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Selena Jarboe had been on some kind of a mission all day.
She'd been on a mission when she'd stormed through the beach house, scrubbing and cleaning everything in sight, getting rid of inch-thick dust, cobwebs and dirt.
She'd been on a mission afterward when she'd showered, slipped on her flirty black-and-silver baby-doll dress, her cropped cardigan and her killer four-inch heels. Likewise when she'd given her hair the right amount of long, loose curls to drape down her back and over her shoulders just so.
Despite all the preparations, she hadn't known what, exactly, her mission was until she saw him.
It was laughingly cliché, but their eyes met across the room, and, yes, it was crowded. He stood in a group near the far wall, which wasn't far at all considering the cozy smallness of the bar. He was several inches taller than the people he was with. Dark haired, eyes that glimmered with humor. And a penetrating glance that said he not only saw her but noticed her in detail. He was the kind of man who made everything seem all better.
If ever there was a time Selena needed everything to be all better, it was now. Tonight.
She moved farther into the little beach shack bar—the Shell Shack, the sign said in an uneven but appropriate font—working her way to an empty stool at the end of the main counter. She felt his eyes on her and when she sat down, she looked again. Just for a moment, long enough to smile and feel the kick start of her blood when she found he was, indeed, smiling at her again, too.
Selena shivered and turned her attention to the bartender, who'd just asked what he could get her.
"Sandblasters are two bucks tonight. Keep the cup as a souvenir," the heavyset man with more hair on his chin than his head said.
Selena shrugged. "Might as well."
She started to wonder at her choice as she watched him mix it, counted eight different types of alcohol being poured into the oversize plastic cup with the cartoon turtle on it. Then she thought about her infuriating mother back in Boston. Her stubborn brother on his way to Afghanistan or who knew where.
"Bring it on," she muttered when the guy set it in front of her and took her cash.
Selena took a swig and tried not to grimace. Normally she stuck to wine when she and her friends went out in Boston, but this wasn't the East Coast and it wasn't a wine night. Wine wasn't part of her mission.
Eight kinds of liquor was a good start to what she was shooting for.
Her eyes automatically checked for the tall, sexy, dark-haired man again, and her shoulders dropped when she realized he was gone.
She swiveled partway around on her stool as she sipped from her straw, acting as if she was searching for someone she knew. She was searching, all right, but she didn't know him. Yet.
The interior of the little bar was packed, and between all the people and the two torch-style heaters, the air inside was warm and humid in spite of the open doorways. Thick, clear plastic kept the chilly October Texas night out. An outdoor patio stretched to Selena's left, but there were only a few groups of brave revelers sprinkled at some of the tables.
She scanned the inside crowd again, waiting for someone to take her breath away as her sexy stranger had. There were plenty of men here, lots of good-looking ones, but so far, no one else sent her pulse racing. If she was going to do something stupidly brazen, might as well save it for someone who took her breath away.
As she turned back toward the counter, a man old enough to be her late father and wide enough to be three of her fathers leered at her, shooting her a hungry, gold-toothed smile. Selena shuddered.
What in the world was she doing?
She wasn't the kind of girl to go to a bar alone, ever. If she wasn't out for a good time with her girlfriends, she wasn't out, period. And to even think about talking to a man she'd never met just because he had a certain allure and a look in his eye that drew her in? She'd completely lost her mind.
No, she hadn't, actually. Her family had. Every time she thought about them, everything inside her knotted up, coiled like a predatory snake, as if something needed to give, and give soon.
Heat spread across the right side of her body suddenly, and she knew before she looked that he was standing there. The man with the sexy smile.
She looked up at him slowly, taking in his thick chest, the cords of muscle along his neck, the hint of moisture on his sensual lips. Finally meeting his cornflower-blue eyes that, yes, definitely held a spark of amusement. Cockiness. Interest.
"Hi," she said, so quietly he could probably barely hear her over the crowd.
"Hi." He said it into her ear and she shivered.
Time to say something witty, she thought, searching her mind. If you're going to be reckless, might as well go all out.
