The surfing World Championship Tour is under way, and Sean Westin is desperate to make his mark—until a stupid display of machismo in Bali leaves his shoulder busted. He has six weeks to get back on the waves or he may be looking at the end of his career.
Annie Baxter is the best physical therapist in the business, and she knows it. After almost joining the pro circuit herself, she’s wary of working with big stars and their huge egos. But Sean is making her an incredible offer—full funding for her after-school skate center for underprivileged kids—and she’s finding him hard to resist....
As intense therapy sessions turn into passionate intimacy, Sean unleashes a wild side of Annie that she’s suppressed for years. Only, Sean’s keeping secrets, and when his hidden history comes to the surface, everything—even Annie—might get torn away.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sean Westin had been to physical therapists before. Once, he’d sprained his knee on the North Shore of Hawaii and had to check in with a therapist near his home turf in San Sebastian for three months. But that guy had worked out of a standard, stucco-walled complex across the street from the hospital. The building Sean had just now pulled up in front of was about as far from a medical office as possible.
Sean double-checked his in-dash GPS. Right address. The California bungalow was where he was supposed to show up. The place looked more like a cottage than an office. There was a shallow porch decorated with white wicker chairs and a multitude of potted plants that bloomed green or sprouted pink and blue flowers. Cupolas peeked out of the shingle roof, hinting at a second story. Lining the front of the porch were bushes with purplish pink blossoms the size of Sean’s fist.
Getting out of the car wasn’t pleasant. He moved slowly, bracing himself as he reached to unbuckle the seat belt. Didn’t make a difference. A dull ache of pain spiked from his collarbone and radiated down his shoulder. The black sling he wore inhibited movement. The doctors said he’d need to work on mobility if he wanted to be able to regain his spot on the surfing World Championship Tour in time to keep his place in the top half of competitors.
He wanted to regain his spot.
He wanted to badly. His entire career had been about consistency and determination. He had the skills, and he also had the means to move up.
This should have been Sean’s year. The reigning champion, Tanner Wright, had retired to open a surf school and boink his supersweet girlfriend, so the rankings had all been given a sweet shake-up. If Sean didn’t move into the top ten this year, he’d have to take a good long, hard look at what he was doing. Maybe he wasn’t meant to be the ’CT winner.
Sean wouldn’t allow that. It didn’t fit his plans.
A six-inch plaque by the doorbell confirmed yet again that he was in the right place. The words SANTA BARBARA REHAB were on the first line, with ANNIE BAXTER, DPT inscribed below. But when he rang the doorbell, there was no response. He rang it again, hearing peals echo through the small house.
He wasn’t completely surprised, since he didn’t have an appointment. But he did have information that said Annie Baxter could always be found at her offices on Saturday mornings because she ran an unofficial drop-in program for disadvantaged teenagers.
He sighed, but damned if that didn’t send another spike of pain through him as his shoulders shifted. He ground his back teeth together. He needed to talk to Baxter. It wasn’t too much to expect the doctor to be where she was supposed to be.
A hollow, wooden sound caught his attention. Even though he hadn’t heard the noise in person for at least five or six years, he’d have known it anywhere. Skateboard wheels rolling over wood. More particularly, over a wooden ramp.
It was coming from the back of the house. He followed the echo down the porch stairs, then down a path lined with foxtail grasses that were lush and verdant despite the barely waking spring.
The backyard was skater heaven. The Japanese wave painting Sean could never remember the name of decorated the sloping sides of an empty old-school-style pool. At the far end, a ten-foot-tall half pipe filled the only bit of spare flat area.
A kid dropped his board from the table into the vert, knees bending into the dip. He slipped effortlessly back and forth, getting higher and higher until he finally launched into the air at the other end. He kept it easy, barely touching his board as he flew. He wore a helmet and dark blue hoodie that swallowed his small frame and contrasted with his slim-cut jeans.
Sean waited as patiently as he could until the skateboarder came to earth and drew to a stop. “Hey, bro, have you seen Dr. Baxter?” The skateboarder paused for a second before pulling off the black helmet and turning around. Stubby dark ponytail. Delicate features with wide-set eyes.
Sean immediately rearranged his assumptions. “Sorry, I mean—may I have a moment of your time, Dr. Baxter?”
One finely arched eyebrow lifted even higher. “I don’t deal with pros.”
Being recognized wasn’t anything new for Sean. The first time, he had been at the mall in Brea, eating tacos at the food court, when a couple dudes fell all over themselves talking about his first Prime tour win. And that had been before his pro career really took off, when he’d still been biking himself to the beach on the weekends and returning home to his mother’s filthy house.
