost beg Michelle into letting me set up and decorate a little tree in her apartment, and I was too busy to do much of anything in mine. For Thanksgiving, I over- roasted a small turkey, burnt boxed stuffing, and under-cooked frozen green beans at her apartment, then we watched a holiday movie on cable. We did a repeat on Christmas. Mom came down and stayed for a week, in between the holidays. She and I managed to get along during that time. I kept busy, mostly, and let her have time with my sister. Michelle didn't seem to care, one way or the other, about our efforts. I wondered what we'd do this year. Probably the same as last year. My stomach flip-flopped as I thought of eating another crappy meal and faking the festive. How many more times would I have to do that? I blew out a breath. One more call to make, to Detective Chuck Taylor. He'd had the bad luck to be in charge of the case, when my sister was attacked. I knew he was tired of me and must be sick of giving me the same bad news. Poor Chuck. But like an OCD habit, I called at least once a week. "Detective Taylor. Can I help you?" You'd think he'd recognize my number and ignore my calls, or have them blocked. "Hello Chuck. It's Amber. Any news?" That sad sigh. "No, I'm afraid not." No matter how many times I heard it, his words still made my heart ache. "Okay, well, contact me if anything comes up." He would. There was absolutely no reason for me to bug the poor man. Except I wanted to believe the police were still looking for the guy who broke into my sister's home, hit her on the head, then only took a statue. He didn't steal any jewelry, no electronics, nothing else. Just an ugly, worthless knick-knack that our dad, Sean, had given her years ago. So why did he break in? Why take an item of so little value? If we found him and solved that mystery, I truly believed Michelle would get better. Every time I saw her, she asked me the same question I asked Chuck Taylor. Any news? When I told her no, the small light in her eyes dimmed. I was afraid that soon, it would go out altogether. Any extra money I had, and the reason I worked myself into exhaustion, was to hire a private detective. The police could only do so much and I suspected Chuck actually stopped working the case long ago and didn't have the heart to tell me. So, I'd take care of it myself. I'd decided this months ago. I'd save my money, find a PI. Once the cops caught the burglar and put him away, Michelle would feel safe. Then, I knew I could talk her into leaving the house and seeing a therapist. She'd get better, and I'd get my little sister back. A knock on the door broke into my thoughts. Dinner. I'd eat, read a few chapters, and turn in early so I'd be energetic for tomorrow. A new day, a new challenge. I loved taking on fresh projects. I couldn't wait!
At eight o'clock Monday morning I stood outside the conference room where Nathan and I would be working. He said there was an office for the manager here at the hotel, but it wasn't much bigger than a closet, only useful to store records and talk to employees in private. One area he wanted to work on during his time at Bay Paradise Resort. This small conference room would be the main spot I used during my stay. I'd got up early, too excited to sleep, and looked around the hotel briefly, but I got the impression, Nathan wanted to take me on a tour himself. I stopped and glanced inside the conference room. He'd opened the blinds on the glass windows and was already seated at the table, studying his laptop screen, frowning. In one hand he held a pen and twirled it between his fingers. One of those ultra-pricey ones, no doubt. Stepping back so he couldn't see me, I tugged at my shirt. The clothes fit me well, as Sharon promised, but I was still self-conscious. The text Nathan had sent me earlier suggested I wear shorts as we'd be outside a good part of the morning. I really didn't like letting this much skin show and it wasn't that hot, but I think he wanted the employees to see the new uniforms. I'd bought a perfect pair of light brown tennis shoes with green trim, to match the colors, and cute crew socks with palm trees. I felt sort of like a large cheerleader. For a sumo wrestling team, maybe. Taking a deep breath, I put on my professional smile and opened the door. "Good morning." Nathan looked up, and the frown disappeared. He smiled easily and there was that odd look again, that one he'd given me when we first met in the Chicago office. Kind of surprise, mixed with something I couldn't identify. "Good to see you, Amber. Come in." I sat down across from him. "I didn't bring my laptop this morning. From your schedule, it looks like you want to tour the grounds and the interior." "That's correct. I want us to visit each department, and you give me your first overall impression, of the employees and the environment." I pulled a notebook out of my bag. I'd bought a special pad, with an ocean scene, sun and sparkles, to get me in the mood for this job. Not exactly corporate style, but the flair of fun gave me confidence. "I take notes the old-fashioned way, writing them down. Then I can type them up and send them to you, if you'd like." "That sounds perfect. Have you eaten breakfast yet?" "I did. I ordered room service. For dinner last night, too. I hope you don't mind. It's more convenient and I would rather use my time here working than waiting for food at a restaurant." "No problem at all. Your meals at the hotel will be paid for by the company. What did