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In her bathroom, inside her Carson, California, apartment, decorated in various shades of baby blues and soft whites, Dakota Faraday peered into the looking glass, plucking away at her sable eyebrows. Every now and then she had to stand on her tiptoes to get in closer to the mirror. The lighting was bright enough, but she'd made a mess of her eyebrows a time or two, so she tried being more careful. Tweezing hurt, stung, but she didn't like waxing because it was even more painful. Shaving could result in razor bumps, so that hair-shaping method didn't work either.
Satisfied that she'd done a great job with her brows, Dakota reached into the glass shower cubicle and turned on the cold water full blast. People thought she was crazy for taking cold showers, but it was her preference. When taking a bath, she used steaming hot water and lots of bubbles and exotic oils. Baths were for relaxing. Showers were meant to invigorate. If she took a hot shower, she'd feel sleepy right afterward.
Who wanted to feel that way when starting their day or going out on the town?
As the first douse of cold water ran over her ginger-brown flesh, she shivered and danced around a bit. Seconds later, she was all into it. Rarely did she stay in the shower longer than ten minutes at a time. Catching a cold was something she didn't want. Lying in wait for her outside the stall was the thick, white terry-cloth robe she'd slip into right after each bone-chilling experience. The towel warmer kept her fluffy bath sheet heated through and through, creating luxurious sensations against her body.
Dakota stepped out of the cubicle and quickly wrapped her body in the towel, glancing down at the dark granite counter where her watch lay. She was eager to check out the time. She had a hot date tonight and she wanted to be ready when Ethan showed up at her door. They'd been dating only a few weeks, seeing each other a few times a week. The couple was still in the getting-to-know-you stage, but she already thought he was a really great guy, gracious and gentlemanly.
Ethan Robinson was also drop-dead gorgeous, but Dakota hadn't once gotten the impression he was at all into himself. This fine brother had the darkest, sexiest eyes she'd ever seen, coal-black and piercing. Sometimes she felt like he could see straight through to her soul, although she hoped not.
As Dakota stood in front of the mirror once again, fully dried off now, she began to put on her special evening face. Carefully she applied a lightweight foundation and sealant powder and blush to her near-flawless ginger complexion. Streaked with warm bronze highlights, her silky sable hair hung down to her shoulders in thick waves.
A very light layer of eyeliner and a bit thicker one of mascara was administered next. Her hazel eyes, large and luminous, often gave away her deepest feelings despite her attempts to keep them hidden, especially from men.
Dakota saw a very pretty girl reflected in the mirror, petite in stature, yet well-built. In spite of her short legs, they were full, shapely and smooth as satin, possessing strong, well-defined calves, thanks to her daily twenty-minute workout.
Back in her master bedroom, where the decor was also blue and white, with frilly lace and satin, Dakota sat atop the queen, four-poster bed to lotion her legs and feet. She loved to go hoseless in the summer. Even though it was very early fall, she could still get away with bare legs, which had never felt more freedom. She also wore thigh-high stockings, but only on special dress-up occasions. They were comfortable and sexy.
Dakota got up from the mattress and smoothed back in place the blue and white lace and satin eyelet comforter, which perfectly complemented the white Provençal furniture. She had been extremely lucky in finding the bedroom set at a thrift shop, unable to believe how reasonably priced it had been. The headboard, dresser, chest of drawers and night-stands were in tiptop shape and didn't have visible marring anywhere. A lovely white desk and hutch completed her bedroom furnishings.
Slipping with ease into her slim off-white A-line skirt, she quickly zipped and buttoned the side closure. While pulling over her head a tangerine silk crepe shell, she was careful not to get makeup on it. She planned to take the matching sweater along on the date, as the nights in Los Angeles could turn pretty chilly, especially in the beach areas. Ethan had mentioned Redondo Beach Pier as the dining venue.
The doorbell rang at the same time she slid her feet into tangerine patent leather pumps. She loved bright, flashy colors, which was evident in her limited but adequate wardrobe. There wasn't a lot of money in her budget to spend on clothes. Dakota loved to browse the consignment shops in upper-crust neighborhoods. It was like going on a treasure hunt. More often than not, she walked away with some pretty fabulous, excellent quality merchandiseand for very little money.
