Collide

By: Gail McHugh

Chapter Five

The Many Layers

“Damn, Emily, how much did you pack?” Olivia asked, eyeing her friend’s suitcase as she slid a backpack over her shoulder. “It’s only two nights, chick.”

Emily’s head snapped up. She tucked the last bit of her makeup into a bag. “You’re not staying the whole weekend; that’s why you packed less. It’s really not that much.”

“It looks like you’ve stowed a small city away in there,” Olivia laughed, walking over to her. Tossing her blonde hair to the side, she wiggled her brows. “But that’s right—you’re going to be around Gavin all weekend, so I’m sure you’ll need enough clothing to change into. I’ve heard that he likes black lingerie,” she winked.

“You’re such a drama queen, Liv. Just stop with your future assumptions, okay?” Emily walked in the kitchen with her bag as Olivia followed, tickling her ribcage. She jumped and laughed, pushing her away. “Oh, and by the way, a whopping thank you for the warning about this being a two-night hiatus. I’m lucky Fallon was able to cover my shifts.”

Olivia held her hands up and shrugged. “Hey, I just assumed you knew about it.”

A quick knock came at the front door, and Dillon peeked his head in. “Is everyone decent in here?”

Emily made a slicing motion across her own neck, mouthing Gavin’s name.

Olivia nodded that she understood and then piped aloud, “Actually, we’re not. You know I’m into women now, so I have your girlfriend spread eagle across the kitchen table.”

Emily shook her head and laughed.

“That’s right. I forgot about that, Ollie…I mean, Olivia,” Dillon huffed, making his way into the apartment over to Emily. “The entire male species has banned you.”

“Fuck off, Douchepickle…I mean, Dillon. It’s the other way around. I banned them,” Olivia hissed, grabbing her backpack from the floor. “And my girlfriend’s meeting me out there, so you better not say a fucking word, asshole.”

Dillon laughed and shot her a wicked smile. He then dropped a kiss on Emily’s lips.

Olivia rolled her eyes. “Is the limo here yet?”

Emily looked to Dillon confused. “Limo?”

“Like I said, babe, it’s a crazy party from beginning to end.” He yanked Emily’s suitcase from the ground, the heaviness of it apparent in the straining of his bicep. “Gavin sends one for us every year. And it just so happens that, yes, it’s outside ready and waiting. Let’s go. It’s almost three, and it’s Friday, so rush hour will be a bitch.”

Dillon led the way out the door and into the elevator.

Before stepping in, Emily widened her eyes at Olivia and whispered, “Is he in the limo?”

With two sharp shakes of her head, Olivia whispered back, “No, he would’ve slept there last night to get the place ready.”

Stepping out into the street, Emily took in the sight of the gray and black Hummer limousine. The chauffeur was holding the door open with a huge smile on his face. He retrieved everyone’s bags and placed them in the trunk. As Emily and Olivia settled themselves into a seat, Dillon jumped in, popped a 30 Seconds to Mars CD in the player, and swiftly started making himself a drink.

“Always hitting the booze, Dickhead…uh, Dillon,” Olivia remarked, studying her face in a small compact mirror.

He shot her a blank, frosty smile. “What are you now, my mother?”

Emily let out a deep sigh. “Would you two stop already?”

“She started it.”

Reverting to a second-grader’s level, Olivia crinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue in Dillon’s direction.

Shaking her head, Emily sighed again. “Okay, so how far is his place?”

“It’s in East Hampton, so about three hours because of traffic,” Olivia replied, getting comfortable and tossing her legs across the leather seat. “But so worth the drive, Em. It’s a fucking paradise right on the beach.”

“Are we stopping to pick up Trevor?” Emily asked.

Olivia shook her head. “No, he’s helping my parents with some bullshit at their house right now. He’ll meet us out there tonight.”

“How many people will be there?” Emily probed.

Dillon pulled her across his lap and smiled. “Not that many tonight. It’s just his pre-party with a few friends.” He took a sip of his whiskey on the rocks. “But tomorrow’s a totally different game. There will be over a hundred guests, and each and every single one of them is flowing with money.”

Olivia laughed as she looked at Dillon. “Only you would know that since every year you try to gain a new account by snaking your way into some rich bastard’s portfolio. I have to admit you work the party like a pro.”

His eyes hardened on Olivia, but Emily quickly placed her hand over his mouth to hush him. “You two are done talking for the remainder of the ride.”