you think of room service?" I held up my notebook. "I've got it all right here. Do you want me to tell you now?" His smile widened. "No, I'll wait. As always, your efficiency amazes me. Ready for a tour?" "Ready!" Bay Paradise Resort was amazing. The hotel sat on a good-size piece of land, with a patch of undeveloped space to the side of the main driveway. "I want to keep most of this natural." Nathan gestured as we wandered into a tree-shaded area. "It's not really a resort, the way it is now. I plan to add on a spa and turn this spot into a meditation garden. Put up privacy walls, more plants, and fountains. Then, I can market this property as a retreat center. What do you think?" I'd been watching a ginormous iguana, strolling around like he owned the place. "I think that's a great idea. It's so beautiful here. Who wouldn't want to come for a retreat?" Me, me I would! One day, when I could enjoy a real vacation. What did Nathan's home look like? Did he have a meditation garden? Probably. The outside of his house would be landscaped to perfection, and the interior would match his personality. High ceilings for maximum space, and huge windows to let in the sun. Polished floors for a sleek, elegant feel. He'd have a huge living room, no, a library, with shelves full of books. And a fireplace. In front of that fireplace would be a soft rug, where two people could lay naked and… "Amber?" "What?" "Did you hear me? I asked you if you'd ever seen a koi pond." "Oh, sorry, I was distracted by the uh, by the iguana. He's so cool. Yes, I've seen a koi pond." Nathan smiled. "Iggy the Iguana is one bad-ass lizard. Ready to move on?" Ready to get that daydream out of my head. We walked down to Tiki Largo, the outdoor bar where I'd been last night. I marveled again at the view of the bay. Calm, glass-like water stretched to the horizon, and the sun sparkled an invitation to jump in. A few people sat on the deck, coffee mugs in front of them. One man pushed out on a kayak and paddled away almost soundlessly. More kayaks and paddleboards sat on a small, sandy area. They were free for guests to use, Nathan told me. A nice perk the hotel offered. We toured the rest of the grounds and I made a few notes. The landscaping was beautiful and well-maintained. A coat of paint would help the exterior of the buildings, but they didn't appear to need much more work. Parking seemed haphazard, but part of the lot was sand and gravel and not marked well. Improvements could be made there. The small pool was filled with salt water and the deck contained ten lounge chairs. A few of those looked worn and ready to be replaced. Nathan showed me around inside the main building which contained the offices, Water's Edge Café, and the on-premises laundry facility. Coming up with a water management plan was a priority, Nathan said, along with improving efficiency in all their equipment. Not only to save money, but to conserve energy. Nice. I watched him as he talked and showed off Bay Paradise Resort. He wanted it to succeed because he liked the property, a lot. It wasn't just another business to him, to make money on paper. He felt the specialness of this place, like I was beginning to. Our last stop of the morning was the accounting office. The door was closed and through the glass window I saw a middle-aged woman talking on the phone, waving one hand around. Her forehead creased in a frown and I picked up a few words she spoke in a loud tone. Nathan knocked on the door, then opened it and we stepped inside. Her eyes widened, then she held up her forefinger, signaling us to wait. Nathan tapped his foot. He was not a man you put on hold. Fortunately, the woman wrapped up her call quickly. "I got to go. We will talk about this tonight." She hung up the phone and turned to us, a smile now on her face, though worry still lingered in her eyes. "You must be Nathan Cameron, the new owner. And you're Amber Ward, yes?" Points for knowing who we were. "Yes, and you're Julia, the head bookkeeper correct?" "Yes, correct." She stood and shook both our hands. "Julia, I'm going have an external auditor come in soon and go over the books. I'll give you his number and I'd like you to make an appointment with him." Her face fell. "Why? Is there a problem?" "No, no problem. I want to see what we can do to improve efficiency. An independent financial audit is a standard procedure and shouldn't take much time." "I keep excellent records. There have never been discrepancies. You don't need anyone to look at my books. They're in perfect order." Uh-oh. Not good. I felt Nathan stiffen and from the corner of my eye, saw his jaw twitch. "I'm sure they are. As I said, an audit is standard procedure." Nathan had done a thorough check of the hotel finances before he even bought Bay Paradise Resort, I knew. There wouldn't be any issues. Julia sat back down and crossed her arms, her scowl deepening. "I'm very busy. I don't know when I'll have the time." "You need to make time. Why are you so adamant about not having an audit done? Do you have something to hide?" Nathan glared at Julia, his teeth almost bared. This could get ugly. I glanced at her desk and saw a picture of a teenage boy. "Is this your son?" I pointed. "Yes, that's Dante." Her mouth relaxed a smidgen. "How old is he?" "Thirteen." "They're a handful at that age, aren't they?" "You're telling me!" She threw up her hands. "That boy, he's got a mouth on him." "I bet he eats a lot too. He looks like a big guy. Does he play sports?" "He