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"Come on, Little Joe from Kokomo." Jonathan warmed the ivory cubes in his hands before hurling them down the craps table. They bounced off the green felt and tumbled forward before coming to an abrupt stop. "Four!" he shouted, pumping his fist in the air as the other players cheered with him.
He grabbed Nicki around the waist and planted a loud kiss on her cheek. "You're my lucky charm."
Nicki gave him the smile he wanted but inwardly rolled her eyes. This cruise vacation was not turning into the getaway Jonathan had promised. Yes, there were dozens of activities to choose from — a floating hotel catering to the adventurers, the foodies, the late-night party animals, and the lounge chair potatoes. But she hadn't anticipated her vacation partner would spend every waking hour in the neon-lit casino.
A bud of uncertainty sprouted in Nicki's stomach. Had she jumped the gun in agreeing to a weeklong getaway with a guy she'd been dating for three months? And only on weekends, given both of their busy work schedules. It had seemed like a good idea when they discussed it a few short weeks ago.
But she couldn't blame their recent friendship on her hesitance. Sure, Jonathan met most of her requirements for the man of the moment; single, successful, confident — although he leaned toward egotistical — passable looks, and fun loving, at least if they were doing what he wanted.
He reminded her of past boyfriends. As long as they attended professional sporting events, viewed adventure movies, and ate at the most popular restaurants, he was exuberant. Her suggestion of an art gallery exhibit, ballet, or play met with resistance and an alternative. She had no doubt this relationship would be as short-lived as the rest.
He nuzzled her neck, planting tickling kisses close to her ear.
She pulled away, not wishing to go there right now. Yet he knew how to get her attention. Perhaps if she put in a little effort, he'd be the one to change her mind about relationships.
She sighed. Highly unlikely.
Nicki gave her purple chiffon frock a little swish. When she dressed for the evening, her plan had been to hit the dance floor at Venus, the penthouse nightclub.
"It's nearly midnight," she advised Jonathan. "Let's go dancing."
"I'm on a roll now, Nick. We'll go later."
Disappointment punctured her balloon, and for the first time tonight, her feet throbbed in her crystal-embellished strappy heels. She slipped one foot out of her shoe as she perused the crowd standing around the table.
A stranger's intense gaze from across the heated table action halted her review mid-scan. He stood behind a striking woman with long, dark hair and a red, clingy dress. The brash sounds around her muffled as Nicki zeroed in on him, dressed in a designer suit. Elegant, confident. Hot. A gorgeous man making up one-half of a gorgeous couple.
Nicki pulled her attention from the too-handsome guest and continued her sight path around the table. No one else held her interest. Not like him.
Instinct demanded she avoid the area, but her eyes disobeyed, and she caught a crooked smile and a head nod. She couldn't help it. She smiled in return.
He signaled with his thumb toward the bar, then arched a brow. There could be no mistake. An invitation.
She'd been standing at this damn table for over an hour, and the only time Jonathan noticed her presence was when he had the dice and pretended to include her in his ritual before releasing the cubes. He wouldn't care if she went to get a drink. Besides, her feet were screaming, and a bar stool and an icy Margarita beckoned. As well as a very handsome stranger.
"I'm going to sit down for a bit. I'll be at the bar." Nicki's heartbeat quickened. Ridiculous.
"Sure, babe. I'll catch up with you soon." Jonathan's attention never wavered from the gaming table.
How could she not have known her semi-boyfriend of three months had a gambling problem? Because she only saw him on weekends when the spirit moved her.
Nicki searched the bar for two empty stools, hoping she hadn't misunderstood the signal. It wouldn't fare well for her ego to be rejected twice in the same ten minutes.
"What'll it be?" asked the bartender as he cleared the space in front of her.
"Margarita, rocks, no salt."
"I'll have a vodka martini. Straight up." His deep voice curled around her. "Is this seat taken?" Without waiting for her response, he sat, his knee brushing against her thigh in a sizzling flash.
Whoa. She inched away, the burn searing straight to her toes. This guy was on fire.
She held out her hand. "I'm Nicki Reading."
He took it and brought her fingers to his lips. "Dex Hanover." Green eyes with a hint of gray hooked hers, the intensity a bit overwhelming. In a good way.
She withdrew her hand, needing some space, some air. And a cold shower. Raising her glass to him, she used her silkiest voice. "Nice to meet you, Dex Hanover."
He clinked her glass with his, and his crooked smile turned into a full-blown attraction. "Nicki."
His inflection did funny things to her insides. She sipped her drink, trusting the cool liquid would douse the small fire within before it got out of control.
"Is he your husband, boyfriend, brother?" The spark in his eyes told Nicki he hoped for the latter.
"Some would call him my boyfriend. I'm still on the fence. And after this week, I'm leaning toward friend."
"You're not having a good time?"
