WHERE THE HECK is my bike helmet? Aiyla Bell had packed and checked her equipment more times than she cared to admit over the past week. Having spent the last decade traveling all over the world taking pictures for her elite line of coffee-table books, while working on the side as a ski instructor or hiking guide, she could pack in her sleep. There was no way she’d dropped the ball in preparation for the craziness that was the Children’s Charity Mad Prix and forgotten something as basic as a bike helmet. She’d taken part in similar, though not as lengthy, events when she was a teenager. She had always wanted to compete in the Mad Prix because she’d heard so many great things about it, but her travel schedule had been too crazy until now. The stars had finally aligned, and she’d gotten lucky enough to sign on for her first Mad Prix. Five days in the Colorado Mountains, five different wilderness events, and four nights spent sleeping on the forest floor. Heaven.
She opened another equipment bag and began rifling through. A familiar woodsy, earthy scent surrounded her, and her hands stilled. Her pulse quickened. The smell that had haunted her for months thickened, and she sensed him crouching behind her. Her breathing halted, and goose bumps chased up her arms as memories of Saint-Luc, and the five most incredible days of her life, slammed into her.
“Do you believe in fate?”
His warm breath coasted over her cheek, and she swallowed hard, paralyzed by the sound of the deep, seductive voice she’d heard in her dreams so many times she wasn’t sure it was real. Her heart thundered against her ribs, and she forced her shaky legs to work. She turned, both of them rising at the same time, bringing all six-plus broad, muscular, feet of Ty Braden into focus. Oh God. It’s really you. His silky brown hair was in desperate need of a trim, stopping just short of his shoulders and framing his rugged features. The mix of longing and shock in his golden-brown eyes unearthed a storm of memories—her hand in his, his lips on hers, deep conversations as they shared their hopes and dreams, which were as perfectly aligned as the stars in the skies of Saint-Luc.
“Ty” came out ridiculously breathless. She wanted to scale him like a mountain, to kiss his hot, sensuous mouth again and feel him holding her as he once had. But she couldn’t do any of those things. She was frozen in place, and that was probably a good thing. He was still Ty Braden, the world-renowned mountain climber and photographer, with a reputation as a player that preceded him.
In an effort to regain control, she shifted her gaze away and managed, “What are you doing here?”
“It’s fate,” he said confidently, as if he believed in it. “Fate has brought us together for another five days.”
She forced herself to meet his gaze, her heart thundering at the prospect of more time with him. “You don’t believe in fate, remember? You believe people are in charge of their own destiny.” Their last night in Switzerland, he’d asked her to leave with him the next day and travel with him “to see where things end up.” Oh, how she’d wanted to throw caution to the wind and join him. But she’d worked years to build the life she had always dreamed of, and she couldn’t risk it all to be one in a long line of Ty’s women. She’d fallen hard for him—fallen in love with him—and she hadn’t been able to bring herself to confront the rumors about his reputation. Instead, she’d said, Do you believe in fate? And though he’d said he didn’t, she always had, and she’d said, if this is meant to be, we’ll meet up again. They’d agreed not to exchange phone numbers or addresses, and not to track each other down by any other means, but to truly leave their future in fate’s hands.
“I think that’s changed, Aiyla.” He said her name like he’d been waiting to say it for all these months. He stepped closer, so close she could smell something minty on his breath. “I can’t believe you’re here. After all this time, you’re really here.”
The longing in his voice confused her even more. She looked into his eyes, and memories swamped her. She remembered the feel of him holding her in his arms as they fell asleep fully clothed and waking to his sweet whispers and gentle kisses. Cuddling under blankets as snow fell around them and they reminisced about their childhoods and families. She felt like she already knew his five siblings, though she’d never met them. A lump rose in her throat, and she shifted her gaze over his shoulder to try to regain control. Two female competitors were whispering and watching them. Her stomach knotted again. Why did the only guy she’d ever fallen for have to come with a womanizing reputation? He hadn’t seemed like a player in Saint-Luc. He hadn’t even tried to sleep with her until that very last night, when she knew he’d been picking up on all of her sexy signals. Signals she’d then dashed with one sentence. She’d been seconds from going back to his hotel room when he’d stepped away to answer a call. The brief moments it had taken him had given her a chance to clear the lust from her head enough to make a more rational decision. He probably thought she was a cocktease, but it wasn’t merely sex she’d been avoiding. She’d thought she was saving her heart. And she’d regretted that decision ever since.