sure does eat, like a wild dog." She picked up the picture and gazed at it, a smile lighting her face. "Yeah, he plays basketball. Wants to be an athlete. But I tell him, he's got to keep up his grades, not…" She put the frame down and sighed, her mouth turning back down to a frown. "He's a good boy." "I'm sure he is." I smiled at her. "Sometimes, they just need a little push." She sighed, then ran a hand through her hair. "I'm sorry, Mr. Cameron. Give me the name of the auditor. I'll make an appointment with him as soon as possible." The tension in the room eased, and I released a breath I didn't realize I was holding. "It's Nathan, and I'll send you an email this afternoon. Thank you, Julia." We exited her office and made our way back outside. "Thank you. For dealing with that situation. I'm sorry; I didn't think she would be that upset about a routine audit." And I didn't think you you'd get that keyed up about a stubborn employee. "I heard her talking on the phone when we came to her office. She said the words 'problemas' and 'escuela'. They mean 'problems' and 'school'. I figured she was having a conversation about or with her son, who's getting into trouble. That upset her, so when you mentioned an audit, she got even more disturbed." Nathan looked at me, with that half admiring, half something-I-couldn't-put-my-finger-on expression. "Pretty smart of you, Amber." "Most people have a lot of crap, I mean, stuff going on in their lives. I try to remember that, so when they get crabby with me, I don't take it personal." "Good philosophy." He stopped walking as we neared the lobby. "I look forward to hearing what else you come up with during your time here. Why don't you have lunch at Water's Edge Café, then meet me back at the conference room at two o'clock." Excellent idea. I was starving. I went to the café, got a salad and wanted to take it back to my room, but remembered, my job was to observe. So I sat and listened to the other guests. Mostly happy, fun conversations. Who wouldn't be having a good time, on vacation in paradise? I heard one or two complaints. There weren't enough towels, the pool closed too early, etc. Nothing major. After I ate, I headed back to my room to change into my pants, as we would work indoors the rest of the day. Our plan, visit the café's kitchen and the laundry facility, and then we'd go over the budget together. After that, I'd have time off, then Nathan wanted me to sit with the front desk person for several hours in the evening. That's what he mainly wanted me to do, hang around discreetly, observe employees, and give him my reports. Once again, a little chill of excitement ran through me. This was fun! I was getting to use my talents, to stretch my skills. I always thought I'd make a great detective, since I could watch people and activities, and notice irregularities pretty quick. Like I did with Julia, a lot of that talent involved remembering that something was important to each person, and much of their energy went towards protecting that important thing. In my room, the bed was made up, the towels refolded. I couldn't tell if they were fresh, or the ones I'd already used. I made a note, to order those signs that let guests know about reusing towels. Conserving water helped everyone. I took a few minutes to freshen up, then headed back to the conference room. I typed up my notes from the morning and when Nathan arrived at two, he sat down and pulled up records on his laptop. "I know finance isn't your specialty, but take a look at this spreadsheet and see what jumps out at you. Come here, sit next to me." I did, willing my brain not to register his spicy scent, heavier this afternoon now that I was so close, and he'd sweated a bit outside. It was no use. A little burst of heat flared between my thighs. Spicy and sweaty. Yum. "Amber?" "Hmmm?" Oh shit, what did I miss? "I said, can you see the screen all right?" "Yes, fine." Spreadsheets. Look at the spreadsheets. Focus. I did, for ten minutes, while Nathan tapped away on his phone. "Well, the only thing that strikes me right away is the food expense seems high. But maybe that's not true. I really don't know much about the cost of running a hotel." In the short time I'd had to get ready for this trip, I studied what I could about the hotel and resort industry. So much to learn! More went on behind the scenes than most people realized. "No, I agree, I think we spend too much on food. I'm considering going with a leased restaurant instead of trying to run one ourselves." He seemed pleased that I'd picked that up "The hotel used to do its own grounds keeping and now hires an outside company. Seems to work well so far. We might even outsource the housekeeping, one day." A knock sounded on the door, and one of the front desk people came in. Rose, her name badge said. "Excuse me, I'm so sorry to interrupt. Amber, a woman named Vicky said it's urgent you call her. About your sister. She can't reach you on your phone." Damn, I'd turned the volume down during our tour and forgot to turn it back up. My heart thudding, I dug through my purse. "Thank you Rose. I'll call her now. Nathan, I need to return this call." "Take whatever time you need." "It should only take a few minutes. We can get right back to work." Crap. I was so not used to traveling and had been having such fun today, I nearly forgot my responsibilities at home. I should have kept my phone on, at least set to vibrate. What could be going on with Michelle? Nathan shut his laptop. "I'm