She inhaled, not wanting to throw Jonathan under the bus to this unknown, albeit captivating creature. Until this trip, Jonathan straddled the line between a temporary possibility and a washout. Moderately handsome, with touchable brown hair, milk-chocolate eyes, and a killer job as an entertainment lawyer, he gave Nicki the space she needed. As an added bonus, he was uninterested in procreating to advance his gene pool. Yet something key was off.
So why not leave a door open for further conversation with her intriguing bar mate? "Gambling is not my thing. Apparently, it's Jonathan's." She lifted a shoulder. "Who knew?"
Dex nodded. "The high of winning is on par with sex."
Nicki raised her brow. "I only offered dancing. Maybe I should have been more carnal."
"I'm glad you weren't because I would have missed this opportunity to meet you."
Her attention zeroed in on kissable lips. She swallowed. "What about you? Aren't you with the woman in red?"
"We are here together, Lisa and I. But we're not dating."
Good answer. Surely, there was much more to the story, but now was not the time.
Dex continued. "Where are you from, Ms. Nicki Reading?"
"Philadelphia. What about you?"
"Me too. What a nice coincidence." His aura held her in a cocoon of privacy, blocking out the din of the other patrons hovering nearby.
"Here you are." Jonathan's voice broke through her haze, shaking her out of the magical dream she'd just experienced. He placed his arm around Nicki's shoulders, a transparent sign to Dex she was off limits. At least in man code.
"What made you leave the table?" Nicki blinked to return to reality, attempting to hold back a smirk, knowing full well her dog came to mark his territory.
"The dice were getting cold. It was time to move on. Do you want to hit Venus or go back to our room?" His suggestion couldn't be camouflaged as anything other than what it was. Jonathan's attempt to make Dex jealous.
"This is Dex Hanover. He works in Philly too."
"Jonathan Walsh." He stuck out his hand, but there was no friendly smile or genuine interest. "Let's go." Jonathan tugged on her upper arm, clearly not wanting to stay and make small talk.
"It was nice meeting you, Dex." More than nice, although the heat index plummeted when Jonathan came to claim her. Nicki focused in on his eyes, loathe to break the connection. "I'm sure we'll run into you and Lisa over the next few days."
She smiled, promising something — although what, she didn't know.CHAPTER 2
Dex sat in a lounge chair by the pool, his electronic tablet streaming the news of the day. But his attention had been hijacked.
Nicki laid her pool towel on the lounge chair across the way, then slid her filmy cover-up over her head, allowing him to feast on plenty of tanned skin and fantasies of what lay beneath her hot pink bikini. She slipped slender feet out of tiny-heeled sandals, before laying her long, sensual limbs on the recliner. Sunglasses covered her eyes, and her straight blonde hair was braided and pulled to the side, the end of which grazed one of her perfect breasts.
She dug into her bag and came out with sunscreen. He swallowed as she poured lotion into the palm of her hand, then rubbed it over her toned torso. His reflexes jumped to attention, urging him to go over and help lubricate those hard-to-reach places.
Dex should feel guilty for getting so hot and bothered over a woman he met at the bar last night. But he didn't. Lisa was still sleeping, and when she finally did wake up, she'd go shopping or gambling. Why he agreed to come on this cruise with her was a mystery.
But then he wouldn't have met Nicki Reading.
Bolstered with an affirmative plan instead of hiding behind his sunglasses and fantasizing, he hit the pool bar, then headed in her direction. Yes, it was before noon, but they were on vacation and it was important to hydrate.
"Where's your keeper?" He stood over her, two glasses in hand, unable to see her beautiful blue eyes behind aviator shades.
Her beaming smile eclipsed his disappointment.
"In the casino." She reached toward him with a long, willowy arm. "Is that for me?"
"Margarita, rocks, no salt. I hope you don't mind a little alcohol in the morning."
She slid her glasses on top of her head and took a sip, a dreamy look crossing her face. "Perfect. Thanks." She looked up at him. "You're blocking my sun. Why don't you have a seat?"
He obliged, doing a high five in his head.
"Where's your non-date?" Nicki pulled her shades back over her eyes. Too bad, since he couldn't see the thought process behind the question.
"Sleeping. Or something." He shrugged.
"You don't care?"
Now there was a loaded question. He needed clarification. "That she's sleeping? Or about her in general?"
"The latter, of course." Her lips twitched.
"We're not on the same page. It wasn't working. So we broke up — a month ago."
She turned her head toward him, her braid inching over the swell of her breast. "Then why are you here with her?"
Good question. "We planned this trip months ago. Paid for it. So we decided to take it despite our state of affairs."
"You're free to meet others?"
"I don't know if she would state it in those specific words, but sure, why not? Once we leave this ship, it's clear to both of us we won't be hanging out together."
Nicki's brow furrowed. Adorable. "Are you sure it's clear to her?"
A ripple of uncertainty spread through him. "Why do you ask?"
"Maybe she's hoping to win you back while you're drinking martinis on the aft deck."
He chuckled. "Sure. That's why she's here with me right now."
Nicki studied his face and the heat of her stare unnerved him. He needed to turn this around. "What about you?"