Ty lifted his hand, and her bright red bike helmet swung on its straps from his long fingers—fingers she could still feel running through her hair as they had four months ago, when he’d been on a photography assignment for National Geographic in Saint-Luc and she’d been teaching at a ski resort and collecting photos for her latest book. Did he still think about their kisses, which had turned her inside out? And the way they’d held hands and talked into the wee hours of the mornings?
She reached for her helmet and he lifted it higher, his lips quirking up at the edges as he stepped closer and touched her arm. Heat spread through her like liquid fire. She focused on her helmet to keep from looking at him, remembering the first day they’d met. She’d been standing on a ridge taking in the snow-covered valley below and he’d come upon her while taking pictures. When she’d asked if she could see what he’d photographed, he’d held the camera up in the same way he was now holding her helmet, with the same coy smile, demanding to know her name before he’d share his pictures.
She wanted to ask so many things: Had he traveled to the places he’d hoped to since the last time they’d seen each other? Were the rumors about his being a player true? But her words got tangled in her befuddled brain and tumbled out too fast. “I live here…in Colorado. I can’t believe the race is here. You’re here.” Oh God! Shut up already. “Small world, I guess. I need my helmet.” I need my helmet? Jesus, I don’t give a damn about my stupid helmet! She clamped her mouth shut to keep from rambling.
He handed her the helmet, a wolfish grin settling into place. “Surely there’s a little reward in it for me, considering I could have let Johnny Jackass keep it.”
Oh God, yes. A kiss…or a thousand? She really needed to get a grip. She couldn’t afford to get hot and bothered over him, but his sexy brown eyes with flecks of gold and his smart-assery were as addicting as her favorite candy, Tropical Heat Hot Tamales. Maybe his acceptance of fate had changed, but had anything else?
She forced herself to focus. “Reward…?”
An announcement sounded with a twenty-minute prerace warning. She zipped up her equipment bags, and as she started to hoist them over her shoulder, Ty took them from her hands.
“I can carry those,” she said as he slung them easily over his back.
“Call it a ‘thank you’ instead of a ‘reward’ for retrieving your helmet,” he said, ignoring what she’d said. “Something simple, like a walk after the race?”
The first leg of the race was a thirty-mile bike ride, the last eight miles were through the mountains, ending at a site where their equipment would be left for them to make camp.
When she didn’t answer right away, he said, “Come on, Aiyla. We took lots of walks in Saint-Luc, and I seem to remember your hand fitting perfectly in mine and your lips…” He arched a brow.
A nervous laugh slipped out before she could stop it. Their lips fit together, all right, even more perfectly than their hands, and a walk sounded wonderful. But she needed time to think. As he set her bags by the transportation trucks and they headed for the bikes, she asked, “Who’s Johnny Jackass?”
Ty nodded at two guys standing with a group of women. “Johnny Jackson, one of the Jackson brothers. They stop at nothing to bring down their competition. Stealing equipment is tame for those cretins.”
“This is a race for charity, not the Olympics. Besides, I’m a woman, not even in their league of competition.” There were three groups of winners: men, women, and couples. She knew Ty was a fierce, and honest, competitor. If the articles and online gossip were true, he was a dichotomy of morals when it came to sports competitions versus his personal life, with one similarity—he always achieved his goals. The Mad Prix was probably like just another woman for him to conquer.
What does that make me?
Her stomach sank.
She put on her helmet to give her something to concentrate on just as they reached her bike.
“Chances are they’ve swiped something key out of everyone’s bags. They’ll get pulled from the race as soon as the coordinators get wind of it.” Ty lowered his broad shoulders, bringing with him the scent of sunshine and rugged virility all wrapped up in one big delicious package.
Great. Now I’m thinking of your package.
Her eyes drifted to the bulge in his bike shorts, which left nothing to the imagination. Who was she kidding? She’d spent so many hours fantasizing about him, there was nothing left to imagine.
In a voice that could melt butter, he said, “Now, about our date.”
