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Authors: Lauren Christopher

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BOOK: Ten Good Reasons
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Leeee-yaaaa
,” Kyle admonished, low, like he was speaking to a naughty child. He pulled his phone out and began punching numbers.

“I have a lot to do here,” she rambled. “We have to close the boat up. Right, Evan?”

Evan was studying Kyle.

“. . . And we have to get ready for tomorrow,” Lia continued, “and—”

“Yeah, Elle?” Kyle said into the phone.

Elle?
Lia’s heart flipped in her chest.

“I’ve got Lia here in front of me, and I’m inviting her to my club, but she says she has too much work to do. Can you give her the night off?” He winked at Lia.

Lia wanted to kill him.

If Elle didn’t kill her first.

“Yeah, yeah, she’s right here. . . .” He handed his phone to Lia.
Oh God
.

Lia took the phone and turned away from the group.

“Who’s Elle?” she heard Evan growl as she stepped toward the back of the galley.

“Hello?”

“Lia, what’s going on?” Elle’s voice was already in its trademark note of intolerance.

“We’re on Drew’s boat, and—”

“He sounds
drunk
.”

She glanced back at the table. “A little,” she whispered.

“Can’t you give him what he wants?”

“I really can’t. He wants to go out, and we have to close up the boat, and—”

“I thought you said your little Sandy Cove friend was going to take care of everything. For the love of God, Lia, if you screw this up—”

“No, no. It’s going fine. It’s going great. It’s just that—”

“I’m getting a
full report
from Kyle tomorrow, do you hear me? I want him telling me you were the most
gracious
hostess, and that Sandy Cove is not a hovel, and that I gave you the night off, and you were able to deliver. You said you could handle this. And this is
easy
compared to the Paris work. His father just set up a possible meeting with me in two weeks. So show me you can handle it.
Do this for me
.
Now
.” The phone went dead.

Lia stared at it in her hand.

Would Elle really demand that she go
out
with Kyle? And do whatever he wanted? A sickening thud fell into her stomach. But she’d figure this out. Deep breath . . .

“So whaddaya say? I know you have the night off.” Kyle grinned as she handed back his phone.

She glanced up at Evan. He was waiting for her answer, too, with cocked eyebrow.

“I can’t, Kyle. Evan and I have a lot to do here.”

“Whaddaya need?” Kyle scooted out of the dinette. “I can help with any business work, and my guys out there can help with any deck work. But damn, it’s raining!” He bent to stare out the porthole. “Whaddaya gonna do? Wash the deck? C’mon, let’s lock up and we can all go. Maybe we can talk more about this boat.”

He was a whirlwind of energy, sweeping his vodka bottles, collecting the glasses, touching Avery on the shoulder.

Talk more about the boat?
Would he consider
investing
?

Even so, a sober conversation would be smarter. “I can’t. My ankle is still healing, and—”


Leee-yaaaa
. Nonsense. We can make this work. Avery, Evan—I want you to join us.”

In the manner of a man used to getting what he wanted, he took over the room, shouting for his guys to help Evan with anything he needed, looking around the galley for anything he could put up or clean. Avery gathered her notebook and looked ready to go, apparently forgetting her earlier conditions regarding Evan.

Evan hadn’t budged.

“She doesn’t want to go,” Evan said into the whirlwind.

Kyle looked back with something that looked like amusement. “I think Lia can speak for herself.”

“I think she has.”

The two men regarded one another carefully.

Lia gaped. She’d never had men speaking for her in such a way, as if she weren’t in the room. But, for some reason, right before the flash of indignity came a thrilling tingle when she saw Evan’s jaw muscle dance.

For that, she hated herself even more.

“Are you guys
kidding
?” She stepped between them.

She had to get a handle on this situation. She had to get a handle on
herself
. She had to stop ogling this man’s biceps and stop being attracted to someone who thought he needed to save her. Men like that were trouble. Men like that thought of women as “the fairer sex,” dainty flowers that needed to be saved. They thought of women as . . . well, as
Cinderellas
.

Lia whirled on Evan. “I’m
fine
. Stop speaking for me.”

Evan held his arms up in surrender. “Then tell him you don’t want to go.”

Some perverse thing in Lia reared its ugly head. It was the same seed of rebellion that had always gotten her in trouble as a kid: that need to think independently of whoever was in front of her. And maybe it was born of some fear of what Evan was making her feel, and what kind of woman she was when she was around him.

“Maybe that’s not how I feel,” she found herself blurting.

Evan lifted his eyebrow. “Is that so?”