done here anyway and need to take care of other matters." He stood and put his hand on my shoulder. Oh, crap again. That same tingle as when we'd first shook hands. "We'll be keeping odd hours, including evenings and nights. You don't have to work every single minute of the day. I need you rested and alert, and I realize you have a life back home and responsibilities that don't stop because you're here." He squeezed my shoulder, then removed his hand. "Take your time, let me know if you need anything. I'll meet you at the front desk at six o'clock. Take a break before. You'll spend two hours there observing, so bring along whatever you'll need. After that, we'll go out to dinner at this great place I found. I want you to get a feel for the other businesses on the island." Missing the warmth of his hand on my shoulder as soon as he removed it, I waited until he walked out the door before I called Vicky. "So sorry to bother you. I hope I didn't get you in trouble." Her voice sounded strained. "That's okay Vicky, my fault for not having my phone turned up. What's going on?" "I got a letter from this insurance company. You told me to look through Michelle's mail while you're gone. It says they'll cancel her policy if you don't give them some information, and they want it in two days." Great. "Read me the letter." Vicky did, and fortunately, it was nothing complicated, only a clerical question. The insurance company claimed they'd sent an initial request weeks ago, but I didn't remember seeing any such thing. She gave me the phone number, I called and we had the problem resolved in ten minutes. Lesson learned; keep my phone on and nearby. And maybe I should try again to get Vicky to text. She'd enjoy it, once she got started, I knew. I closed my laptop and stood, when the last part of what Nathan said hit me. Dinner. He planned to take me to dinner tonight. A business dinner, but still. A little ball of unease rolled around in my stomach, like it did every time I had a date. Not a date. A business dinner. Nathan said that. So why did my pulse speed up as I pictured sitting in a restaurant with Nathan, both of us laughing, trading bites of food? Stop. We'd talk about Bay Paradise. No food swapping. I left the conference room and headed back to my suite. It appeared I had time off. I could finish up my notes, or take a break, as Nathan suggested. The adrenaline spike from Vicky's call now had my nervous system dive-bombing, and a rest sounded good. I'd type my notes while at the front desk. There would be some activity in the evening there, but not a lot. The employees would act more naturally if it didn't appear I was looking over their shoulder every minute. Back in my room again, I set my phone alarm, undressed, and laid on the bed with my laptop and a book. I'd check in with my email back home, then read for an hour or so. When my alarm blasted at five o'clock, I woke with a start, my laptop underneath me and my book on the floor beside the bed. I must have been more tired than I thought. After I got up, moved around, drank a glass of water and shook the haze out of my brain, I called Michelle. "Hey sis, how's things kickin'?" "Kickin' good." Our standard greeting, when she actually answered the phone. "I'm in Key Largo and boy is it beautiful. I saw a sunset last night…" "You told me." Okay, someone was cranky. "Today I went down by the water and you would not believe all the stuff in there. Sea grass, little fishes, coral." "That's nice." Definitely a chill coming across the air waves. "What are you all crabby about?" "Vicky couldn't reach you today. She called you, and you didn't answer. It was important." I clenched my fist, then let it relax and crossed my fingers, ready to fib again. I couldn't tell Michelle I had my ringer turned down. "I was in a meeting. I got back with her, and we took care of the problem. It's okay." "What if something happens to me? Something serious, and you aren't here?" "Vicky is a licensed CNA. That's why I'm paying extra money, to have someone with medical experience visit you. And you know perfectly well how to call 911 if there's an emergency." "Don't yell at me." Pushing out a breath, away from the phone, I lowered my tone. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell. I'm just saying, if anything happens to you, I've got it covered, okay? You're safe, like you've always been. Right?" Silence. I'd been looking out my window at the water and now rested my forehead on the cool glass. Only Michelle could torment me by not saying a word. "Right." The word, delivered reluctantly, made me sigh with relief. "I promise, even if I'm not there, I'm thinking about you and taking care of you. I posted a picture to Facebook today, of one of those fish. I hope it came out; I've been too busy to check. Tell me how it looks." Curiosity would drive her, I knew. Her computer was always on, and I heard the keys clicking, then a giggle. My shoulders dropped a notch. "They're cute. Such big eyes." "Yeah. Hey, maybe sometime you can come down here with me, right?" My never- ending quest to get her interested enough in something to leave the house. "Maybe." "Listen, I've got to get back to work. I'm going to sit at the reservation desk and observe the employees." "Have fun." She was lost in her social media world now. Though I'd rather she talked to people live or on the phone, her Internet friends kept her mind active, so I didn't discourage that activity. We said goodbye, I got dressed, and headed out.
