Authors: Nikki Duncan
Still, she felt his gaze on her. Watching. Studying. Waiting.
Narrowing her eyes, she walked to the mirror and touched her fingertip to the cool surface. A space reflected back between her finger and its reflection. Not a double-sided mirror.
She scanned the room for cameras, or likely places to hide cameras. The pressure in her head eased.
“Stop it, Ava.” He’d given her no reason to suspect him of being a member of the Asshole Clan. His background, what she knew of it, didn’t support the theory.
Regardless, she’d needed to get closer. She’d asked for this assignment. She may as well make the best of it. She loved the water. She could find pleasure in it, even with him. And then they’d get to work.
Hurrying through the task of changing, she stowed her clothes and gun in a locker. In the shower area she found a large towel to tie around her waist. At least she could hide some of herself from his view. Every little bit helped.
On the way to the door, she stopped before the mirror and checked the suit.
It was small, but not quite as small as she’d thought it would be.
The bottom worked if she remembered to not fidget with it. She checked herself to make sure the essentials were covered and sighed in relief that she’d shaved that morning. This could have been profoundly more embarrassing. She adjusted the two triangles barely covering her breasts and nipples. Feeling silly, she executed a quick roundhouse kick to see how the suit behaved. Nothing vital came uncovered, but if she’d been one cup size bigger she’d be in a universe of hurt.
Way more skin showed than she liked to reveal in public. Her near nakedness and the seclusion with Dr. H—a man she barely knew, was incredibly aroused by and couldn’t quite figure out as well as she needed—mixed with her lack of a gun and coalesced into a glob of dread deep in her gut. This was not going to end well.
She tied the towel around her hips and laughed. She’d worried about losing credibility when her mouth had run away from her. One strong wave would turn her into the subject of a song.
It wasn’t yellow polka-dotted, but it was a teeny-weeny bikini.
With a last lingering look at the locker holding her weapon, she flipped the lock and pulled open the door.
H reclined against the opposite wall. The hand gripping a water bottle halted halfway to his mouth. A blast of hazy, blue heat radiated from his unblinking gaze and washed over her. Arousal filled her and looked for an outlet. She clamped down on her bodily yearnings and tilted her head.
“Ready?” At least she sounded normal. None of the breathiness she felt wavered in her voice. None of the insecurities pushing to the surface showed.
He nodded once—a sharp, jagged move of his head—before heading deeper into the lab, leading her to a back door. She checked the towel and swim top, making sure her now-puckered nipples were covered.
A look had been all it took for her body to snap to attention.
The starkness of her vulnerability snapped at her with the destructive force of swarming piranhas.
Of all the fuck-ups in all of the labs in all of the world, he’d given her that bikini in his. And damn if she hadn’t found a way to cover the tattoo. Her tattoo had floated through his dreams, shifting constantly from one shape into another with the multitude of possibilities.
The bottom edge he’d glimpsed had looked like feathers. Something soft and sexual to taunt him as vividly as the sensual dare coating her voice when the conversation turned to anything remotely sexual. Sensuality which tempted him into making stupid choices.
Choices like Dana’s suit, a suit he would never again be able to see on Dana.
She stayed behind him as they left the building and headed down the path he’d had designed to cut through the thick foliage. The beach wasn’t far away, but the tall palms and bushy landscaping he’d had put in around the lab hid it from view of the building. It had been a move he’d taken hesitantly, but in the end his focus during working hours had improved for it.
“You know, a little warning we’d be going for a hike would have been nice.”
“We’re almost there.” It was a short walk, easy enough when you got used to it. She handled it well, but her occasional grunts and muttered curses slapped at him with the sting of an electrode.
He lowered a mental shield and reached out to her. The water ahead became a richer blue while the trees adopted an unnaturally bright vibrancy.
Frustration and a sense of conflict were all he picked up before she went blank, as if she’d shut a door to her thoughts.
He risked a glance over his shoulder to check on her. She was adjusting the fabric over one perfectly shaped, palm-sized boob. He turned away, but not before glimpsing a flash of her puckered, perky, rose-pink nipple. She smelled of the gardenia and eucalyptus oils he put in a bowl of water each night for the soothing properties of the concoction.
He hardened instantly. The calming and protective qualities of those scents would never have the same impact on him again. Yeah. He’d screwed up.
What had started out as an exercise to test her in a relaxed environment, because he had a hunch she had empathic tendencies, had whipped around with a vicious backlash that instead tested his protective barriers. Barriers he’d spent his life building quaked with the desire to drop. A desire he couldn’t give in to.
“Where precisely are we going? And is anyone else joining us?”
“There’s a private beach Dana and I use often.” Blocked off from the main part of the beach by a steep wall of rocks combined with more precisely placed foliage. “And no.”
“A private beach in this part of Miami?”
“Yes.” It was doable when you had the right connections and money. His
happened to want his silence more than they wanted to hang on to their precious dollars. Or they had. If the Feds were right, if he’d read the situation clearly yesterday, Janus would be making an appearance soon.
H’s gut knotted. He’d fortified his shields and security. He hoped it would be enough when the time came. “Our work can be stressful. We need our breaks.”
She misunderstood his relationship with Dana. Most people who met them did, but until the right person came along they wouldn’t worry about correcting misconceptions. When he and Ms. Sebastian stepped onto the beach, with the calm waves lapping at the shore and the sand just warming from the sun, instant peace moved over him.
“So this is a break, rather than work?”
“I don’t work that way.”
A perk of his job was calling the shots and enjoying his work. “You do if you work with me.”
