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THE SEX ON THE BEACH BOOK CLUB
By JENNIFER APODACA
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2007 Jennifer Apodaca
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHolly Hillbay was the best damned private investigator in Goleta, California, but you couldn't tell it from the week she was having. Losing her bread-and-butter client, whom she did routine new-hire background checks for, was bad enough. But she knew Brad the Cad, her ex-fiancé, had something to do with that, which made her furious.
She channeled her frustration into her new case-going undercover in a book club. That was what brought her to the Books on the Beach bookstore on a Tuesday evening. Pausing outside the door, she inhaled a breath of the damp, salty air from the nearby ocean. The preppy, probably over-educated bookstore owner Wes Brockman, and the very married Tanya Shaker, were about to have their sordid little affair exposed like a celebrity biography.
That thought cheered her up and she went inside. The ringing bell over the door still echoed as she quickly scanned the bookstore. The first thing she saw was an inviting sitting area done in white wicker with ocean blue cushions. That was bookended by a checkout counter with a coffee and beverage station next to it on her right, and a wall-sized bookcase featuring new releases directly across from the door. Beyond the sitting area were rows of dark bookcases. The whole atmosphere exuded sophisticated comfort where readers could leisurely browse until they selected the books theywanted to buy.
A deep voice from behind her asked, "Can I help you?"
Holly turned around and felt a slap of lust that could have been right out of a romance novel. Since she wasn't a big romance reader, she was going to have to blame it on the man-he was hot. Sun-streaked brown hair and vivid green eyes set in a face that had a little George Clooney going on. His mouth was full and oozed sensual promises. His jaw wore just enough of a shadow to make her want to run her hand along his cheek to feel the texture.
Oh yeah, he could help her end her long dry spell in the bedroom. She blinked and reminded her deprived hormones that she was on the job. Damn it. "Hi, I'm Holly. I'm here for the book club." She hoped her week had taken a turn for the better, and this guy turned out to be anyone but Wes Brockman.
He smiled, crinkling the skin around his green eyes. "I'm Wes. Book club is just getting started." He held a hand up toward a door that opened on the left side of the store.
It figured. She revised her opinion of the bookstore owner: Sexy as hell, preppy and probably over-educated. Oh, and he screwed married women, probably because he could. Her hormone levels banked down to a mere sizzle. Managing to look past her lust, she saw his expensive clothes mixed with the self-confidence that came with money and success. Holly immediately pegged the bookstore as his hobby and not the career that made him rich and sophisticated.
Tearing her gaze from him, she turned and headed toward the room he indicated. It was about the size of the master bedroom in her condo, and had four long tables set in a rectangle shape. She estimated about eighteen people gathered around it. Thermoses of coffee and plates of cookies were set out on the tables. A brief look around showed her a door that led to a small bathroom and another door that was closed-probably a storage area or office. There were poster-sized book covers on the walls, adding color and energy to the room.
She scanned the more than a dozen women and three men, and spotted Tanya Shaker. She looked just like the picture Holly had of her, shoulder-length blond hair, lots of makeup, and an industrial-strength bra that pushed her breasts up to her chin in her low-cut black T-shirt. She sat with a lifeguard-handsome man on her right and an empty chair on her left.
"Holly, take a seat anywhere," Wes said next to her. His hand brushed her arm then was gone.
A warm shiver rolled down her spine, catching her off guard. Must be a full moon or something. Clearly her libido had not gotten the message that Wes was a player. She didn't date rich men who indiscriminately screwed women. In fact, she didn't date much at all these days. Men were a troublesome distraction from her career.
Pulling her thoughts back to the job, she walked over to Tanya, slid into the seat next to her, and said, "Hi, I'm Holly. Have you belonged to the book club long?" In Holly's experience, women talked more than men-usually because they mixed up sex and love.
Tanya did the girl-to-girl scan and said, "About a month."
Holly got to work. "I just heard about the book club. Thought I'd give it a try. Only three men, huh?" There was Wes Brockman at the end of the tables on her right. A guy sitting next to him who was a little older, darker, wearing blue-tinted glasses that didn't mask the deep suspicion in his dark eyes. Then there was the man on the other side of Tanya, who leaned forward and looked at Holly.
"I'm Cullen. Would you like to use my book?" He pushed the book toward her. "I'm sure Tanya will let me share with her."
Holly took the book and glanced at the title. "Wicked" Women Whodunit.
Tanya grinned at her. "It's good. I read it and I'm not much of a reader."