Amber had a secret. When Rose interrupted us this afternoon, her face turned white as a sheet. Something about her sister. Shannon, the Chicago office supervisor, told me Amber helped take care of a sick mother. So she had a sister to deal with too? No, the look in her eyes this afternoon combined worry and fear. Like she was hiding something and really didn't want me to hear that message. I didn't care if Amber had personal issues. She had her shit together enough to do her job very well. Whatever went on in her home life didn't matter to me as long as it didn't affect her work. So why was I so curious? Because I wanted this project to succeed and didn't want anything to fuck it up, that's why. Maybe. Or maybe because when Amber walked into the conference room, looking hotter than hell in those cute shorts, I wanted to know more about her. Somehow, I didn't think that was going to happen. She shared very little of her personal life when we communicated, except about Pumpkin. I knew way too much about that damn cat. Cute cat, actually. Only because she made him that way. Her creativity showed when he got brought into our emails. One of the reasons I enjoyed our online conversations. Smart woman, too. She said she'd type up her notes while at the front desk, so the employees would act more natural, maybe even forget she was there. And she had a good understanding of people. When I lost my cool with Julia, she stepped right in. I handled that poorly, but when the bookkeeper questioned my decision, told me there was no reason for an audit, my first thought ran to deceit. Damn it, I didn't want to think that way, didn't want to believe everyone here had something to hide. Another reason to keep Amber close by as I interacted with the staff. She read people well, talked to them well, brought out the best in them. Amber seemed to be happy, except for that call this afternoon. When I saw her at six though, she looked more relaxed. I'd left her at the registration desk with Lora and went back to my office to grab a file. I'd get her to open up tonight, find out more about what made Amber tick, during dinner at one of my favorite places, Bayview Grill. Casual, but a step above flip- flops and shorts. I wanted Amber to get to know the area, the people. I got the impression she didn't travel much. I'd have fun showing her around the island during her stay here, and maybe we'd head all the way down the islands to Key West one day, maybe do some snorkeling another time. As I dressed for dinner, an image of her in a swimsuit popped into my mind. Oh, hell no. Do not think about Amber in a swimsuit. Too late. My imagination revved up and quickly filled in the details. She'd be the kind to wear a sexy one-piece. It would be cut up the side to show off her long legs and scooped low in the front so I could see cleavage. That girl had a fan-fucking-tastic rack on her. How was I going to keep from staring at her chest while she was here? I sat down hard on my bed. Man, get a grip. I did not have time to think about Amber's body. Or her smile. Or how good her hair smelled. She was not here for my pleasure and I had to concentrate on work, and to make Bay Paradise show a profit. A large profit. I'd take care of my sex life when I got back to L. A. Fuck, dinner tonight, maybe a mistake. But we'd be out in public. I'd keep my mind off her body. We'd spend an hour or so talking about work. I'd find out she had the table manners of a wild orangutan and this crazy attraction would disappear. That's what would happen.