Of course that was not so. But the perverse part of her that wanted him to be wrong, and wanted to remind herself that he was a caveman, kept talking: “That’s so.”

“I guess I misunderstood.”

“I guess you did.”

Kyle clapped his hands in front of him. “Well, good, then. That’s solved. The ladies and I are going. I’ll have my guys swing the car around.”

“I’ll go too, then,” Evan mumbled.

“What?” Lia whirled on him again.

“If you’re going, I’ll go.”

“No! You don’t need to go. You said you didn’t want to.”

“Great! Everyone’s going.” Kyle stepped up and threw his arm around Evan’s shoulders, barely making it across, steering him away from Lia’s protest. “I can’t wait to hear about the Coast Guard. Were you there in San Diego when they rescued those marines whose Hornet crashed in the ocean?”

“Which time?” Evan murmured.

Kyle waved the bodyguards in so they could hold their umbrellas over Avery and Lia as they all stepped out, and Evan moved out from Kyle’s bro-hug and ushered everyone in front of him so he could lock the door.

He refused to meet Lia’s eyes as she stomped through the doorway.

CHAPTER

Ten

E
van had no idea how he ended up in the back of a limo with a spoiled playboy, the ghost of Renece, and a cartoon-Disney-princess-come-to-life, but here he was.

And the cartoon princess was wreaking havoc; all kinds of old parts were waking up.

They were the parts that made his blood course faster when a spirited woman challenged him; the parts that made his blood boil when he saw a playboy jerk pushing her; the parts that made his heart pound when he saw a stampede of dolphins through someone else’s eyes for the first time; and the parts that stood at attention when he caught a glimpse of a thong band on a pretty body crawling across a viewing net.

But he didn’t want those parts to come alive. He wanted to keep everything dead, the way they had been. The way they should be. Guilt was gnawing a pit in his gut. . . .

He ran his hand down his face as the limo pulled into the next parking lot, then stared out the rain-soaked window. He was in deep crap.

But as much as he didn’t want to be around the temptation of Cinderella, he couldn’t let her go alone in this limo, into this
night, into a club with a guy like Stevens who was getting more sauced by the minute.

“Is it this one?” Kyle leaned forward to look out the window.

“Yes,” Cinderella said as they pulled alongside the palm-tree-lined, ’60s-style apartment complex and next to a pebbled staircase that must have led up to her place.

Evan clenched his jaw. He’d hated that she’d given out her address so freely, but Stevens had offered to let them run into their respective homes to change after such a long day on the boat. As they’d snaked through the tiny streets of Sandy Cove, Stevens kept humming about how “quaint” it was.

Evan had showered on his boat in two minutes flat and had changed, although not into anything dressy—just a clean pair of jeans and a shirt. He wasn’t the type to have “clubwear” on hand. Or even decent shoes. He had one suit—the one he’d worn to Luke’s and Renece’s funeral—but it was shoved into the back of his closet, never to be worn again. He only kept it there for his own funeral, which—when he’d put it there—had felt like it could come any day.

“Take your time, sweetheart,” Kyle said.

Both men turned to watch Cinderella’s ass exit the car as the limo driver held an umbrella for her, but Evan hated himself for it and lowered his eyes.

Stevens did a double take, then turned toward Avery.

“Hey, beautiful, why don’t you go help Lia? Evan and I need to chat.”

Avery bobbed her head in her pliant way—even her pliancy reminded him of Renece—and let the limo driver open the door for her.

“You look like you need cheering up,” Kyle said once they were alone in the silence of the car.

“I’m fine.”

“Sorry to hear about your wife.” He grabbed two highball glasses out of the drink rack. “Did it happen recently?”

“Two years ago.”

Kyle held out one of the glasses but Evan shook his head.

Before Kyle spoke again, vodka splashed into his glass, along with his favorite tonic. “Must be hard.”

Evan looked out the window. He didn’t bother to answer.
People had tried to tell him the “right” way to grieve—that he must feel this, or should feel that—but it was all bullshit. He felt how he felt. And it took as long as it took.

“Seems Avery might want to cheer you up.” Kyle’s smirk was probably meant to be friendly. “I think you and Avery could have a good time together. Or I could set you up with someone else if you want.”

“I’m not a charity case, Stevens.”

“I’m not saying that. It’s just that my place is filled with beautiful women. And I want to give you one. Any one. And it’s not just the women—these steaks at my place, they’re”—he kissed his fingertips. “Anything you want, it’s on me. I admire you Coast Guard guys.”