Over the next few hours, while the anxiety of the weekend steadily built to unbearable heights in her chest, Emily watched as a suburban landscape replaced the disappearing concrete and steel of the city. Mature trees, grass, and smaller-sized homes flew past her peripheral vision, reminding her of where she had grown up. It was something she realized she missed since living in the city.

Eventually, the middle-class pallet melted away as the road shifted to sprawling mansions lining the Atlantic coast. They were the types of homes in which Emily had seen in magazines. Her eyes widened at the absolute beauty of the scenery. Rolling down the window, she deeply inhaled the salty air of the ocean as the chauffeur pulled up to a winding, gated driveway. He spoke with someone over an intercom before the ornate metal gates slowly swung open, allowing the limousine onto the property. Beyond the gates, a sweeping lawn holding lush specimen trees lined the flagstone drive. A garden highlighted the front of the home with flowers of every color imaginable. Large pillars on both sides of the mammoth mahogany entry door caught Emily’s gaze. Off to the side were sunken tennis and basketball courts. In the distance, a path from behind the home led to the serene ocean. The water lapping against the sand and the twinkling sun shimmering off of it brought Emily a sense of peace—if only for the barest second.

Olivia chucked a piece of ice at Dillon’s face, stirring him from his alcohol-induced nap. She laughed along with Emily, watching him blink his eyes wide open. He then glared at Olivia with a look that promised retaliation in one way or another. With their bags already at his side, the chauffeur smoothly opened the door, and they each stepped out. Dillon stretched his neck from side to side, yawning. He reached in his pocket, patted the driver on his back, and handed him a tip, thanking him for his service.

Looking up to the home, Emily felt awestruck at its size. Albeit astonishing in every way possible, she wondered why one person would need a place of such magnitude. With that fleeting thought, the reason for her newfound anxiety—and her now rapid breathing—stepped out of the front door.

Shirtless.

Emily’s heart nearly stopped dead. As Gavin made his way over to the group, she couldn’t help but admire his barely there attire. Transiently, her eyes scanned his well-defined abs, segmented with definitions of hard muscle from his shoulders to his hips. A deep V that disappeared below white swimming trunks made her heart rate jump back to life again.

He wasn’t bulky by any means; he had a body like a runner—long and lean—with just enough muscle to make any girl’s tongue dance behind her lips. It was then that she noticed he stood a good six inches over her smaller frame. His golden tan had her unconsciously biting the side of her mouth, nearly drawing blood. To further add icing to the cake, he had an intricate black dragon tattoo that snaked its way up from those white swimming trunks and curled around his left ribcage.

The only thought running through Emily’s mind at that very second: Where exactly does that tattoo begin?

Heat rose to her cheeks as she felt tension in her legs—the coils of lust that she knew she shouldn’t have—making themselves acutely present throughout her entire body. She swallowed nervously, trying to get moisture back into her suddenly dry mouth, and immediately chided herself for having any reaction at all.

He was sexy, forbidden, dangerous, completely fuckable—and she knew it.

A contagious smile washed over Gavin’s face as he stepped down from the porch. He shook Dillon’s hand and gestured with his head over to the limo now leaving the property. “How was the ride? I hope my driver treated you all well.”

“He always treats us good,” Dillon replied, grabbing for his and Emily’s bags.

Olivia tossed her arms around Gavin’s neck and leaned in to hug him. “What’s up, my man?” she asked. She then whispered something into his ear and giggled.

Emily had a good idea what it was when his eyes flicked in her direction, a boyish smile tipping the corners of his mouth. Cupping his chin in the palm of his hand, he let a laugh roll from his lips as he looked down to the ground, shaking his head.

His blue eyes swung back to Emily. “I’m happy to see you could make it. Dillon said that you might not have been able to stay both nights.”

“I know people,” Emily laughed, not by her attempted joke, but rather from her soaring nervousness at this point.

“Mmm, it’s very good knowing people,” he chuckled, taking an extra few seconds to stare into her eyes. Drawing in a deep breath, he tossed his hand through his hair. “Okay, let’s go party the weekend away.”

As the two women followed behind the men, Emily shot Olivia a look, knowing that she’d said something to Gavin about their prior meetings.

Olivia laughed and batted her eyes like a true Southern belle as they made their way into the house.