"Is your sister okay?" "What?" I paused, my drink midway to my mouth. "That phone call, this afternoon. About your sister?" Crap, I should have known Nathan would ask. I'd been so busy rushing around getting ready for our dinner, I didn't put together any sort of cover story. "That. Right. My sister calling about my mom. I mean, the nurse, Vicky, who takes care of my mom called. And my sister needed something. It's fine, I took care of it. I'm sorry again for the interruption." Nathan said nothing, just took a sip from his beer. But the way his brows drew together, I could tell he didn't believe me. "It's not a problem. As I said, your hours will be irregular working here, so when you need to take care of business, do so. How do you like the crab cakes?" Good, he wouldn't pry. "They're great. You've been here to the island before this trip, right?" "Yes, several times, when I was planning to buy Bay Paradise Resort." "Do you personally visit every property you want to buy? How would you know all the details of operating each different business? I did some research and most hotels are run by a management company." I knew the guy was a billionaire and found it odd that he'd be here, doing this aspect of the work, in person. Maybe my question was rude. He frowned. Damn, he looked fine, even when he did that. He hadn't shaved tonight and had that five o'clock shadow going on that sent all kinds of hot to my lady parts. He left the top down on his convertible on our drive to the restaurant, after checking that it was okay with me. Since I'd put my hair up in a clip, it was, and that cool breeze touching my face felt awesome, and left his hair sexy-messy from the wind. "No, I rarely spend so much time at any business I purchase. This property is somewhat different than what I normally buy. Another drink here, please." He signaled our server and pointed to me. Whoa, glass empty. I'd plowed through that first drink pretty quick. It tasted good, and I was kind of nervous, being alone with Nathan. We got along so well online, but in person, this tension boiled between us. I found him immensely attractive, so that was scrambling my brain. Maybe he picked that up, and it annoyed him. Whatever, I wish I could figure it out and stop it. I wanted to go back to that comfortable relationship we had. "These are on special, so you get an extra one." The server plunked two more of the yummy drinks in front of me. "Do you want one?" I slid a glass across the table to Nathan. "I'll stick with beer." He nudged it back. "Tell me about some of your other business ventures. Don't you have a restaurant in Italy?" That kept the conversation going until our meals arrived. We both liked to cook, it turned out, but didn't have the time. Once we got talking about food, we relaxed. I totally enjoyed the meal, and the whole funky atmosphere at the Bayview Grill. Casual enough so I didn't feel intimidated, but clean and with upscale menu items. The service was fast and friendly and our meal ended too soon. I stood to head to the restroom, and nearly fell over. Uh-oh. How much alcohol did I suck down in those fruity drinks? Nathan was occupied getting out his wallet and didn't see me stumble, thank the Lord. In the bathroom, I splashed cold water on my wrists and neck. I'd be okay. He was driving, and we would go straight back to the hotel. I could maintain. That's just what I did not need, to look like a total idiot, getting drunk on the first night in town. Walking carefully, I made it to the front door, then we headed to his car. "Do you want me to put the top up now?" "No, leave it down." The breeze would slap alertness into my fuzzy brain. I bent to open my door, teetered on the cutesy sandals with the semi-heel I wasn't used to wearing, and fell flat on my butt. Shit. Nathan was at my side in seconds. "Are you okay?" He reached a hand to help me up. We had to stop touching. Even in my slightly inebriated state, that jolt sizzled through my body when I grabbed his hand. "I must have found a slippery patch. I'm fine, really." Embarrassed as all get out. I held onto the car, and Nathan looked at me closely. "Are you drunk?" OMG. What should I tell him? I'd lied enough for one evening. "I might be a little tipsy. Those drinks were stronger than I thought. I'm not used to that much alcohol in such a short time and I didn't taste it through the fruitiness. I'm sorry." In the dim light, I couldn't quite read his expression, but he had a frown on his face. Well, great. I was making a piss poor impression so far. Maybe I'd throw up on his shoes, to really round out the day. "My fault. I know they mix the drinks strong here. I should have warned you. Let me help you into the car." "I'm okay. Honestly. Not drunk drunk, just sort of wobbly. A cup of coffee might help." "Nope, that makes you a wide-awake drunk. I've got the perfect solution." He steadied me as I slid into the car. "You up to a drive?" Okay, not mad at me, that was good. Where exactly would we take a drive? Did I care? "Sure." He made certain my seat belt was fastened, stopped at a convenience store and got a bottle of water for me, and away we went. "Put on whatever music you want." I pushed the buttons on his radio until I found a station playing eighties rock. I'm a sucker for the oldies. I remember listening to them as a kid and dancing around the house with Michelle. Nathan nodded his approval of my choice, cranked up the volume, and we drove. Nice and fast once we got out of the busy area and reached an open expanse on Overseas Highway. He was right. Between the water, the music, the wind whipping at my hair and face, the tipsy feeling subsided after fifteen