"What about me?" Her clear annoyance told him she didn't like the question.
Good. Keep her off balance. Two could play this game. "What's going on with you and your bodyguard?"
A laugh escaped. He liked when she laughed. "Not much. He's more into craps than me. I'm glad I found out before I invested too much time in the man."
A similar answer to last night's. Good. She wasn't reconsidering. "Since we've both been deserted by our companions, how'd you like to go to the art auction? It started a little while ago in Saturn Hall."
"Sounds like it could be fun." She took the last sip of her drink and placed the glass on the small table between their chairs. Rising from her lounge, she shook out the dress she removed not long before and slipped it over her bikini. The flowery material wasn't quite opaque, and he could see the outline of her bikini beneath. Very nice. Very sexy.
"Are you coming?" Her smile told him she appreciated his interest.
"My stuff is over there." He pointed across the pool. "I need to grab my shirt and sandals."
"I'm good with you not wearing a shirt." Her eyes roamed over his chest, searing his skin and nudging his libido. Her flirtation could get them in trouble real fast.
"Funny lady." He grabbed her hand and headed toward his previous location.
They needed to get out of here before Lisa or Jonathan — what a stuffy name — ruined their plan.
* * *
Saturn Hall was crowded with prospective purchasers of mediocre, mass-produced art work.
Nicki took in the scene. "Why do people think they're getting a good deal on this stuff because they're on a cruise ship? And why would anyone want to spend hundreds, maybe thousands, on art work with no significance or connection to the places they're visiting?"
Dex leaned in close to her ear, a move that sent glorious shivers down her spine and tingles to her core. "Are you an art snob?"
She turned to look in his eyes, a few inches from hers, and saw the playfulness in their depths. "Yes," she whispered, not at all sure she was answering his spoken question.
His eyes grew serious as their color darkened. Their lips were so close, getting closer, and Nicki wanted nothing more than to be kissed senseless by this gorgeous, funny, sensitive guy who found her last night.
"Excuse me. Would you like a drink?" A waiter with a tray of white and red wine looked at them expectantly, and the moment vanished.
"No, thanks." Disappointment at the interruption vied with relief.
She shouldn't be going down this road with a virtual stranger. She was here with Jonathan, although Jonathan didn't seem to be here with her. His weakness for gambling tipped the scale against him. C'est la vie. One more casualty in her long list of casualties.
But considering someone to replace him before he even knew he was being replaced was mean. Although it wasn't her fault. It wasn't like she was looking.
Dex steered her toward a wall of paintings, modern in technique and subject matter. "Here are some originals for your consideration," he teased.
"That one wouldn't look bad in my office." Nicki stepped to the left, then the right, to see it from different angles. "I kind of like it." Maybe the spirit of the cruise was infiltrating her brain. Or Dex.
"The art snob has reconsidered."
She smiled and inched closer to him as they moved around the room. She didn't care about the art. It was a means to spend time with Dex, in a venue where Jonathan wouldn't venture. Hopefully, Lisa was similarly averse. She wanted to feel the heat Dex generated, the fizzy sparks that ignited within at his mere presence. An emotional overload she hoped wouldn't short circuit.
An hour passed much too quickly. "I told Jonathan I'd meet him for lunch at one thirty." Frustration over making such a date deflated her high.
Dex pulled her into a corner of the room. Facing her, he traced her cheek and jawline with his index finger, green eyes penetrating hers with a power that lunged into her soul. He leaned close, then brushed his lips over hers, so softly, so fleetingly, she wasn't quite sure she'd just been kissed. Yet her body hummed to life and heated from within. His mouth was a breath away from hers, his eyes holding her captive. Pure desire coiled in her core and her hand, seemingly of its own volition, reached up to caress his face before sliding around his head to pull him closer, her fingers getting lost in dark, soft hair. She angled her mouth to connect with his, and he complied with her silent plea. Light pressure turned insistent and demanding as he swept his tongue inside. She shamelessly pressed her body to his, reveling in the firmness of his muscles, his strength. She kissed him back with all the pent-up hunger that had built within, since she first saw him across the gaming table.
Nicki reached for her senses. This was crazy. And dangerous.
She pulled away, a delicious burn singeing swollen lips.
"I have to go." Her husky voice rasped like raw sex, the same passion she saw in his eyes.
She slipped sideways, her breasts brushing his chest, fanning the flames of their smoldering chemistry.
She had to escape this soon-to-be inferno.
Despite her yearning to ignite it.
* * *
"You look great, babe." Jonathan glanced at Nicki as he buttoned his Armani shirt.
She hated the term "babe," but his pointed compliment underscored his commitment to civility, which would get them through the rest of the week.
Nicki showed her appreciation by perfecting the knot on his tie. "I know our discussion at lunch wasn't easy, and we didn't anticipate this vacation would underscore our differences when we booked this trip."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sworn to Forget"
Copyright © 2018 Maria Imbalzano.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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