Mmm...first encounters. I love it when characters in both movies and novels meet for the first time. It sets the tone for what's to come. Sometimes there's snap, crackle, sizzle...or maybe there's that slow burn of borderline contempt that you just know is gonna be fun to watch.
Here's a taste of my latest contemporary romance adventure, ANONYMITY. It's definitely lust at first sight…
Alyssa swam to the bottom of the pool, twisted onto her back with arms swaying at her sides, and squinted toward the surface. Hair tangled in front of her face like a veil of pale seaweed. She held her breath as long as possible, enjoying the solitude of the water. Heartbeat echoed in her ears. Lungs clenched inside her chest.
Peace is why she'd come to Belize, an escape from reality. On New Year's Eve, her former fiancé would marry a woman he barely knew and she'd traveled far to escape her friends' pitiful attempts at distraction.
She kicked to the surface, breaking through the water with a greedy gasp. She flipped onto her back, shoved hair from her eyes, floated, and blinked at the empty blue sky. Yes, this is why she'd needed to get away. Serenity.
Palm trees sheltered the pool of Ramon's Village on Ambergris Caye, Belize. Most families and scuba divers had left for their daily excursions, leaving the resort nearly empty. Booking a solo trip over the holidays had sent alarm bells throughout her family, but she'd done exactly as she needed with no regret. She'd left for the airport last night for an overnight flight and had arrived only a few hours ago. As far as she was concerned, the timing couldn't be better.
Unlike some people she knew—her ex, for one—she had no problem disconnecting from the chaos of home. She'd shoved her cell phone into the room safe and didn't plan on opening her laptop for at least seventy-two hours. Accidentally seeing pictures of the wedding festivities on Facebook or Instagram would wreck her mood.
The overnight flight had included an extended layover in Houston that had given her plenty of time to think. Not only had she conducted a year-in-review, she'd also scrutinized the past years wasted with a cheating fiancé. How could she have been so naive to not see the signs? Had there been signs?
No more being a doormat, clueless, nice girl for her. No way. New Year resolutions now included words like spontaneity, bold and adventurous. She'd wasted too much time living for someone else who'd only disappointed her in the worst way. Maybe she'd embrace a man's nonchalant attitude toward relationships from now on—wham, bam, thank you, man.
Annoyed with her train of thought, she dragged herself from the pool, tied a sarong around her hips, and headed for the bar. This was definitely a week best spent in a rum haze.
"Quiet, ya?" A giant Jamaican woman greeted her from the counter. At least six feet tall and almost as wide, the woman smiled at her with gold plated teeth. "I'm Rosie."
"Alyssa." She grinned at the way the woman's braids danced around her face when she spoke. "Quiet's good for me. Do you have any rum back there?"
"Turn around, lady." Rosie pointed at the white-capped waves breaking against the reef about a mile from shore. "That's the Caribbean Sea. Of course I have rum. Silver, spiced or gold?"
"Silver with Diet Coke."
"A Skinny Black Bitch?"
Alyssa blinked before smiling in agreement. "If that's what you call a rum and Coke, then I'm dying for a Skinny Black Bitch, make her extra sexy."
Rosie tilted her head back and laughed, braids enhancing the movement with a show of their own. "Some use vodka with the cola, but," she pointed at the ocean, "I use rum, still call it a Skinny Black Bitch, Rosie style."
"Whatever you call it, I want it." She glanced at the nearly empty bar, thrilled that she'd chosen to come down during this time of year. Families, yes, and the usual scuba divers, but no head-over-heels-in-love couples pawing each other on their honeymoon. It couldn't get any better.
"You here alone?"
Alone. Single. Solo. An island unto herself. She sighed and nodded. The last thing she wanted to do was discuss Scott, yet she couldn't escape him even a thousand miles from home. She tapped her fingers against her bare knee and concentrated on the thatched roof covering the bar.
"I sense a story. Tell Rosie why a beautiful woman like you is in paradise alone."
"Cheating fiancé of eight years is getting married in four days to a woman he's only known six months." The words rushed out despite her determination to forget.
"Bastard." Rosie folded her arms over her chest and shook her head with disapproval. "I hope he goes bald, loses his teeth, gets fat, and his wife divorces him and leaves him penniless."
Well, she could toast to that! She reached for the drink and gulped it down. Let the rum haze begin. Why not live out a Jimmy Buffet song and get a little wild? What did she have to lose? Everyone from her coworkers to her grandmother told her she needed to break out of her comfort zone. Loosen up, they'd encouraged. Take more chances, they'd suggested.