He hoped he never really got used to being famous. Because damn, did it still feel good. His chin lifted and he probably smiled some. The hot satisfaction lifted his mood so high that he could almost forget about the constant throb that ached through his shoulder.
“So you know who I am?”
She made a soft little psh sound and tucked her helmet under her arm as she started toward the back door of the house. “Everyone in California knows who you are. And everyone who knows surfing knows you were drunk and shouldn’t have been on the water. Not to mention what the fallout could do to your career.”
That was the downside. Everyone did know what a douche he’d been in Bali. He’d been drinking mai tais with a pretty waitress, and he had taken a rollicking turn toward trouble from that moment. He knew he should never have surfed, but he did it anyway because he was such a fucking sucker for a pretty face.
His fists curled, but he immediately drew a deep breath as he tried to loosen up. Tight meant pain lately. He’d learned his lesson.
“Then you know how desperate I am for help.”
She slanted a gaze at him out of the corners of her eyes, dropping her board to the ground and her helmet to a folding chair. “I’ve heard hints.”
“I have a tweaked collarbone. It’s causing some shoulder impingement. There’s more technical stuff, but I’d have to have the files sent over to you. I have six weeks. I can’t let recovery take any longer than that.”
The laugh she dropped into the air between them sounded almost bitter, and completely disbelieving. Her mouth was small but plump. She was kind of small all over. If she stood next to him, she’d come only to his sternum. “Recovery for a collarbone injury could take up to sixteen weeks. Maybe longer if you’re foolish and push yourself harder than you need to.”
“I can’t allow that long.” He moved toward her, but not too close. Women were delicately balanced creatures, and there was a fine line between charming them and being an icky kind of invasive. “Six weeks keeps me out of competition at Bells Beach and in Rio. I’m missing the Margaret River Pro this very minute. Six weeks means I’m in the water in time for Fiji. I have no choice with Margaret River and Bells Beach, and I’m going to have to choke that up. I can probably even afford zeroing August’s event. Probably. But I have to get back on the ’CT by Fiji. I can’t afford to drop out of the top twenty-two. Considering that I’ll still be in recovery, I’ll have a hard enough time requalifying for next year.”
“I can give you references to three very good physical therapists. They have a practice on the other side of San Sebastian.”
“I don’t want very good. I want the best.” And according to every bit of research he’d culled in the week since his injury, that was Annie Baxter.
But she didn’t give a crap. She wasn’t even bothering to look at him, which was like nails on a chalkboard to Sean. He thrived on attention, and he usually got it. He wasn’t above admitting that.
She pulled the blue sweatshirt off, revealing a cream button-down shirt with minuscule puff sleeves. Even though the blouse was completely feminine, the way it was paired with slim, low-slung jeans emphasized her distinct lack of curves. She had little breasts and boyish hips. Exactly the opposite of Sean’s type, but that didn’t seem to matter when he looked at that mouth of hers. Adorably filthy. “Then you’re screwed.”
But Sean knew there was one thing Dr. Annie Baxter cared a whole hell of a lot about. Finding info on that had been dead easy. He tipped his head down, looking at the petite pixie, and he found himself using his silkiest tone of voice when he said, “Do you want your drop-in center funded?”
Her eyebrows flew up toward her hairline as she whipped back to face Sean. “You’ve got a spare three million sitting around?”
He smirked. Everyone had a price, even if they thought themselves the noble type. It was only a matter of finding it. “I do. Do you want it?”
She gave another of those laughs and stuck her hand out, palm up. “Sure. Right here. You can make the check out to the Clear Ride Foundation.”
“Nothing is free.”
She dropped into one of the wicker seats, hands resting on the arms. Her legs stretched out in front of her, as short as they were. She crossed them at the ankles and laced her fingers in front of her stomach. Her belt buckle was round and yellow, with a black X on it. “You mean to pay me three million for physical therapy for a collarbone injury?”
“Sure. Is that an X-Men belt buckle?”
Bright red washed across her cheeks, making her look both older and younger at the same time in a mix of innocence and chagrin. “I know, I know. I’m a total geek.”
He shrugged, but instantly regretted it when pain smacked him upside the shoulder again. When he pushed too far, the hurt washed all the way through his chest and upper back. He was gonna be schooled out of shrugging right quick. Fuck, he was tired. “I recognized it. That’s gotta be equally geeky.”
She didn’t answer for a long moment, and at first Sean wondered if he’d gone too far. He’d never been a hundred percent sure which side of the social lines he walked. It wasn’t like he’d had a normal childhood, which was when most people learned normal human interactions. He’d come from shit. Literally.
“Do you know why I’m the best?” Her eyes narrowed, and a line knit between her straight brows. “Because I’ll own you. Your diet and your exercise. How many times a week you get to surf. Whether you’ll go running or do a stair stepper. How much you stretch, andprecisely when you do it. How often you see me, or any other anything. Including massages.”