Aiyla looked at him for a long moment, remembering the ease and openness of their conversations and how effortlessly she’d been drawn to him. She couldn’t get distracted from the reasons she’d put on the brakes before. But was he really the man rumors made him out to be? What if the rumors were unfounded? If the women standing behind him whispering were just being silly and not talking about him at all?
Another announcement sounded, and Ty’s fingertips grazed hers, drawing her eyes to his again.
“Aiyla, I know you felt what I did in Saint-Luc. Give me a reason to win this leg of the race.” His lips curved up in a sexy smile, and her insides heated up. “Promise me a walk.”
She didn’t want to turn him away again, not when fate had truly stepped in. But she needed to know the truth about his personal life, and the only way to find that out was to muster the courage to ask him. More nervous laughter slipped out as she said, “If it means the difference between you winning and losing, then how can I say no?”
His fingers curled around hers, and his expression turned serious. “I don’t know how you could say no anyway.”
He leaned in close, and she held her breath, readying for a kiss she wasn’t sure she should accept—but she wanted nonetheless. She closed her eyes and his lips touched her cheek.
“Good luck out there, baby cakes,” he said just above a whisper, and walked away.
The air rushed from her lungs. Baby cakes. That’s what he’d called her last time they were together, though she’d never known why. Did he call everyone baby cakes? And if so, did those other women feel as special as she did when he said it? She watched him walk away and noticed several other girls also enjoying the view of his fine ass in those tight cycling shorts. Life would be a whole lot easier if she were more like her much-older sister, Cherise, who had raised her from the time Aiyla was fifteen, when they’d lost their mother. Cherise lived a careful, meticulously orchestrated life, void of any risks, including those that pertained to her heart. She’d married a safe, reliable accountant with no sense of adventure. They had a comfortable home with a white picket fence and two adorable little boys. Just the idea of living such a mundane life made Aiyla’s stomach turn. Hadn’t their mother’s death taught her sister that fate played its hand no matter how many walls one erected? Living a safe, boring life in fear of it all being taken away wasn’t living at all.
Aiyla had accepted long ago that she’d never be a white-picket-fence type of girl. She loved adventures, thrived on capturing in photographs that would live on forever the faces of people who had lived full, even if torturous, lives. And she felt rejuvenated when surrounded by untamed wilderness. As she forced her gaze away from Ty, her fingers absently brushing over the cheek he’d kissed, she had to admit, she also enjoyed the sheer energy of a man marking his territory.
Now, if only she could focus on the race instead of the man who’d set her heart on fire.
COOL AIR WHIPPED against Ty’s cheeks as he pedaled past his competitors cycling up the last big hill before hitting the mountain trail. The sound of tires on pavement was similar to a waterfall, constant and airy, with a wave effect that eased as he cycled farther ahead of the group. He’d been taking part in charity events like this since he was a teenager. Sometimes one of his older brothers, Sam, competed with him, which was always fun. But it was the busy season for Sam’s river-rafting adventure company, leaving Ty to blow away the competition on his own.
He gained speed on the incline and rounded a bend, passing a crowd of spectators and volunteers who were cheering them on and offering water. He stayed low over the handlebars, and when the pavement turned to earth, he kicked up his efforts. A cloud of dust erupted in his wake. He sucked down a gel pack and followed a narrow trail into the woods.
Eight miles to go.
He could hear the others gaining on him, then falling farther behind once again. While their lungs and thighs would burn from pedaling over the rough terrain, Ty reveled in the extra exertion. Mountains were to him as oxygen was to others. He’d had a fascination with mountains for as long as he could remember. Their majestic beauty and quiet power fueled a rivaling sense of calm and inspiration within him, the same way spending time with Aiyla had in Switzerland. His mind raced back to the moment he’d first seen her digging through her bag a few hours ago. He’d been checking his equipment with the transportation crew when he’d caught a glimpse of her. Her honey-blond hair had curtained her face, but he’d know her anywhere. She was petite but strong, with lean shoulders, gorgeous legs, and arms that were as delicate as they were defined. And her hair? It was the perfect blend of light brown and dark blond, naturally straight, shining even in the dead of night. His fingers itched with the memory of those silky strands threaded between his fingers as they’d kissed beneath the evening skies.