She lifted her cup and took a drink. When she set it down, she noticed she'd drunk half of it and was already feeling the effects of the liquor.
"So," she said, flashing him a smile that was a lot more confident than she felt. "Are you the half-full or half-empty kind of guy?"
God, Selena. That was lame.
But the way he looked at her set something inside her on fire and it no longer mattered how dumb she sounded to herself.
"Right now? With you smiling at me? I'm thinking three-quarters full," he said.
"We have something in common, then."
"At least one thing," he said, and passion filled his eyes, the rim of blue shrinking as his pupils expanded. "Not a bad pickup line. Mind if I use it sometime?"
"As long as you don't try to use it on me."
"Would I need to?" His voice went gravelly, somehow more intimate even though they were in a crowd. He leaned his elbow on the bar, bringing him closer to her, near enough that she caught his scent—spice and beer mixed with one-hundred-percent red-blooded male.
This close, she could see every nuance of his skin, sun roughened, still tanned, recently shaved. Her fingers itched to touch his face and she imagined what it would feel like. Sandpapery. Strong. Warm.
"Normally I prefer straightforward to games," she said.
With him, she wasn't sure it mattered. She eased in closer. His eyes didn't leave hers and her heart thundered. Her thoughts changed from was she really going to do this? to how could she get him alone? So she could touch him. Let him touch her, everywhere, fill all her senses with him. Make her forget everything else.
Selena laughed. There was nothing normal about this situation and he seemed to understand that. "Generally."
"I can do straightforward." He brushed a lock of hair off her cheek and Selena turned toward the contact. She had to will herself not to press her lips to his palm.…
"I've got this really great beach outside," he said. "Would you like to see it? So we can be straightforward?"
A shiver of anticipation went through her and a physical ache pulsed deep inside. She nodded, took a final long swig of courage and stood, happily leaving her souvenir cup behind.
"That was kind of a triple line," she told him as he wrapped her hand in his and gestured for her to go first.
"Do I get triple points?"
She waited until they stepped outside the loud interior. "Normally lines count against a guy."
"There's that word 'normally' again. Do you 'normally' leave with a guy you've been talking to for less than ten minutes?"
"No. Do you?"
"I don't normally leave with a guy ever."
"Good to know."
They went down the concrete steps to the sand and turned south. She paused long enough to slip her heels off.
"So why are you here? With me?" he asked. "Straightforward answer."
Instead of replying, she stopped and faced him. The moon was a slender crescent behind him and the waves filled the night with their incessant roar that seemed to insulate them from the rest of the world. As she peered up into his light blue eyes, she felt an invisible current between them. It made her heart trip over itself and her insides turn to liquid.
Their hands were still entwined. A slow smile spread across his face and he lowered his head. Selena stood on tiptoe, dropped her shoes and, with her other hand on the back of his head, pulled him toward her. Just before they kissed she paused.
"What's your name?" she whispered.
He chuckled, a husky sound in his throat. "Evan."
"Evan," she repeated. "I'm Selena. Nice to meet you."
They both moved into the kiss at the same time, closing the space between them as if names couldn't matter less.
He pulled her body in to his and slid his large hands down her back, the heat of him igniting her like no man ever had. Her response was elemental, almost primitive. She felt his hardness against her abdomen and wanted him all to herself, alone.
As soon as possible.
Evan Drake had never met a woman like Selena before—and he'd met a lot of women in his twenty-nine years. He liked to think he could read them well, especially the signals they sent, either purposely or not, in bars. Selena didn't fit into any of the categories, though, as far as he could guess. She wasn't in the habit of picking up men like this, of that he was sure. When she'd first spoken to him, her nerves had shown through, as if she'd had to urge herself to speak at all.
She came across as witty and intelligent, not at all desperate or needy. Although right now she was making no secret that she needed him physically, and frankly, he was right there with her.
He was no angel, not unaccustomed to bringing women he didn't know well to his bed, but something about this girl lit him on fire like never before. Maybe it was that he suspected she didn't do this often if at all. That she'd chosen him.
