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Ava Beckett sighed with pleasure as she slid into the warm water, lazily breast-stroking to the edge of the infinity pool where she propped on her forearms, staring out at the lights of Melbourne glittering twenty-seven floors below.
She'd stayed at luxurious hotels around the world but there was something decadently edgy and funky about Melbourne's newest, the Crown Metropol.
Sighing at the self-indulgence of having the pool all to herself, she let go of the side and floated on her back, eyes closed.
How often had she done this? Done absolutely nothing? Try never. Being the prime minister's daughter had been bad enough, being a diplomat's wife harder. Every minute of every day scheduled to a second: what she wore, what she did, what she ate and when. Stifling. Suffocating. Strangling.
Opening her eyes, she focused on the water's reflection shimmering across the roof, happy to do nothing but float. That or pinch herself to see if all this was real, for she still had a hard time believing she was free.
Her relationship with Leon had lasted ten years, their lacklustre marriage two, yet the public fallout from their divorce over the last month had been what shattered her most. Every scandalous, invented word plastered across newspapers and magazines making her life hell.
So she'd escaped. Ditched Canberra for Melbourne, abbreviated her surname to Beck and checked into a new hotel in blessed anonymity.
She needed this break to recover from having her name vilified by muck-raking journalists hell-bent on selling copy rather than the truth, needed some private time to savour her freedom without looking over her shoulder for fear of a long-range lens intruding on a moment that could be misconstrued.
She'd been photographed swimming, grocery shopping and heading into a zumba class, three perfectly innocuous, everyday pastimes not allowed by recently divorced women apparently. They'd cast her as frivolous, callous, cold-blooded; and that had been the nice reporters.
She knew why they'd latched onto her after the divorce while leaving Leon unscathed, but it didn't make it any easier. Shying away from answering questions, preferring to maintain a poised front and take a back seat to her famous father and extroverted husband over the years had been misconstrued as aloofness and arrogance whereas Leon's easy smiles and garrulousness made him the media's darling.
She'd been hounded and chased and bruised by the smear campaign over her divorce and she was done.
Time to take control of her life and moving to Melbourne ensured that; if she stayed under the radar.
A soft splash nearby created a gentle wave but the slight disturbance tossing her off kilter didn't bother her. In fact, a tidal wave probably wouldn't shake this surreal feeling of liberating independence.
Bumping against the side of the pool, she rolled over to swim a few laps and promptly crashed into someone, their heads colliding in a sickening clash.
Seeing stars, she submerged, grateful for a strong pair of hands around her waist hauling her upwards.
Mortified as she coughed and spluttered before finding her voice, she nodded, swiping hair out of her eyes.
'Yeah, fine,' she croaked at the same instant she caught sight of her rescuerand promptly choked again.
Maybe she'd bumped her head too hard for she could've sworn her rescuer, the guy still holding her, was George Clooney.
'Must have a hard head,' he said, his lips curving into a devastating smile that had her chest constricting, making her breathless as she wondered whether she'd swallowed water.
That had to be the reason behind her breathlessness.
Flustered, she pointed to his head. 'Could say the same about yours.'
His smile faded as concern darkened his brown eyes to ebony.
'Are you really okay? I could ring for an ice pack? Or walk you back to your room?'
Incredulous, Ava shook her head, instantly regretting it as a sharp pain jabbed her skull where she'd connected with his.
'Tell me this wasn't some lame pickup.'
Confusion creased his brow and she breathed a sigh of relief before he laughed, a deep, full chuckle that rippled over her skin like warm treacle.
'Let me assure you, I can think of smoother ways to ask a beautiful woman out than taking her to Casualty.'
'The bump wasn't that bad,' she said, probing her skull and wincing when her fingertips brushed the lump, and he immediately reached up.
Amazingly, she did, stilling as he slid his fingers into her hair, savouring the electric thrill that shot through her at his gentleness.
She held her breath as his fingertips slid over the bump, considerate, exploring and as she lifted her gaze to meet his something inexplicable happened.
Her body buzzed to life.
In a big way.
Must've been some bump, she thought as she belatedly realised their intimate position: his hand spanning her waist, holding her close, his other sliding around the back of her head, cupping it, their bodies wet and slick and almost touching.
She hadn't been this close to a guy in a long time and she almost squirmed like a puppy having its tummy rubbed.
'Feels nasty. Maybe you should rest on one of the lounges for a while?'
She managed a mute nod, trying not to whimper with pleasure as his fingers slid out of her hair, brushing it back out of her face.
There was something sweetly sensual in the slow sweep of his hand as it smoothed her hair behind her ears, giving her an unimpeded view of a hard, tanned chest that must've seen dumb-bells on a daily basis.
By the smattering of dark hair he wasn't one of those waxed gym junkies, and she immediately wondered why she'd noticed or cared.
'Let me give you a hand.'
Annoyed she'd been blatantly staring, she raised her gaze to his and if he weren't steadying her with one hand around her waist she would've gone under, for what she saw in those dark chocolate eyes wasn't the concern of a stranger.
