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Jessica Winslow needed to arouse a room full of women.
Right here. Right now.
She took deep breaths in her small suite at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, an accommodation with no view of the spectacular oceanfront outside. She'd booked this spot as a prep space for the retreat weekend she was leadingher biggest business coup yet. Eight women had bought into the extravagant "Better in Bed" workshop offered by Jess's fledgling company. Who knew there would be so much interest in reclaiming your sensuality among wealthy, successful women whoseeminglyhad the world at their collective feet?
"Do you need anything else, Ms. Winslow?"
A sleekly tanned young caterer with a Spanish accent tucked a clipboard under her arm as she waited for Jess's instructions.
"Everyone has drinks next door?" She hoped this first session of the weekend would be made a smidge easier by plying her guests with alcohol.
Hell, her discussion of erotic massage might be easier if she downed the alcohol. She'd wanted to kick off the retreat with a bang, but planning the workshop in theory hadn't fully prepared her for the intimidation factor of teaching erotic massage to a roomful of strangers she desperately needed to impress.
"They've all been served and there is a small bar set up for refills like we discussed." The woman tapped her fuchsia-pink manicured fingernail down the itemized list on her clipboard. "Would you like me to bring you a glass of chardonnay?"
Jessica winced. Was her tension that obvious? There was no reason for the attack of nerves, since she knew her material backward and forward. Well, no reason except that setting her business venture apart from her family's million-and-one get-rich-quick schemes depended on the good word of mouth generated by the attendees of this workshop.
After being raised well below the poverty line by parents who skirted the law, the truant officer and even Social Services, Jessica craved the stability of her own business. And the fact that she was targeting well-to-do women was no coincidence. She drank up the sweet scent of security inherent in their money, even as she made certain she had something of value to offer in return. Her business, Up Close and Personal, was no get-rich-quick scam but a labor of love that spiraled out of her need to pass on the benefits of self-help training she'd received since escaping her past, her birth family and, later, her foster family.
The wealthy women in the ocean-view suites across the hall could make or break Jessica's new career with whatever they chose to share about this weekend at their respective country clubs come Monday morning.
Jess shook her head, refusing to give in to second-guessing. She'd have every woman in there eager to go home and jump the man of her choice. But to do that, she needed a clear head.
"No wine for me, thank you. We should be set until it's time to bring in the appetizers an hour from now." She checked her antique watch, unable to delay the inevitable.
The timepiece slid around her wrist as she left the safety of her room; the jewelry a long-ago gift from her father. One of the few he'd purchased honestly, since he'd found it at a garage sale. Because of her rocky relationship with her lawless parents, she wore the piece to remind herself she would forge a future all her own. On her own.
Passing a young family dressed in their bathing suits in the hall, Jessica pasted on her public face. She opened the door to the retreat space, ready to teach her guests everything she knew about erotic massage and reclaiming your sensuality.
Jessica hadn't had a lot of opportunity to test her skills on real people, but she knew the methods worked, since she could at least talk about sex again and feel the hormone rush of getting turned-on.
Five years ago, she hadn't been able to do either. A date rape in her teens had haunted her long after the night she'd been sexually assaulted by her date.
The scent of the surf hit her along with the floral fragrances of a half-dozen bouquets she'd ordered scattered around the room for ambiance. The whole suite had also been draped in burgundy taffeta at her request. The dark colors and bright flowers were offset by the moody purple light of the sunset bleeding through the sheer curtains, but soon the walls would be lit solely by two cast-iron candelabra she'd brought here in the back of her Escalade.
The vehicle and the accessories were both part of her belief that image was everything in a business like this. High-end consumers didn't show up for retreat weekends at bargain hotels, and they didn't expect their speaker to roll up in a decade-old sedan. No matter that the payments on that damn Escalade were killing her bank account. The cost of the accessories and the hotel space meant she would only break even this weekend, but if it generated more business
Where the hell were her students? Jessica was so busy admiring the way the decor came together that she hadn't immediately noticed her workshop clients were not in the room.
"Honey, will you look at the torso on that one?"
A woman's voice floated in from the balcony, followed by a chorus of feminine sighs. Curiousand needing to keep her evening activities on scheduleJessica headed toward the terrace hidden by a wall of sheer curtains and French doors.