Holly swallowed the urge to ask what the hell she was doing at a book club if she didn't read. But she knew why Tanya was there. What really surprised her was how careful Tanya was being. Women usually gave it away long before the men did. Especially the player types like Wes Brockman. They were used to woman after woman moving through their beds and seldom gave them a thought outside of the sheets. "Yeah, I read it. Love those women who go after what they want." She had actually read the book.
Tanya turned to look the other way. "Me, too."
Holly presumed Tanya was looking down the table at Wes. A secret lover's look?
"Holly," Wes said from his end of the table. "Did I hear you say you read this book?"
She felt it again-that zing as his gaze met hers. What kind of crap was that? It was like a drippy movie moment and she refused to acknowledge it. She focused on her answer instead. "Yes, I did. I guess I'm surprised that your book club picked a book like this."
He arched his eyebrows. "Like what?"
She knew a challenge when she heard one. This was more comfortable territory for her. "This blatantly sexy. The heroines in this book get caught up in a mystery and are aggressive about solving it. And they aren't shy about sleeping with the man they choose."
Cullen, sitting on the other side of Tanya, said, "My kind of woman."
Wes cut his gaze from Holly to him. "Why is that, Cullen?"
Cullen flashed a boyish grin. "I don't see why men should always have to chase women. I don't mind being chased. Or caught."
Laughter rolled down both sides of the table.
Except, Holly noticed, for the three women who sat across from her. They looked at one another, all three of them wearing tight-lipped expressions. She could almost feel their collective reaction to Cullen. What was that about? What had Cullen done to annoy or embarrass those three?
One of the women spoke up. "The stories in this anthology are not just about sex. They're about a relationship developing when a man and woman are thrown together in mysterious circumstances."
"Very well stated, Nora," Wes said.
Holly looked at Nora, seeing a woman who had home-dyed brown hair, brown eyes, and a gentle manner. Maybe she'd been a romantic when she was younger and still believed just a little bit.
The woman next to Nora said, "The men just want sex."
"That's a little harsh, Maggie," Wes answered.
Maggie wore a tailored suit and constantly checked her cell phone-probably because she was text-messaging. She glared at Cullen before she dropped her gaze to her cell phone.
All kinds of undercurrents were going on in this book club, the kinds of undercurrents that usually had to do with sex. Was this a book club or a sex club? The women all seemed pretty easygoing with Wes. It was Cullen who was causing reactions.
And guess who was sitting next to Cullen? Had Holly's client, Tanya's husband Phil, been wrong about who Tanya was doing the sheet tango with?
Just as an awkward silence was ready to engulf the room, Wes tossed out another question. "Does murder break down social expectations and up the stakes so that the characters are more likely to come together sexually?"
The man was smooth. Holly snorted and looked up at Wes.
He asked, "Did you say something, Holly?"
What did she care? She was here to do a job and when it was done, she would never see these people again. So she told the truth. "That's crap. It's lust, pure and simple. Lust has been around for centuries. Women feel lust, too."
"Oh yeah," Tanya whispered in a low sexy voice, and leaned, boobs first, into Cullen on the other side of her.
Whoa, Holly thought. Had Phil gotten his wires crossed about who his wife was sleeping with?
Wes recaptured her attention when he asked, "What about love? Traditionally, women have searched for love."
She couldn't look away from him. She knew everyone had turned to watch her, but she didn't want to break the connection between her and Wes. There was something deep and mysterious about him, and it called to all Holly's instincts to find out the answers. What brought a man like Wes to owning a bookstore in a beach town? His question tugged at her old wounds, but she lifted her chin and told him her truth, a truth she learned the hard way. "I prefer lust over love. Lust is simple and straightforward."
Wes had no idea how he'd gotten through the remainder of the book club. Holly's "lust over love" comment had burrowed into his brain and taken up residence in his sex drive. There was something incredibly sexy about the newest member of his book club.
Watching Holly as she got up from the table, he thought she looked a little like the character Lilly Rush, from the Cold Case TV show. She had her hair tucked up in that same casual-messy style, though it was a darker blonde. Since he'd had the pleasure of walking up behind her, he got an eye full of her long lean figure and her mouthwatering ass. But when she'd turned around, it had been her blue eyes that captured his attention. Gray-blue, the color was hard to define-a bit of clear blue sky mixed with the churning waters of a stormy ocean.
Oh yeah, she'd caught his interest. She'd made him feel something when he hadn't felt anything in a hell of a long time.
So yeah, she was sexy, he was interested-but he was also wary, more from habit than anything. Holly seemed to have more interest in the people of the club than the book. He hadn't seen her in the bookstore before and no one else in the room seemed to recognize her. So how had she found out about the book club? Or had being in hiding for three years just made him paranoid?
