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"I'm almost there," Alex said. "Fashionably late, as always."
The voice of his best friend, Will Taylor, sounded through the Bluetooth-enabled sound system of his Corvette. "I'm not really worried. Just wanted to make sure you remembered how to get here."
"I'm making the last turn now," Alex lied. He was at least another fifteen minutes from the house in Sag Harbor, but it would soothe his friend's concerns. This was supposed to be a vacation. The Fourth of July was one of those laid-back holidays with no obligations. There were no schedules, so he couldn't possibly be late. "Is everyone else already there?" he asked.
Alex hesitated before asking one last question. "Did Gwen end up bringing someone with her?" It was a dangerous question to ask, but he had to know. He'd rearranged his entire schedule to come out here because she would be there.
"No, she came alone. She rode up with us this morning."
Excellent, Alex thought, although he didn't speak the word aloud. As far as he could tell, no one, including Will and Adrienne, knew about what had happened between him and Gwen last fall. So of course they wouldn't understand his interest in seeing her again. Or his burning desire to have her in his bed every night for the next five days of this trip.
"So what does that make? Ten of us?" Alex tried not to sound like he was fishing. "That's a nice, round number. I'm glad she was able to take the time off. I haven't seen her since the wedding, but I figured Adrienne would have her up for the holiday."
Will made a thoughtful sound but didn't elaborate. "We'll see you shortly then."
"Bye," Alex said, pressing the button on his steering wheel to terminate the call. Easing back into the soft leather seat, he gripped the wheel tightly and pressed his foot down on the pedal to accelerate.
Gwen would be with them in the Hamptons this week. Alone.
He'd been hopeful, but he hadn't let himself ask until now. The two weeks they'd spent together after Adrienne and Will's wedding had been incredible. She was the smartest, funniest, sexiest woman he'd ever been with. It had been quite the pleasant surprise to find such an intriguing woman in such a small package. But to underestimate the spark inside that petite frame was a serious mistake. She was a firecracker in bed and out.
Their two weeks together had flown by, and before he knew it, he'd had to leave for New Orleans. Like all his relationships, it was short and without strings. Just a fun, sexy fling. But unlike most of the women he dated, Gwen hadn't wanted any more than that. She didn't eye his bank account or bare ring finger with burning ambition. She was just in it for a good time. He got the feeling she was busy, just as he was, and didn't want the complication of something serious. It was perfect.
So perfect he was hoping she'd be up for another round.
Apparently their short time together had not been enough for Alex to get his fill of Gwen. He typically grew bored with a woman after a few dates. If they pushed for more, he pushed the end button on his cell phone. He was always open about it, but most women seemed to think they might be the one to tame him. None had come close.
At best, Gwen had managed to stay on his mind amid the distractions. For the last seven months, Alex had been working on a new real estate development project in New Orleans that had sucked up a lot of his free time. Despite everything, thoughts of her would occasionally sneak into his brain while he was sitting in a boring meeting or lying in his bed at night. She'd even slipped into his thoughts as he'd trolled Bourbon Street. After their time together, it seemed that none of the women he met, especially in a setting like that, were up to par. Night after night he'd slink back to his hotel, alone.
Alex just couldn't shake the memory of Gwen. The soft caress of her hands across his stomach, the scent of her lavender shampoo, the sharp sass of her wit wrapped in the soft contrast of the Tennessee accent that came out when she was flustered
Another week together ought to get her out of his system. Then he could get back on the prowl and reaffirm his reputation as a notorious bachelor.
Now that his project had gotten rolling, he could take a step back and let Tabitha and his management team run the show. When he and his friend Wade had started their first real estate development business, they'd been hands-on, start to finish. Now that he'd spun off and had the money to hire talented staff, he could do what he wanted and keep from getting bogged down in the details. He was looking forward to more time to play than he'd had in a long time. A few days in the Hamptons for the Fourth of July holiday was a great way to kick it off.
Alex turned onto the road that would lead to Will and Adrienne's waterfront vacation estate. Adrienne had concluded the family's ten-thousand-square-foot summerhouse was far too large for just the two of them and decided to make an event out of it. About eight other people would be joining them this week for some relaxation and fun.
At first, he hadn't planned to come, but when he realized Gwen would be there, too, he'd changed his mind. Although they'd agreed not to contact each other, there was a part of him that wished she had texted him every now and then. He missed the sound of her laughter and her bright smile. A few days with her could scratch that itch.
What he hadn't known until now was whether Gwen was bringing someone with her. He was hoping she would be up for Fling 2.0, but he couldn't be sure. If she'd shown up with another man, this would have been a long, boring week of clambakes, pool parties and cold beds.
A small, worn wooden sign marked the circular driveway to the house. Alex slowed his Corvette and turned in, pulling behind a Range Rover and a silver Mercedes convertible.
He popped his fist against the horn to announce his arrival and climbed out of the car. His khakis and polo shirt had been a touch too warm in the city, but near the water there was a nice breeze making it cooler and much less humid. Perfect for being outside.
"Alex!" Adrienne called out from the front porch.
"Will, Alex is here."
She started down the steps to greet him, and Alex noticed that his best friend's bride was looking as lovely as ever. She wore a pair of denim shorts with a light green sleeveless blouse tucked in, and her dark hair was pulled into a ponytail, her complexion a bit pink from the sun. To see her now, you'd never know she'd once survived a plane crash and undergone multiple reconstructive surgeries.