Upon entering, Emily found the home to be shockingly warm and welcoming. At first sight, standing in the two-story foyer with a cascade of staircases on either side, her eyes took in the breathtaking view of the ocean. Sunlight spilled in effortlessly through floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the back end of the home. A double-sided stone fireplace was the center of attention in the living room. Gleaming, dark cherry hardwood floors led into a gourmet eat-in kitchen that dripped with black granite in every direction. Deep earthy tones scattered throughout a library, billiard room, and dining room.

The amazement in Emily’s eyes was evident.

Olivia squeezed Emily’s arm, her smile wide. “I told you it’s spectacular. And you have yet to see the media room, the second level, or the backyard fucking oasis, chick.”

Feeling almost breathless by her surroundings, Emily nodded to Olivia and followed Dillon up to the room they would share for the weekend. Olivia was right. The upstairs was no less amazing. The same flow of furnishings with warm accents and hues was sprinkled throughout the upper level. Emily felt like she was in a spa when she walked into the bathroom connected to their room. European fixtures and a marble shower encased in floor-to-ceiling glass made her want to skip the pool all together and opt for the hot steam instead.

With a wet bar in the room, Dillon prepared himself a drink and told Emily he would meet her out back. She nodded to him as she rummaged through her belongings. After applying a good bit of suntan lotion, she threw on her black bikini, slipped a sarong around her waist, and made her way into the hall.

Gavin halted midstride, grabbing for his sunglasses on the kitchen island. He spotted Emily coming down the stairs and felt a dizzying force plummet through him. Something inside him twisted, burning in his stomach to the very core of his being.

So much for trying to rid her from his mind.

Feeling depleted of air, he couldn’t concentrate on any one particular thing about her. His eyes passed over her slowly, pausing to regard her beautiful figure. He was sure the sight of her auburn hair draping over her bikini top could send him to his deathbed a happy man. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself to breathe. When they snapped back open, his eyes found hers, but she looked away.

He smiled, undeterred, and moved across the foyer to the edge of the stairs.

Standing two steps above him, Emily stared down to him, his eyes alone swallowing her whole. They were vivid, mesmerizing, and surrounded by thick dark lashes.

A timid smile crept across her face. “Hey,” she let out, more breathlessly than she had intended.

The energy flowing between them was palpable. Gavin could feel it, and he was pretty sure she could, too.

He wet his lips and stared at her for a moment. “Hey.”

The overt intensity of his gaze rendered her speechless. Her eyes flew to the ocean beyond the windows as she waited for him to move out of her way.

Gavin could tell he made her nervous and that wasn’t his intention. Sucking his bottom lip between his teeth, he tentatively placed his hand on the banister. “I know this whole thing’s a little crazy,” he whispered. He then paused for a second and smiled. “Well, more than a little, but I just wanted you to know that I’m just as freaked out about it as you are.” His face softened into concern as his gaze became more intent. “But, more importantly, I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable at all while you’re here. I want you to have a nice, relaxing weekend.”

Inwardly, knowing his statement was near impossible, Emily bit her lip as she held steady eye contact with him. She needed something to distract herself from the blazing blue of his eyes.

She moved down the stairs, trying with every bit of her voice and body movements to appear as nonchalant about the whole matter. “I appreciate your concern—and thank you—but honestly, I’m good.”

Gavin placed his hands at the back of his neck and smiled at her. “Are you sure?”

“One hundred percent,” she replied, noticeably glancing around for an exit to the pool.

“Oh, it’s over here.” Gavin motioned with his hand. “I’ll actually follow you out. Some friends of mine are out back that I’d like to introduce you to.”

After retrieving the sunglasses Gavin initially came in the house for, he and Emily strolled outside.

Again inhaling as much as her lungs could hold, Emily let the salty smell of the ocean tickle her nose. An in-ground pool and hot tub overlooked the shores of the Atlantic. The views were spectacular from the hill where the home stood. An outdoor fireplace, a cabana with a built-in bar, and a guesthouse were part of the open-air paradise. Emily followed Gavin over to where Olivia and Dillon were chatting with two men.

Widening his eyes on Emily, Dillon excused himself from the group, letting her know he wanted to talk with her. Cocking her head to the side in confusion, Emily opened her mouth to speak, but then stopped when she saw the look on his face.

He appeared angry.

Looking at Dillon, Olivia rolled her eyes and shook her head.