Evan lifted an eyebrow. So that might be why he was being so friendly. Evan had met men before like this—adventure-seeking guys who were never able to find their own adventure, for whatever reason, and hung around rescue guys, or guys who courted danger in some other way, asking for stories.

“I always wanted to join the Coast Guard,” Kyle confirmed, “but my parents would have killed me. My dad is J.P. Stevens.” He looked up to make sure the name rang a bell.

It did. “J.P. Stevens” was on every building site in Orange County.

“They were pretty protective,” Kyle said. “Wanted me to stay clean and safe and in one piece to take over the family business.”

Evan nodded slowly.

Kyle looked out the window at the rain for a minute. “So which girl do you want?”

The leather creaked under Evan’s weight. “I don’t think the women are here to be divided up like playing cards.”

“I think you’re wrong. Avery’s a sure hand, if you haven’t noticed. And I think I could get a flush with Lia, if you don’t want to . . .”

A flush shot up around Evan’s collar. Why he felt so protective of a woman he barely knew, he had no idea, but there it was. And it’s not like she was the type who needed protecting. Or wanted it. Her flashing eyes and thrown-back shoulders earlier had been clear on that point. But, embarrassingly, her toughness was exactly what was turning him on.

“What do you want with her?” he finally asked.

Kyle studied him. “
Are
you?”

“What?”

“Interested? I can’t get a read on you two, if you’re”—he made a coupling gesture with his fingers.

Evan’s first instinct was to reach over and smash Kyle in the face, but then it occurred to him that Kyle’s confusion might work to his advantage—or Lia’s, anyway.

“It’s complicated,” he mumbled.

“So you
are
 . . . oh, hey, man, I didn’t know. I didn’t understand. . . .” He laughed nervously. “I’ll take Avery. I like her, too. I just wanted us to all have a good time tonight, but if there’s some history with you and . . .” He made a helpless gesture with his hand.

“What do you want with the boat?”

“The boat?”

“Yes. Drew’s boat.”

“Well, I . . . I was thinking I might like one. When I saw it today, I thought, yeah, man, I might want one of these. I can’t believe that awesome vessel is hidden in a little place like Sandy Cove. But I’d just call Hobie and have them design one for me. I don’t need to buy your brother’s.”

“Lia thinks you want to invest.”


Invest
? Nah, I don’t need to do that. Unless . . . do you
need
investors?”

“I think Drew’s interested in that.”

“Oh. Well . . .” Kyle stared out the window. “I would consider that.”

“You can discuss it with Lia.”

“I will. Maybe tonight.” His smile, still sloppy from all the Ketel One, was hard to read, but it didn’t look like it had good intentions involved. Or even business.

“Not tonight.”

Kyle smirked. “You don’t look like you’re planning on closing any deals yourself, Captain.”

“She has a boyfriend.”

Kyle laughed. “Doesn’t seem like a small problem like that would get in your way. But how about if I take my cue from you? If you seem interested in Lia tonight, I’ll stay away. Just send me a sign. Otherwise, I might like to see where things go.”

The door opened abruptly and Avery slid in next to Evan, a new scent swirling around her, something claustrophobia-inducing.

Lia took the space next to Kyle, but Evan noted she sat farther away, some space between their knees. She’d changed into a dress, but it didn’t look like a club dress. Looked sort of like a work dress, actually. Evan blew out a relieved breath and struggled not to notice her legs any more than he already had. Kyle was watching him carefully.

“And we’re off,” Kyle said, toasting his drink and throwing his smarmy smile around the limo. “It’ll take us a half hour to get there. Who wants a drink?”

*   *   *

The sound of the pounding rain gave way to pounding techno tunes as the four of them made their way through a back door off an alleyway into what looked like a concrete hallway.

Lia shook the rain out of her hair, while Kyle swiped drops off his Italian loafers, then turned to the rest of them. “Ready?” His grin was filled with anticipation.

The shaved-head bodyguard swept them past a velvet curtain.

The
boof-a-boof-a-boof-a
techno rhythm pounded in her head as Lia’s heels clicked across the floating floor. The room wasn’t crowded—it was still pretty early—but tiny clusters of young women and men were already at the bar, most clad in black, the women with tight, short skirts and long silky hair that only the under-twenty-five crowd could pull off.

Lia tugged at her own sensible work dress and felt, for the first time ever perhaps, stuffy.

She shifted her attention to the décor: Here’s where she could be proud. She’d suggested half of this color scheme when Kyle first came aboard with their firm, and it played out beautifully. Purple lights danced across the floating floor, patterning out the word “Plush.” She’d seen it in photos numerous times, especially when she was putting together Plush’s website, but seeing it in person was stunning.