Grabbing her sweater off the bed, she ran for the door of her two-bedroom apartment. Dakota's heart rate instantly picked up speed. Ethan. His gentle touch did crazy things to her, producing alien yet pleasurable sensations.
As Dakota reached her compact living room, she looked around to see that everything was in place. The only furniture she owned for the living room was a nice sofa and matching chairs, done in a variety of earth tones. They, too, had come from secondhand establishments she frequented. The coffee and end tables, carved out of mahogany hardwoods, were newer than everything else. She had purchased them with her last income-tax check at a going-out-of-business sale, which meant she hadn't had to pay an arm and a leg to take ownership. The off-white and creamy beige area rug brightened the entire room. A couple of African-American works of art graced the ecru walls.
The bell pealed again before Dakota got there. She was so nervous. Her palms already felt sweaty. After peering into the small security window, she finally swung back the door wide, pulling off a beautiful, brilliant smile. "Hey, you, come on in."
Twenty-nine-year-old Ethan Robinson, tall and sexy, stepped inside. Dressed in beige Dockers and a deep lavender silk shirt, open at the collar, he looked delicious. As soon as his dark eyes connected with hers, he bent his head and landed a light kiss on her full mouth. His head was covered with loose golden-brown curls, which complemented his bronze, smooth complexion. He also had a dark mole just above the corner of his mouth, on the right side. She loved how it added to his sex appeal.
Smiling softly, he smoothed back an unruly strand of hair from her oval-shaped face. "I was thinking about you all day." His smile was broad and electric, nearly causing her knees to buckle. Ethan had straight white teeth and was proud to show them off.
He reached down and took her hand. "Are we ready?"
She nodded. "Got everything I need."
Removing the key ring from her hand, Ethan secured the apartment door.
As the couple began the short walk to his car, he gently dropped his arm around her shoulders. "There are advantages to living on the first floor of a three-story complex, especially when the elevator doesn't work. I always get my favorite spot right outside every time I've come over."
"You have been lucky. Tenants are assigned covered parking spots in well-lit areas nearby. I used to park in a visitors' slot until management caught on. I was reprimanded, of course."
Ethan placed a light kiss on Dakota's forehead. Just that slight touch set off a firestorm below his waistline. He fought hard to keep his manhood from responding, but he had been on fire for Dakota from day one. "Let's get a move on then."
Getting into the car wasn't a surefire way for Ethan to keep his visible desire in check, but it might help to hide it. Dakota wasn't ready for anything more than the few kisses and hugs they'd sharedand he wasn't the kind of man who'd press her. Any physical connection of the intimate kind had to come by mutual agreement. He found her exciting and refreshing, a far cry from some of the women he'd run into.
Learning that twenty-four-year-old Dakota was studying to become a teacher was a good feeling for him. She had said she'd gotten a late start on her educational goals, but she hadn't told him the reason. Once she received her B.S. and teaching certification, she planned a career in special education. He had a good friend who was in the same field. There were never enough educators and special-education teachers were badly needed.
Dakota smiled every time she saw the silver convertible. Equipped with a mesh wind protector, the top was already down. She didn't have to worry about her hair. She had a natural wave pattern and there wasn't much that could destroy it.
"Your car looks like it was recently washed and waxed, but I can't recall seeing it any other way. I guess if I had this nice of a ride I'd keep it spotless, too."
Opening the door for Dakota to get in, Ethan chuckled. "After our first date, I was sure I had bored you to tears by telling you how much I loved my brand-new car. Once I got home, I realized I'd acted like a stupid teenager with his first set of wheels."
"You did talk about it a lot, but you weren't boring. Your enthusiasm was contagious and so were you. Cute, too."
"Cute, huh?" he mocked her, slipping into the driver's seat. He instantly started the engine and backed out carefully.
