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"Did you say something, little brother?" Chase asked.
"I just wanted to be sure you could spare the two weeks," Dane retorted, his voice smooth and smug. He winked at Nicole.
"What two weeks?" Chase asked, looking at Nicole again rather than at his brother.
"The two weeks when you take Mark and Sandi."
Chase's head snapped around. He gave Dane his full attention. "Counting chickens?"
Dane just smiled.
"What chickens?" Nicole asked.
"Chase and I have a bet," Dane explained. "When he loses, he takes the kids while Jan and I go on vacation."
Nicole's hesitation came from the emotions she sensed seething just beneath Chase's calm exterior. She didn't know what was wrong, but she could guess. Impulsively she turned to him and rested her hand on his bare forearm.
"I know how busy you must be, and Dane's kids can be a handful. Not to mention Lisa," Nicole said. Then she smiled at the thought of the shy and quietly stubborn child who had Chase's radiant gray eyes. "Don't worry. If you lose, I'll help out. All the kids love picnics in the kipukas."
The affection she had for the children warmed her voice and the smile that came and went like the flicker of flame in a wind. Dane gathered up one of the red strands of her hair that she had missed braiding earlier and gave it a teasing tug.
"You're just a big kid yourself," he said. "That's why they put up with you."
"You bet. Of course, it helps that your kids are even smarter than you are."
Laughing, he freed her hair. "Yeah, they're something else, aren't they?"
Chase's expression settled into harsh lines. He knew from bitter personal experience that the second-fastest way to a father's heart was to seem interested in his children.
You don't miss a trick, do you, Pele? If Dane hasn't gotten the message your body is sending out, you can always make a fuss over his kids.
That was exactly what Chase's most recent lady friend had done. She had oohed and cooed over every snapshot of Lisa as though the girl was the most wonderful child since Christ. But the instant it became clear that the girl -- rather than a handful of pictures -- was going to live with Chase, the lady had wished him luck and gone hunting for another rich fool whose only responsibilities were to his stockbroker.
Lures and lies. But some of those lures are damned irresistible, Chase admitted, looking at the smooth, elegant fingers resting on the bare skin just above his wrist.
When Chase glanced up again, Nicole realized that she had left her hand too long on his warm forearm. With Dane or Bobby it wouldn't have mattered. They were married, and friends.
Chase was neither. He was something new, something entirely unknown. Touching him made her...restless. Being touched by him made heat race through her. The feeling was both exciting and scary.
She knew from past experience that she wasn't a sensual woman. At best, sex with Ted had been an uncomfortable event for her. At worst, it had been painful, and her fault.
All of it.
Her very experienced husband had explained it to her in humiliating detail the night he left her and moved in with a petite divorcée who had enough money to keep him in the style he had learned to take for granted with Nicole's money. As an added plus, the rich divorcée was a skilled, responsive lover. Nicole, on the other hand, was neither skilled nor responsive in bed, as Ted had discovered too many times.
Other than your hair, there's not one damned thing hot about you. You're a walking example of fraud in packaging.
The cruel and cruelly truthful words still echoed in her mind, especially late at night when being alone became loneliness, when her youthful dream of a loving partnership with a man became a nightmare of emptiness too painful to bear. She didn't doubt her husband's opinion of her sexuality. He had been a well-known connoisseur of women. She had been a wallflower.
Yet a part of her always hoped and dreamed that with the right man she would be able to respond in bed. With the right man she would know the heat of passion and the peace of companionship. With the right man she would be able to share herself, mind and body, and share his mind and body in return.
With the right man.
And it felt so very right with Chase.
It had felt right from the first instant she heard the drums speak beneath his hands. The single kiss on the darkened stage still sang in her blood, urging her to touch him again, to know again the fierce perfection of being in his arms.
Something deep within her insisted that the act of love with Chase wouldn't be painful or humiliating. She sensed it as surely as she had sensed the shifts in his drumming the instant before they happened. There was an elemental rapport between Chase and herself that defied logic or explanation.
He was right for her. She knew it.
She was right for him. Did he know it?
As though hearing Nicole's thoughts, Chase turned and caught her speculative amber gaze. The female knowledge in her eyes was as hot as his own hunger. He itched to draw her close and kiss her until they were both breathless and struggling to get inside each other's skin.
The kind of seduction he had in mind should be done in complete privacy rather than in the friendly, almost familial, and certainly loud surroundings of the Kipuka Club on a Friday night. Too many people were watching, and one of them was Dane.
He didn't need his younger brother overseeing every detail of male advance and female retreat with smug amusement in his eyes.
So Chase settled for reaching for Nicole's water glass instead of her lips. In some primitive way that was stronger than logic or experience, he needed to touch something that had touched her. The knowledge that she had held the cool, smooth glass, that her mouth had touched it, that the water had slid caressingly over her tongue, made this one glass irresistible to him.
"May I?" he asked, picking up her glass without taking his eyes from hers.
Wordlessly she nodded.
The delicate sounds of golden bells pierced the blur of surrounding conversation. The sweet music sank into Chase like tiny, sensual claws, pricking him into full physical awareness. He poured a clear stream of water into the glass, set his lips on the rim where hers had so recently lingered, and drank.