Emily smiled at the two men, whom she had yet to meet, and followed Dillon across the yard.

“Are you kidding me, Em?” Dillon asked, eyeing her up and down when they were far enough away from everyone. “What the fuck are you wearing?”

Her brows knitted together as she tried to keep her voice under control. “Are you kidding me, Dillon?”

“Fuck no, I’m not kidding. We just talked about this the other night. Don’t you have a one-piece?”

“No, I don’t have a one-piece. I have a bikini that’s covered by a sarong.”

Puffing out a breath, he scrubbed at his face with his hands. “At least go the fuck back upstairs and put on a pair of shorts then.”

“I’ll do no such thing,” she scoffed, placing her hands on her hips. “You’re overreacting. It’s blazing hot, there’s a pool that I plan on going in, and I want to tan.”

“What a fucking joke, Emily. You’re going to put me in a bad spot here if I catch any of these guys looking at you.”

Tilting her head to the side, she studied his demeanor. His voice left no room for argument, and the last thing she wanted was for him to get drunk and start a fight. She walked away without a backward glance in his direction and headed upstairs to do as he asked. Beyond pissed by his reaction, she made sure she slipped herself into the shortest pair of booty jean shorts she owned. To top it off, she left her bikini top on—uncovered.

By the time she made her way back outside, Olivia was lying on a plush beach chair, talking on the phone. Emily walked over to the four men, shot Dillon a wry smile, and politely asked him to make her a Captain and Diet Coke. He didn’t look too happy with her new ensemble, but it was obvious he saw the look in her eyes this time, telling him to deal with it.

He honored her request and went to make her drink.

Gavin glared at Dillon as he walked away, and then flicked his eyes down to Emily’s shorts. Knowing how overly possessive his friend was, he knew Dillon made her change. He gritted his teeth, not understanding why his friend couldn’t be proud of what he had in his grasp.

Nevertheless, a charming smile ran across his mouth as he gazed into Emily’s eyes. “I’d like to introduce you to my buddies, Chris and Joe. Guys, this is Dillon’s girlfriend, Emily.”

She smiled and shook their hands. Seeing that they could pass for brothers—with eyes, hair, and features that were strikingly similar—she asked, “Are you two related?”

Chris spoke up first, his hazel eyes wide as he laughed. “Very good observation on your part; we’re actually cousins,” he remarked, tossing a hand through his almond-colored hair.

Joe smirked. “Yes, unfortunately, our mothers are sisters,” he joked, patting Chris on his back.

Emily laughed with them. She learned that both men went to high school with Gavin and Trevor. They relocated to Florida and opened a landscaping business together after graduating college. When Dillon brought her drink over, she excused herself from the group of men and got comfortable on one of the poolside beach chairs with Olivia.

“Em, he’s really starting to become—”

Emily held up a silencing finger. “Please. Just let it go for now, Liv.”

She propped herself up on her elbow and flashed a frown. “Let it go?”

“Yes, please. I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“I’ll let it go, friend, but I have to say Douchebucket is officially a total asshole now,” she remarked, securing her blonde hair in a messy bun. Leaning over, she reached for the suntan lotion, smearing more over her milky-white skin. “And you need to grow a backbone with him sooner or later.”

Effectively ignoring Olivia’s statement, Emily turned her head in the opposite direction to view the waves in the distance. Soaking in the warm sun, she concentrated on the voice of Bob Marley in the background, singing about how he shot the sheriff.

Over the next few hours, Gavin’s gaze would travel to Emily and then back to Dillon, battling an internal war. He positioned himself perfectly at the table to maintain an unobstructed view of her face from across the pool while trying to focus on a conversation with his friends. However, his mind continually strayed back to the thought of her soft hand against his lips when he had kissed it a few days before. His eyes burned with adoration as she laughed with Olivia; her smile was like an addictive drug to him; and her laugh sounded celestial in his ears. Although they each stole furtive glances at one another throughout the day, Gavin admired her from afar, not wanting to make the situation anymore awkward than it was.

As night fell, the small crowd jumped from a sudden booming sound coming from the front of the home. Lighting off a few fireworks before making his way to the backyard was Trevor’s way of announcing his arrival. Beaming a smile with blonde hair spilling over his forehead, he strolled in, barking out his signature line, “I’m here. Let the party begin!”