minutes. We reached the entrance to a park that was closed and Nathan pulled over to the side of the road. "Feeling better?" "Yeah. That's a great way to perk up." "It is. Come on, let's take a walk around the park. Exercise is good too." He opened my door and held out his hand. "Really, I'm okay now. I can walk by myself." "Humor me. It's dark and I don't want you to fall." His strong, warm hand felt good, so I took it, and let him lead me into the park. "Won't we get in trouble for being here after closing?" "Only if we get caught, and I don't intend to get caught." I must have looked scared because he laughed. "Don't worry. I made it a point to talk to the police when I came down here. They know me and won't give me a hard time." Money could buy a lot of things, including immunity to laws. I sure hoped he wasn't breaking any more serious regulations than trespassing in a public park at night. We wandered past a grassy area, a playground, and tennis courts until we came to a beachy spot. "Shoes off," he ordered, and removed his sandals and rolled up his pants. "It's not flat sand in the bay, so step carefully." My cutesy heels were already wet. I'd have to get another pair of sandals, more flip-flop- ish, if everything we did around here involved water. I slipped my shoes off and turned up the hem of my pants too. "Higher." "What?" "Roll them up higher or they'll get wet." Good thing I'd worn a pair of loose gauze pants. I did what he said, then took his proffered hand again and waded into the Florida Bay with him. The water lapping on my calves made me laugh out loud. "Bet you don't do this in Illinois in November." "No, we sure don't. This is, I can't even tell you how great this is." I lost myself. Between the wind making the palm trees dance, the smell of ocean and fresh air, the feel of Nathan's hand holding mine, I'd gone to heaven. And I didn't want to leave. I shut my eyes and turned my face up to the sky. Nathan stopped moving. "You go ahead. I want to stay here and turn this into a postcard." "A what?" Oops, did I say that out loud? Now I'd have to tell him about my weird little habit. "Sometimes, when a moment is so perfect, I try to record it in my mind, and picture how it would look on the front of a postcard. This is one of those times. Corny, I know." He was quiet, but didn't let go of my hand. "Not corny. A perfect idea, one I should do. Sometimes, I forget to stop and enjoy the moment." We stood for I don't know how long, but eventually, a horn honked loud and a dog barked, bringing me back to reality. "Guess we should go." He gave my hand a squeeze. "We'll do this again." I about floated on the walk back through the park and the drive to Bay Paradise Resort, utterly relaxed and blissfully happy. Nathan parked and got out with me, insisting on walking me to my room. My executive suite had its own private entrance, complete with a cute little outdoor table and chairs. Lush foliage surrounded the whole building, creating an intimate setting at the doorway. We stood there for a moment and I dug in my purse for the key card. "The light should come on over the door at night. I'll have maintenance look at that." He pulled out his wallet and swiped a card. "I have a master." I gave the door a little push. A trickle of sadness wound through my heart. I didn't want the evening to end. "Thank you. This was great. I'm sorry I got kind of loopy on you. I'm not an alkie, I promise." "Stop apologizing for everything." He stood close, so close I felt the heat coming off him, smelled more of that musk I'd noticed. I looked into his eyes, gazing at me intently. That odd expression was back, like he wanted something from me. What? Heart pounding, I couldn't look away. Could he possibly be attracted to me? Why was he staring? I rested against the doorframe, crossing my hands behind my back. Hardly aware of what I was doing, I tilted my face up to him and parted my lips. That was all it took. His mouth was on mine, his lips hard and searching. I stood there, in a state of shock for a few seconds, then I kissed him back. He leaned into me, pushing his hard body against mine, and I pulled my arms from behind my back to wrap around his neck. It flowed so smooth, so perfectly, like we'd done this a hundred times already. He thrust his tongue into my mouth and I met it with my own, delighting in the taste of beer and the smell of his skin. He moaned, and his arms went around me, his hands grabbing my ass, pulling me closer to him. Close enough I felt his erection, hard against my stomach. The low-burning desire that teased at me earlier turned into full, hot arousal, like he lit a fire in my core. I rubbed against him, needing to touch more of his body. One hand moved from my ass, up my ribcage, to slide around my breast, cupping it slightly. His thumb brushed along the edge, sending a trail of heat and longing. I wanted more, wanted him to touch me all over, to run his fingers along my naked skin, everywhere. We stayed like this for who knows how long. It could have been seconds, it could have been five minutes. I totally lost track of time. All I was aware of was the scent and feel of Nathan, and the moisture that had formed between my thighs. When he pulled away suddenly, I let go of his neck and about fell over. Not from the alcohol, but from the hot blood rushing through my body like a race car. He stepped back, looked at me, his brows drawn together, and that delicious mouth now set in a hard line. I reached up a hand to touch his face, then let it drop. Damn it. I'd made him mad. I'd thrown myself at him, acted like a fool. "Good night, Amber." He turned and disappeared into the shadows.