She scoffed. “You’re fucking full of it. This is one of the reasons why I don’t work with pros. You’re too damn full of yourselves. You don’t even stop to question whether you can handle it.”
His impulse was to cross his arms over his chest, but of course that was out. He settled for widening his stance and tucking his hands in the pockets of his slacks. “There’s one thing you don’t understand. I will stay in the ’CT this year. The only question is whether I permanently fuck myself up in the process.”
Her mouth set into a mulish knot, but she pushed out of her chair and stepped toward him. “You’re an arrogant, foolish asshole.”
“I am.” He grinned, because he knew her body language said she was unwillingly intrigued. “But I’m an arrogant, foolish asshole who’s your patient.”
Annie wasn’t sure why she kept arguing ten minutes more. When one protested too much, it took on the distinctive did-not, did-tooflavor of being eight and on the school yard playground all over again. Except that was the problem. Sean Westin made her feel about as self-assured as she’d been at eight. What a massive dork she’d been. Wearing blue kneesocks that were so big on her petite frame she’d had to pull them all the way up to her thighs, and a red corduroy skirt. No girls in the nineties owned corduroy. Ever.
She’d been painfully aware of her lack of coolness. In sixth grade, Elizabeth Manhein, also known as the Perfect Blonde, had teased Annie because she’d been the last one to shave her legs. The cool kids always made sure the not-cool kids knew their status. She’d thought she’d made it by the end of her senior year when she was considering her own pro surf career, but then Terry had cleared up those misapprehensions—and set her right back where she belonged.
So standing less than five feet from Sean Westin—the Sean Westin—made the backs of her knees sweat. It made a ball of nerves twist up and take over her whole stomach. There wasn’t much she could do about it, except hang on to the false bravado she’d cultivated over the past fifteen years.
But goddamn, was he cute. More than that. Gorgeous. Beautiful in a way that was perfectly masculine. His dark hair was the same length as his artfully scruffy beard. His eyes were so crisply blue, they reminded her of the time she’d been to Cancun for spring break. She’d spent most of the trip dreadfully sober since she remembered all too well how vulnerable alcohol made her, and she’d spent her time watching her friends make asses of themselves in bars. Hanging out at the beach during the day had brought back sharp memories of her own near miss of a pro surfing career. The water had been the same perfect blue as Sean Westin’s eyes, and there was something hauntingly beautiful about them.
After another minute or two of arguing, Annie threw up her hands. “Fine. I’ll take you on. You might as well come in and fill out the new-patient paperwork.”
Turning on her heel, she stomped through the back door, wincing when she saw the state of her mudroom. She’d left piles of gear in the corner from the last time she’d led the kids on a hike at San Onofre—and someone had left a stack of swim fins in the giant sink. The laundry room wasn’t much better. She kept donation clothes on hand for any of the drop-in kids who needed them. It was ridiculous how long one of them would wear the same sweatshirt before admitting he didn’t own another one and that was the reason it stank. But that was why Annie hadn’t caught up on laundry in the past nine months.
And she didn’t think she was projecting, but it seemed like she could feel the weight of Sean’s disapprobation like claws digging into her shoulders. He didn’t like what he was seeing. Well, too damn bad, he was the one who’d come to her.
He was the one who’d called her the best. She bit back a little smile at that memory. The past four years of private practice hadn’t been easy. On more than one occasion, she’d been tempted to throw her DPT degree away and run the shelter full-time. Letting someone else direct her practice would have been so much easier than trying to balance all the pieces of her life. But she’d worked damn hard for the privilege of her physical therapy career too.
If Sean didn’t like how messy she kept things, he could suck eggs.
She was thankful the back section of her clinic was much tidier. She pushed open the door to a corridor between consultation rooms, then led him into the front office, which had been created out of a spacious dining room. It was a little unusual to use a residence as an office, but it’d been converted in the seventies by a general practitioner who wanted to work out of his home. Annie hadn’t been able to resist the Craftsman charm. The old GP’s backyard pool had been the absolute capper.
She had drained it straight away.
Fishing her key ring out of her pocket, she unlocked her secretary’s filing cabinet and pulled out a new-patient packet. “Here. Most of these you can take home and fill out, but it’ll be helpful if you could sign a records request from your doctor.”
“Writing isn’t so easy right now.”
She managed not to roll her eyes. “Think around the corner, Sean.”
“I’m right-handed. Exactly what do you want me to do?”
Pulling out the sheet she needed immediately, she laid it out along with a pen that she pulled from a cup on Cynthia’s desk. It had a fake flower taped to it to keep patients from accidentally wandering away with it. “I need it legible, not pretty.”