Olivia’s girlfriend, Tina, showed up shortly after. Olivia hopped up, squealing, and gave her a kiss, letting each of the men know that she was hers. Chris ignored Olivia as he eyed the beautiful redhead. Olivia smacked him on his arm as she walked away.

Strolling over to Emily with Tina by her side, Olivia announced, “Tina, this is my best friend, Emily.”

“Hey, it’s good to meet you.” Tina smiled. “I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s nice to put a face with the name.”

Emily shook the hand Tina extended to her. “You, too. You made your way out here without getting lost, I see. Olivia was afraid you wouldn’t be able to find the place.”

Tina leaned in and kissed Olivia on her cheek. “Sweetie, you were worried about me?”

Olivia blushed crimson. “Of course I was.”

The two women walked away and made themselves comfortable on a lounge chair.

Several whiskies on the rocks later, Dillon approached Emily. He let out a sigh and gently pulled her against him. “Babe, I’m sorry about earlier. I was an asshole. Can you forgive me?” he asked softly.

Emily searched his eyes, trying to understand the sudden change in him. “You have me so confused. You never acted like this when I was in Colorado, Dillon.”

“I know, Em,” he whispered, reaching for her hand. He drew it to his mouth and held it against his lips. “I just love you so fucking much. I’m afraid of losing you to someone else, that’s all.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I love you more than you realize, Dillon. I trusted everything in me to come out here to be with you. That by itself should say enough.”

Placing his hand on the nape of her neck, he drew her face closer to his. “You’re right,” he admitted, his voice lower still. He leaned in to kiss her lips, and she accepted without a second thought as they stole a few extra moments to reconcile.

Dillon pulled back slowly and stroked his fingers through her hair. “I’ll ease up, I promise.”

Emily cast a faint smile, hoping that what he said would prove to be true. Dillon playfully smacked her on the ass, gave her another kiss, and let her know that he was going to play a game of pool with Chris and Joe. She watched as he disappeared into the house.

Emily strolled over to join Olivia and Tina. They were snuggling at the table, overly excited to be around one another. It was then that Gavin tossed a deck of cards onto the table in front of Emily.

Gavin smiled wickedly. “So Trevor tells me that you enjoy playing poker.”

Emily looked at Trevor as he pulled up a seat to the table.

Her eyes flicked back to Gavin. “I play a pretty good game, I must admit.”

“I see…and your game of choice would be what exactly?” Gavin questioned, placing a mahogany box filled with poker chips on the table.

“My game of choice would be Texas Hold’em.”

“Mmm, very good. That’s my favorite.” He took a seat across from her. “Shall we?” he asked, opening the deck of cards.

“We shall.”

“We’ll just watch,” Olivia piped up, lounging onto a beach chair with Tina. She shot Emily a teasing grin, and Emily shook her head.

“Well, you two may think you’re expert players, but I’m pretty damn sure I’m going to clean you both out,” Trevor laughed as he peered at them over his glasses. He then threw a hundred-dollar bill on the table. “I’m a certified pro. But don’t say I didn’t warn you both.”

Gavin huffed at his statement and laughed.

“We’re playing for real money?” Emily asked.

“We sure are.” Gavin tossed two one-hundred-dollar bills on the table. “I just put in for you.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Emily replied, standing up. “I’ll just get some money from Dillon.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll get it back from him after I wipe you and Trevor out,” Gavin remarked, flashing her one of his dimpled smiles.

Trevor was too busy shuffling the cards to acknowledge Gavin’s statement, but Emily wasn’t too busy to notice Gavin’s heart-stopping smile.

She hesitantly sat back down and threw him a smile of her own. “You think you’re going to wipe me out, huh?” she laughed and gave him a questioning look.

He gazed at her with an arched brow and a wry curve of his lips. “Oh, I’m absolutely positive I will.”

Grinning, Emily leaned back in her chair, her eyes focused and steady. “We shall see, Mr. Blake.”

The way his last name slid from her tongue had Gavin trying to contain emotions that were threatening to pour from his body. He slowly licked his lips as he stared at her and dealt out the cards to each of them.

With cards in hand, drinks flowing, and Olivia and Tina as spectators, the game began. Over the next hour, both Gavin and Emily depleted Trevor of all his chips. They continuously made fun of his earlier statement about beating them both.

“Okay, okay. But just for the record, I’m pretty drunk right now; that’s why my game was off tonight,” Trevor defended himself and retreated into a lounge chair next to Olivia and Tina.

