After having spent two hours in the Nassau airport with fifteen raucous people, Saxby was glad to sink into seat 3A on the plane that took guests to Decadence. He’d sat off to the side like a social misfit, trying not to imagine his normal self in the midst of the group telling some story about the time his Aunt Lulu accidentally mixed up the adult and kids’ lemonades at the Fourth of July party. He’d be especially aiming his attention at the little blonde with the big smile who had given him nary a glance.
Which was just as well, since he couldn’t act on any woman’s attentions anyway. He needed to keep the socializing to a minimum.
After most of the passengers had settled in, one last woman came down the tight aisle. The first thing he noticed was the cascade of blond curls flowing over her shoulders. Then how tall she was, probably about five-ten, with a perfectly proportionate figure only slightly showcased by the tank top beneath an unbuttoned cotton shirt. He felt a blip in his chest, and for the first time hoped an attractive woman didn’t sit in the empty seat next to his.
Her brown eyes searched the seat numbers as she hefted her carry-on and talked on her phone to someone who had her pretty face scrunched in a frown. “Of course I canceled your flight. Why in the name of all that’s sane would I still want to go to a sex-drenched resort with a man who cheated on me? … There’s not going to be any ‘working it out,’ Lane. We are so over, as I’ve been telling you for, oh, the last month. You should have checked your flight status before driving to Ft. Lauderdale,” she was saying as she slowed next to Sax’s row.
Sax sprang up and took her bag as she tried to stuff it into the overhead bin. She gave him a quick, grateful smile when he nudged it into the tight bin, then shifted her gaze away. “You sure didn’t ‘love me ’til you die’ when you were ‘salving’ your injured-football-star ego by sticking your dick in every receptacle you could find . . . Well, that’s how your roommate said it.” She slid past him to the window seat next to his, pushing her purse beneath the seat and jamming a novel into the pocket in front of her.
Sax sat back down, trying to appear as though he weren’t listening. Please, don’t start crying. I can’t take a woman crying, especially over some cheating asshat.
“As a matter of fact, yes, I am still going. Remember how I suggested we explore our wild side to spice up our relationship?” Her mouth turned up in a sassy, smack-him-in-the-gut grin. “Well, I’m taking my own advice. Without you. With my room on the Wild side. Have a nice life, Lane.” She turned off her phone and sat back with a huff. Nope, she wasn’t going to cry.
Sax turned to the scantily clad steward who gave him a polite smile. No sign of the spark he usually garnered from a female. Dayum, being Mr. Boring was hard to get used to. Definitely an ego killer. He nodded for his seatmate to order first.
“God, yes,” she said. “What do you have?”
“Beer, wine, and our famous Decadence rum punch.”
“Punch me, please.”
“Make it two,” Sax said. He started to turn toward his seatmate but stopped. Don’t talk to her. Be like Knox, who would be sitting here sinking into his own dark thoughts.
The steward brought their drinks as the pilot announced they were readying the plane for takeoff.
His neighbor drained about half her drink in one long pull. Images of rubbing all that tension out of her shoulders as she let out groans of pleasure floated through his mind, that soft-looking hair tickling his arms . . . screech—the sound of tires grinding to a halt shoved the image out of his brain. Forget that.
The plane taxied down the runway, then lifted off. Sax didn’t catch himself in time to stop from glancing at the woman next to him. She’d finished her drink. He handed her his with a smile. “I think you need this more than I do. I haven’t touched it.”
She was about to politely refuse, but that impish smile turned up the corners of her mouth. “You’re right, thanks. I guess you heard all that”—she rolled her eyes—“drama.”
Sax gestured for her to give him the empty glass. He felt the frames of his glasses slide down his nose and, per Vivi’s instructions, shoved them back with his forefinger to the bridge in a graceless gesture. “Yeah, that sucks,” he said, forcing himself to focus on his investment magazine.