He opened his mouth as if to protest, but then shut those pretty lips. Wise man. He dug his phone out of the pocket of his slacks. God, even the fact that he wore slacks with an obviously tailored button-down shirt on a Saturday morning meant she shouldn’t be messing with the dude.
She was probably the foolish one. This was ridiculous. She’d had a tiny taste of the pro sports world, and it had been bitter. Awful. She’d stayed away ever since, and she got enough work with regular people who had it hard getting insurance companies to pay for physical therapy. Bending her personal ethics because he was offering such an exorbitant price . . . She didn’t want to think of what that said about her. It probably wasn’t flattering.
Did doing awful things still count for good if she had the right motives behind them? Probably not. There was all that talk about the road to hell being paved with good intentions and the like.
Sean finished the form and pushed it back across the desk. “There. If the doc doesn’t recognize my signature, I guess he can call me.”
“These kinds of forms are often mostly for record keeping.”
“Covering your ass. Lovely,” he said with dry wit. “Isn’t that exactly what I want to hear about the state of my health care?”
She took the sheet and flipped it around, scanning through the information. “The state of your health care is just fine. I know your doctor. He’s good.”
“Like I said, I don’t want good. I want the best.” He said it with a wry smile, one that said he was aware of how arrogant he sounded. He dripped attitude. He was someone who deliberated every step he took and knew how to get what he wanted precisely when he wanted it.
She was going to have a hell of a time tipping his life upside down. Everyone knew about Sean Westin. His ability to be a party boy extraordinaire as well as a championship surfer made him something of a marvel. But now he’d pushed too far. He’d been too reckless. He was going to have to do more than a few stretches to make sure he didn’t lose his grip. “Tell me about the accident.”
“Didn’t you read Nate’s account?”
Nate Coker was his Coyote surfing team comember. The guy had tweeted about Sean’s busted collarbone and had posted a few photos to Instagram. Injury in the days of social media. That wasn’t even counting the bloggers who’d reported on it in the following days. Sean Westin was big business as a man who’d made his face familiar on a household level. At one point, he’d even done national commercials for top-shelf vodka. Pity his career wasn’t keeping up with his moneymaking. He was a midrange surfer. But, of course, being midrange on the World Championship Tour still said a lot.
She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the waist-high customer counter. She wasn’t used to a patient being on this side of the desk. “Humor me. I ask that every patient tell me about the precipitating incident, when possible. It gives me clues about the nature of the injury and also about the nature of the person. The ways to go forward are often myriad. It helps to be able to narrow things down.”
“Anyone ever told you that you’re awfully smart?”
“More times than I can count.”
He hitched one lean hip on the side of the desk. His thumb ran over the seam down the front of his slacks, over and over again. She wondered if he realized the nervous tell, or if he was one of those guys who thought he was perfectly put together at all times. She preferred the men who had at least some level of self-awareness. They were more manageable and didn’t require her to take a baseball bat to their heads.
“I know people think I was drunk, but I wasn’t.” His gaze burned into hers, filled with intensity, almost as if he were willing her to believe him.
As well he might, since her belief was a little bit on short order. “Nate said you’d been drinking in a dive bar.”
“Because he’d been drinking. And I’d had a drink. I’m not going to deny that.”
His mouth set into a flat line. His lips weren’t particularly finely shaped—he was missing much of a bow at the top of his mouth. But there was something about the way he talked. . . . It was almost as if he was considering every single word, though at such a fast clip that most people wouldn’t notice. He was . . . deliberately fast. That was it, as if he were slinging the patois of a carny barker.
“You know what they say about driving. Even one is too many.” She baited him deliberately, trying to see if he’d rise to the occasion. Or if he’d deal calmly.
“I had two over the course of the morning—”
“Morning?” she repeated. “Seems like that’s pretty hard-core if you’re drinking before noon.”
He shook his head. “It was Bali. Beach life. It’s normal to start drinking around ten thirty, because we’d been up since four and would probably crash out at dusk. It’s like life on a deserted island when you’re filming.”
“But your island wasn’t deserted. There was a pretty local girl.”
“Her name was Eoun, and yeah, she was really pretty. But she was really nice too. When a few locals came in and started giving her shit, I stepped in.”
The laugh burst out of her abruptly and awkwardly. She shoved her fingers over her mouth, smashing her lips against her teeth, but she couldn’t hold the laugh in. “Did you challenge them to a surf off?”
He shot her a look from under his brows that said he was much less than amused. “Very funny, Dr. Baxter.”
“Sorry, but I just don’t see the leap from a waitress getting hassled to you injuring yourself surfing.”
“I have a reputation for fighting. I’ve been sanctioned twice.”