"I'd like to give an erotic massage to him," another voice chimed in.
Stepping out onto the balcony, Jessica could see eight women's backs as they jockeyed for a spot at the railing. Silk-and linen-clad hips jostled while manicured hands held a variety of brightly colored drinks aloft to keep them from spilling.
"Are you kidding? That one makes me want to give myself an erotic massage."
There was a round of laugher and one hearty "amen" to that as Jessica squeezed into the last available square inch at the wooden railing overlooking the shore.
The woman beside hera buff blonde probably closing in on fifty with discreetly tweaked facial featureswas pointing out into the water where six seriously ripped guys swam through the surf.
The view was diminished by their distance from shore, but even so, only a blind woman wouldn't feel the testosterone tide emanating from those focused, intense men swimming as if their lives depended on it.
And, of course, their lives did depend on it, since the only guys who would be out training in the middle of the ocean off Coronado Island were Navy SEALs. The shaved heads and taut, defined muscles were a sure sign the next BUD/S class must be in session. Jessica had been a San Diego resident for the past decade, and she knew even longtime local ladies never tired of catching a glimpse of the honed male perfection that went through this rigorous training.
Jess watched with detached appreciationher work with all things sensual made her take a more clinical approach to arousal. Of course, her experience with men tended to distance her, too.
She just hoped she would bring the right mix of enthusiasm to the table tonight to present her material in a convincing manner. Stepping back from the rail, she sent a prayer off into the universe, grateful for the way the heavens must be smiling on her. She'd wanted to arouse these women with her first class on reclaiming their sensuality? Thanks to the U.S. Navy, her audience had already been majorly warmed up.
Now she simply had to divert their attention from the mouthwatering men and proceed.
"Ladies, if I can have your attention for just one hour, you'll learn the touches that will have any man begging to be in your bed."
Half the heads on the porch turned her way and two women exchanged winks.
Not satisfied with a fifty-percent success rate, Jess pressed on, determined to make this class an instant smash hit. She had an idea for parlaying one of her planned demonstrations into something that would keep this group talking for weeks.
"In fact, as a bonus for tonight only, I'll be glad to show you firsthand how these techniques play out in real life. With a real man." Capitalizing on the interest of the group, she made the most tantalizing offer she could think of. "If any one of you ladies would like to hunt us down a willing male specimen for practice, I'll demonstrate how quickly the power of touch turns any guy into a smoldering mass of muscle ready to fulfill your every last sensual wish."
A chorus of "oohs" and feminine squeals filled the balcony as the rest of the women spun away from the ocean view. And before she could consider the logistics of what she'd just proposed, two of the ladies shoved their way through their peers toward the exit.
IT HAD BEEN a long time since RicardoRoccoEaston had cause to wear a bow tie. And the last time he'd donned one, the suit had been a hell of a lot more upscale than what he had on now as he worked the generic black neckwear into a knot to complete his waiter's disguise.
Still, his fingers hadn't forgotten the drill and the man in the mirror in his white shirt and tie reminded him of dress whites and
He turned away from the hotel bathroom mirror with an oath, knowing he owed the bout of stupid nostalgia to this place. Coronado Island. He'd avoided this part of San Diego ever since his injury had cost him his spot among the SEALs. He couldn't even look out at the damn view from the glitzy Hotel del Coronado without a wave of memories threatening to drag him under like the surf once had along this same stretch of shore.
But for the sake of investigating the woman who had possibly scammed his car dealer father, Rocco was willing to sacrifice a few hours of mental peace.
He shoved open the bathroom door so hard it banged off the wall behind it, his thoughts of his father's failing mental health upsetting him all over again. His dad had days of clarity and days where he was more than a little muddled, so Rocco didn't know how much stock to put in his claim that he'd been swindled by a beautiful car buyer who had no intention of making a single payment on the vehicle she'd purchased from Easton Luxury Motor Cars.
Possibly his father had his facts wrong. But the preliminary paperwork backed up his statement. Jessica Winslow wasn't making her payments.
And although she was only one personone alleged scam artistshe represented a growing new trend in deception Rocco found abhorrent. There seemed to be a rising willingness in women to use flirtation as a means to commit crimea way to catch men off guard.