She took a sip of her drink. “I almost backed out. When I wanted to explore my wild side, I thought I’d be doing it in a safe way, you know? With the guy I’ve been dating since our junior year of high school. But the room is paid for, and the flights are nonrefundable.” She flashed the intriguing smile that showed off perfect white teeth. “I decided to go anyway.”
“Good for you. I say it’s his loss.” He looked up toward the cabin ceiling. You gotta be frickin’ kidding me. Who up there is laughing his ass off right now? Fate, karma, cruel trickster, putting a woman who could use some self-esteem boosting right next to me. He loved nothing more than to treat a woman to a weekend of adoration and pampering so that she forgot what’s-his-face and regained her joie de vivre. Of course, he always made it clear that it was only for a weekend or however long he was in town.
Back off, boy. You’re on the job. Then he remembered what she was seeing when she looked at him. No worries that she’d be interested in him anyway. “Just watch your drink while you’re there, ’kay?” He turned back to his magazine.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying, a woman alone at one of these places . . . sometimes nasty people put drugs in drinks. Don’t ever leave your drink alone.” That’s all he could tell her.
“Thanks for the warning,” she said. “I’m Jennessy, by the way.” She held out a long-fingered hand adorned with a couple of rings. Her hand was soft, but her shake was firm.
He kept his limp and brief. “I’m Saxby.”
“Nice to meet you, Saxby. Interesting name.”
“It’s a family name, goes back generations.” Usually this was where he’d go on to talk about his Louisiana roots and tell some family stories, letting his accent ooze like honey over his words. “It’s a dumb name,” he added with a dismissive shrug, releasing her hand. Actually, he liked it. It was a damned sight better than being named John or Robert. Or Rathmusen, like his SEAL brother.
“I like it,” she said. “It sounds very refined and Southern.”
“Louisiana Southern,” he confirmed. “Jennessy is unusual.”
“My parents tell me it was from a misinterpretation. They were listening to the Gin Blossoms’ first album, Dusted, and thought the lead singer was saying ‘Jennessy’ and decided that would make a good name for their baby. Even when they found out he was really saying ‘Jealousy,’ they stayed with it.”
“I remember my uncle listening to that song.” Sax chuckled. “He used to . . .” No stories. “Drive us crazy, playing the same CD over and over.” He stuck his nose back in his magazine. He wanted to soak Jennessy in, the way he admired Greek statues of shapely women in museums. All he could do was snatch a view from his peripheral vision. Jennessy was beautiful in a classy, understated way. Definitely not dressed for a hedonistic adventure in shorts that went midway to her knees and a dark pink tank that showed only a little cleavage. She had legs that went on forever, folded into the confines of their seat space. Her feet were elegant in gold sandals, toenails tipped in florescent pink. A gold ring circled one toe.
She pulled the book from the pocket and sank into the romance story, if the bare-chested hunk on the cover was any indication. Poor guy’s head was cut off above his chiseled chin. The dude’s pecs looked more like boobs and his twelve-pack had to be Photoshopped. Sax’s hand went involuntarily to his mere six-pack, hidden beneath the loose, light blue button-down shirt.
Jennessy was reading about sex. Not what he wanted to think about with her sitting next to him, the scent of her light, floral perfume wafting over. He couldn’t distract himself with articles about financial markets and the best retirement investment strategies, so he grabbed a magazine from the pocket and found a write-up about video games.
Once they were airborne, the steward returned for more drink orders. Jennessy had finished her second rum punch and ordered another. Sax tried hard to concentrate on the gaming article. Sitting in front of a computer pretending to shoot people . . . yawn. He had shot people, had killed bad guys, rescued hostages, ambushed compounds.
That part of his life was over. He blew out the remnants of anger and focused on his new life. A life he liked very much. With a more stable and slightly less dangerous job, it gave the guys a better chance at making a long-term relationship work. Much better than the rumored 90 percent divorce rate among SEALs. Not for Sax, though.