“I know,” she said, beaming a slightly obnoxious smile at him. “Trust me. It’s on the mental list I’m compiling of things to address immediately.”
The unimpressed look didn’t go away. “I couldn’t afford to get in a fight. I’m too low in the rankings this year to cope with point penalties from the ASP.”
The Association of Surfing Professionals—Annie knew that one. She didn’t follow the World Championship Tour devotedly anymore, but she knew the ASP still managed it. Sanctions from them would cause any competitor problems, most especially one who was in danger of not making next year’s cutoff. “Fighting is a poor relief for conflict, anyhow. It usually only serves to deepen tensions.”
“You’ve obviously never been on a boat with ten men filming a surf vid for three weeks. Fighting is practically like playing poker. It’s a means of passing the time.”
“Thanks for putting a name to my worst nightmare. I hate violence.”
His mouth tweaked up at the corners. “Certain kinds of violence are recreational.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. There was something about the way he’d said that, giving weight to the phrase, that made her nipples tighten and her stomach turn wobbly with sudden heat. Good Lord, that was such a bad idea, she didn’t even know how to express it. She didn’t need to be sexually attracted to a client. Especially since that client had already put a strange twist on their relationship by offering a fee that verged on bribery.
Business. Therapist and patient and nothing else. She pushed herself back into proper territory. “Get on with the story, please.”
“You’re a hard case, Doc.” But he gave a little nod. “It sounds completely dorky, like a Gidget movie gone wild, but yeah, it practically was a surf off. They were talking smack, and I started talking smack back. I had a stack of borrowed boards anyway, since I’d left my favorites in Australia for the Margaret River Pro. The next thing I knew, we were all out in thirty-foot surf. It was just short of needing a tow-in.”
“You were able to paddle out.” She made a note on a small pad at the counter.
“I was even able to surf one wave. Then a second. But it was the third one. I dropped off the lip too hard and came down on the front. My knee twisted, and my board slipped. I free-fell into the front of the wave.”
“I assume that wasn’t enough on its own to cause the injury?”
He shook his head. “I had my arm out for balance. The wave pulled me one way while the ocean sucked me down.”
“Were you concussed?”
“No. I didn’t black out either. I remember every second of the pain.”
“Did you receive treatment in Bali?” She scribbled more on the pad, but she wasn’t really taking much in the way of notes. Every word of his story was scratched with more than just his pain—his determination and fire snapped through every word. She was doing her best to keep her head in the right frame of mind and not watch his eyes burn.
“Some first aid, but Coyote flew me back to the States as soon as possible.”
“Good enough.” She capped her pen. “Mr. Westin, I look forward to the next eight weeks.”
He leaned forward, coming away from the desk. His shoulders were wide underneath his pale blue button-down shirt. The sling did nothing to dent his image. He hadn’t taken even a nibble of her bait when she’d pushed him about the initial incident, but at this he suddenly seemed like a live wire. “Six weeks. I need time to get my game together.”
“Eight,” she replied calmly. “I won’t promise you six. My program will be intensive, difficult, and, as it is, shorter than I’d like it to be.”
He bit back a sigh. The lines of his neck were sharp as blades. “Then I suppose you should call me Sean. It seems like we’re going to be spending a lot of time together.”
Sean knew he had issues. Plenty of them. Well, even that was hedging it a bit. More like he had a duffel’s worth of issues wedged into an overnight bag. Things were busting out at the edges.
Like the fact that he didn’t want Annie in his house. It wasn’t anything personal against her. Actually, she seemed pretty cool so far. Less like a stuffy doctor and more like a . . . life coach, maybe. She was slightly snarky, and it almost seemed like her sarcasm oozed out around her words unintentionally. Sean liked that. His strange upbringing meant he sometimes missed that people put up false fronts. He took them at face value, accepting their word that they were exactly the person they presented themselves to be. If he believed the faces he was presented with, people would give him the same courtesy. And he’d had plenty of secrets to keep as a kid and into his teen years.
Which was still related to not wanting anyone in his place. He was sitting on the cement brick wall that lined his short driveway before it dipped into the underground garage. His legs bounced, heels lifting off the backs of his flip-flops. The fingers of his left hand sought purchase on the wall at his hips, but each digit only scraped over the concrete. He had a bad habit of biting his nails to the quick.
Telling himself to get a fucking grip didn’t help much. The front of his house wasn’t designed to be useful for pacing, but he pushed up from his seat anyway. He managed, going ten feet one way by picking around carefully balanced beach plants chosen to emphasize the local habitat. He’d paid a lot for the gardening. He’d paid a lot for the house, too, so it had seemed only fair.
