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GAGE MAGUIRE watched Sugar twist the dial on the vibrating water bed so it started up a rhythmic rocking that would have given a stone statue hot thoughts.
Lately, around Sugar, even mundane moments did that to him—balancing their budget, clearing a copier jam, accepting a shake of Tic Tacs. Three days with her at the Sextique International Expo checking out erotic products for their resort had been pure hell.
And now they lay body to body on a vibrating bed. His usually sturdy defenses were failing him—had been ever since his amicable breakup with Adrienne two weeks ago. It was not the breakup per se, but something Adrienne had said.
You're in love with your partner, you big dope. She'd shaken her head at him as though he were blind or stupid. Maybe both.
He'd scoffed then. And later, when he thought about it. How could he be in love with Sugar? Sure, they'd been attracted to each other when they met twelve years ago in college, but they'd wisely ignored it. Sugar always had a boyfriend and Gage wasn't interested in elbowing his way to the front of the line.
And, yeah, there'd been a flare-up when they became partners six years ago, but they'd sensibly squelched that. Since then, the sparks had been muted, like fireworks through clouds. Nothing he couldn't handle. Until now.
Sugar rolled toward him, a breath away on the shivering sheets. "Would that turn you on?" she teased, her green eyes glowing, big and luminous as a cat's. She reminded him of one—sensual and quick, purring with pleasure, then dashing away at the slightest noise. And she never came when you called. "Maybe not you," she amended, "but most guys."
She harassed him about his self-control, a trait that had served him well for the six years they'd been partners.
"If you're into paint spinners." He fought to keep the tension out of his voice.
"Good point." She turned it down a notch, then fell back beside him on the roiling surface, their arms rubbing gently together. "Better?"
Just great. The new rhythm suggested serious thrusting. "Fine, Sugar."
"I can't tell. Maybe it takes an all-night test."
Good Lord, no. "I think I'm getting the idea."
Maybe the problem was his birthday—tomorrow he'd be thirty-five. A benchmark year and about time for the other shoe to drop in his life. He felt as though he'd been holding his breath for years.
"You think so?" Sugar's voice vibrated with the mattress.
"Yeah." Just to prove he was still in control, Gage pushed up on his elbow and looked down at her.
Just look at her. His heart punched his lungs so hard he couldn't haul in a breath. Her breasts jiggled gently under the clingy top, her black hair brushed his arm, but it was her face that got to him. It was sturdy, yet delicate, with a small nose, soft, mobile mouth and huge green eyes lit with intelligence and a no-bullshit gleam. And fire. Lots of fire.
"More like a MixMaster on low, don't you think?" she said, her easy smile going smart-ass in a heartbeat. Sweet with a bite, that was his Sugar—like a margarita with that scorpion sting of tequila whapping you a good one up the back of the head.
"Maybe." He couldn't take his eyes off her. What was going on with him? Was he in love with her?
"A gentle sway would be better." Sugar turned to adjust the dial, but when she rolled back, she misjudged the wave and landed right on top of him, breasts pressed against him, thick hair a curtain between their faces. She smelled of vanilla and skin and the spearmint gum she favored.
"Wow," she said, her face going pink, her eyes flickering with startled heat. She seemed to melt into him.
"Yeah. Wow." Emotion rose and rushed through him on a wave of heat and need. And more. Something bigger and more important.
Dammit all, he was in love with her.
Now what? He had to think, figure it out, decide. But Sugar shivered against him and licked her trembling lips, making him lose all reason.
Are you crazy? Gage didn't go with momentary urges. He pondered options, evaluated outcomes, made the wisest choice.
Kiss her, you ass.
Acting on impulse, he touched Sugar's cheek, lifted his mouth, and—
"Enjoying the Good Vibrations?" The bonehead salesman loomed over them, eager and unctuous. "I guarantee the Good Vibrations 3000 is the best bed on the market today."
"We're not sure about the levels," Sugar said, rolling to look at the guy. She sounded relieved to be interrupted.
"It's hard to tell in such a short time."
"We do offer a thirty-day, money-back trial," the rep said, practically rubbing his hands together.
While the doofus and Sugar discussed that possibility, Gage sorted his thoughts. He was in love with Sugar. When had that happened? A while back? Years ago maybe? Had he just blocked it?
And what should he do about it? Hope it would pass? Or take action? Go for it? He had to do something. First, he had to get rid of Mr. Good Vibrations.
"We'll let you know," Gage snapped at the guy, who backed up as though Gage had aimed a pistol at his belly.
When the salesman was out of hearing, Sugar shot Gage a look. "Too pricey, you think?" She scooted off the bed and pretended to study the price sheet. He knew she was avoiding the moment. "Our guests prefer to make their own tsunamis anyway, right?"
He didn't speak, just watched her from the swaying mattress.
"Shall we check out the sex toys then take a break?" she asked, her voice breathless and high. She was freaked.
"Think I'll skip the gadgets." He wasn't capable of movement, even if he wanted to pretend everything was normal.
"You okay?" she breathed, standing at the edge of the bed.
"Not bad." For someone who'd mentally been run down by a Mack truck. He was in love with his partner. Probably had been for years. "You go on. I'll try a couple more speeds on this thing." He made as if to reach for the dial.
"So, birthday dinner in your room?"
"Eight sharp. I already ordered the meal." They always celebrated their week-apart birthdays together and tonight was the night.
