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Tan legs, muscled arms and rippling abs added up to the sexiest half-naked man Ella Mayhew had ever seen. Well, technically not ever. As a massage therapist, she'd seen more than her fair share of half-naked men. Ella liked to think of it as a job perk. People in other careers got to rack up frequent flyer miles, or go to fancy parties and nibble on gourmet delicacies while working. She got eye candy galore. Or at least the possibility of it. And although her demeanor always remained professional, occasionally it was impossible not to notice a standout physique from the steady stream of weekend golfers and middle-aged wine enthusiasts who mostly lay on her table.
Like the time a cyclist in training for the Tour de France had spent a week here at Mayhew Manor. Every morning he'd done sprints all around Seneca Lake. Then in the afternoon he'd come into the spa and demand deep tissue massage. His muscles had been so rock hard, Ella needed a massage after she wore herself out working on him. Now that was a body she'd never forget.
She pressed her forehead against the window for a better look. Then cupped her hands around her eyes to block out the light of the spa. So maybe this man jogging by wasn't the absolute hottest in the universe. But something about him glued her in place, unwilling to miss a moment of his legs and arms pistoning in tandem.
"Aren't you the one who usually yells at me for gawking out the window?" Brooke DiMucci dug a sharp, acrylic-tipped nail into Ella's ribs. "And isn't it you who claims it isn't appealing to our clients andholy guacamole, look at that hottie." Brooke plastered her hands on the next pane over. "Good spotting."
Ella didn't bother to deny any of it. She was convinced it freaked out arriving guests to see faces looking at them like zoo animals. And she was equally convinced of the off-the-charts hotness of the man in the loose black shorts headed up the drive. "I saw him jog by about an hour ago. Just from the back. His lats were a thing of beauty. I watched him go the whole length of the parking lot until he turned onto the road."
"No wonder you volunteered to cover the front desk while I tore my hair out balancing the end-of-month P&L reports. I'd call that pretty devious of you."
Yeah, they'd been friends too many years for her to be able to sneak anything past Brooke. Didn't mean she couldn't try to spin it, though. Ella tightened the bow on the pink paisley scarf around her ponytail. "It benefitted both of us. I call it a good allocation of assets."
"I call him a good allocation of assets." Brooke giggled. Then gasped. "Ella, he's looking right at us."
Ella did the only logical thing. She dropped to a crouch below the windowsill. Tugged Brooke down to join her on the floor. Upon landing, her legs splayed out, narrowly missing a shelving unit full of Mayhew Manor's signature grape-seed oil soaps and lotions.
"Hey, these are new capri pants," complained Brooke. "I don't want dust all over my ass."
Ella took another look. White, and sprinkled with tiny blue anchors, they were pretty cute. Especially paired with the boatneck navy top. Only the third of May, barely sixty degrees, and yet already people were embracing all things sailing related. That summed up life on the shores of the largest of New York's Finger Lakes. But the seasonally adorable pants were not at risk.
"This is a health spa. Sanitation is as key to the client experience as relaxation and harp music laced with bird song." Ella ran a finger along the spotless baseboards and waved it in front of Brooke. "Which is why the maintenance staff mops twice a day. If there's any dust on the floor for your ass to pick up, we've got bigger problems."
Brooke looked mollified. For about a second. Then her wide forehead creased into a horizontal question. "Why are we hiding?"
Good question. Ella didn't know what had caused her to abandon all professionalism and stare at him either time he'd jogged by. And she certainly didn't know why instinct had dropped her to the ground when their eyes connected. The only thing she did know was that looking at the gorgeous guy scrambled her brain cells worse than the Long Island Teas her friend Casey served by the ladleful every Halloween.
"I'm honestly not sure."
Brooke hooked her thick, dark bob behind her ears, looped an arm around Ella's shoulders, and sighed. "Look, Ella, I realize it's been a while since any man lit your pilot light, so to speak. But dating is the same now as it was three years, three decades, and three centuries ago. When a hot guy looks at you, smile. Don't duck and cover like you're a bank robber on the lam."