Olivia laughed and consoled her brother by doing a shot of tequila with him.

“The proverbial drank-too-much-and-played-like-an-ass excuse. Classic,” Gavin laughed.

Trevor shook his head with a defeated look molding his face. “I’m reaching far with that one, right?”

Gavin finished the last of his beer before answering. “I’d say so. But I’ve experienced the same drunken play many nights before,” he admitted, dealing another hand out to himself and Emily.

After a few minutes of studying one another’s faces for who might have the better hand, Emily cleared her throat and looked at Gavin. “I’m all in.”

She pushed her growing stack of chips into the middle of the table as a wide I-dare-you smile crept over her lips.

Gavin regarded her carefully as he drummed his fingers slowly against his empty beer bottle.

Trying to drag his gaze from hers, Gavin looked down at his cards. He was holding two Kings and one was already on the table. Leaning forward, he tilted his head to the side and smiled. “You might not want to do that, Miss Cooper.”

Emily leaned herself forward, mimicking his cockiness. It was harder than she thought as she stared into his unblinking blue eyes. “Afraid to call?”

Olivia, Tina, and Trevor watched closely for Gavin’s reply, curious expressions tight on each of their faces.

Gavin smirked and pushed his stack of chips against hers. “I hold fear at bay for a miniscule amount of things in life, but calling your bluff isn’t one of them,” he laughed and flipped over his cards. “I’d like to introduce you to my friends—Larry, Moe, and Curly.”

Olivia let out a laugh. “Oh shit, you’re in trouble now, Em. He just pulled The Three Stooges move on you.”

Emily widened her eyes in mock horror. “Hmm, I might be.” She tapped the edge of her cards. “But considering I have three Aces, I think I’m pretty good for now.”

She fanned her cards along the table as her face brightened with a huge satisfied smile.

The small group—including Gavin—hooted out in hysterical laughter. With her smile beaming ear to ear, Emily quickly yanked the three-hundred-dollar bills off the table and tucked them into her shorts. Right there in that moment, the tension in both Gavin and Emily’s shoulders—from the way their worlds collided—deflated and vanished like a ghost.

Eventually, Chris, Joe, and Dillon made their way back outside. Gavin took a few minutes to fill Dillon in on his devastating loss. Dillon laughed and shot Emily a proud smile. The group helped Gavin clean up, and everyone decided it was best to call it a night. Before the droves of guests arrived, the guys usually indulged in a very early morning fishing trip on Gavin’s boat, so sleep was definitely needed. Everyone said goodnight to one another before heading into their designated rooms.

It was well after one in the morning when Emily crawled out of bed. Dillon’s liquor-enhanced snoring was keeping her awake. Attempting to go back to sleep, she nudged him, flipped on the television, and even placed a pillow over his face in hopes of stifling the noise.

None of it worked.

Deciding that a good dose of fresh air might help bring on sleep, she quietly opened the bedroom’s French doors that led out to a balcony.

Immediately, it was as if the ocean called to her. She walked over to the edge and peered out to the distant waves tumbling onto the sand dunes. As her senses were just starting to absorb the sounds, smells and sights engulfing her, Gavin’s voice saying “hello” made her jump.

She whirled around, a curl of hair catching on her lips, and found him sitting in an Adirondack chair. “Jesus!” she let out louder than anticipated.

“No, it’s Gavin. Gavin Blake,” he deadpanned, reaching for a beer from a six-pack on the floor. “Although, in certain private one-on-one situations, I’ve been referred to as God,” he laughed.

With an unladylike snort, Emily laughed with him. “You’re too much.”

“Aren’t I though?”

“Yes, very,” she replied and then turned back to the door. “I didn’t realize this was a connecting balcony. I’ll let you have your privacy.”

“By all means, stay and have a beer with me.”

With the mildest of trepidations, she made her way over to him. He popped a beer open for her. “Thank you,” she replied, accepting it and sinking into a chair beside him.

“You’re very welcome. So what brings you out on the balcony in the wee hours of the night?”

“You can’t hear that?”

Gavin’s brows knitted in confusion as he looked around. “Uh, I hear the waves.”

“Then you’re lucky,” she sighed. “Cause I can still hear Dillon snoring.”

“Ah, I see,” he laughed, propping his feet on a small outdoor ottoman. “Us men do know how to knock it out of the ballpark when it comes to that.”