For four long months he’d looked for her face in every airport, every crowd. They’d promised not to seek each other out, and he’d stayed true to that stupid promise, with the hopes that she knew something about fate that he didn’t.
He cranked up his efforts as cyclists encroached from behind, threatening his lead. Memories of that promise, and the frustration he’d felt every time he’d thought about tracking Aiyla down, fired him up, and he kicked up his speed. Her hazel eyes had captured his attention from the second they’d met, and that last night together, the eve of his leaving for his next assignment, they’d held his rapt attention as she’d pleaded her case—I can’t just up and leave my life with the hopes that these five days will lead to forever. If fate brings us back together, then I’ll know there’s something bigger than lust at play. He’d tried to argue with her, but she’d been so sure it was the right thing to do, so damn stubborn about not giving up her life. How could he do anything but respect her decision? Ty had never been a one-woman man, but since leaving a piece of his heart in Aiyla’s hands, he hadn’t been able to so much as think of another woman.
A cyclist blew past him, with others on his tail, pulling him from his thoughts. There was no way he was going to face Aiyla tonight without a first-place win. His body rose off the seat, knees bent, head raised, as he rode the edge of the trail, shredding the competition, pushing himself harder, pedaling faster, until he was neck and neck with the lead racer. Ty focused on the trail ahead, envisioning Aiyla before him, and like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, he surged forward, determined not to let her get away.
THE CAMPSITE WAS exactly as Aiyla had envisioned it, a plethora of pup tents, collapsible tables and chairs, and equipment bags haphazardly littering the area around the restroom pavilion. The event crew had set up a grilling area with buffet-style tables, offering hamburgers, hot dogs, and other dinner foods. People lay on sleeping bags outside their tents reading or recuperating. Others huddled in groups around the bonfire and picnic tables.
Aiyla set up her tent near the trees, away from most of the commotion, and after waiting in line, she showered and brushed her teeth. She hung her cycling clothes over the ridge of her tent, trying her best to ignore the pain in her left shin. It had been acting up for the past few weeks, but she was used to aches and pains. She’d spent her youth living, breathing, eating, and sleeping sports, and it had paid off, allowing her to work as a hiking guide and ski instructor, which helped pay the bills and fund her trips between publishing advances. She scanned the crowd looking for Ty as she activated one of her chemical ice packs. Her pulse quickened with the realization that this time her searching would not be a futile effort. Ty was there somewhere.
She could hardly believe it, but as much as she hated what had happened to her mother, her mother’s death had solidified her belief that fate was real. That she could live her life hiding or exploring, and either way, whatever was supposed to happen in the grand scheme of things would still play out. She’d told herself over the past few months that if she ever saw Ty again, she’d let fate take over and would not deny herself the pleasures she wanted to experience with him. But she still needed to know the truth about his reputation.
She sat outside her tent snacking on Tropical Heat Hot Tamales and icing her leg, wishing she and Ty had exchanged numbers so she could call and find him now.
“There’s my girl!” Ty’s voice boomed from across the clearing, as arrogant and appealing as ever.
Everyone looked up to see who he was talking about—including Aiyla—as he strutted across the dirt in a pair of dark green cargo shorts and open sweatshirt over an impossibly snug shirt. Their eyes met and sparks ignited like a wick, burning up the space between them.
Aiyla set the ice pack on a towel and pushed to her feet, trying desperately not to choke on her candy as her stomach dipped and flipped.
“Your girl?” she asked. “Presumptuous, aren’t you?”
His eyes took a slow stroll down her body, heating up every inch as his gaze dragged down her breasts, her stomach, all the way to her toes. She wasn’t the kind of girl who wore makeup or fussed with fancy hairstyles. And as his eyes took on an appreciative, sinful darkness, she remembered how often in Saint-Luc he’d told her she was beautiful, each time making her blush anew.
“Mm-mm.” His smoldering eyes were set off by his cocky grin. “Shorts and a hoodie have never looked so good.” He stepped closer, his tone turning seductive. “You smell sweet and hot. My favorite combination.”
He’d completely ignored her sassy remark. She’d forgotten about how often he did that, and she still found his arrogance as intriguing as ever.
“Ready for our hot date?” he asked.
“Are you?” she countered.