He liked his place. It was custom built, and he’d picked everything from the land to the roof plus everything in between. The labor of love had been done long distance as he traveled to Bali and Teahupoo and Indo during construction. There had been walk-throughs when he was in town, and making decisions via Skype when he wasn’t.
It was kind of ironic that he’d put so much effort into a home, considering what had once happened to the house he’d grown up in.
Annie’s surprisingly beat-up Nissan Pathfinder pulled in alongside the curb. The SUV had once been dark red, but its fading topcoat made it look closer to gray, and the back right window had a two-foot-long crack running through it. When she hopped out, Annie craned her neck to take in the full view of the tall, narrow-fronted beach house.
“Nice ride, Doc,” he drawled. It came out more sarcastic than he’d intended, but that was probably his nerves coming through. “At least I know my three million won’t be wasted on fast cars and loose women.”
She leveled a dark-eyed gaze at him. Her eyebrows lifted; then her lashes flicked back toward her SUV. “Maybe not fast cars. But I don’t think we’ve ruled out loose women, have we?”
He choked down the laugh that sprang up from nowhere, but he wasn’t sure why he bothered. She made him laugh. That ought to be a good thing. But there was something about her that left him slightly on guard and unable to drop his defenses. She was his therapist, and there would be forced proximity to navigate. She wasn’t one of his usual, no-strings-attached sort of girls.
Why he was thinking even slightly in that direction he had no idea. She was about as far from those usual girls as possible. He liked them tall, so they looked appropriately dramatic when he walked the red carpet with one on his arm. Their blond hair helped balance his darkness when it came to the surfer image he carefully cultivated. He didn’t look like a world championship surfer . . . and Annie didn’t look like a world championship surfer’s date.
In fact, she looked more like one of the street kids she sheltered at her center than anything else. Another pair of skinny jeans clung to her narrow hips. Her hoodie was still a dark color, but this time it had a silk screen that suggested a female comedy duo for presidential election. Sean would vote for them, considering the newest scandal pushing through Congress lately. They seemed more legit to him.
“You’re too casual for loose women,” he pointed out. “They wouldn’t take a second look at you.”
“Not you, though, right, Sean?” She meandered up the short walkway. “You’re just right for that type.”
“Maybe they’re just right for me.”
“Are you going to let me in?”
He kept his smile as casual as he could, but there was no denying his flinch. Christ, he needed to suck it up. He reached past her to push open the door. She was little, coming only to the top of his chest, but her spine never bent. She was steel and wire as they were knotted together in the small alcove. Her chin lifted up farther.
“I’m still not sure why this is necessary,” he groused.
She sailed past him into the foyer. Her hair was caught up in another of those snubby ponytails, but the front was a dark fringe that hung into her eyes and covered her ears. She glanced back over her shoulder, but he barely got more than a flash of brown eyes completely ringed in black eyeliner and a smudge of black shadow. “If you’re going to start arguing at this point, I might as well walk away.”
She shook her head, shoving her hands in her back pockets. She stood in the middle of his living room, where slanted ceilings drew the eye to two-story windows. Though she wore shiny black boots, they had a little rim of pink between the top and the sole and pink laces up the front. “This isn’t going to work like that, Sean. You’re donating the cash to my center. Your choice. If it doesn’t come from you, I’ll go back to my five-year plan. No harm, no foul. I’m not going to become your lapdog because of the money.”
“Seems a shame. You’re about the size of a lapdog.”
Her head tilted to the side, that dark brown hair shifting. “You’re being childish. Is your injury causing you any problems? Does your shoulder hurt?”
His first impulse was to tell her to fuck off. He was being childish because she pushed him to extreme responses. She was standing here. In his house.
But since hitting adulthood, he’d made a conscious decision to not lie. He’d been so desperate throughout his childhood that he’d been forced to lie all the time. Constantly. Every breath in lunchrooms and at recess had been a lie while he pretended that everything was just fine, absolutely normal.
He didn’t lie anymore. “Hurts like a son of a bitch. I tried to roll over when I woke up, before I remembered what an idiot I was.”
“Not your best moment. Have you taken anything?”
He shook his head. “I don’t like the pills. They’re strong.”
“They’re strong for a reason. Because the pain is strong. Where do you keep them?”
That was enough for her. She spun on one booted heel and marched toward the back of the house, peeking in every room as she went. The kitchen was sleek and clean. The cabinets were glassed in, with an edge of chrome. He’d considered wood but wanted to avoid a cutesy feel. Even the fridge was glass-fronted, with stainless steel drawers beneath for the freezer.
Annie whistled. “Jesus. Between the size of this joint and this room, I don’t even want to think about how much your maid service runs.”
“I have a housekeeper.”
Her mouth tucked into a smile on one side. “That doesn’t really surprise me, somehow. Is she a little old lady with gray hair who leaves a cake out on your birthday?”