"You are the best bartender. Ever." She smiled at her new best friend before looking over her shoulder at a dive boat returning to the dock. She imagined it had been a good day for scuba diving, a bit windy but otherwise flawless.
A lone kayaker bounced along the boat's wake. A few of the divers waved to him and he held up a paddle in greeting. Bad idea. Over he went, upside down in an instant thanks to a rogue wave. He righted the boat and smiled at the men who were now on the dock and giving him a hard time.
"I guess they all know each other?" She asked without meaning to say the words out loud.
"Luke—the kayaker—is alone now, but his family had been here for the holiday. As for the others, most of them are guests here, too," Rosie said with her golden smile. "How long are you staying with us?"
"A week, but I wish it were longer. I'm not looking forward to going home and hearing about the wedding of the century." Her gaze remained on the kayaker as he pulled the boat onto the sand, his laugh drifting up to her on the wind.
He shoved his hands through dark hair while he waited for the dive group to walk down the dock. Even from a distance, his smile transmitted ease and humor. A man who could laugh at himself...she liked it.
Not that she wanted to like it. She turned her back on the scene and met Rosie's observant eyes.
"He's a good looking man, ya?"
"Who?" She poked the lime in her glass and avoided contact.
"Luke. He's anti-love, too. You two need to get drunk together, I think."
"I'll pass." She smiled at the idea, though. "What makes you think I'm anti-love? I was engaged eight years."
"To the wrong man."
"I can't argue that," she muttered over the edge of the glass, her gaze slipping toward Luke who now carried his kayak over his shoulder toward the dive shop. The man definitely filled out his t-shirt in all the right places and had an ass that begged to be bitten. She now understood why men liked seeing women in wet t-shirt contests. Even from this distance she could see sculpted biceps, hard glutes, and defined calf muscles. She shook her head and looked into her empty glass. "Are you sure there's just rum in here?"
"Rosie style, extra sexy as you say, ya?" Rosie winked and handed her another. "You're on vacation. Enjoy yourself."
Oh, why not? The more she drank, the more she forgot about the long ski weekend slash bachelor party going on back in Colorado and their mutual friends who'd be attending. Eight years spent with the wrong man, yet she'd been complacent with the arrangement. She shook her head at the idea.
He'd once called her cold, accused her of living behind a barricade of excuses designed to keep anyone from getting too close. She'd dismissed the criticism. After all, she'd said yes to the proposal, hadn't she?
She sucked on the lime, her mind getting foggy.
"I didn't love him," she announced to Rosie after a prolonged silence. "He proposed and I said yes because he'd been the only man to ask. I didn't know that then, though, but...wow, that's horrible to realize, isn't it? So why am I so pissed off that he's getting married?"
"Because he did the leaving."
She thought about that as she studied the bar menu for some food to absorb Rosie's special brew. Yeah, he'd done the leaving...and the cheating.
"I'll have my usual, Rosie," a male voice said from over her right shoulder.
She glanced up and saw the kayaker pulling out a stool a few seats away from hers. His black hair, wet from his spill near the dock and stiff with salt water, stuck out in random spikes from his head. He pulled at his t-shirt from where it clung to his chest as he adjusted himself on the stool. When he noticed her staring, he flashed a smile that showcased dimples and humor.
"I flipped the kayak, not exactly my finest moment," he said.
"How was the reef? Looks a bit choppy today. Did you tie up at the buoy?" Rosie asked as she handed him a frosted mug and a Heineken.
"I went further north, hitched to a buoy at the Mexican Rocks. Smooth going out, rough coming back. It's all good." His palms cupped the frozen mug as if reveling in its coolness.
"I was telling Alyssa here that you're anti-love." Rosie blurted out as if they'd been discussing tide charts.
He paid extraordinary attention to pouring the beer into his mug, his smile turning into a laugh. "I have absolutely no idea what to say to that."
"She's anti-love, too. Her ex is getting married on New Year's Eve."
"Rosie," she said in protest, "I thought bartenders were like priests and all discussions were confidential."
"This aint no goddamn church. Do I look like a priest to you?" Rosie held her hands out wide and showed off her gold teeth. Braids pummeled her shoulders when she laughed.
"More like a Buddha," Luke said. "I agree with the lady, though, bartenders are meant to keep their lips sealed."
"My place, my rules, and confidentiality aint one of 'em," Rosie said with a snort before walking over toward an older couple that had seated themselves at a table on the pool deck.
She poked her lime with the straw and ignored the urge to flee. Rosie's pronouncement, although somewhat amusing for its audacity, created an awkwardness between the lone patrons at the counter.