If his father had been Jessica's victim, Rocco would see she paid the dealership every cent of the loan she'd been in default on for months. The old man's business had been floundering for the past year and another bad debt could very well close his doors for good.
The injury to Anthony Easton's pride would be even more devastating than the wound to his wallet.
So tonight's mission to learn the truth was instrumental in Rocco's goal to help his father stay independent for as long as possible. And since weeding through a paper trail that might not reveal the full extent of Jessica Winslow's circumstances, Rocco's work tonight would be as up close and personal as hers promised to be, thanks to the free pass a waiter's uniform gave him around the hotel. He'd check out the woman's seminar and see for himself if she was legit.
A feminine voice in the corridor ahead forced his thoughts back to the moment at hand. As he relinquished his strategic planning long enough to take stock of his surroundings, he noticed two elegantly dressed ladies frozen in the middle of the hall, matching pink drinks sloshing around their martini glasses.
At their mutual look of openmouthed surprise he was hard-pressed not to check his fly. More likely, his expression, as he thundered down the hall, had caught them off guard.
Damn it. Had his time away from the SEALs turned his covert operational skills to crap? He schooled his features into something he hoped resembled a smile.
"Ladies." He tossed in a quick bow and then realized that was something waiters only did a hundred years ago.
"Can I help you find anything?"
His words broke the spell and one of thema brunette probably nearing sixty and still smoking hotgrinned like the Cheshire cat.
"As a matter of fact " She turned to her friend with a raised eyebrow as if seeking approval. At the blonde's nod, the dark-haired lady continued, "We've been charged with finding a little help for a demonstration at the workshop we're attending here."
The blonde silently pointed to a door a few feet behind them before leaning in to take a sip of her neon-pink drink.
Jessica Winslow's room. Jessica Winslow's workshop.
He nodded, unable to resist the lure of an open invitation into the very seminar he'd hoped to investigate. Did Ms. Winslow run a legitimate business? He'd look for the vehicle she'd defaulted on after he gathered a little intel on the woman herself. In her case, simply repossessing her SUV wouldn't bring him enough satisfaction if she'd swindled his dad.
Rocco had turned to the recovery business after his doc at a military hospital told him he'd never be fit for the teams again. While repo work wasn't exactly his lifelong dream, he'd figured he could at least help out his father by providing the old man with the service free of charge. He made money off his other clientsrepossessing vehicles from deadbeat debtors. It paid the bills while he figured out what to do with his life now that he couldn't serve his country.
"I'm your waiter for the evening and I'd be happy to help." He didn't offer an arm to either woman, knowing that wouldn't be a waiter's style, but damned if the old cougars didn't each grab an elbow and cling to him like white on rice.
Not that he minded. Their friendly disposition would make it all the easier to wrangle his way into Jessica's turf. Feel out her business practices.
She'd bought an Escalade from his father's car dealership six months ago and had spent an hour in the office dishing about her work and her years in San Diego, treating the old man like a long-lost friend as she casually signed a contract she hadn't made good on. In the normal course of Rocco's business as a recovery agentthe PC term for a repo manhe would have simply repossessed the vehicle. But given that his father's personal trust had been violated by a woman who'd blatantly charmed him into not running an extra credit check, Rocco had decided to give this repossession his personal attention.
Arriving at the suite, the blonde opened the door. Rocco didn't know what to expect exactly from the title of the Winslow woman's workshop: Better in Bed: Reclaiming Your Sensuality. What the hell did that mean? Did she consider herself some sort of sex expert? Bad enough she'd applied feminine wiles to deceive his dad. Now she wanted to teach the art to new disciples?
Less than a dozen people sat around the spacious room as his two new female friends led him inside. The place had been redecorated like some sort of ritzy club. The normally reserved color scheme of the Hotel del Coronado had been smothered in scarlet material while white candles flickered all around. For a minute he wondered what kind of demonstration these chicks had in mind as they all stared at him. The unanimous predatory glances made him wonder if they'd been hunting for some kind of ritual sacrifice victim.
"Well done, ladies."
A woman stepped through the circle to the center of the room, her conservative black suit and messy updo in no way detracting from her blatant sex appeal.