Dakota was comfortable on the plush ash-gray leather seat and her mind instantly reverted back to when and where they'd first met. It was one of her fondest memories. She touched his arm gently. "Do you remember our first meeting?"
"I'd never forget it. A few weeks have passed, but it's still fresh in my mind. The library near your junior college campus happens to be in my Torrance neighborhood."
"You mean your upper-crust hood, don't you?"
"That's how you see it. What do you remember about that day?"
"I was going to the library to pick up a couple of books to complete a research assignment. The fall term had just begun," Dakota remarked, thinking back on it.
Although Ethan worked as an assistant professor of English at a prestigious Southern California university, he'd gone to the Torrance Library to pick up a book he'd needed right away. Driving all the way back to the campus where he worked would've eaten up a lot of time.
Ethan briefly looked over at Dakota and smiled. "We reached for the same book at the same exact time. As our hands connected, we both felt the sizzle."
Dakota batted her lashes. "Before I could look away, you had me captivated."
"While you stood there blushing like a new bride on her wedding night, I took the initiative to introduce myself to you. It's one of the smartest things I've ever done."
He had told Dakota how desperately he had to have the book they'd both gone for.
"'If you let me check it out first, I'll see to it that you know exactly when I plan to return it to the library,'" she teased, citing him verbatim. "'I'll need a phone number to do that.'You were a smooth one, but I also got the impression you were sincere."
"Don't you know for sure yet?"
"The jury hasn't ruled on it, but it seems to me they're leaning in your favor."
"I was pleasantly surprised when you forked over your number."
Dakota grinned. "I did, didn't I? I was surprised, too."
Unable to get Dakota out of his mind, Ethan had ended up calling her the same evening. The couple had stayed on the line talking for a solid two-and-a-half hours, resulting in his asking her out on a first date.
Ethan held a Ph.D. in English Literature. Dakota recalled his telling her something about wanting to write a nonfiction book in the near future with a grant he hoped to receive, but he hadn't gone into much detail. He'd seemed secretive about it. Publish or perish, she figured.
Dakota had been impressed with his credentials, but his job wasn't what had turned her on. It was something deeper.
Ethan helped Dakota out of the car after parking under the Redondo Beach Pier.
The ocean air was crisp and cool, smelling strongly of sea salt. "We're dining at Tony's. Are you familiar with the popular restaurant located in the heart of the pier?"
Dakota nodded. "I hear great ocean views and fiery sunsets make it very romantic, but I've never eaten there."
After Ethan assisted Dakota with the tangerine sweater, she held up his navy single-breasted Pierre Cardin blazer while he slipped into it.
Ethan took Dakota's hand and began strolling leisurely toward their destination. "We don't have to be in a hurry." He looked at his watch. "We have thirty minutes before our reservations. Sunset is about an hour or so away and we definitely don't want to miss out on the spectacular view."
"The boardwalk is such a fun place, with lots of interesting things to do and see and enjoy. I ride my bike around the pier every now and then."
One thing Ethan wanted to make sure he accomplished was to purchase a candy apple for Dakota. She had told him how much she loved them and how hard they were to find around L.A. L.A. heat caused the candy to melt easily. Because he wanted her to have a nice surprise, he planned to slip away to the candy-apple stand once they were seated.
Ethan let go of Dakota's hand and put his arm around her. "Are you cold?"
"It was a bit chilly before I put on my sweater. I'm fine now."
"If you need my jacket, tell me. Don't want you freezing."
"I started to bring a lightweight jacket, but I didn't want to get bogged down with a lot of stuff. I've lived in Southern California all my life. I knew what kind of weather to expect. I promise to ask if I need your blazer."
"I'll gladly give it up. I also keep a windbreaker in the trunk, so we're prepared for how chilly it might get."
"It seems you're always prepared for everything." She liked that about him.
Ethan was an orderly person, much like she was. He was also big on anticipation, including contemplating her needs. She'd often thought he could read her mind. They also had scheduling in common. She kept a daily planner and so did he. The hours of her days were accounted for practically down to the minute. Dakota didn't like last-minute anything. Things in her life worked better when there was order.