“Am I ever.” He leaned down and brushed a sweet, feathery kiss on her cheek. “But how’s that leg you were icing?”
It would feel a lot better if you kissed it. She waved a hand dismissively, as if she could clear those sexy thoughts from her mind. “Fine.”
He arched a brow. “You sure? We can hang out here if you need to rest it.”
She loved that he was considerate, but she was eager to talk with him in private and catch up. And maybe, just maybe, she’d muster the courage to ask about his reputation—even if she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
He reached for her hand. “Let’s go, baby cakes.”
Slipping her hand into his was like coming home. He squeezed it gently, smiling as they headed toward a path on the other side of the campsite. “Why do you call me baby cakes?”
His lips curved up, and then his brows knitted. “You don’t remember?”
She shook her head, scrambling through memories in search of a reason, but she came up blank. “No.”
“We were at the Café de la Poste listening to a band play the second night we were together. They had that heart-shaped metal candleholder on the table, and you were wearing a green sweater that set off your eyes. Mm. I loved the way you looked that night. Don’t you remember? We shared a bottle of wine, and they set up that little grill right on our table.”
“I remember.” She’d never forget. It was the single most romantic dinner of her life. “We rearranged the place settings and sat side by side, which irked the waiter.” They’d grilled several types of meats and breads and fed each other the most delicious foods. And then they’d danced to a live band that joked with the customers and kept everyone laughing.
“And what did you say when our dessert arrived?”
She remembered the chocolate cake was delicious—and tiny! Holy cow, why hadn’t she picked up on that? “I said they were baby cakes!”
“And the waiter went back to the kitchen and came out with the chef, remember?”
She laughed. “I was mortified.”
“Yes, but when he brought you a cake that was three times the size, we devoured it.” He squeezed her hand and said, “From that moment on, you were my baby cakes.”
“I love that.” She didn’t need to ask if he called anyone else that name. She knew in her heart the endearment was all hers, and she reveled in every one of the special feelings it evoked.
“I’m glad, because when I think of you, that’s just one of the amazing nights that comes to mind. But that name? That’s you, baby cakes, all the way.” He was quiet while they passed a man sleeping in a chair outside his tent, and then he said, “You came in eighth today. Congratulations.”
“How’d you know?” She was proud of herself, considering it had been ages since she’d ridden a bike.
He gave her a look that said he made it his business to know, and her knees weakened a little at that.
“Hey, Braden!” A brawny blond guy rose to his feet as they passed a group of people sitting around the bonfire, and he waved Ty over.
“Hey, Speed. How’s it going?” Ty released her hand to shake his. “Nice ride today.”
“Nice ride? You took my first-place ribbon, you ass. Sit down and shoot the shit for a while.” Speed eyed Aiyla curiously and lifted his chin with a flirtatious smile. “How’s it going, sweetheart? I’m Jon Butterscotch, but they call me Speed.”
“This is Aiyla,” Ty said, reaching for her hand again. “Speed and I go way back. He’s my brother Cole’s business partner.” He leaned in closer and said, “You’d better lock your tent tonight. He’s a bit of a ladies’ man.”
Speed scoffed and said, “Damn right I am.”
“Ty, take a load off, man. We haven’t seen you in forever,” a thin, dark-haired guy urged. “Hey, Aiyla, I’m James.”
Aiyla waved. “Hi.”
“Congrats on number eight,” a cheery brunette said to Aiyla. She wore a pair of jeans with a flannel shirt tied above her belly button. Her dark hair fell in long layers, like Daisy Duke from the Dukes of Hazard, which was fitting, since she had a slight Southern twang in her speech. “I’m Trixie. I sucked wind today. Came in fifteenth. Guess I need Braden genes.”
“Thanks. Fifteenth is awesome,” Aiyla said. She couldn’t help but catch the inquisitive look Trixie was giving Ty, and she wondered just how well they knew each other.
“Braden genes my ass.” Speed patted the blanket beside him. “Chill, dude. Sit down.”
“Yeah, I’d like to get to know Aiyla,” Trixie said, and took a sip of her beer.
Ty hiked a thumb over his shoulder. “We were just going to take a walk.”
“Oh, come on,” Trixie pleaded. “You can’t just drag the new girl into the woods like a caveman.”