As Adrienne held out her arms to hug him, only the thin, white line of a scar up her left forearm remained. Alex pulled her into his embrace and gave her a tight squeeze. He'd been so busy lately he really hadn't seen much of them, either. In his business, it was feast or famine. Either he was working almost nonstop for months at a time, or he was home, freewheeling while his manager, Tabitha, handled the rest. The project in New Orleans was a big one and sucked up more of his time than he had expected.
"Do you need help with your bags?" she asked. "Will is out back fighting with the new grill."
The thought of Will grilling brought a smile to Alex's face. They'd likely starve or call in a caterer before the trip was over. "Nope," he said, pulling a duffel bag from the passenger's seat. "This is all I have."
"I'll show you to your room, then."
Alex followed Adrienne and her flip-flops into the house and up the grand, circular staircase that wrapped around the living room. They traveled down a long, white hallway with alternating doorways and artwork on each side.
"Here it is," she said, opening the door and waving him inside.
Alex went in and tossed his bag down on the queen-size sleigh bed that dominated the room. The bed was covered in an intricately designed quilt and large, fluffy pillows. The light oak wood of the bed matched the tall dresser and bedside stand. There was a flat-screen television, an overstuffed chair and ottoman, and a ceiling fan turning gently to keep air circulating. Honestly, it was far nicer than the hotel room he'd been living in the last few months in New Orleans, and he'd paid quite a bit for the privilege.
"You have your own bathroom," Adrienne said, gesturing toward a door on the far wall.
"Great. Where is everyone else staying?" Alex wanted to know exactly how far he might have to go in his underwear to get back from Gwen's room before everyone woke up. If he was lucky, it was her door he could see across the way.
"Emma, Peter and Helena are staying down the hall. Sabine, Jack and Wade are in those rooms across from you. Will and I have the suite downstairs, and Gwen's room is just off the kitchen."
Damn. She was about as far from his room as lo-gistically possible. Just great. That would make sneaking around quite a bit more difficult. Alex tried not to frown. He didn't need Adrienne asking questions.
"Looks like I have everything I need, then."
"Great. I'll let you get settled, and we'll see you downstairs."
Adrienne slipped out of the room, leaving him alone. He heard the dull slap of her footsteps down the wooden staircase, then pulled back the curtains and watched for her to step out onto the patio. He could see Will out there, hovering over the stainless steel grill that was built into the L-shaped outdoor kitchen they'd added since his last visit. Adrienne kissed him on the cheek and assisted him in investigating the mysteries of the new cooktop.
With the coast clear, he unzipped his bag and pulled out a bottle of wine and a bundle of crimson roses he'd picked up for Gwen on his way out of town. His father had always taught him that a gift was never a bad way to start off on the right foot, especially with women. Alex would've gotten her some jewelry, but the last time he'd tried, she'd pretty much laughed in his face. To avoid a repeat, he'd opted for something a little more low-key. With Gwen, he'd learned he had to strike a balance between thoughtful, nice and too expensive.
Hiding them behind his back, he headed downstairs in search of Gwen's room. He'd stayed in that bedroom a few years back at another summertime Taylor gathering, so now he easily found it near the laundry room and kitchen, tucked away in a remote corner. At one time, it had been the maid's quarters.
The door was halfway open. From his vantage point, he could see an open suitcase lying on the bed. Alex approached the entry and poked his head around the corner. Gwen was putting clothes away in her dresser.
Her back was to him, so he took a moment to admire her. A strapless cotton sundress flowed in bright colors to her ankles and bare feet. Her curly, ash-blond hair was pulled up in a clip that left soft tendrils at her bare neck. He was suddenly filled with the undeniable urge to kiss her there.
Alex slipped silently into the room, creeping across the plush rug to come up behind her.
"Hello again, gorgeous," he said, wrapping his arms around her to display the wine and roses and planting a warm kiss at the apex of her neck and shoulder. "These are for you." He felt her tremble slightly at his touch, then stiffen beneath his hands.
She didn't turn to him or take the gifts. Instead, a soft, hesitant voice politely replied, "Hello, Alex."
A feeling of unease nagged at Alex's brain and threatened to override the longing building in his gut. This wasn't the welcome he'd expected from her at all. He'd anticipated a smile, a hug, maybe an enthusiastic "Hello, sugar"
or at the very least, a thank-you for the flowers. Perhaps he had miscalculated. Her less than enthusiastic greeting made him wonder if she was upset with him. Had she expected him to call even though they'd agreed not to? At the time, she'd seemed to understand what they had together, but she wouldn't be the first woman to be disappointed or upset when the relationship ended as planned.
She finally took the roses and the wine, setting them on top of the dresser without really looking at them, her back still facing him. Note to selfGwen wasn't a fan of expensive jewelry, roses or red wine. What did she like?
"How have you been?" she asked. Her voice sounded more normal now, less timid. Perhaps he'd just startled her.
"Busy," he said, his free hands now planting at her waist. She didn't pull away, but she didn't lean back against him, either. The flowers hadn't done their magic, but he knew just how to thaw out a woman's cold reception. The feel of his arousal pressed against her back would certainly soothe her pride and let her know how badly she'd been missed. "You?" he asked, letting his palms glide around to her stomach to pull her reluctant body into him.
At least, that was the idea. As his hands ran over a soft, rounded belly instead of the flat, firm one he remembered, Alex paused.
The realization washed over him like a tidal wave. The breath was knocked from his lungs and his muscles seized, allowing him to neither pull away nor spin her around to see the truth with his own two eyes.
"Busy," she whispered, repeating his words. "And as you may have noticed, pregnant."