His entire life had been tests and work and demands. One misery after another. One reminder of who was in charge followed immediately by another. They’d misstepped and allowed valuable information to seep into his mind.
When he’d put the scrambled bits of information together in his mind, the power had shifted. Finally, he’d had what he waited twenty-five years for and after a little planning and research, he’d made his demands for freedom. The demands had been met without question or hesitation.
When the funds and his release had been secured, he’d chosen his spot and designed his lab. The first time he’d stepped onto this stretch of sandy land he’d known he was home.
Like every other day, he kicked off his flip-flops as he walked straight to the wet sand. The first wave rushed over his feet. He dug his toes into the shifting sand and lowered the remaining shields around his inner eye. The fears and worries and dark emotions he’d absorbed in the last twenty-four hours flew through a blinding vortex to the forefront of his mind.
The world misted.
As closely connected as a man could get with the earth and the cleansing properties of the sea, he envisioned the darkness swirling in his mental vision being carried away. He compressed the destructive powers of the negativity and fears he inadvertently absorbed during a day until they were no larger than particles of sand.
With his face lifted to the sky, he channeled his breathing down restorative paths. Using his mind, he expelled the gritty emotions from his body like sweat through his pores.
Ms. Sebastian had been chatty the day before, almost too much so. The idea of sharing his morning communion with her had bothered him, similar to burning indigestion. But curiosity had won. And she hadn’t made a sound since stepping onto the beach. Her ability to stay silent surprised him. Pleased him.
Visualizing tendrils of thread woven through the mist of his vision, he again sent his mind out in search of her. He wasn’t as interested in reading her as feeling how she reacted to the tranquility of the water. Empaths needed the cleansing powers of water. If she was empathic, the air would shift around her.
Clouding the perception of peace in the perfect setting was the lingering impression she was conflicted or confused or fundamentally troubled. As she stood there, digging her toes in the sand as he had, she settled—fractionally. Seemed more content.
“You’re edgy, Ms. Sebastian.”
“In a place like this?” She cleared her throat. “Not possible.”
“Glad to hear it.”
He erected his barriers, waited for the world to return to a normal view, and turned to her. He skimmed his gaze over her body. His dick twitched and as sure as hell was hot, he knew he had to taste her again. With luck, the swim would calm him.
His gut clenched with worry. He didn’t get aroused so easily.
Hell, he’d dated several great women. They hadn’t been too dull or too ugly or too mundane. Nope. They simply hadn’t appealed to him on a sexual level. The lack of his attraction had contrasted so violently with theirs he’d thought something was wrong with him. The potential lack had led to the sexual line of questioning on the questionnaire.
Logic dictated empaths would experience stronger connections with their chosen partners. He’d implemented the adult study to partially test his theory, but to also see how many adults had natural empathic abilities and unwittingly suppressed them.
The connection he’d thought he should feel with women slammed into him with Ms. Sebastian. That bikini and the desire to glimpse the tattoo gracing the side of her precisely toned thigh had little to do with it. No, he was drawn to her on a more basic level.
Her mind intrigued him.
“So. Are we just here to swim?”
“Yes.” She didn’t want to be with him now any more than she’d wanted to take his bait in the dressing room and accept the bikini. She’d given in on both counts. Admiring her apparent dedication, he yanked his shirt off.
Her throat bobbed before she slipped the tie of the towel free and let it fall.
Just like the moment she’d pulled open the dressing room door, he struggled to not swallow his tongue.
The top half of the suit was nice. The bottom half, the part showing off her flat stomach and gently curved hips was more remarkable. Not quite as remarkable as the slamming urge to see her long legs wrapped around his waist.
Her tattoo teased him. A majestic Phoenix, mid-flame, graced the top of her thigh and had him wondering why she’d chosen the famous bird.
“Ready when you are.”
Well-honed restraint held him in place when the horny-guy part of his brain screamed for action. Begging him to drag her to the ground and feel her body against his. Pleading with him to get her out of those tiny scraps of fabric.
“When I’m finished with you this morning, you’ll wonder why you ever needed those artificial vitamins and enhancements to get you going.” He grabbed her hand, turned and ran for the water. He didn’t release her until the gentle waves hit him low on the chest. He pulled a huge gulp of air into his lungs and dove.
Deep. Deeper. He swam straight down into the cooling depths. The compression of the water on his body minimized his stresses, and the sand-grit emotions he’d expelled were brushed away in a trail of flurries along with his arousal. He dove until his lungs began to ache with need for life-affirming air.
Flipping, heels overhead, he changed direction and propelled his body upward. A flash of red caught his periphery just before he broke the surface.
Gasping the oxygen into his lungs, he treaded water and watched Ms. Ava Sebastian. She’d shed her inhibitions and swam with a practiced experience. Her lean legs and powerful arms sliced through the water.
She hadn’t exactly resisted him before, at least he didn’t think she intentionally blocked him, but neither had he gotten beyond her barriers. Barriers he wanted to understand. Were they self-erected?
She flipped onto her back and changed to a backstroke. With each alternate path she changed her stroke. One on her stomach, one on her back. Stomach. Back. Stomach. Back. No wonder she was so toned.
She moved with a skill that spoke of years spent swimming. Possibly competing. She certainly had the competitive spirit in her. He dropped a barrier, reached across the bouncing blue waves and probed gently into her mind.
The more used to feeling him in her mind she became, the more quickly he would gain her trust. He needed her trust if he hoped to learn her secrets.
Happiness as pure as a child gifted with a highly desired toy flooded through him. This woman loved the water, and she didn’t mind sharing it with him. In fact, she’d ostensibly forgotten he existed in the same space.