Aiyla’s stomach sank. I guess the rumors aren’t so far off.
Ty shot Trixie a back-off look.
“It’s okay,” Aiyla said. “We can go on a walk another night.”
He made a guttural sound of disappointment.
Trixie pulled two beers from a cooler behind her and handed them each one. “Where are you from, Aiyla?”
Aiyla sat down on the blanket, and Ty opened the beer for her and sat down beside her. His leg brushed against hers, making her acutely aware of how badly she wanted to touch him. She realized Trixie was waiting for an answer and said, “I grew up in Colorado and still call it home, but I travel most of the year for work.”
Ty leaned back on his palm, his chest grazing Aiyla’s shoulder, making her wish they’d taken that private walk. “She’s a photographer, a ski instructor, an EMT, and probably a hundred other things I have yet to discover. We met in Switzerland a few months ago.”
Wow. He really did remember everything. She hadn’t remembered telling him she was an EMT.
“Wait? This is her? Saint-Luc?” Speed asked with wide eyes. “This is the girl? I thought Cole was full of shit.”
“Cole…?” Ty’s brow wrinkled with confusion. “I never told Cole about her.”
“Dude,” Speed said. “You told your sister Shannon, which is like feeding it directly to the Braden grapevine.”
“Christ,” Ty said under his breath. He turned to Aiyla and said, “My sister Shannon and I are pretty close.”
And you told her about me? Were you pissed that I wouldn’t leave Saint-Luc with you, or did you miss me? “You mentioned that to me in Saint-Luc.”
“Ah, so she’s not the new girl to you.” Trixie took another drink and winked at Aiyla.
“No.” Ty reached for Aiyla’s hand, pinning her in place with a serious gaze. “She’s the one who got away.”
The one who got away? Was that how he thought of her? The one as in the only one, or the one as in, one of many, but the only one who wouldn’t sleep with him?
“The one who got away?” Trixie’s eyes widened, and she took a long, hard look at Aiyla.
Ty brushed his thumb over Aiyla’s knuckles, watching her intently. Silent seconds thrummed between them, drenched in sexual tension. When he licked his lips, she heard herself sigh wantonly. She was sure everyone could see desire written all over her face. She withdrew her hand from his in an effort to regain control of her emotions, and guzzled her beer.
He shifted his gaze to Trixie and said, “Jealous?”
“Please.” Trixie rolled her eyes. “If I wanted you, I’d have had you by now. You’re not cowboy enough for me, mountain boy.”
Ty leaned closer to Aiyla and said, “Trixie’s a hard-core ranch girl. She lives in Oak Falls, Virginia, with a load of tough-ass brothers. She’s a good egg.”
Speed draped an arm over Trixie’s shoulder. “I’ll wear leather chaps if that’s what it takes.”
Ty eyed them, his body suddenly rigid. Aiyla wondered if he had a thing for Trixie after all.
“Clothes don’t make the cowboy.” Trixie ducked out from beneath Speed’s arm, and Ty glared at him.
“Trix’ll need Aiyla’s medical skills after she gets a good dose of Speed.” James laughed and lifted his beer in a toast. “Here’s to another great race.”
As Aiyla drank to the toast, Ty whispered, “I’m a man of many talents. Give me a horse and I’ll ride her like there’s no tomorrow.”
“Do you want to be a cowboy?” The question slipped out before she thought to stop it, and there was no mistaking the jealousy it rode out on.
He set his beer between his legs and ran his finger down Aiyla’s cheek, gazing hungrily into her eyes. “Only if it’s you I’m saddling up.”
TY DIDN’T KNOW how long he and Aiyla sat with the others around the bonfire, but it was definitely too damn long. They’d shared a second beer, and each time she’d lifted the bottle to her lips, he’d imagined her mouth on him. The logs had burned to embers, and most of the other competitors had already turned in for the night. They had a twenty-four-kilometer run tomorrow, fifteen miles that ended with a swim across a lake. They needed to rest. Aiyla and Trixie were sitting side by side now, looking at pictures on their phones. Trixie showed Aiyla pictures of her hotshot brothers, ignoring Ty’s disapproving glare.
“Wow, they really are cowboys,” Aiyla said, moving closer to get a better look.