Damn it. She hated when her friends reminded her how long she'd gone without a date. They acted like it was a disturbing symptom of a bigger calamity, rather than a choice. Not that Ella actively thought about dating. She didn't. At all. Not since Disaster Day. Which was probably the problem. But to her it was just another priority that got reshuffled. To a category of disinterest somewhere below the need to watch the History Channel. Every New Year's, she resolved to watch more educational television. To spend her evenings learning about the Borgia dynasty or the mysteries of the Mayans. That resolution usually lasted until the first commercial break of the first show. Then she switched over to the Food Network for the rest of the year.
"I'll file that under valuable advice. Thanks."
Brooke tapped the toes of her sneakers together. "Does that mean we can get up now?"
"Don't get up on my account, ladies." The mellow, baritone voice ended in a laugh.
Ella swiveled around so fast her spine twitched in protest. Oh. God. Sexy, half-naked guy was standing right next to the display of lavender (for the ladies) and eucalyptus (for the men) scented candles. Close enough she could see sweat beading around his belly button. Slowly dripping down the thin trail of dark hair into the waistband of his shorts. If she got on her knees, she'd be at just the right height to lick it off. Which was why she instantly jumped to her feet instead.
"Hello. Welcome to the spa at Mayhew Manor." There. Not awkward at all. Nothing more or less than the same greeting she gave every client who walked in the door. Except usually her palms weren't clammy. And her heart didn't usually speed up.
"I'm not familiar with New Agey stuff. But I see you were on the floor. Did I interrupt yoga or meditation or something?" Amusement crinkled the corners of his blue eyes.
Just sexy gawking and drool time. So clearly telling him the truth wasn't an option. Ella racked her brain for something to say. But it felt all fizzy with lust, like a bottle of soda that had been shaken for, oh, at least forty minutes.
"Nope. No interruption." Brooke stood, wiped off her hands. "We were just checking out the baseboards. Making sure our maintenance staff is at the top of their game. Sanitation is as key to the client experience as relaxation and, um, harp music." Then she favored him with a sanctimonious smile.
Ella couldn't believe Brooke had quoted her to impress the half-naked hunk. Wait. Of course she could believe it. Brooke had a shotgun-pellet approach to dating. She fired a wide blast and hoped something hit. And after all, why wouldn't Brooke make a move? Ella hadn't shown any interest in the opposite sex in three years. Calling dibs probably seemed immaterial. Gratitude for proof that her hormones were coming out of their coma should be enough for Ella.
"I'm Brooke DiMucci." She thrust out her hand.
"Graydon Locke." He wiped his hand on the side of his shorts before shaking. Then he offered it to Ella. With a smile that brought out the sparkle in his blue eyes as much as sunlight reflecting off Seneca Lake on a clear day. "And you are?"
"Ella." His hand engulfed hers. Big. Hot. How could she get this excited about a simple handshake?
He didn't let go. "Just Ella?" One of his dark brows lifted up in a question. Yet another attribute to put him in the super-duper sexy column.
"Just Ella," she repeated. Revealing her last name always led to a laundry list of questions. Did she own the hotel? Did she grow up in the Manor? Why was she working as a massage therapist instead of running the place? Ella didn't mind answering, in general. But she'd quickly discovered those conversations led to delayed appointment starts. It only took a week of running almost an hour behind before she decided to stick to her first name.
After a squeeze, he let go. "Well, then you can call me just Gray."
Was he flirting or teasing? Or both? Ella was too rusty to be certain. But she looked down at her flared denim skirt and lightweight pink sweater, visible through her unfastened spa smock. Normal work clothes. Comfortable enough for spending all day on her feet next to a massage table. Whereas Brooke looked adorably sexy. Obviously he wasn't flirting with Ella. It made far more sense that Gray simply had a natural, easygoing charm.
"What can we do for you today?" Brooke gestured for him to follow her to the reception desk. Ella trailed along like the tail of a comet, following Gray's gravitational pull. "Are you a guest here at the hotel? Did you want to book something for later in your stay?"
"I'm almost a guest." He looked at his watch, a big one with all sorts of gauges and gadgets that pegged him as a runner as much as his easy lope. "Got here a while ago, but it was too early to check in. Went for a run to kill time until I could register."
Although she didn't run the hotel, Ella did know every inch of it. Knew the rhythms and the schedules right down to what order the maids used to clean and restock a room in the shortest time. Her parents had encoded it in her DNA every bit as much as her green eyes and brown hair. Ella didn't even need to consult the clock hanging above the desk. She could tell check-in had begun from the increased lobby sounds: the clatter of luggage carts over the threshold, an up-tick in elevator dings, and a cheerful din from the gathering guests.