He snagged the bottle of pills from the cabinet next to the six-burner stove and leaned against the waist-high butcher-block-topped island. “Actually, she’s a he. A twenty-seven-year-old guy named Keiji who usually leaves a bottle of Patrón out on my birthday. He’s not one for cake, but he makes a really fucking killer chicken alfredo.”
“Yeah. Okay, I suck for that one. Stereotypes for the win.” She winced and sighed, rubbing her fingertips over her brow. “Ugh, I feel like shit now.”
He touched his knuckles to her upper arm in the gentlest punch ever. “Nah, don’t be so hard on yourself. I know Keiji is unusual. When I put out an ad for a housekeeper, I was expecting a little old lady too. Keiji was putting himself through his second year of college at UC Irvine and needed the money badly. Now he’s worked for me for eight years.”
“He stuck around after he was finished with school?”
“I pay really well.” As well he should. Sean’s standards were crazy high, and he liked his things in a particular order. Keiji had come with Sean from a rented apartment on Twelfth Street to this house once it had been built. Disruption was unnecessary.
Seemingly without thinking, she grabbed a glass from one of the open-view cabinets and filled it with cool tap water. She set it in front of him, took the pill bottle from his hands, and then consulted both the dosage instructions and her watch. “It’s seven thirty. If one isn’t enough, you can have one more at eight thirty, as needed. Otherwise about an hour after lunch.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he teased. But when she tipped one capsule into the lid and held it out to him, he took it obediently. “I just don’t like how fuzzy they make me.”
“If you don’t take them, your body has to concentrate on mitigating pain rather than healing itself. You’ll only delay the process. If you hurt, you take them. End of story.”
“You’re a bossy little thing.”
She grinned. “You bought bossy with your three mil. Feel like a good bargain?”
His smile surged up in response to hers. “Depends. What are you doing here at half past seven?”
“We’re going to have a purge.” She opened the door next to the fridge, obviously banking on its being a pantry. “Normally I’m an advocate of balanced living, including balanced eating. But if you want immediate results, you’re going to have to concentrate on a diet that operates at the highest possible nutrition level.”
She was right, but his pantry was basically stripped bare compared to the average person’s stores. Sean didn’t cook much, preferring to dine out at expensive restaurants. When he was home, he asked Keiji to cook with locally sourced, fresh products. It kept things easier, with the added benefit of avoiding stockpiling too much of anything in his house. “You’re not going to find a secret stash of Little Debbies, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
She flashed a cheeky smile over her shoulder. “Little Debbies are your weakness, huh? I’ll have to remember that for an end-of-treatment celebration.”
He could think of something else she could give him for an end-of-treatment prize. Maybe something involving the ass she was showing off by bending at the waist to look at the lower shelves of his pantry. It was a small ass but sweetly curved enough for his hand. He had the instant, absurd impulse to pat her.
Wouldn’t that go over well? She’d probably punch him. Or maybe he’d get off lucky and she’d just walk out, probably with several snarky comments. He hid his involuntary chuckle against a loose fist.
She jerked upright. “What was that?”
“Nothing. What are you looking for?”
“No particular item. I’m trying to get an idea of your general taste and where we can proceed from here.” She poked around in his fridge next, and that made his back teeth set on edge. He wasn’t used to anyone touching his stuff. Which, Christ, sounded way too much like his mother talking inside his head. He took a slow, deep breath and pushed it out again. This was no big deal. Nothing to worry about.
Possessions were simply objects, nothing more. They weren’t memories in solid form, and they had only the emotions people imbued them with. That was it.
Pity his mom had never been able to think of them like that.
Annie had never been in a house quite like this one. It was . . . gorgeous. There were no two ways about it. Sleek and modern, every line was intentionally chosen for maximum impact. Glass glittered everywhere, but it didn’t make the space feel cold. Touches like the butcher-block-topped island stretching seven feet through the center of the kitchen warmed the rooms. An abstract mosaic with Moroccan flavor topped the archway leading into the dining room.
The contents of the kitchen had been a different kind of surprise. She’d expected plenty of junk food, metabolized by his obviously devoted surfing career and crammed in among dinners out. Most of the pros she knew from her days before school had been like that. They’d justified eating crap and drinking their brains out by the fact that they surfed or swam or skateboarded five hours a day. They didn’t take into account the long period spent chilling on their boards, floating on the water as they waited for the “perfect” set, or the long-term detriment to their cholesterol, kidneys, and liver. Especially their livers, considering the drinking.
She’d been there. She surfed with the best of them, for a while. The levels of indulgence were infuriating.
She should know. When she was fifteen, she’d been seduced by the bright lights of going pro. There was a well-trod path to the goal of sponsorship. She’d kept on that track for three years.