Emily shook her head and took a sip of her beer. “I’ve tried everything short of smothering him to death to get him to stop.”

Quirking a brow, Gavin smiled. “Hmm, not a bad idea. You’d be available then.”

“Be nice,” she laughed.

“Yes, ma’am,” he clipped, and Emily shook her head.

A few minutes went by as they listened to the waves rolling in the distance. The sky was clear with a magnificent view of the stars as a cool, summer breeze skirted its way across the balcony.

“So I didn’t see you go down to the water today,” Gavin remarked, reaching for another beer. He popped the top off and tossed it into a terracotta pot that held quite a few bottle caps. “Do you not like the beach?”

“Actually, I love the beach.” She drew in a deep breath as her gaze slid from his out to the water. “Some of my best memories of my mom come from endless days spent on the beach with her.”

Heaviness settled in Gavin’s chest. He knew her mother passed away. When they were at the club, he wanted to say something to her but felt it was inappropriate to do so unless she brought it up. He continued to stare at her, struggling to find the right words.

He shifted his body to face hers. “I’m very sorry about what you had to go through, losing her,” he finally stated softly.

Drawing her knees up under her chin, she looked to him. “Thank you.”

His voice was low and cautious as he gazed into her eyes. “If you don’t mind, I’d love to hear about the memories you have of her on the beach.”

A faint smile tugged at her lips. “Really?”

He nodded and smiled back. “I’d be honored.”

She took a minute to compose her thoughts. “Well, when I was a kid, she’d save all year long, so we could visit Santa Cruz, California. She’d rent a little condo right on the beach, and we’d literally spend the entire day outside. We’d fly kites for hours on end and ride our bikes on the boardwalk.” She paused and smiled. “She used to love making sand angels, like the ones you make in the snow when you lie on your back.” She let out a light laugh at the memory and wiped a tear from her eye.

“Emily, I…” Gavin whispered. She looked at him. “My intentions weren’t meant to upset you. Please…I apologize.”

“They’re…good tears, Gavin. I haven’t talked about her in a while. Really, you didn’t upset me.”

Her words left Gavin awestruck. He searched her eyes and found traces of happiness mixed with incalculable loss. It melted his heart. He longed to run his fingers through her hair and console her; he wanted to hold her in his arms and rid her of the pain. “They sound like wonderful memories,” he whispered.

“Yeah, they are,” she replied, staring straight ahead. “It was hard seeing her sick for so many months, but to tell you the truth, when she took her last breath, a wave of relief washed over me. She was finally at peace.” Wiping another tear away from her eye, Emily looked at him and then averted her gaze out to the ocean. “There was a point I’d actually hoped that I would wake up and find out she was gone and not in pain. It still makes me feel guilty that I’d felt that way, but I couldn’t bear watching her suffer anymore.”

With her last few words, Gavin’s emotions soared to a place he hadn’t dared to revisit in a while. Again, he found himself struggling for the right thing to say. His voice was but a whisper. “I know we may seem worlds apart to you, but we share something in common.” He hesitated, not knowing if he should bring it up. Emily looked at him confused. “My family almost lost my mother to breast cancer when I was twelve.”

Emily breathed out, not having a clue what to say. His statement shook her from her own self-pity.

Gavin then did something impetuous. He simply felt the need to touch her, so he leaned over and wiped the tears from her cheek. Emily didn’t move. “I remember what it felt like seeing her sick and in pain. The fear of not knowing what life would be like without her is something I’ll never forget, but I know one day I’ll have to face it. I also remember feeling exactly the way you said you had felt. I wanted it to end—for her to either just die so she could be at peace or get better. I wasn’t able to see her like that anymore. I used to actually crucify myself for feeling like that. Emily, just know that what you felt—what we felt—is very real and a very normal human reaction.”

Sniffling, she glanced up to him, noticing the sensual perfection of his face now touched with grief. Behind those blue eyes was the soul of a man that had gone through his own share of pain, and Emily couldn’t decipher what was worse—her losing her mother to cancer or him living in fear that his mother’s cancer could come back.

With concern in his eyes, Gavin leaned forward and studied her face. A weak smile crept over his lips. With his voice low, he said, “Now that I’ve managed to fuck up a pretty decent evening by making you cry, why don’t we play a game to lighten the mood?”