Hell, who gave a rat's left nut about the whys or the hows when you had a woman like Selena in your arms.
"My place is a couple blocks away," he said, their bodies still aligned, still teasing at each other's mouths.
She nodded and kissed him again and, swear to God, if he didn't get her home in the next thirty seconds they were going to make a spectacle of themselves.
"Let's go." His voice was rough, as if he'd swallowed a mouthful of sand. He took her hand and pulled her gently in the direction of his apartment.
"Figured you'd still be in bed," Clay Marlow said when Evan emerged from his bedroom the next morning. "Sleeping for a change." The amusement on his roommate's face told Evan he and Selena had made too much noise. All night.
"What time did you come home?" Evan asked, rubbing his eyes.
"I saw you leave the Shack with her. I stayed till the bar closed. Then I went for a run about four in the morning. Spied her sneaking across the parking lot just after five."
"Sorry, man. Didn't mean for our…uh…didn't mean to drive you away from the apartment."
Clay laughed good-naturedly. "Like hell. Why aren't you asleep now?"
"Going to look at a boat." Evan went into the kitchen and rummaged around for something to eat. He wasn't a breakfast guy, but he'd burned off some serious energy over the course of the night and was ravenous.
"By yourself?" Clay asked, pouring coffee from the coffeemaker into a mug and sticking it into the microwave.
"With Chief Peligni. Going up to Corpus." Evan opened every cupboard, looking for anything edible. "We need to buy some food."
Clay took his mug out, swallowed a gulp and frowned. "Coffee, too. This is yesterday's. What kind of boat did you find?"
"Marine Trader…eighty-seven. One owner, guy who's babied it. I gather it's killing him to sell it but his health is failing and his wife is forcing the issue."
"Sounds promising. You thinking seriously about buying it?"
"If it's as good as it seems, I'll have it out on the Gulf before the end of the year."
"Finally got the money?"
"If I can get him down about ten grand, I have enough for the down payment." He'd been saving for years for his own trawler yacht and the reward was so close he could taste it. He found a half-smashed granola bar on top of the fridge and opened the wrapper.
"Hope it works out," Clay said. "So the girl from last night…"
"Yeah?" Evan's mind wandered to Selena's smooth, milky skin, her soft, perfect curves, the way her glossy hair had draped over his chest. They hadn't slept at all, and yet, he wanted her still. Doubted he could ever get enough of her…
"You going to see her again?"
Evan bit off the uncrushed end of his granola bar and chewed, eyeing Clay. "Why? You got a thing for her?"
"Don't need your rejects, thanks."
"Who said I rejected her?"
"You're sure testy today."
"Didn't sleep much."
Clay chuckled again. "Trust me, I know." He studied Evan between swigs of leftover coffee. "Did you get her number or what? Why are you holding out?"
"I'm not holding out, man." Evan leaned his head back and dumped the remaining crumbs—half the bar—from the wrapper into his mouth, wishing like hell Clay would lose this nosy interest in his sex life. He took a few steps toward the living room and back. "I tried more than once. Believe me, I'd very much like to see her again." He crumpled the wrapper into a tight ball and met Clay's stare head-on. "She refused to give me her number."
He threw the wrapper on the counter and strode out of the apartment.
It was after two in the afternoon when Selena dragged her tired, sore body out of bed. Sore but sated, she thought with a wicked grin.
She'd gone out of her ever-loving mind last night. Had become a different person. One that had a heck of a lot more fun than her.
Her smile faded as thoughts of her family flooded her. Unfortunately, her reckless night hadn't done anything to dull the pain, the fear.
She took a quick shower then headed to the kitchen for food. Or drink, rather, since she hadn't bought groceries yet. Settling for a can of root beer, she went to the unlit fireplace in the living area and sat on the hearth.
When her dad had had this place built, he'd been told he wouldn't need a fireplace. This was the beach. Southern Texas. But her father had loved a crackling fire and stubbornly insisted on it. He'd had to convince her mother, too. She'd argued for a gas log, because wood-burning fireplaces were more work.