Uh-uh, what she saw in those mesmerising depths mirrored the same, irrational hunger making her want to do crazy things. Things like wrapping her legs around his waist, like sliding her hands all over that muscular chest, like encouraging him to hoist her onto the edge of the pool and kiss her senseless.
'Come on.' He cleared his throat but not before his huskiness told her he'd probably read every embarrassing thought she'd just had.
She'd been taught from a young age to shield her thoughts, to ensure her face gave away nothing. Her dad had drummed it home about the dangers of lurking paparazzi, of long-range scopes on high-tech cameras, so she'd spent her life hiding her feelings behind a carefully constructed mask of impassivity. A mask that had well and truly slipped in the joy of floating in this pool after her hellish month, and in the joy of fantasising after landing in this guy's arms.
'How's your head?'
'I'll live.' He winked as they reached the stairs and she could've sworn her heart tripped up the steps ahead of her. 'Besides, if I suddenly go into cardiac arrest you can give me mouth-to-mouth.'
Not used to flirting but dying to get back in the game, she pretended to study his heart, which basically gave her another excuse to ogle that impressive chest.
Tapping her bottom lip, she pretended to ponder. 'Isn't mouth-to-mouth only given if you stop breathing?'
'In that case, that happened about five minutes ago.'
She couldn't help it; she blushed.
Marrying a family friend straight out of university hadn't exactly endowed her with femme fatale skills. Her relationship with Leon had been comfortable and familiar, devoid of sparks or flirtation. She'd never learned how but she had a feeling if she hung around this pool much longer she'd be given a crash course by an expert.
'I think I can take it from here.'
She took a step and stumbled, making a mockery of her attempt at asserted independence and only serving to have him touch her again when his arm shot out and locked around her waist.
'Easy, you may have a slight concussion.'
There was nothing slight about it; it was the only explanation behind her letting him lead her to one of the double bed chaises and insisting she lie downwith him beside her.
Increasingly self-conscious of her wet high-cut navy one-piece and pebbling skin, she tried to sit up and reach for her robe but he was one step ahead of her.
He held it up and as she slid her arms into the hotel's thick, plush dove-grey robe she shivered, not from the cold but from the unexpected tenderness from a stranger as he belted it just right.
She nodded, easing back onto the pillows at the insistence of his gentle hands. 'You can go now.'
Her words sounded harsh, especially after how kind he'd been but she needed space, needed him to not lie next to her, needed him to be rude and obnoxious rather than easy-going and likeable.
For lying here next to a sexy, kind stranger beside a deserted infinity pool on the top floor of a chic hotel reeked of adventure and daring and romance, three things that couldn't be more alien.
'Wish I could, but I can't.'
He rolled onto his side and propped on his elbow, looking like a poster boy for jump-starting women's libidos: long, lean, tanned, muscular and dripping wet, with a pair of mid-thigh board shorts moulding to
She gulped and dragged her gaze upwards, meeting the twinkling in his eyes only marginally better.
'It's my duty to see you're okay. Concussions are serious business.' He tapped his head. 'Trust me, I know, I've had enough of them.'
Intrigued, she wriggled into the pillows, sat up a little higher.
His mouth kicked into a wicked smile that made her belly flip.
'You could say that.'
Well aware chatting would only encourage him to stay rather than leave she had a momentary battle with her inner well-trained marionette, the one that had told her to sit up straighter and keep her opinions to herself.
In the face of his devastating smile and those liquid chocolate eyes, the battle was over before it began.
'What do you do?'
'I'm in extreme sports.'
He laughed at her obvious confusion. 'I'm CEO of the governing body for extreme sports worldwide. Heard of action sport? Adventure sport?'
Action? Adventure? Two things that couldn't be further from the sedate, sheltered, proper life she'd led. 'You mean stuff like bungee jumping?' 'And the rest.'
His face lit up and she admired his enthusiasm for his work. She'd never had it, the boring number crunching at the merchant bank less than inspiring. Quitting her job not long after quitting her marriage had been another faux pas according to the vigilante press.
'Tell me about your job.'
'Sure you're interested?'
She nodded, increasingly intrigued. Action, adventure, extreme, encapsulated a lifestyle she could only dream about. What would it be like to live life on the edge? To take risks? To never have to worry about what other people thought of you?
She'd never known but for this brief, surreal interlude with a guy she'd never see again she could live vicariously for a while.
'Yeah, tell me about the dangerous speeds and hair-raising heights and stunts you do for a living.'
'So you do know about extreme sports.'
Her hand wavered. 'A little.'
When he raised an eyebrow, she shrugged. 'I may have caught a few events in a competition on television last summer.'
'Go on, admit it, you were dying to hang-glide and wake-board.'
His animation snatched her breath and she unconsciously leaned forward.
'Considering I like both feet firmly on the ground, that would be a resounding no, but it was cool watching competitors battle environmental challenges while competing against each other.'