She sipped her drink, keenly aware that she hadn't bothered to comb through her hair after getting out of the pool and now it had dried into an untamed mess of tangles.
"Ex getting married in four days," he muttered. "That's harsh."
"I'm fine with it." She swayed a bit on the stool.
"No, seriously, I don't care." She faced him, her gaze sliding over the dried salt sticking to his neck. She wondered what he tasted like. "Have you had an ex get married?"
"Last year. She's expecting her first child in a few months." He leaned his elbow on the bar and assessed her with a lopsided grin. "We suck at small talk."
"Yeah, well, like Rosie says...we're on vacation so what the hell?" She looked beyond him to the whitecaps crashing against the reef about a half a mile from shore. "You kayaked all the way out there?"
"No." He turned his back to the bar and pointed north. "I went further up toward what they call Mexican Rocks. The day started out with smooth water, but I stayed too long." He reached for a dry-bag, commonly used by scuba divers to keep their belongings safe in the water. He pulled out a salt-encrusted narrow box that looked as if it had seen better days. "I started out snorkeling, but did some free-diving. I found this. Open it."
She took the metal box, turned it over in her hands, noticed the scratch marks on the sides where he'd pried it open, and lifted the lid with curiosity. Inside were what appeared to be hand-made beaded jewelry, mostly in good condition. Bright blues mixed with softer hues stitched along leather bands.
"You found a treasure." She smiled and poked at the bracelets with her finger.
"Yeah, it looks like someone lost their work." He scooted one stool closer and nodded at the beads still in their baggie. "I imagine a woman went out fishing with her husband or boyfriend or brother or something and her work went overboard. You see a lot of those types of necklaces and bracelets for sale in town."
She laughed at the story he'd created based on the contents of the found box. Most likely true, though. She closed the lid and handed it to him, but he shook his head.
"You keep it. What am I going to do with a bunch of bracelets?" He met her gaze, his smile contagious.
"You're giving me your loot?" She swayed closer, as if pulled by a magnetic force.
"I told myself I'd give it to the prettiest woman on the island."
"What a pick-up line. Did you really find these free-diving out there?" She leaned back and gladly accepted the refill Rosie pushed in her direction.
"So suspicious. I'm hurt." He clutched his chest in mock pain.
"What else did you find?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." He reached for his beer, his smile wide.
Damn, he was too good to be true. Humor, hot body, killer smile, and take-me-to-bed blue eyes were a deadly combination in her book. She ripped her gaze from his and focused on the drink in her hand. She probably should have asked more questions about Rosie's special ingredients.
"She's here alone," Rosie stated in her matter-of-fact way.
She winced at the word 'alone.' Traveling here solo for the New Year had been her idea, hadn't it? She didn't want to be the one who stayed in Denver and pretended to take the high road. And she was damn sick of everyone she knew pointing out her single status.
"Why is it that everyone who is in couple mode tries to make those of us who aren't feel like we're flawed?" Luke asked.
"Yeah, I love the sympathetic tones in their voices as if we're to be pitied."
"We can do whatever we want, when we want. Look at us...sitting in a bar in paradise, doing exactly as we please."
She slid her gaze toward his. What she pleased to do involved ripping his wet t-shirt in two and screwing him blind. It had been a long time since she'd done anything wild and carefree. Being a thousand miles away from home coupled with Rosie's special ingredients ignited a daring in her that had long been dormant.
"What is it that you like to do with all your freedom?" she asked.
He squinted and caught his lower lip between his teeth. "Whatever comes up."
"So you're a live in the moment kind of guy?"
"I am today." His wink made her laugh.
What am I doing? I don't flirt, don't pick up men in bars, don't travel alone to places I've never been. She smiled against the rim of the glass. New year, new me.
"Hey, Rosie, the love of your life has arrived!" A man driving a golf cart loaded down with strapped musical equipment called out as he parked on the sand.
"Dave the Gringo. He's a one-man band. You'll see him all over the place at all times of day," Luke said when he noticed where her attention had gone. "He comes here every Friday night."
"How long have you been here?"
"A week." He watched Dave the Gringo unstrap a keyboard. "Things are pretty routine on the island. Dave's here on Fridays, up at Captain Morgan's tomorrow, and out to Sanctuary on Sunday. Ramon's has its beach barbecue on Tuesdays. It doesn't take long to figure out how the island works." He turned his gaze on her. "Have you been here before?"
She shook her head 'no', all thoughts evaporating at eye contact. Blame it on the sun, the rum, exhaustion, or delirium, but she could definitely see going out of her comfort zone with Luke the Kayaker.