He had to stop himself about fifty times from looking Jennessy’s way or striking up some convo, especially when her drink was delivered. Dayum, this was torture. Sitting next to a pretty woman who could use some distraction, who was his captive on the short flight to a resort . . . freaking torture. It went against everything in his Cole DNA. So did sitting there when all around him people were laughing, chatting, getting to know each other. One couple two aisles up were in a perpetual lip-lock, lapping at each other’s tongues. Which made him glance her way.
Jennessy gave him a sheepish look when he caught her taking a long sip of her drink. “I don’t usually drink like this.”
“Hey, it’s a vacay. No need to explain.”
She turned so that she was facing him, her cheek against the seat back. “I never cheated on him, not once. I wasn’t even tempted.”
“You seem like a nice gal.” The asshat was a different story.
Her laugh was bittersweet. “I went to Loyala University. Loyal, get it? And I am a nice girl. A good Catholic girl. And look what it got me.”
He hadn’t been a good Catholic anything for a long time, having suffered through more masses and confessions than he wanted to contemplate. “Don’t blame yourself because some guy can’t keep his pecker in his pants.” Sax blinked at the emphatic words that shot out of his mouth. “You’ll find a guy who’s worthy of you.”
“That’s sweet of you to say. I fell for Lane because he was confident and charming. He was the blond-haired, blue-eyed captain of the football team with a body like this”—she wagged the book—“and a killer smile.”
“Oh, that type, eh?” he asked, for the first time in twenty minutes glad that he didn’t look anything like that.
“From the moment he noticed me, I was Lane’s girl. I convinced myself that was all I wanted. That we could stay loyal even as we pursued degrees in separate states. And that going to some hedonistic resort would be the answer to a relationship I had outgrown years earlier, even if I couldn’t face the fact.” She gave him a contrite smile. “I don’t usually pour myself out like this to strangers. Or even to friends, for that matter.” She took another sip of her punch. “There’s something very . . . talkable about you. Talk-to-able? I mean, you’re easy to talk to.”
Sax patted his chest. “What every guy wants to hear.”
She laughed, loud and lusty, then covered her mouth. “Sorry. I guess it’s not the best compliment, huh?”
He gave her a genuine smile. “I like being easy to talk to. Go on, tell me more about Lane-with-the-lame-name-and-wandering-pecker.”
Jennessy laughed again and took another drink of her punch, licking her lower lip. Her very luscious lip with her very pink tongue. “I was trying to save our relationship out of some sense of holding on to the past, I think. I decided to surprise him with a weekend visit . . . only I got surprised too when I found him asleep in bed with another woman.” She let out a sigh. “The funny thing was, I actually felt relieved. Hurt and angry, but relieved, too. Maybe deep inside I knew that, beneath all of his big talk about being loyal, he was cheating, and I wanted to catch him and get it over with. Then, want to know what he tells me afterward? That men are just programmed to cheat. He couldn’t help himself.”
Sax held back words he didn’t want to say in front of a lady. “Well, it would have been nice for him to tell you his beliefs up front. I have a good friend whose nickname in the military was Sooch, truncated for Mr. Southern Charm. He’s part of one of those old Louisiana families, grew up on a big plantation right on the ole Mississippi. Cheating is considered a male family trait.”
She pursed her lips in a perfect schoolmarm expression. “Sounds like an excuse.”
“He’s even voiced that suspicion. He’s disgusted by it, having watched his daddy head off to his mistresses over the years.” Sax’s gaze drifted past Jennessy toward the fluffy white clouds outside the window. “When he was little, his daddy got stuck taking him with sometimes. He’d sit him in some woman’s living room and disappear into the bedroom. Tell his son to be quiet about it, that he’d explain when he was old enough to understand.”
Sax remembered that conversation as vividly as he did stepping on a piece of glass that pierced right through his foot. How his father told him that the Coles were charmed in ways beyond money and good looks. The men had a ticket to cheat, ’cause heck, it was in their DNA. Sax didn’t buy that and yet, he’d never felt the desire to commit to any woman. Maybe the genes had more to do with a propensity to remain unattached than it did for actually cheating. At least by not committing to a woman, he wasn’t taking a chance of breaking her heart.
