Ella Mayhew’s always appreciated the beautiful view of Seneca Lake from the spa window of her family’s hotel. But the view improves dramatically when a hot stranger runs across the grounds—shirtless. He’s the first man to kickstart her hormones in the three years since she lost her parents, and she doesn’t even know his name.
Graydon Locke’s on his umpteenth undercover assignment. The routine’s always the same: assess a business, recommend it for closure, then roll out before anyone discovers his decisions impact hundreds of lives. He’s always believed nothing good comes out of small towns. Why would this one be different? Then he makes two classic rookie mistakes—falling for the sweet, sexy girl who owns the very business he’s on the verge of axing. And letting the town’s residents get involved in both his life, and his relationship with Ella.
Ella’s the best thing to ever happen to Gray, but he’s lied to her from the start. If he pulls the plug on Mayhew Manor, the entire town may crumble. Ella couldn’t save her parents, but it’s up to her to save their hotel. Even if that means turning her back on true love.
“Come do yoga with me tomorrow.”
“I’m a guy. We’re all about being hard and stiff, not soft and bendy.”
Ella blinked rapidly to clear the images of a naked, hard-muscled Gray that popped into her mind. And hardness…other places. “Don’t be so close-minded. Didn’t you end up enjoying the massage I gave you?”
“Yes.” He sounded adorably sulky at being forced to acknowledge it. Why was it that men found it so hard to admit when they were wrong? Definitely a topic of discussion for her next margarita night with the girls.
“See? You can’t dismiss something out of hand without at least trying it.”
Gray wrinkled his nose. “Do I have a choice?”
“No.” Ella brought up her other hand to cup his face. “You deserve to be looked after. It’s not much, I know, but let me help you in the only way I can.”
“I’ll do it—”
Ella bounced a little. “Terrific.”
“—on one condition. I’ve just come up with a good plan for stress release. Let’s try my way first.” Gray wove his fingers through the loose knit of her turquoise sweater. In one swift move, he pulled it off over her head and tossed it into the corner. “Come swimming with me. Right now.”
Was he serious? To stall for time while she processed the preposterous suggestion, Ella stammered, “We…we don’t have suits.”
“You said the pool’s still officially closed. No one will interrupt us.” He toyed with the strap of her matching tank. “You’ve got this thing. I’m wearing boxer briefs. We’ll be more covered up than in suits. Unless you don’t think you can control yourself around me?”
That was it in a nutshell. Not that she’d admit it to Gray. Not when he had that sharp eyebrow arched and a smug quirk to his lips. If he was trying to shock her…well, he had, no denying that. But what better way was there to embrace life fully than to embrace a dripping wet, mostly naked Gray? While she’d never work up the courage to tell him, this was the kind of activity Dr. T. would probably applaud. Or at least give her a gold star. He had asked her to email him with progress reports if anything big happened. Unable to resist, she glanced down at Gray’s crotch. Ella expected something very big, indeed, was about to happen.
“Water’s extremely therapeutic,” she said in her most serious, I’m massaging you but not judging your naked body in any way professional voice. “Swimming is a good counterpart to yoga. They use the same long muscles.”
Yup. Her matter-of-fact delivery dropped his eyebrow back to its usual straight line and wiped the smug from his lips. Ella kept the surprises rolling. She stood, unbuttoned her skirt and let it slide the floor into a big blue puddle. Then she reached out, grabbed his wrist, and yanked him sideways into the pool with her.
The simultaneous body flops slapped noise and water all around the room. Ella recovered first, treading water while waiting for Gray to get his bearings and surface. Keeping her head above water was easy. Breathing, however, was not, as she was laughing her head off at catching him off guard. Finally, with much thrashing and churning of the water, Gray popped up near the middle of the pool.
“What the hell?” he yelled, his voice bouncing off the rocks with a hollow echo. “I’m wearing clothes!”
“So take them off,” she yelled back. Geez, it was his idea. Ella had just implemented it without talking it to death first. She’d thought he’d appreciate her spontaneity.
Gray stared at her for a minute, totally unreadable. Then his head disappeared beneath the water again. In fact, he sank straight to the bottom. It worried her. But just until a heavy, sodden pair of jeans landed like a giant blue spitwad in front of her. Laughing, she tossed them over her shoulder in the general direction of their shoes. Then Gray’s shirt appeared, floating near the filter. Something she’d have to remember to retrieve before morning when maintenance would make their final sweep before reopening the pool.
She felt Gray first. His head brushed against her stomach. Using her body like a swim ladder, he climbed it with his hands until just those brilliant blue eyes broke the surface. Blinked at her once. Then he tilted his head back and arced a stream of water from his lips to the dead center of her forehead. Laughing even harder, Ella reached under his shoulders to pull him the rest of the way up.
That’s when the laughter stopped. When buoyancy slammed his oh my God so hard cock right against her. When it was the most natural thing in the world to wrap her legs tight around him to keep him nestled against all her heat and what felt like every freaking nerve ending in her body. And when she twined her arms around his neck just for the thrill of rubbing her breasts across his chest.
With two powerful kicks, Gray propelled them to the wall. He sandwiched Ella against it and hung on to the rocks to keep them both afloat. “I’m on board with your idea. As you can tell.” He ground against her in a way that absolutely proved not only that he was enthusiastic about stripping, but that there was definitely nothing between them other than two thin, skintight layers of cotton. Gray’s impressive length was no longer just an impression or wishful thinking. It was hard and long and she couldn’t wait to impale herself on him. For now, she locked her ankles together and let the water do most of the work of bobbing her up and down in a rhythmic, full-body caress.
Water glistened at the tips of his lashes. Ella kissed it away, then just kept heading south. Over his early-evening stubble. Down past the Adam’s apple that jerked reflexively. She’d always thought them sexy. So uniquely masculine.
A nibble in the hollow of his collarbone. Down till her lips were just underwater, closed around his nipple. Ella flicked it against her teeth. Gray…growled? Whatever the noise was, it came from deep inside him and turned her core body temperature up by about twenty percent.
Bio: Christi Barth earned a Masters degree in vocal performance and embarked upon a career on the stage. A love of romance then drew her to wedding planning. Ultimately she succumbed to her lifelong love of books and now writes award-winning contemporary romance. Christi is President of the Maryland Romance Writers and lives in Maryland with her husband.