"I'm not much of a traveler...well, I mean, I want to be one, but my ex never liked leaving the country and I sort of shelved my ideas." She hated admitting her sacrifices that now seemed so aggravating. Scott hadn't liked to do much of anything unless it had first been his idea. From what she'd heard, he and his bride were headed to the Bahamas for their honeymoon. So much for his not wanting to deal with a passport and foreign countries. She chewed a piece of ice, resenting the thought for intruding on her flirtation.
"But here you are, doing your own thing, hanging out with Rosie and me. Good for you." He lifted his glass in a toast, his smile softening with understanding. "Even the best of us make too many compromises for the sake of a relationship."
"But the best relationships don't make you compromise who you really are or what you truly want."
"Small talk really isn't your specialty, is it? That's okay. It's usually easier to talk to strangers, especially at a bar." He laughed while nodding in agreement. "My ex—the one who's expecting her first child—didn't like my family. My brothers and I all live in the same area, all within driving distance, and we get together a lot. Their wives don't mind, in fact, I think they actually enjoy all of us hanging out, traveling together, and helping each other. Balance is key, I know, but I couldn't choose between her or my family. I wanted them to mesh...but that was that."
"You shouldn't have needed to choose." She studied the way his finger traced the rim of his glass. As an artist, she noticed details. With Luke, his quick laughter, vivid blue eyes, and strong hands captured her interest. She'd sketch him later when she was alone.
"And you shouldn't have needed to hold yourself back. It's why we're single. Maybe that's a good thing," he said, his gaze sliding over her legs where the sarong had slid open.
"Better to be single than with the wrong person." She echoed what Rosie had said minutes earlier.
He turned, stretched a leg in her direction over the tops of the two stools separating them, and perched his beer on his thigh. His gaze roamed over her, too, with an equal amount of curiosity and desire.
"So are you anti-man or just anti-love? Don't let one jerk ruin the chances for the rest of us." With his smile came the dangerous dimples.
"Are you flirting with me?" The idea intrigued her. She looked into his blue eyes, felt the warmth of alcohol rushing through her veins, and swayed forward on her stool.
"I don't flirt. I socialize."
"Liar. I think you've been down here flirting for a week," she said, her words more slurred than she'd like as she tried to channel the sophisticated woman she pretended to be back home. She propped her elbow on the counter, stretched her legs next to his, crossed her ankles, and stared into his eyes. "I think this is what you do...pick up drunk women in the bar and give them treasures you find while free-diving."
Whatever Rosie put in that drink gave her courage.
His knuckles skimmed across her ankle. "You'd be wrong, way off the mark."
Awareness shivered across her skin with the barely-there caress. She shifted on the stool, uncomfortable under his scrutiny, certain he knew the affect he had on her. Losing control wasn't her style, neither was flirting with strangers; yet she had an overwhelming desire to knock the stools over, peel his swim trunks down, crawl onto his lap, and screw him against the bar.
She pressed her hand to her forehead. Maybe she was sick. Lust wasn't in her vocabulary. At age thirty-one, she'd never had a one-night stand. There were simply things she didn't do...and suddenly she wanted to do all of them with Luke the Kayaker.
"I'd better take a nap," she muttered more to herself than him.
"You don't want to go yet."
"It's not a question of want, but of necessity. I think I need a nap." She grinned against the rim of the glass and met his gaze. Damn, the man had gorgeous eyes. "Why does Rosie say you're anti-woman?"
"Oh, I'm not anti-woman at all, not by any stretch of the imagination. She's confused because my brothers like to tease me about being the only single one and they kept trying to fix me up while they were here. They failed." He shrugged, not looking away from her. "They're gone now, though."
She bit her lower lip and indulged in gazing over the muscles of his chest barely concealed by the damp shirt. It would be easy to keep drinking and let the attraction get the best of her.
His fingers traced lazy circles against the top of her foot. "Let's meet back here in an hour and go to dinner. I'll show you the town of San Pedro. I know all the best places."
"You work fast."
"You're the one who brought up exes before even saying hello."
"Rosie did, not me." She watched his fingers make lazy circles on her skin.
"C'mon...you're alone, I'm alone, what's the harm in having dinner together? We can do whatever we want to do when we want to do it with whomever we choose, right?"
"Wild and free, that's us," she said.
She slid a fingertip over the rim of her glass without looking away. Tempting proposition. Her options were staying here, dining alone, probably getting sick from drinking too much and definitely over-thinking every damn thing...or she could go out with Mr. Sexy Eyes and Dimples and have some fun.