“That’s awful, dragging his son into his immorality,” she said.
It was pretty shitty of him, now that Sax thought about it. “My point is that if you believe you’re not cut out for monogamy, you have to be up front about it. That’s what my friend does, and no one gets hurt.”
She gave him a smile that burrowed right down into his chest. “You’re a nice guy.”
Words that usually resounded with the death knell when said by a woman. Sax was glad to hear them. It was a first, no doubt, but he did not want this beautiful, sweet woman to be attracted to him. Not only because of his undercover work. The last thing Jennessy needed was a man like him. He returned the smile. “You’re a nice gal. So be careful at the resort, ’kay? You don’t want to do the rebound thing. Messy.”
“I do want to rebound. I need some ego boosting, some wild, crazy weekend sex with a guy who’s nothing like Lane.”
He could be that guy. Should be that guy. Oh, man, could he boost her esteem. This was so unfair. He watched her nodding with newfound conviction, as though she were trying to convince herself.
“You don’t seem like the one- or three-night stand type of gal,” he said, still trying to get her to abort.
“I’m not. At least I don’t think I am. But this weekend is about finding out who I am now that I’m not Lane’s girl. And what I want. For the first time in my life, I feel like an adult. I just graduated from college, and I’m totally, completely free.” She took a deep breath, then turned to him. “I have a confession.”
Several possibilities bombarded his brain, but he simply said, “What’s that?”
“I fibbed to Lane. I changed my reservation to the Mild side. I wasn’t ready to go that far out by myself. You look relieved.”
“I just don’t want you to do anything you’ll regret.”
She gave him a wink. “But aren’t our biggest regrets when we don’t do something we want to?”
Luckily he was spared answering by the pilot’s announcement. They were about to land.
There was a flurry of activity as people readied for arrival. Jennessy tucked her novel into her purse and looked out the window. He leaned close—but not too close—to watch the island come into view, surrounded by water a surreal blue-green color.
“It’s gorgeous!” she said on a breath, her eyes wide. “Like a post card.”
Her scent tickled his senses, and he quelled the temptation to twine one of those curls around his finger. “Yeah, nice.” Too nice, Sax. And he wasn’t talking about the view.
The plane touched down with a gentle bump and taxied to the small building. Once they’d been released, Sax retrieved her bag from the bin and resolved not to spend any more time around her. Which he did a real good job of as he held her bag while she ducked into the restroom, then stood beside her at the luggage carousel. He grabbed her large bag, hoping she had lots of clothes in there. Shirts with long sleeves, pants, that sort of thing. Not that it was any of his business. She waited until his duffel finally rolled out on the conveyor belt.
He tried hard not to engage her in conversation as they headed out to join the group waiting for the bus. Other than the runway and building, this part of the private island was pretty wild. A shell road divided acres of forest, disappearing into the distance. And in that distance, he could see a vehicle coming. He needed to get separated from Jennessy, so they wouldn’t be sitting all cozy.
Several of the dozen people were together, talking about the body-painting and costume contests they’d read about. One returning couple offered tips on applying sun block on the parts where the sun didn’t usually shine.
Sax sneaked a glance at Jennessy, who was listening with what looked like growing trepidation. Good. He felt protective of her, and dayum, he couldn’t get attached to anyone. He had surveillance to conduct, questions to ask, and a matchmaking service to join. All of the women who had reported incidents had signed up for Connections.
The small transport vehicle pulled up, and a blond man wearing khaki shorts and a green shirt bearing the resort’s two dancing nymphs logo on the shirt pocket launched out of the driver’s seat. “Welcome to Decadence, mates!” His beaming grin faded, though his Aussie accent did not. “I’m afraid that our other vehicle broke down this morning. Some of you are going to have to wait until I can deliver the first load and come back. I can fit twelve, and there are fifteen of you.”
People starting piling in, nudging Sax and Jennessy aside in their eagerness to secure a seat. The thirteenth person sat on someone else’s lap, and then there were two left. Sax and Jennessy.