Getting screwed over in an epic way tended to clean the stars out of a girl’s eyes.
It wasn’t as if a gorgeous house like this would have come if she’d gone pro, anyway. The women’s circuits had less than twenty percent of the prize money of the men’s World Championship Tour. She’d have been fighting for accolades and attention, and that wasn’t enough for her, considering the costs demanded in return. She needed more.
She needed to do more.
So she’d used surfing to nail a scholarship to UC San Diego. While she was there, she’d surfed her ass off in the National Scholastic Surfing Association for her team . . . but once she was done, she was done. She’d walked away from any hint of pro surfing and taken her shiny new degree off to med school. It had been the right thing.
Pro surfers had drive that took them to a higher level—and mowed over everyone around them on the way up.
But Jesus, if it got them houses like this, maybe she’d made the wrong choice. “Where do you keep the alcohol?”
He was so annoyingly smug sometimes. He slung a thumb in the pockets of his perfectly tailored slacks. “Why do you assume I have booze?”
She shot him a look that said she wasn’t born yesterday. “Puh-leeze. You’re Sean Westin. You’re in the tabloids every other month, photographed at expensive clubs, with expensive women and expensive booze.”
“Don’t assume. Who’s to say those glasses aren’t filled with tea? Or tonic water with lime?”
Her stomach dropped. Had she misjudged him? She’d gotten enough of that shit herself, people who assumed her slightly tomboy look meant she was gay or butch or a shoplifter or antisocial. It sucked, but she’d learned the hard way that living for other people just wasn’t worth it.
But then he broke into a laugh. Lines spilled out from the corners of his eyes. “No, I totally drink. No sainthood here. There are two bars in the place. A wet bar in the study and a less formal one on the lanai.”
“Let’s start at the lanai,” she replied dryly. Keeping up with him had her on her toes, and that wasn’t only referring to matching his long-legged stride.
At least following behind him meant that she could check out his ass. While she was fully aware that ass checking was the last thing in the world she should be doing as his physical therapist, it was a little difficult to strip her gaze away from that tight curve. His slacks were a fine material that pulled taut over his bum when he twisted open the sliding glass door. Damn, he dressed nicely.
If professional surfers usually dressed like he did, maybe she’d been hanging out with skaters too long. Her friends all wore board shorts and cargoes. Sometimes jeans appeared if the weather dipped below forty-five degrees. None of them had button-downs like the one stretched across Sean’s shoulders. He was insanely fit, which went to show poor choices could make even the most fit susceptible to injury.
Man, she was going to have a hard time keeping herself together when he was undergoing physical therapy. At least she didn’t have to be the one to administer it herself. She’d be a horrible therapist if this was how she looked at patients.
Not that any of them looked like Sean Westin.
Not that any of the men in the entire world looked like Sean Westin.
Annie’s whole living space could fit into Sean’s lanai. Considering that she lived on the upper floors of the same building that held her business, it wasn’t saying that much, but she suddenly realized why this room was called a lanai instead of a patio. It had a roof, for one thing, and walls along two sides, though they were open-framed and lined with Japanese-style screens that would be enough to keep a neighbor from peeking at anything going on inside.
The furniture was low to the ground and upholstered in pale white cottons to match the screens. They’d be the perfect chairs for Sean to throw himself into after a hard surfing session. The bar wasn’t hidden along a back wall, but instead installed as a central feature. It looked like something from a Blade Runner set, sleek black and knee-high with a recessed door in the center that was likely a fridge. The round arrangement would allow guests to grab what they wanted instead of having a designated bartender.
All of it paled compared to the space where the third wall would have been. Except anyone who’d put up a wall there would have to be smoking something made out of sinus medicines in the back bedroom of a trailer.
Excerpted from "Ahead in the Heat"
Copyright © 2015 Lorelie Brown.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Praise for the Pacific Blue Novels
“Hot summer waves and deep inner turmoil mark this sexy contemporary romance about betrayal and second chances, the first in a series. Sex scenes suffused with pulse-pounding intimacy nicely frame this escapist love story.”—Publishers Weekly
“A must-read for the summer and a sheer delight from start to finish. With a colorful supporting case and a stunning backdrop of sun, sand and surf, this romance makes the most of every single moment.”—RT Book Reviews (4 ½ Star Top Pick)
“Riding the Wave is a book you don’t want to miss! It has it all . . . hot-as-hell hero and heroine, intense chemistry both in and out of the bedroom, and sharp, witty dialogue. Tanner and Avalon’s story will enthrall you one minute, and then tug on your heartstrings the next. I loved this book, and I think you will, too.”—New York Times bestselling author Deirdre Martin