"One condition." She dared touch his foot as he touched hers, liked seeing his eyes narrow in response, enjoyed watching him swallow hard. "I'm a little drunk, I admit that, and probably will stay that way for the next week. I don't know you, and you don't know me. No need to share our deepest and darkest secrets. No last names, no following each other's Instagram, no strings or expectations."
"It's only dinner and a town tour." His smile widened, showing off his dimples again. "Alyssa Anonymous...I like it. Deal. Any other stipulations for this date?"
Date. Her smile faltered but caution kept her in the stool with her fingers caressing his ankle. "Fun, that's it. Easy, uncomplicated fun."
He laughed and squeezed her foot. "I can handle that. Fun, no last names, just two people enjoying the island and a lot of rum."
She liked looking at him, not only because of those blue eyes and dimples. With his hair stiff from saltwater and skin flushed from the sun, he oozed ease and approachability.
"I'd like to enjoy more than that," she whispered, her filter long gone.
His eyes darkened to a deep blue. "I get it...your ex is getting married in four days so you're on a mission, aren't you?"
"He has nothing to do with this." She looked away from him, annoyed that he'd brought up a sore subject. Crash. Burn. Damn.
"I'm happy to be part of your mission, don't misunderstand. New Year's Eve is a big deal for most people, new beginnings, clean slate, and all of that."
"Nevermind. I lost my head for a minute. My offer is off the table." She moved her leg away from his touch, a confusing storm of emotions whirling through her mind. "Forget it."
"No way I'm forgetting it." He motioned to Rosie for another beer. "Don't worry. I'm doing the same thing, reevaluating things. It's what people do this time of year. I'm going to be thirty-five in a few months and...Anyway, all I meant to say is that a new year pushes people to try new things." He sighed. "I should stop talking. Can we go back to where we were flirting a few minutes ago? I liked that part."
She smiled without looking at him. "Are you suggesting that we be each other's new thing to try for the New Year?"
He laughed. "That sounds so...I can't find the word."
"Sometimes shallow is a relief."
She looked him in the eye and sighed. Yeah, all the things she thought about doing with him would definitely relieve tension and distract her from the complications of home.
"Luke! We thought we'd lost you," a brunette who looked like she'd stepped out of Victoria's Secret active wear section appeared out of nowhere. She slipped her arm around Luke's shoulders in a light hug before claiming the stool next to him.
"Why would you be looking for me?" His gaze snapped to Alyssa's.
She dropped her hand from his foot and finished her drink. So much for a brief indulgence in fantasy. Had she actually just asked a total stranger for a vacation hook up? My God. She'd lost her mind somewhere between Denver and Belize, no question about it. She finished her drink and met Rosie's gaze.
"Yo, Luke. We're all headed up to Captain Morgan's. Wanna come?" A man who looked like one of the divers from the dock slapped him on the back.
Before she knew what was happening, the quiet bar had become a meeting place of the tanned and toned. She didn't like crowds, had never been the social butterfly type. The bravery of seconds ago evaporated in the ocean breeze.
"How'd the kayaking go?" The model-type touched her fingers to the back of Luke's hand, her smile lazy and confidant.
"It was good." He moved onto the stool next to Alyssa's and turned his back on the brunette. "So does an hour work for you or do you need more time?"
She looked at him, present moment fighting for dominance over past history. Her gaze slid to the other woman before she answered, "Looks like you have other options."
"Not from where I'm sitting."
Cynicism pierced the fantasy. "I need a lot more time, actually. I just didn't realize it until now."
"Maybe time isn't what you need at all." He leaned close, his eyes gleaming with a challenge.
She swayed toward him as if pulled by an invisible string. It would be easy to give in, to kiss him, to indulge in impulse.
"I almost forgot." The brunette dropped a shirt onto the counter in front of him. "You left this last night."
He sighed and looked over his shoulder at the woman. "Thanks, Savannah."
"I'm in Cabana 36, charge it, okay?" she muttered to Rosie before sliding off the stool and heading toward her room for a much-needed cold shower and reality check.
She wasn't the kind of woman who had meaningless flings with a playboy. She was Alyssa McNeil, an assistant curator at the Denver Museum of Art. She had a one-bedroom condo and a cat named Carl. She'd turned thirty-one last week and her ex-fiancé would be getting married in four days to someone else. She wasn't the kind of woman a man chose over a supermodel in training. Scott had called her repressed and cold...and he'd been right. That was reality. No amount of Rosie's special concoction could change that.