"Sorry about the delay. I can have a bellhop come and meet you here. He can retrieve your luggage from your car." Ella lifted the phone, ready to expedite the process.
Gray shook his head, locked his midnight gaze onto Ella, then put a hand on top of hers and lowered the phone back to the desk. "I'm in no hurry."
In her estimation, that slid the scales back over to full-on flirt. Now what? "Would you like to see our list of services?" Not exactly a come-on. But she was out of practice. And there was still a chance she could've read him wrong. Better to err on the side of caution.
He shrugged. "Not sure. I've never had a massage."
"Never?" Ella gasped. It seemed impossible. She remembered forming back-rub chains back in high school choir. Whether through friends, family or professionals, she couldn't imagine someone going their whole life without getting so much as a neck rub.
"Not even once. I always thought just lying down while someone poked at me was a waste of time."
She couldn't let him continue to wander through the wilderness of ignorance. He had to learn that massage wasn't a luxury. It was a necessity, as helpful and healing as prescription meds. "But massage is so good for you. It stimulates lymph flow, which enhances the immune system. Increases flexibility, lessens depression, improves circulation, releases endorphins and of course, eases sore muscles."
"Amazing I didn't keel over long ago without it," he said, tongue in cheek.
Brooke tsked her tongue against her teeth. "You can get off your soapbox now, Ella. This is your chance to convert him. Don't blow it by talking him to death."
Whoops. Her love for massage unfortunately flipped her into lecture mode all too often. "Sorry. You're right." Ella smiledhopefully disarminglyat Gray. "How about I give you a five-minute chair massage? For free?"
"So you can get me hooked, and then charge me through the roof?"
"America is a capitalistic society. I won't apologize for our rates." Whoops. She had one foot on the soapbox, about to hop back on again. People didn't realize all the hidden costs to massage. The insane amount of laundry generated by using a minimum of four towels and a set of sheets on every single client. Candles and aromatherapy oils and scrubs and lotions. The expense of heating all the individual rooms and the beds and the sauna/steam rooms and
Ella smiled again. This time, more in an attempt to calm herself than to calm Gray. "I will guarantee you'll get your money's worth, and walk out of here feeling relaxed and happy."
"You guarantee happiness?" Gray looked her up and down. "Who in their right mind would turn that down?"
She might've oversold a bit. The happiness came with an hour-long massage, not a five-minute neck rub in a chair. But it was too late to back down. "Come with me."
They kept a massage chair in the prep room for just this purpose. To lure and engage the wary and nervous types. Ella led him into the room of deep, mint green walls and shelves stocked with towels the paler shade of ripe chardonnay grapes. The Finger Lakes were most famous for their wine. Just about every business around Seneca Lake played up that connection. Mayhew Manor even put out their own line of red, white and sparkling wines. Of course here in the spa, they only served cucumber water and herbal teas.
"Before we begin, let's cool you off." Reaching into a cooler, she retrieved a small, wet towel from a bed of ice cubes. "I can tell from the red in your cheeks that you're still overheated from your run. This has been soaked in peppermint oil. It'll lower your temperature and refresh you."
She hesitated for a second. If he was any other client, she'd wipe him down herself. But he wasn't a full-fledged client. Not yet. They weren't in a treatment room, he wasn't lying down, and if he hadn't just finished a run, he'd still be fully clothed. Right now, he was just a guy whose bedroom eyes flip-flopped her tummy. And simple physical attraction could be, with a little concentration, simply ignored. Ella handed over the towel. "Here you go."
Shaking it out of its tidy roll, Gray vigorously rubbed it over his chest, neck and forehead. She'd scrubbed at shower scum with less force than he used. "I smell like a candy cane," he complained.
Oh. God. The vision of licking him, sucking on him, streaked through her mind. Any more thoughts like that and she'd need to dab at her own flushed cheeks with the icy towel. No way could she ignore this visceral attraction. So it had to stop. She'd give him the five-minute rub and that would be the end of it. If he signed up for a full massage, Ella would get one of the other therapists to do it. Everything about Gray poked holes in her professional detachment.