"Good." She blew out a breath, obviously intending to do what they always did when things heated up, treat it like sparks on a carpet—a sharp jolt, quickly over.
Not this time. The decision swelled in him, as inevitable as a wave in this water bed. This time he would do something.
Sugar faltered, bit her lip, turned away, then back, confused and unsure. So not Sugar. Sugar was sure about everything. She had more opinions than any woman he'd known. They argued constantly, though she liked to call their swordfights discussions. Sugar claimed that was how they got to the core truths. He found the process wearying, but worth it.
But just now, Sugar didn't know what she wanted with him and that gave Gage a strange hope. She wiggled her fingers and backed away, shaky in the silk she wore. She belonged in silk. Or maybe leather.
He'd seen her admiring a red leather skirt and jacket in the hotel gift shop. That would have been a much better birthday gift than the PDA he'd bought to replace her failing one. Too late.
Or maybe not. Maybe tonight was the night to act on impulse. Maybe tonight he'd violate his very nature and not think this thing into the ground. He'd buy the outfit and tell her how he felt.
Almost as if she'd read his mind, Sugar spun and fled as if fearful he'd chase her. He'd almost been ready to. He turned off the damn water bed and lay there, swaying softly, trying to settle himself the hell down.
It wasn't too late to forget the attraction. They'd done it before. He didn't have to rock the boat.
But he couldn't go back. The truth had hit him too hard. It all made painful sense. Sugar was the reason none of his girlfriends worked out, why the settled life he craved had proved so elusive. This was the other shoe he'd been waiting for and it dropped inside him like a gravity boot.
It had always been Sugar. Her laughter rang in his head like the purest music. He loved the way her wild ideas knocked his plodding thoughts clean off their tracks. She threw open doors where he'd only seen walls.
She revved him up, made him run on guts and testosterone, made him want to give her anything she wanted, hell, the world. She made him feel alive.
And he was in love with her.
He had to talk to her about it.
Over their birthday dinner? Sure. He'd go gently, the way you coaxed a cat onto your lap. Sugar treated the R word like it smelled bad and the L word like poison.
Let's see what can happen between us. That sounded about right—easy and casual and fun—not threatening at all.
The Sextique International Expo might not be the best venue for a declaration of love, but they were here, dinner was arranged and he was a practical guy.
He'd get flowers and buy her that red leather outfit. Maybe before the night was out, he'd be peeling her out of it...or ripping it off her.
However she wanted it. He just wanted her. In his bed, in his life. Sometimes a bold move was the most sensible, rational, reasonable thing to do.
But all the while, he felt the dangerous tug of a crazy undercurrent. There was nothing sensible, rational or reasonable about falling in love with Sugar.
SUGAR STUMBLED AWAY from the water bed booth toward the long table of sex toys, so dazed she could hardly see, let alone think. What the hell had just happened?
Looking down at Gage on that water bed, she'd felt as if someone had opened an oven in her face. Hugely, impossibly hot.
They'd been through this, Gage and she. They'd pushed past the college crush, then cleared the air for good on the Night of the Mad Margaritas. The resort's grand opening had been in the morning and they'd sucked down one too many celebratory drinks and leaned into an embrace that felt inevitable until their operations manager had snapped the tension with a cell call over a last-minute issue.
They'd laughed in relief, agreed that sleeping together was not worth the risk to their partnership. It had been the mood, the moment, the magic.
They'd agreed, dammit.
But just now, he'd looked at her that way and she'd liked it. A lot.
That was all wrong. Gage was not only her partner, he was her best bud, the person who held her hand through bad times—her mother's cancer scare, her father's roller-coaster relationships, her sister's rocky divorce and her own occasional blues. Gage was a great listener, wise and funny and so different from her that his comments felt like a window of fresh air opened in a stuffy room.
She counted on Gage and he counted on her. She'd thought he did, anyway. She glanced back at him, lying on that damnable bed. Her insides still vibrated—as if someone had banged a tuning fork against her innards. Not from the bed, from Gage and the way he'd looked at her. As if he'd been waiting for her all his life. As if she and no one else would do.
Her knees gave way a little.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
She turned, bit her lip, fought the stupid, impossible surge of joy. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Pointless, really.
To distract herself, she focused on the sex-toy table. The arousing items seemed like so much silly plastic after those blazing hot seconds on that paint-spinner of a water bed with Gage.
Birthday dinner in your room? she'd said. In his room. Where there was a bed.
Her blood felt so hot that every heartbeat sent a burn to the tips of her fingers and toes and out the top of her head.
Maybe she was simply, well, horny. She'd been between men for months now, though she hadn't really thought about it. Which was odd, since, at thirty-five, she was supposed to be at a sexual peak.
She'd peaked all right—or come close just now. With Gage. Her partner. Her friend. Off-limits since forever.
What was she thinking?
Maybe it was Esmeralda's psychic command zipping around in her brain. You must see what you've ignored. The advice irritated Sugar. Just because she kept moving, aimed forward, didn't mean she ignored what mattered.
She hadn't missed the important stuff with Gage. What they had was far more important than any affair could offer. And that's all it would be—a fast fling that would burn bright then fizzle to ashes.
Gage was a wonderful man, but Sugar never wanted any man for very long. She didn't seem to have the happy-ever-after gene. Not great news, but it was better to accept who she was than fight it or whine about it.
Still, that moment on the water bed had filled her heart with an ache for something she hadn't thought possible, something that might be there for her if she would reach out and grab it.