“Sorry, mates,” the guy said. “Be back in a jiff.”
“What, exactly, is a jiff?” Sax asked, watching the van head off.
She was wandering around, looking at the murals depicting all sorts of debauchery. Either drunk or juvenile patrons had improvised, drawing targets over nipples and rockets shooting out of penises.
“What do you do for a living, Saxby?” she asked, her gaze on the murals as she moved down the wall.
“I’m a financial analyst for a small investment firm.” He was given a profession that wouldn’t invite many questions. At least he hoped not.
She nodded and said, “Oh.” As in, I have no real idea what that is, and it sounds so boring that I won’t even ask about it. But she surprised him by asking, “Do you like it?”
“It’s a job.”
He caught his reflection in the window, startled by the watered-down version of himself looking back. He had to keep remembering to let his shoulders droop. Years of being batted on the back and admonished to “sit up straight!” made that difficult.
She surprised him again when she came close and tugged at his rumpled sleeve. “I bet you have trouble relaxing. You look like you just left the office after an all-nighter.”
“You pegged me. My boss forced me to take a few days off, said I was burning out. To be honest, I’m more comfortable with numbers and reports than I am with people.” He felt a zing of electricity at her nearness and covered it by removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes.
“You have the most amazing eyes. Have you ever considered contacts? Or at least a different shape of lens frame?”
He couldn’t tell her that he was wearing contacts already. Brown ones. He stood so close that he could lean forward an inch and capture her mouth with his. “Uh . . . no.”
She traced her finger down his jawline. “You have great facial structure and killer cheekbones.”
Open your mouth and respond in some credible way. It’s not like you haven’t been complimented before. And it wasn’t even the first time he couldn’t act on a compliment. He’d passed on many an advance by a married woman.
“Thank you,” he said, because the spark in her eyes totally stripped away his senses.
“It might do you some good to let loose and get your wild on, too.” She leaned forward and touched her mouth to his, then moved back a hair. “Yes, you are definitely too uptight.” This time she kissed him fully, her arms going around his shoulders and her body leaning into his.
His arms automatically circled her waist and pulled her closer. She tasted of rum and fruit and sun-filled days. His hands splayed across her lower back, itching to squeeze her ass. When her stomach surrounded his now rigid cock, he was glad she wasn’t an athletic woman with hard abs. No, she was perfect, toned but curvy. She let out a sigh as his tongue swept across hers, exploring all of her. Her fingers slid up into his hair, brushing the back of his ear.
Oh, he wanted her. Wanted to show her just how worthy she was of loyalty, of adoration, of—screech! The sound of his thoughts coming to an abrupt halt again. He finished the kiss and forced himself to step back. Dayum, his glasses were actually steamed up.
Her cheeks flushed red with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I thought—”
“No, I’m sorry.” He rubbed his hand across his mouth. “Believe me, I’m very sorry. I can’t . . .” let myself fall in lust with your luscious self because . . . what was the reason again? Oh, yeah, he was on assignment. And he had a line in the unlikely event that someone actually approached him. “I have a girlfriend.”
She blinked. “Oh. You didn’t mention her.”
“Callie was supposed to come with me, but she was called away on a last-minute business trip. She told me to go alone, said it would be a test of my loyalty. And you are that, for sure, but I have to back off. I hope you’ll understand.”
“Yes, of course.” Jennessy wrapped her arms around herself and turned toward the murals. “I, of all people, wouldn’t want to be the other woman.”
Sax couldn’t help but touch her arm. “I am sorry—”
“It’s okay.” She searched the road where the bus would return. “I’m glad you didn’t . . .” She merely gestured between them.
Sax nodded, feeling lower than low. She was embarrassed and no doubt felt rejected. He’d wanted to boost her esteem, not tear it down.
“I see a vehicle coming,” she said, shading her eyes. Relief saturated her voice.
This is for the better, he told himself. Now she would avoid him. Which would make it much easier to do his job.
So why didn’t he feel any better?