Gazing around the room, he saw that Helene Essex had cornered Cullen, while Tanya looked daggers at them. He knew the torrid situation was going to explode; he just hoped it didn't happen in his bookstore. He didn't need the attention and headaches it would bring.
Cullen was the kind of man Wes despised. He used and discarded women, notching his belt as he went along. Wes had nothing against honest sex for the sake of sex alone. Over the last few years, it had been the only sex he had. But he never lied to the women, never let them believe he loved them. Tearing his gaze from them, he looked for the woman who was occupying his thoughts.
He spotted Holly holding a copy of "Wicked" Women Whodunit and talking to a couple of women, then she broke away. He intercepted her. "Hey," he said, watching as she turned to him, settling her smoke-blue gaze on him. His gut clenched with a thread of desire. He really liked her eyes, liked the way she looked right at him. But he didn't know if that was real or a phony sincerity. Wes had spent years ferreting out exactly what people's intentions were. Surely he could handle one young woman. He pulled out his most charming smile. "So how did you find out about our book club?"
"Word of mouth." She grinned. "But this isn't what I expected from a book club."
"No?" Leaving his answer open-ended to see how she'd reply, he noted her vague answer and change of subject. His interest kept ramping up, but the instincts that kept him at the top of his game in his old job told him that Holly was interested in more than just his book club. She was almost too alert, and she didn't volunteer anything about herself.
She shook her head. "I expected Oprah books."
"Ah. The realistic, and predominately tragic, endings. I've had enough of those in my life, how about you?" He didn't let his thoughts stray to the tragic endings, or the deadly mistakes he'd made. He lived with the guilt, but he didn't wallow in it.
Her eyes hardened. "Who doesn't?"
She wasn't going to spill her guts in the first minute. Damn, she was a challenge. He decided to try a little flirting. "So you don't like books with tragic endings. But you do like sexy anthologies."
She leaned her hips back against the table. "Fast-paced and sexy are more my style. You?"
Hell, yeah. Looking at her, with her breasts pushing against that tank top, and her intense gaze, he was completely and one hundred percent into fast-paced and sexy. If flirting, companionship, and maybe sex was what she wanted, he was on board and ready. "Fast-paced and sexy work for me. Are you free tonight to get a drink or coffee?"
Her blue eyes shaded to nearly gray. "I would think someone like you would have plans."
Wes narrowed his gaze. What was her game? Her remark had come out more like an accusation. "Nope. No plans once I close up the store." He left the ball in her court.
She smiled, but her gaze roamed around the room then down to her watch. "Can I have a rain check? I have to run. Thank you for an interesting evening."
Ice water chased out the heat in his gut as suspicion climbed up over his sex drive. She was up to something. "You're in a hurry?"
She started moving away. "Afraid so."
Wes followed her to the front of the store to see what she had been watching. As she opened the door and left, he caught sight of Tanya and Cullen walking ahead of her.
What was Holly doing? It appeared to him she was following Cullen and Tanya. Why? Could she be one of Cullen's castoffs? But Cullen hadn't acted as if he knew her. Wes was so intent on watching her walk away, he nearly jumped at the voice behind him.
"Check her out before you get in her pants."
Wes turned to look at George, whom he considered his best friend. These days, George played the retired businessman. He fudged the facts on the business he retired from and other minor details-like his name, rank, and social security number. But then, who was he to complain? George was the one who helped Wes obtain his new name and social security number. "She look dangerous to you?"
"Hell, yes. That woman instantly drained the blood from your head to your dick. That's the kind of shit that can get you killed."
Wes laughed. "I must be getting old if I'm that obvious." He sobered up. "But that woman is up to something. She seemed surprised at what book the club is reading, so why did she want to be in our book club?"
George looked over his glasses at Wes. "Want me to find out?"
Oh no, this one was all his. Wes was going to get to the bottom of sexy Holly. "No, I want you to stay here and watch the store. I'm going to go see just what Ms. Lust Over Love is up to."
Since Wes knew where Cullen and Tanya were going, if Holly really was following them, it shouldn't be hard to catch up to her.
Holly stood on the docks a mile away from the bookstore and watched as the boat motored away, carrying Tanya and Cullen under the full moon. There was no two ways about it. She was screwed. She had done her preliminary research on Tanya Shaker and Wes Brockman.
But she had the wrong guy. Judging by the hand-holding, giggling, and Cullen's hand on Tanya's ass, Tanya was having an extramarital affair with Cullen, not Wes. Her client had been so sure his wife was cheating with the bookstore owner, Wes. "Shit," she muttered to herself.
Excerpted from THE SEX ON THE BEACH BOOK CLUB by JENNIFER APODACA Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Apodaca. Excerpted by permission.
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