He knew that she was watching him as intently as he had watched her. The certainty caused a sudden rush of blood in his veins, the heavy beat of sexuality swelling.
Dane took a swallow of beer, set down the bottle with a thump, and looked wryly at Chase. "I know you're going to accuse me of hedging my bets, but I need a ride home. No hurry, though. I've got some table-hopping to do."
Chase shot his younger brother a Yeah, yeah, yeah look. "Something wrong with your car?"
"Jan thought she'd be able to come here later, so I caught a ride in on the bus. But she called while you were onstage and told me it's slow going for her tonight. I was going to bum a ride with Nicole--"
"Sure," she interrupted with a sly smile. "There's always room for one more on the Hilo bus."
"Car's in the hospital again, huh?" Dane asked, sympathy and amusement in his voice.
"Until tomorrow. How did you guess?"
He grinned. "Psychic. That and the fact that your car is old enough to vote."
"But far too stupid," she retorted. "It doesn't know first from third."
"Told you the transmission was going." Dane gave his brother a sideways glance.
With a stifled curse, Chase accepted that there would be three for the road, not two. The only good news was that he and Nicole both lived on the Kamehameha estate, so the night wouldn't be an entire flop in the seduction department. It was logical to drop off his brother first, which would leave Nicole alone with him.
What's the rush? Chase asked himself harshly. You've got until the end of the month to win the bet.
There was no answer but the heavy beat of his own blood. He wanted her. Now.
Nothing cooled the hot rush of desire focused between his thighs, even the near certainty that he wouldn't get Nicole into bed tonight any more than he had lured her into the shower. She wanted to wait, to play. He wanted to spread those long legs and sink into her until she didn't know anything but the taste of him, the feel of him, and the screaming ecstasy they would share.
Dane, Chase asked silently, how in hell did you hold out at all?
Dane pulled himself out of the low-slung passenger seat of his brother's rented sports car. With a casual wave and a knowing smile that neither Nicole nor Chase saw, Dane headed up the winding walkway to his house. In the back, where Jan had her office, lights burned.
"Care to try for more comfortable quarters?" Chase asked when his brother disappeared into the darkness.
He looked over his shoulder at his remaining passenger. Ignoring the protests of both Wilcox men, she had insisted on taking the cramped rear seat, which was more a luggage compartment than a true passenger space.
Next time, Nicole vowed silently, she would plan ahead better. The thought of struggling out of the backseat beneath Chase's very interested gaze made her mouth turn down at one corner. Bad enough to feel big and awkward. To prove it was humiliating.
He smiled at her. "Come on. Slip into something more comfortable."
Though she laughed at the old line, suddenly the back of the car seemed roomier than the front. Up there she would practically be on top of Chase. Even in normal surroundings he was a big man. In the small sports car he was huge.
Yet it was more than just size that bothered her. She had ridden in sports cars with Bobby, who was truly a giant, and had never felt a bit of the wariness, eagerness, and sense of sensual risk that was simmering in her blood now.
As Chase watched Nicole hesitate about moving up to the front seat, he wondered what was going on in her calculating little mind. He could see that she was suddenly wary of him in a very female way. Maybe she was afraid he would jump her.
After that kiss, he couldn't blame her.
After that kiss, he wanted to jump her.
Especially now, when she looked so very female, like a particularly fine amber carving nestled in black velvet folds. Fragrant amber.
In the soft, humid darkness her scent whispered to his senses, telling him that a living woman was only inches away from his touch. He wondered if, like amber, she would generate electricity when rubbed with silk.
Nicole brushed stray tendrils of hair from her mouth and flinched inwardly when she saw the slight smile beneath Chase's smooth mustache. She knew she must look like two pounds of hamburger stuffed into a one-pound bag. As she had so many times before, she wished that she had been born into a more delicate body. But she hadn't been. She was what she was -- a tall, strong woman crammed into the backseat of a tiny car.
Sooner or later she would have to get out.
"Not much help for it, is there?" she muttered. "Might as well be comfortable for the rest of the ride."
Chase levered himself from the car and held out his hand to help her. After a moment she took it. Smiling, he watched her supple body uncoil from the cage of the backseat.
Most people would have looked awkward scrambling out of the Porsche's tiny compartment, but Nicole's dance-trained body had both strength and grace. Even when he tugged her forward unexpectedly, pulling her off balance and into his arms, she caught herself with catlike speed and flexibility.
She felt like Eden burning against him, a resilient warmth that went from throat to toe. As his arms closed around her, he wondered why he had always thought he preferred small women. What a waste. No matter how close a man his size held a tiny woman, part of him always went begging.
But not with Nicole. She filled his arms the same way she filled his senses. Completely.
"Chase, I--" Nicole began.
His head tilted toward hers and he bent over her, a potent shadow closing out the night sky.
"Shhhh," he interrupted softly, nuzzling her lips. "It's all right. I just realized that all my life I've wanted to kiss a tall woman wearing moonlight and fragile golden bells. One kiss, and I'll let you go."
For tonight, he added silently. But not for long.