She was far too interested for Ty’s liking, asking about this one and that. Especially since every time he and Aiyla touched, the temperature spiked fifty degrees. The chemistry between them was just as hot as it had been in Switzerland. Why was she checking out other guys?
He caught Trixie’s eye and glared again. They’d been friends for years, and he knew she was well aware of his annoyance. She just laughed under her breath, taunting him like a pain-in-the-ass sister. As much as he wanted to leave, he waited for James to call it a night first. James had a reputation for being overly aggressive with women, and with Trixie around, Ty wasn’t about to give him that chance.
Just as he opened his mouth to try to prompt the end of their evening, Speed and James pushed to their feet.
“That’s it for me,” Speed said as he grabbed his empty bottles. “Good luck tomorrow, Braden. You’ll need it.”
“Yeah, right.” Ty laughed. “Good luck, man. You too, James.”
“I’m not even in your league,” James said. “I’ll be happy if I’m in the top forty-five.”
“I’m pulling for you, man.” Ty watched them walk away and draped an arm over Aiyla’s shoulder. As he leaned in, she tucked her phone into her pocket. “You about ready to call it a night, sweet one?”
“Sure.” She smiled at Trixie, who was looking at Ty like she didn’t recognize him. She wondered what that was about. “Trixie, it’s been fun getting to know you. Good luck tomorrow.”
“Thanks. You too.”
He gathered the remaining bottles and tossed them in the trash barrel, then reached for Aiyla’s hand and said, “Hey, Trix, where’s your tent?”
“Right there.” She pointed to a green tent by the pavilion. “Good luck tomorrow, you guys.”
He nodded and watched her head back to her tent. Aiyla slipped her hand from his, and he turned his attention back to the beautiful woman beside him, wondering why. Considering their date had been lost, he went for levity. “So, my girl’s into cowboys?”
“Your girl?” Hurt rose in her eyes. “A little overly confident for a guy who looked like he wanted to follow Trixie into her tent.”
“Wanted to…?” He hauled her against him, flattening his hand over her back and holding her so tight her chin touched his chest. She had no choice but to look up at him. “Aiyla Lillian Bell, if you think I would hit on another girl while I’m on what was supposed to be a date with you, then you don’t know me the way I thought you did. Trixie Jericho has been my friend since college, and James is known for being a bit of a dick. I didn’t want her to run into trouble with him.”
She put her hands on his chest and pushed, but he didn’t loosen his grip. Luckily, she smiled instead of kneeing him in the groin.
“First, I can’t believe you remembered my middle name. That’s kind of sweet.” A thoughtful expression appeared on her beautiful face, and her fingers moved absently over his pecs. “And second, I didn’t expect that answer. I need a minute to think up a response that doesn’t make me sound like a loser.”
He ran his hands up her back and into her hair, wondering if she could sense how much he’d missed her. How he’d hoped every airport would bring her to him. How adhering to her sense of fate had frustrated him to the point of nearly giving in and flying back to Switzerland. But his feelings for her had kept him from breaking his promise, and now she was right here in his arms, and it was killing him not to kiss her.
“Of course I remember your middle name. I remember every goddamn word you’ve ever said to me. But more importantly, what did you expect to hear? And how do you think I felt watching you check out Trixie’s brothers?”
“I thought…” Her gaze dropped to his chest, and she shook her head. “I don’t know, and I’m sorry about Trixie’s brothers. I was trying to make you jealous, but only because I was jealous, and I hate that feeling.”
Christ. He’d made her jealous? That was as awesome as it was awful, and now he felt guilty. At a loss for words, he touched his forehead to hers, trying to get his arms around his soaring emotions. “Sweet one, making you jealous was not on my agenda.”
“You had an agenda? That sounds—”
“Like I used the wrong word.” He brushed his lips over her cheek. “Aiyla,” came out like a plea. His insides were ablaze, and his heart was beating so hard, it was like he was on his first date ever. The voice in his head told him to kiss her good and hard, so she would want more, but a quieter—smarter?—whisper held him back. They needed to get to know each other again, even if it killed him. He didn’t want to take a chance of fucking this up. “Tomorrow night, after the event. If you’re up for a quiet evening by the water—”
“Yes,” flew from her lips.
“Yes,” he repeated happily.
“Yes. Definitely yes.”
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