Emily let out a gut-belly laugh due to the wide range of emotions flying through her head. “You didn’t fuck up the evening.” She then rose to her feet, wiped the last few tears from her eyes, and stretched her arms over her head. “I needed that, believe me.”

He stood up with her and smiled. “Okay, good. So you’ll play a game with me then?”

She smirked, eyeing him suspiciously. “What type of game would Gavin Blake suggest we play? And no wisecracks either.”

“Mmm, that’s a tough request.”

He flashed an impish grin, and without saying another word, he slid the bottle-cap-filled terracotta pot to the middle of the balcony. He then playfully commanded her to sit Indian style on the floor ten feet away from it. With her expression showing her curiosity, she did as he instructed. He opened the doors to his bedroom and disappeared briefly. Emily sat for a few moments, wondering what he was doing. When he reappeared, he had a sweatshirt in his hand and a freezer bag holding additional bottle caps.

Walking over, he tossed the sweatshirt on top of her head and laughed, “You look cold; put that on.”

He sat Indian style on the floor next to her with their knees barely touching.

Smiling, she yanked the sweatshirt off her head and slipped it on. For a brief second, she tried to burn the smell of it into her memory. It reminded her of when they were in the elevator. She couldn’t quite pin what the smell was—a mixture of cologne, body wash, and aftershave came to mind.

“So what’s the name of this game we’re about to play?”

Gavin looked into her green eyes. Under the light of the moon, they looked angelic. “It’s kind of hard to pronounce,” he slowly replied, staring at her lips as he tried to shake the fascination he had of her from his body.

“Try me.”

He dropped his voice to a whisper and purposely hesitated between each word. “It’s…called…toss…the…bottle…cap…into…the…pot…right…there….” He pointed to the pot.

Trying to ignore how sexy his voice sounded when he whispered, Emily playfully nudged his arm. “Wow, you’re truly a wiseass, huh?”

“Yes, in every possible way,” he laughed and handed her a couple of caps. “You go first.”

Barely being able to see, Emily crinkled her nose as she tried to focus on the pot. She tossed the first one and missed by at least five feet. They both laughed. When it was Gavin’s turn, he closed his eyes and sank it right in.

“I’m just assuming here, so I apologize if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking you’ve played this game more than once,” she remarked.

“Why, I’ve only played it twice, of course,” he laughed.

Emily threw another and missed by only a foot this time. “Twice, my ass. There has to be five-hundred bottle caps in that thing.”

Gavin shot her a wry smile. “Close but no cigar. It’s actually over a thousand.”

“Drink much?”

“Many summers, many parties, many friends equals a huge bottle-cap collection, Miss.”

She shook her head and laughed. “Speaking of collections, I noticed the many vehicles you have parked in your driveway.” She took a swig of her beer. “A motorcycle, a BMW, a Bentley, and I don’t know the name of the other.”

He smiled. “It’s a Nissan GT-R.”

“Yes, a Nissan GT-R,” she laughed. “Boys and their many toys.”

Rubbing at his chin, he gazed deep into her eyes for a second. “Don’t we all have to fill voids in our lives with something?”

Taken aback, Emily searched his face, not knowing how to answer.

He flashed a smile and casually tossed another cap into the pot.

She could tell there was more behind his question than she could possibly understand. The first thing that popped into her mind was an onion. Gavin Blake had many layers to him that needed to be peeled. Some that were there were true to their form, but others were simply a cast-iron veneer she felt he wore around himself.

After several hit and missed thrown caps and much-needed laughter, Gavin looked at his watch and noticed it was past three in the morning. Standing up, he offered Emily his hand, and she accepted.

His voice slid through the air like the finest cashmere. “Even though our evening started off a little…sad, I had a great time with you, Emily,” he stated softly, focusing his intense eyes on hers.

She could feel the stroke of his heated gaze on her, warming her inside and out. She slowly pulled her hand from his and cupped the back of her neck as she stared up into his eyes. “I did, too, Gavin.”

He smiled, walked away, and opened the French doors that led to his bedroom, but not before he turned to look at her one last time.

Nervously biting her lip, she followed suit and made her way into the room where Dillon lay sleeping.

Still snoring.

As she closed the doors behind her, Emily leaned herself against them, panicky and once again breathless. Sliding her fingers down her neck, she tried to rationalize the visceral pull that Gavin had over her, but she was too tired at that point to even begin to understand it.


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