On the other side of the dance floor was a raised, half-circle stage made up of hologram trees that stretched to the ceiling—all in shades of dark green and dark purple, with white lights touching their tips like snow. Some of the trees changed color
and throbbed to the
boof-a-boof-a-boof-a
beat. Some of the young women danced through them.

“It’s beautiful!” Avery exclaimed.

“Lia had a lot to do with it.” Kyle smiled at her.

Avery threw Lia a new wide-eyed look of admiration.

Evan had gone back into sullen mode, acting as if they were taking him to prison. He looked around at the room as if he’d just stepped out of solitary confinement and was seeing civilization for the first time—a mixture of wonder and horror. He hadn’t said a word to her since they’d left.

“Some of these areas open at ten,” Kyle yelled over the music, pointing to a series of back rooms closed off by curtains. “Although I guess Lia knows that.”

“The Den at Ten,” Lia said, offering a tentative smile and trying not to imagine what probably went on back there. The models for the design of those alcoves were pictures of old opium dens from the eighteen hundreds. He’d had fourteen circular, tufted, velvet ottomans installed in each one that guests could use as tables, or sitting areas, or beds. Seven of the dens were outfitted with hookah pipes, and Plush boasted fifty flavors that Lia had detailed on the website.

Avery’s fingers hooked around Evan’s biceps as they made it past the last hookah den. Lia pretended not to notice.

Kyle ushered them through the next curtain, where a bar made entirely of ice sprawled for fifty feet. “Plush” was carved into the front and sides, with ice sculptures positioned every ten feet that took on the shape of female torsos, reaching toward the lavender lit ceiling. Lia knew that Kyle had this bar carved by a team of ice sculptors every night. Rumor had it he requested his most recent lovers—whoever the current cluster was—to stand in as models for his sculptors, and the bodies were always changing. Licking was encouraged.

“Why don’t you guys get a drink?” Kyle said. “I’ll have my table set up for four.” He called his bartender over and ordered something into the bartender’s ear, pointing to the three of them. “I need to check on something. Avery?” Kyle held out his arm, and Avery switched from holding Evan to holding Kyle. Lia wanted to roll her eyes.

“We’ll be right back,” Kyle said, snaking Avery through the bar.

Their disappearance left a gap between Lia and Evan at the bar, but Evan didn’t close it. Instead he seemed to be counting the exit doors.

“You didn’t have to come,” Lia shouted over the music.

Evan nodded once. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there.

An old-fashioned cigarette girl with a pillbox hat and bright purple feather dipping down over fake eyelashes approached with a box of electronic cigarettes. She struck a pose in ridiculously high platform heels and fishnet stockings and thrust the box that hung around her neck toward Evan. She was dark and elegant, with long hair slicked into a loose ponytail down one side of her body. He shook his head and forced his gaze away. She seemed to find that amusing, and reached out to touch his chin and bring it back to her attention. “Are you sure?” she seemed to say, if Lia read her lips correctly.

Evan nodded, and she strutted away with a flirtatious smile.

“Why did you?” Lia shouted. She was suddenly hyperaware that her loud voice and demeanor were not at all as cute and flirty as the pillbox girl.

A bartender slid two drinks toward them, some kind of dark red wine that almost looked like blood.

Evan stared at the drinks but didn’t touch his. “Why did I what?”

“Why did you come?”

Lia brought the drink to her lips. It smelled like port, perhaps—sultry and rich. It slid down her throat, thick and silky, with a warm aftertaste. She closed her eyes to enjoy it.

When she opened them, he was staring right at her. “That, maybe,” he said.

“What?”

He shook his head.

The music pounded behind them for almost a full minute before he spoke again. “I don’t trust him.”

“You came because you don’t
trust
him?”

“I wanted to come for you and Avery, to make sure you’d be okay with him.”

Fury flooded her veins again, but this time it was joined by
a warmth through her scalp and cheeks that could have been the wine.

She leaned forward so her harsh whisper could be heard above the music. “Evan,
I don’t need you to protect me
. I thought I made that clear.”

“You did.”

“This is my
client
.”

“I understand.”

“I do this for a
living
.”

He nodded.

“But you still came?”

“Didn’t change my distrust.”

She leaned back and took another sip of the racy drink. The wine filled the back of her throat and slid down into her stomach again, warming her all over.

“Why is this any of your business?” she asked.

He stared at his fists for a second, then shook his head. “It isn’t.”

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