TO BE CONTINUED IN BOOK TWO
Enjoy this hot little excerpt from Book Two
The Romance Challenge, Book Two, Excerpt
Oh yeah, that's really what I needed to think about, how Amber looked without her clothes. Fuck me. I wanted her so bad, and damned if she didn't suggest we hook-up while she was here. Nothing would make me happier, but I told her no. No way could I have sex with that woman and not get totally into her. I already knew she was smart, funny, and we got along great. In virtual space, that is. In person, every time I touched her, or even got too close, this magnetic pull made me want to grab her and run my hands over her body. Then my tongue. Even though I'd showered earlier, I jumped in again, hoping to cool off. Didn't work. I lay in bed for fifteen minutes, tossing and turning. She said she wasn't innocent, that she'd had lovers, and that she was okay with a causal relationship. Other people did that. They had more than one person they dated and they knew nothing permanent was expected. The way I did it in L. A. But this wasn't Los Angeles and Amber wasn't just anyone. She was different than the women I hung with. What did she say, she didn't just fall off the corn truck? Funny. My cock voted "hell yes" on taking Amber's offer of sex. My gut, the place I listen to when making multi-million dollar business decisions, surprisingly agreed. After hearing her story about her sister, damn, she was tougher than I thought. She had to be some kind of strong to deal with that situation. And working a part-time job with her full-time one? She never complained or told me she was too busy to take on a project. She handled everything I threw at her on the job. Maybe she could handle this as well, a long-distance, non-exclusive relationship. Maybe I could too, could push back my feelings for her, let it be just about sex. Because, damn it, I wanted her. Now. I stood up, caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and studied my reflection. Trust. My therapist said I should learn to trust. The ultimate challenge. Was I up to it? To taking a chance and seeing where this romantic encounter might lead? I grabbed my phone. She answered on the third ring, the sound of sleep in her voice. "Did you mean what you said? About us, together, down here?" "Yes." "Can I come over? Now?" "Yes. Please." Before I could think anymore, I got up, threw on jeans and a shirt, and rifled through my bathroom traveling bag. There. Three condoms. I couldn't remember when I'd thrown them in. Expiration date, still good. I'd take that as an omen, that I was meant to do this.
I turned on the stove light in the kitchen, then off, then on again. Too much light? Not enough? Okay, stop. I had to quit fussing around. Nathan would be here any minute. I found two votive candles and matches in one of the kitchen drawers and put them on a plate, then placed it right next to the bed. To create a mood. To calm my nerves. I brushed my teeth, swiped on a little mascara and finger-combed out my hair. No sexy clothing made it into my suitcase since I didn't intend to entertain a man. The long t-shirt I slept in would have to do. Really, I wanted to put on the black dress I'd brought in case a formal occasion came up, and do my full make-up and hair routine. But that would look ridiculously obvious and overdone. We were having a quickie, that's all. Nathan knocked lightly, and I exhaled a deep breath. No going back now. I opened the door. He stepped in and closed it behind him. How long had it been since I invited a man into my room, purely for sex? Ever? I had no idea what to do. And Nathan wasn't just any man. He was my boss, and a guy I respected and admired. What if I did something stupid? "Do you want a drink? I have red wine." "A bottle of water, if you've got it." I turned, glad to escape his gaze for a minute. I initiated this, I know, but my heart pounded out a fast, nervous rhythm. Bad enough I got hot and wet merely looking at him. Now, we would be touching. A lot. While naked. Oh Lord. He'd see me totally nude. I got two bottles of water from the fridge and turned off the stove light. "It's, uh, been a while. For me. Since I've been with a man." I didn't add that I was nowhere near as experienced in bed as he was. Probably, he could tell. He smiled, a slow, sexy smile that made my hand tremble as I handed him the bottle. He took the water, then took my hand and kissed the back. Then, he turned it over, ran his thumb along the front, and brought my palm to his mouth and licked. Now my whole body vibrated, from my head to my toes. The heat that started earlier this evening burned hotter and I couldn't suppress a moan. "Don't worry, we'll go slow. As slow as you like." But suddenly, I didn't want to go slow. I wanted Nathan, now. Wanted to make love to this guy who watched me with raw desire. "You don't have to. Go slow, I mean. I'm ready." He had other ideas.
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